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Defensive Coordinator Changes and the IDP Fantasy Football Impact
Steve Gallo
July 11, 2012
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Here's a rundown of the thirteen new NFL defensive coordinators for the upcoming season and how these changes could impact your IDP fantasy football rankings heading into 2012.

Head Coach Impact »     Offensive Coordinator Impact »

ATLANTA FALCONS

2012 DC: Mike Nolan
2012 Base Scheme: 4-3
Scheme change: No

The Atlanta Falcons have made plenty of acquisitions so far this offseason – including acquiring Asante Samuel from the Philadelphia Eagles.  Samuel, a 4-time Pro Bowl player will help the Falcons secondary, but he isn’t the only big name the Falcons acquired – but the best overall acquisition looks to be bringing in defensive coordinator, Mike Nolan – who replaces the one and done Bryan Van Gorder.

Nolan is known as a 3-4 guy, but he has experience coaching multiple schemes and has stated that the Falcons will remain a base 4-3 team, “We’ll be 4-3 and we’ll use 3-4 at times, but we’ll be primarily a 4-3 because this team was built that way,” said Nolan, “You want to play to your players’ strengths.”

Under Nolan, Ray Lewis had a career high 120 solo tackles in 2003, in 2009, DJ Williams had 100 solos (2nd most of his career), and Brian Dawkins had 95 solos (most of his career) with Nolan heading up the Broncos defense.  Point being, Nolan can churn out fantasy relevant players.

Sean Weatherspoon is by far the best fantasy option on the Falcons, but I also like Stephen Nicholas and William Moore.  Moore very well could end up a top 20 DB – Nicholas is a LB you should be able to get extremely late in your draft and I think he has LB3 type upside. 

During training camp, the battle to watch will be at MLB between Lofa Tatupu and Akeem Dent, as they look to replace the departed Curtis Lofton.  Whoever wins the starting spot will have their upside limited by what should be a 2-down role.

BALTIMORE RAVENS

2012 DC: Dean Pees
2012 Base Scheme: 4-3
Scheme change: No

After spending 2004-2009 with the New England Patriots, Dean Pees joined the Ravens coaching staff as their linebackers coach last year.  This year he takes over as defensive coordinator – a position he held from 2006-2009 for the Patriots – for the departed Chuck Pagano who left to take over as head coach of the Indianapolis Colts.

Pees may have held the title of defensive coordinator while with the Patriots, but make no mistake about it, that was Bill Belichick’s defense.  That also means that Pees got to work and learn with one of the best in NFL history.

As defensive coordinator for the Ravens, Pees will need to rely on the knowledge and experience he garnered while with Belichick if he hopes to be successful.  Mainly because he will be in charge of a defense that looks like it will be without all-world DE Terrell Suggs – who tore his Achilles earlier this year.

With Ray Lewis, Haloti Ngata and Ed Reed still suiting up for the Ravens, Pees isn’t going to be strapped for talent.  While Suggs won’t be easy to replace, rookie 2nd round pick, Courtney Upshaw has the ability to lessen the loss of Suggs.  In deeper leagues, DE Pernell McPhee is a guy that I like as a sleeper.  He won’t put up DE1 numbers but he could sneak into the low level DE2 range.

Fantasy wise; under Pees, I still see the top performers as Ray Lewis, Ngata and Bernard Pollard.  Pollard won’t be splitting snaps this year and could very well finish top 10 or better at DB.  If you are in a CB mandatory league then 2nd year CB, Jimmy Smith is a player you can target late in your drafts.

BUFFALO BILLS

2012 DC: Dave Wannstedt
2012 Base Scheme: 4-3
Scheme change: YES

The Bills have made some changes on the defensive side of the ball, all of which look to be positive for IDP purposes.  For starters, George Edwards is out as the team’s defensive coordinator; Dave Wannstedt was the linebackers coach in 2011 takes over as the new defensive coordinator.  That is big news because with Wannstedt at the helm he will be installing a 4-3 as the Bills primary defensive front.

The additions of defensive ends Mario Williams and Mark Anderson will be a shot in the arm for the Bills pass rush, and will go a long way in helping all other aspects of the defense too.  Williams was signed away from the Houston Texans, agreeing to the richest contract ever signed by a defensive player; six years, $100 million ($50 million guaranteed).  Anderson did not cost nearly that much, signing for four years, $27.5 million ($8 million guaranteed).

The Bills did not make any big acquisitions at the linebacker position, but that doesn’t mean that everything has stayed the same.  Along with the scheme change that Wannstedt is implementing comes a slight shakeup with who will play where at linebacker for the Bills.

