“Mad Dog McCleese” Safety Rankings 17-33 (Part 2 of 3)
I continue my safety rankings on Major League Fantasy Sports this week with Part 2. There are some big-time players and heavy hitters on my list this week. All of these guys should definitely be owned once the smoke clears on draft day. We’re finally getting to the main entree on Mad Dog’s smorgasbord of safeties. I don’t think you can go wrong waiting to draft a couple of players in this range and letting everyone else pay up for the elite or name-brand players at the safety position. Actually, that’s the strategy I would recommend to employ on draft day. Stay tuned next week for the cream of the crop or “Sweet 16” as I would like to call them at the safety position.
17. Reshad Johnson, Arizona Cardinals
Reshad Johnson had a breakout season last year, setting career-highs with: 93 tackles, one sack, four interceptions, and two pick-sixes. He registered 146 interception return yards, only Harrison Smith and Tashaun Gipson tallied more. Johnson solidified himself as the starter at strong safety, but keep in mind that he’ll be competing with Deone Bucannon, Tyrann Mathieu, and Tony Jefferson for snaps. Arizona is going to play a lot of nickel, allowing all four safeties to get on the field. I think some of the credit for his big season needs to be given to former defensive coordinator Todd Bowles. The main question I have is how will the defense change with James Bettcher taking over as defensive coordinator? Todd Bowles ran an aggressive 3-4 defense that created a ton of pressure up the middle, in turn forcing lots of turnovers. The Cardinals blitzed 46.5% of the time last year with Bowles calling the plays. This number will most certainly drop, and as a result, the turnovers should too. The departures of Darnel Dockett and Antonio Cromartie are also big losses to consider. I would have Johnson higher in my rankings if Bowles was still in the desert coaching, but I expect the Cards defense to regress this year. It’s hard for me to draft Johnson based on all the moving pieces and his short track record, but he could prove me wrong if he does it again this year. I do like him, just don’t love him and I would rather take shots on some of the guys lower in my rankings who are more proven.
18. Donte Whitner, Cleveland Browns
Donte Whitner is a force to be reckoned with, and when paired with Tashaun Gipson, you have the best safety tandem in the NFL. In 2014, Whitner looked right at home in the Dawg Pound and city where he grew up. While most people know him for his vicious hits over the years, he’s established himself as an elite safety and has three Pro Bowl selections to back it up. Whitner took over for T.J. Ward last year, he anchored a Browns defense that led the league in opponents’ quarterback passer rating (74.1), completion percentage (57.1), and passes defensed (99). They should improve on these stats with former Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champ Tramon Williams added to the fold; not to mention a full season from Tashaun Gipson. Opposing teams attacked the Browns on the ground and they finished last in the league with 141.6 rushing yards allowed per game. Opposing rushers were able to get to the second level quite frequently. This opened-up opportunities for Whitner to rack up high tackle totals. This year should be no different, making Whitner a lock for 100 plus tackles and a couple picks. Go draft “Hitner” and you’ll sleep like a baby knowing he’s laying the lumber for your team.
19. Tashaun Gipson, Cleveland Browns
Gipson was another player we broke down in detail on our last Fantasy Football Weekly YouTube show. It’s just another reason to stop reading this article and go watch the show. Gipson is easily one of the most talented young safeties in the NFL. Opposing quarterbacks had a passer rating of just 41.9 throwing into his coverage and he recorded six picks in 11 games, while adding 52 tackles. Not yet 25 years old, Gipson has 11 interceptions, including two pick-sixes over the past two seasons, and has developed into an elite coverage safety. He’s in a contract year, and should be very motivated to play for a big payday in 2016. Gipson has a bright future and was a top-10 safety in Pro Football Focus’s 2014 ratings. He’s the type of player that could potentially finish in the top-5 at his position and led the league in interceptions. His supporting cast will give him even more opportunities to make big plays with Donte Whitner, Joe Haden, Tramon Williams, and Justin Gilbert headlining one of the best secondaries in the NFL.
20. Landon Collins, New York Giants
I actually had Landon Collins ranked a little higher, but I slowed my roll on him. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love the kid and still think he finishes this year as the top scoring rookie defensive player. I highlighted Collins before as an immediate impact player and I’m not backing off that claim. Collins will be a starter from day one with zero competition and will have every opportunity to showcase his amazing skill set. He excels at run defense, which is where he will make his name in the NFL and IDP leagues. Landon is excellent in rocketing to the ball carrier and wrapping up as evidenced by his team-leading 103 tackles last year at ‘Bama. This guy plays with a high-motor at all times and isn’t afraid to lay the lumber on his opposition. Ironically enough is the fact that the only rookie safety to finish in the top 50 in scoring for the position last year was Collins former teammate Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (29th overall in MLFS scoring). Collins is following in his footsteps, and I expect a very similar season from him, if not better. It’s time to add another no-nonsense, well-coached Nick Saban pupil to the long list of ‘Bama success stories in the NFL.
