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Fantasy Football: 2015 defense sleepers and busts

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Fantasy Football: 2015 defense sleepers and busts

Defenses can be so frustrating some times. 

You can watch your opponent's defense give up 500 total yards and only 13 points and post a solid score, while your defense gives up more points and less yards because of a few pick-sixes. 

Ugh.

Right, Napoleon?

[RELATED - Fantasy Football: 2015 tight end sleepers and busts]

But while most defenses are necessarily worth targeting until the later rounds, there are a few that are worthy of a slightly earlier draft pick. And there are also some defenses that could really hurt you this year. There's also a way to win leagues by streaming your defense every week. We throw the book at you (top targets, sleepers and busts) with our defense primer in 2015.

Top Targets

Dolphins: I love everything about the Dolphins this season. Ryan Tannehill is going to return QB1 numbers, Lamar Miller is a steal in the third round, Jarvis Landry is going to make “the jump” in Year 2 and Jordan Cameron is woefully underrated. So it’s no surprise that I love this defense as well. Yes, they had four negative-point outings in the last six games of the year, but bringing in a future Hall of Famer in his prime (Ndamukong Suh) to anchor an ugly run defense a year ago, combined with Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon on the edge make this one of the most fantasy-friendly defensive lines in football. That pressure will help them add to their numbers from a year ago (14 INTs, 39 sacks) which were middle of the pack. The only hesitation I have is their brutally tough schedule down the stretch - they’ll play the Giants, Chargers and Colts in the fantasy playoffs - but I’m all in on them and have no problem making them the fourth defense off the board (after Seattle, Buffalo and Houston). - Mark Strotman

Texans: The foundation of any D/ST unit that you want to target is a defensive line. That's where it all starts, from turnovers to getting the defense off the field quickly to accumulating points with sacks and forced fumbles. Is there a better defensive line in the game right now than the Texans? J.J. Watt is the best defensive player in the game without any comparison, and then you also have Vince Wilfork eating up space in the middle and the huge upside of both Whitney Mercilus and Jadevon Clowney. That's a great gamble to take. - Tony Andracki

Vikings: Mike Zimmer’s crew is flying so far under the radar it’s not funny. Their linebackers are outstanding with Anthony Barr, Eric Kendricks and Chad Greenway. The defensive line has its “sack guy” in Everson Griffen (12 last year). Xavier Rhodes is one of the more underrated corners in the game and Harrison Smith is great at patrolling the middle. The Vikings have the right pieces to take the next step as a team toward the playoffs and should be able to rack up some points in fantasy this year. They’re also in the middle of most rankings, allowing you to focus in the mid-to-late rounds on drafting quality backups. - John "The Professor" Paschall

Sleepers

Chiefs: What do you need to be a successful fantasy defense? Sacks and turnovers. The Chiefs have two of the best pass rushers in the NFL with Justin Houston and Tamba Hali (maybe even Dee Ford can improve?). Sean Smith and rookie stud Marcus Peters will hold down the edge while Eric Berry makes his emotional return to the middle of the field. Also, don’t forget that you get special teams points with these units and the Chiefs have to electric returners in De’Anthony Thomas and Knile Davis. - JP

Eagles: Everybody thinks they can't do it again, and you know what? They probably can't. But it's worth a shot to draft them and see how it plays out. The Eagles have most of the same playmakers in place as last season, plus they traded for Kiko Alonso, one of the best middle linebackers in the league coming off injury. With Darren Sproles still in the return game, there are a lot worse bets you can make than drafting the Eagles D/ST with one of your last two picks. - TA

[MORE: Top targets, sleepers and busts at wide receiver]

