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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 basic stuff:
- Tackles = 1.5
- Assists = .75
- Sacks = 4
- Forced fumbles = 3
- Fumble recoveries = 3
- Interceptions = 4
- Passes defended = 1.5
- Touchdowns = 6
When tackle numbers are mentioned, solo stops and assists are not lumped together. Unless there is a reference one way or the other, tackles refer to solo stops. When talking about the total number of takeaways for a player, I am counting interceptions, fumble recoveries, and fumbles forced since all of these are scored very similarly in most leagues. Keep in mind that based on scoring systems, rankings will vary (sometimes greatly) from league to league.
From time to time, the rookie corner rule will be referenced. For those who are new to IDP or the EOTG, the rookie corner rule is the basic fact that in the NFL, starting a rookie on the 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. These players are often the cream of the crop at the position (which is why they are starting so soon), and their numbers will begin to drop steadily after their rookie seasons.
At this point last offseason, we wondered if the additions of Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe would mean a tweak in the team’s playstyle along the front line. The answer was a resounding no. Baltimore has traditionally run a two-gap scheme, asking their front three to control the line of scrimmage by occupying space and blockers. In 2019, Ravens defensive linemen recorded just four sacks between them but did their jobs by helping Baltimore hold opponents to the fifth-fewest rushing yards. Meanwhile, Campbell and Wolfe combined for 13.5 sacks with the Jaguars and Broncos, respectively.
Over their careers, both Campbell and Wolfe have had success in aggressive, penetrating, one-gap schemes, and both have played defensive end in aggressive three-man fronts. With the Ravens coming off a sub-standard (for them) 37 sacks in 2019, it made sense that the signing of these two might mean a more aggressive one-gap approach to fit the skillsets of their new starters.
The scheme remained pretty much the same in 2020. Campbell and Wolfe combined for five sacks, and the rest of the defensive line had four. While that represents some pass rush improvement from the front-three, the team still had fewer than 40 sacks, and the run defense plummeted to number 22, allowing 4.6 yards-per-carry.
On the season, Campbell was 18-10-4 with six batted passes. His numbers would have been much better had he not suffered a calf strain in week eight that caused him to miss time and hampered his play for the rest of the season. Even before the injury, Campbell was not the player we were used to seeing. Three of his four sacks came in one game against the hapless Eagles offensive line, and he had no more than two solo tackles in any other game.
Some will point to his age and say that at 34 (35 on September 1st), Campbell is too old to be effective. He is not the player he once was, and his days as a perennial top-ten defensive lineman are over. But he can still play. In 2019 he finished 36-20-6.5 with 3 turnovers. That said, he will be hard-pressed to overcome the limitations of the scheme at this stage of his career.
Wolfe is not as old as Campbell, nor has he ever been as talented and productive a player. Even so, his single sack in 2020 was a major disappointment. Wolfe did manage 51 combined tackles, but even that had a strange twist in that he had 19 solos and 32 assists.
The bottom line here is that scheme limitations are a major factor in holding back the fantasy potential of Baltimore’s linemen. None of them had more than 19 solo tackles in 2020, and Campbell led the group with four sacks. The cast will remain the same in 2021. Campbell’s numbers will bounce back a bit if he can stay healthy, but his ceiling at this point is hit or miss DL3.
Last year’s third-round pick, Justin Madubuike, and fifth-rounder Broderick Washington are the top backups at defensive end. Both are 300+ pound roadblocks that fit the 2-gap mold. Madubuike is the heir apparent to Campbell. He had 40+combined tackles and 5.5 sacks in each of his two years as a starter at Texas A&M, so there is at least some potential for future value.
Bradon Williams will get the title of starter at nose tackle, but he and Justin Ellis split playing time at the position virtually equally in 2020. With the defensive end positions being light on experience, Ellis can also serve as a veteran option at that position.
- DE Calais Campbell – DL3 without much upside
- DE Derek Wolfe – Marginal impact expected
- DE Justin Madubuike – No immediate impact
- DE Broderick Washington – No impact
- NT Brandon Williams – No impact
- NT Justin Ellis – No impact
Baltimore’s inside linebacker positions ran the gambit from exciting, through confusing, and finally to somewhat disappointing 2020. Most of the emotional trail followed rookie Patrick Queen. We were excited when the Ravens selected him near the end of round one. Finally, the team was going to have a star in the lineup to replace C.J. Mosley, and finally, we were going to get a top-shelf IDP contributor at a position that had been a perennial IDP gold mine until the end of the 2018 season.
The Ravens filled a major need by drafting Queen. He is a do-everything three-down inside linebacker who immediately impacted the field and box scores. He is a bit undersized at 6’0” 229 pounds, but Queen makes up for it with instinct, quickness, and tenacity. He is a physical tackler who rarely misses, has good range, excels in coverage, and can get home on the blitz when asked to do so. This leads us to the confusing portion of this story.
Despite the draft status, skillset, talent, and lack of a true leader in the middle of the defense before his arrival, Queen played just over 80% of the snaps in 2020. His 858 of a possible 1063 snaps were by far the most of any inside linebacker on the roster, but why would a defensive coordinator take a guy off the field in any situation when he is arguably the best player in their front seven and undoubtedly the player the organization is counting on to lead the defense into the future? This takes us to Chapter Three, Somewhat Disappointing.
Queen ranked 16th among linebackers at the end of his rookie season. That, in itself, is not at all disappointing. At least not until we consider what his numbers would have been with 20% more playing time. Queen’s final totals were 66-40-3 with 2 forced fumbles, 2 recoveries, an interception, and a score, for an average of 10.97 points per game. Add 20% to those numbers, and we get 79-48-3.5 with 6 turnovers and 13.16 points per game, which would have ranked inside the top ten.
The narrative for Queen’s second season follows the same path to some degree. The positive from his rookie season is that we have established a high floor for him in 2021. We know there is virtually no risk outside of injury, which makes the potential for a huge year two exciting. The confusion is that we expect -- but have no way to be certain -- that the coaching staff will keep him on the field full-time in Year 2. Those of us with Queen on our rosters are keeping our fingers crossed that the final chapter to book two of this series has a different title than Somewhat Disappointing. Something like Welcome to the Elite Tier would be nice and is not a far-fetched possibility.
Baltimore used a committee approach at the other inside linebacker spot with L.J. Fort, Malik Harrison, and Chris Board all playing at least 261 snaps. Fort was the starter and leader in playing time at 380. There is potential for good production from this position, providing someone steps up and claims all the playing time. As of mid-July, however, there is no reason to expect that will happen.
Fort is currently listed as the starter on the team’s unofficial depth chart. Baltimore is his third team in three seasons as a pro, but the former undrafted free-agent seems to have found a home. He played surprisingly well after joining the Ravens during the 2019 season and made good use of his opportunity last year, going 32-20-0 with 3 turnovers and 3 pass breakups on less than 36% of the snaps. Fort is just adequate in coverage but showed a knack for getting home on the blitz with a pair of sacks in 2019. He is a possible candidate for full playing time if the coaching staff elects to go that way.
