Over the next several weeks we'll be releasing our player previews, projections and updated rankings. We kick things off with the Top 25 fantasy defenses for 2009. It's been a long weekend, so let's just dive right into it.
1) Florida - Last preseason we received a question regarding the top keeper defenses for 2009. Picking keepers is hard enough, trying to predict an entire unit one year in advance was one of the toughest questions I've faced. With plenty of fine print, I threw out the young Florida Gators and improving Michigan State Spartans (I think there was a third, but I can't remember). Little did I know the Florida defense would mature before our eyes in 2008. The Gators return all eleven starters from a defense that allowed just 12.9 points per game last year, and this includes all-world LB Brandon Spikes (229 tackles in two seasons), who decided to return for his senior year. With a schedule that includes Charleston Southern, Troy and Florida International, it is safe to say the Gators are our top rated defense in 2009.
Tier: Elite Returning Starters: 11 EOS: 16
2009 Projections (per game): 11.3 pts agst, 158.0 pass yards agst, 89.1 rush yards agst, 2.7 sacks, 2.8 turnovers, 0.5 Def TDs
2) TCU - Our super projection generator actually had the TCU defense slightly ahead of Florida. So we had to step in with a little human intervention. With a few tweaks and keystrokes, TCU slides to the number two spot, setting up a classic duel between man and computer. We'll see who is right at the end of the year, when our computer may start WWIII or just want to play chess. Anyway, MWC Defensive Player of the Year and consensus All-American DE Jerry Hughes returns. Big # 98 registered 15 sacks, 18.5 TFL, 6 forced fumbles and 2 INTs in 2008. Also returning are 2nd-team all-Mountain West CB Rafael Priest and LB Daryl Washington, who will likely contend for all-MWC honors. The schedule gets considerably easier for 2009, which the computers loved. But we still see some games to avoid, like SMU, BYU and a week one bye. The Horned Frogs must also find considerable replacements along the front seven, which proves humans are smarter than computers.
Tier: D1 Returning Starters: 5 EOS: 11
2009 Projections (per game): 13.9 pts agst, 155.7 pass yards agst, 65.0 rush yards agst, 3.6 sacks, 2.3 turnovers, 0.4 Def TDs
3) Alabama - Mammoth DT Terrence Cody is back for color analysts to salivate over during their pre-game shows. While "Mount Cody" will get most of the hype it is LB Rolando McClain (95 tackles and 12 TFLs) that is the key to the Tide's punishing run defense, which should be stout once again. The only question mark is whether or not starting outside linebacker Brandon Fanney (suspension) will be back on the team this fall. Either way the Tide is sure to be a top 10 fantasy defense in 2009. Especially with a week 12 appointment with Chattanooga that is right in the heart of the fantasy playoff run.
Tier: D1 Returning Starters: 9 EOS: 3
2009 Projections (per game): 13.9 pts agst, 172.0 pass yards agst, 65.7 rush yards agst, 2.0 sacks, 2.4 turnovers, 0.3 Def TDs
4) Mississippi - The Rebels tied Florida State for tackles for a loss in 2008 with 112. Even better, nearly the entire defensive front returns for Ole Miss, including DE Greg Hardy who will once again be in contention for All-American accolades. Despite missing four games recovering from preseason foot surgery, Hardy was able to find his way to the quarterback 8.5 times in 2008. The Rebels return plenty of experience at linebacker and in the secondary to suggest a repeat of last year's stellar defensive performance is on the horizon. Nutt’s boys are also one of seven teams to play two Div-1AA teams in 2009. While the Rebs should be embarrassed for putting together such a pathetic schedule, that shouldn't stop you from sticking them in your starting lineup. Last year we were high on the Rebels’ offense, this year it's the defensive unit's turn.
