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Eyes of the Guru: NFC South

An overview of defenses in the NFC South 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.

Carolina Panthers

Defensive Linemen

Carolina used 3-4 fronts on a fair percentage of defensive snaps in 2011 and it clearly had an adverse effect on the production of Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy. There were concerns heading into last season that they would continue to expand the use of that scheme. Fortunately for IDP owners that was not the case. In fact, Carolina seemed to move further away from the 3-4. As a result both guys prospered last season. They ended up among the top 5 in the league in sacks and both were top ten in fantasy rankings at the position. 

There are few prognosticators who are ranking either of these players outside the top ten at the position this summer. What seems to be more difficult is picking between the two. Johnson has a longer history of production and would seem like the safe pick. He has averaged nearly 11 sacks a season over the past three years, and had a career best of 50 solo tackles in 2010. On the down side, Johnson has been a bit short in the tackle columns with 31 solo stops in each of the past two seasons. 31 tackles and 12.5 sacks are certainly quality production, but it was the 7 forced fumbles he was credited with that pushed Johnson into the top ten last year. Considering that he recorded no takeaways at all in the two previous seasons, we have to consider his total of 8 in 2012 as somewhat of a mirage.

Johnson and Hardy finished very close in fantasy points last season, but Hardy took a slightly different path into the top ten. His total of 12 sacks were 8 more than his previous career best, but it was his 42 solo tackles and 3 takeaways that helped push him into the conversation as an elite fantasy option. Unlike Johnson however, Hardy has given us only one season of top 20 production. That said, I am comfortable that Hardy is not a one year wonder. Better tackle production leads to more week to week consistency and Hardy has out tackled Johnson by 18 over the past two seasons. It is hard to go wrong with either of these players as you DL1 but I would go with Hardy if given the choice.

As interior linemen go the Panthers have given us little to work with in recent years. With the drafting of Star Lotulelei in round one and Kawann Short in the second, that could change. Being the first round pick, Lotulelei will get most of the attention but he is not necessarily the better fantasy prospect. He is a versatile player who can (and likely will) play at both interior positions and might even see some snaps at end. Short is also versatile, so the pair will give defensive coordinator Sean McDermott a lot of options as far as shifting players around and keeping offenses guessing. Just as importantly for us is the fact that both of these players were productive for their college teams a year ago. Lotulelei totaled 42 combined tackles (11 for loss) and 5 sacks for Utah last season, while Short put up 45 combined tackles (17.5 for loss) as a senior and had 12.5 sacks over his final two seasons. Until we see for certain how these guys will be used it is a coin toss to pick between them, but owners in tackle required leagues may want to take a shot on one of them in the last round.

  • DE Charles Johnson - Second tier DL1
  • DE Greg Hardy - Solid DL1 with top 5 potential
  • DE Frank Alexander - Injury sleeper at best
  • DT Sione Fua - No value
  • DT Star Lotulelei - Sleeper with DT1 upside
  • DT Kawann Short - Sleeper with DT1 upside
  • DT Dwan Edwards - No value

Linebackers

It took an injury to Jon Beason to give Luke Kuechly his opportunity at middle linebacker. It will take an injury to Kuechly to get him out of that spot anytime in the next ten years. To say he was impressive would be an understatement. Over the final twelve games Kuechly averaged over 2 points a contest more than any other linebacker. To put that into perspective, London Fletcher was second over that span of games. The next ten linebackers were all within 2 points of Fletcher. If not for the presence of J.J. Watt, Kuechly would be the obvious first defender off the board this summer. Knowing how tough it is for linemen to repeat such a monster season, I would seriously consider Keuchly anyway. This would be particularly true in a start up dynasty league. It is a pretty safe bet that Kuechly is going to become a perennial top ten and likely top five linebacker.

The big question with this group is what to expect from Jon Beason and/or Thomas Davis. Over his first four seasons a healthy Beason averaged about 105 solo tackles with an average fantasy ranking around sixth. The problem is, Beason has played in just five games over the past two seasons. He will move to the weak side where there is little doubt that if healthy, Beason has the skill set to be successful. So far we have heard nothing to the contrary, but until we see him in action we will not know for sure.

