Everyone is making such a big deal of the Randy Gregory and Demarcus Lawrence suspensions. Of course they hurt but it is not as if the organization was unable to prepare. The Cowboys have plenty of depth to get them bye until Lawrence returns in week five and Gregory did nothing last year anyway so how much are they really missing from his potentially indefinite absence? For all we know Jack or Tyrone Crawford might have been the opening day starter anyway. Jack Crawford played about half of the defensive snaps last season and had 4 sacks. He is a versatile player who can get the job done at end or tackle. Most of Crawford's playing time came at end in 2015 but the coaching staff is expected to take a long look at Tyrone Crawford on the outside this summer. Tyrone worked mostly on the inside last season where he recorded 24 tackles and 5 sacks on roughly 70% of the defensive snaps. He too is a versatile defensive lineman who gives the coaches options. Until we see how these guys are going to line up it is tough to pin point their value, much of which will be determined by their positional designation. Neither Crawford has great fantasy potential but both could produce well enough to earn roster spots as depth or maybe even second starters in some situations. Going into camp even the coaching staff is not sure what this group will look like in week one. It is a saga we will want to stay on top of since there is good production potential here; especially for those in tackle required leagues.
The Cowboys also have last year's fifth round pick Ryan Russell and this year's fourth round selection Charles Tapper to fill in. The coaching staff knew Russell was a developmental player and drafted him based on long term potential. He was a healthy inactive for most of his rookie season and finished the year on IR. With Lawrence recovering from back surgery and not practicing, Russell has been running with the first team at left end throughout most of the off season practices. Defensive line coach Rod Marinelli has been impressed with Russell's improvement but noted the pads have not gone on yet.
Scouts were divided on Tapper entering the draft. Some projected him as high as round three while other had him going in round seven or as a priority free agent. They all agree he has some natural ability with work to do in terms of mechanics. Even his college production is inconsistent. As a sophomore at Oklahoma Tapper showed great promise with 48 combined tackles and 5.5 sacks. In his junior year he had 35 combined tackles with 1 sack before rebounding nicely as a senior going 31-19-7. Tapper has three years of starting experience against good competition. If the coaching staff can fix his technical issues he could prove to be a solid NFL player.
Former Raiders backup Benson Mayowa was initially expected to fill in early in the season. That may still happen is he can recover from a minor knee surgery in time. Mayowa will probably be sidelined at the beginning of camp but the organization is optimistic he will be ready at some point in the preseason.
Even if everyone were healthy and available the Cowboys only have one proven pass rush threat at end. Demarcus Lawrence came on strong in his second season recording 7 of his 8 sacks over the final eight games. He stepped up in terms of tackle production as well with 35 solo and 20 assists. The 2014 second round pick is a little undersized for an every down end but is looking like the player the organization expected him to be. It is too early in his career to start calling him a perennial top twelve lineman but Lawrence has that potential and has taken the first step. For fantasy owners there are actually some positives to the four game suspension. With a month off Lawrence will have fresh legs when he returns, there is less chance he will be injured and most of all it will push him well down most people's draft boards. I am not one to over react to early season suspensions and love the idea of getting a quality starter as my DL3, especially since we know he will be fresh and motivated down the stretch when we need him.
In 2015 the Cowboys gave us a couple of relatively productive defensive tackles. At 31-15-0 Nick Hayden slipped into the top twenty with Tyrone Crawford's 24-12-5 landing him at twenty one. Hayden has been replaced by former Eagle Cedric Thornton who could provide a little more punch for both the Cowboys and fantasy owners. Thornton averaged 42-14-1 in his two full seasons as a starter in Philadelphia (2013-2014). He was 48-12-1 as a 3-4 end in 2013. In 2014 Thornton moved to nose tackle and finished as a top ten interior lineman going 36-16-1. His production slipped considerably last season due to nagging injuries that cost him three games and had him playing while banged up in several more. He is a stout run defender and a better pass rusher than his previous numbers would suggest. Thornton is yet another player who will be flying under the radar after a down year in 2015. Target him as a low end DT1 or priority DT2 with upside.
Tyrone Crawford is an interesting prospect and seems to be a player on the rise. His production has gone up steadily every season since being draft in round three in 2012. Crawford had 3 tackles and a sack in the opener last year then vanished for three games before returning with a 3-1-1 in week five. Marginal tackle numbers contributed to considerable inconsistency but then defensive tackles are generally inconsistent anyway. If he continues to show improvement at the current and is not shifted outside full time, Crawford could be a strong DT2 this season. I like him as second starter and a late/last round target if he keeps the tackle positional designation.
