From an NFL perspective the Bengals defensive line is a solid group with a good mix of veteran leadership and talented young players. For fantasy owners this unit provides a couple of excellent target as well as some potential bottom of the roster depth. Carlos Dunlap has become a perennial top ten defensive end. When we break down his production over the past five seasons there is nothing that really stands out. His tackle numbers are not great but he has put up at least 30 solo stops every season since 2012, with an average of 36. His career best sack production came in 2015 when he landed 13.5. He has not reached double digits in any other year to date, but Dunlap has at least 7.5 sacks in each of his six full seasons as a pro (he missed much of 2011). He is not a threat to win the sack title (though it is one of his personal goals) or lead the league in tackles by defensive linemen. What Dunlap provides is solid production and outstanding year to year consistency. Every season he seems to step up some part of his game. In 2012 he had 8 turnovers and a score. In 2013 it was 39 tackles, 5 takeaways and 6 passes defended. The following season was Dunlap's career best in tackles at 41 solo and 25 assists, while the 13.5 sacks highlighted his 2015 campaign. Last year his tackle production was down at 30, but he made up for it with a J.J. Watt like 15 batted passes. What you can count on getting from Dunlap is around 35 tackles, 8-9 sacks and enough splash plays to push his point total into the top ten.
Michael Johnson should continue to start at the other end, though he could be pushed by one of the team's talented young players. He is that end of the roster depth I mention previously. Johnson had a career best of 11.5 sacks in 2012 but that has proven to be an apparition. After eight years in the league we have seen enough of Johnson to know what we can safely expect. Over his last four years with the Bengals Johnson has consistently produced tackle numbers in the low to mid 30s, 4-5 sacks and a sprinkling of turnovers and batted passes. This is what he is and there is no upside.
The coaching staff likes Johnson because he is a better play on the field than in the box scores. He sets the edge well and at 6'7", helps make it tough for quarterbacks to find passing lanes. At some point he is going to be replaced by an up and coming young player that can get to the quarterback more often. The organization took a chance on former second pick Margus Hunt a few years back, in hope he would develop into that guy. Hunt is now working for the Colts but the Bengals have 2014 third round selection Will Clarke and rookie third round pick Jordan Willis who both have starting potential. Clarke was buried on the depth chart for his first two seasons as the coaching staff gave Hunt every opportunity to develop. Last season Hunt was moved to tackle giving Clarke more opportunity to get on the field. He started strong recording 3 sacks on sixty one snaps in September, but was not able to continue the production. By the end of the season Clarke was 10-5-4 on 373 plays. Many people outside the organization have written him off already. I am not sure that is the case with the people inside the building though. Clarke is not a draft target at this point but he should still be on our radar as a player to watch in August.
Jordan Willis is most definitely a player to keep an eye on this summer. He is a little undersized to be a three down end but proved he could do the job as a three year starter for Kansas State. He is a hard working, high character guy with a great motor. Willis not a dynamic speed rusher off the edge but he has a number of pass rush moves and a knack for using a blockers momentum against them. He can change directions quickly, is relentless in pursuit and rarely misses a tackle. All these things from his scouting report sound good but it was Willis's college production that caught my eye. As a senior he was 34-18-11.5 with 3 forced fumbles, a recovery and 3 batted passes. For his career with the Wildcats Willis accounted for 25.5 sacks and 8 turnovers. He has been overlooked in nearly every dynasty draft I have seen so far this summer, except for the ones I participated in of course.
Geno Atkins is one to the league's elite interior linemen and the prototypical 3-technique tackle. At 6'1" and 300 pounds he is a powerful player with a lower center of gravity than most blockers. He uses both to gain leverage and is simply a load for offensive linemen to handle. Atkins possesses rare quickness and athleticism for a man his size and is probably the closest comparison to Warren Sapp since, well, Warren Sapp. When looking at his career numbers we need to remember the serious knee injury Atkins suffered in 2013. He is not an injury prone player but that one was big. It took him a couple of years to get over it, so throw out 2013 and 2014 as outliers. In his other four seasons Atkins has been a fantasy beast with big value in leagues breaking out the defensive line positions, and good value in those that do not. His tackle totals were down in 2016 for reasons I have not been able to identify. Thus I am writing it off as a fluke. The total of 21 solo stops was a career low yet he was still a top fifteen tackle on the strength of 9 sacks. In 2011, 2012 and 2015 Atkins averaged 32 tackles, 16 assists and 11 sacks. He was the fantasy game's number on interior lineman in 2012, finishing no lower than fourth in any of those seasons. Last year's numbers may cause him to fall a bit further than he should on draft day, making Atkins a value pick if taken outside the first five tackles. He is close as if gets in fantasy football to a sure thing.
The Bengals parted ways with long time starter and fan favorite Domata Peko Sr. Early expectations have last year's fourth round pick Andrew Billings as the replacement at nose tackle. Billings missed the 2016 season with a torn meniscus suffered in August, so this is basically his rookie year. Draft analyst Mark Dulgerian said it best when Billings was picked; "he is a two down nose tackle which, in a passing league, isn't as valuable. His draft spot is not indicative of his talent. He's got a heavy anchor with elite play strength to control the interior gaps". In short Peko was a really good player; Billings may prove to be even better as the anchor of the run defense. Unfortunately the nature of the position and expected two down role will pretty much rule him out in fantasy circles. Peko was never more than a marginal spot play in leagues starting two interior linemen. Billings will be hard pressed to be much more. Should Billings struggle, the team has a quality fall back in veteran Pat Sims, and a talented rookie prospect in fourth round selection Ryan Glasgow. Glasgow may be the top backup to both inside positions.
DT Geno Atkins - Quality DT1 with strong top five potential
DT Andrew Billings - Possible depth in leagues starting two tackles
DT Pat Sims - Minimal value at best
DT Ryan Glasgow - Dynasty sleeper with limited potential
DE Carlos Dunlap - Perennial top ten DL1
DE Michael Johnson - Depth at best
DE Wallace Gilberry - No value
DE Jordan Willis - Dynasty sleeper with high upside
DE Will Clarke - Worth keeping an eye on
The Bengals run defense slumped into the bottom third of the league in 2016, so the organization made some changes in the front seven. At the second level they said good bye to long time starter Rey Maualuga, adding free agent Kevin Minter to replace him. The coaching staff also plans to get second year man Nick Vigil on the field a lot more. Entering training camp it looks like Minter will be the middle linebacker with Vigil on the strong side in base package situations. Both players are likely heading to the bench in favor of Vincent Rey on passing downs.
At 246 pounds Minter is a physical two down thumper who is basically a younger version of Maualuga. All things considered he should provide somewhat of an upgrade. Minter played all three downs last year in Arizona but it was more out of necessity than choice. His cover skills are no better than adequate and the Cardinals often masked the weakness by having him blitz. Minter finished 2016 with 3.5 sacks but that was his only big play contribution. In fact four seasons in Arizona (two as a starter) finds him still looking for his first turnover as a pro. Minter may be the middle linebacker come week one but fantasy owners will want to look elsewhere.
