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Reading the Defense: Offseason Storylines

Examining the major offseason IDP storylines.

The end of the regular season brings change to both sides of the ball. But scheme changes, free agent movement, depth chart shuffles, and the draft affect the IDP landscape more significantly than the offensive side of the ball. Stay ahead of the curve on these offseason stories and you'll be well ahead of your leaguemates on draft day.

Scheme Changes

It's often overlooked, but the coaching changes in January may be the most important news cycle of the offseason for IDP leagues. Coaching changes bring new defensive coordinators, new philosophies, and new schemes. With new schemes come major shifts to a team's depth chart and personnel. Sometimes, those differences are dramatic. Other times, they are more subtle. Though most IDP owners now know not to fear for the fantasy value of a middle linebacker moving to inside linebacker in a 3-4 front, there are important scheme factors to consider each year.

Dallas Hires Monte Kiffin as Defensive Coordinator

Ten years ago, over 20% of the league was using a form of the Tampa-2 scheme designed by Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin. While there are still elements used in every playbook in the NFL, the heyday of the Tampa-2 had seemingly passed. Kiffin's hiring in Dallas is a clear outlier given the recent trend toward hybrid and 3-4 fronts, but it's an important outlier for IDP leagues. The Cowboys may not run a Tampa-2 concept exclusively, but Kiffin's scheme will affect the value of Dallas defenders at every level.

DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer will play defensive end full time. Both should be effective players, though Ware could struggle to hold up over 800+ snaps as a down defensive linemen. Sean Lee can handle the deep middle coverage responsbilities that Kiffin asks of his middle linebacker, but it's Bruce Carter that may become the playmaker in this scheme. Kiffin's scheme asks a lot of the weak side linebacker in run support and coverage and has made stars of Hall-of-Fame talents like Derrick Brooks and boosted the statistics of strong players like Lance Briggs and others. Carter should be the next on that list. The zone concepts also provide added value for a physical corner who plays the run tough. Morris Claiborne could grow into a Charles Tillman like fantasy option in this scheme.

Philadelphia to Install 3-4 Front

Much of the fantasy world will focus on how the frenetic spread offense of Chip Kelly will impact the statistics of his offensive players. But the 3-4 / hybrid scheme he will favor on defense will cause significant ripples in the Eagles' depth chart. The change should strongly benefit Mychal Kendricks, who should get a chance to play an every-down inside linebacker role. With his range and ability to shed blocks, Kendricks could quickly become the centerpiece of the front seven and an every week LB2 or better. The news isn't as positive for Trent Cole and Brandon Graham. Cole may become a situational rusher at both linebacker and defensive end. His days as an elite fantasy producer are likely over. Graham had finally begun to fulfill the promise the Eagles hoped, but his fantasy value also takes a hit with his probable re-classification to linebacker. The scheme change should be more positive for Fletcher Cox, especially if the team finds a way to get him isolated inside on pass rush downs.

New Orleans to Install 3-4 Front

Rob Ryan may have the deepest defensive playbook in the league, but expect the Saints to work primarily out of a 3-4 front on base defensive downs and show a variety of subpackage looks in longer down and distance situations. Aside from Cameron Jordan, who fits well as a 3-4 defensive end and should continue to be productive, the New Orleans front seven may struggle to adjust. Curtis Lofton may not be athletic enough to handle Ryan's coverages, David Hawthorne's struggles with durability leave him a major question mark, and Jonathan Vilma was never comfortable as a 3-4 inside linebacker with the Jets. It may be deep into training camp before any linebacker emerges as a fantasy threat. More likely, the bulk of the fantasy value here will come from a possible three-headed safety rotation of Roman Harper, Malcolm Jenkins, and Kenny Vaccaro.

Ray Horton Moves to Cleveland from Arizona

On paper, the Browns will remain a 3-4 front this year. The devil is often in the details, however, and Horton's playbook is a mix of Dick Lebeau's conservatively aggressive (if you think that's an oxymoron, read my historical perspective on the genesis of Lebeau's schemes) zone blitz defense and Horton's own hyper-aggressive packages. It was Horton's scheme that allowed Daryl Washington over 100 pass rush opportunities and double digit sacks last year. Whether D'Qwell Jackson will be given the same opportunity remains to be seen, but you may wish to give him the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise.

Buffalo to Install Hybrid Front

The Bills hired Mike Pettine, who was a major part of the Baltimore hybrid front schemes for many seasons. Pettine will mold his front seven to his personnel and, depending on how Mario Williams, Kiko Alonso, and Nigel Bradham progress in OTAs, we could see Buffalo's base defense lean heavily toward either a 3-4 or 4-3 front. As always, it will be the subpackage roles that determine fantasy upside. Both Bradham and Alonso have been praised by the coaching staff during OTAs, but there's no guarantee either play every down yet. For now, Williams remains classified as a defensive end but that may change if Pettine decides to align in a base 3-4 more frequently this preseason.

free agent movement, personnel changes, and other storylines

Free agency was relatively quiet this season. Elvis Dumervil moved from Denver to Baltimore, but his story is more notable for the game of chicken his agent played with a fax machine rather than his prospective fantasy value. There were some splashes made at the linebacker position, but the talent changing teams was not dramatic. The more compelling stories this year revolve around suspensions, surprise releases, and many interesting changes to linebacker depth charts around the league.

