Welcome to part two of this year's Eyes of the Guru series - the NFC North
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
The Vikings defense is on the verge of becoming one of the league's best. They were middle of the pack versus both the pass (12th) and the run (17th) in 2015 but Minnesota was number five in scoring and their 43 sacks ranked seventh. One big reason for their success and my optimism is the rock solid front four they have assembled. Linval Joseph and Sharrif Floyd are the foundation of the unit. Checking in at 329 and 311 pounds respectively they are a powerful tandem of big men with enough athleticism to be a factor against both the pass and run. Neither player will light up the box scores with a bunch of sacks but there is some fantasy production here. Joseph finished last season with a sack and a half while his 43 solo tackles were the third most in the league by an interior lineman. Those numbers are even more impressive when you consider he missed four of the final five games with injury. It is hard to say if last year's big tackle totals were a fluke or a sign of great things to come. What we do know is since becoming a starter for the Giants in 2011 Joseph has averaged around 35 tackles, 19 assists and 3 sacks a season. Those numbers would make him a quality second starter or low end number one at a position that is always thin. He was on pace for 57 solo stops last season so the upside pushes his value into the top ten.
Floyd was a player many expected to have a breakout season in 2015 but instead he actually regressed, at least in the box scores. After going 28-14-5 in fourteen games in 2014, Floyd managed just 19-14-2.5 in his third season. Those were disappointing numbers for a player who was once compared to Warren Sapp by scouts and was drafted twenty third overall. Floyd plays the Geno Atkins role in Mike Zimmer's scheme so we know the opportunity is there and the talent is still there as well. The poor production from last season will keep him off a lot of draft boards this year. I suggest you keep Floyd on yours and target him as a backup with upside.
It is rare to see a team with two defensive tackles worthy of consideration. The Vikings are the only team with three. Tom Johnson is the third man in their interior rotation. Most of his playing time comes in sub packages where he usually replaces Joseph. While Johnson's tackle numbers are generally held down by lack of opportunity, he has recorded 12 sacks over the past two seasons. With everyone healthy Johnson's pass rush potential makes him a bye week fill in at best, but if there is an injury this is a player to grab immediately. Over the final five games last year when Joseph was hurt, Johnson was 14-4-3.5.
With so many teams using three man fronts these days, three down defensive ends in a 4-3 scheme have become a valuable commodity. Everson Griffin is one of those players. He is a stout run defender who can hold ground at the point of attack and has developed into one of the league’s best pass rushers. Griffen is a perfect fit in Mike Zimmer's aggressive scheme. He recorded a career best in both tackles (39) and sacks (12) in 2014 when he was the fantasy game's number six defensive end. Griffen followed it up with 34 tackles and 10.5 sacks in fifteen games last season. He is 28 years old and in the prime of his career so barring injury, Griffen should be a perennial top twelve lineman who may find his way into the top five a few times in the coming.
Brian Robison gives the Vikings a quality bookend to pair with Everson Griffen, but he does not give fantasy owners anything to get excited about. In the prime of his career Robison was consistently putting up tackle numbers in the mid to upper twenties with 7-9 sacks. While his 30 solo stops in 2015 were a career best, he is now 33 years old and has no more than 5 sacks in either of the past two seasons. Robison has never been much more than a bye week stop gap in most leagues. Even that may be coming to an end as Minnesota has a young man named Danielle Hunter who is on the rise.
The Vikings seem to have gotten a steal when they picked Hunter in the third round last year. He was the third man in the defensive end rotation for most of his rookie season, finishing with an impressive 27 tackles and 5.5 sacks. Even more promising is the fact he was 10-3-3.5 over the team's final four games. At 6'5" he has the length and wingspan team's like at the position. At 252 pounds however, Hunter a bit light for an every down role. Robison will be ahead of him on the depth chart entering camp but is certainly looks as if Hunter is the future bookend to Everson Griffin. If Hunter convinces the coaching staff he can hold up on early downs he may move past Robison into the starting spot this summer.
DE Everson Griffen - Solid DL1 with top 5 potential
DE Brian Robison - Minimal value at best
DE Danielle Hunter - Rising young star with top 15 potential
DE Scott Crichton - No value
DT Sharrif Floyd - Target as depth with upside in 12 team leagues starting 2 tackles
DT Linval Joseph - Low end DT1 with top five potential
DT Tom Johnson - Bye week fill in with big upside if a starter goes down
DT Shamar Stephen - No value
DT Kenrick Ellis - No value
Until three years ago the linebacker position in Minnesota was a black hole. Only Chad Greenway offered any fantasy value and the second level was a weakness for the team on the field. Things change quickly in the NFL. With the addition of Anthony Barr in 2014 and Eric Kendricks last year, linebacker is now a team strength and Greenway has been pushed into a two down role with little box score production. This year’s addition of Kentrell Brothers could be the writing on the wall that spells 2016 as Greenway's last season with the team.
Kendricks is the top fantasy prospect of the group. He has outstanding instincts, good coverage skills, a high football IQ, and the ability to make plays sideline to sideline. He also brings character and leadership to the field and locker room. In his final year at UCLA Kendricks recorded the most tackles by a Bruin in a season since 1978. In his rookie year with the Vikings he averaged better than 5 solo stops a contest with a total of 73-20-4 in fourteen games. One area he will look to improve is big play production. All four of his sacks last year came in the first seven games while he accounted for no turnovers and had a single pass breakup. This was somewhat of a shortcoming during his college career as well so fantasy owners may want to temper expectations a bit. Kendricks was just outside the top thirty in fantasy points per game last year, making him a solid third starter in most leagues. Unless he can get some big plays going he may never make the top ten, but his production should improve now that he has a year of experience under his belt.
