Eyes of the Guru IDP Info, Part 1: AFC South

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

Welcome back for year 25 of the Eyes of the Guru column. For reference, when I mention where players finished in the rankings last season, my model will be the standard Footballguys scoring system. This is the basic stuff:

  • 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. From time to time the rookie corner rule will be referenced. For those who are new to IDP or the EOTG, the rookie corner rule is basically the fact that in the NFL, starting a rookie at corner is like throwing chum to the sharks. Offensive coordinators will target young and inexperienced players as weaknesses thus these guys have an accelerated number of opportunities. Most often these players are the cream of the crop at the position (which is why they are starting so soon) and their numbers will begin to drop after their rookie seasons. When tackle numbers are mentioned, solo stops and assists are not lumped together. Unless there is a reference one way or the other, tackles refers to solo stops. When talking about a total number of takeaways for a player, I am counting interceptions, fumble recoveries and fumbles forced since all of these score very similarly in most leagues.

Houston Texans

Defensive Linemen

After a down year in 2017, the Texans defense bounced back strongly last season in most defensive categories. The downside was a pass defense ranking 28 and a finish among the bottom third in points allowed. The upside was third-ranked run defense, 43 sacks which were among the top third, 15 interceptions and a league-leading 14 fumble recoveries.

After two injury-plagued seasons, J.J. Watt’s return to form was a huge factor in the team’s success. With 48 tackles, 15 assists, 16 sacks, 7 forced fumbles and 4 batted passes he was the number two lineman in most IDP formats in 2018. Even better, Watt managed to stay healthy all year. He turned 30 in March so Watt is on the back side of a stellar career but he seems to have a few good years left. Another top five is likely with the potential to be the number one lineman in the fantasy game.

Unless your league designates Jadeveon Clowney a defensive end, Watt is going to be the only Houston defensive lineman with fantasy value. Clowney moves around, lining up at both defensive end and outside linebacker. He is not as box-score friendly as Watt but has averaged about 40 tackles and 8.5 sacks over the last three seasons. As a lineman, Clowney is a strong second starter. With a linebacker designation, his value is greatly reduced for managers in balanced or tackle heavy leagues.

The issue of positional designation conflicts will never go away until IDP managers and commissioners push league hosting sites to add an edge rush position/option. Players we once called tweeners, the NFL now calls edge rushers. Even NFL team rosters are now listing guys as DE/OLB or Edge.

In D.J. Reader, Joel Heath, Brandon Dunn, Carlos Watkins, Angelo Blackson and rookie Albert Huggins the Texans have a group of serviceable 3-4 linemen. Most of them are capable of lining up at end or nose tackle. No one among this group managed more than 23 solo tackles or 2 sacks last season. We should not expect much more from any of them in 2019.

Linebackers

The Texans enter 2019 with a pair of established starters at inside linebacker but there are some questions in terms of what fantasy managers should expect. Zach Cunningham emerged as a quality option in 2018. He opened the season in a two-down role before bumping Bernardrick McKinney from the nickel duties in week four. Cunningham then played every snap in four consecutive games before leaving with a minor knee injury early in week eight. He returned to the field in week twelve but did not play every snap in a game the rest of the way, averaging 86% of the playing time down the stretch. Chances are the sore knee played into his missing a few plays in each of those games with the good news being his box score production did not suffer much. There is no reason to expect less than a three-down role for Cunningham in 2019 but until we can confirm his playing time, there is a touch of risk.

Providing he is on the field full time, Cunningham could be in for a breakout season. In what amounted to basically 13 games last year he totaled 72 tackles, 34 assists, contributed 4 turnovers, 5 passes defended and a score. His average of slightly over 12 points per game ranked 15th among linebackers and his big-play production gave the Texans a dimension that had been missing at inside linebacker for a while. Fantasy managers should target Cunningham as a solid LB2.

McKinney was a second-round pick in 2015 and has been given every opportunity to be the centerpiece of Houston’s defense. He has proven to be a solid contributor on the field but has not been a difference maker for the team or fantasy managers. McKinney finished last season with 63 tackles, 42 assists, a sack and a half, and 2 takeaways. With those numbers, he provided decent depth for IDP managers which is about what we can expect from him going forward.

Dylan Cole joined the Texans as an undrafted free agent in 2017 and has earned the job as depth at both inside linebacker positions. Our sample of his production is small but good. Should one of the starters go down Cole could be an interesting in-season addition.

With Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus coming off the edge, Houston has a solid pair of pass rushers who are strong versus the run as well. The team would like to get more pass rush production from Mercilus however. The 2012 first round selection recorded 35.5 sacks over his first five years as a pro including 11 in 2016. He has been banged up over much of the last two seasons with a bad ankle contributing to a low sack total of four last year. If Mercilus can stay healthy and get back to form he could push for double-digit sacks. Low tackle totals will hold his fantasy value below usefulness in balanced or tackle heavy leagues but he is worth a shot as depth with upside for those in big play based leagues.

The team’s lack of depth on the outside has been an issue over the last couple of seasons. It became a glaring issue in 2017 when Mercilus was injured and remains a potential problem heading into 2019. Brennan Scarlett saw plenty of action in 2017 when he proved to be a good run defender on the outside, but he has just 2 sacks on 410 snaps over the last two seasons. Then rookie sixth-round pick Duke Ejiofor was the only Houston edge rusher other than Mercilus and Clowney to record a sack last year. He had one on 158 plays but has already been lost for the season.

