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Eyes of the Guru: NFC East

An overview of defenses in the NFC East 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.

Dallas Cowboys

Defensive Linemen

The Cowboys are yet another team that is changing their defensive philosophy. Both former coordinator Rob Ryan and his 3-4 scheme were shown the door after a lackluster showing in 2012. Tampa-2 guru Monte Kiffin was hired in Ryan's place and will bring his aggressive 4-3 cover-2 scheme to Dallas. With the change of schemes comes the usual uncertainty about how well some holdovers will fit. Adding to the Cowboys problems up front are a number of injury situations. Former outside linebackers DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer are expected to make the transition to defensive end. At 254 pounds Ware is slightly undersized for a lineman so it will be interesting to see how well he handles the run in the new alignment. My expectations are that it will not be an issue, and we know that he is one of the leagues premier pass rushers. Ware has averaged 52 tackles and 14 sacks a season over his eight year career, so his 33 tackles and 11.5 sacks in 2012 were sub-par by his standards. The changing responsibilities are likely to cause a slight drop in tackle production from his career averages, but Ware should be just as effective at getting to the passer. I expect 40-45 tackles and around 15 sacks from him this season.

Spencer is similar in size, so he too is a tad smallish. He is also battling a sore knee that is going to require a scope. The organization seems confident that he will be back in time for the regular season. Head Coach Jason Garrett came out in support, saying that he was not worried. Perhaps Garrett was being politically correct, because he should be concerned. Not only is the knee a possible issue, Spencer is not nearly the athlete that Ware is, and there are questions about how well he will transition to the new scheme. Spencer was looking for a new contract this offseason and the Cowboys hesitance to give him one may be founded on this concern. He is only 29 years old and has plenty of years left but the organization wants to see that he is their long term answer before giving him long term money. The problem here is that if he struggles early, will it be because the knee is still an issue or that he is just not a 4-3 end? Production wise Spencer is coming off what was by far the best year of his career. His 56 tackles beat a previous career best of 52 and his 11 sacks were more than his past two seasons combined. Spencer is in the final year of his contract so he has the added incentive of playing for a big payday. All things considered, we have to look at Spencer as a risk/reward player. There is considerable risk but the reward could be pretty good as well. On the high side we might get 45 tackles and double digit sacks. On the low side 30-35 tackles and 5-6 sacks. Spencer is likely to end up somewhere in between, making him a worthwhile pickup as a third lineman. 

The injuries are not limited to the defensive end position. Tackle Jay Ratliff failed to even make it through the initial conditioning test before straining his hamstring. He has been placed on the PUP list and is not expected to practice anytime soon. The soon to be 32 year old missed ten games with a groin injury last season. Age and the two recent injuries may bring out some red flags for the Cowboys. Ratliff worked at nose tackle in the 3-4 and would seem to be a great fit as the inside tackle in the new scheme. He has given us decent production in the past including a couple of top five finishes among interior linemen in 2008 and 2009, but Ratliff has not made the top twenty in any of the past three seasons. Even with the new scheme he is a long shot to have much of a box score impact.

Jason Hatcher will work in the under tackle role and could be a pleasant surprise for us. This is the 4-3 position that most closely resembles that of a 3-4 end that he has played in previous years. With 27 tackles 24 assists and 4.5 sacks in 2012, Hatcher had the best season of his seven year career. Those numbers those numbers would make him top twelve as an interior lineman. Hatcher has been a backup for much of his career, thus he does not have a history of strong tackle production. As a starter over the past two seasons he has combined for 47 solo stops and 8.5 sacks. If things go according to plan in Dallas, Hatcher would be working between Ratliff and Ware who both draw a lot of double team attention. With single blocking Hatcher might flourish. Geno Atkins he is not, but 30 tackles and 5-6 sacks are a real possibility. If your league required interior linemen, slip Hatcher onto your late round sleeper list.

The concerns over Spencer's knee were magnified when number three end Tyrone Crawford tore his Achilles at the start of training camp. Beyond Crawford the Cowboys have nothing but a collection of street free agents and journeyman backups available. They are already moving to sure up the positions by signing free agent end George Selvie and tackle Landon Cohen. These guys have a little experience but are basically just bodies to fill the depth chart. Dallas was a day late and a dollar short on Abraham who was the last of starter quality free agent ends. Unless Jerry Jones can pull off a trade, it may be a rough ride.

  • DE DeMarcus Ware - Likely top 10 stud as a defensive lineman
  • DE Anthony Spencer - Risk reward player with DL2 potential
  • DT Jay Ratliff - No value
  • DT Jason Hatcher - Sleeper in leagues that require interior linemen
  • DT Sean Lissemore - Injury sleeper at best
  • DE Cameron Sheffield - No value
  • DE Monte Taylor - No value
  • DE Jerome Long - No value

Linebackers

Dallas was decimated by injuries at inside linebacker late last season. So far everything is good at the second level from a health perspective. When the Cowboys first hired Kiffin there was speculation that Sean Lee and Bruce Carter would compete for the middle linebacker job. Once offseason activities got underway Lee quickly settled in at middle with Carter going to the weak side. Looking at the scheme and the skill set of the two players this makes the most sense. In Kiffin's scheme the middle backer is often asked to take a deep drop and has a great deal area to cover in the middle zone. Lee is a complete linebacker who is tough against the run, but coverage may be the strongest part of his game. Not only is he fast and smooth with the technique, Lee is a ball hawk as well. He became a starter during the 2011 season, finishing the year with 72 tackles, 4 interceptions, a sack, a forced fumble and 7 passes defended. He opened last season as a starter and was on pace for 96 solo stops, 56 assists, 5 takeaways and 8 passes defended when he went down with a toe injury. The surgery seems to be holding so hopefully all will be well. Keep in mind however, that toe injuries have a tendency to become nagging issues. Lee would seem to be the perfect fit in Kiffin's scheme and should be in line for a monster season. If he can stay healthy all year, it will be a bigger surprise if he does not make the top ten than if he does. I slip him down a few slots on my board only because there are a lot of very safe players at the top of the linebacker list, but would still grab Lee as one of the first twelve linebackers off the board.