Packers: Dom Capers’ group finished eighth in fantasy points a year ago, but I’ve got them in the sleeper category because of what they added this season. They spent their first two draft picks on secondary playmakers in Demarious Randall and Quentin Rollins to replace Tramon Williams and Devon House. Casey Hayward is healthy and Morgan Burnett, Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix and Micah Hyde make this a secondary that could improve on their 18 interceptions from a year ago. A lot will depend on Clay Matthews’ health and Julius Peppers’ performance at age 35, but I’ll call them a sleeper as a team that flirt with a top-5 finish that won’t cost you more than a second-to-last round pick. - MS

Busts

Cardinals: Lose Todd Bowles. Lose Antonio Cromartie. Lose Darnell Dockett. Yikes. There are still some nice pieces on that unit but they are going to go through some rough patches this year for sure. They don’t have an elite pass rusher (Alex Okafor led the team with eight sacks) and don’t offer much on special teams returns. Count me as one who expects some regression from the Cardinals’ D/ST. - JP

Jets: On paper New York’s defense is certainly start-worthy on a weekly basis. They’ll probably return top-10 results, especially adding Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie in the offseason. But the reason I’ve got them in the bust department is because their playoff schedule pits them on the road against the Cowboys in Week 15 and against the Patriots in Week 16. With an offense that could struggle to move the ball, it’d be a shame to roll with a unit that’s going to be on the field plenty all year and then have to stream elsewhere in the playoffs. Defenses are hit-and-miss past the top-3 units, so if you select the Jets be aware that you’ll probably drop them once you hit the fantasy postseason. - MS

Seahawks: The only number you need to know here is 61.8. That's where the Seattle defense/special teams unit is going. That's in the sixth round in 10-team leagues and the fifth round in 12-team leagues. ARE YOU KIDDING ME? For a defense?!!??! I feel like I've lost all faith in fantasy owners seeing that. Seattle wasn't even the best defense last year! They scored 150 points in standard leagues, third behind the Eagles and Bills. They are a fantastic real-life defense, but fantasy is not real life. Far from it, actually. I can't believe anybody would take a defense over a second/third WR or RB or even a starting TE or QB. Get your heads in the game, people. Take your D/ST with one of your last two picks and monitor the waiver wire early in the season to find the next 2014 Eagles defense that relies on opportunity and special teams tuddies. - TA

*Stream D/ST*

You know that one person in your fantasy league that pulls the trigger on a defense way too early and everybody laughs at them? Yeah, there's a good reason for that. If 2014 was any indication, there is absolutely no reason to draft a defense any earlier than your second to last pick — your final selection better be a kicker. The Buffalo Bills led the NFL with 170 total fantasy points, which was the worst number in any non-strike year since 1959 as ESPN's Tristan H. Cockcroft pointed out.  Year in and year out the NFL has shown that it's turning into a quarterback-driven league, with point totals going up each season. And In today's NFL, at least from a fantasy standpoint, it's nearly impossible for a defense to dominate for an entire 16-game stretch of the season. The consensus No. 1 D/ST this season is the Seattle Seahawks with an ADP of 54th overall. That same point in the draft is when you should be searching for your flex player, starting QB or shoring up your bench depth — not reaching for a D/ST that's going to average less than 10 points per game. Play the matchup each week with your D/ST and look for a defense to feast on a week opponent à la any team that's playing either the Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars or Tennessee Titans. You'll reap the benefits with this strategy. - Scott Krinch

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Can the Bears pull off an upset at home against Tom Brady and the Patriots?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Can the Bears pull off an upset at home against Tom Brady and the Patriots?

Chris Emma, Matt Zahn and Gabe Ramirez join David Kaplan on the panel.

0:00- NBC Sports National NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh joins the panel to discuss the Bulls’ terrible defensive performance as well as Zach LaVine’s impressive season debut.

11:35- Khalil Mack is listed as questionable for Sunday’s game against the Patriots. Can the Bears pull off the upset against Tom Brady?

23:50- NBC Sports Boston Patriots insider Tom E. Curran joins Kap to talk about how New England views the Bears and discuss how Matt Nagy’s team can exploit the Patriots’ weaknesses.

