Eyes of the Guru IDP Info, Part 3: NFC North - Footballguys

An overview of defenses in the NFC North 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.

Minnesota Vikings

Defensive Linemen

Since hiring former defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer as their head coach in 2014, the Vikings have improved considerably on that side of the ball. After finishing second versus both the run and the pass in 2017 and first in scoring at less than 16 points per game, they have clearly become one of the league’s elite defenses. While this is great for the Vikings and their fans, it does IDP owners no favors. The Minnesota defense faced 956 offensive snaps last year. That is 16 more than the Steelers, who had the lowest total; 135 fewer than the Bengals, who were on the field the most; and 90 below the league average. So in essence, Vikings defenders had roughly a game and a half less opportunity than the average defensive player. 

Reduced opportunity takes a bigger toll on guys we count on most heavily for tackle numbers, but it has some effect on every position. No Vikings lineman has reached the 40 tackle plateau since Linval Joseph in 2015, but there is still a ton of value in the Minnesota front four. In fact, this could be a rare instance where all four starters land among the Top 20 at their respective positions.

Defensive end Everson Griffen had the highest IDP finish of the group last season when his 31 tackles, 15 assists, 13 sacks, and 3 forced fumbles were enough to place eighth.  While those numbers alone make him a strong DL1 target, it gets even better when we break down his season. Griffen had at least one sack in each of the first eight games. With a total of 10, he tied Calais Campbell and sat one behind Demarcus Lawrence who was leading the league at that point. Griffen suffered a plantar fascia injury during week eight that affected the rest of his season. He missed one game with the injury but was clearly not the same player down the stretch. Some of his success can be attributed to opponents focusing on Griffen’s counterpart Danielle Hunter, who had claimed a starting spot after a breakout 2016. While having Hunter on the other side surely helps, the truth is Griffen has been close as it gets to a risk-free DL1 since his breakout season of 2014. He has averaged 35 tackles and 11 sacks over the past four seasons with at least 8 sacks in five of the last six years. Griffen turned 30 in December so even dynasty owners can count on a few more excellent years.

Many of us heaped huge expectations on Hunter heading into last season. There was plenty of reason to do so. After all, he was 34-22-12.5 with a couple turnovers and a score as the third man in the rotation in 2016 and had been promoted to starter. With 27 solo tackles, 7 sacks and an IDP ranking just inside the Top 30, his numbers were rather disappointing in 2017. By the end of the 2018 season, those numbers will be a distant memory. The young man turns 24 in October and already has 24.5 career sacks. He had a rough start last year largely because offenses knew what he was capable of and were making him the focal point of their blocking schemes. What opponents soon learned is that approach does not work against the Vikings. If they focus on Hunter, Griffen and the rest of the defensive line will do the damage instead. After a dismal start to the season, Hunter was already showing improvement later in the year. After posting nine solo tackles and three sacks over the first eight games, his tackle numbers doubled and he recorded a sack in four contests over the final eight. There is a reason the Vikings locked him up with a five-year deal worth up to $78 million including $48 million over the next three years.  If you have Hunter in a dynasty league do not let him get away. If you do not have him, see if the owner that does is willing to let him go. Simply put this young man is going to be special.

After several years as the starter, 35-year-old Brian Robison swapped spots with Hunter last season, becoming the third man in the rotation. He is a solid contributor on the field and can step up if one of the starters is injured, but Robison’s upside is limited. Understanding the veteran is nearing retirement, the Vikings used a sixth-round pick on Tulane’s Ade Aruna this spring. He is a raw prospect with the combination of size, speed and athleticism teams look for in a developmental guy. If the coaching staff can get the most out of him Aruna could become the third man when Robison hangs up the cleats.     

Take the two studs Minnesota has on the outside and add arguably the best tandem of defensive tackles in the game, Linval Joseph and Sheldon Richardson. What you have is a nightmare for offensive coordinators that make Freddie Kruger and Jason look like the Little Rascals. A lot of coaches will lose sleep this year trying to figure out how to get all these guys blocked and keep their quarterback alive.

Joseph is one of the most underrated players in the game unless, of course, you play in a league requiring defensive tackles. Owners in those leagues recognize him as a perennial top-10 tackle and understand his value at an always thin position. Since becoming a starter for the Giants in 2011 Joseph has averaged 36 tackles, 23 assists and 3 sacks per season.  He has multiple top-10 finishes with a few top-fives sprinkled in as well, including each of the last two seasons. At 329 pounds he sees a lot of double teams as the anchor of the run defense, showing an almost uncanny ability to stand up and shed blockers at the point of attack. With a career best of four sacks in a season, Joseph is not the guy to make much of a big-play impact, but his tackle totals are exceptionally consistent from year to year.

Adding Richardson to this group is almost unfair.  Now the Vikings have not only the stellar outside tandem and the unmovable road grader in the inside gap, they also have the athletic big man at the 3-technique who can stuff, shed, and tackle against the run as well as anyone at the position and has the extra gear to provide a strong inside pass rush. In 43 games over his first three years with the Jets (2013-2015) Richardson accounted for 103 tackles, 75 assists, and 15.5 sacks as a 3-4 defensive end. He was not a great fit as an outside rusher when the team moved to a four-man front in 2016 and had him play some end, but even then Richardson managed 39 tackles, 24 assists, 1.5 sacks and forced 3 turnovers. He got off to a slow start last year in Seattle but came on over the second half after becoming comfortable in the scheme. At the midway point in 2017, Richardson was 8-8-.5. By the end of the year, he was the number-14 defensive tackles at 27-18-1.5 with 3 turnovers. There is no reason to expect a slow start in 2018 and every reason to expect a top-10 finish.  

