Eyes of the Guru (NFC South)
By John Norton
August 23rd, 2011

Continuing through the NFC.

Atlanta Falcons

Defensive line

There are a lot of people who ascribe to the theory that Ray Edwards' big 2009 and solid 2010 seasons were a direct result of his playing opposite Jared Allen. I am not going to argue that point either way but will only point out that John Abraham is hardly a big step down from Allen. Abraham has fallen a little short of the 40 tackle mark every year since 2005 but he has 45.5 sacks over the past four seasons. He is 33 years old but has thus far shown no signs of slowing down. Like Allen, Abraham is the kind of player that offenses must game plan for. As such, he will command a lot of attention, which should mean that Edwards will continue to see the same kinds of situations that helped him to prosper in Minnesota. Anytime there is change with a player's situation, there is some risk that comes along with it. Edwards had a big 2009 season with 44 tackles and nine sacks. He was banged up much of last year and finished with 28 tackles and 8 sacks. The Falcons are counting on him to provide a strong bookend to Abraham. If he stays healthy Edwards should have a pretty good year. Consider Abraham a second tier DE1 and Edwards a strong DL3 with DL2 upside... After going 37-10-6 and finishing among the top 10 interior linemen in 2009, Jonathan Babineaux dropped off sharply last season. In fact the 19 solo stops were the lowest total of his six pro seasons. He still managed 4 sacks and 4 takeaways though. Between '07 and '09 he averaged about 37 tackles, four sacks and three takeaways. I expect Babineaux to have a bounce back season and return to the top twelve.

Linebacker

After totaling 105 solo stops in 2009, Curtis Lofton saw about a 10% drop in tackle production last season. He also saw a considerable improvement in the big play columns that more than made up for it. 92-25-2 with three forced fumbles and an interception was enough to land Lofton among the top fifteen linebackers for the second consecutive season. He is one of the outstanding young linebackers in the game and should make it three in a row in 2011. Sean Weatherspoon is a player we need to consider in later rounds. In three starts at the beginning of last season he recorded 22 solo stops and a sack. That pace would have given him 117 tackles had he been able to sustain it. Instead he was injured in week four. Weatherspoon returned to action late in the season but was clearly not 100% at that point. The Falcons play right and left rather than strong and weak outside linebackers. Weatherspoon works on the right which is most commonly the strong side. He does however, remain on the field in nickel sub packages. I don't see him being a 100+ tackle guy but he could very well be an 80+ guy will a handful of big plays. Pick him up as depth but he could end up being an every week play for you.

Defensive Back

William Moore replaced Eric Coleman as the starting SS in week three last season. In thirteen starts he totaled a very respectable 59 tackles, 5 picks a forced and a recovered fumble. He may not be as strong in run support as Coleman was but he gives the Falcons a serious big play threat. What I like best about Moore is that he is somehow flying under the radar in most leagues. In our FBG staff IDP league Aaron snaked me on him all the way down at pick 22.07. I was taking him as my 3rd DB with my next pick and was heartbroken to say the least... The other guy in the Falcons secondary that will likely have some value is corner Brent Grimes. In 2010 he put up career highs in tackles with 76 and passes defended with 23. Grimes also contributed 5 interceptions on his way to a top five finish among corners. What concerns me a little about him is that corners in general can prove to be inconsistent from year to year and are often one year wonders. What is encouraging about Grimes is that while last year was the most productive of his career, he put up a respectable 62 tackles in '09 with 13 passes defended and six picks. So even is his numbers fall off a bit from last year, Grimes should still be a solid play in corner required leagues.

Carolina Panthers

Defensive line

The Panthers obviously believe in Charles Johnson heading into last season. Enough so, that they were willing to part ways with Julius Peppers. Johnson proved that their faith was well placed by exploding for 50 tackles and 10.5 sacks. What amazes me is that he neither forced nor recovered a single fumble. I have no doubt that his big numbers were no fluke and so, have to also believe that the fumble numbers will soon catch up. I have Johnson on the lower side of the elite fantasy ends. Greg Hardy, Everette Brown and Eric Norwood are all in competition for playing time opposite Johnson. Hardy showed great promise last season in a rotation with Brown. Norwood started the first two preseason games and looked OK. He failed to record a sack in either game though. This is a situation we need to keep an eye on. Brown, Hardy, and Tyler Brayton combined to go 61-16-7.5 with four forced fumbles and two recoveries last season, with the vast majority of their playing time coming opposite Johnson. If someone is given the lion's share of the snaps here, they could have pretty good value.

