Mission Impossible! - IDP
By Anthony Borbely
August 31st, 2011

Well, maybe it is not impossible, but you get the point. Every season there are players who are very tough to rank for a multitude of reasons, such as durability, questionable past performance, injured teammates, or having a hot-shot young player behind them. Sometimes I wish I could just rank the players that fit nicely into a slot and skip the rest, but it just doesn't work that way. I am going to list some of the players who were toughest for me to rank, along with the reasons.

Defensive Linemen

  • Osi Umenyiora, New York Giants: Umenyiora has several situations going on right now that makes him very difficult to rank. First and probably most important is a knee injury that will keep Umenyiora out for about a month. If that's not bad enough, he has a rapidly improving Jason Pierre-Paul to compete with for snaps when he does get back on the field. Even though Umenyiora has been an elite fantasy DL, it doesn't necessarily mean he will play the same number of snaps when he returns. It is virtually impossible to know how this situation will play out. I have Umenyiora ranked as a mid-DL2 because of the uncertainty. If you choose to roll the dice and select him earlier, make sure you have some depth.

  • Ray Edwards, Atlanta Falcons: Edwards joins the Falcons after spending his entire career with the Vikings. Edwards struggled in his first three seasons before breaking out with 44 solos and nine sacks in 2009. Last year, Edwards only had 1.5 sacks in his first seven games, but he came on late and had 6.5 sacks in his last seven games. Last year pretty much sums up the maddening inconsistency of Edwards. He can be dominant one minute and invisible the next. He also benefited from playing along side stud DE Jared Allen, which meant he usually saw single blocking. Although John Abraham is a great pass rusher in his own right, he doesn't command nearly the attention that Allen does, so it remains to be seen how Edwards will handle the expected extra attention he will see. There is also concern about Edwards' motivation now that he has signed a long-term contract. There are enough red flags for me to rank Edwards as a mid-DL2, but for those that do not mind the risk, there is a lot of upside here.

  • Carlos Dunlap, Cincinnati Bengals: Dunlap had a monster second-half last year, racking up nine sacks in his last right games. He has exceptional talent and I thought he earned the right to play more snaps. The Bengals think otherwise. They are starting Robert Geathers and using Dunlap on passing downs. Dunlap has the size and skills to be an every-down DE and that is what most expected to see this year. It remains to be seen how this plays out as the season goes on. Even if he only plays passing downs, I think he cracks the top 25 at worst. I am ranking Dunlap inside the top 20 and although that is somewhat risky, the upside is too huge to ignore. All it takes is an increase in playing time during the year to turn Dunlap into a DL1. Deciding on whether that will happen will determine where you draft him. I am admittedly going a bit against the grain here, but I would absolutely draft him at the spot where I have him ranked.

  • Jason Babin, Philadelphia Eagles: Babin had a huge 2010 season for the Titans, racking up 44 solos, 14 assists, and a career-high 12.5 sacks. Prior to last year, Babin had never had more than five sacks in any of his first six season. Despite that, the Eagles signed Babin to a five-year, $28 million contract. I think it is extremely risky signing a 31-year-old DE with one great year to a contract like that. It is equally risky expecting Babin to repeat his numbers from last year's. On the other side of the coin, Babin did post elite numbers last year and you can't totally ignore that. But like I said, I can't just rank the players that slot neatly into a spot. I had to decide where to rank Babin and I'm in the camp that expects him to regress this year. For that reason, I am ranking Babin as a low-end DL2, but there is risk ignoring a player's most recent season.

  • Chris Clemons, Seattle Seahawks: Mush like Babin, Clemons came out of nowhere last year, racking up 33 solos, 15 assists, and 10.5 sacks, all career highs. The one big difference between Clemons and Babin is that Clemons produced as a pass rusher in the past, as evidenced by his eight-sack season in 2007. Clemons was never a full-time player before last year and his pass rushing skills and results earned him more time as the season went on. Players like Clemons that play several years before breaking out are very difficult to rank because it's tough to tell if the one good year is a fluke. I think Clemons has a better chance of repeating his double-digit sack season than Babin. I have him ranked as an upper-DL2, but there are risks due to his past history.
  • Linebackers