After playing eight seasons for the Packers, Nick Barnett found himself playing for the Bills in 2011.  Barnett led the Bills with 130 combined tackles, and ended the year ranked as the #10 LB in fantasy scoring.  During 2011, Barnett played ILB in the Bills 3-4 look and MLB in their 4-3 looks, this year Barnett will be playing the WLB position in Wannstedt’s 4-3 scheme.  Barnett’s production will likely take a hit, but I don’t think it will be as big of a hit as many seem to think.  Based on MFL’s ADP Barnett is LB33.  Do I think that Barnett will repeat his top 10 performance from last year?  No, I do not, but I also think that he will outperform his ADP of LB33.  When we look back on the 2012 season, I think we see Barnett end up as a top 20-25 LB playing in Wannstedt’s defense.

Under Wannstedt the secondary isn’t going to be exactly the same, but there will be at least three fantasy relevant players for IDP owners to take advantage of.  George Wilson is a DB1 for owners to target, with Jairus Byrd being a strong option too.  In CB mandatory leagues, rookie Stephon Gilmore should also provide productive stats for fantasy owners.

DENVER BRONCOS

2012 DC: Jack Del-Rio
2012 Base Scheme: 4-3
Scheme change: No

After spending the last 9 seasons in Jacksonville as the Jaguars head coach, Jack Del Rio finds himself as the Broncos defensive coordinator – their 5th in five years.  Over those five years it has felt like the Broncos would change defensive schemes like you change socks. 

This year the defensive coordinator has changed but the 4-3 base scheme the Broncos played last year will remain the same.  A small semblance of consistency for a defense that hasn’t had much, over the past five years.  Del Rio may not be changing the scheme but if he wants to be the first Broncos defensive coordinator since 2007-2008, Bob Slowik, to last more than one year, he will need to improve the play of the defense.

In 2011, the Broncos surrendered the 9th most points in the NFL.  They also had issues stopping the run, ranking 11th in rushing yards allowed.  On the surface, they were better against the pass, giving up the 15th most passing yards.  However, they ranked 28th in QB rating (93.1) allowed to opposing teams.  So there is certainly room for improvement in the secondary.

It may be hard to believe that a team with Champ Bailey at CB could be so poor against the pass, but Bailey can’t do it all alone.  Bringing in Tracy Porter, formerly of the Saints will help, as will a year of experience for CB Chris Harris, and safeties Rahim Moore and Quinton Carter.  The loss of Brian Dawkins will be felt less on the field and more in the locker room.

Fantasy wise, in the Broncos secondary, I like the prospects of SS Carter, and think he could end up as a DB2.  In deeper CB mandatory leagues, I am bullish on Chris Harris.

While experience along with the addition of Porter should help the secondary, I think that the pass rushing duo of DE Elvis Dumervil and SLB Von Miller is the key, not just for the secondary to improve but the overall defense.  Between them, they accounted for 21 of the 41 sacks the Broncos had last year.  The thing is, both had to fight thru injury at different points in time last year, so there is room for improvement. 

Speaking of improvement, the Broncos will also need to get better production from their defensive tackles.  Specifically in the pass rush department, where they got a grand total of, wait for it…wait for it…ZERO sacks last year.  Yes, Broderick Bunkley is a very good DT and losing him in free agency is a blow to the defense.  However, the addition of Derek Wolfe via the draft this year along with a healthy Ty Warren gives Del Rio pieces to work with.

Del Rio’s biggest challenge will be in how he handles the loss of DJ Williams for the first six weeks of the season.  More than likely it will be Wesley Woodyard taking over for Williams at WLB during the suspension.  Leaving 2nd year LB, Nate Irving, and four-year veteran Joe Mays to battle during training camp for the starting MLB job.  No matter who wins the MLB job, a 2-down role will cap their ceiling as a LB3 at best.  The real sleeper is 2012 sixth-round pick Danny Trevathan, who during OTAs worked with the first-team in the nickel package. 

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

2012 DC: Greg Manusky
2012 Base Scheme: 3-4
Scheme change: Yes

After being an offensive threat for over a decade with Peyton Manning under center, the Manningless Colts offense was downright offensive in 2011. 

After finishing 2-14 last year – their first losing season since going 6-10 in 2001 – and securing the number 1 overall pick in the 2012 draft, it came as no surprise that there were wholesale changes made. 

The biggest change was the release of four-time NFL MVP, Peyton Manning.  On top of cutting ties with their offensive coordinator Manning, the Colts also cut ties with their general manager, head coach, and defensive coordinator.

