The Houston Texans are the cream of the crop in the division but may face a stiff challenge from the upstart Indianapolis Colts while Tennessee and Jacksonville look to climb into contention.
From an Individual Defensive Player (IDP) perspective, the division has some very high-end names atop each position and then things get really interesting as the season is less than 50 days away. Enough of my babbling. Let’s get to it!
1. Paul Posluszny, MLB, Jacksonville:
Posluszny registered 106 total tackles last season on his way to a total of 139 stops. He also added a pair of sacks as well as three interceptions and two forced fumbles. In his two years in Jacksonville he has averaged 129 total tackles per season and figures to match that total again this season. Posluszny will be on the field plenty in 2013 as the Jaguars continue to struggle offensively. He’s a high-end LB1.
2. Brian Cushing, ILB, Houston:
Cushing is expected to be fully recovered from his ACL injury in time for training camp and will anchor the Texans defense in 2013. Cushing amassed 29 tackles in 4.5 games last season before going down for the season and will look to at least duplicate his 2011 output of 114 total tackles with four sacks and two forced fumbles. Cushing is just about all the Texans have in the middle of their defense and will put up LB1 numbers in 2013.
3. Jerrell Freeman, ILB, Indianapolis:
Prior to last season Freeman joined the Colts from the Canadian Football League and found himself called upon to replace the injured Pat Angerer in the middle of the defense. The rest, as they say, is history. Freeman finished with 145 total stops, two sacks along with an interception (returned for a touchdown) and forced fumble. The Angerer era is over in Indianapolis, and look for Freeman to post high-end LB2 numbers this season.
4. Zach Brown, OLB, Tennessee:
Brown closed out his rookie season with a flourish, posting 52 of his 93 total tackles from Week 8 on. He also added 4.5 sacks along with three interceptions and two defensive touchdowns in that time span. Brown has exceptional sideline-to-sideline speed and the ability to play above average in coverage. Expect nothing less than solid LB2 production from him in his second season.
5. Colin McCarthy, MLB, Tennessee:
A balky ankle that McCarthy injured early last season limited him to only seven games played and a paltry tackle output of 38 total stops. While he worked behind Moise Fokou in organized team activities, I’m confident he will quickly regain the starting gig once training camp gets underway. Temper expectations for the kid until we get a bigger sample size of his work and he proves he can stay on the field. High-end LB3 numbers should easily be in reach with an upside of solid LB2 production if he plays 16 games (or at least the first 15).
Jacksonville WLB Russell Allen made the choice of the No. 5 man on this list very difficult as he stepped into a starting role last season and flat-out produced. Allen finished the season with more than 100 solo tackles and is entrenched as the starter heading into this year. Look for LB3 production with Allen being a three-down player on a defense destined to be on the field way too much.
Houston’s Brooks Reed has been working as an inside linebacker during organized team activities and minicamp and could open the season playing alongside Brian Cushing if he can beat out veteran Darryl Sharpton for the spot. Monitor which player wins this position battle, as there could be LB4 value if they secure an every down role.
Keep an eye on outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus this season as Connor Barwin has moved on to Philadelphia and offenses are going to sell out to stop J.J. Watt. Double-digit sacks are a real possibility, and, in an every down role, Mercilus is athletic enough to put up decent tackle numbers.
In his first season adjusting to lining up as an outside linebacker for the Indianapolis Colts, Robert Mathis responded with eight sacks in only 12 games played. His tackle totals were expectedly low (33 total) and his value lies in big play slanted scoring formats. This season Mathis will be moved to the weak side as the Colts look to free him up from double teams. He more than likely brings LB4 value if he can manage to reach double-digit sacks.
There will be a bit of a battle as to who will get the chance to line up opposite Mathis at outside linebacker in Indianapolis. Former Green Bay outside linebacker Erik Walden was signed in free agency and looked to have the spot to himself until Bjoern Werner was drafted in the first round and switched from defensive end to outside linebacker. Reports are that Werner is making the transition rather easily and that could spell trouble for Walden. There could be sneaky LB5/bye week filler fantasy value in whichever player gets the nod to play the position formerly manned by Mathis.
The Tennessee Titans began utilizing outside linebacker Akeem Ayers as an edge pass rusher over the second half of the season and he finished with four sacks in the final eight games. He also racked up 36 total tackles, an interception as well as a forced fumble. Reports out of Tennessee are that Ayers will continue in this role, and that equates to solid LB3 numbers in 2013.