DE Randy Gregory - No value this year but big long term upside if he can stay clean
DE Demarcus Lawrence - Quality DL2 or low end DL1 after week four
DE Benson Mayowa - Marginal value at best
DT/DE Jack Crawford - Marginal value
DE Charles Tapper - Dynasty sleeper and possible taxi prospect
DE Ryan Russell - Dark horse sleeper worth keeping an eye on
DT Tyrone Crawford - Solid DT2
DT Cedric Thornton - Priority DT2 with top ten potential
DT Terrell McClain - No value
DT Malik Collins - Project with long term potential
The Cowboys are a mess at linebacker which is strange to say considering they are loaded with talent. Jaylon Smith may prove to be the best linebacker of this year's draft class but he will see limited action if any this season as he recovers from injury. Rolando McClain is suspended yet again, this time for ten games. Any other organization would show him the door; it remains to be seen if Dallas will do so but it does not look like it at this stage. They are probably waiting to see if they need him come week eleven. McClain is a good player when he is on the field but is not so good to be worth all the drama. In fact Anthony Hitchens is a better all around player in my opinion. There is no doubt he is a more dependable one. Andrew Gachkar is the backup to McClain on the depth chart but history tells us either Hitchens or Sean Lee are likely to start the first ten games in the middle. If Lee goes inside Hitchens will probably start on the weak side. Who knows what happens after week ten. Hitchens has been a model citizen off the field and a steady contributor on it when given an opportunity. He is probably counting the days until his rookie contract is up so he can go to a team that will appreciate and reward him for what he brings to the game. If indeed Hitchens opens as the starter at middle or weak side, he will have good fantasy value. He was in and out of the lineup as a rookie covering for injuries. In eleven games he was 59-16-0 with an interception. Four times that year Hitchens had 8 or more solo tackles in a game, twice reaching double digits. In all he made nine starts last year with many of them coming on the strong side. As such his numbers were less impressive at 39-28-1.5 but he still managed 9 or more points in six games. If you are looking for a late round guy with a good deal of upside or someone to get you by this year while you wait for Smith, Hitchens is your man.
Sean Lee will be the first and possibly the only Dallas linebacker drafted in many leagues. There is no argument about his production and fantasy value when healthy. The problem is he just cannot seem to stay on the field. Lee has not played a full season since coming to the league in 2010. In all he has missed thirty six games in six seasons due to a numbers of injuries. He came close last year playing fourteen games and finishing as the sixteenth ranked linebacker. He is fast, covers well, makes a lot of tackles, and is a considerable big play threat. Even so counting on him as your LB1 is not worth the risk. Or at least if you do, make sure you grab Hitchens later in the draft. There are simply too many quality players at linebacker to warrant gambling on Lee. I have him slotted as a mid tier LB2 with top twelve upside for 2016.
Journeyman Justin Durant recently signed with the Cowboys to provide depth. He was there a couple of years ago so there is a familiarity between him and the team. Durant can line up at any of the linebacker spots but is most likely to land on the strong side if he works with the starters at all. He was not good in Atlanta last year and unless there are injuries he will not be much of a factor in Dallas regardless of position.
WLB/MLB Sean Lee - Considerable injury risk but will post LB1 numbers when healthy
MLB/OLB Anthony Hitchens - Sleeper with low LB2 upside
MLB Rolando McClain - Suspended until week eleven
MLB Andrew Gachkar - Minimal value as injury/suspension replacement
MLB Jaylon Smith - Excellent long term potential may not play this year
WLB Damien Wilson - No value at this time
SLB Kyle Wilbur - No value
MLB/OLB Justin Durant - Minimal value at best
Over the past few season the Cowboys secondary has given us one consistently productive defensive back. Strong safety Barry Church exploded for 107 tackles and 28 assists in 2013. He added 5 turnover, 6 passes defended and a score to finish at the top of the defensive back rankings. Church was largely a product of the environment that season. Sean Lee missed five games leaving Bruce Carter, Ernie Sims and Justin Durant as the starting linebackers. Even when Lee was healthy there was no one besides him and Church to really compete for tackles. The defense struggled greatly and Dallas finished 8-8. In covering the AFC East I talked about not expecting the same huge tackle numbers from Corey Graham and Reshad Jones; Church is a good example of why. The team improved in the front seven the following season and his exaggerated number of opportunities went away. Church continued to be a quality every week start, but had 20 fewer tackles and a couple less big plays. Give or take a few spots that is where his value seems to have leveled out. He was the numbers eighteen defensive back in 2014 and had Church not missed the season finale last year, would have come in around twenty four. At 6'2" 218 pounds he is the prototypical box safety who intimidates like an extra linebacker in the secondary but looks like one in coverage now and then as well. The coaching staff often gives him help in coverage by playing both Byron Jones and J.J. Wilcox in sort of a double free safety alignment with him. In fantasy terms we have seen enough of Church to know what should be expected. He is a steady low end DB2 or a priority third starter.
Wilcox had a fairly good 2014 with 62 tackles and 6 turnovers. He had some value in deeper leagues or as a bye week fill in. Last year he and Jones were on the field together for 724 of the team's 967 defensive plays. By the end of the season Jones seemed to have taken over the starting job and was getting nearly all the playing time in two safety sets. There is nothing to read into this other than he could have more opportunity in 2016. On 870 snaps last year Jones was 48-19-0 with 8 passes defended and no turnovers. Even if he had played sixty or seventy more snaps it would not have been enough to matter. On the other hand, Jones is entering his second season, has the starting job from the start and is more comfortable in the scheme. There are no grand expectations but he is worth keeping an eye on, especially if starts making some big plays early.