Fort’s biggest competition will come from Harrison, who was drafted two rounds behind Queen last year. Harrison was a productive two-year starter at Ohio State, playing all three downs for most of those two seasons. He is athletic enough, but at 6-foot-3 and 247 pounds, he is more of a downhill run defender who can stack and shed at the point of attack. Harrison is slightly above average in coverage while having the potential to excel as an inside pass rusher. He had nine career sacks for the Buckeyes, including six in his final two seasons there. Harrison saw his playing time decline late in 2020, in favor of Board, but the year of experience could make a big difference in his second season.
Board is entering his third year with Baltimore. The former undrafted free agent has shown steady development and has been a significant contributor on special teams but is a long shot at earning much more playing time than the 261 snaps he saw in 2020.
Baltimore has been without an elite edge defender since Terrell Suggs was in his prime. They have, however, been successful by using a collection of solid veteran players in their edge rotation. Longtime starter Matt Judon led the team with six sacks in 2020. Yannick Ngakoue joined the Ravens for the second half of the season and added three, but both play elsewhere in 2021. That leaves the Ravens with Tyus Bowser, Jaylon Ferguson, and Pernell McPhee, who are all dependable veteran contributors that can hold the edge against the run and contribute to the pass rush. Still, none of these players have elite upside. The organization believes that first-round rookie Odafe Oweh can be the guy to provide that, just not necessarily this year.
Oweh did not put up stellar numbers at Penn State, but he has elite potential. Considering that he played fewer than 200 snaps in each of the last two seasons, his numbers are not that bad either. He is a somewhat raw talent, but Baltimore believes the young man can be special with some good coaching. He should factor into the rotation as a rookie, especially on passing downs, but is not likely to post numbers of value to IDP managers right away. Dynasty managers in big-play-based leagues might want to consider Oweh a stash prospect to tuck away on the taxi squad.
- ILB Patrick Queen – Strong LB2 floor with top-five upside
- ILB L.J. Fort – Watchlist sleeper with limited upside
- ILB Malik Harrison – Watchlist deep sleeper
- ILB Chris Board – No impact expected
- OLB Jaylon Ferguson – No impact
- OLB Tyus Bowser – No impact
- OLB Pernell McPhee – No impact
- OLB Odafe Oweh – Dynasty target or re-draft sleeper in big play formats.
There are no sure things in fantasy football but saying there will be no Ravens safety among the Top 15 is pretty darn close. The last time we saw a Baltimore corner with that kind of value was in 2004 when Ed Reed had 64 combined tackles and 9 interceptions. The closest anyone has come since that time was last year when Chuck Clark’s 54-40-1.5 with 5 turnovers, 4 passes defended, and a score landed him at 21.
Clark found his way into the starting lineup during the 2019 season and has solidified his role as the starter. He is a versatile safety with good cover ability but is at his best in an in-the-box, run-support role. Clark rarely makes a mental mistake or misses a tackle. Unfortunately for IDP managers, Baltimore safeties simply do not make a lot of tackles. Without taking the time to do the research, I believe Clark’s 94 combined tackles and assists might be the most in team history by a safety.
Depending on splash plays to fill in gaps in the tackle columns tends to make players inconsistent on a week-to-week basis. In 2020, Clark reached double-digit fantasy points in seven games. With six or fewer in six others. Clark can be a solid third starter with a little upside on any given week if he can continue to put marks in the big-play columns and repeat last years’ tackle totals.
Both Clark and free-safety DeShon Elliot put up better tackle numbers in 2020 than we are used to seeing from Baltimore’s safeties. That may have a lot to do with the situation at inside linebacker. Elliot did a solid job in his first year as a starter and does not appear to have any serious competition for the starting job. Still, there is no reason to expect fantasy-friendly production from him going forward.
Until the last two seasons, the Ravens’ corner positions were no more productive than their safeties had been. When Marlon Humphrey went 53-11-0 with eight takeaways and 14 passes defended in 2019, we all assumed it was a fluke. When he returned last season with 70 tackles, 12 assists, 2.5 sacks, 8 forced fumbles, an interception, and 10 pass breakups, we had to start paying attention.
Humphrey is a great example of how great players around them can impact box score production, particularly at the corner positions. Over his first two seasons, Humphrey was the Ravens' number one corner. In 2017 and 2018, he combined for 61 tackles, 9 assists, 4 interceptions, and a forced fumble. In 2019 the Ravens traded for Marcus Peters, an elite cover corner and arguably the top big-play threat in the league. As a result, Humphrey's statistical explosion made him the second-highest scoring corner and sixth-ranked defensive back, but there was still a little week-to-week inconsistency. Having the third-most tackles by a corner in 2020 resolved the consistency issue. Humphrey was not only the ninth-ranked defensive back and number four corner, but he hit double-digit fantasy points in 11 of 14 games. Twice is a trend and Peters is still lining up on the other side, so look for another excellent year from Humphries.
Marcus Peters has averaged around 40 solo tackles over the last five seasons, but he is the only defender in the league that can be counted on for at least one defensive touchdown nearly every year. Last season was the first time since 2016 that he failed to score at least once, but he did manage better tackle totals (46 solos) while accounting for 10 turnovers and a sack. The low tackle output makes him a boom or bust fantasy option on a week-to-week basis, but when he booms, Peters can win the game both for his team and yours. He is a gambler with a winning record and tends to have more boom games than not. Peters will give up a big play now and then but has accounted for 59 takeaways (33 interceptions) and 7 scores in six seasons and has been a perennial top-12 corner.
Jimmy Smith was a starter for the Ravens over much of his ten NFL seasons but struggled with injuries often. Sliding into the third corner role has worked out well for both him and the Ravens. Smith has completed a full slate of games four times in his career. Two of those were 2019 and 2020. Few teams can boast a trio of corners with so much talent, but Smith had virtually no fantasy impact even when he was in the lead role.
Tavon Young is the dime package corner when healthy but has played in just six games over the last two seasons due to injuries. If he cannot break that curse, he could be replaced by rookie third-round pick Brandon Stephens or possibly fifth-round selection Shaun Wade.
- SS Chuck Clark – DB3 with possible upside but week to week consistency potential as well
- SS DeShon Elliott – Marginal IDP value at best
- FS/SS Anthony Levine – Injust sleeper with low floor
- SS/FS Jordan Richardson – Injury sleeper with limited potential
- CB Marlon Humphrey – Priority CB1 or low-end DB1
- CB Marcus Peters – CB1 or gambler’s DB3 due to inconsistency
- CB Jimmy Smith – No impact
- CB Tavon Young –No impact
- CB Brandon Stephens – Injury sleeper at best
- CB Shaun Wade – No impact expected
- CB/FS Anthony Averett – No impact
Outside of the play and fantasy production of the safeties, there is not much positive from the Bengals defense in 2020, either on the field on in terms of fantasy value. On the field, Cincinnati allowed 7.3 yards per pass, which was tied for 19th, only the Texans allowed more yards-per-carry on the ground, their 17 turnovers ranked 28th, Cincinnati was one of three teams that didn’t score a defensive touchdown, no one recorded fewer than their 17 sacks, and somehow they were no worse than 22nd in points allowed. From the fantasy football perspective, Jesse Bates and Vonn Bell were the only Bengals to average more than 8.7 points per game or score more than 125 points on the season.