Tom Johnson has moved on and 2015 first round pick Sharrif Floyd’s career is likely over due to a knee injury. That leaves the team a little thin behind the starters. Last year’s fourth-round pick Jaleel Johnson will compete with veteran free agent addition David Parry and possibly rookie developmental prospect Jayln Holmes to establish the pecking order for spot playing time.

Linebackers

Both Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr are excellent players that could be major factors in IDP leagues if they were in a different situation. One statistic tells the story here - in 2017 all Vikings linebackers combined were credited with 164 solo tackles, 101 assists, 2 sacks, 1 pick, 1 forced fumble and 1 recovery. Many feel Kendricks is one of the best young middle linebackers in the league. Indeed after his 2016 season, it looked as if he might emerge as one of the best fantasy linebackers as well. The 2015 second-round pick had a good but not great rookie season posting 73 tackles, 20 assists and 4 sacks. In year two he had similar tackle totals but added 3 takeaways, 8 pass breakups, and a score for a final ranking among the Top 15. Kendricks managed to lead the team in tackles last season with just 66 solo and 46 assists, but his big-play production took a leap backward. He managed to score on his only takeaway, had one sack and six passes defended. At slightly over 10 points per game Kendricks’ average ranked just outside the Top 30. That is solid LB3 territory, but there is another concern - week to week consistency. He produced three of fewer solo tackles in half the games last year. Look for a bounce-back of sorts from Kendricks this season. He is simply too good a player not to be at least a quality third starter. On the other hand, we should probably table our hopes of him becoming a stud in the near future.

Like Kendricks, Barr is a three-down linebacker. Barr, however, had the added challenge of working at the strong side position on early downs. As a result, the 2014 first-round pick has never recorded more than 55 solo stops in a season. He has big-play ability that showed up early in his career with seven and a half sacks and eight takeaways in his first two seasons. Over the last two seasons however, Barr has not been used as much on the blitz. The result has been three sacks and a pair of takeaways over the past two seasons combined. He is a talented player but his IDP value is limited to leagues with very deep rosters.

As a rookie last year Ben Gedeon landed a two down role as the weak side linebacker. The Vikings use a lot of nickel so his playing time was limited to fewer than 250 snaps. Gedeon performed well enough the team did not bring in competition for the job but there is no reason to expect a larger role.

Kentrell Brothers is the only other player here who seems to have upside. The third year player will sit the first four games and barring injury ahead of him, will be a backup upon return. There is some speculation Barr may not return in 2019 so Brothers may get a shot at the lineup down the road. There is no reason to roster him at this point. 

Defensive Backs

The Minnesota secondary is loaded with talent. The re-signing of ageless veteran Terrence Newman and selection of Mike Hughes at 30 overall this spring gives the team five defensive backs drafted in the first round and another in the second. Thus it is no surprise this unit was second in the league in passing yards allowed, tied for first in yards per attempt and accounted for 13 interceptions. It is also not a surprise that fantasy value among this group is somewhat sparse.

The IDP production that can be found here belongs mostly to free safety Harrison Smith who is widely overvalued among the IDP community. Smith had a great rookie season in 2012 and was on the way to another when injury struck in 2013. He came back strong with the best production of his career at 71 tackles, 20 assists, 3 sacks, 6 turnovers, 9 passes defended, and a score in 2014. That season he was a top-three defensive back in nearly any scoring system. Since then the team has gotten steadily better while Smith’s production has become inconsistent at best. He missed three games with injury in 2015 but his production was off even before he was banged up. Smith’s tackle numbers bounced back in 2016 but the big play production practically vanished. Last year he gave us modest tackle numbers of 61 solo and 19 assists but made up for it with 5 interceptions, 12 pass breakups and 1.5 sacks. The overall numbers ranked him on the cusp of the Top 12 which looks good at a glance. The problem being over 30 percent if his fantasy point came in a pair of games versus the Packers. His points-per-game average in the other 14 contests ranked outside the Top 70 at the position. Smith is a great player on the field and is worthy as a third starter with upside. There seem to be owners in every league that still remember the big years and continue to draft Smith as a DB1. Let someone else make that play, there are a lot of defensive backs that will provide better, or at least more safe value.   

Strong safety Andrew Sendejo is a solid dependable veteran presence on the field. He rarely makes mental mistakes or misses a tackle and is a big part of the reason Smith is able to take risks that lead to game changing plays. Unfortunately Sendejo’s contribution on the field is often not fully reflected in the box scores Despite becoming a starter in 2013 he has never reached 60 solo stops in a season. He may have done so in 2015 and again last year if not for missing three games in each of those seasons, but the fact remains his tackle production is low by IDP standards. Sendejo is limited in the big play columns as well. He managed a pair of interceptions and two forced fumbles in 2016 yet no other season has seen him produce more than two turnovers. He will have value as depth in leagues with deep rosters but even there his upside caps at a marginal third starter.

Tagging Xavier Rhodes as an elite shutdown corner might prompt some debate but there is no doubt he is a good one. Good enough in fact to command the respect of opponents and to limit his statistical opportunity. In five seasons as a starter, he has exceeded 44 solo stops once (2015). Likewise, he had a career best of five interceptions in 2016 but has a combined total of four over the rest of his career.