Making more big plays will be a theme for the Cowboys this summer after the entire secondary accounted for 5. Making that even uglier is the fact backup safety Jeff Heath was the only player with more than 1. Brandon Carr is the team's number one corner. He is a solid cover man with a good combination of size and speed but the big play has vanished from his game for the past two seasons. Carr's career is a good example of the rookie corner rule. As a rookie for the Chiefs in 2008 he had a career best 70 tackles, tallied 4 turnovers and 6 assists. Over the next three seasons his tackle numbers dropped steadily to a career low of 39 in 2011, while his passes defended peaked at 23 in 2010. In 2013 when Dallas was struggling, Carr had has best statistical season as a Cowboy. With a mark of 60 tackles, 4 takeaways, 13 passes defended and a score, he was the number eight corner. Carr had good enough tackle numbers (59-11) to have some value last year but it has now been thirty six games since his last interception. Until he starts showing some play making ability Carr is no better than a match up based bye week flier.
The Cowboys are a little thin at corner. If he is healthy Orlando Scandrick should start opposite Carr. He missed last season after blowing out his knee in August and has not yet been able to fully participate in practice. He will be eased back into action during camp in hope of being ready for the opener. Morris Claiborne has been somewhat of a disappointment since being the sixth overall pick in 2012. He has missed games in each of his four pro seasons and has been no more than a nickel corner over the past three seasons. After Claiborne Dallas has rookie sixth round pick Anthony Brown and a handful of young undrafted free agents. There is no one among this group that has shown any box score potential.
SS Barry Church - Excellent DB3 with Mid tier DB2 upside
FS J.J. Wilcox - No value
FS/SC Byron Jones - Worth keeping an eye on
SS Jeff Heath - No value
CB Brandon Carr - Depth at best
CB Orlando Scandrick - No value
CB Morris Claiborne - No value
CB Anthony Brown - No value
New York Giants
The Giants basically swapped Robert Ayers for Olivier Vernon in free agency and added former Jets nose tackle Damon Harrison. While those two additions will play an important part, the success of New York’s defensive line will rely largely on how well Jason Pierre-Paul is able to play. He managed to get back on the field in week nine last year but was not fully recovered from the fireworks accident. The hand was good enough for Pierre-Paul to play nearly full time starting in week ten but there was some difference in his game. He played with a club of padding on the hand as he recovered and adjusted to the missing fingers. By the end of the season Pierre-Paul had played 502 of the team's 1082 snaps. Production wise all of his numbers were fairly strong except the all important sack total. If we double the stats of his half season Pierre-Paul goes 42-10-2 with 4 forced fumbles and 12 batted passes. He has traded in the club for a custom fit glove and has looked good throughout offseason activities. The Giants were confident enough to give him a new contract and the feeling going into camp is Pierre-Paul will be the same player as before the injury. Fantasy owners sure hope that is the case. For anyone who does not remember, Pierre-Paul was 53-24-12.5 with 4 turnovers and 6 batted passes in 2014. I would not expect him to match those numbers but he is clearly motivated to prove he can still be dominant. I like his chances of bouncing back strong and finishing among the top fifteen.
At a glance the Ayers for Vernon move looks like a basically even swap. Ayers had 30 tackles and 9 sacks for the Giants last season while Vernon had 41 solo stops and 7.5 sacks for Miami. Both are good players but in the long run I think the Giants made a significant upgrade here. Vernon is better at setting the edge versus the run is a better pass rusher. While it is true Ayers had more sacks in 2015, a three year comparison tells the story better. Since 2013 Vernon has out produced Ayers by a score of 24 sacks to 19.5. Vernon is five years younger at age 25 and should be an excellent fit in the scheme. Numbers rarely lie but sometimes they fail to tell the whole story. It is too easy to look at Vernon's totals over the past two seasons and assume he will be good for 35-40 tackles and about 7 sacks. I have bigger expectations for him though. In 2013 he was 45-12-10 for the Dolphins. His numbers dropped off a little in 2013 due to nagging injuries and underlying circumstances that carried over into the first month of last season. Vernon's 2015 numbers of 41-20-7.5 are solid by any standards but look much better when we consider he had 4 tackles and no sacks entering week six. It was as if someone flipped the switch during the Dolphins week five bye. Over the final twelve games Vernon produced at least 8 fantasy points ten times reaching double digits in eight contests. If we take his production from those games and average it over a full season it looks more like 49-27-10. My expectations are not quite that high for him in 2016 but I will not be surprised if he joins the 40 tackle and double digit sack club for the second time in his career.
Owa Odighizuwa missed most of his rookie season with injury but is expected to add some spark to the pass rush in sub packages year. He is listed as a defensive end and indeed will line up there most of the time when he gets on the field, but Odighizuwa could see time as a strong side linebacker much the way the team once used Mathias Kiwanuka. Barring an injury he will not have enough opportunity to make a big splash in the box scores. Kerry Wynn did a serviceable job as a starter for much of last season and will provided dependable depth for the Giants. He is a solid run defender but lacks the ability to be productive as an outside pass rusher. Wynn could have some opportunity as a tackle in sub packages.
