Welcome back for the twentieth anniversary of the Eyes of the Guru! As always, it has been an interesting offseason complete with the usual dose of scheme changes, coaching changes, player movement and surprise roster moves. There are a good number of high impact training camp battle on the horizon as well. This year's series will once again start with the AFC North.
For reference, when I mention where players finished in the rankings last season, my model will be the standard Footballguys scoring system. This is the standard stuff;
Tackles = 1.5
Assists = .75
Sacks = 4
Forced fumbles = 3
Fumble recoveries = 3
Interceptions = 4
passes defended = 1.5
Touchdowns = 6
Keep in mind that rankings will vary, sometimes greatly, from league to league. From time to time I will reference the "rookie corner rule". Those of you who are familiar with the EOTG 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 after their rookie seasons. When I mention tackle numbers, I do not lump assists and solo tackles together. Unless I make a reference one way or the other, I am talking about solo tackles. When I talk about a total number of takeaways for a player, I am counting interceptions, fumble recoveries and fumbles forced since all of these score very similarly in most scoring systems.
Heading into the 2013 season Cincinnati was rock solid up front. Heading into 2014 they have a couple of big questions to answer. Tackle Geno Atkins lit up the box scores in 2012 when he was the fantasy game's top interior lineman. He was on pace to repeat the double digit sack totals last season before going down with a serious knee injury in week nine. The word out of Cincinnati is that they are "hopeful" Atkins will be ready for the start of the season, but more and more it is sounding like he may not be. At best he will not be 100% in time for the opener and there is a chance he could start the season on the PUP list. Once healthy Atkins is going to be a perennial top five among interior linemen. Dynasty owners may want to try and buy low on him if someone is willing to deal. Redraft owners however, need to be cautious. It seems highly unlikely that Atkins will see any preseason action so even those who draft late may not have much to go on.
Domata Peko Sr is entrenched as the other starting tackle. He is a stout run defender and the anchor of the unit. Peko's numbers however, do not adequately represent his contribution to this defense. He can consistently be counted on for 25-30 solo stops, 25-30 assists and 2-3 sacks. Good enough numbers to have some value as a DT2 or depth in leagues that break out the DL positions, but with little upside.
Devon Still and Brandon Thompson will compete for playing time as the third tackle. Still was injured in week seven last year as well, so Thompson saw a lions share of the playing time down the stretch. Both players are capable of holding down the fort for a while, but neither are likely to become a box score factor.
The other big question here is what will the Bengals do to compensate for the free agent loss of Michael Johnson? First let me point out that Johnson's 2013 season was somewhat of a disappointment. He followed an 11.5 sack 2012 with just 4 last year. That may have contributed to the team's decision not to give him a big contract. There is no clear cut replacement for Johnson and the Bengals may end up using several players at the position. Veteran Wallace Gilberry will likely get the first shot at a three down role. He has 27 sacks over his six seasons as a pro, including 13 over his two years with the Bengals, but Gilberry has never been a three down player. His production as a Bengal has come while working mostly as a pass rush specialist in sub packages. If he shows that he can get the job done on early downs, Gilberry could be a surprise top fifteen option.
Robert Geathers spent several years as a starter for the team before being relegated to part time in 2011. He landed on IR early last season on IR with an elbow injury. The most telling fact about Geathers is that he has recorded more than 4.5 sacks just once in his nine years as a pro and has never reached 30 tackles in a season. If he earns a significant role, it would likely be as an early down end and would only serve to take snaps away from someone else.
Second year man Margus Hunt may be the most talented of the options. He is a 6'8", 277 pound physical specimen that has the versatility to play both tackle and end. The issue with Hunt is his lack of experience. He has only been playing football for a few years and is still rather raw. Hunt saw little playing time as a rookie but has been working hard to develop his game. He is certainly a player to keep an eye on this summer and is a high upside sleeper. If there is going to be an impact player emerge opposite Carlos Dunlap, Hunt is the favorite to be that guy.
The Bengals like their defensive linemen tall so they can get their hands up in the passing lanes. At 6'6" Will Clarke fits that bill. He was productive at West Virginia where he was a three year starter. As a senior Clarke put up 49 tackles, 6 sacks, 3 blocked passes and a forced fumble. He is a quick and athletic guy who scored high points for character, effort and leadership during the scouting process. He has a good foundation to build from but for Clarke to earn more than a part time role he will need to step up his point of attack skills and add some pass rush moves to his arsenal. He has the potential to eventually earn a three down role but will likely see only spot duty or sub package snaps as a rookie.
The wildcard in this mix is Texans 2013 third round pick Sam Montgomery. This is a player that had first round talent in the eyes of many scouts, but fell in the draft due to off field issues. Montgomery was a 4-3 defensive end in college who was drafted by the Texans to play outside linebacker in their 3-4. He was released after violating team rules then picked up by the Raiders after passing a drug test. Montgomery was injured then released by the Raiders in December. This is not the first time the Bengals have taken a chance on a talented player with a lot of baggage. Vontaze Burfict is one such success story but there are plenty who did not succeed as well. Montgomery is probably getting his last shot at the NFL. If he can stay out of trouble, he could be a pleasant surprise. Consider him a very deep sleeper but keep an eye on him.
