Ear To the Ground - Week 16
by Bob Magaw
December 20th, 2012

"The cosmos speaks in patterns" - Roger von Oech (paraphrase of Heraclitus)

"Luck is the residue of design" - Branch Rickey (Brooklyn Dodgers GM - integrated baseball)

"Our business is winning" - Bill Parcells (Ex-Giants/Patriots/Jets/Cowboys HC, MIA grocery picker and future HoFer)

The subject matter of ETTG is IDP with an emphasis on Dynasty leagues. Ear To The Ground was chosen for this column's title to convey a sense of detecting rumblings in the distance... an ability essential to project a prospect from college to pro and rookie to veteran. It will consist of three sections: Team Reports (Watchlist), a Defensive Rookie of the Year Meter, and a new section... The Lateral (rogue, guerilla offensive coverage). The emphasis here will be on the impact positions of LB, DE and S. Exceptional DTs and CBs will be noted for leagues that differentiate DE/DT and S/CB. Dynasty content is geared towards youth. Like most successful working rosters that employ a blend of production and potential, there will be a balance of rookie and veteran coverage in the mix. While by the nature of much IDP coverage new names will bubble up to the surface from week to week, ETTG will try to identify key players early on and provide a synoptic overview for the whole season as it unfolds.

Welcome to the 2012 iteration of ETTG...

Team Reports

Arizona Cardinals

The Cards surprisingly beat the Lions 38-10 after being stomped so thoroughly by the Seahawks the previous week (58-0 shut out) that there was talk of the team quitting and calls for HC Ken Whisenhunt to be fired immediately (while that didn't happen, he isn't out of the woods yet). DE Darnell Dockett (1-0) is having an off year (his second worst of a nine year career with just 22 solo tackles and 1.5 sacks), and alluded to this probably being his final season for the team. A recently reported six figure fine that may have been as high as $200,000 for a still undisclosed team violation (subject to appeal) has created bad blood and a seemingly irreparable rift between Dockett and the organization. Than again, with nine HARD years on the 32 year old's body, his best years are likely slipping quickly away in the rear view mirror. The Cards can build around young stars at all three levels of the defense in DE Calais Campbell (7-1 and 1 sack), ILB Daryl Washington (5-2) and CB Patrick Peterson (7-0 and 1 INT)... whoever the HC is.

Carolina Panthers

Rookie MLB Luke Kuechly (5-3) appears to be the favorite for Defensive Rookie of the Year, same as he began it. Instrumental was an early season-ending injury to Pro Bowl MLB Jon Beason, allowing him to return to his more natural inside position, after having been shunted outside. It will be interesting to see what happens with Kuechly and Beason next season positionally, but that decision will likely be made by a new coaching staff (former GM Marty Hurney was already deposed in-season). WLB Thomas Davis (9-1) not only improbably became the first player at any position known to have returned from THREE (!!!) ACL reconstructions, but has played at a high level all season.

Cincinnati Bengals

Rookie WLB Vontaze Burfict (6-0) overcame long odds as a humble UFA to become the Bengals leading tackler this season, surpassing far higher pedigree MLB Rey Maualuga. DE Michael Johnson (1-0) has had an at times breakthrough season, but at others injury checkered. After 4 sacks through the first three weeks, he missed week four. Johnson than had 2 sacks in the next three games, than missed a another game due to injury after the mid-season bye. He than had 2.5 sacks in the next month and a half, but only a half sack in the past three game, bad timing, and making him an unreliable starter for those IDP teams fortunate enough to find themselves positioned for playoff stretch runs.

Dallas Cowboys

CB Brandon Carr (4-0 and 1 INT) was one of the higher profile and more expensive free agent additions at the DB position from the class of 2012 (along with Rams CB Cortland Finnegan), one the Cowboys desperately needed to solidify a chronically leaky secondary. He has been as advertised and made the defense stronger in coverage, and came up with a huge INT to help the team beat the Steelers in OT, and thereby keeping their playoff hopes alive (which may well come down to a week 17 divisional showdown with the Redskins). OLB Anthony Spencer (1-3 and 1.5 sacks) continues to outplay
far higher profile bookend OLB DeMarcus Ware (1-1 and .5 sack), and is earning himself a lot of money in a contract year (whether with the Cowboys or another team in free agency).

