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Eyes of the Guru: AFC North

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

Welcome back for year 19 of the Eyes of the Guru! It has been an interesting offseason complete with the usual dose of scheme changes, coaching changes, player movement and surprise roster moves. There are a good number of high impact training camp battles on the horizon as well. This year I am going to change things up a little and start with the AFC North.

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 EOTG know what that is. For those who are new, the rookie corner rule is basically the fact that in the NFL, starting a rookie at corner is like throwing chum to the sharks. Offensive coordinators will target young and inexperienced players as weaknesses, thus these guys have an accelerated number of opportunities. Most often these guys are the cream of the crop at the position (which is why they are starting so soon) and their numbers will begin to drop sharply after their rookie seasons. When I mention tackle numbers, I do not lump assists and solo tackles together. Unless I make a reference one way or the other, I am talking about solo tackles. When I talk about a total number of takeaways for a player, I am counting interceptions, fumble recoveries and fumbles forced since all of these score very similarly in most scoring systems.

Cincinnati Bengals

Defensive Linemen

The guys up front get much of the credit for a Cincinnati defense that really came on in 2012. Geno Atkins is arguably the best interior lineman in the league at this point. There is no argument that he is the top tackle in the fantasy game. Atkins led all interior linemen both in sacks with 12.5 and tackles with 38. This is a special player who should continue to contribute similar numbers going forward. Owners in leagues that require interior linemen will want to go a little earlier to get Atkins than where we would normally start looking at defensive tackles. He is that far above the rest of the pack. Atkins production last season landed him among the top 10 even in leagues that lump all linemen together. The scary thing with this guy is that we may not yet have seen is best football.

After putting up 5.5 sacks in 2011, defensive end Michael Johnson broke out with 11.5 last season. He and Atkins were the catalyst that helped the Bengals tie for the league lead with a team record 51 sacks in 2012. Johnson was a bit light in the tackle column at 36 but is an every down player with big potential this year and beyond. If there is anything that concerns me with either Johnson or Atkins, it is the fact that neither of them have a long track record and teams often slip back after such a strong season. The Bengals however, are a young and hungry group. I would have no qualms about drafting either of these guys as my top defensive lineman.

Carlos Dunlap is the third member of the Bengals front four that has some fantasy value. In 15 games last season he totaled 34 solo stops, 7 sacks, forced or recovered 7 fumbles and score a touchdown. Those are particularly impressive numbers considering that he was not a starter. Dunlap worked as the third man at defensive end and replaced starter Robert Geathers in sub packages. Dunlap's playing time was obviously significant and could increase in 2013, but the fact that the Bengals resigned Geathers may mean their roles will remain the same. Dunlap has 40+ tackle and double digit sack potential, but until we can confirm him as a full time three down he should not be drafted as more than a decent DL2 or quality number DL3.

The wildcard in the mix up front for the Bengals is rookie Margus Hunt. At 6'8" and 277 pounds he is a physical specimen with surprising versatility. He can line up at end on early downs and move inside in the passing down sub packages. His height makes him a natural pass blocker and he will contribute on special teams as well. Hunt blocked 17 kicks during his college career. It is unclear what his role will be as a rookie but chances are he will find a way into the rotation up front. Consider Hunt a deep sleeper with long term upside. Pick him up in the late rounds or keep an eye on his situation as the summer moves along as a potential free agent grab.

  • DT Geno Atkins - Top interior lineman in the fantasy game
  • DT Domata Peko - Depth in leagues that start two tackles
  • DE Michael Johnson - Low end DL1 with big upside
  • DE Carlos Dunlap - Solid DL2 or excellent DL3 with strong upside
  • DT/DE Margus Hunt - Dynasty sleeper
  • DT Devon Still - Injury sleeper at best
  • DE Robert Geathers - No value

