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Eyes of the Guru IDP Info, Part 4: AFC North - Footballguys

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

Just as a reminder or for those who may be new to the Eyes of the Guru series. For reference, when mentioning where players finished in the rankings last season, the 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.

Cincinnati Bengals

Defensive Linemen

The Cincinnati defense did well against the pass in 2017. Their 41 sacks ranked among the top third of the league and their 6.5 yards per attempt was tied for third behind Jacksonville and Minnesota. Run defense as a different story however as the Bengals finished in the bottom three, and no one forced fewer takeaways. With a clear objective entering the offseason, the organization made potentially significant additions at all three levels.

The team has no lack of talent or box score production up front where defensive end Carlos Dunlap and tackle Geno Atkins are the headliners. Dunlap has been the epitome of consistency throughout his career. With the exception of an injury-shortened 2011, he has at least seven and a half sacks in each of his eight seasons with no fewer than 30 solo tackles since becoming a three-down player in 2012. It looked as if Dunlap might have taken the next step to join the elite when he blew up for a career-best 13.5 sack in 2015. Instead, the next two seasons proved the big numbers to be an outlier. His fantasy value gets a boost in scoring systems awarding points for batted passes. At 6'6", Dunlap is hard to throw over and his wingspan makes him equally tough to throw around. He had an impressive 15 batted passes in 2016, adding 7 more last year. Dependability is a valuable commodity in fantasy circles so Dunlap's six consecutive finishes among the Top 15 are clearly a factor in determining where he fits on draft boards. We should target him as a low-end DL1 or priority DL2 with Top 10 upside.

Early rumors suggest there may be some shakeup at the other defensive end spot. That job has belonged to Michael Johnson for much of the past decade but the 31-year-old has seen a shift in role over the past two seasons. Having exceeded five and a half sacks once in nine years, we know Johnson is not an elite edge rusher. In 2016 we started seeing him slide inside on passing downs on a fairly regular basis. Last season Johnson took even fewer sub-package snaps at end and we are now hearing talk of the second year pro Jordan Willis possibly starting opposite Dunlap. There are two things we really need to keep an eye on here; what is Johnson's positional designation and if he is going to be on the field in base packages. Over the last three years, he has averaged 32 tackles, 13 assists, and 4.5 sacks. As a defensive end, those numbers make Johnson no more than depth in most leagues. If tagged as a tackle the same numbers make a low end DT1.

Willis was the Bengals third-round pick in 2017. As a rookie he saw action on better the 25% of the defensive snaps, accounting for 17 tackles, 8 assists, and a sack. The coaching staff liked what they saw from him on the field but with one sack on the season, his box score production was not particularly impressive. It is expected that Willis will have a much bigger role in 2018 and may move past Johnson on the depth chart. This is an interesting situation and one we will want to watch closely. Willis had 20 sacks in two years as a starter for Kansas State and could emerge as a high upside sleeper target.

Before we get too excited about Willis there are a couple other names to mention. Third round pick Sam Hubbard has already made an impression with Marvin Lewis saying the rookie is way ahead of the curve and is expected to be an immediate contributor. Then there is last year's fourth-round steal Carl Lawson who had eight sacks as a sub-package rush specialist. There is no doubt he is going to have an opportunity to build on those numbers.

 The IDP perspective is much clearer at the interior positions where Atkins is the only sure answer. Double-digit sacks by an interior lineman are not very common; Atkins has done it twice. With the exception of 2013 and 2014 which were affected by injury, Atkins has at least eight sacks in every season since becoming a starter in 2011. The only concern here is somewhat inconsistent tackle totals from year to year. Not counting the injury seasons, Atkins has three campaigns with 30 or more solo stops and two years with 26 or fewer since 2011. He is an exceptionally athletic big man with a low center of gravity that makes offensive linemen miserable. Atkins will see some double teams but the Bengals have enough talent around him to keep blocking schemes honest. In his six healthy seasons as a pro, Atkins has five top-15 finishes including three in the Top 10 and a pair in the Top 5. He turned 30 over the offseason and has plenty of football left, so there is no reason to expect less than DT1 production in 2018.

Stopping the run was a problem for the Bengals last year. While much of the blame falls on the linebackers, the team beefed up the interior line as well with the free agent addition of Chris Baker. Cincinnati parted ways with longtime starter Domata Peko Sr last summer with the expectation of youngsters Andrew Billings and Ryan Glasgow filling the void. They were serviceable for the most part but were exploited at times, particularly late in the season. In Baker, the team has a slightly younger version of Peko. At 6'2" and 320-pounds, Baker can be a space eating anchor for the run defense. He had 10.5 sacks in his final two seasons with the Redskins (2015-2016) so he can contribute a little to the pass rush as well. Cincinnati will keep Baker will be on the sideline in most passing situations so his box score potential will be limited.

