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.
Elvis Dumervil returned from a serious pectoral injury that sabotaged his entire 2010 season in style this year, although it took him until Week 9 to register his first sack. Dumervil then strung together a run of eight consecutive games with a sack to reach thirteen before the end of the year, showing he had not lost the ability that pushed him to a league-leading seventeen sack back in 2009. Having signed a six-year, $61.5m contract just before his season-ending injury in ’10, the Broncos front office will be relieved he still has his explosion. Dumervil is pushing to be a top ten DE next season, especially as teams have to account for his pass-rushing partner in crime, Von Miller. Robert Ayers (752 snaps) and Jason Hunter (414) shared duties at the opposite end of the line but were both unable to exploit the favourable match-ups that they were benefitting from when blitzing. Ayers graded -2.6 but managed six sacks, while Hunter only recorded one and a -7.7 grade. Hunter is a UFA and his decent +4.6 against the run might just be enough to help him re-sign in Denver. Brodrick Bunkley continues to be a terror inside and although he only played 536 snaps he graded +26.8 overall and impressively recorded a defensive stop on 11.3% run plays he was on the field for, most of all DTs in the league. As a UFA he could find himself getting paid, and deservedly so. Restricted free agent Ryan McBean played the third most snaps on the D-Line (707), but poor pass-rushing (-14.9) and seven penalties do not bode well for his future in Denver. Marcus Thomas, another UFA, also saw decent playing time (621 snaps) with only moderate success -0.5. Former first-round pick for the Jaguars, Derrick Harvey, failed to break into the starting line-up and only managed 92 snaps and is a UFA expected to leave.
In a season where several rookies got lots of media attention, our selection for the pick of the crop, Von Miller, was not even the media darling of his own team (ahem, Tim Tebow!). At +53.3, Miller’s phenomenal first season in the NFL was good enough to be the highest graded defensive player in the league and it wasn’t just his blisteringly fast pass-rush technique that earned him that title. In support of his twelve regular season sacks, Von Miller had a +22.9 grade against the run and 42 defensive stops. Torn ligaments in his thumb slowed him over the final three weeks of the year as he failed to register a single sack or QB hit, only two solo tackles and one assist (-6.8) which did limit his value during the fantasy playoffs, but he will be pushing to be a top 20 ranked LB next year. D.J. Williams had his season cut short by a dislocated elbow and missed the first three games of the season, but the perennial high-volume tackler still recorded 97 total tackles on the year, making him an IDP staple and useful waiver wire pick-up in redraft leagues. He’ll be back in 2012 as a top LB2 prospect. One of the most interesting battles will be between Joe Mays (785 snaps, +3.3) and the will-be sophomore, Nate Irving, to play MLB. Irving was drafted towards the top of the third round in last years draft but was unable to crack the line-up (only playing seven snaps) due in parts to the lockout shortened season, but is being earmarked to be a fulltime starter, potentially from Week 1. He’s my idea of a real sleeper and if playing a three-down role, should be a top 20 option at linebacker. Mays is an unrestricted free agent and if he expects to get starting money, will quickly find himself earning a paycheque in a new city. Wesley Woodyard saw time in rotation and in packages (664 snaps) and on special teams but graded struggled in coverage (-6.3) which is where he spent 51.1% of his snaps. He’s a free-agent who is expected to re-sign, but don’t set your fantasy sights too high despite his 84 total tackles. Mario Haggan only really saw time in relief of Von Miller, when he was subbed in against the run (as Miller sometimes lacked discipline against the run due to his relentless pursuit of the quarterback) and is another UFA and unless he is happy backing up more talented, younger players, will be shown the door.