The one proven commodity at end in Cincinnati is Carlos Dunlap. The 2010 second round pick spent most of his first three years working mostly in passing down sub packages before stepping in as a starter in 2013. His 54 NFL games have produced 28.5 sacks but most importantly, Dunlap broke into the top 10 for the first time last season. He finished 2013 at 39-19-7.5 with 4 forced fumbles, a recovery and 6 batted passes. The Bengals rewarded him with a big money contract that will make him part of the team for several years. He has not yet reached the top of his game and could break out for 40+ tackles and double digit sacks in 2014. Target Dunlap around the DL10-DL12 area but do not be shocked if he finishes among the top five.
DT Geno Atkins - Injury situation makes him a risk for 2014
DT Domata Peko Sr - DT2 or depth in leagues that start two tackles
DE Carlos Dunlap - Low end DL1 with top 5 potential
DE Wallace Gilberry - Depth with DL2 upside
DT/DE Margus Hunt - Sleeper with big long term upside
DE Will Clarke - Developmental long term sleeper
DT Devon Still - Injury sleeper at best
DT Brandon Williams - No value
DE Robert Geathers - No value
DE Sam Montgomery - Deep Sleeper
In 2014 Cincinnati gave us a top five linebacker for the first time in at least two decades. After a solid rookie season in 2012, Vontaze Burfict exploded for 113 solo stops, 57 assists, 3 sacks, 4 takeaways, 8 passes defended and a score. He has emerged as the emotional leader of the defense as well as one of its top playmakers. At 255 pounds Burfict has the size and strength to take on and sift through blockers as well as a rare extra gear for a man of his size, that allows him to run down plays from the back side. His mechanics are sound both as a run defender and in coverage, and his knack of anticipation puts him in the right place often. Simply put, he has emerged as one of the best linebacker in the game both NFL and fantasy. The only thing that makes me a little nervous is that he can sometimes get too emotional. That is what got Burfict in trouble at Arizona State and what caused him to go undrafted. There were a couple of times last season when he drew flags for unsportsmanlike conduct reminiscent of his college issues. This time however, Burfict seemed to be able to get himself back under control. At this point it seems that the only thing that could keep him from becoming a perennial top 10 linebacker, is injury or himself. Burfict finished 2013 within 20 points of the number one spot at linebacker. He should be right in that ball park again this year.
After Burfict the Bengals are a bit unsettled though not at all short on quality options. Rey Maualuga opened 2013 as the starting middle linebacker. His play was solid if unspectacular until an injury made him miss three games and most of a fourth. This opened the door for Vincent Rey. After seeing little actions over his first three seasons when he played mostly on special teams, Rey seized the opportunity. In his four starts he was nothing short of impressive both on the field and in the box scores. Over that span he recorded 23 tackles, 10 assists, 3 sacks, an interception, 4 passes defended and recovered a fumble. So impressive was he in fact, that when Maualuga was able to return, he was relegated to a two down role so that Rey could get on the field in passing down sub packages. As a result of his quality play, Rey now finds himself in competition for the starting job at middle linebacker. A competition that by all counts he should win. Rey is better in coverage, reacts more quickly to running plays and provides a big play threat that has been missing from the Bengals middle backer position since Odell Thurman's one big season. This is being called a competition but in my mind the only question is will Maualuga move to the strong side or will be become a backup? There obviously remains some risk with Rey. Enough so that we should not be drafting him as a starter just yet. That said, target him as a low end LB3 or a priority backup in early drafts and move him up the board quickly if the news continues to be positive.
The strong side may actually be a better fit for Maualuga. He has worked at that position in the past, including early in his career with the Bengals. The team currently has 2011 third round pick Dontay Moch penciled in at that spot but he is an unproven commodity. Moch battled injury over his first two seasons, seeing little action. He spent last year with Arizona before being claimed off waiver by Cincinnati early this offseason. Historically the Bengals strong side linebackers have put up weak box score numbers, so there is really not much to look at here. The one point this does bring up however, is that the team is pretty thin across the board at the linebacker positions. After the top three they have Moch with all of 3 tackles and a sack as a pro, 2013 fourth round pick Sean Porter who spend all of last season on IR with a shoulder injury, this year's sixth round selection Marquise Flowers who is considered a project and a handful of guys that even most Bengals fans have never heard of.
