Eyes of the Guru - Offseason Report (AFC South)
By John Norton
July 22nd, 2010

Welcome back for part five of this year's article, covering the AFC South division.

For reference, when I mention where guys finished in the rankings last season, my model will be the standard Footballguys scoring system which is nearly identical to the North American Fantasy Football Addicts (NAFFA) league I have run for the past 15 years. Feel free to check it out. Defensive scoring in this league is the standard stuff but keep in mind that rankings will vary a bit from league to league. From time to time I will reference the "rookie corner rule". Those of you who are familiar with the EOTG know what that is. For those who are new, the rookie corner rule is basically the fact that in the NFL, starting a rookie at corner is like throwing chum to the sharks. Offensive coordinators will target young and inexperienced players as weaknesses thus these guys have an accelerated number of opportunities. Most often these guys are the cream of the crop at the position (which is why they are starting so soon) and their numbers will begin to drop sharply after their rookie seasons. When I mention tackle numbers, I do not lump assists and solo tackles together. Unless I make a reference one way or the other, I am talking about solo tackles. One addition I would like to mention is that 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.

Houston Texans

Defensive Linemen

Mario Williams is a great measuring stick that demonstrates just how much DL production has declined across the league over the last two years. In 2007 and 2008 He averaged 44-13-13, finishing at #7 and #8 respectively. Last season Williams numbers slipped to 38-5-9 but he still finished as the #8 lineman. This is by no means a knock on Williams who is easily among the top few prospects at the position. It just shows how the mass exodus from the 4-3 to the 3-4 has affected the fantasy game. Williams made the Pro Bowl in 2009 and his slight dip in production can be explained by the fact that he battled nagging injuries much of the season. The sore groin had him on the injury report for several weeks and he had shoulder surgery in January. He will be healthy entering camp and should be back to his usual 40+ tackles and double digit sacks in 2010... The Texans would like to get better production from the other DE position. Antonio Smith came over as a free agent last season and did an adequate job for them. He worked at end on early downs and slid inside in most passing situations. After going 38-6-6.5 in a part time role as a Cardinal in 2007, both the Texans and I had fairly high expectations for Smith. Despite being on the field for more than 85% of the teams defensive snaps, he was only able to record a disappointing 26-7-4 last season. A second year in the system should help a little but Smith may spend training camp looking over his shoulder at last year's second round pick Connor Barwin. Barwin is an exceptional athlete. In fact some clubs had him on their draft boards as a TE. He spent his rookie season coming in on passing downs when Smith moved inside. Barwin saw action on about 20-25 snaps a game and finished the season with a modest 12 tackles and 3.5 sacks. NFL clubs don't use second round picks on guys to have them play 25% of the time and it's probably not a coincidence that half of his tackles and 2.5 of his sacks came over the final six games. At 254 pounds Barwin may need to bulk up a little to better handle the run but Look for him to have an expanded role in 2010 and possibly even challenge for the starting job... Tackle Amobi Okoye was the tenth overall pick in 2007 but has not lived up to the expectations that come with being drafted so highly. He managed 23 tackles and 5.5 sacks as a rookie and has been virtually invisible since. Okoye weighed 290 pounds as a rookie and was an every down player. In an effort to better anchor the line versus the run he bulked up to 315 in '08. instead of making him better the extra weight slowed him down and resulted in Okoye playing only part time. He saw more snaps in 2009 but still did not regain his quickness or return to an every down role. Okoye has shed 32 pounds since last season and at 283, claims to have regained the skills that made him such a high draft pick. The Texans certainly hope he is right. Okoye is expected to be joined in the starting lineup by fellow underachiever Shaun Cody. The former second round pick of the Lions has battled nagging injuries much of his career and has never been able to hold down a starting job for long. His five NFL seasons have produced a career high of 25 tackles with just 2.5 total sacks. Cody will open camp as a starter but no one will be surprised if rookie Earl Mitchell claims the job before the season opens. Mitchell entered college as a TE but quickly made the transition to tackle in 2008. He was a two year starter for Arizona and really turned some heads by running the fastest 40 time among defensive tackles at the combine. Having played the position for only two seasons Mitchell is somewhat raw but the Texans see a great deal of upside in him as a penetrating, disruptive interior lineman. He was very box score productive as a senior with 48 tackles (combined solo and assists) and 6.5 sacks. Consider Mitchell a sleeper in leagues that require tackles and he should be of particular interest to dynasty owners... What all the Texans interior linemen have working against them is the fact that in their history, no Texans DT has been of value to fantasy owners. If Okoye can pick up his play and earn an every down role or if Mitchell pans out, that could change. But if they continue to use situational substitutions as they have over the past four years under head coach Gary Kubiak, it may be a while before anyone breaks out of the rut.

