Eyes of the Guru IDP Info, Part 2: NFC South

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

Atlanta Falcons

Defensive Linemen

The Falcons struggled defensively in 2018. They were 27th versus the pass and 25th against the run, ranked 22nd with 37 sacks, 28th with 8 forced fumbles and 31st with four fumble recoveries. Not surprisingly the Falcons surrendered the eighth most points. Yet surprisingly the only draft picks directed at the defense were a pair of corners in the fourth and fifth rounds, and defensive end John Cominsky who was taken with a compensatory pick at the end of round four. The only significant free-agent addition is Adrian Clayborn who was with the team for three seasons before spending 2018 with the Patriots.

Despite their struggles, it is not as if this unit is void of talent. Vic Beasley Jr and Takkarist McKinley are former first-round selections so the return of Clayborn gives them a trio of number ones on the edge. On the inside, veteran Grady Jarrett is among the league’s elite defensive tackles while Jack Crawford is a quality veteran coming off the best campaign of his seven-year career. Last year’s third-round pick Deadrin Senat figures to be the third man in the rotation though he will have to hold off free agent addition Tyeler Davidson who came over from New Orleans.

Unless your format requires defensive tackles the Falcons gives us little to get excited about. McKinley led the club with a respectable 7.5 sacks a year ago, but he managed just 14 tackles and six assists to go with them. After posting a line of 15-5-6 as a rookie in 2017, it becomes painfully obvious this is not a fluke. Beasley is not much better though he has turned in one big season. In 2016 he had 32 tackles 7 assists, 15.5 sacks, and 7 turnovers. Over the other three seasons of his career, Beasley has averaged 20-6-5 with 5 total turnovers.

Some of the issue here is lack of opportunity. The Falcons like to rotate often on the outside, thus Beasley was on the field for about 65% of the defensive snaps last season while McKinley played less than 60%. Another big contributor is that neither has the size to stand up at the point of attack versus the run. McKinley checks in at a flyweight 230 pounds while Beasley is considerably undersized as well at 246.

At 281 pounds, Clayborn is likely to see action on early downs and should help the sagging run defense. He had a career year with the Buccaneers back in 2013 going 44-20-6 with a couple of turnovers but has given us marginal at best production in seven other seasons. Clayborn had a best 9.5 sacks with the Falcons in 2017. Unfortunately, three seasons in Atlanta produced a combined 50 solo tackles.

Grady Jarrett is the lone bright spot for fantasy managers here. His average of 8.5 points per game ranked 25th among defensive linemen last season and he was top ten eighth among tackles for the second consecutive season. Jarrett’s production has steadily increased since joining the team as a fifth-round pick in 2015. Maybe the most important factor in terms of Jarrett’s IDP value; the Falcons are willing to leave him on the field. He averaged better than 50 snaps per game in 2018 and played more than any other Falcons defensive lineman.

At 6’0” and 305 pounds Jarrett is a bowling ball with a low center of gravity that makes him tough to get under and move. He has the ability to hold ground at the point of attack, the power to push the pocket and enough athleticism/quickness to provide a little wiggle as a pass rusher. Jarrett has at least four sacks in each of the past three seasons with the six last year being a career high. At age 26 he is entering the prime of his career so we may not yet have seen Jarrett’s best football.

Depending on how deep your league drafts, Jack Crawford could have a little value as depth. He has the versatility to line up at end on early downs and is coming off the most productive season of his seven-year career. With 34 combined tackles and assists, 5.5 sacks and a pair of turnovers, Crawford finished inside the top 30 at tackle last year. The Falcons are rather thin up front so Crawford should be on the field enough to match or even improve on those numbers a bit.

Deadrin Senat is a guy we may want to keep an eye on here as well. He is a near clone of Jarrett in both stature and skill set. As a three-year starter for South Florida, he totaled 104 career tackles with 74 assists, 7 sacks and a couple forced fumbles. The organization views Senat as a future starter. In fact, it would not be a surprise to see them regularly play Crawford at end on early downs with Senat and Jackson on the inside.

Linebackers

Deion Jones is the prototype for the new breed of NFL linebacker. At 6’1” and 227 pounds he is tiny by traditional standards but what he lacks in size Jones makes up for with speed, athleticism, and instinct. He excels at slipping through traffic and finding the ball carrier on run downs and is among the league’s best at the position in terms of coverage. From a fantasy perspective, Jones is both a tackling machine and a playmaker. He had a solid rookie season in 2016 then improved on it in year two when he finished among the top five at the position. His 91 solo stops were fourth most by a linebacker in 2017 while the 47 assists tied for seventh most. Jones was injured in week one of 2018 and missed most of the season. He returned with a bang in week 13 going 13-2-1 versus Baltimore. In the five full games, he played last year Jones racked up 31 tackles, 18 assists, 6 pass breakups, three turnovers, a sack, and a score, for an average of better than 20 points per game. He is 24 years old and just getting started on what looks to be an outstanding career. Few fantasy managers will give Jones much though as the number one linebacker on draft day but he clearly belongs on the elite first tier.

The sure fantasy value among Atlanta linebackers starts and stops with Jones. He when he was sidelined for ten games, no Falcons linebacker played more than 85% of the snaps after Week 3. The coaching staff initially shifted strong side backer Duke Riley to the middle. When he struggled they moved on to Foye Oluokun who did an adequate job but was hardly impressive. When Jones returned Oluokun moved outside pushing Riley out of the lineup altogether.

