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Eyes of the Guru: NFC North

An overview of defenses in the NFC North 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.

Minnesota Vikings

Defensive Linemen

The Vikings tied for the fifth most sacks in the league a year ago with 44. This is rather impressive considering stud end Jared Allen had what was for him a down year. Not only did Allen's sack total drop by half from 22 in 2011 to 11 in 2012, his 34 tackles were by far the fewest he has put up since his rookie season in 2004. There are some who believe this may be the first sign of decline for Allen. I do not subscribe to that theory. His monster season was sandwiched between his 2010 totals of 45 tackles and 10 sacks, and last season's 34 and 11. So it is not as if Allen's 22 sack season was the norm. That said, he is 31 years old, has reached double digit sacks in each of the past six seasons and has fewer than 42 solo tackles just once since 2004. Allen may not belong on the pedestal we placed him on last offseason, but 40-45 tackles and 12-14 sacks still makes him an elite top five at the position.

Brian Robison and Everson Griffen were also major contributors to the Minnesota pass rush last season. Robison has been the starter opposite Allen for the past couple of years and has been somewhat productive for fantasy owners. His sack totals of 8 and 7.5 in 2011 and 2012 respectively, are respectable. Unfortunately his modest tackle numbers of 27 and 25 in those seasons have rendered him no more than a bye week gamble. Robison shared time last season with Griffen who added 8 sacks of his own. Griffen also saw a little work at tackle in passing situations but like Robison, the time share situation led to marginal tackle opportunity. This year there is another dog in the hunt as well. The Vikings added Lawrence Jackson via free agency. Jackson has never lived up to his first round draft status but has shown flashes during his five pro seasons. He is worth keeping an eye on this summer.

As a second year player in 2004 Kevin Williams looked like a world beater. His 52 tackles and 11 sack were tops in the game among interior linemen that year. Since then however, he has posted more than 31 tackles or 5 sacks in a season just once. Williams is coming off a lackluster 2012 that saw him record a career low 20 tackles and just 2.5 sacks. With productive interior linemen being so few, his potential for 25 tackles and 4-5 sacks makes Williams a consideration only for those few owners in leagues that start two tackles.

Beyond Williams the Vikings have no interior linemen with any immediate value. First round pick Shariff Floyd is not expected to start as a rookie but will rather be used as the third man in the interior line rotation to help keep Williams and Letroy Guion fresh. Everson Griffen should continue to see time inside in the sub packages but is likely to retain his designation as an end in most leagues.

Linebackers

Minnesota's offseason moves at the linebacker position could have both short and long term impact. The most visible change is the free agent addition of Desmond Bishop. This is a talented three down player with the versatility to play any of the linebacker positions. He is a physical run stuffer with good cover skills and a knack for getting to the passer in blitz situations. As the Packers starter in 2011 Bishop was a top 12 linebacker with a mark of 91-25-5 in just 13 starts. There has been some discussion that he could line up on the weak side for the Vikings but in the end he will most likely be their middle backer. The concern with Bishop is his durability. He missed the entire 2012 season with a torn hamstring as well as three games near the end of the 2011 campaign. The Vikings inked him to a one year deal and will give Bishop the opportunity to prove he is and can stay healthy. He is a good fit for the scheme and has the added motivation of playing for a big payday in 2014. The risk factor drops his draft value into the low twenty range for early drafts. Once we see him in preseason action his stock could go either way depending on his recovery from the injury, but chances are it will only go up.

If Bishop is healthy he will certainly be a plus in the short term and the Vikings may offer him a long term deal at some point. Meanwhile the team also added rookies Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti in the draft. Hodges converted from safety early in his college career and became the starting weak side linebacker at Penn State. He went on to lead the team in tackles during both his junior and senior seasons. Hodges excels in coverage and according to Mike Mayock, "is a starting Will linebacker all day long". The addition of Bishop likely means that Erin Henderson will move back to the weak side. Henderson is a marginal NFL starter but his experience may keep him in the lineup for this season. By 2014 if not sooner, I expect Hodges will earn the starting nod. Owners in redraft leagues may want to keep him on speed dial but those in dynasty leagues should consider tucking Hodges away for safe keeping.

