Just as a reminder or for those who may be new to the Eyes of the Guru series. For reference, when mentioning where players finished in the rankings last season, the model will be the standard Footballguys scoring system:
- Tackles = 1.5
- Assists = .75
- Sacks = 4
- Forced fumbles = 3
- Fumble recoveries = 3
- Interceptions = 4
- Passes defended = 1.5
- Touchdowns = 6
Keep in mind that based on scoring systems, rankings will vary (sometimes greatly) from league to league.
The Vikings have become a formidable defense under head coach Mike Zimmer. Over the past three seasons, they have been at or near the top in most important statistical categories. In 2018, Minnesota finished fourth in total defense, third in sacks with 50, forced 20 turnovers, and was among the top third in points allowed. Their overall success is a direct reflection on the foundation up front.
Last year the Vikings front four gave both their fans and IDP managers plenty to be excited about. They had the third highest scoring defensive end in Danielle Hunter and a pair of productive interior linemen in Linval Joseph who finished at 10 among tackles, and Sheldon Richardson at 15. Had Everson Griffen not had some complications, this group may well have placed all four starters among the top 15 at their respective positions.
At this time last year, it was tough to be highly confident in Hunter. In 2016 he was working as the third man in the rotation but that did not stop him from having a breakout season. With 34 tackles, 22 assists and 12.5 sacks Hunter was the third highest scoring defensive lineman that year. After being promoted to starter and signing a fat multi-year contract, Hunter’s numbers slumped the following season to 26-18-7 with a ranking just inside the top 30. By the end of the 2018 season, those numbers were a distant memory. Hunter showed everyone that the organization was right for giving him a three-year deal worth up to $78 million when he exploded for a line of 50-19-14. With those numbers, he once again claimed the title of the fantasy game’s number three lineman.
Hunter turns 25 in October and already has 38.5 career sacks. He is the first Vikings lineman since 2015 to reach the 40 solo tackle plateau. While he may not hit 50 again in 2019, Hunter is a safe bet to reach the benchmark for IDP value of 40 tackles and double-digit sacks. He is an elite first tier target on draft day and has the potential to be the fantasy game’s top lineman this season.
Everson Griffen had a down year in 2018 but do not be fooled. Prior to last season, he was on a run of four consecutive top 12 rankings. The 2017 season was big for Griffen with a career-best 13 sacks despite playing half the year with a painful plantar fascia injury. Griffen had at least one sack in each of the first eight games that season and was second in the league at the time of the injury. He only missed one game but was clearly not the same player down the stretch.
Griffen’s 2018 campaign was sidetracked early on by some personal issues. He was away from the team for five weeks and was not at the top of his game until late in the year. The fact he finished strong with seven tackles, four assists and two sacks in the final three games, is a good sign Griffen will be back to normal in 2019. This is a player that averaged 35 tackles and 11 sacks over a four-year span between 2014 and 2017 and has at least 8 sacks in five of the last seven seasons. At age 31 he is far from over the hill and should give us a few more quality years. Based on the numbers from last year, many IDP managers will undervalue Griffen who should be targeted as a priority DL2 with DL1 upside.
Barring injuries Minnesota’s defensive ends do not come off the field much. Both starters averaged better than 80% of the snaps over the last two years when healthy. When someone does need a break Stephen Weatherly is the guy to spells them. The 2016 seventh round pick played well over a five-game stint as a starter when Griffen was out last season, posting a mark of 10-5-2 and forcing a fumble. Weatherly will not be much of a fantasy factor if everyone stays healthy but should one of the starters go down for a period of time, he could be a solid fill in for your fantasy squad.
Minnesota has a pair of young developmental players behind the top three at end. Former undrafted free agent Tashawn Bowser moves into the third defensive end role while Griffen was out last season while 2018 sixth-round Ade Aruna has battled injuries and has not yet seen the field in a game that counts. Aruna is a raw prospect with the combination of size, speed and athleticism teams look for in a developmental guy. If he can stay healthy Aruna could eventually take over as the third end.
In Linval Joseph and Sheldon Richardson, the Vikings had one of the best interior tandems in both the NFL and fantasy game last season. Joseph is a highly underrated player unless, of course, you play in a league requiring defensive tackles. Managers in those leagues recognize him as a perennial top-10 tackle and understand his value at an always thin position. Since becoming a starter for the Giants in 2011 Joseph has averaged 36 tackles, 23 assists and 2.5 sacks per season. He has multiple top-10 finishes including last season, with a few top-5 sprinkled in as well. At 329 pounds he sees a lot of double teams as the anchor of the run defense, showing an almost uncanny ability to stand up and shed blockers at the point of attack. With a career best of four sacks in a season, Joseph is not the guy to make much big-play impact but his tackle totals are exceptionally consistent from year to year.
Richardson followed the free agent money to Cleveland so the Vikings will have to fill a big void this year. Fourth-year pro, Shamar Stephen, will be penciled in at the position entering camp but is not a lock to be there week come one. Last year’s fourth-round pick Jalyn Holmes will likely be in the mix as will 2017 fourth-round selection Jaleel Johnson and possibly rookie Armon Watts. With all the talent around them, whoever comes away with this job is going to have some fantasy potential.
- DE Everson Griffen – Priority DL2 with upside
- DE Danielle Hunter – Elite tier DL1
- DE Stephen Weatherly – Injury sleeper
- DE Ade Aruna – Developmental player
- DE Tashawn Bower – No fantasy impact
- DT Linval Joseph – Dependable DT1
- DT Shamar Stephan – Sleeper with limited upside in tackle required leagues
- DT Jalyn Holmes – Sleeper with DT2 potential
- DT Jaleel Johnson – No fantasy impact expected
- DT Armon Watts – Developmental rookie
Both Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr are excellent players that could be major factors in IDP leagues if they were in a different situation. The statistics tell the story here; in 2017 all Vikings linebackers combined were credited with 164 solo tackles, 101 assists, 2 sacks, 1 pick, 1 forced fumble, and 1 recovery. It was much the same last season when the group combined to go 171-104-7 with 5 total turnovers. On a team that plays great defense and gets off the field on third downs, there is simply not a great deal of opportunity to go around.