No Giants interior lineman managed more than 21 solo tackles last season. This however is more of an exception than a rule when it comes to New York's tackle position. As a second year pro in 2014 Jonathan Hankins was 30-21-7 and the fantasy game's number five tackle. Everyone in the Giants front four struggled to get to the passer last season but Hankins was on pace to finish with 40 tackles and 18 assists when he was injured in week nine. He is fully recovered from the torn pectoral and the Giants seem set to regain their status as one of the league’s best pass rushing defenses. Hankins 7 sacks a couple of years back may have been somewhat of an apparition but he is surprisingly nimble for a man of 320 pounds. He is an excellent run defender with more than enough juice as a pass rusher to hold a three down role. The addition of Damon Harrison ensures Hankins will work in the 3-technique role which will lead to single blocking on most running downs. After a disappointing 2015 he will get little attention from most owners on draft day but 35-40 tackles and 4-5 sacks are reasonable expectations as he enters the prime of his career. Target Hankins as a low end DT1 and do not be surprised if he exceeds expectations.
Harrison was signed to help bolster the run defense. He is a 6'4" 350 pound road block who will line up at nose tackle on early downs but will likely be a spectator in nearly all sub package situations. Harrison consistently turned in solid tackle totals during his three years as a starter for the Jets but he has never provided much in terms of pass rush as demonstrated by his 1.5 career sacks. He had 39 tackles and 33 assists last season and could continue to give us marginally useful production in that area but it is more likely Harrison's numbers will slip into the 25-30 solo range in the Giants scheme. During the early stages of training camp he has been giving way to Owa Odighizuwa in sub packages.
DE Jason Pierre-Paul - There is some risk but the reward could be big
DE Olivier Vernon - Somewhat underrated with top 12 upside
DE Kerry Wynn - No value
DE Owa Odighizuwa - Deep sleeper at best
DT Damon Harrison - Possible second starter in tackle required leagues with no upside
DT Johnathan Hankins - Solid DT1 with top 5 upside
DT Jay Bromley - No value
DT Montori Hughes - No value
DT Louis Nix - No value
The Giants continue to spend big up front and in the secondary but once again the second level will be held together with chewing gum and duct tape. From a talent perspective the team's best option at middle linebacker is free agent addition Keenan Robinson. The Redskins fourth round pick in 2012 missed most of his rookie campaign and all of 2013 with injury. In 2014 he landed a starting job during camp and was on the way to an excellent season before missing three of the final four games. In thirteen starts that season Robinson was on pace to go 87-41-2 with 3 turnovers. He opened 2015 as a starter in Washington but injuries once again derailed his season, causing the team to throw in the towel.
The Giants opened camp with 31 year old journeyman and career backup Jasper Brinkley working with the first team at middle backer. In addition to Robinson they signed Kelvin Sheppard who is another career backup journeyman, and drafted B.J. Goodson out of Clemson in the fourth round. All of these guys will be in the mix along with Devon Kennard and Jonathan Casillas to fill out the second level. Brinkley is less versatile than the others in this group and is pretty much limited to the middle. He is average at best in coverage and is best suited for a two done role in base packages. Robinson is best suited for the middle but could play on the weak side. He is by far the team's best option in coverage when healthy but who knows how long he will last. Goodson played outside some in college but NFL scouts have him pegged as a two down thumper in the middle. He was a team captain for the Tigers as a senior and could bring some much needed leadership to the huddle. Sheppard can play in the middle or on the strong side but is a liability in coverage. Everywhere he goes it seems players in front of him go down so Sheppard has plenty of game experience. Kennard has played and produced well on the weak side but Giants coaches have been reluctant to play him there. The third year pro has seen most of his action as a two down strong side backer where he has contributed to the pass rush with 5.5 sacks. Casillas is a good backup level player with decent cover skills and plenty of experience but not much upside.
The coaching staff will probably look at several combinations of these players between now and week one. There is a great deal of fantasy potential here if someone can step up and claim it. Ultimately I expect to see a lot of situational playing time resulting in marginal value for fantasy owners. Robinson is the best gamble of the bunch if you are looking for an LB5 with upside. If Brinkley manages to hold onto the job and lands a three down role he could be a decent LB3 based on sheer volume of opportunity alone. This in one we will be keeping a close eye on throughout August.