Any discussion of the Broncos secondary has to start with Champ Bailey, who still competes and plays at a very high-level (+11.3 including playoffs). Allowing only 50% of passes in his direction to be completed all year on seventy-two targets is another example of just how good this thirteen year pro is, but as it is with IDP fantasy football, true shutdown corners have very limited value. Andre Goodman gave up nine touchdowns (compared to Bailey’s two) last year and finished the year rated -6.4. He’s a poor fantasy option and average starter at best who won’t be owned in many fantasy leagues. Although he took a pre-season lead in the race to be the young safety of the future for the Broncos, second round selection Rahim Moore (554 snaps) found himself behind Quinton Carter (849) as the season progressed. Carter has an interesting profile as his -12.6 grade marks him out as a player who could well find himself made the focus of offensive gameplans, and assuming he can hold out as the starter (a job he kept from Week 10 onwards) he is another name I’d put on watchlists for 2012. Moore will need to make the most of his time on the field in sub-packages if he is to regain his coaches confidence. Brian Dawkins is no longer the force he once was and if he doesn’t re-sign with the Broncos is expected to retire. Undrafted rookie Chris Harris Jr showed enough in his 573 snaps (+4.0) to compete for more time over Cassius Vaughn and Jonathan Wilhite (UFA), and won the nickelback role fulltime by the end of the year. He’s even got a shot at competing with Goodman for the #2 role next season, so keep an eye on his progress during camp and the pre-season. David Bruton will return as a back-up safety.
Kansas City Chiefs
No defensive lineman for the Chiefs was on the field for more than 650 snaps which immediately puts a cap on their fantasy value. Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson both had over 600, but were employed as run-stuffers rather than pass-rushers. Between them they totalled one sack, three hits and six pressures, but contributed 72 defensive stops. In leagues that reward tackles-for-loss they have back-up value, but otherwise they should be bypassed for their 4-3, blitz-happy brethren. Dorsey is in a contract year whereas Jackson has an extra year to his deal (worth over $14m in 2013), so may see the open market, but not for at least a year. If you feel compelled to own a Chiefs D Lineman, you could be worse than Wallace Gilberry who posted some solid numbers in his 374 snaps; three sacks, five hits and ten pressures. If he gets more time, he holds sleeper value, but it’s a big if seeing as his playing time went backwards last year after seven sacks in 2010. Kelly Gregg ate up space as a nose tackle in limited time, but even in the deepest of tackle-heavy leagues, he was little more than a back-up, who is now an unrestricted free agent. Allen Bailey saw the field on nickel snaps as part of a two-man line (with Gilberry), but essentially his job was to occupy blockers to make the job of the rushing OLBs easier, which gives him minimal fantasy value.
The story for the Chiefs linebackers is very different in IDP circles, as Derrick Johnson’s versatility propels him comfortably into the top ten IDP linebackers, and puts him in contention for the top five. Having signed a six-year deal in 2010 he’ll be back to lead the defense with 100+ tackles and an array of big-plays which puts him in the upper echelons of IDP players. In his seven-year career he has averaged six combined sacks, picks and forced fumbles a season and also has the ability to return a touchdown occasionally too, giving him that playmaking edge. Talking of playmakers, Tamba Hali added twelve sacks last year (and ten hits) following on from nineteen sacks (and sixteen hits) the previous year. He does post lower tackle totals, but he’s a ferocious blitzer who has nine games with two or more sacks in the past two years, which means he can turn a fantasy game in your favour. He signed a new $57.5m deal last year and is now contracted through 2015. Playing at LOLB, across from Hali was rookie Justin Houston who won the starting gig from Week 11 onwards, recording six sacks in the final five games, as well as grading +16.7 in the eight games after Week 10. Houston makes for an interesting dynasty add, but as with all pure pass-rushers, will be vulnerable in tackle-heavy leagues and will be best used a rotation/spot-starter. Another Chiefs linebacker I have an acute interest in is Jovan Belcher. Looking at Belcher’s tackle frequency (solo tackles + assisted tackles / snaps) of 13.29%, he compares very favourably with Desmond Bishop (13.60%), NaVorro Bowman (13.24%) and James Laurinaitis (12.49%) who are all elite LB1s. Weak when asked to play coverage (-6.8), Belcher showed a good nose for the ball carrier and recorded a defensive stop on exactly 50% of his 74 solo tackles and makes a good case for increased playing time, and as a restricted free agent he is expected back. Andy Studebaker and Cam Sheffield both failed to make headway into the starting line-up rotation on a regular basis as Houston played well enough to keep them on the sidelines.
