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Eyes of the Guru Preseason, Part 2: AFC South

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

For reference, when I mention where players finished in the rankings last season, my model will be the standard Footballguys scoring system. This is the standard stuff;

Tackles = 1.5
Assists = .75
Sacks = 4
Forced fumbles = 3
Fumble recoveries = 3
Interceptions = 4
passes defended = 1.5
Touchdowns = 6

Keep in mind that based on scoring systems, rankings will vary (sometimes greatly) from league to league. From time to time I will reference the "rookie corner rule". For those who are new to IDP or the EOTG, 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 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.

Indianapolis Colts

Defensive Linemen

Indianapolis finished last season 12th versus the pass and 18th against the run. They recorded a solid 26 takeaways and their 41 sacks were tied for 9th most in the league. Those are good numbers in general but there is room for improvement. To that end the defensive line was target for upgrade.  The Colts line managed 11 sacks as a unit in 2015. That is not necessarily terrible for a three man front, but they are in need of a difference maker. Cory Redding led the group in both tackles with 21 and sacks with 3.5. Ricky Jean-Francois was second in both categories at 18 and 3. Neither of them are with the team in 2015.

The organization used a pair of draft picks to bolster their defensive line. Third round selection Henry Anderson could figure into the rotation right away and may even come out of camp as a starter. He drew varying reviews from scouts but has a fan in Mike Mayock. According to Mayock, "(Anderson) is a starter all day long. He plays hard and is a better athlete than you think". Anderson is a lanky player with a big wingspan but he could use a few more pounds of muscle to help versus the run. He has the versatility to play end in either a 3-4 or a 4-3; which could be important if the team intends to employ multiple fronts. Anderson was productive at Stanford but his numbers were not earth shattering by any stretch. After missing a good part of 2013 with an injury, Anderson came back to post 8.5 sacks last season. There is nothing here that makes me think he is the next Calais Campbell, but Anderson has the potential to be a fantasy productive 3-4 end. If the Colts do indeed mix in some 4-3, he will be even more interesting. It would be no surprise to see 30+ tackles and 5-6 sacks from him as a rookie. Anderson is certainly worth consideration in deep drafted leagues and/or as a taxi squad stash for dynasty owners.        

The other two player who should figure prominently at the defensive end positions are Arthur Jones and Kendall Langford. Jones came with big expectations when he joined the team via free agency last summer. Unfortunately he was injured in week two and missed the next eight games. He returned in week twelve and was eased back into the mix and did not reclaim the starting job until week sixteen. In the six games Jones started, he played 76% of the defensive snaps. It is a safe bet that he will have the same role in 2015. He finished last season with 15 tackles and 1.5 sacks. A healthy Jones should more than double those numbers, making him a possible factor in some deeper leagues.

Langford is the team's newest free agent addition up front. Thus far his career has been spent as a 4-3 tackle for the Dolphins and Rams. He has been somewhat box score productive, exceeding 30 tackles in three of his seven seasons as a pro and recording at least two sacks five times. Langford's most productive year was 2013 when he was 36-13-5 for the Rams. He has a skill set that should make him a good fit as a 3-4 end, but there is nothing to make me think Langford will put up big numbers. 

Josh Chapman started all sixteen games at nose tackle for the Colts in 2014, but he was on the field for well short of half the team's defensive snaps. The Colts pull their nose tackle in sub packages to make room for an extra defensive back or in some cases and extra linebacker. Montori Hughes will compete with rookie David Parry for playing time scraps at the position.

Linebackers

The Colts used ten players at the linebacker positions over the course of the 2014 season. Eight of those players recorded at least half a sack. Injuries contributed to this statistic but the coaching staff's approach of keeping their outside rushers fresh was also a factor. Robert Mathis piled up a career best of 18.5 sacks in 2013 but injury kept him from playing a single snap last season. Eric Walden replaced Mathis as the starter opposite 2013 first round pick Bjoern Werner. Between them they accounted for 10 sacks. Then rookie Jonathan Newsome and veteran Shaun Phillips also saw significant playing time, with Newsome posting a team best 6.5 sacks. Mathis is still struggling with the injury, bringing his availability for the start of the season into question. The team replaced Phillips with former Eagles standout Trent Cole, who is projected by most to claim a starting spot until Mathis can get back on the field. That may be the plan, but we should not overlook the fact that Mathis is 34 years old, or the fact that Cole can still play at a high level. This defense should once again exceed 40 sacks but chances are they will once again be split among several players, all but killing their fantasy value. Owners in deep drafted big play based leagues may want to take a chance on Cole or Werner, but we should not have grand expectations of double digit sacks.      

From Mike Peterson to Gary Brackett and now Jerrell Freeman, it seems that the Colts have always provided fantasy owners with an underrated but solid option at linebacker. Freeman is a bit undersized at 6'0" and 232 pounds, but has proven to be an excellent fit as the weak inside linebacker in the Colts 3-4. He took over the starting job in 2012 and has quietly been productive in each of his three seasons as a starter. At a glance his 2014 numbers of 57-37-1.5 with 6 passes defended and a forced fumble, are not much to get excited about. Take into consideration however, that Freeman missed four games. Average those number out over a full season and 76-50-2 is much closer to what we can expect from him going forward.

