Reading the Defense (Preseason Part 1)
By Jene Bramel
June 20th, 2011

It's been a tough offseason. Unless you're a labor lawyer, you hate what the lockout has done to the NFL's offseason schedule. We had a draft, but missed the spring time fun of free agency and sifting through stories about minicamps and OTAs. But I strongly believe there's going to be football this season and, hopefully, a full slate of games without any delay.

If you're a fantasy owner, especially one that plays in a league using IDPs, you should be getting ready for the season as you usually would every summer. That means scouring depth charts, making projections, deciding who "your guys" are (and are not) and starting to get excited for the fall. Ordinarily, this first volume of the RTD Offseason Report would focus on the offseason coaching changes and free agent movement. But I'm taking this first volume in a different direction this year.

The tea leaves may be harder to read, but the questions posed are still there. So, I'm going to turn the RTD into a game of 20 (or more) IDP Questions in coming installments. I'll start by posing a few questions that have held my interest this spring and summer, then I'll open the floor for some follow-up questions and tackle some of your most vexing questions in the last installment. By then, the league and the players will have set aside their differences and we can get back on schedule and analyze the months of offseason activity that will get packed into a few frenzied weeks.

Please send your questions and follow-up thoughts to bramel@footballguys.com. In the mean time, we may as well start by transferring our frustration over the CBA issues to the IDP landscape.

Can Mario Williams' IDP value survive the transition from DE to OLB?

In a word, no.

First, don't expect to exploit the once-common loophole that allowed fantasy owners to start a 3-4 OLB as a DL in their lineups. Though Wade Phillips has said his defense is more like a 4-3 or 52 front and that Williams would rush the passer 90-95% of the time, Williams isn't likely to remain classified as a defensive end in your league. MFL has already (correctly, in my opinion) changed his position and most other management sites will follow suit.

Next, understand that playing from a two point stance isn't entirely foreign to Williams. He often aligned as a standup rusher last season and was effective at times despite two separate sports hernias that surely limited his explosiveness and leverage. He'll need to continue to refine his technique and adjust to the differences in how and when he engages blockers from a two point stance, but he's got the athleticism and strength to make the transition. Consider Tamba Hali, who also started his career as a 4-3 DE, as a reasonable comp.

But, despite my confidence that Williams can be a successful 3-4 rush OLB, his IDP value will take a monster hit. Williams will have to equal Hali's monster 2010 numbers to be considered a top tier fantasy linebacker. It's much more likely that he'll finish in the 35-45 solo tackle range, with 8-12 sacks. That's LB2+ (big play) / LB4+ (balanced) value and a far cry from the stud DL1 expectation he's had as a 4-3 defensive end.

Redraft owners should stay away until his value becomes too good to pass up. Dynasty owners should hold final judgment and wait to see if Williams can become another DeMarcus Ware (or find himself in a more productive DE role in Houston or elsewhere) if unable to flip him for DL1 value in trade.

Is Ndamukong Suh a DL1?

I framed the question this way for a reason. I think the debate about Suh in fantasy circles - i.e. can he maintain his production, how good can the Detroit defensive line be, were we wrong about Gerald McCoy, etc. - misses a key point.

In a recent IDP-only mock draft I participated in, Suh was drafted fourth overall. Not long after that, in another IDP-only showcase league with a big play scoring system, Suh went third overall.

The pick sparked some debate among the mockers and in our forum at Footballguys. How big of a reach was Suh? Is taking a defensive tackle in the first round ever justifiable?

While I think the hype surrounding Detroit's defensive line is overblown (more on that later) and that Suh's game has holes that can be exploited by a smart offensive coordinator, there's a valid argument that Suh is worth the pick.

With so many defenses rotating their interior linemen or using a run stopping/pass rushing platoon, drafting a defensive tackle as a "stud DL" has become unthinkable. A casual IDP follower might nod their head in fond remembrance of Warren Sapp or even Jon Randle, Hall-of-Famer defensive tackles with huge numbers. But they weren't the outliers you might expect. Even long time IDP vets may have forgotten names like Wayne Martin (65 sacks, including five seasons of double-digit sacks between 1992 and 1997) and La'Roi Glover (17 sacks in 2000, eight straight seasons of at least five sacks between 1997 and 2004). The IDP careers of those players (and others) rivaled IDP HOF DEs like Michael Strahan and Bruce Smith.

