Following on from Mike Clay’s review of offensive depth charts, we are now bringing you their defense-focused counterparts.
What I’m doing here is going team-by-team and taking a look at each team’s roster situation across the three defensive units and Fantasy Football positions (DL LB DB). I’ll also be speculating on a few potential off-season moves we could see each of these teams make.
Calais Campbell continued the tradition of players having a career year in a contract year and now looks set to be rewarded with a lucrative new deal as the Cardinals will not allow their twenty-five year old defensive-end hit the open market. Opposite Campbell will continue to be the dependable Darnell Dockett who himself signed a $56m, six year deal in only 2010. 330lbs nose-tackle Dan Williams ended the year on IR but is expected back as a starter after improving from his disappointing rookie campaign. The alternative could be sixth round rookie David Carter who played 249 snaps and graded +1.6 against the run. Veterans Vonnie Holliday (UFA) and Nick Eason are only depth options, if they even manage to retain roster spots.
Daryl Washington had a coming out year, ranking as our tenth best graded ILB (+17.6) and establishing himself in IDP leagues with six sacks, two picks and 98 solo tackles. With two years left on his second round rookie contract he should be a priority to lock up on a long term deal as he establishes himself as one of the league’s most versatile inside-linebackers. Alongside him currently is veteran, Paris Lenon, who will be in a contract year. Lenon is unlikely to see his contract extended as outside of a four game spell in 2010 he has been a weak link in the Cardinals defensive unit over the past two seasons. Rookie Sam Acho won the starting ROLB gig from Joey Porter by Week 8 and will continue to fill that role next season on the back of six sacks in 575 snaps. Porter will likely be released as he commands a $5.75m salary in 2012, ended the year on IR after just six games and played very poorly (-10.7) when on the field. O’Brien Schofield flashed potential in 449 snaps after missing his entire rookie season with a serious knee injury sustained at the Senior Bowl. He is projected to start across from Acho with eleven year veteran and free agent Clark Haggans as potential competition, if he re-signs. Stewart Bradley has proved to be a very expensive free agency mistake and is a likely cap casualty. RFA Reggie Walker saw time on special teams and will probably make camp if several of the veterans leave.
Adrian Wilson is an anomaly along the lines of Ray Lewis and London Fletcher-Baker and will be the foundation of the Cardinals’ secondary again in 2012 after another excellent season. His in-the-box style of play, coupled with a dangerous pass-rush, makes him a desirable fantasy asset, even at thirty-two. He’ll be joined by Patrick Peterson whose ability as a kick returner outshone his cover corner skills in his first pro season, though he did show improvement as the year progressed. At the other cornerback position RFA Richard Marshall beat out ERFA A.J Jefferson as the starter from Week 9 onwards and was called their Defensive MVP by Defensive Coordinator Ray Horton. Incidentally Marshall graded +9.9 in his nine games as a starter and should be awarded a lucrative contract, most likely by the Cardinals if Horton gets his say. Kerry Rhodes will return to the line-up after missing nine games through injury, but his back-up Rashard Johnson is a RFA and not going to pass either Wilson or Rhodes on the depth chart. Michael Adams played 385 snaps due to injuries but is a UFA.
San Francisco 49ers
Justin Smith signed a six-year deal back in 2008 and has earned every penny of his $45m by becoming the league’s premier 3-4 defensive-end and arguably the best defensive player in all of the NFL . Smith is one of the key pieces to the 49ers success as he demands (and beats) double teams on nearly every snap and is in line to get a contract extension from a franchise that will want to tie-up the cornerstones of its dominant defense . Quietly Ray MacDonald had a very good season of his own, recording six regular season sacks and a further three in the NFC Championship game against the Giants. He signed a five-year, $20m deal last season so will be part of the San Fran D-Line for the foreseeable future. Isaac Sopoaga doubles as a nose tackle and short yardage fullback and is stout against the run (+5.7) helping to keep the 49ers elite pair of inside linebackers clean and able to get to the ball carrier. Ricky-Jean Francois will be used in rotation and sub-packages again but won’t see the field enough to merit fantasy ownership.
Having been the hottest IDP asset over the past few seasons Patrick Willis’ value took a slight dip in 2011 thanks to the excellence of his partner-in-crime, NaVorro Bowman. Whereas Willis is locked up into a long-term deal, Bowman is due only $490k and is scheduled to hit free agency in 2014. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the front office ink Bowman to a multi-year contract in the offseason as they look to secure the building blocks for one of the league’s top defences. Both are LB1s barring injury, with Bowman being one of the top dynasty LBs out there right now. Despite only being a situational pass-rusher and playing 506 regular season snaps, Aldon Smith racked up an impressive fifteen sacks in a highly impressive rookie season. Rushing the quarterback from behind the wrecking machine that is Justin Smith is certainly an advantage, but Aldon Smith showed plenty enough talent to be expected to beat out Parys Haralson and be a full-time player next year, but without higher tackle numbers is limited to being a boom-or-bust LB2. Ahmad Brooks, who is a free agent, played 967 snaps on the way to a respectable +2.3, but four consecutive negative grades over -1.0 to end the regular season, followed by rejecting a long-term offer from the 49ers, casts some jeopardy on his future in red and gold. Larry Grant (RFA) was a capable fill-in when Patrick Willis was injured, but that’s the limit of his upside as long as he is in San Francisco.
