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Eyes of the Guru IDP Info, Part 5: NFC West - Footballguys

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

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

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

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

Arizona Cardinals

Defensive Linemen

Most team’s struggle for a year or two when moving between 3-4 and 4-3 schemes; the Cardinals may actually be better off immediately. Chandler Jones had the best statistical season of his career last year as an outside linebacker in Arizona’s 3-4. With 52 tackles and 16 sacks, he was the highest scoring fantasy player at that position, coming in around 25th among all linebackers. Going back to end in a 4-3 will probably cost him some tackles but it will make Jones an elite tier fantasy option once again. The last time he put his hand down was 2015 when Jones totaled 31-13-12.5 with 4 forced fumbles and a recovery for the Patriots. He will have no problem making the transition back to that scheme.

The switchover gives us another high potential IDP option that is flying way under the radar in early drafts. Markus Golden was the Cardinals second-round pick in 2015. As a rookie, he had the same struggles experienced by many young outside linebackers new to the Pittsburgh style zone blitz. In year two Golden flourished with 41 tackles, 10 assists, 12.5 sacks and 5 turnovers.  A week four knee injury ended his third season and has Golden working his way back to health while converting to end in the new scheme at the same time. In mid-June, he said there was no timetable for a return to the field but he ”wants to be ready for week one for sure”. The knee injury is a reason for concern and will have an effect on Golden’s value in redraft leagues, at least until we see he is all the way back. The change of position is a much lesser concern. He played end as a senior at Missouri posting 36 tackles, 42 assists, 8 sacks, 6 turnovers, and a score. When hearing about the team’s change of scheme he expressed no concerns. There is a good chance Golden will be less than 100% coming out of the gate this year but dynasty owners, in particular, should look to slip him onto the roster as depth with significant long-term upside.  

The Cardinals desperately need Golden to be healthy. Veteran journeyman Benson Mayowa projects as the top backup entering camp. He had five and a half sacks for the Cowboys in 2016 with a total of eight in four years as a pro. Beyond Mayowa Arizona has a collection of undrafted rookies and inexperienced second-year players competing for roster spots.

Corey Peters is all but certain to land the starting nose tackle job. He has been a solid on-field contributor for the Cardinals over the past two seasons but has done little statistically since 2013 when he was 29-17-5 for the Falcons. Rodney Gunter, Olsen Pierre, and 2016 first round pick Robert Nkemdiche will all be in the mix for playing time behind Peters and for the starting job as the 3-technique tackle. The organization would love to see Nkemdiche step up but he has shown little thus far in his career largely due to injuries. He looked healthy during mini-camps and head coach Steve Wilks has expressed optimism Nkemdiche will finally make an impact. For owners in tackle-required leagues, he is a player worth keeping an eye on.

There is another potential IDP option among this group; Olsen Pierre could be a sneaky sleeper target. He did not get on the field in his first two seasons as a pro, finally earning a role in year three. He played some end in the 3-4 and worked as the 3-technique tackle when the team used four-man fronts, which did not happen a lot under former defensive coordinator James Bettcher. As a result, Pierre was on the field for about 33% of the team’s defensive snaps. When taking into consideration the limited opportunity, Pierre’s stat line of 22-8-5.5, 2 batted passes and a forced fumble is eye-catching. Under Wilks and new defensive coordinator Al Holcomb the Cardinals will run a penetrating 4-3 scheme that will be a great fit for what Pierre does well. He could prove a great end of roster stash at a traditionally thin position.   

Linebackers

Arizona has the linemen to implement a 4-3 scheme and they may be fine at linebacker as well, but there is more uncertainty at the second level. The only sure fit here is undersized (6’1” and 211) Deone Bucannon working on the weak side. His initial move from safety to linebacker came in 2015 when Bucannon had a huge statistical season. The scheme has evolved over the two years since and his production has dropped off from great to good. The scheme could play some part in Bucannon’s decline but much more can be attributed to the nagging ankle injury he has struggled with since week 10 of the 2016 season. In all,  Bucannon has been inactive for seven contests since the injury, missing time in a few more and playing at some level below 100% in nearly all the rest. Offseason surgery on the ankle kept him off the field early last year. Returning to a full-time role in Week 5, Bucannon rolled off a string of six games with numbers reminiscent of 2015 before leaving the Week 12 game with the same injury. There was no additional surgery needed so the team is optimistic he has finally healed. If he can stay healthy Buccanon should be a solid second starter who could exceed expectations.

The previous regime used the 13th-overall pick on Haason Reddick last season with the intention of making him their star inside linebacker for the next decade. His complete inability to adapt to that role likely contributed to us talking about the new coaching staff. Reddick spent most of his career at temple working as an outside linebacker/defensive end in the Owls hybrid scheme. He struggled like a fish out of water and was eventually moved outside when Markus Golden was injured. Earlier this spring Coach Wilks said the organization had not given up on Reddick as a middle backer, but when the team took the field for mini-camp he was working on the strong side. Many of us drafted Reddick in dynasty leagues last summer. It is too early to throw in the towel just yet but it does not look good at this point.   

