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Eyes of the Guru

Hello fellow fantasy addicts and welcome to the 9th edition of the annual Eyes of the Guru pre-season IDP report. If you're looking for in depth coverage on the defensive side of the ball you have come to the right place. No one covers the game better than The Football Guys and I am proud that both I and the EOTG are now a part of the team. You will find nothing but fantasy football in this report. No contract talk, no police reports. Only the stuff that matters. For reference, when I mention where guys finished in the rankings last season I generally use the North American Fantasy Football Addicts (NAFFA) league I have run for the past 9 years as my model. If you care to check it out feel free. Defensive scoring in this league is basically the standard stuff though obviously rankings could vary a bit from league to league. From time to time I will reference the "rookie corner rule". Those of you who are familiar with the EOTG report know what that is. For those who are new, the rookie corner rule is basically the fact that in the NFL starting a rookie at corner is like throwing chum to the sharks. Offensive coordinators will target young and inexperienced players as weaknesses thus these guys have an accelerated number of opportunities. Most often these guys are the cream of the crop at the position (which is why they are starting so soon) and their numbers will begin to drop sharply in their second seasons. Without further adieu... on to the meat and potatoes.

Buffalo Bills

Defensive Line
The Bills DL has quietly evolved into one of the best in the game over the past few years. Any time a club loses a player like Pat Williams to free agency it hurts but don't expect the loss to have much of a negative impact in the grand scheme of things. They had been grooming '01 third round pick Ron Edwards to take over the position and his presence was undoubtedly a major factor in the team's decision let Williams go. The organization believes Edwards is ready to step up and expect no drop off in play. Williams had perennially been among the top tackle producing defensive linemen from this position and Edwards is a very similar type of player. In fact Edwards may prove to be an even better fantasy option due to having a little more pop in his pass rush. Williams career high sack total is 3.5 while Edwards posted 4 in very limited action last season. Edwards should put up in the area of 45 solo stops and 5-6 sacks which would make him a viable prospect in many leagues. Sam Adams on the other hand is a big body who's most significant contributions don't show up in the box score. His most important role is to be a space eater and keep London Fletcher clean... The Bills defensive ends aren't household names (at least not in the average household) but they have 3 very solid guys. Aaron Schobel has become one of the fantasy games top options at the position finishing in the area of 6th among DL in most scoring systems last season. One word of caution on Schobel, he's a slow starter. Two years ago he failed to show up in the box score at all until week 3 and last season his totals after three games were 5-4-0... Chris Kelsay holds the official title of starter opposite Schobel but he shares his playing time with Ryan Denney. Between them they totaled 38-35-7.5 a year ago. As it stands now the time share will continue to hold both of them well short of fantasy consideration but be on top of it if there is an injury.

Fantasy Prospects
DE Aaron Schobel – Quality #1 starter
DE Chris Kelsay - Pick him up if Denney or Schobel are injured
DT Sam Adams - No fantasy value
DT Ron Edwards - Sleeper with potential to be a solid #3 DL
DE Ryan Denney – Pick him up if Kelsay or Schobel are injured

Linebacker
No group of linebackers fit their roles better than the Bills starting trio. The annual argument here is who will be the better fantasy option between London Fletcher and Takeo Spikes. When you break it down there is no clear winner. Spikes emerged as a playmaker in '04 with a pair of TD returns and a plethora of big plays. By recording 4 sacks, 5 picks, a fumble recovery and 4 forced fumbles he managed to jump from #23 in '03 into the top 5 in '04 despite dropping 6 tackles and 19 assists below his '03 numbers. Maybe the most important footnote here is that all but 1 sack and 1 pick came over the final 7 games of the season. The Bills D is hitting on all cylinders and Spikes is their big play guy. On the down side Spikes recorded 4 or fewer solo tackles in 11 of 16 games and finished with just 64 on the season. If he doesn't make a big play chances are you won't get much out of him. Fletcher on the other hand posted 3 sacks and 1 pick but finished in or near the top 10 based on very solid and consistent tackle numbers (94-49). Only once all year did he fail to put up either 5 solo stops or a total of 7 tackles and assists combined. Fletch is a little on the short side at just 5'9" but at 245 he has excellent speed and packs a big punch. He's a perfect fit playing behind Sam Adams who eats up space and blockers allowing Fletcher to make a lot of plays. In short, you can't go wrong with either of these guys but my personal preference is to go with the consistency. One small concern is that the number of opportunities may drop some if/when the offense gets on track. Jeff Posey quietly contributes by doing all the things his role asks. However as with most schemes in the NFL, strong side backer in Buffalo isn't a very fantasy friendly position. If there is a concern at linebacker for Buffalo it is depth. Unproven third year man Angelo Crowell is the top backup at all three positions.

Fantasy Prospects
MLB London Fletcher – Solid #1 starter with strong and consistent tackle numbers
SLB Jeff Posey – No fantasy value
Takeo Spikes - Possibly a little inconsistent but an every week starter
LB Angelo Crowell - Keep an eye on him if Fletcher or Spikes go down

Defensive Back
Like the rest of the Bills defense the backfield has matured into a very strong unit. For a long time the knock on this group was their lack of big play production. That trend seems to finally be at an end with the starting 4 accounting for 12 interceptions a year ago. Six of those went to Nate Clements who has become one of the top cover men in the game, and 3 went to Terrence McGee who proved himself well worthy of the faith the club put in him. From the fantasy perspective Bills corners are fringe guys. Buffalo plays some cover two (which puts the corners in run support roles) but they don't use it as their base defense. McGee totaled 75 solo stops in '04 but he is no longer an inexperienced target for offenses to try and exploit and we can expect to see those numbers come down. In leagues that start corners as a separate position both of these guys are probable starters but the rest of us need to look elsewhere. Lawyer Milloy is still a fine player at SS but there are some concerns. His numbers have tailed off sharply over the past few years making him no better than an average fantasy option. Milloy was injured early last season but returned to start the last 11 games. Over those games he managed just 39 solo tackles. Project that out over 16 games and you get just 56. Hardly the production we need form our DB position. Its not so much that Milloy has lost anything as it is a reflection of a very strong front 7. Milloy just isn't getting the same number of opportunities that he once did. At FS there may be a training camp battle between Coy Wire and Troy Vincent. Wire is not particularly well suited for FS and Vincent is a transplanted corner trying to milk a few more years out of his body. Neither is a particularly strong FS and the two could easily end up sharing time in some manner. Should Milloy go down Wire would step up at SS and make for quality depth.

Fantasy Prospects
SS Lawyer Milloy – Decent depth in most leagues
FS Troy Vincent – No fantasy value
S Coy Wire - Jump on him if either starting safety is injured
CB Terrence McGee - Depth in large leagues
CB Nate Clements – Depth in large leagues
CB Kevin Thomas– Could be a factor if a starter is injured


New England Patriots

Defensive Line
In a 3-4 defense the linemen don't get much of the glory but they sure do a lot of the dirty work. New England's front three have as much to do with winning Super Bowls as Tom Brady even though none of them will ever win an MVP. These guys are the heart of the Patriots defense but unfortunately none of them are worth much fantasy consideration. Ty Warren (4) and Richard Seymour (5) contributed 9 of the 11 sacks by this trio last season. Factor in that only Warren (40) managed more than 27 solo stops and its easy to understand the dilemma. The job of a Linemen in a 3-4 is to engulf as many blockers as possible while holding ground so that the linebackers can have room To range and make plays. Good as these guys may be as football players, they will never be strong fantasy considerations unless the Patriots move away from the current scheme.

Fantasy Prospects
DE Ty Warren - Minimal value
DE Richard Seymour - Minimal value
NT Vince Wilfork - No value
DE Marquise Hill - No value

Linebacker
Linebacker remains an unsettled position for the Patriots entering training camp but there is certainly no lack of able players. At ILB Tedy Bruschi has yet to be cleared and may be forced to retire after suffering a stroke, so the Pats went about their off season preparing as though they will be without him. In free agency they added Monty Beisel and Chad Brown then spent a 5th round pick on Ryan Claridge for good measure. Beisel is a Bruschi clone in that he isn't the most gifted or fastest guy but is a very intelligent, hard working player who does a good job in all aspects. He's the odds on favorite to take over for Bruschi and lead the linebackers in tackles. In Chad Brown the have a more talented player nearing the end of a very fruitful career, who can still contribute. Brown has played outside in both 3-4 and 4-3 schemes and been very productive in each of them. The official depth chart currently has him listed at OLB but he's a versatile guy who could easily move inside and play well. Don't be surprised to see him starting along side Beisel at some point this season but at age 35 chances are he won't be an every down guy or a real strong fantasy option. Ted Johnson returns for his 10th season as a Patriot and should be the opening day starter opposite Beisel. While another of the Patriots "quality guys", Johnson is neither a great player nor an every down player at this stage of his career. He will contribute to his team but don't expect him to do much for yours. In Claridge the Pats have another guy in the Bruschi mold who they will groom for the future. Barring a rash of injuries his contribution this year will come mainly on special teams. At OLB the Patriots have a good problem in that they have 3 starters for two positions. Mike Vrable and Willie McGinest have served well as starters and virtually full time guys over the past couple of seasons but Rosevelt Colvin is finally healthy and ready to compete for one of those jobs. In New England everyone has a role so the reality of it is that all three will see significant action but none of them are likely to be worthy of consideration for our purposes.

Fantasy Prospects
ILB Monty Beisel - Strong sleeper, should make a good #3 starter or quality backup at worst
ILB Chad Brown - Sleeper, need to see what his role is coming out of camp
ILB Ted Johnson - No fantasy value
OLB Rosevelt Colvin - Deep sleeper, could make quality depth
OLB Willie McGinest - Limited value at best
OLB Mike Vrable - Limited value at best
OLB Ryan Claridge - Deep sleeper for dynasty owners

Defensive Back
Even at 32 Rodney Harrison remains arguably the best strong safety in the NFL and unarguably the best DB in the fantasy game. Since 1996 he's twice reached 100 solo tackles and has racked up at least 89 in every season except '99 and '02 when he missed games with injuries. In general the Patriots spread the numbers between so many people that everyone else on the defense falls short in fantasy terms but Harrison is the exception. FS Eugene Wilson started fast last season with 5 or more solo stops in 6 of the first 8 games. After that the bottom fell out. Not only did he fail to reach 5 tackles in any of the final 8 games, he posted just 15 solo stops over a 7 game span then missed week 17 with an injury. The reason for the drop off in production may have had a lot to do with all the teams injuries in the secondary and the shuffling of responsibilities. The bottom line here is that Wilson may be worthy as quality depth or even as a decent #3 starter but there is a lot of risk involved. Injuries decimated the Patriots corner position last season but they somehow managed to play well no matter who they sent out there. Ty Law is gone and the club has added Chad Scott and Duane Starks, both of whom have experience as starters with their former teams. Heading into training camp its unclear who will even be the starters but one thing we can count on is that none of them will have enough punch in the box scores to be worth of consideration.

Fantasy Prospects
SS Rodney Harrison - Should be the first DB off the board in any scoring system
FS Eugene Wilson - Sleeper, could make a decent 3rd starter
CB Chad Scott - No Value
CB Asante Samuel - No Value
CB Randall Gay - No Value
CB Duane Starks - No Value


Miami Dolphins

Defensive Line
For the past 5 years Jason Taylor has been as dependable as a Timex, averaging 42 solo tackles and nearly 13 sacks a season. All that could change with the news that the Dolphins are planning to jump on the bandwagon with several other clubs who will use a 3-4 scheme. At this point the word is that they plan to make it "part of their defensive package" but have pulled up short of making it their base defense. When they do use the 3-4 Taylor is lining up at OLB, a position he has never played is not comfortable with. The questions are how much 3-4 will they use and will Taylor eventually be effective in it? We can never discount such a talent but this situation is certainly enough to drop him a few slots down the draft board until/unless we can get a better read. The Dolphins desperately missed Adewale Ogunleye last season after he and his 15 sacks departed for Chicago. Without Ogunleye the club dropped from 44 sacks in '03 to 36 last season. Miami made two moves this off season to fill the gaping hole. Veteran Vonnie Holliday was signed and they spent a second round pick on DE Matt Roth. Holliday is a short term answer and with his injury history he may prove to be very short term. Only three times over his 8 year career has Holliday been active for a full 16 game schedule and in two of those years he played a lesser role due to nagging injury problems. There is little doubt that Roth is seen as the long term answer and chances are good he will be asked to contribute early even if Holliday stays healthy. Roth was considered one of the best pass rush talent in this years draft and is known for his intensity. At 6'3" and 278 he has all the tools to be an outstanding every down player. It will come as no surprise if Roth earns a starting job during camp. Like Taylor, Roth is also working at OLB when they line up in a 3-4. The Dolphins also added much needed help at tackle in veteran Kevin Carter who has 86 sacks over his 10 NFL seasons, 4 times reaching double digits. However in all 4 of those seasons he lined up at end. Even if he were capable of 8-10 sacks, Carter has only reached 40+ tackles once and has not reached 30 since the 2000 season when he first began playing on the inside regularly. Jeff Zgonina and Larry Chester are serviceable interior players but neither will make much fantasy noise.

