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Eyes of the Guru Preseason, Part 3: NFC North

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

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

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

Keep in mind that based on scoring systems, rankings will vary (sometimes greatly) from league to league. From time to time I will reference the "rookie corner rule". For those who are new to IDP or the EOTG, the rookie corner rule is basically the fact that in the NFL, starting a rookie at corner is like throwing chum to the sharks. Offensive coordinators will target young and inexperienced players as weaknesses, thus these guys have an accelerated number of opportunities. Most often these guys are the cream of the crop at the position (which is why they are starting so soon) and their numbers will begin to drop sharply after their rookie seasons. When I mention tackle numbers, I do not lump assists and solo tackles together. Unless I make a reference one way or the other, I am talking about solo tackles. When I talk about a total number of takeaways for a player, I am counting interceptions, fumble recoveries and fumbles forced since all of these score very similarly in most scoring systems.

Minnesota Vikings

Defensive Linemen

The Vikings are well on the way to becoming one of the league’s best defenses. Their success starts with a line which accounted for 32 of the team's 41 sacks. Breakout player Everson Griffen lead the way at 12. Over the first four years of his career Griffen recorded 17.5 sacks while playing some tackle and serving as the third man in the defensive end rotation. It did not take long for Mike Zimmer and the new coaching staff to recognize Griffen as a three down starter. Had he not played a little gimpy over the final month of the season, Griffen's numbers may have been even better. As it was he finished as a top five linemen in most leagues with a mark of 39-16-12, a forced fumble, 3 passes defended and a score. It would be nice to see a few more takeaways from him in 2015 but the important point here is Griffen is not a one year wonder. This is a guy who can consistently give us 40 tackles and double digit sacks. I expect him to be a perennial top ten lineman over the next several seasons. If he can improve at separating the quarterback from the ball on some of those sacks, we may even be talking about Griffen as one of the elite by the end of this season.

The story at the other defensive end position is much less inspiring. Brian Robison has been starting at that spot since 2011. For three years he consistently put up tackle numbers in the mid to upper twenty range with between 7.5 and 9 sacks. During that time prognosticators continually asked the question "is Robison really a starting quality player or is he simply reaping the benefit of playing opposite one of the greatest ends in NFL history (Jared Allen)"? Robison's stat line of 16-7-4.5 in 2014 may have answered that question. the 32 year old veteran will once again enter training camp as the starter. History tells us that Robison's fantasy production will be marginal at best. The fact Minnesota has used a pair of third round picks on defensive ends in the past two drafts, tells us the organization is looking for his replacement.

Scott Crichton and Danielle Hunter are those two third round picks. Crichton saw little action as a rookie, totaling 2 tackles and an assist. In three seasons as a starter for Oregon State he averaged 55 tackles and 7.5 sacks, so there is clearly some talent and potential here. The coaching staff expects considerable improvement from Crichton in his second season and would like to see him push Robison for playing time.

Hunter is the latest addition to the mix. This young man reminds me a lot of the Bengals Margus Hunt (who Zimmer had a hand in drafting). Both players are physical specimens with huge potential. Both are also raw talents with a lot to learn. Hunter's combination of size, athleticism and raw power draws comparison to Jason Pierre-Paul. He has the motor and tenacity to be a successful pro as well. It is the technical part of his game that scouts question. Hunter needs to develop more pass rush moves, then learn how to set up offensive linemen to make them work. Scouts point out a lack of instinct and suggest that he thinks too much instead of reacting. What stands out to me is the fact he had a sack and a half while playing about 80% of the defensive snaps for LSU last year. Hunter is a solid taxi squad candidate for dynasty owners but he is a long shot to make an impact in 2015.   
In Sharrif Floyd, Linval Joseph and Tom Johnson the Vikings have a formidable rotation on the inside. Floyd was the Vikings first round pick in 2013. He was a rotational player as a rookie, recording 9 tackles, 10 assists and 2.5 sacks while seeing action on about 40% of the team's defensive snaps. Floyd moved into a three down role in 2014 when he finished at 28-14-5 in fourteen games. Floyd is a powerful big man with rare quickness for a 300+ pound tackle. His numbers took a big jump in year two but the 23 year old has not yet played his best football. At worst he should repeat last year's top twelve finish among interior linemen. That said, Floyd is one of my favorite candidates for a breakout in 2015.

The soon to be 27 year old Joseph lacks Floyd's breakout potential but is established as a quality option for fantasy owners. The 2010 second round pick of the Giants has averaged 33-21-3 since becoming a starter in 2011. Last season was his first with the Vikings. The change of scenery had little effect on Joseph's production. In 2014 he was once again a top fifteen interior lineman at 29-19-3. Joseph gives way to the more nimble Tom Johnson in sub packages. Johnson took full advantage of the opportunity by totaling 14 tackles, 6 assists and a career best of 6.5 sacks in 2014. Should either of the starters go down, the team would not miss a beat. Johnson's size (6'3" 288) and somewhat impressive sack total from last season, have me wondering if he might get a look at end opposite Griffen?

Last year's seventh round pick Shamar Stephen also had a significant role in the rotation. He too made a good impression while getting on the field for nearly a third of the team’s defensive snaps. Optimism about Stephen's solid play is another factor that could allow the coaching staff to look into Johnson at end.                                    

Linebackers

Two short years ago we were talking about the Vikings patchwork approach at the linebacker position. Now the second level of the defense has become a crowded place. Chad Greenway has been a mainstay with the team for his entire ten year career. According to comments by coach Zimmer, Greenway is still the Vikings best linebacker and will continue to start on the weak side. There is a growing contingent of people who disagree. In fantasy terms Greenway has been outstanding throughout his career. Had he not missed all of four games and most of two others last season, he would likely be on a string of seven consecutive seasons with at least 80 solo stops. He is not what we would call a big play linebacker but Greenway has consistently made a contribution in those areas as well, averaging around 3 takeaways and 2 sacks a season. He turned 32 in January so age should not yet be a factor. What does concern me about Greenway is all the competition that now exists for tackles in Minnesota, and the possibility that he may not be a three down player any longer. I would expect Zimmer to stand by his veteran and keep him in an every down for the sake of experience. That said, the Vikings now have a trio of young players with strong sub package skills. At this point I am projecting Greenway to have his usual productive season, but I am watching closely for signs of coming change. Pick him up as a solid third starter but be careful not to skimp on quality depth just in case.    

