Eyes Of the Guru (NFC South)
By John Norton
July 24th, 2012

Welcome back for part six of the Eyes of the Guru!

For reference, when I mention where guys finished in the rankings last season, my model will be the standard Footballguys scoring system which is nearly identical to the North American Fantasy Football Addicts (NAFFA) league I have run for the past 17 years. Feel free to check it out. Defensive scoring in this league is the standard stuff but keep in mind that rankings will vary a bit from league to league. From time to time I will reference the "rookie corner rule". Those of you who are familiar with the EOTG know what that is. For those who are new, the rookie corner rule is basically the fact that in the NFL, starting a rookie at corner is like throwing chum to the sharks. Offensive coordinators will target young and inexperienced players as weaknesses, thus these guys have an accelerated number of opportunities. Most often these guys are the cream of the crop at the position (which is why they are starting so soon) and their numbers will begin to drop sharply after their rookie seasons. When I mention tackle numbers, I do not lump assists and solo tackles together. Unless I make a reference one way or the other, I am talking about solo tackles. When I talk about a total number of takeaways for a player, I am counting interceptions, fumble recoveries and fumbles forced since all of these score very similarly in most scoring systems.

Atlanta Falcons

Defensive Linemen

The Falcons made no changes to a defensive line that was solid in 2011. Only five teams allowed fewer rushing yards than Atlanta and the front four accounted for a respectable 25.5 of the teams 33 sacks. That however, does not mean this unit is without questions or room for improvement. John Abraham has been one of the game's premier pass rushers for over a decade. In 2011 however, he posted the fewest tackles of his career (25) in a non injury season. His 9.5 sacks last season seem pretty good at a glance, but consider that 3.5 of them came in one big game late in the year. At 34 years of age there is no doubt that Abraham has a lot of mileage on him, but is he in decline? And if he is, who will be his heir? The Falcons have spent the past few years looking for someone to play opposite him without much success. They have certainly not had the luxury of addressing a successor. On the positive side, Abraham had a big season as recently as 2010 when he recorded 35 tackles with 13 sacks, and he has missed just two starts over the past three years. So there is a chance his subpar production last year was nothing more than a fluke. There is also a chance that it was not. Less than stellar tackle production has been an issue for Abraham throughout most of his career. He could rebound with his usual tackle numbers in the mid 30s range and possibly reach double digit sacks again in 2012, but his upside is limited at this point in his career. The days of depending on Abraham as a sure every week starter are gone. Pick him up as depth or a bye week fill in and hope he has a big game at the right time... As NFL players often do, Ray Edwards parlayed a couple of strong seasons with the Vikings into a big free agent paycheck at the end of 2010. The question many were asking at the time was; how much of his success was derived from playing opposite Jared Allen? According to Edwards' 2011 numbers, the answer was a great deal. After recording 72 tackles and 17 sacks in his final two seasons with the Vikings, he could muster just 24 tackles and 3.5 stops with the Falcons last season. Having made such a financial investment in Edwards and having no other options at this time, the Falcons have no choice but to stick it out for another year and hope that he can step up... Backup Kroy Biermann had a good season in 2009 when he recorded 38 tackles and 5 sacks as a sub package pass rusher. In 2010 he was given a shot at the starting role but actually saw his number regress with more playing time. 2009 fourth round pick Lawrence Sidbury showed a little promise last season with 4 sacks in very limited action. He will likely get a good look during the preseason to see if he can handle a bigger role but nothing is imminent... It is not as if the Falcons have made no effort to bolster their front four. They have just been snake bitten with every effort. In 2007 they used the eighth overall pick on Jamaal Anderson who had all of 4 sacks in four seasons with the team. The Ray Edwards experiment is ongoing but has not looked very good thus far. The Falcons have had similar luck with their interior linemen as well. Peria Jerry was their first round selection in 2009. He currently has 15 career tackles and a pair of sacks. Jonathan Babineaux was the team's second round pick in 2005. He had a couple of good years with the club, including a mark of 37-10-6 with 4 takeaways and a couple of passes defended in 2009. His numbers have dropped sharply since that time and he has 31 tackles with 5 sacks over the past two seasons. The one bright spot at the tackle position has been 2010 third round pick Corey Peters. His numbers have not been great but he has been a reliable contributor to the team. He and Babineaux are the projected starters for the upcoming season. Babineaux has some potential for owners in tackle required leagues but at this point is probably not worthy of a draft pick. To sum it all up, the Falcons need some guys to step up big time in 2012 and will have a lot of holes to fill in the next year or two if they fail to do so.

Fantasy Outlook

  • DE John Abraham Possible depth in large leagues
  • DE Ray Edwards Depth is large leagues at best
  • DE Kroy Biermann No value
  • DE Lawrence Sidbury No value
  • DT Jonathan Babineaux No value at this time
  • DT Corey Peters Could have some value in tackle required leagues
  • DT Peria Jerry No value
  • DT Vance Walker Deep dynasty sleeper in tackle required leagues
  • Linebackers

