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Defensive Weak Spots - AFC

Preseason Matchup Analysis

By Doug Orth | 6/27/23 |


Sometime between the end of the preseason and the first week of the season, fantasy managers and analysts alike shift gears from not caring one iota about their players' matchups to making it their primary consideration when setting about 70 percent of their lineup. A tough three- or four-game stretch for a player at the beginning or end of the season should not surprise anyone that is paying attention to matchups, yet many are shocked to learn some of their players open the season with three of their first five or six games against likely top 10 pass defenses and/or stud cornerbacks.

Defense may not matter as much as it used to, but it is a mistake to not account for it at all. Doing so suggests a belief that NFL games are like seven-on-seven drills. I realized as early as 2004 that I did not like the idea of my players having to face the Ravens or the Steelers, especially during the fantasy playoffs. Certainly, my approach has evolved significantly from that initial premise, but I think my track record of success speaks for itself (finishing in the black in each of the 20-plus seasons I've played fantasy football) and suggests there is substantial value in putting a fair amount of weight into "the matchup." The key is giving potential matchups the proper amount of weight to a player's evaluation. By itself, a matchup will not transform an every-week RB3 into an RB1 or turn a perennial WR1 into a bench option, but it is helpful for fantasy managers trying to find weekly and even season-long values and avoid potential busts.

That brings us to our focus for the next two weeks. With defenses operating out of sub-packages (nickel, dime, quarter, etc.) almost 70 percent of the time in today's game, it makes sense to use their likely sub-package personnel as the basis for our matchup analysis. Furthermore, it helps to have an understanding of how each veteran defensive player who will be playing in those packages graded out and/or performed last year. With the help of sites like Pro Football Focus and Pro Football Reference, we can do that.

Defense is a team endeavor, so the process is never as easy as spotting a player with a weakness and having an offense exploit that matchup repeatedly. An important part of coaching in any sport is the ability to maximize players' strengths and mask their weaknesses; players either will get help from the scheme or be benched if they continue to struggle. Nevertheless, the goal of any good offense is to isolate the weak link in the passing defense as often as possible or take advantage of what may be a "soft" run defense (assuming that matches up with the run-blocking ability of the offensive line). It is also important to understand that no defender lines up across any offensive player on every play, so we are playing odds here as opposed to dealing with virtual certainties (i.e. shadow cornerbacks usually only "shadow" about 50-60 percent of the time).

The color-coding in this two-part series is based on last year only because we have no information about this season. Last year's color codes help set the stage for this year. Film analysis and advanced analytics help us predict what may happen.

Each team table below will contain more than 11 players. The players in italics are likely rotational players or ones that will be replaced on certain downs for any number of reasons. Most of the players have projected grades next to their ages, but some of them will not because I want the final team projected scores (coverage, pass rush and run defense) to reflect the defenders logging the most snaps. Much as I did for the offensive line at the end of last week's column, next week's column will rank each team in terms of projected coverage, pass rush and run defense scores.

The purpose of this article is simple, even if the execution of it is not: attempting to identify what defenders present fantasy owners with an opportunity for success. There is a heavy amount of subjectivity that goes into my color-coding matchups in advance of the Big Board. It is my hope this process reduces most of that and gives readers a look under the hood, so to speak.


Green box - Player graded 80 or higher in that particular discipline per PFF (100-point scale)
Blue box - Player graded between 70 or 79.9 in that particular discipline
Yellow box - Player graded between 60 or 69.9 in that particular discipline
Red box - Player graded 59.9 or lower in that particular discipline
Black box - Player did not log a snap in the NFL snap or the discipline does not apply to his position

Italic (player name) - Likely (but potentially important) rotational player
Red text - Player is returning from a major injury
# - Rookie
23 Cov - Projected 2023 coverage grade
23 Run - Projected 2023 run defense grade
Grades - Coverage (Cov) and run defense (Run D)

Player Pos Age 23 Cov 23 Run Cov Grade Run D Grade
Tyus Bowser ED 28 6 60.5 51.4
Michael Pierce DI 30 7 76.5 74.3
Justin Madubuike DI 25 6 54.5 64.5
Odafe Oweh ED 24 41.8 53.9
Broderick Washington Jr. DI 26 6 69.8 63.1
David Ojabo ED 23 60.0 63.7
Roquan Smith LB 26 7 7 62.8 78.0
Patrick Queen LB 23 7 6 65.5 64.6
Marlon Humphrey CB 26 8 6 75.6 64.0
Rock Ya-Sin CB 27 6 5 65.8 59.3
Brandon Stephens CB 25 5 6 50.2 65.3
Marcus Williams S 26 8 7 72.0 72.8
Kyle Hamilton S 22 8 8 83.0 87.7

DC: Mike Macdonald (second year)

Prominent second- and third-level players to avoid in the passing game: RCB Marlon Humphrey (will shadow on occasion, even in the slot), S Marcus Williams, S Kyle Hamilton

Prominent second- and third-level players to target in the passing game: LCB Rock Ya-Sin, SCB Brandon Stephens

Summary: The Ravens have long possessed a stout run defense, and there is little reason to believe that will change in 2023. Venerable run-stuffer Pierce missed most of last season and Baltimore did not miss a beat, finishing as one of three teams to hold opponents below 4.0 yards per carry. Travis Jones may end up being better than Pierce at some point but may not crack the top three interior defensive linemen this season, so Baltimore is set where it matters up front. Smith and Queen figure to benefit from having those enormous men in front of them.

