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Eyes of the Guru Preseason, Part 1: NFC South

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

Atlanta Falcons

Defensive Linemen

The Atlanta defense finished the 2013 season ranked 31st against the run, 21st versus the pass, 29th in sacks and 25th in takeaways. Last season was not much of an improvement as they ended up dead last versus the pass allowing 8.2 yards per attempt, and in the bottom twelve against the run. The pass rush was dismal once again recording just 22 sacks, but they did manage to create more turnovers (28). The end result for Atlanta was a poor record and a new coaching staff. Former Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn takes over as head coach, with former Denver linebackers coach Rick Smith coming on as coordinator. The dilemma we now face is figuring out what the Falcons defense will look like in 2015. Quinn has a mostly 4-3 background and Seattle ran a 4-3 during his two seasons as coordinator there. He does have experience working with a 3-4 from his two seasons as the Jets defensive line coach. Smith has been a 4-3 guy for his entire career, including his three year stint as coordinator in Houston. Both of these coaches like to run an aggressive 4-3 scheme. This is music to the ears of fantasy owners. Such an approach bodes well in general when it comes to box score opportunity/production for players. Unfortunately the Falcons defensive roster is far from teeming with talent in general, and they have a lot of players with 3-4 skill sets or experience. Adapting to the personnel is the mark of a good coach and multi-front schemes are the rage in this copycat league. It will probably be appropriate to call Atlanta a 4-3 team but expect to see a lot of looks from them in 2015.        

The Falcons have some holes to fill before then can become a good defense. Their biggest need up front is a pass rushing end. Atlanta has been without one since John Abraham began to decline a few years back. Osi Umenyiora was an adequate space holder for a year but the team has still not made the necessary investment of either big free agent money or an early draft pick. They use this year's first round pick on Vic Beasley who will certainly be a big factor and an improvement to the pass rush, but all signs point toward Beasley being used in the Von Miller mold at strong/outside linebacker.

The addition of free agent end Adrian Clayborn may be bigger than most people realize. He missed most of the 2012 season and all but one game last year with injuries. In his other two seasons as a pro he has totaled 71-33-13.5 with 5 forced fumbles. In 2013 Clayborn finished at 44-20-6 with a couple of turnovers. He is only 26 years old so if the injuries turn out to be a fluke there are a lot of good years left in him. This was a great move for the Falcons who signed Clayborn to a one year deal. There is little risk for the team and if he pans out, they will have an opportunity to extend the deal. In fantasy terms I like Clayborn as a late round deep sleeper that no one will be thinking much about.

Clayborn is not the only interesting under the radar free agent end the Falcons added this offseason. We should also keep an eye on O'Brien Schofield. The 2010 fourth round pick of the Cardinals never landed more than a part time role with his original team but he spent the past two years in Seattle with Dan Quinn. Schofield recorded 4 sacks in a backup role with Seattle last year. At 242 pounds he is no threat to grab an every down role but we will be seeing a good deal of him as a situational pass rusher this year. 

Second year man Ra'Shede Hageman is the other player of interest in the Falcons front. He is currently listed as a defensive end on the team’s roster but the majority of fantasy leagues recognize him as a tackle. Hageman held a rotational role during the second half of last season and is expected to compete for a starting job this summer. He has the size to be a stout run defender and the quickness/athleticism to have an impact as an inside pass rusher. Hageman has the skill set of a productive 3-4 end and was drafted by the previous coaching staff with just that in mind. This may also be why he is still listed as an end on the roster. At the least Hageman should earn a significant role. At the least he will be on the field as an inside rusher in sub packages. He is not Gerald McCoy, but Hageman could become a quality starter in tackle required leagues.

Tyson Jackson was the third overall pick in 2009, but he never lived up to expectations as a 3-4 end for the Chiefs. He is a leftover from the previous coaching staff who brought Jackson on board last year as part of their shift to the 3-4. He is currently listed as a tackle on the Falcons roster. Moving inside might just be the right move for both his career and fantasy owners. Over his final two year in Kansas City, Jackson played in 30 games and was 55-21-7. Those numbers are marginal at best for a defensive end, but they would make him a second starter as a tackle in leagues that break out the positions. He is a stout run defender who will have a role on early downs at the least, and is worth keeping an eye on him this preseason.

Jonathan Babineaux has been a starter at tackle for the Falcons over most of his career. His best box score production came in 2009 when he totaled 37-10-6 with 4 turnovers. Babineaux has seen a good deal of action as a 4-3 end over the past three seasons with marginal results. He will be 34 in October and may find it tough to get on the field this season.

Paul Soliai is a 320 pound two down run stuffer who can double as a 3-4 nose tackle if called upon to do so. He has recorded more than 20 tackles only twice since 2007 and has never posted more than 2 sacks in a season.  

  • DE Adrian Clayborn - Injury risk with high DL2 potential
  • DE O'Brien Schofield - Deep sleeper with big play potential
  • DE Malliciah Goodman - No value
  • DT/DE Johnthan Babineaux - No value
  • DT/DE Tyson Jackson - Deep sleeper for tackle required leagues
  • DT/DE Ra'Shede Hageman - Sleeper with good upside in tackle required leagues
  • DT/NT Grady Jarrett - No value
  • DT/NT Paul Soliai - No value

Linebackers

The Falcons may have some guys playing out of their comfort zone up front, but at least they have some talent to work with there. This team is in need of an infusion at linebacker. Paul Worrilow is set to be the starter in the middle again in 2015. He is not the most talented of players but is fundamentally sound both in run support and coverage. At 6'0" and 230 pounds Worrilow is a bit undersized for the job, but no one questions his work ethic or leadership. He made progress as a playmaker in his second season as a starter. In 2014 he totaled a solid 84-59-2 with a couple of forced fumbles and 3 pass breakups. There will be a little more competition for tackle this year with Justin Durant in the mix, but Worrilow should continue to be a decent second or excellent third starter in most leagues.

