Eyes of the Guru IDP Info, Part 6: NFC West

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

Arizona Cardinals

Defensive Linemen

Change has become the norm for a Cardinals defense that is working under its fourth defensive coordinator in the last five years and has gone through a scheme change in three consecutive seasons. During the Bruce Arians era, Arizona was known for their formidable 3-4 defense. Last season, they went to a 4-3 and struggled on most weeks. The Steve Wilks coaching regime lasted but one season so the Cardinals are heading back to familiar territory. There are some differences between the 3-4 installed by Todd Bowles -- and continued under James Bettcher -- and the one they will run under new coordinator Vance Joseph, but there are a lot more similarities. The 2019 Cardinals will once again feature an aggressive, penetrating one-gap scheme.

The good news for Arizona is they have plenty of players in the front seven that fit Joseph’s scheme. Corey Peters had a good 2018 that included a career best of 32 solo tackles, 18 assists, and 2.5 sacks. The nine-year veteran has played in both three and four-man fronts over his career and is adept at either, though his best box score success has been in a 4-3. Peters had a personal best of five sacks in 2013 but has never produced more than two while working in a 3-4. He was a dependable DT2 for IDP managers last season but the scheme change likely means Peters will no longer provide useful numbers.

Robert Nkemdiche, Rodney Gunter, Darius Philon, and rookie Zach Allen are all players that could have significant roles this season. Nkemdiche was a first round pick in 2016 and would seem to have the most potential of the group. Injuries have been the story of his career thus far, however. Nkemdiche has played in 26 of a possible 48 games to date and has battled a myriad of different issues.

Statistically, last season was Nkemdiche’s best to date by far. In 10 games as a 3-technique tackle in the 4-3, he recorded 22 tackles, 11 assists, and 4.5 sacks. Nkemdiche was drafted to play end in a 3-4. He has the skill set to be successful in that role but the fact is, we have not seen him play enough at the position to know for certain. He has the potential to post fantasy-friendly numbers but is more of a watch list guy than someone to put on a roster before the season starts.

Rodney Gunter is another lineman that excelled as a tackle in the 4-3. At 31-12-4.5 with a pair of forced fumbles, he joined Peters as a solid DT2 last season. Gunter could see much of his playing time in a rotation with Peters at nose tackle but there is a chance he will land a starting job at end. At 6’5, 305 pounds, he has the prototypical size and last year’s sack production shows he can make plays as a pass rusher.

In terms of size, skill set, and play style, Darius Philon is a good candidate to play end in a 3-4. He was drafted by the Chargers in 2015 when they were using mostly three-man fronts but Philon did not get on the field much until 2017 which was after the scheme change. Speed and upfield burst off the edge is not his game but Philon did a respectable job as an early down and/or rotational 4-3 end over the last two seasons. He saw a lot of action in 2018 when Joey Bosa missed more than half the season. Philon is somewhat of a long shot to win a starting job but he stands to see a good deal of action, especially with the injury history of Nkemdiche.

Third round pick Zach Allen has a chance to be a regular contributor right away. He is the kind of linemen many 3-4 teams target to play at end. Allen is a stout run defender with enough size and strength to hold at the point of attack and enough athleticism to contribute as a penetrator/pass rusher. He is not a quick twitch up field edge rusher but does not need to be for success as a 3-4 end. In 25 games as a starter for Boston College, Allen recorded 73 tackles, 88 assists, 10.5 sacks, and 5 turnovers. He has the potential to become a quality NFL starter and a decent fantasy contributor.

Linebackers

This season will be an interesting ride for the Cardinals at linebacker; especially on the inside where Jordan Hicks and Haason Reddick are in line to start. Hicks draws mixed reviews from four rollercoaster seasons with the Eagles and has never played in a 3-4. Injuries have been a big issue for the 28-year-old. He exploded onto the scene as a rookie in 2015, going 42-7-1with 6 turnovers and a score in seven games before landing on IR with a chest injury. There were big expectations for his second season but it never materialized. Hicks managed to play all 16 games with a sack, five interceptions and a fumble recovery in 2016 but his 57 solo tackles and 28 assists were a major disappointment.

Hicks got off to a horrible start in 2017 both on the field and in the box scores. He was benched in week three, returned in week four then faced a role reduction for a couple of games before tearing his Achilles. Just when it looked like he may never amount to much, he earned a three-down role last summer and tore it up for much of the season, at least in the tackle columns. Through week eleven he averaged 5.7 tackles and 2.6 assists, with three sacks and a fumble recovery. A calf strain cost him the next four games and limited him in the final two.

So which Hicks do the Cardinals get? Will it be the playmaker that piled up 2 sacks, 12 turnovers, 14 passes defended and a score over the first 23 games of his career; the tackling machine that was on pace for 91 solo and 41 assists in 2018 or the injury prone bust that showed up big in 2017 and has been spotted at times throughout his four seasons as a pro? Hicks has a ton of potential and a great opportunity with the Cardinals but placing a value on him in fantasy terms is a total crapshoot.

What to think of Haason Reddick? This is yet another mystery to be unraveled. He was drafted to play inside when James Bettcher was running the defense in 2017, but that did not work out so well. As a rookie, Reddick struggled with the switch from an outside linebacker slash edge rusher in college to the strong inside position in a 3-4 as a pro. As a result, he did not get on the field much despite being a first round pick. When Reddick did get on the field it was as an edge rusher after Marcus Golden was lost.

Reddick moved to the strong side in last year’s 4-3. With the team using a lot of nickel, he played all of 30 snaps over the first four games. When Deone Bucannon struggled and Gerald Hodges flopped in the new scheme, Reddick was dusted off and inserted as a three-down complement to middle backer Josh Bynes. Reddick played virtually every down the rest of the way. By the end of the season, he was 51-27-4 with 5 passes defended and a turnover on what amounted to 12 games of action.

