Eyes of the Guru - AFC North
By John Norton
July 6th, 2010

Welcome back for part three of this year's article. If you're looking for in depth coverage on the defensive side of the ball you have come to the right place. No one covers the game better than The Footballguys and I am proud that both I and the EOTG are a part of the team. You will find nothing but fantasy football in this article. No contract talk, no police reports. Only the stuff that matters.

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

Cincinnati Bengals

Defensive Linemen

There are no proven commodities along the Bengals front line but there are some sleeper and dynasty prospects with good potential. Antwan Odom is a risk/reward guy. He exploded for 8 sacks in just 6 games last season (5 against the Packers in week 2) before tearing his Achilles, and has struggled to stay healthy throughout his six NFL seasons. As a full time end in the Bengals scheme he has the potential to put up #2 DL numbers if he can avoid the injury bug. However, Odom has never posted more than 19 tackles or 8 sacks in a season and has played a full slate of games just twice. There are whispers coming out of Bengals camp that he may be asked to shift inside on passing downs this year. That news hurts Odom's chances of a big season even if he stays healthy. This may be a put up or shut up year for him since the club has a couple of young early round draft picks in Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap, looking to push for the starting jobs. Odom is worthy of a shot in the later rounds and could pay big dividends but don't draft him as more than a #3 lineman with upside... The other veteran who should be looking over his shoulder is Robert Geathers. Four years ago he became the first Bengal in over a decade to reach double digit sacks so there is some potential, but he has totaled only 10.5 in 48 games since. Time may be running short for Geathers. There are whispers that if he fails to impress this summer he could find himself in a backup role or maybe even unemployed. Even if you are in a league that drafts very deep, leave him for someone else... The coaching staff loves what Johnson brings to the party and are working on ways to get him on the field even if he doesn't earn a starting job at end. During the offseason program and mini camps they had him do some work at SLB where they envision a Brian Orakpo type role (Orakpo racked up 11 sacks as a 4-3 SLB last season). There are also reports that the Bengals are tinkering with some 3-4 looks this summer. They have made it clear that at this point there are no intentions of switching their base scheme, but they will have some 3-4 in the playbook in 2010. Johnson has been working as an OLB in those situations as well. It is unlikely that he will see enough snaps at LB to warrant an official position change but he will challenge for a full time role during camp. Slip Johnson onto your roster as late round depth but he could end up being much more... Carlos Dunlap was a first round talent that the Bengals were able to get in round two basically because he had a DUI in December. He was a very productive player at Florida including 9 sacks in '2009. Dunlap plays the run strong as well. He can hold the point of attack, split double teams and rarely misses a tackle. There are some concerns that he didn't give his best effort on every snap at Florida and was somewhat inconsistent. Those kinds of concerns often evaporate when players move to the next level. Dunlap will have an opportunity to challenge for the starting job as a rookie and it would be no surprise to see he and Johnson as the Bengals starting ends when the 2011 season opens, if not sooner. Highly productive rookie ends are a rarity but Dunlap may still be worthy as a late round sleeper in deep leagues and is a great dynasty option to tuck away at a position where quality starters are at a premium... In fantasy terms the Bengals interior linemen were a major disappointment in 2009. There were four players who saw extensive playing time in a situational rotation but none of them exceeded 20 solo tackles. Domata Peko had the highest expectations last season but managed just 12 tackles in 11 games before being injured. Tank Johnson was the other starter but was rarely on the field in passing situations and averaged just about 1 tackle a game. Pat Sims led the group in tackles with a pedestrian 20, while Jonathan Fanene was high man in the sack column at 5.5 but recorded just 17 solo stops. The one quirk here is that only the Bills were awarded more assists as a team in 2009. So if your scoring system gives equal points to tackles and assists, Bengals players in general will have more value. These four interior linemen alone were credited with 64 solo stops and 58 assists between them last season. 

Fantasy Outlook

  • DE Antwan Odom - Injury risk with DL2 potential
  • DE Robert Geathers - No value
  • DE/OLB Michael Johnson - Sleeper with strong upside
  • DE Carlos Dunlap - Sleeper/Dynasty prospect with big long term potential
  • DE Frostee Rucker - No value
  • DT Domata Peko - Minimal value at best in tackle required leagues
  • DT Tank Johnson - No value
  • DT Pat Simms - Minimal value in tackle required leagues
  • DT/DE Jonathan Fanene - Minimal value in tackle required leagues
  • DT Geno Atkins - No value
  • Linebackers

