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Eyes of the Guru Preseason, Part 6: AFC East

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

Buffalo Bills

Defensive Linemen

With the selection of Rex Ryan as head coach and choice of Dennis Thurman at defensive coordinator, Buffalo has had four different head coaches over the past seven years and six different defensive coordinators in the last six seasons. The bad news is there will be yet another change in schemes. This time from a 4-3 to a 3-4. The good news; it is almost the same scheme they played in 2013 under mike Pettine who is also a Ryan disciple. There are about fifteen defensive players on the roster who were there in 2013. Those players need a refresher course and to learn a few of Thurman’s perks, but they are basically ready to go. Having players who already know the scheme if big, the fact those players fit the scheme, is huge.

Up front, Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams are two of the guys who have been there. Both of are quick and incredibly strong 300+ pound athletes, who have been box score friendly over the course of their careers. Coincidentally, each of them had his most statistically productive season in 2013. In 2010 Williams played nose tackle in the Bills 3-4 under Chan Gailey. That year Williams lit up the box scores with 54 solo tackles, 22 assists and 5 sacks. In 2013 Darius played nose tackle with Williams moving to right end. Williams went on to eclipse his previous best by a few fantasy points, going 42-25-10. He was a top ten defensive tackle last season with 30 tackles and 5 sacks, so he is not out of practice. Williams returns to right end this year where he is a safe bet to approach if not exceed the 40 tackle mark. Expecting a repeat of the double digit sacks however, is a reach. Other than 2013, the nine year pro has not posted more than 5 in and season. Target Williams as a low end DL2 or priority depth.

At 6'3" and 331 pounds, Darius is among the strongest players in the league. He plays with a low pad level, making it hard for offensive linemen to get leverage. No one is tougher to root out on running plays, even when double teamed. Put those traits together and we get a player who can hold his ground at the point of attack and then throw blockers aside to make tackles. Now add in the quickness and athleticism to actually have a variety of effective pass rush moves, and you have Marcell Darius. Most guys of his size are bull rushers who do nothing but try to push the pocket. They may throw in a swim or try a dip move once in a while. Darius pass rushes from the inside like a 4-3 end; setting up moves, using counters etc. His official position is nose tackle but he has the versatility to line up at end once in a while as well. In 2013 Darius was 46-25-7.5 with a forced fumble and 3 batted passes, making him neck and neck with Jurrell Casey at the top of the tackle heap. Darius may be right vying for top honors again in 2015. It will be a shock if he falls short of the top 5.

The final starting spot up front will be up for grabs during training camp. Alex Carrington opened the 2013 season as a starter opposite Williams. He played three games before landing on IR. He continued to battle injuries last season, seeing almost no action. Entering camp, third year man Stefan Charles is penciled in (lightly) atop the depth chart. If he actually has a lead in the competition, it is not a significant one. Charles contributed as a backup tackle last season, finishing at 12-11-3. Veterans Jairus Wynn and Andre Fluellen are also in the mix for playing time. Left end may be a committee situation when week one arrives.

Linebackers

When the Bills traded away Kiko Alonso this offseason, a lot of people questioned why the team would move such a talented young linebacker. There are actually a couple of good reasons. First and foremost, Alonso is what it was going to take for them to get LeShon McCoy. What ultimately made the deal for Buffalo was the presence of Nigel Bradham and Preston Brown. This duo of young linebackers is set to take the starting jobs on the inside and they both have what it takes to be successful. This is another situation where the raw numbers from last season fail to tell the whole story.

Brown is a physical tackler with excellent size and a high football IQ. He is not particularly fast and was considered adequate in coverage coming out of Louisville. As a rookie he quickly became a favorite of the previous coaching staff. Brown was an opening day starter, played about 94% of the Bills defensive snaps and finished the season with a modest 66-43-0 and a couple of takeaways. What the pure numbers fail to consider is how Brown was used. He opened the season as a three down starter on the strong side and held that job for much of the year, but also made four starts on the weak side and saw time in the middle as well. If you have been following the Footballguys IDP staff for long, you should know it is tough for the strong side linebacker in a 4-3 to be productive; especially in terms of tackles. As an inside linebacker in the 3-4, Brown will have greatly increased opportunity, which should lead to much better overall numbers.

Bradham was suspended for week one of 2014, missing another game with injury. He made three starts on the strong side, starting the other eleven contests on the weak side. He was on the field in some but not all passing down sub packages and did not play every snap in any game. In all Bradham was on the field about 74% of the time. Taking all that into consideration, his 66-38-2.5 with 3 turnovers and 7 passes defended are rather strong numbers. Bradham is not a great pass defended but is more than adequate, especially in zone coverage. He is set to start next to Brown on the inside in 2015 and could prove to be the most productive fantasy option on the Bills defense.

While Rex Ryan was head coach of the Jets, his inside linebackers (David Harris and Demario Davis) were both three down players. Brown and Bradham are relatively unproven, but they stack up favorably against their counterparts in New York. Nothing is written in stone here but I am pretty confident both Buffalo linebackers will be roster worthy in twelve team leagues that start three. In fact, it will not be a surprise if both Brown and Bradham become dependable every week starters. This situation will be under the microscope when the preseason opens.