Linebacker

In each of his first three seasons Jon Beason exceeded 100 solo tackles and finished among the top defensive players in the game. Injuries in 2010 caused a shuffle that moved him out of his natural MLB spot and into the WLB role. Beason's numbers slipped but he was far from a bust. Everyone is back now so he will once again work at MLB. He has not yet played in the preseason due to a minor injury but is expected to be ready when it is for real. Barring something unexpected, he should return to the top ten and possibly the top five in 2011. James Anderson had a huge 2010 but don't make the mistake of expecting a repeat. His big season was also a direct result of the injury situation in Carolina. Anderson will remain in the starting lineup at SLB but is unlikely to be an every down player at this point. We know that he can be very productive if given an opportunity so don't overlook Anderson as a late round sleeper. After suffering major injuries in consecutive seasons, Thomas Davis is back. All signs suggest that he will reclaim his every down role as the starting WLB. In 2008 Davis recorded career best numbers with 90+ tackles with 3.5 sacks and 3 takeaways. In 2009 he was on pace to significantly exceed those numbers when he was hurt. The injuries make Davis a serious risk but if he can return to form, he could be a steal at his current ADP. Pick him up as your LB4 but don't be surprised when you can't keep him out of your every week lineup.

Defensive Back

Charles Godfrey is a player who is being overlooked by many owners. He is not a guy to target as a starter, but the 71 tackles and five interceptions he put up last year is enough to garner consideration as depth in a lot of leagues. Surprisingly I am seeing him go undrafted often... For the past couple of years Richard Marshall has been a solid pick in corner required leagues. With Marshall now in Arizona, Captain Munnerlyn steps into the starting role and could put up surprising numbers. In 2010 he worked mostly as the nickel corner. Munnerlyn was just 41-4 in the tackle columns but added three picks and 12 passes defended. Those are hardly impressive numbers unless you take a closer look. He started five of the final six contests. In those games Munnerlyn was 27-2 with two picks and six passes defended. Project those numbers over a full season and Munnerlyn is a top ten corner with 86 tackles, six picks and 19 PDs.

New Orleans Saints

Defensive Line

The Saints like to put a lot of pressure on the QB. In 2009 they accomplished that with Will Smith's career best 13.5 sacks being a big part of the reason. The New Orleans pass rush took a big step back last season and so did Smith. He finished with his lowest tackle total (34) since 2006 and the second lowest sack total (5.5) of his career. Add in the likelihood that he will serve a four game suspension at the beginning of the season, and you have a guy who will be available late in your draft. Smith is looking good in preseason action and has a ton of potential. When he returns in week five Smith will be healthy and have fresh legs. He will be there for us down the stretch when we need him. Cameron Jordan was the 24th overall pick in this year's draft. He was not known as a stellar pass rusher in college but is a player that the Saints see as a quality every down end. At 6'4" and 287, he has the ability to play the run tough and is above average as a pass rusher. Alex Brown is currently listed as the starter opposite Smith but showed very little in that role last season. Jordan will get a four game audition while Smith serves his suspension. Once Smith returns it may very well be he and Jordan the rest of the way. There is a lot of risk with the rookie when it comes to redraft leagues but dynasty owners will want him on their radar... Owners in tackle required leagues will want to have both Sedrick Ellis and Shaun Rogers somewhere on their draft list. Ellis totaled only 30 tackles a year ago but contributed 6 sacks as well. The addition Rogers and Aubrayo Franklin could serve to take a lot of pressure off Ellis who will likely see fewer double teams. Rogers has been quiet for the past couple of seasons but was the fantasy game's #1 DT in 2008 when he piled up 62 tackles and 4 sacks as the nose tackle in the Browns 3-4. Ellis would be the top prospect here but Rogers may be worthy as a last round flier.

Linebacker

There are some fantasy prognosticators who don't think much of Jonathan Vilma. When they talk about him I sometimes wonder if they are watching the same game film that I am. He may not be Ray Lewis but Vilma is a very good, smart player and a leader. He is also a dependable fantasy option. His tackle numbers were down a little last season as he played through some nagging injuries, but his four sacks and four takeaways helped make up for it. Vilma averaged 92 solo stops over his first two seasons with the Saints. I expect he will rebound this year with numbers in the mid 80s or better. You can probably get him as your third LB but he may well finish among the top 20 for the third time in four years. There are several players in contention for the OLB positions in New Orleans. There are five or six players in contention for the OLB jobs in New Orleans. Jonathan Casillas seems to be the front runner for the WLB job at this point. He may be worth a late flier in deep drafted leagues but most of us should avoid this mess completely until someone stands out.

