Welcome back for year 23 of the Eyes of the Guru column. Last year's preseason work was cut a little short due to a surgical procedure landing me on IR designated to return. I never made it to the Western conferences before the season started so this year I will open with the AFC West. 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 basic stuff:
Tackles = 1.5
Assists = .75
Sacks = 4
Forced fumbles = 3
Fumble recoveries = 3
Interceptions = 4
Passes defended = 1.5
Touchdowns = 6
Keep in mind that based on scoring systems, rankings will vary (sometimes greatly) from league to league. From time to time I will reference the "rookie corner rule". For those who are new to IDP or the EOTG, the rookie corner rule is basically the fact that in the NFL, starting a rookie at corner is like throwing chum to the sharks. Offensive coordinators will target young and inexperienced players as weaknesses, thus these guys have an accelerated number of opportunities. Most often these guys are the cream of the crop at the position (which is why they are starting so soon) and their numbers will begin to drop after their rookie seasons. When I mention tackle numbers, I do not lump assists and solo tackles together. Unless I make a reference one way or the other, I am talking about solo tackles. When I talk about a total number of takeaways for a player, I am counting interceptions, fumble recoveries and fumbles forced since all of these score very similarly in most leagues.
The Broncos have no super stars up front but they do have a strong group of blue collar guys that fit their scheme well. They also have one of the fantasy game's more underrated linemen in Derek Wolfe. It took the 2012 second round pick a while to get things going. When he was drafted, Denver was using mostly four man fronts. Wolfe saw time at both tackle and end over his first three seasons. He had 6 sacks as a rookie before struggling with injuries in his second year. Wolfe played well in 2014 when he contributed as part of a rotation. His career and production took an upturn in 2015 when the Broncos shifted to a 3-4 base scheme. Wolfe has proven to be an excellent fit as a 3-4 end and his numbers have shown it. He finished the 2015 seasons at 34-13-5. Those are not great numbers at a glance but they look much better when we consider he missed four games. Last season Wolfe was 38-13-5 with 4 batted passes in fourteen games. He is not going to become an elite fantasy option or contend for the sack crown, but 40 tackles and half a dozen sacks would make for a quality second starter in most leagues. If Wolfe can stay on the field all season he should be right there with a little upside even.
Jared Crick manned the other defensive end spot last year and is in line to continue in the starting role. In some ways Crick is a carbon copy of Wolfe. Both are excellent run defenders who can hold ground at the line of scrimmage and both produced at least 32 solo stops in 2016. What the raw numbers fail to show is Crick played 276 more snaps last year. Even with all the playing time he produced far less as a pass rusher with 2.5 sacks. In fact Crick has only 8 sacks to show for the past three seasons combined. He may offer a little value as depth or a bye week plug in for owners in leagues with deep rosters.
Denver has a pair of second round picks competing for playing time behind the starters at end. Adam Gotsis was on the field for roughly 20% of the snaps as a rookie in 2016. He managed to hold his own on the field while doing little to make fantasy owners take notice in the box scores. He will be in the mix with veteran free agent addition Zach Kerr and this year’s second round selection DeMarcus Walker for a spot in the rotation. Coming out of college Gotsis was known for excellent ability as a run stuffer, but he has never been a major pass rush contributor. Walker is no slouch as a run defender while his strength is getting to the passer. He put up big numbers as a senior at Florida State including 45 solo tackles, 16 sacks and 5 takeaways. A lack of blazing speed off the edge had some scouts projecting Walker as a three technique interior lineman if he landed in a 4-3. All the signs point to him seeing significant playing time in sub packages as a rookie. It would not be a shock for Walker to push Crick for time as we get deeper into the season.
Denver parted ways with nose tackle Sylvester Williams after last season, replacing him with veteran free agent Domata Peko. The former Bengals tackle is a hard nose road grader with a low center of gravity. He should be an excellent fit as the base down anchor for the run defense. Over the past few seasons Peko has been marginally fantasy friendly for owners in tackle required leagues. He will be hard pressed to do the same at his new post. The Broncos like to pull the nose tackle in sub package situations going with two linemen, four linebackers and five defensive backs in most nickel situations.
DE Derek Wolfe - Solid DL2 with some injury concerns
DE Jared Crick - Minimal value
DE Adam Gotsis - Minimal value
DE DeMarcus Walker - Dynasty sleeper worth keeping an eye on
DE Zach Kerr - Minimal value at best
DE Billy Wynn - Minimal value at best
NT Domata Peko - No value
NT Kyle Peko - No value
Even with the loss of Demarcus Ware to retirement the Broncos are rock solid at outside linebacker. Von Miller is among the league’s elite outside pass rushers and is one of the games great playmakers. Since being drafted in 2011 he has produced at least 11 sacks in every season except the injury shortened 2013 campaign. Last year Miller led all 3-4 outside linebackers with 60 solo tackles as well. If we could count on a repeat of that production he would get strong consideration as a high end LB2 in balanced scoring systems. Unfortunately there has been too much year to year inconsistency in his tackle totals to be counted on so heavily. In each of his first two seasons Miller exceeded 50 solo stops. Over the next three seasons however, he broke 40 only once. With the state of the inside linebacker positions in Denver, I like the chances of Miller putting up good tackle numbers again in 2017. Still I am not confident enough to consider him more than a decent LB3 with the potential to put up big points on any given week.
