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.
In fantasy circles Calais Campbell has become the standard by which all 3-4 ends are judged. I have mentioned him several times over the first seven parts of this series. It is true that J.J. Watt is also a 3-4 end, but he has only one monster season under his belt. Watt was on a mountain of his own in 2012 so any comparison to him would be unrealistic. Campbell first showed up on the fantasy radar as a second year pro in 2009. That season his mark of 37-11-6.5 with 5 batted passes, edged Campbell into the top fifteen. His tackle number have been on a steady rise ever since and his big play production has continued on a steady pace. In 2012 Campbell finished with 51 tackles, 13 assists, 6.5 sacks, and six batted passes. Those numbers landed him in the area of number fifteen again, but before you pencil him in as a priority DL2, consider that he missed three games last season. If we average in three more games Campbell becomes the number two defensive lineman. I will pull up short of making him the second lineman on my board, but he will be in the top five.
In 2009 and 2010 it looked as if the Cardinals might have a pair of perennial top twenty ends. Darnell Dockett exceeded 40 tackles in each of those seasons, with 11.5 combined sacks. Over the past two years however, his numbers have tumbled beyond even marginal value. Dockett had a good run as a 4-3 tackle early in his career as well, but at age 32 the ten year veteran seems to be well into decline.
Dan Williams rounds out the starting lineup at nose tackle. The 2010 first round pick is a prototypical anchor for a 3-4 front. He can eat up space, hold ground against double teams and gets off blocks well enough to make a decent number of tackles for an interior lineman. Williams finished last season with 33 solo stops. Unfortunately his 40 games as a pro have yet to produce Williams first sack. Williams suffered what is currently believed to be a minor knee injury and is likely to miss some practice time. Second year pro David Carter will work in his place.
- DE Calais Campbell - Perennial top 15 DL with top five upside
- DE Darnell Dockett - Minimal value at best
- NT Dan Williams - Minimal value at best
- NT David Carter - No value
- DE Frostee Rucker - No value
- DE Ronald Talley - No value
The four game suspension of Daryl Washington adds some complication to Arizona's inside linebacker situation. With 108 tackles, 26 assists, 10 sacks and a handful of takeaways in 2012, he was a top five linebacker in nearly any format. As I have mentioned in previous columns, when it comes to players of this magnitude I choose to look at such a suspension as more of a four game insurance police against injury. Washington is the leader of this defense. Come week five he will be healthy, will have fresh legs and will be back on the field full time. Washington will be there for us down the stretch and into our post season when it matters. He will be a top ten and likely a top five linebacker over the final twelve games; so grab a solid LB4 to cover those first four weeks and jump on Washington as your LB1 if your competition leaves him on the board for long.
The Washington suspension may not have as much to do with some of the Cardinals offseason moves as it would seem. They drafted Kevin Minter in the second round then brought back long time starter Karlos Dansby on a one year contract as well. Minter is a bit short by NFL standards, but is a thick two down thumper who tackles well. Eventually he will be the sidekick to Washington in the starting lineup, but that may not happen before 2014. Even then it remains to be seen if Minter can gain a three down role. To his credit, Minter was a highly productive three down player at LSU in 2012. In the long term I anticipate Minter having a similar role with similar production to that of Paris Lenon over the past three years. Lenon too was a smart, dependable but unspectacular player. He was not in on all sub packages but did see action in some of them. Production wise Lenon was a top thirty linebacker in each of his three seasons with the Cardinals. Minter is a more talented player in general so it is reasonable to expect at least quality LB3 numbers from him in years to come.
Over the first four games we are likely to see Dansby in the lead role with either Minter or possibly veteran free agent Jasper Brinkley next to him. Once Washington returns I expect Dansby to slide over but remain in a starting role for the rest of this season. Dansby will be 32 years old in November. It would seem that he is destined to be a floating rent-a-player for the remainder of his career; filling in each season for whichever team has the need for a short term veteran who can still play. Dansby recorded triple digit solo tackles for the Dolphins last season and still has good fantasy value. He is likely to lead the Cardinals in tackles in 2013 and should be at least a solid LB3 for us.
