Eyes of the Guru
By John Norton
August 7th, 2011

The lockout is finally over and the free agent blitz has subsided. Obviously there is no time for a full blown pre-season report. So, in order to get as much out there as possible in time for it to be useful, I am going to put together a Cliff's Notes version. I'll try to hit all the important players and situations but if I miss someone that you want an opinion, shoot me an e-mail and I'll tell you what I think. Time is getting short so lets get to work!

Buffalo Bills

Defensive line

Nose tackle Kyle Williams is one of the few players who can produce quality numbers while playing the middle in a 3-4 scheme. I don't know that I would expect him to match the 54 solo tackles and five sacks he put up last year, but he has put up at least 38 tackles and 3.5 sacks in each of the past three seasons. If you start interior linemen Williams should be among the first off the board. Outside of Williams there is no one in the Bills front three to get excited about.

Linebacker

The addition of Nick Barnett could be huge in fantasy terms. He has missed time with injury in three consecutive seasons so there is clearly some risk. That said, Barnett just turned 30 years old and is a proven NFL starter when healthy. Now put him in one of the most target rich environments in the game and who knows what can happen? The last time Barnett played a full season was 2007, that year he racked up 102 solo tackles, 3.5 sacks and three takeaways. He may fall pretty far in some leagues but don't wait too long.

Andra Davis is the likely favorite to start opposite Barnett. He is a big physical run stuffer but has been a two down player for the past few years. As such Davis will be no better than a situational play when he has a strong match up. He should be worthy as depth in deeper leagues.

Rookie Kelvin Sheppard is a player we need to keep a close eye on during the preseason. If he plays well Sheppard could be next in line behind Barnett. Reggie Torbor would be the Bills other option. He has a long history of being very average.

Defensive Back

There is some uncertainty surrounding the SS position here, but George Wilson seems to be the consensus favorite to get the job. There are two important facts to know here, Wilson posted excellent numbers (68-33-2 with five takeaways) in 13 starts for the Bills year before last. The other fact being that Whitner went for 95-44-0.5 with three takeaways from the position last season. Wilson has been going way too cheap/late in most of the leagues I have seen.

Jairus Byrd recorded nine picks as a rookie but came crashing back to earth last season. He has big play potential but seems destined to put up mediocre tackle stats. There is some upside potential but don't draft him for more than DB5 depth in most leagues.

Wilson is the favorite but we will want to keep an eye on Bryan Scott during the preseason as well. He is a capable player at the SS position and could make a push for the job. Rookie Da'Norris Searcy is another guy we need to pay attention too. There is a chance he could be the SS of the future.

Miami Dolphins

Defensive line

Let me put it this way, NO Miami lineman put up more than 33 tackles or more than three sacks last season, and there are not any sterling additions. Enough said.

Linebacker

Here we have sort of a mess. Karlos Dansby was brought on board last season to provide star power and big play production to the Dolphins inside LB position. He didn't play all that poorly but Dansby failed to be the difference maker Miami expected. Now they have added Kevin Burnett. Even among FBG staff there are varying opinions of what this means. Burnett has been inconsistent throughout his career, not only from year to year but week to week. He had some big games for the Chargers last season but it should be noted that five of his six sacks came over a three game stretch that ended in week six. My gut feeling on this is that Dansby will be the most productive but I wouldn't gamble too much on it. It would not surprise me to see both guys be pretty productive. They can both rush the passer and will give DC Mike Nolan a lot of options. The Dolphins are looking for someone besides Cameron Wake to rush the passer. Maybe they pull Koa Misi on third downs and play a lot of games with Dansby and Burnett. Wake exploded for 14 sacks last season. If your league emphasizes big plays over tackles he could be a stud. Unfortunately, his meager 48 tackles hold him back to a status of LB3 or depth in most leagues.

Defensive Back

Yeremiah Bell is really the only guy worth mention here. Since 2008 he has averaged about 92 solo tackles and five big plays (sacks or takeaways). He is as close to a sure thing as you can get. With the recent injury chatter surrounding LaRon Landry, Bell is the prime candidate to be the first DB off the board.