Many feel Kendricks is one of the best middle linebackers in the league. Indeed after his 2016 season, it looked as if he might emerge as one of the best fantasy linebackers as well. The 2015 second-round pick had a good but not great rookie season with a stat line of 73-20-4. In year two he had similar tackle totals but added 3 takeaways, 8 pass breakups and a score for a final ranking among the top-15. In each of the past two seasons, Kendricks has fallen well short of 70 solo tackles, recorded one sack and has four combined turnovers.
The one saving grace here is a Vikings stats crew that is generous with assists. At 61-45-1 with a couple of interceptions, a fumble recovery and six pass breakups, Kendricks slipped into the top-30 last season with his points per game average of 11.5 ranking 21st. He has the ability and potential to be a quality second starter but counting on Kendrick as more than an LB3 could be a mistake.
Like Kendricks, Barr is a 3-down linebacker. Barr however, has the added challenge of working at the strong side position on early downs. As a result, the 2014 first round pick has never recorded more than 55 solo stops in a season. He has big-play ability that showed up early in his career with seven and a half sacks and eight takeaways in his first two seasons. Over the last three years, however, he has not been used as much on the blitz; resulting in an average of two sacks and one takeaway per season since 2015. Barr is a talented player but his IDP value is limited to leagues with very deep rosters.
Minnesota deployed three linebackers on about 30% of their defensive plays last season. When they did so, Ben Gedeon was the third guy, seeing limited action as a two-down weakside backer. Gedeon performed well enough the team did not bring in competition for the job but there is no reason to expect a larger role.
One player dynasty managers may want to watch is rookie Cameron Smith. The fifth-round pick out of USC is not going to impress anyone with combine numbers or flashy plays but he is a smart, savvy, instinctual player that was a four-year starter for the Trojans. During his college career, he put up solid and consistent tackle totals and sprinkled in a fair number of big plays along the way. If Smith ever gets an opportunity it may be tough to get him off the field again.
- MLB Eric Kendricks – Solid LB3 with a little upside
- SLB Anthony Barr – Marginal fantasy value at best
- WLB Ben Gedeon – No fantasy impact
- MLB Cameron Sutton – Possible dynasty stash
- MLB Devante Downs – No fantasy impact
- MLB Kentrell Brothers – No fantasy impact
- SLB Eric Wilson – No fantasy impact
The Minnesota secondary is loaded with talent. Much like the linebackers, however, it does not always translate to great fantasy production. The only sure IDP value found here lies with free safety Harrison Smith, and even he comes with some concern. Smith averaged 10.5 fantasy points per game last season but a graph of his weekly scores looks like a rollercoaster. While he has managed several top-20 rankings over his career, much of Smith’s value comes through big plays. As is often the case with players that depend on turnovers or sacks for a large portion of their point totals, Smith is highly inconsistent on a week to week basis.
Consistency has been a detractor from Smith’s IDP value for most of his career. He has produced 29 turnovers, 11 sacks, 46 passes defended and 4 scores but has a personal best of 73 solo tackles. Smith has reached 70 solo stops twice in seven NFL seasons but has not done so since 2014. In 2018, 28% of his point total was collected in two games while he scored six or fewer points four times, including a pair of games with a single tackle in the box scores. Once all the numbers are in, Smith will probably sit among the top-20 defensive backs once again in 2019. However, the lack of consistency drops him into the DB3 range for me.
Minnesota opened last season with Andrew Sendejo at strong safety. When Sendejo was lost to a groin injury, Anthony Harris took over for the final 10 games. Harris did not put up impressive numbers but he provided a big play element the coaching staff likes and played well enough overall to claim the starting job going forward. With Sendejo now in Philadelphia, there does not seem to be any immediate competition for Harris. With a total of 34 tackles in 10 games as a starter, Harris does not appear to be a guy that will break the trend and become a significant fantasy factor.
In veteran corners Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes and second-year man Mike Hughes, the Viking have an excellent trio of cover men with a variety of strengths. Rhodes is a bigger, more physical type corner that excels in press coverage and matches up well with bigger receivers. Hughes is a smaller guy who can stick with opponents speedy receivers down the field. Waynes falls somewhere in between the other two. This trio gives the Vikings coaching staff a lot of matchup options and versatility but it does not give fantasy managers anything to get excited about. Rhodes led the group with 41 tackles a year ago and none of the three recorded more than one interception. Managers in search of help at corner will want to look elsewhere.
- FS Harrison Smith – Week-to-week inconsistency limits value to high upside DB3
- SS Anthony Harris – Marginal value expected
- SS Jayron Kearse – No fantasy impact
- FS Marcus Epps – Developmental rookie
- SS/FS Derron Smith – No fantasy impact
- CB Trae Waynes – No fantasy impact
- CB Xavier Rhodes – No fantasy impact
- CB Mike Hughes – No fantasy impact
- CB Mackensie Alexander – No fantasy impact
- CB Kris Boyd – No fantasy impact
It did not take long for the impact of the new coaching staff to show in the Lions defense. With former Patriots coordinator Matt Patricia as head coach and relative unknown Paul Pasqualoni running his defense, Detroit transformed from a perennial mediocrity to a unit ranked in the top half of the league in nearly all important categories. They were 10th versus both run and pass, 16th in scoring, and 11th in sacks with 43.
The sack total was particularly impressive considering the team’s only elite pass rusher, Ezekiel Ansah, was injured most of the season and saw limited action in seven games. During his time in New England, Patricia was a master at using schemes to get the most out of available talent. In typical Patriots fashion, 14 Lions defenders got to the quarterback at least once last season while no one was credited with more than seven and a half sacks.