Fantasy Outlook

  • DE Mario Williams - Consistent top 10 DL with top 5 potential
  • DE Antonio Smith - Depth in large leagues at best
  • DE Connor Barwin - Sleeper with good long term potential
  • DE/DT Tim Bulman - No value
  • DT Amobi Okoye - Sleeper for tackle required leagues
  • DT Shaun Cody - No value
  • DT Earl Mitchell - Sleeper/dynasty prospect with upside
  • DT DelJuan Robinson - No value
  • Linebackers

    DeMeco Ryans had a monster rookie season in 2006 that included 126 solo tackles, 3 takeaways, 3.5 sacks and a fantasy ranking of #1. In his second season the tackle number dropped to 99 solo but his big play production jumped to 6 takeaways with a pair of sacks and the result was a top 5 finish. In 2008 Ryans battled nagging injuries including a sprained knee late in the season that would have landed most players on IR. His production suffered down the stretch and he ended up 14th among linebackers. Ryans was mostly healthy last season but the emergence of Brian Cushing took its toll in the box scores and Ryans once again finished at #14. One thing we as fantasy owners should never underestimate is the value of consistency. When we consider that factor Ryans ultimate worth exceeds the value we might put on him based on overall ranking alone. If we exclude his injury plagued 2008, Ryans has posted 9 or more fantasy points in 44 of 48 career games, including 14 of 16 last season. His days as an elite LB1 may be over but Ryans remains a player that fantasy owners can depend on heavily. With Cushing serving a four game suspension at the start of the season, Ryans looks particularly good in September but even with Cushing in the lineup Ryans is a solid second tier LB1 or an excellent LB2 at a deep position... The suspension situation makes Cushing a tough call for this season. I am seeing a lot of my peers drop him all the way into the mid thirties in their rankings. I guess that if you are considering overall production for the season that is fair but I look at it differently. Simply put, its much more important to be hot in December than in September. I will happily get by with my LB4 in the lineup for a few weeks if it allows me to have a top five guy there when I really need him. Cushing was 87-47-5 with 6 takeaways and 10 passes defended as a rookie. This is a guy who scored 9 or more fantasy points in 15 games last season and finished #3 overall. It was not a fluke! If anything the four weeks off will help to keep him fresh and healthy for us. I have dropped Cushing into the mid teens in my rankings and see no reason to take him any later than that. I mean seriously, who would you rather be starting in week 14, Brian Cushing or Stephen Cooper?... Through eight game in 2008 Zac Diles was on his way to a 90+ tackle season and a top 15 ranking. That all ended with a broken leg in week nine. Diles managed to come back from the injury and win a starting job at WLB last season but the WLB position in the Texans defense is not so fantasy friendly. Factor in that Ryans and Cushing are the nickel linebackers and you get numbers like the 45-17-0 that Diles put up last season. It's unclear how the Texans will approach the first four games but it seem likely that Diles will remain at WLB with either Xavier Adibi or fourth round pick Darryl Sharpton getting the call to replace Cushing. Diles won the nickel LB job over Adibi in 2008 and is likely to hold those duties until week five this season. We will get a much better feel for this situation once camp opens, but if you loose a starter to injury during training camp (or draft Cushing), Diles might be a good play for a few weeks while you look for a more permanent replacement.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • MLB DeMeco Ryans - Second tier LB1
  • SLB Brian Cushing - Top ten LB after week four with top five potential
  • WLB Zac Diles - Injury sleeper or early season fill in
  • OLB Xavier Adibi - No value
  • OLB Darryl Sharpton - No value
  • OLB/MLB Danny Clark - No value
  • Defensive Backs

    The old cliche that "one man's trash is another man's treasure" is often true in the NFL. Look no further than Bernard Pollard for example. After two seasons as a productive starter the big physical thumper fell out of favor in Kansas City. Apparently he didn't fit the floor plan for the Chiefs change over to a 3-4 scheme and was released with the final roster cuts last September. The Texans signed him September 24th and Pollard made his first start for the team in week four. He'll be starting a lot more games before he leaves Houston. Pollard stepped right in and gave the Texans just what they were looking for in a strong safety. An intimidating physical presence with the ability to make plays both in the box and in coverage. In 13 starts Pollard recorded 82-19-1.5 with 7 takeaways, 7 passes defended and a top 5 finish among safeties. He finished the year having posted double digit fantasy points in ten games including a string of eight consecutive to close out the season. The club was so impressed that they gave Pollard a first round free agent tender with plans to work on a long term deal. Anyone who thinks his '09 season was a fluke simply needs to take a look at his number while with Kansas City. Over the course of his two seasons as a starter there Pollard averaged 76 solo tackles, recorded 9 takeaways and finished in the top 12 both seasons. He may not be as proven as Yeremiah Bell but its hard to argue against taking Pollard as the #1 DB off the board... FS Eugene Wilson is another reclamation project of the Texans. He came over from New England after the 2007 season and played very well for the Texans in '08. Wilson entered the starting lineup in week eleven that season and averaged nearly 6 tackles a game over his seven starts. He battled knee and groin injuries early in '09 before breaking two toes and landing on IR after week eleven. He may feel some heat from third year man Dominique Barber during camp but if healthy, Wilson should hold off that challenge. He was on my deep sleeper list entering last season and even with the addition of Pollard, could have some value for us 2010. Unless you are in a very deeply drafted league Wilson is not a guy to target on draft day but is someone we should have on the radar early in the season... Long time starting corner Dunta Robinson was allowed to move on in free agency, creating a wide open competition for the team's starting corner jobs. Veteran Jacques Reeves and second year pro Brice McCain will be in the mix but chances are that last year's surprising rookie Glover Quin and this year's first round pick Kareem Jackson will be the opening day starters. Quin entered the lineup in week four last season and quickly proved that he belonged. He failed to get into the big play columns but managed to finish with a solid 56 tackles and 11 passes defended in his thirteen starts. Jackson is an NFL ready corner who is physical and doesn't shy away from run support. He should be a great fit in the Texans zone coverage schemes and with the rookie corner rule in play, has the potential to be very fantasy friendly. In fact, Jackson's skill set combined with the Texans style of play could make him a productive corner well beyond his rookie season.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • SS Bernard Pollard - Should be one of the top 3 off the board at the position
  • FS Eugene Wilson - Deep sleeper with DB3 potential
  • FS Dominique Barber - No value
  • CB Jacques Reeves - No value
  • CB Brice McCain - No value
  • CB Kareem Jackson - Rookie corner rule, skill set and situation point to a very box score productive season
  • CB Glover Quin - Potential depth in corner required leagues
  • CB Fred Bennett - No value
  • Indianapolis Colts

