Eyes of the Guru - Offseason Report (NFC South)
By John Norton
July 28th, 2010

Welcome back for part six of this year's article, covering the NFC South division.

For reference, when I mention where guys finished in the rankings last season, my model will be the standard Footballguys scoring system which is nearly identical to the North American Fantasy Football Addicts (NAFFA) league I have run for the past 15 years. Feel free to check it out. Defensive scoring in this league is the standard stuff but keep in mind that rankings will vary a bit from league to league. From time to time I will reference the "rookie corner rule". Those of you who are familiar with the EOTG know what that is. For those who are new, 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.

Atlanta Falcons

Defensive Linemen

When the Falcons whiffed on first round bust Jamaal Anderson in 2007 it really set the defense back. They have spent the last couple of years trying to compensate. Considering they totaled just 28 sacks last season there is obviously still work to do. Teams never want to give up on a high draft pick too quickly but after seeing Anderson record two sacks in three seasons as a starter, the coaching staff seems to have finally accepted the mistake and are prepared to move on. Anderson is still being mentioned in connection with a potential starting job but the recent word is that he will now "compete" with Kroy Biermann and Lawrence Sidbury for snaps at left end. A look at last year's numbers would suggest that Biermann is the front runner for that job. I agree that he is probably the favorite, but this is not a sure thing. Biermann led all Falcons linemen with 38 tackles and recorded 5 sacks in '09 but did it without ever starting a game. He is only 241 pounds and saw the majority of his playing time in passing situations. If he is to become a starter the coaches may ask him to beef up a little so he can hold up better against the run. We have seen this situation in the past with guys like Robert Geathers and Mike Anderson. Both were very successful as undersized pass rush specialists but lost a step and were ineffective when asked to bulk up for an every down role. I like Biermann's potential here but we don't want to depend too heavily on him at this point... Sidbury is a guy we need to watch closely during camp. He was Atlanta's 4th round pick last year and saw very little action as a rookie. In week thirteen against the Eagles Sidbury saw his most extensive playing time of the season. In that game he went 3-0-1 on just 12 snaps. His college career included 56 combined tackles and 11 sacks as a senior at Richmond. He was the fastest lineman at last year's combine and Sidbury's scouting report coming out of school called him a developmental prospect with a lot of upside. He checks in at 265 pounds and has vines for arms. Biermann may be the favorite heading into camp but for the long term Sidbury may prove to be the best fit as a productive every down end... John Abraham is entrenched as the starter at right end but he too comes with some concerns. Abraham is now 32 years old and by his own standards, is coming off a dismal statistical season. He joined the Falcons in 2006 but battled injuries most of that season and played in just 8 games. In '07 Abraham totaled 31 tackles, 10 sacks and 4 forced fumbles. 2008 was the best year of his career when he finished with 37 tackles, 16.5 sacks and 4 forced fumbles. For reasons yet to be explained, Abraham's '09 numbers plummeted to 30 tackles and a career low 6 sacks. If there were injuries involved the secret was well kept but the bottom line is that we really don't know what to expect in 2010. The good news is that Abraham can be picked up at a bargain price late in most drafts where we can afford to take a chance on him as a backup with big upside... In an attempt to salvage some return on their investment Anderson has been getting some work at tackle over the offseason. Unfortunately for him, tackle is a position the team is rather deep at already. At least when everyone is available. Jonathan Babineaux is one of the leagues more active interior linemen. His 37 solo stops ranked 7th and his 6 sacks were second best among defensive tackle last season. Add in Babineaux's 4 takeaways and he was the fantasy games #1 interior lineman in many leagues in '09. Unfortunately for the Falcons and fantasy owners alike, his recent plea bargain on possession charges will likely earn Babineaux a little time off at the beginning of the season. It's unlikely that he will get more than four games and with the shortage of quality options at tackle, Babineaux still has to be near the top of our draft board at the position. After all, he'll be there in December when it really matters... 2009 first round pick Peria Jerry is the Falcons other starter inside but he is coming off a serious knee injury. The good news being that the injury happened very early last season giving him time to recover. He is expected to be on the field when camp opens but participating and being fully recovered can be two completely different things. We didn't get to see much of Jerry before the injury but what we do know is not promising from a box score prospective. Jerry plays the less fantasy friendly under tackle or nose tackle position in the Falcons scheme. As such he will often face double teams and/or have gap responsibilities that will limit his production. In the one full game he did play as a rookie, Jerry failed to make a single tackle and recorded just 1 assist. Concerns about Jerry's recovery may have factored into the Falcons round three selection of Corey Peters in April. Peters started forty games over his career at Kentucky and was very productive over his final two seasons. Between '08 and '09 he totaled 92 tackles (college combines solo and assist) and 8 sacks. His scouting report suggests that Peters is best suited to play the three technique where he would back up Babineaux. If there is a suspension, Peters could get on the field early. Chances are however, that Anderson or versatile veteran Chauncey Davis would get the first call.