Linebackers

The linebacker positions in Cincinnati are somewhat unsettled heading into training camp. Rey Maualuga had his shot at the job in the middle last season and came away with mixed reviews. He was dependable but unspectacular versus the run and struggled at times in coverage. Meanwhile then undrafted rookie Vontaze Burfict, who had impressed during the preseason, replaced an injured Thomas Howard on the weak side going into week four. Burfict was a talented player coming out of college but fell out of the draft largely due to off field and maturity concerns. He seized the opportunity last year and impressed. As a result Burfict will move inside this season where the coaching staff hopes he will grow into a leadership role as a three down player. He has the size, physical skills and nasty streak to be an exceptional run defender, along with the speed and cover skills to make plays in the passing game. In thirteen starts last season Burfict managed to lead the club with 73 solo tackles, adding 52 assists and a sack. It has been a long time since the Bengals last produced a top twenty linebacker (Odell Thurman). This could be the year they break that drought. Burfict should produce numbers worthy of an LB3 at worst and his the potential to be an upper echelon LB2 if he can add some big plays in his new role.

Maualuga could be a good fit as a two down strong side linebacker. He will give way to free agent addition James Harrison in passing situations. Dating back to the drafting of David Pollack in 2005, the Bengals have been searching for a pass rush threat from the outside linebacker position. In Harrison they may finally have the answer. At age 35 he is approaching the end of his career so the part time role could work out well for all parties. The only concern I have is how well Harrison will adapt to a 4-3 scheme after spending his entire pro career in a 3-4. His presence will certainly help the team's other pass rushers by giving offenses another threat to worry about, but our box score expectations for Harrison in this situation should be modest.

Vincent Rey has been penciled in as the starter on the weak side but rookie Sean Porter may have something to say about that. The position has been fairly productive in recent years so this is a situation we will be watching closely throughout the summer. Rey is a fourth year player that has been developing while playing mostly on special teams over his first three seasons. He made two starts early last season before Burfict pushed him back to the bench. Porter is the team's fourth round pick out of Texas A&M. He is a versatile player with a high football IQ and the ability to get after the passer or drop into coverage. Consider Porter a late round sleeper with long term upside.

  • MLB Vontaze Burfict - LB3 with high LB2 upside
  • SLB/MLB Rey Maualuga - No value
  • SLB James Harrison - Minimal value at best
  • WLB Vincent Rey - Deep sleeper at best
  • WLB Sean Porter - Sleeper with long term LB3 potential

Defensive Backs

The Bengals secondary is both deep and talented at the corner and free safety positions, but a bit thin and/or at least unproven at strong safety. Leon Hall has become a cornerstone for this defense. Unfortunately for fantasy owners he may be too good as opposing offenses tend to avoid him. Hall has fallen well short of 35 solo tackles in each of the past three seasons. He consistently give us double digit passes defended but does not make enough big plays to offset the poor tackle production.

2012 first round pick Dre Kirkpactirck missed most of his rookie season with injuries so in essence the Bengals will be getting an additional first rounder this year. The club successfully used a collection of veterans last season to cover the position but having Kirkpatrick's talent on the field could be huge for them. He was not particularly box score productive during his college career but being a first time starter and working opposite a stud like Hall could spell a great deal of opportunity for the youngster. I will pull up shot of suggesting that Kirkpactrick belongs on your draft list, but owners in leagues that require corners will want to keep an eye on him. This could be a rookie corner rule situation.

Dallas thought Terence Newman was washed up when they let him walk before last season. A reunion with his former defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer helped to prove differently. Newman started throughout most of season and played well. He will likely shift to the nickel corner role this season and could see some time at safety if there is an injury. His box score production has never been much more than marginal and there is no reason to expect anything different this year.

Free safety Reggie Nelson is not a particularly physical player and does not produce strong tackle numbers with any consistency. What he does give us is enough big play production to be roster worthy in most leagues that start three defensive backs. Over the past two seasons Nelson has averaged just under 60 solo tackles but has contributed 7 interceptions, 3 forced fumbles, 3 sacks, 21 passes defended and a touchdown. The fact that Bengals players are often awarded an abundance of assists is also a plus for Nelson. Pick him up as quality depth in most leagues.