Ojabo is in his first full year back from an Achilles tear and could push Oweh for a starting job if he regains the pre-injury form he showed at Michigan. Like Ojabo, Oweh could be a future pass-rushing stud. All of this matters because the Ravens have built a very talented secondary (specifically Humphrey, Williams and Hamilton) that will probably continue to look very good if Ojabo and Oweh take the next step. The concerns here are Ya-Sin and Stephens. Ya-Sin was reportedly considering retirement before signing a one-year deal with Baltimore this spring. Stephens finished last season strong, but he has not graded out particularly well through two NFL seasons. With Humphrey in his prime and the safeties playing at a high level, opponents figure to test Ya-Sin and Stephens early and often in 2023.

Player Pos Age 23 Cov 23 Run Cov Grade Run D Grade
Von Miller ED 34 7   78.8
DaQuan Jones DI 31 6   66.2
Ed Oliver DI 25 6   65.0
Gregory Rousseau ED 23 6   64.6
Poona Ford DI 27   52.9
Leonard Floyd ED 30   58.3
Matt Milano LB 28 7 6 83.2 59.3
Terrel Bernard LB 24 5 7 53.2 75.5
Tre'Davious White CB 28 7 5 56.7 67.1
Kaiir Elam CB 22 7 5 66.0 51.7
Taron Johnson CB 26 7 4 73.2 51.4
Micah Hyde S 32 7 5 69.1 52.5
Jordan Poyer S 32 7 7 62.7 70.0

DC: HC Sean McDermott (first year)

Prominent second- and third-level players to avoid in the passing game: RCB Tre'Davious White (will shadow on occasion), LB Matt Milano, S Micah Hyde, S Jordan Poyer

Prominent second- and third-level players to target in the passing game: LB Terrel Bernard

Summary: DC Leslie Frazier is taking a year off from coaching, so McDermott is expected to return to a familiar role, as he ran defenses in Philadelphia (2009-10) and Carolina (2011-16) for several years before taking the Bills' head coaching job in 2017. As has typically been the case since the emergence of Josh Allen, run defense is taking a bit of a backseat - although the addition of Ford should help that part of the defense. If we exclude the return of Miller (ACL), the only notable addition up front is Floyd, who was added as insurance for Miller and rotate with Miller and Rousseau if all of them stay healthy.

Third-round draft choice LB Dorian Williams is expected to upgrade the quality of coverage from the linebacker unit, which already boasts a good coverage linebacker in Milano. Buffalo's secondary took a step back in 2022, although it was to be expected with White slow to recover from his ACL surgery and Elam absorbing the bumps rookies are expected to take. What was not expected was Hyde missing all but two games and Poyer failing to play a handful himself. Age (32) is starting to become a concern for both safeties. The return of Damar Hamlin from his scary cardiac issue and the addition of Taylor Rapp gives Buffalo great depth at the position, however. It could also allow the Bills to use more "big nickel."

Player Pos Age 23 Cov 23 Run Cov Grade Run D Grade
Trey Hendrickson ED 28 6   58.8
D.J. Reader DI 28 8   70.8
B.J. Hill DI 28 6   65.2
Sam Hubbard ED 27 7   74.0
Myles Murphy# ED 21
Germaine Pratt LB 27 7 6 87.2 64.3
Logan Wilson LB 26 7 6 74.0 70.6
Chidobe Awuzie CB 28 8 5 73.1 48.7
Cam Taylor-Britt CB 23 7 5 69.2 46.7
Mike Hilton CB 29 6 7 64.3 76.2
DJ Turner# CB 22
Daxton Hill S 22 6 6 56.6 71.4
Nick Scott S 28 5 6 43.4 77.0

DC: Lou Anarumo (fifth year)

Prominent second- and third-level players to avoid in the passing game: RCB Chidobe Awuzie (will shadow on occasion), LCB Cam Taylor-Britt, LBs Germaine Pratt and Logan Wilson

Prominent second- and third-level players to target in the passing game: S Nick Scott, S Dax Hill

Summary: Reader may be the most important player on the Bengals' defense. How important? Cincinnati gave up at least 155 rushing totals three times in the six games he missed in 2022. (The Bengals held seven of their other 13 opponents - including playoffs - to 76 yards rushing or fewer.) Cincinnati lacks a proven pass-rush threat opposite Hendrickson at the moment, but first-round pick Murphy has a chance to change that. So does highly athletic third-year pro Joseph Ossai.

