Eyes of the Guru IDP Info, Part 5: AFC West

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

Denver Broncos

Defensive Linemen

The Broncos gave up a lot of yards last year against both run and pass but they did well in the most important areas. Denver’s 44 sacks were eighth most in the league, their 27 takeaways ranked seventh and they finished among the top half of the league in points surrendered. They were not without needs on defense but the majority of their personnel additions were on the other side of the ball. Denver runs a 3-4 base scheme with their linemen having 2-gap responsibilities much of the time, at least that was the case in the past. There are some indications they may be planning to work in more 1-gap responsibilities going forward.

With the departure of Domata Peko Sr, the coaching staff has to find a nose tackle. The only player on the team’s roster currently listed at the position is Shelby Harris who has worked at end in previous seasons. He has bulked up to 300 pounds in anticipation of the new role but is still undersized for a nose tackle having 2-gap responsibilities. There is also the point that Harris led the club’s defensive line with five and a half sacks in 2017 as a defensive end. Managers in tackle required leagues may want to watch this situation closely once preseason action starts.

Zach Kerr is listed as a defensive end but at 6’2” 334 pounds, he might be Denver’s best option if they want a 2-gap nose tackle. He and journeyman Mike Purcell are the team’s only defensive linemen weighing in over 300 pounds, which suggests the coaching staff may be looking to get more aggressive up front.

From the fantasy perspective, Denver’s defensive line does not appear to offer much. Derek Wolfe led the group in tackles last season with 29 while Adam Gotsis had the most sacks with three. Wolfe has the most box score potential of the group. When Denver turned to a 3-4 back in 2015, he was 34-13-5 despite missing four games. In 2016, Wolfe finished 38-13-5 in 14 games. Injuries continued to be an issue in 2017 when a sore neck resulted in his lowest production since 2013. He made it through last season healthy, but one has to wonder if the lingering effect from the neck injury contributed to a lacking stat line of 29-11-1.5. At this point, Wolfe is not a draft day target but he could be a decent in-season add if he gets off to a strong start.

Gotsis showed a little box score improvement in his second year as a starter but there is no reason to expect a breakout. He went 25-12-3 with 3 turnovers and 6 batted passes in 2018. That is probably the limit of his upside. The 2016 second round pick has never put up big numbers, including his three seasons as a starter for Georgia Tech when he averaged 22-13-3.5.

The player with the most long term potential here may be rookie third-round pick Dre'mont Jones. If the Broncos are indeed shifting to a more aggressive approach up front, Jones could be an excellent fit at end. As a 3-technique tackle for Ohio State last season he recorded 43 combined tackles, 8.5 sacks, 5 turnovers and a pair of scores. Jones is an extremely athletic one-gap lineman that can penetrate and disrupt if turned loose to do so.

Linebackers

The 2018 Broncos were one of the few teams in recent years to have no full time inside linebacker. Todd Davis emerged in the lead role at ILB but he reached 80% of the snaps in fewer than half the team’s games. With Brandon Marshall out of the picture, that should change this season. Davis and second-year man Josey Jewell will be the starters. Neither is particularly strong in coverage but Davis has shown improvement. That and having the most experience makes him the heavy favorite to stay on the field in sub packages this year.

There are two way of looking at Davis’s production from last year. In the final rankings, he was the number 12 linebacker, but his average of 10.6 points per game actually ranked 34. This is a good example of how much impact not missing games can have on final rankings, but it may not be a factor for Davis going forward. Davis went 83-26-1 with an interception, seven passes defended and a score on about 78% of the snaps last season. Add say 15% more playing time and he is somewhere in the area of 95-33 in the tackle columns.

Davis is not a great player by NFL standards but he is a smart, steady veteran presence who makes few mistakes and has enough talent to get the job done. The Broncos and IDP managers alike would welcome an uptick in big play production, but even without it, Davis is a quality contributor for both. Another 10-15% of the playing time should make him a 90 solo tackles guy with good week-to-week consistency.

Jewell served as the third man at inside backer for much of last season, getting on the field for 458 of a possible 1077 snaps. He did a solid job versus the run but showed room for improvement in coverage. His role in 2018 should be better defined and more consistent but it seems unlikely he will see much sub package opportunity.

It took the Broncos a long time but they finally hit pay dirt in their search for a bookend to Von Miller. In Miller and Bradley Chubb team now has an elite tandem of edge defenders with equal ability to get to the passer. Between them, they accounted for 26 sacks last season and that with Chubb being a rookie. It would not be a surprise to see the duo reach 30 in 2019. One skill Chubb can and probably will learn from his veteran counterpart is the art of the turnover. In his first season, Chubb forced a pair of fumbles and recovered one. In eight seasons Miller has forced 25, recovered 9, intercepted a couple passes, batted down 20 and scored twice. All the big play production makes both these guys elite IDP options in big play based formats.

On the other end of the IDP spectrum, the two stud pass rushers combined for 72 tackles and 35 assists last season. Miller accounted for 29 of the solo stops which were a career low for a non-injury season, while Chubb totaled 43. Even with all the big plays, such low tackle numbers kill the fantasy value of both players. In 2018 Miller ranked 37 in the Footballguys balanced scoring format with Chubb coming in at 47. Miller has exceeded 50 solo stops four times in his career including 2016 and 2017, so there is hope for a top-30 finish in similar formats. Chubb also has the potential to reach the 50 solo mark though we have not yet seen him do it.

One luxury the Broncos no longer have at either linebacker position is proven veteran depth. With many of their veterans moving on, Denver has a cast of unproven young late round picks, undrafted free agents and journeymen types backing up.

