The Bills defense was all over the place in 2015. They were middle of the pack in yards allowed versus both the pass and run. Their 17 interceptions were sixth most in the league but their 21 sacks ranked thirty first. They could not even settle on which scheme to use. Early in the season it was mostly Rex Ryan's 3-4. When some key players complained and basically refused to buy in, the coaching staff started mixing in a lot of Jim Schwartz 4-3 looks as a sort of compromise. The results were actually pretty good as Buffalo finished strong against the Cowboys and Jets. No more says Ryan though. He described last year's blending of schemes as sort of like being "half pregnant" and proclaimed the 2016 Bills will run his defense. He went on to say any player not willing to buy in would not be part of the team. Ryan drew his line in the sand. As a result Mario Williams is now with the Dolphins and we know the Bills are going to be a fully pregnant 3-4 defense this year.
We know how the Bills will line up this season but figuring out the fantasy value of their defensive linemen may prove to be a challenge. As 4-3 tackles both Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams were studs. In 2013 and 2014 Dareus put together back to back seasons as the number two interior lineman. Over those two years he averaged roughly 41-20-8 with a pair of forced fumbles and 4 batted passes. Dareus lines up at nose tackle in Ryan's three man front. At 6'3" 331 pounds he can be a great fit at the position but the nature of the scheme will make it tough to keep up the level of production, at least when it comes to sacks. He was right on pace with 38 tackles in 2015 but Dareus was only able to take down a passer twice. At 38-13-2 he still had some value but dropped all the way to number twelve. Dareus should continue to give us strong tackles totals and I expect a little rebound in his pass rush numbers. At a position where quality production is rather scarce, 40 tackles, 15 assists and 3-5 sacks is a big deal. I like his chances of getting back into the top ten but will be surprised if Dareus makes the top five again.
Kyle Williams stands to lose the most in this situation. With a career best of 42-25-10 he was the fantasy game's top interior lineman in 2013. Under Schwartz in 2014 Williams played fifteen games and finished twelfth at 30-13-5. In 2015 Williams was injured in week six and eventually landed on IR, but his numbers were way down even before the injury. At age 32 there is some concern the eleven year veteran may be wearing down. What concerns me more is the prospect of his playing defensive end instead of tackle. Williams played some 3-4 nose tackle earlier in his career and will likely see some snaps there. With Dareus as the starter it is a good bet Williams will see most of his action at end. Over his six full seasons since 2008 Williams has averaged 39-22-5. Those are great numbers for a defensive tackle but for a defensive end they would make him a low end DL2 or quality depth. As of mid July Williams is still carrying the tackle designation in most leagues. If he stays there it would be excellent. Chances are he will be moved to end when the league hosts update player position in August. Be sure to take this into consideration and draft Williams accordingly.
Corbin Bryant stepped in last season when Williams went down. He did an adequate job and will enter camp as the starter. Bryant will have plenty of competition though. Free agent additions Leger Douzable and Jerel Worthy will probably get a look as will third round pick Adolphus Washington. Douzable has the advantage of being familiar with the scheme having played under Ryan with the Jets. Any of the three veterans would be a serviceable option but none are going to be the long term answer. Washington is the unknown commodity here and has the most upside by default. Like most defensive ends in three man fronts, Washington played inside during his college career. As a quick, agile and athletic tackle with an array of pass rush moves he could prove to be a perfect fit in Ryan's defense. Washington had the numbers at Ohio State to back up his draft status. As a starter for the Buckeyes over the past two seasons he was 48-49-9.5 with 4 turnovers and a defensive score. He was considered one of the best interior pass rushers in this year's deep rookie class and has the potential to be an excellent long term answer for the Bills. Even so fantasy owners should not get overly excited about him. In terms of box score production we have seen a lot of high potential guys like this turn out to be good but not special as 3-4 ends. The fact is there are not many who overcome the limitations of the scheme enough to be more than average.
NT/DE Marcell Dareus - Solid DT1
NT/DE Kyle Williams - Quality starter if he keeps tackle designation
DE Adolphus Washington - Sleeper with long term upside
DE Corbin Bryant - No value
DE Jerel Worthy - No value
DE Leger Douzable - No value
Rex and Rob Ryan both run basically the same defense. Can anyone name a top twelve linebacker who has played for either of them in the past five years? Let me save you some time; David Harris and Preston Brown have come closest. Harris and Demario Davis were fourteen and fifteen respectively in 2014, and Brown managed to squeeze into the top fifteen last year on the strength of one big game in which he had 2 interceptions and a score. For Harris and Davis it was the only time either of them made the top twenty five while Rex was coaching the Jets. For Rob it was Sean Lee getting closest with a finish of twenty third in 2011, followed by Curtis Lofton coming in at twenty seven in 2013 before Rob could get rid of him in New Orleans. Maybe it is just a coincidence and maybe it has something to do with the scheme. Whatever the reason, these two coaches seem to kill linebacker value like Marty Schottenheimer killed receivers back in the day.
Brown started off fairly strong as a rookie in 2014. He had 6 or more tackles in three of his first six games. Over the final ten contests he never put up more than 5. In his second season Brown was supposed to become the centerpiece of Ryan's defense. He managed 6 or more tackles in four games last year while recording 2 or fewer five times. Late last season Brown even found himself in a part time role after Manny Lawson was shifted inside. That alone speaks volumes when we consider Lawson had never played on the inside during his ten year pro career.
Brown enters 2016 in a battle for his starting job. The Bills added former Titans starter Zach Brown in free agency then used their second round pick on Alabama's star linebacker Reggie Ragland. The rookie will be in the starting lineup from the first snap of training camp. He is a big bruising thumper who led the Crimson Tide in tackles as a senior. He showed a little big play ability as well with 7 turnovers, 4 sacks and 10 passes defended in twenty eight games as a starter over the past two seasons. The only question with Ragland is can he be a three down player at the NFL level? In many ways he is much like David Harris; strong and physical versus the run with the ability to sift through blockers and get to the ball, but not particularly fast and not suited to man coverage. If they can find a way to hide his questionable cover skills with scheme and keep him on the field full time, Ragland could eventually be the Ryan's first top twelve linebacker of the decade. I would not count on that happening this year though. I expect him to be much like Harris in the box scores as well. If Ragland ends up in a three down role as I believe he ultimately will, I look for him to be a solid LB3 with low LB2 upside at best.
