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With all the craziness in the world, it is a little tough to get focused on the upcoming football season. For that matter, we are not yet 100% sure there will be a football season. Fortunately, it is looking more and more like there will be in some form or fashion. With hope and expectation that we will soon return to some form of normalcy, the time has come to start thinking about some of the less vital things that bring us enjoyment.
Welcome back for year 26 of the Eyes of the Guru column. This time around we will start in the AFC East. For reference, when I mention where players finished in the rankings last season, my model will be the standard Footballguys scoring system. This is the basic stuff:
- Tackles = 1.5
- Assists = .75
- Sacks = 4
- Forced fumbles = 3
- Fumble recoveries = 3
- Interceptions = 4
- Passes defended = 1.5
- Touchdowns = 6
When tackle numbers are mentioned, solo stops and assists are not lumped together. Unless there is a reference one way or the other, tackles refer to solo stops. When talking about a total number of takeaways for a player, I am counting interceptions, fumble recoveries, and fumbles forced since all of these score very similarly in most leagues. Keep in mind that based on scoring systems, rankings will vary (sometimes greatly) from league to league.
From time to time the rookie corner rule will be referenced. For those who are new to IDP or the EOTG, the rookie corner rule is the basic fact that in the NFL, starting a rookie at corner is like throwing chum to the sharks. Offensive coordinators will target young and inexperienced players as weaknesses thus these guys have an accelerated number of opportunities. Most often these players are the cream of the crop at the position (which is why they are starting so soon) and their numbers will begin to drop after their rookie seasons.
In many aspects, the Bills got good production from their defensive line last year. As a unit, the front-four accounted for 35 sacks, 142 tackles, and 5 turnovers. That was not enough to stop the organization from making a lot of changes. Buffalo allowed tackle Jordan Phillips to sign elsewhere despite leading the team with 9.5 sacks in 2019. This likely had more to do with money than a lack of desire to retain him. They also lost defensive end Shaq Lawson who was second on the team with 6.5 sacks. While those are significant losses, the additions should more than make up for it.
As many as five players could figure prominently into the Bills interior rotation. The team is counting on last year’s first-round pick Ed Oliver to replace the production of Phillips. Oliver had a strong rookie season with 24 tackles, 19 assists, 5 sacks, and a forced fumble. He is a quick and athletic three-technique tackle who holds up well against the run while counting pass rush among his strengths. This versatility allowed him to stay on the field for nearly 60% of the defensive snaps last year. For IDP managers, Oliver has the potential to explode in his second season and become a top-five interior lineman. At worst he should equal last season’s totals.
It is unclear at this early stage, who will start at the other tackle spot. Star Lotulelei was part of the three-man rotation last season and is a good fit at the nose tackle position. He is a two-down anchor versus the run but does not have much to offer as a pass rusher. Third-year man, Harrison Phillips, was set for a big role in 2019 when he was lost to a knee injury in week three. He too is probably best as a rotational early-down contributor if healthy.
The most interesting addition inside from a fantasy perspective is former Panthers first-round pick Vernon Butler. Checking in at 330 pounds, he has the size to play the nose tackle position, but Butler’s six sacks for Carolina last year suggest he play at either position. He was drafted in 2016 but did not land a starting job with the Panthers until Kwann Short was injured in early October. Butler took advantage of the opportunity with 21 tackles, 11 assists, 6 sacks, and 3 forced fumbles, which was enough to land him a nice free-agent payday. It would not be a surprise to see Butler paired with Oliver on a lot of passing downs.
The Bills also added versatile former Seahawk Quinton Jefferson. He is seen mostly as a tackle but has played outside on early downs at times over the last two seasons. Jefferson is a long shot for a starting role but could poach enough snaps to have a detrimental effect on everyone else not named Oliver.
While the team would be happy to get similar production from the tackle positions, there are higher expectations from this year’s group of edge defenders. Shaq Lawson was a steady contributor over his four years with the team but it became evident he would never reach the expectations of a former first-round pick. The Bills used both free agency and the draft to address the job opening.
Former Panther Mario Addison is sure to step in at one of the starting positions. With at least six sacks in every season since 2014 and 24.5 over the last three years, he should be a considerable upgrade for the pass rush. Addison projects to be a good fit in Leslie Frazier’s scheme, where defensive ends play aggressively. He gets after the quarterback but marginal tackle totals have kept Addison short on fantasy value throughout his nine-year career. Looking at the numbers of other Buffalo pass rushers in recent years, Addison may be hard-pressed to exceed his career-best of 27 solos and 17 assists from 2017.
The Bills were without a first-round pick this spring. They used their second on E.J. Epenesa. Scouting reports on the former Iowa star point out that he is not particularly fast or quick off the edge and has room to improve versus the run, but is savvy and has been exceptionally productive, racking up 22 sacks as a two-year starter for the Hawkeyes. The rookie will have an opportunity to contribute immediately as a sub-package specialist, but it may be a while before he can develop into a three-down player or fantasy factor. In short, Epenesa is a good taxi squad candidate for dynasty managers but we should not expect big things right away.
Jerry Hughes has been a fixture in the Bills lineup for most of a decade but is coming off his lowest statistical totals since 2011. He will be 32 in August so there is some concern that he may not bounce back all the way. Hughes had a couple of strong fantasy seasons early in his career but has become highly inconsistent on a week to week basis over the last few seasons. Between age, the presence of Murphy, and the addition of Epenesa, Hughes could be in line for a reduced role in 2020.