By virtue of how well Awuzie has played for the Bengals when he is healthy (played only eight games in 2022 before tearing his ACL), every other player in the secondary is going to get targeted more than they probably should. Taylor-Britt performed admirably during the playoffs and may already be better than Eli Apple ever was in the orange and black. Hilton is one of the best all-around slot corners in the league and has been for a while, but he is the one weak link among the top three corners if this group has such a thing. While Scott and Hill should prove to be just fine at safety, the drop-off from Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell is a significant one. Luckily for the Bengals, Anarumo is about as good as it gets in scheming up defenses.

Player Pos Age 23 Cov 23 Run Cov Grade Run D Grade
Myles Garrett ED 27 7   68.6
Dalvin Tomlinson DI 29 7   65.0
Jordan Elliott DI 25 4   33.0
Za'Darius Smith ED 30 7   72.5
Ogbonnia Okoronkwo ED 28   61.5
Anthony Walker LB 27 8 6 90.0 56.2
Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah LB 23 7 7 73.4 58.8
Sione Takitaki LB 28 7 64.3 65.0
Denzel Ward CB 26 8 5 60.4 46.6
Greg Newsome II CB 23 7 5 72.3 55.1
Martin Emerson CB 22 7 5 75.1 51.3
Grant Delpit S 24 7 6 62.5 69.3
Juan Thornhill S 27 7 8 75.2 65.4

DC: Jim Schwartz (first year)

Prominent second- and third-level players to avoid in the passing game: LCB Denzel Ward (will shadow on occasion), S Juan Thornhill, LBs Anthony Walker and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah

Prominent second- and third-level players to target in the passing game: LB Sione Takitaki

Summary: This may be Schwartz's first season calling the shots for Cleveland's defense, but 2023 marks his 15th season as a NFL defensive boss. Schwartz is known for favoring a "wide nine" front and should have the personnel to run it effectively with Garrett, Smith and Okoronkwo expected to handle most of the reps at defensive end. Tomlinson is a huge addition to a run defense that lacked an interior force and/or could command a double team last season. The ex-Viking should rectify that. The Browns could not keep their linebackers clean or healthy last year, as Walker, Takitaki and Owusu-Koramoah combined to play 26 games. Walker and Owusu-Koramoah, in particular, should be among the better cover 'backers in the game.

The Browns are on the verge of having a very good secondary. Ward is probably a top-15 corner in the league at worst, and the only reason he is not a top-10 lock is that he has struggled to stay healthy. Newsome is a very solid corner with room to grow entering his third professional season, while Emerson showed enough as a third-round rookie last year for Cleveland to trust him opposite Ward and use Newsome inside. Delpit showed well in his first full season in 2022, while Thornhill should represent a considerable upgrade - in his second year removed from ACL surgery - over John Johnson III.

Player Pos Age 23 Cov 23 Run Cov Grade Run D Grade
Randy Gregory ED 30 6   64.5
Zach Allen DI 25 7   67.4
D.J. Jones DI 28 5   57.4
Frank Clark ED 30 6   59.2
Mike Purcell DI 32   69.9
Alex Singleton LB 29 6 8 73.0 82.6
Josey Jewell LB 28 6 6 62.2 79.6
Drew Sanders# LB 21
Patrick Surtain II CB 23 8 8 86.7 76.9
Damarri Mathis CB 24 7 6 65.3 61.9
K'Waun Williams CB 31 6 7 66.5 69.9
Kareem Jackson S 35 6 6 60.9 71.3
Justin Simmons S 29 8 7 74.3 61.1

DC: Vance Joseph (first year)

Prominent second- and third-level players to avoid in the passing game: RCB Patrick Surtain II (will shadow on occasion), S Justin Simmons, LB Alex Singleton

Prominent second- and third-level players to target in the passing game: LCB Damarri Mathis, SCB K'Waun Williams, LB Josey Jewell

Summary: With Joseph serving as his play-caller over that same time in Arizona, the Broncos know what they are getting in Allen. He may not be a game-changer yet, but he may be on the verge of becoming one after playing alongside J.J. Watt over the last two seasons. Along with Purcell and Jones, Denver should be able to stop the run most weeks. After trading away the likes of Von Miller and Bradley Chubb in recent seasons, the Broncos will turn to 30-year-olds in Clark and Gregory to serve as their top pass-rush threats. A wild-card is third-round rookie Sanders, who showed an incredible proclivity to hunt the quarterback as an inside linebacker at Arkansas. That skill will be utilized heavily under Joseph.

The Broncos should be the essence of what fantasy managers are looking for in a fantasy defense in 2023. Joseph has blitzed well over 30 percent of the time in each of his last five seasons and it could be argued he never had a cornerback as good as Surtain. Mathis still has plenty of time to develop as he enters his second pro season, but he and Williams will be targeted almost regardless of how well they play in 2023 because Surtain has emerged as arguably the league's premier cover corner. Joseph's blitz-happy attack should also benefit Simmons, whose play has leveled off in recent years as the defense around him has lost some of its top players and the overall aggressiveness of the defense fell off.

