With the loss of Calais Campbell to free agency the Cardinals defensive line will no longer scare anyone. Robert Nkemdiche is the player the organization hopes will step up in place of Campbell, but so far he has presented more questions than answers. Nkemdiche was the team's first round pick last year so he carries a lot of expectation. After turning heads at times over the summer of his rookie year, his work ethic was called into question by Bruce Arians. Nkemdiche then missed most of the season recovering from ankle and elbow injuries. When he did get on the field (73 snaps) there was little impact. Teammate Frostee Rucker said Nkemdiche has changed for the better and has been working hard since the end of last season, including extra technique and conditioning work after team activities in May. In fact all reports from this offseason had been encouraging right up to June 6th when he pulled a hamstring and was not able to finish minicamp. Nkemdiche has the physical gifts to be both a successful player in Arizona's scheme and a quality fantasy option. Between the constant injury issues and lackluster production of 41 solo tackles and 6 sacks in 29 games for Ole Miss, I am not able to help being a little pessimistic about him. I might consider using a late/last round pick on Nkemdiche based on upside.
Outside the possibility of Nkemdiche the Cardinals defensive line has little to offer fantasy owners. In fact the entire group outside of Campbell accounted for 1.5 sacks in 2016. Josh Mauro made several starts last season and will likely enter 2017 in a starting role. He is a good point of attack run defender who can take up space and eat up blockers but offers little pass rush. Froste Rucker has been in and out of the starting lineup since coming to Arizona in 2013. Most of his time with the team has been spent as the third end. Rucker's best year was 2011 when he finished 32-13-4 with the Bengals. As a Cardinal his best numbers are 20 tackles and 5 sacks in 2014. Ed Stinton is basically a clone of Mauro. If Nkemdiche misses time Mauro and Stinton would likely be the starters with Rucker rotating.
Corey Peters is tagged as the starting nose tackle. He shared time with Rodney Gunter last season and will likely continue to do so. The Cardinals pull their nose tackle in sub package situations so they can leave four linebackers on the field, so even is one of these players were to get all the snaps there would not be much opportunity. They were 19-15-0 combined last season.
DE Robert Nkemdiche - Sleeper with DL2 upside but a lot of risk
DE Frostee Rucker - Minimal value at best
DE Josh Mauro - No value
DE Ed Stinton - No value
NT Rodney Gunter - No value
NT Corey Peters - No value
Kevin Minter is now in Cincinnati and Deone Bucannon's availability for the early season is in question due to his recovery from ankle surgery. It looks as if soon to be 36-year-old Karlos Dansby and rookie first round pick Haason Reddick may be the week one starters. Reddick is a player I am excited about. He reminds me a lot of former Cardinals starter and fantasy stud Daryl Washington. Reddick is a versatile player who worked everywhere from defensive end to inside linebacker during his career at Temple. As a senior last season he lined up outside as a linebacker/end where he produced 65 combined tackles and assists, 9.5 sacks, an interception, 3 forced fumbles and a recovery. He can run, tackle, cover, blitz and probably return kicks if asked to do so. The Cardinals plan to move him inside because at 6'1" and 237 pounds Reddick is undersized for an outside backer and is not particularly good at setting the edge against bigger blockers. It will not be a surprise to see him lineup as an outside rusher once in a while though. His speed, athleticism and football IQ will allow coaches to be creative defensively. With little pass rush coming from the front three they will need that flexibility. Once Buccanon is healthy we might even see the Cardinals deploy five linebackers at times. There are three players in my top tier of rookie linebackers. Jarrad Davis in Detroit is my number one, and I have been going back and forth between Reuben Foster and Reddick as my number two. We may not get huge tackle totals from Reddick but he should be solid there while adding a lot of splash plays.
Dansby is not the player he once was but he can still contribute on the field. If the opportunity is there he can be a decent fantasy contributor as well. This is his third stop with the Cardinals so they know what he is capable of. When he suited up for them in 2013 Dansby piled up 112 solo tackles, 6 sacks, 5 turnovers, 19 passes defended and a pair of scores. How they let him go to Cleveland the following year is a real head scratcher. Dansby is almost certain to open the season in a three down role. How long he keeps that role will depend on several factors including quality of his play, health and availability of Bucannon and how well Reddick transitions to his new role. It is highly unlikely Dansby will ever sniff the top twenty again but he should be a quality fantasy contributor for at least part of this season, and it will be no shock if he keeps a significant role all the way through.
Bucannon was the blueprint for the recent surge of teams using supersized safeties as nickel linebackers. It started as a sub package role when he was a rookie in 2014 and he made the full time switch to inside backer in 2015. That was the season Bucannon lit up the box scores with 90 solo tackles, 3 sacks, 3 takeaways, 3 forced fumbles and a defensive score. In 2016 he was well off that pace, especially in the big play columns, even before an ankle injury sidelined him for the final three games. What many have forgotten is Bucannon battled an array of injuries last year starting a groin in week two, followed by an elbow and then a concussion. The ankle injury actually happened in early November and he played through that for a while as well. Bucannon had surgery on the ankle over the offseason and his recovery currently leaves his week one status in question. There is even some thought of him possibly opening the season on the PUP. Once he is fully healthy we can expect to see him back in an every down role. If Reddick and Dansby play well however, there will be no need to push Bucannon back into the lineup. There is little doubt he will be an excellent LB2 for us in the long term. For this season you probably want to be prepared for a long drought. It may be a good idea to grab Dansby as an inexpensive stop gap to get you bye.
How could anyone who grew up in the 70s, 80s, or even 90s not love an NFL player names Scooby? Scooby Wright was one of my favorite sleepers last year. Ok, I missed on that one. When the Browns gave up on him quickly his home town Cardinals gave him a second chance. Wright had a stellar season as a sophomore at Arizona when he finished 100-64-15 for the Wildcats. He was on track to be a first round pick when a major knee injury basically ended his college career early in 2015. Wright may never be the same player but then the NFL is filled with guys that took two or even three years to completely come back from such an injury. He is not a guy we should be drafting at this point but Wright is still a player we should keep an eye on in 2017.
