Fantasy Football

Draft preview: D/ST surprises

Kansas City defense
Top emerging defenses, such as Kansas City, are ready to take the next step.
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Michael Harmon

Mike is a fantasy contributor for FOXSports.com.MORE>>
 
   
 

OFFSEASON REVIEWS

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The fantasy world trudges onward.

I remain optimistic that a season will be played and, in that vein, I continue to put forth my prospective “surprises” for the forthcoming campaign. I’m naturally a pessimist, so this is a big deal.

In any event, this latest entry focuses on the “D/ST” position. Obviously, there are myriad heavy hitters expected to change teams once the lockout lifts. My list and expectations of these teams will change accordingly.

Detroit

We can debate whether the Lions technically rate as a "surprise," as fans and fantasy owners have been slowly moving to the Detroit bandwagon for years. Ndamukong Suh’s dominance as a rookie alongside Kyle Vanden Bosch energized the crowd in 2010. The defensive interior was bolstered during draft weekend by the selection of Nick Fairley from Auburn.

Offensive coordinators across the NFL are trying to scheme for this defensive line. The double-team efforts required inside will free up the pass rush off the edges, thereby creating additional turnovers. The pass rush is pivotal to slowing down the Mike Martz attack in year two and the Green Bay juggernaut.

Kansas City

Kansas City received a lot of play nationally last season for gaudy numbers posted by the Matt Cassel-to-Dwayne Bowe connection and the breakaway speed of Jamaal Charles. The youthful defense quietly excelled under Romeo Crennel. Kansas City ranked 11th in total defense (20.4 points per game) and generated a total of 29 turnovers.

Additionally, it generated 39 sacks (tied for 10th), led by 15 from Tamba Hali. There’s still upside for this unit, with Eric Berry ready to take a step forward in the secondary and Glenn Dorsey coming into his own on the defensive line.

Kansas City also has a potential Devin Hester-like figure on special teams in sophomore Dexter McCluster.

Washington

Washington was a disappointment at every turn last season. Sure, you expected to see a new running back’s name selected from a hat to lead the team in rushing in a given week. But, you didn’t expect Mike Shanahan’s offense to stagnate or to see a toothless defensive interior. Of course, the off-field nonsense between Albert Haynesworth and the coaching staff certainly didn’t help.

I’m putting it on the radar for 2011 following a huge injection of talent in the NFL Draft. Led by pass rusher Ryan Kerrigan and run-stuffer Jarvis Jenkins, Washington sought to forge a new defensive identity by selecting six defensive players.

It tied for 21st in total defense last season (23.6 points per game) with 29 turnovers (14 interceptions) and 29 sacks.
 

Dallas

The Cowboys opened the 2010 fantasy draft season as a top-10 unit. Owners watched in horror as the secondary was beaten with great regularity. The Cowboys allowed 27.3 points per game to finish 31st in the game.

It wasn’t a total wash in the fantasy realm, as the unit generated 32 turnovers and recorded 36 sacks. DeMarcus Ware continued his personal dominance with 16 sacks. Dallas fortified the linebacker corps by selecting Bruce Carter in the second round from North Carolina. However, the team made no moves to bolster the defensive line and didn’t address the secondary until the fifth round (selecting Josh Thomas from Buffalo).

I’ll be curious to watch the Cowboys once the bell rings to usher in the free-agent signing period. There will be a number of top-notch players available for the line and the secondary (Nnamdi Asomugha or Antonio Cromartie, anyone?). Jerry Jones will bring novelty checks with enough room for multiple zeroes.

San Francisco

The San Francisco offense clearly put the defense in bad spots time and again during the 2010 season. Despite the team’s inconsistent offensive production and the meltdown of the coaching staff, the 49ers ranked 16th in total defense (21.6 points per game) on the strength of the sixth-ranked run defense (96.7 yards per game). San Francisco produced 27 turnovers and 36 sacks, solid numbers in the face of offensive uncertainty.

The 49ers surprised many pundits by eschewing the selection of a quarterback to draft Aldon Smith from Missouri. Smith immediately elevates the pass rush and offers support to all-world linebacker Patrick Willis.

Of course, the likely retention of Alex Smith as the team’s starting quarterback (Jim Harbaugh can’t say it, but I can) will push this unit down draft boards. The 49ers will outperform the draft selection point.

Oakland

As always, the Raiders represent an intriguing unit. Oakland tied for second in sacks with the Packers and Chargers at 47 in 2010, and five different players generated at least five sacks. Kamerion Wembley led the way with nine sacks, and Richard Seymour gave the team a new identity upfront.

Though the team generated a ton of quarterback pressures, the unit failed to produce turnovers. The Raiders struggled terribly against the run (133.6 rushing yards allowed per game) and produced just 24 turnovers (12 interceptions). Perhaps the top-notch pressure off the edge will present more opportunities in 2011.

I would be remiss if I failed to note that Asomugha’s contract was voided in January to make him a free agent. Suitors will line up with suitcases of cash for his services once the lockout ends.

When considering the Raiders, owners also have to contemplate the electrifying return game of Jacoby Ford.
 

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Cleveland

Cleveland tied for 13th in total defense, but the sexy fantasy numbers weren’t there. The team generated a total of 27 turnovers (19 interceptions to tie for eighth in the NFL) and tied for 25th in sacks with 29. Cleveland brass addressed the defensive line by selecting Phil Taylor (defensive tackle) and Jabaal Sheard (defensive end). It allowed nearly 130 rushing yards per game. Taylor immediately helps to lift the interior.

Of course, the defense’s upside is predicated on creating a more consistent offensive set under second-year starter Colt McCoy and a repeat of last year’s heroics from Peyton Hillis.

Houston

It’s a new world order in Houston, much to the chagrin of those fantasy owners who have made Matt Schaub the cornerstone of their efforts in years past. First, the team hired Wade Phillips to run the defense. Then, the Texans drafted defensive players with their first four selections in the 2011 NFL Draft.

J.J. Watt, a 6-foot-6 powerhouse from Wisconsin, offers the bookend rusher opposite Mario Williams. Brooks Reed offers immediate depth to a linebacker corps awaiting the healthy return of DeMeco Ryans. Brandon Harris and Rashad Carmichael have a chance to make an impact immediately to stabilize the 32nd-ranked pass defense.

I suspect that the Texans have additional personnel moves to come on the defensive side of the ball. Can they convince one of the high-priced free agents to take up residence in Houston?

Arizona

The offense sputtered behind abysmal quarterback play in 2010 and a lack of cohesion and consistency in the running game. As a result, the defense spent a ton of time on the field (27.1 points per game). Arizona did produce 29 turnovers and 33 sacks.

While we await some solution to the offensive woes, the Cardinals smartly paired shutdown cornerback Patrick Peterson from LSU with Antonio Rodgers-Cromartie. The secondary appears set, but the front-seven still needs some fine-tuning come free agency. Linebackers Sam Acho and Quan Sturdivant will have an opportunity to contribute immediately.

I suspect that the Cardinals add a playmaker to the front seven once free agency opens in addition to solving that quarterback riddle. With more consistent offensive production, the talented secondary will have opportunities to make plays.

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