For the third time in as many seasons, Reddick will be at a new position, in a new scheme, under a new coaching staff. How all that adds up remains to be seen. What we do know, Reddick is an outstanding athlete with the ideal combination of size, speed and natural ability to be successful as a 3-4 inside backer. He is an excellent pass rusher with adequate cover skills that are supplemented by the other traits. Providing Reddick is more prepared for the transition inside than he was as a rookie, he could be in for a breakout season.

The Cardinals need Reddick to succeed and Hicks to stay healthy because they are rather thin at inside linebacker. The top backups are Tanner Vallejo and Joe Walker who are each late-round picks of other organizations in recent years and were not able to stick with the teams that drafted them.

The Cardinals are much more proven on the outside but almost as thin. In Chandler Jones, Arizona has one of the league’s premier edge rushers. Jones had 13 sacks as a 4-3 end in 2018 but is just as successful working from a two-point stance. He has at least 11 sacks in each of his three seasons with the Cardinals, including the best overall performance of his seven-year career going 52-7-16 with a couple forced fumbles in 2017. Jones sets the edge versus the run as well as anyone and is a game changer. Over his career, he has forced 19 fumbles, recovered 5 and knocked down 19 passes. Jones is an elite LB1 in big play formats and one of the few 3-4 outside backers with the potential to reach the top-20 in balanced systems.

The organization signed future first ballot Hall of Famer Terrell Suggs to bookend Jones. Since entering the league in 2003 Suggs has accumulated 131.5 sacks reaching double digits seven times, most recently being 2017. He is a great asset who brings leadership along with production but there may be a reason he is no longer in Baltimore. Suggs turns 37 in October and the seven sacks he recorded last year represent his lowest total in a non-injury season since 2007. No one knows or respects him more than the Ravens. The fact they were willing to let him go after 16 seasons could indicate a belief he is finally running short on gas. There is no doubt Suggs has enough left to help the team and buy them some time, but his IDP value is questionable even for those in big play formats.

Arizona has but one player with NFL game experience behind Jones and Suggs. Eight-year veteran Brooks Reed will be the guy to spell the starters once in a while. He is a serviceable player capable of spot duty but would be a significant drop off should Jones or Suggs go down for any length of time.

  • ILB Jordan Hicks – Target as LB3 with top-25 upside
  • ILB Haason Reddick – High ceiling but low floor
  • ILB Tanner Vallejo –Injury sleeper by default
  • ILB Joe Walker – Developmental rookie that will make a living on special teams for now
  • ILB Dennis Gardeck – Special teams ace
  • OLB Chandler Jones – Elite LB1 in big play formats
  • OLB Terrell Suggs – Depth with LB3 upside in big play formats
  • OLB Brooks Reed – No fantasy value
  • OLB Vontarrius Dora – Developmental rookie

Defensive Backs

In my 27 years of IDP experience, there has never been a team with two safeties combining for 180 solo tackles. Nor has there been a safety with 100 or more that was not number one at the position. The Cardinals accomplished both in 2018. Antoine Bethea was one of four players league-wide to reach triple-digit solo stops. The other three were linebackers. He added three sacks as well but a low assist total of 21, and a near goose egg in the turnover columns left him outside the elite tier IDP options. Free safety Budda Baker was fifth among defensive backs with 80 solo stops but similar shortcomings in assists and big plays left him just short of the top-15. Bethea is gone and the organization hopes neither his replacement D.J. Swearinger Sr nor Baker will have nearly the same amount opportunity going forward. The goal for Baker and Swearinger will be a lot fewer tackles and a lot more turnovers.

Scheme changes in the front seven often have a marginal impact on production at the safety positions, but improved play usually does. While it is not necessarily related to the scheme up front, we could see a different look in the Cardinals secondary this year. Over the last two seasons, Arizona used a big nickel as their base defense, with three safeties on the field nearly all the time. In 2018 Bethea was the strong safety with Tre Boston at free, leaving Baker to float. Pretty much everyone uses some three safety sets so the personnel group is not gone, but with new leadership and no proven third safety on the roster, Arizona projects to have a more traditional approach going forward. This could have a considerable negative effect on Baker in particular. Instead of having the freedom to move around and get in the middle of the action, Baker could have more deep safety responsibilities.

One thing working in Baker’s favor is the versatility of Swearinger who is also capable of playing either position. Having interchangeable safeties gives the defensive play caller a lot more options and could mean Baker will not be stuck 18 yards deep on every snap.

Swearinger is somewhat of an enigma. A 2013 second-round pick of the Texans, he has bounced around the league like a ping pong ball. His physical traits and natural ability are enticing to teams but Swearinger always seems to wear out his welcome quickly. Two seasons with Houston were followed by a cup of coffee in Tampa Bay, a season and a half in Arizona, with Washington and now back to the desert.

Swearinger has been just as hard to figure out from a production standpoint. He has the size but is not physical as most teams want a strong safety to be. While he has played both strong and free safety and has been in some box score friendly environments, Swearinger has never excelled in the tackle columns with a career best of 62 solo stops. On a positive note, he makes a lot of big plays. In the two seasons with Washington Swearinger recorded 8 interceptions and 12 total turnovers, 3 sacks and 20 pass breakups. There will be plenty of opportunity in Arizona but despite the impressive history of production by Cardinals safeties, it is hard to picture Swearinger as more than a decent DB3.

The Cardinals signed Swearinger to a one year deal (of course) so he is all but surely viewed as a stop gap. That could make the selection of Deionte Thompson in round five and/or the addition of Jalen Thompson in the supplemental draft very interesting.

Productive as the Cardinals safeties have been over the last two seasons, the corners have done relatively little. Patrick Peterson was the most productive last year at 48-8-1 with 2 interceptions and 5 passes defended. He is suspended for the first six games so second-round pick Byron Murphy and free agent addition Robert Alford are the probable week-one starters. Brandon Williams and Tramaine Brock will be part of the competition this summer as well.

Los Angeles Rams

Defensive Linemen

When considering the Rams defense most people’s thoughts go to Aaron Donald, so they assume the team is strong on that side of the ball. A closer look says there is room for improvement. Los Angeles actually finished last season in the bottom half of the league in yards and points allowed. They had the league’s sack king in Donald with 20.5 but the rest of the team combined for 20.5 and their total of 41 ranked 15th. One important thing they excelled at was taking the ball away, where only the Bears and Brown finished ahead of them.