If you think Suh's 2010 season - one in which he played nearly every snap, was moved all around the line to exploit mismatches, and wreaked consistent havoc on passing downs on his way to a 48-10 finish - was the real thing, there's a very strong chance that he'll be the next Randle, Martin or Glover. Not only is he then worthy of a first round pick in an All-IDP format, he's arguably worth the #1 overall pick as the biggest relative advantage on the board.

I'm not sure I'm ready to crown Suh yet. He's going to face more double teams, there's no guarantee he sees such a high number of snaps this year, he converted a huge percentage of his pressures into sacks and he wasn't nearly as consistent against the run as his numbers suggest. But this is yet another situation where you need to put aside your standard positional defaults and biases and make sure you're asking the right questions when putting together your rankings and tiers.

What is the ETA and upside for this year's group of rookie linebackers?

The lockout hasn't done this group any favors. Linebacker isn't necessarily the toughest position to learn. Good technique and instinctive play help a player fit into any scheme and philosophy. But refinements in coverage, gaining a coach's trust that you'll play your run fit correctly on every snap and learning the defense well enough to run a huddle all take time. It's no longer a lock that the best of this group will be able to seize an every-down job by opening weekend.

  • MLB Nate Irving, Denver (ETA: Midseason 2011 / Upside: LB2+)
    I still have Irving as my #1 overall rookie linebacker prospect, but the gap between him and Mason Foster has narrowed to a whisker. The Broncos have all but acknowledged that the lost coaching time has put Irving behind Joe Mays on the depth chart. I expect Irving to win the starting job by midseason, but it'll be hard to gain trust in subpackages and in the huddle without a full training camp. Once a player you could draft as a LB4 with LB2 upside, Irving has become a watch list LB5.
  • MLB Mason Foster, Tampa Bay (ETA: Early 2011 / Upside: LB2+)
    Until Barrett Ruud signs a contract, Foster's ultimate depth chart destination and upside remains in limbo. I expect there to be enough interest in Ruud on the open market that Foster will begin the 2011 season as a MLB. Unlike Denver, the Buccaneers don't have a ready-made MLB on the depth chart (Tyrone McKenzie isn't the answer and free agent Quincy Black isn't a great fit inside) behind Ruud. But while Foster's path to the lineup is clearer than Irving's, the same issues that limit Irving could impact Foster's chances to earn an immediate every-down role. He deserves a higher draft slot in redraft leagues than Irving today, but he remains a risky bet until later in the season.
  • OLB Martez Wilson, New Orleans (ETA: Early 2011 / Upside: LB3)
    Wilson is among the surer bets (along with Von Miller and Akeem Ayers) to start the 2011 season in the starting lineup. Gregg Williams' multiple front scheme won't be easy to learn, but Wilson's responsibilities will be limited as the 4-3 SLB. If he can read run-pass at all, he'll start and likely play every down. Wilson's IDP upside isn't great, but he warrants very close attention during the preseason and early weeks of 2011. I'm skeptical that his body type and skill set will translate inside, but there's an argument that Wilson might be seen as a long term MLB. If Wilson gets the call as the SILB (rather than the SOLB) when Williams uses a 3-4 front, he becomes an interesting buy low candidate for 2012 and beyond.
  • OLB Von Miller, Denver (ETA: Early 2011 / Upside: LB3)
    Miller will play immediately in Denver, but his statistical upside is severely limited by his expected role (SLB on base downs, standup roving nickel rusher). There are many different paths his career path could take, but most of them aren't favorable for IDP value. Avoid him in redraft leagues unless you're in a deeper league with big play scoring.
  • OLB Akeem Ayers, Tennessee (ETA: Early 2011 / Upside: LB3)
    Ayers situation looks very similar to that of Miller. I think Ayers will hold up better against the run and be a better option in balanced leagues, with Miller having a slight edge in big play systems. Don't be surprised if Ayers ends up more productive than Aaron Curry in time.
  • OLB Aldon Smith, San Francisco (ETA: Early 2011 / Upside: LB3)
    Smith is the only ‘tweener I'd consider rostering in redraft leagues this year, and then only in big play heavy scoring systems. I doubt Smith tops 40 solos, but he has double digit sack upside.
  • ILB James Mouton, San Diego (ETA: Midseason 2011 / Upside: LB3+)
    Mouton seems miscast as a 3-4 ILB, but the WILB position is similar enough to 4-3 WLB that he could be successful. Expect the Chargers to bring in at least one veteran to ease the transition, but Mouton is a second round pick that will get a look in the lineup as soon as he's ready. If he takes to the ILB position quickly, he'll be a strong bye week replacement (or better) by November.
  • ILB Bruce Carter, Dallas (ETA: 2012 / Upside: LB2+)
    Carter is the most dynamic of my top tier rookie linebackers, but carries the most risk. He's a candidate to start the 2011 season on the PUP list and a longshot to see snaps without an injury to the three backers above him on the depth chart. Carter is a smart stash in dynasty leagues, but shouldn't be rostered in a redraft format until he proves he's healthy and productive enough to crack Dallas' gameday active roster with a chance to see base defensive snaps.
  • ILB Colin McCarthy, Tennessee (ETA: 2012 / Upside: LB2+)
    While there's still a chance that the new CBA will put an end to restricted free agency, it seems more and more likely that Stephen Tulloch will be back in Tennessee this year. That pushes McCarthy's ETA back to 2012 at the earliest. If Tulloch does leave, the Titans may decide that a veteran stopgap or an in-house option like Will Witherspoon makes more sense inside. And there are enough OLBs with coverage ability rostered that McCarthy will have trouble remaining on the field in subpackages if he does earn the starting MLB job. There are too many ifs and maybes to consider McCarthy a rosterable LB in redraft leagues.
  • ILB Quan Sturdivant, Arizona (ETA: 2012 / Upside: LB4+)
    I like Sturdivant, but he's not pushing aside Paris Lenon this year. He's also not guaranteed an every-down job long term. Put him on your priority watch list and hope for a better than expected role if and when he cracks the lineup.
  • ILB Greg Jones, New York Giants (ETA: 2012 or later / Upside: LB2+)
    Any chance Jones may have had to surprise Jonathan Goff this offseason is now gone. There's no chance he gets enough snaps to impress the coaches. He's rosterable as a deep dynasty stash (LB7) only.
  • ILB Kelvin Sheppard, Buffalo (ETA: late 2011 / Upside: Matchup LB4)
    Sheppard could take over for Andra Davis as the Bills' SILB by year's end, but he'll likely fill the same role. Without a spot in Buffalo's subpackage, Sheppard's upside will look much like that of Brandon Spikes in New England.
  • OLB Casey Matthews, Philadelphia (ETA: 2012 / Upside: LB3)
    Some project that Matthews could challenge Jamar Chaney for the MLB job in time, but I see the rookie as the long term answer at WLB. That could happen by late 2011, but 2012 is more realistic. No value this season unless the Eagles are hit with at least one injury to the starting LB unit.

