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Eyes of the Guru IDP Info, Part 8: AFC South - Footballguys

An overview of defenses in the AFC South with an emphasis on individual defensive players and their fantasy value.

Just as a reminder or for those who may be new to the Eyes of the Guru series. For reference, when mentioning where players finished in the rankings last season, the model will be the standard Footballguys scoring system:

  • Tackles = 1.5
  • Assists = .75
  • Sacks = 4
  • Forced fumbles = 3
  • Fumble recoveries = 3
  • Interceptions = 4
  • Passes defended = 1.5
  • Touchdowns = 6

Keep in mind that based on scoring systems, rankings will vary (sometimes greatly) from league to league.

Houston Texans

Defensive Linemen

At a point not long ago the Texans defense was one of the most formidable in the game. This was not so much the case in 2017 when they were mediocre against the run, tied for last versus the pass at eight yards per attempt, ranked 23rd with 32 sacks and forced fewer than 20 turnovers. While there are other contributing factors, their change of fortune was largely due to the absence of one man wrecking crew J.J. Watt.

In four seasons from 2012 to 2015 Watt lit up opponents and the box scores like pinball machines. Over that span, he averaged an incredible 62-31-17, 6.5 turnovers and 10 batted passes per season. Those are eye popping numbers for a lineman in any scheme, making them even more impressive the Texans run a 3-4 scheme. Watt is a once in a generation player and when healthy can make an average defense look great. Unfortunately, he has not been healthy since 2015. Back problems in 2016 followed by a finger injury early in 2017 then a knee in week five caused Watt to miss all but nine games over the past two years and be marginally effective when he did get on the field.

Things are looking up for Watt and the Texans entering training camp. The back issue has been a non-factor despite such injuries often becoming chronic problems, the finger healed long ago and his recovery from the tibial plateau fracture is going well. Watt crushed the training camp conditioning test and is not expected to be placed on the PUP. He missed most of the team’s offseason practices and will be limited this summer but should be back in action by week one at the latest. Watt is 29 years old so if he can get past the injuries there are plenty of years left for him to dominate. He is a team leader, an outstanding player and the kind of person off the field that makes everyone pull for him. Due to the injury concerns, there are a select few defensive linemen that may go off the board ahead of Watt but if he stays healthy, he will be in the mix for the top slot once all the numbers are in.

The issue of positional designation conflicts will never go away until IDP managers and commissioners push league hosting sites to get with the program and evolve as the NFL has. We finally have CBS, NFL.com, Yahoo, and MyFantasyLeague all agreeing on Khalil Mack as a defensive end but there is not an agreement on Jadeveon Clowney. Even the team roster on their own home page lists him as DE/OLB. With Watt out, Clowney stepped up to lead the team with 9.5 sacks in 2017. In leagues where he was a defensive end, the totals of 41-18-9.5 and 4 turnovers made Clowney a solid DL1. With a linebacker designation, his value was greatly limited in all but big play based formats.

In reality, the DE/OLB listing is accurate for Clowney who will line up at both positions regularly throughout the course of a game; at least when everyone is healthy. When he was drafted first overall in 2014 the Organization envisioned Clowney as a bookend to Watt at end, with the versatility to move around, confusing blocking assignments and taking advantage of matchups. He was recovering from a serious injury of his own and played little as a rookie. Clowney was back in action in 2015 but still not at full strength. By the time he was fully healthy, Watt was not. Thus the Texans are still looking for an opportunity to get their two stars healthy and on the field at the same time for a full season. It looks like that might finally happen in 2018. Clowney should become a perennial 40 plus tackle guy, with (or near) double digit sacks and a few forced turnovers over the next several years. Make sure you know where he falls position-wise in your league and rank him accordingly.

Christian Covington, Joel Heath, and Brandon Dunn did a fine job holding down the fort last season but none of these guys are exceptional talents. As a result, no defensive end (other than Clowney) accounted for more than 17 solo stops last season, and if you remove Clowney, the entire defensive line accounted for five sacks.

D.J. Reader handles the nose tackle position in the base defense but comes off the field on passing downs. Carlos Watkins is his primary backup but the Texans have several players with the ability to take snaps over center if needed.

Linebackers

Inside linebacker play contributed to the team’s mediocrity on defense last season and provided a major disappointment for IDP owners along the way as well. After going 77-51-5 in 2016, Bernardrick McKinney was expected to take the next step in his third season; surprisingly his next step was backward. It was not all his fault as the front three without Watt, and Clowning seeing time at OLB, did not do a great job of keeping blockers off the second level. As a result, McKinney’s tackle totals slumped to 61 solo and 31 assists. With the front line in tact at last, we should see a rebound in tackle production from him in 2018. Most concerning from an IDP perspective, however, is McKinney’s glaring lack of big play production. His five sacks in 2016 dropped to three last year, and three campaigns into his career (two as a starter) has McKinney with three pass breakups and still looking for an interception, forced fumble or recovery. The law of averages suggests the streak of futility has to end eventually but there is no reason to expect a sudden breakout in the big play columns. With a career best of 77 solo stops and no big play production to speak of, it is hard to look at McKinney as more than depth with a little upside.

You would not expect it by glancing at the end of season totals but Zach Cunningham is probably the better fantasy option in Houston going forward. He has more range and athleticism with better cover skills than McKinney. As a rookie second round pick, Cunningham got on the field early but worked in a two down base package role most of the season. When his opportunity increased late in the year so did Cunningham’s production. As a three down player over the final four games, he had 22 solo stops, 15 assists, and half a sack. Cunningham forced a fumble in week five so he is already ahead of McKinney in that category, and he added another sack in week thirteen as well. The sample size is small but projecting Cunningham’s December numbers over a full season puts him in the area of 88 solo and 60 assists. At that pace with just a sprinkling in the big play columns, he could be a high-end LB3. At 23 years old entering his second year as a pro, he could prove to be even better.