    Will the coaching staff have the gonads to move Rey Maualuga to MLB? The way this defense performed last season, that is the looming question. On one side you have the theory that if its not broken you shouldn't fix it. On the other side there is the argument that Maualuga was drafted to be the centerpiece of this defense for the next decade so why would you not put him in the position you drafted him to play? I for one am a firm believer in the later. Dhani Jones is a smart dependable player and a good leader. He has done a fine job at MLB for the last two seasons, but he is not a "special" player. In 2009 he managed to lead the club in tackles, albeit with only 77, and made enough big plays to serve as a decent bye week fill in for fantasy owners. Don't forget however, that Jones spent the first seven years of his career as an OLB, with most of those years at SLB. If Michael Johnson emerges as a serious consideration at SLB, Jones could be looking at a situation where he is the top backup at all three spots. The talent level of this group has improved so much over the last couple of years that at some point soon this could be a real possibility... Maualuga gave the Bengals defense big a lift last year and was largely responsible for the change of attitude across the board. As a rookie he worked on the strong side but still managed to disprove those doubters who claimed he would be a liability in coverage, leaving no doubt that he is capable of an every down role. He is a fiery leader in the Ray Lewis mold and could emerge as one of the games best middle backers over the next few years. There is no doubt that he will eventually move inside and once that happens Maualuga will likely become a perennial top 20 LB with top 10 potential. Dynasty owners, this may be your last chance to get him at a bargain price... Keith Rivers fills out the lineup at WLB, and would have good value for us if only he could land an every down role. Over his first two seasons Rivers has been taking a seat on passing downs in favor of Brandon Johnson. If you look at his numbers on a per snap basis Rivers is very productive, but he only gets about 60% of the snaps. There was very little overlap (both on the field at the same time) between River and Johnson last season so adding their numbers together give us a relatively accurate view of what Rivers could do. Between them they were 86-44-2.5 with a pick and 6 passed defended. Rivers has reportedly been working hard to improve his coverage skills but part of the problem is that the coaching staff really likes Johnson as well and they want him to have a role. This is another situation we will be following through training camp. If you draft before we can get a fix on this one, consider Rivers a very late round sleeper with LB3 potential... One things the Bengals certainly don't have to worry about is quality depth at the LB positions. It will be hard enough for them to find playing time for everyone who deserves it. 

    Fantasy Outlook

  • MLB/SLB Rey Maualuga - Boom or bust this year depending on where he lines up, big dynasty potential
  • MLB/OLB Dhani Jones - Bye week depth at best
  • MLB Abdul Hodge - No value
  • WLB Keith Rivers - Late round sleeper with LB3 upside if he lands an every down role
  • SLB Rashad Jeanty - No value
  • WLB Brandon Johnson - Injury sleeper
  • OLB Roddrick Muckelroy - Special teams ace who could be productive in the right spot if called upon
  • Defensive Backs

    Much like the situation at linebacker there is production to be harnessed at the Bengals safety positions but until the preseason, figuring out who it lies with will be an educated guess. In 2009 Roy Williams looked very comfortable playing for his former coordinator Mike Zimmer. His play was reminiscent of his early days in Dallas as were the numbers he was producing. In the few games Williams played before suffering a broken forearm, he was on pace for 80+ solo tackles. If he can remain healthy it's pretty much a given that Williams will be the every down SS and will be a quality fantasy option. It is not a given however, that he will stay healthy. In fact he has played in just 6 games over the past two seasons. What is most alarming about this is that it was the same forearm injury that has landed him on IR twice. Williams claims to be healed and healthy, but then that's what we thought last year as well. There is obviously considerable risk here but grabbing Williams late in your draft could pay off... An educated guess on my part is that free agent addition Gibril Wilson will end up at FS on opening day. Wilson was a scapegoat for some of the problems in Miami last season but don't believe everything you hear. He is easily an upgrade over fellow journeyman Chris Crocker and a far cry better when it comes to box score production. Wilson is versatile enough to play either safety position and has been successful at both. His five years as an NFL starter have produced a pair of 90+ tackle seasons with no fewer than 75 solo stops in any of those years. Wilson accounted for 26 turnovers between '04 and '08 so maybe the Dolphins should look at themselves to figure out why he was less productive in their scheme. The Bengals safety positions are traditionally box score friendly both in the tackle and big play columns. Wilson will be overlooked by many and can be picked up for a song in the later rounds. He may not be guaranteed a starting gig but it will be a major surprise to me if the doesn't land one. Draft him as your 3rd DB just because you can, but chances are he'll be in your lineup often... The real head scratcher here is why the Bengals refuse to give Chinedum Ndukwe a starting job. All this guy has done over the past three years is step in an produce whenever the opportunity arises. He is versatile enough to play corner if called upon and is often used in the nickel packages when not starting. Last year he replaced Williams and totaled 61 solo stops in 13 starts. That averages out to 75 over a 16 game season. Ndukwe also has 9 turnovers and 7 sacks in his three years as a pro. With Williams history its a pretty good bet that Ndukwe will be back in the starting lineup before long. Both of these guys can be picked up late on draft day so it may be a good idea to grab them both and handcuff the position... Chris Crocker might be listed as the starting FS entering camp but it seems that the coaching staff has finally come to the realization that he is not the answer. Crocker is a journeyman backup who has never been able to hold a starting job for long, nor has he ever made the slightest box score impact... In Jonathan Joseph and Leon Hall the Bengals have one of the leagues best corner tandems. They also have a pair of the fantasy games most productive at the position. Hall has put up a respectable 55 or more solo stops in each of his three pro seasons and is coming off a career best 6 interceptions. He has averaged 14 assists per season which is a high number for a corner but its his remarkable consistency and 24 passes defended in each of the past two years that help to set him apart from the pack. Hall may not be the top corner on your draft list but he should easily be among the top 5 and is deserving of consideration as a DB2 in leagues that don't break out the positions. In fact both Hall and Joseph were among the top 15 overall at the DB position in 2009. I have Hall slightly higher on my draft board only because he has shown such consistency. That said, Joseph is not far behind. He actually finished a couple of points ahead of Hall in the final rankings last season when their numbers were remarkably similar. In 2008 Joseph missed 9 games with an injury but recorded 31 tackles, 11 assists, 3 takeaways and 13 passes defended in his 7 starts. Simply put, if you target Hall and don't get him, just take Joseph instead, or vice versa... The additions of Adam Jones and third round pick Brandon Ghee solidify the depth at corner. Those two will battle with David Jones and Trent Morgan for their spot in the packing order. If the Bengals are forced to cut one of these guys, he won't be unemployed for long. 