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below.

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Khalil Mack appears set to play Sunday with Tom Brady, Patriots looming

Khalil Mack appears set to play Sunday with Tom Brady, Patriots looming

Khalil Mack appears in line to play Sunday with Tom Brady, Patriots looming

Khalil Mack participated in the Bears’ final practice of the week on Friday, clearing the way for the edge rusher to play Sunday against the New England Patriots. 

ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported earlier Friday that the Bears expected Mack, who hasn’t missed a game in his career, to play after suffering an ankle injury early in Week 6’s 31-28 loss to the Miami Dolphins. Mack is officially questionable for Sunday’s game at Soldier Field. 

Mack had little interest in discussing his ankle with the media on Friday, passing on answering questions about his readiness for New England. Coach Matt Nagy, though, said he thought Mack “looked pretty good” during practice on Friday. 

Mack didn’t record a sack against Miami and was held to just one pressure, per Pro Football Focus. The Dolphins’ gameplan was to commit plenty of resources to stopping Mack, but he wasn’t effective even when he had one-on-one pass rushing opportunities as the game went on. 

“He was (affected),” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “I can't put a percentage on it, but he definitely was.”

Having Mack available — even if he’s not full strength — will be critical for the Bears’ defense to have a chance at keeping Tom Brady from lighting up the scoreboard. The key for the Bears will be to generate pressure on the 41-year-old quarterback without blitzing, which is something Fangio’s defense was successful at prior to Sunday’s wacky loss to the Dolphins. 

Brady’s passer rating is 138.4 when he’s blitzed, per Pro Football Focus, while when under pressure his rating is 87.2. That’s still pretty good, but it’s worth noting that all of the six interceptions he’s thrown this year have come when he hasn’t been blitzed. And only one of the eight sacks he’s taken has come when he’s been blitzed. 

The point being: If the Bears feel like they have to start blitzing to generate pressure, they can expect Brady to pick them apart.  

“You could say all of that but ultimately (Brady’s) a gamer,” Mack said. “He’s going to take those hits, and you gotta be able to deliver them but also have coverage over the top. It’s going to be real important for us.” 

The good news for the Bears, perhaps, is that New England’s tackles have struggled at times this year. Left tackle Trent Brown has allowed 17 pressures in 234 pass blocking snaps, per Pro Football Focus (about one in every 14 snaps). And starting right tackle Marcus Cannon is out with a concussion, giving way for backup La’Adrian Waddle, who’s allowed eight pressures in 78 pass blocking snaps (about one in every 10). 

So the opportunities will be there for Mack, Leonard Floyd, Akiem Hicks and the Bears’ pass rush to affect Brady on Sunday.

A bigger injury concern?

While cornerback Prince Amukamara (hamstring) was a full participant in Friday’s practice and will play Sunday, slot corner Bryce Callahan suffered an ankle injury during Thursday’s practice and did not participate Friday. He’s officially questionable for Sunday. 

Callahan “did his ankle,” Nagy said, toward the end of Thursday’s practice, and he felt worse as the day went on. Nagy characterized Callahan’s absence from Friday’s practice as “precautionary.”

Callahan’s availability may be more of a pressing concern than Mack’s, given how well the Patriots’ offense has played since slot receiver Julian Edelman returned from a four-game suspension to begin the season. While his numbers aren’t eye-popping (11 catches on 16 targets, 111 yards, 1 TD), New England’s offense has scored 38 and 43 points in his two games back. 

“Brady has always had a guy in the slot that he’s comfortable with; whether it be (Wes) Welker, (Danny) Amendola or Edelman,” Fangio said. “It’s a big part of their offense. They haven’t missed a beat, but I really think it’s helped their offense and played a big part in them basically averaging 40 points in the last three weeks. I really appreciate and respect how good of a player he is and has been.”

If Callahan isn’t available, Sherrick McManis could be the next man up at slot corner.