Defensive Backs

From their inception in 2002 until last year Houston had been the place safeties go to do nothing. That changed last season and it may be the beginning of a new trend. Kareem Jackson was moved to strong safety at the outset of the 2018 campaign. Unlike those that came before him, Jackson was fairly productive at the position before injuries on the outside for the coaching staff to move him back to his former position. This opened the door for then-rookie third-round selection Justin Reid to step into a full-time role. Reid played virtually every snap starting in week five and put up surprisingly solid numbers. In 12 starts Reid accounted for 57 tackles, 16 assists, 3 interceptions, a forced fumble, 2 recoveries, 8 pass breakups, and a score. All those numbers add up to an average of 13.3 points per game. There is always the possibility Reid could be a one year wonder but it seems highly unlikely since his play on the field was every bit as impressive as the box scores. Target Reid as a quality second starter that may fall a little on draft day.

Another plus for the stock of Reid is the departure of Tyrann Mathieu who also had a strong 2018 with the Texans. The team replaced Mathieu with Tashaun Gipson Sr who is a significant step back in terms of production and potential. Gipson is a veteran with plenty of starting experience and a big play threat with 20 interceptions over the last seven seasons, but he is neither a particularly physical player nor does he excel in run support. Gipson will likely be deployed more as a deep safety than Mathieu who moved around a lot. Gipson should provide decent big-play production but he has exceeded 53 solo stops once in his career. That was all the way back in 2013 when he had 63.

The Texans deployed three safeties on a regular basis in 2018. Reid opened the season as the third safety and Andre Hal stepped into the role after Reid became a starter. Hal has moved on so free agent additions Jahleel Addae and Briean Boddy-Calhoun should compete for the third safety job. Boddy-Calhoun is also a candidate to see a lot of work at corner. Both of these players have the potential to be productive if injuries elevate them to a starting role.

There will be significant changes at corner positions in Houston as well. Johnathan Joseph returns and is penciled in as one of the starters. At age 35, he is in the twilight of his career so it would not be a surprise if Johnson’s role were reduced. With Kevin Johnson and Kareem Jackson gone, Aaron Colvin gets the first shot at starting opposite Johnson but chances are the coaching staff will take a hard look at all their options. Both Boddy-Calhoun and former Denver slot corner Bradly Roby could be in the mix for significant playing time. Houston has given us some fantasy value at corner in recent years so managers in corner required leagues may want to keep an eye on this situation when training camps open.

Indianapolis Colts

Defensive Linemen

When Chuck Pagano took over as Colts head coach in 2012 he tried to change the Colts defense from a finesse, bend but don’t break 4-3 to a Baltimore Ravens style 3-4 scheme. Poor personnel decisions were compounded by injuries and other issues so the defense never evolved. Since the beginning of the Peyton Manning era, the Colts have consistently emphasized offensive talent while investing relatively little draft or free agent capital on the defense. Under their new defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus last year, the Colts moved back to a 4-3 but with an aggressive attacking approach. Along with the organization's newfound commitment to defense, we saw a major change both on the field and in the box scores. In 2018 Indianapolis used three second round picks and a total of five on defense. This year they invested seven of their first eight selections on that side of the ball including their first two. The team also landed arguably the best three down edge defender in free agency, Justin Houston. This may well be the most talent Indianapolis has assembled defensively in over 20 years.

The scheme change and talent infusion put Colts defenders back on the fantasy map in a big way last year. In all, there were five Indianapolis defenders that averaged double-digit fantasy points. Linebacker Darius Leonard was the headliner but the front four made a considerable contribution as well.

Nine-year veteran Jabaal Sheard mans one of the defensive end positions and is a known commodity. His best box score production came as a rookie with the Browns in 2011 when he finished 40-15-8.5 with 5 forced fumbles and a recovery. He has fallen short of 40 tackles every season since but has 38 and 36 over the past two seasons respectively. Sheard is not an elite edge rusher but has five or more sacks in seven of his eight seasons as a pro. At the moment there does not appear to be anyone looking over his shoulder with an eye on the starting job so Sheard’s role as a three-down end seems safe for now. All things considered, Sheard is a solid if unspectacular NFL starter with enough pop in his game and production in the box scores to be a solid DL3 with another top 30 finish likely.

Justin Houston will start opposite Sheard and is an elite talent. In fact, the only ability that comes into question with Houston is availability. He missed four games last year and has not completed a full schedule since 2014. Even so, it is not hard to get a feel for what he is capable of. Houston had a monster 2014 which included 59 solo tackles and a league-best 22 sacks. After a couple of injury-plagued campaigns, he went 45-13-9.5 in 15 games in 2017. Last season he missed four games and was less than 100% in several others, yet he still managed 9.5 sacks, forced 5 fumbles, recovered 3 and intercepted a pass. Some fantasy managers may be concerned that he has been a 3-4 outside linebacker throughout his career with the Chiefs. We should not let that scare us off at all. Houston has been putting his hand down in nickel packages for most of his career and will not miss a beat. If anything the change might help in that he no longer has to drop in coverage and can concentrate on getting after the passer full time. Houston should be a solid DL1 providing he stays healthy.

