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Eyes of the Guru, Part 7: NFC West

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

Arizona Cardinals

Defensive Linemen

J.J. Watt is an alien. He is hands down the best and most fantasy productive 3-4 end the game has ever seen. Watt is so far above everyone else, using him for comparisons is simply not fair. Thus Calais Campbell has become the baseline by which (human) 3-4 ends are judged. As is always the case with players at this position, Campbell is not going to challenge for the league sack lead. In fact he has never reached double digits. What he has done is average 46-14-7, 2 turnovers and 5 batted passes since 2009. Since becoming a starter in his second year, Campbell has not fallen short of 6 sacks in any season. Last year he was 48-10-7 with a couple of turnovers and 3 passes defended. Had he not missed a couple of games with injury, he would have reached 50 solo stops for the third time in four years. There is little possibility of Campbell being top dog among defensive linemen, but there are no more dependable options for fantasy owners. He is a perennial top ten linemen who should be among the first five off the board at the position.

Both Dan Williams and Darnell Dockett are gone so the Cardinals will have some new faces up front. Dockett spent all of last season on injured reserve with veteran journeyman Tommy Kelly replacing him. Kelly was a one year place holder who has also moved on. Fourth round pick Rodney Gunter joins free agent additions Cory Redding and Corey Peters to fill the holes. Gunter and Peters will be in the mix for playing time at nose tackle where Alameda Ta'amu is currently penciled in as the starter. Arizona is among the 3-4 teams who will pull the nose tackle in passing situations, so none of these guys are going to have sufficient opportunity. Williams was 21-11-1 from the position last season when he saw nearly all the nose tackle snaps. With no clear cut number one, there may be a time share at the position in 2015.

The Cardinals seem to like having lots of experience at defensive end. The 33 year old Dockett was replaced by 33 year old Kelly last year. This season it will most likely be the 34 year old Redding sharing time with 32 year old Frostee Rucker opposite Calais Campbell. Redding has been a 4-3 tackle for most of his career, but he has spent some time at end in a 3-4. His 2010 and 2011 seasons with the Ravens produced a solid 60-25-7.5 combined. Redding may prove to be a good short term option for the Cardinals. In a full time role he is capable of 30 tackles and 4 sacks which could make him roster worthy in some sixteen team leagues, but there is no upside. Rucker recorded a career best 5 sacks last season and has averaged just short of four since 2011. He is a contributor who will likely share time nearly equally with Redding. This situation all but ensures neither player will make a serious impact in the box scores. Rucker has more upside and could be a 30 tackle guy with 5-6 sacks if he lands a full time role.

Linebackers

Just a couple of years back we were talking about how tough the Cardinals were on defense. That is not the case any longer. In fact, this unit will need to show considerable improvement if Arizona is going to contend in 2015. Last season they were 24th versus the pass, 26th against the run, in the bottom third of the league with 35 sacks and forced only 9 fumbles. If not for the 18 interceptions, this defense would have been in the bottom third of every vital statistic. Linebackers are the heart of a 3-4 and it is at linebacker the Cardinals are hurting most.

In 2013 Arizona had a pair of Pro Bowl caliber veterans at inside linebacker. Despite losing Daryl Washington to suspension, they elected to let Karlos Dansby walk last summer. Thus going from the penthouse to the outhouse at inside linebacker. Serviceable 34 year old veteran Larry Foote was the team's three down inside backer in 2014, with 2013 second round selection Kevin Minter serving in a two down role next to him. Numbers do not always tell the story. In this case they do. In 2013 the Cardinals ILB positions accounted for 202 solo tackles, 6 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles and 9 sacks. In 2014 the positions produced 115 tackles, 1 interception, a forced fumble, a recovery and 3 sacks. What a difference a year can make.

The Cardinals hope to get Washington back at some point. He has applied for reinstatement but there is no timetable for a decision from the commissioner’s office. Even if he is reinstated, there is a strong chance Washington could still miss games this season due to other off field situations not related to his substance suspension. An optimistic guess has him available for no more than twelve games and Washington may miss another entire season. If he does play however, he should be a box score monster in this situation. With camps opening and no word on his status, we should probably pass on Washington for now and be prepared to move quickly if there is a positive development.

The organization replaced Foote with former Falcons starter Sean Weatherspoon. The 2010 first round pick had a couple of good years with Atlanta before battling injuries over the past two seasons. He missed most of 2013 with a knee problem and landed on IR last summer with a ruptured Achilles’. No one is saying much about Weatherspoon this offseason, but he is expected to be healthy entering camp. In NFL terms he should provide a considerable improvement over Foote, but Weatherspoon is not an elite talent. Despite being 27 years old, the Cardinals were only willing to commit to a one year deal, making this is an extended audition not only for Arizona, but for the rest of the league as well. In fantasy terms Weatherspoon is a good player in an excellent situation. It will be no surprise to see him put up 80+ solo stops with enough of a big play impact to make the top twenty five at linebacker. Weatherspoon is getting no love from owners on draft day this summer. He can be picked up in most cases as a fifth linebacker or even later, making him a great value. If you are one of those who like to wait on defense, target Weatherspoon as your third starter or top backup.

As the Cardinals second round pick in 2013, Kevin Minter is on the cusp of being a bust. He was invisible as a rookie, recording all of 4 tackles on the season. The coaching staff's decision to let Dansby walk last year was seen by many as a vote of confidence for their young player who again failed to impress. As a result, Foote was plucked from the scrap heap and inserted into the lead role. Because the team has no one else at this time, Minter is going to get one more shot. The organization may still hold some hope for the young man. Fantasy owners however, should not. At least not until he gives us a reason. Expect Weatherspoon to be the three down backer with Minter in a part time role on early downs as he was last season. A return of Washington would almost certainly mean Minter goes back to the bench.   
     