After multiple knee surgeries between 2009 and 2011, Davis finally made it through a full season in 2012. With James Anderson moving on, Davis will be plugged in on the strong side. In most situations this would mean writing him off for the year, but this is not the typical situation. In 2010 and 2011 Anderson averaged 99.5 tackles and had a pair of top ten fantasy finishes from the position. There is also the fact that Davis had a big 2008 and was headed for a monster 2009 when he blew his knee out the first time. Someone besides Kuechly is going to give us useful production here. It could come down to who is most healthy and/or who stays on the field in sub package situations. Before their respective injuries, coverage was a strong suit for both Beason and Davis. If both guys are really all the way back, look for the team to stay in a base defense in a lot more short passing situations. In this case both guys could be roster worthy, but whoever gets the three down job will likely give us LB3 numbers.

Without Anderson the Panthers are taking a chance on depth at the linebacker positions. Jordan Senn would likely be first off the bench for all three positions. He has developed into a solid backup but has not yet shown much box score potential. Chase Blackburn revived his career a couple of years ago when the Giants brought him back off the street for their last Super Bowl run, but in reality he is no more than average veteran depth.

  • MLB Luke Kuechly - The next young star in the league
  • WLB Jon Beason - Possible LB3 with considerable risk
  • SLB Thomas Davis - Potential LB3 with considerable risk
  • OLB/MLB Jordan Senn - Injury sleeper at best
  • MLB Chase Blackburn - No value

Defensive Backs

As long as the injury bug stays away the Panthers should have a much improved front seven this year. They still have a way to go in the secondary. In Charles Godfrey they have a dependable veteran safety with the versatility to play either position. Godfrey however, is not a difference maker. He had a productive 2010 season with 71 tackles and 6 takeaways. In the two seasons since Godfrey's numbers have tumbled steadily beyond usefulness.

Godfrey is expected to play free safety this year but regardless of where he lines up, it is hard to tell who will be working next to him. As I write this the Panthers are flirting with Quintin Mikell, and there are a number of solid veteran safeties still looking for work. I have to believe that they will add someone. If they choose not to, Haruki Nakamura will be the slight favorite in a wide open battle between him, Colin Jones, Michael Mitchell and possibly a couple of other guys. This is a position that has not provided much in the box scores over the past couple of years. It will take a good player to break that streak. Mikell could be that player but no one on the current roster fits the bill.

With long time starter Chris Gamble gone, the Panthers have no true number one corner heading into camp. What they do have is a bevy of potential number two and nickel corners that will be battling for starting jobs. The only thing that seems certain is that Captain Munnerlyn is going to be one of the top three. Josh Norman started for most of last season before being benched in week fourteen. Josh Thomas finished out the season but did little to impress during his four game audition. It seems almost likely that veteran free agent addition Drayton Florence will be in the lineup come opening day. There has been some production among Carolina corners in years past but I suggest a wait and see approach with this group all the way around.

  • S Haruki Nakamura - No value
  • Charles Godfrey - Depth at best
  • CB Josh Norman - Minimal value
  • CB Captain Munnerlyn - Possible corner depth
  • CB Josh Thomas - No value
  • CB Drayton Florence - Worth keeping an eye on Just in case
  • SS Michael Mitchell - Deep sleeper at best

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Defensive Linemen

Starting with Gerald McCoy as the third overall pick in 2010, the Buccaneers have made a substantial investment in their defensive line over the past few years. Thus far injuries have contributed greatly to a less than adequate return. The good news for Tampa Bay is that in 2012 McCoy made it through a full schedule for the first time in his three years as a pro. While that in itself is reason for optimism, his production has not yet blossomed. McCoy has the tools to become a dominating interior lineman. He is powerful enough to make an impact in the running game and is a good inside pass rusher as his 5 sacks last season would suggest. McCoy has dropped some weight over the offseason in an effort to become quicker, and says he is looking to take on more of a leadership role. With so many other key linemen injured last season, McCoy had no one to take pressure off him. With any luck, that will change in 2013. At worst McCoy should put up numbers similar to last year's 23 tackles and 5 sacks. With the league wide shortage of production at the interior line positions, those numbers are worthy of DT2 status. He is however, capable of much more.