The D'Qwell Jackson addition was a good move for the Colts last seasons. There were some who claimed he was a player in decline and that his fantasy success was a product of the environment in Cleveland. Jackson proved those doubters wrong. The Indianapolis stats crew is generous when it comes to handing out assists. Thus Jackson's respectable 82 solo tackles in 2014 got a big boost from the 58 assists he was credited with. He had good fantasy value based on tackle numbers alone but big play production pushes Jackson's value up even further. Over the past four seasons he has accounted for 18 takeaways, 12 sacks and a pair of scores. Jackson finished last season as a top five linebacker in many leagues, yet people still hesitate to give him full credit for what he brings to the table. Astute fantasy owners will take advantage of the fact that he is so underrated. In many leagues he will still be on the board after fifteen to eighteen linebackers have been drafted, allowing us to grab him as a bargain priced second starter in many instances.      

Defensive Backs

In NFL terms the trio of Vontae Davis, Greg Toler and Darius Butler give the Colts a quality lineup at corner. In fantasy terms not so much. Davis posted a career best of 20 defended passes in 2014 and tied his previous career mark with 4 interceptions, but he has not recorded more than 46 solo stops in a season since his rookie campaign in 2009. Even with 7 total takeaways last season Davis finished outside the top thirty corners in average fantasy points per game. He is a 35-40 tackle guys who will give us double digit pass defenses and 4-5 takeaways. That will be good enough to make Davis useful as depth in some deeper drafted leagues that break out the Db positions, but there is little chance we will get any more from him.  

Toler had a huge season with Arizona in 2010, posting 82 solo stops, 6 takeaways, a sack, 9 passes defended and a score. He missed all of 2011 with an injury and continued to fight physical ailments over the next two seasons. Toler saw action as a backup in twenty one contests between the 2012 and 2013, having little impact either on the field or in the box scores. He started fifteen games for the Colts last season and finally looked like the same player we saw at the beginning of his career. Toler's production was similar to that of Davis in last year in that both were borderline useful to fantasy owners in corner required leagues. Toler however, has a bit more upside going forward. Davis is among the league’s best cover corners, thus offenses will account for him to some degree in their game plans. Generally speaking they will look to limit the number of throws that go in his direction. This means more opportunity for other pass defenders. Toler has good size and is fairly physical for a corner. He does not shy away from contact in run support and will go for the strip when making a tackle. His fifteen games in 2014 produced 50 solo tackles, 2 forced fumbles, a pair of picks, a sack, 10 passes defended and a score. Call it somewhat of a gut feeling but I believe he will show improvement in the three important categories of tackles, interceptions and defended passes in 2015. I like Toler as a sleeper that can be picked up as a third or even fourth corner with top twenty potential.

Third round pick D'Joun Smith could have a considerable role as a rookie. He is a high energy big play threat who led Conference USA in interceptions in 2013. The only bad thing scouts found to say about Smith is that he may be a little slow on vertical routs. He ran a 4.42 in the forty yard dash at the combine, so he is hardly too slow. Smith is not afraid to put a shoulder into the ball carrier in run support either. He could come in and push Butler for the slot corner role right away. This is a situation we need to keep an eye on as the rookie corner rule could be in play.       

The Colts got surprisingly steady play from a safety position that was a big question mark entering last season. Despite that solid play, they enter 2015 with some of the same questions. Mike Adams had a career year in 2014. He turned in a personal best in tackles with 66, assists at 20, interceptions (5) and total takeaways (8), and the second highest number of passes defended in his career at 11. Those excellent numbers for a safety by any standard and have him high on many draft lists this summer. There are some points we need to keep in mind here however. Adams is 34 years old and has spent much of his NFL career as a backup or marginal part time starter. He has averaged 3 takeaways a year and after last season, has exactly one top 25 finish among defensive backs. Adams is a good fit in a Colts scheme that does not ask him to do things out of his wheelhouse.  He is a savvy veteran presence and a fundamentally sound player. That said, he is neither getting younger nor more talented. A repeat of last year's production is not out of the question but I would not advise drafting Adams with that expectation. I see him as a decent low end DB2 or a solid DB3 who will likely be drafted higher than he should.

At least with Adams we know he will be a starter. The other safety position in Indianapolis comes with much less certainty. LaRon Landry, Sergio Brown and Colt Anderson all saw time opposite Adams last season. Landry and Brown are gone and the Colts have added new names to the mix. Dwight Lowery started fifteen games as free safety for the Falcons last season but like Adams, he had been mostly a career backup to that point. Over his first six seasons as a pro, Lowery exceeded 28 solo tackles only once. That was his rookie campaign in 2008. Despite the Falcons struggles in 2014, Lowery's tackle totals were marginal (60-19). He did manage 5 takeaways, a sack and 5 passes defended for Atlanta. Lowery enters training camp as the projected starter at free safety. Like Adams, he too could be a good fit in the scheme, but for fantasy owners there is not much to get excited about here.

The wildcard in the Indianapolis secondary is fourth round pick Clayton Geathers. The 6'2" 218 pound rookie was a four year starter at Central Florida. He is a physical, in the box thumper who would bring an air of intimidation to the Colts secondary. Geathers is solid in coverage and does a lot of things well, but there are some areas of his game that need work. He plays down hill but will be out of control at times. In the words of one scout; "he is a hitter and not a consistent tackler". He was also prone to being fooled by play action and misdirection. In short, Geathers makes mistakes in areas that can be coached. What really catches my eye is that Geathers recorded 298 tackles over the past three seasons. There is little doubt Geathers will be groomed for a starting job at strong safety. The only real question is how long it will be before the coaching staff trusts him in the lineup. Neither Adams nor Lowery are great talents. If the coaching staff can scheme around their weaknesses, why not scheme around the young guy with more talent and let him gain the experience he needs?

