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Eyes of the Guru Preseason: Part 3

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

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

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

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

Indianapolis Colts

Defensive Linemen

With a few exceptions fantasy production from 3-4 linemen is generally marginal. The Colts defensive line has provided no exceptions since moving to the 3-4 a few years back but this group is not without potential. Both Kendall Langford and Henry Anderson are players we should keep an eye on. Langford was a 4-3 tackle for his first seven years as a pro. At that position he turned in a career best 36-13-5 with the Rams in 2013. He set a new career mark with 7 sacks in his first year as a 3-4 end but the 23 tackles and 15 assists held Langford's value down in 2015. Even so, his strong finish to last season is something we should not overlook. Over the final three games last year he added 8 tackles, 2 assists, 4 sacks and a pair of batted passes. All things considered it would not be a big surprise to see Langford with something like 35 tackles, 20 assists and 6-8 sacks in 2016. In leagues with deep rosters he is worth a spot at the end of a roster. In twelve team leagues starting two linemen Langford is a fringe player with low DL2 upside.

Early in his rookie season Anderson looked like an exception to the 3-4 rule. After two games he had already notched 11 tackles, 3 assists and a sack. Unfortunately he seemed to hit a wall after that. Over the next seven games Anderson totaled 8-9-0 before being lost to a knee injury in week nine. There are two ways to look at this turn of events. Either his fast start was a fluke or his drop off came after opposing offenses got a look at him on film and adjusted their blocking schemes. It may be a while before we get an answer to this question. In mid February Anderson was said to be ahead of schedule in his recovery. In April he was reportedly progressing slowly and not certain to be ready for week one. Regardless of his status for the opener Anderson is not going to be completely healthy until 2017. Dynasty owners may want to tuck him away for safe keeping if the roster space is available. Owners in redraft leagues should pass until we see him produce again.

Arthur Jones is set to be the third end in the Colts rotation. With Anderson's status in question Jones is in line for a lot of playing time and possibly a starting job for much if not all of the season. He totaled 27-20-4.5 as a starter for the Ravens in 2012 with very similar numbers in fourteen starts for Baltimore in 2013. Jones joined the Colts in 2014 going 15-8-1.5 in nine games. He missed last season with an ankle injury but will be ready to go when camp opens this summer. Jones falls in line with the masses of 3-4 ends who are good players on the field but have shown only marginal box score potential.

David Parry and Zach Kerr rotated at the nose tackle position last season. Between them they totaled 31-18-1 which would be somewhat useful production for a defensive tackle. In the time share however, those numbers were split evenly between the two rendering them both useless to fantasy owners. The Colts often pull the nose tackle from sub packages to make room for an extra pass rusher or defensive back. Thus even if the Parry or Kerr were to get the lion's share of playing time they would still fall short in the box scores.

NT David Parry - No value  
NT Zach Kerr - No value
DE Henry Anderson - Dynasty sleeper for 2017
DE Arthur Jones - Marginal value at best
DE Kendall Langford - Depth with low DL2 upside at best
DE/NT Hassan Ridgeway - No value

Linebackers

Indianapolis gave us the fantasy game's number two linebacker in 2015. D'Qwell Jackson has a rich history as a productive inside backer. With the exception of a couple injury shortened campaigns he has at least 75 solo tackles in every season since 2007 and a career high of 115 while with the Browns in 2011. Jackson is also a playmaker with 27 turnovers, 18 sacks, 39 passes defended and 3 scores over his seven years as a starter. When he made the move from Cleveland to Indianapolis in 2014 there was some speculation his production would fall off. Instead his two years with the Colts have proven to be some of his most productive. The Colts coaching staff has been able to tap Jackson's big play ability. Combined his two seasons with the team have produced 8 turnovers, 7 sacks and a pair of touchdowns. Last season Jackson was 89-61-3 with 10 passes defended, 3 turnovers and a score. That production is particularly impressive considering he had another excellent linebacker (Jerrell Freeman) lining up next to him. Jackson turns 33 in September but has shown no signs of slowing down. Expecting a top two repeat would be a stretch but he is a safe bet to once again land in the top twelve.

Jackson is the clear cut number one target for fantasy owners but there is potential value at the other inside linebacker position as well. While he was not a big play guy, Freeman was on pace for about 82 tackles and 57 assists had he not missed three games last year. He has moved on and there is no clear cut option as a replacement. Veterans Sio Moore and Nate Irving will compete for the job with rookie Antonio Morrison possibly in the mix as well. Irving is the one contender we know what to expect from. His five years in the league have shown us pretty well beyond doubt he is a two down base package thumper at best. Should Irving win the starting role we can kiss most of the fantasy potential of the position good bye. In that situation we would likely see either Moore or possibly safety Clayton Geathers next to Jackson in sub packages.