    Fantasy Outlook

  • SS Roy Williams - Big injury risk, big reward if he stays healthy
  • FS Gibril Wilson - One of the top sleepers this year, DB1 upside
  • S Chinedum Ndukwe- Sleeper/injury replacement with DB2 potential
  • FS Chris Crocker - Over rated with no value
  • CB Jonathan Joseph - Stud if you must start corners, solid DB2 or excellent DB3 in any league 
  • CB Leon Hall - Stud if you must start corners, solid DB2 or excellent DB3 in any league
  • CB Adam Jones - No value
  • CB David Jones - No value
  • CB Trent Morgan - No value
  • CB Brandon Ghee - No value
  • Pittsburgh Steelers

    Defensive Linemen

    The 3-4 zone blitz was born in Pittsburgh and the Steelers do a great job of recognizing players who fit the scheme. It has no fantasy bearing but is interesting that all three starters and five of the top six defensive linemen on the depth chart were drafted by the Steelers and most of them have been with the team throughout their lengthy careers. What is also noteworthy and may be a bit of a fantasy factor, is that two of the three starters and five of the top six linemen on the depth chart are over 30 years old. At age 34 Aaron Smith is the elder statesman of the group. He is also the only player among the front line who has ever garnered and fantasy attention at all. Smith spent most of last season on injured reserve and missed several games in 2007 as well. There were whispers that he may elect to retire at the end of last season but he has decided to give it another year. Smith has exceeded the 40 tackle mark three times in his career. Most recently in 2008 when he finished with 44 tackles and 5.5 sacks. There is always a chance that he could post similar numbers this year but between age and injury concerns that seems pretty doubtful. In fact the coaching staff may elect to spell him regularly in hope of keeping him fresh all season. The Steelers have a group of quality players but no one other than Smith has ever approached the 40 tackle mark or posted more than 6 sacks in a season. If anyone has a shot at being of use to us it would be last year's first round pick Evander Hood. He is expected to start opposite Smith and has the potential to assume Smith's role as the leader in tackles and sacks among the front line. That said, even Hood is not worthy of draft consideration and can be picked up as a free agent should we see a reason to once the season starts. Nose tackle Casey Hampton is among the best in the business at his position and has made a few trips to the pro-bowl, but his contributions to the team effort generally go unrewarded in the box scores. To sum it up simply, don't waste a draft pick on any of the Steelers linemen.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • DE Aaron Smith - Potential depth with very limited upside
  • DE Evander Hood - Deep sleeper, don't waste a pick
  • DE Brett Keisel - No value
  • DE Nick Eason - No value
  • NT Casey Hampton - No value
  • NT Chris Hoke - No value
  • Linebackers

