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Eyes of the Guru: AFC West

An overview of defenses in the AFC West with an emphasis on individual defensive players and their fantasy value.

For reference, when I mention where guys finished in the rankings last season, my model will be the standard Footballguys scoring system. This is basically 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 Eyes of the Guru 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.

Denver Broncos

Defensive Linemen

Denver has assembled a defensive line that should be pretty stout versus the run, but the loss of Elvis Dumervil was a big hit to the pass rush. The Broncos were able to pluck Shaun Phillips from the division rival Chargers with the intention of having him replace Dumervil. Most people see this as a major step down for the Broncos. There are some reasons that Dumervil would be a better option, but I do not believe the on field drop off will be all that significant in the short term. Phillips is a little older but has been a productive pass rusher, averaging 7.5 sacks over his nine seasons as a pro. Twice he has reached double digits and he comes off a 9 sack performance in 2012. It is unlikely that he will equal Dumervil's totals and he is clearly not the long term answer. On the other hand, the Broncos saved a boat load of money and have a player who will contribute at a high level on a team that needs to win now.

The Von Miller situation throws a big wrench into Denver's plan however. If he can win the appeal, all will obviously be well. If Miller misses four games as expected, Phillips will instead be playing strong side linebacker for the first four games. This as a predicament for the Broncos but may prove to be a plus for the Phillips in terms of box score production. The problem for fantasy owners once again comes down to positional designation. At this time many league management sites still have Phillips as a defensive end. He is likely to see most of his playing time this year at end, but some sites may be inclined to make him a linebacker if Miller is suspended. A stint at outside linebacker should add a few tackles to Phillips totals, making him a potential 40+ tackle and double digit sack guy. As a straight up 4-3 end making the transition from 3-4 OLB, I would expect more in the line of 35 tackles and 7 sacks. Phillips has been getting very little love in drafts thus far this summer but we should not overlook him as a late round sleeper who could end up being a solid second starter for us. 

At least we can safely predict that 2012 second round pick Derek Wolfe will be the starter at one defensive end position. Wolfe's contribution as a rookie was not fully represented in his statistical totals of 26-14-6. His size (6'5" and 300 pounds) helps Wolfe to set the corner as a run defender, but it also limits his ability as an up field speed rusher in passing situations. The Broncos coaching staff made the most of his ability by lining Wolfe up at end on early downs, then shifting him inside in some of the passing down sub packages. This versatility allowed Wolfe to stay on the field for a whopping 90% of the team's defensive snaps. The situation with Miller could mean more outside rush opportunity for Wolfe in September but is unlikely to have a big impact on his totals. While it is unlikely that he will ever be a double digit sack guy, I expect better tackle numbers from Wolfe in his second season, and will not be surprised if he finished in the realm of 40 tackles and 7 sacks. At worst he is worth a late round pick as depth with some upside.

With just 6 career sacks, 2009 first round pick Robert Ayers has been a bust to date. He got to the quarterback twice last year in just over 350 snaps and would seem to be in line for a bigger role early on if Miller is out. Ayers could see competition for playing time from last year's 5th round pick Malik Jackson but neither guy is likely to have much of an impact.

There is an end on the Bronco's roster that dynasty owners may want to watch. Quanterus Smith may have been a first day draft pick if not for blowing out his knee late in his senior season at Western Kentucky. He started just sixteen games during college career so Smith is rather raw, but in ten starts as a senior he racked up 12.5 sacks and earned honors as the Sun Belt Conference player of the year. Smith may not be able to make a big contribution in 2013, but he will be developed in hope that he can be an impact player starting in 2014.

Denver may have concerns and questions outside, but they have solidified their interior line nicely. Kevin Vickerson. Terrance Knighton and rookie first round pick Sylvester Williams are the three players who will have significant roles. Knighton is a 330 pound road block who will anchor the run defense from the nose tackle position. The former Jaguar was a four year starter for Jacksonville with a career high of 3.5 sacks, but has not exceeded 25 tackles since his rookie season. Knighton is not much of a pass rush threat and is likely to be on the sideline in passing situations. Vickerson will likely get the call to start in the under tackle role. This is generally the most productive of the interior line positions. Vickerson is not a special player, but he has a good combination of size and athleticism. He is a strong run defender and an average pass rush threat. Vickerson's career best of 33 tackles and 2 sacks came in 2010. He missed most of 2011 with an injury but was on pace to set new career marks in 2012 before missing three games late. There is no reason to expect a breakout from Vickerson. In fact he may end up losing snaps to the rookie. At best Vickerson is depth in tackle required leagues.

Of this group, Williams is the most likely to succeed in the box scores. He is 6'3" and 313 pounds, very strong and mobile, with a motor that never quits. As a senior at North Carolina he totaled 54 combined tackles and 6 sacks. Williams may open the season as the third man in the rotation but it will not be long before he bumps Vickerson out of the starting job. Williams can be a three down player and may be paired with Wolfe as the team's inside pass rushers in sub packages. Once established he may well be a 35-40 tackle guy with 5-6 sacks a year. At worst I see him as a solid DT2 once he earns the starting gig.