When the Colts traded for Moore last season I speculated he would replace Freeman this year. As a fantasy owner I am now pulling hard for Moore to claim the job. We have not seen enough of him to be certain of anything but what we have seen has been golden. Had Moore not struggled to stay healthy he might be a starter for the Raiders. Oakland made him a third round pick in 2013 where he was a part time player as a rookie. Even in the limited role Moore was able to make his presence felt in the box scores. He finished with 37 solo tackles adding 9 assists, 5 sacks and a forced fumble. Moore saw extensive action (nearly full time) in two games that season. In those games he was 8-1-1 with a forced fumble (week 10) and 6-1-0 (week 12). He opened 2014 as the Raiders three down weak side linebacker. Moore started ten games that season but finished only eight. He was 68-22-3 with a pair of forced fumbles in the ten starts. That is an average of 6.8 solo tackles a game which is strong. In all eight of the contests Moore finished he recorded at least 5 solo tackles while averaging an impressive 7.9. He is fast, athletic, has a knack for the big play and makes plays sideline to sideline when he can stay on the field. That has been his downfall to date. Moore has suffered no serious injuries but has been unable or unwilling to play through minor ones. He had a chance to prove himself last season when Freeman was banged up, but Moore could not even finish the first game he started. He then ended up missing time with knee and back problems down the stretch. Based on ability and production it would be a shock for Moore not to win the job. The question being how long he can last once he does? I am targeting him as a late LB4 or priority LB5 with huge upside. Most owners are paying little attention to Moore so he has been available late in most drafts.

One young man who is not flying under the radar is Antonio Morrison. He was the Colts fourth round selection but I have yet to see him make it past the late third in any rookie draft. He may be part of this summer's battle to start beside Jackson. If Morrison fails to win that one he will likely be groomed to replace me Jackson in a year or two. One AFC general manager said of Morrison "He's a two down Mike linebacker who is tough as hell and a good football player". Scouts differ when it comes to Morrison's potential to be a three down player. Those who doubt him point out his lack of prototypical size along with average speed and instincts. Those who are on the Morrison bandwagon note his tenacity, work ethic and leadership. When there is this kind of debate about a player I always look for two things, heart and production history. You will not find a scouting report on Morrison that questions his competitiveness or approach to the game. Production wise there could be some red flags however. In fourteen games as a starter for Florida last season Morrison was 44-52-2.5 with one pass defended and one forced fumble. Those are not the numbers we would like to see. Morrison was returning from a 2014 knee injury which may have been some factor but his numbers as a junior before the injury were not any better. He has long term upside but let me simply say I was not one of the owners stepping up to get him in the third. He was on my list as a fifth or sixth round target.

In 2015 the Colts were twenty second versus the run, twenty fourth against the pass and twenty second in sacks. If they are ever going to climb out of the NFL cellar using their current 3-4 scheme, there must be a serious investment at outside linebacker. The three men in last year's rotation are all north of 30 years old and they combined for all of 13 sacks. Thirty four year old Robert Mathis led the way with 7, thirty three year old (34 in October) Trent Cole contributed 3 as did soon to be thirty one year old Eric Walden. None of them managed more than 28 solo tackles, rendering them useless to fantasy owners in all but the deepest rostered leagues. Six years ago this would have been an excellent trio capable of big things. Unfortunately this is 2016 and with no new blood in the mix all three will be back in the same roles.

ILB D'Qwell Jackson - Quality LB1 with top 5 potential
ILB Sio Moore - Under the radar sleeper with big upside if he can stay healthy  
ILB Nate Irving - Two down thumper at best
ILB Antonio Morrison - Dynasty target
OLB Robert Mathis - No value
OLB Trent Cole - No value
OLB Erik Walden - No value
OLB Junior Sylvestre - No value

Defensive Backs

The Colts safety position has provided steady and consistent fantasy production for years. Antoine Bethea reached at least 70 solo tackles every season from 2008 through 2013. He sprinkled in enough big plays to make the top twenty on a regular basis with an occasional top twelve. When Bethea left for San Francisco the Colts signed ageing journeyman Mike Adams to be a stop gap. He has turned out to be much more. For the first ten years of his career Adams was a backup or marginal short term starter for the 49ers, Browns and Broncos. He had never exceeded 60 tackles in a season and had averaged 2.6 turnovers a year. In 2014 Adams finished with career highs in tackles with 66, turnovers with 8 and passes defended with 11. He missed three games last year but still managed to set a new personal best with 9 turnovers while adding his first career score. The marriage has worked beautifully for both parties. The only sad story line being Adams found his perfect fit so late in his career. At age thirty five he is entering his thirteenth season.

Adams may still have a couple of good years left but fantasy owners need to be aware of the evolving situation around him. Free safety Dwight Lowery took the free agent road out of town this offseason and young gun Clayton Geathers is set to make his debut as a starter. Some project Geathers to simply be plugged in at free safety until Adams retires. I am not so sure that will be the case. At 6"2" and 215 pounds Geathers fits the description of the new era hybrid strong safety/linebacker. While his speed and cover skills are not lacking, he is clearly a better fit at the strong safety position. He is also young and inexperienced which could be an issue as the team's last line of defense. Adams on the other hand, has been a free safety for much of his career; he knows the defense better and is a more dependable tackler. The logical move here would be to shift the veteran to free and play the youngster at strong safety where he can do the most damage. I believe this will ultimately be what the coaching staff elects to do.

Regardless where he lines up Adams will continue to have the same big play opportunity. A move to free safety would likely mean a slide in tackle production but he would still be a player to target as a DB3 or quality depth. Geathers is a player I am excited about. This time last year I was calling for dynasty owners to stash him on their taxi squads. Even if he is miscast at free safety for a season Geathers should put up decent numbers. Once he lands in his natural position he could be huge. As a three year starter at Central Florida he averaged 63 solo tackles and 43 assists with 24 passes defended, 5 forced fumbles, 2 recoveries and 3 interceptions. The positional uncertainty adds some risk but I like Geathers as a solid DB3 target with both a high floor and high ceiling.