I believe Zach Brown has a real shot at beating out Preston Brown for the other starting job. Preston Brown ended last year in Ryan's doghouse and did not seem to be a good fit in the scheme. While I am not particularly impressed with Zach Brown as a player in general, he could prove to be a good fit. He can be successful getting to the passer as shown by the 10 sacks recorded over his two years as a full time starter in Tennessee (2012-2013). He has better than average cover skills and has shown a knack for the big play with 9 turnovers, 10 passes defended and a pair of scores in those two seasons as well. Brown was injured and missed basically all of 2014. He started several games for the Titans last season but finished the year as a part time player while the coaching staff searched for answers at linebacker. If he lands a three down role we could see the same story with different actors in Buffalo this year. Ragland would play the part of David Harris while Brown plays his sidekick Demario Davis. Keep a close eye on this one when camp opens.
The Bills had a pair of outstanding edge rushers in 2015, if only they had allowed them to rush. Mario Williams was on a string of three consecutive seasons with double digit sacks heading into last year and Jerry Hughes had 9.5 in each of the two prior campaigns. Williams was one of the malcontents to voice his displeasure with Ryan's scheme which requires outside linebackers and sometimes even defensive ends to drop in coverage once in a while. The general complaint being the scheme requires too much thought instead of letting players pin their ears back and rush. Looking at the end results it is hard to argue with Williams point. His production plummeted from 37-6-14.5 in 2014 to 15-4-5 last year. The results for Hughes were less dismal but he too saw a considerable drop in sacks finishing with 5. Again I look back at the history of Ryan's defenses. Over his six seasons as the Jets head coach only one outside linebacker put up more than 8 sacks in any season. In four of those six seasons the team leader in sacks had 6.5 or fewer. This is simply not a good sign for either Hughes or first round pick Shaq Lawson.
Hughes should have similar production to the 37-15-5 he had last year with maybe another sack or two. If he were still a defensive end that production would make him worth a roster spot as a DL3. As a linebacker he will have value only as depth in big play based leagues with more than twelve teams and/or deep rosters. For those who are excited about Shaq Lawson I am sorry to rain on your parade. This is not the first time Ryan has made such an investment on an outside rusher who was supposed to be the answer. Anyone remember Bryan Thomas and Quentin Coples? If you are not scared away by the injury that could keep Lawson off the field for the first month or more of the season, be scared away by the defensive scheme that seems to consistently hold back players statistically.
ILB Reggie Ragland - Solid LB3 with a little long term upside
ILB Preston Brown - Risky pick with LB3 ceiling and low floor
ILB Zach Brown - Sleeper with low LB3 upside
ILB Jamari Lattimore - No value
OLB Shaq Lawson - Minimal value upon return from injury
OLB Jerry Hughes - Depth in big play based leagues
OLB Manny Lawson - No value
OLB IK Enemkpali - No value
The most fantasy friendly defensive player in a Bills uniform last year was strong safety Corey Graham and there are reasons to be a little nervous about him. For starters year nine is a little late for a player's breakout season. Graham was a fifth round pick of the Bears in 2007. Before last year's 95 tackles, 32 assists, 4 turnovers, a sack and a score, the best production of his career had been the 77-14-0 with 3 turnovers he had in Chicago way back in 2008. In the other seven seasons Graham failed to reach 60 solo tackles and had more than 2 turnovers twice. Maybe it just took this long to land in the right situation or maybe he will prove to be a one year wonder. Regardless which side of the fence you are on with him, expecting a repeat of last year's numbers would be a mistake. Graham has been a consistent contributor in the big play columns with at least 3 turnovers in each of the last five seasons so there is no reason to expect less from him there, and I would not expect his tackle totals to crash completely. He was the number three defensive back in 2015. Knocking 10 tackles and a few assists off last year’s totals would be reasonable expectations and would still make Graham a solid DB1.
After missing most of last season with a neck injury Aaron Williams should return to start at free safety. He too could have some value in 2016. There was a little overlap but Williams and fellow safeties Bacarri Rambo, Jonathan Meeks and Duke Williams combined for 90 solo tackles and 7 turnovers last year. Aaron Williams was the Bills second round pick in 2011. His career best production to date came in 2013 when he was 60-22-0 with 5 turnovers and 11passes defended. If he can add a few tackles to those totals Williams will be a quality fantasy contributor. Judging by last year's safety production in general, 10 more tackles would not be a surprise. Pencil him in as a late round sleeper in deep drafted leagues and keep a close eye on the situation when camp opens.
The word out of Buffalo has the coaching staff looking at ways to get Robert Blanton and Duke Williams more involved. This could be a hint we will see some three safety sets and/or a safety playing linebacker in sub packages. Everyone else is doing it so we should expect the Bills will add it to their arsenal as well.
Buffalo used a lot of bodies at corner in 2015. Falling in line with the rookie corner rule Ronald Darby led the team with 62 solo tackles from the position and was the fantasy game's number ten corner. With Leodis McKelvin and Rob Brooks moving on, Darby and Stephon Gilmore are slated to be the starters with Nickell Robey likely holding the nickel corner role. If Darby follows the usual trend his tackle numbers will slip a little but he will step up with more than last year's two interceptions. The corner position has more year to year inconsistency than any other position in fantasy football so nothing is written in stone, but Darby is in a good situation to repeat last year's finish.