At this time last year we were speculating how (and how much) the coaching staff would use Anthony Barr. As it turned out the prize rookie was an every down player right out of the gate. He lined up a strong side linebacker in base packages and worked as an outside pass rusher in sub packages. Injury cut Barr's rookie season short in week thirteen but we saw enough of the playmaker to know he is capable of big things. Prior to the injury he was on pace for roughly 74-17-5.5 and 5 turnovers. On the field he reminded some of a young Greenway. Barr is a talented young player who will be even better with a year of experience. While that may not show up so much in his tackle totals, he has just scratched the surface when it comes to big plays. Look for Barr to step up and possibly even blow up in 2015. Target him as a priority LB3 with high LB2 potential. 

Rookie middle linebacker Eric Kendricks is the other player who is sure to be a factor. He may well be the most talented player at the position in Minnesota since Jack Del Rio. Kendricks won the 2014 Butkus Award, which is presented to the best linebacker in college football. He had 10 or more tackles in eleven contest last season when he led the Bruins with 149. He is an intelligent, instinctive, high character player with excellent leadership properties. Solid combine results did nothing to hurt his draft stock. In fact, the only things scouts found to not like about this young man is his height (6'0") and less than stellar pass rush ability. Kendricks has excellent cover skills so the Vikings are not going to ask him to blitz very often, and there have been some great NFL linebackers who were six feet or shorter (see Zach Thomas and Sam Mills for starters). The only thing left for us to confirm is Kendricks participation in all the sub packages. Once we see that he has those duties, we can consider him this year's version of C.J. Mosley. Kendricks will slide into the low LB2 range or further in many redraft leagues simply because he is an unproven commodity. He would be a bargain at that price.   

Second year pros Gerald Hodges is also worth mention here. He was the team's fourth round pick in 2013 and has served as the backup to all three linebacker positions over the past two seasons. While Hodges has the versatility to play well any of the linebacker spots, his natural position is on the weak side. Excellent cover skills prompted both coaching staffs he has played under to make Hodges part of their sub packages. Many observers including some within the Vikings organization, believe he should be starting ahead of Greenway this year. If you pick up Greenway as one of your starters it might be wise to handcuff him with Hodges. At the least Hodges is worthy of a spot on the tail end of both redraft and especially dynasty league rosters. 

  • WLB Chad Greenway - Quality LB3 so long as he hold onto a three down role
  • MLB Eric Kendricks - Quality LB2 if he plays in sub package as expected 
  • SLB Anthony Barr - Strong LB3 with more value in big play based leagues 
  • WLB Gerald Hodges - Dynasty/injury sleeper with long term LB3 or better upside 
  • MLB Audie Cole - No value unless there is a rash of injuries

Defensive Backs

If not for an injury in 2013, free safety Harrison Smith would have ranked among the top three defensive backs in each of his three seasons as a pro. In 2014 he was the best in the fantasy game at the position. At 6'2" and 214 pounds, Smith brings to the field a rare combination of size, speed and instincts. He is an intimidating big hitter that is equally effective in coverage or supporting the run. Smith gives us quality tackle numbers but it is big play production that sets him apart. In forty NFL games he has 14 turnovers, 4 sacks, 23 passes defended and 3 touchdowns. Improvement at linebacker and the emergence of Robert Blanton as a quality strong safety will create a lot more competition for tackles. This may mean less tackle opportunity for Smith. He could fall a little short of the 70 solo mark in 2015 but Smith will still be a contender for the top spot. He should be one of the first three defensive backs off the board.   

At this time last summer no one was paying any attention to Robert Blanton. Once camp opened, the 2012 fifth round pick quickly caught the attention of the new coaching staff. By the time preseason games started, Blanton had laid claim to the strong safety job. He went on to start fourteen games on the season, missing two late in the year with injury. In those fourteen games he totaled 71-34-0 with a couple of turnovers and 3 passes defended. If we average in those two missed games Blanton's tackle numbers look something like 81-38. He may not be the major big play threat that Smith is, but Blanton provides exactly what the scheme demands. He is a smart, technically sound player who makes few mistakes. In a way Blanton reminds me of Ryan Clark whose stability in the Steelers secondary allowed Troy Polamalu the freedom to improvise and make a lot of big plays. I am not counting on 80 solo tackles from him this year but even with the team continuing to improve there will be enough opportunity for Blanton's quality box score production to continue. Target him as a low end DB2 or a priority DB3.

For years the Vikings were a cover-2 team, which made their corners rather box score friendly. Antoine Winfield is long gone and the new coaching staff has moved away from the cover-2. History tells us that corners in a Zimmer defense are rarely more than marginal fantasy options. While the signs are clearly not positive, they do not necessarily mean there will be no value here. It is true that no Minnesota corner put up more than 51 solo tackles or 3 interceptions last season, but they did not have a rookie starting in 2014. The team has some solid veteran corners on the roster so Trae Waynes is far from a lock to be a three down starter when the season opens. He is however, the team's most talented cover man. At Michigan State Waynes played the same type of aggressive press coverage that Mike Zimmer's scheme calls for. That could give him a hand up in his bid to win the job as a rookie. The rookie corner rule could be a factor here.

Terence Newman has been a starter under Zimmer in both Dallas and Cincinnati. He has now followed his former coach to Minnesota. The soon to be 37 year old knows exactly what is expected of corners in this scheme. Newman was a starter in Cincinnati last year and despite his age, will be a strong contender for a spot in the Vikings lineup. Captain Munnerlyn, Xavier Rhodes and Josh Robinson will all be in the mix for playing time as well. None of these players come with an expectation of roster worth fantasy production.