Rookie second round pick T.J. Green will be groomed for the free safety position where he should be the long term answer. Having moved from receiver to safety only two years ago he is still learning the position but at 6'2" with 4.30 speed and great ball skills Green should get there quickly. If the team can get two more years out of Adams their plan at safety would come together nicely.

The corner positions in Indianapolis have not given us much in recent years. Greg Toler played ten games last year but still managed to lead the group in solo stops with 44. That is strong tackle production for a corner but he was seriously lacking in the big play columns and is no longer with the team. Vontae Davis is entrenched as one of the starters. He is not an elite cover man but is a dependable number one for the Colts. His four interceptions in 2015 were tied for the team lead but Davis has averaged fewer than 40 solo tackles over the past three seasons and has never reached 50.

After Davis there will be a battle to establish the pecking order at corner. Veteran journeyman Patrick Robinson was added via free agency to battle last year's nickel corner Darius Butler and second year man D'Joun Smith for the job. The coaching staff likes Butler in the nickel role so chances are Robinson will start. He was in San Diego last year after spending his first five years as a pro in New Orleans. With the Saints Robinson was in and out of the starting lineup and seemed to always be banged up. There is some fantasy potential in him though. The one year Robinson played all sixteen games for the Saints (2012) he was 52-11-1 with 4 turnovers, 18 passes defended and a score. Smith missed most of his rookie season with injuries. The organization would like the see their former third round pick evolve into a starter at some point but they can afford to not rush the process with Robinson in the fold.

FS/SS Mike Adams - Target as a third starter with DB2 upside if he stays at strong safety
SS Clayton Geathers - One of my favorite sleepers this year
FS T.J. Green - Long term dynasty prospect with high big play potential
CB Vontae Davis - No value
CB Patrick Robinson - Injury risk with CB2 potential
CB Darius Butler - Minimal value at this time
CB D'Joun Smith - No value until proven otherwise

Tennessee Titans

Defensive Linemen

When the Titans changed to a 3-4 base scheme a couple of years back they took away one of the Fantasy games few stud defensive tackles. In 2013 Jurrell Casey was a top three interior lineman on the strength of 37 tackles, 16 assists, 9.5 sacks and a couple turnovers. He continues to work from the tackle position in many of the team's sub packages which use four man fronts, but Casey is now considered a defensive end because he plays there in the base packages. His production has remained strong and consistent despite the change of roles. Two seasons in the current defense have seen him average 39 tackles, 23 assists and 6 sacks. The difference in positional designation however, is huge. Casey's 2015 totals would have made him the number seven tackle, but they were only good enough to keep him in the top thirty as an end. It is safe to expect 35 tackles, 20 assists and 6-8 sacks from him in 2016. Target Casey as a low end DL2 or priority DL3.

DaQuan Jones was the base package starter in 2015 with Karl Klug rotating and seeing most of the sub package opportunities. As the roles would suggest, Jones had the best tackle total with 26 while Klug had all the sacks with 4.5. Between them they might make a decent DL3 but individually there is no value.

Al Woods was the starting nose tackle in 2015 with Angelo Blackson spelling him. Both players were usually on the sideline in sub packages so there was really no opportunity for box score production. The addition of second round pick Austin Johnson could change the way Tennessee approaches their sub packages. As Mike Mayock put it on draft day "this is a big, powerful dude". Johnson gets off blocks quickly showing more range and athleticism than most 3-4 nose tackles. He passes the all important college production test as well. Last year at Penn State Johnson recorded 78 combined tackles and assists with 6.5 sacks and a fumble recovery. He entered the draft after his junior season and just turned 22 years old May. Johnson will push for playing time immediately but it may be 2017 before he claims the starting job. Whenever he gets there useful production may come with him.

NT Angelo Blackson - No value
NT Al Woods - No value
NT Austin Johnson - Dynasty target for tackle required leagues
DE Jurrell Casey - Low end DL2 or quality DL3 in twelve team leagues starting two
DE Ropati Pitoitua - No value
DE Karl Klug - No value
DE DaQuan Jones - No value

Linebackers

In terms of fantasy production no team was more disappointing at the linebacker position than the Titans in 2015. Inside backer Avery Williamson was the best of the group. He led the team in tackles with a pedestrian 63 solo and 39 assists while his big play production was not much better at 3.5 sacks and a single turnover. When the points were all totaled Williamson was the number thirty two linebacker. Overall points do not always tell the whole truth though. Attrition has a way of taking a heavy toll on the linebacker ranks by season’s end. Thus a lot of good players who missed a game or more due to injury will fall down the rankings. Looking at points per game average often puts a better perspective on things. From that angle Williamson comes in at number forty. He is entering his third season as a pro so there is certainly some chance for a breakout in 2016. In Williamson's thirty one games thus far I have seen nothing to make me believe he will do so. I see him as a marginal LB3 or solid LB4 with high LB3 upside. He will be a quality backup at the very least.

Wesley Woodyard showed promise during his time with Denver. In 2012 he was 73-44-5.5 with a couple of turnovers. Since coming to the Titans in 2014 he has shown no sign of such production. Woodyard has held the starting job next to Williamson for the past two years but his grip on the position began to slip last season. He was bounced from most sub packages in favor of a third safety and ended up playing slightly less than half of the team's defensive snaps. This year Woodyard will have to fend off the challenge of former Steelers backup Sean Spence.