When the Vikings used the ninth overall pick on Anthony Barr in 2014 many expected him to be a younger incarnation of Chad Greenway. In many ways Barr has been just that. At 6'5" 255 pounds he has defensive end size with the quickness and athleticism of a weak side linebacker. Barr is hardnosed and tough versus the run with the versatility to line up as an outside pass rusher on one play then drop into coverage on the next. While he is an excellent contributor to the Vikings cause, there are some concerns in fantasy terms. Barr has been banged up in each of his two seasons, missing six games combined. The bigger issue however is his marginal tackle totals. Over his twenty six games as a pro he has averaged barely over 4 solo tackles and 1 assist per game. The 7.5 sacks and 9 turnovers have supplemented his point totals to some extent but his fantasy points per game average ranked outside the top 40 in 2015. Week to week consistency has also been an issue. Six times last year Barr exceeded double digit points while five times he managed four or fewer. There is a good deal of big play upside with Barr who has more value in leagues emphasizing them. For owners in balanced scoring leagues he has proven to be no more than quality depth or a marginal third starter.
Thirty three year old Chad Greenway will be entering his tenth seasons with the Vikings. He was an excellent fantasy contributor in his prime and proved he can still be when Kendricks and Barr were banged up last season. Greenway will continue to start in for the Vikings 2016 but has been phased out of the sub packages over the past two years. With everyone was healthy last year Greenway had all of 8 solo tackles through the first seven games. Have him on your short list in case one of the young guys suffers a significant injury but there is no need to roster Greenway in any but the deepest leagues.
There are some in Minnesota who claim Greenway is washed up. While I am not going to completely agree with that assessment, the drafting of Kentrell Brothers could spell the end for the veteran as a Viking. Brothers was the team's fifth round pick but we should not underestimate his potential based on draft status. This is a guy who did not test particularly high but is an excellent and productive football player. He is more instinctive than athletic and compensates for average speed by diagnosing plays a step quicker than most. Most importantly for fantasy owners he was a box score monster at Missouri, racking up 152 combined tackles and assists with 2.5 sacks and 3 turnovers as a senior. His lack of speed makes Brothers a better fit at middle linebacker but keep in mind many scouts projected Eric Kendricks as a weak outside linebacker in a 4-3 at the pro level when he came out of UCLA. By 2017 we may see Brothers in the middle with Barr and Kendricks on the outside.
WLB Chad Greenway - Two down player unless someone is injured
MLB Eric Kendricks - Solid third starter with LB2 upside
SLB Anthony Barr - Quality depth or marginal third starter in balanced scoring systems
MLB Kentrell Brothers - Dynasty stash with long term potential
MLB Audie Cole - No value unless there is a rash of injuries
SLB Edmond Robinson - No value
SLB Emmanuel Lamur - No value
WLB Stephen Weatherby - Developmental player to keep an eye on
Minnesota entered the offseason looking to get more big play production for their secondary in general and better run support from the strong safety position in particular. They addressed both areas by adding veteran safety Michael Griffin via free agency then drafting Mackensie Alexander in the second round. The Griffin addition makes a lot of sense. Drafting Alexander on the other hand, is a bit of a head scratcher.
Griffin has the versatility to play either free or strong safety and worked at both positions extensively during his nine years with the Titans. He is not the most physical tackler but is fundamentally sound and rarely lets a ball carrier get by. While Griffin is not a playmaker on the scale of Harrison Smith, he can make a significant contribution in that area. With 25 career interceptions and 42 total takeaways Griffin has averaged better than 4.5 turnovers a year over his career, adding 8 sacks as well. He recorded 85 solo tackles as the Titans strong safety in 2014 and would have come in around 70-75 at that position had he not been banged up early last season. Griffin should have decent fantasy value this year as the Vikings strong safety but we should not expect the same production he had previously. Simply put there is much more competition for tackles in Minnesota than he faced in recent years with the Titans. I like him as a bargain priced late round sleeper with DB3 or maybe even low end DB2 potential.
The solid veteran presence of Griffin will allow the Minnesota coaching staff to be more creative with star free safety Harrison Smith. At 6'2" and 214 pounds Smith is one of the biggest free safeties in the league. He can be a physical tackler but it is a knack for the big play which makes him so valuable to both the Vikings and fantasy owners. He has never totaled more than 73 solo stops in a season yet Smith has finished among the top five safeties twice in his four years as a pro. In 2014 he was the fantasy game's number one defensive back and has three top five finishes in points per game average. There are some things to think about when considering his fantasy value going forward however. Smith has been plagued by injury and has missed eleven games over the past three years. In 2013 he was on pace for 92 tackles before losing the final eight games to injury. In 2015 he missed three games and most of a fourth. The other consideration is how much better the Vikings are in the front seven. Early in his career Minnesota's linebacker corps consisted of Chad Greenway with a collection of marginal starters and backup quality stop gaps. That meant a lot of opportunity for the safeties in run support. With the addition of Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr over the past two years, Smith was on pace for about 62 solo tackles before he was injured last season. There is also the addition Griffin which is a double edged sword. On one hand he will free up Smith to take more chances and make more big plays. On the other hand Griffin will bring even more competition for tackle numbers. Smith is still one of the league’s premier big play safeties and should continue to be an excellent starter for fantasy owners but his days as a top five stud may be over.
