Eyes of the Guru IDP Info, Part 3: AFC North

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

Cincinnati Bengals

Defensive Linemen

The 2018 season was a disaster for a Bengals defense that could not stop anything. They were last versus the pass, third from last against the run and last in total yards allowed. Their 34 sacks were more than just four teams while only the Raiders and Buccaneers gave up more points. In fact, the most promising statistic was their 18 turnovers, but even that ranked in the bottom half of the league.

So obviously Cincinnati used a lot of resources on defense, right? Well… not exactly. In fact with the exception of third-round linebacker Germaine Pratt and fourth-round defensive tackle Renell Wren, team’s important additions on defense were basically by subtraction.

The most important change for the Bengals came at the top where Zach Taylor replaces Marvin Lewis as head coach and Lou Anarumo takes over as defensive coordinator. Taylor is an offensive minded coach and with the exception of a few games as the interim in Miami in 2015, Anarumo has never been a defensive coordinator at the pro level. Thus all we know for sure is Cincinnati will continue to run a 4-3 as their base defense.

Bad as this team was statistically last year, there is talent to work with up front. 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 nine 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 last three seasons have proven the big numbers to be an exception.

Dunlop’s fantasy value gets a boost in scoring systems awarding points for batted passes. At 6’6, he is hard to throw over and his wingspan makes him equally tough to throw around. Dunlap had an impressive 15 batted passes in 2016, adding 15 more in two seasons since. Dependability is a valuable commodity in fantasy circles so Dunlap’s seven consecutive finishes at 17 or higher should be a positive factor in determining where he slots on draft boards. In most situations, he should be targeted as a priority DL2.

The Bengals have parted ways with longtime starter Michael Johnson, making room in the lineup for last year’s rookie standout Sam Hubbard. Hubbard was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dreary season. He showed up big right from the start, making plays throughout camp and preseason action. In the 2018 opener, Hubbard barely got on the field. When Johnson was banged up early in week two, Hubbard moved into the rotation going 3-2-1 while sharing time with Jordan Willis. From that point on Hubbard maintained a significant rotational role until taking over as a starter in December. When all the numbers were in he had a line of 28-13-6 with a pair of turnovers and a score on fewer than half the defensive snaps.

We have no idea what the rotation will look like under the new coaching staff but it is a safe bet Hubbard will see a significant increase in opportunity. He has the skill set to be a quality three-down end so it will not be a surprise if both he and Dunlap garner at least 75% of the playing time. Should that scenario come to pass Hubbard could be a breakout player and a quality second starter.

Willis has been a steady contributor on the field for the last two seasons. He has even made a few starts for the Bengals. While he is a solid run defender, Willis has not shown much prowess as a pass rusher and has not been an impact player. He should continue to see action as part of the rotation, however, his opportunity will likely be less than the 536 plays he participated in last year.

Carl Lawson had eight sacks as a nickel rush specialist in 2017. He was off to a slow start when a week five ankle injury eventually landed him on IR. Lawson struggles versus the run at times but should continue to see situational action. He could even have a significant role as part of the rotation.

Geno Atkins has been a fixture for the Bengals over most of the last decade. He is an exceptionally athletic big man with a low center of gravity that makes offensive linemen miserable. On the field, he is a disruptive one-gap penetrator who is good versus the run and one of the league’s best interior pass rushers. 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.

In fantasy terms, Atkins is dependable as they come. In leagues that count all linemen together, he is a solid DL3. For those that break out the positions, he is much more. In seven healthy seasons as a pro, Atkins has six top-15 finishes among tackles, including four in the Top 10 and a pair of Top 5. 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 three seasons with 26 or fewer, including 2018 when he finished 24-19-9. The Bengals stat crew is generous with assists which helps. That and the nine sacks were enough to overcome the low solo numbers, pushing Atkins into the top ten again last year. He turned 31 over the offseason so there is plenty of football left.

Former fourth-round picks Andrew Billings (2016) and Ryan Glasgow (2017) will compete for the other starting job on the inside. Both are young players that have shown a lot of promise. Glasgow seemed on the verge of capturing the job last season when an ACL injury cut his season short after three games. Billings went on to start the rest of the way. He played well for the most part but was not particularly box score friendly. Regardless who starts, both of these guys will see plenty of rotational action but neither are likely to make much fantasy splash.

Linebackers

At linebacker, the Bengals are a lot like that TV commercial, just okay. But hey, they don’t give two and a half stars to just anyone. This group has been sub-par for a while now and was probably the biggest reason Cincinnati struggled so badly on defense a year ago. The new coaching staff parted ways with Vontez Burfict which was the first sign they were heading in the right direction. At the very least they should be more disciplined at the second level in 2019.

Personnel-wise Cincinnati has no one with the talent to become a star, and their leadership is somewhat questionable though that could change with Burfict gone. It is widely believed the Bengals were targeting Devin Bush with their first draft pick this year. It broke the hearts of many Bengals fans when the Steelers traded up to take him just ahead of them. Cincinnati ended up addressing other needs in the first two rounds before coming back to linebacker with third-round pick Germaine Pratt.