Defensive Back

Over the past four years Roman Harper has been one of the most consistent and dependable safeties in the game. He has at least 75 solo stops in each of those seasons, with three top ten finishes. Harper missed a game in 2010 and finished with 76 tackles, but his 11 big plays helped him to land as the number four safety. He should be good for about 80 tackles and 5-7 big plays and another top ten ranking in 2011. Malcolm Jenkins is a very interesting player. His 2010 total of 54 solo tackles doesn't draw a lot of attention but this is a guy we need to take a closer look at. He contributed five takeaways, a sack and 12 passes defended to go with the tackles but most importantly, he was on pace for much better tackle numbers prior to the return of Darren Sharper. In game that Sharper missed, Jenkins averaged about five tackles a game, defended 10 passes, had five takeaways and a sack. He reached double digit fantasy point in seven of the ten games in which Sharper did not have a significant role. Slip Jenkins onto you late round sleeper list and give him a shot as your DB4. It could pay off... Owners in corner required leagues will want to consider Tracy Porter as your top backup. Porter battled injuries early last season and missed four games. Over the final seven contests he was on pace for 71 solo tackles. In 2009 Porter recorded six takeaways and 12 passes defended.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Defensive line

For the past few years Tampa Bay has been searching for a pass rush. This year they scrapped the idea of looking in free agency, spending first and second round picks on Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers respectively. The club is counting on this pair of top prospects to turn the team's fortunes. In two preseason games the pair has been relatively quiet. Rookie ends rarely excel in fantasy terms so counting on either of these guys as a starter would probably be a mistake. As depth in redraft leagues or long term prospects for dynasty owners however, both players are worthy of strong consideration. I see the Bucs as an up and coming young defense and believe Clayborn and Bowers will become an excellent tandem for years to come. DT Gerald McCoy was the team's first round pick in 2010. He fell well short of expectations as a rookie even before finishing the season on IR. That said, McCoy still has a lot of upside and could be worth a shot as depth in tackle required leagues.

Linebacker

In the long run rookie MLB Mason Foster will likely be the player to have here. The Bucs third round pick was immediately installed as the starter and will be allowed to grow with this very youthful unit. Like their new defensive ends, I believe Foster will have strong fantasy value down the road. For this season however, it appears that he will be a two down player seeing action only on early downs. Redraft owners will want to target Geno Hayes as the top option of this group. Hayes will line up at WLB and pair with SLB Quincy Black in the all important nickel sub packages. Hayes was a two down player much of last season when Black paired with Barrett Ruud in the nickel packages. His numbers leapt up late in the year when Black was hurt and He joined Ruud as an every down player. Hayes finished the season with a modest 73 solo stops but it is important to mention that he was 18-3 with three sacks over the final three games. Black had some nice games last year as well, but as is usually the case with strong side linebackers, the nature of the position caused him to be a bit inconsistent. In the eleven games he played Black put up five or more solo stops seven times. In the other four he totaled two or fewer. Unless you are in a deep drafted league neither Hayes nor Black should be considered starters but both players should provide quality bye week depth.

Defensive Back

When Sean Jones was with the Browns earlier in his career, he was a strong option for us. Over the past three seasons, not so much. Jones hasn't totaled more than 55 solo stops since 2007, and has just 3 picks over the past two seasons. He has the potential to put up good numbers again and is a player to watch early in the season, but is not worthy of a draft pick in most leagues. Like Jones, Cody Grimm is a guy we should keep an eye on once the season starts. Grimm moved into the starting lineup for about half of last season before getting hurt. Over a nine game stretch he averaged about 4.5 tackles with a couple of picks and a forced fumble. He is currently the starting FS for the Bucs and could be worthy picking up once the war of attrition starts taking a toll on your roster... In 2009 Aqib Talib played fifteen games and finished as the #14 corner. He was on pace for similar production last season before being injured and missing five games. It looks as if his legal problems will not be an issue during this football season, so don't hesitate to grab Talib as your second corner. Ronde Barber may be 36 years old but the guy still has game. He has exceeded 60 solo tackles in eight of the last nine seasons, including the past three, and has been a top twenty corner every season since 2007. He was the number eighteen corner last season and will make a very solid CB2 again in 2011.

On to the NFC North!

© 2011 Footballguys - All Rights Reserved