When his career started many expected Spence to be the future next to Lawrence Timmons. A serious knee injury took Spence out of his rookie season before it got started and threatened his career. He was able to make it back from the injury but was not the player Pittsburgh had expected, so they drafted Ryan Shazier and let Spence walk when his contract expired. He made a good but not great showing as an injury replacement for a few games in each of the last two seasons and will enter camp in a battle with Woodyard for the starting job. Spence is a player to keep an eye on during the preseason. He may climb the rankings quickly once the warm up games begin but for now it is safe to leave him on the waiver wire. Move quickly if we hear/see good things in August.

Derrick Morgan made a fairly successful switch from 4-3 end to 3-4 outside backer when the team changed schemes a couple of years back. In 2014 he finished with 43 tackles, 20 assists and 6.5 sacks. In ten games last season he had 4.5 sacks but was well off the previous year's pace with 17 tackles. Morgan is working his way back from the shoulder injury and could be limited during camp. The bigger issue is his overall production. For their defense to be successful Tennessee needs more than 12 sacks in twenty six games from their starting outside linebackers.

In 2015 they signed Brian Orakpo to pair with Morgan. Orakpo had 10 sacks for Washington in 2013 before missing much of 2014 with an injury. Like Morgan he was able to provide good but not great production at 38-13-7 last season. The NFL is all about the bottom line. The bottom line for the Titans was their out linebacker positions combined for 13 total sacks in 2015, and both of their starters there have histories of missing games with injury. Their answer was to pick Kevin Dodd in the second round. Dodd was a one year wonder at Clemson but that one year was impressive. At 6'5" and 275 pounds Dodd has the size and strength to set the edge versus the run and the wingspan teams look for in their outside pass rushers. He had 62 combined tackles and assists with 12.5 sacks for the in 2015 and was on a streak of five consecutive games with a sack at the end of the season. Having not played much early in his college career, it may take a year for Dodd to get into the starting lineup. Barring an injury to Orakpo or Morgan, Dodd will probably be the third man in the rotation on the outside in 2016. The organization hopes he will eventually become a star for fantasy owners in big play based leagues. If he does that Dodd will be just what the Titans are hoping for.

ILB Avery Williamson - Marginal third starter with limited upside
ILB Sean Spence - Sleeper to keep an eye on
ILB Wesley Woodyard - No value
ILB Nate Palmer - No value
OLB Brian Orakpo - Depth in big play based leagues
OLB Derrick Morgan - Depth at best in big play leagues
OLB Kevin Dodd - Dynasty target with strong potential in big play leagues

Defensive Backs

Over most of the past decade the Titans secondary has given us quality production at both the safety and corner positions. In 2014 for example; Michael Griffin's 85 tackles was third in the league among defensive backs. With his 3 sacks, 5 pass breakups and 2 turnovers he was the number eight defensive back that season. Griffin was not the highest ranking DB on the team however. That honor went to corner Jason McCourty with 77 tackles, 6 turnovers, 11 passes defended and a score. Last season was an exception however. Griffin was moved from strong safety to free which all but ruined his fantasy value, and McCourty missed most of the season with injury.

Da'Norris Searcy replaced Griffin at strong safety last year. Going into the season I really expected Searcy to replace him in the fantasy rankings also. Well no one is perfect right? Searcy was mediocre on the field and a huge disappointment in the box scores. He is penciled in at strong safety entering camp but even with Griffin now in Minnesota, Searcy is far from a lock to be the day one starter.

The organization added two safeties this offseason. Free agency netted Rashad Johnson from the Cardinals and round three of the draft brought them Kevin Byard from Middle Tennessee State. Johnson is sure to start at one of the safety spots and Byard will at least get a look opposite him. What we know for certain is the strong safety job in Tennessee has a lot of fantasy potential. What we do not know yet is who will line up there. Each of the team's top four safeties (including Daimion Stafford) can play either strong or free. Searcy played both during his time in Buffalo. Johnson has been a free safety over most of his career but was successful at strong in 2015 when he was 76-17-1 with 5 turnovers, 8 passes defended and a pair of scores. He worked from a strong safety alignment much of last season as well.

Byard is the wildcard and the decision of the coaching staff could come down to if or where they feel comfortable playing him. Scouts were all over the place on this young man. One scout described him as an ankle tackler and noted a lack of physicality. There are questions about his coverage skills as well. All agree he has a high football IQ and there is no questioning his big play production. In four years as a starter for the Blue Raiders Byard racked up 19 interceptions with 23 total turnovers.

This whole situation is one we will be keeping a close eye on into late August. Until we can get a feel for the team's plan, Johnson is the only relatively safe pick here. The problem is his value could be anywhere from top twelve as a strong safety to quality depth if he lines up at free. In early drafts I will be looking to add him as a low end third starter with upside. Byard may be worth a late round shot for dynasty owners who can stash him on a taxi squad. Redraft owners will want to keep an eye on him during the preseason and decide then if he has value for 2016.

At least we do not have to wonder which corner to pick up. After becoming a starter in 2011 Jason McCourty totaled 73 or more solo stops in three of the next four seasons. He averaged 4.5 turnovers and 12 defended passes over those four seasons. At corner McCourty ranked second in 2011, seventh in 2012, twenty eighth in 2013 and first in 2014. In leagues that lump the defensive back position together he had two top six and a top fifteen over those four years. McCourty is fully recovered from last year's groin injury and should be back among the top ten corners at the end of the season.