DE Jason Taylor - Likely to remain a stud but there is some risk with the new scheme
DE Matt Roth - Sleeper, dynasty owners special who could emerge early
DE Vonnie Holliday - Deep sleeper with injury issues
DT Jeff Zgonina - No fantasy value
DT Kevin Carter - Minimal value if any
DT Larry Chester - No value

Linebacker
Zach Thomas joined the Dolphins in 1996 and no other Miami linebacker has been of fantasy use since. That could be about to change. Thomas is still the man and the top fantasy option of the group hands down but Injuries have become an issue recently. He's only 31 years old but is entering his 10 season as a starter and there are a lot of miles on him. Thomas has played a full schedule just once since 2000 and the club now has his heir apparent on the roster in rookie third round pick Channing Crowder. The 3-4 scheme shouldn't have much effect on Thomas's numbers. We've seen guys like Ray Lewis, Jamie Sharper and Donnie Edwards leave a 4-3 and remain just as successful and productive in a 3-4. Crowder was arguably the best MLB in this years draft class but is officially Thomas's backup and barring an injury there is no chance he will surpass the veteran this season. However both Crowder and Junior Seau have been working at ILB in the team's 3-4 and there is a good chance Crowder could see action alongside Thomas in that set. Seau is very near the end of his career and is no longer an every down player. He will continue to man the WLB position in the 4-3 alignment but could be phased out of the 3-4 so he can remain fresh and the rookie can get some experience. Miami's SLB position is as fantasy unfriendly as they come so neither Donnie Spragen nor Eddie Moore have much potential. The Fins would eventually like to see Moore take over at WLB but he's been nearly a total bust thus far in his short career due to injuries. Moore has been active for only 13 of 32 games since being drafted in the second round two years ago.

Fantasy Prospects
MLB Zach Thomas - Still a strong #1 starter but no longer in the elite category
MLB Channing Crowder - Dynasty league special
SLB Donnie Spragen - No value
SLB Eddie Moore - No Value
WLB Junior Seau - No Value

Defensive Back
Once the a strength for this defense, the secondary has fallen a long way and could be a disappointment to the Miami faithful in '05. They still have Sam Madison who remains one of the leagues elite corners but Patrick Surtain will certainly be missed. Heading into camp there is expected to be a battle for the vacant corner position between veteran Reggie Howard, second year pro Will Poole and rookie Travis Daniels. Daniels was running with the first team during mini camp but Poole is the favorite to come away with the job after serving as the nickel back much of last season. Dolphins corners haven't packed much fantasy punch in recent years but offenses will be looking to avoid Madison and take advantage of who ever starts opposite him. It might be worth your while to pay attention to this situation, especially for owners in leagues that require corners... Miami's safeties may just be the weakest tandem in the league. Travares Tillman is a journeyman backup who has been active for all of 41 games over his 5 pro seasons and just 13 over the past 3. Tebucky Jones has also become a journeyman and will put on his third different uniform in 4 years. He's is a vastly over rated player which is a lesson painfully learned by the Saints, that will soon be realized by the Dolphins. Jones managed a career high 78 solo tackles for New Orleans last season after a previous career best mark of only 51, but the guy just doesn't make things happen. He has just 6 interceptions to show for 7 pro seasons. There are many challenges for the Miami defense to face this season so it would stand to reason that their safeties should be strong in the box scores. Unfortunately I'm not sure either of these guys is good enough to take advantage of the situation.

Fantasy Prospects
FS Travares Tillman - No value
SS Tebucky Jones - Decent depth at best
CB Sam Madison - No value
CB Will Poole - Sleeper, could produce if he wins the starting job as expected
CB Reggie Howard - Deep sleeper, likely end up as nickel back
CB Travis Daniels - Very deep sleeper, could produce if he gets the call


New York Jets

Defensive Line
When both are healthy John Abraham and Shaun Ellis are one of the premier DE tandems in the game. Unfortunately Abraham has had trouble staying on the field and has missed 13 games with groin and knee injuries over the past two seasons. Even with the injuries Abraham put up 15.5 sacks over the two shortened campaigns. He is healthy now but is bucking the system and threatening a holdout after being tagged as the Jets franchise player. Its too early for us to be overly concerned about contract issues. We've seen guys play this game often over the years and with rare exceptions they end up either signed long term or signing their offer sheets and reporting late. When all is said Abraham will be in uniform and is a threat to walk away with the league sack title if he can make all 16 games. He drops a few slots on the draft board for the injury risk but remains a top 10 pick at the position. Abraham seems to get all the spotlights while Shaun Ellis has quietly reached double digits in sacks in each of the past two seasons. One thing that keeps Ellis from being considered among the fantasy elite is his inconsistency. In '03 he put up 47 solo tackles and 12.5 sacks but only one of the sacks came in the final 5 weeks after Abraham was injured. Last season Ellis started very slowly with just half a sack in the first 4 contests. Still he managed to finish with 11 on the year, however he also had 7 games in which he neither registered a sack nor recorded more than 2 solo tackles while finishing the season with only 37 solo stops. Ellis clearly misses Abraham, when he doesn't play offenses are able to concentrate their blocking schemes on Ellis and he often has a tough time getting on track. Depth at DE is a problem for the Jets, particularly considering all the games Abraham has missed. Bryan Thomas is a former first round pick that has been a bust. He's managed only 3 sacks over his 3 years in the league despite making 13 starts over the past two seasons. The Jets have one of the best defensive tackles in the game in Dewayne Robertson but his value doesn't translate into the box scores, at least not directly. Robertson has just 70 solo tackles and 4.5 sacks to show for his two NFL seasons. What he does do is plug the middle of the field and keep the middle linebackers clean so they can make plays. The free agent defection of Jason Ferguson was a blow to the Jets but they are comfortable that James Reed can step in and get the job done. Ferguson was a marginal fantasy prospect from the position averaging 42-22-4 over the past three seasons and there is no reason to expect Reed to be any better. He's a little smaller than Ferguson and may be a bit better at getting after the QB but the numbers should remain similar.

Fantasy Prospects
DE John Abraham - Fantasy stud but carries injury risk
DE Shaun Ellis - Quality #2 starter though a little inconsistent
DT Dewayne Robertson - Minimal fantasy value
DT James Reed - Minimal value
DE Bryan Thomas - No fantasy value

Linebacker
After back to back seasons with 90+ solo tackles Sam Cowart opened with a 12-2-0 mark in week one last season only to be injured in week two and lose his job to a rookie. This didn't happen because of anything Cowart did or didn't do but rather because Jonathan Vilma is that good. Vilma finished the season with a mark of 77-31-2.5 but also recorded 3 interceptions, a fumble recovery, a forced fumble and a TD. He's much more than just a tackling machine, Vilma is a playmaker who is on the verge of taking his place among the fantasy as well as the NFL elite. Don't wait too long for him on draft day. Like Vilma, Eric Barton was a newcomer to the Jets in '04 and he also made a favorable impression, posting very similar overall numbers to Vilma. Barton is a very good player in his own right but we can expect his production to suffer as Vilma's continues to improve. Barton should remain a decent #3 starter or quality depth but he'll likely end up playing the Ed Hartwell role to Vilma's Ray Lewis. Like Hartwell and Jamie Sharper before him, if Vilma is injured look for Barton to take over as the teams leading tackler but as long as Vilma is healthy Barton will be only above average. After missing time with injury late last season Victor Hobson will enter camp behind Mark Brown on the depth chart at SLB. He will have to earn the job back during camp but it's only a matter of time until that happens. Like most strong side backers, Hobson doesn't have much of a shot at being box score productive due to the nature of the scheme. With Cowart moving on to Minnesota the Jets are very thin at linebacker. Barry Gardner is officially listed as the backup in the middle but Gardner has proven over and over that he isn't starter material. Brown joined the club as an undrafted free agent 2 years ago and is the club's top backup at all three positions.

Fantasy Prospects
MLB Jonathan Vilma - Rising star, quite possibly the next Ray Lewis
WLB Eric Barton - quality depth or a decent third starter, will become a stud if Vilma is injured
SLB Victor Hobson - No fantasy value
OLB Mark Brown - Top backup at all 3 positions, pick him up if Vilma or Barton go down

Defensive Back
The Jets struck gold when they landed safety Erik Coleman in the 5th round last season. The coaches realized in training camp that they had a special player. Coleman has a mixture of size, speed, big play ability and heart that is rare at any level. It didn't take them long to figure out that he belonged in the lineup on every down and Jon McGraw's fight with a sports hernia provided the opportunity. Coleman started all 16 games posting very solid numbers and entrenching himself in the lineup. He also managed a top 12 finish in most fantasy scoring systems. This is a guy who has all the tools and will get nothing but better with experience. The Jets remain very high on McGraw who will take over the SS position now that Reggie Tongue has been released. McGraw is 6'3" 206 has good speed and is a punishing hitter, he should be a perfect fit. McGraw has missed most of the past two seasons with injuries. In '03 a broken shoulder ended his season and last year he was limited by the hernia but toughed it out and still contributed. He is recovering well from surgery and is expected to be cleared for the opening of camp. Slip this guy in on your sleeper list. No one will be paying much attention to him since he's done very little recently but he has potential. Jets corners traditionally don't provide much value fantasy wise but with the retirement of #1 corner Donnie Abraham, Justin Miller might fall under the rookie corner rule and be worth a shot. As it stands now Miller will compete with Ray Mickens and Derrick Straight for the vacant starting job. Playing opposite Abraham last season David Barrett finished 16th among corners in solo tackles last season but he could very well be the Jets top corner when this season opens and isn't likely to be as productive, especially if the rook lands the other starting job. Abraham's late decision to retire leaves the Jets with their short hairs in a wad. They traded for Cowboys backup Pete Hunter to add depth and may become major players in the Ty Law sweepstakes. They have decent talent to fall back on though they are now very young, particularly at safety. Other than veteran corner Ray Mickens, the Jets backups are very thin on game experience.

Fantasy Prospects
FS Erik Coleman - Probable stud, finished in the top 12 as a rookie
SS Jon McGraw - Sleeper with good potential
CB Pete Hunter - No value
CB David Barrett - Minimal value in most leagues, possible starter if corners are required
CB Justin Miller - Sleeper, rookie corner rule applies if he lands a starting role


Cincinnati Bengals

Defensive Line
The Bengals struggled greatly against the run last season so Marvin Lewis has really shaken up the defense starting with the line. Justin Smith will move from right to left DE, second year man Robert Geathers will replace Duane Clemons in the lineup and start at right end, John Thornton will slide over from left to right tackle and Bryan Robinson will take the place of departed Tony Williams at left tackle. None of this was done without reason and the results could be impressive if everything works out according to Lewis's plan. Smith at left end is an interesting move. In most defensive schemes the best pass rusher generally lines up on the quarterback's blind side (right DE) but Lewis wants to have Smith and rookie SLB David Pollack on the same side of the field to create assignment problems for the offense. Generally the right offensive tackle gets help from the tight end and/or fullback but the Bengals plan to use Pollack (a converted college end) as an additional pass rusher much of the time. This puts the Bengals two best pass rushers on the same side of the field against the right tackle, TE and FB. One of the rushers will face single blocking and it won't be by the offenses best lineman. Smith's career high is 8.5 sacks but he has never played in a situation with this much talent around him nor this aggressive an approach. He could very well reach double digits in '05. One problem Smith doesn't have is lacking tackle production. He's reached 40+ solo stops in each of his 4 pro seasons. If all goes well he could emerge as a top 10 fantasy option in '05. Keep an eye on Robert Geathers as well. Lewis's defenses get after the QB and Geathers is in a position that is usually reserved for a teams best pass rusher. He's an upgrade over Duane Clemons as a rusher and is solid versus the run. Clemons will still be in the mix, especially in running situations, which could hold Geathers numbers down a bit. Clemons is expected to see some time at tackle, especially in passing situations, so he shouldn't take much playing time from Geathers. John Thornton is an active interior lineman who is slightly undersized but makes up for it with agility and quickness. The move to right tackle will serve to free him up from the constant double teams that a left tackle sees and allow him to better use his strengths. He's a good pass rusher (9 sacks over the past 2 seasons) who will team with Geathers to give the Bengals a solid rush from the right as well. Thornton has limited potential but should put up in the area of 40 tackles and 5-6 sacks which would make him solid backup material. Robinson will do the dirty work at left tackle and will be an important factor in the success of the defense but his contributions won't show up in the box scores. The DL depth is good for the Bengals. Clemons is a strong #3 end and they really like youngsters Mathias Askew and Langston Moore at the tackles. Moore saw extensive action and played well in relief of Tony Williams last season.

