The lockout is finally over and the free agent blitz has subsided. Obviously there is no time for a full blown pre-season report. So, in order to get as much out there as possible in time for it to be useful, I am going to put together a Cliff's Notes version. I'll try to hit all the important players and situations but if I miss someone that you want an opinion, shoot me an e-mail and I'll tell you what I think. Time is getting short so lets get to work!
The Broncos are going back to a 4-3 which means Elvis Dumervil goes back to defensive end. Dumervil reminds me of Terrell Suggs in that he is just as effective as a 4-3 end as he is at OLB in a 3-4. He missed last season with injury but piled up a mark of 41-7-16.5 with 4 forced and a recovery as a linebacker in 2009. In 2007 he worked at end and went 34-5-12 with 4 forced fumbles, 3 recoveries and an interception. Look for him to be one of the fantasy game's top linemen in 2011... In 2009 the Broncos used the 18th overall pick on college DE Robert Ayers and tried to make him a 3-4 OLB. The experiment failed miserably. Ayers recorded just 1 sacks in his first two seasons and never made much of a contribution. The new scheme allows him a return to his natural DE position. The only thing that is certain here is that he can't be any worse. That said, there is a real possibility that Ayers can be successful at end. He's a guy most owners aren't even looking at and is very worthy as a late round sleeper... As a 3-4 end with the Patriots Ty Warren had just one season of quality box score production. He has however, totaled 40 or more solo stops in three of his seven pro seasons. I don't have grand expectations for him, but Warren could be a solid option for those who must start tackles.
In three of the past four seasons D.J. Williams has racked up 90+ tackles and been among the top fantasy option in the game at linebacker. The problem is, he worked at middle or weak side linebacker in all three of those seasons. The last time he lined up on the strong side Williams put up very average (at best) production. Rookie Von Miller is working at WLB with Joe Mays and rookie Nate Irving battling for the MLB job. That spells UGLY for Williams owners as he seems destined to return to linebacker purgatory on the strong side. The one saving grace is that he will pair with Miller and stay on the field in nickel packages. Williams is a very fast and talented player but his current situation is almost certain to limit his fantasy value. I would be nervous about picking him as anything more than an LB3 or depth. Miller is an interesting player. He is not your traditional WLB and could end up being moved around, especially in nickel packages. He's a big play guy who can both rush the passer and cover. However, he was not a tackling machine at Texas A&M and is unlikely to take on that role in the NFL. Ultimately his value depends largely on how well his big play ability translates to the pro game. Let's just say that I am not overly optimistic that he will be a strong fantasy option... Irving has been an early target in most rookie drafts this summer. He has a lot of ability and potential, but I would prefer to have seen him land in a different situation. Even if he beats out Mays for the starting job (which I believe he eventually will) chances are Irving will remain a two down player. He could have value as depth or a matchup dependent part time starter.
Brian Dawkins put up monster numbers in 2009 but the guy will be 38 years old in October. He missed several games with injuries last season and I just don't see him being a fantasy factor again. Denver used second and fourth round picks on safeties Rahim Moore and Quinton Carter. Dawkins will line up at SS this season giving Moore an opportunity to start right away at FS. Carter will likely be the heir to the SS position when Dawkins hangs up the cleats. With the club going back to a 4-3 which better suits their personnel, and making improvements at all levels of the defense, I don't see any of these guys have a lot of value for us this year. Dawkins would be the most likely but don't expect him to be more than a DB3 at best.
Kansas City Chiefs
Quality box score production from 3-4 linemen is generally hard to come by, but there is some potential help for us in KC. Kelly Gregg was added late in the free agent rush and the club already had Glenn Dorsey who put up 51 solo tackles last year, and Wallace Gilberry who had 7 sacks. Gregg turns 35 in November and is coming off his least productive season since 2001, but the guy posted 40+ tackles in six of the previous seven seasons, including a mark of 47-17-3 in 2009. A repeat of that production is very possible and would land him among the top 10 interior linemen. Dorsey enters his fourth NFL season and has seen his production rise in each of the first three. He exceeded the 50 tackle mark last year but has just 4 career sacks. He should have some value in tackle heavy scoring systems or in very deep drafted leagues. Gilberry's role is to replace Tyson Jackson in pass rush situations. The sack total got him some attention last season but he only put up 19 solo tackles to go with them.
Derrick Johnson had a breakout season in 2010 when he posted career highs in several categories including tackles, assists and passes defended. For the first time in his six pro seasons, Johnson finished among the top 10. Previously I had considered him to be an over rated player but his sudden production was not a fluke. It was the result of a coaching staff that was able to get the best out of a player. I expect similar production from Johnson this year. We may even see a jump in big plays that could push him toward the top 5. Jovan Belcher will contend with free agent addition Brandon Siler for the other starting job at ILB. Regardless of who wins this battle, they will have limited value as a two down player... Tamba Hali had a breakout season with 14.5 sacks in 2010. As is often the case with 3-4 outside backers, his lacking tackle production limits his value greatly in all leagues but those which emphasize the big play... Justin Houston was drafted in hope that he would provide a quality bookend to Hali. Time will tell.
Eric Berry got off to a bit of a slow start as a rookie, but by season end it was clear that the Chiefs had a real gem. This guys does it all. He puts up good tackle production, is a ball hawk, rushes the passer and is an intimidator over the middle. Berry finished his rookie season at 77-15-2 with 4 picks and a forced fumble. I can easily see him as a perennial top 10 DB over the next decade. He could be a top 5 DB for the next several years... There are only a handful of corners who among the leading fantasy producers at the position year after year. Brandon Flowers is one of those few. His tackle numbers are not necessarily great but he has averaged about 17 passes defended over his three seasons and has 17 takeaways.