The Justin Durant addition makes a lot of sense for the Falcons. There were not enough resources to address every need with an impact player, so they had to put some temporary patches in place. Durant is a solid if unspectacular veteran presence who is much like an older version of Worrilow in many ways. He is not flashy and does not make many game changing plays, but is smart and is fundamentally sound in all aspects of the game. Durant played six games with the Cowboys last season before landing on IR. In those games he averaged nearly 6 solo stops and 3 assists while recording a career best 4 takeaways. One other thing Durant brings to the table is versatility. He has started at all three positions in a 4-3 scheme and would have no problem working with Worrilow as inside backers in a 3-4. There is not much upside to be found here but Durant should make a decent LB4 or strong LB5 in most leagues.

Atlanta did add one big piece of the puzzle in Vic Beasley. When Denver was rebuilding its defense a few years back they started with Von Miller as a cornerstone. The Falcons may be following that same blueprint with Beasley. It is important to know that some of the major league sites are listing Beasley as a defensive end. There is a chance he will be by the time teams hit the field in August. What we know for sure is that Beasley will have a big role. He is arguably the team's best pass rusher the moment he steps on the field. Miller had 51 solo tackles and 11.5 sacks as a rookie. If Beasley is given a similar role, 45+ solo tackles and 6-8 sacks are not unreasonable expectations. Those would be pretty solid numbers for a defensive end. As a linebacker his value would be depend on the scoring system.

The one real head scratcher for me was the addition of Brooks Reed in free agency. Reed has been a starting 3-4 outside linebacker since being drafted by Houston in 2011, and he is listed as a linebacker on the Falcons roster. We know that the Texans looked at him as an inside linebacker during camp last year and decided that was not a fit. So why would Atlanta sign him unless they were planning to use some 3-4? Reed may actually start ahead of Beasley on the strong side in the 4-3 for a while if the rookie does not pick things up quickly. We could see Reed on early down with Beasley in a nickel pass rush role or something of that sort. Reed will surely have some role in the 4-3 but he is yet another player with 3-4 experience and skill set.

Kroy Biermann has bounced back and forth between linebacker and end for the past few years. He had one big year and a third down specialist a few seasons back but has never been able to recapture the glory. his role may diminish considerable with both Beasley and Reed in the mix.

Defensive Backs

Despite the poor numbers versus the pass in 2014, the previous coaching regime actually left the secondary with more young talent than any other level of the defense. Injuries combined with a lack of pass rush tell much of the story of their 2015 season. From a fantasy perspective the secondary may be the biggest mystery of all. William Moore has been a highly productive if inconsistent option for us in recent years. He is among the best big play safeties in the game, which accounts for much of his point production, but Moore has never posted more than 66 solo tackles in a season. He played three full games before going down in week four last season. Moore came back for a cup of coffee later in the year but was not the same and was finally shut down. What makes this situation interesting is the play of his backup Kemal Ishmael. Ishmael came on and performed well. He led the secondary in tackles with 66 (in 12 starts), intercepted 4 passes with 6 total takeaways, and returned one for a score. For fantasy owners Ishmael posted double digit points in seven of the final eight games. The question now becomes, who will be the team's starting safeties? Moore is going to be on the field for sure. Does one of them move over to free safety or does Ishmael go back to the bench? Ishmael looked good last year but this is a completely new coaching staff so who knows where everyone lands. My somewhat educated guess is that Moore plays free and Ishmael strong. In the previous defensive scheme the safeties were interchangeable so it did not really matter who got the tile of strong safety. That may not be the case with the new scheme. Moore is the safe play at this point, but if you have Ishmael sitting on your dynasty roster I would not be an any hurry to let him go.

The other players that could factor in at safety are Charles Godfrey and Dezmen Southward. Godfrey is a veteran who opened the season as a starter but fell out of grace early and was benched. Southward was the Falcons third round pick last year. He was able to get some playing time as a rookie but was not particularly impressive. With a new coaching staff in place, anything that happened last year is somewhat irrelevant.       

The Falcons started adding young talent in their secondary in 2013 when they drafted Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford in the first and second rounds respectively. Trufant stepped right into a starting role and has done a quality job both on the field and in the box scores. He has managed 50+ solo tackles, 15+ passes defended with a handful of turnovers and top twenty ranking among corners in each of his first two seasons as a pro. There is no reason to expect a big change in his numbers this year. As the rookie corner rule goes, his tackle numbers may slip below the 50 mark. An extra pick or two should make up for that.

Alford spent his first two seasons working mostly in sub packages as he was groomed for a bigger role. His previous competition for the starting job has moved on but the spot is not being handed to him just yet. Atlanta added Jalen Collins in the second round this year. Collins is a talented but raw player with all the tools to eventually become a quality starter. Chances are he will take over Alford's sub package role while the third year man moves up but that may ultimately depend on how quickly Collins pick up the pro game.

It is a long time before week one but looking into my crystal ball; I see Moore and Ishmael at free and strong safety respectively, with Trufant and Alford on the corners in the base packages. I look for Southward and Collins share time in sub package roles.