Detroit Lions

Defensive Linemen

The Lions defense had it going on last season. Their 20 interceptions was third most in the league, the pass defense ranked in the top ten, they had the eighth most sacks (42), and were best in the game versus the run. The 2015 version of Detroit's defense is going to look a good deal different on the field. It remains to be seen how that will translate to the box scores.

With Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and C.J. Mosley all gone, the Lions are without the top three interior linemen from the 2014 depth chart. The organization moved quickly to stop the bleeding from the loss of Suh. There is no replacing a player of that caliber, but the Lions came close as possible with the addition of Haloti Ngata. There was a time in Ngata's career when he was just as feared, and almost as box score friendly as Suh is currently. Unfortunately for both the Lions and fantasy owners, it was a long time ago. Okay, it was really just a couple of years. That can seem an eternity in the NFL. Ngata is 31 years old and remains one of the league’s best interior linemen. He is a 340 pound bulldozer who will be an excellent anchor for the run defense. Over a three year stretch that ended in 2012, Ngata made significant contributions as a pass rusher as well. He record at least 34 tackles and 5 sacks in each of those seasons. Since that time however, he has 3.5 sacks in 27 games. In fact, nearly all of Ngata's numbers have dropped off significantly since 2012. Three times in his nine pro seasons Ngata has exceeded 40 solo stops. The last time was 2010 when he totaled a career best 47. His tackle numbers have dropped steadily each year since. In 2013 he finished 23-30-1.5 in fourteen starts. Last season Ngata was on pace to go 25-16-2.5 when he received a league imposed four game vacation. While a change of scenery could rekindle his production a little, we have seen his best football. The bottom line here is Nagata will not replace the production of Suh in your fantasy lineup, but he is likely to be a quality DT2 or low end DT1 in 2015.               

There will be a wide open competition to determine the rest of the interior line rotation. Last year's fifth round pick Caraun Reid saw little action as a rookie. He will battle free agent pickup Tyrunn Walker and rookie Gabe Wright for the spot. Free agent addition Corey Wooton is officially listed as a defensive end but he could figure into the mix at tackle as well. Walker is probably the most interesting of this group. He was 14-6-2.5 in a limited role at end in the Saints 3-4 last season. Walker is similar in many ways to C.J. Mosley who started several games for the Lions last year. Reid is a player Mike Mayock had good things to say about at last year's draft. The statement made was "give him some time and he can be an impact player". Wright is a one gap penetrator who should fit well in the scheme. He has some long term potential but was not highly productive at Auburn.        

Many of us expected Ezekiel Ansah to take a big step in his second season. He did just that... sort of. Ansah received a bigger chunk of playing time in 2014, but his 63% of the snaps was a bit light for a three down end. The additional opportunity failed to help Ansah in terms of big play production. In fact, his sack total dropped from 8.5 in an injury shortened rookie season (12 games), to 7.5 in sixteen games last year. The shortage of expected sacks however, was largely offset by more than double the number of solo tackles. At face value Ansah's 37-12-7.5 with 3 forced fumbles would seem to be solid numbers. A closer look reveals them to be somewhat of a mirage. Nearly 43% of his fantasy point total in 2014 was the result of three games. Ansah failed to reach double digit points in the other thirteen. There is a ton of potential here. If he can put it all together for a season Ansah will be special. Thus far he has simply been frustrating for the most part.

The Detroit lineman to see more playing time than Ansah last season was Suh. This emphasizes how much the Lions like to rotate players up front. Jason Jones started opposite Ansah last season. Jones had a few less snaps than Ansah with a lot less production. He may continue in the starting role in 2015. George Johnson was the third end in 2014. He and his 6 sacks have moved onto Tampa Bay leaving room for someone to step up. Both Devin Taylor and Corey Wooton are going to see snaps at the position regardless of who is listed first on the depth chart. Darryl Tapp could have a few chances as well. None of these guys however, have shown much sign of fantasy value     

  • DE Ezekial Ansah - Inconsistent low end DL2 or quality DL3
  • DE Jason Jones - Minimal value at best 
  • DE Devin Taylor - Deep sleeper with marginal upside
  • DE Darryl Tapp - Veteran depth with no value
  • DE/DT Corey Wooton - No value
  • DT Haloti Ngata - Potential top twelve 
  • DT Gabe Wright - Dynasty project at best
  • DT Tyrunn Walker - Deep sleeper with some upside
  • DT Caraun Reid - Sleeper with DT3 or better potential

Linebackers

Over the first four years of DeAndre Levy's career we heard a lot about how good and productive he was supposed to be, yet it never showed up in the box scores. In 2013 he set a new personal best with 85 solo tackles while riding 6 interceptions, 15 passes defended and a score to a top five finish in many leagues. Heading into last season I felt the tackle production was real and could be expected to continue, but the interception total had been an exception. I got the part right about the picks at least. Levy opened the season with a 9 solo outing versus the Giants then went on to lead the league in solo stops by a large margin. The 119 solo stops made him the top linebacker in some scoring systems. Had Levy managed more than a single turnover and 2.5 sacks, Levy may have been the top linebacker in the fantasy game across the board in 2014. The early loss of Stephen Tulloch to injury was a the bonus that put Levy over the top. There is no reason to doubt another top ten ranking for Levy in 2015. What I would expect however, is for Tulloch to take a chunk of the tackle opportunity. Levy should still put the triple digit mark and be an excellent LB1, though I am still reluctant to put him with Luke Kuechly and Lavonte David on the elite first tier.

