Eyes Of the Guru: Preseason Part 3 (AFC North)
By John Norton
July 12th, 2012

Welcome back for part three of the Eyes of the Guru!

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For reference, when I mention where guys finished in the rankings last season, my model will be the standard Footballguys scoring system which is nearly identical to the North American Fantasy Football Addicts (NAFFA) league I have run for the past 17 years. Feel free to check it out. Defensive scoring in this league is the standard stuff but keep in mind that rankings will vary a bit from league to league. From time to time I will reference the "rookie corner rule". Those of you who are familiar with the EOTG know what that is. For those who are new, the rookie corner rule is basically the fact that in the NFL, starting a rookie at 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. Most often these guys are the cream of the crop at the position (which is why they are starting so soon) and their numbers will begin to drop sharply after their rookie seasons. When I mention tackle numbers, I do not lump assists and solo tackles together. Unless I make a reference one way or the other, I am talking about solo tackles. When I talk about a total number of takeaways for a player, I am counting interceptions, fumble recoveries and fumbles forced since all of these score very similarly in most scoring systems.

Cincinnati Bengals

Defensive Linemen

The Bengals have a very talented and deep group up front, with a good mixture of youth and experience. Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap are the anticipated starters at end. Johnson started the first five games last season before being bumped into the #3 spot in the rotation. In the end he was on the field for about 65% of the team's defensive snaps on the year, and finished with a modest 27 tackles and 5.5 sacks. Johnson is entering his fourth season as a pro but is only 25 years old and just entering his physical prime. The coaching staff believes he is now ready for the starting role and their expectations are high for him going forward. In fantasy terms Johnson is a talented player with a lot of potential but is far from a sure thing. He could be on the verge of a breakout season. On the other hand, 30 tackles and 5-7 sacks may become the norm. Pick him up as your third or fourth lineman and keep your fingers crossed... As a rookie in 2010 Carlos Dunlap racked up 9 sacks while serving as a pass rush specialist. Expectations were very high as he entered his second season, but 2011 did not go as planned. Dunlap failed to earn a starting job heading into the regular season and was a virtual non-factor before the Bengals week seven bye. He came out of the bye week with a bigger role and made the best of it by recording 3 sacks in two games before being injured. Dunlop missed several games and was not completely healthy when he did try to return in week fifteen, but still managed a sack and a half in the final two games. In the end his numbers were a dismal 11-11-4.5. What we should take from his ugly season however, is the fact that when he had a significant role, Dunlap was productive. He projects to start opposite Johnson right out off the gate this season, but beware putting too much faith in him at this early stage. Remember that we expected him to start last season as well. Dunlap has huge potential and I personally believe this will be his breakout season, but there is certainly plenty of risk... The other issue that makes both Dunlap and Johnson a little shaky is the way they rotated so many players up front over the past two seasons. Jonathan Fanene and Frostee Rucker have moved on but the club still has former starter Robert Geathers. They also added former first round picks Jamaal Anderson (Atlanta) and Derrick Harvey (Jacksonville) via free agency. None of these guys seem likely to grab a significant amount of playing time but combined they may get enough snaps to keep anyone from putting up real good numbers... As a second year pro in 2011, Geno Atkins led the league in sacks by an interior lineman with 8. However, his 26 solo stops left plenty of room for improvement. He has solidified himself as one of the best young tackles in the league and seems to have a very bright future. In 2011 Atkins was on the field for about 70% of the team's snaps, which was more than any other Bengals lineman, and is a good sign that he will again have ample opportunity. He is a hot commodity for owners in tackle required leagues but needs to make a bigger impact in the tackle column if he is to become a major factor in leagues that combine the positions... Domata Peko led the Bengals linemen in tackles with 34. That number was ninth best in the league among interior linemen. His 2.5 sacks were a career best and helped Peko to join Atkins as a top ten defensive tackle in 2011. Like Atkins, I look for Peko to build on last season's quality play and post even better numbers this season. He should again be a quality option for owners who must start interior linemen, but I do not see him being a factor in leagues that lump all linemen together... The club added Penn State's Devon Still in the second round of this year's draft. He is a big bodied, powerful player who will immediately take a spot in the rotation. Still will likely see time mostly on running downs and is unlikely to have a big box score impact, but he does give the Bengals a run stuffing big man to help keep the linebackers clean... The club also added Brandon Thompson in round three. He too is a big powerful player who could also earn some snaps... The big concern I have with the Bengals front four is that they have too much talent. I fear that in an effort to get everyone involved the coaching staff may elect to use multiple player rotations at both end and tackle. We have seen clubs do this in the past with on field success, but the individual production was spread among too many players for any of them to have a big impact.