Linebackers

The Bengals linebacker positions are loaded with storylines, uncertainties and yes, IDP value. The second level gets much of the blame for the porous run defense in 2017 but it was not so much due to a lack of talent. The main issue was a constant shuffling due to injuries and suspensions that kept the group from developing chemistry or consistency. Unfortunately, 2018 is already off to a similar start.

In terms of talent, work ethic and natural ability, Vontaze Burfict is among the best linebackers in the league. He is also a head case who struggles to control his emotions on the field, has a hard time staying out of trouble off it, and sometimes plays too physically for his own good. Burfict is a talented player with the potential to be a fantasy star if only he can stop being his own worst enemy. He went undrafted in 2012 due to having the same issues at Arizona State. The Bengals gave him a shot and Burfict rewarded them initially. He was a top ten fantasy linebacker in 2013 finishing with 113 solo stops, 57 assists, 3 sacks, 8 passes defended, 4 turnovers and a defensive touchdown. In four seasons since he has missed 28 games due to injuries and suspensions; and is set to miss the first four to start 2018 due to performance enhancing drugs. His fantasy value is hard to pinpoint because when he plays Burfict usually puts up top 10 linebacker production.  The suspension and his history will push him way down most draft boards but this is a guy that can help us win championships once he returns. Unless of course there is a repeat of last season when Burfict was suspended the first two games then missed most of the last four with a sore shoulder and concussion symptoms. If he falls far enough it would be silly not to take a shot, but how far is far enough? When it comes right down to it each owner will have to decide how lucky they feel.

Strange as it may sound, Burfict may be the easiest call among Cincinnati's linebackers. As a rookie in 2016 Nick Vigil did not play a lot but turned heads when he did. He was promoted to starter on the strong side last spring and eventually earned a spot in nickel sub packages. Being stuck on the strong side limited Vigil's tackle production but the sub package snaps allowed him to average 10 points per game through week 11. An ankle injury early in week 12 ended Vigil's season. This is a player the coaching staff continues to be high on but it is unclear what his role will be going forward.

Carl Lawson was moved to strongside backer early in the offseason. According to Marvin Lewis, the switch was made in order to get Lawson on the field more. Many people read between the lines and take this to mean Lawson will start at the position. To be perfectly clear, no one has said that at this point. Lawson played some linebacker at Auburn with relatively poor reviews in terms of his ability to hold ground, shed and tackle versus the run. The coaching staff would like the versatility of an early-down outside backer that could rush off the edge on passing downs. This would negate the need for so many situational substitutions and give call flexibility if opponents go to a no-huddle while Lawson is on the field. He is sure to see some work at linebacker but we should hold off a bit before anointing him as a starter.

Last offseason the Bengals signed Kevin Minter to replace Rey Maualuga as their two down run stuffer. The move did not turn out well as Minter was not a good fit. This offseason they traded for Preston Brown who should work out much better. At 250 pounds he is an old-school type middle linebacker. Big by today's standards, Brown is a physical presence versus the run with respectable cover skills. He brings a lot of potential from a fantasy perspective but Brown is far from a sure thing. With 82 tackles and 61 assists for the Bills in 2017, he is coming off the most productive season of his career in that area. The one factor absent from Brown's game last year was big play production. After totaling nine turnovers and a sack over his first three seasons with Buffalo, he failed to put a mark in any of those columns in 2017. As with many linebackers, the biggest factor in Brown's IDP value for 2018 will come down to having a sub-package role. In 2017, Burfict and Vigil were the Bengals three-down linebackers when everyone was healthy. With Burfict out for the first four games, chances are Brown will pair with Vigil on third downs in September. After that, there is a risk Brown is relegated to a two-down role. If he somehow comes out of camp with a three-down role that lasts all season, Brown could easily be a quality third starter for you.

As if this situation was not cloudy enough already, Cincinnati still has Veteran Vincent Rey in the mix and they drafted Malik Jefferson out of Texas in round three. Rey's versatility has been priceless to the team over the past few years. He has never gone into a season with the title of starter, yet he has at least 51 solo stops in each of the last four years. Rey has been the team's top backup at all three positions since 2013 though he is probably best suited to play on the weak side. He is not the most physical player versus the run but is a dependable tackler that plays well in coverage. As in past years, Rey will be a backup on the depth chart come week one but he will probably end up playing a lot. From a fantasy perspective, Rey has been productive when given enough opportunity. He is not roster-worthy at this point but could once again be a factor at some point.

Jefferson's skill set is that of a weakside backer in the NFL. He has the height, weight, speed combination that teams covet, and is a gifted athlete, but scouts question his instincts and toughness. The organization is still standing behind Burfict despite all he has gone through, but the drafting of Jefferson has to make us wonder if they are preparing to move on to the next issue. Dynasty owners may want to tuck the rookie away for safe keeping.

Defensive Backs

There has been a long drought when it comes to consistent fantasy production from the Bengals safety positions. Injuries have been an issue for strong safety Shawn Williams for much of his five-year career. A healthy and fairly productive 2016 by Williams in his first season as a starter had many optimistic he would buck the trend last year. It was not to be as his numbers were weak from the start and got worse when nagging injuries again became an issue over the second half of the season. The coaching staff is looking for a physical presence at the position but also someone that will contribute in the big play columns. Williams may still be that player but the organization is prepared to move on after drafting Jessie Bates in round two.