The offense started to look good last year until Joe Burrow was injured. As the Bengals enter year three of the Zac Taylor coaching regime, we should start to see things come together defensively as well. There were several offseason additions on this side of the ball, and there will be new starters at every level of the defense. Those changes could bring a lot more IDP value with them as well.
The defensive line overhaul started last offseason with the signing of D.J. Reader. It continued into the season and beyond with the team benching and then moving on from longtime starters Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins. Those moves were followed by defensive end Carl Lawson leaving in free agency at the end of the season. With Reader lost to a quad injury in week five, there were many holes to fill by the end of the year.
Reader is back and healthy. He is a 347-pound road grader who will work as the one-technique and be the anchor Cincinnati needs in the middle of the line. Reader will command double teams on running plays between the tackles, which will free up those on both sides of him and make life much easier for the linebackers behind him. He is not quick and nimble as a pass rusher but has the power to push the pocket and be disruptive.
His presence should positively impact the rest of Cincinnati's defenders and the unit as a whole, but Reader’s contribution on the field is not likely to reflect strongly in-the-box scores. He was consistently in the range of 50-55 combined tackles and a couple of sacks while with Houston and was on pace for similar production last year before the injury. Reader will not be a great IDP option, but considering the shortage of depth at the interior line positions, he should make a decent DT2 or quality depth.
Reader will be joined on the inside by former Cleveland starter Larry Ogunjobi at the 3-technique or under-tackle position. The signing of Ogunjobi bolsters a position of need for the Bengals and takes a good player off the roster of a division rival. He is not as strong a pass rusher as Atkins was in his prime, but Ogunjobi does have 13.5 sacks over the last three seasons and would have more had he not been bothered by an abdominal injury last year. The Bengals lose nothing in terms of run defense with the move to Ogunjobi, who is stout enough to hold his ground on the inside yet quick and athletic enough to get off blocks and make plays. Ogunjobi was a top-15 interior lineman in terms of fantasy production in both 2018 and 2019, averaging 35-17-5.5 over those two seasons. He is 26 years old and has a lot of good football ahead of him. There is a good chance he will regain top-15 status in 2021.
Mike Daniels provided veteran depth at both interior positions. He had some productive years early in his career while with the Packers but has quietly become a journeyman backup since 2017. Daniels will compete with rookie fourth-round pick Tyler Shelvin and second-year man Khalil McKenzie for backup snaps.
Sam Hubbard and Carlos Dunlap accounted for 17.5 of the 22.5 sacks recorded by Cincinnati defensive ends in 2019. Last year the team’s defensive end position as a whole produced eight and a half. From that perspective, it is probably not bad that Sam Hubbard is the only returning defensive line starter from the end of last season.
Hubbard was a bright spot for the Bengals in a generally dismal 2019 season. The 2018 third-round pick showed great promise as a rookie. Working as part of a rotation, he recorded 28 solo tackles and 6 sacks and scored a touchdown on a fumble recovery. The starting job belonged to Hubbard from the start in 2019, and he stepped up big in the three-down role. When all the numbers were in, Hubbard's 48 solo tackles were third-most in the league among defensive linemen, his eight and a half sacks were more than respectable, and he was a top-ten lineman in IDP leagues.
It looked like Hubbard was well on the way to becoming an outstanding, if not elite, three-down defensive end. Still, last season was a considerable setback in performance and statistical production at 33-29-2 in 13 games. This likely had more to do with the environment around him than an indictment of Hubbard’s effort or play. The coaching staff probably deserves a good bit of the blame for some questionable decisions, such as the benching of Dunlap in October.
Hubbard has never been considered a great edge rusher and will not challenge the league sack title regardless of the situation. Still, the 25-year-old appears to have a long and prosperous career ahead of him, especially if the supporting cast plays better. He was the third most productive IDP option on the Bengals roster in 2020 and is a player with a high ceiling for fantasy managers going forward.
Carl Lawson failed in his effort to step up and replace Dunlap last year. Blame that one on the coaching staff because Lawson is a pass rush specialist that should never have been in that situation, to begin with. The job now falls to this year’s free-agent gem, Trey Hendrickson.
There is a lot of excitement surrounding Hendrickson, who blew up for 13.5 sacks with the Saints in 2020, tripling his previous career-best of 4.5 from 2019. While true, that statement can be a little misleading in that the 2017 third-round pick battled injuries over much of his first three seasons and was not a regular starter until last year.
The injury history is a concern for placing expectations on Hendrickson in his first year with the Bengals, but it is not the only reason for caution. He became the starter by default when Marcus Davenport was not able to play early last year. Even then, he shared time with Carl Granderson. Hendrickson played more than 60% of the snaps in just six games all season, and once Davenport was healthy, his snaps were reduced even further. This and the fact that Hendrickson worked from a two-point stance much of the time brings up the question of his ability to both hold up in a three-down role and be effective when putting his hand down as he will do with the Bengals.
At a glance, Hendrickson’s low totals of 22 solo tackles and three assists last year are a red flag. Considering he played only 558 snaps, I am less concerned with those numbers than his ability to stay healthy. Cincinnati does not rotate nearly as much as the Saints, so the snap count should be there. Lawson was the third man in the rotation for the first month of 2020 yet still saw 723 plays while Hubbard missed three games and had 664. Hendrickson’s potential as a pass rusher was on full display in 2020. Now we just have to hope everything comes together, and he can avoid being one and done.
The organization saw enough of Khalid Kareem and Amani Bledsoe last year to know they are not future starters. One of them should make the final roster this year, but Cincinnati drafted three players at the position this spring, using a third on Joseph Ossai, a fourth on Cameron Sample, and a seventh on Wyatt Hubert.
The selection of Ossai is interesting in that he played inside linebacker early in his career at Texas before shifting to outside linebacker in 2020. He is tall at 6’4”, but at 256 pounds, Ossai is both undersized and raw as a 4-3 defensive end. He has a great work ethic, a motor that runs full speed all the time, and the physical tools to develop into a starter eventually. In the meantime, he should see time as a sub-package specialist.
Positional versatility and experience could get Sample on the field ahead of Ossai. He was a three-year starter at defensive end in Tulane’s 3-4 scheme, making Sample a tweener in a 4-3. At 6’3” 267 pounds, he is currently a tackle trapped in the body of a defensive end. As an edge defender, Sample has the size and power to hold ground at the point of attack with speed to chase down plays from the backside and quickness to get around blockers, but he lacks the refined technical skill as a pass rusher. Sample has the strength, grit, and skillset for the job as an inside defender but is a little light to see regular work there on early downs. Look for him to see early-down action on the edge, then slide inside on passing downs while he works to add muscle to his frame and improve his mechanics as a pass rusher.
Hubert plays every snap like his hair is on fire but is not as physically gifted as the guys drafted ahead of him. He has the potential to earn a significant role at some point but has a lot of growing to do before he can garner consideration as a starter.