Last but not least, the Bills still have Trent Murphy who quietly led the team’s defensive linemen in snaps last year. He parlayed 686 plays into 5 sacks and 5 takeaways but could only muster 22 solo tackles and 13 assists to go with them. Lacking tackle totals have followed Murphy throughout his career. His most productive season as a pro came in 2016 when he was an outside linebacker for Washington. That season Murphy finished with the best IDP production of his career at 27-19-8 with 4 turnovers. He is the favorite to start opposite Addison in week one but there is no reason to expect a breakout season.
- DT Ed Oliver – Solid DT2 with high DT1 upside
- DT Harrison Phillips – Marginal upside
- DT Star Lotulelei – No IDP value
- DT Vernon Butler – Possible DT2
- DT/DE Quinton Jefferson – No impact expected
- DE Mario Addison – Depth with low DL2 upside
- DE Jerry Hughes – Marginal fantasy value
- DE Trent Murphy – Depth at best
- DE A.J. Epenesa – Dynasty sleeper with long term potential
The linebacker situation in Buffalo is much less complicated. Tremaine Edmunds, Matt Milano, and A.J. Klein are the clear cut starters. Edmunds is the IDP headliner of the group. He played every snap over the first 15 games last season and is likely to do so again in 2020. Playing time is clearly not an issue but Edmunds was somewhat of a disappointment in his second season as a pro. In 15 games as a rookie in 2018, he tallied 80 solo tackles, 41 assists, 2 sacks, 4 turnovers and 11 passes defended. Those numbers added up to an average of more than 13 fantasy points per game which was top-10 among linebackers. Instead of taking the next step in 2019 as most of us expected, Edmunds’ slid in every category except assists. At 65-51-1.5 with 8 pass breakups and turnovers, his average of 10.2 points per game ranked 33rd among linebackers.
It is hard to put a finger on why his numbers dropped so the question with Edmunds is, will he rebound, or are the lower numbers going to be his norm? When it comes to both tackle and big-play numbers, Edmunds has a strong history of quality production dating back to his time at Virginia Tech. All things considered, I have to believe his 2019 production will eventually be recognized as a career outlier. That said, I am still a bit nervous about calling him a top-12 LB1. Fortunately, last year’s low numbers will cause Edmunds to slide in most drafts where he can be picked up as a low-end LB2 with upside.
Edmunds is the fantasy headliner but he is not the only Buffalo linebacker with IDP value. Over the last two seasons, Matt Milano has quietly become a factor as well. He got on the field some as a rookie in 2017 then came out of the gate as a two-down starter on the weak side in 2018, moving into a full-time role by week six. Milano is a smart player who rarely makes a mental mistake, is a dependable tackler who rarely misses, and has shown an ability to contribute in the big play columns. He is not going to pile up big tackle totals and his fantasy upside is somewhat limited, but Milano has produced 11 turnovers in three seasons despite playing full time in about half his career games. He has produced at least nine fantasy points in 19 of 28 games over the last two years, including seven of the final nine contests in 2020 (not counting week 17 when the Bills rested starters). He may not be an IDP star but has certainly earned consideration as a third starter with a little upside.
The team signed free agent A.J. Klein to take over the strong side position. Providing they do not make the mistake of thinking he can play other positions or can stay on the field in passing situations, they will be happy with the addition. Klein can play in the middle in an emergency but he has proven beyond doubt over his seven NFL seasons, that he is neither a three-down player nor an IDP factor. One thing Klein excels at is blowing up blocking schemes, which is something the team did not get so much from previous starter Lorenzo Alexander. This talent is not going to show up in Klein’s box scores but it could have a positive impact on Edmunds and/or strong safety Micah Hyde.
There are no obvious future starters on the depth chart behind the Top 3. Former Steelers backup Tyler Matakevich will have the same role behind Edmunds in the middle. He has been a serviceable player when called upon but will earn his keep mostly on special teams. Maurice Alexander came into the league as a safety but has a better shot at seeing action as a hybrid nickel linebacker with the Bills. Vosean Joseph was the team’s fifth-round pick in 2019. He is a developmental player that saw no action as a rookie and could be in danger of not making the team, especially if Corey Thompson looks good. In short, the Bills need their starting three to remain healthy because there would be a considerable drop off to the next man up.
- MLB Tremaine Edmunds- Target as a low end LB2 with upside
- WLB Matt Milano – Solid third starter with limited upside
- SLB A.J. Klein – Marginal fantasy value at best
- MLB Tyler Matakevich – No fantasy value
- WLB Corey Thompson – No fantasy value
- WLB/SS Maurice Alexander – No fantasy value
- OLB Vosean Joseph – No fantasy value
Like the linebacker position, there is not much mystery surrounding the Bills secondary. Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde are locked in as the starting safeties and are proven commodities on the field. Poyer is generally considered the free safety and Hyde strong, but in reality, they are interchangeable pieces. Back In 2017 when the Bills were not very good defensively, both of these players put up strong numbers. Since that time, however, Hyde’s production has plummeted while Poyer continues to excel.
There are no holes in Poyer’s game from a statistical perspective. His 73 solo tackles ranked eighth among defensive backs in 2019 and he has averaged more than 70 over the last three seasons. He has at least 27 assists in each of those campaigns as well. Poyer is far more than a tackling machine as evidenced by his 21 turnovers and 22 passes defended since 2017. He has even contributed 5 sacks over that time. Most impressively, however, Poyer has three consecutive top-10 finishes at the position. With very little change in scheme or personnel, there is no reason to doubt Poyer will make it four in a row.