Fantasy Outlook

  • DE Carlos Dunlap Has the potential to be a top 10 DL but comes with plenty of risk
  • DE Michael Johnson Quality depth with DL2 upside
  • DE Robert Geathers No value
  • DE Jamaal Anderson No value
  • DE Derrick Harvey No value
  • DT Geno Atkins Top 5 defensive tackle with value as a quality backup in leagues that lump the DL positions together
  • DT Domata Peko Solid second tier DT1 or excellent DT2
  • DT Devon Still No Value
  • DT Brandon Thompson No value
  • DT Pat Sims No value
  • Linebackers

    For reasons that are tough to put a finger on, Cincinnati is just not a box score friendly environment for linebackers. You have to go all the way back to 1994 find a Cincinnati linebacker who recorded more than 90 solo tackles (Steve Tovar had 95 in '94). The last Bengal backer to make a serious fantasy splash was Odell Thurman. Even then he fell short of 70 tackles and did most of his damage with big plays. Dhani Jones managed 86 tackles in 2010 but his lack of big plays made him no better than depth for fantasy owners. Competing with this kind of history, I guess we should not be real surprised that Rey Maualuga was unable to break the curse despite starting in the middle last season. He missed three games around mid season and finished with a dismal 53 tackles and 35 assists. That pace would have put him around 65 solo stops over a full sixteen games. I really like Maualuga as a player and expect that his numbers will improve some in 2012, but I just can't see him being better than a LB4 or LB5 at this point... Weak side linebacker Thomas Howard was a great free agent addition for the club last season. His solid play impressed the coaching staff so much that they were willing to part ways with former starter Keith Rivers. Howard managed to lead the club with a modest 64 tackles and added a handful of big plays, but like those that came before him, was not able to make much of a fantasy splash. He will again be an every down player and a decent option for us as a bye week fill in or the last linebacker on our depth chart... Manny Lawson fills out the starting lineup at strong side backer. He is a solid run defender and does a good job at the point of attack, but is not going to impress statistically. The club would like to see Lawson make more of an impact as a pass rusher this season after recording just 1.5 sacks last year... One player to keep an eye on in this group is rookie free agent Vontaze Burfict. The rookie flashed a lot of potential at Arizona State but brings plenty of baggage to the NFL. He made a lot of stupid plays in college that hurt his team and eventually cost him the starting job. Burfict has the talent to be a major factor in the NFL but he needs to get his head together quickly or he will blow this opportunity. Deep dynasty league owners may want to take a flier on him in the last round and tuck him away on a taxi squad just in case.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • MLB Rey Maualuga Decent depth with a little upside
  • WLB Thomas Howard Solid depth with limited upside
  • SLB Manny Lawson No value
  • MLB Dan Skuta Injury sleeper at best
  • MLB Vontaze Burfict Deep dynasty sleeper
  • OLB Dontay Moch No value
  • OLB Roddrick Muckelroy No value
  • Defensive Backs

    Cincinnati is loaded with talent at the corner positions but they have plenty of questions at safety. Leon Hall returns from injury and will be one of the starters on the outside. He is an excellent cover corner and a big play threat. From 2007 to 2009 Hall averaged about 58 tackles, had 18 takeaways (14 picks) and twice totaled 24 passes defended. His tackle production and defended passes dropped off significantly in 2010 but his numbers were on the rebound before he was injured last season. If he can return to '09 form, Hall will be a solid starter for owners in corner required leagues. That said, chances are good that he will fall short of those numbers. Pick him up late as depth at corner or let him go and pick him off the street if he starts hot... The club has assembled a plethora of veteran talent approaching the end of their careers. Nate Clements was signed last season after Jonathan Joseph slipped away. Clements did a solid job and became the number one corner when Hall went down. He played in fifteen games and posted numbers worthy of CB3 status. Clements will be in the mix for the starting job again this year and will likely end up no worse than the third corner if he is not a cap casualty... The Bengals cast their net for free agent corners again this offseason, landing Terence Newman and Jason Allen. They will compete with Adam Jones and rookie Dre Kirkpatrick to establish the pecking order. Allen's ability to play some safety might be a factor in his making the final roster as there is no guarantee that all of these guys will make the team. Cincinnati has a history of drafting corners in the first round and starting them right away. They did it with both Joseph and Hall, so first round pick Kirkpatrick will enter camp as the favorite to start opposite Hall. The rookie corner rule would be in play here if he gets the nod... This unit is as thin at safety as they are deep at corner. Reggie Nelson has solidified himself at free safety. He has not been a favorite of mine since coming to the league, but I must admit that I am warming to him after last season. Nelson is not a physical safety and tends to drag players to the ground rather than knock them off their feet, but he rarely lets them get away. His 2011 numbers of 59-26-2 with a career best 4 picks, 2 forced fumbles and a career best 12 defended passes were enough to make Nelson a solid backup in most leagues and a decent third starter in some. He seems to be a great fit in Mike Zimmer's scheme and could even post slightly better numbers this season... The strong safety position is wide open entering training camp. Taylor Mays will get the first shot at the job. He was San Francisco's second round pick in 2010 but the 49ers gave up on him after just one season. Mays was a raw talent coming out of USC. At 6'3" and 230 pounds he has rare athletic ability and was known as a big hitter. That got him in trouble too often as he would miss tackles while going for the kill shot. The Bengals coaching staff worked with him last season and hope that his two years of pro experience will make a big difference. Mays played very little last season so at this point it is hard to tell if he is really ready for the job or if the coaching staff is throwing him in there out of desperation just to see where he is. The bottom line here is that Mays has a ton of potential both in NFL and fantasy terms. The Bengals strong safety position has a history of producing quality numbers. This could prove to be a perfect marriage of talent and opportunity, or it could be a very quick disillusion. The good thing for us is that it likely will not take long to tell which. If you draft early, take a late flier on Mays and hope for the best... If Mays is not the answer the Bengals have some backup plans. Jason Allen is capable of filling in at the position, though he would be better suited for free safety. Third year pro Jeromy Miles saw some action late last season and looked pretty good. He would likely get the first shot after Mays. They also have 2010 fifth round pick Robert Sands and rookie fifth round selection George Iloka to take a look at. Keep a close eye on this situation over the summer. Whoever comes away with this job is worth a hard look and probably a late round pick.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • SS Taylor Mays Boom or bust prospect
  • FS Reggie Nelson Depth with DB3 upside
  • FS George Iloka Dynasty sleeper
  • SS Jeromy Miles Deep sleeper with some potential
  • CB Leon Hall Depth with CB2 potential
  • CB Dre Kirkpatrick Rookie corner rule could be in play
  • CB Nate Clements Decent third corner is he holds off the rookie
  • CB Adam Jones - No value
  • CB Terence Newman - No value
  • CB Jason Allen - No value
  • Cleveland Browns