Veteran journeyman Josh Bynes has been working in the middle over the offseason. Since breaking into the league with Baltimore in 2013, he has never been more than an injury replacement or short-term placeholder, but Bynes has shown flashes of useful box score production.  He started two games for the Cardinals last season posting eight solo tackles in each. Bynes started and played at least 50 snaps in nine games for the Lions in 2015. In those games, he averaged nearly five solo stop and two assists. He does not make a lot of big plays and there is not a great deal of upside here, but if Bynes lands a role that includes sub-package snaps he could be a decent third starter or quality depth in many leagues.  

Scooby Wright is an interesting prospect. As a sophomore at Arizona in 2014, he had one of the most productive seasons in college football history for a linebacker. His 14-game stat line included 100 solo tackles, 64 assists, 15 sacks, 5 forced fumbles and a recovery. A major knee injury in the first game of his junior year ended his college career as Wright declared for the draft the following spring. He was picked in round seven by the Browns but failed to stick with the team. The Cardinals Added Wright to the taxi squad for all of 2016 and activated him six games into last season. He played mostly on special teams in 2017 logging on 11 defensive snaps on the season. The real eyebrow raiser being he made the tackle on five of those plays. Wright is still awaiting his big opportunity at the NFL level. With the Cardinals situation at linebacker, this could be the year he gets it. Keep the name in mind and if we see something good from him, know it is not a mirage.

  • WLB Deone Buccanon – Low-end LB2 or solid third starter with upside
  • MLB/SLB Josh Bynes – Quality depth if he lands a three-down role
  • SLB Haason Reddick – Marginal value at best until proven otherwise
  • MLB Scooby Wright – Deep sleeper with a lot of potential if he can return to college form
  • SLB Edmund Robinson – No fantasy value
  • SLB Gabe Martin – No fantasy value

Defensive Backs

The safety positions in Arizona were a hotbed of fantasy production in 2017. Antoine Bethea, Tyvon Branch, Tyran Mathieu and Budda Baker combined for 229 solo tackles, 45 assists, 7 interceptions, 3 sacks, 5 forced fumbles, and a recovery on the season. Mathieu is now in Houston and Branch is not officially signed as he recovers from an ACL injury, so it is not difficult to figure out who to target this draft season. The team is monitoring Branch’s recovery and would like to have him back if/when he is healthy. For now, they are planning to move forward without him.

The numbers coming from this group last year were crazy. Mathieu led the way in tackles with 70 solo, but only because Branch missed half the season. In eight games Branch had 54 tackles, 15 assists. 6 pass breakups and a takeaway. Baker took over the position for the final eight weeks adding 46 tackles, 13 assists, 7 pass breakups, 3 turnovers and a sack.  With Mathieu gone and Branch uncertain to return, Baker will probably move to free safety while Bethea steps into an every-down role at strong. The change to a more traditional scheme is sure to have some effect on the safety positions so we should not expect the same gaudy totals. There should, however, be plenty of opportunities for both positions to be productive.

Baker is a safe play but there are pros and cons when it comes to Bethea. The 34-year-old can still play, but he is not a long-term answer. The organization is basically holding a spot for Branch. If he is able to return it would mean a continued role as the third safety for Bethea. Even if Branch is not back there are a bunch of quality veterans still looking for work. As it stands now the all the Cardinals have behind Baker and Bethea is the third-year pro, Rudy Ford, who has five career tackles, a pair of undrafted free agents, and a second-year player they signed off the street who has never taken a meaningful snap in the NFL. It would be shocking if they elect not to add someone.  

Productive as the Cardinals safeties were last season, Tramon Williams led the corners in tackles with 39 and interceptions with 2. Patrick Peterson is one of the game’s elite at the position and like many others in his class, that means fewer ball thrown his way. With Williams moving on, free agent addition Jamar Taylor is the favorite to start opposite Peterson. The organization hopes 2016 third-round pick Brandon Williams will take the next step and make a significant contribution. He will compete with journeyman Bene Benwikere and a host of relatively unknown young players to fill out the final depth chart. There is no reason to expect useful box score production from any of these guys.  

Los Angeles Rams

Defensive Linemen

No 3-4 defense got more from their front three last year than the Rams. Having a player like Aaron Donald is a huge part of that. Donald is a rare talent who transcends schemes and can put up big numbers from any defensive line position in any scheme. He has at least 32 tackles and eight sacks in each of his four seasons with the Rams including a career-best line of 44-27-11 as a 4-3 defensive tackle in 2015. The two games Donald missed last year led to a career low of 32 solo stops, but his 11 sacks, 5 forced fumbles, and a recovery more than made up for it. Unlike Cameron Heyward who had more sacks than and 3-4 end in 2017, Donald’s numbers are unlikely to decline much if at all. He was the number 12 defensive lineman last season with a point per game average that was eighth best. He has proven to be among the most dependable options at the position and is as safe a pick as any DL1 on the board.