There are not a lot of quality rookie prospects at safety this year. Geathers is far from a lock to earn a starting job right out of the gate, but he has the physical tools to do so. His chances get a boost from the marginal competition as well. I can easily see a scenario where Adams moves to free safety so Geathers can start at strong. At worst Geathers is a good dynasty prospect with a potentially bright future.              

Tennessee Titans

Defensive Linemen

Tennessee made the move from a 4-3 to a 3-4 base defense in 2014. It is common for teams making such a change to struggle for a year or two until they can reach a comfort level and get the right personnel in place. This is certainly the case with the Titans who finished middle of the pack at 7.3 yards per pass attempt and recorded a respectable 39 sacks, but have a lot of work to do in other important areas. Tennessee surrendered the second most rushing yards in the league, their 12 interceptions ranked twenty first and they finished dead last with 5 forced fumbles. Unfortunately this team had a lot of holes to fill this offseason and offense sells tickets. Thus the organization used just two of its nine draft picks on the defensive side with none coming before the fourth round. A few free agent additions will help a little and a second year in the scheme will go a long way, but the defensive line will be much as we saw it in 2014.

That may not be such a big problem as the guys up front were the one bright spot for the Titans defense. Jurrell Casey had a huge 2013, posting 37 solo stops and 9.5 sacks as a tackle in the Titans 4-3. The combination of size, power, athleticism and quickness make Casey a versatile player who can be successful in either scheme and make him the proto-type end for an aggressive 3-4. His first year in the new defense saw Casey's sack total slip to five, but his 45 solo stops ranked sixth in the league among defensive linemen. It is premature to start talking about him in the same breath as a Calais Campbell, but Casey is clearly not a one year wonder. I expect 40+ tackles and 5-7 sacks to be the norm for him going forward.

There are few if any 3-4 defenses out there with a pair of fantasy productive ends. Ropati Pitoitua started eleven games opposite Casey last season with Mike Martin getting the rest of the starts and Karl Klug mixing into the rotation. This group of big men has no standout or player on the verge of breakout, but they should continue to do a more than adequate job in the trenches.

Sammy Lee Hill is entrenched as the starting nose tackle for now. The Titans added Angelo Blackson in round four of the draft to provide depth at the position. He could eventually work into a starting role. This scheme often pulls the nose tackle in favor of a defensive back in passing situations, so the opportunity for these players is seriously limited.       

Linebackers

Tennessee posted a solid 39 sacks as a team in 2014. That is a somewhat impressive number when you consider no player accounted for more than 6.5 of them. There were seventeen Titans with at least one sack last year, yet the team entered the off season in need of a dominant pass rusher. Round six of the draft netted Louisville outside linebacker Deiontrez Mount who is a project at best. The team was not able to hit a home run via the draft but they did manage to improve with the free agent addition of Brian Orakpo. The veteran pass rusher spent the previous six seasons playing the same position for Washington, where he averaged 9.5 sacks a year when healthy. Orakpo however, has struggled to stay off injured reserve of late. He missed nearly all of 2012 with a torn left pectoral, then made it through six game last season before tearing his right. The track record is not a good one but the Titans organization would rather concentrate on the fact that in between those injury shortened campaigns, Orakpo was 43-17-10 with 3 turnovers, 4 passes defended and touchdown in 2013. At age 28 he is far from over the hill and will enter camp healthy. If he can make it through a full slate of games, Orakpo will be a huge addition. He is capable of tackle numbers in the 40+ range and should once again be on track to 8 or more sacks. He will only have value to owners in big play based leagues and even there the injury risk should cause a fall into the late rounds. Avoid having to start him every week but as a 3rd or 4th linebacker in those leagues, you could do much worse.

Derrick Morgan returns as the bookend to Orakpo. Having a quality pass rusher on the other side should be a big plus for the sixth year pro. There is another reason for optimism with Morgan. He finished last season with 43 tackles, 20 assists and a team best 6.5 sacks. What the pure numbers fail to relate is that Morgan started slowly and finished strong. He was a 4-3 end for the first four years of his career, so the linebacker role was a new experience. Morgan recorded his first sack as a linebacker in week seven with 5.5 of his total coming over the final eight games. He seems to have made the transition from end to linebacker well. A second year in the system and some help to take the pressure off could be signs that point to a breakout season for the sixth year pro. At worst he should give us 40+ tackles and 7 or more sacks. See where that fits in your scoring and slot him accordingly.

There were no significant additions at inside linebacker in Tennessee. The defense should however, get a boost from the return of Zach Brown who spent 2014 on injured reserve. How much Brown will help the Titans or fantasy owners is up for debate. He broke into the starting lineup as a rookie in 2012. In sixteen games (fourteen starts) that season Brown recorded a modest 69 solo tackles but added 24 assists, 6 turnovers and 6 sacks to make a considerable splash in the fantasy pool. He entered 2013 with big expectation but actually regressed a bit, going 72-19-4 with 3 takeaways. What concerns me is, not only did his numbers head the wrong direction, Brown seemed less aggressive and was not making as many plays on the field. This is a guy who has shown the potential to put up good numbers and is going to have plenty of opportunity. He has all but been written off by most fantasy owners and is worth a late round shot as a fifth or sixth linebacker with LB3 potential.