Donald is among the league’s elite players regardless of position. His pass rush was unstoppable in 2018 and he is just as good versus the run. At 41-17-20.5 with 4 forced fumbles and a pair of recoveries, he was the fantasy game’s number one lineman by a significant margin. The only problem with such a season, there is nowhere to go but down. Donald has been a great player throughout his career but did not recorded more than 11 sacks in any of his first four seasons and had more than 40 tackles once. History tells us that production like his in 2018 is extremely rare, but repeating such a feat is darn near impossible. The NFL started tracking sacks in 1982. Since that time there are several players that have won more than one sack title but no one has done it in consecutive years since Reggie White Jr in 1986 and 1987. Donald is close as it gets to a lock as a top-10 DL1 and is a strong candidate for the top-5, but counting on much more than 40 tackles and 12 sacks could come back to bite you.

The other fact that points to how hard it would be for Donald to repeat; Ndamukong Suh was second on the team with 4.5 sacks last season and he is now playing for Tampa Bay. Surprisingly the Rams did almost nothing to help Donald. The only lineman taken in the draft was nose tackle Greg Gaines in round four.

The only sure starter up front besides Donald is Michael Brockers. With Suh on the team last year, Brockers lined up at defensive end full time. Considering the current personnel there is a good chance Brockers goes back to nose tackle where he played in previous seasons. In 2017 Brockers was in a swing role, lining up at either position on any given play. Statistically, it was the best of his seven seasons as a pro. At 38-16-4.5 with four batted passes and a forced fumble, Brockers was a top-10 interior lineman in formats that listed him that position. For most of his career before 2017, he was the nose tackle in a 4-3. His fantasy value for 2019 will again depend completely on where he lines up and positional designation.

Beyond the first two, Los Angeles has a roster full of relatively unknown young guys that are former late round picks or undrafted free agents. Unless they look to add a veteran free agent that is cut somewhere during training camp, Greg Gaines, Bryant Jones, Boogie Roberts, Sebastian Joseph-Day, Tanzel Smart, John Franklin-Myers, Morgan Fox and Marquise Copeland will be competing for a starting job.

  • DE Aaron Donald – Elite tier DL1 but don’t expect last year’s numbers
  • DE/NT Michael Brockers – Quality second starter as a tackle, depth at best if tagged as DE
  • DE John Franklin-Myers – No fantasy impact expected
  • DE Morgan Fox – No fantasy impact expected
  • DE/NT Bryant Jones - No fantasy impact expected
  • NT Sebastian Joseph-Day - No fantasy impact expected
  • NT Tanzel Smart - No fantasy impact expected
  • NT Greg Gaines – No fantasy impact expected

Linebackers

At this time last year, I was beating the drum for Cory Littleton. That worked out pretty well. Littleton stepped into the role of three down inside backer and had a great season. He is the complete package for both the Rams and IDP managers. On the Field Littleton has the range to make plays sideline to sideline, is a physical tackler with excellent cover skills and a knack for the big play. He even makes an impact as a pass rusher. There are no holes in his box scores either. Littleton was one of seven linebackers with more than 90 solo tackles last season and his 33 assists were respectable. What bumps him up to the elite tier at linebacker is a knack for big plays in the passing game. Double-digit pass breakups are rather rare for linebackers. Littleton had 13 last year along with 3 interceptions, 4 sacks, and a score. At the end of the season, he was the number two linebacker in many formats. At 25 years old and entering the third year of his career, Littleton is set to be a perennial top 10 linebacker for much of the next decade.

Get the drum back out for another Rams inside linebacker this year. Ok, so maybe it is a bit smaller drum. Second-year man Micah Kiser is set to be the Robin to Littleton’s Batman. Last year’s fifth-round pick barely got on the field as a rookie but just like Littleton the year before, he is a well-kept secret.

In three seasons as a starter for Virginia Kiser averaged better than 10.5 combined tackles per game, recorded 19 sacks, forced 8 fumbles, recovered 6, broke up 12 passes and intercepted 1. All while playing against some of the college game’s best competition in the ACC. At 6’0, 244 pounds, he has good size and a low center of gravity that allows him to leverage and shed tall blockers. Kiser is not as fast or fluid in coverage as Littleton but is not a liability as a pass defender. In short, Kiser seems to have the perfect skill set to play strong inside linebacker in the Rams 3-4. The one important question that needs to be answered, will he stay on the field in sub package situations?

Kiser will be taking over the job previously held by Mark Barron. If we look at Barron’s role and production from last year it will not lead to much excitement about Kiser’s fantasy potential. What we have to keep in mind, however, is that Barron may not have been completely healthy. His playing time tailed off at the end of 2017 due to a sore Achilles and a bum shoulder that required offseason surgery. Then he missed the first four games of 2018 with what was called an ankle injury but may have actually been a continuation of the Achilles problem. Barron never returned to a full-time role last season but was it by design or simply a matter of limiting his snap count so he could stay healthy?

For a better idea of Kiser’s potential, we can look at Barron’s first three years with the team. In each of those seasons, the Rams kept two linebackers on the field full time. Over that span, Barron averaged better than five tackles and almost two assists per game, with a sack and three turnovers each year. The last time he was healthy for a full slate of games was 2016, that year Barron finished 89-27-1. The point being; history tells us the Rams are likely to play both inside backers full time and both positions can provide considerable IDP value. Just like Littleton last year, no one is giving much thought to Kiser as we close in on training camps. That could make him a late-round steal on draft day.

The key to a highly successful 3-4 is pressure off the edge. The Rams got virtually nothing from their outside linebacker in 2018. Their top three sack producers were Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh, and Cory Littleton. The outside linebackers combined for six sacks and that is if you count the two by Donte Fowler Jr. who also played some defensive end. There are no sure double-digit sack candidates among the outside linebackers this year but they should be much more productive.

