Reading the Defense - Week 16
by Jene Bramel
December 20th, 2012

Hopefully most of you are preparing for your fantasy championship this week. There were some unknowns who put up strong fantasy numbers last week. With luck, your only lineup decisions revolve around which matchups look the best for your roster of stud options, but I'll take a look at a few of those unknowns in the Stunts section for those in a bind and wondering where lightning may strike twice this week.

Early 2013 Tier Discussion

Rather than split the end-of-the-year tier discussion into two weeks, I've decided to make this week's column one long tier discussion for easy reference. We'll be updating and discussing this list in our IDP Forum next month and throughout the offseason, so make sure you're checking in for that and all the offseason discussion on coaching and scheme changes, free agency and the draft.

My offseason tiers aren't quite as extensive as my regular season effort for two reasons. First, it's important to focus on only those players with lineup value or the upside to have above replacement level lineup value. If a player doesn't make the offseason tier lists, it's because I expect him to continue to be no more than a marginal matchup option or of such limited future upside that he's unlikely to become more than a marginal matchup option. Players will come and go on these lists through next summer but the earliest offseason tiers consist only of those players I'd look for a reason to hold (or acquire in deeper leagues) rather than cut. If you've read my columns for any length of time, you know to expect the linebacker list will be longer than the defensive line list and that the defensive back list will be extremely short.

We'll go position by position, with a short discussion after each tier break.

This offseason is going to be more fun than any I can remember. The defensive line tiers are full of interesting names marred by inconsistency and uncertainty. The linebacker tiers are peppered with players returning from serious injury and young players who could further improve or regress and bust. And the defensive backs are, well, defensive backs.

I think there will be less of a consensus in 2013 than there's been in years. Buckle up.

Defensive Line

Super Elite DL1

  • J.J. Watt
  • Elite DL1

  • Jared Allen
  • Jason Pierre-Paul
  • Mario Williams
  • Terrell Suggs
  • Cameron Wake
  • Watt is probably in a tier by himself. But there will be some regression next year. With two games to play, he's already topped 60 solos and has a legitimate shot at 40 tackles for loss and 20+ sacks. And there are only seven defensive backs who have bettered his 15 passes defensed. I'm not worried about the 3-4 defense limiting his production, but offensive line coaches will throw the playbook at him next year.

    Allen's upper body fitness has been limited by a shoulder injury, but he's pressuring the pocket frequently enough to expect his numbers to be as good or better next year. Pierre-Paul and Suggs have earned the benefit of the doubt from me and I like what Williams has done in the second half of the year. Wake has been what I expected and carries the highest total sack-hit-hurry count (82) on ProFootballFocus 17 more instances than Watt on 51 fewer pass rush snaps.

    But it's also fair to ask whether we truly trust any of these names to be worthy of their likely draft position last year. I would think those who drafted Pierre-Paul, Allen or Trent Cole highly this year will be especially wary.

    Elite DL2 with Top 15 Upside

  • Elvis Dumervil
  • Calais Campbell
  • Chris Clemons
  • Julius Peppers
  • Carlos Dunlap
  • Chandler Jones
  • Greg Hardy
  • Charles Johnson
  • Brandon Graham
  • Justin Smith
  • Here's where things get murky. I argued before the season that the defensive line tiers were deeper than they'd been in years. And I think that proved true. Eighteen defensive ends begin Week 16 with seven or more sacks. Unfortunately, there was no consistency in the Upside DL2 tier. The players in the group to start the year have been as likely to drop a zero in your lineup regardless of how favorable the matchup was as carry you with a monster week.

    And that's going to make the tier discussions this offseason extremely interesting. How much value should we place on players that have been productive in the past? Who bounces back? Where do you slot the inconsistent, but extremely high upside talents? Which of the up-and-coming talents should you reach for early?

    For now, the players listed above are the players I'd look for a reason to hold rather than move. But an offseason of further film study, coach and player movement and the ripple effect of the draft will shuffle this group significantly by August 2013. If you get a reasonable offer for any of them, take it and move on.