Carolina Panthers

Defensive Linemen

In Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy the Panthers had one of the league's premier defensive end tandems heading into last season. When Hardy's off field issues landed him a yearlong suspension and the team parted ways with him, the initial expectation was that the Panthers pass rush would suffer greatly. Those concerns seemed very real when Johnson got off to a dismal start, recording only 2 solo tackles and an assist in the team's first four games. Then Johnson and the rest of the Panthers defensive line suddenly caught fire. He recorded at least half a sack in nine of the final twelve games to finish the year at 27-11-8.5 with 4 turnovers and a couple of batted passes. That made Johnson a valuable commodity for fantasy owners down the stretch. If we project those numbers over a full season he would have been a very solid 36-16-11.5. Johnson became a three down starter in 2010. That year he piled up a career best of 50 solo stops to go along with his 10.5 sacks. Unfortunately he has not managed more than 31 solo stops in any season since. Johnson has however, averaged just over 10 sacks a year since 2010. He has also forced 12 fumbles and recovered 3 in the past three seasons. The bottom line with Johnson is that he can be counted on for right around 30 solo tackles and 10 sacks with a handful of other big plays. In these days of lacking production outside the top tiers at the position, he is a valuable asset as a solid second starter or an excellent DL3.

In 2013 Hardy accounted for a mark of 40-20-16. That is a lot of production to try and replace, but the Panthers have done an admirable job of it thus far. They used a second round pick last year on Kony Ealy then proceeded to adopt a defensive end by committee approach throughout the 2014 season. Ealy, Wes Horton and Mario Addison all saw significant action in the rotation. Between them they accounted for 30 solo tackles, 31 assists and 13.5 sacks. Addison led the way in the sack column with 6.5, followed by Ealy at 4 and Horton with three. Heading into this summer the question fantasy owners have is, will any of these guys be the next Greg Hardy? That is a tough one to answer. There is no doubt that these three players will all continue to see action in some sort of role. 2012 fourth round pick Frank Alexander returns from suspension and could figure into the mix as well. The way I see it; if anyone is going to stand out and take the lion’s share of the playing time it will be Ealy. Addison is a fifth year player. If he were the guy, the coaching staff would have made him full time last year. Horton is a hard worker with a great motor but the former undrafted free agent is not the most talented of the tea's options. The Panthers made a fairly big investment in Ealy, and they worked him into the mix immediately with success. At 6'4" and 275 pounds, he has prototypical size for a three down end and he has already shown the ability to both rush the passer and stand up versus the run. We may see the end by committee continue in 2015, but now that he has a year of experience under his belt, I like Ealy's chances of being the guy who separates himself from the pack if the coaching staff elects to go that route. I see him as a good late round sleeper with big long term potential.    

In Star Lotulelei, Kawann Short and Dwan Edwards the Panthers have an outstanding interior line rotation. Between them they accounted for 9.5 sacks in 2014. Lotulelei is the guy we had the highest expectations for in 2014. Unfortunately he was a major disappointment. Lotulelei showed a great deal of promise as a rookie in 2013, posting 30-11-3 and finishing as a top fifteen interior lineman. In 2014 his production dropped significantly. He missed a couple of games with injury but was not producing even before being dinged. with 18 tackles and 2 sacks to his credit, Lotulelei was the third best fantasy option on the team at tackle. He has all the physical skills to be a 30+ tackle guy with 5 or more sacks but the sophomore slump he struggled through last season makes Lotulelei little more than a last round flier as depth in tackle required leagues.

It was Edwards who led the Panthers interior line in production last season. The veteran was actually working as the third man in the rotation but still managed to finish 24-16-4. Aided by a batted pass interception, Edwards finished as a top ten defensive tackle in 2014. Even without the points from the pick he would have been in the top fifteen. At age 34 he is on the down side of a solid career. That and the young talent Carolina has on the inside makes a return to the top unlikely for Edwards in 2015.    

Unlike Lotulelei, Short actually showed progress in his second season. The 2013 second round pick finished at 20-20-3.5 with a couple of batted passes last season, joining Edwards among the top fifteen. Short is the prototypical 4-3 tackle and may prove to be the best option of the trio for this season and beyond. He holds up well versus the run and has enough burst in his pass rush to give offensive guards trouble one on one. It would be no surprise to see Short's numbers continue to climb in his third season.    

Linebackers

There is not much guess work when it comes to the Panthers linebacker positions. In each of his three seasons Luke Kuechly has exceeded 90 solo tackles, exceeded 50 assists and recorded at least 3 takeaways. His sack numbers have even grown steadily to 3 in 2014 and he has averaged almost 10 passes defended. Kuechly is a model of consistency. He reached double digit fantasy points in thirteen games last season with fewer than 9 points just once. He has three consecutive top ten finishes at the position and is among the short list of favorites to be at the top of the final standings at linebacker. At worst he is an elite tier one option who should be one of the first three defenders off the board at any position.  

Even with Kuechly sucking up tackles and making plays, there is enough opportunity for Thomas Davis to be a fantasy contributor as well. Davis is one of the few fantasy relevant strong side backers working in a 4-3 scheme. Much of that opportunity comes from the fact that he remains on the field with Kuechly in sub packages. Davis missed a game and most of another last season, so his raw numbers (66-34-2.5) are a bit deceiving. In 2013 he finished at 85-38-4 with 3 turnovers and 8 passes defended. At age 32 he is on the back side of his career and there is some concern that he may have begun to decline already. Early in 2014 he was the same productive player we had seen the previous season. Later in the year however, his production dropped off. Davis failed to post more than 4 tackles in any of the final four games, reaching double digit fantasy points only in week seventeen when he had 2 solo tackles but recovered a fumble, recorded half a sack and defended a pass. It is possible that the multiple knee injuries he battled through early in his career are taking their toll. Davis has missed just one start in the past three seasons and I believe he still has some gas in the tank. Look for a bounce back year from him if he can hold off first round pick Shaq Thompson for the every down role. Providing he can do that, Davis should give us 75+ solo tackles and enough other production to be a quality LB4 or an excellent LB5 this season. Beyond this year however, his value becomes highly questionable.