From his emergence in 2009 up to his knee injury in week three last season, Tulloch has been a dependable fantasy option. Over the five seasons prior to last, he averaged almost 92 solo stops and 36 assists. There is one glaring statistic that speaks volumes about Tulloch as a playmaker; in nine seasons as a pro he has forced exactly 1 fumble. This is an amazing stat for a middle linebacker. Tulloch has not been completely void of big play production, averaging a forced fumble and almost 1.5 sacks per season. The Lions veteran leader is reportedly recovering well from the knee injury and is on track to participate when camp opens. Providing there are no setbacks, we can once again count on Tulloch for 80+ solo stops, a fair number of assists and three or four big plays. Excellent week to week consistency makes him a great option as the third starter with marginal upside.

When Tulloch went down last year it was 2012 fifth round pick Tahir Whitehead who received the opportunity to replace him. Whitehead lasted all of two games in the every down role before being bumped from most of the sub packages. whitehead will return to his two down role on the strong side in 2015. He may feel some heat from last year's second round pick Kyle Van Noy, or possibly even veteran Josh Bynes. Barring an injury to Tulloch or Levy, none of these guys will have a shot to play full time. Thus their value and potential are limited.    

Defensive Backs

Prior to 2014 it had been a number of years since the Detroit secondary last gave fantasy owners a highly productive option. Strong safety James Ihedigbo put an end to that streak. Over the first five years of his career Ihedigbo was a journeyman backup for the Jets, Patriots and Ravens. In 2013 Baltimore gave him a shot at starting. He proved to be a more than competent option for them, finishing with a respectable 62 solo tackles. It was the big play production of 6 takeaways and 11 passes defended however, that earned Ihedigbo a hefty free agent contract with Detroit. This situation had all the signs of a classic one year wonder. Come from nowhere, have one good season, sign a big contract in a questionable situation and then flop. Except he skipped the flop part. After sitting out the first three games with an injury, Ihedigbo went on to total 60 tackles and 11 assists, adding 2.5 sacks, 8 takeaways and 8 defended passes. Break that down to fantasy points per game and he was a top ten defensive back. He has the size and ability to be a strong, in the box run support safety when called upon to do so. Ihedigbo is now on the way to becoming one of the league’s premier big play threats as well. He will not be among the league tackle leaders, but should be in the area of 70 solo stops. Add in half a dozen or more big plays and somewhere in the area of double digit passes defended, and you have a fine low end DB1 or excellent DB2 who should be there for the next few years.

After a string of three somewhat fantasy productive seasons in Houston, Glover Quin signed with Detroit in 2013. Working often as the deep safety, Quin has been short on opportunity when it comes to tackles, but he has intercepted 10 passes and been responsible for 12 total takeaways in those two seasons. Quin will be hard pressed to reach the 60 solo mark in 2015, but he holds considerable value in big play based scoring systems.   

On paper the Lions are a little shaky at corner. In NFL terms, 2013 second round pick Darius Slay did a fine job with his first starting role last year. He is a quality cover corner but is not the most physical in run support. Slay totaled 48 solo stops and 17 passes defended but his mere 2 interceptions leave plenty of room for improvement. If he can get the big plays going, there is a chance Slay could be worthy as depth in some corner required leagues. Opposite Slay will be 35 year old veteran Rashean Mathis, who is a similar player in many ways. Mathis is a steady, dependable cover man but he is not going to give the team many game changing plays. In fact, he has totaled 3 interceptions and 6 total takeaways over the past five seasons combined.

The Lions added a couple of players in the draft who could be factors down the road. Some scouts believe third round pick Alex Carter will be best suited as a safety in the NFL. He is a big hitting physical presence who will compete for the ball. Carter excels in zone coverage but can struggle in man at times. This is another good reason he may be moved to one of the safety spots. There is no need to use a roster spot on him this early, but we do need to watch his development.

Quandre Diggs slipped to round six mostly because his measurables were not great. He too is a physical presence but his 196 ponds is compacted into a 5'9" frame. As a four year starter at Texas, Diggs is battle tested against NFL caliber talent. He could contend for the slot corner job right away and is worth watching for owners in leagues that break out the DB positions.             

Chicago Bears

Defensive Linemen

Chicago has a new coaching staff in place and is among the teams moving to a 3-4 in 2015. As is always the case with teams in this situation, we can throw out pretty much all expectations based on last year's production. The first order of business for the new defensive staff is to determine where or if the team's holdover players fit in the new scheme. In fantasy terms the most significant decision to be made up front is what to do with Lamarr Houston? Early indications suggested he would be an outside linebacker. Houston saw time at that position during offseason workouts but the longer those went on, the more time he spent with the defensive ends.

Houston is a 300+ pound former defensive tackle. He has neither the skill set nor the experience to cover tight ends or running backs, and he is not a quick twitch athlete who can rush the passer from a two point stance. In fact, Houston has been marginally successful as a pass rusher from the end position in a 4-3. His best numbers as a pro came in 2013 when he was 56-13-6 as a three down end in the Raiders 4-3. Two years in that role (2012-13) saw him total and impressive 104 solo tackles with a much less substantial 10.5 sacks. Houston is a stout run defender with the versatility and athleticism to be a great fit at end in a 3-4. If the new regime elects to use him at that position as I believe they ultimately will, he could join the growing number of fantasy relevant 3-4 linemen. If he is cast as a linebacker, Houston may struggle to break the starting lineup and will have little or no fantasy value.

With or without Houston at end, the Bears have a number of players contending for three unsettled starting jobs. Veterans Jeremiah Ratliff and Jarvis Jenkins are joined by a trio of second year players including Will Sutton, Ego Ferguson, Cornelius Washington and rookie Eddie Goldman, in a wide open competition for playing time. Ratliff, Jenkins, Ferguson and Washington are expected to work mostly at end, though both Ratliff and Ferguson could also get a look at nose tackle. Ratliff has some 3-4 experience at both spots from his time with Rob Ryan in Dallas. Three times in his career the 34 year old has recorded 6 or more sacks in a season. The last coming in 2014 when Ratliff posted 6.5 in eleven games at tackle for the Bears. All Indication suggest he will get a long look at end first. It would seem Ratliff has the right mix of skills to be successful in that role, providing he can stay healthy. The problem is, he has missed 26 games with injury over the past three years and has not completed a full schedule since 2011. Ratliff may provide marginal value as a third lineman in deeper drafted leagues, but there is no point making roster room for him until he shows us a reason.