Other Titans corners have been productive over the past few years as well but no one stepped up last season when McCourty was lost. Coty Sensabaugh led the team's corners in tackles with 44 while no Tennessee defensive back recorded more than his mere 2 interceptions. Sensabaugh will compete with Perrish Cox and free agent addition Antwon Blake to determine the rest of the pecking order for 2016. Playing for the Steelers Blake finished last season as the number six corner on the strength of 65 solo tackles, 3 turnovers and 11 passes defended. I for one will be surprised if he is not the second starter for the Titans and will not be surprised if he makes the top twenty again.

S Da'Norris Searcy - Minimal value at best
S Rashad Johnson - DB4 floor with DB1 ceiling
S Daimion Stafford - No value
S Kevin Byard - Late round dynasty target for taxi squad
CB Jason McCourty - Solid DB2 or CB1
CB Perrish Cox - No value
CB Antwon Blake - Target as a CB3 with CB2 upside
CB Brice McCain - No value

Houston Texans

Defensive Linemen

The Texans have not put much effort into their defensive line in recent years. With J.J. Watt on their roster there is no real need too. Watt is a once in a generation player and hands down the number one fantasy target on the defensive side, even though he may not be the highest scoring defensive player at the end of the year. Watt's value comes from being so much better than the next player at his position. In 2015 he outscored the number two lineman by a whopping 57 points. By comparison there were twelve linebackers within 57 points of Lavonte David at linebacker. The only negative with Watt is his tackle totals have slipped slightly every season since he ripped off 68 in 2012. The fact he played through injuries last year was undoubtedly a contributor but it is still hard to argue with 55 solo stops from a 3-4 end. There has been no slide in Watt's sack production. In the history of the NFL we can probably count on one hand all the pass rushers to have three seasons with 17 or more sacks. Watt has done it three times in the past four years.

Imagine Watt's potential if the team ever gets him some help up front. Nose tackle Vince Wilfork is a good player but he will be 35 in November and is well past his prime. Houston used a fifth round pick this year on D.J. Reader who is expected to develop behind Wilfork for a year or two and eventually take over. Last year they took Christian Covington in round six. He showed some promise with a couple of sacks in his limited action behind Jared Crick. With Crick gone, Covington will battle former Bengals backup tackle Devon Still, 2014 sixth round selection Jeoffrey Pagan and third year former undrafted free agent Brandon Dunn for the other defensive end job. Watt had 55 solo tackles and 17.5 sacks in 2015, the rest of Houston's returning defensive line combined for 16 tackles and 2 sacks. There is no one to get excited about here but keep an eye on Covington who could be a pleasant surprise.

DE J.J. Watt - Arguably the best player in the fantasy game on either side of the ball
DE Christian Covington - Sleeper to keep an eye on
DE Brandon Dunn - No value
DE Devon Still - No value
DE Jeoffrey Pagan - No value
NT Vince Wilfork - No value
NT D.J. Reader - No value

Linebackers

Brian Cushing had a huge rookie season in 2009. 87 solo stops, 6 turnover and 5 sacks contributed to his first and so far only top ten finish. There is no doubt he has the ability and potential to be a fantasy factor. The problem is Cushing has not been able to stay healthy long enough to show it. Three times in his seven seasons he has played a full slate of games. In the other four years Cushing missed a total of twenty six while playing at less than 100% in many others. He started strong again in 2015 averaging roughly 5 tackles and 4 assists over the first eight contests. The rest of the way he battled ankle and hip injuries, reaching 5 tackles only twice over the final eight games. Cushing's knack for the big play seemed to go away when Houston switched to the 3-4 and moved him inside. In forty two starts over the past four years he has produced 6 turnovers and 3 sacks. In twelve team leagues starting three linebackers Cushing is probably worth a spot at the bottom of a roster as an LB5 with matchup based LB3 upside. Counting on him as an every week starter at this point would be a mistake.

When the team used a second round pick on Benardrick McKinney last year it gave fantasy owners hope we might get something useful from the Texans linebackers. Unfortunately that was not the case. As a rookie McKinney served in a two down base package role, giving way to an extra safety on most passing downs. Even when Cushing was banged up late in the year, McKinney did not take on a bigger role. Instead it was Max Bullough spelling Cushing in sub packages. A year of experience could help McKinney push for the additional playing time but thus far there are no signs suggesting it will happen. Even in a two down role McKinney should have made more than the 35 solo tackles he was credited with in fourteen games last year. Until/unless something changes drastically here, save your roster spot for a player with more value and upside.

The Texans have not had great luck when it comes to first round picks at linebacker. On top of Cushing's struggles to stay healthy, the team is still looking for some return on their investment in 2014 first overall pick Jadaveon Clowney. When they drafted him Clowney was coming off a serious injury suffered during his final year at South Carolina. Thus it was not a shock his rookie season was a wash. Clowney's second year in the league was better but the 27 tackles and 4.5 sacks are hardly what the team expects. Clowney played in thirteen games last year though he played through ankle, back, hamstring and foot injuries over the course of the season. In May he proclaimed himself to finally be 100% healthy for the first time in his NFL career. Clowney has huge potential as a pass rusher and playmaker. Like nearly all outside linebackers in 3-4 schemes he will be hard pressed to reach 50 solo tackles, but double digit sacks should become the norm providing he can stay healthy.