Donald is easily the best IDP target on the Rams defensive line but he is not the only. Michael Brockers worked predominantly at the nose tackle position in 2017 with his 38 tackles, 16 assists and 4.5 sacks landing him among the top-10 interior linemen. His IDP value for this season, however, will depend largely on his positional designation.  On the Rams website roster, there are players listed as defensive ends and players listed as tackles; Brockers is the only one they call a defensive lineman. With free-agent addition Ndamukong Sue playing nose tackle, Brockers should see most of the playing time at end opposite Donald. At this point, most of the high profile league hosting sites still show Brockers at tackle but be prepared for that to change when they get around to doing updates later this summer. With a tackle designation, Brockers is a solid DT1. At defensive end, he will be no more than bye-week depth in most leagues.

If the cards fall just right and league hosts keep Brockers at tackle, Los Angeles could provide a trio of excellent fantasy starters. There is no mistaking where Ndamukong Suh will line up. He was brought in to dominate the center of the field and force offenses to pick their poison between double-teaming him or Donald. Suh is one of the strongest and most talented defensive tackles in the NFL. If he would play with intensity on every snap of every game he could be in the same conversation with some of the all-time greats at the position. When motivated Suh is nearly unstoppable; one thing that tends to be motivating is the success of those around him. He has never played with a more talented cast so this could be one of his best seasons ever. To put that into perspective; 2017 was Suh’s worst statistical season since 2011 when he missed a couple games, and he was still the 12th-ranked defensive tackle.

The Rams are deep as they are strong up front. Ethan Westbrooks contributed four sacks on 335 last season as the third man in the rotation. Dominique Easley was a first-round pick of the Patriots in 2014. He had a solid season with the Rams in 2016 that included 24 tackles, 11 assists and 3.5 sacks on about 40% of the defensive snaps. He missed last season with a knee injury suffered in August but should be ready to roll after signing a contract extension in March. As a rookie last year Tanzel Smart did a good job as a rotational player, seeing snaps at all three positions. In this year’s draft, the team added three young developmental prospects in John Franklin-Myers, Sebastian Joseph, and Justin Lawler. The biggest problem Los Angeles has up front is figuring out who they will have to let go as they are not likely to commit so many roster spots to defensive linemen.

Linebackers

When we look at the Rams linebackers there is only one player most IDP owners will recognize as a quality fantasy option. Mark Barron came to the team as a strong safety in the middle of the 2014 season. In 2015, he was shifted to weakside linebacker. Barron’s success after the switch helped ignite the trend of safeties working in hybrid roles as sub-package linebackers or weak side starters. A solid 2015 was followed by an impressive 2016 in which Barron tallied 90 solo stops, 27 assists, 3 turnovers, a sack and 8 pass breakups for a top-12 finish. He was on pace for similar totals last season before a sore Achilles and bum shoulder kept him on the sideline for the last three games. Rest took care of the Achilles and Barron had shoulder surgery in February. He is expected back on the field at some point during camp and will work at weak inside linebacker in the new scheme. With arguably the league’s best defensive line in front of him and no Alex Ogletree to compete with, Barron may be in for his best season yet in 2018.

The trade of Ogletree left a lot of NFL fans and prognosticators scratching their heads; especially considering they had just signed him to a multi-year extension for big money. Some suggested buyer’s remorse as a big part of the reason. Money is always a consideration in the NFL but the Rams would never have made the move if not for the best-kept secret in fantasy football; Cory Littleton. The coaching staff was impressed enough with the undrafted rookie to keep him on the 53-man roster in 2016. That season and most of last, Littleton worked as a spot substitute while making most of his impact on special teams. Again the coaching staff liked what they saw. When Littleton took over for Barron as a starter in December, the organization realized they had stumbled onto a diamond in the rough. In the final two games, Littleton recorded a sack and a pick while averaging better than 14 fantasy points. The official word has him competing with Bryce Hagar and rookie Micah Kiser for the starting job, but there is not much doubt Littleton will be in the lineup come week one. He will take Ogletree’s place; we just need to see if he will assume Ogletree’s production. Chances are good Littleton will at least be a useful fantasy starter at some level.   

Hager was a late-round pick of the Rams in 2015. He has managed to stick on the roster but has a career total of 17 tackles. He seems more likely to be competing for a roster spot than a starting job. Kiser was one of the team’s fifth-round selections this spring. He is a physical, in-the-box banger who put up good numbers as a three-year starter for Virginia. He is a long shot for the starting job while average speed, limited range, and questionable cover skills suggest a two-down role if he does end up on the field. Ramik Wilson may also be in the so-called competition for the starting spot. From his time with the Chiefs, we know he has the ability to put up quality numbers if he can get on the field.     

