The Bills quietly played better defense last season than many of us realize. They allowed the second-fewest total yards, were number one versus the pass, and were near the top with 27 turnovers. The two things Buffalo did not excel at last season were stopping the run -- where they ranked 17 -- and getting to the quarterback -- where the Bills' 36 sacks were near the bottom of the league. What better way to improve both areas than to take the best, most disruptive interior lineman in the draft. That is what the Bills believe they have in Ed Oliver.
In many ways, Oliver reminds me of Geno Atkins. He has the tools to become a force on the inside and fits right into the current NFL trend of explosive interior linemen. Oliver is strong, quick, and has rare athletic ability, but his best trait might be the immense amount of energy he plays with. As a three year starter for Houston Oliver averaged nearly four tackles and two assists per game. He never put up flashy sack totals but he did make a considerable big play contribution. In 32 games with the Cougars, he had 13.5 sacks, forced five fumbles and recovered one. The NFL game and particularly the Bills aggressive scheme could bring out the best in Oliver. The retirement of Buffalo great Kyle Williams left a hole in the starting lineup for the rookie, so it could show up right away.
With Williams gone, Star Lotulelei is possibly the best candidate for the nose tackle position. It is a job he is familiar with having played there for much of his six years in the league. Lotulelei is an anchor versus the run and has the power to push the pocket as a pass rushers but he will be on the sideline in most passing situations.
Last year’s first-round pick Harrison Phillips figured heavily into the rotation as a rookie and should do so again in 2019. He is capable of lining up at either tackle position and could even push Lotulelei for the starting spot. Phillips is seen by many as a younger clone of Kyle Williams. He is both quick and athletic for a big man, with the size and strength to hold the point of attack versus the run, and the ability to contribute as a pass rusher. He did not make a big statistical splash in 2019 but was fairly productive on a per snap basis. On about 40% of the defensive snaps (391 plays), Harrison was 20-14-0 with a pair of fumble recoveries. The zero in the sack column is a glaring issue in terms of IDP value. We should not be overly critical about that considering Harrison was not on the field in most passing situations. Unless your league starts two tackles, Harrison is not roster-worthy entering the season. On the other hand, if he starts fast it is probably not a mirage.
Veterans Kyle Peko, Jordan Phillips and Robert Thomas will compete for the remaining roster spots. Phillips was the fourth tackle last season which could give him an edge. Buffalo may not keep more than four at the position since defensive tackles do not play much on special teams.
The Bills defensive ends accounted for 15 sacks between them in 2018. That is a number the coaching staff wants to have go up, but they will have to find a way using basically the same cast of characters. Jerry Hughes is the closest thing Buffalo has to a three-down defensive end. He played almost 70% of the snaps and managed to lead the team with seven sacks last season.
Hughes is a steady contributor on a year to year basis so we know what to expect from him. Since becoming a starter in 2012 he has averaged 32-14-6.5 with a career-best of 36-17-9.5 in 2014. He is productive enough to garner consideration as a low DL3 but week to week inconsistency could push him further down for some managers. In 2018 Hughes reached double-digit points six times (all in the first nine games), In the other 10 games, he averaged fewer than three and a half including a pair of goose eggs. With no real upside to his game, Hughes is a late/last round target at best.
The organization added Trent Murphy last offseason with the expectation he would beat out Shaq Lawson for the other starting spot at end. It did not go exactly as the team expected. First of all, Lawson was not on board with the plan and ended up playing some of his best football in an effort to keep the job. Then Murphy spent the season battling groin, ankle and knee issues which affected his play. The end result was a time split between Lawson and Murphy that had the two getting an equal number of snaps on the season. Both players missed games over the course of the year, and in the end, their number were virtually the same and equally useless to IDP managers. Neither Murphy nor Lawson reached 20 tackles and they each had 4 sacks.
Murphy says he is now healthy for the first time since suffering the knee injury that caused him to miss all of 2017. When he last played a full season is was as an outside linebacker with Washington in 2016. That season Murphy accounted for 27 tackles, 19 assists, 7.5 sacks, and 4 turnovers The move to end has not been a problem and he is still young at 28, so maybe this is the year Murphy emerges as the Bills biggest pass rush threat. This situation will be high on our preseason watch list.
Shaq Lawson was a first-round pick of the Bills in 2016 and has been a borderline bust. Lawson has not yet been able to stay healthy for a full season and has accumulated 42 tackles, 32 assists and 10 sacks over 35 games. He looked better on the field in 2018 but it made virtually no difference in his box score totals. Lawson will continue to figure into the Bills defensive end rotation but he is likely to be the odd man out when it comes to starters playing time.
- DT Ed Oliver – High energy rookie with DT1 potential
- DT Harrison Phillips – Potential DT1
- DT Star Lotulelei – No fantasy value
- DT Jordan Phillips – No impact
- DE Jerry Hughes – Matchup based DL3 with week-to-week consistency issues
- DE Shaq Lawson – Marginal value at best
- DE Trent Murphy – Sleeper with DL2 potential
- DE Eddie Yarbrough – No fantasy impact
The Bills made a good choice last spring when they picked Tremaine Edmunds to be their middle linebacker for the next several years. It is difficult to find anything negative about this young man. He has throwback size at 6’5” and 250 pounds while possessing the speed and athleticism of the new era linebackers we see throughout the league. Edmunds has the experience of being a two-year starter in the ACC where he was highly productive, and a year in the NFL under his belt, all before turning 21. He has quickly become a cornerstone for what could be an outstanding Bills defense over the next few years.
In IDP terms Edmunds had a strong rookie season. With 80 tackles, 41 assists, 2 sacks, 4 takeaways, and 11 pass breakups, he was the number 10 linebacker despite missing a game. He makes a lot of tackles, rarely comes off the field and has already proven to be a major contributor in the big play columns. Edmunds turned 21 in May and has just scratched the surface of his ability and production. He is a safe bet to make the top-12 again and there is a good chance he will join the elite tier of linebackers in 2018 by both NFL and fantasy standards.