There is no uncertainty at the outside linebacker positions in Buffalo. In Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes, Ryan may have the best OLB tandem of his head coaching career. Over the course of their careers, both players have been successful as 4-3 defensive ends and 3-4 outside linebackers. In 2012 and 2013 Williams was an outside backer in Buffalo's previous 3-4. In those two seasons he combined for 23.5 sacks and five turnovers, but totaled a mere 65 solo tackles. Hughes joined the Bills in 2013, posting career best is tackles at 32 and sacks at 9.5 in the 3-4. Last year he set a new tackle mark at 36 and again totaled 9.5 sacks. Fantasy owners are bummed to lose both of these guys a defensive ends. Between them they accounted for 73 solo tackles and 24 sacks last season. Their numbers should essentially remain about the same in the new scheme, but their value will take a huge hit in most situations. Both Williams and Hughes are strong starting options in big play based leagues. Marginal tackle totals will make them no more than matchup based bye week substitutes for most of us.

Defensive Backs

Buffalo is deep at the corner positions but they are short on the kind of super stars Rex Ryan is used to working with. It will be interesting to see how this works out. Leodis McKelvin (2008) and Stephon Gilmore (2012) are both former first round selections of the Bills. They are expected to be the opening day starters on the outside. While McKelvin is Buffalo's top cover man, he has not been much of a playmaker, averaging 3 turnovers a season and reaching double digit passes defended twice. He has been a starter from day one but has struggled to stay healthy in recent years. McKelvin has missed time in four of his seven seasons as a pro, including each of the past three. He played fifteen games in 2013, posting a career best in tackles with 60, and passes defended at 20. He was a top twenty corner that season and may have been top ten had he managed to put more than a single interception and one forced fumble in the big play columns. McKelvin was on pace to shatter those career highs in 2014 when he landed on IR in week twelve. In about nine and a half games of action, he was 45-3-0 with a career best 5 takeaways and 8 passes defended. His points per game average in 2014 was among the top fifteen corners. Top twenty production in consecutive seasons is reason for optimism. On the other hand, McKelvin has been inconsistent from year to year and Rex Ryan has meant fantasy purgatory for corner throughout his coaching career. All things considered, we should probably let someone else take a chance on McKelvin this year.

 
Gilmore is penciled in as the starter but could feel some heat from second round pick Ronald Darby. The rookie out of Florida State is blazing fast, excels at press coverage which is a staple of Ryan's 3-4, and has a knack for showing up in big situations. Scouts question his toughness, which is all the more reason to expect he will be tested often when he gets on the field. Chances are Darby will open as the team's slot corner, but he has a real shot at beating out Gilmore. Keep an eye on this one as the rookie corner rule could be in play.

Both Rob and Rex Ryan have a history of ruining some talented and/or productive safeties. In Buffalo there is a long tradition of quality numbers at the safety positions. Something has to give here. Over the past few season the Bills coaching staff has elected to run a lot of players through the rotation. Partly based on situational decisions but mostly because no one has really stepped up to claim one of the spots. With Da'Norris Searcy moving on, there is one less player to rotate. Aaron Williams and Duke Williams will enter camp as the starters. Aaron has proven himself a dependable option on the field at free safety, but has been marginal at best in the box scores. Duke has not been able to separate himself and is penciled in more from lack of options than because he has earned the nod. Much could change here between now and September. Corey Graham spent some time at strong safety last season and may make the transition full time in 2015. He has the physical approach and mentality of a strong safety and the cover skills of a corner. It will be a surprise if Graham is not at strong safety for the opener. If/when he wins the job, Graham could be an excellent pickup.

Miami Dolphins

Defensive Linemen

Miami has assembled an outstanding defensive line with excellent balance. Cameron Wake is dependable versus the run and is one of the leagues premier pass rushers. Olivier Vernon is an excellent edge setting run defender who is also a quality pass rusher. Ndamukong Suh is arguably the most gifted (and dirtiest) interior lineman in the game. If rookie second round pick Jordan Phillips can live up to his billing as a dominating run defender on the inside, there are no holes in this unit.

The Dolphins front four is also loaded with fantasy value. Wake's most statistically productive season came in 2010 when he was 48-10-14 with a handful of turnovers and batted passes. He has not reached the 40 tackle mark in a season since, but has recorded at least 8.5 sacks every year. Wake struggled a bit early in 2013, missing a couple of games with injury along the way. That had an effect on his overall totals for the year. In 2014 he was healthy all season, going 31-5-11.5 with 4 turnovers and 3 batted passes. Big tackle numbers are not his thing, but Wake can be counted on for 30+. What he lacks in the tackle column is more than made up for in big plays. One thing many people are not aware of, he took a long strange path to the NFL, making his debut in 2009 at age 27. Wake is now a low mileage 33 year old who has shown no hint of slowing down. A bump in tackle totals would make him a top five candidate. As it is, he can be counted on as a quality mid to low DL1.

Olivier Vernon was arguably the biggest surprise at the defensive line position in 2013. After posting 26 tackles and 3.5 sacks in a part time role as a rookie, the 2012 third round pick landed a starting job in his second season, going 45-12-10 with a top fifteen finish among defensive linemen. Vernon is a solid point of attack run defender with tenacity to chase down running plays from the back side. He is a high effort guy that does not take plays off and has solidified his role as a three down end. In 2014 his numbers dipped to 32-15-6.5. I would have expected some bounce back from Vernon anyway, but the addition of Suh is going to help everyone in the front seven. If Miami can get thing going defensively, as their roster suggests they should, Vernon will be pushing 40 tackles and double digit sacks again this year. Target him as a low end DL2 with top fifteen upside.