Fowler is expected to start at linebacker and may not be asked to play any defensive end. The former third overall pick traveled a rocky road with the Jaguars but produced 16 sacks in three seasons as a rotational player, including 8 in 2017. He will be 25 at the start of the season and could prove to be the missing link defensive coordinator Wade Phillips is looking for. The situation and his own potential make Fowler a strong sleeper target for managers in big play formats.

The pass rush also gets reinforcement in the form of free agent addition Clay Matthews. The 33-year-old former Packer is not the player he was early in his career but still has some gas in the tank. The four and a half sacks he put up last season represent the lowest of Matthews ten year career and he has not reached double digits since 2014. There are a lot of extenuating circumstances to consider, but the fact is that he has averaged six sacks over the past four seasons. In order to keep him fresh and maximize his pass-rush contribution, the Rams may have Matthews work as the third man on the outside, coming on in place of Samson Ebukam on passing downs much of the time. The new role probably means an increase in sacks for Matthews but not enough to make him more than depth for managers in big play formats.

The organization still has high hope for Ebukam. The 2017 fourth-round pick showed improvement in his second season but was not able to make as big a leap as the coaches would have liked. He should continue to start and see early-down opportunity but has shown no sign of fantasy potential thus far.

The Rams have a trio of young developmental second-year prospects at outside linebacker in Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, Trevon Young and Justin Lawler. None of them got on the field outside of special teams as rookies but we might want to keep an eye on them this preseason.

  • ILB Cory Littleton – Elite tier LB1
  • ILB Micah Kiser – Strong sleeper with high LB3 upside
  • ILB Bryce Hager – Injury sleeper
  • ILB Travin Howard – Developmental rookie
  • ILB Dakota Allen – Developmental rookie
  • OLB Clay Matthews – Marginal fantasy value
  • OLB Samson Ebukam – No fantasy impact
  • OLB Donte Fowler Jr. – Potential LB2 in big play formats
  • OLB Ogbonnia Okoronkwo –No impact expected
  • OLB Trevon Young – No impact expected
  • OLB Justin Lawler - No impact expected

Defensive Backs

The Rams secondary may have been middle of the packs in yards surrendered last season but their ability to make big plays was a huge part of the team’s success. In all 10 players contributed to the team’s 18 interceptions. Strong safety John Johnson III led the way with four. Johnson is another player no one was paying much attention to at this time last season. After breaking out with 81 tackles, 34 assists, 5 turnovers, and 11 passes defended, he is getting plenty of IDP love now.

Johnson is not particularly big or fast but he has great instincts. He is not necessarily a physical tackler but few ball carriers get past him. He has good hands, is a technician in coverage and has a knack for being around the ball that few safeties possess. When watching Rams games last season it seemed like every play was made by either Johnson or Cory Littleton. Johnson is entering his third season as a pro and is just getting started. He was the fantasy game’s third-highest scoring defensive back in 2018 and has taken a seat among the elite at the position.

The organization would have liked to retain free safety Lamarcus Joyner but they could not match the truckload of money Oakland three at him. What they came up with is a rather strong plan B. They paid Eric Weddle a lot less money to be the short term answer then took Taylor Rapp in round two as the long term guy.

Weddle had a great nine-year run with the Chargers that ended in 2015. During that part of his career, he was both a tackling machine and a playmaker, leading to several top-10 fantasy rankings. Weddle went to the Ravens in 2016 where he played deep safety. His tackle numbers dwindled significantly but he was a major big-play contributor with 14 takeaways (10 on interceptions) a pair of sacks, 21 pass breakups and a score in his first two seasons. Everything dried up for Weddle in 2018 though. For the first time in his career, Weddle failed to record a turnover. He was released by Baltimore in March with a year left on his contract.

Maybe the Ravens are right and it is time for Weddle to ride off into the sunset at age 34, but both he and the Rams believe there are a couple of good seasons left. The free safety in Wade Phillips defenses is rarely much of a fantasy factor. Weddle should approach the 60 tackle mark and if the big plays come back, be a decent option as depth in most 12 team leagues.

Young Taylor Rapp is an interesting prospect, especially for dynasty managers. In many ways, he is similar to Johnson. Not particularly big or blazing fast but tenacious both in run support and coverage duties, while leaning heavily on instinct and football IQ. Rapp may be a more physical hitter than Johnson, but in terms of skill set and versatility, they appear interchangeable. Rapp’s versatility showed over his three years as a starter for Washington. He played both free and strong safety as well as a little corner and was even used as a nickel linebacker at times. His tackle numbers while with the Huskies were modest but Rapp accounted for 12 turnovers, 6 sacks and score in 36 starts.

What makes Rapp so interesting is the prospect of the Rams having interchangeable safeties at some point not far down the road. There is even some chance he could play strong safety, possibly moving Johnson to a somewhat different role. That is a topic for next offseason but it may not be a bad idea to stash the rookie on a taxi squad for the time being.

In Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib, the Rams have a pair of outside corners that rival any in the league. The book on Peters says he has outstanding skills and can cover any type of receiver, but sometimes gambles too much in search of turnovers and will occasionally get burned by mental mistakes.

Peters is a good example of the rookie corner rule. In 2015 he recorded career bests of 54 tackles, 8 interceptions, 26 passes defended and 2 scores. He was the fantasy game’s top corner that year by a wide margin. Year two saw a considerable drop in all those categories but Peters managed to remain a fantasy factor in all three seasons with the Chiefs. That run came to an end in 2018 when he was 33-10-0 with 3 picks and 8 pass breakups. Between going to a new team/scheme where more discipline is required and the respect that comes with recording 19 interceptions over three seasons, offenses are now avoiding Peters much more than in the past.

Aqib Talib was once talked about as one of the leagues great shut down corners, but he has rarely been much of a factor for IDP managers. Twice in his career, Talib exceeded 50 tackles and had at least 4 interceptions in the same season. Those years he was a solid CB1, but the last time it happened was 2014. His last two seasons have been rather forgettable. In 2017 he had 23 tackles and a single interception for Denver. Talib was on pace for a little better numbers last year when an injury sidelined him for eight games. If he stays healthy Talib can do a lot for the Rams chances, but the odds are against him having any fantasy value.

