Eyes Of the Guru (AFC South)
By John Norton
July 24th, 2012

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

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.

Indianapolis Colts

Defensive Linemen

The Colts are the newest addition to the list of clubs running a 3-4 base defense. When any club switches over from a 4-3, there is a learning curve for everyone involved as well as a period of a year or two when the organization has to assemble the right personnel to fit the new scheme. The first step in that process is to identify which current players can successfully make the transition. Among the holdovers from last season there is just one who seems to have the right skill set for a 3-4 end. Tyler Brayton has played both tackle and end during his career. He is a strong run defender but not a great pass rusher. In recent years Brayton has worked as an end on early downs then shifted inside in passing situations. The best production of his career came when he was with the Panthers in 2009. That season Brayton worked from both positions depending on situation, recording 36 tackles and 4.5 sacks. He is not going to be a fantasy standout in the new scheme but should allow the club to concentrate on bigger needs for a year or two... The Colts added Baltimore free Agent Cory Redding to handle the other starting job at end. Redding started twenty five games for the Ravens over the past two seasons and is a proven commodity. He was fairly productive during his time in Baltimore, recording 60 tackles and 7.5 sacks in 30 games. Redding will have plenty of opportunity as a full time starter and a three down player for the Colts, so he should post similar or even a little better numbers in 2012. Like most 3-4 ends however, he is unlikely to have useful value for most owners... Holdover tackles Eric Foster, Fili Moala and Drake Nevis will compete for backup jobs at end. None of these guys seem particularly well suited for the new scheme but that does not necessarily mean they are not. Nevis seems the most likely to make a successful transition. He was the Colts third round pick last season and was playing well before being injured. He has a good combination of size and power, uses good leverage and is a decent pass rusher. He could grow into the position and may even push Brayton in time... There will be a wide open competition for the nose tackle position. Holdover Antonio Johnson was the only lineman on last year's roster with the size to potentially handle the job. At 310 pounds he is the lightest of the contenders but will enter camp penciled in at the top of the depth chart. Former Ravens backup Brandon McKinney is probably the favorite to come out of camp as the starter. He is not the long term answer at the position but knows the scheme and is the biggest of the contenders. Size is important to success at this position because one of the main goals of a 3-4 nose tackle is to hold position at the point of attack and absorb multiple blockers. The third player with a shot at the nose tackle job is fifth round pick Josh Chapman. He will have a hard time cracking the lineup as a rookie but has the right skill set to develop into the long term answer in coordinator Greg Manusky's scheme. Again, none of these guys provide any reason to expect quality numbers at this point.

Fantasy Outlook

  • DE Cory Redding Possible depth in large leagues
  • DE Tyler Brayton Depth is large leagues at best
  • DE Eric Foster No value
  • DE Fili Moala No value
  • DE Drake Nevis No value at this time
  • NT Antonio Johnson Could have some value in tackle required leagues
  • NT Brandon McKinney No value
  • NT Josh Chapman Deep dynasty sleeper in tackle required leagues
  • Linebackers

    There is no such thing as an unimportant position on any defense. That said, linebacker play is clearly the key to success for any 3-4 scheme. It is rare for a team to make the switch from a 4-3 without making at least one significant personnel move at linebacker, but that is what the Colts have done. With pass rushers like Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney already on the roster, the organization obviously feels they are set on the outside and they are apparently comfortable enough with Pat Angerer and Kavell Connor on the inside for the time being. Only time will tell if they are right. Freeney and Mathis have long been considered undersized for 4-3 ends. At just 245 pounds, Mathis may actually be a bit undersized for a 3-4 outside linebacker. The previous regime in Indianapolis built their defense around speed and finesse. As ends in that scheme Freeney and Mathis were able to rely on their quick burst and athleticism as pass rushers, who simply played the run on the way to the quarterback in most instances. It is that style of play that I believe will help them transition well to the new scheme. If there is any concern with the ability of these guys to succeed, it lies in the old cliché, you can't teach an old dog new tricks. Mathis and Freeney are now 31 and 32 years old respectively and have never played from a two point stance in the NFL. There will be a learning curve for them and there is no guarantee that they will ever be truly comfortable. All things considered, if I were asked to pick a pair of 4-3 ends who would be most likely to succeed in this situation, these guys would be at the top of the list. What I do not expect from them however, is stellar production in 2012. The new scheme combined with the expected struggles of a rebuilding team, are not conducive to great production for pass rushers. 40-45 tackles and 8-10 sacks would be excellent production for an end, but not so much for linebackers. One interesting side note here is that Freeney is expected to have the "Terrell Suggs role" in the defense. Yet no one is arguing that he should remain classified as a defensive end. I have to believe that conversation will come up in 2013 if he does indeed put his hand down more than half of the time... At 6'0" and 235 pounds with good range and solid coverage skills, Pat Angerer was an excellent fit in the Colts previous scheme. There is speculation however, that he will not be physical enough to have great success in the new defense. I say poppycock. He may not be Ray Lewis at 6'1" and 250, but Angerer is big enough, uses leverage well and is very aggressive. When I first heard that speculation my thoughts went to Donnie Edwards who at 228 pounds racked up triple digit tackles for five consecutive seasons, with 11 sacks and 17 interceptions as an inside linebacker for the Chargers from 2002 to 2006. I am not ready to compare Angerer to Edwards just yet, but the fact that Angerer will be working at the same weak inside position is important. By design it will be strong inside backer Kavell Connor (at 6'0" and 242) who will get the call to take on more blockers and clear a path for Angerer. With the Colts being in the early stages of a rebuilding process, there is going to be a ton of opportunity for both Angerer and Connor to put up good numbers. Angerer has been a tackling machine since his college days at Iowa and I have no doubt that he will continue that streak in the Colts 3-4. Time will tell if he is truly the long term answer here but he is clearly a starting caliber inside/middle linebacker in the NFL. He will be productive somewhere for years to come... I am much less certain about Connor. He emerged as the team's starting strong side backer last season more or less by default, and was a two down player for most of the season. I consider him a sleeper this year mostly because the club seems destined to struggle greatly, and do not expect that he will be starting at this position come 2013. In fact, it would not be a shock to see second year pro A.J. Edds bump Connor from the starting job this summer. Edds also played his college ball at Iowa. His 6'4" and 246 pounds is much closer to the prototypical size for a strong inside linebacker. He was the Colts fourth round pick last season and in my eyes, is a deep sleeper with more upside than Connor entering training camp.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • ILB Pat Angerer Quality LB2 at worst with top 10 potential
  • ILB Kavell Conner Depth with LB3 upside if he plays every down
  • ILB A.J. Edds Deep sleeper with LB3 potential if he can win a starting job
  • OLB Robert Mathis Solid third starter or quality depth in big play based leagues
  • OLB Dwight Freeney LB3 with LB2 potential in big play based leagues
  • OLB Jerry Hughes Deep sleeper at best
  • OLB Tim Fugger No value
  • Defensive Backs