  • ILB Todd Davis – Quality LB3 with upside
  • ILB Josey Jewell – Marginal fantasy value
  • ILB Dekoda Watson – No impact expected
  • OLB Von Miller – Stud LB1 in big play formats, low LB3 in balanced scoring
  • OLB Bradley Chubb – Low LB1 in big play leagues, LB4 with a little upside in balanced formats
  • ILB/OLB Keishawn Bierria – Second-year developmental player
  • OLB Justin Hollins – Developmental rookie
  • OLB Jeff Holland – No fantasy impact

Defensive Backs

Other than strong safety Justin Simmons the Broncos have some questions in the secondary. Lead corner Chris Harris Jr re-signed with the team but not before things became a bit testy between him and the organization. Is he really happy playing on a one year deal? Denver made a great free agent signing in bringing aboard Kareem Jackson, but will he replace last year’s starter Darian Stewart at free safety or will they have to play him at corner to replace free agent loss Bradley Roby? If they play Jackson at safety, who starts at corner or vice versa? Is second-year corner Isaac Yiadom ready to start?

Simmons is the one relatively known commodity. The 2016 third round pick is a smart, physical and athletic strong safety with a good size-speed combination. He won a starting job in his second season but it was not until last year that Simmons emerged as a fantasy factor. His tackle totals have increased steadily and substantially each year while Simmons big-play contributions have been light but consistent. At 70-26-0 with 3 picks and 4 passes defended he was the fantasy game’s number 14 scorer among defensive backs last season. Another important asset Simmons brings is durability. He is among a handful of defensive players league-wide to be on the field for every snap in 2018.

The hard part with Simmons is judging where he goes from here. Chances are he will never see 1077 plays in a season again so the volume of opportunity is nearly certain to go down. On the other hand, he has put up better numbers every year to this point in his young career so that trend could continue. There has been little change in the team’s front seven so it should be safe to consider Simmons a good, low-end DB2 with some upside.

A lot of IDP managers will get burned by Kareem Jackson this year. Not because he is a bad player but because he is no longer in the perfect storm situation. Jackson spent nine years with the Texans. For eight of those years he was a corner, often working as the nickel back. Over most of those eight seasons, Jackson was a solid option as a second or third corner in leagues breaking out the defensive back positions. When he turned 30 last spring, the Texans decided to move him to safety. They should have made that move long ago. Jackson proved to be a natural at the position, putting up the best numbers of his career across the board. If injuries at corner had not forced a shuffle that put him back on the outside down the stretch, he would probably have made the top-10.

Denver would like to have Jackson play free safety for them. The problem being, he is one of their two best options at corner as well. The team currently has him listed as a corner on their roster and unless someone else steps up, that is where he will probably play. The reality for IDP managers is, no matter which position he lines up at Jackson is not going to have the same fantasy value in Denver. Their scheme puts the free safety in a role that limits tackle opportunity too much. In four seasons with the team, Darian Stewart never exceeded 55 tackles and never made the top-50. In over 25 years of playing the IDP game, I cannot recall a Denver free safety ever having fantasy relevance. Unless you can get Jackson as a DB5 at the end of your draft, let someone else take that risk.

What it comes down to for the Broncos coaching staff is deciding if they are better off with Will Parks starting at free safety or some combination of Bryce Callahan, Isaac Yiadom and Brandon Langley as their second and third corners. My guess is they go with Parks at free safety and let the three corners compete for the nickel job. Parks has been with the team since they drafted him in round six four years ago. For the last two seasons, he has done a solid job as the third safety. The soon to be 25-year-old is probably ready for a bigger role.

Langley and Yiadom were the team’s third-round picks in 2017 and 2018 respectively. Callahan is a free agent addition that has spent the last four seasons as a backup or slot corner with the Bears. Experience gives Callahan the edge for the nickel job, but Yiadom probably has the best shot at eventually becoming a starter.

Safety Sua Cravens is still the roster but is quickly getting short on time to impress. Coming out of college he was seen as the new breed of safety/linebacker hybrid. At 6’1” and 224 pounds, he can be a punishing hitter as a weak inside linebacker or in the box strong safety. Impressive speed and strong coverage ability for a man his size provide the kind of versatility defensive coordinators dream of. Unfortunately, those defensive coordinators have not yet figured out what to do with the skill set. We have seen a few comparable players fail to make an impact in the league. Cravens, Raiders bust Obi Melifonwu and the Giants Jabrill Peppers are the three that first come to mind.

Kansas City Chiefs

Defensive Linemen

There is no point talking about where the Chiefs defense ranked last season. It suffices to say they were bad in almost all aspects and could not get off the field on third downs. On the heels of such a dismal defensive showing the organization did not change anything, they changed everything. Steve Spagnuolo takes over as defensive coordinator bringing a completely new coaching staff and a 4-3 scheme. There will be a good number of new players in place come week one as well.

About the only thing Kansas City did well on defense last season was rush the passer. That did not stop the organization from parting ways with edge rushers Justin Houston, Dee Ford and lineman Allen Bailey who accounted for 29.5 sacks between them. Interestingly both Houston and Ford signed with 4-3 teams and will be playing end. Apparently, a change in culture was high on the priority list as well.

The Chiefs made good use of the money they saved by adding Frank Clark and a couple less expensive contributors at end in Emmanuel Ogbah and Alex Okafor. Clark signed a five-year deal that will keep him with the Chiefs through 2023. The 26-year-old is coming off a season that included personal bests of 35 tackles, 14 sacks, 7 turnovers and the first top-10 ranking of his young career. Spagnuolo’s scheme is similar the one Clark left in Seattle so his production should pick up right where it left off.