MLB Vontaze Burfict - Possible top five at the position
SLB/MLB Rey Maualuga - Minimal value at best
WLB Vincent Rey - Strong sleeper with top 15 potential
SLB Dontay Moch - Minimal value at best
WLB Sean Porter - Deep sleeper with long term LB3 potential
WLB Marquise Flowers - No value
It has been a lot of years since the Bengals secondary last gave us a dependable fantasy product, and it could be a few more before we get one. Reggie Nelson is locked in as the starting free safety. He is a quality player on the field but falls short when it comes to making a significant impact in the box scores. Nelson has not reached 60 solo tackles since 2009 and has averaged 5 about takeaways a season since 2011. He is worthy of some consideration as a backup in deep drafted leagues, but he has been around plenty long enough for us to see that his upside is limited. 55 tackles, 20 assists, 5 takeaways and 8-10 passes defended are about what we will get from him.
The strong safety position in Cincinnati has actually provided a fair amount of opportunity in years past. The problem being that the team often uses a number of players at the position over the course of a season, and sometimes over the course of a game. Thus no one player reaps the full benefit in the box scores. Since there is no standout candidate for the job entering this season, we could see more of the same. George Iloka and Chris Crocker shared the position for most of last year. Between them they accounted for 68 tackles, 34 assists, 5 takeaways and 13 passes defended. Crocker is gone but Danieal Manning was added to the mix via free agency, and last year's third round pick Shawn Williams is expected to challenge for a bigger role as well. Manning is a solid veteran with plenty of starting experience, but time has proven that he is nothing special. Williams is the one hope for fantasy owners. He failed to win the job as a rookie but was highly productive during his career at Georgia. Williams is the most talented of the team's options but his lack of experience could hurt him with the Bengals being a contending team. If you are looking for a last round flier, Williams might be worth a shot. Other than that, take a wait and see approach.
With Cincinnati drafting Darqueze Dennard in the first round, the rookie corner rule could come into play. On the other hand, this is a unit that is both strong and deep at the position. That may keep Dennard out of a starting role as a rookie, just like it did 2012 first round selection Dre Kirkpatrick early on. Kirkpatrick spent most of his rookie campaign injured and did not begin to see significant playing time until Leon Hall was lost to an Achilles injury last season. Hall is expected back in time for training camp and if healthy is locked in as one of the starters. That leaves Dennard and Kirkpatrick to battle veterans Terence Newman and Adam Jones to determine the rest of the pecking order. One of the veterans may not be with the club come September.
In fantasy terms, Bengals corners are generally no more than depth in leagues that start two at the position. They rarely produce more than 45-50 solo tackles though they often make up for some of that with a lot of passes defended and respectable big play totals. Dennard is not known as a big play guy, so consider him a sleeper with limited upside and stay away from the rest unless they show us a reason not too.
CB Leon Hall - No value
CB Dre Kirkpatrick - Deep sleeper in corner required leagues
CB Darqueze Dennard - Rookie corner rule with marginal upside
CB/FS Terence Newman - Minimal value at best in corner required leagues
CB Adam Johns - No value
FS Reggie Nelson - Depth at best in 12 team leagues that start 3 defensive backs or those that break out the DB positions
FS Danieal Manning - Sleeper with limited upside
SS Shawn Williams - Sleeper with DB3 upside
SS George Iloka - No value
Cleveland has put together a group of players up front that would seem to have the ideal skillset for the 3-4 scheme. Phil Taylor anchors the line from the nose tackle position. He is a 335+ pound road block that is tough to root out even with double teams. The 2011 first round pick had his most productive season as a rookie. That year he worked as a tackle in what was then a 4-3 defense, totaling 37-22-4. Over the past two years Taylor has seen that production drop sharply. He battled injuries in 2012 but accounted for only 14-12-2 in fifteen games last year. As is typical with most 3-4 linemen, Taylor does a lot of the dirty work but his contributions are not reflected in the box scores.
Defensive ends Ahtyba Rubin and Desmond Bryant are both athletic big men who worked as tackles in 4-3 defenses for most of their careers. They have the girth and strength to soak up blockers, the power to push the pocket and enough quickness/agility to keep offenses honest. Both of these players have the potential to post 30+ tackles and 3-5 sacks, though neither came near those numbers last year. The comfort level that comes with a second season in the scheme may make a significant difference in their production, but neither of them are likely to be more than adequate depth at best. There is no reason to use a draft pick on one of them, but if either gets off to a fast start, it will not be a fluke. If you are in a deep league and looking at these guys, go with Bryant as he has the most upside.
Cleveland lost longtime starter D'Qwell Jackson to free agency, but they were able to pick up Karlos Dansby to replace him. Dansby is a couple of years older (32) but is coming off the most productive season of his ten year career. That is saying something when you consider that he has totaled 89 or more solo tackles in six of the last seven years. Dansby's 2014 numbers of 112-9-6 with 4 picks, a forced and recovered fumble and a whopping 19 passes defended, will be tough to match. That does not however, change the fact that he has consistently been a tackling machine and a playmaker wherever he has played. Dansby finished third among linebackers in 2013. He may not be that high this year, but he has both the ability and opportunity to land solidly among the top ten for a third consecutive season.