SS Corey Graham - Safe to target as top ten DB but don't expect 95 solo tackles again
FS Aaron Williams - Sleeper with DB3 upside
SS Robert Blanton - Injury sleeper at best
FS Duke Williams - Minimal value at best
CB Stephon Gilmore - Possible CB3 with limited potential
CB Ronald Darby - Target as priority DB2 with top ten upside
CB Nickell Robey - Could push Gilmore for starting job
CB Kevon Seymour - No value at this time
The Dolphins were not horrible defensively in 2015 but there is plenty of room for improvement. They were fifth against the run and twelfth versus the pass but did not create enough game changing plays. Miami's pass rush produced 31 sacks ranking twenty fifth and their 16 turnovers was near the bottom of the league. With a new coaching staff in place the organization felt the need to create a new culture both in the locker room and on the field. Thus there will be several new faces in the defensive huddle this year. In free agency they basically swapped a couple of good defensive ends (Olivier Vernon and Derrick Shelby) for a couple of better ones in Mario Williams and Andre Branch. The Dolphins also added journeyman Jason Jones and will get Cameron Wake back from injury. The end result is a strong and deep veteran group at end.
In Williams and Wake Miami has two of the league's premier pass rushers. Statistically Williams is coming off an ugly year in Buffalo but there is little doubt he will be a good productive fit in defensive coordinator Vance Joseph's aggressive 4-3. In a similar scheme under Jim Schwartz from 2012 to 2014, Williams averaged 35-8-12.5. He is no spring chicken but age has not yet become a factor for the 31 year old who signed a two year deal with the team in March. In a game that is all about what have you done for me lately; last year's poor numbers will have a lot of owners over looking Williams. If you miss out or simply elect to pass on the elite first tier defensive ends, do not hesitate to grab Williams as your DL1. Barring an injury 35+ solo tackles and double digit sacks are a near lock.
There is much more risk involved with Wake but there is just as much potential. From 2010 through 2014 he averaged 36 tackles, 9 assists, 11.5 sacks and totaled 13 turnovers for the Dolphins. He was bothered by a hamstring injury early last season, missing nearly all of the first four games. After the team's week five bye Wake was rested and ready for action. He then set out on a mission to catch up on the sacks he had missed in September. Over a three game stretch Wake blew up for 7 sacks and forced 4 fumbles. Unfortunately the third game in that string ended with a torn Achilles’. At age 34 there are concerns he will not be the same player after such a serious injury. All the reports of his rehab suggest otherwise and the team gave a vote of confidence by signing Wake to a two year extension. What might be a bigger concern is the possibility of a role change for the aging veteran. The coaching staff plans to keep him fresh and healthy by reducing his snap count and using him as a sub package rush specialist. This should have little effect on Wake's big play totals but could mean a significant drop in tackle production. He is still worthy of a roster spot in twelve team leagues starting three linemen but counting on him as an every week starter might not be a good idea. Target Wake as a low end DL2 in a pinch or a quality DL3 with upside.
The next question to answer is who gets the base package snaps at end opposite Williams. Third year man Terrence Fede could get a look but the real competition will be between the team's free agent additions. Jason Jones is a journeyman who will be playing for his fourth team in nine seasons as a pro. He has struggled to stay healthy over much of his career. As a result Jones has never been much more than a marginal part time starter or quality depth at any of his three previous stops. He missed only one game in the past two seasons with Detroit so the injury bug may finally be behind him. Jones can be a solid contributor to the Dolphins cause. His thirty one games with the Lions produced 41 tackles, 9.5 sacks and 3 turnovers. If he could manage similar numbers in a sixteen game season we might be onto something. Providing everyone stay healthy, if he lands the starting job we can expect no more than 25-30 tackles and 4-5 sacks from the veteran.
Branch is basically a four year younger version of Jones. In four seasons with the Jaguars he missed a total of thirteen games and was never able to establish himself as a full time starter. Branch's best production came in 2013 when he completed his only full season, finishing at 30-7-6. At 259 pounds he is a bit undersized for an early down end. Branch is giving up about fifteen pounds to Jones which could be a factor. Jones also has the versatility to slide inside on passing downs which could help him get on the field more. If Wake and Williams are both able to stay healthy, the battle for playing time between Branch and Jones will be irrelevant. If there is an injury however, one of these players will probably be a good pickup. In that situation I would lean toward Branch.
There is much less to consider when it comes to the Dolphins interior line. Ndamukong Suh is one of the leagues dirtiest players but there is no doubting his ability or production potential. If he could stay motivated every week Suh could be the J.J. Watt of interior linemen. Unfortunately there is a lot of game film showing his lack of intensity and hustle at times. Suh was horrible over the first month plus of 2015. In five games he had 9 tackles and 2 assists with no sacks. When Cameron Wake blew up for 4 sacks in week five I wrote in my column to start Suh the following week as he would be motivated to show his ability as well. Week six was his biggest game of the year going 5-1-2 and batting a couple of passes. As Sterling Sharp likes to say; when a player shows you who he is, believe him. We know who Suh is. Maybe the new coaching staff can bring out his best every week. Even if they fail to do so we can count on 40 tackles and 6-8 sacks, making Suh an elite top five tackle.
Earl Mitchell and last year's second round pick Jordan Phillips will compete for the starting job next to Suh. Both are basically two down run defenders who will give way to someone (possibly Jason Jones) on passing downs.
DE Cameron Wake - Risky to count on him as more than a DL3 with upside
DE Mario Williams - Quality DL1 with top five potential
DE Andre Branch - Injury sleeper worth keeping an eye on
DE Jason Jones - Marginal value at best unless he moves to tackle
DE Terrence Fede - No value
DT Ndamukong Suh - Elite DT1
DT Earl Mitchell - No value
DT Jordan Phillips - No value
The Dolphins were an absolute mess at linebacker last season. They were short on both bodies and talent to begin with. Then their best player at the position (Jelani Jenkins) was banged up early and tried to play through nagging injuries most of the season. Strong side backer Koa Misi played out of position in the middle for a while and career backup Kelvin Sheppard ended up in a three down role. On the field the results were better than might have been expected. In the box scores they were not. Sheppard was the best fantasy option of the group with 76 tackles, 30 assists and no big plays at all.
Things should be much better on the field in 2016. Misi is back on the strong side where he belongs, Jenkins is healthy and the team traded for Kiko Alonso to start in the middle. Veterans James-Michael Johnson and Spencer Paysinger provide decent depth and second year pro Zach Vigil will continue to work on special teams while he develops.