Player Pos Age 23 Cov 23 Run Cov Grade Run D Grade
Will Anderson# ED 21 5
Maliek Collins DI 28 6   54.1
Sheldon Rankins DI 29 6   67.5
Jonathan Greenard ED 26 6   76.6
Jerry Hughes ED 34   59.7
Christian Harris LB 22 5 5 29.6 29.1
Denzel Perryman LB 30 6 7 61.4 80.5
Cory Littleton LB 29 6 6 67.8 70.0
Derek Stingley Jr. CB 22 7 5 49.9 43.4
Steven Nelson CB 30 7 6 72.0 39.2
Desmond King II CB 28 6 7 71.8 69.8
Jalen Pitre S 24 7 5 65.8 38.5
Jimmie Ward S 31 7 8 76.9 91.4

DC: Matt Burke (first year)

Prominent second- and third-level players to avoid in the passing game: S Jalen Pitre, S Jimmie Ward

Prominent second- and third-level players to target in the passing game: SCB Desmond King II

Summary: While the Texans did yeoman's work adding talent to their roster this spring, perhaps no new face will mean more to Houston's season than new HC DeMeco Ryans. The first-time head coach has seemingly maximized the talent of every unit he has coached since joining the 49ers as a defensive quality control coach in 2017 following a long NFL playing career. Although not exactly known as a premier run-stopper, Rankins is a huge upgrade inside. He joins Collins at defensive tackle and should give Houston some credibility in the interior of its defense. Perryman and Harris stand to benefit the most from that tag team up front. Do not be surprised if Ryans' presence leads to Harris taking a huge step forward following an injury-plagued rookie campaign as well.

Only time will tell if Houston made a good call in buying into Stingley's freshman tape at LSU, but he is another player that seems poised to excel under Ryans. Avoiding injuries would be a good start to that end. If he can stay on the field, he will be a matchup to avoid soon enough. The bold move to move up and draft Anderson may be as important to Stingley's development as anything, as it will be critical for Anderson to emerge as the Texans' version of Nick Bosa in this San Francisco-inspired defense. King had a good year under former HC Lovie Smith, but his recent track record suggests he will be an easy target for quarterbacks. Fortunately, Ward can replace him in the slot if necessary. If King can put together another solid season, then Ward and Pitre should be able to erase - or at least limit - the mistakes of the aforementioned cornerbacks. The Texans also added Shaquill Griffin, giving them yet another veteran corner capable of starting.

Player Pos Age 23 Cov 23 Run Cov Grade Run D Grade
Kwity Paye ED 24 6   76.6
DeForest Buckner DI 29 7   71.4
Grover Stewart DI 29 7   68.9
Samson Ebukam ED 28 6   57.4
Shaquille Leonard LB 27 6 7 35.9 59.9
Zaire Franklin LB 26 6 6 50.2 65.0
E.J. Speed LB 28 5 6 62.7 82.8
Isaiah Rodgers CB 25 7 6 81.5 75.5
Julius Brents# CB 23 5 5
Kenny Moore II CB 27 5 7 46.3 80.5
Darius Rush# CB 23
Julian Blackmon S 24 6 7 57.4 77.0
Rodney Thomas II S 25 6 6 54.8 55.4

DC: Gus Bradley (second year)

Prominent second- and third-level players to avoid in the passing game: RCB Isaiah Rodgers (assuming he plays at all this season), LB Shaquille Leonard

Prominent second- and third-level players to target in the passing game: LCB Julius Brents, S Julian Blackmon, S Rodney Thomas II

Summary: Buckner and Leonard are about the only proven playmakers that remain from a defense that one year ago appeared to be much closer to one of the league's best than where it is today. Just getting Leonard (back) completely healthy again would be a nice development after he was limited to three games one season ago. Stewart and Paye are plus-run defenders as well for a team that finished in a tie for fourth in run defense (4.1 YPC).

The Colts likely felt as if they needed to trade the 32-year-old Stephon Gilmore while he could fetch a draft pick (2023 fifth-rounder), but the deal that sent him to Dallas leaves Indy with virtually nothing on the back end. The one player that did show something in 2022 was Rodgers, who is likely now facing an indefinite ban from the NFL for "pervasive" betting on the NFL. Moore has long been a solid slot corner for the Colts, but one must wonder if he is a fit in Bradley's defense after enduring easily his worst season as a pro last year. Brents should be a fine corner one day, but he is nowhere close to being ready to be a NFL team's top corner. As such, Indy's defense should be expected to struggle mightily against the pass in 2023.

