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Reading the Defense

  Posted 12/2 by Jene Bramel, Exclusive to Footballguys.com


Best of luck to those who have playoff games this week. If you aren't in the playoff hunt, be sure to keep up with our end of season and offseason content. There's plenty of good football discussion to come. This week, we'll cover some critical free agent situations to watch this offseason, to be followed in coming weeks with thoughts on how to scout defensive rookies in the offseason, potential scheme trends and coaching change and our annual year-end look at what we've learned from this season.

Offseason Free Agent Situations To Watch

There are three major offseason phases IDP owners should watch closely - coaching and scheme changes, free agency movement and the entry draft. Each one is interesting, but the movement of stud IDPs from team to team often gets overlooked. We've used Cato June as a poster boy for the cause in recent seasons, but every season has its Jonathan Vilma or Calvin Pace or Zach Thomas or Kawika Mitchell, whose value changes with the color of their uniform. Let's get a head start on next season's potential free agents and identify any trouble spots or upside in the making. Given the long list of linebackers who will be eligible for unrestricted free agency in March, the upcoming free agent period could have a major impact on the first rankings in 2009.

Linebackers

  • UFA Baltimore LBs Terrell Suggs, Ray Lewis and Bart Scott - Lewis and Suggs have continued to play at a high level and Scott, while still yet to repeat his statistically studly 2006 season, remains a vital cog in the Raven defense. With Suggs a likely priority signing, the team will have a very hard time retaining both Lewis and Scott. Rumors last month that Baltimore had agreed to a long-term deal with Lewis proved unfounded (for now) and Lewis continues to make more money for himself with each passing week. We discussed the potential of 2007 3rd round pick Tavares Gooden a couple of weeks ago in the Futures Watch series, but Bart Scott may be the more intriguing player to watch. On another team, Scott could find himself in a much more favorable role for box score production. Should the Ravens elect to let Lewis leave in free agency, Scott could end up shifting ILB roles and taking over Lewis' primo slot in the Baltimore scheme.
  • UFA Cleveland LB Andra Davis - Davis lost his every-down role in 2007, when teammate Leon Williams began replacing him on nickel downs, and his IDP value plummeted. With Williams, D'Qwell Jackson and highly regarded draft pick Beau Bell likely to be fighting for playing time next summer, Davis isn't likely to be a priority re-signing for the Browns. There are a number of 4-3 teams that could use a downhill, thumping MLB and it's not impossible that Davis could again find himself in an every-down role in 2009. If Davis isn't re-signed, either Williams or Bell could be in line for a much bigger role.
  • UFA Jacksonville LB Mike Peterson - Peterson's situation is well documented. He won't be back in Jacksonville next season, but still has enough left in his tank to be a productive IDP option in the right situation. He's a must watch during the free agent season.
  • UFA Miami LB Channing Crowder - Crowder may be this season's version of Cato June. Through three sets of defensive coaches and philosophies in Miami, Crowder has had little impact. While he's played better this season, the prevailing preseason opinion was that the Dolphins weren't likely to actively pursue him. Given his average talent, Crowder may not have an every-down role with a new team and may not be able to rack up tackles in a less target-rich environment. He could be a prime sell high candidate this offseason.
  • UFA Arizona LB Karlos Dansby - The Cardinals were not able to sign Dansby to a long-term deal last summer after using the franchise tag to keep him off last season's free agent market. Dansby should again be a high priority for the Cardinals this offseason and could be tagged again. If not, though his all-around skill should fit in most defenses, his value with another team will be scheme and role dependent.
  • UFA Atlanta LB Michael Boley - Boley was in line for a big contract after as a RFA last spring following his breakout 2007 season. Off the field issues likely cost him that contract extension and Boley hasn't had the same impact this season in Mike Smith's less aggressive scheme. Boley's situation would be helped if the Falcons elect to release aging WLB Keith Brooking, but he may find himself in a new uniform next season. Boley will be scheme dependent, but could find himself in a more favorable every-down WLB role next season. If Brooking is released and Boley re-signed, it will be interesting to see how the roles of Curtis Lofton and Stephen Nicholas change for 2009.
  • UFA Buffalo LB Angelo Crowell - Crowell may have permanently fallen out of favor in Buffalo after the controversy surrounding his preseason knee surgery and seemingly spiteful placement on the Bills' IR list. Crowell has the all-around talent to fit in nearly any scheme and could return to solid IDP value with a change in scenery next season.
  • UFA Indianapolis LBs TyJuan Hagler and Freddy Keiaho - Keiaho is expected to hit playing time limits that would void his upcoming RFA year, a common occurrence with Colt contracts. The Colts, from Marcus Washington to Mike Peterson to David Thornton to Cato June, have let many solid OLBs leave for greener contracts in their UFA seasons. With Clint Session playing well and Phillip Wheeler also in the wings, it's again likely that we'll see a new WLB in the Dungy Tampa-2 defense in 2009. Keiaho's value will be scheme and role dependent should he sign with a new team. Hagler could be anywhere and have any value next season - including taking over as the every-down Colt WLB if they get him signed cheaply.
  • UFA Seattle LB Leroy Hill - This isn't Niko Koutouvides. Hill is a very underrated OLB and could be very productive in a new situation if the Seahawks don't re-sign him. He could well be the most under-the-radar name on this list come March 2009.