Second year man Avery Williamson comes with some of the same hopes and the same questions. He stepped into the lineup for Brown in week three last season. At times Williamson looked good enough to make us think he could be special. At other times he left us wondering if he had missed a team meeting and been benched. He reached double digit points in six games. In a handful of other contests he was good for fewer than five. On a team that finished 31st versus the run, a good inside linebacker should have been lighting up the scoreboard like a pinball machine. Williamson's only competition for the starting spot is veteran Wesley Woodyard who was horrible in 2014 season. Chances are the second year pro will get another opportunity to impress. Like Brown, Williamson is worth a late round chance based simply on the grand opportunity he will have. Someone here is going to make a lot of tackles. The problem is, it could be the safeties again.            

Defensive Backs

The secondary was one of the few relatively bright spots for a defense that struggled in 2014. They finished middle of the pack in yards allowed through the air, yet even this group left something to be desired when it came to big play production. In fantasy terms the Titans secondary was a goldmine. Ten players saw action over the course of the season. Those players combined for a whopping 378 solo tackles. Much of the opportunity was related to the team's struggles at linebacker. On paper it seems likely those struggles will continue in 2015. Corner Jason McCourty led the charge in the turnover department with a team best 3 interceptions and 6 total takeaways. He was also second on the team with 77 solo tackles. McCourty is one of the few corners with enough year to year consistently to be considered a quality start in any scoring system. He was a top ten defensive back last season and has placed among the top twenty in three of the past four seasons. McCourty is not a particularly big corner but plays a physical brand of football. As a cover man he is both capable and dependable. When it comes to supporting the run and making tackles in space, he is among the best in the league. He was the fantasy games number one corner last season and is a prime candidate to claim that honor again. As is often the case with corners, there is some week to week inconsistency with McCourty. That is enough to keep him out of my top ten in leagues that lump the positions together, but he is a excellent option as a high end DB2 in those leagues.

Blidi Wreh-Wilson opened last season as the starter opposite McCourty. At a glance his mark of 48-9-0 with a single interception and 10 passes defended is far from impressive. When we consider that Wilson missed six games with injury, it lends a different perspective. If we average those numbers over a full season they become a much more useful 77-16 with 16 passes defended. Wilson is a quality cover corner but his lack of big play production has left the door open for free agent addition Perrish Cox to compete for the starting job. The fifth year veteran started for San Francisco in 2014, recording 5 interceptions and 7 total takeaways. His tackle production amounted to a marginal 49-4, but those numbers could increase significantly with the additional opportunity that could be found in a target rich Titans secondary. This is a situation we will be watching over the summer and into the preseason. Whoever lands the starting role here should be at least a quality CB2 option for us.

The Tennessee safety positions and particularly their strong safeties, have been an excellent source of production for fantasy owners over the past several years. Going back to 2009, Jordan Babineaux (twice), Chris Hope, Bernard Pollard (twice) and George Wilson have all put up at least 72 solo stops in that role, with an average of 78 between them. Pollard had two highly productive seasons as the starter and was well on his way to a third when injury struck in week five last year. Wilson took over and went the rest of the way. Between them they were 77-21-2 with a pick and 5 passes defended.

The team let both Pollard and Wilson go at the end of the year and signed Da'Norris Searcy to man the strong safety spot. During his four seasons in Buffalo Searcy was never given the opportunity to play full time. When he was on the field however, he put up strong numbers. Searcy started thirteen games for the Bill last year, playing on roughly 63% of the team's defensive snaps. In that somewhat limited role he produced 44-21-.5 with 5 takeaways and 5 passes defended. If we do a little math to project his production in a fulltime role, we get something that looks like 70-33-1 with 8 takeaways and 7 passes defended. Why the Bills refused to keep Searcy on the field and why they elected to let him go is a real head scratcher. I for one, am glad they did. Searcy will have no such problem in Tennessee where he should step right into an every down job. Best of all for us, he is a player who is flying under the radar to a large extent this summer, and can be picked up at a bargain price late in most drafts. I will be shocked if he is not at least a high end DB3 in 2015 and will not be surprised if he flirts with the top twelve.     

Free safety Michael Griffin led the Titans with 85 solo tackles last season, adding 27 assists, 3 sacks, a pair of picks and 5 passes defended on the way to a top ten finish among defensive backs. He had a similar season in 2010 but none of his other six years in the league have produced more than 61 solo stops. I point this out not because I expect Griffin's numbers to crash, but simply to state that it is a possibility. His entire eight year career has been spent in Tennessee. Most of the time Griffin has worked as the classic free safety while the strong safety position has consistently produced the better numbers. The injury to Pollard was a contributing factor to Griffin's big 2014, but the struggles at linebacker were likely the main reason. Tennessee used three safeties in a lot of situations in 2014, with Griffin moving up into the box a lot more often than in years past. Free safety Daimion Stafford moved into the deep safety role after Pollard's injury. He should be used in a similar fashion this season, which should in turn put Griffin in a similar role to that of last season. With Avery Williamson in his second year and the return of Zach Brown from injury, Tennessee may show improvement at the second level. The addition of Searcy will also add competition for tackles. Expecting a repeat of Griffin's 2014 production is probably a stretch but I do believe he will have a solid year. 75 or so tackles and a handful of big plays are reasonable expectations.              