    Defensive Linemen

    As pass rushers go Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis are among the most feared tandems in the NFL. As fantasy prospects go, not so much. Over the past two seasons this duo has produced a whopping 44.5 sacks between them but only 95 tackles. In fact Freeney's career average is just under 28 tackles per season while Mathis has averaged just over 30, and neither of them have recorded more than 36 within the past three seasons. The problem here is easy to determine. It comes down to playing time. Both guys are starters but excluding the final two games when the Colts were resting players, Freeney was on the field for about 57% of the team's defensive snaps and Mathis about 61% last season. The Colts do this in order to keep their star pass rushers fresh in both the 4th quarter of games and ultimately in the 4th quarter of the season. Mathis managed 50 tackles back in 2006 but it seems very unlikely that he will ever have a chance to approach those numbers again. Freeney has not exceeded 32 tackles in a seasons since his rookie year in 2002. The bottom line here is simple. If your scoring system is based on big plays both Freeney and Mathis are quality options but if your scoring is balanced or tackle heavy they are little more than bye week depth at best... The team used their first round pick on DE Jerry Hughes who will likely fit right into the rotation and could eventually replace one of the starters. Hughes however, is also undersized and is a very similar type of player. There is little reason to believe his role would ultimately be any different... The story is much the same at the tackle positions where we never know who will produce from one week to the next. Daniel Muir led the Colts defensive line in tackle last season with 43. He reached double digit fantasy points in five games but posted 4 or fewer in ten games. Eric Foster totaled 31 tackles and hit double digit fantasy points four times. He also failed to exceed four points in eight games. Antonio Johnson had a pair of games with double digit points and nine with four or fewer. With all of these guys the four or fewer often meant zero or one. Last year's second round pick Fili Moala saw very little action as a rookie and is expected to have a much bigger role this season. Unfortunately the way the Colts rotate these guys on a play to play and seemingly week to week basis, there is just no way of knowing which guy to put in your lineup on any given week, or any reason to have one of them on your roster...

    Fantasy Outlook

  • DE Dwight Freeney - 13.5 sacks but just 19 tackles last season, depth in large leagues at best
  • DE Robert Mathis - 9.5 sacks but only 25 tackles in '09, depth at best
  • DE Jerry Hughes - Dynasty sleeper but not to be excited about unless the Colts change their routine
  • DE Keyunta Dawson - No value
  • DT Antonio Johnson - No value
  • DT Fili Moala - No value
  • DT Eric Foster - No value
  • DT Daniel Muir - No value
  • Linebackers

    Gary Brackett continues to be one of the most underrated linebackers in the fantasy game. Since becoming a starter in 2005 he has averaged just over 92 tackles and three takeaways per sixteen games. Brackett battled a sore knee early in 2009 that caused him to miss a couple of games and he played at less than 100% in a few others. When you consider that he also played sparingly in weeks 15 & 16 when the Colts were resting starters, the 80 tackles he recorded are pretty strong. If you add in the three playoff games he was 100-23-1 in roughly 16 games worth of action. For three consecutive seasons between '05 and '07 Brackett ranked among the top twenty. Had he not missed four games in 2008 and the two last season, he would easily be on a run of five. He can be counted on for quality production and consistency but there are some risks that come with Brackett. He's 30 years old and has battled nagging injuries in each of the past two seasons. Then there is the inherent risk that comes with all Colts players that he could be rested late in the season if the team has clenched. The club is apparently not concerned with his recent injury issues as they just inked Brackett to a new five year deal. They obviously trust him and I think we can too. He doesn't make enough big plays to be considered among the top 15 but we can count on him as a solid LB2 or excellent LB3, who he can usually be drafted much later than his value would indicate. Brackett was a deal as the 24th LB off the board in my most recent draft... The Colts WLB position has seen many faces over the past several years but whoever works there tends to be pretty productive. This dates back to guys like Mike Peterson and David Thornton who each hit the century mark in tackles from the position earlier this decade, and continued through Cato June with 96 in 2006, Freddie Keiaho who averaged nearly 6 tackles per start in '08 and Clint Session who was on pace for 96 last season before being rested for the final two games. Session took over the WLB position during the '08 season and seems a pretty safe bet to hold it again in 2010. Like Brackett, Session put up good tackle numbers on a pretty consistent basis but tends to be a little light in the big play columns. He too should be a solid LB2 or a quality LB3. That said, we shouldn't overlook the fact that the Colts have surprised us with lineup changes at the position before. Tyjuan Hagler got some consideration for the job last season and the club used a second round pick on Pat Angerer in April. Angerer is a very interesting dynasty prospect. He was a two year starter at Iowa where where he led the team in tackles for the past two seasons and was a team captain. He figures to backup at MLB for the immediate future and may be groomed to eventually succeed Brackett, but it is noteworthy that he did play a few games on the weak side during college and his scouting report suggest that he could get a look at that position as a pro. Either way, if Angerer lives up to expectations he will get on the field at one of these productive positions within the next year or two. I would consider him a late round sleeper in redraft leagues and he should definitely be on the target list for dynasty owners... Philip Wheeler will fill out the lineup on the strong side. He took over that job last season but didn't make much noise in the box scores. In fact his most productive games were weeks 15-17 when he saw some work at MLB while Brackett sat out. Wheeler was also a MLB in college and could figure into the mix there should Brackett suffer a long term injury.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • MLB Gary Brackett - Quality LB2 or excellent LB3
  • WLB Clint Session - Solid LB2 or strong LB3
  • SLB Philip Wheeler - Injury sleeper
  • MLB/WLB Pat Angerer - Strong dynasty prospect, sleeper for this seasons in redraft leagues
  • OLB Tyjuan Hagler - No value
  • Defensive Backs