Kansas City Chiefs

For the most part, this has been a forgettable season for ultra-talented SS Eric Berry (11-0), as he has struggled at times to return to his pre-2011 ACL injury form. Sunday's brilliant effort was his second 11 solo tackle outburst in the past month, and offered a tantalizing foreshadowing of what he might be capable of in 2013, another year removed from injury. At his best, Berry has the talent to be the most productive IDP at the safety position. As in Dallas, OLB Justin Houston (4-1 and 1 FR) has been outplaying his higher profile counterpart, OLB Tamba Hali (2-0). The Chiefs are another among several teams that seemed to underachieve and are almost certainly staring at a new regime, both front office and coaching staff, with Scott Pioli and Romeo Crennel expected to receive their walking papers shortly after the abysmal season wraps up.

Minnesota Vikings

Rookie SS Harrison Smith (9-1) has been storming up the Defensive Rookie of the Year Meter, finishing here at #4 (with two games left). LB Chad Greenway (13-1 and 1 FR) is having another great season, near top five in the league with 90+ solo tackles, adding 3 sacks and 1 INT.

New England Patriots

Rookie DE Chandler Jones was seemingly not too long ago the favorite for Defensive Rookie of the Year, but an untimely high ankle sprain conspired to push him down the rankings. Fellow rookie, SLB Dont'a Hightower (5-3), got extended playing time for the second week in a row, and could get a big bump in 2012 if that is evidence of a sustainable trend and not just a coincidental, consecutive week game plan blip in the radar.

New York Giants

DE Jason Pierre-Paul's (2-0) production has suffered as he plays through a reported back injury. He still is top 5 in solo tackles for his position (though well off his stratospheric numbers in 2011), but his sack numbers have fallen off a cliff, with just 6.5 through 14 games... 10 less than his breakthrough campaign last year.

Philadelphia Eagles

DE Brandon Graham (4-2, 2.5 sacks and 1 FF) has been the primary beneficiary of the release of DE Jason Babin (who has looked rejuvenated in Jacksonville, and may have found a home there). Along with the play of good looking rookie DT Fletcher Cox (3-1 and 1.5 sacks), they are a few of the only things that have gone right in an otherwise disastrous season for the Eagles, in what is likely long time HC Andy Reid's final one in the City of Brotherly Love. Rookie SLB Mychal Kendricks (3-1) also has a lot of talent and could represent a nice defensive building block for whatever future coaching staff inherits them.

San Diego Chargers

Keep an eye on rookie SS Brandon Taylor, who will get a chance to start in the final two weeks of the season. In an admittedly down year for safeties in the 2012 draft, he may have been the consensus highest graded by scouts AFTER first rounder Harrison Smith (who is having a sensational rookie campaign). After trotting out aging retreads like Atari Bigby earlier in the season, it will be interesting to see what the youngster can bring to the table, not only in run support, but in coverage. If he flashes competence in the latter, it could free up star FS Eric Weddle (7-3) to make even more plays.

San Francisco 49ers

ILB Navorro Bowman (9-3 and 1 FF) burst onto the scene in 2011, shockingly outscoring ILB Patrick Willis (5-6). Entering this season, there was still a big question if this was an aberration that would be difficult to replicate, but that no longer appears to be the case, and should be viewed as merely status quo going forward. SS Donte Whitner (5-2 and 1 FF) is typically left with meager scraps in run support with the outstanding talent in the front seven in front of him, but he has nonetheless managed to be busier lately. After only one game with as many as 4 solo tackles in the first seven games (20 solos combined), he has only had one game with less than 4 solos in the last seven games (33 solos combined).

Seattle Seahawks

Rookie MLB Bobby Wagner (10-2) might be playing as well as any defender on a team that has won by a historic margin of victory in the past two weeks (combined 91 points not seen in over 70 years, since the 1941 Chicago Bears). His outstanding play after receiving increased playing time in the second half of the season has deservedly put him in the thick of the Defensive Rookie of the Year race, with Luke Kuechly and Lavonte David.

