Football is back! The Hall of Fame game officially kicked off the preseason schedule last week. While Lamar Miller owners sweat a little (don’t worry, he has zero opposition to take his starting role as long as the ankle holds up), the rest of us trumpet the return of the game we love.
The NFC South will be a fun division to watch from an Individual Defensive Player (IDP) standpoint as some premier linebacking talent highlights a division full of interesting prospects. The New Orleans Saints will look to regain their lofty status after a disastrous 2012 campaign and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have revamped their secondary from top to bottom.
The Atlanta Falcons remain the team to beat in the division and will look to hold off the upstart Carolina Panthers along with their other division rivals.
Let’s head down south to figure out just what we can expect to see from an IDP perspective.
1. Luke Kuechly, MLB, Carolina:
It took Kuechly until Week 5 of his rookie season to ascend to the every down middle linebacker position, and once he did it was all over. The Panthers have their middle linebacker of the present and future as Kuechly finished the year with 165 total tackles (103 solo). He also chipped in a sack, two interceptions and eight passes defended. He is the No. 1 overall fantasy linebacker for 2013 and an elite level talent.
2. Lavonte David, WLB, Tampa Bay:
David posted a whopping 112 solo stops as a rookie and is a tackling machine. Down the stretch he also flashed some big play ability. In the season’s final five weeks he posted two sacks and an interception. David will only improve in his second season and could finish among the top 5 scorers in 2013. Another top-tier LB1 prospect for the NFC South.
3. Sean Weatherspoon, WLB, Atlanta
: An ankle injury caused Weatherspoon to miss three games last season and he still managed to post 96 total stops. He’s the anchor of the linebacker corps in Atlanta and a three down weakside linebacker, which spells fantasy goodness. He’s currently nursing a badly dislocated finger but should be good to go for the season opener. Look for triple-digit tackles with two or three sacks and a low-end LB2 or better finish in 2013 for Weatherspoon.
4. Curtis Lofton, MLB, New Orleans:
All Lofton does is post very good tackle numbers year after year. He racked up another 123 total tackles last season on a horrendous Saints defense and has averaged 123 tackles (86 solos) per season over his five years in the league. While there may be a bit of a shift in how Lofton is used in Rob Ryan’s new 3-4 scheme, it won’t take him off the field or seriously impact his tackle numbers. Solid LB2 for IDP owners this season.
5. Mason Foster, MLB, Tampa Bay:
Foster finished second on the Buccaneers in total tackles last season with a total of 106 while adding two sacks and an interception. Not bad numbers by any stretch and made even more impressive by the fact that he played only 74 percent of the defensive snaps. He came off the field in sub-packages, and as long as that continues to be the case, his fantasy value will be capped. For now, Foster is a solid LB3 with the upside to reach top-tier LB1 numbers should he secure that coveted every down role.
Carolina’s Jon Beason and Thomas Davis figure to line up at the weakside linebacker and strongside linebacker positions, respectively. While no longer the fantasy forces they once were, they both still possess the skill sets to produce fantasy relevant numbers in 2013. Staying healthy is the key for both of these players as both have struggled to stay on the field. Beason should put up solid LB4 numbers with the upside to hit LB3 and Davis makes for excellent linebacker depth and has the upside to reach the LB3 plateau as well.
Atlanta strongside linebacker Stephen Nicholas is coming off of a career-high 97 total tackle campaign in which he added an interception and forced fumble. He is an every down player with little competition for snaps at his position and offers solid LB3 value.
On the flipside of Nicholas’ value is Falcons middle linebacker Akeem Dent, who has yet to earn a three down role on the defense and remains waiver wire fodder until he does.
In Rob Ryan’s new hybrid 3-4 scheme that the Saints will employ there are a few interesting linebacker options who could see decent fantasy production outside of the aforementioned Curtis Lofton. Jonathan Vilma has been lining up at the weak inside linebacker position in organized team activities, and while he struggles against the run he is still decent enough in coverage to possibly gain a three down role. He could post decent fantasy totals in an every down role and be drafted very late as a solid LB5 and bye week filler. David Hawthorne spent his first season in New Orleans battling a litany of injuries and was a fantasy non-factor. If he can enter training camp healthy, look for him to push Vilma for that weak inside linebacker spot and hold LB4 value if he earns the position as I like his big play potential better than that of Vilma.
Finally, keep an eye on outside linebackers Martez Wilson (currently out with an elbow injury), Will Smith and Junior Galette as edge pass rushing threats in Ryan’s new scheme who will have the chance to put up nice sack numbers now that Victor Butler has been lost for the season.