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.
The Falcons have good talent up front. Three of the four defensive ends that figure heavily into the rotation are former first- or second-round picks and their starting defensive tackles are proven veterans. Unlike many teams, there are not a lot of moving parts in Atlanta at any of the defensive positions. While that makes it easier to say what we can expect in fantasy terms, it does not necessarily mean a great deal of IDP value.
A glance at the career numbers of Vic Beasley Jr suggests radical year-to-year inconsistency. As a rookie in 2015, he had 20 tackles, 7 assists, 4 sacks, and forced 3 turnovers. In Year 2, Beasley exploded for a line of 32-7-15.5 with 6 forced fumbles, a recovery, and a score. Just when we thought he would take the next step and become one of the game's prolific pass rushers; his totals last season were much closer to those of 2015 with a ho-hum 23-8-5. A deep look into the situation reveals we should not put much if any of the blame for his inconsistency on Beasley. Instead, we can look directly at the coaching staff and their decision to play his at strongside linebacker.
At 6-foot-3 and 246 pounds, Beasly is undersized for a three-down defensive end at the pro level. He holds up well versus the run for his stature but setting the edge is not one of his strengths. Thus the coaching staff has tried to play him at strongside linebacker in hopes it would keep bigger blockers from getting to him while still allowing Beasley to use his speed off the edge. He has seen time at linebacker in all three seasons but in 2016 he had a lot more opportunity with his hand on the ground. During the big season Beasley worked regularly at end and stayed on the field a lot more in general; that year he logged a career-high 671 defensive snaps, compared to 485 in 2017. The best news fantasy managers could possibly have heard were muttered by head coach Dan Quinn back in January when he said Beasley will be used exclusively at end in 2018. There is no doubt he will have IDP value but there remains one important point to consider before we automatically project top-12 production.
When Quinn was the defensive coordinator in Seattle, the fantasy value of his defensive linemen was stunted by the rotational system. He would use several players at each position so rarely did anyone stay on the field more than 60% of the time. This philosophy followed Quinn to Atlanta so we can expect to see Beasley, Brooks Reed, Takkarist McKinley, and Derrick Shelby all play at least 400 snaps at end. Because he is an outstanding pass rusher, it is safe to expect double-digit sacks from Beasley, but he may be hard-pressed to reach 30 solo tackles again.
Grady Jarrett finished last season at 34-21-4 and was a top-10 tackle despite missing a couple games. It is a great sign that his production has steadily increased since joining the team as a fifth-round pick in 2015. Maybe the most important factor in terms of Jarrett's IDP value; the Falcons are willing to leave him on the field. He played nearly 80% of the defensive snaps last season which was by far the most of any Atlanta lineman. At 6-foot-0 and 305 pounds, Jarrett is a bowling ball with a low center of gravity that makes him tough to get under and move. He has the ability to hold ground at the point of attack, the power to push the pocket, and enough athleticism/quickness to provide a little wiggle as a pass rusher. Jarrett has 4 sacks in each of the past two seasons and all the signs point to continued production. At age 25, he is just entering his prime so we may not yet have seen Jarrett's best football.
Jack Crawford missed most of last season with a torn biceps but should be ready to contribute when camp opens. He provides a solid veteran presence and seems likely to open the season as a starter but rookie third-round pick Deadrin Senat could push for the job right away. Senat is a near clone of Jarrett in both stature and skill set. As a three year starter for South Florida, he totaled 104 career tackles with 74 assists, 7 sacks and a couple forced fumbles. The organization clearly views Senat as a future starter, all that remains to be seen is how quickly he gets on the field and if he will get enough snaps to provide Fantasy worth.
- DE Vic Beasley Jr – Low-end DL2 with some upside
- DE Brooks Reed – Marginal value at best
- DE Takkarist McKinley – Great talent but not enough opportunity
- DE Derrick Shelby – Rotational player with limited upside
- DT Grady Jarrett – Quality DT1 with top-five upside
- DT Jack Crawford – Marginal fantasy impact
- DT Deadrin Senat – Sleeper and dynasty target in tackle-required leagues
- DT Terrell McClain – No fantasy impact
- DT Garrison Smith – No fantasy impact
Deon Jones is the new breed of linebacker in the NFL. At 6-foot-1 and 222 pounds he is tiny by traditional standards but what he lacks in size he makes up for with speed, athleticism, and instinct. Jones excels at slipping through traffic and finding the ball carrier on run downs and is among the league's best at the position in terms of coverage. From a fantasy perspective, there is nothing to dislike. Jones has a solid rookie season in 2016 then improved on in year two enough to land in the Top-5. His 91 solo stops were fourth most by a linebacker in 2017 while his 47 assists tied for seventh most. Jones even makes a significant big play contribution. Heading into year three he already has 6 career interceptions, a forced fumble, a sack, 19 pass breakups and a pair of scores; and all of that before his 24th birthday. If his body can withstand the rigors of the position Jones will be a perennial Top-10 linebacker. He is just entering his physical prime so we may see even more from him in years to come.
At this time the sure fantasy value among Atlanta linebackers starts and stops with Jones, but there is a possibility we could get another quality starter going forward. The Falcons team roster still calls Vic Beasley Jr an outside linebacker. Assuming they follow through on Coach Quinn's promise to shift Beasley to end, someone is going to move over to strongside linebacker.
Last season De'Vondre Campbell saw the majority of the playing time on the weak side with Duke Riley getting just enough snaps to render both players virtually useless. The only experienced linebacker on the roster behind those two is converted former safety Kemal Ishmael and the most significant offseason addition at the position was sixth-round pick Foye Oluokun. Thus expectations are either Campbell or Riley will move to the strong side, putting one of them in line for a three-down role.
Speculation is all over the spectrum heading into camp with everything from Riley playing on the strong side and Campbell working all three downs from weakside, to Campbell holding a three-down role but working on the strongside in base packages. There are even a few who believe Campbell will be a two-down strongside backer with Riley getting the chance to start weak and play in sub packages as well. About the only thing we really know here is Campbell is a little bigger and may be more suited to play on the strong side. Even that is not telling, however, as Quinn has played smaller guys at that position in the past. At this early stage, Campbell is our best option to roll the dice on if you must make that call before we get clarification. Right now the Falcons probably are not sure what they will look like at outside backer come week one.