Just like when he was with the Bengals, Mike Zimmer is stockpiling corners in Minnesota. And just like when he was with the Bengals, being an early round selection at corner under Zimmer does not mean a player will be on the field a lot right away. Vikings corners combined for all of 6 interceptions last season. So the team drafted Mackensie Alexander to help fix the shortcoming. The problem is Alexander failed to make a single interception in two years as a starter for Clemson. He is a good cover man with plenty of speed and will compete for a sub package role as a rookie. The coaching staff obviously saw something they liked in the young man. Maybe they believe some good coaching can make him a playmaker. The rookie corner rule could be in play here if Alexander somehow ends up in a starting role. We should not hold our breath for that to happen. In fact he may not even win the job as the third corner.
Despite being the eleventh overall pick in last year's draft Trae Waynes failed to make much of an impact as a rookie. He was on the field for 196 snaps or about 20% of the team’s defensive plays. Entering camp the Vikings depth chart at corner has Captain Munnerlyn and Xavier Rhodes as the starters with Waynes, Alexander and fourteen year veteran Terrence Newman in competition for the nickel job. Nothing is set in stone here including the starting spots, so fantasy owners looking for help at corner will need to keep an eye on the situation this summer. It could be well worth the effort. Despite the lack of big plays, there is value to be found here. In 2015 three Minnesota corners exceeded 50 solo tackles. Munnerlyn finished the season at 51-4-0 with a couple of picks, a forced fumble and 2 recoveries. He was the sixteenth ranked fantasy corner when all the numbers were in. Newman was 52-11-0 and led the team in interceptions with 3. He too finished among the top thirty corners at number twenty seven. Rhodes led the group in solo stops with 55 but his 3 assists and single interception left him short of top forty. Munnerlyn is the only safe bet to be an opening day starter and is a worthy target as a CB2. Take a wait and see approach with the rest of these guys but be ready to move quickly in the early weeks of the season if someone stands out.
FS Harrison Smith - Quality DB1 but not the stud he once was
SS Michael Griffin - Target as a DB3 with DB2 upside
SS Andrew Sendejo - No value
CB Terence Newman - Depth at best in leagues starting two corners
CB Xavier Rhodes - Minimal value
CB Captain Munnerlyn - Solid second starter
CB Mackensie Alexander - Possible rookie corner rule
CB Trae Waynes - Sleeper with CB2 upside is he starts
It has been a long time since a Lions defensive end last posted 40 tackles and double digit sacks in the same season (Robert Porcher 2001, 45-7-11). Ezekiel Ansah came very close in his breakout season of 2015 when he was 38-8-14.5. Ansah was a little undersized for a three down end when he entered the league in 2013. He served as a pass rush specialist during his rookie season posting a solid 8.5 sacks, but his low tackle totals of 18 solo and 12 assists left us wondering if or when he would become a serious fantasy factor. Ansah hit the weight room hard and the added muscle made a big difference. He displayed considerable improvement versus the run and landed a three down role in his second season. The result was greatly improved tackle totals of 37 solo, but his sack numbers actually dropped. It is not rare in the NFL for a player to regress in sack production when moving from a part time role to full time. The extra snaps can take its toll on lighter guys in particular as they sometimes wear down and lose the burst that made them productive as pass rushers. In his third season however, Ansah put it all together. I personally had my doubt that he could be a 40 tackle and double digit sack guy but last year made me a believer. He is in the prime of his career at age 27 and seems set to be a perennial top 5 fantasy option.
The question for Detroit now becomes the same as it was when Porcher was playing; can they find someone to be productive opposite their star? The organization is looking for Devin Taylor to be that guy. He is on a similar path to that of Ansah, though it has taken Taylor longer to reach the prize. He was a fourth round pick in 2013 seeing little action over his first two seasons with the team. Last year he worked in a time share with Jason Jones. Jones saw most of the action in base packages with Taylor drawing mostly sub package duties. Taylor finished at 27-8-7 while playing 552 of the team's 1013 defensive snaps. He has worked diligently in the weight room to add muscle and is now up from the 260 range that he weighed a couple of years ago to about 275. Time will tell if he can be the long term answer but we know Taylor will get the first shot at it. He is not Ansah but I believe Taylor will be a serious contributor and possibly a solid DL2 for us this season. Slip him onto your late round sleeper list and target Taylor as a third or even fourth end. He has not been drawing much interest in the draft/auctions I have participated in so far and could be a pleasant surprise as your last pick.
The Lions added Wallace Gilberry to fill the role of third end. He is one of the examples of a successful pass rush specialist who floundered in an every down role. In 2013 he was 19-5-7.5 in a sub package role for the Bengals. When Michael Johnson went to Tampa in 2014, Gilberry was promoted to starter. The additional playing time showed up in his tackle numbers with 49 combined solo and assists but he managed just a sack and a half. When Johnson returned to the Bengals last year Gilberry's role was reduced to the point he was not even a regular in sub packages and saw only spot duty. His role with the Lions is not going to provide enough opportunity for Gilberry to be a fantasy factor but his presence reinforces the organizations belief and commitment to Taylor.
When the Lions lost Ndamukong Suh to free agency last year they moved quickly to add Haloti Ngata as a stop gap replacement. Detroit soon learned what Baltimore already knew, Ngata's best days are well behind him. He is still a good player entering his eleventh year but has not exceeded 23 tackles or 2.5 sacks in a season since 2012.