With the offensive struggles last year, you might think the Colts would have brought in an offensive minded head coach, but that isn’t what happened.  They brought in Chuck Pagano, the former defensive coordinator for the Ravens.  To take over as the defensive coordinator they brought in Greg Manusky – fired earlier this year as the Chargers defensive coordinator.

With the addition of Manusky and Pagano, early on there were rumors that the Colts would transition to a 3-4 scheme.  Those rumors have been put the rest – it’s official, the Colts are playing a base 3-4 this year.

The change in scheme has resulted in Robert Mathis being re-classified as an OLB.  Mathis has been a staple as a DE2 for the past few years and losing him to the “dark side” hurts.  While Mathis has been re-classified, Dwight Freeney hasn’t and looks as if he will remain a DE.  Shades of how Terrell Suggs is classified as a DE for the Ravens.  Freeney is one of the most talented pass rushers in the league, but I am not expecting him to turn into Terrell Suggs from a fantasy production standpoint.

Pat Angerer finished 2011 with 148 combined tackles – fourth most in the NFL – and ranked 9th among LBs in fantasy scoring.  I don’t expect the scheme change to hurt Angerer’s production at all.  However, what worries me is if the Colts have the beef up front to play in a 3-4 effectively.  If they do, then Angerer could even be in for bigger numbers.  In four seasons with Manusky as the 49ers defensive coordinator Patrick Willis averaged 148.75 total tackles per year.  Now don’t get me wrong, Angerer is not Willis, the only point I am making is that the position that Angerer will play in Manusky’s defense has had fantasy success in the past.

MIAMI DOLPHINS

2012 DC: Kevin Coyle
2012 Base Scheme: 4-3
Scheme change: Yes

The Miami Dolphins didn’t just add a new head coach and offensive coordinator for 2012, they also added Kevin Coyle as their new defensive coordinator.  Coyle has spent the past 11 years as a defensive assistant with the Cincinnati Bengals – heading up the defensive backs since 2003.  Coyle doesn’t have defensive coordinator experience at the NFL level but he has 10 years experience at the collegiate level – 1991-1993 Syracuse, 1994-1996 University of Maryland and 1997-2000 Fresno State.

There may be questions concerning the success that Coyle will have as an NFL defensive coordinator.  However, there are no such concerns among fantasy owners with the Dolphins switch to a base 4-3 defense.

The biggest value for IDP leagues is that Cameron Wake is now going to be classified as a DE.  Adding a player like Wake to the DE ranks is never a bad thing.  In his first three seasons in the league, Wake has logged 28 sacks, with a career high of 14.5 in 2010.  The one thing I will point out is that Wake, while having been in the league for just three years, is 30 years old.  That doesn’t mean he can’t and won’t have value for the next 2-4 years, just that in keeper and dynasty formats you need to realize he isn’t in his mid-20s. 

As for the rest of the defense, Karlos Dansby will play the MLB position, and Kevin Burnett the WLB spot.  Both seem undervalued in the drafts that I have seen at this point.  Dansby of course is the better play of the two and if you decide to let LB wait in your draft he is a guy worth targeting after the top tier of LBs have gone off the board.

Lastly, let me point out that last year the Bengals pass defense ranked 9th in the NFL in passing yards allowed, the 2nd best it ranked while under the direction of Coyle.  Last year the Bengals blocked Coyle from interviewing for the Eagles defensive coordinator position, yet this year they allowed him to interview with the Dolphins.  Makes one wonder what has changed in a year’s time.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS

2012 DC: Alan Williams
2012 Base Scheme: 4-3
Scheme change: No

The Vikings as a team have a plethora of issues to fix before they can return to the playoff team that they were in the not so distant past.

Addressing the defensive side of the ball, they hired Alan Williams to take over as defensive coordinator.

Alan has plenty to tackle on the Vikings defense, but one thing he won’t have to worry about is RDE, Jared Allen – who last year came within half sack of tying Michael Strahan for the most sacks in a single season. 

In 2011, only the Tampa Bay Buccaneers gave up more points than the Vikings defense did.  Against the run, the Vikings were pretty good, tying for 5th best in YPC allowed (3.9).  The same can’t be said for the pass defense – ranking 26th in passing yards allowed, while also being one of only seven teams that allowed over 4,000 yards passing on the season.

With the Vikings struggles in the secondary, the hiring of Williams as their defensive coordinator seems to be a very good decision.  I know, you have never heard of Williams and wonder how a coach that you have never heard of can be a good hire.