Trae Waynes is an interesting prospect for those in corner required leagues. He is a rather rare example of a player bucking the rookie corner rule. The 2015 first round pick spent most of his rookie season as a nickel package contributor. He earned a larger role in 2016. With the increased playing time came better but still not fantasy worthy numbers. Last season Waynes finally claimed the starting job opposite Rhodes. The result was a career best 56 solo stops with 8 assists, a sack, 11 passes defended and a pair of picks. While this is not great production it was enough to land Waynes inside the Top 25 in 2017. The tough call here is determining if he will continue to improve or if the first round selection of Mike Hughes is a sign the organization is not satisfied.  Waynes will enter camp as the favorite but is not a lock to start week one. Both Hughes and 2016 second round selection Mackensie Alexander are expected to get a chance during camp and preseason action. The best approach for fantasy owners is probably to avoid this situation all together until we have a clear picture.

Detroit Lions

Defensive Linemen

The Lions begin a new era with former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia as head coach and relative unknown Paul Pasqualoni in charge of the defense. The promise of a more Patriot-like system is both intriguing and a bit un-nerving. The new staff has some talent to work with so there is plenty of potential. On the other hand, we all know how unpredictable New England players have been on a week to week basis in years past. All we can plan around at this point it the known parts of the equation.

Ezekiel Ansah is the proven commodity among Detroit’s defensive linemen and stands to gain the most from the new system. The fifth overall pick in 2013 had 18 tackles, 12 assists and 8.5 sacks as a rookie while playing in a third down role. In season two he was on the field for early downs which significantly increased his tackle totals. The sack numbers did not follow suit until 2015 when Ansah broke out for 38 tackles, 8 assists, 14.5 sacks, and 5 turnovers. That season he was the number five defensive lineman in the fantasy game. Knee and back issues hampered Ansah throughout 2016 so his numbers were dismal. The knee lingered throughout 2017 and eventually required minor surgery this offseason. Ansah sat out a couple games around mid season but the rest did wonders for his production. By the end of the campaign, he ranked among the top-10 linemen with a career best 39 tackles, 5 assists, 12 sacks and a pair of turnovers. Most impressive was his string of outings starting Week 12 in which Ansah recorded 23 tackles, 3 assists and 8 sacks in a six-game stretch. The new scheme will keep him at end in four man fronts while having Ansah work as an outside linebacker on 3-4 calls. This will be much the same way Trey Flowers has been used in recent years for New England. It remains to be seen how the stand up role will affect his pass rush but it should serve to add a few marks in the tackle columns. There is no reason to expect less than another top-10 finish from him in 2018.   

No one likes to see injuries but sometimes having a player go down has a silver lining. This was the case for the Lions last season when Kerry Hyder Jr was lost to an Achilles injury in the preseason opener, allowing Anthony Zettel to get on the field. Hyder came from nowhere when he led the team with eight sacks as an undrafted rookie in 2016. Zettel was the team’s sixth round pick that year but played sparingly as the fourth man in the rotation. Zettel was second on the team with six and a half sacks in Hyder’s place last season, while doing a solid job versus the run as well. The two young players will compete for the starting role opposite Ansah this summer but regardless who is tagged with the title, both are expected to see plenty of action. With the unexpected emergence of two players representing a minimal investment by the team; Detroit now has three quality options to work in the rotation. That said, this remains a priority situation for us to track over the summer.   

Detroit is missing an athletic big man that can get after the quarterback and make game changing plays from the tackle positions. They do however have a solid lineup of run stuffers to control the line of scrimmage and keep blockers off the second level. In third-year pro A’Shawn Robinson, they even have a player with some IDP value for owners in tackle required leagues. Robinson had a relatively quiet rookie season with 30 combined tackles and a pair of sacks. In year two he was able to make a more significant impact in the tackle columns with 32 solo and 20 assists. Robinson only recorded half a sack last year but managed to turn one of his two takeaways into a score. At 6’4” he also has a knack for swatting down passes with 13 total in his young career. Robinson made the Top 10 at the always thin tackle position in 2017. He is never going to give us a lot of sacks but the respectable tackle production should be enough to make him a solid DT2 option.

Sylvester Williams should get the call at the other tackle spot on early downs. The former first round pick of the Broncos has never quite lived up to expectations in the league and the Lions will be his third team in the last three seasons. With a career best of 20 tackles and 2.5 sacks, the sixth year pro should contribute to what the Lions do in base packages but is no threat to suddenly become an IDP factor.

The Lions used a fourth round pick on Da’Shawn Hand this spring to add depth and possibly a future starter at the position. Hand has shown the traits to become a quality NFL starter but he underachieved during his time at Alabama, leaving scouts wondering if there is a fire burning inside. There is no hurry to make a spot on our rosters for him, but if Hand starts playing up to potential, he could be a good pickup down the road.  

Cornelius Washington will likely be the fourth end on the team’s depth chart but he could get on the field as an inside pass rusher in sub package situations.

Linebackers

For the past several years Detroit’s linebacker position has been a revolving door of mediocrity and stop gap players. The organization looked to end the draught by selecting Jarrad Davis in the first round last year. He was immediately inserted as a three down middle backer but his rookie season did not go as smoothly as the team would have liked. A minor injury cost Davis a couple games in September then struggles in coverage caused him to lose some playing time in sub packages later in the year. The new coaching staff has embraced the second year player and Davis is working hard to improve his coverage skills. While in New England Matt Patricia was a master at putting players in situations that played to their strengths and covered their faults. Davis gives the coaching staff a lot of good to work with and relatively little to mask. From the perspective of box score production Davis had a fairly good rookie campaign. At slightly over 10.5 points per game, he ranked inside the Top 30. With three turnovers and a pair of sacks, Davis proved he has the ability to supply some big play punch along with good tackle totals. The jury is still out when it comes to him being the greatest Lions linebacker since Chris Spielman, but he is going to be given every opportunity to succeed.

