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Eyes of the Guru IDP Info, Part 6: AFC West - Footballguys

An overview of defenses in the AFC West 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.

Denver Broncos

Defensive Linemen

When the Broncos moved to a 3-4 back in 2015 they already had a lot of players that fit the scheme. Since that time they have had quality play up front but there has never been that special player. With no significant offseason additions, it looks like more of the same in 2018.

Derek Wolfe has the most to offer IDP managers if he can stay healthy. Wolfe has missed time in each of the last three seasons, sitting out a total of 11 games over that span. The best years of his career came in 2015 and 2016 when Wade Phillips ran the defense. In 2015 Wolfe played 12 games recording 34 tackles, 13 assists, and 5 sacks. The following year he played 14 games going 38-13-5 and knocking down 4 passes. With the change of coordinators Wolfe’s numbers were down in 2017 even before the week 12 injury ended his season. It is hard to tell if the slack in production was directly related to Joe Woods replacing Phillips or was just coincidence. What we do know is Wolfe has limited fantasy upside even if he bounces back. He may be roster worthy in deep leagues, but for most of us, Wolfe is no more than a potential in-season pickup to provide depth if he is back to form.

Shelby Harris led Denver’s defensive line with five and a half sacks last season but marginal tackle totals (22 solos) negate any possible fantasy value. Harris will continue to have a significant opportunity as part of a three-man rotation that also includes Adam Gotsis. Gotsis is strong versus the run but has little to offer as a pass rusher. He should get a majority of the early-down snaps with Harris getting the pass rush opportunity. Zach Kerr played sparingly in 2017 before becoming part of the rotation when Wolfe was lost. All of these players fit the scheme and will contribute on the field while none of them have shown reason to expect a breakout in the box scores.

Domata Peko Sr is a great fit as a nose tackle in the 3-4. He is a 325-pound, two-gap space eater and an excellent anchor for the run defense, but the soon to be 34-year-old has never amounted to much as a fantasy option. This season he could lose a few snaps to free agent addition, Clinton McDonald. McDonald is not as big but has a little more pop in his pass rush. His only claim to IDP relevance came with Tampa Bay in 2014 when he finished at 35-12-5.5 and 3 turnovers. He could also see some snaps at end

Linebackers

The Broncos continue to dump major resources on the outside linebacker position while the need on the inside goes largely unaddressed. Brandon Marshall is a good but not great NFL linebacker. He is not as physical as one might expect from a 250-pound player, and his cover skills are adequate. He plays smart and is dependable as a tackler but is not a player that comes to mind when talking about the better inside backers in today’s game. Marshall had a huge 2014 season that had everyone expecting big things going forward. Fantasy managers that used early picks on him in 2015 were disappointed to get a mid-range LB3. Marshall played 11 games in 2016, reaching double-digit fantasy points in none of them. In his defense, injuries were part of the equation as he was recovering from knee and finger problems. Marshall was healthy in 2017 when his 10.4 points per game ranked just inside the Top 30 at linebacker. Tackle numbers in the mid-70s with around 30 assists and a sprinkling of big plays are reasonable expectations for Marshall. He is a steady LB3 or excellent depth for IDP managers. So long as those are your expectations Marshall can be a good addition to your roster.

Unless someone unexpectedly steps up, Todd Davis will keep the other inside linebacker job for a third season. Davis is a reliable player who rarely makes mistakes but his skills set is limiting. He is a liability in coverage thus rarely sees time in sub-packages and has shown little big-play production. In 30 games as the starter over the past two seasons, Davis has forced one fumble, recovered one, recorded a sack, and a half and broken up 2 passes. With 48 tackles, 34 assists, and a single sack to show for 14 games last season, there is no reason to expect significant change.

This spring Denver invested a fourth-round pick in Iowa’s Josey Jewell and used a sixth on Keishawn Bierria out of Washington. Both are developmental players with resumes that read much like that of Davis. Plenty of heart, effort, leadership, and production on the college level but pedestrian measurable traits, slow 40-times, and average athleticism. We have seen similar issues on scouting reports and draft profiles before and the player has gone on to have a solid career; the Broncos hope that will be the case with one of these youngsters.

Jewell is a player we should keep track of despite the negatives. He ran a painfully slow 4.82 in the 40 at the combine and was only able to bench 225 pounds 18 times. It was what he put on film however that led to the organization rolling the dice anyway. On tape, Jewell made up for it with outstanding instincts, physicality and a relentless motor. General manager John Elway puts a lot of emphasis on character and production; Jewell demonstrated both. As a senior, he totaled 132 combined tackles (13.5 for loss), 4.5 sacks, a pair of interceptions, 11 pass breakups and 2 turnovers on fumbles. There is a good chance he will eventually oust Davis from the starting job, the big question in fantasy terms being can Jewell stay on the field in sub-packages?

In Von Miller, Denver has one of the game’s elite outside linebackers. It matters not if he is on the edge in a 3-4 or playing strong side in a 4-3. If not for an injury-shortened 2013, Miller would have double-digit sacks every year of his career. He even excels in tackle production when compared to other outside/strongside linebackers. Miller’s 51 solo stops were second only Khalil Mack among 3-4 OLBs in 2017. Even so, his fantasy value relies almost completely on league format. In leagues based on big-play production, Miller is among the elite tier of linebackers. In balanced scoring such as the Footballguys default system, he is barely roster-worthy as a backup.