Tier: D1 Returning Starters: 8 EOS: 1
2009 Projections (per game): 16.2 pts agst, 189.7 pass yards agst, 73.1 rush yards agst, 3.5 sacks, 2.0 turnovers, 0.4 Def TDs
5) Virginia Tech - The Hokies have been a top fantasy defense since Frank Beamer and Bud Foster stepped foot in Blacksburg, so this season’s rank is not Earth shattering news. What is stunning is the program's ability to maintain consistency even with heavy losses due to graduation and recruiting classes that look nothing like most top teams. Last year we knocked the Hokies down a few notches due to losing the likes of LB Xavier Adibi, DE Chris Ellis and LB Vince Hall (sorry for going all Phil Steele on you for a moment). But the Hokies proved us wrong and were no worse for the wear. So even with the loss of CB Victor "Macho" Harris (6 INTs and 14 passes defended) and a linebacking two-deep comprised mostly of lads that aren't old enough to hang out at the Hokie House after the game, we are keeping Bud’s boys in the top five.
Tier: D1 Returning Starters: 7 EOS: 34
2009 Projections (per game): 18.0 pts agst, 178.3 pass yards agst, 106.4 rush yards agst, 2.4 sacks, 2.3 turnovers, 0.4 Def TDs
6) South Fla. - Defensive coordinator Joe Tresey moves from Cincinnati to South Florida. During his two-year tenure with the Bearcats, they racked up 64 turnovers and 82 sacks. The year prior he was on Brian Kelly's staff at Central Michigan, where Tresey's defense registered 29 turnovers and 31 sacks in 2006. This is good news for DE George Selvie (25.5 career sacks), who was a shadow of his former self in 2008. It is safe to say Big George will return to form in 2009. He's an elite pass rusher that should register double digit sacks. Add in two Div-1AA foes and you have the makings of a top 10 fantasy defense for 2009.
Tier: D2 Returning Starters: 7 EOS: 12
2009 Projections (per game): 19.0 pts agst, 183.5 pass yards agst, 90.8 rush yards agst, 3.0 sacks, 2.4 turnovers, 0.3 Def TDs
7) California - No team is going to return the following year unscathed (unless said team is Florida) and losing LBs Zack Follett and Anthony Felder is a big blow for Cal. However, the Bears bring in a host of JUCO linebackers that are expected to fill their shoes immediately. They also bring back ends Cameron Jordan (4 sacks, 11 TFLs) and Tyson Alualu (6 sacks, 11 TFLs). Adding to their fantasy resume', the Bears were also one of the top teams in passes defended at over seven per game, and their entire secondary returns. Want another reason to draft Cal? Punter Bryan Anger (43.8 ypp) was one of the best punters in the country last year as a freshman. He'll keep opposing offenses pinned deep for much of 2009.
Tier: D2 Returning Starters: 8 EOS: 37
2009 Projections (per game): 18.2 pts agst, 174.0 pass yards agst, 112.2 rush yards agst, 2.7 sacks, 2.8 turnovers, 0.3 Def TDs
8) Penn St. - How can a defense that loses seven starters still make our top 10? Just take a look at that team’s preseason schedule and it should all be clear. Beaver Stadium is one of the most raucous places in the country to play and home dates with Akron, Syracuse, Temple and Eastern Illinois should cause fantasy owners to salivate. By all accounts LB Sean Lee should be back from ACL surgery and DT Jared Odrick (4.5 sacks and 9.5 TFLs) is a stud. It also looks like All-Big Ten LB Navorro Bowman is going to escape further disciplinary action after admitting to smoking the funky stuff. And even if the offense doesn't move the ball as effectively as it did last year, they still have punter Jeremy Boone (43.0 ypp) to bail them out. However the loss of DE Aaron Maybin (12 sacks and 20 TFLs) is a major concern once the Lions enter into conference play.
Tier: D2 Returning Starters: 4 EOS: 19
2009 Projections (per game): 15.1 pts agst, 198.9 pass yards agst, 91.0 rush yards agst, 2.0 sacks, 2.0 turnovers, 0.2 Def TDs
9) Ohio St. - All totaled the Buckeyes lose 28 seniors and three juniors who left early for the NFL, included among this group are CB Malcolm Jenkins, CB Donald Washington LB James Laurinaitis and LB Marcus Freeman. These are staggering losses, which makes you wonder just how deep the Buckeyes will be this year. The starting front returns three starters and should be strong. They also return three starters in the secondary, including Chimdi Chekwa, who will contend for All-Big Ten honors this fall. Still, if injuries do mount the Buckeyes could be in trouble.