Ngata will be one of the starters on the inside. There will be an open competition for the other spot. Tyrunn Walker and Stefan Charles will be mentioned by many as part of that competition but the real battle will likely be between third year man Caraun Reid who started next to Ngata last season, and second round pick A'Shawn Robinson. Reid was adequate on the field last year but was nothing to get excited about in the box scores. His 23-7-2 was of no use to fantasy owners and there is no reason to expect much more from him this year. Robinson has a ton of talent and on field potential as a run stuffing two gap beast but neither his scouting report nor college production provide much optimism when it comes to his fantasy potential. Linebackers Tahir Whitehead and DeAndre Levy stand to gain much more from his presence than we do.
DE Ezekiel Ansah - Perennial top five
DE Devin Taylor - Sleeper with DL2 upside and DL3 floor
DE Wallace Gilberry - No value
DE Anthony Zettel - No value
DT Haloti Ngata - No value
DT A'Shawn Robinson - Sleeper with low floor and DT3 upside
DT Tyrunn Walker - No value
DT Caraun Reid - Depth at best in 12 team leagues starting two tackles
DT Stefan Charles - No value
Can someone please tell us what is going on at middle linebacker in Detroit? The team told us months ago Stephen Tulloch was not part of their plans going forward. They have anointed Tahir Whitehead as the starter yet Tulloch remains on the roster. He led the team in tackle last season albeit with a modest 74 solo, so it would be nice to have some clarity from the organization. As of late June there is a fishy smell coming from this whole situation. Assuming the reports are accurate Tulloch will be released at some point so we will move on assuming Whitehead is the guy. I have mixed thoughts on what this means in fantasy terms but I will say I am not all that excited about Whitehead. Since 2011 Tulloch has completed four full seasons as the Lions middle backer. While he has not been much of a playmaker when it comes to sacks or turnovers, he averaged about 81 tackles and 36 assists over those seasons and was a solid third starter for us. In 2014 Tulloch was lost for the season in week three. That year Whitehead moved from the strong side to the middle just as he is doing now. In thirteen starts in the middle he totaled 59-19-0 with a couple of picks (both in the same game) and 5 passes defended. Averaged over a full slate of games those numbers project to 73 tackles and 23 assists with no more big play production than Tulloch. As the team's strong side linebacker last season Whitehead was limited to a two down role even after DeAndre Levy landed on IR, which does not shine brightly on his ability to cover or his chances of being a three down player. I expect we will see Levy and Josh Bynes as the sub package backers with Whitehead once again working in a two down role. Factor in the solid play of Bynes as a starter last year and the return of Levy who will be the leading tackler if healthy, and you do not get a lot of opportunity for Whitehead. He is the starting middle backer and things can change quickly in the NFL. So Whitehead is still worth a late round flier as an LB5 or LB6, but I would not invest more than that at this point.
DeAndre Levy is the player to target here. With 119 solo tackles, 32 assists, 2.5 sacks and an interception he was the number two linebacker in many formats in 2014. Levy missed all of last season with a lingering hip injury that eventually landed him on IR. He is healthy entering training camp and is set to pick up where he left off. Levy was a top five linebacker in many leagues in 2013 as well, but he got there in a different way. That season he turned in a solid 85 solo stops with 32 assists and no sacks but he intercepted 6 passed, defended 15 and scored once. Looking at his career stats is evident the gaudy interception total was an anomaly and not something we should expect to be repeated. In fact the 6 interceptions equal the total from his other five seasons combined. The Lions have a long way to go defensively and there is not a great deal of competition for tackles. With this consideration it is safe to expect 90+ tackles, a handful of big plays and another top ten finish in 2016.
Josh Bynes is expected to round out the starting lineup. He is a versatile player who can fill in at any of the linebacker positions and is slated to shift to the strong side with Whitehead moving to the middle. Bynes is not a long term answer for the Lions. In fact he could feel some heat from Kyle Van Noy, Jonathan Bostic or even rookie Antwione Williams this summer. In the end Bynes will likely hold onto the starting job and remain on the field with Levy in nickel packages. He played roughly 80% of the Lions defensive snaps last season, finishing at 54-26 in the tackle columns with half a sack and a forced fumble. If he holds the role of the three down strong side backer Bynes might be worth a roster spot in some deeper leagues. For most owners however, he is not worth a roster spot at this point.
MLB Tahir Whitehead - Sleeper with low floor and LB3 upside
WLB DeAndre Levy - Top ten LB1 in tackle heavy and balanced leagues
SLB/WLB Josh Bynes - Depth at best
SLB Kyle Van Noy - No value
SLB/MLB Jonathan Bostic - No value unless something changes drastically
SLB/MLB Antwione Williams - two down thumper even is he finds a place on the field
WLB Khaseem Greene - No value
There must be an unwritten rule in Detroit saying any defensive back showing fantasy potential must be removed. It has been a long time since anyone in the Lions secondary held more than fleeting value for us. James Ihedigbo came close in 2014 when he was 60-11-2.5 with 8 turnovers and 8 passes defended in thirteen games. He opened last season on the same pace with 26 tackles, 8 assists, a pair of turnovers and a sack through the first five games. Apparently that was too much production for the Lions coaching staff so Ihedigbo was benched and ultimately let go at the end of the year. Glover Quin is the next best returning fantasy prospect. His three seasons with Detroit have produced a strong 14 turnovers and 25 passes defended but his average of 52 tackles and 13 assists a year over that span have made him a marginal option at best.
