Eyes of the Guru - Offseason Report (AFC West)
By John Norton
August 1st, 2010

Welcome back for part seven of this year's article, covering the AFC West 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.

Denver Broncos

Defensive Linemen

The Broncos change to a 3-4 went pretty smoothly for the most part. Statistically they finished among the top 12 in many categories. The one thorn in their side being a 26th rated run defense. To say that they have addressed that situation would be an understatement. When week one rolls around Denver could very well be sporting five new starters among the front seven with new faces likely at all three DL positions. Former Patriots backup Jarvis Green is penciled in at one end with former Ravens backup Justin Bannan at the other. Both of these guys are good players who come from 3-4 teams and know the scheme. Green has long been thought to have starting ability but was stuck behind very talented players in New England. He's a versatile ninth year veteran who can be productive as a 4-3 end if called upon as well. Green's best numbers as a Patriot were 26-5-7 with 4 takeaways, and came in 2006 when injuries made him a starter for much of the season. The Broncos would be thrilled with that kind of production from a position that made little contribution last season. Bannan is also a ninth year veteran who has spent much of his career as a backup. He battled injuries early on an never really got his feet under him until he landed in Baltimore. Bannan managed to stay healthy and earn a significant role (including a few starts) with the Ravens over the past two seasons. One noteworthy point being that he rarely got on the field as an end in the 3-4. Instead Bannan lined up at left tackle when the Ravens were in a 4-3. This is not to suggest that he is unfamiliar with the end position or didn't work there in practice. It is simply that there were some pretty talented guys ahead of him as well. Bannan is a versatile player who gives the coaching staff options. His career best of 30-15-1 came in 2008. Both Green and Bannan are solid additions who should help Denver's cause, but nose tackle Jamal Williams was the offseason prize. Not only will he be the anchor up front, but after being released by San Diego at the end of last season, Williams will be hungry to prove himself against the division rival. Williams was a long time starter for the Chargers before missing fifteen games with a triceps injury last season. The 350 (or so) pound road grader is healthy entering camp and should be a difference maker for the Broncos. As for fantasy production, there is not a great deal of box score expectation that comes with any of the Broncos front three. Green has the potential to go for 30-35 tackles and 5-6 sacks. Bannan could post similar tackle numbers but his 6.5 career sacks don't provide much optimism. A healthy Williams will be dubbed the most likely to succeed for us, at least in tackle required leagues. He has just 3.5 sacks since 2005, but if not for missing three games in '07, would have posted 40+ tackles in four consecutive seasons leading up to '09... Last year's starter Ronald Fields provides veteran depth behind Williams at NT with journeymen types Ryan McBean, LeKevin Smith and Marcus Thomas lined up behind the starters at end.

Fantasy Outlook

  • DE Jarvis Green - Depth at best
  • DE Justin Bannan - No value
  • DE Ryan McBean - No value
  • DE LeKevin Smith - No value
  • DE Marcus Thomas - No value
  • NT Jamal Williams - Possible starter or quality depth in tackle retired leagues
  • NT Ronald Fields - No value
  • Linebackers

    While having guys like D.J. Williams and Elvis Dumervil makes it impossible to call the Broncos linebacker situation a weakness, they are a couple of pieces short of a complete puzzle at this position. Williams is a complete player who is among the most talented and productive inside linebackers in the league. He is very good in coverage, has the range to make plays all over the field and the size to plug the hole when teams run right at him. Even better for us, it all translates to the box scores. Williams talent was wasted early in his career when he played on the strong side for a couple of seasons. Since moving inside in 2007 he has averaged nearly 6.5 tackles per game accompanied by 7 sacks, 11 turnover and a pair of top 3 fantasy rankings at the position. Williams would likely be three for three on the rankings if not for missing time with an injury 2008. Through eight games that season he was on pace for 114 solo stops. With 5 takeaways and 3.5 sacks, the '09 season was the most productive of Williams career in the big play columns, and he fell just 1 shy of triple digit solo tackles. With Jamal Williams up front soaking up blockers, D.J. could well be in the hunt for his first #1 ranking. He is easily one of the few we can consider among the first tier elite. Dumervil has been an impressive player since coming to the Broncos as their 4th round pick in 2006. He has shown great versatility over his four pro seasons. Dumervil spent his first two seasons lining up at both tackle and end where he totaled 19.5 sacks in what amounted to mostly a third down role. Good as he was up front, he has found his calling as an OLB in the Broncos 3-4. Dumervil exploded for a league best 17 sacks last season (although most fantasy software credited him with 16.5). The only thing holding him back in fantasy terms is a very modest 41 solo tackles. As with most outside backers in 3-4 schemes, Dumervil's fantasy value is relative to your leagues scoring system. In big play based leagues he is easily a top five prospect. If your league is balanced or tackle heavy, he is likely no better than a bye week fill in... The Broncos continue to search for the final two pieces at LB. They picked up former Dolphins starter Akin Ayodele to get them by but he is not the long term answer for them or us. Ayodele is a two down ILB who spent two years as the starter in Dallas before going to Miami. His four seasons in the scheme have never yielded more than 64 solo tackles or a top 35 finish. Wesley Woodyard may contend with Ayodele for the starting job but will likely end up replacing him only on passing downs... Darrell Reid came over from Indy last season and has been trying to transition from DE to OLB. With 4.5 sacks in a limited role last season, Reid gives the coaching staff reason for optimism. He will compete with last year's first round pick Robert Ayers and last year's starter Mario Haggan. Neither of those players gave the team much reason to think they will blossom in 2010.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • ILB D.J. Williams - Stud LB1
  • ILB Akin Ayodele - Depth in very large leagues at best
  • ILB Wesley Woodyard - Deep sleeper with marginal upside
  • OLB Darrell Reid - Big play sleeper at best
  • OLB Elvis Dumervil - Big play stud who doesn't make enough tackles
  • OLB Robert Ayers - No value
  • OLB Mario Haggan - No value
  • Defensive Backs

