Win. Your. League.

Receive 3 Free Downloads More Details

Eyes of the Guru, Part 5: NFC East

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

Dallas Cowboys

Defensive Linemen

The Cowboys pass rush could only muster 28 sacks last season. A fact that undoubtedly contributed to their 25th ranked pass defense. If they fail to make substantial improvement in either area this season, it will not be for lack of investment. In the 2014 draft Dallas used a second round pick on Boise State standout Demarcus Lawrence. This year they invested another second round selection on Nebraska star Randy Gregory, along with significant free agent money on veteran stud Greg Hardy. Once everyone is healthy and suspensions are served, Hardy is going to hold one of the starting jobs. He was suspended nearly all of last season but a look back at 2012 and 2013 gives us a good idea what Hardy is capable of. Over those two seasons he totaled 82-40-28 with 4 turnovers and 3 batted passes. At 26 years old Hardy is in the prime of his career physically. After sitting out last season he is chomping at the bit to get back in action. His initial ten game suspension has been shortened to four so far. As of mid July Hardy is considering action to have it reduced even further. Chances are the four games will stick, but we will now have him available in time to be a major factor during the regular season. Drop Hardy down your draft list a few slots due to the suspension, but keep in mind that he will be active and fresh come week five. It would sure be nice to have a guy like this in your lineup for the playoff run.

The organization's high expectations for Lawrence took a hit when he suffered a broken foot early in training camp last summer. He returned from short term IR in week nine but was not able to make much of an impact. Lawrence did however, gain some much needed experience. Most scouts graded him among the best edge rushers in his draft class. A look at his production over his final two years with the Broncos, makes it easy to understand why. In 2012 and 2013 Lawrence combined to total 20 sacks and 7 forced fumbles for Boise State. The knock on him coming out of college was his difficulty holding ground at the point of attack. Lawrence will be given every opportunity to show improvement in that area and to earn a spot in the starting lineup. He is all but certain to have some sort of role in the rotation. It will be no surprise if he is ultimately relegated to pass rush duties in sub packages.

Gregory was a junior college transfer who played two years at Nebraska. He is a huge talent from a physical perspective and had the numbers to match. In twenty four games with the Huskers he was 63-57-17.5 with 4 turnovers and a score. Gregory is versatile, having worked from multiple positions including inside linebacker and defensive tackle. He is tall lanky player who holds up well versus the run despite checking in at around 240 pounds. Gregory does an excellent job of staying on his feet and sifting through traffic. His ability to shed blockers and make hits led to his being Nebraska's third leading tackler in 2014. He has the potential to become a big time playmaker for the Cowboys, but there are some concerns. Gregory missed the entire 2012 season with a broken leg. In 2014 he sat out two games with a knee injury and was limited in two others. He came out of school as a junior with limited experience against division one competition. Due to his size, most scouts projected Gregory as an outside linebacker in a 3-4, suggesting he could struggle against the run at the pro level. There are also off field issues as Gregory tested positive for marijuana more than once while at Nebraska and again at the combine. All things considered, this is a player I am high on. The Dallas defense should be much improved overall and I see Gregory as a player who will have an impact. With some hard work in the weight room Gregory should be able to add a few pounds of muscle to his frame without impacting his quickness or speed. And finally, Dallas has plenty of experience keeping troubled players on track, so the off field issues are not going to scare me away. He may not be a three down player as a rookie but it will be a shock if he does not have a significant role. Gregory could develop into a 40+ tackle and double digit sack guy by the second season.

One player fantasy owners should not totally discount for 2015 is Jeremy Mincey. He is not a dominating player and will never be a 40 tackle double digit sack guy, but he will figure prominently into the Cowboys plans this year. Mincey started all sixteen games for Dallas last season at right end. His numbers were not particularly impressive at 19-17-6, but it is noteworthy that all six of his sacks came over the final nine games. As a starter for the Jaguars in 2011 and 2012, Mincey totaled 75-23-11 with 9 turnovers and 6 batted passes. He missed significant time with injury in 2013. Mincey is a solid three down option who can shift inside in sub packages, adding some pop to the Cowboys pass rush from the tackle position. In fact, it would not be a shock for the coaching staff to shift Mincey inside permanently at some point. He should open the season as the starting right end. What the team does with him once Hardy is back in action, remains to be seen. At the least Mincey is worth a spot at the end of a roster in deeper leagues.

The Cowboys interior line positions gave us little in 2014. Tyrone Crawford led the group in box score production at 21-10-3. He and Nick Hayden (17-21-0) are penciled in as the starters with Terrell McClain working as the third man in the rotation as he did most of last season. In 2014 Crawford started the first three games at left end. He produced all of 1 tackle in those games. After shifting inside his box score totals improved. Over the final five games Crawford was 11-2-3 with a forced fumble. Granted those are hardly impressive totals, but they are not bad for an interior lineman. Based on his improving numbers down the stretch and the team's anticipated improvements on the outside, Crawford could see enough of a bump in production to be a decent second starter in tackle required leagues.       

Linebackers

There is a ton of box score potential to be found at the linebacker level in Dallas. This is the one thing we know for sure. Where it will come from is a bit less certain. If Sean Lee can manage to stay healthy for an entire season, he could be huge both for the Cowboys and fantasy owners. Over his last sixteen games Lee has recorded 103-50-0 with 8 turnovers, 9 pass breakups and a score. The problem is, we have to go all the way back to the beginning of 2012 to count those sixteen contests. Lee was the team's second round pick in 2010 and has yet to play a full slate of games in any single season. He has not taken a meaningful snap since week fourteen of 2013, and has not finished a game since week nine of that season. Lee missed all of last year with a knee injury but is expected to be ready to go when training camp opens. He will shift from middle linebacker to the weak side in 2015. There are a couple of good reason for the move. On the weak side he will not have to take on blockers as regularly. The coaching staff hopes lightening the physical load will help Lee stay healthy. The other big reason being, Lee's skill set should fit perfectly at the position where his speed and playmaking ability can help him to excel. Lee will produce at a top twelve pace so long as he remains healthy, but counting on him as an every week starter would risky. He should be available late enough on draft day to be picked in the area of a third starter or possibly even as an LB4. At that price he is most definitely worth the risk.