Houston Texans

Defensive Linemen

Over the past three seasons Houston defensive end J.J. Watt has been on a tier of his own as arguably the most dominant defensive player in the NFL and without question, the most dominant defender in the fantasy game. No player should be able to do the things he does, much less a 3-4 defensive end. I could go into all the phenomenal statistics Watt has put together but there is no point. Everyone knows how good he is. What I will say is this; Watt is so far above every other defender, he is worth taking two or three rounds earlier than any other defensive player. Depending on the league setup and scoring he may be the first pick overall.

With Watt demanding the attention of blocking schemes, Jared Crick was expected to make a lot of plays last season. As it turned out his play was solid from an NFL perspective while his box score production (29-27-3.5) was rather average. The high assist total and his 6 batted passes helped Crick into the low thirty range in last year's final point totals. We can put an optimistic spin on his 2014 season by pointing out he had a sack in each of the final two games, or the fact that he is a young player who is still on the rise. In reality. we may see a little more production from him in 2015, but at this point Crick looks like every other solid but unspectacular 3-4 end.

Free agent addition Vince Wilfork is one of the best 3-4 nose tackles in the NFL. He is a wall versus the run and can push the pocket when the quarterback drops to pass. There were a few years earlier in his career when Wilfork broke the 40 tackle mark, but that was a long time ago. In 2014 he had 24 tackles and 24 assists for the Patriots, managing only half a sack. Wilfork will be 34 in November and is on the downside of an excellent career. I believe he still has enough in the tank to take advantage of playing with Watt. He will be hard pressed to approach a 40 tackle season but I like Wilfork's chances of exceeding 30 and adding 2-3 sacks. The Texans stats crew is generous with assists. That should boost him point totals enough to make Wilfork a quality starter in tackle required leagues.      

  • DE J.J. Watt - Arguably the best player in the fantasy game on either side of the ball
  • DE Jared Crick - Average DL3 with a little upside
  • DE Jeoffrey Pagan - Injury sleeper at best
  • NT Vince Wilfork - Quality low end DT1
  • NT Lewis Nix - No value

Linebackers

For fantasy owners there was no more dismal linebacker production than that found in Houston last year. Injuries were a large contributor to the  Texans using twelve different players over the course of the season. Brian Cushing is the most talented backer on the roster and the organization wants to make him the centerpiece of the defense. The problem is, Cushing has not been able to stay on the field. He has played a full slate of games one time in the last five seasons. Officially he missed two games in 2014. The fact is, Cushing was healthy through week five. He went down in week six and was never close to healthy again for the rest of the season. He had three minor procedures at the end of the year and has been a full participant this offseason. If he can somehow stay healthy Cushing has the ability to put up big numbers. When last he played a full slate of games he finished at 76-38-4 with 4 takeaways and 5 passes defended. Cushing is 28 years old so it is not too late for him to overcome the injuries. The risk is enough to keep us from counting on him as a starter, though he will produce well enough to be a strong LB3 or better for as long as he can stay healthy. Target Cushing as depth or take him as your third in a pinch. If you do the later, be sure to add some good sleepers and/or quality depth.   

With Cushing gimpy the Texans defense had no answer at inside linebacker last season. Mike Mohamed, Justin Tuggle, Jeff Tarpinian and Akeem Dent all had a chance to step up. They all played like the backups and special teams players they are. In the end it was Cushing struggling though injuries who led the team's linebackers with a weak 41 solo stops and 31 assists. To make sure they would not be in the same position again, Houston used their second round pick on Mississippi State's Benardrick McKinney.

If a 3-4 coach were to write a description of the perfect strong inside linebacker, it would sound a lot like McKinney. He is a tall, thick, physical thumper with the ability to take on and shed blockers at the point of attack. He is a wrap up tackler with enough speed to stick with most tight ends and a lot of running backs in coverage. McKinney even has the versatility to play on the outside or blitz from the inside, having done so with success during his college career. What catches my attention most about McKinney is the fact he led the Bulldogs in tackles for each of the past two seasons. The rookie is all but a lock to open the season as a starter next to Cushing. What remains to be seen is if he can handle the passing game at the pro level. While he has the straight line speed to get that job done, some scouts question McKinney's agility when changing directions and his ability to cover athletic tight ends. The bottom line with McKinney is this; when he steps on the field for the first time he will be the team's second most talented inside linebacker. With a healthy Cushing, McKinney should put up decent numbers. When Cushing goes down to injury, McKinney steps right into the lead role. Pick him up in the later rounds as an LB5 with considerable upside.             

