To round off our series, I will be assessing the defensive personnel of each NFC South team, as they pertain to fantasy football (DL’s, LB’s, and DB’s). Contract years often have a profound impact on the performance of players, but some 2011 performances may warrant a demotion or even a release. Furthermore, free agency also adds an interesting twist, as teams seek replacements.
(Note: Statistics for players include regular season games only unless indicated otherwise)
New Orleans Saints
In 2011, the Saints’ defensive line was rather unproductive. Will Smith was the most productive, yet even his play was nothing to write about (although though that’s exactly what I’m doing right now). Among all Saints’ DL last season, Smith lead the pack with 7 sacks, 3 tackles for a loss, and 30 QB pressures – despite missing the first two games of the year. Smith is under contract until 2014 and remains a focal point of their defense, as well as the best IDP option on this line, as a DE2/3. Opposite of Smith, though, things are less consistent. Smith played in 826 snaps, while the next closest DE’s were Cameron Jordan (592) and Junior Galette (372). Jordan, a first round pick in 2011, was primarily a run-defender but improved as a pass rusher later in the season. As a rookie, he achieved a run defense rating of +12.1 – the highest on the team. Despite an unimpressive pass rush rating of -4.4, he achieved a positive rating in four of the Saints’ last 5 regular season games. Galette, on the other hand, was the exact opposite – specializing as a pass rusher who struggled against the run. Galette achieved the highest pass rushing rating on the team (+2.7) and was third on the team with 4 sacks, despite playing a very situational role. His poor run defense rating (-3.4) can be overlooked, as he was on the field for only 80 run plays all season. In the middle of the Saints’ defensive line, things are far less clear. Aubrayo Franklin and Shaun Rogers are both free agents. Both were solid against the run last season (Rogers: +5.5, Franklin: +2.9) but failed to record a single sack. With Rogers at age 33, Franklin at 31, and the Saints slim on cap space, it seems unlikely both will be back unless they love the food in New Orleans so much they sign insanely cheap deals. Sedrick Ellis is entering the last year of his contract, but is due a $5.8 million salary. Seems pricey, considering he recorded just 18 tackles and 2 sacks in 2011. Additionally, Ellis was good for the fourth worst run defense rating on the team (-2.3) and a less-than-spectacular pass rush rating of -1.3. Ellis may be released, but could also restructure his contract considering the issue of DT depth for the Saints. The only other DT’s on the roster are Mitch King and Tom Johnson, both of whom showed potential, but it would be risky relying on them to start next season.
The Saints’ linebackers are an interesting group. There’s plenty of potential, yet inconsistency plagued the position. Jonathan Vilma, once an icon in New Orleans, has an uncertain future. In addition to missing five games in 2011, Vilma supposedly underwent surgery and is turning 30 this year. With his involvement in “Bounty-gate” likely leading to a suspension, his $5.4 million 2012 (and $5.9 2013) salary could cause problems, and definitely lowers his IDP value. Vilma had his worst season as a Saint last year, receiving an overall rating of -16.2. While lingering knee injuries undoubtedly affected his play, he’ll likely be asked to take a pay cut, and could possibly be released. In the five games Vilma missed, OLB Jo-Lonn Dunbar stepped in and performed adequately as a MLB. In said games, Dunbar averaged 7.2 tackles (including assists) and an overall rating of -2.5. Not the best rating, but the point is that he performed about as well as Vilma and would cost the Saints only a fraction of him. Vilma’s future would be extremely uncertain, if Dunbar himself wasn’t a free agent. OLB Martez Wilson, a third round pick in 2011, has tremendous potential heading into his sophomore season. A freak athlete at 6’4″ 252 pounds, Wilson ran the fastest 40-yard dash at the combine and could have a break-out year. While playing in only 66 defensive plays all year, Wilson made an impact towards the end of the year, recording a sack in week 16, as well as two more in the post season. Keep an eye on this guy. Scott Shanle, Jonathan Casillas and Ramon Humber all contributed as role players, but did nothing special. Shanle and Humber played the run well (ratings of +3.0 and +6.4, respectively) but also both had negative ratings in pass rushing and coverage. Casillas recorded 3 sacks and played the run well, yet managed an overall rating of -11.2. With Casillas tendered and Humber a RFA, Shanle could be getting the boot as an unproductive 32 year-old who’s scheduled to make 1.75 million. No real IDP value in this unit.