Fantasy Outlook

  • DE John Abraham - Depth with DL2 potential
  • DE Kroy Biermann - High potential sleeper who should be a solid backup even if he doesn't win starting job
  • DE Lawrence Sidbury - Sleeper with good upside, especially in dynasty leagues
  • DE/DT Jamaal Anderson - No value
  • DT Jonathan Babineaux - Quality DT1 who could miss the first month via suspension
  • DT Peria Jerry - No value
  • DT/DE Chauncey Davis - No value
  • DT Corey Peters - Dynasty sleeper at best
  • Linebackers

    After getting his feet wet in a two down role as a rookie in '08, Curtis Lofton was handed the reigns last season. He turned out to be everything we and the Falcons expected. Lofton was one of just six players in the league to reach triple digit solo tackles. Only a shortage of big plays and the fact that he didn't play full time in two meaningless games at the end of the season, kept Lofton out of the top 10. He is an aggressive physical thumper who is now established as the leader of this unit and will continue to improve with experience. Look for him to be in the 100 tackle range again this season and add some game changing plays along the way. It will be a major surprise if Lofton finishes outside the top 10 again and not much of a surprise if he makes the top 5... The Falcons will very likely give us a second productive linebacker. The challenge will be figuring out if that guy is eleven year veteran Mike Peterson or or first round pick Sean Weatherspoon. Last year it was Peterson who totaled a solid 82-26-1 with three takeaways and seven passes defended from the WLB position. Even at 34 years of age Peterson still has some pop and is capable of similar numbers if he stays at WLB and continues to get the passing down snaps. What we don't know is how Weatherspoon will be used in his rookie season. He was a three year starter at Missouri where he led the team in tackles all three years from the weak side. He was a playmaker as well, with 9 takeaways, 12.5 sacks and a pair of defensive touchdowns over those three seasons. He's a little undersized at 6'1" but is fast, strong and physical with good range and strong zone coverage skills. There is little doubt that Weatherspoon will eventually find his was into an every down role at WLB. So his long term value is not in doubt. It is however, very common for NFL teams to start linebackers on the strong side as rookies because the position generally requires less thought and allows them to quickly become comfortable with their assignments. Brian Urlacher, Kirk Morrison and Rey Maualuga are just a few examples of guys who have been through this process. Weatherspoon has worked at both OLB positions during the offseason program and the Falcons coaches don't even know at this point where he will line up in week one. It all depends on how quickly he pick things up. One thing that may keep Peterson in the lineup for one more year is leadership. Outside of Peterson the Falcons are very young at the LB position and the one knock against Weatherspoon is a big mouth and prima donna attitude. In the long run Lofton and Weatherspoon could very well be another DeMeco Ryans and Brian Cushing. For this season there is a distinct possibility that Weatherspoon will be a two down SLB while Peterson give us one more decent year. This is obviously a situation we will be focused on once camps open... Stephen Nicholas will eventually land back at SLB where he started last season. If the coaches elect to go with Weatherspoon on the weak side Nicholas will compete with Peterson for the SLB job. It doesn't really matter who plays on the strong side since there won't be enough tackles to go around for them to be a factor. With four starter quality players at the position and the versatility of Peterson, one problem the Falcons don't have at LB is depth .

    Fantasy Outlook

  • MLB Curtis Lofton - Quality LB1 with top 5 potential
  • OLB Mike Peterson - Solid LB3 if he starts at WLB
  • OLB Sean Weatherspoon - Strong dynasty option with potential to be a LB3 this season
  • OLB Stephen Nicholas - No value
  • OLB Coy Wire - No value
  • MLB Bear Woods - Bear who?
  • Defensive Backs

    One big obstacle for the Falcons in 2009 was their 28th rated pass defense. Some of the shortfall came from a lacking pass rush but the most glaring problem was at corner where the club lacked a true #1 and were hit with injuries to boot. The free agent addition of Dunta Robinson and the return of a now healthy Brian Williams makes this the most improved position on the team. As a rookie in 2004 Robinson put up 74 tackles, 3 sacks, an impressive 12 takeaways and 19 passes defended. He was the top corner by a wide margin that year and a top 10 DB overall. As is usually the case with talented corners, offenses began to shy away from Robinson after that first season. His big play numbers came crashing back to earth with a thud but he still averaged about 70 tackles, 3 takeaways and 11 passes defended over the next two seasons. In 2007 Robinson suffered a devastating knee injury that lingered into the '08 season. The numbers never made it all the way back but he looked healthy in 2009 and played very well. Its hard to say what kind of production we can expect from him this season but the potential is there for 65+ tackles and a handful of takeaways. Consider Robinson a sleeper and pick him up as depth with upside in corner required leagues... Williams has never been a #1 corner but when healthy is a very good complimentary guy. He came over from the Jaguars last year but was lost to a knee injury early in the season. He is expected to be ready for camp and is thought to be the front runner to start opposite Robinson. Williams doesn't make a ton of big plays and his most box score productive season came while with the Jaguars in '08, when he posted 74 tackles and 2 picks. He opened that season at safety but moved back to corner after the team was struck by injuries. If he can stay healthy Williams will fit the Falcons needs but he doesn't bring much fantasy expectation. Of the remaining corners on the roster, Brent Grimes has the best shot at beating out Williams for the starting job. Grimes finished last season with a solid 62 tackles and a team leading 6 interceptions. He seems to have more box score potential than Williams and could be a decent late round option or in season pickup for those who must start corners... At the safety positions Atlanta is in good shape. Strong safety Eric Coleman came over from the Jets in 2008 and has been a very solid addition for both the Falcons and fantasy owners. His two years with the team have produced a pair of 80+ tackle seasons, 7 takeaways and two top 10 finishes among safeties. Coleman is not a real threat to break into the top 5 DBs overall, but he is a very consistent DB2 for us... 2008 third round pick Thomas DeCoud settled into the FS position in his second season and performed well. He is not an intimidating physical presence or a big run support guy, but DeCoud gives Atlanta the safety valve and big play threat they were looking for. He totaled just 57 solo tackles in '09 but contributed 6 takeaways and a pair of sacks. The Falcons may have found their long term answer at FS but in fantasy terms DeCoud is nothing to get excited about. Consider him depth in large leagues at the best... The club used a second round pick on William Moore last season and have big expectations for him. At 221 pounds he has near linebacker size and the skill set to be an intimidating in the box safety. Moore battled injuries throughout his career at Missouri and unfortunately that problem has followed him into the NFL. His rookie season was a wash due to a sore knee early and then a hamstring injury that landed him on IR after seeing limited action in just two games. In May he was cleared to participate in offseason workouts but sat out minicamp with a pectoral injury. There is a lot of potential with Moore but its starting to look like we may never see it. If/when he does get healthy Moore may find it difficult to displace either of the current starters who are both playing well. Keep him on the radar and jump at the first sign of opportunity but don't sacrifice a roster spot if it could be put to better use.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • SS Eric Coleman - Consistent DB2
  • FS Thomas DeCoud - Depth in large leagues
  • SS William Moore - Injury prone sleeper with big potential is he ever gets on the field
  • S Matt Giordano - No value
  • CB Dunta Robinson - Possible CB2
  • CB Brian Williams - Depth in corner required leagues
  • CB Christopher Owens - No value
  • CB Brent Grimes - Sleeper with a little upside if he can win a starting job
  • Carolina Panthers