The other rookie of interest is middle linebacker prospect Michael Mauti. If not for a line of knee injuries during his college career at Penn State, Mauti may have been a first day draft pick. The Vikings gambled a seventh round pick on him and will see if he can become their long term answer in the middle. Like Hodges, Mauti is worth a late round flier and/or a taxi squad spot in deep dynasty leagues.

The jewel of the Minnesota linebacker corps is Chad Greenway. Despite playing on the strong side in the base defense, Greenway has averaged 98 solo tackles and 50 assists over the past three seasons. With just six takeaways and six sacks over those three seasons' he tends to be a little light in the big play columns, but Greenway's overall consistency is outstanding. The addition of a healthy Bishop would create more competition for tackles than Greenway has seen recently, so there could be some negative impact from that perspective. He may fall out of the top ten but should be considered a second tier LB1 or an excellent LB2.

Defensive Backs

Minnesota struck gold with the drafting of safety Harrison Smith last season. His overall numbers as a rookie looked good with 73 solo stops, 30 assists, 11 passes defended, 5 takeaways and a sack, but they are even more interesting when you consider that he had only 17 tackles through week seven. Smith averaged better than 6 tackles and 14 fantasy points a game over the second half of the season. He is officially listed a the Vikings free safety but in their scheme he actually lined up on the strong side a great deal of the time. Potential improvements in the front seven could spell fewer tackle opportunities for Smith but increased big play production could replace the few lost tackles. With half a season of quality production on his resume, Smith remains somewhat unproven. What we have seen thus far however, leaves plenty of reason for optimism. I like his chances of being a top 10 defensive back in 2014.

The Vikings still have a void at the other safety spot where Jamarca Sanford and Mistral Raymond will compete for playing time. Neither of these players are dynamic long term answers, nor do they appear to have any serious fantasy potential. Minnesota has avoided using free agency to fill this need over the past few seasons, but with an abundance of quality veteran safeties still looking for work, they could go down that path at some point this summer.

For over a decade the marriage of Minnesota's cover-2 scheme and the play of Antoine Winfield have come together to provide strong box score production from the left corner position. The team is using less cover-2 these days but Winfield still managed an impressive (for a corner) 73 solo stops last season. Winfield has moved on and Xavier Rhodes was drafted in round one to be his replacement. In some ways Rhodes is a super sized version of the 180 pound Winfield. At 6'1" and 210 pounds, Rhodes is a physical press coverage corner with the ability to disrupt routs early and the speed to stick with receivers who manage to escape. His college career at Florida State did not produce particularly impressive numbers but his tight man coverage skills sure helped buy time for the pass rushers up front. Chris Cook and Josh Robinson were the team's starters last season and both are still in the mix for playing time. There is however, little doubt that Rhodes will be in the lineup come week one. Based on both the history of production from the position and the rookie corner rule, fantasy owner should be all over this guy.

Cook has shown flashes of fantasy potential but has struggled to stay out of the trainer's room. He finished last season on IR with an arm injury but all signs point to his being ready for training camp. Expectations are that he will pair with Rhodes as the starters while Robinson becomes the nickel corner. He is probably not worth a draft pick but Cook is worth keeping an eye on for those in corner required leagues.

  • S Harrison Smith - Probable top 5 safety
  • S Jamarca Sanford - Minimal value at best
  • CB Chris Cook - CB2 potential but likely no better than depth
  • CB Xavier Rhodes - Rookie corner rule applies, could be a starting DB in all formats
  • CB Josh Robinson - Injury sleeper for corner required leagues
  • CB A.J. Jefferson - No value
  • CB Jacob Lacey - No value
  • SS Mistral Raymond - No value

Detroit Lions

Defensive Linemen

The first three players from last year's depth chart have moved on, so there will be new faces in the Lions lineup at defensive end this season. In the place of Kyle Vanden Bosch, Cliff Avril and Lawrence Jackson the Lions will have 2010 seventh round pick Willie Young, rookie first round pick Ezekial Ansah and free agent pickup Israel Idonije. Young missed all of his rookie season and has seen limited action over the last two years. His career resume shows just 16 tackles and 3 sacks. At 251 pounds he is a bit undersized for an every down role so it will be no surprise if he ends up in a time share as a sub package pass rush specialist. Young could prove to be successful in such a role and he is still in the mix for a starting job. The simple fact that Detroit has no clear cut option ahead of him is enough to earn him a spot on our draft list as a deep sleeper.

