Reading the Defense: Offseason Report Vol. 1
By Jene Bramel
July 24th, 2012

Coaching changes, scheme changes, suspensions, major injuries and the draft have changed the landscape considerably since last January. I'll recap the major stories in this first RTD of the 2012 season. Watch for follow-up volumes on fantasy tiers and trends, and analysis of minicamp and training camp developments as the summer progresses.

Key Injuries, Suspensions and Off-Field Developments

Terrell Suggs (partially) tore his Achilles tendon
It's been reported that Suggs only partially tore his Achilles tendon, but the surgical repair makes it difficult for him to guarantee a return this season. Expect him to begin the season on the PUP list and be re-evaluated by midseason. If the Ravens remain in the playoff hunt, Suggs will likely make an effort to play this year. Until then, we'll likely see Paul Kruger see more snaps as a movable pass rusher and rookie Courtney Upshaw could get a chance at every-down duty earlier than expected. This injury isn't necessarily certain to limit Suggs' long-term productivity. Derrick Burgess, Julian Peterson, and Greg Ellis all had double-digit sack seasons after an Achilles injury.

Jonathan Vilma suspended for the 2012 season
The Saints signed Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne in free agency and may have been ready to move on from Vilma anyway after a middling 2011 performance. Vilma has struggled with knee problems in recent seasons, and he was never a physical inside presence in New Orleans. That may limit his 2013 options after he comes off suspension.

Rolando McClain sentenced to 180 days in jail
McClain's IDP value has been a whipsaw since he was drafted in the Top 10 in 2010. Regarded as a top-10 fantasy talent and consensus mid-first-round rookie pick, McClain disappointed as a rookie. Last season, McClain built on a decent second half of his rookie season with solid LB2 numbers when fully healthy and probably would've found a way into the Top 25 on many draft boards this year. A six-month prison sentence which he may not have to serve until next offseason again throws his fantasy value into limbo.

Da'Quan Bowers tore his Achilles tendon
Like Suggs, Bowers tore his Achilles tendon in May and will need his rehab to go smoothly to return to play in 2012. Michael Bennett, who finished last season with 36 solos and four sacks playing about 60% of his team's snaps, will get a chance to play every down this year and should be considered a potential top-25 fantasy defensive end in Bowers' absence.

Defensive Scheme and Coaching Changes

Buffalo hires Dave Wannstedt as defensive coordinator, will transition to 4-3 front
The Bills never had the personnel to effectively run a 3-4 front. They were undersized inside and struggled against the run and didn't have the horses at outside linebacker to generate a consistent pass rush. Enter Dave Wannstedt, a long time disciple of the Jimmy Johnson school of attacking 4-3 Miami defensive front. In most cases, the installation of the Miami 4-3 would put the middle linebacker in position for huge fantasy numbers. Unfortunately, early indications are that Kelvin Sheppard will not have a regular role in subpackages. That will limit his upside and likely make Nick Barnett the team's leading tackler. The addition of defensive ends Mario Williams and Mark Anderson and the expected healthy return of defensive tackle Kyle Williams should help Wannstedt get much more out of the Buffalo defense in 2012.

Miami hires Kevin Coyle as defensive coordinator, will likely play base 4-3 front
Coyle spent the last few seasons under multiple coordinators in Cincinnati, but the bulk of his experience has come with teams running a 4-3 front. Though there may be some hybrid concepts in the playbook, it's expected that the Dolphins will primarily run a 4-3 base defense. Cameron Wake transitions to defensive end, with Karlos Dansby likely playing middle linebacker. Wake's reclassification adds another player to the deeper-than-usual DL1 tiers and Dansby could have his best fantasy season in years.

Indianapolis hires Chuck Pagano as head coach, will transition to a multiple front scheme
The long years of the Tampa 2 are over in Indianapolis. In what will be the most dramatic shift in defensive philosophy this year, Pagano will begin transitioning the Colts from a straightforward, rarely blitzing Cover 2, 4-3 defense to a much more aggressive, hybrid 4-3 / 3-4 base front. Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney will frequently align in a two point stance. Kavell Conner will join Pat Angerer as the team's likely inside linebackers. It's a much better fit for Mathis than Freeney, who the team was unable to move in the offseason. Both Conner and Angerer should find themselves in a target rich environment for fantasy production.

Oakland hires Dennis Allen as head coach, want to transition to a multiple front scheme
Though he wouldn't commit to specifics after his hiring, Allen clearly gave the impression that he wants his defense to be multiple on base downs. The Oakland depth chart, however, which is devoid of standup pass rushing options, suggests that we'll see more 4-3 than 3-4 this year. Rolando McClain's uninspiring play and ongoing on-field issues make handicapping the fantasy prospects of the linebacker group still more difficult. More on that later.