Checking in at 6'1" and 200-pounds, Bates is not the biggest or most physical of safeties but he is more than willing to deliver a hit. He has the speed and athletic ability to handle man coverage with the instincts and ball skills to make plays in zone. Aggression, work ethic, and a high energy level are some of the traits that prompted the Bengals to pick him. The other thing they were undoubtedly looking at is what fantasy owners should also be paying attention to, that being production. In two seasons as a starter for Wake Forest Bates delivered 119 solo stops, 58 assists, 6 interceptions, a pair of forced fumbles and a couple touchdowns. He is not a lock to start right away but there is a good chance Bates will get into the lineup at some point this season even if it is due to an injury. There is no immediate value with Bates but he is worthy of taxi squad consideration in dynasty leagues and is a player even redraft owners should keep track of this preseason.

Another option the Bengals could ponder is shifting George Iloka from free safety to strong. This move would make a lot of sense when you consider Iloka is 6'4" and 225 pounds. Size does not always dictate skill set, however. Iloka saw some time at strong safety earlier in his career but never seemed to fit the bill. Thus the coaching staff has become content with him as the centerfielder. Iloka is not a particularly physical tackler but he rarely misses. He is not particularly impressive as a playmaker but will contribute in that area. In short, he is a good dependable veteran presence for the Bengals but is not a player that shows up big in the box scores.

Cincinnati has established a pattern of drafting quality corners in the first round then having them work as backups for a while before breaking the starting lineup. This approach has kept the team well stocked at the position over the years but now has created somewhat of a logjam. In 2012 they landed Dre Kirkpatrick in round one. In 2014 they took Darqueze Dennard in the first and in 2016 it was William Jackson at 26 overall. Kirkpatrick broke into the starting lineup in 2015 and had an immediate impact. Dennard replaced Adam Jones in the lineup last season, going on to lead the secondary in both tackles and interceptions. After losing his rookie season to injury, Jackson spent most of last year working in nickel packages until the coaching staff began to realize he might be the best corner on the team.

You will never hear an NFL coach complain about having too many good players but for fantasy owners, this situation creates a problem. For those in corner-required leagues, Kirkpatrick has provided quality production at times. In 2015 his 64 solo stops were second-most among corners league-wide. After a down year, Kirkpatrick had a strong six-game stretch late last season averaging just short of 14 points. With 62 tackles, 24 assists, 2 sacks, and a pair of interceptions, Dennard was the fantasy game's third-ranked corner at the end of last season. While there is plenty of IDP potential here, the possible emergence of Jackson as a starter makes it difficult to project where it will lie. Dennard will likely be the highest target of the group on most draft boards, but he is also a strong candidate to be the nickel corner which could lessen his opportunity considerably. None of these players has established year-to-year consistency at this point. Your best approach may be to avoid them all on draft day then pick up the guy who produces early.

Cleveland Browns

Defensive Linemen

It is true the Browns have not put many marks in the win column over the past two years. What they have done is stockpile extra picks and dump a lot of expensive players to create cap room; then use the opportunity of selecting early to land young talent and fill in around them with solid veterans via free agency and trades. Statistically, the Browns were great versus the run and poor against the pass in 2017. At 3.4 yards per carry, the rush defense was second in the league while the pass defense ranked 26 at 7.4 yards per attempt. The team forced 14 fumbles but only the Raiders had fewer interceptions than Cleveland's 7. The second season in Gregg Williams' scheme should mean a significant improvement in the areas of need for this young unit.

Jackson's first draft as head coach netted defensive end/ outside linebackers Emmanuel Ogbah in round two and Carl Nassib in the third. Another key addition in 2016 was undrafted free agent tackle, Trevon Coley. Keep in mind Cleveland was still running a 3-4 in 2016. In 2017 the Browns hired Gregg Williams to run the defense and subsequently switched to a 4-3. They then used the first pick of the draft on end, Myles Garrett, adding tackles Larry Ogunjobi and Caleb Brantley in the third and sixth respectively. This spring they selected defensive end Chad Thomas in the third and picked up veteran pass rusher Chris Smith via free agency, leaving tackle Jamie Meder and end Nate Orchard as the only remaining links to the previous coaching staff.

This is a young group with plenty of talent but they have proven nothing thus far. Much of the pressure and burden of proof falls on Garrett who was the consensus top pick in last year's draft. Unfortunately, his rookie campaign was sidetracked early on by a concussion that kept him out until week five. By week seven he was full go and had settled into a three-down role. Even with the slow start, Garrett managed seven sacks as a rookie. Having a total of 32.5 over his college career, expectations are high as Garrett could emerge as one of the NFL's best in year two. His tackle production was not great in 2017 but Garrett is more than just a pass rusher. At 6'4" and 272 pounds, he is just as tough versus the run and is set to be a cornerstone of the Browns defense for years to come. Because he has not yet produced big numbers at the pro level, many IDP owners will hesitate to pick Garrett early with the other elite linemen. This could make him a steal if he can be picked up after the first 10 linemen are gone.