St. Louis Rams

Rookie CB Janoris Jenkins (8-0) was drafted relatively high (high second round, likely higher if not for off field red flags) for his coverage chops, but has proven to be competent in run support. He has ridden underrated tackling ability, as well as big plays (3 INTs and 3 TDs) to top 20 DB status. It helps for IDP purposes playing across from Pro Bowl caliber CB Cortland Finnegan (6-0 and 1 FF), which should translate to Jenkins continuing to be tested for the foreseeable future. SS Quintin Mikell (5-0, 1 sack and 1 FF) has overcome a slow start and has been very productive in the second half of the season. At 32, his play remains at a high level, and he is still the Rams top safety. On an otherwise very young defense, HC Jeff Fisher may value his steadying veteran presence beyond the current season.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Like fellow LB, Seattle's Bobby Wagner, WLB Lavonte David (4-3) is showing no signs of the dreaded rookie wall, and has provided a strong challenge to another fellow LB, Defensive Rookie of the Year favorite Luke Kuechly. Rookie SS Mark Barron (8-2) had a strong game in run support after having that responsibility de-emphasized in recent weeks. For dynasty purposes, Barron has the talent to be one of the best and most productive strong safeties in the game long term.

Tennessee Titans

Rookie WLB Zach Brown (6-1, 2 sacks and 1 FR) has flashed great talent down the stretch, and has helped spearhead a defensive transformation. The Titans have gone from being historically inept earlier in the season (giving up about 34 PPG), to a profoundly better, top 5 scoring defense in recent weeks. Brown has flashed formidable speed and athleticism which was as advertised, but has not shown widely reported aversion to contact or been lacking in physicality. He has also shown an ability to play disciplined and within the scheme. CB Jason McCourty (3-2 and 2 INTs) is having another outstanding season and is becoming one of the most consistently productive CBs in IDP leagues (think Antoine Winfield in his prime in previous years). FS Michael Griffin (5-1 and 2 INTs) has been more up and down (both this season and previously), but the 4 combined INTs along with McCourty may have driven a stake through the heart of Jets QB Mark Sanchez's star-crossed career in New York.

Defensive Rookie of the Year Meter

Top DROY Candidates

  1. Luke Kuechly, WLB/MLB, CAR, 1.9, Boston College (6'3" 235)
    83 Solo Tackles, 55 Assists, 1 Sack, 1 INT and 3 FRs (#5 LB)
  2. Bobby Wagner, MLB, SEA, 2.15, Utah State (6'0" 240)
    76 Solo Tackle, 45 Assists, 3.5 Sacks and 3 INT (#7 LB)
  3. Lavonte David, WLB, TB, 2.26, Nebraska (6'1" 233)
    98 Solo Tackles, 26 Assists, 1 Sack and 1 INT (#9 LB)
  4. Harrison Smith, SS, MIN, 1.29, Notre Dame (6'2" 215)
    57 Solo Tackles, 28 Assists, 3 INTs, 1 FR and 2 TDs (#12 DB)
  5. Janoris Jenkins, CB, STL, 2.7, North Alabama (5'10" 195)
    57 Solo Tackles, 9 Assists, 3 INTs, 1 FR and 3 TDs (#17 DB)
  6. Fletcher Cox, DT, PHI, 1.12, Mississippi State (6'4" 298)
    32 Solo Tackles, 5 Assists, 5.5 Sacks and 1 FF (#28 DL)
  7. Zach Brown - WLB, TEN, 2.20, North Carolina (6'1" 240)
    60 Solo Tackles, 19 Assists, 5 Sacks, 1 INT, 1 FF and 2 FRs (#33 LB)
  8. Chandler Jones, DE, NE, 1.21, Syracuse (6'5" 260)
    21 Solo Tackles, 17 Assists, 5 Sack and 3 FF (#33 DL)
  9. Mark Barron, SS, TB, 1.7, Alabama (6'2" 215)
    63 Solo Tackles, 16 Assists, 1 INT and 1 FF (#34 DB)
  10. Vontaze Burfict, WLB, UFA, Arizona State (6'1" 250)
    58 Solo Tackles, 40 Assists, 1 Sack and 2 FRs (#44 LB)

Standing on the Verge...