Rolando McClain was the number eight overall pick in 2010. After three mostly disappointing seasons in Oakland, he was out of the league in 2013. A rash of injuries in Dallas last year prompted the organization to reach out to McClain, who jumped at the second chance. McClain's role and box score production were somewhat inconsistent on a week to week basis last season, but his overall totals of 65-16-1 with 3 turnovers in thirteen games was not bad. He graded out well in all aspect of the game and was set to be the Cowboys starting middle linebacker in 2015. After learning McClain will sit the first four games due to suspension, the team may have some second thoughts about his role. There are reports of a growing level of frustration within the organization when it comes to McClain. Some feel his suspension was a slap in the face after the team gave him a second chance. As it stands now McClain is set to reclaim the starting spot once his suspension is served, but there is no assurance he will have an every down role. In fact, there are some who believe he could be released if Jasper Brinkley plays well or rookie fourth round pick Damien Wilson steps up. McClain may be worth an end of the draft flier in some leagues but I would suggest avoiding him at this point. There is simply not enough upside to warrant the risk.

Brinkley is a serviceable veteran option with a fair amount of starting experience from his five years in Minnesota. He is a strong two down run defender but has been marginal at best in coverage. With Lee and second year man Anthony Hitchens in the mix, Brinkley's chances of landing a three down role are slim. It is highly unlikely he will have much fantasy value but Brinkley could give the organization enough confidence to go ahead and let McClain go. At worst he gives the team an aspect of quality depth they were missing in 2014.

Damien Wilson could be an interesting prospect for dynasty owners. Most scouts stopped well short of a glowing review when talking about his athletic prowess and measurable traits, but he was a productive football player over his two seasons as a starter for the Gophers. As a senior he went 63-56-4 with a pair of turnovers and a batted pass. He is a smart player who is relentless in pursuit and is solid in zone coverage. Most of Wilson's contribution as a rookie will likely come on special teams, but he is worth keeping an eye on as a developmental option.

Last year's fourth round pick Anthony Hitchens is an ace in the hole for Dallas. He may prove to be one for fantasy owners as well in 2015. As a rookie Hitchens was wildly inconsistent in the box scores from week to week, though it was no fault of his own. His role seemed to change on an almost weekly basis. over the course of the season Hitchens made starts at all three linebacker positions. Often he was in a two down role but when he was allowed to play full time, the rookie was box score gold. In all Hitchens was on the field for 623 snaps or about 59% of the team's defensive plays. That consideration puts a different perspective on his box score totals of 59-16-0 with 4 passes defended and a pick. Hitchens played close to full time in four games. In three of those four he recorded at least 8 solo stops. The plan entering 2015 seems to be for Hitchens to start on the strong side. That is dismal news for fantasy owners, but at least he will be a three down linebacker for the first four games. If Lee goes down, Hitchens would likely move to the weak side where he reached double digit solo tackles twice last year. If everyone stays healthy this year Hitchens has a good shot to be a three down strong side backer all season. I believe he will ultimately end up in a full time role at middle backer if Lee is healthy and on the weak side if Lee is not. If Hitchens is currently on your dynasty roster, patience is advised. For redraft owners, pick him up late as an LB4 or LB5 and keep an eye on the Cowboys training camp reports.        

Defensive Backs

After three years of relative obscurity to start his career, Barry Church exploded in 2013. At a 6'2" 218 pounds he is a good, physical in the box strong safety but it was the situation that set him up for such success. Opportunity is everything when it comes to box score production. In 2013 the Cowboys were horrible in the front seven. Thus Church had enough opportunity to rack up 107 solo stops, leading the league's defensive backs in both tackles and fantasy points by a large margin. At this point last summer it seemed as if Dallas might be just as bad in 2014. As it turned out, the Cowboys played much better than anticipated. As a result Church's point totals crashed back to reality. At 77-20-0 with 4 turnovers, Church led the Cowboys in tackles, landing among the top twenty defensive backs in fantasy points. Dallas has added talent in the front seven so the defense may show even more improvement as a unit in 2015, but I have a hard time believing Church will fall out of the top twenty. Target him as a safe pick mid level DB2.

J.J. Wilcox won the starting free safety job in his second year as a pro. At 6'0" and 212 pounds, he combines the frame and physical nature of a strong safety with the cover skills and patience needed to play centerfield for the defense. Having been converted from a wide receiver as a senior at Georgia Southern, Wilcox has excellent ball skills. His first shot as a starter produced a respectable 62 solo tackles. The 6 takeaways and 5 passes defended added enough to make Wilcox a marginal third starter or quality depth in twelve team leagues that start three defensive backs. Rod Marinelli coached defenses have traditionally put up big turnover numbers and Wilcox appears to be an emerging big play threat. While tackle totals in the 60 range are about what we can expect from him going forward, a breakout in the big play columns this season would not be a surprise. Week to week inconsistency could continue to be an issue for fantasy owners, but I expect Wilcox's overall point totals to go up a little in 2015.          

It has been a long time since Dallas last gave fantasy owners a useful option at corner. That trend was not broken in 2014. Brandon Carr and 2012 first round pick Morris Claiborne were the week one starters. When Claiborne was lost to injury in week four, nickel corner Orlando Scandrick moved up the depth chart. He went on to lead the team's corners in tackles with 50 and fantasy points with an average of 8.1 per week. Claiborne should be back in action at the beginning of camp, but is not a lock to reclaim a starting job. His performance prior to the injury was far below expectations and the team elected not to pick up his fifth year option. This could open the door for rookie first round pick Byron Jones to have a significant role right out of the gate. Jones was a safety at Connecticut before moving to corner as a senior. There are some scouts who believe he would be better as a free safety at the pro level. Jones is not the most physical player, but he has excellent cover skills and a fairly strong history of big play production, including 8 interceptions in forty three games with the Huskies. There is a strong chance Jones will open the season as the slot corner. He could however, claim a starting spot and push Scandrick back into the nickel role. If this scenario comes to pass, Jones would be a candidate for the rookie corner rule. Unfortunately this is the only way Dallas is likely to give us a roster worthy corner.     

