Eyes Of the Guru: Preseason Part 4 (NFC North)
By John Norton
July 12th, 2012

Welcome back for part four 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.

Detroit Lions

Defensive Linemen

Over the past few years the Lions have put a serious emphasis on building a strong defensive line. They used first round picks in 2010 and 2011 on Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley respectively, and have added guys like Kyle Vanden Bosch, Corey Williams and Lawrence Jackson via free agency. There is a good mix of both veteran and young talent on the roster, but all is not necessarily roses in the Motor City. Sophomore slumps, arrests, contract standoffs and guys just not living up to expectations have created a lot of questions. Suh was the second overall pick three years ago. In his rookie season he looked to be worth every penny of the huge investment. His 48 tackles, 17 assists, 10 sacks, 3 takeaways and a touchdown had the Lions brain trust looking like rocket scientists. He was possibly the most dominant interior lineman in the game as a rookie and seemed destined for greatness. Then came the 2011 season in which Suh nearly vanished. 26 tackles, 10 assists, 4 sacks and no takeaways left Lions fans wondering what the heck had just happened? Suh obviously has all the talent and potential in the world. He should rebound in his third year and may well reestablish himself as one of the most dominating players in the game. On the other hand, he may just prove that he is not that guy after all. NFL history is littered with players, particularly defensive linemen, who were very strong out of the gate but faded into the pack rather quickly. The example that comes to mind first for me is the Vikings Kevin Williams. In his first two seasons Williams was the talk of the league. 37-15-10.5 as a rookie in 2002, followed by 52-17-11 with a bunch of big plays in his second season. Then poof! He was gone. Over the past seven seasons Williams has exceeded 30 tackles twice and recorded more than 5 sacks once. He remains a very good player to this day but is not where he appeared to be heading after his first two seasons. Suh is a great talent but I am not sure if his fantasy value is closer to his rookie output or his sophomore slump. My guess is that he will be in the area of 40 tackles with 5-7 sacks, making him one of the top tackles in the fantasy game, but I am not yet sold on him being at the top of the food chain... Fairley was the team's top pick last season and thus far has been a total bust in more ways than one. He struggled with injuries as a rookie, playing very little and having virtually no impact at all. Then came his first offseason and a pair of arrests; the first for possession and the second for DUI. The young man is walking the razors edge at this point and needs to grow up before he throws away a great opportunity. Fairley has the talent and potential to be one of the league's best at the position. If he can get it together and stay healthy, he and Suh could give the Lions an interior tandem of epic proportions. At this point Fairley is likely to see at least a short suspension and has a long way to go before garnering any fantasy consideration. Until/unless Fairley steps up, Corey Williams and Sammie Lee Hill will continue to hold down the tackle position next to Suh. Williams is the official starter but this was more of a time share in 2011. Neither player seems likely to have enough opportunity or production to be a fantasy factor... Cliff Avril finished last season among the top five defensive linemen in most leagues. His total overall fantasy points may be impressive on paper but I strongly suggest that owners take a harder look before overspending to get this guy. To his credit Avril posted career highs in tackles at 29, sacks with 11 and takeaways with 10 last season. The sack numbers are very good and the takeaways simply impressive, but as tackle production goes 29 is very weak for a starting defensive end. Much of Avril's overall value came from the 10 takeaways and the pair of touchdowns he scored. Those are points that are highly unlikely to be repeated in 2012. As a sixteen game starter in 2010 he finished at 22-10-7.5 with 2 takeaways and he had averaged 22-10-6 with 3 takeaways over his career before last season. I am not trying to say that Avril has no value simply that, from what I have seen in early drafts and auctions, he is being way overvalued by many. He is a very good pass rusher who will force a lot of fumbles, but he struggles against the run, particularly at the point of attack. I see Avril posting numbers in the area of 32-10-11 with 5 takeaways and a handful of batted passes. Clearly strong enough to be a quality DL2 but hardly the top ten lineman that some owners believe he is... When the Lions added Vanden Bosch as a free agent heading into the 2010 season, it was just as much for his leadership as his playing ability. The coaching staff knew where they were headed and needed a veteran presence for their incoming young talent to look up to. Vanden Bosch gave them just what they were looking for, a lead by example kind of guy both in the locker room and on the field. He is a very capable every down player who is stout versus the run and above average as a pass rusher. In 2011 Vanden Bosch put up his best sack total (8) since 2007, but his tackle production slumped to a career low (26) for a non-injury year. It is hard to put a finger on the reason for the decline in tackles. It certainly has nothing to do with playing time as Vanden Bosch was on the field for 832 snaps or nearly 68% of the team's total defensive plays. The only factor that stands out is age as he is set to turn 34 in November. Regardless of the reason, Vanden Bosch is not what he once was in fantasy terms. He is still a quality player and a leader, but I will not be surprised if he starts losing more snaps to Lawrence Jackson this season. Jackson is a very interesting sleeper. He was the first round pick of Seattle in 2008 but was never able to live up to expectations there. He came to Detroit in 2010 and proceeded to post a career best 6 sacks as the third man in the rotation. He was quiet early in 2011 before ripping off 11 tackles and 4.5 sacks over a five game span starting in week five. Just when it looked like his role might expand, Jackson went down with an injury that cost him five games. He is solid as a run defender and has shown an ability to get to the passer. At age 26 he is in the prime of his career physically as well. If Jackson continues to shine, it will be hard for the coaching staff to keep him off the field. I believe he is the eventual successor to Vanden Bosch and will not be surprised if the transition begins at some point during this season. Tuck Jackson away on your roster if you can afford the space. It could pay off in the long run. At worst he is a quality injury backup is you have either Vanden Bosch or Avril.