Okafor and Ogbah are both serviceable veteran ends with some upside. Injuries have plagued Okafor who completed his first full slate of games last season on his fifth try. Twice during his career, Okafor has been on the way to good box score totals when injury struck. As a rookie in with the Cardinals in 2013, he was 27-2-8 before missing the last three games. With the Saints in 2017, he was 27-17-4.5 with 3 forced fumbles and playing well when his season was ended by an Achilles injury in mid-November. Okafor may not light up the box scores but could emerge as a starter that can get the Chiefs by for a year or two.

Ogbah’s career has followed about the same pattern. He showed promise as a rookie going 28-24-5.5 with the Browns in 2016. A broken foot cut his second season short then ankle and heel problems lingered into the first part of last season. The Chiefs traded a backup safety to acquire Ogbah with the hope he can stay healthy and return to the form that made him a second-round pick.

The third sleeper in the mix for Kansas City is their 2018 second round pick Breeland Speaks, who is also one of my favorite defensive line sleepers this season. Speaks played tackle and end at Ole Miss where he recorded 61 combined tackles, 7 sacks, and a couple of turnovers in 11 games as a starter in 2017. Under the previous defensive staff Speaks was miscast as an outside linebacker and was unable to make the transition. Even as a round peg in a square hole he managed 16 tackles, 8 assists, a couple of sacks, and 3 turnovers as the third wheel off the edge. Speaks will be in familiar territory this season and has the potential to excel as a 4-3 end.

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

It would be foolish for us to expect Chris Jones to repeat his outstanding production of last season. Not because of the scheme change or any risk that he was a one year wonder, but simply because the bar is set so high. Jones finished last season as the fantasy game’s fifth-ranked defensive lineman and had the third most sacks at the position with 15.

Playing end in a 3-4 is very similar to working as a 3-technique tackle in a 4-3. Players in both positions line up similarly much of the time and have many of the same responsibilities. There is little doubt Jones will continue to be a disruptive force. He could even reach the 40 tackle and double-digit sack benchmark. Just be careful counting on him as a top five lineman in leagues counting the positions together. After last season there may be nowhere to go but down. The scheme change brings one big positive for Jones. As a defensive tackle, he is one of the few that could challenge DeForest Buckner for top honors.

With Allen Bailey gone, there is no sure starter at the nose tackle position. Both Xavier Williams and Derrick Nnadi saw a good deal of action last season with Williams being the more box score productive of the two. Rookie third-round pick Khalen Saunders could also be a factor in the competition. Nose tackles in 4-3 schemes are generally the focus of double teams on most running plays. Working next to Jones might open up a lot more single blocking for whoever wins the job.

Linebackers

The only clear thing about the Chiefs linebacker situation at this point is that someone is going to have good IDP value. Speculation is all over the place as to who that might be because even the coaching staff is not sure what they will look like at the position come week one. The plan is to explore their options and find the best combination to fit the scheme, even if it means a lot of situational playing time. With a quick study of their options, it is not hard to come up with an educated guess, however.

Reggie Ragland is a physical 252-pound pure run stuffer. He was drafted by the Bills in 2016 but suffered a season-ending knee injury before ever taking a meaningful snap in with Buffalo. Ragland was then traded to the Chiefs because he was not seen as a good fit when the Bills changed to a 4-3 in his second season. He was not a good fit because the Bills wanted a middle linebacker that could cover.

Ragland has spent the last two seasons as a two-down strong inside backer in the Chiefs 3-4. He has been adequate in that role but having him on the field limits what can be called. He will get a look in the middle and possibly on the strong side but regardless where he lines up on early downs, Ragland is all but certain to be on the sideline in passing situations.

Damien Wilson is an early favorite to start on the strong side. He held at that position in Dallas for the last three seasons and was added in free agency with the expectation he would fill the same role with the Chiefs. Much like Ragland, Wilson’s cover skills leave something to be desired but he has made some contribution as a pass rusher for the Cowboys. Since he was basically handpicked by the new defensive staff, it would be somewhat of a surprise if Wilson is not in a two-down role on the strong side come week one.

The Chiefs traded for Darron Lee this offseason in an effort to add speed, athleticism and cover skills at the second level. The 2016 first round pick of the Jets had a bumpy ride in New York due to a combination of injuries, off-field incidents and struggles versus the run. Lee missed nine games in three seasons with the Jets, including four in 2018 due to suspension. Even when healthy his performance on the field was inconsistent. He lined up on the inside when the Jets were using a 3-4 then ended up playing the week side when New York changed to a 4-3. Three years into his career, Lee is looking for a fresh start while still trying to avoid the bust label.

Lee is not the most physical of linebackers. He has trouble taking on and shedding blockers at the point of attack and is too often washed out on running plays. He can be an asset on passing downs, however. Lee has four career sacks including three in 2017. Last season he intercepted three passes and returned one for a score. He may not get on the field full time but the coaching staff will certainly look take advantage of his skill set in sub packages. If he does start, it would almost have to be on the weak side where he would be freer to roam and could use his biggest asset, speed, and athleticism.

Over his first four years as a pro, Anthony Hitchens served as a utility linebacker in Dallas. Demonstrating his versatility, he made multiple starts at all three positions during his time with the Cowboys but was never able to earn a full-time starting job. When Hitchens played it was often in a three-down role as an injury replacement for Sean Lee at either middle or weakside backer. Most importantly for IDP managers, when he had a three-down role in a game, Hitchens consistently put up good numbers.