The Saints’ secondary will look very similar to last year’s. Starters Jabari Greer, Patrick Robinson, Malcolm Jenkins, and Roman Harper are all under contract at least through this season. As the Saints’ number one CB, Greer managed a -4.4 pass coverage rating, but had the pleasure of guarding teams’ best receivers all year and achieved a solid rating of +2.3 in the post season. In his second year, Patrick Robinson emerged after a rough rookie season. He led the team in both interceptions (4) and pass coverage rating (+3.8) and will continue to improve. He could make for a solid CB2. UFA Tracy Porter, a hero of Super Bowl 44, is likely out. Even after returning from an injury Porter lost his starting role to Robinson and will desire a starting role. Rookie Johnny Patrick also played well in limited time, achieving a +1.1 pass coverage rating. New Orleans’ safeties were very interesting last season. Malcolm Jenkins got a -2.4 overall rating, but his defense blitzed more than any team in the league, yet ranked 19th in terms of sacks – leaving him a difficult task. Harper, as I discussed in this article, had great stats, but did not play well as far as being a defensive back. Harper lead his team in both tackles and sacks, but failed to record a single interception for the third time in four seasons. With a -8.4 pass coverage rating, Harper may be exposed next season. He rushed the QB 131 times last season, but Steve Spagnuolo likes bringing pressure with the front four, which could cause a decrease in his production and IDP value.
I envision the Saints trying to add pass rushing DE’s, resigning Rogers or adding run-stuffing DT’s, and versatile LB’s. David Hawthorne, who can play MLB and OLB, has been mentioned, expect the Saints to pursue him.
Much like their rivals in New Orleans, the Falcons struggled to generate adequate pressure on opposing QB’s. Lucky for Atlanta, John Abraham, their best pass rusher of 2011, just signed a three-year deal to stay with the team. Great news for Falcons’ fans, as it originally seemed he would have a new team in 2010. Not only was Abraham their most highly rated pass rusher (+31.7), he was their highest rated overall defensive player (+35.9). His 11 sacks and 40 QB pressures would not have been matched by anyone on the current roster. By signing the man who had 31% of the teams’ sacks last season, Atlanta just made some serious progress in addressing their greatest need. They anticipated signing Ray Edwards to a five-year, $30 million contract would aid their pass rush, but that wasn’t the case. While stout against the run (+8.0), Edwards struggled to generate a pass rush, compiling only 4 sacks despite pass rushing more often than Abraham. The first step Atlanta took towards improving their situation at DE was signing Kroy Biermann to a three-year deal. However, Biermann was Atlanta’s fourth lowest rated pass rusher (-2.2) in addition to having the fourth lowest overall rating (-7.5). Fortunately for the Falcons, their interior line is in much better shape. Jonathan Babineaux, despite recording just one sack, rated +2.7 against the run, and +9.2 against the pass, en route to a +13.5 overall rating. His counterpart, Corey Peters, managed an overall rating of +1.0, but recorded 3 sacks in addition to 3 tackles for a loss. Sorry Peria Jerry, but as a former first overall pick who ranked last on his team against the run and second worst against the pass, you’re officially a bust. With the exception of a major free agent signing, Abraham is the only member of this line with any significant IDP value, likely a DE2.
With the hiring of defensive coordinator Mike Nolan, there were rumors that Atlanta would switch to the 3-4; however, they will maintain their current 4-3 scheme in which second year pro Sean Weatherspoon thrived. After playing only part-time in 2010, Weatherspoon exploded in 2011. He ranked second on the team in tackles and sacks, recording 88 (solo) and 4, respectively. With a +18.3 overall rating, Weatherspoon has solidified himself as one of the best young linebackers in the NFL, and could be a LB1 by the end of the season. While Weatherspoon is likely to do big things for Atlanta, their MLB situation is a bit more complex. Signing Lofa Tatupu to a two-year deal was an interesting move, considering he hasn’t played football in well over a year, giving him very low IDP value. Even when he was playing, his level of play had seen a gradual decline in previous seasons, as this table clearly shows:
|Lofa Tatupu’s Ratings|
|Overall||Run D||Pass Rush||Pass Cov.|
Curtis Lofton‘s 2011 season did nothing but add to an already impressive resume, although Tatupu’s signing may very well indicate that Lofton will depart in free agency. Lofton is not expected back in Atlanta, and has received interest from rivals Tampa Bay and New Orleans. Veteran Mike Peterson came in last year and contributed relatively well as a role player before landing on IR towards the end of the season. Stephen Nicholas put up numbers that were far from sexy, recording 23 solo tackles, 0 sacks and 0 interceptions. However, Nicholas earned very respectable run defense and pass rush ratings (+3.8 and +2.3, respectively). As a result, he will likely see increased time due to a lack of depth. Oh yeah, and he signed a 5 year, $17.5 million deal last year. The only other linebackers to record defensive playing time were Spencer Atkins and Akeem Dent, registering a combined 47 snaps and a whopping 5 tackles.