Carter missed a few games at the end of last season with an elbow injury. He has recovered completely and is full go at training camp. Carter is also a talented player with good cover skills. He has not shown the big play prowess of Lee thus far in his career, but Carter is faster and arguably more physical. The speed advantage along with his knack for working through traffic and ability to run down plays from the back side, make Carter just what the doctor ordered to fill the weak side position in Kiffin's scheme. As much as I like Lee, Carter has the potential to outscore him this season. For an idea of Carter's upside all we need do is take a look at a couple of other guys that have played the position. Derrick Brooks was a perennial top ten linebacker with several top five finishes playing under Kiffin. If you have not been at this long enough to remember Brooks, Take a look at Lance Briggs. He has never played under Kiffin directly, but the Bears used a very similar scheme for years. Between 2004 and 2011 Briggs averaged 94 tackles a game with 12 sacks and 31 takeaways. You will need to go early if you want Lee but if you miss him, grab Carter as your second starter. I have seen him slide beyond the first twenty linebackers off the board in a few leagues, so depending on your competition you might even get him as your number three.

The Cowboys had no roster holdovers who fit the mold of a 4-3 strong side linebacker, so the added veteran free agent Justin Durant to handle those duties. Durant is a versatile player who has started a number of games at all three linebacker positions during his career. He has turned in a couple of decent statistical seasons over the past four years but barring an injury to Lee or Carter, Durant will be a two down player in a position that is not box score friendly.

  • MLB Sean Lee - Top ten prospect with a little injury concern
  • WLB Bruce Carter - Quality LB3 with high LB2 potential
  • SLB Justin Durant - Injury sleeper
  • OLB Kyle Wilbur - Injury sleeper at best
  • OLB Alex Albright - Injury sleeper at best
  • MLB Orie Lemon - No value

Defensive Backs

The last fantasy productive defensive back in Dallas was Roy Williams back in about 2005. The club has in need of a talent infusion at safety for several years now and could still use some help there. Barry Church has been in and out of the lineup over the past two seasons and will be the starting strong safety when 2013 opens. He has shown a few flashes of production in the past but has been less than impressive in any sense. Will Allen enters camp as the starting free safety. He is a veteran journeyman who started his career as a corner. Allen has good cover skills but is not much of a big play threat. He is a serviceable player who is not a long term answer.

That brings us to rookie third round pick J.J. Wilcox who was a receiver until his senior season at Georgia Southern. He is a talented athlete but is obviously a raw talent as a defensive back. The organization believes that Wilcox will eventually become a starter for them but he is not expected to challenge for a job in his rookie season.

Safeties in cover-2 schemes are rarely productive anyway, so it really does not matter who Dallas runs out to play the position. The design of the scheme often has the safeties playing a deep zone with each covering half of the field. Thus their run support opportunities are limited. As a result the corners regularly play up near the line in press coverage and will be asked to pick up some of the run support responsibilities that fall to safeties in other schemes. 2012 sixth overall pick Morris Claiborne and last year's free agent addition Brandon Carr are the starters at corner. At 6'0" and 205 pounds, Carr is a physical corner who should fit well in the scheme. He became an example of the rookie corner rule by putting up 70 solo stops in his first year as a pro (2008) then not reaching 50 in any of the next three seasons. The cover-2 however, could put him back in the 65+ range. Slip him onto your late round sleeper list as depth at corner with CB2 upside.

Claiborne on the other hand, is smaller at 188 pounds, and depends more on speed and athleticism than a physical nature. He is an excellent cover corner with a little big play upside but may struggle when asked to press bigger receivers. It will not be a surprise to see him shift inside to the slot receiver in nickel packages, allowing nickel corner Orlando Scandrick to play up. There will be ample opportunity for Claiborne so he is worth keeping an eye on, but it is Carr who would seem most likely to make a decent second starter in corner required leagues.

  • SS Barry Church - Minimal value
  • FS Will Allen - No value
  • FS/SS J.J. Wilcox - Dynasty sleeper at best
  • SS Matt Johnson - No value
  • CB Morris Claiborne - Potential CB2 but wait to see some production
  • CB Brandon Carr - Likely a solid second starter at corner
  • CB Orlando Scandrick - No value at this time
  • CB B.W. Webb - Deep sleeper at best

New York Giants

Defensive Linemen

The front four has been the foundation and strength of Giants defenses over the past several years. Last season that foundation began to show big cracks. After finishing among the top five teams in sacks in 2010 with 46 and in 2011 with 48, the Giants fell all the way to twenty second last season with only 33. Age, injuries and inconsistency up front were all contributing factors. Jason Pierre-Paul had a career year in 2011 when he exploded for 67 solo stops and 17 sacks. Over the first nine games last season he was on pace for 50 tackles and 11.5 sacks, then Pierre-Paul basically vanished, posting 18 tackles and no sacks over the final seven games. A couple of weeks into his slide we heard talk of a sore back that was bothering him. Off season surgery revealed that he had been quietly battling a painful disc issue. Having dealt with a similar problem myself, I am amazed that he was able to take the field at all. At the beginning of camp Pierre-Paul told reporters that he was about 75% recovered from the surgery. The coaching staff will ease him back into the action but there is some concern that he may not be fully recovered in time for week one. Once the injury is be behind him, expect a return to prominence for Pierre-Paul. He is a freakish athlete with great potential, but even when fully healthy we can not expect another season to rival his 2011. No one can sustain that kind of production on a regular basis. It will be no surprise however, to see him become a perennial 50 tackle and 15 sack guy. We will keep a close eye on this situation over the summer but for now it may be wise to drop Pierre-Paul out of the top five in redraft leagues. 