In 2014 Derrick Shelby held the role of number three end for the Dolphins. With Deon Jordan suspended for the year, Shelby has little competition for the job in 2015. Last season he was 22-5-4 with a couple of turnovers while spelling the starters and taking a few sub package snaps away from Olivier. At 6'2" and 282 pounds, Shelby is more than capable of working in a three down role if called upon. Should either of the starters go down for any length of time, he would be the guy to have on speed dial as a replacement.

From a fan of the game perspective, I am not at all fond of Suh. From a competitive perspective as a fantasy owner, he is one of my favorite interior linemen. He is a physical specimen with incredible strength and uncanny athleticism for a man of 305 pounds. There are few if any offensive linemen who can block him man on man and even double teams often fail to get the job done. Suh's best fantasy numbers came as a rookie in 2010 when he was 48-17-10 with 3 turnovers and 3 batted passes. The success may have gone to his head a little as a young man. Suh's numbers tumbled in his second season but have slowly worked back up to meet his potential. He was 42-7-8 in 2014, with a single takeaway and 4 batted passes. Only time will tell if he has truly matured or if it is more than just a coincidence the second best season of his career came in a contract year. Suh was neck and neck with Marcell Darius at the top of the tackle rankings last year. That competition resumes in 2015 when the pair are again favorites to top the list. In general I like to wait on defensive tackles as there are always a few who slide through the cracks into the final few rounds. If you want to ensure excellent production from the position, suck it up and take Suh in the first half of your draft.

Jordan Phillips is a 6'5" 329 pound force as a run defender. He anchored the Sooner's run defense and dominated the interior line at times during a short (17 start) college career. Scouts like to compare Phillips to Terrance Knighton. While this may be an accurate comparison in football terms, fantasy owners need to remember that Knighton has never been much of a box score factor. In all probability, Phillips will ultimately be a two down space eater who should do an excellent job of sucking up blockers to keep the linebacker clean, but his contribution to the defense may go largely unrewarded in the box scores.

Phillips will surely be a contributor, but is not a lock to be an opening day starter as a rookie. The Dolphins lost both of last year's interior starters to free agency. Suh will obviously replace one of them while Phillips will battle veterans Earl Mitchell, Anthony Johnson and C.J. Mosley for the other starting spot. All three veterans are quality contributors with starting experience in the league. This could end up being a committee situation with all four of them seeing time. We should expect no fantasy value here unless someone is able to land a three down role.

Linebackers

Miami is well on the way to assembling a defensive juggernaut.  The defensive line is set for the next few years and the secondary is in pretty good shape. Maybe next year they will finally get around to the linebacker positions. Karlos Dansby, Kevin Burnett, Dannell Ellerbe, Phillip Wheeler Jason Trusnik, Kelvin Shepperd, Koa Misi and Jelani Jenkins have all been starters in Miami at some point in the past three years. The organization probably wishes they would have kept Dansby around a while longer, but he was sent packing after the 2012 season along with Burnett. Ellerbe did not pan out as expected so he was not around long. Wheeler gave the Dolphins a decent couple of years, but he was not a long term answer. Trusnik and Shepperd are still with the team but have more than proven neither are NFL starters. They will provide much needed veteran depth. That leaves Misi and Jenkins who are set to be the starter in the middle and on the weak side respectively.

Misi is a serviceable veteran player who will leave everything on the field for his team. He is simply not an every down starting linebacker at the pro level. That said, he will have every opportunity to play one on TV this season. The Dolphins simply have no better options. Misi was the team's second round pick in 2010. Most of his five seasons have been spent as a backup or limited role starter. He has made starts at all three linebacker positions but has never started sixteen games in a season. Misi is a stout two down run defended who is technically sound in coverage, but has rarely been seen in sub packages because he lacks the necessary speed and athleticism. He is more than capable of holding down the job until the team can afford to strongly address it, but Misi is never going to be the special player great defenses have at middle linebacker.

Pegging Misi's fantasy value in 2014 is a bit of a challenge. He played in eleven games last season, starting all of them at middle linebacker. Misi finished at 51-16-1 on 580 plays. Those are respectable numbers for the limited opportunity. If we knew for certain he would be a three down middle backer, Misi would have at least LB4 value. The problem is, he held a full time role in five of those eleven games, and it was not five consecutive. Some games he was part of the sub packages, other games he was not. With no apparent rhyme or reason. Misi has the potential to be a decent low end LB3 if things fall just right. In a nutshell, he is a marginal NFL starter who makes few big plays, has limited upside and is at risk of being on the bench in sub packages on any given week. Everyone approaches the game differently. Personally, I would rather have a sleeper with big upside taking up that valuable roster spot.

Misi is the best strong side linebacker on the Dolphins roster, and may even be a long term option in that two down role. If he continues to work in the middle as it appears he will, the Dolphins will need a different option on the outside. Jordan Tripp, Chris McCain , Kelvin Sheppard and possibly Spencer Paysinger will all be in the mix for the job. McCain is believed to be leading the competition entering camp. This position offers little or no fantasy potential, so we will not spend much time keeping up with it.

