Eyes of the Guru (NFC West)
By John Norton
August 17th, 2011

Before I dive into this division I need to correct a mistake I made on the AFC West. I wrote that piece before the Broncos played and was going of what I had heard previously. After a question about D.J. Williams came up in the IDP forum, I pulled up my DVR of that game and saw that Von Miller is indeed working mostly as the strong side backer. That is great news for Williams owners as it means he will be on the weak side. His best production would come if he were in the middle but as an every down WLB Williams is going to put up very good numbers and likely be a top ten LB once again. My apologies for the bad info at such a critical time.

Arizona Cardinals

Defensive line

The Cardinals are the exception to the rule when it comes to 3-4 linemen. While neither have been top twelve guys, both Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett have been productive over the past two years. Campbell's tackle numbers have improved steadily over his three pro seasons. He finished 2010 with 46 solo stops and 6 sacks in each of the past two seasons. Dockett's numbers have been very similar. He put up 45 tackles and 5 sacks last year. Dockett has exceeded the 40 tackle mark in each of the past two seasons with 11.5 total sacks. Either of these guys would make a quality DL3 or serviceable DL2.

Linebacker

With 94 solo tackles and 5 big plays, Paris Lenon was a surprisingly good pickup a year ago. He may have another decent year but second year man Darryl Washington is the guy to have here. Washington started 11 games last season but for much of the year he was basically a two down player. Even so he managed to put up 6 or more solo stops in seven games, and contributed 3 big plays. He is expected to assume an every down role in his second seasons and reminds me a lot of Karlos Dansby who he was drafted to replace. It will be a surprise if Washington fails to slip into the top twenty this year. The Cardinals signed former Eagles starter Stewart Bradley late in the free agent rush. Bradley will compete with Lenon for a starting job. Thus far Lenon is still working with the first team but that could change at any time. Lenon is a smart, tough player with good leadership skills but he is not a great talent. Bradley was strong as the Eagles MLB in 2008 before missing '09 with a knee injury. He was not the same player last year but is now two years removed from the injury and may be the more talented of the two.

Defensive Back

There was a time when Adrian Wilson was a perennial top ten DB. Over the past few years however, he has fallen well short of that. Wilson actually rebounded in 2010, breaking the 75 tackle mark for the first time since 2006. That gave us reason to be optimistic about his 2011 season until he tore his Biceps in practice. Wilson is going to rehab and attempt to play with the injury so he may still be worth a very late round flier, but don't count on him for more than depth. This situation also makes a deep sleeper or potential in season pickup out of '09 third round pick Rashad Johnson. Johnson will work with the starters while Wilson rehabs. There is a reasonable chance Johnson will hold the job all season... The Cardinals were happy to land Kerry Rhodes last season and so were the fantasy owners that grabbed him. Rhodes is a great fit in Arizona and it showed in his numbers. He was a top ten DB early in his career with the Jets, before being moved into a centerfielder's role. With 78 tackles, 8 takeaways, a sack and 12 passes defended, Rhodes made it back into the top ten last season. The Wilson injury will certainly do nothing to hurt his value. What is really surprising to me is that despite his excellent numbers a year ago, Rhodes is falling much further than he should in many drafts. In our staff IDP league I was ecstatic to get him as the 13th safety off the board at pick 18.11. Thanks guys!

St. Louis Rams

Defensive line

There has been a lot of talk about how the Rams continue to improve. One of the places this is most evident is the defensive line. 2010 saw 34 year old James Hall put up the best numbers of his career at 49-6-10 with 5 forced fumbles. On the other end 2008 first round pick Chris Long also turned in the best performance of his young career at 27-3-8.5 with 3 forced fumbles and a recovery. Now the club has added another first round pick to the mix in Robert Quinn. Neither Hall nor Quinn started the team's first preseason game so we don't have a lot to go on here. Hall is still listed as the starter and will likely open the season that way. What I expect to see is Hall shifting inside in passing situations with Quinn starting off as a pass rush specialist. Much will depend on how well Quinn plays but it would come as no surprise to me if he captures the starting job at some point during the season. That said, Hall owners need not panic. He has played inside before and been very successful. They will find a way to keep him on the field. Regardless of how the playing time breaks down, Hall should remain productive but is unlikely to match last year's numbers. Quinn is a strong dynasty option but in redraft leagues should not be drafted as more than sleeper depth with some upside. Long has never posted more than 33 solo tackles in a season but has spend most of his first three years in time share situations. He seems poised for a breakout season. I like him as excellent depth with strong DL2 potential.

Linebacker

The Rams recently added former Houston OLB Zach Diles to play WLB. Diles is a solid NFL player but is not really special. He will do a serviceable job for the team and may produce numbers worth of consideration as a LB4 with LB3 upside. However, James Laurinaitis is really the only one guy we need to talk about here. In two pro seasons he has recorded 205 solo tackles and 10 big plays. The only thing that keeps Laurinaitis from being an elite fantasy LB is the fact that the score keepers for the Rams are so stingy with assists. Only the Eagles were credited with fewer assists than the 139 St. Louis players were awarded. In contrast, Bills defenders were credited with 425 last season. Even so Laurinaitis is a worthy selection as your LB1 in most leagues.

