The next division we are looking at is the AFC East, and things are very interesting indeed as the kickoff to the 2013 season is dead ahead. The New England Patriots figure to dominate the division (yawn) again but may have a surprise rival from down south.
The Miami Dolphins have made a bevy of moves this offseason in order to challenge New England and the gap may be getting smaller. Buffalo and New York have some work to do (cough … fire Rex Ryan … cough) to get back to respectability.
1. Jerod Mayo, WLB, New England:
As the Patriots defense morphed into more of a base 4-3 scheme, Mayo has made the transition from 3-4 inside linebacker to weakside linebacker in the new scheme seamlessly. He racked up 147 total tackles along with three sacks, four forced fumbles and an interception in 2012.
Only 27 years old, Mayo has years and years of productivity ahead of him and excellent dynasty, as well as redraft format, potential. He is a three down, top 10 overall linebacker for fantasy purposes and should be drafted early on as a high-end LB1 to anchor IDP teams.
2. Dannell Ellerbe, MLB, Miami:
Ellerbe signed with the Dolphins in March and immediately inherited the middle linebacker job formerly held by Karlos Dansby. Ellerbe stepped up once the Baltimore Ravens lost Ray Lewis for an extended period in 2012, amassing 69 solo tackles and 4.5 sacks in 13 games.
As the three down middle linebacker in Miami, Ellerbe can be expected to post numbers similar to those of Dansby last season, which was a very fantasy-friendly 134 total tackles (101 solo) along with a sack, forced fumble and nine passes defended. Ellerbe has flashed more big play potential than Dansby of late and could even surpass those totals as the man in the middle for the Dolphins. He is a solid LB2 fantasy prospect for 2013 and beyond.
3. Demario Davis, RILB, New York Jets:
Davis has assumed a three down role in his second season and figures to be on the field plenty as the Jets have no offense to speak of. New York is playing Davis and David Harris as ‘left and right’ inside linebackers as opposed to the weakside linebacker and strongside linebacker designation.
Davis is strong in coverage and will more than likely lead the Jets in total tackles this season as long as he stays healthy. Look for very solid high-end LB3 numbers with the upside to possibly reach high-end LB2 numbers if the Jets offense proves as ineffective as I believe it will be.
4. Kiko Alonso, ILB, Buffalo:
I struggled with placing Alonso one spot higher in a swap with Davis. Ultimately, I just have confidence that the Bills offense will move the ball more effectively than the Jets and Davis will benefit from the added snaps.
Alonso is lining up in the middle when the Bills run a 4-3 scheme and staying on the field when they alternate to the 3-4, meanwhile making plays all over the field. He is solid in coverage and will also reap the rewards of playing behind a very solid defensive line that will keep him clean and able to pursue the ball carrier.
Look for Alonso to easily post solid LB3 numbers with the upside to reach high-end LB2 production in his rookie season. He is dynasty gold.
5. Philip Wheeler, WLB, Miami:
Wheeler really came on as a fantasy producer last year for the Oakland Raiders when he posted 109 total tackles (78 solos) while racking up three sacks and two forced fumbles. He parlayed his nice year into a five-year, $26 million deal with the Dolphins.
Wheeler will join fellow free agent signee Ellerbe as an every down linebacker in Miami and will post very nice fantasy numbers. I’m seeing Wheeler as a high-end LB3 with a ceiling of solid LB2 production for 2013.
New York Jets longtime inside linebacker David Harris has seen his production level off to that of a steady LB3 and there is every reason to believe that will be the case again in 2013. His consistent production makes him a valuable depth player in shallower IDP leagues and a third or fourth linebacker in deeper formats.
I am keen on the potential of outside linebacker Antwan Barnes to post nice numbers this season in an increased role as an edge pass rusher for the Jets. With the injury to Quinton Coples (fractured ankle requiring surgery), Barnes will see increased snaps. The San Diego Chargers inexplicably underused Barnes last season after he had posted 11 sacks in 2011 and I can see a return to that number this season. LB3 numbers could be in reach if Barnes logs 500 or more snaps.
Second-year inside linebacker Nigel Bradham of the Buffalo Bills has secured the inside linebacker position opposite Alonso but has recently run afoul of the law. He was charged with unlawful possession of marijuana following a traffic stop last week. Bradham has still been coming off the field in certain situations and that will cap his value (as will any league imposed sanctions resulting from the possession charge) at LB4/5 value for 2013.
I personally prefer converted safety Bryan Scott to Bradham this season. Scott has assumed a nickel-linebacker position and has moved down into a weakside linebacker position at times and brings excellent big play potential. In the past two seasons he has posted six interceptions (two returned for touchdowns), along with a sack, a forced fumble and 14 passes defended. Scott has also averaged 66 total tackles per season while mainly playing a part time role at linebacker. Should he secure more snaps, he has the upside of low-end LB2 numbers(*The Bills released Scott on 8/31/13.).
In New England, it appears as if inside linebacker Brandon Spikes may have finally secured an every down role in the middle. Spikes has always been a thumper against the run and had a career-high 92 total tackle in 2012, including 57 solo stops. If Spikes continues to remain on the field on passing downs, look for solid LB3 numbers.
Don’ta Hightower is a guy that intrigues me heading into his second season as the Patriots may turn him loose off the edge more than last season. As a rookie he racked up four sacks in limited snaps and will most likely continue to come off the field in certain situations. While he is on the field, though, he is strong against the run, especially between the tackles and could reach 8-9 sacks. He can be had late in drafts as linebacker depth with LB3 possibilities due to big play potential.