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Eyes of the Guru: AFC East

An overview of defenses in the AFC East with an emphasis on individual defensive players and their fantasy value.

For reference, when I mention where guys finished in the rankings last season, my model will be the standard Footballguys scoring system. This is basically 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 Eyes of the Guru 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.

Buffalo Bills

Defensive Linemen

Red flags went up when the Bills started talking about a 3-4 scheme this offseason. After hearing more from new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, there seems to be reason for optimism. Pettine's plan is to follow the lead of the Ravens and Patriots teams of the past decade. He is looking for versatile players who can line up at more than one position, which would in turn give the freedom to switch fronts without mass substitutions. In effect, Mario Williams could be in a similar role to that of Terrell Suggs. A defensive end in 4-3 alignments, shifting to outside linebacker when a 3-4 is called. Williams was in Houston when Wade Phillips brough the 3-4 to that club in 2011, so he has some experience as a stand up pass rusher. What initially made me nervous about this situation, is that Williams let it be known that he was not happy playing the linebacker position in Houston. He then wasted no time vaulting to Buffalo after the 2011 season. There are several considerations that I believe point to a resurgence for Williams in 2013. He finished strong after a slow start last season; the design of the new scheme will take full advantage of his talent and versatility; he is now two years removed from the knee injury, removing all questions of his health, and he seems receptive to the plan this time. There is also the point that even when he was grumbling about his situation in 2011, he still recorded five sacks in just five starts that season. We have seen Suggs consistently put up 50+ tackles and double digit sacks in a similar situation, so maybe the best news for fantasy owners is that Williams is still being considered a defensive end in most league management systems. All things considered, 45 tackles and a dozen sacks are not unrealistic expectations. 

Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus are also being asked to learn multiple positions. In a 4-3 they will line up as tackles and in a 3-4 Dareus will be the nose tackle with Williams working at end. From 2008 to 2010 Williams was among the most productive interior linemen in the game. In 2010 he reached career highs of 54 solo stops and 5 sacks with a couple of takeaways. He was lost to injury early in 2011 and was not the same player last season. We know he has the potential and now that he is two years removed from the injury, there is a reasonably good chance that his numbers will rebound. The problem is that some management systems are currently listing him as a defensive end. If your league breaks out the positions, Williams is a worthy risk as a low end DT1. If he is designated as a defensive end, leave him on the board for someone else.

Being a third overall pick comes with grand expectations. Dareus has started all 32 of the games in his young career and has 11 total sacks to date, so calling him a bust would be unfair. Still his box score production has thus far been on the short side compared to his draft position. He is a 330+ pound road grader who will anchor the Bills run defense and eat up space in the middle of the field regardless of which front is called. Unfortunately much of his contribution on the field is not reflected in the stats lines. Dareus has 58 career tackles, with 26 coming last season. The general scarcity of productive interior linemen makes him a player with some value in tackle required leagues, but his upside seems to be limited at this point. 30 solo tackles and 5 sacks would be a good year for Dareus.

Torell Troup, Alan Branch and Alex Carrington fill out the depth chart up front but none of them figure to have much of an impact. Jerry Hughes might be listed as an outside linebacker but will likely get most of the snaps at defensive end in four man fronts. Troup could spell Dareus at nose tackle in the 3-4 with Branch seeing a little time as both a 3-4 end and a 4-3 tackle.    

  • DE/OLB Mario Williams - Likely a solid DL1 with a little risk due to the unknown
  • DE/NT Kyle Williams - High end DT1 potential
  • NT/DE Marcell Dareus - Low end DT1 or excellent second starter
  • NT Torell Troup - No value
  • DE/NT Alan Branch - No value
  • DE/OLB Alex Carrington - No value

Linebackers

There is a good deal of value to be found at the inside linebacker positions in Buffalo, but it may prove to be somewhat elusive until we see some preseason action. With Nick Barnett and Kelvin Sheppard both out of the picture, there will be three players vying for the two positions. Rookie second round pick Kiko Alonso would seem to be the favorite for one of those jobs. He is a physical downhill thumper against the run with a nose for the ball and a knack for making the big play. Alonso missed one game in his senior year at Oregon but still managed 81 combined tackles with 4 picks and a pair of forced fumbles. He is likely to at least land a two down role right out of the gate, but will need to prove himself in coverage before he can claim a three down job. He is a high effort guy that the Bills hope will become their long term leader in the middle. Alonso would seem to be the best fit as a three down middle backer when the club uses a 4-3 as well. 

The other two players in this mix are 2012 fourth round pick Nigel Bradham and veteran Bryan Scott. Bradham started eleven games last year as a two down strong side backer in the 4-3. He is a big physical run defender who is strong at the point of attack, but his coverage skills are unproven at best. Scott on the other hand, is a former safety who is undersized at only 220 pounds but has a strong track record. Over the past two seasons he has played well as a nickel linebacker, also seeing some time on the weak side in the base 4-3. Scott has a history of strong box score production when given an opportunity. In 2012 he recorded 47 solo stops with 19 assists, 7 takeaways (4 picks) and 8 passes defended. The impressive part is that those numbers came on just 604 snaps, or about 54% of the team's total defensive plays. If Scott can land an every down role I expect him to be highly productive. This whole situation is wide open heading into camp. In fact, Arthur Moats could even be a factor before it is all over. My guess is that eventually we will see Alonso as the every down weak inside backer with Bradham playing the strong inside position on early downs and Scott continuing to see a lot of nickel snaps. I do like Scott as a late round flier and believe he could have a more significant role this season while Alonso gets up to speed. At this point I do not see Bradham having an every down role at any point.