Dylan Cole was an undrafted rookie last season but should one of the starters go down he could be an interesting in-season addition. On 205 snaps in a backup role, Cole was 16-16-1 with a pair of interceptions. The team needs a playmaker on the inside so put Cole on the watch list this preseason.

If the Texans play Clowney on the edge and have Whitney Mercilus back at full strength, they have an excellent pair of starters at outside linebacker. Mercilus landed on IR last October with a torn pectoral but is fully recovered and good to go entering camp. With at least five sacks in each of his first five seasons and a career best of 11 in 2015, Mercilus is a proven commodity. He is not, however, someone that can challenge for a sack title. With tackle totals consistently in the low to mid-30s and an average of seven sacks per season, he will be a solid contributor to the Texans cause but no more than depth in big play based leagues in IDP terms.

The team’s lack of depth on the outside was an issue last season and their lack of attention to it could continue to create problems. The injury to Mercilus in week five put second-year undrafted free agent Brennan Scarlett on the field in a near full-time role. Scarlett was adequate, playing well versus the run but not making much contribution as a pass rusher other than a two sack outing in week 10. When he was in turn injured in week 12, the Texans were left scrambling. Surprisingly the only roster additions at the position this offseason were a pair of sixth-round picks, Duke Ejiofor and Peter Kalambayi. Some scouts had Ejiofor going as early as round three. He had a great career at Wake Forest producing 24 career sacks (17.5 in two seasons as a starter) and accounting for half a dozen turnovers. Dynasty owners in big play leagues will want to pay particular attention to this young man’s progress since there is anot a lot on the roster in front of him.

Defensive Backs

Since their inception in 2002, Houston has been the place great safeties go to do nothing. We have to look back to 2015 for a Texans safety that recorded more than 46 solo stops and even then none exceeded 60. The team has used high draft picks on the position, and they have spent free agent money in the past with the same results, solid play on the field but marginal, at best, production in the box scores. The team has thrown resources at the position from all sorts of angles this year. First they signed Tyrann Mathiew to a free agent deal, the coaching staff announced the move of former corner Kareem Jackson to free safety, and finally, the organization invested their highest pick in this year’s draft (a third) in strong safety Justin Reid.

Jackson is expected to be the deep safety and catch all, thus he is the least likely to break the trend. Mathieu battled injuries in two of his five seasons with Arizona but was highly productive when healthy. The Arizona coaching staff took full advantage of Mathieu’s versatility moving him all over the field and lining him up everywhere from weak inside linebacker to corner, including both safety spots and in the slot. Mathieu was huge in 2015, totaling 80-9-1 with 6 turnovers, 16 pass breakups, and a score. Much of 2016 was lost to injury but he returned strong last season. Entering camp it is unclear what the plan is for Mathieu in 2018 but with Jackson expected to work deep, Mathieu should spend most of his time near the action. If anyone can break the curse it will be the Honey Badger.

Reid is also a candidate to buck the trend. The rookie should immediately assume the strong safety role. With good size, speed athletic ability and a knack for the big play his skill set is a huge plus. Reid is aggressive both in coverage and in run support which was on display in his box score production at Stanford last season. As a junior he in 2017 he started 14games for the Cardinals posting 94 combined tackles and assists, a sack, five interceptions and a fumble recovery. There is reason for optimism with Reid but keep in mind many of the same expectations were present when the Texans drafted guys like Quintin Demps and D.J. Swearinger Sr in years past.

With Johnathan Joseph and Kevin Johnson on the outside, Aaron Colvin as the third corner and the probability of Jackson seeing some slot corner responsibilities, the Texans are rock solid on paper at the position. This brings up the question; why were they so poor against the pass last year? Judging by offseason moves the organization must believe the problem rested with the safeties, which they have strongly addressed.

In terms of IDP value at corner, Houston has given us a few good options over the seasons but none with much year-to-year consistency. The best in recent seasons had been Jackson who exceeded 50 solo stops three years in a row but has been light in the big play and passes defended columns. Johnson will move into Jackson’s former role but he has not been much of a playmaker either. Managers searching for help at corner will have to look elsewhere to start the season and see if someone from this group steps up.

Indianapolis Colts

Defensive Linemen

When Chuck Pagano took over as Colts head coach in 2012 he tried to change the Colts defense from a finesse, bend but don’t break 4-3 to a Baltimore Ravens style 3-4 scheme. Poor personnel decisions were compounded by injuries and other issues as the defense never evolved. Under the new coaching regime defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus is taking them back to a 4-3 but with an aggressive attacking approach not seen here in over a decade. The players are excited about the new scheme and by the end of 2018 IDP managers may be as well. There are a lot of new faces and/or new opportunities to consider here as even Eberflus is new to the position of coordinator. As such all we can do is examine what we know about the individual players and take a guess at what it could mean in the box scores.

Jabaal Sheard is a known commodity. He played outside backer in the previous scheme but worked as a 4-3 end with the Browns and Patriots earlier in his career. His best box score production came as a rookie with the Browns in 2011 when Sheard finished 40-15-8.5 with 5 forced fumbles and a recovery. He has fallen short of 40 tackles every season since but remains a solid edge setter versus the run. Sheard is not an elite edge rusher but has five or more sacks in six of his seven seasons as a pro. There is no one looking over his shoulder with an eye on the starting job so his role as a three down end is safe. All things considered, Sheard is a solid if unspectacular NFL starter with enough pop in his game and production in the box scores to make at least a solid DL3. If everything goes well with the new more aggressive scheme, he might even climb into the mid DL2 range.