    In sharp contrast to the guys up front, all four of the Steelers starting linebackers will likely be on a team when your draft ends. This is a talented group and arguably the best collection of 3-4 linebackers in the league. James Harrison and Lawrence Timmons man the all important outside positions. Both of these guys are solid run defenders with more than adequate cover skills, but what makes them special for both us and the Steelers is their ability to get after the passer. This tandem racked up 23 sacks in '09. That's more than any other OLB duo in the league. One thing Pittsburgh does exceptionally well is to pick up young guys and groom them for these positions. Harrison is a perfect example of this. He was an undrafted free agent who spent several years playing special teams before finally landing a starting job in 2007. His three seasons as a starter have produced 34.5 sacks and an average of 68 solo tackles per season. There are however, a couple of trends that fantasy owners should be aware of when it comes to Harrison. In '07 he posted a career best 77 tackles those numbers have dropped steadily since, to 67 in '08 and 60 last season. The other trend is more of a team thing. Dating all the way back to (and probably beyond) the days of Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene, the Steelers have always put quality outside linebackers on the field. What tends to happen is that each guy that come up has a few years in the spotlight then gradually fades to #2 and is eventually shipped out. It happened to Kevin Greene back in the day and has happened to both Clark Haggans and Joey Porter in more recent years. Harrison is 32 years old and was out produced in the sack column by then third year man LaMarr Woodley in '09. The team also used a second round pick on Jason Worilds and fourth on Thaddeus Gibson in this year's draft, so all the signs are pointing to Harrison entering the final stage in the Steelers evolution process. By no means does this mean he will not be productive this season. All I am saying is that it might be time to pick Woodley ahead of him. Woodley is 25 years old and just entering the prime of his career. He is entering the third year as a starter and his numbers improved substantially between his first and second. In '08 Woodley's 41 tackles and 11.5 sacks were pretty strong for a second year player. Last season those numbers swelled to 50 and 13. If the trend continues he could be in for a very big season in 2010. The obvious knock on 3-4 OLBs is their lack of big tackle numbers. In most cases that effects the consistency of these players. However, when you look at a guy like Woodley who recorded at least half a sack in 8 consecutive games to close out the '09 season, consistency becomes less of an issue. Personally I still prefer the 90+ tackle guys as my top linebackers but no one can argue with picking up Woodley or Harrison as good second or excellent third starters. Obviously these guys are gold in scoring systems that are slanted toward big plays... James Farrior has been a mainstay at the Steelers ILB position for nearly a decade, but at age 35 he is clearly in the twilight of a fine career. From a fantasy perspective Farrior has been inconsistent over the course of his tenure. Over the past eight seasons he has reached 85 tackles on three occasions but in four other years he failed to reach the 70 mark. His 29 takeaways and 22.5 sacks have helped to make him a decent third starter or quality depth for us throughout much of his Steelers career. He should hold similar value for us in 2010... Lawrence Timmons was drafted fifteenth overall in 2007 and is the heir apparent to Farrior as the defensive leader and play caller. He is an exceptional athlete with huge potential both in NFL and fantasy terms. Timmons had his best season as a pro in '09 when he totaled a modest 56-22-7. Those numbers are a bit misleading when you consider that he missed a couple of games and played sparingly in a few others due to an ankle injury. There is no doubt that Timmons can be very productive but what concerns me is that this ankle issue started during the summer of his rookie season and has been a problem ever since. Timmons has yet to be available for a full 16 game season and has played at less than full strength for much of his three years in the league. If/when he is healthy the sky is the limit for Timmons who could become a perennial top 15 fantasy LB once Farrior moves on. Draft him as your LB2 this year but be sure to have solid depth behind him... After a year in Detroit Larry Foote came home to Pittsburgh this offseason. He is no threat to beat out either of the starters but is a quality insurance policy for the team. The other thing that was likely part of the thought process is that once Farrior retires and Timmons moves into the lead role, Foote can return to the side kick duties he held before Timmons knocked him out of the lineup. The Steelers are always thinking ahead which is why they are perennially among the leagues best defenses.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • ILB James Farrior - Solid depth 
  • ILB Lawrence Timmons - Injury risk with big upside
  • ILB Larry Foote - Injury sleeper with limited potential
  • ILB Keyaron Fox - No value
  • OLB James Harrison - Quality #3 starter
  • OLB LaMarr Woodley - Quality #3 starter with #2 potential
  • OLB Jason Worilds - Dynasty alert, may be a couple of years away
  • OLB Thaddeus Gibson - Dynasty sleeper, keep an eye on his development
  • Defensive Backs

    If only he could stay healthy SS Troy Polamalu would be one of the best DBs in the fantasy game. Injuries have been an issue for Polamalu over much of his career. In fact he has played a full slate of games just three times in seven years. In those three seasons ('04, '05 and '08) he averaged 65 tackles and recorded 14 picks. Last season Polamalu saw just about four games of action and totaled 18 tackles with three picks. He resembles the Colts Bob Sanders in that when they are on the field they are difference makers but their all out kamikaze playing styles keep them in street clothes way too often. There were concerns that last year's injury could become career threatening for Polamalu but those whispers seem to have faded over the offseason and he is expected to be ready for camp. The Steelers are a different defense when Polamalu is on the field and he can be a big asset for fantasy owners as well. Just be sure to have quality depth behind him... FS Ryan Clark tested the free agent waters this offseason and found them to be cold. As a result he will be back in black and gold for a fifth season. Clark has his fair share of struggles with injuries as well and has not played a full 16 games in any of his eight NFL seasons. His injuries however, have generally been of a less serious nature, causing him to miss just three contests in the past two years. Clark is less flashy than Polamalu but did manage a solid 68 solo stops and 3 picks in fifteen games last season. Consider him as depth in most 12 team leagues that start 3 defensive backs... Steelers corners traditionally post respectable tackle numbers but rarely supply much of a big play impact. This is more a reflection on the scheme than the abilities of the individuals themselves. In the zone blitz corners are often left in man coverage with their most important responsibility being not to surrender the big play. As such they must play it safe and are rarely at liberty to gamble. William Gay actually led the club with 70 solo tackles last season with Ike Taylor contributing 53 as the other starter. Between them they had just 1 interception, 1 forced fumble and 1 recovery. Bryant McFadden returns after a one year stint in Arizona and will likely push Gay into the nickel role. He is a quality cover man who posted 64 tackles with the Cardinals in '09 but never put up more than 47 during his previous four seasons in Pittsburgh. In most situations fantasy owners look at corners as the wild card position and depend on big play production from them. You might get 65-70 tackles from either Taylor or McFadden but multiple big plays are just not going to happen.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • SS Troy Polamalu - Big risk big reward, top 10 potential if he's healthy 
  • FS Ryan Clark - Quality bye week depth
  • FS Will Allen - No value
  • SS Ryan Mundy - Injury sleeper to keep an eye on
  • CB Ike Taylor - Possible depth in corner required leagues 
  • CB Bryant McFadden - Marginal depth in corner required leagues
  • CB William Gay - Injury sleeper with backup potential in corner required leagues
  • CB Keenan Lewis - No value
  • CB Joe Burnett - No value
  • Cleveland Browns

