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Eyes of the Guru Preseason Part 1: AFC North

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

Welcome to the twenty first season of the Eyes of the Guru series. Those who have been with us for a few years know what the EOTG is all about. For the newcomers in the crowd; each year about this time I start passing along my thoughts and expectations for individual defensive players. Starting here the AFC North and my hometown Bengals, I will tour the league over the next several weeks covering everything from rookie additions to scheme changes, what effect they will have in the box scores and who you should be targeting on draft day. For reference, when I mention where players finished in the rankings last season, my model will be the standard Footballguys scoring system.

Tackles = 1.5
Assists = .75
Sacks = 4
Forced fumbles = 3
Fumble recoveries = 3
Interceptions = 4
Passes defended = 1.5
Touchdowns = 6

Keep in mind that based on scoring systems, rankings will vary (sometimes greatly) from league to league. From time to time I will reference the "rookie corner rule". For those who are new to IDP or the EOTG, 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 players are the cream of the crop at the position (which is why they are starting so soon) and their numbers will begin to drop after their rookie seasons. When I mention tackle numbers, I do not lump assists and solo tackles together. Unless I make a reference one way or the other, I am talking about solo tackles. When I talk about a total number of takeaways for a player, I am counting interceptions, fumble recoveries and fumbles forced since all of these score very similarly in most scoring systems.

Cincinnati Bengals

Defensive Linemen

The Bengals return all four starters to a front line which accounted for 35.5 of the team's 42 sacks in 2015. Defensive end Carlos Dunlap led the way with a career best 13.5 in his breakout season. He had 9 as a rookie in 2010 while serving mostly as a nickel pass rusher, and had averaged just over 8 through the first five years of his career. This will have some fantasy owners thinking Dunlap's big 2015 was somewhat of an anomaly. Do not be one of those owners. This is a player who is just reaching his full potential. His personal goal for 2016 is to set a new single season sack record. Expecting him to reach that lofty goal would be a big stretch but a repeat of last year's production is not. At age 27 Dunlap is in the prime of his career physically. He is surrounded by a talented supporting cast which makes it difficult for opponents to emphasize him in their game plan. Since becoming a three down starter during the 2012 season, Dunlap has consistently recorded tackle numbers in the 37-41 range, has at least 7.5 sacks in each season, forced a dozen fumbles and recovered 6. He has even batted down 17 passes and scored twice since 2011. The sack record may be a reach but a sack title for 2016 is not out of the question. Dunlap was a top five defensive lineman in 2015. He is a safe bet to repeat and should be among the top five off the board at the position this year.

Michael Johnson is a player who should not be overlooked by fantasy owners. Last year's production of 29 tackles, 13 assists and 5 sacks seems rather pedestrian. This is especially true when considering the awful stat line he posted in Tampa Bay in 2014 of 20-7-4. Johnson's story goes deeper than his recent numbers and he is a better player than they would suggest. His best year was 2012 when he finished with 36 solo stops, 17 assists and 11.5 sacks. In 2013 Johnson's tackle numbers were about the same at 35-21 but his sack total plummeted to 4. What a lot of people fail to recognize from that season is the 10 passes he swatted down. Just like the year before he was all over the passer with pressure. His year with the Buccaneers was a disaster on a number of levels. He was not a good fit in the scheme and was not healthy for much of the season. The knee problem which plagued him in 2014 lingered into last season and was compounded by a problematic back. Still Johnson's numbers rebounded enough to make him a solid DL3 option in most fantasy leagues in 2015. Johnson says both the knee and back issues are behind him now and he is feeling completely healthy for the first time since 2013. If his health holds up we should see his numbers continue to rise. Target him as a third lineman in most leagues and expect 35+ tackles with 7-8 sacks, a few batted passes and a handful of turnovers.

In Geno Atkins and Domata Peko the Bengals have an excellent interior line tandem. Peko is not much of a factor in fantasy terms. At 6'3" and 325 pounds he is the anchor of the run defense where he often lines up over the center or in the center/guard gap, forcing offenses to commit two blockers. Peko has the power to push the pocket and enough quickness to grab the quarterback when he is flushed. Those traits and the pressure applied by the rest of the cast helped Peko to a career high 5 sacks in 2015. Prior to last season he had never recorded more than 3. Like many interior linemen however, lacking tackle totals will limit his worth. The statistics crew at Paul Brown Stadium tends to be generous with assists so Peko can usually be counted on for around 25 tackles, 20 assists and 3 sacks. Those numbers make him a decent option as depth at tackle in leagues that break out the defensive line positions, but there is not much upside.

Geno Atkins is a rare commodity. At 6'1" and 300 pounds he combines a powerful frame and low center of gravity with exceptional athleticism to make him a nightmare for offensive linemen. It took Atkins a couple of years to come all the way back from the 2013 knee injury. After a slow 2014 in which he was clearly not 100%, he was second on the team with 11 sacks last year. Atkins added 31 tackles, 11 assist and a forced fumble to finish as the fantasy game's number four tackle. Anyone who thinks he cannot further improve those totals need only look back to the season before the injury. In 2012 Atkins was a top three interior lineman with 39 tackles, 15 assists, 13 sacks and 3 forced fumbles. He is 28 years old and barring injury he will be a perennial top five tackle over the next few years. In 2015 Atkins finished around number twenty in leagues that lump all defensive linemen together. I look for him to add a few tackles to last year's totals and finish in the top fifteen this season.