Tier: D2 Returning Starters: 7 EOS: 89
2009 Projections (per game): 16.1 pts agst, 182.3 pass yards agst, 109.4 rush yards agst, 2.0 sacks, 2.2 turnovers, 0.3 Def TDs
10) North Carolina - Our love for the Tar Heels in 2009 continues with a Top 10 defensive ranking. Nine returning starters and weak schedule play a large role. The Tar Heels welcome two Div-1AA schools (The Citadel and Georgia Southern) to Chapel Hill in 2009. Couple that with an ACC conference schedule and the Tar Heels should have no problems keeping teams below 20 points per game in 2009, especially with LB Quan Sturdivant (122 tackles) patrolling the middle.
Tier: D2 Returning Starters: 9 EOS: 5
2009 Projections (per game): 19.5 pts agst, 208.3 pass yards agst, 118.0 rush yards agst, 2.2 sacks, 2.4 turnovers, 0.4 Def TDs
11) Iowa - It is going to be tough to replace defensive tackles Matt Kroul and Mitch King (228 tackles and 55 career TFLs). There should be no concern, however, at linebacker where the Hawkeyes will once again house one of the nation's top units, led by Pat Angerer (107 tackles, 6.5 sacks and 5 INTS). All and all the defense returns nine starters, and the early part of the schedule sets up nicely with games against Northern Iowa and a rebuilding Iowa State squad. Arizona and Arkansas State should also be manageable at Kinnick Stadium.
Tier: D2 Returning Starters: 8 EOS: 64
2009 Projections (per game): 14.1 pts agst, 189.3 pass yards agst, 89.0 rush yards agst, 1.8 sacks, 2.2 turnovers, 0.1 Def TDs
12) Pittsburgh - Pitt LB Adam Gunn has been granted a sixth year of eligibility, and he also escaped charges of being drunk and stupid. Gunn's return after missing most of last year with a neck injury should help ease the pain of the loss of the team’s leading tackler, LB Scott McKillop (82 tackles). The defensive front should be the strength, led by DE Greg Romeus (7.5 sacks and 15.5 TFLs). Also returning is DE Jabaal Sheard (5.5 sacks and 10.5 TFLs) and DT Mick Williams (4.5 sacks and 8.5 TFLs). All told a lot of sack production returns for the Panthers.
Tier: D2 Returning Starters: 7 EOS: 26
2009 Projections (per game): 19.6 pts agst, 176.8 pass yards agst, 101.0 rush yards agst, 3.0 sacks, 2.0 turnovers, 0.3 Def TDs
13) Utah - Boasting TCU, BYU and Utah, the Mountain West is arguably the best non-BCS conference in the country. The reason? While the C-USA, MAC, Sun Belt and WAC are all defense-optional leagues, the MWC is not. So it is no surprise to see two MWC teams in our Top 20 fantasy defenses for 2009. Unfortunately, the Utes lose DE Paul Kruger (7.5 sacks and 16.5 TFLs) early to the NFL, keeping Kyle Whittingham’s boys out of our Top 10. But the defense should still be strong with the return of their top four tacklers from 2008: LB Mike Wright (81), LB Stevenson Sylvester (73), DE Koa Misi (68) and S Joe Dale (66).
Tier: D2 Returning Starters: 7 EOS: 63
2009 Projections (per game): 20.1 pts agst, 201.8 pass yards agst, 104.5 rush yards agst, 2.2 sacks, 2.2 turnovers, 0.3 Def TDs
14) Georgia Tech - The defense returns seven starters, unfortunately three losses come on the defensive line, the one area where we hate to see turnover. The lone returnee on the defensive front is a good one though in DE Derrick Morgan (7 sacks and 9.5 TFLs). Also back is All-American S Morgan Burnett. Burnett not only lead the Yellow Jackets in interceptions with seven, he also led the team in tackles with 93. Like all ACC teams, they only play three non-conference games, but the ACC is not exactly known for its offensive firepower. Opening with Jacksonville State is also a plus.
Tier: D2 Returning Starters: 7 EOS: 8
2009 Projections (per game): 20.1 pts agst, 191.8 pass yards agst, 124.5 rush yards agst, 2.1 sacks, 2.2 turnovers, 0.3 Def TDs
15) Southern California - The Trojans lost eight players to the NFL draft, and with so few returning starters, it is easy to be down on the USC. But one of those returning is S Taylor Mays (53 tackles and 9 pass deflections), who could be a top ten pick in next year's NFL draft. Mays will be paired with fellow SS Josh Pinkard, who will also compete for All-Pac-10 honors this fall. And let's be honest, USC isn't short on talent. Blue Chippers are a dime a dozen at The Coliseum. Still it is simply too many starters to replace for them not to take a hit in our rankings. Proceed with caution, but don't totally forget about the Trojans in 2009.