Los Angeles has good depth at corner. Nickell Roby-Coleman has served as the Rams slot corner over the last two seasons and Troy Hill has done a fine job filling holes as an injury replacement since 2016. This year’s third-round pick David Long could push his way up the depth chart quickly and may eventually be the heir to Talib’s starting job. David is an aggressive press corner that excels in man to man. Lack of deep speed could mean more inside coverage but he is sure to make some contribution as a rookie.

San Francisco 49ers

Defensive Linemen

The 49ers did not give up a lot of yards last season but that is about where their defensive success stopped. They were 28th in points, 25th in sacks, and had a league-low of seven turnovers including two interceptions. With an offseason emphasis on improving that side of the ball and some big additions via trade, draft, and free agency, it is a safe bet they will show a great deal of improvement in 2019.

It all starts up front so that is where San Francisco invested the most. The first big step was a trade that brought Dee Ford over from Kansas City in exchange for a second round pick next year. Ford is coming off a stellar 13.5 sack season with Kansas City. In fact, he has double-digit sacks in two of the last three years. It might have been three in a row had Ford not missed most of 2017 with a back injury. Upon completing the deal San Francisco invested a big chunk cap space on a new five-year contract worth $85 million.

There is no question about Ford’s ability to rush the passer but having spent his entire five-year career as an outside backer in the Chiefs 3-4, there are some who wonder how he will hold up versus the run as a 4-3 end. To those doubters, I say relax. Yes, he is a bit undersized for the role of a three-down, end but other than working from a three-point stance, the position is not all that different from what Ford has played in the past. He was on the field for 1025 snaps last season and held up fine physically while recording career-best numbers across the board. Ford is more than capable of reaching the 40 tackles and double-digit mark. Target him as a solid DL2 with a little upside.

Ford was the first step in the offseason process, but he was not the only major addition up front. The selection of Nick Bosa to play on the other end might be an even bigger factor. As the second overall pick Bosa is under a great deal of pressure. If he is anything like older brother Joey, that will only motivate him.

Nick Bosa is a high energy player with exceptional strength and quickness. He is not as fast around the corner as many elite edge rushers but is a better technician than most coming out of college. Bosa is hard to move versus the run and has the ability to reduce inside on passing downs, though chances are he will not be asked to do so very often.

It is hard to find much fault with Bosa when it comes to film or measurable traits, but one concern is a lack of box score production at Ohio State. He played a lot as a freshman and started as a sophomore, but his junior season was limited to three games because of a core muscle injury. He had 8.5 sacks in his one full season as a starter but the meager tackle production of 19 solo and 15 assists left room for improvement. On the positive side, Bosa was off to a much better start last year going 11-3-4 in the three games before being shut down. In an aggressive scheme with a ton of talent around him, Bosa could become an elite fantasy option early in his career. Keep in mind, however, that rookie defensive ends rarely put up great numbers.

DeForest Buckner was the best defensive tackle in fantasy football last season, which should not have been a surprise considering he was second in each of the previous two seasons. It was surprising however, to see him leap from 3 sacks in 2017 to 12 in 2018; especially when considering the 49ers had no dominating edge rusher to take the pressure off. Now that they have that type of player at both ends, there is no reason to doubt Buckner will reach double digits again. The third-year pro has recorded at least 44 solo tackles in each of his three seasons, has averaged 23 assists and already has 21 career sacks. He even has 10 batted passes to his credit. There is no pick more safe or dependable than Buckner as an elite tier DT1.

In formats that count all the defensive line positions together Buckner is a little less stable but still holds great value. In 2016 and 2018 he finished among the top 10. In 2017 he had strong tackle totals but a sack count of three dropped Buckner out of the top-20. It will be tough to match last year’s sack number, but such consistent tackle production makes Buckner a solid target as a low end DL1 with top-5 potential.

Having been selected third overall in 2017 Solomon Thomas has been a disappointment thus far. His 34 tackles, 7 assists, and 3 sacks as a rookie were far from impressive, but we know young linemen often put up lower numbers in their first season. In year two Thomas was supposed to blossom, or at least show some sign of it. Instead, he regressed, playing 10 fewer snaps per game and going 25-6-1 on the season. Another flop and Thomas will be labeled a bust, so 2018 is an important year for the young man.

There are some factors that should help Thomas turn things around. With the influx of talent, he is now surrounded by much improved supporting cast. That means a lot of single blocking but it also means Thomas will no longer have to play both end and tackle on a regular basis. Over his first two seasons, he would often line up at end on early downs then slide inside in nickel situations. This season he can concentrate on playing tackle. The coaching staff believes less responsibility will allow Thomas to be better focused and more productive. He has done nothing so far but Thomas is a talented player. At this point, he is not worthy of a roster spot in most situations, but if he comes out hot early in the season, do not hesitate to pick him up in tackle required formats.

San Francisco now has the luxury of quality depth up front as well. Both Arik Armstead and Ronald Blair III have starting experience and they had eight and a half sacks between them last year. Armstead has the versatility to shift inside as well and could become the third man in the tackle rotation while Blair could land the same role on the outside. Neither player has much IDP value going into the season but they could be worth adding if a starter goes down.

Linebackers

We know who the cast will be at linebacker for San Francisco but the roles may not yet be defined. Second-year man Fred Warner and free agent addition Kwon Alexander will be the starters at middle and weakside linebacker. Both are versatile players with the ability to play either position. In fact, Warner played both positions at times last season when Reuben Foster was in and out of the lineup. Warner finished the season with good tackle totals of 84-39 but was not a splash play guy, with a forced fumble, a recovery and six pass breakups being his only big play marks.

From a pure numbers perspective Warner was more productive and more consistent early in the season when he was lining up on the weak side. His numbers slipped later in the year when he moved inside but it is hard to say if that was due to the position or simply the fact he was worn down. Statistics will prove the rookie wall is a real thing for many players. Warner was on the field for every snap over the first eight games and 1061 total, missing only a handful all year. He reached double-digit fantasy points seven times in the first nine games but only twice in the final seven.

