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Eyes of the Guru Preseason, Part 4: AFC North

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

Cincinnati Bengals

Defensive Linemen

What a difference a year and a defensive coordinator can make. In 2013 the Bengals defensive front was formidable. Even with stud tackle Geno Atkins missing half of the season, they ranked tenth in the league with 43 sacks and surrendered the fifth fewest yards on the ground. Heading into last season Cincinnati was without starter Michael Johnson who had cashed in his free agent ticket to play for Tampa Bay, and Atkins was clearly not all the way back from his knee injury. Those are two important players, but the biggest loss for the Bengals was defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer who left to coach the Vikings. As a result, the run defense slid all the way to number twenty and Cincinnati's pathetic total of 20 sacks was worst in the league. Zimmer has Minnesota heading in the right direction and will not be back anytime soon, so it will be on second year defensive coordinator Paul Guenther to return the roar in Cincinnati. There is no doubt he has the horses to get it done.

Atkins was a fourth round steal in the 2010 NFL draft. He played in a limited role as a rookie going 10-6-3 with a batted pass. A significant role in season two saw his totals jump to 26-21-8 with 4 turnovers, 3 batted passes and a score. It was 2012 when Atkins exploded for 39-15-13, 3 forced fumbles and a pair of batted passes. He was the fantasy games top interior lineman that season and was among the top ten in leagues that lump the defensive line positions together. Over the first nine weeks of 2013 his tackle numbers were down, but Atkins was on pace to repeat the double digit sack total when he was lost to a knee injury. He was not the same disruptive player upon his return to action in 2014. Atkins looked tentative and lacked the explosion opponents had previously feared. There is good news here however, for both the Bengals and fantasy owners. In week eight Atkins went 3-1-1 with a forced fumble. It seemed to be a turning point for him. After that he seemed to gain more and more confidence in the knee. Atkins finished the season with numbers (20-12-2.5) that will make most fantasy owners overlook him. Use that to your advantage. Another offseason of recovery will have Atkins back at 100% health, and likely back in the fantasy spotlight as well. 30+ solo stops, double digit sacks and a handful of other big plays are a real possibility. At worst he will be a quality starting option in tackle required leagues.

Johnson cashed in his lottery ticket and signed a big money contract with Tampa Bay last offseason. When he failed to produce up to expectations, the Buccaneers released him at the end of the year. Cincinnati wasted no time bringing him home where Johnson should jump right back into his old role as a three down starter opposite Carlos Dunlap. Johnson had a career best of 11.5 sacks in 2012 but he is not the type of pass rusher who can contend for a sack title. He has produced no more than 5.5 sacks in any of his other five seasons as a pro. With the Bengals in 2013 he was 35-21-4 with 3 turnovers and an impressive 10 batted passes. His sack total that season could easily have been much better as he was credited with a big number of pressures and hits. Strangely Johnson recorded no batted passes for Tampa Bay last season, after his previous five years in Cincinnati produced 26. As a 6'7" edge rusher, there is no doubt he will have marks in that column in 2015. Johnson is an excellent run defender who sets the edge and holds his ground well. He is a better pass rusher than his recent numbers would suggest as well. What he lacks in the sack column Johnson can make up in batted passes and a healthy numbers of assists that all Bengals players enjoy. This is another player who will be underrated by most owners on draft day. He will be available in the rounds when most owners are drafting their third or even fourth linemen. Target Johnson as a priority DL3 but do not be surprised if he finds a way into your lineup every week as a second starter.

As a rookie in 2010 Carlos Dunlap was used only as a designated pass rusher in sub package situations. That led to what is still his career high of 9 sacks. An injury in 2011 set his numbers back, but he his overall production has increased steadily ever since. 2014 saw Dunlap reach career marks in tackles at 41 and assists at 25. Those, along with the 8.5 sacks, 3 turnovers and 4 batted passes, elevated him into the top twelve among defensive linemen for the first time. Chances are it will not be the last. Dunlop and Johnson give the Bengals a pair of towering defensive ends with huge wingspans. Quarterbacks will have a hard time throwing over or around them. Figure in a healthy Geno Atkins and the Bengals have a group that will feed off each other’s success. Dunlop is 26 years old and in the prime of his career physically. I believe his best football is yet to come. This could be the year he joins the 40+ tackle and double digit sack club. At worst he is a quality low end DL1 for 2015.

Tackle Domata Peko fills out the starting lineup. He is a feisty 322 pound bowling ball with a low center of gravity and a great motor. In fantasy terms Peko will never be mentioned in the same sentence with the elite defensive tackles, but he does have value. Since 2006 he has averaged 27-26-1.5, a takeaway and a pass defended. A few more solo tackles would be nice, but the generosity of the Paul Brown Stadium statistics crew when passing out assists, makes up much of the shortage. We get what we see with Peko. He is a solid consistent contributor with a high floor and a steady ceiling. Target him as a dependable second starter in tackle required leagues.

The Bengals have excellent depth up front. Brandon Thompson filled in admirably when Atkins was injured. Pat Sims is a former starter for the team. He is back in stripes after a stint with the Raiders. Even number five tackle Devon Still is good enough to be in the rotation for some teams. They are just as deep at end. Wallace Gilberry is a good veteran pass rusher who had 7.5 sacks for the team in 2013. Margus Hunt is a physical specimen with all the tools to be an outstanding three down end in the league. He was raw when the Bengals drafted him in 2013 and was beginning to shine last season before missing time with an injury. If his development continues Hunt could be something special down the road. Will Clarke was a third round pick last season. He had little opportunity as a rookie and will battle this summer to better his standing on the depth chart. As if there were not already enough competition among this group, the team added rookie Markus Hardison in round four this year. All this young man did was lead Arizona State in sacks with 10, after shifting inside for the first time in his college career. The moral to this story; if one of the Bengals starters goes down, pay attention to who replaces him.