Outside linebacker Alex Okafor played twelve games in 2014 but still led the Cardinals with 8 sacks. Shockingly, no other outside backer managed more than one. As would be expected, this will lead to a lot of new faces on the 2015 roster. Okafor was the team's fourth round pick in 2013. He did nothing as a rookie but has quickly developed into a player who should be a long term answer. Okafor was 27-2-8 in his twelve starts, posting 6 sacks, 3 passes defended and an interception over the final eight games. His small body of work leaves room for error, but the signs suggest he could become a perennial double digit sack guy. Like most outside linebackers in these schemes however, Okafor will be hard pressed to sniff 50 solo tackles. For those in big play based leagues he may be a rising star.

Realizing the importance, Arizona has thrown a lot of resources at the OLB position. Free agency brought former Pittsburgh starter LaMarr Woodley into the fold after an ugly 2014 in Oakland. He was a force early in his career, twice reaching double digit sacks and averaging almost 11 from 2008 to 2011. Having recorded 9 total over the past three years, the 30 year old Woodley is looking to kick start his career.

Arizona also addressed the position through he draft, adding Missouri's Markus Golden in round two and West Virginia's Shaq Riddick in the fifth. Golden was overshadowed by teammate Shane Ray who went to the Broncos in round one, but Golden was pretty impressive in his own right. He entered the draft after a junior year in which he totaled 35-43-10 with 3 forced fumbles and a recovery for a score, against some of the best competition in college football. Scouts tell us Golden needs some work on technique and will have to develop more variety in terms of rush moves, but he is a high effort player who stands up well against the run. He will be in the mix for playing time right away and is viewed as a possible long term answer opposite Okafor. Riddick was a junior college transfer in 2014 so he has just thirteen games against division one talent. He is generally considered a developmental prospect who has all the measurable traits defensive coaches are looking for. It sure does not hurt that he recorded 7 sacks as a senior in 2014.

  • ILB Kevin Minter - No value until proven different
  • ILB Sean Weatherspoon - Target as priority depth with LB3 upside
  • ILB Daryl Washington - Top fifteen linebacker if he can get back on the field
  • ILB Glenn Carson - No value
  • ILB Darryl Sharpton - No value
  • OLB Alex Okafor - sleeper with strong upside in big play based leagues
  • OLB LaMarr Woodley - Let him show us something
  • OLB Markus Golden - Dynasty sleeper in big play leagues
  • OLB Shaq Riddick - No value at this time
  • OLB Kareem Martin - No value
  • OLB Lorenzo Alexander - No value

Defensive Backs

Navigating the Cardinals safety situation is a challenge. There are a number of moving parts that must be considered. After two years as the defensive coordinator, Todd Bowles has move on to become a head coach. The scheme will remain basically the same under new coordinator James Bettcher but there are always some differences. Last year Bowles used extra safeties to cover the team's deficiency at inside linebacker. Have they improved enough at linebacker for it not to be an issue in 2015 and if not, will Bettcher use the same approach to mask the problem? After all, the stats suggest last year's approach did not work all that well.

Rashad Johnson would seem to be the one safe bet. He was the only Arizona safety to hold an every down role in 2014. This is particularly interesting when we consider the team regularly used a third safety to fill in at inside linebacker. Johnson spent most of his first four years in the league as a backup or part time starter. He quickly became a favorite of Bowles, moving into a full time role in 2013. Playing behind Karlos Dansby and Daryl Washington, Johnson averaged a modest 4 tackles a game, going 52-6-0 with 3 picks and 5 pass breakups in thirteen contests. Working behind last year's inside backers he led the team in tackles with 76. Adding 5 takeaways, a sack, 8 passes defended and a pair of scores, to finish as the number two defensive back in the fantasy game. At face value Johnson would be considered a likely top ten pick at DB. Unfortunately it may be more complicated than that.

As a rookie in 2013 Tyrann Mathieu blew up the box scores. He posted 5 or more solo tackles in nine of his first ten games, adding 3 turnovers, a sack and 9 passes defended before the knee injury in week fourteen. At that pace he would have finished with 85 tackles and enough big play contribution to land among the top twelve defensive backs. It was a miracle of modern medicine to see Mathieu on the field in week two last year. He was eased back into action logging 460 total snaps in his second season. We have to do a little math then consider how impressive it was for Mathieu to go 36-2-0 with a pair of turnovers and 4 passes defended on less than 40% of the team's defensive plays, while being less than twelve months removed from such a devastating injury. Had he played every down like Johnson, Mathieu would have been in the area of 86 tackles with 4-5 turnovers and about 10 passes defended. He now has two years of experience and is completely healthy. So what will his role be?

Then we have Deone Bucannon who was the Cardinals first round pick last year. Most of us expected him to be the team's starting strong safety right out of the gate. Instead he was used in a hybrid role as an in the box strong safety/ nickel linebacker. When the season ended Bucannon had played roughly 62% of the defensive snaps, recording 64-16-2 with a couple of turnovers and a pair of batted passes. It is hard to argue with the per snap production and the team did not use the 27th overall pick to have Bucannon on the sideline 38% of the time. So what will his role be?

Let us not forget Tony Jefferson. He opened 2014 as a starter and finished as the team's second leading tackler. Jefferson played virtually full time over the first four games. After that he was in and out of the full time role. In all he was close to an every down player in seven games, seeing action on 64% of the total plays while totaling 69-8-1 with a forced fumble. The 23 year old is a big physical presence who played well in his second season as a pro. So what will his role be?