With the release of Mark Anderson, Jerry Hughes seems to be the favorite to start on the outside. The former first round pick of the Colts was traded to Buffalo early in the offseason.This is interesting in that Indianapolis went to a 3-4 last season and Hughes failed to make an impact. Versatility could make him a better fit in Buffalo if the team is serious about mixing in a fair amount of 4-3. Hughes has shown few signs of being a big time pass rusher thus far in his career, but this will be his first real shot at a starting job. Positional designation is all important to any fantasy value he might have. Hughes has the potential to be a 35-40 tackle guy with 5-7 sacks. If you can get away with playing him as a defensive end that would be in the low DL2 range, making him  worth a shot as a late round sleeper. If he is a linebacker in your league there is nothing here.     

  • ILB Kiko Alonso - LB3 or better if he wins an every down role
  • ILB Nigel Bradham - Minimal value at best
  • ILB Bryan Scott - Sleeper with LB2 potential
  • OLB Manny Lawson - No value
  • OLB/DE Jerry Hughes - Sleeper with DL3 or better potential as an end, no value as a linebacker

Defensive Backs

2012 starting strong safety George Wilson is in Tennessee and as of mid July it is looking like free safety Jairus Byrd could be heading for an ugly holdout. As a result the Bills safety positions are also in question heading to training camp. Da'Norris Searcy is the favorite to inherit the highly productive strong safety spot. He was the team's fourth round pick in 2011 and has been groomed for the job since joining the team. In 2012 Searcy began sharing time with Wilson as part of developmental process. His limited playing time did not give us a real strong sample of what to expect, but what we did see looked pretty good. Searcy was on the field for a total of 279 snaps, recording 26 tackles with thirteen assists and a pair of forced fumbles. It's a bit of a reach but for the sake of comparison, averaging those numbers over the team's total of 1115 snaps would put Searcy in the area of 95-100 solo tackles and around 50 assists. I seriously doubt he will put up that kind of production but 80+ solo stops is hardly out of the question. This guy is flying way under the radar in all the drafts I have seen this summer. Put him on your target list as a third starter keep your fingers crossed that he stays quiet for a while.

One possible reason that no one is giving Searcy much attention may be the earlier news blurb that said rookie Duke Williams was seeing some time with the first unit during OTAs. I have been looking for more info on that situation but have seen nothing that clarifies where he was lining up, or that he is competing for the strong safety job. What we do know is that Williams was also seeing some time as the nickel corner. Knowing that Byrd has not been there, I think it is safe to speculate that Williams was working at free safety rather than taking snaps from Searcy.

Byrd may not be worth the money he wants but the new collective bargaining agreement makes it difficult and somewhat counterproductive for players to hold out. Chance are he will be on the field when the season starts. If not, it will likely be either Duke Williams or Aaron Williams at free safety. This position has not been as box score friendly as the strong safety, but there is value here as well. Byrd had a down year in the tackle column in 2012 but made up for it with eleven takeaways. He had a strong 2011 with 75 tackles with 7 takeaways. If Byrd is back in the saddle for week one he should once again be at least a decent third starter or excellent depth. If he holds out I see Duke Williams getting the first shot at the job. Dynasty owners may want to consider Williams as a last round flier or taxi squad candidate. Everyone else just needs to keep up with the happenings in Buffalo.   

There have been some productive corners in Buffalo over the years but not so much of late. As a rookie starter last season Stephon Gilmore led the team's corners with a respectable 51 tackles, adding 16 passes defended and 3 takeaways. No one else at the position put up more than 32 tackles. Much of that situation was due to the revolving door at the position. Several players were in and out of the lineup as the coaching staff searched for an answer. Entering camp there remains no sure starter opposite Gilmore. Holdovers Leodis McKelvin, Justin Rogers, Ron Brooks, Aaron Williams, and even fourth round pick Jonathan Meeks are potentially in the mix. If the rookie corner rule holds true, Gilmore's tackle numbers will slip into the 40s and he will add a few big plays. That might make him decent depth in corner required leagues. The rest of this group has potential if the team settles on a full time guy.  

  • SS Da'Norris Searcy - Under the radar sleeper with big potential
  • FS Jairus Byrd - Hold out risk, DB3 if he comes to play
  • SS/FS Duke Williams - Deep/dynasty sleeper
  • FS/CB Aaron Williams - No value
  • CB Stephon Gilmore - Bye week depth in corner required leagues
  • CB Leodis McKelvin - No value
  • CB Justin Rogers - No value
  • CB Ron Brooks - No Value
  • CB Jonathan Meeks - Rookie corner rule could come into play

Miami Dolphins

Defensive Linemen

In tackles Paul Solaia and Randy Starks the Dolphins have a tandem of interior linemen that are among the best in the league. With a career high of 33-6-2 in 2010, Solaia has provided little box score impact over his six seasons in the league, but his size, strength and ability to anchor the middle of the run defense are key to the success of this unit. Soliai has finished each of the last two seasons with fewer than 20 solo tackles. There is no reason to expect anything different from him in 2013.