    Weak side linebacker Sean Weatherspoon got off to a great start as a rookie in 2010 when he was 22-2-1 in his first three games as a pro. Unfortunately injury stunted his growth that season and he was a non-factor the rest of the way. He got back on track last year and was on pace for 90+ tackles when a matchup induced mini slump held him to 6 tackles over the final three games. Weatherspoon finished 2011 at a very solid 82-33-4 with his only weakness being a single fumble recovery in the takeaway column. With Curtis Lofton gone via free agency, there will be less competition for tackles this season. The organization is expecting Weatherspoon not only to step up his production on the field, but to take over the leadership role vacated by Lofton as well. Weatherspoon has the physical skill set and now the opportunity to become a perennial 90+ tackle guy. If he can boost those big play numbers a little, he could very well become a consistent top twelve linebacker over the next several years. Despite playing on the weak side, he will become the focal point of the defense by design. Much like Derrick Brooks once was in Tampa Bay. Weatherspoon is not a very well kept secret and is going at around LB15 in most drafts this summer. He is a very safe pick as a strong LB2 with low LB1 potential, but if you want him don't be shy... One of the more interesting situations to watch this summer will be the battle for the Falcons middle linebacker job. It is the classic face-off between the strong and hungry young buck and the savvy veteran. Akeem Dent was the Falcons third round pick last year. At Georgia he made a name for himself as run stuffing middle linebacker. Dent is strong, tough, gives max effort on every snap and was a leader for the Bulldogs. The knock on him was a lack of range and questionable cover skills. Many scouting reports on Dent elude to his being a two down player at the pro level. Lofa Tatupu on the other hand, has six seasons of starting experience as an every down player. After two injury plagued seasons, Tatupu sat out 2011 to get healthy and mentally rejuvenated. He is now ready to resume his career. Tatupu is solid in all aspects of the game and excels in coverage. He has 10 interceptions, 40 passes defended and 9 sacks on his career resume'. If Dent wins this job, chances are he will be a two down player with Tatupu possibly replacing him in passing situations. If Tatupu wins the job it is almost certain that he will be an every down player. The organization would undoubtedly like to see the young guy play but the reality is that if he can stay healthy, the veteran will likely make them a better team at this point. Picking up either or both of these players as late round sleepers is not a bad idea. Weatherspoon is clearly the top dog of the group but the winner of the MLB competition is going to have some value, especially if he has an every down role... Stephen Nicholas is penciled in as the starter on the strong side but he could feel some heat from third year pro Spencer Adkins during camp. There is no fantasy value to be found here regardless of who starts. Nicholas and Mike Peterson manned the spot last season and totaled just 35 tackles between them.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • MLB Lofa Tatupu LB3 with a little upside if he wins the starting job
  • MLB Akeem Dent Depth with LB3 potential if he wins the starting job
  • WLB Sean Weatherspoon Excellent LB2 with top 10 potential
  • SLB Stephen Nicholas No value
  • OLB Spencer Adkins No value
  • Defensive Backs

    The Falcons have a few new faces in the mix at defensive back. Corner Asante Samuel will have the biggest impact with veteran strong safety Chris Hope possibly pushing William Moore. This unit suffered a few injuries in 2011 but all in all performed fairly well. They were middle of the pack in passing yards allowed and their 19 interceptions ranked tenth in the league. As fantasy production goes free safety Thomas DeCoud was the only decent option last season. His 67 tackles and 4 picks were both career highs for the fifth year pro. His numbers were mediocre overall, but it was his inconsistency that really stands out. DeCoud reached double digit fantasy points in nine games, but in six of the other seven contests he fell short of 5, often well short. At this point I am unsure what to think of this situation. The Falcons along with most fantasy experts had much higher expectations for strong safety William Moore last season. His poor statistical output and somewhat disappointing play on the field left us all scratching our heads. Moore missed most of five games with a minor injury, finishing the season with 40 tackles and 4 takeaways. Projected over a full slate of games, that would have still left him short of 60 tackles. If Moore continues to struggle, DeCoud could produce similar numbers this season. However, if Moore plays up to his potential, he should be the better option. There is also the chance that if Moore struggles he could be replaced by Hope who is a proven starter in the league. Based on the recent statistical history of the players involved and the Falcons safety positions in general, the best advice here is to avoid this situation all together... With the addition of Samuel the Falcons have both talent and depth at the corner positions. Samuel is expected to be paired with Brent Grimes as the starters with veteran Dunta Robinson currently penciled in as the nickel corner. All three of these guys are starter quality players so the Falcons pass defense should be formidable. In terms of box score production, Grimes is the prime target. He is a physical player for his size, can run with any receiver and has good ball skills. In his first two years as a starter ('09 and '10) Grimes averaged 69 tackles, 5.5 picks and 18 passes defended. He was on pace for just slightly lesser numbers before being injured last season. With Samuel on the other side, most offenses will consider Grimes the second corner and will likely go after him more often. The added opportunity and the fact that he has never shied away from contact, make Grimes a solid candidate as a starter in corner required leagues... Samuel is an excellent player in NFL terms and tends to be a ball hawk, but he has recorded more than 40 tackles just three times in his nine seasons, with the last time being in 2007. He is a big addition for the Falcons but is not likely to make a fantasy splash... Robinson is a quality cover corner who has posted respectable tackle numbers a few times over his career, but has not been much of a playmaker. The last time he had more than 2 interceptions in a season was 2004. If he should end up in a starting role, Robinson might provide marginal depth in some deeper corner required leagues.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • SS William Moore Possible depth with a little upside
  • FS Thomas DeCoud Depth at best
  • SS Chris Hope Sleeper with DB3 potential at best
  • FS Charles Mitchell No value
  • CB Brent Grimes Quality second starter in corner required leagues
  • CB Asante Samuel Minimal value at best
  • CB Dunta Robinson No value at this point
  • CB Dominique Franks No value
  • CB Christopher Owens No value
  • Carolina Panthers

