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Eyes of the Guru Preseason, Part 4: AFC North

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

Just as a reminder or for those who may have come in the middle of the series. For reference, when I mention where players finished in the rankings last season, my model will be the standard Footballguys scoring system. This is the standard stuff:

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

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

Minnesota Vikings

Defensive Linemen

Wherever Mike Zimmer has coached the defense has been good and the defensive ends have been fantasy gold. In 2016 both Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter were top ten linemen, with Hunter landing among the top three in most leagues. What makes Hunter's big season even more impressive is the fact he was not a starter. Griffen and Brian Robison held those jobs with Hunter rotating in. On the season Griffen played 888 snaps, Robison 836 and Hunter 598. This is significant because Hunter has finally passed Robison on the depth chart and is looking at a big jump in opportunity. Minnesota will continue to rotate the trio just like before, so the starter’s role figures to give Hunter about 40% more snaps. Having him in several dynasty leagues I am excited as anyone about this news. Still I have to throw out a word of caution before everyone starts comparing Hunter to J.J. Watt. There are a lot of historical examples of players being highly productive as the third man in a defensive end rotation or a third down rush specialist, then flopping when they get an opportunity to start. Now that I have pointed out the potential for Hunter to take a step back, let me tell you why I am not expecting it. He was not in a situational rotation where his success was tied to a select role or sub package. The Vikings rotation seemed to be based largely on snap count and/or series. As a result any two could be on the field at any time, so Hunter basically played a three down role when it was his turn. He graded out among the league's best at the position versus both the run and pass, and he turns 24 in October so Hunter is just entering the prime of his career physically. If we add 40% to his 2016 totals it looks something like 48-31-17.5 with 244 fantasy points. Watt broke 300 points in 2012 and 2014 but he had 245 in 2015 so yes, there is a chance Hunter could challenge for top billing among linemen, if not all defenders this year. With Watt's recent back issues there can even be an argument made for making Hunter the first defender off the board on draft day. I would probably not go that far yet, but I would seriously consider letting someone else step up for Watt, then making Hunter my first IDP pick a round or two later.

With all the expectation surrounding Hunter it is easy to lose sight of just how good and dependable Everson Griffen has been since becoming a starter in 2014. Over the last three seasons he has averaged 36-13-10, finishing among the top fifteen in all three years and the top ten twice. Having Hunter at the other end could actually help Griffen as offenses will have to adjust blocking Hunter's way often. Griffen may not challenge for either the tackle or sack lead among defensive linemen but he is rock solid in all aspects of the game. While his sack total was down a bit at 8 last year, Griffen made up for it with a personal best 5 turnovers and his third career score. I expect we will see him back in double digit sacks in 2017 and he may hit 40 tackles with more one on one blocking. If some astute owner punks you on Hunter, there is nothing wrong with waiting another couple rounds and picking up Griffen as a solid DL1.

Brian Robison is a class act. When he learned Hunter had passed him for the starting spot, Robison stood up in the meeting room, congratulated the young man and said he knew it was coming because Hunter is just too good not to be a starter. Robison has never been more than marginal depth for most fantasy owners. Losing some snaps may actually make the 34 year old a little more productive on a per play basis but his overall numbers will likely slip a bit.

The Vikings added former Packer Datone Jones in free agency. Heading into training camp it is hard to gauge exactly what his role will be in Minnesota. With Green Bay, Jones played both defensive end and outside linebacker, though he was never particularly successful at either spot. The former first round pick (2013) is not really an edge rusher. He can set the edge versus the run but lacks the quickness, up field burst and athleticism to get after the passer from that spot. He may however add some punch as an inside rusher or even a starting 3-technique tackle. Jones's skill set would seem to be a good fit at that position and with Sharrif Floyd continuing to have injury issues, the Vikings are looking for someone to produce in that role. There has to be a reason Jones was signed and there is certainly no room for him to get on the field much at end. Four years in the Packers 3-4 had Jones averaging about 14 tackles and 2.5 sacks a season. There will be a lot of competition for the job next to nose tackle Linval Joseph, but if Jones ends up there he could be a 35 tackle, 4.5 sack guy and a quality second starter in leagues breaking out the position.

Sharrif Floyd was the team's first round pick in 2013. As a rookie he was part of a rotation, playing in all sixteen games. Since that time Floyd has battled injuries and struggled to stay on the field. Things were looking good in 2014 when he was 28-14-5 in fourteen games. Floyd played 13 games in 2015 but was not completely healthy in several of them and ended up missing three. He missed nearly all of last season with knee and quad injuries that have his early 2017 status in question. Floyd is a big talent who all but certain to start when/if he can get and stay healthy. The organization seems to have prepared for a future with or without him.

Part of that preparation was drafting Jaleel Johnson in the fourth round. He is an active, high energy player that should be a good fit as a penetrating 3-technique tackle. His biggest asset seems to be as an interior pass rusher though at 316 pounds, run support is not a weakness. In two seasons as a starter for Iowa, Johnson totaled 52-49-11. He could be in the mix for rotational snaps as a rookie and has the potential to develop into a fine starter down the road.