New York Giants

Defensive Linemen

The Giants defensive line conversation has to start with the Jason Pierre-Paul saga. Speculation is running rampant when it comes to what we should expect from him and when we should expect it. About the only thing everyone agrees on at this point is he will eventually be able to play again. His index finger being amputated is only part of the issue. That injury should heal sufficiently by the start of the regular season. There was other significant damage to the hand including a broken thumb, which could still be a problem come September. In 2014 Pierre-Paul's fantasy production was second only to J.J. Watt among defensive linemen. If not for the accident, an argument could have been made for Pierre-Paul to be the second defender off the board this year. He will get back on the field sometime this season and may eventually be the same productive player. At this point however, anyone who believes Pierre-Paul will not be affected in 2015 is living in a dream world. When a broken thumb heals it remains tender for a long time. The slightest bump or pressure in the wrong direction can be excruciating. On this I can speak from experience. A defensive end makes a living with his hands. It will be a while before everything is completely healed and even then Pierre-Paul will have to adjust. We should not write him off completely just yet, but I have dropped him well outside of my top ten linemen for now. This might be a good time to buy low in dynasty leagues.

As for how the Giants will cope with the Pierre-Paul situation; the injury happened too late in the league year for the team to do much from a personnel perspective. Fortunately they had already added talented prospect Owamagbe Odighizuwa in round three of the draft. The rookie may have more opportunity than expected in his first season. Injuries during his college career at UCLA may have been to blame for Odighizuwa lasting beyond the second round. He missed the entire 2013 season after having surgery on both hips. Odighizuwa returned to start all thirteen games in 2014, finishing at 41-20-6 with 5 batted passes. He is an excellent point of attack run defender who penetrates and gets off block quickly. As a pass rusher Odighizuwa is relentless and competitive, but is not particularly polished or talented. He will need to improve that past of his game to become an effective three down end at he pro level. If not for the Pierre-Paul situation, Odighizuwa would be considered a developmental prospect who would not be likely to make a significant contribution as a rookie. With the situation at hand, that could change.

The two players expected to shoulder most of the load while Pierre-Paul recovers are veteran Robert Ayers and third year pro Damontre Moore. Ayers is a former first round pick of the Broncos. He failed to live up to expectations in Denver, totaling 11.5 sacks in five seasons. He seemed to be a much better fit in the Giants scheme, going 18-4-5 with a forced fumble in twelve games as the team's third end last season. At a glance those numbers do not seem like much. When we consider Ayers played a total of 386 snaps, it changes the perspective a little. With Mathias Kiwanuka gone as well, Ayers is sure to have a much more significant role. He is a favorite to open 2015 as a starter with or without Pierre-Paul on the field. Ayers could be in for a breakout season but 30-35 tackles and 6-8 sacks are more realistic expectations. Pick him up as a solid DL3 with upside.

While Ayers spelled Kiwanuka at left end in 2014, Moore was working in at right end behind Pierre-Paul. Thus it would make sense for Moore to get the starting nod opposite Ayers if Pierre-Paul misses time. Moore is one of my favorite defensive line sleepers in 2015. He was exceptionally productive at Texas A&M where he graded out much higher than a third round pick in 2013. Moore declared for the draft after a junior season that saw him total 57 solo tackles with 28 assists and 12.5 sacks. He has a great motor and no one questioned his potential as a pass rusher, but despite the impressive tackle totals, Moore did not fare well as a point of attack run defender in college. Flash forward to last season when he was 25-7-5.5 on a mere 326 plays for the Giants. With an average of .30, Moore was among the top five linemen in fantasy football on a per snap basis in 2014. It is tough to anticipate how this will all play out. That said, I believe Moore could emerge as the next great player in a long line of great players at end in New York. He can still be picked up at a bargain price on draft day. Tuck him away as depth with upside but don't be surprised if he becomes an every week must start.

The Giants have given us several quality options at tackle over the years but none of them had placed among the top five until Johnathan Hankins did last season. As is the case with even the most productive tackles, Hankins was inconsistent from week to week. His final total of 30-21-7 is hard to argue with. Hankins finished among the top eight interior linemen in all three categories; eighth in tackles, fifth in assists and seventh in sacks. He demonstrated better than expected athleticism for a man of 320 pounds and proved to be much more significant as a pass rusher than anyone had dreamed he could be. All that remains now is for the 23 year old to prove his big season was not a one year wonder. Hankins is just entering the prime of his career physically and may become a perennial top ten interior lineman over the next decade.

Cullen Jenkins was a top twenty tackle in 2013. His production slipped last season even before he was injured in week seven. Mike Patterson stepped in to start while Jenkins was out, but Patterson is no longer with the team. Last year's third round pick Jay Bromley and third year pro Markus Kuhn move up the depth chart and could challenge Jenkins for playing time this summer. Whoever enters September as the starter next to Hankins, could have some value as a second starter or quality depth in tackle required leagues. We will be keeping an eye on this one when camp opens.    

  • DE Damontre Moore - Sleeper with big upside 
  • DE Jason Pierre-Paul - Major injury concerns in the short term
  • DE Robert Ayers - Solid DL3 with low end DL2 potential
  • DE George Selvie - injury sleeper at best
  • DE Owa Odighizuwa - Dynasty prospect with long term potential
  • DT Cullen Jenkins - Low end DT2 or solid DT3 if he can keep the job
  • DT Johnathan Hankins - Quality DT1 if he can come close to last year's production
  • DT Jay Bromley - Sleeper with DT3 upside
  • DT Kenrick Ellis - No value
  • DT Markus Kuhn - Possible low end DT2 if he can win a starting spot

Linebackers

It has been a long time since the Giants were considered strong at the linebacker position in either NFL or fantasy terms. They still have a way to go but could be headed in the right direction is everyone can stay healthy in 2015. The projected starting lineup has Jon Beason in the middle with Jameel McClain on the strong side and second year pro Davon Kennard at weak side. Beason is the key to success among this group for the Giants, but all three of these players have box score potential.