The Bengals have the luxury of excellent depth up front. Margus Hunt was a raw talent when the team made him their second round pick in 2013. He has not seen much game action thus far in his career but the loss of Wallace Gilberry to free agency could be Hunt's opportunity. He will compete with 2014 third round pick Will Clarke for the opportunity to replace Gilberry as the Bengals third end. Both players have the talent to eventually become starters but neither has shown us much in their limited roles to date. Brandon Thompson and Pat Sims provide quality veteran depth at tackle. Both players have starting experience and enough talent to be starters for some teams, but neither has provided much value for fantasy owners. Cincinnati drafted Andrew Billings in round four this year. He is seen by many as a younger version of Peko and will be groomed to possibly take over that position in the next couple of years.

DT Geno Atkins - Top five tackle, top twenty defensive lineman.
DT Domata Peko - Solid depth in leagues starting two tackles
DT Brandon Thompson - Minimal value at best
DT Pat Sims - Minimal value
DT Andrew Billings - Rookie with limited upside
DT Markus Hardison - No value
DE Carlos Dunlap - Top five defensive end
DE Michael Johnson - Decent DE2 or excellent depth with upside
DE Margus Hunt - Injury sleeper
DE Will Clarke - Injury sleeper

Linebackers

The linebacker situation in Cincinnati remains a bit murky heading into training camp. We know who the main characters will be but their roles are not only unclear; they are subject to change come week four. When he is not injured or suspended Vontaze Burfict is one of the leagues outstanding young linebackers and a top ten fantasy option. Unfortunately he can sometimes be his own worst enemy. He went undrafted in 2012 due to both off field issues and an inability to control his emotions on the field. The Bengals gave him a chance and he rewarded them with an outstanding 2013 seasons. That year Burfict was a top ten fantasy linebacker finishing with 113 solo stops, 57 assists, 3 sacks, 8 passes defended, 4 turnovers and a defensive touchdown. In the two seasons since he has missed more games (17) than he has played (15). A knee injury which required micro-fracture surgery gets the blame for most of his games missed but there have been some concussion issues as well. Burfict finished last season healthy but will miss the first three games this year due to a suspension. He was flagged a number of times during the 2015 campaign for unsportsmanlike conduct in the form of late and/or dangerous hits. The final straw being a head shot on a defenseless receiver that contributed greatly to the Bengals playoff loss. If Burfict can get his head on straight and clean up his game, he has the ability to be a perennial top ten linebacker.

The Bengals picked up soon to be thirty five year old Karlos Dansby to help fill the void while Burfict is out. Dansby enters his thirteenth season and is clearly in the twilight of an excellent career, but he still has something to offer. Excellent versatility makes him a perfect fit for the situation. Dansby has excelled at all three linebacker positions in four man fronts during his career, and has played well at both strong and weak inside linebacker in three man fronts. Chances are he will open the season as Burfict's replacement on the weak side, with Rey Maualuga on the strong side and Vincent Rey in the middle. The question is what will the Bengals do with Dansby when Burfict returns?

Maualuga has performed well in his transition from middle to the strong side. He will likely remain there. Rey has done a solid job at middle backer where he has been a starter for much of the past two seasons. Anything can happen here but my guess is Dansby moves inside in week four sending Rey to the bench. My fear being a time share in which Dansby plays on early downs and Rey in the sub packages as he did late last season when Burfict came back. What we do know is both Dansby and Rey have the ability to put up good numbers. Dansby has 90 or more solo tackles in five of the last eight seasons and is a proven playmaker averaging 3.5 sacks, 4 turnovers and 6 passes defended over his career. Even at age 34 he accounted to 6 turnovers, 6 passes defended and a pair of scores for the Browns last year. If he has a three down role Dansby should continue to be at least a solid third starter for us.

Rey's overall production is far less impressive but still solid when you consider he has not played full time. On roughly 75% of the defensive snaps last year he was 64-34-1 with an interception and 5 passes defended. If we average in the snaps he missed Rey would be in the area of 80 tackles, 43 assists and 6 passes defended with three or four big plays. It will be interesting to see how this unfolds. Hopefully the Bengals will give us a better idea what to expect when the preseason gets here.

One problem Cincinnati does not have is a lack of depth. Paul Dawson was a third round pick last year. He can play in the middle or on the weak side and has the potential to emerge as a starter somewhere down the road. Rookie third round selection Nick Vigil will work at middle linebacker and is another player with the potential to claim a significant role in the next year or two. Marquise Flowers and Jayson DiManche will compete for the backup role on the strong side and contribute on special teams.

WLB Vontaze Burfict - Top ten once he returns but there are some risks
MLB Karlos Dansby - Strong late round sleeper with LB3 upside
SLB Rey Maualuga - No value
MLB/WLB Vincent Rey - Quality depth or decent LB3 if he lands a three down role
MLB/WLB Paul Dawson - Deep dynasty sleeper
MLB Nick Vigil - Taxi squad stash for dynasty owners
WLB Marquise Flowers - No value
SLB Jayson DiManche - No value

Defensive Backs

Cincinnati is both deep and talented at the corner positions. With the selection of William Jackson III in the first round this year they have four former round one picks at the position despite the departure of Leon Hall. Dre Kirkpatrick and Adam Jones will continue to start with Jackson and Darqueze Dennard in competition for the nickel corner role. In leagues where the secondary positions are lumped together, week to week inconsistency and lacking tackle production tends to hurt the fantasy value of corners in general. In those leagues none of the Bengals corners will provide much value. In leagues that breakout the positions however, both Kirkpatrick and Jones deserves consideration. Kirkpatrick's 64 solo tackles were the second most by a corner in 2015. His 7 assists and 16 passes defended added enough to land just outside the top 24. Kirkpatrick's only shortcoming in 2015 was a goose egg in the turnover department. Considering he had 3 interceptions and a score as a part time player in each of the two prior campaigns, it is safe to assume his lack of big plays last year was a fluke. Even if the tackle totals slip a little, adding three or four big plays should make Kirkpatrick a solid CB2 this time around.

