It has been a while since the Falcons last had a good defense and it will be at least another year or two before they have one again. That said, the organization is on the right track. When Dan Quinn and Rick Smith took over as head coach and defensive coordinator respectively last year, they did not have much to work with. They added a piece or two on defense before last season including eighth overall pick Vic Beasley Jr, but were not able to make a big splash on that side of the ball until this offseason. Even then some of the personnel decisions have been head scratchers.
Atlanta finished dead last in sacks last season with 19, so improving the pass rush has to be among the top priorities. First it was announced they would move Beasley to strong side linebacker in the same role Bruce Irvin played under Quinn in Seattle. That move made sense because Irvin was often turned loose to rush the passer. Then the Falcons signed Courtney Upshaw from the Ravens to play the same position which does not seem to make much sense; especially considering they still have Brooks Reed who has basically the same skill set. Then, instead of adding a pass rushing end the Falcons elected to commit most of their draft resources to improve the talent at linebacker and safety. There is sure to be a master plan in all of this but it is clear as mud from the outside looking in as we approach training camp.
There has been speculation Upshaw and Reed will move to end. Both players have been outside linebackers in 3-4 schemes over most of their careers but neither has excelled as a pass rusher. Reed had 6 sacks as a rookie in 2011 but has no more than 3 in any other season while Upshaw has 6 career sacks after being Baltimore's second round selection in 2012. With Beasley at linebacker the Falcons biggest sack threats up front are Adrian Clayborn who had 13.5 in his two full season with the Buccaneers (he missed most of the other two with injuries), and free agent addition Derrick Shelby who has 7.5 sacks over the past two seasons with the Dolphins. It is worth mention that Quinn spent a couple of years as the defensive line coach for the Jets who ran a 3-4. Maybe the plan is to mix in some three man fronts and try to create some opportunity by scheme design. Whatever the plan, the fact is Atlanta is short on talented pass rushers. Both Shelby and Clayborn have the potential to be somewhat productive if given an opportunity to play virtually full time. Quinn however, has a history of rotating his defensive line regularly thus limiting their opportunity. Owners in deeper leagues may want to take a shot on one of these guys but chances are they will all be available on the wire early in the season. The best bet may be to keep an eye on them and hold off until someone shows promise.
Tyson Jackson is penciled in as the base package starter at end. He has no sacks over the past two seasons in that role. Keep in mind Quinn basically had a nose tackle (Red Bryant) playing end on early downs in Seattle. Jackson might be more productive as an interior lineman but Quinn likes a big body to set the edge against the run on early downs.
Johnathan Babineaux and Ra'Shede Hageman should be the starters on the inside with Grady Jarrett and Malliciah Goodman seeing plenty of time in the rotation. Clayborn has also played a lot of tackle over his career and could continue to see some snaps there on passing downs. Babineaux had a good season or two early in his career but has not exceeded 28 tackles or 3.5 sacks since 2009. Hageman had some promise when the Falcons drafted him, but his two years in the league have yielded a modest 29-15-2 combined. The bottom line here being we should not expect much from the Atlanta interior line.
DE Adrian Clayborn - Wait and see sleeper with DL3 potential
DE Derrick Shelby - Sleeper who could have decent sack totals but will be hard pressed to reach 35 tackles
DE/SLB Courtney Upshaw - No value
DE/SLB Brooks Reed - No value
DE/DT Tyson Jackson - No value
DT Johnathan Babineaux - Minimal value at best as depth in tackle required leagues
DT Ra'Shede Hageman - No value
DT Grady Jarrett - No value
DT Malliciah Goodman - No value
There is less suspense at the linebacker positions but not all the questions are answered. We know Vic Beasley Jr will fill the strong side role second round pick Deion Jones has already been anointed starter in the middle. Anyone who remembers the hype and subsequent fantasy disappointment of Bruce Irvin will know to stay away from Beasley. He may end up with 6 or 7 sacks but the scheme simply does not provide enough tackle opportunity for him to be a fantasy factor. Jones on the other hand, is a different story. He is yet another of the new breed inside linebackers. Smaller than the prototypical middle backers that have come before him but loaded with speed, athleticism, coverage skills and big play ability.
Jones checked in at 222 pounds for the combine but has since bulked up to 230 in preparation for his role. He is a bit short on experience have only one year as a starter at LSU where he was stuck behind Kwon Alexander for three seasons. Jones tackle totals of 54 solo and 34 assists over eleven games as a senior are not particularly eye catching. When we add his big play totals of 5 sacks, 2 interceptions a forced fumble and a score it is easier to understand why the Falcons are so high on him. There will be a learning curve as he gets up to speed. The coaching staff is willing to live with it so their young defender can gain experience quickly. Jones may not give us huge production as a rookie but he has the skill set to become a perennial top twenty linebacker and we know he will have plenty of opportunity. He is a high floor prospect that redraft owners should target as a quality LB3 with upside. In dynasty league rookie drafts I have Jones as the second linebacker behind Myles Jack and ahead of Jaylon Smith due to Smith's injury risk.
The weak side position is where the questions are found. Sean Weatherspoon, Phillip Wheeler, Brooks Reed and even Paul Worrilow are believed to be candidates for the job. Weatherspoon held that position with the Falcons for four years starting in 2010. In 2011 he was 82-33-4 with a turnover and 8 passes defended. That was the only years of his career he was able to complete a full slate of games. Weatherspoon's other four seasons were all shortened by injury and he missed 2014 all together. There are some who believe the injuries have taken a permanent toll on his overall game. I am not sure about that since we have not seen enough of him over the past two years to tell. Weatherspoon played for Arizona last season where he was not a good fit their 3-4 and rarely got on the field. He has the advantage of experience and the potential to be fantasy friendly should he come away with the job.
Simply put Brooks Reed is not a 4-3 weak side linebacker. It would be a shock if he were to get serious consideration. Paul Worrilow has been the team's middle backer for the past two seasons and will be a solid backup to Jones but he lacks the speed and playmaking ability Dan Quinn wants at linebacker. Phillip Wheeler is the fall back plan. He brings plenty of starting experience and can play any of the linebacker positions. He is faster than Worrilow, is a better fit than Reed and has been healthy throughout his career unlike Weatherspoon. Wheeler is a good player with no upside. He could fill the void adequately if called upon.