Fantasy Outlook

  • DE Cliff Avril Quality DL2 with DL1 potential if he can muster more tackles
  • DE Kyle Vanden Bosch Quality depth with DL2 upside
  • DE Lawrence Jackson Injury sleeper with good long term potential
  • DE Willie Young No value
  • DT Ndamukong Suh Potential top 5 DT with possible value as a quality backup in leagues that lump the DL positions together
  • DT Corey Williams No value
  • DT Nick Fairley Deep dynasty sleeper at best
  • DT Sammie Lee Hill No value
  • Linebackers

    The Detroit linebacker situation was a roller coaster ride for fantasy owners over much of the 2011 season. Down the stretch however, the ride became more stable for Stephen Tulloch owners. Right out of training camp Tulloch was the Lions every down linebacker, but you might not have recognized it from his box score production. He totaled 4 or fewer solo tackles in five of the team's first seven games and left us wondering if he would ever be a trustworthy starter for us. His production was much different over the final nine games when he reached double digit fantasy point eight times. Tulloch's box score production more or less coincided with the Lions hot start and cool finish to the season. His comfort level in the scheme may also have been a factor as he clearly seemed more decisive and aggressive in the second half of the season. He has established himself as the undisputed starter and every down presence for the Lions, and should improve on the 84 tackles he posted a year ago. The fact that he reached career highs in both sacks with 3, and takeaways with 5 last season, provides even more reason for optimism. Though some of my respected peers are higher on Tulloch, I see him as a decent second or excellent third starter in 2012... Anyone who was caught in the DeAndre Levy and Justin Durant mess last season would likely advise us to stay away from them all together in 2012. That may be very good advice. As the Lions weak side backer, Levy's role should have allowed him to be relatively productive on a fairly consistent basis. He did manage double digit fantasy points in seven contests on the season, but Levy was far from consistent. One important factor that we always look for in a linebacker, is a guy who plays on all three downs. For most of the 2011 season Levy saw action in some of the nickel packages. He played nearly every down during a string of games while Durant was injured, but there were several games in which Levy was off the field for ten or more defensive snaps. In the end he saw the field for 84% of the Lions total defensive plays. What clouds the picture even more is that over the final three games it was Durant on the field in nearly all of the sub packages. Levy has the ability to post quality numbers for us. If we knew that he would be on the field virtually full time every game, he would likely make a solid third starter or quality depth. As it stands now he is no better than a fifth or sixth linebacker with upside... Durant's situation is very similar in that he too has the ability and potential to be box score productive. Playing on the strong side is a negative but even so, if Durant were to be an every down player he would likely make for quality depth in most leagues. The fact that he was on the field for roughly 91% of the plays over the team's final three contests is something to think about. The bottom line with Durant and Levy is that either of them have the potential to post decent numbers. What remains to be seen is which, if either of them will get enough opportunity. Personally, I will be avoiding them both like the plague this draft season... The Lions have a more talented trio of starting linebackers than they have had in a long time, but their depth at the position remains questionable at best.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • MLB Stephen Tulloch Decent LB2 or excellent LB3
  • WLB DeAndre Levy Depth with LB3 upside if he plays every down
  • SLB Justin Durant Quality depth at best
  • MLB Ashlee Palmer No value
  • OLB Douglas Hogue No value
  • OLB Tahir Whitehead No value
  • Defensive Backs