Kwon Alexander spent his first four seasons in Tampa Bay where Lavonte David was entrenched at weakside linebacker. Alexander broke into the lineup as a middle backer and was darn good at it, but his size, speed and skill set could make him an even better fit on the weak side.

From a fantasy perspective, Alexander has been excellent when healthy and available. He was on pace for 80 tackles and 45 assists with a combination of 6 turnovers and sacks as a rookie in 2015, before missing the final four games due to suspension. Alexander played a full slate of games the following season, blowing up for 108-37-3 with a pair of turnovers. He was bitten by a hamstring injury at the beginning of 2017. Upon return, it was business as usual with 70 tackles in 11 games. Alexander was on pace for his best production yet when an ACL injury ended his 2018 in late October. He is doing well in his recovery and the organization hopes he will be a full participant at some point early in training camp.

At least one member of the coaching staff has hinted that Alexander will get a look on the weak side when healthy. When it comes right down to it, both of these players are going to be fantasy productive regardless how they line up. Both are dependable three-down linebackers and the 49ers have supported two quality IDP options several times in the past. Most managers will value Alexander a little higher but do not feel slighted if you end up with Warner instead. It is a coin toss as to which will be more productive and Warner enters camp with no injury questions.

Malcolm Smith, Elijah Lee, Mark Nzeocha, and rookie Dre Greenlaw fill out the rest of the roster at linebacker. Smith should be the strong side starter when the season opens, which means limited opportunity for box score production. If either Alexander or Warner is injured however, Smith is the most likely option to take over the three down role. He had a pair of highly productive seasons with the Raiders in 2015 and 2016 and is capable of LB3 production or better with a full-time role.

Lee put up quality numbers from the weak side when everyone was injured late last season, but the organization would prefer to have him make a living on special teams. Greenlaw is an interesting prospect. He too is likely to be a special team ace early in his career but Greenlaw has the tools to eventually make a run at the weak side job if he can become more physical and aggressive.

  • MLB/WLB Kwon Alexander – Quality LB2 with upside if completely healthy
  • MLB/WLB Fred Warner – Priority LB3 with low LB2 potential
  • SLB Malcolm Smith – Injury sleeper with LB3 upside
  • WLB Dre Greenshaw – Dynasty deep sleeper
  • WLB Elijah Lee –No fantasy value at this time
  • SLB Mark Nzeocha – Special teams guy and backup strong side backer

Defensive Backs

If San Francisco has a glaring weakness defensively it is in the secondary. The only star at the third level is Richard Sherman and he is not the same player opponents used to fear. Adding to the issue, only one San Francisco defensive back has played a full season in the last two years. That was Dontae Johnson in 2017. So what did the organization do but sign former Chargers first-round pick Jason Verrett who has missed 39 of a possible 64 career games with injuries? At least they got him cheap.

Jaquiski Tartt and Adrian Colbert are the starters at strong and free safety respectively. Tartt was a second-round pick in 2015 and has been a major tease for IDP managers. He is a big physical safety that relishes lining up near the line or at nickel linebacker depth and putting a shoulder into the ball carrier. When healthy Tartt makes a lot of tackles and will make the occasional splash play contribution. The problem is he cannot stay on the field. Tartt has not yet played a full slate of games in any season and has missed 15 over the last two years with a chronic shoulder problem. Often when Tartt tries to play it has been at less than 100% and he has missed time during many of those games. Tartt participated in mini-camp and will be available at the start of training camp. This will be year four of his rookie contract and is a make or break season.

If Tartt continues to be affected by the shoulder problem, it could open the door for second-year safety Marcell Harris. From a physical perspective, Harris is a lot like Tartt. Good size, average speed, decent in coverage but a thumper in the run game and an intimidator over the middle versus the pass. Unfortunately we do not have a lot to go on when it comes to Harris. He started nine games as a junior at Florida in 2016 and put up fairly good numbers, but his senior season was lost to a torn Achilles. Harris started the final five games for San Francisco last year averaging a modest 4-2-0 in those games. Whoever lines up at strong safety for the 49ers is going to have a decent amount of opportunity, but it may be a situation best avoided.

Adrian Colbert is penciled in at free safety but his job is not a lock either. Antone Exum Jr took over the position last year when Colbert was lost to an ankle injury. Exum did an adequate job and could be in the mix for more playing time. Coaches could also elect to move Jimmy Ward back to free safety.

It has been Ward’s position off and on during his five years with the team -- though the current coaching staff believes he is a great fit as a nickel/slot corner. Ward has been fragile since coming to the league. The only difference between he and Tartt in this instance is Wards has battled a number of different injuries. He missed a big chunk of last season with a broken forearm and is already sidelined this summer after surgery to repair a broken collar bone. Regardless who comes out of camp with the free safety job, there is not a ton of fantasy potential.

Even at 85% of what he once was, Richard Sherman would be a solid starting corner in the NFL. That said, his box score production has not provided fantasy value to IDP owners since 2014 and Sherman has been more than a CB2 once in his first eight seasons. That was all the way back in 2012. Sherman will be one of the starters for San Francisco with a host of a player vying for their spot in the pecking order behind him.

K’Waun Williams started opposite Sherman last season and is the early favorite to do so again. Jason Verrett was a highly regarded talent coming out of TCU in 2014 but injuries have completely derailed his career to date. Both Ahkello Witherspoon has started several games over the last two seasons due to injury shuffles. He has been solid in relief but may not be starter material. Even sixth-round rookie Tim Harris could be given a shot during camp. The only player in this group to ever show fantasy value is Dontae Johnson who was 69-8- with a pick and 7 pass breakups as a starter in 2017. He was released by the team at the end of that season and re-signed in May.