    Defensive Linemen

    The Browns made the switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3 last season and have done a great job of building a foundation up front. Ahtyba Rubin is arguably the best defensive tackle in the league. At 330 pounds he is formidable against the run while powerful and athletic enough to be a factor in the pass rush as well. His 55 solo stops in 2011 were tops among tackles and second among all defensive linemen. Add the 27 assists with 5 sacks and Rubin was the fantasy game's number two interior lineman, and number nine lineman overall last season. Pair Rubin with last year's first round pick Phil Taylor and the Browns are very tough to run on inside. Taylor checks in at about 335 and like Rubin, moves very well for a man big man. Between them the Browns starting tandem totaled 92 solo tackles and an impressive 9 sacks last season. Unfortunately Cleveland will not have the services of Taylor early on. He is expected to start the season on the PUP list while recovering from a pectoral injury. Several players will contend for the opportunity to fill the void while Taylor is out. Rookies John Hughes and Billy Winn, second year pro Scott Paxson, and left over 3-4 end Brian Schaefering will all be in the mix for playing time. My educated guess is that Hughes will get most of the snaps. The third round pick is unlikely to be a standout but is solid in all aspects of the game. Ultimately the coaching staff could elect to use a combination of players to hold down the fort until late October or early November when they hope to get Taylor back. Those owners in leagues that breakout the positions will want to jump on Taylor when he gets close. He may be in the shadows of Rubin but do not overlook the fact that he finished with 37 tackles and 4 sacks in 2012. Those are pretty strong numbers for an interior lineman... The team made a great move in selecting Jabaal Sheard in round two last year. As a rookie he played virtually every down totaling 40 solo tackles, 8.5 sacks and forcing 5 fumbles. There were concerns among some of my fellow footballguys that he was being overworked as a rookie and would hit the proverbial wall before the season ended. It never happened. Most of the Footballguys IDP crew expect Sheard to improve on his rookie production in 2012... The only weakness Cleveland had up front last season was at the DE spot opposite Sheard. They hope to have resolved that issue by adding former Eagles starter Juqua Parker and former Bengal Frostee Rucker. Parker may not be as stout a run defender as the other three starters, but he is capable at the point of attack and is a strong edge rusher. The Eagles rotated Parker out too often for us to know what to expect from a box score perspective. He could be a pleasant surprise if he plays close to full time. Rucker also has a chance to earn the starting role. In fact, some see him as the favorite. He started some games during his time in Cincinnati and showed flashes of very strong play. Unfortunately his career to date has been marred by injuries and inconsistencies. If he can put it all together and stay healthy, Rucker has a good shot at starting and playing at least on early downs. Consider both he and Parker as deep sleepers with a little upside. I would probably pass on either of them in early drafts, but will be keeping an eye on this situation during the preseason.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • DE Jabaal Sheard Solid DL2 with DL1 potential
  • DE Frostee Rucker Deep sleeper with DL2 potential
  • DE Juqua Parker Sleeper with DL2 potential
  • DE Marcus Bernard No value
  • DT Ahtyba Rubin Solid DL1 or excellent DL2 in balanced scoring systems
  • DT Phil Taylor Quality DT1 once he gets healthy
  • DT Scott Paxson - No value
  • DT John Hughes No value
  • DT Brian Schaefering No value
  • Linebackers