  • Miles Burris - WLB
  • Mychal Kendricks - SLB
  • Dont'a Hightower - SLB
  • Melvin Ingram - OLB
  • Whitney Mercilus - OLB
  • Courtney Upshaw - OLB
  • Demario Davis - ILB
  • James-Michael Johnson - WLB
  • Miles Burris - WLB

  • Bruce Irvin - DE
  • Quinton Coples - DE
  • Shea McClellin - DE
  • Derek Wolfe - DE
  • Andre Branch - DE
  • Kendall Reyes - DE
  • Jerel Worthy - DE
  • Vinny Curry - DE
  • Vernon Olivier - DE
  • Tyrone Crawford - DE
  • Akiem Hicks - DE

  • Brandon Taylor - SS

  • Morris Claiborne - CB
  • Stephon Gilmore - CB
  • Dre Kirkpatrick - CB
  • Casey Hayward - CB
  • Trumaine Johnson - CB
  • Josh Robinson - CB
  • Jamell Fleming - CB
  • Bill Bentley - CB

  • Michael Brockers - DT
  • Dontari Poe - DT
  • Devon Still - DT
  • Mike Martin - DT
  • Injured Reserve List

  • Sean Spence - ILB
  • Brandon Hardin - S
  • Nick Perry - OLB
  • The Lateral

    Rogue, guerilla offensive coverage (because there aren't many defense-only leagues)...

    Colin Kaepernick

    In the six games since the 49ers bye in which Kaepernick took over the starting QB position from Alex Smith, his stats are as follows...

    Passing

  • 96 of 145 = 66.2% (7th)
  • 1,200 passing yards (yielding 3,200 yards prorated over a full slate of 16 games)
  • 7 passing TDs (prorates to 18+ over a full season)
  • Rushing - 40-268-3 (prorates to 107-715-8)

    While his pure passing numbers may seem (and in fact are) modest, when combined with his impressive rushing numbers, his prorated numbers suggest he could be capable of finishing at or near top 5 QB real estate in some scoring formats.

    For further perspective, among QBs with 18+ passing TDs, the only QBs with more than 250 rushing yards were Russell Wilson (402), Cam Newton (647) and Robert Griffin III (748). The rushing TD leaders in that same category (QBs with 18+ passing TDs) were Newton (7), Griffin III (6) and Andrew Luck (5)... with RGIII compiling his numbers in just 13 games. IF the three best running QBs in the game currently are RGIII, Newton and Kaepernick (Michael Vick is benched, with an uncertain future and at any rate not running as prolifically as in his prime), it should be noted that Kaepernick is situated in the middle of the three size-wise (pretty much exactly in weight, and actually a bit closer to Newton in terms of height)... Newton (6'5" 245 lbs.), Kaepernick (6'4" 230 lbs.) and RGIII (6'2" 217 lbs.). With Griffin already having been knocked from games several times, Kaepernick's relative size advantage (closer to the more proven commodity Newton) may be reassuring and bode well for his durability and longevity projections.

    While the decision by HC Jim Harbaugh to keep former incumbent starting QB Alex Smith on the bench even after recovering from a concussion seemed highly controversial at the time (particularly given his W-L record, accuracy and lack of INTs), the past month and a half have shown this to be a prescient decision. Not only does Kaepernick's ability to do damage with his feet add a dimension to the offense not possible under Smith, but even as a passer, the newcomer similarly looks to be the more dynamic and superior option to his predecessor. Kaepernick appears to have comparable accuracy, looks like he may have the capability to read through his progressions and make quicker decisions, and unmistakably has a more explosive, live, stronger arm to make all the throws (especially on deep passes), which in turn could open up the entire field, not only for pass routes, but the running game as well.

    Even though Harbaugh's judgment has been vindicated and proven to be a sound FOOTBALL decision, there were legitimate concerns that Kaepernick's fantasy football upside would be limited by the 49ers previously conservative game plan (i.e. - win with a strong run game and defense, don't turn the ball over or allow the passing offense to lose the game). After seeing him in action, it is clear that his different constellation of athletic ability and skill set (both with his feet AND arm strength) has enabled Harbaugh to deploy and utilize him differently than Smith, opening up the offense and expanding play calling options.

    On the bonus plan, the 49ers stellar defense gives the ball back to the offense a lot, and in good field position. Their strong OL and run game takes pressure off the QB. WR Michael Crabtree is blossoming into an elite pass catcher, and there is still a lot of room for increased rapport with TE Vernon Davis, who has the physical tools and athletic ability to be one of the best in the NFL, after Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham.

    When taking into account Kaepernick's formidable running ability along with his intriguing growth potential and developmental upside as a passer, he has an extremely promising future in dynasty leagues.

    Thanks for reading Ear to the Ground. As always, all comments, questions or suggestions are appreciated - magaw@footballguys.com.

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