Player Pos Age 23 Cov 23 Run Cov Grade Run D Grade
Josh Allen ED 25 7   83.0
Roy Robertson-Harris DI 29 6   63.5
Davon Hamilton DI 26 6   67.5
Travon Walker ED 22 6   59.6
Folorunso Fatukasi DI 28   39.0
Foyesade Oluokun LB 27 6 6 66.3 69.8
Devin Lloyd LB 24 5 7 32.4 69.0
Tyson Campbell CB 23 7 7 80.7 71.7
Darious Williams CB 30 6 6 64.6 56.1
Tre Herndon CB 27 5 5 57.2 40.2
Rayshawn Jenkins S 29 5 6 45.8 62.4
Andre Cisco S 23 7 6 69.4 61.4

DC: Mike Caldwell (second year)

Prominent second- and third-level players to avoid in the passing game: RCB Tyson Campbell, S Andre Cisco, LB Foyesade Oluokun

Prominent second- and third-level players to target in the passing game: SCB Tre Herndon, S Rayshawn Jenkins, LB Devin Lloyd

Summary: One look at the individual run defense grades for Jacksonville is a reminder that Pro Football Focus' player grades do not always reflect reality. The Jaguars finished last season in a tie for seventh in run defense (4.2 YPC allowed) despite having only one front-seven player (Allen) truly standing out as a run defender. Jacksonville's front four remains mostly intact and is anchored by 335-pound Hamilton. Fatukasi is coming off a down year in his first season with the Jaguars, but he built a strong reputation as a quality run defender in his previous three years with the Jets. Assuming Hamilton and Fatukasi meet expectations, they should allow Oluokun and Lloyd to flow quickly and keep Jacksonville among the top half of run defenses in the league.

As long as Walker, last year's No. 1 pick, takes the next step in his development, he and Allen should make the secondary look good more often than not. Not that Campbell needs much help; he has quickly emerged as the team's top corner and essentially made Shaquill Griffin expendable. Williams may not reach the heights he once enjoyed with the Rams and will probably always struggle against bigger receivers at 5-9 and 187 pounds, but he should not have to look over his shoulder anytime soon either. The Jaguars' biggest liability in the secondary right now figures to be projected slot corner Herndon. It is likely a problem the team cannot fix this season or cover up with safety play. Neither Jenkins nor Cisco has established themselves as ball hawks yet.

 Kansas City
Player Pos Age 23 Cov 23 Run Cov Grade Run D Grade
George Karlaftis ED 22 6   41.2
Chris Jones DI 28 7   80.7
Derrick Nnadi DI 27 5   37.0
Charles Omenihu ED 25 5   51.5
Felix Anudike-Uzomah# ED 21  
Willie Gay Jr. LB 25 7 6 74.1 54.5
Nick Bolton LB 23 7 8 73.8 81.4
Trent McDuffie CB 22 8 6 75.1 61.7
L'Jarius Sneed CB 26 7 7 75.7 70.9
Jaylen Watson CB 24 6 5 59.9 58.6
Justin Reid S 26 7 6 70.7 64.3
Bryan Cook S 23 6 7 57.6 69.7

DC: Steve Spagnuolo (fifth year)

Prominent second- and third-level players to avoid in the passing game: LCB L'Jarius Sneed, RCB/SCB Trent McDuffie, S Justin Reid, LBs Willie Gay and Nick Bolton

Prominent second- and third-level players to target in the passing game: RCB Jaylen Watson, S Bryan Cook

Summary: It would be unfair to suggest that the Chiefs do not care about stopping the run. It would be more accurate to say they do not have to care about it. As the run defense grades above suggest, Jones and Bolton are about the only two players from this defense that consistently get it done on early downs. Perhaps adding a massive human being like 332-pound sixth-round draft pick DT Keondre Coburn changes things a bit for Kansas City, but this defense remains one that can be run so long as the opponent's defense can keep Patrick Mahomes & Co. out of the end zone for any length of time.

Losing Frank Clark will hurt the pass rush, but the team should be able to replace what he leaves behind - either because Karlaftis took the next step in this development or first-round draft pick Anudike-Uzomah ends up being a quick study. The biggest revelation for the Chiefs during their Super Bowl push last year may have been the play of their pass defense, specifically from their young secondary. A trio of 2022 draft picks - first-rounder McDuffie, second-rounder Cook and seventh-rounder Watson - took turns making plays and are all expected to start in 2023. While the numbers will likely not reinforce it at season's end, Kansas City should have a solid pass defense - albeit one that will likely be fantasy-friendly for backs, receivers and tight ends because they should see more pass attempts than most defenses.

 Las Vegas
Player Pos Age 23 Cov 23 Run Cov Grade Run D Grade
Maxx Crosby ED 25 8   82.5
Bilal Nichols DI 26 5   48.9
Jerry Tillery DI 26   44.2
Tyree Wilson# ED 23 5
Chandler Jones ED 33 6   65.5
Divine Deablo LB 24 5 7 50.7 71.1
Robert Spillane LB 27 4 6 39.5 77.3
Nate Hobbs CB 24 6 7 57.1 75.1
Duke Shelley CB 26 5 5 86.4 53.4
David Long Jr. CB 25 6 5 54.2 46.2
Trevon Moehrig S 24 6 6 49.0 64.6
Marcus Epps S 27 5 7 47.5 81.0

DC: Patrick Graham (second year)

Prominent second- and third-level players to avoid in the passing game: N/A

Prominent second- and third-level players to target in the passing game: All of them except for maybe likely SCB Nate Hobbs and S Trevon Moehrig

Summary: The Raiders are one stout defensive tackle away from having an upper-tier defensive line. Tillery and Nichols are fine rotational pieces, but they are not the kind of massive space-eaters defenses usually need to attract double teams. Jones has been too good for far too long to believe he lost it in 2022. With that said, he turned 33 this winter and may need to be considered more of a sub-package player at this point. Las Vegas may have that luxury after selecting Wilson at No. 7 overall this spring, as it should only be a matter of time before he and Crosby are terrorizing defenses against the run and the pass. It may be too much to ask for that to happen this year, however. In case it was not already obvious, Crosby is a stud.