    Middle backer D'Qwell Jackson was the top scoring defensive player overall in most leagues last season, and is a perfect example of just how important situation is to box score production. By NFL standards Jackson is a very good but not great player. He has the size to stand up at the point of attack, the speed to chase plays down in pursuit and the football IQ to get the job done in a leadership role. He would be a quality starter on nearly any NFL team. From a talent perspective Jackson gets a solid B+. What makes him a fantasy standout is the all the surrounding circumstance. In 2011 he was by far the most talented linebacker on the Browns roster, which meant less competition for tackles. He was/is on a team that is rebuilding on both sides of the ball, which means he was and will continue to be on the field a lot. And possibly the most important factor, Jackson is playing behind a pair of 330+ pound tackles that may just be the best tandem in the league. Contending with Ahtyba Rubin and Phil Taylor makes it tough for offenses to get a body on Jackson so he is often clear to get to the ball. Good talent plus great situation equals stellar fantasy production. It is a formula that never changes. There are a couple of things however, that we need to keep in mind for 2012 and beyond when it comes to Jackson. First is the injury to Taylor; second is the drafting of James-Michael Johnson. Cleveland has good depth at tackle but Taylor will be missed for at least the first half of the season. That may have a little effect on Jackson's numbers but not enough to be real concerned about. The Johnson addition on the other hand, could be a big issue at some point. He played both outside and inside during his time at Nevada, but is a natural middle linebacker. He is particularly strong versus the run, has good leadership qualities and a sound skill set in general. If there is a weakness to Johnson's game it is a lack of great speed, which could make him somewhat of a liability in coverage. He has the tools to develop into a starter and with the situation as it is in Cleveland, he may have that opportunity very quickly. Let me remind everyone that that the Browns tried/wanted to move Jackson to the weak side last summer but quickly realized that they had no one to play in the middle. I have to believe that Jackson is safe for this season as Johnson will probably play outside if he gets on the field right away. However, Jackson's dynasty value could be in jeopardy. That said, even if he is moved outside and has Johnson to contend with for production, Jackson should continue to post quality numbers. Johnson reminds me a lot of former Cleveland ILB Andra Davis. He is one of my favorite rookie sleepers for this season and a player that dynasty owners should target as the fourth or fifth linebacker off the board in rookie drafts... Chris Gocong will hold down the fort on the strong side for one more season. He is a serviceable veteran at best and has no fantasy value what so ever. Scott Fujita should regain his starting job on the weak side once his three game suspension has been served. He is a solid if unspectacular veteran presence but is no threat to make a box score splash. Johnson will battle Kaluka Maiava for the opportunity to start the first three games on the weak side. Maiava has already been given plenty of opportunity to step up and has failed to do so. I will be surprised if Johnson is not given that opportunity to shine.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • MLB D'Qwell Jackson Top five linebacker with potential to repeat as #1
  • WLB Scott Fujita No value
  • SLB Chris Gocong No value
  • MLB James-Michael Johnson Dynasty gem and a sleeper with LB3 potential for this year
  • OLB Kaluka Maiava No value
  • OLB Quinton Spears No value
  • Defensive Backs

    The Browns secondary is a work in progress. In corner Joe Haden and safety T. J. Ward they have two cornerstones in place, but after those two it is pretty much patchwork. Haden had a great rookie campaign in 2010 when he finished with 58 tackles, 7 takeaways (6 picks), a sack and 18 passes defended. Those numbers had him near the top of the heap in fantasy points among corners. Following the rookie corner rule Haden's tackle production slipped a little in his second season, but it was his lacking big play production that was a surprise. He forced and recovered a fumble but recorded no interceptions. He may not get back to 6 in 2012 but I have to believe that last year was a fluke in this instance. Haden defends a lot of passes (37 in two seasons) which helps to make up for his lack of great tackle numbers. Expect him to level off around the 50 tackle mark and add 5-6 big plays with about 20 passes defended in 2012. He should be a solid second tier CB1 or an excellent second starter in corner required leagues... After leading all NFL defensive backs with 95 solo tackles as a rookie in 2010, Ward came crashing back to earth in his second season. He was well off his rookie pace even before injury cut his season short. With 25 tackles in six games, Ward looked to be headed toward roughly 66 solo stops in 2011. He recently told reporters that his preparation was lacking in his second season, that the injuries were the reason for his sophomore slump and that he expects to have a great season in 2012. I will buy some of that. Injuries and lacking preparation were contributors but the main reason for his slumping production was D'Qwell Jackson. In 2010 when Ward was making so many tackles, Jackson was on IR with a torn pectoral. To say that the Browns were hurting for depth at linebacker that year is a major understatement. Matt Roth led the club's linebackers with 59 tackles and David Bowens started on the inside down the stretch. The situation resulted in an enormous amount of opportunity for Ward. With Jackson healthy and the addition of James-Michael Johnson, the competition for tackles will continue to be tougher for Ward. All things considered, I expect him to bounce back some in 2012. While he will never again equal his rookie production, look for tackles numbers in the mid 70s range with a handful of big plays and a solid contribution in passes defended. I see Ward as a decent DB2 or quality third starter going forward... Once you get past Haden and Ward the Cleveland secondary is a collection of placeholders that the organization will count on to keep the seats warm until they can better address the positions. Sheldon Brown is 33 years old and a quality veteran at the corner opposite Haden, but is not a playmaker. His career best of 5 interceptions came in 2009 but he has recorded more than 2 picks just three times in his ten seasons as a pro. Dimitri Patterson and Buster Skrine with compete for the nickel and dime corner jobs. Both are adequate for those roles but have little upside. 2011 seventh round pick Eric Hagg will compete with veteran journeyman Usama Young for the free safety job. Young has been given ample opportunity in the past and has proven that he is not an NFL caliber starter. Hagg missed the first half of his rookie season with injury and played sparingly over the final few games. He is pretty much an unknown commodity at this point but could prove to be a pleasant surprise.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • SS T.J. Ward Solid DB2 or excellent DB3
  • FS Eric Hagg Deep sleeper
  • S Usama Young no value
  • CB Joe Haden Decent CB1 or quality second starter in corner required leagues
  • CB Sheldon Brown No value
  • CB Dimitri Patterson No value
  • CB Buster Skrine No value
  • Baltimore Ravens