Garrett is the clear cut number one in Cleveland, but opposite him, nothing is clear at all. Ogbah is thought to be the early favorite for the other starting job but he is far from a lock. As a rookie in 2016 Ogbah worked at the outside linebacker position in the 3-4. Despite being a rookie and new to the role, he managed to lead the Browns with 5.5 sacks. As expected the shift to a 4-3 was not an issue for Ogbah who played defensive end at Oklahoma State, where he totaled 24 sacks in two years as a starter. He got off to a solid start in 2017 with a pair of sacks, a forced fumble, and a recovery by the end of Week 4. That is when his season started downhill. Ogbah kept playing but was bothered by hamstring and shoulder injuries until week eleven when a foot injury and subsequent surgery landed him on IR. If healthy Ogbah has a good shot at reclaiming the starting job but we have seen this type of foot injury linger. Training camp will be huge for the third-year pro and will give us an opportunity to see where he is in recovery.

All the Browns defensive ends will have an opportunity to make their case for playing time. Nate Orchard was drafted by the previous coaching staff to play outside backer in a 3-4. He had modest success with 4 sacks as a rookie then spent nearly all of 2016 on IR. Last season he saw action as a backup both early when Garrett was out and again late after Ogbah was shelved. He would seem a long shot for more than a backup role if everyone is healthy.

There is speculation out there that Nassib might be on the roster bubble this summer while others have him penciled in as a starter if Ogbah is not ready. It is safe to say the team will not be keeping six defensive ends so someone will probably be let go. There are some things working in Nassib's favor though. He was a drafted after Jackson took over as coach and took more snaps than any other defensive end on the roster last season.  Nassib is significantly bigger than Orchard and more suited to an early-down role in the event of an injury. Regardless how it plays out, neither Orchard nor Nassib is likely to be any factory for IDP owners.

The final two pieces of the defensive end puzzle are rookie Chad Thomas and veteran free agent addition Chris Smith. These two are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Smith is a fifth-year journeyman with seven and a half career sacks. He had little opportunity over three seasons with Jacksonville but played well in a part-time role for the Bengals last year. He could win a roster spot as a sub package pass rusher but is no threat at this point to land a starting role.

Team's rarely cut rookies taken in the third round so Thomas is a safe bet to make the roster as a developmental prospect with high upside. His production at Miami was rather mediocre to the tune of 41 tackles, 37 assists and 9 sacks in two years as a starter. Some scouts suggest he can be a better pro than college player with the right coaching. Many of those same scouts warn Thomas has a low floor with potential to be a bust.

Cleveland lacks big names at the tackle position but they are not short on talent or fantasy potential. Trevon Coley led the Browns defensive line with 24 tackles in 2017, adding 18 assists and a couple sacks to finish just inside DT2 range at number 24. He never put up great numbers during four years as a starter at Florida Atlantic but had respectable stat lines in both his junior and senior seasons, including a combined 10 sacks and 6 turnovers. His responsibilities in the Browns defense are more of a two-gap space eater, but if the talent around him prospers, he could make more box score impact than his role suggests.

The most interesting players here are Larry Ogunjobi and Caleb Brantley. Because he was drafted higher many prognosticators have higher expectations of Ogunjobi. Indeed some have already anointed him starter heading into training camp. In truth, the Browns could have a really good problem on their hands here. Coming out of North Carolina Charlotte last year one scout called Ogunjobi a raw version of Sheldon Rankins. He uses leverage quickness and strong hands to counter what scouts called average size at 6'2" and 305 pounds. What the Browns see in Ogunjobi is a disruptive penetrating tackle with a low center of gravity and enough athleticism to contribute as an inside pass rusher. He was on the field for roughly 30% of the defensive snaps last season with totals of 18 tackles, 14 assists, and a sack.

What many fail to consider is Brantley fell to round six due to off-field issues that followed him from Florida and an incident right before the draft that had him potentially facing assault charges that were eventually dropped. What IDP owners need to keep in mind is the same scout that compared Ogunjobi to Sheldon Rankins, compared Brantley to Aaron Donald. Brantley has a compact frame with tremendous play strength. Unlike Ogunjobi who can be overwhelmed by bigger offensive linemen, Brantley is able to stand his ground versus double teams and/or blow up blockers on the way to the backfield. He has the quickness and athletic ability to play the 3-technique and the power to work as a nose tackle if called upon to do so. Brantley's college numbers are not going to tell us much since he missed a lot of playing time-related to off-field problems. If not for those issues many scouts believe he would have gone in the late first or early second round. All things considered, we could see Cleveland use all three of these players in a fairly equal rotation. There was not a lot of fantasy value here in 2017 but that may well change going forward.