John Simon is also a somewhat known commodity, or at least we know what he is capable of as a 3-4 edge rusher. He was a fourth round pick of the Ravens in 2013 but was only with the team for a cup of coffee. Simon earned his first significant playing time with Houston in 2015 putting up respectable totals of 39-14-5. He was on track for slightly better numbers in 2016 before missing five games. He signed with the Colts last spring and was impressive enough to land a starting job. Simon was off to a strong start at 24-14-3 through six games before suffering a neck injury that eventually led to IR. He is healthy and ready to roll entering camp but his role in the new defense is uncertain at best. There is even speculation he could be on the roster bubble because he is not a good fit. Anything is possible here but it is hard to see the Colts letting anyone go if they can pressure the quarterback off the edge. At 6’1” and 250 pounds Simon is undersized for a 4-3 end and is not going to be a starting option, but he could ultimately earn a part time role as a dime package rush specialist.

Beyond Sheard and Simon, all we have to go on is talent/skill set, college production, and speculation to figure out the rest of the defensive end puzzle. Last year’s third round selection Tarell Basham has been running with the first team during the offseason. The former Ohio University star was yet another in a long line of poor personnel decisions by the previous regime; not because he lacks talent but because he lacked proper work ethic and is a 4-3 end they unsuccessfully tried to reshape into a stand-up edge rusher. Basham leaned from his struggles as a rookie he can no longer slack during the week then show up and ball out on game day as he did in college. He now realizes that as a pro if you slack all week you show up inactive on game day. He has become a pro and is working hard to secure this opportunity. Basham has the potential to become a very good player and long term answer for the Colts. He was a good run defender for the Bobcats and holds the school record with 29 career sacks. It is a long time between now and that first game in September and the coaching staff has made it clear all starting jobs are open to competition. At least Basham is at home in a scheme that fits his abilities and it seems he has been given the first opportunity to impress. Now let us see what happens when the pads go on.

The Colts added journeyman Chris McCain via free agency on the heels of his five sack season with the Chargers. McCain could be in the mix for a starting spot if he is cleared of charges in a misdemeanor battery case, but for now, it looks as if fellow veteran free agent addition Denico Autry and the team’s duo of rookie second round picks are Basham’s main competition.

Autry comes over from the Raiders after a career best season in which he totaled 23-12-5 with 7 batted passes. Autry’s biggest asset may be versatility as he can line up anywhere across the front except nose tackle. The Colts roster shows him with a designation of DE/DT which points to Autry possibly being used as a utility player.

Both Tyquan Lewis and Kemoko Turay had productive college careers at Big Ten schools. Turay had 7.5 sacks as a true freshman at Rutgers in 2014. Over his final two seasons there he played both end and tackle, going 32-28-3 as a senior and finishing with 14.5 career sacks. He is an explosive quick twitch athlete and probably the better pure pass rusher of the two rookies, but at 253 pounds he may not have enough sand in his pants to hold up versus the run on early downs.

Lewis is also a versatile player having worked at both end and tackle over his career at Ohio State. He posted mediocre tackle totals over his final two seasons with the Buckeyes but finished with a strong 23.5 career sacks, doing much of that damage as an inside rusher. He may lack the speed and explosiveness to excel as an edge rusher but has size and power to play on early downs and is the more polished of the youngsters in terms of technique. At some point we may see Lewis at end on early downs, slipping inside on sub-package calls.

Al Woods and Hassan Ridgeway are the lead contenders for the 1-technique or nose tackle position. Both are wide body space eaters with very similar skill sets. They may ultimately end up sharing time, but regardless of how the opportunity breaks down, neither are likely to make much box score impact.

Autry and Lewis could be in the mix for time as the 3-technique tackle but Margus Hunt is the early favorite for that job. Hunt entered the league as a raw but gifted second round pick of the Bengals in 2013. He did not develop fast enough for the Bengals but seemed to find a place working as a 3-4 end with the Colts. Hunt’s career numbers are minimal but his skill set could prove a good fit on early downs in particular.

Linebackers

At this point, it is hard to tell if it was players or scheme but poor linebacker production has plagued the Colts for a long time. It has been a while since IDP managers found significant value here as well, but that is likely to change in short order. In fact, we could even get a pair of box score friendly players from this group.

Antonio Morrison is an early favorite to be one of those players. He was a starter at inside backer last season and led the team in tackles at the second level with a modest 64 solo stops. The 2016 fourth round pick has been somewhat of a disappointment at this early stage of his career but again, it is hard to tell if that is on him or the fact he was not a great fit in the scheme. At 6’1” and 241 pounds he has ideal size and a physical nature versus the run, but his coverage skills remain in question. Morrison was in and out of sub-packages last season, ultimately seeing almost 80% of the defensive snaps. With that consideration, his 64 tackles and 44 assists look a little better. The concern being, we have seen nothing from him in the big play columns to date. His college career at Florida was light in that area as well with four and a half sacks, five total turnovers and just a pair of pass breakups. Every position is wide open entering camp so Morrison will have to hold off seventh round pick Matthew Adams and free agent additions Najee Goode and Tyrell Adams to win the job at middle linebacker. If he does so and can earn a three down role, we should see useful tackle totals. Chances are the marginal big play output will stick around limiting Morrison’s IDP value to LB3 or quality depth.

Back in early May, there was speculation Goode would enter camp as the starter in the middle. With no obvious standout at the position, this is a real possibility but his previous six years in the league suggest he is a long shot to hold the job come September. Goode was a fifth round pick of the Buccaneers in 2012. He was active for three games as a rookie and was not brought back. Goode spent the last five seasons with Philadelphia where he saw limited action as a backup and made his living mostly on special teams. With six years as a pro under his belt, Goode is the team’s most experienced option but his career stat line of 35-10-1 with 1 forced fumble speaks volumes.