In any successful 3-4 defense the outside linebackers must be playmakers. Texans outside backers accounted for 8.5 sacks and 3 takeaways between them last season. After missing most of his rookie year with a knee injury, the organization is counting on Jadaveon Clowney to turn their fortunes around. As the first overall pick of last year's draft, Clowney comes with enormous expectations. As of early July he is reportedly recovering well from the micro fracture surgery and hopes to be on the field when training camp opens. He might be on the field but it is a safe bet that he will be limited early as he is eased back into action. Even a healthy Clowney is no lock to blow up the box scores in what amounts to his rookie season. He is a great talent as an athletic outside rusher with the ability to do all the things required of an outside backer in this scheme, at a high level. The word micro-fracture scares me though. Dynasty owners who picked up Clowney last summer have no choice but to sit tight and hope. for owners in redraft leagues his immediate value could be anywhere from boom to bust. The upside is definitely worth a late-mid round pick for owners in big play based leagues. For everyone else he is a late round flier.

Whitney Mercilus is the other starting outside linebacker in Houston. With 17 sacks over his three seasons as a pro, the 2012 first round selection has been somewhat of a disappointment. The presence of Watt and a healthy Clowney should take a lot of pressure off the rest of the teams pass rushers, and will create single blocking for Mercilus on a regular basis. It is fair to expect some improvement over the 31-19-5 he recorded last season but Mercilus has shown no sign to date of being a special player.        

Defensive Backs

Over the course of their brief history the Texans secondary has given fantasy owners little to be excited about. Corner Johnathan Joseph was a rare exception to that rule last season when he posted a career best 70 tackles, 5 takeaways, 11 passes defended and a score. Those numbers made Joseph the second highest scoring corner in many leagues. For owners who look no further than the previous year's totals, Joseph will be near the top of the draft list at the position. For those who take more into consideration, he may not be such a priority. Like many corners Joseph's fantasy value has been inconsistent from year to year. Prior to 2014 he had never reached the 60 tackle mark and he has exceeded 50 three times in nine seasons. One thing we can count from Joseph is double digit passes defended and at least 3 takeaways. He has achieved each of those statistics in eight of his nine seasons. Much like the situation in Tennessee, the Texans struggled at the linebacker level in 2014. The result was a lot of tackles being made in the secondary. The addition of McKinney and return of a hopefully healthy Cushing will cut into that opportunity considerably. All things considered it is safe to count on Joseph as a quality low end CB1 or an excellent second starter. Expecting a repeat of last year's top five finish is a stretch.   

The Houston secondary was credited with 367 solo tackles last season. That total is not far off the mark of their Titans counterparts. The difference being that Houston's defensive backs stepped up in the big play columns, recording 16 interceptions and 29 total takeaways. After Joseph however, the production was spread out enough to seriously limit the fantasy value of everyone else here. Kareem Jackson is locked in as the other starter at corner. He too was headed for a new career best in the tackle column before missing three games with injury. Jackson however, does not make up for marginal tackle numbers by making big plays. His five seasons in the league have produced 10 interceptions, (13 total takeaways) and he averages just short of 10 defended passes per season.

Former undrafted free agent A.J. Bouye won the job as the Texans third corner last season. The second year pro made a strong showing as the slot corner and played well as the starter when Jackson was out. In fourteen games he went 52-7 with 3 picks, 10 passes defended and a score. He was particularly productive late in the seasons reaching double digit fantasy points in five of the final eight games. Bouye however, will have a hard time holding off first round pick Kevin Johnson for the job. Johnson is not the most physical of corners but was considered by many scouts to be the most technically sound and NFL ready cover corner in this year's draft. The organization expects Johnson to bring more big plays to their secondary. At Wake Forest last year he allowed only 24 completions. Johnson will have every opportunity to be the team's nickel corner this year while he is being groomed for a starting spot in the near future.

The Texans are both deep and talented on the corners but they may have problems at the safety positions. In 2014 D.J. Swearinger, Kendrick Lewis and Danieal Manning were the team's top three safeties. None of those players are still with the team. Instead Houston will go with free agent additions Rahim Moore at free safety and Stevie Brown at strong. Moore spent most of his first four years in the league as a starter in Denver where the Broncos second round pick in 2011 was never a standout. He brings good cover skills to the field but Moore is not a physical presence. His career best of 61 solo tackles came in 2012 but he failed to reach 45 in any of his other three seasons. He is not much of a big play threat either. To his credit, Moore had a career best of 4 interceptions and 6 total takeaways last season. He produced the same number in the three prior years combined. Apparently NFL teams are like some fantasy owners in that they simply look at last year's numbers to determine a player's value.

Brown is a much more interesting prospect. His first NFL start came with the Giants in week five of the 2012 season. In twelve games that year he went 64-12 with a whopping 8 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles, a pair of recoveries and 11 passes defended. Both the Giants organization and fantasy owners had grand expectations headed into 2013. Unfortunately Brown was lost to a knee injury before he could take a single snap. He came back in 2013 to start the first three games for New York but was clearly not the same player. Brown fought his way back into the lineup for the final five games, going 14-3-1 in those starts. This one is tough to call. On one hand we have a guy who was the top defensive back in fantasy football over the final twelve games he played before the injury. On the other hand we have a player who has struggled to return to form and shows all the signs of having been a one year wonder. It would be a lot easier to like Brown if he were in a better situation. Instead he is in a position that has a long history of lacking box score production. He is worth a late round flier as a DB5 with big upside, but we should not show great patience with Brown if he fails to produce early.   