Daryl Washington Suspended

Washington followed up a strong 2011 season with a huge 2012, growing into a triple threat inside linebacker. Multiple off-field issues, including a four game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy, have fantasy owners worried about Washington's 2013. Assuming his assualt arrest doesn't lead to a prolonged suspension, however, Washington should return to elite status by midseason. It's not likely that veteran Karlos Dansby or rookie Kevin Minter will play every down over Washington. Drop him to the bottom of the elite tier until the legal issues play out, but he's a reasonable risk if he falls outside the top ten in your draft.

Desmond Bishop Released by Green Bay

The writing was on the wall for Bishop when reports leaked after the draft that Green Bay was shopping him in trade. Bishop says he's fully healed from last season's ruptured hamstring. But the Packers' offseason approach makes you wonder whether that's true. Green Bay released solid backup D.J. Smith (who was prompted claimed off waivers by San Diego), took a month to re-sign Brad Jones and didn't prioritize inside linebacker in the draft. Bishop's contract wasn't prohibitive and Bishop had been a more well rounded player in 2010 and 2011 than Jones was last season. Jones moves into a strong fantasy position, but the bigger story will be how aggressively other teams pursue Bishop.

Jason Pierre-Paul has Neck Surgery

Pierre-Paul struggled with a herniated disc in his neck throughout the 2012 season, needing multiple steroid injections to stay on the field. After finding that months of rest did not alleviate his condition, Pierre-Paul had surgery in June that is likely to limit him until late training camp. If Pierre-Paul can get fully conditioned and regain strength by opening weekend, he could be in for a bounce back season. If not, it may be a month or more before he returns to his once elite form.

Young Linebackers Getting a Chance

Last season provided a lot of opportunity for young linebacker talent. Injuries and a deep group of every-down potentials thrust many rookies into full time duty sooner than expected. That trend will continue this year. Headlining the list is Philadelphia's Mychal Kendricks and New York's Demario Davis. Both will have an open door to an every-down inside linebacker job. Both are violent, downhill players with range and coverage ability. Both could be immediate LB2 performers or better. You should also be tracking Atlanta's Akeem Dent, who could push Stephen Nicholas from subpackages this year. Denver's Nate Irving and the New York Giants' Mark Herzlich are also in line for starting jobs.

Veteran Linebackers Getting a Second Chance

There will be increasingly more buzz on the young linebackers ascending depth charts throughout the summer, but a few veterans should also have your attention. D.J. Williams may have to fight off a challenge from Jon Bostic but will enter camp as the favorite for the middle linebacker job in Chicago. Erin Henderson looks to finally get a shot at the starting middle linebacker job in Minnesota and could earn back the subpackage role he once held. But Nick Roach looks like the best and most underrated bet of the bunch. Roach produced tackles as Brian Urlacher's replacement last year and joins an Oakland defense with lots of opportunity and little competition for tackles.

Miami Remodels Linebacker Unit

The Dolphins made an early free agent splash at linebacker. Veterans Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett were released as Miami chose to get a little younger with Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler. Both Ellerbe and Wheeler had been quietly productive in recent stints as every-down linebackers, but neither are likely to join the elite fantasy ranks with this move. Of the two, Ellerbe has the best chance at a high floor LB2 ranking.

Colin McCarthy Competing to Start

McCarthy suffered a high ankle sprain during Week 1 last season and never returned to form. Heading into the offseason, it was reasonable to think that a few months of rest and reconditioning would help McCarthy return to the elite fantasy LB1 status he had shown in 2011. But reports from OTAs suggest that journeyman Moise Fokou was getting a long look with the first team at middle linebacker. It's too early to read too much into the Tennessee depth chart, but temper your expectation on McCarthy until we see him with the ones in camp. If Fokou does win the starting job, err on the side of drafting Zach Brown and the Tennessee safeties rather than Fokou.

Three-Headed Safety Rotations in New Orleans and Tennessee

The once productive fantasy situations in New Orleans and Tennessee got crowded and clouded this offseason. The Titans brought in two formerly elite fantasy safeties in Bernard Pollard and George Wilson to compete for snaps alongside Michael Griffin and a host of strong tackling corners. Tennessee will ask all three safeties to play interchangeably. While it's early, Pollard is likely to emerge as the most consistent option. New Orleans drafted stud all-around prospect Kenny Vaccaro and renegotiated the contract of Roman Harper. Expect Vaccaro to work his way into the base defense quickly, possibly at Harper's expense. It's also likely that Rob Ryan will find ways to use all three safeties in subpackages. Watch the news from training camp closely before investing heavily in any of these players.

draft questions

This year's defensive line class had a little of everything. Four potential stud penetrating defensive tackles. Inexperienced defensive ends with huge upside and injured defensive ends who may have been first round picks if fully healthy. But despite the depth, there may not be a top 20 fantasy player in the group. The linebacker group is also deep, though not as talented at the top as last year's class. The most striking development may be the safety class. It's a group that could go 8-10 deep with long-term DB2 players.