Defensive Back

When the Rams added Quintin Mikell most of us anticipated that he would be plugged in as the in the box SS. That is the role he held with Philly and is the role his skill set seems best suited for. Craig Dahl held that role last season, racking up 87 solo tackles and 5 big plays. I was shocked and somewhat depressed to see Dahl at SS and Mikell at FS against the Colts. If this remains the situation into the season, Mikell will still be productive but will not be the monster I was initially expecting. This also means Dahl will likely continue to have pretty good value, although I would not count on 80 tackles from him... Owners in corner required leagues will want to consider Bradley Fletcher in the late rounds. He quietly turned in 65 tackles and 4 picks last season and is in line to retain the starting job opposite Ronald Bartell.

San Francisco 49ers

Defensive Line

DE Justin Smith is the first 3-4 end since Bruce Smith to consistently overcome the limitations of the position and become a perennial top ten DL. Smith is no threat to lead the league in sacks but he has recorded over 40 tackles in each of his ten pro seasons. The 57 tackles he put up last season were a career high and the 8.5 sacks tied his previous best. Counting on a repeat of those numbers might be a mistake but Smith is a close as it get to a sure thing to reach 45 tackles and 6-7 sacks. Isaac Sopoaga and Ray McDonald fill out the starting lineup for San Francisco. Neither give us any reason to believe they will make an impact in the box scores.

Linebacker

Unless you have spent the past few years under a rock, I don't need to tell you how good Patrick Willis is. The guy has over 100 tackles in each of his four seasons and has added enough big plays to make him the #1 defensive player in the fantasy game in three of those seasons. He is the no doubt #1 defender off the board in any balanced or tackle heavy scoring system. The guy we need to think about here is last year's third round pick Navorro Bowman. Playing next to Willis will limit anyone's opportunity but we need to consider that Takeo Spikes managed to go 81-27-3 from the position a year ago. Spikes has moved on and Bowman seems to be locked in as the starter. He is probably not a guy we want to consider as an every week starter but has value as a spot play based on matchups. Pick him us as your LB5 and watch for the right times to slip him into your lineup.

Defensive Back

There could be three new starters in the secondary this season. The club resigned Dashon Goldson but opened the first preseason game with free agent additions Donte Whitner at SS and Madieu Williams at FS. Williams may have gotten the start only because Goldson just recently signed or it may be that the two will compete for the job. Goldson had a big 2009 season but came crashing back to earth last year, leading me to believe that he was a one year wonder. Williams is a solid if unspectacular player who has not put up useful numbers since he was a rookie with the Bengals in 2004. The focus here is on Whitner who is coming off a career year in which he blew up for 95 solo stops. It is entirely possible that he was a product of the situation in Buffalo, and like Goldson could prove to be a one year wonder. I however, don't believe that is the case. The way I see it the coaches in Buffalo simply failed to use Whitner in a way that played to his strengths. Until last year they had never turned him loose to play in the box as a run support strong safety, where he could take advantage of his physical nature. It is highly unlikely that he will break the 90 tackle mark again but I believe that 75-80 is very possible... Carlos Rogers will replace Nate Clements who signed with Cincinnati. Rogers is a good but not great corner who has never figured heavily in fantasy circles. I see no reason for that to change.

Seattle Seahawks

Defensive line

There was a sliver of news that a lot of people may have overlooked. When the Seahawks let Lofa Tatupu go a couple of weeks back, one of the reasons that was mentioned was that they wanted to use more three man fronts and Tatupu didn't fit that scheme. Looking at the roster it's not hard to see that being the case. DE Chris Clemons is a smallish 4-3 pass rushing end but guys like Red Bryant, Kentwan Balmer, Alan Branch and Brandon Mebane would all seem to fit as 3-4 defensive ends. The silver lining here for us is that they are not officially going to be a 3-4 club. That means when they line up in a three man front and Clemons is really a linebacker, we will still get his points as a DE. No matter how we spin it, Clemons is the only player in this group that we can count on to be productive. There is one other guy we might want to think about though. Raheem Brock very quietly put up 10 sacks last season. He never started a game and had just 27 tackles but may be worth a last round flier in deeper leagues.

Linebacker

With Tatupu gone, the way is clear for David Hawthorne to take over as the centerpiece of the Seattle defense. We have been waiting for this to happen since Hawthorne replaced an injured Tatupu in 2009 and went 92-23-3 with 5 takeaways in 13 games. He may be flying under the radar at the moment but don't expect the secret to last for long. Hawthorne could very well be a top twelve LB for the next several years... Aaron Curry was a the fourth overall pick in 2009 but has been rather quiet for the first two years of his career. The word out of Seattle is that he will have an expanded role in the defense this season. Exactly what that means is unclear at this point. We can assume that it means he will play on every down, which he has not done in the past. Reading between the lines, it could also mean that he will see some action as a 3-4 OLB. He will still be working on the strong side in the 4-3 package so I don't expect a sudden explosion in the tackle column, but he could be a bigger factor than he has been to date.

Defensive Back

2010 first round pick Earl Thomas didn't have a huge rookie season in fantasy terms but he did supply a big play punch for the Seahawks with 5 interceptions and a forced fumble. Working from the FS position will likely keep his tackle numbers in the 65-70 range as they were last season but his big play production adds enough value to make him a decent DB3 or quality DB4 for us. The sleeper here is SS Kam Chancellor. At 6'3" and 231 pounds he is like having an extra linebacker on the field. In fact, when /if the club lines up in a 3-4 it would be no surprise to see him play a little ILB. The bottom line is that he has the potential to put up big numbers as an in the box SS. The concern at this point is that he may not be playing in all the sub packages. This is still a developing situation but is one that we need to be keeping a close eye on. For now slip Chancellor onto your late round sleeper list and hope for the best.

That does it for part five, NFC South is coming next. Good luck with your drafts this week.

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