    DL2 with Top 20 Upside

  • Michael Johnson
  • Adrian Clayborn
  • Cameron Jordan
  • Trent Cole
  • Robert Quinn
  • Cliff Avril
  • Michael Bennett
  • John Abraham
  • Chris Long
  • Jabaal Sheard
  • Jeremy Mincey
  • Bruce Irvin
  • Derrick Morgan
  • Muhammad Wilkerson
  • Kamerion Wimbley
  • Osi Umenyiora
  • I warned in the introduction that my offseason tiers are gray. Well, the further we get into the prospective tiers at this position, the darker the shade of gray becomes. This group is essentially a list of players I would not cut this offseason. For now, I'm leaving names like Justin Tuck, Jason Babin, Matt Shaughnessy, Brian Robison, Will Smith and a handful of others who worry me off the list. If you approach your defensive line roster more conservatively, you may feel differently.

    DT1 with DL3 Upside

  • Geno Atkins (DL2+)
  • Haloti Ngata
  • Fletcher Cox
  • Gerald McCoy
  • Nick Fairley
  • Ndamukong Suh
  • Atkins would slot somewhere in the Top 20 upside tier. He's the most well-rounded defensive tackle and dominant interior pass rusher we've seen in years. Relative newbies to the IDP world may hold Atkins' name in as high regard as we veterans do Wayne Martin and La'Roi Glover.

    Tier Jumpers

  • Da'Quan Bowers
  • Paul Kruger
  • Vinny Curry
  • Kroy Biermann
  • Quinton Coples
  • Olivier Vernon
  • Corey Wootton
  • Shea McClellin
  • Andre Branch
  • Michael Brockers
  • Dynasty owners in deeper leagues will want to hold onto this group until the offseason better defines their roles and snap counts.

    Linebacker

    Elite LB1

  • Daryl Washington
  • Derrick Johnson
  • James Laurinaitis
  • Sean Lee
  • I'd like to see more big play production from Laurinaitis, but these four are trustworthy, matchup-immune talents. If you're taking a linebacker early or trying to trade for a lineup anchor this offseason, they should be your first targets.

    There hasn't been an inside linebacker like Washington for a long time. But the Cardinals' coaching staff is going to turn over this offseason. When Ray Horton goes, so might Washington's well above-average blitz opportunities. Expect some discussion on Lee's durability, Johnson's age, and Laurinaitis' lack of big plays this offseason, but these four are currently the most trustworthy, matchup-immune talents on the board.

    Near Elite LB1

  • Luke Kuechly
  • NaVorro Bowman
  • Patrick Willis
  • Bobby Wagner
  • Colin McCarthy
  • Desmond Bishop
  • Brian Cushing
  • Lavonte David
  • Chad Greenway
  • D'Qwell Jackson
  • Paul Posluszny
  • Donald Butler
  • Ray Lewis
  • Jerod Mayo
  • Lawrence Timmons
  • Sean Weatherspoon
  • This is the group that will drive most of the offseason discussion. What should we expect from McCarthy, Bishop, Cushing, Butler, Jackson and Lewis next year? Can Kuechly, Wagner and David get better or will they regress?

    For now, I think the injured players deserve our patience. I tend to stay stubborn on my initial read on a player's talent until the situation or on-field play force a re-evaluation of their value. McCarthy, Bishop and Cushing will stay in this range (or higher) unless there's an unexpected offseason development. Kuechly and Wagner look extremely comfortable in their every-down linebacker roles and both have room to improve. Both may quickly move into the elite tier this summer.

    David and Mayo and Jackson and Timmons and Weatherspoon and Bowman are tougher calls for me. I want to break down their play a little more closely this offseason before committing to them in a higher tier or relative ranking within this tier.

    Risk-Reward LB2

  • Von Miller
  • Jerrell Freeman
  • Aldon Smith
  • Miller and Smith were two of the three rush linebackers I pushed as stable LB3+ targets this offseason DeMarcus Ware was the other and I think they've earned their position in this tier for years to come. It seems that the Colts want to keep Freeman in an every-down role, but there are two major concerns keeping him from the deep tier above. First, there's no guarantee he remains in his current role with Pat Angerer likely to return to full health this offseason. Second, his home stat keeper makes Freeman a worrisome LB2 eight games a year.