- MLB Deion Jones – Quality LB1 with top-five potential
- WLB De'Vondre Campbell – Depth with LB3 upside
- SLB/WLB Duke Riley – Dark horse sleeper with LB3 upside if things break just right
- WLB Kemal Ishmael – Injury sleeper
- OLB Foye Oluokun – No fantasy impact expected
It makes no difference if you are an NFL scout or a fantasy general manager, regardless of perspective Keanu Neal is one of football's elite safeties. He is a physical tackler who rarely misses, has the speed and cover skills to stick with the game's best pass-catching tight ends and most physical receivers, and is a ball hawk contributing six turnovers in each of his two seasons as a pro. In fantasy terms, Neal lands near the top no matter how you spin the numbers. His 83 solo stops in 2017 were second only to Reshad Jones, Neal's 11.5 points per game were top-five among safeties and his six turnovers were fourth most at the position. He even has great week-to-week consistency falling short of nine points three times last season and only once after week three. Neal falls just short of Jones and Landon Collins on the elite tier but there is a rather significant drop off between him and the next group of defensive backs.
Ricardo Allen has been the Falcons free safety for the past three seasons and should continue in that role despite a less than stellar 2017. Allen has never been big in the box scores but he generally does a fine job as the catch all deep safety. Last season he struggled with consistency and would all but vanish for stretches at a time. Allen is expected to get a contract extension in the near future which is a vote of confidence for sure. On the other hand, the team signed former Kansas City starter Ron Parker to a one year deal in late June. Parker is a good player that adds some much needed depth and flexibility, but the addition may also have been meant to send a message. Allen was 69-29-0 with a couple picks in 2016. Even if he rebounds as expected that is going to be about his ceiling, making him a decent by week fill in for some managers deeper leagues.
Desmond Trufant is one of the league's elite shutdown corners and yet another great example of the rookie corner rule. Over his first two seasons (2013 and 2014) Trufant totaled 108 tackles, 23 assists, five interceptions and 33 passes defended. Over his last two full seasons (2015 and 2017) he combined for 81 tackles, 12 assists, 3 interceptions, and 22 pass breakups. He is a great asset to the Falcons but a virtual non-factor for IDP owners.
Many of the contributions Trufant makes on the field will show up in the box scores of those around him. Case in point Robert Alford's 2017 season. Alford is a good player in his own right but working opposite Trufant, he was often the lesser of two evils for opposing quarterbacks. As a result, Alford set new personal bests in both tackles with 60 and passes defended with 20. Those numbers carried him to a top-20 finish among corners last season. Even though it was 11 more tackles than he had ever recorded in a single season, it is not unreasonable to expect similar numbers in 2018. Unfortunately, the consistent lack of big play production is enough to marginalize the strong tackle totals. Alford has more than two interceptions in one of his five years as a pro and was limited to a career low of one last season. He could be useful as a spot start against passing teams but is not a guy we can count on week in and week out.
Rookie second round pick Isaiah Oliver is a player the Falcons expect to have on the field quickly in some capacity. He will start off this summer in competition with veteran Brian Pool and possibly free agent addition Justin Bethel for the slot corner role. Oliver was not particularly box score friendly at Colorado but his skill set as a strong press corner and ability to get physical with big receivers is a huge plus in today's game. Should he somehow end up on the field opposite Trufant, the rookie corner rule could be in full force.
- SS Keanu Neal – Elite DB1 with Top-five expectations
- FS Ricardo Allen – Marginal fantasy impact at best
- FS Ron Parker – Injury/deep sleeper with DB3 ceiling at best
- FS Damontae Kazee – No fantasy impact
- CB Desmond Trufant – Marginal fantasy impact
- CB Robert Alford – Matchup based CB3
- CB Isaiah Oliver – Rookie corner watch list
- CB Brian Poole – Marginal impact at best
- CB Justin Bethel – No fantasy value
The Panthers always seem to have a stout defense, and 2017 was no exception. They were 10th versus the run, and middle of the pack against the pass, but their 50 sacks ranked third while they forced 21 turnovers. One major advantage Carolina has is the ability to get pressure on the quarterback without having to blitz. Linemen accounted for 40 of their sacks last season with defensive ends Mario Addison and Julius Peppers each contributing 11, and tackle Kawann Short adding 7.5. With so many sacks between them we would expect to see at least one Carolina lineman among the Top 15; unfortunately, that was not the case. One contributing factor being the Panthers defense faced the third-fewest offensive plays in 2017, with the main reason being they rotate so many players. As a result, no Panthers lineman had more than 27 solo tackles last season.
For those in leagues that lump the defensive line positions together, Addison is the best IDP option of the group. Last year he led the team's defensive ends with 68% of the snaps and tied Short with the most tackles among the front four with 27. At age 30 the stat line of 27-17-11 with a pair of forced fumbles was the best of Addison's career. He has been a quality contributor over the past several seasons but last year was the first time Addison worked in the lead role as the team's number one end. From that perspective, there is no reason to believe his production has peaked. In fact, his numbers have improved every season since he was a rookie in 2011. Addison was a mid-range DL2 last season with at least half a sack in 12 games. There is a strong chance he will repeat the double-digit sack totals and if his trend of steady improvement continues he will exceed 30 solo stops for the first time in his career. Addison is no threat to reach elite fantasy status but it would be somewhat surprising if he does not at least make the Top-15 and solidify himself as a quality second starter for IDP owners.
The double-digit sack total by Peppers was particularly impressive when you consider he was 37 years old at the time. Turning 38 in January, Peppers plans to make this season his last as he closes in on third place on the all-time sack list. His role has diminished over the last couple seasons to that of a pass rush specialist seeing only occasional snaps in base packages. Peppers played about 52% of the time last season and will likely see that number drop again this year. He last reached 30 solo tackles in 2013 and may fall short of 20 in 2018 for the second time in three seasons. Unless you are in need of a bye week matchup play or something of that sort, Peppers holds little IDP value.
