The NFC West boasts some of the more intriguing defenses, not only from a fantasy perspective, but as actual NFL defenses as well.
San Francisco and Seattle both finished as top-5 defenses in 2012 and figure to be just as stout this year. Arizona has been a big play boom-or-bust defense that thrives on turnovers and special teams play while St. Louis is one of the top up-and-coming young defensive units in the NFL.
Mix that all together and you have one heck of a division for fantasy purposes from an Individual Defensive Player (IDP) perspective. Elite level, top-tier linebacker talent along with some of the most exciting young pass rushing defensive line prospects combined with many of the top cover cornerback talent in the league are all found here, folks.
So come along as we break down the top-5 players at each IDP position as well as look at some names that just missed a top-5 ranking but carry fantasy value of their own.
1. James Laurinaitis, MLB, St. Louis: Pure and simply a tackling machine that has averaged 106 solos and 129 total tackles per season over his four years in the league. As instinctive a middle linebacker as there is in the game today who has also added 8 1/2 sacks with seven interceptions and a forced fumble since entering the league. Top-3 overall linebacker for fantasy purposes and the cream of the crop in the division.
2. Navorro Bowman, ILB, San Francisco: A top-5 overall fantasy linebacker despite playing alongside fellow All-Pro linebacker and fantasy force Patrick Willis. Bowman has amassed 338 total tackles, four sacks, an interception and a forced fumble in 48 career regular season games. Bowman is a three down linebacker with exceptional tackling ability that has posted an impressive 208 solo stops over the past two seasons. Oh yeah, he’s only 24 years old. Dynasty and redraft fantasy gold.
3. Bobby Wagner, MLB, Seattle: Wagner is breathing down the neck of Bowman and Laurinaitis and could very well top this list next season. As a rookie he put up 140 total tackles and was the complete package at the linebacker position. Wagner also racked up four sacks and three interceptions in 2012 and is a solid top-8 fantasy option in 2013 with huge upside. Very possibly could finish in the top-3 in fantasy scoring this year.
4. Patrick Willis, ILB, San Francisco: Willis is the consummate fantasy linebacker option as both an above-average tackle producer as well as big play threat. In his six seasons in the league he has averaged 135 total tackles per season while racking up 17 1/2 sacks, 14 forced fumbles with seven interceptions and two defensive touchdowns. Willis is yet another overall top-10 fantasy option at the linebacker position from the division.
5. Daryl Washington, ILB, Arizona: Washington will miss the first four games of the season while serving a suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. He also has a domestic assault case looming that could lead to further discipline from the league once it’s settled. One of the best young linebackers in football, Washington has put up 318 total tackles, 15 sacks along with four interceptions and three forced fumbles in his first three seasons. His role may change a bit with the loss of Ray Horton as the defensive coordinator for Arizona, causing a dip in big play numbers but he is fantasy goodness when he’s on the field. Washington needs to get his off-the-field issues under control before they derail a promising career.
Honorable mention: San Francisco outside linebacker Aldon Smith is on track to be ready for training camp after shoulder surgery and will continue to post very nice sack totals. He struggled down the stretch in 2012 and will look to continue his improvement in tackle totals. Smith saw his total tackles numbers jump from 37 as a rookie to 65 last season.
Veteran inside linebacker Karlos Dansby had 101 solos and 134 total tackles last year for the Miami Dolphins. He has signed with Arizona and is a must-draft handcuff for Washington owners. Look for Arizona to find a way to keep Dansby on the field if and when Washington returns. Rookie inside linebacker Kevin Minter should eventually work his way into an every down role for the Cardinals and is a solid later round fantasy option as well.
Both Alec Ogletree and Jo-Lonn Dunbar will hold value in St. Louis as the complements to Laurinaitis but it’s unclear exactly where each will be lining up. The Rams are labeling their linebackers as simply left side and right side in place of the more traditional ‘strong side’ and ‘weak side.’ What it equates to for IDP purposes is that in organized team activities and mini camps to-date, Ogletree has been running in what would be considered the strong side position and Dunbar the weak side. Monitor how that situation continues to unfold and both are mid-to-late round IDP fantasy draft selections.
Seattle Seahawks strong side linebacker K.J. Wright could reach triple-digit tackle numbers for the first time in 2013 and can be had in later rounds of the draft at a position of value.