It is not as if there is no potential for production from the Lions safeties. In fact Ihedigbo, Quin and Isa Abdul-Quddus combined for 143 solo tackles a year ago. Abdul-Quddus was the replacement when Ihedigbo was benched. It looked like he too could become a productive player so he is now with the Dolphins. Quin will again be the starter at free safety with free agent additions Tavon Wilson and Rafael Bush battling fourth round pick Miles Killebrew for the starting job at strong safety. Wilson did little over his four years in New England while Bush flashed both quality play and fantasy friendly tackle numbers in a brief stint as an injury replacement for the Saints in 2014. The player I like here is the rookie. Killebrew is a 6'2", 217 pound strong safety who fits the new NFL trend of productive linebacker/safety hybrids. His scouting report draws many comparisons to Arizona's Deone Bucannon and the 49ers Jaquiski Tartt. Killebrew is a punishing hitter but unlike most highlight reel guys he rarely misses a tackle. Playing against lesser competition in the Big Sky conference makes evaluating Killebrew a little tricky. Scouting reports will tell us his cover skills are average and he is not the most instinctive of players, while excellent combine results helped boost his draft status. The one thing that reads loud and clear is his college production. In Killebrew's final two seasons at Southern Utah he racked up 233 combined tackles and assists with 3 interceptions and a score. I believe he will ultimately come away with a starting strong safety job and will see a lot of time at linebacker in sub packages. He may just be the next Bucannon or Mark Barron. Another great thing about Killebrew is no one knows much about him so he is falling into the late/last rounds of rookie drafts. Dynasty owners in particular should slot him high on their sleeper list and keep their fingers crossed the coaching staff does not recognize when he starts putting up good numbers.
The Lions pass defense was middle of the pack last year. They are unlikely to show much improvement until they invest in a top shelf corner. Fourth year man Darius Slay is the team's acting number one. He is a good player with speed and cover skills which would make him an excellent number two, but is sometimes overmatched by the league’s elite receivers.
Last summer’s training camp standout and 2014 fourth round pick Nevin Lawson moved into the role of number two corner when Reshean Mathis was lost to injury in week seven last year. He did a lot of things well but at 5'9" and 191 pounds Lawson was exploited by some of the league big physical receivers. He will enter camp in a battle with last year's sixth round selection Quandre Diggs who is virtually identical in stature. As a rookie Diggs received extensive playing time as the Lions slot corner over the second half of the season. He too found the going tough at times. Maybe the most telling sign of the team's plight at corner is the mere 3 interceptions recorded by all their corners combined in 2015. Slay accounted for two of those with the now retired Mathis accounting for the third. Other than Slay the Lions returning starters at corner have zero career interceptions between them. Shockingly the organization used no draft pick to sure up the position and minimal resources in free agency where they signed former Jets backup Darrin Walls. At least Walls has a couple of picks in his three years of service. The rest of the team's depth at corner consists of little more than warm bodies.
From a fantasy perspective there is not much to count on here. Lawson accounted for 37 tackles, 3 assists and 7 passes defended in his nine starts. If he can continue that tackle production and throw in some big plays he could be a worthwhile in season addition. That of course is assuming he keeps the starting job. I do not recall the last Detroit corner to provide starter value for fantasy owners and I have been at this since 1992. That alone speaks volumes.
FS Glover Quin - Depth at best in twelve team leagues starting three defensive backs
SS Rafael Bush - Deep sleeper. Wait until he shows us something
SS Miles Killebrew - Dynasty sleeper with strong long term upside
FS Tavon Wilson - No value
CB Darius Slay - Marginal depth in twelve team leagues starting two corners
CB Quandre Diggs - No value
CB Nevin Lawson - CB3 with low end CB2 potential if he can keep the starting job
CB Darrin Walls - No value until proven otherwise
Talking about the fantasy value of Chicago linemen does not take long. All you really need to know is no Bears lineman has recorded more than 22 solo tackles over the past three seasons while the only one to exceeded 4.5 sacks is longer with the team. Vic Fangio coached some excellent 3-4 defenses while he was in San Francisco but there is no Justin Smith on Chicago's roster. What the Bears have is a collection of solid 2 gap defenders who can do the job of eating up blockers for the linebackers but will make a minimal splash in the box scores.
Journeyman Jarvis Jenkins was the Bears most fantasy productive lineman last year with 22 tackles and 4 sacks. Journeyman Akiem Hicks was added in free agency to replace him. Hicks was a two year starter in Rob Ryan's 3-4 with a career best of 29 tackles, 27 assists and 4.5 sacks in 2013. He managed 3 sacks on about 40% of the Patriots defensive snaps last year. If there is anyone among this group who could have a little value this year it would likely be Hicks. Will Sutton, Ego Ferguson and third round pick Jonathan Bullard are expected to be in the mix for playing time as well. All four will probably factor into the rotation in some form. Bullard is a player who may be worth keeping an eye on. He is one of the more athletic interior linemen in a rookie class deep at the position. As a senior at Florida he totaled 40 tackles, 23 assists and 6.5 sacks from the tackle position. Bullard will play end in Fangio's 3-4 where he could be fairly productive as a pass rusher.
Eddie Goldman led Chicago's linemen with 4.5 sacks from the nose tackle position in 2015 but his 16 solo tackles ruined him as a fantasy prospect. I would expect those numbers to improve a little in his second season but probably not enough to matter.