For the past five seasons, Wes Horton has been one of Carolina's rotational players at end. With Charles Johnson gone and Peppers role declining, Horton may finally get his shot at a starting job. On 38% (360 snaps) of the defensive plays last season, Horton recorded 11 tackles, 6 assists, 5.5 sacks and 3 forced fumbles. He has shown flashes of potential in limited opportunity over his time with the team and could prove surprisingly successful.
The Panthers selected Daeshon Hall in the third round last spring. He was inactive for the first three games then opened week four as a lesser part of the rotation. One of his first game snaps as a pro resulted in a season-ending knee injury. Hall is back on the field and will compete with rookie fourth-round pick Marquise Haynes for playing time. Hall had a solid career at Texas A&M where he was a two-year starter with 14 career sacks and 7 forced turnovers. The organization expects a considerable contribution from the young man in year two.
Haynes is a flyweight at 235 pounds and is not going to be a factor on early downs anytime in the near future. He excelled as an edge rusher at Ole Miss recording an impressive 32 career sacks while forcing 12 fumbles and recovering 3 as a three-year starter. Going into the draft some scouts were concerned Haynes' style of play would not translate well to the pro game unless a team is looking strictly for a designated pass rush specialist.
For IDP managers in leagues breaking out the defensive line positions, Carolina provides one of the few outstanding interior linemen. Kawann Short has three consecutive top-10 finishes at tackle. Over those seasons he has averaged roughly 31-21-8, 2 forced fumbles and a recovery per season. He is a rare talent with the size and power to dominate inside on run downs and the explosiveness to get by blockers on passing downs. Exceptional year to year consistency adds considerably to Short's IDP value. Since production at this position is difficult to come by, managers simply cannot afford to miss. Short is close as it gets to a sure thing.
When Star Lotulelei took the free agent trail out of town, the initial assumption was 2016 first round pick Vernon Butler replacing him. That may ultimately be the answer but the free agent addition of Dontari Poe muddies the water a bunch. Butler has been on the field for a little over 500 snaps in his two seasons with the team and has been mediocre for the most part. He is a big powerful space eater at 6-foot-4 and 330 pounds but so far has not demonstrated an ability to anchor the line with consistency. Meanwhile, Poe is bigger at 6-foot-4 and 346, has six-year experience as a starter with the Chiefs and Falcons, is a proven run stuffer and has even shown some ability to get after the passer with 15.5 career sacks. Poe was a top-10 tackle in IDP leagues for a couple seasons early in his career (2013-2014) so he may even provide a little value as a second starter or solid depth. This will not be one of the premier competitions/situations to watch this summer but it is worth keeping up with if your league requires interior linemen.
- DE Mario Addison – Solid DL2 with Top-15 upside
- DE Julius Peppers – Matchup based fill in at best
- DE Wes Horton – Sleeper with low DL2 ceiling
- DE Daeshon Hall – Deep sleeper work keeping on the radar
- DE Marquise Haynes – Pass rush specialist with marginal upside
- DT Kawann Short – Quality DT1 with Top-five upside
- DT Vernon Butler – No fantasy impact
- DT Dontari Poe – Potential DT2
- DT Kyle Love – No impact
- DT Kendrick Norton – Developmental rookie
Carolina middle linebacker Luke Kuechly is an IDP legend. In terms of points-per-game average, he has been number one in four of his six seasons and has never finished below fourth. He makes a lot of tackles, provides outstanding big-play production and has averaged nearly 8 passes defended over his career. If not for the lingering concussion concerns Kuechly would easily be the top fantasy target at the linebacker position. For many he still is despite the fact one more head injury could end his career. Kuechly has missed games with concussions in each of the past three seasons including a multiple game absence in 2016 that was particularly scary. He is currently recovering from labrum surgery but is expected to be full speed at some point before training camp breaks. The risk is significant but there is no doubt what we will get if he stays healthy.
For most of the last 11 seasons, Thomas Davis has been at least a quality third starter for IDP managers. That will almost certainly come to an end in 2018. Even before the 35-year-old was handed a four-game PED suspension, the coaching staff had made the decision to cut back his playing time. When Davis returns from suspension for what is expected to be his final season, he will be a two-down strongside linebacker.
When the Panthers drafted Shaq Thompson in round one four years ago, they envisioned him as the heir to Davis. No one expected Davis to play this long but Thompson has been a great team player while awaiting his chance. He has shown signs of quality production while working almost exclusively in a two-down role, but it is difficult to say if Thompson can be as fantasy friendly as Davis while competing with Kuechly for tackles. What we do know is Thompson will be a three-down weakside backer with plenty of opportunities to be at least a decent third starter or quality LB4. Put him on your draft board as a late-round target for depth and hope he is able to make the best of the opportunity.
Depth at linebacker has been somewhat of an issue for the Panthers in recent years. The organization address that and their special teams needs by drafting Jermaine Carter in round five and picking up Andre Smith in the seventh. Both are developmental prospects at this point but one of them could be groomed to take over on the strong side in 2019 if Davis retires.
- MLB Luke Kuechly – Elite LB1 with injury risk
- SLB Thomas Davis – No fantasy impact
- WLB Shaq Thompson – Target late as depth with low LB3 ceiling
- MLB/SLB David Mayo – No fantasy impact
- MLB Jermaine Carter – Developmental rookie
- MLB Andre Smith – Developmental rookie
- OLB Jared Norris – Injury deep sleeper at best
On paper, the Panthers secondary could be an issue in 2018. Strong safety Mike Adams is 37 years old, free safety Da'Norris Searcy is a journeyman who was never more than a marginal starter with his first two teams and his competition, Rashaan Gaulden is a rookie. On one corner is James Bradberry who is a strong cover man but does not make many big plays. Opposite him will likely be another rookie in second-round pick Donte Jackson. One thing the team does have going for them is plenty of veteran depth at corner should the rookie falter.