When the team selected Shane Ray in the first round four years ago they expected to have a long-term bookend to Miller. With eight-and-a-half sacks in his second season, it looked as if Ray might be that player. In 2017, however, Ray had the dubious distinction of being among the first players ever to be on injured reserve twice in the same season. An offseason wrist injury led to his opening the year on injured reserve-designated to return. After appearing in eight games Ray landed back on injured reserve for the final two games with the same injury. The organization has not given up on him at all and is counting on Ray to be part of a three-man effort going forward. That said, the chances of him holding a role significant enough to provide fantasy value in any format are slim at best.

Bradley Chubb was by consensus the top outside pass rusher available in this year’s draft. As the picks started coming in, fantasy managers were anxious and hopeful to see him land with a 4-3 team where he would be a defensive end. When Chubb was drafted by Denver to play outside linebacker there was a huge moan from the IDP community. Chubb has "future Pro-Bowl" written all over him and a fantastic career ahead, but like Miller, his fantasy value is going to be relegated to those in big-play leagues. This situation is gas on the fire for the push to update IDP football with a position that covers and rewards edge rushers equally regardless of scheme.

  • ILB Brandon Marshall – Solid LB3 or quality depth with limited upside
  • ILB Todd Davis – Marginal value at best
  • ILB Josey Jewell – Dynasty target to stash on the taxi squad for a while
  • ILB Keishawn Bierria – Deep sleeper taxi stash
  • ILB Zaire Anderson – No fantasy value
  • OLB Von Miller – LB1 in big play leagues
  • OLB Bradley Chubb – Huge upside in big play leagues
  • OLB Shane Ray – Marginal big play value
  • OLB Shaquil Barrett – No fantasy value

Defensive Backs

One factor contributing to the relative scarcity of IDP value with this team is their ability to get off the field. Only the Steelers defense had fewer plays from scrimmage in 2017. Safeties Darian Stewart and Justin Simmons are quality NFL players and could have viable fantasy relevance in a different setting. T.J. Ward has a decent fantasy season here in 2016 but that was in large part due to seeing snaps as a nickel linebackers. Simmons’ average of 9.8 points per game ranked 26 among defensive backs last year. That sounds useful until we consider nearly 52% of his production came in three big games. If Simmons or Stewart were to get the nickel linebacker snaps like Ward did a couple years back, one of them might become a factor. Chances are those snaps will go to Su’a Cravens though.

Cravens is an interesting prospect and one we will want to follow as the summer progresses. There has never been a clear explanation of what happened behind the scenes that led to him sitting out last year. As a rookie with Washington in 2016 Cravens showed flashes of big potential but even then something did not seem right. Hopefully, that is all behind the young man and he can get on with a promising football career.

On the field, Cravens is the new breed of safety/linebacker hybrid. At 6’1” and 224 pounds, he can be a punishing hitter as a weak inside linebacker or in the box strong safety while Impressive speed and strong coverage ability for a man his size provide the kind of versatility defensive coordinators dream of. At this point, most league management sites list Cravens as a strong safety though he may end up seeing more/most of his playing time as a nickel linebacker. There is plenty of box score potential with this young man if he can land a role that keeps him on the field full time.

The loss of a corner talent like Aqib Talib would be a tough blow for any secondary. That rings true for Denver as well but at least this groups has the players in place to absorb the loss. Over the past few years, Chris Harris Jr has emerged as one of the league’s elite cover men. He will now take his place as Denver’s clear cut number one. This is great for his career, but in terms of box scores, it means less opportunity for Harris who is no longer an IDP target.

Bradley Roby is a former first-round selection (2014) of the Broncos and has spent the last three seasons as the third corner in an outstanding secondary. Roby will now move into an every-down role opposite Harris. Roby showed respectable production while playing roughly 70% of the snaps in the nickel role but there is nothing in the numbers to suggest the increased role will mean big IDP value. For those in corner required league Roby is worthy of a place on the watch list.

Last year’s third-round pick, Brendan Langley, played sparingly as a rookie but is the early favorite to move up the depth chart. His main competition for the job will be veteran Tramaine Brock and this year’s third-round selection Isaac Yiadom. The coaching staff will take a look at these options but has not ruled out signing another veteran to compete for the job.

Kansas City Chiefs

Defensive Linemen

Like many if not most 3-4 teams the Chiefs have a collection of players up front that fit the scheme well. Also like most 3-4 teams, they do not have that special player that can overcome the limitations of the scheme to make a significant impact in the box scores. With the exception of nose tackle Bennie Logan who is no longer with the team, no Kansas City lineman has reached 30 tackles in any of the last three seasons; in 2016 none even made it to 20.

There is one player here that might be able to break the trend. Chris Jones showed significant statistical improvement in his second season, finishing with 24 tackles and 11 assists while leading the defensive line with 6.5 sacks and forcing 4 fumbles. Jones even had an interception, though the chances of repeating that are slim. There is not necessarily any reason to expect a breakout season from him in 2018 but it is worth pointing out Jones had sacks in three of the final four games to close out last season. Managers in deeper leagues may want to stick him on the end of the roster just in case, but for most of us, he is just someone to keep on the radar at this point.