For owners in big play based leagues Markus Golden and Chandler Jones are a pair of studs. Golden bested Jones by a few points last season but it could just as easily go the other way in 2017. Golden hit 12.5 sacks last year in only his second season as a pro. He is 26 years old and in the prime of his career physically, so it would not be a shock if he improved on last year's totals in 2017. Jones is 27 years old and entering his sixth season. With double digit sacks in three of the last four years, he has been a model of consistency. Neither of these players are a threat to put up more than 45 tackles but both will make a significant contribution in the turnover column. Between them they accounted for 8 forced fumbles and 3 recoveries last season. For owners in tackle heavy leagues these guys will be depth at best. For owners in balanced scoring leagues they will serve as matchup based low end third starters or quality bye week depth. In big play leagues they might both finish among the top ten.
ILB Haason Reddick - Rookie with big potential
ILB Deone Bucannon - Solid LB2 when healthy but injury recovery could impact 2017 value
ILB Karlos Dansby - Nearing the end but could offer solid value this year
ILB Scooby Wright - Deep sleeper to keep an eye on
OLB Markus Golden - LB1 in big play leagues
OLB Chandler Jones - LB1 in big play leagues
OLB Jarvis Jones - No value at this time
OLB Kareem Martin - No current value
The Cardinals secondary is a moving target for fantasy owners. The team often uses three or even four safeties in certain situations. The problem being we never know which, if any, of the four will be on the field full time on a given week; most of the time the answer is none. Tony Jefferson was on the field roughly 85% of the time and led all Arizona safeties in snaps last season. Free agent addition Antoine Bethea is expected to assume Jefferson's role as a near every down strong safety. Bethea has reached or exceeded 70 solo stops every year but one since 2007; the odd year being 2015 when he missed time with injury. His long history of quality production is likely to continue with the Cardinals but we should not expect a repeat of the 95 solo stops he recorded last year with San Francisco. Instead we can expect mere mortal totals in the high 70s range. While he has consistently provided quality tackle totals, Bethea has never been particularly strong in the big play department. There have been a couple of exceptions but for the most part we can only count on 2-3 splash plays and a handful of passes defended. After his monster 2016 Bethea will be overvalued by many owners and probably drafted too early. Let someone else make that mistake unless you can get him in the area of a solid third starter.
Tyrann Mathieu is the high risk high reward player in this mix. He is risky because he has struggled to stay healthy. The 2013 third round pick has never played a full NFL season and seems to always be recovering from some major injury. The high reward is evident by looking at his 2015 season. That year Mathieu managed to play fourteen games, finishing at 80-9-1 with 5 interceptions, 16 passes defended and a score. He was never completely healthy last year and once again finished the season on IR. At this point my fear is that even if/when he is fully healthy, the coaching staff may elect to put Mathieu on a pitch count to keep him that way. Those who remember Bob Sanders of the Colts can see how history has repeated itself here. If you can get Mathieu as a reasonable spot in your draft or cheap enough in your auction, he is certainly worth the risk. Be careful not to over spend and make sure you have a good plan B if you are going to count on him as an every week starter.
Veteran Tyvon Branch and rookie Budda Baker round out the top four safeties on the depth chart. Branch is a hard hitting in the box strong safety type who was a fantasy star with Oakland early in his career. The 30 year old has struggled with injuries since tearing up his knee early in 2013 and has not been healthy for a full season since 2012. He left the Raiders after the 2014 season he has been no more than a situational spot player for the Chiefs and Cardinals over the past two years. Unless there is an injury to Bethea, Branch is destined to continue in a limited situational role. In the event Bethea is lost for a significant amount of time, Branch still has the gas got play well and post numbers worthy of a fantasy starter.
Baker was an interesting pick by the organization. In many ways he is similar to Mathieu. Baker is an undersized tough guy who plays bigger than his 5'10" 195 pound frame would suggest. He is fast, physical and dependable as a tackler. In fact the only thing he seems to lack is ball skills. As a three year starter for Washington he managed a pedestrian 5 interceptions and forced three fumbles. The coaching staff will find a role that will allow Baker to contribute right away, but I have to believe he was selected as an insurance policy for Mathieu. Should the oft injured veteran be lost again, Baker might make an excellent in season addition.
Corner Patrick Peterson is another prime example of the rookie corner rule. In his first season he was 59-5-1 with a pair of picks and 13 passes defended. In year two the tackle numbers slipped a bit to 52 but he recorded a career best 7 interceptions and defended 17 passes. With offenses conscious to avoid him Peterson has averaged 41 tackles, just short of 3 interceptions and about 8 passes defended over the past four years. He is among the elite class of NFL cover corners but is actually too good a player to have significant fantasy value.
Justin Bethel is expected to open camp as the starter opposite Peterson with Brandon Williams handling the third corner duties. Bethel is a dependable cover man for the Cardinals but so far has not been able to translate solid on field play into box score production. The best numbers of his five previous seasons came in 2015 when he was 44-2-0 with 9 passes defended, 5 takeaways and a score. Williams could push for the starting spot this summer which might be significant. He was far more productive than Bethel on a per snap basis in 2016. With the team using so many safeties the third corner did not get on the field much last year.
SS Antoine Bethea - Dependable DB3 with low DB2 upside
FS Tyrann Mathieu - Heavy risk with big reward potential if he can stay healthy
SS Tyvon Branch - Injury sleeper behind Bethea
FS Budda Baker - Dynasty/injury sleeper behind Mathieu
SS Rudy Ford - Project with future starting potential
CB Patrick Peterson - Elite NFL corner but no more than a CB3 for fantasy owners
CB Justin Bethel - Minimal value
CB Brandon Williams - Sleeper with CB2 upside if he can win a starting job
CB Harlan Miller - No value at this time
Los Angeles Rams
With Wade Phillips as coordinator the Rams will be making the move to a 3-4 base defense this season. As is typically the case in these situations there are players who should cross over well and those who are not going to be a good fit. Up front change over should be fairly smooth. Aaron Donald has been one of the league's best 3-technique tackles since joining the Rams in 2014. The skill set that has helped him average 38 solo tackles and 9 sacks over the past three seasons should translate well to the defensive end position in the Phillips scheme. Donald is a 285 pound athlete with rare abilities for a big man. He has an arsenal of inside pass rush moves and enough up field quickness to be successful as a 4-3 end if called upon to do so. At 6'1" he is also able to stay lower than most blockers and uses leverage as well as any lineman in the game. He will not have much opportunity to work as an edge rusher but his burst, strength and use of leverage should make Donald one of the most box score productive 3-4 ends in the league. In years past we have used Calais Campbell as the measuring stick for this position. With Campbell now working in the Jaguars 4-3, we may well be comparing those players to Donald going forward. I have high expectations for him in this defense but reality is we should always approach with caution when there is such a major change. There have been a lot of good players in the past with skill sets that seemingly match up well, who have failed to make the transition. In the end I expect Donald to continue putting up similar numbers, making him a quality second tier DL1.