- DE Sam Hubbard – Dependable DL2 with low DL1 upside
- DE Trey Hendrickson – Risk/reward prospect with low floor and high ceiling
- DE/SLB Joseph Ossai – Pass rush specialist with long term upside
- DE/DT Cameron Sample – End/tackle tweener with future starting potential
- DE/DT Wyatt Hubert – Developmental rookie
- DE Khalid Kareem – No impact
- DE Amani Bledsoe – No impact
- DT Larry Ogunjobi – Strong DT2 with low DT1 ceiling
- DT D.J. Reader – Low DT2 or solid DT3
- DT Mike Daniels – Injury sleeper at best
- DT Tyler Shelvin – No immediate impact
- DT Khalil McKenzie – No impact
The story for the Bengals linebackers is one of addition by subtraction. It is not like Josh Bynes is a bad player, but he would never be a long-term answer at middle linebacker, so he was just sort of in the way last year. Now that Bynes is gone and Logan Wilson has a year of experience under his belt, we might finally get good production from a Cincinnati linebacker.
The Bengals have settled for mediocre play at middle linebacker for most of the last two decades. Never was their need at the position more obvious than in 2019. It was surprising but understandable when the team passed on a linebacker at the top of the second round in last year’s draft since they got a talented wide receiver at another position of need. When Logan Wilson was still available in round three, Cincinnati finally got their man.
From a talent and skillset perspective, Wilson is a true three-down middle linebacker. As a three-time captain at Wyoming, he also brings the intangible of leadership this team defense desperately needs. At 6’2” and 241 pounds, Wilson has the size and mentality of a physical run defender with the speed and cover skills that come from being a former safety. He was highly productive as a four-year starter at Wyoming, where he totaled 249 solo tackles, 160 assists, and 14 passes defended. The organization is also excited about Wilson’s big-play ability. His college career included 10 interceptions, 5 forced fumbles, 4 recoveries, and 3 scores. He even displayed the ability to rush the passer with 7 career sacks.
It was surprising that the Bengals coaching staff did not throw Wilson into the full-time role right out of the gate, instead electing to let him gain experience as a sub-package contributor behind Bynes in 2020. That was frustrating for IDP managers last year, but at least we know Wilson will stay on the field in sub-packages now that he is the starter.
As for what kind of production we can expect from Wilson, he was 23-10-1 with a pair of interceptions on 343 snaps last year. Projected over the playing time he would have seen as a full-time starter, Wilson’s totals would have looked more like 71-30-3 with 5-6 turnovers and 8-9 passes defended. Considering that most of his playing time came in passing situations, early-down snaps would have added some spice to Wilson’s tackle totals. There is always a risk when speculating big things from an unproven player, especially one that fell way short of expectations the previous season. The good news here is that Wilson will not be all that high on anyone’s list, so he can be drafted at a bargain price in the low LB3 or even LB4 range.
It is possible but not probable we could get useful production from either Jermaine Pratt or Akeen Davis-Gaither in 2021. Both players were starters in 2020, with Pratt playing the weakside on 686 of a possible 1059 snaps, while Davis Gaither played 314 from the strong side. Both guys saw a few sub-package opportunities but not enough to matter.
Over the last two seasons, Pratt has produced good tackle totals for the number of plays, but outside of 106 tackles and 59 assists, and 2 pass breakups, he has literally done nothing on 1129 snaps. Davis-Gaither was less impressive in the tackle columns, but he had an interception and half a sack as a rookie last year. The coaching staff has thus far shown no sign that they would trust Pratt in a three-down role, so what we could get here is Pratt leaving the field on passing downs and Davis-Gaither working as a three-down strong side linebacker. Another possibility might be for Davis Gaither to shift to the weak side with Jordan Evans playing strong and Pratt going to the bench. Either of those scenarios could make Davis-Gaither relevant, so we will keep an eye on this as the summer moves along.
The Bengals are short on experienced depth at the linebacker spots. Evans is a four-year veteran with the versatility to line up at any of the three positions. He made a few starts in 2017 and 2018 but has played mostly on special teams over the last two seasons, logging 131 defensive snaps under the current coaching staff. Markus Bailey is the next most experienced backup. Last year’s seventh-round pick played 40 snaps as a rookie. Beyond those two, the team has a contingent of undrafted rookies and taxi squad players battling to fill out the roster.
- MLB Logan Wilson – High ceiling LB3
- WLB Germaine Pratt – Deep sleeper with good tackle potential but no big-play production
- SLB/WLB Akeem Davis-Gaither – Watchlist player
- MLB/WLB Jordan Evans – Injury sleeper at best
- MLB/WLB Markus Bailey – No impact expected
Over the past three seasons, Jessie Bates has quietly become one of the league's elite safeties. The 2018 second-round pick was an immediate starter and wasted no time making an impact. He was the fantasy game’s number eight defensive back as a rookie, following that by finishing tenth in 2019 and sixth in 2020. Bates was the Bengals leading tackler last year, which is a rare feat for any free safety. He has 220 solo tackles and 97 assists over three seasons as a pro but is much more than a tackling machine, with an average of four takeaways and ten pass breakups per year. Bates averaged almost 11 fantasy points per game over his first two campaigns and was the top producing free safety in 2020 in fantasy terms, with an average near 11.6. He has been among the top-12 defensive backs in three consecutive seasons, and there is no reason to think he will not make it four straight in 2021
It took Vonn Bell four years to earn the full-time strong safety job in New Orleans. For much of his first three seasons there, he served as the third safety seeing action in the Saints’ big-nickel base scheme but leaving the field on roughly 20% of the snaps. While he had a good share of productive games, those missing snaps held his fantasy value in check, making Bell an inconsistent third starter for IDP managers. He was on the field virtually every play before being injured in week 13 of the 2019 season and was far more than a third starter that year. Bell set career marks in tackles and big plays while averaging better than 13 fantasy points per game, second-most in the league by a defensive back. When Bell signed with the Bengals ahead of last season, there was some initial uncertainty about his role. Instead of working in a three safety base defense like the one he left in New Orleans, Bell replaced Shawn Williams at strong safety, rarely leaving the field. Bell went on to be the Bengals’ second-leading tackler, forcing three fumbles, recovering two, and breaking up five passes on the year. That was enough to make him the number 12 defensive back in 2020. The Bengals' defense should be improved this year, particularly in the front seven. That could impact Bell's production, but he remains a safe target as a DB2 with top-12 potential.
Shawn Williams moved on to greener pastures, signing with the Cardinals, so Cincinnati inked former Falcons free safety Ricardo Allen to backup Bates. Allen provides experience but was never particularly impressive on the field or productive in the box scores as a starter. Brandon Willims would be the next man up if Bell were lost. The 2017 sixth-round pick has not played much on defense in four years with the team but is a staple on special teams.
Entering the third year of the current coaching regime, 2018 fifth-round pick Darius Phillips is the only remaining corner on the roster from a previous staff that used a lot of early picks on the position. Cincinnati added Trae Waynes last offseason but has seen no return on the investment thus far due to him being injured before the 2020 campaign. This spring, they let William Jackson III, Mackensie Alexander, and LeShaun Simms walk, replacing them with former Cowboys starter Chidobe Awuzie, former Steelers slot defender Mike Hilton, and a hopefully healthy Waynes.