    Defensive Linemen

    The big question with the Panthers is how much will they use the 3-4 this season? Defensive coordinator Sean McDermott has been a 4-3 guy his entire career but head coach Ron Rivera came over from San Diego last season after being their defensive coordinator and working with a 3-4 for four years. What we saw last season was a 4-3 base scheme with just enough 3-4 sprinkled in to negatively affect the fantasy value of defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy. It was not a case of these guys coming off the field, but rather a case of them playing out of position that hurt their numbers. In fact, they were both on the field for better than 80% of the team's defensive snaps. On the season the Panthers ran a 3-4 roughly 25-30% of the time. On the positive side, they seemed to use it less late in the season. In a straight 4-3 scheme Johnson would likely be a top ten lineman with Hardy not far behind. Last season they both finished outside the top twenty and if the Panthers continue to move toward a 3-4, they could fall even further in 2012. Hopefully the preseason will give us a better perspective on the club's plans. With the current uncertainty, drafting either of these guys as more than a marginal second starter or quality depth would be a risk... To say that the Panthers are unsettled at defensive tackle would be an understatement. Heading into camp they have no one who is an established starter and will have a wide open competition to determine a pecking order at the positions. Free agent addition Ron Edwards has the experience factor on his side. Interestingly he also has some experience working as a nose tackle in the 3-4 during his recent stint in Kansas City. The Panthers used a pair of third round picks on interior linemen last season. Terrell McClain started twelve games as a rookie with mixed results while Sione Fua saw very little action before landing on IR after week thirteen. 2010 undrafted free agent Andre Neblett saw his first extensive action in week eight last season and made his way into the starting lineup over the final month of the season. In the end he led all Carolina interior linemen in both tackles with 15, and sacks with 2.5. While it is not saying much, Neblett showed the most promise of the group. Unfortunately he will be getting the first four games of the season off compliments of the commissioner... To the best of my recollection, no Panthers interior lineman has provided quality fantasy production in the brief history of the franchise. It looks as if that trend will continue.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • DE Charles Johnson High DL2 potential but could be handicapped by the scheme
  • DE Greg Hardy Low end DL2 potential but could be handicapped by the scheme
  • DE Thomas Keiser Injury sleeper with minimal value at best
  • DE Frank Alexander No value
  • DT Ron Edwards No value
  • DT Terrell McClain No value
  • DT Sione Fua No value
  • DT Andre Neblett Very deep sleeper in tackle required leagues
  • Linebackers

    There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the MLB position in Carolina. The club made Luke Kuechly the first linebacker off the board at number nine overall in April. He is a natural middle backer with great instincts and excellent cover skills to go with all the measurable traits that any team could ask for. He is intelligent and technically sound in all aspects of the game and is as pro ready as any rookie in recent memory. The problem is, Carolina already has an excellent middle linebacker in Jon Beason who is battle tested and a proven stud. Beason is returning from an Achilles injury but is expected to be cleared to go full speed when camp opens. Something has to give here. Both players are versatile enough to work on the weak side. In fact Beason has done that in the past to cover for injured teammates, and has made it clear that he is willing to make that move if the organization so desires. No one in Carolina has been inclined to shed light on this situation. Indeed it may simply be that they have yet to make that decision themselves and will wait until pads go on to do so. For the sake of adding a little fuel to the fire, what would the Panthers look like in a 3-4 with Kuechly and Beason both on the inside? This may be the most important training camp situation of the summer in fantasy terms. Carolina has been an absolute gold mine of production for linebackers over the past several years. Since 2007 the Panthers have given us a linebacker with 100+ solo tackles in four of five seasons (Beason has 3 of those seasons) and a total of seven with 89 or more. My biggest fear here (other than the potential of a 3-4) is that regardless of how they line up, Beason and Kuechly could take enough production from one another to keep both of them out of the top ten. Add in outside linebacker James Anderson who has 199 solo stops over the past two seasons, and Thomas Davis who had 92 the last time he was healthy, and there is going to be a lot of competition for tackles among the Carolina linebackers. If I were put on the spot to pick one of these guys for the 2012 season, I would have to go with the rookie based on Beason's injury situation. If placed in the same situation in a dynasty league I would also go with Kuechly because I believe he will ultimately end up at the most productive position of middle linebacker. That said, if Kuechly were to go right in front of me in either situation I would not hesitate to take Beason right behind him. Both Kuechly and Beason should give us quality production regardless of position. The player in this mix that is hardest to call is Anderson. He will again line up on the strong side but will he somehow manage to keep the sub package duties that he has held for the past two years? After leading the club in tackles for consecutive seasons and putting up 11 takeaways with 5 sacks in those two years, will he retain enough value to be a worthy fantasy option? There is no doubt that his value will drop and there is certainly a chance that he will be rendered useless to fantasy owners, but I would still have to consider Anderson a quality sleeper with big potential. All it takes is one injury and he is right back in the saddle... Thomas Davis is the forgotten man of this group. He is trying to overcome not only multiple knee surgeries but a lot of talent at the position. If he gets an opportunity and can stay healthy, we know he can be productive. The cards are stacked against him at this point and he will likely be a backup if he makes the team at all.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • MLB/WLB Jon Beason Quality LB2 with top 15 potential
  • WLB/MLB Luke Kuechly Quality LB2 with top 15 potential
  • SLB James Anderson Strong sleeper who will likely be quality depth at worst
  • WLB Thomas Davis Deep sleeper with some upside
  • OLB Antwan Applewhite No value
  • Defensive Backs