    There is some fantasy value to be mined from the Lions secondary, but figuring out where to dig is going to be a tedious task. In 2011 this group accounted for 328 total tackles, 16 interceptions and 6 fumble turnovers. The problem being that those numbers were spread enough over twelve players, that no one was a standout. Corner Eric Wright led the group last season with 66 tackles, 4 picks and a forced fumble. He has moved on, presumably leaving the starting job in the hands of third year pro Aaron Berry. Berry saw action mostly as the nickel corner in 2011 but move into the starting lineup for three games before being injured in week fourteen. He is a dependable cover corner but thus far in his career has shown very little playmaking ability... Chris Houston returns as the other starting corner and is an interesting prospect. His total production last season amounted to a modest 44 tackles and 10 assists but he kicked in a career best 5 picks, 14 passes defended and a pair of scores as well. What is particularly interesting is that he did most of that before being banged up and trying to play through injury over the final eight games. In the first half of the season Houston was 34-7 with 4 picks, 10 passes defended and scored both of his touchdowns. He played in six of the final eight games but was obviously slowed by the injury. Based on his production when healthy in 2011, Houston could be a very pleasant surprise this season, particularly for owners in corner required leagues... Alphonso Smith will contend with free agent addition Jacob Lacey and rookie third round pick Dwight Bentley to fill out the rest of the pecking order at corner. Some have already written Smith out of this competition but that may be a little premature. Consider that he played very little before week thirteen last season, but in the final five games he was 21-2 with a fumble recovery, 3 picks, 6 passes defended and a score. That kind of production will get any coaching staff thinking. There is also the fact that Bentley is an inexperienced rookie and Lacey spent most of last season looking at the back of opponent's jerseys in Indianapolis. This will be an interesting competition, especially if Berry gets a Roger Goodell vacation letter for his recent arrest... The strong safety position will also provide some interesting summer entertainment for us. Amari Spievey managed to hold off Erik Coleman for the starting job last season, but was hardly impressive in doing so. His 62 tackles were second among the Lions secondary and he added three picks along the way, but Spievey was very inconsistent. All three of his picks came before week eight and he struggled at times down the stretch. He is battling back from a concussion that caused him to miss some of the offseason workouts and the club recently upped the ante by signing former Cleveland and Tampa Bay starter Sean Jones. This will be an open competition for a position that has significant fantasy potential. I see Jones as the hands down favorite to come away with the job and have him pretty high on my sleeper list at this point. He was very productive with the Browns early in his career and had a solid season with the Bucs in 2011 that included 76 solo stops, 3 takeaways and a sack... Louis Delmas is the undisputed starter at free safety. He has been solid on the field over his three seasons but has not yet lived up to the expectations that came with being the first pick of the second round in 2009. He does a good job in coverage but the organization drafted him to be a playmaker. Delmas has been involved in six fumble takeaways over his short career but has not picked off a pass in two seasons. He was injured early in week twelve last season and missed the final five games, but was on pace for what has been his typical production. Tackle numbers in the low 60s range, a handful of passes defended and not a lot more. Consider Delmas as depth at safety in twelve team leagues that break out the positions or a bye week flier in leagues that lump all defensive backs together.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • SS Sean Jones Late round sleeper with DB3 potential
  • FS Louis Delmas Depth at best
  • SS Erik Coleman No value
  • SS Amari Spievey Sleeper at best with more risk than reward
  • CB Chris Houston CB1 potential that can be picked up at a bargain price
  • CB Aaron Berry First time starter so the rookie corner rule could be in play
  • CB Jacob Lacey No value
  • CB Dwight Bentley Deep sleeper, potential rookie corner rule
  • CB Alphonso Smith Deep sleeper in corner required leagues
  • Chicago Bears

    Defensive Linemen

    Chicago's fifth ranked run defense in 2011 was anchored by strong play up front, and the defensive line as a unit accounted for 31 of the team's 33 sacks. End Julius Peppers is the headliner of the group. As box score production goes, his club leading 11.5 sacks and five takeaways were very solid, but his fantasy value was somewhat held in check by a less than stellar 32 solo tackles. Inconsistency in that area of his game has always been the one knock against Peppers. He has recorded at least 7 sacks in nine of his ten seasons as a pro, hitting double digits in six of those years, but has fallen short of the 40 tackle mark six times. Strangely there seems to be a pattern with Peppers tackle production. Since 2003 he has averaged 35 tackles in odd numbered years, never reaching 40, and 46 tackles in even numbered years never falling short of 40. If the pattern holds true, this should be a very good year to have him in your lineup. Peppers is an outstanding player with the potential to finish among the top 5 at the position in any given season. Inconsistency hurts his overall value a little in my eyes, but he remains a quality second tier DL1... Israel Idonije has started at the other defensive end position for the past two seasons. In 2010 he posted a career best of 8 sacks, he followed that with a career best of 42 solo tackles in 2011. Idonije is a converted interior lineman who is particularly stout versus the run. He has shed some pounds since moving outside in an effort to improve his pass rush prowess, and has proven to be above average in that area as well. Playing opposite Peppers allows Idonije to face single blocking on most passing downs and should help him to continue his solid production in 2012. Numbers in the area of 40 tackles and 5-7 sacks are safe expectations, and make Idonije a decent second starter or quality DL3 in most leagues. When the Bears added Shea McClellin in the first round of this year's draft, some prognosticators saw it as a sign that the organization is looking to replace Idonije right away. That may well be the case in time, but I doubt it will happen right away. We all need to keep in mind that Peppers will be 33 at the end of the season and Idonije will be 32 in November. Simply put, the Bears needed some young talent in the mix. At just under 260 pounds, McClellin is undersized for an every down end, but is a very good pass rusher. The club would like to see him develop into a three down player, but for now he will likely be used as the third man in the rotation, and/or a pass rush specialist. McClellin could take a bite out of Idonije's pass rush opportunities in the short term but is unlikely to post fantasy significant numbers as a rookie. Dynasty owners may want to tuck him away on a taxi squad or the bottom of a deep roster if there is room... Several players saw action in the Bears tackle rotation last season, with Matt Toeaina and Henry Melton working as the starters. Amobi Okoye, Anthony Adams and Stephen Pea all saw significant time as well with the end result being than none of the interior linemen were able to put up more than 18 tackles. Okoye and Adams are no longer with the team so there is a good possibility that the rotation will be downsized in 2012. That could be very good news for owners in tackle required leagues, as it could make Melton a quality starter. Melton reached just 17 tackles last season but his 6 sacks were second best on the team. The 2010 fourth round pick is entering his third season as a pro and with the extra snaps, could be poised for a breakout. Paea is also expected to have a much more significant role. In fact there is a good chance the club's second round pick last season will beat out Toeaina for a starting job. Paea was inactive for the first five games as a rookie, but looked good when he finally got on the field. He too could post decent numbers if the coaching staff moves to a smaller DT rotation.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • DE Julius Peppers Second tier DL1 or excellent DL2
  • DE Israel Idonije Decent DL2 or quality depth
  • DE Shea McClellin Sleeper/dynasty special with good long term potential
  • DE Corey Wootton No value
  • DT Matt Toeaina No value
  • DT Henry Melton Sleeper for owners in DT required leagues
  • DT Stephen Paea Sleeper in DT required leagues
  • Linebackers

