Well, maybe it is not impossible, but you get the point. Every season there are players who are very tough to rank for a myriad 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.
Derrick Morgan, Tennessee Titans: Morgan, a first-round draft pick in the 2010 NFL draft, missed most of his rookie season after suffering a torn ACL in week four. He returned last year but never regained the form he showed prior to getting hurt. Since Morgan was only 11 months from his injury, that should not have been a big surprise to anyone. Fast forward to 2012 and that would be the time when Morgan should have 100% of his speed and explosiveness back. However, Morgan has been sharing snaps with former practice squad defensive lineman Pannel Egboh and that is a bit troubling. It's hard to say if the coaching staff is trying to send a message or if Morgan is really struggling this bad, but regardless it makes it tricky to slot Morgan in my rankings. For now I am listing Morgan as a mid-level DL3 because there are too many red flags to rank him as a starter. But I still think there is plenty of upside and it is way too early to give up on Morgan.
Carlos Dunlap, Cincinnati Bengals: I keep waiting for Dunlap to totally blow up and move into the elite tier of defensive linemen, but it's a difficult task for Dunlap when he can't stay on the field. Dunlap has only played in 12 games in each of his two season and his availability for week one is questionable due to a knee injury. Dunlap has the potential to be an elite pass rusher and was among the league leaders in quarterback pressure and quarterback hits last year before being injured in week 11. Aside from injuries, there is also the issue of the way the Bengals use their linemen. I can't make any sense out of the Bengals not using Dunlap a lot more than they do given his effectiveness at getting to the quarterback, especially when Dunlap sits while journeymen such as Robert Geathers play. Most teams want their elite pass rushers on the field as much as possible. There were some reports that indicated that the Bengals wanted to get Dunlap on the field more, but his injury derailed that, at least temporarily. Prior to his injury I had Dunlap as one of my breakout candidates and had him ranked as a top 10 defensive lineman. I would be hesitant to draft Dunlap as a DL1 right now because of his durability issues, but I see a ton of upside here. It's just tough to rank him any higher and my mid-level DL2 ranking is already pretty generous.
Jeremy Mincey, Jacksonville Jaguars: After three nondescript years, Mincey broke out last year with 40 solos, 17 assists, and 8 sacks and finished as a top-ten defensive lineman. However, I am struggling to see any real upside here that would suggest a repeat performance. I consider Mincey to be a marginal talent and while that may not be a big deal at other IDP spots, I think it raises red flags for a defensive end. I am not convinced Mincey can improve on his sack numbers and generally I want my starters to have a realistic chance to hit double-digit sacks. Then there is the other side of the coin and that relates to Mincey's solid tackle numbers. 40 solos usually gets you in the top 25 even with a low number of sacks. For example, Israel Idonije was 24th in scoring among defensive linemen with 42 solos, 11 assists, and only 5 sacks. I generally like consistent tacklers, but I am not convinced Mincey can repeat his numbers so I am ranking him near the floor of what I think his range is and admittedly this may be a bit low. Players like Mincey that I believe played over their head are generally tough for me to rank.
Jerod Mayo, New England Patriots: Mayo has had a pair of seasons with 100 or more solo tackles and generally players that rack up that many solos are no brainers to be ranked in the top ten fantasy linebackers. But then you see that Mayo only had 58 solos in 13 games. The Patriots shifted to playing more 4-3 alignments last year and Mayo lined up in several different places, generally playing fewer snaps inside. That definitely had a negative impact on Mayo's tackle numbers but in watching him play, Mayo did not seem to play as well as he has in the past. Part of that is probably attributed to learning a new defense but Mayo never seemed right for whatever reason last year. The Patriots drafted linebacker Dont'a Hightower, another linebacker that can play both inside and outside linebacker. This situation is as clear as mud and it makes ranking Mayo very difficult. For now I have Mayo as a borderline top-20 linebacker, but in reality he could be legitimately ranked anywhere from a LB1 to a mid-level LB3.
Lawrence Timmons, Pittsburgh Steelers: Timmons is another player that seems impossible to rank. The first thing I notice is that he had one year of elite fantasy production. Then I think back and that was really the first time Timmons was actually in a position to post elite numbers like that. He had 96 solos and was the second overall linebacker in fantasy scoring that year. The next highest number of solos Timmons has had is the 68 he had last year. Timmons did play some outside linebacker last year when the Steelers were ravaged by injuries so that can explain part of the decline but in general Timmons did not play at the same level that he did in 2010. I have him ranked as a borderline top-20 linebacker right now but like Mayo he could legitimately be ranked anywhere from 10 to 30.