    Defensive Linemen

    The Panthers had plenty of time to prepare for life after Julius Peppers. So don't expect the loss of their all time sack leader to have an overwhelming impact. In fact Carolina is probably in better shape at DE than the majority of the leagues 4-3 teams. Tyler Brayton was a first round bust in Oakland early in his career and will never be a 10 sack guy, but he has been a very solid contributor since coming to Carolina in 2008. He is a strong run defender who will lineup at end on early downs and shift inside in passing situations. Brayton's numbers over the past two seasons have been nearly identical at about 36-7-4.5 with 2 or 3 takeaways. That is obviously not the kind of production we are looking for from a starter, but in today's world of dwindling DL production Brayton is certainly worthy of consideration as a backup in most leagues. We know that Brayton will get the call at one end and we know that both Charles Johnson and Everett Brown with see plenty of playing time. What we don't know for certain at this point is who will get the call to replace Peppers as the starter. Johnson was the team's third round pick in 2007 and has spent the last two seasons playing predominantly in passing situations. Johnson weighed in at 255 pounds as a rookie and has worked hard over the past couple of season to add a few pounds in an effort to improve versus the run. He is now 275 pounds and the early reports out of Carolina are that he will enter camp as the starter. Johnson's limited role has produced 37 tackles, 10 sacks and 4 takeaways over the past two seasons. If he can land an every down job he may well finish this season as a top 12 DL. Johnson may be the favorite entering camp but don't expect Brown to concede without a fight. The Panthers gave up a first round pick in this year's draft to select Brown in the second round last year. Having made such an investment the club obviously expects big things from him, Like Johnson, as a rookie Brown was a bit undersized for an every down role and has been working to add a few pounds of muscle. He played mostly on passing downs last season, averaging about 20 snaps. Brown finished 2009 with 15 tackles, 2.5 sacks and a pair of forced fumbles. Of all the training camp battles we will be watching this August, this one will be among the highest priorities. Most fantasy owners have been targeting Brown ahead of Johnson in early drafts but the recent report that Johnson will enter camp as the starter could change that. In the long run it is likely that these two will become bookends for the Panthers. While its not impossible for that to happen this year, it seems more likely that for the immediate future one of them will be the third wheel. That said, even the third wheel in this situation could have some value. Especially when you consider that Johnson and Brown basically shared the third DE role last season and went 32-15-6.5 with 4 forced fumbles between them... Fifth round pick Greg Hardy is a developmental guy at DE, who could be groomed to eventually step into that third DE role. No one has mentioned this so its strictly speculation on my part, but I can easily see a situation where Brayton is moved inside permanently so that both Johnson and Brown can start at end... Tank Tyler led the Panthers interior linemen in box score production last season with a mere 27-4-0. With the addition of free agents Ed Johnson from Indy and Derek Landri from Jacksonville, its unclear who will even emerge as the starters on the inside. None of them however, are stand out NFL performers or provide much box score promise. All the more reason for the Panthers to think about Brayton as a tackle.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • DE Tyler Brayton - Depth in most 12 team leagues
  • DE Charles Johnson - Strong sleeper with big potential
  • DE Everett Brown- Strong sleeper with big potential
  • DE Greg Hardy - Deep dynasty sleeper at best
  • DT Ed Johnson - No value
  • DT Nick Hayden - No value
  • DT Derek Landri - No value
  • DT Tank Tyler - No value
  • Linebackers

    The injury to Thomas Davis has thrown a wrench into the Panthers LB situation. One option the coaching staff is strongly considering to compensate for the loss, is moving Jon Beason to WLB and promoting Dan Connor at MLB. Many fantasy owners have their shorts in a wad over this prospect. Relax. This is not as big a deal as some some think. Beason is a top five stud and he will continue to be a top five stud even if he lines up at WLB. In fact, when you consider that the Panthers use a lot of Tampa-2 type scheme and the penchant for the WLB position to be very fantasy friendly in that scheme, Beason might be even more productive there. Just look at the numbers Davis put up over the past two seasons. In 2008 he was 92-21-3.5 with 3 turnovers. Through seven games last season Davis was on pace for 114-23-4 and had a pair of picks. If one of your competitors thinks that Beason's value is down, its time to start talking trade, but the last thing you want to do is downgrade him over this news. The coaching staff will consider several options this summer. Moving Beason is just one of them but it is one that makes a lot of sense. When the Panthers selected Connor in the third round of the 2008 draft, many IDP prognosticators were surprised and disappointed. We had tagged him as one of the brightest IDP prospects in that draft and felt that he would have been a capable and productive starter for many other teams. There was even speculation at that time about Beason moving to WLB so Connor could start or Connor moving to SLB so the Panthers could get him on the field. Instead Connor has sat quietly behind Beason for the past two years and become a forgotten man. The coaches had Beason working outside and Connor in the middle during early June workouts but the Panthers have plenty of other options to consider. James Anderson filled in well for Davis last season and will get another look. The Panthers got Jamar Williams in the trade for Chris Harris. At one point the Bears were considering Williams the probable replacement for Lance Briggs. He became expendable only after Briggs signed a new long term deal. Rookie Eric Norwood is a player the coaching staff is high on, particularly for his coverage skills. There is talk that they may try to work him into the mix in nickel packages. Heck they still haven't put Davis on IR in hope that he may be able to return before the season ends. My best educated guess is that Beason moves to WLB with Connor in the middle and either Anderson or Williams on the strong side. The next big question will be who pairs with Beason in the nickel? If Connor can land an every down role he could prove to be a very productive late round steal for us. This will be another high priority situation that we will be monitoring throughout August.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • MLB/WLB Jon Beason - Top 5 stud regardless of where he lines up
  • MLB Dan Connor - Sleeper with high potential if he can land an every down role
  • SLB James Anderson - Sleeper, could have good value if he factors in at WLB
  • OLB Jamar Williams - Sleeper, could have good value if he factors in at WLB
  • WLB Thomas Davis - Likely to land on IR before camp breaks
  • OLB Eric Norwood - Deep sleeper
  • Defensive Backs