The Bills coaching staff has a deep and talented group of corners to work with. Former 2017 first-round pick, TreDavious White, is the clear number one and is among the league’s elite young cover men. He has the speed and instincts to stay with anyone and the playmaking ability to change a game at any time. White has averaged a respectable (for a lead corner) 49 tackles over his three seasons as a pro, but it is big-play production that helped him to an average of almost 10.5 points per game and a top-10 ranking among corners in 2019. Over his first three seasons, White has accounted for 16 turnovers and 42 passes defended, including 6 picks and 16 pass breakups last season. Having quality options at the other corner positions will make it hard for opponents to avoid him as much and should lead to another solid season.
The pecking order at corner beyond White is the only gray area in the Buffalo secondary. Former undrafted free agent Levi Wallace held the other starting spot for most of 2019 and will enter training camp as the favorite for the job going forward. His 66 solo tackles were the third-most in the league by a corner last season but Wallace fell a little short in the other important categories with two takeaways and eight passes defended. Whoever starts opposite White is going to have a lot of action come their way, so if Wallace can spin the experience into more big plays in his third season, he could be a quality option for managers in corner required leagues.
There will be plenty of competition for Wallace from 2018 fourth-round selection Taron Johnson and free-agent addition Josh Norman. Norman was once considered among the league’s top corners but has fallen so far in recent years that he was benched by the Washington coaching staff last season. At age 32 he will be looking to prove himself and resurrect his career. Some believe E.J. Gaines will also be in the mix for the job, but he seems more likely to end up as a nickel or dime corner.
With so many solid players vying for the starting spot, Buffalo will have quality depth on the corners for sure. They are in good shape at safety as well. Kurt Coleman is a solid veteran free-agent addition with plenty of starting experience. He is versatile enough to play either position and might see some action in nickel sets if the team decides to deploy three safeties once in a while.
- SS Micah Hyde – Marginal value with a little upside
- FS Jordan Poyer – Top-10 DB1
- SS/FS Kurt Coleman – A quality veteran with some upside if one of the starters is lost
- FS Jaquan Johnson – No IDP value at this time
- CB TreDavious White – Solid starter with CB1 potential
- CB Levi Wallace – CB2 potential if he can win the starting job
- CB Josh Norman – Sleeper with CB2 potential
- CB Taron Johnson – No IDP value at this time
- CB E.J. Gaines – No IDP value
- CB Dane Jackson – Developmental prospect
- CB Siran Neal – No IDP value
The biggest challenge with the Dolphins defense may well be figuring out where players will line up and what their positional designations will be. As of mid-June about all we know for certain is they plan to use multiple fronts and looks. In Davon Godchaux, Christian Wilkins, and second-round pick Raekwon Davis, Miami has a trio of guys that check-in north of 310 pounds. We could see all of these guys on the field together in three-man fronts with Davis at nose tackle and the other two at defensive end. In four-man fronts, Wilkins is the favorite for the three-technique spot which is generally the most fantasy friendly, but Godchaux is capable of playing there as well. In 2019, most league host sites considered both Godchaux and Wilkins as tackles. Godchaux tallied 34 tackles, 35 assists, and a pair of sacks, barely slipping into the top-10, while Wilkins made the top-15 at 31-23-2 as a rookie. Either or both of these guys could provide substantial value for managers in tackle required leagues.
Rookie fifth-round pick Jason Stowbridge will also have ample opportunity to earn some role. He has the versatility to work on the edge on early downs then slip inside on passing downs. The ability to contribute in either front is a positive since it would allow them to shift between fronts without changing personnel.
Both Jonathan Woodard and Jonathan Ledbetter are 4-3 ends that may get some looks as outside linebacker once teams can begin practice. Both are young players that spent last season on IR, so we have little to go on when it comes to their chances of earning roles or even roster spots.
- DE/DT/NT Davon Godchaux – Possible starter in tackle required leagues
- DE/DT Christian Wilkins – Probable starter in tackle required leagues
- NT/DT Raekwon Davis – No fantasy value anticipated
- DE/DT Jason Strowbridge – No fantasy value expected
- DE Jonathan Woodard – No value expected
- DE Jonathan Ledbetter – No value expected
The Dolphins were not a good defense last season by any stretch, so the organization threw a ton of both draft and free-agent resources at that side of the ball. When they hit the field for week one this unit will probably have more new starters than any other defense in the league. Having no offseason program and the probability of limited training camps is going to put this group at a disadvantage. There is no doubt the coaching staff has a vision, but figuring out how all their new players fit into it requires practice time. That said, the organization did a good job of collecting new talent, and a lot of it.
Other than Jerome Baker, trying to pluck IDP value from this group of linebackers and edge defenders is a complete crapshoot. Baker was one of the few bright spots for Miami’s defense last year. He was on the field for 97.4% of the defensive snaps, but even he took a little while to get going. Baker recorded four or fewer solo tackles in four or the first six games with zero big plays. He then went on to average almost 5.5 tackles, record a sack and a half, intercept a pass, and force a pair of fumbles over the final 10 games, with an average of nearly 13 fantasy points.
Baker is all but certain to hold the lead role at linebacker. He will line up inside when working in a 3-4 and probably as the weak side backer in 4-3 sets. He has sideline to sideline range, is a consistent tackler, and has the potential to make a significantly greater big-play contribution than he did over the final 10 games last season. Baker squeaked into the top-20 in 2019 and has the potential to move up the ranks even further in 2020.
Raekwon McMillan saw action as a two-down middle linebacker for most of 2019. With the additions of Elandon Roberts, Kamu Grugier-Hill, and Kyle Van Noy, playing time could be scarce for McMillan in 2020. All three newcomers will get looks in a variety of positions and/or sub-package situations. Grugier-Hill may have the toughest road to getting on the field. The former Eagle has struggled with a variety of injuries since coming into the league in 2016. When he finally got on the field last season, he was a bit late to the party much of the time and missed too many tackles. The Dolphins hope he will prove to be a different player now that he is healthy and has a fresh start.