Tyrell Adams appeared in six games for the Raiders as an undrafted rookie last season. The fact a linebacker need club like Oakland did not bring him back is probably all we need to know about his chances. Matthew Adams had a productive career at Houston but is more of a developmental prospect than someone ready to take over the reins.

Based purely on talent, potential and previous production rookie second round pick Darius Leonard is the player to target here. He should come out of camp as a three down weak side linebacker. Good size, speed, athleticism, cover skills and instincts are all part of his resume. Even though he played for a small school, on field production at South Carolina State is what makes Leonard seem most likely to succeed in IDP terms. He had impressive numbers throughout his four years as a Bulldog including 20 career sacks, 7 forced fumbles, and 6 interceptions. Leonard’s senior season alone produced a stat line of 73-40-8 with 3 takeaways. He is unproven on the pro level but Leonard has the tools to get the job done and will have little competition around him; at least for this season.

Second-year man Anthony Walker will be the main competition on the weak side. He was tagged by the previous coaching staff as an inside backer and could end up competing for the job in the middle where he could be a better fit, but for now, is expected to work outside. Surprisingly Walker was given little opportunity as a rookie despite the team’s struggles at the position. When he finally got on the field in December he contributed 19 combined tackles and assists on 115 snaps. Looking back at his college career, Walker was a productive two-year starter as a middle backer for Northwestern, averaging 63 tackles and 50 assists in that role. Over his three seasons with the Wildcats, he totaled seven and a half sacks, four interceptions, forced eight fumbles, recovered six and knocked down a dozen passes while playing against top-level competition. Walker has good size at 6’1” and 242 pounds, is solid in coverage and has a history of both tackle and big play production. Coach Eberflus will be looking to get his best players on the field. Once the pads go on he may find Walker is one of them.

Jeremiah George is penciled in on the strong side with rookie Zaire Franklin also likely to work at that position. The coaching staff is going to explore all options during camp and preseason. The only thing we can do at this point is put the Colts linebackers at the top of our watch list and try to beat the competition to the cream when it rises to the top.

Defensive Backs

The Colts are unsettled at safety as well, but it is more due to injury questions than an uncertainty of player abilities. Clayton Geathers is expected to play strong safety and is the top IDP prospect in the secondary. At 6’2” and 218 pounds he is a physical presence that hits like a linebacker and flourishes in run support. Coverage is not a strong point for Geathers, but he is a capable pass defender as well. From a production standpoint what we have seen of him in his brief career has been fairly impressive. In nine games as a starter in 2016, Geathers was on pace for 89 tackles, 16 assists, and 9 pass breakups. A neck injury suffered in week 11 of that season left his career in doubt for a while but he was back on the field in a limited role over the final five contests in 2017. Both Geathers and the team seem confident the neck problem is in the past but he was placed on the PUP at the start of camp while recovering from a cleanup procedure on his knee. All signs point toward him being ready for the start of the season but it is unclear how much he will play in the preseason if at all. What we have to go on is a small sampling but it looks good. Considering the team’s questions at linebacker and his in the box skill set, Geathers could be set for a big year.

The Colts are set at free safety as well, or at least they will be when Malik Hooker gets healthy. The team’s first round pick last year was everything the Organization had hoped right up to week seven when an ACL injury ended his season. Hooker is not a big tackle producer but the three interceptions in his first seven games are a strong indication of what he brings to the defense. Being nine months removed from the injury, the team is going to be careful with their star safety that opened camp on the PUP with Geathers. The plan is to get both players back on the field sometime around mid-August so they can be brought along slowly and be ready by week one. Hooker’s marginal tackle production will eliminate him from the fantasy conversation in some leagues but his big play ability will be enough to qualify as depth with week-to-week upside for many.

With the starters out, Mathias Farley and T.J. Green will be running with the first team at the outset of camp. Farley filled in admirably for Geathers last season though his box score production was erratic. Should Geathers miss significant time again, Farley might make a solid in season addition. Green proved to be an adequate placeholder but displayed none of the big play ability Hooker brings to the game.

Professional football teams are rarely as bad as they may look on paper, which is a good thing for the Colts when it comes to their corners. Simply put there is no star power present here and little experience. Entering his fifth season and playing with his fourth team, Pierre Desir is the closest thing to a grizzled veteran. He has seen action in 33 games as a pro with 61 career tackles, 15 passes defended and 1 interception.

Quincy Wilson was the Colts second round pick last year. The coaching staff has a lot of confidence in the young man but after a sore knee caused him to miss all but seven games as a rookie, they are not yet sure what to expect from the 22-year-old. This might be an opportunity for the rookie corner rule to apply if not for the fact everyone in this secondary is young and/or inexperienced.

While Desir and Wilson are the anticipated starters, there is no set pecking order at corner. Last year’s fifth round pick Nate Hairston logged 536 snaps as a rookie, playing well at times but making some mistakes as well. Undrafted rookie Kenny Moore II saw a lot of action down the stretch including four games as a starter. His numbers were intriguing but his play on the field was not particularly impressive. Both Christopher Milton and D.J. White were undrafted free agents in 2016 and have seen little action. Behind this group is a collection of undrafted rookies battling for a roster spot. It is impossible to make a call on IDP potential with this situation. In fact, it seems likely the team may add another veteran or two before we get to September.