All the veterans aside, the player I am keeping an eye on here is rookie fourth round pick De'Vondre Campbell. Quinn is making it a point to get young and fast on defense. Campbell is 6'4" 232 pounds and ran a 4.58 in the forty at the combine, making him the fastest linebacker on the roster not named Beasley. Like Jones, Campbell is somewhat raw having twenty six starts over his college career at Minnesota, but he is athletic, smart and productive. As a senior for the Golden Gophers he totaled 92 combined tackles with 4 sacks, an interception and a forced fumble. Campbell has a lot of work to do in terms of mechanics and NFL scouts are pessimistic about his natural instincts, so he may be a project. The organization obviously believes Campbell's shortcomings can be fixed with good coaching and experience. If Quinn believes Campbell is the future he may elect to go with on the job training. The Falcons will be starting two other rookies this year anyway so why not let them learn together and accelerate the curve. Campbell is drawing little or no attention from fantasy owners thus far. I have been picking him up in the last round of some rookie drafts as a taxi squad stash. Redraft owners should pass on draft day but move quickly if it looks like he will get a chance to start.
MLB Deion Jones - LB3 target with upside
MLB/WLB Paul Worrilow - Marginal potential as an injury replacement or WLB
SLB Vic Beasley Jr - Minimal value
WLB De'Vondre Campbell - Dynasty sleeper to stash on taxi squad
WLB Sean Weatherspoon - Long shot with LB3 upside at best
WLB/SLB Phillip Wheeler - LB3 at best with no upside and low floor
OLB Tyler Starr - No value
The Atlanta pass defense was not too bad in 2015. They were middle of the pack giving up 243 yards a game and their 15 interceptions were tenth most in the league. In Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford and last year's second round pick Jalen Collins the Falcons have a trio of quality young corners who should be together for a while. In each of his first two seasons as a pro Trufant finished among the top twenty fantasy corners. Falling right in line with the rookie corner rule he was number fifteen as a rookie in 2013 and number seventeen in his second season before falling all the way to fifty six last year. Alford was the better fantasy option last season though his top twenty five ranking was somewhat of a mirage. He produced only 42 solo tackles while his fifteen passes defended, 3 turnovers and a score gave Alford enough overall points to squeeze in at number 22. What the raw numbers fail to tell is 25% of those points came in one game while he scored three or fewer seven times on the season. Collins played sparingly as a rookie when he and Phillip Adams seemed to take turns working as the nickel corner. The bottom line here is no Atlanta corner seems likely to give us much in 2016.
Ricardo Allen stepped up and played well in his second season. He solidified his role as the starting free safety while leading the secondary in production, but his 60-9-1 with 4 turnovers and 5 passes defended was only good enough to land him as the forty second ranked defensive back. Allen reached double digit points in eight games but recorded six or fewer in six others including each of the final four. He is worthy of a roster spot as depth with a little upside in most twelve team leagues starting three defensive backs.
The only hole to fill in the Falcons secondary this offseason was at strong safety. The team parted ways with William Moore whose play declined significantly last year. His replacement will be first round pick Keanu Neal who should also replace Allen as Atlanta's most fantasy friendly defensive back. Neal will play the Kam Chancellor role in this version of Quinn's defense and he is well suited for the job. Neal is not as big as Chancellor but he is a fast, physical playmaker who can bring the wood as a run defender and cover like a free safety. He missed time with a hamstring injury early last year at Florida and got off to a slow start. By the end of the season Neal was a solid 51-33-2 with a couple of turnovers in twelve games. The position he is taking over has provided plenty of opportunity and production over the past few years. In 2014 Kemal Ishmael replaced the injured Moore in week four, going on to finish at 66-30-0 with 6 turnovers and a score. In 2015 Moore and Ishmael went back and forth as the starter combining for 70 tackles, 27 assists and 4 turnovers. Neal should be in the lineup from the first snap and is a safe bet to be at least a quality third starter as a rookie. In the long term he should become a perennial top twenty if not top ten defensive back.
SS Keanu Neal - Target as priority DB3 with upside
SS Kemal Ishmael - Injury sleeper who can be productive if given an opportunity
SS Charles Godfrey - No value
FS Ricardo Allen - Low end DB3 or quality depth
FS Robenson Therezie - No value
CB Desmond Trufant - Minimal value
CB Robert Alford - Bye week depth in corner required leagues
CB Jalen Collins - No value at this time
CB Phillip Adams - No value
Super Bowl teams, even those that lose, generally have a hard time keeping all their players the following season. With the exception of Jared Allen who retired, Carolina will return their front seven intact. The defensive line group accounted for 33.5 of the teams 44 sacks last season with Allen contributing two of them. Now that he has moved on the defensive end rotation will consist of Charles Johnson, Kony Ealy and Mario Addison. Wes Horton and second year man Ryan Delaire fill out the depth chart at the position. Delaire did not have much opportunity as a rookie but made a good impression with the little he had. Dynasty owners may want to keep him on the radar this season.
A hamstring injury landed Johnson on short term IR last year and led to a dismal regular season. He was able to get healthy for the post season, proving he can still get it done with 3 sacks on the road to the big game. Johnson was cut after the season but eventually returned on a one year "prove it" deal. He turns 30 in July and still has plenty of gas in the tank even though 2016 will be his tenth season with the Panthers. Johnson's best box score production came in 2010 when he had 50 solo tackles and 10.5 sacks. That remains his only season with more than 31 tackles but he averaged 10.5 sacks over the five seasons leading up to last. Marginal tackle production holds his fantasy value down and makes Johnson inconsistent from week to week. Even so, 30 tackles and 8 sacks are reasonable expectations and would be enough to make him a low end DL2 or priority DL3 in most leagues.
Kony Ealy was the replacement starter while Johnson was out last year. Over the second half of the season he was primarily a rotational passing down substitute. The 2014 second round pick made a strong impression with a five game sack streak starting in week eight then added three more during the post season. He has been penciled in as the starter opposite Johnson and is poised for a breakout season. The concern I have with Ealy is the same as Johnson; where are the tackle numbers? After all the statistics were counted Ealy had played 649 of the team's 1049 defensive snaps. There is nothing wrong with his big play totals of 5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles and 3 recoveries but 15 solo tackles and 17 assists is not going to get it done for us. Even if he played every down those numbers project to 24 solo and 27 assists putting Ealy on par with Johnson in fantasy terms. I like Ealy's upside and have him high on my sleeper list at end, but even in a breakout season I expect no better than solid DL2 production.
