16. DeMarcus Lawrence, DAL – My favorite sleeper of 2015, and not just because of my blatant Dallas homerism. Lawrence lost so much of his rookie year to injury that he became an overlooked name. That is, until that fateful day against Detroit in last year’s Wild Card round where Lawrence went from goat to hero in a matter of minutes. We caught a glimpse of the pass rushing prowess that led the Cowboys to trade up to the top of the second round in 2014 to acquire his services. With all the attention being paid to Greg Hardy and Randy Gregory, Lawrence has again slipped through the cracks. That stops here as I see Lawrence leading the Cowboys’ defensive line in fantasy points and potentially cracking the top-10, if not higher.
17. Jurrell Casey, TEN – The fun part about defensive lineman in today’s NFL, especially those in 3-4 schemes, is that position labeling is more art than science. Take Jurrell Casey for example. NFL.com lists Casey as a DE, so that’s where I’m ranking him. It makes sense as he should line up outside Sammie Hill (based on ESPN.com projections). Even though Casey’s rank would be much more generous as a DT, he still offers plenty of value as an end. Don’t sour on the 5.0 sacks from last year; Casey’s other numbers were quite healthy including 68 total tackles and seven run stuffs. My favorite stat, however, isn’t measured in fantasy, but shows just how dominant Casey remained. Other than J.J. Watt, who’s in a category all to himself, no other 3-4 defensive end recorded as many QB hits as Casey. In year two as a 3-4 end, expect even better production as Casey becomes acclimated to his new home.
18. Greg Hardy, DAL – You may lump Hardy in with Adrian Peterson and Ray Rice last year and consider him undraftable based on his off-the-field transgressions and I would completely understand. For those like myself who choose to compartmentalize football and non-football related activities, seeing Hardy’s suspensions [rightfully] reduced to four games made him a very interesting player on your draft boards (readers of past articles will know I’ve been calling the reduction in games for months). In his last full season, Hardy notched a whopping 15 sacks, more than the entire Cowboys’ D-line produced in 2014. Teaming with DeMarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory, and the underrated Jeremy Mincey means defenses won’t be able to shift all their attention Hardy’s way. In 12 games, I still see Hardy approaching double digit sacks, making him a fantastic real life and fantasy defensive investment.
19. Michael Bennett, SEA – Bennett is finally gaining the recognition he so richly deserved after two straight Super Bowl runs with the Seahawks (just look at his Madden rating). Quietly, he put up some on the best numbers in fantasy in MLFF leagues thanks to a combo of 7.0 sacks and 10.5 run stuffs. That kind of versatility is tough to find, but it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. This was the second time Bennett posted at least 10 run stuffs and the third time he’s reach 7.0 sacks in a season. Plus, who doesn’t love that sack dance?
20. DeMarcus Ware, DEN – Make that eight seasons of double digit sacks for DeMarcus Ware after registering another 10.0 last season, bringing his career total to 127.0. While no longer the dominating force he was in his prime for the Cowboys, Ware still brings substantial production to the table opposite Von Miller. The biggest question I have is how rookie Shane Ray factors into the playing time equation after the Broncos moved up in the first round to draft him. He should be groomed as the heir to Ware, but how quickly he takes that mantle has yet to be seen. Regardless, betting against another year of 10.0+ sacks from Ware seems to be a foolish wager.
21. Chris Long, STL – Last season was a lost one for Chris Long as he spent most of the year recovering from left ankle surgery. He never really got in the mix along that dominant front four of the Rams, but should be returning to form in 2015. With the emergence of Aaron Donald and Robert Quinn, Long can fly under the radar the way many #2 overall picks never could. I like Long as a nice bounce back candidate this year with substantial upside, and a return to double digit sacks should be expected as he continues to harass opposing signal callers.
22. Cameron Heyward, PIT – You have to love the steady improvement from Heyward in his first four seasons, culmiating in a 7.5 sack, 53-tackle campaign. The Steelers also enjoyed the career arc enough to reward Heyward with a new six-year deal running through 2020. He’s become a team leader on defense and will look to lead by example as younger players, including Stephon Tuitt along the D-line, attempt to take the pressure off the former first round pick. Heyward is in prime and another stellar season should be in store.
23. Corey Liuget, SD – Most IDP services I’ve seen have Liuget listed as a defensive end, which I think is the correct designation for him in the Chargers’ 3-4 alignment. Since Major League Fantasy Football’s host service, Fantrax, lists Liuget as a DT, I included him there as well. If you managed to snag Liuget as a DT in your league last year as I did, kudos. He finished 2015 #2 overall on MLFF’s defensive tackle leaderboard behind only Suh. The Chargers certainly believe Liuget can take his game to the next level and are paying him like a top level defender (5 years – $50 million). What he doesn’t produce in sacks (at least not yet), Liuget more than makes up for in run stuffs and TFLs. Should he become everything San Diego brass believes he can, that combo of TFLs and sacks could be lethal.