Carlos Rogers signed a one-year deal with the 49ers before recording six interceptions and deservedly making the Pro Bowl. He’s now looking for a four-five year deal and at thirty-one years of age might find San Francisco unwilling to comply with his demands. His opposite number, Tarell Brown, will be under contract until 2014 and turned in excellent +2.5 and +2.3 performances in the playoffs which should secure him a starting spot on opening day. At safety the 2011 free agency signing Donte Whitner gives the defense a hard-nosed, run-stopper that will be back, but the inconsistent Dashon Goldson is a free agent. Goldson intercepted seven passes on the season including the playoffs, but also allowed 5 touchdowns and a -6.7 grade in pass coverage, so the 49ers will need to think long and hard before using their franchise tag on him. Rookie Chris Culliver saw 541 snaps on the year, including 106 in the playoffs, and had a decent season outside of a difficult Week 15 match-up with Steelers’ speedy receivers Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown (-4.0). If Rogers leaves and the front office ties up contract extensions with Justin Smith and NaVorro Bowman they may not be able to afford to pursue the top (young) free agent CBs Brent Grimes, Cortland Finnegan and Brandon Carr, instead looking to an improving Culliver as a starter. Reggie Smith backs up the starting safety duo, but is a UFA and will test the market, while fellow UFA back-up Madieu Williams is likely to re-sign. Tramaine Brock is an ERFA who struggled with injury and lost his role as the nickel back which left him as an occasional special-teamer.
St Louis Rams
The second overall pick in 2008 NFL Draft, Chris Long, has taken a step forwards each year, increasing his sack total season after season, finally breaking into double figures (13) in 2011. Long has a tireless motor and disrupts the quarterback on a very impressive 16.11% of pass-rushes, but will need to improve against the run (-10.5) if he is to become a top fantasy option. Long will become a free agent in 2013 so the Rams new GM, Les Snead, will be making it high priority to secure Long’s future in St Louis. His partner at defensive-end should be second year player, Robert Quinn, who after missing his final year in college, shook off the rust in his rookie NFL season. Quinn proved to be a dynamic playmaker recording six sacks and two blocked kicks, but similar to Long he was vulnerable against the run (-7.3). That should be where veteran James Hall finds his role, as he proved much more reliable in that regard (+6.9). Hall does also offer pass-rushing skills and has seventeen sacks in the past two seasons, but as a twelve year pro, who is a free agent in 2013, he may find himself behind Quinn on the depth chart for the RDE spot. Fred Robbins (497 snaps), Justin Bannan (495) and Gary Gibson (398) were used in rotation to fill the defensive tackle spots with moderate success. Gibson is the youngest of the trio at twenty-nine, but is a UFA and could be allowed to leave with a whole new coaching staff in place. Robbins is thirty-four and a free agent in 2013, while Bannan at thirty-two was signed last year on a three-year deal. The Rams should certainly address their needs at DT by getting younger in the offseason and notable free agents include Sione Pouha, Brodrick Bunkley and Jason Jones, however the recently released Albert Haynesworth might get some attention from his former coach in Tennessee, Jeff Fisher. Eugene Sims is used only to give a breather to the most frequently used ends, as is C.J. Ah You, who is a RFA. Darell Scott (246 snaps) also sees time in rotation.
Other than James Laurinaitis, the Rams have a linebacker corps that leaves a lot to be desired. Laurinaitis is one of the best ILBs in coverage (+6.8) but also makes tackles (138 total), sacks (3) and interceptions (2) which gives him elite fantasy value. He’s scheduled to be a free agent in 2013, but there is no chance the Rams front office allows that to happen as he has become their leader on defense and will be extended with a multi-year deal. Chris Chamberlain and Brady Poppinga manned the OLB spots for most of the year, but both are UFAs and would also face a camp battle for their starting roles if they do re-sign. Steve Spagnuolo’s system did not put an emphasis on the play of outside linebackers, but with Fisher’s new staff in place and only mediocre output from the incumbent starters, I expect the Rams to look to upgrade here. They could choose to use the draft to improve this area with as the free agency class of Erin Henderson, Jarret Johnson, Anthony Spencer and Manny Lawson is pretty underwhelming. Brian Kehl was a Spagnuolo guy (a former Giant) who struggled to get on the field for the Rams and as a UFA is unlikely to be back next year.