The one Miami linebacker who may be a long term answer is Jelani Jenkins. The 2013 fourth round pick got on the field for 127 plays as a rookie, seeing time at both middle and weak side linebacker. Jenkins logged a few first team snaps during training camp last summer, but entering the season he was expected to continue in the backup role. When Ellerbe went down eighteen plays into the season, Jenkins became a three down weak side linebacker. By week two he was the Dolphins only every down linebacker. By season’s end Jenkins had been on the field for 91% of the defensive snaps, recording a solid 83-27-3.5 with a couple of takeaways in fifteen games. The coaching staff would like to see him make a bigger impact in coverage, but they were happy with his progress overall and are content to have him locked in as the starter. Jenkins is a smart, aggressive player who is physical against the run, does a fine job against tight ends and running backs in coverage, and rarely makes a mental mistake. He should lead Miami in tackles this season and could make a significant jump in big play production now that he has become comfortable in the lead role. At worst Jenkins should be a priority LB3 this year. He could be as much as an excellent second starter.

Defensive Backs

Miami defensive backs were credited with 344 solo tackles last season. While that is down from 373 the previous year, it is still a lot of opportunity. Unfortunately for fantasy owners, only strong safety Reshad Jones had significant fantasy value. By week seventeen the Dolphins had five defensive backs on injured reserve. Of the guys left standing, three had missed time earlier in the season. Twelve players in all saw action in the Miami secondary in 2014.

Jones led the Dolphins secondary in tackles with 70 last season. Adding 10 assists, 4 takeaways, a sack and 7 passes defended, to finish among the top 25 defensive backs. This was an impressive feat considering he missed the first quarter of the season while serving a suspension. In terms of points per game, Jones was number three behind Tyvon Branch who played only three games, and Morgan Burnett who was ahead by all of .021. Jones is quickly making a name for himself as one of the few stud defensive backs who can be counted on every year. He averaged nearly 6 solo tackles a game in 2014. Had it not been for the suspension, Jones would have posted at least 75 solo stops in each of the last three seasons. In 2012 he added 8 turnovers, 9 passes defended and a sack for his first top ten finish. In 2013 Jones racked up 84 solo stops, all but vanishing from the big play columns. Going into last season we had a good idea what to expect in terms of strong tackle numbers, but his big play value was a question mark. The question has been answered. Many of the most tackle productive safeties in the league have one thing in common, questionable linebacker play in front of them. Until the Dolphins find their next Zach Thomas, Jones will keep putting a lot of fantasy points in the tackle columns. Now that we know he is good for half a dozen or so big plays as well, it is hard to make an argument against him as one of the top five defensive backs off the board.         
Jones is not the only Miami defensive back to have value. Free safety Louis Delmas finished 2014 at 49-11-1 with three turnover and a pair of scores. He too missed some time, landing on IR in week fifteen. At face value those numbers are not impressive. What is intriguing with Delmas; He had 5 or more solo stops in each of his final four games, combining for 26 total. To say he was on a roll would be an understatement. Delmas has been far too inconsistent over the course of his career to be worthy of a roster spot at this point. If he starts out hit however, we should not wait too long to make a move.

There were no huge numbers among the Miami corners last year, but there was value. Brent Grimes led the group with 48 solo stops, 5 interceptions and thirteen passes defended. He added a defensive score to climb into the top ten among corners. What makes him even more intriguing, Grimes opened the 2014 season by posting double digit fantasy points in seven of the first nine games. Over the final seven games he never exceeded 6 points. It is unclear if he was troubled by an injury or if something in the scheme was altered due to all the injuries around him, but something was different. Grimes 2011 and 2012 seasons were a wash due to injuries. In 2010 he was 76-10-0 with 5 picks and 23 passes defended, for a top five finish. If we throw out the two injury plagued years, Grimes has been a top fifteen corner in four straight. What he lacks in tackles, he always seems to make up in big plays.

With a few players having moved on, the starting job opposite Grimes is unsettled entering camp. 2013 second round pick Jamar Taylor is the early favorite. He made three starts down the stretch last year after seeing a fair amount of action in a sub package role. His main competition will come from third year man Will Davis. Davis was the nickel corner for a few games early last season before being injured and out for the year. Rookie fifth round pick Bobby McClain will likely be groomed for the slot corner role.

New England Patriots

Defensive Linemen

Bill Belichick and the Patriots have been front runners in the multiple front movement. In general they are considered a 3-4 base team, but they actually have three linemen on the field less than fifty percent of the time. In sub packages they will often have two players with their hands in the dirt, moving Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones up to the line on the outside in what basically amounts to a 4-3. Sometimes Ninkovich and Jones will also put their hands down, sometimes they do not. That is basically the difference between calling them defensive ends or linebackers. It is a grey area so say the least, and creates a dilemma for fantasy owners that is becoming all too common across the league. When it comes to placing value on New England linemen, we must first know who we are talking about. In some management software Jones and Ninkovich are ends. In other instances they are considered linebackers. This is vital information to know on draft day as it makes a world of difference in the value of these two players.

One part that remains consistent in this situation is their production. Jones was the Patriots first round pick in 2012. For a rookie he had a pretty strong debut, finishing at 24-21-5 with 3 forced fumbles and 5 batted passes. In 2013 we learned why the team was so high on him. That season Jones broke out with 40 tackles, 39 assists, 11.5 sacks, a couple of takeaways and a defensive score. As a defensive end those numbers were good enough to make him the number three lineman behind J.J. Watt and Robert Quinn. Last year Jones was on pace for nearly 50 tackles and a repeat of the double digit sacks, when he missed six games with a hip injury. He was able to return and finish out the season, but had surgery shortly after the Super Bowl. Jones is a candidate to start camp on the physically unable to perform list but is expected to be ready for the opener. Providing the injury does not linger, he is close as it gets to a sure thing. Expect him to finish 2015 with 45+ tackles, 30+ assists, double digit sacks and a handful of other big plays. No one will catch Watt, but Jones has the potential to be the number two defensive end. Like everyone else in these situations; if Jones is designated as a linebacker, he is an excellent starting option in big play based leagues but is no better than a marginal third starter or matchup based bye week replacement for everyone else.