The organization prepared for the eventual loss of Ware by drafting Shane Ray in 2015. Ray got his feet wet with 4 sacks in a part time role as a rookie. With Ware missing several games last season, Ray saw some action as a starter and he saw more rotational action even when Ware was playing. The result was an 8.5 sack second season for the young man. He has a way to go before being worthy of comparison to Ware, but the team is confident they will not miss a beat with Ray starting opposite Miller. Ray falls right in the basket will most 3-4 outside linebackers in terms of fantasy value. In 2016 he had 34 tackles, 8.5 sacks and 3 turnovers. A full time role should boost both the tackle column and the sack numbers a bit but probably not enough to make him more than a decent matchup based bye week filler in balanced scoring leagues. For those in big play leagues his value is far greater and somewhere in the range of a solid LB2 or excellent third starter.
While Ware was out last season, Shaquil Barrett moved up the ladder and became the third outside backer. He has proven to be serviceable in that role and is expected to assume those duties going forward. While he could hold down the fort for the Broncos if called upon, Barrett does not seem to have the upside to become a fantasy factor if pressed into a starting role.
If there is a weakness in the Broncos defense it is at inside linebacker. Brandon Marshall and Todd Davis are expected to be the week one starters though Davis could be pushed by Corey Nelson. Regardless who lines up next to him, Marshall is the three down centerpiece of the unit and the player most likely to have fantasy value. He exploded onto the scene in 2014 as an injury replacement for Danny Trevathan. Marshall went on to record 91 solo stops, a couple of sacks, 3 turnovers and 9 passes defended in fourteen games that year. Both his play and production have fallen off considerably in each of the two seasons since. In 2015 Denver moved to a 3-4 with Marshall and Trevathan as the inside backers. Even with Trevathan coming off injury and not playing every down, Marshall's tackle total slipped to 77 and his passes defended to 4. With Trevathan moving on last season it seemed Marshall would be in for a big year. Instead he averaged about 3.3 tackles per game and had no big play stats at all. In fact he failed to reach double digit fantasy points in any game. Marshall missed the final four games with injury and sat out five total in 2016. In his defense, Marshall has been bothered by nagging injuries over the past couple of seasons. Maybe it was simply a case of his not being healthy or maybe he is just not a good fit in the scheme. Whatever the reason Marshall has clearly not been the same player recently. The organization appears to still have full confidence and there is no doubt he is in a good situation for fantasy success. Marshall will have every opportunity for a bounce back season but counting on him as a starter is a risky proposition. I see him as an LB4 with upside at this point.
Todd Davis was the team's second leading tackler in 2016, albeit with only 65 solo stops. That may not seem like much at a glance but it is actually rather impressive considering his role as a two down player and the fact he missed a couple of games. Davis was on the field for 614 (about 57%) of the team's 1079 defensive snaps. For owners in deeper drafted leagues there could be some value here even if he continues in the base package only role. As is generally the case with two down linebackers, week to week inconsistency could be a big problem.
ILB Brandon Marshall - Target as LB4 with low LB2 upside
ILB Todd Davis - LB5 depth with some upside in most leagues
ILB Corey Nelson - Minimal value at best
OLB Von Miller - Top five stud in big play based leagues, low LB2 or solid LB3 in balanced leagues
OLB Shane Ray - LB3 with upside in big play based leagues, depth at best in balanced scoring
OLB Shaquil Barrett - Minimal value at best
The secondary is a clear strength for Denver's defense and T.J. Ward is clearly the best fantasy prospect of the group. His average of 11.3 points per game in 2016 was eighth best among defensive backs and he was on pace for the second most tackles (77) of his career before missing the final two games. The problem with Ward has been year to year consistency. In three of the past five seasons he produced 60 or fewer tackles. The stats crew in Denver is a bit stingy with assists as well so Ward is not going to make up any ground there. I believe his strong numbers last year had much to do with the team's struggles at inside linebacker. Ward spent a lot of time up in the box as a nickel linebacker and the competition for tackles was not great. The good news is Denver did nothing to improve at the inside backer positions. A healthy Brandon Marshall should provide stiffer competition for tackles but Ward is likely to continue seeing time in the box on passing downs. I like his chances of reaching 75 solo stops and he can always be counted on for a sprinkling of big plays. Expecting a top twelve finish might be a little optimistic but Ward should be a quality second starter with some upside.
The contributions of free safety Darian Stewart will not always show up under his name in the box scores but he is a vital part of the Broncos success in the secondary. His ability to keep everything in front of him and clean up other player's mistakes is what allows others to be so aggressive. Stewart will make a healthy contribution in the big play columns but he will be hard pressed to reach 60 solo stops, and he has only reached double digits in passes defended once in his eight year career. He is roster worthy in deeper drafted leagues but owners in twelve team leagues starting two safeties or three defensive backs will be able to find better options.
Neither Aqib Talib nor Chris Harris is among the first that come to mind when talking about the league's elite corners, but both are excellent cover men and playmakers. Talib is generally considered the team's number one corner by opposing offenses and as such is the player they usually elect to challenge the least. He has exceeded 50 solo tackles a couple of times over his ten year career but 35-40 tackles with 12-15 passes defended and a 3 or 4 takeaways is his norm. Those numbers limit Talib to backup status at best even in leagues starting two corners.
Harris is far from a fantasy star but he is a viable option in leagues requiring two corners. He is more active in run support than his counterpart and playing opposite Talib means the ball will come his way often in the passing game. In six seasons as a pro Harris has averaged 55 solo stops and 11 passes defended while totaling 20 takeaways. One big factor adding to his value is year to year consistency as his career low is 49 tackles. There is no expectation for a breakout season from Harris but neither is there much risk. We pretty much know we are going to get a top twenty corner and a solid second starter.
Bradley Roby is a capable cover corner who does not shy away from contact in run support, is a good open field tackler and a big play contributor. He has served as the nickel corner in Denver for the past two seasons and is set to continue in 2017. In that role Roby's production has been limited but in the event of an injury to one of the starter he would be an excellent waiver target.
