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Eyes of the Guru, Part 8: AFC West

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

Denver Broncos

Defensive Linemen

Denver will join the swelling ranks of 3-4 defenses in 2015. The change means a lot of players working in new positions with unknown outcomes. It also means competition for some starting jobs. Denver went the free agent rout to add Antonio Smith and Vance Walker, both of whom have experience in the scheme. Smith had a cup of coffee in Oakland last year but he was a starter in Houston for the prior five seasons. His best production with the Texans was in 2012 when Smith was 24-7-7 with 3 turnovers. With a five year body of work to look at, we can get a good idea what to expect from Smith if he wins that job. Unfortunately 20-25 tackles and 4-5 sacks is not going to make him a fantasy factor.

Walker spent his first five seasons with the Falcons and Raiders before going to Kansas City in 2014. He was a starter at tackle in Atlanta in 2012 and again at tackle in Oakland in 2013. Over those two seasons he was 50-22-6. His 3-4 experience amounts to one season as a backup in Kansas City. Walker is another in a long list of big men who are capable of 25 tackles and 3-5 sacks, but do not have what it takes to be special.

Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson are holdovers who played end in the 4-3. Both saw plenty of action as early down run stoppers in the previous scheme and both players are decent pass rushers with a career best of 6 sacks. In general they meet the requirements to be a successful starter as a 3-4 end. Wolfe will miss the first four games with a suspension, which means everyone else will have an opportunity to prove themselves before he gets on the field.

Jackson is an interesting prospect and is the most likely to excel among the team's options. At 6'5" and 295 pounds, he has the size and wingspan coaches look for at the position. His recent production is reason for optimism as well. Jackson has recorded 30 or more tackles in each of the past two seasons, with 9 sacks and 8 batted passes. He is not a quick twitch pass rusher with the up field burst to beat tackles around the corner, but he does have enough power and quickness to not only be a great fit in the 3-4, but to potentially excel. I expect to see Smith and Jackson as the opening day starters and will not be surprised if Jackson end up with 35 tackles and 7 sacks on the year.

There is not much question about the nose tackle position, where Sylvester Williams is all but locked in. The 2012 first round pick is a 313 pound fireplug who has worked as a two down interior lineman over the past two seasons. He has done little in the box scores thus far in his career, and that is unlikely to change. Denver will probably pull their nose guard in most sub package situation to make room for one of their many quality pass rushers. Williams should do a great job of anchoring the run defense on the field but we should not expect that contribution to translate into fantasy points.

Linebackers

The key word for Denver's inside linebackers is health. If healthy, Danny Trevathan and Brandon Marshall will be the week one starters. Trevathan is working to come back from a knee injury while Marshall is recovering from foot surgery. Neither of them are expected to do much on the field until late in the preseason at earliest, but both are believed to be on track for the opener. Trevathan was on the weak side in the 4-3 when he had a breakout season in 2013. He was as impressive on the field as his numbers would suggest, going 87-41-2 with 7 turnovers and 10 passes defended. Those totals landed Trevathan in the top twelve. Between the injury and the anticipated competition for tackles from Marshall, expecting a top twelve repeat for Trevathan would be wishful thinking, but he is capable of being a solid starter for us this year. There are some things about the knee injury that are concerning. Trevathan tried to come back twice last season. Both times he reinjured the knee in his first game back. According to reports the injuries were in the same area but were not all the same injury. In September he reportedly suffered a fractured tibia just below the knee. He returned for a start in October only to leave with a cracked bone just above the knee. After a stint on short term injured reserve, Trevathan returned only to suffer a dislocated knee cap that finally ended his season. Footballguys resident doctor Jene Bramel has not expressed great concern over the chain of events. That should make Trevathan owners breath a little easier, but my gut tells me something is fishy though. Hopefully Jene is right on this one.

With Trevathan out, Brandon Marshall assumed the three down duties on the weak side in 2014. The 2012 fifth round pick jumped from 2 tackles in 2013, to 91-22-2 with 3 turnovers and 9 passes defended in fourteen games last season. To say his explosion was unexpected would be an understatement. At 250 pounds he was a force versus the run and was surprisingly effective as a pass defender. Marshall battled a Lisfranc injury over the final few games and had surgery in March. He began running in late June and hopes to make it back to the field sometime during training camp. The team will be extremely careful with Marshall who may not take live snaps until the final preseason game or even the opener.

Both of these players have plenty of potential, even if both are healthy. We have seen several instances over the years, of two inside backers in a 3-4 putting up good numbers. The one that comes to mind first is Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman. History also tells us players in such a situation will hold one another back to some extent. If both guys are healthy, projecting which of the two will be the most productive is a coin toss. The injury situation only adds more drama as we head into training camp.               
  
when it comes to outside linebackers, no team has ever been better prepared for a switch to the 3-4. Ten year veteran Demarcus Ware has spent most of his career as an outside backer in a 3-4. From Bill Parcells to Wade Phillips and then Rob Ryan, Ware has experience in several versions of the scheme, and he has been exceptionally productive in all of them. He will be 33 years old when camp opens this year and is on the downside of a spectacular career, but Ware still has some gas in the tank. He should be productive this season and probably a couple more before hanging up the cleats.