Arizona has struggled to get consistent quality production from the all important outside linebacker positions. After a 7 sack rookie season in 2011, Sam Acho got to the quarterback for only 2.5 last year. The other opening day starter was O'Brien Schofield who added 4 sacks before being injured around mid season. He has moved on as a free agent. In the end, no outside linebacker contributed more than 4 sacks. Looking to boost the pass rush Arizona signed free agents Matt Shaughnessy, Lorenzo Alexander and John Abraham. Alexander is the only member of the trio with experience in a 3-4 scheme. He did not start a game for Washington last year but helped to fill in for an injured Brian Orakpo. Alexander finished 2012 with 34 tackles and 2.5 sacks in 320 snaps.
Abraham reached double digit sacks for the Falcons last season, but at age 35 there are a lot of questions about his ability to be successful as an outside linebacker. Like Abraham, Shaughnessy is trying to make the transition between schemes. the tall lanky former Raider is only 26 and would seem to have a skill set that could allow him to be successful in the new position. The coaching staff would love to see Alexander or Shaughnessy stand out and claim the job. I believe they will look to use Abraham as a situational pass rusher and move him around the formation in search of mismatches. His presence could also lead to an increased use of 4-3 fronts. Until this plays out and someone steps up at these positions, there is nothing for us to do but wait and see.
- ILB Daryl Washington - Top end LB1 even with the suspension
- ILB Karlos Dansby - Somewhat risky LB3 with LB2 potential
- ILB Kevin Minter - Promising dynasty prospect with long term low end LB2 potential
- ILB Jasper Brinkley - No value
- OLB Sam Acho - No value
- OLB/DE John Abraham - Sleeper with limited upside
- OLB Lorenzo Alexander - Sleeper in big play based leagues
- OLB Matt Shaughnessy - Sleeper in big play based leagues
The Cardinals secondary provides one of the offseason's biggest head scratchers. Here is a club that had the fifth best pass defense in 2012, yet they are returning only one starter. Gone are long time starter at strong safety Adrian Wilson, free safety Kerry Rhodes and corner William Gay. With them go 14 takeaways and 4.5 sacks. As replacements the Cardinals signed solid veteran safety Yeremiah Bell and veterans Jerraud Powers, Javier Arenas and Antoine Casson to compete at corner. They also picked corner/safety Tyrann Mathieu in round three. The youngster may prove to be the best move of the bunch.
The sure starters here are Bell at safety and Patrick Peterson at corner. Bell is a versatile safety who has started extensively at both positions over the course of his career. He played mostly at free safety for the Jets Last season, finishing with more than 70 solo stops for the fifth consecutive season. The coaching staff may elect to put play the 35 year old Bell at free safety to lessen the pounding, but from a skill set perspective he would seem best suited to play strong. There is another reason to expect that Bell will draw the run support role. Rashad Johnson and Tyrann Mathieu are the other serious contenders for starting jobs and both are free safeties.
A lot of depth charts are showing Johnson and Bell as the current starters, but Mathieu has been impressive from the first day of camp. At 5'9 and 186 pounds he is small for a safety, but he is physical and tenacious. Simply put, Mathieu has been a difference maker. The only way I see that he fails to start at free safety is if the coaching staff feels he can be more effective as the nickel corner. He could end up being both. Do not be surprised if Mathieu starts at free safety and move to nickel corner in sub packages.
Bell is likely to lead the secondary in tackles but is good for only 2-3 takeaways. If you like to play it safe he should be a quality third starter for us. Mathieu may end up with fewer than 70 solo tackles but the big play potential gives him a much higher ceiling. Hopefully this will not jinx the young man, but he reminds me a lot (from a playing perspective) of former Colts walking M.A.S.H. unit Bob Sanders. Grab Mathieu late as your third or fourth defensive back and keep your fingers crossed. At worst he should be a worthy bye week starter.
The rookie corner rule is proven yet again with the performance of Peterson over his first two seasons. As a rookie in 2011 he was good for 59 tackles with a pair of interceptions and thirteen passes defended. In 2012 his tackle numbers slipped a little to 52, and Peterson blew up for 7 interceptions with 17 passes defended. The 4 touchdowns he scored as a rookie caused Peterson to be somewhat over rated throughout the past two draft seasons. Except for leagues that gave him credit for special teams scores, he has yet to finish a season ranked higher than number ten among corners. Yet he is consistently being picked among the top five at the position. Big play production should keep Peterson among the top twelve, but be careful what you pay for him as his tackle numbers may continue to decline slowly.