    If Bob Sanders could ever stay healthy he would easily be a top 15 DB. Unfortunately there is a better chance that the government will admit to having alien bodies at area 51 than Sanders playing 16 games this season. He has missed more games than he's played over his six NFL seasons and has never played a full slate. He did come close in 2007 when he went 71-25 with 3.5 sacks and three takeaways in 15 games. That season Sanders was the #8 safety. His kamikaze mentality and all out style make him a joy to watch on Sundays, but having him in your lineup makes you cringe every time he goes flying into the pile. If you can get Sanders late in your draft as a backup, the potential is worth putting him on your roster. Just be sure you don't leave yourself depending on him. Who knows, maybe the government will come clean. Over the past two seasons Melvin Bullitt has gotten the call when Sanders has gone down. In 2008 Bullitt made ten starts and was one of the games hot in season pickups. He played a limited role in five other games that season but still managed to finish with 59 solo tackles, 5 takeaways, 9 passes defended and a top 25 ranking. Bullitt played so well in '08 that Sanders was hardly missed. Sanders opened the '09 season on the shelf so everyone jumped on Bullitt again. Unfortunately he just didn't seem to be the same guy. In fourteen starts last season Bullitt was a somewhat disappointing 63-14-0 with just one takeaway and one pass defended. As a result the murmurs about his winning the starting job outright have faded. With the possibility that Sanders will be in the lineup for week one there is no need to draft Bullitt, but when Sanders goes down Bullitt will still be worth consideration in most leagues... While everyone has been trying to figure out if Sanders is worth the trouble, Antoine Bethea has emerged as a very underrated but dependable option for us. Not only has he managed to stay healthy for the last two seasons, Bethea has averaged 72-26 with 10 takeaways and a pair of top 15 finishes at the safety position. He will never be an elite fantasy option but with 8 or more fantasy points in 23 of the last 32 games, we could do much worse than Bethea as a dependable DB2 or excellent depth... Colts defenders were credited with a total of 837 solo tackles last season. There were several clubs that slipped in around or below 700. This has been a yearly thing for Indianapolis and has meant a lot of additional opportunity for everyone, including the corners. As such the Colts corner positions have been very fantasy friendly over the years. The problem has been that everyone who lines up there seems to get injured. Nick Harper averaged well over 60 tackles a season in four years as the Colts starter despite never playing more than 15 games. Marlin Jackson went for 69 solo stops and 4 takeaways in 2007 and was on pace for 80+ tackles through seven games in '08 when he was lost for the season. He then played in just four games in '09. Kelvin Hayden became a starter for the Colts in 2007 and was the #11 corner with a mark of 71-12 with 5 takeaways and 10 PD. He has been on a similar pace over the last two seasons when healthy, but has played in only nineteen of the last 32 games. '09 third round pick Jerraud Powers earned a starting job early last season and was at 56 tackles, 3 takeaways and 10 PD before missing the final three games. Between the Hayden/Powers injuries and working as the nickel back when everyone was healthy, rookie free agent Jacob Lacey was able to rack up 69 tackles, 3 picks and 13 PD in fifteen games last season. Jackson is now on injured reserve in Philly and everyone else is healthy entering camp. If all goes according to expectations Hayden and Powers will be the starters with Lacey returning to the nickel role. Whomever is in the lineup will be worthy of consideration as a CB2 or very strong backup in corner required leagues. If you pick up Powers or Hayden in your draft just be ready to pounce on Lacey at first sign of a hangnail.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • S Antoine Bethea - Solid DB2 or excellent depth
  • S Melvin Bullitt - Injury sleeper with DB2 potential but likely no better than depth
  • S Bob Sanders - Major injury risk with DB1 upside
  • CB Kelvin Hayden - Quality CB2 with injury risk
  • CB Jerraud Powers - Quality CB2
  • CB Jacob Lacey - Injury sleeper with CB2 or better potential
  • CB Kevin Thomas - Deep injury sleeper
  • Jacksonville Jaguars