    The lack of star power in the Colts secondary will undoubtedly be addressed in the near future, but for this year they should be competitive with what they have. 2009 third round pick Jerraud Powers is locked in as one of the starters at corner. He is a dependable cover man with average ball skills and would be best suited as the number two corner on most clubs. Powers ended last season on IR but there have been no reports suggesting that the injury is still an issue. As box score production goes, Powers give us little to be excited about. His best numbers came as a rookie when he totaled 56 tackles with 3 takeaways and 10 passes defended. He was on pace for roughly 44 tackles with a pair picks in twelve games last season before going down... Kevin Thomas will enter camp as the starter opposite Powers. The 2010 third round pick missed his rookie season and was not active until week seven last year. He made a good impression for a few games before sitting out week thirteen with another injury and playing sparingly over the final three games. Both Chris Rucker and Terrence Johnson were rookies in 2011 that, due to injuries, saw more action than the club would have liked. Both played well at times and made the best of the Colts lost season by gaining much needed experience. Chances are that Johnson will win the job as the nickel corner with Rucker working against four receiver sets. In the past the Colts have played a lot of cover-2, so Indianapolis corners often provided a little fantasy production for those in corner required leagues. With the new scheme in place the cover-2 is a thing of the past. At this point none of the young corners promise to post useful numbers... One player in the Colts secondary who is almost certain to have a big year is safety Antoine Bethea. He is not a flashy big name guy and tends to be overlooked at the top of the DB draft board. All Bethea has done is exceed 70 solo tackles in four consecutive seasons while averaging just under 5 takeaways. In 2011 he put up a career high of 80 tackles and was credited with an absurd 59 assists. The new scheme in Indy does not mean a new stat crew so the high assist numbers may well return in 2012. Over the past four years Bethea has been one of the most dependable and consistent defensive backs in the fantasy game. He demonstrated last year what a struggling team can do for the numbers of a good tackling safety. The club may win a few more games this year but Bethea will once again have a great deal of opportunity. He is not the most talented safety in the league but is plenty good enough to take advantage of that opportunity. I see him as a low end DB1 or an excellent second starter this season... The sleeper to keep an eye on in the Colts secondary is former Ravens safety Tom Zbikowski. He was stuck behind Ed Reed in Baltimore and will finally have a chance to prove he is an NFL caliber starter. David Caldwell held the job for most of last season in Indy, and will be in the mix during camp this summer as well. In the end it will likely be Bethea at strong and Zbikowski at free safety come opening day. Free safeties in 3-4 schemes generally fall a little short in the tackle columns, but the Colts secondary should be a target rich environment in 2012. Zbikowski could be a pleasant surprise.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • SS Antoine Bethea Low end DB1 or excellent second starter
  • FS Tom Zbikowski Sleeper with DB3 potential
  • SS David Caldwell No value
  • CB Jerraud Powers Minimal value at best
  • CB Kevin Thomas Possible second starter or solid depth in corner required leagues
  • CB Chris Rucker No value at this point
  • CB Terrence Johnson No value
  • CB Cassius Vaughn No value
  • Jacksonville Jaguars