Arizona corners in general have provided decent numbers in recent years. So the competition for the starting job opposite Peterson could produce an early season free agent pickup for us. Powers, Arenas and Cason have all held starting jobs over the past couple of seasons. Powers has produced good tackle numbers when healthy but has just 6 interceptions over his four year career. Arenas was forced into a starting role with the Chiefs last season, but is probably best suited to be a nickel corner. That leaves Cason who would seem the best answer here. The Chargers 2008 first round pick has the most experience and talent of the group, and he has been in the top twenty in two of the past three seasons. Give Cason a shot as a late round flier in deep leagues.
- SS Yeremiah Bell - Solid DB3 prospect with limited upside
- FS Tyrann Mathieu - Target as DB4 with DB2 upside
- SS Rashad Johnson - No value
- FS Justin Bethel - No value
- CB Patrick Peterson - Low end CB1
- CB Jerraud Powers - CB3 potential
- CB Javier Arenas - Minimal value
- CB Antoine Cason - Sleeper with CB2 upside
- CB Jamell Flemming - No value
St. Louis Rams
The Rams defensive line accounted for 37 sacks in 2012 and the club returns all six of the guys who contributed to that total. Starting ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn logged 11.5 and 10.5 of those sacks respectively. This duo gives the Rams one of the league's best young pass rush tandems. They will go a long way toward making the St. Louis defense a playoff caliber unit. Fantasy owners however, need to be careful here. It is easy to get excited about the double digit sack totals, but see where they ranked in your scoring system last season before placing a value on them.
With 33 sacks over the past three seasons, Long has lived up to the expectations of the number two overall draft pick in 2008. The problem for fantasy owners is the career high of only 33 solo tackles and the glaring lack of other big plays. He has averaged fewer than 30 tackles over his five seasons as a pro, with all of 1 forced fumble and 2 batted passes over the past two years.
Quinn gives us a very similar situation. The 2011 first round selection stepped into a full time role in his second season, and showed us why the organization was so high on him. The 10.5 sacks from last year look real good on his resume, but he has only 44 tackles and 2 forced fumbles in two seasons. This is not a situation where Long and Quinn are leaving the field often, or that they are poor run defenders. Rather it is that Rams linemen are simply not credited with many tackles in general. Third end William Hayes led the club's linemen with 29 solo stops in 2012. In fact we have to look all the way back to Grant Wistrom to find a Rams lineman in the 40 tackle and double digit sack club.
I am seeing Quinn consistently go off the board ahead of Long this summer. That is a bit puzzling considering that Long is more proven and scored a few more fantasy points last season. At this point they are basically interchangeable parts. The recent history of limited tackle production by St. Louis linemen across the board means that Long and Quinn have limited upside. The sack production alone makes them worthy as low end DL2 or excellent number three guys.
The curse of marginal tackle numbers extends to the Rams interior linemen as well. Kendall Langford and Michael Brockers will be the starters at tackle, with Eugene Sims seeing time as the third man in the rotation. End William Hayes will also see some snaps inside in passing situations, which is why he was able to top the front four in tackles a year ago. Hayes could lose that title to Brockers in 2013. As a rookie last season Brockers finished with 20 tackles and 4 sack. Not impressive numbers at a glance, but consider that he missed the first three games with an injury, then was eased into the lineup over the next few games. Nearly all of Brockers production came over a seven game span. I am not ready to crown him as a top ten tackle, but will not be surprised if he ends up there this year. Target Brockers as a priority DT2 with upside at a position where production has been scarce league wide in recent years.
- DE Chris Long - Solid DL2 or excellent depth
- DE Robert Quinn - Solid DL2 or excellent depth
- DE William Hayes - Injury sleeper with DL2 potential
- DE Eugene Sims - No value
- DT Michael Brockers - DT2 with some upside
- DT Kendall Langford - No value
- DT Jamelle Cudjo - No value
- DT Matt Conrath - No value
Rams middle linebacker James Laurinaitis is an elite player in both NFL and fantasy terms. On the field he is a complete player who is stout versus the run, is solid in coverage and has become the leader of an improving defense. In the box scores he has averaged 107 solo tackles over his four pro seasons, with a career low of 98. Laurinaitis is not a major contributor in the big play columns but is usually good for about 3 takeaways, a couple of sacks and a handful of passes defended. The only shortcoming in his fantasy production is in the assist column. Of the top twenty linebackers from 2012, only Derrick Johnson was credited with fewer assist than Laurinaitis's 24.