Williams for Awuzie might be a step in the wrong direction, but Hilton and Waynes should provide considerable upgrades in talent. Both Waynes and Awuzie have battled injuries in recent years, with both missing at least 15 games over the last four seasons. Awuzie has completed one full slate of games since 2016, and Waynes none.
At times, Dre Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard both provided a little value for managers in corner-required leagues while they were with the Bengals, but there have been no steady starting options in recent years. If everyone stays healthy, Cincinnati should be considerably better on the field, but the trend of marginal IDP production seems destined to continue in 2021.
If there is to be an exception, it will be Hilton. He has been a steady and dependable slot corner for the Steelers since 2017 and has consistently contributed to the splash play columns. Hilton totaled 9 turnovers, 6.5 sacks, and 24 pass breakups between 2017 and 2019. In 2020, coincidentally a contract year, Hilton went off with 51 combined tackles, 6 takeaways, 3 sacks, and 7 passes defended in just 12 games. Dennard had two fairly productive seasons as Cincinnati’s slot corner in 2017 and 2018, so Hilton has hope.
Should Waynes and/or Awuzie continue to struggle with injuries, it could be a long ugly season for the Cincinnati secondary. Darius Phillips and Eli Apple are set to compete for backup duties and the remaining sub-package snaps. Apple has bounced around the league since being a first-round pick of the Giants in 2016, while Phillips has managed to hang around the Bengals roster largely due to his special teams' contributions.
- FS Jessie Bates – Borderline elite DB1
- SS Vonn Bell – Priority DB2
- FS Ricardo Allen – No impact
- SS Brandon Wilson – Injury sleeper
- CB Trae Waynes – No impact expected
- CB Chidobe Awuzie – No impact
- CB Mike Hilton – High ceiling CB2 with some risk
- CB Eli Apple – No impact
- CB Darius Phillips – No impact
The Browns made the playoff for the first time since 2002, but you would not know it from the way they dismantled the defense in the offseason. This unit was middle of the pack in most important statistics last season. Instead of making a few tweaks or just addressing their biggest need at linebacker, we are looking at five new starters in the front seven and possibly three more in the secondary. Many of the changes are clear upgrades, but the defensive line moves are not necessarily among them.
Gone are both starting defensive tackles, Sheldon Richardson and Larry Ogunjobi, as well as starting defensive end Olivier Vernon and number three end Adrian Clayborn. All four of these guys are starter quality NFL veterans who play the run well and contribute significantly as pass rushers. Between them, they had 19.5 sacks in 2020.
Replacing them will be Malik Jackson, Andrew Billings, Jadeveon Clowney, and Tak McKinley. Jackson is somewhat of a downgrade from Sheldon Richardson. He is, however, a quality player and a much better fit for the Browns' budget. He was highly productive earlier in his career, averaging about 31 tackles, 10 assists, and 6 sacks with Denver and Jacksonville over his first five seasons, including a career-best of eight sacks in 2017. Since that time, Jackson has battled injuries. He played through an ankle issue in 2018 and suffered a season-ending foot injury early in 2019. He was on the injury report most of last season as he played through a sore quad. At 31 years old, Jackson remains a quality NFL starter when healthy and can be a strong option for IDP managers in tackle required formats.
The Browns signed Andrew Billins ahead of the 2020 season, but he elected to opt out. Before coming to Cleveland, he was a two-year starter for the Bengals. Determining if he is an upgrade over Ogunjobi depends on what the team was looking for. If they felt the need for a stout, hard-to-move 1-technique guy to eat up space and blockers, Billings is at least a lateral move and might be an upgrade. Billings is a step-down if the goal is an athletic big man that can penetrate, disrupt, and contribute as a pass rusher. Maybe the biggest head-scratcher about the Billings addition last year is that the Browns already had a very similar player in terms of talent and skillset in Jordan Elliot. Let’s just say the Bengals, who signed Ogunjobi, are happy with how this turned out.
The Browns got their checkbook out this offseason, signing Clowney for what amounts to a one-year deal worth eight million. He was the first overall pick in 2014 and is a highly talented player, but Clowney has not always lived up to expectations. While injuries have been part of the issue, the bottom line is that he has never recorded double-digit sacks and 18.5 of his career total of 32 came in two seasons (2017-2018). Since leaving Houston following the 2018 season, Clowney has three sacks in 25 games. If he can stay on the field, he has the potential for 40+ tackles and 10+ sacks, but he is far from a sure thing.
Most will look at the addition of Clowney as a considerable upgrade over Vernon. I am not convinced that is the case. Clowney is a little younger, more physically gifted, and arguably has a higher ceiling, but he has some baggage. Injuries have been an issue over the last two seasons, Clowney cost a lot more than keeping Vernon would have, and there might be a reason Clowney is lining up with his fourth team in as many years. Statistically, the two are a push. Clowney’s best season was in 2017 when he finished with career-highs in tackles at 41-18 and sacks with 9.5. He has fewer than six sacks in four of his seven seasons as a pro, though some would argue that is only because of the injuries. On the other hand, Vernon has at least seven sacks in seven of his nine seasons with a career-best of 45-12-10 and got to the quarterback nine times in 2020.
Tak McKinley will compete with Joe Jackson and possibly second-year pro Curtis Weaver for Adrian Clayborn's job as the Brown third edge defender. Based on the upside, McKinley should have the edge for the job. With six sacks as a rookie in 2017 and seven and a half in his second year, the former first-round pick showed signs of becoming a solid NFL starter. Instead of taking the next step, he regressed in 2019 and was ultimately cut by the Falcons last November. Clayborn was a dependable veteran presence with a lot of starting experience, but at age 33, his upside was limited. McKinley is not the run defender Clayborn was but could add some pop as a situational pass rusher. Jackson would likely get any leftover playing time on early downs.
Weaver is an interesting watchlist player. He was outstanding at Boise State before being drafted by the Dolphins last spring. Miami tried to slide him through waivers after Weaver suffered a potential career-threatening foot/toe injury, but the Browns claimed him. This is a guy that had 34 sacks for the Broncos over three seasons. If he can overcome the injury, Weaver could have a great future as an NFL starter.
We will have to see if all the changes ultimately make the Cleveland defensive line better, but we know for sure they have one stud in the stable. Grand expectations were heaped on Myles Garrett when the Browns took him first overall in 2017. Other than getting himself ejected from a game late in the 2019 season and then suspended for the rest of the year, he has done nothing to disappoint. Garrett is an elite, three-down defensive end who has done a great job versus the run while piling up double-digit sack totals in three consecutive seasons, including 2019, when he totaled 10 in 10 games before the suspension. Garrett is close as it gets to a sure thing for 40 tackles and double-digit sacks in 2021, and he has the potential to challenge for a sack title. An easy argument can be made to make him the first defensive lineman off the board, and a reasonable argument can be made to make him the first defensive player picked at any position.