Linebackers

The 2017 Browns were a rare example of a team leaving all three linebackers on the field in nickel situations. Both weak side backer Christian Kirksey and middle backer Joe Schobert played 1072 snaps with Jamie Collins Sr and James Burgess Jr combining for 980 on the strong side. There is a chance the team's struggles versus the pass last season could lead to a modification of this approach; unless of course the coaching staff is confident their additions in the secondary will get the job done.

 From the fantasy perspective, the Browns linebacker positions were a goldmine in 2017. Schobert ranked highest coming in around number six on the strength of 87 tackles, 57 assists, 3 sacks, 3 forced fumbles and an interception. Kirksey was three slots behind with remarkably similar totals. Collins opened the season on the strong side, giving way to Burgess when injuries caused him to miss 10 games. The defense did not miss a beat with Burgess in the lineup as he assumed the full responsibilities of Collins, including third down snaps. Adding their totals together would have given the Browns an unprecedented third top-15 linebacker. If the coaching staff elects to stick with the same approach in 2018, there is no reason to expect much drop in value for any of the three starters. As a wise man once said, "if" can be the biggest word in the English language.

Opinions are all over the place about what effect the addition of Mychal Kendricks will have. A lot of people could be reading too much into it all together. Cleveland's excellent run defense was largely due to the quality of play at the second level. The four linebackers making starts on the season also contributed 11.5 sacks, forced 7 fumbles and picked off 2 passes. It is hard to see the coaching staff having a reason to change much. Kendricks is no better in coverage than last year's starters so he was not brought on board to improve the pass defense.

With the emergence of Schobert in the middle and the quality play of James Burgess Jr in relief of the injured Jamie Collins Sr; the Browns find themselves in position to be not only good but deep at linebacker as well. They were in a good position cap-wise after moving high priced veterans like Joe Haden and Danny Shelton. Adding a quality veteran at linebacker was a good way to spend some of that money. Making the decision even easier, Kendricks was willing to sign a one-year, incentive-based deal that basically pays backup money if he fails to earn a starting job. In early June, Coach Jackson said Kendricks would be used at middle linebacker initially but there was nothing said suggesting he would start. The coaching staff would be silly not to take a look at all their options so anything is possible here. In the end, there will be a role for Kendricks but it may be as the top backup to Schobert and Kirksey. He will have to be impressive and stay healthy to have a shot at supplanting one of the starters.

Defensive Backs

Cleveland used a lot of resources on the secondary in an effort to improve a leaky pass defense. In fact, the only returning starter from last season is strong safety Jabrill Peppers. Changing both teams and positions, former Packers corner Damarious Randall is expected to start at free safety. Fourth-overall pick Denzel Ward should be plugged in right away as the lead corner with free agent additions Travis Carrie, Terrence Mitchell and E.J. Gaines competing to establish the rest of the pecking order. Simply put, the Browns have added a ton of talent, experience and playmaking ability to this unit.

Peppers draft profile last spring called him a Swiss Army Knife due to his versatility and physical traits. He has the speed to cover deep, size to support the run and the ability to get to the passer on a blitz. What he did not have coming out of Michigan and still lacking after his rookie season with the Browns, is a resume that shows quality box score production. Two seasons in the Wolverines lineup as a hybrid linebacker/safety produced an average of 40 tackles and 15 assists with a lone interception representing his big-play production. Those same mediocre totals followed him to Cleveland where Peppers was 45-13-0 with 3 pass breakups and 1 interception in 13 games as a rookie. His contribution to the Browns team effort may be much greater, but until he shows us something in the box scores there is no reason for IDP owners to keep him on our rosters.

If the linebackers soak up almost 250 tackles again this season, there may not be enough opportunity for anyone in the secondary to shine fantasy-wise. Jason McCourty was able to do it last year with his 54 solo stops leading the Cleveland secondary and a team-best five turnovers, but then McCourty seems to produce no matter where he plays.

Ward has the rookie corner rule working in his favor but like Peppers, his box score in college was marginal at best. In 11 games for Ohio State last year Ward totaled 30 tackles, 7 assists and a pair of picks. Travis Carrier racked up 70 solo stops for the linebacker-needy Raiders last season but has not recorded more than one interception in any of his four years as a pro. Terrance Mitchell had a strong 2017 with the Chiefs; totaling 48 tackles, 4 picks and 17 pass breakups in roughly 11 games as a starter or nickel back. He would seem the most likely to succeed of the group in IDP terms but who is to say he was not a one year wonder. E.J. Gaines is also coming off a strong season despite missing five games. He has shown glimpses of fantasy value while with the Bills but is far from a sure thing even if he earns a starting role. One of these guys could emerge as a decent option in corner required leagues but there is no need to invest a roster spot until we know who.