    When it comes to Chicago linebackers there are no mysteries, no question marks and no sleepers. We know just what we are getting. Brian Urlacher has been one of the top linebackers in the fantasy game for over a decade. Eight times in the past eleven years he has exceeded 80 solo tackles, in six of those years he put up over 90 and the three times he fell short of 80 were due to injuries. He makes a strong contribution in the big play columns as well and has 9 takeaways with 4 sacks and 17 passes defended over the past two seasons. The only concern with Urlacher is age (he turned 34 in May) and the potential for injury that it brings. The age factor and the fact that his overall numbers were down a bit last season are causing many owners to over react. In our recent Footballguys mock draft I was astonished to see Urlacher fall all the way to the end of round fifteen, where he was the thirty first linebacker off the board. That is about ten linebackers too far in my opinion. Owners need to keep in mind that he has not missed a game in two seasons and that he was 96-29-4 with 4 takeaways and 10 passes defended just the season before last. He is no longer an LB1 prospect but Urlacher remains a quality LB2 and should go off the board in the area of the 20th linebacker... Much like Urlacher, Lance Briggs has fallen out of favor with many owners. He too is north of 30 years old and will turn 32 in November. Briggs actually led the Bears with 86 solo stops last season, but his big play production dropped significantly enough for his point total to be down. That said, had he not missed a pair of games in 2010, Briggs would be on a run of eight consecutive seasons with at least 83 tackles. He has not exhibited a great amount of big play production since recording 6 takeaways in 2008, but Briggs will post enough tackles to be a quality LB3 or excellent depth in most twelve team leagues. I stole him as my fourth linebacker in that same mock draft, where he was the fortieth player off the board at that position. Neither Urlacher nor Briggs are what they once were in fantasy terms, but they have certainly not fallen as far as some owners seem to believe... Nick Roach will again get the call on the strong side. He will exit the field in passing situations and is not a fantasy factor.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • MLB Brian Urlacher Quality LB2 or excellent LB3
  • WLB Lance Briggs Quality LB3 or excellent depth
  • SLB Nick Roach No value
  • WLB Geno Hayes Injury sleeper at best
  • OLB Blake Costanzo No value
  • Defensive Backs

    The Bears predominantly play a cover-2 scheme which explains why their corners tend to put up quality numbers while their safeties rarely do. In fact, it has been several years since a Chicago safety has provided useful numbers. Every time one does the team benches or cuts him it seems. 2010 first round pick Major Wright moved into the starting strong safety job last season. His 41 solo tackles, 16 assists and 3 picks do not accurately represent his production though. Wright missed five games with injuries and would have totaled something more like 60 tackles, 22 assists and 4 picks if you project the numbers over a full sixteen games. In NFL terms Wright is a quality safety but fantasy wise, even the projected numbers do not make him a viable prospect... Five year veteran Craig Steltz will battle second year pro Christopher Conte and possibly rookie Brandon Hardin for the starting job at free safety. It will be an interesting battle from the perspective that anyone could win, but this is a competition with very little fantasy impact... In a cover-2 scheme the safeties generally play a deep half of the field and are responsible to keep everything in front of them. As a result they are not asked to make a lot of tackles in run support, thus their box score opportunity is limited. Corners on the other hand, play a lot of press coverage and often try to physically disrupt routs at the line of scrimmage. These responsibilities put the corners in a natural run support position, which is why Charles Tillman was able to record 81 solo stops last year. At 6'2" and about 200 pounds, Tillman is a very physical corner, which makes him a perfect fit in this scheme. Since joining the league in 2003 Tillman has put up at least 66 solo stops in eight of nine seasons. The lone miss coming in an injury shortened 2004. Over the past two seasons he has averaged 77-13-.5 with a whopping 20 takeaways and 26 passes defended. He has 6 touchdowns over his career including a pair last season, when he was not only the fantasy game's top corner, but the number one defensive back overall. Counting on him to repeat that lofty achievement might be a mistake but there is no doubt that Tillman can be counted on as an elite corner and a quality DB1 overall... Tim Jennings will once again be the starter opposite Tillman. At 5'8" and 185 pounds, Jennings lacks the size to be physical with some of the leagues bigger receivers, but is not afraid to put a shoulder into a ball carrier. His 69 tackles in 2011 were a career best and Jennings added 4 takeaways with 10 passes defended. He will never reach the same level as Tillman in fantasy circles, but Jennings can be a solid second starter or quality depth in corner required leagues... D.J. Moore will likely be the nickel corner and could push Jennings for the starting job during camp. Whoever starts at that position will have an opportunity to be productive.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • SS Major Wright Minimal value at best
  • FS Christopher Conte No value
  • FS Brandon Hardin No value
  • SS Craig Steltz No value
  • CB Charles Tillman Strong candidate to be the #1 corner and a quality DB1 overall
  • CB Tim Jennings Possible second starter or solid depth in corner required leagues
  • CB D.J. Moore Corner required sleeper
  • CB Kelvin Hayden No value
  • CB Jonathan Wilhite No value
  • Green Bay Packers