SS T.J. Ward - Quality second starter with low DB1 upside
FS Darian Stewart - DB5 or lower in most leagues
SS Will Parks - No value at this time
FS Justin Simmons - No value
CB Aqib Talib - Minimal value in most leagues
CB Chris Harris - Solid CB2
CB Bradley Roby - Injury sleeper
CB Brendan Langley - No value at this time
Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs have been using a 3-4 base scheme for a long time but they have never been able to find that special defensive lineman. There have been plenty of resources used on the position over the years including several first round pick, and there have been some good players. There have even been a few one year wonders in fantasy terms such as Dontari Poe and Jaye Howard, but no one with staying power. In 2016 no Kansas City lineman reached 20 solo stops and then rookie Chris Jones led the group with 2 sacks. Jones and Allen Bailey are the expected starters at end with free agent additions Bennie Logan and Cam Thomas likely sharing the load at nose tackle. It is possible Jones could step up in his second season and Bailey has shown some potential in the past (27-14-5 in 2014), but there is nothing here for fantasy owners to get excited about.
There is one player among this group for dynasty owners to keep an eye on. Rookie second round pick Tanoh Kpassagnon draws comparisons to former Bengals second round pick Margus Hunt. Like Hunt he is an impressive physical specimen with the measurable traits to become an impact player. Also like Hunt, Kpassagnon comes into the league as a raw and inexperienced talent. He had 21.5 tackles for loss including 11 sacks for Villanova last year. It remains to be seen if he can continue to be a force against NFL level players. At best is will be a year or two before the young man develops but he is likely to see some rotational playing time as a rookie.
DE Chris Jones - Deep sleeper at best
DE Allen Bailey - Marginal value in most leagues
DE Jarvis Jenkins - No value
DE Tanoh Kpassagnon - Possible dynasty target
NT Bennie Logan - No value
NT Cam Thomas - No value
There are some questions surrounding the Chiefs linebacker positions; particularly on the inside. Derrick Johnson has been a mainstay as the leader of the Kansas City defense for over a decade and an excellent fantasy option for most of that time. He has 90+ solo tackles in five of the last seven seasons and probably would have made it seven in a row if not for injuries. This is where the questions start to creep in. Johnson missed nearly all of 2014 and suffered a ruptured Achilles in week fourteen of last season. That is a tough injury to come back from even for a young player and Johnson will be 35 in November. All the reports and coach speak out of Kansas City point toward his being ready to go when training camp opens. I will believe it when I see it. At the least the Chiefs will be careful with their veteran leader. We should expect him to be limited early on and can only hope he is full speed by the end of August. Production wise Johnson should be fine so long as there are no physical setbacks. Another 90 solo tackle season will be the expectation and he is usually good for three or four turnovers with a few sacks sprinkled in. The only thing that has kept Johnson out of the LB1 conversation throughout much of his career is a stingy stats crew. Year in and year out Chiefs defenders are near the bottom of the league in assists. Johnson's career best in that area was 27 back in 2011 and he has only exceeded 20 three times in twelve seasons. There is considerable injury risk here but if he can remain healthy we should see yet another top twenty season.
With many seeing inside backer as a major need for the Chiefs, they surprisingly made no effort to strengthen the position via free agency, and then waited until round five of the draft to do so. When they did it was Ukeme Eligwe who projects as a two down thumper who will likely fit at the strong inside position in a couple of years. The decision not to make a bigger investment at ILB could be seen as a vote of confidence for Johnson and/or one of the younger players already on the roster. The Chiefs have several options there. They will have former starter Josh Mauga back after missing all of last season with an injury. D.J. Alexander was their fifth round selection in 2015 and could be in the mix. Then there is Ramik Wilson who their fourth round selection in 2015.
Mauga is a known commodity who can serve as a two down strong inside backer and works fairly well as a compliment to Johnson. He is not a special player however and offers little in terms of big plays or fantasy production. Alexander has not seen much playing time and has not set himself apart with what opportunity he has had. Wilson on the other hand, may be the reason the organization elected to address other needs. As a rookie in 2015 he played in three games before missing time with an injury. He used the limited opportunity to make a positive impression. Surprisingly Wilson was a regular on the inactive list early last season, getting on the field for the first time in week seven. By week ten he had claimed a significant role next to Johnson, and when Johnson was injured Wilson became the team's three down inside backer down the stretch. Not only did he make a strong impression on the field, he blew up the box scores as well. Over the final five weeks Wilson averaged nearly 8 solo tackles and an assist per game. When all the numbers were in he was 61-15-0 with 3 passes defended and a pair of fumble recoveries on less than 50% (523) of the teams 1063 defensive snaps. The coaching staff will look at all their options but in the end I do not see how they can keep him off the field this year. Wilson is an excellent run defender with the speed and cover skills to stay on the field all three downs. I was high on him going into last season and was disappointed when he was not a factor early. He is one of my favorite sleeper linebackers again this summer. My biggest concern is he may not be a great fit as the strong ILB as eating up blockers is not his strength. That said, the more I see of this young man the more convinced I become that he will eventually be the replacement for Johnson.
The only concerns with the Chiefs outside linebackers are injuries. When Justin Houston is healthy he is right there with Khalil Mack and Von Miller in the elite tier of outside linebackers. The problem is Houston has not been healthy since 2014. He was banged up early in 2015 and played through it before a major knee injury caused him to miss the final five games. Houston opened last season on short term IR. He was activated and back on the field in week eleven posting 20 tackles and 4.5 sacks in four games before the knee flared up causing him to miss the final three. In early June Houston said the knee was fine and has not been an issue during offseason training. If his health holds Houston is a sure top five and probably top three linebacker in big play based leagues. He is also one of the few 3-4 outside backers with the ability to transcend scoring systems and be an every week starter in balanced leagues.