No one will be happier to see a healthy Clowney than fellow outside backer Whitney Mercilus. His first three years in the league produced 17 sacks combined. One season with a less than 100% Clowney demanding the attention of offenses, helped Mercilus to a career best of 11. Together these two have the potential to be the best pass rushing OLB tandem in the game. Add in J.J. Watt who is the best 3-4 end since Bruce Smith, and you get a pass rush that will make offensive coordinators lose sleep. Mercilus has provided tackle totals in the low 30s in each of the past three seasons. He might reach 35-40 this year at best but a repeat of his double digit sacks will make him a quality start in big play based leagues.

ILB Brian Cushing - Inconsistent LB3 when healthy
ILB Benardrick McKinney - Worth keeping an eye on
ILB Max Bullough - No value
ILB Akeem Dent - No value
OLB Whitney Mercilus - Solid starter in big play leagues
OLB Jadaveon Clowney - LB2 with big upside for big play owners
OLB John Simon - Marginal value as an injury replacement if called upon

Defensive Backs

The weakness of the Texans defense is at safety where they have struggled with mediocrity through the team's short history. It does not look like anything will change in 2016. The team's top four options at the position are a collection of undrafted free agents, late round picks and journeymen. Andre Hal, Eddie Pleasant, Quintin Demps and Antonio Allen will compete for the two starting jobs. Both on the field and in the box scores Hal and Demps were mostly unimpressive as the starters for much of last season. Between them they totaled 62 tackles on almost 1491 snaps. Both Hal and Demps managed to take advantage of the pressure put on by the front seven with each of them accounting for 4 turnovers and a score. The big play production would be nice if the tackle totals were even marginal. It would take a lot of big plays to make up for a safety with fewer than 40 solo tackle though. We will keep an eye on this situation just in case someone catches fire but fantasy owners should be looking elsewhere for help at safety.

In Johnathan Joseph, Kareem Jackson and second year man Kevin Johnson the Texans have a trio of corners to rival any in the league on the field. Fantasy owners may find slim pickings though. Joseph had a career year in 2014 when he was the fantasy game's number two corner. Unfortunately that season was the exception. Over his ten year career Joseph has exceeded 50 solo tackles three times, reaching 60 once. He has consistently produced 4-5 turnovers a seasons and has scored 6 times over his career. In most years Joseph can be counted on for right around 50 solo tackles with 4 turnovers and about 15 passes defended. A return of those numbers would make him a decent CB2 option or quality depth.

Looking at the raw numbers suggests the Texans corners gave us nothing last year. With 52 tackles, 4 takeaways and a score Kareem Jackson ranked highest at number eighteen among corners. When we consider Jackson missed four games with injury his totals take on a different look. Had he not missed those games he would have shattered his previous career best of 58 tackles while his average points per game ranked in the top ten. So do we enter 2016 with big expectations for Jackson? I would advise against it. We have a six year body of work to look at with Jackson and it clearly shows he has simply not been that productive. In the three year prior to last he averaged 48 tackles, 7 assists, 2.5 turnovers and 11 passes defended.

There may be an interesting trend beginning here. In 2014 Joseph had a career year. In 2015 Jackson was on pace to put up similar production to that of Joseph the previous season. Is this a random happening or is it a case of the coaching staff putting Joseph in position to be productive one year and Jackson in that spot the next? I did not notice anything during last season that would suggest the later but then I was not really looking for it. Keeping in mind the team used a first round pick on Kevin Johnson last year; if it was by design which player will have the opportunity this year? I have a feeling one of these corners is going to be at least a quality second starter for us in 2016. Jackson seems the most logical target for us going into the season but be prepared to move on from him quickly if one of the team's other quality corners produce early.

FS Andre Hal - No value
SS Eddie Pleasant - No value
SS Quintin Demps - Minimal value at best
SS Antonio Allen - Sleeper with limited upside
CB Johnathan Joseph - Target as CB3 with upside  
CB Kareem Jackson - Target as low end CB2
CB Kevin Johnson - Worth keeping an eye on
CB A.J. Bouye - No value

Jacksonville Jaguars

Defensive Linemen

Jacksonville sent a message to the rest of the league this offseason. This is not going to be the same old Jaguars. Every level of the defense was strongly addressed but none will look more different than the line. Malik Jackson was the big free agent addition. It seems as if every offseason NFL teams look to plunder the free agents of the Super Bowl champion. If the purpose is to weaken the champion it usually works. If the point is to improve their own team the success rate is generally much lower. Remember when the Raiders signed Larry Brown to a huge free agent contract after the Steelers threw a couple of passes right to him in the big game? The point being, just because he played for a champion does not make Jackson a great player. Nor does it make him a good fit with a different team. I am not suggesting Jackson will flop with his new team. I am simply pointing out his success is not a given. Jackson was 35-11-6 last season with 9 batted passes and a couple of fumble recoveries. For a 3-4 end those are excellent numbers. There are two things that concern me with this situation. Jacksonville does not run a 3-4 and four of Jackson's 6 sacks last season came in the first six games. Over the final ten he reached double digit fantasy points twice. Jackson was with Denver before they moved to a three man front. As a second year player in 2013 he was 30-12-6 in the Broncos 4-3. With an 85 million dollar contract expectations will be much higher for him in 2016. I like Jackson's chance of being a solid second starter for us. 35-40 tackles with around 8 sacks are reasonable expectations.