It would be great if the NFL could find some consistency in their defensive statistics. For now it is up to fantasy owners to know how player value will be affected by various stats crews. For example; in those few leagues that value assists equal to solo tackles, a player like Vontaze Burfict might have more value than Laurinaitis. The stats crew in Cincinnati is stingy with solo tackles but will seemingly award an assist to every defender that touches a ball carrier. In St. Louis they are at the other end of that spectrum. Only Chiefs players were credited with fewer assists than Rams defenders. In most leagues Laurinaitis is established as a perennial top ten linebacker and has finished among the top five in each of the past two seasons. He is dependable as they come and should be among the first five linebackers off the board on draft day. St. Louis is one of the few clubs that like to play their outside linebackers as right and left rather than strong and weak. This situation puts the left outside backer in the weak side position most but not all of the time. Jo-Lonn Dunbar quietly had a very productive 2012 as in that position. His 90-24-3.5 with 4 takeaways was good enough for a top fifteen finish. The addition of first round pick Alec Ogletree could be the end of Dunbar's fantasy value. At 6'0" and 226 pounds, Dunbar is a bit undersized for a strong side role. Ogletree is bigger but the strengths of his game are coverage and pursuit. He struggles to take on and shed blockers at the point of attack and would be a much better fit on the weak side. It will be interesting to see if the Rams continue to use the right and left approach with these two.
What we do know is that there is production to be harnessed here. I expect that Ogletree will see most of the action on the weak side. His experience as a safety early in his college career will likely land him the all important three down role. In 2012 Ogletree totaled 111 combined tackles with 3 sacks and an interception for Georgia. We will know a lot more once the Rams have played that first preseason game, but for now I would expect a top 25 finish for the rookie this season.
- MLB James Laurinaitis - Perennial top 10 and likely top 5
- OLB Jo-Lonn Dunbar - LB3 potential but likely no better than depth
- OLB Alec Ogletree - LB3 with LB2 potential and some risk
- OLB/MLB Will Witherspoon - Injury sleeper with LB4 potential at best
I have been somewhat shocked at how little love there has been for the Rams safeties this year. Does no one remember that Quintin Mikell averaged 79 tackles, 6 takeaways and 2 sacks, with a pair of top ten finishes over the past two seasons? Mikell is gone but that production potential is not. Enter Darian Stewart and rookie T.J. McDonald. I have been amazed to see both of these guys fall to the very late rounds of several drafts this summer. They have even gone undrafted a few times. As my favorite #85 might say, child please! In 2011 Stewart played in fifteen games, starting thirteen. In those thirteen games he recorded 63 solo stops, 3 takeaways, 3 sacks and 11 passes defended, for a top twenty ranking. Granted the addition of Ogletree is going to create more competition for tackles, but the safeties are going to have their opportunities. We should also consider the big numbers put up by the safeties in Tennessee under head coach Jeff Fisher. Chris Hope's 87 tackles in 2010 is just one example. Stewart may not be the long term answer, but he is going to be there for now. On the other hand, he is only 25 years old and could play his way into a long term job. There are a lot of signs pointing to quality production for Stewart. Do not let this late round steal do undrafted in your league.
McDonald has stepped in as the other starter at safety. With 14 interceptions over his three years as a starter for USC, he is a proven playmaker. McDonald's scouting report however, say that he is somewhat of a liability in coverage and may be best served in a strong safety type role. At 6'2" and 219 pounds he is built like a linebacker and hits like one as well. McDonald totaled 112 combined tackles for the Trojans last season. Both his size and skill set are very similar to that of Mikell so it will be no surprise if McDonald steps right into that same role. The Rams like to use their safeties as interchangeable parts so there is really no point in designating them as strong or free. What we really need to know is which one will get the call to play up near the line in a run support role more often. Both guys should have some value, but the one who plays in the box is our top target.
But for an injury shortened 2009 season Cortland Finnegan would have finished among the top fifteen corners in five of the last six seasons. He was in the top five last year when his 83 solo tackles in were 10 more than any other corner in the league and were tied for third most among defensive backs. Finnegan is more than just a tackling machine. He is among the leagues best cover corners and is a contributor in the big play columns as well. Over his career Finnegan has averaged just under 4 takeaways and 11 passes defended. He also has 6 career sacks and has scored a touchdown in five of his seven seasons as a pro. There are a handful of corners I like better, but we can certainly count on Finnegan as a quality CB1.