Nick Vigil is an interesting prospect and one of my favorite long term sleepers. He made a strong impression during preseason last year and continued to turn heads when he got on the field in base packages over the final three games of the regular season. Vigil is best suited to play in the middle and that is where I believe he will eventually land, though it may not happen this year. For two seasons he was highly productive as a three down middle backer at Utah State. Vigil averaged 69 solo tackles and 72 assists in that role. His three seasons with the Utes produced 17.5 sacks, 6 forced fumbles, 2 recoveries and a pair of picks as well. He is big enough, fast enough and has good enough cover skills to be a three down player at some point. Vigil could be the much need big play presence Cincinnati has been missing at middle linebacker for years. He has already become a favorite of the coaching staff so hopefully his chance will come soon.
Vincent Rey has been a valuable commodity for the Bengals over the past four seasons. At times he has been a quality fantasy option as well. He is a versatile jack of all trades who is good in all aspects of linebacker responsibilities but not strong enough to claim a full time three down role. The one area he excels in is coverage, which is somewhat surprising considering Rey weighs in at 250 pounds. It seems every year he is projected to provide depth at all three linebacker spots and/or be the team's nickel linebacker. Every year he ends up starting several games and producing solid LB3 numbers when he plays full time. Again in 2017, Rey is not expected to be a starter unless there is an injury. The plan at this time is to have him on the field with Vontaze Burfict on passing downs.
Vontaze Burfict is locked in at the weak side position. He is set to be the team's lone three down player at the second level and at this point the only sure fantasy prospect of the group. When it comes to fantasy potential there is no better player at the linebacker position league wide with the exception of Luke Kuechly. Burfict can do anything asked of a linebacker. At 6'1" 250 pounds he is an intimidating force versus the run, has good speed, excellent cover skills and a knack for the big play. In fantasy terms that translates to a lot of tackles, a lot of big plays and a lot of points. When he plays Burfict is among the elite in both the NFL and fantasy circles. Unfortunately he can be his own worst enemy at times, which makes him a risk for fantasy owners. He has been penalized, fined and finally suspended for unsportsmanlike conduct, mostly in the form of illegal hits; the latest incident causing Burfict to sit out three games at the start of last season. If that were not enough by itself, his reckless abandon style of play adds considerable injury risk as well. Between the two issues he has missed 22 of the Bengals last 48 games, including five in 2016. The last/only time Burfict has completed a full sixteen game schedule was 2013. That year he finished as the fantasy games number five linebacker at 113-57-3 with 4 takeaways, 8 passes defended and a score. The good news is Burfict made it through last season without any illegal hit penalties. The bad news is he missed the final two games with injury. He is too good to pass over as one of the first 8 linebackers off the board. If you take him I suggest going a little early on your third and fourth linebackers to make sure you have quality depth.
WLB Vontaze Burfict - Elite tier LB1 with considerable risk
SLB/MLB Nick Vigil - Dynasty sleeper with big long term potential
MLB Kevin Minter - Two down MLB with marginal value
MLB/WLB Vincent Rey - Injury sleeper with LB3 potential
SLB Carl Lawson - No value at this time
WLB Marquise Flowers - Special teams contributor
The Marvin Lewis coached Bengals have always been willing to make a major investment at the corner positions. With four former first round picks on the depth chart, the team will not be short on talent in 2017. Dre Kirkpatrick emerged as the team's number one cover man last season. He is a tall, thin, wiry player with the ability to match up well against any type of receiver. As is often the case, Kirkpatrick recorded an inflated number of tackles (64) in his first year as a starter (2015) with considerable drop off in year two. In what is sort of an extension of the rookie corner rule, his totals from 2016 were 35-11-0 with 3 picks and 10 passes defended. I expect his production to level off at around 35-40 tackles, 3-5 picks and around 15 passes defended going forward.
Adam Jones has been a somewhat fantasy productive starter for the Bengals over the past few seasons. He exceeded 50 solo tackles each year between 2014 and 2016, while accounting for at least 5 splash plays and 12 passes defended each season from 2013 to 2015. Jones remains at the top of the depth chart opposite Kirkpatrick for now but the soon to be 34 year old did not play as well last year as he had previously. The proof is on the game film but his drop off shows up statistically as well. The two takeaways he produced last season were the fewest for Jones since 2012 when he was recovering from an injury, and his 7 passes defended were the fewest since 2011 when he suffered the injury. The Bengals have 2014 first round pick Darqueze Dennard and last year's first round selection William Jackson III III waiting in the wings. Jackson is basically a rookie after missing last year with injury but we may very well see Dennard push Jones into the slot corner role this year. At this point the Cincinnati corners should be avoided on draft day.
There have been a lot of lean years when it comes to fantasy production from the safety positions in Cincinnati. The Bengals have given us few short term pickup guys since Darryl Williams back in the late 90s, but no one with staying power we can count on from year to year. Shawn Williams is poised to break that trend. The 2013 third round pick finally worked his way into the starting strong safety role last season. In fifteen starts he totaled 59-22-1 with 3 interceptions and 5 passes defended. Those numbers equaled just shy of 10 points a game and made Williams a decent third starter in most leagues. All his big play production came in week seven or later when he had settled into a comfort zone as the starter. I am not expecting a major breakout here but can easily see Williams with 65+ tackles, 5-6 big plays and half a dozen passes defended in 2017. I consider him a quality DB3 with a little upside.
George Iloka moved over from strong to free safety when Reggie Nelson left for Oakland last year. He is a good NFL player but that has never translated well to the box scores. He has never reached 50 tackles in any of his four seasons as a pro. If he was not able to do it as a strong safety, there is little chance Iloka will be fantasy friendly from the free safety position.
CB Dre Kirkpatrick - Marginal value at best
CB Darqueze Dennard - Wait and see sleeper
CB Adam Jones - May have enough left to be a decent CB3
CB William Jackson III III - Deep sleeper at best
CB Josh Shaw - No value
SS Shawn Williams - Solid DB3 with a little upside
FS George Iloka - Minimal value
FS Derron Smith - Injury sleeper
SS Clayton Fejedelem - Special teams contributor for now
Most football fans will agree the Browns had a great offseason. They added a lot of much needed talent on both sides of the ball, including number one overall pick Myles Garrett. What many may not yet realize is how much the change of defensive philosophy to a 4-3 can/will help. One of the big problems for the Browns in recent years has been their inability to recognize and add players that fit well in the 3-4. Instead they used considerable resources on guys that were good college players in a completely different position or scheme, and tried to force them into different roles. The good news here is there are plenty of quality 4-3 players on the roster beyond the ones added after the new regime took over. There are still holes to fill but I think this defense is ready to take a huge step forward in 2017.
Because he is the shiny new toy everyone is excited about, Garrett will get the spot light and more of the credit than he probably deserves if Cleveland does well. I say this not to slight Garrett who is an outstanding talent, but because there are more good players here than most people realize. That said he may well be the trigger that gets it all rolling. Garrett was the consensus best player available so his selection was no surprise. He is an elite edge rusher who recorded 31 career sacks in three seasons at Texan A&M, but he is far from a one trick pony. Garrett has excellent size at 6'4" 272, and is an exceptionally strong explosive athlete. He can dominate as impressively versus the run as he does rushing the passer. Normally we cannot count on defensive ends to post big numbers in their first season. Even Mario Williams had only 35 tackles and 4.5 sacks as a rookie. While I seriously doubt Garrett's 2017 production will be the best of his career ten years from now, I will not be at all shocked if he records 40 tackles and pushes double digit sacks. Dynasty owners are looking at a player who will likely be an elite DL1 for the next decade. Redraft owners should be a little more reserved and target Garrett as a low end DL1 or priority DL2 with upside.