Over much of his career Jones had been a non-factor in fantasy terms. Since becoming a starter in Cincinnati three years ago he has turned in two of his career's three best tackle totals and averaged nearly 4 turnovers a season. Despite missing a couple of games with injuries Jones posted a career best of 53 solo stops and a top fifteen fantasy finish among corners in 2015. He will be 33 years old in September but the Bengals still thought enough of him to extend his contract for three years this spring. I like Jones's chances of repeating as a top twenty corner and would rank him among the priority CB2 tier.

There will be a changing of the guard at safety in Cincinnati this year. George Iloka signed an extension to continue as the starting strong safety with Shawn Williams taking over for the departed Reggie Nelson at free. Iloka has been a solid dependable player for the Bengals but has never been much of an option for fantasy owners. He was on pace for what would have been a career best 50 solo tackles last year before missing some games down the stretch. Iloka's injury gave the organization an opportunity for a look at Williams. They were impressed enough to hand him the job entering his fourth season. There is not much history of tackle production from either of the Bengals safety positions. Nelson never managed more than 60 solo stops during his six seasons there. His tackle totals of 52 solo and 25 assist got a huge boost from his 8 interceptions and 14 passes defended in 2015. Williams is a more physical player who should put up better tackle totals. He made four starts last year and saw limited action in the other twelve games. Even with the part time role he managed 25 tackles, 7 assists, 5 passes defended and a pair of picks. I do not see Williams as an 80 tackle guy but 65-70 with a good contribution in the big play columns is not an unreasonable expectation. I like him as a strong late round sleeper with low end DB2 upside.

CB Dre Kirkpatrick - Solid CB2 with low end CB1 upside
CB Adam Johns - Quality second starter in corner required leagues
CB Darqueze Dennard - No value
CB William Jackson III - Injury/dynasty sleeper at best
FS/SS Shawn Williams - Late round sleeper with low end DB2 upside
SS/FS George Iloka - Minimal value at best
FS Derron Smith - No value
FS/CB Josh Shaw - No value

Cleveland Browns

Defensive Linemen

Cleveland's defensive line is still somewhat of a work in progress. Last year's first round pick Danny Shelton gives the team a powerful big man to anchor the run defense. Unfortunately he is not much help in passing situations and comes off the field in most sub packages. He does a lot of the dirty work up front but his contributions go largely unrewarded in the box scores.

Desmond Bryant has become a mainstay at one of the end spots. At 6'6" and 310 pounds he is a powerful and athletic big man who is a great fit as a 3-4 end. He does a good job holding ground at the point of attack and as a pass rusher Bryant is on par with the better players in the league at the position. It is a shortcoming in the tackle columns that has held his fantasy value in check since joining the Browns. In 2014 Bryant was 25-23-5 in fifteen games. Last season he was injured early in week two and missed the following two games. Bryant still managed 6 sacks but totaled just 24 solo tackles. His career best of 30 tackles came in 2011 when he was an interior lineman for the Raiders, so his upside in that area seems rather limited. If Bryant can stay healthy and get some help from his supporting cast it would not be a surprise to see him come away with 7 or 8 sacks this season. Unfortunately it would be a surprise if he were to finish with much more than 30 solo tackles. He has value in leagues with deeper rosters but is little more than a bye week flier in most twelve team leagues starting two linemen.

There will be a competition to fill the end position opposite Bryant. Veteran John Hughes and 2015 third round pick Xavier Cooper shared time at the position last season. Both players are 300 plus pound wide bodies who stand up strong versus the run but lack the quickness and athleticism to provide much of a pass rush. Between them they accounted for 23 tackles and 3 sacks in 2015, with those numbers split evenly between the two.

What the Browns really need up front is a playmaker. They hope this year's third round pick Carl Nassib can be that guy. There are some however, who question his ability to fit in the scheme. Anything under around 290 pounds is considered light for a 3-4 end. Nassib checks in at 277. His scouting report suggests he is not physical at the point of attack and relies more on instincts than athleticism. There is also the fact he was a one year wonder at Penn State. On the other hand it is hard to ignore Nassib's 15.5 sacks in his only year as a starter for the Nittany Lions. There is no doubt he will hit the weight room hard in an effort to put on more muscle and improve as a run defender. At some point he may earn the starting spot. For now I expect we will see a lot of the rookie paired with Bryant in sub packages. A generous projection for Nassib would be 5-6 sacks but it is unlikely he will break the 20 tackle line as a rookie.