  • DE Derek Wolfe - Decent DL2 or quality depth
  • DE/OLB Shaun Phillips - Solid low end DL2
  • DE Robert Ayers - No value
  • DE Malik Jackson - Deep sleeper at best
  • DE Quanterus Smith - Dynasty sleeper with big long term potential
  • DT Terrance Knighton - No value
  • DT Sylvester Williams - Sleeper for this season with DT1 potential
  • DT Kevin Vickerson - Minimal value at best

Linebackers

With the possible suspension of Von Miller and the recent release of Joe Mays, the Broncos are a little thin and unsettled at the linebacker positions. Miller is one of the few 4-3 strong side backers to overcome the limitations of the position from a statistical perspective. When it comes to tackle numbers his average of 53 solo stops is fairly typical for a strong side linebacker, but Miller's big play production is through the roof. Inconsistency is the usual downside to drafting players who rely on big plays, Miller has not been able to escape that problem. In 32 NFL games he has exceeded double digits in fantasy points fifteen times, while totaling five or fewer in seven contests. The extent of Miller's fantasy value shifts greatly depending on the scoring system. In big play based leagues he is on a tier of his own at the top. In balanced leagues Miller is a solid second starter, and in tackle heavy scoring he is likely no more than a number three or depth. Do not make the mistake of expecting a repeat of his 18.5 sack performance from last season. If he avoids the suspension, we can safely depend on Miller for 50+ tackles and 12-15 sacks. See where that puts him in your scoring and adjust his value accordingly. When it comes to figuring how far to drop a player with an early suspension I look at it like this. If the guy is going to be there for me late in the season when I need him, I am going to be happy. In other words, treat it like a four game insurance plan against injury and don't let it be a major factor on draft day.

The release of Mays would seem to be a vote of confidence for 2011 third round pick Nate Irving. His only remaining competition for the middle linebacker job would appear to be journeyman free agent addition Stewart Bradley. As a rookie Irving garnered attention from a lot of optimistic fantasy owners. At that time the question was more about his ability to be a three down player as he was clearly expected to earn the starting job. Instead, his first two seasons yielded  a total of 12 tackles and 4 assists. Irving has the size and skill set to be a strong run defender on early downs, but there is little reason at this point to expect he will jump right into an every down role. This is another situation to monitor. Owners who draft early may want to make him a last round flier just in case, but I am not sure he will ever be much more than a two down MLB.

After four mostly uneventful years as a situational player and backup, Wesley Woodyard broke into the starting lineup at weak side linebacker in 2012. The undersized Woodyard is not the most physical of linebackers, but plays with finesse and savvy. His 73 solo stops last year were far from impressive, but the 44 assists provided somewhat of an equalizer. It was Woodyards big play production of 5 takeaways (3 picks), 6 passes defended and 5.5 sacks that boosted his fantasy totals into the top fifteen. Solid cover skills made Woodyard a three down player in 2012. He should have the same role in 2013. Another top fifteen finish is a possibility but not necessarily an expectation. Look for continued quality production, but I would not be comfortable picking Woodyard among the top twenty linebackers off the board. Target him as a low end LB2 or quality third starter with upside.

  • MLB Nate Irving - Two down MLB with limited potential this season
  • SLB Von Miller - Value depends greatly on scoring system
  • WLB Wesley Woodyard - Serviceable LB2 or excellent third starter
  • MLB Stewart Bradley - Injury sleeper at best OLB Danny Trevathan - No value

Defensive Backs

With the exception of a couple big years from Brian Dawkins at the end of his career, the Denver secondary has given us relatively little quality box score production over the past decade. It is not as if there is no potential here. Rather that there has just not been a standout player in the group for a long time. For example; in 2012 all four starters exceeded 50 tackles with three of them reaching 60, but none with more than 61. Lacking big play production hurt this group as well. Corners Champ Bailey and Chris Harris combined for just 5 interceptions, while safeties Rahim Moore and Mike Adams contributed only 1 between them. Free agent additions Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Quentin Jammer had 6 picks between them last season. Both are likely to figure significantly into the team's plan for 2013.

For most of his fourteen seasons Bailey has been consider among the elite corners in the league. He remains a very good one, but at age 35 the organization may have been thinking about his replacement when they added Rodgers-Cromartie. There is little doubt that Rodgers-Cromartie was signed to be a starter at some point. The question being, will his playing time come at the expense of Bailey or Harris? Bailey has been adamant about wanting to remain at corner. In an April interview he basically said that he was still better than the other corners on the roster and saw no reason for a move to safety. Despite a contract that will pay Bailey 10.5 million this year, John Elway said in February that the veteran will not be released. That of course, was before Rodgers-Cromartie was signed. The high ankle sprain suffered by Rodgers-Cromartie on the last day of July could become a major consideration in this situation.