Ferguson was the team's second round pick last year. The 315 pound run stuffer managed to finish 12-12-2 in a part time role as a rookie. This after recording only 1 sack as a starter for LSU in 2013. It appears the coaching staff will try to make him an end in the new scheme but he may ultimately be a better fit on the nose. As an end he could have decent tackle numbers but is unlikely to hold any fantasy value. If Ferguson somehow ends up starting at nose tackle, he could be worthy as a backup with upside in leagues that break out the positions. The same can be said when it comes to Sutton. The only difference being that Sutton will get a look on the inside first.

The only guys in this mix who are basically locked into a position are Jenkins and the rookie Goldman. Jenkins spent the last three years of his career as a starting end in Washington. Over those three seasons he combined for 40 tackles and a pair of sacks. Thus the disappointing former second round pick is now looking at a different field when he goes to work. For fantasy owners there is nothing to look at in Jenkins. Goldman however, could be a different story.

The 336 pound run stuffer was picked in round two, with the expectation he will anchor Chicago's run defense for years to come. His scouting report reads like someone making a wish list for a nose tackle. Goldman is a powerful 2-gap lineman with the upper body strength to take on and shed multiple blockers while holding ground at the point of attack. He had some success using a bull rush technique to land 6 sacks over his final two season at Florida State, but is not going to provide much help in that area as a pro. He will immediately be in the mix for the starting job at nose tackle, but will likely be on the sideline in passing situation as a pro. If he can win the job, Goldman could make enough tackle contribution to be worth a roster spot in leagues that break out the positions. Wait to see that happen before investing a roster spot though.                         

  • DE/OLB Lamarr Houston - DL3 with upside as a defensive end
  • DE/NT Jay Ratliff - Risky sleeper with DL3 potential at best
  • DE Jarvis Jenkins - No value
  • DE/NT Ego Ferguson - Deep sleeper with limited potential
  • DE Cornelius Washington - No value
  • NT Eddie Goldman - Possible DT2 prospect
  • NT Will Sutton - No value until proven otherwise

Linebackers

The Bears are no more settled at the linebacker positions entering camp. Jon Bostic was the team's second round pick in 2013. He and free agent addition Mason Foster are penciled in as the starters on the inside, but second year pro Christian Jones is in the mix as well. Bostic's career has gotten off to a somewhat slow start. In 2013 he saw no action before week six when an injury to D.J. Williams forced the rookie into action. It was week nine when Bostic was finally given an every down role. Over the next eight games he was relatively productive in fantasy terms, reaching 5 or more solo tackles in three of those eight contests. On the field Bostic provided mixed reviews. At times he showed flashes of excellence. At other times he looked like a rookie. Bostic again failed to secure the starting job in camp last summer. He opened the season in a part time role until injuries once again moved him up the depth chart. By the end of the season he had made eight total starts, with at least one at each of the three linebacker positions. It was not until week thirteen that Bostic finally settled into an every down role and not until week fifteen that he was moved inside. Over the final five weeks of 2014 (two at WLB and three at MLB) he totaled 30-12-0, with at least 5 solo tackles in each game. We have seen enough of Bostic to know he can be a productive fantasy option. What we have not yet seen is proof that he can consistently be a three down player.

Foster enters camp as the favorite to not only start, but hold a three down role as well. He is far from a lock to do either. Four years in Tampa Bay saw Foster run the gambit of everything from being a three down starter to being benched. In 2012 he was the most fantasy productive two down starter in the game, posting a mark of 81-24-2.5 with a pair of Takeaways. Those are impressive numbers considering he played less than 69% of the team's defensive snaps. In 2013 Foster had a three down role in some games. He played nearly a hundred more snaps than the previous season. That led to more big plays (4 takeaways, 2 sacks, 7 passes defended and a pair of scores) but his tackle numbers slipped to 62-28. Last season Foster battled some injuries, missing all or most of eight games. In the other eight he was a three down player but posted only 37-21-0 without a single turnover.

While both Bostic and Foster are strong versus the run with questions about their ability in coverage, Christian Jones is at the other end of the spectrum. Coming out of Florida State last year, Jones's scouting report points out his high grade in coverage, but suggests that he needs to be more physical when taking on blockers. There is one other important fact pointed out by that scouting report. Jones led Florida State with 95 tackles in 2012. This alone speaks volumes to me. Early on Jones had been projected as an early-mid round pick. Off field questions contributed to his surprising fall all the way to free agency, where he was snapped up by the Bears. Several factors including a rash of injuries, gave Jones an opportunity to play as a rookie. He had a role in every contest after week four, making five starts in all. In four of those starts Jones had a three down role. In those four games he was 27-14-2 with a pair of passes defended and four double digit fantasy scores. Granted this is a small sample to work with, but it is worth mention that he averaged nearly 7 solo tackles and almost fifteen fantasy points a game over those starts.

There are any numbers of possibilities here, including a chance that Shea McClellin could be an option inside. It is even possible the coaching staff could start Foster and Bostic, then pull them both in favor of Jones and a third safety on passing downs. Any of these three players can be productive in an every down role. It is likely at least one and possibly two of them will turn out quality numbers. Jones might offer the longest odds, but he could also pay the biggest dividends.            

If we look back over the history of teams switching to 3-4 schemes, nearly all of them use at least one draft pick (usually an early one) on the all important outside linebacker positions. Strangely the Bears did not. Instead they will go with a collection of 4-3 holdovers and free agent refugees. Over the course of his twelve year career, Jared Allen has been one of the most feared pass rushers in the history of the game. One thing he has never done on a regular basis is work from a two point stance. We should keep in mind that Trent Cole made the same transition with success just a couple of years ago. Unfortunately there is a long list of good 4-3 ends who have failed to make the switch. It would be a lot easier to believe in Allen if he were not coming off the lowest sack total (6) of his career.