When all the numbers were in weakside starter De’Vondre Campbell had been on the field more than any Atlanta linebacker. He parlayed 85% of the defensive snaps into 63 solo stops, 30 assists, and 1.5 sacks, with an average of less than eight fantasy points per game. While Campbell is serviceable as a run defender, his glaring lack of big-play ability virtually nullifies any serious fantasy consideration. In three seasons with the Falcons, including two as a starter, he has accounted for three total takeaways with three and a half sacks. Managers in leagues with deep rosters or a lot of teams may view Campbell as depth. For most, he is not worth the investment of a roster spot.

Defensive Backs

It does not take a genius to figure out why the Falcons defense struggled in 2018. Take away the two best defenders from nearly any team and the team’s play will suffer substantially. By Week 2 last year Atlanta was without both Deion Jones and star safety Keanu Neal. While Jones returned late in the season and showed no ill effect from the foot injury, Neal faced a much longer recovery from his torn ACL. He is not yet 100% but Neal’s recovery seems to be going well. He was back on the field doing individual drills during the team’s June minicamp and should be cleared for full practice when training camp opens.

It makes no difference if you are an NFL evaluator or a fantasy general manager, regardless of perspective Keanu Neal is one of football’s elite safeties. He is a physical tackler who rarely misses, has the speed and cover skills to stick with the game’s best pass-catching tight ends and physical receivers, and is a ball hawk contributing six turnovers in each of his two seasons as a pro. In fantasy terms, Neal lands near the top no matter how you spin the numbers. His 83 solo stops in 2017 were second among defensive backs that year while Neal’s 11.5 points per game were top-five among safeties and his six turnovers were fourth most at the position. He even has great week-to-week consistency falling short of nine points three times in 2017 and only once after week three that season. The only consideration that might keep Neal out of the elite tier among defensive backs in fantasy terms is concern about the injury. History tells us many players are not the same until two seasons removed from such an injury. It helps that Neal went down in week one, making it a full year before he takes the field again in a meaningful game. Even if he is less than 100% there is little doubt Neal will be a quality DB1.

While injuries to Jones and Neal were the two biggest setbacks for the Falcons defense last season, By Week 4, they were without starting free safety Ricardo Allen as well. For Allen, it was a torn Achilles that ended his season. He too is recovering well and is expected to be ready for training camp. For Allen however, the road back to the lineup may be blocked by third-year man Damontae Kazee who had an outstanding 2018 in relief.

Kazee initially stepped in for Neal at strong safety and was highly productive. He recorded double-digit fantasy points in seven of nine games before moving to free safety. Between his skill set a cover man with good speed, the big play ability he showed in recording seven interceptions, and his size checking in at 190 pounds, the free safety position is probably a better fit for Kazee. There will likely be a competition between him and Allen for the starting job next to Neal but the emergence of Kazee also opens the possibility of more three safety sets which is something the Falcons have not used much previously.

The free safety in Atlanta’s scheme plays off well the ball nearly all the time, serving as a safety net. Thus there is not a lot of tackle opportunity. Regardless who wins the job there will not be a high expectation for them in fantasy terms.

Desmond Trufant is one of the league’s elite shutdown corners and a great example of the rookie corner rule. Over his first two seasons (2013 and 2014) Trufant totaled 108 tackles, 23 assists, five interceptions and 33 passes defended. Over his last two full seasons prior to last (2015 and 2017), he combined for 81 tackles, 12 assists, 3 interceptions, and 22 pass breakups. Last season Trufant’s tackle totals mysteriously jumped back up to 55 solo and 11 assists, but he failed to record a turnover for the first time in his six-year career. The bottom line; While Trufant is a great cover man and asset to the Falcons, he is a virtual non-factor for IDP owners.

Many of the contributions Trufant makes on the field will show up in the box scores of those around him. In 2017 fellow corner Robert Alford set new personal bests in both tackles with 60 and passes defended with 20. Those numbers carried him to a Top-20 finish among corners that season. Last year it was Brian Poole putting up career-best numbers as the starter opposite Trufant. At 55-19-3 with 5 takeaways, Poole edged into the top 12 at the corner position. Both Alford and Poole have moved on leaving second-year man Isaiah Oliver as the probable starter. While he is not actually a rookie, Oliver is an inexperienced young corner starting opposite one of the games best. That scenario often produces a quality option for managers in corner required leagues.

One striking issue for the Falcons is experienced depth at corner. Fourth-round pick Kendall Sheffield, fifth round selection Jordan Miller, and undrafted free agent Taveze Calhoun will compete with journeyman Blidi Wreh-Wilson for the nickel job and to fill out the rest of the pecking order at corner. The organization may look to add some veteran help before the season opener.

Carolina Panthers

Defensive Linemen

The Panthers were middle of the pack in most important defensive categories last year; the one glaring exception being sacks. Only five teams totaled fewer than Carolina’s 35. That and the retirement of Julius Peppers led the organization to draft a pair of edge rushers in the first four rounds, including first-rounder Brian Burns; this on the heels of landing Bruce Irvin and Gerald McCoy in free agency.

While the additions are significant, the bigger story may be the team’s shift in defensive philosophy from a fairly vanilla base 4-3 to a hybrid mixing in a significant amount of three-man fronts. The goal was to make their defense unpredictable thus keeping offenses off balance. All the additions -- as well as many of the hold holdovers -- would seem to fit well in such a scheme.

This is where the IDP community really needs an edge defender position. In Burns and fellow rookie Christian Miller, the Panthers hope to have a pair of outside guys with the versatility to stand up as linebackers on one play then put their hands down as defensive ends on the next. Both Burns and Miller were accomplished pass rushers in college. Burns accounted for 23 sacks over three seasons as a defensive end at Florida State while Miller totaled eight as a senior at Alabama playing outside linebacker. Checking in below 250 pounds, the concern for both these guys is their ability to hold up versus the run at the next level. Burns is all but certain to have a significant role right from the start but he may not see enough opportunity to have a fantasy impact as a rookie. Miller seems like more of a project type and may never be more than a situational pass rusher.

