Now that the NFL Draft is complete and rookies are beginning to get acclimated to the NFL in rookie mini-camps, it’s time to roll out the defensive prospects that should be on everybody’s radar heading into the summer and draft time. Unfortunately, there has already been a devastating blow to the start of one young defensive player’s career. Dante Fowler, the 3rd pick in the Draft by the Jaguars and former Gator, will miss the entire 2015 NFL season after tearing his left ACL in camp on Friday. This is not only a blow to the Jaguars defensive line this season, but also to fantasy teams as Fowler seemed poised to wreak havoc on opposing NFL offenses after amassing a ridiculous 25.5 tackles for loss his last two seasons at Florida. Yes, he will be hard for the Jags to replace this season, as their defense ranked 22nd or worse in all defensive categories last season. Despite this injury, those in dynasty formats should target Fowler late and stash him on your IR for the season, as he could reap owners benefits by 2016.
From a fantasy standpoint, defensive rookies are hard to predict, as we often times do not know for certain what role they will play, or how much in the early going. We do know that you are more likely to get bang for your buck from rookie linebackers, safeties, defensive ends, corners, and finally defensive tackles, in that order. For this reason, when preparing for your draft, pay close attention to how rookies are being utilized in their respective defensive schemes, and whether they are starters, or backups who see significant time. This list comprises only five players, but there are numerous others who you could make a case for, and I will lend a few other names to keep an eye on.
Enjoy the rest of the off-season as we inch closer to the season, and prepare to dominate this season.
Vic Beasley (DE/OLB-ATL)- Quick, name the last fantasy relevant Falcons defensive end? John Abraham in 2012 would be the answer, when he posted ten sacks and six forced fumbles. Beasley is a welcome sight to the Falcons defense this offseason after their completely lackluster defensive showing last season. Atlanta ranked last in passing defense, 21st in rushing yards defense, last in rushing TD defense, and last in receiving yards and receiving yards/game defense last season. They were the league’s worst total defense by far. In other words, it was ‘spread em wide, and go deep’ through the giant hole that was the Falcons defense, in large part thanks to the team only tallying 22 sacks last season. Beasley will definitely step in and help repair the Falcons defensive unit by providing a pass rush after Kroy Bierman was the team leader with 4.5 last season. Believe me, Falcons fans cringed when they saw Atlanta insanely re-signed the veteran. Fear not Falcon fans, the Clemson alumnus is here to provide us some pass rush from LEO, and hopefully wreak havoc in Dan Quinn’s defensive scheme as the Falcons are undergoing major changes, starting with a new head coach (Quinn). The Falcons defense won’t blow anyone away this season, but at least opposing offenses will need to pay attention to Beasley on the edge, as he is looking to bring quarterbacks and running backs down quickly. Keep an eye on his positional eligibility. If he can qualify as LB he will have more value than if he merely qualifies as DE. Regardless, he is a disruptive edge player you will want to target. (Photo courtesy of cdn1.vox-cdn.com)
Bud Dupree (OLB-PITT)- With the retirement of Jason Worilds, the injury to Ryan Shazier last season, and underperformance from Jarvis Jones, the Steelers were in dire need of an edge rusher after finishing 27th versus the pass and 26th versus opposing receivers, and struggling to create turnovers. Dupree fits the bill superbly and will be an immediate impact player for the Steelers, who should defend the pass and create fumbles. If the Steelers linebacking core can stay healthy and perform, this could be a nasty line to contend with: Timmons and Shazier manning the middle, Jones and Dupree on the outside, and Stephon Tuitt and Cameron Heyward at defensive end. The Kentucky product played defensive end his last two seasons at Kentucky, racking up 14.5 sacks and 22 tackles for loss over his final that span, but projects to play outside linebacker for the Steelers in 2015. The current version of the Steelers defensive line may not rival the Steel Curtain that featured James Harrison, Lamar Woodley and James Farrior, with Troy Polamalu in the secondary, but it could become nasty extremely quickly. Target Dupree in the middle rounds of your drafts as a LB2/3 and be prepared to reap the rewards. (Photo courtesy of mycn2.com)