As a first round pick, Davis got all the fanfare last year but he was not the only linebacker Detroit took in that draft. They picked up Jalen Reeves-Maybin in Round 4 as well. Many scouts had a higher grade on Reeves-Maybin who fell a bit after missing most of his senior season at Tennessee with a shoulder injury. He is not the most physical of linebackers but has the speed and athleticism many teams covet at the weak side position. Just as importantly, coverage is one of his strengths. He is not yet locked in as a starter but Reeves-Maybin is the early favorite for the job and a sleeper target for IDP owners.  

Free agent additions Devon Kennard and Christian Jones could be factors at weak side linebacker but it is more likely they will compete for the strong side job while journeyman Jonathan Freeney backs up Reeves-Maybin. Both Kennard and Jones saw action as starters for their previous teams but neither was ever able to hold down a sub package role. 

Defensive Backs

One of the important positional battles we will be watching this summer is for the Lions strong safety job where Tavon Wilson and Quandre Diggs will go at it. For IDP owners it really makes no difference who wins the job since both players have shown strong production from the position.

From a physical perspective, Wilson would seem to be the favorite. At 6’0” 212-pounds, he is bigger than the 5’9” 200-pound Diggs, and gets the edge when it comes to run support. Wilson came over from the Patriots in 2016 and played 15-games for the Lions in his first season there. He finished inside the Top 25 that year on the strength of 74 solo stops, 15 assists and a handful of big plays. Wilson battled a sore shoulder all of last year, playing in 10-games but missing significant snaps in three due to the injury which would eventually end his season early.  In the seven full games played he averaged better than 11 points per game which ranked among the top-12 defensive backs. Should Wilson win the competition we can expect good tackle production with a sprinkling of big play contribution and quality DB3 production if not a little better.  

Diggs was a sixth round pick of the Lions in 2015 and has been a sub-package contributor for most of his three years in the league. He was drafted as a corner, possessing the speed and cover skills to play that position. Because Diggs is more than willing in run support the previous defensive staff began using him in some free safety type roles early in 2017. When Wilson was placed on IR the coaching staff put Diggs at strong safety mostly out of necessity, and he flourished in the role. The team gave up a little physicality in the run game but in return got a significant big play spark. In his five starts, Diggs accounted for three interceptions, a sack, a forced fumble and five pass breakups. The sample size look we got in December suggests Diggs would fall short of Wilson’s tackle potential but could more than make up for it in the big play columns. 

Free safety Glover Quin had a career year in 2017. The 60 tackles were his best since 2012 while both his 24 assists and 8 takeaways were career highs; as was his top-12 fantasy ranking. Quin opened last season strong with double digit points in each of the first three games, and he finished strong reaching double digits in three of the final four. The 9-games in between however, barely produced an average of seven points. His year to year consistency has been just as sketchy. In nine seasons as a pro, Quin has finished among the Top 25 three times; those years being 2010, 2012 and 2017. He is a good player on the field and has fantasy potential but despite last season’s finish, we should be careful targeting Quin as more than depth with upside.    

Miles Killebrew and rookie Tracy Walker fill out the depth chart at the safety spots. Killebrew is more of a strong safety/weak side linebacker hybrid who lacks the coverage ability to play in the secondary full time. The previous coaching staff used him as more of a passing down linebacker. It will be interesting to see what the new defensive staff comes up with. IDP owners should keep an eye on him since Killebrew was highly productive on a point per-snap basis in the limited role. Walker may get an early look as a nickel or dime contributor covering slot receivers or tight ends. He has good size and speed with a physical nature but there are some concerns with his ability in deep coverage situations.  

Darius Slay was the fantasy game’s top corner in 2017 and was a top-five defensive back in leagues that lump the positions together. It was a truly great season for one of the league’s exceptional cover men. If you were able to ride the wave last year that is great, but the wave has made shore and the momentum is broken. For those owners who tend to base their player values all on the previous season’s production, Slay will be highly valued. For those of us who look at the big picture, not so much. In 2017 he set career highs in tackles with 54, interceptions with 8 and passes defended with a whopping 26. Slay’s previous career bests were 48 tackles, 2 interceptions, and 17 passes defended. Over his previous three seasons as a starter, he averaged 46 tackles, 2 interceptions, and 14 pass breakups, finishing 39th among corners in 2015 and 38th in 2016.

Corner is easily the most fickle and difficult position to project from season to season. With only a handful of consistent players, corner has more turnover among the Top 25 each year than any other position in fantasy football. NFL history is littered with players at the position that blew up for one huge year then fell back to reality for the rest of their careers. It is far more likely that Slay falls into that category than it is he joins the rare few who repeat such production.  

Slay was a one-man wrecking crew for the Lions last year with no other corner registering a pick. This is a problem the new coaching staff will certainly look to resolve. Nevin Lawson has been the starter opposite Slay for most of the past three seasons, yet he is somehow still looking for that elusive first career interception. With such a resume it will be tough to keep a grip on the job this summer. Last year’s second-round pick Teez Tabor and fifth-round selection Jamal Agnew will get a look during camp as will free agent addition Deshawn Shead who likely holds the most fantasy potential of the group.