There will be a quartet of young players vying for jobs and playing time behind the starters. The third-year pro, Al-Quadin Muhammad, saw considerable action last year (413 snaps) but was not particularly impressive. He was solid versus the run but had little to offer in the way of a pass rush. Tyquan Lewis and Kemoko Turay were second-round picks last spring. Turay was on the field a lot early in the season then saw his playing time fade in favor of Lewis who returned from injury in week ten. Between them, they accounted for 785 snaps, 21 solo tackles, and 6 sacks. While the rookie numbers were not great, we should not write these two off. It is common for young pass rushers to struggle as rookies then come on strong in years two and three.

The wildcard here is rookie second-round selection Ben Banogu. At this early stage, it remains unclear how he will be used. While he was a defensive end at Texas Christian, there has been talk of Banogu working as a strong side linebacker then putting his hand down as an edge rusher in nickel situations. He is somewhat of a raw talent who will need to expand his arsenal as a pass rusher at the NFL level. On the other hand, there are some who see his skill set being reminiscent of former Colts great Robert Mathis. Chances are Banogu will be limited to a part-time role as a rookie.

One of the big surprises for Indianapolis last season was the emergence of tackle Denico Autry. He entered the league in 2014 as an undrafted free agent with the Raiders. In three seasons as a defensive end for Oakland, Autry combined for 65 solo tackles and 11 sacks. On the heels of a career-best 23-12-5 with 7 batted passes in 2017, Autry was signed by the Colts who almost immediately moved him to tackle. At a glance, his numbers from last year are strong for an interior lineman at 28-9-9 with three turnovers. Upon closer inspection, those numbers are simply impressive. Autry suffered an ankle injury during the preseason then aggravated it in week one. He got back on the field in week four and exploded for 7 tackles, 2 assists and a pair of sacks. The following week he injured the ankle again, so basically, Autry played the first half of the season gimpy and was never fully healthy. Yet he still recorded 16-4-7 with 2 forced fumbles and a recovery over the final seven games. It is almost shocking how little love this guy is getting from the IDP community. I see Autry as a possible if not probable top-five interior lineman and a solid DL2 with upside.

Margus Hunt was drafted in round two back in 2013 based on potential. He was a physical specimen -- with all the measurables teams dream of -- but had not played much football. It took a while but Hunt finally began to flourish in 2018. The Colts initially used him as a starting end in their 3-4 in 2017. He played both end and tackle last summer and well into the regular season before shifting almost solely to tackle over the second half of the year. Not only did Hunt fit the scheme, but he also excelled in it to the tune of career-best production across the board at 22-8-5 with a pair of turnovers. Granted those are not impressive numbers in general but for managers in tackle required leagues, they are good enough for a second starter or quality depth. The other important factor here, even at age 31 Hunt’s best football may be ahead of him.

When it comes to depth on the inside Indianapolis has a lot of options. Grover Stewart is their big body and the only defensive lineman checking in at over 300 pounds. He works at nose tackle on most early downs and is a solid contributor on the field. Jihad Ward is a former second-round pick of the Raiders (2016) who has never lived up to expectations but provides quality depth. Tyquan Lewis will also see some action from the inside. In short, the Colts have plenty of solid versatile players up front so depth is not going to be any issue.

Linebackers

Between the emergence of defensive rookie of the year Darius Leonard and all the young talent the Colts have added at linebacker, everything we thought we knew about this group is out the window. In a matter of two short years, we have gone from wondering who the Colts could plug in at linebacker to get them by, to wondering what they will do to get all their good young players on the field.

There is no need to spend much time talking about Leonard. His production speaks for its self. Not since Ray Lewis have we seen a first-year linebacker dominate the way Leonard did. A league-leading 112 solo tackles along with 8 turnovers and 7 sacks were enough to make the young man the number one linebacker in the fantasy game by a large margin. The only question is can he repeat? The answer is yes, he should absolutely be the first defender off the board on draft day and yes, he will likely be the number one linebacker again in 2019. That said, those expecting the numbers to be as gaudy or the margin as wide might be a tad disappointed. The Colts are going to be better as a team which will reduce the amount of opportunity a bit and there is more talent for Leonard to contend with on the defensive side.

The next question here is can lightning strike twice? The organization is excited about their rookie third-round pick Bobby Okereke who has a skill set eerily similar to that of Darius. He is fast, athletic, physical, intelligent and comes with all the measurables that make a defensive coordinator giddy. Okereke was highly productive as a three-year starter for Stanford where he totaled 182 combined tackles, 7.5 sacks, 4 turnovers and a touchdown over his final two seasons. He was also a team captain and has quite an off-field resume that demonstrates his leadership qualities. Okereke told reporters he will work at all three linebacker positions but expects to play mostly in the middle. If he lives up to expectations the Colts may soon have one of the best linebacker tandems in the game.

Anthony Walker will enter training camp as the starting middle linebacker but he may find it tough to hold off the rookie for long. The 2017 fifth round pick did more than a serviceable job as a starter last season, finishing second on the team in tackles while providing fantasy managers with a decent LB3 option. Walker’s one glaring deficiency was a lack of big-play production. His marks in those columns amounted to an interception, a fumble recovery, and one sack. Under a defensive coordinator that wants an aggressive big-play machine, those numbers are probably not going to be good enough. Dynasty managers already sitting on Walker will want to take a wait and see approach but it would be a good idea to grab the rookie as a handcuff.

The Colts deployed three linebackers on less than 20% of their defensive snaps last season with Zaire Franklin seeing most of that action. Having Ben Banogu in the mix could change that eventually, but for now, the position is a forgotten memory in fantasy terms.