Edmunds is the headliner at linebacker in Buffalo but he is not the only one with IDP value. Weakside starter Matt Milano made big strides in his second year as a pro. The 2017 fifth-round pick still has room to grow as a run defender but he makes up for it with strong coverage skills and big-play production. His tackle totals and play against the run have underwhelmed at times but Milano’s first year as a starter produced a sack, six turnovers and seven passes defended in 13 games. With so much of his value coming from big plays, Milano was a bit inconsistent on a week to week basis in 2018, but that could level out in his second full season. He is not as young as Edmunds but at age 25, Milano is set to be a fixture in Buffalo for the next several years. Heading into the draft season his value lies somewhere between a solid LB3 and quality depth wit upside.
Strongside linebacker Lorenzo Alexander has been a major contributor for the Bills over the last three seasons. For fantasy managers, he has been more of a moving target. In 2016 Alexander had a great year that included 50 tackles, 20 assists, 12.5 sacks and the only top-40 IDP ranking of his 12-year career. Because so much of his point totals came from big plays, his season was full of both big games and vanishing acts. With 9.5 sacks over the last two seasons combined, his production has been filled with a lot more vanishing acts. Alexander managed double-digit points in seven games last year while reaching 5 or fewer in six times, including four weeks with two or less. A full 41% of his tackles came in three games. If you are in need of a bye week flier and Alexander has a good matchup, he has the potential to win you a game. Otherwise, he is barely roster-worthy in most leagues.
Depth at linebacker could be a problem for the Bills. Journeyman Julian Stafford gives them some experience and is capable as a short-term fill in at any of the three positions, but he is not an NFL starter. Eli Harold spent three seasons with San Francisco and last year in Detroit before coming to Buffalo. He is a solid strong side backer that can get after the passer once in a while. He should provide depth for now but Harold could be the eventual replacement for Alexander who turned 36 in May. Rookie Vosean Joseph has plenty of physical assets and natural ability but has a long way to go mentally before he can make a serious run at playing time.
- MLB Tremaine Edmunds- Solid LB1 with elite tier potential
- WLB Matt Milano – Decent LB3 or quality depth
- SLB Lorenzo Alexander – Match up based bye week flier
- MLB/WLB Julian Stafford – No fantasy impact
- SLB Eli Harold – No fantasy impact
- OLB Vosean Joseph – No immediate fantasy impact
In 2017 the Bills gave us three top-10 defensive backs in many formats despite the fact all three, Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer, and TreDavious White, recorded 65 solo tackles or fewer. At this time last season, I was talking about how it is hard to trust players, and defensive backs, in particular, who derive so much of their value from big plays. All three of those players returned as starters and played at least 15 games in 2018 but only Poyer finished among the top-80.
Poyer basically swapped 7 pass breakups, 5 assists and a score for 13 more solo tackles. Beyond that, his stat lines were virtually the same between the two seasons. At 75-27-2 with 6 turnovers and six passes defended, Poyer placed among the top ten for a second consecutive year. Once is a fluke but twice is a trend. That philosophy and the improved tackle total make it a lot easier to trust Poyer going forward, even if he does line up at free safety much of the time.
After half a season with the Eagles, who originally drafted him, and three-plus injury plagues years with Cleveland, Poyer has found his happy place in the Buffalo secondary. He is not the biggest or most physical of safeties but in the Bills scheme where the two positions are interchangeable from play to play, Poyer is a great fit. Last year he played up around the linebackers enough to display a willingness versus the run and ability to get the job done as a tackler. With 9 picks, a forced fumble, 2 recoveries. 4 sacks and 19 passes defended in two seasons with the team no one can question his playmaking ability. There is still some week to week inconsistency but not enough to keep Poyer from being an every-week must-play. Slot him as a low-end DB1 or a priority DB2 with upside.
In 2017 Micah Hyde put up the best numbers across the board, of his six-year career. 65-17-0 with 5 interceptions and 13 passes defended helped him join Poyer in the top-10. The clock struck midnight for Hyde at the end of that season and he turned back into a pumpkin. Hyde’s previous best had been 52 tackles, 3 picks and 9 pass breakups. He has reached 50 solo stops twice and finished among the top-40 once. Hyde fits the mold Buffalo is looking for in a strong safety but he is simply not a factor for IDP managers.
Tre’Davious White was the third Buffalo defensive back to land among the top-10 in 2017. The rookie corner rule appears to be in full effect here. As opponents began to realize how strong White is in coverage, they began challenging him less and less. That is a trend we may continue to see.
If you need help at corner keep an eye on the Bills other outside position. In 2018 four players made at least one start opposite White. While this was largely due to injuries, the fact is Buffalo has no landmark player that is sure to be in the lineup come week one. Phillip Gaines held the position while he was healthy but he is no longer with the team. Then rookies Levi Wallace and Taron Johnson had opportunities as well. Wallace started the final seven games but it remains unclear if that was because the coaching staff selected him or if he was simply the last man standing. E.J. Gaines is a veteran journeyman returning for a second stint with Buffalo and is unlikely to be a factor as more than depth for the Bills. That brings us to Kevin Johnson who is undoubtedly the most talented of the group. He was the Texans first-round pick in 2015 but Houston gave up on him because he was never available. Johnson missed 29 games with injuries over the past three seasons including 15 last year. Whoever emerges from training camp as the starter will be a step down from White and could have an inflated amount of opportunity because of it.