The organization moved on from Ansah and his chronic injury issues. He has been replaced of course, by former Patriots starter Trey Flowers who inked a five-year deal potentially worth $90 million. Flowers is not an elite edge rush talent like Ansah can be, but he is an upgrade versus the run and a quality three-down end. Over three seasons as a starter in New England Flowers produced 21 sacks forced 4 fumbles, recovered 2 and knocked down 5 passes; with those numbers scattered virtually evenly across the years. His tackle totals have been a bit less consistent with a high of 43 solo and 18 assists in 2017. When Flowers last worked under Patricia, he saw action on nearly 90% of the defensive plays. A similar workload is likely in 2019. Flowers will not win any sack titles but he is a steady contributor with the potential to exceed 40 solo tackles and the ability to push the double-digit sack mark. He can be counted on as a quality DL2.
Things are a little less clear at the other defensive end spot, but we could see useful production from that position as well. Last year’s fourth-round pick DaShawn Hand started his rookie season as part of the interior rotation. With both Ansah and Kerry Hyder Jr battling injuries right out of the gate, Hand soon began seeing action at end. He did not light up the box scores with pass rush stats but Hand did a great job setting the edge versus the run. Enough so that he will be in the mix this summer for the starting job opposite Flowers.
Hand had nine sacks in four seasons at Alabama where he also saw some action at end, mainly on early downs. He is all but certain to have some role in the rotation this season, though he probably will not be on the edge in most passing situations. Depending on how playing time is divided, Hand could provide good tackle totals but it seems unlikely he will land more than 4-5 sacks.
Romeo Okwara is also a strong contender for the starting job at end. In fact, he may be the favorite. With 715 snaps last season Okwara saw more action than any other Detroit lineman. While he is probably not as stout as hand versus the run, Okwara is a more accomplished pass rusher. He led the team with seven and a half sacks last season and will continue to be a factor regardless who earns the title of starter. What seems possible if not probable here is Hand getting early down reps then sliding inside or coming off in favor of Okwara in passing situations.
The wild card at end is rookie fourth-round pick, Austin Bryant. Scouting reports suggest the former Clemson standout will need to add strength and technique as a run defender before garnering any consideration for a three-down role, but he could get some opportunity to rush the passer. Bryant had 17 sacks in two years as a starter for the Tigers and 21 for his career there. Dynasty managers will want to keep an eye on the young man who could develop into a significant contributor in a year or two.
In Damon Harrison and AShawn Robinson, the Lions have both an outstanding duo of interior linemen and a pair of targets for fantasy managers. Harrison is an absolute beast. At 6’3, 350 pounds he is arguably the hardest defensive lineman in the league to move yet he is remarkably athletic. As a three year starter for the Jets (2013-2015), he put up strong tackle numbers with an average of 35 solos and 29 assists. Those numbers made him a quality option as a low-end DT1 or excellent second starter. When Harrison moved to the Giants in 2016 his production and value increased substantially.
In each of the last three seasons, Harrison has at least 50 solo tackles and at least 26 assists, with 5 turnovers and 7.5 sacks. In 2016 and 2017 he was the fantasy game’s best interior lineman. Last season he was second behind DeForest Buckner. Even in leagues that count all linemen together, Harrison has finished no lower than 16th in those three years.
Some may be concerned Harrison’s production could drop with the change of teams. In reality, working with the Lions might prove to be a positive. He came to Detroit via trade last season and was actually much more productive after joining the Lions. In seven games before the trade Harrison was 15-16-0 with a forced fumble. In 10 games with Detroit, he went 35-13-3.5 with a forced fumble and a recovery.
A’Shawn Robinson is less impressive in the box scores but just as important to the success of the Lions. Checking in at 6’4” 322 pounds, he pairs with Harrison to give Detroit the biggest starting tackle duo in the league. Much like Harrison, Robinson is a powerful big man who is tough to move, gets off tackles well and makes a lot of plays against the run. His biggest contribution as a pass rusher comes from the ability to push the pocket into the quarterback’s lap. Thus he is not going to produce many sacks. Since there are not enough blockers to double both defenders on every play, Robinson should see a lot of single blocking going forward. That should allow him to continue putting up good tackle totals.
Any interior lineman that can consistently produce more than 30 tackles and 15 or so assists is going to have value to managers in tackle required leagues. Robinson was 32-20-.5 with a pair of turnovers in 2017. Last season he went 34-15-1 with a couple of turnovers in 13 games and had a points-per-game average that ranked 14th among tackles. He is a safe target as a quality DT2 in 2019.
At a glance, the Lions appear to be a bit thin at tackle. Journeyman Darius Kilgo and rookie seventh-round pick P.J. Johnson fill out the depth chart but an injury to Harrison or Robinson would almost certainly mean a more permanent move back to tackle for Hand.
- DE Trey Flowers – Safe and dependable DL2
- DE Romeo Okwara – Sleeper with priority DL3 potential
- DE/DT Da’Shawn Hand – Sleeper with DL3 upside
- DE Austin Bryant – Possible dynasty target
- DT A'Shawn Robinson – Solid DT2
- DT Damon Harris – Elite tier DT1 or quality DL2
- DT Darius Kilgo – No impact expected
- DT P.J. Johnson – No impact expected
For several years Detroit’s linebacker position was a revolving door of mediocrity and stop gap players. The organization took the first step toward ending that trend when they selected Jarrad Davis in round one of the 2017 Draft. Davis has had a fair share of ups and downs over his first two seasons. He was immediately inserted as a three-down middle backer but his rookie season did not go as smoothly as the team would have liked. A minor injury cost Davis a couple of games in September then struggles in coverage caused him to lose some playing time in sub packages later in the year. The new coaching staff embraced Davis who worked hard last summer to improve his coverage skills.
Davis played well for the most part in year two, though he continued to be a little inconsistent. His cover skill showed improvement and defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni did a good job masking any remaining deficiency with scheme and by having Davis blitz more. As a result, he was on the field for every play in 14 games and missed just a few snaps in the other two. He is not yet the complete player the organization had hoped for, but at age 23 Davis still has time to get there.
From a fantasy perspective, Davis showed little overall improvement from year one to last season. His tackle, sack, and pass breakup totals went up a bit, while his assists and turnover numbers went down some. In the end, Davis was nearly identical in terms of average points per game at just under 10.5 per game, which put him right on the border between third starter and priority LB4. Providing he retains the full-time role in his third season, which seems likely, there is a much better chance of his production going up than down. Slip Davis onto your draft board at the bottom of the LB3 tier.