Is Jamar Chaney a top 20 linebacker?

After participating in a handful of mock drafts this month, it appeared the answer was yes. But the FBG staff consensus is currently LB23 and Chaney's ADP through 30 drafts on MFL is LB33. Chaney is definitely a hot topic on Twitter and in the Forum, however, so there's plenty of buzz around him.

There should be. In three and a half games as the Eagles' starting MLB (including the playoff game v GB), Chaney had 34 solos, 6 assists, two forced fumbles and a pass defensed. That's a blistering 140+ solo tackle pace. But I think there's reason for hedging on Chaney for now.

Though Chaney played every down with Stewart Bradley out, he wasn't nearly as impressive in coverage as he was in the box in run support. With Bradley back and the Eagles' recent trend toward playing dime coverage or using a non-starting linebacker as their second nickel backer, Chaney isn't assured an every-down role.

Drafting Chaney in the 15-20 range may be pure genius come September or it may buy you a matchup LB3/4 at a LB2 price.

Was Charles Johnson a fluke in 2010?

Absolutely not. He's just another in the long line of 4-3 defensive ends that needed time to grow into the position.

He played about 50% of Carolina's defensive snaps in 2008 and had six sacks, seven batted passes and was credited with more than 30 quarterback hits and pressures according to ProFootballFocus. In 2009, he was again a part time player (and missed three games to injury). He had four sacks, three batted passes and 24 QHs and pressures. He played the run well enough over that time to project to a 40 solo per 16 game pace as a full time defender. Last season's 50-11-10.5 spike looked legitimate on film and it is arguably the natural progression of his part-time trend.