Idonije gives the Lions a veteran presence and a strong run defender at the position. After spending most of his eleven year career as a backup, he became a starter for the Bears in 2010. Over his three seasons in that role he averaged about 34 solo tackles and 7 sacks. The soon to be 33 year old signed a one year contract at the veteran minimum so it is obvious that the organization sees Idonije as no more than a stop gap, but the situation could lead to box score production worthy of DL3 consideration for fantasy owners.

Believing they will be able to take advantage of his huge potential, the Lions rolled the dice on Ezekial "Ziggy" Ansah with the fifth overall pick. He enters the NFL as a raw talent having played football for the first time as a walk on at BYU in 2010. Ansah spent just one season as a starter so his lack of experience may prove to be an obstacle in the short term, but his skill set and versatility obviously made an impression on Detroit's coaching staff. Over the course of his senior season Ansah saw time at tackle, end and outside linebacker; recording 62 tackles with 4.5 sacks, a pick and 9 passes defended. It is a safe bet that he will have a significant role right out of the gate but expecting Ansah to be a three down end right away would be a mistake. As a dynasty prospect he has major potential but his inexperience makes Ansah a boom or bust candidate. Redraft owners need to be careful of giving too much credit just because he was such a high pick. I would draft him as no more than depth at best for this season.

Ndamukong Suh has established himself as one of the best interior linemen in the NFL. When he exploded for 48 tackles and 10 sacks as a rookie in 2010, a lot of people automatically expected that to be the norm for him going forward. The past two seasons have been a disappointment for those people. Suh remains a force on the field but his box score production has come back to earth with a thud. He has fallen short of 30 tackles in each of those seasons and has 11.5 sacks in 2011 and 2012 combined. Suh remains a valuable fantasy option as a top ten and possibly even a top five tackle. The potential is there for another big season but expecting more than 30 tackles and/or 8 sacks would likely be overly optimistic.

After a rookie year that left us wondering if he would ever live up to his first round expectations, Nick Fairley finally started showing up toward the end of last season. After recording just 2 tackles and a sack through the first four games, Fairley went 25-6-4.5 over the next nine games before being injured in week fifteen, including double digit fantasy points in four of his final five games. It is hard to tell if this was the beginning of big things to come for Fairley or just a flash of potential that will quickly fade. What we do know is that if both he and Suh can play to their potential this could be the best tackle tandem in the league. Fairley's string of strong outings is certainly reason for optimism.

Jason Jones was picked up in free agency to be the third man in the tackle rotation. Jones has the potential to be productive if called upon and has given us good numbers at times in the past. Injuries however, have been an issue for Jones throughout his five years in the league.

  • DE Willie Young - Deep sleeper with some upside
  • DE Ezekial Ansah - Boom or bust player with a high ceiling but a low floor as well
  • DT Ndamukong Suh - Potential top five tackle
  • DT Nick Fairley - Potential top five tackle
  • DE Israel Idonije - DL3 prospect with limited upside
  • DT Jason Jones - Injury sleeper for tackle required leagues

Linebackers

The Lions are in need of a standout performer at the linebacker level. Middle backer Stephen Tulloch is a steady dependable leader who sifts through traffic well and rarely misses a tackle, but his big play contribution is lacking. Dating back to his time in Tennessee Tulloch has been a starter in the league for five seasons now. His career total of nine fumble recoveries is good but he has just three interceptions and a single forced fumble over that span. Tulloch's reputation as a productive fantasy option was built on his final two seasons with the Titans in which he averaged 103 solo stops. Since moving to Detroit he has averaged 79. 80 tackles and 2-3 impact plays are reasonable expectations for Tulloch, making him a quality third starter in most fantasy situations.