The Bengals strong safety position has been a revolving door for the past few seasons. They seem to keep throwing late round picks and free agent pickups at the position in hope that one of them will stick. Heading into training camp there is expected to be an open competition for the job between last year's fifth round pick George Iloka and rookie third round selection Shawn Williams. Iloka was mostly invisible last season and the buzz in Cincinnati is that Williams will be given every opportunity to win the job. This is an important situation to keep an eye on because the Bengals strong safety position as a whole has produced relatively good numbers in recent years.

  • CB Leon Hall - No value
  • CB Dre Kirkpatrick - Potential value in corner required leagues
  • CB/FS Terence Newman - Minimal value at best in corner required leagues
  • CB Adam Johns - No value
  • FS Regie Nelson - Dependable DB3 or decent second starter in leagues that require two safeties
  • SS Shawn Williams - Sleeper with DB2 upside
  • SS George Iloka - Dark horse sleeper at best

Cleveland Browns

Defensive Linemen

The shift from a 4-3 to a 3-4 throws a wrench into the fantasy value of Cleveland's defensive linemen. To their credit, Cleveland is much more prepared for this move from a talent perspective than most clubs are when making such a move. Phil Taylor played tackle in the 4-3 and will become the anchor of the new scheme at nose tackle. His size and power make him a good fit for the role of space eater as he has the ability to hold his ground in the face of double teams. Taylor is also mobile and athletic for a man of 335 pounds. That may be enough to give him some fantay value for those in tackle required leagues. He missed a great deal of time last year but was 37-22-4 as a rookie in 2011. He is no sure thing but I would not be surprised to see 45-50 tackles and 3-4 sacks out of him in 2013.

In Ahtyba Rubin and former Raider Desmond Bryant the Browns have a couple of guys with the right skill set to be highly successful as 3-4 ends. Both guys are big, powerful and mobile. Bryant played some defensive end in the Raiders 4-3 a couple of years ago before settling into a role in the interior line rotation last season. He has 11 sacks over the past three seasons and his ratio of tackles per snaps played has been strong over the past two seasons. I am not going to predict that Bryant is the next Calais Campbell, but he has that kind of potential. Rubin missed a few games last season and was never completely healthy so his numbers were way down. In 2010 and 2011 however, he averaged 56 solo tackles and recorded 7 sacks. at 330+ pounds he is not going to win many battles as an edge speed rusher but Rubin is brutal as a run defender, can push the pocket into the passer and gets off blocks well to make plays. 40+ tackles and 3-5 sacks are reasonable expectations for the big man.

Once you get past the three starters the Browns are a bit questionable up front. They have some guys with potential but no one that would seem to be a good fit in a 3-4 and certainly no one who will challenge for substantial playing time.

  • NT Phil Taylor - Probable top 10 interior lineman
  • DE/NT Ahtyba Rubin - Top 10 if you can play him at tackle, depth with a little upside as an end
  • DE Desmond Bryant - Sleeper with DL2 upside
  • NT/DE Billy Winn - No value
  • DE John Hughes - No value

Linebackers

I have long believed that D'Qwell Jackson's skill set would have been better suited for the weak side in the Browns 4-3 schemes. The switch to weak inside in the new 3-4 may well be an even better fit for him. Jackson is physical enough to get the job done but the strength of his game is speed, quickness and athleticism. Playing behind Phil Taylor and Ahtyba Rubin in 2011, Jackson led the league with 115 solo stops. With those two linemen ailing last season, his tackle production dipped by nearly half. Fortunately for fantasy owners Jackson's big play production was enough to offset the decline in tackles and help him to post decent overall point totals. This whole situation makes me think of former fantasy star Donnie Edwards who was a productive 4-3 middle backer for much of his career, then went to a 3-4 team and became a perennial top 10 stud in the same role Jackson will be playing. The big men up front are healthy and Jackson has a remarkably similar skill set to that of Edwards. Do not hesitate to grab Jackson as your top linebacker and do not be surprised if he averages triple digit solo tackles over the next few seasons.

