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IDP Pre-Season Preview: AFC North
Steve Gallo
August 21, 2012
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Every year there are new faces in new places – not just players, but coaches too.  With those changes come scheme changes, and value changes with regards to fantasy football.  In addition, many teams have new defensive coordinators – you can read about them in the 2012 Coaching Changes article.  When you add up all of the player acquisitions, losses, and scheme changes, you will find that they can combine to have a profound effect on a player’s fantasy value.  The following information should help you understand what to expect in 2012.  If you have any additional questions please feel free to email me at gallo@thehuddle.com or find me on twitter @IDPSteve.

Baltimore Ravens

HC: John Harbaugh
DC:  Dean Pees
Base Defensive Scheme: 3-4
Scheme Change: No

Key acquisitions: DL Courtney Upshaw

Defensive Line/Linebacker

NOTE: Since the Ravens play a hybrid defense, and in some league management software Terrell Suggs, Courtney Upshaw, Paul Kruger will be listed as OLBs, while in others, like MyFantasyLeague.com, they are classified as DEs, I am going to combine the defensive line and linebackers position.

The Ravens defense suffered one of the biggest blows of the offseason when Terrell Suggs tore the Achilles tendon in his right leg.  Surgery was performed in May, and believe it or not, but Suggs said he will play for the Ravens in 2012.  It’s a long shot, and you can’t fault Suggs for wanting to do what he can to get back on the field.  Make no mistake about it, this is a blow to not only the Ravens defense but also to the DE position for IDP owners.

Rookie Courtney Upshaw and veteran Paul Kruger will do what they can to try to fill the void left by Suggs, but the key word is “try.”  Both players should be on the field often, just don’t expect Suggs-like production.  Opportunity can only go so far, at some point a players ability is what takes opportunity to different levels.

Suggs loss will be felt, but having a player like Haloti Ngata on the same defensive line leaves the Ravens with one of the best defensive linemen in the NFL to pick up the slack.  Granted Ngata doesn’t play DE, but he is a freak at the DT position.  Fantasy wise, he is easily my top DT for DT mandatory leagues.

At LB, Ray Lewis is well, Ray Lewis.  Lewis may not have the range that he used to have, but his defensive smarts rivals those of Peyton Manning on the offensive side of the ball, and then there is that intensity, that wild, crazy, pregame dance inspiring intensity, that Lewis uses to fire up his team and gets them to follow him into battle every week.  Lewis is a hard player to peg for dynasty leagues, but in redraft leagues, if he is playing he is going to be right there with the LB1 tier.  Yes, Lewis finished last year as the 31st ranked LB in fantasy scoring, but that was due to missing four games.  For the season, he had a 16.0 PPG average, the 9th best among LBs.  As far as I am concerned, his ADP of LB23 is far too low, and makes Lewis a value pick for me.  

Secondary

Last year there were concerns with how the Ravens would utilize Bernard Pollard, and rightfully so.  This year, there are no concerns, none whatsoever.  Last year, it took Pollard some time to get acclimated to the Ravens defense, but once he did he was money for fantasy owners.  Following the Ravens bye in week 5 thru week 16 Pollard ranked as the 5th highest scoring DB.  For some unknown reason to me, Pollard has an ADP of just DB21, and like Lewis, he presents a huge value at that spot.  Just in case I have to spell it out, yes, I think that Pollard can put up top 5 numbers this year, especially with the losses the Ravens have suffered in their front seven.

At CB, Lardarius Webb had a solid fantasy season last year, ranking 26th among all DBs in fantasy scoring, and 6th among CBs.  Here is the thing, I like Webb the player, a lot, I really do, but he was inconsistent at times last year, and if you want him on your team this year in a CB mandatory league you are going to have to draft him relatively early for the position.  With how deep CB is, I don’t think I would be able to pull the trigger on him as CB5, especially when you can get players like Cortland Finnegan (CB13), Antoine Winfield (CB14), and even a guy like Alterraun Verner of the Titans who isn’t even ranked in MFLs ADP report – meaning he is going undrafted in many leagues.  I even like fellow teammate Jimmy Smith as a sleeper option that you can get at a much, much better value, with nearly no risk, and a fair amount of upside.

If you are reading this and asking yourself, “what about Ed Reed”, you are probably a rookie IDP player.  Reed is a sure fire Hall Of Famer, but fantasy wise he is waiver wire fodder.    