We should not completely write off Mario Addison as a candidate for the starting job opposite Johnson. On a per snap basis he narrowly edged out Kwan Short as the Panthers most productive defensive lineman in 2015. Addison served as the third end while Johnson recovered and continued to see sub package time while the veteran was eased back into action over the second half of the season. In the end Addison was the team's second leading pass rusher with 6 sacks on 391 snaps. He equaled Ealy with 15 solo tackles and did it on 258 fewer plays. At 260 pounds Addison is a little small for a three down end. He will probably continue in his role as the third man in the rotation but keep him in mind if there is an injury to Johnson or Ealy.
Heading into last season I predicted a big season for one of the Panthers tackles. I just targeted the wrong guy. Kawann Short exploded for 35 tackles and 11 sacks in 2015, finishing as the fantasy game's number two tackle behind Aaron Donald. Short entered the team's week five bye with 4 tackles and no sacks. After the bye it was as if someone had flipped a switch. Against the Seahawks and Eagles in weeks six and seven he totaled 9 tackles, 5 sacks a forced fumble and 2 batted passes. Short will be near the top of everyone's draft board at tackle this summer and deservedly so. My only concern with him is the possibility of a one year wonder. He has been a starter since joining the team as a second round pick in 2013. Over his first two seasons combined Short was 39-32-5. Like everyone else I have him near the top of my list but I will still be looking at more proven players like Geno Atkins, Ndamukong Suh and Fletcher Cox ahead of him. If Short can prove last year was no fluke he will take a place among the short list of fantasy elite at the position.
As a rookie first round pick Star Lotulelei had 30 tackles and 3 sacks in 2013. In the two seasons since his production had plummeted. Both scheme and nagging injuries have contributed to his minimal box score presence. Lotulelei serves in a two gap role at the Panthers nose tackle where he is responsible for holding ground, eating up blockers and keeping Luke Kuechly clean to make plays. If we want to see how well Lotulelei does his job, we need only look at Kuechly's production and the Panthers standing as the fourth best run defense in the league last year. Unfortunately none of those numbers show up on the big man's stats sheet.
Because they are talented and deep at nearly every position, Carolina had the luxury of picking the best available player early in this year’s draft. Vernon Butler was not a guy the Panthers necessarily needed but he adds what amounts to a third starter to the rotation up front. With 28 tackles, 22 assists and 3 sacks as a senior his numbers at Louisiana Tech were not flashy. It unlikely that will change at the pro level though Butler could evolve into a decent second starter at a tackle position that is short on productive players.
DE Charles Johnson - Solid DL3 or second starter in a pinch
DE Kony Ealy - DL3 with breakout potential
DE Mario Addison - Injury sleeper with DL2 upside if he lands a starting role
DE Wes Horton - No value
DE Ryan Delaire - Developmental sleeper worth keeping an eye on
DT Star Lotulelei - No value
DT Kawann Short - Top five tackle with potential to prove he is elite
DT Vernon Butler - Injury sleeper in the short term
DT Paul Soliai - No value
If not for J.J. Watt, Luke Kuechly would be the consensus number one pick on the defensive side of the ball. He is a tackling machine with at least 93 solo stops in each of his first three seasons; and a playmaker with 19 turnovers, 7 sacks, 36 pass breakups and a score in four years on the job. If not for missing three games with a concussion last year he would have four consecutive seasons of 90+ tackles and probably a few more big plays as well. In thirteen games last year Kuechly scored enough points to be the fifth ranked linebacker. If we look at points per game he was number one and the only linebacker to average over 16. Even those using defensive players for the first time should know how good he is just from watching football. The only thing left to figure out about Kuechly is how early you have to go to get him. A few years back I would have said round five or early round six in most leagues. One trend I have seen in recent years is defensive players starting to go earlier. If Kuechly is your target you will have to consider taking the plunge by round four or risk losing him.
If you gamble on Kuechly making it one more round and lose or if you are like me and simply refuse to take a linebacker that early, the Panthers have another quality option to target later in the draft. Thomas Davis is not much of a threat to make the top five but he did score double digit fantasy points in thirteen games and finish among the top ten last season. It seems like a long time ago when we were talking about his third knee surgery. Over the last four years Davis has missed two games and those were not related to his knee. He was 32 years old last season and turned in his most productive campaign since 2008. Davis may be in the twilight of his career but so far has shown no sign of decline. We cannot count on a repeat of last year's top ten finish but it is safe to expect solid production from him. I have Davis ranked in the low to mid LB2 range for this draft season but will not be shocked if he lands inside the top fifteen.
When the Panthers took Shaq Thompson in round one last spring there was a lot of speculation he would replace Davis. That may still happen eventually but Thompson may have to wait another year or two. For now he will have to settle for a two down role as the team's strong side backer. Thompson will be hard pressed to make a fantasy splash in that role but he does have the talent to do so when/if his opportunity finally comes. An injury to Kuechly or Davis should make Thompson a three down player with A.J. Klein moving into the lineup as a replacement. Klein opened last season as the starter on the strong side before eventually giving way to the rookie.
MLB Luke Kuechly - The fantasy game's top linebacker
WLB Thomas Davis - Solid LB2 with top fifteen potential
SLB Shaq Thompson - Injury/dynasty sleeper
OLB A.J. Klein - No value
MLB Ben Jacobs - No value
OLB David Mayo - No value
The only new faces on the Panthers starting defense this year will be found in the secondary where Josh Norman, Roman Harper and Charles Tillman have all moved on. Strong safety Kurt Coleman led the unit in fantasy production last season but he did not do it by producing a lot of tackles. In fact his modest 54 solo stops were thirty third among safeties and forty ninth among all defensive backs. His 35 assists helped but it was the 7 interceptions that boosted Coleman into the top ten. In most instances a players whose value comes largely via the big play will display considerable week to week inconsistency. This was not the case with Coleman who reached double digits in eleven of his fifteen games including nine in a row to close out the season. He had 70 tackles as the starter for Philadelphia in 2012 but the then safety needy Eagles made the mistake of benching him the following year. You can bet the farm Carolina will not make that same mistake. Working behind the likes of Kuechly and Davis it is unlikely Coleman's tackle total will climb much above 60, and the chances of his repeating either the seven interceptions or the top ten finish seem rather slim. That said, he is a playmaker who does not shy away from run support opportunities. I believe his fantasy total will drop a bit but still see Coleman as a quality second starter with low DB1 potential.