Allen Bailey starts at the other defensive end. After going 27-14-5 in 2014, he was on the watch list just like Jones but was never able to take the next step. In 2015 his production was about the same, but he missed most of 2016 due to injury. Bailey got off to a promising start last season with eight tackles, four assists, and a pair of sacks in the first three games. Unfortunately, he failed to post more than two tackles in any other game and did not have another sack.

Veteran Jarvis Jenkins, second-year man Tanoh Kpassagnon and rookie Breeland Speaks fill out the depth chart at end. Training camp will sort out the pecking order among them, but there is no one in the group that catches the eye.

The last strong IDP option to come from the Chiefs front three was Dontari Poe who was top-10 at defensive tackle in 2013 and 2014. Former Cardinal Xavier Williams is currently penciled in as the replacement for Logan at nose tackle but rookie Derrick Nnadi could be there by week one. He is a bit undersized to play the nose in a 3-4 but is a powerful player with a strong motor and great work ethic. As a three year starter for Florida State, Nnadi has experience playing against some of the best college competition in the country. He can hold at the point of attack, gets off blocks well and had 12 career sacks for the Seminoles. For those in tackle required leagues, he is another name for the watch list.

Linebackers

IDP managers got next to nothing for the Chiefs inside linebacker positions last season but time will soon show that to be the exception rather than the new rule. From 2010 through 2016 Derrick Johnson had five seasons with at least 94 solo stops at the position, twice reaching triple digits. He missed nearly all of 2014 due to injury and in 2016 was on pace for around 90 before missing three games. While Johnson was still the starter last season, age had finally caught up with the 13-year veteran. He was not the same player early in the year, and by the end, was coming off the field in sub package situations for the first time in his career. The important point here being the opportunity has not gone out of the position there was simply no one capable of capitalizing on it.

Johnson is now in Oakland and the Chiefs signed Anthony Hitchens to take his place. Hitchens may not be the players Johnson was in his prime but he has far more to offer than the 35-year-old at the end of his career. During his four seasons with Dallas, Hitchens never compiled more than 59 solo stops in a season. Many IDP managers will glance at his year-end numbers and move on, but looking deeper gives a different point of view. During the time with the Cowboys, he was used as a utility linebacker. When Sean Lee missed time, which was often, Hitchens was the replacement. He started games at all three linebacker spots, was used in sub-packages sometimes, but not always, and was never given a full-time opportunity. In all, Hitchens played 50 or more snaps in 17 games over four years with Dallas; in those games, he averaged 6.8 tackles, 2.6 assists, had a pair of sacks and two takeaways. It would be nice to see a bit more in the big play columns, but tackle totals at that pace over a full season would be well into triple digits and more than enough to make Hitchens a quality starter. He is falling into the late rounds in most drafts this summer and will be a steal at the point when most managers are picking up fourth linebackers.

Former Bills second-round pick Reggie Ragland holds the job at strong inside backer. The big, physical, two-down thumper packs a punch versus the run and can stymie lead blockers, but limitations in coverage led both teams to dismiss any consideration of keeping him on the field for passing downs. A knee injury cost Ragland virtually all his rookie year and he was traded to Kansas City before last season because he was not a fit when the Bills changes schemes.

The addition of third-round pick Dorian O’Daniel could eventually spell the end for Ragland as a starter. O’Daniel is a smaller, more athletic linebacker with good cover skills so he does not fit at strong inside linebacker, but Hitchens has the size and versatility to play either spot. If O’Daniel performs well we could eventually see Hitchens slide over to make room for the young guy. O’Daniel played on the outside as a two-year starter for Clemson. His tackle production was fair, but the playmaking ability is something the Chiefs could really use. Over his 24 starts for the Tigers, O’Daniel accounted for eight and a half sacks, 6 takeaways and a pair of scores. It may be a while before he gets on the field but this is a guy to keep on the watch list.

When healthy, Justin Houston is one of the NFL’s best edge rushers and one of the few 3-4 outside linebackers to hold IDP value in balanced scoring systems. In 2014 he had one of the best seasons ever for a player at the position, going 59-9-22 with 4 forced fumbles and 5 batted passes. His numbers dropped off a little but were still strong up to the ACL injury that ended Houston’s 2015 and kept him out all but four games the following season. When he did play in 2016, Houston was nothing short of impressive putting up a stat line of 20-2-4.5 with a forced fumble in those four starts. He was finally healthy again for most of 2017, missing just a couple games with a minor calf injury and finishing at 45-13-9.5 with 4 passes defended, 1 takeaway and a score. While his overall numbers have not been particularly impressive since that monster season four years ago, Houston’s per game point average has not been far off the pace. In big play based leagues he is a solid LB1, and in balanced systems, he is a marginal third starter or quality depth with the potential to blow up on any given week.

Kansas City has had rotten luck in recent years when it comes to the health of their outside rushers. Just when they got Houston back near 100% last year, Dee Ford began having back problems that would eventually sideline him for 10 games. Offseason disc surgery should have Ford back to form by week one and the Chiefs finally at full strength. Ford is a good player by NFL standards but has not been all that fantasy friendly thus far in his career. After posting 23 tackles and 5.5 sacks over his first two seasons with the Chiefs, he had a breakout of sorts reaching double-digit sacks in 2016, while still providing little (25 solos) in the tackle columns. Providing the back injury is behind him, Ford could be a decent third starter or quality depth for managers seeking sack production.