Could it be because he is a former RB that played with Mike Tomlin at the College of William & Mary?  The Eagles got flack promoting an OL coach to defensive coordinator, so will the Vikings get the same flack for having a former RB as their DC?  Probably not because Williams has been coaching on the defensive side of the ball since 2001 – where he got his start under Tony Dungy in Tampa Bay as a defensive assistant.  When Dungy left Tampa for Indianapolis, Williams followed. 

Over the past decade, the Colts defense was always the team’s weak link.  However, that had more to do with the run defense than it did with the pass defense.  While Williams was in charge of the secondary, the Colts pass defense ranked in the top six on five separate occasions and ranked outside the top 15 just once.  Bob Sanders, Antoine Bethea, and Jacob Lacey are players that have had success under the tutelage of Williams. 

Granted the Vikings do not have the players at safety like Sanders and Bethea, but rookie Harrison Smith could end up surprising.  Outside of veteran CB Antoine Winfield – one of the best run support CBs in the league – the Vikings need help at CB, so hopefully Williams can help with the development of former 2nd round pick Chris Cook.

Lastly, head coach Leslie Frazier has said that he too will be very involved in the defense.  So it is safe to say the scheme in Minnesota isn’t going to change at all, but the secondary very well should be improved with Williams at the helm.

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

2012 DC: Matt Patricia
2012 Base Scheme: 4-3
Scheme change: No

Matt Patricia is the new defensive coordinator for the New England Patriots, but not only is he their new DC, he is their first DC since Dean Pees held the position in 2009.  Since 2000, under Bill Belichick the Patriots have had a grand total of three defensive coordinators – Romeo Crennel 2001-2004, Eric Mangini 2005 and Dean Pees 2006-2009.  In the 2000, 2010 and 2011 seasons Belichick didn’t have a defensive coordinator.

Patricia joined the Patriots coaching staff back in 2004 – coaching on the offensive side of the ball in his first two seasons.  Then he moved to the defense side in 2006, coaching the LBs for 5 seasons.  Last year he was the safeties coach – not the defensive backs coach, just the safeties. 

Patricia may or may not be a good coach, but I think it is very safe to say that this is Bill Belichick’s defense.  Then again, maybe it shouldn’t be, because over the past two years the Patriots defense has ranked 31st (2011) and 25th (2010) it total yards allowed.  With the defense ranking so poorly you would expect to see things change, but as long as Belichick is in control I expect things for the most part to remain the same.

Positionally, there are some questions as to how players will line up.  Training camp and especially the preseason will help to sort that out for fantasy owners.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

2012 DC: Steve Spagnuolo
2012 Base Scheme: 4-3
Scheme change: No

Bountygate this, bountygate that, it’s all we have heard all offseason.  Lost in the bountygate scandal is that Steve Spagnuolo – former defensive coordinator for the 2007 Super Bowl Champion New York Giants – has taken over as the Saints defensive coordinator. 

Spagnuolo won’t be making any major changes to the Saints base 4-3 defense.  Meaning we as fantasy owners won’t be losing any DEs to an OLB switch because of a transition to a 3-4.  Spagnuolo is a 4-3 guy to the core, and he learned his craft under the late great Jim Johnson when both were with the Philadelphia Eagles.

One thing that Spagnuolo got from his mentor is his aggressive blitzing style.  For those in big-play leagues this is something that very well could add some value to Saints defenders. 

I for one think that second year DE – Cameron Jordan makes a very nice sleeper at DE this year.  In deeper leagues, a player to keep an eye on is Martez Wilson who is being transitioned to DE.
At 6’4”, 250 Wilson may seem a bit light for the DE position but Spagnuolo has experience utilizing smaller ends. 

Defensive end isn’t the only place that the Saints are going thru a transition.  The Saints have added Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne to their linebacking core.  Lofton will start in the middle in place of Jonathan Vilma, and Hawthorne will start at the WLB position.  Vilma has been suspended for the season for his alleged role in the Bountygate scandal.

OAKLAND RAIDERS

2012 DC: Jason Tarver
2012 Base Scheme: Not 100% clear yet
Scheme change: Maybe

The Raiders not only have a new defensive coordinator, Jason Tarver, but they also have a new head coach, Dennis Allen.  Tarver doesn’t have any experience as a defensive coordinator at the NFL level, but Allen does.  Therefore, it should help the Raiders to have a defensive minded head coach, but last year, when Allen was the defensive coordinator with the Denver Broncos was the first and only experience he has as being an NFL DC. 