    Defensive Linemen

    Elvis Dumervil and Jared Allen each totaled more sacks than the embarrassing 14 the Jaguars recorded as a team last season. So as we would expect, the club set out to make an improvement. The result is a completely revamped defensive line. Gone are DE Reggie Hayward and DT John Henderson, replaced by proven veteran Aaron Kampman and tenth overall pick Tyson Alualu. Alualu was not the only rookies addition. In fact the club used their first four draft picks on defensive linemen. With the exception of Kampman they are now very young up front. Of the top seven linemen on the depth chart only DE Derrick Harvey has been with the team for more than one season and only Kampman has been in the league for more than two. On paper the injection of youth and talent gives this unit the potential for great improvement. It would seem that Kampman is the key. Since the retirement of Tony Brackens several years ago, the Jaguars have been in dire need of a quality every down DE who could get to the QB. With the addition of Kampman they seen to have finally solved that problem. The 30 year old is coming off a major knee injury but will be counted on heavily for both quality play and leadership. There is no doubt that before giving him a new contract the team looked hard at the injury situation. They would never have made the investment if they thought it were a concern. As for what we should expect from him, in the three years prior to last, Kampman had proven to be one of the leagues elite defensive ends. Between 2006 and 2008 he averaged 11.5 sacks and had racked up at least 46 solo stops in five consecutive seasons. Kampman was not happy about the Packers move to a 3-4 but even though he felt miscast as an OLB in that scheme, he was on track for 60 tackles and 8 sacks prior to the injury. The signs point to his being healthy and he still has a few good years before age catches up. All things considered, it seems likely that he will return to stud form in 2010. Kampman will be overlooked by many. In fact he was the 14th DE off the board in my most recent draft. If the knee is good he could very well return to the top 5 this season... Being the #8 overall pick of the 2008 draft, Harvey came to the Jaguars with high expectations. As a rookie he played sparingly but he stepped into a full time role in his second season with mixed results. As a run defender he was strong. That showed in the box scores where Harvey totaled 44 solo stops. As a pass rusher he still has plenty of room to improve. His two pro seasons have produced just 6.5 sacks between them with only 2 of those coming in '09. The addition of Kampman should be a huge plus for everyone here and the coaching staff remains very optimistic that Harvey is on the verge of a breakout season in 2010. For most owners he is worthy of a roster spot based on tackle numbers alone. Pick him up in the late rounds as a backup and keep your fingers crossed. He could be a very pleasant surprise... With a pair of rookie 5th round picks behind the starters the Jaguars have no experienced depth at DE. Austen Lane and Larry Hart will compete to be the third end in the pecking order but they are both little more than developmental guys with little immediate potential. Lane produced good numbers in college but that has been played off by the scouting community as a result of the competition level at Murray state. One thing we shouldn't overlook is that Tyson Alualu played end at California, albeit in a 3-4 scheme. If the Jags loose a starter he might become plan B. Over his final two year of college Alualu managed to put up huge tackle numbers in California's 3-4. Most draft experts expected one of the 3-4 clubs to make him a priority on draft day but the Jaguars stepped up and snatched him off the board early. At 295 pounds Alualu is an athletic big man who can stand up at the point of attack but can also get after the passer. He may see some time at end in the Jags 4-3 but the Jacksonville brain trust selected him with the vision that he will line up at tackle. Playing the three technique, they believe he can be a disruptive force in the middle and make an instant impact. Alualu has the tools to be very effective in this role and could immediately become one of the leagues most box score productive interior linemen... 2009 third round round pick Terrance Knighton became an immediate starter as a rookie. The 320+ pound road grader holds up well at the point of attack and will demand a lot of double teams, especially on runs between the tackles. His contribution to the team may not be equaled in the box scores but he will help those around him to be more productive. That said, Knighton went 34-11-1.5 as a rookie and was the #19 defensive tackle. For those in leagues that start two interior linemen he could have value as quality depth with the potential to be a DT2... D'Anthony Smith was the Jaguars second round pick this spring and could also be a factor as early as this season. He was a productive three year starter for Louisiana Tech and has the skill set to develop into a fine pro. At the least Smith will figure in as the #3 tackle and will see some action spelling the starters.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • DE Aaron Kampman - Quality DL1 but there is some risk
  • DE Derrick Harvey - Solid DL2 with upside
  • DE Austen Lane - Developmental prospect
  • DE Larry Hart - Developmental prospect
  • DT Terrance Knighton - Possible depth in tackle required leagues
  • DT/DE Tyson Alualu - Strong sleeper for tackle required leagues
  • DT D'Anthony Smith - Deep sleeper with long term potential
  • Linebackers

    The defensive line got all the attention on draft day but the Jaguars certainly did not overlook their linebacker situation. After a very productive five year stint with the Raiders, MLB Kirk Morrison comes over to Jacksonville via trade. He became the scapegoat for a lacking run defense in Oakland over the past couple of seasons and was shipped out to make room for a bigger more physical Rolando McClain. While it may be true that Morrison didn't fit well in the Raiders current scheme, don't let the underlying gibberish that surrounded his exit from Oakland cloud your view of reality. Morrison is a very good football player who will not only produce on the field but will provide veteran leadership for a young defensive unit. As a rookie in '05 the Raiders played Morrison on the strong side. Even with that disadvantage he was able to record 91 solo tackles. They moved him inside in '06 where he averaged 102-28-1 and was a perennial top 12 LB over his final four years with the team. Not only is Morrison a tackling machine, he is also a capable big play threat with 18 takeaways and 5 sacks over his five seasons in Oakland. I have seen many people downgrade his value due to the change of scenery. Don't be one who makes that mistake. Morrison comes to a situation in Jacksonville that has produced multiple 90+ tackle seasons over the past several years. In fact, Justin Durant started in the middle for the Jaguars last season and was on pace for 99 solo stops had he not missed three games with injury. Morrison falls short of elite status but there is no reason to consider him less than a quality second tier LB1 or an excellent LB2. If the current draft trends hold he could be a great value pick. I was able to land him as the 17th LB off the board in a recent draft... There are a ton of dynasty owners who thought we had struck gold with Durant last year. What looked like gold as now turned to silver but don't discard Durant like a lump of coal. He will move back to WLB this year which is probably where he is best suited to play anyway. At 232 pounds Durant is a little undersized to play inside and is not the most physical player. His speed and athleticism should fit well at a position that allows him to flow and pursue without taking on as many blockers. What we need to know, and hopefully will learn early in training camp, is who will work with Morrison in the nickel packages? Last season Darryl Smith worked at WLB and paired with Durant in those situations. As a result Smith posted what was by far the best numbers of his career at 84-22-1 with six takeaways. He will shift back to his more familiar SLB role this season but may still be in the mix on passing downs. Morrison and Durant are both good in coverage, and while Smith also more than adequate, I would expect him to be the odd man out. If Durant is a three down player he should put up 80+ tackles and sprinkle in enough big plays to be quality depth for us with LB3 potential. If however, Smith lands the nickel duties, it could be just enough to make both players virtually useless to us. If you are sitting on Durant in a dynasty league I suggest you hang tight until we get an answer. If you draft before we get any confirmation, look to pick him up as your 4th or 5th LB and cross your fingers... The Jags also used free agency to upgrade their depth at the LB positions. Former Colt Freddie Keiaho is now the top backup on the outside while Lions 2004 second round pick Teddy Lehman backs up Morrison in the middle. Lehman entered the league with a great deal of potential but has battled injuries his entire career. He could be a pretty productive player if called upon.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • MLB Kirk Morrison - Second tier LB1 or excellent LB2
  • WLB Justin Durant - Quality depth with LB3 upside providing he wins the nickel LB duties
  • SLB Darryl Smith - Depth at best
  • WLB Freddie Keiaho - Injury sleeper
  • MLB Teddy Lehman - Injury sleeper
  • Defensive Backs