  • DT Geno Atkins - Quality DT2 at worst, with top 5 upside
  • DT Domata Peko - Dependable DT2 or excellent third option at tackle
  • DT Devon Still - Injury sleeper at best
  • DT Brandon Thompson - Injury sleeper with limited upside
  • DT Pat Sims - Minimal value at best
  • DT Markus Hardison - Interesting dynasty prospect
  • DE Carlos Dunlap - Low end DL1 with top 5 potential
  • DE Michael Johnson - Excellent DL3 with mid DL2 potential
  • DE Wallace Gilberry - No value
  • DE Margus Hunt - High long term upside, third season might be a charm
  • DE Will Clarke - Good potential but buried on the depth chart
  • DE Sam Montgomery - Will be hard pressed to make the final roster

Linebackers

In 2013 Cincinnati gave us a top ten linebacker for the first time in at least two decades. After a solid rookie season in 2012, Vontaze Burfict exploded for 113 solo stops, 57 assists, 3 sacks, 4 takeaways, 8 passes defended and a score. He also emerged as the emotional leader of the defense as well as one of its top playmakers. Unfortunately Burfict's 2014 was a forgettable one. Instead of reconfirming his place among the fantasy elite at the position, he struggled with concussions and a bad knee. Burfict started five games, finished two and eventually landed on IR. He is currently working back from micro fracture surgery on the knee. It is expected that he will be able to play at some point in 2015, but it is far from a lock that Burfict will be on the field in week one. Regardless when he returns to action, it will be a while before the knee is completely healed.

The extensive time off will also allow Burfict to recover from a potentially serious concussion issue. His first "head injury" occurred near the end of the 2013 season. He left that game in the fourth quarter and was able to pass protocol to play the following week. In 2014 he played 23 snaps in week one before suffering what appeared to be another concussion. Burfict returned in week two only to leave early yet again. This time he missed a couple of games. He returned to play 80 of 86 snaps in week six. The handful of plays Burfict missed in that contest were due to an official sending him to the sideline when he got up woozy from a tackle. In week seven he played 27 snaps before going out with what looked like yet another "head injury". The team later reported it as a cervical strain, insisting it was not a concussion. Burfict made it through most of week eight before suffering the season ending knee injury. The knee issue is a concern as micro fracture surgery has ended some great careers. Medical technology has come a long way with the procedure over the past several years though. It may take a couple of seasons but he should make it back from the knee. If Burfict does not change his head first tackling style however, he will not be around for long. This would be a great time for dynasty owners to buy low on Burfict. There is substantial risk, but he could pay huge dividends over the long haul.

A players of Burfict's caliber is not easily replaced, but the Bengals organization has done a good job in preparation for whatever may happen. Vincent Rey looked good as a short term injury replacement in 2013. His multiple game audition as Burfict's replacement last season provided fantasy owners with some help, but his play on the field exposed some weaknesses. With the addition of free agent A.J. Hawk to the mix, Rey likely goes back to playing special teams and backing up all three linebacker spots.

Hawk has been working with the first team at Burfict's weak side position. Hawk is a seasoned veteran who has spent much of his career on the inside in a 3-4. He is not a stranger to the outside in a 4-3 however, having played in that spot early in his career. Hawk may not be a great talent, but he is a savvy veteran presence with nine seasons of starting experience. He is also an upgrade over Rey, at least versus the run. The one knock on Hawk during his long career with the Packers, was his pass coverage. He has been a three down player at times, but has been pulled in sub packages often. This trend could continue as coverage is a strength of Rey's game. Hawk has the potential to put up useful numbers, at least until Burfict is back in action. If you are in a deep drafted league Hawk is probably worthy as a late round flier. At least until we get a better feel for where the Bengals are.

Regardless how things go down, Hawk is not a long term answer for the Bengals. Rookie third round pick Paul Dawson could be. Mike Mayock summed it up perfectly on draft day. "Dawson's tape is as good as anybody's in the country. He's a little bit like Chris Borland. The question is why he wasn't a first or second round pick. He's not a tester, his measurables weren't good and there are questions about character". Let us not forget some of the same issues caused Burfict to go undrafted a few years back. Dawson is a bit undersized at 6'0" and 235. He times slow in the forty and was average in the strength tests. On the playing field it is a different story. When I look at rookie prospects, the first thing I want to see is production. Dawson passes that tests with flying colors. He was the tackle leader at TCU in each of the past two seasons. In 2013 he did it despite starting only seven games. Dawson reached double digit tackle in five of those starts. Last season his team leading 134 tackles included 20 for loss. Dawson added 4 interceptions and took home a big trophy for being the Big 12 defensive player of the year. The lack of speed probably means Dawson will not be a candidate for the weak side job. He may prove to be a long term upgrade over Rey Maualuga in the middle though. Dynasty owners in particular should take a hard look here. Dawson has a ton of long term potential and would make an excellent taxi stash. Redraft owners may want to sit tight and keep him on free agent speed dial until we see how thing go. If you choose that rout, move quickly the first time he shows us something.

It seems the Bengals have been looking to upgrade in the middle almost since Maualuga was drafted in 2009. He has been an excellent two down run stuffer and a team leader for Cincinnati, but he has not been the standout three down playmaker Marvin Lewis desires in the center of his defense. Maualuga has never recorded more than 61 solo stops in a season and has 5 career interceptions, averaging 2 total turnovers a year. He will once again enter training camp as the starter and will once again be a player most fantasy owners should avoid.