MLB Jasper Brinkley - Marginal NFL starter with LB3 upside at best
MLB Keenan Robinson - Major injury risk with low LB2 potential if he can stay healthy
SLB Devon Kennard - Minimal value
WLB B.J. Goodson - Deep sleeper worth keeping an eye on
MLB Kelvin Sheppard - Marginal NFL starter with LB4 upside at best
SLB Mark Herzlich - No value
OLB J.T. Thomas - No value
OLB Jonathan Casillas - No value
The Giants were horrible versus the pass in 2015 so big changes in the secondary were both expected and needed. As a result strong safety Landon Collins and corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie are the only returning starters. Collins was a bright spot among the gloom for both the Giants and fantasy owners last year. His 84 solo tackles were fifth most among defensive backs and the totals of 84-28-0 with 9 passes defended and a couple of turnovers landed him among the top ten at the position. At 6'0" 225 pounds Collins fits the mold of the hybrid linebacker/safety we are seeing all around the league. He is fast, physical, intelligent and consistent. Collins accounted for 4.5 fantasy points in week one then put up more than 8 in each of the remaining fifteen games, hitting double digits nine times. His tackle totals may have been a little inflated because the team was so bad in the front seven. The organization believes they will be much better defensively in 2016. There is no place to go but up so I am inclined to agree with them by default. That said there are still a lot of questions at linebacker. In most situations like this we would anticipate a few less tackle opportunities with a few more shots at big plays. I am not so sure it will go that way for Collins and would not be surprised if his totals go up across the board. I expect 80+ tackles, a hand full of big plays and a second top ten finish in 2016.
The starter at free safety is not yet official but rookie Darian Thompson seems to be the heavy favorite. Some scouts see him as a better fit in a strong safety role where he could play up in the box to mask some deficiencies in his coverage skills. The Giants are instead looking to take advantage of his ball hawking ability. Thompson had 19 career interceptions at Boise State. His 243 combined tackles and assists over that career is also a good sign he will make a solid contribution in the tackle columns as a pro. Collins is clearly the better target but if you miss out on him Thompson may prove to be an excellent late round option. With the situation at linebacker there should be plenty of opportunity for both safeties, especially if Thompson can carry over his big play production to the pro game.
Giant’s corners have provided some value for fantasy owners over the past several years. If Prince Amukamara could have stayed healthy he would have been a perennial top ten corner over the past few seasons. He finished in the top five in 2013 and was on pace for a repeat last year with 55 solo tackles, 10 passes defended and 3 turnovers in eleven games. Amukamara is gone and the Giants have added some serious talent at the position. Antonio Rodgers-Cromartie returns after a career best of 51 solo tackles, 13 passes defended and 5 turnovers. If we could count on him to repeat those numbers he would be worthy as a second starter or excellent depth in corner required leagues. The fact of the matter is Rodgers-Cromartie could be bumped all the way down to a nickel corner role. Former Rams starter Janoris Jenkins joined the team in free agency and is expected to start on one side while rookie first round pick Eli Apple will get a chance to start opposite him. Jenkins has been a quality DB2 or decent DB1 in each of his four seasons as a pro. He has never finished with fewer than 54 solo tackles, has at least 4 turnovers and 14 passes defended in three of his four seasons and has 6 returns for scores on his resume. The Giants believe he will bring quality coverage, big play production and consistency to the position. I believe he will do all that and have 60+ solo tackles to boot. I like Jenkins as a solid CB1 with potential for a breakout season.
Eli Apple has the rookie corner rule on his side but he has to win a full time job before it will matter. He was not particularly impressive in the box scores during his two years at Ohio State where he did not make many tackles and had 4 total interceptions. Apple is also very young having entered the draft after his sophomore season and will be 21 in August. Chances are he will at least open the season as the third corner. Unless something changes we would be best served to pass on him come draft day and keep an eye on his situation/production when the preseason kicks off.
SS Landon Collins - Solid DB1
FS Darian Thompson - Unknown commodity with high upside
FS/SS Nat Berhe - No value
FS Mykkele Thompson - No value
SS Cooper Taylor - No value
CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie - Depth in leagues starting two corners
CB Janoris Jenkins - Changing teams always brings risk but he should be a solid CB1
CB Eli Apple - Rookie corner rule
CB Trevin Wade - No value
As mentioned at the end of my last column, I have been on IR for the past couple of weeks. Using NFL terms I had a "procedure" and it has taken longer than expected to get back in the saddle. As such I am way behind on my column. In order to get the AFC and NFC West reports to you in time for them to help I am going to change up my approach a little. The rest of the way I'll be turning to more of a Cliff's notes version. My goal is to let everyone know my thoughts on players of relevance in as short a time as necessary to relay the important info.
The Eagles will be sporting a new look in 2016. The 3-4 is out and Jim Schwartz 4-3 is in. This is great news for IDP owners. His defenses have consistently been among the league's best and his aggressive scheme has produced a multitude of quality players for us. Fletcher Cox had a breakout season in 2015 when he was 50-21-9.5 with 5 turnovers as a defensive end in the 3-4. Cox would have a tough time repeating those numbers in any scheme so expecting him to match last year is probably not wise although I will not be shocked if he does. Cox will move inside to the 3-technique tackle in the new scheme where I believe he will become an elite top tier option. With 99 solo tackles over the past two seasons he has shown an outstanding ability to get off blocks and make plays. There is no reason to think that will not continue. His 9.5 sacks last year were 4 more than his previous career best. This is where we could see a little slip from last year. By the end of the season Cox will probably be in the conversation with Aaron Donald and the other handful of elite fantasy tackles. I would rank him just below the elite tier for drafting purposes only because change always brings risk. Keep in mind however; Marcell Dareus had 9 sacks in the same role under Schwartz in 2014.