Pratt is an interesting prospect who could end up being a significant factor before the season is over. Having played safety for his first two seasons at North Carolina State, he is a bit raw as a linebacker. There are some things he needs to improve on in terms of technique but Pratt has the skill set to become an impact player with a little good coaching. Running a 4.57 in the 40 while checking in at 6’2” 240 pounds, Pratt has the size/speed combination coaches covet. Having played safety through high school and well into his college career, Pratt also has the cover skills to stay on the field in all situations, and the versatility to line up anywhere on the second level. The Bengals happen to have an opening on the weak side so that is probably where Pratt will fit, at least for now.

Pratt checks the box for college production as well. He was a one-year starter for the Wolfpack but made the most of that one season by putting up 104 combined tackles and assists, with 6 sacks and 3 turnovers. Pratt will compete with third-year man Jordan Evans and last year’s third-round pick Malik Jefferson who are also candidates for the starting job. Dynasty managers, in particular, will want to give Pratt a long look but no one should hesitate to pick him up as a late sleeper if he earns a starting spot.

Middle linebacker Preston Brown had a forgettable first season with Cincinnati. A week one ankle injury cost him two games. He returned in a two-down role for three games then just when he was looking healthy and starting to see sub-package snaps, Brown suffered a knee sprain in week 10 and was placed on IR. He will be healthy entering camp and should be the opening day starter; the only question being if he will play full time. Unless one of the young guys really step up, he probably will.

As a three-down middle backer for Buffalo, Brown was a strong run defender who was adequate in coverage but did not produce many big plays. He did reach 80 solo stops and 60 assists with the Bills in both 2016 and 2017. Cincinnati has a home stats crew that is generous at awarding assists, so similar numbers seem a strong possibility for Brown in 2019.

In third-year pro Nick Vigil, the Bengals have a known commodity. He is a hard-nosed, blue-collar guy that plays smart football with great effort and heart. If he had natural talent and ability to go with it, he would be a perennial Pro Bowl guy. Vigil is somewhat of a rarity in that he is a 4-3 strongside linebacker that stays on the field in sub packages and holds some fantasy value. Intelligence and an ability to stuff the run are his biggest assets but Vigil is above average in coverage as well. In a leaky defense that provided a lot of opportunities, he was on pace for 131 solo tackles last season before suffering a sprained knee in week six. Vigil showed his toughness by returning to action in week 13 and finishing the season on the bad knee. Even playing at less than 100% for several games Vigil finished at 62-22-0 with three passes defended and a fumble recovery. The is not much big-play upside with him but a healthy Vigil in this situation should put up solid tackle numbers. For those in balanced or tackle heavy leagues, he should provide quality depth at the least with LB3 upside.

Depth was an issue for a Bengals squad that suffered a lot of injuries at linebacker in 2018. Between the young guys competing for the weakside job, Hardy Nickerson Jr who gained some experience at middle backer when Brown was lost, and rookie sixth-round pick Deshaun Davis, an injury or two at the second level should not be so devastating this season.

  • MLB Preston Brown – Priority depth or decent LB3 if he plays all three downs
  • SLB Nick Vigil – Serviceable LB3 or quality depth
  • WLB Jordan Evans – Marginal fantasy value expected
  • WLB Germaine Pratt – Sleeper for 2019 or strong dynasty target
  • WLB Malik Jefferson – Deep sleeper
  • MLB Hardy Nickerson Jr – No impact expected
  • MLB Deshaun Davis – Developmental guy likely to contribute on special teams

Defensive Backs

The Bengals do not have much history of providing IDP managers with quality defensive back options. That certainly changed last year when both strong safety Shawn Williams and then rookie free safety Jesse Bates finished among the top 10. In many formats, Williams was top dog at the position on the strength of a team-high 78 solo tackles and 29 assists, along with a sack, 6 turnovers, 10 pass breakups, and a score. The question now becomes was it a fluke or the beginning of a trend? Figuring out the answer can be complicated.

As the Bengals third-round pick in 2013, it took Williams a while to blossom. He showed flashes of strong play early in his career but injuries and inconsistency held him back. In 2018 it all came together. Williams was healthy for the entire season and emerged as one of the league's premier playmakers at strong safety. At 6'0" and 212 pounds, there has never been a question about his physicality. In fact, that has contributed to his injury struggles in the past. He is an intimidating hitter over the middle and in run support. The most pleasant surprise last season was his big-play production. He had a total of nine turnovers to his credit over his first five seasons. Struggles and injuries at linebacker contributed to the strong tackle totals but where did the big plays come from? That is the part that makes me a little nervous about Williams. He may be hard-pressed to repeat the big play production but the lack of a stud at linebacker points to plenty of continued tackle opportunity. Many managers will look at last year’s totals and draft him as one of the top five. It is probably best to let them gamble on a repeat since there are more proven options. We might be best served to play it safe and target Williams as a low-end DB1 or priority DB2 if he lasts that long.

Checking in at 6’1” and 200-pounds, Jesse 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 in the second round last spring. The other thing they were undoubtedly looking at was his 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 of touchdowns. He brought that production with him to the NFL.