    Defensive Linemen

    Jacksonville has invested a great deal of free agent money and early draft picks in their defensive line over the past few years, but thus far has received a minimal return. The defensive end position in particular has been a problem as they have been struggling to find a consistently productive player there since the retirement of Tony Brackens. With the emergence of Jeremy Mincey last season and the addition of second round pick Andre Branch, the organization hopes to have finally resolved the issue. Mincey became a starter for the Jaguars in week ten of the 2010 season. He played well down the stretch, recording 22 tackles and 4 sacks in eight starts. He opened the 2011 campaign as the starter but was sluggish coming out of the gate. After games against the Titans and Jets, Mincey had just 1 tackle to show for his efforts. Then the light seemed to come on. He finished the season with a very respectable mark of 40-17-8 with four forced fumbles, a recovery, a pick and 8 passes defended. Mincey seems poised for a big season in 2012, but there is one thing that concerns me. Of his 8 sacks last season, 5 came in two games against the hapless Colts, as did three of his forced fumbles. He scored 50 of his 161 fantasy points in those two games. I believe Mincey could prove to be the long term answer the Jaguars have been searching for, but I am not completely sold. Even so, his production and potential warrant serious consideration on draft day and make Mincey a solid second starter... Branch comes with big expectations and has been penciled in as the other starter entering camp. Mike Mayock called Branch "a premier pass rusher" on draft day and there is little doubt he will help the Jaguars get after the passer. It is the rest of his scouting report that concerns me. At 259 pounds he is light for an every down 4-3 end, and is "less effective against the run". The questions this brings up are; can Branch be an every down player or will he be a pass rush specialist? And in the long term, can he add muscle and weight to improve versus the run without detracting from his ability as a pass rusher? While those are legitimate questions, I still see Branch as the top rookie lineman in this year's draft. He is going to be given every opportunity to earn a starting job and has a quality bookend to help keep teams honest in their blocking schemes. I really like his long term potential but at this point, would not be comfortable drafting Branch as anything more than depth in redraft leagues... Third year pro Austen Lane could end up seeing time on early downs, and is the likely candidate to be the third end in the mix. He was seeing action in that role last season before being injured in week six and landing on IR. He is average as a pass rusher but stands up well against the run... John Chick could also figure into the mix for a few snaps a game. At 248 pounds he is not going to get on the field on running downs, but he did post 2.5 sacks as a pass rush specialist last season before being injured in week seven. Chick will not have a significant role but he could pilfer a little production from the starters... Dating back to the days of Marcus Stroud and John Henderson, the Jaguars have never been afraid to make a big investment in their interior line. 2010 first round selection Tyson Alualu and 2009 third rounder Terrance Knighton will hold down those positions this year. Knighton is a 336 pound road grader who demands double teams and will keep linebacker Paul Posluszny clean, but his contributions to the success of the defense generally go unrewarded in the box scores. Alualu on the other hand, is a more athletic big man who generally lines up in a 3-technique. That means he is less likely to be doubled and has more opportunity to make plays. Over his first two seasons Alualu has averaged a modest 25-14-3. Those numbers are hardly worthy of a second look, but with his skill set and the expected improvement of the line as a whole, he could step up a bit in 2012. Alualu may be worthy as a last round flier for depth in tackle required leagues.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • DE Jeremy Mincey Solid second starter or excellent depth
  • DE Andre Branch Depth in redraft leagues with lots of dynasty potential
  • DE Austen Lane Injury sleeper with minimal value at best
  • DE John Chick No value
  • DT Tyson Alualu Depth in tackle-required leagues that start two
  • DT Terrance Knighton No value
  • DT D'Anthony Smith Injury sleeper at best
  • DT C.J. Mosley No value
  • Linebackers

    When Paul Posluszny moved from Buffalo to Jacksonville last offseason, no one expected him to repeat the 103 solo stops he racked up for the Bills in 2010. No one expected him to fall as far as he did either. Posluszny is an excellent middle linebacker. He is a leader on and off the field, who plays a smart physical style of football. He got off to a very slow start in Jacksonville with only 8 tackles over his first three games. Strangely he finished the season with only 8 tackles in the final three games. In between he put up pretty good numbers for the most part. The slow start can be attributed to the learning curve that comes with a player in a new scheme. The slow finish can at least partly be explained by the quality of the opponents at that point in the season, and the fact that Posluszny was playing through nagging injuries at the time. With the exception of his injury shortened rookie season in 2007, the 70-49-2.5 with 3 takeaways represents the lowest total fantasy production of his career. He is completely healthy now and a second year in the system should go a long way toward a rebound year in 2012. Posluszny may never return to triple digit tackles with the Jaguars, but 85-90 solo stops with a handful of big plays and 8-10 passes defended are not unreasonable expectations. He should prove to be a quality LB2 this season and may fall out of the top twenty on draft day... Daryl Smith is one of the few strong outside linebackers in the NFL that consistently records fantasy useful box scores. His career best of 84 tackles came in 2009 when he saw time on the weak side, and he has totaled at least 73 in each of the past three seasons. Like the others who are productive from this position, Smith remains on the field in most nickel situations and makes a fair contribution in the big play columns as well. He has the size and power to take on lead blockers and hold the point of attack, but is also a versatile player with the range to work on the weak side if asked to. He played almost exclusively on the strong side in each of the past two seasons, averaging 74-27-2.5 with 5 takeaways and 13 passes defended. Smith is no threat to suddenly break into the top twenty, and in most situations, is not a player you want to depend on as a starter. He is however, a quality fourth or excellent fifth linebacker who can fill a bye week role and possibly be a third starter late in the season when attrition and injury has taken its toll on the ranks... The Jaguars opened last season with Clint Session as their starting weak side backer. Many fantasy prognosticators thought he would be productive in the role but that was not the case. Session failed to earn a spot in the sub packages and with just 20 tackles in the nine games before he was injured, was a complete non-factor. Session's injury opened the door for Russell Allen to move into the starting role, and Allen's solid play left the door open for him to keep that job. The two will compete for the position this summer. Based on what we saw last season, Russell should come out on top. Regardless of who gets the starting nod, their box score prospects will be minimal unless they can earn the sub package snaps. The only way that will happen is if either Posluszny or Smith are injured... Sixth round pick Brandon Marshall is a developmental player who will likely earn his keep on special teams for now, but could develop into an option at the weak side position down the road. He is not a particularly gifted athlete but plays with desire and heart. He was the leading tackler for Nevada in each of the past two seasons, so keep the name in the back of your mind over the next couple of years.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • MLB Paul Posluszny Quality LB2 with top 15 potential
  • WLB Clint Session No value
  • SLB Daryl Smith Decent third starter in deeper leagues, quality depth for most
  • MLB/WLB Russell Allen Injury sleeper with LB3 potential if he lands an every down role
  • OLB Brandon Marshall No value
  • Defensive Backs