    Denver finished last season with the third best pass defense in the league but I wouldn't bet on a repeat of that. Their 26th ranked run defense should be better so teams will have to pass more, and lets face it, other than Champ Bailey and Brian Dawkins this unit is pretty average from a talent perspective. Not to mention the fact that Bailey is now 32 and Dawkins turns and ancient (in football terms) 37 in October. Dawkins career has been long and productive but he's never come remotely close to the kind of numbers he posted last season. The six takeaways were slightly below average for the longtime Eagles playmaker, but the 95 solo tackles were a whopping 19 more than Dawkins previous career best. With D.J. Williams being the only real competition for tackles, Dawkins should be in line for another big season. That said, anyone who banks on a 37 year old safety repeating that kind of season could be in for a let down. If he can remain healthy Dawkins will undoubtedly be a quality redraft option. I see him as a lower tier DB1 with top five potential, but be certain to have depth at the position if you go with him as your top guy... Renaldo Hill is penciled in as the starter at FS but will likely be pressed by last year's second round pick Darcel McBath. Neither player has a reputation for being very physical so don't expect a lot in the tackle columns regardless of who starts. McBath however, does have some pretty strong big play upside. He was a converted corner at Texas Tech and displayed good ball skills during his three seasons as a starter. He picked off a couple of passes last season while playing in a very limited role. If he starts I can see him putting up 60 or so tackles with 4-5 takeaways. That would be enough to make him a backup in some larger leagues. Hill is no more than a journeyman who has held starting jobs for a season here and a season there, but has never finished inside the top 35. He turns 32 in November and is not going to start now. I look for Denver to inject a little youth at the position... Even at 32 Bailey is one of the games best corners. He is also a guy we can depend on for pretty decent production. He came to Denver in 2004 and with the exception of an injury shortened 2008, has reached the 60 tackle mark in every season since. Offenses do their best to avoid Bailey in the passing game which limits his opportunity to make a lot of big plays. Yet he somehow always manages 4-5 takeaways and 15+ passes defended. His six seasons in Denver have produced Four top fifteen finishes at the corner position and a pair of top ten. Target Bailey as a very dependable CB2. Andre Goodman projects to start opposite Bailey. Goodman has struggled to stay healthy throughout his career and has never totaled more than 42 tackles in a season. He has managed to stay healthy over the past two years and has stepped up in the big play columns a bit. As a Dolphin in '08 he produced only 33 tackles but picked off 5 passes (7 total takeaways) and defended 19 passes. His first year in Denver ('09) produced 40 tackles, 5 picks, 17 PD and a Fumble recovery. Playing opposite Bailey should get him some extra opportunity but I'm not sure that he is capable of turning that into box score production. Fellow journeyman Nathan Jones is expected to work as the nickel corner, although McBath could challenge for those duties if he fails to win a starting job. Fifth round pick Perrish Cox is a player the coaching staff hopes to develop for the near future.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • SS Brian Dawkins - Solid DB1 but comes with risk due to advanced age
  • FS Renaldo Hill - No value
  • FS Darcel McBath - Sleeper with big play potential
  • CB Champ Bailey - Dependable CB2
  • CB Andre Goodman - No value
  • CB Nathan Jones - No value
  • CB Perrish Cox - No value
  • Kansas City Chiefs

    Defensive Linemen

    Kansas City is another of the teams in transition from a 4-3 to the 3-4, but the change has not gone particularly well for them thus far. They finished the '09 season 29th in scoring defense, 31st versus the run and recorded only 22 sacks. Having used their last two first round picks on Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson respectively, robbing other teams of their experienced depth is not really an option for the Chiefs. Instead they will count on a second year in the scheme to provide the improvement. In Dorsey and Jackson the Chiefs have a very talented pair of young ends to build around. Both players are mobile and athletic for big men, yet have the size to anchor and soak up blockers as is often the responsibility of linemen in this system. Ron Edwards fills out the starting lineup at nose tackle. He is a marginal starter who has spent most of his nine pro seasons as a backup, but is a player the coaching staff is content with until they can better address the position. As with the majority of 3-4 schemes, there is not a lot for fantasy owners to get excited about here. Dorsey led the group last season with 41 tackles but could muster only a single sack. Jackson's 26 tackles gave the team very little early return on their investment and Edwards gave them even less. At least in the case of Jackson there is a little reason for optimism. The light seemed to come on for him after the Chiefs week eight bye. As a result he posted 24 of his 26 tackles over the final nine games. Providing they pick up where they left off, Dorsey and Jackson could have a little value in tackle heavy scoring systems. Just don't expect much in the big play columns... Even the Chiefs depth at DE is young and inexperienced. Second year undrafted free agent Wallace Gilberry led the DL with 4.5 sacks in '09 and last year's third round pick Alex Magee was second with 2. Journeyman Shaun Smith backs up Edwards at nose tackle and could push for playing time.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • DE Tyson Jackson - Depth in tackle heavy scoring systems
  • DE Glenn Dorsey - Depth in tackle heavy scoring systems
  • DE Alex Magee - No value
  • DE Wallace Gilberry - No value
  • NT Ron Edwards - No value
  • NT Shaun Smith - No value
  • Linebackers