Smaller defensive ends have been the norm in Carolina for a while now. With Peppers gone the biggest end on the current roster is third-year man Bryan Cox Jr Jr. at 270 pounds. He may be the team’s best option as a run defender on the outside but Cox does not provide much of a pass rush threat.

The only sure fantasy target of this group is Mario Addison who led the team in sacks over each of the last three seasons. Addison spent the first five years of his career working as a pass rush specialist for the Panthers before moving into a three-down role in 2016. Since becoming a starter he has not fallen short of nine sacks in a season but at 260 pounds, his run defense and the tackle production that comes with it has been adequate at best. His biggest statistical season to date is 2017 when Addison totaled 27 tackles, 17 assists, 11 sacks and a pair of forced fumbles. Maybe the new scheme will help boost his tackle totals but Addison’s fit is not a sure thing. Just because he is undersized for a 4-3 end does not mean he can be successful as an outside linebacker. The nine-year veteran has not played linebacker at either the college or pro level and at age 31, it may be hard to teach the old dog new tricks. That said, on paper, he would seem to have the skill set to make the transition. Besides, it is not as if he would be standing up on every play. In short I am cautiously optimistic Addison will excel both in the role and in the box scores in 2019. Target him as a low-end DL2 or priority DL3 and keep your fingers crossed that he becomes more.

Bruce Irvin was a great addition for the Panthers and is expected to start opposite Addison. With 41 sacks over a seven-year career, he is a proven pass rusher. Best of all he is a known commodity in terms of being successful at both linebacker and defensive end. While he has never reached double-digit sacks in a season, Irvin’s fantasy upside may be higher than that of Addison. Irvin has exceeded the 30 tackle mark three times in his career including twice as with the Raiders over the past three seasons. His career best came with Oakland in 2016 when he went 47-10-7 with 7 forced fumbles. Irvin’s versatility gives defensive coordinator Eric Washington the ability to switch from a four to three-man front without making substitutions. The possible downfall with Irvin is some league management sites may classify him as a linebacker. Check your league settings to be sure and put Irvin high on your sleeper list if he is a defensive end.

For managers in leagues breaking out the defensive line positions Carolina could be a rare gold mine in that they have a pair of tackles with the ability to put up solid numbers. Kawann Short had three consecutive top-10 finishes at tackle before slipping to 15th last year. The slide was purely due to a drop in sack numbers. He consistently provides strong (for an interior lineman) tackle totals with an average of 30 solo and 19 assists over the past four seasons. Short can get after the quarterback as well. Prior to his three-sack performance in 2018, he had a three-season average of eight. He is big, quick and highly disruptive. In fact, the only thing likely to ruin Short’s fantasy value as a quality DT1 is the potential change in position designation. It seems everyone except the Panthers are talking about how Carolina is changing to a base 3-4 scheme. That is not the case here people; at least not yet anyway.

The other potential DT1 here is free agent addition Gerald McCoy who has both a skill set and production history similar to that of Short. With the Buccaneers, McCoy totaled at least five sacks every season since 2011 with an average of 29 tackles and 10 assists. Also much like Short, McCoy’s skill set should allow him to work anywhere across the defensive front both as a tackle in four-man fronts and at end when a 3-4 is called. Determining what effect the new philosophy will have on these two great linemen is a tough call. One certainty, however, they will both rank much higher on the tackle list than at end.

Dontari Poe, Vernon Butler, and Kyle Love fill out the rest of the depth chart up front. At 346 pounds Poe should see most of the work at nose tackle in three-man fronts. That is a position he is familiar with from his time with the Chiefs. Poe had a couple big years early in his career but has been rather quiet in the box scores since 2014.

It is easy to envision a front seven featuring Poe over the center, flanked by Short and McCoy as ends with Addison and Irvin coming off the edge as linebackers. It is just as easy to envision Short and McCoy at tackle with Addison and Irvin putting their hands down as ends and Burns as a third pass rusher from the strong side linebacker position. Either of these formations would present a formidable front and we are likely to see plenty of both.

Linebackers

Carolina middle/inside linebacker Luke Kuechly is an IDP legend. In terms of average points per game, he has been number one in four of his seven seasons and has never finished lower than fifth. He makes a lot of tackles, provides plenty of big-play production and has averaged nearly 8 passes defended over his career. If not for the lingering injury concerns, Kuechly would easily be among the top three fantasy targets at the linebacker position. For many he still is despite the fact one more head injury might end his career. On a positive note; after missing at least one game due to concussions in three consecutive seasons, Kuechly played a full slate of games in 2018. That makes it easy to forget 2016 when he was out for several weeks but it should still be considered when making the choice between say Kuechly and Bobby Wagner as your LB1.

With the new defensive approach, some of Kuechly’s responsibilities will be different than years past and subject to change on a play to play basis. This should not have any ill effect on his production. In fact, it could provide a boost as opponents will no longer know for sure where he will be or where he will be going every play. Thus it will be more difficult to account for Kuechly in blocking schemes.

For most of the last 12 seasons, Thomas Davis has been a fixture in the Panthers defense. Over the past four years, 2015 first round pick Shaq Thompson has been playing part-time while stuck in the shadow of Davis while awaiting his turn. Now that Davis has moved on, Thompson’s patience will finally be rewarded with a full-time role. When the team is in a three-man front Thompson will join Kuechly as an inside backer. When they line up in a 4-3 or nickel, Thompson should work mostly from the weak side.