On the other end of the age spectrum the Broncos have first round pick Shane Ray. After setting the Missouri school record as a junior with 14.5 sacks, Ray was selected as the South Eastern Conference defensive player of the year in 2014.  He is an explosive athlete with elite speed and quickness off the corner, and the power to set the edge versus the run. There is nothing to dislike about his play on the field where most scouts agree he has Pro Bowl potential. The only negatives with Ray are his off field issues and the fact he was a 4-3 end in college. There may be a transition period for Ray to become comfortable playing from a two point stance. He will have plenty of time to learn while working as the third man behind Ware and Von Miller this year.

In between the old guy and the young gun is Von Miller. The 2011 first round pick has never worked in a 3-4, but he has been used in the same manner as a strong side backer in the Broncos 4-3. Had he not missed seven games in 2013, Miller would likely be on a run of four consecutive seasons with double digit sacks. As a second year pro in 2012 he was 55-13-18.5 with 6 forced fumbles, an interception and a touchdown. There is little doubt he will make a quick and successful transition to the new scheme.

If the coaching staff could figure a way to get all three of their outside backers on the field together, they could push 60 sacks as a team. These guys have that kind of talent. In fantasy terms Miller and Ware have the potential to transcend scoring systems. They are all but certain to be among the point leaders at the position in big play based leagues, and they could both be worthy third starters in balance scoring formats. Ray may have to wait a year or two before stepping into a full time role, but he has a ton of long term potential. Stash him on a taxi squad for safe keeping.

  • ILB Danny Trevathan - Injury risk with low LB2 upside
  • ILB Brandon Marshall - Injury risk with Low LB2 upside
  • ILB Steven Johnson - No value
  • ILB Lamin Barrow - Injury sleeper to watch in preseason
  • OLB Demarcus Ware - Stud in big play leagues, matchup based third starter or depth for everyone else
  • OLB Von Miller - Top 10 in big play leagues, third starter for everyone else
  • OLB Shane Ray - Dynasty target with huge long term potential in big play leagues
  • OLB Lerentee McCray - No value

Defensive Backs

On the field Denver's secondary has the horses to give them a legitimate shot at a championship. In the box scores however, they are not going to do a great deal to help us win ours. Those who read my column last summer may remember the statistic I threw out emphasizing how rare it has been for a Broncos defensive back to excel in fantasy terms. In the fourteen football seasons this century, two Denver defensive backs have cracked the top twenty. Champ Bailey did it twice (2005 & 2006), and Brian Dawkins did it in 2009.

Coming off an excellent 2013 season in Cleveland, many owners held high expectations T.J. Ward would be a trend buster. At 60-14-2 with a couple of interceptions and 6 passes defended, he fell well short. In fact his average of 8.93 points per game placed Ward in the area of number sixty among defensive backs. That will leave many owners with a sour taste for him, but there are some reasons for optimism here. Ward is an excellent strong safety in terms of on field ability, and he clearly has some potential. In five years as a pro he has finished among the top ten twice. After a slow start last year, Ward recorded 9 or more points in seven of the team's final eight games. If we cast out his 1 tackle fluke versus the Rams in week eleven, he averaged 10.9 points per game after week eight. Then there is the situation at inside linebacker. If both Trevathan and Marshall are 100%, there will be a ton of competition for tackles. If those guys are not at full speed however, it could mean plenty of opportunity for Ward. Regardless what happens with the linebackers, Ward is too good a player not to rebound at least some. Expecting a top twenty finish would be pushing it, but he should make a decent third starter or quality depth at the least.

Journeyman Darian Stewart comes over from Baltimore to replace the departed Rahim Moore at free safety. Stewart may not be much of an overall upgrade at the position but he does bring a more physical presence to the lineup. With the Rams in 2011, Stewart was 67-17-3 with 11 passes defended, 3 turnovers and a score in fourteen games. He has not seen 40 solo stops in a season since. That is likely to change in 2015 but there is no reason to expect enough production to warrant a roster spot.

Corner Aqib Talib had the most box score productive season of his seven year career in 2014. With totals of 54-9-1, 5 turnover, 17 passes defended and a pair of scores, he narrowly missed making the top twenty defensive backs while placing number five among corners. Talib has 6 touchdowns and has averaged nearly 5 turnovers a season over his career. Big play production has never been a question. The 54 tackles were out of character however. He totaled 56 solo stops in 2011 but had not reached 40 in a season since that time. With a few exceptions, corners tend to be widely inconsistent on a year to year basis. Talib has done nothing in his career to date that would make us believe he is among the exceptions. He could be a CB1 in 2015 or he could be virtually useless. Corner is both the most inconsistent position and the easiest to improve via the waiver wire once the season starts. This is why we all wait to the end of the draft to fill it. Pick up Talib as a low end CB1 or priority CB2 but be prepared to move on quickly if he starts slowly.