Elandon Roberts is an interesting prospect. After good showings as a part-time player in 2017 and 2018, many thought he would ascend to the starting job in the middle for New England last year. Instead, his playing time dropped significantly. This may have been more a case of fit than ability though. Roberts is more of a downhill run defender, best suited to stay in the middle of the field. He is adequate in coverage and can be successful on the blitz, but is not a guy that has made a ton of big plays. He may not be as physical as McMillan but is probably a more well-rounded player. If he gets enough playing time, Roberts could easily become a factor in IDP leagues.
The most intriguing addition Miami made at linebacker is Kyle Van Noy. This is a player with the versatility to play well at any linebacker position in either three or four-man fronts. He is a playmaker with 11 turnovers and 15.5 over the last four seasons and has scored three times in the last two. Early indications suggested Van Noy would play on the edge in three-man fronts and possibly on the strong side or even defensive end in 4-3 alignments. Since that time, however, other additions have muddied the water. We know he can be productive but will have to wait and see what his role will be before gauging Van Noy’s fantasy potential in 2020.
There were a lot of positive things said about Sam Eguavoen leading up to last season, but once the games started he was shockingly quiet. He opened the season as a three-down player but by week four he had become a sub-package contributor. With all the competition Miami has collected, he is not a lock to make the final roster.
The term Edge Defender is one we are starting to see a lot of and are going to see even more going forward. With so many NFL teams turning to multiple front schemes, many pass rushers are now expected to put their hand down on one play as a defensive end, then work from a two-point stance as a linebacker on the next. This is a dilemma for everyone involved with IDP fantasy football and makes it vital that managers know the positional designations of players at their league host sites. The Miami scheme casts several players into that shadowy area.
Both Kyle Van Noy and Vince Biegel have been linebackers since coming into the league. They are most likely to be designated as linebackers by league host sites even though both could put their hands down at times. Biegel earned a significant role after Miami’s week five bye last year, basically as a replacement for Eguavoen as a starter. He will be in the mix as a 3-4 outside linebacker and/or the strong side position in 4-3 alignments, but ultimately could be on the roster bubble with all the additions.
Shaq Lawson failed to fulfill the expectations of a first-round pick as a hand down defensive end for Buffalo. Injuries were a factor in his struggles but the bottom line was an average of about four sacks per season with a career-best of 6.5 in 2019. The Miami coaching staff knows he can be a serviceable 4-3 end and will take a look at him in a stand-up role with the hope it will be a better fit. In a perfect world, they would like Lawson to show enough versatility to remain on the field in either front.
In Emmanuel Ogbah the Dolphins have a player that has experience working out of both two and three-point stances. Much like Lawson, Ogbah has battled injuries since being drafted in round two by the Browns in 2016 and has been little more than a serviceable contributor. He did, however, equal a career-best 5.5 sacks last season with the Chiefs, despite missing five games.
Rookie fifth-round selection Curtis Weaver and last year’s fifth-round pick Andrew Van Ginkel could also be factors. Weaver may be better suited as an interior pass rusher but could line up outside on early downs. Van Ginkel is a 3-4 outside linebacker who returned from IR in week 12 last year and turned some heads over the final few games.
- ILB/WLB Jerome Baker – Solid LB2 with some upside
- ILB Elandon Roberts – Sleeper with LB3 potential
- ILB Raekwon McMillan – No fantasy value
- ILB Kamu Grugier-Hill – Deep sleeper at best
- ILB/SLB Sam Eguavoen – No fantasy value
- Edge/OLB Kyle Van Noy – Boom or bust prospect based on role
- Edge/OLB Vince Biegel – No fantasy value expected
- Edge Shaq Lawson- Potential depth is designated DE
- Edge Emmanuel Ogbah – Sleeper in big-play based leagues
- Edge Curtis Weaver – Developmental rookie
- Edge Andrew Van Ginkel – Worth keeping an eye on in big-play formats
Largely due to injuries, the Dolphins secondary was a revolving door in 2019. In all, 16 players saw action with six of them landing on IR by the end of the season, including three of the five week-one starters. A fourth, Minkah Fitzpatrick was traded after week two, leaving Eric Rowe as the lone survivor to start all 16 games. Rowe may face a fight to retain his spot, meaning the Dolphins could have a completely different secondary than the one that took the field for week 17.
In Rowe and Bobby McCain Miami has a pair of former corners turned safety. The plan going into 2019 was to have McCain in the free safety role with Rowe handling the nickel back job. If rookie third-round pick Brandon Jones can handle the strong safety position, the same plan could be in place this year.
Neither McCain nor Rowe are known for being particularly productive in the box scores. Rowe led the secondary with 55 tackles and 27 assists as a first-time starter last year, recording one interception. McCain has not produced more than 50 tackles in any of his five NFL seasons and had mediocre numbers before he was injured in 2019. Both are capable players on the field but from an IDP perspective, there is no reason to expect big things from either of them.
In strong safety Brandon Jones, there is some hope for fantasy managers. He was a highly productive three-year starter at Texas, averaging better than six combined tackles per game, with a total of eight turnovers. Jones is a little undersized for a strong safety at 5’11” 198 pounds and is not particularly fast. He is, however, a physical tackler that rarely misses, and will deliver the big hit. He excels in run support but is not a liability in coverage, and has a knack for making big plays.