With Garrett getting all the attention no one is looking at second year man Emmanuel Ogbah who is one of my favorite sleepers this year. Last year's second round pick led the club with 5.5 sacks as a rookie, despite lining up as an outside linebacker where he had not played before. We should not overlook the fact that even though he worked at OLB initially, Ogbah was drafted by the new regime to fit their long term plan. While he played surprisingly well under last year's circumstances, Ogbah will welcome the switch back to his natural position. He has all the tools to be an excellent three down end. At 6'4" and 275 pounds he has the size to hold well versus the run and the quick twitch takeoff to be an excellent edge rusher. If there is any doubt about his ability and potential we need only look back at Ogbah's college career. In three seasons at Oklahoma State he totaled 26.5 sacks. His two years as a starter produced an average of 40-17-11.5. I have been able to pick him up in the last round of drafts this summer, though I expect people to start noticing Ogbah more as we get closer to the season.
Unlike most teams in the second year of a rebuilding process the Brown already have excellent depth at the defensive end position. Carl Nassib was a third round pick by the current regime last year. He too has the physical traits to be a solid three down end. Nassib fell to round three because he was/is a raw talent. Many scouts feared him to be a one year wonder after recording 15.5 sacks and six forced fumbles as a senior at Penn State. Nassib has the size, weight, speed combination of the league's elite pass rushers. He could eventually push for a starting spot or at least force his way into a significant rotational role. Another potential role for Nassib might be as an interior rush specialist in sub packages. He is sure to see at least spot duty when the starters need a breather.
Nate Orchard will try to carve out some role for himself in the new scheme as well. The 2015 second round pick was a three down defensive end at Utah where he put up huge numbers (54-30-18.5) as a senior in 2014. He was selected by the previous regime and moved to outside linebacker where he struggled as a rookie, producing 24 tackles and 3 sacks. Orchard missed most of last season with an ankle injury. He is undersized for a three down role but could find his way onto the field in some sub package situations. The Giants used to have a package where Justin Tuck and Michael Strahan slid inside and they would have four defensive ends on the field to get after the quarterback. Could we see Cleveland do something similar?
As is usually the case when a team goes from a three to four man front, Cleveland has plenty of good option on the inside. Danny Shelton joined the Browns in 2015 as an early first round pick. The previous regime plugged him in at nose tackle where he was expected to anchor the run defense for years to come. With the 3-4 gone Shelton will have a somewhat new identity but his skill set should make the transition easy. He is mobile and athletic for a man of 339 pounds, and will be plugged in as a 1-technique nose tackle with similar responsibilities. Shelton will continue to eat up space and consume blockers on early downs but may find himself on the sideline in passing situations. In 2016 he produced 33 tackles and 27 assists, with a sack and a half. Those numbers were enough for a top twelve fantasy finish among interior lineman. Shelton's game compares favorably to that of Bills defensive tackle Kyle Williams who has played virtually the same role in years past with great fantasy success. In fact Williams has a handful of top five finishes to his credit. There is a chance Shelton will remain on the field in some sub packages. If that is the case he has the potential to finish among the elite fantasy options at the position. With the general shortage of box score productive players at defensive tackle he should be a quality second starter even in a two down role.
With the general shortage of box score friendly interior linemen we are always searching decent options. Desmond Bryant is a player you should keep an eye if your league requires tackles. At 6'6" and 310 pounds Bryant is a powerful and athletic big man who was a great fit as a 3-4 end. He was also a successful, fantasy friendly interior lineman earlier in his career with the Raiders. Bryant will shift inside in the Browns new scheme and could end up starting as the 3-technique tackle next to Shelton. The last time he played that position was 2011 when Bryant went 30-5-5 for the Raiders. There will be a lot of competition for the job so he is far from a sure thing.
Jamie Meder, Xavier Cooper, Larry Ogunjobi and Caleb Brantley are all young players that will be in the mix for playing time at tackle. Meder seems like the most likely candidate to backup Shelton at nose tackle. He was a defensive end in the previous scheme and is a strong run defender, but offers little as a pass rusher. Cooper was a third round pick in 2015 who also worked at end in the 3-4. Over the past two seasons was been part of the rotation but has done nothing to distinguish himself to date. Larry Ogunjobi and Caleb Brantley are rookies that were picked in the third and sixth rounds respectively. Ogunjobi could be a good fit as the 3-technique tackle. He is an undersized one gap penetrator who was somewhat inconsistent over two years as a starter for North Carolina Charlotte. Ogunjobi's college numbers are not all that impressive but most scouts agree he has a lot of upside. He will be a developmental player and is unlikely to see much action as a rookie.
Caleb Brantley is an interesting prospect and a player that should be on your sleeper list if your league requires tackles. The Browns took him in round six but his being available at that point had nothing to do with lack of talent and everything to do with off field issues. Brantley played in a Florida defense that rotated a lot of players at tackle. Thus his numbers are not a good indicator of potential. He is a compact and powerful 307 pound player with the toughness to hold ground against double teams and the explosiveness to penetrate and disrupt. Brantley's skills set will allow him to play either at nose tackle or 3-technique in Cleveland's scheme. What really caught my eye and started me looking hard at him was the draft profile scouting report comparing Brantley to Aaron Donald. That is pretty high praise and I am not sure how accurate it is. On the other hand, if he can land the starting job and line up at the 3-technique between Myles Garrett and Danny Shelton, Brantley could prove to be fantasy gold.
DT Danny Shelton - DT2 with upside
DT Desmond Bryant - Sleeper with strong potential
DT Jamie Meder - Marginal value
DT Caleb Brantley - Rookie sleeper with a lot of talent
DT Xavier Cooper - No value
DT Larry Ogunjobi - Dynasty deep sleeper
DE Myles Garrett - DL2 with upside in redraft, long term DL1 for dynasty
DE Emmanuel Ogbah - My favorite DL sleeper this year
DE Nate Orchard - Sleeper with limited upside
DE Carl Nassib - Talented but inexperienced dynasty sleeper
When the Browns made Christian Kirksey their third round pick in 2014 many fantasy owners and prognosticators thought he would be a focal point of the defense and a team leader. After falling well short of those expectations in his first two seasons Kirksey exploded under the new coaching staff last year. For the first time as a pro he became a three down defender, which allowed his leadership role to develop as well. Early reports have Kirksey playing on the weak side in 2017. I am not so sure I buy into that. After trading Demario Davis to the Jets, playing Kirksey outside would leave Cleveland short on options in the middle. I think his skill set and leadership role point to middle backer as well. The only other option the Browns currently have is special teams ace Tank Carder who has all of 14 tackles as a defender in sixty seven games with the Browns. On one aspect there is no doubt; Regardless where he lines up in the base package Kirksey will continuing to team with Jamie Collins Sr in nickel sub packages. Kirksey established himself as a strong fantasy option with 94 tackles, 50 assists and 2.5 sacks in 2016, but he failed to create a turnover. The coaching staff would like to see improvement from him in big play production going forward. On the other hand there is plenty of room for improvement in the big play columns for the Cleveland defense in general. I currently have Kirksey slotted as a solid LB2 with low LB1 upside. If we get confirmation he will play in the middle it would bump him up a few slots for me.