Historically the Panthers have not provided IDP owners with much help at defensive back. Kurt Coleman bucked that trend to some degree during his three years with the team, but he is now in New Orleans. Adams sometimes compensates for marginal tackle totals with a helping of big plays but week to week inconsistency and limited upside make him difficult to trust as more than spot depth. Searcy had a strong run with Buffalo for most of a season but has done virtually nothing since. Gaulden is an unknown commodity as a rookie. He had decent tackle production in two years as a starter for Tennessee but has shown little knack for the big play. If there is any IDP potential at all among Carolina's safeties it is certainly well disguised.
For managers in corner required leagues, there could be a very different story. Bradberry has been a marginal big-play threat with five total takeaways in two seasons but his 66 solo tackles ranked third among corners in 2017. Throw in 19 assists, a couple picks, a forced fumble, a sack and double-digit passes defended, and you get the number eight corner from last season. At 6-foot-1 and 212 pounds, Bradberry is one of the league's bigger and more physical corners. He is not afraid to get involved in run support and is often called upon to do so as the team uses a fair amount of cover-2. It would be nice to get a few more game-altering plays but the strong tackle totals make Bradberry one of the most consistent contributors at the position on a week to week basis.
We have yet another opportunity for the rookie corner rule with Jackson. Daryl Worley had 113 tackles and 39 assists playing opposite Bradberry over the past two seasons. In a cover-2 both safeties play deep leaving much of the run support responsibilities to the corners, and especially the strong side corner which is usually Bradberry. The other corner will have a bigger run support role than in most schemes but is also expected to make more big plays. Jackson has the playmaking ability the coaching staff is looking for but at 5-foot-11 and around 180 pounds, he may struggle with the run support part of the job. The tough spot for the coaching staff is none of their other options at corner are much bigger save free agent addition Ladarius Gunter who was a safety at his previous stop. Personnel could ultimately force defensive coordinator Eric Washington away from the cover-2 altogether.
Going into camp the only sure starter on the outside is Bradberry. Jackson is an early favorite for the other spot but will have to prove himself against veterans Kevon Seymour, Captain Munnerlyn, Ross Cockrell and possibly Corn Elder who missed last season with a knee injury. The only player in this group that sparks IDP interest is the rookie.
- SS Mike Adams – Marginal impact at best
- FS/SS Da'Norris Searcy –No fantasy impact
- FS Rashaan Gaulden – Deep sleeper with limited upside
- FS Colin Jones – No fantasy value
- FS Dezmen Southward – No fantasy value
- CB James Bradbury – Probable low end CB1
- CB Donte Jackson – Possible rookie corner rule
- CB Kevon Seymour – No value expected
- CB Corn Elder – No impact expected
- CB Captain Munnerlyn – Marginal value at best
- CB Ross Cockrell – No fantasy impact
- CB/S Ladarius Gunter – No fantasy impact
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
A strong pass rush greatly helps the secondary and good coverage is a big plus for the pass rush. When a team does neither well they become the 2017 Buccaneers. Tampa Bay was 29th versus the pass last year allowing 7.8 yards per attempt while their 22 sacks were the fewest by any team since 2015. To keep everything even the Buccaneers had the 23rd-ranked run defense as well at 4.3 yards per carry. With such dismal numbers from top to bottom comes a lot of offseason change. There were additions at every level with particular attention paid to the front four and the secondary.
Tackles Gerald McCoy and Clinton McDonald tied for the team lead with five sacks last year so the first order of business was to address the pass rush. The organization did so by trading for one of the league's premier defensive ends Jason Pierre-Paul. This was a great move for all parties as the Giants were moving to a 3-4 that would not have been a good fit for Pierre-Paul. They got some compensation for an excellent player, he got to go to Tampa Bay and stay in a 4-3 and the Buccaneers got an established player they can count on not only to improve the pass rush but to help solidify the run defense as well.
Pierre-Paul has not turned in double-digit sacks since 2014 but he has proven over the past two seasons that the fireworks injury will not keep him from being a great player. Over the past two campaigns he has 15 sacks, 13 batted passes and 5 forced fumbles to his credit. Pierre-Paul is also one of the league's best edge setting ends versus the run. Since 2011 he has played four seasons without missing any games. In each of those years, Pierre-Paul exceeded 40 solo stops and had at least 6.5 sacks. Some players struggle when changing teams but Tampa Bay's defensive approach is very similar to the Giants old scheme and Pierre-Paul has the kind of skill set that travels well. He was the number six defensive lineman in 2017 and should pick up right where he left off.
The organization is far from throwing in the towel on 2016 second round pick Noah Spence but they were quick to secure another option when free agency opened by signing Vinny Curry. Curry is not a great edge rusher though he did have a personal best of nine sacks in 2014. His strength is versus the run thus most of his career to date has been as a base package end in the Eagles rotation. Curry can slide inside on passing downs though he was not asked to do so regularly in Philadelphia. From a box score perspective, he does not pack a lot of obvious punch. Other than the nine-sack season Curry has never exceeded four in any year and his career best to date is 25 solo tackles. That said he could have a much more consistent role with the Buccaneers; especially if Spence continues to struggle. At this point, 30 tackles and 5 or 6 sacks are reasonable expectations for Curry but if he comes out of the gate strong in September we should not hesitate to pick him up.
Spence had a relatively normal rookie season for an NFL edge rusher. He worked in the rotation posting 17 tackles, 6 assists, 5.5 sacks and 3 forced fumbles on about 50% of the defensive snaps. Expectations built last summer when he was one of the stars of training camp. Spence had a sack and double-digit fantasy points in the opener then suffered a dislocated shoulder in game two. After dealing with shoulder dislocations four times in his brief Buccaneers career, he elected to shut it down and have surgery. Spence showed up for training camp healthy and looking like a Greek God. After adding almost 30 pounds of muscle over the offseason he checked in at a chiseled 257 pounds, which is right where the coaching staff wants him. Considering all the hype over Spence last summer this may sound like the boy who cried wolf, but he may finally be in for that breakout season a year late.