    Apparently the Jaguars are counting on the improvements in the front seven to have a big impact on their 27th rated pass defense. A little pass rush would go a long way toward that goal so they have at least taken steps in the right direction. That said, the secondary remains a big question mark. SS Gerald Alexander was a second round pick of the Lions in 2007. He spent much of his rookie season as a starter for Detroit but was injured in 2008 and apparently didn't impress the team enough for them to wait out his recovery. Alexander was picked up by Jacksonville last offseason and plugged in as the starter. He did a serviceable job in NFL terms but was once again less than impressive. He is neither physical nor a playmaker. I would describe him as the kind of safety who will get to the play but let a teammate make the tackle while he guards against the ball carrier escaping. He could feel some heat from Sean Considine during camp but Considine is a very similar player... At 195 pounds Reggie Nelson is a little undersized for a safety. He is a finesse type player that my friend and fellow FBG staffer Sigmund Bloom once described very accurately as an ankle biter. As a rookie in 2007 Nelson was able to make a significant big play impact with 5 interceptions (7 total takeaways) and 11 passes defended. He seemed well on his way to a solid NFL career. His second season produced just a pair of picks and 4 PD while last season Nelson failed to intercept a pass, defended 5 passes and his lone big play contribution was a fumble recovery. The bottom line is that if you are looking for safety help, it is not to be found here. The corner positions however, offer a little more promise. The Jaguars could not be happier with the play of last year's third round pick Derek Cox. As a rookie Cox managed to not only claim a starting job, but also lead the club with 4 interceptions and total a respectable 58 solo tackles. The natural progression of the rookie corner rule would suggest that his tackle numbers could slip a little in his second season but that his big play production should go up. That might be the case here but we need to consider that Rashean Mathis will lineup at the other corner. Mathis missed most of last season with a groin injury but when healthy is the kind of player offenses try to avoid throwing at. Mathis is pushing for a new contract and has not been participating in recent offseason workouts, but is expected to be 100% for training camp. That could mean continued opportunity for Cox. A healthy Mathis could also have good value in corner required leagues. He's played in just 22 games over the past two seasons but has 12 takeaways in those games. Before he started battling injuries in 2008 Mathis had put together a string of five consecutive seasons with 52 or more tackles... Tyrone Brackenridge, Scott Starks and William Middleton will compete with Considine for the job as the 5th DB in the nickel packages.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • SS Gerald Alexander - No value
  • FS Reggie Nelson - No value
  • S Sean Considine - No value
  • S Anthony Smith - No value
  • CB Rashean Mathis - Possible CB2 or solid depth if healthy
  • CB Derek Cox - Depth at worst with CB2 potential
  • CB Tyrone Brackenridge - No value
  • CB William Middleton - No value
  • CB Scott Starks - No value
  • Tennessee Titans