Defensive Backs

The Colts have dealt with a lot of injury issues in the secondary over the last couple years, particularly at the safety positions. Strong safety Clayton Geathers is the best fantasy option of this group when healthy but he has missed 23 games over the last four seasons including four in 2018. At 6’2” and 218 pounds Geathers is a physical presence who hits like a linebacker and flourishes in run support. Coverage is not so much a strong point but he is a capable pass defender as well.

From a production standpoint what we have seen of Geathers in 41 career games has been fairly strong. In nine games as a starter in 2016, he was on pace for 89 tackles, 16 assists, and 9 pass breakups. A neck injury suffered in week 11 of that season left his career in doubt for a while but he was back on the field in a limited role over the final five contests in 2017. The neck held up fine last year but Geathers was plagued by a sore knee most of the season. Despite missing four full games and parts of a couple of others, he finished with 60 tackles, 27 assists, and a forced fumble. Averaged over a full season he was once again on pace for strong totals around 80 tackles and 36 assists. One thing we have not seen from Geathers is big play production. He is still looking for that elusive first interception and has just three total takeaways to his credit. Target him as a low-end DB2 or a solid DB3 but take the injury history into consideration.

The Colts are set at free safety as well, or at least they will be if Malik Hooker stays healthy. When healthy the team’s first-round pick in 2017 has been everything the organization had hoped. Unfortunately, that has been a rare event. Hooker suffered a torn ACL midway through his rookie season. He returned to action in week one last year but battled a hip injury for most of 2018. In early June Hooker proclaimed himself 100% healthy for the first time in his brief NFL career. He is not a big tackle producer, but the five interceptions in two injury-shortened seasons are a strong indication of what Hooker brings to the defense. The marginal tackle production will eliminate him from the fantasy conversation in most leagues but his big-play ability could be enough to qualify as depth with week-to-week upside for some.

The team went into last season with Matthias Farley as their top backup at both safety positions. He did a fine job in that role when Geathers was lost in 2017. Unfortunately, Farley was lost to a severe hamstring injury in mid-October. Mike Mitchell stepped up for a couple of games before he too was injured, leaving the Colts in a big bind. This offseason the organization set about ensuring they will not be caught short-handed at safety again. Farley is back and healthy but that did not stop them from selecting Kharl Willis in round four and Marvell Tell in the fifth or adding veteran Derrick Kindred in free agency. In fact, Indianapolis will go to camp with a slew of young players battling for roster spots behind the top three. Being draft pick, Willis and Tell will have the upper hand on making the roster but nothing is certain after Farley.

The Colts went into last year’s training camp with a wide-open competition for the corner jobs. Despite being 5’9” 190 pounds, Kenny Moore II emerged as the unlikely leader of the group and has been rewarded with a big contract extension. He was one of the Colts who averaged better than ten points per game last season and finished as the number four corner. There is always a risk with corners that have just one strong year to go on but watching Moore play reminded me a lot of former Minnesota great Antoine Winfield who was pound for pound one of the toughest players of his era.

Pierre Desir landed the other starting job in 2018 but he will have to fight to keep it this year. Entering his third season, former second-round pick Quincy Wilson will be in the mix as will third-year pro Nate Hairston and rookie second-round selection Rock Ya-Sin. For managers in corner-required leagues, this will be an important competition to watch since Indianapolis corners tend to be fairly box score friendly. Ya-Sin is a gifted athlete with a ton of potential but is very raw in terms of experience. Chances are it will take some time for him to make an impact.

  • SS Clayton Geathers – Strong DB3 with DB2 upside but a long injury history
  • FS Malik Hooker – Marginal value at best
  • SS/FS Mathias Farley – Injury sleeper
  • SS Khari Willis – Possible dynasty target but likely to play mostly special teams as a rookie
  • SS Derrick Kindred – No fantasy value
  • SS George Odom – No fantasy value
  • FS Marvell Tell - Possible dynasty target but likely to play mostly special teams as a rookie
  • CB Rock Ya-Sin – Talented but raw, rookie corner rule could apply
  • CB Kenny Moore II II – CB1 target
  • CB Nate Hairston – marginal value
  • CB Quincy Wilson – Sleeper in corner required leagues
  • CB Pierre Desir – Low CB2 or solid depth if he keeps the starting job
  • CB Christopher Milton – No fantasy value

Jacksonville Jaguars

Defensive Linemen

Jacksonville sported one of the league’s most feared defenses in 2017. They were number one versus the pass, second in sacks with 55 and led the league with 33 takeaways. Many expected them to be even better last season but that was not the case. They were still near the top (second) in the all-important category of points allowed, but there was a drastic fall off in the areas that matter most to fantasy managers. The 2018 Jaguars recorded 18 fewer sacks and 16 fewer takeaways, finishing in the bottom third of the league in both categories. One thing that did not change last year was the Jaguars supplying plenty of quality fantasy targets for IDP managers. There will be some new faces this season but we can expect that trend to continue.

The drop in sack totals rests squarely with the front four. This group put up an outstanding 47.5 in 2017 but managed only 26.5 last year. Even perennial fantasy stud Calais Campbell saw his total slip from 14.5 to 10.5. Fortunately for those that drafted Campbell, his tackle total rose to offset the sacks and he once again landed among the top five. Campbell has been a great player throughout his NFL career regardless of defensive scheme. In eight seasons as a starter for the Cardinals, he never fell short of five sacks, had a career-best of nine and a half and put up 45 or more solo tackles seven times. He has reached double-digit sacks just twice but has 45 or more tackles in eight of the last nine seasons including a career-high 55 in 2018. Campbell will be 33 in September and is on the back side of a great career, but he has shown no signs of slowing down yet. He is as safe a bet as any to give us a ninth consecutive top 12 finish in 2019.