Frank Zombo is a serviceable backup who has seen plenty of action over the last couple seasons as the Chiefs third outside backer. He does a fine job setting the edge versus the run but is much of a pass rush threat.

  • ILB Anthony Hitchens – Value pick with a high floor.
  • ILB Reggie Ragland – No fantasy value
  • ILB Dorian O’Daniel – Dynasty sleeper with long-term potential
  • ILB Terrance Smith – No value at this time
  • OLB Justin Houston – LB1 in big-play leagues
  • OLB Dee Ford – Depth or possible LB3 in big-play leagues
  • OLB Frank Zombo – No fantasy value
  • OLB Ukeme Eligwe – No value at this time
  • OLB Tyrone Holmes – No fantasy value

Defensive Backs

Issues at linebacker and the loss of Eric Berry to injury forced the Chiefs coaching staff to be creative in 2017. As a result, the secondary was credited with 390 solo tackles spread among 14 players. Remarkably, half those players are no longer with the team including three of the top-five tackle producers and one of the game’s best corners.

Even though there were a ton of tackles to go around, Daniel Sorensen led the group with a modest 67 and a fantasy ranking outside the Top 36. Sorensen is listed as a strong safety but spent much of 2017 lining up as an inside/nickel linebacker. He may still see time in that role but the additions at the second level could allow Sorensen to work in a more traditional strong safety role. That is, of course, providing the coaching staff shifts Eric Berry to free safety. With last year’s starting free safety (Ron Parker) gone, it would make a lot of sense for them to make such a move since Berry has the versatility to play either spot.

It would be easy to write out all the speculation and options the Chiefs have at safety, but in the end, this is what we really know; when healthy Berry is a playmaker who has been a strong IDP option regardless which safety spot he lines up at. Between injuries and his battle with cancer, he has been healthy for only four of his eight years as a pro and once since 2013. That said he is expected to be 100% for 2018 since the Achilles injury happened so early last year. Sorensen’s strength is in run support and he can struggle in coverage at times; especially when called on to cover deep or man to man. Eric Murray saw a fair amount of action and performed well as a traditional strong safety when Sorensen was doubling as a linebacker on 540 plays. The team added a wildcard in fourth-round pick Armani Watts who is talented but was not consistent at Texas A&M. There is even some chance free-agent addition Robert Golden and/or second-year pro, Leon McQuay, will figure into the playing time mix. No matter how it all shakes out, beyond Berry, there is no one in this group we can safely project as more than IDP depth. It is a situation we will just have to watch and see how it develops.

There must have been a lot that went into the consideration of trading Marcus Peters; his play on the field could not have been the reason he was moved. Peters may be the best big-play corner in the game today and he will be hard to replace. Kansas City got Kendall Fuller in the deal that sent Alex Smith to Washington and added David Amerson in free agency. With Terrance Mitchell also gone, the two newcomers are the favorites to start on the outside with holdover Steve Nelson penciled in as the nickel corner. Murray and rookie Tremon Smith are safe bets to make the final roster with a slew of players battling for the last spot or two at corner. Again, with so many new faces and unknown roles, it is impossible to predict IDP value among this group. For what it is worth, Amerson has exceeded 50 solo tackles in three of the last four years (he was injured in 2017) and had a big season in 2015 with 55 tackles, 26 passes defended, 6 turnovers, and a score.

Oakland Raiders

Defensive Linemen

The Raiders were middle of the pack versus the run in 2017. Unfortunately, that is about the best thing we can say about a defense that finished 28th against the pass at 7.6 yards per attempt, 25th in sacks with 31, last in interceptions with five, and 31st in total takeaways with their 9 fumble recoveries adding enough to edge out the Browns. With numbers like that, comes the expectation of major change and that is what we are seeing in Oakland. It started with the coaching staff and the hiring of Jon Gruden who was finally lured out of the booth and continued with the addition of former Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther to run the defense. We have a good idea what Guenther likes to do from his time in Cincinnati, but figuring out how the current players fit into the puzzle is not as simple.

At least we know one thing; Kahlil Mack is arguably the best defender in the game and is a cornerstone at end. It is a relief not to worry about positional designation with Mack as we have in the past. Putting his hand down on a more consistent basis could lead to fewer marks in the tackle column, but it will not stop him from being an elite IDP option. Mack has bounced back and forth between end and linebacker throughout his four years in the league but it has made little difference in production. The 61 solo stops he posted last season were a new career high while he has never totaled fewer than 54. Mack has double-digit sacks in each of the last three seasons and 14 career turnovers. In short, he is a do it all player with outstanding production and consistency. Mack is going to make his plays even if the Raiders struggle as a team in the short term. He is a clear DL1 and among the favorites to be the fantasy game’s top defensive lineman.

Beyond Mack, the view is much less clear. Under the previous coaching regime, Mario Edwards lined up all over the place. He played end in both three- and four-man fronts, while also seeing time at tackle in the 4-3. In comparison to the Bengals roster, Edwards has a skill set similar to that of Michael Johnson. Free-agent addition Tank Carradine is cut from the same mold. He played both end and tackle while in San Francisco with multiple injuries ultimately keeping Carradine from landing a consistent role. Neither Edwards nor Carradine is particularly strong edge rushers, but each is a candidate to produce inside on passing downs.