When the Browns announced their move to a 3-4 front the initial expectation was that second year pro James-Michael Johnson would be the other inside backer. After some offseason activities and heading into camp, word is that job will surprisingly go to Craig Robertson. Johnson is the bigger and more physical of the two which would seem to make him the best option for the strong inside position, but it is hard to argue with Robertson's production. Last season Robertson worked mostly in the sub packages. He was on the field for slightly over 52% of the team's defensive snaps, yet he managed to go 62-31-1 with a pair of interceptions and a couple of fumble recoveries. Impressive numbers for a guy who was on the field for 628 total snaps. Those of us who are sitting on Johnson in dynasty leagues should not be on too big a hurry to let him go. He has the ability to be an NFL starter on the inside and the Browns may be planning to release him. Sit tight as long as you can and see how this plays out. Meanwhile Robertson jumps up the draft board and becomes a high potential sleeper that will be under the radar of most owners for a while.

When teams go to a 3-4 the all important outside linebacker positions are often the most dificult to fill. The Browns seem to have done an excellent job of acquiring talent at those positions. Free agent addition Paul Kruger has plenty of experience in the scheme and is coming off a breakout season. He will be the starter on one side and should give instant credibility to the Browns pass rush. That said, we should not have grand expectations for Kruger. While he was able to parlay his 2012 season into a big free agent contract, Kruger still has a short track record and is in a different environment this year. There is no guarantee he will continue to be so successful.

Rookie first round pick Barkevious Mingo will compete with holdover defensive end Jabaal Sheard for the starting job on the other side. What these two have in common is that they are both trying to make the move from 4-3 end to 3-4 outside linebacker. Mingo is among the top pass rush prospects in this year's rookie class and has the physical skills to excel. He is tall, athletic, quick, strong and tenacious. All qualities that will bode well for his transition. Sheard is also an athletic player and a good pass rusher with 15.5 sacks over the past two seasons. He is bigger than Mingo, and will likely continue to hold a significant role. The coaching staff may elect to go with Kruger and Sheard as their starters with Mingo seeing plenty of time in sub packages. In terms of fantasy value; 3-4 outside linebackers have plenty of big play opportunity but the nature of the position is limiting in the tackle columns. For owners in leagues that emphasize big play scoring there are some intriguing prospects here. Those in balanced or tackle heavy leagues may want to look elsewhere.

  • ILB D'Qwell Jackson - Triple digit tackles and a top 10 finish are likely
  • ILB Craig Robertson - Strong sleeper with LB2 upside
  • OLB Paul Kruger - Potential starter in big play based scoring leagues
  • OLB Barkevious Mingo - Long term big play guy but do not expect a lot of tackles
  • OLB Jabaal Sheard - The jury is still out
  • ILB James-Michael Johnson - No value at this point but that could change at any time
  • ILB L.J. Fort - No value

Defensive Backs

The Browns have addressed all levels of their defense over the offseason. On paper it is the secondary that still seems to have holes. Corner Joe Haden give them a solid foundation. He is excellent in coverage, tackles well and packs some big play punch. Haden missed five games last season due to suspension and injuries but was on pace for 58 tackles, 15 passes defended and 4 interceptions. He has consistently recorded similar numbers in each of his three seasons as a pro, making Haden a quality prospect as a second starter in corner required leagues.

Opposite Haden there will be an open competition between incumbent Buster Skrine, veteran free agent addition Chris Owens and rookie Leon McFadden. Skrine recorded 72 solo stops and 11 passes defended last season but failed to make any big play impact at all. Owens is a career backup who has never been more than a decent nickel corner. The club would really like to see McFadden step up and claim the job. As a senior at San Diego State he picked off three passes and returned two of them for scores. Skrine will likely get the first shot with the starters when camp opens and may hold off the rookie into September, but look for McFadden to pass him on the depth chart early in the season if not the preseason. McFadden is the only player in this trio with any fantasy upside. The rookie corner rule will be in effect once he gets on the field and working opposite a quality player like Haden only adds to his potential.