One more reason to be optimistic with Talib is the consistency Chris Harris has shown in Denver. Harris has recorded at least 50 tackles, 3 interceptions and 12 passes defended in each of the past three season. In two of those years, including 2014, he was a top fifteen corner. Harris's 50-4-1, 5 turnover and 17 passes defended last season were particularly impressive when we consider he tore an ACL in the 2013 AFC Championship game. Surprisingly he was on the field for week one posting 3 tackles and a couple of pass breakups. Together Harris and Talib have four 50+ tackle seasons in Denver. That is a pretty significant trend. Either of these guys could be a good answer for owners in need of a quality starter at corner. Given a choice of the two, I would go with Harris simply because he has a longer track record. In the end their production could be very similar.

Kansas City Chiefs

Defensive Linemen

Over the past several years the Chiefs have thrown a lot of resources at their defensive line positions. Several early draft picks and a bunch of free agent money have landed them a long list of good players who fit the skill set for a three man front, but none who have been among that rare breed with the ability to be special. The closest Kansas City has come at defensive end is 2011 third round pick Allan Bailey. He served as a backup for a couple of years before earning a significant role in 2013. As a starter last season Bailey totaled 27 tackles and 5 sacks. While those are far from impressive numbers, they are more than former first round picks Glenn Dorsey (2008) and Tyson Jackson (2009) ever combined for in a single season. Bailey still has a long way to go before he is relevant in fantasy terms, but things may be looking up for the Chiefs.

Between 2013 and 2014 Kansas City signed a trio of players to work at defensive end. Mike DeVito served as a backup in 2013 and was expected to start last season. That plan was ditched when he landed on IR in week two. Instead the Chiefs went with 2014 free agent additions Jaye Howard as the starter and Vance Walker as the third man in the rotation. Walker has moved on so a healthy DeVito will take his place. It is unclear is Howard or DeVito will hold the title of starter. It is clear however, that neither of them are going to put up significant box score totals.

For all their strikeouts at end, the Chiefs seemed to have finally hit a dinger in nose tackle Dontari Poe. In his second season the 2012 first round selection was 43-8-4.5 with 4 batted passes. Those are strong numbers for a 3-4 nose tackle and made Poe a top five interior lineman in fantasy circles. The numbers shifted around some in 2014 but his 38-8-6 was again strong enough to make Poe a quality DT1. Unfortunately for everyone concerned, Poe recently underwent back surgery to repair a herniated disc, putting his 2015 season in jeopardy. He is not expected to be ready for week one and is a candidate for the PUP or short term IR. The organization is optimistic he will return to the field by mid-season but returning to the field does not mean returning to form. With the shortage of box score friendly interior linemen, Dynasty owners may have to ride this one out. Redraft owners on the other hand, should avoid the situation all together for now and look to pick him up whenever he returns to practice. With Poe on the sideline third year pro Nick Williams and former Packers second round pick Jerel Worthy will be in the mix for playing time at the position.

  • DE/NT Mike DeVito - No value
  • DE Allen Bailey - Possible depth in larger leagues
  • DE Jaye Howard - No value
  • NT Dontari Poe - Watch the injury news for a return date
  • NT Nick Williams - No value
  • NT Rakeem Nunez-Roches - No value

Linebackers

Most 3-4 teams have a pair of three down linebackers on the inside. Kansas City has gotten by for several years with Derrick Johnson as an every down guy and a two down thumper working next to him. Several player's have worked in the two down spot over the past few seasons including Joe Mays, James-Michael Johnson, the late Jovan Belcher and last year, Josh Mauga. when Johnson was lost to a torn Achilles' in week one last season, the Chiefs were caught unprepared. With no better option, Mauga was moved into the full time role. He is a good football player who excels versus the run, but Mauga's average at best cover skills and complete lack of big play production was tough for the defense to overcome. Despite being caught with their shorts down, the organization did nothing to sure up the position over the offseason. Mauga will return to his two down role, James-Michael Johnson will go back to the bench and Derrick Johnson will be back in his familiar three down role as the centerpiece of the Chiefs defense. The team had plenty of other needs, many of which were addressed. Johnson will be 33 in November so inside linebacker has to be high on the priority list for next year.