There is some uncertainty surrounding Campbell’s counterpart Yannick Ngakoue who is in the final year of his rookie contract. Like everyone else in the Jaguars front four, his sack total slipped a bit from 12.5 in 2017 to 9.5 last year, but it is the contract situation and addition of first-round pick Josh Allen that has people wondering what Ngokoue’s future will be. Fuel was added to the fire when Ngakoue did not report for minicamp. He turned 24 in March and already has 29.5 sacks over his brief three-year career, so the young man is going to get paid by someone. With the selection of Allen, there are some that believe it may not be by Jacksonville.

Regardless of how it all works out in the long term, Ngokoue is all but certain to be in a Jaguars uniform this season. For IDP managers that means another 17 week game of roulette. On the positive side, Ngakoue has at least eight sacks in each of his three seasons as a pro, has forced 11 fumbles, and his tackle numbers have gone up each year. On the negative side, he has never exceeded 25 solo stops in a season, had zero forced fumbles last year, and his week to week inconsistency has simply been maddening. At 6’2” and 246 pounds Ngakoue is not built to excel as a run defender. With such low tackle totals, consistency will remain an issue. Seven times last year Ngakoue produced three or fewer fantasy points while nearly half his overall production came in three games. The previous season was the same when despite the big play numbers, over half his production came in five big games. This may be something the Jaguars are looking at as well when it comes to his contract demands.

Josh Allen gives the Jaguars defense a lot of options. He played outside linebacker in Kentucky’s 3-4 and brings a lot of versatility to the mix. At 6’5” 262 pounds, Allen is bigger than Ngokoue and should prove a better run defender at the point of attack. He also has plenty of experience dropping in coverage both zone and man. There has been a lot of discussion about where Allen will play. In an early-May interview, head coach Doug Marrone was asked if he would consider moving Allen to the second line of defense. In response, Marrone said, “We’ll see how it goes, but to answer your question, No”. Reading between the lines and looking at the whole situation; because they want to get him on the field we can expect to see Allen standing up at times on early downs. His most significant role, however, will be as a pass rusher. In nickel situations, look for Allen and Ngokoue to rush off the edge with Campbell slipping inside. The bottom line here being they will find a way to get Allen on the field a lot. He will be designated a defensive end by most league hosting sites so for IDP managers this could be the best of both worlds.

After getting 12.5 sacks from their interior line the previous season, the organization was disappointed with the production from those positions last year. Thus Malik Jackson and his big contract have moved on. The team prepared for this last spring by drafting Bryan Taven in the first round. Taven worked as the fourth man in the rotation as a rookie, getting on the field for about 300 plays. He should shift into a starting role in year two. Arby Jones, Marcell Darius and possibly free agent addition Datone Jones fill out the rest of the rotation at tackle. For most IDP managers there will be little or no fantasy value among this group. For those in tackle required leagues, however, Taven is a guy worth keeping an eye on.

Linebackers

The Jaguars linebacker situation took an unexpected turn this offseason when Telvin Smith Sr told the team he would be taking the year off. There is a lot of time between now and the start of the season so Smith could change his mind, but for now, the team is preparing as if he will not be available. Exactly what that means is hard to tell at this stage. The coaching staff will look at a lot of different options this summer.

Free-agent addition Jake Ryan brings starting experience to the table but he is hardly a great fit at the weakside position, at least not if the team wants someone in the Telvin Smith Sr mold. For most of his time in Green Bay, Ryan was a two-down strong inside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme. He does not have the speed or cover skills of Smith and would seem a much better option on the strong side or in the middle.

Myles Jack has a skill set closer to that of Smith but he was drafted to play in the middle so it seems likely that is where he will stay. Last year’s seventh-round pick Leon Jacobs could be an option. He is more of a speed and athleticism type guy similar to Smith but is probably more of a special teams contributor. The Jaguars added free agent D.J. Alexander after Smith’s announcement. The 2017 fifth round pick of Seattle joins his third NFL team in three seasons. There is probably a good reason for that.

There was one offseason addition at linebacker that has not gotten much attention, at least not yet. Quincy Williams is the older brother of this year’s third overall pick Quinnen Williams. A lot of draft experts were surprised when the Murray State product was picked in round three but a lot of NFL people were not. Much like Smith, Williams is a converted safety with a strong combination of speed, cover skills, and physicality. His college coach Mitch Stewart said “He’s my guy. He tries to bend your facemask every chance he gets. I’ve never seen him get knocked back on contact”. Williams turned heads at the team’s minicamp where he saw time at weakside backer with the starters. At the conclusion of minicamp, Calais Campbell said “He’s really impressed me. He’s getting an opportunity with the ones, and he’s taking advantage of them. He’s a guy that has natural instincts, plays very fast, plays hard. He’s just got to go through his growing pains and develop. But he’s a guy who could really help us this year.” In his first full year as a starting linebacker for Murray State Williams averaged six tackles and two assists per game, adding a sack, a pair of interceptions and five passes defended in ten starts. Smith has been a fantasy star as the Jaguars weakside linebacker over the past five seasons. If Williams lands the starting job he could pick up the torch and step right into those shoes.