Tier: D3 Returning Starters: 3 EOS: 57
2009 Projections (per game): 17.1 pts agst, 198.0 pass yards agst, 99.0 rush yards agst, 2.0 sacks, 2.0 turnovers, 0.2 Def TDs
16) Clemson - Defensive end should be the strength with Da'Quan Bowers, Kevin Alexander and Ricky Sapp (once he fully recovers from ACL surgery) and this means we should see an increase in Clemson's pathetic 1.08 / sacks per game total from last season. Having Coastal Carolina wedged into the middle of conference play in week nine gives the Tigers some fantasy plug-in value.
Tier: D3 Returning Starters: 7 EOS: 15
2009 Projections (per game): 18.4 pts agst, 183.9 pass yards agst, 124.0 rush yards agst, 2.4 sacks, 2.1 turnovers, 0.1 Def TDs
17) Boise St. - Two words: blue fricking turf. Okay that's three words, but you get the point. Boise State dominates teams in its own backyard, and we don't see that trend coming to an end anytime soon. You'll want to avoid the opener against Oregon and Nevada in week 13, but the rest of the home dates shape up nicely against Miami (OH), UC Davis, San Jose St., Idaho and New Mexico St. The home finale is in week 14, championship week. Despite some significant attrition in the front seven, the defensive line should be adequate, led by All-WAC DE Ryan Winterswyk (4.5 sacks and 11.5 TFLs)
Tier: D3 Returning Starters: 5 EOS: 104
2009 Projections (per game): 19.5 pts agst, 219.0 pass yards agst, 141.6 rush yards agst, 2.1 sacks, 2.1 turnovers, 0.2 Def TDs
18) Vanderbilt - Despite the loss of CB D.J. Moore to the NFL, Vanderbilt’s defense returns largely intact. Including three 100-plus tacklers in LB Patrick Benoist (109), LB Chris Marve (105) and S Ryan Hamilton (104). This is good news for a team that quietly lays the wood to opposing offenses. The Commodores yielded fewer than 20 points per game as well as registering over two turnovers and two sacks per game in 2009, making them a sleeper defense that you can use to fill in the holes in your schedule. Take a long look at the Oct. 10 date against Army.
Tier: D3 Returning Starters: 9 EOS: 59
2009 Projections (per game): 18.7 pts agst, 167.7 pass yards agst, 122.0 rush yards agst, 2.4 sacks, 2.0 turnovers, 0.1 Def TDs
19) South Carolina - The SEC is loaded with top linebackers and the Gamecocks contribute their share. Senior LB Eric Norwood is only four sacks shy of a school record. In three seasons Norwood has registered 22 quarterback sacks and 43 tackles for loss. Those are bonus points folks. All is not rosy though, as the Gamecocks say goodbye to two of their top three tacklers from last season in LB Jasper Brinkley and S Emanuel Cook. DT Ladi Ajiboye will also sit out one (undisclosed) game due academics and cornerback C.C. Whitlock’s status is up in the air.
Tier: D3 Returning Starters: 7 EOS: 54
2009 Projections (per game): 20.7 pts agst, 182.1 pass yards agst, 130.7 rush yards agst, 2.4 sacks, 2.1 turnovers, 0.1 Def TDs
20) Texas - No, we are not suggesting the Longhorns serve as your weekly defensive starter. The conference schedule is brutal and a home date against UTEP is probably not something you want to tangle with. Still there are plenty of places to pick your spots, namely against Louisiana-Monroe, Wyoming, Central Florida, Colorado and possibly even Missouri and Texas A&M. The Longhorns led the FBS in sacks and ranked second against the run in 2008, but they lose three of their front four. Don't look for the defense to slip too far down though as the linebacking unit is strong. So strong that they can afford to move All-Big Twelve LB Sergio Kindle (10 sacks and 12.5 TFLs) to defensive end. Teams will likely be playing catch-up against the Longhorns once again, so that means low rushing totals and more opportunities for sack points. The Longhorns have a championship-caliber defense to go along with their offense. You just have to pick your spots.