    Defensive Linemen

    In 2008 Shaun Rogers was the top defensive tackle in the fantasy game with 62 solo stops and 5 sacks. Last year those numbers plummeted and he was on pace for only 39 tackles before being injured in week 12. In hope of rekindling his production the Browns plan to use him at DE often in 2010. Rogers has the ability to be a disruptive force up front but just how much the change of position will help remains to be seen. The reality with him is that you never know what you are going to get. Three times in his career he has exceeded 40 solo tackles. Five times he has totaled 30 or fewer. Three times has had posted 5 or more sacks. Four times he has put up 3 or fewer. Many software databases will be behind the curve on the change of position. If you can get away with playing Rogers as a tackle, his value could be very good. If however, he is listed as a DE in your league, you should not count on much from him. 40-45 tackles and 4-5 sacks would be a very good year. Anything beyond that would be a pleasant surprise. Anything less than that would be no surprise at all... Robaire Smith and Kenyon Coleman are expected to compete for the other starting job at DE but they will enter camp with Coleman penciled in. This is somewhat of a head scratcher when you consider that Smith has been the team's most productive lineman in two of the past three seasons. He missed most of '08 with an injury but in both '07 and '09 Smith exceeded the 40 tackle mark. In '07 he also led all Cleveland linemen with 4 sacks. The fact that he had just half a sack in '09 probably has something to do with the coaching staff looking to upgrade the position. Or maybe they are anticipating a suspension over the firearm situation. Smith has proven to be a good fit at end in the 3-4 and if he wins the job, should put up good tackle numbers with a couple of sacks. He and Coleman are actually very similar players. The best statistical year of Coleman's career came in 2007 when he went 56-27-1.5 with the Jets, and was at top 20 DE. He managed 44-10-1 with New York in '08 and came to Cleveland last season where he was 29-9-2 in thirteen starts. If Coleman comes away with the starting nod, a good year for him would be 40-45 tackles and 2-3 sacks. Whoever gets the start here will be no better than a bye week fill in for owners in deep drafted leagues... Owners in tackle required leagues may want to take a shot on Ahtyba Rubin. With Rogers moving to end, Rubin is expected to step in at nose tackle. He is entering his third season as a pro and filled in well when Rogers went down late in '09. Rubin's totals of 23-15-0 are far from impressive at a glance, but it lends a little different perspective when you consider that he started just five games played fewer than 50% of the team's defensive snaps. One thing that is certain, no one else is going to be looking at this guy so you can pick him up in the last round and he might be a pleasant surprise.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • DE Kenyon Coleman - Depth in large leagues at best
  • DE Shaun Rogers - Potential DL2, potential bust, you just never know
  • DE Robaire Smith - Possible depth in large leagues but don't waste a draft pick
  • DE Brian Schaefering - No value
  • NT Rubin Ahtyba - Sleeper for owners in tackle required leagues
  • NT/DE C.J. Mosley - No value
  • NT Jonathan Lewis - No value
  • Linebackers