Other LB situations worth watching: Zach Thomas/Kevin Burnett, Paris Lenon, Nate Webster and Eric Barton.

Defensive Backs

  • UFA Cleveland S Sean Jones - Jones seems to have fallen out of favor somewhat in Cleveland, as the coaches have put him into a three man safety rotation since his return from knee surgery, despite Jones' claims that he's fully healthy. While it still wouldn't be surprising to see Jones back in Cleveland in 2009, his recent comments would suggest that he'll be elsewhere next season. He should hold good value wherever he lands.
  • UFA Miami S Yeremiah Bell - Bell has made the most of his one year contract, bringing the same solid run support and added big play value that he showed briefly in 2006. Expect the Dolphins to work to keep him in Miami, but Bell would fit well in most secondary schemes.
  • UFA Philadelphia S Brian Dawkins - Dawkins ended 2007 looking like an aging veteran whose recent neck injury robbed him of his former aggressive style of play. Dawkins has been back to his usual self this season, however, and could end up in a Rodney Harrison like role someplace new in 2009.
  • UFA St. Louis S O.J. Atogwe - It would be hard to see the Rams letting an impact player like Atogwe go, but nothing is certain with the potential change in the Ram coaching staff this offseason. Atogwe could get a very nice bump in value should he land an in-the-box safety role to add some tackle opportunity to his big play coverage skill.

Other DB situations worth watching: Kelvin Hayden, Phillip Buchanon, Jermaine Phillips

Defensive Linemen

  • UFA Carolina DE Julius Peppers - Peppers is the only high profile pass rusher eligible for free agency this offseason and it will be a surprise if he makes it to the market. If he does, however, a better surrounding cast could unleash Peppers' big game potential and allow him to build on the most consistent season he's had yet.
  • UFA Tennessee DT Albert Haynesworth - Another player who will likely be with his current team after free agency ends, Haynesworth's importance on the market is more important to his potential surrounding cast than his own numbers.

Stats, Metrics and Trends

Here's a quick look at tackle opportunity trends for those looking for potential high upside plays during your playoff weeks.

Offenses that have consistently allowed the most tackle opportunity over the past three weeks include:

  • Green Bay (59.00/gm)
  • New York Jets (57.33/gm including one below average week of 44)
  • Pittsburgh (56.43/gm)
  • Baltimore (55.67/gm)
  • Atlanta (55.33/gm)
  • Buffalo (55.00/gm)

New England and the New York Giants have also had two well above average weeks in allowing tackle opportunity. Marginal linebackers facing these offenses may become very attractive plays over the next 2-3 weeks.

Offenses that have consistently allowed the least tackle opportunity over the past three weeks include:

  • Denver (41.67/gm)
  • Cleveland (42.00/gm)
  • Seattle (42.33/gm)
  • San Diego (43.00/gm)
  • Oakland (44.00/gm)

Cincinnati and Houston have both had two weeks in which their offenses have allowed 40 or fewer tackle opportunities in the last three weeks. Think twice before expecting big numbers from any defenders facing these offenses.