Hitchens led the Chiefs in tackles last season with 82 solo and 55 assists, but his big-play splash was like throwing a pebble in the ocean with zero interceptions, zero pass breakups, no sacks, no recoveries, and one fumble forced. The organization was somewhat disappointed with Hitchens overall performance last season but they are not blaming it all on him. Playing in a 3-4 was a new experience and he never got fully comfortable in what was a rather complicated scheme. The return to a familiar setting could do wonders for his on-field performance in 2019.

Hitchens will need to show substantial improvement to endear himself to the new defensive staff, but he is probably the team’s best option as a three-down linebacker. While stopping the run is his strong suit, Hitchens is more than serviceable in coverage; especially with a little help from the scheme and play calls. He has never excelled in the big play columns which may be the one area he continues to come up a little short. That said, Hitchens is certainly capable of more big plays than he produced last year.

One player few are considering here is Dorian O'Daniel. The former safety turned linebacker was a third-round pick last spring and could be a factor. At 6’1” 220 pounds, he is undersized but has the speed and cover skills needed to play the position in today’s NFL. There are plenty of obstacles in his path but O’Daniel will probably get a look as a potential weakside option.

All things considered, this is my educated guess at how will work out. Wilson probably gets the call on the strong side with either Hitchens or Ragland in the middle. If it is Ragland, Hitchens starts on the weak side. If it is Hitchens in the middle, Lee starts on the weak side. However, it works out it is a fairly safe bet Hitchens and Lee are on the field together in sub packages. It is also a fairly safe bet that Hitchens will be the top or at least safest fantasy option of the group.

MLB Reggie Ragland – Marginal value at best
WLB/MLB Anthony Hitchens – Solid LB3 if he lands a three-down role
WLB/MLB Dorian O'Daniel – Deep sleeper
WLB Darron Lee – LB3 with a little upside if he starts
SLB Damien Wilson – No fantasy value

Defensive Backs

There will be plenty of competition in the Kansas City secondary where only corner Kendall Fuller and safety Tyrann Mathieu are sure starters. Mathieu is penciled in at free safety where he has played for most of his six-year career, but the coaching staff may elect to move him around a lot looking for matchups to exploit. At 5’9” 190 pounds, Mathieu is undersized at either safety, but pound for pound he is one of the toughest players in the league. He had 80 solo tackles in 14 games for the Cardinals in 2015 and relishes the opportunity to tackle. With 7 sacks, 18 turnovers and 46 pass breakups on his resume, Mathieu is a versatile playmaker as well. A mark of 70-19-3, 3 turnovers and 8 pass breakups made Mathieu a top-20 defensive back last season. We should get similar production from him in 2019.

Daniel Sorensen will be penciled in at strong safety entering camp but has a loose hold on the job. In 2016 he worked as a hybrid third safety/nickel linebacker. Sorensen was not on the field full time but played enough to have a significant impact both on the field and in the box scores. His tackle totals were marginal at 55-8 but a big play contribution of eight turnovers, a sack, and a score made up a lot of ground. In 2017 Sorensen moved into a more traditional strong safety role though he continued to work up in the box often in sub packages. His tackle totals spiked to 66-22 in 15 games but the big plays virtually vanished. Sorensen spent most of last season in the trainer’s room, having little impact in the seven games he was active.

Sorensen’s role in the new scheme will come down to what the coaches are looking for in a strong safety. If they want a physical in the box presence and are willing to give up a little in coverage, Sorensen is probably the guy for the job. If they want speed, coverage and big plays, and are willing to give up a little physicality, rookie Juan Thornhill or second-year man Armani Watts might be the better option. Many of today’s NFL defenses require interchangeable safeties that can play close to the line and support the run on one snap then drop into centerfield as a deep safety the next. Thornhill, in particular, offers that kind of skill set.

Being this year’s second round pick and a player targeted by the new coaching staff to fit the scheme, Thornhill could have a considerable advantage in this competition. He is a former corner with good size, excellent speed, and strong cover skills. While not an intimidating hitter, Thornhill was a willing tackler with good mechanics at Virginia. He checks the production box as well. As a senior last season, Thornhill posted 62 solo tackles, 36 assists, and 6 interceptions. With two years as a starter for the Cavaliers, he amassed 13 career interceptions and 26 pass breakups. Thornhill tackles, makes big plays, covers well, has interchangeable versatility, and was a second-round pick. Those are a lot of signs pointing toward a starting job early in his career.

On paper, the Chiefs biggest weakness is at corner. In Kendall Fuller and Bashaud Breeland, they have a pair of quality veteran starters, but there are no shutdown corners and little experience behind the top two. Coincidentally both Fuller and Breeland started their careers in Washington. Breeland was a four-year starter there before having a cup of coffee with the Packers last season and signing with the Chiefs this spring. Fuller played two seasons in Washington and was a starter in 2017 before coming to Kansas City as part of the Alex Smith trade.

From a fantasy perspective, both Fuller and Breeland have significant IDP value. The Chiefs placed a pair of corners among the top 10 in 2018. Only two players at the position had more tackles than Fuller’s 64 last year. With 18 assists, 3 turnover and 11 passes defended he was the third highest scorer despite missing a game. With a line of 58-11-0, 4 picks and 15 pass breakups, Steven Nelson finished eighth. The Chiefs offense is going to score a lot of points so opponents will have to throw often to keep up. That means a lot of opportunity for Fuller and Breeland, who is the hands-down favorite to replace Nelson.

Injuries have slowed Breeland over the last two seasons so no one will be giving him much attention this summer. As a starter for the Redskins from 2014 through 2016, he averaged better than 58 tackles, 15 assists, 5 turnovers, and 13 pass defenses. All three seasons he was top-15 among corners. To sum it all up the Chiefs have a pair of corners that make plenty of big plays, like to tackle and are in a target-rich environment.