From a fantasy perspective, it is hard to gauge what to expect from the fifth-year pro. In a few games as a replacement for Davis over the last four seasons, Thompson has provided mixed reviews. Last year is a perfect example. With Davis out the first four weeks, Thompson gave us a pair of double-digit scores and two of less than four points. On the other hand, he was 51-27-3.5 with a forced fumble on roughly 60% of the defensive snaps. Competing with Kuechly for tackles is not going to help and Thompson has not really shown a knack for the big play. Even so, a full-time role in his current situation could make his a solid third starter for IDP managers. Fortunately, he is a player that can probably be picked up in later rounds as depth with upside.

Jermaine Carter and Jared Norris could be competing for the title of starting strongside linebacker, but in reality, neither are likely to get on the field much. Between the extensive use of nickel packages and three-man fronts, and the team looking to get both Bruce Irvin and Brian Burns on the field, there will not be many opportunities for a base 4-3 strongside backer in Carolina. The only way anyone other than Kuechly and Thompson is going to become a factor at linebacker is due to injury.

Defensive Backs

With the possible exception of corner required leagues, the Panthers historically have not provided IDP owners with much help at defensive back. Kurt Coleman bucked that trend to some degree during his three years with the team, but both corners out produced safeties Eric Reid and Mike Adams last season. This is one area that the new defensive approach could affect considerably. We may not hear much about it these days but the Panthers have used a two-deep safety or Tampa-2 type scheme for years. They could still use 2-deep coverage in the secondary at times as most teams do, but with the new approach could come significantly more in the box and/or run support responsibilities.

Strong safety Eric Reid has not reached 60 solo stops in any of his six NFL seasons but that does not mean he is incapable. In fact, he has been on pace to do so in each of the last three seasons had he not missed games with injuries. Reid worked at free safety over much of his five seasons with San Francisco. When he shifted to strong in 2016 he was on pace for 77 tackles and 23 assists before missing the final six games. He is a player that will be drafted late if at all in most IDP leagues, but if he should look strong during the preseason or in September, it is probably not a fluke.

Adams is gone, likely making room for last year’s third-round selection Rashaan Gaulden to take over at free safety. Speed and cover skills got Gaulden drafted but he has not been particularly box score friendly even dating back to his two years as a starter at Tennessee. He should provide the Panthers with a dependable center fielder but is unlikely to make a fantasy splash.

At this time last season, we touted Donte Jackson as another possible installment of the rookie corner rule. Thus far he has not disappointed. Jackson’s 62 solo stops were fifth among corners. He added a sack and five turnovers to end the season as the number seven corner. Jackson was helped by the cover-2 scheme which puts its corners up near the line in press coverage often, with more run support responsibilities than their counterparts in other schemes. Thus the question, can he repeat the production? There is a chance he will but we should not be counting on it. If he follows the common trend for young corners Jackson’s tackle numbers will slip a bit but his big-play production could improve. Corners are just too unpredictable year to year and the scheme changes could take away some opportunity.

James Bradberry has also provided solid production for over the last two seasons those of us in corner required leagues. His tackle totals slipped a bit from 66-19 in 2017 to 59-12 last year but right in line with the rookie corner rule, his pass breakups almost doubled from 8 to 15. With a total of 7 turnovers in three seasons as a pro, Bradberry cannot be considered a big play corner but his solid tackle totals have made him a dependable option as a second starter. At 6’1 212 pounds Bradberry is a physical press corner that does his best work up near the line. However the team decides to shuffle their defensive playbook, chances are they will continue to put him in a position that best suits his strength.

Carolina will enter camp a bit thin behind the starters at corner. Third-year pro Kevon Seymour projects as the nickel corner though he will have to hold off free agent addition Ross Cockrell, Corn Elder and Lorenzo Doss who will all be competing to establish the pecking order. It would be no surprise if Carolina adds some veteran depth at the position before the season starts.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Defensive Linemen

The Buccaneers defense has plenty of room for improvement after finishing among the bottom third in nearly all important defensive categories last season. Under new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles this unit will have little similarity to the 2018 version.

Technically they will be using a 3-4 base scheme though Bowles does not run a typical three-man front. In most 3-4 schemes the objective of its defensive line is to hold ground and absorb blockers while being responsible for the space on both their right and left. This is commonly referred to as 2-gap responsibility and it generally keeps players from attacking and making plays.

In Bowles' scheme, the players align much as they would in a four-man front and have the same one gap responsibilities as an aggressive penetrating 4-3. In fact, the only real difference being that one of the outside guys will stand up in a 2-point stance which makes him a linebacker. So, in essence, the Buccaneers will deploy a 4-3 end on one side and a 3-4 outside backer on the other with one tackle in a 3-technique and the other shaded to one side of the center. The moral of this story being, we should not lower box score expectations for Buccaneers defensive linemen due to scheme. In fact, their production could get a boost from it.

One situation that will be tough for the defense to overcome is the loss of Jason Pierre-Paul who could miss the season due to a neck injury suffered in an automobile accident. He is all but certain to be sidelined for much of 2019 with a projected recovery time of around six months. At best we can expect Pierre-Paul to open the season on the PUP, meaning he will not be available until game seven. The good news here is the injury is not believed to be career threatening so once healthy the 30-year-old should still have a few good years left.

Tampa Bay had been missing a stud edge rusher since Simeon Rice retired. They finally found one in Pierre-Paul who last year enjoyed his most productive season since 2014 going 49-10-12.5. The Buccaneers really need their star pass rusher back because they have no one on the roster with the ability to replace his production.

Carl Nassib, William Gholston and rookie Terry Beckner Jr. fill out the depth chart at end with Nassib possibly the next man up. The coaching staff initially envisioned Nassib as the starting outside linebacker/edge rusher opposite Pierre-Paul so they may elect to leave him there. On the other hand, they have better depth at OLB which could allow Nasib to move over until Pierre-Paul is healthy. The fourth-year pro has 12 career sacks including a single-season best of six and a half last year as a defensive end. Nassib is a good fit in the scheme at either position and could produce surprisingly useful numbers. This is a situation we will be watching as the summer progresses.

In Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh the Buccaneers have a pair of exceptionally talented interior linemen at opposite ends of their careers. At age 24, Vea is a 347-pound steamroller who bench pressed 225 pounds 41 times at the combine and was nimble enough to see time as a super-sized edge rusher for the Huskies in 2016. His rookie season was hindered by an early calf injury but once he got going it was easy to see why he was selected at 12 overall.

For most interior linemen 20 tackles, 7 assists and 3 sacks is a good season. Vea put up those numbers in the final eight games last year. He is expected to work mostly at nose tackle so there is no question of his positional designation. The attacking/penetrating scheme should be perfect for both Vea’s skill set and production potential. It will be no surprise if he emerges as a perennial top 10 defensive tackle.

Suh is smaller than Vea but at 313 pounds, possesses a similar skill set. When motivated the 32-year-old can be one of the most dominant interior linemen in the game. Keeping him motivated has been an issue throughout his career, however. Officially the Rams did not try to re-sign Suh after he helped them to a Super Bowl, because they could not meet his asking price. While that surely factored into their decision, they were also not happy that he obviously stepped up his game during the playoffs. When paying 14 million dollars to a player, teams want his best every time he steps on the field. Suh has never been that kind of player.

From a fantasy perspective, Suh does enough each year to make him a quality DT1 at season end. His career averages are 36 tackles, 16 assists, six sacks, 3 batted passes, and a turnover. He has never fallen short of four sacks in a season and has exceeded 40 solo tackles three times. All that looks good but week to week consistency has been a considerable negative as Suh simply seems to take weeks off here and there. If the Buccaneers are contenders he should have another highly productive season. If they are out of contention early, expect it to reflect in Suh’s numbers as he will go through the motions down the stretch.

Another issue that could have a considerable effect on Suh’s value this season is positional designation. With most people identifying the Buccaneers as running a 3-4 scheme, some league host sites will designate him a defensive end despite the fact he will line up as a tackle the vast majority of the time. Even at 80% effort, Suh is a solid DT1 target in tackle required leagues. As a defensive end, he will be little more than depth.

  • DE Jason Pierre-Paul – Everything depends on his recovery from the neck injury
  • DE/OLB Carl Nassib – Deep sleeper with DL3 upside
  • DT/DE Ndamukong Suh – Solid DT1 or marginal DL3 with defensive end designation
  • DE William Gholston – No fantasy impact
  • DE Terry Beckner – Developmental rookie
  • NT/DT Vita Vea – DT1 with top-five potential
  • NT Beau Allen – No fantasy impact

Linebackers

There is no lack of talent or depth at the inside/weakside linebacker positions. In veteran Lavonte David, Tampa Bay has an established star and one of the best in the game. He is a do-everything player that is just as strong in coverage as against the run and is a major big-play threat. David missed a couple of games in 2018 but still finished with 94 solo stops, 26 assists, 3.5 sacks, and three takeaways. His average of 13.2 points per game ranked sixth among linebackers.

With the addition of first-round pick Devin White, there is a good chance David’s tackle totals will suffer a bit. Keep in mind that Kwon Alexander missed most of last season so there was not as much competition for tackles. In three seasons with Alexander in the lineup, David never exceeded 84 solo stops including a career low of 67 in 2016. On the other hand, David racked up huge big play totals over those three seasons including 19 turnovers, 8 sacks, 17 pass breakups, and 3 scores. He may get there by a little different route, but it is a safe bet we will see another top-12 finish from David in 2019.

Alexander put up strong numbers for the Buccaneers from 2015 to 2017 and was on pace to do so again last season before the week six knee injury. Unfortunately, injuries were a problem in three of his four years with the team, which may well have been a factor in the decision to move on and draft White. What we learned for Alexander’s time with the team; there are plenty of opportunities to support a pair of top-15 linebackers in Tampa Bay.

Good as Alexander was, White may prove even more productive for fantasy managers. In two seasons as a starter for LSU, he racked up 286 combined tackles and assists with 7.5 sacks, 9 pass breakups, and 8 turnovers. At 6’0” 237 pounds, he has the size, strength, and leverage to be physical versus the run. With a 4.42 time in the 40-yard dash, White is blazing fast for a linebacker with the cover skills to complement the speed. He is intelligent, has a great work ethic, shows leadership and is a proven playmaker. All this adds up to the Buccaneers making White the fifth player off the board this spring. Factor in a great situation and it also adds up to him being a perennial fantasy star for years to come.

Deone Bucannon figures to be the top backup for both David and White but he is likely to have a much more significant role than simply providing depth. With one edge defending linebacker on the field in most situations, there is room for a “rover” type player. Many teams use a third safety in this role in what is often called a big nickel package. Bucannon is a former safety turned linebacker with a skill set that would allow him to move around and exploit weaknesses, making him perfect for the job. Whether we call him a third safety in a big nickel or fourth linebacker in a base 3-4, expectations are Bucannon will be on the field a lot. How well that translated to the box scores is yet to be seen.

If everyone were available Carl Nassib would all but certainly be the starter at outside linebacker. The team’s potential depth at OLB and the need to cover for Pierre-Paul may force Nassib to play end early on. I say potential depth at OLB because the team is not yet sure what they have.

Former second-round pick Noah Spence had 5.5 sacks as a rookie in 2016 but has just one in two injury-plagued seasons since. At 6’2” 251 pounds, Spence was considered a tweener coming out of college and has struggled to fit the mold of a 4-3 end at the pro level. He is 25 years old entering his fourth season has a lot of untapped potential. The new scheme may be just what Spence needs to kick start his career.

