Seattle middle linebacker (4-3 Mike)
Contenders: Bobby Wagner (6’0” 241 lbs, rookie) vs. Barrett Ruud (6’2” 241 lbs, 9th year in the league)
Roster Upside: Mid LB2 – low end LB3
Analysis: As Seattle attempts to replace the loss of former middle linebacker David Hawthorne (Saints), the classic high-upside rookie versus the established veteran battle is developing. Wagner was drafted in the second round out of Utah State this year with clear intentions to make him the Mike of the future but Ruud was signed to add experience to the LB corps and provide a potential bridge if needed. It is likely that the Seahawk’s coaching staff wanted the veteran to take hold of the job in camp to allow the rookie to develop further but Ruud’s injuries have prevented him from even getting a foothold. The rookie has the first-team job right now and is solidifying that spot with every rep. Second year man KJ Wright played a handful of games in Hawthorne’s place last year but the Seattle coaching staff has not given any indication that the former Mississippi State Bulldog will be anything other than his current position of full-time strongside linebacker. Keep tabs on Ruud’s health and Wagner’s play in the preseason games. The Seattle Mike job has top 20 upside and is probably the most fantasy-relevant IDP job up for grabs this offseason.
Roster Recommendation: Wagner’s current ADP amongst LBs is LB41 and provides great value for a redraft team looking for a high-upside LB3 provided that he can hang onto the job. Ruud doesn’t appear to be able to stay healthy and if he continues to miss reps, it may be time to cut bait on him. In rookie drafts, Wagner has a second round ADP but is shaping up to be a contender for the most fantasy relevant rookie LB this year outside of Luke Kuechly. Those needing an immediate impact at LB from their rookie drafts may consider Wagner over Mychal Kendricks; favouring short term production over long-term upside.
Atlanta middle linebacker (4-3 Mike)
Contenders: Akeem Dent (6’1” 242 lbs, 2nd year in the league) vs. The field
Roster Upside: low end LB3 – high end LB4, matchup LB
Analysis: Much like Seattle, Atlanta lost their star middle linebacker in free agency to the New Orleans Saints. Again, much like Seattle, Atlanta signed an injury-prone veteran in Lofa Tatupu to attempt to bridge to inexperienced youth in second-year man Akeem Dent. Tatupu was primed to step into the Mike role out of OTAs but suffered a season-ending pectoral injury, leading to his release. Aging veteran Mike Peterson was resigned for depth but he was not in the team’s plans before the Tatupu injury. It is unlikely that Peterson will pose a threat at any Falcons starting position. All that’s standing in Dent’s way are three undrafted free agents (Rico Council, Pat Schiller and Max Gruder). The reason the words “the field” are used in this article is that any injury or poor play from Dent might necessitate Atlanta to sift through one of the handful of free agent middle linebackers still available. EJ Henderson or Gary Brackett might get a look if Dent disappoints. Upside on the Falcons’ middle linebacker is going to be capped as the Falcons’ are expected to run a nickel base some of the time as well as not being expected to be a three down player this year with Sean Weatherspoon and Stephen Nicholas expected to handle 3rd downs. However, any 4-3 middle linebacker (two down or otherwise) has matchup potential against any run heavy team and Stephen Nicholas is hardly a picture of health. It will be interesting to see if the coaching will give Dent a chance in nickel packages in preseason.
Roster Recommendation: Dent might be available in some dynasty leagues as a free agent pickup. Teams with a linebacker weakness and medium depth rosters should be targeting him as a cheap pickup. In redraft leagues, Dent is someone who is not garnering a ton of fanfare but can provide decent LB depth and upside from the later rounds of your draft.
Green Bay strong safety (3-4 SS) and 2nd cornerback (3-4 CB2)
Contenders at SS: Charles Woodson (6’1” 202 lbs, 15th year in the league) vs. MD Jennings (6’0” 187 lbs, 2nd year in the league) vs. Jerron McMillian (5’11” 203 lbs, rookie)
Contenders at CB2: Jarrett Bush (6’0” 200 lbs, 7th year in the league) vs. Sam Shields (5’11” 187 lbs, 3rd year in the league) vs. Casey Hayward (5’11” 192 lbs, rookie)
Roster Upside: Low-end DB1 – mid DB2 at SS, Low-end DB3 – mid DB4 (high-end CB2) at CB2
Analysis: With both Nick Collins and Charlie Peprah out of the equation, the Packers need to find a solution in house for their strong safety position. Currently, Charles Woodson has been taking snaps at SS with rumours that he will take over the strong safety position during base downs and move to slot corner on 3rd down with 2nd year UDFA M.D. Jennings coming in to play SS. This is an important situation to monitor as all four starting Packer DBs were fantasy relevant last year and it is likely that Green Bay will see a large amount of passes thrown at them again this year. It is doubtful that Woodson’s play will cause him to lose the SS job but rather it will be the Packers trust in the CBs that will be counted on to replace him amongst the corner ranks. 7th year UDFA Jarrett Bush will be given first crack at securing that job over last year’s nickelback Sam Shields and second round rookie Casey Hayward. If Bush and Shields show poorly in the preseason, coach Mike McCarthy may want to see the dependable Woodson at cornerback full time opening the door for Jennings or the rookie McMillian for a full time job.