NT Danny Shelton - No value
NT Jamie Meder - No value
DE Desmond Bryant - Depth with low end DL2 upside at best
DE John Hughes - No value
DE Xavier Cooper - No value
DE Carl Nassib - Dynasty potential

Linebackers

Linebacker are the heart of any defense and even more so when it comes to a 3-4 scheme. Entering training camp Cleveland has more questions than answers at these positions. Five players will be vying for playing time at the outside positions. The Browns thought they had one riddle solved when Paul Kruger exploded for a career best 12 sacks in 2014. Unfortunately he came crashing back to reality with 2.5 in 2015. In the other four seasons since 2011 he has averaged slightly over 5. Armonty Bryant saw the first significant playing time of his three year career in 2015. His 28 solo tackles and 5.5 sacks could be a sign of better things to come, but he will not be handed a starting spot. Last year's second round pick Nate Orchard managed 24 tackles and 3 sacks in 2015. While those are not bad numbers for a rookie in a rotational situation, he was not exactly a standout. Barkevious Mingo was the sixth overall pick in 2013. He had 15 tackles but failed to record a sack last year. With a total of 7 sacks over three seasons, Mingo is wearing the label of bust entering 2016 and may be in danger of being cut. The Browns added further competition by selection Emmanuel Ogbah in the second round this year. His 26.5 sacks in three seasons at Oklahoma give the organization a lot of reason for optimism.

Kruger and Bryant will top the depth when camp opens but reality is there are no clear starters at outside linebacker in Cleveland. With a new coaching staff in place anything could happen here. With the team in rebuilding mode and Ogbah being drafted by the new regime, he will be given every opportunity to shine. Unless a couple of these guys step up we may continue to see a lot of rotation among these players. That means a shortage of opportunity and ultimately pedestrian numbers for them all. Owners in big play based leagues may want to take a look at Ogbah in the later round as a possible taxi stash. Beyond that I would suggest a wait and see approach.

Cleveland has similar issues at the inside linebacker positions. Christian Kirksey enters his third season as a starter at one spot. Over his first two years with the team he has been in and out of the lineup mostly as a two down base package option. The new coaching staff jettisoned Karlos Dansby and Craig Robertson but we should not necessarily read Kirksey as one of their motives for those moves. He has been fairly fantasy productive on a per snap basis but there are no guarantees Kirksey will become a three down player. For that matter there is no guarantee he will be a starter come week one. Kirksey is worth a late round flier in leagues with deep rosters but I do not believe he will be a long term answer for his team or ours.

The organization signed Demario Davis to provide veteran help and leadership at the second level. He comes over from the Jets where he was a three year starter in basically the same three down role the Browns expect him to play. Davis made a strong showing in 2014 with career highs in tackles (78), sacks (4) and passes defended (5). He seemed to fall out of favor with the Jets coaching staff last season. His role was reduced late in the year when he was pulled from some sub packages. The result was a disappointing stat line of 57-33-2. Davis will need to step up if he wants to be a long term answer for the Browns. In 2016 he will be given every opportunity to become a team leader and a fixture at the position.

The player to keep an eye on here is rookie Scooby Wright III. Because he was not selected until the final round of this year's draft, Wright will be an unknown commodity to many fantasy owners. This player has opportunity written all over him for those who know how much potential he has. During the scouting process Wright drew comparison to former NFL and fantasy star Zach Thomas. He slid in the draft due to an injury plagued senior season and less than stellar measurable traits. At 6'0" he is a little short. His time of 4.87 in the 40 yard dash was average at best and his overall athleticism has been questioned. History proves it does not take a great athlete to be a great football player, especially at the inside linebacker positions where heart and determination are such a big factor. In 2014 Wright was arguably the best defender in college football. That year he recorded 163 combined tackles and assists with 29 tackles for loss, 14 sacks and 6 forced fumbles. He was a unanimous All-American winning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, Rotary Lombari Award and the Chuck Bednarik Award. His fall to the seventh round just shows how NFL teams still overvalue measurable attributes and undervalue heart. Wright will be buried on the depth chart when camp opens and may not crack the for a while but dynasty owners should be all over him.

Joe Schobert is another young linebacker who could make a long term splash in Cleveland. Much like fellow rookie linebacker Scooby Wright, Schobert's measurable traits are less than impressive while his on field production was eye catching. Schobert was a two year starter at Wisconsin where he totaled 13 sacks (9.5 as a senior), forced 6 fumbles and recovered 2 while playing outside in the Badgers hybrid 3-4 scheme. He lacks the height and wingspan to play on the outside at the pro level and the Browns have a log jam at those positions anyway. Schobert is expected to move inside where the team is much less settled. At that position his pass rush ability will still come into play as will his ability to drop into short coverage. Schobert is far from a sure thing but he has plenty of potential at a position of need for the Browns. Dynasty owners in particular should keep a close eye on him as a solid taxi squad stash.

ILB Christian Kirksey - Target as an LB4 or LB5 with LB3 upside
ILB Demario Davis - Should be at least a decent third starter or quality depth
ILB Scooby Wright III - Dynasty sleeper with big potential
ILB Joe Schobert - Dynasty sleeper with strong upside
OLB Paul Kruger - Minimal value
OLB Armonty Bryant - Depth with upside in big play based leagues
OLB Barkevious Mingo - No value until proven otherwise
OLB Nate Orchard - Worth a late flier in big play scoring
OLB Emmanuel Ogbah - Dynasty pick with good upside n big play leagues

Defensive Backs

One of the first things Hugh Jackson did when taking over the Browns was to jettison a bunch of veteran defenders. The purge included both starting safeties from 2015. Unlike the linebacker positions however, there are a limited number of options as replacements for Donte Whitner and Tashaun Gipson. Second year man Ibraheim Campbell will get the first shot at the strong safety job and he may prove to be a quality long term answer. At Northwestern he had a tendency to miss a tackle now and then and he gave more big plays than NFL scouts like to see. Both issues can be addressed with a combination of good coaching and scheme. Campbell played sparingly for the Browns as a rookie but was a productive four year starter for the Wildcats. He is a hard hitter with a knack for forcing turnovers. As a senior Campbell played in eight games (missed 4 with an injury) recording 54 combined tackles while forcing 4 fumbles and picking off 3 With the Browns in rebuilding mode Campbell will probably see a lot of work as an in the box strong safety. This could make him a busy man in 2016. I like Campbell as a strong sleeper with DB2 upside. At worst he should provide quality depth in most formats.