Unproven is possibly the best or at least most polite description of the Rams outside linebacker situation. Last year’s opening day starters were veterans Robert Quinn and Connor Barwin. Quinn was never comfortable in the stand-up role and was traded to Miami while Barwin became a free agent and is still looking for work. With those two gone the projected starters are fourth-year former undrafted free agent Matt Longacre and 2017 fourth-round pick Samson Ebukam. Longacre had 41 career snaps before becoming part of the rotation last season. Ebukam played 352 snaps as a rookie. Between them, they now have seven and a half career sacks. After that, Los Angeles has last year’s seventh-round pick Ejuan Price who was active for one game but did not get on the field, followed by this year’s late-round picks Ogbonnia Okoronkwo and Trevon Young. Bottom line, it is a good thing the team gets so much pass rush from the front three.

  • ILB Cory Littleton – One of this year’s hottest IDP sleepers
  • ILB Mark Barron – Quality LB2 with upside
  • ILB Bryce Hager – Long shot at best
  • ILB Ramik Wilson – Productive if he can get on the field
  • ILB Micah Kiser – Sleeper with modest upside
  • ILB Travin Howard – Special teams contributor
  • OLB Samson Ebukam – Unknown commodity without grand expectations
  • OLB Matt Longacre – Sleeper in big play formats
  • OLB Ogbonnia Okoronkwo – Developmental rookie
  • OLB Trevon Young – Developmental rookie
  • OLB Ejuan Price – Long shot at best

Defensive Backs

The Rams secondary gives us another under the radar target that all IDP owners might become familiar with by the time we get to November. Strong safety John Johnson III is one of those guys whose unimpressive overall numbers in 2017 have people overlooking him. The first start for last year’s third-round pick came against Seattle in week five. He only had two tackles and an assist in that game but came up with a big interception. Johnson started a bit slowly with a total of 14 tackles, 4 assists, 3 passes defended, and a pick heading into the week eight bye. He looked much more comfortable coming out of the bye and it translated to the box scores. Over the final nine games, Johnson was on a pace that over a full season; would have him with 75 tackles, 25 assists and 16 passes defended.  Those numbers alone are enough to make him a decent third starter or quality depth. If he can sprinkle in a few big plays, which is a high probability in this aggressive scheme, Johnson can be a surprise DB2 in 2018. 

At 5’8” and 190 pounds Lamarcus Joyner is one of the smallest safeties in the NFL, but that does not keep him from being a very good one. He is not a big hitter but the former corner is a reliable tackler with excellent speed and cover skills. The coaching staff wanted more big plays from Joyner last season, and he responded with a career-best three interceptions, a forced fumble, 9 passes defended, and a score despite missing a quarter of the season. Playing deep on one of the league’s best defenses means Joyner is not going to have a lot of tackle opportunity, which in turns means his fantasy value will be limited. Even so, he is roster worthy in deep leagues.

Los Angeles lost one of the league’s top corners when they let Trumaine Johnson walk. They then traded for two of the game’s best in Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib to replace him. In line with the rookie corner rule, Peters was huge in his first season, racking up 54 tackles, 8 interceptions, and a whopping 26 pass breakups. As expected his tackle totals have fallen off over the past two years, but his incredible knack for the big play has not. No player has more than his 19 picks or 30 total takeaways over the last three years. As a fantasy owner when you roll with guys based on big-play production you usually sacrifice consistency. Peters accounted for four or fewer points in a third of the games last year. On the other hand, if you are going to gamble on big plays the corner position is the place to do it since consistency is hard to come by there anyway.

Talib is also a great corner and a playmaker, though not to such a great extent. He will be a great addition to the Rams on the field while his biggest IDP contribution may be keeping opponents honest and not allowing them to successfully avoid Peters.

The Rams have good veteran depth behind their elite duo, but there is no reason to expect useful numbers from any of them unless there is an injury.        

San Francisco 49ers

Defensive Linemen

San Francisco’s defensive line was the epitome of teamwork last season. As a unit, they accounted for 26.5 sacks with 11 players recording at least one. Elvis Dumervil led the way with six and a half. But he is no longer with the team, and neither are three of the other contributors. That spells change up front for the 49ers, but it could also mean more opportunity and production for the rest.

Solomon Thomas should be the player to show the most improvement. As the third overall pick in last year’s draft, he bears the burden of huge expectations. Thomas posted modest numbers in 14 games as a rookie, collecting 34 solo stops and 3 sacks. It is not unusual for pass rushers to struggle as rookies, and some of the issues for Thomas can be attributed to how he was used initially. Instead of lining up and letting it rip off the edge, the coaching staff had him shift inside on a lot of passing downs. He should remain outside, for the most part, this year and has been moved to the left end position that is reserved for the team’s best pass rusher. The coaching staff has not ruled out having Thomas work at tackle once in a while, but it is more likely Arik Armstead will see those snaps going forward. Thomas is not a pure edge rusher but he has enough quick twitch and speed to get the job done while being an excellent edge setter versus the run. He may never challenge for the league lead in sacks but could emerge as a perennial 40-tackle, double-digit sack guy. Last year’s production points to Thomas being available in the area of a priority DL3. He could prove a great value at that price.  

 Armstead has to be a major source of frustration for the organization. The former first-round pick started slowly as a rookie, recording 14 tackles and 2 sacks in 2015. His second season was derailed by an August shoulder injury that he tried to play with before landing on IR at mid-season.  After recovering from that surgery Armstead was back in the lineup week one last year. He had a couple good outings before a broken hand in week six landed Armstead on IR with another surgery. He added a minor foot surgery to his resume this May but that is not expected to be an issue.