    Chris Harris blew up for 76 tackles and 8 forced fumbles as the Panthers strong safety in 2007. Beyond that there has been very little box score production from either safety position in the history of the franchise. Over the past two years Harris didn't come close to those numbers and he was shipped off to Chicago in a cost cutting trade this offseason. To replace Harris the Panthers will move '08 third round pick Charles Godfrey from free safety to strong and shift last year's second round pick Sherrod Martin from corner to FS. In Carolina's cover two scheme there is for the most part, very little difference in responsibilities between the two safety positions. As with most similar schemes the safeties cover their deep half of the field and don't have a great deal of opportunity to make tackles in run support. Godfrey totaled 52 tackles and 4 takeaways in '08, followed by 35 tackles and 5 turnovers in 12 games last season. The bottom line here is that unless either Godfrey or Martin can somehow blow up in the big play columns, they are going to have very little value for us. The fantasy production in this group lies with the corners and particularly with Richard Marshall. In cover two schemes the corners generally play tight press coverage or underneath zones. What that means is that they are usually closer to the line of scrimmage than the safeties, which in turn leads to an accelerated number of run support opportunities compared to corners in other schemes. Marshall is a physical corner and a sure tackler who takes advantage of those extra opportunities. So much so in fact that he led all NFL corners in solo tackles last season with 75. Add in his 4 picks, 2 fumble recoveries and 9 passes defended and you get a top five corner. Over his four pro seasons Marshall has never posted fewer than 68 solo stops and 2009 was his third top 10 finish. Even more impressive, the first two came when he was playing part time as the nickel back. There may be some guys who finish the season with more fantasy points but no corner in the game is more dependable or a safer pick... Chris Gamble had a huge 2008 season in which he racked up 83 tackles, 6 takeaways, 18 passes defended and was the fantasy game's #3 corner. Last season his numbers came crashing back to earth. Gamble is an excellent cover corner and a big play threat but a look at the rest of his career numbers tells us that '08 was an anomaly. Take out the big season and he has averaged 54 tackles and five takeaways. Gamble can be counted on for 50+ tackles, a hand full of big plays and double digit passes defended. That makes him a decent option as depth in corner required leagues... One issue the Panthers face in the secondary is a lack of experienced/quality depth. Last year's seventh round pick Captain Munnerlyn impressed the coaching staff enough to capture the nickel corner job as a rookie. He should hold that role again in 2010. Beyond Munnerlyn there is a collection of journeyman backups late round picks at corner. Backup safeties Aaron Francisco and Keith Lewis are experienced veterans but neither has ever held a starting job.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • SS Charles Godfrey - Depth in very large leagues at best
  • FS Sherrod Martin - Minimal value at best
  • S Aaron Francisco - No value
  • S Keith Lewis - No value
  • CB Chris Gamble - Quality depth in corner required leagues
  • CB Richard Marshall - Quality CB1 in corner required and a solid DB2 in nearly any scoring system
  • CB Captain Munnerlyn - Injury sleeper
  • CB Marcus Hudson - No value
  • New Orleans Saints

