Projecting the success or failure of NFL defenses requires additional in-depth analysis and research because, unlike individual players (running backs, for example), defenses consist of several key parts. Not only are there 11 starters you must account for, fantasy owners also need to be alert to coaching, scheme, and system changes as well.
Here are five defenses the National Football Post is projecting will see changes of fortune in 2009.
And if you haven’t done so already, be sure to purchase our 2009 Fantasy Draft Guide.
ON THE RISE
San Diego Chargers
Phrase you’re most likely to hear if you draft them: “They sucked last year.”
Response: If you’ve had enough beers, break off the “Lights Out” Shawne Merriman dance to remind everyone who’s returning to the lineup. When your opponents get done laughing (at you, not with you), calmly compose yourself and finish drafting on a strong note. No need to second-guess the decision. You’ll be reaping the benefits of this pick throughout the season.
2008 Fantasy Finish: 20th. Averaged 8.3 points per week.
Why they’re climbing: The Chargers’ numbers dropped off significantly last season without Merriman causing havoc on the field. San Diego totaled 15 fewer sacks, 15 fewer interceptions, nine fewer fumble recoveries, and gave up 63 more points than they did in 2007. As we always say, it starts up front.
The Chargers lacked a viable pass rush last year, which was one of the main reasons for their decline in defensive production. Merriman’s return, coupled with the addition of rookie defensive end Larry English, will help bolster their front seven and improve their chances of getting after the quarterback. With pressure come mistakes, and with mistakes come turnovers and sacks.
In addition, six games against the Raiders, Broncos, and Chiefs can’t hurt their cause. Look for Philip Rivers and company to play ball-control offense, further increasing the chances for their defense to succeed in 2009.
New England Patriots
Phrase you’re most likely to hear if you draft them: “Tom Brady doesn’t play defense.”
Response: “Yeah, but his wife is wicked hawt. Throw me another beer and turn on the Sawx game.”
2008 Fantasy Finish: 19th. Averaged nine points per week.
Why they’re climbing: The return of quarterback Tom Brady means more than just a boost on offense. It means big help for the defense as well.
Think back to 2007, when Brady and the Pats were throwing the ball all over the place and piling up the points. Their opponents had no choice but to abandon the running game and try to play catch-up. This allowed the defense to sit back in nickel and dime coverage because they knew the pass was coming.
Result? New England finished the season as a top-three fantasy defense.
The Pats acquired cornerback Leigh Bodden to replace Ellis Hobbs and have a solid nucleus of talent in linebackers Jerod Mayo and Adalius Thomas, along with safety Brandon Meriweather.
Remember, even without Brady running the offense last season, New England still found some success on the defensive side of the football. The Pats ranked 10th against the run and 11th against the pass. That’s good balance.
New Orleans Saints
Phrase you’re most likely to hear if you draft them: Laughter. What else would you expect? The Saints ranked 26th in points allowed (24.6) and 23rd in total yards (339.5) last season.
Response: None needed. You’re drafting them as your backup defense. Their improved play will speak for itself.
2008 Fantasy Finish: 24th. Averaged 7.75 points per week.
Why they’re climbing: Finishing 8-8 with the No. 1 offense clearly shows there’s a problem on the other side of the ball. Enter defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. Williams was brought in this offseason to turn around the defense and make this team a serious contender heading into 2009.
NFP analyst Matt Bowen played for Williams in Washington and is very familiar with his system (he also speaks highly of him as a coach). Williams runs a “ball disruption” style of defense, meaning players are graded out on Mondays based on how often they disrupted a play (tipped passes, forced fumbles, etc.).
One of Williams’ main goals is to install a style of defense that makes every player accountable. Discipline is the key.
In addition, the Saints upgraded their secondary by signing cornerback Jabari Greer and safety Darren Sharper while drafting one of the top cornerback prospects in the country last April in Malcolm Jenkins (Ohio State).
If New Orleans can get pressure from defensive ends Charles Grant and Will Smith, look for a big improvement this season.
Note: While we have the Saints’ defense listed as a unit that’s “on the rise,” we’re still advising fantasy owners to target them as a fantasy backup. They still have work to do before they crack the starting lineup.
FALLING DOWN THE BOARDS
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Phrase you’re most likely to hear if you draft them: “Damn, that was my next pick!” (from clueless owners). “Good luck without Monte Kiffin running that defense” (from owners with a clue).
Response: If you’re reading this and you still draft them, you should feel shame.
2008 Fantasy Finish: Seventh. Averaged 12.12 points per week.
Why they’re falling: Kiffin, one of the best defensive coordinators in NFL history, has left Tampa to join his son Lane at the University of Tennessee, meaning the ferocious Tampa 2 defense is no longer. With a new system come new schemes, and with new schemes come new players. The main problem right now in Tampa is that it might not have the personnel it needs to succeed with a new defensive style.
The Bucs are moving toward a more traditional seven-man front, and it will take some time to get the right players on the field. In addition, gone are veterans Derrick Brooks, Cato June, Kevin Carter, and Phillip Buchanon, meaning there will be several new faces lining up on defense this season.
Keep in mind: The NFC South is no joke when it comes to offense. Tampa has to play six games against New Orleans, Atlanta, and Carolina. In our opinion, those are six games you can forget about putting the Bucs in your starting lineup.
Phrase you’re most likely to hear if you draft them: “Drew Brees and Matt Ryan are going to smoke them this year.”
Response: If you drafted them as a backup, say it. If you drafted them as your starting defense, start worrying.
2008 Fantasy Finish: 13th. Averaged 10.19 points per week.
Why they’re falling: The Panthers’ decline actually started toward the end of last season when they allowed 30 or more points in six of their final seven games, including the playoffs.
Things didn’t get any better in the offseason when defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac declined a contract extension and left. The Panthers responded by hiring former Indianapolis Colts defensive coordinator Ron Meeks.
As mentioned above regarding the Buccaneers, the Panthers are now running a new defensive system, which means it may take some time to get the right personnel in place.
They also have to play four times against the Saints and Falcons. They may even struggle with the Bucs’ upgraded offense if Tampa can get some consistent play out of the quarterback position.
Keep in mind, we aren’t saying the Panthers are not a viable fantasy option heading into 2009. But we don’t think they’re going to finish 13th or better like they did last season.
Consider them a somewhat reliable backup option. Just don’t get caught thinking they can be a steady starting defense.