The free agent loss of Roy Miller will open a competition for the other starting interior job. Journeymen Gary Gibson and Derek Landri will battle rookie fourth round pick Akeem Spence. The one is anyone's call in the short term, but the organization hopes Spence will eventually claim the job. He is a big strong space eater who should eventually anchor the run defense, but Spence failed to make an impact as a pass rusher at Illinois. He may be a 35+ tackle guy at some point but is unlikely to get to the passer often.

The Buccaneers are counting on third year pros Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers to pick up a pass rush that ranked 29th in the league and produced just 27 sacks in 2012. This pair were the Bucs first and second round picks respectively in 2011. Bowers was a first round talent who fell due to an injury he suffered during his senior season at Clemson. He was not completely healthy as a rookie and played somewhat sparingly. Bowers sat out the first seven weeks last season then played mostly on passing downs over the final ten games, recording three sacks.

Clayborn had a decent rookie season that included 27 solo stops and 7.5 sacks. There was a lot of optimism surrounding him heading into year two before he was lost to an ACL in week three. Having most of last season and the entire offseason to recover, Clayborn could be close to 100% by the start of 2013. If they can get and stay healthy, Bowers and Clayborn could become a high quality tandem in NFL terms and a productive one for fantasy owners as well. Both talented players with a good deal of upside, and are worthy of late round consideration despite the considerable injury risk.

Daniel Te'o-Nesheim stepped in when Clayborn was lost last season. He proved to be a good run defender and did an adequate job overall. Te'o-Nesheim will likely have a place in the rotation and should see most of his action on early downs. The player I will be keeping an eye on here is rookie William Gholston. He was not particularly flashy during his career at Michigan State, but he did make an impact. At 6'6" and 281 pounds Gholston is physically impressive. As a junior he totaled 70 combined tackles with 10 batted passes and 5 sacks. In all Gholston recorded 9.5 sacks over his final two seasons with the Spartans. He is thought of by many as a developmental player but I believe he will have an opportunity right away to unseat Te'o-Nesheim as the team's third end. With the injury history of Bowers and Clayborn, we might see a lot of Gholston before the season ends.

  • DE Adrain Clayborn - Injury risk with DL2 potential
  • DE Da'Quan Bowers - Injury risk with DL2 potential
  • DT Gerald McCoy - DT2 with DT1 upside
  • DT Gary Gibson - No value
  • DE Daniel Te'o-Nesheim - No value
  • DE William Gholston - Injury/dynasty sleeper with long term DL2 potential
  • DT Akeem Spence - Possible DT2 somewhere down the road
  • DT Derek Landri - No value

Linebackers

After a rookie season that saw him pile up 112 solo tackles and a top ten ranking among linebackers, there is little doubt that Lavonte David is the real deal. He is a smart, talented three down player in a scheme that puts the weak side linebacker in position to make a lot of plays. The Buccaneers should be an improved team all the way around in 2013, so David may see a few less tackle opportunities. He could easily make up for that with an increase in big play production. David accounted for only takeaway and a pair of sacks last year. History tells us that linebackers have a tendency to make more big plays in their second year, after they have become more comfortable. David should still be in the triple digit tackle range and I expect significant jump in the big play columns. A top five finish would not be a surprise.

The Mason Foster situation is frustrating to me. He finished last season at 82 solo tackles and 24 assists, with a couple of takeaways and a pair of sacks. His overall production was worthy of a third starter or quality depth in most leagues. What frustrates me is that he was so productive despite being on the field for only 68% of the team's defensive snaps. A little easy math tells us that had Foster been a three down player he too would have exceeded triple digits in tackles. Having watched this group play several times last season, I have no idea why he was pulled from the sub packages. Foster looked better in coverage than the guys who saw those snaps, and he made plays in the passing game when the opportunity was there. With Quincy Black gone, there is a chance Foster could earn a bigger role for 2013. At this point nothing has been said or seen that would suggest it. Pick up Foster as your fourth or fifth linebacker. He will be fine in that spot and could become an every week must play if things happen to break right.