Cincinnati Bengals

HC: Marvin Lewis
DC:  Mike Zimmer
Base Defensive Scheme: 4-3
Scheme Change: No

Key acquisitions: n/a

Defensive Line

This may be hard to believe but since 2008 – that’s four seasons – the Bengals have had just one, yes, ONE, DL rank in the top 24, and that was last year.  That one player; DT Geno Atkins – who also ranked as the 3rd highest scoring DT.  This year, Atkins should continue to be a top option in DT mandatory leagues, in combined leagues he makes for a safe DL2 with limited upside.

The last DE to rank in the top 24 for the Bengals was Justin Smith, way back in 2007.  In Carlos Dunlap they have a player that has the ability to put up DL2 or better numbers.  However, he is currently fighting a knee injury that is expected to keep him out for a month, meaning he will likely miss week 1.  In dynasty leagues, I can see continuing to sit on him in hopes he can get on the field and live up to the flashes he has shown, but in redraft leagues he is nothing more than waiver wire material at this point in time.

Another DE that many have looked to breakout is Michael Johnson.  At this point, I am skeptical that Johnson will ever be a viable weekly fantasy option.  If you buy that he is going to do more than he has in the past, just realize that he played in 728 snaps last year, and based on last year’s production he would only need to play in 848 snaps to come in as a DL24.  In addition, let me point out that 848 snaps would be the most played by any defensive lineman on the Bengals over the last five years.

Linebacker

For the most part, like the Bengals defensive line, their linebackers are basically a fantasy waste land.  Since 2007, only once has a Bengal LB put up better than LB3 numbers and that was Dhani Jones, who in 2010 ranked 18th in fantasy points scored among LBs.

Historical numbers like that make it hard to like players like Rey Maualuga, and even Thomas Howard.  Howard was a nice addition to the Bengals defense from a NFL standpoint, but fantasy wise he just barely put up LB3 numbers, ranking 35th in points scored by a LB.  As evidenced with neither player ranking in MFLs ADP for LBs, I am not the only one that thinks it is best to avoid the Bengals LBs. 

Secondary

The secondary for the Bengals sort of keeps up the same trend as the DEs and LBs had, but not quite as bad on the fantasy purgatory end as those two positions.  Since 2007, the Bengals have had just one DB finish as high as a DB2 (Reggie Nelson #14) in fantasy scoring among DBs.  Over that same timeframe, only Johnathan Joseph was able to hit DB2 level as the DB22 in 2009.  As far as DB3 value, only one – Leon Hall, who ranked #27 among DBs, put up those types of numbers.

Fantasy wise, Reggie Nelson looks to be the only safe option, and with an ADP of DB36 he doesn’t present much risk at all.  I also want to like the prospects of Taylor Mays for a breakout year, but his lack of coverage skills will work against him.  As it stands now it looks like CB Nate Clements will rotate in and play SS in passing downs, and in today’s NFL, that means that Mays won’t be on the field all that much.

Cleveland Browns

HC: Pat Shurmur
DC:  Dick Jauron
Base Defensive Scheme: 4-3
Scheme Change: No

Key acquisitions: LB James-Michael Johnson

Defensive Line

The Browns have assembled a very nice defensive line, both for fantasy and NFL purposes.  Second year DE, Jabaal Sheard is coming off of a very strong rookie campaign where he scored the 10th most points by a DL last year, but get this, he still wasn’t the highest scoring DL on his own team.  That would have been Ahtyba Rubin who scored the 8th most points among all DLs last year.  Both should remain top options for fantasy owners.  I like Sheard to build on his rookie campaign, but with an ADP of DL11 it would seem that either people are buying in more to other DLs or just expect a small reduction in his play.  In dynasty leagues, I have no problem taking Sheard as DL3.  Sure, you can opt for players like Trent Cole, Justin Tuck, or Mario Williams, but I think that Sheard truly is going to be a fixture in the top 5 range for the foreseeable future.  It surely helps having a player like Rubin, as well as Phil Taylor (once he returns from injury) playing next to him.

Linebacker

Last year, D’Qwell Jackson finished as the second highest scoring LB in the league, just 3.5 points behind league leader, London Fletcher.  Amazing what a healthy season can do for a player.  This year I once again expect big things from Jackson, and I’m not alone, as evidenced by his LB2 ADP.  I won’t say that Jackson will finish as LB1 or even LB2, but he will be right there with a group of about five LBs that I think will be tightly bunched together at the top of the rankings this year.