    Being in the depths of a major rebuilding process the Chiefs had a lot of holes to fill on both sides of the ball this offseason. There is room for improvement at linebacker but more pressing needs left the position unaddressed. It looks as if last year's controversy at ILB will be carried over. That being the debate about why Derrick Johnson is not starting and the question of when/if that will change. Even among the FBG staff there are widely varied feelings about Johnson. Some of my most respected piers see him as a very talented and deserving player who is getting the shaft or is simply in the doghouse temporarily. In my eyes Johnson is an over rated finesse linebacker who has never lived up to the expectations of a first round pick. That said, even I agree that he would be a good (and productive) fit at the weak inside LB position. Johnson spent last season working in a situational role as the nickel linebacker. As a result he was not able to make an impact in the tackle columns. He did however, manage to make a fairly significant big play splash with 3 picks, a fumble recovery and 1.5 sacks. Those are fairly strong numbers for a linebacker who is on the field less than 50% of the time. In four years as a 4-3 WLB Johnson was an 80 tackle a season guy who was good for 3 or 4 takeaways and a couple of sacks. He is fast and has good coverage skills but is not an intimidating physical presence. His battle to claim a full time job will continue but Corey Mays and Demorrio Williams will open camp as the starters. Williams was a top 10 fantasy linebacker in 2005 when he put up 100 solo tackles 3 sacks and 4 takeaways while playing WLB for the Falcons. The Atlanta coaching staff didn't like him on the field as much as we did in the box scores so his role was diminished in following years. Williams came to the Chiefs in '08 and worked in a part time/backup role in his first season with the team. Williams seemed to find his calling at the weak ILB position in the Chiefs new 3-4. He is not a big smash mouth guy but is a dependable tackler with good cover skills and the range to make plays all over the field. Playing the WILB position helps to keep blockers off him and allows Williams to flow to the ball. As the every down ILB last season Williams led the club with 95 solo stops. What he failed to provide was any big play production at all. The unfortunate situation the Chiefs are faced with is that while Johnson and Williams are their two best inside backers, both are best suited to play the same position. Thus putting them on the field together is probably not the answer. The strong ILB in this scheme needs to be the physical type. He is often asked to take on blockers and run interference to keep the WILB clean. At 246 pounds Mays fits that description pretty well. He's no threat to be an every down player but does provide a physical presence inside. The coaching staff seems to really like Williams, and Johnson doesn't fit particularly well at SILB. What that spells for us is more of what we got from these guys last year. Target Williams as a decent LB3 or quality backup and maybe give Johnson a shot as a late round sleeper just in case. It might be a good idea to handcuff this situation with both guys just to be safe... The coaching staff has to be pleased with the play of Tamba Hali at OLB. The former DE seemed to transition easily to his new role. Hali was responsible for 8.5 of the team's 22 sacks and contributed 4 forced fumbles along the way as well. At 26 years old he is entering his 5th season as a pro and will be a cornerstone for the defense to build on... Mike Vrable will open camp as the other starter at OLB but the soon to be 35 year old is near the end of a solid career. He served as a leader and a coach on the field for the Chiefs last season but they simply must get more production from the position than the 2 sacks Vrable recorded in '09. The club has high hopes that third year man Andy Studebaker can step up and challenge for that job during camp. The 2008 6th round pick replaced an injured Vrable in for a couple of games during the second half of last season and made a strong first impression. In week eleven he recorded 5 tackles, half a sack and a pair of interceptions against the Steelers. Studebaker didn't make the starting lineup based on those two games but he did earn a much larger role down the stretch. Beyond these three players the Chiefs are paper thin at the OLB position. They may look to pick up some help once training camp cuts begin.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • ILB Demorrio Williams - Decent LB3 or quality backup
  • ILB Derrick Johnson - Late round sleeper with LB3 upside if he land a full time role
  • ILB Corey Mays - No value
  • ILB Jovan Belcher - No value
  • OLB Tamba Hali - Good value in big play leagues, depth at best for the rest of us
  • OLB Andy Studebaker - Deep sleeper for big play leagues
  • OLB Mike Vrable - No value
  • Defensive Backs