    Defensive Linemen

    The biggest challenge in determining what fantasy value can be found in the Ravens defensive line is figuring out what positions everyone plays. This is an ongoing debate with no end in sight. Every year I get several emails asking me to "fix" Terrell Suggs' positional designation in the Footballguys data base. Every year I have to explain that it is not broken. Baltimore continues to use a hybrid defensive scheme that takes advantage of the versatility they have assembled in their front seven. On a play to play basis they can shift fronts between a 4-3 and a 3-4, often without making substitutions. This gives them a huge advantage over teams that make multiple sub package changes in personnel. It keeps offenses off balance and all but eliminates the advantage some offenses gain by going no huddle. They sure make our lives as fantasy prognosticators tough though. Fantasy owners often make the argument that NFL.com lists Suggs as an outside linebacker and that they should be the official reference for positions. That would be great if not for the fact that NFL.com is not very accurate in a lot of instances. We here at Footballguys prefer to go to the tape for such decisions. Including playoff games, in 2011 Suggs lined up at right defensive end on the first play of a game thirteen times, at left defensive end twice and at outside linebacker three times. In all he worked as an end better than 60% of the time so the decision for us is simple. He is a defensive end. The problem is that there are several league hosting sites on either side of the fence. Unfortunately we cannot put him in the data base as at multiple positions so please accept my apology and save your email if your league hosting site lists him at linebacker. Even better, send them an email and ask them to correct their mistake. With Suggs being injured and potentially missing the season, I may only get a few of those emails this year anyway. Or they may be replaced with those asking me to change Courtney Upshaw instead. Heading into camp it appears that Upshaw will be inserted into Suggs role. Those are some big shoes to fill and there is certainly doubt as to the rookie's ability to do all the things that Suggs can. Even so, Upshaw is a talented player in a great situation. Being a part time linebacker will boost his tackle potential and being an every down player who will rush the passer from either position will provide plenty of opportunity. The threat of a late season return by Suggs means that we may not be able to count on Upshaw down the stretch but I believe he will be very productive for us while it lasts. The perfect situation would be to pick up both Suggs and Upshaw. It would mean killing two valuable roster spots for basically one player, but the value that comes with this situation may be well worth it... The positional designation question does not end with Suggs and Upshaw. Haloti Ngata falls into that situation as well. When the Ravens are in a 4-3 he lines up inside as a tackle, when they turn to a 3-4 he works as an end. What really gets me is the league hosting sites that call Suggs an OLB (suggesting a 3-4) but list Ngata as a (4-3) tackle. For those owners who play in leagues that lump all linemen together this is not an issue. Ngata's perennial 40 or so tackles with about 5 sacks and a few big plays will continue to make him a decent DL2 or excellent DL3. For those in tackle required leagues however, his value is much greater providing he is listed at tackle. Since 2007 Ngata has consistently finished among the top five at the position in those leagues, and he was number one in most of them last year... There is no question that Pernell McPhee is a defensive end. The question with him is what happened to him after week thirteen last year? McPhee played sparingly early in the season but managed to record 5 of his 6 sacks in an eight game span starting in week six. Then he just vanished. Over the final four games Pernell totaled 1 tackle and 2 assists. His flash of production is enough to garner some attention during the preseason, but until/unless we can get a better fix on his role, there is no reason to put him on your roster... Terrence Cody rounds out the starting lineup for the Ravens up front. He will work at nose tackle in the 3-4 and at tackle in the 4-3. Cody is a space eater who is instrumental to the success of the unit but his contributions go largely unnoticed in the box scores.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • DE/OLB Terrell Suggs An elite DL1 when healthy
  • DE Pernell McPhee Deep sleeper at best
  • DE/OLB Courtney Upshaw Strong sleeper with second tier DL1 potential until/unless Suggs returns
  • DT/DE Haloti Ngata Decent DL2 or excellent depth in any league, top 3 in those that breakout the positions
  • DT Terrence Cody No value
  • DT Arthur Jones No value
  • DT DeAngelo Tyson No value
  • Linebackers