Before joining the Buccaneers this offseason, Shaq Barrett spent four years playing a significant role as an outside linebacker with Denver. While his numbers were never great, Barrett was a quality contributor producing 14.5 sacks, forcing 6 fumbles, and recovering three despite never playing much more than half the snaps in any season. He is not going to be a long term answer but could hold down the fort for a while if called upon.

Rookie fourth-round pick Anthony Nelson could be a big factor as the coaching staff looks to get their best players on the field. Nelson was a starter at end for most of his three years at Iowa. Despite coming out after his junior year he totaled 23 career sacks for the Hawkeyes. Nelson’s success came against upper echelon competition in the Big Ten, so he should be able to contribute right away. He was drafted to play outside linebacker but the situation and Nelson’s experience at end could alter the plan in the short term.

Defensive Backs

Trying to figure out what the Buccaneers will look like in the secondary is a challenge to say the least. Of the 11 players at the top of the depth chart at safety or corner entering training camp, nine were drafted in or before the fourth round while none have more than three seasons of NFL experience.

The closest thing to a sure week one starter is free safety Justin Evans and he is not a lock. The 2017 second-round pick has been a starter in both his pro seasons to date but has not yet finished one. His rookie campaign was cut short by an ankle injury, year two ended six games shore due to a toe injury and Evans missed time during offseason workouts with his foot in a boot due to a heel issue. Even when healthy Evans has not played particularly well at times, prompting general manager Jason Licht to express his dissatisfaction at the end of last season. As it currently stands the only real reasons to anticipate Evans starting are his draft position, a couple of years of experience and the fact there is no obvious challenger for the job.

Last spring’s fourth-round pick Jordan Whitehead is penciled in as the starting strong safety entering camp and is probably the best fantasy target of the group. He was slowed by shoulder and hamstring injuries through training camp and into the early weeks of the season but soon emerged as a starter. At 5’11 195 pounds, Whitehead is undersized for a strong safety and he has not demonstrated any big play potential thus far. On the other hand, Whitehead excelled in run support which showed in his numbers. In all he participated in 660 plays which was roughly 63% of the Buccaneers defensive snaps, recording 61 solo stops and 16 passes defended. With the additions and changes in the front seven it is hard to place a value on Whitehead at this point. That said, if he keeps the starting job and plays full time he should be at least a solid DB4, especially if he can come up with a few big plays.

Despite all the names on the list, Tampa Bay is somewhat thin at safety. Isaiah Johnson joined the team as an undrafted free agent in 2017. He saw significant action as the third safety from week four on in 2018 and will be in the mix for playing time again this summer. Free-agent addition Kentrell Brice was given an opportunity to start for Green Bay last year but he struggled greatly and was not even extended an offer when his contract expired at season end. Rookie third-round pick Mike Edwards played corner at Kentucky but will get a look at safety. He is impressive as an athlete and has good upside but is a raw talent. His biggest contribution early on will likely come on special teams.

One thing the Buccaneers can boast is plenty of talented young depth at corner. This will be one of the more interesting position battles this summer. It could also provide at least one quality starter in corner required leagues as Buccaneers corners have a history of useful production, particularly in the tackle columns.

Vernon Hargreaves III will have every opportunity to earn one of the starting spots. The 2016 first round pick missed the final seven games of 2017 due to a hamstring injury then promptly suffered a torn labrum in week one last year. Health is one issue for the talented young corner but he is also somewhat of a head case at times. Hargreaves was benched during a game in 2017 but returned to the lineup the following week. Head coach Bruce Arians held Hargreaves out of a May 14th practice session saying he was not mentally ready to practice.

Hargreaves started from day one as a rookie putting up 68 solo stops with 8 assists, 8 pass breakups, and a couple of turnovers that season. He was on pace for similar production in 2017 and went 6-1-0 with a forced fumble and a pass defended in his only game last year. He is a physical press corner which should make Hargreaves a good fit in the new scheme, providing he gets his head on straight of course.

In 2017 the Buccaneers used second-round picks on both Carlton Davis and M.J. Stewart. Davis was an opening day starter as a rookie. He played well at times but was not a standout either on the field or in the box scores. Stewart saw considerable action early in the season before being lost to a lingering foot injury in week eight. Prior to the injury, he was on pace for about 67 solo tackles. Stewart could also get some looks at safety this summer.

This year’s rookie corners Sean Bunting (round two) and Jamel Dean (third) have an edge in that they were picked by the current coaching staff. The new scheme will emphasize turnovers so it is no surprise the organization zeroed in on Bunting who had 14 takeaways (nine on interceptions) and 15 pass breakups as a two-year starter, despite forgoing his senior year at Central Michigan. He is not the most physical of press corners but has a knack for keeping receivers close and breaking up a lot of 50/50 balls.

Dean is bigger and has played against better competition in the SEC. His resume does not include the impressive stats of Bunting, but Dean does have 17 pass breakups and is more physical at the line.

New Orleans Saints

Defensive Linemen

When the Saints were setting records for defensive futility a few years ago, it did not sit well with the organization. Starting in 2016 there has been an emphasis placed on building a unit that will help Drew Brees win championships in the twilight of his career. To that end, the Saints have used extensive draft capital and a substantial amount of free agent money on that side of the ball over the past three seasons. Just as importantly, they have done well at evaluating talent and adding players that fit the system; often at a value price.

The result in 2018 was a unit that could definitely hold its own and may be on the verge of becoming one of the league’s best. Statistically, New Orleans ranked in the top half of the league in nearly every important area. Strong play up front resulted in the second stingiest run defense and a pass rush that got home for a fifth best 49 sacks. It also resulted in some rather solid fantasy production.