Fantasy Prospects
DE Justin Smith - Solid #2 starter with upside
DE Robert Geathers - Strong sleeper
DT John Thornton - Sleeper with limited upside, could be a solid backup or maybe even a decent #3
DT Bryan Robinson - No fantasy value
DE Duane Clemons - Minimal value, decent backup if either Smith or Geathers are injured

Linebacker
There is much change on the DL but even more at linebacker heading into the new season. Barring injury the Bengals will start a pair of rookies at in David Pollack and Odell Thurman. While its Rare for a team go with 2 rookies at LB, its even more rare for a team to produce 3 linebackers who are all worthy of fantasy consideration as is the case here. Brian Simmons is the veteran presence of the group and the most stable fantasy option as well. While he hasn't finished in the top 10 since '99, Simmons annually lands among the top 20 linebackers and is a consistent contributor as a strong third starter or a decent #2. The influx of new talent shouldn't hurt his his production any and could even give it a little boost. Simmons will remain an every down player and the presence of Thurman will allow new defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan to be more creative with Simmons who can be a playmaker when given some freedom within the scheme. Thurman has been working with the first team from day one and continues to draw praise from the coaching staff not only for his ability but for his intensity as well. Marvin says he hasn't coached such an intense player since he had Ray Lewis which is a pretty strong statement. To get an idea of what Thurman is capable of, three players shared the Bengals MLB position in '04 and combined to produce a mark of 100-46-3.5 with 3 fumble recoveries. In most NFL schemes the SLB's job is to take out the blocking and/or turn the play inside for someone else to make the tackle. In Marvin Lewis's scheme the SLB is a playmaker which bodes well for David Pollack's fantasy potential. Under Lewis Peter Boulware went 41-16-11.5 as a rookie in '97 and LeVar Arrington posted a career best fantasy mark going 67-25-11, for a final ranking of 11th in '02. Pollack won't be a tackling machine but its very possible he could rack up double digit sacks and have enough tackles to go with them to be a decent fantasy option. One important note for all three of the starters is that when the Bengals go to their nickel all three may remain on the field. They will move Pollack up on the outside and take DT Bryan Robinson off the field to make room for the extra DB. Linebacker depth is very good for Cincy. Caleb Miller is a solid backup in the middle while Landon Johnson can play all three positions well and would be a starter for many clubs.

Fantasy Prospects
WLB Brian Simmons - Excellent third starter or a decent #2
MLB Odell Thurman - Potential stud, no worse than a good #3 starter
SLB David Pollack - Value will vary depending on scoring systems, likely good sack totals and very average tackle numbers
OLB Landon Johnson - An injury away from be a decent option
MLB Caleb Miller - Deep sleeper, could produce if he gets a shot

Defensive Back
Then rookie Madieu Williams burst onto the scene last season in a big way, posting marks of 86-17-2 with 3 interceptions and 2 fumble recoveries, all in just 13 games as a starter. He played corner and both safety positions over the course of the season and put up strong numbers no matter where he lined up. Williams isn't all that big at 6'0" and 193 but he's fast, smart and about 110 pounds of him is heart. The kid flies around the field with reckless abandon but somehow manages to always be in the right place. He's the real deal. Over rated and injury prone Kim Herring is set to battle career backup Anthony Mitchell for the starting SS job. This is the one major weakness for the Bengals that still needs to be addressed. If a quality veteran should become available once cuts start coming the club is in a position where they can go after help. There is even a chance that backup FS Kevin Kaesviharn could end up starting. In that case Williams would likely move back over to SS where his value would be even higher. At corner the Bengals are strong three men deep. Deltha O'Neal is one of the leagues better pure cover men and Tory James is a strong #2 corner who finished second in the league with 8 picks a year ago. Keiwan Ratliff will again fill the nickel role that he took over as a rookie and should one of the starters go down he would make a solid starter. Beyond those three however the Bengals are hurting. This is another position at which the club will be scanning the waiver wire for help at down the road. O'Neal is good enough that offenses will look to make plays away from him which is why James was able to put up 58 tackles along with his big play production. James should once again be a decent option for owner in leagues that require corners.

Fantasy Prospects
FS Madieu Williams - Stud, produced at three different secondary positions last season
SS Anthony Mitchell - Sleeper, has to win the starting job first
CB Tory James - Depth in large leagues, solid starter in leagues that use corners
CB Deltha O'Neal - Minimal value
CB Keiwan Ratliff - No value unless a starter goes down
SS Kim Herring - No value even if he wins the starting job
FS Kevin Kaesviharn - Deep sleeper, a lot would have to happen


Cleveland Browns

Defensive Line
The Browns are another of several clubs riding the wave of the 3-4 defense and just like some of those others, they are going to struggle because they don't have the horses to pull the cart. Linemen is the 3-4 don't get much glory or put up gaudy numbers but for the scheme to work they must be very good at doing their jobs. Nose tackle Jason Fisk has a little experience in the 3-4 scheme but is basically an undersized 32 year old journeyman. He was a backup for the Chargers last year and they made no effort to resign him. Alvin McKinley is set to open the season at DE. He's a 6th year pro who has exactly 1 career start to his credit and has not worked in a 3-4 previously. To his credit McKinley did see action in all 16 games last season and recorded the first 3 sacks of his career. Still he is hardly Richard Seymour, Aaron Smith or Anthony Weaver. In Orpheus Roye the Browns do have one guy who they know can get the job done. Roye started at DE in Pittsburgh's 3-4 before coming to Cleveland and he was successful. Very few linemen are able to overcome the limits of the scheme to produce in the box scores and Roye was no exception, however he did come close. In '99 (his last season with the Steelers) Roye managed a mark of 41-17-4.5 with an interception. that was a long time ago, on a much better team. Don't expect him to come close to those numbers in this situation. Depth will also be an issue for the Browns as third year pro Nick Eason and second year man Amon Gordon are the top backups. Between them they have 3 NFL season and exactly 6 tackles.

Fantasy Prospects
DE Orpheus Roye - No fantasy value
DE Alvin McKinley - No fantasy value
NT Jason Fisk - No fantasy value
DE Andrew Hoffman - No fantasy value

Linebacker
Quality linemen are a necessity to the success of a 3-4 defense but its the outside linebackers that are expected to make the plays that make a difference. It takes a special type of player to be successful at these positions and on paper the Browns don't have many of them. Kenard Lang is a 9 year veteran defensive end who has never taken a snap at linebacker in his pro career. He's a slightly above average pass rusher and not particularly fast. As an every down end in the NFL he's a quality player but its hard to picture him as an OLB in any scheme. The Browns brought in former Falcon Matt Stewart via free agency. He has plenty of experience at the position but hasn't had much success. Stewart started for the Falcons in their 3-4 for two seasons ('02 & "03) and managed an unimpressive 5.5 sacks in 28 games. Stewart will battle Lang for the starting job opposite Chaun Thompson who might actually be a good fit. Thompson began his college career at DE and was moved to linebacker in his sophomore year. He earned a starting job at SLB in the Browns 4-3 last season and played well. He's fast enough and seems to have the tools to get the job done though it remains to be seen if he has the required pass rush skills. On the inside the Browns are in much better shape with Andra Davis and Ben Taylor. In '04 Davis was on his way to a second straight 90+ tackle year at MLB when an MCL injury ended his season. He is on track to be ready for camp and is expected to be in the lineup for the opener. Davis is the favorite to lead the club in tackles again in '05. He has good coverage skill and is a big play threat as well (3 picks and a recovery in 10 games last season). He should make a strong #2 linebacker in most leagues and has the potential to reach 100 solo tackles if the linemen can keep him clean. While Davis is the favorite, Taylor could push him for the team tackle title if he can remain healthy. Taylor missed nearly all of last season with a torn pectoral that required surgery but he's now healthy and ready to go. The club's 4th round pick in '02, Taylor has struggled with injuries since coming into the league. He earned a starting job at WLB in his second season ('03) only to miss or be limited in the final 8 games. Its very noteworthy however, that through the first 8 games that season Taylor was on pace for 110 solo tackles. He had just one game will fewer than 5 and racked up a 16-2-0 mark against the Patriots in week 8.

Fantasy Prospects
ILB Andra Davis - Quality #2 starter
ILB Ben Taylor - Sleeper with injury concerns but big potential
OLB Kenard Lang - Major risk with limited upside
OLB Chaun Thompson - Sleeper in leagues that score heavy on sacks
OLB Matt Stewart - No value

Defensive Back
The Browns have put together some pretty good talent in the secondary thought they are young and unproven at the safety positions. Strong safety Sean Jones was considered one of the top defenders in last years draft. The Browns were very pleased to land the big hitting playmaker in the second round only to be disappointed when he was lost to a knee injury well before the season opened. He's has had a full year to recover and has been able to practice with no setbacks and showing no ill effects. On the other hand he is still basically a rookie and has been making his share of "rookie mistakes" during practice sessions. Jones will step into a position that last year saw aging veteran Robert Griffith go 92-27-1 and finish second in the league among all defensive backs in tackles. Its hard to call Jones a sleeper but many owners will overlook him, don't be one of those owners. The free safety position remains unsettled. This years second round pick Brodney Pool is all but certain to eventually land the starting job but putting him in there with Jones would essentially be starting two rookies at safety. That's something the Browns will likely avoid, at least early in the season when/if they are still in contention. Chances are former Vikings starter Brian Russell will open the season at the position and keep it warm for Pool. If he plays well enough he could hold off the youngster all season. Russell has some fantasy potential, especially in this situation. In '03 he had a career year with marks of 78-17-1, 9 interceptions and a fumble recovery while finishing in the top 5 among fantasy DBs. Last season he fell back to earth with a resounding thud going 61-21-0 with just 2 takeaways. Russell also has to fend of third year man Chris Crocker who will get serious consideration. Crocker was the teams 3rd round pick in '03 and made a significant contribution last season before being lost to injury in week 13. Crocker started 6 games in '04 and put up at least 6 solo tackles in 5 of them. To sum it all up, we need to keep an eye on this battle through training camp. The Browns have a pair of solid corners in Daylon McCutcheon and Gary Baxter, and a decent nickel back in Leigh Bodden but corner is still a weakness for them. They don't have a true #1 shutdown type guy who can go 1 on 1 against the top receivers and with McCutcheon they have injury issues. He's been banged up and missed significant playing time in each of the past three seasons. When healthy McCutcheon has some fantasy potential. He recorded 5 or more solo stops in 5 of his 8 starts last season and should be considered by owners in leagues that start corners. For the past three seasons Baxter has consistently produced right at 70 solo tackles but keep in mind those came while playing opposite Chris McAlister who is one of the leagues top corners. On his new team Baxter IS the top corner so those numbers could suffer greatly. That said, Baxter is a big corner who, unlike many NFL corners, loves contact and doesn't shy away from run support.

Fantasy Prospects
SS Sean Jones - Strong sleeper, top 10 potential
FS Brodney Pool - Sleeper, dynasty special who could open the season as a backup
CB Daylon McCutcheon - Sleeper in leagues that use corners
CB Gary Baxter - Depth in large leagues, potential starter in leagues that use corners
FS Brian Russell - Sleeper, short term answer maybe, keeping the position warm for Pool
FS Chris Crocker - Deep sleeper
CB Leigh Bodden - No value


Pittsburgh Steelers

Defensive Line
The Steelers 3-4 is the original blue print that so many teams are trying to copy, and as such it comes as no surprise that they have the personnel in place to make it work. Aaron Smith led all 3-4 linemen in sacks last season with 8 and finished 5th among that same group with just 30 solo tackles. Only then Ravens DE Marques Douglas finished higher than Smith's #27 in the final fantasy rankings which goes to show just how tough it is for 3-4 linemen to be fantasy productive. To his credit Smith did break the stereotype in '02 when he finished in the top 15 by going 53-17-5.5. Unfortunately the best tackle numbers he could muster in his other 5 pro seasons was 36. Thirty four year old Kemo von Oelhoffen remains the starter opposite Smith but will see his playing time decline this season as the Steelers plan to have him share time with Travis Kirschke. While both of these players do their jobs well within the scheme, neither of them have any fantasy potential. Nose tackle Casey Hampton missed the final 10 games last season with a torn ACL. His rehab is coming along well and he's expected to be ready for full participation come training camp. Chris Hoke filled in admirably when Hampton went down last season but again neither of these guys has any shot at being a fantasy factor. In the previous two years combined Hampton totaled only 50 solo tackles and 3 sacks.

Fantasy Prospects
DE Aaron Smith - Depth in large leagues, not enough tackle production.
DE Kemo von Oelhoffen - No value
NT Casey Hampton - No value
DE Travis Kirschke - No value
NT Chris Hoke - No value

Linebacker
There is something that needs to be pointed out before getting too deep into the Steelers. This defense was on the field for 882 snaps in '05 which is 117 below the league average and 36 fewer than any other defense. In essence the Steelers defenders played about a game and a half less than most everyone else. With that in mind its not such a surprise that their top tacklers James Farrior and Troy Polamalu totaled just 68 solo stops each. This however, is not to say that there is no fantasy value to be found here. When the Steelers originally signed Farrior back in '02 the plan was to have him play the Ed Hartwell role to Kendrell Bell's Ray Lewis. When Bell was unable to stay healthy the Steelers learned that like Hartwell, Farrior could get the job done on his own. While he isn't in the right situation to be a tackling machine, Farrior has emerged as a playmaker at ILB for the Steelers. So much so that they finally gave up on Bell and made Farrior the centerpiece of their defense in '04. He responded by not only tying for the club lead in tackles but posting career bests in interceptions (4), sacks (3), fumble recoveries (3) and forced fumbles (3). Chances are the tackle production will be a little better this season but even if Farrior fails to reach 80 solo stops he should still be a top 15 linebacker if not a top 10. Larry Foote isn't much of a fantasy prospect but he is a solid contributor to the success of the defense. However should Farrior go down, Foote is not a guy who could assume the role and be as successful. He's a role player who is capable of doing the jobs asked of him but lacks the sheer talent to step up to the next level. Joey Porter and Clark Haggans are the unquestioned starters at OLB though James Harris is on the verge of earning a bigger role. Porter gave us one decent fantasy year back in '02 when he went 60-28-9 with 4 picks and a couple of fumble recoveries. That was the only year he posted over 50 solo stops while over the rest of his career the only FF owners who found him of use were those in scoring systems leaning heavily on sacks. Haggans didn't perform badly last season but didn't quite supply the punch that the coaching staff wants. He will lose a little playing time if Harris continues to impress. Look for rookie 5th round pick Rian Wallace to move quickly up the depth chart and become the top backup.