    Defensive Linemen

    In 2008 Will Smith produced a career low of 3 sacks. He followed that with a career best of 13.5 in 2009. Whenever such a disparity appears we always try to put a finger on the reason. Sometimes there is nothing obvious. In the case of Smith there is defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. In his first year with the team Williams transformed the Saints defense from a finesse read and react unit to a high pressure big play machine. The '08 Saints recorded 28 sacks and 25 takeaways while the new and improved Saints jumped those numbers to 35 sacks and 41 takeaways that included 8 defensive touchdowns. For a player like Smith, working in this type of defense is like being a kid in a candy store. Instead of being burdened with responsibilities the defensive ends are turned loose to pin their ears back and get after the passer. If they happen to blow up a ball carrier on the way that's all the better. Last season was not the first time that Smith had reached double digit sacks. He had averaged nearly 8.5 over the four years leading up to '08 and has exceeded the 40 tackle mark in three of his six years as a pro. The moral of this story is that Smith's big production was not a fluke. He is a perfect fit in Williams aggressive scheme and while 13.5 sacks may be a little much to expect, double digit sacks and tackle numbers in the 40 range are not. Smith was the #5 defensive lineman last season and should be among the top ten again in 2010... Looking to upgrade at the other DE position the Saints landed former Bears starter Alex Brown. It is hard to say what the Bears were thinking when they let this guy get away but chances are they will soon be regretting that decision. Brown was a locker room favorite in Chicago and is one of the leagues most underrated players at the position. He has never posted huge sack totals but is a very solid every down end who is sturdy versus the run and possesses above average pass rush skills. As an eight year starter in Chicago, Brown averaged 41 tackles and just under 6.5 sacks per 16 games. In Williams scheme those numbers could be even better. We can't expect Brown to suddenly become a top ten guy but we certainly shouldn't expect a decline. Consider him a quality DL2 with some upside and don't be surprised when he goes for 40+ tackles and around 8.5 sacks... The Saints also added former Tampa Bay DE Jimmy Wilkerson over the offseason. He will compete with recently resigned Bobby McCray to be the 3rd DE. Wilkerson saw significant action for the Bucs over the past two seasons, totaling 51 tackles and 10.5 sacks. McCray's best season came in '06 when he recorded 30 tackles and 9.5 sacks as a part time starter in Jacksonville. He came to New Orleans in 2008 and went for 25 tackles and 6 sacks as the third end. McCray saw very little action last season... 2008 first round pick Sedrick Ellis and third year pro Remi Ayodele are the official starters on the inside but Anthony Hargrove deserves some attention from fantasy owners as well. A glance at Ellis's number will have most owners looking elsewhere but don't overlook the fact that he missed six games last season. As a rookie Ellis played in thirteen games and finished with a modest 20-10-4 on the season. His 26-8-2 from last year look very similar but if we average in six more games those numbers look more like 42-13-3.5. Not stellar but certainly worthy of consideration in tackle required leagues. Ellis lines up at the more productive three technique position and is an every down player when healthy. He may never be a top 5 DT but it would be no surprise to see him hit 45 tackles and 4-5 sacks this season. Hargrove is one of the leagues great feel good stories. After a multitude of personal hardships, the Saints gave him a chance to resurrect his career last year and he made them happy that they did. He is a versatile player who can fill in at end if called upon, but Hargrove made his mark at tackle in '09. He filled in admirably when Ellis was injured and replaced Ayodele on passing downs when Ellis was in the lineup. Playing about 55% of the defensive snaps Hargrove was 32-10-5 with a forced fumble and 3 recoveries. If everyone remains healthy his playing time could dip below the 50% mark but I have to believe the coaching staff will find ways to get him on the field more often than that. Pick him up in the last round or two of your draft and see what happens. He could be a pleasant surprise and at the worst should provide decent depth at a thin position.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • DE Will Smith - Top 10 DL with top 5 potential
  • DE Alex Brown - Quality DL2
  • DE Jimmy Wilkerson - Injury sleeper
  • DE Bobby McCray - Injury sleeper
  • DT/DE Anthony Hargrove - Quality depth with upside in tackle required leagues
  • DT Sedrick Ellis - DT2 at worst with DT1 potential
  • DT Remi Ayodele - No value
  • DT Mario Pressley - No value
  • Linebackers

    When thinking about a Super Bowl champion defense, great linebackers usually come to mind. That is not the case with the Saints where MLB Jonathan Vilma is the only standout. The 2004 first round pick of the Jets exploded for 128 solo tackles in his second pro season then fell of the face of the earth in year three when New York shifted to a 3-4 scheme. Many owners and prognosticators proclaimed that he was a one year wonder and that the changing scheme was nothing more than an excuse. Vilma escaped the confines of New York in 2008 and proved his critics wrong when he went 98-34-1 with 6 takeaways in his first year with the Saints. Those numbers made him the #6 LB that season. Vilma's production slipped a little last season when he dropped out of the top 10 but the slight decline is easily explained. When a team enjoys the kind of success the Saints did in '09, defenders simply don't have as much opportunity. New Orleans #1 offense controlled the ball and scored at will. As a result opponents were playing from behind often and were forced into passing mode in hope of keeping up. The numbers put this into perspective. The Saints defense was on the field for 1044 snaps in 2009, opponents ran the ball 435 times (41.6%). Vilma was 86-23-2 with three picks and 8 passes defended in 15 games last season (he was rested in week 17) and finished among the top 15 linebackers. He is durable, consistent and in the prime of his career. Target him as a strong LB2 with LB1 potential and don't be concerned if you end up taking him as your top LB... Scott Shanle and Scott Fujita were last year's starters at weak and strong side respectively. Between them they totaled only 99 solo tackles. Fujita took the money and went to Cleveland leaving a wide open competition for the SLB job. Jo-Lonn Dunbar appears to be the favorite going into camp but several others will get a look. Shanle had a handful of productive games early last season but put up more than 4 tackles only twice after week eight. He's a hard working smart player who does a good job on the field but has never amounted to much in the box scores. Beyond Vilma the only name you need to be familiar with here is Stanley Arnoux. He was last year's 4th round pick out of Wake Forest and is one of the candidates for the SLB job, but the reason you need to know the name is that he's likely to backup Vilma. Arnoux missed his rookie season with an Achilles injury but is good to go for camp.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • MLB Jonathan Vilma - Excellent LB2 with LB1 potential
  • WLB Scott Shanle - No value
  • SLB Jo-Lonn Dunbar - No value
  • SLB Troy Evans - No value
  • SLB Anthony Waters - No value
  • SLB Clint Ingram - No value
  • MLB Stanley Arnoux - Injury sleeper if Vilma goes down
  • Defensive Backs