    Defensive Linemen

    As with most 3-4 defensive lines, the Packers front 3 do not give us much to get excited about. 2009 first round pick B.J. Raji is established as the starting nose tackle. He gave us a glimmer of hope by producing 29 tackles and 6.5 sacks in 2010, but his numbers tumbled to 15 tackles and 3 sacks last season. At 6'2 and 337 pounds, Raji is powerful fireplug who serves the Packers well. I would expect better numbers from him this season than last, but do not expect that he will be much of a fantasy factor. Ryan Pickett and Anthony Hargrove were expected to be the starters at end. Now that Hargrove has been suspended for half of the season, there will be a training camp battle to fill the starting job. In most 3-4 schemes Pickett would be the nose guard. In fact he played there for the Packers before Raji claimed the job. At 340 pounds Pickett is a road block that requires multiple blockers to move, but is somewhat immobile. He is strong at the point of attack versus the run and helps to keep blockers off the linebackers, but provides no pass rush at all. To emphasize this point we can simply look at the numbers. Pickett has recorded 3.5 sacks over the past six seasons with just 1 in the past three. Add the fact that he has not reached 30 tackles since 2006 and you get a pretty clear picture... Hargrove should be a great fit and a big improvement at the position when he returns. He has never worked as the 3-4 end, but is a tackle/end tweener who has the right skill set for the position. If he can get into the lineup when he returns, it will interesting to see what kind of numbers he can produce in this scheme. I say if he can get into the lineup because the Packers used a second round pick on Jerel Worthy in April. Worthy will compete with C.J. Wilson, Jarius Wynn, Mike Daniels and Phillip Merling for snaps during camp and the preseason, but could very well be the starter come week one... The bottom line is that the Packers line combined for 6 total sacks in 2011 and no individual from the group put up more than 25 tackles. Regardless of who is in the Green Bay lineup, we don't want any of these guys in ours.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • DE Ryan Pickett No value
  • DE Anthony Hargrove No value until proven otherwise
  • DE Jerel Worthy No value
  • DE C.J. Wilson No value
  • NT B.J. Raji No value
  • NT Daniel Muir No value
  • Linebackers

    When Inside linebacker Desmond Bishop got on the field a few games into the 2010 season, it was easy to see that he was going to be a good one. I don't think any of us realized just how good. A glance at his final numbers of 91-25-5 from last season would get the attention of any fantasy owner. Now consider that he put up those numbers in just 13 games. Bishop averaged 7 solo tackles a game, which would add up to 112 over a full season. Even more impressive is the fact that with the exception of week twelve when he was injured, he recorded at least 5 tackles in every game. If there is a weakness to Bishop's game it is that he does not make many plays against the pass. In 2010 he intercepted 1 pass and defended 8, but last season he had no interceptions and was credited with only 1 pass defended. He may not make a lot of big plays in the passing game but I have to believe that last season's numbers in that area, were somewhat of a fluke. Great overall production and amazing consistency make Bishop a candidate to be the top linebacker off the board this season. He has clearly joined the elite at the position and should be no lower than number three... Once we get past Bishop, the Packers have some problems at linebacker. These problems had a great deal to do with the club allowing a league worst 411.6 yards of offense on average in 2011. There have been rumors for a couple of seasons now that the organization would like to replace A.J. Hawk. His play and production last season offered no reason to change their minds. Hawk missed two games and finished with a career low 53 tackles. Even more telling is that he failed to record a single takeaway. The club elected to address an even more pressing need at outside linebacker in the draft, so Hawk is in line to get another chance. If he fails to step up this season, his days as a starter for the Packers may be numbered... D.J. Smith is the Packers top backup at inside linebacker. The way he performed when Bishop was out last season, it would be no surprise to see him bump Hawk out of the starting job before long. In what amounted to just a little less than four full games of action as the starter, Smith was 24-9 with an interception. He is a player that we definitely need to keep an eye on this summer... Clay Matthews is a staple at outside linebacker for the Packers and has proven to be among the elite in the game at the position. His production in 2011 however, would not confirm that. Matthews battled nagging injuries much of the season. While that was surely a factor in the low numbers, I believe the biggest reason was the lack of talent opposite him. Eric Walden saw most of the action at that position and is a decent backup quality player. With Walden on the field, offenses were able to stack their blocking schemes toward Matthews. The results was 37 tackles, 6 sacks with a solid 6 takeaways. Those numbers represent the lowest production of Matthews three year career. The injuries have healed and the Packers used their first round pick on former USC defensive end Nick Perry. Perry is an instant upgrade even though he will be changing positions, and should prove to be a very good bookend to Matthews. Look for Matthews to bounce back strong in 2012 with a return to 50+ tackles and double digit sacks... Perry is an interesting prospect as well. It may take a little time for him to get comfortable in the position but he is a proven pass rusher with a lot of speed and athletic ability for his size. Owners in leagues that emphasize big plays will want to have this guy on your sleepers list.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • ILB Desmond Bishop Elite top tier LB1 with potential to be the overall top scoring defender
  • ILB A.J. Hawk Minimal value at best
  • ILB D.J. Smith Sleeper with long term potential
  • ILB Robert Francois Injury sleeper at best
  • OLB Clay Matthews Quality starter in leagues that emphasize the big play, depth for balanced scoring leagues
  • OLB Nick Perry Sleeper with strong upside in big play based leagues
  • OLB Frank Zombo No value
  • OLB Erik Walden No value
  • Defensive Backs