Dominique Easley was a first round pick of the Patriots in 2014, so this is not his first experience in a 3-4. He failed to make much of a splash with New England largely due to chronic knee problems that plagued him there. He was supposedly released by the Patriots more due to undisclosed off field issues than his health or playing ability. The Rams scooped him up quickly and made Easley a starting tackle next to Donald last year. He played all sixteen games going 24-11-3.5 while forcing a couple of fumbles along the way. There seemed to be no issue with his knee and we have heard nothing more about off field problems. Easley is as quick or athletic as Donald but he is far above average for a 288 pound man. He is not likely to be an every week starter for fantasy owners but 30+ tackles and 4-5 sacks are reasonable expectations. Those numbers would make Easley solid depth in most leagues.
Michael Brockers rounds out the starting trio at nose tackle. He too was a first round pick in 2014 and was the starting nose tackle in the Rams 4-3 over his first two seasons. Brockers lost playing time to the more dynamic Easley last year but the new scheme has a place for them both. Brockers is a 322 pound road block that should be an excellent fit as a 3-4 nose tackle. The responsibilities of the position are really not much different than those of a 4-3 nose tackle; anchor the run defense, absorb multiple blockers to keep the linebacker free and push the pocket if you happen to be on the field for a pass play. Brockers can do all those things. He is not a strong pass rusher and his tackle range is limited, so there are no grand expectations for fantasy owners, but he should be a good fit for the Rams.
Outside the three starters the Rams were short on players to fit the new scheme up front. The organization used both free agency and late round draft picks to create depth up front. Sixth round pick Tanzel Smart, second year man Matt Longacre and free agent addition Tyrunn Walker will compete for backup playing time at end while former 49ers nose tackle Mike Purcell was added to back up Brockers. None of these guys are likely to get on the field enough to make an impact unless the Rams suffer injuries.
DE Aaron Donald - Solid DL1 or excellent DL2
DE Dominique Easley - Depth in leagues starting two ends
DE Tanzel Smart - Rookie with some long term potential
DE Tyrunn Walker - Veteran depth with little fantasy upside
DE Matt Longacre - No value
NT Michael Brockers - Minimal value
NT Mike Purcell - No value at this time
Middle and weak side linebackers in 4-3 schemes usually have no problem moving to inside backer in a 3-4. Thus Alec Ogletree and Mark Barron should transition smoothly. At 6'2" and 245 pounds Ogletree has prototypical size for the strong ILB position and is a proven playmaker. He has become one of the elite fantasy options at linebacker, finishing among the top ten in three of his four years as a pro. The odd season being an injury shortened 2015. In 2016 Ogletree made the top five in most leagues by finishing on the cusp of triple digit solo tackles along with his usual contributions in all the other areas. In the three full seasons he has averaged 93 tackles, 29 assists, a sack, 6 takeaways, 11 passes defended and nearly 13 fantasy points per game. There is no reason to expect anything different from him this year.
Barron was among the first in the recent trend of big safeties moving to nickel linebacker. He came to the Rams mid-season in 2014 and began getting on the field in that role almost immediately. By the following season the organization realized they were onto something, making Barron a full time weak side linebacker. In the old NFL mindset he is too small to play linebacker on a regular basis. In the new faster, more pass oriented NFL, players like Barron are becoming the norm, if not a necessity at linebacker. He will not challenge Ogletree for the team lead in tackles but Barron is coming off a career best of 90 solos in 2016. Like his counterpart, he will make contributions in the big play columns as well. Barron has finished among the top twenty in each of the past two seasons and made the top twelve for the first time in his career last year. I will stop short of expecting an LB1 repeat but see him as a priority LB2 with top twenty expectations.
While the Rams are set at inside linebacker there are a lot of questions to be answered on the outside. The expected starters are Connor Barwin and Robert Quinn. While these two bring a lot of potential to the mix, there are reasons to be concerned as well. Barwin comes over from the Eagles where he played both 4-3 end and 3-4 outside linebacker during his four year with the team. His career started in Houston where he was an OLB for four seasons, two of them in Wade Phillips scheme (2011-2012). Barwin had one of his best years in 2011 with 11.5 sacks while working under Phillips. He is a solid veteran who knows the scheme well but Barwin's production has been highly inconsistent throughout his career. The 2011 numbers along with his 14.5 sacks for the Eagles in 2014 are the high points. In his other five full seasons however, Barwin averaged 4.5. Soon to be age 31, Barwin give the Rams a good starting point in their new adventure. He has the potential to provide quality value for fantasy owners in big play based leagues but is not a player to be targeted before the late rounds in any league.
From 2012 to 2014 Quinn was a beast both on the field and in fantasy terms. He reached double digit sacks in each of those three seasons with a huge 2013 that featured 50 solo tackles, 19 sacks and 9 turnovers. Over the past two seasons he has been a complete mystery however. Quinn has been in and out of the lineup with an array of injuries ranging from dehydration/illness to shoulder, back, concussion and wrist problems. At 27 years old it hard to say he is over the hill but his injury struggles have become a serious concern. Quinn has never played linebacker so even if he can stay healthy there is no guarantee he will be a good fit. We know he has the ability to be an elite edge rusher but there is much more to the positions than simply pinning his ears back and going. Quinn has the physical traits teams look for so on paper he should be able to do the job well. Unfortunately for the Rams the game is not played on paper, making him far from a sure thing. Owners in balanced or tackle heavy leagues will want to avoid Quinn all together. For those in search of big plays he is a high risk/high reward target as a priority LB4 with LB2 upside.