Harris was an undrafted free agent in 2011. As a rookie he worked mostly as the third corner in sub packages. Harris took over the starting job in week five last season after Tracy Porter was lost to injury. He went on to total a respectable 51 solo stops with 2.5 sacks, and tied Wesley Woodyard for the club lead in interceptions with 3. Harris graded out well as the starter and is likely seen by the organization as a long term answer at the position. The fact that he has totaled 113 tackles with 20 assists, 4 interceptions, 18 passes defended, 2.5 sacks and a pair of scores in a less than full time role over the past two seasons, is reason for optimism among the fantasy community.

It will be interesting to see how the playing time pans out among these three corners. One of them is going to have to settle for a role as the nickel corner. The organization has already shown its loyalty to Bailey, so chances are it will not be him. Regardless of how it plays out in the short term, look for Harris and Rodgers-Cromartie to be the long term guys with Harris possibly emerging as a perennial CB1. Pick up Harris as a late round sleeper and keep your finger crossed.

Adams and Moore opened camp as the starters at strong and free safety respectively. Both are solid but unspectacular players who are capable of holding down the fort for a while. Adams is a nine year veteran journeyman who has been given plenty of opportunity over his career. He has never proven to be more than a marginal starter in NFL terms and has never put up more than 60 tackles in a season.

Moore is entering just his third season as a pro and potentially his second as a starter. He will have stiff competition for the job from Jammer who is an aging veteran (34 years old) and a former corner. The move to free safety could prove to be a good fit Jammer and could extend his career a few years. Denver has had excellent luck with veteran safeties in the past. That said, there is no reason to get excited about either of these guys.

  • SS Mike Adams - Minimal value at best
  • FS Rahim Moore - Minimal value at best
  • SS Quinton Carter - No value
  • FS Quentin Jammer - Possible depth in 12 team leagues that start 3
  • CB Champ Bailey - Depth in leagues that start 2 corners
  • CB Chris Harris - Sleeper with CB1 upside and long term value
  • CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie - Depth at best

Kansas City Chiefs

Defensive Linemen

There are a lot of people out there who believe the Chiefs are a much more talented club than their two wins in 2012 would suggest. On paper I would have to agree, especially when looking at their defense. As with most 3-4 teams, Kansas City gets little statistical production from their defensive line. They have made a big investment in this group however, including a pair of early first round picks over the past four years.

2009 third overall pick Tyson Jackson had the best statistical season of his career in 2012. Unfortunately for fantasy owners, that still amounted to only 31 tackles and 3 sacks. In four seasons Jackson has averaged an ugly 28 tackles and 1.25 sacks. He does a good job of plugging run lanes and keeping blockers off the linebackers, but the Chiefs need him to step up if they are going to turn things around. 2012 was a step in the right direction. Hopefully Jackson will be able to build on it. 

Last year's eleventh overall pick Dontari Poe stepped right in as the starter at nose tackle. The 346 pound road grader looked good at times and gained a lot of valuable experience. Yet he was not the dominating player the Chiefs hoped to get with that level of investment. Over the years there have been a few players at this position who have put up 40+ tackles and 3-5 sacks. Poe is only 22 years old and may eventually develop into one of those guys. He did manage 28 tackles and 4 batted passes but is still looking for that first career sack.

Former Jets starter Mike DeVito will compete with third year pro Allen Bailey to round out the Chiefs starting lineup. Bailey has played sparingly over his first two seasons but he does have a sack to go with his 11 career tackles. In six seasons as a pro (three as a starter) DeVito has 2.5.

As 3-4 linemen go, this is a talented group of players with the right skill set for their respective duties. There may even be a little untapped box score potential among them. They should do a fine job anchoring the Chiefs 3-4 but their biggest contribution to fantasy owners is likely to be the quality production of the linebackers who work behind them.

  • DE Tyson Jackson - Depth in large leagues at best
  • DE Mike DeVito - No value
  • DE Allen Bailey - No value until proven otherwise
  • NT Dontari Poe - Potential depth in tackle required leagues
  • NT Anthony Toribio - No value

Linebackers

Only James Laurinaitis and Lavonte David totaled more solo tackles than the 110 racked up by Derrick Johnson last season. Johnson even added 4 forced fumbles and a pair of sacks, yet he still finished the season outside the top fifteen in a lot of leagues. His handicap comes from the people who keep statistics for the Chiefs. No linebacker in the top fifty was credited with fewer assists last year than Johnson's 15. Over the first five seasons his career he was somewhat productive in the big play columns but never exceeded 83 solo stops or 18 assists. During that time Johnson was a good but not great fantasy option. In 2009, then head coach Todd Haley benched Johnson in what was basically a challenge. Johnson responded by earning his job back in 2010 and becoming the beast he has been since. Over the past three seasons Johnson has averaged nearly 103 solo stops, adding 12 takeaways, 5 sacks and 28 passes defended. His career best of 27 assists came in 2011 so there is some hope for slightly better numbers in that area in 2013. He is 30 years old, is a complete player and is the leader of a Chiefs defense that could really make some noise this season. His total fantasy points might land just outside the top twelve again this year, but Johnson's consistency and dependability make him a low end LB1 value.