Emmanuel Lamur rounds out the lineup on the strong side. He emerged as a three down starter heading into last season and has done nothing to lose his grip on the job. Only Burfict has better cover skills among the Bengals linebackers, so Lamur is a safe bet to continue seeing sub package snaps as well. In fourteen starts last year he finished with a modest 52-39-0, adding a couple of picks and 7 passes defended. One interesting note; Lamur reached double digit fantasy points in nine of his first ten games before being banged up in 2014. Playing in fantasy purgatory on the strong side in a 4-3 will limit his opportunity enough to keep Lamur's tackle numbers in check, but once again big numbers in the assist column will help a bunch. Lamur is a good bye week filler for most of us. He should finish with 60+ tackles, approach 50 assists and sprinkle in a few big plays. Ultimately his upside is limited.  

  • MLB Vontaze Burfict - Major risk in 2014, perennial top ten long term if he can get and stay healthy
  • MLB Rey Maualuga - Minimal value at best
  • SLB Emmanuel Lamur - Three down SLB who should be a quality backup for most
  • MLB/WLB Vincent Rey - Injury sleeper who can produce if he gets on the field
  • MLB/WLB A.J. Hawk - Decent LB3 if he lands a three down role
  • MLB Paul Dawson - Sleeper/Dynasty target with big long term potential
  • MLB Nico Johnson - No value
  • WLB Marquise Flowers - No value
  • SLB Jayson DiManche - No value

Defensive Backs

Cincinnati is loaded with talent at the corner positions. This fact is evident by their 20 interceptions in 2014, which was tied for third most in the league. Even with Terence Newman moving on to Minnesota, the team still has four former first round picks filling their depth chart. Leon Hall has been a mainstay in the starting lineup since 2007. Over the first three years of his career he averaged 58 solo tackles, 14 assists, 4.5 turnovers and 20 assists. His box score totals plummeted in 2010 and have never recovered. Hall's 47 solo stops in 2014 were his most since 2009. His single interception and 7 passes defended were not enough to make up the difference.

With Newman gone, there is a starting job open entering camp. 2012 first round pick Dre Kirkpatrick, and last year's first round selection Darqueze Dennard will compete with Adam Jones who was the first round pick of the titans in 2005. Jones has been the Bengals nickel corner for the past three seasons and has been the team's most productive corner over the past two. He may ultimately be the best option to remain in the slot corner role. Regardless where he lines up, Jones is also likely to continue being the most productive among the corners. His career best 51 solo stops, 13 assists, 4 turnover and 12 passes defended were good for a ranking of 24th among corners in 2014, making Jones a low end CB2. This is about the best we can expect from any of the Cincinnati corners.

Strong safety Reggie Nelson led the Bengals secondary in tackles last season with 62. His 33 assists were the sixth most in the league among defensive backs. Since coming to Cincinnati in 2010 Nelson has consistently turned in 55 or more solo stops with at least 4 turnovers and in the area of double digit passes defended. In turn he has consistently provided fantasy owners with just enough fantasy value to be roster worthy. Nelson's finished in the area of number fifteen among defensive backs in 2014. It was the highest finish of his career, and his only top 30 ranking. The Bengals will be better at linebacker in 2015, making it unlikely Nelson will reach the 60 tackle mark again. He is a good fit in the scheme and a quality player on the field, but Nelson's fantasy value is limited to the area of DB4 or marginal third starter.

George Iloka has served as the starting free safety in Cincinnati over the past two seasons. He has been a dependable contributor on the field but has yet to make a fantasy friendly impact in the box scores. In an effort to get more from the position, the Bengals used a fourth round pick on Josh Shaw and a sixth on Derron Smith. Shaw was a corner at USC but is expected to work at free safety at the pro level. He is somewhat of a developmental project who needs to sure up some weaknesses before he is ready to hold a significant role. Smith however, could be a factor much sooner. He received second and third round grades from many scouts, falling to round six mostly due to his stature (5'10") and a recent sports hernia surgery. He was highly productive at Fresno State with 259 tackles and fifteen interceptions over his final three years as a starter. Smith can be a physical presence in run support and has excellent cover skills. The free safety position in Cincinnati has no tradition of fantasy value. Smith would have to overcome both history and Iloka to provide any value in 2015. He could be worth a taxi squad spot in deep dynasty leagues.

Cleveland Browns

Defensive Linemen

On Paper the Browns defensive line has looked strong over the past couple of years. On the field things have not exactly gone according to plan. Injuries have been the biggest issue. In 2014 Cleveland had eleven different combinations of starters along the front line. There was simply no continuity. As a result they were thirty second versus the run last year. With the additions of first round pick Danny Shelton and free agent Randy Starks, the organization hopes to resolve the issue. Shelton is penciled in behind Phil Taylor at nose tackle but that could change quickly. Taylor is a former first round selection who has struggled with injuries throughout his short career. He missed twenty games over the past three seasons including eleven in 2014. As a rookie in 2011 Taylor was impressive on the field and productive in the box scores, going 37-22-4. That was the last time he was able to play a full sixteen game schedule. In 2013 he managed to play fifteen games but the results were not even close (14-12-2).

From both a physical and talent perspective Taylor and Shelton are similar players. Both are big powerful space eaters who are a couple of milk shakes shy of 340 pounds. Neither of them are considered fast but they are quick for their size, play with leverage and have the potential to dominate the line of scrimmage. One thing that catches my eye about Shelton, he was the Huskie's second leading tackler last season with 93 total stops (53 solo). This is unheard of for an interior lineman and is not something he is likely to repeat at the pro level. He added 9 sacks as a senior at Washington which is another statistic he will not be matching in Cleveland. If he can unseat Taylor during camp, Shelton has the potential to be a dominating nose tackle on the field and one of the top interior linemen in the fantasy game. 40+ solo stops and 4-5 sacks are not unreasonable expectations. There is also a chance that Taylor could slip outside to end in some situations, putting both big men on the field together. Both of these players have the potential to provide decent value for owner in tackle required leagues. Shelton has the upside to be a perennial top 5.

