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Philadelphia Freedom aka Why The Eagles are a Top 5 Fantasy D/ST

With the echoes of fireworks still ringing in my ears (hey neighbors, July 4 was days ago … enough already), it’s time to ramp up fantasy draft day preparations as The Hall of Fame game is less than a month away. Yes, we are less than a month from actual NFL football being played. That may be stretching things a bit, though, as it is preseason football and the starters will see little-to-no playing time in that first game. It’s still football and we love it!

Heading into fantasy draft season Old Uncle Waldo has decided to show some love to a position that a lot of my Individual Defensive Players (IDP) brethren would like to see abolished. Yes. We are going to take a look at defense/special teams unit that I am particularly high on this year that folks are generally giving little love.

That being said, there will also be a few IDP nuggets thrown in along the way because Old Uncle Waldo loves him some IDP goodness.

Let’s get to it, shall we?

Say hello the the PHILADELPHIA EAGLES defense/special teams.

More to the point, say hello to a Jim Schwartzled Eagles defense.

Trust me, folks, as a long-suffering DETROIT LIONS fan it is not an easy task for me to heap praise on Schwartz but sometimes you just have to call it like it is. Despite being very “meh” as a head coach, the man is an excellent defensive coordinator.

The fact is that Schwartz is not simply a very good NFL defensive coordinator, but that he rolls out defenses that produce nice fantasy defense/special teams numbers as well.

Schwartz was the defensive coordinator for the TENNESSEE TITANS from 2001-08 and in that time produced five Top 12 defense/special teams performances in most standard scoring formats (there is always a bit of deviation in defense/special teams scoring from league to league or site to site) with a pair of Top 6 finishes.

During his stint as head coach of my lowly DETROIT LIONS with Gunther Cunningham as defensive coordinator, Schwartz even managed a pair of Top 10 defense/special teams finishes over five seasons (2009-13).

If that isn’t good enough for you then let’s take a look at Schwartz’s most recent stint as defensive coordinator of the BUFFALO BILLS in 2014.

Employing his favorite aggressive 4-3 scheme with some Wide-9 looks thrown in, Schwartz elevated the Bills defense/special teams to a Top 3 finish for fantasy purposes. They posted better than 50 sacks while forcing 30 turnovers and a pair of safeties.

Defensive linemen love to play under Schwartz as he loves to get his guys after the quarterback with wild abandon. This fact is not lost on the recently resigned defensive lineman (and very, very wealthy) Fletcher Cox. According to SiriusXM NFL Radio, Cox said, “Everybody’s excited” to work with Schwartz. Cox stated, “He’s got a name for himself with the 4-3 defense, getting after the quarterback and that’s what everybody’s excited to do, especially guys on the defensive line.” Considering the fact that defensive end Mario Williams and defensive tackle Marcell Dareus had career highs in sacks under Schwartz that excitement is indeed warranted.

Heading into 2016 the Eagles have a bevy of pass-rushing defensive end options including Connor Barwin, Vinny Curry and Brandon Graham. There is also the great likelihood that Cox will kick outside on passing downs which should allow him to easily reach double digit sacks.

I currently have Cox ranked as a low-end DL1 with Graham bringing high-end DL3 value with upside. Curry and Barwin are ranked in the DL4 range but also bring a ton of upside. Training camp and the preseason will shed a bit more light on the defensive end rotation that Schwartz decides. My rankings will adjust accordingly as things sort themselves out.

The back seven of the Eagles defense are led by a couple of young athletic linebackers and some veterans that Schwartz is being reunited with from his year in Buffalo. Mychal Kendricks and Jordan Hicks will line up alongside veteran Nigel Bradham, making up a better-than-average linebacking corps. Kendricks and Hicks combined for four sacks, two interceptions with a pair of forced fumbles as well as three fumble recoveries last season.

Bradham had his best season playing for Schwartz in 2014 racking up 2½ sacks, an interception and two forced fumbles. These are the big play numbers that drive a productive defense/special teams and fantasy owners need to take note.

I like Hicks as a low-end LB1 with Kendricks bringing solid LB3 potential while we’ll have to wait and see if Bradham can secure a three down role before slating him as anything more than roster depth.

Another benefit of the aggressive style of defense that Schwartz employs is that the pressure on the quarterback lessens the amount of time that cornerbacks and safeties have to cover downfield. It can also lead to hurried throws, which can turn into interceptions and more points for our defense/special teams.

The Eagles secondary isn’t going to scare a lot of teams at face value even with the addition of former Buffalo cornerback Leodis McKelvin. While McKelvin also had one of his best seasons playing for Schwartz, he has struggled to stay on the field consistently.

Since 2002 Schwartz-led defenses have amassed 144 interceptions with the secondary accounting for roughly 72.9 percent of the picks. Getting pressure on the quarterback will be paramount to helping what doesn’t appear to be a particularly stout back end of the defense.

I didn’t really touch on the safeties very much but honestly they don’t necessarily make or break a defense/special teams unit. I do like Malcolm Jenkins as a high-end DB2 and the cornerbacks can mostly be ignored on fantasy draft day in IDP leagues.

Return man extraordinaire Darren Sproles has returned a pair of punts for touchdowns in each of the past two seasons and has returned nine kickoffs/punts for scores over his career. So there are special team points to be had as well for the Eagles.

The departure of former head coach Chip Kelly will also improve this defense as they will spend less time on the field and obviously be a lot fresher when called upon.

Lets’ bring it on home, folks.

The Eagles were a Top 5 fantasy defense/special teams last season in spite of Kelly and his whacky offense hanging them out to dry. For some reason they continue to fly (see what I did there?) under the radar.

A quick check of current rankings at ESPN, Footballguys and Fantasy Pros show their consensus ranks for Philadelphia at 23,15 and 16 respectively. While it is still early for definitive average draft position (ADP) numbers with real drafts months away we can take a look at where the Eagles are being selected in mock drafts. A check of MyFantasyLeague ADP information shows that Philadelphia is currently the 13th defense/special teams off the board with teams such as the New York Jets and Pittsburgh being selected before them.

Surely some owners will make that earlier than needed move to grab Denver, Arizona or Seattle and then things will settle down until the run on defenses starts up again. Sit back and continue to let folks ignore the Eagles and then grab them at a huge position of value late.

Another Top 5 finish or better is on deck for this defense/special teams unit in 2016. You are welcome.

About Wally Spurlin

Wally Spurlin is a Fantasy Football Staff Writer at Fantasy Sharks and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writer Association (FSWA). Spurlin’s work has appeared in print publications, including the FSWA award winning 2014 USA Today Fantasy Football magazine as well as the 2015 edition. Wally is also a weekly co-host on the Fantasy Football Feeding Frenzy pod cast on Fantasy Sharks Radio at Blog Talk Radio.Follow him on Twitter @WaltonSpurlin