The Raiders defensive line is loaded with fantasy options. DE Matt Shaughnessy is a guy I have been very high on since last season when he totaled 43 tackles and 7 sacks. Those aren't great numbers at a glance but when you consider that he only started eight games it puts a different perspective on things. A few weeks back coach Jackson made the statement that he expected big things from Shaughnessy this year. So do I. Watching him makes me think of a young Jason Taylor. He has a lot to prove to be considered in that mold but is on his way. Shaughnessy has now moved into the starting lineup on a regular basis and looked very good in the preseason opener. Get on the bandwagon while there is still room. Lamarr Houston got the call right out of the gate when he started fifteen games last year as a rookie. His raw numbers (31-9-5) weren't all that impressive but don't overlook the fact that he was just 6-1-1 prior to week eight. Houston looked much better and was much more productive over the second half of the season. Both of these ends are very young but I believe they can mature into one of the better tandems in the league... Even the tackles in Oakland have value for us. Especially for those of us in tackle required leagues. Between them Tommy Kelly and Richard Seymour put up 76 solo tackle and 11.5 sacks in 2010. Seymour played some end early in the season but was moved inside full time when the youngsters started playing well. Both of these guys are very capable of 40 or so tackles and 5-6 sacks.
While the guys up front gave us quality production last season, the Raiders linebackers were pretty disappointing. Rolando McClain was the team's first round pick and a guy that carried great expectations from both the Raiders and fantasy owners. His overall numbers we far from impressive. Early in the season he seemed tentative and slow to react. He was always a step late to the party and was simply not the downhill thumper we all expected. Later in the season however, McClain really started to come on. It showed not only on the field but in his box scores. He finished the season with just 59 solo tackles but averaged 5.5 over his final six games. Project that over a full season and you get a very respectable 88 solo stops. He's a guy who will likely fall farther than he should on draft day and should be a solid LB3 for us with LB2 potential. Don't wait too long... OLB Kamerion Wimbley came up short in the tackle column last season but his 9.5 sacks certainly turned heads. It seems unlikely that Wimbley's tackle numbers will improve greatly but the club will continue to turn him loose on quarterbacks. Quinton Groves and Trevor Scott are in competition with Travis Goethel for the other starting job. Don't expect much production from the winner as he will almost certainly be a two down guy.
Tyvon Branch has been an absolute stud for us over the past two seasons. If McClain can continue to improve at MLB, it could take a little bite out of Branch's opportunity but not enough to really hurt. Branch excels as an in the box SS who tackles well and arrives at the ball with a bad attitude, but he can also defend the pass. He turned in 11 big plays to go along with this 80 solo tackles in 2010 on the way to his second straight top ten finish and his first top five... For a while it looked as if Michael Huff would be in a different uniform this year but the Raiders were able to bring him back. With 77 tackles and 9 big plays in 2010, huff is coming off what was by far the most productive season of his five year career. It's hard to say that he will definitely put up that kind of production again but consider a couple of facts. The Raiders were second in the league in sacks last season with 47, pressure up front makes big play opportunity in the secondary. That and the fact that their linebackers don't make many tackles, likely spells plenty of opportunity for the safeties.
San Diego Chargers
As a 3-4 team the Charger DL is far from loaded with fantasy options. That said, they are not totally void. Nose tackle Antonio Garay finished last season with a very respectable 36-10-6 count. Not great numbers but very useful for those who must start tackles. Jamal Williams always put us useful numbers when he was healthy so Garay is likely to continue doing so as well... At the DE position there is no one to target on draft day but rookie Corey Liuget is worth keeping an eye on early in the season.
There have been no stars at the ILB positions in San Diego since Donnie Edwards retired but there have been some pretty decent contributors there. Former starter Stephen Cooper was recently resigned but the early consensus is that he will serve as a backup to veteran Takeo Spikes and second year man Donald Butler who started the team's first preseason game. It seems that Butler is the guy to have here both now and for the long term. He spent last year on IR but is now healthy and playing pretty well. We have seen both San Diego starters put up useful numbers in the past so we should not write off Spikes either. He had a very good 2010 in San Francisco and is a very capable player. One brief preseason game is not enough to tell how this whole situation will play out. The good news is that both Spikes and Butler are guys that can be picked up late in your draft. Grab them as 4th or 5th linebackers and smile when you just can't keep them out of your lineup by midseason... Shaun Phillips tied a career best 11 sacks last season and will have a lot of value in sack heavy scoring systems but his career best in tackles is only 53. That pretty much insures that he will be no better than depth for most of us.
When you look at his overall numbers from last season FS Eric Weddle Looks pretty good, but when you take a closer look there is a problem with consistency. Of his 80 solo tackles, 32 came in three games. In seven other games he recorded 3 or fewer. It's possible that this was a fluke as he didn't have a consistency problem over the previous two seasons but it is enough to be concerned about. Especially if the new faces in the front seven prove to be an improvement. The other issue with Weddle is that he doesn't contribute many big plays. He has ever made more than 3 in a season. If you can get him as your DB3 Weddle will be a good value but let someone else take the plunge earlier... If the change of venue also changes the luck of Bob Sanders when it comes to injuries, he could be an excellent late round grab. He will produce while healthy. Hopefully that will last more than a few games for a change... Owners in corner required leagues should keep an eye on the Antoine Cason injury situation. Cason posted a very respectable 57-10 in the tackle columns with 4 picks and 17 passes defended last season. If he is healthy he's worth a shot as your CB2 or CB3. If he ends up missing regular season action we need to keep an eye on Marcus Gilchrist. The rookie got the start in the preseason opener. If that carries into the regular season, the rookie corner rule would apply.