From 2011 through 2013 Derrick Johnson averaged triple digit solo tackles, yet he was outside the top fifteen at the position in total fantasy points in each of those seasons. He is not a player that will light up the big play columns, but Johnson has consistently made a quality contribution in that area. In fact he posted at least 4 takeaways in seven consecutive seasons and has averaged roughly 2.5 sacks over his career. His handicap comes from the people who keep statistics for the Chiefs and emphasizes just how important it is for fantasy owners to consider stats crews when ranking defenders. Among the fantasy game's top sixty linebackers in 2013, only Karlos Dansby was credited with fewer assists than Johnson's 12. In 2014 Chiefs players were awarded a total of 152 assists on the season. In comparison, the Brown's stats crew dished out 433.

Johnson is an excellent player in both NFL and fantasy terms. With sideline to sideline range, good speed, coverage skills, leadership and physical play versus the run, he is everything an NFL team wants at their inside linebacker position. Triple digit solo tackles, excellent week to week consistency and respectable big play numbers are everything a fantasy owner could ask for. The stingy stats crew may cause Johnson to finish outside the top twelve in fantasy points again in 2015 but if he is 100% healthy, he is close as it gets to a sure thing. That is enough to make Johnson a priority LB2 on draft day.

In Tamba Hali and Justin Houston the Chiefs have an outstanding tandem of outside linebackers who are among the best in the league at their positions. In fantasy terms Hali is a typical 3-4 outside linebacker. His sack total was down in 2014, but he can be counted on for around 45 tackles, low double digit sacks and 4 or 5 turnovers. Numbers that will make him a quality starter in big play based leagues, but a marginal option for everyone else.

Like J.J. Watt and Calais Campbell among 3-4 ends, Houston has become the exception among outside linebackers. His box score explosion in 2014 may have been the best ever turned in by an outside backer in this scheme. At 59-9-22 with 4 turnovers and 5 passes defended, Houston slipped into the top ten among linebackers. In comparison the next highest ranking 3-4 OLB was Julius Peppers at number 24. As is always the case when a pass rusher blows up in such a manner, we cannot expect a repeat of the gaudy numbers. What we can expect from Houston is about 50 tackles, double digit sacks and a handful of turnovers. His chances of a second top ten finish are slim, but he is the favorite to lead the charge for outside backers again in 2015. Target Houston as a solid second starter or an excellent LB3.

Defensive Backs

The Chiefs received great news on the eve of training camp with safety Eric Berry being cleared to participate. When he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma in December it was expected he would miss some time at the beginning of this season, if he was able to play at all. After six months of treatment, Berry has been pronounced cancer free and is ready to continue his career. Being back on the field and being back to 100% are not always the same thing. The chemotherapy that comes with Hodgkin's can take a lot of wind out of someone's sails. Being a 26 year old athlete and in great physical condition will certainly help so hopefully Berry will be there in short order.

Berry has battled some normal injuries during his five year career as well. He missed all of 2011 with a torn Achilles'. After opening last season with a 14 solo performance against Tennessee, he missed several games with a bad ankle prior to the cancer diagnosis. When healthy however, he is one of the best strong safeties in both the NFL and fantasy. Berry has played a full slate of games three times in the past five years. In those seasons he averaged a solid 72 solo tackles, with much of his value on the field and in the box scores coming from his ability as a playmaker. Double digit passes defended in all three seasons with 12 turnovers, 5.5 sacks and 3 defensive sores have helped Berry to three top twenty finishes and a pair of visits to the top ten, including 2013. Like Derrick Johnson, Berry's overall fantasy value is pinched by the stats crew when it comes to assists, but this is not as a big an issue among defensive backs who generally record fewer assists anyway. Once we get confirmation Berry is back in the lineup, he should be one of the first ten defensive backs off the board if not one of the top five.

The organization approached the off season as if Berry would miss time. Now that he is back there is somewhat of a logjam at the safety position. Ron Parker is a former corner who shifted to free safety last season where he excelled. Starting four games at corner and twelve at safety, Parker led the team with 83 tackles. Adding a few big plays and 12 pass breakups, he averaged over 10 points a game for fantasy owners. With the addition of corner Marcus Peters in round one of the draft, it seems unlikely Parker will move back outside and he played too well for the coaching staff not to put him in a major role. Thus all signs point to Parker sticking at free safety. With both Berry and Johnson back on the field there will be much more competition for tackles in 2015. Parker may continue to have value but we should expect some decline.

The other big question here is what will the Chiefs do with free agent addition Tyvon Branch? The former Oakland starter was signed to play strong safety while Berry was out. His skill set is not particularly suited for a move to free safety but the 28 year old is too good a player to sit on the bench. Branch has landed on IR in each of the past two seasons. In the four years prior however, he was a fantasy standout. From 2009 through 2012 he averaged over 80 solo stops a season with 10 total turnovers and 6 sacks. Branch is not a liability in coverage, but the strength of his game is run support. Hopefully Berry will be back to full speed early enough for us to get a look at the coaching staff's final answer before the season starts. Branch has the potential to be an excellent contributor for us in 2015 if he lands a role that will allow it.