As a rookie in 2010 strong safety T.J. Ward exploded for 95 solo tackles, 10 passes defended and a pair of interceptions. He missed much of 2011 with injury but was well off his rookie pace even before going down. Ward played fourteen games last season and once again recorded marginal numbers at best. In fact he recorded three or fewer tackles in nine of his last eleven games before landing on IR after week fifteen. Ward's rookie production is fading from memory and his fantasy value for the upcoming season is questionable at best. The fact that he has a 95 tackle season on his resume may be reason enough to take a late round flier.

The free safety position seems to belong to Tashaun Gipson heading into training camp. Gipson is a second year undrafted free agent who saw action in ten games last season. While he has no serious competition for the starting job at this point, the small sampling of his work gives us little reason for optimism when it comes to his fantasy value. in fact, it will be no surprise if the team adds some veteran help before the season opens. There are several good safeties looking for work this summer.

  • CB Joe Haden - Quality starter in corner required leagues
  • CB Buster Skrine - Minimal value at best
  • CB Chris Owens - No value
  • CB Leon McFadden - Rookie corner rule applies
  • SS T.J. Ward - Minimal value with a little upside hope
  • FS Tashaun Gipson - Minimal value
  • SS Janoris Slaughter - Deep dynasty sleeper

Baltimore Ravens

Defensive Linemen

For several years the Ravens have run a hybrid defensive scheme that used both 3-4 and 4-3 fronts extensively. Last season they seemed to move more toward more of a regular 3-4 base defense. While there are some exceptions, the responsibilities of linemen in 3-4 schemes generally is such that it limits the box score production of those players. Haloti Ngata is one of those exceptions. He is a versatile player who can line up at nose tackle or end in the 3-4 as well as tackle when the Ravens go 4-3. His best box score production came in 2010 when Ngata totaled 47 solo tackles and 5.5 sacks. The shift to a predominant 3-4 in 2012 led to a drop in tackle numbers but his 34-17-5.5 in the box scores were still enough the make Ngata a top five interior lineman. He will work fron the nose tackle position most of the time and should continue to be among the top interior linemen in the fantasy game.

Arthur Jones and Chris Canty will see the majority of work at defensive end. Both are big men with the ability to hold the point of attack, fend off double teams and push the pocket on passing downs, but neither are exceptional pass rushers. Jones enters his third season as a pro and is coming off a 2012 season that saw him total 27-20-4.5. The raw numbers are hardly impressive but take on a more significant meaning when we consider that Jones started just eight games and played fewer the 49% of the team's defensive snaps. I am not suggesting that he belongs on our draft lists, but his numbers could perk up in 2013. He is worth keeping an eye on during the preseason and particularly into September.

Canty has been successful as a 4-3 tackle and would seem to have a skill set that would make him a good fit as a 3-4 end. From a statistical perspective however, his career best is 31 tackles and 4 sacks which came in 2011. Anytime a good player goes to a new situation it is worth keeping an eye on, but there is nothing here that suggest a breakout season for Canty.

  • NT/DE Haloti Ngata - Top 10 interior lineman
  • DE Chris Canty - Minimal value at best
  • DE Arthur Jones - Potential depth
  • DE Pernell McPhee - Injury sleeper with limited potential
  • DE Marcus Spears - No value
  • NT Terrence Cody - No value

Linebackers

The retirement of Ray Lewis and the free agent defection of Dannell Ellerbe leaves the Ravens with uncertainty at the inside linebacker positions. Jameel McClain seems to have a strong grip on one of the starting jobs with the other likely to be filled by second round pick Arthur Brown. McClain however, is not a lock to be a three down guy and Brown will have to earn the starting job. What we know about McClain is that he started fourteen games a year ago but was a two down player until Ray Lewis was injured in week six. McClain became an every down player until he went down in week fourteen and landed on IR. His production in the games he started was unspectacular as McClain averaged about 4.5 tackles and 9 fantasy points per game. All things considered, he is worthy of a late round flier as depth with a little upside but McClain is almost certainly not the guy that will pick up where Lewis left off in the box scores.