24. Jason Pierre-Paul, NYG – I could throw at you all the stats and numbers you could handle. I could talk about past production and future expectations (I originally had JPP as a top-5 DE). But let’s face it: everything changed with an Independence Day celebration gone wrong. He had his right index finger amputated and is rehabbing in a secluded location away from Giants’ facilities. No one knows when Pierre-Paul will report, as he’s undoubtedly still bitter about the contract situation he was embroiled in with New York’s front office. And no one knows what to expect when he does show up. Any ranking of JPP is pure conjecture at this point. I’m guessing his production is as much tied to his mental state as his physical state, and odds are I don’t have as much faith as a leaguemate will to light the fuse (too soon, I know) on a JPP pick.
25. Charles Johnson, CAR – I know I shouldn’t be too scared of what Charles Johnson will look like post-Hardy considering he played almost the entire 2014 season without his former running mate. Still, something just doesn’t sit quite right with me. Maybe it’s the two straight years of declining sack totals. Maybe it’s the emergence of some of the younger options at DE. Or maybe it’s because I just don’t like Georgia Bulldogs (piss on them, look it up). Whichever it is, I just don’t get excited about owning Johnson in 2015 and see the downslope of his career clearly on the horizon.
26. Leonard Williams, NYJ – How Leonard Williams slipped to #6 in April’s draft I’ll never know (I’m looking at you, Washington Redskins). The Jets then did what other, actual smart-drafting teams have been doing for years by taking the best talent on the board. Was it a need position? Of course not. The Jets already have Sheldon Richardson (after 4 games) and Muhammed Wilkerson patrolling the defensive front, which is exactly why I love the situation Williams fell into. For an uber-talented player like Williams, he’ll see consistent single blocking for the first time… possibly ever. A scary proposition for opposing offenses, but a very tempting one for fantasy owners who should expect a handful of sacks and solid behind-the-line play from Williams right out of the gate.
27. Michael Johnson, CIN – Apparently, you can go home again. At least, that’s what Michael Johnson will do as he returns to the Bengals after a one year hiatus in Tampa Bay. The Bucs hoped to see more of the 2012 version of Johnson that posted 11.5 sacks, but he flamed out in Florida and Tampa decided to part ways. If the Darrelle Revis situation is any indication, Johnson could be in for a big season. I still treat 2012 as an outlier, but Johnson is much more talented than the last two seasons’ sack numbers have shown. He’ll have an outside shot at 9 or 10 sacks, but somewhere in the neighborhood of 7.0 with 50 tackles seems doable.
28. Damontre Moore, NYG – If anyone stands to benefit from the JPP fireworks freak show, it could be Damontre Moore. We saw glimpses of his ability in his second season as he posted 5.5 sacks and 32 tackles.It’s reasonable to believe that climb in statistical production will continue in year three. If the Giants offense is as potent as I believe it could be, should everyone come back healthy, there could be a few games where New York plays with a lead throughout, giving Moore a few more shots at racking up sacks.
29. Jared Allen, CHI – Another vet I’m down on is Jared Allen. Declining skills aside, it’s going to be quite the undertaking to learn a completely new position in your age-33 season, but that’s exactly what Allen will have to do. Vic Fangio brings his 3-4 scheme to the midwest and Allen is expected to slot in as an edge rushing LB. At this age, Allen won’t be able to do it down after down, so expect a cut in his total snaps. This, along with the sharp drop Allen’s sack numbers had already taken over the last four years, has me souring on Allen quite a bit.
30. Adrian Clayborn, ATL – Injuries have certainly derailed what looked to be a promising career for Adrian Clayborn. He’s played 16 games in a season twice, but his other two seasons saw GP totals of three (2012) and one (2014). Lastt year, it was a biceps injury that cost Clayborn his year and his tenure with the Bucs. Hoping to be a part of Dan Quinn’s defensive revival project in Atlanta, Clayborn signed on as is penciled in as the started at right defensive end. We’ve seen what kind of numbers players can churn out under Quinn, so this ranking is as much about having faith in him as it is having faith in the returning Clayborn.
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Major League Fantasy Sports Show: Join Ej Garr and Corey D Roberts on Sunday August 2nd from 7-9pm EST for this week’s episode of Major League Fantasy SportsRadio sponsored by the Sports Palooza Radio Network. Call in at 646-915-8596. This week’s discussion will be all about the MLB trade deadline deals, and how they will affect your fantasy teams.