It was Johnson's RFA year and there's a small (though very small) risk that he'll end up somewhere other than Carolina, but Johnson's career path looks a lot more like Aaron Kampman than Derrick Harvey. He ranks comfortably among the top tier defensive ends for me. Since this is his age 25 season, I expect him to be there for awhile.

Who are the most projectable 2010 part time players on the verge of 2011 stardom?

Naturally, it'd be nice to project the next Charles Johnson. Like many things on the defensive side of the ball, determining snap counts and pass rush opportunity is an inexact science. But there are a few very strong candidates along the defensive line.

  • DE Kroy Biermann, Atlanta - His three sacks last year were a big disappointment to those hoping he'd break out in 2010. In reality, not much changed from 2009. Biermann played in a similar rotation, as the Falcons chose to use Chauncey Davis and Jamaal Anderson often in the base defense. Biermann still got to the quarterback often, but closed the deal a little less often. He still found a way to run up 27 non-sack tackles in a mostly pass-rushing situational role. In almost every way, his situation mirrors Johnson's. While the fantasy world moves on to other names on this list, Biermann should stay on top of your upside target list. If Jamaal Anderson is released or John Abraham's string of durable seasons ends, Biermann has DE1 potential.
  • DE Matt Shaughnessy, Oakland - Though not as hyped as Biermann, Shaughnessy was also on watch lists last preseason as a sleeper target. He was more productive than Biermann (43-13-7), but had just two sacks in his last eight games and sits outside the top 20 in our FBG staff consensus rankings in mid-June. Shaughnessy isn't a lock to see more than 60% of his team's snaps this year, but he's extremely projectable (think Jared Allen upside) if and when he gets them.
  • DE Carlos Dunlap, Cincinnati - Dunlap was purely a situational rusher last year, but an incredibly impressive one. His sack rate and conversion rate were unbelievable, as he seemingly converted every chance he got in the pocket. But it's dangerous to write that off as too fluky to repeat. Nearly every sack came against a tough matchup (IND, NYJ, NO, CLE, SD, BAL) and most came on a combination of speed, leverage and effort. He'll require the priciest draft slot of this bunch, but it may be worth it.
  • DE Jeremy Mincey, Jacksonville - It's cheating to put him on this list, because he's been more than a part time player. But after a 22-5-4 run in eight games as a starter last year, he deserves more attention (not listed among the 62 DL in MFLs most recent ADP report) than he's getting.

Honorable Mentions

  • Carolina's Greg Hardy and Everette Brown - Both of whom looked very good on film at times last year but will have trouble earning more than 500 snaps again this year. Tennessee's William Hayes, who again looked good but will probably be hurt by Jerry Gray's plans to go big along the defensive line this year. Detroit's Lawrence Jackson, who should be a priority target if there's an injury along the Lions' front four. Brandon Graham, Jason Pierre-Paul, Brian Robison and Marcus Benard also had very strong pass rush peripherals but need to improve their tackle counts to be considered surer bets in balanced and tackle-heavy leagues.
  • DT Jason Jones, Tennessee - Jones, like Biermann, has been projectable for multiple seasons now. Durability has worn out his welcome with most IDP owners, but he continues to be one of the most disruptive defensive tackles in the league on a per snap basis. The Titans may use him as a swing LDE, 3-technique tackle this season. If he can stay healthy, that's a role that could give him top 20 DE / top 5 DT upside.
  • DT Antonio Garay, San Diego - I profiled Garay's play in the Sight Adjustments column last year as he was hitting his stride. Even if his 38-10-6 season already has your offseason attention, make sure to note that he racked up those numbers playing just half of his defensive snaps. He's not going to get 800 snaps this year, but another 100 snaps (and a 40-45 solo tackle, 5-8 sack season) is a reasonable expectation.
  • Cincinnati's Geno Atkins - Was all over the QB during the second half of 2010. He has a long way to go to earn Mike Zimmer's trust against the run, but there's a breakout season bubbling under the surface.

Was Desmond Bishop a fluke in 2010?

Bishop lasted until the sixth round in the 2007 draft and saw very little playing time during his first three years in the league. When he did get a chance, the Packers took him off the field in most nickel packages when they were healthy enough to do so. But his consistency on film and in the line scores won him the adoration of IDP owners everywhere last year and Green Bay rewarded him a handsome contract extension.

Unlike Jamar Chaney, Bishop was just as effective in coverage (when given the chance) as he was in the box. Despite the third worst tackle opportunity in the league, he finished comfortably inside the top 10 in balanced scoring leagues in his 12 games as a starter in Green Bay. His coaches have already named him a starter this year.