Starks is a bit of a different story. This is a player I was high on heading into last season. He got off to a big start with 8 tackles and 3 sacks in the first three games, then promptly vanished for the remainder of the season. Over the final thirteen games Starks totaled 10 tackles with a sack and a half. What makes me optimistic is that Starks has a history of much better production. 2009 was his best season at 42-14-7, and if you take away his injury shortened 2007, Starks averaged 30 tackles a season between 2006 and 2011. He also has 19.5 sacks, 6 takeaways and 14 passes defended since 2008. Statistically last year was among the worst of his career but there is a good chance Starks will bounce back with numbers worthy of at least a second starter or quality depth in leagues that break out the defensive line positions.

After a couple of big years working at linebacker in a 3-4, there was at least some concern that Cameron Wake might not be as productive when the Dolphins moved to a 4-3 last year. All doubts and concerns were quickly answered when he went 38-14-15 with 3 forced fumbles. Wake has averaged 41 tackles and 12.5 sacks over the past three seasons and has established himself as one of the elite pass rushers in the NFL. The switch from linebacker to end makes him an elite fantasy option as well. The one thing I want to point out to dynasty owners is that Wake is 31 years old. He still has plenty of good years left but the fact that he has only been playing in the NFL for five seasons can be misleading.

The Dolphins are still searching for one last piece of their defensive line puzzle. In 2012 they drafted Olivier Vernon in the third round with hope that he might develop into that piece. Vernon had a decent rookie campaign where he saw significant playing time as the third man in the rotation at end. Most of his snaps came in passing down sub packages with 3-4 holdover Jared Odrick starting and working on most early downs. Between the two there was a good deal of box score production. Odrick finished the season at 26-9-5, with Vernon adding 26-6-3.5. Granted some of these numbers overlap as these two were on the field at the same time occasionally, but this still illustrates that there is production to be found opposite Wake.

Odrick has been moved inside where he will likely see significant action as the third man in the tackle rotation. Vernon has been working as the starter opposite Wake and has been impressive this offseason. The organization is counting on first round pick Dion Jordan to have a significant role as well and possibly claim the spot at some point, but if Vernon continues to look good they may turn to other options for getting the rookie on the field. Jordan was not the best pure pass rusher in the draft. In fact many clubs viewed him as a tweener who might best fit as a 3-4 outside linebacker or a pass rushing 4-3 strong side backer. He is a bit undersized to play on every down right away but is tall, fast, versatile and highly athletic. Jordan's ability to drop in coverage gives defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle a lot of options. He may elect to move Jordan around from play to play looking for mismatch opportunities. On draft day Mike Mayock mentioned three players in comparison to Jordan, Jason Taylor, Aldon Smith and DeMarcus Ware. If the rookie comes close to any of those guys he is going to have a long and prosperous career. Without knowing what Jordan's role will be as a rookie it is hard to put a value on him for this season. An educated guess is that Vernon will see most of the action at end with Jordan spelling him in some pass rush situations and working at linebacker just as often. With the current state of the situation, both Vernon and Jordan are worth drafting as third linemen, with Jordan seemingly having more upside due to his versatility.     

  • DE Cameron Wake - Elite top 5
  • DE Dion Jordan - DL3 in 2013 with huge long term potential
  • DE Oliver Vernon - Depth at best
  • DE/DT Jared Odrick - Depth at best
  • DT Randy Starks - DT2 with DT1 upside
  • DT Paul Soliai - No value
  • DT Vaughn Martin - No value

Linebackers

Every year the Super Bowl winner is picked apart in free agency by teams that over react to the possibility of adding a "champion" to their roster. Dannell Ellerbe is a good football player and he would seem to be a good fit in the Dolphins scheme, but we should not lose sight of the fact that he has been a part time role player for the Ravens over the last four seasons, becoming a starter only when Ray Lewis was lost last year. Realizing that money was a factor, I also see it as a warning flag that the Ravens made little effort to retain Ellerbe even though Lewis was retiring. Prior to Lewis's injury, Ellerbe worked mostly as the Ravens nickel backer, replacing starter Jameel McClain in sub packages. Obviously coverage is a strength for Ellerbe who proved to be adequate against the run, but I do not see him as an upgrade over Dolphins 2012 starter Karlos Dansby. That is the on field portion of the analysis.

As for his fantasy value, all we need to do is look at what Dansby did at the position a year ago. 101 solo tackles with 33 assists, a sack and 9 passes defended. The only thing Dansby failed to do was make a significant big play impact. Ellerbe started eleven games and was on the field for 608 snaps (about 56%), totaling 69 solo tackles on the season and adding 4.5 sacks. Despite being the nickel linebacker, he recorded no interceptions and had only a pair of passes defended with one forced fumble. The moral of this story is that Ellerbe fits the bill of a solid yet unspectacular player in a highly productive situation. He should have a good season and be a solid LB3 or maybe even a decent second starter if he can land a few big plays, but he is not the next Zach Thomas for Dolphins fans.