The Chiefs have several good players competing for jobs at corner. Sean Smith is the established starter and should return to that role after serving his three game suspension. He is a quality player on the field but has done little for fantasy owners over his six years in the league. Smith has managed over 50 tackles twice and will usually reach double digits in passes defended, but he has no more than 2 interceptions in any season.

The rest of the pecking order will be determined during camp. Ron Parker was the opening day starter opposite Smith in 2014. When he shifted to safety in week two, Marcus Cooper got the call. He lasted four games before being replaced by Jamell Fleming who was injured in his second start. Last year's second round pick Phillip Gaines was next up, lasting until week fourteen when he too left with an injury, bringing Fleming back into the starting role. In the end no one gave the coaching staff enough confidence to believe they had a long term answer, so they used a first round pick on Marcus Peters.

Kansas City corners have provided marginal fantasy value over the past several years. Following the rookie corner concept, Peters would be the player most likely to break that trend. He entered the draft following his junior year at Washington, during which he was dismissed from the team due to multiple confrontations with coaches. Over his two seasons as a starter for the Huskies, Peters allowed an impressive 38.1 completion percentage on passes thrown against him, with 24 passes defended and 8 interceptions. He is highly talented but raw, and his attitude is something NFL coaches are not going to put up with for long. If he matures quickly in both areas, Peters could be something special in the long run. If he gets on the field as a rookie, you can bet offensive coordinators will look to expose him.

Parker could be the replacement for Smith early on and Gaines has been penciled in as a starter entering camp. If none of the young players step up, we may see Parker remain at corner when Smith returns, with either Branch or Berry shifting to free safety. This may be a moving target for a while but there is some value to be had if we can figure out where it lies.

Oakland Raiders

Defensive Linemen

The Raiders defensive line personnel may be best suited for a three man front, but the team will continue to run a 4-3 under new head coach Jack Del Rio and new defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. Cincinnati was the only team to record fewer than Oakland's 22 sacks in 2014. So putting together an improved pass rush will be high on the priority list for the new coaching staff. That will be a challenge considering the Raiders lack a dominating rush end. Justin Tuck was one of those players during his years in New York. He led the club with 5 sacks last year but has only exceeded that total in one season since 2010. At age 32 Tuck is not yet over the hill, but does not seem to be the same player of his youth. At the least, he needs some help to keep blocking schemes honest. There does not seem to be any help coming from the other end position in 2015, but the situation is not without hope as linebackers Kahlil Mack and Sio Moore could offer some relief from the second level. Tuck finished his career with the Giants on a strong note, going 41-22-11 in 2013. He still has gas in the tank and a new scheme may be able to rekindle his production. Slip him onto your draft list as a late round sleeper or keep an eye on Tuck when the season opens. If he starts strong it will not be a mirage.

With a collection of unknown late round picks and undrafted free agents filling out the depth chart at end, second round pick Mario Edwards Jr. is the favorite to start opposite Tuck. Edwards is a two down run stopper with little pop as a pass rusher. He was not box score productive in any sense during his three years at Florida State, produced a total of 52-37-8. Most scouts projected him as a 3-4 end or a 4-3 tackle at the pro level and some clubs were scared off by his huge fluctuation in weight over short periods of time. Unless someone steps up from nowhere, we can expect little from this position.

The Raiders have a strong history of production from the tackle positions, though you would not know it from looking at last year's totals. Richard Seymour, Tommy Kelly, Desmond Bryant and Lamar Houston are all among the group who have posted strong numbers as Raiders interior linemen over the past few years. Unfortunately all of those guys are long gone and the current collection of bodies is far less talented. Free agent addition Dan Williams has the most potential of the group. He has not reached 20 solo stops in either of the past two seasons but Williams was 32-11-0 with a forced fumble with the Cardinals in 2012. With 2 sacks in five seasons he brings nothing to the field in terms of a pass rush, but Williams could put up quality tackle totals if he gets enough opportunity. C.J. Wilson, Justin Ellis and Stacy McGee will all see time at tackle. Between them they have eight years of NFL experience, 2 sacks and zero seasons with more than 20 solo stops.

Linebackers

There are a ton of questions up front but the Raiders have assembled a talented group at the second level. A rash of injuries last season led to Miles Burris leading the way in tackles with 77, but it was Sio Moore who held the fantasy value. Moore missed a couple of games early then suffered a season ending hip injury in week fourteen. In the nine full games he played, Moore was 63-20-3 with a couple of forced fumbles and an average of 13.6. points a game. He reached double digits in seven of those games, never falling short of 7.5. Moore had surgery on the hip in the offseason and opened training camp on the physically unable to perform list. He is believed to be close to a return and should be fine in time for the opener. Once healthy Moore should have no problem holding off Malcolm Smith for the starting job on the weak side.