- DE Myles Garrett – Elite tier DL1
- DE Jadeveon Clowney – High risk/high upside DL2
- DE Joe Jackson – Injury sleeper with limited potential
- DE Tak McKinley – Marginal value at best
- DE Curtis Weaver – Dynasty sleeper with big potential if he can overcome the injury
- DT Malik Jackson – Strong sleeper with low DT1 potential
- DT Andrew Billings – Marginal value at best
- DT Jordan Elliot – No impact expected
- DT Tommy Togiai – Developmental rookie
- DT/DE Porter Gustin – No impact
Linebacker is where the Cleveland defense had its biggest need going into the offseason. The 2020 Browns fielded a collection of serviceable players, but they lacked leadership and that one special talent teams need to become Super Bowl contenders. The leadership issue was solved with the signing of Anthony Walker, and the organization believes they have the special talent in second-round pick Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah.
There was not much fanfare surrounding the signing of Anthony Walker, but this addition may prove the most important move the team made in free agency. Walker was a two-down starter for the Colts last season. He was not on the sideline for passing downs due to coverage limitations, but rather because the team was rich at the linebacker position and wanted Bobby Okereke to have a role. Walker’s ability to play all three downs was on display in 2019 when Darius Leonard missed some time. During that season, Walker played about 80% of the overall defensive snaps, working in a three-down role at middle linebacker for several games along the way.
In fantasy terms, Walker is a tackling machine. He is not a major big-play threat but will contribute to those columns as well. In 2019 he recorded 84 solo stops, 42 assists, 2.5 sacks, a forced fumble, and a pick on 820 plays. Last season he was 65-26-0 with a pair of takeaways and 5 passes defended on less than 700 snaps.
Walker brings to the Browns a smart, dependable veteran leader who does not miss tackles, makes few mistakes, and can stay on the field in any situation. He should provide for IDP managers a consistent, matchup-proof, second starter that will produce double-digit points virtually every week.
What Owusu-Koramoah brings to the Browns is a Derwin James type tweener with a rare combination of traits. He is tall enough at almost 6’2” but is undersized for a traditional linebacker at 221 pounds. Size is not going to be an issue since the coaches will not treat him as a traditional weakside linebacker. With the speed, athleticism, and cover skills of a free safety, the physical nature of a middle linebacker, the range of a weakside linebacker, and the quick-twitch get off of an edge defender, he has the versatility to move around the formation and do virtually anything.
Owusu-Koramoah passes the college production test as well. In two years as a starter for Notre Dame (25 games), he totaled 96-46-7 with 10 turnovers and a score. He should be a day one starter for the Browns with a high floor and high ceiling for IDP managers.
Sione Takitaki projects as the lone returning starter from last year’s linebacker corps. He will line up as a base package strong side linebacker and see action on early downs. At one time, it looked like Takitaki might emerge as an IDP option, but that opportunity has passed with this year’s additions.
Mack Wilson had his shot as well, starting 14 games as a rookie in 2019. He was supposed to take over as the middle linebacker when Joe Schobert moved on last year but instead lost the job to journeyman B.J. Goodson. Wilson, last year’s third-round pick Jacob Phillips, and veteran Malcolm Smith will be the backups in 2021. Smith has the experience and versatility to be first off the bench at all three positions.
- MLB Anthony Walker – Strong LB3 with low LB2 potential
- WLB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah – High floor/high ceiling, should be at least a good LB3
- SLB Sione Takitaki – No impact
- MLB/WLB Mack Wilson – No impact
- WLB/SLB Malcolm Smith – Injury sleeper with limited potential
- MLB Jacob Phillips – Dynasty watchlist
The Cleveland secondary got a major overhaul in the offseason and could be sporting new faces at four of the five positions. Last year’s Week 1 starters at safety are gone, so we know for sure there will be new blood there. There remains, however, some uncertainty over who will line up at one of those positions.
The Browns signed John Johnson this spring but have not given much information about how he will fit into their plans. It is generally assumed he will play free safety, but at this point, the only certainty is that he will start at one of the safety spots. Johnson spent time as the starter at both strong and free safety during his time with the Rams. He excelled both on the field and in the box scores, regardless of where he lined up. He is on the small side for strong safety but cannot shy away from contact in run support. Johnson is not the fastest of safeties but diagnoses and reacts quickly in coverage. Over 38 starts with Los Angeles, Johnson averaged five tackles and two assists per game, adding six interceptions and a forced fumble. He missed most of 2019 with an injury, but when healthy, was a quality DB1 for fantasy managers regardless of which safety position he lined up in. Early projections have him working at free safety with Cleveland, but the versatility that both he and Grant Delpit bring to the field will give the coaching staff options.
The Browns felt they got a steal with Delpit in the second round last spring. He has a great combination of size, speed, athleticism, and college experience, along with a history of quality production as a three-year starter at LSU. Many believe he would have been a mid-first-round pick had he not played through injuries that affected his performance in 2019. Delpit has the skillset to play either safety position. He is a physical and willing tackler in run support with the speed, cover skills, and ball-hawking nature of a free safety.
Unfortunately, Delpit’s rookie season ended before it began with an Achilles injury during training camp. He claims to be ready for the start of this year’s training camp and is expected to be in the week one lineup if healthy. Delpit's fantasy value is a tough call until we see how the coaching staff plans to use him, but he certainly has a high ceiling if things work out well.
Harrison is a starting-caliber strong safety that has been IDP friendly when healthy over his three seasons, but he lacks the versatility of Johnson or Delpit. If Delpit is truly 100% by the end of training camp, Harrison will likely serve in a backup capacity with the potential to play some nickel linebacker should the coaching staff elect to add that option to their playcalling arsenal.
Johnson was not the only player Cleveland poached from the Rams’ top-ranked pass defense. They signed corner Troy Hill as well. The Rams ran a nickel base defense for most of last season. Hill did an excellent job both in the slot and while working on the outside in two-corner sets. He was able to capitalize on the situation statistically, accumulating 58 tackles, 20 assists, 10 pass breakups, and six takeaways to finish as the fantasy game’s number two corner.
It remains unclear if the Browns plan to start Hill on the outside opposite Denzel Ward or have their first-round rookie Greg Newsome play there so Hill can work over the slot where he had so much success a season ago. It also remains to be seen if the box-score production will follow him to the new address. Fantasy value from the corner position can be fickle. There would be no guarantee of Hill's continued production even if he were still with the Rams, and Cleveland has not given us great or consistent IDP value at the corner positions for a long time. Corners are generally selected in the late rounds of IDP drafts, so Hill is a solid, relatively risk-free target, but there is a real possibility he will prove to be a one-year wonder.
Denzel Ward is locked in at one of the outside corner spots. The 2018 fourth overall pick has not yet joined the elite shutdown corner club, but he has proven to be an excellent number one for the Browns. As is often the case with such quality corners, Ward’s numbers do not reflect the impact of his contribution on the field.
Ward and Hill are going to be two of the Browns' three corners. Chances are, first-round rookie Greg Newsome II will be the third. Newsome is versatile in that he can any type of coverage from press-man to Cover 3 zones with equal success. He did not produce many tackles or turnovers at Northwestern but did not allow many catches either. Newsome is highly competitive on 50/50 balls which can sometimes get him in trouble with the officials, but he has the long speed to stick with even the fastest receivers. One thing that is not in Newsome’s wheelhouse is playing over the slot. In 2020 we could see the Browns take the same approach Los Angeles did last year with Newsome and Ward on the outside and Hill in the slot on most base package snaps, and Newsome coming to the sideline in two corner alignments.