It amazes me how fantasy owners continue to underappreciated Ninkovich. Maybe it is because he is still looking for that first season with double digit sacks. No defensive lineman has been more consistent over the past five years. Since 2010 Ninkovich has totaled between 42 and 45 solo stops four times. In 2012 he missed a couple of games and finished with 33. Over that five year span he totaled 35.5 sacks, posting either 8 or 9 in each of the past three seasons. The generosity of New England's stat crew when it comes to passing out assists is a huge plus, but it is Ninkovich's penchant for producing turnovers that pushes him up the list. Over the past five seasons he has an impressive 27 takeaways with a pair of scores. Ninkovich has three consecutive top ten finishes and five straight in the top twenty. He will never challenge for a sack title or be the number one lineman, but should be among the first eight off the board.

The wildcard here is Jabaal Sheard. The former Browns starter is versatile, having been both a 4-3 end and a 3-4 outside linebacker during his years in Cleveland. He was added to the Patriots NFL.Com roster as a defensive end, but it remains unclear what his actual role will be. There is some quiet speculation the team targeted Sheard primarily as insurance behind Jones. If we look at it that way, it could mean the organization is more concerned about Jones than they are letting on. Obviously no one would be shocked if that were the case. This is all the more reason to keep a close eye on Jones's progress. One thing we do know, if Belichick trades for a player of Sheard's ability, he will be get on the field in some capacity. There is little chance Sheard completely replaces a healthy Jones or Ninkovich, but if either of them go down, Sheard will be the player to have.

New England used a couple of draft picks on college defensive ends as well. Third round selection Geneo Grissom is listed as an outside linebacker on the team roster and seems likely to work as a backup to Dont'a Hightower on the strong side. Fourth round pick Trey Flowers is a developmental guy who is tough versus the run but will need to work on his pass rush before he can make an impact. He may be groomed to move up the depth chart when Ninkovich moves on in a couple of years.

In years past the Patriots have give us some rather useful interior linemen as well. That was not the case in 2014 when Vince Wilfork was their most productive tackle at 24-24-.5. The long time New England starter has moved on, leaving a much younger group of players to vie for playing time on the inside. Sealver Siliga is a most interesting prospect. At a glance his total of 26-29-5.5 over the past two seasons is not eye catching. When you consider he only played in twelve games over those two seasons, it puts everything in different perspective. Siliga debuted in week thirteen of the 2013 season, seeing sixteen snaps in a backup role. He started the final four games that season, going 8-13-3 with a forced fumble. Siliga opened last season with a significant role in the first two games (going 6-3-0) before being injured in week three. After a stint on short term injured reserve, Siliga returned to action in week fourteen. Over the final four regular season contest he was 10-12-2.5. So in reality he is 24-28-5.5 in ten full games, which is even more impressive. The addition of first round pick Malcolm Brown muddies the water a little when it comes to Siliga. The team already has 2014 first round pick Dominique Easley and third year pro Chris Jones who has played well. What we may end up seeing is Brown at nose tackle, with Siliga and Easley at end when the 3-4 is called. It will probably be Easley and Siliga as the linemen on most passing downs. There is a high probability one of these guys is going to be a strong defensive tackle option for us. The smart money is on the former undrafted free agent over the two first round picks. My how things tend to be strange in New England.

Linebackers

Bill Belichick is a thorn in the foot of fantasy owners and prognosticators. We rarely know what to expect from him until we see the team on the field, and when the game is over we are often left trying to figure out what it was that we saw. It is a vicious circle. The uncertainty we face when trying to value the Patriots defensive line, is present at the linebacker positions as well. This is what we know; Jamie Collins, Dont'a Hightower and Jerod Mayo will all play prominent roles. While the Patriots are tight lipped about everything, there may be a clue on their official NFL.Com roster. In all there are fourteen linebackers on the Patriots expanded training camp roster. There are several designations of linebacker (LB) and outside linebacker (OLB), with Collins and Hightower are each among those listed as OLB. Mayo is the lone MLB among the fourteen. We should not go out and bet the farm on it, but it would make a lot of sense to have Mayo in the middle, Hightower on the strong side and Collins on the weak side in a 4-3.  
This is what we know for sure; Collins has established himself as a playmaking three down starter. In fourteen games last season he was 74-39-4 with 8 turnovers, 3 batted passes and a top ten ranking. He is deceptively fast, athletic, smart, and gives defensive coordinator Matt Patricia the  freedom to be creative. New England has seemingly always given fantasy owners at least one quality option at linebacker. Collins is going to be that player for the next few seasons if he stays healthy. Even with the relative uncertainty surrounding the Patriots plans, Collins should be targeted no lower than a priority LB2.