Bennie Logan will likely get the nod at the nose tackle position with Beau Allen and Mike Martin providing depth. As the nose tackle in the 3-4 Logan had 45 tackles in 2014 and 39 in fourteen games last year. He should be a good fit in the new scheme but his lack of prowess as a pass rusher means Logan will almost certainly be a two down player. He could provide enough tackle production to have some value as depth in leagues starting two tackles.
With the Bills in 2014 Schwartz defense totaled 50 sacks and 30 turnovers. He had Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes at end that season. The Eagles may not have players with so much name recognition or as much history of production, but do not be surprised if this group matches or even exceeds the 24 sacks Williams and Hughes accounted for that season. Vinny Curry, Brandon Graham and Connor Barwin will be the three man rotation at end. Any or all of them could have fantasy value this year. Curry has been stuck in a bad situation since joining the Eagles as a second round pick in 2012. He was stuck behind quality veteran starters early in his career then miss cast in the team's 3-4 for a couple of years. Over the past two seasons Curry has accounted for 13 sacks while playing mostly in sub packages. At 279 pounds he was undersized for an end in the team's 3-4 but should be an excellent fit as a three down end in the 4-3. We know he can be successful as a pass rusher; the only question with Curry is how well he will perform in the tackle columns. To date his career best is 17 solo and 5 assists but he has really never had enough opportunity for much more. He is not getting a lot of attention from owners thus far and could prove to be a late round steal. Pick him up as a DL3 or even DL4 near the end of the draft and do not be shocked if he becomes an every week DL2 start.
Connor Barwin may be the official starter opposite Curry but both he and Brandon Graham will see plenty of action. Both players are good pass rushers with the skill set to be three down guys. Both have spent a good deal of time working at outside linebacker in 3-4 schemes. Barwin had 14.5 sacks in that role in 2014 and 7 last season while Graham combined for 11.5 as a linebacker over the past two years. We know Graham is a good fit as a 4-3 end while Barwin started his career in Houston's 3-4 and has not seen much time in a 4-3 base defense since coming to the NFL. One of these players is likely to be highly productive in this scheme. In general there are bigger expectations for Barwin but I have always liked Graham and have looked forward to him having an opportunity in a scheme such as this. Both of them will be available late in most drafts and will be excellent options as DL3 or DL4 sleepers with upside.
DE Vinny Curry - Target as DL3 with upside
DE Brandon Graham - Sleeper with DL2 upside
DE Connor Barwin - Sleeper with DL2 upside
DE Tyler Hart - No value
DT Fletcher Cox - DT1 with top five potential
DT Bennie Logan - Depth in leagues starting two tackles
DT Beau Allen - No value
DT Mike Martin - No value
Between injuries and indecisive coaching the Eagles gave us little at linebacker in 2015. That will not be the case this season. Last year’s third round pick Jordan Hicks made his first start in week two. He exploded onto the scene with 7 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble, which had fantasy owners scrambling to pick him up. Hicks made seven starts before landing on IR in week ten. He put up at least 9 fantasy points in each of them while averaging nearly 16. He was getting it done in all aspects. Hicks was on pace for 98 solo tackles, had 3 turnovers, 3 passes defended and a score. Kiko Alonso and DeMeco Ryans are gone so Hicks is the unquestioned man in the middle for 2016. I love what he has done and expect him to be a strong fantasy option going forward but advise caution for those who see him as an elite fantasy option. For starters we have seen only seven games of work from him. While I do not believe his production was a fluke, it is still only a seven game body of work in a defensive scheme that has since left town.
In Jim Schwartz scheme the weak side linebacker is the focal point. There have been some box score friendly middle backers on his teams but we should not overlook history here. From 2001 to 2008 Schwartz was the defensive coordinator in Tennessee. From 2002 through 2006 weak side linebacker Keith Bulluck led the team in solo tackles every season with an average of 101. If not for a string of injuries Bulluck would probably have continued on the same pace for the next three seasons as well. In 2013 and 2014 WLB DeAndre Levy totaled 204 solo stops in the Schwartz scheme. Schwartz was actually in Buffalo in 2014 but the Lions continued to run basically the same scheme. The moral of this story is do not overvalue Hicks and be sure not to overlook Mychal Kendricks.
Kendricks was 81-25-4 with 9 turnovers in 2013. Had he not missed four games in 2014 and three last year he would have put up similar numbers in those seasons as well. He is a fast, aggressive player with the ability to get to the passer on the blitz and a knack for the big play. If Kendricks can stay healthy this scheme could make him a fantasy stud. He has missed at least one game in each of his four seasons as a pro, so there is some risk. Coming off back to back seasons with low overall tackle totals will have most owners undervaluing him. For those of us on top of the situation it means a great value pick as an LB3 or LB4 with big potential.
Nigel Bradham was signed to handle the strong side duties. Off field issues could come into play at some point this season after he was arrested on battery charges in July, but chances are any suspension would not happen before 2017 after the legal process runs its course. Bradham has the ability to be a solid three down player though it is unlikely he will have that opportunity unless Hicks or Kendricks go down. The bottom line being we should not count on much from Bradham this year.