The tragedy of Jovan Belcher left the Chiefs shorthanded at the other inside linebacker position late last season. The organization addressed that need by adding former Eagles starter Akeem Jordan and veteran journeyman Zach Diles in free agency, then selecting Nico Johnson in the fourth round of the draft. These three guys will compete for the starting job this summer. In the long run Johnson is likely to win the job. He is an unselfish, hardnosed physical run defender much like Belcher had been. Regardless of who lines up at this position that player is going to be a two down guy with limited box score potential.

In Tamba Hali and Justin Houston the Chiefs have an excellent tandem to bookend their defense. Both player are excellent pass rusher who defend the run well and can drop into coverage as the scheme sometimes call for. Between them they totaled 19 sacks in 2012. Hali is entering his eighth pro season. He has consistently provided tackle numbers in the upper 40s and has totaled fewer than 7.5 sacks just one in his career. Hali has averaged 11 sacks over the past four seasons. Houston is entering just his third season and is coming off a 2012 that saw him total 53 tackles and lead the team with 10 sacks. Comparing these guys directly is a tough call. They are similar in a lot of ways. Hali is proven over a longer period of time but Houston is younger and was more productive in fantasy terms last year. Both players are going to have a lot of value in big play based leagues but I would give Houston the edge.

Jordan could be used as a backup on the outside but former Packer Frank Zombo will likely be the third option at outside linebacker. His experience in a similar scheme makes him a good fit in the relief role when one of the starters needs a play or two off.

  • ILB Derrick Johnson - Solid low end LB1 or excellent second starter
  • ILB Nico Johnson - Depth at best
  • ILB Akeem Jordan - No value
  • OLB Tamba Hali - Quality starter in big play based leagues
  • OLB Justin Houston - Quality starter in big play based leagues
  • OLB Frank Zombo - No value

Defensive Backs

The Chiefs are likely to be ahead in a lot more games this season so their corners could be much more busy in 2013. Brandon Flowers will man one of the starting jobs on the outside. He has become one of the leagues better cover men and is a true number one corner in NFL terms. In the fantasy realm Flowers is the poster child for the rookie corner rule. He entered the league in 2008 and played fourteen games as a rookie. That season Flowers totaled 62 solo stops with 5 takeaways and 13 passes defended. In each season since his tackle production has gone down to a total of 40 tackles in 2012. Flowers big play numbers have fluctuated a bit over those years and were well down last season. Expect those to rebound strongly but the lacking tackle production will continue making him a marginal at best fantasy option.

Former Miami starter Sean Smith and long time Falcons veteran Dunta Robinson were both added via free agency to fill the second and third corner jobs. The initial intention seemed to be having Smith start with Robinson working as the nickel back. Reports thus far are that Robinson has been working with the first unit. Both players are strong in coverage but neither has been particularly impressive as a big play threat throughout their respective careers. Robinson's 67 solo tackles helped him into the top fifteen among corners last season. While Smith landed just outside the top twenty five. The winner of this competition should be at least quality depth in leagues that start two corners.

The real fantasy value in the Chiefs secondary lies with strong safety Eric Berry. The 2010 first round pick lived up to expectations as a rookie when he totaled 77-15-2 with 4 interceptions, a forced fumble and 10 passes defended. He was the fantasy game's third ranked defensive back that season. His 2011 ended with a knee injury in the season opener. Berry returned last year but was not the same player early on. By mid season many fantasy owners had written him off and cut him. Those who showed patience and faith in Berry were rewarded down the stretch. Over the final nine games he averaged just under 5.5 tackles with an interception and 9 passes defended. Berry is the real deal and now that he is two years removed from the injury, he should be back to 100%. He can play in the box or in coverage with equal success, is a sure and physical tackler and a ball hawk. Berry may push Morgan Burnett for the top slot among defensive backs in 2013.

Kendrick Lewis was in and out of the lineup last season as he battled injury. He entered camp as the starter but is feeling the heat from Quintin Demps who has looked good early on. Demps was a fourth round pick of the Eagles in 2008 and is a player that Andy Reed knows well. Regardless of who starts at free safety, the cards are stacked against them in terms of fantasy production. The Chiefs have not produced a fantasy productive free safety since Jared Page, and even he was marginal. Then there is the fact that league wide there are few free safties in 3-4 defenses that have been fantasy productive in recent years.