With a little luck, maybe the Cardinals will trade one of these guys for a starting inside linebacker. That way one of them could go somewhere else and be a quality fantasy option and clear up the log jam in Arizona a little. Chances are, it is not going to happen. There is way too much production and potential here for us to simply avoid the whole situation. Hopefully we will get some answers early in the preseason. For now I am ranking Johnson at the top followed by Mathieu, Bucannon and Jefferson. My biggest fear here is a Bill Belichick move that has all of them seeing action in some sort of time share with one or none of them playing full time.

Patrick Peterson's career has followed the path of the rookie corner rule to a tee. In his inaugural season the 2011 fifth overall pick was an immediate starter totaling 59 solo stops, 3 interception and 13 passes defended. In 2012 the tackle numbers dropped to 52 while his interception jumped to 7 and his pass breakups increased to 17 (both career highs). In 2013 however, all of his totals took a nose dive. After finishing as the fantasy games number nine corner in 2012, his 40 tackles, 3 picks and 13 passes defended in made Peterson a fantasy bust in 2013. His production seems to have leveled off in the area of 40-45 tackles with a handful of big plays and low double digit passes defended. Peterson is one of the NFL's great corners but his best fantasy days have passed.

Jerraud Powers projects as the starter opposite Peterson. Over his six years in the league Powers has experience as both a starter and slot corner. His box score totals have been largely unimpressive though he did have 60 tackles and 18 passes defended in his first year with the Cardinals (2013). Powers will benefit from playing opposite Peterson and could turn that into marginal value as depth in corner required leagues. His career best of 3 interceptions does not promote a great deal of confidence.  
 Justin Bethel is penciled in as the third corner entering camp. He drew praise from the coaching staff last summer and saw an increased role in 2014. The team did little to compensate for the loss of Antonio Cromartie. That may be a positive sign for Bethel who moves up the depth chart toward what could possibly be a starting role in the near future.

St. Louis Rams

Defensive Linemen

Fantasy prognosticators have to love the Rams defense. They are one of the few teams with plenty of productive players and no major questions. Robert Quinn is the headliner up front. The 2011 first round pick showed signs of great things to come when he reached double digit sacks in his second year. In 2013 he exploded for 50 tackles, 19 sacks, 9 turnovers and a score. That season Quinn edged out J.J. Watt as the top lineman in the game. Players rarely repeat such extravagant totals so when Quinn started slowly last year there was not a lot of concern. When we reached week seven and he was still looking for sack number one, there was near panic from owners who feared Quinn had been a one year wonder. He was not able to repeat the monster season but Quinn did rebound with 10.5 sacks over the final ten games, extending his streak to three seasons reaching double digits. Quinn fell just short of 40 solo tackles in 2014, but his production in that area rebounded at the same time. He failed to record more than 2 tackles in a game until week six. Over the final eleven games Quinn failed to post more than 2 tackles in a game twice. He is 25 years old and is one of the best in the game at the defensive end position. He is one of the few with potential to challenge Watt as the top defender in fantasy football. At worst we can count on Quinn for 40+ tackles, double digit sacks, a handful of turnovers and third consecutive finish among the top ten.

Quinn's counterpart Chris Long is another Rams lineman who packs some box score punch, albeit not nearly to the extent of Quinn. Long spent most of 2014 on short term injured reserve but his body of work gives us plenty to judge his value by. The 2008 first round pick has never put big numbers in the tackle columns. Twice he has reached a career best of 33 solo stops. The first time in his second season, then again in 2013. Long's best overall fantasy totals came in 2011 when he was 31-6-13 with a forced fumble. Leading up to last 2014 he was on a run of four consecutive seasons with at least 8.5 sacks. Marginal tackle totals contribute to a lack of consistency and low turnover numbers help to keep Long short of every week starter status. What we can count on him for is around 30 tackles, 9 sacks and a couple of big plays, making Long more than worthy of a roster spot in most leagues as a matchup based starter or bye week fill in.

William Hayes and Eugene Sims give the Rams quality depth at the defensive end positions. In the event of an injury to one of the starters, Hayes would be the guy to grab. He was 32-9-3 with a couple of turnover as Long's replacement last season, giving him 14.5 sacks total in three seasons with the Rams. Hayes is a versatile player as well, who usually see some snaps as an interior lineman in sub packages.

Even the tackle positions in St. Louis provide excellent value. As a rookie Aaron Donald was the number three tackle and a top twenty defensive lineman over all. Much like Quinn, Donald started slowly, recording his first sack as a pro in week seven, then going on to finish at 34-10-8 with a forced fumble. The Rams are all about getting a heavy pass rush from the front four without the need to blitz. If he can pick up where he left of last season, Donald will easily reach 40 tackles and double digit sacks. He was not far behind Marcell Darius and Ndamukong Suh last season. Look for the 24 year old Donald to capture top billing in 2015 and be a perennial top 5 tackle for most of the next decade.

Michael Brockers fills out the starting lineup at tackle. He too is a former first round pick of the Rams (2012) who can provide some box score bang. At 23-8-2 last season, you would not think that to be the case. However, in 2013 Brockers was a top five tackle at 38-8-5.5. With the addition of Donald, Brockers responsibilities changed. He was asked to be less of a penetrator and more of a space eater. Even in that role the potential is still there for 30+ tackles and 5 sacks. Former Lions first round pick Nick Fairley joins the tackle rotation and hopes to kick start a career that sputtered in Detroit. Fairley has the talent to step right in if called upon but will likely be no more than the third cog in the rotation.