    After allowing a league worst 8.4 yards per attempt, it would have made sense for the Panthers to address their leaky secondary over the offseason. While this unit was not completely ignored, the only additions were a couple of backup quality free agent safeties and a fifth round rookie corner. Maybe they plan to have Luke Kuechly cover the opponent's top receiver all over the field? Or maybe they are counting on a quality veteran cap casualty to hit the market. Whatever the plan, make sure to start even your marginal receivers when they have this matchup... With all the production at the linebacker positions in Carolina, you would think that a little might trickle through to the secondary. For the most part that has not been the case. Strong safety Charles Godfrey is the only real fantasy option of the group and has given us respectable numbers over the past two seasons. In 2010 he managed 71 tackles with 5 picks, a forced fumble and 8 passes defended. Had he not missed a couple of games with injury last season, his 2011 numbers would have been very similar. Godfrey is a converted free safety who is not particularly physical as a tackler but will get the job done. He plays smart and is strong in coverage but rarely lines up close to the line in a run support role. Godfrey does not have much upside so what we have seen is pretty much what we can expect going forward. He is a serviceable DB3 or quality depth that can be picked up in the late rounds... Sherrod Martin is a converted corner who has been starting at free safety for the past two seasons. He has done an adequate job in NFL terms but has averaged only 53 tackles and 4 takeaways over his two years in the lineup. Martin is penciled in as a starter entering camp but will have to hold off a challenge from free agent Haruki Nakamura. The former Ravens backup was stuck behind Ed Reed with no hope of becoming a starter there, so he moved on in search of a better opportunity. If Nakamura fails to earn a starting shot on this defense, he may as well settle in as a career special teams contributor or start looking for a new profession... Corner Chris Gamble played well early in his career and had the Panthers believing they were set for the long term with him as their number one corner. Gamble averaged 68 tackles and had 13 interceptions with 3 other takeaways between 2004 and 2005. Since that time he has played well at times but has not been the stud corner the organization had hoped for. He has averaged 2 interceptions a year since 2005 and has posted more than 50 tackles just once since 2006. Gamble remains the Panthers #1 corner going into 2012 only because they have not chosen to better addressed the position... 2009 seventh round pick Captain Munnerlyn served well as the Panthers nickel corner for two seasons before being pressed into the #2 role last year. Munnerlyn has a lot of heart and plays hard, but at 5'8" and 183 pounds, he struggles to compete with the leagues bigger more physical receivers. Darius Butler saw a lot of action as the Panthers nickel corner last season and started a couple of games when Munnerlyn was injured. He provides quality depth and is serviceable in the nickel role but is no threat to emerge as the starter... In such need are the Panthers, that rookie fifth round pick Josh Norman is likely to get strong consideration at the starter opposite Gamble. Norman's fifth round status is actually a bit deceiving in that he fell so far because he played for Costal Carolina in the small school Big South Conference. It is common that even the best players to come out of such schools fall to the middle rounds. Norman may actually prove to be a steal for the Panthers. At 6'0" and 197 pounds he has the size and demeanor to match up with physical receivers. Norman supports the run well, makes good decisions and has strong ball skills. The only thing that kept him out of the top three rounds on draft day was the lack of quality competition in college. No Carolina corner put up more than 43 tackles a year ago, but there has been some pretty good production from those positions in the past. If Norman can land a starting job, the rookie corner rule would be in play and he could post surprisingly good numbers.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • SS Charles Godfrey Decent DB3 or quality depth
  • FS Sherrod Martin No value
  • FS Haruki Nakamura Deep Sleeper
  • SS Reggie Smith No value
  • CB Chris Gamble Minimal value as depth in corner required leagues
  • CB Captain Munnerlyn No value
  • CB Darius Butler No value
  • CB Josh Norman Rookie corner rule sleeper with potential to be a second starter in corner required leagues
  • CB R.J. Stanford No value
  • New Orleans Saints