    LB3 with Top 25 Upside

  • Curtis Lofton
  • Zach Brown
  • Vontaze Burfict
  • Karlos Dansby
  • Wes Woodyard
  • Phillip Wheeler
  • Lance Briggs
  • DeMeco Ryans
  • London Fletcher
  • Stephen Tulloch
  • Nick Barnett
  • Perry Riley
  • Thomas Davis
  • Bruce Carter
  • Brian Urlacher
  • There will be lots of flux in this tier, too. Like the comparable defensive line tier, this is my list of players that I'd err on the side of holding. I consider this players safe every-week LB3 talents or players with LB2+ potential in good matchups.

    Tier Jumpers

  • Mason Foster
  • Dont'a Hightower
  • Pat Angerer
  • Jon Beason
  • D.J. Williams
  • Demario Davis
  • James-Michael Johnson
  • Mychal Kendricks
  • Akeem Dent
  • Kelvin Sheppard
  • I'm really hoping to push Foster, Hightower and Davis up the rankings if and when they earn a bigger role in their defense. The last four names on the list have a chance at a bigger role, as well, but are less certain to earn them.

    Defensive Back

    Again, the short list of names here is not a cop-out. It's a calculated strategy based on the turnover at the position and the relatively few number of players you can trust to put up top 20 numbers in most weeks. Spread offenses, specialized subpackage linebackers and the sheer number of defensive backs seeing 30-40 snaps per game continue to stretch the Bell curve at this position to the limit.

    Hold one or two players on this list through the offseason to anchor your 2013 roster, but don't hesitate to use them as trade chips or dump them for a high upside target at an offensive position.

    Worth Holding

  • Bernard Pollard
  • William Moore
  • Eric Berry
  • Roman Harper
  • Tyvon Branch
  • Mark Barron
  • Morgan Burnett
  • Troy Polamalu
  • Harrison Smith
  • LaRon Landry
  • Kam Chancellor
  • Cortland Finnegan
  • Charles Tillman
  • Don't cut the deep group of solid DB2 types (Eric Weddle, Dawan Landry, T.J. Ward, etc.) and well-rounded corners (Tim Jennings, Patrick Peterson, etc.) unless there are clearly better uses of your roster space. But don't fall in love with them either.

    Stunts

    Two injury replacement linebackers put up very strong numbers last week. Josh Bynes had eleven solo tackles (13 total) and was the only viable every-down back seven option with Ray Lewis, Dannell Ellerbe, Jameel McClain and Bernard Pollard inactive. If the Ravens can't get their veterans healthy for Week 16, Bynes will have similar upside again this week. A similar situation occurred in Dallas, where Alex Albright racked up tackles after Ernie Sims left with a concussion. He could do the same if Sims isn't cleared to play this week.

    Jamar Chaney and Tim Shaw were also productive last week, but neither is likely to have much Week 16 value. The Eagles aren't likely to be in their base defense for the majority of their snaps against Washington this week and that will limit Chaney's upside. Shaw won't play in nickel packages either and could be back on the bench with Colin McCarthy looking likely to return.

    McCarthy isn't the only LB1 talent likely to return this week. Donald Butler was fully practicing on Wednesday and with Takeo Spikes struggling with a hamstring injury, Butler could immediate be back in an every-down role. I wouldn't trust Butler or McCarthy as more than an upside LB3, but both can be slotted in lineups if practice goes well for them this week.

    Most of the recent DB-of-the-week flyers have busted, but Isa Abdul-Quddus New Orleans' replacement for the injured Malcolm Jenkins is likely to continue to put up good numbers this week. If you're looking for a desperation play at defensive back in your championship game and don't want to roll the dice on an upside cornerback matchup, Abdul-Quddus is a smart gamble.

    Sigmund Bloom, John Norton and I will flesh out many of these arguments and others I didn't get to on our weekly IDP roundtable podcast on the Audible. You can find that under the Podcasts tab on the Footballguys homepage every Thursday during the season. You can also contact me via email at bramel@footballguys.com or Twitter (@JeneBramel).

    Best of luck in Week 16.

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