The Rams have taken steps to prepare in case Quinn struggles. Ethan Westbrooks will provide a veteran presence as he too tries to make the transition from end to OLB. The team also used fourth and seventh round picks on Samson Ebukam and Ejuan Price respectively. Ebukam has impressive athletic traits and may be a future starter. He will need to improve as an edge setter versus the run for that to happen but could see significant time as a sub package edge rusher right away. Health issues caused Price to fall a couple of rounds on draft day. He too has the skill set and college production to create optimism for his long term contribution.
ILB Alec Ogletree - Elite tier 1
ILB Mark Barron - Priority LB2
ILB Cory Littleton - No value
ILB Bryce Hager - No value
ILB Josh Forrest - No value
OLB Robert Quinn - Risk/reward LB4 with upside in big play leagues
OLB Connor Barwin - LB3 or depth with upside in big play leagues
OLB Ethan Westbrooks - Minimal value at best
OLB Samson Ebukam - Dynasty sleeper for big play leagues
OLB Ejuan Price - Deep dynasty sleeper for big play leagues
On a team with two linebackers over 90 solo tackles there is not a lot left over for the secondary. As a result both strong safety T.J. McDonald and free safety Lamarcus Joyner finished last season with a pedestrian 50 solo tackles. McDonald is no longer with the team so 2014 fourth round pick Maurice Alexander will get his chance at the job. As the third safety over the past two seasons he has seen plenty of action in sub package situations, so inexperience will not be an issue. Normally I would say a strong safety moving into the starting lineup for the first time automatically becomes a late round sleeper simply based on opportunity and potential. There is nothing wrong with Alexander as a player but I am not optimistic about this situation. Rams safeties (including McDonald) have rarely been more marginal fantasy options since the decline of Adam Archuleta several years back, and I do not recall any safety in a Wade Phillips defense ever having more than marginal value. In the case of Alexander I would suggest a prove it approach. If he looks good in preseason or early September, make the move to add him then.
Joyner is a converted slot corner that may end up back in that role if third round rookie John Johnson impresses. Johnson is not a particularly physical player but he has excellent cover skills, good ball skills and the speed to cover deep. All that potentially adds up to a quality deep safety from an NFL perspective but it reinforces the probable lack of opportunity for box score production.
Corner Trumaine Johnson had a breakout season in 2015. With 58 tackles, 8 turnovers (7 on interceptions), 17 passes defended and a score, he was a top ten corner that year making the top five in many leagues. He started last season on a similar pace before a week five ankle injury put him out for a month. Johnson returned to action in week nine but did not look like the same player the rest of the season. Most of the recent news has been about his squabble with the team over a contract extension. Johnson wants big money but the team is reluctant to give it until he proves 2015 was not a mirage. In his other five seasons as a pro he has been a quality cover man and a solid number one corner but he has not proven to consistently be an elite shut down guy. I am never one to undervalue the motivation of money. If Johnson ends up playing under the franchise tag I would expect him to remain highly motivated and likely be at least a solid CB2. If he gets the deal before this season we will probably see the same 45 tackles, 3 turnovers and 12 passes defended he has produced on a regular basis.
E.J. Gaines will enter camp as the other starting corner but his job is not set in stone. He has done a solid job in coverage since claiming the job as a rookie in 2014, but the team is looking for more of a difference maker at the position. Gaines had a pair of interceptions in his first season but is still looking for number three. He will have to hold off free agent additions Nickell Robey-Coleman and Kayvon Webster for the job.
SS Maurice Alexander - Depth with a little upside at best
FS Lamarcus Joyner - Minimal value
FS John Johnson - Minimal value even if he earns significant time
S Cody Davis - No value
CB E.J. Gaines - Not much expectation
CB Trumaine Johnson - Target as low end CB2 with a little upside
CB Nickell Robey-Coleman - No value at this time
CB Kayvon Webster - No value at this time
CB Blake Countess - Could be in the mix to start or play nickel
San Francisco 49ers
While the Rams move from a 4-3 to a 3-4 the 49ers are going the other way under their new regime. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh comes from the Gus Bradley coaching tree and will install a 4-3 scheme similar to the style run by Seattle and Jacksonville in recent years. Like the Rams, the 49ers also have a number of players with early round talent who could perform well in their new scheme. Not everyone is automatic at a given position and some of them will be moved around during camp to see how or if they fit.
DeForest Buckner was the seventh overall pick in last year's draft. He is 6'7" and 300 pounds and is coming off an excellent rookie season. With the combination of size, power and athleticism, he fit like a glove as a 3-4 end. In that scheme he was able to use his physical gifts to overpower opponents, split double teams and generally be a bruiser. There are not many successful 4-3 ends in the league checking in at 300 pounds or more because the skill set is different at that position. Instead of double teams coming from the guard and tackle it is the tackle and tight end. Instead of bulldozing through blocking to the quarterback, 4-3 ends use quick twitch burst and speed rushes. I am not sure Buckner is able to do the later. He is a rare talent so maybe he can pull off what not many have. There is no doubt he can set the edge versus the run and his mark of 44-30-6 as a rookie was no fluke. If some of their other young players step up as outside rushers we may even see Buckner play end on early downs then slip inside in passing situations. What a tandem it would be with he and rookie Solomon Thomas at the interior positions. This situation makes it tough to speculate on Buckner's fantasy value. I am pretty comfortable in expecting 40+ tackles and a repeat of his 6 sacks from last year seems reasonable. I currently have him slotted as a low end DL1 or priority DL2 on my draft board. He could outperform that expectation but there is also a chance he could under perform.