Jordan Poyer will enter camp as the starting free safety. He was the seventh round pick of the Eagles in 2013 but did not last long in Philadelphia, joining Cleveland in the middle of his rookie year. In 2015 he held a significant role as the Browns third safety, making a handful of starts along the way. On 427 snaps Poyer managed 28 tackles, 15 assists, 3 turnovers (2 picks) and a sack. His tackle production is nothing special but he has clearly shown the potential to be a playmaker. Unless he blows up in the preseason Poyer will go undrafted in most twelve team leagues starting three defensive backs. He is a player we should keep an eye on however, and is worth a roster spot in leagues with deeper rosters.

Veteran Rahim Moore was picked up as insurance behind Poyer and rookie fourth round pick Eric Kindred is likely to be the backup to Campbell. Moore has plenty of starting experience in the league but has never been much of a factor on the field or in the box scores. Kindred is an intimidating hitter but he has work to do in coverage and will need to clean up his mechanics as a tackler. He may contend for a starting spot down the road but probably not for at least a year or two.

So long as Joe Haden is healthy the Browns are in good shape at corner. Haden is recovering from ankle surgery and is optimistic he will be ready for the season opener. On the field he is considered by many to be among the elite tier of shutdown corners. No one disputes his status as a quality number one. Haden is a little short of elite in fantasy terms as well. He can generally be counted on for 50+ solo tackles and 4-5 turnovers a season. While those numbers are solid on their own, it is Haden’s ability to rack up passes defended which put him in the low CB1 conversation. Other than last year when he played only five games, Haden has never recorded fewer than 18 passes defended in a season. Keep a close eye on his injury status as draft season approaches.

Tramon Williams is the undisputed starter opposite Haden. He was signed last offseason to be the Browns number two corner but took on the number one role when Haden was lost in week five. Williams is not an elite corner in NFL terms, but is a quality number two. In fantasy terms he has been a dependable option as a second starter for much of his nine year career. Williams has exceeded 50 solo tackles in seven of the last eight seasons while averaging 5 turnovers and 14 assists since 2008. His big play totals were down last year when he often drew coverage on the opponent’s best receiver. They should rebound in 2016 since he likely be thrown at more often with Haden back in the lineup. Target Williams as a low end CB2 or quality depth.

Cleveland is prepared should Haden not be ready early on. Pierre Desir, K'Waun Williams and Jamar Taylor are all good veteran cover men who will be vying to establish the pecking order behind the starters. None of these guys offer much in terms of fantasy production at this point but the situation is worth monitoring.

CB Joe Haden - Low end CB1 if healthy
CB Tramon Williams - Solid CB2 or excellent depth
CB Pierre Desir - Injury sleeper
CB K'Waun Williams - Injury sleeper
CB Jamar Taylor - Injury Sleeper
CB Justin Gilbert - No value
SS Ibraheim Campbell - Late round target with DB2 potential
FS Jordan Poyer - Depth with big play upside
FS Rahim Moore - No value
SS Eric Kindred - Deep dynasty sleeper

Baltimore Ravens

Defensive Linemen

The Ravens have some solid pieces in place up front but they have been looking for a difference maker since the decline of Haloti Ngata a few years back. Brandon Williams is a prototypical 3-4 nose tackle. At 335 pounds with a low center of gravity he is the anchor of the run defense. His 36 tackles, 18 assists and 2 sacks last year were not big numbers be any standard. For fantasy owners in leagues requiring interior linemen however, those numbers have some value at the shallow tackle position. Williams tackle total ranked ninth among interior linemen in 2015 and his fantasy point total was among the top twelve. His production has gone up each season since he was drafted in 2013 so Williams may continue to improve. Target him as a low end DT1 with some upside.

The team drafted Timmy Jernigan in the second round two years ago in hope he could restore a playmaking presence up front. He has been a solid starter for them with four sacks in each of his two seasons but has not yet proven to be that special player the organization had hoped for. The return of Terrell Suggs from injury and addition of rookie Bronson Kaufusi may serve to make everyone in Baltimore's front seven better as they play off each other's strengths, but there is no reason to expect a fantasy breakout from Jernigan who is still looking for his first 20 tackle season.

Kaufusi was the Ravens third round pick this year. He is a versatile athlete who lined up at a number of positions during his time at BYU. He is expected to win the starting job at end opposite Timmy Jernigan but he could be used much like Terrell Suggs, seeing time at outside linebacker as well. The fact he can stay on the field in both a three and four man fronts is a plus while Kaufusi's 11 sacks as a senior is reason for additional optimism. His fantasy value is hard to project until we see what role he has. Most league management programs have him at defensive end. If he is designated at that position but sees a good deal of time at linebacker, Kaufusi could be surprisingly valuable.

Lawrence Guy, Willie Henry, Carl Davis and Matt Judon all figure to hold backup roles. Guy was a starter in 2015 and will likely see significant action even if he is not able to hold off Kaufusi for the starting job. None of these players have the upside to be special.