Jacksonville Jaguars

Defensive Linemen

It took a couple of years but head coach Gus Bradley and defensive coordinator Bobby Babich have done an outstanding job of getting the Jacksonville defense headed in the right direction. Before this coaching staff took over the Jaguars were mired in the bottom third of nearly every important defensive category. In the first two seasons under this regime the organization used most of their resources to improve talent on the offensive side of the ball. Even without investing early draft choices, they were able to show great improvement defensively between 2013 and 2014. At the end of 2013 this unit had posted the league’s lowest sack total in consecutive seasons. In 2014 they jumped all the way to number six in that category with 45. The run defense improved to number fourteen at 4.1 yards per rush while they forced the fourth most fumbles and recovered the second most in the league. There is still plenty of room to improve a pass defense that was twenty sixth, allowing 7.7 yards per attempt while managing a mere 6 interceptions.

Jacksonville finally got around to drafting defense this offseason. Mike Mayock called third overall pick Dante Fowler "the most gifted edge rusher in this year's draft class". Unfortunately the team will have to wait a year before reaping the benefit of their investment. Fowler has already landed on IR after suffering a knee injury in the Jaguars first organized practice. Dynasty owners will still want to have this player at or near the top of their defensive line draft list. The talent and potential here is such that it is worth carrying him on IR or taxi squad for a wasted first season.

The good news for Jacksonville fans is the team still has all the guys who got the job done last year. In fact, the only lineman not returning is Red Bryant. He was officially the starting left end for the team all of last season but in reality, Bryant was no more than a run stuffer who set the edge on early downs. The Jaguars will not miss his 15 tackles or his half sack, and the vacancy will now be filled by someone who can make a much more significant statistical contribution. At this point it is unclear who that will be for sure. What we do know is Chris Clemons, Ryan Davis, Andre Branch and Tyson Alualu will all contribute.

We have a pretty good idea what to expect from Clemons. The soon to be 34 year old veteran started every game for Jacksonville last season. He was on the field for just over 70% of the team's defensive snaps and was second on the club in sacks with 8. It is easy to tell what we can expect from Clemons. Take out his injury shortened 2013 and he has recorded between 27 and 33 solo tackles, 9 to 15 assists and 8 to 12 sacks in each season dating back to 2010. Thus it is safe to expect his stat line to look something in the order of 30-11-9.5 with 3 batted passes and 3 turnovers. Clemons is on the downside of an excellent career and could be the odd man out when Fowler returns next year. We should get one more solid season out of him though. Target him as a quality DL3 or second starter in a pinch.    

At this point in the process it is hard to say what the Jaguars plan to do at the other defensive end spot. Ultimately we will probably see some sort of committee approach. Tyson Alualu is the most experienced of the contenders and is the closest in skill set to last year's starter Red Bryant. Alualu was a defensive tackle for the first three years of his career. He moved to end when the current coaching staff took over in 2013, starting all sixteen games that season. Alualu is a strong run defender who can set the edge but his pass rush potential is average at best. The most box score productive year of his career was 2012 when he went 35-10-4 from the tackle position. As an end the following season Alualu finished at 34-9-1. At the least he should figure into the rotation on early downs.

Andre Branch is an interesting prospect in this situation. The 2012 second round pick earned a significant role in his second season, going 30-7-6 in 2013. Heading into last year the coaching staff wanted to use the athletic 265 pounder as a "rover". The plan was to move him around the formation in an effort to confuse blocking schemes and/or find mismatches to exploit. It seemed to be a great way to take advantage of Branch's strengths. He came out of the gate on fire, recording 7 tackles, 3 sacks and forcing a pair of fumbles over the first three weeks of 2014. Branch however, followed the hot start by going 3-3-0 over the next four games before an injury effectively shut him down for the rest of the year.

Ryan Davis may prove to be the most interesting prospect here. The fourth year pro saw action on roughly 27% of the team's defensive snaps last season. With that limited opportunity he produced 14 tackles, 5 assists, 7.5 sacks, 4 turnovers and a pair of batted passes. His fantasy points per snap average was among the best in the league. At 260 pounds Davis is unlikely to be considered for a three down role. He could see significantly more sub package opportunity though. He is worth consideration as a late/last round sleeper. At the least Davis is a player we need to keep a close eye on when preseason games kick off.          

Tackle Sen'Derrick Marks led the leagues interior linemen with 10 sacks and his 35 solo tackles ranked fourth in 2014. Unfortunately for both the Jaguars and fantasy owners, an ACL tare suffered in the season finale has his availability in question. Marks is expected to return at some point but he is a candidate to start the season on the PUP. When he does make it back, chances are he will not be the same player for a while. Marks value for the 2015 season is all but ruined. This could however, create a buy low opportunity for owners in dynasty leagues.

To help replace Marks the organization signed former Miami starter Jared Odrick via free agency. He is expected to pair with Roy Miller as starters while veteran Ziggy Hood and third year pro Arby Jones compete for the opportunity to be the third man in the rotation. This is a solid and deep group of veteran players, but there is no one among them with the athletic prowess or fantasy potential of Marks.

The wildcard at tackle is sixth round pick Michael Bennett. The former Ohio State star was projected by some scouts to go as early as round two. Bennett was a disruptive force on the inside for the Buckeyes. He will need to improve versus run if he is to become a viable three down option at the pro level, but he could earn a role as an inside pass rusher in sub packages right away. I like his long term potential for owners in dynasty leagues that break out the defensive line positions.   