It has now been two seasons since Justin Tuck last reached 40 tackles and double digit sacks. He battled a litany of injuries over the 2010 and 2011 seasons that included toe, shoulder, groin, ankle and a neck problem that was rather serious. At age 30 there is some concern that all the injuries have taken a toll and that he is wearing down physically beyond his years. Tuck spoke earlier in the offseason; saying that he is feeling better physically than he has "in a long time". There is also the added motivation of his being in a contract year. He made it through last season relatively healthy but his numbers were well below expectations. Figuring out where to slot Tuck on our draft boards is a real challenge. On one hand we have the last two seasons which have been big disappointments (54 tackles and 9 sacks combined). On the other hand we have a guy who averaged 49 tackles, 10 sacks, 5 takeaways and 4 passes defended from 2007 to 2010. Having been at this for twenty years now, I have seen a lot of instances where players, and particularly defensive linemen, have a strong run of production then suddenly and unexpectedly drop off never to regain their prowess. Tuck could bounce back in 2013 and have a strong season but unless he can be picked up as a low end DL2 or a backup, I will be letting someone else take that chance.

With Osi Umenyiora taking the free agent path out of town; the club has moved Mathias Kiwanuka back to end. Over his seven years with the team, Kiwanuka has bounced back and forth between end and strong side linebacker on a regular basis. The coaching staff made him a linebacker early on as a way to get him on the field. Whenever there was an injury he would move back to end. In fact, he would sometimes line up at both positions over the course of a single game. Kiwanuka has been a solid contributor for the team but has never really looked like an elite pass rusher. His career best of 8.5 sacks came in 2008. He has not exceeded 5 in any other season. There are some who speculate that Kiwanuka will be a starter this year with Tuck in the third man role at end. Believe that when you see it but it is not beyond the realm of possibility. At this point Kiwanuka is a deep sleeper at best, but keep an eye on the situation.

According to Mike Mayock, Damontre Moore is "way better than the 81st player" off the board. For starters let me point out that Tuck was a third round pick in 2005. Moore is a versatile player who worked as both a 3-4 outside linebacker and a 4-3 end during his college career at Texas A&M. He is not the most athletically gifted pass rusher and lacks elite speed, but he is a relentless competitor who was highly productive for the Aggies. His last two season at A&M produced a whopping 98 solo stops, 58 assists and 21 sacks. There is no doubt that Moore figures prominently into the Giants long term plans and we should not be surprised if he ends up with a considerable role as a rookie. His experience at linebacker could make him a good fit in Kiwanuka's former role, or the coaching staff could prefer to move Kiwanuka back to linebacker and plug Moore in as the third end. This is a guy who obviously has a lot of fantasy potential so long as he gets a DE designation. Dynasty owners in particular should keep a finger on the pulse of this situation.

Giants tackles have put up fairly strong numbers for interior linemen in recent years. In 2012 Linval Joseph led the charge with a mark of 33-25-4 which was good enough to land him a top five finish among interior linemen. The 2010 second round pick became a starter in 2011 when he finished at 34-15-2 with 4 batted passes. He may never be a Geno Atkins but Joseph seems a safe bet as a quality DT1 for the foreseeable future.

Joseph will be joined in the starting lineup this year by free agent addition Cullen Jenkins. Jenkins spent seven years as a 3-4 end in Green Bay before playing tackle in Philadelphia over the past two seasons. He has exceeded 30 solo tackles just once in his career but that was in 2011 with the Eagles. The other reason for optimism is that Jenkins can get to the passer. He has 40 career sacks including 9.5 during his two years at a tackle in Philadelphia. Jenkins will get to the passer a few times this year. If Jenkins can pick his fair share of the tackles, he could be a solid option for owners in tackle required leagues.

Second round pick Johnathan Hankins figures to be the third man in the rotation as a rookie. He is a 320 pound run stuffer who is likely to see most of his action on early downs. Hankins had just one sack as a junior at Ohio State in 2012 and was generally unimpressive in the box scores.

Linebackers

It has been a long time since the Giants had a standout at any of their linebacker positions. Michael Boley has been somewhat productive in recent years but Dhani Jones was the last Giants linebacker to give us real fantasy value. That will not change in 2013. Mark Herzlich is the favorite to earn the starting nod at middle linebacker. He is a great feel good story having overcome a rare bone cancer during his career at Boston college. It would make a great ending to the movie if he were somehow able to become a pro-bowl player, but in reality he is no more than a serviceable NFL player who would be a backup on about 30 other teams. Heading into his third season as a pro, Herzlich has all of 30 tackles on his NFL resume. One thing that is in Herzlich's favor is a lack of competition for the nickel package snaps. Keith Rivers, Spencer Paysinger, Aaron curry and Jacquian Williams are all in the mix for starting jobs at the outside linebacker positions, with Dan Connor being the only other option in the middle. With the exception of Williams, all of these guys are veterans who have been two players throughout their careers. Herzlich wants to become a team leader and he may evolve into just that. He could even have a little fantasy value as depth or maybe even a third starter at some point, but his upside is limited.