It seems as if Beason has been in the league for an eternity. In reality the 30 year old will be entering his ninth season. Over the first three he racked up 328 solo tackles, hitting triple digits each year, while averaging 4 turnovers, a sack and 7 passes defended. Beason's fourth year saw his tackle totals slip a bit, but he remained a solid starter for fantasy owners. In 2011 he suffered an Achilles' injury in week one and it all fell apart from there. From 2011 to 2014 Beason has played 23 of a possible 64 games. Fourteen of those games were with the Giants in 2013 when he was acquired in a trade and plugged in as the starting middle linebacker. His tackle totals were good at 75-32, but Beason was able to put just a single mark in the big play columns. Last summer he was two years removed from the knee injury and everyone had big expectations, when a toe injury suffered during offseason activities turned into a major problem. Beason started three games before landing on IR yet again. At last report he was expected to be a full participant when camp opens. If he can stay on the field, Beason has the potential to be a solid second starter. Most owners have all but written him off, causing a drop into the LB4 or lower range in most drafts this summer. Beason is a serious risk but is a player who will come at a value price and carries plenty of upside. Pick him up to fill your final linebacker slot and keep your fingers crossed every time he is in your lineup.      .        

For fantasy owners, Kennard may be the guy to have here. His rookie season got off to a slow start when he sat out nearly all of the first six games due to injury. Kennard returned to the field in week seven as a two down strong side linebacker. Over three games in that role he was on the field for 73 total snaps, which is roughly equal to one full game of action. With that opportunity Kennard produced a respectable 7-2-0. In week eleven he was moved to the weak side and given considerably more playing time. Kennard saw action in some but not all sub packages. In his six games with that role he was on the field for almost 86% of the defensive snaps, posting 29-5-4.5 with a pair of forced fumbles and a batted pass. Average those number over a full season and we get something like 78-16-12 with 6 turnovers in a less than every down role. Come week one of the preseason, we will be watching intently to see if his production and a year of experience are enough to land Kennard a full time job. If that is the case, he could be a major breakout player. This is another guy who will slide well into the LB4 range in most drafts. Pick him up as depth and hope for more. At worst he should be a roster worthy pick up as a bye week filler.

Even McClain has fantasy potential if things fall right. By "fall right", I mean if Beason is injured again. McClain started thirteen games at middle backer last season. He was a three down player in all of those games, averaging slightly better than eleven fantasy points a week. He is not a big upside guy but McClain is a capable three down option who is stout versus the run. He can contribute more as a pass rusher than in coverage, but is not a huge liability if called upon to drop. There is certainly no one on the Giants current roster who would be better suited for the job behind Beason. McClain will open training camp as the starting strong side linebacker. As of mid July the jury is still out on his sub package participation. In the event he is a three down SLB, McClain could still be decent depth in most twelve team leagues starting three linebackers.     

Once you get beyond the three projected starters, the Giants are hurting. Mark Herzlich is a serviceable veteran backup with experience in the middle and on the strong side. J.T. Thomas had an opportunity to start some games in Jacksonville last season but failed to impress. He would probably be the top backup on the weak side. Jonathan Casillas is career backup with a few starts under his belt entering his seventh season. There are several other names on the depth chart entering camp. Most of them will not be on the final roster. The bottom line here for the Giants is, they really need everyone to make it through the season healthy. For fantasy owners; let us see what the preseason brings.              

Defensive Backs

Antrel Rolle was the lone Giants defensive back to exceed 41 solo tackles in 2014. He is working for the Bears in 2015. For that matter, the Giants top three safeties from last year will have new jobs this season. This is not to suggest there will be no fantasy value in New York's secondary, only that we will have to look a bit closer to recognize it. Let me start by pointing out the Giants do not use a strict strong and free safety alignment. Sometimes they play right and left safeties; other times they appear to be matching up with offensive players. The bottom line being the safeties in this scheme need to be somewhat interchangeable. With the team's struggles at linebacker in recent years, it has not been unusual to see both Giants safeties post useful numbers. This happened as recently as 2012 when both Rolle and Stevie Brown were top 25 defensive backs. It is safe to expect at least one of the New York safeties will land among the top twenty this year. The lead candidate for that distinction is rookie second round pick Landon Collins.       

I could take the time to write out all the awards and accolades Collins won over his two years as a starter for Alabama. The bottom line being the guy was good. At 6'0" and 228 pounds, he is a safety trapped in the body of a linebacker. Mike Mayock called Collins "the best in the box safety in this year's draft. He diagnoses running plays quickly and has sideline to sideline range, is a physical tackler who forced 3 fumbles over his two seasons as a starter and was a tackling machine with 112 solo stops and 61 assists over the past two years. He lacks great hands but managed 5 interceptions over his last 27 starts as well. Collins is hands down the best fantasy prospect at the safety position among this year’s rookies. If all that is not enough to get us interested, take into consideration Rolle averaged 76 solo tackles over his five season at the position, never finishing with fewer than 71. I am high on Collins for every reason from skill set to opportunity but there are two words that make me want to put up a caution sign; Kenny Phillips. As a rookie Phillips seemed to have everything going for him as well, but he never amounted to much on the field or in the box scores. The moral of this story; do not take Collins over a proven veteran option as your first or even second starter. If you can land him as a low end DB2 or priority DB3, you should be in excellent shape.

The other safety spot will be an open battle between second year man Nat Berhe, rookie fifth round pick Mykkele Thompson, converted veteran corner Chykie Brown and anyone else in a Giants uniform who weighs under 215 pounds. My money going in is on Berhe but this one could go anywhere. Keep an eye on the situation when camp opens and move on anyone who starts strong.

A glance at last year's totals will leave owners with the impression there was no value at the Giants corner positions in 2015. That is simply not the case. There were plenty of tackles to go around. The problem being, injuries caused them to be spread among nine players. Prince Amukamura broke out for 76 tackles 9 assists, 3 takeaways and 14 passes defended in 2013. Through eight contests last year he was on pace for 74-16 with 6 takeaways and 22 passes defended. Amukamura is healthy entering camp, so there is no reason to believe he will not pick up right where he left off as a quality low end CB1 or excellent second starter.

Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is an excellent cover corner and a reasonable big play threat, but he has never managed more than 49 tackles in a season. Trumaine McBride and Jayron Hosley will compete with a handful of other corners to determine the rest of the roster makeup and pecking order at the position.  