    No team was more snake bitten at a single position last season than were the Browns at inside linebacker. In week six they lost D'Qwell Jackson to a torn Pectoral muscle and Eric Barton was shut down after week eight due to a neck injury. This was devastating to a team that was thin at the position to begin with. Jackson has recovered from his surgery and will be at full strength when camp opens. While I have never been sold on him as a great NFL player and believe his big numbers are largely a product of the environment, there can be no argument about his production or IDP value. Following a great 2008 campaign that produced 96 solo stops, 58 assists and a good showing in the big play columns, there were high expectations for Jackson last season. Through the first six games he was exceeding those expectations and was on pace for a monster 120 solo stops. At 26 years of age Jackson is in the prime of his career and one injury does not label him a risk. The Browns have a long way to go defensively so he should continue to thrive in a target rich environment with relatively little competition for tackles. He is hands down the best fantasy prospect this club has to offer on the defensive side of the ball. Patrick Willis he is not, but you could do much worse than Jackson as a second tier LB1. Especially when you consider that he can usually be drafted in the LB2 range. He was the 14th LB off the board in my most recent draft and would likely have fallen a little further were I not drafting against several FBG staffers... Barton had surgery late last season to repair a bulging disc in his neck. He is expected to be ready for training camp but may have a tough time regaining his starting job even if healthy. After a 93 tackle season in '08, Barton came to Cleveland where he was second fiddle to Jackson at ILB. As a result his numbers were down and Barton was on pace for under 80 tackles when he was injured. To get the job back Barton will need to unseat former Eagles SLB Chris Gocong who came over in a trade and has been penciled in as the starter. There was a reason the linebacker needy Eagles were willing to let Gocong go, so it remains to be seen if he will provide to be an improvement at the position or in the box scores. When it comes to box score production/potential, there are no similarities between an SLB in a 4-3 and an ILB in a 3-4. Therefore we can't really consider past production when looking at Gocong's potential in his new situation. My personal opinion is that a healthy Barton wins this job based on experience if nothing else. That said, neck injuries are a scary thing and Gocong will enter camp as the starter so we should probably target him over Barton as late round depth with a little upside. The Browns are mired in a rebuilding process and are not yet going to be very good. That points toward whoever comes out on top in this competition having a lot of opportunity... As I have said many times already, the OLB positions are key to the success of any 3-4 scheme. Simply put, the Browns are hurting for playmakers at this position. Matt Roth is a serviceable player but there is a reason he didn't stick at the same position in Miami. He has a career high of 6 sacks and was just 20-12-4 in nine games with Cleveland last season... The Browns added Scott Fujita in free agency and have him penciled in as the starter opposite Roth. Fujita is a good football player but is 31 years old and has never worked in a 3-4 scheme. Its not that you can't teach an old dog new tricks, it's just that with his career best of 4.5 sacks coming way back in '04 and his recording just 3 in the past two seasons, there simply is no reason to believe the old dog can excel at the job... David Bowens tied Kamerion Wimbley for the team lead with 6 sacks a year ago. Wimbley is now a Raider and Bowens is basically the equivalent of a utility player in baseball. A guy who is not really a starter at any position but can line up anywhere and help the team in a pinch. Bowens was everywhere last year before ending up mostly at ILB down the stretch. In the end he may be the best option at OLB opposite Roth... The Browns seem to have missed on last year's second and fourth round picks David Veikune and Kaluka Maiava respectively. After all the injuries at ILB Maiava had plenty of opportunity to impress but fell short and was bypassed for former undrafted free agent Jason Trusnik... Veikune was drafted with the expectation that he would become a starter on the outside. He didn't make a single tackle as a rookie and has now been moved inside where he is trying to fight his way up the depth chart into a backup role... The moral of this story is that while the Browns have stocked up with bodies and have plenty of depth at linebacker, they have just one standout and desperately need a couple of others to separate themselves from the pack.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • ILB D'Qwell Jackson - Quality LB1 or excellent LB2
  • ILB Chris Gocong - Sleeper with LB3 potential at best
  • ILB Eric Barton - Deep sleeper with limited potential
  • ILB/OLB David Bowens - No value at this point
  • ILB Kaluka Maiava - No value
  • OLB Matt Roth - Minimal value at best in big play heave scoring
  • OLB Scott Fujita - Sleeper with limited upside in big play scoring systems
  • OLB Jason Trusnik - Injury sleeper at best
  • OLB Marcus Bernard - No value
  • OLB David Veikune - Injury sleeper if he can earn the backup job at ILB
  • Defensive Backs

    When you consider that Cleveland ranked 29th in pass defense last season, it comes as no surprise that the defensive back positions got the most attention on draft day. The Browns used their first two picks on corner Joe Haden and safety T.J. Ward respectively, then then added safety Larry Asante in round five. Haden will step right into a starting role opposite 2007 second round selection Eric Wright. The rookie corner rule should apply to Haden just as it did to Wright when he entered the league. In his first season Wright recorded 71 solo stops with just 1 pick. His second season produced 61 and 3, and last years Wright went for 57 tackles and 4 interceptions. Wright has become a respected cover man so look for Haden to have an expanded number of opportunities as a rookie and post decent numbers. Especially if he has a good year in the big play columns. As it goes with the rookie corner rule, as he has gained experience Wright has traded a few tackles and some consistency for more big plays. He is still worthy of consideration as a good second or excellent third corner on your roster and his tackle numbers could rebound a little once Haden has proven himself... The selections of both Ward and Asante are a little puzzling in that their scouting reports describe both players as being in the box strong safeties who are not particularly strong in coverage. There has been speculation and rumor that the coaching staff intends to give both rookies every opportunity to start this season. Adding to the confusion is the fact that the team's best holdover at at the position is Abram Elam who is also a strong safety. So who plays FS? This is immensely important in determining where the value lies with these players. Elam led the club with 73 tackles in '09 while then FS Mike Adams totaled just 60. Looking back a few years we see that former Cleveland SS Sean Jones made the top 10 at the position in '06 and '07, and was well on his way to a third straight top 10 in '08 before missing four games with injury. Meanwhile, in four seasons as the starting FS Brodney Pool never put up more than 60 tackles or finished among the top 25 safeties. The one real good clue we have is that Ward spent most of his career at Oregon as a FS. A deeper look at his days as a Duck can also be very telling. Ward led the team in tackles from the FS position in 2008 but failed to record a single interception in 20 starts over his final two years there. He also has a laundry list of injuries that have threatened to derail his career several times dating all the way back to high school. Ward is obviously a very tough and determined kid but the FS position in Cleveland has been void of fantasy production for a long time. Even though he was drafted higher, we shouldn't put too much stock in Ward unless he lands at SS. The fact is, Asante probably deserves the higher ranking on our draft boards. He's a pure SS who started for three years at the position in Nebraska and has never missed a game due to injury. He's an intimidating hitter who forced a lot of fumbles for the Huskers and put up pretty good tackle numbers as well. Asante has some limitations in coverage and was not a workout warrior at the combine, but ran a 4.66 in the forty and can be coached to improve the shortcomings on his scouting report. Elam may open the season as the starter but he is clearly not the long term answer. If Asante doesn't win the job coming out of camp its likely we will see him in the lineup once the club looses a few games. Consider him a sleeper with good upside, particularly when it comes to dynasty leagues. 