Second round pick Jahlani Tavai is the reason put in the part about providing Davis retains the full-time role. NFL teams do not take players, especially linebackers, early in the second round without expectation that they will contribute immediately. At 6’2” 250 pounds Tavai has old school size with good speed, play strength and an aggressive demeanor. Coming out of Hawaii and playing in the Mountain West Conference, he has not seen the highest level of competition but he has been dominant both on the field and in the box scores.
Tavai started 45 of the 47 games he played in over four years with the Warriors. As a three-down middle linebacker, he averaged nearly 10 combined tackles per game, had 16.5 career sacks and was responsible for 9 turnovers. Tavai missed the final four games of his senior season with a shoulder injury that did not require surgery, so he will enter training camp healthy and ready to compete. There is at least some chance he could emerge as the starting middle backer this season. In fact, it would not be a surprise to see Davis move over to the weak side during camp to make room for Tavai in the middle.
Christian Jones won the starting job on the weak side last season, beating out 2017 fourth-round selection Jalen Reeves-Maybin. Jones did an adequate job working mostly as a two-down player but he is not a long term solution at the position. Jones has seen a good deal of action over his first five seasons including a couple of stints as a starter for the Bears, but he has never been able to lock down a full-time role or hang onto a starting job for long. He can play all three positions so Jones’ versatility will make him a valuable asset to the team but he is not a lot to start week one.
Devon Kennard found a home with the Lions last year. After signing a free agent contract the former Giants starter was inserted as a three-down, strongside linebacker. The Lions staff took advantage of Kennard’s strength by making him an edge rusher on passing downs. The responsibilities of his role seriously limited Kennard’s opportunity to make tackles, but he was the team’s second-leading pass rusher with seven sacks. With only 29 tackles and 15 assists, his fantasy value was limited to big play based leagues with a lot of teams and/or very deep rosters. Chances are there will be little change in Kennard’s situation in 2019.
- MLB Jarrad Davis – Low-end LB3 or priority depth if he keeps last year’s role
- SLB Devon Kennard – Marginal value at best
- WLB Jalen Reeves-Maybin – No fantasy impact
- WLB Christian Jones – No fantasy impact
- MLB Jahlani Tavai – Sleeper/dynasty target with high upside
- OLB Steve Longa – No fantasy impact.
The Lions secondary did well last season in terms of yardage surrendered, but they did not make enough big plays. In fact, only the 49ers recorded fewer than Detroit’s seven interceptions. Safety Quandre Diggs and corner Darius Slay each had three picks in 2018. Not so coincidentally, they are the only two returning defensive backs guaranteed a starting job.
Diggs also led the secondary in tackles with 64 solo and 14 assists and was the only Detroit defensive back to make the top-30. While he will have a starting gig, Diggs may be working from a different position. He has played strong safety for the last couple seasons but at 5’9, 196 pounds, the former college corner would probably be a better fit at free. The team did not bring back Glover Quin so that job happens to be available.
The coaching staff will consider all their options at safety but Tavon Wilson is the early favorite to start at strong. Wilson held that job in with the Lions in 2016 after coming over from New England where he played under then defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. As the Lions starter, Wilson had the best season of his seven-year career. In 15 games he recorded 73 tackles, 15 assists, a sack, and 3 turnovers. In 2018 Detroit’s safeties combined for 182 solo stops that were divided among six players. Clearly, there are enough opportunities for someone to emerge as a solid IDP option. Chances are Wilson will be that guy.
Other contenders at safety include last year’s third-round pick Tracy Walker and this spring’s third round selection Will Harris, along with veterans Miles Killebrew and Andrew Adams. Walker was bothered by a bad ankle for much of his rookie season and was inactive until week 11. His skill set as a former corner suggests Walker would be a better fit at free safety. Harris has an interchangeable skill set but is a bit raw. With a little experience, he could be a factor but chances are his rookie contribution will come mostly on special teams. Killebrew is an in the box linebacker/strong safety hybrid that probably has a better chance of contributing at linebacker. Adams is a journeyman free safety with much-needed experience but has been no more than a marginal NFL starter when given the opportunity in the past.
Darius Slay blew up for 8 interceptions and 26 passes defended in 2017. Along with a career-best 54 tackles, those numbers made him the fantasy game’s top corner that season and a top-5 defensive back in leagues that lump the positions together. It was a truly great season for one of the league’s exceptional cover men but it was a one-year thing for Slay. In five other seasons as a pro, he has no more than 48 tackles, no more than 17 pass breakups, and no more than 3 interceptions. Pick him up if he gets off to a fast start but do not commit a roster spot going into the season.
Last year’s other starter on the outside was Nevin Lawson who was not brought back. That opens the door for a multi-player competition to establish the rest of the pecking order behind Slay. Second-year man Mike Ford will be in the mix along with veterans Justin Coleman, Rashaan Melvin, Teez Tabor, Marcus Cooper, and Jamal Agnew. Even rookie fifth-round pick Amani Oruwriye could get a look. Coleman, Melvin, and Cooper all have some starting experience with former teams. Tabor was a second-round pick of the Lions in 2017 but has shown little thus far. Melvin would probably be the early favorite but this could go anywhere, including the possible addition of another veteran.
- SS Tavon Wilson – Solid DB3 if he wins the starting job
- FS Quandre Diggs – Likely move to free safety could kill his value
- SS/LB Miles Killebrew – No fantasy impact
- FS Tracy Walker – Deep sleeper at best
- SS/FS Will Harris – Possible dynasty target
- CB Darius Slay – Potential depth in leagues starting two corners
- CB Mike Ford – No fantasy value expected
- CB Justin Coleman - No fantasy value expected
- CB Rashaan Melvin – Deep sleeper with CB3 upside
- CB Amani Oruwariye – developmental rookie
- CB Teez Tabor – No fantasy value expected
- CB Jamal Agnew – No fantasy value expected
From the Dick Butkus era through the 85 Bears and now to the current unit, Chicago has a long tradition of defensive excellence. The 2018 Bears were third in both yards and points allowed, first versus the run, recorded 50 sacks and led the league in turnovers. With former defensive coordinator Vic Fangio taking the head coaching position in Denver, the team will have a new DC in 2019. Under Chuck Pagano, there will not be much scheme change, and with 10 returning starters the Bears could be even better.