One reason Dansby is so likely to have strong numbers, is the lack of competition for tackles. Craig Robertson will be the other inside backer. He is a good coverage guy and a solid player but is nothing special, particularly as a run defender. Robertson earned a starting job as an undrafted rookie in 2012, totaling a pedestrian 62-31-1 with a couple of picks. He started fourteen games last season with similar production (57-28-3 with 3 takeaways). Swapping Jackson for Dansby is certainly not going to help Robertson's numbers, and neither is the drafting of Iowa linebacker Christian Kirksey who could push for playing time right away. Kirksey played on the outside in college but will move inside for the Browns. He has been described by scouts as a fast and athletic finesse linebacker who is not the most physical of players. While Kirksey was highly productive as a tackler for the Hawkeyes, his playmaking ability was average at best. As a three year starter he totaled 319 combined tackles and assists but only put 5.5 sacks, 2 interceptions and 4 forced fumbles over his 38 starts. Kirksey may well prove to be an upgrade over Robertson in the long run. Some of my well respected peers think more of Kirksey, but I see him as a sleeper with long term LB2 upside. Dynasty owners may want to take a long look here since the rookie class is a bit thin on high potential linebackers.
The Browns need more production from their outside linebackers if they are going to take the next step. In 2013 they signed Paul Kruger away from the Ravens, drafted Barkevious Mingo in the first round and converted 4-3 holdover Jabaal Sheard from defensive end. The result was 15.5 sacks from those three and a pair from backup Quentin Groves. The club made no noteworthy changes at the position this offseason, but there are some reasons to believe that the production from these guys will improve. It is common for rookie pass rushers to struggle in any scheme, but the OLB position in a 3-4 is particularly taxing on young players. Mingo should fare much better with a year of experience under his belt. Sheard should also be much more comfortable with his position change and While Kruger is a long time 3-4 veteran, a year of experience with his teammates will go a long way toward developing chemistry. The team should be better at corner which will in turn force quarterbacks to hold the ball a second longer in a lot of cases, and the front three are all going to be healthy at the same time (which was rare a year ago). As fantasy production goes, I do not see any of these guys having great value. That said, 45 tackles and double digit sacks by Mingo and/or Sheard would not be a surprise.
ILB Karlos Dansby - Triple digit tackles and a top 10 finish are likely
ILB Craig Robertson - LB4 with marginal upside at best
OLB Paul Kruger - Minimal value
OLB Barkevious Mingo - high potential in big play based leagues
OLB Jabaal Sheard - Strong sleeper in big play based leagues
ILB Christian Kirksey - Sleeper/dynasty option with long term LB2 potential
ILB Tank Carder - No value
The Browns were 25th in pass defense and 20th in interceptions in 2013. They are looking for a healthy front three and better play at linebacker to put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks, but they have also made changes in the secondary. Most significantly the addition of 8th overall pick Justin Gilbert at corner. Gilbert was seen by most as the top cover man in this year's draft. He is blazing fast with good size and excellent ball skills. Gilbert totaled 12 interceptions over his three years as a starter for Oklahoma State, including 7 last season. He should step right in as a starter from day one and is a prime candidate for the rookie corner rule. For those owners in leagues that give points for special teams scores, it is noteworthy that Gilbert score 6 times on kick returns (twice on defensive returns) during his college career. He may not be a perennial top shelf corner but Gilbert is certainly worth a shot in the short term.
Veteran Joe Haden continues to hold down the other corner job, giving the Browns an outstanding tandem of cover men. He is another good example of the rookie corner rule in play. The 2010 first round pick posted 58 solo stops with 6 picks, 18 passes defended, a forced fumble and a sack in his first season. His tackle number have steadily declined since that time and have now leveled off in the 40-45 range. He remains a consistent big play threat with 8 takeaways and 30 passes defended over the past two seasons, but is no longer an upper echelon fantasy option. Haden is however, still a worthy target as your CB2 or an excellent CB3.
Buster Skrine has been keeping the seat warm at corner for the past couple of seasons. He may put up a bit of a fight for the starting job, but it is inevitable that he will end up in the nickel corner role at some point. Skrine may even end up as the fourth man in the pecking order if second year pro Leon McFadden is able to step up.
Safety T.J. Ward was the only really solid fantasy option to come from the Cleveland secondary in 2013. He has moved on to Denver and will be replaced by free agent addition Donte Whitner. Whitner is an eight year veteran who spent the past three seasons at the same position in San Francisco. He brings leadership to a suddenly young secondary as well as the skill set to fit Cleveland's aggressive style of play. Whitner is best suited as an in the box thumper but is able to hold his own in coverage as well. He may not be an upgrade over T.J. Ward in all aspects of the game, but Whitner does bring a more physical and intimidating aspect. In fantasy terms this could be a good marriage. During his first four seasons in Buffalo, the Bills failed to take advantage of Whitner's strengths. They played him in a cover-2 role off the ball and/or as a free safety at times. As a result his fantasy production was limited. In 2010 the Bills finally put him in position to take advantage of his strengths. That season Whitner was the top defensive back in the fantasy game with 95 solo tackles, 44 assists, 3 takeaways and 7 passes defended. Whitner then spent the next three seasons in San Francisco playing behind Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman, which once again held his box score opportunity in check. The bottom line here is that Whitner has the potential to put up big numbers for Cleveland and is deserving of strong sleeper consideration. Pick him up as a third or fourth DB but do not be surprised if he finds a way into your lineup on an every week basis.