Fantasy Prospects
ILB James Farrior - Top 10 prospect but somewhat inconsistent, consider him a solid #2 or quality #3 starter
ILB Larry Foote - No value
OLB Joey Porter - Minimal value unless you league leans heavily on sacks
OLB Clark Haggans - Minimal value unless you league leans heavily on sacks
OLB James Harris - Potential injury pickup in leagues that lean heavily on sacks
ILB Rian Wallace - Deep sleeper, could be the guy if there is an injury

Defensive Back
If there is a weakness to the Steelers defense its the cornerback position where they lack a true stud shutdown cover man. This isn't as big a problem for Pittsburgh as it would be for most clubs. The nature of the scheme is to generate a lot of pressure up front which in turn helps the corners who don't have to cover as long. This strategy has worked for years and the current collection of corners is as sound as any they have had in a decade. Injury prone Chad Scott has moved on, replaced by last year's second round pick Ricardo Colclough. Colclough spent most of last season gaining experience as the nickel back and did an admirable job. He may prove to be the team's best cover man. Deshea Townsend will man the other starting position with second round pick Bryant McFadden pushing veteran and long time starter Willie Williams for the nickel duties. What the Steelers lack in top end talent they make up for in quality depth. Townsend was the top fantasy option of the corners last season but he wasn't much of an option at all with only 47 tackles and 3 picks. That's about the best we can expect from any of these guys in '05. The Steelers spent a first round pick on Troy Polamalu in '03 and he has proven worth every penny they spent on him and more. Aside from tying Farrior for the team tackle title (and winning it if you count assists), Polamalu also led the club in interceptions with 5 and scored a TD. All of which landed him among the top 10 fantasy DBs in just his first season as a starter. The kid is still young and hasn't reached his full potential. He should be a perennial top 10 DB for the next decade. Chris Hope settled into the starting job at FS last season when his competition (Mike Logan) was injured early on. Hope isn't a real special player. He's a guy who doesn't make game changing plays but he plays smart and doesn't give up game changing plays either. He ended last season ranked on the 70's among DBs and likely ends up in the same area in '05.

Fantasy Prospects
SS Troy Polamalu - Stud, top ten
FS Chris Hope - No value
CB Ricardo Colclough - Depth in leagues that start corners
CB Deshea Townsend - Depth in leagues that start corners
CB Willie Williams - No value


Baltimore Ravens

Defensive Line
There will be a lot of change in Baltimore this year as the defense moves from its very successful 3-4 scheme to the 46 defense made famous by Buddy Ryan and the '85 Bears. Buddy's son Rex is now leading the charge as the Ravens DC and the players are very excited about playing in an even more aggressive style. The problem for us is that its tough to get a read on who will be doing what within the scheme. Adding even more confusion is the fact that they don't plan to completely abandon the 3-4. What we can be assured of is that Terrell Suggs will be a defensive end in the base (46) scheme and is all but assured of leading the club in sacks. He's the playmaker of the DL and as such could be a contender for the league sack title this time around. On the other end of the spectrum is Anthony Weaver. The Ravens are trying to make him a defensive end in the new alignment but he's struggling. Weaver is a very good football player but may be better suited for the tackle position which is very similar to playing end in a 3-4. Don't be surprised if he eventually lands at tackle full time. Weavers career best was 5 sacks in '03 which is not bad for a lineman in a 3-4. He's a good inside pass rusher and could emerge as a strong fantasy option if he can get away from being double teamed on every snap. In '03 Kelly Gregg managed an impressive 63 solo stops despite the limitations of playing nose tackle in a 3-4. He found his way onto rosters in most fantasy leagues but fell short of being an every week starter because he could only manage 3 sacks. Last year saw Gregg's production drop to 44 solo stops and 1.5 sacks. In the new battle plan Gregg will line up at tackle when the club goes 46 and slide over to end when they shift into a 3-4. He could have another big season in terms of tackles but simply isn't more than average as a pass rusher in any situation. Dwan Edwards will server a similar role as Kelly. He to will lineup at tackle in the 46 and end in the 3-4. Edwards spent all of last season on the inactive list despite being the club's second round pick. He has a lot of upside and could be a pleasant surprise but there is no real reason at this point to expect him to be a fantasy factor. There are also wild cards in the mix here with rookie Dan Cody and veteran Adalius Thomas. Both are listed as strong side linebackers but they are two of the best pass rushers on the roster and its no stretch to think either or both of them will see time at end in the 46. In fact if Weaver continues to struggle, one of them may even be called upon to start there.

Fantasy Prospects
DE Terrell Suggs - Likely stud though there is risk considering he's in a new scheme
DE Anthony Weaver - Sleeper who could flop, better suited as a tackle
DT Kelly Gregg - Sleeper in leagues that lean heavily on tackles
DT Dwan Edwards - Deep Sleeper
DE Roderick Green - Keep an eye on him in the case of an injury

Linebacker
You can cover all that needs to be said about the Ravens linebackers in one name... Ray Lewis. He and Donnie Edwards are undoubtedly 1 and 1A in any defensive league, and as if he needed the help, the 46 should make him even better. Lewis will play the Mike Singletary role which means he will be the centerpiece that the scheme is built around and everything will be funneled to him. If not for his 155 solo tackles in '97, I would predict this to be the best fantasy season of his career. This guy is a first ballot Hall of Fame lock and has been at the top of the fantasy game from the first snap of his career. Only 3 times in his 9 seasons has Lewis totaled fewer than 100 solo stops. In two of those three he managed 90+ solo's in 14 games, and the third was in '02 when Lewis missed 11 games with a shoulder injury. He also has 22 sacks and 20 interceptions in his career which proves he's not just a tackling machine but a serious playmaker as well. The team may miss Ed Hartwell more than they expect, especially once they see Tommy Polley in pads. When Lewis went down in '02, Hartwell stepped in and did a very good job (103 solo stops) in Lewis's role. Polley isn't a guy who can do that. He will fill the hole a WLB but has no chance of being a fantasy factor unless Lewis goes down and even then his value would be questionable. Adaluis Thomas and Dan Cody are the only two players the club lists at SLB but one has to wonder just how much "true" SLB either of them will play. The 46 is a very aggressive, attacking style defense which moves guys around to create confusion and/or favorable match ups for its playmakers. Thomas finished last season second on the team with 8 sacks while the club sees its second round pick (Cody) as a difference maker. Both guys have played defensive end and are comfortable there if called upon.

Fantasy Prospects
MLB Ray Lewis - STUD! He and Donnie Edwards are in their own class
WLB Tommy Polley - Injury sleeper with limited upside
SLB Adalius Thomas - Sleeper, could be productive, especially in leagues that favor sacks
SLB Dan Cody - Sleeper, could be productive, especially in leagues that favor sacks

Defensive Back
The Ravens front 7 is loaded with talent but their secondary may well be the best in the game. Strong safety Ed Reed has become a perennial Pro Bowl selection while both starting corners Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle have made trips to Honolulu within the last 5 seasons. In fact even their 3 and 4 corners Deion Sander and Dale Carter have Pro Bowl experience. Granted Sanders and Carter are well into the twilight of their careers but Deion as a nickel back even at 37 is a scary thought for offensive coordinators. It will be very tough for offenses to move the ball through the air and even more difficult for them to throw down the field. From the IDP perspective however, only Reed has any real value. He is the leagues most dangerous big play threat with 16 interceptions, 4 forced fumbles, 3 fumble recoveries and 3 touchdowns in the past two seasons alone. In fact the only thing that keeps Reed from being the top fantasy DB in the game is inconsistent and somewhat lacking tackle production. Along with all his big plays Reed turned in 9 games in which he produced 3 or fewer solo tackles and finished the season with a modest 64. In other words he's a boom or bust kind of guy who is mostly boom but will let you down once in a while. The word is that Reed will be playing deeper most of the time this season to put him in better position to make even more big plays, so the tackle numbers could slip even further. The club plans move FS Will Demps closer to the line and give him more run support duties. Demps managed 67 solo stops a year ago and could finish in the mid 70's with the new responsibilities but playing behind Ray Lewis isn't exactly the best thing for a guys fantasy potential.

Fantasy Prospects
SS Ed Reed - Stud, top 5 DB but can be a little inconsistent, especially in the tackle department
FS Will Demps - Sleeper, could provide decent depth but has limited upside
CB Chris McAlister - No value
CB Samari Rolle - No value
CB Deion Sanders - No value
CB Dale Carter - No value


Kansas City Chiefs

Defensive Line
The Chiefs put a lot of effort and money into repairing their defunct defense over the off-season, but the defensive line got table scraps in comparison to the other two thirds of the unit. The biggest addition was DE Carlos Hall, who is supposed to compete with second year man Jared Allen for a starting job. They may have overpaid for Hall in giving a 5th round pick in next years draft for a guy who in reality, is little more than a quality veteran backup. Hall is undersized at right around 260 pounds and struggles against the run at times. This is basically the same scouting report that you will find on Allen, the difference being that Allen led the club with 8 sacks a year ago while Hall put up only 2.5 in 14 starts. In Hall's defense, he fought a sore knee much of the year. The coaching staff was very pleased with their 4th round pick (Allen) last season and believe he can be a fine every down player if he can improve against the run. The kid is only 23 years old and he's 6'6" and 265 pounds with a frame that can handle more muscle. He's going to improve naturally with maturity and by hitting the weight room. If Hall does end up pushing anyone for a starting job it would more likely be Eric Hicks. The 8 year veteran has been a decent option for the Chiefs over the years but has underachieved in three of the last four seasons. In '00 and '02 he put up 14.5 and 9 sacks respectively yet in '01, '03 and '04 he combined for just 13.5. Hicks tackle production has also tailed off steadily from a career best 42 solos in '01, all the way down to a meager 26 last year. Simply put, the Chiefs need more production than that from the position. On the interior the Chiefs are solid but unspectacular. Journeyman Lionel Dalton is a 6'0" 315 pound fire plug that is solid as an oak tree but not much more agile than one. The 8 year vet did manage 4 of his 7 career sacks last season but is no real threat to suddenly explode. On the other hand Ryan Sims is a guy who is a long shot but could be a surprise. When the Chiefs took him in the first round back in '02 he was considered one of the best interior linemen in the draft. He's more active than Dalton and can make plays outside the tackle box. In his sophomore season Sims put up 34 solo stops and 3 sacks. The club was expecting bigger things from him last season when he suffered an ankle injury in week 4 and was never completely healthy the rest of the way. This will be a make or break season for Sims who should be highly motivated to shake the label of first round bust. John Browning is a very versatile vet who can contribute at tackle or end. He made just 7 starts last year but played a significant role in the rotation and put up 32 solo tackles with 4.5 sacks. If given a chance to play full time at either position, Browning should at least make decent depth in most leagues.

Fantasy Prospects
DE Eric Hicks - Marginal value at best
DE Jared Allen - Strong sleeper, likely to lead the club in sacks and should improve versus the run
DT Ryan Sims - Deep sleeper, don't waste a draft pick
DT Lionel Dalton - No value
DE Carlos Hall - Deep sleeper with moderate potential
DT John Browning - Injury sleeper

Linebacker
The Chiefs made three additions at linebacker this off-season, two of which provide a huge boost to the position's overall talent level on paper, but just how much real improvement the defense will get from prized free agent Kendrell Bell or rookie first round pick Derrick Johnson remains to be seen. Bell spent nearly all of last season as a spectator while recovering from a groin injury. In fact he's experienced a litany of problems and has been a regular on the injury report dating all the way back to '02 when he missed much of the season with a high ankle sprain. Over the course of the '03 campaign he was active for all 16 games but fought a sore knee, shoulder and the beginning of a chronic groin problem. Off season shoulder surgery resolved that issue but the groin problem and a hernia cost him nearly all of last season which led the Steelers to give up on him and make no effort to retain his services. The next question is where will Bell play in Kansas Cities revamped defense? Originally he was called a MLB but the latest word suggests he will start on the right (weak) side. Bell is a huge talent who could be a regular at the Pro-Bowl if he can stay healthy and could be a fantasy gold mine in either position. If they play Bell at WLB, where does that leave Johnson? The knock on him coming out of college is that he doesn't stand up well at the point of attack and tries to run around blockers rather than taking them on. Not the scouting report you want to hear on your strong side linebacker. Scott Fujita has done a very solid job at SLB over the past couple of seasons and Johnson isn't MLB material so does he even crack the starting lineup this year? 2003 second round pick Kawika Mitchell started 12 games in the middle last year and is the favorite to enter this season as the starter as well. Mitchell however, doesn't have a lock on the position by any stretch and will have to fend off a challenge from rookie Boomer Grigsby. Mitchell struggles in coverage and even if he does win the job, will be a 2 down player. Keyaron Fox was last years third round pick, he and Grigsby are both DC Gunther Cunningham's guys so former starters Shawn Barber and Mike Maslowski may find themselves on the outside looking in. Both could land in the unemployment line by the end of camp. The bottom is that its too early to call what will happen in KC. Its a situation that will produce some very good fantasy production and one we must keep an eye on during camp.

