Reading the Defense: Offseason Report Vol. 2
By Jene Bramel
August 27th, 2012

From the Gut / Assessing ADP Values

In the Perfect Draft feature earlier this week, I highlighted a number of players I thought represented good value against their current industry consensus rankings and MFL ADP. Many of you have asked why I'm relatively higher on those players and wanted to know which players I think may be overvalued using the same measures.

Here are the players I feel most strongly about in one direction or the other. I'll compare my ranking and tier judgments to the Expert Consensus Ranking at FantasyPros as of August 23 (ECR) and ADP data from MyFantasyLeague drafts since August 1 (MFL).

Defensive Line / Undervalued

Cameron Wake (ECR DL 18 / MFL DL 13)
Wake had one of the more underrated seasons in the league last year. His sack count fell from 14 sacks in 2010 to 8.5 last season, but he racked up an additional 20 quarterback hits and 52 quarterback pressures according to ProFootballFocus. Those 2011 pure pressure numbers are better per snap than his more "productive" 2010 season. And Wake isn't new to playing with his hand down. His entry into the NFL three seasons ago was paved by his success as a defensive end in the CFL. He's also shown that he can play the run effectively. I have Wake ranked as my DL7, just outside the Elite DE1 tier alongside more established names like Julius Peppers and Justin Tuck.

Robert Quinn (ECR DL 27 / MFL DL 25+)
It's extremely rare for a rookie defensive end regardless of pedigree to put up consistent fantasy starter quality numbers as a rookie. Jabaal Sheard is the exception rather than the rule. Highly touted rookies who've been drafted highly often see less hype if they don't hit their ceiling projection in their rookie season. I don't think the consensus rankings for Quinn are out of line; the DL2 tiers are very deep this year. But I think Quinn has an excellent chance at cracking the top 20 with the added snaps he'll get as a starter this year. I doubt he'll defend the run well enough to breakout as violently as Jason Pierre-Paul did last year, but he's a safer DL2 than the consensus ranking would suggest. He slots into my DL2 w/ Top 12 Upside tier at DL19 on my rank list.

Adrian Clayborn (ECR DL 25 / MFL DL 25+)
The same fears that have suppressed Quinn's further ascent up the rankings are holding Clayborn's stock down. I don't think Clayborn has the same pass rush ceiling that Quinn has, but I think Clayborn can grow into a better run support end. He's right behind Quinn in the same tier and ranks DL20 on my list.

Chandler Jones (ECR DL 37 / MFL DL 25+)
Judging Jones by his current ADP and consensus is difficult. His star has rapidly risen in camp. We've finally seen how Bill Belichick plans to use him and there are indications that Jones could see 700 snaps or more. I wasn't high on Jones in the pre-draft process and continued to temper my expectations after the draft. But another look at his college tape, a clearer understanding of his usage and his solid preseason play have changed my tune. He's my DL25 and now slots toward the end of my very deep Elite DL2 with Top 12 Upside tier.

Defensive Line / Overvalued

Charles Johnson (ECR DL 8 / MFL DL 16)
I have Johnson ranked as my DL22, near the bottom of my Elite DL2 w/ Top 12 Upside tier. I still like Johnson as a player, but I don't see elite upside this year. The Panthers continue to show 3-4 and 4-3 Under looks with Johnson in a two point stance as an Elephant rusher. I've yet to see the explosion he'll need to gain the edge consistently with his hand up and he could struggle to play the run as effectively as he has in the past. Add in the durability issues over the past two seasons and I'd rather have many of the other options in that tier.

Linebacker / Undervalued

Daryl Washington (ECR LB6 / MFL LB9)
I think Washington could be the top overall fantasy linebacker this year. He's one of the best all-around linebackers in the league and gets a well above-average number of pass rush opportunities for an ILB. The Cardinals did little to improve their back seven and increase his competition for tackles and their offense isn't any better either. A talented all-around player with pass rush and coverage upside who's likely to see higher than average tackle opportunity with a so-so supporting cast? He's my LB1a alongside D'Qwell Jackson.