Baltimore Ravens

Defensive Linemen

The Ravens are one of several 3-4 teams getting quality play from their defensive line on the field without much statistical production. Some of that is due to the kind of players Baltimore puts on the field but much has to do with the scheme and how they rotate. Instead of lining up a nose tackle over the center and a pair of ends opposite the offensive tackles, Baltimore slides one of the ends inside in most base packages. In essence, they line up with two defensive tackles positioned more like inside linemen in a 4-3, and one defensive end. On passing downs, one of the linemen usually comes off to make room for the extra defensive back. Then they like to rotate four players through the positions regularly. As a result, Willie Henry led the team's linemen with 598 snaps or roughly 57% of the possible playing time. Michael Pierce was a close second at 595 with Brandon Williams at 475 and Carl Davis 302. Henry accounted for three and a half of the group's five sacks while Pierce led them in tackles with 32. Interestingly the Ravens call all four of these players defensive tackles even though Henry and Davis often line up as traditional 3-4 ends.

Pierce saw more playing time and put up good numbers over the first six games last year when Williams was hurt. Enough, in fact, to finish at 16 among interior linemen despite averaging 1.4 tackles with no sacks over the final 10 games. In the right situation with enough opportunity, he could emerge as an excellent IDP option in tackle required leagues. A few league-hosting sites (including MyFantasyLeague) are listing Henry as a tackle as well. With that designation, his stat line of 24-10-3.5 with a couple fumble recoveries would have landed him in the DT2 range as well last year.

Linebackers

There is no guesswork needed when it comes to the Ravens linebackers. With no significant additions or subtractions, we know what to expect from this group. Year four was the best to date for inside backer C.J. Mosley who bounced back in a big way from what was statistically a down season in 2016. Those who were watching closely realized Mosley played through a sore shoulder most of that season and were not surprised by the comeback. That said, anyone who claims to have predicted him being the top linebacker in the fantasy game is telling a fib. Mosley's 97 solo stops were tied for most in the league while only Lavonte David accounted for more turnovers among linebackers. Mosley is a big physical do-everything player that never comes off the field and is by the design of the defense, set up to make a lot of plays. He will never be any higher in the rankings than last season nor is there reason to believe he will finish significantly lower in 2018.

Patrick Onwuasor started at the other inside backer position last year and had a few decent outings. His numbers were limited however because he was often on the sideline in sub package situations. There is no reason to believe that will change going forward. In fact, fourth-round pick Kenny Young might eventually push for playing time at the position.

For owners in big-play based leagues, there is plenty of value at the outside linebacker positions. Ageless wonder Terrell Suggs led the club in sacks last season with 11, forcing 4 fumbles, and swatting down 4 passes along the way as well. He turns 36 in October and has to start slowing down at some point. With at least eight sacks in five of the last six seasons and double-digit sacks in three of the last four, he is not yet showing any sign of decline.

Matt Judon provided three fewer sacks but made up for it with 51 solo stops, which is strong for a 3-4 outside backer. It is also worth mention that all eight of his sacks came in wee six or later. Judon turns 26 in August and entering year three, is still on the upside of his career. It would be no surprise to see 2018 begin a streak of seasons with 50 solo tackles and double-digit sacks.

In fourth-year pro Za'Darius Smith and last year's second-round selection Tyus Bowser, the Ravens have a pair of quality young backups with upside. Smith has 10 career sacks while working mostly as spot relief and has shown enough to keep the coaching staff optimistic he could eventually start if needed.

Bowser averaged 10 snaps per game as a backup last season. Considering his limited opportunity the nine tackles and three sacks he recorded are fairly impressive. The organization holds high hope for Bowser as the eventual replacement for Suggs. He is likely to see an expanded role in 2018 and is a late-season pickup target for big play league dynasty owners looking for a stash.

Defensive Backs

At six and a half yards per attempt, the Ravens were tied for the third best pass defense in 2017. Baltimore will be returning all starters at this level as well. Veterans Jimmy Smith and Brandon Carr are the starters on the outside with last year's first-round pick Marlon Humphrey working in the slot. While all three of these guys are excellent players on the field, they provide little fantasy opportunity. With 50 tackles, 4 interceptions and 12 passes defended the 32-year-old Carr is coming off his most productive season since 2013 but he was still no more than a marginal CB2 or depth at the position. Smith has one top-20 finish in his seven-year career, but that was five years ago and he has not been close since. Humphrey did a nice job in his part-time role. He played about 60% of the snaps and had 30 tackles but is still looking for his first interception as a pro.

Tony Jefferson put up 78 solo tackles with 4 takeaways, 5 broken up passed and a pair of sacks in fourteen games as a member of the Cardinals in 2016. The Ravens signed him to be an enforcer at strong safety, which is a role he is well suited for. Jefferson excels at run support with the ability to get home on the blitz. While those traits made him a great fit for the Ravens in 2017, the team's history of low box score production from the strong safety position trumped his fantasy value. Jefferson was much more valuable on the field than his meager 55 solo stops would suggest. He will contribute in the big play columns from time to time but not enough to fully make up for the lack of tackle production.