Jamie Collins Sr came to the Browns via mid-season trade last year. He made an immediate impact both on the field and in the box scores. Collins was with Cleveland for the final eight games. To get a good picture of just how productive he was, all we have to do is double his numbers in those games for a full season projection of 96-40-4. While those numbers are impressive enough on their own, they are simply mind blowing when we consider he was lining up as a 3-4 outside linebacker in base packages. Collins is expected to play on the strong side in the 4-3 this year. For most players that would be the kiss of death to their fantasy value. Not so when we are talking about Collins who managed to maintain strong box score totals while playing the same position in New England. It helps greatly that he is a three down player. When the team moves to their nickel packages Collins will shift to more of an inside or weak side alignment. There are a couple of reasons to curve our tackle expectations a little for 2017. For starters the Browns will be a better team, which means both fewer defensive plays/opportunities and more competition for tackles. Lining up at the strong side position on early downs should also be at least a bit limiting. On the other hand, Collins splash play productivity adds a lot of value. Over the past three seasons he accounted for 12.5 sacks and 21 takeaways. All things considered I have him projected at 81 solo tackles and 39 assists, with 4.5 sacks and 6 turnovers. In the end it may be Kirksey who leads the team in tackles but I expect Collins to produce more fantasy points.
The third starter here remains a big question going into training camp. Not only who it will be but where he will line up is still not written in ink. Some believe Tank Carder will be the guy and will play in the middle. I expect it to be last year's fourth round pick Joe Schobert working at weak side with Kirksey in the middle. Schobert has a lot going for him in this situation. He is a versatile linebacker capable of playing any of the three positions. Schobert is a strong run defender who can drop in coverage or rush the passer with equal efficiency. He has excellent size, good speed and was picked by the current regime. Production is what always grabs my attention and Schobert has shown plenty of it. In two seasons as a starting outside backer for Wisconsin he accounted for 78 tackles, 52 assists, 12 sacks, 6 forced fumbles, a pair of recoveries and an interception. Carder may open camp at middle linebacker but there is no way anyone can make me believe he will be there in September. I expect Schobert to not only start this year but become a dependable long term solution for the Browns. I would be high on him as a fantasy option as well if there were some chance he would play in sub packages. Schobert is more than capable of handling those duties but there is not much chance he will move past Collins or Kirksey this year. That said if one of the starters are injured Schobert could be an excellent pickup.
MLB/WLB Christian Kirksey - Priority LB2 with top twelve potential
SLB Jamie Collins Sr - Top ten LB1
WLB/SLB/MLB Joe Schobert - An injury away from LB3 value or better
MLB Tank Carder - Special teams contributor
WLB Dominique Alexander - Special teams contributor
Numbers usually will not tell the whole story but we can get pretty close here. San Francisco had the league's worst run defense in 2016. Their strong safety Antoine Bethea recorded 95 solo tackles. Cleveland fielded the second worst run defense. None of their safeties reached 35 solo stops. If that were not bad enough, the Browns pass defense ranked in the bottom third of the league and only six teams collected fewer interceptions. Thus it is no wonder we will be seeing several new faces at the third level this year. For fantasy owners the most important addition is Jabrill Peppers who was the second of Cleveland's three picks in round one. During his career at Michigan Peppers played about every position except defensive tackle. As a junior in 2016 he worked mostly at linebacker but continued to see time at the safety positions as well. The Browns plan to have him settle in and concentrate on the strong safety position, but Peppers skill set will give them a lot of options. At 6'1" 213 pounds he is physical and fast enough to cover tight ends and running backs. His man to man cover skills will allow Peppers to play the slot corner and his willingness in run support will allow him to play in the box either as a safety or nickel linebacker. He can even be effective on the blitz. For fantasy owners there are a lot of thing to like about both his skill set and situation. What makes me nervous about Peppers is his questionable ball skills and the overall lack of production at Michigan. For all his talent and ability Peppers made 46 tackles for the Wolverines last year, with 1 career interception and 3 sacks. There is speculation his production was held down because the Michigan coaching staff never figured out how to properly use him, and never let him become great at any one position. As rookie safeties go I am much more excited about the Jets Jamal Adams, but we know Peppers is going to have plenty of opportunity. I am currently slotting Peppers behind all the solid proven guys as a low end DB3 or strong DB4 with significant upside.
The Browns hope to have upgraded their free safety position when they acquired 2014 first round pick Calvin Pryor from the Jets. New York tried Pryor at both strong and free safety with equally frustrating results. He was a standout three year starter at Louisville but so far that has not translated to NFL production. Linebacker Demario Davis was not seen as a good fit in the new defense so in sending him to the Jets they did not give up much for Pryor. It was a good gamble to get a player everyone agreed was a first round talent in 2014. The change of venue and fresh start could be just what Pryor needs to save his NFL career. He could prove to be a major upgrade over last year's starters but there is no reason to expect a breakout season. He will go un-drafted in most leagues and can be plucked off free agent status early in the season if it is warranted.
With the league's second worst pass rush producing only 26 sacks last year; the woes of the pass defense are not all on the secondary. The Brown actually had pretty solid play from the corner positions. Starters Joe Haden and Jamar Taylor, and even slot corner Briean Boddy-Calhoun each contributed 3 interceptions. Some see Haden as one of the league's elite shutdown corners. While that point is debatable, all can agree he is among the upper echelon of fine cover men. When healthy he is also a fantasy consideration in corner required leagues. Unfortunately injuries have been an issue almost his entire career. Haden last completed a full schedule as a rookie in 2010. While he has only missed more than five games once (2015), he is a regular on the injury report. Haden's best fantasy production came in 2014 when he played fifteen games and finished at 58-15-0 with 6 turnovers and 20 passes defended. In thirteen games last season he was on pace for 46-15-0, 4 picks and 14 passes defended. There is little chance he will break into the top twenty this year, but Haden should be a decent CB2 or excellent CB3 if he can stay on the field.
After three so so years as a part time player with the Dolphins, Jamar Taylor moved to Cleveland where he finally got a chance to start last season. The former second round pick performed well in his role as the number two corner. In fifteen games he was 46-11-0 with 3 picks and 13 passes defended. Those numbers will not win him a trip to Hawaii but they may be good enough to keep him in the Browns starting lineup. Taylor is penciled in as the starter going into camp but free agent addition Jason McCourty will be pushing for the job. McCourty has a long history of on field success during his eight seasons with the Titans. He has also been a quality CB1 since becoming a starter in 2011. McCourty missed most of 2015 with an injury. In three of his other five years as starter he exceeded 70 solo stops and finished among the top ten corners in fantasy points. It may have been four out of five had he not missed a couple of games last year. As a member of the Titans he consistently put up strong tackle numbers while averaging 5 takeaways and 12 passes defended. McCourty will be in the mix to start opposite Haden and should continue to be fantasy friendly if he wins the job. This is a training camp situation to watch if your league breaks out the defensive back positions.