The 49ers have some talented young players with the potential to step up at the other end position. The competition for that spot is wide open and could be heated. It could also produce a quality fantasy sleeper. Arik Armstead was their first round pick in 2015. He was somewhat disappointing as a rookie both on the field and in the box scores. Armstead never locked down a starting role, finishing 14-5-2 as a rotational contributor. He was off to a much better start in 2016 going 9-6-2.5 in a starting role before a week seven injury eventually landed him on IR. Like Buckner, Armstead a big man (6'7" 292 pounds) who was drafted specifically to play end in the 3-4. He is not as powerful or athletic as Buckner and may struggle to provide an up field burst off the line in rushing situations.
The other players in the mix were all outside linebackers in the previous scheme. Eli Harold was the team's third round selection in 2015. He struggled to make the switch from a 4-3 end in college to a 3-4 outside backer as a pro and made little impact for a season and a half. Harold was finally starting to come around late in 2016, putting up 3 sacks over the second half of the season. He was a 4-3 end at Virginia where he totaled 15.5 sacks in two years as a starter. Harold has a burst off the edge and at 265 pounds, is still big enough to do the job against the run. He may prove to be the young edge rusher San Francisco is looking for.
Aaron Lynch took a long strange road to the NFL. He played a Notre Dame as a freshman in 2011 before finishing his college career at South Florida in 2013. Lynch too played defensive end in four man fronts before coming to San Francisco. He actually made the transition to linebacker fairly well, producing 12.5 sacks as a rotational player in that role over his first two seasons in the league. Between suspension and injury Lynch missed nine games last year but still managed a sack and a half. He is 24 years old and like Harold, has the potential to be an every down end in the new scheme.
San Francisco's 2013 second round pick Cornellius Carradine has been a forgotten man in recent years. After going 47-33-11 as a senior tackle at Florida State, Carradine missed his entire rookie season with a knee injury and has never been able to put it all together at the pro level. The previous coaching staff tried him at both defensive end and outside linebacker with equally frustrating results. It is hard to say if he has never made it all the way back from the injury or if Carradine was simply miscast in the 3-4. The new defensive staff will look at him at both tackle and end with hope of rekindling his talent and production.
As a safety net the 49ers added 33 year old veteran Elvis Dumervil. Unlike the young options, Dumervil has been highly successful at the pro level while lining up everywhere from defensive tackle in his younger days in Denver, to defensive end in the Broncos 4-3 and then outside linebacker in the both the Broncos and Ravens 3-4. He set a career mark with 17 sacks in 2014 before falling all the way to 6 the next year. Dumervil spent most of last year recovering from injury. He proved there is still some gas in the tank with 3 sacks in six games at the end of the season. Dumervil's days as an every down player are probably over but he should have a substantial sub package role this year if he can stay healthy.
First round pick Solomon Thomas is a versatile player with the ability to play anywhere across the defensive line. He was a defensive end at Stanford, recording 40 solo stops and 8.5 sacks last year. The initial plan is to have Thomas play the 3-technique tackle most of the time, which means he is in the prime spot for fantasy production. Scouts had a hard time finding anything negative when evaluating this young man. About the only thing they came up with was his being a bit undersized at 273 pounds and having room to improve his strength when fending off bigger blockers. He is smart, quick, mobile, athletic and most of all relentless. Thomas already has an arsenal of pass rush moves to keep blockers off balance and he has enough speed to make plays in pursuit outside the tackle box. The 49ers believe they drafted the next Aaron Donald and they may well be right. For fantasy purposes I would slot Thomas outside the elite tier of proven players but the position is so thin I would strongly consider him among the DT1 group; especially in dynasty leagues.
Cornellius Carradine, Chris Jones, Earl Mitchell, Quinton Dial and Ronald Blair are all candidate for the other tackle position or to at least see significant action. They each have strengths the team could capitalize on but none offer the production potential fantasy owners are looking for. Making an educated guess here I see Mitchell and Jones as the duo likely to get on the field most. Mitchell is a big powerful player that can fill the nose tackle role while Jones or maybe Blair could work into the rotation to spell the starters.
DE DeForest Buckner - High floor DL2 at worst
DE Eli Harold - Sleeper with DL2 upside
DE Arik Armstead - Sleeper with nominal upside
DE Elvis Dumervil - Possible depth in big play leagues
DE Aaron Lynch - Deep sleeper with DL2 potential
DT Solomon Thomas - Top 10 potential even as a rookie, solid DT2 at worst
DT Chris Jones - Minimal value at best
DT Earl Mitchell - No value
DT Quinton Dial - No value
DT Ronald Blair - No value at this time
DT/DE Cornellius Carradine - Deep sleeper
San Francisco has assembled good talent at the second level but there is still plenty of uncertainty with health issues and how they will line up if/when everyone is 100%. When healthy Navorro Bowman is among the elite linebackers in both the NFL and fantasy football. Since becoming a starter in 2011 he has three seasons with at least 110 solo tackles and another with 97. Bowman has been a top ten linebacker four times, making the top five in two of those seasons. It seems the only thing that can stop him is injury. He missed all of 2014 recovering from a major knee injury that had some questioning if he would ever play again. Bowman bounced right back with 118 solo tackles in 2015. He produced more than twelve fantasy points in each of the first four games last season and was on pace for another triple digit tackle year when a torn Achilles' ended his season. Bowman has already been back participating in June mini camps though his play has drawn conflicting reviews. Kyle Shanahan commented on how good he looked and how well he was moving. Meanwhile beat writer Grant Cohn wrote about how Bowman was struggling, has not been the same since the knee injury, and should/will be cut before the season starts.
The 49ers traded up from the second round to land Reuben Foster at number 31. The once projected top ten pick was still available at the end of round one because there were questions about his surgically repaired shoulder and off field behavior. Even coach Shanahan said back in May that a worst case scenario could be Foster sitting out 2017 and having another surgery on the shoulder. Since that time he has been able to participate in OTAs on a limited basis and Shanahan has stated his expectation of Foster being full go by training camp. Coach speak is almost always highly optimistic in these situations so we should not put too much weight on it. Players do no real hitting in OTAs so until we know he is full go in pads, we should approach Foster with care.