Tier: D3 Returning Starters: 7 EOS: 113
2009 Projections (per game): 16.9 pts agst, 234.2 pass yards agst, 95.9 rush yards agst, 2.8 sacks, 2.0 turnovers, 0.3 Def TDs
21) Air Force - Air Force returns enough to provide real optimism for 2009. LB Ken Lamendola and his 118 stops return, as does S Chris Thomas. Thomas has a whopping 242 career tackles. Those are outstanding numbers regardless of the league you call home. The schedule is manageable and a late season date against Army is especially intriguing for playoff-bound fantasy owners.
Tier: D3 Returning Starters: 7 EOS: 20
2009 Projections (per game): 22.1 pts agst, 185.5 pass yards agst, 131.3 rush yards agst, 2.8 sacks, 2.4 turnovers, 0.3 Def TDs
22) Boston College - The Eagles return ACC Defensive Player of the Year in LB Mark Herzlich (110 tackles). Unfortunately Herzlich and his eye black are going to find things much tougher this year without DT B.J. Raji clogging things up in the middle. He could also be without his partner in crime, LB Mike McLaughlin (89 tackles), who suffered a torn Achilles before spring practice. BC is not going to be able to duplicate holding their opponents to 91.2 yards per game on the ground again, but they could provide some nice filler during the bye weeks.
Tier: D3 Returning Starters: 6 EOS: 18
2009 Projections (per game): 20.5 pts agst, 187.0 pass yards agst, 119.1 rush yards agst, 1.9 sacks, 2.2 turnovers, 0.2 Def TDs
23) West Virginia - West Virginia presents a solid mix of returners spread out among the various defensive units. They also open up against Liberty before a revenge game against East Carolina. The Pirates will have a tough time matching the 24 points scored on the Mountaineers this time around, especially in Morgantown. On the downside, the Mountaineers say bye bye to three-year starter at Bandit Quinton Andrews. Andrews was a banger, but he was also a handful off the field.
Tier: D3 Returning Starters: 7 EOS: 9
2009 Projections (per game): 18.3 pts agst, 189.7 pass yards agst, 126.5 rush yards agst, 1.9 sacks, 2.0 turnovers, 0.0 Def TDs
24) Connecticut - The Huskies love to play small ball and this usually makes for decent fantasy defenses. It will be interesting to see how this philosophy meshes with their new hurry up offense. Could we see the Huskies defense on the field more in 2009? This concern, combined with losses on the defensive front and a non-conference date against Mr. Robert Griffin, keep UConn from being a week in and week out fantasy starter. That said, the Huskies do return their top four tacklers from last year, led by LB Scott Lutrus (106 tackles), giving confidence to plug them in against Ohio, Rhode Island and Syracuse.
Tier: D3 Returning Starters: 6 EOS: 31
2009 Projections (per game): 22.1 pts agst, 191.1 pass yards agst, 101.0 rush yards agst, 2.4 sacks, 2.2 turnovers, 0.1 Def TDs
25) LSU - The defensive line is a concern after losing DE Tyson Jackson and DT Ricky Jean-Francois to the NFL. They also must replace DE Kirston Pittman and DT Marlon Favorite. All were in the starting rotation at some point during the season. The Tigers certainly have bodies they can plug in, but rebuilding the front line is never an easy thing. The Tigers will need to rely on a strong group of linebackers that will add former starting SS Harry Colemen (71 tackles) to the mix. On the bright side the Tigers welcome in defensive coordinator John Chavis, a respected coach who spent the last 14 seasons as the Vols' defensive coordinator. Chavis' aggressive Tennessee defenses have consistently ranked amongst the best in the SEC. The question is how quickly can he turn around the LSU defense that took a significant tumble in 2008? LSU might not be ready for full-time fantasy duty, but they have enough elements to make them a defense to watch.
Tier: D3 Returning Starters: 6 EOS: 42
2009 Projections (per game): 22.7 pts agst, 202.0 pass yards agst, 117.0 rush yards agst, 2.0 sacks, 2.2 turnovers, 0.3 Def TDs