There are many similarities between Thompson and a young Davis. Davis was a safety in college and entered the league as a versatile but undersized outside linebacker with excellent cover skills. At 6'0" and 228 pounds, Thompson is an undersized outside linebacker with excellent cover skills, who took snaps at safety during his college career. Both players displayed great versatility and were exceptionally productive during at the college level. Thompson scored six touchdowns for the Huskies last season. Four of them were defensive returns and two were rushing as he had 456 rushing yards and averaged 7.5 per carry. Thompson has outstanding range with great instincts and a knack for working through traffic to the ball. He is a dependable tackler who takes good angles and has the speed to chase down ball carriers. He has a high football IQ and a strong work ethic as well, but the biggest asset Thompson brings to the field may be his big play potential. There is little doubt in my mind that he will eventually supplant Davis as the three down compliment to Kuechly. The only question is when. At the least I expect we will see Thompson as the starting weak side linebacker for Carolina this season. Dynasty owner will want to be all over this guy after the top two or three rookie linebackers are gone. Even redraft owners may want to consider locking him up with a late round pick just to see what happens during the preseason. 

A.J. Klein served as a two down WLB for Carolina last season and did a more than adequate job. With Thompson in the mix he may have a hard time getting on the field in 2015. The Panthers do not use many players at linebacker so barring an injury, Klein will continue to be spot relief while seeing time on special teams.        

Defensive Backs

In NFL terms the Carolina secondary held up well in 2014. They were eleventh versus the pass at 7.0 yards per attempt, and recorded a strong 14 interceptions as a unit. When it came to fantasy production the story was very different. No Panthers defensive back totaled more than 39 solo tackles last season. Usually when we see a strange situation like this it is because the team had a lot of injuries. This is not the case here. Roman Harper started every game at strong safety, playing 1,051 of 1,158 snaps. He managed to lead the team's defensive backs in fantasy production with a line of 39-23-1. It would be easy to say that this was an anomaly that we are unlikely to see repeated if not for the fact that Michael Mitchell led the secondary with 50 tackles the year before. Carolina has an excellent front seven and the linebackers soak up a lot of tackles, but something is strange here for sure.

Harper returns as the strong safety and will be joined by either journeyman Kurt Coleman or second year man Tre Boston at free. Once upon a time not so long ago, Harper was a fantasy stud. With the Saints in 2012 he racked up a career best of 89 solo tackles. His run of six consecutive seasons with at least 73 solo stops came to an end when nagging injuries and a reduced role killed his box scores in 2013. That in turn led to his landing in Carolina last season. Harper is 32 years old so age and/or decline is not likely the issue here. He is still a good aggressive in the box strong safety with the potential to put up quality numbers. Harper was healthy all of last season and played well enough to lead the Panthers defensive backfield in both tackles with a mere 39, and interceptions with 4. I like his chances of bouncing back a little this year simply because the 2014 numbers had to be somewhat of a mirage. That said, there is enough of an established trend here that I will be staying away from any defensive back in a Panthers uniform until someone proves that it is safe to go back in the water.

Coleman is a somewhat interesting prospect. He landed a starting role with the Eagles in 2011 and managed to hold onto it in 2012 despite being considered a backup quality talent by many. His second season as a starter produced 70 solo stops, 23 assists and 3 takeaways in fourteen games, making Coleman a solid option as a third starter for fantasy owners. Coleman returned to the backup role in 2013 and has played sparingly over the past two seasons. He is one of those guys who is never seen as good enough but somehow seems to put points up whenever he is given an opportunity to play. Coleman will compete with last year's fourth round pick Tre Boston for the starting free safety job. Boston replaced Thomas DeCoud during the second half of last season. He started seven games in all, including both playoff contests. Neither his play nor production in those games was anything to get excited about. This is a situation we will be watching throughout the summer and into the preseason, but ultimately there may not be much production from the position regardless of who wins the job.

We have to go all the way back to 2011 to find a reasonably productive defensive back in Carolina. That year is was safety Charles Godfrey with 71 tackles and 5 interceptions. We have to go further back to find a corner with any value. This creates a dilemma for us when it comes to Charles Tillman. During his twelve years in Chicago Tillman was a perennial top ten corner with a number of top five finishes. He posted 65 or more solo tackles and double digit passes defended in nine of those seasons with a career total of 83 turnovers. Tillman is now 34 years old and has not finished either of the last two seasons. He landed on IR in week three last year and may not be the same productive player in a Panthers uniform. He is worth a late round flier in corner required leagues but we need to remember that no Carolina corner has recorded over 50 solo stops in the past five seasons.