One of the biggest names in the free agency market this year is Brandon Carr, who has been in the shadows of Brandon Flowers in Kansas City. Whereas in 2010 it was Flowers who garnered all the praise for his shutdown skills it was Carr who was targeted more often (110 vs 102) and allowed a lower completion percentage (45.5% vs. 51.0%). However, Carr did concede five touchdowns, while Flowers only allowed one. Carr excelled again in 2011 and statistically speaking out-performed Flowers in allowing a lower completion percentage (49.4% vs. 53.5%) and fewer TDs (three vs. eight), but it was Flowers who was rewarded with a six-year $49.25m deal. Both Carr and Flowers have the value to be fantasy starters, as evidenced by their high number of targets (which means opportunities), although based on their career history Flowers has an edge in interceptions (thirteen to eight since 2008) which tips his fantasy value slightly higher. It appears as if Carr will not be playing in Arrowhead Stadium next season, as the Chiefs have extended Flowers, signed Stanford Routt to a three-year, $20m contract (and franchise tagged Dwayne Bowe), leaving Carr to test the market and see how much he can get paid if he tops a team’s depth chart. Kendrick Lewis manned the free safety spot all year with moderate success (-0.4), before suffering a shoulder injury in the final game. His job would have been a lot easier had Eric Berry not suffered a season ending injury after just five snaps. Berry was in strong contention to be the top IDP defensive back by my reckoning last year and is expected to be back before the start of training camp. Then Defensive Coordinator and now Head Coach Romeo Crennel was said to be going to use Berry in a hybrid role that would have had him playing close to line of scrimmage and causing havoc in the box. If that usage continues over into 2012/3, Berry could prove to be an excellent IDP asset in all formats. Jon McGraw (-6.8), Donald Washington (-8.5) and Sabby Piscitelli (-9.1) all saw time and made periodic starts for a team that suffered with injuries, but none of the trio can expect more than a backup role moving forwards. Javier Arenas flashed some ability in his 381 snaps, but the free agency signing of Stanford Routt resigns him to nickel duty and sharing kick-returns with Dexter McCluster.
A player I had high hopes for last year, but did not materialise, was Matt Shaughnessy. Shaughnessy only played 145 snaps before being placed on IR, and his time on the field was hampered by his shoulder injury, which meant he struggled to have a fantasy impact. He’s in a contract year, is only earning just over $500k and will be looking to re-establish himself after I called him one of the most under-rated Ends in football last year. I’ve a lot of confidence that his solid play against the run (+14.3 in 2010) and ability to make both sacks (twelve in 2009 and 2010 combined) and tackles for loss (five in both 2009 and 2010) mean he’ll be pushing to be a top ten DE this year. Filling in for Shaughnessy was Desmond Bryant who accumulated six sacks after becoming the starter in Week 5, and is now a restricted free agent and holds little fantasy value as he’ll return to back-up duties. Lamarr Houston manned the other End spot in his second year successfully, only missing two tackles and grading +14.1 overall, but his fantasy value is marginal as he only charted three sacks. He also had a frustrating penchant for penalties, recording nine, a trait mirrored by Richard Seymour (eleven) and Tommy Kelly (ten). In leagues that require defensive tackles both players should be rostered, but Seymour is at best a match-up start as he could only break three points in a week on six occasions last year, and only twice reached double-figure scores. John Henderson (355 snaps), Jarvis Moss (306) and Trevor Scott (251) all saw time in rotation and packages, but only Henderson acquitted himself with credit, grading +15.7. Henderson signed a new two year deal, while Moss and Scott are unrestricted free agents.