- SS Micah Hyde – no fantasy impact
- FS Jordan Poyer – Priority DB2 with top-5 upside
- SS Rafael Bush – Injury replacement at best
- FS Jaquan Johnson – Rookie with future starting potential
- SS Maurice Alexander – No fantasy impact
- CB TreDavious White – CB3 at best
- CB E.J. Gaines – No impact
- CB Taron Johnson – Second-year player with a chance to start opposite a stud
- CB Levi Wallace – Second-year pro that averaged 4 tackles and 2 assist as a seven-game starter
- CB Kevin Johnson – Injury-prone former first-round bust
Maybe someday there will be an NFL rule that makes each team declare which defensive front they will run. Until then we have the Miami Dolphins who are going to be multiple. That is what new defensive coordinator Patrick Graham says when asked if Miami will be a 3-4 or 4-3 team. When you hire the Patriots linebackers coach to lead your team and another former Patriots' defensive assistant to be the coordinator, you get a defense that looks a lot like the one in New England.
The goal is to have versatile players that can switch between looks with few or no substitutions. On paper the Dolphins look a little short on that kind of player; or at least proven ones. There are currently no players on Miami’s roster that had more than three sacks last season. In fact, there are no players that have ever had more than three sacks in any season. There are going to be a lot of opportunities for players to prove themselves this summer but this is not going to be a short easy conversion. Tryouts at some positions could last all season as the organization rebuilds.
One player that could have trouble fitting is Charles Harris. The 2017 first-round pick has been all but invisible through his first two seasons. He has averaged 32 plays per game going between the third man at defensive end and tackle on some passing downs, and has seen basically equal playing time in 27 career games. The point being, Harris has been given plenty of opportunities and has produced 3 sacks on 847 plays. Maybe the new coaching staff can unlock something in him, but at this stage, he looks like a 250-pound 4-3 end that makes too few plays. Harris is too small to play end in a 3-4 on a regular basis and has not shown the edge rush prowess to be a successful outside linebacker.
One point that is certain, Miami will be big up front, especially when in three-man fronts. Davon Godchaux, Akeem Spence, Vincent Taylor, and first-round rookie Christian Wilkins all check in between 307 and 315. All three veterans have played tackle in 4-3 schemes throughout their careers. All four players could get looks at both end and nose tackle in 3-4 alignments.
The only possible IDP implication here comes with Wilkins. He worked mostly as a 3-technique tackle over four seasons at Clemson and should quickly claim that spot in 4-3 alignments. The organization drafted Wilkins with the expectation he will be just as successful somewhere in the 3-4. Even though he is 315 pounds, Wilkins skill set suggests he would fit best at end where the responsibilities are most like those of a 3-technique tackle. Despite his size, Wilkins may not have enough sand in his pants to hold up at nose tackle. That could change with some serious time in the weight room.
Wilkins had fairly good tackle totals and 16 sacks in four seasons with the Tigers. He could easily be a 35 tackle and 5 sack guy even as a rookie. How much IDP value that adds up to comes down to league format and positional designation. The rookie has a lot of potential as an interior lineman in leagues requiring them. As a defensive end, Wilkins value takes a big hit until/unless he proves differently.
- DE/OLB Charles Harris – Deep sleeper at best
- DE/DT Tank Carradine – No fantasy impact
- DT/DE Akeem Spence – No fantasy impact
- DE/DT Christian Wilkins – Possible DT2
- DT/NT Davon Godchaux – No fantasy impact
- DT/NT Vincent Taylor – No fantasy impact
The Dolphins have the same issue at inside/weakside linebacker no matter if they are in a three or four-man front. They have three good players for two positions. The previous coaching staff liked Raekwon McMillan at middle backer and Kiko Alonso at weak. They also realized Jerome Baker is an NFL starter. They tried to keep everyone involved by having Alonzo play full time with McMillan in on early downs and Baker getting a lot of the nickel snaps. In base packages, Alonso would often shift the strong side so all three were on the field together. How it will work out under the new staff is a mystery at this point.
One thing we can count on is Alonso playing all three downs. He played every snap for the first 14 games last season and was the fantasy game’s number nine linebacker. Alonso suffered a devastating knee injury in 2014 that took a long time to fully overcome. Since joining the Dolphins in 2016 he has played over 1000 snaps every season and his production has been rock solid.
Alonso’s ability to line up at any linebacker position is a huge bonus for the new coaching staff. In three-man fronts, he can play either inside backer spot. If paired with the bigger more physical McMillan, Alonso will probably be the weak inside backer. If Baker is in the game, Alonso can play strong ILB. Regardless where he starts on the field, Alonso is going to make a lot of plays. In 2018, he led the team in both solo stops with 81 and assists with 44 while finishing second among Miami defenders with 7 takeaways. Alexander is not a shoo-in for the top-12 but he does have a high floor and top-10 potential.
If there is to be a second full-time option it will be Baker, who is the new wave NFL linebacker. At 6’2, 215 pounds, he is basically a big safety with a linebacker’s mentality. Baker is blazing fast, with exceptional cover skills in both zone and man. He has an extra gear when called upon to blitz and is highly productive on a per snap basis. As a rookie, Baker totaled 56-23-3 with an interception and averaged 8.3 points per game on 62% of the defensive snaps. The only real knock against him being a three-down guy is the lack of size and ability to hold up versus the run. The Patriots have been masters of masking a player’s limitations and getting the most out of him. This new scheme could make Baker a star.
McMillan could end up in the Dont'a Hightower role as a two-down middle or strongside backer. At 6’2, 248 pounds he is a big physical thumper that can shed blocks and make a lot of plays in the run game but is somewhat of a liability in coverage. In a scheme that relies heavily on speed, quickness, and versatility, McMillan may end up as a situational contributor.