    New Orleans may have the only secondary in the league where all four starters have legitimate fantasy value. There are some easy to understand reasons for this from a situational standpoint but it also has a lot to do with the players. The Saints are an opportunistic big play defense but they are hardly a smothering shutdown unit. New Orleans ranked 21st versus the run and 25th against the pass in '09. Opponents were able to move the ball against them and thus ran a lot of plays. With 58.4% of those plays being passes, the secondary had a great deal of opportunity. There is also the fact that the Saints outside linebackers don't make a lot of plays. The later being a big contributor to the excellent production of SS Roman Harper, who's 85 solo tackles was second on the team only to Vilma's 86. Harper has posted 80+ tackles in consecutive seasons and has seen his production increase steadily since his rookie year of 2006. The excellent tackle production makes him a solid and consistent play. Harper posted 9 or more fantasy points in ten games during the '09 regular season and hit double digits in two of the three playoff games. The only downside with him is a lack of big plays over the past couple of seasons. In 2007 he was the fantasy games #2 safety with 75 tackles, 4 sacks and 5 takeaways. Since '07 Harper has 2.5 sacks and 3 forced fumbles but has not intercepted a pass. He was the #7 safety last season and with Vilma as his only major competition for tackles, there is no reason to expect less of Harper in 2010. There will be guys with more points at the end of the season but for those of us who seek consistency from our defense, Harper is a worthy lower tier DB1... Darren Sharper is just the opposite of Harper. He's not a tackling machine by any stretch but his knack for the big play makes up the difference. Sharper went 51-19 in the tackle columns in fourteen games last season but his whopping 9 picks and 15 passes defended jumped him way up the final rankings. A couple more games would have put him in the 60 tackle range. Relying on big plays generally makes consistency an issue with any player. That was not the case with Sharper who reached double digit fantasy point in nine games and recorded fewer than 7.5 only four times. He had micro fracture surgery after last season so there is some injury concern, but he is expected to participate in training camp on a limited basis and be ready for week one. We can never count on any player repeating such gaudy interception totals but if healthy, Sharper should be good for around 60 tackles and 5-7 interceptions. Unless your scoring is skewed toward the big play, he's not a guy to count on as an every week starter, but he's certainly a worthy backup or bye week plug in... In 2009 Tracy Porter was 48-9 with 12 passes defended and 6 takeaways. At a glance those numbers don't seem particularly impressive, but don't forget that he missed four games with a sprained knee and sat out nearly all of week 17 when the team had nothing to play for. Average in five more games and 70-13 with 17 PD and 8 takeaways is a different story. Porter is sure tackler who is very active in run support and is a playmaker. He recorded 9 or more fantasy points in eleven regular season contests last year. In corner required leagues he is a legitimate CB1 with enough consistency and overall production to be worth consideration as a solid DB2 or excellent DB3 in most any league... Jabari Greer was the starter at the opening of last season and projects to hold the same role on opening day 2010. Just like Porter, Greer's overall numbers of 41 tackles, 2 picks and 13 passes defended are unimpressive at first glance. They are pretty strong however, when you consider that he played in just nine games. 73 tackles, 23 passes defended and 4 interceptions would certainly be enough to get him on my team in a corner required league. Greer is healthy entering camp but may face a challenged for the starting job from last year's first round pick Malcolm Jenkins and/or rookie first round pick Patrick Robinson. Jenkins filled in admirably last season while the starters were nursing injuries, and posted very similar numbers. He has been seeing a lot of work at FS during the offseason and is thought to be the heir apparent to Sharper who is now 34 years old. New Orleans is simply loaded with talent in the secondary and particularly at the corner positions. It looks as if whomever gets the call there is going to put up good numbers. Keep this competition on your list of things to monitor through August.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • SS Roman Harper - Solid DB1 if consistency is important to you
  • FS Darren Sharper - Quality depth in any league, move him way up if you are looking for big plays
  • FS/CB Malcolm Jenkins - Corner required sleeper with dynasty value as a free safety
  • S Pierson Prioleau - No value
  • CB Jabari Greer - Potential CB2 if he can hold onto the job
  • CB Tracy Porter - Solid CB1 with top 5 potential, decent DB2 or excellent DB3 in any league
  • CB Patrick Robinson - Sleeper with CB2 potential if he can win the starting job
  • CB Randall Gay - No value
  • Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    Defensive Linemen