There are some who believe Smith was signed to be a starter ahead of Moore. Hopefully some of those people are in your league and will waste a pick on the former Seahawk. Smith was never more than a situational part time starter for Seattle who worked in a time share with Bruce Irvin over the past two seasons. He is a versatile player who was added to Oakland's roster as insurance behind Moore and to serve as the top backup at all three linebacker spots. If forced into action Smith could be a serviceable fantasy option but he is neither a playmaker nor a long term option at any of the three positions.

The coaching staff will be counting on strong side linebacker Kahlil Mack to be a playmaker. In much the same way Denver has used Von Miller over the past few years, Mack will be a stand up strong side linebacker in the base defense and a pass rusher in sub packages. This is the same approach taken by the previous coaching staff as well. As a rookie Mack finished with 59 solo stops, 16 assists and 4 sacks. All of the sacks came after week ten, leading to speculation he will have a breakout 2015 season. There are many prognosticators, including my respected colleague Jene Bramel, who will beat the table for Mack this year. While I agree he has great upside as a playmaker, I do not share the same level of excitement. Mack may eventually be a 60+ tackle guy with double digit sacks and a handful of other big plays, but the Raiders are going to need some difference makers up front before it can happen. In 2015 I see him basically on the same level Miller has been in recent years. That being a solid third starter who will have a few monster games over the course of the season, and be marginal in other weeks. Being a Raiders fan, I hope to be wrong on this one.

The safe play for fantasy owners here is Curtis Lofton. The 29 year old has an excellent track record which includes six consecutive season of 82 or more solo stops, and four in a row with at least 40 assists. He is not a major big play threat but has 17 turnovers, 6 sacks and 25 passes defended since 2009. With the Saints last year, Lofton reached triple digits in solo tackle for the second time in his career. He is a strong run defender who rarely misses, has good cover skills and is a leader in the huddle. His chances of finishing in the top ten are slim, but Lofton is an excellent fit in the situation and should be a quality second starter for fantasy owners in 2015.

The organization invested late round picks on MLB Ben Heeny (5th), OLB Neiron Ball (5th) and OLB Max Valles (6). All three are developmental types who will be used to sure up the Raiders special teams woes while they are groomed for potentially bigger roles down the road.

MLB Curtis Lofton - Quality LB2 
WLB Sio Moore - Target as third starter with top fifteen potential if healthy
SLB Kahlil Mack - Big play LB3 with a high ceiling
OLB/MLB Malcolm Smith - Versatile veteran backup who could be productive in a starting role 
MLB Ben Heeny - Injury sleeper at best
OLB Neiron Ball - No value
OLB Max Valles - No value

Defensive Backs

As proven by last year's Cowboys, defenses that look horrible on paper rarely play down to expectations. Maybe there is some solace in that fact for Ken Norton who is tasked with making something of a secondary with little to build on. 2013 first round pick D.J. Haden is a quality cover corner who has show little in terms of big play ability. He has missed fourteen games with injury over his first two seasons, posting 2 interceptions and a forced fumble in eighteen starts. If there is a silver lining in that cloud for fantasy owners, it is his respectable 65 solo tackles in those games. Granted eighteen games is not a lot to judge him on, and hopefully Norton's more aggressive scheme will light a fire under the third year player.

There is no established starter opposite Hayden where last year's fourth and seventh round picks Keith McGill and Travis Carrie respectively, will compete to with second year undrafted free agent James Dockery and rookie seventh round selection Dexter McDonald to determine the starter and nickel corner. Between the four players they have five NFL starts, roughly 800 total snaps and 1 interception. Carrie has four of those starts and the interception. He is the favorite for the starting job entering camp but anything can happen here between now and week one, including the possible addition of a serviceable veteran when teams begin trimming rosters.

The best player in Oakland's secondary is father time Charles Woodson. At 38 years of age, he led the Raiders with 81 tackles in 2014. Woodson added 30 assists, 5 turnovers, a sack and 8 passes defended to be a top ten defensive back for the second year in a row. The eighteen year veteran has perennially finished among the fantasy leaders. He will be 39 in October and is the oldest starting defender in the league. If he can stay healthy for sixteen more games, Woodson is likely to give us one more season of 75+ tackles, a handful of big plays and one last top ten finish. He is sure to have enough opportunity in the target rich environment of the Oakland secondary.

With the lack of talent at safety beyond Woodson, it is surprising the organization allowed Tyvon Branch to get away. Maybe they became frustrated with his injuries over the past two seasons. The team in turn signed former Eagle Nate Allen to fill the void. Allen is an upgrade over Brandain Ross who filled in last season, but is not likely to be a long term answer. While the sixth year pro has never recorded more than 60 tackles in a season, the sheer volume of opportunity could make him a fairly productive player in 2015. Allen showed big play promise with 8 turnovers last year. That would be more impressive had he not totaled 8 over his first four seasons combined. Maybe his big 2014 was a sign of things to come, but more likely it was a one shot wonder. Allen is worth a late round flier in most twelve team leagues that start three DBs. The best plan however, would be to grab him off the street if he opens the season strong.

