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 columns, I'm going to take a look at teams with new defensive coordinators going into the 2014 season and break down the resulting IDP winners/losers and the DST fantasy outlook.
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Buffalo – Jim Schwartz
The Bills move from Mike Pettine’s aggressive multiple-front scheme to Jim Schwartz’s 4-3 defense that uses less blitzing and Wide 9 concepts along the defensive line. Schwartz doesn’t particularly like labeling his approach as a Wide 9, or really anything for that matter, but it’s what we can expect based on what we’ve seen from him in the past.
Schwartz’s system is an aggressive “attack scheme” that tends to be very friendly to the weak side linebacker from a statistical standpoint as much of the defensive action is funneled to the weak side. Take a quick look at DeAndre Levy’s 2013 stat line and you’ll see exactly what I mean.
IDP Winners: Kiko Alonso was shaping up to be the biggest winner, but he’ll spend the year on injured reserve. We still don’t have much clarity at the linebacker position, though Nigel Bradham is emerging as a potential three-down backer. However, the real winners in Buffalo are Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes. Both players get DL designation and are solid bets for double-digit sacks. Hughes has major IDP sleeper appeal.
IDP Loser: While it’s not really a product of Schwartz’s defense, early indication is that Brandon Spikes is unlikely to play in the subpackages. It will be tough for Spikes to have consistent IDP value even with Buffalo’s tackle-happy home stat crew.
DST Outlook: The Bills finished as fantasy’s No. 8 unit last season, but don’t expect a repeat performance. They have plenty of talent, but Pettine really maxed out their fantasy value. Buffalo is currently the No. 22 D/ST in ADP. While that may be a little low, they’re still a streaming option that should not be on your draft board in standard-sized leagues.
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Houston – Romeo Crennel
Crennel replaces Wade Phillips and comes in with a very traditional 2-gap 3-4 defense, though Crennel said the Texans would be a multiple defense that requires versatility from the players. Ultimately, Crennel envisions this defense as one that can create mismatches and utilized their strengths in the front seven.
While some have speculated that Crennel’s scheme could be detrimental to J.J. Watt’s production, I don’t share that sentiment. Watt is a freakish talent who isn’t scheme-dependent. If Crennel does what he says and creates mismatches for Watt, we could actually see Watt improve on the 10.5 sacks he had last season.
IDP Winners – Historically, Crennel used big bodies along the line to eat up blockers and allow the linebackers to make plays. While this is certainly a positive for Brian Cushing, Crennel’s multiple approach will also favor Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney. Both players are outside linebackers in name, but they’re essentially defensive ends in a two-point stance. Crennel’s system gives both serious sack upside.
IDP Losers – Crennel will likely use Cover-2 concepts in the secondary, which will limit the IDP value of the safeties. Second-year man D.J. Swearinger has a lot to like from a fantasy standpoint, but unfortunately his ceiling is capped in the back-end of the DB2 range.
DST Outlook – Houston had an uncharacteristically bad year as a fantasy unit last season, but it wasn’t entirely their fault. Losing Cushing seven games into the season certainly hurt this unit, and their turnover-happy offense did them no favors. While the offense is still in a bad place, look for the Texans to rebound for fantasy purposes. They're an intriguing back-end DST1 who could put up some strong fantasy numbers in 2014.
Cleveland – Jim O’Neil
Okay, so Mike Pettine is the real defensive coordinator, and he brings with him an exotic hybrid defensive that relies on multiple fronts and seemingly attacks at all angles. Pettine comes from a Ryan family “46” defensive background, but he puts his own unique spin on the multiple front defense. At times last season in Buffalo, Pettine used 1-gappers and 2-gappers on the line at the same time. This creativity is designed to confuse and create mismatches where his defenders are set up to make plays. It’s an ideal system from a fantasy standpoint.
IDP Winners – We could really say the Browns unit as a whole wins, but a few players who stand out are Christian Kirksey, Jabaal Sheard, Barkevious Mingo, and Donte Whitner. The No. 71 overall pick, Kirskey is favored to start, and we saw what Pettine did for Kiko Alonso in his rookie season. Mingo and Sheard stand to benefit as pass rushers. Again, look at what Pettine did for Jerry Hughes last year. Whitner has been hidden behind Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman for the last three seasons, but he’ll return to fantasy relevance in Cleveland.
IDP Loser – It’s really tough to pinpoint anyone of this unit who loses out significantly.
DST Outlook – Cleveland finished 2013 as fantasy's No. 13 unit. With Pettine at the helm, look for the Browns to take a step forward and become one of the more exciting fantasy options from a week-to-week basis. Lock them in the Top 10.
Cincinnati – Paul Guenther
With Mike Zimmer now the head coach in Minnesota, Guenther takes over as an internal promotion. This means we won’t see a significant departure from what the Bengals did under Zimmer, though Guenther does plan to deploy more multiple fronts in 2014. As we’re seeing with other defenses, Guenther’s approach is to put players in favorable spots while using the same personnel group.
IDP Winner – Since there’s no significant change here, there’s no major winners. However, I do want to point out LB Emmanual Lamur as a player to keep your eye on. Lamur has drawn praise in the offseason from the Bengals coaching staff and has the skillset to play all three downs. He’s an intriguing IDP sleeper.
IDP Loser – If Lamur gets the starting job, then Vincent Rey will again be on the outside looking in. We saw flashes out of Rey last season, but with Rey Maualuga playing base downs in the middle, Rey is unlikely to see the field for more than a handful of snaps per game.
DST Outlook – Cincinnati was one of the league’s top fantasy units last season, and I don’t see that changing in 2014.
Tennessee – Ray Horton
Horton come to Tennessee after a one-year stint in Cleveland 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. LeBeau’s influence in Horton’s scheme is apparent with his attacking style and reliance on the zone blitz. While the base look is a 3-4, we’re likely to see Tennessee deploy multiple fronts.
IDP Winner – The biggest winner of the bunch in Tennessee has to be Wesley Woodyard. The Titans are extremely thin at inside linebacker, so Woodyard is essentially a starter by default. He’s in a great position to put up strong fantasy numbers.
IDP Loser – Jurrell Casey is coming off a breakout season where he posted double-digit sacks and was among the league’s best fantasy defensive tackles. Much better suited on the interior at the 3-technique, Casey is expect to play outside at the 5-techinique. Horton’s two-gap concepts were detrimental to Darnell Dockett’s fantasy value in Arizona, and we could see Casey meet the same fate.
DST Outlook - While things are certainly looking up in Tennessee, it’s tough to envision the Titans finishing any better than last season’s No. 18 spot. They’re a middle of the pack option best used as a streaming matchup play.