The Dolphins got almost no big play production from any of their linebackers last season, which leads me to wonder if scheme and/or coaching played a significant part. Either way, Dansby and weak side starter Kevin Burnett were both shown the door after the season. Free agent Phillip Wheeler was signed to replace Burnett. Wheeler worked mostly as a two down strong side backer over his four years with the Colts. He moved to Oakland last season where he continued to work mostly on the strong side, but remained on the field for the passing down sub packages. Wheeler recorded no interceptions, but proved that he is not a liability in coverage. He also displayed some prowess as a pass rusher with 3.5 sacks. At the end of the season his mark of 78-32-3.5 with 3 takeaways and 6 passes defended, landed Wheeler a top 30 finish for the first time in his career. The Dolphins seem content to stick with Koa Misi as their two down strong side backer, and will move Wheeler into a full time role on the weak side. He has the skill set to succeed at the new position, and the switch will give him and expanded number of opportunities. It will be no surprised to me if he challenges Ellerbe for the team lead in tackles, and moves into the top 25 this year. He is flying well under the radar in drafts so far this summer and could prove to be a late round steal. Target Wheeler as your fourth linebacker. Just do not be surprised if you end up starting him every week. 

The only other player in this group worth mention is fourth round pick Jelani Jenkins. This former Gator battled injuries throughout his college career and needs to develop physically, but he has a lot of natural ability. He is likely to be nothing more than a developmental guy and special teams ace early on, but there is some long term upside here. Only owners in the deepest of dynasty leagues should give him much of a thought on draft day. The Dolphins are pretty thin at linebacker so who knows.         

  • MLB Dannell Ellerbe - Quality LB3 with LB2 potential
  • SLB Koa Misi - Two down SLB with no value
  • WLB Phillip Wheeler - Sleeper who should be a quality LB3 at the least
  • MLB Jelani Jenkins - Deep dynasty sleeper with some long term potential
  • OLB Jason Trusnik - No value

Defensive Backs

The Dolphins secondary is a work in progress. They seem to have found their guys at the safety positions as Reshad Jones and Chris Clemons settled in as the starters at strong and free respectively in 2012. Both ended up exceeding 70 solo tackles and finishing with good overall point totals, but there is more to the story. Jones saw little action as a rookie fifth round pick in 2010. His role expanded in 2011 when he started twelve games at free safety opposite Yeremiah Bell. Clemons was the team's fifth round selection in 2009, saw little action as a rookie before making a number of starts opposite Bell in his second season. In 2011 Clemons was a forgotten man, playing special teams and sparingly on defense. With Bell moving on last offseason, it was time for the youngsters to get their shot. Both safeties had their share of big games in 2012. Jones added to his 75 solo tackles with 8 takeaways (4 interceptions), a sack and 9 passes defended on his way to a top five finish among safeties. Clemons finished the season with a respectable 72 solo stops, 3 takeaways and 4 passes defended. The problem that does not show up when looking at the raw numbers, is a lack of consistency by both players. Jones had three big games that accounted for nearly 40% of his total production. He also recorded 3 or fewer tackles in seven games. Clemons had similar issues with 6 or fewer fantasy points half of the time. Maybe a second season working together will solve a lot of this problem, but I must admit that I have never been less excited about a top five safety. Both of these players belong on our draft boards at some point, but I will be letting someone else take that leap in all of my leagues.

The safety positions appear to be stable at the moment but the same cannot be said for the corners. Richard Marshall is the lone returning starter from opening day 2012, and he is not necessarily assured of a starting job. Marshall lasted just four games before being lost to a back injury that required surgery. He has been cleared to participate but the coaching staff is being careful with him. Marshall has a history of quality fantasy production dating all the way back to his rookie season of 2006. Prior to last year's injury he had never fallen short of 68 solo stops and had a string of five consecutive top ten finishes at the corner position. That production seemed to have followed Marshall Miami as he totaled 18 solo stops with an interception in those four game last year. With a career total of 28 takeaways (18 picks) and 7 sacks, Marshall is more than just a tackling machine. He will enter camp as the favorite for one of the starting jobs. If he can fend off the challengers and stay healthy, he should be a solid lower tier CB1 or a quality second starter for us this year.

Free agent addition Brent Grimes was signed to replace Sean Smith as the Dolphins number one corner. Grimes was an undrafted free agent find by the Falcons in 2008 and ascended to the starting job in just his second year. In 2009 and 2010 he had strong statistical seasons that included 138 solo tackles, 36 passes defended and 11 interceptions. Grimes battled injuries over much of the 2011 season when he missed four games and was much less effective when he did play. Then an Achilles injury in the season opener put him on the shelf for the remainder of the 2012 campaign. The good news is that the early injury meant more time to recover so Grimes is expected to be a go for training camp. He adds a much needed big play threat to a position that had been short on them over the past couple of years. The question that needs to be answered for fantasy owners is; can be bounce back in the tackle columns? During his two strong seasons in Atlanta he worked as the number two corner opposite Dunta Robinson. Now that he is the top guy, Grimes may find less opportunity. After two seasons out of the spotlight, most fantasy owners will give him little consideration. The potential is there for quality production so slip him onto your list as a late round sleeper and pick him up as depth with upside.  