There should be a great deal of improvement in terms of fantasy value as well. Alonso had a huge rookie season with the Bills in 2013 when a stat line of 87-72-2 and 7 turnovers made him the fantasy game's number six linebacker. He suffered a severe knee injury before the 2014 season started and missed the entire year. Alonso was traded to Philadelphia before last season. He was still working back from the injury so there were no grand expectations. He missed some games early on and played sparingly until the final two weeks. Alonso reminded fantasy owners how good he could be by posting 13 tackles and 4 assists in those two games including an 8-1 line against the Giants in week seventeen. The injury risk is enough concern to hold his draft value down but now that he is two full years removed from the surgery Alonso's potential is through the roof. He is a physical run stuffer with above average cover skills and a knack for the big play. With the quality and depth at the top of the linebacker tiers there is no need to risk him as your LB1 but if he can stay healthy it would not be a shock to see Alonso among the top twelve at the end of the year.
It is a little hard to predict the value of Jelani Jenkins in 2016. His numbers from last season tell us little since he was gimpy from about week three on. Jenkins had 16 tackles and 7 assists in the first two games but there was no Alonso on the roster then either. Nor was there a strong middle linebacker presence in 2014 when Jenkins was 83-27-3.5 with a couple of turnovers. He is a solid linebacker who rarely makes mental mistakes, is a dependable tackler, covers well and has been successful as a blitzer. Jenkins is not a punishing physical presence but has enough range to make plays all over the field and should be a good fit on the weak side in Joseph's scheme. I expect him to be on the field all three downs so the potential is there for good production. Alonso will be the lead dog but I think there will be enough left over for Jenkins to be a decent third starter or an excellent LB4 at worst.
Koa Misi should be a good contributor to the Dolphins cause but as a two down strong side backer he is not going to provide any fantasy value. Even when the team tried him as a three down middle backer his numbers were not all that good. He could feel some heat from Johnson and/or Paysinger this summer but I expect Misi to be the opening day starter.
MLB Kiko Alonso - Injury risk but the reward could be well worth it
WLB Jelani Jenkins - Target as low end LB3 or priority depth with upside
SLB Koa Misi - Minimal value at best
MLB Zach Vigil - Developmental prospect at this stage
OLB Spencer Paysinger - No value
SLB/MLB James-Michael Johnson - No value
With 107 solo stops Reshad Jones was the second leading tackler in the league last season regardless of position. That alone is impressive for a safety but Jones is not a one trick pony. Add in his 5 interceptions, 10 passes defended, a fumble recovery, a couple of sacks and 2 scores, and you get the fantasy game's top scoring defensive player for 2016. The team's afore mentioned struggles at linebacker obviously contributed to the gaudy tackle total. With the addition of Alonso and a healthy Jenkins, expecting Jones to reach triple digits again would be wishful thinking, but he is hardly a one year wonder. If not for missing the first four games in 2014 he would be on a streak of four seasons with at least 75 solo tackles. Even in that twelve game season he managed 70 tackles and just missed the top twenty five. Since becoming the Dolphins starting strong safety in 2012 Jones has averaged nearly 85 tackles a season with 19 turnovers, 30 passes defended, 5.5 sacks, 3 scores and three top twelve rankings. He may slip out of the number one spot this year but there is no better option as the first defensive back off the board.
Jones was easily the best player in the Miami secondary last season and it looks as if he will be the only returning starter. Michael Thomas and Walt Aikens were the other two safeties who saw a lot of action last season but neither was able to impress. Between them they had 90 solo tackles but made no big play contribution at all. The team added former Lions starter Isa Abduhl-Quddus in free agency and have penciled him in at the top of the depth chart as free safety. I hope their pencil has a good eraser because I am not so sure he will be an improvement. Abduhl-Quddus is a sixth year player who spent his first five seasons as a backup and special team’s ace for the Saints and Lions. He made twelve starts for Detroit over the past two seasons with no interceptions and 1 forced fumble. He looked good at times in his eight starts last year but there is a reason the Lions had him splitting time with James Ihedigbo in December.
With Brent Grimes and Jamar Taylor moving on the Dolphins will be looking at a new starting tandem on the corners. Byron Maxwell came over from Philadelphia in the same trade that brought Kiko Alonso and will be plugged in at one spot. The team then used a second round pick on Xavien Howard who is expected to start opposite him. No Miami corner contributed more than 41 tackles last season and Grimes had 4 of the 5 interceptions the position produced. At a glance it would seem there is not much worth looking at here. I would remind everyone that corners are the most inconsistent players in the game on a year to year basis and there has been a lot of change in Miami. I would also point out the rookie corner rule for Howard and the fact Maxwell's 9 points a game on average placed him in the CB2 range last season. We should take a wait and see approach with both of these players but owners in corner required leagues should not blow them off without consideration.
SS Reshad Jones - Should be the first DB off the board
FS Isa Abduhl-Quddus - Not much expectation
FS Walt Aikens - No value
SS Michael Thomas - marginal value at best
SS Jordan Lucas - Deep sleeper
CB Byron Maxwell - Potential CB2 or solid depth
CB Xavien Howard - Rookie corner rule
CB Bobby McCain - likely to be the nickel corner
CB Tony Lippett - No value
New England Patriots
The Patriots threw us a bit of a curve ball when they traded 2015 team sack leader Chandler Jones to Arizona. The only easy prediction here is Jabaal Sheard replacing him both on the field and in the box scores. Technically Sheard was supposed to be New England's third outside pass rusher behind Jones and Rob Ninkovich last year. As it turned out he was on the field a lot more than most number three pass rushers. Sheard missed three games with a minor injury but still played 56% of the defensive snaps, finishing second on the team with 8 sacks. Off field and behind the scene issues instigated the trade of Jones but having confidence in Sheard's ability to step up probably made the decision much easier for the organization. At 27 years of age Sheard is in the prime of his career and has already proven to be a great fit in the scheme. Nothing is ever a given with the Patriots but chances are he will step right into the role vacated by Jones and could prove to be even more productive. It is too early to count Sheard among the elite first tier of fantasy linemen but 40+ tackles and 10-12 sacks would not be beyond the realm of reasonable expectations. I have him slotted as a priority second tier DL1 entering camp.