Jackson is a three down player with the versatility to shift inside if called upon. He played some tackle in Denver's 4-3 and may be asked to do so in Jacksonville as well. Shifting Jackson inside on passing downs would allow rookie third round pick Yannick Ngakoue to get on the field in sub packages. Ngakoue was selected specifically to be a pass rush specialist. He declared for the draft after a 13 sack junior season at Maryland. At 252 pounds he is no threat to make an impact on early downs but could make a significant contribution in the sack column.

Getting Donte Fowler Jr. back from injury is like having another first round pick in this year's draft. The Jaguars have big expectations for last year's third overall pick. Fowler missed his rookie season after suffering an ACL injury last spring. The only positive being the injury occurred early enough to give him time for a recovery. Fowler may work in rotation with Jared Odrick for a while but there is little doubt he will be a three down starter at some point. His production at Florida was not overwhelming. He was 29-31-8.5 in his final season with the Gators. He could develop into one of the league’s premier three down ends but we should not count on it happening right away. Redraft owners should slot Fowler as a late round DL3 with upside. Dynasty owners will need a little patience but it could pay off big down the road.

With the selections of developmental tackle Michael Bennett late in last year's draft and Sheldon Day in the fourth this year, the Jaguars have a couple of young tackles to groom for possible starting roles down the road. The big immediate impact however, will come from the return of a healthy Sen'Derrick Marks. After a breakout season with 35 tackles, 10 sacks and a couple of turnover in 2014, Marks missed nearly all of last season with a triceps injury. The big production from two years ago makes him a priority target at the thin defensive tackle position. The fact he has only produced at that level once in his six years as a pro makes Marks a risky investment if we take him too high. Marks was the Titans second round pick in 2010 but did not see significant playing time until 2012 when he was 30-11-1.5 in fourteen games. He improved to 28-5-4 with 3 turnovers and 8 batted passes in his first year with Jacksonville (2013) before exploding the following season. All things considered, I like our chances with Marks. He has shown improved box score production every season since becoming a starter and his lost 2015 will help him fly under the radar for us. Pick him up as a low DT1 or priority DT2 but be careful not to wait too long. With all the talent assembled around him Marks could have a great year.

DE Malik Jackson - Solid DL3 with DL2 upside
DE Donte Fowler - High ceiling DL3 target for redraft owners, plenty of long term potential in dynasty leagues
DE Jared Odrick - No value
DE Ryan Davis - No value
DE Yannick Ngakoue - Pass rush specialist with some upside in big play based leagues
DT Sen’Derrick Marks - Low end DT1 with top 5 potential
DT Roy Miller - No value
DT Michael Bennett - No value
DT Sheldon Day - Dynasty sleeper in tackle required leagues
DT Tyson Alualu - No value

Linebackers

Three years ago the Jaguars linebacker position was a black hole with Paul Posluszny as their only beacon of light. In 2016 it could become a team strength. The problem for fantasy owners is figuring out how everyone will fit and who will hold the most value. Many prognosticators believe the addition of first round pick Myles Jack means the end for Posluszny. I do not disagree with them to an extent. I simply do not believe it will happen immediately. Posluszny is the established leader of what has suddenly become a very young defense, and he is still an excellent player. Many expect he will give way to Jack in sub packages. I will believe it when it happens. While coverage has never been his strength Posluszny is far from a liability on passing downs. The other tell tale sign is he will continue to wear the communications helmet and call the defense in the huddle. This may be his last year in the centerpiece role and/or possibly his last year in Jacksonville, but writing him off too early could be a big mistake. There is clearly some risk here. In the end I expect the additional competition for tackles will take a little toll on his totals but will be surprised if Posluszny finishes outside the top twenty in 2016.

When the coaching staff made Telvin Smith a three down weak side linebacker late in 2014 my initial though was he would never hold up to the pounding at 218 pounds. He made it through that season posting double digit solo tackles in three of the final six games. Smith hit the weight room hard and got his weight up to 223 last year. That is still small for a linebacker but is right in line with a lot of the safety hybrids we are seeing these days. Had he not missed a couple of starts at the end of the year Smith would have joined Posluszny on the short list of two players with over 100 solo tackles. Even having missed a couple of games Smith was a top ten linebacker with his average of 14.9 points per game ranking fifth right behind his teammate. People in IDP circles are talking about the impact of Jack on Posluszny's production. I think he will hurt Smith more in the short term. Smith's quickness and range are what makes him so productive. Jack is even quicker and has more range. I can see Jack getting to some of the tackles Smith would have made previously. I expect Smith to continue as a highly productive fantasy option with the improved defense and increased competition for tackles cutting him back to around 90 solo stops. If someone else wants to pick him among the top ten linebackers let them. He will be a good value at around number twelve.

