The preseason is in full swing, and another football season is nearly upon us.
While it's tempting to just simply hit the reset button and pick up with where we left off back in December, the savvy fantasy player knows the NFL is an ever-shifting landscape. Knowledge of the changes around the league and how they will affect fantasy output is what separates the champs from the chumps.
Coaching changes make arguably the biggest impact on a team. As a preview to my two weekly regular season columns, I'm going to take a look at teams with new defensive coordinators going into the 2014 season and break down the resulting IDP winners/losers and the DST fantasy outlook.
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Buffalo – Jim Schwartz
The Bills move from Mike Pettine’s aggressive multiple-front scheme to Jim Schwartz’s 4-3 defense that uses less blitzing and Wide 9 concepts along the defensive line. Schwartz doesn’t particularly like labeling his approach as a Wide 9, or really anything for that matter, but it’s what we can expect based on what we’ve seen from him in the past.
Schwartz’s system is an aggressive “attack scheme” that tends to be very friendly to the weak side linebacker from a statistical standpoint as much of the defensive action is funneled to the weak side. Take a quick look at DeAndre Levy’s 2013 stat line and you’ll see exactly what I mean.
IDP Winners: Kiko Alonso was shaping up to be the biggest winner, but he’ll spend the year on injured reserve. We still don’t have much clarity at the linebacker position, though Nigel Bradham is emerging as a potential three-down backer. However, the real winners in Buffalo are Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes. Both players get DL designation and are solid bets for double-digit sacks. Hughes has major IDP sleeper appeal.
IDP Loser: While it’s not really a product of Schwartz’s defense, early indication is that Brandon Spikes is unlikely to play in the subpackages. It will be tough for Spikes to have consistent IDP value even with Buffalo’s tackle-happy home stat crew.
DST Outlook: The Bills finished as fantasy’s No. 8 unit last season, but don’t expect a repeat performance. They have plenty of talent, but Pettine really maxed out their fantasy value. Buffalo is currently the No. 22 D/ST in ADP. While that may be a little low, they’re still a streaming option that should not be on your draft board in standard-sized leagues.
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Houston – Romeo Crennel
Crennel replaces Wade Phillips and comes in with a very traditional 2-gap 3-4 defense, though Crennel said the Texans would be a multiple defense that requires versatility from the players. Ultimately, Crennel envisions this defense as one that can create mismatches and utilized their strengths in the front seven.
While some have speculated that Crennel’s scheme could be detrimental to J.J. Watt’s production, I don’t share that sentiment. Watt is a freakish talent who isn’t scheme-dependent. If Crennel does what he says and creates mismatches for Watt, we could actually see Watt improve on the 10.5 sacks he had last season.
IDP Winners – Historically, Crennel used big bodies along the line to eat up blockers and allow the linebackers to make plays. While this is certainly a positive for Brian Cushing, Crennel’s multiple approach will also favor Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney. Both players are outside linebackers in name, but they’re essentially defensive ends in a two-point stance. Crennel’s system gives both serious sack upside.
IDP Losers – Crennel will likely use Cover-2 concepts in the secondary, which will limit the IDP value of the safeties. Second-year man D.J. Swearinger has a lot to like from a fantasy standpoint, but unfortunately his ceiling is capped in the back-end of the DB2 range.
DST Outlook – Houston had an uncharacteristically bad year as a fantasy unit last season, but it wasn’t entirely their fault. Losing Cushing seven games into the season certainly hurt this unit, and their turnover-happy offense did them no favors. While the offense is still in a bad place, look for the Texans to rebound for fantasy purposes. They're an intriguing back-end DST1 who could put up some strong fantasy numbers in 2014.
Cleveland – Jim O’Neil
Okay, so Mike Pettine is the real defensive coordinator, and he brings with him an exotic hybrid defensive that relies on multiple fronts and seemingly attacks at all angles. Pettine comes from a Ryan family “46” defensive background, but he puts his own unique spin on the multiple front defense. At times last season in Buffalo, Pettine used 1-gappers and 2-gappers on the line at the same time. This creativity is designed to confuse and create mismatches where his defenders are set up to make plays. It’s an ideal system from a fantasy standpoint.