    There is just one name that stands out among Ravens linebackers. Ray Lewis is among the leading tacklers in the history of the NFL, and at 37 years of age is still getting it done. His overall numbers from 2011 were tainted by the four games he missed, but Lewis was on pace for 96 solo stops before being injured. He is the leader of this defense, a playmaker and a sure first ballot Hall of Famer. Lewis is clearly past his physical prime but you can hardly tell that by his production. He reached triple digits in solo tackles and totaled 7 takeaways as recently as 2010. His age and potential for injury are the only negatives to his fantasy value entering 2012. The fact that he missed some time last season may scare some owners off. Those owners might want to consider the fact that Lewis had started in 57 consecutive games prior to sitting out in week eleven. Every year could be his last at this point, so Lewis's dynasty value amounts to no more than what he can do to help you win this season, which is a lot. From a pure production level Lewis remains among the fantasy elite. The risk factor however, drops him down the draft board a bit. I am seeing Lewis go as a high LB2 in early drafts this summer. Landing him as your second linebacker would be grand theft... For the past several summers we have talked about the eventual replacement for Lewis. Several players have been suggested to be that guy, but none have really stood out. Nothing is different this summer. Speculation is that Lewis would retire if the Ravens win the Super Bowl. He may retire even if they don't. Either way, I still do not see his successor in a Ravens uniform at this point. Jameel McClain got the majority of the playing time beside Lewis last season and is likely to do so again in 2012. He is a solid contributor and a good player but has not shown the potential to be great. Dannell Ellerbe was once thought to be the guy. He has started a few games on the inside over the past couple of years but has failed to impress. Brendon Ayanbadejo saw an increased role while Lewis was out last season, but was not particularly impressive either. All of these guys will see the field this season but none of them have given us a reason to expect much. When Lewis does retire, I would expect middle backer to be at the top of the team's draft priority list... When Terrell Suggs was injured it was initially thought that Paul Kruger would be his replacement. After the drafting of Courtney Upshaw, Kruger is now expected to start at the outside linebacker position vacated by the free agent defection of Jarrett Johnson. Kruger is a better pass rusher than was Johnson, but it remains to be seen how he will do with the rest of the duties. Johnson's versatility was a significant factor. In a 3-4 alignment he would work at outside backer. When the 4-3 was called he would shift to the strong side role. Johnson was never able to make much of a box score impact in that role. Kruger could put up a few more sacks and have a little more value but we should not have grand expectations... Sergio Kindle continues to fight his way back from a devastating off field injury that left his career in jeopardy. The Ravens would love to see their 2010 second round pick blossom and live up to expectations. At this point nothing is eminent.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • MLB Ray Lewis Second tier LB1 or excellent LB2
  • WLB/ILB Jameel McClain Minimal value at best
  • WLB/ILB Dannell Ellerbe No value
  • ILB Brendan Ayanbadejo Injury sleeper at best
  • OLB Paul Kruger Possible depth in leagues that emphasize big plays
  • OLB Sergio Kindle No value
  • Defensive Backs