We have seen enough of Hightower over the past three seasons, to know exactly what we are getting from him. He is a physical 270 pound run stuffer who the Patriots do not trust in coverage. Hightower scattered four missed games over the schedule last season. With Mayo missing most of the year due to a knee injury, Hightower was on the field virtually full time in the games he played. The defensive staff did a great job using a mix of zone coverage and a lot of blitzing to mask Hightower's struggles as a pass defender. In fantasy terms, his totals of 51-38-6 seem rather pedestrian at first look. If we average in those other four games however, he becomes a great deal more appealing at 68-51-8. It is worth pointing out Hightower played nearly full time over the first six weeks when Mayo was healthy. Thus his third down snap count may not hinge on the health of Mayo's knee. I have been shark bitten by Belichick so many times over the years, I am afraid to go back in the water. From an objective viewpoint however, Hightower is worth a roster spot in most leagues as a solid LB4 or priority LB5 with upside.

Mayo is the somewhat unknown element in this experiment. The unknown part being his ability to stay healthy. For a synopsis of the whole Mayo story we need only follow the tackle numbers. As the tenth overall pick in 2008 Mayo was an immediate starter. As a rookie he was everywhere, totaling 100 solo stops. In his second season Mayo missed three games and played banged up in a few others. The result, 70 solo stops. He was good to go in 2010, playing all sixteen game and posting career highs that still stand in nearly every statistical category, including 114 tackles and 60 assists. In 2011 Mayo missed a couple of games but he battled nagging injuries through most of the year. The end result, 58 tackles, 37 assists. 2012 saw a healthy 87-60 with a career best of 7 total takeaways in sixteen games. Over the past two seasons his points per game has been excellent but Mayo has participated in twelve total contests. When he is healthy, Mayo is an excellent three down linebacker capable of putting up strong numbers from the middle or weak side in a 4-3, or from the inside in a 3-4. As of late July he is still battling to get back from last year's torn patellar tendon. Mayo is in danger of starting camp on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list.

From the technical perspective there are a lot of uncertainties and grey areas in the Patriots front seven, which can confuse the issues for fantasy owners. From the perspective of a scout it is less difficult to figure out. Ninkovich, Jones and Sheard are going to be outside pass rushers  regardless what you call them. On running downs the team will usually have three big men with their hands down (Siliga, Easley and Brown much of the time) and a pair of outside pass rushers flanking them wide, which is basically a five man front. In passing situations one or two of the big men will go off to make room for an extra defensive back and/or an additional pass rusher. If everyone stays healthy, Collins and Mayo will be on the field virtually every snap with Hightower playing the first two downs for sure, and contributing as the extra pass rusher as well. Several of New England's front end players are versatile and proficient at more than one role, making it exceptionally difficult for offenses to game plan against an individual. And causing a lot of debate among fantasy geeks like us.

  • MLB/WLB/ILB Jerod Mayo - Quality LB2 with considerable injury risk 
  • SLB/MLB/ILB Dont'a Hightower - Excellent LB5 with low LB3 upside at best
  • WLB/ILB Jamie Collins - Rising young star, LB1 with top ten upside
  • WLB/ILB Dakoda Watson - No value
  • OLB/SLB Geneo Grissom - No value

Defensive Backs

Thank goodness the defensive backs situation is less complicated. In layman's terms, there is nothing of value to be found among this group. Patrick Chung was the last New England safety to be worth a roster spot in most leagues. That was way back in 2010 when he had 72 tackles, 24 assists, three turnovers and 9 pass breakups. Devin McCourty had one decent year with a bunch of interceptions, but no New England defensive back has come close to 70 solo tackles in the past four years. In 2014 Chung led the group in with 54. McCourty was right behind at 51, while Darrelle Revis led the team's corners with 41. Part of the problem is the Patriots philosophy of keeping everyone involved. Eleven different players saw enough action to record at least 7 solo tackles. The bigger issue is opportunity. Between the offense eating up clock and the excellent play in the Patriots front seven, the secondary recorded 289 tackles combined in 2014. One strange statistic that is likely to change this year, no Patriots defensive back had more than 2 interceptions last season.

Chung and McCourty are set to the be starting strong and free safeties respectively. They are both smart, technically sound players with plenty of experience in the scheme and a complete understanding of it. McCourty has shown playmaking potential at times. In 2010 he totaled 9 takeaways. He put up 7 more in 2012. In his other three seasons with the club McCourty combined for 9. He is capable of 65 tackles, 20 assists 5-7 turnovers and double digit passes defended in any given season, but has been too hit or miss to be counted on. Chung plays his part well, but his assignment is to be more of a safety net for the playmakers in front of him. The scheme does not put him in position to make a lot of impact plays, nor does it allow/require him to be much of an aggressive physical presence in run support.

In 2012 Belichick baffled scouts and draft gurus by taking safety Tavon Wilson a couple of rounds earlier than he was projected. The coach may not miss often, but that move has not been a good one thus far. In this year's draft he picked Jordan Richards in the second round, despite most scouts having him projected as late as the fifth or sixth. Richards is the kind of high IQ player Belichick likes to fill his roster with but there are a number of concerns with his game. When we see a scout question a safety's physical nature and run support ability. It is usually time to start looking elsewhere.