At 6’7” and 292 pounds Armstead is a physical specimen with a ton of natural ability. Statistically, he was not particularly productive at Oregon so his early draft status raised some eyebrows three years ago. The organization picked up his fifth-year option so they either still believe he can become a quality NFL starter or are just not ready to admit the mistake. Either way, the fact remains, four years into his career no one knows what the 49ers have in Armstead.  

Cassius Marsh had a couple sacks for the 49ers last season after being cut by the Patriots and claimed by San Francisco in late November. He received a contract extension in February and currently stands to be the third man in the mix at end. Former Chargers second round pick Jeremiah Attochu and third year pro Ronald Blair III will also have a shot to prove themselves this summer. All three of these players have some upside, and the injury history of Armstead suggests there could be a significant opportunity.

Attochu had 54 combined tackles and 6 sacks as an outside linebacker for San Diego in 2015. After that, he struggled with nagging injuries and fell out of grace with the coaching staff. As a result, Attochu has seen action in 12 contests over the past two seasons, producing little in the box scores.

Blair was on the field for roughly 25% of the defensive snaps as a rookie in 2016, posting 16 combined tackles and 3 sacks. He too was sideline by injuries early in 2017, ultimately seeing action in six games. Blair has as good a shot as anyone here to land the third end job.

When healthy, rookie Kentavious Street is a tough football player and stout edge setter versus the run.  At 6’2” and 280 pounds he has the ability to anchor but lacks the length and burst teams desire from edge rushers. After suffering a torn ACL at his pro day, there are considerable doubts about Street’s ability to contribute at all in 2018. When he does get back on the field his best chance at playing time may be as a base package end that slides inside on passing downs.

There is not much guesswork at the interior line positions where Earl Mitchell will work at nose tackle on early downs, and DeForest Buckner has emerged as one of the best 3-technique tackles in the game. The coaches have a lot of options when it comes to how they will replace Mitchell on passing downs. The only relevant point being he will not be on the field. Buckner on the other hand, participated in nearly 82% of the defensive snaps last season after seeing nearly 92% of the action in 2016. In two years as a pro the young man has already amassed 99 tackles, 46 assists, 9 sacks, 3 turnovers, 6 batted passes and a pair of number two fantasy finishes at tackle. At 6’7” and 291 pounds with both power and athleticism, he creates all sorts of problems for offensive linemen and quarterbacks alike. At 24 years old he is just entering his prime physically and barring injury, is set to be a perennial top-5 tackle for most of the next decade.

Second year man D.J. Jones should spell Mitchell once in a while on base package downs with Sheldon Day likely picking up a few scraps behind Buckner. Day could also get some time next to Buckner in sub packages but not enough to matter.

  • DE Solomon Thomas – Target as priority DL3 with solid DL2 upside
  • DE Arik Armstead – Deep sleeper at best
  • DE Cassius Marsh – Dark horse but worth keeping track of
  • DE Ronald Blair III – No value at this time
  • DE Jeremiah Attochu – Deep sleeper  
  • DE/DT Kentavious Street – Possible dynasty pickup later in the season
  • DT DeForest Buckner – Stud DT1
  • DT Earl Mitchell – No fantasy value
  • DT Sheldon Day – Injury sleeper at best
  • DT Julian Taylor – No value at this time
  • DT D.J. Jones – No fantasy value

Linebackers

Looking at the numbers turned in by San Francisco linebackers in 2017 is not going to give us much insight into what we should expect this season. They certainly were not what we have come to expect from this group after years of seeing guys like Patrick Willis, Chris Boreland, and Navorro Bowman grace the stat sheets. Those days are not gone forever and fantasy owners should not write this group off just because Reuben Foster led the unit with 58 solo tackles last year.

Foster suffered an ankle injury 11 plays into his rookie season and did not return until week seven. A 13 tackle performance in week nine set the tone for an impressive seven-game streak during which he totaled 51 solo stops. Foster has been a virtual no-show in the big play columns at this early stage of his career but the sample of his tackle potential is enough to excite IDP owners. He will sit the first two games of 2018 due to off-field issues but should pick up right where he left off as a tackling machine upon return. If he can muster a few big plays in year two, Foster will have a huge season. Missing the first two games will take a bite out of his overall totals but he is among the favorites to lead the league in tackles from week three on. Even if he falls flat in the big play columns again Foster will be an every-week must play. Target him as a priority LB2 with top-12 potential.

Foster is the top IDP target among San Francisco’s linebackers but he is not the only one. Malcolm Smith started his career in Seattle where he was a backup for most of his four-year stay. When he did get a chance to play Smith made the most of it. In 2015 he signed a free agent deal with the Raiders and was reunited with former Seattle defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. who immediately made him the starting weakside backer. All Smith did that year was pile up 99 solo stops, 23 assists, 4 sacks, 4 turnovers and 6 passes defended to finish as the fantasy game’s seventh-ranked linebacker. For an encore, he added a second solid season in 2016, in which Smith was again a quality fantasy starter. He was set to continue as a starting weak side backer after signing with San Francisco last March when a torn pectoral early in the preseason put him on the shelf.