  • SS Eric Berry - Stud with the potential to finish as the top DB in the game
  • FS Kendrick Lewis - Minimal value at best
  • FS Quintin Demps - Minimal value at best
  • CB Brandon Flowers - Depth in big play leagues starting two corners
  • CB Sean Smith - Minimal value
  • CB Dunta Robinson - Depth with low end CB2 upside

Oakland Raiders

Defensive Linemen

The Raiders are trying to change what has become a losing culture since the "tuck rule" fiasco. With the passing of Al Davis came a new general manager, followed by a new coaching staff and philosophy and now a purge of players that they hope will lead to a new direction for the organization. Of the team's top six defensive linemen from last season only Lamarr Houston and Andre Carter are back. Matt Shaughnessy, Richard Seymour, Desmond Bryant and Tommy Kelly accounted for 90 tackles and 17 sacks between them. Surprisingly the club did not add a big name free agent nor did they use an early pick on a lineman. This leads to an interesting and competitive situation.

Lamarr Houston seems to be the only player locked into a starting role up front. He is a 300 pound end who finished third among the league's defensive linemen with 48 solo stops in 2012. If Houston were a better pass rusher, he would be a premier fantasy target. Instead he is only adequate in that area, posting 4.5 sacks last year and 10.5 in his three year career. The plus with Houston is his versatility and size, which allows him to move inside for sub package snaps. With the Raiders moves up front this offseason, Houston could see even more snaps in 2013. He may never see double digit sacks but should be a 40+ tackle guy with 5-7 sacks. His numbers last season were good enough to land just outside the top fifteen in most balanced scoring leagues. That is about where I expect him to land this year as well.

The rest of the playing time at end is open to competition between journeyman free agent Jason Hunter who will be with his fourth team in five years; 2012 fifth round pick Jack Crawford who had 2 tackles in four games last year; rookie seventh round pick David Bass and 34 year old returning veteran Andre Carter. The smart money here is on Carter. Back and quad injuries had teams nervous about his health heading into 2012. Carter signed an injury waiver in late September so the Raiders would give him a chance. In week nine he became a situational player, finishing the season with 13 tackles and 2.5 sacks. Just as importantly, he finished the season healthy. For a player of his age Carter has relatively low miles on him. There have been some seasons over his career when he simply did not play a lot. Most of those years were due to scheme changes that did not fit his strengths or other circumstances not related to injury or his ability as a 4-3 end. When he does get to be a 4-3 end, Carter generally puts up good numbers. Four times in twelve seasons he has exceeded double digits in sacks. The most recent being 2011 when he was 31-21-11 with a pair of forced fumbled for the Patriots. There is clearly plenty of risk here, but maybe the ghost of Al Davis will smile when another old, over the hill castoff has a big season in Silver & Black. They may elect to spell Carter regularly in order to keep him fresh, but I really like him as a late/last round pick who could give us one or two more quality years while the Raiders rebuild.

Oakland tackles have been perennially box score friendly in general. Much of that production has come from Kelly over the years but there have been others. I have a hard time seeing where those numbers will go this year. Former Bengal Pat Sims is a quality player who was caught in a numbers crunch with a club that was loaded at the position. He is all but certain to hold one of the starting jobs and could be a pleasant surprise. On the other hand, Sims has only 6 sacks in his five years as a pro and a career best of 20 tackles. Consider him a deep sleeper and a potential second starter in tackle required leagues.

Just like the defensive end position, the rest of the playing time at tackle is up for grabs. Former Falcons backup Vance Walker will be in the mix and likely in the rotation if he does not start. The 2009 seventh round pick moved into the lineup for the Falcons in week nine last year, finishing at 21-11-3 with a forced fumble. Walker is a better pass rusher than Sims, and seems more likely to be on the field all three downs. Walker would seem to be most likely to succeed in the box scores among the Raiders interior linemen.

The other contenders on the inside are rookie sixth round pick Stacy McGee out of Oklahoma and last year's sixth round selection Christo Bilukidi who had 5 tackles as a rookie. We should not be surprised if Oakland looks for veteran help at both defensive line positions if someone of value becomes available.

  • DE Andre Carter - Late round sleeper with DE2 potential
  • DE Lamarr Houston - Quality second starter in balanced scoring leagues
  • DE Jason Hunter - Deep sleeper at best
  • DE Jack Crawford - Deep sleeper with some upside
  • DT Pat Sims - Sleeper with limited upside
  • DT Vance Walker - Sleeper with DT2 potential
  • DT Christo Bilukdi - Deep sleeper

Linebackers

There is just as much uncertainty at the linebacker positions in Oakland. Many people are convinced that Nick Roach will be the starter at middle linebacker. Because of his experience, Roach is getting the first shot at the job. Roach spent some time as the starting strong side backer during his six years with Chicago. He also filled in for an injured Brian Urlacher a few times. The experience is nice but he has never really stood out and has rarely been on the field in sub packages unless Urlacher or Lance Briggs were down. At best I see Roach as a short term place holder with LB3 potential at best. I will be surprised if he is still starting in November.