    The defensive line is set with young and talented players and the linebacker position was passed over so that the Chiefs could concentrate on the secondary. Strong safety Eric Berry was the first DB off the board on draft day but the Chiefs didn't stop there. In round two they went with corner Javier Arenas then came back with free safety Kendrick Lewis in round five. Veteran Mike Brown was a placeholder at SS for the Chiefs last season and is no longer with the team. That means Berry will step right into the starting job without competition. Brown finished last season as the Chiefs second leading tackler with 78 stops. He sprinkled in 4 takeaways and a pair of sacks as well, to finish among the top ten safeties. Meanwhile, Berry had the kind of college career that makes IDP owners drool. He was a three year starter for Tennessee who came out as a junior yet still fell only 9 yards short of the all time record for interception return yards. Berry was exceptionally productive in the tackle columns throughout his career at Tennessee, and tied for the most interceptions in college football as a sophomore in 2008. That season he was the SEC defensive player of the year and a finalist for the Jim Thorpe award that is given to the college games best defensive back. Berry went on to win that prestigious award as a junior. I could dig up a few more way to express how good this kid is, but you get the point. The key to fantasy production is a marriage of quality player and productive situation. Its hard to find a better example of the two than Berry at SS in Kansas City as the Chiefs continue to rebuild. Because he is unproven we can't consider him a sure thing but it will be no surprise if Berry hits the top 10 as a rookie... Jarrad Page opened last season as the starter at FS but played just five games before landing on IR with a calf injury. If those five games were any indication, he too could have some value for us this season. Page was on pace for 76 solo stops when injury struck and his history of big plays makes him even more intriguing. He was in and out of the lineup at both strong and free safety during his first two seasons in the league. In 2008 Page settled in at FS for the entire season. His 63 tackles were nothing to write home about but he did account for 8 takeaways and 12 passes defended. At 224 pounds, Page is a safety in a linebacker's body. He has the potential to put up pretty good numbers for us but he's not a lock to be the starter on opening day. After sitting out most of the offseason program due to contract situation, he could face competition for the job from third year pro DaJuan Morgan, veteran Jon McGraw and/or rookie Kendrick Lewis. In the end this competition may be more motivational than actual. Morgan has been unimpressive over his two season with the club and is a long shot, while McGraw is a career backup and Lewis a developmental guy who will likely make his impact on special teams for now... The Chiefs gave us the fantasy game's number four corner last season in Brandon Flowers. In fifteen games he recorded a respectable 58 tackles but his biggest contribution came in the form of 9 takeaways and 23 passes defended. At 5'9" and 187 pounds, he's not a big guy but is fearless in run support and has quickly developed into one of the leagues fine cover men. Despite missing a couple of games as a rookie in '08, Flowers made the top 20 that year as well. He's entering his third season and the prime of his career, so the trend is likely to continue... Brandon Carr is an excellent compliment to Flowers. He's bigger (206) and more physical, giving the coaching staff the option to match him up with bigger receivers. Carr posted 70 tackles as a rookie in 2008 but that number dropped to 56 in his second season. He did manage an impressive 19 passes defended last year but only 3 takeaways. Carr is not a major big play threat but has been a top 25 corner in each of his two pro seasons. He is a viable option for us a depth in corner required leagues... Arenas will likely work as a nickel corner and return man as a rookie. He is a talented and physical corner who could push Carr for playing time in the near future. That said, the kid returned 7 punts and an interception for touchdowns during his time at Alabama, so the coaching staff may be content to save him as a returner rather than a starting corner. At the least the youngster provides talented depth.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • SS Eric Berry - Unproven but likely a top 10 safety
  • FS Jarrad Page - Depth in most leagues with a little upside
  • FS DaJuan Morgan - No value
  • FS Kendrick Lewis - No value
  • SS Jon McGraw - No value
  • CB Brandon Flowers - Solid CB1
  • CB Brandon Carr - Depth in corner required leagues
  • CB Javier Arenas - Corner required sleeper, rookie corner rule could come into play
  • CB Travis Daniels - No value
  • Oakland Raiders