Jones is the early favorite to win the job that once belonged to long time fantasy stud Reshad Jones. His main competition for the job will come from Adrian Colbert or possibly Clayton Fejedelem. Both Colbert and Fejedelem have starting experience, having been short term injury replacements during their careers. Colbert landed in Miami late in 2019 and did a solid job starting the final five games. That and the lack of offseason practice time could be enough to give him a leg up on the rookie early on.
The Dolphins limped to the finish last year with Nik Needham and Jomal Wiltz at corner. The pair did an admirable job considering the situation and are likely to make the team in 2020, but with Xavien Howard healthy, the free-agent addition of Byron Jones, and the first-round selection of Noah Igbinoghene, Needham and Wiltz will be well down the depth chart.
Byron Jones is recognized as one of the league’s outstanding cover corners and was arguably the best available in free agency. He will be the Dolphins top corner but his fantasy value is questionable at best. Jones produced good tackle totals while with the Cowboys, exceeding 55 in three consecutive seasons starting in 2016 when he had a career-best of 73. The problem is a glaring lack of big-play production. In five years as a starter for Dallas, he recorded two interceptions, forced two fumbles, and reached double digits in passes defended once. Maybe the change of scenery and a different scheme will make a difference, but that is far from certain.
Howard and Igbinoghene will compete for the other starting job with the loser of that competition likely becoming the nickel corner. Howard had minor surgery to repair the knee injury that landed him on IR last year and is expected to be ready when teams begin practicing in full. He is a complete opposite of Jones in that Howard does not make many tackles but has produced 13 takeaways in 38 games over the last three seasons.
Igbinoghene started his college career at Auburn as a receiver, moving to defense during his sophomore season in 2018. He has excellent speed, good hands and a reputation for supporting the run strongly, but is relatively inexperienced. The other red flag for IDP managers is a lack of big-play production. In 25 games as a starting corner, Igbinoghene picked off one pass. The rookie corner rule could be in play if he somehow ends up playing full time, but there is nothing to get overly excited about at this point.
- SS Brandon Jones – Rookie with strong long term potential
- FS Bobby McCain – Marginal value expected
- FS/CB Eric Rowe – Limited fantasy value
- SS/FS Adrian Colbert – Deep sleeper at best
- SS Clayton Fejedelem – No value expected
- FS Steven Parker – No fantasy value
- CB Xavien Howard – No fantasy value
- CB Byron Jones – Limited value at best
- CB Noah Igbinoghene – Rookie corner rule could be in play
- CB Nik Needham – No value at this time
- CB Jomal Wiltz – No fantasy value
New England Patriots
The Patriots finished seventh in the league with 47 sacks in 2019. Surprisingly, they did so without having any individual player record more than seven. This is one of the original multi-front defenses. They will change up schemes on a week to week or even play to play basis in order to better match up with their opponent in a given situation. This approach leads to a lot of players seeing situational action and often has a negative effect on individual statistics and/or consistency. The New England defense was on the field for 1002 snaps in 2019 but as a result of their approach, no player in the front seven played more than 835 snaps, no defensive lineman played more than 539 and no defensive end more than 492. There will be some new faces but it is hard to say if anyone will emerge with a more consistent role in 2020.
If there is going to be a Patriots defensive end with fantasy value, Chase Winovich will be that guy. John Simon led the team’s defensive ends in playing time last year but Winovich led them in sacks despite playing just 299 snaps as a rookie. He finished at 17-9-5.5 which is rather strong considering his limited opportunity. With the team’s top-two sack producers (Jamie Collins and Kyle Van Noy) gone, Winovich should be leaned on more heavily in his second year. This is a player that reminds me a lot of a young Rob Ninkovich. A solid run defender with a great motor, the versatility to play from a two-point stance once in a while, and a knack for getting to the passer. Winovich performed well as a rookie and could step into a three-down role this year. It would not be a surprise to see him reach 35 tackles and double-digit sacks providing he has enough opportunity.
There are no other defensive ends on the current roster that would seem to be candidates for three-down roles. When he came to the Patriots in 2018, Simon weighed less than 250 pounds and was purely a pass rush specialist. Over the last two seasons, he has worked to add muscle in the hope of expanding his role. Simon has shown improvement as a run defender and could see a little more than 50% of the action, but it remains doubtful that he will see a lot of early down playing time.
Simon shared time with Deatrich Wise in 2019 and that should continue. Wise is bigger and a better suited as an edge setter versus the run, but he can get pressure on the quarterback as well. When he recorded five sacks as a rookie in 2017, there were expectations Wise would become a three-down option. Unfortunately, that has not come to pass thus far, leaving him with just six and a half sacks over the last two seasons combined.
The team signed former Vikings backup Tashawn Bower to add some depth and they still have 2017 third-round pick, Derek Rivers, on the roster. Rivers has been a complete mystery over the last three years. Injuries have been a significant issue but even when he has supposedly been healthy, Rivers has been invisible. Could this be the year he finally makes an impact? The team certainly needs him to step up.
For many IDP managers, the Patriots have little to offer at the defensive line position. For those in tackle required leagues, however, Lawrence Guy is an exception. His 36 solo tackles were third-most among interior linemen last season, and his 25 assists ranked ninth. Along with tackle numbers that were strong for the position, Guy contributed three sacks and three turnovers, for a top-10 fantasy finish among interior linemen. He has four top-20 finishes over his eight seasons as a pro; the good news is that three of them have come since joining the Patriots three years ago. Guy is not a top-10 lock but he is a safe bet to be at least a quality DT2.