Seattle Seahawks

Defensive Linemen

The Seahawks are remarkably resilient. Every year they lose major contributors to free agency and/or injuries yet they always play good defense. Before last season they lost linemen Michael Bennett and Sheldon Richardson who signed elsewhere. They were without weakside linebacker K.J. Wright for most of the season as he recovered from a knee injury, then they lost his replacement Mychal Kendricks to suspension and free safety Earl Thomas to a broken leg in early October. Somehow Seattle still managed to land 43 sacks, record 26 turnovers and make the top-12 in points allowed.

This offseason the Seahawks lost two of their best with Thomas going to free agency and breakout defensive end Frank Clark being traded to Kansas City. The organization wanted to keep Clark, but after the big season, he was going to be too expensive so their hand was forced. With the money saved Seattle was able to sign a pair of veteran ends in Ezekiel Ansah and Cassius Marsh. They then used the first round pick from Kansas City to draft defensive end L.J. Collier.

When healthy, Ansah is a quality three down end and one of the league’s premier pass rushers. The last time he played a full season Ansah finished with 38 tackles, 8 assists, 14.5 sacks and forced 5 turnovers. The problem being, that was in 2015. Neck and shoulder problem began showing up for Ansah early in 2016. He participated in 13 games that season but was never fully healthy, which showed in his stat line of 21-13-2. Ansah had good numbers again in 2017 going 39-4-12 in 14 games but the sore shoulder kept flaring up. Last year it finally got so bad he had to shut it down and have surgery. The hope is he will be available for Week 1, but the reality is Ansah could miss the first month of the season. Even then there is no guarantee the shoulder will hold up. For IDP managers he is a risk/reward player with a lot of upside. If all goes according to plan he will be there for most of the season.

Cassius Marsh is a good backup plan in case Ansah is not ready. Marsh started his career as a fourth-round pick of the Seahawks in 2014 but did little in three years with the team. He was with New England for nine games in 2017 before being traded to San Francisco where his career took a turn for the better. Marsh played about half the snaps for the 49ers last season with a career-best of 28-11-6.5 on 550 plays. He figures to have a large role with the Seahawks this season one way or another. At worst Marsh will be the third end behind Ansah and Collier but it will not be a surprise if he starts much for of the season.

A lot of young edge defenders start their NFL careers as sub package rush specialists and work their way into three down roles after a year or two in the weight room. L.J. Collier is just the opposite. At 6’2, 283 pounds, he is already a powerful, rugged run defender with the demeanor and skill set to play on early downs right out of the gate. He will not wow anyone with athleticism or quickness off the edge but Collier’s ability to overpower then run through or around blockers at the senior bowl drew plenty of attention. He did not put up impressive numbers at Texas Christian where Collier had 14.5 sacks in three seasons. As a starter last year he was a modest 27-15-6 over 11 games. There is a good chance Collier is a week one starter but he could rotate out or slide inside on passing downs as a rookie. He might eventually become a perennial 40 solo tackle guy but expecting more than 6-7 sacks a season could be a little optimistic.

Last year’s third-round pick Rasheem Green did not see much action as a rookie. He could have a more significant role in year two; especially if Ansah is not cleared early on. Green is not an elite edge rusher but has the versatility to play end in base packages and slide inside on passing downs. He has three-down upside but will need to get stronger, tougher and more polished as a pass rusher before he can claim such a role. In the short term Green might make a good rotational option or short term fill in.

In an effort to generate more pass rush and possibly find a way for him to make the final roster, linebacker Jacob Martin will move to end this year. At 6’3, 230 pounds, there is not much chance he will see the field on early downs, but Martin could provide some pop as a nickel edge rusher. He played end in college where he had 11.5 career sacks at Temple, including 8 as a senior in 2017.

Jarran Reed was one of last season’s biggest surprises. Over his first two years with Seattle the 2016 second round pick combined for 35-44-3.5. In year three he broke out for 36-15-10.5 with a pair of turnovers. It is hard to put a finger on exactly what happened that flipped the switch for Reed, though he did seem to have less 2-gap responsibility. Reed was previously seen as more of a space eating anchor for the run defense. Last season’s numbers prove he can be a major contributor to the pass rush as well. As is the case with most players that make such unexpected improvement, there is a risk Reed will prove to be a one- year wonder. That risk is emphasized by the fact he had two sacks in 28 games at Alabama. Reed was the fantasy game’s third best tackle and a top-15 lineman in 2018. He is a fairly safe bet to repeat as a top-12 tackle but we should not bet heavily on a repeat of last year’s production.

The free agent addition of Al Woods is a plus for Reed. The 330 pound Woods will line up at nose tackle and take over as the 2-gap space eater in the middle, which will allow Reed to play more 3-technique and see fewer double teams. Woods will also soak up blockers so the linebackers can stay clean but his efforts and contributions will not be seen in the box scores.

Quinton Jefferson, Nazir Jones and Demarcus Christmas are the other interior linemen likely to make the final roster. Jefferson played extensively last season and should continue to factor heavily into the rotation. Jones flashed as a rookie but has done little since. Christmas is a developmental late round rookie pick. Outside of Reed, none of Seattle’s interior linemen display fantasy potential.

Linebackers

There is no speculation required when talking about the Seahawks middle linebacker position; at least not for this year. Bobby Wagner is an elite, do everything player and one of the best in the game. In 2017 he tied C.J. Mosley and Demario Davis for the league lead in solo tackles and Wagner has been among the Top 3 in fantasy points for three consecutive seasons. He has at least 86 solo stops and 37 assists in every non-injury season of his career and can always be counted on to contribute in both the sack and turnover columns. Wagner is an elite LB1 and is dependable as it gets.

Wagner has been in Seattle all eight years of his career but there are some signs this could be his last. He is set to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season. There is no doubt the organization wants to keep their star linebacker and they will surely make an effort to do so, but then they wanted to keep Frank Clark too. Adding a little fuel to the fire; the Seahawks drafted a pair of middle linebackers in third round selection Cody Barton and fifth rounder Ben Burr-Kirven. They also re-signed Mychal Kendricks who is a proven starter that can play all three positions. Clearly, the organization has prepared to move on if they are not able to fit a new contract for Wagner under the cap. After seeing what C.J. Mosley was paid this offseason, loosing Wagner is a distinct possibility.