Linebackers

James Laurinaitis is one of the outstanding middle linebackers in today's NFL. His combination of size, speed, intelligence, leadership, work ethic and athleticism make him the prototype among 4-3 middle backers. He is just as solid in coverage as he is making plays in traffic between the tackles and at age 28, is at the peak of his game. Over his first four seasons in the league Laurinaitis was just as impressive in the box scores as on the field. Averaging 107 solo tackles a season with a respectable big play contribution each year, he finished each of those seasons among the top ten linebackers in the fantasy game. His on field presence was equally as strong in 2013 but some other factors impacted his numbers enough to drop Laurinaitis outside the top fifteen in the overall linebacker rankings. The most significant of those factors was the addition of Alec Ogletree. In the four seasons prior to Ogletree's arrival, the Rams had gotten by with solid but unspectacular players around Laurinaitis. As a result he had relatively little competition for tackles in a defense that was designed to funnel everything to him. With the addition of Ogletree, there were suddenly two excellent linebackers the mix. The team also made some tweaks in the scheme that favored the weak side linebacker as the focal point at times, much like the Buccaneers do with Lavonte David.

In 2013 Laurinaitis and Ogletree remained relatively close in fantasy points with Ogletree holding a slight advantage. Last year the margin widened rather significantly, with most of the difference coming via big play production. There is a good news, bad news situation with these two. The good news being the Rams give us a pair of quality options. The bad news, with the pair on the field together neither are likely to make the top ten. The past two seasons have clearly shown what we can expect from them both. Ogletree has now led the Rams in solo stops for the past two seasons, so we can expect him to post a few more solo stops. We can also expect a few more big plays and about 2 more fantasy points a game from Ogletree. Both guys will consistently put up 80-90 solo stops with a few turnovers. The St. Louis stats crew is among the most stingy in the league in terms of assists, so we will not see many tallies in that column for anyone in a Rams uniform. With the front four providing an excellent pass rush, we are not going to see many sacks from the linebackers, though this is one area Laurinaitis should hold an advantage. All things considered, Ogletree should continue to be a strong LB2 while Laurinaitis has fallen to low LB2 or priority third starter status. If either of them go down with injury however, we can expect the other to see a significant increase in the tackle and fantasy point columns.   
 
There is an interesting and somewhat surprising trend that I have seen in drafts this summer. Owners are still picking Laurinaitis well ahead of Alec Ogletree. Maybe people are concerned that Ogletree's rookie production was some sort of a fluke, or possibly it is just that people are still more comfortable with Laurinaitis because he is better established. I am not going to argue the point save to say that I am confident Ogletree was not a one year wonder. His 94 solo tackles were a club best in 2013 and his 5 forced fumbles were second only to Robert Quinn. Ogletree out produced Laurinaitis in tackles, takeaways and passes defended in 2013, on the way to posting 18 more fantasy points. He is a fast, athletic playmaker with excellent range and cover skills. Ogletree's athleticism is something that new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams will look to take advantage of. I foresee a situation much like that in San Francisco with Navarro Bowman and Patrick Willis, where Laurinaitis and Ogletree are neck and neck all season for the team tackle lead and randomly take turns leading the team in weekly fantasy points. Fantasy owners cannot go wrong with either of these players but in the grand scheme of things, Ogletree may prove to be the better value based on where he will be drafted.

Jo-Lonn Dunbar has been the Rams strong side linebacker for the past two seasons. He is a solid contributor for the team and displayed some fantasy potential as the weak side backer before the addition of Ogletree. Now that he has been relegated to a two down role on the strong side, there is little box score production to be found. In 2014 Dunbar was the only St. Louis linebacker other than Laurinaitis and Ogletree, to reach double digits in tackles. He had 29 on the season. The Rams added Akeem Ayers in free agency to provide depth at linebacker and compete with Dunbar for the starting job.

Defensive Backs

The Rams secondary accounted for 410 solo tackles in 2014. That is the most of any secondary in the league. What makes this situation unique is the big numbers were not due to poor play in the front seven, but rather by design. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams likes the advantage of speed. He will often use additional defensive backs instead of a third linebacker. Thus the Rams secondary gave us five players with more than 50 solo tackles in 2014. This is a trend that should continue.

Strong safety T.J. McDonald's total of 84 solo stops was the fourth most in the league among defensive backs, helping him to a top twelve finish in many formats in 2014. This was not a surprise as McDonald was one of my favorite sleepers last summer. The Rams long history of quality production from the strong safety position dates back to Adam Archuleta, who was followed by Quintin Mikell and now McDonald. Then we have defensive coordinator Gregg Williams who made Roman Harper a fantasy stud in New Orleans for several years. McDonald is an imposing 6'2" 219 pound enforcer that is a bit of a liability in man coverage, but is highly effective as an in the box strong safety with a knack for the big hit. The presence of extra defensive backs on many plays puts McDonald in position to make a lot of the stops usually credited to the strong side linebacker. It also helps to mask his less than stellar cover skills. The organization would like to see more big play production from McDonald, who has only 3 turnovers and 3 sacks over his first two seasons. Despite his size and physical nature, the third year pro has yet to force a fumble as a Ram. He is established as a cornerstone of a young St. Louis defense that is quickly becoming one of the league's best. McDonald's big tackle production was not a fluke. If he can put a few big plays with it in 2015, we may see the first of many top ten finishes from him.

Rodney McLeod enters his third season as the Rams starting free safety. The former undrafted free agent is not flashy and will not catch anyone's eye with big numbers, but he has been an important contributor on the field. His two years as a starter have produced nearly identical box score totals. If the stats crew in St. Louis were not so stingy with assists he might have something to offer fantasy owners. As it is, McLeod's 2014 totals of 62-10-0 with 6 turnovers and 6 passes defended, landed him barely inside the top fifty at the position. In sixteen team leagues or leagues with deep rosters, he may have some value as depth. For most of us however, there are better options.