There was a time when I like many others, had big expectations for DeAndre Levy. Unfortunately those expectations have never been realized. Levy will once again be the starter on the weak side for Detroit. His numbers from that position last year were a disappointing 57 tackles and 25 assists, with a pair of takeaways. Some of the problem in 2012 was that Levy was never a clear cut every down player. He saw action in some sub packages but often lost those snaps to Justin Durant. In the end Levy was on the field for roughly 76% of the team's defensive snaps. With Durant moving on and the team making no significant additions at the linebacker position, Levy should be in line for a full time role. At this point everyone should have given up on any thought that Levy will ever become a fantasy stud, but he may well be a decent third starter or quality depth for us this season. I expect numbers in the area of 75-80 tackles with a few big plays.

There will be a competition for the starting job on the strong side this summer. Veteran backup Ashlee Palmer is the favorite heading into camp with Travis Lewis and Tahir Whitehead getting a look as well. None of these guys jump out as more than backup quality NFL players with little if any chance of ever making a serious box score contribution.

There is one player on the Lions depth chart that is a bit intriguing. Rookie middle backer Brandon Hepburn was a seventh round selection out of Florida A&M. He showed good production as a senior with 86 tackles, 5.5 sacks, a forced fumble, and 7 passes defended. As a small school player he garnered little attention and should be considered a project type player, but with the current level of talent on this club, he may have an opportunity to advance rather quickly. Take a wait and see approach with this kid but keep an eye on his play in the preseason.

  • MLB Stephen Tulloch - Solid LB3 or excellent depth
  • WLB DeAndre Levy - Depth with LB3 potential
  • SLB Ashlee Palmer - No value
  • MLB Brandon Hepburn - Deep dynasty sleeper
  • OLB Travis Lewis - No value
  • OLB Tahir Whitehead - No value

Defensive Backs

Over the past few seasons the Lions have dealt with a great deal of injury, inconsistency and player turnover in the secondary. As a result, fantasy value within this group has been elusive at best. The club is counting on this year's off season additions of strong safety Glover Quin via free agency and corner Darius Slay in the second round of the draft, to give them some long term consistency. Quin is a converted corner who took to the safety position in Houston as if he had never played anywhere else. He is not the prototypical strong safety from a size perspective but is physical enough, is a reliable tackler and his cover skills add a dimension that the Lions have been missing at the position. Quin's numbers while with the Texans were marginal from a fantasy perspective. He averaged 65 tackles and 12 passes defended over the past three seasons, but low assist totals and average big play production have held his value in check. I am optimistic that the change of venue will be a plus for Quin's box score totals for a couple of reasons. First and foremost I believe the front seven in Houston was better, which should n turn mean more tackle opportunity. There is also the point that the strong safety position as a whole in Detroit has provided solid numbers in recent years. Last season for example, Lions strong safeties accounted for roughly 72 solo stops that were spread among three players. I will stop short of calling for a breakout fantasy season for Quin, but will be surprised if he is not at least a solid third starter or quality depth for us.

The other safety position remains a question mark heading into July. The organization hopes that Louis Delmas will be ready to go at some point during camp but he is not yet completely recovered from a knee injury. He has battled injuries over much of the past two seasons, missing 13 games. When healthy Delmas has been a difference maker for the Lions at free safety, but even then he has never been more than a marginal option for fantasy owners. His career best of 64 solo stops came in his rookie season of 2009 and he has only 3 career interceptions with 16 passes defended over his 51 games as a pro. With the possible exception of those in deep drafted leagues, fantasy owners should look elsewhere for help.

In recent years the corner position in Detroit has been a revolving door of veteran free agents. Heading into his fourth season with the team, Chris Houston seems to have settled in as a long term solution. He will never be mentioned in the same sentence with the premier cover men in the league, but Houston is a quality cover man who brings savvy and a little big play potential to the mix. His tackle production is consistently a bit low for most fantasy situations but he can be counted on for about 50 solo stops, 3 takeaways and 14 passes defended. Number that will make him worthy as depth in most 12 team leagues that start two corners.