With Houston out, Dee Ford stepped into the starting lineup in 2016. The 2014 first round pick was everything the organization had expected, posting 10 sacks in the first nine games. Ford was banged up in the week eleven game and though he missed only one start, he was clearly not the same player the rest of the way. He has not yet displayed the ability to exceed 50 solo tackles in a season but a healthy Ford lining up opposite a healthy Houston is a quarterback's worst nightmare in the passing game. If everyone can stay on the field Kansas City may well give big play league owners a pair of top ten linebackers.
Soon to be 34 year old Tamba Hali is not the same player he once was but is an excellent third OLB for when the starters need a breather. His days of double digit sacks are long gone but he still has enough gas to be a contributor on the field and a decent pickup for big play league owners should either of the starters be lost.
ILB Derrick Johnson - Top end LB2 if he can stay healthy
ILB Ramik Wilson - Sleeper with excellent long term upside
ILB Josh Mauga - Two down thumper at best
ILB D.J. Alexander - Deep sleeper with some upside
ILB Ukeme Eligwe - No value
OLB Justin Houston - Elite tier LB in big play leagues, solid every week starter in balanced scoring providing he is healthy
OLB Dee Ford - May be light in the tackle columns for balanced leagues but top ten potential for big play scoring
The Chiefs secondary accounted for 357 solo tackles and 33 takeaways last season. The problem for fantasy owners being the numbers were spread among ten players. Strong safety Eric Berry led the way in tackles with a modest 62 and in fantasy points with an average of 10.5 per game. He managed to offset the less than stellar tackle totals with 5 turnovers, 9 pass breakups and a pair of scores. When all the points were tallied Berry was a top ten defensive back in 2016. We obviously should not count on him to score twice again this year but even if we exclude the touchdowns he made the top fifteen. In the three seasons before his battle with cancer Berry averaged 72 tackles, 5 big plays, 10 passes defended and a score. So last year's totals were pretty much on par. The only downside with Berry is that depending on big plays creates some week to week inconsistency. In 2016 he reached double digit points in eight games but fell short of five points in six other games. Berry has the ability to with you a game on any given week but he will lose you one once in a while as well. The point totals say he is a top 12 DB. All things considered I look at Berry as a priority DB2.
When Berry was out in 2014, Ron Parker stepped up and had a great fantasy season. That he posted career best in tackles at 83 and passes defended with 12. With Berry back and the team using Daniel Sorensen as a nickel linebacker, Parker moved to free safety in 2015 and shifted into more of a centerfield role last season. His totals of 52-9-0 with 11 passes defended and 3 takeaways were still enough to give him some value in deeper leagues but there is no reason to expect a surge in production this year.
Sorensen is an interesting prospect. While he is listed by the team as their third safety, he rarely lined up more than eight yards off the line last year. Instead he was used in what is becoming a more and more common role of a strong safety playing at inside linebacker. The 55 solo tackles he produced last season were not enough to make a major fantasy splash but when we add the sack, 8 turnovers, 6 passes defended and a score, his point totals suddenly become rather interesting. Like Berry, the problem with Sorensen comes down to consistency. As a sub package linebacker he was on the field barely over 50% (540) of the team’s total defensive plays. He had some big games but virtually vanished in others. Sorensen reached double digits seven times with four or fewer points in five games. After averaging nearly ten points a game on the 2016 season it is hard to suggest he has low value but the simple fact is Sorensen is too boom or bust to be trustworthy as an every week play. Stick him on the back of your roster as a matchup based play or bye week plug in.
Corner Marcus Peters is the embodiment of the rookie corner rule. As an immediate rookie starter in 2015, opponents tested him often. The result was huge fantasy production to the tune of 54 tackles, 9 takeaways, 26 passes defended and a pair of scores. NFL coaches learn quickly so Peters was thrown at far less in his second year. The result; 35 tackles, 10 turnovers and 20 passes defended. Still excellent overall numbers for a corner but a considerable step back. Because he is such a playmaker, my fear is that offenses will continue to devise game plans which will provide even less playmaking opportunity. Ultimately I see Peters getting to where Darrelle Revis was a couple of years back when it seemed no one would let the ball get near him. Ride the wave long as it lasts but expect a point or two less per game from Peters this season.
With Peter’s reputation growing, whoever holds the Chiefs other starting corner job is going to get more and more opportunity. Last season it was Steve Nelson who profited with 59 tackles, 16 passes defended and a pair of takeaways in fifteen games. Nickel corner Phillip Gaines was not far behind. These two will compete to see who starts and who handles the nickel role this year. It is a competition with considerable fantasy relevance as the winner will be a quality CB2 at worst and has top ten potential.
SS Eric Berry - Quality DB2 with some consistency issues
FS Ron Parker - Depth in larger leagues
SS Daniel Sorensen - Matchup based starter and bye week fill in
FS Marqueston Huff - No value at this time
CB Marcus Peters - Solid CB1 with top five upside based on big plays
CB Phillip Gaines - Possible high end CB2, quality depth even if he lands at nickel corner
CB Steve Nelson - Projected starter opposite Peters which means solid CB2 or better
CB Kenneth Acker - Injury sleeper
The Raiders opened last season as a 4-3 team but the formula was not working. They were giving up over 400 yards of offense to opponents on a regular basis and making it tough for their offense to keep them in games. When they came out of the bye week it was a different story. The coaching staff had used the off week to change things up and move to more of a 3-4 base scheme. It worked well as the defense played much better over the final seven games, not allowing 400 total yards in any of them. There has been no official announcement of a scheme change by the team, nor can we expect one. They will continue to operate as a hybrid mixing in a little 4-3 but like they did down the stretch last season, we can expect Oakland to be in three man fronts around 80% of the time.