Dakoda Watson has been showing improvement this summer and is the early favorite to start on the strong side. He will need to hold off Adam Hayward and free agent addition Jonathan Casillas for the job. The coaching staff could also decide to use one of these guys in the passing down sub packages. There have been instances over the past couple of seasons, when Tampa's strong side backer has put up decent numbers in a given week. If someone emerges as a three down SLB they might be roster worthy in deep drafted leagues.

  • MLB Mason Foster - Decent third starter or quality depth with big upside
  • WLB Lavonte David - LB1 with top 5 potential
  • SLB Dekoda Watson - Minimal value at best
  • OLB Jonathan Casillas - Injury sleeper at best
  • OLB Adam Hayward - No value
  • MLB Najee Goode - Injury sleeper

Defensive Backs

If the defensive line is healthy the Buccaneers will be much improved at the first level, and they should be solid at linebacker. It is the vast improvement in the secondary however, that should make Tampa Bay a different team in 2013. Strong safety Mark Barron now has a year of experience under his belt and should be an improved player. Free agent addition Dashon Goldson has not put up big numbers in recent years but that is largely because he has been lining up behind Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman. On the field he is one of the better free safeties in the game. Then there is the addition of arguably the best shut down corner in the game, Darelle Revis. If that were not enough, Tampa Bay even used their first draft pick (a second rounder) on corner Johnthan Banks. They lost Ronde Barber but in the end this unit got a huge talent infusion.

With so much change there is a lot of speculation that goes into placing a value to these guys. For example, I would speculate that the improved cast will allow Barron to spend more time up near the line of scrimmage in run support. This would in turn boost his tackle production. Barron may also be allowed to take more chances which could kick start his lagging big play production. Most of us had much higher expectations for Barron last year. I believe he will come closer to meeting those expectations in his second season.

Goldson has recorded more than 66 tackles just once in his seven year career, but he has also totaled at least six takeaways in three of the last four seasons. He will have more opportunity to tackle this year but Goldson was brought to the team for his playmaking ability. I do not see him being a fantasy star in this situation but he should give us 60-65 tackles and enough big play numbers to be a decent third starter or quality depth.

The corner situation may be the hardest to call at this early juncture. A healthy Revis is going to be avoided by offenses, which would in turn make whoever starts opposit him a target. But who knows if he will be completely healthy. I expect we will be able to answer that question pretty quickly in September, but for now I am going to assume that Revis at 90% is still going to be avoided as much as possible. In fantasy circles he is often picked by the IDP rookie in the league that is reacting to name recognition. If you have no rookies, Revis probably goes undrafted. Along with offenses avoiding him, comes a lack of opportunity. Revis has 5 interceptions over the past three seasons combined, and has not put up more than 47 tackles in a season since he was a rookie in 2007.

Eric Wright will enter camp as the starter opposite Revis, but he may not keep that job for long. The coaching staff has big expectations for Banks. If he shows well in the preseason, they may decide to plug him in right away and let him learn as the unit builds chemistry. Banks is a good fit for the scheme. He's a tall physical press corner who can disrupt routs and will take advantage of opponent's mistakes. Over his last two seasons at Mississippi State Banks accounted for 12 total takeaways (9 interceptions). If/when he move into the lineup there will be a lot of reasons to expect quality production. Playing opposite Revis would make the rookie corner rule even more of an emphasis.

  • SS Mark Barron - Quality DB2 on the low side, with top 5 potential
  • FS Dashon Goldson - Should make a decent DB3 or quality depth
  • CB Darelle Revis - Depth at best in corner required leagues
  • CB Eric Wright - CB2 potential if he can keep the starting job
  • CB Johnthan Banks - Rookie corner rule with a high ceiling
  • CB Michael Adams - No value FS Ahmad Black - No value

New Orleans Saints

Defensive Linemen

The Saints gave up more yards than any team in the league last season, and only the Titans allowed more points. So why not make a switch in philosophy when there is no place to go but up. The problem here is that the Saints are short on players with the right skill set for some positions, and they were not in a good position to address those positions over the offseason.