2012 undrafted free agent Tashaun Gipson Sr moved into the starting job at free safety last season. He posted average tackle numbers of 63-31, adding 5 interceptions, 12 passes defended and a score to his totals. While the big play numbers boosted his final ranking, do not overlook the fact that 40+ of his 188 fantasy points came in week sixteen when the planets were aligned just right for him. Gipson is a decent player but no more than a potential backup for owners in deep drafted leagues. contest in hi
CB Joe Haden - Solid second starter in corner required leagues
CB Buster Skrine - Minimal value at best
CB Justin Gilbert - Rookie corner rule, possible low end CB1 if he starts right away
CB Leon McFadden - No value
SS Donte Whitner - Target as a DB4 with DB2 upside
FS Tashaun Gipson Sr - Depth in large leagues at best
SS Janoris Slaughter - No value
For several years the Ravens have run a hybrid defensive scheme that used both 3-4 and 4-3 fronts extensively. Over the past two seasons they seemed to move more toward more of a standard 3-4 base defense. While there are some exceptions, the responsibilities of linemen in 3-4 schemes generally is such that it limits the box score production of those players. Haloti Ngata is one of the few players that is usually an exception. He is a versatile player who can line up at nose tackle or end in the 3-4 as well as tackle when/if the Ravens go 4-3. His best box score production came in 2010 when Ngata totaled 47 solo tackles and 5.5 sacks. The shift to a predominant 3-4 has led to a drop in production across the board for Ngata, who totaled 23-30-1.5 in fifteen games a year ago. Even those numbers might be of some value if he was still working as an interior lineman. Unfortunately the team now has three players battling for snaps at nose tackle so most league software now has Ngata planted securely at end where he will be marginal at best
The three players in competition for the nose tackle job are last year's third round pick Brandon Williams, rookie third round pick Timmy Jernigan and veteran Terrence Cody. Williams will enter camp as the starter. If he can earn a big majority of the playing time, Williams could prove to be a decent DT2. Chances are however, that all three of these guys will see time and none of them will put up much more than 20 tackles this year.
Chris Canty will see the majority of work at defensive end opposite Ngata. He too is a big man with the ability to hold up at the point of attack, fend off double teams and push the pocket on passing downs. Canty is a road block and a run stuffer. With a career best of 4 sacks coming when he was a 4-3 tackle in 2011, he is far from exceptional as a pass rusher. Canty may put up 25 tackles and 3 or 4 sacks, but there is no reason to expect anything more. preseason and particularly into September.
DT/DE Haloti Ngata - Depth at best with a defensive end designation
DE Chris Canty - Minimal value at best
NT Brandon Williams - Potentially depth in tackle required leagues
DE DeAngelo Tyson - No value
DE Pernell McPhee - No value
NT Timmy Jernigan - Possible depth in tackle requires leagues
NT Terrence Cody - No value
Heading into the 2013 season the Ravens signed Daryl Smith to a one year deal, expecting him to be a veteran option as depth at inside linebacker. Smith took the opportunity and ran with it. He quickly proved to be much more than the team expected, winning the starting job before the season opener. Smith impressed so much in fact, that he was inked to an extension this offseason and will remain a starter heading into 2014. He is not the tackling machine that Ray Lewis was, but Smith brings a lot to the table. Experience, leadership, coverage skills and play making ability are among his positive traits. In fantasy terms Smith's 2013 production was a bit unusual in that he totaled over 210 points despite finishing with just 57 solo tackles. His 66 assists, 18 passes defended, 5 sacks and 5 takeaways will be hard to repeat and his overall value is likely to be diminished with the addition of tackling machine C.J. Mosley. Smith however, should remain a solid option as an LB2 or an excellent third starter for most fantasy owners.