    When a defense gives up over 400 yards a game, it's a pretty good bet that the secondary is a busy place. That was certainly the case with the Packers in 2011 when all four starting defensive backs posted more than 50 solo stops, and they totaled nearly 350 as a unit. Strong safety Morgan Burnett is a player that several of us here at Footballguys were high on when he was drafted in 2010. He was very quiet as a rookie but emerged from last season as the team's second leading tackler and a leader in the secondary. His 76 solo stops were very respectable, but it was the rest of Burnett's numbers that helped land him among the top five fantasy products at the position. 30 assists, 7 takeaways, a sack and 11 defended passes put him in the range of 190 fantasy points in standard scoring leagues. Considering Burnett's skill set, and the fact that he is in a stellar situation, it would be no surprise to see him repeat or even improve on last year's production in 2012. He is being undervalued in many of the drafts I have seen thus far and fell to late in round 18 of the most recent Footballguys IDP mock draft... Charlie Peprah replaced the injured Nick Collins in week two last season, and started the final fourteen games. The word is that he will enter training camp in an open competition with second year pro M.D. Jennings and rookie fourth round pick Jerron McMillian for the starting job. McMillian might prove to be serious competition in the long run but I do not see either of these youngsters posing a real threat in the short term. At a glance Peprah's 65 solo tackles last season were not particularly eye catching. When we add a couple more games to his tackle totals, then consider the 5 picks, 10 defended passes, and the forced fumble that he recorded, those numbers start to look pretty darn good. In fact, his 2011 point total was just behind that of Morgan and his weekly average was actually a tad higher. I expect that the Packers as a team will play better defense this season and that Peprah's opportunity and total numbers will come down a bit. He is still worthy of later round consideration and is much more valuable than his current ADP would suggest... There is at least some chance that Charles Woodson will figure into the mix at safety in the upcoming season or more likely, over the next couple of years. The coaching staff loves to move the veteran around and put him in situations that allow for a lot of big plays. When I say a lot of big plays, I mean A LOT of big plays. Since coming to the Packers in 2006, Woodson has averaged better than 6 interceptions a season, has recorded an unimaginable 52 total takeaways, with 10 sacks, 10 touchdowns and an average of about 16 passes defended. As if that were not enough, he puts up pretty good tackle numbers as well, including at least 63 in each of the past three seasons. Woodson will be 36 year old in October so age has to become a factor at some point in the next couple of years, but he has shown no sign of slowing down yet. He is without a doubt the most dependable fantasy option at the corner position and is a perennial top ten among all defensive backs. In fact he was number two overall in 2011... Tramon Williams is a quality corner in his own right, and playing in the same secondary as Woodson has undoubtedly helped Williams box score production. He consistently give us tackle numbers in the low to mid 50s and has averaged a little over 6 takeaways a season since becoming a starter in 2008. Williams is not on the same level as Woodson by any stretch, but he is a strong and dependable second starter in corner required leagues... As a second year player in 2011, Sam Shields emerged as the team's nickel corner. For a player in that role his 42 tackles, 4 picks and 12 passes defended were rather strong. If by some chance the coaching staff elects to move Woodson to safety on a more regular basis this season, Shields would step into a starting role and likely be very productive. This is a situation we need to keep up with... Rookie second round pick Casey Hayward is another Packers corner that we need to be aware of. With Woodson's age, the club is preparing for a time that they will be without him. Shields may be better suited to remain as the nickel corner, so when Woodson does move on or change position, Hayward may jump over Shields in the pecking order and become the starter. There are a lot of ifs and maybes revolving around the future of this group. One thing that is certain however, is that there is a lot of production to be found here.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • SS Morgan Burnett Top 5 safety with potential to be in the top 3 overall among defensive backs
  • FS Charlie Peprah Excellent late round pickup with DB2 potential
  • S M.D. Jennings No value
  • S Jerron McMillian Deep sleeper at best
  • CB Charles Woodson Perennial top 5 corner and top 12 overall among defensive backs
  • CB Tramon Williams Quality second starter in corner required leagues
  • CB Sam Shields Deep sleeper in corner required leagues
  • CB Casey Hayward Strong dynasty potential and short term injury replacement sleeper
  • Minnesota Vikings