When it comes to edge defenders Miami could be in trouble. They have no proven options no one that comes with much expectation. Charles Harris, Nate Orchard, and Jayrone Elliot are the most experienced options. No one else has more than 130 snaps of NFL game experience. Orchard showed some life as a rookie for the Browns in 2015; posting 24 tackles and 3 sacks. He missed 13 games with injury in 2016 and has never been able to regain ay momentum. One thing Orchard has going for him is experience off the edge in both odd and even front schemes. Elliot had 40 tackles, 7 assists and 4 sacks with the Packers between 2014 and 2017. He had a cup of coffee with Dallas in 2017 but was released in September and was out of the league in 2018.
Last year’s seventh-round pick Jonathan Woodard stirred the fire for a couple of weeks as a rookie but was lost to injury just as people were starting to take notice. At 6’6, 271 pounds, Woodard has the perfect frame for the edge job and is a player to keep an eye on this summer, especially if he is designated a defensive end.
Fifth-round pick Andrew Van Ginkel might have the best shot at being a long term contributor. He was an odd front outside linebacker at Wisconsin where he posted 98 combined tackles, 12 sacks and 8 turnovers in two seasons as a starter. His college career was up and down but Van Ginkel showed flashes of excellent play.
- ILB/MLB Raekwon McMillan – More likely to bust than boom
- ILB/SLB Kiko Alonso – Priority LB2 with top-10 potential
- ILB/WLB Jerome Baker – Sleeper with a high ceiling
- ILB Mike Hull –No fantasy impact
- ILB/WLB Chase Allen – No fantasy impact
- OLB Andrew Van Ginkel – Dynasty deep sleeper
- OLB/DE Nate Orchard – No fantasy impact
- OLB Jayrone Elliot – No fantasy impact
- OLB/DE Jonathan Woodard – Deep sleeper at best
For much of the last decade, Miami has given us quality production from the secondary. The best of it has come from safety Reshad Jones but there have been other solid contributors as well. Before last season we would have needed to look pretty far back to find a year with no Dolphins among the top-25. You have heard this before but let me repeat, once is a fluke and twice makes a trend.
There are some who believe the 31-year-old Jones is a player in decline. Nine seasons as a pro will take a toll but we should not be writing him off yet. Yes, he was the number 33 defensive back last season but consider these facts; Jones finished 57-14-0 with three picks and 9 passes defended in 14 games. He sat out two games but the sore shoulder forced him to miss most of three others. When Jones did play it was at less than 100% yet he still managed to average better than 10.5 points per game which ranked 27. The last two times Jones was healthy for 16 games (2015 and 2017) he averaged triple-digit solo tackles, had 3.5 sacks, 11 turnovers, 15 passes defended, 4 defensive scores and was the number one defensive back both years.
The organization was openly shopping Jones in the weeks before the draft but make no mistake, it was a money thing that had little if anything to do with his play. The previous regime signed Jones to a lucrative multi-year deal in 2017 giving him a steep cap number between now and 2022.
The days of 100 solo tackles are probably behind Jones at this point. Not that he is no longer capable, but because there is a lot more competition for tackles than earlier in his career. Kiko Alonso and Jerome Baker probably represent the best tandem of linebackers Jones has ever played behind as a pro. Both are capable of eating up 80 tackles. Then there is T.J. McDonald who was on pace for 72 solo stops right up until the point when he was lost for the final two games. As a free safety, the new scheme could also rob Jones of a few opportunities along the way due to having different responsibilities. The shoulder is fixed and Jones is still one of the game’s outstanding safeties. All things considered, he is not likely to drop another top-5 on us this year but you could not go wrong with Jones as a priority second starter.
Much like Jones, McDonald has not been getting the love he deserves from IDP managers or experts this summer. At a glance, his 2018 stat line of 63-22-0 with 4 turnovers and 5 pass breakups appears rather uninspiring. They get a little better when we consider he missed two full games. Indeed McDonald actually averaged a fraction of a point more per week than Jones.
At 6’2, 223 pounds, McDonald is a strong safety trapped in the body of a linebacker. He may not be the best pass defender at the position but is more than adequate, while his play versus the run and the intimidation factor for receivers over the middle more than make up for any shortcomings. McDonald has exceeded 80 solo tackles once in his career. Chances are he will not make it twice but he should be good for around 70-75 tackles and a handful of big plays. He can be picked up late when most managers are drafting for depth but could easily be an every week DB3.
Minkah Fitzpatrick is a player that can have a big effect on a football game but probably not so much on a fantasy contest. Most league hosts designate him as a safety, but in reality, he played more of a roving slot corner and/or nickel safety role as a rookie last year. Fitzpatrick has good size and excellent speed, is a dependable tackler and brings a lot of big-play potential to the table. He can play outside corner if asked to do so which could happen here. With the possible exception of Xavien Howard, Fitzpatrick is probably the team’s best cover man. His skillset gives the defensive staff a lot of options, but the limitations of others could point to a full-time role at corner. In leagues that put the DB positions together, Fitzpatrick has limited upside. If he is officially moved to corner he could make a good CB1.
In 2018 Bobby McCain led Miami’s corner in tackles with 50 while Howard was near the top of the league with 7 interceptions. Even if he repeats the big play totals, Howard's low tackle numbers will virtually eliminate him from relevance in most formats. Meanwhile, McCain has been moved to safety where he may become the nickel slot guy if Fitzpatrick plays outside.
- SS Reshad Jones – Quality DB2 with top-10 potential
- SS T.J. McDonald – Solid third starter or excellent depth
- FS/CB Minkah Fitzpatrick – Could have CB2 or better value if moved to corner
- FS Bobby McCain – No fantasy impact
- CB Xavien Howard – Marginal impact expected
- CB Eric Rowe – Will compete for a role in nickel and dime sets
- CB Cordrea Tankersley – No impact expected
- CB Cornell Armstrong – No impact
- CB Tory McTyver –No impact expected
New England Patriots
The Patriots may be the best in the game at game planning on both sides of the ball. The difference is they have no Tom Brady on defense. Most league management sites recognize New England as a 4-3 team yet in effect, their base defense is determined on a week to week basis. This approach has worked well as their collection of Lombardi trophies will attest, but statistically, the unit was all over the place in 2018. Only the Raiders recorded fewer sacks while New England was 21st in yards allowed. In the two most important categories, however, New England recorded the sixth most turnovers with 28 and finished seventh in scoring.