We have a good idea what to expect from Sheard. That is not so much the case when it comes to Ninkovich. In most instances a player's versatility is a plus. In this situation the ability of Ninkovich to handle multiple roles does nothing but cloud the issue. He finished last season with 33 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 7 passed defended and a couple of turnovers. While those numbers are not bad for a defensive end, they were the lowest production for Ninkovich since becoming a starter in 2010. Some might see it as a sign of decline for the 32 year old. I believe his slack in production was simply due to the presence of Sheard. Over his six seasons as a starter Ninkovich has exceeded 40 solo tackles four times, averaged 7 sacks and consistently been a dependable DL2. With Jones gone and Sheard taking over the starting role I expect Ninkovich will ultimately continue being that player, but it is not quite so simple. Because he can rush the passer, is tough versus the run and is able to drop in coverage, the coaching staff is toying with the idea of moving him to linebacker. He has played on the outside in the Patriots 3-4 in years past so it is expected he would line up there when they are in a three man front. During offseason activities he has also worked at end, strong side linebacker and even as the middle backer in the 4-3. All of this is fine and could even be a plus for his fantasy value so long as he plays enough defensive end to retain the positional designation. If you already have Ninkovich in a dynasty format, sit tight and see what happens. If you are drafting from scratch I would move him down a few slots until we can get a better feel for what is going on. After all the Patriots are always so good about telling us the truth right?
The addition of free agent Chris Long could also be a factor in the Ninkovich situation. Long spent the first nine years of his career with the Rams where he accumulated 54.5 sacks and accounted for 13 turnovers. His last two seasons in St. Louis were basically a wash due to injuries. He missed ten games with an ankle in 2014, and then suffered a knee injury that derailed his 2015 after week four. From 2010 to 2013 however, Long averaged better than 10.5 sacks per season. The initial expectation has him working as the third outside pass rusher much like Sheard was supposed to do last year. Long is 31 years old and still has plenty of gas in the tank. He is an excellent pass rusher and a good enough run defender to handle and every down role if called upon. If the coaching staff can find some combination they like with Ninkovich, Sheard and Long on the field at the same time, we might see them all in near every down roles. The one downfall with Long in fantasy terms has been consistently marginal tackle numbers. Even as a three down player for the Rams he never put up more than 33 solo stops in a season. Unless you are in a league with a lot of teams and/or deep rosters he is probably not worth the roster space at this point. There is certainly some potential though, so we will be keeping a close eye on the situation come August.
Last year's third round pick Geneo Grissom could also figure into the mix. He worked at linebacker as a rookie but has been working with the defensive ends this offseason. Grissom did not see the field much last year so we have little to go on as far as expectations, but he did record a sack in week seventeen.
With a stat line of 31-17-3 and a pair of turnovers Malcom Brown's rookie numbers were not eye catching. They were good enough to make him a top twelve tackle though. His value and upside take on a different light when we consider he had all of four solo tackles heading into week seven. That was the first week he saw action on more than 26 snaps. The rest of the way Brown averaged 36 plays a game including 43 in week sixteen and a season high 54 in the finale. New England likes to use a lot of sub package pass rushers so Brown will probably never be a true three down tackle. Even so his role will likely grow in his second season and Brown should get snaps in some short passing down nickel packages. He is not a great pass rusher but can push the pocket as well as anyone and is a strong run defender. Brown is not a threat to finish among the elite tackles but he could be a solid low end DT1 with 35+ tackles and 4-5 sacks.
Alan Branch will be the other starter on the inside and will line up at nose tackle in three man fronts. He is a 350 pound anchor who will only see action in base package situations thus will have little box score potential. Rookie Vincent Valentine will back up Branch and be groomed to eventually take over the starting job.
DE/OLB Rob Ninkovich - Solid DL2 if he continues as a defensive end
DE Jabaal Sheard - Low end DL1 with top five potential
DE Chris Long - Deep sleeper to keep an eye on
DE Geneo Grissom - No value at this point
DT Malcom Brown - Low end DT1
DT Alan Branch - Minimal value at best
DT Vincent Valentine - No value
DT Markus Kuhn - No value
There is some potential for Dont'a Hightower, Jonathan Freeney or free agent addition Shea McClellin to provide good fantasy value, but only Jamie Collins Sr is certain to do so. Many owners will look only at last year's final totals and see his 52 solo tackles. Others will look at the final rankings and see Collins at around number eighteen. We need to look a little deeper and realize he missed four games with injury and still managed to land in the top twenty. In fact Collins's average of 14.2 points per game ranked seventh in 2015. He played fifteen games in 2014 totaling 74-42 in the tackle columns and was on about the same pace last season. Those numbers are not bad but the key to his value is a knack for the big play. In twenty six full games as a starter Collins has an impressive 15 turnovers, 9.5 sacks, 9 pass breakups and a score. The tackle production is just enough to keep him consistent from week to week. Throw out the week eight game when he was injured and Collins reached double digit points in nine of eleven starts last season. The big play upside gives him the potential to blow up on any given week as well. In 2015 he recorded more than 23 points in three of those games. Collins is one of my favorite players to target. He provides consistency, has the potential to blow up on any given week and is generally a little undervalued by owners on draft day, allowing him to be picked up a round or two later than he should. There is a bit of injury concern since he has not played a full sixteen games in either of his two seasons as starter, but it is too early to call him injury prone. Collins belongs firmly in the second tier of linebacker and is a solid option for your LB1 if you miss out on one of the elite three.
Collins is the only Patriots linebacker we can count on to play every down. Hightower will tease us with a few strong games every year but the coaching staff has never seen fit to consistently trust him in a three down role. He has some value as a hit or miss matchup based bye week fill in but is not a player we want to count on as an every week starter.