Philadelphia Eagles

Defensive Linemen

When Philadelphia switched to a 3-4 in 2013, their roster was already filled with players who seemed to fit the scheme. As a result it has not taken them long to become successful. In 2014 the Eagles were fourth against the run allowing 3.7 yards per rush, with only Buffalo putting up more than Philadelphia's 49 sacks. Excellent play up front has quickly become a cornerstone for a unit on the verge of becoming one of the league’s best. Fletcher Cox and Cedric Thornton are holdovers who played tackle in the Eagles 4-3 before the switch. Both are active and mobile 300+ pounders who fit the mold well as 3-4 ends. Both have also shown enough box score production to garner some attention from fantasy owners. In 2013 Thornton posted 48 solo tackles with 12 assists and a forced fumble, but just one sack. That was enough to make him at least somewhat useful to owners in deeper leagues, and to provide optimism for his future in fantasy terms. He failed to take the next step in 2014. Thornton's tackle totals slipped below the 40 mark, while he again managed a single sack. He has now recorded 1 sack in each of his three years in the league. Thornton is a valuable part of the Eagles success but we now have a big enough sampling of his production to confidently say he will not be a consistent fantasy factor.

Just the opposite can be said about Cox. As a 4-3 tackle in his rookie season (2012) he was 32-7-5.5 with a forced fumble and 5 batted passes. Cox was a player who seemed to have the skill set and potential to become one the few highly productive 3-4 ends. After the scheme switch his 2013 totals were disappointing at 29-12-3, but a second season under defensive coordinator Bill Davis brought numbers more in line with expectations. Last season Cox jumped all the way to 49-13-4, adding 4 turnovers and a score. Lending even more optimism for his future value is the fact all four of his sacks were recorded over the second half of the season. Cox has shown no sign of becoming a double digit sack guy, but 45+ solo stops and 5-7 sacks are realistic expectations in 2015.

One major contributor to Thornton's slide last season was the emergence of Vinny Curry as a situational pass rusher. Curry was a second round pick by the previous coaching regime in 2012. He was drafted to play end in a 4-3 so it was unclear where he would fit in the new scheme. The new coaching staff took a look at Curry as an outside linebacker but elected not to use him at that position. Instead he was given the role of pass rush specialist, working at end in the team's sub packages. In 2013 Curry managed 17-5-4 while playing on roughly 25% of the team's defensive snaps. His playing time increased to over 30% of the snaps in 2014 (mostly at the expense of Thornton). Curry's tackle totals remained about the same, but his big play production jumped considerably to 9 sacks with 4 forced fumbles and a recovery. Unless he can somehow gain a more significant chunk of the playing time, Curry's low tackle totals will continue to render him all but useless to all but those owners in big play based leagues. 

Nose tackle Bennie Logan is the only starter up front to be drafted specifically for his role in the 3-4. As a rookie in 2013 Logan made his first start in week nine. He has not missed a regular season start since. Logan does not provide much in the way of a pass rush or big plays. His two career sacks came when he was a rotational player early in 2013. He is however, an excellent run stuffer with a rare ability to get off double teams and make tackles in close quarters. In 2014 Logan led the league's interior linemen with 45 solo stops. With 12 assists, a forced fumble and no sacks, he was still a top ten tackle. The limited body of work makes it tough to say for certain if 40+ tackles will be the norm for Logan. I can say, it is unlikely he will go through another full season with so few big plays. My current projections have him coming in at 43-11-1.5 with a forced fumble and a pass deflection. I expect he will continue to be a decent starter in tackle required leagues.

Linebackers

With the Eagles trading for Kiko Alonso and letting Trent Cole walk via free agency, there will be some evolution at the linebacker positions in 2015. Alonso lit up the box scores as a rookie with the Bills in 2013, posting 87-72-2 with a solid 7 turnovers on the way to a top ten finish. There are some who believe he will be less productive in Philadelphia. Their reasoning is understandable, but I am not necessarily in agreement. The stats crew in Buffalo has been excessively generous with assist over the past several years, while the group in Philadelphia has been somewhat stingy with them. In 2014 for example; Bills players were credited with 304 assists while Eagles players were awarded 206. Another perspective suggests there is more competition for tackles in Philadelphia than Alonso had in Buffalo. This may also be a valid point, but let us not overlook the fact DeMeco Ryans was 103-25-4 in 2013 playing next to Mychal Kendricks who was 81-25-4. There is also an equalizer in the fact Philadelphia's stats crew awarded 70 more solo stops last season than did Buffalo's. Alonso is coming back from a knee injury that shut down his 2014 season before it started. With almost a full year to rehab, he is expected to be near 100% for the opening of camp. Alonso is a physical, aggressive three down linebacker with a knack for the big play. He will provide a much needed upgrade in coverage at the position as well. I can see Alonso possibly slipping out of the top ten if the knee hinders him at all, and will stop short of ranking him among the elite, but I still believe he is a quality LB1.

As of mid July there "officially" remains some uncertainty about who will start at the inside linebacker positions. Having given up one of the game's premier running backs to get Alonso, it is safe to bet on him as one of them. Mychal Kendricks projects to be the other. The Eagles second round pick in 2012 earned a three down role when the team switched to the 3-4 two years ago. That season he burst onto the fantasy scene going 81-25-4 with a whopping 9 turnovers in fourteen games, reaching double digit fantasy points in eleven of them. Kendricks ended the 2013 season as a top fifteen linebacker overall with a top twelve in average points per week. He missed four games with injury last year but the tackle numbers and points per game average remained steady. Chip Kelly wants to load his defense with playmakers and Kendricks clearly fits than mold. He excels as an inside pass rusher, is effective in coverage and is a more than capable run defender. In short, there is nothing about his game to suggest Kendricks will not be a three down starter again in 2015. There may be a bit of risk as NFL coaches often make head scratching decisions, but Kendricks should continue to be a dependable second starter for us going forward.   

DeMeco Ryans is the wildcard here. He had a big 2013 in the new 3-4 but did not look the same over the first half of last season. In week five Ryans was pulled from some of the passing down sub packages. In week ten he landed on IR with the second torn Achilles' of his career. He is expected to be ready for training camp but the Alonso trade and emergence of a young Kendricks, has Ryans role for the upcoming season unclear at best. On the other hand, coach Kelly has stated Ryans will be with the team this year and the $6.9 million he is set to make in 2015 is hardly backup money. Time will tell here, but it will be a surprise if Ryans is a starter in Philadelphia. He will be 31 years old in late July and still has some game, so we could see a trade or a restructure. If neither of those possibilities come to pass, Ryans could be a training camp cap casualty. If he is currently on your roster, I would not be in too big a hurry to let him go. Should Ryans somehow land in the right situation he can still be a productive player.