Atlanta hires Mike Nolan as defensive coordinator
Nolan has experience with a variety of defensive fronts and rarely shoehorns his players into roles they are not well suited to play. All indications are that the Falcons will stay primarily with a 4-3 base front, but I expect that Nolan will work to bring his 1-gap hybrid concepts to the playbook in time. The biggest fantasy beneficiary under Nolan will be Sean Weatherspoon, who would play the fantasy friendly weak inside linebacker position when the transition occurs.

New Orleans hires Steve Spagnuolo as defensive coordinator
In most cities, in most years, the transition from one high profile defensive coordinator to another by a team with high Super Bowl hopes would be a frequent discussion point. In New Orleans, where the Saints are dealing with Bountygate, the loss of their head coach, multiple player suspensions and a contract dispute with Drew Brees, Spagnuolo's hire has been something of an afterthought. Spagnuolo should keep the New Orleans defense aggressive, but the Saints will play less 3-4 this year and probably less 3-3-5 on nickel snaps. That should give Will Smith and Cameron Jordan more upside and it could mean a solid season for new middle backer Curtis Lofton. Roman Harper will still see lots of snaps in the box, but his pass rushing opportunity will likely be cut in half.

Tampa Bay hires Greg Schiano as head coach, ending its days as a Tampa-2 team
Like Indianapolis, Tampa Bay will transition away from its long favored Tampa-2 scheme. Unlike Indianapolis, they will remain a 4-3 front. Schiano is also a disciple of the Miami 4-3, and the Bucs will trend toward that gap-attacking philosophy. If Mason Foster greatly improves on his play and holds a role in the nickel package, he could easily top 90 solos. That's not a foregone conclusion with rangy rookies Lavonte David and Mark Barron providing competition for tackles.

Offseason Player Movement

Mario Williams signs with Buffalo
It took the better part of three days and started to take on a Silence of the Lambs feel as the Bills refused to let him leave town, but Williams signed a huge contract to play defensive end in Buffalo. It should be a strong fantasy situation for Williams, who goes back to his preferred left defensive end position and will be surrounded by strong talent with Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus, and Mark Anderson all above-average pass rushers for their position. Though he's disappointed in the past, he deserves consideration as an elite tier defensive end again.

Kamerion Wimbley signs with Tennessee
This will be Wimbley's third position in four seasons after stints as a 3-4 outside linebacker in Cleveland and a swing SLB/DE in Oakland. Dominant at times but inconsistent at others, Wimbley could thrive in an every-down role in a three point stance in an aggressive scheme in Tennessee. Alongside Cameron Wake and Mario Williams, Wimbley joins a deep group of former linebackers turned top fantasy defensive end targets.

Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne sign with New Orleans
The Saints and new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo turned over the linebacker corps this offseason, adding Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne while Jonathan Vilma will be suspended for the entire season. Both Lofton and Hawthorne were top fantasy plays as inside linebackers last year. Both were practicing in the nickel packages during early OTAs, but the competition for tackles has me tempering expectations for now. I'm cautiously projecting Lofton into the elite LB2 with top ten upside tier; Hawthorne looks like an inconsistent LB3 with upside.

DeMeco Ryans traded to Philadelphia
Don't believe the "Ryans was a poor fit as a 3-4 inside linebacker" argument or the spin that Bradie James is a better fit for the Texans' scheme. Ryans is still a talented linebacker. His issue has been durability. Knee, ankle, Achilles and elbow injuries have limited him over the last three seasons and were likely just as much to blame for his limited snap counts and inconsistent play. The move to Philadelphia, where Ryans will again be an every-down middle linebacker in an aggressive 4-3 front, could result in a renaissance of sorts for his career. The durability questions remain, but the upside is back.

Barrett Ruud signs with Seattle
There was no question that Colin McCarthy had played well enough to be considered the anchor of the Tennessee front seven by the end of 2011. But McCarthy got the opportunity after multiple nagging injuries halted an already slower-than-in-his-prime Ruud. Though Ruud has a history with Seattle defensive coordinator Gus Bradley from their days in Tampa Bay, it was surprising to see him get picked up much earlier this offseason than last. In reality, his signing was likely a hedge in case Seattle wasn't able to find a linebacker prospect they liked in the first or second round. With Bobby Wagner already stiff competition during OTAs, it's unlikely that Ruud will have any fantasy impact this year.