When it comes right down to it the only significant fantasy value in the Ravens secondary lies with Eric Weddle. He was a standout in both NFL and fantasy terms throughout his nine years in San Diego. If not for a couple of injury-shortened seasons Weddle may well have produced at least 75 solo tackles in eight consecutive seasons. When Baltimore signed him in 2016 the high tackle totals went away but his big-play production got even better. Nine years in San Diego saw Weddle total 19 interceptions but only once did he exceed 3 in a season. Two years with the Ravens have produced 10 picks, 3 forced fumbles, a recovery, 2 sacks, 21 passes defended and a score. For fantasy owners, this translates into some week to week inconsistency, but in the end, Weddle's point totals for the season should rank in the top fifteen.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Defensive Linemen

For the second year in a row, Pittsburgh will make no changes up front. With the quality of play and production from this group last year, there is no need. These players are all a great fit for what the Steelers do, and of the teams using three-man fronts, only the Rams got more sacks from their defensive line.

For IDP owners Cameron Heyward is the top target. He is the prototypical 3-4 end with the size and strength to eat up blockers while holding ground at the point of attack and enough athleticism to contribute to the pass rush. In 2017 he did more than simply contribute as to the rush, Heyward led the team with 12 sacks which were the most by any 3-4 lineman in the game. Impressive as it is, this is not something we can expect from him on a regular basis. In fact, heading into last season Heyward's career best was 7.5 sacks in 2014. Other than an injury-shortened 2016, Heyward has at least five sacks every year since 2013. He averages tackle numbers in the mid-30 range and can be counted on for around seven sacks, any more would be a bonus but at least we know he has the upside. Fantasy owners should approach Heyward as a solid second starter or an excellent DL3 if you can get him that late. Let someone else overdraft him as a DL1 based on last year's inflated sack total.

Stephon Tuitt is basically a younger clone of Heyward in many ways. He is slightly bigger with the same skill set and upside. As a second-year pro in 2015 Tuitt recorded career highs in both tackles at 39 and sacks at 6.5. The sack total was second most on the team that year. That kind of production from a young 3-4 end was enough to have fantasy owners thinking he could be headed for a bright future. Unfortunately, Tuitt's totals went the wrong way in 2016, slipping to 27 tackles and 4 sacks in fourteen games. Nagging injuries were some factor that season and he was shut down for the final two games.  Many expected a bounce back last season, but instead, Tuitt battled injury, playing much of the season with a torn biceps that seriously limited his production. Entering his fifth season we are still left wondering if 2015 was just a fluke or if Tuitt can become special. The jury is out on special but chances are good he will at least become useful for IDP owners. Since the numbers have been down for a couple years he will be well under the radar and can be picked up late as depth with upside.

In Tyson Alualu and L.T. Walton, the Steelers have excellent depth that can step in if needed without the defense missing a beat. In fact, Alualu made some starts early last year when Tuitt was not able to go. Between them, they played around 60% of the snaps with a respectable stat line of 34-17-6. If one of the starters goes down for any length of time Alualu could be worth picking up in deeper leagues.

Javon Hargrave does a fine job as the nose tackle. He is a bit smaller than most at the position but at 6'1" his low center of gravity makes it hard for offensive linemen to root him out. If he were on the field more Hargrave might have value in leagues requiring interior linemen. The Steelers are among the 3-4 teams that like to pull the nose tackle on passing downs to get extra defensive backs in the game. As a result, Hargrave saw action on less than 50% of the defensive snaps in 2017.

Linebackers

The loss of Ryan Shazier leaves the Steelers with a big hole at inside linebacker. It is not that Vince Williams is a poor player by any stretch but simply the fact Shazier was so good. Without him, the defensive staff will have to accomplish a lot more by scheme and will have some weakness to mask.

Williams is a quality player who is particularly strong versus the run. The eight he recorded last year were a testament to his ability on the blitz, but they can also be seen as an indicator of Williams' mediocre cover skills. The only significant addition Pittsburgh made at inside backer is free agent signee Jon Bostic who is not even a sure thing to start much less play in sub packages. Third-year man Tyler Matakevich joined the team in 2016 as a developmental seventh-round pick. The coaching staff likes what they have seen from the young man. They believe he has a bright future but it is unclear if he is ready to step up and start. Matakevich is expected to compete with Bostic for a base package role but chances are both will be on the sideline in most sub-package situations.

Williams took over the communication helmet when Shazier was lost last year. He enters this season as the clear leader in the middle and the Steelers only sure fantasy option on the inside. Williams finished last season with a modest 69 solo stops and 20 assists but made up a lot of ground with the 8 sacks. With 155 points on the season, he was a top-24 linebacker, landing in the low LB2 range. We had a small sampling of his potential as the centerpiece of the defense and it is worth mention that his numbers were up a bit over the final four games. There is little doubt the coaching staff will work extensively with Williams to improve his coverage skills but he is not coming off the field much even without significant improvement.  The new role and responsibilities should mean improvement in the tackle column though he may not have as much opportunity to blitz. IDP owners can safely target Williams as a solid second starter with top-15 upside.