    Defensive Linemen

    It matters not if you are talking NFL or FFL, there are no proven super stars along the Titans front four. There is however, a lot of young talent and potential. First round pick Derrick Morgan replaces long time starter Kyle Vanden Bosch on the roster and will likely pair with William Hayes as the starting defensive ends. On the inside Tony Brown is locked in and will be joined by either James Jones or Jovan Haye. All of these guys have the potential to be productive fantasy options. There is one big question that we need answered before we know if they will live up to that potential. Will the Titans continue to use a rotation that resembles a line change in hockey, or will these players finally be on the field enough to make an impact? As a unit the Titans front four posted a pretty respectable 24.5 sacks in '09. The problem being that the numbers were spread so evenly that no one was able to stand out in the box scores. Rather than naming starters and having them play 75-80% of the snaps as most teams do, the Titans elected to shuffle multiple players in and out of the lineup with no one seeing more than 69% of the snaps. As a result seven players in all recorded at least two sacks while DE Jacob Ford led the club with just 5.5. When I throw these numbers out there it can be difficult to fully understand the impact. Maybe this will help. Hayes was on the field for approximately 61% of the defensive snaps on the season overall. In four games he recorded double digit fantasy points. In those four games he averaged 73% of the snaps. In the other 12 games he averaged 4.5 fantasy points. As with many things in life, opportunity is everything. Hayes opened last season behind Jevon Kearse but moved into the starting lineup in week five. He was very impressive at times but never seemed to get into a rhythm (another drawback of the line change situation). By the end of the season his 31 solo tackles were second only to Kyle Vanden Bosch's 32 among Titans linemen, and his 4 sacks were among the team leaders. Hayes is one of my favorite sleepers at the DE position. If given the opportunity to play 75% or more of the snaps he could very well become a 40+ tackle guy who approaches double digit sacks every year... Morgan was the Titans first round pick this year and will be given every opportunity to win a starting job right away. He was a very productive two year starter for Georgia Tech who entered the draft after his junior year. Morgan is not a flashy guy but has the talent and drive to become one of the leagues better every down ends over the next few years. On his scouting report the positives take up half a page and say things like "excellent size, motor never stops, physical, good instincts" etc. There may have been a couple of ends in the draft with more raw potential but Morgan was considered by many as the safest bet to succeed at the pro level. Defensive ends rarely have huge seasons as rookies and Morgan has the possibility of a rotation to deal with, but he also has great long term potential. Pick him up as a late round sleeper in redraft leagues or tuck him away on a taxi squad in your dynasty league and hope the coaching staff lets him stay on the field... One of the reason Tennessee elected to use the rotation system last year was the quality of their depth. Ford did a good job with his opportunity and could contend with Morgan for the starting job early on. Jason Babin is a journeyman who seems to make a contribution wherever he lands. He's a better than average pass rusher who could factor into the rotation if the Titans continue to use it. Dave Ball recorded 19 tackles and 4.5 sacks in a part time role in 2008. His playing time was very limited last season but he could also factor into the mix... Heading into last season everyone wanted to know who would replace Albert Haynesworth at tackle. The Titans were counting on Tony Brown and Jason Jones to get the job done. As it turned out the answer was no one. The season opened with the same kind of mass rotation at tackle. That lasted until a shoulder injury limited Jones even further and landed him on IR after seven games. The loss of Jones contributed to Brown seeing 69% of the snaps, but no one was able to impact the game like Haynesworth did. Brown did a solid job for the team and his respectable 28 tackles and 5 sacks made him a decent fantasy option at a thin position. Jones showed some reason for optimism by putting up 4 sacks before the injury. He had surgery on the shoulder and is expected to be ready for training camp. Jovan Haye, Kevin Vickerson and last year's second round pick Sen'Derrick Marks filled out the rotation in '09 but no one stood out. Vickerson is no longer with the club so Marks is likely to take on a bigger role. If Brown and Jones end up with something close to a full time role they could both have good fantasy value in tackle required leagues. If the coaching staff continues last year's approach, no one in this front four will be better than inconsistent depth for us.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • DE William Hayes - Big potential if he gets the opportunity
  • DE Derrick Morgan - Redraft sleeper and dynasty special
  • DE Dave Ball - No value
  • DE Jacob Ford - Dark horse sleeper, a lot of things would have to happen
  • DE Jason Babin - No value
  • DT James Jones - Potential top 12 DT if he can stay healthy and get enough snaps
  • DT Tony Brown - Depth at the least with DT1 upside
  • DT Jovan Haye - Minimal value at best
  • DT Sen'Derrick Marks - Deep sleeper at best
  • Linebackers

    MLB Stephen Tulloch had a breakout season in 2009 when he led the club with 94 solo tackles and finished among the top 20 linebackers for the first time. What is even more impressive is that he did it as a two down player for most of the season. Through the first thirteen games Tulloch was rarely on the field in passing situations. In fact, when Tennessee played the pass happy Cardinals in week 12, he played just 29 snaps. This explains why he was lacking in the big play columns where he totaled just 2 sacks, 1 fumble recovery and a single pass defended. The big tackle numbers are a testament to Tulloch's nose for the football. The fact that he was added to the nickel packages over the final three games is even more reason for optimism. Coincidentally Tulloch averaged 9 solo tackles over those three games. There is no guarantee that he will be an every down player in 2010 but the signs point to that being the case. Keith Bulluck is no longer with the team and the coaching staff is looking for Tulloch to take on a leadership role. Its hard for a player to be a leader if he's not on the field every down. Considering his production in last year's situation, an expanded role could mean huge numbers for Tulloch this season. At worst we can depend on him as a quality LB2 and he could very well finish among the top 10... Once we get past Tulloch there is some uncertainty. Will Witherspoon is set to replace Bulluck at WLB and nine year veteran David Thornton will get the call on the strong side, but neither of these guys are entrenched for the long term. Witherspoon has been a very productive fantasy option during his career. He started last season in St. Louis and finished in Philadelphia after a trade. Despite the mid season change Witherspoon still managed a solid 80 tackles with 3 takeaways and a sack. He is a versatile player who can rush the passer or cover a receiver with equal success. Witherspoon's best numbers came while with the Rams in '06 and '07. Over those two seasons he combined for 198 solo tackles, 10 sacks and 7 takeaways. With the situation at linebacker in Philly its a little puzzling that the Eagles didn't make an effort to keep him, but the Titans are happy they didn't. Witherspoon's coverage skills all but guarantee that he will be an every down player. As such he should be good for 80+ tackles and enough big plays to be a solid LB3 or excellent depth at the worst... Thornton averaged 90 solo tackles over his first two season with the Titans in '06 & '07. His production plummeted in '08 and Thornton battled injuries much of last season. If Gerald McGrath were not suspended for the first four games, Thornton would likely be in for a battle to keep his starting job. As it stands he should be in the lineup when the season opens but may not be there when it ends... The club used a third round pick on undersized WLB Rennie Curran who could become a factor for the Titans in the very near future. Curran earned a starting job late in his freshman year and went on to have a very productive college career that included being a two time team MVP and a Butkus award finalist. He is an intense competitor who is extremely strong, shows great instincts and hits like a train. Curran came out after his junior year and if not for his short stature, would likely have been drafted a little higher. He will be groomed to eventually take over the WLB job. If he picks up the pro game quickly as expected, he could push Witherspoon out of a job as soon as next season. Dynasty owners should look to tuck Curran away on a taxi squad or the back of your roster for safe keeping.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • MLB Stephen Tulloch - Quality LB2 with top 10 potential
  • WLB Will Witherspoon - Solid LB3 with a little upside
  • SLB Gerald McRath - No value at this time
  • SLB David Thornton - No value
  • WLB Rennie Curran - Sleeper/Dynasty alert, could have a very bright future
  • OLB Colin Allred - No value
  • OLB Stanford Keglar - No value
  • Defensive Backs