The impact of this shift in philosophy will be big for IDP owners because it makes Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin outside linebackers again. That in turn leaves the Oakland defensive line lacking in terms of proven fantasy prospects. The defensive end rotation will probably be Mario Edwards Jr. and Jihad Ward as starters with Denico Autry rotating in regularly. Edwards missed nearly all of last season with an injury. As a rookie in 2015 he was somewhat of a tweener in the 4-3. He would work at end on early downs and slide inside in sub package situations. Players with his skill set are often the most successful 3-4 ends. In his rookie campaign Edwards showed his strength as a run defender and flashed his potential as an inside pass rusher. His totals from that season were 33-8-2.5 which are not eye catching but leave room for optimism. While there are no expectations of his becoming the next J.J. Watt, Edwards has the potential to be a 40 tackle and 6 sack guy in 2017.
I anticipate Ward starting at the other end because he is bigger than Autry and is more stout versus the run. He does not offer much as a pass rusher but is capable of holding ground at he point of attack and eating up blockers so the linebackers can flow to the ball. At 270 pounds Autry is a bit undersized as a 3-4 end but he is probably the best pass rusher of the group and should see plenty of action. Chances are we will not get much box score production from either of these two but Autry is worth keeping an eye on. He will likely see some time as an outside rusher opposite Mack when they are in a 4-3.
Justin Ellis will man the nose tackle position. At 6'2" and 335 pounds he is tough to root out which makes him an excellent anchor up front. He can occupy blockers and hold ground to keep the linebacker clean but Ellis does not have great range as a tackler and provides little as a pass rusher. After three seasons as a pro he is still looking for his first sack and has yet to record 20 tackles in a season. Considering he will come off the field in sub package situations, it may be tough for him to achieve either of those goals this season.
DE Jihad Ward - Minimal value at best
DE Mario Edwards Jr. - Sleeper with DL2 potential
DE Denico Autry - Worth keeping an eye on early
NT Justin Ellis - No value
NT/DE Eddie Vanderdoes - Rookie with no immediate value
NT/DE Darius Latham - No value
The inside linebacker situation here is completely unsettled. There are five players with a legitimate chance of starting or at least having a substantial role. Anything can happen here once the pads go on but this is how I see it in late June. Free agent addition Jelani Jenkins is the best suited for a three down role on the inside and is the early favorite to be the best fantasy option of the group. He is young at 25 years old but is a veteran with plenty of starting experience. Jenkins is a dependable tackler and is solid in coverage. He was 83-27-3.5 as the Dolphins weak side backer in 2014 and was on pace for similar production before missing time with an injury in 2015. Injuries continue to be an issued with him however. He was never completely healthy last season when he was in and out of the lineup; eventually missing five of the final seven games.
Heading into last season the Raiders coaches were high on 2015 fifth round pick Ben Heeney. They loved his motor and snap to whistle intensity. If you go back to his scouting report coming out of college there are things like "Beloved by coaching staff" and "eye catching tackle for loss numbers". There are also things like "guesses too much", "lacks athleticism to recover from mistakes", "misses too many tackles", and "sub par pass defender". In 2016 Heeney was the week one starter at middle backer in the 4-3. He put decent numbers in a couple of games before being benched after giving up a pair of long scores on a blown coverage and a missed tackle. He then landed on IR after week four. It is hard to tell at this point if the team has moved on from him as a possible starter or if they will give him another shot. There is also the chance Heeney might be a better fit in the 3-4.
When Heeney was benched the Raiders turned to then rookie sixth round pick Cory James who had been an outside linebacker and pass rusher for much of his time at Colorado State and had only worked inside for one year. James has the speed, quickness and athleticism of an edge rusher but was/is raw as an inside backer. In his first two games as starter James recorded 18 solo tackles, 4 assists and a forced fumble, but there was something the coaching staff was not happy with. After the 12 tackle game against Baltimore in week four he was replaced by street free agent Perry Riley who went on to start the rest of the season. James saw limited action the rest of the way and did not get on the field at all in December. Like Heeney, it is hard to say where the organization stands with James.
This year's draft class may shed some light on where the Raiders are at inside backer. In round five they selected Marquell Lee out of Wake Forrest. Lee put up impressive numbers during his college career including 105 combined tackles and 7.5 sacks in 2016. He has the size Oakland wants at the strong inside linebacker spot but lacks speed and cover skills. As one scout put it; the further he gets from the line of scrimmage the harder the game gets for him. Playing strong ILB might solve some of that problem as he would not be asked to cover much. Lee was a team captain at Wake so he could bring some leadership to the field. No one questions his work ethic. I will not be surprised if Lee gets on the field early but I expect he will be a two down guy at best.
Then there is this year's second round pick Obi Melifonwu. He was a safety at Connecticut but I believe the Raiders plan to use him at inside backer. He is 6'4" 224 pounds and was described by Mike Mayock as "a genetic freak". Melifonwu blew up the combine with his speed and athleticism. He has the cover skills of a corner and the mentality of a linebacker in the body of a supersized safety. As a senior at Connecticut he had 73 tackles, 45 assists, 4 interceptions and a fumble recovery. I believe Melifonwu will be the next converted safety in the line of Deone Buccanon and Mark Barron. What remains to be seen is how quickly he will get on the field and if he will be full time or only a nickel package sub. I would expect him to be full time eventually but it may not happen this year. It would not be a surprise to see Lee and Melifonwu share the spot next to Jenkins when the season opens.
