The big guys up the middle don’t usually get a lot of love from the fantasy community or even the IDP players. But there’s sneaky value to be had if you look in the right places. Here are the top 30 defensive tackles for 2014:
1) Geno Atkins (CIN) – Atkins missed half of the 2013 season with a torn ACL in his right knee, but he’ll return to the summit of the defensive tackle position this year. He’s one of the few interior linemen that you can rightly expect double-digit sacks from. If you’re risk averse, you’ll probably steer clear, but Atkins potential for gargantuan numbers makes him the top DT in 2014.
2) Gerald McCoy (TB) – McCoy took another step forward last year, registering 9.5 sacks along with 35 solo tackles. Entering his age-26 season, 10+ sacks should be expected as he continues to be a dominant force on the inside. He could challenge for the number one spot at the position by year’s end.
3) Marcell Dareus (BUF) – Like McCoy, Dareus continues to improve and is one of the best run-stuffing D-tackles in the game. He jumped from 5.5 sacks his first two seasons to 7.5 in 2013 along with a career high 46 tackles. Buffalo jumps back to a 4-3 defense under new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, and Dareus should thrive the way DTs from Schwartz’s former team did.
4) Ndamukong Suh (DET) – Speaking of Schwartz’s former team, the Lions still have one of the most intimidating 1-2 punches up the middle, led by Suh. His sack total fell off just a bit last year, but he was still active in the backfield with 6 run stuffs and 10.5 QB hurries. Expect a few more of those pressures to turn into sacks this year as Suh continues to wreak havoc for opposing offensive lines.
5) Jurrell Casey (TEN) – Casey busted out in a big way in 2013, posting 10.5 sacks and 38 solo tackles for the Titans. The only concern is how new DC Ray Horton’s multiple front defense will affect Casey’s positioning. He’ll continue to thrive as 4-3 3-technique, but forcing to play the nose in a 3-4 might hinder his production just a little. Regardless, Casey is a beast who continues to get better and better.
6) Sheldon Richardson (NYJ) – What a rookie season it was for the former Mizzouri Tiger. He led all defensive tackles with 8.5 run stuffs and added in 3.5 sacks. The reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year has already proclaimed there will be no sophomore slump, so Rex Ryan will continue to enjoy all the disruption Richardson causes in opposing backfields.
7) Kyle Williams (BUF) – It took eight seasons, but Kyle Williams had a breakout campaign in 2013 with 10.5 sacks for the Bills. Williams will kick back inside with Dareus to form one of, if not, the best defensive tackle tandems in the league. You might not see last year’s production again this season, but Williams will still be among the best pass rushing DTs in the game and provides good stability at the position.
8) Dontari Poe (KC) – Poe was an absolute monster for the Chiefs in the first half of last season, a key cog in Kansas City’s stifling defense. His numbers fell off in the second half, especially as injuries piled up among other D-line starters. But Poe’s athleticism will be on full display this year and he has the rare ability among DTs to stay on the field. I think we see more of the dominant Poe throughout 2014.
9) Nick Fairley (DET) – This is a make or break season for Fairley. The Lions have already announced that they aren’t picking up his option for 2015, meaning this season will be a league-wide audition for the former first-round pick. Fairley looks to be taking it quite seriously, reportedly dropping 30 pounds and recovering well from the surgery to correct his sleep apnea. He’ll be as motivated as ever to improve on his 6 sack season of a year ago.
10) Henry Melton (DAL) – If Fairley isn’t the biggest boom-or-bust pick at DT, then it has to be Melton. Coming off a phenomenal 2012 season with the Bears in which he made the Pro Bowl, Melton lost almost all of his 2013 campaign to his own torn ACL. He signed with Dallas in the offseason on what many are calling a “prove-it” deal that pays him $5 million this year, with a club option for the following three years at an average of $8 million a season. Melton won’t be lacking for motivation, but will his body hold up its end of the bargain?
11) Aaron Donald (STL) – The first rookie on our list, the Rams looked to have gotten the steal of the draft landing Donald with the 13th overall pick. He slides in to create one of the most formidable defensive line combinations in recent history. The presence of Quinn and Long on the outside means Donald should have plenty of opportunities to harass opposing backfields, something he was quite proficient at while winning multiple national awards at Pitt.
12) Michael Brockers (STL) – If all that talent along the defensive front helps Donald, than certainly it must help Brockers as well. He seems like the forgotten man in St. Louis, but offenses will see plenty of him as I expect a career high in sacks from Brockers. The only question that surrounds Brockers, and Donald for that matter, is if there are enough numbers to go around for all this talent?
13) Jason Hatcher (WAS) – Maybe the toughest of any of these guys to rank. Certainly can’t expect a repeat of last year’s 11-sack performance now that he’s made the move from Dallas to Washington. There’s also the left knee surgery that he just underwent and the fact that Hatcher will be 32 when the season kicks off. All that said, it’s not impossible to think that Hatcher has another over-his-head season in him and will show glimpses off what made him a Pro Bowler in 2013.
14) Sen’Derrick Marks (JAX) – Much of Marks’ 2013 value came from a position leading 8 passes defensed, 2 forced fumbles and 3 fumble recoveries. While those stats tend to be more volatile from a defensive tackle, he also more than doubled his career total in sacks last year alone (4.0). Marks’ should continue to trend upwards entering his second year with the jags.
15) Star Lotulelei (CAR) – A big reason that the Panthers’ defense was so good was the play of their rookie DT Star Lotulelei. He’ll make his money clogging up the middle in the ground game rather than getting to the quarterback, but the 3.0 sacks were a nice addition. The worries about his heart condition are in the past, and you can expect an uptick in production from Lotulelei in 2014.