    The Jaguars may have set a record in 2011 when they had nine defensive backs on injured reserve at the end of the season. As a result, looking at last year's numbers for Jacksonville DBs is basically useless for the most part; the lone exception being Dawan Landry who managed to start all sixteen games. Landry's most productive season was 2010 when he posted a career best 86 tackles with a couple of takeaways, a sack and a score for the Ravens. He followed the money to Jacksonville after that season where he filled a huge need for the Jaguars. Landry opened 2011 at free safety before switching to his more natural strong safety in week three when Courtney Greene was injured. Landry went on to be the team's second leading tackler with 71 solo stops. He is a very sound tackler who rarely makes mental mistakes and is a leader in the secondary. Landry is not known as a big play safety but will make a solid contribution there. Over the past three seasons he has recorded 11 takeaways with a sack and a half, and has scored twice. Landry should be in line for another productive season but there could be some circumstances that get in the way. Both Greene and second year man Chris Prosinski are strong safeties who are returning from injury. While Landry is clearly a better fit at strong safety, there is at least some chance that he could be moved back to free if one of those guys step up. That move may not ruin his value all together but it would certainly not be a positive... Dwight Lowery started eleven games at free safety last season and figures to open 2012 in that position. He is an adequate player in NFL terms and has been a backup for much of his four year career. Lowery totaled just 28 tackles in 2011, which is a pretty clear indicator of his lacking box score potential... Rashean Mathis and Derek Cox project to be the starting corners on opening day. Both players finished 2011 on IR but are expected to be ready for training camp. Mathis is entering his tenth season as a pro and has a history of being somewhat productive. Over the first five years of his career he averaged almost 60 tackles and 16 passes defended a season, adding 21 interceptions. Over the past four years he has battled injuries that have taken a big toll on his production. In 2011 Mathis played eight full games and was on pace for 62 tackles. If he can manage to stay healthy, he has the potential to be a decent second starter or a quality backup in corner required leagues. That said, with his recent history the chances of his staying healthy seem slim... As a rookie in 2009 Cox started all sixteen games. As rookie corners usually do, he posted pretty solid numbers with 58 tackles, 5 takeaways and 11 passes defended. In 2010 he was bitten by the injury bug for the first time. That season he played in thirteen games, starting eleven, and again put up rather respectable numbers for the amount of games. The injury trend continued last season when Cox was gimpy right out of the gate and started just six games before landing on IR. It is hard to say at this point if he has been injury prone or just unlucky thus far in his career. If he can stay on the field, Cox would likely produce useful numbers for those who must start corners. He is not draft worthy at this point but is a player those owners should keep an eye on over the first few weeks of the season. He might prove a solid addition in late September... Aaron Ross is currently penciled in as the Jaguars nickel corner. He was a starter for the Giants last season but the 2007 first round pick has been in and out of the lineup over his five year career. His 4 interception and 12 passes defended in 2011 were career highs, and Ross has never put up more than 46 tackles in a season. He could step into the starting lineup and serve the Jaguars well if called upon, but is no threat to make a significant box score impact.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • SS Dawan Landry Quality third starter or strong backup
  • FS Dwight Lowery No value
  • SS Christopher Prosinski Deep Sleeper
  • SS Courtney Greene Sleeper with limited upside
  • CB Rashean Mathis Quality depth with CB2 potential if he can stay healthy
  • CB Derek Cox Possible second starter or solid depth in corner required leagues if he can stay healthy
  • CB Aaron Ross No value
  • CB Kevin Rutland No value
  • CB Reggie Corner No value
  • Houston Texans

    Defensive Linemen

    By now everyone knows the drill when it comes to 3-4 linemen. In J.J. Watt however, the Texans may have one of the few players who is an exception to the general rule. History gives us several examples of 3-4 ends who have produced one strong season before fading into fantasy obscurity. That may ultimately be the case with Watt as well. The thing that makes me particularly optimistic about him is that, unlike anyone that I can remember, he did it as a rookie. Watt was the eleventh overall pick in last year's draft, so we knew going into the season that the guy had some talent. There are a lot of 3-4 ends that have been taken in the first round and possess good talent, but when his first three games produced 12 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble, it was easy to tell that this guy was special. By the time the season was over he had gone 49-7-5.5 with 4 passes defended, and everyone remembers his impressive interception touchdown against the Bengals in the playoffs. As we have learned over the years with players at any position and particularly with 3-4 ends, any single big season can be a fluke. Until Watt proves otherwise there is a risk with him. There is also a chance that he is the next Justin Smith. My money would go on the later. He will never challenge for a sack title but I would not hesitate to pick up Watt as a solid second starter or an excellent DL3 if he somehow falls that far... Antonio Smith came out on fire in 2011. After four games he had 4 sacks and a forced fumble to his credit. Owners everywhere were picking him up putting him right in their week five lineup. Smith rewarded them with a fat goose egg that game and then failed to record another sack until posting a pair in week seventeen. He went on to average 1 tackle a game over the final 12 contests. Smith is a solid contributor to the Texans defense and a pretty good player in general, but his box score value remains limited at best... Rookie fourth round pick Jared Crick and fourth year veteran Tim Jamison provide depth at the end positions. Jamison is a holdover from the 4-3 of prior years, but looked fairly good as the Texans third end last season. That said, there is no reason to believe he will push for a starting job. Crick may be a different story all together. He fell to round four after missing much of his senior season at Nebraska with a torn pectoral. Some teams gave him a much higher grade and there are some who expect him to emerge as the starter opposite Watt before next season... Shaun Cody was the official starter at nose tackle last season but he and Earl Mitchell pretty much split the playing time. The pair combined for 30 tackles and two sacks between them in 2011. Like many other 3-4 linemen, their contribution to the team's success was not clearly expressed in the box scores. We can expect more of the same in 2012.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • DE J.J. Watt Quality DL2 or excellent DL3 with a little risk
  • DE Antonio Smith No value
  • DE Jared Crick No value in the short term
  • DE Tim Jamison No value
  • NT Shaun Cody No value
  • NT Earl Mitchell No value
  • Linebackers