Neither of the Raiders' projected primary linebackers in their nickel package graded out well in 2022, but Deablo is a highly athletic former college safety who should be a solid coverage player before long. Las Vegas needs him to be that because Hobbs is the only defensive back expected to see a lot of playing time that has enjoyed any recent prolonged success in coverage. He played exceptionally well as a rookie out of the slot in 2021 but struggled a bit more in 2022. Shelley enjoyed his finest year as a pro playing half of last season with the Vikings but has never logged more than 470 snaps in four NFL seasons. Long's last good season came with the Rams in 2019. Shelley and Long are projected to be the Raiders' primary perimeter corners, so it would be in Graham's best interest to find out if Hobbs can hold things down in the slot in hopes that the team only has to protect Shelley and Long.

 LA Chargers
Player Pos Age 23 Cov 23 Run Cov Grade Run D Grade
Joey Bosa ED 27 7   74.2
Morgan Fox DI 28 5   50.9
Sebastian Joseph-Day DI 28 5   48.2
Khalil Mack ED 32 6   61.7
Kenneth Murray LB 24 6 5 68.9 28.2
Eric Kendricks LB 31 6 6 45.0 79.5
Tuli Tuipulotu# ED 20
J.C. Jackson CB 27 7 6 28.1 53.4
Asante Samuel Jr. CB 23 7 5 76.1 49.2
Michael Davis CB 28 7 6 74.7 61.8
Ja'Sir Taylor CB 24 6 5 61.5 52.7
Alohi Gilman S 25 6 6 57.2 60.1
Derwin James S 26 8 8 74.5 75.3

DC: Derrick Ansley (first year)

Prominent second- and third-level players to avoid in the passing game: CB Asante Samuel Jr., (plays both left and right side almost equally), S Derwin James

Prominent second- and third-level players to target in the passing game: SCB Ja'Sir Taylor, S Alohi Gilman and LB Eric Kendricks

Summary: The hope is that Ansley reaches this talented defense in a way previous DC Renaldo Hill could not. While HC Brandon Staley's philosophy lends itself to a defense giving up a bit more in the run game, it is hard to understand how a defense with Mack, Bosa, Murray and James is capable of allowing a league-worst 5.4 YPC. That kind of incompetence undermines the talent the Chargers possess in their secondary. Los Angeles added Kendricks to bolster a solid linebacking corps, but it will be up Joseph-Day to be the interior force he was with Staley during their time together with the Rams if this unit has any hope of becoming even an average run-stopping defense.

Losing Jackson (ruptured patellar tendon) so early in the season contributed to the disappointing overall performance of this defense, although he played poorly in the short time he was healthy. While there is no guarantee he returns to his previous form in 2023, he appears on track to play in the opener. In the unlikely event he can be fully healthy by October, the Chargers may finally have the ability to pair him with rising star Samuel. The team undoubtedly suffered a blow when Nasir Adderley announced his retirement this spring, but James' presence is exponentially more important. James is a force against the run and pass and probably only needs the front seven to play up to its talent level to be recognized more consistently for being the impact player he is.

Player Pos Age 23 Cov 23 Run Cov Grade Run D Grade
Bradley Chubb ED 27 6   69.3
Christian Wilkins DI 27 8   78.9
Zach Sieler DI 27 7   77.9
Jaelan Phillips ED 24 6   74.8
Raekwon Davis DI 25   37.3
Jerome Baker LB 26 7 5 67.8 69.6
David Long LB 26 6 7 62.9 89.0
Xavien Howard CB 29 7 7 56.0 84.2
Jalen Ramsey CB 28 8 8 77.8 91.8
Kader Kohou CB 24 7 5 68.6 65.1
Brandon Jones S 25 5 6 52.4 73.3
Jevon Holland S 23 8 6 65.7 67.6

DC: Vic Fangio (first year)

Prominent second- and third-level players to avoid in the passing game: LCB Xavien Howard, RCB Jalen Ramsey, S Jevon Holland, LB Jerome Baker

Prominent second- and third-level players to target in the passing game: S Brandon Jones

Summary: As a coach who has been in the NFL in some fashion for all but one year since 1986 - most of which he has served as a defensive coordinator - Fangio has seen about everything a coach can see. Fangio's defenses do not blitz so much as they force offenses to be patient drive after drive. He may have just the kind of personnel he needs with this edition of the Dolphins, however. Most of his front seven graded out exceptionally well against the run in 2022. Fangio's defenses tend to give a little more ground to rushing attacks, but that may not be much of an issue for Miami this year given how explosive the offense should be. Positive game scripts play right into the hands of Fangio's philosophy and this team in particular because the Dolphins' secondary should be among the best in the league. Chubb and Phillips should just now reaching their prime, further complicating matters for opposing quarterbacks.

