The preseason is in full swing, and another football season is nearly upon us.
While it's tempting to just simply hit the reset button and pick up with where we left off back in December, the savvy fantasy player knows the NFL is an ever-shifting landscape. Knowledge of the changes around the league and how they will affect fantasy output is what separates the champs from the chumps.
Coaching changes make arguably the biggest impact on a team. As a preview to my two weekly regular season weekly, I'm going to take a look at teams with new defensive coordinators going into the 2013 season and break down the resulting IDP winners/losers and the D/ST fantasy outlook.
Editor's Note: Rotoworld's partner FanDuel is hosting a $100,000 Fantasy Football Contest in Week 1. It's $25 to join and first prize is $15,000. Here's the link.
Browns – Ray Horton
Horton comes to Cleveland from Arizona where he ran an aggressive 3-4 system. The former Bengals and Cowboys defensive back cut his teeth under Dick LeBeau as the Steelers’ defensive backs coach. Horton runs a 3-4 base defense with “big guys who can run, [and] little guys who can hit.” LeBeau’s influence in Horton’s scheme is apparent with his attacking style and reliance on the zone blitz.
While their base look is a 3-4, Horton has said that the Browns will use multiple fronts. “We’re going to be a team that looks at the offense and tries to take away what they do best. That may mean one snap being 5-2, the next snap it may be 4-4. It will be predicated by what the offense does,” said Horton. Against the Rams in the first preseason game, Cleveland showed three-man fronts in their base, but sprinkled in some four-man looks in their subpackages.
Cleveland has the big bodies to pull of this shift at defensive line with Phil Taylor, Ahtyba Rubin, and Desmond Bryant all tipping the scales at over 300 pounds. The Browns also added stand-up edge rusher Paul Kruger in free agency and drafted Barkevious Mingo.
IDP Winners: D’Qwell Jackson stands to benefit the most. Horton likes to blitz his inside linebackers, as is evidenced from Daryl Washington’s nine sacks last season. Jackson's sack numbers will increase this season. Craig Robertson caught Horton’s eye during the off-season, and now penned in as the starter alongside Jackson. He saw nickel snaps in the first preseason game, but his subpackage role is still to be determined.
IDP Loser: Jabaal Sheard had a down year in his sophomore campaign, but the lack of IDP depth at defensive line could have salvaged his value. Unfortunately, he’ll get a linebacker designation, which all but eliminates his fantasy value.
D/ST Outlook: This is a team on the rise, and should be on your short list of D/ST sleepers. Cleveland is loaded with talent on the defensive side of the ball, and their aggressive style bodes positively for putting fantasy points on the board
Bills – Mike Pettine
Buffalo pulled a 180 from Dave Wannstedt’s vanilla defense to Pettine’s exotic hybrid system. Pettine has characterized his defense as an all of the above approach that is a “multiple-front, attacking, pressure-style defense.”
There's a strong possibility that we’ll see the Bills running a lot of nickel under Pettine. According to Pro Football Focus, Buffalo lined up in their based defense on just 39.4 percent of snaps against the Colts last week. That's obviously going to fluctuate on a weekly basis, but it's worth noting. Also of interest is Buffalo’s subpackages against Indy, which were exclusively either 3-3-5 or 2-4-5.
Of course, this is a very small sample size, and it’s never a good idea to make far-reaching conclusions based on the first preseason game. Still, the Bills are an intriguing defense to watch this season.
IDP Winners: Second-round ILB Kiko Alonso took the reins at middle linebacker in OTAs and hasn’t looked back. He’s an athletic player with the ability to become a solid LB2 option in this system. The Bills new regime parted ways with George Wilson in the offseason, which could open the door for Da'Norris Searcy at strong safety. We have to see how the Jairus Byrd situation shakes out, but Searcy has a lot of fantasy upside if he earns a starting job.
IDP Loser: The Bills ran exclusively out of a 3-4 base defense in their first preseason game, meaning Mario Williams was primarily in a two-point stance. It hasn’t happened yet, but if Williams gets the “linebacker” designation, his fantasy value takes a huge hit.
D/ST Outlook: Buffalo was a rollercoaster D/ST last season. The posted five games with negative fantasy points and five games in double-digits. That will level out this season, but they're still only worth playing in the right matchup.
Jaguars – Bob Babich (Gus Bradley)
Babich comes to Jacksonville after spending the last nine years under Lovie Smith in Chicago. He also has ties to head coach Gus Bradley, as the two coached together at North Dakota State from 1997-2002. While Babich is the defensive coordinator in name, the Jaguars will adopt Bradley’s 4-3 system that he ran with Pete Carroll in Seattle over the last three seasons.