    The Texans inside linebacker situation was somewhat awkward last season. Most of the players looked to DeMeco Ryans as their emotional leader and field general, while defensive coordinator Wade Phillips basically phased out Ryans in favor of Brian Cushing. Obviously Phillips did not feel that Ryans was a good fit in the scheme for some reason. Regardless of why, Ryans is now an Eagle and the Texans are looking for Cushing to step into the leadership role. He is a talented player with good size and plenty of range to make plays all over the field, but there are still some questions to be answered. The one thing that has been missing from Cushing's game is consistency. He had a great rookie season in 2009, totaling 87-47-5 with 6 takeaways and 10 passes defended as the weak side linebacker in the Texans 4-3. In 2010 Cushing was suspended for the first three games over performance enhancing drugs, and never seemed to get on track. He averaged just over 4 tackles a game, was nearly invisible in the big play columns, and reached double digit fantasy points only five times. Even as the centerpiece of the new scheme last season, Cushing's numbers were not great. He posted 4 or fewer tackles in ten games, finishing with a mediocre 76 solo stops. On the positive side, he did manage to rebound in the big play columns with 4 sacks and 4 takeaways. There is no doubt that the former first round pick has the talent and ability to be a very good player for both the Texans and fantasy owners. That said, I am not sold that he will ever be great for either. He will be placed in a position to succeed, but only time will tell if he can become the inspirational leader of a great defense. In fantasy terms I am not so much skeptical of his ability as I am his situation. Texans defenders were credited with 717 total solo tackles in 2011; only three teams totaled fewer. Cushing's 76 tackles were mediocre in fantasy terms, but were 17 more than any of his teammates. This is a very good defense that gets off the field on third downs and is paired with an offense that moves the ball consistently. Opportunity is everything when it comes to box score production. I am not sure Cushing is going to get enough of it to be great. It is safe to expect tackle numbers somewhere around the low 80s with a good contribution in the big play columns. Based on those reasonable expectations, I see Cushing as a decent low end LB2 in a pinch or a very solid LB3, but do not believe he has a great deal of upside at this point... Ryans was a very popular player both with fans and teammates. In an effort to sugar coat losing him, the organization signed former Dallas starter Bradie James and called it "an upgrade" at the position. James knows the defense very well and may be a good fit, but he is certainly not an upgrade in talent. In fact, he is not even guaranteed the starting job. James will battle third year pro Darryl Sharpton for the inside linebacker spot opposite Cushing. James is a ten year veteran with a great deal of starting experience. He has the size that Phillips loves in his inside backers and holds up well at the point of attack. James has never excelled in the box scores but did match his career best of 81 tackles in 2010. His best fantasy value came in 2008 when he finished at 80-36 in the tackle columns, adding 8 sacks and 5 takeaways. Strangely, despite his success as a pass rusher that year, he was never used much in that role again. James is adequate in coverage but will likely be a two down player in most situations. At best he could prove to be decent depth for us if he wins the job. The only way I can see him having significant value is if Cushing is injured... Sharpton is a dark horse candidate for the starting job. He is a little faster and more athletic than James, but at 5'11" and 230 pounds, lacks the ideal size that Phillips likes. The 2010 fourth round pick saw action mostly in passing situations last season before landing on IR after a week eight injury. He is the underdog, but if he beats out James for the starting job Sharpton could be a three down player with a little potential. He is a deep sleeper entering camp but is a player worth keeping an eye on this summer... To most teams the loss of a player like Mario Williams would be devastating. The Texans however, have not missed a beat. Williams recorded 5 sacks in five games before being injured last season. He was replaced by then rookie second round pick Brooks Reed who went on to record 6 sacks over the next five games. Reed seemed to hit the proverbial rookie wall late in the season and his production dropped off over the final month, but there is no doubt that he can be successful as a starter. On the other side, third year man Connor Barwin stepped up big with 11.5 sacks as a first time starter. For 2012 the club has further solidified the position by drafting Whitney Mercilus with the twenty sixth overall pick. This trio of rush linebackers is loaded with talent and has the potential to post 30 sacks between them. Unfortunately they are not likely to put good enough tackle numbers to have much value in balances leagues. Barwin had just 34 solo stops last season while Williams and Reed combined for only 41. Owners in big play based leagues will find some value here but for most of us these guys are no better than desperation bye week fliers.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • ILB Brian Cushing Solid LB3 with LB2 upside
  • ILB Bradie James Minimal value at best
  • ILB Darryl Sharpton Sleeper with some long term potential
  • ILB Tim Dobbins Deep injury sleeper at best
  • OLB Connor Barwin Quality second starter in leagues that emphasize the big play
  • OLB Brooks Reed Solid second starter in big play based leagues
  • OLB Whitney Mercilus Sleeper with long term potential in big play based leagues
  • OLB Brian Braman No value
  • Defensive Backs