After the starters, there will be a wide-open competition to determine the rest of the pecking order. Second-year pro, Charvarius Ward, is the front runner for the job entering camp but last year’s sixth-round pick Tremon Smith, journeyman Keith Reaser, rookie sixth-round selection Rashad Fenton, and a handful of undrafted rookie free agents also have their names in the hat. Chances are the Chiefs will be watching the waiver wire for some veteran help come late August.

SS Daniel Sorensen – Could be a solid DB3, could be a backup on his own team
FS Tyrann Mathieu – Solid DB2 if he stays healthy
SS Juan Thornhill – Sleeper with good long term potential
FS Armani Watts – Deep sleeper at best
CB Kendall Fuller – Should repeat CB1 value
CB Bashaud Breeland – Strong sleeper with low CB1 potential
CB Charvarius Ward – No fantasy impact expected
CB Tremon Smith – No impact expected
CB Rashad Fenton – No impact expected

Oakland Raiders

Defensive Linemen

It is difficult to describe in words just how bad the Raiders pass rush was last year, so maybe numbers will work better. Oakland was dead last in sacks. The next worst team was the Giants who had 17 more. Tackle Maurice Hurst led the team with four while Arden Key’s lone sack was the only one recorded by a defensive end. After a season like that, it is no wonder the organization focused on and invested in several pass rushers. They started by signing free agents Benson Mayowa and Josh Mauro but the big push came in the draft where Oakland picked Clellin Ferrell fourth overall then added Maxx Crosby in round four and Quintin Bell in the seventh.

The organization is counting heavily on Ferrell to have an instant impact. If his college film and production are indicators, they will not be disappointed. There is nothing to dislike about Ferrell. He has prototypical size, length and strength to be a three-down end. Playing in the ACC he has worked with and against some of the college game’s best talent. With three years as a starter at Clemson Ferrell has more experience than most college player that pass up their senior season and is far more polished than the average rookie end.

Ferrell checks the box for production as well. In 43 starts for the Tigers over three seasons he accumulated 84 tackles, 86 assists, 27 sacks (11.5 last season), 6 turnovers, 5 batted passes and a score. The Raiders have a lot of work to do defensively and rookie pass rushers usually do not blossom until year two. Thus managers in redraft leagues will want to wait until later rounds and target Ferrell as a DL3. Long term upside makes him much more desirable to those in dynasty formats.

Arden Key and Benson Mayowa will likely battle for the starting job opposite Ferrell. Mayowa got his start in Oakland as an undrafted free agent in 2014. He spent a couple of seasons in Dallas where he recorded a career-best 5.5 sacks in 2016 and was on to Arizona last season where Mayowa started multiple games and finished 32-6-4 with a couple of turnovers. He is not a long term answer by any stretch but is a clear upgrade over what the team put on the field last season. If he does not with the starting gig Mayowa is sure to see plenty of action as the third end.

Key played more snaps than any other Oakland defensive lineman last season. You would not be able to tell that from his modest box score totals though. As a rookie starter with no supporting case, there was not a lot of expectation heaped on the young man, so his line of 21-9-1 on the season was far less disappointing than the numbers would suggest. Coach Gruden and the rest of the organization still believe Key can be a long term starter. In 31 games over three seasons at LSU, he produced 129 combined tackles and assists with 20 sacks and five turnovers. Now that he has some help to share the load and a year of experience in the big league, we should see much better production from Key in 2019.

Maxx Crosby is the wild card from this year’s draft. This is where we get to see if Mike Mayock is worth his salt as a talent evaluator. Crosby is a long lean edge rusher with a ton of potential but he is raw despite starting for most of three seasons at Eastern Michigan. He could get some opportunity as a sub package contributor this year but needs to get bigger and stronger if he is going to challenge for a starting job. Crosby put up good numbers for the Eagles with 162 combined tackles, 20 sacks, 8 forced fumbles, 4 recoveries, and a score in 37 career games. Those are impressive numbers even if it was against lesser competition in the Mid-American Conference. Crosby is a wait-and-see guy for most managers, but those in dynasty leagues with deep rosters may want to taxi him.

Bad as they were hurting on the outside Oakland had a solid group at tackle last season. Fortunately, all the important guys are back. Many personnel people graded Maurice Hurst as a second-round talent last spring. A lot of teams took him off their boards when an EKG at the combine revealed an irregular heartbeat. When he was still available in round five the Raiders took a chance.

Hurst is a quick twitch upfield penetrator who beats offensive lineman out of the blocks regularly. He was a three-year starter for Michigan and became an immediate fixture for the Raiders as well. Though his numbers were not spectacular at the collegiate level, Hurst was productive with 130 combined career tackles and 13.5 sacks. He was a rare bright spot for the Oakland defense in an otherwise ugly season.

Heading into mid-November Hurst was a top-10 interior lineman, on pace for 38 solo tackles and 5 sacks when an ankle injury derailed the rest of his season. With some talent around him and a year of experience under his belt, Hurst is poised for a strong year two and box score production that should make him a solid DT1.

Last year’s second-round pick P.J. Hall and veterans Justin Ellis and Johnathan Hankins round out the rotation up front. Hall battled injuries early in the year and got off to a slow start. By mid-season, he was rotating with Hurst as the 3-technique tackle. Hall made little box score splash as a rookie and probably will not do much for fantasy managers going forward, but he will be an important piece for the team as they look to turn things around.

Hankins and Ellis are a pair of road graders checking in at 320 and 335 pounds respectively. They could end up sharing time at the nose tackle position and will make a contribution on the field, but there is not much chance either will have fantasy relevance.