NT Brandon Williams - Top twelve DT1
NT/DE Carl Davis - No value  
DE Bronson Kaufusi - Sleeper worth keeping an eye on
DE Timmy Jernigan - Minimal value at best
DE Lawrence Guy - No value
DE Willie Henry - No value
DE Matt Judon - No value

Linebackers

The linebacker position was once the strength of an outstanding Baltimore defense. Time has taken a toll on this group and the Ravens defense in general. In 2015 they were twenty first versus the run, twenty third against the pass, finished in the bottom half of the league in sacks and were tied for last in turnovers. The organization may not be in a complete rebuilding situation but they are certainly in the process of retooling.

From a fantasy perspective there is only one sure contributor among this group. After two years on the job it is obvious C.J. Mosley is not going to be the next Rey Lewis. He is however a quality inside linebacker and a player who will be the centerpiece of Baltimore's defense for the next several years. Over his first two seasons Mosley has recorded good but not great tackle numbers, averaging about 80 solo tackles and 42 assists. His fantasy value has gotten a strong boost from the big play columns though. With 7 sacks, 5 turnovers, 14 passes broken up and a defensive score Mosley has been a quality addition to any IDP lineup. Now that Daryl Smith is no longer in the picture there is some question who will line up next to Mosley. The team has neither an established veteran nor a youngster with high expectations to fill the role. This could point to more tackle opportunity and better fantasy totals for Mosley in 2016. He falls short of the elite first tier linebackers in the box scores but Mosley is a strong and consistent second starter with low end LB1 upside.

It was not a huge surprise the Ravens parted ways with Daryl Smith this offseason. It is somewhat of a surprise they have done nothing significant to replace him. Zach Orr has worked with the first team during off season activities and will be given the first shot at the job. The 2014 undrafted free agent got on the field in a limited role last year recording 19 tackles and a sack. Maybe the coaching staff saw something in this young man that contributed to the exit of Smith. Orr is a little short for the job at 6'0" but is built like a fireplug at 255 pounds. Run defense is the strength of his game, making Orr a potentially good fit at the strong inside linebacker position. Until we can see him in preseason action and/or confirm his role it will be hard to get a read on Orr's fantasy value. The fear being he will serve as a two down thumper giving way to someone else in sub packages.

Arthur Brown and Albert McClellan could also be in the mix for playing time next to Mosley. Brown was the team's second round pick in 2013 and has been a complete bust thus far in his career. In fact he has not made a single defensive tackle since his rookie season when he produced all of 7. If the Ravens had better depth he would be in serious danger of not making the team. As it stands now he realistically be in the mix for a nickel linebacker job. McClellan is a 254 pound thumper who will challenge for the starting strong inside job but he is unlikely to be more than a two down thumper.

Baltimore has plenty of talent at the outside linebacker but they are getting a little long in the tooth at the position. Terrell Suggs remains a valuable asset for the Ravens even though he will be 34 in October. Suggs is like a Swiss army knife. 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 nearly unlimited options. After missing most of 2012 with a serious injury, Suggs returned to form with 83 tackles, 58 assists and 22 sacks in 2013 and 2014 combined before being injured again in week one last season. There is some question about his availability for week one this year. Even if he is less than 100% early on the Ravens would love to have his leadership on the field. A healthy Suggs can be counted on for 40-45 solo tackles and double digit sacks again in 2016. His fantasy value however, hinges on his positional designation. For years there has been a debate in fantasy circles about his being an end or a linebacker. Be sure you know which position he is in your leagues data base. As a defensive end Suggs is a top 12 option. As a linebacker he holds much less value in balanced or tackle heavy leagues.

Like Suggs, Elvis Dumervil is on the wrong side of 30 years old. He has been an excellent addition to the Ravens pass rush over the past three seasons. During that time Dumervil has accumulated 32 sacks and forced 4 fumbles. What the raw numbers do not tell us is how bad he missed Terrell Suggs last season. In his first year with the team Dumervil accounted for 9 sacks while working opposite Suggs. In 2014 he piled up a career best of 17. Without Suggs to keep opponents honest, Dumervil's numbers suffered greatly in 2015 when he was 29-19-6 on the year. Suggs return should boost the sack numbers back up but the consistent lack of tackle production will continue to make Dumervil a marginal at best fantasy option with value only in leagues that emphasize big plays.

Za'Darius Smith gained a lot of experience while helping to replace Suggs last season. His final numbers of 20-10-5.5 were not bad for a rookie and his play on the field lends to optimism he will eventually be able to take over one of the starting jobs. The organization hopes rookie second round pick Kamalei Correa will also become a future starter and possibly a future star. He is raw and at 243 pounds will need to add some muscle to become an every down player but Correa's athleticism, quickness, speed and 19 sacks as a two year starter at Boise State are all reasons to keep an eye on him if your league emphasizes big plays.

ILB C.J. Mosley - Quality LB2 with low end LB1 upside
ILB Zach Orr - Sleeper with low floor and LB3 potential
ILB Arthur Brown - No value
ILB Albert McClellan - Depth at best if he wins a starting nod
OLB Terrell Suggs - Big value as a defensive end or as a linebacker in big play leagues
OLB Elvis Dumervil - Big play threat with low tackle potential
OLB Za'Darius Smith - Possible dynasty potential
OLB Kamalei Correa - Taxi target in big play based leagues

Defensive Backs

The Baltimore secondary was a mess for the last couple of years. In 2014 injuries, poor personnel decisions and a lack of depth were the major issue. Last year the team had plenty of bodies but not so much in the way of talent. They were a weak twenty third against the pass and only ranked that high because the front seven couldn't stop the run either. Maybe the biggest tell tale sign of their poor secondary was the league low 5 interceptions produced by the unit. The Ravens have added players and made changes but with holes to fill on both sides of the ball, there was a limited amount of resources available for the secondary.