From a fantasy perspective, the Patriots defense is a mirror image of the real thing. There are no superstars, just a lot of good players focused on doing their part well. For IDP managers there are no sure top-10 players on the team at any position. Indeed it would be a surprise if any of them make that list at their positions this year. They do have a few guys that can make significant contributions though.
New England had 14 players contribute to last year’s total of 30 sacks. Only Trey Flowers had more than four and a half, and he followed defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to Detroit. Flowers made the top-20 last season with a line of 32-24-7.5, and a pair of forced fumbles in 15 games. Similar production is a fair expectation from his replacement Michael Bennett, who holds many of the same qualities. Bennett is a little bigger and maybe a little better at getting to the quarterback but is a lot older at age 33. For the Patriots it is always about winning now and Bennett can help them do it.
There is no doubt Bennett can get the job done as a pass rusher. He had a career-best of 10 sacks in 2015 and has hit at least 8.5 in four of his last five non-injury seasons, in a span covering three different employers. For IDP managers the only concern has been low tackle totals. Bennett’s career-high of 36 solo stops came way back in 2011 with the Buccaneers and he has exceeded 26 once since 2012. This is where a generous stat crew can really help a player’s fantasy value. New England’s stat keepers are about average on awarding solo tackle but they toss out assists like a home coming queen throwing candy from a parade float. Bennett has never been credited with more than 19 assists in a season. The smart money says he will set a new high in 2019. With 30 or so tackles, 25 or so assists and around 8.5 sacks, Bennett should make a solid DL2 or an excellent DL3 this season.
The Patriots had eight different players see action at defensive end over the course of last season. Other than Flowers, none of them had a major impact. Deatrich Wise Jr had the title of starter but he reached 50% of the playing time in just four games. Adrian Clayborn played a lot as did John Simon once he was healthy. Simon could fit as a nickel rush specialist going forward but is not a threat to play every down.
One guy we did not see much of last year was Derek Rivers. When Rivers was picked in the third round three years ago a lot of people though he landed in a great situation and would have a long, prosperous career. After all, he had a great college career at Youngstown State that included 56 tackles for loss and 41 sacks. Unfortunately, things have not gone well for Rivers to date. His rookie campaign ended with an ACL injury in training camp. He was back on the field in 2018 but played little and did not look to be fully recovered. Rivers saw action on a total of 78 snaps over the course of the season but he did manage to record his first career sack on the last one. That is a good sign for a guy that could be entering a make or break season. Rivers is healthy now and will be given every opportunity to win the starting spot opposite Bennett.
Rivers will have plenty of competition for playing time. Adrian Clayborn has moved on but Detrich Wise is still going to have a significant role, even if he does not retain the starting job. Wise has done a solid job as a rotational player, recording 9.5 sacks over two seasons in that role. The question is, can he take the next step in year three and become a player the coaches want to have on the field more?
The wildcard here is rookie Chase Winovich. At 6’3” 256 pounds Winovich is a little small and lacks some of the measurable traits coaches like in their edge defenders, but he is just the kind of football player that often finds success with New England. He is physical, relentless and has great character which could add up to a lot of playing time early in his career.
Over the years New England has given us a few decent fantasy options at tackle, but they have never had a great one. Lawrence Guy would have been the best target last season with 25 tackles, 34 assists, and a sack. The only significant changes to the interior line this year are the loss of Malcolm Brown to free agency, the signing of Mike Pennell and the drafting of Bryan Cowart in round five. With Brown gone, Pennell and Danny Shelton will compete for the nose tackle job while the rookie could contribute as an inside rusher on passing downs right away. None of these guys appear to have much fantasy upside.
- DE Michael Bennett – Quality DL3 with some upside
- DE Chase Winovich – Dynasty sleeper with good long term potential
- DE Derek Rivers – Could break out now that he is healthy, could flop again
- DE Deatrich Wise Jr – Breakout potential but not a lot of reason to expect it
- DE John Simon – Part-time rush specialist
- DT Danny Shelton – No fantasy impact
- DT Lawrence Guy – Possible depth in formats starting two tackles
- DT Mike Pennel – Marginal value at best
- DT Byron Cowart – Dynasty sleeper with some long term upside
The last great fantasy target at linebacker in New England was… well, to be honest, I don’t remember a truly great one, but Jamie Collins Sr came close for a season back in 2014. That year he was top-10 going 74-42-4 with 8 turnovers and three passes defended in 15 games. Collins was on a similar pace the following year until he missed four games with an injury. He got off to a slow start in 2016 then was traded to Cleveland mid season. The circumstances surrounding the trade have remained a mystery, but apparently, Collins did not burn bridges. Thus he has come home to New England after a two and a half year hiatus.
Collins can play either outside linebacker position but has worked on the strong side for most of his career. He is no threat to lead the league in tackles but makes up for mediocre production in that area by making a lot of big plays. His first 27 games as a starter with the Patriots produced 9.5 sacks, 9 forced fumbles, 3 recoveries, 3 interceptions, 9 pass breakups, and a score. At 29 years of age, Collins is still capable of being that player. As the Browns strong side backer last season he finished 73-31-4 with three turnovers. He is a solid three-down starter with the potential to pick up right where he left off in his last stint with the team. Collins should be at least a solid LB3 in 2019. Because he was cut by the Browns at the end of last season he is being vastly undervalued in many drafts this summer, making him a late-round bargain.