I say this about Roach not because he is less than adequate, but because I believe rookie Sio Moore will quickly ascend to the position. Let's face it, Oakland is getting younger and building for the future. Moore has the versatility and athletic prowess to play any of the 4-3 linebacker positions. He could start on the strong side as a rookie and may remain there for a while, but ultimately I believe the young man will move inside and become a leader on this squad. During his three years as a starter on the outside at Connecticut, Moore averaged nearly 90 combined tackles, recorded 15.5 sacks and 16 passes defended. He has the size a 245 pounds, runs a 4.65 in the 40, excels in man coverage, has outstanding work ethic and impressed at every opportunity during the scouting process. This is just the kind of guy the Raiders are looking for to build their defense around. He is a sleeper for 2013 but dynasty owners should be all over this guy.

Veterans Kevin Burnett, Kaluka Maiava and second year pro Miles Burris are also in the mix for playing time. With Maiava being the only one of these five guys limited to a single position (SLB), the coaching staff will look at several combinations of players and positions over the preseason. Someone here is going to be at least a decent LB3 for us, and there may be two guys with that value. Moore has the most long term upside and the highest ceiling. Burnett is likely to be the veteran presence on the field, and Burris also has some potential if he lands in the right spot. As is usual, the key here is getting the guy with a three down role. We will know more about that once we see a preseason contest or two. This situation is one we will be focused on in August.

  • MLB Nick Roach - LB3 at best
  • MLB/WLB Miles Burris - Deep sleeper with LB3 upside
  • MLB/OLB Sio Moore - Strong sleeper for dynasty owners in particular
  • WLB Kevin Burnett - Likely to earn 3 down role and be a decent third starter or quality depth
  • SLB Kaluka Maiava - No value

Defensive Backs

Competition continues to abound in Oakland at the corner position. Rookie first round pick D.J. Hayden is sure to come away with one of the starting jobs eventually, but a late signing followed by an abdominal injury has him behind the learning curve early in camp. Hayden is fast, athletic, excels in man coverage and has a knack for separating offensive players from the ball. The Raiders corner positions have given us little in fantasy terms over the years, but this is a bold new world in Oakland. Hayden has the rookie corner rule in his favor as well. That alone makes him a sleeper in corner required leagues.

Veteran free agents Tracy Porter, Mike Jenkins and Joselio Hansen will also be battling to establish the pecking order at the position. This cast gives the Raiders some much needed experience and veteran depth, but there is little to get excited about in fantasy terms.

One place the Raiders are settled is at safety. Strong safety Tyvon Branch has been a mainstay for the club since becoming a starter in 2009. He has also been a stalwart for fantasy owners over the past four years. If not for missing a couple of games last season Branch would have reached 80 solo tackles for the fourth consecutive season and would have earned his fourth top fifteen fantasy ranking in a row. He is a true physical in the box strong safety, who is like having an extra linebacker on the field in run support, yet is not a liability in coverage. With the Raiders in rebuild mode, Branch will be in a target rich environment and could be looking at the second 90 tackle season of his career. There is one downside with Branch. that being his lack of big play production. Over the past two seasons his only contribution in that area has been 2 picks and a fumble recovery. In balanced leagues he is still a quality low end DB1 or an excellent second starter. 

Charles Woodson returns to Oakland after eight years with Green Bay. Unlike his first stint with the club when he was a corner, Woodson will line up at free safety this time. He has excelled at moving around the secondary in recent years and brings a much needed big play presence to the team. Woodson should provide respectable tackle numbers but it his average of 7+ takeaways a season over his career that makes him a quality fantasy prospect. An injury shortened 2012 put an end to Woodson's streak of four consecutive years as a top ten DB. He turns 37 in October and is obviously near the end of a great career. At his age and having missed time last year with injury, there is risk with Woodson, but in redraft leagues he is clearly worth a late pick as your third starter.

  • SS Tyvon Branch - Low end DB1 or excellent second starter
  • FS Charles Woodson - DB2 with a risk factor due to age
  • CB Tracy Porter - No value
  • CB Mike Jenkins - No value
  • CB Joselio Hanson - No value
  • CB D.J. Hayden - Rookie corner rule makes him a sleeper with CB2 potential

San Diego Chargers

Defensive Linemen

Before 2012 we had to look all the way back to a young Luis Castillo to find a box score friendly lineman in a Chargers uniform. Defensive end Corey Liuget broke that streak last year with numbers that are impressive for a lineman in a 3-4. The 34 tackles, 16 assists, with 6 sacks and a fumble recovery were enough to earn Liuget a roster spot in most leagues, but the 9 passes defended added enough to make him a quality second starter for many. Liuget was the Chargers first round pick in 2011. He was in the rotation at end as a rookie before claiming a starting job in his second season. Liuget is a nimble 298 pounds and has a skill set similar to that of Justin Smith. Expecting a repeat of the 9 batted passed is probably wishful thinking, but Luiget could make up for it with improved tackle and sack numbers. He was the fourth highest ranked 3-4 lineman last season, coming in around number twenty among all defensive linemen in most leagues. With only one quality year under his belt, there is still a risk Luiget may be a one year wonder. I do not believe his 2012 was a fluke and would target Liuget as a DL3 or a low end second starter in a pinch.