If he can get healthy, third-year man, Greedy Williams could have something to say about who the Browns' top-three corners will be. The 2019 second-round pick started 12 games as a rookie but has not been able to stay on the field. He missed all of last season with a shoulder injury that caused nerve damage. Williams has been cleared by doctors for a return to football and has proclaimed himself ready. Considering the quantity and quality of the team’s other options. It would be a surprise if Williams were not eased back into action as the fourth corner in passing down sub-packages.
- SS/FS Grant Delpit – High upside prospect if healthy, especially if he plays strong safety
- FS/SS John Johnson – Change of team presents some risk but should be at least a DB2
- SS Ronnie Harrison – Quality DB3 with upside if he lands a starting job
- FS/SS Sheldrick Redwine – No impact
- SS Richard LeCounte III– Injury sleeper at best
- CB Denzel Ward – No impact
- CB Greg Newsome – Rookie corner rule could be in play
- CB Troy Hill – Risk/reward player with boom or bust potential
- CB Greedy Williams – No impact expected
- CB M.J. Stewart – No impact
- CB Robert Jackson – No impact
For two consecutive seasons, the Pittsburgh defense has played phenomenal football while the offense has imploded. Last year’s Steelers repeated as the league leaders in sacks with 56, finished second with 27 takeaways, had the number 4 run defense, the number 12 pass defense, and allowed the third-fewest points.
One important factor in the Steelers seemingly always being near the league's top on defense is continuity. They rarely make wholesale changes. The only significant personnel difference between 2019 and 2020 was Javon Hargrave being replaced by Tyson Alualu at nose tackle. Likewise, this year's only significant change will be Alex Highsmith taking over for Bud Dupree at outside linebacker.
Except for a few gaps due to injuries, the Steelers have been starting Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt at defensive end since 2014. Heyward has been a cornerstone for the Steelers defense since becoming a starter in 2013 and has been a solid fantasy contributor throughout his career. Except for an injury-shortened 2016, Heyward had at least 45 combined tackles and 7.5 sacks every season from 2014 to 2019. His career-bests of 12 sacks in 2017, and 83 combined tackles in 2019, are outliers but represent Heyward’s potential.
Last year was not as kind to the ten-year veteran. Heyward posted his normal 55 combined tackles but slipped to four sacks. Some will suggest this is a sign of decline for the 32-year-old. I see it as a fluke contributed to by a quad injury he suffered in early November. He is not a player we can count on as our number one, but 55 combined tackles and 6-7 sacks are reasonable expectations. After the down year, we should be able to pick Heyward up as a priority DL3 or a decent second starter.
Tuitt is a perfect fit in the Steelers scheme. He has the size and strength to hold up at the point of attack, with enough quickness and athleticism to contribute as a pass rusher. From a fantasy football perspective, he has been relatively productive when healthy but has finished inside the top-30 just twice in his career. The issue with Tuitt has been an inability to stay on the field. Until last season, he had not completed a full slate of games since 2014, when he was a rookie backup.
Tuitt was an IDP factor as a first-time starter in 2015. That season he landed inside the top-20 on the strength of 39-14-6.5 and a forced fumble in 14 games, with a scoring average inside the top-12. After missing ten games in 2019 with a torn pectoral, Tuitt finally beat the injury bug last year. Playing all 16 games for the first time as a starter, Tuitt went 33-12-11 with a pair of forced fumbles, 2 swatted passes, and a ranking of 11th. One good season does not make a trend, but it does show us what Tuitt is capable of if he can stay on the field. His history is enough to hold his value down to a DL3 on draft day, but he could produce solid DL2 numbers.
Javon Hargrave left for Philadelphia after the 2019 season, taking any potential IDP value at the nose tackle position with him. In two seasons as the Steelers starter, he averaged 33-20-5 and was a dependable DT2. Hargrave, however, was a player that stayed on the field much more than Pittsburgh nose tackles normally do, seeing almost 700 snaps in his last season there. Tyson Alualu took over the starting job but played just 449 snaps, with a few of them coming at defensive end. Alualu is set to start at the position again, with Isaiah Buggs spelling him. Both of these guys are good players that fit the mold of Steelers nose tackles. They can hold ground in the middle, force double teams, and shield the inside linebackers from blockers, but there is no IDP production to be found here.
Chris Wormley is a dependable veteran backup that will spell the starters for a few snaps each game. He can be a serviceable fill-in if called upon but is not a potential long-term option. Last year’s seventh-round selection Carlos Davis and this year’s fifth-round pick Isaiahh Loudermilk are a pair of young developmental prospects. The Steelers do a great job of slowly turning late-round guys into eventual defensive starters, but there is nothing to suggest either of these players will see the field soon.
- DE Cameron Heyward – Target as priority DL3 with DL2 upside
- DE Stephon Tuitt – Potential DL2 with considerable injury risk
- NT/DE Tyson Alualu – No impact
- NT Isaiah Buggs – No impact
- DE Chris Wormley – No impact
- DE Carlos Davis – No impact
- DE Isaiahh Loudermilk – No impact
Devin Bush was arguably the top inside linebacker in the 2019 draft. He has the range, speed, cover skills, and leadership qualities that should make him the centerpiece of the Steelers defense for the next several years. Bush put up good numbers as a rookie, making solid contributions in the tackles columns while providing seven turnovers, a sack, and a defensive score, for a final ranking in the mid-teens. His rookie production was good, but the numbers are particularly impressive considering he saw action on roughly 82% of the defensive snaps.
As expected, Bush started out playing every defensive snap in his second season. That lasted right up to the point when he was lost to a season-ending knee injury in week five. His rehab has reportedly gone well, and the expectation is that Bush will participate to some degree at the beginning of training camp and be good to go for the opener. Once he is fully recovered, Bush has the potential to be a perennial top-12 linebacker for IDP managers.
The Steelers' other inside linebacker spot is not so clearly defined. Vince Williams had been the main contributor there since 2017, but he unexpectedly retired just before the start of training camp. That leaves Robert Spillane and rookie Buddy Johnson as the leading candidates to line up next to Bush. Spillane is not as tough versus the run as Williams, but he is not a liability either, and he did a good job in coverage over his short stint as the starter. Spillane suffered a knee injury in week 13 that did not need surgery. He missed the rest of the regular season but is healthy entering training camp. With the quality of his play, Spillane likely earned a role going forward. The question is, how big? Steelers coaches talked him up when he was starting last year, but we have no way to tell how much of that was coach speak. What we do know is that he looked pretty good on the field and was productive in the box scores, going 39-12-2 with 4 passes defended, a fumble recovery, and an interception for a score on 378 plays. There is a good deal of IDP potential at this position, so this is a situation we will be keeping close tabs on when training camps open.
The Steelers do not want to get caught short on depth at ILB again. Spillane’s play will go a long way toward eliminating that possibility, but the team also used a fourth-round pick on Johnson. He was a productive three-year starter at Texas A&M with the potential to become a starter for the Steelers at some point. In many ways, Johnson is a younger version of Williams. He excels against the run and can get home on the blitz but will need to refine his coverage skills if he will ever be more than a two-down guy as a pro. That said, he has the speed, athleticism, and drive to make that happen with some good coaching. If either of these guys are going to earn full-time duties in 2021, Spillane would likely be that guy, but we might see Johnson on early downs and Spillane in sub-packages, much like the Steelers used Williams and Mark Barron in 2019.