Week 13 MVPs - Most Vexing Players

To keep some of these guys from getting lost in the Stunts section below, we're going to adapt the "Interesting Boxscores" segment of our weekly all-IDP podcast into a new RTD feature where we'll take a closer look at the most surprising breakout and disappointing box scores each week.

Paul Posluszny (2 solos, 2 assists, 9 solos in past 3 games) - Posluszny's projected pace has fallen off from 100 solos to only 87 in three weeks' time. There's been no significant injury or change in surrounding cast to blame. Unfortunately, opportunity may yet again have played a major role in the decline of a formerly solid IDP option. Over the past three weeks, Posluszny has faced 43 tackle opportunities a game, with a max of 46 last week against San Francisco. Posluszny owners will be happy to learn that his next two matchups, Miami and the Jets, are average to slightly above-average tackle matchups according to recent trends. Expect a modest recovery.

Stunts

With Gary Brackett likely to miss this week's game (and possibly more) with an ankle injury, expect the Colts to insert more experienced OLB Tyjaun Hagler into the lineup at WLB rather than risking less proven players like Phillip Wheeler or Buster Davis. Freddy Keiaho moved to MLB last week and did so in 2007 when Brackett missed time with injury. His value gets a slight upgrade with the move. Hagler is a better bet to take over Brackett's role in the Colt nickel packages, with Clint Session remaining a base defensive player only.

Pending a surprising ruling in their favor, the suspensions of Will Smith, Kevin Williams and Pat Williams will start this week. Will Smith had begun to string some nice line scores together in recent weeks and his loss could make it slightly harder on Bobby McCray and Sedrick Ellis. Jeff Charleston could be worth adding in deep, tackle-heavy leagues in Smith's absence. The loss of the stud defensive tackle tandem in Minnesota could allow teams to focus blocking schemes on Jared Allen, though Allen is a good enough talent that he may still be able to overcome the challenge. Expect the Vikings to blitz their linebackers a little more frequently and be much softer up the middle against the run. That combination should keep Chad Greenway's value steady, but likely won't make Ben Leber or Napoleon Harris any more consistent.

Nagging ankle injuries (and likely continued shaky coverage and poor run fits) prompted the Packers to cast aside safeties Atari Bigby and Aaron Rouse in favor of Charles Woodson last week. The Packer coaches were apparently impressed with Woodson's play, though Green Bay still allowed two long rushing and two long pass plays last week against Carolina. It would appear that Woodson will remain a safety for at least another week, but it may be too soon to anoint him the next Rod Woodson.

Late last week, the Rams announced that David Vobora would be used in place of Will Witherspoon on base defensive downs at MLB, effectively killing the value of either. Vobora managed four solos against 35 rushing attempts and 49 total tackle opportunities, but shouldn't be seen as a viable long-term option for dynasty owners. Even if the Rams move Witherspoon outside this offseason, Vobora would likely remain a base defensive player only - if he's on the roster at all.

Jermaine Phillips had a very productive week in his return from an arm injury. Sabby Piscitelli appeared to see fewer snaps that he had before Phillips was hurt, which may not bode well for his future value in Tampa Bay. Phillips is an UFA this offseason, and his final push for a decent contract may help boost his numbers down the stretch.

With Marvin White out with a torn ACL and Chinedum Ndukwe still a question mark with a foot injury, Chris Crocker and Brandon Johnson should remain very good plays. The Bengals are truly scraping the bottom of the barrel at the safety position right now, with John Busing a likely fill-in if Ndukwe can't get back this week. Ndukwe will be a nice lineup option when he does return.

Pat Thomas was apparently a healthy scratch last week. After practicing fully all week and being removed from the injury report on Friday, he was put on the inactive list despite the Chiefs already short depth chart at the linebacker position. That cements Rocky Boiman's late season value and leaves the door wide open for a complete overhaul of the linebacker unit in Kansas City this offseason. The MLB slot will be ripe for an every-down talent to grab plenty of IDP value in 2009.

Look out for Detroit DE Cliff Avril. We mentioned that the injuries to Dewayne White and Jared DeVries would allow us to get a good look at the young group of Lion defensive linemen. Ikaika Alama-Francis has held up reasonably well in run support, but it's Avril who should be attracting notice. Avril has beaten two of the best offensive lines in the league (TB and TEN) for sacks over the past two weeks and could be a Robert Mathis like player in the making. If he can bulk up enough this offseason to survive on early downs next year, he could be a very interesting player in 2009.