Colin McCarthy (ECR LB 11 / MFL LB 10)
McCarthy, in eight games as the starting MLB last year, finished just outside the top five in balanced scoring systems last year. He had 50 solo tackles and finished with less than five solos in only one game (at notoriously assist-happy Indianapolis). He showed he was capable in coverage. The elite LB1 tier is thick with prospects that don't clearly differentiate themselves, but McCarthy belongs closer to the top than the bottom of that tier. He's my LB3 overall.

Brian Cushing (ECR LB13 / MFL LB14)
Cushing finished the season ranked in the mid-teens last season despite putting up just 76 solos and four sacks. In many seasons, those numbers wouldn't get you in the top 20. With DeMeco Ryans gone to Philadelphia and Bradie James taking over at the other ILB position, there's a subtle but very important change in role for Cushing. He'll move from the strong inside linebacker position to the weak inside linebacker position. Cushing struggled with shedding blocks and diagnosing plays last year. This year, he should be able to flow to the ball more easily in his new role a position that has made 100 solo tacklers of Donnie Edwards, Keith Brooking, Ray Lewis, D.J. Williams, Patrick Willis and many others over the past decade. I have Cushing as my LB7, but that might be low. If he can stay healthy, he's has top three potential this year.

Donald Butler (ECR LB26 / MFL LB29)
I haven't been able to get Butler outside the top 15 in the recent industry drafts in which I've participated. But I still think people are dragging their feet on giving Butler a high enough ranking. Maybe the injury that cut his rookie season short and watching him leave the field in subpackages for Na'il Diggs last year is tempering expectations for many. But those concerns are behind us. Butler is clearly the centerpiece of the San Diego defense now and we've seen how productive he's been as a base defensive player. Many of the same arguments that apply to Washington and Cushing apply to Butler. Like Curtis Lofton and Washington before him, Butler will now be a perennial top ten fantasy linebacker now that he's secured an every-down role. He's my LB9 and that could be considered his 2012 floor.

Linebacker / Overvalued

NaVorro Bowman (ECR LB5 / MFL LB4)
I love Bowman's on-field play and argued strongly that he was no fluke after his improved play last preseason and strong Week 1 performance. But, while it's not uncommon to see two inside linebackers put up big numbers in a 3-4 front, Bowman's 110 solo (141 total) tackle performance is his absolute ceiling and very unlikely to be repeated. It's also worth noting that the San Francisco defensive line was tremendously effective last season and the front three played nearly every base defensive down. Should there be an injury, Bowman will feel the ripple effect. I think Bowman can still put up 90+ solos, but I'd feel much better with him as my LB2. He's my LB12, a couple of slots inside my Near Elite LB1 tier.

Defensive Back / Punt

I'd love to bang on the table for this year's undervalued safety with top five upside. It seems like that at least one has declared himself by mid-summer for the past 5-6 seasons, including players like Yeremiah Bell, Tyvon Branch, Donte Whitner, LaRon Landry, George Wilson or Kam Chancellor. It's a great way to counter the argument that the defensive back position is little more than a crapshoot and entirely unpredictable.

But I still don't see one this year. Look around the league. Despite the changing landscape that has more and more offenses running multiple formations and spread sets on any down, the safety position is uglier than ever. There continue to be fewer elite run support safeties and even fewer all-around talents capable of 80 solos and a handful of coverage plays. That makes it hard to call any of the defensive backs clearly undervalued or overvalued.

I'm still watching in no particular order Taylor Mays, Quinton Carter, Danieal Manning, Tom Zbikowski, Chris Clemons, Brandon Taylor, Jordan Babineaux, Robert Johnson, Barry Church, Kurt Coleman, Craig Dahl, Darian Stewart and more in the hopes that one will stand out after the third or fourth preseason week. For now, I'm targeting Earl Thomas as my DB2 if I can't get two elite players and planning to move quickly on one or more of the above early in the regular season.

Preseason Notes

Here are some quick hitters on some things that caught my eye during the first couple of preseason weeks. Make sure that you are checking out our weekly podcast and my Twitter feed for all the latest news, notes and analysis.