Safety Eric Weddle is one addition that is all but certain to provide improvement. He was a standout in both NFL and fantasy terms throughout his nine years in San Diego. Were it not for a couple of injury shortened seasons Weddle may well have eight consecutive years with at least 75 solo tackles. He is a big play contributor with 19 interceptions, 9 fumbles forced or recovered, 6 sacks and 4 defensive scores on his resume. History proves Weddle to be an outstanding fantasy option when in the right situation and there is no doubt he improves the talent level at the position. That said, whenever a player of such caliber changes teams there is always a risk his numbers will not follow. This move is particularly worrisome because the Ravens safety position has been virtually void of fantasy value since the team moved from Cleveland. If he can be picked up as your second starter the risk may be worth taking. Chances are someone will grab him as one of the top twelve defensive backs off the board though.

With both Matt Elam and Terrence Brooks turning out to be busts, Baltimore turned to journeymen Kendrick Lewis and Will Hill at safety last year. Both players turned in ho-hum performances. Hill is suspended for the first four games so Lewis will compete with transplanted corner Lardarius Webb for the starting spot opposite Weddle. None of these players have given us reason to expect much from them. Webb was somewhat fantasy productive from the corner position in 2013 but has struggled to stay healthy over the past two seasons. If anyone is to rise from this group and provide fantasy value he would be the most likely. Take a wait and see approach with Webb and use the roster spot on someone with more potential.

One big reason for Baltimore's struggles against the pass is their lack of a true number one corner. Jimmy Smith is their best cover man. He is a solid player who would be an excellent number two. Behind Smith are journeymen Jerraud Powers, Shareece Wright, Kyle Arrington and Will Davis along with rookies Tavon Young (round four) and Maurice Candy (round 6). Just like last year the Ravens have plenty of bodies and good depth but they are still in need of a difference maker. The same statement applies to the fantasy value of this group. Smith was the most productive of the bunch in 2015 with 48 tackles, 6 assists, 3 interceptions and 10 passes defended. Those numbers ranked him just inside the top thirty corners making him no more than a decent CB3. There is no reason to expect much more from him or any other Baltimore corner in 2016.

SS Kendrick Lewis - No value
FS Eric Weddle - Target as a DB2 with upside but do not expect the production of years past
SS/FS Lardarius Webb - Sleeper with DB3 upside at best
SS Anthony Levine - No value
FS/SS Will Hill - No value
FS Terrence Brooks - No value
SS Matt Elam - Probably does not make the team
CB Jimmy Smith - Depth in twelve team leagues starting two corners
CB Jerraud Powers - Minimal value at best
CB Shareece Wright - minimal value at best
CB Kyle Arrington - Injury sleeper
CB Will Davis - No value
CB Tavon Young - No value at this time
CB Maurice Canady - No value

Pittsburgh Steelers

Defensive Linemen

For a 3-4 team with a storied history of sack production from the outside linebacker position, it was strange to see a pair of defensive ends lead the Steelers in sacks. Cameron Heyward's 7 and Stephon Tuitt's 6.5 were the best on the team in 2015. This tandem of defensive ends rivals that of any 3-4 team in the league. Both of these players are prototypical 3-4 ends with the size and power to hold the point of attach and eat up blockers. What they have that most at the position do not is an extra burst as pass rushers. Another way the Steelers are different from many teams is they do not rotate a bunch of players up front. The starters will get a break for a few snaps once in a while but they are virtually every down players. Neither Heyward nor Tuitt are a threat to win the sack title or finish among the top ten fantasy options at the position, but both are likely to provide similar production in 2016 with 35-40 tackles and 6-8 sacks. Such numbers will make them solid second starters or top shelf depth in most leagues.

Daniel McCullers held down the nose tackle position last year and will likely continue in that role despite the addition of Javon Hargrave in this year's draft. Pittsburgh is among the teams that will often pull their nose tackle to make room for another pass rusher in sub packages. The limited opportunity pretty much ensures no fantasy value for either player.

NT Daniel McCullers - No value
NT/DE Javon Hargrave - No value
DE Cameron Heyward - Solid DL2 or excellent depth
DE Stephon Tuitt - Solid DL2 or excellent depth
DE L.T. Walton - No value
DE Roy Philon - No value

Linebackers

Production from the linebacker position is the key to success for the Steelers. At the inside positions Pittsburgh is set with Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Shazier. Timmons 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 to date. That year he finished with career highs in tackles at 96 as well as passes defended with 10. Timmons has consistently turned in good tackle totals but it is his big play ability which makes him particularly valuable to the Steelers and intriguing for fantasy owners. Over the past six seasons he has recovered 4 fumbles, forced 11, intercepted 8 passes and recorded 28 sacks. Timmons has consistently finished among the top 20 linebackers over his career including a final ranking of twelve last season. His only downside in fantasy terms is some week to week inconsistency. He is not the player to target as your number one linebacker but is an excellent option as a number two.

