My final At a Glance combines both the kicker and defensive units because, with very few exceptions, these are positions that should be addressed in the final two rounds of your draft. In early experts drafts, I've seen the Chicago defense go inside the top 10 rounds, and some others (Carolina defense, Pittsburgh defense, Neil Rackers, Adam Vinatieri, Mike Vanderjagt) come off the board a few rounds before the end, but these positions can still be reliably filled without reaching early. The dynamics of some drafts – early runs on kickers and/or defenses, indifference towards the remaining players left at the skill positions, scoring systems that more heavily weight kickers and/or defense, etc. – might force an early dip into these position pools but, for the most part, the names below should be among the last uttered on draft day. With that in mind, here is how I lay out the defense/kicker landscape:
Tier 1: Chicago Bears
Tier 2: Carolina Panthers, Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Giants
Tier 3: Adam Vinatieri, Mike Vanderjagt, Neil Rackers, Indianapolis Colts
Tier 4: Jacksonville Jaguars, Washington Redskins, Seattle Seahawks
Tier 5: Jay Feely, Shayne Graham, Jeff Wilkins, Jason Elam, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tier 6: Josh Brown, John Kasay, Lawrence Tynes, Jeff Reed, Ryan Longwell, Baltimore Ravens, Atlanta Falcons
Tier 7: David Akers, Matt Stover, Denver Broncos, Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles, New England Patriots
Tier 8: Olindo Mare, Sebastian Janikowski, John Carney, Nate Kaeding, Josh Scobee, New York Jets, Cincinnati Bengals, Miami Dolphins, Minnesota Vikings
Tier 9: Matt Bryant, Rian Lindell, Mike Nugent, John Hall, Jason Hanson, Cleveland Browns, San Diego Chargers, St. Louis Rams, Arizona Cardinals
Other Notables: Martin Gramatica, Stephen Gostkowski, Rob Bironas, Joe Nedney, Phil Dawson, Kris Brown, Robbie Gould, Billy Cundiff, Oakland Raiders, Detroit Lions, Houston Texans, New Orleans Saints, Green Bay Packers, San Francisco 49ers, Kansas City Chiefs, Buffalo Bills, Tennessee Titans
New England Kicker – If I knew Martin Gramatica was definitely the Patriots kicker going into the season, he'd be moved up into a Tier 8 spot. Problem is that he's engaged in an all-out battle for a job with rookie Stephen Gostkowski, a fourth-round draft pick this past April who went 16-for-17 on field goals of 40-plus yards over his junior and senior seasons at Memphis. Considering that NFL teams don't give up fourth-round picks easily, you have to take Gostkowski's chances seriously, even against a respected veteran footsmith like Gramatica. Both could end up somewhere this season, but New England would be a nice place to land a job. Because this battle is likely going to wage throughout preseason, this is a situation to avoid in drafts until there is some clarity.
Atlanta Falcons Kicker – As it stands, neophytes Tony Yelk and Zac Derr are trying to win the Falcons' kicking gig, but neither has impressed Atlanta brass yet. In fact, it's likely the team will scrap both these guys and look to bring back last year's kicker, Todd Peterson, a 36-year-old veteran who made 23 of 25 field goals in '05. Peterson ranked 17th in points scored among kickers in '05, and if he, or another experienced veteran leg, lands this role, it's worth fantasy consideration in deeper leagues.
On the Rise
Seattle Seahawks Defense – Seattle was a top 10 fantasy defense in most scoring systems last season, and the team did nothing but stack its deck even further this offseason. The Seahawks signed, arguably, the top defensive free agent available in versatile play-making LB Julian Peterson. They used their top draft pick on steady Miami Hurricanes cover corner Kelly Jennings. The run defense was further fortified with the inking of veteran DT Russell Davis. And, if smack-down safety Ken Hamlin can return from the serious blows to the head he suffered in a nightclub brawl last season, this unit will have few weaknesses.
Atlanta Falcons Defense – With the trade that landed former NY Jets DE John Abraham, the Falcons have three linemen (Abraham, Patrick Kerney and Rod Coleman) who have averaged at least nine sacks over the past five years. At linebacker, early reports are that the tenacious Ed Hartwell, who is coming back from an Achilles tendon tear, was running around and moving well in recent offseason drills. That will be huge for LB Keith Brooking, who can move back outside, allowing him to use his stellar play-making skills more. And at defensive back, Atlanta brought in veteran safeties Lawyer Milloy and Chris Crocker to fix a problem area from last season. The corners should also be stronger, where the blanketing DeAngelo Hall will get some help on the opposite side from second-round draft pick Jimmy Williams, a Virginia Tech speedster that many thought would land in the first round.
New York Giants Defense – Under defensive coordinator Tim Lewis, a disciple of Pittsburgh guru Dick LeBeau, the Giants were one of the top fantasy defenses last season. The team boasts two of the best pass rushers in the league in Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora, who accomplished the unthinkable last season when he beat Seattle All-World offensive tackle Walter Jones for two sacks. As if that wasn't enough, the team used a first-round pick on Boston College DE Mathias Kiwanuka, another gifted pass rusher. But the biggest offseason addition was at linebacker, where three-time Pro Bowler Lavar Arrington was brought in to team with all-around stud Antonio Pearce. The defensive backfield could still be a problem, but Sam Madison was signed away from Miami and if he can come close to his past glory days with the Dolphins, that will be a huge boost to this unit.
Green Bay Packers Defense – Any way you slice it, the Packers were miserable on defense last season. So it's no surprise that Green Bay made major changes in this area in the offseason. In the draft, the team nabbed arguably the draft's top inside and outside linebackers in Big Ten stars A.J. Hawk (Ohio St.) and Abdul Hodge (Iowa). In addition, the team added run-stuffer Ryan Pickett (formerly with St. Louis), and overhauled the defensive backfield by signing safety Marquand Manuel (formerly with Seattle) and marquee talent Charles Woodson, who just needs to stay healthy. This defense is still probably one to ignore during draft day, but it's not likely to be the same pushover it was a year ago.
On the Decline
Paul Edinger, FA – A respected leg for five years in Chicago, Edinger jumped to Minnesota last season where he tallied 106 points, good for 16th in the league. But the Vikings decided to sign Ryan Longwell in the offseason, leaving Edinger without a home. He may ultimately get a look in Atlanta, or somewhere else later this summer if a team develops a kicker injury or confidence issue, but it's also very possible that Edinger will be without a job come September.