Chicago has been running an aggressive 3-4 since 2016 so Pagano has inherited good talent up front; including Akiem Hicks who is one of the best 3-4 ends in the game. Hicks started his career quietly. Three plus seasons with the Saints and most of one with New England yielded marginal tackle numbers and a total of nine and a half sacks. He joined the Bears in 2016 and immediately found success.
Quality box score production from linemen in three-man fronts is not rare as it once was, but it remains uncommon. When Hicks finished 36-17-7 with 3 takeaways in 2016 there were concerns he would prove a one year wonder. That is no longer a question as Hicks has actually improved his production and fantasy value in each of the last two seasons.
In 2018 Hicks reached a new career high with 41 solo tackles. Adding 13 assists, 7.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles and 4 batted passes, put him on the cusp of a top-12 finish. Three seasons in Chicago has seen him rank 18th, 17th and 13th among defensive linemen. This may be the year he becomes a DL1. Hicks is now a proven commodity and belongs on the short list of IDP friendly linemen in three-man fronts. Even if he never reaches the magic numbers of 40 tackles and double-digit sacks, we know he can be counted on as a quality second starter.
After Hicks, the Bears have a collection of good dependable linemen that fit well in the scheme, but no one showing big upside in fantasy terms. Last year’s fifth-round pick Bilal Nichols could be someone to keep an eye on though. He earned a significant role in the rotation as a rookie, recording 20 tackles, 8 assists, 3 sacks and 3 turnovers on just 327 snaps. If he can land a bigger slice of the playing time, Nichols could become a factor in year two.
Nose tackle Eddie Goldman could be of some use to owners in leagues starting two interior linemen. The 2015 second-round pick had a career best of 4.5 sacks as a rookie and career highs of 28 solo and 15 assists in 2017. With a line of 27-12-3, he was just outside the top-24 defensive tackles. There is not much upside with Goldman, but in some situations, he is serviceable as depth with low DT2 potential.
Chicago does not use many players up front so Jonathan Bullard and Roy Robertson-Harris are likely to fill out the rest of the depth chart when the 53 man roster is announced. Both are solid versatile players that can lineup at either position. The coaching staff likes to rotate up front so both will get on the field regularly, but not enough to be box score factors.
- DE Akiem Hicks – Quality DL2
- DE Bilal Nichols – Deep sleeper
- DE Jonathan Bullard – No fantasy impact
- DE Roy Robertson-Harris – No fantasy impact
- NT Eddie Goldman – Depth in leagues starting two tackles
Bears history is littered with the names of great inside linebackers. If his rookie season is any indication, Roquan Smith will be the next name added to the list. At 6’1” 232-pounds, Smith would have been considered undersized a decade ago. In today’s NFL where speed and athleticism are just as important as toughness and physicality, he is the prototype. Smith has all those traits and then some. Elite athletic ability, high intelligence, effective cover skills, physical nature, speed, quickness, and leadership qualities are all things we find in his scouting reports.
Big time production is another important box Smith checks. He became a starter as a sophomore at Georgia in 2016 and went on to dominate in the SEC against some of the nation’s best competition. That production carried over to a rookie season that saw Smith go 89-33-5 with an interception and 4 pass breakups. One thing the coaching staff would like to see from Smith is more turnovers. He had three forced and three recovered fumbles during his college career but never recorded an interception. With just the one takeaway last season there is plenty of room for improvement in that area. Last year’s numbers added up to a top-12 finish. If he can make a more significant contribution in the turnover columns, Smith could become an elite LB1 in year two.
Smith paired with a healthy Danny Trevathan gives the Bears an excellent tandem at the inside linebacker positions. Healthy is the key word for Trevathan who has battled injuries throughout most of his six-year career. In fact, last season was the first time he played a full slate of games since his rookie campaign in 2013. When he is right physically, Trevathan is a well-rounded contributor both on the field and in the box scores. In 71 career games, he has averaged just over five tackles and two assists. In 37 games with the Bears over the last three seasons, he has five sacks and seven turnovers. The line of 78-25-2 with 4 turnovers and 5 pass breakups made Trevathan a solid LB2 last season. Playing next to one of the leagues rising young stars will mean a lot of competition for tackles and will limit his upside from that perspective, but it could allow Trevathan to make more big play impact. He should continue to be at least a quality LB3 with low-end LB2 upside.
Roquan Smith was a huge addition for the Bears last year but it was the trade for Khalil Mack that changed their fortunes most. Mack is not just an elite pass rusher but a leader and difference maker in any situation. People will talk about the 12.5 sacks he recorded last season but Mack’s contribution as an edge setter versus the run was also vital to the team’s success, as were the nine turnovers he created.
During his four years with Oakland Mack played both 4-3 end and 3-4 outside linebacker, often working from both alignments in the same game. Over that span of time, he averaged nearly 58 solo tackles per season. Those numbers dropped considerably in his first year with Chicago and they may never come all the way back. He went from 61 tackles in 2017 to 37 solo stops in 14 games last year, but Mack’s fantasy production actually went up by more than a point and a half per game. His IDP value will vary widely depending on league format. In balanced leagues with scoring similar to the Footballguys standard, Mack ranked in the LB3 range last year and will have similar value going forward. For managers in big play formats, he is an elite LB1 with the potential to be the top dog.
Chicago used the ninth overall pick on Leonard Floyd in 2016 with the expectation he would become an elite pass rusher. With seven sacks in 12 games as a rookie, it looked like Floyd was on the way to being that player. Injury caused him to miss six contests in 2017, limiting him to five and a half sacks. Still, the organization had faith. With the addition of Mack to take over the focus of opponents blocking schemes, Floyd was supposed to break out in year three. Instead, he was a disappointment, leaving many to wonder if he will become a bust.