Kendall Reyes and Cam Thomas round out the starting‌ lineup at end and nose tackle respectively. Both are young players who fit well with the responsibilities of their positions. At 6'4" and 335 pounds Thomas is a prototypical 3-4 nose tackle. He is a strong run defender with the size and power to hold ground and take up a lot of space in the middle of the field. Thomas is entering his third year as a starter and is key to the success of the defense, but his contributions will go largely unrewarded in the box scores.

Reyes is an interesting prospect. Last season's second round pick is similar to Liuget in both size and skill set. As a rookie Reyes played sparingly early in the year. His role began to increase around mid season. Reyes's final seven games produced 13 tackles, 8 assists and 5.5 sacks. Those numbers make me cautiously optimistic that could make a jump in his second season similar to the one Liuget did. Slip Reyes on your list as a deep sleeper for those in deep drafted leagues. Everyone else should keep an eye on him and see how things develop.

  • DE Corey Liuget - Quality DL3 with DL2 upside
  • DE Kendall Reyes - Deep sleeper
  • DE Jarius Wynn - No value
  • NT Cam Thomas - No value

Linebackers

Heading into preseason action there is no more important situation for IDP owners than the Chargers inside linebacker positions. Speculation here is all over the place, as are the anticipated values of Donald Butler and Manti Te'o. Butler would seem to be the more safe of the two. As a rookie in 2011, he was the best two down linebacker in the league. Butler finished the season with 76 solo tackles, a pair of sacks and 4 takeaways. Impressive numbers considering that he was on the field for only 68% of the team's defensive snaps. After seeing that production and learning that he would be a three down player in 2012, many of us had grand expectations for Butler last year. There are two ways to look at his 2012 production. For those who see the glass half empty; When Butler was injured in week twelve, he was the twenty fifth ranked linebacker at 46-21-2.5 with a couple of takeaways. For those who choose to see it half full; had he continued the same pace over a full season, Butler's numbers would project to roughly 82 tackles, 37 assists, 4.5 sacks, about 4 takeaways and a fantasy ranking just inside the top fifteen. There is little doubt that Butler will retain his every down role, or that he will be a quality starter for us. What remains to be seen is if he is a strong LB2 or a solid LB3.

Butler's value will be directly impacted by the presence of second round pick Manti Te'o. The rookie will be an immediate starter and will give Butler more competition for tackles on early downs at the least. Heading into the first round of preseason games; arguably the biggest unanswered question on the defensive side of the ball targets Te'o's role in sub packages. He is not particularly fast, nor is Te'o graceful in coverage, but the guy was able to get it done at a high level against quality competition during his college career at Notre Dame. Not only was he a tackling machine with 112 combined stops, Te'o intercepted 7 passes as a senior.

In recent years the Chargers have usually kept only one of their inside backers on the field in sub packages. If that trend continues Te'o may take over Butler's old title as the best two down linebacker in the league. On the other hand, it has been a long time since the team last had two inside backers of this quality. My thought on this from the start is that the organization would not have used such a high pick on a two down inside linebacker. Those guys can be picked up in the later rounds. I believe they see Te'o as a leader and will tweak their coverage and schemes toward the things that he does well in order to eventually get both inside backers on the field in most sub packages.

The problem with drafting either of these guys is that the situation could change at any point during the season. Until we see them settle in somewhere for a while, they are hard to put a value on in either dynasty or redraft format. That said, I believe both guys will give us useful production in the long term. Redraft owners probably want to go with Butler for now and/or take a late round chance on Te'o if he falls that far. In redraft leagues I will be targeting Butler as a low end LB2 and Te'o as a high potential LB4.

The Chargers have solidified their inside linebacker positions for the long term. On the outside they are thin at best. Former Raven Jarrett Johnson came to San Diego via free agency last year, but failed to make the expected impact. Johnson is a good player who does a lot of things well, but he is not an elite pass rusher, and that is the most important role of a 3-4 outside linebacker. In ten seasons as a pro Johnson has just 21.5 sacks and 16 takeaways.

At the other OLB position the chargers will go with 33 year old veteran Dwight Freeney who has played all of fourteen games at outside linebacker over his twelve year career. Those games were last season and Freeney was far from comfortable when asked to drop rather than rush. His fourteen starts produced all of 10 tackles and 5 sacks. Freeney has not exceeded 26 tackles in a season since 2006, His sack production has declined steadily since 2009 and he is a 33 year old defensive end playing out of position. This sure does not look like a answer to a serious need for San Diego.