Shead is a big physical corner checking in at 6’2”, 212-pounds. He played a significant role for the Seahawks in 2015 and earned a starting job opposite Richard Sherman in 2016. Despite missing a couple games, he finished with 57 tackles, 24 assists, 14 passes defended and a pair of takeaways that season. An ACL injury in the divisional round of the playoffs sidelined Shead for all but a few plays at the end of 2017. The Lions were quick to move on Shead once free agency opened, recognizing him as one of the best corners on the free agent market. Unlike many at the position, Shead seems to relish contact in run support, and he has the physical skills to match up with big receivers and tight ends. He was the 14th ranked corner in 2016 and may well finish as a solid CB2 or better again this year.   

  • FS Glover Quin – Quality depth with some upside
  • SS Tavon Wilson – Solid DB3 if he wins the strong safety job
  • SS Quandre Diggs – DB3 with big-play upside if he wins the strong safety job
  • SS Miles Killebrew – Productive player if he can find a consistent role
  • FS Tracy Walker – No immediate value
  • CB Darius Slay – Possible CB1 but beware the potential one-year wonder
  • CB Deshawn Shead – Sleeper with CB2 potential
  • CB Nevin Lawson – No fantasy value
  • CB Teez Tabor – Deep sleeper in corner-required leagues
  • CB Jamal Agnew – No fantasy value

Chicago Bears

Defensive Linemen

Akiem Hicks started his career quietly. Three plus seasons with the Saints and most of one with New England yielded marginal tackle numbers and a total of nine and a half sacks. Some players just need to find a place where they fit; that seems to be the case with Hicks. He joined the Bears in 2016 and immediately found a home at end in their 3-4 scheme. Quality box score production from linemen in three-man fronts remains uncommon, so most of us took a cautious approach when Hicks finished 36-17-7 with 3 takeaways in 2016. As we like to say here at Footballguys, once might be a fluke but twice is a trend. In his second season with the team, Hicks was even better - going 39-14-8.5 with a pair of fumble recoveries, proving he belongs on the short list of quality IDP linemen in three-man fronts. Even if he never reaches the magic numbers of 40 tackles and double-digit sacks, Hicks is the real deal and can be counted on as a quality second starter.

After Hicks, the Bears have a collection of serviceable players but no one showing big upside. With Mitch Unrein gone, third-year man Jonathan Bullard should move into the starting role at the other end. He is a solid if unspectacular player who should do a fine job holding ground and eating up blockers to keep the linebackers free, but there are no grand expectations for box score production. Rookie Bilal Nichols should compete with Roy Robertson-Harris for the job of spelling the starters. Hicks averaged 915 snaps over the last two seasons so the backups may not see the field much.

Nose tackle Eddie Goldman could be of some use to owners in leagues starting two interior linemen. The 2015 second-round pick had a career best of 4.5 sacks as and a career high of 28 solo and 15 assists last season. If he can somehow manage to put those totals together Goldman would make a strong DT2    

Linebackers

Chicago Bears history is littered with the names of great inside linebackers. The organization hopes first-round pick Roquan Smith will be the next addition. His credentials coming out of Georgia suggest he will. Smith would have been considered undersized a decade ago at 6'1", 232-pounds. In today’s NFL where speed and athleticism are just as important as toughness and physicality, he is the prototype. Smith, however, has all those traits and then some. Elite athletic ability, high intelligence, effective cover skills physical nature, speed, quickness and leadership qualities are all things we find in his scouting reports. History of big-time production is another important box Smith checks. He became a starter as a sophomore at Georgia in 2016, posting a strong stat line. His numbers as a junior last year are nothing short of impressive. With 85 tackles, 52 assists, 6.5 sacks, and three turnovers Smith dominated in the SEC against some of the nation’s best competition. There are some excellent linebackers at the top of this year’s rookie class, and there is a reason Smith was off the board at pick number eight.

Smith paired with a healthy Danny Trevathan gives the Bears an excellent tandem at the inside linebacker positions. Healthy is the key word, however. Trevathan has not played a full slate of games since 2013. That season he was the fantasy game’s number-10 linebacker with a stat line of 87-41-2, adding 7 turnovers and 10 passes defended. A severe knee injury ended his 2014 season. Trevathan returned to play 15 games in 2015, posting respectable numbers but was not completely recovered. In 2016 it was a patellar tendon that ended his season early. At the beginning of last year, he was completely healthy for the first time since 2013. While he ended up missing three games with a calf strain and another due to suspension, Trevathan came away with no major injuries. In the 10 games, he played Trevathan averaged six tackles and three assists while recording three takeaways and a pair of sacks for an average of nearly 12 points per game. With the addition of Smith, there will be less opportunity to go around, but Trevathan should still be at least a quality third starter with LB2 upside.

For the first time in several years, Chicago has good depth, at least at the inside linebacker spots. Nick Kwiatkoski played well as an injury replacement over the final eight games. The 2016 fourth round pick excels against the run, has a little punch as a pass rusher and was able to hold his own in most coverage situations. Should either of the starters be lost, Kwiatkoski will be a good target as a replacement.

Fourth-year man Jonathan Anderson may be competing with rookie fourth-round pick Joel Iyiegbuniwe for a roster spot, with much of the decision coming down to special teams contribution. Excellent speed and cover skills could give the rookie an edge while Anderson has experience on his side.