Bradley coached under Monte Kiffin with the Bucs, but his scheme certainly isn’t a Tampa-2. The Seahawks defense can best be described as a 4-3 front that mixes in 3-4 concepts. The system also deploys the “Leo” weakside edge rusher. While the rest of the defensive line is concerned with walling off the offense from sideline-to-sideline, the Leo’s main job is to get into the backfield and wreak havoc.
While often characterized as a 4-3 “Under,” Bradley used Under fronts, Over fronts, and Bear fronts in Seattle. Regardless of the front, there’s a big gap between the Leo and the defensive tackle. This presents the offense with an inviting spot to attack, though the linebackers are able to support this spot thanks to the big bodied two-gappers on the defensive line.
IDP Winners: Jason Babin is the early favorite to play the “Leo.” We’ve seen him thrive in the Wide-9 in the past, and this position isn’t very different. Double-digit sacks is certainly within the realm of possibility. Bradley also likes to bring a safety down into the box. This bodes positively for Johnathan Cyprien’s fantasy value. He should threaten the Top 10 defensive backs in IDP scoring.
IDP Losers: A year ago it looked as though Jeremy Mincey was poised to become one an IDP stud following his breakout 2011 campaign. Three sacks and 41 total tackles later and things didn’t quite materialize for Mincey. He’ll be a part of the defensive line rotation, and is now well off the fantasy radar.
D/ST Outlook: The Jags finished as fantasy’s No. 30 unit last season, so there’s really nowhere to go but up. How far up they go is ultimately the question. Jacksonville has decent talent on their roster, though their big play upside may be limited. They’re best as an in-season streaming option.
Cowboys – Monte Kiffin
Under new defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, the Cowboys take a big step away from the 3-4 system they’ve deployed over the past several season under Wade Phillips and Rob Ryan.
Kiffin’s name is synonymous with the Tampa-2, though it’s not fair to simply equate his scheme to those run in Minnesota and Chicago over the last decade. Kiffin’s system in Tampa Bay used 1-Gap Over and Under 4-3 alignments that emphasized attacking first then reading on the run. We also saw a mixture of coverages in his defenses, not just the S-MLB-S deep zone that we think of with the Tampa-2.
IDP Winners: Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of Kiffin’s scheme is Bruce Carter. The weakside linebacker is set up to make a ton of plays in this system, and Carter has the sideline-to-sideline ability to excel. Most IDP scoring systems undervalue rush outside linebackers, so DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer finally have fantasy value that reflects their on-the-field abilities. Morris Claiborne also gets a bump, as corners tend to produce strong fantasy numbers in the Tampa-2.
IDP Losers: The safeties stand to benefit the least from the Tampa-2. They’ll be in a lot of deep zone, so it’s not a good idea to try to mine fantasy value from the Dallas safeties.
D/ST Outlook: Aside from a 23-point outburst against the Eagles in Week 10 last season, Dallas did little to inspire any fantasy confidence. Getting Sean Lee and Carter back will help, but don’t expect the Cowboys to be a Top 10 option. Keep them on your streaming short-list.
Eagles – Bill Davis
Davis joins Philadelphia’s new regime lacking the sparkling résumé of some of the other coordinators on this list. His last stint as a defensive coordinator was with the Cardinals where he ran a 4-3 Under, though he does have experience running a 3-4 in the past.
The expectation is for the Eagles to move toward a 3-4 scheme, though Davis acknowledges that they don’t quite have the right personnel just yet and it’s likely be a multiple front scheme in 2013. According to Pro Football Focus, 45 of Philadelphia's 72 defensive snaps against the Patriots last week came in a 3-4. However, Davis still refused to characterize the Eagles as a 3-4. “We'll play as many defenses as we can play well, and I'll throw the rest out,” Davis said following the game.
While it’s hard to put a label on this scheme, the Eagles’ beefed up defensive line resembles what we see in Seattle. Davis likes to use a stand-up edge rusher in order to disguise whether he’s rushing or dropping into coverage, though the Eagles mainly used four down-linemen in their nickel package against the Patriots per Pro Football Focus.
IDP Winners: Davis’ system frees up Mychal Kendricks to use his speed to make plays. Kendricks will be one of the biggest IDP breakouts of 2013. Fletcher Cox will be put into a position to make plays. He’s going undrafted in many IDP leagues and is an absolute steal at that price.
IDP Losers: Trent Cole was once an elite fantasy option at defensive line, but his transition to outside linebacker has all but eliminated his IDP value. Brandon Graham finally flashed pass rush ability down the stretch last season, but like Cole is switching to outside linebacker. He’s currently a second-stringer on the depth chart and is off the fantasy radar.