If Foster can get and stay healthy this year he should quickly join the fantasy elite. He is an intimidating hitter with outstanding range and will bring a contagious swagger to the huddle. Excellent speed and cover skills make him a lock to stay on the field all three downs. The only concerns I have with Foster are the potential for injury due to his ferocious hitting style, and a glaring lack of big play production during his career at Alabama. Foster has a long highlight reel of big hits but his tackle totals were not as great as one might expect with 60 solo and 55 assists as a senior. He managed 5 sacks last year and 7 for his college career but that is where it ends. Remarkably Foster had zero career interceptions, zero fumble recoveries and somehow did not even force a fumble in three seasons with the Crimson Tide. As a dynasty prospect he has arguably the highest ceiling in this year's draft class. Unfortunately he is clearly not the safest option. I have three linebackers in my top tier of rookies; Jarrad Davis, Haason Reddick and Foster. I see no way to go wrong with any of them but have taken the other two over Foster in several early rookie drafts based on the risk.
When San Francisco inked Malcolm Smith to a free agent contract they envisioned him starting on the weak side next to Bowman. At that time they had no though of getting Foster with their second pick. Smith is a good NFL starter but he is not an elite talent. The chances of him holding off a healthy Foster for the job are slim to none. What Smith now becomes in an excellent insurance policy for the team's investment. In two seasons as a starter for the Raiders he totaled 185 solo tackles, 8 turnovers, 4 sacks and 9 passes defended. Those numbers tell us Smith will be a quality LB2 for us until/unless Foster is ready to go. This story will play out as we get closer to preseason action and those who draft late in August will have a much clearer picture before decisions have to be made. For owners drafting early Smith is a late round sleeper target and/or a handcuff for Foster.
Ahmad Brooks rounds out the starting lineup on the strong side. He played this position with the Bengals early in his career and has the physical traits to do the job well. The 259 pound Brooks can blow up blocking schemes versus the run and is a proven pass rusher with at least 5 sacks every season since 2009. In the new scheme he will likely take a seat in most sub package situations but Brooks skill set allows for flexibility in play calls. The one thing we cannot expect however is useful tackle totals. Brooks has exceeded 40 solo stops once in eleven seasons as a pro.
MLB Navorro Bowman - Top ten LB1 if healthy
WLB Reuben Foster - Quality LB2 with LB1 upside if healthy
SLB Ahmad Brooks - Minimal value
WLB Malcolm Smith - Injury sleeper with LB2 value if he gets on the field
WLB Ray-Ray Armstrong - Injury sleeper at best
SLB Dekoda Watson - Special teams contributor
MLB Brock Coyle - Special teams contributor
The San Francisco secondary is much less complicated but there is still one interesting situation to keep an eye on. The previous coaching staff played Eric Reid at free safety with Antoine Bethea at strong and Jimmy Ward as sort of a floating free safety/slot corner. Jaquiski Tartt stood in at strong safety in 2015 when Bethea was injured and played well. When Reid was lost last season the team shuffled players around and Tartt got on the field again in the strong safety role. Whenever he has been on the field full time Tartt has played well and been fantasy friendly. With Bethea moving on it was expected 2017 would be his chance to start. The new coaching staff has a different plan however. Instead they have moved Reid into the Kam Chancellor/Jonathan Cyprien role as an in the box strong safety with heavy run support duties, and will make Ward a full time free safety. This plan puts Tartt on the back burner again for now and makes Reid the top fantasy target of the group.
Reid was somewhat miscast at free safety but his speed and cover skills allowed him to play the position well. At 6'1" and 213 pounds he is a natural strong safety who relishes contact and is looking forward to the opportunity to work near the line where the action is. Because he had lined up deep for most of his pro career, Reid's fantasy value has been marginal for the most part. When the team was devastated by injuries at linebacker last season however, his potential began to show. In ten games he totaled 48 tackles with a pair of takeaways and 6 passes defended. The linebacker position is much improved so there will be a lot more competition for tackles. On the other hand the offense is still a work in progress so there should be a lot of opportunity to go around. All things considered I like Reid's chances of pushing the 80 solo tackle mark and contributing a handful of splash plays. Because he is flying under the fantasy radar I have been targeting him as a priority DB3 with DB2 upside. That strategy could change as more owners become aware of his current situation.
Dynasty owners who picked up Tartt down the stretch last year should not be in too big a hurry to discard him. At 6'"221 pounds he is one of those super sized safeties we are seeing a lot of in linebacker roles around the league. While there is no room for Tartt in the box at this point, keep in mind Reid is in the final year of his contract and has been banged up often throughout his five year career. Tartt has the skills set to play a traditional strong safety role. If he can endear himself to the new coaching staff the job may yet be his at some point in the not so distant future.
The 49ers pass defense finished middle of the pack last season. That had less to do with the quality of their corners and more to do with their league worst run defense. The organization realizes turning the team around is going to take some time and they were not able to fully address every position in one offseason. Thus there is not yet any star power among this group in either NFL or fantasy terms. In 2016 the entire secondary produced 5 total interceptions with corners contributing 2. Tramaine Brock was the closest thing they had to a number one corner and he is no longer with the team. We can expect San Francisco to use significant resources on the position next offseason but for now they will go with a collection of young middle round draft picks and a sprinkling of free agent help. He hope being that one or more of these guys will step up and become long term contributors. Heading into training camp there are no set starters on either side. Last year's fourth round pick Rashard Robinson saw a lot of action as a rookie and showed some positive signs. He is the early favorite for one of the spots. Keith Reaser was a fifth round selection in 2014. His rookie season was a wash due to a knee injury and he played little in 2015. Reaser was part of the secondary rotation last season and like Robinson, did some good things. He and 2014 fourth round pick Dontae Johnson are also early front runners to fill out the top three spots. Johnson has never been a full time starter for the team but he did see significant playing time in his first two seasons before being relegated to the bottom of the depth chart last year. Rounding out the field are rookie fourth round pick Ahkello Witherspoon, veteran free agent additions K'Waun Williams and Will Davis, and 2015 third round selection Will Redmond who has spent most of his short career battling a knee injury.
Last year the run defense was horrible so teams simply ran all over the 49ers defense. This year the run defense should be much improved so offenses will probably take the path of least resistance and throw on them a lot. Someone at the corner position is likely to have decent fantasy value based simply on volume of opportunity. We will likely have to follow this situation into the regular season for figure out who.