Finnegan's counterpart last season was rookie Janoris Jenkins. The 2012 second round pick finished the season as a top twelve corner with 64 tackles, 5 takeaways and 14 passes defended. He is a speedy ball hawk who can stick with the leagues faster receivers, yet is physical enough to cover bigger guys. If the rookie corner rule holds true as expected, Jenkins will replace a handful of those tackles with a few more big plays in 2013. He is not as proven as Finnegan, but Jenkins should be at least a quality CB2 for us this year.
- SS/FS Darian Stewart - Sleeper with DB3 or better potential
- FS/SS T.J. McDonald - Physical safety with big long term potential
- SS/FS Matt Giordano - Injury sleeper at best
- CB Cortland Finnegan - Quality CB1
- CB Janoris Jenkins - Solid CB2 with CB1 upside
- CB Trumaine Johnson - No value
- CB Brandon McGee - No value
San Francisco 49ers
Over the past five seasons San Francisco has given us one of the few consistently productive 3-4 defensive ends in the game. Justin Smith is not the most naturally gifted of players, but his skill set and tenacious hardnosed approach is a great fit in the scheme. The twelve year veteran is not an elite pass rusher but consistently makes up for average sack totals with quality tackle numbers. Over his career Smith has averaged 46 tackles and a solid 6.5 sacks. To emphasize just how consistent he has been; Smith has never fallen short of 41 tackles in a season, and has totaled fewer than 5 sacks only twice. The only concern here is that one of those two seasons was 2012 when he finished at 47-18-3 in fourteen games. He will turn 34 in September and just signed a new contract that Smith has said will be his last. He may be starting to decline, but it is safe to expect 45 tackles and 5 sack for at least one more season.
The 49ers are trying to prepare for life after Smith. Second round pick Cornellius "Tank" Carradine tore his ACL late in 2012 and will likely have a limited role as rookie, but this young man has the potential to be special. At 276 pounds he is a bit light for a 3-4 end and there is still some speculation that he may end up at outside linebacker, but thus far the organization has given us no real reason to expect that move. Much of that speculation spawns from Carradine's ability and production as an edge rusher at Florida State. In twelve starts last year he registered 80 combined tackles with 11 sacks. Carradine is unlikely to have a major impact until at least late this season, but he is certainly a player to keep an eye on.
Ray McDonald was the 49ers third round pick in 2007. After four years in a backup role he became a starter in 2011. He too has developed into a solid player and a good fit in the scheme, but McDonald's numbers have fallen a little short of useful for most of us. His two years as a starter have produced 29-9-3 in 2012 and 28-10-5.5 in 2011. At this point there is no reason to anticipate a breakout seasons.
Second year undrafted free agent Ian Williams will compete with free agent addition Glenn Dorsey for the starting job at nose tackle. Dorsey is a former first round pick of the Chiefs who has never lived up to the expectations that come with being the fifth overall pick. He played end in the Chiefs 3-4 and is a little undersized for the nose tackle position. Dorsey could end up working as the backup at all three positions but is unlikely to have any value.
- DE Justin Smith - Dependable DL2 with limited upside
- DE Ray McDonald - Minimal value
- DE Tank Carradine - Dynasty sleeper
- NT Ian Williams - No value
- NT Glenn Dorsey - No value
In Navorro Bowman and Patrick Willis San Francisco has arguably the best inside linebacker tandem ever to line up in a 3-4 scheme. Willis reached triple digit solo tackles in each of his first four seasons and was first or second in fantasy production among linebackers in each of his first three years. The emergence of Bowman and the improvement of the 49ers defense/team in general have taken their toll on those totals. In 2012 Willis's 88 solo stops, 5 takeaways and 9 passes defended gave him a sixth consecutive top fifteen finish.
Bowman earned a starting job in his second season (2011) and exploded on the scene going 110-31-2 with 3 forced fumbles and 8 passes defended. For an encore in 2012 he went 97-52-2 with a pair of takeaways and 6 passes defended. What we have here are two outstanding players who, if not playing side by side, would likely both be perennial top ten linebackers. Bowman has been slightly more fantasy productive in each of the past two seasons and will likely continue to lead the club in tackles for years to come. Meanwhile Willis will continue to give us the better big play production. They are both excellent prospects with Bowman carrying top five potential and Willis slipping to the bottom of the LB1 tier.
