From previous experience, defenses aren't always a reliable fantasy bet at the beginning of an NFL season. Outside of the Pittsburg Steelers, Baltimore Ravens and the revolving door that is the NFC East, no team has had a top-10 defense each year since the turn of the millennium.
For this reason alone, it isn't too egregious to assume the St. Louis Rams will have a good year defensively in the perennial bottom-feeding division that is the NFC West. (That is, at least not on paper…)
Although the Rams only return four starters (James Laurinaitis, Chris Long, Craig Dahl, Quintin Mikell) — normally the mark of a bad team in the past expecting future failure — the pieces that have been added give the defense a much-needed facelift. These include defensive tackle Michael Brockers, linebackers Jo-Lonn Dunbar, Mario Haggan and Rocky McIntosh, and cornerbacks Cortland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins.
Heck, you can even add head coach Jeff Fisher to that list; in the absence of suspended (and potentially released) defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, Fisher's noted defensive prowess will be necessary for the success of the Rams' D. It will be the same system that helped the Tennessee Titans have the top-ranked defense in 1999, the same year they faced the Rams' record-breaking ‘Greatest Show on Turf’ in the Super Bowl.
Overall, the Rams defensive unit is projected to finish in the bottom half of the league this year, both on the field and in fantasy circles. Some pundits feel the past few seasons are an automatic indicator of the years to come, while others sense more hope, projecting improvement to only the middle-of-the-pack.
As I mentioned above, however, vast improvements all around and a offensively-challenged division tilt the scales in the Rams' favor. With a promising, healthy offense of its own, St. Louis to compete in more games than previous seasons and limit the opposing teams' rushing attacks, forcing them to go to the air late in games against a promising secondary and pass rush combination.
Bottom Line: Maybe this is bias speaking, but you shouldn't be afraid to take a chance on drafting St. Louis' defense in the final rounds of your fantasy draft as a starting D/ST unit (I did in two of my five).
For those of you participating in IDP (individual defensive player) leagues, there are definitely upper-echelon picks to choose from in St. Louis, along with some potential sleeper candidates as well. First, let's take a look at the returning Rams, and not only why they are coming back for this season, but why they are also good fantasy plays.
James Laurinaitis — The former Ohio State standout is now standing out to the rest of the NFL. Laurinaitis is projected as a top-five defensive player this season, most notably for his high tackle total year in and year out. While a lot of this is due to the Rams' inability to stop the run in previous seasons, Laurinaitis will still be highly active in the front seven as he continues to ascend to superstar status. He doesn't get many sacks or interceptions, but most IDP leagues highly reward a player who regularly eclipses 100 tackles.
Bottom Line: Draft him as your first defensive player. Especially if you're a fan of this site; you'll make me very happy.
Chris Long and Robert Quinn — I've lumped Long and Quinn into the same category because, barring injury, they will be one of the best defensive end tandems in the entire NFL for years to come. With the addition of first-round pick Michael Brockers at defensive tackle, opposing offenses won't be able to stop this formidable pass rush for an entire 60 minutes, so look for either Long and/or Quinn to approach double-digit totals for sacks. One's success will surely be a product of offenses giving extra attention to the other.
Bottom Line: While Long has proven his worth in the league early, posting a team and career-high 13 sacks last season, many are still unsure about Quinn. After watching him close out last season with regular playing time and dominate this preseason as a starter, I'm convinced that Quinn is worth the risk. These players are interchangeable and work well as second or third defensive linemen options, with the potential to reach elite status by the end of the season
Quintin Mikell — Mikell has made at least 75 tackles in each of the last 5 seasons, topping 90 on three of the last four occasions.
Bottom Line: Only good for about one interception per year, the safety is still a solid play in IDP leagues, and will probably be available on the waiver wire. Look for defensive backs with more big-play potential first.
TAKE A SECOND LOOK
Because most leagues don't account for pass deflections (as I believe they should, after reading this quality piece by the guys at Pro Football Focus), top defensive backs in the NFL, especially corners, don't usually translate well into great fantasy plays. For this reason alone, Finnegan and Jenkins should be viewed with extreme caution in IDP leagues, although both look to vastly improve a porous Rams' pass defense from last season.
Cortland Finnegan — Finnegan is one of the few cornerbacks in the league that warrants the ‘shutdown’ label. Infamous for his instigation of a fight with Houston Texans receiver Andre Johnson, Finnegan is a frustrating, physical presence on the edge that doesn't mind getting in the face of the opposing team's most-dangerous receiver.
Bottom Line: Finnegan is a good #3 option at defensive back. He's a good source of tackles (at least 70 a year), but solid coverage doesn't give him enough interception attempts.
Janoris Jenkins — Jenkins could be a sneaky good play this fall as he's also dangerous in the return game, much like Arizona's Patrick Peterson of last year. Finnegan's mere presence will cause the rookie to be targeted heavily. This could highlight Jenkins’ not-so-smooth transition to the NFL game, as the preseason showed he struggled in coverage and with wrapping up ballcarriers (also, unfortunately, much like Peterson's first regular season).
Bottom Line: If he steps in front of a couple of picks and shores up his tackling skills, much like Peterson did towards the end of the 2011 season, Jenkins could be worth a flier in deeper leagues, as well as those that reward returning efforts.
The linebacking corps — McIntosh, Dunbar and Haggan still vie for St. Louis’ two outside linebacker positions. While Dunbar seems to be the leader of the pack, neither option has much pass-rush ability.B
Bottom Line: Those looking for decent sack totals to account for marginal tackle totals probably shouldn't look at any of these guys. At best, Dunbar may be a good waiver wire pickup as a bye-week replacement for some tackles, but only time will tell how the season pans out for this group.
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