The guy who is most likely to fill the statistical void left by Lewis is the rookie. Brown's skill set is a bit different than that of Lewis, but the Ravens obviously believe that Brown has what it takes to be successful. He excels in coverage, is quick and physical when sifting through traffic, rarely misses a tackle and has a high football IQ. There is some risk with the unproven rookie but Brown has the potential to put up very similar numbers to those of Lewis in recent years. I see him as the top IDP prospect of the 2013 rookie class and believe he has the potential to finish among the top 15 at the position.

The Ravens have good depth on the inside with Josh Bynes and Albert McClellan. Neither of these guys are much threat to win role that will give them any fantasy significance. The wildcard in the mix however, is recent free agent addition Daryl Smith. The former Jaguar has plenty of starting experience and the physical tools to hold down the fort for a year or two if called upon. Chances are he will have a limited role but if Brown is not what the team thought he would be, they have a solid backup plan in Smith.

Baltimore lost Paul Kruger after his breakout 2012 season but they may actually be stronger at the outside linebacker positions in 2013. The return of a healthy Terrell Suggs and the free agent addition of Elvis Dumervil give the team a tandem of outside pass rushers that will be among the best in the league. Both of these guys have the versatility to move around the formation and the ability to be effective either standing up as a linebacker or with their hand down as a defensive end. It will be no surprise if they both reach double digits in sacks. As with all outside backers in 3-4 schemes, limited tackle opportunity will hold down their fantasy value in most situations.

  • ILB Jameel McClain - Quality depth or decent LB3 at best
  • ILB Arthur Brown - Risk/reward player with big upside
  • ILB Daryl Smith - Deep sleeper
  • ILB Josh Bynes - No value
  • ILB Albert McClellan - No value
  • OLB Terrell Suggs - Stud in big play scoring systems, depth for everyone else
  • OLB Elvis Dumervil - Quality starter in big play leagues
  • OLB Courtney Upshaw - No value

Defensive Backs

With both Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard moving on, there will be new faces at both safety positions in Baltimore this year. Veteran free agent Michael Huff replaces Reed at free safety while first round pick Matt Elam will line up at strong safety. Huff is an interesting prospect in that he was a playmaker during his college days at Texas and was expected to be the big play guy in the Raiders secondary. With the exception of 2010 when he had 3 picks, 2 forced fumbles and 4 sacks to go along with his 77 solo tackles, Huff has been a disappointment. He has just 68 tackles and 4 interceptions and over the past two seasons combined. Working in the Ravens more aggressive scheme might be just the ticket to pump some like into Huff's career but keep in mind that even Reed was a marginal at best fantasy option in this situation. There is simply not a lot of tackle opportunity for the deep safety in Baltimore.

Elam is smaller and not as intimidating from a physical perspective as Pollard, but he has both the ability and attitude to be an in the box run support strong safety. Elam also brings better cover skills to the position and can match up with the athletic tight ends that have become the latest craze. He is arguably the best, most well rounded strong safety prospect in a rookie class that is deep at the position. Elam will start from day one and should prove to be productive in the tackle column while making some contributions in the big play department as well.

Trying to find a corner that is productive and consistent on a year to year basis can be frustrating. Every season there are a handful of guys who blow up for big numbers only to crash back to mediocrity the following year. In 2011 Lardarius Webb was one of those who exploded onto the fantasy scene. We were watching with cautious optimism last season to see if he was a one year wonder or a rising star. Unfortunately Webb's 2012 season ended after just five games when he was lost to injury. Those five games however, gave us a pretty good sampling. He was on pace for 77 solo tackles, 19 passes defended and 9 takeaways before going down. There remains an air of risk and uncertainty, but Webb has won my confidence. Heading into 2013 I have high expectations that he is headed toward becoming a perennial top 10 corner.

Corey Graham and Jimmy Smith were the starters for most of last season and will compete this summer to determine their spots in the pecking order. Both of these players have good cover skills and some big play ability but neither has shown a reason to expect more than mediocre box score production.