    The Titans entered the offseason looking to improve their 31st ranked pass defense. There have been a handful of tweaks and additions but nothing that stands out as a major improvement. Chris Hope and Michael Griffin will have no immediate challengers for the starting safety jobs. Hope came over from Pittsburgh in 2006 and exploded in his first season as a Titan. His 89-32 in the tackle columns were boosted by 6 takeaways and 15 passes defended to make Hope the #1 fantasy DB that season. Unfortunately he was a one year wonder and has not come close to that kind of production since. 2007 started out slow and got worse when Hope finished the season on IR. He has rebounded a little over the last two years with 8 takeaways and 3 sacks over that span, but has averaged just 65 solo tackles and 15 assists. Those numbers are good enough to provide depth in most leagues but the upside is limited... Griffin is a big play free safety who forgot to make big plays in '09. The 2007 first round pick was not a starter at the beginning of his rookie season but still managed 41 tackles and 3 picks. Griffin opened 2008 as the starter, finishing with 55 tackles, 7 interception (9 total takeaways) and 11 passes defended for a top 10 finish among safeties. It is hard to put a finger on what happened last season when the tackle numbers were very similar but Griffin picked off just 1 pass and defended 7. Without the big play production Griffin is very ordinary and provides us with little value. What we have to decide is which season was the norm, was it the 7 picks in '08 or the 1 in '09? The answer probably lies somewhere in between but the sub 60 tackle numbers are a constant. As such that is what we have to look at. Griffin could bounce back a little in 2010 but I can tell you with certainty that he will not be found on any of my rosters. Consider him depth at best... Over the past couple of seasons Vincent Fuller has seen action mostly in the nickel packages where he has often worked at FS while Griffin covers the slot receiver. Considering the limited role Fuller has put up some decent numbers. Should one of the starters go down he would step into the full time role and could be fairly productive... The only lineup change from last year comes at corner where second year pro Jason McCourty leads the pack in the battle to replace Nick Harper. 2009 third round pick Ryan Mouton, this year's rookie fourth rounder Alrerraun Verner, and veterans Tye Hill and Rod Hood are also in the competition to start opposite Cortland Finnegan. For owners in corner required leagues this is an important competition to keep an eye on. The Titans corner positions have been very fantasy friendly over the past few years. Finnegan has evolved into one of the leagues most respected corners, but unlike many of the top cover men, it has not ruined his box score production. He has put up at least 55 solo stops in each of the past four seasons and totaled 56 last year despite missing three games. He also has 10 interceptions over the last 29 games. Playing opposite Finnegan, Harper was on a streak of three consecutive seasons with at least 64 solo tackles. This despite missing at least two games in each of those years. In '09 Harper had racked up 69 tackles in only 11 games before being injured. Had he remained healthy he was on pace to break 100. This is not to suggest that Harper's replacement will approach triple digit tackles, but its a pretty safe bet he will put up good numbers. We know that Finnegan is a proven quality CB2 and that McCourty will enter camp as the favorite to start opposite him. My suggestion would be to let someone else draft Finnegan and pick up McCourty in the last couple of rounds. I was able to get him at pick 46.14 a few weeks ago. He may prove to be the steal of the draft... One rookie that dynasty owners should keep an eye on is safety Myron Rolle. He is a developmental player who's draft status was hurt because he has other aspirations outside of football. Rolle is a linebacker in the body of a safety and lacks elite measurable traits, but is extremely intelligent and highly motivated to prove doubters wrong. He is going undrafted in most leagues so we don't really need to make roster space at this point, but Rolle should be on our radar during the preseason. I just love a strong safety with a chip on his shoulder.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • SS Chris Hope - Quality depth with a little upside
  • FS Michael Griffin - Minimal value at best
  • S Vincent Fuller - Injury sleeper
  • S Myron Rolle - Deep dynasty sleeper
  • CB Cortland Finnegan - Quality CB2 
  • CB Jason McCourty - Sleeper with big potential
  • CB Ryan Mouton - Sleeper, probably the strongest competition for McCourty
  • CB Tye Hill - No value
  • CB Rod Hood - No value
  • CB Alterraun Vener - Deep dynasty sleeper
  • That's a wrap on the AFC South. I'll be back in a week or so with the NFC South. Until then, questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to norton@footballguys.com.

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