A lack of experience doesn’t mean that Tarver and Allen can’t or won’t be successful, but learning on the job isn’t always an easy endeavor either. 

Last year Allen ran a 4-3 with the Broncos, and Tarver as co-defensive coordinator for the Stanford Cardinal ran a 3-4.  Prior to joining the Cardinal in 2011, Tarver spent the previous ten years coaching with the San Francisco 49ers – the last 6 with them as their outside linebackers coach.

The Raiders have not officially announced what base scheme that they will play, and all the above information does is muddy the waters rather than clear them up.

Some feel that the Raiders assigning free agent acquisition and former Giants DE, Dave Tollefson jersey number 58 is a hint at a 3-4 scheme.  As it stands now every player on the Raiders roster that has a number in the 50s is a LB.  But that is not even close to being the sort of information that you can make a definitive declaration from.  I know it is a different team, but DE Trent Cole wears number 58 for the Eagles.

Outside of waiting to see what happens during training camp and the preseason, my guess is that we see the Raiders run a hybrid of sorts, moving in and out of a 4-3 to 3-4 based on situation.  As for the one that they use more often than not, we just have to wait and see.

Of course if you are drafting now that doesn’t help you much, because the value of a player like Matt Shaughnessy is largely tied to the scheme that he plays in.  I know that I, like many other people that play in IDP leagues will have my fingers crossed that the Raiders don’t switch to a 3-4 and end up reclassifying Shaughnessy as an OLB.  Since that risk does exist, I am not saying to avoid him in drafts, rather just don’t over draft him and secure him at a reduced value if you can. 

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS

2012 DC: John Pagano
2012 Base Scheme: 3-4
Scheme change: No

John Pagano the younger brother of Chuck – head coach of the Indianapolis Colts – after seven years as the Chargers linebackers coach, takes over as the team’s defensive coordinator.  Under Pagano the Chargers will continue to be a base 3-4 scheme.

Therefore, as far as changes to expect from a scheme standpoint, there are none.  What becomes the question is if Pagano can help to develop players at all positions on the defense the way he did with Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips.   On the flip side, I am sure Chargers fans will point to Larry English as a guy that hasn’t developed under Pagano.  Hopefully for the Chargers, their fans and IDP owners; 2012 1st round pick, Melvin Ingram will be more Merriman/Phillips and not English.

Things I will be watching in training camp and during the preseason will be how Pagano is going to use the SS position, as well as if rookie Brandon Taylor looks like he can start over veteran Atari Bigby.

ST. LOUIS RAMS

2012 DC: Greg Williams None
2012 Base Scheme: 4-3
Scheme change: No

The Rams brought Greg Williams on board to be their new defensive coordinator this year, and unless you have been living under a rock, you know that Williams has been suspended indefinitely for his role in the Saints Bountygate scandal. 

As it stands now the defensive coordinator position is vacant.  But with Jeff Fisher, a defensive minded coach at the helm, as well as Chuck Cecil the Rams secondary coach – and former defensive coordinator with the Titans when Fisher was their head coach – I think the defense will be fine.

The base scheme will remain a 4-3, and James Laurinaitis will still be the top producing fantasy player on the Rams defense.  However, what I am most excited about with the addition of Fisher as head coach is for the prospects of defensive ends Chris Long and especially Robert Quinn.  Don’t forget that Fisher coached Jevon Kearse.  Therefore, if Quinn has the talent that many of us think he does, we could see a star blossom this year.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

2012 DC: Bill Sheridan
2012 Base Scheme: 4-3
Scheme change: No

The Buccaneers are another team that didn’t just add a new defensive coordinator but also added a new head coach.  Greg Schiano is the teams new head coach, and Bill Sheridan the new defensive coordinator, but the defense Sheridan will be running is Schiano’s.
The base scheme will remain a 4-3, but at his first press conference as the Buccaneers defensive coordinator, he said that at times they will play some odd-front alignments.  I point this out so that you don’t freak out if you see the Bucs playing something other than a 4-3 during the preseason.

Another thing to understand is that the linebackers will be expected to be able to play all three positions.  Meaning, don’t get all worked up if you read reports that Mason Foster is seeing snaps at SLB or WLB.  The same goes if you hear that rookie Lavonte David is playing MLB or SLB.  When it is all said and done, the Buccaneers starting LBs should be Foster at MLB, David at WLB, and Quincy Black at SLB.

While Schiano isn’t changing the team’s defensive scheme he has made it known that the culture will change.  With a young team if Schiano and Sheridan can get them to buy in, then the sky is the limit.


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