Veterans Josh Norman, Melvin White, Chris Houston and second year man Bene Benwikere will compete to establish the rest of the pecking order at corner. This collection of corners gives Carolina excellent depth at the position but the team is still lacking a true shutdown cover man. Benwikere is probably the best chance for quality box score production here. He saw significant playing time in the team's final five games last season, posting 17-8-0 with 3 takeaways and 5 passes defended in those games.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Defensive Linemen

The Tampa Bay defense has some things to clean up after last season, but there are a number of things this unit did well. They were 25th in both total yards at 369 and points allowed with 410, but their 3.9 yards per rush attempt was seventh best in the league. The 36 sacks they recorded ranked just twenty first, but that is not bad considering they lost starting end Adrian Clayborn in week two and free agent Michael Johnson was basically a bust. The Buccaneers 25 takeaways put them in the top half of the league in that category as well. Leslie Frazier coached defenses have always been fantasy friendly and this team has a lot of quality pieces in place.

In Gerald McCoy, Clinton McDonald and Akeem Spence the Buccaneers have an interior rotation that is among the best in the NFL. They also have two of the fantasy games most productive tackles. McCoy's 8 sacks in 2014 tied him for third most among interior linemen. Had he not missed three games with injury we may have seen is name at the top of that list. In twenty nine games over the past two seasons he has 62 tackles, 17 sacks and a pair of top three finishes in average points per game. He is a dominating run defender as well as one of the league’s premier inside pass rushers, and is as close as it gets to a sure thing for fantasy owners. If the team improves around him as it appears they should, McCoy will be a strong candidate to finish as the top tackle in the fantasy game in 2015.

One of his main competitors for that top honor is McDonald. He had 19 solo tackles and 5.5 sacks as a rotational player with the Seahawks in 2013, but made enough of an impression to earn a big free agent paycheck from Tampa Bay. It was money well spent for the Buccaneers. McDonald was banged up and missed three games late in the season but still managed to finish at 35-11-5.5 with a couple of batted passed and two fumble recoveries. He was the fourth highest scoring interior lineman in 2014 and his points per game average was number one. As a tandem McCoy and McDonald cause a lot of problems for offensive lines. Both players are tough to root out on running downs and both are excellent pass rushers. They are interchangeable pieces that can be moved around a little to keep offenses off balance and are players that no offensive lineman looks forward to taking on without help. While McCoy has the better name recognition and will likely be drafted higher, McDonald can hardly be called a consolation prize.

Even as the third man in the rotation Spence managed 27 solo stops and a pair of sacks last season. The 2013 fourth round selection would be a starter for many if not most teams. He has a similar skill set to the guys ahead of him and would be a great pickup should either of the starters be lost to injury. Spence could lose a few snaps to free agent addition Henry Melton but Melton may get a long look as depth at end.                

Tackle is a major strength for the Buccaneers but they have questions at defensive end. The team finally gave up on the talented but injury prone former draft picks Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers. They also released last year's free agent bust Michael Johnson. The team made no major additions at the position but that does not necessarily mean there will be no improvement. Jacquies Smith joined Tampa Bay last year as an undrafted rookie free agent. He saw almost no action until after the team's week seven bye, but when he was given an opportunity Smith ran with it. Over a seven game span starting in week nine, he was 12-4-6.5 with a couple of batted passes. The coaching staff was impressed enough to make him the starter entering camp and have really given him no competition. Smith is a good sleeper that can be picked up very late as a third or fourth lineman. The only issue I have is that he vanished from the box scores in weeks sixteen and seventeen. While that spooks me a little, I trust the judgment of Leslie Frazier who has a reputation to uphold. His defenses have traditionally done an excellent job of getting after the passer.

Competing for the starting spot opposite Smith will be 2013 fourth round pick William Gholston and free agent addition George Johnson. Gholston had a great opportunity to excel last season and was not able to impress. On 587 snaps he totaled 27 tackles and 14 assists, but was only able to get to the passer twice. Johnson was an undrafted free agent of the Buccaneers in 2010. He failed to develop during his first stint with the team. After spending some time in Minnesota, Johnson landed in Detroit last year where he finally had an opportunity to play. In a rotational role Johnson saw just over 500 snaps, finishing with 23 tackles and 6 sacks. He will enter camp as the starter and the Buccaneers are counting on him to make an impact. I like the situation he is in and especially the fact that there is really no one behind him. Johnson is far from a sure thing but he is going to have every opportunity to prove himself. Consider him a late/last round sleeper who could be a pleasant surprise.

Linebackers

In Lavonte David the Buccaneers have one of the best young linebackers in the game. He is a stout run defender with sideline to sideline range, the speed to track down runners in pursuit and the discipline to rarely miss in the open field. Those skills have helped David to reach triple digit solo tackles in all three of his seasons as a pro. This was particularly impressive last season when he hit 100 despite missing a couple of games. David is a playmaker as well, with 13 turnovers and 7 sacks over the past two seasons. Many fantasy owners rank Luke Kuechly number one and David two. I tend to look at them the other way around simply because David has a higher points per game average in each of the past two seasons. It is impossible to go wrong with either of these guys. Consider them one and one-A.

David is a sure stud but he may not be the only Buccaneers linebacker with fantasy value. Bruce Carter or Danny Lansanah could also put up productive numbers. Carter took a lot of heat for his play in the Cowboys scheme over the past couple of years. He was especially criticized for his coverage skills. I am not sure all of the problem was with Carter. His production as a Cowboy was inconsistent at best but so was his role with the team from week to week. It seemed as if he was cast in a different role every week for much of 2014. Carter did show flashes of both quality play on the field and production in the box scores. It is noteworthy that he led the Cowboys with 5 interceptions last season. 