  • SS Matt Elam - DB3 at worst with strong DB2 potential
  • FS Michael Huff - Depth at best
  • CB Lardarius Webb - Quality #1 corner with top 5 potential
  • CB Corey Graham - Potential depth in corner required leagues
  • CB Jimmy Smith - No value SS James Ihedigbo - No value
  • CB Chykie Brown - No value

Pittsburgh Steelers

Defensive Linemen

What we know about the Steelers defensive line is that they are a group of lunch box toting blue collar types that are going to be very good on the field every year, and their contributions to the team's success will not translate to the box scores. This is a defense that perennially ranks among the best in the league yet the last Steeler lineman to have any fantasy value was Aaron Smith in 2008. Last season the closest anyone came was Brett Keisel with a modest 26 tackles and 4.5 sacks. They will eat up space and keep the linebackers clean to make plays, will flush the quarterback by pushing the pocket back in his face and will be a disruptive force, but we need to look elsewhere for fantasy help.

  • NT Steve McClendon - No value
  • DE Brett Keisel - No value
  • DE Evander Hood - No value
  • DE Cameron Heyward - No value
  • NT Alemeda Ta'amu - No value

Linebackers

Lawrence Timmons is by far the best fantasy prospect the Steelers defense has to offer, but concerns with his consistency should have owners thinking twice about where he belongs on our draft boards. At a glance his point total from last season would suggest him to be a top 12 linebacker. A closer look tells us that if not for a late season surge, he may not have made the top 40. In fact, heading to week twelve Timmons was sitting at number 42. What we have to figure out is if something changed with how he was used, if the lights suddenly came on, or if his 5 sacks, 3 takeaways and a score over the final 6 games were simply a fluke? Timmons had just 1 sack over the first 13 games then racked up 5 over the final 3. The Steelers were struggling to pressure the passer all season so maybe his burst at the end was a result of their desperation. On the other hand, it is not as if Timmons were not used as a blitzer earlier in the year. If it was something that changed schematically, will it continue in 2013 or will we see the Timmons that recorded 4 or fewer tackles in 9 of the first 12 games? The bottom line here is that Timmons has a great deal of upside and potential, but a history of inconsistency makes him enough of a risk to drop him out of the top 20 on my draft board. There are simply a lot of productive guys who are much more safe at that point in the draft. Consider him a risky low end LB2 with the potential to be top 12.

The Steelers have been trying to develop a young inside backer to be the heir to Larry Foote but thus far they have not had much luck. Lest year's third round pick Sean Spence was supposed to be that guy but a preseason injury landed him on IR and he is reportedly still struggling to recover. Spence is not expected to be ready for camp and will likely be on the PUP list to open the season. In 2010 the club used a fifth round pick on Stevenson Sylvester as a developmental player. Sylvester has thus far failed to develop. The bottom line here is that Foote's job appears to be safe for at least one more season. He is not a particularly talented player but is a solid veteran who understands the responsibilities of the complicated scheme, is a dependable tackler and rarely makes mental mistakes. His upside is limited but Foote is worthy of consideration as depth in most 12 team leagues that start 3 linebackers.

From Greg Lloyd/Kevin Greene to James Harrison/LaMarr Woodley and all the standouts in between, the Steelers have shown an uncanny knack for coming up with a string of exceptional outside linebackers. With Harrison banged up early last season and Woodley mired in a major slump, it was the first time in recent memory that the team's OLB tandem failed to record at least 16 sacks between them. Harrison has moved on and Woodley changed his offseason regiment with the intent to show up for camp better prepared. The question is, who will step up and fill the void left by Harrison's departure? 2010 second round pick Jason Worilds got a long look last season with mixed results. It does not appear that he will be next in the line of greatness, but Worilds may be used as the stop gap until rookie first round pick Jarvis Jones gets up to speed. Jones will have a role early this season and is expected to be the long term answer, but he is unlikely to be a starter in September.