At the other corner position there will be an open competition between Second round pick Darius Slay, incumbent veteran Ronald Bartell and possibly last year's third round pick Bill Bentley. This job will ultimately belong to Slay who had five interceptions last year for Mississippi State and is expected to bring a big play boost to this unit. Slay is physical in run support and has a history of forcing dropped passes. Both traits are a plus to his fantasy potential. A meniscus problem at the end of last season had some teams concerned about drafting him early, and it could play into his chances of starting by week one. Keep an eye on the situation through training camp and grab him as a potential long term starter if he lands the job early. The rookie corner rule would be in play with the exception that Slay seems to have the makeup to continue quality production beyond his early years.

  • SS Glover Quin - DB3 or quality depth with DB2 upside
  • FS Louis Delmas - Minimal value
  • CB Chris Houston - Depth in corner required leagues
  • CB Darius Slay - Rookie corner rule applies with long term value possible    
  • CB Ronald Bartell - Minimal value at best
  • CB Bill Bentley - Injury sleeper
  • S Amari Spivey - No value
  • S John Wendling - No value

Chicago Bears

Defensive Linemen

Quality line play is a tradition in Chicago. While this year's unit may not rank among the all time best, it should be good enough to uphold that tradition. Defensive end Julius Peppers is the only big name that stands out among this group. Perennial double digit sack totals make him one of the leagues all time greats at the position, but his lacking consistency and mediocre tackle totals will keep him out of the fantasy hall of fame. Nearly all defensive linemen struggle with week to week consistency to some extent. Peppers however, stands out here. He will give us two or three monster games over the course of a season but will vanish for stretches as well. Inevitably it will be at the end of a bad stretch when we finally pull the plug and bench him, that he blows up for a 3 sack game. Over the past two seasons Peppers has reached double digit fantasy points in half of his games, exceeding 20 points three times. In the other 16 games he has failed to reach 6 points 13 times with 2 or fewer in five of those games. The shortage of consistent fantasy studs up front makes Peppers a solid top 12 pick, but if your draft him, play him every week without second guessing. Otherwise you will end up with him on the bench for the good games and in your lineup for too many of the bad ones.

The Bears let starter Israel Idonije leave after last season presumably because they believe first round pick Shea McClellin is ready to step up. McClellin had a limited role as a rookie, finishing with 7 solo stops and 3 sacks on the season. He was drafted so highly based on his pass rush ability and has worked hard on improving as a run defender. He has been flying under the radar in early drafts but is poised for a breakout season. Keep in mind that Idonije averaged roughly 36 tackles and 7 sacks over the past three seasons. McClellin has the talent and potential to do much more. Consider him a sleeper with a high ceiling at a rather thin position.

Corey Wootton was the third man in the defensive end rotation last season and may have something to say about McClellin jumping right into the starting job. In a part time role Wootton finished with 21 tackles and 7.5 sacks in 2012. He shuld at the least continue to have a significant role and being bigger then McClellin, could ultimately end up with the same early down role held by Idonije last season. This is clearly a high potential situation that we need to keep an eye on during August.

Henry Melton is hardly a household name but he has become one of the leagues better interior linemen. He is a stout run defender as well as a strong inside pass rusher. His production last season is not spectacular at a glance but Melton's 31-12-6 with a pair of forced fumbles landed him among the top 10 interior linemen a year ago. What most owners will not realize is that he played in just 13 games. Melton is 26 years old and just hitting the prime of his career. A repeat of last year's production over a full season would land him among the top five interior linemen, but I believe we may not yet have seen his best football. 35-40 solo tackles and 6-7 sacks are not unrealistic expectations.

Stephen Paea is likely to be the other starter on the inside with Sedrick Ellis and Turk McBride competing for the job as the third man in the rotation. None of these players have given us much reason to be optimistic about their box score potential. Ellis's 30 tackles and 6 sacks in 2010 for the Saints, are by far the best single season production of the trio.  