  • SS Clayton Geathers – Injury risk with CB2 potential
  • SS Mathias Farley – Possibly injury pickup
  • FS Malik Hooker – Depth with big play upside once healthy
  • FS T.J. Green – No impact
  • CB Nate Hairston – No impact expected
  • CB Quincy Wilson – Worth keeping an eye on in corner required format
  • CB Pierre Desir – Marginal value at best
  • CB Christopher Milton – No impact expected
  • CB Kenny Moore II – No impact expected
  • CB D.J. White – No impact expected

Jacksonville Jaguars

Defensive Linemen

The Jaguars 55 sacks were second to the Steelers in 2017 but no defensive line came close to the 47.5 Jacksonville’s front four produced. Calais Campbell set the pace with his 14.5 falling half a sack short of being the most by any lineman. Campbell has been a great player throughout his NFL career regardless of defensive scheme. In eight seasons as a starter for the Cardinals, he never fell short of five sacks, had a career-best of nine and a half and put up 45 or more solo tackles seven times. Coincidently the nine and a half sack season came in 2013 which was the last time Campbell lined up at end in a 4-3. What he showed us last season is just how much a 3-4 scheme can hold back a great player, and how important scheme fit can be.

Because he makes so many tackles Campbell has been one of the most consistent players in the IDP game over the last eight years, with Top-12 finished in each of those seasons. He was at the top of the list at the position last year and is among the short list of favorites to land there again in 2018. In recent years there has been a growing trend of IDP managers making linemen the first defensive players off the board. It would be hard to argue against making Campbell the pick if you choose to follow that strategy.

Campbell is the best IDP option across the Jaguars front, but he is certainly not the only one. Three other players contributed at least eight sacks last season including fellow ends Yannick Ngakoue with 12 and Dante Fowler with 8. Ngakoue also finished last season well inside the Top-10 but he was incredibly frustrating for IDP managers due to the week to week inconsistency that comes with low tackle numbers. Opportunity was not the issue as he played about 78% of the defensive snaps compared to Campbell at 81%. At 6’2” and 246 pounds Ngakoue is simply not built to excel as a run defender. Thus the stat line of 24-5-12 with 6 forced fumbles and a pair of recoveries is accompanied by five huge games of 17 or more points, and seven forgettable ones with four or fewer, including a goose egg and two one point outings. Making Ngakoue an every week starter will give you a lot of grey hair but if you can land him as a third end and play him when the matchups are juicy, he can help win four or five games for you.

Fowler finished last season at 18-3-8 with a forced fumble and 2 recoveries. While those numbers are not enough to provide useful fantasy value, they are rather impressive for a guy that was third in the rotation. They also tell us if one of the starters is injured, we may want to move quickly to scoop him up.

There are some other issues to be aware of with Fowler. He is suspended for week one which is not a big deal. The bigger concern is a shoulder injury that kept him out of the team’s offseason program and landed Fowler on the PUP to start camp. He has been unable to work out over much of the offseason and has lost considerable muscle mass in his upper body. The Jaguars declined to pick up Fowler’s fifth-year option, presumably due to the injury situation, making this the final year of his contract. There are even rumors of a possible trade once he is healthy.

If Fowler is out of the picture, last year’s third round pick Dawuane Smoot would likely be the next man up as the third end. Smoot had 14 tackles and 6 assists on 254 opportunities as a rookie. He was the only Jaguars lineman with more than 20 snaps that did not record a sack. On the other hand, Smoot is bigger and a better run defender than either Fowler or Ngakoue. Since run defense was the one shortcoming of this defense in 2017, getting Smoot on the field more may have already been part of the plan anyway. He had 12 sacks over his final two years at Illinois so it is not as if he would not contribute as a pass rusher with a more significant role.

Jacksonville has a good problem at the tackle positions in that they are teeming with talent. Malik Jackson is the safest IDP target of the group. He has been a top-12 tackle in each of the last five seasons dating back to his time in Denver and was third in the rankings last year after a career-best eight sacks. Jackson can consistently be counted on for tackle totals in the high twenties to mid-thirties and has at least six sacks in four of the past five seasons. Playing the 3-technique for Jacksonville with all the talent around him, keeps opponents from committing extra blockers and Jackson is tough to handle one on one.

Arby Jones did a fine job as the 1-technique tackle last year but he will have competition for the job this summer. Marcell Dareus came over in a mid-season trade from Buffalo last year. Upon arrival, he worked in a part time role spelling both Jackson and Jones. This season he is likely to replace Jones as the starter providing the NFL does not take action over the sexual assault lawsuit he is currently facing. Such legal action generally drags out for many months so Dareus is probably safe for this season.

At 6’3” and 331 pounds, Dareus is bigger than Jones and bring an element of power and athleticism to the position. Dareus has been successful both on the field and in the box score at every interior line position including nose tackle in both three and four man fronts. He recorded 46 tackles in 2013 and 9 sacks in 2014. We should not anticipate such numbers in his current situation but they give us an idea of his potential. More reasonable expectations for Dareus in his current situation are tackles in the low 30s with around 4 sacks. If he meets those expectations Dareus will be a solid DT2 at the least.

The wildcard here is first-round pick, Taven Bryan. The rookie is raw having started 13 games at Florida before electing to bypass his senior season, but he has rare athletic ability. Bryan played inside for the Gators but has the potential to see time at end in the NFL. Scouts blame his marginal college production (17-20-4 in 2017) on inexperience and lack of natural instincts. In the next breath, many are quick to point out his huge potential with some time to develop. Chances are Bryan will not be a major factor as a rookie but Dynasty owners may want to tuck him away on the taxi squad for safe keeping.