SS Eric Reid - Quality DB3 with high DB2 upside
FS Jimmie Ward - Deep safety with marginal value
SS Jaquiski Tartt - Dynasty/injury sleeper with strong potential
CB Rashard Robinson - Could emerge as a decent CB2 option
CB Keith Reaser - Sleeper at best
CB Dontae Johnson - Sleeper with limited upside
CB Ahkello Witherspoon - Deep sleeper
CB K'Waun Williams - No value
CB Will Davis - No value
CB Will Redmond - Deep sleeper
There is not much guess work at any level of the Seahawks defense. In Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril and Frank Clark they have a trio of excellent defensive ends. They each have the ability to play all three downs and the potential to produce double digit sacks. The problem for fantasy owners is the Seahawks like to rotate a lot to keep everyone fresh and will even work in Cassius Marsh, who is a solid player in his own right, for a few snaps a game. As a result of this approach the Seahawks were tied for third with 42 sacks last season. The result for fantasy owners was a pair of top twenty linemen in Avril (17) and Clark (18) but no one we can consider a sure DL1.
For those in balanced or tackle heavy scoring systems Michael Bennett may actually be the best option of the trio. He has reached double digit sacks just once in eight years as a pro but averaged 8.5 in four seasons between 2012 and 2015. What makes him a slightly better option is tackle production. Bennett has posted at least 33 solo stops three times in the past six seasons. He was on pace to make it four if he had not missed five games with injury in 2016. One thing that helps many Seattle defenders in fantasy terms is the generosity of the home stats crew when it comes to assists. Averaging Bennett's 2016 totals over a full season would look something like 35-17-7.5 with 121 fantasy points and a ranking right around number twenty. There is not a great deal of upside but Bennett is a dependable high floor DL2.
Avril would get the nod over Bennett in big play based leagues because he has greater sack potential and has forced a lot of fumbles over his career. At age 31 the nine year veteran recorded a career best 11.5 sacks in 2016. He also led the club with 5 forced fumbles. Checking in at 253 pounds he is by far the lightest of Seattle’s defensive ends and as such has always struggled a little as a run defender. This shows in his box score production as Avril has a career best of 31 tackles with a yearly average of roughly 23. Low tackle numbers generally means week to week inconsistency when it comes to fantasy value. This is certainly the case with Avril who is a feast or famine prospect. Last year he reached double digit fantasy points seven times while giving up five of fewer on eight occasions. He is a roster worth player in most leagues but the inconsistency makes Avril no more than a matchup based bye week or short term spot play option for most owners.
At this time Avril is considered the starter opposite Bennett, but it will come as no surprise if Frank Clark takes that job by week one. The 2015 second round pick is a little bigger, a lot younger and has already proven to be a more capable edge setting run defender. Clark played somewhat sparingly as a rookie posting 15 tackles, 1 assist and 3 sacks on 333 snaps. In his second season he was on the field for over half (683) of the Seahawks defensive plays, going 25-22-10 with three turnovers. He was a big part of the rotation right from the beginning last year but really impressed as a starter when Bennett was sidelined. Over a four game span in that role Clark was 10-9-4.5 with a forced fumble and an average of 13.6 fantasy points. The 24 year old has a bright future ahead of him and has the highest ceiling of Seattle's defensive ends.
Seattle was solid at the interior line positions last season with Ahtyba Rubin and Tony McDaniel as starters and then rookie second round pick Jarran Reed serving as the third man in the rotation. This trio helped the team be the best run defense in the league at 3.4 yards per carry. Because it was so tough to run between the tackles on Seattle, there was not a great deal of opportunity for these guys to make tackles. As a result all the team's tackles combined for a pedestrian 64 solo tackles and 67 assists. Rubin lead the way in fantasy production with a meager 24-14-1. The organization entered the off season looking to add some punch to this group. McDaniel was not resigned and the team used its first pick (2nd round) on Malik McDowell to replace him. They then added Nazair Jones in round three to boost their depth.
Rubin was a fantasy stud early in his career. He put up 57 and 55 solo tackles in back to back seasons with the Browns in 2010-2011 respectively, with a career best 5 sacks in 2011. He has remained an excellent NFL player in the years since but Rubin's fantasy production slipped into mediocrity. He is a 315 pound run stuffer who anchors an outstanding Seattle run defense from the nose guard position, but offers little box score production or upside.
With McDaniel gone, Reed is set to start in his second year. Reed is similar to Rubin in that he is a 300+ pound space eater that offensive linemen have a hard time moving. Reed had a pair of sacks as a rookie but rushing the passer is not a big part of his game. As the starter we can expect 20-25 solo stops and roughly the same number of assists but 2 sacks in a season is about the best Reed has to offer. With the shortage of quality fantasy options at the tackle positions both Rubin and Reed could have a little value as depth in leagues starting two.
McDowell is a quality rookie prospect with good fantasy potential. He checks in a little under 300 pounds and brings some versatility to the mix. McDowell played both tackle and end at Michigan State though he is expected to settle in as the Seahawks 3-technique tackle. He was a two year starter for the Spartans, with career numbers of 50 tackles, 38 assists and 7.5 sacks. Mike Mayock agreed with others in the scouting community saying McDowell is loaded with upside and Pro Bowl potential but has been inconsistent. There are questions about his commitment to the game and willingness to put forth the effort it takes to be special. McDowell could not have landed in a better place as Pete Carroll and his staff does a great job of motivating and getting the most out of their players.