Floyd recorded a career best of 35 tackles and 13 assists in 2018, to go with a career low of 4 sacks. He has not forced a fumble since his rookie year and was a virtual no show over the first eight games last year. On a positive note, he seemed to rally over the second half of the season, recording 20 of his 35 tackles and all four sacks in the final eight games. Year four could be a make-or-break for Floyd as he nears the end of his rookie contract. Money can be a great motivator and he is clearly in a great situation. That said, IDP managers should wait to see something before investing valuable roster space.
If Floyd stumbles out of the gate again we may see a lot more of Aaron Lynch this year. Lynch looked good with San Francisco early in his career. In 2014 he had 17 solo tackles and 6 sacks in a limited role. His playing time increased the following season and included several starts. That year Lynch finished 30-8-6.5. Unfortunately, he battled injuries in 2016 and 2017 and became a non-factor. With Chicago last year, Lynch served as the third man at outside linebacker. On 354 snaps -- which was well less than half what Floyd played -- Lynch managed 16 combined tackles, 3 sacks, and an interception. Lynch is just 26 years old entering his sixth season as a pro. If he can stay healthy the young man could be looking at a golden opportunity.
- ILB Danny Trevathan – Priority LB3
- ILB Roquan Smith – Second tier LB1 with top-five potential
- ILB Nick Kwiatkoski – Injury sleeper with marginal upside
- ILB Joel Iyiegbuniwe – No fantasy impact
- OLB Kahlil Mack – Quality LB3 in balanced scoring, Elite LB1 in big play leagues
- OLB Leonard Floyd – Watch list player in big play formats
- OLB Aaron Lynch – Deep sleeper in big play leagues
- OLB Kylie Fitts – No fantasy value
- OLB Isaiah Irving – No impact expected
Chicago got excellent play from their secondary last season. Substantial improvement at linebacker led to diminished tackle totals for the safeties but all five starters, including slot corner Bryce Callahan, recorded at least two interceptions. In all the secondary accounted for an impressive 21 of the team’s league-high 27 picks while placing a pair of players among the top-25 defensive backs.
Free safety Eddie Jackson ranked highest coming in at number eight, with a points-per-game average of 12.5, ranking fifth. This was quite a feat for a guy that missed the final two games and totaled only 41 tackles and 10 assists. It seems the Bears hit the lottery when they made Jackson a fourth-round pick in 2017. With 90 solo and 27 assists, his tackle totals have been modest through the first 30 games of his career. Jackson’s big-play production, however, has not. His resume already includes 8 interceptions, 4 forced fumbles, 2 recoveries, a sack, 20 passes defended, and an astonishing 5 defensive scores.
As we like to say here at Footballguys, once is a fluke but twice is a trend. We were cautious about Jackson after the big rookie season. Now that he has followed it up with an even more impressive one, it is safe to say Jackson has taken his place among the best big-play safeties in the league. History tells us rather clearly that players dependent on big plays normally have issues with week-to-week consistency. So far Jackson has been the exception. At one point he went two games without a solo tackle. In those games, Jackson scored 16.2 and 23.35 points. In all he reached double digits in 9 of 14 games, falling short of 8 only once.
Strong safety Adrian Amos is the only 2018 defensive starter not returning for the Bears. He will be replaced by Ha Ha Clinton-Dix who was a long time starter for the rival Packers. To say Clinton-Dix is an upgrade might not be completely correct, but he is a better fit for the scheme. Amos made a fair contribution last season but he is more of an in the box run support strong safety. Clinton-Dix can line up at either safety position and is better at both coverage and making big plays. In five NFL seasons, he has accumulated 5 sacks and 14 interceptions, with a total of 20 takeaways. Clinton-Dix has also exceeded 60 solo stops every season and reached 80 twice. He can be the in the box strong safety when called upon but is just as comfortable off the ball making plays in the passing game. It is doubtful there will be enough opportunity for more than 65-70 solo stops but Clinton-Dix could still be a top 25 DB in this situation.
Chicago is lacking experience behind the starters at safety but they do have a pair of fourth-year players in 2016 fourth round pick Deon Bush and 2016 sixth rounder DeAndre Houston-Carson. We have seen Bush get his opportunity in the past so we know he is serviceable if called upon. Houston-Carson has not seen much action outside of special teams.
Past conversations about great NFL corners generally have not included Kyle Fuller. The way he has played over the last two seasons, they probably should. The 2014 first round selection played well in his first two seasons but not as well as the organization would have liked considering his draft position. He then missed all of 2016 with an injury. Since his return, Fuller has been everything the Bears could have asked for.
Fuller posted a career best of 59 solo tackles and a pair of interceptions in 2017, but the most impressive number was the 22 pass breakups. Opposing receivers had a hard time shaking him and throwing his way was not good for a quarterback’s completion percentage. Last season Fuller stopped knocking those passes down and started catching them. With 45 tackles, 10 assists, 7 picks, and 19 passes defended he was the fantasy game’s number 22 defensive back and number three corner in 2018. Top-5 rankings are hard to repeat at the corner position but Fuller is a safe target as your CB1.
Even Prince Amukamara got in on the action last season. This is a player that previously had seven interceptions over a seven-year career. He played 15 games In 2018 recording the second most tackles of his career at 57, the second most pass breakups of his career at 12, and matched a career high of 3 picks. Amukamara finished at sixth among corners, but he actually edged out his teammate in points per game. Counting on a repeat from Amukamara is a more risky prospect but he is a viable target as a low end CB1
Journeyman Buster Skrine will compete with veteran Sherrick McManus for the nickel corner job. With several years of experience in that role, Skrine is the favorite to win the position. Late round rookie additions Duke Shelley and Stephen Denmark could also get a look. Barring injuries, none of these guys have a shot at getting on the field in more than a sub-package role.