General expectations have Smith working in the middle for the first two games then moving back to the weak side after Foster returns from suspension. He will be hard pressed to match Foster in tackles on a week to week basis but Smith is no slouch in that area. One plus for Smith, he is a proven playmaker with eight takeaways, four sacks and nine pass breakups in his two seasons as a Raider. After not playing a snap last season it will be out of sight, out of mind with most fantasy owners; which means Smith is one of those guys you can grab at a bargain price late in the draft and plug in as a third starter.

The other player to keep a close eye on here is rookie Fred Warner. The organization envisions the third round pick as an eventual starter on the weak side. He may get a two-game audition right out of the gate due to Foster’s suspension. Warner plays like an oversized safety with instincts and cover skills that could keep him on the field in a sub package role even after Foster returns. He put up good numbers in all three seasons as a starter for BYU and could be the long-term answer for San Francisco at weakside backer. Warner could be a good late round sleeper for redraft owners or a nice taxi stash for dynasty owners.    

Eli Harold has been working as the starting strongside backer over the offseason and should continue in that role. Originally drafted to play outside when the team was running a 3-4, Harold has the size (6’3” and 265 pounds) to disrupt blocking schemes and speed/quickness/burst to contribute as a pass rusher. There is not much fantasy potential here but Harold gives the 49ers versatility and the ability to use more of the playbook when opponents go no huddle.

Brock Coyle, Dekoda Watson, and Korey Toomer are all quality veteran backups. After what this team went through with injuries last season the organization has to feel much better about their overall situation at linebacker.     

  • MLB Reuben Foster – Every-week starter from Week 3 on
  • WLB/MLB Malcolm Smith – Quality LB3 or excellent depth
  • SLB/DE Eli Harrold – Marginal fantasy value
  • WLB/MLB Fred Warner – Sleeper for redraft owners, taxi target in dynasty leagues
  • MLB Brock Coyle – No fantasy value
  • SLB Dekoda Watson – No fantasy value
  • OLB Corey Toomer – Possible in-season addition if there are injuries

Defensive Backs

There are a lot of new faces in the San Francisco secondary, many of them rookies. The team used third and sixth round picks on safeties Tavarius Moore and Marcell Harris respectively, taking corner D.J. Reed in round five. Reed is unlikely to be a factor this season but with Eric Reid gone, Jimmie Ward possibly moving to corner and the injury history of Jaquiski Tartt, Moore and/or Harris may have an opportunity to get on the field early.

Moore’s best fit would be at free safety. He is a tall thin player at 6’2” and 190 pounds, with rare speed, great athleticism, and natural cover skills. He fell to round three largely because of relative inexperience. Moore was a one-year starter at Southern Miss after transferring from Pear River Community College at the start of his junior year. As a senior he started all 13 games, contributing 87 combined tackles and assists, 3 interceptions, a forced fumble, and a recovery. Much of the coaching staff’s final decision on where to play Ward may come down to how quickly Moore adjusts to the pro game.

Tartt is the clear top IDP option in San Francisco’s defensive backfield going into the season. At 6’1” and 221 pounds he has linebacker size and is more than willing to use it. Tarrt provides a physical presence over the middle in coverage and is at home in the box on run support. As a rookie in 2015, he averaged 10 points per outing as a nine-game starter after Eric Reid was injured. In 2016 Tartt was used as somewhat of a utility player for much of the season. In four games started at strong safety, he averaged 11.3 fantasy points. In the eight contests prior to suffering a broken forearm last season, Tartt was on pace for 72 tackles and 32 assists. The only negative with his production has been a lack of big plays. Tartt currently has three career takeaways with three and a half sacks in 39 NFL games. With Reid gone, the path is clear for Tartt to assume full-time duties at strong safety. The 49ers were confident enough to give him a two-year contract extension worth up to $15 million and we all know money talks. Target Tartt as a solid third starter or quality depth if he falls that far, but do not be surprised if he ends up in the mid DB2 range at the end of the year.   

San Francisco was able to benefit from the revenge factor when they signed Richard Sherman. It matters not if anyone admits to it, but there is no doubt one of his considerations for going to the 49ers was playing Seattle twice a year. When it comes to on-field contribution Sherman is among the league’s elite at the position and he has not tried to hide the fact he is highly motivated to prove it; especially to the Seahawks. The only thing that might interfere with his completion of that mission is the Achilles injury that ended his 2017 season in week 10. So far Sherman is on pace with the rehab. He participated in some drill during June minicamp and is expected to be a near full participant once training camp opens.

Sherman makes the 49ers better the moment he steps on the game field but his fantasy contribution is much less significant. He was a legitimate starting corner in IDP leagues early in his career but has not reached 40 solo stops since 2014 and has averaged fewer than four takeaways a season since 2013. Sherman may feel like the Seahawks are showing him no respect but the rest of the league clearly does.