In most years 19.5 sacks would be enough to lead the league. Unfortunately for Aldon Smith, he picked the wrong season to go off. The question is can he repeat the gaudy numbers? Considering that he reached 14 as a rookie the previous year, I would say the chances are good. Smith's tackle numbers jumped in his second season as well, but like most 3-4 outside backers his fantasy value is ultimately going to depend on the scoring system. With 49 tackles, 19.5 sacks and 4 takeaways, Smith was the top linebacker in many big play based leagues. In most balanced scoring leagues he fell just outside the top 25. This guy is the real deal and is just entering the prime of his career. His best numbers may be yet to come. See where he fits in your scoring and slot Smith accordingly.
Ahmad Brooks has found his place in the NFL. He is not going to steal the spotlight, but has developed into a quality starter opposite Smith. Brooks sets the edge well, is a physical tackler, is more than adequate in coverage and provides a solid complementary pass rush. Over his four years in San Francisco, Brooks has consistently registered 30-35 tackles and 6-7 sacks a season. The only value such numbers might provide would be as depth in big play based leagues.
- ILB Patrick Willis - solid low end LB1
- ILB Navorro Bowman - Strong LB1 with top 5 potential
- ILB Dan Skuta - No value
- OLB Aldon Smith - Value depends on the scoring system
- OLB Ahmad Bradshaw - Minimal value at best
- OLB Parys Haralson - No value
- OLB Corey Lemonier - No value
Even with the free agent loss of Dashon Goldson, and the season ending injury to Chris Culliver, the 49ers are deep and talented in the secondary. Strong safety Donte Whitner will be joined in the starting lineup by first round pick Eric Reed. Both players are intimidating big hitters who will provide a dash of play making ability, but neither are likely to be fantasy standouts. This has little to do with their abilities or potential, and a great deal to do with the quality of the front seven. On a poor Bills team in 2010 Whitner led all defensive back in solo tackles with 95 and was the fantasy game's top DB. In two seasons with San Francisco he has a total of 111 tackles and has not finished inside the top 30. Before Willis and Bowman, Goldson once finished in the top five at the position. Over the past three years his average finish has been 33. Whitner and Reid may prove to be an excellent tandem at safety but they are simply not going to have as much opportunity as most others at the position.
In Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown and Nnamdi Asomugha the 49ers have a trio of quality cover corners but they are lacking playmakers. Last season these three guys had just 4 interceptions between them. Going into camp we really do not even know what the pecking order will be here. What we do know is that no San Francisco corner has reached 60 tackles since Moby Dick was a guppy.
- SS Donte Whitner - Minimal value
- FS Eric Reid - Minimal value
- SS Craig Dahl - No value
- FS C.J. Spillman - No value
- CB Carlos Rogers - Depth in corner required leagues
- CB Tarrell Brown - No value CB Nnamdi Asomugha - No value
- CB Trumaine Brock - No value
In a way the Seahawks defensive end position is a mirror image of the Rams situation. Once he is healthy Chris Clemons will likely pair with free agent addition Cliff Avril as the starters. Both of these players are excellent pass rushers that do not make a lot of tackles. Clemons has reached double digit sacks in each of his three seasons with Seattle, but has a career high of only 34 tackles. In 2012 he finished at 29-10-10 with 4 takeaways before tearing his ACL in the Wild Card round of the playoffs.
Avril spent the first five years of his career in Detroit where he averaged 7.5 sacks a season with a career high of 11. He has never reached 30 solo stops in a season. Both Clemons and Avril are a bit undersized for every down 4-3 ends, so even when everyone is healthy, Red Bryant is probably going to see action on a lot of early downs. In the short term however, Avril will serve as the replacement for Clemons with Bryant continuing to start on the other side.
While the organization remains optimistic that Clemons will be ready to play at some point early in the season, it is unlikely that he will be 100% before 2014. It is likely that he will be eased into action as a situational pass rush specialist, replacing Bryant in sub packages this year. Being only eight months removed from the injury when the season starts, Clemons could have little value in 2013.