Kelvin Sheppard, Akeem Dent, and Jasper Brinkley have been hyped as possible LB3 options in recent weeks. None are seeing subpackage snaps, however, and will be very high variance lineup options until that changes.

Rey Maualuga has been playing every down in Cincinnati but his inconsistent play over the past three seasons may have the team looking elsewhere when Maualuga's rookie contract expires this offseason. Vontaze Burfict looked terrible on film and at the combine before the draft but has impressed enough to earn snaps with the first team base and nickel defenses when Maualuga missed time with injury.

Quinton Carter has missed time this preseason with a hamstring injury but the depth chart remains thin enough for him to earn lots of snaps once healthy. His upside should be limited with the strong group of linebackers playing in front of him, however. Derek Wolfe has gone from rotational 3-technique on passing downs to base LDE and 3-tech passing specialist with the season-ending injury to Jason Hunter. He could surprise and put up better numbers than Chandler Jones or Andre Branch if he continues his strong play.

The injury to Pat Angerer will give the Colts an extended look at CFL signee Jerrell Freeman, who had already been replacing Kavell Conner in nickel packages before Angerer's injury. Freeman was very inconsistent in the second preseason game, but has some coverage skill and will have good opportunity. He's a LB4 flyer that warrants close observation in the early weeks.

The Patriots are using more 1-gap fronts than they have in years. Some have Chandler Jones as a true 4-3 DE, others have him as a stand up Elephant rushers. In short, Bill Belichick wants to use him as he did Willie McGinest years ago. Dont'a Hightower has been playing SLB, but only in a part time role.

There is also more 4-3 in New York, with Rex Ryan finding ways to get Muhammad Wilkerson and Quinton Coples in a position to succeed. Neither end has significant upside, but both could threaten a 40+ solo, 6 sack stat line.

The lone safety outside the top 15 I'd been recommending this summer Jordan Babineaux seems to be in a fight for his job with second year player Robert Johnson. Babineaux has never been an elite talent, but seemed to have the favor of the coaches. A shoulder injury and some flashes of great play from Johnson has them in an unexpectedly tight camp battle.

Bruce Carter, as expected, has been a mainstay of the Dallas subpackages this preseason. Unexpectedly, he's held off Dan Connor for first team base snaps as well. Carter hasn't looked as fluid or instinctive as his college tape showed and he's likely to have trouble shedding blocks on the strong side of the 3-4 formation. His development will be worth watching.

At first blush, the news that Charles Woodson would see safety snaps this year seemed innocuous. He's played safety in many of Dom Capers' alignments and it was expected that Woodson would still see lots of snaps at cornerback. The Packers seem to be very much hoping that a corner steps up to play Tramon Williams, though, as Woodson has been almost exclusively a safety during the preseason.

I'll believe that the Saints will leave Barrett Ruud in the middle and slide Curtis Lofton outside to the strong side linebacker position when I see it. Ruud isn't the same player he once was and the Saints signed Lofton to anchor the middle of their run defense.

I've been disappointed in the aggressiveness and range DeMeco Ryans has showed in Philadelphia thus far in the preseason. He could be playing possum or still working to learn the scheme, but it's a red flag for his upside this year. Mychal Kendricks has been impressive on the strong side and, surprisingly, has stuck in the nickel packages with Jamar Chaney sitting out with injury. Chaney returned in the third preseason game, but Kendricks continued to see nickel snaps.

Bobby Wagner hasn't jumped off the screen with his play this preseason, but he's around the ball. His fantasy value will be limited because he won't play in Seattle's nickel packages, but his long term value is still strong.

Lavonte David had been sitting in nickel packages for much of the preseason. Arguably the best cover linebacker on the roster, it was only a matter of time before David earned an every-down role. That happened in the third preseason game. Mason Foster missed the game with a minor injury, but it appears that David and Foster will be the every-down backers.

Please ask questions or send comments to me by email at bramel@footballguys.com or on Twitter at @JeneBramel.

© 2012 Footballguys - All Rights Reserved