  • DE Chris Clemons - Target as a priority DL3 or low end DL2 in a pinch
  • DE Andre Branch - Hit or miss late round sleeper
  • DE Ryan Davis - Late/last round sleeper who could surprise
  • DE Tyson Alualu - No value
  • DT Sen'Derrick Marks - DT1 when/if healthy
  • DT Michael Bennett - Dynasty target with strong long term potential
  • DT Jared Odrick - Minimal value at best
  • DT Roy Miller - No value
  • DT Ziggy Hood - No value

Linebackers

Jaguars middle linebacker Paul Posluszny has been a highly productive three down player over the course of his career. With the exception two injury shortened seasons, he has recorded at least 87 solo tackles every year since 2008. Three times he has reached triple digits in solo stops, including 2013 when Posluszny piled up a career best 121. Through seven games last year he was on pace to go 107-50-4.5 when a pectoral injury landed him on IR. There is some ridicules talk in the media suggesting that Posluszny is a player in decline and/or that he may not have an every down role. I am not sure where that is coming from other than to say it is not coming from the Jaguars organization. Posluszny will be 31 years old in October and is far from the end of his career. He is a tackling machine who has consistently made a healthy contribution in the big play columns throughout his career and is a perennial top ten linebacker. Target Posluszny as an elite tier LB1 and do not hesitate to make him your first defensive pick if you get caught on the back end of the first defensive run.

Jacksonville has emphasized offense in recent drafts but they seem to have found a defensive diamond in round five last year. Telvin Smith is an undersized outside linebacker who is built more like a strong safety. At 218 pounds, he had a lot of doubters coming out of Florida state. It is hard to argue with his play or production thus far. Smith made his first start as a rookie in week five. even then he was used in a part time role. It was not until week twelve that the coaching staff finally saw the light. When the results were all in Smith had played 63% of the team’s defensive snaps and was the Jaguars second leading tackler. He finished at 72-32-2 with 4 takeaways and 4 passes defended. On a points per snap basis, Smith was the most fantasy productive linebacker in the game last year. The return of Posluszny will create a lot more competition for tackles but there will be plenty of opportunity for both players. Smith's big play prowess will go a long way toward offsetting any dip in tackle totals. He finished last season in an every down role and will pick up right where he left off. If he can stay healthy Smith could put up top 12 numbers in 2015. At a glance last year's totals are somewhat less impressive. That will cause many owners to undervalue him. In most of the drafts I have seen so far he has been an absolute steal, falling into the high LB3 range.   

Journeyman free agent addition Dan Skuta will compete with LaRoy Reynolds for the starting job at the other outside linebacker position. Skuta started eleven games at outside linebacker for San Francisco last season, recording 5 sacks. He has experience in a 4-3 from his two years with the Bengals and is the favorite entering camp. The winner of this competition will be a two down player with little or no fantasy value.

Defensive Backs

After giving up 7.7 yards per pass attempt and recording only 6 interceptions last season, the Jacksonville secondary has a great deal of room for improvement. Dwayne Gratz and Alan Ball opened as the starting corners in 2014. Ball was replaced by Demetrius McCray in week five and is no longer with the team. Gratz is still in the mix but will have to fight for his starting job. The Jaguars added former Green Bay corner Davon House via free agency. House and McCray are penciled in at the top of the depth charts entering camp, but the coaching staff is going to look at all their options. At this point there is no reason to expect much of a box score presence from any Jacksonville corner. None of the current contenders have ever finished among the top 30 corners. We have to go back to 2012 to find the last Jaguars corner who did.

The safety position, and particularly the strong safety, has a lot more to offer in fantasy terms. In two seasons at the position Jonathan Cyprien has 167 solo tackles and 50 assists. That total would be a bit higher had he not missed the first two games last year. Had Cyprien played a full slate of games in 2014, his numbers would have been in the area of 91-39-0. The only thing holding his fantasy potential down is the recent lack of big play production. As a rookie in 2013 Cyprien recorded 3 forced fumbles with a pick, a sack and 6 passes defended. His contribution in those areas last year amounted to 3 passes defended. with Telvin Smith and a healthy Paul Posluszny in front of him, Cyprien could be hard pressed to exceed the 80 tackle mark for a third straight season. It is even more unlikely that he will go through a full campaign without a single big play. After finishing last year ranked just inside the top thirty it is safe to expect a rebound. If he can match the big play totals of his rookie year, Cyprien could prove to be solid DB1 in 2015. All things considered, targeting him as a mid DB2 is more reasonable. 

Josh Evans held the starting job at free safety for the Jaguars in 2014. He will be in the mix for the job again this summer but may have a hard time holding off free agent addition Sergio Brown. Rookie James Samples could throw his name in the hat as well. Neither Evans nor Brown have the talent to be productive long term starters at the pro level. That and the fact no Jacksonville free safety has been much of a fantasy factor over the past ten plus years, is all the reason we need to look elsewhere for help.

Sample in an interesting prospect. He is a raw talent who is best suited as a physical in the box strong safety at this point in his development. He was a junior college transfer who played one year a Louisville. As the Cardinals strong safety last year Sample was a productive 74-16-0 with 4 interceptions. He has the measurables and physical talent to develop into a quality free safety with a year or two of experience. As a rookie he will probably make his contribution on special teams.   

That does it for this offering. Next up the NFC North