When it comes to the outside linebacker spots there are no questions. Kahlil Mack and Bruce Irvin are the starters with Shalique Calhoun providing breathers. Mack is simply a force regardless if his hand is down or not. He has exceeded 50 tackles and reached double digit sacks in consecutive seasons while working from both positions. The only unknown with Mack's value is related to his positional designation. There will be a lot of fantasy owners disappointed if he is not an end. This has been a major topic of discussion over the offseason as Mack has become the next generation's Terrell Suggs. The issue as of late June is a lack of consistency across the industry. Many still have him at defensive end while some have already made the change to linebacker. The fact of this matter is Mack played from a two point stance as a linebacker on over 80% of the defensive snaps after week ten last year. If the scheme had not worked and the defense had continued to struggle it would remain a grey area. The reality is Oakland's defense was significantly better working out of a base 3-4, thus we would be simply sticking our heads in the sand to deny the truth. As much as I hate to say it, Mack will probably be an OLB in most if not all major league hosting programs by week one. Those of you sitting on him in dynasty leagues have a choice to make. You can sit tight and hope he stays at DE, or you can try to trade him before his value drops to that of a decent LB2 or an excellent LB3 in balanced scoring leagues. For owners in big play leagues Mack's position is much less important as he will be among the elite regardless.
The shift in scheme was big for Bruce Irvin last year. Over the first nine games as a 4-3 end/SLB, Irvin managed 19 tackles and 2 sacks. In the final seven games he was 28-6-5. Unlike Mack, Irvin is not a player whose value transcends scoring systems. The 47 tackles he tallied last season were a career best and he has never put up more than 8 sacks. That said Irvin's improvement after the change should make him a solid LB2 or excellent LB3 in big play based leagues.
ILB Jelani Jenkins - Early favorite to land a 3 down job
ILB Ben Heeney - Deep sleeper
ILB Corey James - Deep sleeper
ILB Obi Melifonwu - Love his dynasty potential
ILB Marquell Lee - Possible long term starter
OLB Kahlil Mack - Stud if you can start him at end or second starter as a linebacker
OLB Bruce Irvin - LB3 with upside in big play leagues
OLB Shalique Calhoun - No value unless one of the starters is injured
OLB Aldon Smith - Currently suspended but has big potential in this scheme if reinstated
The Raiders have used both free agency and the draft to provide a serious infusion of talent in the secondary over the past two years. The fantasy headliner here is strong safety Karl Joseph. Last year's first round pick had a rookie season filled with peaks and valleys but he showed more than enough to give both Raiders fans and fantasy owners something to be excited about. Joseph did not get on the field until week three then he missed the final four games with injury. In between he recorded 44 solo tackles with 16 assists and 6 passes defended, reaching double digit fantasy points six times. If we average his tackle production over a full season Joseph was on pace for a strong 78 solo stops. The one thing we did not see from him last year was big play production. This does not bother me as it is not unusual for a rookie safety to start slowly in that area. They have a lot of responsibilities and it often takes some time to get comfortable. As a senior at West Virginia in 2015 he had 5 interceptions and a fumble recovery in only four games, so the big plays will come. Because his overall numbers were modest, some fantasy owners will undervalue Joseph this year. He is an excellent player with a history of production and is in a great situation behind an unsettled ILB position. I have Joseph slotted as a quality DB1 with top five potential.
Oakland brought Reggie Nelson into the fold via free agency last season. While Nelson has never set the world on fire with his tackle totals, he has become one of the leagues prominent playmakers at free safety. He did not miss a beat with the change of teams, recording 5 interceptions and defending 12 passes in his first season with the Raiders. Nelson has exceeded 60 tackles twice in his ten NFL seasons and has never reached 65, so there is little chance of improvement. What we can count on from him is 50-55 tackles, double digit passes defended and 5-6 splash plays. He is no threat to make the top twenty but is a solid option as a DB3 or an excellent DB4 to cover those bye weeks.
David Amerson and Sean Smith were the team's starting corners in 2016 and will likely open 2017 as the starters as well. Smith is a quality cover man but has never been a consistent contributor in the box scores. Amerson on the other hand, has been one of the fantasy games most overlooked players. He came over from Washington during the 2015 season. Between the two teams he was 55-4-0 with 4 interceptions, a forced fumble, a whopping 26 passes defended and a score that year. All that added up to make him the number five fantasy corner. In 2016 Amerson was the leading tackler among the Raiders secondary with 56 solo stops while he contributed 14 passes defended and a pair of picks for a top twenty finish among corners. In fact he has recorded at least 52 tackles in each of the past three seasons. There is some chance rookie first round pick Gareon Conley could bump Amerson but I believe Conley will work as the nickel corner in his first season then possibly replace Smith in 2018. Target Amerson late on draft day as your second corner.
Conley is an interesting prospect and the rookie corner rule makes him a player to keep an eye on. He is a physical press corner with good speed and the versatility to cover all receiver types. Conley can get physical with the big receivers at the line but can still run with the burners. He has good ball skills and will fight for the ball in the air as if it were thrown to him. The only negative in fantasy terms is his run support. He was willing at Ohio State but not very productive with 54 solo tackles to show for twenty six games as a starter. The Raiders took a chance on him in the first round even though there are some pending off field issues that could have an effect on his rookie season. If he can clear that obstacle I see him getting on the field in at least a part time role right away.