There is no guess work needed at the Eagles outside linebacker positions, where Brandon Graham and Connor Barwin are the clear cut starters. Barwin is coming off what was by far the best season of his five year career. The former second round pick of the Texans was signed as a free agent in 2013 to help usher in the new scheme. His three seasons at outside backer in the Houston 3-4 ended with mixed results. In 2011 Barwin reached 34 tackles and 11.5 sacks. In 2012 the sack total slumped to 3, causing the Texans to let him walk. In Barwin's first year with Philadelphia he set a new best in solo stops with 44 and passes defended at 12, but his pass rush struggles continued when he managed 4 sacks. Last season Barwin did more rushing the passer and less dropping into coverage, resulting in a monster 47-17-14.5 with a couple of forced fumbles. Year to year inconsistency is reason to proceed with care, but Barwin seems to have found his place in the Eagles aggressive scheme. The 40+ tackles in consecutive seasons is a positive sign and he seems set to become a perennial double digit sack guy. He should continue to be a fine starting option for owners in big play based leagues.

When the Eagles announced the move to a 3-4, my esteemed colleague Jene Bramel became the lead spokesman for the "Free Brandon Graham" movement. Since being picked by the Eagles in round one of the 2010 draft, Graham has been a huge tease for fantasy owners. This is a player with the talent and potential to be a consistent 40 tackle and double digit sack guy. As a rookie he was mired on the depth chart behind Trent Cole, Darryl Tapp and Juqua Parker. That season he recorded 3 sacks on a greatly limited number of opportunities. Instead of a promotion in his second season, Graham found himself pushed further down the depth chart by the free agent addition of Jason Babin, who went on to rack up 18 sacks. The Andy Reid regime finally began to see the light in 2012, making Graham the third man in the defensive end rotation to start the season. He was finally promoted to starter in week twelve that year, going 18-5-4 with a forced fumble over the final five games. Just when it seemed Graham had finally arrived, Reid was fired and Chip Kelly brought the 3-4 to town. One of Kelly's first moves was to sign Barwin, once again pushing Graham into a backup role. With his rookie contract expiring at the end of last season Jene and I (and the rest if the IDP community) were ready to throw a party in anticipation of Graham's "escape" from Philadelphia. Instead the organization let Cole move on, resigning Graham to a fat new multi-year contract and making him a starter... at linebacker. There is little doubt he will be successful in this role, but his value as a 3-4 OLB is dwarfed by what it would have been had he signed to play end in a 4-3. Jene and I have burned the "Free Brandon Graham" t-shirts and bumpers stickers and have now moved on.          

Philadelphia picked up Texas linebacker Jordan Hicks in the third round this year. He played on the outside in the Longhorns 4-3 but may shift inside at the pro level. This addition is another sign of a possible departure by Ryans. Hicks has the physical traits, intelligence and work ethic to be a quality starter at some point. He is not particularly talented as a pass rusher though, recording 3.5 sacks as a senior and 5.5 over his 42 game career at Texas. Last year's first round selection Marcus Smith played a total of 74 snaps as a rookie, failing to show up at all in the box scores. He is expected to step up and claim the role of third man at OLB this season. Smith has a good deal of upside but it may be a while before he has an opportunity to start.           

Defensive Backs

The Philadelphia defense did a lot of things well in 2014. Defending the pass was not one of those things. At 7.8 yards per attempt, they ranked twenty eighth. Thus the secondary was a major point of emphasis over the offseason. Despite the loss of starting free safety Nate Allen to free agency, there were strangely no significant additions at safety. The Eagles did however, add a total of six players at the corner position. Both of last year's opening day starters (Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams) are gone, leaving a wide open competition for both starting jobs. Free agent addition Byron Maxwell enters camp as the favorite to land one of the spots. He is the favorite simply because he was a starter for the Super Bowl runner-up Seahawks last season. Maxwell is a fifth year player who has never been healthy for more than thirteen games and has exactly one year of experience as a starter. He is hardly a proven player and may have managed to capitalize on an opportunity not of his making.

Nolan Carroll and Brandon Boykin both spent time as the Eagles slot corner in 2014. That job eventually stayed with Boykin as Carroll was moved to safety. With no new help at safety, Carroll may be in the mix to start at one of those spots. Boykin started three games as an injury replacement in 2013. He was the slot corner over the rest of that season as well, finishing with an impressive 17 passes defended, 6 interceptions and a pair of forced fumbles. The 2012 fourth round pick is not particularly big or physical at 5'10" 185 pounds, but he plays with great effort and is not afraid to put a shoulder into a ball carrier in run support. Philadelphia corners have a lot of opportunity as opponents try to keep up with the Eagles fast paced offense. Both Williams and Fletcher put up more than 50 solo stops last season. If Boykin lands one of the starting spots, he may push 60 with enough big play production to be a strong second starter in corner required leagues.

Then there is the rookie contingent that includes second round selection Eric Rowe, and a pair of sixth round picks, JaCorey Shepherd and Randall Evans. Shepherd is a former receiver with impressive ball skills, but needs time to improve technically before he is ready to make a serious contribution. Evans is also a developmental guy who displayed excellent ball skills in college. He was a career slot corner for Kansas State and may be in the mix for that same job with the Eagles if Boykin is promoted.

Rowe is an interesting prospect for the Eagles. He spent three years as the starting free safety at Utah before moving to corner as a senior. At 6'1" and 205 pounds he is a big physical corner with the ability to play press coverage and disrupt timing routs. Rowe was not impressive statistically during his college career, totaling 3 interceptions in four seasons with a career best of 42 solo tackles, but his 36 pass breakups is eye catching. If he lands a starting job on the outside, the rookie corner rule could come into play. As a safety he would have to show us something first.     