    There are a lot of owners out there missing the boat on Bernard Pollard this summer. In a recent Footballguys mock draft I was able to get him as the number twelve safety off the board, after guys like Eric Weddle, Earl Thomas and Jairus Byrd. This is a guy who put up 74 or more solo stops in four consecutive seasons leading up to 2011. He was good for 82 and 81 in 2009 and 2010 respectively. In twelve starts last season Pollard totaled 50-19-2 with 5 takeaways and 12 passes defended. At 6'1" and 224 pounds, he is like an extra linebacker in run support, is an enforcer over the middle of the field and a big play threat. He is a perfect fit in the Ravens scheme and in their locker room as well. I will be very surprised if Pollard fails to finish 2012 among the top 10 safeties... Ed Reed has long been known for his highlight reel. He is among the great big play safeties to have ever played the game. Unfortunately for us, his lack of quality contribution in the tackle columns makes his fantasy value spotty at best. In 2008 and 2010 Reed combined for a whopping 17 interceptions but just 64 total tackles. In 2009 and 2011 his tackles numbers were a little better at 86 combined, but he turned in just 6 total picks. Reed scored fewer than 5 fantasy points in a total of nine games last season, including the last 6 in a row. He will be 34 years old in September, has battled injuries in recent years and has talked about retirement for the past two seasons. I believe it was his teammate Ray Lewis who once said that when you start talking about retiring from this game, you already have. Reed might have some value as a bye week flier in hope that he will make a big play, but he has little value as an every week starter. Let someone else take that chance... History tells us that Ravens corners are generally not quality fantasy options. Lardarius Webb shattered that stereotype last season when he recorded 55 tackles, 13 assists, a sack, 6 takeaways, 20 passes defended and score twice. That is an impressive season but keep a couple of things in mind. Corners are notorious for being one year wonders. Year to year there are fewer corners who repeat top 20 finishes than any other position. Secondly, in 2010 Webb was 47-7-0 with 2 takeaways and 9 passes defended in the same role. Did anything really change or was his huge 2011 somewhat of a fluke? Webb is a very good corner by NFL standards and there is certainly the possibility that last year was simply his breakout season. On the other hand, I have learned over the years to never base my ranking of a corner on just one big season. He is clearly worth a pick as a second starter in leagues that break out the secondary positions, but I would let someone else take him as one of the top 10 corners off the board... After dealing with an injury that cost him the early part of his rookie season, 2011 first round pick Jimmy Smith is poised to be a starter this year. Smith got on the field for the first time in week eight last year and served mostly as the nickel corner during the second half of the season. With Webb blowing up as he did and Smith being a first time starter, the rookie corner rule could come into play here. Smith managed a couple of picks and defended 8 passes in nine games as a rookie. He is a big physical corner who does not shy away from contact and is more than willing in run support. What is possibly the most telling statistic of Smith's rookie season came in weeks fifteen and sixteen. Over those two games he was on the field for 104 of 127 total snaps, recording 12 tackles and defending 2 passes. Put Smith on your sleeper list in corner required leagues and grab him as depth with upside.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • SS Bernard Pollard Quality DB2 at worst with top 5 potential
  • FS Ed Reed Bye week depth at best
  • S Sean Considine No value
  • CB Lardarius Webb Potential CB1 but comes with risk, solid CB2 is a safe bet
  • CB Jimmy Smith Corner required sleeper with CB2 or better potential
  • CB Cary Williams No value
  • CB Corey Graham No value
  • Pittsburgh Steelers

    Defensive Linemen

    As 3-4 defensive lines go, the Steelers are perennially among the best in NFL terms. The organization never hesitates to use early picks on players who fit their scheme. Ends Ziggy Hood, Cameron Heyward and nose tackle Casey Hampton are all former first round picks while rookie Alameda Ta'Amu was the Steelers fourth round selection this season. With Brett Keisel rounding out the top five up front, all five of the Pittsburgh linemen who are likely to see significant action were drafted by the team. This group is a collection of hard working lunch pail toting types who do not seem to mind that they do so much of the work so that others can reap the glory. In fantasy terms there is no value to be found here at all. In fact, over the last ten years the Steelers have produced just one lineman with good fantasy value. That was Aaron Smith who reached 55 tackles and 7 sacks way back in 2002. Smith managed 44 tackles and 5.5 sacks again in 2008 but no other Pittsburgh lineman has reached 40 tackles or 5 sacks over that span. Keisel was the box score leader of the group in 2011 at 33-15-3 and the entire defensive line as a unit accounted for only 6.5 sacks. The bottom line here is very simple, look elsewhere for help at these positions.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • DE Ziggy Hood No value
  • DE Brett Keisel No Value
  • DE Cameron Heyward No value
  • NT Casey Hampton - No value
  • NT Alameda Ta'Amu No value
  • Linebackers