Broderick Bunkley is a veteran player but has never worked in a 3-4 scheme as a pro. He would seem to have a good shot at making the transition but nothing is certain. As a backup plan the Saints drafted 6'4" 346 pound road grader John Jenkins in round three. Jenkins may be the long term answer at the position but take a wait and see approach when it comes to any fantasy value.

Cameron Jordan will make a go of it end. He was a tackle/end tweener coming out of college in 2011, and really started to come on last season. Jordan finished with a mark of 40-26-8, adding 5 takeaways. He will hard pressed to approach those numbers in the new scheme. That said, tackle/end tweeners at the college level, often become 3-4 ends at the pro level. Of all the incumbent players on the roster, Jordan may be the most suited to the new scheme. Unfortunately that means little when it comes to fantasy value. Jordan's stock falls from a possible top 10 in the 4-3 to a late round flier with the change to a 3-4.

Akiehm Hicks has been penciled in at the other end position. He is a tall 324 pound mountain but was drafted to be a 4-3 tackle. His size will help to hold ground at the point of attack and he should log some batted passes this year, but Hicks is not known for his pass rush skills. There is no reason to have much expectation.

  • DE Cameron Jordan - Late round flier with DL2 upside
  • DE Akiehm Hicks - No value until proven otherwise
  • NT Broderick Bunkley - No value
  • NT John Jenkins - No value
  • DE Rufus Johnson - No value

Linebackers

No positions are more critical to the success of a 3-4 scheme than its linebackers. Many teams will use an early pick and/or make a key free agent move to address the rush linebacker positions. The Saints are trying to make the move without any significant additions. Instead they will count on holdovers Will Smith, Martez Wilson and Junior Galette. Smith is a 32 year old veteran who has been a 4-3 end for his entire career. There are few historical instances of players successfully making the move from 4-3 end to 3-4 OLB late in their careers. Smith simply does not strike me as a player with the right skill set for the new position, but he seems destined to see a lot of action this season by default. Chances are this will be his last season with the club.

Wilson was the team's third round pick in 2011. After a rookie season in which he failed to impress, he was moved to end last year. He failed to make much of an impact at that position either. Wilson however, may actually be a good fit as a 3-4 outside backer. He is tall, athletic and blazing fast. All assets of the prototypical 3-4 OLB. There is no reason to expect big thing from him in 2013 but he could be a 40+ tackle guys with 8-9 sacks. Owners in big play based leagues should consider Wilson a late round sleeper. .

Galette is a third year former Undrafted free agent who has 9 sacks over the past two seasons while working third down rush specialist. It is hard to say how well he will work out at the new position but it will be no surprise if he is a better fit than Smith. Take a wait and see approach with Galette but keep an eye on him f you are looking for sack production. 

There are question at inside linebacker as well. Curtis Lofton looks to be a safe bet as the team's every down guys inside, and as the top fantasy option. He has never worked in a 3-4 but is clearly the Saints most talented option. Lofton is a physical downhill thumper versus the run and is not a liability in coverage. He has exceeded 80 solo stops in each of the past four seasons and is likely to make it five in a row in 2013. With 4 takeaways in each of the past three seasons and 4 total sacks over that span, Lofton is also a contributor in the big play columns. He may break this string of four consecutive seasons finishing among the top fifteen, but Lofton should still make a good low end LB2 or excellent third starter.

Most people anticipate that David Hawthorne will be the other starter on the inside but Jonathan Vilma could also have a role. Both players have shown good production in seasons past but if they end up in a time share it will basically ruin them both. Vilma saw a little time in a 3-4 early in his career but struggled both on the field and in the box scores. He missed the first half of last season and worked only in sub packages when he returned. Hawthorne had a big season with the Seahawks in 2009 and a couple of decent years following that, but was little more than depth in 2010 and 2011. He too missed a good deal of time early last season and saw limited action upon his return. One of these guys could be a decent LB3 or quality depth. At this point I would put my money on Hawthorne as the late round target.