Myles Jack is the Jacksonville linebacker most managers will be targeting on draft day and is clearly the safest option. He has shown steady improvement over his three seasons as a pro but has not yet completely lived up to expectations. Entering year four, the coaching staff will look to Jack for more of a leadership role and fantasy managers will expect continued improvement in box score production. Both could get what they expect from him in 2019. With a mark of 74-32-2.5, 3 turnovers and a score, Jack finished among the top 25 linebackers in 2018 for the first time in his young career. There are plenty of reasons to believe he could break the top 20 this time around. Jacksonville has an excellent defensive line that will soak up blockers and keep the linebacker clean. Despite the fact he turns just 24 in September, Jack has three years of NFL experience under his belt as he enters the prime of his career physically, and of course, he does not have Smith to contend with for tackles. Jack’s big-play production jumped significantly last season as he settled in as the starting middle backer. He has the skill set to further improve on those numbers as well.

Defensive Backs

The Jaguars were one of three teams to surrender less than 200 yards per game through the air last season. Much of that success can be attributed to an exceptional trio of corners in Jalen Ramsey, A.J. Bouye and D.J. Hayden. All three are returning for 2019 so the pass defense should pick up right where it left off. For managers in corner=required leagues, Ramsey is the one sure target of the group. He was the number 12 corner in each of his first two seasons before slipping just a bit to 15 last season. Unlike most elite corners that fade steadily after their rookie seasons, Ramsey has provided steady numbers. In fact, the 62 solo tackles last season were a career high for him while the three assists and 12 pass breakups were career lows. His average of 57 tackles, 8 assists, 4 turnovers, and 15 pass breakups are reasonable expectations, making Ramsey a low CB1 or priority CB@ target on draft day.

In his first year with the team (2017), Bouye put up the best numbers of his six-year career. That season he was the number five corner on the strength of 53 solo tackles, 6 interceptions and 16 passes defended. His tackle numbers were on track last year had he not missed three games with an injury, but the interception and pass breakups plummeted to one and seven respectively. Bouye is an excellent cover man and his numbers may rebound, but he needs to show us something before adding him to our rosters.

As the slot corner, Hayden is not going to provide much IDP value. If he were to move up the food chain however, he may be worth adding. The last time he started for a full season was 2015. That year Hayden posted 64 tackles, 6 assists, 2 turnovers, a sack, and 8 pass breakups. So the potential is there if the opportunity arises.

The Jaguars could have a problem should any of the top three corners go down with injuries. The rest of their depth chart consists almost exclusively of first or second year undrafted players with little or no NFL experience.

The team is young and thin at the safety positions as well. Last year’s third-round pick Ronnie Harrison is set to take over at strong safety, with third-year former undrafted free agent Jarrod Wilson penciled in at free. Harrison saw work as the third safety for much of 2018. He moved into the starting role in week thirteen when the team benched then cut Barry Church. Harrison played well for all of two games before a knee sprain ended his season. The sampling was small, but apparently, the coaching staff saw all it needed to anoint him as a starter going forward. At 6’2” and 207 pounds, Harrison plays bigger than his size suggests. He has athleticism and skill set to play either safety spot but Harrison lands at strong safety because his biggest asset is a physical approach in run support. He was a productive two-year starter at Alabama with a total of 99 tackles, 57 assists 2.5 sacks, 5 interceptions and a pair of fumble recoveries over his final two seasons there. The situation at linebacker could mean a few extra opportunities per game while his limited action as a rookie helps make him somewhat of a sleeper that can be picked up cheap in the late rounds. Target Harrison in the area of a decent DB3 but do not be surprised if he outperforms his draft slot.

We have even less to go on when it comes to Wilson who played a total of 44 snaps before taking over at strong safety in week 15. His college numbers were mediocre, but he did gain three years of starting experience at Michigan before coming to the NFL. Wilson will be entering his third season with the Jaguars so they know what to expect from him even if we do not. Jacksonville’s free safety position has provided little in terms of fantasy value over the years. There is no reason to think Wilson will buck that trend.

The organization may look to add veteran help at safety somewhere along the line. There are still a few good players on the open market. They will probably wait to get a look at their current options in training camp before making that decision. That said, this could be a good landing spot for a guy like Tre Boston.

  • SS Ronnie Harrison – Target as a DB3 with upside
  • FS/SS Jarrod Wilson – Marginal value expected
  • FS/CB Quenton Meeks – No fantasy value
  • FS Cody Davis – No immediate fantasy value
  • CB Jalen Ramsey – Low-end CB1 or priority CB2
  • CB A.J. Bouye – Not draft worthy, but if he produces early, pick him up
  • CB D.J. Hayden – No immediate fantasy value
  • CB Tre Herndon – No fantasy value
  • CB C.J. Reavis – No fantasy value

Tennessee Titans

Defensive Linemen

The Titans defense slipped to the middle of the pack in nearly all important categories last season. While the defensive line as a whole was less productive, no one can blame the slide on Jurrell Casey. Tennessee uses a lot of three-man fronts, but they label their defensive line positions a bit strangely. Instead of listing two defensive ends and a nose tackle they will line up two guys inside the offensive tackles with an end on one side and a linebacker on the other, calling both inside guys tackles. For those in tackle required leagues, this can work as an advantage because some host sites define Casey as a tackle, as do the Titans on their home page roster. While position is vital to determining Casey’s fantasy value in many leagues, he is a quality option regardless of format.