NT Eddie Goldman - Minimal value at best
NT Terry Williams - No value
DE Will Sutton - No value
DE Akiem Hicks - Possible depth in leagues with deep rosters
DE Jonathan Bullard - Rookie worth keeping an eye on
DE Ego Ferguson - Minimal value
DE Bruce Gaston - No value
Nearly every linebacker on the Bears roster was given an opportunity last season as the coaching staff looked at multiple combinations. Ultimately the organization concluded they did not have the right players in place to get the job done. In response the team threw a ton of resources at the second level of the defense. They used free agency to acquire a pair of proven inside backers in Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman, then invested their first round pick in pass rushing outside backer Leonard Floyd. Trevathan and Freeman are immediate starters who should provide both instant credibility for the Bears and quality production for fantasy owners. Like the situations both players came from, it is likely we will see one of these guys have better numbers one week and the other be more productive the next. Both are likely to be in the 80-85 solo tackle range at the end of the season but I rank Trevathan a bit higher based on big play expectations. In 2013 he contributed 7 turnovers, 2 sacks and 10 passes defended in his first year as a starter. His numbers were far less impressive last season but keep in mind Trevathan was coming back from a serious injury and was not a three down player until late in the season. In 2015 he finished at 73-36-0 with 6 passes defended, a pair of picks and a score. At a glance those are not particularly impressive numbers. When we consider he played 740 snaps or about 72% of Denver’s defensive plays his totals take on a different perspective. Target Trevathan as a solid LB2 but do not be surprised if he slips into the top twelve.
As a starter for the Colts Freeman totaled 90-55-2 with a couple of turnovers in 2012 and 83-43-5.5 with an impressive 10 turnovers in 2013. Over the past two seasons however, his numbers dropped off considerably. Some of his production slide might be blamed on nagging injuries. Freeman missed four games in 2014 and three last year. In the twenty five games played over those two seasons he averaged a solid 5 tackles and 3 assists per start but accounted for only 2 turnovers. All things considered I am looking at Freeman as a priority third starter with a mid LB2 ceiling.
The Bears got pretty good production from their outside linebackers last year. Willie Young finished with 9.5 sacks and Pernell McPhee added 7.5. Both players are likely to return as starters with Leonard Floyd learning the ropes as a sub package specialist in his rookie season. Floyd has drawn a lot of comparison to Aldon Smith who was also a Fangio draft pick. Both players will enter the league raw but exceptionally athletic and talented. We should see some form of rotation among these three with Floyd seeing most of his playing time in sub packages until he can beef up his frame. Lamar Houston should also see some action. It may be Houston and McPhee on early downs with Young and Floyd in the sub packages. Anyway we look at it the fantasy value among Chicago's outside linebackers will be limited to owners in big play based leagues. Young was the top tackler at OLB in 2015 with 28 solos and 12 assists.
ILB Danny Trevathan - Solid LB2 with low end LB1 ceiling and high LB3 floor
ILB Jerrell Freeman - Priority LB3 with LB2 upside
ILB Christian Jones - Minimal value as an injury replacement
OLB Pernell McPhee - Depth in big play based leagues
OLB Leonard Floyd - Dynasty prospect with strong long term upside in big play leagues
OLB Willie Young - Low end LB2 in big play leagues, not much value otherwise
OLB Lamarr Houston - No value
OLB Sam Acho - No value
History paints a pretty clear picture for us when it comes to getting fantasy value from a Vic Fangio secondary. In sixteen seasons as an NFL defensive coordinator for the Panthers, Colts, Ravens, 49ers and Bears, Fangio's scheme has produced only one defensive back with 70 or more solo tackles. The lone exception is Antoine Bethea who had a solid but not great 2014 under Fangio going 71-14-1 with 5 turnovers and 10 passes defended. This can be seen as somewhat of a tribute to Fangio whose defenses are traditionally excellent and particularly strong in the front seven. Defensive backs in his scheme do not make a lot of tackles but tend to make respectable contributions in the big play columns. Donte Whitner is a good example of the Fangio effect. In 2010 Whitner had 95 tackles and 44 assists for the Bills. Over the next three seasons under Fangio in San Francisco he failed to reach 60 tackles twice with a high of 62. On the other hand in seven NFL seasons under other coordinators Whitner had 12 turnovers combined while his three years in San Francisco produced 15.
Adrian Amos is the player with the best shot at bucking the trend. He led the Chicago secondary with 57 tackles as a rookie last season and is the only sure starter at safety. His goose egg in the turnover columns last year is a concern but the comfort level of a second year in the scheme should change that in 2016. Amos was not much of a ball hawk at Penn State so it will be interesting to see what Fangio can get out of him. The bottom line here is 65 tackles, 12 assists and 3-4 turnovers are probably high end expectations for Amos this year.
At the other safety position there will be an open competition between a collection of former backups. Omar Bolden, Chris Prosinski and Harold Jones-Quartey have nine years of NFL experience between them but only a handful of games as starters. What little starting experience there is belongs to Prosinski who bombed when given an opportunity in Jacksonville in 2012. Rookie Deon Bush could be in the mix as well. Scouts had mixed reviews on Bush heading into the draft. He made a good showing at the combine but a lot of people are unimpressed with his instincts and coverage skills, projecting him as a career backup and special team ace. The Bears could use him as an in the box strong safety and may see him as a nickel linebacker type.