The Browns used a lot of players at defensive end last season. Injuries played a part in this fact, as did the team's struggles to stop the run. Entering training camp Desmond Bryant is pretty much locked in at one of the starting spots. His best box score production came in 2011 when Bryant was 30-5-5 as a defensive tackle in Oakland. He has been banged up a bit during his two seasons in Cleveland, making 27 starts for the team over that span. In fifteen games last season Bryant was 25-23-5 with a fumble recovery. The solo tackle numbers leave plenty to be desired, but Browns stats crew has been generous with assists over the past few years. Bryant is a player with some upside. If the team plays well around him, we could see 35 tackles and 6-7 sacks out of him in 2015. Add in 25 or so assists and Bryant could be one of those 3-4 end worth a roster spot in most leagues.

Randy Starks, Billy Winn, John Hughes, Armonty Bryant and rookie Xavier Cooper will all be in the mix for the starting spot opposite Bryant. Winn and Hughes are both solid run defenders who provide little in terms of pass rush pressure. Both have been given plenty of opportunity to prove themselves and have fallen short. Armonty Bryant is an interesting prospect. After playing sparingly over his first two years in the league, the coaching staff saw him as a potential breakout player in 2014. His first start came in week five against the Titans last season. Bryant was 3-3-1 in that game and seemed to be gaining speed before a season ending injury shut him down after week six. He will get a look at outside linebacker this summer and may be changing positions. Cooper needs to improve at the point of attack before he can be considered for a starting role, but he could see time right away as a pass rusher. In three seasons at Washington state he totaled 70-22-13.

Starks would appear to be the Browns best option entering camp. The twelve year veteran has been a starting tackle for the Titans and Dolphins for most of his career, but has had a taste of 3-4 end along the way. Starks had 42 solo tackles and 7 sacks for Miami in 2009 but has averaged just 26-10-3.5 as season. He will help the Browns improve versus the run and will contribute a few sacks along the way, but is unlikely to hold much fantasy value.

Linebackers

Cleveland has historically given fantasy owners good value at the linebacker positions. Last season was an exception as Craig Robertson led the team's linebackers with 57 solo tackles. The lack of production from Karlos Dansby was the biggest shock. Dansby missed four games with an injury but was on pace to finish with a modest 63-63-4 had he played a full schedule. Based on his poor production last season and the fact that he will be 34 in November, there are those who will argue Dansby is over the hill and in decline. To this I say poppycock. Let those owners pass on him so you can grab him at a bargain price in later rounds. This is a player who had 112 solo tackles, 6 sacks, 5 takeaways, a whopping 19 passes defended and a couple of scores in 2013. The main contributor to his poor numbers last year was a defensive line that struggled greatly. The front three did a poor job of keeping the linebacker clean. Thus Dansby had guards in his face often and had to fight through a lot of traffic. I am not saying he will get back to triple digit solo tackles in 2015. No Browns defender recorded more than 68 last season. I am simply saying his down season was not a sign of decline and he will rebound nicely in 2015. The Cleveland stats crew is among the most generous in the league in terms of awarding assists. I expect somewhere in the area of 80 solo stops with enough assists and big play production to make Dansby a quality second starter again in 2015.

Robertson and rookie Christian Kirksey shared the inside linebacker position next to Dansby last season. Kirksey saw the majority of playing time on early downs with Robertson drawing nearly all of the sub package duties. Neither of them reached 700 snaps and they were both mostly useless to fantasy owners. There is one camp who believe Kirksey will eventually replace Dansby as the every down centerpiece for this defense. There is another camp where he is seen as no more than a two down thumper in the mold of former Brown Andra Davis. I am somewhere in between with Kirksey but will say that Robertson is not the answer as a three down starter. It is entirely possible the coaching staff wanted Kirksey to have some seasoning before installing him in an every down role. The good news is, we should have an answer to this riddle fairly soon. Now that Kirksey has a year under his belt, if the coaching staff does indeed see him as the guy he will be in a three down role right out of the gate. Kirksey was relatively productive on a per snap basis in 2014. He finished at 47-34-2 on less than 59% of the team's defensive snaps. He is worthy as a late round stash on the end of your roster until we get an answer.

The Browns seem to have found an answer at one of their outside linebacker positions in 2013 free agent addition Paul Kruger. After spending the first four years of his career as a backup and rotational player in Baltimore, he became an immediate full time starter for the Browns. His first season with the team came with marginal results (26-21-4.5) but Kruger exploded in his second year, posting career highs in tackles with 36, sacks at 12 and turnovers with 5. His play and production were among the few bright spots for the Browns in 2014. Kruger produced a respectable 18.5 sacks in the three years prior to last, so there is no reason to believe he was a one year wonder. 35+ solo stops and double digit sacks could become the norm for him. In big play based leagues Kruger is going to be a valuable commodity. For those of us who need good tackle numbers to make the player, he will be little more than a bye week flier.

The starting spot opposite Kruger is up for grabs. The organization expects 2013 first round pick Barkevious Mingo to step up and claim the job, but they drafted Nate Orchard in round two this year just in case. As a rookie Mingo recorded 29 tackles and 5 sacks, showing glimpses of a bright future. In 2014 he took a step back, finishing at 26-16-2. He was a great talent coming out of LSU and seems to have a perfect skill set to be productive as an outside rusher in a 3-4. It is anyone's guess what we will get from him this year. The fact Cleveland let Jabaal Sheard leave via free agency has to be seen as a vote of confidence from the organization though.