Fantasy Prospects
WLB Kendrell Bell - Huge injury risk but could pay big dividends.
MLB Kawika Mitchell - Should make a quality #3 starter or very good depth
OLB Derrick Johnson - Tons of potential but not without risk, especially in the short term
SLB Scott Fujita - Likely no better than depth in large leagues
OLB Shawn Barber - No value
OLB Keyaron Fox - Injury sleeper
MLB Mike Maslowski - No value
MLB Boomer Grigsby - Sleeper, keep an eye on this kid

Defensive Back
The corner position has been an Achilles heal for the Chiefs over the past several seasons. In fact you may have to go all the way back to '98 when a young Dale Carter was with the team to find a top notch cover man on this roster. They won't have that problem this season. Patrick Surtain is a true #1 corner and a guy who can go 1 on 1 with the better receivers in the league. Dexter McCleon is a solid #2 corner who spent most of last season nursing shoulder and hamstring injuries. He is healthy heading into training camp and should get the starting nod opposite Surtain. The addition of veteran Ashley Ambrose solidifies the corner position and gives the club some quality depth for the first time in recent memory. Ambrose will compete with former starter Eric Warfield for the nickel duties. Historically Chiefs corners haven't been much use to fantasy owners, but that might change this year. With offenses undoubtedly looking to avoid Surtain, McCleon (or who ever emerges as the other starter) could hold some fantasy value, especially in leagues that start corners. Sammy Knight was signed to take over at SS but he might not be a real big improvement. He's a good player who brings leadership and a physical presence but has never been the most talented or fleet of foot. What he won't do is make mental mistakes or miss tackles, which is the main reason the Chiefs brought him on board. Cunningham was not satisfied with the play of either Greg Wesley or Jerome Woods a year ago. Both were inconsistent, struggled with assignments at times and missed some tackles. With Knight walking into the starting SS job, Wesley and Woods will compete for the free safety spot. There are mixed opinions on how this battle will go, but this is how I see it... Wesley is 3 years younger, he's faster, he makes a little less money and he makes a lot more plays. Woods missed all of '02 after breaking his leg in a pre-season game and looks like he's lost a step since returning. If these points don't sway the opinions of doubters here are some telling excerpts from a mid June interview with Vermeil, "Right now he (Woods) is behind Greg Wesley" and "the coaches determined by the end of the season last year that Wesley had physically played that position better". That pretty much says it all... The Chiefs SS position has given us outstanding box score production over the past several years and the FS position has proven productive as well. The club should show improvement in the front 7 so there may be slightly fewer tackle opportunities. That said, Knight could post his best numbers since leading the Saints in tackle with 80 back in '02. While Wesley probably falls a little short of Knight in the tackle department, he should approach if not reach the 70 solo plateau. Both of these guys have a knack for making plays. Knight has 4 or more interceptions in 6 of his 8 seasons while Wesley has 16 picks over the past 3 seasons despite missing 7 games with injury.

Fantasy Prospects
SS Sammy Knight - Strong 3rd starter with top 20 upside
FS Greg Wesley - Strong third starter
CB Patrick Surtain - No value
CB Dexter McCleon - Possible starter in leagues that require corners
CB Ashley Ambrose - No value
CB Eric Warfield - Minimal value at best
FS Jerome Woods - Possible injury replacement with marginal upside


Denver Broncos

Defensive Line
Year in and year out the Broncos make some of the most boneheaded moves in the league when it comes to their defensive line. Two years ago Bert Berry came from nowhere to lead the club in sacks. He was rewarded not by the Broncos but by the Cardinals who signed him away when Denver wasn't willing to show him any love. Last year it was Reggie Hayward who stepped up and produced but following the same story line, Hayward is the new starting end for the Jaguars. Even more confusing than their refusal to pay their own players who have proven themselves, is the decision to basically import the entire dysfunctional and underachieving defensive line of the Cleveland Browns. DE Courtney Brown is one of the biggest teases in the game. The former first overall pick is a great talent with loads of promise but the guy has missed more games (33) than he's been active for (31) over the past 4 seasons. He's played a full schedule only once in his career and that as a rookie in '00. At this point Brown claims to be healthy and ready to rip up the league but we've heard that from him so many times its like the boy who cried wolf. He's a good candidate to be a last round fantasy pick. When/if he starts fast, trade him to a newbie and move on before he goes down again. Like Brown, Gerard Warren was a first round pick (#3 overall) of the Browns who started fast but then faded quickly. As a rookie in '01 Warren posted a career best 48 solo tackles and a solid 5 sacks. Since then he's neither reached 30 tackles nor improved beyond 5.5 sacks in any season. As a rook Warren was touted as the next Warren Sapp. I guess no one pointed out to him that he was supposed to play like a "young" Sapp. Warren was working with the second team behind Michael Myers during mini camps... Maybe Mike Shanahan just has a fetish for early round busts. Ebenezer Ekuban was a #20 overall pick of the Cowboys and spent 5 ugly years in Dallas, managing just 12.5 sacks in 4 seasons as a starter. He joined Cleveland in '04 and produced career highs in tackles with 29 and sacks with 8, but one decent year doesn't downplay 4 real bad ones. Don't count on much from him in '05. Just before training camps opened the Broncos traded for yet another high pick bust in former Niners second rounder John Engelberger. A guy with all of 17.5 sacks over 5 seasons. To Engelberger's credit he did tally a career high 5.5 last year when he started all 16 games. He will be in contention for considerable playing time. The Broncos hope/expect to have DE Trevor Pryce back on the field this fall after missing nearly all of last season with a bad back. The Broncos tried real hard to trade him over the off season but could find no one willing to take on the big cap hit for a guy with such injury questions. He finally agreed to take a pay cut to remain with the club and will be a starter as long as the back holds up. Its been 4 seasons since Pryce last reached double digits in sacks and only once in his career ('02) has he posted more than 33 tackles. At best he is very inconsistent and shouldn't be considered as any more than depth on a fantasy roster. In short there are more questions than answers in the Broncos front 4 and there is very little fantasy potential to be found. Shanahan has spent much of the off-season telling us how well his motley crew have been playing, but then would you ever expect him to admit anything different?

Fantasy Prospects
DE Trevor Pryce - Inconsistent depth with injury concerns
DE Courtney Brown - Major tease, huge potential but major injury issues
DT Gerard Warren - Deep sleeper, has talent but doesn't use it
DT Mario Fatafehi - No value
DT Michael Myers - No value
DE Raylee Johnson - No value
DE Ebenezer Ekuban - Deep sleeper, not a guy you want to draft but worth keeping an eye on
DE John Engelberger - Deep sleeper with limited potential

Linebacker
For all their questions up front the Broncos have assembled a very strong group of linebackers. Of their top 4 only Ian Gold (225) is under 240 pounds while collectively this is one of the fastest linebacker corps in the league. Though linebacker is a strength for the Broncos, a Denver linebacker probably won't be the strength of your defense. Only three times in the last decade has a Denver LB reached 90 or more solo tackles in a season, with the last coming in '02 when Al Wilson went 99-32-5 and the other two by John Mobley way back in '97 & '98. Unfortunately for Wilson (and those dynasty owners who have him) he's not come close to those career highs since. In fact he's put up just 69 and 71 tackles respectively in the two following seasons. Wilson is a guy who has the ability to break out but just doesn't seem to be in the right situation. DJ Williams led the club in tackles from the WLB position last season and was the top IDP scorer on club with a modest 81-33-2. When placing Williams on your draft board for this fall however, the numbers you should look at are the 45-21-1 put up by Donnie Spragan who started 15 games for the Broncos at SLB last year. With the addition of Ian Gold, Williams has been moved into the fantasy unfriendly strong side role. Granted Williams is a far superior player to Spragan and should be much more productive, but only Mobley with 79 in '01 has broken the 75 tackle mark from Denver's SLB position over at least the past dozen seasons. The favorite to step up as the units best fantasy option is Gold, who returns to Denver after a one year "vacation" in Tampa Bay. Gold is no stranger to the Broncos WLB job, having started 16 games there in '02 when he finished second on the team (to Wilson) with 85 solo tackles and kicked in 6.5 sacks. He was off to a strong start again in '03 when he tore an ACL in week 6. The Broncos weren't willing to take a chance on the injury and let him go to the Bucks last season as a free agent. Tampa Bay banished him to the strong side where he put up very modest numbers but played well and proved to everyone that the injury is behind him. He won't be a stud by any stretch but Gold should make a good third starter or excellent depth. 2003 second round pick Terry Pierce has been a bust thus far. There was some speculation early in the off-season that Denver would turn to a 3-4 and make him a starter. We haven't heard much about that lately but the club is ready to see some return on their investment or it will be time to sell. Pierce continues to work at all three positions and on special teams.

Fantasy Prospects
MLB Al Wilson - Decent depth in most leagues
WLB Ian Gold - Decent #3 starter or excellent depth
SLB DJ Williams - Possibly quality depth
MLB Terry Pierce - Injury sleeper

Defensive Back
On paper the Broncos draw mixed reviews in the secondary. Champ Bailey is arguably the best and most complete corner in the game. He can take on a team's best receiver, is a playmaker and isn't afraid to throw himself into run support. On the other hand, opposite Bailey is either former undrafted free agent Lenny Walls who has all of 17 NFL starts to his credit and missed most of last season with an injury, or one of the clubs three rookies who were taken on the first day of the draft. There is little doubt the club is looking at second round pick Darrent Williams to step up and claim the job. It will come as no surprise if he does so during training camp. Bailey posted 68 solo stops last season which is excellent for a corner of his stature but with the current situation its hard to see him repeating those numbers. Instead look for Williams to be the better fantasy option based on the rookie corner rule. Third round picks Karl Paymah and Domonique Foxworth are also expected to contribute early. One of them could even land the nickel job. At safety the Broncos are solid. 33 year old John Lynch remains one of the better safeties in the game though he may be better suited for the SS job. Lynch's numbers dropped off sharply in '01 and have never recovered. Over the past 5 season he's averaged just 51 tackles with a high of 62. Last season's starting SS Kenoy Kennedy was allowed to exit via free agency mostly because the club felt that Nick Ferguson is just as capable a player. Kennedy led the Denver DB contingent with 70 tackles from the SS position in '04. In '03 Ferguson made 10 starts at the position averaging over 5 tackles per start. Projected over 16 games he would have put him at about 75. Ferguson didn't see a lot of action behind Kennedy last season but is very capable of putting up the same kind of production. He's the top fantasy DB prospect here but don't count on him for more than depth.

Fantasy Prospects
SS Nick Ferguson - Decent depth in most leagues
FS John Lynch - Minimal value
CB Champ Bailey - Possible starter in leagues using corners
CB Lenny Walls - No value
CB Darrent Williams - Sleeper, rookie corner rule may apply


San Diego Chargers

Defensive Line
The Chargers turned to the 3-4 a couple of years back and have had some success with it. However they do have room for improvement, particularly up front. Last years starting trio of linemen were solid in some aspects of the scheme such as keeping the linebackers clean and holding their ground against the run, but San Diego finished the season tied for 30th in the league in sacks with only 29. While its true that rushing the passer isn't something that 3-4 lines generally excel at, they still needs to provide some threat. The Chargers starting three accounted for just 5.5 sacks last season and their defensive ends managed just 1.5 between them. In contrast the Steelers got 8 sacks from Aaron Smith alone and the Patriots top 3 accounted for 11. In fact league wide only the Texans got fewer sacks from their DL in '04. Despite the lacking pass rush San Diego has a solid group of linemen who fit the scheme well. Last April's second round pick Igor Olshansky proved to be an asset right away and heading into his second season should get nothing but better. Like most 3-4 linemen his biggest contributions won't show up in the box scores. Jacques Cesaire impressed as an undrafted rookie in '03, so much so that he landed a starting job at end opposite Olshansky last season. Cesaire did an adequate job in the starting role but could be bumped to backup status during camp as the Chargers will be looking to get first round pick Luis Castilo on the field early and may slide Jamal Williams to end to make room. Williams managed to lead the clubs linemen last season in both tackles with 25 and sacks with 4. Although these aren't numbers worthy of much fantasy consideration they are strong for a guy lining up at nose tackle. Very few linemen can overcome the limitations of the 3-4 to become useful in fantasy terms but as an end Williams might make a decent backup for us. Unless Castilo struggles he should break into the lineup very early. At 21 he's young even for a rookie and has a lot of maturing to do both physically and mentally, but he'll still be given every chance to prove he can contribute right away. As a nose tackle the cards are strongly stacked against Castilo having any box score potential. Adrian Dingle is the best pass rusher among the Chargers defensive linemen but he's not a particularly good fit in the 3-4 scheme and probably won't see a lot of playing time.