  • Stephen Tulloch, Detroit Lions: Tulloch joins the Lions after spending his entire career with the Titans. Last season, Tulloch had 160 tackles, including a whopping 111 solos. Linebackers that rack up more than 100 solos almost always wind up as a top-ten fantasy linebacker. The year before, Tulloch had 94 solos and finished as a mid-LB2. The difference between those two years is that Tulloch was an every-down linebacker last year, but the year before he did not play on all passing downs. That leaves us with a dilemma because right now, it is not totally clear whether Tulloch will be a three-down linebacker and that makes it extremely difficult to rank him. Tulloch's upside is a top ten LB (if he plays three downs) and a low LB3 (if he doesn't). Right now, I am ranking Tulloch just inside the top 25. While I can't say whether he will play in all nickel packages, I do think he will play in some, so a top-25 ranking seems reasonable. There is a lot of upside here if Tulloch plays in the nickel packages.

  • London Fletcher, Washington Redskins: The ageless Fletcher keeps on rolling along and one has to wonder when Father Time will catch up to him. The funny thing is I could have said that same thing two or three years ago. All Fletcher does is put up LB1 seasons year after year. Last year, Fletcher put up 87 solos, 49 assists, and 2.5 sacks on his way to another top-ten season. While most players would love to post 87 solos, it was the lowest number of solos that Fletcher has had in 11 years. At 36-years-old, Fletcher can't play forever, but when a player shows little signs of slowing down, it is hard to automatically lower him in the rankings. This is arguably the toughest situation there is when it comes to ranking players. After all, Fletcher has to slow down at some point, but when? I think Fletcher has one more good year left in him and I ranked him just outside the top ten. There is obvious risk involved here.

  • Brian Cushing, Houston Texans: Cushing burst on the scene in 2009, racking 87 solos, 47 assists, and 5 sacks. That is an impressive season for anyone, but even more so since Cushing was a rookie. Although Cushing has talent, his huge season surprised just about everyone. After the season, the NFL suspended Cushing for violation the league's steroid policy. I can't say I was surprised because there were a lot of rumors about Cushing using steroids in college. After returning from the suspension, Cushing struggled to attain the heights he did as a rookie. He only had four games with more than five solos and in 11 of his 12 games, he failed to record a sack. The question is whether not using steroids had anything to do with the decline in production. That is an extremely difficult question to answer. Until he proves he can put up elite numbers without steroids, I can't see ranking him as anything more than a low-LB3. The difficult part about that is Cushing has enough talent to be a top-20 LB. I am usually generous when it comes to ranking talented players, but in this case, I have too many doubts. I also want to note that Cushing is playing in the 3-4 defense for the first time, but the steroids issue impacts my rankings much more than that.

  • Jonathan Vilma, New Orleans Saints: Vilma's numbers have declined significantly over the last three years and there is really no explanation for it. In 2008, his first year with the Saints, Vilma had a tremendous year, racking up 98 solos. He followed that up with an 86-solo season in 2009. This part I can understand because a season with 86 solos is still considered a very good year. The real issue was Vilma's 2010 season in which he posted only 71 solos. That is very concerning because Vilma was relatively healthy and had little competition for tackles. In reality, Vilma had a great situation last year and his tackle numbers should have at worst stayed at his 2009 level. The Saints made some moves to improve the interior of their defensive line by adding defensive tackles Aubrayo Franklin and Shaun Rogers. Prior to last year, I would have just penciled Vilma in for 90+ solos and likely ranked him as a LB1. But after a 71 solo season, I think those expectations are a bit too high. I am ranking Vilma as a low LB2 because of the above and because this tier of LBs is pretty deep. I think there are better options available. Just know that Vilma has a great situation with little competition for tackles and very well could be a LB1. Of course, he had a great situation last year and we saw the results and that is why he is difficult to rank.