Freeney is the Patriots utility man. He can fill in at any of the linebacker spots including outside backer in 3-4 alignments if necessary. There is not much chance he will land a starting job unless someone is injured. Should Collins be lost for an extended time however, Freeney would get the call to fill the void and might play all three downs.
The addition of McClellin is a little puzzling to me. He was not impressive as the Bears starter last season and the fact a linebacker needy team like Chicago made little effort to keep him speaks volumes. Obviously the Patriots staff saw something they like and believe he will be a good fit at their vacant middle backer spot. McClellin held a three down role for a few games in Chicago last year. He failed to make an impact in the big play department but did manage solid tackle production over a five game stretch starting in week ten. I see McClellin as a solid run stuffing two down thumper and have no grand expectations. On the other hand we never know what to expect from the Patriots. He might be worth a late round flier if you have room or need at the but be prepared to move quickly if thing do not look good early and a better option presents itself.
MLB Shea McClellin - Sleeper with limited upside
SLB/MLB Dont'a Hightower - Matchup based bye week fill in
WLB Jamie Collins Sr - Second tier LB1 with top 5 potential
OLB/MLB Jonathan Freeney - Injury sleeper
MLB Elandon Roberts - Developmental LB and special team’s contributor
OLB Ramon Humber - No value
WLB/SS Kamu Grugier-Hill - Possible nickel ILB down the road
There have not been many New England defensive backs on fantasy rosters over the past few years and it is easy to figure out why. Most NFL teams will use seven or eight defensive backs over the course of a season. In 2015 the Patriots had seven safeties record at least 9 tackles and used thirteen DBs all together. By NFL standards free safety Devin McCourty and strong safety Patrick Chung are quality starters. By fantasy standards not so much. McCourty has not exceeded 50 tackles in a season since 2012 and has a total of 4 interceptions over the past three seasons. Chung was a top twenty DB way back in 2010 but has struggled to stay healthy since. He managed to make it through all of 2014 but finished with a final stat line of 53-30-0 with a single turnover.
Both of the team's starting corners finished last season among the top twenty fantasy options at the position with Logan Ryan making the top ten. In most situations counting on corners to repeat is risky business, this is the case with Ryan as well. Malcolm Butler is actually the Patriots best corner. Instead of matching him up on opponent’s number one receivers last year however, New England would use Ryan and another defensive back (most often a safety) to double the best receiver. Butler would then match up one on one with the number two. This put Ryan in position for a lot of opportunity. Not only was he targeted often but the help over the top allowed him to take chances and make plays on the ball. The result was a solid (for a corner) 58 tackles with 4 picks, a forced fumble, 14 passes defended and a score. If the approach remains the same and Ryan continues to start we can expect him to be highly productive once again in 2016. At this point there is no reason to suspect anything different but you never know with this team.
Butler was the hero of Super Bowl forty nine. He carried the momentum over to last season when he emerged as the team's best cover man. As a starter Butler totaled a solid 55 tackles with 15 passes defended and a couple of picks. He was not a rookie in 2015 but as an inexperienced first time starter the rookie corner rule will probably apply to his situation. He can still be a good CB2 option for us but some drop in the tackle total can be expected. Butler's fantasy potential will ultimately hinge on how much he can improve in the turnover department.
The Patriots used their first round pick on Cyrus Jones who could throw a wrench into everything we expect from the top two corners. Scouts project him as a strong slot corner at the pro level but we do not know if Bill Belichick has the same projection. We do know the Patriots are not going to start a player just because he was a first round pick. In fact they have a history of sitting early round defensive backs for a year or two before giving them significant playing time.
For those who draft early I suggest targeting Ryan as a priority CB2 with upside and Butler as a priority CB3 with mid CB2 potential. As is always the case with corners however, I would look to pick these guys up in the late rounds and be prepared to move on quickly if things are not looking good when the season opens. There are always productive corners emerging in the first weeks of the regular season.
FS Devin McCourty - Minimal value at best
SS Patrick Chung - Injury risk with limited potential
SS Duron Harmon - No value
S Jordan Richards - Injury sleeper at best
CB Malcolm Butler - CB3 with some upside
CB Logan Ryan - Priority CB2
CB Justin Coleman - No value
CB Cyrus Jones - Dynasty sleeper, rookie corner rule could come into play
CB E.J. Biggers - No value
New York Jets
The typical 3-4 defense asks its linemen to be responsible for two running lanes. This is generally referred to as a 2-gap approach and most often results in linemen having to read while holding their ground, recognize where the play is going and then react to the ball. Teams using this scheme expect their linemen to occupy a lot of space and/or more than one blocker, forcing runners to go around them and allowing linebackers to make plays. This is the reason we see so few quality fantasy options from teams using three man fronts as their base defense. The design of the scheme simply puts them at a disadvantage. For a lot of players this fits their skill set and gives them an opportunity to contribute significantly to the success of their team while sacrificing statistically. The scheme run by former Jets head coach Rex Ryan uses a lot of different looks up front. Sometimes it asks linemen to play 2-gap and sometimes they are even asked to drop into a passing zone to cover a spot vacated by a blitz from the second level. This is why Mario Williams and some of the other Bills players were unhappy. They had to think too much instead of knowing where they were going before the snap, concentrating only on getting there, and taking down the ball carrier if he happens to cross their path in between.
Under Todd Bowles the Jets still line up in a three man front most of the time but the scheme is much different. There are a lot of different looks in relation to where players line up and what gap they are responsible for on a given play, but everyone in the front seven (often front 8 with a safety in the box) is responsible for one gap. Bowles defense will blitz as much or more than any in the league. They keep offenses guessing by disguising the blitz and using stunts along the front line to confuse blockers. Bowles wants his linemen to blow up blocking schemes not by absorbing blockers but by penetrating and/or pushing them into the backfield. This approach allows players to be aggressive and disruptive. It helped Calais Campbell to a career best 9.5 sacks in 2013 and was the reason Muhammad Wilkerson set a new career mark with 12 last year.