The Bears are neither as strong nor as deep on the outside. Teams running 3-4 base schemes always struggle until/unless they have a pair of edge rushers. In Leonard Floyd Chicago seems to have found at least one, if he can stay healthy. The ninth overall pick in 2016 had 23 tackles, 10 assists, 7 sacks, and a couple turnovers as a rookie. Those are respectable numbers even before taking into consideration he missed four games with minor injuries. Floyd did not make a huge jump in year two but he was headed for better totals when a knee injury ended his season in Week 11. Floyd entered the league as a raw prospect with huge potential. He seems ready to break out as a pass rusher but has to improve versus the run if he is going to be a complete player. If he can stay on the field we could see double-digit sacks in year three, making Floyd a quality target in big play based leagues.

In 2017 Pernell McPhee, Lamar Houston and Willie Young combined for 11 sacks from the outside linebacker position. All of those players are gone leaving Sam Acho as the likely starter opposite Floyd. Acho kicked in three sacks as well while playing roughly 60% of the defensive snaps, but he has not exceeded three sacks in a season since 2011. Free-agent addition Aaron Lynch figures to have a prominent role in the rotation and could push for the starting job if he can stay healthy. Lynch had six sacks as a rookie with the 49ers in 2014 and followed it with six and a half in 2015. Injuries contributed to him seeing action in only 14-games over the past two seasons with a limited role when he was available. The Bears other option is rookie sixth-round pick Kylie Fitts who also had trouble staying on the field over the past two years while playing for Utah. He is a developmental prospect with a lot of positive traits but relatively little experience against top competition. In short, the Bears are going to need the good fortune of someone unexpectedly stepping up if they are going to take the next step defensively in 2018.   

Defensive Backs

Strong safety Adrian Amos had an outstanding 2017, but you would know it without digging beyond the raw numbers. He had 61 tackles, 7 assists, 3 turnover, 3 passes defended and a score on the season, which are relatively respectable stats and were enough to land Amos in the low DB3 range. When we consider he missed three games with an injury, those numbers look a lot better. When we add in the fact he played one snap in the first two games and a total of 16 in the first three, the production is downright impressive. Amos recorded six or more solo tackles in all but one of the 10 games he started, and averaged better than 13.5 points in those games. That production is on par with the elite duo of Reshad Jones and Landon Collins. The problem here is figuring out how and/or how much Amos will be affected by changes in the coaching staff, and the addition of Roquan Smith at linebacker. It is safe to say there is no way Amos can keep up the torrid tackle pace that would have put him at 98 solo stops in a full season. On the other hand, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio was held over from the previous staff so he already knows how to get the most out of Amos. The emergence of Eddie Jackson as the deep safety will allow Amos to keep playing as a traditional in the box strong safety which seems to be a perfect fit for his skill set. Those of us who scooped him up last year in dynasty leagues will need to accept a reduced rate of production but there is a great chance he will retain value as at least a quality third starter.

When the organization used a fourth round pick on Eddie Jackson last spring they thought he would be an eventual starter. They had no idea how quickly he would get to that point or how well he would play as a rookie. It did not take long to figure out Jackson is a dependable tackler, solid cover man and the playmaker the team has been looking for at safety. Playing off the ball will limit his tackle opportunity but is his rookie production of six turnovers and two scores was for real, Jackson is going to make enough big plays to make up for it. He is a bigger risk than Amos and will likely be less consistent since much of his value will depend on the big play, but Jackson is roster worthy as depth with big game potential on any given week.

Chicago is lacking experience behind the starters at safety but they do have a pair of young former fourth round picks in Deon Bush and Deiondre Hall, and a young former sixth rounder in DeAndre Houston-Carson. We have seen Bush get his opportunity in the past so we know he is serviceable if called upon.  The other two have two years of experience and 17 tackles between them.

Conversations about great NFL corners generally do not include Kyle Fuller but he is a better player on the field than many give credit for. In fantasy terms, he has shown top-12 relevance in two of his four seasons as a pro. As a rookie in 2014, the former first-round pick provided respectable tackle totals while seven takeaways bumped his points total into the low CB1 range.  Falling in line with the rookie corner rule, Fuller’s numbers regressed across the board in year two with five fewer turnovers being the biggest impact on his IDP value. His third season was a wash due to a knee injury. With the somewhat disappointing second season followed by the injury, the organization began to question if Fuller would ever live up to the expectations of a first-round pick. His fifth-year option was not picked up and there were rumors of a possible trade. In fact, Fuller may not have started week one if Prince Amukamara were healthy. By season end Fuller had started every game and played more than a thousand snaps. His 60 solo tackles were seventh most among corners while the 22 passes defended made up for a shortage in the turnover column to land him at No. 10 at the position. Realizing the mistake of not exercising the fifth year option, the team elected to use a transition tag on Fuller this offseason. They were then forced to match an offer made by the Packers. In March, general managed Ryan Pace said Fuller is still ascending and can be a top-five corner in the league. For fantasy owners, the question is can he continue to give us CB1 production on a consistent basis? At this point, the answer is definitely maybe.  

Prince Amukamara starts opposite Fuller and is a proven commodity with good cover skills but not much IDP value. Other than one big year with the Giants back in 2013, his tackle totals have been mediocre and he has seven interceptions in seven years as a pro. Bryce Callahan, Marcus Cooper and Cre’von LeBlanc will compete for the nickel corner role with Callahan having the edge entering training camp.