IDP Winners – We could really say the Browns unit as a whole wins, but a few players who stand out are Christian Kirksey, Jabaal Sheard, Barkevious Mingo, and Donte Whitner. The No. 71 overall pick, Kirskey is favored to start, and we saw what Pettine did for Kiko Alonso in his rookie season. Mingo and Sheard stand to benefit as pass rushers. Again, look at what Pettine did for Jerry Hughes last year. Whitner has been hidden behind Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman for the last three seasons, but he’ll return to fantasy relevance in Cleveland.
IDP Loser – It’s really tough to pinpoint anyone of this unit who loses out significantly.
DST Outlook – Cleveland finished 2013 as fantasy's No. 13 unit. With Pettine at the helm, look for the Browns to take a step forward and become one of the more exciting fantasy options from a week-to-week basis. Lock them in the Top 10.
Cincinnati – Paul Guenther
With Mike Zimmer now the head coach in Minnesota, Guenther takes over as an internal promotion. This means we won’t see a significant departure from what the Bengals did under Zimmer, though Guenther does plan to deploy more multiple fronts in 2014. As we’re seeing with other defenses, Guenther’s approach is to put players in favorable spots while using the same personnel group.
IDP Winner – Since there’s no significant change here, there’s no major winners. However, I do want to point out LB Emmanual Lamur as a player to keep your eye on. Lamur has drawn praise in the offseason from the Bengals coaching staff and has the skillset to play all three downs. He’s an intriguing IDP sleeper.
IDP Loser – If Lamur gets the starting job, then Vincent Rey will again be on the outside looking in. We saw flashes out of Rey last season, but with Rey Maualuga playing base downs in the middle, Rey is unlikely to see the field for more than a handful of snaps per game.
DST Outlook – Cincinnati was one of the league’s top fantasy units last season, and I don’t see that changing in 2014.
Tennessee – Ray Horton
Horton come to Tennessee after a one-year stint in Cleveland where he ran an aggressive 3-4 system. The former Bengals and Cowboys defensive back cut his teeth under Dick LeBeau as the Steelers’ defensive backs coach. LeBeau’s influence in Horton’s scheme is apparent with his attacking style and reliance on the zone blitz. While the base look is a 3-4, we’re likely to see Tennessee deploy multiple fronts.
IDP Winner – The biggest winner of the bunch in Tennessee has to be Wesley Woodyard. The Titans are extremely thin at inside linebacker, so Woodyard is essentially a starter by default. He’s in a great position to put up strong fantasy numbers.
IDP Loser – Jurrell Casey is coming off a breakout season where he posted double-digit sacks and was among the league’s best fantasy defensive tackles. Much better suited on the interior at the 3-technique, Casey is expect to play outside at the 5-techinique. Horton’s two-gap concepts were detrimental to Darnell Dockett’s fantasy value in Arizona, and we could see Casey meet the same fate.
DST Outlook - While things are certainly looking up in Tennessee, it’s tough to envision the Titans finishing any better than last season’s No. 18 spot. They’re a middle of the pack option best used as a streaming matchup play.
Dallas – Rod Marinelli
There’s not much to see here in terms of changes in defensive philosophy from Monte Kiffen to Rod Marinelli. We’ll continue to see Dallas attempt to apply pressure from their front four and deploy Tampa-2 concepts in the secondary, though not exclusively. Marinelli’s defensive in Chicago was predicated on creating turnovers, though Dallas may lack the playmakers to execute this strategy.
IDP Winner – Typically Tampa-2 concepts don’t bode positively for defensive backs, but Barry Church showed he’s capable of putting up big tackle numbers when Sean Lee is not on the field. With that same scenario playing out in 2014, look for Church to again be one of the league leaders in tackles at defensive back.
IDP Losers – Since there aren’t a lot of IDP-relevant names on this defense, it’s tough to pinpoint an actual loser. Outside of Church, it’s difficult to get behind any Cowboy as a strong fantasy option.
DST Outlook – In a word – bad. Dallas was the No. 26 fantasy defense last season, and I wouldn’t be surprise if they actually finished lower this season.
Detroit – Teryl Austin
Austin comes to Detroit via Baltimore where he served as the secondary coach from 2012-2013. He has little experience as a defensive coordinator, having only held the job in 2010 at the University of Florida.