Allen will compete with fellow holdovers Shea McClellin, Willie Young and David Baas, along with free agent addition Pernell McPhee to establish a pecking order at outside linebacker. Young may prove to be the best option of this group. At 251 pounds he is undersized for a three down end in a 4-3, but he has spent some time in that role. Over most of his five year career however, he has been either depth or a sub package rush specialist. Young joined Chicago last season, starting seven games at end and posting a career best 9.5 sacks.  

McPhee comes over from Baltimore where played along the defensive line for two years before moving to outside linebacker in 2013. As the Ravens number three OLB last season, McPhee recorded a career best 7.5 sacks on 616 snaps. The Bears see the 26 year old as a starting outside linebacker and believe they have landed a cornerstone in him. It was this free agent signing that gave the organization confidence to ignore the position in the draft. McPhee will be given every opportunity to prove them right. His versatility gives defensive coordinator Vic Fangio a lot of options. There is a chance McPhee will be used like Terrell Suggs, working at both end and outside backer at times. While McPhee's fantasy value is far from a sure thing, he has a good deal of potential for owners in big play based leagues.

McClellin, Baas and possibly former Cardinal Sam Acho could get some looks, but chances are Allen, McPhee and Young will eat up virtually all of the playing time. As with the defensive line situation, this is one we will be watching as the summer unfolds.

  • ILB Mason Foster - Target as an LB5 with LB3 or better upside
  • ILB Jon Bostic - Late round depth with LB3 potential
  • ILB Christian Jones - Risk/Reward sleeper with long term LB2 upside
  • OLB Jared Allen - Risk/Reward player in big play based leagues
  • OLB Pernell McPhee - Strong sleeper in big play based leagues
  • OLB Willie Young - Sleeper with high ceiling in big play based leagues
  • OLB Shea McClellin - Minimal value at best
  • OLB David Baas - No value until proven otherwise
  • OLB Sam Acho - No value

Defensive Backs

Strong safety Ryan Mundy led the Bears in tackles with 75 last season. He added 28 assists, 5 turnovers and a sack to finish among the top five defensive backs in 2014. This was a case of an average player in a golden situation. Mundy was never more than a backup over his first five years in the league. Prior to last season, his only starting job had been with the Giants when he replaced an injured Stevie Brown in 2013. Mundy's success in 2014 came compliments of the Bears struggles in the front seven. While Mundy will be replaced by free agent addition Antrel Rolle, the Bears still face uncertainty and question marks in the front seven. Unlike Mundy, Rolle is a hardened veteran who has been an NFL starter since his rookie year in 2005. He has exceeded 70 solo tackles seven times in his ten seasons, including each of the past five. Rolle has been a consistent contributor in the big play department as well, averaging just short of 5 turnovers a season since 2010. In the move from New York to Chicago, he went from one great situation to another. There is no reason to believe his string of top fifteen finishes will end this year. Target Rolle as a highly consistent DB1 with top five potential.  

Last year's fourth round pick Brock Vereen moved into a starting role at free safety for the final three games of his rookie season. Vereen is an intelligent, athletic safety with excellent range and the cover skills of a corner. He is not the most physical safety when it comes to run support, but is a good tackler who rarely misses. Vereen should have no problem holding off Mundy and rookie Adrian Amos for the starting job, but he is unlikely to be fantasy friendly in the box scores on most weeks.

Charles Tillman has moved on and the Bears are no longer a cover-2 team. That however, does not mean the Chicago corners no longer hold value. Kyle Fuller was the team's first round pick last season. He was immediately inserted as the starter in Tillman's old position opposite Tim Jennings. Fuller immediately stepped up with a pair of 20+ point games in the first three weeks of the season. He went on to finish with a solid 51 solo stops, adding 7 turnovers and 10 passes defended for a top ten finish among corners. If the rookie corner rule holds true, Fuller will drop a few tackles and add a couple of big plays to his totals in 2015. Once we take into consideration that Fuller played a bit gimpy for a few weeks, it stands to reason that his tackle numbers may actually hold steady while Fuller should still be able to parlay the experience into another big play or two. He may never be the fantasy stud that Tillman was, but I like Fuller's chances to repeat the top ten finish.

Playing opposite Tillman in the cover-2 made Tim Jennings a decent option in corner required leagues for several years. Between the 2012 and 2013 seasons Jennings combined for 103 solo stops with 13 interceptions (16 total takeaways) 34 passes defended and three touchdowns. Last year's changes caused his totals to plummet well below usefulness. Jennings job should not be in jeopardy but his fantasy production may be gone for good.

The Bears have several young corners on the roster who will compete to fill out the depth chart. Demontre Hurst and Alan Ball are the main contenders for the slot corner job. Barring an injury ahead of them, there is no reason to expect much from either player.           

Green Bay Packers

Defensive Linemen

Since the Packers turned to a 3-4 scheme in 2009 they have thrown a ton of resources at their defensive line. To say that their rate of return thus far has been poor would be an understatement. Mike Daniels was the team's fourth round selection in 2012. He moved into the starting lineup in his second season, leading the Green Bay defensive line with 6.5 sacks. His poor tackle totals of 17 solo and 6 assists however, rendered him useless to fantasy owners in all but the most desperate of situations. In 2014 Daniels once again led the team's defensive front in sacks. This time around his 29-12-5.5 put Daniels on the cusp of fantasy relevance. His tackle totals have improved each season since he was a rookie so there is hope. I expect he will break the 30 solo mark for the first time in 2015. Providing he Daniels can continue to give us 5-7 sacks, he may become the first roster worthy fantasy prospect the Packers line has produced since Aaron Kampman.   