Carroll and Rowe could figure into the equation at safety, as could any of the several long shot placeholders currently filling out the depth chart. Malcolm Jenkins is the only sure starter with third year man Earl Wolff the favorite for the other spot. Jenkins started all sixteen games last season, fifteen of them at strong safety. The former Saints starter has never recorded more than 65 solo tackles in a season but his big play contributions have made up much of the difference. At 63-16-0 with five turnovers, 14 passes defended and a score, Jenkins was a top fifteen defensive back in 2014. he should post comparable numbers this year.

Wolff was the Eagles fifth round selection in 2013. As a rookie he played in eleven games with six starts before landing on IR with a knee injury. In the five games he started and finished, Wolff was fairly productive, going 21-4-0 with a pick and 3 passes defended. The knee injury continued to be an issue last season, eventually forcing a second surgery. Wolff is finally healthy and we should not overlook the fact he was a pick made by the current regime. He is not worthy of a roster spot at this point but is a player we will want to keep on our watch list early in the season. 

Washington

Defensive Linemen

The design and responsibilities of a 3-4 scheme make it difficult in general for linemen to be productive in the box scores. Washington's defensive linemen have been the poster children for fantasy frustration over the past several years. In 2011 Stephen Bowen was 20-22-6. In 2014 Chris Baker became the first to reach 20 solo tackles since. Baker finished at 25-15-1. Jason Hatcher was 34-7-11 with Dallas in 2013. After coming to Washington via free agency last year, he went 14-11-5.5 in thirteen games. It is not as if the organization has made no effort. There have been several early draft picks invested over the past decade, and a lot of free agent money but the results are always the same; solid yet unspectacular play with marginal box score production.

This year's attempt at improvement comes in the form of several free agent additions. Terrance Knighton comes over from Denver to man the starting nose tackle position. He is a powerful 331 pound road grader who can anchor the run defense but has little to offer in the box scores. Knighton has averaged 2 sacks a season over his six year career and last exceeded 20 solo tackles in 2010.

There is at least some potential for Stephen Paea to be productive. The former second round pick of the Bears is coming off the best season of his four year career. He was 24-9-6 with Chicago in 2014. Paea is expected to join Hatcher in the starting lineup. Paea could prove to be a great fit as a 3-4 end. He would seem to have a suitable skill set for the job but has shown nothing over his young career to suggest he can be special.

Washington also added Ricky Jean-Francois and Jerrell Powe in free agency. Jean-Francois is a 3-4 veteran who will work into the rotation at end. After five years in the league he is still looking for his first 20 tackle season and has a career best of 3 sacks. Powe will spell Knighton at nose tackle after spending the first four years of his career as a backup in Houston.

Hatcher is probably the closest thing Washington has to a lineman with fantasy potential. The 33 year old had one strong season in Dallas (2013) and cashed in with a big free agent contract. Hatcher has put up at least 4 sacks in each of the past four seasons and would probably be on a run of four straight years with 20+ solo tackles had he been healthy through all of 2014. He has the potential to approach 30 tackles with 7-8 sacks but is not a guy we should invest a roster spot in until he shows something.   

Linebackers

Many astute IDP owners will wait a few rounds to start filling their defensive rosters on draft day. These owners are able to take advantage of their IDP knowledge by landing excellent players who were overlooked or under appreciated by most. In many instances Keenan Robinson will be one of those value picks this summer. When London Fletcher retired, most of us expected Perry Riley to be the main beneficiary. Riley continued in his three down role as expected, but it was Robinson who really stepped up both on the field and in the box scores. The 2012 fourth round pick did little as a rookie. He then missed all of 2013 with an pectoral injury. Robinson returned to claim a starting job last summer, going on to steal the show in Washington. A glance at Robinson's 71-33-1.5 from last season will cause a lot of owners to undervalue him. They will not look close enough to realize he missed three games and most of a fourth. If we average his totals over a full sixteen games, Robinson's numbers look more like 92-43-2 with 3 turnovers and 4 passes defended. His 12 points a game average was among the fifteen best linebackers in 2014. Injuries have been a problem thus far in his short career and are a concern, but when healthy the guy produces like a top shelf LB2. He is healthy entering camp and if he stays that way, Robinson could be in for a breakout year.  

Those who were high on Riley last summer had to be a bit disappointed, but at least he was not a complete bust. With Robinson replacing Fletcher, everything basically remained the same for Riley. Neither his role nor his level of production changed much from what it had been the previous two seasons. Riley missed a couple of games but was on track to finish at about 68-39-3 with a couple of turnovers and 6 passes defended. Over the previous two years he had averaged 71-49-3, 2 turnovers and 8 passes defended. In the eternal words of Sterling Sharp, when a man shows you who he is, believe him. Depending on the league structure/scoring, Riley should continue to fall somewhere between a decent low end LB3 and a quality bye week fill in. One additional note here; in the three games Robinson missed last season, Riley averaged 8-3-0, a pass defended and 15.25 fantasy points. With Robinson's injury history, it could prove important to keep this in mind.   

Will Compton serves as the backup to both inside linebacker positions. He saw spot action replacing both Robinson and Riley over the course of last season. We saw enough of Compton to know he is a pretty dependable player in NFL terms and a pretty productive option for fantasy owners should one of the starters go down for the season. Compton made three starts near the end of 2014, going 25-13-0 combined, with a 5-4-0 being his lowest total. 

Even with the departure of Brian Orakpo, Washington is in excellent shape at outside linebacker. Ryan Kerrigan stepped right into a starting role as a rookie in 2011. He put up 40+ solo stops and at least 7.5 sacks in each of his first three seasons with the team. In 2014 he stepped it up a notch with career highs in tackles at 51, sacks at 13.5 and turnovers with 6. That was enough to make Kerrigan the fourth highest scoring 3-4 outside backer last season, and land him among the top twenty five linebackers in balanced scoring leagues. At age 26 Kerrigan is in the prime of his career physically. 50-15-12 may become the annual expectation for him going forward. At worst we know he can be counted on for 40 tackles and 8 sacks. In big play based leagues Kerrigan is a quality every week start. For everyone else he is a solid third option on most weeks.