Seattle added more production up front by signing free agent Michael Bennett away from Tampa Bay. Bennett is a versatile lineman who was successful at both end and tackle for the Bucs. The fifth year pro became a starter in 2011 when he worked extensively at both positions. Injuries made him a full time end for most of the 2012, when Bennett registered a solid 34-7-9 with 3 forced fumbles. The initial plan in Seattle is to play him on the inside, but he clearly provides a backup plan at end as well. The good news for fantasy owners is that his positional designation has finally been changed to tackle. At this position where production is hard to come by, Bennett could make a big splash. In fact, I will be surprised if he is not among the top five interior linemen at the end of the season. Returning starter Brandon Mebane may also be a factor for owners looking for interior line help. He has been a top twenty tackle in four of the past five seasons and is coming off a career best top ten finish. With 13 sacks over his six seasons, Mebane is not a major pass rush threat. He has however, reached 40 solo tackles twice in the last four years. My only fear here is that Mebane's responsibilities may change some with the addition of Bennett. Last year Mebane finished at 31-25-3. He is capable of repeating those numbers but I would not take that bet. Instead I suggest targeting Mebane as a mid range DT2. He could be a pleasant surprise at that value and at the least, should not be a major disappointment.
- DE Chris Clemons - Risky DL3
- DE Cliff Avril - Mid range DL2 at best
- DE Red Bryant - No value
- DT/DE Michael Bennett - Potential top 5 interior lineman
- DT Brandon Mebane - Target as a mid range DT2
- DT Jordan Hill - No value
- DT Clint McDonald - No value
- DT Jesse Williams - No value
A late season push put rookie Bobby Wagner into the top ten in 2012. We can expect much more from him in the years to come. Wagner is the complete middle linebacker. Fast, physical and tenacious with good cover skills, a high football IQ and strong leadership qualities. not to mention that he is playing behind a defensive line that is very strong up the middle. At a glance Wagner's rookie numbers of 86-55-3.5 with 3 picks are pretty strong. When we consider that he was playing in a part time role until week five, those numbers become rather impressive. From week five through the end of the seasons Wagner was a fop five linebacker. Expect him to pick up in 2013 right where he left off in 2012. Wagoner is safe as it gets for your LB1. He is the second linebacker on my draft board and I believe he could be right on the heels of Luke Kuechly at the number one spot.
Third year pro K.J. Wright enters his second season as the starter on the weak side. Wright was a three down player last season and should continue to hold his role in the sub packages as well. In 2012 he finished with 69 tackles, 30 assists, a sack and a pair of takeaways in fourteen games. What the numbers do not tell us is that before missing those two games around mid season, Wright was on pace for 102 solo stops. When he returned to the field in week twelve, he was not the same player. Granted some of the drop of can be attributed to the emergence of Wagner, but we should not completely overlook a now healthy Wright. Slip him onto you draft list as a late round sleeper and snap him up as depth with LB3 upside.
Seattle has an interesting mix of options at strong side linebacker. At 6'0" and 226 pounds, Malcolm Smith is undersized to be the prototypical 4-3 run stuffer. His strength is speed and an ability to stay with most tight ends in coverage. Smith has been penciled in as the starter, but he will share time with Bruce Irvin and possible O'Brien Schofield. Irvin was the Seahawks first round pick in 2012 as a pass rushing defensive end. In a part time role he contributed 8 sacks as a rookie, but at only 248 pounds he struggled to set the corner against the run. The coaching staff elected to move him to outside linebacker in hope that he would have more room to maneuver and use his speed. Irvin will see some action in base packages but will likely continue to log most of his playing time in pass rush situations. He may still put his hand down at times as well.While Irvin is serving his four game suspension, Schofield could get some opportunity. The bottom line here is that none of these guys are going to have enough opportunity or production to lend fantasy consideration.
- MLB Bobby Wagner - Likely top 5 LB with top 3 potential
- WLB K.J. Wright - Sleeper with LB3 upside
- SLB Malcolm Smith - No value
- SLB/DE Bruce Irvin - Minimal value at best
- SLB O'Brien Schofield - No value
After a strong 2011, fantasy owners and prognosticators alike had grand expectations for strong safety Kam Chancellor last season. With 73 solo stops and 24 assists, he lived up to those expectations in terms of tackles, but Chancellor's big play numbers dropped sharply in his second year as the starting strong safety. In 2011 he totaled 7 takeaways (4 picks), a sack and 12 passes defended. Last season his fantasy point total dropped by more than 20% as Chancellor finished with just 3 takeaways (no picks) and only 4 passes defended. At 6'3" and 236, he is like having a linebacker roaming the secondary. Chancellor is outstanding in run support, more than adequate in coverage and has big play ability. With Wagner stealing the show in front of him, it is doubtful that Chancellor will ever be the perennial top ten DB we were all looking for last season, but he should bounce back some in 2013. I would be a little nervous about relying on him as a DB1, but would be happy to roster him as a second starter with upside.