With Danny Shelton gone, Adam Butler becomes an interesting prospect as well. Shelton put up good numbers as the starter next to Guy last season, while Butler went 17-8-6 as the third man in the rotation. New England signed Beau Allen to fill the opening, and Byron Cowart could also be a factor, but Butler has played well enough to earn the first shot at the starting job. He has been part of the rotation since winning a roster spot as an undrafted free agent in 2017. Butler has collected 36 tackles, 25 assists, and 11 sacks on 1337 career snaps. Those are not particularly impressive numbers in general, but moving from what was largely a passing down role to a starting job could make a big difference.
- DE Chase Winovich – Sleeper with DL2 upside
- DE Deatrich Wise – Marginal value at best
- DE John Simon – Depth at best
- DE Derek Rivers – Complete mystery but he has some potential
- DE Tashawn Bower – No fantasy value
- DT Lawrence Guy – Low-end DT1 or solid DT2
- DT Adam Butler – Sleeper for tackle required leagues
- DT Byron Cowart – No value expected
- DT Beau Allen – No fantasy value
The Patriots have hardly been a goldmine of linebacker production in recent years. Jamie Collins led the group in tackles last year with 58 solo and 25 assists. Both he and Kyle Van Noy were able to make up a lot of ground with big plays, but both of those guys have moved on, as has Elandon Roberts who also had a significant role. New England drafted Josh Uche in round two and Anfernee Jennings in the third, but expecting either of those guys to step up big could be a reach.
The situation could be a plus for IDP managers if the team’s current lack of options at the second level leads to more consistent playing time for Dont’a Hightower and/or Ja’Whaun Bentley. Hightower has been with the team since 2012 and has been a major contributor throughout his career, but he has rarely been a three-down player. He is a big, physical run-stuffer with the ability to contribute strongly to the pass rush, but at 265 pounds, he can be a liability in coverage. Hightower has played mostly on the strong side in recent years and should continue to do so, but he has seen plenty of time in the middle over his eight seasons.
Bentley is also big for an inside linebacker in today’s game. Checking in at 6’2”, 255 pounds, he too is a physical run defender but is a bit faster and is considered a bit better in coverage than Hightower. If anyone steps up here, Bentley would be the favorite to do so. Considering all the safeties New England has been collecting, The team may have different plans for sub-packages.
Our perspective on the Patriots linebackers could change drastically once we get some idea what they plan to do with rookies Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings. Both of these guys are edge defenders that are expected to work on the outside in three-man fronts at the least. At a glance, it seems they were drafted to replace Jamie Collins and Kyle Van Noy, but I am not sure the rookies have the skill set to step right into those roles. It is more likely they will both get on the field on a limited basis. Brandon Copeland should figure into the lineup on most weeks and has a fairly strong shot at starting, but Shalique Calhoun may be on the roster bubble.
- SLB/MLB Donta Hightower – Marginal value with big upside if he somehow lands a three-down role
- ILB/WLB JaWhaun Bentley – LB3 potential
- OLB/Edge Josh Uche – Situational pass rusher out of the gate, with good long term potential
- SLB/Edge Brandon Copeland – Marginal fantasy value
- SLB/Edge Anfernee Jennings – Deep sleeper at best
- SLB/Edge Shilique Calhoun – No fantasy value
We know the Patriots like to do things outside the norm, we know they have no sure three-down linebackers, and we know they have four safeties with the potential to start. Would it be a surprise if New England plays a nickel base defense with four safeties and no inside linebackers? The more I think about this, the more I like Adrian Phillips as a high upside sleeper.
At 5’11” 210 pounds, Phillips is not much smaller than a lot of today’s inside linebackers and he has played the position in the past. In 2018 the Chargers had Phillips line up as a linebacker in their big nickel packages and he was highly successful. That season he had 65 tackles, 29 assists, 9 passes defended, and a pair of turnovers on less than 70% of the defensive snaps. Had his 2019 season not been disrupted by injury, he would have almost surely been a significant fantasy factor after Derwin James was lost. Phillips is a dependable and physical tackler with good speed and excellent cover skills for an in the box safety or nickel linebacker. He is capable of quality production and is in a situation that could play to his strengths perfectly. He will be listed as a safety with most league host sites but could end up working as a three-down linebacker. Best of all, Phillips is flying way under the radar at this point. Slip him onto your roster in the last round and see what happens. He could be a real gem.
In Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung, the Patriots have what is possibly the longest-tenured duo of starting safeties in the league. Except for 2013 when Chung had a cup of coffee with the Eagles, these two have worked together every year since 2010. That kind of continuity is a significant plus on the field but it has not led to much in terms of fantasy production. In 11 NFL seasons, Chung has exceeded 50 solo tackles twice. McCourty has been more productive in most seasons but has one top-25 finish since 2012. If the Patriots have a down year, which seems possible if not likely considering all the players they have lost on both sides of the ball, One of these guys could have some value in 2020, but it is not something we should count on.
Both McCourty and Chung will turn 33 in August, so the Patriots drafted Kyle Dugger in the first round to replace nickel safety Duron Harmon for now and be the heir apparent to the starters in the long run. At least that is the narrative most people see. At some point, that may be the case but we have seen a lot of safeties play into their late 30s and do it well, so Chung and McCourty may not be going anywhere for a while. Bill Belichick does nothing without a plan but using a first-round pick on a division II safety that was injured as a senior, is out of character even for him. So what did he see in this guy?
Dugger was a productive safety and an outstanding return man at Division II Lenoir-Rhyne University. He was injured as a senior, limiting him to seven games last year, but a look at his prior production may shed some light. In 2018 he recorded 76 combined tackles, 3 interceptions, 534 punt return yards, and 2 scores. While that was against a lower level of competition, it was still impressive. Dugger will need to prove he can get it done against NFL talent but he also has great measurable traits to help with that. At 6’1” 217 pounds, he is big, physical, fast and athletic. Dugger will see plenty of opportunity as a return man and will be given every opportunity to win a starting spot on defense. With his size and skill set, he might even get a look at linebacker.