Tre Boston should move into the starting spot vacated by Harper. The 2014 fourth round pick has played sparingly over his first two seasons while being groomed for the bigger opportunity. The coaching staff believes he is ready but even if they are correct, Carolina's safety positions have yielded little in terms of tackle production over the years. If he struggles at all Boston could feel some heat from veteran Colin Jones or free agent addition Trent Robinson.
The one big free agent defection Carolina has to deal with is that of Josh Norman. He was their number one corner last season but lost the game of cat and mouse over being franchise tagged and was eventually sent packing by the team. We will soon see who has the last laugh between the two sides but I tend to agree with the Panthers. Norman is an excellent player but is not the elite player he believes himself to be. He benefitted greatly from the scheme as well as the talent that surrounded him.
With Norman gone third year man Bene Benwikere assumes the role of number one corner, at least for now. As a rookie Benwikere worked mostly in the slot corner role. He moved into the lineup opposite Norman last season and was on pace for about 55 tackles before landing on IR after week fourteen. Benwikere has just 1 interception to show for his two years of service but has shown a knack for forcing and/or recovering fumbles, giving him 6 total turnovers. He is a player to keep an eye on in corner required leagues but I think our best value could eventually come from rookie second round pick James Bradberry. The former Samford star was a four year starter for the Bulldogs so he has seen plenty of playing time albeit against lesser competition. Bradberry has safety size and a physical nature. He is raw by NFL standards but fits the mold of a press corner in Carolina's aggressive scheme. If he can land a starting job the rookie corner rule would almost certainly be in effect.
There will be an open competition to fill out the pecking order behind Benwikere. Bradberry will have to beat out veteran Robert McClain as well as fellow rookies Daryl Worley (round 3) and Zach Sanchez (round 4). McClain will be the biggest obstacle. His career has taken a somewhat strange path. He was drafted in the seventh round by the Panthers in 2010. After seeing little action as a rookie McClain was let go and spent the next three years as a starter for Atlanta. He returned to the Panthers as a street free agent last December when Cortland Finnegan was lost to injury. Now he is in line to compete for a starting job for the defending NFC champions. Experience will be on his side early and I expect McClain will at least land the nickel role for this year. In three years with Atlanta he averaged 52 solo tackles, 9 assists and 7 passes defended while accumulating 8 turnovers and a pair of sacks. There is not a great deal of upside but McClain could prove to be a decent second starter or solid depth in corner required leagues.
The Panthers long term plan/hope is to develop Bradberry as their number one with either Benwikere or Worley at two and the odd man out serving as the nickel corner. It looks good on paper but let us see how it works out on the field.
S Kurt Coleman - Solid second starter with low DB1 upside
S Tre Boston - Minimal value at best
S Colin Jones - No value
S Trent Robinson - No value at this time
CB Bene Benwikere - Marginal CB2 upside
CB Robert McClain - Low end CB2 potential if he lands the starting job
CB James Bradberry - Rookie corner rule
CB Daryl Worley - Possible rookie corner rule, more likely long term potential
CB Zach Sanchez - Deep sleeper at best
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers are one of the few teams to give us two productive options at the tackle position. Gerald McCoy and especially Clinton McDonald are two of the fantasy game's most underrated interior linemen. When these two are on the field together they present a problem for blocking schemes. Both are powerful big men in the 300 pound range, and both of them have the athleticism and quickness to create pressure in the face of the quarterback. They get off blocks quickly and are tough to root out at the point of attack. Having similar skill sets also makes them interchangeable in terms of responsibilities which can keep blockers off balance. When it comes to production they seem to feed off one another.
Most of McCoy's value comes from sack production but his tackle numbers are not all that weak for an interior lineman. The third overall pick in 2010 had a career bests across the board in 2013 when he finished at 35-15-9 with 4 batted passes and a fumble recovery. McCoy was on essentially the same pace in 2014 when his season was cut short by three games. Even then his 27-8-8 were enough for McCoy to make the top ten, while points per game average was fifth best among tackles. Through five games last season had 4.5 sacks and was on pace for 35 solo tackles. When McDonald was injured in week six, McCoy's production slipped as well. Offenses no longer had to pick which tackle to double team and were able to tailor blocking schemes toward McCoy. In the nine games without McDonald by his side, McCoy managed 4 sacks but only 15 tackles. Both players are healthy entering camp. If they can make it through a full season together we could see both finish among the top ten tackles. From McCoy I expect 30-35 solo tackles and his usual 8-9 sacks.
It puzzles me to see McDonald get so little attention from owners in tackle required leagues. In 2013 he was 19-16-5.5 with a couple of turnovers as part of the Seahawks tackle rotation. Upon joining Tampa Bay in 2014 McDonald had more of a three down role. He turned the additional playing time into a career best of 35-12-5.5 with 3 turnovers and a pair of batted passes in thirteen games. McDonald was the number five defensive tackle that season with a point per game average ranking second. At a glance it would seem he turned into a pumpkin last season with 21 tackles, 10 assists and no sacks. A closer look tells us those are rather impressive tackle totals considering he was injured in week six and landed on IR. That put McDonald on pace for 54 solo tackles and 27 assists. He is not going to light up the box scores with sacks but a healthy McDonald having McCoy next to him is more than capable of 40+ tackles, 20+ assists and 4-5 sacks. If you are in a tackle required league and McDonald is available; it's time to wake up and smell the coffee.