2009 first round pick Larry English is the club's third option. He has battled injury and inconsistency over his four seasons as a pro. English is certain to either start or have a significant role, but with only 8.5 career sacks there is no reason to give him any consideration.

  • ILB Donald Butler - Target as a quality second starter
  • ILB Manti Te'o - Target as an LB4 with big potential
  • ILB D.J. Smith - Injury sleeper at best
  • OLB Jarrett Johnson - No value
  • OLB Dwight Freeney - No value
  • OLB Larry English - No value

Defensive Backs

Eric Weddle is one of the few fantasy friendly free safeties working behind 3-4 fronts. In years past his inconsistency has soured my opinion of Weddle in terms of fantasy value. In 2012 he turned a new leaf and made me start to believe again. The 83 solo stops were the second most of his six pro seasons and he was good for the usual handful of takeaways we have come to expect. The difference in 2012 was that Weddle scored 9+ fantasy points in thirteen weeks. The addition of Manti Te'o and the presence of a healthy Donald Butler are likely to shave a few tackles off Weddle's totals, but he remains a quality option as a top end second starter.

Over the past couple of years the Chargers have been searching for a long term answer at strong safety. Last season they used a third round pick on Brandon Taylor who came with high expectations. Taylor ended up being inactive on game day for most of the season before getting into a handful of games late in the year. Taylor made his first start in week sixteen then promptly tore his ACL in the game. He will be eased back into action and is unlikely to challenge for the starting job until at least mid season.

Next up for the Chargers at strong safety is Marcus Gilchrist. The former college corner has worked as a backup at both safety and corner during his two years in the league. Last season he served as the slot corner in sub packages. In that part time role Gilchrist was on the field roughly 66% of the time and finished with 48 solo tackles. I like his skill set and production potential, and believe Gilchrist may prove to be that long term answer. What I am not so sure of, is how much opportunity he will have with all the competition for tackles up the middle of this defense. What I will be looking for here is how Gilchrist is used during the preseason. If they move him up in the box on a regular basis, he could put up better tackle numbers than Weddle. If they line Gilchrist up at free safety depth as I believe they may, he will be marginal at best. 

A healthy Taylor would provide a more physical presence at strong safety. Gilchrist was a good fit as the team's nickel corner last year, so in the long term the coaching staff may elect to get both players on the field together.

Chargers 2012 starters Quentin Jammer and Antoine Cason were both among the top twenty fantasy corners last season. Between them they totaled 118 solo tackles, 20 passes defended and eleven takeaways. Both of these guys moved on via free agency but there is clearly some box score potential to be found here. The apparent plan is to go with third year pro Shareece Wright on one side and free agent addition Derek Cox on the other, with several players competing for slots in the sub packages.

There are reasons for optimism with both of these players. Wright is a third year pro but a first time starter with only 22 tackles on his career resume. To some extent the rookie corner rule could be in play here. He missed the early part of last season with injury but got on the field in sub packages for a few games. In all Wright was on the field for only 120 total defensive snaps. In that limited opportunity he recorded 17 tackles, 2 passed defended and forced a fumble. Without turning this into a math test, let's just say that is a lot of production for so few opportunities.

Cox is a four year veteran who when healthy, has been a box score friendly starter for the Jaguars over the past four seasons. At a glance his 2012 numbers of 55 tackles, 4 takeaways and 11 passes defended will not stand out. They take on a different meaning when we consider that Cox posted those numbers in only twelve games. He is a quality cover corner who makes his share of big play and does not shy away from an opportunity to pop a ball carrier. A productive player going to a productive position makes Cox a high potential sleeper in 2013. The down side is that he has missed a total of seventeen games with various injuries over the past three seasons. Cox is a risk reward player with the potential to be a second starter or better in corner required league.

  • FS Eric Weddle - Quality DB2 with top 12 potential
  • SS/CB Marcus Gilchrist - Deep sleeper with DB3 upside at best
  • SS Brandon Taylor - Deep/dynasty sleeper returning from serious injury
  • CB Derek Cox - Risk/reward sleeper with CB2 or better upside
  • CB Shareece Wright - Sleeper with CB2 or better potential
  • CB Johnny Patrick - Injury sleeper at best
  • CB Steve Williams - No value

That does it for the AFC West. Next up the NFC West.


More from John Norton:

Eyes of the Guru: Week 4 - September 24
Eyes of the Guru: Week 3 - September 17
Eyes of the Guru: Week 2 - September 10
Eyes of the Guru: Week 1 - September 1
Eyes of the Guru: Preseason IDP Notes from Week 2 - August 22
Eyes of the Guru: Preseason IDP Notes from Week 1 - August 15
Eyes of the Guru: Part 8 - July 30
Eyes of the Guru: Part 7 - July 25
Eyes of the Guru Preseason: Part 6 - July 17
Eyes of the Guru Preseason: Part 5 - July 14