And 2014's Version of The Chiefs D/ST is...
Contrary to what some have told you, finding the right defense/special teams without making any investment at all is not a matter of chance. Last season, the Chiefs finished as the third-best D/ST despite dealing with a rash of injuries to their pass rushers in the second half of the season. You have to dig up MyFantasLeague’s 2013 ADP rankings to find the Chiefs D/ST anywhere. When you scroll all the way to the bottom you will see that they had an ADP of 27 out of 32—in other words no one was drafting them.
But some of us did draft the Chiefs D/ST and it wasn’t because we had just seen the YouTube clip of Eric Berry’s troubles with team’s mascot. Berry played a role, however, combined with several other factors. The combination of scheme, returning talent, new talent, and special teams talent made the Chiefs a great bet to take a major step forward.
In 2014, I believe that team will be the New Orleans Saints D/ST. In this piece I will not only attempt to convince you of my opinion, but also show you how you can acquire them without making any investment at all. As an added bonus, each impact player mentioned will likely provide value on their current ADP in IDP leagues.
Part of what made the Chiefs so successful was their decision to hire Bob Sutton last offseason to be their defensive coordinator. Sutton had spent years working with the Jets, and Andy Reid hired him with the assumption that he would be implementing a scheme similar to Rex Ryan’s. Upon his hiring, Reid pointed to Sutton’s creativity mentioning that the defense would feature a variety of looks and packages. Sutton’s attacking style 3-4 base defense mimicked Ryan’s in many ways as the Chiefs took chances to create pressure and turnovers.
So why does all of that matter to the Saints? The Saints adhere to Rex’s brother Rob Ryan, who also runs a multiple attacking style 3-4 base defense. Ryan is entering his second year with the Saints and his defense is coming off one of the biggest turnarounds during the PFF era. The Saints improved from the worst defense overall (-107.3) to the 13th-best (+21.2). They made their greatest strides against the pass in both coverage and pressure.
There is also room for growth. With more experience and repetitions in the scheme for his key defensive players, Ryan will get more creative with his pressure packages.
The backbone of the Chiefs D/ST was their returning talent. Players coming back off of injury like Berry and players who had improved their craft like Justin Houston and Tamba Hali played the biggest factor in their defensive turnaround. The Saints’ pass rush is stacked with emerging talent and a player returning from injury who could make a major impact.
At just 23 years of age, Cameron Jordan experienced a breakout after moving to right defensive end in Ryan’s 3-4 scheme. He earned the second-best pass rush grade (+31.6) among all 3-4 defense ends by racking up 12.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, and 77 quarterback hurries, hits, and sacks combined. With another season in the scheme that fits him and talent added all around him, the 24-year-old should best all three statistics referenced above.
Junior Galette also experienced a breakout season in the new scheme as well. Galette compiled 12 sacks, one forced fumble, and 58 quarterback hurries, hits, and sacks combined. The team’s projected left tackle Terron Armstead called Galette hands down the best player he’s ever played against. More pressures, more sacks, and more turnovers on the way.
Akiem Hicks is also a returning defender that should make an impact in the points column for the Saints D/ST. On just 336 pass rush snaps, he finished with five sacks and 21 quarterback hurries, hits and sacks combined. Ryan thinks he’s going to be special this year and everyone around the Saints can see it.
Kenny Vacarro will look to build on his dominant second half of his rookie season. Earlier this offseason, PFF’s Steve Palazzolo evaluated the game film to show exactly what Vacarro is capable of. You can find that must-read here. Despite missing the last two games of the season, Vacarro finished with a sack, an interception, and a forced fumble. With another year in the NFL and with the addition of deep-half safety Jairus Byrd, look for Ryan to use Vacarro more creatively. In turn, he should make more plays and rack up more points.
The Saints had high expectations when they signed Victor Butler last offseason, but he suffered a season-ending injury during minicamp. Now 100 percent healthy, Butler looks to build on his success from 2012. In 2012, as a situational pass rusher for the Cowboys in Ryan’s defense, he tallied three sacks and 15 quarterback hurries, hits, and sacks combined despite being on the field for only 132 pass rush snaps. On a per-snap-basis, he finished as a top 3-4 outside linebacker in generating pressure.
The Saints’ biggest offseason addition was safety Jairus Byrd and he will make a major impact for their fantasy D/ST as well. Through his five-year career, Byrd has totaled 22 interceptions and 11 forced fumbles to go along with three sacks. Over the past three seasons he has finished as a top five safety according to PFF overall grades twice. He finished as the seventh-best last season, despite playing only 646 snaps while the rest of the top 10 logged over 1,000. Byrd’s addition adds turnovers but also allows Ryan to get creative on defense. He can stick Byrd back in the deep half and let the other 10 got to work.
Return Game Talent
The Saints haven’t decided on a punt returner yet, but rookie Brandin Cooks offers them a dynamic option to replace Darren Sproles as a punt returner. Cooks has experience returning punts in his final season at Oregon State, and he has the speed (4.33 40-yard-dash) and change of direction to excel. Sproles has a big name, but in his final season he averaged just 6.7 yards-per-return and zero touchdowns. In fact, he only scored one return touchdown during his entire three-year tenure with the Saints.
How To Draft Them
The best part about the Saints D/ST is that they’re easy to come by. As I mentioned in the PFF Fantasy Draft Guide, which is updated monthly and you can find here, no one likes to spend more than $1 on a defense in auction drafts unless they are the Seahawks. So all you have to do is nominate the Saints and they are yours. In snake drafts, as long as their ADP doesn’t rise—and it is currently outside of the top 12—they are yours no questions asked.
Aside from the impact players mentioned above, the Saints have several returning and added role players and like Keenan Lewis, John Jenkins, Champ Bailey, Rafael Bush, Parys Haralson, and others who can help to keep the opposing offenses from scoring points. This defense will create constant pressure, tally sacks and turnovers, and even add an element to the return game.
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If you want to know any of my other evaluations on skill position players, continue the conversation, or yell at me for something I missed, you can find me on Twitter @DanSchneier_NFL. You can also add me to your network on Google+ to find all of my past material.