  • DE Julius Peppers - DL1 with consistency issues
  • DE Shea McClellin - Sleeper with DL2 potential
  • DE Corey Wootton - Sleeper with DL2 potential
  • DT Henry Melton - Top 5 interior lineman
  • DT Stephen Paea - No value
  • DT Sedrick Ellis - No value
  • DT Turk McBride - No value

Linebackers

It will be strange to see a Chicago defense that is not led by Brian Urlacher, but life goes on in the NFL. Urlacher's retirement left he Bears with a huge void in the middle of their defense. The club made offseason additions aimed at filling the void both short and long term. In the short term former Bronco D.J. Williams is expected to hold down the fort. The ten year veteran is a versatile player who had worked at all three linebacker positions during his time in Denver. He should be a good fit in the scheme as Williams has the skill set to be physical versus the run or drop into coverage in the middle of the field when the Bears use a cover-2. Most importantly for us, whenever Williams has been given an opportunity to work in a box score friendly position, he has come through big. Throw out last season when he was suspended early and never regained a full time role. In the five seasons prior he averaged better than six tackles a game, exceeded 90 tackles three times with a career high of 106, while averaging four sacks and four takeaways a season. Williams signed a one year deal with the Bears but keep in mind that he is only 31 years old. If he excels this season and rookie Jon Bostic fails to impress, Williams could become a priority re-sign for Chicago next season.

The organization hopes/expects that Bostic will be the long term answer at middle backer, but there are those who believe he will struggle in coverage at the pro level. Bostic is a natural leader and arguably the best run defending linebacker in this year's draft. He is a physical tackler with the size, strength and attitude to fight through blockers and put big hits on the ball carrier. He is a smart player who understands responsibilities and is willing, but lacks pure speed and quickness to recover in coverage. In the cover-2, the middle backer is responsible for the middle zone and has to get depth quickly to be successful. I have two points of concern with Bostic. He dropped from 92 total combined tackles in his junior year, to 62 in his senior year at Florida. And I fear that with his skill set, Bostic may end up as a two down player, possibly on the strong side. This would be an even bigger possibility if Williams has a good year in the middle as I believe he will.

Lance Briggs is the only starting linebacker from last season to return for 2013. Over the past decade he has been a quality contributor for us but Briggs will turn 33 in November, is coming off his lowest tackle total (73) since his rookie season, and has not reached 90 tackles since 2009. His overall fantasy points last year are a bit deceptive as they were boosted by a pair of touchdowns and a career high 11 passes defended. With Williams in the middle and the addition of James Anderson on the strong side, there will be plenty of competition for tackles, making it tough to predict a big bounce back year for Briggs. He will remain a three down player and a quality option for us as a third starter. 80 tackles, a handful of of takeaways and sacks and 7-8 passes defended are reasonable expectations.

Anderson and especially rookie Khaseem Greene are a couple of guys who also deserve mention. Anderson has been one of the most box score productive strong side linebackers in the league over the past few years. During his time in Carolina Anderson showed the ability to be an every down guy when called upon, and he played well in passing down sub packages. If indeed Bostic does take over in the middle at some point, Anderson could pair with Briggs in the nickel. Unless you are in a deep drafted leagues Anderson is a wait and see player at this point.

Greene is a very interesting prospect. Mike Mayock suggested that he may get a look in the middle but more likely he was drafted to be the eventual heir to the weak side position. Greene is not particularly physical but is quick, fast, highly athletic and has the cover skills of a safety. What is most intriguing about Greene is his production at Rutgers. His senior season produced 136 combined tackles with half a dozen sacks, 5 passes defended and 6 forced fumbles.

The bottom line here is that there is a good deal of value to be found among the Bears linebackers. Much could change between now and September, making this one of the situations that we will be keeping a close eye on this summer.

Defensive Backs

For the first time in recent memory the Bears will start the same tandem at safety in consecutive years. In strong safety Major Wright and free safety Christopher Conte the club seems to have found their long term answers at the position. From a fantasy perspective however, safeties in a cover-2 scheme are not the players to covet. Indeed neither Wright nor Conte produced more than 52 solo stops in 2012. Wright's respectable big play production that included 7 takeaways and a score, boosted his overall point total enough to make him a marginal third starter in deeper drafted leagues, but the upside for this pair is limited at best.