In William Gholston and Will Clarke, the Buccaneers have solid depth at end. Gholston is a stout run defender with marginal pass rush ability but has plenty of starting experience at the position. He also has the versatility to slide inside on passing downs. When the team picked up Clarke last year, they had hoped he would step up and claim a spot in the rotation. He did end up in that role but only after Spence was shut down. Clarke finished the season with 15 combined tackles and 3 sacks on just over 300 snaps. He is a serviceable backup, but it does there is no reason to think he will take the next step.
Gerald McCoy has been the anchor of the Buccaneers defense since 2010 and a quality DT1 for fantasy owners over most of his nine NFL seasons. He is both an excellent run defender and one of the best interior pass rushers in the game. While he has only exceeded 30 solo stops twice in his career, McCoy has at least 5 sacks in every season since 2012 and a string of Top-12 fantasy rankings equally as long. There are two noteworthy points that add a little extra upside for McCoy in 2018. Last year was one of those seasons with more than 30 tackles, and it has been some time since he last had such a quality surrounding cast. If Spence steps up and rookie Vita Vea is as advertised, this might be the best front four the team has fielded during McCoy's tenure. Who knows what kind of year he is capable of if opponents are not able to double him on virtually every snap.
Vea is a 347-pound mountain of power and talent. He bench pressed 225 pounds 41 times at the combine and was nimble enough to see time as a super-sized edge rusher for the Huskies in 2016. He is rather raw having started just five games for Washington prior to last season but has the potential to become a perennial All Pro with some good coaching. Vea will likely work as a two gap nose tackle on early downs, anchoring the run game and forcing opponents to commit two blockers much of the time. Unlike most linemen of his size, however, Vea has the ability to stay on the field in sub packages. He played in 37 games during his college career, starting 17 and recording a total of 65 tackles, 34 assists, and 9.5 sacks. How Vea's production translates to the NFL remains to be seen, but if he gets some sub-package opportunity, he could surprisingly be fantasy friendly at a very shallow position.
- DE Jason Pierre-Paul – Quality DL1
- DE Noah Spence – Sleeper with high ceiling and low floor
- DE Vinny Curry – Depth with low-end DL2 upside
- DE William Gholston – No fantasy impact
- DE Will Clarke – Injury sleeper at best
- DT Gerald McCoy – Solid DT1 with Top-five potential
- DT Vita Vea – Rookie with a great skills set and considerable potential
- DT Beau Allen – No fantasy impact
- DT Mitch Unrein – Veteran that will see rotational playing time
Poor play at the second level was not the case with Tampa Bay last season, though injuries to both Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander played a part in the team's struggles. Both veterans are Pro Bowl caliber players on the field and excellent IDP contributors in the box scores. Both players, and especially Alexander, also stand to gain from the improvement up front.
Alexander fought through a hamstring injury early in 2017 that cost him four starts. Even so, he managed to finish the season as the 20th overall linebacker. To get a better feel for Alexander's true fantasy value we can look at his ninth-ranked 13.3 points per game average. He will make a contribution in the big play columns but most of Alexander's fantasy worth is derived from outstanding tackle production. In 2016 he led the league with 109 solo stops, outdistancing second place by an impressive 10; last year he was on pace for 93 despite playing a few games with the sore hamstring. On another positive note, Alexander's three interceptions last season set a new personal best. Consistency at the linebacker position is vital to IDP success and no one has shown more over the past two seasons. In 28 games Alexander has never produced fewer than six points and he has fallen short of double digits just three times. He turns 24 in August and is just entering the prime of his career. Alexander stands to be a perennial top-10 linebacker for the next decade or so and if he continues to improve in the big play columns we may even see some number one finishes along the way.
Before the emergence of Alexander, David was the tackling machine in Tampa Bay. In each of his first three seasons, the 2012 second round pick reached triple digits in solos. His tackle totals slipped a bit once Alexander burst onto the scene, but David has never lost his knack for the big play. Since 2013 he has accounted for an impressive 37 takeaways, 17 sacks, 29 pass breakups, and has scored in each of the last three seasons. David rebounded from a career low of 67 solo stops in 2016 and was on pace for 94 last year had he not missed three games with minor injuries. In 13 contests he racked up enough points for an 11th overall finish and his 13.65 points per game ranked third with the help of 10 turnovers. By the end of the season Alexander may be the higher ranked of the two by a slim margin, but on a week to week basis it will be a coin toss between the two. Simply put IDP managers cannot go wrong with either of these guys as an LB1.
One positive to come out of last season was the play of Kendell Beckwith. With their two stars missing time the organization discovered they have a third excellent linebacker on the roster, and IDP managers got a good look at what Beckwith can do if he gets a chance to play full time. The then-rookie-third-round pick played at least 58 snaps in each of the first five games. Over that span, he racked up 36 solo stops, 5 assists, and a forced fumble. When everyone is healthy Beckwith will see action mostly as a two-down strongside linebacker. The team will be without him early this season, however, as Beckwith recovers from a broken ankle suffered in an auto accident. He will miss training camp and preseason for sure and is currently on the Non-Football Injury list.
Veteran Adarius Glanton will compete with second-year man Devante Bond and possibly rookie Jack Cichy to fill in on the strong side while they await Beckwith's return. Glanton got on the field for 285 snaps last season, mostly early in the year when both Alexander and David were banged up, so he is the early favorite to open at the position.
- WLB Lavonte David – Dependable LB1
- MLB Kwon Alexander – High-end LB1 with potential for elite tier status
- SLB Kendell Beckwith – Injury sleeper once healthy enough to play
- SLB Devante Bond – No expected impact
- MLB Jack Cichy – Developmental rookie and special teams contributor
- OLB Adarius Glanton – No fantasy impact expected
The depth chart for the secondary is filled with the names of young players and the Buccaneers try to forget the dismal 2017 performance. What remains to be seen is how many of the youngsters will earn prominent roles and how soon they will do so.
Last year's second-round pick Justin Evans seems like a safe bet to return as the starting free safety while veteran Chris Conte is penciled in at strong safety entering camp. The team's only significant addition at safety is fourth-round pick Jordan Whitehead. He is undersized for consideration as a strong safety and is not a particularly physical player. If Whitehead earns a role as a rookie it will likely be as a slot corner in a big nickel sub-package.