In NFL terms free safety Earl Thomas is an excellent player; in fantasy terms, not so much. The 2010 first round pick put up respectable tackle number of 64 and 69 in his first two seasons respectively, adding 11 takeaways, 13 passes defended and a score over those 32 games. With the defense and the team in general showing great improvement in 2012, Thomas became a somewhat forgotten man. His role changed to that of a catch all center fielder who was responsible for cleaning up the mistakes of others while providing over the top coverage help for the team's outstanding corners. Thomas continued to be a playmaker with 5 takeaways, 9 passes defended and his second career score, but the drop in tackle opportunity led to just 42 solo stops. At this point Thomas can be compared to a young Ed Reed. A guy who will make big plays that help his team win, but will be like playing Russian Roulette for fantasy owners. Let someone else take that chance.
In corners Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner the Seahawks have arguably the biggest, most physical cover tandem in the game. Sherman is best known to fans for running his mouth and drawing the ire of opponents. If he learns to keep his mouth shut and play, he will soon be more widely recognized as one of the best corners in the game. At 6'3 and 195 pounds, Sherman has the size to cover big physical receivers but he also has the speed to stay with the faster ones. What is particularly impressive in fantasy terms is Sherman's big play ability. His 52 tackles in 2012 were well supplemented by a total of 11 takeaways (8 picks), a sack, 2 scores and a league leading 24 passes defended. All that added up to Sherman being the number two corner in the fantasy game last season and a top ten DB in leagues that lump the positions together. While I am not sold that we can count on such gaudy big play numbers from him every year, I am sold that he will continue to be a quality CB1 for years to come. The guy is just 25 years old, so who knows, we may not yet have seen his best.
Browner is even bigger than Sherman and may prove to be just as productive in any given season. Even before he was suspended for the final four games, Browner's numbers were well behind Sherman's last season. In twelve games however, Browner recorded 7 takeaways. For a glimpse at his true potential we need only look at the 2011 season when Browner had 51 tackles, 6 takeaways, two scores and 23 passes defended. Sherman is clearly the top target of the two, but Browner is certainly worthy of a roster spot as a third corner with CB2 upside.
I have not talked about many nickel corners over the course of this year's columns, but Antoine Winfield is one worth mention. This fifteen year veteran will not be on the field in the base packages but will have a key role as the third corner in sub packages. If there were a fantasy football Hall of Fame, Winfield would be a first ballot inductee once he retires. He probably will not have enough opportunity in his current role, but is either of the starters miss time, Winfield would be a must add free agent.
- SS Kam Chancellor - Quality DB2 with some upside
- FS Earl Thomas - Depth at best
- SS Winston Guy - No value
- CB Brandon Browner - CB2 with CB2 potential
- CB Richard Sherman - Quality CB1 with top 3 potential
- CB Antoine Winfield - Injury sleeper with CB2 upside
- CB Jeremy Lane - No value
- CB Byron Maxwell - No value
That does it for this year's initial columns. The first round of preseason action is in progress as I finish this up. I am already starting to look for answers to some of the questions that have been mentioned over the past few weeks. The plan is to have an update available before preseason round two. Best of luck in those upcoming drafts and be sure to check back often. In the end we all have the same goal, Just Win Baby!
More from John Norton:
Eyes of the Guru: Week 16 - December 17
Eyes of the Guru: Week 15 - December 10
Eyes of the Guru: Week 14 - December 3
Eyes of the Guru: Week 13 - November 26
Eyes of the Guru: Week 12 - November 19
Eyes of the Guru: Week 11 - November 13
Eyes of the Guru: Week 10 - November 5
Eyes of the Guru: Week 9 - October 30
Eyes of the Guru: Week 8 - October 22
Eyes of the Guru: Week 7 - October 15