Shortly after trading Collins to the Browns, New England acquired Kyle Van Noy from Detroit to replace him. In two-plus years on the job, Van Noy has performed admirably though his box score production has not been as strong. Like Collins, Van Noy makes a considerable contribution to the pass rush. He has nine sacks over the past two years, with a career-best of 5.5 in 2017. That season Van Noy failed to make any other big play impact but he stepped up with four turnovers in 2018. Interestingly, Van Noy has lined up on the weak side with some regularity during his time in New England.
The main issue people seem to be struggling with is how Collins and Van Noy will co-exist. To me, it seems rather simple. The Patriots are all about putting the best players on the field. These guys are the team’s two best play makers at linebacker so I expect the coaching staff will keep them both on the field most of the time. It is true that we have not seen a pair of three-down linebackers in New England for a while. It has also been a while since the team last had two players worthy of three down duty. Collins has the higher ceiling and would be my preferred target of the two, but Van Noy should continue to provide quality depth at the least
Before the addition of Collins, a lot of football prognosticators including myself, though Ja’Whaun Bently might be the Patriots best IDP option at linebacker this year. He could still be that guy at some point but probably not this season. Bentley played well as a rookie, earning a significant role right out of the gate. He was on the field for 139 snaps over the first three games before suffering a season-ending biceps injury. Bentley was an emerging player at the time of the injury and is a player the coaching staff quickly came to like. He should have a big role in 2019 and there is at least some chance he could lay claim to a three-down job as the middle linebacker.
With the emergence of Bentley, could Dont'a Hightower’s job be in jeopardy? For most of his career, Hightower has been a two-down run stuffer lining up at either middle or strongside backer. Since 2013, he had battled nagging injuries and steadily declining production. In 15 games last season Hightower totaled 25 tackles, 25 assists a sack and a pair of turnovers. Could the eight-year veteran be on the roster bubble? Even if he is not, Hightower will be no more than a situational guy, seeing most of his playing time on early downs.
Of course, the Patriots never give us much to go on at this time of year so everything here is pure speculation with a dash of educated guess. This situation will be high on the watch list once training camps and preseason get into full swing.
- WLB Kyle Van Noy – Quality depth with LB3 upside
- SLB Jamie Collins Sr – Solid LB3 with the risk that always comes from being in a Patriots uniform
- MLB Dont'a Hightower – No fantasy impact
- MLB JaWhaun Bentley – Sleeper with high long term upside
- MLB Christian Sam – No fantasy impact
- OLB Elandon Roberts – Injury sleeper at best
The Patriots favor continuity and veteran players in the secondary. Strong safety Patrick Chung and free safety Devin McCourty have been fixtures at their respective positions since 2010, and there is no one on the current roster that will challenge either of them. Both Chung and McCourty have had a couple of solid fantasy seasons. Chung made his debut in the top-20 back in 2010 then finished at 26 among defensive backs in 2017. Outside of those seasons, his IDP value has been next to nothing. McCourty had a huge rookie campaign in 2010 but did not make a second top-20 appearance until 2017. In between his IDP value was marginal, amounting to no more than depth or a marginal third starter most seasons. Except for the unlikely possibility that the team struggles in the front seven as they did in 2017, neither of these safeties is worthy of roster consideration.
The team’s starting corners are not as long-tenured but they are just as experienced and entrenched. Stephon Gillmore was a first-round pick of the Bills in 2012. And is entering his eighth year as an NFL starter, third with New England. He is an exceptional cover man by NFL standards but has not recorded more than 47 tackles in a season since his rookie year.
Jason McCourty spent eight seasons as a starter with the Titans and one in Cleveland before joining his brother in New England last year. Unlike the rest of New England’s defensive backs, Jason McCourty has a long history of fantasy-friendly production. With the exception of an injury-shortened 2015, he has at least 54 tackles in each season since 2011, a career-best of 85 and three seasons with at least 73. He generally makes a solid big play contribution each year and has averaged 11 passes defended since becoming a starter in 2010. At 54-16-0 with 2 turnovers and 9 pass breakups, McCourty was a top-30 corner last season, which was his lowest ranking since 2010. His days of 70+ tackles are in the past but McCourty should rebound in his second year with the team. Consider him a priority CB3 with high CB2 upside.
It feels like every year the Patriots use a pick in the first three rounds on a defensive back, but we never see those guys get on the field much. Last year it was corner Duke Dawson taken in round two, this spring it was Joejuan Williams in the second. These are talented young players but unless Stephon Gillmore or Jason McCourty retire or get injured, Dawson and Williams will probably be fighting with a few other guys for the nickel job and to establish the rest of the pecking order. Dawson’s rookie season was a wash due to a hamstring injury that landed him on short term IR. He returned late in the years but was inactive the rest of the way. So basically the team has a pair of rookie corners being groomed for the future.
One interesting addition the Patriots made during last season was Obi Melifonwu who is a super-sized safety with a highly athletic skill set. A handful of similarly talented guys have come into the league recently with mixed results. It will be interesting to see if the Patriots can figure a way to get the most out of the third-year pro.
- FS Devin McCourty – Quality depth with DB3 upside
- SS Patrick Chung – No fantasy impact
- SS Duron Harmon – no fantasy impact
- FS Terrence Brooks – No fantasy impact
- SS Obi Melifonwu – No fantasy impact expected
- CB Jason McCourty – Probable CB2
- CB Stephon Gilmore – No fantasy impact
- CB Duke Dawson – Rookie corner rule could apply
- CB Joejuan Williams – Rookie corner rule could apply
- CB Ken Webster – No fantasy impact
New York Jets
The Jets got to opposing quarterbacks for a respectable 39 sacks last season and they forded a solid 20 turnovers. Yet somehow they still managed to end up 25th in yards allowed while giving up the fourth-most points in the league. If they are not able to show significant improvement in 2019 it will not be for lack of commitment. So far this year they have hired a new coaching staff that includes Gregg Williams as defensive coordinator, extended nose tackle Steve McLendon, signed inside linebacker C.J. Mosley to a long term deal worth up to $85 million, drafted defensive lineman Quinnen Williams third overall and high upside edge defender Jachai Polite in the third.