San Diego Chargers

Defensive Linemen

We may have to add defensive end Corey Liuget to the short but growing list of fantasy friendly 3-4 ends. In two of his four seasons as a pro, Liuget has put up quality numbers. As a second year player in 2012 he was 34-16-6 with 9 batted passes and a fumble recovery. Last year Liuget finished with 46 solo stops, 11 assists, 5 sacks, 4 turnovers a couple of batted passes and a score. Those numbers have landed him a pair of top twenty finishes including a solid top fifteen in 2014. The problem is, his other two seasons (2011 and 2013) produced 43-16-4.5 with a couple of turnovers and 4 passes defended between them. The huge discrepancy in production from year to year makes it hard to put much trust in the fifth year pro. At 6'2" Liuget lacks the wingspan of most highly productive 3-4 ends, but he is not short on athleticism. He does an excellent job of turning his low center of gravity into leverage so he can get off blocks quickly to make plays. Until he can show better year to year consistency, there is going to be some risk with Liuget. He will never be a double digit sack guy but in today’s game 40+ tackles and 5-7 sacks makes a strong DL2. He is obviously capable of those numbers.

Liuget totaled 46 tackles and 5 sacks last year, the other five defensive linemen who saw action for the Chargers combined for 67 and 3.5. Kendall Reyes has started at end opposite Liuget since his rookie season of 2012. He accounted for 10.5 sacks over his first two seasons and was showing promise with increasing tackle totals before backsliding to 15-17-1 last season. The former second round pick has a skill set that makes him worth keeping an eye on, but nothing we have seen from him to date suggests an impending breakout.

Second year pro Ryan Carrethers may push veteran Sean Lissemore for the starting job at nose tackle. In 2014 Carrethers role was expanding around mid-season when he was lost to injury for the final six games. San Diego is one of the 3-4 teams that pull the nose tackle on passing downs, so there is already a shortage of opportunity for whoever holds the job.

Linebackers

The Chargers inside linebacker positions remain an unsolved mystery heading into training camp. Last season opened with Donald Butler in the lead role as a three down player. Manti Te'o lined up next to him on early downs, heading to the bench in sub package situations. Te'o missed six games starting in week four while Butler continued in a virtual every down role until week ten. Coming out of the team's week nine bye, his playing time was cut in half for no apparent reason. Butler continued in a reduced role until a week fifteen elbow injury ended his season. In October he had shown up on some early week practice reports with should and quad injuries. He was listed as probable for the week six contest but never appeared on the team's official weekly injury report again until going on IR. This leads us to believe his drop in playing time was purely performance related. Adding to the mystery is the fact Butler signed a new long term contact last March. He will be making nearly twenty million over the first three years of the deal, so the organization clearly expected him to be a starter.

Adding to the uncertainty about Butler is the fact San Diego used their second round pick on inside linebacker Denzel Perryman. At 5'11" Perryman is shorter than the prototypical inside backer, but at 236 pounds he is stout, physical and exceptionally strong. His work ethic and lead by example approach only add value to a defense in need of leadership. No one questions Perryman's ability to be an effective starter at the pro level. There are many however, who are unsure if he can be successful in a sub package role where his height and lack of speed could be a problem. There are no faults to be found with his production at Miami. In thirteen games with the Hurricanes last season, Perryman was 79-31-2 with 5 passes defended, an interception and 3 forced fumbles. We will be watching intently for signs of the coaching staff's intentions when it comes to this young man. As a rookie he could be a backup and special teams contributor or a two down starter. In the long run he has the potential to be a quality option for us. Redraft owners may want to pass or at best use a late round pick to lock him up until we get answers. For dynasty owners Perryman is a good taxi squad stash.

One positive for Perryman is the fact San Diego is short on inside linebackers who are strong in coverage. Butler is the best option in that area and he is only above average. Questions about pass defense also followed Te'o into the NFL. The 2013 second round selection has battled injuries over his first two seasons, working as a two down option most of the time when healthy. The only exception being the final two games of last season. With Butler out, Te'o moved into the three down role. If anyone doubts how important it is for an inside linebacker to play all three downs, Te'o makes it easy to emphasize. In all he has started twenty five games as a pro. In the first twenty three he reached 7 solo tackles once, posting 5 of fewer twenty one times. In week sixteen last year he was 8-3-1, followed by 9-4-0 in the final game. This not only shows the importance of sub package roles, it gives us an idea how productive Te'o can be if given the opportunity. He played every down at Notre Dame, putting a lot of tallies in the big play columns along the way. The coaching staff may have to do some things with coverage designs to protect him, but Te'o is capable.