The guys to target in this scheme are the corners. In a cover-2 the safeties are responsible for a deep half of the field, which often takes them well off the line of scrimmage and out of a run support role. Meanwhile the corners will play in press coverage near the line of scrimmage. Thus the corners are in position to provide the run support that falls to safeties in most schemes. As the right corner in Chicago, Charles Tillman often has the responsibilities and opportunity of a strong safety. His size, physical nature and skill set make Tillman a great fit for the position and have in turn, made him one of the most consistently productive corners in the game over the past decade. Tillman averages roughly 75 solo tackles a season but he is more than just a tackling machine. Over his career he has also averaged nearly 8 takeaways and 14 passes defended a season as well. Tillman's 10 forced fumbles a year ago was an aberration, but that does not change the fact that he is the fantasy game's top corner and likely a top five defensive back overall in 2013.

Bears Left corner Tim Jennings is also a quality prospect for those in corner required leagues. His production however, more closely resembles that of a free safety in that he has less tackle opportunity than Tillman. Jennings is coming off a career season in which he totaled 9 interceptions, 21 passes defended and a touchdown along with his 55 tackles. It is highly unlikely that he will approach such gaudy interception totals again, but he should be good for about 55-60 tackles, 5-6 takeaways and 15 passes defended, sufficient to make him a quality CB2 or excellent depth.

  • SS Major Wright - Depth at best in most leagues
  • FS Christopher Conte - Minimal value at best
  • CB Charles Tillman - The most consistent and productive corner in the game
  • CB Tim Jennings - Decent CB2 or excellent depth in corner required leagues
  • CB Zackary Bowman - Injury sleeper
  • S Tom Zbikowski - No value
  • S Craig Steltz - No value

Green Bay Packers

Defensive Linemen

The Packers have thrown a lot of early draft picks at their defensive line over the past several years but not many of them have worked out. Injuries and off field issues have been much of the problem but regardless of why, the result is a unit that has not exactly distinguished itself. As a general rule with only a few exceptions, 3-4 linemen do not make good fantasy prospects. There are no Packers linemen who fall into the exception category. The only player among this group to exceed 20 tackles last season was Ryan Pickett with 27, and he failed to register a single sack. Likewise Mike Neal led the group with 4.5 sacks but had a mere 8 solo tackles.

Green Bay used their first round selection on Datone Jones in hope that he can be a difference maker at end. Jones totaled 62 tackles and 6.5 sacks for UCLA last year so there is some history of production. He made a strong showing against eventual first overall pick Eric Fisher at the senior bowl and seems to have the potential to be a 40 tackle and 4-5 sack guy. That said, history is against him so we should take a wait and see approach at best.

  • DE/NT Ryan Pickett - No value
  • DE Jerel Worthy - No value
  • NT B.J. Raji - no value
  • DE Datone Jones - Deep sleeper with limited potential
  • DE Mike Neal - No value

Linebackers

Unless they believe that Desmond Bishop was not going to be the same after his injury, the Packers decision to let him go is a real head scratcher. I realize that money was part of the equation but have to believe that letting a healthy Bishop get away was a mistake. The move leaves Green Bay with A.J. Hawk and Brad Jones as the starters on the inside. Jones is a converted outside backer who took over as the starter on the inside in week seven last season, but not before both Bishop and D.J. Smith were lost to injury. He immediately became an every down player and averaged a respectable 5.5 tackles a game, but Jones was not particularly impressive in NFL terms. Hawk has been a starter since being drafted by the Packers in 2006, but has been a two down player since the Packers went to a 3-4 a few years back. Hawk is a physical tackler and good fit as the strong inside backer. Despite the part time role, he should be able to manage tackle numbers in the 75-80 range. Unfortunately a glaring lack of big play ability (no takeaways and 4.5 sacks since 2010) will hold Hawk's box score potential to a minimum. Even with Bishop gone Hawk will be no more than bye week depth for most of us. Jones on the other hand, could turn out to be rather productive in the box scores. He is unlikely to be the long term answer at the positions but 85-90 tackles and a few big plays are reasonable expectations for 2013.

One player to keep an eye on at inside linebacker is rookie seventh round pick Sam Barrington. He is a developmental player who may rise to the starting job at some point. Barrington was second team all Big East at middle linebacker as a senior, recording 80 tackles and a handful of big plays that included 3.5 sacks. Keep an eye on him this preseason and consider Barrington a taxi squad option if you are in a deep dynasty league.