Evans is the most interesting prospect at safety from the fantasy perspective. He earned the starting job and a full-time role in week five last season and was injured in week 15 missing the final two games. In between Evans reached double-digit points in half the games and was on pace for about 67 tackles and 25 assists. Adding three picks and half a dozen pass breakups, Evan showed signs of becoming the excellent big-play safety the organization expects him to be. He may never put up better than average tackle totals which could mean some week to week inconsistency but the big play upside means Evans has the potential to be a quality starter for IDP owners.
Conte has been in the league for seven seasons with the Bears and Buccaneers but has never been much of a factor for IDP managers. The only time he has recorded more than 62 solo stops was back in 2013 and he has averaged about two interceptions a season. He is an adequate placeholder until the team can better address the position but for fantasy managers, Conte is no better than marginal depth.
Corner is where we can expect big changes in the not too distant future. Brent Grimes turned 35 in July and is entering his 12th season. He is coming off a second solid campaign with the team and can still play. The coaching staff would like to get one more good year from him in hope Grimes will help groom the youngsters, but he could feel some pressure if both second-round rookies perform well early. From an IDP perspective Grimes has been a viable CB2 over much of his career and his average of 9.12 points per game last season fell right into that area. The team needs veteran leadership in their young secondary so Grimes will probably give us one more useful season.
Vernon Hargreaves opened 2017 as a starter, was benched for a game, returned to start the following week and was benched again before a week 10 injury eventually landed him on IR. He had a strong rookie campaign after being the 11th overall pick in 2016 and has shown signs during his brief career of becoming a lockdown corner. The way last season unfolded for the young man, however, it is hard to tell where the coaching staff is with him. He is a highly talented player who just turned 23 in June so we would expect the organization to show some patience. Hargreaves was the third leading tackler among corners as a rookie with 68 solo stops leading to a Top-20 finish despite a shortage of big plays. In his six games as a starter last season he was on pace to shatter the previous tackle total but the big play columns remained empty. Hargreaves is flying well under the radar at this point so we have time to see how this develops. We know he will be productive if his role allows it.
Ryan Smith took over the starting role when Hargreaves was benched and again when he was injured. The 2016 fourth-round pick was adequate in the role and will be in the mix for playing time in 2018, though his chances of starting are not very good.
The situation to watch here is the development of rookies M.J. Stewart and Carlton Davis. Stewart is a physical corner with good size and a love for contact not usually found at the position. He excels at press coverage and is athletic enough to handle man to man responsibilities anywhere on the field. Stewart is also tough and physical enough to possibly transition to safety which makes him a particularly interesting prospect in this situation. As a four year contributor and two-year starter for North Carolina at corner, Stewart had 129 career tackles with 70 assists, 6 interceptions, 41 pass breakups and 6 turnovers on fumbles. In the right role, he could be a highly productive IDP option.
Davis is cast from a similar mold in that he is a physical press corner. He is not as fluid in space as Stewart but Davis does a good job of disrupting routes, is instinctive and plays with an edge that reminds some scouts of Richard Sherman. Playing at Auburn, Davis held up well against some of the best competition the college game has to offer, though is numbers were not particularly impressive.
- SS Chris Conte – Marginal fantasy impact at best
- FS Justin Evans – DB3 with big-play upside
- SS Keith Tandy – No fantasy impact
- FS Jordan Whitehead – Developmental rookie
- CB Brent Grimes – CB2 providing he continues to start
- CB Vernon Hargreaves – Risk/Reward target with high ceiling and low floor
- CB Ryan Smith – No impact expected
- CB Carlton Davis – Rookie corner rule could come into play
- CB M.J. Stewart – Rookie corner with positional versatility that could make him a big factor
- CB/FS Josh Robinson – No impact
New Orleans Saints
The 2015 Saints were a historically bad defense, allowing almost 30 points per game and finishing at or near the bottom in nearly every important statistical category. Flash forward two seasons and the team still has room for improvement in some areas but they have come a long way. The 2017 Saints were middle of the pack versus the pass at seven yards per attempt and the run defense struggled, allowing 4.4 per carry, but they were very opportunistic. Their 42 sacks ranked seventh and only two teams recorded more interceptions. In one of the strangest statistics to come down the pike in years, only two teams totaled more than the Saints 17 forced fumbles while only the Bengals recovered fewer than their 5. If you get a chance to visit the team's training camp this summer expect to see a lot of fumble recovery drills.
Possibly the biggest factor in the team's turnaround has been improved play up front, starting with defensive end Cameron Jordan. He has been an outstanding contributor both on the field and in the box scores throughout his seven-year career but the infusion of talent around him and installation of a scheme that fits his skill set perfectly, made 2017 Jordan's best season to date by far. Career highs in tackles at 48, sacks with 13 and batted passes at 11, capped off with a couple turnovers and a score landed Jordan at number three on the elite first tier of defensive linemen. It would be tough to predict an improvement on those numbers but it is reasonable not to expect much dropoff in 2018. Jordan has come up short of 30 solo stops once since 2012 and has at least 40 in each of the past two seasons. He has not fallen short of seven sacks since 2012 and has reached double digits in three of the last five years. He has knocked down at least five passes in six of seven campaigns and has two or more turnovers in five of those years. He just turned 29, is the prime of his career physically and the Saints continue to improve around him. Slot Jordan near the top of your defensive draft board and make him a priority DL1 target.
Jordan played 990 of the team's 1002 defensive snaps in 2017 so we can get an idea what kind of production is possible from the other defensive end spot by adding the up the numbers of everyone that contributed there. Alex Okafor opened 2017 as the starter opposite Jordan. He was having a strong season with 27 tackles, 17 assists, 4.5 sacks and 3 forced fumbles in 10 games before a season-ending Achilles injury. Trey Hendrickson held a rotational role at the position for much of his rookie season contributing 7 tackles, 7 assists and a pair of sacks. Oft-injured Hau'oli Kikaha contributed 211 snaps producing a line of 6-4-4. The team brought in George Johnson off the street for the final three games and got 2.5 sacks from him in December. Combines these players accounted for 45 tackles, 30 assists, and 13 sacks. If we could somehow get all those numbers credited to one player we would have another DL1 target. Unfortunately, that is unlikely to happen, at least not this year.