Williams is an interesting prospect. Someone has to make tackles here and they need a couple of linebacker to stay on the field in the nickel packages. Williams is hands down the team's best coverage linebacker, so he is at the least insured of a role in the sub packages. With Boley gone there is an opening for a starter on the weak side. Williams would seem to be a strong consideration to win that job. He made 21 tackles in 299 snaps last season, a pace that would have put him in the area of 75 as a three down starter. He is probably not a long term answer but could be a decent late round sleeper this season. Pick him up as a fifth linebacker with a little upside.

  • MLB Mark Herzlich - Depth with LB3 upside at best
  • OLB Keith Rivers - Two down player with minimal value at best
  • OLB Spencer Paysinger - No value
  • MLB Dan Connor - Minimal value at best
  • OLB Jacquian Williams - Sleeper with LB3 potential
  • OLB Aaron Curry - No value

Defensive Backs

It does not take Sherlock Holmes to figure out why safeties Antrel Rolle and Stevie Brown were the Giants first and second leading tacklers respectively in 2012. There simply was not a great deal of competition from the guys in front of them. Rolle played corner early in his career and is among the top strong safeties in the league in terms of coverage skills. He is a sound player all around and a particularly dependable tackler. Playing corner for Arizona he exceeded 75 tackles twice in four seasons as a starter. Since coming to the Giants in 2010, Rolle has averaged a strong and consistent 77 tackles, with slightly under 4 takeaways a season. In fantasy terms Rolle suffers from modest takeaway totals, a shortage of passes defended and below average numbers of assist. These statistical shortcomings consistently hold Rolle out of the top fifteen, but he is one of the most dependable third starters in the fantasy game.

Stevie Brown played sparingly until week four last seasons, but once he got on the field he exploded. By the end of the season he was a top five safety and a top ten DB overall. Most fantasy owners will remember how hot he was in 2012 and automatically put Brown in the top three on their draft boards. There are some reasons to approach cautiously here. No one knew who Brown was until about week six last season. This is probably because he was an undrafted free agent signed by the Raiders in 2010. After being let go that offseason, he was picked up by the Colts and spent 2011 in Indianapolis. Granted, it would hardly be the first time a player bounced around early in his career before catching on with the right team, but the fact that the Raiders and Colts did not see him as worthy of bringing back is reason to check him out more thoroughly. At a glance Brown's total fantasy points were rather impressive. Had he started the first three games, Brown may have been the top DB in the fantasy game. It is how he got to that total that concerns me. His average of just under 5 solo stops a game was solid but unspectacular. It was the 8 interceptions and 12 total takeaways on the season that fueled the explosion. The chances of his repeating those totals are about the same as getting struck by lightning and winning the lottery in the same day. I am by no means bashing Brown or telling anyone not to pick him. I am just saying not to overpay. With the situation what it is in New York, Brown is likely to give us around 75 solo stops with maybe 5-6 takeaways and low double digits in passes defended. I would suggest targeting him as a high end DB2. Doing this however, would basically ensure that someone else will get him. I believe he will have a good season but I am not convinced that it will be good enough to warrant taking him where he will be drafted. In veteran Corey Webster and second year starter Prince Amukamura the Giants have a solid tandem at corner by NFL standards. The fantasy prospects of this group are a different story. Webster has been the team's number one corner and top fantasy offering at the position for most of his nine year career. He is a quality cover man and has evolved into a big play threat over the past few seasons, but has produced more than 48 tackles just once in his nine years as a pro. Over the past three seasons Webster has consistently been in the 45 tackle and 5 takeaway range, averaging about 14 passes defended. He has never been a top twenty corner but has finished inside the top thirty in three of the past five seasons. There is limited upside here but if you need a spot fill in for a bye week, take a look at Webster's matchups.

Being the team's first round pick in 2011, Amukamura came with big expectations. Injuries have slowed his progress, but he was able to play in thirteen contests last season. Entering the third year of his career Amukamura is poised to take his place as a long term answer for the Giants. His relatively small body of work to date, shows us nothing to get excited about. He started eleven games last season totaling a respectable 45 tackles, with a lone interception being his only big play contribution. At this point there is little reason for optimism.

There is one player here that is at least worth keeping an eye on. In 2009 and 2010 Terrell Thomas put together a pair of top three finishes. He exceeded 70 tackles in each of those seasons, adding 16 takeaways (10 by interception), a pair of sacks and 34 passes defended. Over the past two seasons he has been rehabbing knee injuries and has not been on the field for a regular season game at all. If he can get healthy Thomas would be the favorite for at least the nickel corner duties, and he could make a run at one of the starting jobs. He is a long shot at best and not a guy we need to use a draft pick on, but if gets on the field he deserves some attention.

  • SS Stevie Brown - Quality option but beware of taking him as a high DB1
  • FS Antrel Rolle - Consistent and dependable third starter with low end DB2 upside
  • CB Corey Webster - Depth at best in corner required leagues that start two
  • CB Prince Amukamara - No value
  • CB Jayron Hosley - No value
  • CB Terrell Thomas - Deep sleeper with big potential
  • CB Aaron Ross - No value
  • SS/FS Tyler Sash - Injury sleeper

Philadelphia Eagles

Defensive Linemen

As is usual when teams change their defensive philosophy, the Eagles switch to a 3-4 brings uncertainty with how some players will fit into the new scheme. Most of the guys who played end in Philadelphia's 4-3 were undersized speed rushers who would out quick blockers to beat them. Those guys will get a look at outside linebacker. In Fletcher Cox and Cullen Jenkins the Eagles had a pair of athletic 4-3 tackles with the perfect skill set to be productive 3-4 ends. Jenkins had even played the position with success earlier in his career, but the club mysteriously made little effort to keep him. Instead turning to the draft where their third round pick landed Bennie Logan.