    The Bucs had the leagues tenth best pass defense last season but that could be largely due to the fact that they gave up 152 yards a game on the ground. Opponents often got out to a lead and simply didn't need to pass a lot. The end result was a 3-13 record and the opportunity to draft Gerald McCoy at #3 overall. McCoy is an intense, athletic big man who made a lot of plays behind the line of scrimmage during his three years at Oklahoma. He is disruptive against the run and is an excellent pass rusher from the inside. Those words are music to the ears of fantasy owners who have been searching for a box score giant at the DT position. When the Bucs coaching staff looks at McCoy they have visions of former Tampa Bay great Warren Sapp. That's a ton of pressure to put on a young man but if he can live up to the hype and expectations, McCoy could be a top 5 DT right out of the gate. With so few quality options at the position he is certainly worth the gamble... Lost in all the hoopla over McCoy is the fact that the Bucs also used their second round pick to address the tackle position. Brian Price brings different skill set to the mix. He is less athletic and mobile than McCoy but is a stout powerful fireplug who's scouting report describes just what the coaching staff wants next to McCoy. A guy who can push the pocket with his bull rush and will demand double teams to root him out versus the run. Price will compete with veteran Roy Miller for the starting job at nose tackle. Due to the nature of the position we shouldn't expect a lot of production from whoever wins that job... There were no significant offseason additions at DE but there will be new faces in the lineup. Both of last year's opening day starters are gone. The late Gaines Adams was traded during the '09 season and Jimmy Wilkerson took his 29 tackles and 5.5 sacks to New Orleans. That leaves Stylez White as the starter at right end with Tim Crowder and Kyle Moore competing for the other job. All three of these guys are good under the radar sleepers. White played a very limited role early last season, making his first start in week six. He went on to go 30-13 in the tackles columns and lead the club in sacks with 6.5. Those modest numbers should actually help us, as they will cause many owners to overlook him. When you consider that he was 28-7-6.5 in just 10 games, White's production was actually pretty strong. Project those numbers over a full schedule and 45-11-10.5 becomes very appealing. White was the Bucs 7th round pick in '07 and recorded a career best 8.5 sacks as a pass rush specialist in his rookie season. His tackle numbers have increased each year as he has worked toward this starting opportunity. Target White as your second or even third DE if you dare wait that long on draft day, but don't be surprised if he puts up DL1 numbers... Crowder was a second round pick of the Broncos in 2007 but like so many, failed to make the transition from 4-3 end at Texas to 3-4 OLB in the NFL. He managed 4.5 sacks as a rookie in limited playing time and was active for just six games in 2008. Crowder was released with last year's final cuts and quickly signed by the Bucs. He spent most of last season as the third man in the rotation but still managed to lead Tampa's DL with 37 tackles, adding 3.5 sacks. Crowder totaled 59 combined tackles and 10.5 sacks in his senior year at Texas and was among the most highly rated defensive ends in his class. He is my personal favorite in this competition and a player I have targeted in the very late rounds of a few drafts already... Moore was the team's 4th round pick last season and spent much of the year on the inactive list after an early knee injury slowed his progress. He was not particularly productive at USC, posting 30 combined tackles and 5 sacks in thirteen starts as a senior. Moore has battled assorted injuries dating all the way back to his freshman year and was considered a project by many scouts coming out of college. Reports out of Tampa Bay are that Moore has been working hard and having an impressive offseason. Some of my respected peers here at FBG are higher on Moore than I am, but the bottom line is that the winner of this training camp battle is going to have some value for us. There are a couple of other names being mentioned in this competition as well, but in reality it is between these two guys with the odd man out becoming the third man in the rotation and seeing spot duty.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • DE Stylez White - Quality DL2 with DL1 upside
  • DE Kyle Moore - Sleeper with DL2 potential
  • DE Tim Crowder- Sleepers with DL2 potential
  • DE Michael Bennett - Deep sleeper at best
  • DE Erik Lorig - Deep sleeper at best
  • DT Gerald McCoy - Top 5 potential, quality depth at the very least
  • DT Roy Miller - No value
  • DT Brian Price - No value
  • DT Ryan Sims - No value
  • Linebackers

    The Buccaneers were was so pleased with the play and production of their linebackers in 2009 that no significant additions or changes will be made heading into the new season. Barrett Ruud has matured into a fine leader and one of the leagues best middle linebackers. His three seasons as a starter have yielded excellent results including triple digit solo tackles and a pair of top 5 fantasy rankings over the past two seasons. If not for being a little light in the big play columns Ruud might be considered on par with Patrick Willis. Its not as if he is incapable of stepping up the big play production. In his first season as the starter ('07) Ruud was 83-31 in the tackle columns and kicked in 9 takeaways in 15 games. In 2008 the turnover number dropped to 3 but he added 3 sacks. Last year's 107 solo stops were a career best for Ruud as were his 7 passes defended, but his big play contribution was limited to just 1 forced fumble and 1 interception. He has been very durable over his five pro seasons and is at age 27 is in the prime of his career. Ruud is close as it gets to a can't miss top five LB. If the big play numbers come back he could even make a run at #1... It was a somewhat strange turn of events that landed Geno Hayes the starting job at WLB last season. Once he got the opportunity he was there to stay. At just over 6 feet tall and 226 pounds, the 2008 sixth round pick out of Florida State is a bit on the smallish side. Hayes makes up for stature with speed, athleticism and intensity. He's a sure tackler who can make plays sideline to sideline and has shown a knack for the big play throughout his football career. He is not particularly strong at the point of attack and doesn't take on bigger blockers well, but all in all his playing style and skill set are a natural fit in the Tampa-2 scheme. Let me point out that Bucs great Derrick Brooks was an undersized WLB with many of the same traits. The Tampa-2 is designed to keep the WLB clean, allowing him to flow in pursuit and make big plays. You might remember that the Bucs went away from the Tampa-2 at the beginning of last season. When that didn't go well they made the switch back during their week eight bye, which explains why Hayes numbers were much stronger late in the season. He sat out week 14 with a sore hamstring but his fifteen games produced a mark of 80-18-3 with four takeaways and 6 passes defended. Lending even more reason for optimism is the fact that all of his big play production came after week eight, and he recorded over 20 fantasy points in each of the team's final three games. Hayes is in a traditionally productive position and is just 22 years old. He will get better with experience and has a very bright future both on the field and in the box scores. It is unlikely that he will ever produce more tackles than Ruud but 85+ solos and a healthy dose of big plays are likely. Consider him a strong LB3 with LB2 upside. One slight cause for concern is that Hayes underwent shoulder surgery after last season. He is expected to be a go from the beginning of camp but the injury is worth keeping an eye on... Like Hayes, Quincy Black is an undersized athletic linebacker who won a starting job by default and went on to impress. Black was expected to compete for the job with Angelo Crowell but a knee injury settled the battle early in training camp. Black totaled 71-14-2 with an interception. Numbers that are fairly impressive for a two down strong side linebacker, and numbers that would make him worthy as depth is some of the deeper drafted leagues out there. The problem I foresee with Black is that as the Bucs improve (and I believe they will this year), he is likely to have less opportunity. We certainly can't expect more from him this season... If Tampa Bay has any issue at LB its depth. Backup MLB Niko Koutouvides has been in the league for several years but has never been a starter. Adam Hayward has been with the team for three seasons and makes his contribution via special teams. The club spent a pair of 7th round picks on Cody Grimm and Dekoda Watson who are both developmental guys who will join Hayward on special teams if they make the final roster.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • MLB Barrett Ruud - Quality LB1 teetering on the brink of elite
  • WLB Geno Hayes - Strong LB3 with LB2 potential
  • SLB Quincy Black - Depth in very deeply drafted leagues
  • MLB Niko Koutouvides - No value
  • OLB Adam Hayward - No value
  • OLB Dekoda Watson - Project with no immediate value
  • OLB Cody Grimm - Project with no immediate value
  • Defensive Backs