The wild cards here are rookies Jamar Taylor and Will Davis who were second and third round picks by the Dolphins respectively. Taylor is a physical and athletci corner with blazing speed and a knack for the big play. In his senior season at Boise State he totaled 51 combined tackles with 4 interceptions, 3 forced fumble, 9 passes defended and 2.5 sacks. Davis is a bit smaller and slightly slower than Taylor, but has a similar skill set. Like Taylor, Davis has a history of big play production at the college level. In 2012 he totaled 64 combined tackles with 17 passes defended, 5 picks and a score. The organization is obviously looking to get playmakers on the field in the secondary. Both of these rookie will be in the mix for the number two starting job this summer and will have significant roles if they are not starters.

There is obviously a lot of potential to be found here. The rookie corner rule could certainly be a factor. What concerns me a little is the potential for a revolving door situation. With so many options, the coaching staff could give all three guys opportunities to start as the season progresses. We will be keeping a close eye on this one throughout the summer.   

  • SS Reshad Jones - DB1 potential but inconsistency is a big issue
  • FS Chris Clemons - Depth with low end DB3 upside
  • FS Jimmy Wilson - No value
  • CB Brent Grimes - Sleeper with CB2 potential
  • CB Richard Marshall - CB1 potential but a lot of risk
  • CB Jamar Taylor - Rookie corner rule could come into play
  • CB Will Davis - Sleeper, rookie corner rule

New England Patriots

Defensive Linemen

After being a 3-4 team for a long time the Patriots have slowly evolved to a 4-3 base defense over the past couple of seasons. They will still throw some 3-4 looks out there at times, but it is safe to now call Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich 4-3 ends. This means it is also safe to expect better numbers from them going forward. Jones was the team's first round selection in 2012 and was progressing nicely before battling an ankle injury over the second half of the season. Most owners will look at his rookie totals of 24-21-5 and put Jones well down their draft boards. Do not be the owner who makes that mistake. Through eight games last year he was on pace to go 36-30-10 with 6 forced fumbles and 5 passes defended. With a year of experience he could very well exceed those numbers this year.

Ninkovich is another player who has been widely overlooked in drafts this summer. This guy is more than just a fill place holder for the Patriots. He is 29 years old and is coming off a career best of 8 sacks. Ninkovich was one of the team's outside linebackers in the 3-4 and will continue to work in that role when they use it, but he has proven to be a quality option as a 4-3 end as well. One of his biggest assets is the ability to produce game changing plays. Over his three seasons as a starter in New England Ninkovich has averaged 40 tackles, 25 assists and 6.5 sacks, and 7 takeaways. I would expect a handful fewer tackles this year but would not be surprised to see him reach double digits in sacks. Surprisingly Ninkovich has been available in the final round of several drafts I have seen this summer. Needless to say I was tickled to see that happen.

The Patriots have some young defensive ends with long term upside as well. 2010 second round pick Jermaine Cunningham tops the list. Cunningham saw action as a rookie when he worked mostly as an outside linebacker in the 3-4. He did not exactly excel in that role, finishing the season with 27 tackles and just 1 sack. He missed all of 2011 with a hamstring injury that set his development back. In 2012 Cunningham had a fairly significant role seeing most of his action at defensive end before Roger Goodell sent him on a four game vacation in November. Upon return from the suspension Cunningham found himself in the doghouse and his playing time was considerably reduced. He has shown enough glimpses of strong play to keep the organization optimistic about his development, and will likely continue as the third end this season.

The Patriots are very thin at the defensive tackle positions heading into camp. They will likely look to make some additions there or to shift some of their depth at end to the inside. For now they are looking at soon to be 32 year old Vince Wilfork and 32 year old former Raider Tommy Kelly as the starters, with basically no one behind them other than undrafted street urchins. Wilfork has given us some 40+ tackle seasons in the past but has fallen short of 30 in each of the past two seasons. His 28 tackles last season were subpar for him, but Wilfork did manage career bests in sacks with 3, takeaways with 7 and batted balls (AKA passes defended) with 6. All of which added up to a top 5 finish among interior linemen. Expecting a repeat of those numbers however, would be a mistake. I look for production in the area of 30-35 tackles with a handful of sacks and turnover. Good enough to keep Wilfork among the top twelve at the position.

Kelly has played a full sixteen game schedule in all but one of his eight seasons since becoming a starter for the Raiders in 2005. In those seven seasons he has landed outside the top ten just twice with three top five finishes among interior linemen. Two of those top five finishes were in 2010 and 2011 when he averaged 36-17-7 with 5 takeaways. He is one of the leagues better interior pass rushers and at 300 pounds, is a road block versus the run as well. With Wilfork working at the nose tackle position and eating up most of the double teams, Kelly will line up at under tackle (AKA 3 technique) where he should see a lot of single blocking. This presents a grand opportunity for a bounce back from one of his worst seasons as a pro. I like his chances for another top ten.  