Fantasy Prospects
NT Jamal Williams - Could make a decent backup in large leagues if he move to end
DE Igor Olshansky - No value
DE Jacques Cesaire - No value
NT Luis Castilo - No value
DE Adrian Dingle - Minimal value as an injury replacement

Linebacker
No linebacker in the league, including Ray Lewis, has been a better fantasy option over the past 6 seasons than Donnie Edwards. It was 1998 when Edwards last totaled fewer than 97 solo tackles. He's broken triple digits in 4 of those 6 seasons including the past 3 in a row. Not only is he an extremely productive and consistent tackler but Edwards has led all linebackers in interceptions 3 times in the past 6 years including 2 of the past three seasons, and he's scored 4 touchdowns since '99. He's only 227 pounds but is remarkably durable missing just 2 games over the course of his 9 NFL seasons. There just aren't enough good things to say about this guy. He and Lewis are in a class of their own when it comes to fantasy defenders. Randall Godfrey is a good football player and was once a strong fantasy prospect in his own right, putting up 96 solo stops for the Titans back in '00, but he's battled various injuries ever since and has never approached those numbers again. Godfrey managed to stay healthy last season but playing in the complimentary role to Edwards, managed only 68 solo stops. Baring an injury to Donnie, Godfrey's numbers should remain very similar. Having watched Steve Foley play SLB in Cincinnati for 4 years (I'm a season ticket holder which explains why I had to get so heavily into FF in the 90's) and then seeing him flop with the Texans in '03, I have to admit my astonishment with his success as an OLB in San Diego last season. Foley not only posted a career high 47 tackles but nearly equaled his prior career sack total (10.5) with 10 in '04. As is typical with 3-4 OLBs, Foley lacks the consistent tackle numbers needed to be a strong fantasy option but in those leagues that tilt their scoring heavily toward sacks he has become a real gem. Foley can expect to have some help with the pass rush in '05. The Bolts used one of their two first round picks on Shawne Merriman who they expect to make a big impact. Merriman recorded 85 combined tackles/assists and 8.5 sacks as a DE for Maryland last season. At 253 pounds he was seen as a "tweener" by most scouts but has the speed, athletic ability and tenacity to be a great fit as a 3-4 OLB. Like all the other 3-4 outside backers in the league, Merriman will be hard pressed to be fantasy productive in most scoring systems but he is a significant improvement at the position for the Chargers. Ben Leber started at OLB last season and did a good job but the writing is on the wall for him. He simply doesn't have the talent to hold off Merriman for the long run. He and Carlos Polk amount to good experienced veteran depth.

Fantasy Prospects
ILB Donnie Edwards - Stud! He and Ray Lewis are in a class of their own
ILB Randall Godfrey - Depth at best but snap him up if Edwards is injured
OLB Steve Foley - Depth in large leagues, valuable in leagues that lean on sacks
OLB Shawne Merriman - Deep sleeper, more valuable in leagues that score heavy on sacks
OLB Ben Leber - No value
ILB Carlos Polk - Potential injury pickup

Defensive Back
When an NFL team is led in interceptions by an inside linebacker as the Chargers were in '04, its obvious that there are some issues. San Diego doesn't have a super star corner on the roster but there is no need for them to panic. What they do have is a trio of very good young ones led by '02 first round pick Quentin Jammer. Jammer is a big physical corner with very sound cover skills and a willingness to get involved in run support. The coaching staff thought he had come around when he tallied 4 picks in '03 but were disappointed when he contributed just 1 last season. In three seasons as a starter he's now managed just 5 total. His counterparts Sammy Davis and Florence Drayton didn't fare much better last season with 5 only picks between them. The coaching staff believes an improved pass rush will go a long way toward solving the problem moving foreword. Jammer is the top fantasy prospect of the Chargers corners but that isn't saying much. He's totaled over 50 solo tackles in each of his 3 pro seasons but those numbers have slowly been on the decline since his rookie campaign and Jammer has come to the point where his fantasy value is all but nonexistent. Opposite Jammer will be either '03 first round pick Sammy Davis or '03 second rounder Florence Drayton. Both are quality players with sound mechanics who would start for many clubs, but like Jammer there is a lack of big play production from them. Drayton led the club's DB's with 4 picks in '04 while Davis like Jammer, contributed just 1. Drayton will enter camp ahead of Davis with the loser of the competition handling the nickel duties. The fantasy value in the Bolts secondary comes at SS where third year starter Terrence Kiel finished second on the club with 72 solo stops in '04. If there is a knock on Kiel its that he's a little inconsistent. 5 times over the course of the '04 campaign Kiel managed 3 or fewer solo tackles in a game. However on the other side of the ledger he put up 5 or more tackles on 7 occasions including an 11-4-0 mark against the Bucks in week 14. He also chipped in a fumble recovery, 2 picks and a sack along the way. Kiel isn't a stud, but then playing behind Donnie Edwards we shouldn't expect him to be. He is however a decent 2nd starter or an excellent #3 DB. The Chargers weren't satisfied with the production of Jerry Wilson at FS last year. The career journeyman backup slipped into the Chargers lineup in '03 and managed to hold on to the job through last season because the club had more pressing needs. He will be challenged this fall by former Packer backup Bhawoh Jue and/or former Eagles backup Clinton Hart. Neither of these guys exactly strike fear into the hearts of opponents but both have played well in relief roles for injured starters over the past couple of seasons. Any of these three could come out of camp as a starter but my money is on Hart. Wilson totaled 113 tackles and 4 picks over his two year audition. Certainly not impressive and probably a good read of what we should expect from this years starter no matter what name is on the jersey.

Fantasy Prospects
SS Terrence Kiel - Decent #2 starter or excellent #3
FS Jerry Wilson - Depth in large leagues at best
CB Florence Drayton - No value
CB Sammy Davis - No value
CB Quentin Jammer - Backup in leagues that start corners
FS Bhawoh Jue - Sleeper with limited upside
FS Clinton Hart - Sleeper with limited upside


Oakland Raiders

Defensive Line
There are a ton of questions surrounding the Raiders defense heading into '05. After last years disastrous attempt at a 3-4, everything the club has done over the off-season seems to point toward their return to a 4-3 base scheme. Still Norv Turner made it clear in a late June interview that the 3-4 will remain part of their defensive package. According to Turner the team is practicing both alignments with nearly equal repetition. Memo to the Raiders coaching staff... watch some game film from last year, you don't have the players to run that defense and your wasting a lot of valuable time trying to force square pegs into round holes. Even if they elect to concentrate on a 4-3, Oakland has a lot of personnel questions to be answered. Are Warren Sapp and Ted Washington really washed up? Is '03 first round pick Tyler Brayton really a bust? Can Derrick Burgess stay healthy and if he does is he any good? Can last years poor play be blamed strictly on the scheme or are the Raiders really that lacking in the talent department? The way I see it, they certainly don't have the right players to make a 3-4 work and they didn't move to land any of those type guys over the off-season. Even Turner admitted that his players have a much better comfort level with the 4-3 and if they are to have any success at all they had better play a scheme that suits their limited talent. It wouldn't surprise me if Turner is just blowing a smoke screen so offenses won't know what to prepare for early in the season. At least I hope this is the case, being a Raiders fan it would suck if they are really that hardheaded. Both Brayton and Burgess are tough to get a read on going into the season. Brayton has just 2.5 sacks in each of his two NFL seasons. Not the kind of production you would expect from a first rounder, but it may not be all Brayton's fault. He's bounced between end and linebacker more times than a tennis ball at Wimbledon and hasn't been given a chance to get comfortable anywhere. On the other hand, Brayton only put up 12.5 sacks in 47 games at Colorado. Maybe he's just not much of a pass rusher. Burgess is another big question mark. He totaled 6 sacks as a rookie for Philly back in '01 and then missed the next two season with injuries. He returned to make 11 starts last year but cold muster just 19 tackles and 2.5 sacks. Not very promising in any light. Neither Sapp nor Washington are the same players they were in their prime but if the coaches put them both back at tackle where they belong, we will likely see that they aren't completely done yet. Its been years since Sapp had any fantasy value and Washington never has, so we shouldn't expect much from either of them in that aspect. One guy we need to keep an eye on is second year man Tommy Kelly. He played in just 10 games (starting 3) last season and recorded a team high 4 sacks. He's a versatile kid who can play both tackle and end, though he's more natural at tackle. He brings back memories of a young Rod Coleman and there are rumors that he could push Sapp for a starting job.

Fantasy Prospects
DE Tyler Brayton - Sleeper with limited upside
DE Derrick Burgess - Sleeper with injury concerns
DT Warren Sapp - No value
DT Ted Washington - No value
DT Tommy Kelly - Deep sleeper but keep an eye on this kid

Linebacker
The Raiders have almost as many questions at linebacker. Danny Clark, Sam Williams and Travian Smith will enter training camp as the starters but come September the lineup could look much different. Smith continues to struggle with a chronic knee problem that isn't getting any better and rumor has it he may not even make the final roster. Williams probably isn't in any danger of being cut (this year) but he has a lot to prove and had better start soon. He was a third round pick in '03 but has managed to be active for just 10 games in two seasons. Williams missed 15 games with a knee injury as a rookie followed by shoulder surgery, a sprained ankle and more knee problems last season. He did manage to sprinkle 4 starts in there and was somewhat productive when he did play. Williams is talented but remains very raw. Clark stepped up large in the box scores last season and drew a lot of praise from the coaching staff, but was it because he is suddenly that good after 5 years in the league or simply because he was a healthy body in a golden situation? Clark spent the first 4 years of his career as a backup in Jacksonville, bouncing in and out of the lineup at all three positions as the Jags desperately searched for a functional (healthy) LB combination. In '02 he started all 16 games posting very ordinary numbers (69 tackles) but never really landed a full time gig at any position. Talk him up as they may, in reality Clark is no better than a versatile veteran backup on a club that seriously lacked quality linebackers last season. There are three new faces in the mix heading into '05 and chances are at least two of them will see significant playing time. Third round pick Kirk Morrison isn't the most talented guy on paper but the kid was a tackling machine at San Diego State. He's a very heady, physical player who is a natural leader. Sixth round pick Ryan Riddle is a guy to keep an eye on as well. A defensive end at Cal in '04, he fell in the draft partly because he was a juco transfer who played just 2 years at division one. Scouts compared Riddle to Tedy Bruschi and believe that like Bruschi he could have a very good career ahead of him. The other guy who could see a lot of action is former Texans starter Jay Foreman who's experience in a 3-4 could be enough to leap frog him into a significant role if the team follows through on their threat to use that alignment often. Much Like Clark, Foreman is an average player who found himself in an excellent situation with the Texans. Foreman received very little interest from other clubs during free agency before joining the Raiders and reportedly will battle Morrison for the ILB job when the club uses the 3-4. We should all be watching Oakland's training camp with great interest. There is a ton of fantasy potential here, we just have to wait and see with whom it lies.

Fantasy Prospects
MLB Danny Clark - Should make a solid starter but don't count on a repeat of last year's big numbers
WLB Travian Smith - Major injury issues, may not make the team
SLB Sam Williams - Deep sleeper with injury problems
MLB Kirk Morrison - Sleeper, dynasty owners special who could produce early on
WLB Ryan Riddle - Deep sleeper for this year but dynasty owners should pay close attention
OLB Jay Foreman - Sleeper with limited upside, possibly a decent third starter if he lands the right starting job

Defensive Back
Even with all the uncertainties in the front 7, the secondary may be the most unsettled unit of all. There is however one major difference, the Raiders secondary is loaded with talent, especially at the corners. Charles Woodson has struggled through some nagging injuries and hasn't been himself over the past couple of years but he is one of the premier cover men in the league when healthy. It's no secret that he and the Raiders management aren't on the best of terms. Woodson has been on the trading block for two straight off-seasons but the club hasn't been able to move him. With the drafting of Fabian Washington and Stanford Routt in the first and second rounds respectively, Woodson's days as a Raider are likely numbered. The club will ride him this season while their youngsters gain some experience but they are obviously preparing for a future without him. Nnamdi Asomugha doesn't get much attention from anyone when talking about the situation in Oakland but keep in mind he was also a first round pick ('03) and is a very capable player in his own right. Free agent pickup Renaldo Hill is an experienced veteran who spent a good deal of his time in Arizona as a starter. With the log jam of talent he has little chance at cracking the lineup but any team in the league would be thrilled to have him as their #4 or#5 corner. Both of Oakland's starting corners (Woodson and Phillip Buchanon) reached the 50 solo tackle mark in '04 but with so many players vying for time, chances are the numbers will be spread too thin for anyone to have much fantasy potential this year. That said, keep an eye on the situation and particularly the two youngsters as the rookie corner rule could come into play. Free Safety Stuart Schweigert is a very interesting prospect. Some sources claim that he will "contend" for a starting job but he's been running with the first team right from the first organized workouts. One big laugher is the bogus report that surfaced last season questioning his speed. This guy beat Charles Rogers for the Michigan high school title in the 100 yard dash a few years back. He isn't slow. While not the most physical of stature, Schweigert isn't afraid to stick his pads in and pop a ball carrier and his 17 interception while at Purdue shattered the previous record of 11 set by Rod Woodson. Schweigert started twice last December and produced a mark of 13-2-0 in those games. He's a guy most people will overlook due to low overall numbers but he belongs well up on our sleeper lists. Derrick Gibson missed all of last season with a shoulder injury but is back in action and ready to fight for his starting job. Once touted by Raiders faithful as the next coming of Ronnie Lott or Eric Turner, Gibson has fallen far short of expectations and could find himself out of a starting job. Marques Anderson was brought in via trade when Gibson went down early in training camp last year. He will be a in strong contention to retain the starting job at SS. With all the questions in the front 7 there is a good chance that either or both Oakland starting safeties will carry plenty of value for us. The three players who started at those positions last season totaled 164 solo stops between them.