The Raiders currently list rookie third-round pick Arden Key as a defensive end. At 238 pounds, he is far too small to see early down action at that position but could eventually carve out a role as a situational pass rusher. Chances are he will also see time at strongside linebacker and could assume Bruce Irvin’s role in the event of an injury.

The Raiders have a lot of options at the tackle positions and some of the guys listed below are not likely to make the final roster. At 6’2” and 235 pounds, Justin Ellis is the wide-body space eater at nose tackle. He should see most of the early down playing time but has little to offer in terms of pass rush.

In Cincinnati, Coach Guenther had Geno Atkins to work with as the three-technique tackle. The Raiders have no Geno Atkins but they have a couple guys with the potential to become that player. Maurice Hurst was a fifth-round pick this spring. Many scouts graded him as a second-round talent, but he fell to the fifth after an EKG at the combine revealed an irregular heartbeat. On the field, Hurst is a quick twitch upfield penetrator who beats offensive lineman out of the blocks regularly. He was a starter for Michigan over most of the past three years and has plenty of experience against top college competition. Though his numbers were not spectacular at the collegiate level, Hurst was productive with 130 combined career tackles and 13.5 sacks (10.5 over final two seasons). The medical issue is something to keep a close eye on but providing he is cleared Hearst could have a significant role as a rookie.

Hurst is the guy getting most of the attention but the Raiders did not put all their eggs in one basket. For those in tackle required leagues, second round selection P.J. Hall is a player to keep on the radar. Because he played as Sam Houston State (a former Division 1AA school) Hall’s achievements have gone largely unnoticed by the NFL community even though he basically re-wrote the record books in the Southland Conference. In 56 college games, Hall recorded 284 combined tackles with 86 for loss, 42 sacks, 9 forced fumbles, 4 interceptions, and 14 blocked kicks. He lined up as a defensive end/outside linebacker early in his career despite checking in at 300 pounds. Hall could take some snaps on the outside in Oakland, but at 6’1” and 310 pounds, he is much more likely to earn playing time as a 3-technique tackle. Hall has the power to hold up on the inside with the explosiveness and athleticism to become a productive every-down player.

Last year’s third-round pick Eddie Vanderdose will also be in the mix for playing time and may open the season as a starter if the young guns need time to develop. Veteran free agent additions Ahtyba Rubin and Frostee Rucker provide experience bout could feel the pinch of limited roster space; especially if the team elects to stick with the youth movement and keep second-year man Trevon Hester.

  • DE Kahlil Mack – Elite DL1 with top-3 upside
  • DE Mario Edwards Jr. – Marginal fantasy value
  • DE/DT Tank Carradine – Injury risk with marginal fantasy value
  • DE Arden Key – Dynasty deep sleeper with an undefined role
  • DT Justin Ellis – Marginal value at best
  • DT Eddie Vanderdoes – No fantasy value at this time
  • DT Maurice Hurst – Dynasty sleeper in tackle required leagues
  • DT P.J. Hall – Deep sleeper with good long-term potential
  • DT Ahtyba Rubin – No fantasy value even if he makes the team
  • DT Trevon Hester – No value at this time
  • DT/DE Frostee Rucker –No fantasy value

Linebackers

The Raiders are largely unproven up front, but at least they have good, young talent to work with there. That is not so much the case at linebacker. At middle backer, the organization has swapped last year’s veteran in decline Navorro Bowman, for an even older veteran in decline Derrick Johnson. At age 30, at least Bowman’s decline was injury related so there was some hope he might play better, or at least the knowledge he would not play worse. Johnson turns 36 in November, and his play has gone downhill quickly over the last two seasons with no serious injuries involved. Big play production was one of the factors that made Johnson a great player on the field and an excellent fantasy option. Over the past two seasons, his contribution in that area has been one forced fumble, one recovery, one interception, and one sack. His play has declined to a point the Chiefs were pulling him from sub-packages down the stretch last season. Oakland stuck with Bowman as an every down guy last year and looking at their roster, they may have no other option than to do so with Johnson as well. He can still provide veteran leadership and the sheer volume of opportunity may give the former star one last hurrah with IDP owners. That said his value at this point is limited to solid LB3.

Tahir Whitehead signed a three year contract with the Raiders this offseason. At age 28, he is young enough to hold down the fort for a while and is good enough to allow the organization to address more pressing needs going forward. From his time in Detroit, Whitehead has starting experience at all three linebacker positions. In 2016 he played the middle totaling 99 solo stops and 30 assists, but a complete absence of big plays held his IDP value in check. Whitehead played 92% of the snaps as a weak side linebacker in Detroit last season, going 78-32-1 with an interception. Four fumble recoveries added enough points to push him into the Top 20. Recoveries are random so we cannot count on that to happen again. It would not be a surprise if Whitehead eventually ends up in the middle as a Raider, though it seems improbable this season unless Johnson is injured. Whitehead is a good player who excels versus the run but is average in coverage. While we should not expect much in the big play columns, there will be plenty of tackle opportunity to make him at least a quality third starter.