  • DE Chandler Jones - Low end DL1 or excellent second starter with top 5 potential
  • DE Rob Ninkovich - Quality DL2 that can be had as a late round sleeper
  • DE Jermaine Cunningham - Dynasty/injury sleeper
  • DE Michael Buchanan - No value
  • DE Jake Bequette - No value yet
  • DT Vince Wilfork - DT2 at worst
  • DT Tommy Kelly - DT1 with top 5 potential

Linebackers

In middle linebacker Brandon Spikes and strong side backer Donta Hightower the Patriots have a pair of downhill thumpers who excel at stopping the run. Both players however, have struggled to prove themselves in coverage and have been relegated to two down roles. At 6'3" and 270 pounds with a sub 4.7 time in the forty yard dash, Hightower is like having a defensive end playing strong side linebacker. He has the ability to blow up blocking schemes at the point of attack, and is productive as a pass rusher (4 sacks as a rookie last season). Hightower makes a lot of plays for a guy who is on the field less than 60% of the snaps. Unfortunately his role is unlikely to change anytime soon.

Spikes is an interesting prospect. He has seen a bit of action in sub packages over his three seasons with the team and has seemed to be productive in those situations. Yet the coaching staff has remained unwilling to make him a full time three down player. Spikes has made it known that he wants an every down role and believes he is capable. He elected to skip the team's mandatory offseason workouts in order to work on his own and concentrate on improving his coverage skills. The decision may work in his favor in the long run, but initially it has served only to draw the ire of the organization. Rumors out of Foxborough are that the club may consider parting ways with Spikes after the season because they deem his action as disruptive to team chemistry and see him as a malcontent. It will be interesting to see how this drama unfolds once training camp gets underway. The bottom line for fantasy owners is that Spikes has the potential to put up quality numbers if he gets his way. In 2012 he was on the field for about 75% of the snaps and finished at 57-35-1 with 5 forced fumbles and 7 passes defended. Those numbers added up to 140.75 fantasy points. Add 25% and Spikes 187.6 would have been in the top 25. On the other hand, knowing the Patriots organization he had better be impressive or he will be wearing different colors in 2014.

The one player in this group that has answered all the questions is Jerod Mayo. He was a stud as a 3-4 inside backer, averaging 95 solo stops over his first three years in the league (2008-2010) while breaking triple digits twice. As the team shifted to the 4-3 Mayo was moved to the weak side, sparking some concerns that his opportunities and production might drop a bit. His solo tackle total fell marginally to 87 last season but Mayo more than made up for it with a whopping 60 assists along with a career best in takeaways at 6 and sacks with 3. His combination of size, speed, athleticism and football smarts make Mayo one of the best three down weak side linebackers in the game, and a perennial top 12 fantasy prospect.

The wildcard here is second round pick Jamie Collins. This kid was highly productive at Southern Miss, putting up 92 combined tackles, 10 sacks and 4 forced fumbles as a senior. The question is, where will he play? Most scouting reports had him tagged as a 3-4 outside linebacker or a sub package 4-3 end playing only on passing downs. Regardless of where they put him, Collins needs to get stronger and possibly bigger before he can capture an every down role. Just for the sake of speculation I will mention that Hightower was a middle backer in college. If the club elects to ship Spikes out the door, Hightower could move inside with Collins working as a strong side pass rush threat. I see no immediate value here but a developmental player to keep track of.         

Defensive Backs

There is normally a good deal of box score production to be found in the Patriots secondary. The problem is that they tend to spread the wealth over too many guys, and they like to move players around a lot. Devin McCourty has been a fantasy standout as a corner over the past three seasons. Solid tackle numbers consistently in the mid 60 range, 18 takeaways and double digit passes defended have made him as dependable as they come at the position. This year he will be playing at free safety. McCourty has seen time at the position in the past and seems a good fit for the job, but the move will do nothing for his fantasy value. In fact it will likely take a beating. The Patriots like to play their free safety deep. They ask him to be the backup for everything that happens in front of him, which means he will be getting scraps for the most part. Simply put, I can think of no Patriots free safeties who have ever been significant in fantasy terms. At best McCourty might be a decent third starter or quality depth.

In sharp contrast, the strong safety position in New England has been fantasy friendly dating all the way back to Lawyer Milloy. Free agent addition Adrian Wilson will step into that job this year. Wilson was once a perennial fantasy stud. Over the past few seasons the thirteen year veteran has been anything but. He has not finished inside the top 20 since 2009 and has been outside the top 40 in each of the past two seasons. The change of scenery and historically productive setting might be enough to rekindle the flame, but Wilson will be 34 in October and has high mileage. He is worth keeping an eye on in August but my expectations are minimal at this point.      

Between McCourty and Kyle Arrington the Patriots have produced four top ten corners over the past three seasons. Aqib Talib is in line to add to that total. A glance at his numbers from seasons past might not make it look that way. The only top fifteen finish of Talib's five year career came in 2009. The important asterisk here is that he has never played a full sixteen game schedule. Even his 2009 season was a game short. He has missed a total of fourteen contests over the last three seasons due to a combination of minor injuries and suspensions. Talib is not particularly productive as a tackler, though his numbers in that area are decent. What he does bring to the box scores are strong big play numbers. Over his career Talib has produced a takeaway a little better than once every three games (35%). He may not match the numbers we have been getting from McCourty at that position, but Talib should be at least a viable second starter in corner required leagues.