It did not take the Bengals long to realize what they had in Bates. He claimed the starting job early in the summer and once the games started it was easy to see why. Speed, cover skills, big-play ability, and tenacity are some of the terms that describe the young man who was an immediate difference maker. With 73 tackles, 38 assists, 3 picks, 7 pass breakups, and a score, Bates quickly became a fantasy factor as well. There is little to dislike about the second year pro. The only small concern is that he seemed to slow down late last season, but that is common for rookies and generally means nothing. Williams will be the first pick of Cincinnati’s safeties, but Bates being one for one on top ten finishes and without the injury history, is probably the more safe option.

It did not show up in the statistics last season but the Bengals are both talented and deep at the corner positions. Under the previous regime, Cincinnati established a pattern of drafting quality corners in the first round and 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. Barring injury, there is no question how they will line up come week one. Dre Kirkpatrick and William Jackson start on the outside with Darqueze Dennard handling slot duties. All three are former first-round picks.

Both Kirkpatrick and Dennard have shown some IDP value in corner required leagues in recent years. That seemed to dissipate in 2018, partially due to the emergence of the safeties and partly because both battled injuries which also contributed to the team’s struggles. In 2017 Dennard was a top-five corner while Kirkpatrick’s average of eight and a half points per game ranked among the top 25. The point here is, if either of these guys gets off to a hot start, pick them up as they will likely continue.

Depth at the safety position basically comes down to Clayton Fejedelem who is first off the bench at either position. Over the past two seasons, he has been a more than serviceable replacement when called upon and will get on the field in some sub packages as a third safety. Should one of the starters go down, Fejedelem is a potential target to replace them in IDP leagues as well.

It has been a few years now since the team took a corner early, but they have continued to use mid to late round picks on guys for depth. Davontae Harris, Jordan Brown and Darius Phillips are all young developmental type guys with two years or less experience. B.W. Webb was a free agent addition last summer and will likely be the fourth corner.

Cleveland Browns

Defensive Linemen

Not everyone is a Browns fan but even the haters have to admit this is a team on the rise. Cleveland finally turned the corner in the win column last season and may be a serious contender in 2019. Statistically, the defense was a mixed bag of results in 2018. They were 28th against the run, 25th versus the pass, number 30 in total yards and 21st in points allowed. On the other hand, Cleveland created 31 turnovers which were second most in the league behind Chicago.

The defensive line did a solid job last season, accounting for 23.5 of the team’s 37 sacks, but that did not keep the organization from making even more improvement up front. While their first four draft picks were all on the defensive side, the Browns turned to free agency where they landed tackle Sheldon Richardson and the trade route which landed end/edge defender Olivier Vernon. Both players are proven veterans and significant additions.

Richardson was originally drafted in the first round by the Jets to play end in their 3-4. He was a good fit in that role producing 15.5 sacks and over 100 solo tackles in his first three seasons. Richardson moved to Seattle in 2017 where he lined up as the 3-technique tackle and proved he could be successful in that role as well. He had virtually the same role with the Vikings last season and once again put up solid numbers for an interior lineman at 28-21-4.5. The only real question with Richardson is why has he been on three different teams in three seasons? Having inked a three year deal with the Browns, it looks as if he will actually have a chance to unpack this time around.

Richardson adds talent and athleticism to an already talented and athletic group. He will be a great fit in the Browns penetrating 1-gap scheme. From a fantasy perspective, his value will be greatly dependent on format. In leagues logging the defensive line positions together, he will likely be no more than decent depth with a little upside. In formats requiring interior linemen, however, Richardson will have much more value as a strong DT2 with DT1 upside.

Landing Vernon was a great move by the Browns. They get a versatile 28-year-old player with seven years of experience as a starter and a skill set that matches the scheme perfectly. The Brown wanted three down guys at both defensive end positions and now they have them. Vernon may not be as talented as Myles Garrett in terms of rushing the passer but he could be even stronger versus the run. Vernon has been equally successful as a 4-3 end and 3-4 outside linebacker, which gives the coaching staff options.

Vernon has reached double-digit sacks once in his career but has at least six and a half in each of the last six seasons. With the aggressive scheme and the talent around him, he might push that double-digit sack mark again in 2019. For IDP managers Vernon could be a draft-day bargain. Having played linebacker last season, some managers may not realize he is back at end or how valuable he was last time he played there. For others, the 30 combined tackles and seven sacks from last year will lead them to underestimate his value. Those managers may not realize Vernon missed more than a third of the 2018 season while recovering from a late August ankle sprain. For reference, last time he played 16 games at end in a 4-3 was 2016. That year he was 45-18-8 with a pair of turnovers.

Half the Browns starting line has been replaced; the other half does not need to be. In Larry Ogunjobi and Myles Garrett Cleveland has an excellent pair of young and talented playmakers that can anchor the defense for a long time. Having been the first overall pick in 2017, Garrett carries a great deal of expectation. If he continues to play as well as he did last season, he could exceed them.

At 6'4" and 272 pounds, Garrett is a versatile three-down end with no serious weakness. At age 23 he is just entering the prime of his career physically and going into his third season Garrett now has the veteran savvy to go with the exceptional talent. He took his place among the fantasy game’s top five linemen in his second season; with a few more tackles and/or sacks in year three Garrett may claim a seat on the elite top tier.