Assuming both players stay healthy in 2023, Howard and Ramsey should rank among the league's best cornerback duos - if not the best. If both players are at their best, slot corner Kohou could be among the most targeted cornerbacks in the league. Jones and Holland round out what could (and probably should) be one of the stingiest secondaries in the NFL. When offenses are not targeting Kohou, they will likely be trying their luck against LBs Baker and/or Long. Both players are more than capable in coverage, but it should come as little surprise if Miami ends up being a favorable fantasy matchup for running backs and tight ends. A check-down to a running back or chain-moving tight end will be a much more appealing option than testing Howard or Ramsey for most teams.

 New England
Player Pos Age 23 Cov 23 Run Cov Grade Run D Grade
Matthew Judon ED 30 6   67.0
Davon Godchaux DI 28 6   52.9
Christian Barmore DI 23 5   46.9
Deatrich Wise Jr. ED 28 6   59.7
Keion White# ED 24  
Ja'Whaun Bentley LB 26 6 7 72.6 83.8
Jahlani Tavai LB 26 6 7 73.3 69.2
Marte Mapu# LB 23
Christian Gonzalez# CB 20
Jonathan Jones CB 29 7 7 67.9 70.0
Marcus Jones CB 24 7 6 66.8 65.6
Adrian Phillips S 31 7 7 71.6 70.6
Kyle Dugger S 27 8 7 78.3 76.7

DC: Steve Belichick and Jerod Mayo (fourth year)

Prominent second- and third-level players to avoid in the passing game: S Kyle Dugger, LBs Ja'Whaun Bentley and Jahlani Tavai

Prominent second- and third-level players to target in the passing game: N/A

Summary: Judon is about the only player most casual fans will be somewhat familiar with from the Patriots' front seven, but the group tends to hold up well against the run as most Bill Belichick defenses do - despite what the grades above suggest. It should also only be a matter of time before Barmore takes the next step in his development and begins to command double teams. While it is obviously far too early to compare the two players, second-round draft pick White could end up being one of the better five-technique fits to play for Belichick since Richard Seymour. Only time will tell if he comes anywhere close to that level of play.

Bentley has essentially taken over the mantle of on-field leadership that once belonged to Dont'a Hightower and is equally adept at stopping the run and the pass. The wild-card this year is third-round rookie Mapu, who was a 216-pound safety at Sacramento State but could end up seeing the same kind of linebacker/safety usage as Dugger. First-round pick CB Gonzalez was arguably the draft's top cornerback prospect and should emerge as the team's top cover man no later than the end of this season. It should come as no surprise if his rookie season rivals that of Trevon Diggs or Sauce Gardner. Jonathan and Marcus Jones held up exceptionally well given the relatively dire situation they were thrown into last season. Assuming Gonzalez quickly lives up to his reputation, New England should be one of the tougher teams to throw against at some point in 2023.

 N.Y. Jets
Player Pos Age 23 Cov 23 Run Cov Grade Run D Grade
Carl Lawson ED 27 5   48.8
Quinnen Williams DI 25 8   77.7
Quinton Jefferson DI 25 4   39.0
John Franklin ED 26 7   76.8
Will McDonald IV# ED 24
C.J. Mosley LB 31 7 7 65.9 73.8
Quincy Williams LB 26 5 5 50.0 60.8
Sauce Gardner CB 22 9 7 90.0 69.2
D.J. Reed Jr. CB 26 8 7 77.5 47.2
Michael Carter II CB 24 7 7 72.2 78.4
Jordan Whitehead S 26 7 6 70.6 59.4
Adrian Amos S 30 6 7 45.6 69.7

DC: Jeff Ulbrich (third year)

Prominent second- and third-level players to avoid in the passing game: LCB Sauce Gardner, RCB D.J. Reed

Prominent second- and third-level players to target in the passing game: S Adrian Amos, LB Quincy Williams

Summary: The most important player in the front seven for New York is Quinnen Williams, who broke out in a big way in his fourth season in 2022. His presence is as critical to the front four as anyone's because he allows the Jets to collapse the pocket consistently despite blitzing a league-low 14.9 percent of the time. Perhaps even more impressively with that low blitz rate, no team knocked down the quarterback more often than New York did last year (13.7 percent). Franklin-Myers does not get near the recognition he deserves, but he has also transformed himself into a vital cog of the run and pass defense. First-round draft choice DE McDonald may not be an immediate impact player, but his freakish ability to bend around the edge (not unlike Dwight Freeney) is going to cause offensive tackles fits. If there is another player up front that rivals Williams' importance, it is probably Mosley. Despite turning 31 in June, he appears to be recapturing the form that made him such an attractive free agent for the Jets in 2019.

Perhaps no other cornerback duo was as stingy as Gardner and Reed one season ago. With the pass rush that has only enhanced the level of talent it has, the Jets should easily be one of the five stingiest pass defenses again in 2023. Carter should remain locked into slot duties. Although he might be the player opponents pick on the most, it does not mean he is an easy target. Whitehead was a good addition last offseason and should be free to do even more next season after adding Amos. The latter spot was supposed to be filled by Chuck Clark, but he tore his ACL during a June practice and is out for the year. Amos is not quite as good in coverage as a healthy Clark, but he has been a plus-defender in the run game for most of his eight-year pro career.