  • ILB Curtis Lofton - LB3 with LB2 potential
  • ILB David Hawthorne - Depth with LB3 upside
  • ILB Jonathan Vilma - Minimal value at best
  • OLB Will Smith - No value until proven otherwise
  • OLB Martez Wilson - Sleeper in big play based leagues
  • OLB Junior Galette - Deep sleeper in big play based leagues

Defensive Backs

When the Saints selected safety Kenny Vaccaro at number fifteen overall in April, many people were talking as if it was a signal that the end was near for Roman Harper. This is simply not the case. Harper restructured his contract to lessen the cap hit and will remain the starting strong safety for the foreseeable future. He is a pure strong safety in that he supports the run well and is a physical tackler, while being somewhat suspect in coverage at times. Harper also is arguably the best blitzing defensive back in the league when given an opportunity. In 2011 He led the league in sacks by a defensive back with a monster 7.5. Surprisingly he was given few opportunities to blitz last season. New defensive coordinator Rob Ryan does not have a history of blitzing safeties often, but then he has not had a player like Harper to work with before. I expect we will see Ryan take full advantage of Harper's skills by playing him up near the line most of the time and sending him after the passer on a fairly regular basis. Harper has averaged 80 tackles over the past six seasons and is coming off a career best of 89 in 2012. We can expect that number to drop back into the 75-80 range in 2013, but with a marked increase in big play production. The changes in scheme and personnel add a bit of risk factor, but I see Harper finishing as a top ten DB for the fifth consecutive season and the sixth time in seven years.

Vaccaro was first off the board at the position in April and brings all the tools to become one of the best safeties in the game over the next few years. He has a high football IQ, is fast enough, highly athletic, excels in man coverage and is a ball hawk. Fantasy owners can add highly productive to the list as well. Vaccaro totaled 92 combined tackles with a par of picks and seven passes defended for Texas last year. His versatility is a plus as well. Not only can he play either safety position, Vaccaro has seen time as the slot corner in nickel and dime packages as well. Harper should remain the fantasy owner's favorite for now, but we certainly should not write Vaccaro off. The Saints still have a way to go defensively so there will be enough opportunity to go around. Keep in mind that Malcolm Jenkins was on pace for 87 solo tackles last season before being injured in week fourteen. Vaccaro could be as much as a solid DB2 and is a safe bet to be drafted as a third starter.

Jenkins was drafted as a corner in round one back in 2009, and may return to that position with the addition of Vaccaro. Jenkins is likely to end up as the team's nickel back and may line up at free safety in those sub packages with Vacarro covering the slot receiver. Jenkins overall numbers seem destined to take a big hit either way. That said, he could be worthy of consideration in corner required leagues if his position change becomes official.

Jabari Greer returns as one of the starters at corner and is expected to be joined by free agent addition Keenan Lewis who comes over from the Steelers. Nothing is written in stone here as both Jenkins and Patrick Robinson could be in the mix for playing time. There is some history of useful production from the Saints corner positions, but with the changing of staff and scheme on defense that history goes out the window. Take a wait and see posture with all the corners here.

  • SS Roman Harper - Still a top 10 DB
  • FS Kenny Vaccaro - Likely in the area of a solid DB3
  • S  Jim Leonhard - Injury sleeper at best
  • CB Jabari Greer - Minimal value
  • CB Keenan Lewis - Potential CB2
  • CB/FS Malcolm Jenkins - Could have value as a corner if he changes position
  • CB Patrick Robinson - Minimal value at best