Box score productive 3-4 ends are a rare commodity but Cox is a player who could excel both statistically and on the field. He has a rare combination of size, strength, quickness and athleticism that could make him the next Calais Campbell. As a rookie Cox played in fifteen games, starting the final nine. Seeing action on less than 50% of the team's defensive snaps on the season, he finished at an impressive 32-7-5.5 with four batted passes and a fumble recovery. Cox will see his playing time increase significantly in 2013 but the position change will raise the bar for useful production as well. With no history to show otherwise Cox is clearly not a sure thing. That said, 35-40 tackles and 6-8 sacks would seem to be a realistic expectation. Pick him up as your third lineman and keep your fingers cross that he can join guys like Campbell, J.J. Watt, and Justin Smith among the select few fantasy friendly 3-4 ends.

There will be a wide open competition for the starting job opposite Fletcher. Logan will be in the mix along with holdover Cedric Thornton and rookies Joe Kruger and David King who were the team's sixth and seventh round picks this year respectively. Logan and Thornton are both 300+ pound space eaters who would likely hold up well versus the run, but add little in the way of a pass rush. Thornton held a significant role on early downs for much of the 2012 season and would seem to have the edge entering camp. The bottom line here is that the Eagles have no proven option for the position, or even a player who would seem to have the correct skill set to be more than a road block against the run. It is unlikely that any of these guys will post more than 30 tackles and 2-3 sacks.

Veteran free agent additions Isaac Sopoaga and Antonio Dixon will compete for the starting nose tackle position, with Logan possibly getting some looks there as well. Having played in San Francisco for the past several years, Sopoaga has experience in the 3-4 and would seem to be the favorite. Quality box score production is even more rare among 3-4 ends so there is not much to look at here.

  • DE Fletcher Cox - Risk reward player with a good shot at being a quality
  • DL2 DE Cedrick Thornton - No value
  • DE Bennie Logan - Minimal value at best
  • DE Joe Kruger No value
  • DE David King - No value
  • NT Isaac Sopoaga - No value
  • NT Antonio Dixon - No value

Linebackers

There is a great deal of uncertainty across the board at linebacker as well. DeMeco Ryans began his career with four consecutive seasons as a top fifteen linebacker. A serious injury shut him down after six games in 2010. When he returned in 2011 the defense had shifted to a 3-4 scheme under Wade Phillips. It is hard to say how much could be blamed on his not being fully recovered from the injury, and how much was really due to a miss-matched skill set as many suggested, but Ryans struggled greatly that season. His role was quickly reduced to that of a two down run defender and his season was a complete wash for fantasy owners. Ryans escaped Phillips and the 3-4 last seasons. His production was not completely back to pre-injury form, but as an every down middle backer in the Eagles 4-3, his numbers rebounded significantly. Ryans is well past the injury at this point, so in 2013 we will finally answer the skill set question. There is certainly a risk factor that comes with Ryans. This is potentially magnified by the fact that backup Casey Matthews was a starter under head coach Chip Kelly at Oregon. Being a Ryans fan, I anticipate that he will hang onto the job and put up numbers similar to the 84-27-1 he totaled last season. Over his first three seasons in the league Ryans accounted for 14 takeaways and 6.5 sacks. Since 2008 he has just 4 takeaways and 3 sacks. It would be nice to see a return of decent big play production as well, but that would be a bit much to expect. All things considered, target Ryans as a low end LB3 or a backup with a little upside and a significant risk factor.   

The role and value of second year pro Mychal Kendricks is another major unknown at the outset of training camp. Last season many fantasy owners and prognosticators anticipated big things from the Eagles 2012 second round pick. As a rookie he managed to earn a three down role on the weak side, but the anticipated box score production failed to materialize. In 2012 Kendricks on field performance graded out as poorly as his box score totals of 58-17-1 with no takeaways would suggest. In 2013 he will line up next to Ryans at inside backer. Both the organization and the fantasy community hope that the new system will better fit the strengths of his game. Pass coverage is one of those strengths, so chances are he will again be a three down player. To make a big jump in fantasy value however, Kendricks will need to show improvement against the run. There is a lot of potential to be tapped at the Eagles inside linebacker positions. Kendrcks may prove to hold the bulk of it but there is clearly a bust risk. I would be willing to take a chance on him as a third starter if necessary, but would be much more comfortable drafting him as my top backup just in case he falls short once again. Of course this point of view could change quickly once we the Eagles in action during the preseason.

The previous coaching staff gave both Jamar Chaney and Casey Matthews a shot at starting roles over the past two seasons. Matthews quickly showed that he was not ready while Chaney proved to be a serviceable starter on the weak side in a 4-3 for a season. Nothing is imminent here, but if Ryans and/or Kendrcks struggle, Casey or Chaney could get a serious look.

At the outside linebacker position the Eagles plan seems to be to thrown a bunch of guys at the jobs and see who sticks. Having worked in a 3-4 with the Texans over the past three years, veteran Connor Barwin would seem to be a lock for one of the starting positions. Barwin had a career best of 11.5 sacks for Houston in 2011 but his production crashed to only 3 last season. Despite it leaving them thin at the position, the Texans made little effort to keep Barwin in town after last year. Just having a guy with some experience in the scheme will be a plus for the Eagles coaching staff. Barwin's big season was sandwiched between two very pedestrian ones in terms of sacks, and he has not exceeded 34 solo stops in any of his three seasons as a pro. He gives the Eagles a little stability but we should temper any expectations of quality numbers in 2013. 