Shazier is a near mirror image of Timmons. Both players are solid run defenders with excellent speed, athleticism and a knack for the big play. The issue with Shazier in his young career has been injuries. After missing most of his rookie campaign with an ankle problem he lost four games last year to a sprained knee. Once healthy however, Shazier showed the world why the team was right for using a first round pick on him. In twelve games he totaled 54 tackles, 33 assists, 3.5 sacks, 4 passes defended and accounted for four turnovers. Average those numbers over a full schedule and he is right there with Timmons as a top fifteen linebacker. Shazier had a minor knee surgery at the end of 2015 but is healthy entering camp. If he can stay on the field he should be a quality second starter for fantasy owners in 2016.

We know what to expect from the inside linebackers here but the outside positions are a different story. The team has committed a lot of resources at outside backer in recent years with what has so far been a disappointing return on investment. Last season saw 2013 first round pick Jarvis Jones and 2015 first round selection Bud Dupree combine for 6 sacks while 38 year old James Harrison led the group with 5. Pittsburgh used a four man rotation on the outside in 2015 with Arthur Moats seeing action as well. It is hard to say if this was by design or simply because their young guys were not getting the job done. Either way it is hard to get excited about any of these players until we see something to make us believe 2016 will be different. Owners in big play based leagues may want to consider Dupree as a late round sleeper since he will be entering his second season. With 5 sacks in three years however, Jones is looking like a bust at this point.

ILB Lawrence Timmons - Solid second starter with some week to week inconsistency
ILB Ryan Shazier - Second starter with some injury risk
ILB Vince Williams - No value
OLB Bud Dupree - Depth with upside in big play based leagues
OLB Jarvis Jones - Not much expectation entering his fourth year
OLB James Harrison - Minimal value
OLB Arthur Moats - Minimal value
OLB Travis Freeney - Developmental player to keep an eye on

Defensive Backs

Counting the nickel package there may be as many as three new faces in the Steelers secondary this season. Free safety Michael Mitchell seems safe as does corner William Gay. The other positions will be open for competition. There could be good fantasy value to be found here if we can figure out who to target. Mitchell finished last season ranked among the top thirty defensive backs but he may not be the best option. The 58 solo stops and 22 assists he recorded last season were both career highs but those numbers are marginal at best in fantasy terms as Mitchell recorded 3 or fewer solo tackles in nine games. He made up for it to a large extent with 7 turnovers and 9 passes defended. The end result was slightly over nine points a game on average while struggling with week to week inconsistency. Big plays are a nice compliment but I need consistent tackle production from my safeties as a priority.

The Steelers strong safety position provided that consistent tackle production in 2015 while adding a good dose of big plays as well. Will Allen was Pittsburgh's strong safety for thirteen games with Robert Golden filling in for three starts due to injury. Between them the position accounted for 77 tackles, 21 assists, 4 sacks, 4 turnovers and 9 passes defended with Allen's average of over 11 points a game ranking fourteenth among defensive backs. In Golden's three starts he totaled 15 tackles, 2 assists and a pass defended. In the other thirteen games he served as the third safety, finishing the season with 30 tackles, 10 assists, an interception and 4 pass breakups on about a third of the team's defensive snaps. Golden's good showing on the field has him at the top of the depth chart at strong safety entering camp while his production on a per snap basis last year has him high on my sleeper list this summer.

While I like Golden's chances to come away from camp as the starter for 2016, he is not without competition. Rookie Sean Davis is a player many believe to be the future of the position. I do not disagree but am not so sure that future will start this year. The scheme in Pittsburgh is complicated and the team simply cannot afford mental or physical mistakes at safety. Golden did a more than adequate job when called upon last year and his four years of experience in the defense will be a challenge for Davis to overcome in the short term. Davis will also have to clean up his tackling after being tagged with a lot of misses during his college career. If and when he does win the job the young man could be a fantasy star. His production at Maryland was nothing short of impressive. He was miscast as a corner as a senior but still managed 70 solo tackles with a sack and 3 interceptions and 5 forced fumbles in twelve games. As a junior he played strong safety totaling 80 solo, 35 assists and a sack with 8 passes defended. As a three year starter for the Terrapins Davis averaged almost 6 solo tackles and 2.5 assists per game with 14 turnovers and 2.5 sacks. Dynasty owners will want to be all over this guy while those in redraft leagues will want to keep a close eye on the competition this summer.

William Gay was a top five fantasy corner in 2014. Last year he dropped all the way out of the top thirty five. This illustrates two things about corners; they can be wildly inconsistent from year to year, and a team's best corner is usually not their most fantasy friendly. In 2015 it was Antwon Blake in the bull’s eye of most offensive game plans. Because he was targeted as a weakness he was thrown at often and subsequently ascended to the top ten. Also because he was a weakness, the Steelers let him go and drafted Artie Burns in the first round as a replacement. Keep in mind the team also has last year's second round pick Senquez Golson who missed his rookie season with an injury. Gay will continue to be the Steelers number one corner for at least this season while Burns, Golson and last year's fourth round pick Ross Cockrell battle to establish the rest of the pecking order. Whoever wins the starting nod opposite Gay will fall under the rookie corner rule and will have a lot of opportunity.

SS Robert Golden - Sleeper with DB2 upside
FS Michael Mitchell - DB3 with some week to week inconsistency
SS Sean Davis - Dynasty target with big long term potential
FS Shamarko Thomas - No value
CB William Gay - Minimal value at best
CB Senquez Golson - Possible rookie corner rule
CB Artie Burns - Possible rookie corner rule
CB Ross Cockrell - Worth keeping an eye on
CB Doran Grant - No value at this time

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