In Stephon Gilmore, New England has one of the league’s elite corners. He is a cornerstone that can match up with opponent's top receivers and makes a lot of game-changing plays. With 20 passes defended, 6 interceptions, and a pair of scores in 2019, he finished among the top-five corners in IDP leagues. Before we get too excited about Gilmore, however, take into consideration that he has recorded more than three interceptions just twice in eight seasons, and has one top-25 finish since 2012. As with many, indeed most, elite corners, a lack of tackle production holds Gilmore’s IDP value in check. He has not reached 50 solo tackles since his rookie campaign in 2012.
Jonathan Jones, J.C. Jackson, and Jason McCourty fill out the top-four corners on the depth chart. All three players are capable of starting, but in typical New England style, they all rotated last year. As a result, none of these guys were on the field more than roughly 65% of the time. With five interceptions, Jackson tied for second on the team last season. McCourty suffered a groin injury and missed time down the stretch in 2019, but has a long history of quality production. If either of these guys lands a full-time role opposite Gilmore, they should have value in corner required leagues.
- FS Devin McCourty – Depth at best
- SS Patrick Chung – No fantasy value
- SS Adrian Phillips – Sleeper with big potential
- FS Kyle Dugger – Sleeper with high longterm upside
- SS Cody Davis – No fantasy value
- CB Stephon Gilmore – Potential CB2
- CB Jason McCourty – Potential CB2
- CB C.J. Jackson – Possible depth in corner required format
- CB Jonathan Jones – No IDP value expected
- CB Joejuan Williams – No fantasy value
New York Jets
At one time the Jets had arguably the best defensive line of any team running a 3-4 scheme. The last link to that era, Leonard Williams, was traded to the Giants during the 2019 season. As a result, the team had no lineman with more than 2.5 sacks last year, and Kyle Phillips led the group with 21 solo tackles. They may have come up short in the box scores a year ago, but that does not mean there is no talent or potential with this group.
Steve McLendon has seen a steady decline in production over the last three seasons, but making tackles is not his most important job. The nose tackle in the Jets scheme is supposed to anchor the run defense by holding ground and absorbing multiple blockers. McLendon does this well, forcing opponents to regularly commit two blockers on inside running plays. He usually leaves the field on passing downs but still managed two and a half sacks last year. With a career-best of three and a half, there is little upside for IDP managers.
McLendon will never make a fantasy impact but there is a chance Quinnen Williams or Henry Anderson could. Williams was the third overall pick in 2019 and has the potential to become an impact player. As a rookie he worked into the rotation, seeing action on less than half the defensive snaps. He is a powerful, athletic big man with a skill set that could allow him to excel in year two. The organization certainly expects much more than the 16 tackles, 12 assists, and 2.5 sacks the got last season. At the very least Williams should have much more opportunity in year two.
The first three years of Anderson’s career were littered with injuries, missed games, and disappointing production. He failed to play more than 11 games in any season with the Colts, totaling 3 sacks in three seasons. That all seemed to change when he landed in New York. In 2018 Anderson started all 16 games, recording 23 tackles, 13 assists, and 7 sacks. Unfortunately, the injury bug found him again last season when he missed just a few games but was bothered by knee and/or shoulder problems all year. If he can get and stay healthy, Anderson could make some noise and has the potential to be a solid backup in some deeper drafted IDP leagues.
Kyle Phillips led the Jets defensive line in snaps last year but he will likely fall into a reserve role in 2020. Nathan Shepherd backs up McClendon at nose tackle and is a serviceable option if called upon. Jordan Willis provides depth at end and will get on the field once in a while when the Jets run four-man fronts.
- NT Steve McLendon – No fantasy value
- DE/DT Quinnen Williams – Could step up in year two
- DE/DT Henry Anderson – Possible depth if he can stay healthy
- DE/NT Nathan Shepherd – No fantasy value
- DT Kyle Phillips – No fantasy value
- DE Jordan Willis – No fantasy value
The Jets were hammered by injuries at linebacker before they could even get going in 2019. Free-agent prize C.J. Mosley suffered a groin injury in week one, that would eventually land him on IR. Mosley had surgery in December and was medically cleared in early June. He will be eased in over the summer and is expected to be full strength for the regular season. Mosley missed a couple of games in 2018 and was slowed by nagging injuries for much of the year, leading to lower than normal production, but a healthy Mosley is capable of big production as both a tackling machine and a playmaker. The last time he played a full schedule was 2017. That season he piled up 97 tackles, 36 assists, with a sack, 8 turnovers, 7 passes defended, a score, and a top-five finish. Expecting that kind of production in 2020 may be pushing it a little but he is a safe target as a priority LB2 with top-10 upside.
The injury parade started even before week one with Avery Williamson tearing his ACL in August. He has a solid 2018 season as the Jets starter, going 78-43-2.5 with four turnovers, but there has been no word on his recovery from last year’s injury or his status for the start of 2020. If he is healthy and retains the starting spot, Williamson should once again become a solid IDP option as a third starter or quality depth. The injury may not the only obstacle he has to overcome, however.
One good thing that came out of the injury situation was the discovery of James Burgess. He caught my eye as a short term injury replacement for the Browns in 2017 but was never given a serious shot in Cleveland. Burgess was signed off the street a few games into last season out of desperation, then ended up starting the final 10 games at inside linebacker. He went on to average five tackles and three assists, adding a sack, three takeaways, and five pass breakups. In the process, he earned the respect of the coaching staff and a contract for the 2020 season. If Williamson is not fully recovered, and possibly even if he is, Burgess could have a shot at the starting job next to Mosley. Burgess is 26 years old entering his fourth season as a pro, which makes him two years younger than Williamson, and both players are set to be free agents at the end of the year. Chances are, one of them will not return in 2021. I like the chances of Burgess turning this opportunity into a long term deal.