While Smith will continue to provide that much needed veteran savvy, the defense clearly needs a thumper in the middle to set the tone. As a rookie Arthur Brown showed no signs of being that guy. Nearly all of his playing time came in passing down sub packages and he played sparingly there. As a result Baltimore stepped up and selected C.J. Mosley at 17 overall in this year's draft. Mosley is a veteran of the 3-4 scheme having helped Alabama to a pair of national championships while playing weak inside linebacker in their 3-4. He won or was in strong consideration for several prestigious awards during his college career, but the most important point of interest for fantasy owners is that Mosley led Alabama in tackles in each of his final two seasons there, contributing significantly in the big play columns as well. He has outstanding instincts, good speed and quickness, a high football IQ and leadership qualities that made him a defensive captain for the Crimson Tide. Mosley is a plug and play starter who should quickly emerge as the centerpiece of the Ravens defense and an impact fantasy option. The only real question in my mind is; will he be a three down player as a rookie or will the coaching staff try to get Brown more involved? Much of that will come down to how well Mosely picks thing up and how much a year of experience helps Brown. At age 32, Smith is not a long term answer. If Brown does develop, we could see he and Mosley together as starters by 2015. In rookie drafts I see Mosley and Pittsburgh's Ryan Shazier as #1 and 1A among this year's crop of defenders. Redraft owners should target Mosley as a low end LB3 or an LB4 with top 20 upside. Unless Baltimore shows us something different in the preseason, Brown remains little more than a deep sleeper for 2014.
Versatility makes Terrell Suggs a priceless tool for the Ravens. His unique ability to rush, cover, defend the run and make plays as both a 3-4 outside linebacker and a 4-3 end, gives the coaching staff nearly unlimited options. After missing most of 2012 with a serious injury, Suggs returned to form in 2013 with 47 solo tackles and 10 sacks but it may have been his leadership that made the most impact last season. A healthy Suggs can be counted on for 45-55 solo tackles and double digit sacks again in 2014. His fantasy value however, hinges on his positional designation. For years there has been a debate in fantasy circles about his being an end or a linebacker. Be sure you know which position he is in your leagues data base. As a defensive end Suggs is a perennial top 10 option. As a linebacker he holds much less value in balanced or tackle heavy scoring systems.
Elvis Dumervil was added last season to help boost the Ravens pass rush. His 9 sacks did just that. It was however, surprising that he was not given much of an opportunity as an every down player. Instead he saw most of his playing time as a pass rush specialist in sub packages. Having worked at end, tackle and linebacker during his time in Denver, Dumervil is known as a versatile player in his own right. His limited role last season resulted in only 16 solo tackles to go with his solid sack totals. If he can earn a bigger role in the defense there could be some big play fantasy value here. As it stands now Dumervil has to be considered marginal at best.
ILB C.J. Mosley - LB3 target with top 20 potential
ILB Daryl Smith - Solid LB2 or excellent LB3
ILB Arthur Brown - Sleeper with dynasty potential
ILB Josh Bynes - No value
OLB Terrell Suggs - Stud in big play scoring systems, depth for everyone else
OLB Elvis Dumervil - Depth with upside in big play scoring
OLB Courtney Upshaw - No value
OLB Albert McClellan - No value
Baltimore used their first round pick last year on safety Matt Elam. It was initially expected that he would take over the starting strong safety position and spend a lot of time in a run support role. That left fantasy owners with and prognosticators expecting much from him. Instead Elam was plugged in at free safety and asked to play more of a center field role. The end result was a disappointing 54 solo tackles and little fantasy value. Heading into training camp and the preseason it is unclear if Elam's role will change. The team added veteran free agent Darian Stewart who has played both strong and free safety, and they drafted free safety Terrence Brooks in the third round. Much of Elam's value could come down to the competition between those two new additions for the other safety job. If Elam is moved to strong safety as many expect, he could be a 70+ tackle guy with a good deal of potential. If he remains at free safety his value will be limited at best once again.
Stewart also has some potential if he somehow ends up at strong safety. He started fourteen games at the position for the Rams in 2011, finishing at 67-18-3 with 3 takeaways, 11 passes defended and a score. He is not a long term answer and lacks much dynasty value. That said, he may be worthy of consideration as a late/last round flier with the potential to be a decent DB3. Expect the coaching staff to look at all their options during camp. The only thing that seems certain is that if Brooks gets on the field, it will be at free safety. That means his value will be limited at best. I expect to see Elam at strong and Stewart at free safety early on at the least. Long term is will likely be Brooks at free.
Consistent year to year box score production from corners is a fairly rare commodity but there is reason to believe Lardarius Webb will be among the few who provide it. In 2011 Webb's respectable tackle numbers and considerable big play production landed him among the fantasy game's elite tier at the corner position. Webb spent most of 2012 on injured reserve before returning last season to prove that his big 2011 was not a fluke. In leagues that lump the defensive back position into one group, Webb will be a marginal third starter or depth. For those in corner required leagues he should be no worse than a quality second starter with top 10 potential.
2011 first round pick Jimmy Smith is a quality cover man, but he has shown little to be excited about in the box scores. It took him a couple of years to finally claim a full time starting job. In sixteen starts last season Smith managed a respectable 50 solo tackles and a solid 16 passes defended, but he recorded just 2 interceptions. In fact, he has just 4 picks in his 40 career games. Smith did add 3 forced fumbles last year but we should not count on a repeat of that. There is some potential for improvement, but I see Smith as little more than a serviceable top 40 corner that can be counted on as no more than depth.