New England Patriots

The big discussion about the Patriots surrounds the possibility that they are swaying toward a 4-3 base defense. Guys, this is nothing new and earth shattering. The Patriots have been doing this for years. Every year there are at least a game or two that they use mostly a 4-3 front, and every game they will line up in a 4-3 on a handful (or more) snaps. The "threat" of the Patriots going to a predominant 4-3 is real though, and it impacts fantasy value across the board.

Defensive Line

The first thing that jumps out at me when looking at the Patriots as a 4-3 team is that they have no 4-3 ends. Mike Wright could probably play there on base downs but is not a stellar pass rusher, and they don't really have any outside backers who would be glaring candidates to do better. If it remains business as usual in New England, NT/DT Vince Wilfork could have some value in NT/DT required leagues. He is not going to record many sacks but has put up 40 or more solo tackles in four of his seven pro seasons.

The value of Albert Haynesworth is a total mystery at this point. The guy is capable of having a big year, even as a 3-4 end. The Patriots have a way of bringing out the best in players. Still, I believe it best to let someone else take that gamble.

Linebacker

Jerod Mayo led the league with 114 solo tackles last season and was the #1 defensive player in many scoring systems. That makes twice in three pro seasons that he has reached triple digits. The problem is that in the other year (2009) he put up only 70. If all remains status quo, Mayo is likely to approach or even exceed the 100 tackle mark again. If they do indeed go 4-3, he would likely play on the weak side with Brandon Spikes working in the middle. Spikes would be a great fit as a MLB. In this scenario he could take a fairly substantial bite out of Mayo's production. The big question would then become, who plays every down. We know Mayo would be one. Spikes played only on running downs as a rookie last season and was seen as somewhat of a liability in coverage. Even as a WLB in a 4-3 Mayo should be good for 85+ tackles and a few big plays. I dropped him just a few spots in my rankings but not out of the top 10 by any stretch. Spikes should be slipped in as a later round sleeper LB5 or so.

Defensive Back

SS Patrick Chung totaled 72-24 in the tackle columns with three picks and nine passes defended in 2010. Very solid numbers when you consider that he missed two full games and the better part of two others. What was maybe most impressive was his consistency. In the other twelve games Chung averaged nearly six solo stops and he posted five or more in nine contests. He may not be among the top five DBs in total points at the end of the year but any DB who can give me double digit fantasy points in 83% of his starts, is going to be pretty high on my list.

Corner Devin McCourty had a strong box score showing as a rookie. It would be no great surprise to see him be very productive again this season, but beware the rookie corner rule. McCourty is no longer the inexperienced player that offensive coordinators are going to pick on. Rookie corners who win starting jobs often have an inflated number of opportunities. History tells us again and again that these guys tend to come back to earth in subsequent years. That said, McCourty looks to me like one of those few corners who will continue to be pretty strong in the box scores. Just be careful not to go too early on any corner based on one year of production. They are too easy to grab off waivers early in the season.

Brandon Meriweather may be a pretty good NFL safety, but he is often over rated in fantasy circles. He will give us 5-7 big plays over the course of the season but has never tallied more than 61 solo tackles. Let someone else go there.

New York Jets

Defensive Line / Linebacker

The Jets are one of those teams that are highly regarded by owners in team defense leagues but they don't really present the IDP guys with many quality options. Last season, 13 different players recorded sacks for New York, but no one totaled more than 6.5 - ILB David Harris led the club with only 69 solo tackles. His big play count of three sacks and two fumble recoveries was not enough to make up for it. Harris posted 82-45-5.5 with 4 takeaways in 2009 so a rebound seems likely. Even so, in most of the leagues I have seen, owners have gone too high on him. I see Harris as a decent LB3 with limited upside or a quality LB4.

Harris's partner on the inside is Bart Scott, whose 59 tackles were second on the team. Scott had one big statistical season with the Ravens back in 2006 but has not exceeded 66 tackles or recorded four big plays in any other season of his career.

Like most 3-4 outside linebackers, Calvin Pace just doesn't have enough tackle opportunity/production to give him a lot of value in most leagues. He can be counted on for 45-50 tackles and 5-8 sacks.

Defensive Back

Safety Jim Leonhard has not been getting much love from what I have seen but he may well be the best IDP prospect the Jets have to offer. Prior to missing the final five games last season, Leonhard was on pace for about 83 tackles and had recorded three takeaways. Be aware however, that even missing the five games, those we career bests for him. That is the perfect formula for a one year wonder.

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