When Gregg Williams was named coordinator everyone assumed that meant a shift to a 4-3 defense. As it turns out that will not be the case. Williams has always been a 4-3 guy and there will undoubtedly be some four-man front in play from time to time. But Williams says he is going to stick with the 3-4 for the most part because that is what the personnel fit best.
The next question for the new coordinator is -- if you are staying in a 3-4, why did you draft Quinnen Williams? The question does not come from any concern about the rookie fitting into the scheme, but rather from the fact New York already had the horses up front to get the job done and their bigger need was for an elite edge defender. So where does the new guy fit in?
Leonard Williams was a first-round pick in 2015 and is locked in as one of the starters at end. He has never made a major fantasy splash but has been a strong contributor on the field. Williams had a career-best seven sacks in 2015 and has 17.5 over four seasons as a pro, but he has reached 30 tackles once. One thing that gives Williams IDP value a little boost is high assist totals. The Jets stats crew is generous in that aspect so his career averages are 27.25 tackles, 26.75 assists, and 4.4 sacks. He could provide value as depth in some formats but Williams has limited upside.
Henry Anderson took over the other starting spot at end last season and had the best year of his young career. Anderson’s 7 sacks were tied for most on the team and he swatted down five passes to boot. The 23 solo stops he recorded represent a career-best for Anderson as well, but also demonstrate how limited his IDP value will be regardless of how playing time sorts out.
Steve McLendon is 33 years old but just signed a two-year extension. There is nothing special about his statistical production but he is a proven commodity and a quality starter at nose tackle. McLendon and Leonard Williams are signed through 2020 and Anderson through 2022 so it is not a case of Quinnen Williams being picked in anticipation of losing a starter. That said, the young gun is going to get on the field and is likely to start somewhere right away.
Williams was a dominant force both on the field and in the box scores as a sophomore at Alabama last season. He finished eighth in the Heisman voting and was a finalist for three other prestigious college awards as well, including the Outland Trophy. Williams worked mostly as a 3-technique tackle for the Tide but has the tools and skill set to be the next great fantasy option at end in a 3-4. He finished last season at 45-26-8 over 15 games including playoffs. There is nothing to dislike about his game and at age 21, Williams has not yet reached his physical prime. The only thing in question with this situation is who becomes the odd man out? Whoever that is will still see plenty of action in some sort of rotation.
- DE/DT Quinnen Williams – Big potential, especially in dynasty leagues
- DE Leonard Williams – Solid depth in many formats
- DE Henry Anderson – Marginal fantasy value expected
- DE/NT Nathan Shepherd – No fantasy impact
- NT Steve McLendon – No fantasy impact
There is a boatload of fantasy potential at the Jets inside linebacker positions. As a Jet in 2017 Demario Davis tied for the league lead with 97 solo tackles and led the team with 4.5 sacks on the way to a top-10 finish among linebackers. New York was unwilling to pay top dollar to re-sign Davis, so last season they inked Avery Williamson to replace him. Williamson finished the season at 78-43-2.5 with four turnovers and a top-20 ranking. This offseason they unloaded a Brinks truck into C.J. Mosley’s bank account to lure him away from Baltimore. Mosley and Williamson will now team up at inside backer, possibly giving the Jets their best tandem at the position since Marvin Jones Jr and Mo Lewis back at the turn of the century.
There are many things to consider when trying to gauge the value of these two linebackers going forward. Playing behind a highly talented line is a clear positive for both. Another thing both have going for them is big-play ability. Over five seasons Mosley has recorded 17 takeaways and 8.5 sacks. Williamson’s five year totals are 11 turnovers and 14 sacks. Individually Mosley and Williamson each have histories of quality production. Williamson has never sniffed the top-10 but has been at least a solid LB3 in two of the last three years. Over Mosley’s five seasons he has never been less than a good LB3 and has been top-10 three times, including number one in 2017.
There is no question the organization intends Mosley to be the centerpiece of the defense. There is also no question he will be the more productive of the two inside linebackers. The only uncertainty is how much effect they will have on each other. In 2018 New York’s inside backers combined to record 164 tackles, 91 assists, 5 sacks, and 8 turnovers. Split those numbers evenly and both players are decent second starters. Reality is the production will not be split evenly. Mosley has the potential to be an elite tier LB1 and Williamson a solid LB2. All things considered they will probably handicap one another to the point of Mosley being a low-end LB1 or priority second starter and Williamson a mid-range LB3.
One reason the Jets have struggled defensively over the past several years is a glaring lack of production from the outside linebacker positions. The last player to reach 10 sacks from the position was Calvin Pace in 2013. Since that time the best sack total is the seven posted by Jordan Jenkins last season. Jenkins gives the organization a reason for hope. The 2016 third round pick has shown steady improvement over his first three years and has the look of a long term starter. The sacks are a big indicator but Jenkins has shown a knack for the big play as well. At this early stage he already has 3 forced fumbles and 5 recoveries in his career.
While the sack and turnover numbers are positives, Jenkins tackle production could keep a bay any possible fantasy value. As a starter over the last two seasons, he has averaged 28 solo stops and 13.5 assists. With 32 solo stops in 2017, Jenkins is the only Jets outside linebacker to exceed 30 since 2013. That paints a dismal outlook for the chances of any outside backer here providing useful box scores.