  • DE Calais Campbell – Elite tier DL1
  • DE Yannick Ngakoue – Too inconsistent for an every week start but excellent as a matchup based DL2
  • DE Dante Fowler – Injury sleeper if he can get healthy soon
  • DE Dawuane Smoot – Injury sleeper
  • DT Malik Jackson – Quality DT1
  • DT Marcell Dareus – Potential high-end DT2 or better if off-field issues do not become a factor
  • DT Taven Bryan – Dynasty target for tackle required leagues
  • DT Arby Jones –No impact expected
  • DT Michael Bennett – No impact

Linebacker

Because they were tied for first against the pass at six yards per attempt, finished second in sacks and recorded the second most takeaways (33) in the league; no one seems to remember Jacksonville’s struggles versus the run last year. The Jaguars' 4.3 yards-per-carry was tied with three other teams for 23rd in the league and was only that high because they were better in the second half of the season when Paul Posluszny returned to the middle. Posluszny retired so they no longer have that safety harness to fall back on.

Myles Jack opened 2017 as a three down middle linebacker with Posluszny moved to a two down role on the strong side. Jack recorded good numbers through the first seven games but he struggled on the field at times. As a result, Jacksonville came out of their Week 8 bye with Jack back on the outside. He went from averaging 14.26 points over the first seven games to an average of 5.41 over the final nine. The good news for IDP owners; Jack is back as a three down middle backer this year. The bad news; there is no reason to believe he will be any better at it. The 14.26 number was inflated by a near 33 point outing versus the Jets. Throw that one out and Jack averaged a solid 11.16 over the other six games while he was in the middle. That would have made him a low end LB2 last season and is about the kind of production we should expect if he remains in the middle.

The Jaguars will not have Posluszny to fall back on so if Jack struggles, the name to know is Blair Brown. He did not play much as a rookie fifth round pick last season but Brown is an interesting player. He is undersized with a generous description of 6’0” and 238 pounds; did not light up the combine with speed and athleticism and was a one year starter at Ohio University. As his draft profile says, Brown gets a big check mark in the “find the ball, get the ball” box. He plays with instincts and uses his size as leverage to fight through blocks. Brown also puts a big check mark in the production box. In 14 starts as a senior for the Bobcats, he was 71-57-4.5. The plan is to play Brown on the strong side for now just to get him on the field but he is a natural at middle linebacker.

One player here that comes with no questions is weak side linebacker Telvin Smith Sr who has been an IDP beast since taking over the job as a rookie in 2014. At 6’3” and 215 pounds he is possibly lightest three down linebacker in the game and has been a major part of the inspiration for a league wide shift to smaller, faster, more athletic linebackers. Smith has finished no lower than eighth at the position in any of the past three seasons with the lowest being last season when he missed a couple games. Landing in the top-10 on 14 games is impressive enough but his average of 14.02 points per game was second only to C.J. Mosley. Smith has been remarkably durable having played in 60 of a possible 64 career games, is exceptionally consistent and is only 27 years old in the prime of his career. A top-five finish in 2018 is a real possibility.

  • MLB Myles Jack – Low end LB2 as a three down MLB
  • WLB Telvin Smith Sr – Elite tier LB1
  • SLB Blair Brown – Deep sleeper with big upside if he ever moves inside
  • MLB Brooks Ellis – No impact expected
  • SLB Leon Jacobs – May eventually earn a role as a sub package pass rusher
  • OLB Lerentee McCray – No impact expected

Defensive Backs

The Jaguars defense worked just the way it was drawn up in 2017. The front four helped the secondary by getting a ton of pressure and the secondary helped the front four by keeping guys covered and taking advantage of mistakes. Strong play at the safety positions had a lot to do with their success as Barry Church and Tashaun Gipson Sr each contributed four interceptions.

Church has been a solid IDP starter since 2013 when he blew up for 107 solo stops on the way to being the number one safety. He has never come close to repeating those numbers but if not for three missed games in 2016, would have reached 75 tackles in each of the following three seasons. Church has made some contribution in the big play columns each year since becoming a starter but most of his IDP value had been derived from the quality tackle numbers. He made the Top-20 in his first season with Jacksonville but got there in a different way. The 59 solo stops were his lowest since becoming a starter but the four interceptions and eight passes defended were both new career highs. In fact, Church had 16 passes defended and 5 picks in his entire career leading up to last season. Early in his career Church had a reputation as a physical in the box strong safety that would struggle at times in coverage. It appears he has evolved into a more complete player. Below average tackle numbers had an effect on his box score consistency last season and will likely continue to do so considering the talent in front of him. Church may never see the Top-10 again but should continue to be a decent third starter with week-to-week big-play potential.

Gipson had fairly similar production in 2017 with 53 solo stops, 4 picks and 7 pass breakups but his background is much different. The last time he provided useful fantasy numbers was 2013 and even then he was only a solid third starter or low end DB2 with 63 tackles, 31 assists and 5 interceptions. After totaling 13 picks, 23 passes defended and a pair of scores over his last three seasons in Cleveland, the Jaguars brought Gipson in two years ago to be the playmaker in their secondary. He had a disappointing 2016 from any perspective with 34 tackles and a single takeaway so the organization was pleased with the bounce back season. From an IDP standpoint, all we need to know is Gipson has more than 42 tackles in two of his six years as a pro. If he can repeat last year’s output Gipson may have some value as depth or as a third starter in leagues with deep rosters, but for most IDP managers he can be counted on as no more than marginal depth.

With the addition of third round pick Ronnie Harrison, the Jaguars appear poised to join the trend of NFL defenses that play three safeties on a regular basis. Harrison plays and hits bigger than his size suggests at 6’2” and 207 pounds. He has the talent, athleticism and skill set to play either safety spot but his biggest asset is a physical approach in run support. Any safety that draws a comparison to former IDP star Adrian Wilson as Harrison has is someone to keep an eye on. Harrison was a productive two year starter at Alabama with a total of 99 tackles, 57 assists 2.5 sacks, 5 interceptions and a pair of fumble recoveries over the last two seasons. He should have a role right out of the gate though it may not be full time. Both Church and Gipson are signed through 2020 so Harrison and IDP managers alike may have to wait a while for him to land a three down job.