    Defensive Linemen

    The Raiders had the 7th best pass defense in the league and totaled a strong 37 sacks last season, but that is about all they had to hang their helmets on. The run defense was a dismal 29th and they were 23rd in scoring at 23.7 points per game. Still there was something different about this Raiders team. You just got the feeling late in the season that they were heading in the right direction. The offense took a huge step when Al Davis allowed the release of JaMarcus Russell and the defense looks more and more like it belongs to Tom Cable with each move and passing news bite. The 2010 Raiders will sport a number of new faces on defense, including a couple of starters up front. On the eve of the 2009 regular season the Raiders traded for defensive end Richard Seymour. He is locked in on one side while last years third round pick Matt Shaughnessy is penciled in to join him. Seymour spent the first eight years of his career working predominately as a 3-4 end with the Patriots. Thus looking at his past numbers may not give us an accurate measuring stick. His first season with Oakland netted a modest 31 solo tackles, 16 assists and 4 sacks. Those numbers may have been tainted a bit due to the fact that he shifted inside on passing downs. With the additions of veteran John Henderson and second round pick Lamarr Houston at tackle, it becomes unclear if Seymour will continue to see time inside. What we know is that Seymour is a very solid run defender and was a better than average pass rusher as a 3-4 end. If we exclude his injury shortened '07 season, Seymour averaged a very hardy 5.5 sacks a season for the Patriots including 7.5 in 2008. Its unlikely that he will blow up for big numbers but a second year in the system should provide a little improvement even if he continues to work from the inside in passing situations. If Seymour becomes a three down end he could be a 40+ tackle guy who approaches double digit sacks. To be on the safe side we shouldn't target Seymour as more than decent depth with upside... Shaughnessy is one of my favorite sleepers this year. He played very little early in his rookie season but saw his role steadily increase. Shaughnessy came off the bench to go 5-0-1 against the Chargers in week eight. When the Raiders returned from their week nine bye he made his first career start for a banged up Greg Ellis. He only started two games on the season but still managed to go 21-3-4 over the final nine games. At 6'6" and 253 Shaughnessy is a long and lanky kid with a huge wingspan. Watching him play last season brought back images of a young Jason Taylor. He obviously has a long way to go before being compared to the future Hall of Famer, but I have a really good feeling about this kid. One thing that could throw a wrench into Shaughnessy's happy story is the presence of former Browns OLB Kamerion Wimbley. Wimbley is the prototypical Raiders reclamation project. A talented former first round pick who underachieved with the team that drafted him but has the potential to be a very productive player. As a rookie in 2006 Wimbley recorded 11.5 sacks. His next three seasons with the Browns resulted in a total of 14. He was an OLB in the Browns 3-4 but Wimbley played DE during his college days at Florida State. When the Raiders added him they said he would play OLB in their 4-3. That may be the plan but he could also see time as a rush end. The other possibility here scares me even more. That being that the Raiders are collecting a lot of players with the skill set to play in a 3-4. There were even reports back in June that Oakland was working on some 3-4 packages during mini camp. Its pretty unlikely that they would keep this a secret and spring the 3-4 on us at the last minute, but they could be headed that way in the fairly near future... Tommy Kelly has been a mainstay at tackle for the Raiders over the past five years. For owners in tackle required leagues he's provided some pretty useful numbers over that span, including 54 solo stops and a #1 ranking in 2006. Kelly's sack numbers dropped from 5.5 in 2008 to just 1 last season. This can easily be explained by the fact that he was spelled often on passing downs in '09. Between Seymour shifting inside and the addition of second round pick Lamarr Houston, the trend of Kelly playing only on early downs is likely to continue... Houston is a versatile player who played both tackle and end during his career at Texas before settling in at tackle during his senior season. He will be in the mix for a starting job right away and will see plenty of action even if he doesn't beat out free agent addition John Henderson. Houston is a disruptive penetrating tackle who makes a lot of plays in the opponents backfield. His senior season produced 68 combined tackles (22 for a loss) and 8 sacks. Houston's skill set might also fit well at DE in a 3-4 but he will most likely work at the three technique tackle. While Houston will be in the rotation I have to believe Kelly and Henderson will be the starters. At nearly 330 pounds Henderson is an anchor up front and a guy who is very difficult to root out. He holds ground well against double teams which allows the linebackers room to flow. He was brought in to help the struggling run defense and should do just that. Henderson put up good numbers early in his career and was a top five tackle every year from 2001 through 2005. Since that time his box score production has slipped and he's been in the top 15 just twice. If he were to land an every down role he could be very productive for us, but its hard to say at this point what the plan will be. An educated guess is that the starting lineup will be Seymour and Shaughnessy at the ends with Kelly at the three technique and Henderson at the five. On passing downs I expect to see Seymour move inside with Houston and Wimbley coming off the bench and the big guys taking a seat. The bottom line being that there is a lot of fantasy potential along the Raiders front four but its no sure thing that it will be realized. We will be looking closely at this situation during the preseason in hope of getting a clearer picture.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • DE Richard Seymour - Depth with a little upside
  • DE Matt Shaughnessy - Strong sleeper with big potential
  • DE/OLB Kamerion Wimbley- Sleeper with good upside if he lands an every down role
  • DE/DT Jay Richardson - No value
  • DT Tommy Kelly - Depth with upside in tackle required leagues
  • DT John Henderson - Depth in tackle required leagues
  • DT Lamarr Houston - Dynasty/Sleeper with high potential in tackle required leagues
  • DT Desmond Bryant - No value
  • Linebackers