K.J. Wright has been with the Seahawks even longer than Wagner and has been a mainstay at weakside linebacker since his rookie season of 2011. Wright missed all but five games last year while recovering from a knee injury but is good to go for 2019. Statistically he is the sidekick to Wagner but there are fewer more consistent targets as a third starter or quality depth. Prior to the knee injury Wright was on a run of four consecutive seasons with at least 71 tackles and 33 assists. Between 2014 and 2017 he contributed 7 sacks, 13 turnovers and 18 pass breakups. Wagner signed a two year extension this offseason and is locked up through 2021, so at least the team will not have to worry about losing both starters at the same time.

Mychal Kendricks is in an interesting situation. The deal he signed was only for one year but that does not necessarily exclude him from the long term plan. It was actually a smart move by the organization. Kendricks is expected to play strongside linebacker this season but he also provides an excellent backup plan should either Wagner or Wright be lost to injury. The one year deal enables Seattle to keep Kendricks on the squad while ensuring he will at the least be available in next year’s free agency. It also gives them the option to negotiate with him ahead of free agency and/or to tag him if they want to go that route. The team gets to see how it works out with Wagner while having a proven veteran option that has experience with the team, as a target for plan B.

Had they not landed behind one of the best in the game, Cody Barton and Ben Burr-Kirven are guys that might be getting a lot of attention from IDP managers. Both were highly productive college players at Pac-12 schools where they have seen a high level of competition. Barton provides a more imposing physical presence and was the higher pick going in round three, but Burr-Kirven definitely wins the higher mark for prior production. At 6’0, 230 pounds, he is a bowling ball with a low center of gravity and a great motor. Burr-Kirven earned first-team Associated Press All-American and Pack-12 defensive player of the year honors when he led the nation with 176 combined tackles last year at Washington. As a two-year starter for the Huskies, he also contributed 4 sacks, 4 interceptions, 10 passes defended, 6 forced fumbles and three recoveries. Many scouting reports want to rant about how he is too short. So were Zach Thomas and Sam Mills. We know how those guys turned out.

Defensive Backs

Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor and Richard Sherman no longer roam the Seattle secondary but that does not mean the Seahawks are lacking talent on the back end. Bradley McDougald was signed before the 2017 season to provide depth behind Chancellor who had been battling injuries for a while even then. McDougald made his first start in week eight that season and played every snap in 19 of the team’s 23 games since.

Seattle did not place anyone among the top-15 defensive backs last season but McDougald managed to finish at 20. That was rather impressive considering he played all season with a partially torn patella tendon in his knee that would require offseason surgery. He missed nearly all the week 15 game and parts of three others but hung in there for his team. McDougald finished the season at 66-12-0 with 7 turnovers, and 9 passes defended. He did make the top-10 with the Buccaneers in 2016 on the strength of 80 tackles, 12 assists, 10 pass breakups and 3 turnovers. This guy is highly underrated by many IDP managers and experts. Now that he is healthy, McDougald has a reasonable shot at a second top-10. At worst he is a quality DB2.

Tedrick Thompson stepped in at free safety when Earl Thomas was lost. He did a respectable job at the position and is penciled in to start entering camp. Thompson will have a lot of competition from second-round pick Marquise Blair who is likely to take over at some point. Blair played his college ball with Cody Barton at Utah. NFL.com draft expert Lance Zierlein described Blair as a linebacker trapped in the body of a free safety. He is fast, aggressive and at 195 pounds, sometimes too physical for his own good. Blair’s lack of discipline sometimes hurt his team either by penalties or over-running assignments. Those are issues that can be fixed with some good coaching, however.

Fantasy production at Seattle’s free safety position has been inconsistent over the last decade. Thomas has some top-30 seasons but just as often failed to make the top-50. Blair is worth keeping an eye on but is probably not worth a roster spot just yet.

Seattle has a knack for finding cornerback gems outside the first two round of the draft. Richard Sherman was a fifth-round selection while current starters Shaquill Griffin and Tre Flowers were taken in the third and fifth rounds respectively. Both Griffen and Flowers are solid NFL corners with good speed and coverage skills, but the coaching staff would like to see more big plays from them. In 2018 Griffen had a pair of interceptions while Flowers had none. Flowers did manage three forced fumbles and a recovery though. Griffen is entering his third NFL season while Flowers will be playing in his second. That means there is plenty of time and room for both to grow.

In fantasy terms, Seattle has provided useful options at corner over the years. For a long time the easy target was whoever started opposite Sherman. Griffen has reached 50 solo tackles in each of his two seasons. Last year both starters had good tackle numbers for the position with 54 solos. With so-so big-play production and fewer than 10 passes defended, both players were relegated to depth in leagues starting two corners. Corner depth is easy to come by in most formats so there is no need to use roster space on a CB3 until the bye weeks approach. That said, if either Griffen or Flowers come out hot in September, go ahead and grab them.

Last year’s nickel corner Justin Coleman is now playing for the Lions so there will be a wide-open competition to establish the rest of the pecking order. Akeem King saw spot duty with the team last season and Neiko Thorp is a player the Seahawks talk about a lot, but he has played little in three seasons with the team. Jamar Taylor is a veteran with nearly three years of starting experience, which makes him the early favorite for nickel duties. Fourth-round pick Ugo Amadi could also figure into some sub packages.

  • SS Bradley McDougald – Solid DB2 with low DB1 upside
  • FS Marquise Blair – Deep sleeper with DB3 potential
  • SS Delano Hill – No fantasy value
  • FS Tedrick Thompson – Marginal fantasy value at best
  • CB Tre Flowers – CB3 with a little upside
  • CB Shaq Griffin – CB3 with a little upside
  • CB Jamar Taylor – No fantasy factor
  • CB Akeem King – No fantasy impact
  • CB Kalan Reed – No fantasy impact
  • CB Neiko Thorpe – No fantasy impact.

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

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