With Alfonso Dennard on the shelf for the first four games due to suspension, Arrington is likely to inherit the other starting job by default. He has been a starter in New England for most of the past three seasons and has exceeded 60 solo tackles in each of them. In 2011 Arrington added 7 interceptions and 13 passes defended to finish among the top five corners in the fantasy game. The problem is, he had just 1 pick in the other two seasons combined and none at all last year. Arrington is solid in coverage and could have an opportunity to keep the starting gig if he can prove that 2011 was more than a mirage. His only real competition early on will be 2011 first round pick Ras-I Dowling who has been a disappointment to date, and rookie third round pick Logan Ryan. Arrington's experience should carry him through that challenge. His play over those four games combined with the extent that Dennard is buried in the doghouse will determine what happens from there. It may be worth while to pick up Arrington in the last round just to see what happens.

  • FS Devin McCourty - Minimal value
  • SS Adrian Wilson - Sleeper with DB3 upside at best
  • SS/FS Steve Gregory - No value
  • CB Aqib Talib - CB2 prospect with low end CB1 upside
  • CB Kyle Arrington - CB2 potential that comes with plenty of risk
  • CB Logan Ryan - Deep/dynasty sleeper
  • CB Ras-I Dowling - No value
  • CB Alfonso Dennard - Too many questions for now but keep him on speed dial after week four

New York Jets

Defensive Linemen

We have heard nothing of it from the Jets organization, but there is speculation among some close to the team that they will use more four man fronts this season. This talk was born from the addition of thirteenth overall pick Sheldon Richardson. He is an athletic big man who led the SEC in tackles by a lineman last season with 75, adding 4.5 sacks as well. Richardson is light on his feet and gets off blocks well, but was seen by many scouts as a one gap interior lineman who would best fit as an under tackle in a 4-3 front. Personally I am hopeful but unconvinced about the Jets using four man fronts with any consistency. It would be great to see Kendrick Ellis at nose with Richardson at under, Muhamad Wilkerson and Quinton Coples at the ends. More likely however, is that the coaching staff will try to force a square peg into a round hole by making Richardson into 3-4 end, replacing Coples who has been working at outside linebacker. Richardson has some potential but his value will ultimately depend on his role and his positional designation. If your league designates him as an interior lineman, he could be highly productive. As a defensive end, not so much.

Wilkerson was the team's first round pick in 2011 but unlike Richardson, he is a great fit as a 3-4 end. Wilkerson is quick and athletic for a guy who is 6'4" and 315 pounds. He holds up at the point of attack versus the run, is powerful enough to push the pocket, yet has enough agility and quickness to provide some threat as an up the field outside rusher. All things considered however, I have to question his potential as an end in a 4-3. Wilkerson recorded 35 solo stops and 3 sacks as a rookie, followed by 37 tackles with 4.5 sacks and 4 takeaways last season. He has the potential to emerge in his third season as a 40 tackle guy with 6-7 sacks and could become the next Justin Smith in years to come. It is doubtful that he will ever approach double digit sacks but Wilkerson is worthy of consideration as your second starter in 2013.

Kendrick Ellis rounds out the starters in a 3-4 front. He fit the requirements of the position well, but like most players at this position his contribution to the team effort will most often go unrewarded in the stats lines.

  • DE Muhammad Wilkerson - Top end DL2 with good long term potential
  • DE/DT Sheldon Richardson - Take a wait and see approach
  • NT Kendrick Ellis - No value
  • NT/DE Antonio Garay - No value
  • DE Will Campbell - No value

Linebackers

It is not hard to figure out why the Jets defense struggled last season. The numbers spell it out clearly. In a 3-4 front the defensive line is expected to eat up space and blockers to keep the inside linebackers free, while making a little contribution to the pass rush. It is the responsibility of the linebackers to make most of the plays. In 2012 the Jets linebackers were not up to the task. New York totaled only 30 sacks on the season with the defensive line accounting for 12.5 of them. No linebacker had more than 3.5 sacks or reached 80 tackles. This is a club in desperate need of improvement at the position, yet the only thing they have done to improve is to move a 280 defensive end outside. To his credit Coples did led the club with 5 sacks in 2012, but an outside backer in this scheme has to do more than just rush the passer. It will be interesting to see how he performs when asked to drop in coverage.

Coples will compete with long time starter Calvin Pace, Journeyman free agent addition Antwan Barnes and third year pro Garrett McIntyre who was an undrafted free agent in 2011. Pace joined the team in 2008 and had 15 sacks in his first 28 games with the club. He has steadily declined since 2009 and has only 13 sacks over the last 44 games. Barnes may be the best option available. He has struggled with injuries throughout his six seasons as a pro, but managed 11 sacks as an injury replacement for the Chargers in 2011 before being relegated to a backup role last year. Barnes is 29 years old, so if he can stay healthy and get a little help from someone on the other side, he might be the answer for the next few years.

There is some potential in the Rex Ryan scheme but right now there are more questions than answers at outside linebacker. Unless you can get away with playing Coples as a defensive end, avoid this whole situation like the plague.