    Fantasy Outlook

  • SS Abram Elam - Decent depth if he hold onto the starting job, no security here
  • S T.J. Ward - Big potential is he lands at SS which seems unlikely, injury risk
  • S Larry Asante - Sleepers with good long term potential
  • S/CB Mike Adams- No value
  • CB Eric Wright - Quality CB2 or excellent depth in corner required leagues 
  • CB Joe Haden - Rookie corner rule should make him a good CB2 with upside
  • CB Sheldon Brown - No value
  • CB Brandon McDonald - No value
  • Baltimore Ravens

    Defensive Linemen

    When it comes to placing a value on the Ravens defensive linemen the most important thing is knowing at what position your software puts them. Baltimore plays a hybrid scheme that uses 3 and 4 man fronts nearly equally. When they are in a 3-4 Kelly Gregg and Haloti Ngata will likely be at the ends with rookie Terrence Cody at nose tackle and Terrell Suggs at OLB. When the 4-3 is called Gregg and Ngata become tackles with Suggs and Trevor Pryce at DE. Suggs is the most important piece of the equation. He missed three games in '09 and had his worst overall numbers since becoming a starter in 2004, but still managed a respectable 44 tackles and 4.5 sacks. Respectable that is, for a defensive end. He had exceeded 45 tackles in five consecutive seasons leading up to '09 and would undoubtedly have made it three in a row with 50+ had he not missed those three games. He may never lead the league in sacks and is coming off a career low, but has averaged a hefty 8 over his seven seasons. Suggs was not happy with his performance last year and has vowed a return to form in 2010. Anyone who can play him as a DE should probably listen. It seems as if he has been around for a long time but Suggs is just 27 years old and in the prime of his career... The positional designation comes into play heavily with Gregg and Ngata as well. Neither player will provide enough sacks to be of great value as a defensive end but both are highly desirable if you must start tackles. Gregg missed all of 2008 with an injury but came back strong in '09 with a mark of 47-17-3. In fact Gregg has exceeded the 40 tackle mark in six of the last eight seasons with the odd two being '08 and and injury shortened 2005. Twice in those six years he exceeded 50 tackles and his career best is 63. Its a pretty safe bet that (barring injury) we can count on Gregg for somewhere in the area of 45 tackles and 3 sacks. That would be DT1 material in today's game... Ngata missed a couple of games last year and was banged most of the season. As a result his final numbers were not very good (26-10-1.5). Looking a little further back however, will shine a different light. Ngata posted 43 solo tackles in both '07 and '08 with his career best of 3 sacks coming in 2007. Considering the scarcity of box score productive interior linemen, those numbers look pretty good for the position... There was a time that Pryce had some fantasy value but he'll be 35 in August and he has been relegated to a part time role. In fact, the coaching staff is looking for Paul Kruger to step up and push for playing time at both 3-4 OLB and 4-3 DE, so Pryce could conceivably be a backup come opening day... Cody could prove to be a very good 3-4 nose tackle but at this point it doesn't look like he will be on the field in most of the 4-3 sets. That could change down the road if/when the soon to be 34 year old Gregg calls it quits.

    Fantasy Outlook

  • DE/DT Haloti Ngata - Quality starter as a DT, depth at best as a DE
  • DE/DT/NT Kelly Gregg - Quality starter as a DT, depth at best as a DE
  • DE/OLB Terrell Suggs - Quality starter as a DE, no value as a LB unless your league emphasizes big plays
  • DE Trevor Pryce- No value
  • DE Paul Kruger - deep sleeper heading into camp but situation could mirror Suggs down the road
  • DE Arthur Jones - No value
  • NT Terrence Cody - Deep dynasty sleeper for tackle required leagues
  • Linebackers

    It would be easy to throw out numbers that prove what a fantasy stud Ray Lewis has been throughout his Hall of Fame career. Anyone who watches or knows anything about football doesn't need me to do that. What we do need to start thinking about however, is just how near the end Lewis is. There are rumblings and rumors that suggest this may be his last season. Like Brett Favre, Lewis still has a passion for the game and can still play at a high level. Hopefully that will be enough to keep him going beyond this season but 35 is pretty long in the tooth for a linebacker. As for his 2010 fantasy prospectus, all we need do is look back at last year. In '09 Lewis had his best statistical season since 2004. At 94-37-3 with 3 picks and 7 passes defended, Lewis was once again a top 10 linebacker. It would not be a good idea to count on his finishing that high again this year, but I would certainly not hesitate to make him my second LB. Over the past couple of years there has been much conversation and speculation among the IDP community about life after Lewis in Baltimore. When they drafted Tavares Gooden in 2008 everyone tagged him as the heir apparent but he hasn't exactly preformed up to those lofty expectations. In fact, he has been somewhat of a disappointment and couldn't even earn a full time job when Bart Scott moved on last season. Many people are now on the Dannell Ellerbe bandwagon and think the 2009 undrafted free agent is next in line. There is little doubt that he looked better than Gooden last season but let me point out that he too was unable to claim a full time job and ended up in a situational time share with Gooden for much of the season. We also shouldn't forget the rumors/speculation that Sergio Kindle was drafted to take over at OLB so that Jarrett Johnson could be free to move inside. If I were going to take a flier in the late round it would be on Ellerbe but I don't believe the Ravens are sold on anyone at this point. I'm not a betting man but if I were, my money would be on the player to be named later. I don't believe that the heir to Lewis's kingdom is on the roster yet... Prior to 2008 Jarrett Johnson saw the vast majority of his playing time as the SLB when the Ravens are in a four man front, and would exit the field in passing situations. Over the past two seasons he has regularly been staying on the field as an OLB in the 3-4. As a result Johnson had 5 sacks in '08 and a career best 6 in '09. He lacks the tackle production to be of any immediate value to us but the possibility that he could move inside makes him an intriguing prospect, especially if Kindle becomes a viable replacement on the outside. Much is unsettled in Baltimore, making this a situation we will most definitely be keeping an eye on throughout training camp and into the regular season. 