Linebackers

The Raiders started building a defensive foundation last year with the additions of Maurice Hurst, Arden Key and P.J. Hall up front. They continued in this year’s draft by adding three more linemen and a first round safety. Maybe next year, Coach Gruden and company will get around to addressing the linebacker position for the long term. For 2018, however, they will try to hold things together with bargain-priced veterans.

Tahir Whitehead led the team with 87 solo tackles from the middle linebacker position last season and was a top-15 linebacker. With the free agent additions of Brandon Marshall and Vontaze Burfict however, Whitehead is far from a lock to remain in the middle. Even if he does there will be more competition for tackles.

A glance at the roster leaves no question who the team’s top three linebackers are. Whitehead, Burfict and Marshall are all but certain to be the starters. Whitehead is the only one of the trio that has much positional versatility. Burfict is a weak side backer. He played there in college and has played there for seven seasons as a pro. Marshall is a middle backer. He has been an inside backer in a 3-4 and a middle backer in a 4-3 for six years as a pro. The coaching staff may look at guys in different alignments but they knew what they were getting when these players were signed. Considering Burfict has played a full schedule once and Marshall twice in their careers, injuries could have a part to play. If everyone remains healthy the only real question is who are the sub package guys?

All three players have been three down linebackers over the course of their careers. During his time in Cincinnati Burfict participated in sub packages whenever he was healthy enough to play. That said, he may be the slowest of Oakland’s options. He may also be the top big-play threat. While in Denver there were times Marshall played only in sub packages, coming off the field on early downs. This happened mostly when he was not completely healthy and the coaches wanted to limit playing time. The point being, coverage is one of his strengths. Whitehead was a two-down strongside backer in Detroit for a while. He has gotten better in sub package roles over the last few seasons and does a more than adequate job in coverage, but is not a big play threat.

The best option for IDP managers would be to avoid this situation altogether. If you find yourself looking for depth at linebacker in the late rounds and need to gamble, I would probably take Whitehead first even though he could be a two-down strong side backer to open the season. Chances are, one of the other two will be banged up by the time bye weeks get here. In reality, any of the three could give us solid production if the situation goes their way.

Defensive Backs

The Oakland pass defense was not at the bottom of the league in total yards allowed last year but that is only because opponents got ahead early then ran the on them. Their 8.2 yards per pass attempt actually did leave them tied for last with Miami and Tampa Bay. While the futility was ugly for Raiders fans, it cannot all be blamed on a secondary that got no help from the pass rush. This unit did give the defense something to build on by coming up with 14 interceptions. With a few strong pieces already in place, the organization used both the draft and free agency to land a couple more key components that could make the secondary a team strength in 2019.

If 2017 first round pick Gareon Conley and last year’s free agent addition Daryl Worley can stay healthy and off the commissioner’s suspended list, Oakland will have a good pair of starting corners. Conley played two games as a rookie before missing the rest of the season with a shin injury. He managed to play in 14 contests last season while battling a litany of minor issues including a concussion that kept him out week 16.

From the box score perspective, Conley’s production was nothing for IDP managers to get excited about. With 24 tackles and 13 assists, he was not a fantasy factor but Conley’s 15 passes defended and team-leading 3 interceptions gives the organization hope. Due mostly to all the injuries he was limited to about 66% of the defensive snaps last season. If he can stay healthy Conley might even make a decent CB2 in 2019.

At 6’1” 204 pounds Worley is a big physical press corner that matches up well with bigger receivers and is not afraid to put a shoulder on the ball carrier in run support. The 25 pass breakups and 4 interceptions he has produced over three seasons as a pro show that Worley is not a major big-play threat, but he will contribute in those areas. He does, however, have the potential to make a lot of tackles for a corner. As a rookie for the Panthers in 2016 Worley played all 16 games, finishing with a stat line of 62-25-1, a pick and 8 pass breakups. Those numbers made him the number 13 corner. Worley spent the first four games of last season on a commissioner imposed vacation then missed a couple more with minor injuries. On fewer than half the team’s defensive snaps he had 30 tackles, 7 passes defended and a pick. If he can stay on the field Worley has solid CB2 potential.

There will be plenty of competition for the third corner job this summer. Rookie second-round pick Trayvon Mullen may have some advantage simply because they will want to get him the experience. In many ways, Mullen is similar to Worley. Both are tall, physical press corners that can disrupt routes at the line and have the speed to stay close when someone gets around them. Also like Worley, Mullen does not make a lot of big plays.

Veteran Nevin Lawson and last year’s fourth-round pick Nick Nelson will also be in the mix for the nickel job. Lawson has plenty of starting experience from his five years with Detroit but is a smaller defender that relies more on speed, quickness, and finesse. If he is the third corner, chances are he would line up outside with Worley coming down into the slot.

The Raiders seemed to use 2018 to audition players at safety. Early in the season, it was Marcus Gilchrist and Reggie Nelson at the positions most of the time with Erik Harris seeing a few snaps as the third man. After the week seven bye, 2016 first round pick Karl Joseph started showing up in place of Nelson, and by the end of the season, Joseph and Harris were the starters. Everyone had their chance, but apparently, no one made a strong enough impression. Gilchrest and Nelson are gone and there is a chance Joseph will be too by the time week one gets here.

The organization added a proven player at free safety by signing former Rams starter Lamarcus Joyner in free agency. They improved depth at the safety position through free agency as well by signing former Patriots second-round pick Jordan Richards and the Giants 2018 starter Curtis Riley. On day one of the draft Oakland used the third of their first round picks on Johnathan Abram, making him the first strong safety off the board.