Like Campbell, Wilkerson is a rare breed of elite player who will be a difference maker on the field and an excellent fantasy option in any scheme. At 38-26-12 with a couple of turnovers and 7 batted passes 2015 was the best of his five pro seasons in fantasy terms, but it was not his first top ten finish. That came in 2013 when Wilkerson was 43-21-10.5. What Bowles scheme should do however is give him consistency. Twice in five seasons Wilkerson has reached double digit sacks. In the other three years he has no more than 5.5. If not for three missed games in 2014 he would have produced at least 35 solo stops every year so quality tackle production has been a sure thing regardless of scheme. All things considered the only thing to possibly keep Wilkerson out of the top ten this year is his lingering contract situation. He will likely play under the franchise tag but there is always the chance of a holdout.
One factor allowing the Jets to be stubborn in contract negotiations with Wilkerson is their depth up front. It is rare for a 3-4 team to have an exceptionally productive player at end. The Jets have three of them with top fifteen potential. The combination of suspension and minor injury cost Sheldon Richardson five games last year so his numbers were not impressive. We can look at his first two seasons and get a better idea how big a factor he can be both on the field and in the box scores. As a rookie Richardson was a solid DL3 at 41-36-3. In his second season he came to life as a pass rusher going 42-24-8 with a couple of turnovers, moving into the quality DL2 conversation. He is a bit smaller than Wilkerson but has the same exceptional athleticism and non-stop motor. Richardson will have the first week off compliments of the commissioner’s office but should be right back in the area of 40 tackles and 8 or 9 sacks by the end of the season. It could be more if the Wilkerson situation gets ugly and he elects to hold out.
Last year's sixth overall pick Leonard Williams is cut from the same mold. When all the career numbers are in he may prove to be the best of the three. The coaching staff found ways to get all three of their stud linemen on the field together at times last year, and the five games Richardson missed allowed Williams into the starting lineup right out of the gate. His rookie numbers of 29-34-3.5 were not impressive but then they are rookie numbers so we should not put too much weight on them. For the record J.J. Watt was 49-7-5.5 as a rookie, Calais Campbell was 24-5-0 and did not have his first sack until year two, and Wilkerson was 35-13-3. It is only a matter of time before Williams breaks out, and again if the Wilkerson situation gets ugly it could speed the process.
One thing Todd Bowles is known for is adapting his scheme to fit the skill set of his players. Wilkerson, Richardson, Williams and Damon Harrison gave Bowles a quartet of outstanding linemen to work with last year. The result was the Jets using more four man fronts as the season went on. Harrison moved across town to the Giants in free agency and was replaced on the roster by former Steelers starter Steve McClendon. McClendon may be somewhat of a step down and we could see fellow free agent addition Jarvis Jenkins at tackle in four man fronts. Jenkins was added as a safety net in case Wilkerson is not in the fold by September. As a 3-4 end he would provide solid depth for the Jets but he has little box score upside.
DE Muhammad Wilkerson - Quality DL1 with top five potential if he plays under the franchise tag
DE Sheldon Richardson - Mid range DL2 with some upside
DE Leonard Williams - Depth at worst with high DL2 or low DL1 upside
DE Jarvis Jenkins - Injury/holdout depth with minimal potential
NT Steve McClendon - No value
NT Deon Simon - No value
Every now and then I hear from a reader asking why I am always so down on David Harris. I do not see myself as being down on him; he is just not the kind of player I like to target. Year in and year out he is among or on the cusp of the top thirty six in the final linebacker rankings. Harris even sprinkles in a top twenty five here and there like he did in 2014. The problem I have with him is a lack of upside and questionable week to week consistency. I would rather gamble on a third linebacker with a low floor and high upside than settle for the so called safe play as my third starter. Harris is basically a physical two down thumper with average cover skills. He stays on the field full time largely to provide leadership. While leadership is vital to the success of an NFL defense there are no fantasy points awarded for it. Over his nine years in the league’s coaches have done a good job masking Harris's average speed and struggles in man to man by keeping him in zone responsibilities underneath. As box score production goes his totals are not terrible but he has not reached the 80 solo mark since 2011. High assist numbers help to even that out but there is nothing to make up for the lacking big play totals. Harris has 6 career interceptions to date. The first 2 came in 2009 and the last 4 in 2011. Since that time Harris has no picks and has not been responsible for more than 2 fumbles or recoveries combined in any season. His finish as the twenty fourth linebacker last year looks good at a glance but is somewhat deceiving. Harris actually had points per game average that ranked thirty fifth. The higher finish was a result of durability which is one of his positive aspects as he has not missed a game since 2008. It is also worth mention Harris had 3 or fewer solo stops in eight contests last season. There are a lot of different strategies when it comes to building a roster. If you like to go with dependability over upside Harris is probably a great fit as your third starter. Just be sure to understand you will get nothing more from him.
The Jets made one the draft's most controversial first round picks this spring when they selected Ohio State product Darron Lee. Mike Mayock commented on the pick saying "He's today's NFL outside linebacker. He ran a 4.47 40 at 232 pounds. He's a sideline to sideline, three down linebacker. His weakness is if you cover him up against a big body, he will struggle". The selection in itself is not the question. It was the Jets announcing their intention to play Lee at inside linebacker that started everyone talking. When we look at what Todd Bowles likes to do it is easy to see why Lee was the pick. He is basically a slightly bigger clone of Deone Bucannon and will fill that same role for New York. The question for fantasy owners is how soon will Lee be an every down player? The initial plan is to have career backup Erin Henderson work on early downs with Lee coming on in sub packages. If Lee picks up the pro game quickly however, I expect him to push by Henderson on the depth chart early in the season. Lee was a two year starter for the Buckeyes and declared for the draft after his sophomore year. He will be twenty one years old when the season opens and has not yet reached his prime physically. Once he gets there Lee could become a perennial fantasy stud. Blazing speed, exceptional athleticism, strong cover skills and a knack for getting to the passer on a blitz; the only thing missing from Lee's game is maturity and experience. He will have a significant role right from the start but Lee's fantasy value may be a year away. In dynasty league rookie drafts he should be one of the top five if not top three picks. For redraft owners Lee is a sleeper with upside, worthy of a late round shot.