21. T.J. Ward, Denver Broncos
T.J. Ward had a monster season in 2013 for the Browns registering 112 tackles, 1.5 sacks, two interceptions, and a pick six. I myself was guilty of over-drafting him last year all the while expecting him to put up the same numbers with the Broncos. He seemed to make more news off the field than on; which was a little concerning. Ward is a young, explosive strong safety who brings a lot of energy and toughness to the Broncos secondary. I’m curious to see how the loss of Rahim Moore affects Ward, and if his replacement, Darian Stewart, earns the starting role; or if Bradley Roby transitions to free safety in the base sets. There are some big question marks in the secondary in the Mile High City, but one thing is for sure, and that’s Ward’s snaps are guaranteed. Ward offers a very safe floor and should be more comfortable in his second year with the Broncos. He’s also durable, having started at least 14 games in four out of his five years as a pro. Ward comes with very little risk, making him an attractive option in all IDP scoring formats.
22. Da’Norris Searcy, Tennessee Titans
The Titans were looking for someone to replace Bernard Pollard and they found their guy in former Bills strong safety Da’Norris Searcy. Searcy is coming off a strong season with Buffalo in which he registered 65 tackles, 0.5 sack, three interceptions (career-high), two fumbles forced, and one fumble recovered. Searcy will take over as the Titans starting strong safety across from Michael Griffin. The Titans are looking for more big-plays out of the position, and Searcy is more than capable of providing them. Searcy, 26, is four years younger than Pollard, who spent most of last season on injured reserve because of surgery for a ruptured Achilles tendon. Searcy is going to benefit from playing alongside a “proven veteran” safety in Michael Griffin, not to mention having the luxury of defensive mastermind Dick LeBeau coaching him. The arrow is pointing up for Searcy, and I expect him to take the next step forward which makes him a very intriguing option at safety.
23. Charles Woodson, Oakland Raiders
One would expect father time to catch up with Charles Woodson at some point and for the wheels to fall off; but I think he’s got another year left in the tank. He turns 39 in October, but that didn’t stop him from setting a career-high with 113 tackles last year while registering four interceptions (most since 2011), one sack, and eight passes defensed. Woodson has been as durable as they come, playing in at least 13 games 14 times in his long career. In his 17-year career, Woodson has 60 interceptions, 35 of them have come in the last nine years, trailing only Ed Reed during that time span. He’s still playing at a high level and will have a huge role at safety under new Head Coach Jack Del Rio. It’s his work ethic and love for the game that sets him apart from everyone else at his position. He’s yet to miss a practice this offseason, and appears to be in great health. Woodson is also one of the most competitive players in the NFL and it’s no surprise that he keeps cranking out productive seasons in the twilight of his career. I’d love to own him on as many of my teams as possible, but because of his name-brand recognition, he’ll probably go before a lot of safeties close to him in my rankings who can put up similar numbers. Let’s not forgot that he finished last year as the seventh-highest scoring safety in MLFS formats so go get him if you can.
24. William Moore, Atlanta Falcons
William Moore is a veteran strong safety that sets the tone with his strong leadership skills and physical play. Last year, Moore suffered two significant right shoulder injuries that limited him to only seven games. Assuming he’s healthy, Moore should have no problem adjusting to Dan Quinn’s fast-and-physical style of defense, which allows players to just react rather than think so much. Quinn likes to rely on Cover 3, with the single-high safety and the cornerbacks using press-man coverage technique in a zone scheme. It gives Moore a chance to play like a true in-the-box safety. Quinn is fired up about having Moore back on the field. Moore already has taken the initiative to drop some weight in order to fly around Quinn’s new scheme. He currently weighs 219 pounds after playing at 232 last season. His biggest obstacle, besides his health, will be adjusting to a new starting free safety next to him, most likely Ricardo Allen. They also have another great option at safety in Kemal Ishmael, who impressed last year while filling in for Moore. The only for sure guarantee is that William Moore will be the leader of secondary and Quinn’s go-to guy which makes him the guy to target in the Falcons secondary.
25. Ryan Mundy, Chicago Bears
Ryan Mundy was the lone bright-spot last year for an atrocious Bears defense. With an aging Charles “Peanut” Tillman and Chris Conte providing little support in the secondary, Mundy was a one-man wrecking crew. He quietly put up his best season as a pro with 103 tackles, four interceptions, one sack, one fumble recovered, and one pick six. The bad news Bears let Peanut and Conte walk in the offseason, and replaced them with Mundy’s former teammate Antre Rolle via free agency. The two safeties played alongside each other for one year (2013) with the New York Giants, and Mundy thinks the duo can rekindle the connection wearing Bears uniforms.