Dating all the way back to 2011 when they took Adrian Clayborn and DaQuan Bowers in the first two rounds, the Buccaneers have committed a lot of resources to the defensive end position. Thus far their return on investment has been mediocre at best. It seemed they might have found that elusive edge rusher in 2014 when Jacquies Smith put up 3.5 sacks over a four game stretch late in the season. The coaching staff tried him in a three down role early last year but the experiment failed miserably. At 260 pounds Smith simply was not able to hold up against the run. He went on to make a solid contribution as a sub package pass rusher, finishing second on the team with 6.5 while adding 3 forced fumbles and 3 recoveries. Smith's mere 16 solo tackles rendered him all but useless to fantasy owners however.
William Gholston was at the opposite end of the spectrum. Given an opportunity to start in his third year, he proved to be an excellent edge setter against the run but was not able to provide much as a pass rusher. Gholston's 47 tackles and 20 assists made him a quality starter in tackle heavy leagues while the 3 sacks held his value down to that of a decent second starter or quality depth in balanced scoring systems.
In their continuing effort to find a complete player at the position, the Buccaneers spent both a good deal of money on free agent Robert Ayers and a second round pick on Eastern Kentucky's Noah Spence. The first thing to jump out at me about Ayers is his injury history. He never seems to miss a lot of games in any given season but has made it through a full schedule once since being drafted by Denver in 2009. Ayers never lived up to expectations, totaling 11.5 sacks in five seasons with the Broncos. In 2014 he got a fresh start with the Giants and things began to look up. In a part time role for twelve games that season Ayers had 18 tackles and 5 sacks. He opened 2015 as a starter for New York and finally showed the kind of production NFL teams expect from a former first round pick. Ayers missed four more games with injury early in the year but was red hot down the stretch. For the season he was a solid 30-11-9 with a couple of forced fumbles and 4 batted passes. Over the final seven games however, Ayers had 22 tackles, 8 assists and 8 sacks including a string of five games with at least 1 sack to close out the campaign. It is hard to say what effect changing teams will have on him, and there is always the possibility he was a one year wonder. The potential outweighs the risk however, making Ayers a strong target as a second starter with top twelve upside.
Spence is an interesting prospect. He seemed on the way to big things at Ohio State before off field issues derailed his career there. Instead of declaring for the draft after his sophomore season Spence elected to transfer to Eastern Kentucky where he could finish his degree. While at EKU he worked hard to better himself both on and off the field. It was a good decision for the young man who went on to rack up 13.5 sacks for the Colonels last season. The Tampa coaching staff will probably look at Spence in a starting role but chances are he will serve mostly as a sub package pass rusher in his rookie year. At 251 pounds he is small for a three down end and his struggles against the run were not overlooked by scouts. Spence is no stranger to the weight room so he may eventually evolve into that stud both the Buccaneers and fantasy owners are searching for.
DE Robert Ayers - Risk/reward player a high ceiling and low floor
DE Jacquies Smith - Minimal value
DE William Gholston - Possible starter in tackle heavy leagues, depth at best for everyone else
DE Noah Spence - Dynasty stash with good long term upside
DE George Johnson - No value
DT Gerald McCoy - Top 5 DT1 at best, quality second starter at worst
DT Clinton McDonald - Solid DT1 with top 5 upside
DT Akeem Spence - No value
DT Henry Melton - Minimal potential as a possible injury replace
There is not much mystery when it comes to the linebacker positions in Tampa Bay. Lavonte David is about close as it gets in this game to a sure thing, and one of three players I consider to be the elite first tier at linebacker. In 2015 David finished short of 100 solo tackle for the first time in his four years as a pro. He more than made up for the career low 84 tackles with 60 assists and a big play explosion that included 7 turnovers, 3 sacks, 13 passes defended and a score. He was the highest scoring linebacker in most balanced leagues and was second only to Luke Kuechly in points per game average. David is consistent, durable and one of the few players who could push Kuechly for top billing. If you plan to win with a stellar defense David, Kuechly or Navorro Bowman are the three guys to target as your LB1.
The only good thing about missing David would be the opportunity to take Bowman and come back with Kwon Alexander as your LB2 or even LB3 if you fill out the position early enough. Alexander was basically the reason David fell short of 100 tackles. Before missing the final four games of last season due to suspension, Alexander was on pace for 79 tackles and 45 assists. Alexander was neck and neck with David in the big play columns as well. In twelve games Alexander had five turnovers, 3 sacks and 9 passes defended. He is a young three down middle backer who will only get better with experience. If he can stay clean and out of the commissioner’s crosshairs, Alexander should become a perennial top twenty linebacker.
The signing of free agent Daryl Smith makes a lot of sense for the Buccaneers. They were in need of a starter on the strong side. Smith is a versatile veteran who can play any of the linebacker positions in a 4-3. He played on the strong side in a similar scheme for most of his nine seasons in Jacksonville. Smith not only fills the need on the strong side, he provides much needed depth at a very thin position. There is little experience on the roster behind the three starters. Untested third year man Jeremiah George is listed behind Alexander on the depth chart while rookie sixth round pick Deventer Bond is penciled in as the next man up on the outside. If everyone stays healthy Smith will likely be relegated to a sub package role on the strong side. In that situation he will have no chance to be fantasy relevant.
MLB Kwon Alexander - Quality second starter or excellent third
WLB Lavonte David - Elite tier one
SLB Daryl Smith - No value unless there is an injury
MLB Jeremiah George - No value
OLB Devante Bond - Worth keeping an eye on as a dynasty prospect
Other than being a little thin on depth at linebacker the Buccaneers front seven should be solid. The secondary however is still somewhat of a work in progress. While Lovie Smith was at the helm over the past two seasons the safety position was a revolving door. We never knew who would start from week to week or if the starter in a given week would play full time. Despite having no significant injuries at the position Bradley McDougald, Chris Conte, Keith Tandy and Major Wright all got on the field for at least 219 snaps in 2015. The end result for fantasy owners being frustrating inconsistency and no one we could trust as more than a bye week flier. It is not as if there is no potential here. Between them the four safeties accounted for 171 tackles, 64 assists, 15 passes defended, 5 turnovers and a sack. Some will contend the shuffle of playing time was due to no one really stepping up and proving themselves worth as an every down starter. I am not so sure about that. Smith did pretty much the same thing with his safeties during his entire nine years in Chicago and the fact Tampa made no significant additions at the position could be seen as a sign they are content with their current options.