Boddy-Calhoun did a quality job as the nickel corner last season but he will likely be pushed down the depth chart into the dime role in 2016. With the injury history of Haden, Boddy-Calhoun is still likely to see a fair amount of playing time.
CB Joe Haden - Injury prone CB2
CB Jamar Taylor - Solid CB3 with a bit of upside if he starts
CB Jason McCourty - Strong CB2 or better if he starts
CB Briean Boddy-Calhoun - Injury sleeper with CB3 potential
CB Trey Caldwell - Special teams contributor
SS Jabrill Peppers - Rookie with big upside but far from a sure thing
FS/SS Calvin Pryor - Reclamation project with deep sleeper status at best
SS Ibraheim Campbell - No value
FS Derrick Kindred - No value
SS Ed Reynolds - No value
The Ravens front line has no names that would be recognized by the casual fan. Nor do they have anyone for fantasy owners can get too excited about. What Baltimore does have is a mixture of solid veteran contributors and talented youth with good potential. There are three known commodities in this group Brandon Williams, Michael Pierce and Brent Urban. Williams has been the team's starting nose tackle for the past three years. At 6'1" 340 pounds he is a load that is tough to move and an excellent anchor for the run defense. For the most part his range is limited to the space between the offensive tackles but Williams does a good of playing off blockers to make a lot of plays in that area. His personal goal this offseason is to become a bigger factor as a pass rusher but we should not count on much production in that area. Williams does offer some value in tackle required league though. In 2015 he was the number eleven interior lineman with a mark of 36-18-2, a forced fumble and a pair of batted passes. Last season Williams slipped just outside the top twelve with 33 tackles, 18 assists, a sack and a batted pass. He is no threat to blow up for big production in 2017, but should continue to be a solid DT2 providing he can hold off Pierce for the starting job.
Pierce joined the team as an undrafted free agent last year and ended up making a big contribution. He made the team as the backup nose tackle where he spelled Williams regularly. Pierce ended up going 19-16-2 on about 36% of the defensive plays. Checking in at 6'0" 339 pounds, Pierce is much like Williams in that his size and low center of gravity make him hard to root out. I am not sure Pierce is any better as a pass rusher even though he had more sacks on fewer plays. There are a lot of other factors that could have been in play, such as situational snaps. Many 3-4 teams will pull the nose tackle on passing downs. In 2016 Pierce and Williams combined for 1012 snaps which was around 96% of the Ravens total plays. Between them they accounted for 52 tackles, 34 assists and 3 sacks. The two are all but certain to continue some sort of rotation so we will need to keep a close eye on situation, but the bottom line is one of them will likely be at least a solid second starter in tackle required leagues.
The Ravens may not have anyone we are all familiar with but that does not mean they are short on quality at defensive end. Brent Urban, Brandon Kaufusi and Willie Henry are all middle round draft pick by the team over the past four seasons, and Chris Wormley is a third round selection from this year. Starting with Urban in 2014, Baltimore's problem has been keeping players healthy at the position. Urban missed his rookie season with a knee injury and most of 2015 with a torn biceps. His playing time in 2016 was limited but Urban came through healthy and is poised to take over one of the starting spots. He was 7-3-2 with a couple of passes defended on 105 plays last year, which is rather impressive production on a per snap basis. There are no expectations of his becoming the next Bruce Smith, but Urban has the potential to put up 35 tackles and 5-6 sacks if he can stay on the field.
The coaching staff expects last year's third round pick to claim the other starting job at end. Kaufusi's 2016 season was lost to a broken ankle suffered in August, so this will in essence be his rookie year. He comes with plenty of expectations having been highly productive as a three year starter at BYU. As a senior Kaufusi was 45-18-10 with 3 forced fumbles, a recovery and an interception. He brings versatility to the field as well having lined up at outside linebacker as a junior. Kaufusi may see snaps as an outside rusher in the Ravens hybrid scheme. There is some speculation he could eventually take of the Terrell Suggs role as a swing player, allowing the defense to jump between three and four man fronts without changing personnel.
Willie Henry and Chris Wormley round out the defensive end position. Henry was a fourth round pick last season that barely made the final cut. He saw no game action before landing on IR in mid November. Unless something has changed he will probably be on the bubble again this summer; especially with the addition of Wormley. After playing for the other coach Harbaugh at Michigan, John Harbaugh has a good feel for what to expect from Wormley. He is a high character guy and a leader both on and off the field. Wormley is strong at the points of attack versus the run, has the size and strength to take on double teams and is a good inside pass rush who wins with moves and leverage rather than speed. He projects as the third man at end in his rookie season but could find his way into the starting lineup either by injury or quality play. Either way Wormley should have a significant role and is a player to have on the radar this summer.
DE Brent Urban - Deep sleeper with some potential
DE Bronson Kaufusi - Sleeper with low DL2 upside
DE Chris Wormley - Sleeper/Dynasty target with DL2 potential
DE Willie Henry - No value
NT Brandon Williams - Low end DT2 if he keeps the same role as 2016.
NT Michael Pierce - Sleeper with high DT2 upside
NT Carl Davis - No value
After three years on the job it is obvious C.J. Mosley is not going to be the next Rey Lewis. He is however a quality inside linebacker and a player who will be the centerpiece of Baltimore's defense for the next several years. Over his first two seasons Mosley recorded good but not great tackle numbers, averaging about 81 solo stops and 42 assists. In 2016 those numbers slipped a bit due to his missing a couple of games and then playing the second half of the season with a sore shoulder. His fantasy value has consistently received a strong boost from the big play columns. That did not change last year when Mosley accounted for 5 turnovers (4 on interceptions) and defended 8 passes. For the first time in his career he failed to land a sack in 2016. This was mostly because he was used differently in the scheme than in previous years. With 7 sacks over his first two seasons, we know Mosley has the ability to get home on the blitz. The sore shoulder probably contributed to the missing sack numbers as well. Mosley had surgery on the shoulder in the offseason and the organization does not have any long term concerns. He will miss some of the off season program and may be held back early in training camp but the team expects Mosley in the lineup for week one. The potential of a lingering shoulder issue is somewhat of a concern from a fantasy perspective. Some owners will drop Mosley a few slots based on the possibility of re-injury. On the other hand he has already shown the ability to play through it if need be. All things considered it should be safe to slot Mosley in the range of a quality second starter.
The unexpected retirement of Zach Orr left Baltimore with a big hole at inside linebacker. Orr has now decided to continue his career and the Ravens are one of the teams he has talked too, but we have heard nothing about Baltimore being in the mix to sign him. That may be mostly due to concerns with Orr's neck, but they seem to feel good about Kamalei Correa taking over the job. Correa was initially drafted to play outside linebacker but has welcomed the opportunity to get on the field. At 6'3" and 250 pounds he has excellent size for the strong inside backer position and appears to have the right skill set for the job as well. He saw little action as a rookie last season, but looking back at this college career gives us reason for optimism. In two seasons as a starting defensive lineman at Boise State Correa recorded 73 solo tackles and 19 sacks. The Ravens like to blitz their inside backers so his pass rush ability is a big plus. Correa also possesses excellent quickness and a relentless motor. What we do not know much about is his ability to play in coverage. He should have little trouble transitioning to the inside role on early downs but may end up giving way to Albert McClellan or Patrick Onwuasor in sub package situations. After seeing what Orr was able to do last season there is no doubt Correa has strong fantasy potential, but he is far from a sure thing.