    Fantasy Outlook

  • ILB Ray Lewis - Quality LB2 this year but don't count on him beyond that
  • ILB Dannell Ellerbe - Late round dynasty sleeper 
  • ILB Tavares Gooden - Deep sleeper at best
  • ILB Jameel McClain - No value
  • OLB Jarrett Johnson - Deep sleeper who could be a big surprise down the road if he moves inside
  • OLB Sergio Kindle - Could make an impact in big play based scoring systems
  • OLB Antwan Barnes - No value
  • Defensive Backs

    There was a time when the Ravens secondary was among the most feared in the league. As the sands of time kept trickling through the hourglass the once lethal corner tandem of of Samari Rolle and Chris McAllister faded into the sunset and highlight reel star Ed Reed seems to be headed that way as well. The corner positions are now in the hands of veterans Fabian Washington, Dominique Foxworth and second year pro Lardarius Webb. Washington was the 23rd overall pick by Oakland in 2005 and is a very good but not great NFL corner. He has "Al Davis speed", which means he can run with any receiver in the league, but he is not a ball hawk by any stretch. Washington did manage a career best of 4 interceptions in 2006 but his five year total is just 6 with only 1 over his twenty two starts as a Raven. Factor in his injury struggles and the fact that he has not completed a full slate of games since his rookie season, and it becomes easy to see that he is of no value to us... Foxworth put up 65 tackles and a couple of picks as a rookie in Denver back in 2005 but has not reached the 50 tackle mark since (rookie corner rule in action again). Like Washington, Foxworth has been light in the big play columns over his career. To Foxworth's credit he did post a career best 4 picks in 2009 and if you add the 16 passes defended to his 48 solo tackles, was probably worthy as a backup in some deep corner required leagues. He could hold about the same value this year but there is no reason to make him a target on draft day... Webb was the Ravens third round pick last year. He didn't get on the field until week eight but was showing some promise before suffering a knee injury and landing on IR. He is not expected to be 100% by the season opener but may be able to capture the nickel corner job anyway. He will compete with veteran journeymen Chris Carr and Travis Fisher for that job... With 46 interceptions and 62 total takeaways over his eight year career, Ed Reed is one of the best big play safeties to ever strap on a helmet. Unfortunately his lack of consistent tackle production has limited his fantasy value for most of those years. Reed has struggled with nagging injuries over the past few seasons and considered retirement after 2009. In fact there is still concern that he may not play in 2010. He hasn't put up more than 52 tackles in a season since 2004 and is best left to some other owner if he does attempt to go another year. The Ravens began preparing for life after Reed when they drafted Tom Zbikowski in round three in 2008. Zbikowski will compete with free agent addition Ken Hamlin for a spot in the pecking order at safety and possibly the honor of replacing Reed. Hamlin has given us some productive years during his career but neither of these guys jump out as likely fantasy prospects even if Reed retires. There is however, one member of the Ravens secondary that should be on our radar. Early in the career of Dawan Landry the Ravens were so dominating up front that their SS simply didn't have enough opportunity to be a fantasy factor. The Ravens are still a good defense but its no fluke that Landry posted a career best 69 solo tackles in '09. The 5 takeaways and 8 passes defended helped him to finish among the top 15 safeties for the first time in his career. Landry is entering his 5th year as a pro and his most productive days are probably ahead of him. Pick him up as a solid DB3 with some upside. 

    Fantasy Outlook

  • FS Ed Reed - Minimal value at best, move him up some in big play based scoring
  • SS Dawan Landry - DB3 with some upside
  • FS Ken Hamlin - Sleeper with limited potential, depth at best
  • S Tom Zbikowski - Sleepers with limited upside, depth at best
  • S Haruki Nakamura - No value
  • CB Fabian Washington - No value 
  • CB Dominique Foxworth - Depth in deep drafted corner required leagues
  • CB Lardarius Webb - No value
  • CB Travis Fisher - No value
  • CB Chris Carr - No value
  • That does it for the AFC North. The NFC Norse is next on the agenda. Look for that in the next week or so. Until then, questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to norton@footballguys.com.