“Antrel and I have a history together,” Mundy said. “We had a really good chemistry and connection in New York when we played for the Giants. I’m looking forward to bringing that to Chicago and making a lot of plays because we had a lot of success two years ago.”
Mundy finished last year tied for 15th overall at the safety position in MLFS scoring format. Adding another proven and dependable safety opposite Mundy will only create more opportunities for big plays and strengthen what was a weak secondary. If you’re not targeting Mundy in IDP leagues, you need to get your head checked like a smoking Jay Cutler.
26. Deone Bucannon, Arizona Cardinals
Deone Bucannon is an impact safety with good size who seeks to punish the ball carrier. He was drafted high by the Cardinals last year in the first round, 27th overall pick. He’s bigger and faster than Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Calvin Pryor, but didn’t get the opportunity to start since the Cards already had veteran safeties Rashad Johnson and Tyrann Mathieu. Bucannon was a versatile stud as a rookie, playing a hybrid linebacker position despite getting drafted as a safety. This year, things will change as head coach Bruce Arians has already confirmed that Bucannon will move back to safety, his natural position. The Cardinals also signed Sean Weatherspoon, and will hopefully get Daryl Washington back from suspension at some point. Bucannon will be competing with Reshad Johnson, Tony Jefferson, and Tyrann Mathieu for snaps at safety. Mathieu has a long injury history and is fragile as glass. Bucannon is too good to waste away on the sideline. You can bet the house that Arians coaching staff will find creative ways to get Bucannon on the field, regardless of their current depth chart. Arizona will play a lot of nickel, allowing them to get Bucannon on the field by playing the role of their nickel linebacker. I expect Bucannon to build on last year’s numbers (81 tackles, two sacks, and one fumble forced), especially if an injury occurs to “Honey Badger” or Johnson. In which case, Bucannon would be a monster for his owners.
27. Calvin Pryor, New York Jets
Calvin Pryor was touted by many scouts as the most physical defensive player in last year’s draft class. Like most rookies, he faced a steep learning curve in the Big Apple. It didn’t help matters that the Jets were weak and depleted at cornerback. Therefore, Pryor was forced into playing more in coverage than the Jets had originally planned. Pryor had to become more of a deep cover guy who provided help on the back-end of the defense. He played that way out of necessity, and it neutralized exactly what it is that he does best. Pryor struggled, and even got benched briefly last November. He admitted this was a major component in his struggles as a rookie.
“I was kind of placed in some positions that I wasn’t normally placed in that caused me to do some things that I wouldn’t normally do,” Pryor said.
This year will be different for Pryor for a number of reasons, starting with the fact that the Jets addressed their holes in the secondary by adding depth. In free agency, they signed three cornerbacks: former All-pros Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie, and serviceable slot corner Buster Skrine. In addition, they added a safety to complement Pryor in Marcus Gilchrist. Head coach Todd Bowles said Gilchrist, a converted corner, will play free safety and handle a lot of the coverage duties. As a result, this will give Pryor the chance to play strong safety and to position himself closer to the line of scrimmage. Pryor will get back to his bread and butter in 2015, which is being down in the box, tracking the ball down, and laying-out defenders.
28. Kenny Vaccaro, New Orleans Saints
While Corey was busy promoting Jairus Bryd last Saturday on MLFS YouTube show, I was banging the drum for Kenny Vaccaro. Vaccaro was an outstanding rookie in 2013, earning a selection to the all-rookie team. Last year, he fell victim to the dreaded sophomore slump. His poor play led to him getting benched toward the end of the season. Vaccaro definitely earned the benching, drawing nine penalties in addition to missing 18 tackles. It was later revealed that he struggled with pain in his ankle. Vaccaro fractured it just in time to miss the playoffs his first year in the Big Easy. After the New Orleans Saints’ atrocious season came to a close in 2014, it was reported that Vaccaro had played a majority of the season with a partially torn hamstring and two quad tears. Ouch! The skill set of Vaccaro is undeniable. He’s fast, explosive, physical and possesses the uncanny ability to stretch the field from sideline to sideline. It’s a new year, and at full health with a potentially dangerous secondary to play alongside, Vaccaro will be looking to get back on-track. I’m willing to give him a mulligan for last year and take a shot on a kid with untapped upside and a super-high ceiling.