Calling Henderson a career backup is not entirely accurate. He did spend some time as a two down for the Vikings, and was fairly productive in that role. Henderson could prove to be a better fit in Bowles defense and may put up a good fight for the job. In the long run he has zero chance of holding off Lee.
The Jets are going with a youth movement at outside linebacker. Long time starter Calvin Pace is gone leaving no one at the position with more than 2 years of NFL experience. Last year's third round pick Lorenzo Mauldin is set to start on one side. He made a positive impression as a rookie posting 4 sacks on 253 snaps as the third man in the rotation. The coaching staff is confident he will provide more pass rush than the Jets have had from the position in recent years. He is an unproven commodity but is in position to be productive. Pencil Mauldin in as a strong sleeper for owners in big play based leagues.
At the other outside linebacker spot there will be an open competition between 2014 seventh round pick Trevor Reilly and rookie third round selection Jordan Jenkins. Reilly has seen enough action to get his feet wet over the past two seasons but not enough to give us much of an idea what he is capable of. He had a sack and a forced fumble in the 2015 opener but finished the season at 12-5-1 with 2 fumbles forced. Looking back to his college career there is reason to be optimistic. His three seasons as a starter for Utah produced 18.5 sacks including 9 as a senior.
Jenkins played in the shadow of Bears first round pick Leonard Floyd at Georgia. Jenkins is not as flashy and does not provide the pass rush threat of his former teammate, but he is a tough strong edge setter against the run. As a three year starrer in the Bulldogs 3-4 Jenkins accounted for 19 career sacks including 5 in a handful of starts as a freshman. He may ultimately give up playing time to Reilly is sub packages but chances are Jenkins will emerge as the starting strong outside linebacker for the Jets this season.
ILB David Harris - Solid LB3 or excellent depth with marginal upside
ILB Darron Lee - Dynasty target with long term LB1 potential
ILB Erin Henderson - Minimal value at best
ILB Bruce Carter - No value
OLB Lorenzo Mauldin - Sleeper with LB2 upside in big play leagues
OLB Jordan Jenkins - Late round target for owners in big play dynasty leagues
OLB Trevor Reilly - Big play deep sleeper worth keeping an eye on
OLB Josh Martin - No value
When Bowles was with the Cardinals he had a glut of talent to work with in the secondary. In building this defense from the front line back the Jets have not yet fully addressed the defensive back positions. Bowles inherited one of the league's elite corners in Darrelle Revis who is a great cornerstone for the Jets but offers little for fantasy owners. He is simply too good which in turn has most offenses game planning to avoid him.
In 2015 Antonio Cromartie started opposite Revis with Buster Skrine serving mostly in the nickel corner role. Despite not playing full time Skrine managed to lead all Jets corners with 46 tackles. Cromartie is no longer with the team leaving Skrine to move up the depth chart to starter. Anyone lining up opposite Revis will get more than a normal share of targets. Skrine is a player with the ability to cash in on the extra opportunity. In his first year as a starter for the Browns (2012) he set a career best of 71 tackles and 13 assists. He added 11 pass breakups but was a no show in the turnover columns. Following the normal progression of a young corner Skrine's tackle totals slipped over the next two seasons but he started making some big plays. His final season in Cleveland (2014) Skrine was a top ten corner at 55-12-0 with a career best 4 picks and 18 passes defended. On the field Skrine is a solid if unspectacular second corner. He has shown the ability to be fantasy productive with both decent tackle totals and big play contributions. Skrine was out of the fantasy spotlight last season but his current situation provides a golden opportunity for a return to the top fifteen. He can be picked up late on draft day as a third corner with second starter potential.
Third year man Marcus Williams is a player to keep an eye on here. He was somewhat of a utility player in the secondary last season when he managed to lead the team with 6 interceptions. Williams also force a fumble, recovered one, registered a sack and a half and chalked up 10 passes defended. He was a very busy man for playing 286 total snaps or roughly 30% of the time. Williams is the heavy favorite to beat out Dee Milliner for the nickel job and may even have a shot at moving past Skrine into a starting role. If this happens I suggest moving quickly to add him and not letting your competition get a look.
Strong safety Calvin Pryor came with a lot of expectations when the Jets made him a first round pick a couple of years back. Going into his third season fantasy owners are still waiting for the production to materialize. When he came out of the gate with sixteen fantasy points in each of the first two games last season many of us though he had arrived. When Pryor had fewer than ten points in the next two games combined it became painfully obvious he had not. Despite playing in the box most of the time in Bowles scheme, Pryor averaged under 4 tackles a game recording three or fewer in six of his thirteen starts. For those who like to see the glass half full, Pryor displayed considerable improvement both on the field and in the box scores over his second season. For those of us who look at it for what it is (half a glass) Pryor still has a long way to go. He was a productive two year starter at Louisville and it is never too breakout season, so there is still some hope. Year three could be the one but picking him up as more than a late/last round DB5 flier would be overpaying at this stage.
Free safety Marcus Gilchrist led the Jets secondary with 60 solo tackles last season and has consistently put up similar totals throughout his four years as a starter in the league. He is a finesse deep safety with good cover skills who fits well within the centerfield responsibilities of the position. Gilchrist will make a few big plays but not enough to offset his mediocre at best tackle production. He could have value as depth in leagues with more than twelve teams and/or deep rosters, but for most of us Gilchrist is no more than an emergency bye week flier.
FS Marcus Gilchrist - Minimal value
SS Calvin Pryor - Risk probably out weights the potential reward
FS Dion Bailey - Injury sleeper
CB Darrelle Revis - Great player with no IDP value
CB Buster Skrine - Solid CB2 with low CB1 upside
CB Dee Milliner - No value
CB Marcus Williams - Sleeper with big upside if given an opportunity
Before I close part five of this year's series I want to let everyone know it may be a couple of weeks before part 6 is finished. Reality rears its ugly head now and then and I will be out of commission for a week or two. That does it for the AFC East. Next up the NFC East.