  • Paris Lenon, Arizona Cardinals: It is always a challenge to rank a player like Paris Lenon. He is an average talent, but has posted solid numbers in two of his last three seasons. The 33-year-old Lenon posted 94 solos, 30 assists, and two sacks last year and finished as an upper-LB2. While those numbers are very good, they don't always tell the whole story. The Cardinals' defense has not been good and they have made several moves to address it. Last year, they drafted LB Daryl Washington and he is expected to be a big part of the defense this year. That by itself would not affect Lenon. But just before camp opened, the Cardinals signed free agent Stewart Bradley and many observers thought he would win the starting job from Lenon. Thus far, Lenon has held him off. Bradley is the more talented player and with Lenon turning 34 during the year, it is reasonable to question his ability to hold the job. Even if Lenon keeps the job, he may not play every down. For the time being, I have Lenon ranked as a LB4. This is an important situation to monitor. Should Lenon play every down, he could very well put up LB2 numbers. Because of his age and the addition of Bradley, I am not expecting that to happen and even if it does, don't count on it being that way for the entire season.
  • Defensive Backs

  • Donte Whitner, San Francisco 49ers: After four mediocre seasons, Whitner exploded last year and finished as the top-ranked fantasy DB. He racked up a whopping 96 solos and added 44 assists. Obviously, Whitner benefited from playing for the Bills, who were among the league leaders in tackle opportunities. Strong safeties have put up big numbers for several years. With Whitner heading to the 49ers, the question is not whether his tackle numbers will decline, but how much. Strong safeties in San Francisco have not posted numbers anywhere close to those posted by Buffalo safeties. Whitner should still post solid numbers, but a strong safety could post 80 solos and that would be considered a very good year. I have ranked Whitner as a low-DB2. He easily could finish in the top ten but just as easily wind up as a low DB3. I will add that DBs are by far the toughest position to rank and if you want to see the evidence, go look at the DB rankings and compare them to other positions. The fluctuations at DB are much more severe than those at any other position. Keep that in mind when drafting.

  • Bernard Pollard, Baltimore Ravens: If you want to talk about a player that is almost impossible to rank, here he is. Pollard has been an elite fantasy DB for years and is arguably the best run-defending safety in the league. However, Pollard is one of the worst safeties in coverage and despite his prowess in run defense, he has been cut by his last two teams, the Chiefs and Texans. Pollard is now with the Ravens and he is competing for a starting spot at strong safety. The Ravens have the best big play safety in the game in Ed Reed and other strong defensive players and they very well could cover up Pollard's deficiencies to a degree. Pollard started the second preseason game, but Tom Zbikowski started the all-important third game and he very well could get the nod to start over Pollard. Should Pollard start, the question would be whether he plays on passing downs. Basically, there are too many questions about Pollard for my liking. I have him ranked in the 50s and unless I know he is starting, there is no way I can rank him any higher. If Pollard starts and plays three downs, he could put up DB1 numbers. If he starts but does not play on passing downs, then he could be a DB3 or lower. Even if he does start, with his poor coverage skills, there are no guarantees that he could keep the starting job. Remember this is a player that is exceptional in run defense and yet has been cut by two teams. Pollard is the classic risk/reward pick. If you draft him, be sure to have a replacement in mind.

  • Kenny Phillips, New York Giants: When Phillips was drafted by the Giants, many, including myself, thought he would be an elite fantasy DB. But a serious knee injury has hampered Phillips and he has never been more than a fantasy reserve. Injured players with loads of talent are not easy to rank. Philips has never proven himself on the field and it remains to be seen if he will ever fully live up to the potential he showed in college. I am in the camp that expects Phillips to take a major leap this season. I have Phillips ranked as a low-DB2 and that is much higher than the consensus. Even that could be too low. But there are risks with Phillips and that is why there is such a discrepancy with his rankings. However, I feel the tier of players in the low-DB2 tier is massive and in that case, I'd rather take a chance on a player that has elite talent. Should Phillips not pan out, it will not be all that difficult to find a replacement. I think it is well worth the risk.

  • Glover Quin, Houston Texans: The Texans have completely overhauled their porous pass defense of 2010. Glover Quin, who struggled mightily at cornerback, was moved to safety. It was originally believed that Quin would play free safety and free agent acquisition Danieal Manning would man the strong safety spot. However, Quin is playing strong safety and that should raise his value. The reason Quin is tough to rank is that I am not convinced the safety alignment will remain like this. In my opinion, Manning seems better equipped to play strong safety. This is one of those cases where seeing is believing and that definitely affects my rankings of Quin. I currently have him ranked as a low DB4 and that is much lower than the consensus. The risk of ranking Quin that low is that he could very well put up top 25 numbers. However, I think it is much too risky to rank Quin any higher, not only because of the above, but also because he has never played strong safety before.
  • Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to borbely@footballguys.com.

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