Regardless why, the Buccaneers are set to go with McDougald at strong safety and Conte at free in 2016. After finishing 2014 on a strong five game run, McDougald played about 89% of the snaps and led the secondary with 65 tackles last year. That is fairly good production considering the snap count and defensive scheme. With Smith gone Tampa Bay will move away from the cover-2 which will put McDougald in a more traditional strong safety role. The new scheme will certainly not hurt his box score production and could make McDougald a strong starting option for us this year. He is not a big play safety but the two picks he had last season tell us he can contribute in those columns. All things considered I like McDougald's chances of exceeding 70 solo stops and finishing among the top 25 defensive backs in 2016.
Conte was on the field for roughly 73% of the team's defensive snaps last year. On a per play basis he was more productive than McDougald but the new scheme considerably favors the strong safety position when it comes to tackle opportunity. Conte has averaged 4 turnovers a season since becoming a starter in Chicago five years ago. He will have plenty of opportunity to continue that production but lining up on the same side as Lavonte David could make it tough for Conte to reach 60 tackles. For owners in leagues with more than twelve teams and/or deep rosters, Conte could have a little value as depth or possibly a fringe starter. For most owners he will not be worth a roster spot.
The corner positions are less settled but the additions of first round pick Vernon Hargreaves and veteran free agent Brent Grimes give the coaching staff something to work with. In a cover-2 scheme the strong side corner has an elevated amount of opportunity. Thus the Buccaneers have given us some pretty good corner options over the past several years. The new scheme will not promote either of the starting corners but that does not necessarily mean there will be no value. Hargreaves should eventually take over as the team's number one but he will not walk right into that job as a rookie. The coaching staff will be looking at four players this summer. Open competition will ultimately determine the pecking order among Hargreaves, Grimes, veteran Alterraun Verner and second year man Jude Adeji-Barimah.
Experience will probably win out initially and I expect Grimes to open the season in the number on role. He has been fantasy friendly at times over his ten NFL seasons. In his two full campaigns as a starter in Atlanta (2009 & 2010) Grimes averaged 69 tackles, 6 turnovers and 18 passes defended. He was a top five fantasy corner in 2010. After a couple of injury shortened seasons he joined the Dolphins where Grimes was once again fantasy relevant in 2013, though to a lesser extent. Over his three years with Miami Grimes averaged 48 tackles, 5 turnovers and 14 passes defended while adding a couple of scores. If he starts for the Buccaneers as anticipated, Grimes could have some value as a second starter or solid depth in corner required leagues.
Everything basically comes down to how quickly Hargreaves picks up the pro game and how much responsibility defensive coordinator Mike Smith is comfortable putting on the rookie. I expect he will be starting opposite Grimes from week one and would be shocked if Hargreaves is not at least the nickel corner in the opener. He did not put up eye popping numbers at Florida. Hargreave's final season there amounted to 24 tackles, 9 assists, 4 passes defended and 4 interceptions but we should not put too much emphasis on that. Just like the NFL, when a college team has an outstanding player at corner opposing offenses tend to avoid him. Until he proves himself at the pro level Hargreaves will be a target. The rookie corner rule could be in play here.
SS Bradley McDougald - Risk/reward target with a fairly high floor and a DB2 ceiling
FS Chris Conte - Minimal value
S Major Wright - No value
S Keith Tandy - No value
CB Vernon Hargreaves - Rookie corner rule if he wins a starting job
CB Brent Grimes - Low end CB2 at best
CB Alterraun Verner - Injury sleeper with CB2 ceiling
CB Jude Adeji-Barimah - Dark horse sleeper with some long term upside
New Orleans Saints
The Saints defense was horrible last season. Thirty first against both pass and run, twenty fifth in sacks with 29, and twenty sixth in interceptions with 9. The only thing New Orleans seemed to do well was force and recover fumbles. This is a defensive roster sort of stuck in limbo. The organization ran a 4-3 defense prior to hiring Rob Ryan in 2013. After hiring Ryan they spent three seasons adding players to fit his 3-4. Now that they have a good number of those players on the roster, the team will move back to a 4-3 under defensive coordinator Dennis Allen. There were moves made this offseason to get them heading in the right direction but there are a lot of holes to fill. To make things worse the Saints have already lost Hau'oli Kikaha for the season with an ACL injury. Kikaha was an outside linebacker under Ryan and was expected to have a big role as a sub package rush specialist in the new scheme. Second year man Obum Gwacham and third year pro Kasim Edebali were both linebackers in last year's 3-4 as well. With Kikaha out and the roster thin at end, one of them will likely move into the nickel rush role. Gwacaum would seem to be the favorite. He played all of 89 snaps as a rookie last season but managed 2.5 sacks with a forced fumble.
The defense is in transition but Cameron Jordan is one player both the Saints and fantasy owners know they can count on. The 2011 first round pick came on strong in his second season with 39 tackles, 26 assists, 7 sacks and 4 turnovers. Fantasy owners were less than thrilled when New Orleans hired Ryan the following year. The general thought being Ryan's 3-4 would stunt Jordan's production and rob us of a rare commodity. Instead Jordan proved to be one of the few 3-4 ends to provide near elite box score value. The scheme may have held his tackle totals down a little but Jordan was 28-18-12.5 with 4 turnovers and 5 batted passes in 2013. Those totals ranked him on the cusp of the top twelve and had us mentioning him in the same breath with Calais Campbell and Muhammad Wilkerson as the select few 3-4 linemen with DL1 value. In 2015 Jordan was 32-13-10 with 3 turnovers and 5 more batted passes. The overall numbers were obviously pretty strong but one thing that caught my eye was the change in consistency after Ryan's departure. Over the first ten games Jordan reached double digit fantasy points three times with a couple of huge games. Over the final six contest with Ryan gone and the defense showing a lot more 4 man fronts, Jordan reached double digits four times. There are not a lot of numbers to draw on for comparison so call it a gut feeling; I believe Jordan will have a big 2016 with 40+ tackles and double digit sacks. This could be the year he earns mention among the fantasy elite.