    Defensive Linemen

    The two statistics that generally reflect on the quality of a defensive line are sacks recorded and rushing yards allowed. By these standards the Vikings line passed with flying colors in 2011 when they tied with the Eagles for the league lead in sacks at 50, and were the eleventh best versus the run. Having a player like Jared Allen would be a huge plus for any club. His league leading 22 sacks were nearly half the club's total, and his 47 tackles prove his value versus the run. With his long history of outstanding production it is hard to call Allen's 22 sacks a fluke, but that number shatters his previous career best of 15.5. He has put up at least 42 tackles and 8 sacks in every seasons since 2004, has added 48 career takeaways (including 4 picks in the past three seasons), and has 42 passes defended over his eight year career. Allen has perennially finished among the top three options at the position. In fact, he and Jason Pierre-Paul have established their own exclusive tier of elite fantasy linemen. With a great deal of depth at the linebacker positions over the past few years, there is a growing trend that has owners drafting Allen and Pierre-Paul as the first two defensive players off the board. While I have to believe Allen's sack total will come back to earth a little in 2012, that strategy is hard to argue with. Once you get past Allen the Vikings have a solid group of mortals filling out the depth chart up front. Brian Robison spent four years as a backup before breaking into the starting lineup in last season. He managed to finish second on the team with a very respectable 8 sacks, but his mere 27 tackles was low enough to keep his fantasy value down. Robison will get another shot in 2012 and is worthy of consideration as depth in most leagues... Everson Griffen recorded 15 tackles and 4 sacks as the team's third end last season. While he will likely end up in a similar role this year, the coaching staff plans to give him some work at outside linebacker as well during training camp. Griffin could be surprisingly productive if given more opportunity to get on the field... In Kevin Williams the Vikings have one of the best veteran tackles in the game. After posting big numbers early in his career, Williams box score production has leveled off significantly. In 2008 he had a big season with 46 tackles and 8.5 sacks but that was the exception to his normal numbers. In the other six seasons since 2004 he has averaged about 27 tackles and 3.5 sacks. While his contribution on the field remains unquestioned, those numbers make him no more than depth or maybe a second starter in tackle required leagues... Second year pro Christian Ballard will battle fourth year veteran Letroy Guion for the other starting job at tackle. This position produced very little in the way of box score numbers last season, but it is worth mention that over the six years that Pat Williams was the starter, he averaged about 38 tackles.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • DE Jared Allen Elite DL1 and one of the first two defenders off the board in many leagues this year
  • DE Brian Robison Solid depth with DL2 potential
  • DE Everson Griffen Deep sleeper
  • DT Kevin Williams Decent second starter or quality depth in tackle required leagues
  • DT Christian Ballard Deep sleeper in tackle required leagues
  • DT Letroy Guion No value
  • Linebackers

    Other than Chad Greenway who has become a mainstay, the Vikings linebacker situation holds more questions than answers. Longtime starting middle linebacker E.J. Henderson is not currently under contract but the club has his number on speed dial just in case Jasper Brinkley continues to struggle with injury. Tyrone McKenzie drew praise for his hard work at the position during organized team activities but no one came out and said that he looked good. Veteran Marvin Mitchell is officially listed as the backup to Brinkley on the depth chart, but McKenzie apparently worked ahead of him during OTAs. The middle backer position in Minnesota offers a good deal of fantasy potential but right now it is impossible to guess who will have that job on opening day. Brinkley is the obvious favorite if healthy but after spending 2011 on IR and not participating in team activities to date, that seems to be a big if at this point. This situation is so murky entering camp that it is even conceivable that seventh round pick Audie Cole might get a look. Regardless of who emerges as the starter, his production will likely be limited by a two down role. The coaching staff would likely be cautious with Brinkley due to the injury and the other apparent contenders just do not have the skill set. In the long term it is Brinkley who is likely to emerge. He may not play every down initially but once proven healthy, could assume every down duties and be a productive fantasy option. He is well worth a late round flier, especially for owner in dynasty leagues... Greenway lines up on the strong side most of the time and is one of the few at that position to provide serious fantasy value. His numbers are helped greatly by the fact that unlike many strong side backers, he remains on the field in all sub packages. Greenway's best production came in 2010 when he racked up 109 solo stops after the Vikings linebacker corps was decimated by injury. The one detractor to his game is a lack of strong big play numbers. Over the past two seasons he has just 3 takeaways and 3 sacks. Greenway can consistently be counted on for tackle numbers in the mid to upper 80s with a handful of big plays. Consider him a dependable LB2 or an excellent third starter... The wildcard in the Minnesota mix is Erin Henderson. Over his first three seasons in the league he rarely got on the field. In 2011 opportunity finally presented itself. Henderson started eleven games on the weak side and performed pretty well. He was mostly a two down player, leaving the field in passing situations, but saw some time in those packages when his Brother E.J. Henderson was banged up around mid-season. Erin Henderson enters training camp as the undisputed starter. Considering the group the coaches currently have to work with, he seems likely to be on the field in passing down sub packages as well. Henderson is a worthy late round sleeper who should provide quality depth at the least, and could prove to be surprisingly productive.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • MLB Jasper Brinkley Sleeper with good long term potential
  • SLB Chad Greenway Quality LB2 or excellent LB3
  • WLB Erin Henderson Sleeper who should provide quality depth at worst, with LB3 potential at best
  • MLB/OLB Tyrone McKenzie No value
  • MLB Marvin Mitchell No value
  • MLB Audie Cole Developmental player to keep an eye on
  • Defensive Backs