Atlanta Falcons

Defensive Linemen

For years the Falcons were in need of a second pass rusher to pair with John Abraham. In Osi Umenyiora they finally landed that guy, but they mysteriously turned around and let Abraham walk, which puts them right back in the same situation. Even so Umenyiora is one of my favorite sleepers this year. It has been a while since he was a full time player so most owners have forgotten what he is capable of. The last time he was a healthy full time player was 2010. That season he was 34-14-13 with a whopping 10 forced fumbles and was the fantasy game's third ranked defensive lineman. Granted, he has battled injuries over the past four seasons, but Umenyiora made it through last season in good shape and he is only 31 years old. As a part time player in 2012 he totaled 27 tackles and 6 sacks. I can easily see him being a 35-40 tackle guy with 10-12 sacks in 2013. Let everyone else use early picks on the big names and grab Uminyiora after about 12-15 other guys are gone. Or even better, snatch him up as your second starter.

Over the past three seasons Kroy Beirmann has been given opportunity after opportunity to prove himself as a starter for the Falcons. To date his best production is still the 38 tackles and 5 sacks he recorded as the third man in the rotation back in 2009. Beirmann managed a solid 37 solo stops last season but his 4 sacks with no other big plays, caused him to fall well short of the top 30 in fantasy circles. He will enter camp as the projected starter opposite Umenyiora but could feel pressure from rookie fourth round pick Malliciah Goodman. Goodman was a productive three down player for Clemson last season, registering 7 sacks on the season. He seems to lack the quickness and pure speed to be an elite pass rusher, and is not the most athletic end in his draft class, but he is a strong run defender with a good motor and an above average rusher. He could quickly develop into a three down end at the pro level. Dynasty owners may want to tuck Goodman away at the bottom of your sleeper list and put him on the taxi squad if you have room. Everyone else just needs to keep an eye on him this summer.

With 37 tackles, 10 assists, 6 sacks and 4 takeaways, Jonathan Babineaux was the fantasy game's top interior lineman n 2009. That was long ago and in a galaxy far away. In three seasons since he has averaged fewer than 20 tackles and has 8.5 total sacks. Babineaux did however, show signs of life last season with 25 tackles and 3.5 sacks. Hardly impressive numbers but good enough to make the top 20 at the position and reason for optimism going forward. Pick him up late as a DT2 with some upside.

Corey Peters and Peria Jerry round out the tackle rotation. Both of these guys are space eaters who will often be buried in the middle of the field by double teams. It would be a surprise if either of them reach 20 tackles or 2 sacks.

  • DE Osi Umenyiora - One of my favorite sleepers this year
  • DE Kroy Beirmann - Minimal value at best
  • DT Jonathan Babineaux - DT2 with limited upside
  • DT Corey Peters - No value
  • DT Peria Jerry - No value
  • DE Malliciah Goodman - Dynasty sleeper with long term DL2 potential

Linebackers

With the departure of Curtis Lofton before last season, Sean Weatherspoon stepped into the leadership role for the Falcons defense. It was expected by most that his numbers would get a big boost as well. That was not exactly the case however. At a glance it would seem that Weatherspoon actually regressed a bit. If we average in the three games he missed however, his total fantasy points were actually up slightly.  Weatherspoon is a quality three down player and a particularly strong run defender. He has the speed to run down plays from the back side and the size to defeat blockers at the point of attack. He can even get after the passer as shown by his 7 sacks over the last two seasons. The one shortcoming in Weatherspoon's game to date has been a lack of takeaways. In 29 starts over the past two seasons he has a combined total of 4. For those who like to see the glass half full, the good news is that 3 of those came in 2012. He is just 25 years old and is entering the prime of his career, so we may not yet have seen Weatherspoon's best football. In 2013 he should give us 85-90 tackles with a handful of sacks and takeaways. Consider him a low end LB2 or excellent third starter with upside.

Akeem Dent settled in as the Falcons middle linebacker in 2012 but was not able to capture an every down role. Even for a two down player his box score totals were rather weak. Dent could eventually feel some heat from Brian Banks who is trying to start his career after spending five years in jail for a crime he did not commit. That is an interesting story in itself, but the bottom line for us is that the Falcons MLB position is not likely to give us any value this year.