The highest scoring defensive back in Jacksonville last season lined up at corner. Though he edged out Church by a fraction of a point in the overall defensive back rankings, A.J. Bouye was the number five corner on the strength of 53 solo tackles, 6 interceptions and 16 passes defended. Bouye had a couple productive seasons in Houston but the 2017 numbers represent career highs in all three columns. During his time with the Texans, Bouye was never an every down player unless filling in for an injury. In Jacksonville last season he player 1015 snaps opposite one of the game’s elite corners in Jalen Ramsey. Bouye proved himself a more than capable NFL starter and based on the per snap production over his career, appears to be the real deal for IDP managers as well.

Ramsey was also a top-12 corner last season. In fact, he has been the number 12 corner two years in a row. A close look at his numbers reveals the rookie corner rule at work. Ramsey swapped a few tackles from his rookie season for two more interceptions in year two. The fact he has more than 50 solo stops in both seasons is a big plus for Ramsey’s potential fantasy value going forward. He is one of the bigger, more physical corners in the league and is more active in run support than most elite cover men. For those reasons, there is a good chance he will continue to have starter value in corner required leagues throughout his career. We may see Ramsey slip out of the CB1 tier in 2018 but there is a strong possibility he will remain a quality second starter.

Veterans D.J. Hayden and Dexter McDougle project to be the third and fourth corners in sub packages. Hayden has starting experience from his time with the Raiders but has battled injuries over much of his five year career. He had 72 combined tackles, 2 turnovers and 8 pass breakups for Oakland in 2015, so if one of the starters are injured, Hayden could be the guy to pick up as a replacement.

Tennessee Titans

Defensive Linemen

The Titans were quietly among the best defenses in the NFL in 2017. They finished fourth versus the run at 3.6 yards per carry, were in the top third against the pass at 6.8 yards per attempt. Ranked fifth with 43 sacks and produced 21 turnovers. It all started in the trenches where they got a dozen sacks and quality overall play from the front three. Tennessee is one of the 3-4 teams that sometimes label their defensive line positions a bit strangely. Instead of listing two defensive ends and a nose tackle they will line up two guys inside the offensive tackles with an end on one side and a linebacker on the other, calling both inside guys tackles. For some IDP managers, this works an advantage because some league hosting sites define Jurrell Casey as a tackle.

Casey is actually listed as a tackle on the team’s home page roster however he is not the guy that lines up over the center. In most 3-4 schemes he would be called a defensive end. Position is vital to determining Casey’s fantasy value in many leagues. If your format lumps the line positions together or considers him an end, he is a solid second starter. If your league breaks out the positions and Casey is a tackle, he becomes an elite tier DT1. He is not a quick twitch edge rusher but at 6’1” and 305 pounds is a ball of power, leverage and surprising athleticism that makes offensive linemen struggle. There is not much guesswork when it comes to Casey. He ended last season with an excellent (for his situation/position) 41-19-6. He has reached the 40 solo mark in three of seven seasons and has never fallen short of 30. He has 32.5 career sacks with at least 5 in each of the last five years and a career best of 9.5 in 2013. Make sure you know where he fits in your format position wise and slot his value accordingly.

There are no other sure IDP targets in this group though newcomer Bennie Logan at nose tackle has the potential to be a quality second starter in tackle required leagues. He has at least 35 solo stops in three of the last four seasons and will usually contribute a sack or two along the way.

DaQuan Jones had the best of his four NFL seasons in 2017, going 19-12-3.5 in 12 games. One thing that hurts everyone besides Casey, the Titans often pull one of the linemen to make room for the fifth defensive back in nickel packages.

Linebackers

For all those lazy IDP managers that pull up the previous year’s final rankings and use it as their draft board, Wesley Woodyard will be a top-10 linebacker. Do not be one of those lazy owners. Sure he led the team with 84 solo stops, had 40 assists, 4 sacks and a couple takeaways. There is no arguing he had a great 2017; but take a look at the history before assuming he will repeat that kind of production. He is 32 years old and has been in the league for 10 years, yet last season was Woodyard’s first with more than 73 solo stops. In fact, he has reached 55 only twice, has averaged 1.9 takeaways per season and 2.5 sacks. His only other top 35 finish came with Denver in 2012. All this is not to suggest Woodyard is a bad player; that is not the case at all. He is a solid veteran presence and a serviceable NFL starter. He is not however, the Top-15 IDP target some managers will mistake him for. If another GM wants to pick Woodyard among the first 25 linebackers off the board, stay out of their way and grab rookie Rashaan Evans instead.

The early word out of Titans camp has Evans competing with veteran Will Compton and last year’s fifth round pick Jayon Brown for the starting spot next to Woodyard. Team’s do not use first round picks on linebackers for the to sit and watch. Unless he is injured or completely flops, Evans will be a three down inside backer come week one.

Evans played weak side/outside linebacker at Alabama and has the perfect skill set for a weak inside backer in a pro-style 3-4. He is an explosive hitter with sideline to sideline range, strong coverage skills, patience and instincts to diagnose misdirection plays and the ability to get home as a pass rusher. About the only box Evans does not put a check mark in is strong previous production. He was stuck behind some excellent players at Alabama and did not earn a starting job until last season. Even then his production was somewhat modest with 74 combined tackles, 6 sacks and a pair of turnovers. The Titans defense is designed to funnel plays into the weak inside backer which is something Evans never had in college. The organization expects the rookie to quickly become the centerpiece of their defense. There will be a learning curve but simply put, Evans has a much higher ceiling than Woodyard or any other linebacker on the Titans roster. Because he is not one of the big three rookies at the position, Evans has been sliding in a lot of drafts this summer. He could prove to be a steal if available outside the first 25-30 linebackers taken.