Another Raider I had a strong interest in was Rolando McClain, who was solid, but not great in both fantasy and actual football. His 90 total tackles were supported by five sacks, but despite 78 targets (second most for ILBs) he could not intercept a single pass and was our third worst ILB in coverage (-7.6). His tackle frequency of 8.68% ranks him 45th of 50 qualifying ILBs and is actually a regression from his 9.13% from last year (36th/50) which signifies to me that McClain is unlikely to move higher than the low-end LB2 value he currently has. Kamerion Wimbley had a good year by all accounts; six sacks, sixteen hits and forty pressures, as well as 57 total tackles (and a +24.5 grade) and signed a new five-year, $48m deal. However, reports are surfacing that the Raiders now want Wimbley to take a pay-cut, or they’ll release him! I guess that’s what happens when the front office changes! He’s never going to be more than a fantasy bench-warmer though because he has only once had a double-digit sack season, and can’t push past 70 total tackles, no matter where he ends up. Aaron Curry was a high profile draft prospect, picked fourth overall, but he never panned out for the Seahawks. The Raiders paid a 2012 seventh-round pick and a conditional 2013 pick for him before putting him in as a starter on the weakside by Week 6 over Quentin Groves. After struggling through his first eight games in the black and silver (six negative games), he ended the year with three positive ones, but still failed to deliver a single sack on the year. He’s in a contract year and will need to show a marked improvement to warrant owning in all but the deepest of fantasy leagues. Groves himself was good against the run (+5.5) but struggled everywhere else and is an unrestricted free agent.
Tyvon Branch earned himself the franchise tag after another good year, but it was not quite up to his play-making standards in 2010. Although he exceeded his tackle output he failed to reproduce his impressive play behind the line of scrimmage (four sacks and six tackles for loss), only managing a single sack and two tackles for loss. That being said, he’s ultra-consistent and will threaten the top ten DBs this coming season. Stanford Routt, as previously mentioned, has signed with the Chiefs, which gives his value a slight boost as he’ll be playing opposite a superior corner in Brandon Flowers, but he’s only a DB3/4. Michael Huff is the other high profile name in the Raiders secondary but his season was plagued with niggling injuries and he is in danger of becoming a cap casualty in Oakland, although that may be a little harsh. Playing a full quota of games Huff should be owned in all fantasy leagues, but whether 2010/11 was an anomaly in an otherwise unremarkable career remains to be seen. I’d be willing to chance a late round pick on him in the hope he can recapture the form that puts him in the DB2 range. Matt Giordano was the beneficiary of the litany of injuries among the Raiders defensive backs (Chris Johnson, Chimdi Chekwa, Demarcus Van Dyke and Hiram Eugene) as he played 872 snaps as a result. Although he wasn’t great (-7.2) he was given the opportunity to makes plays, which he did, and recorded five interceptions, a sack and a forced fumble, propelling himself into bye-week fill in status by the end of the year. He’s now a free agent and expected to be released. Johnson is also a candidate to be released. Of the rest, they serve as replacement level players from the Al Davis era, often signed based on their speed rather than skills, no-one more notably than second round (second round!?) selection Michael Mitchell (-10.4) who missed five tackles and made only twenty solos in his 507 snaps.
San Diego Chargers
Similar to the Chiefs defensive line, the Chargers use plenty of rotation between their packages, which means no lineman played more than 630 snaps last year. Leading the way was DT Vaughn Martin (630), the 327lbs nose tackle, who failed to impress when blitzing (-11.4), but did add two tackles for a loss and one sack. He holds only marginal value in fantasy leagues that start defensive tackles, despite the impending release of free agent, Antonio Garay. Garay impressed us with a +27.9 grade and six sacks in just 466 snaps in 2010, but could only post +4.0 and three sacks in 538 snaps last year. I’d make him a sleeper for this season, especially if he lands with the right franchise. Rookie Corey Liuget suffered an ankle injury in the first half of the season, but still started thirteen games, playing 461 snaps. He posted seven negatively graded games over -1.0 and only two positively graded games above +1.0 as well as struggling to get on the stat sheet (just twelve solo tackles, one sack and one hit). I’d leave Liguet alone for now as 3-4 DEs are less valuable than their 4-3 counterparts, not to mention his own issues with production. Cam Thomas was drafted by the Chargers in 2010 as another big-bodied nose tackle (a year after they drafted Martin) and he flashed his ability when given the opportunity. He played well against the run (+6.2, fourteen stops and no missed tackles) and when blitzing (+2.9 and four sacks) in just 395 snaps. He’ll have a camp battle with Martin and is my idea of a deep sleeper if he can win a starters role. Luis Castillo has already been released and Tommy Harris (UFA) is no longer the force he once was for the Bears.