Ogunjobi was drafted the same year as Garrett but a couple rounds later. He too had a solid yet unspectacular rookie campaign before breaking out in year two. At 6'3" and 305 pounds he is a solid run defender with considerably more athleticism and quickness than most interior linemen. Ogunjobi’s 2018 numbers were not as flashy at a glance as Garrett’s. For IDP managers in tackle required formats, however, a line of 34-19-5.5 is nearly as impressive; especially when considering he played the month of December with a torn biceps. Last year’s production made Ogunjobi a decent backup in IDP leagues that lump all linemen together. In leagues that breakout the positions and require interior line starters, he emerged as a low-end DT1. The level of talent across the Browns front will keep opponents from doubling the third year pro all the time, meaning that at age 25, Ogunjobi's best production is probably in front of him.

Chris Smith, Chad Thomas, and Anthony Zettel will compete to fill out the depth chart at end, with Smith and Zettel the favorites for the top two spots. Both are solid veterans with Zettel having starting experience from 2017 when he was with Detroit. Smith saw more action last season when he replaced Emmanuel Ogbah in some pass rush situations but Zettel is more suited to a three-down role, making him the likely next man up in the event of an injury. In 2018 Cleveland’s starting ends logged over 1800 plays, leaving about 500 for the rest of the group. Barring injury, Garrett and Vernon could both play upwards of 90% of the snaps this year, leaving scraps for whoever sticks as the backups.

Treveon Coley did a more than serviceable job as a starter last season and will slide into the third tackle job this year. Coley provides dependable depth and could see a fair amount of action as the Brown tend to rotate more with their inside guys.

Linebackers

The Browns are in a good place at linebacker. In middle backer Joe Schobert and weakside starter Christian Kirksey they have a pair of dependable young guys with plenty of starting experience. The strong side position will likely be manned by second-year pro, Genard Avery, who carved out a role as a rookie and made a strong showing as an injury replacement. One way to tell when a team has turned the corner defensively is to look at their depth. Injuries at linebacker took a toll last year but fortunately the organization was at a point that they could address the issue. Thus we have the additions of veteran Ray-Ray Armstrong along with draft picks Sione Takitaki at outside backer in the third and Mack Wilson at middle in the fifth. Both rookies has strong and productive college careers and have the potential to be NFL starters at some point.

From the fantasy perspective, the Browns linebacker positions were a gold mine 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. Unfortunately, both players battled injuries last season negating any chance of a repeat.

Schobert is somewhat of a throwback. A big physical thumper who does his best work between the tackles but can hold his own in coverage and contribute in the big play columns well. A fourth-round pick of the Browns in 2016, He got his shot at the starting job in his second season and the team quickly realized they had their middle linebacker covered for the next several years. He was off to a solid start in 2018 before missing time with a hamstring injury then battling a sore knee down the stretch. In the end, Schobert's numbers were way down overall. Now that he is healthy, IDP managers should put more weight on the 2017 numbers when figuring where he fits on draft boards. He is a solid LB2 candidate with some upside.

When Kirksey was drafted in 2014 the organization saw him as their middle linebacker of the future. For the first two years, he worked at that position in mostly a two-down role. In 2016 Kirksey got his first opportunity to work as a three-down middle backer. He made the most of the opportunity by impressing both on the field and lighting up the box score to the tune of 96-52-2.5. In 2017 injuries caused a shuffle at linebacker that saw Joe Schobert emerge as the man in the middle while Kirksey settled in as a three-down weakside backer. Once again his numbers were strong, landing him among the top 10 at the position. Kirksey was banged up in 2018 battling ankle and shoulder injuries early in the season then landing on IR after a week nine hamstring pull. All the ailments have healed so it should be business as usual in 2019 if he can stay on the field.

Back in 2017, Cleveland’s defense featured three linebackers on the field together on nearly a thousand snaps. With all the injuries last season they struggled to field three healthy linebackers at times. As a result, Jamie Collins Sr was the team’s best IDP option, coming in around number 25 despite working from the strong side much of the time. Collins has gone home to New England so Genard Avery will now be that third linebacker. Avery made his mark on the stat sheets as a rookie going 30-9-4.5 with a couple of takeaways and 4 pass breakups on a little more than half the team’s defensive snaps. Granted not all of his production came while working on the strong side as he moved around some filling in for injuries. Even so, Avery demonstrated there is big play ability to be tapped. Chances are the third linebacker will have a lot less opportunity in the 2019 version of Cleveland’s defense but keep Avery in mind if there is another injury to Kirksey or Schobert.

Defensive Backs

Cleveland has used a lot of resources on the secondary over the last two seasons. In 2018 they selected corner Denzel Ward with the fourth overall pick and brought in free agent Damarious Randall who had a great season at free safety. They also added free agent Travis Carrie and Terrence Mitchell who have played significant roles. This year they moved former first-round bust Jabrill Peppers in a trade with the Giants, added proven veteran starter Morgan Burnett, then used their highest pick on corner Greedy Williams in the second and a fourth on safety Sheldrick Redwine. This generation of Browns defensive backs has more talent and fantasy potential than their predecessors.