Okafor is on schedule in his recovery and was re-signed in March to a two-year deal worth $10 million. With the size of his contract and quality of play before the injury, Okafor has a shot at starting, or at least having a significant role in 2018. At this time last summer the coaching staff was speaking highly of their third-round pick (Hendrickson) with mention of an eventual starting role. Kikaha has battled injuries throughout his short career but has been productive when healthy, and the team even re-signed Johnson to a one-year extension. These players alone are enough to create a fog of uncertainty, then the Saints traded up to land Marcus Davenport at 14 overall. Chances are Okafor will start if completely healthy but the team is going to get their prize rookie on the field in some capacity. Everyone else will probably be fighting over scraps.
Many draft experts were surprised by the move to get Davenport. Not so much because of the pick but for the move up so high to get a guy many thought would fall to the late first. While he was titled a defensive end in college, Davenport worked as a stand-up edge rusher for much of his career at the University of Texas San Antonio, in what the NFL would call an outside linebacker role. He put on 30 pounds between his sophomore and senior seasons but lost none of his explosiveness. As a three year starter for the Roadrunners Davenport collected 21.5 sacks, forced 6 fumbles and recovered 2 along with 185 combined tackles and assists. It may take some time for him to get comfortable with his hand down but Davenport has the skill set to become an excellent three down end at the pro level. Interestingly one NFL draft expert compared him to Danielle Hunter. Both the Saints and the IDP community hope that is an accurate comparison.
The Saints interior line positions gave us nothing in 2017 but that is the exception rather than the rule. In 2016 Nick Fairley was a top-12 tackle with a stat line of 29-5-6.5. When he was forced to retire for medical reasons there was an expectation for 2016 first round pick Sheldon Rankins to step up. Unfortunately and surprisingly that never came to pass; at least not yet. Rankins' rookie season was derailed by a broken leg in mid-August. He was activated from the short-term injured reserve in November going 15-5-4 with a forced fumble in eight games. Rankins was a week one starter in his second season, seeing action on many passing downs he logged 812 total snaps on the year. On the field he was everything the team had expected, disruptive versus the run, pushing the pocket on passing downs and forcing opponents to double him regularly. For some, reason however, his on-field contribution to the team failed to translate to the box scores. It was almost as if the stats crew did not see him or did not recognize his number. Whatever the reason, Rankins was all but absent from the stat sheets with a total of three tackles and five assists prior to week 10. Even after that, his numbers were marginal at 13-6-2 over the final eight games, but at least he showed up in all of them.
Rankins had a great career at Louisville, both on the field and in the box scores. He is an athletic big man with an extra gear to get after the passer. In two seasons as a starter for the Cardinals, he totaled 59 tackles, 52 assists and 14 sacks with 5 turnovers and a score. His rookie numbers averaged over a full season would have been 30-10-8 so there is no doubt he has the potential for big things. Maybe it is how he was used within the scheme last season and maybe that is all we are going to get from him as a pro. At this point, all we can do is keep Rankins on our radar and know that if he starts hot it is not a mirage.
Tyeler Davidson and David Onyemata were the other two tackles that figured prominently in the rotation last season. Both are solid on field contributors that should continue to see more than 50% of the snaps but neither has the skill set or sufficient opportunity to make a splash in IDP circles.
- DE Cameron Jordan – Elite tier DL1
- DE Alex Okafor – Potential DL2 or quality depth
- DE Trey Hendrickson – Long shot at best for 2018
- DE Marcus Davenport – Rookie sleeper with big long term potential
- DE/SLB Hau'oli Kikaha – No fantasy impact expected
- DE George Johnson – No fantasy impact
- DT Sheldon Rankins – Sleeper with high ceiling and low floor in tackle required formats
- DT Tyeler Davidson – No fantasy impact
- DT David Onyemata – No fantasy impact
- DT Jay Bromley – No fantasy impact
The Saints are in good shape up front but still have some questions at linebacker. Last offseason they signed A.J. Klein with the expectation he would be their three down middle linebacker. It did not take long to figure out he was a bad fit for that job. Klein was eventually moved to strongside where he is more at home, and will continue in a base package two down role.
The team took another swing at free agency with the addition of Demario Davis this offseason. Davis is a dependable veteran that can stay on the field in sub packages. At the least, he will be a capable starter and much better fit for the scheme. Davis is coming off by far the best statistical season of his career. From a previous best of 78-38-4 in 2014, Davis leapt to tying for the league lead with 97 solos, adding 36 assists and 4.5 sacks, and a top-10 finish last year. The dilemma IDP managers face, is determining if last year's numbers will follow him from New York. Davis played for the Jets from 2012 to 2015 before spending a season with Cleveland. He exceeded 60 solo stops in one of those five years. In fact, Davis was not very effective as a starter for the Browns, becoming a part time player for about half a season.
Reunited with the Jets in 2017, Davis fell into a scheme that allowed him to shine. Having the huge season on a one year deal also got him paid, but not by the Jets. New York was not willing to pay the asking price and elected to let Davis walk. The Jets know him better than anyone so their decision not to pay speaks loudly.
The sheer volume of opportunity should make Davis a strong third starter providing he holds onto the three down role. The question is, will lightening strike twice and how much are you willing to risk on it? Because someone in your league is going to see those juicy 2017 numbers and take him early; it might be a good move to let someone else take the chance.
Alex Anzalone opened last season as the starter on the week side and is expected to resume that role after recovering from shoulder surgery. Last year's third round pick looked good for the most part during his short four game run before the injury, but he made some rookie mistakes. Production wise Anzalone did not put up big numbers with 10 tackles, 5 assists, a sack, and a pass breakup in his three full games, but he showed enough potential to believe he can be an IDP factor going forward. One issue that held his box scores down was sub-package participation. Anzalone was part of some but not all nickel packages and was not on the field in dime sets. A second training camp and preseason should go a long way toward getting him ready for a full time three down role.
