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Eyes of the Guru Preseason, Part 3: 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

From an NFL perspective the Bengals defensive line is a solid group with a good mix of veteran leadership and talented young players. For fantasy owners this unit provides a couple of excellent target as well as some potential bottom of the roster depth. Carlos Dunlap has become a perennial top ten defensive end. When we break down his production over the past five seasons there is nothing that really stands out. His tackle numbers are not great but he has put up at least 30 solo stops every season since 2012, with an average of 36. His career best sack production came in 2015 when he landed 13.5. He has not reached double digits in any other year to date, but Dunlap has at least 7.5 sacks in each of his six full seasons as a pro (he missed much of 2011). He is not a threat to win the sack title (though it is one of his personal goals) or lead the league in tackles by defensive linemen. What Dunlap provides is solid production and outstanding year to year consistency. Every season he seems to step up some part of his game. In 2012 he had 8 turnovers and a score. In 2013 it was 39 tackles, 5 takeaways and 6 passes defended. The following season was Dunlap's career best in tackles at 41 solo and 25 assists, while the 13.5 sacks highlighted his 2015 campaign. Last year his tackle production was down at 30, but he made up for it with a J.J. Watt like 15 batted passes. What you can count on getting from Dunlap is around 35 tackles, 8-9 sacks and enough splash plays to push his point total into the top ten.

Michael Johnson should continue to start at the other end, though he could be pushed by one of the team's talented young players. He is that end of the roster depth I mention previously. Johnson had a career best of 11.5 sacks in 2012 but that has proven to be an apparition. After eight years in the league we have seen enough of Johnson to know what we can safely expect. Over his last four years with the Bengals Johnson has consistently produced tackle numbers in the low to mid 30s, 4-5 sacks and a sprinkling of turnovers and batted passes. This is what he is and there is no upside.

The coaching staff likes Johnson because he is a better play on the field than in the box scores. He sets the edge well and at 6'7", helps make it tough for quarterbacks to find passing lanes. At some point he is going to be replaced by an up and coming young player that can get to the quarterback more often. The organization took a chance on former second pick Margus Hunt a few years back, in hope he would develop into that guy. Hunt is now working for the Colts but the Bengals have 2014 third round selection Will Clarke and rookie third round pick Jordan Willis who both have starting potential. Clarke was buried on the depth chart for his first two seasons as the coaching staff gave Hunt every opportunity to develop. Last season Hunt was moved to tackle giving Clarke more opportunity to get on the field. He started strong recording 3 sacks on sixty one snaps in September, but was not able to continue the production. By the end of the season Clarke was 10-5-4 on 373 plays. Many people outside the organization have written him off already. I am not sure that is the case with the people inside the building though. Clarke is not a draft target at this point but he should still be on our radar as a player to watch in August.

Jordan Willis is most definitely a player to keep an eye on this summer. He is a little undersized to be a three down end but proved he could do the job as a three year starter for Kansas State. He is a hard working, high character guy with a great motor. Willis not a dynamic speed rusher off the edge but he has a number of pass rush moves and a knack for using a blockers momentum against them. He can change directions quickly, is relentless in pursuit and rarely misses a tackle. All these things from his scouting report sound good but it was Willis's college production that caught my eye. As a senior he was 34-18-11.5 with 3 forced fumbles, a recovery and 3 batted passes. For his career with the Wildcats Willis accounted for 25.5 sacks and 8 turnovers. He has been overlooked in nearly every dynasty draft I have seen so far this summer, except for the ones I participated in of course.

Geno Atkins is one to the league's elite interior linemen and the prototypical 3-technique tackle. At 6'1" and 300 pounds he is a powerful player with a lower center of gravity than most blockers. He uses both to gain leverage and is simply a load for offensive linemen to handle. Atkins possesses rare quickness and athleticism for a man his size and is probably the closest comparison to Warren Sapp since, well, Warren Sapp. When looking at his career numbers we need to remember the serious knee injury Atkins suffered in 2013. He is not an injury prone player but that one was big. It took him a couple of years to get over it, so throw out 2013 and 2014 as outliers. In his other four seasons Atkins has been a fantasy beast with big value in leagues breaking out the defensive line positions, and good value in those that do not. His tackle totals were down in 2016 for reasons I have not been able to identify. Thus I am writing it off as a fluke. The total of 21 solo stops was a career low yet he was still a top fifteen tackle on the strength of 9 sacks. In 2011, 2012 and 2015 Atkins averaged 32 tackles, 16 assists and 11 sacks. He was the fantasy game's number on interior lineman in 2012, finishing no lower than fourth in any of those seasons. Last year's numbers may cause him to fall a bit further than he should on draft day, making Atkins a value pick if taken outside the first five tackles. He is close as if gets in fantasy football to a sure thing.

The Bengals parted ways with long time starter and fan favorite Domata Peko. Early expectations have last year's fourth round pick Andrew Billings as the replacement at nose tackle. Billings missed the 2016 season with a torn meniscus suffered in August, so this is basically his rookie year. Draft analyst Mark Dulgerian said it best when Billings was picked; "he is a two down nose tackle which, in a passing league, isn't as valuable. His draft spot is not indicative of his talent. He's got a heavy anchor with elite play strength to control the interior gaps". In short Peko was a really good player; Billings may prove to be even better as the anchor of the run defense. Unfortunately the nature of the position and expected two down role will pretty much rule him out in fantasy circles. Peko was never more than a marginal spot play in leagues starting two interior linemen. Billings will be hard pressed to be much more. Should Billings struggle, the team has a quality fall back in veteran Pat Sims, and a talented rookie prospect in fourth round selection Ryan Glasgow. Glasgow may be the top backup to both inside positions.

DT Geno Atkins - Quality DT1 with strong top five potential
DT Andrew Billings - Possible depth in leagues starting two tackles
DT Pat Sims - Minimal value at best
DT Ryan Glasgow - Dynasty sleeper with limited potential
DE Carlos Dunlap - Perennial top ten DL1
DE Michael Johnson - Depth at best
DE Wallace Gilberry - No value
DE Jordan Willis - Dynasty sleeper with high upside
DE Will Clarke - Worth keeping an eye on

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