Lansanah was an undrafted free agent in 2008 but failed to make a team. He then took a long strange rout to the league. He got on the field last year due to an injury and has made it virtually impossible for the coaching staff to put him back on the bench. At 6'1" and 255 pounds, Lansanah is a stout physical run stuffer with the size and mentality to blow up lead blocks and hold the point of attack versus the run. He was surprisingly strong versus the pass as well last season. Lansanah started eleven games and held an every down role in five of them. In those contests he averaged 7 tackles and 2 assists with 4 passes defended, a sack and a half and a score.

One of these guys is going to have some value for us. Maybe as much as a high end third starter. What we really need to know is who will land the sub package role. That is a question that even the coaching staff probably cannot answer at this point and is something we will be looking to clarify in August. For those who draft before we have an answer, consider both Carter and Lansanah as viable late round sleepers. This could go either way but if forced to make a choice, I would go with Carter simply because he is the middle backer and will have more opportunity to produce on earlier downs.      
Former Bear Khaseem Greene and veteran Jason Williams will compete with rookie fourth round pick Kwon Alexander to create the pecking order behind the starters. The veterans have little upside here but Alexander is an interesting dynasty prospect. He will play a lot of special teams early in his career but could be groomed for a bigger role. His learning curve could be pushed up if Carter struggles. 

Defensive Backs

It is somewhat of a surprise that the Buccaneers made no significant additions to a secondary that ranked twenty second in yards per pass attempt last season. Part of the blame for that can be placed on other positions of more dire need, but a lot of it comes down to the coaching staffs belief that they already have enough talent to be successful. They are lacking a big name shutdown corner but 2013 second round pick Jonathan Banks and last year's free agent addition Alterraun Verner give the team a pair of quality starters on the outside. Veteran Mike Jenkins was lost to injury in week one last year and is the favorite to win the third corner spot. With the emergence of Bradley McDougald at safety late last year and the addition of D.J. Swearinger who was snapped up off waivers from Houston, the team has good talent and excellent depth at safety as well.

A glance at the production of this unit in 2014 does not lend cause for much excitement. If we dig a little deeper there are nuggets of hope and reasons for optimism. When Banks was drafted it looked as if he might be a valuable commodity at corner. That never materialized as he is still looking for his first 50 tackle season. Banks has however, recorded 7 interception and enough other contributions to be worth a roster spot in deep drafted leagues that start two corners. His counterpart however, was a top twenty corner overall and top 12 in average points per game in 2014. Verner may never repeat his monster rookie season of 2010 (85 solo tackles, 6 takeaways and 11 passes defended) but he has continued to put up low end CB1 or excellent CB2 number throughout his career. Had he not missed two games last year, Verner would have exceeded 60 solo stops for the fourth time and he has at least 4 takeaways in four of his five pro seasons. He is only 187 pounds and reminds me a little of another great fantasy corner who played much bigger than his size, Antoine Winfield. Verner is a quality every week start in corner required leagues and could even hold value as a third starter or depth in twelve team leagues that lump the DB positions together.

The big value in Tampa Bay comes from the safety positions. Last season it was DaShon Goldson who led the secondary in tackles with 63. That number looks a little better when we consider that he missed a couple of games. There were several defensive backs who took snaps at safety over the course of the season. Between them Goldson, McDougald, Major Wright and Keith Tandy accounted for 146 solo stops and 44 assists. The moral of this story is that if/when the team settles on a pair of starters, those players are going to have a lot of opportunity.

The challenge we face is figuring out where the value now lies. Goldson has moved on to Washington and is out of the picture. At least that part is clear. The rest is a muddy mess as we enter July. Wright was a draft pick of Lovie Smith in Chicago and followed the former Bears head coach south. He started eight games for Tampa Bay last year before landing on IR after week fourteen. McDougal was an undrafted rookie free agent who saw only spot duty prior to week twelve. Once he got on the field he really turned heads. Over the final six games McDougald was 34-6-0 with 4 passes defended and an interception. Heading into his second season McDougald is the consensus favorite to land the starting strong safety job, but he is far from a lock. This offseason the team added another of Smith's former Bears starters in Christopher Conte. Going into the summer he is considered the favorite to start at free safety. The fly in the punch here is D.J Swearinger. The 2013 second round pick of the Texans was a starter in Houston for two seasons before being released by the team for reasons unknown. His tackle totals during those two seasons were disappointing, but Swearinger accounted for 6 takeaways and a sack in 2014. At face value he does not seem to be a great fit in the Tampa scheme, but he is a talented player with the versatility to line up at either safety spot.

Providing this does not become some sort of time share, whoever wins the job at strong safety should be highly productive for us. The free safety in this situation could also hold good decent value as shown by Goldson's numbers last year. McDougald made a strong impressive as a rookie and should be even better with a year of experience under his belt. I have him on my draft board as a priority sleeper that most owners will not be looking at. That makes him a potential late round steal. I am not a fan of Conte and believe Swearinger will be given every opportunity to come out of camp as the number one free safety. We can afford to take a wait and see approach with Swearinger and Conte as they will not be drafted in any but the deepest fantasy leagues.    

New Orleans Saints

Defensive Linemen

The Saints struggled in nearly every significant defensive category last year. They were 29th versus the run, 26th against the pass, 25th in sacks (34) and created just 17 takeaways. This team had been an offensive powerhouse but even that began to fade a little in 2014. As a result of their struggles and the salary cap pinch there were sweeping changes in personnel this offseason. For the first time in recent memory New Orleans emphasized defense in the draft, adding players at all three levels in the first five rounds.  