SS Karl Joseph - DB1 with top five potential
FS Reggie Nelson - Decent DB3 or quality depth
SS Keith McGill - Third safety with no current value
CB David Amerson - Solid CB2
CB Sean Smith - Minimal value at best
CB Gareon Conley - Rookie corner rule could come into play if he lands a starting spot
CB TJ Carrie - No value
Los Angeles Chargers
We may have lost Khalil Mack as a defensive end but we have gained Melvin Ingram. With Gus Bradley as defensive coordinator the Chargers will be a clear cut 4-3 team this year. What coordinator would not love to have a job with the likes of Ingram and Joey Bosa to work with? This duo has the potential to rival any pass rush tandem in the league in 2017. I say potential because even though the expectations are high, they are not an absolute lock to put up 20 sacks between them. Ingram has been a 3-4 outside linebacker since the Chargers drafted him 18th overall in 2012. He was a defensive end at South Carolina so the position is not something new but it is different than what he has done as a pro. The biggest concern may be size. As an outside backer Ingram trimmed down to a sleek 247 pounds. While that helped with his speed and quickness off the edge as a linebacker, it could hinder his ability to set the edge in the run game as an end. He will likely add a few pounds to prepare for the job but that will take some time and the extra pounds could slow him down a bit. This is not something I am terribly worried about but anytime there is major change there is the potential for things to not work as well as expected. As an OLB Ingram has produced 97 tackles, 18 sacks, 12 passes defended and 9 turnovers in the past two seasons. When players have made this move in the past it has usually caused their tackle totals to slip slightly but I am still comfortable projecting Ingram to have 40+ tackles and double digit sacks.
Bosa's rookie season got off to a late start due to a holdout and then an injury. When he finally got on the field in week five he entered with a bang going 4-1-2. His first five games were up and down as he combined for 8 tackles, 2 assists and 4 sacks against the Raiders and Falcons while producing 3-2-0 in games against the Titans, Dolphins and twice versus the Broncos. It was the six game stretch after the week eleven bye when Bosa really got it going. He had 19 tackles and 8 assists in that string of games with at least half a sack in each of them for a total of 6.5. The impressive numbers have the Bosa bandwagon running at full capacity. While I have been impressed as much as anyone, I have also been around the fantasy game long enough to know we should not to overvalue a player based on too short a body of work. There are a few factors to consider here. Bosa had 26 career sacks as a three year starter at Ohio State but he was just 35-16-5 in his final season there. When he hit the field last year there was no tape of him for offenses to study and no reason for them to spend extra time preparing or scheming for him. Entering his second season Bosa will no longer be a secret and will be the focal point of many blocking schemes. The small sampling we have seen thus far suggests big things to come and is enough for me to rank Bosa among my top five at the position. When it comes right down to it on draft day though, I may have a hard time pulling the trigger on him over some of the more proven and time tested guys such as Carlos Dunlap.
Corey Liuget had a couple of pretty good seasons as a 3-4 end. In 2014 he finished at 46-11-5 with 4 turnovers and a recovery for a score. For the most part however, his production has come in below fantasy relevance. In 2016 Liuget even failed to record a sack for the first time in six years as a pro. His slumping career may be revived this season by a shift inside to tackle. At 6'2" and 300 pounds Liuget is the prototype 3 technique tackle for an aggressive 4-3 scheme. He has the girth and power to dominate versus the run with enough quickness and athleticism to contribute to the pass rush. Liuget had a personal best of 6 sacks in 2012 and has 18.5 over his six year career so we know he has some ability. He has exceeded 30 tackles twice as a pro but not since 2014. The change of scheme and level talent around him could make a big difference. With the shortage of fantasy productive interior linemen 35 tackles and 4 sacks would make Liuget a quality second starter. He is no sure thing but I like his chances of getting to those numbers. After a dismal 2016 he will be overlooked by most fantasy owners and can be picked up cheap. Owners in tackle required leagues should slip him onto your sleeper list.
Brandon Mebane is expected to start at nose tackle. He will usually come off the field in sub package situations and may end up in a time share with Ryan Carrethers on early downs. Damion Square, Darius Philon and Caraun Reid fill out the depth chart at tackle with Jeremiah Attaochu working as the third end. When teams go from three to four man fronts there are usually a handful of linemen that are not a good fit. This does not seem to be the case so much for the Chargers. While none of these players project to have fantasy value at this point, they can all be serviceable replacements should injury strike one of the starters.
DE Melvin Ingram - Probable top twelve
DE Joey Bosa - Top five expectations
DE Jeremiah Attaochu - No value at this time
DE/DT Daruis Philon - No value
DT Corey Liuget - Low end DT2 with top fifteen potential
DT Damion Square - Injury sleeper
DT Caraun Reid - No value
NT Brandon Mebane - No value
NT Ryan Carrethers - No value
In Gus Bradley's scheme it is usually a lineman coming off the field in passing situations to make room for the extra defensive back. Thus the Chargers are one of the few teams that will have a pair of three down linebackers. Denzel Perryman and Jatavis Brown are set to be those players. Perryman is the traditional 240 pound hammer at middle linebacker. He is a bit short at 5'11" but uses the low center of gravity to his advantage when taking on and shedding blockers. At a glance his totals of 56-16-1 as a starter last season are less than impressive. When we take into consideration he missed four full games with injury and the majority of two others, his numbers take on a new light. Throw out the games he missed and the ones he was injured in and Perryman averaged 10.6 fantasy points a game while being on pace for 87 solo tackles. The possible drawback with him is the injury issue. While he has not suffered anything serious, Perryman has missed games in both of his NFL seasons due to minor ones. As the centerpiece of the defense Perryman will have the same role that has made Paul Posluszny a top ten linebacker over the past few years. I will stop short of calling Perryman an LB1 at this point but he has that potential. For now we can consider him a solid LB2 with upside.