As a former Green Bay corner Randall changed both teams and positions last season. The move to free safety suited him well and has probably done wonders for his career. Randall was good as a corner but if he can build on last season, he has a shot at becoming a special safety. With 16 turnovers and a pair of scores in four seasons, there was never much doubt about his coverage or ball-hawking skills, the surprise was Randall’s physicality in run support and ability to quickly adapt to the responsibilities of the new position. With a healthy group of linebackers and a strong safety that will actually make tackles, Randall may not be able to repeat the 71 solo stops or the top-15 ranking of last season. He should still post decent tackle totals, however, and the big play production will help him remain a fantasy factor.

In 29 games as the strong safety on a sub .500 team, Jabrill Peppers could only muster 95 tackles and 40 assists. Morgan Burnett nearly put up those numbers in a single season a few years back. Burnett is a proven veteran with several years of starting experience. He was a strong fantasy option over much of his eight seasons in Green Bay, which included three top 12 finishes. Burnett has battled injuries in recent years including last when he missed five games and was less than 100% in others. Burnett signed a fairly cap friendly two-year contract with Cleveland that will allow him to prove himself year one and stay with the team in 2020 if he does so. On the field, Burnett is a quality veteran presence who will provide leadership for a young defense. For IDP managers he is a sleeper target that many have written off after a couple down years. Target the 30-year-old veteran as a fourth or even fifth DB with the potential to become your third starter.

Denzel Ward had the rookie corner rule working in his favor last season but was still no more than a marginal fantasy option. On the field, however, he was a difference maker. Adding 11 pass breakups and 6 turnovers to his marginal tackle totals, Ward showed the league he was worthy of the high draft status. Young corners rarely show tackle improvement in year two so there is not much hope for IDP managers when it comes to Ward.

Having Ward on the other side could help Greedy Williams to a better rookie season. Much like Ward, Williams had marginal box score production in college largely because he was so strong in coverage. He could get picked on as a rookie, but until we see some production, commit your roster space to more proven options.

The corner with the most fantasy upside in Cleveland is Terrance Mitchell. As the slot corner for Kansas City in 2017 Mitchell recorded 48 tackles, 17 passes defended and 4 interceptions on roughly 70% of the defensive plays. In eight games with the Browns last season he was on pace to finish with 70 solo stops, 12 passes defended and 8 turnovers. Mitchell is more physical than either Ward or Williams and unlike many corners in the game, seems to relish the opportunity to make tackles. He may still push for a starting spot and would be a good risk for managers in corner required leagues if he is on the field enough. Chances are Mitchell will compete with Travis Carrie and likely end up in the familiar role of nickel/slot corner.

Dynasty managers may want to keep an eye on safety Sheldrick Redwine. He was a college standout at Miami posting 123 combined tackles, 3.5 sacks, and 11 turnovers in two years as a starter for the Hurricanes. With Burnett in town on a two-year deal that has low cap ramifications, Redwine could be groomed as the future at the position.

Baltimore Ravens

Defensive Linemen

Quality play up front contributed greatly to Baltimore’s defensive success last season when they were top five versus both pass and run while giving up the second-fewest points in the league. The linemen even had a great deal to do with the team’s 43 sacks but unfortunately for IDP managers, few were actually credited to the front three. In fact, no lineman recorded more than one sack while the entire group combined for three and a half.

The Ravens will show some four-man fronts once in a while, usually in nickel situations, but they are basically a two-gap 3-4 defense. That means linemen are responsible for holding ground while playing the gaps on either side of them and soaking up blockers to keep the linebackers free. Thus the responsibility of the positions do not allow them to penetrate, get upfield and be disruptive as most fantasy-friendly linemen do.

Michael Pierce started at nose tackle last season and should continue to do so. He will likely be flanked by Brandon Williams at one end and Willie Henry at the other with Chris Wormley also seeing significant action. All these guys check in right at 300 pounds or bigger and are capable of lining up anywhere across the front. While they will do a great job for the Ravens, none of them are likely to be fantasy factors in any format. Williams led the group with 22 tackles and 1 sack last season when no Ravens lineman finished inside the top 110.

If there is to be an exception, Henry would be the guy. He missed most of last season with an abdominal injury but in 2017 Henry finished 24-10-3.5. Those are far from impressive numbers but in leagues that designated him a tackle, he was the number 16 interior linemen that season.

Linebackers

With C.J. Mosley, Za’Darius Smith and Terrell Suggs all working elsewhere, the Ravens will look different at both inside and outside linebacker in 2019. Suggs turns 37 in October so the organization expected and prepared for his departure. They expected to re-sign Mosley however. So when the Jets back a Brinks truck up to his bank account and unloaded a truckload of money, the organization had to come up with plan B. There were no other free agents available with Mosley’s talent or skill set and their first draft pick was at 25 so the elite rookie linebackers were out of reach; that left last year’s fourth-round pick Kenny Young as the best available option.

Young spent most of his rookie season splitting time with Patrick Onwuasor at the other inside backer position. It was speculated he was being groomed to fully take over the position next to Mosley in year two. Instead, it looks like Young will get the first shot at replacing him.