    The Texans enjoyed very solid play out of their secondary in 2011. As a unit they were stingy, allowing a league best completion percentage of 51.9 and finishing second to only the Steelers in yards per attempt. Defensive backs accounted for 15 of the team's 17 interceptions as well. Unfortunately for fantasy owners there was just not a lot of opportunity for tackle production. Strong safety Glover Quinn led the group with only 59 solo stops while no one else recorded more than 44. Quinn put up 71 tackles in 2010 while playing corner and could be a little closer to that number this season. While he is the favorite to repeat as the top fantasy point producer of the group, his lack of big play production is clearly a concern. As a corner in 2010 Glover totaled 6 takeaways including 3 picks. Last season he produced just 1 fumble recovery. Maybe a second year at the position will make him more comfortable and allow Glover to be more of a playmaker. Unless he shows us differently during the preseason however, I would have to pass him over on draft day... In 2011 Danieal Manning was on pace for approximately the same tackle numbers as Quinn before missing four games with injury. At one point early in the season, Manning was shifted to strong safety for a couple of games. After going 9-2 in week six it appeared he might be on the rise, but the following week he was back at free safety with a single tackle against Tennessee. Manning's best season with the Bears was 2009 when had a career best 72 tackles with 5 takeaways and a sack. The 2006 second round pick has never recorded more than 2 picks in a season and has a total of just 5 in the past four years. He is a solid pass defender and a dependable tackler who rarely gives up big plays, but like Quinn, Manning is a player best passed over on draft day in most leagues... In third year pro Troy Nolan and last year's fifth round selection Shiloh Keo, the Texans have a pair of young backups developing behind the starters at safety. However, they have no one waiting in the wings that appear likely to challenge for a starting job. One other interesting observation when it comes to Houston safeties, during the four years that Wade Phillips coached in Dallas, the Cowboys never had a safety worthy of even minimal fantasy consideration... Eighth year veteran Johnathan Joseph and 2010 first round pick Kareem Jackson return as the unchallenged starters at corner. Both are quality cover men by NFL standards but neither are particularly strong fantasy options. As a member of the Bengals in 2009 Joseph recorded career best numbers in both tackles at 59, and interceptions with six. In his other seven seasons as a pro he has neither reached the 50 tackle mark nor recorded more than 4 interceptions. His first year in Houston produced 40 tackles with five total takeaways and 15 passes defended. Similar numbers would be fair expectations for his 2012 season, making Joseph decent depth or a quality bye week fill in for owners in corner required leagues... Jackson seems destined to be yet another good example of the rookie corner rule in motion. As a rookie starter in 2010 he posted 58 solo tackles with 13 assists, 3 takeaways and 10 passes defended. Jackson missed a couple of games last season, finishing at 37-4 with 2 takeaways and 6 passed defended. He has yet to demonstrate much big play ability in his brief pro career. I expect his numbers in that area to improve going forward but there is no reason to believe his tackle numbers will do so. At this point he is best left undrafted... If there is a weakness on the Texans defense it is a lack of depth at corner. Jason Allen was the team's nickel back last season but has moved on to Cincinnati as a free agent. That leaves fourth year veteran Brice McCain and last year's second round pick Brandon Harris as the top contenders for the nickel job. There was a story printed in early July suggesting that Harris might actually be on the roster bubble. Anything is possible in the NFL but with the team's glaring lack of depth at the position, I cannot imagine them giving up on such an early pick in just his second year. This situation could be interesting from the perspective that Allen was the second leading tackler in the secondary with 48 stops and was tied for the team lead with 4 picks. McCain could ultimately have a little value as depth in corner required leagues.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • SS Glover Quin Depth at best
  • FS Danieal Manning Minimal value at best
  • SS Troy Nolan No value
  • FS Shiloh Keo No value
  • CB Johnathan Joseph Depth in corner required leagues
  • CB Kareem Jackson Minimal value at best
  • CB Brice McCain Deep sleeper in corner required leagues
  • CB Brandon Harris No value
  • Tennessee Titans