Cameron Jordan is the top target for fantasy owners here. As is the case with most 3-4 ends he is not going to give us a lot of solo tackles but he has been able to make up for that with other contributions. The Saints switched to a 3-4 in 2013. Over his two seasons in this scheme Jordan has combined for only 59 solo stops but has 37 assists, 6 takeaways and 10 pass breakups to go along with his 20 sacks. 12.5 of those sacks came in 2013 when he was a top twelve lineman. Jordan slipped to just outside the top fifteen last season when his sack total dipped to 7.5. On paper the Saints have added a lot of pass rush talent to the roster. If this translates to the field it should take some pressure off Jordan. We can expect tackle numbers in the area of 30 solo and 20 assists again in 2015 but a bump in sack production could push Jordan back into the top twelve. At worst he will continue to be a quality second starter.  

Akiem Hicks starts opposite Jordan. He is a proto-typical 3-4 end. A powerful 324 pound road block with excellent mobility for a man of his size and the ability to both command multiple blockers in the running game, and contribute as a pass rusher. Hicks finished 2013 at 29-27-4.5 and seemed on the verge of becoming a factor for fantasy owners. Instead of taking the next step in 2014, he took a bit of a step back posting just 2 sacks. In NFL terms he is a great fit for the Saints. Hicks demands double teams in the run game and does a good job of keeping the linebackers clean so they can flow to the ball. There is little chance that anyone will push him for the starting spot but it does not look as if Hicks is going to be much of a box score factor either. He could have some value as a backup in deep drafted leagues. 

With the addition of rookie fifth round pick Tyeler Davison the Saints have a logjam at the nose tackle position. Veteran Broderick Bunkley opened last season as the starter only to be phased out in favor of 2013 third round selection John Jenkins. Neither player posted great numbers but it is noteworthy that Jenkins went 20-8-1 in his seven starts down the stretch. If he could keep up such a pace for a full season those numbers would project to 46-18-2.5. That would be great production for an interior lineman in tackle required leagues. The addition of Davidson could mean that Bunkley has played his last snap for the Saints. At the least it is a safe bet that Jenkins will have the starting job and the vast majority of playing time. I like him as a deep sleeper in leagues that break out the line positions. 

Linebackers

The Saints will have a different look at both inside and outside linebacker this season. Curtis Lofton led the club in tackles over the past three years but salary cap issues forced the team to let him walk via free agency. He has been replaced on the roster by 31st overall pick Stephone Anthony. Anthony was a highly productive inside backer at Clemson. Over the past two seasons he totaled 221 tackles for the Tigers while making a considerable big play contribution as well. Anthony's combination of size, speed and athleticism impressed many scouts and his excellent combine results had his stock on the rise heading into the draft. He needs to improve at shedding blockers but is a physical tackler who rarely misses, and has the cover skills to be a three down starter immediately. Lofton was one of just three players to reach triple digit solo tackles in 2014. The defense should improve a bit but Anthony is going to have plenty of opportunity. If he can make an impact in the big play columns this young man could be a perennial top fifteen linebacker.

After a huge 2009 season in Seattle, David Hawthorne quickly faded to obscurity. He has battled nagging minor injuries over much of the past five seasons and has not reached the 70 tackle mark since 2011. Hawthorne missed four games in 2014, finishing at 52-31-3 with an interception and 3 pass breakups. Average those numbers over a full season and we get a respectable 70-41-4. He has the skill set to be a quality three down inside backer in Rob Ryan's scheme and the organization will be counting on him for veteran leadership in a suddenly young linebacker corps. If Hawthorne can stay healthy he could be surprisingly productive working next to the rookie this year. He is worth a late round pick in most leagues as an LB5 with some upside. We could do a lot worse for a bye week fill in or matchup based spot starter.

Hawthorne could face competition from free agent addition Dannell Ellerbe. Ellerbe had an opportunity to start in Miami but was far from impressive. He will likely have some role and could even see snaps at outside linebacker. Hawthorne is a more complete linebacker and should have no trouble fending off the challenge.     

There is no position more important to the success of a 3-4 defense than its outside linebackers. These guys are counted on to create pressure and big plays as well as to set the edge against the run and short passing game. The lack of success New Orleans had at OLB was a major contributor to their struggles last season. Junior Galette was the lone bright spot at the position. His 10 sacks led the club and he forced 3 fumbles along the way as well. That is where the good news ends for Galette who is facing a ton of off field trouble. The Saints are reportedly considering cutting ties with him and even if they elect not to, chances are he will see a significant suspension from the league.   

The situation with Galette is a big blow for the Saints defense but at least they have some young guys in place to offset the loss a little. Hau'Oli Kikaha was the team's second round selection and comes with an impressive resume'. He racked up 32 sacks and 6 forced fumbles in 27 games over his final two seasons at Washington, including a string of fourteen consecutive games with at least 1 sack. Kikaha led the nation with 19 last year. He does not have great straight line speed but is quick, athletic and relentless off the edge. He is also versatile enough to play with his hand down. Many scouts consider Kikaha a one trick pony and expect that he will be no more than a pure pass rush specialist at the pro level. He struggles to set the edge and/or to hold up at the point of attack versus the run. Many of these same statements were true of Galette when he entered the league as well. In the Rob Ryan scheme outside rushers are simply asked to tackle the ball carrier on the way to the quarterback if the opportunity presents itself. Kikaha is not going to make a lot of tackles but he could come up with double digit sacks as a rookie. For owners in big play based leagues he could provide good value right away.