If everything goes according to plan, Joyner and Abram will be the week-one starters. Joyner brings experience and much-needed leadership to a young secondary but he is not going to supply much fantasy value. Abram, on the other hand, packs a ton of fantasy potential. NFL draft analyst Lance Zierlein compared Abram to IDP star Keanu Neal. He is not particularly big for a strong safety but Abram packs a punch as a tackler. He is not a liability in coverage by any stretch but shines as a physical run defender with the speed and determination to make plays sideline to sideline. Most importantly for IDP managers, Abram checks the box for previous production. In two seasons as a starter for Mississippi State (25 games), he totaled 96 tackles, 74 assists, 5 sacks, and 6 turnovers. Behind a somewhat shaky linebacker corps, Abram could be in line for a big rookie season.

Karl Joseph has been a bust for the Raiders but there is some hope. He played some of the best football of his young career over the final eight games last season. It was probably not enough to save his career in Oakland but there are a lot of teams out there with needs at safety. It is no secret the Raiders were shopping Joseph last season and there is little doubt they would still move him if there is a reasonable offer. At worst he is stuck in Oakland for this season then becomes a free agent.

Los Angeles Chargers

Defensive Linemen

With the exception of safety Derwin James, the Chargers defense was a huge disappointment for IDP managers last season. No other defender exceeded 65 solo stops and Melvin Ingram III led the team with a modest seven sacks. The raw numbers paint a bleak picture, but in reality, there is a good deal of fantasy value to be mined here.

Injuries contributed immensely to lacking box scores of several Chargers in 2018. Joey Bosa is at the top of that list. A painful foot sprain sidelined Bosa until week eleven. Once he returned it was business as usual. In seven games he totaled 18-5-5.5 with a turnover. Having missed 13 games in three seasons as a pro, injuries may be somewhat of a concern with Bosa but when he is right there are few better options for IDP managers. When he played a full schedule in 2017 Bosa led the league in tackles by a lineman with 53 solo and 17 assists. Adding 12 sacks and 4 turnovers he was the fantasy game’s second-best lineman behind only Calais Campbell. Bosa is healthy entering camp and is poised for another season with 40+ tackles and double-digit sacks. He is an elite tier DL1 with the potential to be number one.

Lining up as a bookend to Bosa in 2016 and 2017, Melvin Ingram III averaged 44-14-10, 4 turnover and 3 pass breakups. With Bosa sidelined much of last season, Ingram’s numbers slid to 28-15-7 and 3 turnovers. With his running mate back Ingram should return to form but there is another interesting trend to be aware of here. In each of the past two seasons, he has faded considerably down the stretch. Five and a half of last year’s seven sacks were in the books by week 10, while he put a goose egg in the sack column in six of the final seven contests. In 2017 he recorded two sacks over the final nine games. At 247 pounds Ingram is considerably undersized for a three-down end. The wear and tear of fighting with 300-pound linemen seems to take its toll as the season progresses. There is a good chance he will be a 40-tackle and double-digit sack guy again in 2019, but if you pick Ingram, have a plan for December that does not include him.

The Chargers interior line had been good in NFL terms over the last couple years but has given IDP managers nothing. In 2017 no Chargers tackle recorded more than 20 solo stops. Darius Philon led the group with 16 last year. He added 4.5 sacks but most of those came while covering for Bosa at end. The trend could be broken soon though. First-round pick Jerry Tillery gives the Chargers a mix of size, power and athleticism they have not had on the inside for a long time. At 6’6” 295 pounds Tillery has the tools to anchor a run defense. A lot of draft experts saw the Notre Dame standout as a great fit in a penetrating 1-gap 3-4 scheme because he has the quickness and wiggle to rush the passer. Over the last few years, we have seen a trend of athletic 3-technique tackles having a lot of impact as pass rushers. The 12.5 sacks Tillery recorded for the Fighting Irish over the last two seasons are a good indicator we may be adding his name to the list.

Brandon Mebane, Damion Square, Justin Jones, and rookie seventh-round pick Cortez Broughton fill out the lineup and depth chart at tackle. Mebane should continue to start at nose with Jones probably seeing significant action in a rotation.

Linebackers

The Chargers were a mess at linebacker in 2018 and have a lot of questions entering camp. It is easy to blame injuries which certainly contributed, but there are other issues here. Middle linebacker Denzel Perryman is the player most IDP managers identify as the best target of the group. It is true that he tends to put up solid tackle totals when healthy, or at least he did earlier in his career. That was not so much the case last season when Perryman averaged fewer than 4 solo stops per game before going down in week 10. A look at snap counts tells us why. Even before the injury, Perryman was not playing full time. He averaged 72% of the snaps over the first eight games, reaching 80% twice. In essence, he was a base package two down middle backer.

Looking at his history and skill set it is not hard to figure out why Perryman had a reduced role last year. Nor is there any reason to believe his contribution will be different going forward. Perryman is fragile, having missed 23 of a possible 64 career games. He is no better than average in coverage and has not been productive in the big play columns. In 41 games he has four pass breakups, two interceptions, three sacks, and a couple of takeaways on fumbles. That is one good season for the league’s better inside linebackers.

Play for play Jatavis Brown is by far the most productive linebacker on the Chargers roster, but the coaching staff may be oblivious to the fact. As a rookie in 2016 Brown got on the field as an injury replacement. In what amounted to about 10 games of action he was 64-13-3.5 with 6 passes defended and a pair of turnovers. During that span, his average of 12.3 points per game ranked 13th among linebackers. Brown opened the 2017 season as the starting weakside linebacker. Five games into the season he was on pace for 102 tackles and 45 assists. Inexplicably his role was drastically reduced for the remainder of the season with Brown seeing more than 50% of the playing time once over the final 11 games.