Darrelle Revis, Kyle Arrington, Brandon Browner and Alphonso Dennard have all moved on from New England for one reason or another. This leaves the mighty Patriots a bit thin and questionable on the outside. Free agent Additions Bradley Fletcher (Eagles) and Robert McClain (Falcons) will compete with 2013 third round pick Ryan Logan and last year's Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler to set the pecking order at corner in 2015. Fletcher made several starts as an injury replacement for the Eagles in 2013, putting up high CB2 numbers in that role. Last season he was bumped back to the slot corner role where he managed a solid 53-7 with 3 picks, 22 passes defended and a score in fifteen games. If anyone in this secondary is going to break the curse this year, Fletcher is the most likely candidate.

McClain has been a marginally box score productive starter in Atlanta over the past three seasons. He is a dependable veteran option for the Patriots but has shown nothing to make fantasy owners take notice. Ryan has the advantage of two years in the system. He has started a handful of games but has mostly been a backup or sub package option. If a player could make a career out of one play, Malcolm butler could retire. The 2014 undrafted free agent has given the organization and its fan base a lot to be excited about, but he still has a great deal to prove on the field. He may enter camp as a starter but I am not so sure he will be there come week one. It is more likely Butler will work as the slot corner in 2015.

New York Jets

Defensive Linemen

If you Google Jets defense 2015; the first things you see are a collection of articles about how good the unit will be this year. Most of the articles mention New York's potential to be the best in the NFL. Before we start believing all the hype, notice nearly all those articles were written by people who work in the New York media or get paid to cover the team. Relax a little there, Jets fans and followers. New head coach Todd Bowles and first time defensive coordinator Kacy Rodgers have a lot of talent to work with, but there will be a learning curve for everyone involved. The staff has never worked together and several members have advanced to new heights on the coaching ladder. Both Bowles and Rex Ryan run 3-4 defenses. That is sort of like saying I drive a pickup truck. There are a lot of different pickup trucks out there. They all have similarities but there are a lot of differences as well. Players should pick up basic fundamentals quickly. It will take a while for everyone to figure out the nuances. There is also the fact New York remains a couple of player short in the talent pool. This group is close. If they can resolve the hole at safety and find an outside pass rush threat who opponents actually fear, the Jets may get there. The problem is, this year's draft and free agency have passed. There is nowhere for the organization to find those players before 2016.

New York is surely not short on talent up front. If number six overall pick Leonard Williams lives up to expectations, he, Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson are going to cause nightmares for a lot of offensive linemen and coordinators over the next several years. Wilkerson will be 26 years old in October. Going into his fifth year as a pro, he is the elder statesman of the group. In his first two seasons with the team, Wilkerson looked a lot like every other good 3-4 end. He was able to hold the point of attack keeping linebackers clean, shed blockers to make tackles in the run game and contribute to the pass rush. As a rookie in 2011 Wilkerson recorded a respectable stats line of 35-13-3 with a forced fumble. His second season showed considerable improvement both on the field and in the box scores as Wilkerson finished at 37-33-4.5 with 4 turnovers, 4 batted passes and a score. Heading into 2013 he had garnered the attention of the fantasy community, but no one expected the explosion that included 43-21-10.5 with a handful of turnovers and batted passes. That season Wilkerson was a top ten defensive lineman and the second highest scoring lineman to play in a 3-4 (J.J. Watt was #1). He took a slight step back last season. At 31-24-5.5 in twelve games, Wilkerson was on pace for another 40+ tackle campaign, around 30 assists and 7 sacks. It is not yet time to move Wilkerson ahead of Calais Campbell as the second most productive sure thing among 3-4 ends, but he is not far off the pace. Wilkerson will have a hard time reaching double digit sacks with consistency, but he looks like a perennial 40+ solo tackle, 7-10 sack guy, with enough assists and big plays to be a serious fantasy target. Slot him as a priority second starter with top 10 upside.

There are some 3-4 teams in the league who have been in search of a playmaker like Muhammad for a decade. The Jets somehow landed two of them, and hope to have three. Richardson is about twenty pounds lighter than Muhammad. Otherwise, the scouting reports on the two players are virtually interchangeable; so is the box score production. As a rookie in 2013 Richardson was 41-36-3 with a forced fumble. His second season produced similar tackle numbers with his sack total jumping to 8. Richardson is 24 years old and just hitting the prime of his career physically. He already has a pair of 40+ tackle seasons and a top ten fantasy ranking under his belt. Next to J.J. Watt, Richardson was even the second leading sack producer among 3-4 linemen in 2014. Richardson has a bright future, but his 2015 will be on hold until he has served the three game suspension handed down from the commissioner's office.

And then there is rookie Leonard Williams who may actually be the most talented and gifted of the three big men. According to Mike Mayock, "Williams was the best player in the draft regardless of position". That is a big statement coming from one of the most respected draft analysts on the planet. If there is a college award with a great player's name on it, Williams either won it or was in the running. The Hendricks award, Lombardi, Bednarik, Lott, he was even USC's most valuable player and a first team All-Pac-12. Trophy's and accolades are always nice, but when looking at rookies I always say show me the production. Williams has that too. He declared for the draft after his junior season with the Trojans. As a three year starter Williams totaled 111-107-21 with 5 forced fumbles, 8 batted passes and a pair of interceptions. NFL history is strewn with great college players who were not able to make the transition to the next level. There have been untold numbers of guys with glowing scouting reports who failed. There is some degree of possibility Williams will be one of those guys. Chances are just as good he will be the Jets best defensive end in a couple of years. That is be saying something. One thing we do know, Williams will get a three game audition as the starter while Richardson sits.