Fantasy Prospects
FS Stuart Schweigert - Strong sleeper
SS Derrick Gibson - Sleeper but has underachieved in the past
CB Charles Woodson - Potential starter in leagues that start corners
CB Nnamdi Asomugha - Sleeper in leagues that start corners
CB Fabian Washington - Sleeper, rookie corner rule could apply
CB Stanford Routt - Deep Sleeper, rookie corner rule could come into play
CB Renaldo Hill - No value
S Marques Anderson - Sleeper, keep an eye on the battle during camp


Jacksonville Jaguars

Defensive Line
Real quick now, name the Jaguars opening day starters at DE last season... Uh huh.. and the Jaguars would like to forget also. If you said Paul Spicer and Lionel Barnes, pat yourself on the back, for you my friend, are a true FF junkie. To say the Jags were a little weak at the position would be an understatement, but believe it or not it got worse when both those guys were lost for the season in week 2. The Jags got virtually no production from the position all year and as expected it was at the top of their shopping list over the off-season. The grocery cart came back filled with a pair of new starters in Reggie Hayward and Marcellus Wiley. The Jags scored big with Hayward who was the best pass rushing end in the free agent class and proved himself capable of being a solid every down player last season with Denver. Hayward has 19 sacks over the past two seasons and is just what the doctor ordered for the Jaguars defense. If there is a knock against him in fantasy terms is his sub-par tackle production. Hayward started 15 games last year but managed only 31 solo stops. This is something that could change in Jacksonville as the Jags have no one for him to share early downs with. Wiley on the other hand, turned in back to back stellar seasons once upon a time, but that was way back in '00 and '01. Since then he's struggled to regain his previous form. Wiley has just 6 sacks over the past two seasons and has a lot to prove. The organization actually did well considering the free agent market was, as usual, very thin at DE. Wiley plays the run well and even at 3 sacks per season he's an upgrade over what last year produced in Jacksonville. It's noteworthy that all three of last year's sacks and 20 of Wiley's solo tackles came over the final 6 weeks. If you project his number from those games over a full season he would go 52-8-8. Has he finally rediscovered his game? In John Henderson and Marcus Stroud the Jags have arguably the best tackle tandem in the league. Both are very mobile big men who are surprisingly good pass rushers at well over 300 pounds, and both are stout against the run. Henderson finished second only to Charles Grant among all defensive linemen in '04 with 63 solo tackles and he managed to lead the Jags with 6.5 sacks as well. The numbers landed him soundly in the top 10 of most leagues but its consistency that adds to his value. Henderson started all 16 games last year recording at least 3 solo tackles in 15 of them. The added talent at end should help free him from double teams more often in pass rush situations which could add a couple more sacks to his total this time around. Stroud is a strong inside rusher with 15.5 sacks over the last 3 seasons but he doesn't make as many tackles as Henderson. Over the past three seasons Stroud has reached 40 solo stops just once. He's a good option in leagues that start tackles as a separate position but he's marginal for most of us. Tony Williams is coming off a broken leg but is very near 100%. The Jags picked him up as a veteran insurance policy behind the tackles but don't be surprised to see him play a little end, especially if Wiley flops again.

Fantasy Prospects
DE Reggie Hayward - Decent #2 starter or excellent #3, had upside
DE Marcellus Wiley - Deep sleeper, has some potential
DT John Henderson - Quality #2 with strong consistent tackle numbers
DT Marcus Stroud - Decent depth in most leagues
DT Tony Williams - Injury sleeper, could move to end in a pinch

Linebacker
After several years of musical chairs at linebacker the Jaguars have finally assembled a solid group that will be together for the long haul. It took Mike Peterson a year to get comfortable with the transition to middle linebacker but he came on strong both on the field and in the box scores during his second season at the position. He's a guy I was very high on heading into last season and its doubtful that we have yet seen his best. Peterson is one of the most under rated linebackers in the league. He's not a regular on Sports Center nor has he ever been on the cover of a Madden game. What he has done is to quietly become one of the best linebackers in the league. Even more importantly he is a guy we can count on to consistently put numbers in the box score. Peterson recorded 5 or more solo stops in 12 games last season and put up 4 solo's and a sack in two of the other 4. In fact he was one of the few players who recorded at least 4 solo tackles in all 16 games... The coaching staff was very pleased with last April's second round pick Daryl Smith who secured a starting job during training camp. His rookie campaign resulted in very modest numbers but that was to be expected from a rook at SLB. This off-season however, Smith and last years WLB (and second leading tackler) Akinola Ayodele have switched positions. Smith now has some experience to go with a lot of talent, and is playing in a position that could allow him to be a serious fantasy factor in '05. Ayodele's numbers weren't stellar (76-17-2) but he did manage 5 or more solo stops in 10 games. Smith should be a better fit at WLB and has more raw talent than Ayodele. The kid could be a big surprise and should be high on our sleeper lists. Ayodele is a quality player who is well suited for the role at hand and will contribute to the success of an improved defense, but he doesn't have much chance at putting up fantasy numbers from the SLB position. Nate Wayne is an experienced veteran backup but is over rated for the most part. He had a couple of strong years while with the Packers earlier in his career but has been far less than impressive in recent years. Word out of Jacksonville is that he could push Ayodele for playing time but don't count on it.

Fantasy Prospects
MLB Mike Peterson -Stud, top 10 and very consistent
SLB Akinola Ayodele - Minimal value after move to SLB
WLB Daryl Smith -Strong sleeper, grab this guy in the late rounds
OLB Nate Wayne -Injury sleeper with minimal potential

Defensive Back
Jacksonville addressed their biggest needs at defensive end but they did very little to bolster a mediocre secondary, at least for the short term. Rashean Mathis is a solid #1 corner but beyond that the Jags are average at best. Projected starter Kiwaukee Thomas has amassed all of 8 starts over his first 5 years in the league and the next best option would be either veteran journeymen Terry Cousin, veteran journeyman Kenny Wright, or rookie third round pick Scott Starks. Not exactly a plethora of talent to choose from. Don't be surprised if the rookie climbs the depth chart quickly and end up as the nickel back. The safety positions are a little stronger but are still nothing to get excited about. FS Deon Grant is a dependable player who doesn't make mistakes but he isn't a difference maker. Grant contributed just 2 interceptions last season and has just 8 over the past 3 years. His career best fantasy production came in '03 when he tallied 65 solo tackles and 3 pick while with the Panthers. Hardly anything to get excited about. SS Donovin Darius is a solid yet unspectacular veteran who has consistently been the Jaguars top fantasy prospect at DB. However this isn't saying much either. Like Grant, Darius is a fundamentally sound safety who simply doesn't make enough big plays. To his credit he did record a career high 5 picks in '04 but that doesn't erase the previous 4 seasons when he managed just 5 total. To put the final nail in his fantasy coffin, Darius has never reached 70 solo tackles in a single season and three times over his 8 years (including the last two) he's failed to even reach 60. The club has used its franchise tag to keep Darius in a Jaguars uniform for the past two seasons but they may be looking to develop 5th round pick Gerald Sensabaugh as his long term replacement. To sum it all up, fantasy owners need to look somewhere besides Jacksonville for help at DB.

Fantasy Prospects
SS Donovin Darius - Depth in large leagues
FS Deon Grant - Depth in large leagues
CB Rashean Mathis - Possible starter in leagues that require corners
CB Kiwaukee Thomas - Sleeper, could be picked on if he keeps the starting job
CB Scott Starkes - Deep sleeper, rookie corner rule
CB Terry Cousin - No Value
SS Gerald Sensabaugh - Deep sleeper for dynasty owners, possible injury sleeper


Houston Texans

Defensive Line
The Texans have been trying to build a successful 3-4 defense ever since they joined the league but have had relatively little success. While their struggles certainly don't lie solely with the defensive line, the group has been a contributing factor. Gary Walker had a solid season for the expansion Texans in '02 with 36 tackles and 6.5 sacks. He then missed most of '04 with an injury. Walker returned to start 15 games in '04 but was obviously not the same player and managed a mere 20-10-0.5. He's an 11 year veteran and very well could be done. Nose tackle Seth Payne followed the same story line missing most of '03 and returning to sub par production in '04, though his numbers didn't crash nearly as hard as Walker's. Payne is a couple of years younger than Walker and could bounce back this year. Then again he could end up losing his job to first round pick Travis Johnson. The Texans are entering their 4th year of existence and believe it or not Johnson is the first defensive lineman the club has selected in the college draft. This alone is a statement to why the club continues to struggle. Robair Smith is another average lineman that has been plugged in and faces no serious challenge for a starting job. The Texans got just 4.5 sacks from their entire starting DL in '04. It takes horses to pull the cart but Houston has been trying to get the job done with donkeys and broken down nags. Maybe Johnson is the beginning of a trend that will turn things around.

Fantasy Prospects
DE Gary Walker - No value
DE Robair Smith - No value
NT Seth Payne - No value
NT Travis Johnson - No value

Linebacker
Over the course of the '02-'03 seasons the Texans ILB tandem of Jamie Sharper and Jay Foreman combined for 405 solo stops and were both among the best in the fantasy business. Sharper continued the tradition last season with 98 solo stops while Foreman was stopped by an injury. Both were jettisoned by the Texans early in the off-season and their replacements make for interesting speculation to say the very least. Houston signed former Miami WLB Morlon Greenwood to fill one of the openings and moved OLB Kailee Wong inside to cover the other. There are mixed opinions on which of these two will be the more productive but this is the way I see it. Wong is not new to the inside linebacker position after starting at MLB for two seasons in Minnesota prior to joining the Texans. In those two seasons he combined for a solid 167 solo tackles, 5 sacks and 3 picks, making him a decent fantasy option. He's a good pass rusher with 18.5 sacks over the past 4 seasons as a starter, and is a very aggressive/sound tackler. Head coach Dom Capers had this to say about Wong after naming him a team captain "He's a smart guy. You know you can count on him. He's an intelligent guy that can handle all the things out there, and he's a guy that will be on the field all three downs." Greenwood on the other hand has played in the shadow of Zach Thomas his entire career but has a personal best of just 66 solo stops with a total of only 116 over his two years as the Dolphins starter. Greenwood reminds me a lot of the guy he replaced (Derrick Rodgers) who escaped Thomas's shadow only to flounder on his own in New Orleans. The thing that made Sharper a consistently better fantasy option was big plays and Greenwood simply doesn't make them. He has 3 career sacks (only a half in the past two seasons) and has never intercepted a pass nor recovered or forced a fumble. The bottom line here is that the Texans are not a much improved defense heading into '05, and its been proven that both their inside backers have a great deal of potential. Its likely that Wong and Greenwood will each reach 90 solo stops but Wong is the favorite to be the better fantasy option of the pair. If one of them flops, my money says it will be Greenwood. Moving Wong inside opens up a starting job for '03 third round pick Antwan Peek who the club has been very high on from the start. Peek will team with last years #1 picks Jason Babin to try and kick start Houston's stagnant pass rush. The Texans have been at or near the bottom of the league in sack production in each of their 3 season in existence. Outside linebackers are the key to the pass rush in a 3-4 scheme but no Texans OLB has ever reached the 6 sack mark. Peek has fought injuries in each of his pro seasons which have held him back. He better stay healthy and produce this year or Charlie Anderson may take his job. The team's 6th round pick last April, Anderson has really turned some heads and has a real shot at unseating Peek before he ever get comfortable. As with all outside backers in 3-4 schemes, the Texans trio has little chance of putting up useful tackle numbers and I've already mentioned their sack struggles. Don't count on any of them for more than depth in large leagues.

Fantasy Prospects
ILB Kailee Wong - Strong sleeper, could push 100 tackles
ILB Morlon Greenwood - Sleeper, strong situation
OLB Jason Babin - Minimal value, big sack potential
OLB Antwan Peek - Minimal value
OLB Charlie Anderson - Injury sleeper, marginal upside

Defensive Back
The loss of Aaron Glenn to the Cowboys won't hurt the Texans who traded for Phillip Buchanon to replace him. Buchanon will team with last year's rookie sensation Dunta Robinson to give Houston a formidable corner tandem. Robinson's rookie campaign was a perfect example of the rookie corner rule at work. His 74 solo stops led all rookie corners and were tops among all the Texans defensive backs. Don't over value him when you draft this year though. He's not a rookie anymore and as is the case with the really good young corners, the tackle numbers will decline as offenses begin to show him respect. Its worth pointing out however, that Houston corners tend to make a lot of tackles in general. While Robinson may slip a bit, he will likely still have some value since he's not a one trick pony. With 6 picks and 3 sacks as a rookie he shows a lot of promise and should be a stud for those in leagues that require corners. Buchanon could also prove worthy of a look. Glenn posted 55 solo's and 5 picks playing opposite the rookie last year while Buchanon tallied 50 tackles and 3 picks in Oakland. The Texans defense was on the field for 971 plays in '04 and their corners (including the nickel and dime backs) accounted for 230 of the tackles... Former corner turned FS Marcus Coleman did an adequate job for the club before being lost to injury in week 13. With just 2 interceptions, what he didn't do is provide them with the big play threat they are searching for at the position. Coleman's 13 game totals would have projected out to a modest 60 tackles over 16 games but he did manage 5 or more tackles in 5 of his 13 starts. He might be worthy of a late round flyer in larger leagues and could improve greatly with a year at the new position under his belt. The player to keep an eye on here is second year SS Glenn Earl. He replaced an injured Eric Brown for a couple of games early in the season and impressed Houston's coaching staff so much that they not only made him a starter over the second half of the season but were so sure they had found their man that they released Brown. Earl's numbers weren't particularly impressive down the stretch but there are a couple of explanations. He played through a painful hip pointer in November and December and because of his inexperience, was usually pulled on passing downs. He'll have neither of those problems this fall and could emerge as an excellent fantasy option. After all the Texans aren't going to be any better defensively and he won't have to contend with Jamie Sharper or Jay Foreman for tackles.

