Every week from now until the end of the playoffs, I will be advising on defensive players who will be game changers, solid plays, fill-ins, or stay aways. This week, as the season gears up, I will do all players you need to start, and throw in my Sneaky Play of the Week. These are players that have favorable matchups, but will likely be overlooked in many leagues, or possibly not owned at all. At the end, I will give two defenses that should be played in a given week. These may be hit/miss at first, but they are ones that not many owners would make.
GAME BREAKER POTENTIAL
Patrick Peterson (CB/ARZ)- Conventional wisdom says shutdown corners are never targeted in games, and thus never score big in fantasy. I’m telling you, with major question marks at receiver for the Saints in Week 1 after Brandin Cooks and Marques Colston, the best receivers are rookie Brandon Coleman and Willie Snead, neither of which is proven. Add in the fact that the Saints will be trying out Ben Watson and Josh Hill for the departed Jimmy Graham, and there could be opportunities for Peterson to be aggressive in coverage this week in Arizona. It was not long ago that Peterson was one of the elite corners in fantasy, and he could easily have a rebound this season as the top corner in Arizona and the rest of the secondary looking nasty. Opposing teams, in the past could get away with shying away from Peterson as Cromartie (NYJ) was very bipolar in his time in Arizona, and Tyrann Mathieu was injured, recovering from a torn ACL which derailed his 2013 DROY campaign and a slew of injuries last season. Now healthy, Honey Badger looks quick and electric and ready to be a ballhawk once more for this aggressive Cardinals secondary. Brees is an elite quarterback, but with ballhawks Mathieu, Peterson, Rashad Jefferson (liability in coverage), and Co. in the secondary, it will be pick your poison, meaning you cannot completely ignore one defender. (Photo courtesy of zimbio.com)
If you look at the Cardinals defense as a whole from last season, it would appear they were horrendous across the board. But up until week 12, they were defensive juggernauts in the run game, allowing no runner to go for more than 100 yards in a game. It was against the Falcons Steven Jackson in Week 13 that their weakness was exposed: lack of speed at the point of attack. Once this was discovered, teams ran all over the Cardinals and they had to try compensating by having their corners play close to the line, leaving them very vulnerable.
One could argue that the Saints will deploy a run-heavy approach versus Arizona with their depleted defensive line, but do not entirely count on that as Bruce Arians will find ways to counter that by using sure tacklers R. Johnson and Deone Buchanon close to the line, clogging the lanes. Peterson could be in for a big day in Week 1 as the slot position for the Saints is not as strong as it was last season (Kenny Stills, 2014) and they lost a top tight end in Jimmy Graham (SEA).
Ha-Ha Clinton Dix (S/GB)- The Green Bay second year free safety had a promising 2014 rookie campaign, and he could get off with a bang in 2015 versus the error-prone Jay Cutler and his dilapidated offensive line. If you take away Matt Forte, the Bears are essentially reliant upon Alshon Jeffry and Martellus Bennett to move the chains. Here are two key stats you need to know: First, last season in their first meeting, the Packers held Jeffery to 39 receiving yards and zero scores, and Brandon Marshall (now a Jet) to (2/19/1). With Marshall gone and rookie Kevin White on the PUP list (stress fracture surgery), the top two options are a slightly nicked up Jeffery and Martellus Bennett. Second, in their second meeting (with Marshall and Jeffery) the Packers defense abused the Bears running game, limiting Forte to 54 yards on 17 carries, forcing 2 picks and Cutler to a total QBR of 8.8. In other words, the Packers have the Bears number and will be very aggressive in blanketing Jeffery with their corners, leaving the hard-hitting Clinton-Dix to make plays all over the field. He may not have had superb stats versus Chicago last season, but in their week one opener, with the multitude of questions the Bears continue to face, look for Clinton-Dix and the Packers defense to absolutely lay it on the Bears.
Hau’oli Kikaha (LB/NO)- Let me introduce you to the other Saints rookie linebacker that is primed for an impact rookie season, starting Week 1. Kikaha is the hands down favorite to start at the strongside and he has nice sack upside. He is not the athlete, nor does he possess the explosiveness of Anthony, or former Washington Husky Shaq Thompson (CAR), but Kikaha is a defensively sound player who will need to be the staple for the Saints pass rush to make any noise this season as weakside starter Anthony Spencer is more of a stop-gap filler until the Saints find a long-term solution. (Photo courtesy of bigeasybeliever.com)
The Cardinals defense is very solid (when healthy) outside of their pretty suspect pass rush due to a lack of speed, but their offense is what needs more work. They have two receivers that are both threats, but when you cycle through QBs like toilet paper rolls like the Cardinals did in 2014 due to injuries, you are bound to struggle moving the ball. Carson Palmer is not mobile, which bodes well for Kikaha in Week 1 as he should have clean shots at Carson Palmer. This leaves the Cardinals one-dimensional with the run game seemingly the best option to attack the pass-rush deficient Saints defense. But wait…Andre Ellington was not exactly one to move the chains last season (3.3 YPC) and he also has injury questions of his own. Yeah, this has stat stuffer written all over for the Saints rookie.
