We’re still at the beginning stages of the NFL offseason calendar but with teams changing coaching staffs, players set to enter free agency, and all of the randomness in the National Football League, it’s never too early to start planning for 2017.
On offense, I took a look last week at five deep dynasty stashes to pursue this offseason as well as five deeper stashes. Let’s turn to the defensive side of the ball and evaluate what players have the opportunity to gain value over the next season and may be worth holding at the end of your roster.
Jerry Hughes, DE, Buffalo Bills
It’s not often we get excited about 28-year old breakouts, but Jerry Hughes has could be someone worth pursuing from frustrated owners. His raw statistics haven’t been flashy lately (6.0 sacks in 2016, 5.5 in 2015), but with new head coach Sean McDermott transitioning to the 4-3 scheme he used with the Panthers, Hughes should see an uptick in value immediately as a defensive end. Hughes led all Buffalo outside linebackers in snaps last season, but will transition back to defensive end, his natural position where he was taken as a first round pick. Hughes’ quickness — 94th percentile in the 20-yard shuttle and 89th in the 40-yard dash — made him a disruptive edge rusher coming out of college, where he tallied 11.5 sacks his final season at TCU.
After recording back to back 10-sack campaigns in 2013 and 2014 at defensive end — which netted him a five-year, $45 million contract — Rex Ryan played him out of position as a 3-4 outside linebacker. Last year McDermott’s defense ranked second in sacks and third in quarterback pressures. Those rates would be a welcome addition to Hughes, who recorded either a sack, hit, or hurry on just 11.7 percent of his pass rushing snaps per PFF — a rate that has the potential to rise substantially with the move back to defensive end. With today’s “what have you done recently” mentality, you might be able to get another owner to throw Hughes in as part of a multi-player deal and reap the rewards of a player returning to his natural position.
Vinny Curry, DE, Philadelphia Eagles
After registering the third highest snaps/pressure (pressure being defined as sacks, hits, and hurries) rate in the league in 2015, Curry was limited in his snaps in 2016 as the team employed Connor Barwin as a near every-down player. With Barwin due a whopping $8.35 million and $10.25 over the next two seasons, Barwin could quite easily become a cut candidate this offseason. That would open the door for Curry, who has excelled as a pass rusher displaying a litany of pass rush moves as both a 3-4 and 4-3 end to reach the quarterback.
Jim Schwartz’ 4-3 defense produced pressure at an astounding rate this past year, ranking second in total team pressures. Brandon Graham finished the season as ProFootballFocus‘ No. 2 overall edge rusher after accounting for 82 total quarterback pressures. Add disruptive playmaker Fletcher Cox into the mix, and Curry will likely avoid opposing double teams with a straight-line path through one blocker to the quarterback. Despite playing nearly 60 percent of the snaps that Barwin did, Curry finished as PFF’s 34th-ranked edge rusher. Barwin…95th. Entering 2017 in a productive defense with playmakers all around him, Curry has a very real chance of gaining significant dynasty value this season.
Christian Kirksey, LB, Cleveland Browns
After finishing last season top-ten in both tackles and assists, we could merely be seeing the tip of the iceberg if Christian Kirksey is able to convert more of those assists into solo’s. Kirksey played 99.8 percent of the team’s defensive snaps last year, leading all Browns linebackers in snaps by a country mile. Cleveland just added Blake Williams as their new linebackers coach over the past week. Williams’ last venture in the NFL was as the defensive coordinator for the Rams in 2012 where James Laurinaitis led the league with 117 solo tackles.
Kirksey will be 25 and have a chance to excel in Gregg Williams’ multiple-front scheme. The former third-round pick from Iowa has steadily improved over the past three seasons, posting a career high last year with 93 tackles. Kirksey entered the league at a very young age and arguably still has room to grow as a player. The combination of Williams’ scheme and linebacker positioning could put Kirksey in line for a banner year at inside linebacker. I’d have no problem trading an aging veteran with a late draft pick to acquire someone with the ceiling Kirksey possesses.
Nick Vigil, LB, Cincinnati Bengals
Over his final two seasons at Utah State, Vigil posted a combined 282 tackles, 31.5 tackles for loss, and forced six fumbles. He was a workout warrior at the 2016 combine:
Finishing in the 90th percentile in the 20-yard shuttle and the 3-cone drill, Vigil has some exceptional explosiveness and quick area closure that could translate well to the next level. After playing just 111 snaps as a rookie (10.2 percent), Vigil had an underwhelming first season but showed some potential Week 17 playing a season-high 37 snaps. He accumulated four solos, two assisted tackles and a pass defensed in his first game playing over 50 percent of his team’s defensive snaps. Karlos Dansby will likely hit the streets as a free agent leaving only Vincent Rey as Vigil’s only competition for playing time. Rey has been serviceable, but there’s a ceiling worth pursing here in Vigil. Dynasty owners would be just as wise stashing Vigil as a potential up-and-coming three-down backer at the end of their benches or on their Taxi Squads.
Kamalei Correa, LB, Baltimore Ravens
After a CT scan revealed he had a rare spine and neck condition, Zach Orr abruptly left the Ravens1 and announced his retirement. Orr had a fantastic 2016 season for Baltimore, but his absence creates a massive hole next to C.J. Mosley at one of the Raven’s inside linebacker positions. The favorite to seize this opportunity is 2016 second-rounder Kamalei Correa, who was selected 42nd overall out of Boise State. A bit of a project, Correa was drafted so high largely due to his pass rushing skills. He finished his final two seasons at Boise State with 30 tackles for loss, 19 sacks, and five forced fumbles. The pairing of Correa and Mosley produces an interesting dynamic. Correa, a quick, pass-rushing type linebacker and Mosley, a physical, tackle-seeking missile, could form quite the duo as yin-yang complements to each other.
Correa still has a significant work to do to get to the quarterback regularly. His hands and upper body strength are a bit of a liability when rushing and he has a rather bland array of pass rushing moves. Perhaps with another offseason working with veteran pass rushers like Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil2 will help Correa find creative ways to provide pressure down the middle against opposing QBs. There are a ton of question marks for Baltimore on defense entering the offseason. Take advantage of the unknown and throw some darts at a player with high draft pedigree and superb athleticism like Correa.