This time last season I was beating the drum for Cory Littleton. The Rams traded Alex Ogletree to make room for Littleton who flourished both on the field and in the box scores. Baltimore lost Mosley over money but he is gone just the same; making Young a strong candidate to be this year’s version of Littleton.

There are plenty of good reasons to be optimistic about Young. For starters, he will likely be a three-down linebacker at a position with a long history of excellent IDP value. Then there is the per-snap production that was strong. When Mosley missed a couple of games last season, Young filled in at the position seeing 71% of the snaps. In those games, he combined for 13 tackles and 5 assists. Going deeper inside the numbers; Mosley played 876 snaps on the season and finished with a stat line of 71-35-.5. Young was on the field for 370 plays and finished 41-11-2.5. Averaging Young’s per-snap production over 876 plays give us 97-26-6 in 14 games worth of action.

The knock on Young coming out of UCLA was lack of physicality at the point of attack when taking on and shedding blocker. One scout described him as a lean, run around will linebacker. Young dispelled much of that opinion last season. He is a fast 234-pound linebacker with good cover skills, the ability to get home on a blitz and a golden opportunity.

At the end of last season, it looked as if Onwuasor would be sliding down the depth chart in 2019. With nothing but inexperienced undrafted free agents behind the top two, Onwuasor gets a reprieve. The only question being will he play full time? Even in 2017 when there was no third player in the mix at ILB, he only played about 60% of the time. While there is no reason to be overly optimistic about his fantasy potential if he ends up playing nearly full time, Onwuasor could provide quality depth or even a decent third starter based purely on opportunity.

For managers in big play based leagues, there could be value to mine from the Ravens outside linebacker positions. The scheme clearly favors edge defenders that can get after the quarterback and make game-changing plays. Baltimore’s 43 sacks last season ranked among the top third in the league. Somewhat surprisingly they were the only team among the top 12 in sacks that had no individual reach double digits. The sacks were spread among 16 players with Za’Darius Smith leading the team at eight and a half followed by Terrell Suggs and Matt Judon with seven.

That trio was the outside linebacker rotation last year but two thirds (15.5 sacks) are gone. The organization is counting on Judon to pick up the torch and become a leader. He is also the best target for IDP managers. The 2016 fifth round pick claimed the starting job in his second season. That year Judon blew up the tackle column for 51 solo stops and 10 assists. He added eight sacks, three batted passes and three turnovers to become a solid starter in big play formats. With the emergence of Smith in 2018, Judon’s playing time was reduced a little and so was his production. He should see considerably more opportunity going forward so the production should rebound. Judon should be back in the 40+ tackle range and could reach double-digit sacks for the first time in his young career.

Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams were second- and third-round picks respectively for the Ravens in 2017. Both have seen roughly 10-12 plays per game thus far in their young careers but that will probably change going forward. Bowser is the early favorite to start opposite Judon but chances are both will figure heavily into a rotation. Both players had at least 20 sacks in their college careers and the organization apparently believes they are ready to make an impact. Slip these guys onto your sleeper watch list and see what the preseason brings.

Bowser and Williams are not the Ravens only options on the edge. Free-agent addition Shane Ray is a former first-round pick of the Broncos (2015), and Pernell McPhee is a nine-year veteran who got his start with Baltimore back in 2011. McPhee has 31.5 career sacks including a career-best of seven and a half in 2014 when he last played with Baltimore. Ray had eight and a half in his second season with Denver. A serious injury in 2017 derailed his career just as it was getting started. Ray is looking to get back on track and could be in the mix for considerable playing time.

Rookie Jaylon Ferguson rounds out the depth chart on the outside. The third round pick is loaded with talent and potential but will likely be used sparingly as a rookie. In time Ferguson could become a highly productive starter; especially if none of the other options step up.

Defensive Backs

The Ravens are in a great place when it comes to the secondary. They have talent, experience, and depth going for them. Unfortunately, those traits do not add up to fantasy points without opportunity. Just seven defenses were on the field for fewer plays than Baltimore last season. When the Ravens were on the field, not a lot of ball carriers made it past the front seven. Thus strong safety Tony Jefferson was the secondary’s best fantasy prospect with 53 solo stops, 21 assists, a sack and 3 turnovers for an average of about eight and a half points per game.

Jefferson is an imposing physical strong safety and a key contributor to the Ravens defensive success in recent years. While run support is his biggest asset Jefferson is more than adequate in coverage and adds an intimidation factor over the middle. Unfortunately, his on-field contribution is rarely equaled by box score production. Jefferson has reached 70 tackles once in six years as a pro, that was three years ago when he was with the Cardinals.

Eric Wedde did not produce well in the tackle columns during his three-year stint as Baltimore’s free safety. He did, however, make a considerable big-play impact in his first two seasons, including 13 turnovers and a score. The big play production dried up entirely last year so the organization moved on to another veteran big-play safety that is slightly younger.