Telvin Smith (LB/JAX)- I am very bullish on Smith this season, and that is because he is a future top five linebacker. He is underweight for your prototypical linebacker at 218 pounds, but he is a smacker and huge asset in the run game. When he came out of Florida State in 2014, he graded out highly as a reader of plays, and going to the ball and making plays, but there were questions if he could handle tight ends. After grading out favorably from Week 12 on last season, when he was a starter, he showed why he will be a steal for the Jaguars. He can cover runningbacks, tight ends and even beat wideouts to spots, just ask Odell Beckham Jr. This young stud can do it all and possess elite speed and technique.
With his explosiveness and quickness off the snap, he makes for a matchup nightmare for the run-heavy Carolina Panthers who will spend the majority of the first couple games definitively finding out who their WRs 1 and 2 are after Benjamin was lost for the season. Cam Newton outweighs Smith by a good bit, but with a weak pass offense and a hard-hitting finisher like Smith on the weakside and Posluszny manning the middle, Cam will find running space hard to come by. Start Smith with confidence and you will be nicely rewarded. He will also chip in a pass defensed.
Gerald McCoy (TB/DT)- This is gonna be one helluva an entertaining matchup between the No. one and two picks from the 2015 NFL Draft. Inexperience breeds defensive fantasy domination as both rookie QBs will be placed on the fast learning curve at the start of the regular season. The difference is the Buccaneers are more developed defensively and McCoy is a reliable fantasy DT. The Titans offensive line is horrible. Their respective rankings from 2014: Pass Blocking 29th, Run Blocking 16th and, Penalties 31st. Add in a rookie QB, and I do not care how elusive Mariota is, he is going to be sacked a ton this season unless Bishop Sankey proves to be the back the Titans thought they would get when they took him in 2014, or a receiver steps up and proves to be mariota’s go-to guy. McCoy is a sack artist from the DT position and adds in a nice source of stuffs, making this a matchup to completely exploit. (Photo courtesy of joebucsfan.com)
William Moore (ATL/S)- Under Mike Nolan, Moore played plausibly and was a defensive captain for the Falcons, but he will be much better under Dan Quinn. The Falcons are a better defensive unit with him on the field, but he has also been plagued by injuries, limiting his field time over his career (played only seven games last season, shoulder). Now he will be asked to play the ‘Kam Chancellor’ role in Dan Quinn’s scheme, meaning he will play more like a linebacker. The good news is it will provide the Falcons pass rush more of a presence. The bad news is Moore will continue to play more physically, leading to more potential injuries.
Week one could be a sign of things to come for the Falcons defense as they will either look better defensively against a fast-paced Chip Kelly’s offense, or continue to look lost like they did as a unit last season. They face an aging, yet solid, Philly offensive line behind which the fragile Sam Bradford will attempt to resurrect his career. Bradford does have the receivers and running backs to be a good QB in Philly, but the Falcons secondary should be better as Trufant is on the rise and Robert Alford seems to be a nice fit on the outside, until Jalen Collins is ready to take over. This leaves the middle of the field for Moore to make plays and deliver hits. I would not rule out a high scoring affair in Atlanta, but Moore is going to get his points due to his role; he will play shallow and deep, and cover any deficiencies the Falcons have at free safety. When comparing Moore and Chancellor, the former is more versatile with better range and better in coverage, but more also will be asked of him, increasing his appeal.