    Defensive Linemen

    There was a time not all that long ago, when the Saints had one of the most feared pass rushes in the game. In 2011 their best pass rusher was a safety and their most productive defensive lineman recorded only 6 sacks. Adding insult to injury, that lineman is going to be suspended for the first four games of the season. My how the mighty have fallen. As a team the Saints managed a middle of the pack 33 sacks last season. The defensive linemen have to be somewhat embarrassed by the fact that strong safety Roman Harper had 7.5 of them while Will Smith's mere 6 was tops among the big men up front. With no picks in the first two rounds of the draft and other needs to fill via free agency, there was only so much the club could do to bolster the defensive line. Third round pick Akiem Hicks dominated as a defensive end in Canada but at 318 pounds, will likely see most of his action at tackle in the NFL. He is athletic and stout at the point of attack but is short on pass rush moves and is a very raw talent. Hicks will probably be a marginal contributor this year at best... Last year's first round pick Cameron Jordan started fifteen regular season games for the club but did not record his first sack until week seventeen. He was not known for his prowess as a pass rusher in college but the Saints certainly expected more from him than what they have gotten thus far. Jordan will continue to start at end but the word out of New Orleans is that he could shift inside in passing situation this year... Junior Galette is a 258 pound pass rush specialist who finished second among Saints linemen with 4.5 sacks last year. He will likely continue to be used in a similar role and is no real threat to become an every down option or to produce significant numbers... Turk McBride is a solid career backup and will likely get the call to fill in as a starter over the first four games. McBride's career best to date is 25 tackles in 2008 and 5 sacks in 2010. He should be able to hold down the fort until Smith returns from suspension but baring injuries, is no threat to claim a full time job. The wildcard at defensive end is transplanted strong side linebacker Martez Wilson. He was the team's third round pick in 2011 but was not able to crack the starting lineup as a rookie. Wilson is 6'4", 250 pounds and ran a sub 4.5 in the 40-yard dash last spring. He is a versatile athlete who recorded 226 total tackles during his college career at Illinois. Most importantly considering his new position, he recorded 4 sacks in his final season there. Wilson has the athletic ability to make an impact as a pass rusher and the team desperately needs him to do so. He has embraced the position change and is looking forward to helping the team this season. At this point Wilson is a bit undersized for an every down end. He has been working diligently in the weight room to add a few pounds of muscle and the fact is, there are smaller guys currently starting in the league. They say that necessity is the mother of invention. The Saints clearly have the need and are trying to invent a defensive end. With Wilson's skill set they might be surprisingly successful. It will be interesting to see how this experiment works out, but keep in mind that if Wilson looks good early it is likely not a fluke. Move on him quickly... Smith was the Saints most productive lineman in 2011, though that is not saying much. He was suspended for the first two games last season as well, finishing with a mark of 22-12-6 and 1 forced fumble. Smith has reached double digit sacks twice in his career with a best of 13.5 coming in 2009. He is usually good for tackle numbers in the upper 30s to lower 40s range with a career best of 48 in 2005. When he returns to the team Smith could have a little value for us. He is worthy of a very late (as in last) round flier or a week three pickup, and should at the least provide adequate bye week depth in most leagues... Production from the Saints interior linemen in 2011 was simply dismal. Aubrayo Franklin and Shaun Rogers led the retreat with 13 tackles and the entire group combined for 2 sacks. In their defense, 2008 first round pick Sedrick Ellis was banged up most of the year. He is usually the best of the interior group. Ellis posted 30 tackles and 6 sacks in 2010 and should be closer to those numbers this season... A healthy Ellis and the addition of former Eagles starter Brodrick Bunkley should make for greatly improved play up front, but we still should not expect much box score production. There is sure a world of difference between this group and the days when La'Roi Glover was putting up 54 solo tackles and 18 sacks in a season for the Saints.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • DE Will Smith Solid depth with DL2 potential once the suspension is over
  • DE Cameron Jordan Sleeper at best, pick him up off waivers if he shows something
  • DE Martez Wilson Sleeper with some long term promise
  • DE Junior Galette No value
  • DE Turk McBride Minimal short term value at best
  • DT Sedrick Ellis Potential starter in tackle required leagues
  • DT Brodrick Bunkley No value
  • DT Akiem Hicks Deep dynasty sleeper in tackle required leagues
  • DT Remi Ayodele No value
  • Linebackers

    Injuries and inconsistent play had the Saints shuffling linebackers around last season in an effort to find some combination that worked. They never found that combination with the players they had so there are a lot of new faces to work with this season. It is easy to speculate that the addition of Curtis Lofton was solely due to the impending suspension of Jonathan Vilma, but I am not so certain that was even the main reason. Vilma missed much of last season due to a bad knee that has been bothering him off and on since 2007. The quality of his play as well as his production, have steadily declined from 98 tackles in 2008 to 71 in 2010. I believe the decision was made to go after Lofton based more on Vilma's performance than the chances of a suspension. I also believe that if Lofton plays well the job will remain his when Vilma is reinstated. In fact it will come as no surprise if Vilma has played his last down as a Saint... Lofton is a high quality middle linebacker with an excellent physical skill set. He is also a leader both on the field and in the locker room. He has produced at least 87 tackles in each of the past three seasons and makes a respectable big play contribution as well. There is little doubt that Lofton will emerge as the Saints leading tackler this season but I do have one concern. No Saints linebacker could muster more than 57 solo tackles in 2011. While part of that can be blamed on players being shuffled around, it is very noteworthy that the entire New Orleans linebacker corps combined for just 196 tackles on the season. To some extent that can be written off as a fluke but it also has a lot to do with the Saints offense. This team put up so many points and scored so quickly in most games, that opponents were immediately forced into a track meet to try and keep up. It is no mystery why the Saints defense faced the lowest number of rushing attempts in the league in 2011. The result being that the defense spent a great deal of time in their nickel and dime sub packages with one or two linebackers on the field. The good news for Lofton owners is that he will consistently be the one linebacker on the field in all the sub packages. It is doubtful that he will have enough opportunity to approach the 90 tackle mark but Lofton should give us around 80 solo stops and make enough plays in the passing game to be a quality LB2 with a little upside... The next question here is will there be enough opportunity for any other linebacker to be productive? I am skeptical on this one but if there is a second it will likely be former Seahawk David Hawthorne. During his three years as a starter in Seattle Hawthorne worked mostly in the middle, but he did see some time on the weak side as well. He is a versatile player with good coverage skills and the ability to play any linebacker position in a 4-3. Over the last three seasons Hawthorne has 7 picks with 13 total takeaways and 5 sacks. He will likely remain on the field with Lofton in most sub packages and could have enough opportunity to be quality depth for us with the potential to be a decent third starter... Former Rams outside backer Chris Chamberlain will compete with holdovers Jonathan Casillas and Scott Shanle for the strong side job and a spot in the pecking order behind the starters. Both Chamberlain and Casillas have shown a little potential over the past couple of seasons. If either of them were to land a consistent role they could have some value as well.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • MLB Curtis Lofton Quality LB2 with LB1 potential
  • WLB David Hawthorne Quality depth with LB3 upside
  • SLB Scott Shanle No value
  • OLB Chris Chamberlain Injury sleeper with limited upside
  • OLB Jonathan Casillas Injury sleeper with limited upside
  • Defensive Backs