D/ST Outlook: Philadelphia was an all-around poor unit last season. While they’re taking steps in the right direction, don’t expect a resurgence to fantasy relevance to come quickly. It’s going to be at least another year before they have a chance at becoming a viable D/ST option.
Bears – Mel Tucker
Tucker joins the Bears after four seasons in the same role in Jacksonville. What we know about Tucker is that he prefers a simplified 4-3 base defense with a two-deep shell. It’s a very vanilla look that Tucker says allows his defenders to “play fast.” The problem in Jacksonville is that the team wasn’t particularly built for speed (or for comfort).
Under Tucker, the Jags typically rushed four and dropped seven into zone coverage, seldom using the blitz. The safeties also tended to play very deep in Jacksonville. This defense will give up plays in the soft underbelly, but like we saw from the Bears under Lovie Smith, is also predicated on creating turnovers. In fact, we already saw an example of this in the first preseason game with Jon Bostic’s pick-six.
IDP Winners: Since this isn’t a complete scheme change, the IDP impact isn’t as significant as in some of the other examples here. If anything, Corey Wootton and Shea McClellin will have more significant roles this season. They’re both on the fantasy radar.
IDP Losers: Likewise, none of the Bears are significant downgrades. However, I’d keep my eye on D.J. Williams. He’s doing himself no favors on the trainer’s table. The door is open for Bostic to take the middle linebacker job and run with it. Also, the positioning of the safeties makes me reluctant to tout Major Wright or Chris Conte is IDP sleepers.
D/ST Outlook: It’s not the most exciting defensive scheme, but this is still an elite fantasy defense. Last season’s No. 1 unit should be one of the first D/STs off the board on draft day.
Saints – Rob Ryan
Last season’s worst defense makes a big change with the hiring of Ryan. While Ryan’s defense is often labeled as a 3-4, it’s more of a multiple front scheme that gives 4-3 looks at times and also deploys the 46.
One of the biggest head scratchers on draft day back in April was the Saints’ first-round selection of Kenny Vaccaro. However, Ryan likes to use three safety sets. According to Pro Football Focus, the Saints used the trio of Vaccaro, Malcolm Jenkins, and Roman Harper on 11-of-20 first-team defense snaps in their first preseason game.
Of course, the outside linebackers are the primary pass rushers in this scheme. The Saints were dealt a significant blow in this department when their best pass rusher Victor Butler went down with a torn ACL this off-season.
IDP Winners: Cameron Jordan will man the five-technique, which is where many thought he projected best coming into the league. He’s a solid DL2 who should put up plenty of tackles. David Hawthorne appears to have an edge on Jonathan Vilma to start opposite Curtis Lofton. Hawthorne saw nickel snaps in the first preseason game. He has sneaky IDP value if that role continues.
IDP Losers: The Saints can’t play three safeties all of the time, so one of the safeties is going to be the odd man out. In the first preseason game it was Vaccaro, but I suspect his skills are going to be hard to keep off the field. The worst-case scenario for fantasy owners is if this becomes a week-to-week guessing game.
D/ST Outlook: New Orleans was the No. 28 fantasy unit last season, and their new defensive coordinator coached last season’s No. 26 unit. In other words, don’t expect much to change. In fact, you’re going to want to target this defense with your offensive players this season.
Cardinals – Todd Bowles
Bowles comes to Arizona after taking over as defensive coordinator for the Eagles midway through last season after Juan Castillo’s firing. Before that, Bowles was with the Dolphins who ran a 3-4 scheme at the time. While Bowles will stick with a 3-4 in Arizona, this will be a very different defense than his predecessor Ray Horton’s system. Unlike Horton, Bowles does not come from a Dick LeBeau pedigree, so we won’t see the zone blitz.
However, this isn’t a wholesale shift in philosophy. Bowles has coaching ties to Mike Nolan and Mike Zimmer and will implement a similar high tempo defense that applies lots of pressure and creates confusion. As they showed in their first preseason game against Green Bay, the Cardinals will likely take a hybrid approach that uses some four-man fronts.
IDP Winners: Under Horton, Darnell Dockett was often responsible for two gaps, which really stifled his fantasy output. His IDP value is revitalized this season playing mainly in a three-technique with one gap responsibility this season. Yeremiah Bell will man the strong safety and has been getting looks inside the box. He's a great value at his current ADP.
IDP Losers: Believe it or not, Daryl Washington’s fantasy value takes a slight hit under Bowles. When he gets back on the field from suspension, Washington will be called on to blitz less this season causing his sack numbers to dip.
D/ST Outlook: While the defense has evolved under Bowles, the change isn’t significant enough to believe the Cardinals regress. Arizona was fantasy’s No. 10 D/ST last season, and that’s about where they should be ranked going into 2013.