One player who divides opinion is Donald Butler. Butler frustrated his hardcore IDP owners last year as he failed to win a spot in nickel and sub packages, limiting him to just 652 snaps on the season. Despite those limitations he still accumulated 95 total tackles and a league leading (for ILBs) 14.57% tackle frequency. The problem has been his play in pass coverage, where he has allowed 28/34 (82.4%) of passes to be completed. Further investigation shows that of those 28 completed passes only 13 went for a first down (3/6 on 3rd down) and just 6 of those 13 first downs came via a run after catch. This is reflected in Butler’s pass coverage grade of -0.3 which seems a lot better than expected considering his allowed completion percentage. When you actually look at the worst 20 ILBs based on their allowed completion percentage only three players don’t have a negative grade above -1.7; Butler (-0.3), 2011 top scoring LB D’Qwell Jackson (-0.1) and LB1 and a personal fav of mine, Daryl Washington (+8.5). Analysing all of that suggests that if given an everydown LB role, Butler is an LB1 who could even push the likes of Bishop and Willis, but it remains to be seen if he will get the playing time. Even without it Butler is a LB2/3 with huge upside based on age and opportunity. Takeo Spikes is another one of those ageing, but seemingly un-slowing linebackers like Ray Lewis and London Fletcher. In eight seasons Spikes has had over 100 total tackles, including the last two in San Diego. He makes for excellent bench fodder as he is as reliable as they come, which means when injuries or byes decimate your roster, Spikes is there to fill in. Shaun Phillips missed four games last season which lessened his impact, but he still played reasonably well. He’s always been a boom or bust fantasy asset due to his lower tackle numbers and the fact he is just a level below the elite pass-rushers, but he makes for a top match-up based, bye-week replacement. Travis LaBoy and Antwan Barnes were used as specialists, LaBoy against the run (52.7% of snaps) and Barnes rushing the passer (56.8%), but neither are fantasy starters. Barnes is in a contract year and will hope to repeat on his eleven sacks in 484 snaps and should be afforded greater opportunity, however I am cautious to recommend rostering him based on his limited usage. Na’il Diggs (-5.8) is a UFA and couldn’t even stick on the Rams depleted LB corps and is unlikely to stay in San Diego for a second season.
Eric Weddle returned to DB1 status last season with seven interceptions and a very impressive 40.7% allowed completion percentage. In fact Weddle only allowed 110 yards in his coverage all season, only five first downs all year and only one third down conversion. With 84 total tackles only the third best performance in his six year career there is a lot to like about the former Utah Ute, regardless of whether he can repeat his high interception numbers. Antoine Cason was handed a starting job to open the season but a string of poor performances saw him demoted and replaced by Marcus Gilchrist, until a Week 9, 129 yard, two TD shredding against Green Bay pushed Cason back in. I’m still not sure how Quentin Jammer (-13.7) is keeping his starting job and seeing as he is being paid $4m in the final year of his contract, I expect the Chargers to take a long hard look at Cason and Gilchrist as their long-term options. None make for every week fantasy starters, although they are viable back-ups. Steve Gregory was the starting strong safety from Week 3 onwards, but is now a free agent who will test the open market for a starting safety role elsewhere. At 29 years old I just don’t see Gregory improving enough to be worth rostering in all but the most urgent of situations. Do I even need to mention UFA Bob Sanders is done? Dante Hughes played 445 snaps in sub packages but is expected to be released.
Follow Ross Miles on Twitter: @PFF_RossMiles