The rebuilding process started where it should with 2016 first round pick Sheldon Rankins at tackle. Rankins had a great career at Louisville piling up 59 tackles, 52 assists and 14 sacks with 5 turnovers and a score in two seasons as a starter. Thus the Saints had grand expectations.

Unfortunately, Rankins rookie season was derailed by a broken leg in mid-August limiting him to eight games. It took the young man a while to get back on track but he clearly did so with a breakout 2018. His tackle totals remained modest at 26 solo and 15 assists but the eight sacks jumped Rankins into the top 15 defensive tackles. This is a powerful and athletic big man with an extra gear that few at the position possess; at age 25 we have probably not seen his best production.

Though much less publicized, the 2016 draft also brought fourth-round selection David Onyemata who has also been a considerable contributor. He earned the starting job next to Rankins last year and did a solid job for most of the season; then in Week 13, the light went on. After totaling 13 tackles, 9 assists and half a sack in 11 games, Onyemata finished with 9-5-3.5 over the final five contests. With the free agent addition of Malcolm Brown, Onyemata likely goes back to the third tackle role, but keep an eye on him if he has a good preseason.

Onyemata held his own as a nose tackle last season but Brown can be a dominant player there. Brown was the final pick of the first round in 2015 and became an immediate starter for the Patriots. He is all about power so there is not a lot of wiggle in his pass rush. On the other hand, Brown can push the pocket with the best of them. With an average line of 28-21-3.over his first three seasons with New England, Brown’s production was useful to those in leagues starting two interior linemen. After a down year in 2018, he could improve on those earlier numbers a bit in this defense, but probably not enough to significantly increase his value

The Saints 2017 draft focused more on the back seven but the line was not ignored when they selected Trey Hendrickson in the third. He had a promising career at Florida Atlantic with 28 sacks in three years as a starter but has been a major disappointment thus far as a pro. As a result, Hendrickson has been a game-day inactive often. Some of that can be attributed to a wide array of nagging injuries he has dealt with, but Hendrickson has been a healthy scratch at times. With Alex Okafor moving on the team is going to expect a lot more the third year pro, who will compete with free-agent addition Mario Edwards Jr who was a second-round pick of the Raiders in 2015, and possibly Wes Horton who came over from the Panthers.

New Orleans added another piece to the puzzle in 2018 when they traded up to land defensive end Marcus Davenport. The rookie was bothered for most of the season by a painful toe injury that would eventually require surgery, yet he still managed to flash at times. At face value, Davenport’s numbers were far from impressive at 12-10-4.5 with a forced fumble and a pair of batted passes. When we consider he played through an injury that would have landed most players on IR, it puts them in a different perspective.

The surgery was successful and Davenport will be healthy entering camp. So what should we expect from him in year two? The Saints are obviously anticipating big things since they have already anointed him a three-down starter. As a three year starter for the Roadrunners of Texas-San Antonio, Davenport collected 21.5 sacks, forced 6 fumbles and recovered 2 along with 185 combined tackles and assists. Shortly after he was drafted one expert compared him to Vikings star Danielle Hunter. Both the Saints and the IDP community hope that becomes an accurate comparison. With all the talent the Saints have up front Davenport should see a lot of single blocking, which adds to his upside. I like his chances of emerging as a solid second starter for IDP managers in 2019, but he can probably be picked up at the value price of a DL3.

That leads us to the Jewel of the New Orleans defense, Cameron Jordan. Over the first six seasons of Jordan’s career, there were peaks and valleys; most of them due to the Saints moving back and forth between 3-4 and 4-3 schemes. After becoming a starter in his second season (2012), even in the bad years Jordan never fell short of seven sacks and the only season he has not exceeded 30 solo tackles was 2013 when he finished 28-18-12.5 with 4 takeaways.

Over the last three years, Jordan has flourished in defensive coordinator Dennis Allen’s aggressive 4-3, averaging 38 tackles, 15 assists, and 11 sacks while adding 5 turnovers and 23 batted passes. After posting career highs in both tackles and sacks in 2017, and finishing among the top three at the position, Jordan’s numbers slipped a little last year. At 36-12-12 with 6 batted passes and a pair of turnovers, he was still able to make the top 12. Jordan turns 30 in July and is entering the back side of his career, but he still has plenty of good seasons left. Target him as a safe and dependable mid-range DL1.

Linebackers

The Saints are short on star power at linebacker but once they figured out where everyone fit they played well as a unit. New Orleans signed A.J. Klein as a free agent in 2017, believing he would be the answer in the middle. They would eventually come to understand why Klein was a two-down strongside linebacker while with Carolina. He is a hard-nosed throwback type player that gives full effort but is simply not built for a lot of coverage responsibilities. Klein settled into that familiar strong side role last year and was a key contributor playing mostly on early downs. He ended up seeing action on 669 plays in 2018 but that number could shrink with third-year man Alex Anzalone poised to take on a bigger role.

New Orleans added Anzalone in the third round in 2017. He quickly earned a starting job on the weak side and had a couple of fairly productive games before a week four shoulder injury landed him on IR. Anzalone returned to the lineup last season playing mostly in the middle, but was not able to reclaim a three-down role. He did have a few productive games statistically and finished the season with 45 tackles, 16 assists, a pair of sacks and three turnovers on 486 plays. Those are actually rather impressive numbers considering he reached 60% of the snaps in only three games and played less than 50% on the season. In fact, Anzalone was among the league’s more productive linebackers on a per snap basis.