16) Vince Wilfork (NE) – 2013 was a lost season for Wilfork after tearing his right Achilles tendon in the fourth game of the season. After a contract dispute with the Patriots in the offseason, Wilfork claims he’s ready to go this season and I still think we’ll see flashes of what made him one of the game’s premier defensive tackles. If New England still sees him as an important cog in their defensive plans, that’s good enough for me.
17) Randy Starks (MIA) – Another king of consistency, Randy Starks’ output might not be spectacular, but it is solid. You know what to expect from him in the sack category; he’s posted between 3.0 and 4.5 in all but two of his ten NFL seasons. Last year saw a “stark” improvement in his production against the run, registering 36 solo tackles including 6 run stuffs. Nothing sexy here, but Starks will get the job done consistently.
18) Sharrif Floyd (MIN) – Floyd didn’t do much in his rookie season, only getting to the quarterback 2.5 times. Some of that was by design as Floyd basically apprenticed behind Kevin WIlliams, and some was a result of the knee injury that hampered him the first part of the season. But Williams is gone now and Floyd moves into a starting role. New head coach Mike Zimmer seems to really like what he’s seen from Floyd so far, and his stamp of approval carries a lot in my book after seeing what he’s done with Geno Atkins in Cincinnati.
19) Linval Joseph (MIN) – Minnesota went out and got Linval Joseph to pair alongside Floyd in a retooled front four. He is recovering from shoulder surgery right now, but should be ready to go for training camp. When he is back, expect Joseph to continue to eat up backs inside and continue with his relatively high tackle numbers. He and Floyd should play well off one another under Zimmer.
20) Damon Harrison (NYJ) – Harrison came out of just about nowhere last year to usurp the starting NT job away from Kenrick Ellis. He rewarded the Jets’ faith with 66 total tackles and 7 run stuffs in his rookie season and this time comes into the season fully entrenched as the man in the middle for New York. With Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson flanking him and taking away some of the attention, expect more solid contributions from Harrison in year two.
21) Brandon Mebane (SEA) – Finally, the Super Bowl champs have a representative on the list. Mebane won’t be near the top of the Seahawks most important defenders, but quietly he’s been a disruptive force on the inside, recording 7.5 run stuffs and 7 hurries in 2013. And I seriously doubt Mebane goes another full season without chalking up at least a sack or two.
22) Pat Sims (OAK) – Sims had a career rebirth in his first season in Oakland, notching a career high 54 total tackles and 6 run stuffs. Whether this was a flash in the pan or the birth of a new Pat Sims remains to be seen, but this is a contract year for Sims so he’ll be inclined to show the league that 2013 was no fluke.
23) Jared Odrick (MIA) – Although teaming with Starks to make quite the impressive tandem, Odrick saw his sack total decrease for a second consecutive season, down to 4.5 in 2014. Still, the younger member of the duo also is the bigger risk/reward play here. Personally, I’ll take Starks and his higher floor, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the year Odrick elevated his game to the next level.
24) Justin Smith (SF) – Even at 34 years old, the veteran Smith is still getting it done. He registered 6.5 sacks last season and has had at least 5.0 sacks in 11 of his 13 NFL seasons. Smith is still recovering from shoulder surgery after playing through it last season, but he’ll be ready to go when the season rolls around. I wouldn’t be surprised to see another 5.0 sacks on his ledger after this year, but the upside is limited.
25) Terrance Knighton (DEN) – The numbers might not reflect it, but Knighton has quietly become one of the league’s best defensive tackles in Denver. With Von Miller seemingly back for a full season (should his ACL recovery continue on course), along with the other additions John Elway made on defense, “Pot Roast” should have plenty of opportunities to make another big impact. I would bet on that including an increase to last years 3.0 sacks and at least 5 run stuffs.
26) Darnell Dockett (ATL) – Another veteran who’s still making an impact, Dockett turned in another good fantasy year in 2013. He had 7.5 run stuffs to go along with 4.5 sacks, although 3.0 of those sacks did come in a game against New Orleans in September. The 33-year old former ‘Nole will continue to be the veteran leader on what should again be a very good Arizona defense.
27) Timmy Jernigan (BAL) – From all accounts, Jernigan has acquitted himself nicely in Baltimore, so much so that talk is he’s in line to start alongside Haloti Ngata and Chris Canty. This is a risk/reward pick here, but I love Jernigan’s athleticism and strength and he has the ability to get 5.0+ sacks in his rookie year with the right opportunity.
28) Jonathan Babineaux (ATL) – Babineaux and the Falcons had a tough go of it in 2013. In attempting to fix their issues, Atlanta showed renewed faith in Babineaux by signing him to a three-year extension during the offseason. He’ll reward them with more big plays in the backfield (sacks, pass breakups, run stuffs) at the expense of his tackle numbers (second most of his career in 2013).
29) Cullen Jenkins (NYG) – The 11-year vet Jenkins had another solid campaign in his first with the Giants last year, recording 5.0 sacks and 31 total tackles. The question surrounding Jenkins will be his durability as he enters his age-33 season. Jenkins has played all 16 games the last three seasons, so if he can again hold up the course of the season, he’ll give you some respectable numbers in return.
30) Kawann Short (CAR) – We’re getting into sleeper range here for sure, but much like Mebane and Knighton, Short will never get the headlines with all the other stars on the Panthers defense. The numbers from his rookie year are pedestrian (30 total tackles, 1.5 sacks, 3.5 run stuffs), but they don’t tell the whole story. Panthers’ brass are incredibly high on Short due to his impressive stature and believe he could be in line for a breakout season in 2014.