Washington was not caught unprepared when Orakpo signed elsewhere. In 2014 they invested a second round pick in Trent Murphy and this year they used another second on Preston Smith. Murphy worked as the backup to Orakpo last season, gaining some experience while going 22-11-2.5 with 3 turnovers on 186 snaps. The organization is confident he is ready for a starting job in his second season and his production on a per snap basis supports their belief. Murphy is an unproven commodity, which will only serve to help him fall further on draft day. For owners in big play based leagues he could be a steal in the later rounds.

Smith was a 4-3 end at Mississippi State so he will need to find a comfort zone as an outside backer in the 3-4. To his advantage however, he was asked to drop in coverage as once in a while as part of the Bulldogs blitz packages. At 6'5" and 271 pounds, he is a big physical edge setter with a huge wingspan. Smith recorded 9 sacks as a senior and has the potential to develop into a three down starter. In the short term he will likely be groomed as the third man at outside backer, providing depth at both positions. With both Kerrigan and Murphy locked up for the next few years, Smith may have a hard time earning a more substantial role anytime in the near future.

  • ILB Perry Riley - Marginal third starter or quality depth
  • ILB Keenan Robinson - Solid LB2 with some injury risk
  • ILB Will Compton - Injury sleeper
  • ILB Martell Spaight - No value
  • OLB Ryan Kerrigan - Quality starter in big play based leagues, matchup based LB3 for everyone else
  • OLB Trent Murphy - Sleeper with starter potential in big play leagues
  • OLB Preston Smith - Dynasty sleeper who have to wait a while for an opportunity
  • OLB/ILB Adam Hayward - No value

Defensive Backs

Washington gives us more questions than answers at the defensive back positions. Of their four opening day starters in 2014, only David Amerson and DeAngelo Hall remain with the team, and they may both be backups come September. Over the course of his eleven years in the league, Hall has been a perennial top ten corner. He has exceeded 60 solo tackles five times in his career, putting up 50 or more in eight seasons. The only times Hall has fallen short of 50 tackles are his rookie campaign and a couple of injury seasons, including 2014. He landed on IR last year after suffering a torn Achilles against the Eagles in week three. There are some who insist the soon to be 32 year old was showing signs of decline even before the injury, and that he will struggle to reclaim his starting job. All my eyes saw from Hall in his brief appearance last season was 12 tackles, 4 assists and a pair of turnovers in less than three full games of action. He has been a limited participant in offseason activities and there has been discussion of a contract restructure, but the wily old veteran is expected to be ready for training camp. If he has fully recovered from the injury there is no reason to believe Hall will not be in mix for his old starting spot. There is clearly some risk involved, but he can be picked up late enough on draft day to be well worth the minimal investment.

Rookie fourth round pick Bashaud Breeland took over as Hall's full time replacement in week five. In twelve starts he was 49-9-0 with 13 passes defended and 4 turnovers. Just as important as his strong box score totals, Breeland was impressive on the field. So impressive in fact, Breeland has been penciled in as one of the starters entering camp. He does a good job in coverage, Has show the ability to make big plays and seems to relish the opportunity to support the run. In short, Breeland plays like a 23 year old version of Hall. That is good news for Washington and excellent news for fantasy owners in corner required leagues.

Washington added more competition at corner by signing former 49er Chris Culliver. The fourth year veteran was a starter over most of his three seasons in San Francisco, but has not proven to be anything special. Most prognosticators assume he will start opposite Breeland. That may ultimately be the case, but I do not necessarily see Culver as a better player than David Amerson, and most definitely do not believe he is a better option than a healthy Hall. We can speculate on this situation all the way through the summer. All we really know for sure is these four guys will be competing for two starting jobs. The losers will end up as nickel and dime backs and at least one of the starters is going to have good fantasy value. As of late July my money is on Breeland.              

The safety position is no closer to being settled. Last year’s opening day starters Ryan Clark and Brandon Meriwether are gone. Injury prone veteran free agent addition DaShon Goldson is penciled in at free safety with Phillip Thomas, Duke Ihenacho, Trent Robinson and Jeron Carter all vying for one of the starting spots as well. There are no clear cut favorites here. All we really know is the Washington safety positions provide a good deal of opportunity and they have a history of quality fantasy production. Four players made starts at these spots in 2014. The thirty five year old Clark started all sixteen games at free safety, finishing at 68-33-.5 with 3 turnovers. Meriwether, Thomas and Robinson combined to go 76-35-3 with 7 takeaways and 5 passes defended from the strong safety position.       

Ihenacho had a good run with Denver in 2013 but fizzled down the stretch. He was injured most of last season, having no opportunity to prove the early career hot streak was more than a mirage. Carter was a three year backup in Seattle. He is trying to parlay his membership on a Super Bowl team into a bigger opportunity after being stuck behind Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas for three seasons. Robinson was the sixth round pick of the 49ers in 2012 but was unable to stick in San Francisco. He is probably best suited to play free safety. That brings us to my favorite deep sleeper of the year at safety, Phillip Thomas. He was Washington's fourth round pick in 2013 and was working with the starters when a preseason foot injury ended his year. Thomas was not 100% early in 2014, but made it back to the field for a few games down the stretch. He is now fully recovered from the knee injury and set to pick up where he left off as a rookie. Thomas is a fast, physical big play threat who was identified by coach Gruden last summer as a possible long term answer at strong safety. As a senior at Fresno State Thomas recorded 84 combined tackles (12 for loss), 8 interceptions, four sacks and 3 forced fumbles. Best of all, no one knows who he is, so you can pick him up in the last round of your draft or as a cheap free agent. If you wait to see this guy in action there may be a lot of competition to get him. Stick Thomas on the end of your roster for safe keeping. If he fails to pan out there are always players to pick up in the first couple of weeks. If he does pan out, we could have as much as an excellent second starter in him.  

  • FS DaShon Goldson - Possible DB3 but comes with injury risk
  • SS Phillip Thomas - Sleeper with a high ceiling if he can claim the strong safety job
  • SS Duke Ihenacho - No value 
  • FS Trent Robinson - No value
  • CB Bashaud Breeland - Possible CB1 if he can hold onto the job
  • CB David Amerson - Minimal value
  • CB Chris Culver - minimal value
  • CB DeAngelo Hall - Possible CB2 if he can get healthy and reclaim his spot

And the NFC East is in the can! Next up, the AFC East