As for the rest of the group, there is not much to get excited about. Green Bay expected 2013 first round Datone Jones to be the playmaker they needed up front. He showed glimpses in limited action as a rookie, finishing with 8 tackles and 3.5 sacks. Both the team and many fantasy owners had high expectations for him entering last season. Both were disappointed with Jones's totals of 18-5-1.5 in thirteen games. It is too early for anyone to give up on him completely, but thus far he is looking like another in a long line of early pick busts for the Packers. After he serves a one game suspension for Marijuana, Jones will be back in the starting lineup. He has the skill set, opportunity and potential to be a breakout player in 2015. Keep him on the free agent speed dial just in case, but I would not commit a roster spot to him at this point.      

In 2009 the team invested a first round pick in B.J. Raji. After a forgettable rookie campaign, he was 29-10-6.5 in his second season. Raji has all of 43 tackles and 3 sacks in the four years since. He went 12-5-0 as a starter when he last played in 2013. Raji missed 2014 with an injury and will open camp behind last year's free agent pickup Letroy Guion at nose tackle. Guion contributed 3.5 sacks and forced a couple of fumbles as the starter in 2014. His meager 22-10 in the tackles columns however, held his fantasy value to a minimum. There is a good chance Guion will hold onto the job for the 2015 season. If he can pack on a few more tackles, Guion could have some value as depth in tackle required leagues.   

The rest of Green Bay's D-line depth chart consists of long shots and late round picks. Due to the Jones suspension, last year's fifth round selection Josh Boyd has been penciled in as the week one starter. He will probably be the first guy off the bench at end for the rest of the season. 2013 third round pick Khyri Thornton impressed no one during camp last summer before going down with a season ending injury. He may not even make the team this time around. Rookie sixth round pick Christian Ringo is a developmental prospect who could evolve into a starter at some point down the road. He was highly productive at Louisiana-Lafayette, but this is not the Sun Belt Conference.

Linebackers

The Packers are not new to the 3-4 scheme, but they do have some things in common with their Chicago rivals. Both teams struggled greatly at the second level in 2014, both teams enter training camp with a collection of high potential players competing at the linebacker positions, and both are completely unsettled as of mid July. Late last season Green Bay was so desperate to improve a struggling run defense, they shifted their best outside linebacker/pass rusher Clay Matthews, to one of the inside spots for the final few games. Matthews however, was not used in typical 3-4 inside backer fashion. Instead he was moved around the defensive formation, working from both inside and outside alignments. The coaching staff did an excellent job of masking Matthews assignments regardless of where he lined up. The results were positive for the team on the field and excellent for Matthews in the box scores. Over the first five years of his career Matthews averaged barely over 2.5 tackles per game. Over the final eight games in 2014 he averaged nearly 4. What was most impressive however, was the boost in sacks. The advantage of rushing from multiple alignments resulted in 8.5 of them over the final eight games, with 6.5 of them in the last four contests. While the coaching staff had to like what they saw, it is far from certain they will continue to use Matthews the same way in 2015. It will be a shock if he does not continue to move around, but the team has some other options to consider at inside linebacker that may give them a more traditional look at those positions. I expect Matthews to have possibly the most fantasy productive season of his career in 2015. While his tackle numbers should be up in the 55+ range, I see most of the damage coming in the big play columns.

Third year pro Sam Barrington enters training camp as the favorite to be the Packers most fantasy friendly linebacker. The first start of his young career came in week seven last season as an injury replacement. Barrington played thirty snaps in that game, recording a tackle and an assist. The following week his role expanded to 45 of 69 possible plays. His production expanded by a much greater margin, to 5 tackles and 2 assists. Weeks ten through twelve saw Barrington back in a minor role. He returned to the starting lineup in week thirteen and remained there the rest of the way. Barrington did not play every down in any game though he came close, missing one snap in the playoff loss to Seattle. In the games he started down the stretch, Barrington was on the field for 79% of the plays. Some will incorrectly assume this to mean the coaching staff did not trust him in sub packages. That was not the case however. Barrington did not play in the Packers dime packages, but he was on the field in many if not most nickel situations. When he was not in the game, the team went with multiple safeties and had no inside linebacker on the field at all. Green Bay used their first round pick on free safety Damarious Randall, so there is a good chance we will continue to see multiple safety sets. This concerns me a little, but there are a few other reason for us to be optimistic. On a per snap basis Barrington was highly productive in 2014. On more than one occasion a member of the coaching staff has praised Barrington and/or talked about how much improvement the young player has displayed since breaking into the lineup. Possibly the most telling tidbit and the one that gives me that last little nudge of confidence, came to light just recently. Barrington has been working with the starters and making all the defensive calls in the huddle. Defensive play callers are only permitted to communicate with one player. Whoever gets the communications helmet is going to be on the field virtually all the time. Barrington is one of my favorite sleepers this seasons. The Packers have given fantasy owners some excellent linebacker options in the past. He could be the next one to make the top twenty.      

There are two other interesting prospects at inside linebacker in Green Bay. Last year's fourth round pick Carl Bradford, and this year's fourth round pick Jake Ryan. Both of these players pack a great deal of long term potential. Bradford spent last summer working at outside linebacker because the Packers coaching staff was not able to see past his impressive sack totals at Arizona State. During his college career Bradford played in a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker role, posting 21.5 sacks over three seasons. At 6'1" and 250 pounds, he is too short for a 3-4 OLB at the pro level. His compact size and short arms make it difficult to gain outside leverage on big offensive tackles, and Bradford was not a polished technician with an arsenal of moves. Nearly every scouting report on him contains a statement suggesting he would be best suited on the inside at the pro level. The Green Bay coaching staff eventually came to the same conclusion, just not until he had already wasted an entire training camp and preseason playing out of position. As a result Bradford failed to get on the field as a rookie. This is a players who will impress no one in shorts. He is a better football player than athlete. Bradford is a physical tackler with good instincts, solid cover skills and big play ability. All he needs is an opportunity. If/when he gets that, it may be tough for the coaching staff to pull him off the field.