Dan Connor signs with Dallas
Connor is an underrated run defender and should be an upgrade on Bradie James as the base strong inside linebacker in Dallas. But this signing says as much about what the Cowboys think they have in Sean Lee and Bruce Carter as it does about Connor. It's reasonable to conclude that Dallas wasn't certain that Carter could hold up on base defensive downs and/or play the run effectively. It's also reasonable, and perhaps still more likely, that they like Lee so much as weak inside linebacker that they'd rather not shift him to strong inside linebacker to make room for Carter, whose best fit would be at weak inside linebacker.

Keith Rivers traded to New York Giants
Like DeMeco Ryans, a change of scenery for Rivers a linebacker with durability questions and inconsistent on-field play could be what's needed to spur a rebirth in his fantasy value. But, even though there have been rumblings that the Giants might consider Rivers at middle linebacker, I'm much more skeptical of Rivers' upside. I don't believe Rivers will play inside on base downs and I'm not convinced that he'll have a steady role in subpackages. If he does, he'll have top-20 upside. If not, he'll remain a marginal matchup LB5.

LaRon Landry, Yeremiah Bell sign with New York Jets
After grabbing Landry early in the free agent period, the Jets added Bell in May in an overhaul of the safety position. Though both may not be the players they were at their peak, both bring the ball-hawking, physical mentality that's become a hallmark of Ryan defenses over the decades. It's expected that Landry will play more of a cover safety role with Bell more often in run support. But I suspect we'll see lots of interchangeable alignments. That's sure to frustrate fantasy owners left to deal with the inevitable week-to-week unpredictability and variance that will result.

NFL Draft Storylines

Luke Kuechly may begin career at outside linebacker
As I suggested in the combined draft board feature earlier this month, Kuechly should be the only IDP you consider among the top 15 picks in your rookie draft. But his path to top-25 fantasy numbers isn't assured. In the long term, he'll be the every-down middle linebacker in Carolina. But entering OTAs and camp, it appears that Carolina possibly to appease Jon Beason, who wants to remain inside will start Kuechly at weak side linebacker. Scouts compared Kuechly's instincts and versatility to Brian Urlacher this winter. It looks like their career paths will be similar as well; Urlacher wasn't moved inside until partway through his rookie season either.

2012 could produce a deep class of fantasy linebackers
Luke Kuechly may be the consensus top fantasy linebacker in the 2012 class now, but he'll have competition in the longer term. Bobby Wagner will get a chance to win the every-down middle linebacker job immediately in Seattle. Lavonte David should be an immediate every-down starter at weakside linebacker in Tampa Bay. Mychal Kendricks is arguably as talented as any inside linebacker prospect in the draft and has already been installed as Philadelphia's every-down strongside linebacker in their first set of OTAs. Zach Brown should soon be Tennessee's every-down weakside linebacker. James-Michael Johnson could be an every-down weakside linebacker in Cleveland sometime this season. Demario Davis will get a chance to play every-down inside linebacker with the Jets by opening weekend 2013. Dont'a Hightower could supplant Brandon Spikes at MLB/ILB in time in New England. Sean Spence, Keenan Robinson, and Audie Cole could also work their way up depth charts in the next two to three seasons. Kendricks and Davis particularly have my attention as potential top LB2 or better options in the longer term.

Is Andre Branch this year's Jabaal Sheard?
Rookie 4-3 defensive ends, especially those without first round edge rushing talent, rarely hold fantasy value in their first season. Sheard was an anomaly. Not only did he adjust quickly to the speed and strength on NFL offensive tackles, he took the fourth-most snaps among all 4-3 ends last year. I think Branch is a better talent than many scouting reports give him credit, but it's hard to bet that he'll make the same adjustments that Sheard did. If he gets the same opportunity and the shallow Jacksonville depth chart suggests he could he could be more than a matchup DL3.

Mark Barron isn't as talented as Eric Berry, but could have same ceiling
Had his position been deeper in this draft, Barron may not have been considered a top ten selection as Eric Berry, LaRon Landry and other more all-around talented safeties were. But his solid in-the-box talent, the Tampa Bay defensive scheme, questionable linebacker group and the likelihood that he'll see lots of tackle opportunity will give him a chance to have the same fantasy value as Berry and others. I wouldn't reach for him in drafts, but I suspect his redraft ADP will be low enough that you can get his DB1 upside for a DB2 price this year.

Don't sleep on Brandon Taylor
I jumped Taylor up a full tier and increased his draft grade more than a round in my first update to my draft board, but I may still be too low on him. Harrison Smith will likely be the consensus rookie DB2, but Taylor arguably has better all-around talent and could start the season as an every-down player in San Diego. If he does earn full time snaps, I'll cement him in my DB3 with every week upside tier and he could go higher from there.

Thanks for reading. Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome at bramel@footballguys.com. Also, make sure you're following me on Twitter (@JeneBramel) for the latest defensive news, notes and analysis.

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