Bounty Gate is something that fans in New Orleans don’t want to hear about, but the fans in Cleveland are probably happy that Scott Fujita was suspended because of it.  That suspension, coupled with an injury to Chris Gocong ensures that rookie James-Michael Johnson gets on the field this year, even if it is as a SLB.  Which is the position he is currently manning, with Kaluka Maiava at WLB. 

One thing that dynasty owners need to be aware of is that Johnson very well could slide inside to MLB in the future.  A move like that would most likely see Jackson sliding over to play WLB, it wouldn’t be a kill shot to Jackson’s value, but it would more than likely make it much more difficult for him to be much more than a LB2. 

Secondary

In the Browns secondary, there isn’t much to dislike about CB Joe Haden who is developing into one of the absolute best CBs in the game today.  Fantasy wise, I just can’t get on board with his ADPs as DB23 or CB7.  Last year, Haden was the 54th highest scoring DB, and came in as the 22nd best scoring CB, both far from his current ADP levels.  As I see it, the better that Haden gets, the less likely QBs are to test him.  Without being tested, it’s hard to score fantasy points. 

At safety, TJ Ward missed the Browns final eight games due to injury.  However, even before that he wasn’t putting up close to the numbers he did in 2010 when he finished as DB2 in fantasy scoring.  His current ADP of DB24 still seems like it is being influenced somewhat by his performance in 2010, because thru 9 weeks last year he only ranked tied for 60th in fantasy points scored among DBs.  While I would rather draft Ward at a much later ADP, I actually do see some upside with where he is currently being drafted.  I don’t think he will challenge for a top 5 ranking, but I do think he has DB1 upside.

Pittsburgh Steelers

HC: Mike Tomlin
DC:  Dick LeBeau
Base Defensive Scheme: 3-4
Scheme Change: No

Key acquisitions: n/a

Defensive Line

The Steelers 3-4 scheme is the fantasy death knell for their defensive linemen.  I know that Steve McClendon is getting some positive remarks for his play this preseason, but don’t buy the hype.  There is nothing to see here, so keep moving along.

Linebacker

There are plenty of places to start with regards to the Steelers LBs, but I am going to start with the loss of James Farrior.  Farrior was clearly declining as a player, and I think Steelers will be fine without him.  The reason I am starting with him is because I think his absence will help to increase the numbers of Lawrence Timmons.  Yes, Timmons did struggle last year, and he surely frustrated his owners along the way, but there were many factors that contributed to those struggles.  Including injuries, which forced Timmons to play a different role at times last year.  With an ADP of LB15 it is clear that IDP owners are expecting a bounce back season for Timmons, who ranked 44th in LB scoring last year.  LB15 doesn’t provide much value if you draft Timmons, but his upside is LB1.  Both LaMarr Woodley (6 games) and James Harrison (5 games) had injury riddled seasons last year, combining to miss a grand total of 11 games.  Woodley is healthy going into 2012, but the same can’t be said of Harrison.  While it wasn’t a major surgery, he still had his left knee scoped and his availability for week 1 is up in the air right now.  If Harrison can’t start the season and misses time, look for former 2011 5th round pick Chris Carter to start in his place.

Also on the injury front, second year ILB, Stevenson Sylvester suffered a torn MCL and is expected to be out for upwards of four weeks.  That means that rookie Sean Spence moves into the reserve role behind veteran Larry Foote. 

Secondary

The Steelers secondary is in much better shape than it has been in past years, but that is NFL wise, not fantasy wise.  Troy Polamalu is a fan favorite, especially in Pittsburgh, but fantasy wise, especially in tackle heavy formats he isn’t worth anything more than a DB3 or depth.  Yes, last year he finished the season as the 18th highest scoring DB, but it was also the first time he has ranked higher than 36th in the last five seasons.  Ryan Clark according to MFL ADP is going undrafted in many leagues, yet I would much spend a late round pick on Clark then to select Polamalu as DB15, his current ADP at MFL.

AFC North AFC South AFC East AFC West
NFC North NFC South NFC East NFC West

Note:  Huddle IDPScoring system: solo tackle (2 pts), assisted tackle (1 pt), sack (3 pts), forced or recovered fumble (3 pts), interception (3 pts) and pass defended (1 pt).


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