    One big issue with the Saints defense in 2011 was a glaring lack of big plays at every level. The line failed to record many sacks, the linebackers failed to force many turnovers or contribute significantly to the pass rush and the defensive backs accounted for just 7 of the team's mere 9 interceptions. Only then nickel corner Patrick Robinson managed more than a single pick. If New Orleans has any hope of playing in another Super Bowl this year, they are going to need more help from this group to get there. From a fantasy perspective there is some value to be had with this unit. Strong safety Roman Harper has reached at least 73 solo tackles in five consecutive seasons and led the league in sacks by a DB last year with 7.5. It seems that every year he steps up in some category. In 2011 it was sacks, in 2010 is was his 6 forced fumbles and in 2009 it was a career best 85 solo tackles. Over his six seasons in the league Harper has just 4 interceptions but he has made up for that with very consistent tackle production, 14 forced fumbles (20 total takeaways), 18 sacks and 40 passes defended. We obviously should not expect so many sacks from him in 2012 but it is a safe bet that Harper will once again find a way to finish among the top defensive backs in fantasy points... Free safety Malcolm Jenkins was a disappointment last season. The 2009 first round pick is a former corner who was moved to safety with the expectation that he would be a playmaker at that position. He has been solid as a tackler and has done a commendable job in coverage, but failed to pick off a single pass last season. His two years at safety have yielded a total of 2 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles and 3 recoveries. Jenkins has managed to score twice as well. The 63 solo stops he recorded last season would be enough to give him some value if he could become the playmaker the organization envisioned. At this point however, we can only go by what he has shown to date. Those numbers say he is no better than a marginal fourth or decent fifth DB... Jabari Greer has not been much of a big play threat over his career. He has never recorded more than 2 interceptions in a season and has just 9 over the past five years. He has however, made the most of those picks by scoring 4 times. His tackle total of 61 last season was respectable for a corner and his 18 passes defended very strong. He was on pace for very similar number in 2010 before missing a couple of games so it is safe to expect that kind of production from him in 2012. 60+ tackles and 15+ passes defended with just a couple of big plays are numbers worthy of backup status in leagues that start two corners... The player I really like here is Patrick Robinson. As a rookie the 2010 the first round pick saw action mostly as the sixth DB. In his second season he moved up to the nickel corner role where he posted 39 tackles, a team best 4 interceptions and a very solid 15 passes defended. With Tracy Porter moving on via free agency, Robinson will move into the starting lineup this season. At 5'11" and 191 pounds he is physical enough to match up with bigger receivers and has the speed to hold his own against the fast ones. Best of all he seems to be a playmaker. Call him a sleeper in corner required leagues but don't be surprised when he puts up 55+ tackles with 5-6 picks and 20 passes defended. I like him as a breakout player and a quality second starter in corner required leagues... 2011 third round pick Johnny Patrick was in and out of the trainer's room as a rookie and saw only limited action late in the season. He will battle former Buccaneer Elbert Mack for the nickel duties. An injury to one of the starters could make the winner of this battle a decent in season pickup.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • SS Roman Harper Solid DB1 or excellent DB2
  • FS Malcolm Jenkins Depth with a little upside
  • FS Jonathon Amaya No value
  • SS Corey White No value
  • CB Jabari Greer Depth in corner required leagues
  • CB Patrick Robinson Strong sleeper with CB2 potential
  • CB Johnny Patrick Injury sleeper at best
  • CB Elbert Mack Injury sleeper at best
  • Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    Defensive Linemen