What the pecking order looks like after Sherman remains up in the air entering camp. Dontae Johnson has moved on after leading the team in tackles last season. Jimmie Ward may move over from free safety but then again he may not. What seems most likely when it comes to Ward is free safety on base downs and slot corner in the nickel. It has been a while since he last played out wide and he is probably not a better option than K’Waun Williams or Ahkello Witherspoon at that spot.  

  • SS Jaquiski Tartt – Solid DB3 with mid DB2 upside
  • FS Tarvarius Moore – Long-term potential with limited upside due to positional responsibilities
  • FS Adrian Colbert – Possible injury pickup with limited upside
  • SS Marcell Harris – A developmental prospect with long-term potential
  • CB Richard Sherman – Marginal fantasy value
  • CB/FS Jimmie Ward – Unclear role equals unknown value but his ceiling is limited
  • CB K’Waun Williams – No value at this time
  • CB Ahkello Witherspoon – No immediate fantasy value
  • CB/FS D.J. Reed – developmental rookie

Seattle Seahawks

Defensive Linemen

In 2017 no Seattle lineman recorded more than Sheldon Richardson’s 27 solo stops or Frank Clark’s 9 sacks. Clark and Michael Bennett tied with their total 109 fantasy points ranking a mere 36 among defensive linemen. While this is something to consider, it should not be cause to write off all Seahawk linemen for 2018. In years past Seattle used a bunch of players in the rotation which in turn restricted individual box score production. At a glance, last year looked like more of the usual with 10 players contributing to the groups 31.5. A closer look reveals Bennett played almost 90% of the snaps while Clark was on the field 71% of the time at end. Richardson led the interior linemen seeing 63% of the action. Bennett and Richardson are gone so the question becomes who if anyone; picks up the majority of the opportunity?

Even with the loss of those two and Cliff Avril retiring due to a neck injury, Seattle still has talent up front. The current lack of proven depth could actually work in the favor of IDP managers. Clark had career bests across the board going 25-22-10 with 3 forced turnovers as a second-year pro in 2016. At 260 pounds he is undersized for a three-down end and has struggled versus the run throughout his short career. He continues to work on the problem by adding muscle and the current situation points to an increase in base package participation. The cards are stacked against Clark ever becoming a 40 tackle and double digit sack guy. We could however, see him reach 30 tackles in 2018 and we already know he is capable as a pass rusher. He should still be targeted as no more than quality depth, but the ceiling is raised for him entering year four.

Dion Jordan captured the imagination of Seahawks fans late last season. The 2013 third overall pick of the Dolphins was a complete bust for Miami. His first two seasons were a disaster as Jordan battled injuries and off field issues, producing 39 solo tackles, 7 assists, and 3 sacks. He was then hit with a yearlong suspension in 2015 for repeated violations of the league’s substance abuse policy. Jordan was reinstated in 2016 but did not play a snap due to a knee injury and was ultimately released by the team after the season. Seattle took a chance on the talented but troubled player. After another minor knee procedure, he finally got on the field in week 10, recording his first sack since 2014. By the end of the season, Jordan had appeared in five games and played a total of 130 snaps, producing 10 tackles, 8 assists, 4 sacks and a forced fumble. He closed out the year with a sack and double digit fantasy points in each of the final three games. It was a small sampling and he has much yet to prove but it was enough to get Jordan a contract extension from the team. At 6’5” and 275 pounds, he has the size and skill set to replace Bennett as the every down end, and the potential to be a breakout player in 2018.       

The organization has high hopes for Jordan but they have not put all their eggs in that basket. Former Eagles first round bust Marcus Smith II was also added last offseason after he was let go by Philadelphia. He was initially miscast as an outside linebacker in the Eagles 3-4 then battled a series of minor injuries that stifled his development. Smith was less impressive than Jordan but did manage two and a half sacks and a pair of forced fumbles on 254 plays. At worst he will continue to have a role as the third or fourth defensive end.

Seattle also committed draft capital to the defensive end position, taking Rasheem Green in round three. Green is not an elite edge rushers but has the versatility to play end in base packages and slide inside on passing downs. He has three down upside but will need to get stronger, tougher and more polished before he can claim such a role. In the short term Green might make a good rotational partner for Clark.

Jarran Reed is not going to hold much fantasy value but the Seahawks love his ability to eat up space and blockers as a two gap anchor inside. The guy fantasy managers will want to keep an eye on at tackle is the second-year pro, Nazir Jones. His rookie season ended with an injury in Week 12, but before that Jones made a strong impression while backing up Richardson as the 3-technique tackle. Jones finished the season with 11 tackles, 9 assists, and a pair of sacks on 284 plays. His playing time steadily increased as the season moved along as Jones went from averaging 19 snaps aver the first six games to 34 over the final five. It is believed the play of Jones had a lot to do with the Seahawks decision not to commit big money to retain Richardson. On the field he certainly passed the eyeball test, having more impact than the numbers would suggest. Managers in tackle required leagues may want to find room to tuck this young man away on the end of the roster for safe keeping.