The team saw enough of Blake Cashman and Neville Hewitt last year to realize they are not more than veteran depth and special teams contributors. New York added former Raven Patrick Onwuasor via free agency but not as a possible starter on the inside. The word is he will get a look on the outside where the team remains thin.
Jordan Jenkins stepped up to lead the team with eight sacks from the outside linebacker spot in 2019 but his 21 solo tackles left him well short of fantasy value. He should show some improvement in that area but with a career-best of 31, it will probably not be enough to matter. To emphasize just how desperate the Jets are for pass-rush help, Terell Basham finished second among the team’s edge defenders with two sacks.
Jenkins signed a one-year extension this offseason and will have an opportunity to earn a longer one at the end of 2020. Finding someone to contribute opposite him is a challenge the team currently faces. Onwuasor has eight and a half sacks over the last two seasons but most of those came on inside blitz. He is vastly undersized to hold up on the edge versus the run, so the best-case scenario for him is working on obvious passing downs. Basham, Harvey Langi, and Frankie Luvu will probably be competing for a roster spot and special teams duties, leaving rookie Jabari Zuniga as the team’s best shot at a potential long term starter.
Zuniga is an interesting prospect. He did not play football until his junior year of high school and battled injuries during his time at Florida, including a high ankle sprain that shut him down five games into last season. He had six and a half sacks as a junior and has the physical tools to excel in the NFL, but is still rather raw. Work ethic, tenacity, and the ability to get off blocks versus the run, along with the Jets need at the position, should be enough to get Zuniga on the field quickly.
- ILB C.J. Mosley- Priority LB2 with upside
- ILB Avery Williamson- Solid LB3 if healthy and still starting
- ILB James Burgess – One of my favorite sleepers
- ILB Neville Hewitt – No IDP value
- ILB/OLB Blake Cashman – No IDP value
- ILB/OLB Patrick Onwuasor – No IDP value
- OLB Jordan Jenkins – May have backup value in big play based leagues
- OLB Tarell Basham – No fantasy value
- OLB Jabari Zuniga – Physically gifted rookie with long term big-play potential
- OLB Frankie Luvu – No fantasy value
- OLB Harvey Langi – No fantasy value
The Jets secondary faces some questions heading into 2020. The most important being, will Jamal Adams be playing for them? Adams has become a fantasy star over the last two seasons. He was the game’s number two defensive back in 2018, followed by a ranking of seventh last year, despite missing three games with an injury. On the field he is a physical enforcer, working in the box regularly and making a lot of tackles, but Adams is a big-play threat as well. Over three seasons he has produced 12 turnovers, 12 sacks, 24 passes defended, and a pair of scores. If he stays put, another top-10 finish seems inevitable. It may be inevitable even if he is traded but the destination could have some effect. The organization insists there is no interest in moving Adams but he has made it clear he wants out. It sounds like a high stakes game of chicken is unfolding.
The selection of safety Astyn Davis in round three makes one wonder if the team saw the Adams situation coming. Davis is not an Adams clone by any stretch, but he has the potential to become a strong NFL starter. He is not as big or physical in run support but does not hesitate to put his shoulder into a ball carrier. Having played some corner for California, Davis has excellent speed and cover skills for a safety, making coverage a strength. If Adams is not available, the coaching staff might consider shifting Marcus Maye to strong safety and plugging Davis in at free. The bottom line is that whoever lines up at strong safety for the Jets is going to carry good fantasy value.
The Jets picked Adams in the first round of the 2017 draft and Maye in round two. For three seasons the duo has made the safety position a strength for the team. Maye’s numbers have been far less impressive, mostly due to the difference in responsibilities. As the deep/free safety, he lines up off the ball and has more coverage responsibility than run support. At 6'0", 207 pounds, Maye has both the size and skill set to be successful if asked to play closer to the line.
New York has options at safety so their situation at corner could prove to be a bigger issue. Brian Poole and free-agent addition Pierre Desir project as the starters but neither is considered a true number one. In fact, some might suggest they are both marginal number two starters. Poole is a former undrafted free agent who spent three years with the Falcons before joining the Jets last season. While with Atlanta he worked both as a second starter and nickel corner. Desir is a journeyman, playing for his fourth team in seven seasons. His only full-time starting job came with the Colts in 2018. Both of these players have shown flashes of fantasy value but neither has done so with enough consistency to be considered a draft target. In reality, the Jets are going to host an open competition to determine the pecking order at the corner positions. We may not know for sure who will take the field for week one, but we do know that Jets corners have provided decent production in recent years. Managers in corner required leagues may want to keep an eye on this situation.
- SS Jamal Adams – DB1 no matter what uniform he puts on
- FS Marcus Maye – Marginal value unless he moves to strong safety
- SS/FS Ashtyn Davis – Could have value if Adams moves on
- SS Matthias Farley – Injury depth at best
- CB Brian Poole – Possible CB2
- CB Pierre Desir – No fantasy value expected
- CB Blessuan Austin – No fantasy value at this time
- CB Quincy Wilson- No value at this time
- CB Bryce Hall – Possible rookie corner rule if he lands a starting spot
- CB Arthur Maulet – No fantasy value
- CB Nate Hairston – No fantasy value
That does it for the AFC East; next up, the NFC East.
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