The glass may actually be half full at inside linebacker. David Harris has proven to be a steady if unspectacular player in the lead role. He finished among the top ten linebackers in 2007 and 2009 but has since fallen well off the pace. He can be counted on for 3-5 sacks, a couple of takeaways and a handful of passes defended each season, but he has averaged just 71 solo stops over the past three years. Harris did manage to finish last season on the cusp of the top twenty, but I would not get too excited about that. The return of Demario Davis from injury will likely take a bite out of Harris's production in 2013. Harris should give us numbers worthy of a decent third starter but his limited upside is a factor. I would suggest targeting him as no more than depth in leagues that start three.

Davis is a player that I go back and forth with my friend and respected colleague Jene Bramel over. I am sure that most of you follow Jene as well (if not you need to), so you know how high he is on Davis. We agree that Davis is a good player and likely the best inside linebacker on the team from a talent perspective. He split time with Bart Scott at the strong inside backer position last season. With Scott gone, Davis will not only be an every down player but will be moving over to the weak inside position, which is normally the most productive and is where Harris has played in the past. Thus Jene and I also agree that he will likely lead the Jets in tackles and probably be the best fantasy option this defense provides. Where we disagree is on just how much production that will be. I cannot help but to look at the overall numbers of the Jets inside linebackers as a whole. In 2012 Harris finished at 79-44-3 with a couple of takeaways. The rest of the inside linebackers on the depth chart combined to go 78-33-3 with 2 takeaways. Jene will call it blasphemy, but I just do not see where the rest of the production will come from. I love the long term potential and have Davis on my draft list, but I am not as confident in him as Jene is. What I see in Davis is as a quality LB3 with long term upside.   

  • ILB David Harris - Quality depth or a decent third starter with limited upside
  • ILB Demario Davis - Solid LB3 with long term LB2 upside
  • OLB Calvin Pace - No value
  • OLB Antwan Barnes - Sleeper in big play based leagues
  • OLB/DE Quinton Coples - Minimal value as a linebacker, DL2 potential as a lineman
  • OLB Garrett McIntyre - No value

Defensive Backs

One thing the Jets defense had to hang their hats on last year was a pass defense that allowed the second fewest yards in the league. So it just makes sense that Antonio Cromartie will be the only returning starter from opening day 2012 right? Granted they played without Darrelle Revis for most of last season, but what are they thinking at safety? LaRon Landry and Yeremiah Bell were the team's second and third leading tacklers respectively in 2012, and Landry accounted for half a dozen takeaways with a pair of scores. Jets fans are generally grumpy about their team's personnel decisions anyway. They are surely unhappy about this situation.

LaRon will be replaced by his brother Dawan Landry. From a run support perspective this is basically an even swap but the Jets will give up a good deal of big play potential in the move. Dawan is a dependable tackler who is comfortable up in the box. While he does not make many interceptions (3 in his last 48 games) he is not a liability in coverage. He rarely makes a mental mistake and will provide veteran leadership for a group that just became much younger. In short he should be a good fit and a solid contributor on the field. In the box scores we can expect good tackle production with a couple of takeaways and a handful of passes defended. I like Landry as consistent if unspectacular third starter with limited upside.

The other safety position is a big question mark. 2012 sixth round pick Josh Bush and seventh round selection Antonio Allen will compete with Eagles 2011 second round bust Jaiquawn Jarrett for the position. The three players have all of 28 career tackles between them. Yeremiah Bell managed 71 solo stops with a sack and 3 takeaways from the position last season, so the winner of this job is going to have some potential. It is a situation to keep an eye on but I would not waste a pick on any of these guys. In fact, there are a few good veteran safeties currently looking for work. I expect the Jets will look one of them up before long.

With or without Revis the Jets corner position have not been very productive over the past few years. Antonio Cromartie assumed the number one role last season and finished with just 30 tackles, 5 assists and 3 picks. Kyle Wilson started the season as the nickel corner and moved up to number two. He finished at 41-7 in the tackle columns with 2 takeaways. The addition of first round pick Dee Milliner will send Wilson back into his sub package role. With the low statistical output of all Jets corners in recent years, I am not sure that even the rookie corner rule will help. Milliner might be worth a late round flier but I will not be the one taking that chance.

  • SS Dawan Landry - Solid DB3 with limited upside
  • FS Josh Bush - Sleeper at best
  • FS Antonio Allen - Sleeper at best
  • CB Antonio Cromartie - No value
  • CB Dee Milliner - Sleeper with minimal upside
  • CB Kyle Wilson - No value
  • CB Ellis Lankster - No value

That does it for the AFC East. Next up the NFC East.


More from John Norton:

Eyes of the Guru: Week 16 - December 17
Eyes of the Guru: Week 15 - December 10
Eyes of the Guru: Week 14 - December 3
Eyes of the Guru: Week 13 - November 26
Eyes of the Guru: Week 12 - November 19
Eyes of the Guru: Week 11 - November 13
Eyes of the Guru: Week 10 - November 5
Eyes of the Guru: Week 9 - October 30
Eyes of the Guru: Week 8 - October 22
Eyes of the Guru: Week 7 - October 15