As I write this the Eagles are in discussions with Stephen Tulloch. If he joins the team it will be as depth at all three positions. That said he could be given an opportunity to compete with Braham for the starting spot on the strong side.
MLB Jordan Hicks - Solid starter somewhere between a low end LB1 to a priority LB3
WLB Mychal Kendricks - Excellent mid round value pick target with big upside
SLB Nigel Bradham - Minimal value
WLB Najee Goode - No value
MLB Joe Walker - No value
SLB Bryan Braman - No value
In his first year with the Eagles (2014) Malcolm Jenkins put up numbers much like those from his five years in New Orleans. Tackle totals of 63 solo and 16 assists, 5 turnovers, a career best 14 passes defended and a score were enough to make him a solid DB2. No one anticipated last year's explosion when Jenkins jumped into the top five. His big play production remained steady at 5 turnovers with 10 passes defended and a score but he blew up the tackle column for 91 solo stops. When a player breaks out like this we always wonder if he will be a one year wonder or if we can count on the big numbers to continue. The best thing to do if possible is determine what caused the change. In Jenkins case it is pretty easy to figure out. He had so many tackles because the linebackers did not. It is really that simple. Injuries and inconsistent play at the second level made the secondary a target rich environment and Jenkins took advantage. Heading into this year the linebacker situation is much improved. They have quality players in place and everyone is healthy thus far. If they are able to sign Stephen Tulloch there will even be solid depth. Jenkins has been steady in the big play columns. As an excellent pass defender he will get his share of breakups as well. He will however, be hard pressed to repeat the big tackle totals. Just as we see good players slide based on unusually low overall production the previous season, Jenkins will be overvalued this summer based on his unusually high totals from 2015. I expect solid tackle numbers in the 65-70 range, his usual big play contributions and a top twenty finish in 2016. If you can get him as your second starter Jenkins will serve you well. Be careful not to overpay.
Walter Thurmond was no more than adequate at the other safety spot last year. He will be replaced by former Rams starter Rodney McLeod who should be a significant upgrade and another reason not to expect so much from Jenkins. McLeod played a lot of free safety for the Rams but should see more time in a strong safety role with Philadelphia. This will put Jenkins back in the free safety role he is best suited for. McLeod was no more than a marginal fantasy option during his three seasons as a starter for St. Louis, but a change of role could add a few tackles to his average of 62 over that span. There are no grand expectations here but McLeod could prove to be a decent third starter or quality depth with a little upside.
The Eagles addressed both the starting lineup and depth at corner over the offseason. Free agent addition Leodis McKelvin is set to take over as the number one corner while fellow free agent addition Ron Brooks is in the mix with last year's opening day starter Nolan Carroll and 2015 second round pick Eric Rowe to complete the rest of the pecking order. McKelvin was a top twenty corner in 2013 and has been rather productive in terms of per snap average over his career. The problem being he has not been able to stay on the field. McKelvin has missed thirty games in seven seasons including thirteen over the past two years. Carroll has show signs of solid production as well. He was 42-14-0 with a couple of picks, 10 passes defended and a score through ten games last season before going down early in week twelve. There is no one among this group who stands out as a clear fantasy option entering the pre-season, but someone could emerge in August or September.
FS Malcolm Jenkins - Quality DB2 with top twelve upside
SS Rodney McLeod - Sleeper with DB2 potential
SS Jerome Couplin - No value
CB Leodis McKelvin - Sleeper with CB2 upside
CB Nolan Carroll - Sleeper with CB2 upside
CB Ron Brooks - No value
CB Eric Rowe - Deep sleeper at best
CB Jalen Mills - No value
Let us keep this section short and to the point. There has been no fantasy productive lineman in a Washington uniform since the team moved to a 3-4 scheme several years ago. Chris Baker's 27-27-6 last season is close as anyone has come in recent memory. Those numbers landed him just inside the top 30 making Baker a decent option as depth in some leagues. Washington has some good players up front but their 3-4 scheme is simply not fantasy friendly in the front three. Baker could make his way into the top 24 this year and may be roster worthy in some leagues. Beyond that possibility we should avoid this group like the plague.
There has not been much fantasy value among the Washington inside linebackers since London Fletcher retired, but there is plenty of potential. The problem has largely been an inability to keep anyone healthy. Perry Riley had a couple of decent years playing alongside Fletcher in 2012 and 2013 but when he was asked to take over for Fletcher the wheels seemed to fall off. Riley played through nagging injuries in 2014 and again last season until he was finally shut down after week twelve. Keenan Robinson was the other starter in 2014 and 2015. His story is much the same. Robinson was on pace for 92 tackles and averaged 11.5 points a game in 2014 before missing four games in December. He opened last year as a starter but struggled with shoulder and biceps injuries that had him in and out of the lineup.
The injuries to Riley and Robinson opened the door for Will Compton and Mason Foster to show their wares. They both looked pretty good in relief roles. Enough so in fact that Foster was signed to a two year deal after the season and Robinson was not invited back. Riley, Compton and Foster are all healthy entering camp but it is unclear what the plan is. Making things even less clear is the expected use of safety Su'a Cravens at linebacker in sub packages. There is even some chance he ends up there in a three down role but that is unlikely.