- SS Ha Ha Clinton-Dix – DB3 with upside
- FS Eddie Jackson – Priority DB2 with top-5 potential
- SS Deon Bush – No impact expected
- FS DeAndre Houston-Carson – No impact expected
- CB Kyle Fuller – Solid DB3 or top shelf CB1
- CB Prince Amukamara – CB2 with a little upside
- CB Buster Skrine – No fantasy impact
- CB Sherrick McManus – No fantasy impact
- CB Duke Shelley – Developmental rookie prospect
- CB Stephen Denmark – Developmental rookie
Green Bay Packers
The Packers have plenty of work to do defensively. Last year’s unit was middle of the pack or lower in nearly every important statistical category; the one big exception being sacks where Green Bay’s 44 ranked eighth. The organization put an emphasis on defense throughout the offseason, devoting considerable draft and free agent capital to that side of the ball. They took Michigan defensive end Rashaan Gary with pick 12 but the initial plan is to have him work at outside linebacker. Thus the only substantial addition up front is fifth-round selection Kingsley Keke.
When the Packers moved to a 3-4 scheme several years ago, they initially employed a 2-gap approach up front. Even though they dumped a ton of resources into the line positions, there was little statistical return on investment credited directly to linemen. They still make a lot of calls that give the front three 2-gap assignments but the scheme now has versatility. Being harder to predict from play to play makes it harder on offensive linemen but it also provides more opportunity for defensive linemen to show up in the box scores.
There are no DL1 targets for IDP owners among the Green Bay linemen but there are a couple of guys worthy of roster spots. Nose tackle Kenny Clark packs the most fantasy punch by far. The 2016 first round pick had little impact as a rookie but he has blossomed over the last two seasons. In his second year, Clark was 33-23-5 with a pair of forced fumbles. Those numbers made him a mid-range DL3 in leagues putting all linemen together. In tackle required leagues Clark was a solid DT1 in 2017. He proved the production was not a fluke by going 34-21-6 with three turnovers and 3 batted passes last season, making him a top-20 lineman and the number six tackle.
At 6’3, 314 pounds Clark is a bit on the small side compared to most 3-4 nose tackles but he and a few others may be starting a trend. Just as we have seen smaller, faster more athletic linebackers across the league in recent years; we are starting to see lighter, quicker, more athletic interior linemen have a lot of success. Clark will be 23 years old entering the season so his best football may be ahead of him.
After recording dismal numbers in 2018, Mike Daniels will get little draft day consideration from most managers. Those in leagues with more than 12 teams and/or deep rosters should take a closer look, however. Daniels battled multiple injuries in 2018. It started with a quadriceps in August that was still bothering him in September. Then he had a sore shoulder for a game or two until a foot sprain eventually landed him on IR. Prior to 2018, Daniels was on a run of five seasons with at least 4 sacks and a total of 25. From 2014 to 2017 he averaged 28 tackles, 16 assists, and 5 sacks, with a career-best of 33-15-5 in 14 games in 2017. Daniels is probably not going to make the top-25 but he should provide quality depth in most leagues and has a little upside.
Between Daniels injury struggles and Muhammad Wilkerson landing on IR early in the season, the Packers leaned heavily on 2016 fourth round pick Dean Lowery last year. He made the most of the opportunity and played well enough to keep the starting job going for3ward. Lowery’s box score production has not turned heads but a close look at last season suggests we might want to keep an eye on him. On the season Lowery was 30-14-3 with a turnover and 3 batted passes. What makes Lowery a player of interest, he was 20-7-3 with a turnover and 3 batted passes over the final eight games, reaching double-digit fantasy point in five of them.
James Looney, Montravius Adams, and rookie Kingsley Keke round out the depth chart up front. All three are young players drafted in the last three years with only Adams having any game experience. Adams will probably serve as the top backup at all three positions in 2019 but Keke has the potential to develop into a starter down the road.
- DE Mike Daniels – Depth in many situations
- DE Dean Lowery – Sleeper with DL3 upside
- DE Montravius Adams – No fantasy impact
- DE Kingsley Keke – Possibly dynasty prospect
- NT Kenny Clark – Mid range DL2 or strong DT1
- NT/DE James Looney – No fantasy impact
There is no guesswork when it comes to the Packers inside linebacker positions. Blake Martinez has emerged as a star both on the field and in the box scores. He became a two-down starter as a rookie in 2016 and quickly proved to be an excellent run defender. In his second season, Martinez moved into an every-down role and has since excelled in all aspects of the game. In 2017 he was the fantasy game’s number three linebacker on the strength of 96 tackles, 49 assists, a sack, 4 turnovers and 8 passes defended. In 2018 he had three fewer tackles and traded all his turnovers for sacks on the way to a second top-10 finish.
Martinez is not going to record a ton of takeaways but the chances of him having none again are slim, and you just cannot beat the week to week consistency of a guy that make 90+ tackles. Over the last two seasons, Martinez has reached double-digit fantasy points in 27 of 32 games, falling short of 8 points three times. He falls a little short of elite tier-one guys like Darius Leonard, Bobby Wagner, and Corey Littleton but managers cannot go wrong with Martinez as their LB1.
The Packers are unsettled at the other inside linebacker position. Last year’s third-round pick Oren Burks is penciled in at the position entering camp but is not a lock to win the job. He made a few starts at the position last season before being benched in favor of Antonio Morrison. Neither player was on the field in more than a two-down role even when starting. Instead, the Packers deployed a nickel base defense much of the time with three safeties in the game on many early downs. Morrison was waived in March so the main competition for the job will come from either second-year undrafted free agent James Crawford or rookie seventh-round pick Ty Summers. The bottom line here being, we will likely see a lot of three safety sets again in 2019.
The organization has moved on from longtime fixture Clay Matthews at outside linebacker but that does not mean they are hurting at the position. Reality is quite the opposite in fact as the team is loaded with talent on the outside. Fourth-year pro, Kyler Fackrell, is coming off a breakout season that saw him reach double-digit sacks but he may have a hard time keeping a starting job.