29. Jairus Byrd, New Orleans Saints
If you missed last week’s Major League Fantasy Football Weekly YouTube show, I strongly suggest that you check it out. We did an excellent job breaking down the New Orleans Saints secondary. During the live show, Corey Roberts professed his love for Jarius Bryd. Hopefully, Jessica doesn’t find out about his man-crush, or he could be packing his bags. Byrd has everything you want from a safety: speed, power, burst, ball skills, hands, outstanding coverage and run stop abilities, and a strong work ethic. Byrd is a former three-time All-Pro safety, which speaks for itself. Unfortunately, 2014 was a lost year for Bryd after tearing his lateral meniscus in the fourth week of the season versus Dallas. He wasn’t exactly setting the world on-fire at the time, and had only generated one turnover (forced fumble). It’s a far-cry from his nine interceptions in 2009 and five in 2012. Byrd is known for creating turnovers and providing solid run defense, both of which make him worth investing in. Having said that, Byrd is somewhat of a risk due to the injury concerns, he’s missed 17 games over the last two seasons. The caveat is, if he stays healthy, he’s going to be a turnover machine and rack up fantasy points for his owners.
30. Robert Blanton, Minnesota Vikings
Robert Blanton burst onto the scene last year in his first year as a starter with 106 tackles and one interception. Playing alongside one of the best safeties in the game in Harrison Smith has its benefits. Blanton can cover in both man and zone, but his specialty is run defense. He can recognize routes and jump them quickly in zone while using his long arms to recover and make plays on the ball in man. When Mike Zimmer took over the team last year, they switched to more of a man-to-man defensive scheme, one where Blanton does much better. Keep in mind that Blanton was converted from cornerback to safety after being drafted by the Vikings. Digging deeper, I found Pro Football Focus has some interesting revelations. In coverage, Blanton allowed a passer rating of 88.2 an average number that ranked 26th out of 59 safeties who played at least 50% of their team’s snaps. While he was in coverage, he was targeted once every 21 snaps, the 10th best ratio out of 60 safeties. He also allowed a reception every 36.1 snaps, the 9th best ratio. Granted, he’s the starting strong safety and his role is primarily as a run defender, but those are encouraging numbers. I believe Blanton has even more room to improve and grow, and I trust that Zimmer will be able to continue his development in 2015.
31. Mike Adams, Indianapolis Colts
Mike Adams was a bright spot for the Colts’ secondary in 2014, logging five interceptions and earning his first Pro Bowl nod. He stabilized Indianapolis’ previously shaky free safety position last season, earning elite coverage marks from Pro Football Focus. He also added two forced fumbles and two fumbles recovered. Adams played a pivotal role in helping shut-down Peyton Manning to only 211 yards passing and one touchdown in the playoffs. The Colts addressed their holes in the secondary by signing free agent veteran Dwight Lowery and drafting Clayton Geathers in the fourth round. I’m optimistic that Adams can come close to duplicating last year’s line, making him a player to target on draft day.
32. Reggie Nelson, Cincinnati Bengals
A lot of people were ready to write-off 31 year old Reggie Nelson after his disappointing 65 tackle performance in 2013. He proved his doubters wrong last year, bouncing back with a career-high 95 tackles, 1.5 sacks, four interceptions, and 12 passes defensed. Nelson finished as the 10th highest scoring safety in MLFS scoring formats. Some might say his big year was a product of the Vontaze Burfict injury and he picked up the slack. Early reports suggest that Burfict is behind schedule from knee surgery, and a candidate to start the season on PUP. Regardless of whether or not you buy into that theory, Nelson is about as safe and durable as they come at the safety position. Truth be told, he probably should be higher in my rankings, but his age and the high miles on his tires concerns me.
33. Kendrick Lewis, Baltimore Ravens
Kendrick Lewis signed with the Baltimore Ravens in the offseason and immediately became the favorite to start at strong safety over Matt Elam. Lewis has that “my ball” mentality, which originates from playing wide receiver in high school and his freshman year at Ole Miss. He has nine interceptions and five forced fumbles during his career, which are more forced turnovers than anyone else in Baltimore’s secondary. He also has two defensive touchdowns off those turnovers. The Ravens have sought a playmaker in the defensive backfield since the departure of future Hall of Famer Ed Reed two years ago, and Lewis has the potential to be a ball hawk on the back-end. In addition to his playmaking ability in the passing game, Lewis is known as a strong defender against the run. He has the ability to play in the box near the line of scrimmage, and Pro Football Focus graded him as the 13th-best safety in run support. Believe it or not, he finished as the 15th highest scoring safety in MLFS league scoring format ahead of the likes of Antrel Rolle, Barry Church, and Earl Thomas. Lewis will come at a major discount on draft day, and provides comparable numbers to some big name players at the safety position.
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