If Mingo wants to keep the starting job he had best not mess around at all. Orchard comes to the NFL with some impressive credentials. As a senior at Utah he won the Ted Hendricks award as the best defensive end in college football. He tied a school record with 4 sacks in one game (versus UCLA) and set a school record with 18.5 sacks on the season, which also tied for the FBS lead. Orchard was second team All-American and first team All-Pac-12. He was even second on the team with 84 tackles. The only knock on him entering the draft was his run defense. At 250 pounds, Orchard was a little light for an every down end. That should not have such an effect as a stand up linebacker. At the least he should see time as a designated pass rusher during his rookie campaign. Orchard has the potential to develop into an excellent three down option in the long term.

Defensive Backs

Cleveland safeties have been lacking in box score production over the past several years. We have to look all the way back to 2010 to find one who has posted more than the 68 solo stops Donte Whitner recorded last season. Even with the Browns struggles in the front seven and the generous 37 assists he was awarded, Whitner was only able to manage a ranking in the high twenties. In NFL terms he is a dependable in the box veteran strong safety. In fantasy terms Whitner has rarely lived up to his potential. In fact, the 68 solo stops last year equaled his second best career total. His one breakout season was in 2010 when Whitner piled up a mark of 95-44-.5. Even then marginal big play production kept him down at number five in the rankings. The Cleveland defense should show considerable improvement overall in 2015. Thus Whitner will have fewer opportunities. Marginal production and limited upside are all the reason we need to pass on draft day.

In 2013 free safety Tashaun Gipson went 63-31-0 in the tackle columns. His 5 interceptions, 11 passes defended and a score made up a lot of ground in the overall point totals. Last season he was on an even better pace in the big play columns with 6 interceptions, 8 passes defended and a score in eleven games. Unfortunately his tackle production plummeted. Gipson was on pace for 40 solo stops and 35 assists. With 11 interceptions in his last 27 games, Gipson has established himself as one of the leagues premier playmakers at the position. One would think his tackle totals will bounce back at least some in 2015. With only two years as a starter, we have not seen enough of a track record to say that for certain. Gipson will have some value in deep leagues and those who overvalue big plays. Those of us desiring the consistency that comes from tackle production will want to look elsewhere.

Dynasty owners will want to keep an eye on fourth round pick Ibraheim Campbell. The rookie has some things to work on before he can challenge for a starting job, but he has some potential. Campbell was a productive four year starter at Northwestern where he recorded 10 career interceptions, forced 6 fumbles and defended 27 passes. He has the size and skill set to be a solid in the box strong safety at the pro level.

While the safety position has given us no more than marginal production over the past few years, Cleveland corners have been much more fantasy friendly. Veteran Joe Haden narrowly missed his first 60 solo tackle season in 2014. Had he not missed a game, that likely would have happened. If he had not missed four games in 2012, Haden would have given us 50+ tackles in four of his five seasons as a pro. Those are not great numbers but once we add in his average of nearly 20 pass breakups and 5 turnovers a year, his overall point totals look pretty good. Haden was the number six corner in 2014 and has been among the top twenty in four of his five seasons as a pro. The only exception being 2012 when he was suspended for three games and missed a fourth with injury. His year to year production has been consistent and there is no reason to expect a change in 2015. Pick up Haden as a solid low end CB1 or excellent second starter.

When the Browns used a first round pick on Justin Gilbert last year, it was widely speculated that he would step right in as the starter opposite Haden. Instead Gilbert was unable to beat out Buster Skrine for the starting spot. Gilbert gained experience while working mostly as the third corner during his rookie season. At times the Cleveland coaching staff seemed to favor undrafted rookie K'Waun Williams over Gilbert. Skrine has moved on via free agency but instead of promoting Gilbert to the starting role, the Browns signed former Green Bay starter Tramon Williams to handle the job.

On the field Williams has been a quality cover man for the Packers since earning the starting job in 2008. He has consistently been productive in the box scores as well. Williams has 50 or more solo stops in six of the last seven seasons (61 in each of the last two), averaging almost 6 takeaways and 15 passes defended. When a corner changes teams it often means a big difference in production. That may not be the case with Williams. Consider that Skrine posted 71,55 and 55 solo tackles in his three years as the Browns starter, averaging 17 passes defended and posting 6 takeaways. If anything Williams owners may enjoy an increase in his point totals in 2015.

  • CB Joe Haden - Low end CB1 or excellent second starter in corner required leagues
  • CB Tramon Williams - Quality second starter with low end CB1 potential
  • CB Justin Gilbert - No value at this point
  • CB K'Waun Williams - No value
  • SS Donte Whitner - Target as a DB4 with low end DB3 upside
  • FS Tashaun Gipson - Depth in large leagues or possible starter in big play based scoring
  • SS Ibraheim Campbell - Dynasty sleeper

Baltimore Ravens

Defensive Linemen

Fantasy value among Baltimore defensive linemen basically comes down to one ultra important factor. What is the positional designation of Terrell Suggs in your league? If your software places him at outside linebacker, there is not much here for you. If Suggs is a defensive end however, the Ravens give you a quality starter with top five potential. Suggs will be 33 years old in October. Coming off a 12 sack season, it is obviously not yet time to be concerned with his age. The 36 solo tackles he recorded last season were actually a little low for Suggs, who has averaged 47.5 over his career. Baltimore is another of the teams that is awarded excessive amounts of assists, so his total points from the tackle columns is more than adequate. It is safe to expect 40+ tackles, 25 or more assists and double digit sacks from Suggs again in 2015.