The defensive end job opposite Jordan is a complete mystery entering camp. Bobby Richardson has been penciled in as the starter for now. He made the team as an undrafted free agent last year and played roughly 60% of the snaps at end. As is often the case with 3-4 ends, Richardson would probably be a better fit at tackle in a four man front. As a rookie he was adequate versus the run posting 20 tackles and 19 assists, but managed only half a sack. Richardson may eventually shift inside but for now the team is simply too short on options at end.
One player who might prove to be a better option is Darryl Tapp. New Orleans will be the fourth stop for the soon to be 32 year old journeyman. Over the last five seasons Tapp has provided depth for the Eagles and Lions, but he was a three year starter for the Seahawks from 2007 to 2009. He recorded at least 40 solo tackles in each of those seasons, averaging 5 sacks with a career best of 7 in 2007. As the third man in Detroit's rotation last year Tapp had 19 tackles and a couple of sacks on 412 plays. He is clearly not a long term answer for the Saints but could prove to be a better stop gap option than Richardson. At the least it is a safe bet Tapp will have a significant role. For owners in leagues with a lot of teams and/or deep rosters, he could prove worthy as a bye week fill in with a little short term upside for 2016.
The Saints have a somewhat similar situation at the tackle position though they would seem to have more depth on the inside. John Jenkins is a 6'4" 346 pound road block who was drafted in 2013 to play nose tackle and anchor the run defense in the 3-4. He is a two gap space eater who will likely continue in a similar role on early downs. Jenkins is not going to be much of a factor in the box scores but he should be a contributing role player for the Saints.
When the Saints selected Tyeler Davidson in the fifth round last year they probably saw him as a developmental 3-4 end. The change of defensive scheme may be the best thing that could have happened for him. Davidson got on the field in a numbers of roles as a rookie. He worked at both nose tackle and end in three man fronts while lining up at tackle in some four man front sub packages and when the team was using more 4-3 late in the season. In the end he had played a little more than half the team's defensive snaps with a marginal stat line of 10-8-1.5. There are however a couple of good reasons for owners in tackle required leagues to keep an eye on him this summer. First and foremost is opportunity. At 6'2" and 309 pounds Davidson has the size and skill set to be an every down three technique tackle. On a defensive front where only one player is a sure starter, he will be given every opportunity to prove himself and win the job. The other thing I like about Davidson is his production history. Throw out last season when he was bounced around and never settled into a role. As a senior at Fresno State in 2014 he was 32-25-7.5 with a forced fumble and a recovery.
The other two players in the mix at tackle are journeyman Nick Fairley and first round pick Sheldon Rankins. Fairley was talented enough to be the thirteenth overall pick in 2011. His career to date has been little more than a string of injuries, uninspired play and lacking results. Fairley did manage 11.5 sacks in his two seasons as a starter for the Lions (2012-2013), but is still looking for his first complete sixteen game season. Fairley was 17-15-.5 with the Rams last year and the Saints are his third team in three years. He has the talent, potential and opportunity to get his career on track. Unfortunately Fairley has shown us no reason to think he will suddenly turn things around.
Sheldon Rankins is a high potential prospect who is at the top of my rookie wish list at tackle. That is saying something considering how deep and talented this year's draft class is at the position. His scouting report has a familiar ring. At 6'1" 299 pounds he is a little short for a three technique tackle by NFL standards but uses his naturally low pad level to gain leveraged against and quickly shed blockers. He has a powerful bull rush but is quick and athletic enough to use multiple pass rush moves etc. We might as well be describing Geno Atkins here. Rankins stands up against the run well enough to land a starters role but the strength of his game is pass rush. This is evident when looking at his college stats. In two seasons as a starter for Louisville Rankins averaged 30-26-7 and had 5 turnovers. At the very least he will be on the field in sub packages as a rookie and there is a good chance he will be a three down player from the start. One interesting thought here; no one is talking about Rankins having played some end at Louisville. When he steps on the field for the first preseason game Rankins will be the Saints second best pass rush threat. If Davidson, Jenkins and Fairley look good enough at tackle, might the coaching staff consider using Rankins at end on early downs? There is no doubt he will get on the field often, and regardless where he lines up Rankins will be designated at tackle in all league management software this year. With the shortage of quality options at the position he should be at least a decent low end DT1 as a rookie. A year or two from now we may be comparing Rankins to Atkins and Aaron Donald as a member of the elite tier of interior linemen.
DE Cameron Jordan - Solid DL1 with top five potential
DE Bobby Richardson - Place holder with marginal short term potential
DE Darryl Tapp - Journeyman stop gap who could have value as depth in some deeper leagues
DE Obum Gwacham - Sub package specialist at best
DE Kasim Edebali - Minimal value at best
DT Sheldon Rankins - #1 rookie prospect at tackle
DT John Jenkins - No value
DT Tyeler Davison - Dark horse sleeper to keep an eye on
DT Nick Fairley - Minimal expectations but worth keeping an eye on
At this time last year Stephone Anthony was supposed to be the Saints long term answer at middle linebacker. In 2016 he is looking more like a two down strong side backer. The coaching staff is not writing off Anthony as their possible long term answer. They just realize he is not yet ready. As a rookie he struggled both physically and mentally. Thus the plan is to get Anthony some experience and let him grow in a lesser role without the stress and responsibility of calling defensive plays. He has the skill set to stay on the field in sub packages so there is a chance he will be a three down strong side backer. Even if he earns the extra playing time we should not expect much in the box scores.
When free agency opened the Saints wasted no time signing veteran James Laurinaitis to a three year deal. They handed him the keys to the Caddy and will expect him to hold down the middle linebacker job for at least the immediate future. Laurinaitis had a down year statistically in 2015 and the Rams let him go in February. Many see this turn of events as a sign his skills have declined substantially, to which I say poppycock. Laurinaitis will turn 30 in December so he is hardly old even by football standards. He might be a tad slower than he was at 25 but he is more experienced as well. I blame his declining numbers on the changing scheme more than the player. Those who have been around the IDP game long enough will remember weak side linebacker Keith Bulluck being a perennial fantasy stud for Tennessee when Jeff Fisher was there. Does anyone remember who played middle linebacker during those years? The Rams did not let Laurinaitis go because he could no longer play. They let him go because Mark Barron is faster, much cheaper, and a better fit in the scheme. Laurinaitis can still play and is a great fit for the Saints situation. They needed veteran leadership and someone with the ability/experience to quarterback the defense through the rebuilding process. Laurinaitis can provide just that. We should not expect the triple digit solo tackles of his early career and Laurinaitis has never been a great playmaker. All things considered, 85 tackles, 45 assists and a handful of big plays are not unreasonable expectations. The upside of everyone doubting his ability is Laurinaitis falling like a rock into the later rounds of most drafts. It never hurts to grab a solid LB3 when some owners are taking fliers on second tier depth.