The more I learn about Ryan, the more I like this guy. He is a bit raw but may have more upside than any of the competition. Ryan has the versatility to play any of the linebacker positions. Prior to the 2014 season he was an outside linebacker for Michigan. Last year Ryan was shifted inside where he continued to be highly productive. He has proto-typical size for an inside linebacker, is a tough, physical downhill tackler with good zone cover skills and enough speed to be an every down option. He has something else the Packers are looking for as well, leadership. With A.J. Hawk gone this group has become exceptionally young at ILB. Ryan's strong work ethic and lead by example attitude could become contagious. He may not be the guy right away, but I believe Ryan could eventually be the player this defense is built around. In redraft leagues that draft early, Ryan is worth a late round flier. Dynasty owners should be all over this kid in the third or fourth round of rookie drafts.

When the Packers signed Julius Peppers last summer I was a bit surprised. When they made the 34 year old an outside linebacker for the first time in his career, I was skeptical to say the least. When he went out and played like he had been there for years, I was shocked. Peppers base numbers of 29-14-7 are far from impressive and not even remotely fantasy relevant for a linebacker. when we add his 9 takeaways, 11 pass breakups and 2 scores, the outlook is completely different. Expecting a repeat of all the big play numbers would be silly. What we can expect from the 35 year old in his second season as a linebacker, is 30+ solo stops, 7-9 sacks and enough other contributions to make him a quality starter in big play based leagues.     
Peppers and Matthews are the Packers best pass rushers and the top big play threats in the front seven. As such, they will soak up a majority of the playing time on the outside. Fellow outside backers Mike Neal and Nick Perry provide the team with excellent veteran depth in the event of an injury. They also give defensive coordinator Dom Capers the option to leave Matthews on the inside in base packages, which he is likely to do at least sometimes if not regularly. Both Neal and Perry will have some part to play. Unless someone is injured however, they will not be significant in fantasy terms. 

  • ILB Sam Barrington - Sleeper with LB2 upside
  • ILB Jake Ryan - Late round sleeper in redrafts, priority mid-round target for dynasty owners
  • ILB Carl Bradford - Deep sleeper with big long term potential
  • OLB Clay Mathews - Top end LB2 with mid LB1 upside in big play based leagues
  • OLB Julius Peppers - Quality second or excellent third starter in big play leagues
  • OLB Nick Perry - Minimal value at best
  • OLB Mike Neal - Injury sleeper

Defensive Backs

It is easy to make an argument that strong safety Morgan Burnett is the best defensive back in the fantasy game. There is no doubt he is among the most consistent. Had Burnett not missed three games in 2013, he would have exceeded 75 solo tackles in each of his four seasons as a starter. He has averaged 4.5 turnovers, a sack and 6 passes defended over that span, adding three top five finishes to his résumé along the way. All Burnett did in 2014 was lead the league's defensive backs in solo tackles with 94. This is particularly impressive considering he missed a game with a minor injury. His point total was among the top three in most leagues Burnett's average per game was number one. The Packers should be improved at the second level, so expecting Burnett to break the 90 solo again might be somewhat of a stretch. Expecting him to be among the elite at the position again is not. The addition of free safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in the first round last season, allowed the coaching staff to move Morgan up toward the line of scrimmage where he is most comfortable. There will be some new faces in the secondary in 2015. None that should have an effect on Morgan who should repeat as an elite tier on DB.

Clinton-Dix had modest box score totals as a rookie. Before writing him off as a DB4 or worse, consider the circumstances. He opened the season playing free safety in sub packages, while starter Micah Hyde shifted to the slot corner role. The first opportunity for Clinton-Dix as a base package starter with an every down role, did not come until week seven. There is also the side note that he posted a goose egg in week seventeen when the team was resting a lot of starters for the playoff run. All things considered; 66-28-1 with a couple of takeaways and 6 passes defended, was actually pretty strong. He will not challenge Burnett for the tackle title but Clinton-Dix should break the 70 solo mark. We should get a few more big plays from him as well. I expect the second year man to outperform the expectations of most owners and prognosticators. Target Clinton-Dix as a solid DB3 with DB2 upside, but look to get him at a bargain price. Last year's totals will cause him to slide further than he should in many leagues, making Clinton-Dix a great value pick.

Over the past several years Green Bay has consistently provided fantasy owners with solid options at corner. Most recently it has been Tramon Williams posting quality numbers. In his seven years as a starter Williams exceeded the 50 tackle mark six times and was perennially a high end CB2. The point here being, the position has consistently provided plenty of opportunity. Williams has moved on via free agency, as has Davon House who also played a significant role over the past couple of seasons. Sam Shields returns at the less productive right corner position with 2012 second round pick Casey Hayward penciled in at Williams old position on the left. Hayward spend most of a promising rookie season as the Packers nickel corner. He totaled 40 tackles in the part time role, along with an impressive 6 interceptions. Following a 2013 season that was a wash due to injury, Hayward returned to a part time role in 2014, going 33-10-0 with 5 takeaways, 7 passes defended and a pair of scores on a mere 470 snaps. He should step right into the every down role and play well for the Packers in 2015. All signs point to him being a fine replacement for Williams in fantasy terms as well.

So what are the Packers going to do with first round pick Damarious Randall and who will it affect? Nothing is written in stone here obviously, but it appears Randall is slated for the slot corner role as a rookie. This could be a perfect fit for his talents. Randall is a tad undersized for a safety at the pro level. He is an effort player who was highly productive in college, posting 177 tackles in his two seasons at Arizona State (106 in 2014). Randall is not polished enough in coverage to be considered for a starting spot on the outside but his combination of speed, instincts and aggressiveness is just what the Packers want in their nickel back. Randall could evolve into something greater in time. Right now he has to beat out Micah Hyde for a piece of the playing time pie. Hyde opened last season as the starting free safety. When he was passed on the depth chart by Clinton-Dix, Hyde became an extra DB in sub packages. Now he may be the odd man out again.      

That is going to do it for the NFC North. Next up the AFC North.