DE Michael Bennett - Solid DL2 with marginal upside
DE Cliff Avril - Match up based spot fill in or bye week option
DE Frank Clark - Low end DL2 with top fifteen upside
DE Cassius Marsh - Injury sleeper with limited potential
DT Ahtyba Rubin - Marginal value
DT Jarran Reed - Marginal value
DT Malik McDowell - Dynasty sleeper with high upside
DT Nazair Jones - Possible long term value
Every team goes through some changes from year to year and the Seahawks are no exception, but not when it comes to linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright. These two have been mainstays in the Seattle defense since 2012 when Wagner was a second round pick and Wright was entering his second season as a pro. Wagner is among the best linebackers in the game both in NFL and fantasy terms. He is coming off the most box score productive season of his five year career at 86-83-4.5 with a couple of takeaways, 3 passes defended and an average of 13.6 points per game. He is a little short at 6'0" but at 245 pounds is like a bowling ball rolling through traffic to the ball carrier, and he is good in coverage as well. If not for injuries costing him a couple of games in 2013 and five in 2014, Wagner would likely be on a run of five straight top fifteen finishes. He was the number two linebacker in many leagues last season and at age 27 is in the prime of his career physically. He will play behind an excellent defensive line with a solid supporting cast all around. In short there is no reason to expect Wagner to fall out of the elite tier at the position this year. He should be among the first five linebackers off the board in balanced or tackle heavy leagues.
Wright is the Robin to Wagner's Batman. At 6'4" 246 pounds he is huge for a weak side linebacker but still has the speed, athletic ability and cover skills to be a quality three down player. Wright may never reach the 80 solo tackle mark but he has consistently produced totals in the low 70s with plenty of assists and slightly better splash play numbers than Wagner. In 2016 Wright's 72-54-4 with a couple of turnovers and 5 passes defended, added up to 11 fantasy points per game on average and a ranking in the low LB2 range. There is not a great deal of upside with him but we can confidently expect Wright to be among the top thirty linebackers again this season, making him a safe a investment as a third starter.
Seattle used the nickel as their base defense nearly all of last season. As a result no other linebacker on the Seahawks roster managed more than 7 tackles on the year. Veteran Michael Wilhoite will likely be the top backup to both Wagner and Wright. He would be a significant drop off in talent should there be an injury, but would be in a position to have some fantasy value. Kevin Pierre-Louis should see what few snaps there are as the strong side backer. Arthur Brown is a former second round bust of the Ravens and is a reclamation project who will probably earn his pay on special teams if he makes the final roster.
Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas are arguably the best safety tandem in the NFL. Chancellor is the epitome of big physical intimidating safeties while Thomas is a playmaker with the cover skills of a corner and great instincts. Both players have provided fantasy owners with useful numbers at times but their overall value has been largely impacted by an evolving scheme and being stuck playing behind Wagner and Wright. Over the past two seasons in particular Thomas has become more of a deep center fielder, lining up way off the ball with little involvement in run support. The result being a mere 45 solo stops in 2015, and a pace for even fewer last year before he was injured in week twelve.
There is nothing suggesting a bounce back fantasy season for Thomas, but Chancellor may be a different story. To date Chancellor's best fantasy production has been his 2011 season which included 75 solo stops, 22 assists, 7 turnovers, a sack and 12 passes defended. From that point his totals steadily dropped to a low of 60-18-0 with 2 turnovers and 6 passes defended in 2014. His numbers were actually lower in 2015 but I will overlook that because he missed a few games that season. In 2016 however, Chancellor was once again a serious fantasy factor. At a glance his final mark of 50-35-0 with 3 takeaways and 8 passes defended are far from eye catching. When we consider he missed four games they take on a new light. He averaged 10.6 points per game last year reaching double digits in eight of twelve, including seven of the final eight. I am a big proponent of not over reacting to such sudden surges unless we can put a finger on the reason. In Chancellor's case I believe there is one. With the scheme all but eliminating the strong side linebacker position, his responsibilities and often alignment seemed to change. Chancellor worked up closer to the line more often over the second half and though he was not exactly in a strong side linebacker alignment, he was able to make many of the plays that position would normally absorb. Last year the Seahawks used Kelcie McCray or Terrell Stephens and even super sized corner Deshawn Shead in the third safety role at times. This allowed the coaching staff to move Chancellor around and helped him make more plays. If we take Chancellor's numbers from the final eight games and double them we get 72-46-0 with 6 turnovers, 12 passes defended and an average of 11.8 points per game. I believe those are the kind of numbers we will see from him in 2017.
Strengthening my theory on Chancellor is the addition of free agent safety Bradley McDougald. Some will argue he was signed simply to provide quality veteran depth at the safety positions. I believe the coaching staff intends to put McDougald on the field often in a traditional safety role. They used a third round pick on Delano Hill, a fourth on Tedrick Thompson and a sixth on Michael Tyson to provide the depth. Barring an injury to Chancellor or Thomas, McDougald is not likely to produce much fantasy value.
Elite shutdown corners rarely make enough box score splash to be fantasy factors. This is the case with Richard Sherman who had four or fewer points in eight games last season. What Sherman does provide is a lot of extra opportunity for whoever starts opposite him. Last year that was Deshawn Shead most of the time. Shead is a big physical corner at 6'2" 212 pounds, and can double as a safety if called upon to do so. Through the first nine games of 2016 Shead was on pace to finish 78-23-0 with 17 passes defended and 4 takeaways. He missed one game with a hamstring injury suffered early in the week eleven game versus the Eagles, but was clearly not 100% the rest of the way. Shead tore his ACL in week sixteen and the recovery has both his early season availability and season long fantasy value in question. If/when he is all the way back I expect a return to status as a quality CB2 with CB1 upside. That may not be until 2018 though.
While Shead recovers, last year's nickel corner Jeremy Lane will compete with third round pick Shaquill Griffin for the starting spot. History tells us Pete Carroll is more than willing to go with rookies in his secondary so the experience factor will not make Lane a favorite. He will have to outplay the rookie straight up. The thought of a rookie starting opposite Sherman has to pique the interest of owners in leagues that break out the defensive back positions. It could be the ultimate rookie corner rule situation.
SS Kam Chancellor - Strong DB3 with upside
FS Earl Thomas - Marginal value
SS Bradley McDougald - Injury sleeper
SS Delano Hill - No immediate value
CB Richard Sherman - Minimal value
CB Deshawn Shead - Solid CB2 when healthy
CB Jeremy Lane - Minimal value
CB Shaquill Griffin - Rookie corner rule could apply
CB Neiko Thorpe - No value
That does it for the NFC West. Next up AFC North.