Roster Recommendation: If Woodson hangs onto this job, he may pose even greater value than he already does. Even better, many fantasy providers may keep Woodson eligible for CB, further increasing his value in CB-required leagues. It’s unlikely that Woodson will be pose a great value play however as he is still one of the first CBs off of the board and in the teens amongst all DBs. The winner of the CB2 job instantly gains fantasy relevance as they will likely get picked on a fair amount opposite CB1 Tramon Williams. Jarrett Bush seems to be the frontrunner but in deeper CB required leagues, both Bush and Shields should be rostered. In redraft leagues, Bush/Shields can be obtained at a discount in the later rounds as their ADP is later than CB30.
Detroit Free or Strong Safety (4-3 FS or 4-3 SS)
Contenders: Amari Spievey (5’11” 195 lbs, 3rd year in the league) vs. Erik Coleman (5’10” 207 lbs, 10th year in the league) vs. Sean Jones (6’1” 220 lbs, 9th year in the league)
Roster Upside: Mid DB3 – Mid DB4
Analysis: Injuries are the story here. Last year’s starting strong safety Amari Spievey is attempting to recover from post-concussion issues. Erik Coleman hasn’t been able to shake injuries and inconsistent play since his 2009 campaign with the Falcons. His latest ailment after taking the majority of the first team defensive snaps has opened the door for former Brown and Buccaneer safety Sean Jones to be added to the mix. Spievey is a converted corner back who frankly isn’t the tackler that Jones and Coleman have proven to be. That being said, Jones and Coleman simply do not have the coverage ability that Spievey possesses, although I’m sure the Lions would agree that even he can be lacking at times. Then in camp, news broke of Louis Delmas getting surgery to alleviate soreness in his left knee, opening up an otherwise locked down position of free safety. Currently in camp, Spievey and Coleman are running the first team with Sean Jones and John Wendling running the second team.
Roster Recommendation: Amari Spievey is the safest bet to escape this battle with a job. Louis Delmas will play free safety if he is healthy. If he cannot go for week one, I expect that Spievey will move over to free safety and allow Erik Coleman to play strong safety. Spievey also should have the edge at strong safety should he be able to shake the after-effects of his concussion. Although safer than the other two contenders, Spievey doesn’t come with the upside that Coleman or Jones as he is not the best “in the box” safety. If Delmas stays out, look for Coleman to emerge as a viable fantasy producer if he can stay healthy. His tenure with the Lions should give him the edge in securing a starting spot, even if it is temporary. If starting middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch cannot shake his own knee problems, I expect the safeties to be asked to help out at the point of attack a fair amount which should add to the opportunity.
St Louis weak side linebacker (4-3 WLB)
Contenders: Jo-Lonn Dunbar (6’0” 226 lbs, 5th year in the league) vs. Rocky McIntosh (6’2” 242 lbs, 7th year in the league)
Roster Upside: Mid LB3 – Mid LB4
Analysis: With a new defensive coaching staff and a host of new players on the front seven, St Louis has potential to be a much improved unit despite new DC Gregg Williams being suspended indefinitely. Last year’s WLB ended up being Chris Chamberlain as a product of poor play and injuries. Chamberlain was able to cobble together a fairly consistent stretch of time in the midpoint of the season where he posted LB2-LB3 numbers almost every week in tackle heavy leagues. Dunbar is smaller and less of an athlete than Chamberlain is but he is smart and has the trust of his coaching staff. Dunbar was primarily a special teams player in New Orleans and got thrust into starting responsibilities due to injuries. Rocky McIntosh is a larger LB who was not resigned by the Redskins despite very inexperienced depth at the middle linebacker position. Originally, it was thought that McIntosh was brought in to take the strong-side linebacker position but in camp, recent free agent acquisition Mario Haggan has been running with the first team. Dunbar is currently running the first team as well at weak side linebacker. McIntosh may be battling for both positions as he is taking reps on both sides at camp but the strongside linebacker position isn’t fantasy relevant in St Louis. With upgrades to the defensive line this year, it would be expected that the opposing offensive lines will have more difficulty getting to the second level than they did against last year’s 31st ranked unit against the run. This may lead to less opportunity for the backfield and more for the front seven.
Roster Recommendation: Dunbar is the LB to own here and can be found on the waiver wire in many leagues. The St Louis WLB should continue to be a decent flex play and borderline starter in deeper leagues. Dunbar’s ADP of LB60+ provides good value for those needing to draft a LB4, add some depth or get some bye week help. McIntosh is liable to be the swing LB, backing up all three starters.