The biggest concern is the chronic shoulder issue that followed him from college. Anzalone believes the surgery will ultimately resolve the issue but until we see him stay on the field for a length of time that question will remain. He is a versatile player with the ability to work from any of the linebacker spots, and has the skill set to be a productive three down player. If he can stay healthy Anzalone should make at least a solid third starter for IDP managers. He is flying well under the radar at this point and could prove to be a late round bargain as a fifth linebacker with upside.
Craig Robertson and Manti Te'o provide the Saints with quality veteran depth. Both have starting experience and played fairly well when called upon last season. Robertson will back up Anzalone on the weak side with Te'o working behind Davis in the middle. The coaching staff had Hau'oli Kikaha work at strong side linebacker last summer and may look at him in that role again in an effort to find a place for him on the roster.
- MLB Demario Davis – Quality LB3 at the least
- SLB A.J. Klein – No fantasy impact
- WLB Alex Anzalone – LB3 with long term upside
- WLB Craig Robertson – No fantasy impact
- MLB Manti Te'o – No fantasy impact
The Saints secondary made great strides in 2017, not in spite of having two rookies on the field full time, but because of it. First round pick Marshon Lattimore had a stellar rookie campaign by both NFL and IDP standards. Since he missed three games with minor injuries, Lattimore's stat line does not tell the full story. Even so, his 18 pass breakups and 6 takeaways are rather impressive. At 11.2 points per game, he transcended formats finishing third among corners and top-12 in leagues that combine the positions. There is little doubt he will soon be considered among the NFLs elite at the position. For IDP managers what remains to be seen is how Lattimore will be affected by the rookie corner rule. On the positive side, much of his value was derived by big plays and coverage skills. That production often sticks with young players or even improves as their tackle totals recede. What the Saints may have here is the next Marcus Peters minus the attitude and baggage. What Fantasy managers may have is a quality starting corner with year-to-year consistency.
The other impact rookie was second round pick Marcus Williams at free safety. He did a great job in the deep safety role on the field while providing some fantasy value as well, though to a lesser extent than Lattimore. Williams missed one game, finishing at a respectable 59 tackles and 14 assists, adding 4 interceptions and 6 pass breakups. On the surface, those are numbers worthy of consideration as depth in most leagues, but there are some reasons for optimism. Williams is not the biggest of safeties at 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds, and playing off the ball as he does will impact his opportunity to make tackles. On the other hand, he is physical for his size and seems to relish run support opportunities. He had 11 interceptions and 17 total takeaways as a three year starter for Utah, so the big play numbers were not a fluke and may get even better. Lastly, Williams ended last season on a string of six consecutive games with at least five solo tackles and one assist. He also had three picks and four passes defended during that stretch. Maybe it was coincidence but it could be a sign of things to come. Put Williams on your draft board as late round depth with upside.
As the Saints' strong safety Kenny Vaccaro averaged 10.6 points per game over the last three years. He is no longer with the team and free agent addition Kurt Coleman is the favorite to take over the job. Coleman is one of the game's most underrated safeties. Every time an opportunity presents itself he produces, yet no one seems willing to keep him around for long. While there has to be some reason for that, it does not appear to be related to play on the field. Coleman was a starter for most of his second season with the Eagles in 2011. That year he recorded 56 tackles and 22 assists with 4 interceptions and a forced fumble. He opened 2012 as the starter going 70-23-0 with a pair of picks and a forced fumble in 14 games. The following year he rarely got on the field and produced virtually nothing in the box scores. Coleman had 231 combined tackles and 5 turnovers as the Chiefs third safety in 2014 but was not brought back. He landed in Carolina in 2015 producing 117 solo stops, 65 assists, 11 interceptions, 2 sacks, a forced fumble and a pair of touchdowns over his first two seasons (30 games)with the team. Last year his role changes and Coleman's big play numbers went away, leading the Panthers to let him walk.
Coleman has the versatility to be successful at either safety spot. With the team set at free safety, he will compete with Von Bell for the starting job at strong. Bell led the New Orleans secondary with 62 tackles a year ago. He added 4.5 sacks and a pair of forced fumbles but the third year pro is still looking for his first career interception. Bell spent most of last season as the third safety in the big nickel packages New Orleans used often. He was marginally productive in that role but had huge numbers in three of four games when standing in for an injured Vaccaro. Unfortunately, Bell's play on the field was less spectacular than the numbers would suggest. He struggled at times against both run and pass, missing tackles and allowing big plays. Bell is only 23 years old entering his third season so the coaching staff is not ready to throw in the towel. This will be a battle between the cagey veteran and the hopefully improving youngster with the winner likely having at least solid DB2 fantasy value. As Terrell Owens would say, get your popcorn ready.
Entering his third year as a starter, former undrafted free agent Ken Crawley is one of the league's great stories. The third year pro has also emerged as a quality NFL corner. The coaching staff was pleased with Crowley's 17 pass breakups last year but would like to see him turn more of them into interceptions. Playing opposite one of the game's rising stars, Crowley should have plenty of opportunity to better all his numbers. In 13 games last season he was 48-7-0 with 1 pick to go along with the passes defended. Crowley should easily break the 50 tackle mark in 2018. If he can add a few game changing plays he might have IDP value as a second starter in corner required leagues.
- SS Kurt Coleman – Solid DB2 if he wins the full time job at strong safety
- FS Von Bell – Underdog with big potential if he beats out Coleman for strong safety gig
- FS Marcus Williams – Quality depth with big play upside on any given week
- SS Chris Banjo – Injury sleeper
- FS Natrell Jamerson – Developmental rookie
- CB Marshon Lattimore – Rising star with a good chance to remain a CB1
- CB Ken Crawley – CB2 potential
- CB Patrick Robinson – No fantasy impact
- CB P.J. Williams – No fantasy impact
- CB Karim Moore – No immediate impact
- CB De'Vante Harris – No fantasy impact
That is going to do it for the NFC South; next up the AFC South.