Earl Thomas is one of the best to ever play the game. He has at least three turnovers in each of his nine NFL seasons, including last year when he played just four games before suffering a broken leg. Thomas comes to Baltimore with a huge chip on his shoulder. The 30-year-old still has plenty of gas in the tank and is out to prove it. If fully recovered Thomas will be an excellent addition to what was already a strong secondary. From a fantasy perspective, however, he is probably a player to avoid. Thomas has given managers a few strong seasons over his career but his year to year consistency left plenty to be desired even before coming to a team that has produced sparse fantasy value over the past decade. Great as he may be, Thomas is not likely to buck that trend.

In Marlon Humphrey, Jimmy Smith, Brandon Carr and Tavon Young, Baltimore has a quartet of corners that could start for many teams. They have a good mix of savvy veterans in Carr and Smith who are north of 30, with talented youth in Humphrey and Young who are 22 and 25 respectively. What they do not have is a corner that can excel enough in the box scores to provide fantasy relevance. In 2018 these four corners combined for 10 turnovers with no one accounting for more than three. They each had at least 31 solo tackles but none were able to reach 40. The Raves are even immune to the rookie corner rule. Smith, young and Humphrey were all drafted by the team. All three either started or saw significant action as a slot corner in their rookie seasons, yet none of them recorded more than 44 tackles or finished among the top 30 corners.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Defensive Linemen

For the third consecutive season, Pittsburgh will make no changes up front. With the quality of play and production from this group over the last two seasons, there is no need. As a team, the Steelers recorded 52 sacks in 2018, which tied Chicago for most in the league. Starters Javon Hargrave at nose tackle, with ends Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, combined for 19 of those sacks.

Like Baltimore, the Steelers also run a base 3-4 scheme. That is pretty much where the similarities stop though. Pittsburgh is the birthplace of the zone blitz which is an attacking, penetrating, disruptive approach that assigns someone to each lane or gap. They confuse blocking assignments by switching up those lane assignments from play to play, leaving offensive linemen unsure if they are blocking a defensive lineman, linebacker or blitzing DB. They line up in a three-man from most of the time but this group of linemen is rarely if ever asked to play two-gap or squat-and-read techniques. When the ball is snapped their agenda is to get upfield, fill their assigned gap and make a play. As a result, the Steelers front three gives us some useful IDP targets.

For IDP managers Cameron Heyward is the top target of the group. He is the prototypical 3-4 end with the size and strength to stand up double teams at the point of attack and enough athleticism to contribute significantly to the pass rush. In 2017 Heyward led the team in sacks with 12. He added eight more last year to go with 29 tackles, 23 assists, and a pair of takeaways. Those numbers made him the number 22 linemen in Footballguys IDP scoring, and a solid second starter. He may not get back to double-digit sacks but throwing out the injury-shortened 2016 season, Heyward has averaged 33-19-8 since 2013. We can expect similar production from him in 2019

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 weeks. Tuitt struggles with injuries again in 2017 but was finally back on track for the most part last year, though he did miss a couple of games in November. With a line of 27-18-5.5 and 4 batted passes, his average of 7.5 points per game ranked among the top 35, making him a decent option as a DL3. At age 26 there may still be some upside we have not yet seen with Tuitt.

Javon Hargrave does a fine job as the nose tackle. He is a bit smaller than most at the position but at 6’2” 305 pounds his low center of gravity makes it hard for offensive linemen to root him out yet he still has the power to push the pocket on passing downs. Over his first two years as a pro, Hargrave's statistics did not match his value on the field. That changed in year three when finished last season with 31 tackles, 17 assists, and 5.5 sacks. While those numbers are marginal in formats lumping all defensive linemen together, they were good enough to make Hargrave a top 15 interior lineman last year. If he were on the field more Hargrave might have DT1 value. 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 2018.

In DE Tyson Alualu and nose tackle Daniel McCullers the Steelers have excellent depth that can step in if needed without the defense missing a beat. Alualu has made several starts for the team over the last two seasons including last year when Tuitt was not able to go. Alualu has the versatility to work at either nose tackle or end and will see action at both positions during the season.

Linebackers

The Steelers have been hurting at inside linebacker since the injury to Ryan Shazier. No one can question the effort of Vince Williams who took over the lead role last season, but Williams’ game has some limitations and he is just not as gifted. In an effort to fill the glaring need, the Steelers y traded up in this year's draft to select Devin Bush at number ten. He may prove a step down from Shazier in terms of big-play ability but Bush is a solid three-down linebacker who excels versus the run, can get home on the blitz and is dependable in coverage which is something the team was missing at the position.

Bush is expected to be a starter from day one and the organization is hopeful he will quickly take on a leadership role. As the old cliché goes the most important ability is availability. In that aspect, he should be an upgrade over the oft-injured Shazier as Bush started all 25 games for Michigan over the past two seasons. Steelers inside backers rarely put up stellar tackle totals but they usually make up for it in the big play columns. Bush had 10 sacks over his last two years at Michigan but will need to step up in the turnover columns as a pro. The scheme could go a long way toward helping him get there.

Williams is a good player and should continue to play a big part despite the addition of Bush. Williams did a more than adequate job in the lead role at inside backer in 2018. He is particularly strong versus the run, but his average-at-best cover skills were somewhat of a handicap for the team. The coaching staff was able to mask some of the deficiency by having him blitz often and by using extra safeties on passing downs.