Can Ezekiel Ansah or Dion Jordan be a Stud DL1?

Ansah is the most intriguing immediate option. Like Jabaal Sheard two seasons ago, Ansah will have ample playing time in Detroit. He's more inexperienced than raw and his athleticism could put him in position to put together a strong stat line. Jordan is the more polished rushing talent, but may not be more than a situational rusher this season. Jordan is also at risk of being reclassified to linebacker should the Dolphins choose to use him like the Broncos have used Von Miller.

Which Second-Tier Defensive End Has the Most Upside?

Tank Carradine was extremely impressive before a torn ACL raised durability concerns. His role as a 3-4 defensive end in San Francisco may also limit his upside. Margus Hunt jumped off the tape in his final two college games against strong competition but is raw and will take time to develop in Cincinnati. Datone Jones and Damontre Moore also deserve notice but it could be Denver's Quanterus Smith that has the most pass rush upside among rookies who may not see more than 500 snaps this year. Smith needs time to recover fully from a torn ACL, but the Broncos' depth chart is wide open. Keep Smith (and Detroit's Devin Taylor) on your watch lists.

Will Arthur Brown or Alec Ogletree be an Immediate Fantasy Stud?

Brown was drafted into a favorable situation and should eventually grow into a perennial LB2 or better fantasy option. But he needs to improve his ability to shed blocks and offseason sports hernia surgery will cost him vital repetitions in OTAs and minicamp workouts. Don't be surprised if Brown starts the season more slowly than expected. Prospective fantasy owners likely wanted Ogletree to be drafted by a team who would use him as their every-down middle linebacker. That won't happen in St. Louis, where James Laurinaitis is entrenched inside. But Ogletree is an excellent fit at outside linebacker in Jeff Fisher's defense. Comparisons to Keith Bulluck are premature, but Ogletree could be an immediate top 25 fantasy linebacker if he plays every down.

Which Second-Tier Linebacker Has Top 25 Upside?

The talent level isn't the same as last year's second tier, which boasted Lavonte David, Bobby Wagner, Zach Brown and Dont'a Hightower, but it is a group that could produce a small handful of LB2+ prospects in time. Kevin Minter will eventually earn an every-down role in Arizona. His upside is dependent on whether Daryl Washington's off-field issues resolve. Kiko Alonso has the favor of the coaching staff in Buffalo, who have him ticketed for a major role in the Bills' new hybrid scheme. Jon Bostic is the long term plan at middle linebacker in Chicago. But the most attractive name to watch may be Oakland's Sio Moore. Though he didn't get much hype in the pre-draft process, Moore is an every-down player in the making. He could play any of the three positions in Oakland and could get a look as early as Week 1.

Which Late-Round Linebackers Should You Have on Your Watch List?

Michael Mauti was working his way back up prospect lists before a third ACL tear put his long term durability in serious question. Depending on how Erin Henderson takes to the middle linebacker spot this season, Mauti could get a shot in 2014. Khaseem Greene (Chicago), Vince Williams (Pittsburgh) and Gerald Hodges (Minnesota) are also worth monitoring.

How Deep Is This Rookie Safety Class?

Entering the draft, there were at least 8-10 promising safety prospects to monitor for IDP leagues. With the exception of Kenny Vaccaro, who should eventually overcome the crowded depth chart in New Orleans, each of those prospects fit well with the team that drafted them. Jacksonville's Jonathan Cyprien, Baltimore's Matt Elam, Cincinnati's Shawn Williams, and Houston's D.J. Swearinger should all become top 20 fantasy safeties by early 2014, with Cyprien and Elam having immediate DB2+ value.

Stay informed on every IDP storyline at Footballguys.com this summer and throughout the regular season, where we'll have frequently updated IDP rankings, tier features and training camp analysis. Follow me on Twitter @JeneBramel for breaking news and analysis.


More from Jene Bramel:

Reading the Defense: Week 5 - September 30
Monday Injury Rounds: Week 5 - September 29
Sunday IDP Notes: Week 4 - September 28
Gameday Injury Expectations: Week 4 - September 28
Inside the Injury Report: Week 4 - September 24
Reading the Defense: Week 4 - September 23
Monday Injury Rounds: Week 4 - September 22
Gameday Injury Expectations: Week 3 - September 21
Sunday IDP Notes: Week 3 - September 21
Inside the Injury Report: Week 3 - September 18