Brandon Copeland made the team as an undrafted free agent last season and ended up playing well over half the defensive snaps. He finished 24-11-5 and was tied for third on the club in sacks. Copeland should be penciled in as a starter when camp opens but he could feel some heat from rookie Jachai Polite during camp.
Polite brings a lot of upside to the mix but there is some question about his readiness to be a pro. He was 27-18-11 at Florida last year while playing mostly as a designated nickel pass rusher and has a lot of work to do in the weight room if he is ever to claim a three-down role. Tape from 2018 shows Polite having an explosive burst off the edge that gave offensive tackles fits, but he showed up at the combine with a few extra pounds and did not test as well as expected, nor did he interview well according to some teams. If he gets serious, Polite has the potential to be a significant contributor for the Jets, but like all their outside linebackers, he is a long shot to provide useful IDP value.
- ILB C.J. Mosley – Priority LB2 with top-10 upside
- ILB Avery Williamson – Decent LB3 with low LB2 potential
- ILB Blake Cashman – Developmental rookie
- OLB Jordan Jenkins – Possible depth in big play based formats
- OLB Jachai Polite – Dynasty sleeper with limited potential
- OLB Brandon Copeland – No fantasy impact
- OLB Frankie Luvu – No fantasy impact
Strong safety Jamal Adams had a solid rookie campaign in 2017. He had 64 tackles, 20 assists and made enough other plays to finish at 36 among defensive backs, making him a borderline DB3. In year two Adams showed the world why the Jets used a sixth overall pick on him. The difference was night and day both on the field and in the box scores.
On the field Adams was quick to diagnose, fast to close and a sure tackler versus the run. In the passing game, he was smooth while making a lot of good plays and few mistakes. In the box scores Adams exploded with the second most tackles among defensive backs at 85, and the sixth most assists with 29. He was far more than just a tackling machine though. Adams also contributed heavily in the big play columns with 3.5 sacks, 5 turnovers and 11 passes defended. Once everything was added up Adams was the second highest scoring defensive back in the Footballguys standard format, with an impressive average of 12.7 points per game.
Adams turns 24 in October and is set to become a perennial top-12 target at the position, but counting on a repeat of last year’s gaudy totals could lead to some disappointment. Last season the Jets offense could not stay on the field and the defense could not get off of it. Six teams ran fewer offensive plays while only four defenses were on the field more. With all the talent added this offseason, this will be a better team on both sides of the ball, which spells less opportunity for the defense in general. In 2018, the team had one good inside linebacker Avery Williamson, and one that struggled considerably against the run in Darron Lee. They added a major talent up front then put one of the best inside linebackers in the game behind him. Even with the additional competition Adams should put up good tackle totals and he could be even more productive in the big play columns, but he will not have the same volume of opportunity to work with.
After the Jets picked Adams in the first round two years ago, they filled their free safety need for the foreseeable future in round two. Marcus Maye was not far behind his classmate on draft day, nor did he trail Adams by much in the box scores as a rookie. At 58-22-0 with three turnovers, Maye made the top-40 and served as depth for many managers. If not for injuries, we might be talking about Maye’s second season the same as we do Adams. Maye played about five and a half games in 2018, recording 29 tackles, 4 assists, half a sack, and a pair of turnovers. He had 5 or more solo stops in four of those games and was on pace to go 77-11 in the tackle columns. Doug Middleton took over for three games and kept up the pace going 19-4-0 before being injured himself. The moral of this story, if Maye starts fast it is not a fluke. Go ahead and pick him up if you have a need.
There is yet another member of the Jets secondary that can provide IDP value. A glance at the year to year production of corner Trumaine Johnson leads us to believe he lacks consistency. A closer look reveals otherwise. When healthy, Johnson has been a constant factor in leagues that break out the defensive back positions. Since 2013 every time he has finished a full season Johnson has recorded at least 57 tackles and 8 assists. In 95 games over seven seasons he has 22 interceptions 30 total turnovers, with 73 passes defended and 4 scores. With the Rams in 2015 Johnson was the number two corner, with an average of 13.5 points per game. He missed seven games in 2016 but returned the following season with another top-10 among corners. Johnson battled a quad injury over most of his first year with the Jets and missed six total games. In the other 10 he was on pace for 56 tackles, 7 assists, and had 6 turnovers with a score. His average of 10.5 points per game ranked fourth among corners. There is some injury risk with the 29 year old but there are not many better options at corner when he is right.
With both Morris Claiborne and Buster Skrine gone, a pair of fourth-year players are set to compete for the job opposite Johnson. Jets 2015 seventh-round pick Darryl Roberts has held a significant role with the team over the last three seasons. He made several starts in 2018 and may be penciled in as the starter when camp opens. Roberts does a good job of sticking with receivers but Coach Williams is going to expect more turnovers from his corners than what Roberts has shown thus far.
Roberts will compete with free agent addition Brian Poole who not only made the Falcons roster as an undrafted free agent in 2016 but landed a starting job. For the past two seasons Poole served mostly as the nickel corner for Atlanta. In 2018 he played nearly full time in that role, going 55-19-3 with 5 turnovers on 833 snaps. Those numbers made Poole a top-12 corner. Again this is a situation where the guy is not draft worthy but if he starts fast the production is likely to continue.
One area that could become a problem is depth at corner. Outside the first three New York has a collection of young inexperienced late-round picks with an unknown journeyman or two sprinkled in.
- SS Jamal Adams – Solid DB1 with top-5 potential
- FS Marcus Maye – Sleeper with every week DB3 potential
- FS Doug Middleton – Injury sleeper
- CB Trumaine Johnson – Injury risk but quality CB1 when healthy
- CB Darryl Roberts – No IDP impact expected
- CB Brian Poole – Sleeper with CB2 potential
- CB Rashard Robinson – No fantasy impact expected
- CB Parry Nickerson – No fantasy impact
That does it for the AFC East; last but not least, the NFC East is up next.