When old folks think of Steelers outside linebacker we envision Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene or even James Harrison in his younger years. All those players were perennial double-digit sack artists. In 2017, the pass rush was lead by defensive end Cam Heyward with Williams second from the inside backer spot. Relax Steelers fans, help has already arrived. Playing outside backer in the Steelers zone blitz scheme may be more taxing mentally than physically. Rookies rarely jump right into the lineup and when they do get on the field it generally takes time to start seeing good production. T.J. Watt started his first game as a pro and finished his first season with 40 tackles, 14 assists, 7 sacks, 8 batted passes and a pair of turnovers. Those may not be Pro Bowl numbers but they are rather impressive for the situation. T.J. is probably tired of comparisons to his brother J.J. but fantasy owners should not overlook the fact J.J. Watt was 49-7-5.5 as a rookie before going 68-12-20.5 with 16 batted passes in year two. No one is suggesting T.J. Watt will explode for that kind of production in year two but there is a strong chance his numbers will improve considerably.

The team has one outside linebacker spot secured for the next several years but they still need someone to step up opposite Watt. The organization hopes the presence of Watt will open things up and help 2015 first round pick Bud Dupree get things going. With 13.5 sacks in 41 games over three seasons, Dupree has been a disappointment thus far. The good news being he played and produced a little better last season. Apparently, that was enough to keep the organization from going after more help at the position; or at least it was enough to allow bigger needs to be filled. However we want to take it, this could be a make or break year for Dupree who is nearing the end of his rookie contract.

Defensive Backs

The Steelers made no significant moves to sure up the inside linebacker position, or did they? The top-tier inside backers were gone when Pittsburgh selected Terrell Edmunds at 28. This was somewhat of a head-scratcher at first considering the free agent signing of Morgan Burnett and the quality play of strong safety Sean Davis last season. When we take a closer look at Edmunds skill set it the pick begins to make a lot more sense. At 6'1" and 217 pounds, he is as big as many of the league's safety/linebacker hybrids. He is versatile having played linebacker in 2016 as a sophomore at Virginia Tech before moving to safety last season. Edmunds was even listed as a utility player early in his college career and played some corner for the Hokies. He has the size, speed and man coverage skills to take on tight ends and other big receivers, and does his best work near the line of scrimmage. All this points to Edmunds seeing a lot of time as a nickel linebacker who might even emerge as an early-down starter next to Williams. Some fantasy owners might shy away from the young man due to low production last year. Look back a year further and we see good numbers as a sophomore; then take into consideration he played most of last season with a bad shoulder that required surgery once he was shut down. There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding Edmunds but a ton of potential as well.

Along with Edmunds, the safety combination of Davis and Burnett provides a great deal of versatility for defensive coordinator Keith Butler. When the team added Burnett there was much discussion about who would play strong and who would line up at free. The bottom line here is both players have the versatility to play either. Nothing has been decided here but the early feeling is Davis will stay at strong where he lined up in 2017 and was highly productive. With 71 tackles, 22 assists, a sack, 3 picks, a forced fumble and 8 pass breakups, Davis was a busy man on the way to his first Top-10 finish. We will need to keep a close eye on this situation but so long as his responsibilities are not significantly altered, Davis will be in line for another strong season.

Burnett's role flip-flopped between positions several times during his eight seasons with Green Bay. He had excellent numbers in years when he lined up at strong safety and average production when playing free. The fluctuation had little to do with the quality of play and much to do with scheme and opportunity. Burnett can be a tackling machine as evidenced by his 94 solo stops in 2014, or a big play threat as he showed earlier in his career with 24 takeaways and 7.5 sacks between 2011 and 2014. He had been banged up a lot over the last three years which may have been a consideration when the Packer let him walk this offseason. Burnett brings veteran leadership and quality play to the field. What responsibilities he is given will be a big factor in his fantasy value this year. If he stays at free safety we should not expect much.

Pittsburgh corners rarely provide significant fantasy value. The scheme often puts them in situations that dictate they play it safe, which makes big plays somewhat scarce. Last season Mike Hilton led the team's corners in both tackles with 48, and interceptions with 2. Hilton along with Joe Haden and Artie Burns are set to be the top-3 at the position with Hilton probably working as the slot corner in nickel situations. This is a quality group of players on the field but there is nothing for IDP owners to see here.

  • SS/FS Sean Davis – Low-end DB1 unless he is moved from strong safety
  • FS/SS Morgan Burnett – Marginal value as a free safety, probable third start is he works at strong
  • SS/ILB Terrell Edmunds – Interesting prospect with a ton of upside but no defined role so far
  • FS Marcus Allen – Rookie that will find playing time hard to come by this year
  • CB Artie Burns – No fantasy value
  • CB Joe Haden – Marginal fantasy value
  • CB Mike Hilton – Marginal value with CB4 potential
  • CB Coty Sensabaugh – No fantasy value
  • CB Cameron Sutton – No value at this time

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