We finally have all the main league management sites listing Kahlil Mack at defensive end, now we are getting splits over Bruce Irvin. Those sites that have it correct are still calling Irvin an outside linebacker. That is where he will line up on base downs but instead of coming off on nickel calls he will move into a pass rush role at end. At least this is the role he has held for the past two seasons. It has worked well so there is no good reason to expect a change under the new coaching staff. In 2016 Irvin was 47-10-7 with 6 forced fumbles. Last season he finished 39-20-8 forcing 4 fumbles. As a linebacker, that kind of production makes Irvin a solid third starter in big-play formats but renders him virtually useless in standard scoring systems. As a defensive end, however, Irvin is going to have low DL2 value in either format. Make sure you know what your league is going to do with him before the draft.

Oakland has serviceable depth at linebacker but no one with serious starting expectations. Marquel Lee got a shot at the middle linebacker job as a rookie last season, but he was clearly not ready. Emmanuel Lamur played under Guenther in Cincinnati for a while and knows the scheme but is no more than a veteran journeyman and special teams ace. James Cowser has shown flashes in preseason action over the past two summers and performed well in limited action last year. He may earn a bigger role as a spot or rotational play.

  • MLB Derrick Johnson – Declining veteran with LB3 value at best
  • WLB Tahir Whitehead – LB3 with mid LB2 upside
  • SLB Bruce Irvin – Value depends on his positional designation
  • MLB Marquel Lee – No value at this time
  • WLB Emmanuel Lamur – Special-team contributor
  • OLB James Cowser – Possible injury pickup
  • SLB Kyle Wilbur – No fantasy value
  • OLB Shalique Calhoun – No fantasy value

Defensive Backs

There are a lot of new faces in the room when Oakland’s secondary meets but it is easy to pick out three of the starters. When the Raiders took Karl Joseph in the top half of round one two years ago both the team and IDP owners held great expectations for the young man. Thus far he has fallen well short in the eyes of all parties. On the field Joseph has been inconsistent; as a rookie that was partly due to nagging injuries. He showed improvement from year one to year two but the Raiders are still looking for the playmaker they expected to get. He is in no danger of losing the starting job going into 2017, but keep in mind he was not drafted by the current regime so they have no deep connections.

From the fantasy perspective, it is hard to put any faith in Joseph after two poor seasons. He was not very productive as a rookie even before the injuries came into play and last year his per game average ranked 65th among defensive backs with no injury excuse. Everything about his college career points toward success as a pro and year three is often when young players put it all together. Joseph is worth a late round flier for those still holding onto a thread of hope, but if he comes out flat cut your losses quickly. There are always good defensive backs to snap up early in the season.

Soon to be 35-year-old Reggie Nelson is set to start for one more season at free safety. On the field, he is a dependable center fielder who plays with veteran savvy and rarely makes mistakes. From a production standpoint, Nelson is showing signs of his age. He averaged 6 interception and 13 passes defended per season from 2014 to 2016. Last year, Nelson had one pick and five pass breakups. He has never put big totals in the tackle columns and had a career best of 64 solos with Jacksonville back in 2009. Without the big play contributions, Nelson has little to offer IDP managers.

Behind the starters at safety are veteran Marchus Gilchrist and last year’s second round pick Obi Melifonwu. Gilchrist has a lot of starting experience at free safety and could step right in if needed. He has not been particularly box score friendly in any of the previous three stops so there is no reason to expect a breakout in Oakland even if he gets on the field full time. Melifonwu is a cat of a different color however. A hip injury and subsequent surgery have derailed his career to date but his skill set could provide a lot of help once healthy. At 6’4” and 224 pounds Melifonwu is a super sized strong safety with exceptional speed and athleticism. In four years at Connecticut (three as a starter), he was an enforcer versus the run racking up 221 solo stops and 128 assists, while picking off 8 passes and recording 12 total turnovers.

The previous coaching staff envisioned Melifonwu as a hybrid safety/nickel linebacker but we have no idea what the new regime sees in him. Those of us that have been at this long enough know Jon Gruden is not afraid to shake things up. If he believes Melifonwu can play, Gruden will find a way to get him on the field. When last we heard anything about his status it was late May and Melifonwu was not close to returning. It is hard to say when or if he will play in 2018, but this is a player worth keeping up with once he gets back to practice. In the long run, it would not be a shock to see Joseph move to free safety to make room for Melifonwu at strong.

With Travis Carrie moving on in free agency and the release of Sean Smith, the Raiders will have a pair of new starters at corner come opening day. Oakland took former Ohio State star Gareon Conley 24th overall in 2017. He played all of two games before being sidelined for the season with a shin injury. Conley has returned from the subsequent surgery and is preparing for the role of number one corner. He has all the tools to become one of the leagues outstanding cover men. As a two year starter for the Buckeyes Conley produced 6 interceptions and broke up 15 passes. The rest of his numbers were rather pedestrian but not by any fault of his own. As in the NFL, college offenses will avoid throwing at an opponent’s best cover man. That may have kept his numbers down at Ohio State, but at the next level, Conley will be viewed as an inexperienced potential weakness to be exploited. Keeping in mind that Carrie led the league in tackles by a corner in 2017, and his virtual rookie status, Conley could be another good example of the rookie corner rule in 2018. There is no need to make roster space at this point but if he starts quickly we should not hesitate to pick him up.