    As the club's middle backer over the past four years Kirk Morrison averaged nearly 102 solo tackles with four straight top ten fantasy rankings. Despite racking up 109 tackles last season Morrison was not seen as a great fit in the scheme of new defensive coordinator John Marshall, and was pegged as a scapegoat for the struggling run defense. Once the Raiders landed Rolando McClain early in round one, Morrison was traded to Jacksonville. McClain was the consensus top MLB prospect in this year's draft and is exactly what Marshall pictures as the centerpiece of his defense. He's a big (6-4, 254 pound), intelligent thumper who possesses adequate cover skills and is both fast and athletic enough to be an every down player. McClain was very productive at Alabama where he led the team in tackles for two seasons and won the Butkus award last year as a junior. He is a run stuffer who can take on blocks at the point of attack without giving ground and can also make a contribution in the big play columns. In two plus years as a starter McClain picked off 5 passes and recorded 8 sacks to go along with 200 combined tackles/assists. He is talented, fits the scheme well and is playing behind an improved DL. Simply put, if there is a Patrick Willis to be found in this year's rookie class, McClain is that guy. Some people are very reluctant to trust unproven rookies at any position but I have had pretty good luck identifying guys like Willis and DeMeco Ryans over the years. I even drafted Zach Thomas as a rookie. If McClain falls out of the top 10 linebackers on draft day, he will be a steal for someone... As the Raiders WLB over the past four seasons Thomas Howard has put up good enough numbers to be considered quality depth or even a decent third starter at times. However, a switch in positions for Howard is among the expected changes for the upcoming season. Former DE Trevor Scott has been working at WLB during the offseason with Howard moving over to the strong side. While this could be a back breaker for Howard's fantasy value, it's not without merit from a football perspective. Howard played on the strong side at UTEP so he is not a stranger to the position. Plus his skills and experience in coverage can be put to better use if he lines up over the TE. The key to Howard's value will be in what the coaches do in passing situations. Chances are that Howard will pair with McClain while Scott either move into a rush end position or heads to the sideline. Scott is another very interesting prospect. He spent most of last season as a pass rushing DE with his 7 sacks tied for the team lead. Scott made his first start at WLB in week 12 and continued there for the remainder of the season. He stayed on the field virtually full time but not necessarily at LB. For example, in week fourteen Scott played all 65 defensive snaps. He started and played 40 of them at linebacker with the other 25 coming at end. Interestingly, there seemed to be no pattern as to when he would play end. Sometimes it was first down, other times it was passing situations. Not overlooking the fact that Kamerion Wimbley is also supposed to be getting work at linebacker, its hard to say how the playing time will break down with this group. Howard, Scott and Wimbley all have potential value for us but none of them seem likely to be more than adequate depth. At least not until we get a defined role for them... The situation at linebacker lends even more ammunition for speculation about a potential switch to a 3-4. Scott is a little undersized to play end on every down but is an excellent pass rusher. Howard would likely fit well at ILB and if not, the club really likes backup Ricky Brown who was pushing Morrison last year before being injured. Maybe it's just a conspiracy theory on my part but Seymour and Kelly at end with Henderson at nose tackle, Shaughnessy, Scott and Wimbley at OLB, McClain, Howard and Brown at ILB. That would make a pretty strong front seven for a 3-4 scheme and even provides for quality depth. Its something to think about.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • MLB Rolando McClain - Unproven but well worth the gamble as a quality second tier LB1
  • SLB Thomas Howard - Potential depth if he plays every down
  • WLB/DE Trevor Scott - Probable depth
  • OLB/MLB Ricky Brown - Injury sleeper
  • OLB Quentin Groves - No value
  • SLB Sam Williams - No value
  • Defensive Backs

    Considering that pass defense was the strength of the Raiders last season, it makes sense that no changes or significant additions were made to this group. That said, the Raiders are going to be a better team in 2010 so the secondary will be tested more often. When the Raiders used a second round pick on Michael Mitchell last season many of us expected big things from him, at least initially. The former Ohio University star has the kind of speed that Al Davis loves and came with a highlight reel full of big hits and plays that just made you say wow. He looked great during offseason workouts but once the pads went on it became clear that he still needs a lot of polishing before being NFL ready. Mitchell is a talented player who still has a lot of years and potential ahead of him. Unfortunately for Mitchell and those dynasty owners who drafted him last year, he also has Tyvon Branch ahead of him. Branch was the team's 4th round pick in 2008 and played very little as a rookie. He looked good early last offseason and the coaching staff took notice. Once the pads went on in training camp, Branch quickly pulled away in the competition. At 205 pounds he's not the biggest of strong safeties but Branch is quick to react, anticipates well, is a sure tackler and arrives at the ball with a bad attitude. Working as an in the box SS on a team that struggled to stop the run, Branch's 97 solo tackles were the most in the league by a defensive back. He reached double digit fantasy points in ten games, falling short of 7.5 only twice. If there is a down side to Branch it's that he doesn't make a ton of big plays. He intercepted a pass as a rookie but contributed only a pair of forced fumbles, a sack and 8 passes defended as a starter last season. We might speculate that the addition of McClain at MLB will hurt Branch's tackle numbers but don't forget that Morrison had 109 solos last year. The club will improve which means a few less opportunities for Branch, but other than McClain there remains little competition for tackles. All things considered, we shouldn't expect Branch to repeat last years stellar production but a solid 80+ tackles and maybe a few more big plays should still keep him near the top of our draft boards... Former first round pick Michael Huff seems to have found a role in Marshall's scheme that fits him well. Huff is not the most physical of safeties and was drafted so highly based on speed, athleticism and all the big plays he produced during his college career at Texas. Over his first three years in the NFL that big play ability remained untapped as he recorded just one interception. In '09 Huff exploded out of the gate with 3 picks in the first two games. Unfortunately he finished the season with just those 3 picks and 1 fumble recovery. That said, his role as the last line of defense doesn't promote a lot of opportunity to take chances. With the improvements in the front seven and an offense that can keep them in games, Huff should have a lot more chances this year. He'll never be a tackling machine but 60 tackles and 5-6 takeaways should be achievable numbers... In Nnamdi Asomugha the Raiders have one of the leagues premier cover corners. Unfortunately for fantasy owners that doesn't translate to the box scores. He has not reached 35 tackles in any of the past three seasons and 8 of his 11 career interception came in one season (2006). Offenses simply don't throw at him. His lack of production is so glaring that the Raiders have reportedly been shopping him over the offseason... With Asomugha on the other side, Chris Johnson is a player with a target on his back. In fifteen games last season he recorded 59 tackles, 18 passes defended and 3 picks. Not stellar production but certainly enough to make him quality depth in leagues that start two corners... Third corner Stanford Routt and backup safety Hiram Eugene shared time as the nickel and dime backs last season and will likely continue to do so. Walter McFadden and Jeremy Ware are a pair of late (5th and 7th) round picks who are developmental guys.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • SS Tyvon Branch - Consistency and production make him a top 5 DB
  • FS Michael Huff - Depth in large leagues
  • SS Michael Mitchell - Injury sleeper with long term upside
  • FS Hiram Eugene - Injury sleeper at best
  • CB Nnamdi Asomugha - No value
  • CB Chris Johnson - Corner required depth
  • CB Stanford Routt - No value
  • CB Walter McFadden - No value
  • CB Jeremy Ware - No value
  • San Diego Chargers