Mark Barron is the wildcard at the safety position. The former Buccaneers starter was acquired via trade late last October. Down the stretch he was used as an extra defensive back in what has commonly become known as a big nickel package. Over eight games with the Rams Barron was on the field for more than 20 snaps just once. In all he played 174 of a possible 545. Considering the minimal opportunity his total of 20-2-3 with a pass defended is fairly impressive. The 2012 first round pick totaled 142-35-2 with 5 takeaways, 16 passes defended and a pair of sacks over his two full years as a starter in Tampa. Why the Buccaneers elected to ship Barron remains a mystery, but Gregg Williams seems to have a good idea how to use him. The question is, will he have a bigger role in 2015? Barron is probably better in coverage than McDonald but he is not a prototypical free safety by any stretch. It is hard to imagine Barron replacing McDonald, who has played well. And he does not have the skill set to replace McLeod who has also done a solid job for the team. An educated guess is we will see a lot more of the big nickel in 2015 with Barron and/or McDonald moving around the formation in an effort to confuse blocking schemes and exploit weaknesses. Barron may or may not be an every down player, but his success down the stretch last year should lead to considerably more opportunity. Without a full time role he could struggle with consistency, but he might be surprisingly productive. If he is already on your dynasty roster I would not be in too big a hurry to dump him. We need to get a look at some preseason action and figure out what we have first. There are a lot of NFL teams using interchangeable free safety type players as their starters. Maybe the Rams will try starting a pair of strong safeties?

The corner position in St. Louis provides fantasy owners with options as well. entering his fourth season, 2012 second round pick Janoris Jenkins is established as the team's number one corner. As a rookie he put up a strong 64-9-0 with 5 turnovers, 14 passes defended and an impressive 4 touchdowns. In line with the rookie corner rule, his totals dropped to 54-6-1 with a couple of takeaways and 14 passes defended in his second year. Uncharacteristically however, Jenkins seemed to level off, if not rebound a bit in season three. In fourteen games he was 55-4-0 with 4 turnovers and a couple of scores. Strangely his pass defended numbers plummeted all the way to 5, which has to be a fluke. So what we have is a corner who has averaged 58 solo tackles, 4 turnovers, 11 passes defended and 2 scores over his first three years. He was a top fifteen corner in 2014 even without consideration of the two games missed, with an average points per game among the top ten.

Interestingly, Jenkins may not be the best corner option on the team for fantasy owners. with projected starter Trumaine Johnson on the shelf with an injury, last year's sixth round pick E.J. Gaines opened the season in the other starting spot. The rookie never let go. He was injured in week sixteen, missing the finale. In fifteen games Gaines was 63-7 with a couple of picks and 15 passes defended. His points per game average was slightly below that of Jenkins, but Gaines point total ranked a slot ahead. If the story ended here it would be easy to say both Jenkins and Gaines are quality starting options in corner required leagues. As Paul Harvey would say, now for the rest of the story. Johnson returned to action in week nine. He finished out the season working mostly in the nickel corner role. in nine games he was 33-3 with 3 picks, 6 passes defended and a score. Comparing overall points does not apply, but Johnson's points per game average was the seventh best among corners on the season.

We know Jenkins is a starter. Chances are the Rams will pick up where they left off with Gaines starting and Johnson in the passing down sub packages. That said, we should not overlook the fact Johnson was a starter in 2013 and would have been last season as well if not for the injury. Make Gaines the priority between the two, but keep an eye on the Rams starting lineup when the preseason gets under way.

San Francisco 49ers

Defensive Linemen

Eric Mangini is still the defensive coordinator and the team will continue to run a 3-4. Beyond that, we may not recognize much about the 49ers when the season opens. From last year’s week one lineup, Justin Smith has retired and Ray McDonald is out of football. So two thirds of the defensive line will be new. At the second level Patrick Willis and Chris Borland have retired, changing the issue from which two of the three stud linebackers will start, to who will fill in next to Navorro Bowman. In the secondary starting corners Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox have signed elsewhere. None of these losses can be spun as positive.

To fill the holes up front San Francisco used a first round pick on Oregon tackle Arik Armstead and signed former Arizona starter Darnell Dockett. those two will compete with 2013 second round pick Cornellius Carradine and former Kansas City starter Glenn Dorsey to establish the new pecking order at end. Both Dockett and Dorsey are multi-year veterans with starting experience as 3-4 ends. Dorsey put up 51 solo stops for the Chiefs in 2010 but has not managed more than 31 in a season since. He has averaged 1 sack a year over his career. Dockett has a bit more potential but can hardly be considered promising. The 34 year old was 36-10-4.5 with the Cardinals in 2013. If he is completely healthy, similar production is possible but there is no upside. The veterans have been penciled in as starters entering camp but neither of them represent the future beyond 2015.

The organization hopes their investment in Carradine and Armstead will bring a bright future. Both young players have a lot to prove. Carradine would have been a first round selection had he not suffered a serious knee injury late in his final season at Florida State. He has struggled to make it back from that injury over the past two years. Carradine saw no action as a rookie, making his first NFL tackle in week ten last year. Over the final eight games he was on the field for 146 plays going 16-1-3. As a senior he was 47-33-11 for the Seminoles, so there would seem to be hope for his fantasy value as well. Now that he is finally healthy Carradine may prove to be the long term answer as Smith's replacement.

Armstead has many of the traits 3-4 coaches look for in a defensive end. He is 6'7" with a huge wingspan, which makes it tough for quarterbacks to throw over or around him. His size, strength, quickness and explosive first step have been compared to Calais Campbell, but Armstead is raw from an experience and technical perspective. It would be a surprise to see him break the starting lineup as a rookie, but he should see some time on a rotational basis. If things work out, San Francisco could be set at end for the next several years.