Not only is he not a fluke, I'd argue that anything less than a top 15 finish would be a disappointment this year. Given league average opportunity, a 100+ solo, 3-5 sack season could be in reach.

Which of the handful of talented young linebackers will crack the top 20 this year?

2011 is Bishop's age 27 season, so he doesn't qualify for this discussion. But many other young backers are generating a buzz in fantasy circles. Rey Maualuga, Pat Angerer, Sean Lee, Donald Butler and Perry Riley are all worth rostering as LB4/5 with upside. And Sean Weatherspoon, Rolando McClain and Daryl Washington deserve consideration as guys who flashed last year but didn't sustain production throughout the year.

I think McClain (who gets his own discussion in the next installment) and Weatherspoon are the most likely to make the leap into the top 20 this year. Of those who haven't seen a full complement of snaps yet, I'd keep the closest eye on Donald Butler, who could be the Chargers' every-down ILB if recovered from last season's injury. Maualuga isn't guaranteed an every-down role even if he does move inside to MLB. Lee likely remains blocked by Keith Brooking. Angerer won't play every-down if Clint Session is re-signed. And Riley is a big unknown.

While I still contend that Washington has the highest upside of those listed above, I'd be comfortable with McClain or Weatherspoon as a LB3 and Butler (then Angerer) as my LB5 with upside.

How much regression might we see at the DB position this year?

I predicted that 2010 would be the "Year of the DB" in last summer's columns and on our podcast. The DB position had gone through a number of down seasons, mostly due to a change in philosophy over the past decade as teams began phasing out the true in-the-box strong safety. Gone were the days of 90 solo tackle seasons (only 14 defensive backs topped 90 solos in the eight seasons between 2002 and 2009).

But 2010 looked different. An already strong base of run supporting safeties with coverage skills was being joined by a very strong rookie class and sophomore hopefuls.

In the end, the elite category was mostly unchanged. There were again just two defensive backs that topped the 90 solo tackle mark, though LaRon Landry would have been the third had he finished the season. There wasn't a spike in players finishing with more than 185 fantasy points in the FBG scoring system - five, compared to four in 2009 and three in 2008.

But the second tier exploded. Between 2007 and 2009, an average of five players finished with 175 or more fantasy points and an average of just under ten finished with 165 or more. Last year, 15 finished over 175 and 22 over 165. That's a huge increase in DB2+ value. There was a similar disparity in the solo tackle numbers. 13 DBs (on average) finished with 75 or more solos between 2007 and 2009. Last year there were 25. Put in context, there were only 28 linebackers who finished with at least 25 solos last year.

Year of the DB, indeed.

It's easy to reflexively expect a regression to the mean here. And I think there'll definitely be a drop in the 165+ fantasy point group. But there are some talented safeties among the 165+ fantasy points crowd. I'd be leery of Michael Griffin and Chris Hope (I'll detail why in the next installment), as well as Kerry Rhodes and Michael Huff and a handful of the corners, but the rest have the talent and surrounding cast to stick. I think the DB2 production will be closer to 2010 than the 2007-2009 numbers.

I think there are two take home points. First, it's acceptable to target one of the top tier safeties toward the end of the tier. Secure the LB2 numbers at the DB1 position. Second, use the knowledge that the DB2 tier will be exceptionally deep to your advantage. Slough that position until very late in the draft. The names in that group linked above don't include Patrick Chung or LaRon Landry (who belong in the top tier), Louis Delmas, William Moore, Antoine Bethea, Kenny Phillips, Taylor Mays, Morgan Burnett, Kam Chancellor or Courtney Greene. Unless there's a guy you absolutely have to have, you can wait 5-8 rounds before filling out your DB slots.


Make sure you check out the next installment. I'll lead off by detailing a change in the way the NFL will record solo and assisted tackles next year and how it could alter the face of IDP leagues next year.

I'll also take a closer look at the prospects of Chris Gocong and Rolando McClain, handicap the rookie defensive linemen and defensive backs, break down the Houston ILB situation, make note of a few interesting second half 2010 splits and detail the curious case of the Tennessee team tackle opportunity.

If there's something else vexing you or you have a follow up question on something in the first two installments, send it to bramel@footballguys.com. I'll work all those questions into the third installment of this feature.

As always, thanks for reading.

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