There will be a wide open battle to fill the rest of the pecking order at corner. Former Carolina starter Daryl Worley has the upper hand for the second starting spot from an on field perspective, but off-field issues may for the coaching staff to go a different way. Both Shareece Wright and Rashaan Melvin have some starting experience with former teams and Leon Hall is a veteran of nine seasons with the Bengals, many as a number one corner. Nick Nelson is a rookie fourth-round pick who will probably have a spot on the final roster but may not be ready for a big role as a rookie.

Los Angeles Chargers

Defensive Linemen

The Chargers story in 2017 was a tale of two defenses. Against the pass they were among the best - third in the league in yards allowed and tied for third at 6.5 yards per attempt. Their 43 sacks were fifth most and their 18 interceptions ranked sixth. On the other hand, Los Angeles was dead last versus the run allowing 4.9 yards per attempt. The Chargers used their first four draft picks on defense but it is hard to see how any of the players selected will have a significant impact on the run defense considering they were a pair of safeties, an edge rusher and developmental tackle Justin Jones in round three.

The team may or may not make considerable improvement versus the run in 2018 but there is no doubt the Chargers front four will give fantasy owners a pair of excellent options. Joey Bosa had a great year for a rookie in 2016 with 29 tackles and 10.5 sacks. In 2017 he had a great year for anyone going 53-17-12 with 4 forced fumbles, a recovery, and a top-three ranking among linemen. Not many players in NFL history can say they had 22.5 sacks before their 23rd birthday; Bosa has that distinction. There is no weakness to his game and no reason to believe he will be less than a perennial top-five lineman for the next decade.

Bosa gets top billing here but teammate Melvin Ingram III was not far off the pace last year. There was a fairly significant drop off of about 15 points between fourth ranked Demarcus Lawrence at the bottom of the elite tier, and Ingram at number five on top of the second tier. What makes Ingram’s success particularly impressive, he was 42-13-10.5 as a 247 pound defensive end after transitioning from five years at outside linebacker in a 3-4. Many great players have struggled considerably with such a transition regardless of physical stature. At a glance, everything seems bright and sunny for those in the Ingram camp. Indeed he is a strong bet to repeat as a top-10 defensive lineman but there is one reason for concern. Eight and a half of Ingram’s sacks came in the first seven games while he recorded a full sack in just one of the final nine. This is something we might write off as coincidence if not for his being the smallest three down end in the league. Under the circumstances we have to ask the question, did Ingram wear down as the season moved along? Sack production was not the only thing that dropped off for Ingram. Seven games into the season he was 25-5-8.5. Over the final nine games, Ingram went 17-8-2. Read into it what you will but it is clearly something to consider come draft day.

The interior line generally has more influence on the run defense. Judging by their offseason moves the organization must have faith the personnel up front were not the issue last season. Even with Corey Liuget suspended the first four games, the team’s only significant addition was third round pick Justin Jones who was not exactly an impact player at North Carolina State. In 10 games as a senior, he totaled 15 tackles, 19 assists, and 3.5 sacks with a line of 56-52-8.5 over three seasons. Jones may be asked to contribute early but nothing points to him being more than a rotational option anytime soon.

Looking as last year’s totals there is no reason to expect much from any of the Chargers interior linemen in terms of box score production. No one had more than 20 solo stops in 2017 and Darius Philon was the most successful pass rusher with 4.5 sacks. When everyone is available Brandon Mebane will line up at the nose with Liguet as the 3-technique and Damion Square as the third man in the rotation on early downs. Philon will see some time at end on early downs and shifting inside in sub-packages. While Luiget is serving his suspension Square should start with Jones seeing a few snaps in relief.

  • DE Melvin Ingram III – A Top-10 number is likely but may fade down the stretch again
  • DE Joey Bosa – Elite tier DL1
  • DE/DT Daruis Philon – Marginal value if you can play him at tackle
  • DT Corey Liuget – No fantasy value even after PED suspension
  • DT Brandon Mebane – Two-down player with no fantasy value
  • DT Justin Jones – Developmental rookie
  • DT Damion Square – No fantasy value

Linebackers

The organization sees middle linebacker Denzel Perryman as the answer to their run defense woes. When he played last year they allowed 117 yards per game on the ground; when Perryman was out that number shot up to 147 yards a game. The problem is Perryman tends to be out a lot. In three seasons with the team, he has missed games with knee, hamstring and an ankle injury that landed him on short term IR to open last season. When healthy, Perryman has provided solid but unspectacular tackle numbers. In 2016 he played 12 games in 2016 and was on pace to finish at around 75-20-2. Granted that was as an inside backer in a 3-4. The sample size we have as a middle backer in the team’s 4-3 last year is only five games but it works out to very similar numbers. Perryman’s tackle numbers are not great but are enough to land him a spot as a third linebacker or quality depth. What is missing from his game almost completely is big play production. In 33 games as a pro, Perryman has one forced fumble, one recovery, one interception, and a pair of sacks. Target him as depth or a third starter in a pinch but keep in mind the injury issues.