While we don’t know much about Austin, we do know that the Lions will remain a 4-3 defense in 2014. However, Austin does promise use multiple looks up front. We can also expect to see the Lions be a little bit more blitz-heavy than they have been in recent seasons.
IDP Winner – Second-year man Ziggy Ansah is expected to be moved around in Austin’s defense. Ansah had eight sacks in limited snaps as a rookie, and he’s a Rotoworld favorite to breakout out in 2014.
IDP Loser – DeAndre Levy finished as a Top 10 fantasy linebacker in most IDP scoring systems last season. Don’t expect a repeat performance in 2014. Jim Schwartz’s defense funnels the action to the weak side linebacker, and we don’t have any indication that Austin’s defense will do the same. Levy is also extremely unlikely to repeat the six interceptions he had last season.
DST Outlook – The Lions were mediocre as a fantasy unit last season despite having talent on the defensive side of the ball. There’s no reason to assume they’ll be any better in 2014. Keep them on your list of streamers.
Minnesota – George Edwards
Like what we saw in Cleveland, Edwards is the defensive coordinator in name, but Mike Zimmer is the one who’s really pulling the strings. We can expect Zimmer to take a similar approach to what he did in Cincinnati where he used his front four to generate pressure without rely much on the blitz.
IDP Winners – While we rarely pay much attention to the defensive tackle position, Zimmer was in part responsible for making Geno Atkins a household name. The Vikings are sitting with a young talent at the position in Sharrif Floyd, who has the profile to be a breakout 3-technique in Zimmer’s system. Everson Griffen also has the makings of a strong IDP option with Jared Allen now out of the mix.
IDP Loser – A lot of folks are looking at Audie Cole as a sleeper at the linebacker position, but I’d steer clear of that path. Cole's small sample size and the fact that he was playing behind Jasper Brinkley in the offseason don't bode positively for a breakout fantasy season.
DST Outlook – The Vikings were fantasy’s No. 32 unit last season, so there’s nowhere to go but up. However, there are still a few too many holes in this defense for them to make much of a fantasy impact this season.
St. Louis – Gregg Williams
Out of the league since the “Bountygate” scandal, a lot of people may have forgotten just how innovate of a defensive coordinator Williams was in his tenure with New Orleans. His aggressive scheme is an excellent fit with the existing personnel in St. Louis.
Williams runs primarily out of a 4-3, but you can expect to see multiple looks that verge on the exotic at times. Look for Williams to generate a lot of pressure from his stacked defensive line while frequently blitzing his linebackers from the second level.
IDP Winner – We could really make an argument for most of the Rams defenders here, but I’m going to put my chips on T.J. McDonald as the biggest beneficiary. Williams’ system was extremely friendly to Roman Harper in New Orleans, and McDonald will now be that playmaker in the middle of the field who will be called on to blitz at times and will get plenty of opportunities to create turnovers as the “robber.”
IDP Loser – There’s really no player on this unit who sticks out as a clear loser.
DST Outlook – The Rams were a Top 10 fantasy unit last season thanks in large part to Robert Quinn’s breakout season. They’ll take another step forward with Williams at the helm and finish the year as a Top 5 DST.
Tampa Bay – Leslie Frazier
With Frazier in at defensive coordinator and Lovie Smith in at head coach the Tampa-2 will return to Tampa. Well, sort of. No team in the NFL runs the Tampa-2 exclusively, and most all teams deploy Tampa-2 concepts at some point. However, we’re going to see plenty of Cover 2 in Tampa this season.
IDP Winners - This scheme bodes positively for several players on the defensive side of the ball, most notably Gerald McCoy, Lavonte David and Alterraun Verner. Both David and McCoy are already at the top of their positions in terms of fantasy value, and you know that, but Verner is really interesting. He’s coming off a career-year and will get an opportunity to make plays in this defense. Let’s not forget that we saw strong fantasy seasons recently out of Charles Tillman under Smith and Antoine Winfield under Frazier.
IDP Loser – As much as I love Mark Barron from a skill standpoint, Tampa-2 and Cover 2 typically don’t bode positively for fantasy production out of the safeties.
DST Outlook – If there’s a team to peg as this year’s breakout DST, it’s the Bucs. They’re loaded with young talent, and Smith's units with the Bears were frequently among the league's top fantasy defenses.