Compton is a capable veteran player with some starting experience from his time in Washington. The cards are stacked heavily against him in the competition with Evans but the 28 year old sixth year player may eventually push Woodyard for a starting spot.

The Titans expect and need more than the 14.5 combined sacks they got from starting outside linebackers Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan last season. Orakpo gave them 10.5 sacks in 2016 but has reached double digits just three times in nine years. Entering year nine Morgan is still looking for his first double digit sack season though he did come close with nine in 2016. Both are players most 3-4 teams would love to have as their complimentary guy opposite an elite edge player but neither have shown the ability to be that elite guy. In fantasy terms, both Orakpo and Morgan are light in the tackle columns. Morgan barely averaged more than one tackle and one assist over 14 games last season while Orakpo was just short of two and one. These guys might hold marginal value as matchup based bye week fliers in big play formats, but that is the limit of their IDP worth.

The organization took another shot at finding that special edge player when the picked Harold Landry in the second round. It may take a year or two for Landry to develop into a three down player but his pass rush ability will come into play right away. Pure speed and raw athleticism give Landry the ability to contribute immediately in sub-packages. Once he adds some muscle and size so he can hold ground at the point of attack, and polishes the technical part of his game as a pass rusher; this could be the cornerstone Tennessee has been searching for. A look at his college numbers explains completely why the Titans selected this young man. Over a four year career that included 28 starts, Landry amassed 100 solo stops, 58 assists, 25 sacks, 10 forced fumbles, a recovery and an interception. If or when those numbers translate to the pro game Landry could be a quality starter for those in big play formats.

Defensive Backs

The Titans secondary gave us both a pleasant surprise and a considerable disappointment in 2017. The pleasant surprise was free safety Kevin Byard who exploded for a league tying eight interceptions in his second year. Byard added a couple fumble recoveries and enough in the other statistical columns to rank second among defensive backs at the end of the season. He was among the top tackle producing free safeties with a respectable 62 solo and 25 assists. Unlike most IDP friendly defensive backs that derive much of their value from turnovers, he was rather consistent on a week to week basis. In fact, Byard reached at least eight fantasy points in 11 games, falling short of six points twice. His consistency also got some help from the 16 pass breakups which is strong for a safety at either position

The concern with any high scoring defensive back that generates nearly 25% of his fantasy production from turnovers is the ability to repeat the feat in subsequent seasons. Byard showed no sign of such production as a rookie, going 42-12-1 with no takeaways and 4 pass breakups on 655 snaps. Granted his role was much different as an every down player with 1087 plays, but there is no insurance against Byard being a one year wonder and there will continue to be doubt until/unless we see him do it again in 2018.

Everyone has their own approach to risk/reward guys like Byard. The key is not to overpay or take such a risk too early. Byard is going to be among the first 10 defensive backs drafted in nearly every league this year, and he is worthy of it. Just be careful not to gamble when there is a near sure thing of relatively equal value still on the board.

At the other end of the spectrum is strong safety Johnathan Cyprien who is a great example of what changing teams can do to a productive player. We see it every year on both sides of the ball; a player has a great year or two in a situation or scheme that is just right for him, then he follows the money to a bad spot and flops. Cyprien was a tackling machine over four seasons in Jacksonville. In 2016 he averaged over six tackles and almost two assists per game. In 10 games with the Titans last season, his average was less than four tackles and two assists per game. Cyprien is a huge safety at 223 pounds and is at his best when near the line of scrimmage. The Jaguars kept him up there in his element virtually all the time. While he still sees time in the box, Tennessee’s scheme asks both safeties to line up further off the ball with regularity. In Cyprien’s defense, he missed six games after suffering a hamstring injury in week one. That however, does not explain his six solo stops over the final three games. Cyprien has the ability to rebound and put up good numbers if the coaching staff figures out how to get the most out of him. Unfortunately, it is impossible to know in July if that will happen in September. He is worth a later pick as depth with upside but it would be a mistake to expect the kind of production Cyprien left in Jacksonville.

From Alterraun Verner in through Jason McCourty to Adorre Jackson last season, the Titans have consistently given fantasy managers quality targets at corner. Between those three players are six seasons with at least 60 solo tackles and four with over 70 while playing for Tennessee since 2010. The team currently has three players with the potential to continue the tradition. The tough part is figuring out which one to target.

Jackson had the rookie corner rule working in his favor last year. He parlayed that into 61 tackles, 9 assists, 3 forced fumbles and 17 passes defended for a ranking of 16 among corners. He also put up 46 solo stops with 5 picks, 11 passes defended and a couple turnovers on fumbles as a junior at USC in 2016. Between the strong college production, a solid rookie season and the positive IDP history of Titans corners, he may prove to be a perennial target in corner required leagues.

Logan Ryan started opposite Jackson last season. He managed 50 tackles and 13 assists in 15 games but was a no show in the big play department. This was probably a fluke for Ryan who had 13 picks and 3 forced fumbles in four years with the Patriots before coming to Tennessee. Ryan was also the league leading tackler at the corner position while with New England in 2016.

Malcolm Butler followed Ryan to Tennessee this offseason after he was shunned by the Patriots in the Super Bowl. In three seasons as New England’s starter he averaged 53 tackles, 10 assists, 4.5 takeaways and 15 passes defended.

All three of these corners are capable of producing Top-15 IDP numbers. There is no doubt they will be the team’s top three but someone has to serve as a nickel/slot guy and come off the field about 25% of the time. Until we know who that guy is, picking one of them is going to be a gamble.

That is going to do it for this year’s lead in series. The Eyes of the Guru will be back after Round 1 of the preseason. Until then, best of luck and Just Win Baby!