Holdover 4-3 ends Trent Cole, Brandon Graham, Phillip Hunt and Vinny Curry will all be in the mix for playing time at outside linebacker. Cole was a perennial top ten defensive linemen between 2006 and 2011. His numbers plummeted last season to career lows, but at age 30 I have to believe the down year had more to do with the design of the defense than a sudden collapse of ability. In an attempt to get quicker and faster for the responsibilities of his new position, Cole arrived to camp at 263 pounds. Seven pounds lighter than his previous playing weight. Cole has the right skill set to be successful as a pass rusher in the new role, but it remains to be seen if he can be effective in coverage. That could ultimately determine how big a role he has.

After missing much of his first two seasons due to injuries, 2010 first round pick Brandon Graham fially started to show up last year. Much like Cole, Graham would seem to have the right skill set to be successful as a 3-4 outside backer if he can show the ability to drop in coverage. One thing in Graham's favor is youth.

At the outset of training camp Barwin and Cole are working as the starters with Graham running with the second team. It is a long preseason and much could change before week one. Any of these three could end up having value in big play based leagues. In a redraft situation Cole would seem the most likely to succeed.

  • ILB DeMeco Ryans - Risk/reward player with high LB3 potential
  • ILB Mychal Kendricks - Risk/reward Sleeper with LB2 upside but a low floor as well
  • ILB Jamar Chaney - No value at this time
  • ILB Casey Matthews - No value at this time
  • OLB Connor Barwin - Minimal value in big play based leagues
  • OLB Trent Cole - Potential big play value
  • OLB Brandon Graham - Dynasty/sleeper with long term big play value
  • OLB/DE Vinny Curry - No value
  • OLB Phillip Hunt - No value

Defensive Backs

The secondary caught much of the blame for last year's fiasco in Philadelphia. Thus there are going to be a lot of new faces in the lineup. In fact, the Eagles may return no starters from opening day 2012. With 5 interceptions and a forced fumble as a part time contributor in 2010 and 2011, Nate Allen was expected to make an impact as the starting free safety in 2012. He was adequate in most aspects of the game but was completely void of game changing plays. The new coaching staff is giving Allen an opportunity to prove that last years deficiency was more scheme related than a reflection of his ability. He worked with the starters in the team's early offseason activities and remains in the mix for the starting job. The strongest competition for Allen will come from former Giants starter Kenny Phillips and Kurt Coleman who started at strong safety for the Eagles last season.

Phillips battled injuries over his five years in New York and never became the dominating play maker the team expected. In 56 games with the Giants he picked off only 8 passes and had 12 total takeaways. Phillips never exceeded 60 tackles in a season and never finished among the top twenty safeties in fantasy terms. He played in just seven games a year ago and was made expendable with the emergence of Stevie Brown

Coleman played in fifteen games in 2012, starting all of them at strong safety. He provided quality tackle numbers for fantasy owners but his on field performance was much less impressive. After his two interception game in week one, Coleman too failed to make any big play impact.

There are three things for fantasy owners to consider here. None of these players have shown much fantasy production in any of their previous opportunities. The 3-4 scheme rarely produces a fantasy friendly free safety. And the Eagles free safety position has been void of quality fantasy production for a long time. Look elsewhere for help.

At strong safety we have a completely different story. Dating back to the Brian Dawkins days, this position has been a fantasy gold mine in Philadelphia. Quintin Mikell had some strong years there after Dawkins and even Coleman was able to average 5 tackles a game last season. The 3-4 scheme tends to be box score friendly to the strong safety position as well. So the scheme change could actually have a positive effect. Former Patriots starter Patrick Chung has been plugged in as the starter. He played under Chip Kelly at Oregon so there is familiarity on both sides. Chung had a highly productive 2010 season in New England that included 72 tackles, 3 picks, 9 passes defended and a score in fourteen games. If not for his struggles with injury over the past two seasons, Chung may still be a Patriot. Nagging injuries and stints lining up at free safety over the past two years have Chung looking like a one year wonder. The injury issue is the only thing that really concerns me here. He is only 25 years old, is big and physical enough to support the run well and with 6 interceptions in his last 34 games, has shown a fair amount of big play production. Chung needs to prove that he can stay healthy. If he can do that, he has the potential to be a top ten safety at the end of 2013.

In the event that Chung continues to battle injuries, the Eagles have a backup plan. Strong safety Earl Wolff was the team's third round pick and has a great deal of potential. He is a smart, fast and physical player who was highly productive as a three year starter at N.C. State. Wolff averaged 106 combined tackles over those three seasons, adding 6 interceptions and 6 forced fumbles. He has seen some snaps with the first team during offseason activities and could eventually push even a healthy Chung over to free safety. Wolff is a deep sleeper for redraft owners and a player that dynasty owners might want to tuck away on a taxi squad for safe keeping.    The corner position has been completely retooled heading into 2013. Long gone are "dream team" corners Nnamdi Asomugha, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Asante Samuel. In their place is Super Bowl champion Cary Williams, veteran career backup Bradley Fletcher and 2012 fourth round pick Brandon Boykin who spend most of his rookie season as the Eagles nickel corner playing in sub packages.