Should Correa struggle with the change of position the Ravens have a couple of fall back options. McClellan is a proven commodity and a solid experienced veteran player. He holds up well versus the run and is above average in coverage. That said there is a reason he is a career backup. McClellan offers little in the way of big play production or upside. Heading into season eight he has 2 forced fumbles, 3 sacks and 3 passes defended on his resume'. At 217 pounds Onwuasor is too small to handle a three down role as the strong inside linebacker, but regardless who starts at the position he could have a role as the nickel linebacker.
Baltimore had issues at outside linebacker going into the offseason as well. Elvis Dumervil had been unable to stay healthy, Terrell Suggs will be 35 in October and the younger players on the roster had not really stepped up. The organization parted ways with Dumervil and though they expect to get another year or two out of Suggs, have started to build for the next generation at outside backer.
After fourteen seasons in the league Suggs odometer is showing a ton of miles. The wear, tear and age is starting to show in his production as well. Suggs missed most of 2012 and all of 2015 with injuries. He played fifteen games last year and still looked good compared to most players, but the performance and stats were below par for him. His tackle total of 29 was the lowest production in a non-injury year since he was a rookie in 2003 and he failed to reach double digit sacks for the first time since 2009. For owners in big play based leagues he still has some value as an LB3 or depth, but sooner or later the bottom is going to fall out of his hall of fame career. This may prove to be the year.
With Dumervil out much of the season, the coaching staff gave Za’Darius Smith and Matt Judon plenty of opportunity to prove themselves. Smith was rather disappointing and actually regressed from his rookie season that produced 20 tackles and 5.5 sacks. Judon left room for optimism, recording 12 tackles, 15 assists and 4 sacks, but neither of them looked like sure future starters. Thus the organization elected to use their second round pick on Tyus Bowser and a third on Tim Williams. Bowser has all the traits of a successful edge rushing linebacker with the versatility to move around in the scheme. He can put his hand down as an end in 4-3 alignments or even work as an inside backer in the 3-4, with the ability to drop in coverage from any position. On draft day Mike Mayock called him the next Terrell Suggs in Baltimore's defense. He gives the coaching staff a lot of options including the ability to shift between three and four man fronts without making personnel substitutions. Bowser's pass rush potential is clear from the numbers he put up at Houston where he had 22.5 career sacks including 8.5 in eight games as a senior. His tackle numbers were not particularly impressive however, nor were his big play totals. Bowser will be in the mix for playing time right away and will be given every opportunity to win a starting job. I am a little intrigued with his potential to move inside should Correa struggle but right now that does not seem to be in the team's plans. For owners in big play based redraft leagues Bowser is worthy of later round consideration as depth with upside. For big play dynasty owners he is more of a priority target with a ton of long term potential.
While Bowser offers great versatility, Tim Williams is more of a one trick pony. He is probably a better pure outside pass rusher than Bowser but needs to improve the other aspects of his game before he can become a major factor. Williams collected an impressive 18.5 sacks in his final two years at Alabama but he was never able to earn a full time starting role. That will likely be his situation in the NFL as well.
ILB C.J. Mosley - Priority LB2
ILB Kamalei Correa - Sleeper with value somewhere between quality LB2 and complete bust
ILB Albert McClellan - Marginal value at best
ILB Patrick Onwuasor - No value at this time
OLB/DE Terrell Suggs - Low LB2 or solid LB3 in big play based leagues
OLB Za'Darius Smith - Minimal value
OLB Matt Judon - Deep sleeper worth keeping an eye on
OLB Tyus Bowser - Priority target in big play based dynasty leagues
OLB Tim Williams - Pass rush specialist with marginal potential
Baltimore added a lot of talent in the secondary this offseason. Free agent addition Tony Jefferson will get the most attention from fantasy owners, and for good reason. Jefferson is coming off a huge year with the Cardinals that had him among the top ten defensive backs despite missing the last two games. The former undrafted free agent flourished as the enforcer in Arizona's secondary. His main responsibility was run support which led to a career best 78 tackles, a couple of forced fumbles and a pair of recoveries. Coverage is not the strength of his game, which was not an issue as Jefferson was usually the fifth defensive back when it came to coverage responsibilities. This allowed the coaching staff to use him in blitz packages with good success. At 78-18-2 with 4 takeaways and 5 passes defended, there were a lot of things to like about Jefferson's 2016 season. My advice to fantasy owners is to remember he is no longer in Arizona. Jefferson is a good player regardless what uniform he wears but how many times have we seen a player excel with one team then sign a big free agent deal with another and not be the same player? It happens all the time in the NFL. I am certainly not suggesting Jefferson will be a bust in Baltimore. All I am saying is the Ravens defense is much different. In Arizona Jefferson was like an extra linebacker much of the time. The Cardinals scheme relied on smaller guys with speed, thus the 212 pound Jefferson played in the box regularly and was counted on heavily in run support. The smallest player in Baltimore's front seven is C.J. Mosley at 241 pounds. Then there is the history of Baltimore's safety positions to consider. Since the team moved from Cleveland they have given fantasy owners very little production from either safety spot. Jefferson is the first true strong safety the Ravens have had in years and he should be productive both on the field and in the box scores. All things considered I expect numbers more in the low DB2 or priority DB3 range in 2017.
Some will argue that Eric Weddle was a top fifteen DB in Baltimore just last year. This is true but look how he got there. His 48 solo tackles ranked seventy first among defensive backs but he was number one with 41 assists, had 13 passes defended and six big plays. Weddle was a standout in both NFL and fantasy terms throughout his nine years in San Diego. If not for a couple of injury shortened seasons he may well have produced at least 75 solo tackles in eight consecutive years. Having 19 interceptions, 9 fumbles forced or recovered, 6 sacks and 4 defensive scores on his resume while with the Chargers, Baltimore signed him last season to be a big play contributor. Weddle kept the big plays coming with 4 picks, a forced fumble and a sack. Unfortunately for fantasy owners he had the same issue Ravens free safeties have in the past (see Ed Reed). That being a lack of quality tackle totals. While he still managed a top fifteen finish in most leagues in 2016, week to week consistency was a problem. Weddle scored almost 25% of his points in two games while producing 6 or fewer in six other contests. This trend is likely to continue, especially with the addition of Jefferson at strong safety. Weddle should continue to have fantasy value, though it will likely be more as a decent third starter or quality depth going forward.
Jimmy Smith is a tall, physical press corner who falls a little short of elite status in NFL terms but is a quality number one cover man for the Ravens. His biggest issue of the years has been staying healthy. Smith has completed a full schedule twice in his six previous seasons and ended 2016 on IR with a bad ankle. When healthy he offers a little fantasy value in leagues breaking out the defensive back positions. In 2013 he played all sixteen games and finished with 50 solo tackles, 5 takeaways and 16 passes defended. In 2015 he also completed a full season going 48-6-1 with 10 passes defended, 3 turnovers and a score. His numbers will never be huge but Smith has the potential to be a solid backup in leagues starting two corners.