In 2014 and 2015 Tom Johnson carved out a niche as an interior rush specialist. In the part time role his tackle numbers were not great but he combined for a respectable 12 sacks over those two seasons. Heading into the team's week six bye last year Johnson was right on pace for another 20 tackles and 6+ sacks. Coming out of the bye his role was diminished. Johnson failed to show up in the box scores at all for three games and had 8 tackles with no sacks in the final eight. With the additions of Datone Jones and Jaleel Johnson, he could be the odd man out for 2017.

Linval Joseph is settled in at the nose tackle position with Shamar Stephen penciled in as the starter next to him. Joseph is a seven year veteran and one of the league's best, most consistent interior linemen. At 329 pounds he an excellent anchor for the run defense, with a knack for getting off blocks and making plays. He has as much range as any nose tackle in the game and will get involved in plays both downfield and outside the tackle box. Joseph is not going to beat many pass blockers with speed or quickness but has an impressive bull rush, good technique and some moves we rarely see from guys his size. All these things show up in the box scores and add up to strong fantasy production for an interior lineman. Joseph has fallen short of 33 tackles once since 2011, has 17.5 career sacks. He had a career high of 40 assists last season which contributed considerably to his being the fantasy game's number three tackle. I am unsure if we can count on the high assist totals again though. His first two years with the Vikings yielded 32 combined. Even without them Joseph is a quality DT1 option.

Stephen is the starter for now but it may not last long. He did a solid but unspectacular job last season and the coaching staff is looking for more from the position. There will be a lot of competition for playing time with the best case scenario for Stephen probably being a part time rotational role.

DE Everson Griffen - Solid and dependable DL1
DE Danielle Hunter - Elite tier DL1
DE Brian Robison - Minimal value at best
DE/DT Datone Jones - Potential starter if he plays tackle
DT Linval Joseph - Solid DT1 with top 5 potential
DT Shamar Stephen - Minimal value at best
DT Tom Johnson - Reduced role ruined what value he once had
DT Jaleel Johnson - Dynasty sleeper
DT Sharrif Floyd - Injury probably negates serious value in 2017

Linebackers

There is not much guessing for us when it comes to the Vikings linebacker situation. Unfortunately there is not a ton of fantasy value here either. Middle backer Eric Kendricks is an ascending talent and the only real fantasy factor of the group. As a rookie the 2015 second round pick performed well on the field while his box score production of 73-20-4 with a pass defended made him a decent third starter in most leagues. Kendricks showed a lot of improvement in his second season. He was obviously more comfortable which allowed his leadership role to grow. It also helped Kendricks make a much more significant big play contribution. In fifteen games last year he was 70-39-2.5 with 8 passes defended, 3 takeaways and a score. He was a top fifteen linebacker with his average of 12.3 points per game ranking thirteenth. Kendricks is 25 years old and is set to be the centerpiece of the Vikings defense for most of the next decade. We have seen neither his best football nor his best fantasy production. I am not yet convinced he will ever make it to elite fantasy status but expect he will slip into the top dozen a few times before his career is over. This year may be his first journey into that group. I have Kendricks slotted on the cusp of the top twelve and see him as a priority LB2 with top ten potential for 2017.

What the heck happened to Anthony Barr last year? Strong side linebackers rarely put up big tackle numbers but the ones that stay on the field in sub packages usually have some value. This was the case with Barr who had 55 solo stops in twelve games as a rookie in 2014, adding 4 sacks, 5 turnovers, 3 passes defended and a score to post good LB3 range points. In his second season Barr tallied similar numbers in fourteen games and was again a decent third starter or quality LB4. In 2016 he played a full schedule for the first time, continued to work in the three down role and saw his production plummet to 38-33-2 with a couple of turnovers and 2 batted passes. Some of the decline, at least in terms of tackles, can be explained by the team's steady improvement since he joined them. In 2016 the Vikings defense was on the field for 993 snaps. Only five teams had fewer scrimmage plays. The entire linebacker corps had 138 solo tackles credited, so there simply was not a lot of opportunity. What happened to the big plays though? Generally when defenses play so well there are a lot of big plays involved. That part remains a mystery. I would like to call this a fluke and say Barr will have some value again but truth is I do not believe that is the case. Barr is not the only player on this squad to see his number crash over the last two seasons; I believe this is a trend we are going to see for a while in Minnesota.

With the retirement of career Viking Chad Greenway, the weak side linebacker spot is wide open. Emmanuel Lamur has been penciled in to open camp. He came over with Zimmer from Cincinnati and has been contributing mostly on special teams as he did with the Bengals. Lamur will compete with rookies Elijah Lee (round 7) and Ben Gedeon (round 4), and possible backup middle backer Kentrell Brothers for the starting nod. The two down role on one of the league's better defenses pretty much eliminates any fantasy potential from the position regardless who lines up there.