In Atlanta’s secondary last season, their highest paid player performed the worst. In 2010, Dunta Robinson signed a lucrative 6 year, $57 million contract with $25.5 million guaranteed. To say that Robinson has under-achieved is an understatement of all understatements. With a team-worst -12.5 pass coverage rating, Robinson surely breached the part of his contract that stated he’s supposed to play well when getting that kind of money. Robinson’s performance was easily surpassed by that of Brent Grimes, the short feisty corner opposite him. Despite recording one less interception than Robinson, Grimes had an additional five passes defended to Robinson, and sported a team-best pass coverage rating of +12.3. Much to Grimes’ dismay, however, he was franchised this off-season and has stated that he has no intention of signing that offer. If the Falcons can’t manage to lock him up long-term, look for Grimes to hold out into training camps if not longer. From an IDP perspective, safety Thomas DeCoud is likely the best bet in Atlanta’s secondary. DeCoud lead the team in interceptions and placed third in tackles, despite having an overall rating of -0.9. He is clearly in the good graces of Atlanta’s front office, as he signed a five-year, $17.5 million contract last week. William Moore, who plays opposite DeCoud, put up less impressive statistics, yet scored a much higher overall rating of +5.1.
Look for the Falcons to seek pass rushing DE’s, a MLB, and potentially a CB if Grimes holds out far enough into the off-season.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers’ defensive line has the all the ingredients to be successful for years to come. The combination of youth, potential, and performance makes them an intriguing unit in 2012. With Adrian Clayborn, Da’Quan Bowers, and Gerald McCoy all under contract until 2015, look for this unit to continuously improve. Clayborn scored a +14.5 pass rush rating, recorded 8 sacks and 32 QB pressures, all of which were team-highs. With such great numbers as a rookie, expect Clayborn to perform well in 2012 both on the field and in your fantasy lineup as a DE2. Da’Quan Bowers, as you may remember, was a projected number one overall pick at one point before injuries killed his draft stock. Despite an injury and lockout-plagued off-season, Bowers still managed a decent rookie campaign. He finished the season with a respectable +1.5 overall rating, including 2 sacks, 19 QB pressures and 9 tackles for a loss. Don’t be surprised if Bowers makes a name for himself after a full off-season. Adding some experience to the Buc’s defensive ends is Michael Bennett. With the highest overall rating on the team (+26.0), Bennett was stellar against both the run and pass (+17.2 and +8.6, respectively). Assuming Bennett signs his first round tender, look for him and Bowers to each get considerable time at DE. Gerald McCoy was having himself a nice sophomore season until a bicep injury placed him on IR a few games in. Rated +5.1 against the run and +2.6 against the pass, McCoys departure from the lineup certainly helped the Bucs achieve the league’s last ranked run defense. Brian Price, Jovan Haye, Frank Okam, and Roy Miller were all unable to step up and achieve a positive rating as run defenders or pass rushers, allowing opposing teams to literally run all over them.
Tampa Bay’s linebackers, to put it lightly, were horrible last season. Between their three starters, the highest overall rating was -11.9 by Geno Hayes. Yikes. MLB Mason Foster received the second worst overall rating with a whopping -20.7, surpassed only by fellow linebacker Quincy Black (-20.9). The Buccaneers had just one linebacker to not achieve a negative overall rating and that was Dekoda Watson, but before you go sending a congratulatory tweet to him, know that his rating wasn’t positive either. It was 0.0. Nice and mediocre. Foster recorded the most tackles among the linebackers with 65, and even that isn’t very impressive. This unit will likely see substantial change this offseason. Unless the Bucs sign a big name LB, stay clear of this unit in your draft.
Up until Wednesday morning, the Buccaneer’s secondary was in almost as bad of shape as their linebackers. However, the signing of Eric Wright to a five-year deal helps a desperate unit. Wright ranked first on the lions last year with 4 interceptions and 16 passes defended, and was third on the team in tackles (72). On the contrary, Wright ranked last on his team with a -8.2 pass coverage rating. Lucky for the Bucs, that’s a major upgrade over one of the their starters from last year. Despite recording 3 interceptions and 70 tackles, 15 year veteran Ronde Barber has seen better days. With a team-low -12.8 pass coverage rating, Barber’s consideration of retirement shouldn’t be a big blow to the team, although they supposedly would like him to return. Aqib Talib, while inconsistent off the field, put in a nice season for Tampa Bay in 2011. With a team-high +3.8 pass coverage rating to compliment a +2.7 run defense rating, Talib seems to be the most valuable member of the Bucs’ secondary, entering a contract year. E.J. Biggers, Elbert Mack, and Myron Lewis round off of Tampa’s CBs, however none of the three could score a better pass coverage rating than -1.1. Safety Sean Jones, who lead the 2011 team in tackles with 75, is yet to be resigned by the team and is currently a free agent. A liability in coverage (-12.2 rating), Jones may not get many flattering offers. Jones’s backups, Ahmad Black and Larry Assante, played only 60 and 78 defensive snaps last year, respectively. Fellow safety Tanard Jackson was better than Jones in coverage, receiving a -1.1 rating, but with a -14.3 rating defending the run, he too has plenty of room for improvement entering the final year of his contract. Eric Wright is your best IDP bet in this secondary loaded with question marks.