    Injuries at linebacker in 2011 forced the Steelers coaching staff to do a lot of shuffling. In the process they made some important discoveries. One of those being that Lawrence Timmons is not an outside linebacker. Another being that Stevenson Sylvester is not ready to make a serious contribution. Accordingly the organization has made some changes this offseason. James Farrior is out so Timmons will take over as the focal point and signal caller; a move that locks him into the inside linebacker role. The club has spent five years grooming Timmons for this duty and has finally decided to give him the reins. If he can stay healthy, Timmons has the tools and the right situation to become a perennial top 10 fantasy option. He can be a tackling machine as he proved with 96 solo stops in 2010, and he can be a playmaker as demonstrated by his 17 sacks, and 15 takeaways over the past four seasons. The only thing Timmons has yet to prove is that he can be a leader. The Steelers seem to believe he is ready to do that in 2012. If there is one thing I have learned over my 20+ years of IDP fantasy football, it is that when the Steelers organization believes a linebacker is ready, he nearly always is. Timmons had a breakout season in 2010 when he was 96-39-3 with six takeaways and 10 passes defended. Those are the kind of number I expect from him this year as well. The one concern I have with him is injury. Timmons struggled through a couple of ankle injuries and some other nagging problems over his first three seasons in the league. He has not missed a game since 2009 so hopefully the injury bug has gone. In most of the drafts I have seen, Timmons is going at linebacker fifteen or earlier. Anywhere after ten is a very good value... When they shifted Timmons outside in 2011, the Steelers thought they could get by with Sylvester filling in on the inside. That experiment did not go so well. Sylvester struggled and completely failed to take advantage of the opportunity. Enter third round pick Sean Spence. A four year starter in the ACC with Miami, Spence makes up for his short stature (5'11") with speed, instincts and raw athletic ability. He is solid versus the run and fluid in coverage. In short, he is just the kind of player the Steelers like to develop for a year or two before making them a starter. Larry Foote is the starter with Timmons on the inside for now. Foote is a very solid and intelligent veteran presence but is not a particularly gifted player. Starting for the Steelers is not a new experience for Foote and the club knows exactly what they are getting with him. He can hold down the position and do a more than serviceable job until someone steps up and forces him out of it. That someone may be Spence in the next year or two... At outside linebacker the Steelers have arguably the best starting tandem in the league. James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley each missed a few games in 2011 but both still finished with 9 sacks. Because he usually leads the league in tackles among 3-4 outside backers, Harrison is perennially at the top of the list when it comes to fantasy value at that position. Most players at this position consistently fall short of 60 solo tackles, while many struggle to reach 50. From the time he became a starter in 2007, until last season when he missed four games, Harrison had averaged 69 tackles and 11.5 sacks a season. Not to mention the whopping 30 takeaways over those four years. He is the one player at the position that transcends scoring systems and has strong value in any league format. Consider him a solid LB2 or excellent LB3 in balanced scoring systems or an outright stud in those that are big play oriented... Woodley is more like some of the other great pass rushing outside backers. With 42 sacks over the past four seasons, he can run with the big dogs when it comes to rushing the passer. Woodley however, has only reached the 50 tackle plateau once in his four seasons as a starter and averaged about 41 between 2008 and 2010 when he played in every game. He is a quality option for owners in big play leagues but is depth at best for everyone else... Jason Worilds spent a few games on the shelf as well in 2011 but got some valuable experience down the stretch. The organization expects him to be ready when the now 34 year old Harrison decides to hang up the cleats, or go play in Arizona where all the other old Steelers outside linebackers have gone in recent years.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • ILB Lawrence Timmons Second tier LB1 with top 10 upside
  • ILB Larry Foote Depth in 12 team leagues that start 3 linebackers
  • ILB Sean Spence Injury sleeper with long term dynasty potential
  • ILB Stevenson Sylvester No value
  • OLB James Harrison Solid LB2 or excellent LB3 in balanced scoring, an outright stud in those that emphasize the big play
  • OLB LaMarr Woodley Quality starter in big play leagues
  • OLB Jason Worilds Minimal value at best
  • Defensive Backs

    The nature of the Pittsburgh zone blitz makes it tough for Steelers corners to be fantasy productive. They are often left on an island in single coverage and are not afforded the freedom to take many chances. Simply put, they are required by the scheme to play it safe and not give up the big play. In 2011 Steelers corners combined for only 5 total interceptions with no one recording more than 2. William Gay was the most productive of the group last season with 49 tackles, a pair of picks and 13 passes defended. He has moved on leaving the starting job wide open for competition. Ike Taylor is entrenched in one of the corner spots while Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen, Anthony Madison and Curtis Brown will battle this summer to establish the rest of the pecking order. If you are in a very deep league that starts two corners, this situation might be worth keeping an eye on... At the free safety position Ryan Clark is also somewhat limited by his responsibilities. He is the last line of defense and thus must keep everything in front of him. He is not in a position to gamble, which explains why he has just 8 interceptions over the past six seasons. Clark posted a career best of 71 tackles in 2011 but is worthy of consideration only as a backup in deep leagues. The one player in the Pittsburgh secondary that is worthy of consideration is strong safety Troy Polamalu. With Clark and the corners playing it safe, Polamalu is the secondary's designated playmaker. He is often allowed to freelance and take those chances that others cannot. Polamalu posted 64 tackles last season which was the third highest total of his nine year career and his best since 2005. He is generally good for about 55 tackles, 5 takeaways and double digit passes defended each season; making him a decent third safety or a fourth defensive back in leagues that lump the positions together.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • SS Troy Polamalu Quality depth/bye week fill in who could explode on any given week
  • FS Ryan Clark Depth at best
  • FS Ryan Mundy No Value
  • SS Will Allen - No value
  • CB Ike Taylor Possible second starter or decent depth in corner required leagues
  • CB Keenan Lewis No value
  • CB Cortez Allen No Value
  • CB Anthony Madison No value
  • CB Curtis Brown No value
  • That does it for the AFC North. I should be back soon with the NFC North. Meantime, best of luck with those early drafts.

    As always, feel free to provide comments or suggestions to norton@footballguys.com.

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