The Seahawks signed a pair of former Vikings to provide depth on the inside. Shamar Stephen can play either tackle spot but will probably see most of his action spelling Reed. Tom Johnson had 12 sacks in 2014 and 2015 combined when he worked as an inside pass rusher in nickel packages for Minnesota. He did not fare as well in a starting role but is a quality veteran addition that will see a fair amount of action.

Linebackers

There is no speculation required when talking about the Seahawks linebacker positions. Middle backer Bobby Wagner is an elite, do everything player and one of the best in the game at the position. He tied C.J. Mosley and Demario Davis for the league lead in solo tackles last season and was number two in fantasy points among linebackers. At 245 pounds he packs a punch as a tackler while averaging three turnovers, three sacks and six passes defended per season over his career. Wagner has three Top-10 fantasy seasons in his six years as a pro and If not for injuries affecting his 2014 and 2015 seasons, would have made the Top-20 in all of them. He just turned 28 in June and is in the prime of his career.

K.J. Wright lines up on the weak side and is the Robin to Wagner’s Batman. Wright is not a candidate to approach triple digits in solo stops, but he is remarkably consistent and dependable. In four consecutive seasons, Wright has accounted for at least 71 tackles and 34 assists while averaging about 3 turnovers, 2 sacks, and 5 pass breakups. There is not much upside but Wright can be counted on as a solid third starter every week.     

The team remains unsettled at the strong side linebacker spot as they continue to search for someone to replace Bruce Irvin. Several players have filled the depth chart at the position since Irvin departed at the end of 2015, but no one has filled his shoes. Journeyman free agent Barkevious Mingo was brought in to try his hand at the job, but the team would really like to see rookie Shaquem Griffin excel. Griffin has used speed, technique and instincts to overcome the physical limitations throughout his playing career. He will sometimes struggle to disengage and wrap up but makes up for it with range and an extra gear coming off the edge on the blitz. It is those two things the team misses most without Irvin. The chances of anyone having a fantasy impact from Seattle’s strong side linebacker position are slim but this is a great story to watch unfold.

Defensive Backs

The Seattle secondary is rife with new faces and uncertainty. Kam Chancellor has retired due to a neck injury, Earl Thomas is holding out amongst speculation he has taken his last snap as a Seahawk and Richard Sherman is playing for the rival 49ers. That leaves Shaq Griffin as the only returning opening day starter from last season, and he is just a second year player. This group may enter camp in a state of turmoil but they are not as bad off as many believe. Most importantly for the IDP community, there is an opportunity to harness good production.

Bradley McDougald will take over at strong safety and is the top IDP target of the group. He is highly under rated throughout the IDP community but that will not last long. McDougald had a decent fantasy season with the Buccaneers in 2015 and followed it with a great one in 2016. That season he was the number 10 defensive back on the strength of 78 tackles, 13 assists, 10 passes defended, a pair of picks and a fumble recovery. He signed a free agent deal with Seattle last summer and entered 2017 in a backup role as the Seahawks third safety. McDougald stepped in as the starting strong safety in week eleven. In seven starts at the position, he totaled 35 tackles and 17 assists with an average of 10 points per game. He is not Kam Chancellor, but McDougald is a big physical safety that will lower the boom on ball carriers while possibly providing an improvement over the former star in coverage. Project the numbers he put up as a starter last year over a full season and McDougald has 80 solos, 39 assists and 9 passes defended in a full season. He should have more big play impact with a year of experience in the scheme as well. In short, there is no reason to expect less than a top-20 finish from him and we could get a lot more providing he stays at strong safety as anticipated.   

Earl Thomas is going to the starting free safety for someone in 2018; unless of course he continues to hold out and the team lets him sit. The general feeling is someone will blink eventually. Dallas is interested but so far not willing to offer much in hope Seattle will outright release him. Thomas was on pace for 64 tackles and 36 assists before missing a couple games last season and he is always going to contribute in the big play columns. His average of 10.8 points per game ranked 12th among defensive backs so if he remains in Seattle Thomas should at least be a solid second starter. If he ends up elsewhere his value will have to be re-evaluated based on the landing spot.

The organization has at least tried to prepare for the possible loss of Thomas by drafting Tre Flowers. They would also have the option of moving McDougald to free safety if Delano Hill or Maurice Alexander can step up at strong.    

Shaq Griffin stepped in early as a rookie and is established as one of the starters. Time will tell if he is worth of status as a number one corner for the Seahawks. He certainly has big shoes to fill. There is a wide open competition for the number two spot at corner between former San Francisco starter Dontae Johnson and veteran journeyman Byron Maxwell. Maxwell has the most starting experience of the trio including seven games with Seattle last year. Seattle corners have provided decent fantasy production at times over the past few year, but it has never stayed with one player for more than a season. Griffin is the slight favorite to harness it in 2018, but we may be best served to avoid the situation until the fog clears.  

That does it for the NFC West; next up AFC West.