    No one in the Bucs secondary reached the 70 tackle mark last season but don't take that to mean there is no help for us here. Tanard Jackson missed the first four games in 2009 while serving a league imposed vacation. After returning he averaged 5 tackles a game, defended 8 passes, accounted for 8 takeaways and was a red hot free agent pickup. The question is, can we expect him to pick up right where he left off? His big numbers are certainly reason for optimism but there are some other things to think about as well. This was Jackson's third year as a starter. In the first two he played full schedules but failed to reach the 60 tackle mark in either. He accounted for 5 takeaways in each of those seasons, had just 3 passes defended in 2008 and finished outside the top 30 safeties in both seasons. Those are the kind of numbers we would normally expect to see from a safety in a cover-2 scheme. So where did the big production come from? The Bucs struggled to a 3-13 record in 2009 and the offense was not good. No one is expecting them to make the playoffs this year but they have added weapons on offense, made some improvements in the front seven on defense and added Sean Jones at SS. All these things could contribute to fewer opportunities for Jackson. Maybe '09 was his breakout season but maybe it was based on circumstances that have changed. Jackson may be worthy of consideration as a DB2 but I am reluctant to put much faith in him. There is even an outside chance that Jones will end up at FS pushing Jackson back to the bench. It is much more likely that Jones will displace Sabby Piscitelli at SS. The club took Piscitelli in the second round in 2007 and had grand expectations that he would become a solid long term answer for them. It took him three years to finally break the starting lineup full time and once he got there in '09, his play was very inconsistent. Piscitelli was on fire to open last season, racking up over 40 fantasy points in the first two games. He reached double digit points in just three of the last fourteen, totaling fewer than 7 points in nine contests. He will be the starter when camp opens but will have a hard time holding off the new guy. Jones entered the league as the second round pick of the Browns in 2005. After four years in Cleveland he moved on to Philadelphia last season but was never able to secure the confidence of the coaching staff. The knock on him throughout his career is that he's slow to pick up schemes and become comfortable with his responsibilities. He was behind the learning curve as a rookie and didn't make the Browns lineup until 2006. Once he got there Jones became a very solid SS. He was not the prototypical in the box tackling machine but put up respectable tackle numbers while proving to be among the leagues top big play threats at strong safety. Jones missed the first part of 2008 with an injury but his forty four starts in Cleveland resulted in 17 takeaways and a pair of top 10 fantasy rankings among safeties. From a talent perspective he seemed a perfect fit in the Eagles pressure scheme, but that defense is very complicated. Once again Jones was somewhat slow to pick up and didn't make the starting lineup until week seven after Macho Harris was injured. Jones accounted for 4 turnovers, a sack and hit double digit fantasy points in five of the eight games he started before returning to the bench in week 15. Jones has the potential to put up very good numbers, but the Bucs scheme is not exactly simple. On the other hand, they are not going to be a contender this season so the coaching staff can afford to have Jones learn on the field. He's far from a sure thing but is a potential big reward sleeper. My personal approach would be to let someone else take Jackson earlier and look to pluck Jones at a value point late in the draft... Having talked previously about the duties of corners in cover two schemes, it's easy to understand why Ronde Barber and Aqib Talib provide good value in corner required leagues. For years Barber has been among the most consistent and productive tacklers at the position. From 2003 to 2006 he put together a string of four seasons with 80+ solo tackles. After an injury shortened 2007, he returned and posted 67 and 69 solos over the past two seasons. For the first time in his career Barber failed to intercept a pass in '09 but he still managed 3 takeaways on fumbles and a couple of sacks for a top 15 final ranking. He turned 35 in April and is likely playing in his final season. The numbers may not be what they once were but Barber can still be counted on as a solid third corner or bye week fill in. Talib intercepted 4 passes as the team's nickel corner in 2008 and followed that with 56 tackles, 14 passes defended and a team leading 5 picks as a starter last season. He finished one slot ahead of Barber in the final rankings, but unlike Barber, Talib is at the beginning of his career. The 2008 first round pick has the tools to become one of the leagues best and one of the fantasy games most productive. Once Barber hangs up the cleats, Talib will likely slide over to the strong side corner position which would boost his tackle production. For the immediate future consider him a solid CB3 with enough upside to be your #2 if you choose to address the position late... Elbert Mack emerged as the team's nickel corner last season and recorded 3 picks. He could feel some heat from third round pick Myron Lewis. The coaching staff hopes that one of them will step up and be ready to start in 2011 if/when Barber retires.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • SS Sabby Piscitelli - More risk than reward at this point
  • FS Tanard Jackson - Potential DB2 but comes with risk
  • SS Sean Jones - Sleeper with DB2 or better potential
  • S Corey Lynch - No value
  • CB Aqib Talib - Quality depth with CB2 upside
  • CB Ronde Barber - Quality depth
  • CB Elbert Mack - No value
  • CB Myron Lewis - No value
  • And part six is a wrap. Next up we head out to the coast for the AFC West. Until then, questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to norton@footballguys.com.

    © 2010 Footballguys - All Rights Reserved