New Orleans further addressed the outside linebacker position with the first of their three picks in round five. Davis Tull was a highly recruited high school player until he broke his femur early in his senior season. He ended up playing at Tennessee-Chattanooga where he went on to be a three time Southern Conference defensive player of the year. Tull totaled 32 sacks over those three seasons and was a four year starter playing both defensive end and outside linebacker. He is a smart, tough, technically sound player but is not the most naturally gifted athlete. Many scouts write off his impressive numbers because he played against lesser competition, and believe that he will struggle greatly at the pro level. Tull will be given every opportunity to prove those scouts wrong. The Saints hope he can grow into a starting role at some point. They may have to push up the timeline and get him in the mix early with Galette's future is in question.    

The Saints also made a free agent addition at outside linebacker that could prove to be a lifesaver. Anthony Spencer missed nearly all of 2013 with an injury and was not a factor last season when he played sparingly as he worked his way back. He claims to be completely recovered now and is reunited with Ryan who coordinated the Cowboys defense in 2011 and 2012. Coincidentally it was under Ryan in 2012 that Spencer had what was by far the best statistical year of his career. That season he finished with 56 solo tackles, 39 assists and 11.5 sacks. If he is really healthy, Spencer could be a difference maker.

What we are likely to see this year is Spencer and veteran Parys Haralson as the starters, with Kikaha seeing a lot of opportunity on passing downs as the third man in the rotation. It is likely that Galette will not be available until at least week six if he is still with the team at that point.

  • ILB Stephone Anthony - Excellent candidate to be this year's rookie LB stud
  • ILB David Hawthorne - Sleeper with low end LB3 potential at best
  • ILB Ramon Humber - No value
  • ILB Dannell Ellerbe - Injury sleeper with marginal value at best
  • OLB Hau'Oli Kikaha - Dynasty prospect in big play based leagues 
  • OLB Anthony Spencer - Injury risk with upside in big play leagues
  • OLB Junior Galette - Avoid him like the plague
  • OLB Parys Haralson - No value
  • OLB Davis Tull - Deep dynasty prospect to keep an eye on

Defensive Backs

There are things in the universe that cannot be explained; we simply accept the fact that they are. I have come to except the fact that even though I cannot put my finger on the reason why, Ryan coached defenses kill the value of some very good safeties. Let us look at the facts, Rob and Rex Ryan have almost an identical defensive philosophy and run virtually the same scheme. In 2011 and 2012 Rob Ryan was defensive coordinator for the Cowboys. In those two seasons only one Cowboys defensive back exceeded 50 solo tackles and none posted more than 60. Meanwhile in those same two years the Saints had five defensive backs with more than 70 tackles including Roman Harper with 73 in 2011 and 89 in 2012. In 2013 Ryan moves on to New Orleans. In Dallas that season Barry Church put up 107 solo stops. He follows it with a solid 77 in 2014. Meanwhile back in New Orleans they draft Kenny Vaccaro who is a box score maven in college, and he finishes with 62 tackles while no other Saints DB exceeds 44. In 2014 Harper is shown the door and Vaccaro leads the team's defensive backs with 52 tackles.

Now let’s look at Rex Ryan's record. In the years before he took over as the Jets head coach, Kerry Rhodes posted 85, 75 and 51 (injury shortened) solo stops. Ryan gets the job in 2009 and Rhodes totals 55 before going to Arizona where he bounced back with 78 in 2010. Yeremiah Bell and LaRon Landry each had a decent year under Ryan but well below the numbers they had produced with their previous teams, and the Jets give us no top 25 defensive backs for six seasons and running. In 2013 Dawan Landry joins the Jets. After averaging 80 tackles over his final three season in Jacksonville, he totals 63 and 67 in two years under Ryan. In 2014 the Jets pick the consensus number one safety in the draft, who happens to be exceptionally productive in college as a physical in the box strong safety. Calvin Pryor proceeds to post a dismal 36 solo tackles while once again, no defensive back reaches the 70 tackle mark. Roman Harper, Kenny Vaccaro, Kerry Rhodes, LaRon Landry, Dawan Landry, Calvin Pryor and the list of box score productive safeties the Ryan brothers have ruined goes on.

As players I really like what both Vaccaro and Jairus Byrd bring to the table. Unfortunately Byrd cannot stay healthy and Vaccaro has been unable to break the Ryan curse. Both Pierre Warren and Rafael Bush turned in some quality games as injury replacements in 2014 but that was late in the season when the Saints were circling the drain. I would love to see Vaccaro break out for a big 2015 season, but if he does so it will be on someone else's fantasy roster. If Byrd can manage to stay healthy he might make enough big plays to give us useful numbers. I for one am not willing to invest a roster spot on the chance of that happening.

At the corner position the Saints have a pair of quality veterans in Keenan Lewis and Brandon Browner. Both players can get the job done but neither have the kind of talent that would allow them to be matched up one on one with an opponent’s best receiver. The organization used a second round pick in 2013 on Stanley Jean-Baptiste but he has failed to impress thus far. He was inactive nearly all of last season and failed to show up in the box score of any game. He may get a chance to play this year but we are hearing nothing about this young man so far. That is not a good sign for him.

In this year's draft the Saints used a third on Florida State corner P.J. Williams. This is a player that scouts were split on. Some see Williams as a versatile defensive back with the potential to start at either safety or corner. Others have a much lower opinion. If he is what the Saints expect, Williams could have a sub package role immediately and will be groomed for a starting job in the near future. New Orleans added depth at corner with their third pick in the fifth round as well. Damian Swann is a developmental prospect who will earn a living on special teams for a while. 

That will do it for Part 1 of this year's offering. I will be back in a week or so with the AFC South.