    Defensive Linemen

    At this point everyone knows the drill when it comes to 3-4 linemen and fantasy production. The scheme is just too limiting. Luis Castillo is one of the more gifted and athletic 3-4 ends in league. As a second year player back in 2006 he put up 28 tackles and 7 sacks in just 10 games before being lost to an injury. Since that time he's averaged well under 2 tackles per game and totaled 6 sacks in 39 starts. A laundry list of injuries over the past four years may be a contributing factor but even when healthy the production has not been there. Jacques Cesaire has been in and out of the Chargers starting lineup for the last seven years but has never reached 30 tackles in a season and his career best of 4.5 sacks came in 2006. Cesaire started 13 contests in 2009 and finished with 15 tackles. In fact no San Diego lineman put up more than 17 tackles or 3 sacks last season. Barring injury, Castillo and Cesaire will man the DE positions once again with Vaughn Martin and Travis Johnson competing during camp for the honor of backing them up. If the Chargers DL provides any hope at all for fantasy owners it comes from the nose tackle position where Jamal Williams was able to exceed 40 tackles three times in four the seasons between 2005 and 2008. After totaling 46-10-1.5 in '08 Williams spent last year on IR and is now with the Broncos. The problem now being that there is no clear starter at the position. Rookie fifth round pick Cam Thomas seems the most likely to eventually claim the job all to himself, but in the short term he will likely share time with Antonio Garay and Ogemdi Nwagbuo.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • DE Luis Castillo - No value
  • DE Jacques Cesaire - No value
  • DE Martin Vaughn - No value
  • DE Travis Johnson - No value
  • NT Cam Thomas - No value
  • NT Antonio Garay - No value
  • NT Ogemdi Nwagbuo - No value
  • Linebackers

    The Chargers linebackers give us more questions than answers. Is Stephen Cooper a long term option? Will Shawne Merriman ever be the player he once was? Will Larry English be able to step up if Merriman doesn't? Can Kevin Burnett be an every down player? All of these question beg for an answer but what I want to know most is how soon will Donald Butler replace Cooper as the centerpiece of this unit? Cooper got his first shot at a starting job in 2007 when he went 74-34-2 but added enough turnovers (7) to squeeze into the top 25. He missed the first four games of 2008 due to suspension but was red hot when he returned, finishing on a 96 tackle, 5 interception pace. Just when we thought he was going to turn it on for a full season, Cooper basically laid an egg in 2009 with 70 tackles, no interceptions and 4 total takeaways. Even when he was putting up good fantasy numbers Cooper was not as impressive on the field as he looked in the box scores, and the Chargers have never really been convinced that he was their long term answer... San Diego added Burnett as a free agent last offseason in hope that he would help solidify a somewhat questionable situation for them. He played very well at times but battled nagging injuries and was inconsistent at best. Camp will open with Cooper and Burnett penciled in as the starters but Butler and Brandon Siler could give them a run for their money. Cooper's letdown last year undoubtedly contributed to the Chargers decision to use their third round pick on Butler. As a senior at Washington he was a team captain who started all 12 games at MLB, posting 95 combined tackles, a sack and 5 turnovers. He is a consistent tackler who rarely misses and has good coverage skills. Butler is not particularly strong at the point of attack but does a very good job of picking his way through traffic and getting to the ball. In short, Butler's scouting report reads like a manual for the weak inside linebacker position in the Chargers scheme. The responsibilities of that position play to his strengths and camouflage his weaknesses. The added intangible of leadership is a huge plus as well. It probably won't happen right away but if Butler lives up to expectations he should be the starter by 2011 if not sooner... Siler may be the dark horse of the ILB group but if the numbers tell an accurate story he may have a better chance than we think. His 51 solo tackles placed second among Chargers linebackers in '09. That's a pretty impressive feat considering he was on the field for only 339 of the Chargers 740 defensive snaps on the season. At just under 1 tackle for every six snaps he played Siler was an animal. In week seven for example, he played just 12 total snaps and recorded 4 solo stops. Three times on the season Siler played between 41 and 44 snaps (about 70%) in a game. In those games he was 3-3, 7-1 and 7-1. His limited playing time also produced a forced fumble, an interception and a pair of sacks. Siler is just 24 years old and entering his fourth season as a pro, so his best years are ahead of him. The moral of this story is that Cooper and Burnett had better show up to play because Butler and Siler could be the (near) future for the Chargers if they don't. This will be among the most interesting situations we will be monitoring throughout August. At this point the best move for redraft owners would probably be to lay off all these guys until the very late rounds. Dynasty owners should look to land Butler and tuck him away for safe keeping... Over his first three seasons in the league Shawne Merriman looked like a future Hall of Famer. He averaged 13 sacks a season, accounted for 12 takeaways and was a disruptive force that offenses had to game plan for. His last two seasons however, have been very forgettable to say the least. Merriman has battled knee, Achilles and most recently foot injuries that caused him to miss fifteen games in '08 and four last season. When he did play in '09 Merriman was clearly not the same player and could muster only 4 sacks on the season. Now he is staying away from camp because he wants a new contract? Give me a break. One thing that has been constant about Merriman is that he's a head case. This is an ultra talented player with the potential to consistently produced 45-50 tackles and 12+ sacks a year. Unfortunately he's been more disruptive in the locker room than on the field of late. So much so in fact, that the Chargers tried to trade him over the offseason. For owners in big play leagues Merriman is certainly worthy of a late round pick but at this point neither the Chargers nor fantasy owners can really count on him... The San Diego brain trust saw the Merriman situation coming and tried to prepare for it by drafting Larry English last year. With Merriman in and out of the lineup, English was able to get on the field often as a rookie. The results were marginal at best as English finished last season with 26 tackles and a pair of sacks. It looks as if the Bolts are going to need a lot more from him this year... There are no question marks at the other OLB position where Shaun Phillips has been a steady and dependable starter since 2005. Over those five seasons he has consistently totaled around 50 tackles with at least 7 sacks in each of them. There is not a great deal of upside with Phillips but neither is there much risk... One thing that is certain, if the Chargers hope to be a contender in 2010 they are going to need more production from the OLB position than the 15 total sacks they got in 2009.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • ILB Stephen Cooper - Depth with LB3 or better potential, but comes with a lot of risk
  • ILB Kevin Burnett - Inconsistent late round flier with some upside
  • ILB Donald Butler - Dynasty special who could make an impact this year
  • ILB Brandon Siler - Deep sleeper with LB3 or better potential if things fall right
  • OLB Shawne Merriman - Big play prospect with tons of baggage/risk
  • OLB Shaun Phillips - Dependable LB2 in leagues that emphasize big plays
  • OLB Larry English - Sleeper in big play leagues
  • Defensive Backs