    Defensive Linemen

    For the past few years the Titans have been in search of stability at the defensive end positions. What they have had instead is a turnstile with a lot of players getting a chance but none of them making much of a statement. In 2011 five players made starts at end for Tennessee with a different combination nearly every week. At the end of the season Titans defensive ends had combined for only 11 total sacks. William Hayes and Jason Jones have moved on and the club has added Kamerion Wimbley in their place. This is a particularly interesting move in that Wimbley has been a linebacker almost his entire six year pro career. One thing that Wimbley has on his resume' that no other Titans lineman has, is a season with double digit sacks. He managed that as a rookie with the Browns in 2006. While he has not reached double digits since, he does have 16.5 sacks over the past two seasons which is more than the career total of any other lineman on the roster. When it comes to judging Wimbley's fantasy value, the question is not so much with his ability to get to the passer, but rather his ability to stand up versus the run. As an outside linebacker his 255 pounds was plenty big enough for the job. As an every down defensive end in a 4-3, that is pretty light. Wimbley will likely add a few pounds but will still be on the small side. Since he has not played end during his pro career, we have very little track record to base our expectations on. What we do know is that with the team's lack of depth at the position, he will have plenty of opportunity. I am very optimistic when it comes to Wimbley, and expect he will produce tackle numbers in the 40-45 range with 8-10 sacks. If my guess is close he will be a solid second starter for most of us. At worst Wimbley should provide quality depth... Derrick Morgan is now two years removed from the serious knee injury that claimed his rookie season, and projects to start opposite Wimbley. The organization has grand expectations for the 2010 first round pick. Morgan was able to get back on the field last season and even started the final ten games. The results were a less than stellar 22 tackles with 2.5 sacks in 635 snaps. The organization is gambling that he will perform much better in his second year back. Morgan is only 23 years old and still has time to develop, but this could ultimately be a make or break year for the young man. For the club to make the moves that they have thus far shows a great deal of confidence in him. He has a lot of potential and should be regarded as a quality sleeper that can be picked up late in most drafts. Morgan has the potential to become a 40 tackle and double digit sack guy at some point, though my expectations are somewhat lower than that for this season. The way I see it 35 tackles and 8 sacks would be pretty impressive but not a real big surprise in 2012... Dave Ball has started a lot of games for the Titans over the past four years. In that time he has proven to be a solid contributor but has also proven that he is not the long term answer as a starter in the NFL. He has 15.5 career sacks with 11 of those coming in the past two years, and will provide the team with a solid veteran presence as the third man in the rotation at end... Unlike defensive end where the Titans are crossing their fingers and praying for strong play, the tackle positions are teeming with talent and potential. As a rookie last season Jurrell Casey led all Titans linemen with 40 tackles while adding a modest 2.5 sacks. He is the only tackle who is locked in as a starter entering camp. Casey is powerful at the point of attack and strong versus the run, but is only average as a pass rush threat. He will command a lot of double teams in the run game and will help to keep blockers off middle linebacker Colin McCarthy. Casey will not be productive enough in the box score to hold value for everyone, but is a probable second tier starter in tackle required leagues. 2011 fifth round selection Karl Klug will battle veteran Shaun Smith and third round pick Mike Martin for playing time opposite Casey. Klug started just one game last season but made the most of his playing time as the third man in the rotation. Much of Klug's action came on passing downs and he parlayed that opportunity into a team best 7 sacks. At last year's playing weight of 275 pounds he was a little light for an every down role. Klug has hit the weights and added some muscle going into 2012, so he has a legit shot at the job. Smith may have outlasted his welcome in Tennessee. He is a solid but unspectacular player who is scheduled to make a lot of money this season. The addition of Martin could make Smith a cap casualty. Either way, Smith is no threat to post more than 30 tackles and a sack or two at best. Chances are he will be doing that with a different team. Martin is an interesting prospect as well. He is a very strong player who can hold the point of attack and make plays in the run game, but has limited range and athleticism. It would be no surprise to see Martin emerge as the starter, giving way to Klug in passing situations. The bottom line is that the Titans interior linemen have some potential for owners in tackle required leagues. If you miss out on Jurrell however, it may be best to wait and see which of the other tackles is going to have the most opportunity.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • DE Derrick Morgan Sleeper with DL2 potential in the long term
  • DE Kamerion Wimbley Quality DL2 at best, solid depth at worst
  • DE Dave Ball Minimal value at best
  • DT Jurrell Casey Decent second tier starter or quality depth in tackle required leagues
  • DT Karl Klug Potential DT1 if he can win a starting job
  • DT Mike Martin - Sleeper with limited upside in tackle required leagues
  • DT Shaun Smith No value
  • Linebackers

    Dating back to the days of Keith Bulluck, Titans linebackers have a long history of excellent box score production. Colin McCarthy is the next in line to continue that legacy. Heading into 2011 the team had some uncertainty about their middle linebacker situation. To solidify the spot they picked up veteran Barrett Ruud on a one year deal. Ruud played well until he was injured in week nine. Initially the coaching staff assured us that the job would remain Ruud's once he returned from injury, but after a few games it became very clear to everyone that McCarthy was the better option for both the Titans and fantasy owners. The rookie fourth round pick started eight games totaling 50-13 with 5 takeaways and 3 passes defended. The only time he fell short of 5 solo stops was in week fifteen against the hapless Colts. Despite being a rookie, he was as impressive on the field as he was in the box scores. McCarthy showed the range to make plays all over the field in the running game and was surprisingly solid in coverage. He is 24 years old and at the beginning of what should be a long and successful career. History and his production last season suggest that McCarthy will likely be in the area of triple digit tackles and will make a strong big play contribution on a perennial basis. I may be a little higher on him than some of my peers, but I expect McCarthy to break into the top twelve this season and claim a place among the elite fantasy options at the position... With McCarthy soaking up all the tackles there was not a lot left to go around for the other linebackers last season. Akeem Ayers and Will Witherspoon will be the starters on the outside entering camp. Witherspoon is entering his eleventh season and has given us some productive years in the past. He opened last season as the team's weak side linebacker and had a few productive games early. As the season went on he began losing sub package snaps to Ayers and by the end of the season Witherspoon had become a part time player. At age 31 he still has the ability to be pretty productive but it looks as if he will no longer have the opportunity... Ayers is an interesting prospect. He was the Titans second round pick a year ago and immediately landed the starting job at strong side linebacker. With just 50 solo tackles and a modest big play contribution, Ayers will garner little attention from fantasy owners heading into the upcoming season. While I do not expect him to be a breakout player, I think we should all take a little closer look. Early in the season Ayers was a two down player. That fact was reflected in his production as he recorded 3 or fewer tackles in each of the first eight games. In week ten he began replacing Witherspoon in sub packages. That week he posted a season best 7 tackles with a sack, a fumble recovery and a pass defended. Over the final eight games Ayers posted 4 or more tackles six times. Chances are he will be part of most sub packages right out of the gate in 2012. Those extra snaps with the year of experience may be enough for Ayers to put up somewhat useful numbers. I could see him with 70 tackles and enough big play contribution to be worthy as depth in most twelve team leagues... The wild card in the Tennessee mix is rookie Zach Brown. The second round pick was the fastest linebacker in this year's draft and is particularly strong in coverage. The comment that stands out about him was made by Mike Mayock on draft day. He said "This is one of the most gifted athletes in this year's draft", Mayock then added that "The bad news is that he's somewhat allergic to contact". As a weak side linebacker Brown would not be asked to take on a lot of blockers and would be able to use his speed to make plays in pursuit. The coaching staff has already phased Witherspoon out of the sub packages in favor of a rookie, might they phase him out of the starting lineup in favor of another one? And if they do would Brown's cover skills make him an every down player over Ayers? It is not a real stretch to see Brown emerging as a starter and every down player at some point this season. He is no threat to McCarthy in terms of stealing tackles, but could prove to be relatively productive in the long term. Dynasty owners in particular should have Brown on their sleeper list.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • MLB Colin McCarthy Strong LB2 at worst with top 10 potential
  • SLB Akeem Ayers Potential depth in 12 team leagues that start three LBs
  • WLB Will witherspoon No value unless there are injuries or he lands on a different team
  • MLB Zach Diles No value
  • WLB Zach Brown Sleeper with moderate long term potential
  • SLB Gerald McRath No value
  • Defensive Backs