Every season we see a few coaching decision that are real head scratchers. What the Chargers did with Jatavis Brown last year falls into that category. Brown was a beast as the weak inside backer in 2016. In 10 healthy games, he averaged 6.2 solo stops and an assist while recording 3 takeaways, 3.5 sacks and breaking up 6 passes. When the Chargers moved to the 4-3 in 2017 Brown opened the year as a three down weak side linebacker. Five games into the season he was tearing it up with 33 tackles and 14 assists then suddenly the rug was pulled out from under him. Brown played more than 33 snaps only once the rest of the way, posting eight tackles in that one game. It is hard to guess what coaches are thinking but speculation at the time suggested Brown was simply not a good fit in the 4-3. Surprisingly he is still with the team and is currently penciled in as the starter on the weak side. As IDP managers it is tough to get a read on Brown. On one hand, we know he is highly productive when playing full time. On the other hand, we have no idea what role he will have if any. If you draft early it might be a good idea to stick Brown on the end of your roster until we can get a look at some preseason games. This situation is a high priority on the summer watch list.

The coaching staff tried several combinations at linebacker last season looking to stop the bleeding. One thing they learned from their struggles, there were no future starters in reserve. Hayes Pullard did an adequate job in the middle and has the versatility to help out at the other positions if necessary, but he is not an answer for any long term need. As a result, the organization invested two of their first four picks on linebackers, taking Uchenna Nwosu in the second and Kyzir White in the fourth. Nwosu is more of an edge rushers and a DE/OLB tweener . He could compete with Kyle Emmanuel for snaps on the strong side right away. White was a super-sized safety at West Virginia and may earn a role as a sub-package linebacker early on. He could eventually replace Brown on the weak side.

Defensive Backs

The Chargers secondary had four players with at least 50 solo stops last season and another with 49. Granted there was a good deal of extra opportunity due to the struggles at linebacker, but the fact remains this is a potential hotbed of IDP value. Strong safety generally provides the best fantasy option in any secondary. The problem with this group is they have four potential starters with a strong safety skill set and no obvious fit at free. Jahleel Addae was tagged as the starting strong safety in 2017 and lined up at the position on the majority of plays. However, Adrian Phillips was also called a strong safety and was often on the field at the same time. Phillips was used as a nickel linebacker much of the time with the ultimate result being the two player crippled each other’s fantasy value. In the end, Addae had 64 tackles, 30 assists and no significant big play production while Phillips finished at 50-15-0 with a couple picks and a forced fumble. Add last year’s fourth round pick Rayshawn Jenkins at 6’1” and 214 pounds, and this spring’s addition of Derwin James in round one. What we have is a really confusing situation to sort out.

There is no doubt James will be on the field every down and is the top IDP target of the group. He is a physical specimen at 6’2” and 215 pounds, with a do everything skill set. James is physical in run support, solid in coverage, can get to the passer on a blitz and has a knack for game changing plays. In two years as a starter for Florida State, he tallied 110 solo stops with 76 assists, 5.5 sacks, 7 takeaways, 15 pass breakups, and a score. James does his best work near the line of scrimmage as an in the box strong safety; so the question is, will he have a traditional strong safety role or will he spend a lot of time as a linebacker? Either way, he should be a highly productive fantasy option because unlike Phillips who was not on the field every down, James is not going to come off. That said, rookie safeties have been some of the biggest fantasy busts over the years. All we have to do is look back at guys like Karl Joseph, Jamal Adams and Jabrill Peppers as reminders.

The rest of this group will be worked in around James. Addae is the smallest at 195 pounds, but he lacks the cover skills of a deep safety. Jenkins is more of a physical in the box type with some holes in his coverage and ball skills. That leaves Phillips as the early favorite to replace the departed Tre Boston at free safety. Phillips played corner and both safety spots during his college career at Texas and has seen time at both safety spots over his four seasons with the Chargers. He had several strong games in 2017 but that was in a much different role. Boston went 55-23-0 as the Chargers free safety last season. We should not count on much more than that from whoever lands the job this year.

In 2017 Desmond King gave us an exaggerated view of the rookie corner rule at work. The then rookie fifth round pick moved into the slot corner role after Jason Verrett was lost to a week one injury. King went on to lead the Los Angeles secondary with 66 tackles, adding 10 assists and a somewhat remarkable (for a corner) 4 sacks, despite seeing action on less than 72% of the plays. When a young corners gets into the lineup it is usually because he is an exceptional player and early round pick. When offensive coordinators see that opportunity they get excited; when they see a rookie fifth round pick on the field out of necessity, they begin to drool. King held his own under the pressure while the extra attention led directly to his tackle production. Giving the young man a break from coverage responsibilities was undoubtedly a big factor in his blitz opportunity as well.

Verrett has missed all but five games over the past two seasons with a knee injury. He was cleared to return in June and has been a full participant since that time. When healthy, Verrett is one of the league’s fine young corners. Providing he can stay on the field everyone else will slip back into their expected roles. Casey Hayward will start opposite Verrett with Trevor Williams as the slot corner. King made a strong enough impression last year to keep a role in some of the sub packages and could see time in some nickel situations, but he is unlikely to have the same opportunity that made him an IDP target. If anyone has CB1 potential here it is Hayward. As the team’s number one corner last year he was thrown at less so the tackle totals were down, but Hayward had 50 or more solo stops in each of the previous two years. In two seasons with the Chargers, he has 11 interceptions with 14 total turnovers, and a whopping 42 passes defended. Providing the tackle numbers bounce back as anticipated, Hayward should make an excellent second starter with low CB1 upside.

That is going to do it for the AFC West; next up the NFC South.