With at least 14 sacks in each of the last three seasons and 50.5 in his first four years as a pro, T.J. Watt has already joined the list of Steelers greats that includes names like Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene, Joey Porter, Chad Brown, Jason Gildenn, and James Harrison. With 19.5 sacks over the last two seasons, Bud Dupree might have been nearing inclusion on that list, but we will never know since he took the payday and moved on to Tennessee.
Entering his fifth season as a pro, T.J. Watt is well established as one of the league's elite edge defenders. Over the last three seasons, he has 43.5 sacks, 15 forced fumbles, 4 recoveries, and three interceptions. On the field, there is no real weakness in Watt's game. He is just like most 3-4 outside rushers in fantasy terms in that his value depends largely on league format. In big-play-based scoring, Watt is an elite top-10 LB1. For those in balanced or tackle-heavy formats, his value will be reduced considerably. In the footballguys default scoring, Watt has been in the LB3 range for the last three seasons and was LB33 in 2020.
With Dupree gone, the Steelers are counting heavily on Alex Highsmith to step up and make an impact opposite Watt. Highsmith saw a good bit of action as a rookie. He served as the third man in the edge rotation for much of the season before starting the final five games after Dupree was injured. With two sacks on 438 plays, he has much to prove in his second season. The coaching staff has expressed confidence in his ability to step up with some experience and be the long-term answer, but that did not stop them from adding veteran free agent Cassius Marsh as a safety net. Marsh will open the season as the third man in the rotation but could end up playing a lot more than their third-man normally would as Highsmith might need a little more time to develop. The Steelers signed Melvin Ingram III on July 19th. He should step into the starting role and be a great fit. Ingram's deal is for one year and will buy Highsmith another year to develop, or should I say, the Steelers will get another year to see if they believe he can be the long-term answer.
The Steelers added another developmental prospect in sixth-round pick Quincy Roche. He racked up 26 sacks in three years at Temple before adding 4.5 more with Miami last year. It is hard to argue with the numbers, but scouts tend to believe he lacks the physical tools to be a starter at the next level. This is exactly the kind of player that spends three years developing on the end of the Steelers roster, then becomes a successful starter.
- ILB Devin Bush – LB1 with elite potential
- ILB Vince Williams – Depth at best
- ILB Robert Spillane – Watchlist player
- ILB Buddy Johnson – Dynasty sleeper
- ILB Ulysees Gilbert III – No Impact
- OLB T.J. Watt – Stud LB1 in big-play formats, solid LB3 in balanced scoring leagues
- OLB Alex Highsmith – Deep sleeper/watchlist
- OLB Cassius Marsh – Darkhorse sleeper in big-play formats
- OLB Quincy Roche – Dynasty potential
The Steelers had two defensive backs who averaged more than 10 fantasy points in 2020, but that is a somewhat deceiving statistic. Free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick led the group at 10.35 points per game but did it with a lot of help from the big-play columns. In many ways, Minkah Fitzpatrick is a reincarnation of former Steelers great Troy Polamalu. Not only does he display the same knack for game-changing plays, but he is used similarly as well. Fitzpatrick is officially listed as a free safety. Still, his skill set allows the coaching staff to move him around, putting him in positions to take advantage of matchups and allowing him to be aggressive. In 30 games with Pittsburgh, he has 14 turnovers, 20 passes defended, and 3 scores.
As was the case with Polamalu, Fitzpatrick’s tackle production may be sparse at times, leading to an issue of week-to-week inconsistency, but he will have a lot of big games along the way. He led Steelers defensive back in tackles last year, albeit with just 60 solos and 20 assists. As a result, Fitzpatrick reached double-digit points in five games, with almost 40% of his total points coming in three contests. To his credit, he somehow managed to fall short of six points just three times, so Fitzpatrick was not a complete bust in most weeks, but he is not a player we want to count on as a full-time starter.
Terell Edmunds checks in at 6'2" 220 pounds and is like having an extra, speedy linebacker roaming the secondary. His combination of speed, instinct, ability to diagnose quickly, and sureness as a tackler in the open field, made Edmunds the perfect complement to Fitzpatrick. Unfortunately, he simply does not make enough plays.
Edmunds does not line up in the box as often as IDP managers would like. With Fitzpatrick moving around a lot, he has instead become the Steelers safety net much of the time, tasked with cleaning up any mistakes others may make. It is a role similar to that of Ryan Clark and Chris Hope back when Troy Polamalu roamed the Pittsburgh secondary. The difference being that Edmunds is a more talented player than those that came before him. Because of his responsibilities, Edmunds cannot take chances and thus is not much of a splash play threat. He has four turnovers and two sacks in three seasons. Edmunds posted pretty good tackle totals in 2019 at 70 solos and 34 assists but followed it with a forgettable 48-22-1 in 2020.
Apparently, the 2018 first-round pick has not played up to the expectations of the organization. The Steelers elected to decline the fifth-year option on Edmunds’ rookie contract, making him a lame-duck heading for free agency at the end of the season. In essence, Edmunds is in a contract year. We all know how that can affect a player’s production. All things considered, Edmunds is probably worthy of a late-round shot as a DB4 or DB5 with DB3 upside.
The other Pittsburgh defensive back to average 10+ fantasy points in 2020 was Mike Hilton, who is now playing with division rival Cincinnati. Historically the Steelers have provided little IDP help at the corner positions. That changed to some extent in 2019 when Hilton, Joe Haden, and Steven Nelson exceeded 50 solo tackles. But things went back to normal last year when no Steelers defensive back besides Fitzgerald had more than 48 solo stops, and no corner had more than 44. Hilton was 42-9 in the tackle columns, making up the points difference with 3 sacks, 6 turnovers, and 7 passes defended while playing over the slot most of the time. There is little chance anyone will repeat those big-play numbers.
Cameron Sutton is the lead candidate for the starting job opposite Haden, with both Nelson and Hilton gone. He had five turnovers and a sack as the team’s fourth corner in 2020, so if anyone will make an IDP impact, Sutton would be the favorite to do so.
Justin Layne is the favorite for the nickel corner spot. The rest of the pecking order at corner comes down to an open competition between second-year pro James Pierre, seventh-round pick Tre Norwood, and a large collection of other undrafted rookies and inexperienced free agents.
We could see someone emerge as an IDP option, but at this point, there is no one here worthy of a draft pick.
- SS Terrell Edmunds – Depth with a low DB3 ceiling
- FS Minkah Fitzpatrick – Weekly inconsistency but enough big plays to hold DB3 value
- FS Antoine Brooks Jr – No impact
- SS Miles Killebrew – No impact
- CB Joe Haden – Potential CB3
- CB Cameron Sutton – Watchlist sleeper
- CB Justin Layne – Deep sleeper at best
- CB Shakur Brown – No impact expected
- CB Tre Norwood – Developmental rookie
That is going to do it for the AFC North; the NFC East is next.
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