Hopefully the first preseason game will tell us what is going on with these three guys. One of them should be a quality option for us. The only thing I fear is the team going with their young thumpers on early downs then pulling them both in favor of Butler and an extra safety in sub packages. If you draft before we have an answer, I would make Te'o the first Chargers LB off the board. Target him as a high upside LB4.

Dating all the way back to Shawn Merriman, the Chargers have struggled to find consistent production from the outside linebacker positions. Injuries have been a big contributor to those issues, but the bottom line is all that matters. The bottom line was ugly in 2014 as defensive end Corey Liuget led the team with a mere 5 sacks. Last season Dwight Freeney, Jarrett Johnson, Melvin Ingram and Jeremiah Attaochou combined for 10.5 sacks. Freeney and Johnson are gone leaving youngsters Ingram and Attaochou in line to start. Ingram is a talented player who was the team's first round pick in 2012. He did little as a rookie before missing most of his second season with injury. Both Ingram and Attaochou, who was a second round pick last year, missed significant time in 2014. The organization is counting on their two talented young players to step up big. If they can stay healthy, it just may happen.

The Chargers used a fifth round pick on Kyle Emanuel who dominated the small school competition during his career at North Dakota State. He is somewhat of a project but the coaching staff hopes his quick first step, explosive speed off the edge and some of his 19.5 sacks as a senior, will translate to the next level.

  • ILB Donald Butler - Risky option with limited upside
  • ILB Manti Te'o - Could have breakout year if he lands a three down role
  • ILB Denzel Perryman - Sleeper with good long term potential
  • ILB Kavell Connor - No value
  • OLB Melvin Ingram - Late round sleeper with upside in big play leagues
  • OLB Jeremiah Attaochu - Sleeper with long term potential in big play scoring
  • OLB Tourek Williams - No value
  • OLB Kyle Emanuel - Deep dynasty sleeper

Defensive Backs

Eric Weddle is one of the few fantasy friendly free safeties working behind 3-4 fronts. Week to week inconsistency was an issue for him in terms of fantasy value early in his career, but his production over the past three seasons has been enough to make anyone a believer. Weddle's big play totals were down a bit in 2014 but he finished the season as the league’s second leading tackler among defensive backs. His 91-23-0, 3 turnovers and 8 passes defended were enough to make Weddle a top ten defensive back for the fifth time in his eight years as a pro, and the third season in a row. He recently told reporters this may be his last year in San Diego but we should not read too much into that. Chances are it is the rumblings of a good player wanting more money. The Chargers look to be improved at inside linebacker so we should not count on 90 solo stops again in 2015, but 80+ and a few more big plays are reasonable expectations. Weddle is 30 years old and has several good years left. He should be among the top five defensive backs off the board this summer.

Marcus Gilchrist is gone leaving the Chargers with an opening at strong safety. Third year man Jahleel Addae saw a good amount of work at safety in the Chargers big nickel (three safety) sub packages last season. He will have an opportunity to win the job, but it may ultimately go to free agent addition Jimmy Wilson. Over the past three seasons Wilson has been working mostly as a nickel back for the Dolphins. In 2014 he made eight starts as an injury replacement at safety. In those games Wilson averaged 9.8 points a game. He is a strong coverage guy who is not afraid to put a lick on the ball carrier in run support. It has been several years since the Chargers last gave us a useful strong safety. It would be interesting to see if Wilson could end the streak.

Corner Brandon Flowers is a better NFL player than fantasy option. Consistent with the rookie corner rule, Flowers fantasy value was excellent in his rookie season (2008). As his tackle numbers dropped steadily from 62 in his first year to 40 in his fifth, his point totals declined with them. Flowers was 48-4-0 with 3 picks and 10 passes defended in fourteen games last year. Over a full slate of games he should be productive enough to provide value as depth in leagues starting two corners, but there is not a lot of upside.

Jason Verrett will start opposite Flowers. Last year's first round pick started the first three games before suffering an injury that would eventually land him on IR. Verrett is a little on the small side but is a tough, tenacious player with blazing speed, excellent athleticism and good instincts. He plays bigger than his 5'10" 178 pound stature and is more than willing in run support. Add in his knack for the big play (he led the Big 12 in interceptions in 2012) and you have a player with the tools to succeed on the field and in the box scores. When you consider how little he actually played in his first season, offensive coordinators are going to look upon Verrett as a rookie. We know what that means.

That does it for this year's initial columns. The first round of preseason action kicks off shortly. Over the next few weeks I will be looking for answers to a lot of questions as well as confirmation on a lot of what we think we know. The plan is to have an update available before preseason round two. and possibly another one before week one. In the meantime, best of luck in those upcoming drafts and be sure to check back often. In the end we all have the same goal, Just Win Baby!