Williams is an excellent addition and will step right in as the Eagles number one corner. The former Raven was a productive two year starter in Baltimore. In 32 games he totaled a solid 128 solo tackles with 6 takeaways (4 picks last season), 35 passes defended and a pair of top twelve rankings among corners. While those are promising numbers, I am mostly pessimistic about his chances of continued fantasy value. The scheme change and new coaching staff could be some factor, but no Eagles corner has come close to being roster worthy in recent memory. In 2012 Asomugha led the team's corners with 47 tackles, while Rodgers-Cromartie topped the group at 3 interceptions. Williams could prove me wrong here, but the cards seem to be stacked against him. Chances are he will go undrafted even in most corner required leagues. So we can take a wait and see approach then move early if Williams show promise.

Bradley Fletcher has been penciled in as the starter opposite Williams. The 2009 third round pick of the Rams was a productive sixteen game starter in 2010 when he finished with 65 tackles, 4 picks and 11 passes defended. Unfortunately he battled injuries over much of his other three seasons with the team and never regained the starting job. Fletcher managed to be active as a backup for all sixteen games last season and the Eagles organization is optimistic that he has moved beyond the injury issues. He has the talent to be a successful number two corner, but all things considered, he is a long shot at best when it comes to fantasy potential.

  • SS Patrick Chung - Potential top 10 safety with considerable injury risk
  • FS Kenny Phillips - Minimal value at best
  • SS Earl Wolff - Sleeper/dynasty prospect with high long term potential
  • SS/FS Kurt Coleman - No value
  • FS Nate Allen - Minimal value at best
  • CB Bradley Fletcher - Deep sleeper at best
  • CB Cary Williams - Has CB2 potential but take a wait and see stance
  • CB Brandon Boykin - No value
  • CB Curtis Marsh - No value

Washington Redskins

Defensive Linemen

The Redskins have a solid group of blue collar workers up front, but even in comparison to other 3-4 teams their box score production is sub-par. In 2012 Stephen Bowen and Adam Carriker opened week one as the starting ends with Barry Cofield getting the call at nose tackles. Carriker was soon lost to injury with Jarvis Jenkins moving into the lineup. With Carriker again lost for the season and Jenkins suspended for the first month of the season, Kedric Golston could move into the lineup on a permanent basis.

Let me put the box score futility of this group into perspective. In 2012 the entire defensive line unit totaled a combined 53 tackles, 57 assists and 5 sacks. No individual exceeded 16 tackles or 2.5 sacks. And they made no noteworthy additions up front. Simply put, there is no J.J. Watt or even a Justin Smith lurking here. Move on in your search for box score production.

  • DE Stephen Bowen - No value
  • DE Jarvis Jenkins - No value
  • DE Kedric Golston - No value
  • NT Barry Cofield - No value
  • NT Ron Brace - No value

Linebackers

In inside linebacker London Fletcher the Redskins have one of the most underrated guys ever to play the game. Fletcher's NFL career began in 1998 when the Rams signed him as an undrafted free agent. The 38 year old has never missed a game and has been the most dependable player in the history of fantasy football. Until 2012 he had never finished a season with fewer than 87 solo stops and he has still never landed outside the top fifteen in fantasy points at the position. In fact Fletcher has been outside the top ten just once in the past twelve seasons. He has already announced that 2013 will be his swan song. So Fletcher's dynasty value amounts to no more than his helping us to win now. For redraft owners it is business as usual with him. Fletcher's 78 solo stops last year was the lowest total of his career, but he made up for it with 63 assists and some of the best big play numbers of his career (6 takeaways, 11 passes defended and 3 sacks). At 38 years old is he in decline? Probably so, but if he is playing one more year, Fletcher is going to be productive for one more year. I will not hesitate to pick him as one of the first twelve linebackers off the board. 

Perry Riley was the Redskins fourth round pick in 2010. Injury hampered his development early on, but he was able to move into the starting lineup last season. Riley has been groomed to be the heir to Fletcher's position both on the field and as a leader. He is a quality player in all aspects of the game. Riley totaled a modest 72 solo stops in 2012, but added 55 assists, 3 sacks, 7 passes defended and a couple of takeaways to finish well inside the top twenty. His numbers should continue to improve in his second season as a three down player and he is likely to become a perennial top ten guy starting in 2014. Look to grab Riley as a quality second starter with low end LB1 potential for this year.

The Redskins picked up Keenan Robinson in the fourth round last season with the plan of grooming him to move up the chart as well when Fletcher retired. Before tearing his pectoral in the opening days of training camp, Robinson was supposed to be the top backup to both inside linebacker positions. That leaves the Redskins a little thin at the position with inexperienced journeyman Roddrick Muckelroy now being the top backup. The point I want to make here is that while Robinson is out of the picture for now, chances are good that he will be a three down starter in 2014. Dynasty owners might be smart to scoop him up and stash Robinson on IR for safe keeping.

The Redskins lost outside linebacker Brian Orakpo early in 2012 with a torn pectoral. The pass rush suffered seriously as a result and they fell from number 10 in 2011 to 23 last season. Orakpo is back and healthy entering camp. He consistently put up numbers in the area of 36 tackles and 9.5 sacks over his first three years in the league and should be right there again post injury. Like most 3-4 outside backers the low tackle numbers/opportunity keeps Orakpo's value well below useful in balanced or tackle heavy scoring systems, but he is a solid LB2 or excellent LB3 in big play based leagues.

2011 first round pick Ryan Kerrigan is a very similar player to Orakpo. His first two seasons have been successful with 40+ tackles in each, and 15.5 sacks between them. He led the club with 7.5 sacks last season and getting Orakpo back should help by giving offenses another quality pass rusher to worry about. Kerrigan falls into the same category when it comes to fantasy value. He should have a bit more tackle opportunity and thus exceed 40 tackles, and may finish a few points ahead of Orakpo depending on the scoring system.