    There was not a lot that the Buccaneers defense did well in 2011. The two major tasks charged to the front four are stopping the run and rushing the passer. Tampa Bay allowed more rushing yards and recorded fewer sack than any other team. Injuries up front were a factor as 2010 third overall pick Gerald McCoy was lost early and rookie second round pick Da'Quan Bowers was still working his way back from the surgery he had in his last year of college. The biggest problem however, was that this young team just seemed to quit. There is a new coaching staff, some new faces and a new attitude heading into in Buccaneers training camp this summer. Only time will tell how much of a difference that will make in the win column and the box scores. One thing that will help is that new defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan has a bit of talent to work with. With just 22 tackles and 3 sacks as a rookie McCoy was somewhat of a disappointment to those who saw him as a Warren Sapp clone. Even then he made more of an impact on the field than he did in the box scores. With 10 tackles and a sack in four games before being injured last season, it looked as if he was headed for a big statistical year. McCoy has recovered from the torn biceps and is full go heading into camp. His rare combination of size, quickness, strength and athleticism make McCoy hard to block in any situation and his presence will make the rest of the line better. It remains to be seen if he will ever remind us of Sapp in the box scores but he clearly has the potential to do so. Owners in tackle required leagues should have him well up their draft list, right behind the handful of proven options at the position... Lining up next to McCoy the Bucs have a trio of former early round draft picks. 2010 second round selection Brian Price has been penciled in as the starter entering camp. At 6'1" and a little over 300 pounds, Price is a powerful fireplug with a low center of gravity. He is not as athletic as McCoy but may be even harder to move. Price tried to play through an ankle injury late last season. He missed just one game but was very ineffective over the final six and finished with a modest 19-4-3 mark. With McCoy back in the mix, a healthy Price might be surprisingly productive for owners in tackle required leagues... The other two players in the mix at tackle are 2009 third round pick Roy Miller and Amobi Okoye who was the tenth overall pick of the Texans in 2007. Okoye is an interesting prospect here and will likely end up being the third man in the rotation. He never lived up to his draft status with the Texans and spent last season in Chicago, but Okoye has not been a complete bust by any stretch. He has started most of the games over his five year career and has 15 sacks on his resume' including 4 last season. His career best of 27 tackles is hardly impressive but if Okoye were to land a full time role in this situation, he could be a 30 tackle and 5 sack guy. That would earn him a roster spot as depth at the least in tackle required leagues... After taking interior linemen with their first two picks in 2010, Tampa Bay used their first two picks last season on defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers respectively. Clayborn immediately stepped into the starting lineup and went on to lead the club with 7.5 sacks. His 27 tackles on the season were hardly impressive but Clayborn was one of the few bright spots during the team's late season slide. Between weeks ten and fifteen he recorded 15 tackles, 4.5 sacks and added a pair of forced fumbles. Call it a gut feeling but I really liked what I saw from him down the stretch and believe that Clayborn is headed for a breakout season in 2012... The club took a chance on Bowers after he suffered a serious knee injury during his senior year at Clemson. If not for the injury there is little doubt he would have been an early first round pick, but the Bucs were able to land him in the middle of round two. Bowers was active from game one but was not all the way back from the injury. He contributed on a rotational basis most of the season and saw an increased workload over the final five games. Against the Panthers in week thirteen he gave a glimpse of his potential going 7-1-1.5 with a pass defended and scoring 24 fantasy points. The organization was looking forward to having their bookends on the field together in 2012 but Bowers suffered an Achilles injury during offseason workouts. The club has not ruled out a possible return late in the season but his fantasy potential is clearly limited to dynasty owners who can tuck him away until next season. If this guy can ever get healthy he has the potential to be a stud... With Bowers down the team will turn back to last year's starter Michael Bennett to get them through. The former undrafted free agent started ten games in 2011 before suffering a turf toe injury. After missing a couple of games he returned to play in the final four contests and finished the season with a respectable 36 tackles, 4 sacks and 3 takeaways. Bennett is basically a seat warmer who is holding down the fort until Bowers can return, but it looks as if he will be there for most if not all of this season. He is a solid and productive run defender and an above average pass rusher who could give us 40+ tackles and 5-7 sacks this season. Pick him up as late round depth with a little upside.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • DE Adrian Clayborn Quality depth at worst with solid DL2 potential
  • DE Michael Bennett Quality depth
  • DE Wallace Gilberry Injury sleeper at best
  • DE Jayme Mitchell- No value
  • DT Gerald McCoy Strong DT2 at worst with top 5 potential
  • DT Brian Price Depth with DT2 upside
  • DT Amobi Okoye - Deep sleeper with DT2 potential at best
  • DT Roy Miller No value
  • Linebackers

    The linebacker situation in Tampa Bay was nothing short of ugly last season. In what was one of the most target rich environments in the NFL, no Bucs LB could manage more than 58 solo tackles. Despite facing the fifth most rushing attempts in the league (498 total) the entire LB corps recorded just 201 stops. No wonder Tampa Bay lost ten in a row. As would normally be expected after such a performance, the team has made significant changes in personnel. Rookie second round pick Lavonte David will immediately be inserted on the weak side. David is a bit undersized but has excellent speed, great instincts and is strong in both man and zone coverage. He can struggle at times if bigger blockers get to him, but playing on the weak side where he will often be unaccounted for in the blocking scheme, should help him stay clear of those big men. The most impressive part of David's scouting report is his incredible production at Nebraska. In just two seasons there he totaled 149 solo stops with 136 assists, 11.5 sacks and 4 takeaways. He will be an every down player right from the start and is highly likely to lead the club in tackles as a rookie. Fantasy owners should not make the mistake of devaluing David because he is playing on the outside. The scheme will play to his strengths and may actually be a positive rather than a handicap. It is hard to say just how productive he will be as a rookie but it would be no surprise to me if David exceeds 90 tackles with half a dozen or so big plays and finishes among the top 20 linebackers... The other new face in the mix is fifth round selection Najee Goode. At West Virginia Goode spent time at both inside and outside linebacker, but his skill set is best suited as a two down run stuffing inside backer. At 6'0" and 244 pounds, he holds up well at the point of attack and uses leverage well when faced with bigger blockers. Goode will likely be the backup to Mason Foster at middle backer this season but could push for playing time on early downs if Foster struggles as he did at times last season. Goode might be worth tucking away on a taxi squad in dynasty leagues in hope that he can improve his coverage skills enough to eventually land a full time job... Foster started strong as a rookie third round pick last season. In week one he was on the field for only 23 snaps and recorded 6 solo stops. Heading into week four he had produced 16 tackles, 6 assists, a pair of sacks and a forced fumble. It looked as if he was headed for big things. Then came a matchup with the Colts, followed shortly after by what seemed to be a fairly minor ankle injury that kept Foster out for a couple of games. He managed 7 tackles against the Saints in week nine but posted more than 4 stops only once the rest of the season. There are several factors that may have contributed to his poor production. He never seemed the same after the injury and may have been bothered by it the rest of the way. Then there were the injuries to both of the starting interior linemen who were supposed to keep him clean, and finally the mental and physical disaster that the Bucs became late in the season. Regardless of the reason for his struggles, it is clear that Foster will have to step up and prove himself early this season or he may end up spelling Goode in sub packages instead of starting. Foster has the size and range to get the job done, and he excels in coverage which is a big plus. The coaching staff will give him every opportunity to prove that he belongs in the lineup, but he will need to be more physical at the point of attack. There is good box score potential with Foster but also a lot of risk. He could be anything from a decent second starter to a complete bust in 2012. Pick him up as your fourth linebacker and hope for the best. Foster's dynasty value is obviously in question as well... Quincy Black is a safe bet to return as the starter on the strong side. In five seasons with the team he has proven to be a quality contributor on the field but has limited box score value. Adam Hayward and Dekoda Watson provide depth on the outside but barring injury, have little chance of seeing significant action.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • MLB Mason Foster Could be anything from a lower LB2 to a complete bust
  • WLB Lavonte David Top 20 potential and solid LB3 at worst
  • SLB Quincy Black No value
  • MLB Najee Goode Dynasty sleeper with limited upside
  • WLB Adam Hayward No value
  • SLB Dekoda Watson No value
  • Defensive Backs