Look for Tampa Bay to address their situations at LB, DT, and safety. Curtis Lofton has been linked to the Bucs, and the draft will provide plenty of potential help too. Many speculate them taking a CB in the first round of the draft, though the signing of Wright may diminish that possibility.
Besides from DE Charles Johnson, very little productivity came from the Panther’s defensive line. If you can name another of the Panther’s defensive linemen, I’ll be impressed. Johnson led the team in sacks (10), tackles for loss (10) pass rush rating (+11.8) and placed second in run defense (+3.9). Opposite Johnson, Greg Hardy had a solid sophomore season with 4 sacks and a +6.2 pass rush rating, but struggled against the run, earning a -4.9 rating. On a positive note, Hardy did record more QB pressures than Johnson, further proving his potential. DT is an area where the Panthers battled injuries, and consequently, a major lack of productivity. Carolina’s run defense surrendered the 8th most rushing yards in the league. This comes at no surprise, especially when you consider that out of their seven DT’s to receive playing time, six of them received negative run defense ratings. The lone exception was Frank Kearse, and unfortunately for the Panthers, Kearse was on the field for just 172 snaps all year. Charles Johnson is a viable IDP option at DE, but besides that you should stay clear of Carolina’s defensive line in your draft this year.
Much like their DT’s, Carolina’s linebacking core was riddled with injuries this year and saw a lack of production as a result. James Anderson put in a solid year, leading the team in tackles with 104. He also recorded 2 sacks and 2 interceptions, yet managed only a -2.3 overall rating from PFF. In place of injured star MLB, Jon Beason, Dan Connor (who has recently signed with Dallas) performed adequately with 56 tackles and an overall rating of +4.9. Expect Beason to start next season, though, as he is one of the leagues premier linebackers. Unable to play in the 2011 season due to an achilles injury, Beason had himself a great season in 2010. He finished second on the team with 92 tackles, in addition to a sack and an interception. He received a +7.2 overall rating while playing the most snaps on the team. Thomas Davis is another talented linebacker who has been plagued with injuries the past few seasons. While there were rumors Davis would not remain with the team due to his high salary, he took a pay cut and will be back with the team in 2012. In 2009, Davis’s last healthy season, he scored a +10.7 overall rating that was good for 2nd on the team, behind only Julius Peppers. If healthy, Davis can be an impactful player. Even with Beason playing a full 2010 season, Anderson still recorded more tackles and sacks than Beason. Anderson is probably the best fantasy option among the Panther’s linebackers, due to both durability and performance.
Following the path of Carolina’s DL and LB’s, their DB’s struggled as well. Chris Gamble was the only member of Carolina’s starting secondary to record a positive pass coverage rating (+5.3) and overall rating (+7.4). Gamble was tied for the team-high with 3 INT’s and lead the team in passes defended with 12. Opposite Gamble, Captain Munnerlyn struggled, managing a -3.1 pass coverage rating and -5.9 overall rating, and could very well be replaced next season. However, Carolina’s safeties didn’t play much better, if at all. Between Charles Godfrey and Sherrod Martin, they missed a combined 33 tackles. Godfrey had a team-worst -10.7 pass coverage rating, paired with his overall rating of -13.7 that was good for 2nd worst on the team. Martin was only slightly superior, recording a pass coverage rating of -2.4 in addition to his overall rating of -6.8. I should point out that both safeties also scored negative run defense ratings. On a slightly positive note, Martin did record 3 INT’s and 8 passes defended, but still had a season that was far from great. If it comes down to it and you had to take a DB from Carolina in your fantasy draft, Godfrey seems to have the highest IDP value. with 70 tackles, a sack, and a pair of INT’s, Godfrey looks like the best bet as a DB2/3.
Expect the Carolina Panthers to draft heavily on the defensive side of the ball. It’s all but assured that they will draft either a DT or CB with their first overall pick, and will likely address the other position in the following rounds. The Panthers have been pretty quiet in free agency thus far, so they must have big plans for the draft.