Former Bears star Charles Tillman was once a perennial top five corner and a solid DB2 in leagues not breaking out the positions. When the team drafted Kyle Fuller as his supposed replacement some were counting on similar production. Thus far Fuller has been a disappointment for fantasy owners and nothing is going to change in 2016. Simply put Fuller is not the same type of player Tillman was and even more of a factor, the scheme in Chicago is vastly different. Tillman was a great fit in the cover-2 which kept the safeties deep and gave corner much more responsibility in run support. That scheme left the building with Lovie Smith. Fuller is a good corner but Fangio's 3-4 is not going to make him or any other Chicago corner a fantasy factor.
SS Adrian Amos - Depth in most leagues with DB3 upside at best
FS Deon Bush - Sleeper with long term potential
SS Omar Bolden - No value
FS Harold Jones-Quartey - No value
SS Chris Prosinski - No value
CB Kyle Fuller - CB3 at best
CB Bryce Callahan - No value
CB Tracy Porter - No value
CB Deiondre Hall - Dynasty deep sleeper
Green Bay Packers
Over the past ten years the Packers have used a lot of early draft picks on their three man front. Despite all the investment there has not been a truly special defensive lineman in Green Bay since they moved to the 3-4 several years back. Mike Daniels led the unit statistically last season with 27 tackles and 4 sacks while 2013 first round selection Datone Jones managed 14 tackles and 3 sacks. The entire defensive line combined for a meager 8.5 sacks in 2015 so the organization once again committed a first round pick.
Kenny Clark is expected to play nose tackle though it will be no surprise to see him get snaps at end as well. Calling a 314 pound man undersized seems like an oxymoron but that is how the game has evolved. Clark is considered a bit undersized for the nose tackle spot in a 3-4 but exceptional strength and his ability to play with leverage make him an excellent point of attack run defender. He is not a one trick pony though. Clark had 6 sacks for the Bruins last season to go with his 75 combined tackles and assists. He can push the pocket with power and has some wiggle to his pass rush as well. Like many 3-4 linemen Clark's full contribution on the field is unlikely be reflected in the box scores. To see what he really does for a team we need to consider the production of UCLA teammate Myles Jack who worked behind Clark. Some scouts compare Clark to Domata Peko which is not a bad thing. I think he has more box score upside than Peko and see him as more of a Dontari Poe type. Either way Clark is not likely to put up eye popping numbers. At a tackle position short on fantasy friendly players he may have more value than his situation would suggest.
As for the rest of the Packers linemen there is little to get excited about in fantasy terms. This is a good group of players who fit well in the scheme as 2 gap defenders. Their jobs are to soak up blockers and keep the linebackers clean. Any additional contribution is a bonus.
There are a lot of uncertainties at the Packers linebacker positions, particularly on the inside. In 2014 Sam Barrington emerged as a player the coaching staff though could be a three down starter and a long term answer. He performed well that seasons making seven starts while working in both base and sub packages over a short stint down the stretch. Barrington was set to open last season in a three down role before going down with a season ending ankle injury in week one. He is expected to be ready for camp but as of late June has not been cleared to participate in offseason practices.
Barrington's absence has opened the door for second year pro Jake Ryan and rookie Blake Martinez. Both players have seen time with the first team during the offseason. Ryan moved into the starting role in week thirteen last year but was not given an opportunity to play many sub package snaps. He will have at least the same two down role in 2015. His playing time could expand if he impresses or if Barrington is not all the way back. Ryan looked pretty good as an early down thumper late in the year, averaging about 5 tackle and 2 assists per game as a starter. One big reason to be optimistic about Ryan from a fantasy perspective is his production per play average. On the season he saw action on 260 snaps, or roughly 27% of the team's 979 defensive plays. Thus his final numbers of 31 tackles and 15 assists are somewhat impressive. A little math suggests Ryan could have been up over 115 solo stops and 55 assists had he held the same pace and played full time. Ryan is a tough player with good size and enough speed to handle coverage responsibilities underneath. He is not a sure thing to land an every down role but he will be given an opportunity to do so. Ryan could prove to be a great late round sleeper as he is getting little love in early drafts this summer. At worst I see him as a solid LB4 and possibly the most productive two down linebacker in the league this year. If he plays full time the top twenty is a real possibility.
Barrington and Ryan have the inside track to the starting jobs but we should not write off Martinez, especially when it comes to dynasty consideration. At Stanford Martinez was a physical downhill tackler who was tough versus the run and more than adequate in coverage. As a two year starter for the Cardinals he totaled 129 solo tackles, 111 assists with 6.5 sacks, 4 interceptions and 4 forced fumbles. As a three down inside backer in his senior year he was 75-63-2 with a forced fumble, 6 passes defended and a pick. Martinez is not particularly big, nor does he have better than average speed. What he does have is good instincts and a motor that never quits.
All three of these players are young. If they all pan out the Packers will turn what was a serious hole on the inside over the past few seasons, into a strength for years to come. It has been a while since we had real fantasy production from the inside linebacker position in Green Bay (Desmond Bishop 2011). While it is too early to say for certain where it lies, I have to believe the drought will end in 2016. If you have room grab two or even all three of these guys and see what happens. If you have to take a shot on one I would probably stick with Barrington at this point simply because we know the team will trust him in a three down role when healthy.