Free agency brought Preston Smith over from Washington and Za’Darius Smith from the Ravens. As a four year starter for the Redskins, Preston Smith totaled 25 sacks, forced 5 fumbles, recovered three, had 4 picks and 14 pass breakups. Za’Darius Smith had 18.5 sacks over four seasons with Baltimore including 8.5 last year in his first season as a starter. As if that were not enough, the Packers then drafted Rashaan Gary in round one. The former Michigan standout had 9.5 sacks in two years as a starter for the Wolverines. The dilemma for fantasy managers is all four of these guys can and will play. That probably means none of them will have enough opportunity to produce useful IDP numbers.
- ILB Blake Martinez – Solid LB1
- ILB Oren Burks – Marginal fantasy value at best
- ILB James Crawford – No impact expected
- ILB Ty Summers – Rookie project with long-term potential
- OLB Za'Darius Smith – Big play sleeper with LB3 potential
- OLB Preston Smith – Possible LB3 in big play formats
- OLB/DE Rashan Gary – Lots of upside and potential but not a great situation
- OLB Kyler Fackrell – Possible LB3 in big play format
- OLB Reggie Gilbert – Marginal value at best
In all eight different players lined up at safety for the Packers in 2018. Three of them are still with the team entering camp but none are locks to be opening day starters. In fact, Tramon Williams is the only one that seems to have a serious shot at starting, but he is 36 years old and could just as easily be cut at the end of August providing the new guys work out. Williams spent his first eight seasons as a starting corner with Green Bay. After two years with Cleveland and one in Arizona, he was brought back as more of a stop gap to provide veteran experience beside the team’s young corners.
Last season opened with Kentrell Brice and Ha Ha Clinton–Dix as starters at safety. By mid-season, Clinton-Dix had been traded and Brice benched. Safety was a revolving door over the second half of the year with Williams and 2017 second round pick Josh Jones seeing most of the action. Neither made much of an impression. For the first time in his 12-year career, Williams did not record an interception. Jones was adequate but uninspiring for a second consecutive season.
In answer to last year’s struggles, the Packers selected free safety Darnell Savage 21st overall this spring and signed former Bears strong safety Adrian Amos in free agency. Both new additions should take over as immediate starters with Williams and Jones possibly competing for the oft used third safety role.
In Savage, the organization hopes to have a much-needed playmaker. He is not particularly big or physical but is blazing fast, has excellent cover skills and a history of big plays. In three seasons as a starter for Maryland Savage accounted for eight interceptions, 13 pass breakups and a pair of defensive scores. With 128 tackles and 42 assists over three years, Savage’s tackle numbers were respectable while with the Terrapins. Chance are he will lineup deep as a catch-all safety net for the Packers so unless he makes a lot of picks, Savage will have limited fantasy potential.
Amos is not such a big play threat but could be in line to make a lot of tackles. He will officially start at strong safety but should spend plenty of time up in the box with Martinez as a nickel linebacker. At 6’0, 214 pounds, Amos is an intimidator over the middle with above average cover skills for a strong safety and brings a physical presence the Packers have been missing at the position over the last couple seasons.
Amos is a guy that can be picked up as a late round value in many leagues. Managers that glance at his career numbers will see a player that has never recorded more than 61 tackles or 3 turnovers in a single season. Amos was miscast as a free safety for much of his first two years in the league. In 2017, he missed six games which held his numbers down. Then last season he finished at 58-13-1 with three turnovers and 8 passes defended while playing behind arguably the best front seven in the game. Take a closer look at his 2017 season before dismissing Amos. In 10 games as a strong safety that year he averaged six tackles and an assist, falling short of double-digit fantasy points once. He is now in a position/scheme that fits his skill set perfectly and is on a team with a long history of quality IDP value at the strong safety position. If you are not ready to believe in him as a starter, slip Amos onto your roster as your fourth DB but do not be surprised if he quickly becomes an every-week must play.
Green Bay has good talent at the corner position but they are exceptionally young. If Tramon Williams is not playing corner, the first five players on the depth chart will all have two or fewer years of experience heading into 2019.
The elder statesman of the group would be 2017 second round pick Kevin King who at age 24, has played in 15 career games. King projects as a week one starter providing he can stay healthy for a change. His rookie campaign was cut short by a shoulder injury that required surgery, last season King was sidetracked by groin and hamstring problems. In the few games, he has been healthy King has shown signs of being a quality NFL corner. Unfortunately, he has given no reason to believe he can be fantasy friendly.
In 2018 the Packers used first and second round picks on Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson respectively. Alexander ended up starting 13 games as a rookie but finished just 11, leaving the other two with injuries. Unlike King, Alexander has thus far displayed considerable box score production as well as competent on-field play. The rookie corner rule may be in effect with Alexander who recorded 61 tackles, 6 assists, half a sack, a pick and 10 passes defended in 13 games. That pace would have made him the league’s leading tackler among corners had he played all 16 contests. If the rookie corner trend holds true with Alexander his tackle rate will slip a little in year two but we will see more in the big play columns. This is what the Packers are looking for as well. At roughly 9.25 points per game, Alexander was the number 15 corner in 2018. It would not be a surprise to see him make the top-12 this year though it is just as possible he slides back a few slots. IDP managers should consider the second-year pro a solid CB2 with some upside.
Josh Jackson is expected to be the third corner in Green Bay though he could feel some heat from last year’s undrafted rookie surprise, Tony Brown. Injury shuffles allowed Brown to get on the field quite a bit and he made a good showing. There is a fair chance the Packers will either keep Tramon Williams to give them a veteran presence or look to add a veteran free agent at some point before week one.
- SS Adrian Amos – Target as DB4 with considerable upside
- FS Darnell Savage – Unlikely to be more than decent depth
- FS/CB Tramon Williams – Marginal fantasy value
- SS/FS Josh Jones – Deep sleeper at best
- CB Kevin King – No fantasy impact
- CB Jaire Alexander – Probable CB2
- CB Josh Jackson – No fantasy impact
- CB Ka’Dar Hollman – Developmental late round pick
- CB Tony Brown – No fantasy impact expected.
That is going to do it for the NFC North; next up the AFC West.