Jack is the wildcard in this mix. He is certainly talented enough to be an every down player right away so how will the Jacksonville coaching staff keep everyone on the field? We will not know the answer until we see some preseason action but I have a theory. I believe the Jaguars will be the only team in the league with three every down linebackers. In the base package it is easy, Posluszny lines up in the middle with Jack and Smith flanking him. We have seen plenty of cases where hybrid safeties line up at linebacker in nickel schemes. In Jacksonville's situation I think we see an early down linebacker go to safety. Jack has the speed, athleticism and cover skills to be a starting safety in the league. He also has the versatility and experience having played the position some during his college career. There is also the point of Jacksonville being a bit short on talent at safety anyway. Jack could be their do it all Swiss Army Knife, providing a multitude of options. Regardless how the coaching staff does it these three linebackers are going to be detrimental to one another's fantasy value for at least this year. We know there is enough opportunity to keep two of them near the top of the rankings but it will not happen if the production is split three ways. There is simply not enough opportunity to go around, especially if the Jaguars are a better team which seems likely. In the long term Jack is going to be a star in the league and a highly productive fantasy option. I expect he will have good numbers right out of the gate but it may be a year or two before he reaches the top ten. Redraft owners will want to target Jack somewhere around linebacker 20-25. In dynasty league rookie drafts he is the clear cut number on defender.

MLB Paul Posluszny - Strong LB2 at worst with top ten upside  
WLB Telvin Smith - Solid LB2 at worst with top ten upside
MLB/OLB Myles Jack - Wildcard with huge long term potential
MLB Dan Skuta - No value
OLB Jordan Tripp - No value

Defensive Backs

After finishing twenty ninth versus the pass in 2015 the Jaguars secondary has been completely overhauled with only corner Davon House and strong safety Johnathan Cyprien returning as starters. Even Cyprien is not a lock to keep his job with last year's fourth round pick James Samples expected to mount a challenge. In recent years Cyprien has been the only real fantasy contributor among Jacksonville's defensive backs. If not for a couple of missed games 2015 would have been his third consecutive season with at least 80 solo tackles. Cyprien is the prototypical physical box safety. What he has been lacking over his three years in the league is big play production. In forty four games as a pro Cyprien has produced a pair of interceptions, 4 forced fumbles and a recovery. He should continue to be relatively productive but improvements in the front seven and particularly the presence of Myles Jack could spell a little drop off in tackle totals. I have him slotted as a solid DB3 with a low DB2 ceiling.

The free safety position will be manned by free agent addition Teshaun Gipson. From 2013 through 2015 he delivered 13 interceptions as the starter for Cleveland. The Jaguars are counting on him to bring that playmaking ability to their secondary which accounted for only 5 picks as a unit last year. While Gipson is a proven playmaker he has not been very productive in the tackle columns. Over his three year career he has averaged about 3 tackles and 1 assist per game. Gipson will be an upgrade at the position for the Jaguars but we should not expect much from him in fantasy terms.

Davon House was last year's free agent addition. He was not enough to change the fortunes of the secondary alone but he did contribute 4 of the secondary’s 5 interceptions. This year he will get a lot of help. Jacksonville added Prince Amukamara via free agency then went large in the draft making Jalen Ramsey the fifth overall pick. It is a safe bet this unit will have more than 5 interceptions this season but I am not sure how much fantasy production we will find here. House spent much of his four years in Green Bay as the third corner. He never made more than 36 tackles in a season with career totals of 2 interceptions and 25 passes defended. His 49 tackles last season were not impressive but House added 6 total turnovers and a whopping 23 passes defended to finish as the fantasy games number eight corner. The problem with House in fantasy terms is the same we often find at the corner position; he was wildly inconsistent on a week to week basis. Five times last year House put up 13 or more fantasy points. Seven times he totaled 4.5 or fewer. He could repeat as a top twelve in the overall rankings at the end of 2016 but with all the changes in Jacksonville I would not count on it.

Past production points to Prince Amukamara as the best fantasy option of this group. His most productive season with the Giants was 2013 when Amukamara had 76 tackles, 9 assists, 3 turnovers and 14 passes defended. He was on pace to exceed those numbers had he not missed five games with injury last seasons. Unfortunately this has been the story with Amukamara over most of his five year career. He has played a full season only once missing twenty five of sixty four games over the other four years. Changing teams often has a big effect on the production of a player. At least we know Amukamara has the potential if he can stay healthy.

Jalen Ramsey is projected to open the season as the third corner. If this is the case we can expect Jacksonville to be in their nickel defense nearly all the time. NFL teams do not use the fifth overall pick on a defender only to have him work part time. Ramsey is a special player on the field. He is big and physical enough to match up with the game's bigger receivers while being fast and athletic enough to stick with the speedy nimble ones. He can play press coverage or line up off the ball with equal success and should soon prove to be one of the league’s elite shut down corners. As Mike Mayock put it on draft day "this is a different cat, and he's got a 'wow' factor". On the field Ramsey seems destined for greatness. In fantasy terms all I can say is wow, where are the numbers to support all the hype? As a three year starter at Florida State Ramsey averaged about 41 solo tackles a season which is not horrible, but he only intercepted 3 passes and broke up 22 in forty one games. In thirteen starts for the Seminoles last season he was 37-15-1 with 9 passes defended, no picks and 1 fumble recovery. The rookie corner rule may come into play here but this could prove to be a case where a player’s true value to his team is not going to be adequately represented in the box scores. For reference see Darrelle Revis.

SS Johnathan Cyprien - Solid DB3 with some risk and a little upside
FS Teshaun Gipson - Minimal value
SS James Sample - Sleeper to keep an eye on
FS Josh Evans - No value
CB Davon House - Possible CB2
CB Prince Amukamara - Risk reward player with low CB1 upside
CB Jalen Ramsey - Rookie corner rule but temper expectations
CB Aaron Colvin - Injury sleeper at best (early suspension)
CB Demetrius McCray - No value

That does it for this offering. Next up the NFC South.

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