It is not hard to figure out why the Saints struggled so badly against the run last year. All we need to do it look at the collection of linebackers that took first team snaps. They had a struggling rookie in the middle surrounded by Ramon Humber, Dannelle Ellerbe, David Hawthorne, Michael Mauti and even James Anderson. Ellerbe and Hawthorne are marginal starters who can never stay healthy, Humber is a special team’s guy and Anderson was a late season street free agent pickup. Rob Ryan may have been the scapegoat but he was not the personnel guy.
Ellerbe is back for a second year with the team and will be the favorite to start on the weak side if he can stay healthy. The eight year veteran has never played a full schedule of games and has missed twenty five over the past two seasons. He was a nickel package linebacker for the Ravens early in his career. In 2013 he moved into an every down role for Baltimore only because of an injury. That year Ellerbe had strong numbers for most of thirteen games. The following season he signed with Miami where he was 70-31-1 in fifteen starts as a three down weak side backer. If he can stay healthy Ellerbe has the potential to be a decent LB4 or quality LB5. That kind of player can be plucked off waivers in week five. Use your roster space on someone with more upside.
Chances are Robertson will be the starter at some point. He too is little more than a stop gap until the team can better address the position. Robertson has spent most of the last four seasons as a nickel package linebacker for the Browns. He too has struggled with minor injuries and has played a full schedule once.
MLB James Laurinaitis - Quality LB3 or exceptional depth
SLB Stephone Anthony - No value
WLB Craig Robertson - Injury sleeper with marginal upside
WLB Dannelle Ellerbe - Injury prone LB4
MLB Nathan Stupar - No value
WLB Davis Tull - No value
MLB Michael Mauti - No value
When the Saints drafted Kenny Vaccaro fifteenth overall in 2013, fantasy owners expected him to be an immediate impact player and a perennial top ten defensive back. After all he had all the signs pointing to it. Great size, good speed, and a production history that included plenty of big play examples. Vaccaro was even going to a situation that had been a fantasy goldmine with Roman Harper having recorded at least 73 solo tackles in six consecutive seasons. When Vaccaro had a mediocre rookie season it was blamed on his role with Harper still seeing time in nine games. Harper was gone in Vaccaro's second season but his numbers went down to 51 tackles in fifteen games. Just when it looked as if he were sure to be a bust, Vaccaro came to life in year three. At 71-33-3 with a couple of turnovers his production was still well short of initial expectations but was good enough to make him a strong third starter. The change of scheme could help greatly and even with the addition of James Laurinaitis there will be plenty of tackle opportunity for the safeties. This could be the year we finally get those big numbers from Vaccaro. There is reason to be optimistic but there is also reason for concern. The Saints brought Harper back this offseason. There is no reason to think he will eat into Vaccaro's playing time but Harper could take a bite out of his opportunity. Harper is a big physical safety with cover skills that get him into trouble at times. As a linebacker however, those same cover skills would be considered strong. Might we see Harper in the nickel linebacker role that has become so popular, and if so how much will it affect Vaccaro? We may not be able to get a good read on this until late in the preseason. At this point I am pretty comfortable targeting Vaccaro as a priority DB3 with both upside and a little risk.
The Saints signed playmaking free safety Jairus Byrd in the second year of Rob Ryan's reign as coordinator. With the Bills in 2012 Byrd was responsible for an impressive 11 turnovers. In 2012 he missed five games but still had 4 picks, a forced fumble and a sack. Since signing with the Saints in 2014 he has missed fifteen games. In the other seventeen Byrd has a total of 3 turnovers and a sack. He will enter training camp as the starter but the team sent a clear message with the drafting of Vonn Bell in the second round.
Bell has the speed and cover skills of a good corner. As his college coach Urban Meyer put it "how many safeties can cover a number two receiver"? Bell is a bit undersized and not particularly physical as a tackler. He does his best work as a deep safety where he can use speed and ball skills to make plays. On his two years as a starter for the Buckeyes Bell's tackle totals were not great but he was a difference maker in the big play columns with 8 interceptions, 2 fumble recoveries, 15 pass breakups and a score. Byrd may not be able to hold Bell off all season even if there are no injuries.
Corner is a position that will have to be addressed before the Saints defense can become more than mediocre. With Brandon Browner not being invited back, Keenan Lewis takes over as the number one. He is a solid but unspectacular cover man probably best suited to a number two or nickel corner role. He will be joined at the position by Delvin Breaux and Damian Swann who are both second year players. Breaux made the team as an undrafted free agent last year and stepped into the starting lineup when Lewis was injured. He played well at times but saw his share of struggles as well. Only time will tell if he can be the next Richard Sherman but on paper he is still somewhat of a liability as a second starter. That could be enough to make Breaux a target for opposing offenses and in turn a useful fantasy option for us.
Fifth round pick Damian Swann impressed as a rookie, earning the nickel corner position by week one. As a rookie corner he was targeted often and responded well until his injury in week five. Both of the Saints young corners have shown promise on the field. Browner led the team's corners with 62 solo tackles in 2015 which suggests there is enough opportunity for someone to be a viable fantasy option. If I were to take an educated guess at this point I would go with Breaux. That said, there is no need to roster any of these guys until one of them gives us a reason.
SS Kenny Vaccaro - Priority DB3 with some upside and a little risk
FS Jairus Byrd - Minimal value at best
FS Von Bell - Dynasty sleeper for big play leagues
SS Roman Harper - Wait and see approach with no real expectations
CB Keenan Lewis - Minimal value at best
CB Delvin Breaux - Inexperienced starter keeping an eye on in corner required leagues
CB Damian Swann - Deep sleeper in corner required leagues
CB De'Vante Harris - No value
That will do it for part four of this year's offering. I will be back in a week or so with the AFC East.