Anzalone has the skill set to be a three-down player and the Saints would like to see him become one at some point. He has thus far been held back by inexperience and a slow transition to the pro game. One positive sign he is on the right track; Anzalone was on the field more as last season progressed. He saw action on at least 55% of the snaps in seven of the final eight games. If he can earn a more significant role this year Anzalone could emerge as a fantasy factor in 2019.

The Final piece at linebacker was added via free agency last offseason. Veteran Demario Davis had a career year with the Jets in 2017. New York was not willing to pay him, so the Saints did. He proved to be just what the team needed. Davis not only brought quality physical play at the position, but he also provided leadership and production while solidifying the weak side position.

In 2017 Davis piled up 97 solo stops and 36 assists. Adding a few big plays he landed the only top ten fantasy finish of his career to date. He is a good player and a quality fantasy option but we should not expect a second top ten anytime soon.

Even Davis did not play full time on some weeks last year. As a result, he was on the field for about 87% of the team’s defensive snaps. That was enough to produce top-20 numbers which is about what we should expect again. He was 73-36-5 with a pair of turnovers last season. While he could improve on the tackle totals in year two with the team, keep in mind Davis has reached 80 solo tackles just once in seven seasons while posting 60 or fewer four times. When it comes to big plays he can contribute strongly in the sack column. Davis has 18.5 career sacks including 9.5 over the past two seasons and a career best of 5 last year. When it comes to takeaways, however, Davis is lacking a bit with eight in his career and just one interception.

With Manti Te'o not returning, the Saints have just one veteran providing depth at all three linebacker positions. In the event of an injury, Craig Robertson would come off the bench and fill the hole. He is a versatile player that has been a serviceable starter for both the Saints and Browns over his career. Beyond Robertson New Orleans has a group of inexperienced young guys and free agents castoffs vying for roster spots and special teams jobs.

Defensive Backs

The Saints rank of 29th versus the pass last year is somewhat of a mirage. It was probably more a situation of opponents playing from behind and/or not being able to run than a reflection on the team’s talent in the secondary. New Orleans has given the third level its fair share of attention during the rebuilding process. Starting with strong safety Vonn Bell in round two of 2016 and continuing the following year when corner Marshon Lattimore was taken in the first and free safety Marcus Williams in the second. The organization added first-round talent at corner last year by trading for the Giants top 2016 pick Eli Apple. New Orleans had two picks in the first four rounds this spring. One of them was used on safety Chauncy Gardner-Johnson.

The New Orleans secondary gave IDP managers little to get excited about in 2018 but there could be some useful targets going forward. Though unspectacular, Vonn Bell has been remarkably consistent over his three years with the team. All three seasons he has totaled 61 or 62 solo stops with between 21 and 26 assists, and 2 or 3 turnovers. With those numbers, Bell has been no better than decent depth for most fantasy managers but there are signs he could become more going forward.

Bell has never been able to secure a full-time role, nearly always sharing snaps with someone or working as the third safety. He was the starter for much of 2018 but Kurt Coleman took just enough playing time to hold back Bell’s production. The glass appears to be half full for Bell as his snap count increased over the second half of last season. He was on the field for at least 81% of the snaps in five of six games including more than 90% in weeks 15 and 16. Bell responded by averaging nearly 11 points per game after week 11. He is a breakout candidate this year and could be as much as a solid DB2 with an every-down role.

Chauncey Gardner-Johnson likely takes over the third corner role this year but the coaching staff may have much bigger long term expectations for him. He is a versatile player that gives the defensive staff a lot of options. Gardner-Johnson has the size and physical nature to play in the box or as a nickel linebacker, with the speed, cover skills and ball-hawking ability of a big play free safety. He is both willing and capable in run support, has shown success on the blitz, can cover tight ends or slot receivers man to man, and produces a lot of turnovers. Fantasy managers will want to take note of his college production. Over three seasons at Florida (two as a starter) Gardner-Johnson accumulated 161 combined tackles, 4 sacks, 9 interceptions and had 3 defensive scores. Dynasty managers, in particular, should take interest and possibly slide this young man onto the taxi squad for safe keeping.

Marcus Williams showed some fantasy promise as a rookie but his numbers went the wrong direction in year two. There were two major contributors to his decline, the Saints improved considerably as a team, playing better defense and controlling the ball longer offensively, resulting in less opportunity; and Williams lined up further off the ball more often with more deep coverage responsibilities. He is an excellent player with great speed, cover skills, and big play ability. While Williams makes a great catch-all center fielder for his team, chances are he will not do much to help yours win a title.

Marshon Lattimore was actually the Saints highest ranking defensive back last season. He was top 10 among corners and ranked 34 among all DBs. He is an aggressive physical corner that does not back away from run support duties but it is Lattimore’s playmaking ability that delivers much of his value. After recording six turnovers as a rookie, he came back with nine in year two. With decent tackle totals and a good number of pass breakups in each of his two seasons, there is no reason to view the third year corner as less than a priority CB2 with CB1 upside or quality depth in formats that lump the DB positions together.

So Eli Apple actually finished ahead of Lattimore in the final 2018 rankings. I did not count Apple since he played for two teams, but truth is, his best production came in 10 games with the Saints. Apple's career in New York was a rocky road but there was never much doubt about his ability, at least not outside the Giants organization. Apple’s closed-door feud with the team eventually led to the trade and the Saints have been more than satisfied with his performance. Apple’s first two seasons as a pro produced marginal numbers so it is hard to tell if the career-best totals across the board (62-13-0, 5 takeaways and 14 passes defended) were a fluke or something he will sustain. Even with the risk, he is well worth a shot as a second starter with upside.

In Patrick Robinson, Ken Crawley and P.J. Williams, the team has a solid trio of veterans filling out the depth chart at corner. All three have starting experience and will be in contention for the slot corner role.

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

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