MLB Eric Kendricks - Quality LB2 with low LB1 upside
SLB Anthony Barr - Bounce back year possible but unlikely
WLB Emmanuel Lamur - No value
MLB Kentrell Brothers - Injury sleeper
MLB Ben Gedeon - Injury sleeper at best
SLB Edmond Robinson - No value
WLB Elijah Lee - No value at this time

Defensive Backs

Mike Zimmer defenses have always featured a talent heavy secondary. This year's group is no different featuring four former first round picks and one second rounder. Free safety Harrison Smith is the fantasy headliner. He is a mixed bag of big potential with a healthy dose of risk. The 2012 first round selection has completed a full schedule of games twice in his career, with the latest being 2014. When healthy he has been the fantasy game's most productive free safety. As a rookie Smith collected 73 tackles, 30 assists, a sack, 5 takeaways, 11 passes defended and a pair of scores to finish as the number three defensive back. In 2013 he had 46 solo tackles and 3 turnovers in eight games before landing on IR. The big numbers returned in 2014 with 71 solo stops, 3 sacks, 6 turnovers, 9 passes defended and a score. Since then Smith has been banged up a lot, missing games in each of the last two seasons and playing through injuries often. In 2015 his production was way down on a per game basis over all scoring categories. In 2016 Smith's tackle totals rebounded but the big plays were still hibernating. At this point I am wondering if something about Zimmer's scheme is hampering his big play production. It is not rare for a fantasy stud at safety to have his production decline as the team improves. This has probably been a contributing factor to the situation, but generally we see the decline in tackle totals more so than big plays. Smith has never been a high total tackle producer. What made him special early in his career was solid tackle totals with a lot of splash play production. If he stays healthy 70+ solo stops are basically a given, but that alone will not make Smith more than a solid DB3. Many fantasy owners are still living in the past when it comes to this player and will draft him among the first ten if not first five defensive backs. While there is certainly the potential for Smith to have that kind of value, it is far from a sure thing. If you can get him in the mid to late DB2 range Smith is a good gamble. I am letting others roll the dice on him as a DB1 at this point.

In 2014 Vikings strong safety Robert Blanton worked alongside Smith and also broke the 70 solo tackle mark. In 2015 Andrew Sendejo won the job and was on a similar pace had he not missed three games. Neither Blanton nor Sendejo made much big play noise, making both players were decent third starters or quality depth in their respective seasons. Sendejo returned as the starter last season but his useful production did not. In fourteen starts he was 45-24-.5. He did manage to double his turnover total from the previous year, finishing with 4. Sendejo scored 29.5 fantasy points in the first two games, and then reached double digits once over the next twelve. He is a solid tackler and a dependable player for the Vikings but his fantasy outlook is for depth or a marginal third starter at best.

There is reason for optimism when it comes to Minnesota's corners. The position has provided fantasy value on a fairly consistent basis dating back to the beginning of Antoine Winfield's career. Over the past couple of seasons it has been Xavier Rhodes picking up the torch. In 2015 Rhodes produced a career best of 55 solo stops, adding 11 passes defended but only 1 turnover. That season he was a marginal option as a bye week fill in for those in leagues starting two corners. Last year however, Rhodes stepped up his game considerably; especially in the turnover columns. After missing the first two games with injury and playing sparingly in week three, Rhodes went on to total 44 tackles, 8 assists, 6 turnovers, 11 passes defended and a score. He was the number ten corner at season’s end and his average of 10.9 points per game was best at the position. Year to year consistency among corners can be highly elusive for fantasy owners. The fact Rhodes was on pace for a second consecutive 50+ tackle season is a big plus. If he can keep up the big play production he likely has CB1 value in 2017. At worst he should be a good CB3.

Trae Waynes spent most of his second season as the Vikings third corner. As such his overall tackle totals and fantasy points were not particularly impressive but he did contribute 3 interceptions and double digit passes defended. If we take a closer look at his per game production from 2016, Wayne’s fantasy potential takes on a whole new light. He started the first three games while Rhodes was mending then made three more starts in weeks ten through twelve. In those six games Waynes averaged 5-1-0 and a pass defended while recording two interceptions. Watching Waynes last season reminded me a bit of Winfield at times. At 190 pounds he is not a particularly big corner but he is feisty in coverage and fearless as a tackler in run support. Being the eleventh overall pick in 2015 Waynes obviously has all the traits to be an outstanding cover man. He is in line to take over the starting job in 2017 and while we should not expect 80 solo tackles, he clearly has the potential to be a substantial box score contributor going forward.

Since their days together in Dallas, Terrence Newman has followed Mike Zimmer where ever he has coached. Newman will be 39 year old in September and father time is on his heels. He will be in the mix with last year's second round pick Mackenzie Alexander for the nickel corner role in 2017. Chances are this will be Newman's final year and it will come as no surprise if he is either released or retires before the season.

FS Harrison Smith - DB1 potential with a lot of risk
SS Andrew Sendejo - Depth with low DB3 upside
SS/FS Anthony Harris - Injury sleeper at best
FS Antone Exum - No value
CB Trae Waynes - Sleeper with high CB2 potential or better
CB Xavier Rhodes - Solid CB2 or quality depth
CB Mackensie Alexander - Injury sleeper at best
CB Terrence Newman - No value

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