Both depth and consistent quality play opposite Smith have been issues for the Ravens in recent years. The team addressed both with the addition of free agent Brandon Carr. The Veteran has nine years of starting experience while with the Chiefs early in his career, and most recently in Dallas. Carr gives the Ravens a dependable number two corner who rarely makes mistakes but with a modest 15 career interceptions, is not much of a playmaker. After Baltimore's struggles at the position in recent years Carr's most important ability may be availability. The iron man has played in 144 straight games. With an average of 53 tackles, 2.5 turnover and 12 passes defended Carr has been on the cusp of useful fantasy production throughout his career. That trend is likely to continue in Baltimore.
The other big addition to Baltimore's secondary is rookie first round pick Marlon Humphrey. The former Alabama star is a physical press corner with the speed and athleticism to make up for mistakes. He tries to intimidate opponents at the line, is hard to block on running plays and seems to relish contact in run support. His style of play draws comparison to current teammate Jimmy Smith. Humphrey will be in the mix for a starting job this summer and could push Brandon Carr, but he will likely serve as the nickel corner most of the time as a rookie. Humphrey has the potential to be a productive fantasy option when/if he makes the starting lineup and is a prime candidate for the rookie corner rule.
SS Tony Jefferson - Solid DB2 or excellent DB3 with upside
FS Eric Weddle - May have high DB2 numbers but week to week consistency is an issue
FS Anthony Levine Sr - No value
FS/CB Lardarius Webb - Marginal value at best
CB Jimmy Smith - Possible depth in leagues starting two corners
CB Brandon Carr - Possible depth in leagues starting two corners
CB Marlon Humphrey - Rookie corner rule could apply
CB Brandon Boykins - Fourth or fifth corner with no value
CB Chuck Clark - Special teams contributor
Since the Steelers started using the 3-4 zone blitz back in the early 1990s there has been one Pittsburgh defensive end with 40 solo tackles in a season (Aaron Smith three times) and none with either 10 sacks or a top ten fantasy finish at the position. This trend is not likely to be broken anytime soon but that does not mean there are no Steelers linemen with fantasy value. In fact both Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt are deserving of roster spots in most leagues. Both are big powerful linemen in the 295-305 pound range, with the ability to eat up space and hold ground, consume multiple blockers and keep the linebackers clean. Both are also surprisingly athletic with good range and can get pressure on the quarterback. Heyward is probably the better or at least more safe fantasy option of the two. He missed nine games with injury last year but prior to 2016, was on a three year streak with at least 33 solo tackles and 5 sacks. Heyward's career best of 39-16-7 came in 2015, producing a top twenty finish in most leagues and top fifteen in many. His performance early last season had him on pace for a new career best in all three areas before the week five injury. He made it back for a couple of games before landing on IR with a torn pectoral after week ten. Pectoral injuries are rarely reoccurring problems and Heyward is in the prime of his career at age 28. He is a safe bet to reach 35 tackles and 7 sacks with the potential to substantially out produce those expectations. Target him as a quality second starter with top fifteen potential.
Stephon Tuitt may have more upside but he also has a much smaller body of work to look at. The 2014 first round pick earned a starting spot for both the Steelers and many fantasy owners in his second season. He missed a couple of games but still finished among the top twenty five with a mark of 39-14-6.5. In fact Tuitt's average of nine points per game ranked in the top twelve that year. He got off to a slow start in 2016 and was never able to get completely on track. His tackle numbers were fine through week eleven but Tuitt did not record his first sack until week ten. Against the Browns in week eleven Tuitt went for a season best 4-2-2.5. He battled an ankle injury the rest of the way, going 2-4-.5 in his final four starts before finally being shut down for the last two games. Tuitt is healthy and at age 24 is just entering his physical prime, so a bounce back season seems likely if not imminent. With last season's numbers on most owner's minds, Tuitt is likely to fall much further than he should on draft day. Target him as a low end DL2 or value pick priority DL3.
When both starting ends were down late last year the Steelers found themselves hurting at the position. To make sure there will not be a repeat they added Tyson Alualu in free agency. Being a tackle/end tweener in a 4-3, the 2010 first round pick of the Jaguars never lived up to his draft status there. His size and skill set however, seems a perfect fit as a 3-4 end. Alualu may never equal the production of either starter but in the event of an injury the drop off in play would be far less significant than last year. Pittsburgh has never been big on rotating linemen but with Alualu there we may see Heyward and Tuitt take a few more breathers.
Last year's third round pick Javon Hargrave claimed the starting job at nose tackle as a rookie and will hang onto it for the foreseeable future. He did a fine job as the anchor of the run defense and his mark of 18-9-2 was actually pretty good considering the low snap count of 492. The Steelers are among the 3-4 teams that usually pull the nose tackle on passing down to get an extra defensive back on the field, so chances are Hargrave will once again see action on about 45% of the plays.
DE Cameron Heyward - Solid DL2 or excellent DL3
DE Stephon Tuitt - Target as priority DL3 with high DL2 potential
DE Tyson Alualu - Injury sleeper at best
DE L.T. Walton - No value
NT Javon Hargrave - No value
NT Daniel McCullers - No value
It will be strange to see the Steelers take the field without Lawrence Timmons at linebacker. After a decade of fine service the veteran has moved on leaving leadership of the defense in the hands of oft injured Ryan Shazier. Going from a player who missed two games in ten seasons to Shazier who has missed thirteen in three years and never played a full sixteen, has to Pittsburgh fans and the Steelers organization a bit nervous.
If he could stay healthy Shazier might be in the conversation as one of the elite inside linebackers in both the fantasy game and the NFL. He would almost certainly be a perennial top twelve fantasy option at worst. There is simply no doubting his talent and potential. Shazier brings a great balance of physical run defender and athletic play maker. He can stack and shed at the point of attack as well as anyone, and can drop into coverage or rush the passer with equal success. The only real negative has been the injuries. Entering his fourth NFL season Shazier is still looking to play all sixteen games for the first time. While he has officially missed thirteen games in the past three years, he has played at less than 100% or had reduced roles in several more. This was the case in 2016 when he struggled through a sprained knee. The team is taking a big gamble in trusting Shazier with the keys to the Ferrari. If they are right he will be a stud for years to come. If they are wrong everyone better hope Vince Williams is ready to be the guy. From the fantasy perspective Shazier is a big risk big reward player. He will produce LB1 numbers when healthy and will play through injury with lesser results, so he is well worth the risk as a priority LB2. Just make sure your top backup is starter quality if you take Shazier.
Vince Williams is the latest in a long line of Steelers late round picks to eventually develop into a starting linebacker. After being picked in round six in 2013 he spent three seasons working mostly on special teams while seeing limited opportunity as the third or sometimes fourth inside backer. When Ryan Shazier was banged up early in 2016, Williams had an opportunity to start a few games. He made the most of the opportunity including a monster week four outing in which he recorded 13 solo tackles, a pair of assists and a sack. For an encore Williams went 8-1-1 the following week. His strong play helped give the organization enough confidence to let Timmons to leave. Williams will now step into the sidekick role previously held by Shazier. From a production stand point Williams three seasons with the team gives us little to go on outside that three game stretch early in 2016. What we do know is the Steelers have a long history of providing fantasy owners with two quality options at inside linebacker. That alone is enough to make him a low end LB3 target. With the injury history of Shazier, Williams’s stock gets a little boost on my draft board.