Stephen Tulloch (DET/LB)- Simply put, when he is on the field, Tulloch is a tackling machine that cannot be stopped. With DeAndre Levy (hip) likely out for Week 1, Tulloch’s role will increase and he could simply destroy the Chargers offensive line. The Chargers have no guards, and with a rookie runningback, things could get dicey for Rivers early in this one. Keenan Allen is an emerging, solid receiver for the Chargers, but the aging Malcolm Floyd (this is his last season) and Antonio Gates are on their last wheels, and the WR3 position is a question mark for San Diego. Until the Chargers conscientiously fix the guard positions, they will continue to keep Rivers upright and run an effective offense. With this favorable matchup for Tulloch, get him in your lineups. In addition to being a sure-fire threat for double digit tackles each week, he provides value against the run with stuffs. (Photo courtesy of freep.com)
Demarcus Lawrence (DAL/DE)- As I stated last week, the defensive line of the Cowboys will be their strength this season (healthy Sean Lee), and Lawrence could emerge into an elite DE this season. Those Cowboys fans that remember Randy White should see the semblance between him and Lawrence. Lawrence is a fluid DE who is ultra-quick and nearly impossible to block one-on-one for any would-be blocker. Simply put, Lawrence is a game changer the Giants will be at a loss to deal with, leaving Lawrence to have an absolute field day versus Little Manning and Co. While ODB is a phenomenal talent, he can only make plays if he can get the ball in his hands. Eli manning had much better sack numbers last season, but it remains to be seen if he can continue to be effective with a weak run game. Regardless, for this week, he is in trouble of being sacked at least one to two times by Lawrence.
Kony Ealy (CAR/DE)- Yes, there is a ton of defensive talent in the tilt between the Jaguars and the panthers in Jacksonville, and Ealy is just one of the better under-valued names. Blake Bortles was sacked 71 times last season, and the offensive line is not that vastly improved, though the jaguars are at least moving in the right direction as a franchise. In the preseason Ealy was the favorite to win the gig opposite sack machine Charles Johnson, and the Panthers will need him to re-launch themselves into the elite category of NFL defenses. The plan is for Ealy to play DE on passing downs and then defensive tackle on third, allowing the Panthers to bring an extra rusher in Mario Addison. Ealy was brought in from Missouri because of his impact as a pass rusher and that is exactly what he is poised to be in his second season: a sack producer for the panthers. What better way to kickoff your sophomore campaign than facing the offensive line that allowed by far the most sacks last season. (Photo courtesy of footballsfuture.com)
Sneaky Play of the Week
Buster Skrine (NYJ/CB)- Honestly, the only thing poorer than the jaguars offensive line protection last season was the Browns offense as a whole. This season, the Browns offense is still beyond backwards, and they are facing a defense that could very well pitch a shutout in Week 1. Their Week 1 starter at QB, Josh McCown, got tossed around like ragweeds last season in Tampa Bay, had severe ball security issues (nine fumbles), and a total QBR of 32.7. McCown sure is not going to target corners Antonio Cromartie or Darrelle Revis, leaving Calvin Pryor and slot corner Skrine plenty of passes to defend or pick off. In addition to playing slot, Skrine could play outside, if necessary, due to injury or if Cromartie regresses again. If the Jets secondary is scary, the Jets defensive line is scarier, led by defensive ends Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson.
D/STs to Target: If there are two defenses I would keep an eye on in Week 1 and tab for a solid matchups play, it would be Miami @ Washington and Minnesota @ San Francisco. We all know of the QB saga surrounding RGIII and management’s seemingly short fuse with him, but even without the saga, the Redskins enter 2105 with major QB questions again. In 2014, they were able to limit the damage done by being game managers at Qb and finishing with an 18-18 in TD-INT ratio. This is not a trio you want any part of as any one individual part could be replaced in the middle of the game, and starters change at the drop of a hat in Washington. The Redskins will be a run heavy team in 2015, and with only one deep threat in DeSean Jackson, he will see a ton of hard man presses from corners. To add insult to injury for the Redskins this week, they face the defense that was sixth best versus the pass and receptions in 2014, but struggled mightily versus the run. Look for Alfred Morris to see a lot of twelve man boxes in the opening week and find running holes hard to come by, especially with Suh now manning South Beach.
As good as the 49ers have looked up until 2014, they look to be an offensive mess again this season with the inexperienced Hyde taking over for the departed Gore and questions at receiver outside of Boldin. Torrey Smith is a deep threat, but is extremely hit/miss week-to-week. Look at the Vikings defense heading into 2015: safety Harrison Smith is an absolute stud and ballhawk, the linebacker core of Kendricks and Barr will be a fearsome duo for years to come, and Trae Waynes could emerge into a shutdown corner relatively quickly opposite Xavier Rhodes. Minnesota is a young unit, but very fast and under-rated. They make for a great start in San Francisco versus a 49ers team struggling with its identity.
Hopefully these help you all get off to a fast start in your respective leagues. As I go on this season, I will seek to provide better analyses of D/STs. Evaluating them as a whole is new to me and I am constantly learning how to be a better fantasy advisor. Any questions or recommendations are welcome.
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@brandonziman You are more than welcome Brandon. You were a fantastic writer and a joy to work with. As we move through a very big transition for us hopefully we can continue to work with one anither.