    With all the uncertainties in the front seven and particularly at ILB, the Chargers safeties could be busy this season. FS Eric Weddle has been a very strong option for fantasy owners over the past two years. At a glance his 2009 totals of 68-13-1 make Weddle's 105 tackle explosion 2008 look like a fluke, but he is more than a one year wonder. What last year's raw numbers don't tell is that he missed three games with minor injuries. If we average in three more games his 85 solo stops would cast a completely different light. Another factor that adds to Weddle's value is consistency. He totaled 9 or more fantasy points in ten of thirteen games last season. The only time he failed to reach 7.5 was in week twelve when he left the game early. The one downside with Weddle is that he is light in the big play columns. His three seasons in the league have produced just 5 turnovers and 3 sacks. If the Chargers front seven comes together strong and/or rookie SS Darrell Stuckey steps up, Weddle's numbers could slide a little, but those are a lot of ifs. Expect another solid 80 tackle season from him and don't hesitate to draft Weddle as a solid DB1 or excellent DB2... The Chargers have high hopes for Stuckey and are counting on him to contribute immediately. The fourth round pick was a very productive three year starter at Kansas, where he led the club in tackles as a senior. He is a versatile player who lined up at FS as a sophomore before moving to SS for his final two seasons. Stuckey has good range and cover skills. He tackles well but is not necessarily known for being a big hitter. The most important note for fantasy owners is that Stuckey is already seeing time as the first team strong safety. Although the numbers have been spread among a handful of players, this is a position that has produced pretty decent numbers in recent seasons. The last player to hold the job on virtually a full time basis was Clinton Hart. He went 68-17-1 with 6 takeaways and 9 PD in 2007. Stuckey will be given every opportunity to win the job outright and is a solid late round sleeper for us... The Chargers lost starting corner Antonio Cromartie to the Jets but they were prepared for it. 2008 first round selection Antoine Cason is ready to step up so the team shouldn't miss a beat. Cason will work opposite long time starter Quentin Jammer. Either starter could produce worthy numbers for owners in corner required leagues, but neither is a lock to do so. Cason has been the team's nickel corner for the past two years. As a rookie went 59-15 with a pair of picks and 7 passes defended in that role. Yet last year's numbers dropped to 40-4 with 2 picks and 3 PD. In 2008 Jammer was the fantasy games #4 corner with 75 tackles, 7 takeaways and 19 passes defended. Last year be barely made the top 40. If you need to take a chance on a corner late in the draft, give Jammer a shot. While he has been very inconsistent overall on a year to year basis, he has recorded 60+ tackles three times in the last five seasons... Former Bear Nathan Vasher will serve as the third corner and will contend with safeties Steve Gregory and Paul Oliver for the nickel duties.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • SS Darrell Stuckey - Sleeper with DB3 or better potential
  • FS Eric Weddle - Lower tier DB1 or excellent DB2
  • S Steve Gregory - No value
  • S Paul Oliver - No value
  • CB Quentin Jammer - Inconsistent and hard to call, CB1 potential but don't draft as more than depth
  • CB Antoine Cason - Potential depth in corner required leagues
  • CB Nathan Vasher - No value
  • CB Simeon Castille - No value
  • That's seven down and one to go. I'll be back in a few days with the final installment of this year's preseason EOTG, the NFC West. Until then, questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to norton@footballguys.com.

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