The Chargers opened last season with then-rookie-fourth-round pick Kyzir White as the weak side starter. When White was injured in week three, Brown got another chance to prove himself, which he did. By the end of the season, Brown had seen action on 636 plays which was about 62% of the Chargers defensive snaps, with a stat line of 62-35-1, a forced fumble and 5 passes defended. If he had received say 90% of the playing time those numbers would have looked something like 81-46-2 with a couple of turnovers and 7 passes defended. It would be nice to think the coaching staff has finally figured out Brown is their best linebacker, but there is no way to know for sure that is the case until at least the preseason.

The addition of Thomas Davis adds even more uncertainty to the situation. The 36-year-old veteran is near the end of an outstanding career but he can still play. For most of his 13 seasons in Carolina, Davis lined up as a three-down strongside linebacker, but he is more than capable of working from the weak side. For the last couple seasons, the Chargers have used safety Adrian Phillips as a nickel linebacker. The signing of Davis means something has to give with either Davis, Brown or Phillips losing those important sub package opportunities. This is a situation we will be watching closely when training camps open.

The guy everyone is forgetting here is Kyzir White. He was a super-sized safety at West Virginia and has excellent cover skills for a linebacker. The coaching staff liked White enough to start him at the beginning of last season so there has to be at least some chance he has a significant role this year. White is close to fully recovered from the knee injury and is expected to be full go for camp.

Hayes Pullard has done an adequate job behind Perryman in the middle over the last couple of seasons. He has the versatility to help out at the other positions if necessary, but he is not an answer for any long term need. Rookies Drue Tranquill and Emeke Egbule are developmental players that will earn their keep on special teams for now.

  • MLB Denzel Perryman – Marginal value at best
  • WLB Jatavis Brown – Boom or bust candidate with high ceiling and low floor
  • SLB Thomas Davis – Unknown commodity in his first season away from Carolina
  • WLB Kyzir White – Deep sleeper but don’t forget the name
  • MLB Drue Tranquill – Developmental rookie
  • MLB Nick Dzubnar – No impact
  • SLB/DE Uchenna Nwosu – No serious impact
  • OLB Emeke Egbule – Developmental rookie with excellent physical tools

Defensive Backs

Breaking down the Chargers secondary is simple; everything revolves around Derwin James. Last year’s rookie sensation is a physical specimen with a do-everything skill set. At 6’2” and 215 pounds, James is just a comfortable at linebacker depth as backed off the line. He is physical in run support, solid in coverage, can get to the passer on a blitz and has a knack for game-changing plays. His rookie stat line is a good example of his ability and versatility. The 76 solo tackles were eighth most among defensive backs, his 30 assists ranked fourth at the position. Two players at the position had more than his 3.5 sacks. James added three picks and a whopping (for a safety) 13 passes defended to finish as the fantasy game’s fourth-best defensive back. So what does he do for an encore? Let me just put it this way -- James is 22 years old entering his second training camp. The best is almost certainly yet to come.

Fellow safety Adrian Phillips may have been the team’s best linebacker last season. He was definitely the most productive with his 65 tackles being second most on the team, and a majority of them coming when he was aligned as a nickel linebacker. Los Angeles used a big nickel as their base defense regularly in 2018. There is little doubt it will continue to be a significant part of the plan on most weeks but there is no guarantee Phillips production will continue on the same level. He is worth the roster spot as a fifth defensive back but if he starts slowly, do not be stubborn about moving on.

Jahleel Addae has moved on so there will be competition for the free safety job. Phillips could end up playing there if the coaching staff elects to change up their approach, but most likely it will be between Jaylen Watkins and second-round pick Nasir Adderley. Watkins spent two seasons as a backup in Philadelphia before joining the Chargers last offseason. An August knee injury ended his 2018 season but the organization liked what they saw enough to give him another one year deal. Adderley is loaded with talent and physical skills but made a lot of mental errors and/or was slow to recognize key reads at times while playing for Deleware. His ability to overcome those issues will have a lot to do with how quickly he can contribute on the field.

The Chargers have no former first-round pick at the corner positions but that is not a sign that they need one. The organization has done an excellent job of bringing in quality free agents and making good decisions on later round picks. Casey Hayward is the number one guy. He was a free agent addition in 2016 after his rookie contract with the Packers ran out. His numbers were down last season after two big years that included 11 interceptions, 42 passes defended and a top-5 ranking among corners in 2016. Hayward should bounce back after recording no turnovers in 2018 but he is hit or miss when it comes to fantasy value.

Desmond King is a poster child for the rookie corner rule. The 2017 fifth-round pick piled up 66 tackles, 10 assists, 4 sacks, 5 pass breakups, a pick, and a score as a rookie. Last season the tackles dropped to 47-14 but the big plays increased to 5 turnovers, 9 pass breakups and a pair of scores. Regardless of how he got there, King finished among the top-10 both seasons. Because he works as the nickel/slot corner, a lot of IDP managers will second guess drafting King. The truth is, he has been in that role all along including last year after Trevor Williams was lost. The Chargers use nickel nearly 80% of the time so there is a reasonable chance King will make it three top-10 rankings in a row.

Trevor Williams has been a real gem. The organization picked him up as an undrafted free agent in 2016. He earned the starting job in heading into 2017 and has been a starter ever since. Williams was lost to a knee injury around midseason but is expected to be ready for camp. He is a dependable second corner for Los Angeles but unlike Hayward and King, Williams has never made much of a box score splash.

Michael Davis stepped in as a starter when Williams was lost last season. Davis is yet another young, former undrafted free agent that has played well for the team. He will go back to being the dime corner in 2018 but the organization can be confident in his ability if called upon.

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