  • ILB London Fletcher - Quality low end LB1 or excellent second starter at worst
  • ILB Perry Riley - Strong LB2 with low end LB1 potential this year, with big long term value
  • OLB Brian Orakpo - LB2 in big play based leagues
  • OLB Ryan Kerrigan - LB2 in big play based leagues
  • ILB Keenan Robinson - On IR for 2013 but has long term potential
  • ILB Rod Muckelroy - Injury sleeper at best
  • OLB Rob Jackson - Minimal value at best
  • OLB Brandon Jenkins - No value at this time

Defensive Backs

Dating back to the tragic death of Sean Taylor, the Redskins have had problems at the safety positions. LaRon Landry was excellent when healthy but struggled to stay on the field for a couple of years and the organization finally moved on. Brandon Meriweather is a talented player who was brought in last season but like Landry, has not been able to stay healthy. Reed Doughty has made a number of starts over his seven years with the team and has been a solid but unspectacular fill in when called upon. His upside is limited however. 2011 fifth round pick Dejon Gomes has received praise from the coaching staff at times and has been given a shot at the starting job in the past, but he too has failed to impress on a consistent basis. As a result of all this, the club took advantage of a deep safety class by drafting Phillip Thomas in round four and Bacarri Rambo in the sixth.

Thomas is a player I am excited about. He suffered a serious leg injury in his junior year at Fresno State but returned as a senior to blow up the box scores. He is a physical player who seems to relish the opportunity to support the run. Thomas is also a playmaker. As a senior he totaled 84 combined tackles with 4 sacks and 4 forced fumbles, along with his 8 interceptions that led the nation last year. Combine all that with a strong safety position in Washington that has a history of quality fantasy production, and we have a player who could continue to blow up the box scores at the pro level as well. Maybe the best part about Thomas is that he is a well kept secret. The injury likely contributed to his low draft status, but being a fourth round steal he is not yet garnering much attention from anyone. This is a must have player to target in the later rounds if you draft early. He will not remain a secret for long so you may have to move him up in late August.

In a different year both Thomas and Rambo would have gone much higher on draft day. The fact that this draft was so deep at the position allowed teams to address other needs first and still get quality at safety. Rambo fell even further due to off field issues. Among other smaller flags, he failed a drug test at Georgia and was suspended at the beginning of his senior season. Like Thomas, Rambo is also a playmaker who does not shy away from run support opportunities. In only ten games as a senior he totaled 73 combined tackles with three interceptions and three forced fumbles. This on the heels of a junior year that produced 8 picks.

The Redskins coaching staff may hesitate to plug in two rookie safeties right out of the gate. If Meriweather can stay healthy he would seem likely to get the initial call at free safety, but there is little doubt that the coaching staff has high expectations for Thomas and Rambo. I expect we may see them on the field together early and often. 

Safety was not the only secondary position the Redskins addressed in this year's draft. Scouts had mixed opinions about second round selection David Amerson. Some felt he was a first round talent at corner, others projected him as a safety due to his size and issues with his mechanics in coverage. To the Redskins he is a big corner with excellent speed and a knack for the big play. In 2011 Amerson's 13 picks fell one short of tying the NCAA single season record. In 2012 he came back to earth adding 5 more to his career total. The problem with Amerson is consistency. He will make a huge play on one snap then give one up on the next. The Redskins have DeAngelo Hall and Josh Wilson as their starters for this season, so Amerson will have time to work on his flaws before being asked to contribute on an every down basis. He could gain experience as a rookie by working as the nickel corner and covering slot receivers. Amerson's value as a rookie will ultimately depend on his role. Initially he will compete with seventh round pick Richard Crawford and veteran free agent addition E.J. Bigger for spots in the sub packages.

Redskins corners have consistently been productive fantasy options in recent years. With the exception of an injury shortened 2009 season, DeAngelo Hall has put up 60+ solo stops in five consecutive seasons and he has averaged better than 6 takeaways over his nine years in the league. There are some who claim he has lost a step but I do not but it. Hall is a player that kind of wears out his welcome after a period of time, but he is only 29 years old. He covers well, is a playmaker, and consistently makes plenty of tackles for a corner. These thing have led to Hall being a top ten corner in five of the past six seasons, including a ranking of sixth or better in each of the past three in Washington. He is one of the most fantasy consistent corners the fantasy game has to offer.

Josh Wilson is a player who gets little respect from analyst, and I agree that he is not among the leagues better corners, but he is certainly a serviceable number two both on the field and in the fantasy realm. In two seasons with the Redskins Wilson has averaged a respectable 52 tackles, 16 assists, 14 passes defended and 5.5 takeaways. His top twelve finish last year was the second best of Wilson's six NFL seasons and he has been among the top 24 in both of his years in Washington. There is not a great deal of upside here but we could do much worse than Wilson as our second starter.

  • SS Phillip Thomas - Rookie sleeper with big upside
  • FS Bacarri Rambo - Rookie sleeper with long term DB2 potential
  • SS Reed Doughty - Marginal fantasy option at best
  • FS Brandon Meriweather - Injury risk with DB2 upside
  • FS Dejon Gomes - No value until proven otherwise
  • CB DeAngelo Hall - Quality CB1 or DB3 in leagues that lump the positions together
  • CB Josh Wilson - Decent low end CB2 or quality #3
  • CB Richard Crawford - No value
  • CB David Amerson - Sleeper with long term CB2 or better upside

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


More from John Norton:

Eyes of the Guru: Week 9 - October 30
Eyes of the Guru: Week 8 - October 22
Eyes of the Guru: Week 7 - October 15
Eyes of the Guru: Week 6 - October 8
Eyes of the Guru: Week 5 - October 1
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