Outside linebackers are the key to success in the Steelers defensive scheme. Thus they have devoted a lot of resources to the position over the years. The organization had a couple of misfires in 2010 second round pick Jason Worilds and 2013 first rounder Jarvis Jones, but they seem to have gotten back on track with Bud Dupree in 2015. In typical Steelers fashion Dupree was not thrown right into the lineup as a rookie. Instead he and Jones were part of the rotation that included long time stalwart James Harrison and veteran Arthur Moats. Dupree was injured and spent the early part of last season on IR but when he was activated he showed why the team was right for picking him so high. In four December starts Dupree totaled 15-5-4.5 with a forced fumble and a batted pass. His body of work is still short but Dupree is certainly looking the part of a Steelers outside backer so far. Quickness and agility give him a strong up field burst to get around the corner on a speed rush but he also has the size (6'4" 269) to set the edge and make plays in the run game. The only real question about his productivity for 2017 comes down to playing time. The ageless Harrison is set to start opposite Dupree. Jones has moved on but was replaced by first round selection T.J. Watt, and Moats is still in the mix. Will the coaches elect to continue the four man rotation or will they give Dupree a majority of the playing time and rotate the other three? In a rotational situation Dupree should still have enough opportunity to be a solid LB3 in big play based scoring. If he gets 70% of the playing time he could break into the top fifteen. Hopefully we will get some hint about the plan when preseason games start.
James Harrison turned 39 in May and is the oldest starting defender in the league. He is obviously not the player that averaged 60 tackles and 11 sacks a season between 2007 and 2011, but he is still able to be a factor. Harrison was 40-14-5 in 2016 and has put up similar numbers over the past three years. If the rookie impresses however, it could mean less playing time for the veteran in what is likely to be his final season. We should not count on Harrison for much box score production with 35-40 tackles and 4-5 sacks probably being the ceiling.
Despite the name and first round draft status, T.J. Watt is not a lock to succeed. His college career started at the tight end position and included a couple of years lost to injury. He spent part of 2015 recovering from a knee injury, and the rest of the season as a backup outside linebacker. When he was finally healthy in 2016 Watt's talent and potential were on display with 63 combined tackles and 11.5 sacks for Wisconsin. He is relatively inexperienced as a linebacker, has a history of injuries and is playing in a scheme that usually takes players a couple years to get comfortable with. Those are all reasons to be cautious with our 2017 expectations for the rookie. There are a lot of reason to be optimistic about him in the long term though. Watt is not a quick twitch speed rusher off the edge. Instead he wins the chess game and beats blockers with technique and determination. Having not played the position long his ability to create leverage and disengage from blockers is impressive. Like his brother J.J., T.J. has great natural strength and excellent instincts. His ability to play within the scheme and understand responsibilities could lead to more playing time than the usual rookie in Pittsburgh's complex scheme. Most importantly Watt is not a finished product. He has room to grow physically and his game will continue to improve with experience. Redraft owners in big play based leagues may want to pick him up late as depth with upside. For dynasty owners in those scoring systems Watt is a priority rookie to stash.
ILB Ryan Shazier - Injury risk with LB1 production when healthy
ILB Vince Williams - Solid LB3 or excellent depth with upside
ILB Tyler Matakevich - Injury sleeper with unknown potential
ILB L.J. Fort - Special teams player
OLB Bud Dupree - LB1 potential in big play leagues
OLB James Harrison - Marginal value
OLB T.J. Watt - Redraft sleeper, dynasty priority in big play leagues
OLB Arthur Moats - Minimal fantasy value
The Steelers secondary has not given fantasy owners much to work with since Troy Polamalu retired, and even he was marginal late in his career. That may be changing thanks to a couple young players. The zone blitz scheme often requires corners to play man coverage and the responsibilities of the scheme do not allow for much risk taking. Thus Pittsburgh corners have traditionally fallen short in the big play columns. William Gay for example, is a solid veteran cover man and a long time starter. He has 12 career interceptions entering his eleventh season, with a career high of 3. Ross Cockrell is a two year starter who had a pair of picks in 2015 but none last year. Most of the time their starters will put up respectable tackle totals in the high 40s or low 50s range but the lack of big plays leave them with marginal at best fantasy value. As a rookie Artie Burns showed signs of bucking the trend. The 2016 first round pick was not an opening day starter but the coaching staff started working him into the defense more in week two. Coming out of the week eight bye he had moved past Cockrell into the starting spot opposite Gay. In his nine starts Burns was 35-11-0 with 3 interceptions and 9 passes defended. Averaged over a full season those numbers would be roughly 52-17-0 with 5 picks and 16 passes defended. If he can continue that level of production Burns will be at least a solid second starter in corner required leagues.
Free safety Michael Mitchell is an excellent fit as the Steelers last line of defense. A full understanding of scheme responsibility, excellent anticipation, blazing speed and sure tackling help him make up for the mistakes of those around him. Unfortunately he does not get enough tackle opportunity to be a serious fantasy factor. In 2015 Mitchell turned in a career best of 58 solo stops. That season he also added a career high 7 turnovers and 9 passes defended for his first and only top twenty five fantasy ranking. Mitchell exceeded 50 tackles in each of his other two years with the Steelers but managed only 4 takeaways in those season combined. What we can safely expect from him is 50-55 tackles, 20-25 assists, 2-3 turnovers and around 9 passes defended. Those numbers might make Mitchell a decent backup in deeper drafted leagues but the lack of upside makes him a player most owners should pass on.
Second year strong safety Sean Davis is a player I have been beating the drum for. He opened 2016 as the team's nickel back then moved into the starting strong safety role around mid season. All signs suggest he is there to stay and could be the playmaker the organization has been searching for since the decline of Polamalu. Davis has the speed and coverage skills of a corner with the physical nature of a strong safety. He has excellent ball skills and a knack for making big things happen. Pittsburgh's strong safety position has produced solid tackle totals in recent years, though they have been divided among multiple players so no individual has stood out. With Davis roaming the middle of the field full time the production will be consolidated. What the position has not provided recently for either the team or fantasy owners is big play production; that should change in 2016. As a rookie Davis accounted for 55 solo stops with a couple of takeaways, 1.5 sacks and 5 broken up passes. With a full time role it is safe to expect improvement in all those categories. At the worst Davis should be a quality third starter for fantasy owners. He has the upside to squeeze into the top fifteen; especially if Ryan Shazier is banged up again.
SS Sean Davis - Solid DB3 with high DB2 potential
FS Michael Mitchell - Depth at best
SS Robert Golden - Injury sleeper
FS Jordan Dangerfield - No value
CB Artie Burns - Solid CB2 with some upside
CB William Gay - Depth at best in corner required leagues
CB Ross Cockrell - Minimal value
CB Coty Sensabaugh - Dime corner with no value
CB Cameron Sutton - Rookie with no immediate value
CB Senquez Golson - Will be on the roster bubble
That is going to do it for the AFC North. The NFC North is up next.