If we take Suggs out of the mix, Baltimore provided little production up front in 2014. Nose tackle Brandon Williams led the charge with 24 solo tackles and 23 assists, but recorded half a sack. Timmy Jernigan led the linemen with 4 sacks, but was 11-12-4 overall. Chris Canty started opposite Haloti Ngata last year. He was on the bench in most passing situations and missed 5 games with injury. In the other eleven games he recorded more than 2 solo stops once, reaching 6 fantasy points 4 times but never hitting double digits.

Jernigan is an interesting prospect going forward. Last year's second round pick is expected to claim the starting spot vacated by Ngata's move to Detroit. His season totals from last year were rather insignificant until we consider Jernigan missed four games and played only 330 snaps. He will have significantly more opportunity in 2015. It is also worth mentioning he recorded all four sacks in the final seven games. Early signs suggest the Ravens may have something in this young man. If Suggs is a linebacker, Jernigan is the only Baltimore lineman worthy of any fantasy consideration. He may be worth a late/last round flier but will be available as a waiver addition in most leagues if he starts hot.

Linebackers

Ray Lewis can never be replaced in the hearts of Ravens fans. C.J. Mosley is sure doing a good job of replacing him in the box score though. As a rookie Mosley totaled 87-45-3 with 3 takeaways, 8 passes defended and a top five final ranking among linebackers. Those numbers are better than Lewis's 94-16-2.5 with 1 pick and 6 passes defended as a rookie in 1996. Expecting Mosley to blow up for 155 solo stops in his second season like Lewis did may be a stretch, but he is going to get better. Mosley is 23 years old and not yet at his peak physically, not to mention the plus that comes with experience. He is already on the cusp of joining the elite. I expect he will do so in 2015. In fact, I will go out on a limb and predict Mosley to be the top linebacker in the fantasy game this season. At worst he is a quality LB1 looking at a top five repeat.

In 2013 the Ravens signed Daryl Smith to a one year deal, expecting him to be a veteran option as depth at inside linebacker. Smith took the opportunity and ran with it. He quickly proved to be much more than the team expected, winning the starting job before the season opener. Smith impressed so much in fact, that he was signed to an extension last offseason. He is not the tackling machine that Mosley is, but Smith brings a lot to the table. Experience, leadership, coverage skills and play making ability are among his positive traits. In fantasy terms Smith's 2013 production was a bit unusual in that he totaled over 210 points despite finishing with just 57 solo tackles. His 66 assists, 18 passes defended, 5 sacks and 5 takeaways were enough to push Smith into the top fifteen. His tackle numbers got a boost last year but Smith dropped off significantly in the big play columns. Despite his drop in overall points, Smith repeated the top fifteen finish in 2014. He is an excellent compliment to Mosley and at age 33, still has a couple of good years left. Smith gets no respect from most owners on draft day. Despite the quality point totals in each of the last two seasons, he has not been among the first 25 linebacker picked in most drafts this summer. This is a solid second starter or excellent number three who can be had at the cost of a quality LB4 in many cases. Take advantage of the bargain if you get a chance.

Versatility makes Terrell Suggs a priceless tool for the Ravens. His unique ability to rush, cover, defend the run and make plays as both a 3-4 outside linebacker and a 4-3 end, gives the coaching staff plenty of options. The debate over his positional designation has gone on for years and will continue until he retires. Suggs has outstanding value as a defensive end. If he is designated a linebacker, that value takes a big hit. In league that emphasize big plays he will still be a quality option. In balanced or tackle heavy formats, Suggs is no more than a marginal matchup based play or bye week flier.

There is no question that Elvis Dumervil and Courtney Upshaw are outside linebackers. These two will continue to see significant playing time at the position with Upshaw playing mostly on early downs while Dumervil gets most of the passing down opportunity. This rotation worked well for the Ravens in 2014 when Upshaw was 25-17-1 while Dumervil finished at 25-10-17. If we could combine their totals we would have one heck of a fantasy option in any format. As it is, Dumervil is the only one with value and his value is largely dependent on the scoring system. We should not count on a repeat of the huge sack totals but double digits are well within the realm of expectations.

Defensive Backs

Neither the Ravens nor fantasy owners were happy with the production from the safety position in 2014. 2012 first round pick Matt Elam and veteran free agent addition Darian Stewart opened the season as the starters. By the end of the year seven players had seen action at those spots as the coaching staff shuffled guys around in search of the right combination. They never seemed to find one that worked. Stewart led the team's safeties with 37 solo stops while all seven players combined for all of 3 interceptions. Elam was benched in week ten and Stewart will be playing in Denver this year.

The Ravens signed journeyman Kendrick Lewis to play strong safety. He has been a starter for the Chiefs and Texans but I am not sure he is an upgrade on the field. It is seriously doubtful he will be a significant upgrade in the box scores. In five seasons as a pro Lewis has never totaled more than 52 solo tackles. He is coming off a career best of 6 takeaways after averaging fewer than 3 over the previous four years.

Elam will be part of the competition at free safety where Will Hill is thought to be the clear cut favorite entering camp. Hill is a former undrafted free agent who started his career in 2012 with the Giants. In 2013 he posted a solid mark of 60-17-0 with 5 takeaways in twelve games with New York. It was Hill who took over when Elam was benched late last season. The Ravens safety position have long been void of fantasy value. Even the great Ed Reed was a marginal option during most of his career. Hill has shown enough potential to warrant putting him on the watch list, but I would not advise drafting any of these guys. They will be available on the waiver wire when the season opens. If someone starts hot we can pick him up in weeks two or three.

