Eyes of the Guru
By John Norton
August 10th, 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!

Baltimore Ravens

Defensive line

The Ravens run a hybrid scheme that switches back and forth between a 3-4 and a 4-3 look on a play to play basis. They have a unique collection of talent among their front seven that allows them to do it without making substitutions. That ability makes Sundays tough on opposing offenses. It also created a lot of problems for us. Every year we have at least one customer who writes and asks us to put Terrell Suggs at LB "where he belongs". Sorry guys but that's not going to happen. In each of the past three seasons Suggs has played more snaps from the end in a 4-3 look than at OLB in a 3-4. Thus we feel his correct designation is at end. The other good reason to call Suggs an end is that his numbers make him a very good one for us. That same production as a linebacker would make him pretty much useless in most leagues. With 53 solo tackles and 11 sacks, Suggs recorded the fourth top five finish of his career. Maybe the most impressive stat is that he has never finished outside the top twelve in any of his eight pro seasons. It just doesn't get any more dependable than that... Haloti Ngata is another guy whose value hinges on his positional designation. When the Ravens line up in a 4-3 Ngata is a tackle, when they call a 3-4 he often switches to end. With 47 solo tackles and 5.5 sacks, 2010 was the best statistical year of his career. If your league breaks out the DL positions and requires interior linemen, those numbers are hands down top in almost any season. Even if your league lumps all linemen together or if Ngata is an end in database, he has pretty good value... With Kelly Gregg gone, Terrence Cody becomes a sleeper in tackle required leagues. He is not going to get you many sacks but could break the 40 tackle mark.

Linebacker

He turned 36 in May, but that is no reason to drop Ray Lewis down your draft board. Lewis has not missed a game since 2007 and last season, put up over 100 solo tackles for the first time since 2004. He has always contributed in the big play columns and 2010 was no exception. Lewis totaled nine big plays (combined takeaways, forced fumbles and sacks) last season on his way to a top five finish in nearly any scoring system. I will stop short of predicting a top five repeat, but this guy still has plenty in the tank and should be considered among the elite in redraft leagues.

Defensive Back

Bernard Pollard has been outstanding in the box scores for the past two seasons. He takes over at SS for Dawan Landry who piled up 86 solo tackles himself in 2010. At 225 pounds Pollard is like another linebacker on the field. He should be used as an in the box safety just like Landry was last year, and has the potential to be a 90+ tackle guy. Averaging a little over six big plays a year since 2008, Pollard also packs some big play punch that Landry was lacking. Ravens fans were bumming when Landry left but the team may have actually upgraded the position. FS Ed Reed is among the best big play safeties to ever play the game. Unfortunately, Reed has averaged just 44 tackles over the past five seasons. For fantasy owners, he is like a game of Russian roulette. He is either big or invisible. Jimmy Smith is likely to get on the field at some point this season and I believe it will be early. If/when that happens, the rookie corner rule will apply. Traditionally Baltimore corners have not been much of a fantasy factor, but Smith is not your typical Ravens corner. He's 6'2, 211 pounds and likes to hit people. He could be surprisingly productive.

Cincinnati Bengals

Defensive line

No one was hotter down the stretch last season than then rookie Carlos Dunlap. He hardly got on the field before week seven and never officially started a game, but finished the season with nine sacks in the final eight games. Antwan Odom was finally released so Dunlap should be in line for the starting gig, or at least a very significant role. He has not been getting a lot of love in the drafts that I have seen and can be a steal in the later rounds as your second or even third DL. Robert Geathers is currently atop the depth charts at the other end but don't be surprised if we see a lot of Dunlap and Michael Johnson on the field together. Cincinnati is going with a major youth movement on both sides of the ball. They should since their young players are both talented and hungry. Johnson didn't have the exploding numbers of Dunlap last season be he did have more tackles (26) and recorded a sack in two of his final three games. Slip him onto your roster with one of your last picks, or stick him on a taxi squad if you can. He could be a surprise.

Linebacker

All offseason and even through the first week or so of the free agent frenzy, it looked like we might finally get what we wanted in Cincinnati. Rey Maualuga was moved to the middle and it looked as if both he and Keith Rivers would finally have every down roles. Then suddenly the Bengals started signing linebackers like there was a fire sale. Thomas Howard then Manny Lawson and finally they resigned Brandon Johnson. Howard was a four year starter at WLB in Oakland and is a pretty good player. Lawson projects to start on the strong side with hope that he will bring some pass rush and Johnson was the reason Rivers didn't play in the nickel packages for the past three seasons. Then to top it off we learn that Rivers is having problems with his wrist. A preseason game will hopefully answer a lot of questions for us here, but at this point there is no guarantee that either Rivers or Maualuga will be every down players. They weren't last season.

Defensive Back

I really have no idea what the Bengals are doing in the secondary. What I do know is that they are hurting at safety and that DC Mike Zimmer was not at all happy when he learned that they had lost corner Jonathan Joseph. They lost one of the best veteran corners in the league and replaced him with Nate Clements, who is a good corner but is getting long in the tooth. There are much worse starting tandems in the league than Clements and Leon Hall. Clements has a history of pretty good fantasy production (for a corner) and could continue to have decent value. At safety the club looks to be going with Reggie Nelson at FS and Chris Crocker at SS. Neither guy has any fantasy value unless you are in a 16 team league with 50 man rosters. There are however, a couple of guys here that we want to keep an eye on. Gibril Wilson has been a very good player in the past and was looking good last season before being injured. I have to think they will eventually realize he belongs on the field. Rookie Robert Sands is the other guy. He's a big physical SS who could bring an intimidation factor that is currently missing. Sands is a raw talent though, and may need t develop for a while.