    If you want to know what kind of season a team had, look at how many tackles were made by defensive backs. In 2011 Titans DBs recorded 364 total tackles, or nearly 42% of the team's total for the year. As those numbers would suggest, the Tennessee secondary was a gold mine of fantasy value last season. Despite missing a game with injury, corner Jason McCourty led the league in tackles by a defensive back with 85. In fact, all four starters posted at least 58 solo stops. What this group did not do however, is make many big plays. McCourty led the charge with just 2 picks and 4 total takeaways. Strangely, 3 of those 4 takeaways were recorded in the first three weeks of the season. McCourty was the Titans sixth round pick in 2009 and spent his first two seasons serving mostly as an extra DB in sub packages. He moved into the starting role last season and made a strong impression not only on the field but in the eyes of fantasy owners as well. His big tackle numbers are impressive but it is his almost uncanny consistency (for a corner) that stands out most to me. In fifteen starts McCourty posted 5 or more tackles twelve times and reached double digit fantasy points in all but two games. The corner position is notorious for producing one year wonders so we need to be careful how much value we put on McCourty until he proves that 2011 was not a fluke. That said, I am pretty optimistic that it was not. Titans corners have a history of quality production in general. Cortland Finnegan ran off six consecutive seasons with at least 55 tackles, hitting 79 in 2007 and 83 in 2010. Alterraun Verner started 12 games as a rookie in 2010 and finished with 85 tackles, 6 takeaways and 11 passes defended. Chances are McCourty's numbers will come down a bit in 2012, but even with a few less tackles and the modest big play numbers, he should still be a quality number one in corner required leagues and at worst a DB3 with upside in those that lump the positions together... With Finnegan gone, Verner will once again move into the starting lineup. He recorded 41 tackles with 1 pick and 8 passes defended last season while working as the team's nickel corner, but it is his 2010 production that makes him a very intriguing prospect. While I doubt that he will match those numbers, it would be a surprise for Verner not to finish with at least 60 tackles and 3 or 4 takeaways. Many owners will have forgotten his 2010 numbers, making it likely that Verner can be picked up as your third corner in the last couple of rounds. He could prove to be a steal in that situation... When free safety Robert Griffith racked up 86 tackles and 8 takeaways in 2010, many fantasy owners saw it as a sign of great things to come. Going into last season I cautioned that his big numbers were largely a product of the ugly situation in Tennessee the previous year. Needless to say it was not a shock to see Griffin's numbers return to normal in 2011. He is a finesse player who is good in coverage and will support the run, but is not particularly physical in doing so. Playing the free safety position has him working well off the ball in most situations. Being the last line of defense limits Griffin's tackle opportunity in run support, making big play production is his greatest asset. While he had just 3 takeaways last season, his five year career has produced 17 picks, 7 forced fumbles and 5 recoveries. If we take out 2010, Griffin has averaged roughly 57 tackles and 5 takeaways a season since 2008. Those numbers make him a viable backup in leagues that require two starters at safety, but he is a very marginal option for most owners... Jordan Babineaux moved into the strong safety position last season when Chris Hope was injured. In all Babineaux started fourteen games and put up a very respectable 72 solo stops with 3 takeaways and 7 passes defended. As Paul Harvey would say; "Now for the rest of the story". Babineaux is a great example of an average player who fell into a very good situation. He was an off and on marginal starter for the Seahawks for several years before coming to Tennessee, and was signed to provide depth at the position. When Hope went down, Babineaux found himself playing on every down in a target rich environment. Over a stretch of games between weeks three and eleven he averaged just better than 6 tackles a game and reached double digit fantasy points eight times. What most people fail to realize is that even though Babineaux continued to start the rest of the season, after week twelve Hope returned to the field in a time share at the position, causing Babineaux's numbers to slip considerably. Hope has move on to Atlanta leaving Babineaux in what appears to be an every down role once again. He could be very box score friendly in this situation but is clearly not the long term answer at the position. In fact, it would not be a big surprise to see rookie Markelle Martin or veteran Al Afalava push him for the job at some point. There is also the possibility that the club could add a veteran who is cut by another club. He has proven the ability to post good numbers in this situation, so at this point Babineaux is very worthy of consideration as a late round DB3 or quality depth. Ride that wave while it lasts but do not let yourself stop looking for the next one.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • FS Michael Griffin Depth with DB3 potential at best
  • SS Jordan Babineaux Quality third starter but comes with some risk
  • SS Robert Johnson No Value
  • FS Markelle Martin Dark horse sleeper
  • CB Jason McCourty Quality number 1 in corner required leagues, strong DB3 at worst in those that combine the positions
  • CB Alterraun Verner Strong sleeper with CB1 potential
  • CB Ryan Mouton Injury sleeper at best
  • CB Tommie Campbell No value
  • That does it for the AFC South. The NFC South is up next!

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