With enough talent at inside backer to actually have competition there, the Packers can move stalwart Clay Mathews back outside where he belongs. Mathews has spent much of the last two seasons playing out of position on most downs. The result was better but still not good tackle totals for Mathews who still managed to keep producing in the big play columns. As an outside linebacker Matthews managed more than 37 solo tackles once in five seasons while reaching double digit sacks three times. His two years doubling as an inside guy saw him total 93 solo tackles and 17.5 sacks. In 2016 he will be more likely to reach double digit sacks and less likely to land 40 solo tackles. Having him back at his normal position will be a plus for the Packers defense but will have little impact for fantasy owners. Once again Mathews will have starter value in big play based scoring while being match up based depth in most leagues.
The 11 sacks Julius Peppers recorded last season tied the career high he had in 2014. The 26 solo tackles he accounted for last season set a new career low. At age 36 Peppers is still getting it done as a pass rusher but the Packers continue to look for ways to keep him fresh. He was on the field for 700 of the team's 979 defensive snaps last season and is likely to see a few less snaps again this season. As Peppers nears the end of an outstanding career it is safe to expect his fantasy production to slide. He will continue to have some value for owners in big play leagues but I would not expect more than 30 tackles and 9-10 sacks this year; especially if third round pick Kyler Fackrell pans out as well as the organization hopes he will.
Nick Perry has been part of the outside linebacker rotation since being drafted in round one of 2012. He has been a contributor but with 12.5 sacks over his four seasons in the league, has fallen well short of the expectations heaped on a first round selection. With Matthews playing inside a lot, Perry and Peppers were joined in the rotation by 2014 undrafted free agent Jayrone Elliot last year. Between them Perry and Elliot provided a modest 7.5 sacks. Peppers could call it quits at the end of this season and is sure not to play more than a couple more at most. The thought of Perry or Elliot starting was not appealing to the organization so they were happy to get Fackrell in the third round. His production as a senior at Utah State was not particularly impressive at 37-45-5. It would likely have been much better had he not suffered a torn ACL as a junior in 2014. Fackrell is long, athletic and versatile with the ability to rush or drop into coverage with equal success. While he has work to do as a point of attack defender versus the run, the Packers are excited about his potential.
ILB Sam Barrington - Sleeper with LB3 or better upside
ILB Jake Ryan - Sleeper with big upside if he lands a three down role
ILB Blake Martinez - Dynasty prospect with strong long term potential
OLB Clay Mathews - Decent second or excellent third starter in big play based leagues
OLB Julius Peppers - Third starter or depth in big play based leagues
OLB Nick Perry - No value
OLB Kyler Fackrell - Dynasty sleeper with a high ceiling in big play based leagues
The Packers secondary has a long history of being fantasy friendly. In 2015 Ha Ha Clinton-Dix kept the tradition going. His 83 solo tackles were sixth most in the league among defensive backs while 3 turnovers and 3 sacks helped him to finish on the cusp of the top twelve. Before assuming Clinton-Dix will pick up where he left off last year, there are some interesting numbers we should look closely at. As a rookie in 2014 he was 66-28-1 with a couple of turnovers and 6 passes defended. That season teammate Morgan Burnett was the fantasy games number three defensive back with 94 solo stops, 35 assists and a handful of big plays. Burnett missed most of the first eight games last season. Through week eleven of 2015 Clinton-Dix averaged 6 tackles an assist and nearly 13 fantasy points a game. He recorded at least 5 solo stops in eight of those ten games. Over the final six weeks of the season Clinton-Dix reached 5 solo stops once while averaging about 7.4 points per game. Over those final six weeks Burnett recorded 5 or more solo stops five times, reaching 7 or more in three of those contests. If we throw out a week fourteen fluke Burnett averaged 14 points a game after week eleven. The bottom line here being while Clinton-Dix will have some value as the third starter or quality depth, it is Morgan Burnett who belongs near the top of our draft boards this summer.
The corner position in Green Bay has also provided quality fantasy production over most of the past decade. From 2008 through 2014 it was Tramon Williams putting up 50 or more solo tackles in eight of nine seasons while averaging nearly 6 turnovers and 15 passes defended. Williams turned in several top twenty finishes with a handful of top twelves. In 2015 Williams took the free agent boat out of Green Bay. He was replaced by rookie first round pick Damarious Randall who also stepped right into the fantasy role. Randall was 51-5-0 with 14 passes defended, 3 interceptions and a score in his first season as a pro, ranking eleventh among corners. In most situations the rookie corner rule would point toward declining numbers for Randall as he gains experience. Between the history of production from the position, the physical play of Randall who was a former safety and his big play ability, we may actually see him become more productive in 2016. I like Randall as a low end CB1 with top five potential.
Sam Shields and Quintin Rollins fill out the top three at the corner positions. Shields is the Packers number one cover man at this point with Rollins and number three safety Mycah Hyde serving in sub package roles. Shields will have some good games along the way but is neither productive nor consistent enough to provide much value. Both Rollins and Hyde are more than capable if called upon to start but neither will have much value without an injury ahead of them.
SS Morgan Burnett - Solid DB1 with top 5 potential
FS Ha Ha Clinton-Dix - Solid third starter with a lot of upside if Burnett is injured again
FS Mycah Hyde - Injury sleeper
CB Damarious Randall - Low end CB1 or excellent second starter
CB Sam Shields - match up based value at best
CB Quinton Rollins - Injury sleeper
CB Demetri Goodson - No value
CB LaDarius Gunter - No value
That is going to do it for the NFC North. Next up the AFC South.