Nose tackle Ian Williams is the lone returning week one starter up front. He and third year pro Quinton Dial shared the position over the course of last season with both players missing time due to injury. Between them they totaled 39-7-3, which would be solid production for an interior lineman. Both young men played well when healthy in 2014. They will compete for the starting nod this summer with the winner possibly having some value in tackle required leagues.

  • DE Darnell Dockett - Possible DL3 with no upside 
  • DE Glenn Dorsey - No value
  • DE Cornellius Carradine - Sleeper with considerable long term potential
  • DE Arik Armstead - Dynasty sleeper with long term DL2 upside
  • NT Ian Williams - Sleeper in tackle required leagues
  • NT Quinton Dial - Sleeper in tackle required leagues

Linebackers

From 2011 to 2013 Navorro Bowman averaged 109-36-3, 4 turnovers and 8 passes defended. During that span we wondered how much better he would be if not paired with Patrick Willis who was also an outstanding player. If Bowman is healthy we may finally have the answer in 2015. He suffered a severe knee injury at the end of 2013, but not before scoring enough point to be the fantasy game's top linebacker. Bowman sat out all of last season recovering from the injury, while Chris Borland took over the position and put up big numbers as well. Willis and Borland shocked the fantasy world by retiring at the end of 2014. Meanwhile Bowman has been working through rehab in an effort to be fully recovered by September. The last word on his progress came in May when he was participating in off season activities while wearing a bulky brace. At that time he told reporters; "The knee will get to where it needs to be, maybe not as fast as you guys expect. It hasn’t been consistent. I go out there some days and I feel great and some days I have to fight through it. That’s part of the process. I understand that. But mentally, it messes with me sometimes". There is long term optimism in his words but Bowman's value for this season remains questionable. Hopefully we will get more encouraging news when the 49ers take the field for training camp.

With Bowman out and Willis missing most of last season, third year man Michael Wilhoite got the call to start next to Borland on the inside. He was adequate on the field but Wilhoite's 67-20-0 with 3 turnovers and 6 passes defended, failed to make an impact for fantasy owners. The team made no additions at inside linebacker via the draft and the only significant free agent signing at the position was journeyman Phillip Wheeler. Wilhoite enters camp as the favorite to start next to Bowman in 2015, but I am not sold on him being there in week one.

Wheeler has been a starter for the Colts, Raiders and Dolphins over his seven year career. In 2012 he was relatively productive (78-32-3.5) as a three down weak side linebacker in Oakland. He had the same role in 2013 with Miami, going 84-35-1.5. There are a lot of moving parts to watch here. The most important being how close Bowman is to pre-injury form. Regardless of the answer to that question, we need to keep an eye on Wheeler. If he sneaks into the lineup he could be a pleasant surprise; especially if Bowman struggles.

San Francisco is not short on talent at the outside linebacker positions, they just need to keep Aldon Smith on the field. Smith had an excellent rookie season in 2011, posting  31 tackles, 14 sacks and three turnovers. When his second season produced a stat line of 49-15-19 with 4 turnovers, it looked as if he were on the way to becoming  both one of the games premier pass rushers and one of the few 3-4 outside backers with value in any format. Three games at the beginning of 2013 produced a start of 14-4-4.5 but then the wheels fell off. Smith missed the next six games with an injury, returning to total 15-1-4 over the final eight games. 2014 opened with a lengthy suspension, followed by a mark of 10-5-2 over the last six games after reinstatement. If the young man can get his head together and stay healthy, he is a Pro Bowl talent. Who knows what we will get from him this year. At least we know injury is not a factor heading into camp.

Ahmad Brooks and Aaron Lynch tied for the team sack lead with 6 last season, and Dan Skuta was right behind with 5. Skuta has moved on, leaving Brooks as the starter opposite Smith and Lynch as the third man to spell them. Brooks was 52-8-9.5 in 2013 but has put up no more than 34 tackles and 7 sacks in any of his other seven years as a pro. There is some upside with Brooks but he cannot be counted on as more than a bye week filler in big play based leagues.

Third round pick Eli Harold has the physical tools and motor to become a special player at the pro level. He declared for the draft after his junior year at Virginia. In three season there he totaled 17.5 sacks but was not particularly productive in the tackle columns. That said, scouts liked his ability to force the edge in run support and see it as one of his strengths. He could have a bright future in San Francisco.

  • ILB Navorro Bowman - Huge potential but health will determine his value
  • ILB Michael Wilhoite - Depth with low LB3 upside at best
  • ILB Phillip Wheeler - Sleeper with LB3 potential
  • OLB Aldon Smith - Risk/Reward player with huge big play potential 
  • OLB Ahmad Bradshaw - Possible LB3 in big play based leagues
  • OLB Aaron Lynch - Injury sleeper in big play formats
  • OLB Eli Harold - Dynasty sleeper for big play formats

Defensive Backs

When the team had a healthy tandem of Willis and Bowman at inside linebacker, there was not enough opportunity behind them for a safety to be fantasy friendly. In 2014 strong safety Antoine Bethea became the first 49ers safety in over half a decade to reach 70 solo stops and rank in the top twenty. Bethea is close as it gets to a sure thing. He has tallied at least 70 tackles in each of the past seven seasons, averaging 75-30-.5, 3.5 turnovers and 6 passes defended since 2008. At age 31 he is on the back side of a solid career, but still has some good years left. Questions in the front seven and particularly at inside linebacker, should mean plenty of opportunity in run support which is Bethea's strength. Quality tackle totals are a given but it is also worth mention that Bethea tied a career best of 4 interceptions in his first season with the team, and set a personal best with 10 passes defended. His total of 71-14-1, 5 turnovers and a defensive score led Bethea into the top ten for the first time since 2009. He has the potential to repeat that ranking but even if he falls a little short, outstanding consistency makes him worthy of low end DB1 status.