    In 2011 the Vikings had a great pass rush and were among the top third of the league in run defense. Their pass defense on the other hand, was far less commendable. They ranked twenty sixth in passing yards allowed with just two teams giving up more yards per attempt, and recorded a league low 8 interceptions on the year. As would be expected after such a performance, there will be some new faces in the Minnesota secondary in 2012. In fact, the only likely returning starter from week one of last season is Antoine Winfield. The organization used a first round pick in April's draft on playmaking safety Harrison Smith. He is a smart, athletic player with good size and excellent instincts, but is not particularly fast or physical. He is not a big hitter but rarely misses a tackle. Smith was a four year starter at Notre Dame and will step right into a starting role with the Vikings. His finesse type style and excellent zone coverage skills will be a great fit in the Vikings cover-2. With his big play ability, the Vikings hope they have drafted a Darren Sharper clone. That said, even Sharper with all of his big plays, was a marginal fantasy option during his time in Minnesota. Between the scheme and his skill set, what we should not expect from Smith is great fantasy production, at least not on a consistent basis... Mistral Raymond enters camp at the top of the depth chart at the other safety position. The second year pro saw some action down the stretch in 2011, finishing with all of 9 tackles and a pick in seven games. At this point Raymond's only competition for the job will be Jamarca Sanford. Sanford started all sixteen games last season but failed to make a lasting impression. This appears to be a position of need for the Vikings so it would be no surprise for them to seek veteran stability if a decent player is cut from another club. Regardless of who lines up at the safety positions in Minnesota, they will be hard pressed to provide any fantasy impact... As is the case in cover-2 schemes, the corners hold what value exists in the Minnesota secondary. Cedric Griffin returned from a serious knee injury in 2010 to lead the Vikings secondary with 55 tackles last season. He is now two years removed from the injury and completely healthy, but will be wearing a Redskins jersey to work this year. The Vikings hope that 2010 second round pick Chris Cook will pair with 35 year old veteran Antoine Winfield as the starting tandem in 2012. Both players had their 2011 seasons cut short by injury, but are expected to be ready for training camp. Cook opened last year as the nickel corner and played fairly well before going down in week six. At 6'2" and 212 pounds he has the physical skills to be very successful as a press coverage/short zone corner in a cover-2. Winfield has struggled with injury in two of the past three seasons but over his career, has been among the most box score productive corners in the game. Dating back to 2003 he has played a full sixteen games in a season six times. In those seasons he has averaged an impressive 82 solo tackles. He is not a top of the line big play corner but makes a solid contribution in the takeaway columns as well. In just five games last season Winfield recorded 34 tackles with a pick, a forced fumble and a sack. Had he continued to hold that pace he would have easily reached triple digit solo tackles. There is a great deal of injury risk that comes with selecting Winfield, but when he is healthy, there are few more dependable. Pick him up in the late rounds and start him until he goes down. Even if you get just a few games he will be worth the price... Veteran Chris Carr comes over from Baltimore as a free agent and figures into the mix immediately. He too is coming off an injury plagued season but is healthy entering camp. Carr spent several years as the Ravens nickel corner before earning a starting job in 2010. He will likely open this season as the nickel corner as well, but is capable of stepping into the starting role if someone goes down. Carr does not possess the consummate cover-2 skill set but as the nickel corner in the scheme, he would not have the same responsibilities... The wildcard at corner is third round pick Josh Robinson. The rookie is a starting caliber talent with the size, speed and physical nature to fit well in the scheme. Robinson is likely the future at the position and has already seen time with the starters during offseason activities. If he can win a starting job either by quality play or injury, he could post very good numbers for us. The rookie corner rule would not only be in play but would be magnified by the cover-2 scheme.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • FS Harrison Smith DB3 potential at best, likely no better than depth
  • SS Mistral Raymond Potential depth at best
  • SS Jamarca Sanford No Value
  • CB Antoine Winfield Big risk, big reward. Get as much out of him as you can before he is injured
  • CB Chris Cook Potential CB2 or quality depth if he holds onto the starting job
  • CB Chris Carr No Value
  • CB Josh Robinson Major sleeper, especially in corner required leagues
  • CB Zach Bowman No value
  • That does it for the NFC North. I will continue to make my way across the country with the AFC South up next.

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

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