Landon Collins (S-NYG)- Collins is an aggressive safety who goes to the ball, is physical, but also will drop easy interceptions. He was an absolute force at Alabama, leading the team in tackles (103) and interceptions (3), en route to being named a First Team All-American. In addition to being a ball hawk, he is good against the run, and will help provide the Giants unit much needed punch, after ranking 29th in total defense last season. Collins will need to work on not being cheated or tricked into going into the backfield too soon, as that gives opposing quarterbacks easy deep completions, but if he can refine his reads and stay sound in coverage, he could emerge as a lockdown safety, and rack up tackles and picks as a rookie. There is something in the water at Alabama that enables them to keep churning out elite talent on defense. If all the cards break right for Collins, it’s not out of the question that he could be a top 20 safety this season. Initially, temper expectations until we see how he adjusts his reads in coverage. He’s a solid pick for an S2 with upside to be your top safety by season’s end. (Photo courtesy of alabama.rivals.com)
Leonard Williams (DE-NYJ)- The AFC East should be cringing right now because Williams is a flat out monster on the defensive line and was the best player in the 2015 Draft, outside of a healthy Todd Gurley, and will dominate from Week 1. The USC defensive lineman was the Defensive Player of The Year, and a Finalist for numerous other awards after the 2014 season. Williams is freakishly athletic, possesses supreme raw power, and easily moves offensive linemen. He is a bit slow when transitioning from run stopper to pass rusher, but that will correct itself as he gets more snaps at the NFL level. The Jets defensive line, which already featured Sheldon Williams, Muhammad Wilkerson and Damon Harrison, just got a whole lot nastier, as they can line up Williams in 3 end sets, potentially put him at inside linebacker in passing situations, or whatever role they want to slot him in. Williams is a force to be reckoned with and has already been compared to Kevin Williams, the former defensive tackle of the Vikings. Fantasy owners may have to reach a bit to get this physical specimen, but whatever role he plays, you can count on a healthy dose of tackles and sacks, with stuffs thrown in for good measure. Even I already have him all queued up in some drafts. The Jets are definitely on the rise. Now, if they could only fix that sore spot offense, they could contend in the coming years with a defensive juggernaut. (Photo courtesy of nfl.com)
Eric Kendricks (ILB-MIN)- The two UCLA linebacker roommates unite once more. Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks, former UCLA roomies and linebackers, will reunite together in the Vikings linebacking core. Last season, for the Bruins, Kendricks had a phenomenal season with 101 solo tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, and three picks. Now he will get to try his hand at being the Vikings’ long-term solution at Mike linebacker, or middle. Chad Greenway was the fantasy staple for the Vikings at the strong side from 2010-13, posting 130+ tackles each of those four seasons, but ceded SLB to Anthony Barr, as Greenway moved to weak side linebacker last season. Barr, from SLB, had a solid rookie season on his way to a two forced fumbles and three recovered fumbles effort in 2014. (Photo courtesy of huddle.org)
Barr’s 2014 Rookie season by the Numbers
Now we will all get to witness what Kendricks and Barr can do on the same NFL line in Minnesota. If Kendricks can have a successful rookie season, as Barr did last season, this could be the beginning of a dominant inside-outside duo. Conservatively, if Kendricks proves his worth as Mike in the early going, he should be a lock to produce 80+ tackles and a handful of sacks, while Barr continues to emerge on the strong side. Elite rookie fantasy MLBs tend to prove their worth early on, as we all witnessed with Luke Kuechly, Lavonte David and CJ Mosley (LILB). If you want a shot at him, you will need to nab Kendricks in the early middle rounds. I have a suspicion he is going to be dynamite from the Mike position. The Vikings got a helluva linebacker with Kendricks, and they will enjoy the production from him and Barr for years to come at the expense of their NFC North foes.
Other names to keep an eye on: Trae Waynes (CB-MIN), Shane Ray (DE-DEN), Stephone Anthony (LB-N.O.), and Arik Armstead (DT/DE-S.F.), Randy Gregory (LB-DAL)
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Major League Fantasy Sports Radio Show: Join Ej Garr and Corey D Roberts on Sunday May 10th from 7-9pm EST for this week’s episode of Major League Fantasy Sports Radio sponsored by the Sports Palooza Radio Network. Call in at 646-915-8596. Our topics this week will be the N.L. East and N.L. Central.