  • SS Adrian Amos – Priority DB3 with upside
  • FS Eddie Jackson – Target as depth with big-game potential on any given week
  • SS Deon Bush – No fantasy value
  • FS Deiondre' Hall – No fantasy value
  • FS DeAndre Houston-Carson – No fantasy value
  • CB Kyle Fuller – Priority CB2 with CB1 upside
  • CB Prince Amukamara – Marginal value at best
  • CB Marcus Cooper – No fantasy value
  • CB Cre'von LeBlanc – No fantasy value
  • CB Bryce Callahan – No fantasy value

Green Bay Packers

Defensive Linemen

For a lot of years, the Packers dumped resources into their defensive line and got relatively little return on investment statistically. Until last season, defensive end Mike Daniels was the only one in what seems like a decade to buck the trend even a little. His six and a half sacks in 2013 are the most be a Green Bay lineman in recent memory but he had 17 solo tackles that season. Daniels has since recorded at least 25 tackles and 4 sacks every year. Last season, he turned in a career best 33 tackles with 14 assists and 5 sacks in 13 games. Granted, those are not stellar numbers, but his eight-points per game average ranked in the Top 30, making Daniels a decent backup in most leagues. There are reasons to have a little optimism here. Daniels has proven to be a quality player with IDP potential and the team has more talent around him than ever before. The play and production of 2016 first round pick Kenny Clark at nose tackle has been a plus while the addition of free agent Muhammad Wilkerson could make this the most box-score friendly three-man front in the game.

Wilkerson’s seven seasons with the Jets were full of ups and downs. Twice he reached double digits in sacks with 10.5 in 2013 and 12 in 2015. Coincidently those are also his two best tackle producing years to date with 43 and 38 solos respectively. While his tackle totals have consistently remained in the low to mid 30s, Wilkerson had no more than five and a half sacks in any of his other five seasons with New York. Frustration seemed to set in over the last couple of years and it became apparent he needed a change of scenery. Wilkerson is a great talent who claims to be re-energized and ready to return to dominant form with his new team. There is a reasonable chance he will do so.

The Packers offer a lot of potential from the defensive end positions this year. For those in tackle required leagues, the safest pick might be nose tackle Kenny Clark. Seven was the magic number for the second year pro in 2017. His 33 solo stops ranked seventh among tackles, Clark’s five sacks was tied for seventh in the league at the position and his point total landed at seven in the IDP rankings, making him a quality DT1. With only one year of strong production, there is some risk Clark will prove a one year wonder. On the other hand, he is 22 years old so his prime years as a player are yet to come. Clark is a powerful big man with the ability to anchor versus the run or crush the pocket against the pass. He even has a little swivel in his hips to help with the later. There is a better chance of him making the Top 5 this year than falling out of the Top 10.

In Dean Lowery, James Looney Montravius Adams the Packers have a trio of versatile linemen that can fill in anywhere across the front if needed. None of these players appear destined for more than a backup role though. Adams was the team’s third round pick last year and could see most of the playing time behind Clark while Lowery projects as the third end.

Linebackers

There has never been any question about the possible IDP value at the Packers inside linebacker positions. The only problem being they had no three down players. In recent years the coaching staff would pull both starters in favor of a designated nickel linebacker and an extra safety. That finally ended in 2017 when the reins were handed to second year man Blake Martinez. The 2016 fourth round pick went on to have an outstanding season both on the field and in IDP terms. Martinez proved his worth as a run defender in his rookie season. Last year he proved to be no slouch in coverage either. Huge tackle totals of 96 solo and 49 assists, along with 4 turnovers, a sack and 8 pass breakups made Martinez a top-five linebacker in most leagues and top-three in many. Adding to his value was an uncanny week-to-week consistency. After taking over the three down role in week two, he rolled off double digit points in 14 of the 15 remaining games. There is not much room for improvement here but there is no reason to expect a significant drop off either. Rank Martinez among the elite tier at linebacker this draft season.

Jake Ryan was the loser of the third-down linebacker sweepstakes; otherwise, we might be speaking highly of him in fantasy terms as well. He is a physical run defender and has shown flashes of quality production over the past three seasons. Ryan has worked in a three down role now and then and has not been a glaring weakness by any stretch. With nickel backer Joe Thomas and safety Morgan Burnett gone, might we see a pair of three down inside backers in Green Bay this season? There is not an obvious next man up to fill the third safety role and the only other inside backer currently on the roster is developmental rookie Oren Burks. It is an important situation to keep track of when the preseason gets here. Meanwhile, keep Ryan in mind as a deep sleeper with LB3 or better upside.

In Clay Matthews and Nick Perry, the Packers have a dependable tandem of outside rushers but the team has been missing a consistent double digit sack master. Mathews last reached double digits when he had 11 back in 2014. He turned 32 this spring so the days of big sack numbers may be behind him, but the team will gladly sacrifice a couple sacks for the leadership and veteran savvy Mathews brings to the party. He broke the 40 tackle make in 2014 and again in 2015 but that had a lot to do with him playing inside when the team was racked with injuries. A good 2018 for Matthews would likely consist of around 30 solo tackles and eight sacks. Those numbers might make him a decent third starter in big play leagues.

When the organization used a first round pick on Perry in 2012 they expected to have their bookend to Mathews. He has filled that role at times but injuries and inconsistency have been the overriding factors of his career thus far. Records show Perry missing nine games over the past four seasons. What they fail to point out is Parry played with nagging issues that affected his play in many more. Over the first 46-games of his career, Perry accumulated 12.5 sacks. In 2016 he finally put it all together for the best season of his career, recording 35 tackles, 17 assists and 11 sacks in 14-games. The injuries were back in 2017 when Perry managed seven sacks despite missing a game in September and four more at the end of the season. The moral of this story - Perry has the ability to post useful numbers for big play formats, but he is not someone we can count on.