    After finishing last in most of the important statistical defensive categories, the Buccaneers twenty first ranked pass defense does not look all that bad. At least not until you realize that they were thirty first in yards per attempt. Not surprisingly there are significant changes in the secondary as well. The club used multiple avenues to improve the back of their defense this offseason. Free agency netted a starting corner in Eric Wright, the draft brought a new starter at strong safety in Mark Barron and veteran corner Ronde Barber will move to free safety in hope of both improving play at the position and extending his career another year or two. All of these moves would appear to be improvements. Wright was the second round pick of the Browns in 2007, where he was a quality starter for four seasons before moving on to Detroit in free agency. After a solid season with the Lions, Wright was in high demand on the free agent market. He received interest from several clubs, including the Lions, but elected to sign with Tampa Bay. One knock on Wright is that he tends to allow a lot of receptions. On the other hand he rarely gives up a big play. This approach probably has a lot to do with his solid tackle numbers over the years. With the exception of an injury shortened 2010, Wright has averaged 64 solo stops and 14 passed defended over his career. His modest 13 career interceptions prove that while he is not exactly a big play corner, he will contribute there as well. Tampa Bay corners in general have a long history of quality fantasy production. Barber, who Wright will be replacing, recorded 63 or more tackles from the position in eight of the past nine seasons. The bottom line here is that Wright is a proven productive player who will be working in a proven productive position. He should be good for 65 or so tackles with double digit passes defended and a handful of takeaways. A fantasy owner could do much worse for a low end CB1 or quality second starter... At 37 years of age Barber could still play corner if needed, but should be a great fit at free safety. As the career numbers prove he does not shy away from contact in run support and he is a playmaker. Barber has averaged 6 takeaways and 14 passes defended, has 18 career sacks and has scored 10 times. He will provide leadership as well as quality play at the position. Barber's fantasy value in this situation is somewhat questionable but he should give us 60+ tackles with a handful of big plays and double digit passes defended. It is unlikely that he will make a quality starter but should be a good fourth or fifth DB in most 12 team leagues that start three... With all the good defensive additions the Bucs made, it was their seventh overall selection of strong safety Mark Barron that may prove to have the most impact. This guy has prototypical size but everything else about him is even better than prototypical. He is a physical tackler who reacts quickly and packs a punch in the run game. He has corner like speed and is as strong in both man as zone coverage. He is smart and very technically sound in all aspects, and is a ball hawk. As Mike Mayock says, "his ceiling is to be a Pro Bowl safety and his floor is to be a Pro Bowl safety". How well all that translates into the box score remains to be seen but it is worth mention that last year's starter at the position Sean Jones, led the club with 76 tackles and had 3 takeaways. This defense will improve in the front seven but Barron will still make a lot of plays. I would not hesitate to draft him among the top twelve defensive backs and will not be at all surprised if he is another Eric Berry... Aqib Talib rounds out the starting lineup and is the only starter returning at the same position in 2012. He put up 56 tackles, 5 picks and 14 passed defended in 2009 but has battled injuries in each of the past two seasons. When healthy Talib is strong in coverage and is a serious big play threat. He should give us 45-50 tackles and 5-6 picks this year if he plays a full sixteen games, and even with the nagging injuries he has scored 3 times in the past two seasons. He can probably be picked up as a third or fourth corner in most leagues and should easily outperform that draft slot as long as he stays out of the trainer's room... E.J. Biggers will hold down the nickel corner role and is a capable starter if called upon. He lacks the knack for big plays but is solid in coverage and tackles well. If Talib goes down again, Biggers could be a decent in season pickup.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • FS Ronde Barber Depth with DB3 potential at best
  • SS Mark Barron Quality DB2 at worst, with top 5 potential
  • SS Cody Grimm No Value
  • FS Ahmad Black No value
  • CB Aqib Talib Decent CB2 or excellent depth if he can stay healthy
  • CB Eric Wright Low end CB1 or quality CB2
  • CB E.J. Biggers Injury sleeper with limited upside
  • CB Keith Tandy No value
  • That does it for the NFC South. It has been a long journey but I have finally made it across the country to the AFC East, which is coming next. The smell of training camp is in the air!

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