Player Pos Age 23 Cov 23 Run Cov Grade Run D Grade
T.J. Watt ED 28 8   77.1
Cameron Heyward DI 34 8   78.2
Larry Ogunjobi DI 29 7   62.8
Alex Highsmith ED 25 7   73.3
Keeanu Benton# DI 21  
Elandon Roberts LB 29 5 5 46.2 61.4
Cole Holcomb LB 26 7 7 67.0 69.4
Patrick Peterson CB 32 6 5 79.7 63.9
Joey Porter Jr.# CB 22 5 5
Levi Wallace CB 28 6 6 59.3 76.3
Damontae Kazee S 30 7 7 78.6 79.6
Minkah Fitzpatrick S 26 8 8 83.3 82.2
Keanu Neal S 27 63.1 52.5

DC: Teryl Austin (second year)

Prominent second- and third-level players to avoid in the passing game: S Minkah Fitzpatrick, S Damontae Kazee, LB Cole Holcomb

Prominent second- and third-level players to target in the passing game: LCB Patrick Peterson, RCB Joey Porter Jr., LB Elandon Roberts

Summary: The addition of second-round draft choice Benton should be just what the doctor ordered in terms of getting the Steelers back to their usual run-stuffing ways, mostly because it means the team will not have to rely so heavily on Montravius Adams and Breiden Fehoko in the middle. Heyward remains a standout, while Pittsburgh liked what it saw from Ogunjobi so much in 2022 that it handed him a three-year contract worth $28.75 million this offseason. Watt and Highsmith also graded out exceptionally well versus the run last season, likely leaving it up to free-agent signing Holcomb to repeat what he did a year ago for the Commanders. He should at least be an upgrade over Robert Spillane in coverage. There is also a chance that Neal plays a relatively big role in the front seven on likely running downs.

The pass rush that Watt and Highsmith provide will be critical to this year's defense because of the unusual situation the Steelers have at cornerback. Peterson has put together an impressive NFL resume over the years, but he will turn 33 in July. Porter is an imposing (6-3) likely future stud with great bloodlines, but it is hard to expect any rookie to become his team's top corner in his first year. Fortunately for the Steelers, Fitzpatrick can erase mistakes on the back end. Pittsburgh does possess decent cornerback depth, however, in veterans James Pierre and Wallace.

Player Pos Age 23 Cov 23 Run Cov Grade Run D Grade
Denico Autry ED 32 6   74.3
Jeffery Simmons DI 25 7   73.0
Teair Tart DI 26 6   67.0
Harold Landry III ED 27 6
Arden Key ED 27   75.1
Monty Rice LB 24 5 7 53.6 73.8
Azeez Al-Shaair LB 25 7 7 61.0 82.1
Roger McCreary CB 23 7 7 60.4 73.2
Sean Bunting CB 26 7 6 74.5 64.7
Caleb Farley CB 24 34.7 84.7
Kristian Fulton CB 24 6 6 58.5 88.6
Kevin Byard S 29 8 8 81.0 78.0
Amani Hooker S 25 7 5 71.5 43.8

DC: Shane Bowen (third year)

Prominent second- and third-level players to avoid in the passing game: LCB/SCB Roger McCreary, S Kevin Byard, S Amani Hooker

Prominent second- and third-level players to target in the passing game: LCB Kristian Fulton, LB Monty Rice

Summary: Everything begins and ends up front with Simmons, who may be one of the top five defensive players in the league. Although he is a slightly better pass-rusher than a run defender, he regularly commands double teams. Autry enjoyed the finest season of his nine-year career in 2022, grading better than or almost equal to Simmons across the board. Tart's emergence inside may have been the one thing that pushed this run defense over the top last season as it finished in a tie for first with the 49ers (3.4 YPC). Al-Shaair may not be able to top David Long's 89.0 run defense grade in 2022, but the falloff should be minimal and he could end up being a small upgrade in coverage.

While Tennessee's front seven figures to be about as stout as it was last season, it has questions in the secondary. Both Fulton and McCreary are former second-rounders with a ton of ability. McCreary appears to be well on his way to being a very good corner, but Fulton has struggled to stay on the field. While the Titans were wise to land versatile Murphy-Bunting in free agency, McCreary may not be able to play the slot as much as Tennessee wants if Fulton and 2021 first-round pick Farley keep struggling with injuries. Farley has logged a mere 12 games in two seasons. If healthy, he has No. 1 cornerback ability. The Titans are in great shape at safety with Hooker and Byard, although the former has struggled to stay on the field himself over the last two seasons.

Doug Orth has written for FF Today since 2006 and has appeared as a guest analyst on several national sports radio shows and podcasts, including Sirius XM's Fantasy Drive, FantasyPros and RealTime Fantasy Sports. He is also a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.

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