If your league lumps the line positions together or considers him an end, he is as dependable as it gets for a second starter. If your league breaks out the positions and Casey is a tackle, he becomes an elite tier DT1. He is not a quick twitch edge rusher but at 6’1” and 305 pounds is a ball of power, leverage and surprising athleticism that makes offensive linemen struggle. There is not much guesswork when it comes to Casey. He ended last season with an excellent (for his situation/position) 36-25-7, has reached the 40 solo mark in three of eight seasons and has never fallen short of 30. He has 39.5 career sacks with at least 5 in each of the last six years and a career best of 9.5 in 2013. Make sure you know where he fits in your format position wise and slot his value accordingly.

There were no other useful fantasy options among Tennessee’s defensive linemen last season. DaQuan Jones was the next most productive averaging less than four points per game. Nose tackle Austin Johnson was the only lineman other than Casey to record a sack and he had one. The team did make one interesting addition though. First-round pick Jeffery Simmons could add a lot of pop to this group once he is healthy. The rookie tore his ACL during a workout in February and will most if not all of 2019. Dynasty managers in tackle required formats may want to stash this guy on the taxi squad or injured reserve. He does not excel as a pass rusher, but in two years as a starter for Mississippi State, he totaled 123 combined tackles and assists with 7 sacks and 5 takeaways.

  • DE/DT Jurrell Casey – Dependable DL2 or stud DT1
  • DE DaQuan Jones – No fantasy impact
  • DE Brett Urban – No fantasy impact
  • DE Matt Dickerson – No fantasy impact
  • DT/NT Jeffery Simmons – Dynasty stash for tackle required leagues
  • NT Austin Johnson – No fantasy impact

Linebackers

Tennessee gave us two solid starters at linebacker last season despite a strange set of circumstances. Both Wesley Woodyard and Jayon Brown averaged better than ten points per game despite neither playing full time in most weeks. We should get similar production from the positions this year but not necessarily from the same two players.

When the Titans used a first-round pick on Rashaan Evans last spring it was expected he would be a day one starter. Unfortunately, his rookie season was sidetracked by a training camp injury. The result was an unexpected situation that ultimately had the three players rotating. Woodyard and Brown were the week-one starters and held onto those jobs throughout the season, with Evans working into a part-time role once he was healthy. As a result, Brown led the group in playing time at roughly 81% of the snaps followed by Woodyard at 68% and Evans with 47%.

The organization did not invest a first round pick on Evans to have him play part time so chances are things will look much different in 2019. The light seemed to turn on for the rookie late last season. With no change in playing time, 18 of his 35 solo tackles came over a five-game stretch starting week 12. With his talent level, skill set, and a year of experience under his belt, it will be hard to keep Evans out of the starting lineup in his second season. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees came over from Baltimore in the last offseason and ultimately sees Evans in the C.J. Mosley role for his defense. That role was held by the soon-to-be 33-year-old Woodyard last year.

Woodyard is a good, well rounded veteran player who will not go quietly. With an average of almost 11.5 points per outing last year, he was the most productive of the three linebackers on a per game basis. Had he not missed three games Woodyard would likely have outproduced Brown on the season by a few points. This will be an interesting competition to watch over the summer with the worst possible outcome being a continued three-man rotation of some sort.

The emergence of Brown in his second pro season was unexpected and probably had as much to do with the three-man rotation as anything. He just kept making plays during camp and throughout the preseason until the coaching staff finally accepted the fact Brown had to be on the field. Despite checking in at 6’0” 226 pounds, he was better than anticipated versus the run while adding a big play element and coverage skills the team needed. From a production standpoint, Brown’s modest tackle totals of 64 solo and 34 assists were offset by his six sacks four takeaways and six pass breakups. There is at least some risk he could be the odd man out here but chances are the Titans will pair Evans and Brown on the inside for the next several years. Brown was a top 20 linebacker on about 81% of the defensive snaps last year. He could easily be among the top fifteen in 2019 if the timeshare goes away.

The Titans expect and need more than the 11.5 combined sacks they got from the outside linebacker position last season. Thus veterans Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan are gone. The organization took another shot at finding that elusive special edge player when the picked Harold Landry in the second round last year. As is the case with many first-year pass rushers, Landry’s production was marginal at 24 tackles and 4.5 sacks. Pure speed and raw athleticism gave Landry the ability to contribute immediately in sub-packages. By the end of the season, he was working as a starter. A look at his college numbers explains completely why the Titans selected this young man. Over a four year career at Boston College that included 28 starts, Landry amassed 100 solo stops, 58 assists, 25 sacks, 10 forced fumbles, a recovery, and an interception. We often see edge rushers make a significant jump in year two. Landry could be the next name added to that already long list. Managers in big play based leagues should consider picking him up late as depth with significant upside.

Coach Pees brought Correa Kamalei with him from Baltimore last season. After being buried on the Ravens depth chart for two years, the 2016 second round pick recorded 3.5 sacks for the Titans in 2018, second only to Landry among the team’s outside linebackers. He will compete with free-agent addition Cameron Wake for the starting job this summer. Wake is an 11 year veteran with 91 career sacks, never falling short of 5.5 in a season. The only things that make this a competition are Wake’s age and the fact he has been a 4-3 defensive end his entire career. At age 37 it may be tough to teach the old dog new tricks and the coaching staff may want to keep Wake fresh by using him as a nickel rush specialist. That would also allow Wake to put his hand down as he is accustomed to. Managers in big play heavy leagues will want to keep an eye on this situation. One of these guys might emerge as a decent third starter or quality depth.