In 2013 both Jimmy Smith and Lardarius Webb were productive enough to be roster worthy in corner required leagues. Smith as a decent backup coming in around number thirty in the final point totals, and Webb as a solid starter finishing inside the top twelve. Both players missed time with injury in 2014 but even when they were healthy their numbers were way down. Webb has been wildly inconsistent from year to year, with a pair of top fifteen finishes over his six year career. There is a chance he will have a strong 2015 but it is just as likely he will land outside the top 40 for the fourth time in seven seasons. Pass on both Smith and Webb when draft day arrives but have Webb on the free agent speed dial in case he opens the season hot.

Kyle Arrington comes over from New England to work as the nickel corner. He has a history of solid production whenever he has held a full time job. Both Webb and Smith have a battled injuries often during their careers, so Arrington could have an opportunity at some point. Rookie Tray Walker will compete with second year pro Rashaan Melvin for a spot in the dime sub packages. Melvin started three games at the end of last season, posting 13 solo tackles, 4 assists, a forced fumble and a pass defended. It is a small sample but leaves room for optimism should he get an opportunity at some point.           

Pittsburgh Steelers

Defensive Linemen

Unlike most NFL teams these days, the Steelers do not use a lot of players in a rotation up front. There were five players who saw virtually all of the defensive line snaps in 2014. Steve McClendon is locked in at the nose tackle position when the defense calls for one. Pittsburgh is among a number of 3-4 teams that pull the nose tackle in sub packages, going with two linemen. McClendon was the only player to see significant action at nose tackle, he played a total of 331 snaps. Needless to say, that is not enough opportunity for him to have an impact in the box scores.

Cam Thomas opened last season as the starting left end, sharing time almost equally with veteran Brett Keisel, while rookie second round pick Stephon Tuitt worked in for a few snaps a game. As it got deeper into the season, Tuitt began to see a bit more action. When Keisel was injured in week thirteen, Tuitt took over his spot as the third end. when all the numbers were in, Thomas, Keisel and Tuitt had all played between 451 and 456 snaps. Again, not enough opportunity for any of them to make an impact in the box scores. With Keisel gone, Tuitt and Thomas will once again share the position with rookie sixth round pick Anthony Chickillo and career backup Clifton Geathers competing for scraps behind them.

The one player of significance here is Cameron Heyward who was on the field for 929 (92%) of the team's 1010 defensive plays in 2014. Over the past two seasons Heyward has emerged as one of the more box score friendly 3-4 ends in the game. In 2013 he went 35-24-5 with 8 batted passes and a fumble recovery. Heyward followed up with 33-19-7.5 and 4 batted passes last season. He is a quick, athletic, 288 pound big man the stamina to be effective while playing nearly every down. He is not your typical 3-4 road block who simply looks to occupy space and eat up blockers. Heyward is not yet at the level of a Calais Campbell who has become a perennial stud. At age 26, Heyward has both the potential and the time to reach that point in the near future. For now he is a worthy low end second starter in most leagues.

  • NT Steve McClendon - No value
  • NT Daniel McCullers - No value
  • DE Cameron Heyward - Low end DL2 with some long term upside
  • DE Cam Thomas - No value
  • DE Stephon Tuitt - No value at this time
  • DE Anthony Chickillo - No value
  • DE Clifton Geathers - No value

Linebackers

The Steelers youth movement at linebacker started in 2013 With the drafting of outside backer Jarvis Jones in the first round. They then added inside linebacker Ryan Shazier in round one last season. Pittsburgh continues to get younger and more talented at the second level by adding outside backer Bud Dupree in round one this year. Dupree has the perfect skill set to be highly successful in the Steelers aggressive scheme. At 6'4" and 269 pounds, he has the size and strength to set the edge versus the run. For a man of that size he is an athletic freak. Dupree blew up the combine starting with a 4.56 in the forty yard dash and a 42 inch vertical jump. He was a team captain in 2014, but it is Dupree's production during his college career that is most telling. He started 38 games over his four years at Kentucky, totaling 23.5 sacks (7.5 in 2014) and was the Wildcats second leading tackler as a senior. Dupree will be given every opportunity to win a starting job right away. If he is able to capitalize on that opportunity, he could be a quality contributor for owners in big play based leagues in 2015. There is little doubt he has a long bright future ahead of him in Pittsburgh.

After being selected with the seventeenth overall pick in 2013, Jarvis Jones career has gotten off to a rocky start. His rookie season opened with Jones as a starter. After a few games it was apparent he was not quite ready. Jones spent much of that season in a part time role before seeing his playing time increase late in the year. He finished an uneventful rookie campaign with just one sack. Jones reclaimed the starting spot last summer and his second season started much better. In 2014 he recorded sacks in two of the first three games. Unfortunately he landed on short term injured reserve after a week three injury. Jones played some in December but was not able to rekindle the flame. He enters year three healthy and with the same big expectations that accompany a recent first round pick. Jones has the talent and skill set to be one of the leagues outstanding rush linebackers. This could be the year he breaks out. Owners in big play based league should have him high on the sleeper list.

When the Steelers drafted Shazier last year, it was widely anticipated that he would step right in as both a starter for Pittsburgh and for fantasy owners. He earned the starting nod early in camp, then opened the season with 11 tackles, 6 assists and a pass defended in the first two games. just when it seemed he was on the way to a productive debut, Shazier went down in week three. Officially he missed seven games. The fact is, he was never healthy again for the rest of the season. Shazier has all the traits NFL teams look for. Exceptional speed, athleticism, playmaking ability, leadership and a history of outstanding production. He led the Buckeyes in tackles over each of his final two seasons there, and led big Ten in tackles in 2013. He is equally effective as a blitzer or in coverage. It will come a year later than we initially expected, but Shazier should prove to be a quality option for fantasy owners. His issues as a rookie will do nothing but cause him to fall a few rounds further than he should. Target Shazier as a solid third starter with LB2 potential.