With Perryman in the Posluszny role, Brown will settle in at weak side linebacker which is the Telvin Smith role if we are comparing. Not surprisingly, Brown is comparable to Smith in many ways beyond the role as well. Both are undersized linebackers checking in at less than 225 pounds. Both have excellent speed and play much bigger than their size. Both are strong in coverage, solid physical tacklers and have the speed to run plays down all over the field. Brown was a fifth round pick by the Chargers last season. He was not an opening day starter but injuries ahead of him on the depth chart put him on the field early. By the end of week three it was apparent he belonged in the lineup. Brown missed four games with a knee sprain but still managed a mark of 64-15-3.5 with 3 takeaways and 6 passes defended. If not for all the competition around him I would project triple digit solo tackles for Brown. Even with Perryman, Jahleel Addae and other good players in the mix, I will be surprised if Brown falls short of 90. His ability to contribute in the big play columns as well put him ahead of Perryman on my list and just inside the top 10.
Kyle Emanuel is expected to round out the starting lineup at strong side backer. His ability as pass rusher gives the coaching staff a lot of options, including keeping him on the field in some sub packages. At this point I am not anticipating enough box score production to make Emanuel much of a fantasy factor but he is a good player who will contribute to the success of the unit and stiffen the competition for fantasy points.
Korey Toomer and Joshua Perry provide excellent depth for the Chargers. In the event either Perryman or Brown are lost to injury there would not be a huge drop off for the Chargers and fantasy owners should be all over whoever moves up.
MLB Denzel Perryman - Solid LB2 with top fifteen upside
WLB Jatavis Brown - Low end LB1 or excellent LB2
SLB Kyle Emanuel - Possible depth
MLB Korey Toomer - Injury sleeper
OLB Joshua Perry - Injury sleeper
OLB James Onwualu - Special teams player
The Chargers secondary is fairly strong in NFL terms and provides fantasy owners with a couple of quality options as well. Strong safety Jahleel Addae will be widely overlooked as owners prepare for the 2017 season but he should not be. He was 43-7-0 with an interception and three passes defended last season, but those numbers came in eight games. Addae quietly averaged better than 5 solo tackles and 12.3 fantasy points per game in 2016. At 5'10" and 195 pounds he is not the biggest of strong safeties but he certainly does not shy from contact and seems to relish his opportunities in run support. Addae can play either safety position so there is some chance he could eventually move to free safety, but for now he is expected to play the Jonathan Cyprien role in Gus Bradley's scheme. All Cyprien did under Bradley was average 82 tackles per season.
Former Panther Tre Boston is pushing incumbent Dwight Lowery for the free safety spot. Neither of these players nor the free safety slot in Bradley's defense has ever provided much in the way of box score production. There are however some other safeties we need to keep an eye on here. In particular I am talking about rookies Rayshawn Jenkins who was a fourth round selection, and Desmond King who was picked in the fifth. Jenkins is a big rangy safety checking in at 6'1" 214 pounds. As a senior at Miami last year he finished 56-20-1.5 with a pair of interceptions and 7 passes broken up. He may need some time to adjust but once he is ready Jenkins may be a better fit at strong safety than Addae.
King was a productive college corner that will likely transition to free safety at the pro level due to perceived physical limitations. He is not particularly big at 5'10" 201, or fast, or athletic for that matter. What he is, is a football player. King is tough, has a high football IQ, good instincts and strong ball skills. As a four year starter for Iowa he accumulated 18 takeaways, 33 passes defended and three scores. A year or two down the road we could be looking at Jenkins at strong safety with either Addae or King at free safety and whoever is not starting working as the nickel back.
Safety is not the only position here that can/will be box score friendly. Jason Verrett and Casey Hayward are in line to be the starting corners with Trevor Williams and Craig Mager competing for the number three spot. When healthy Verrett is among the league’s upper echelon cover men. Unfortunately the 2014 first round pick has missed more games (25) than he has played (23) so far in his pro career. He was an immediate starter as a rookie but lasted only four games before landing on IR. In 2014 he made it through fourteen games finishing with respectable numbers of 42-5-0 with 3 picks and 11 passes defended. Verrett was off to a strong start last year before a knee injury landed him back on IR again. If we breakdown his per game production and average it over a full season it looks something like 50-6-0 with 3 interceptions and 13 passes defended. Those are not great fantasy numbers but are sufficient for a low end CB2 or quality depth in most leagues.
Hayward is the player I would look at first here if you play in a league that breaks out the defensive back positions. His career production has been up and down for a variety of reasons including some injuries but when everything has been right with him Hayward has been rather productive. As a rookie with the Packers in 2012 his tackle numbers were not great (40 solo) but had 6 interceptions and 21 passes defended which went a long way toward making up for it. He was injured in 2013 and not all the way back in 2014 so his numbers were down. In 2015 Hayward posted a career best of 55 solo stops but made no impact in the big play columns. This possibly had more to do with his role in Green Bay's scheme than his personal abilities. In his first year with the Chargers Hayward showed the best of everything going 51-7-0 with 7 interceptions, 20 passes defended and a score. The current scheme will allow him to be aggressive in terms of making splash plays and working opposite Verrett (if he can stay healthy) should mean plenty of opportunity. I see him as a quality CB2 with low end CB1 potential. Hayward and second level corners in general, can be picked up late on draft day or as free agents early in the season.
SS Jahleel Addae - Quality DB3 with high DB2 upside
FS Tre Boston - Minimal value at best
FS Dwight Lowery - Minimal value at best
SS Rayshawn Jenkins - Dynasty sleeper
FS Desmond King - Dynasty sleeper
SS Adrian Phillips - No value at this time
CB Jason Verrett - Potential CB2 with injury risk
CB Casey Hayward - Solid CB2
CB Trevor Williams - Marginal value
CB Craig Mager - Injury sleeper with limited upside
That is going to do it for round one. The NFC West is up next!