Cleveland Browns

Defensive Line

The Browns are going with a new look on defense this season and the shift to a 4-3 could provide some useful box score production for us. To help the transition Cleveland used first and second round picks on DT Phil Taylor and DE Jabaal Sheard respectively. Both are expected to contribute immediately. Sheard was a three year starter for the Pitt Panthers where he totaled 19.5 career sacks including nine in 2010. The Browns are counting on him to be an impact player right away. Marcus Bernard should land the other starting spot at end. As a rookie last season he played OLB in the Browns 3-4 scheme and managed to lead the club with 7.5 sacks. Bernard played at 256 pounds last season but showed up at camp weighing over 270. The coaching staff is not happy but Bernard claims it was a miscommunication because of the lockout. He thought they would want him to bulk up for the new position. We will have to see how that all plays out but for now consider Bernard a late round flier with some upside. Bernard's main competition for snaps is Brian Schaefering who previously played end in the 3-4. Schaefering is much bigger and could end up seeing a lot of early down action but he hasn't shown much of a pass rush over the last two years... Taylor will pair with Ahtyba Rubin to give the Browns a formidable pair of big men to anchor the run defense. Both guys check in at 330+ pounds. Rubin worked at nose tackle in the 3-4 and managed to finish last season tied for the league lead in tackles (57) among lineman. He should easily transition to DT in the new scheme and could continue to be very productive. It remains to be seen how the coaching staff will use their twin towers and which, if either, of them will be able to put up good numbers.

Linebacker

D'Qwell Jackson may actually be best suited to play WLB in the new scheme and may eventually end up there. It doesn't look like it will happen this season though. He opened camp working on the weak side but was soon moved back to the middle. Reading between the lines, I think they just realized that Chris Gocong could not handle the middle and that Jackson is the best option until they can better address the situation. Whatever the reason, the fact is that a healthy Jackson can put up big numbers in this situation. He seems healthy now after missing nearly all of the past two seasons. There is considerable risk here but Jackson could put up good LB2 numbers as long as he can stay on the field.

Defensive Back

The Browns hit the jackpot in last year's draft when they added corner Joe Haden in round one and safety T.J. Ward in round two. Both guys started as rookies and had big years. Haden led the club with six picks, defended 18 passes and posted strong (for a corner) tackle numbers. All Ward did was lead the league in tackles (95) among defensive backs. Much has changed in Cleveland since last season so we may not want to have too lofty of expectations for either of these guys. The rookie corner rule tells us that while Haden may remain productive, his numbers are likely to drop a little. I believe Ward will also have a very good year but I am not going to hold my breath for 95 tackles. The Browns will improve on both sides of the ball which spells less opportunity. We also need to consider that the scheme change could shake things up. I still see him as a low DB1 with top 5 potential. I just don't see him as a sure thing.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Defensive line

The Steelers have an excellent group of linemen by NFL standards. They fit what the team does perfectly. They just don't make enough plays to warrant and fantasy consideration at all.

Linebacker

Linebacker is the strength of any good 3-4 and the Steelers have outstanding talent there. Even more important for us, all of them have some level of fantasy value. For years James Farrior was the centerpiece and leader. He turned 36 in January and though he continued to play well last season, seemed to pass the torch to Lawrence Timmons. At 81-29-6 with a hand in a couple of fumbles, Farrior was a quality LB3 or excellent depth last season. Especially when you consider that all six of his sacks came over the final nine games when we needed him most. He never had a huge game but posted 11 or more fantasy points in eight consecutive games down the stretch. Sooner or later father time has to catch up to him and I would not count on the same production this season, but Farrior is certainly worth a later round shot as quality depth... Timmons had a breakout season in 2010 as his 96-39-3 with 6 takeaways was enough to earn him a top five finish in many leagues. Unlike Farrior, Timmons may still be on the upside of his career. There is no reason to think he will fall out of the top ten and another top five is likely... The outside linebackers in any 3-4 scheme make their impact by providing big plays. With 19 sacks and 17 takeaways between them, James Harrison and Lamarr Woodley were the best tandem in the NFL last season. Harrison even managed to lead all 3-4 outside backers with 72 tackles. The best thing about Harrison is that we know it was not a fluke. He has been over the 60 tackle mark in each of his four seasons as a starter, twice exceeding 70. Consider him a solid LB2 or very strong LB3. Woodley will have good value in leagues based on big play scoring, but he doesn't make enough tackles to have value in balanced scoring leagues.

Defensive Back

Troy Polamalu is very similar to Ed Reed in that he has a knack for the big play but comes up short in the tackle columns. He has more value than Reed however, because Polamalu doesn't come up AS short. There are also some injury concerns with Polamalu, who has missed time in two of the last three seasons and played gimpy down the stretch a year ago. He's worthy as a lower DB2 at best but don't count on him as more than a solid DB3. Ryan Clark is a very dependable NFL safety who often ends up covering so Polamalu can go after big plays. As a result he can't gamble on the big play and only puts up mediocre tackle numbers. He is worth as depth in some deeper drafted leagues... The Steelers corners are often left in man coverage which means they must play it safe and not allow the big play. As such, they to tend to be a little shy in the big play columns. Bryant McFadden is coming off the best year of his career with 74 tackles and six big plays. He should once again push the 70 tackle mark and is worthy of CB2 status for those who must start corners.

That does it for the AFC North. I hope to be back with Part 3 (the AFC West) within about 48 hours.

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