Foster is a long time favorite of mine. He has proven to be fantasy friendly whenever the opportunity has presented itself. Compton was the leading tackler among Washington's linebackers last year but that is not saying much. He recorded 4 or fewer solo stops in ten of his fourteen games and made little big play impact. In my opinion Foster has the most fantasy potential here but who knows if he will be a starter, and even if he is will he see sub package snaps? Someone from this group could emerge as a solid prospect for us. There is just as good a chance no one steps up and claims a three down role. Until we can get an idea of the plan it may be best to avoid the whole situation.
For owners in big play based leagues Washington has a bit more to offer. Ryan Kerrigan has produced at least 7.5 sacks in each of his five years as a pro with a career best of 13.5 in 2014. His tackle numbers slumped to 32 solos last season after he averaged 45 over his first four seasons. It is safe to expect a bounce back to somewhere in the area of 45 tackles and double digit sacks in 2016.
Second year man Preston Smith is coming off an 8 sack rookie season. He has a high ceiling in terms of sack potential but his 24 solo tackles from last season are reason for concern. There is a ton of upside but until we see him step up across the board Smith is no more than a high upside sleeper for owners in big play leagues.
ILB Perry Riley - Risky prospect with LB3 ceiling and low floor
ILB Mason Foster - Potential is there if the opportunity comes
ILB Will Compton - Could emerge as starter but quality numbers are far from a sure thing
OLB Ryan Kerrigan - LB2 or better in big play leagues
OLB Trent Murphy - No value
OLB Preston Smith - Big play sleeper with high sack potential
The Washington secondary has a long history of quality fantasy production from both the safety and corner positions. The unit will have new faces and old faces in new places for 2016, but the fantasy friendly environment should continue. For most of his twelve year career DeAngelo Hall has been a consistent CB1 for us. He is a turnover machine averaging better than 6 a season from 2005 to 2013 and has consistently recorded tackle numbers in the mid sixties. Hall has battled injuries over the past two years so his overall totals have been down, but when he played Hall was just as productive as in previous seasons. This year Hall will shift to free safety where he should be an excellent fit. We have seen a lot of great corners make this move successfully in order to extend their careers. Hall should put his name on that list as well. His numbers should remain about the same in the new role. 65-70 tackles, 5-6 turnovers and double digit passes defended are reasonable expectations.
The strong safety position is a little more complicated, or at least people are making it out to be. The writing on the wall seems pretty clear to me. David Bruton is a career backup and is not a starting safety at the NFL level. Duke Ihenacho has looked good in brief stints but has missed 28 games with injury over the past two seasons. The team used a second round pick on Su'a Cravens who can basically line up anywhere other than tackle. We already know they plan to have him line up at linebacker in sub packages. Cravens is too talented to be a part time player so it only makes sense to line him up at strong safety in the base packages. There is no consistency to where he is designated across the many league management sites but he is listed at safety on Washington's team site roster. Hopefully we can get some clarity from the first round of preseason games. If we can play him at safety Cravens could have a big rookie year. As a linebacker he might have some value but only if he ends up in a three down role.
Injuries opened the door for Bashaud Breeland to spend most of his first two NFL seasons as a starter. Entering year three the job is unquestionably his from the start. He has proven to be a quality starter in NFL terms and has been a DeAngelo Hall clone in the box scores. As a rookie in 2014 Breeland played sparingly for the first few games but went on to finish at 58-11-0 with 4 turnovers, 13 passes defended and a top twenty fantasy finish. His numbers were even better in his second season at 60-22-0 with 7 takeaways, 16 passes defended and a top five finish among corners. He obviously has what it takes to get the job done and is playing in a position with a rich fantasy history. Playing opposite Josh Norman this season is not going to hurt anything either.
Norman is not a guy that will put up big tackle numbers. He had 52 solo stops as a rookie in 2012 and 48 last year. Until last season he had not been very impressive in the big play columns either. In fact he had all of 4 career turnovers before the 2015 breakout. Norman's 48-8-0 with 9 turnovers, 18 passes defended and 2 scores made him the fantasy game's number three corner last year. There are some, including the Panthers organization, who believe his big season was a result of the scheme and that Norman is overrated. I tend to lean that way as well. What we know for certain is Norman has only one big season on his resume. I am not so confident he will be able to repeat, especially in a different scheme. I am however confident that Breeland will be the more fantasy friendly of the two.
SS Su'a Cravens - Strong sleeper with serious upside
FS DeAngelo Hall - Quality DB3 at worst, low end DB1 at best
SS Duke Ihenacho - Major injury risk with good upside if he lands a three down job at strong safety
FS David Bruton - Career backup with no value
CB Bashaud Breeland - Solid CB1 with top five potential
CB Josh Norman - Risk reward player with high ceiling and low floor
CB Will Blackmon - No value
CB Kendall Fuller - No value
And the NFC East is in the can! Next up, the AFC West.