At the outside linebacker positions the Packers are in great shape, at least if they can keep everyone healthy. Clay Matthews is one of the premier 3-4 outside backers in the league. He has turned in double digit sacks in three of the past four seasons including last year when he reached 13 despite missing four games. For owners in big play based leagues Matthews is a stud. For the rest of us his career average of about 40 tackles a season make him little more than a bye week fill in.

Green Bay used their first round pick last season on Nick Perry to play opposite Matthews. Perry was off to a good start with sacks in two of his first five games before landing on IR with a wrist injury. Word is he could feel some heat from Dezman Moses who took over the job last season, but I would not count on that. More likely that is simply a motivational ploy by position coach Kevin Greene. Moses landed just 4 sacks in eleven starts. Perry is not a lock to be a 10 sack guy but he is worth a gamble as a second starter in big play leagues.

  • ILB A.J. Hawk - Depth in 12 team leagues that start 3
  • ILB Brad Jones - Low end LB2 or excellent third starter for this year at least
  • OLB Clay Mathews - Stud in big play based leagues, bye week depth for the rest of us
  • OLB Nick Perry - Potential second starter for big play leagues
  • ILB Rob Francois - Injury sleeper at best
  • ILB Sam Barrington - Dynasty sleeper
  • OLB Dezman Moses - Minimal value at best

Defensive Backs

Heading into last season many of us had high expectations for Packers free safety Morgan Burnett. With the second most tackles in the league among defensive backs and a strong big play contribution, Burnett exceeded most of those expectations. Some of his success can be attributed to the struggles of the front seven against the run, but much has to do with Burnett's skill set as an aggressive tackler with a knack for making plays. Not only have the Packers have done little to improve up front, they are also without Charles Woodson who was a major contributor a year ago. The bottom line here is that Burnett is likely to have another big season. It would be hard to argue with making him the first defensive back off the board.

M.D. Jennings and Jeron McMillan will compete for the strong safety job this summer. Jennings saw the majority of the starts and action last season but did not stay on the field in all situations. Chances are he will continue to be the starter and With Woodson gone, Jennings will likely have a full time role. It remains to be seen if he will excel in the box scores but simply having the opportunity makes him a sleeper prospect and a player to watch this preseason.

Taking Woodson out of the mix makes it tough to predict how the Green Bay corners will produce this year. He put up strong numbers for us but in reality, Woodson was not a true corner. He moved around the defense a great deal. Sometimes lining up at one of the safety positions, sometimes as the nickel corner over the slot receiver and sometimes as a true corner. The Packers have no one left with the skill set to be used in that manner, so they will likely have to go with a more typical alignment. Next to Woodson Tramon Williams has been the most productive of the corners in recent years. He has consistently been good for 50+ tackles, 15-20 passes defended and a handful of takeaways. Numbers good enough to be a quality second starter in corner required leagues. Chances are that will continue.

Second year pro Casey Hayward made an impact in his rookie season with 21 passes defended and half a dozen interceptions. If the changes help to get his tackle numbers up a bit from the 40 he posted in 2012, he could be a surprisingly strong option as a second corner. I have to think the chances of that happening are pretty good.

  • SS M.D. Jennings - sleeper with DB3 upside
  • FS Morgan Burnett - Top 5 DB who should be the first off the board at the position
  • CB Tramon Williams - Quality CB2
  • CB Casey Hayward - Sleeper with CB2 potential
  • CB Davon House - No value
  • CB Sam Shields - No Value
  • SS Jeron McMillan - No value

That does it for the NFC North. Next up the AFC South.


More from John Norton:

Eyes of the Guru: Week 9 - October 30
Eyes of the Guru: Week 8 - October 22
Eyes of the Guru: Week 7 - October 15
Eyes of the Guru: Week 6 - October 8
Eyes of the Guru: Week 5 - October 1
Eyes of the Guru: Week 4 - September 24
Eyes of the Guru: Week 3 - September 17
Eyes of the Guru: Week 2 - September 10
Eyes of the Guru: Week 1 - September 1
Eyes of the Guru: Preseason IDP Notes from Week 2 - August 22