Jon Beason, Carolina Panthers: This situation is much easier to figure out than those of Mayo and Timmons. Everyone knows that Beason is a stud fantasy linebacker when healthy, but he is coming off a torn Achilles tendon and that particular injury is difficult to come back from and play at a high level. Beason has yet to play in preseason and his availability for week one is in question. An even bigger question is how well can we expect Beason to play once he returns? I'm a bit on the skeptical side here. I was really hoping to see Beason play in preseason. I had Beason ranked as a mid-level LB2 a few weeks ago but without seeing him play, I can't justify anything higher than a mid-level LB3 ranking. I will add that I would not be surprised to see Beason play at a high level later in the year and I would not blame anyone if they rank Beason higher than I have him ranked. But I am just not sold right now.
Bobby Wagner, Seattle Seahawks: Wagner has been very impressive since training camp began, so much so that the Seahawks decided to trade Barrett Ruud to the Saints. There is one question remaining regarding Wagner and it is whether he will be able to get on the field in passing situations. Right now the answer is no as K.J. Wright and Leroy Hill have played in the nickel packages. Wagner is very athletic and I think it is just a matter of time before he becomes a three-down linebacker. But this presents a problem in that there is a huge difference in where Wagner will be ranked as a two-down linebacker vs. a three-down one. If I knew for a fact that Wagner would be a three-down linebacker, I would consider ranking him as a borderline LB2 with upside and probably as a LB4 otherwise. As of this writing I have him ranked as a mid to low-level LB3 and the reason is this tier of linebackers is huge this year. I am willing to take a chance on Wagner at that point and then grab a safer option a couple of rounds later. The upside justifies that. But I can't justify ranking Wagner higher than that as a two-down linebacker. Keep your eyes open for any news on the Seattle linebackers and if you see any news that suggest Wagner will play on passing downs, you should move him up your draft board.
Yeremiah Bell, Miami Dolphins: At one time Bell was one of the premier defensive backs in fantasy football, regularly finishing near the leaders in solo tackles and usually finishing in or near the top ten fantasy defensive backs. But Bell is not the same player he once was and the Dolphins decided to go in a different direction this year. For a time it didn't appear that Bell would land a starting job, but the Jets signed Bell and he is now listed as their starting strong safety. Although Bell's play has tailed off in recent years, it is not out of the realm of possibility that he could move his way into the low-end DB2 tier. In fact, if I was convinced that Bell would start all year I probably would consider ranking Bell in the top 25. But I thought his play fell off steeply last year and I can't justify ranking Bell that high without being certain he can hold the job all year. The Jets have a capable safety in Eric Smith that could step in and that is concerning enough to keep Bell just outside the low-level DB3 tier. I think players that can be productive in fantasy football, but not good enough to be guaranteed to hold their starting job are among the toughest to rank and Bell is no exception.
Terrell Thomas, New York Giants: When healthy, Thomas is an elite fantasy defensive back, having finished eighth in fantasy scoring in 2009 and first in 2010. He missed the entire 2011 season with a torn ACL in his right knee, which was the second time he tore that same ACL. Then Thomas got hurt again in late July and many feared he had torn it for the third time, but tests showed that it was just a strained ACL and that Thomas would miss 4-8 weeks. Despite the ACL not being torn, this is still a troubling sign and it makes it extremely difficult to rank Thomas. On one hand, Thomas is a proven stud defensive back and consistent stud defensive backs are few and far between. On the other hand, Thomas has serious issues with this ACL and it would be very risky to draft Thomas as one of your top one or two fantasy defensive backs. I am erring on the side of caution here and ranking Thomas as a mid-level DB4 and I know many who believe that is too high. But this tier of defensive backs is really nothing special and I would even consider drafting Thomas higher than this if you have a sleeper DB that you could pick later in the draft. There is huge upside here, but the risk is arguably just as big.
Jason McCourty, Tennessee Titans: McCourty had a big year in 2011, finishing with 85 solos, 20 assists, 2 interceptions, and 13 passes defended, leading him to a fourth place finish in fantasy scoring among defensive backs. McCourty had a couple of nondescript seasons prior to breaking out last year, so the burning question is whether McCourty can repeat his performance from last year. There are some concerns that should be addressed, namely that Cortland Finnegan is no longer with the Titans and McCourty will be the top cornerback this season. That does not necessarily benefit McCourty as opposing offenses will often attack the side opposite that of the number one cornerback. so while McCourty could be better than last year, he may not see as much action this year. That is the main reason I am ranking McCourty as a DB3, but any cornerback that hits the 85 solo mark is capable of doing it again and that cannot be ignored. That is what makes McCourty tough to rank.
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