After being called one of the most under-rated safeties in the game by the PFF analysts heading into free agency last year, Quintin Mikell was a shadow of his former self in 2011. Grading -6.5 over the first three games he got off to a very slow start before ending the year at -2.8. He is by the Rams until 2015 and will undoubtedly be excited by the hiring of new Defensive Coordinator, Gregg Williams, who loves to blitz his defensive backs. In New Orleans, Williams sent Roman Harper after opposing quarterbacks on 153 plays last year, 82 in 2010 and 115 in 2009. Over those three seasons he charted fifteen sacks, so Mikell should be a riser in IDP rankings for next year. Darian Stewart, who is an ERFA, gained fantasy notoriety over the final half of the season with a combination of tackles and sacks, but don’t let fantasy production outweigh on-field success. A -11.3 grade over the final four games was compounded by twenty missed tackles on the season, so Stewart could easily find himself in competition for his job. The obvious target in my mind would be Michael Griffin, a player drafted by Jeff Fisher in Tennessee, who has expressed his desire to play elsewhere in 2012. At cornerback the Rams were devastated by injuries. The original starters, Ron Bartell and Bradley Fletcher could only manage 363 snaps between them and Bartell could be cut if he is unwilling to renegotiate his $6.2m salary as hasn’t intercepted a single pass in the last three years. Fletcher had progressed to a starting role after playing 2010 as the nickel and will be back assuming he has recovered fully from a torn ACL. Justin King is a UFA and best remembered for being torched by Torrey Smith, so will most likely be let go. Josh Gordy was one of the waiver pick-ups the Rams made to fill their patchwork secondary, but struggled (-8.9). However he’ll stick and get sub-package looks. Craig Dahl saw time in rotation and three-deep safety packages, but is a UFA, while another Spagnuolo guy, James Butler only played 118 snaps and is also a UFA, but not expected back. Marquis Johnson signed a futures deal after being the tenth Rams CB to be placed on IR in 2011.
When you talk about under-rated players, one of the first names that warrants mentioning is Chris Clemons. He has notched up twelve sacks in each of the last two seasons and has also been in the top five for quarterback pressures in both years. He is in a contract year and will be expected to perform at a high level again. Red Bryant and Raheem Brock played in rotation at the other end spot, with Brock handling the passing downs. Neither was wildly successful, mustering only five sacks between them and both are free agents. Brock has been charged with drunk driving and faces a league mandated suspension, while Bryant has stated a desire to return, although at 320lbs he’s a five-technique defensive end (+9.0 against the run) which might not fit Carroll’s 4-3 system. There are some high profile potential free agents such as Mario Williams, John Abraham, Robert Mathis and Cliff Avril who will probably test the market and could garner interest from the Seahawks. Brandon Mebane and Alan Branch filled the defensive tackle spots after both signed contracts in 2011, although Branch’s deal was only for two years and laden with “prove it” incentives. Branch certainly did that with a +19.2 grade against the run, the third best grade for defensive and nose tackles. Clinton McDonald is an ERFA who was acquired in a pre-season trade for Kelly Jennings, played 436 snaps as a back-up and will resume that roll next year. Veteran Anthony Hargrove is a UFA and was signed as a back-up and will continue to be so unless offered a better role elsewhere.
David Hawthorne has been an IDP enigma over the past few seasons, promising a lot if finally given a full season of snaps as an everydown middle linebacker. Although he got that (1,010 snaps) and graded a solid +8.8 it does not appear that the Seahawks are rushing to put pen to paper with the free agent. Possibly the reason is they have seen something they like in rookie K.J. Wright, who played as the starting strongside linebacker from Week 2 onwards with good results. Leroy Hill is a free agent again and has rebuilt his reputation somewhat after a disastrous couple of seasons of off the field issues and injuries. At the right price Hill could re-sign in Seattle, but he’s not the highly prized asset that once needed to be franchise tagged. Matt McCoy is a special team specialist who ended the year on IR and is now a free agent.
The Seahawks can boast they have one of the most exciting, young secondaries in football right now with Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman. Rookie cornerback duo Browner and Sherman had ten picks between them even though Sherman didn’t win a starter’s share of the snaps until Week 7. Browner was added to the Pro Bowl as a replacement for Carlos Rogers, but the case can be made that Sherman is the superior of the two players as he graded out far better, +8.1 vs. 0.0. Chancellor was highly touted in the preseason as a must-have IDP sleeper and he lived up to expectations before a mid-season lull, but he finished the season strong with twenty-three solo tackles in the final three games. Known for being a big hitter, he enters his third season in the pros contracted with Seattle until the end of the 2013 season. Fourteenth overall selection in 2010, Earl Thomas had a quieter year with only two interceptions, but was by no means a weak spot for the defense as he was our eight best safety this season. Marcus Trufant’s year was cut short by injury, but as a free agent he is not expected to return following the breakout of Browner and Sherman. Roy Lewis saw time in sub-packages when injuries took hold in the second half of the season and is a RFA. Atari Bigby was picked up as insurance at safety, but other than replacing Chancellor in Week 4, only saw 73 snaps on the rest of the season. As a free agent, he is unlikely to be back with the team unless he is happy as a back-up. Walter Thurmond was used in sub-packages and even started a few games in place of Trufant when he went down, until Sherman won the job. He himself ended up on IR but should be back as the nickel corner in 2012.
Follow Ross Miles on Twitter: @PFF_RossMiles