IDP Returner Threats

Week 13 Returner Table

Rk
Player
TM
Pos
KickRet
PuntRet
TD
Additional IDP Stats
KR
Yds
PR
Yds
Solo
Asst
SK
INT
PD
1
Chris Carr
TEN
CB
3
95
6
49
0
2
0
0
0
0
2
Danieal Manning
CHI
FS
5
138
0
0
0
3
0
0
0
0
3
Josh Wilson 
SEA
CB
6
130
0
0
0
1
0
0
0
0
4
Justin Miller
OAK
CB
5
130
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
5
Will Blackmon
GB
CB
4
85
3
23
0
0
0
0
0
0
6
Quinton Demps
PHI
FS
4
97
0
0
0
3
0
0
0
1
7
Ellis Hobbs
NE
CB
4
91
0
0
0
3
4
0
0
1
8
Brian Witherspoon
JAX
CB
2
52
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
9
Leodis McKelvin
BUF
CB
1
37
0
0
0
2
0
0
0
0
10
Orlando Scandrick
DAL
CB
1
25
0
0
0
6
0
0
0
1
11
Nate Clements
SF
CB
0
0
1
3
0
6
0
0
0
1
12
Keiwan Ratliff
IND
CB
0
0
2
0
0
0
0
0
0
0

Last Three Weeks Returner Table (Per Game Averages Except for TDs)

Rk
Player
TM
Pos
KickRet
PuntRet
TD
Additional IDP Stats
KR
Yds
PR
Yds
Solo
Asst
SK
INT
PD
1
Josh Wilson
SEA
CB
5.33
132
0
0
0
5
0
0
0.33
3.67
2
Will Blackmon
GB
CB
4.67
90.7
2
24.3
0
0.67
0
0
0
0
3
Quinton Demps
PHI
FS
4
115
0
0
0.33
1.67
0
0
0
0.33
4
Ellis Hobbs 
NE
CB
4
99.3
0
0
0
3.33
1.67
0
0
0.67
5
Danieal Manning
CHI
FS
3.33
98.7
0
0
0
1
0.67
0
0
0
6
Leodis McKelvin 
BUF
CB
2
96.3
0
0
0.33
1.67
0
0
0.67
1
7
Justin Miller
OAK
CB
4
92.3
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
0
8
Brian Witherspoon
JAC
CB
3
61.3
1.33
23
0
0
0
0
0
0
9
Chris Carr
TEN
CB
2
56
3
21
0
4
0
0
0.33
1
10
Keiwan Ratliff
IND
CB
0
0
2.33
4.67
0
1
0.33
0
0
0

Every week, with a huge helping hand from our IDP Forum's own kerpow (who will be providing the stat tables for this section), we'll be tracking the notable return yardage trends and defensive usage of the league's dual IDP-returner threats.

Leodis McKelvin, Josh Wilson and Ellis Hobbs continue to hold solid dual IDP-returner value. Chris Carr moved back into a full time returner role as he moved out of the starting lineup. Carr will be the nickel corner now, however, with Eric King out for the season, and has considerably more value now than at any other point in the season. Danieal Manning should see an increase in value as a nickel back with Nathan Vasher out for the season. The late week news that Charles Woodson would be moving to safety didn't hurt Will Blackmon owners much. Green Bay's opponent last week, Carolina, uses very few multiple wide receiver sets. Blackmon's IDP value should improve this week somewhat against the Texans. Quinton Demps has begun to see some dime snaps in Philadelphia, but still won't see enough additional playing time to be a consistent option. Likewise, expect Orlando Scandrick's time in the Cowboy subpackages to be short-lived with the return of Adam Jones this week. Keep an eye on kerpow's weekly IDP returner thread and Mike Herman's midweek ReturnerGuys column for the latest news and analysis.

Remember to check out our weekly all-IDP podcast on the Audible every Wednesday and be sure to stop by the IDP Forum every Sunday morning for all the latest and most accurate IDP news, analysis and inactive players. Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to bramel@footballguys.com.

Best of luck in Week 14.