When it comes to depth the Ravens are a bit thin. 2011 fifth round pick Chykie Brown is in line to be the third corner. He has all of 33 career tackles and has yet to record his first interception. Number four corner Asa Jackson is even less experienced. It would not be a big surprise to see Terrence Brooks get some work as the slot corner in sub packages. An injury in the secondary could be big trouble for the Ravens.
SS/FS Matt Elam - Sleeper with DB2 potential
FS/SS Darian Stewart - Deep sleeper with DB3 potential
FS Terrence Brooks - Minimal value at best
CB Lardarius Webb - Quality #1 corner with top 5 potential
CB Jimmy Smith - Depth in leagues that break out the corner positions
CB Chykie Brown - No value
CB Asa Jackson - No value
The Steelers are in the midst of a youth movement and will have young if not rookie players, contributing largely at all three levels of the defense. The contributor up front will be second round pick Stephon Tuitt. As the Steelers usually do, they pick up a guy who is a great fit. Tuitt is highly versatile having played nose tackle and end in a 3-4 as well as both inside and outside positions in a 4-3 during his time at Notre Dame. He is not impressive as an edge rusher but that is not a requirement of a 3-4 end. Tuitt is strong at the point of attack, stacks and sheds blockers well and is quick for a man of 300+ pounds. What I like most about him is the production he showed in college. In 2013 Tuitt finished with 49 combined tackles and assists, adding 7.5 sacks. In his 28 career starts for the Irish he totaled 20.5 sacks. For the first time since Aaron Smith, the Steelers may have a defensive lineman capable of making a fantasy impact. Tuitt will not be handed a starting job however. He will start out working behind Cameron Heyward and Cam Thomas at end, but will have a significant role early on. It would come as no surprise if he were to beat out Thomas for a starting job before week one. Only time will tell if this young man is the next Calais Campbell or Cameron Jordan, but he has that potential. Pick him up late on draft day or wait until he shows something in the regular season then move quickly.
Cameron Heyward is also a player of interest here. He quietly posted a mark of 35-24-5 with 8 batted passes in 2013. Those numbers on their own make Heyward worth consideration as a backup in many leagues. What is most interesting is that he was 31-23-5 with 5 passes defended over the final ten games. If Heyward can pick up where he left off, the Steelers may actually have a pair of fantasy factors up front. The 2011 first round pick is just hitting the prime of his career. Together he and Tuitt could change the way IDP owners look at the Steelers front three over the next several years.
Cam Thomas is a serviceable starter for the Steelers but has shown no sign of stepping it up in the box scores. His four seasons as a pro have produced 6 total sacks but Thomas has not gotten to a quarterback since 2011. He will have a tough time holding off the rookie for the starting job. Thomas may however, get some playing time at nose tackle where the team has only a handful of undrafted free agents behind Steve McClendon. In fact, Thomas could push for the job on the inside as McClendon was not all that impressive as a first time starter in 2013. Regardless of how that works out, the nose tackle position here is not going to be very fantasy friendly.
NT Steve McClendon - No value
DE Cameron Heyward - Depth with DL2 potential
DE Cam Thomas - No value
DE Stephon Tuitt - Sleeper with long term DL2 or possibly even low end DL1 upside
DE Nick Williams - No value
The Steelers youth movement at linebacker started last year With the drafting of OLB Jarvis Jones in the first round. That trend continues in 2014 with the first round addition of Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier. Shazier has all the traits that 3-4 teams look for in an inside linebacker. Exceptional speed, athleticism, playmaking ability, leadership and a history of outstanding production. He led the Buckeyes in tackles over each of the past two seasons and led big Ten in tackles in 2013. One number that stands out is Shazier's 39 stops for loss over his last two years with the Buckeyes. He is equally effective rushing the quarterback or covering receivers in the passing game, and excels in run support where he reacts quickly and arrives with a bad attitude. Shazier should be an immediate three down starter for the Steelers. In 2013 he racked up 134 combined tackles and assists with 6 sacks, 4 passes defended and a forced fumble. I see he and C.J. Mosley as #1 and 1A among rookie defenders in fantasy terms. That said, if I were put on the spot I would probably take Shazier first. Redraft owners who draft early or dynasty owners doing early rookie drafts should be all over this guy before everyone gets to see him in action. He could be a top 20 linebacker as a rookie and that will only be the beginning.
In 2012 Lawrence Timmons took over for James Farrior as the centerpiece of the Steelers defense. He is a talented player with the ability to rush the passer, cover tight ends and running backs in the passing game and stand up strong against the run. 2010 was his most productive statistical season. That year he finished with career highs in tackles and assists at 96-39, as well as passes defended with 10. It is Timmons big play ability that makes him particularly intriguing. Over the past six seasons he has recovered 5 fumbles, forced 11, intercepted 9 passes and recorded 26 sacks. The only problem that Timmons presents for fantasy owners is a lack of consistency. In 2013 he recorded 6 or more solo tackles in seven contests. In seven other games Timmons totaled four or fewer. Week to week inconsistency and the addition of Shazier (who I believe will eventually emerge as the centerpiece and leader here) should make owners think hard about picking Timmons as an LB1. At this point I see him as a mid tier LB2 with potentially declining dynasty value.