As fantasy production goes, Woodley was banged up much of last season and playing at less than 100%. A now healthy and refocused Woodley should bounce back and have a good season. His career best production came in 2009 when he posted career highs in both tackles with 50, and sacks with 13. He has not reached 35 tackles or double digit sacks in a season since. A good year for Woodley would be 35-40 tackles and 9-10 sacks. Productive numbers for the Steelers but marginal at best for most of us. Jones may emerge as the starter at some point during the season but chances are he and Worilds will share playing time most if not all year. We should not expect much from either of them in 2013.

  • ILB Lawrence Timmons - Big potential but inconsistency hurt his draft stock
  • ILB Larry Foote - Depth in 12 team leagues that start 3
  • OLB LaMarr Woodley - Minimal value at best
  • OLB Jason Worilds - Minimal value at best
  • OLB Jarvis Jones - Dynasty prospect in big play based scoring
  • ILB Stevenson Sylvester - No value
  • ILB Sean Spence - Long term potential if he can get healthy

Defensive Backs

There are a lot of people talking about how old the Steelers defense has become. Nowhere is that more evident than in the secondary where they now have three starters over the age of 32. The organization made it a proirity to address the defense this offseason, adding young talent at all three levels. In the secondary this came in the form of fourth round pick safety Shamarko Thomas. He is unlikely to have a significant role in the immediate future but with the injury history of Troy Polamalu and the retirement talk coming from Ryan Clark, Thomas may have an opportunity soon. He is a tough but undersized safety that Mike Mayock compared to former Colt Bob Sanders for his relentless all out approach. Thomas was highly productive at Syracuse where he led the club in tackles last season while making a significant big play contribution as well. He will likely be groomed to eventually take over at strong safety and is an under the radar long term prospect to keep an eye on.

For the most part the Pittsburgh secondary has given fantasy owners little to work with over the past few years. Troy Polamalu is the name everyone recognizes. When healthy he has been an excellent player for the Steelers for a decade. The problem is that too often he has not been healthy. Polamalu has been on the field for a full regular season schedule just once in the past four years and is coming off a 2012 campaign in which he missed nine games. Even when healthy he has never been highly productive as a tackler. Polamalu's career best of 74 solo stops came way back in 2005 and he has not reached 65 in a season since. There was a point earlier in his career when Polamalu's big play production boosted his point total enough to make him a viable fantasy option. In 2011 when he last played a full season, his stat line was just 64-27-1 with a pair of interceptions and a fumble recovery. At this point in his career Polamalu is a big risk with a limited reward potential and should be left for the inexperienced owner in your league to draft on name recognition.

In 2012 free safety Ryan Clark had the best statistical season of his career at age 33. Both the 74 solo tackles and the 5 takeaways were career highs as was his ranking among the top 20 defensive backs and the top 12 safeties. In the Steelers defensive scheme Clark is the catch all. His ability to anticipate, cover a lot of ground and get ball carriers to the ground, allows Troy Polamalu to take risks and make those highlight reel plays we see from him. Clark's responsibilities within the scheme however, are often limiting in terms of his own big play production. To his credit Clark has exceeded 70 solo tackles in each of the past two seasons but expecting a repeat of his 2012 production would be a mistake. I see Clark as a dependable DB3 at best and would prefer not to count on him as my third starter if I could keep from it.

Steelers corners see a great deal of man coverage and rely on the pass rush for help. When the team struggles to get quick pressure, the secondary and particularly the corners are exposed. Corners in this scheme are often in single coverage situations and in turn are expected to play it safe rather than gamble on big plays. In Ike Taylor, Cortez Allen and William Gay the team has a good collection the right talent for the job, but they do not have anyone who will make a significant box score impact.

  • CB Ike Taylor - No value
  • CB Cortez Allen - Possible depth in corner required leagues
  • CB William Gay - No value
  • SS Troy Polamalu - Major risk with minimal return potential
  • FS Ryan Clark - Decent third starter or quality depth
  • S Shamarko Thomas - Dynasty sleeper with good long term potential

That does it for the AFC North. Next up, the NFC North!


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