In 2012 Lawrence Timmons took over as the centerpiece of the Steelers defense. He is a talented player with the ability to rush the passer, cover tight ends and running backs in the passing game and stand up strong against the run. 2010 was his most productive statistical season. That year he finished with career highs in tackles at 96 as well as passes defended with 10, adding 6 takeaways and 3 sacks. Solid tackle numbers have been the staple of his fantasy value over the past five years, but strong big play numbers have made Timmons a consistent top twenty linebacker. Between 2008 and 2013 he averaged 4 takeaways and 4.5 sacks a season. Over his first two seasons as the lead linebacker (2012-2013) he totaled 10 turnovers and 9 sacks. Last year Timmons tackle totals were normal at 88-45, but he failed to record a turnover for the first time since his rookie season in 2007, and matched a low of 2 sacks. There is too much track record here for this to be anything more than a fluke. Expect a bounce back in 2015 and target Timmons no lower than a priority LB3 with upside.

It took two full seasons but Sean Spence finally made it back from the major knee injury that ended his rookie campaign before it started. He moved into the lineup for several games last season while Shazier recovered. Spence was an adequate replacement, falling well short of the expectations that followed him as a rookie. He will continue to work as the top backup to both inside positions, but we learned last year not to get overly excited if he is forced into a starting role.

Pittsburgh's depth on the outside comes in the form of 37 year old James Harrison and veteran journeyman Arthur Moats. Harrison was once a force for the Steelers. He is still able to contribute but the team does not want to depend on him as an every down starter. Moats came over from Buffalo last year and played pretty well in a part time role, posting a career best of 4 sacks and 3 turnovers. In the event that one of the young guys struggle on the outside or are injured, Moats would likely become the starter. He could be a pleasant surprise.

Defensive Backs

By design the Steelers zone blitz scheme requires corners play a great deal of man to man. Their philosophy is to have the front seven get quick pressure on the passer so the secondary only has to cover for a short time. Defensive backs are most often expected to play it safe in an effort to limit big plays. The result of this approach is that Pittsburgh corners generally produce respectable tackle numbers but are light in the big play columns. William Gay was somewhat of an exception to the rule in 2014 when he led all Steelers defensive backs with 58 tackles and led the team with 3 picks. Miraculously, Gay returned all three of his interceptions for scores, boosting his point totals all the way into the top five. The odds of his repeating such a feat are about equal to my chances of winning the Mega Millions lottery. That said, Gay has totaled at least 55 solo stops in consecutive years, has 3 takeaways in each of the past two seasons and has averaged double digit passes defended since 2009. He is unlikely to repeat as a top five corner but should be a quality second starter in leagues that break out the defensive back positions.

Officially the Steelers will have an open competition for the starting corner jobs this summer. It would be a shock if Gay were not one of them. He is likely to be paired with Cortez Allen in the base alignment. Through week eight of last season Allen was well on the way to by far the most productive year of his young career, when injury struck. In half a season Allen was 36-5-0 with 2 picks, a fumble recovery and 11 passes defended. The 2011 fourth round pick spent much of his first four years as the Steelers slot corner, where he was surprisingly productive considering the part time role. We can afford to be patient here but once we confirm his full time role, if Allen starts strong in September it will not be a mirage. Keep him on the free agent short list when the season opens.

Rookie second round pick Senquez Golson will be in the mix for a starting spot this summer. This young man set a school record at Mississippi last year with 10 interceptions and 16 passes deflections. He was a first team All-American and first team All-SEC selection. He has good speed, polished technique in coverage and is willing in run support. In fact, the only negative thing scouts had to say about Golson, he is too small. At 5'8" 176 pounds, he struggled against tall physical receivers. There are  several of those in the AFC North. He could however, be an excellent fit as the Steelers slot corner. There are more than enough good things about Golson for us to keep an eye on him once training camp opens.

Several other corners will be in the mix for the final two roster spots at the position. Unless he totally flops, fourth round rookie Doran Grant is all but certain to make the final roster. Coming from Ohio State he has plenty of experience as a press corner, which makes him a good fit in Pittsburgh. Doran has the potential to develop into a starter in a year or two.

Michael Mitchell replaced longtime starting free safety Clark at last year. For the Steelers it was business as usual with Mitchell doing a good job backing everyone up and allowing Troy Polamalu to improvise. Mitchell was a fine replacement on the field but like Clark, the responsibility of keeping everything in front of him made it difficult for Mitchell to excel in the box scores. This was not at all unexpected as Mitchell has never been much of a fantasy option. With the retirement of Polamalu it will be interesting to see if the Steelers approach the game differently in respect to how their safeties are used.

When Pittsburgh drafted Shamarko Thomas in 2013 it was expected he would be groomed to eventually replace Polamalu. We have not seen much of Thomas over the past two seasons, so it is tough to gauge how he will perform. Judging by the lack of roster additions at the position, it is obvious the organization has confidence in the third year pro. We did get a glimpse of Thomas during his rookie season when he made a few starts as an injury replacement. At first impression he reminded me a little of former Colts safety Bob Sanders by the way he flew around the field with reckless abandon and was always around the ball. It would be great to see that from Thomas as a full time starter, but I am not counting on it. I am struggling to get Past the fact it had been ten years since Polamalu last put up more than 64 solo stops. Thomas is on my sleeper list and is worthy as a late round sleeper with DB3 or better upside, but he is far from a lock.

That is going to do it for the AFC North, up next NFC East.