  • ILB Rashaan Evans – High upside with a bit of risk that he may not play full time
  • ILB Jayon Brown – Solid LB2 if his role does not change
  • ILB Wesley Woodyard – Could see significantly reduced role
  • ILB Daren Bates – No impact expected
  • OLB Harold Landry – High upside sleeper for big play heavy leagues
  • OLB Kamalei Correa – Deep sleeper for big play based leagues
  • OLB Cameron Wake – Probable LB3 or quality depth in big play leagues
  • OLB D’Andre Walker – No impact expected
  • OLB Gimel President – No impact expected

Defensive Backs

With the sixth-ranked pass defense in 2018, the Titans secondary was better in NFL terms than it was for IDP managers. Still, there is value to be mined here. Free safety Kevin Byard was the number two defensive back in 2017 when he exploded for a league-tying 8 interceptions and had 16 pass breakups to go with respectable tackle totals. In last year’s column, I warned of the risk when putting too much value on a defensive back when 25% of their point total came from big plays. Byard’s tackle totals were virtually identical in 2018 but both the interceptions and pass breakups dropped by half, resulting in a final ranking of 15. There is nothing wrong with having the number 15 defensive back, so long as you did not draft him as one of the top three.

The other issue that often surfaces with big play defensive backs is week-to-week inconsistency. That was not a problem with Byard in 2017 but it did show up last season. In his best eight games, Byard averaged 15.5 points. In the other eight, it was barely over five. Everyone has their own approach to this game. Personally, I prefer guys that can be counted on for seven or eight points on a bad week even if their single-game potential is a bit less. Even though Byard will probably end the season with total points ranking among the top 20, I would consider him no more than a third starter on most weeks.

Strong safety Kenny Vaccaro is an interesting prospect entering 2019. He was signed by the Titans last August after Jonathan Cyprien was lost to a knee injury. At the end of the season, Tennessee elected to cut ties with Cyprien and ink Vaccaro to a four-year deal. This is a pretty clear picture of what the organization thinks of Vaccaro.

The former first-round pick had some good years with the Saints but injuries have always been an issue. Five seasons with New Orleans yielded just one full slate of games. That came in 2015 when Vaccaro finished with 71 solo stops, 33 assists, 3 sacks, a pair of turnovers and 5 pass breakups. When he plays Vaccaro tends to produce. He was on pace for similar numbers in both 2016 and 2017 had he not missed nine games over those two seasons. Both the production and the injury bug followed him to Tennessee last year, however. He averaged 10.5 points over the first three games then missed the next five with an elbow injury. Vaccaro then played through a sore knee in December before suffering a concussion in week 15. If the guy can stay healthy he should be at least a quality third starter in most IDP formats. We cannot go wrong by picking him up late as a DB4 or DB5 that could make the lineup every week he is healthy.

From Alterraun Verner in through Jason McCourty to Adoree' Jackson last season, the Titans have consistently given fantasy managers quality targets at corner. Between those three players are seven seasons with at least 60 solo tackles and four of over 70 since 2010. In 2018 both Jackson and Malcolm Butler reached the 60 solo mark with Butler finishing as the fantasy game’s number two corner and Jackson among the top 20. Even Logan Ryan was among the top 25 at the position.

Jackson had the rookie corner rule working in his in 2017. He parlayed that into 61 tackles, 9 assists, 3 forced fumbles and 17 passes defended for a ranking of 16 among corners. The forced fumbles were somewhat of a fluke so his second season was right in line with the rookie corner rule in that he has a pair of interceptions. What did not follow the rookie corner rule was Jackson’s tackle totals which actually went up to 67 solo and 7 assists. Consecutive seasons inside the top 20 and playing on a team with a long history of quality box score production from the position are strong signs that Jackson will continue to be at least a quality CB2.

Butler had three box score friendly seasons with the Patriots before coming to Tennessee. He never finished as high as number two, but averaged about 53 tackles, 10 assists, 4 turnovers, and 14 passes defended over three years as a starter. Having shown that kind of production over a four-year span and with two teams; Butler is a pretty safe bet to continue as a strong every week start in corner required leagues.

Ryan actually started opposite Jackson last season with Butler handling the slot corner role. Since Tennessee plays nickel roughly 80% of the time, there is no lack of opportunity for any of these three players. Ryan too has a history of consistent tackle production dating back to his time with New England. He had a whopping (for a corner) 74 solo stops there in 2016 and has exceeded 50 in each of the last four seasons. Ryan comes up a little short in the big play department, however. He had four sacks last year but has not recorded a turnover since 2016.

Fourth round selection Amani Hooker has a similar skill set to that of Vaccaro. He will provide depth at the position should the oft-injured starter miss time. Hooker will compete with second-year pro Dane Crookshank for the job of third safety in big nickel packages. For what it is worth, Crookshank was more productive as a two-year starter for Arizona.

  • SS Kenny Vaccaro – Solid third starter if he can stay healthy
  • FS Kevin Byard – Good overall numbers with week-to-week consistency issues
  • FS Dane Cruikshank – No immediate impact expected
  • SS Amani Hooker – Injury sleeper with no immediate impact expected
  • CB Logan Ryan – Depth in corner required leagues
  • CB Malcolm Butler – Priority CB2 with CB1 upside
  • CB Adoree' Jackson – quality CB2 with low CB1 upside
  • CB Leshaun Sims – No impact

That is going to do it for Part 1 of this series. The NFC South is up next.

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