Williams was a good fit when working in a complementary role next to Shazier. With 12.5 sacks over the past two seasons, he can certainly contribute as an early-down run defender and pass rusher. With Bush expected to assume the lead role, Williams may once again be the sidekick. What muddies the water here is the addition of Mark Barron who is all but certain to have a significant role on passing downs and could challenge for the starting job. There is no way to know what kind of production to expect from Williams until we get a better idea of what his role will be. For those that draft before we can get a better fix, consider Williams a late-round flier as an LB5 with upside.

With the addition of Barron in free agency and the drafting of Bush, what was a thin and needy position for the Steelers last season suddenly becomes a little crowded. The team seems intent upon inserting Bush as a three-down centerpiece which leaves Barron and Williams to contend for the other inside linebacker spot. Williams is bigger and more physical as a run defender while Barron, as a converted safety, offers better coverage skills. Both players have experience as three-down starters so there are three potential outcomes. The Steelers have kept both inside backers on the field full time in years past, so either Barron or Williams could play full time. What seems more likely, however, is Williams seeing situational snaps on early downs with Barron coming on in nickel situations. This is something we will be watching closely all summer and into the preseason.

When we 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 led by defensive end Cam Heyward with 12 sacks while Vince Williams was second with eight from the inside backer spot. After a couple of slow years, all returned to normal last season when outside linebacker T.J. Watt led the club with 14.

Watt followed the common learning curve for young edge rushers. A solid if unspectacular rookie season that included 39 tackles, 14 assists, and 7 sacks was followed by a year two breakout. In 2018 Watt established himself as one of the league’s elite edge defenders. His 52 solo tackles were most by any 3-4 outside linebacker and his 14 sacks tied Von Miller for most at the position. With 17 assists and six forced fumbles added, Watt was the only 3-4 outside backer to finish among the top 30 in balanced fantasy formats and a top three in most big play based leagues. The young man turns 25 in October and is just beginning what looks to be an exceptional career.

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 thought the presence of Watt might open things up and help 2015 first round pick Bud Dupree get it going. Unfortunately, it did not have much effect at all. In fact, Dupree’s production in 2018 was nearly identical to his 2017 numbers. With 19 sacks in 57 games over four seasons, Dupree has been a somewhat of a disappointment thus far. There is no one looking over his shoulder yet, but at some point, the organization will get back around to addressing the position. With Dupree at the end of his rookie contract, this would be a good time for him to step up.

Defensive Backs

If you are not paying close attention the Steelers secondary will make it tough on fantasy prognosticators. In 2017 they gave us a top 10 defensive back in Sean Davis. Last season no Pittsburgh DB finished among the Top 50. This year we could/should get another quality target out of this group. All we need to do is follow the storyline to figure it out though.

In 2017, Davis played strong safety with Mike Mitchell working at free. Davis spent a lot of time up in the box or at least with a run support emphasis while Mitchell roamed the deep secondary using his speed to be a catch all. With someone to back him up, Davis was able to be more aggressive and take some chances. Then there was the injury to Ryan Shazier that lowered the competition level for tackles. All this added up to a lot of opportunity for Davis who parlayed it into a stat line of 71-21-1 with 4 turnovers and 8 pass breakups. Last year Mitchell was gone and the Steelers used a first-round pick on strong safety Terrell Edmunds. Davis shifted to the free safety role, playing deep off the ball and with different responsibilities. As a result, his numbers dropped significantly and he ended up outside the Top 50.

Edmunds might have picked up the torch and produced well if he were allowed to settle into the same role Davis had held the previous year, but that was not going to happen. With the addition of free agent Morgan Burnett, Edmunds role was not so clearly defined, nor was he on the field full time every week. Then there is the fact Pittsburgh’s scheme is rather complicated, so it takes time for young players to get comfortable. All those things added up to marginal box score production for the young safety.

Burnett is gone, Mark Barron is set to fill the role of nickel linebacker and Edmunds now has a year of experience under his belt. When we take a closer look at his athleticism and skill set it is easy to understand why the Steelers wanted Edmunds. 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 as a junior. Edmunds was even listed as a utility player early in his college career and played some corner for the Hokies. With the size, speed and man coverage skills to take on tight ends and other big receivers, Edmunds is in many ways reminiscent of former Steers great Troy Polamalu. In short, Edmunds is a prime candidate for a breakout season.

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 Joe Haden led the team’s corners in both tackles with 50, and interceptions with 2. Haden is the clear cut number one corner with Mike Hilton and free agent addition Steve Nelson likely competing for the other starting spot and the loser taking on a nickel/slot role. Nelson was the number eight corner last season while playing for the Chiefs but he is in a much different situation now.

Former first-round pick Artie Burns (2016) has fallen out of grace with the coaching staff and may be on the roster bubble. With rookie third-round pick Justin Layne all but sure to make the final roster, Burns may be battling Cameron Sutton for a roster spot. Five-year veteran strong safety Jordan Dangerfield and last year’s fifth-round selection free safety Marcus Allen are set to compete for the third safety job.

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

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