With all the talent around him, Nose tackle Damon Harrison gets little attention. Unlike the three guys in the rotation at end who are all first round draft picks, Harrison is a former undrafted free agent. This powerful 350 pound mountain of a man has been the anchor of New York's run defense over the past two seasons, totaling 66 solo stops and 56 assists, but just 1 sack in thirty two games. He is not flashy and will not make much of a contribution as a pass rusher, but Harrison has been putting up enough tackle production to be worth a spot at the end of someone’s roster in leagues starting two interior linemen.

Linebackers

Many fantasy owners will look at last year's final rankings and overvalue both David Harris and Demario Davis. There are a lot of things to consider when ranking these two players. On the positive side; they are both quality three down backers who are locked into starting jobs with no serious competition behind them. Davis is coming off the best year of his young career. He is a rising young star who slipped into the top fifteen last season at 78-38-4 with a couple of takeaways and 5 passes defended. Harris finished last season with a mark of 73-51-6 with 2 forced fumbles and a pass defended. It was his highest point total since 2009, and he finished half a point ahead of Davis in Footballguys default IDP scoring. Both players have the luxury of working behind an outstanding defensive front that will give offenses fits. On the negative side; the Jets have made significant personnel improvements and should be better as a team in 2015. This usually means fewer opportunities for defenders across the board. Entering his fourth year, Davis is still looking for his first 80 tackle season as a pro. Harris has not reached 80 solo stops since 2009. Both players will put a few sacks on the board, but neither has shown a knack for taking the ball away. Most significantly, last year's high rankings were somewhat of a mirage. Not from a perspective of the players posting bigger numbers than normal, but because the standards were significantly lower than usual. This is a result of last season's strange abundance of injuries to standout linebackers. Harris scored 172 fantasy points to finish fourteenth at the position in 2014. In 2012 he was 79-44-3 with a handful of other scoring plays, and a total of 171 points. With one fewer point he finished at number twenty nine that season. In 2013 the same 172 points would have been twenty seventh. The point being; Harris and Davis ranked significantly higher in 2014 than they should have for the level of production. They have turned in relatively consistent stat totals over the past couple of years, so we have a good idea what to expect in the box scores. Providing we have a normal 2015 in terms of league wide injuries, the Jets inside linebackers will likely go back to being quality third starters with late LB2 potential at best. Let someone else draft them among the top twenty.

Excellent pass rush and big play production from the outside linebacker positions is a trait common to all the great 3-4 defenses in NFL history. This is an area where the Jets could use some improvement. That improvement could come from players currently on the roster, but it seems unlikely. Their top three players at the position are Calvin Pace, Quinton Coples and Jason Babin. In 2013 Pace reached double digit sacks for the first time in his twelve year career. The soon to be 35 year old is a good but not great pass rusher, who has averaged 6 sacks a season since coming to the Jets in 2008. Coples was the team's first round pick in 2012. His three seasons in the league have produced 16.5 sacks with a career best of 6.5 in 2014. He has shown no signs of becoming a double digit sack guy, but is a talented young player who may still get there. Babin is a veteran journeyman who posted 18 sacks in 2011. The 35 year old has a total of 16 over the three seasons since, including 2 last year. Neither he nor Pace are going to be long term answers for the team, but they do have the potential for one last hurrah before riding off into the sunset. The Jets should get decent production from this group, but they still need a sure 10 sack guy if they are to become a top five defense. Fantasy owners in any scoring system will want to pass on New York's outside backers. At least until one of them shows us something.

There is a wildcard in the mix at outside linebacker. Third round pick Lorenzo Mauldin is a high character player with an excellent work ethic and plenty of long term potential as a pass rusher. He totaled 20.5 sacks with 5 forced fumbles over his three seasons at Louisville. Mauldin will probably be stuck behind Pace and Babin early in the season, but he could eventually prove to be the Jets missing link.

Defensive Backs

The New York secondary was a shambles in 2014. The reunion of Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie in Jets Green, will solve the problem at corner. With these two players back in the fold, New York's corner situation instantly goes from weakness to strength. This veteran tandem will go a long way toward making the Jets a contender, but their marginal box score totals will help no one in fantast terms.

The Jets struggled at safety in 2014 as well. First round pick Calvin Pryor was supposed to be the answer in both NFL and fantasy terms. He proved to be neither. Some suggest he was misused by the Ryan regime. That may well be the case as Pryor never seemed to gain a comfort level. He was thinking more than reacting, which in turn took away his aggressive nature and eventually his confidence. Pryor was pulled from the starting lineup at one point, returning for the final three games when he looked much better. During his career at Louisville Pryor was known as a fearless hitter against the run and an intimidator over the middle of the pass defense. He has highly productive for the Cardinals and has huge upside if the new coaching staff can get him back on track. Dynasty owners who are already sitting on Pryor will want to ride this one out for a while. In redraft leagues the upside probably makes him worthy as an end of the roster stash.

While Pryor may eventually be the long term answer at strong safety, the Jets are still short at free safety. Free agent Marcus Gilchrist comes over from the Chargers and is set to step right into the lineup. He has been a dependable starting option for San Diego over the past three seasons, but has not amounted to much in fantasy terms. Depending on what defensive coordinator Kacy Rodgers is looking for at the position, Gilchrist could be a good fit. To sum it all up; the secondary will be much improved and may be set for the next couple of years. Unless Pryor steps up however, there is nothing of value he for fantasy owners.

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