Sean Spence will be a solid player for the team if he can ever make it back from the devastating knee injury he suffered as a rookie in 2012. He is back on the field and will compete with second year pro Vince Williams for the job as top backup on the inside. Williams saw considerable action last season as an injury replacement. That experience and a healthy Spence would go a long way toward providing the Steelers with quality depth on the inside. Spence is a guy I am going to keep an eye on this summer. If the Steelers give up on him, he could land a job elsewhere and we could hear from him again.
Jason Worilds surprised a lot of people by stepping up to lead the Steelers with 9 sacks last season. with LaMarr Woodley moving on, Worilds will pair with second year pro Jarvis Jones as the Steelers new bookends. There will certainly be no lack of pass rush opportunity, making Worilds a strong candidate to reach double digits in sacks. Unfortunately for fantasy owners, the lack of tackle production that hold back most 3-4 outside linebackers is present in this situation as well. For owner in big play based leagues Worilds is an up and coming player. For the rest of the IDP community he is little more than depth with big play potential on any given week.
Jarvis Jones opened his rookie season as a starter for the Steelers. After a few games it was apparent that he was not quite ready. He spent much of the season in a part time role before seeing his playing time increase late in the year. Jones finished an uneventful rookie campaign with just one sack. The free agent defection of Woodley leaves the Steelers with limited options at outside linebacker. That means Jones will have plenty of opportunity to step up. The organization obviously has faith in the second year pro. Unfortunately what we have seen from him thus far lends little reason for optimism in fantasy terms. I see him as a boom or bust sleeper for owners in big play based leagues. Those in balance or tackle heavy scoring systems should look elsewhere for help.
ILB Lawrence Timmons - Big potential but inconsistency and new competition hurtS his draft stock
ILB Ryan Shazier - Potential top 20 as a rookie
ILB Sean Spence - Long term sleeper if he can get healthy, no value this year
ILB Vince Williams - No value
OLB Jason Worilds - Solid starter in big play based leagues, depth for everone else
OLB Jarvis Jones - Sleeper with strong upside in big play based scoring
OLB Chris Carter - No immediate value
By design the Steelers zone blitz scheme requires corners play a great deal of man to man. Their philosophy is to have the front seven get quick pressure on the passer so the secondary only has to cover for a short time. Defensive backs are most often expected to play it safe in an effort to limit big plays. The result of this approach is that Pittsburgh corners generally produce respectable tackle numbers but are light in the big play columns. Both Taylor and Gay posted over 50 solo stops in 2013 with Allen adding 44, but the trio managed just 3 interceptions between them in 2013. These numbers are typical of Steelers corners and are pretty much what we can expect from this group again in 2014.
In this scheme it is the safeties, and most often the strong safety who is free to gamble on big plays. The scheme and the ability of Ryan Clark to play center field, has helped Troy Polamalu to become one of the best big play safeties in the history of the game. Clark is gone and Polamalu, who has not recorded more than 2 interceptions in a season since 2010, turned 33 in April. 2013 fourth round pick Shamarko Thomas has shown a great deal of promise and is expected to have a big role in 2014. It is widely anticipated that he will eventually be the replacement for Polamalu. This season however, Thomas is expected to compete with free agent addition Michael Mitchell for the starting free safety job. The loser of that competition may see action in nickel packages.
Polamalu has put up more than 50 solo tackles in a season just once since 2008 and has become a marginal fantasy option at best. Thomas's play reminds me a lot of former Colts safety Bob Sanders. He flies around with reckless abandon and is always around the ball. I too have high expectations that he will someday be an excellent box score contributor as Sanders was when healthy. Mitchell is not a guy that I am all that high. He is a fast and physical player who was the Raiders second round pick in 2009, but was never able to land a starting job despite Oakland's struggles. Mitchell did manage to start for Carolina last season, posting solid big play numbers (6 takeaways and 4 sacks) but only 50 solo tackles. The team will look to him as the replacement for Clark, but I am not sold on Mitchell in that role. He could prove to be a solid addition both for the Steelers and fantasy owners. I need to see him in preseason action before moving him up my draft board beyond a DB4 with upside.
CB Ike Taylor - No value
CB Cortez Allen - Possible depth in corner required leagues
CB William Gay - No value
SS Troy Polamalu - Major risk with minimal return potential
FS Michael Mitchell - Decent third starter or quality depth
S Shamarko Thomas - Dynasty sleeper with good long term potential
That does it for the AFC North. The plan is to cover a division every 7-10 days this summer. The NFC North is next up so check back in a week or so.