As a rookie first round pick in 2013 free safety Eric Reid led San Francisco's secondary in tackles with 62, adding 6 turnover and double digit passes defended. The big play totals were enough of a supplement to make Reid a decent backup or bye week flier. Where he went last season remains a mystery. Reid was hurt in weeks sixteen and missed the final contest, but it does not explain his poor production in the tackle columns (35-7). The 3 interceptions and 7 defended passes were a drop off as well, but much less drastic.

The presence of last year's first round pick Jimmie Ward and 2015 second rounder Jaquiski Tartt could be a bad sign for Reid. Ward was inserted as the slot corner last season, which is the position he was specifically drafted to fill. His numbers in the part time role were nothing to get excited about but Ward performed well on the field before landing on injured reserve with a bad foot. There is not much expectation for Ward in terms of box score production, but the Tartt addition could be an interesting one. At 6'1" 221 pounds, he is among the biggest defensive backs in the league. He is an aggressive physical tackler with a fierce competitive nature but there are questions about his cover skills, particularly in man to man. Tartt played free safety over most of his college career at Samford but most scouts projected him as an in the box strong safety. His size and skill set lead me to wonder if San Francisco may take a page out of the Arizona playbook, using Tartt in a big nickel role where he would line up basically as an inside linebacker. That might make a lot of sense considering their shortage of three down options at linebacker. This is a situation we will be watching closely as it could provide a useful option. Slip Tartt onto your late round sleeper list or consider stashing him your taxi squad.             
Tramaine Brock and Chris Cook are the projected starters at corner. Between them they totaled 13 solo tackles in 2014, with no other tallies in any pertinent statistical column. Brock joined the team as an undrafted free agent in 2010. After three and a half seasons as a backup, he moved into the starting lineup in week twelve of 2013. Including the playoffs Brock made nine starts as the team's number two corner that season, recording at least 4 solo tackles in four of his six regular season starts. It was his impressive showing as a playmaker that left the coaching staff optimistic. In his limited role Brock broke up 15 passes, intercepting 5. Injuries have been a factor over much of his career, including last season when Brock lasted eleven plays as the starter before going down. The San Francisco corner positions have shown little fantasy potential in recent years. If Brock can stay healthy he could break that trend. At the least he is a player to keep an eye on.

Cook spent some time as a starter in Minnesota before coming to San Francisco in 2014, but injuries have derailed his career. Over five years in the league he has played in forty of a possible 80 games, and has never been active for more than twelve in any one season. He has 106 career tackles with the most telling statistic for Cook being, he is still looking for his first turnover.

Last year's fourth round pick Dontae Johnson and free agent addition Shareece Wright will also be in the mix for starting spots at corner. Wright has 50+ tackles in each of the past two season as a starter for San Diego, but he too has shown a major shortage in the big play columns. Entering his fifth season as a pro, all his résumé shows is a single interception, a forced fumble and a sack.

Johnson has three starts as a pro and has played 502 total snaps, but he has as many interceptions (1) as Wright and Cook combined. Johnson's three starts last season produced 13 tackles, 3 assists and a pair of passes defended. It is a small sampling but at least it leaves room for optimism. It would be no surprise to see the second year pro emerge as a starter opposite Brock.

Seattle Seahawks

Defensive Linemen

From a fantasy perspective the Seattle defensive line was a major disappointment in 2013. So many players were used in the rotations, there was not enough opportunity for anyone to shine in the box scores. After losing three key players up front expectations were high once again high in 2014. Logic suggested that with fewer quality players, the remaining studs would see more opportunity. The logic was correct as Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril saw their workloads increase considerably. Bennett was on the field for over 86% of the Seahawks defensive snaps. Unfortunately the extra opportunity did not equate to more production in the box scores. For the second straight season the leading tackle producer on Seattle's defensive line fell well short of 30 solo stop or double digit sacks. After totaling 8.5 sacks in 2013, Bennett led the group in both categories at 26-12-6 last season. This one is tough to figure out because Bennett is a much better player than those numbers suggest. He was 34-7-9 with 3 forced fumbles in his final season (2012) with the Buccaneers. When lobbying for a new contract he argued the lack of flashy numbers was because the coaches move him around so much. Not to pop you bubble Mr. Bennett, but most guys who are moved around like that, love it. And they usually post better numbers because of it. It would be great to say the poor production was a fluke, but it has happened in consecutive seasons. Then there is the point, no other Seattle lineman even reached 20 solo stops in 2014. There is something terribly wrong with this picture. It may be the players, or the scheme, or even the stats crew to some extent. While the reason is tough to put a finger on, the response is not. Avoid the Seahawks defensive linemen in 2015.

Before those of you in tackle required leagues start emailing and tweeting me about Jordan Hill and/or Tony McDaniel. Let me point out those guys were on the field about 45% of the time. Brandon Mebane and Kevin Williams saw the bulk of early down snaps so Hill and McDaniel could come on with fresh legs to rush the passer in sub packages. This is the approach defensive coordinator Kris Richards likes to take. The only difference we are likely to see in 2015 is Ahtyba Rubin replacing Williams. Same story, different day. Hill and McDaniel will probably give us 5-6 sacks but we need more than 16 tackles for them to have any value.