Fantasy Prospects
SS Glen Earl - Sleeper with big potential
FS Marcus Coleman - Depth in large leagues
CB Dunta Robinson - Stud in leagues that use corners, decent #3 starter for the rest of us
CB Phillip Buchanon - Probable starter for owners in corner required leagues
CB Demarcus Faggins - Injury sleeper


Indianapolis Colts

Defensive Line
As a unit the Colts DL has its strengths and its weaknesses. On one hand they tend to get beat up by physical running games, yet on the other hand the front 4 alone were responsible for 39 sacks in '04. It's easy to put a finger on the problem versus the run, it's a simple case of "where's the beef"! Indy is the only team in the league that has no defensive linemen over 295 pounds. Starting tackles Josh Williams and Montae Reagor each check in at a flyweight 285 and the third guy in the rotation is Larry Triplett who is the teams biggest defensive lineman at 295. The Indy D is built on speed and to gain speed you have to give away bulk, but when you give away bulk you get pushed around by bigger guys. It's a simple formula, but apparently the organization doesn't see this as a problem since the only new face at the tackle position is third round pick Vincent Burns, who is yet another speed guy and weighs in at around 260. On the positive side the Colts have two of the leagues premier pass rushers in Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, while Raheem Brock is no slouch. This trio accounted for an impressive 33 sacks last season but like the inside guys they are all undersized. At 274 pounds Brock is the starter and plays in running situations opposite the 268 pound Freeney. In passing situations Brock sides inside to tackle and 235 the pound Mathis lines up at the rush end position. From the fantasy perspective all three of the defensive ends have value but the lack of consistent tackle production is a big negative. Brock led the club's DL with just 36 tackles in '04. Freeney has reached double digit sacks in all three of his pro seasons and managed 40 solo tackles as a rookie. He totaled only 32 last season but keep in mind that he was slowed early on with an ankle injury and then later in the season played through a sore calf. He's a perennial top 20 guy and a solid #2 starter. If he stays healthy Freeney has top 10 potential. Mathis will never make an every down player at his current size and is doomed to the role of "rush specialist". Even without great tackle numbers a double digit sack guy is certainly worthy of a roster spot at least as a backup.

Fantasy Prospects
DE Dwight Freeney - Solid #2 starter with top 10 potential
DE Robert Mathis - Quality depth or a decent #3 starter
DE Raheem Brock - Depth in large leagues
DT Josh Williams - No value
DT Larry Triplett - No value
DT Montae Reagor - No value
DT Vincent Burns - Deep sleeper for dynasty owners or taxi squad candidate

Linebacker
Indy doesn't play with the traditional strong side/weak side alignment in which the offensive formation dictates where the outside linebackers line up. Instead they play left and right outside backers and never switch sides of the field. Most offenses are right handed so the left linebacker will be on the strong side of the formation most of the time. The effect of this scheme is that the left LB is in the weak side alignment about 20% of the time, just enough to keep him from being totally useless. Meanwhile the right LB is in the SLB role about 20% of the time or just enough to hold his numbers down. Thus left outside linebacker David Thornton is in a no win situation despite being the teams best linebacker. He played on the right side in '03 and put up 112 solo stops. Last years position change killed his production and he could muster only 71. Unfortunately there is no reason to expect a rebound unless something drastic changes. Cato June avoided a battle for the starting job on the right (weak) side last year when Gilbert Gardner was injured early in the pre-season. June went on to have a decent year and lead the club in tackles with a 84. He'll enter camp and is the favorite to at least open the season as the starter, but Gardner is healthy and will finally get his shot at the job. Gardner a is bigger and more physical player than June but that isn't necessarily what the club is looking for. The Indy scheme is designed for the right linebacker to make a lot of plays so whoever comes out of camp with this job will likely lead the club in tackles in '05. The Colts middle linebacker situation is a real head scratcher. The very average Rob Morris has started there for several seasons but has never been the least bit impressive. Morris hit the free agent market this off-season and received little or no interest from other clubs. It was speculated that the Colts were content to go with Gary Brackett at the position but that all changed when the team did an about face and resigned Morris. There are few middle linebackers who have no fantasy value but Morris is one of them. Only once in his career has he reached 80 tackles and the past two years combined have yielded just 113. Morris will enter training camp behind Brackett and may not regain his starting role at all. Chances are he will get just enough playing time to keep Brackett from having any value either.

Fantasy Prospects
LOLB David Thornton - Decent depth in most leagues
ROLB Cato June - Solid third starter if he keeps the starting job
OLB Gilbert Gardner - Sleeper, keep an eye on this guy
MLB Robert Morris - No value
MLB Gary Brackett - Deep Sleeper

Defensive Back
The Colts defensive backfield has been a revolving door of injuries over the past few years and '04 was no exception. Mike Doss was supposed to be the man at SS last season but he didn't make it out of week 1 before injuring his groin. His counterpart Bob Sanders was a rookie holdout who didn't sign until the end of August and then promptly went down with a foot injury. The Colts shuffled Donald Strickland to safety until he went down with a shoulder injury and missed 12 games. Even corners Joseph Jefferson (knee) and Nick Harper (neck/shoulder) missed much of the season with injuries. The moral of this story is that we have to look deeper than last years numbers to get any idea of what we can expect from these guys this season. We also need to consider the fact that Doss has been suspended for the first 2 games and that Harper cold also face a suspension. OK, now that we have all the history out of the way lets look at the current situation. Sanders has been moved to strong safety and Jefferson is working at free safety in preparation for the Doss suspension. The Colts tried to trade Doss but found no takers so come week 3 he will be back in the mix. Harper is still listed as the starter at corner and Strickland will enter camp as the starter opposite him. Rookie first round pick Marlin Jackson is the wild card and most likely to take a starting job if Harper is suspended. The Colts are much better prepared if the injury bug bites this time around as well with second year pro Jason David and rookie second round pick Kelvin Hayden to provide talented if inexperienced depth. Indy plays a lot of cover two which puts the corners in a run support role often and was a major factor in Harper posting 84 solo tackles in '03. When the curtain raises on the season whoever is starting at the corners will be worth taking a long look at. The Colts FS position hasn't produced quality numbers in years so there isn't any point in considering either Doss or Jefferson until/unless one of them proves differently. Sanders on the other hand is very much worth taking a shot on. Even with the limited number of games Doss started at SS last season, three times he recorded 7 or more solo stops. The Colts are small in the front 7 and questionable at linebacker, they have trouble stopping the run. If Sanders can stay healthy he could be a tackling machine.

Fantasy Prospects
SS Bob Sanders - Strong sleeper, big risk but could pay huge rewards
FS Mike Doss - No value unless he moves from FS, suspended for first 2 games
FS Joseph Jefferson- No value until proven differently
CB Nick Harper - Sleeper with injury concerns, could face suspension
CB Donald Strickland - Sleeper, especially in leagues that start corners
CB Marlin Jackson - Sleeper, rookie corner rule could apply


Tennessee Titans

Defensive Line
The Titans are involved in a rebuilding process that started last season when they restocked the DL cupboard by spending 4 early round draft picks on three defensive ends and a tackle. All of the youngsters got their feet wet as rookies and now that the club has traded away Carlos Hall to Kansas City, it's time for them to step up and take control. Heading into camp Travis LaBoy and Bo Schobel are the anticipated starters at end but there is little doubt that Antwan Odom will also make a significant contribution. Schobel missed the first 10 games last season so we can't get much of a read on what to expect from him. LaBoy was also dinged early but returned in week 7 and made an impressive debut with 5 tackles and a pair of sacks. He played sparingly throughout the remainder of the season, though he did make a couple of starts, finishing with 13 tackles and 3.5 sacks. Antwan Odom saw the most action of the young trio and played well putting up 15 tackles and 2.5 sacks. Chances are there will be a rotation situation in place when camp breaks and it's a crap shoot to try and guess who will emerge as the top fantasy option. Of the 4 rookies it was tackle Randy Starks who made the most impact. He started 7 games in place of an injured Albert Haynesworth and finished tied for second on the team with 4.5 sacks. Starks will likely return to a backup role despite his solid play. The wildcard on the DL is veteran Kyle Vanden Bosch who has kept the coaching staff smiling during off-season workouts. The former Cardinal has a motor that never stops and is taking on a leadership role with the youngsters. Vanden Bosh showed great promise in Arizona before his career was washed out by knee injuries in back to back seasons. He's now healthy and motivated to show the Cardinals that they gave up on him too quickly. The Titans DL is a work in progress. There are no clear fantasy favorites among this group so either avoid them completely or take a long shot in the late rounds and hope you win the lottery. For what it's worth I like LaBoy and have him in a couple of dynasty leagues. Tackles Albert Haynesworth and Rien Long are quality interior linemen and guys the Titans can build around but neither of them have any fantasy potential.

Fantasy Prospects
DE Travis LaBoy - Sleeper with good upside
DE Bo Schobel - Sleeper with good upside
DE Kyle Vanden Bosch - Deep sleeper with injury history
DE Antwan Odom - Sleeper with upside
DT Rien Long - Minimal value
DT Albert Haynesworth - No value
DT Randy Stark - Injury sleeper

Linebacker
The injury bug didn't spare Tennessee's linebackers last season. They got all of 4 games out of middle linebacker Rocky Calmus after he returned from a back injury and then lost him for the rest of the season with a hamstring. Strong side starter Peter Sirmon was lost to a knee injury before taking a single snap. Both have proclaimed their health and are ready to reclaim their starting roles. For Sirmon all it will take to make that happen is to prove he is back to pre-injury condition (or at least close to it), for Calmus the path may be a little tougher. He's been named the starter at least twice before but hasn't been able to stay out of the trainers room long enough to keep the job. Calmus has missed 21 games over his three years and has missed playing time in a multitude of others. Not only will he have to prove that he can stay healthy enough, but he'll have to beat out Brad Kassell who stepped up and turned in a strong performance when he got the chance. This is a very important situation to keep an eye on. Neither of these guys will get much draft consideration but the two combined to go 87-31-.5 from the MLB position last season. If one guy can keep the job for all 16 games, he should have a strong box score presence. Sirmon's return could have a negative impact on the MLB position. Prior to the injury he was staying on the field in nickel situations. The extra snaps were enough to knock down the value of the MLB who was pulled to make room for the extra DB, but weren't quite enough to make Sirmon a serious consideration. Keep an eye on this situation once the pre-season opens. Coming off the knee injury, Sirmon might not regain that role. With over 300 solo stops since '02, WLB Keith Bulluck has emerged as one of the fantasy game's premier linebackers. There is no reason to expect Bulluck to slow down at this point so put him up there right under Edwards and Lewis on your draft board. The Titans are a little thin at the linebacker positions. Rocky Boiman and the loser of the MLB battle will be the team's only experienced backups. Boiman made 6 starts at SLB last year before he too went down with an injury. This gave the club a long enough look at Boiman to realize they don't want to depend on him as a full timer.

Fantasy Prospects
WLB Keith Bulluck - Stud! one of the elite
MLB Rocky Calmus - Sleeper, watch the camp battle
SLB Peter Sirmon - Minimal value, depth in large leagues
MLB Brad Kassell - Sleeper, watch the camp battle

Defensive Back
Not to be left out of the injury parade, the defensive backs made their share of contributions as well. FS Lance Schulters never made it to week 4 and SS Tank Williams was lost to a knee injury in week 10. Schulters replacement was Lamont Thompson who proceeded to play so well that the club released Schulters after the season and are now looking to sign Thompson long term. There were a hand full of games in which Thompson put up pretty useful numbers but he totaled 3 or fewer solo stops in 8 if 15 games. He should show some improvement just based on the fact that he will be there from the start this time around and will be more comfortable. That said, the Titans have not produced a real high quality DB in at least the past 14 years. Thompson should be worthy of picking up for depth, any more than that would be a surprise. The one player in this group that actually has some real potential is Tank Williams. Last years injury came when he was pace for a career best 73 solo tackles and his first ever decent fantasy production. Unfortunately its starting to look like Williams may not be ready for camp and could even open the season on the PUP list. Backup Donnie Nickey has been working with the first team and is in line to open the season as the starter. The club continued its rebuilding process by letting go long time starters Samari Rolle and Andre Dyson. They promoted former nickel back Andre Woolfolk to a starting job and spent their top pick on Adam "Packman" Jones. From a talent perspective the team is still in good shape and they have several decent young corners to fill out the depth chart, but they are certainly much less experienced. Jones however has already found trouble off the field, though there is no reason to expect a suspension to be forthcoming. It's a given that Jones will be a starter from day one and the rookie corner rule could certainly apply.

Fantasy Prospects
SS Tank Williams - Deep sleeper, wait and see how the rehab progresses and pick him up during the season maybe
FS Lamont Thompson - Decent backup in most leagues
CB Andre Woolfolk - No value
CB Adam Jones - Sleeper, rookie corner rule applies
SS Donnie Nickey - Deep sleeper, could be in a productive situation
CB Michael Waddell - No value, likely a nickel back at best

That about does it for the AFC side of this year's pre-season effort. Hope everyone finds something in there that will help in your quest for the Gold. The second half of the report (NFC) should be out during the first week of August. Until then keep in mind that championships are won in the offseason!

Just Win Baby!
Reb

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