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The Schemes They Are-A-Changin’

Collective bargaining agreement negotiations between NFL players and owners are making progress, and indications are that the lockout may finally (and mercifully) be coming to an end soon, and before long with any luck at all teams across the league will be able to get down to the business of preparing for the 2011 campaign. Among the teams needing that preparation the most are the following three squads, who will all be breaking in brand spanking new defensive coordinators and alignments, which can have a huge impact on the fantasy football values of the Individual Defensive Players (IDP) on those teams, turning yesterday’s IDP studs into tomorrow’s IDP scrubs and vice versa.

It’s worth noting that the numbers in parentheses denote each player’s 2010 positional finish in Default IDP Manor Scoring, which awards one point for tackles; half a point for assists; two points for forced fumbles and fumble recoveries; four points for sacks, interceptions and safeties; and one point for passes defensed.

It’s entirely possible that no NFL team is as ill-equipped (at least as it stands today) to be undergoing such an overhaul as the
Cleveland Browns, who are moving from the attacking 3-4 front of former defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to the rather straightforward 4-3 of new defensive coordinator Dick Jauron. The Browns have already jettisoned several players deemed poor fits for the switch, leaving the Browns with innumerable questions up front.

Ahtyba Rubin (DL16) was a surprise Top 20 IDP performer with 80-plus stops in 2010, but he will be hard-pressed to repeat that finish as a 4-3 defensive tackle, although Rubin remains a solid starter in leagues that require defensive tackles. With the Browns wafer-thin at defensive end rookie Jabaal Sheard (NA) will almost certainly see significant playing time right away, making him the best rookie defensive lineman available for redraft IDP leagues and a serviceable DL3.

The picture isn’t any clearer at linebacker, where the best IDP option is likely either D’Qwell Jackson (NA), who has played in only six games the past two years but led the team in tackles in 2007 and 2008 and could present LB3 value as an every-down weak side or middle linebacker (if he can stay on the field), or a player not yet on Cleveland’s roster – such as middle linebacker Barrett Ruud (LB22) or another free agent. However, should Chris Gocong (LB64) win the starting MIKE job as was speculated early, his favorable fantasy position in the middle of an iffy defense would probably be severely hindered by a part-time role, and all in all the IDP cupboard by the shores of Lake Erie is pretty sparsely stocked outside stud safety T.J. Ward (DB7).

Two thousand miles west of Cleveland, the
Denver Broncos are undergoing a similar defensive transformation, switching from the 3-4 to 4-3 under new head coach John Fox and defensive coordinator Dennis Allen, although they are a bit better equipped personnel-wise to do so than the Browns. Elvis Dumervil (NA), who led the NFL in sacks in 2009 as a 3-4 outside linebacker before missing all of last season with a torn pectoral muscle, moves back to defensive end, where he had 12.5 sacks in 2007 and should make for a very effective IDP DL2. Robert Ayers (LB122) will also flip back to defensive end, and while the youngster has yet to come close to living up to the hype surrounding him when he entered the NFL, he still merits consideration as a speculative DL4.

At linebacker, D.J. Williams (LB12) will shift to WILL linebacker after playing inside a season ago, and while the possibility of his being suspended to begin the season and concerns about the position change have caused his IDP stock to slip a bit, he has shown the ability to produce in different schemes and positions in the past (finishing in the Top 12 at his position in three of the past four seasons), and Williams may actually represent a value pick as an LB2 that could easily outperform his draft slot. The lockout has diminished the chances that rookie Nate Irving (NA) will open the season as the Broncos starting middle linebacker, but he should eventually wrestle the job from journeyman Joe Mays (LB133) and is one of the top rookie IDPs available.

Down Texas’ way, the change is in reverse, as the
Houston Texans transition from a 4-3 defense that was 30th in the NFL in 2010 to an attacking 3-4 under new defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. The biggest news to come from the change to this point is easily that Mario Williams (DL36) will become the largest linebacker in NFL history, as the three-time Top 10 fantasy DL makes the move to outside linebacker. Williams might become the next DeMarcus Ware (LB13), but he could also become the next Andre Carter (LB111), who had success at defensive end but flopped miserably at outside linebacker, and given that uncertainty Williams’ IDP value has plummeted from solid DL1 to shaky LB3.

The WILL inside linebacker slot in Phillips’ 3-4 has shown itself to be IDP-friendly in the past, so sliding over from middle linebacker isn’t as big a concern for DeMeco Ryans (LB112) as the Achilles’ injury that limited him to six games last year. Ryans has 100-plus solo upside and is worth a look as a lower-end LB1, but it’s a pick that carries a fair amount of risk. Brian Cushing (LB68) will move inside to the SAM linebacker position, and while that’s a spot that’s generally not very IDP-friendly, the third-year professional will hopefully be able to make enough big plays to salvage serviceable LB3 value in 2011. Houston’s secondary was absolutely horrid a year ago, and his deficiencies in coverage (and that’s putting it mildly) have spelled the end in Houston for strong safety Bernard Pollard (DB19), who had back-to-back 100-plus tackle seasons for the Texans, but his likely successor, rookie Shiloh Keo (NA), may be worth a late flier in the hopes that some of Pollard’s IDP mojo rubs off on him.

(Gary Davenport is co-host of Kellogg’s Komments Tuesdays on Fantasy Sharks Radio. A member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association, he has been featured on a number of fantasy football websites and publications.)

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