Linebackers

When it comes to the Seattle linebackers there is not much guess work. Bobby Wagner is entrenched in the middle as is K.J. Wright on the weak side. With Malcolm Smith cashing in his Super Bowl ticket for a big free agent payday from Oakland, Bruce Irvin may be in line for all the snaps on the strong side going forward. At 74-34-2 with 4 turnovers and a handful of pass breakups, Wright was the Seahawks leading tackler and top points producer in 2014. Those statistics are a bit misleading though. Averaging slightly over ten points a game, Wright was a solid fantasy contributor as a bye week starter. His numbers got a boost from the five games he played at middle linebacker while Wagner was out. With everyone healthy it is Wagner who holds the big value in Seattle.

Considering he missed five games last season, Wagner's totals of 67-37-2 are fairly impressive. Average in the games missed and his numbers look something like 97-54-3. The most telling fact of all is his 12.7 points per game average, which was among the top ten linebackers last year. One part of Wagner's game was strangely quiet in 2014. He has not been a huge big play threat since coming to the league three seasons ago, but a goose egg in the turnover columns is uncharacteristic. He has missed at least a couple of games in each of the past two years so there is a touch of injury concern, but he has never suffered anything major nor missed more than a few games. One thing that makes Wagner stand out is consistency. In eleven games last season he reached double digit points nine times. One of the games he fell short was week six when he left early. If we can get a full slate of games out of him, 90+ tackles, 40+ assists, a handful of sacks and 3 or 4 turnovers are reasonable expectations. Target Wagner as a low end LB1 or priority second starter and keep your finger crossed.

Irvin's career started slowly while he was groomed for bigger things to come. AS a rookie in 2012 he posted 10 tackles and 8 sacks as a pass rush specialist. His second season started with a suspension and ended with a goose egg against the Cardinals in week seventeen. In between he was 31-9-2 with a couple of turnovers while working as a hybrid strong side linebacker/rush end. That was his role again for most of 2014 as he continued to share time with Smith. Irvin will see time with his hand on the ground in some packages, but the team has no one waiting in the wings to share snaps this year. This situation should mean better tackle production for Irvin but we should not expect a big jump into fantasy relevance.

Defensive Backs

In NFL terms the Seahawks have some great players in their secondary. In fantasy terms, no so much. Free safety Earl Thomas had a great 2013 from any perspective. Last year however, he turned back into the same productive yet inconsistent player we had been used too. At a glance his 71-26-0 with 5 turnovers and 6 pass breakups seems pretty solid. If he was in your lineup for weeks ten, eleven and seventeen last year, you were singing his praise. If you started him most other weeks however, you were probably kicking yourself. Thomas recorded 40% of his tackles and fantasy points in those three weeks. Over the other thirteen games he averaged barely over 3 tackles, reaching double digit points once. Throw in the shoulder injury that has him questionable for the beginning of the season, and you should have all the reason needed to let someone else take the plunge.

At 6'3", 232 pounds Kam Chancellor is the biggest safety in the game by far. He is bigger than several starting linebackers and he often plays like one. He is an intimidator over the middle against the pass, an extra linebacker in the box against the run and a big part of the reason Seattle has been to two Super Bowls. About the only thing Chancellor does not do, is put up great numbers. In 2012 he was a beast for fantasy owners as well. That season Chancellor was 75-22-1 with 7 turnovers and 12 passes defended. Since that time his box score totals have steadily declined to virtual uselessness. In 2014 he was 60-18-0 with a pair of takeaways and 6 pass breakups. Chancellor reached double digit points in three games with 22% of his production coming in week three against Denver. In the right situation Chancellor would be a perennial top ten defensive back. Playing on the backend of a great Seattle defense, he is barely roster worthy.

For the second year in a row Seattle's corner position has been pillaged by other teams looking to steal a piece of their success. After their first Super Bowl they lost Brandon Browner and Walter Thurmond to free agency. This year it was Byron Maxwell. Maybe those other teams will eventually realize it is Richard Sherman and the safeties who make this secondary tick. Those other guys are good players but were really only along for the ride. Sherman and Darrelle Revis are #1 and #1A among corners in the league. As is generally the case with great cover men, opponents tend to avoid challenging them. In 2012 Sherman established himself as one of the best by piling up 52 tackles, 10 assists, 8 interception (with 3 other turnovers) a whopping 24 passes defended and a pair of scores. He even added a sack for good measure. Now that opponents know how good he is, Sherman was 45-12-0 with 5 turnovers and 8 passes defended in 2014. Can you say, rookie corner rule in play?

With Maxwell gone there is no established starter opposite Sherman. It is important for us to find out who that will be, as he will have a great deal of opportunity. Seattle signed former Eagle Cary Williams and former Jaguar Will Blackmon to compete with holdovers Jeremy Lane, Tharold Simon and Marcus Burley for the second starting spot, and to determine the rest of the pecking order at corner. Williams has four years of experience as a starter in Philadelphia and Baltimore, making him the front runner for the job. In an ironic twist of fate, Williams was jettisoned from Philadelphia because their secondary played so poorly last season. It will be interesting to see how much better he looks with quality players around him. Once we have confirmed Williams as the starter, he should be in the cross hairs of fantasy owners. Not only will he have the added opportunity that comes from playing opposite Sherman, Williams already has a long history of quality production. He has recorded at least 56 tackles in each of the past four seasons, averaging 3 takeaways and 12 passed defended over that span.

  • SS Kam Chancellor - DB4 with upside based on talent, not opportunity
  • FS Earl Thomas - Inconsistent third starter 
  • SS Deshaen Shead - No value
  • CB Richard Sherman - Big potential but little opportunity
  • CB Cary Williams - Strong sleeper with high CB2 potential
  • CB Jeremy Lane - No value
  • CB Therald Simon - No value
  • CB Marcus Burley - Injury sleeper

That does it for the NFC. Seven down and one division to go. That means we close to seeing some football!