Heading into last season there was speculation by some that strong side starter Stephen Nicholas would have a big year. He did manage to capture the sub package roles and was a three down player. He was not however, able to put up strong numbers. His 72 tackles and 25 assists were both career highs, but Nicholas was not able to produce significant big play numbers to go with them. In the end he averaged fewer than 10 points a game and was little more than bye week depth in most leagues. I know that some of my respected peers like him more than I, but I see nothing that makes me expect much more from Nicholas this season.

  • MLB Akeem Dent - No value
  • WLB Sean Weatherspoon - Low end LB2 or excellent third starter
  • SLB Stephen Nicholas - Depth in 12 team leagues that start 3
  • MLB Brian Banks - Deep sleeper to keep an eye on
  • OLB Robert James - No value

Defensive Backs

When looking closely at strong safety William Moore it is easy to get mixed signals about his fantasy value. On one hand there is the fact that he has perennially produced solid big play numbers, and was on pace for 79 solo tackles before missing the final four games last season. On the other hand there is the point that more than 60% of his production came in four big games, including the first three of the season. In eight games starting with week four, Moore was very pedestrian. He has a ton of talent and potential but has yet to show production with any consistency over his three seasons as a starter. He is capable of a big season and is clearly roster worthy in most leagues, but I for one will be happy to let him land on someone else's roster.

Free safety Thomas DeCoud has a lower ceiling than Moore but at least he has been consistent. In four consecutive seasons he has posted at least 57 solo tackles while averaging 5 takeaways a year. DeCoud has put up very similar numbers in each of the past two seasons, averaging just over 10 points a game. 2012 saw him total a modest 62 solo stops, but reach career highs in both interceptions with 6 and passes defended with 9. He is not the most physical of tacklers but gets the job done, and he is strong in coverage with a nose for the ball. Moore may have a few more fantasy points at the end of the year but I would feel much better about putting DeCoud in my lineup every week. He squeaked into the top 20 DBs last season but I would target him as no more than a third starter with a little upside.

Over the past few seasons we have seen respectable production from the corner position in Atlanta. Brent Grimes turned in top ten finishes in 2009 and 2010, and was on the way to a third when he was injured in 2011. Last year Dunta Robinson made it into the top fifteen. Both of those players have moved on so the opportunity now falls to Asante Samuel and the winner of the battle for the job opposite him. Samuel packs a great deal of big play punch, which is illustrated by his averaging better than 6 interceptions a season since 2006. Unfortunately he has not reached 40 tackles in a season since 2007, thus has just one top 35 finish over the past six seasons.

The starter opposite Samuel is where value will be found if there is any. 2011 undrafted free agent Robert McClain stepped up and did a solid if unspectacular job for the team last year. He will be penciled in as the starter when camp opens but will be hard pressed to hold off first round pick Desmond Trufant and/or second round selection Robert Alford. Both rookies are talented players who were considered among the top corners in this year's draft. Trufant has the size, speed, athleticism and cover skills to be an excellent cover corner at the pro level, but he does not have much of a resume when it comes to making big plays. As a senior at Washington he picked off only one pass and was not known as a physical tackler.

Trufant may have been the first round pick but fantasy owners should be pulling for Alford to win the job. Like Trufant, Alford is blazing fast and athletic, but despite being a bit smaller, he is the more physical of the two. Alford excels in press coverage and run support, not to mention that he recorded 9 interceptions over his final two seasons at Southeast Louisiana. The rookie corner rule would apply with either of these guys but Alford would be considerably higher on my draft board if he is able to win the job. We will be keeping a close eye on this situation throughout the summer.

  • SS William Moore - Inconsistent DB3 candidate with DB2 potential
  • FS Thomas DeCoud - Solid DB3 or quality depth
  • CB Asante Samuel - Minimal value
  • CB Desmond Trufant - Rookie corner rule
  • CB Robert McClain - Minimal value
  • CB Robert Alford - Sleeper with high CB2 potential if he wins the job.

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


More from John Norton:

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
Eyes of the Guru: Preseason IDP Notes from Week 1 - August 15
Eyes of the Guru: Part 8 - July 30