Over the past three drafts, Green Bay landed Kyler Fackrell in the third round of 2016, Vince Biegel in Round 4 of 2017 and Kendall Donnerson in the seventh this year. Fackrell was the third man at the position last year, posting a modest three sacks on almost 450 snaps. The coaching staff would love to see one of these young guys break out but there are no signs suggesting it will happen in the near future.       

  • ILB Blake Martinez – Elite tier LB1
  • ILB Jake Ryan – Deep sleeper worth keeping an eye on
  • ILB Oren Burks – Backup with no value at this time
  • OLB Clay Mathews – Low end LB2 or quality depth in big-play leagues
  • OLB Nick Perry – Big risk with the potential for big play reward
  • OLB Vince Biegel – Backup with no current value
  • OLB Kyler Fackrell – Most likely to break out of this group
  • OLB Kendall Donnerson – Developmental rookie

Defensive Backs

There is plenty of IDP value to be mined from the Packers secondary. As a unit, Green Bay defensive backs accounted for 364 solo tackles, 102 assists, 16 turnovers, and 3 sacks. The dilemma fantasy owners face is eight players had at least 20 tackles and accounted for at least 1 turnover. The production was there it was simply spread between too many players.

Ha Ha Clinton-Dix led the way with 65 tackles, 14 assists, and 3 picks for a ranking right around 40. This represents the lowest fantasy production by Clinton-Dix since 2014 when he was a rookie. Many owners are still clinging to 2015 when he was 83-17-3 and finished high in the final rankings. In that season he and Morgan Burnett were used interchangeably with both seeing time as an extra man in the box.  Over the past two years, Clinton-Dix has worked as the deep safety most of the time, which limits tackle opportunity. Unless the coaching staff alters the way he is used, tackle totals in the mid-60 range is what we should expect going forward. Where he should show some improvement is the big play columns. The three interceptions last season are respectable but it was the lowest big play total for Clinton-Dix since his first season.  There is not much chance he will jump into the every week must start category but he should make for at least quality depth.

With Burnett gone to Pittsburgh, second year man Josh Jones is set to take over at strong safety. At 6'2", 220-pounds, Jones is one of the bigger, more physical defensive backs in the league. He has the speed, cover skills and knack for the big play to go with it. Jones played a significant role as a rookie, starting a few games when Burnett was banged up and seeing a lot of action as the third safety in nickel situations. By the end of the season, he had been on the field for about 72% of the defensive snaps with a stat line of 60 tackles, 11 assists, 2 sacks, an interception and 5 pass breakups. Both he and Burnett took a good number of snaps at linebacker depth over the course of the season. At this stage, we have no idea who will be filling the third safety role going forward but there are no obvious options that seem suited for the nickel backer duties. This could mean Jones gets all those snaps with the nickel man in the traditional strong safety role. However, it works out Jones is a prime candidate to blow up in 2018. His big play totals were low last year but a look at his college numbers suggests they will catch up. In three seasons at North Carolina State (one as a full-time starter), Jones was credited with 13 turnovers, 3.5 sacks, and 17 pass breakups. Because he has not yet proven himself, Jones is going to fall into the DB3 range in a lot of drafts. Anyone picking him up outside the first 20 defensive backs off the board is getting a steal.  

The so called big nickel with three safeties has been a major part of the Green Bay defense over the past several years. For a long time Micah Hyde was the guy coming off the bench, last year it was Jones. Heading into camp there is no clear cut favorite to land that role. Kentrell Brice and Marwin Evans are a pair of former undrafted free agents entering their third year. Evans has the size advantage at 5'11", 211-pounds. He saw some sub package action last season but remains rather inexperienced. Brice has more of a free safety skill set. He had a significant role at the start of last season, playing 289 snaps over the first six games. He is a player the coaching staff likes but Brice has not been able to stay on the field, missing 12-games in 2016 and 9 more last year.

There is also a chance the Packers shift one of their corners to safety. Damarious Randall would have been a good option here but he will be playing safety for the Browns after leaving in free agency. Tramon Williams has the skill set to make a good free safety but he is only 191 pounds. In fact, Jones and Clinton-Dix are the only defensive backs on the roster checking in at over 200.

There are no set starters at either corner position heading into training camp. Last year’s second-round pick Kevin King is a favorite for one of the jobs, but even he is no lock. King made a few starts as a rookie before landing on IR with a bad shoulder, but he was not particularly impressive in year one. The team selected Jaire Alexander in Round 1 and Josh Jackson in the second this spring. Davon House, Tramon Williams, and Quinten Rollins are the veteran contingent in the mix. Rollins is a long shot to make the final roster while the other five will duke it out to establish a pecking order. At some point, we could see all three of the youngsters together with King and Jackson on the outside and Alexander working the slot. It is impossible to pluck a fantasy target out of this situation at this early stage of the process, and who knows how the rookie corner rule might work if four of the five defensive backs have two years or less in the league.       

  • SS Josh Jones – DB3 at worst with high ceiling
  • FS Ha Ha Clinton-Dix – Depth or marginal third starter
  • SS/FS Kentrell Brice - Deep sleeper at best, and an injury risk to boot
  • SS/FS Marwin Evans – Worth keeping an eye on
  • CB Kevin King – Possible value in corner required leagues
  • CB Davon House – Marginal value at best
  • CB Jaire Alexander – Rookie corner rule could be in play
  • CB Josh Jackson – Rookie corner rule could be in play
  • CB Tramon Williams – Dark horse sleeper at best
  • CB Quinten Rollins – No value even if he makes the team

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