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The Texans have committed plenty of resources to their defensive line over the years, but if we take away J.J. Watt there has been virtually no fantasy value. At least when it comes to this team, it is not hard to figure out why. It comes down to a combination of scheme, playing time, and the type of players they put on the field.
In Houston’s 3-4 scheme, linemen are responsible for defending two-gaps, absorbing blockers without giving ground, and keeping the linebackers clean to make plays. The organization does a good job of bringing in players to fit this approach, so they have neither a scheme that promotes pass rushers nor the type of players that get up filed quickly. They also like to get a lot of linemen involved in the game. For example, with Watt injured in week eight last season, seven defensive linemen played at least 223 snaps. D.J. Reader logged 629, largely due to an increase after Watt was lost, while no other lineman saw action on more than 482. As a result of this approach, no Texans lineman other than Watt has recorded more than four sacks in a season since Antonio Brown had seven in 2012.
With 28 tackles, 24 assists, and 2.5 sacks, Reader was the closest thing to an IDP contributor that Houston’s defensive line had in 2019, and he signed with Cincinnati. The team replaced him with second-round pick Ross Blacklock, who is a typical Texans lineman. He is a stout run defender who stacks and sheds blockers well, has some quickness and athleticism, and a little pass rush potential. He could land the starting job at the end opposite Watt, but will almost surely see less than 50% of the snaps.
Carlos Watkins, Charles Omenihu, and Angelo Blackson are the other guys that will rotate in at the defensive end position. Blackson has worked at nose tackle in the past and could line up there as well on occasion. Brandon Dunn should start at nose tackle with Eddie Vanderdose spelling him.
J.J. Watt is the exception to everything here. He has battled injuries in recent years, including 2019 when he missed the final eight games, But when healthy he is arguably the best in the game. Watt is given the same set of responsibilities as the others, but he is so physically dominating that he can cover those responsibilities on the way to the quarterback.
Watt was 49-7-5.5 as a rookie in 2011. From 2012 through 2015 he averaged 62 tackles (unheard of for a defensive lineman), 17 assists, and 17 sacks while forcing 15 fumbles, recovering 10, and batting down 41 passes. Since that time he has played one full season, going 47-15-16 and forcing 7 fumbles in 2018. In 2016, 2017 and 2019 Watt missed a combined 32 games with injuries. He plays a lot of snaps when healthy (962 in 2018), so there are a lot of miles on him for a man of 31 years. There is plenty of risk involved if he is drafted early, but Watt could be a top-five lineman if he can stay on the field long enough.
- DE J.J. Watt – Top-five stud for as long as he stays healthy
- DE Ross Blacklock – Marginal value at best
- DE Carlos Watkins – No fantasy value
- DE Angelo Blackson - No fantasy value
- DE Charles Omenihu - No fantasy value
- NT Brandon Dunn - No fantasy value
- NT Eddie Vandersoes – No fantasy value
Zach Cunningham and Bernardrick McKinney are entrenched as Houston’s starting inside linebackers. Both are former second-round picks of the Texans, Cunningham in 2017, and McKinney in 2015. That is about where the similarities end. McKinney is huge for an inside linebacker, checking in at 6’4” 257 pounds. He is a physical, downhill thumper who lines up at the strong inside spot, where he does a great job of stacking blockers and filling lanes. McKinney will see some sub-package snaps but is not strong enough in coverage to stay on the field full time. In 2019, he logged 863 plays, which was just short of 80% of the team’s defensive snaps. Cunningham has good size as well, at 6’3” 238. He is not exactly a coverage linebacker but has enough range, speed, and athleticism to stay on the field sub-packages. He was not a full-time player all of last season but moved into that role after the bye week, playing at least 94% of the snaps in each game between weeks 11 and 16.
They are complete opposites when it comes to box score production as well. McKinney became a starter in his second season, recording the best numbers of his career at 77-51-5. Since that time he has averaged 59-37-2. Cunningham also became a starter in his second season, going 72-36-0 with 4 turnovers. Unlike McKinney who regressed in year three, Cunningham exploded for 100 solo tackles which were the most by a linebacker last season, 42 assists, a pair of sacks, and 2 turnovers. The marginal big-play numbers held him back but Cunningham still squeezed into the top-10, despite sitting a total of 128 snaps. Give him roughly two more games worth of action and he likely makes the elite tier.
With J.J. Watt out for half of the season, Houston had to rely on their outside linebackers to provide nearly all the pass rush pressure. They were only able to do so with limited success. As a result, there were just five teams that recorded fewer than the Texan’s 31 sacks. Whitney Mercilus managed to lead the team with a respectable seven and a half, while the rest of the team’s edge rushers combined for eight. Mercilus could provide depth in big play based leagues but has limited upside. He had 11 sacks in 2015 but has no more than seven and a half in any of his other seven seasons.
Brennan Scarlett started opposite Mercilus last year, sharing time with Jacob Martin. Both players were adequate but displayed little upside, prompting the team to draft Jonathan Greenard in round three. Greenard lacks elite measurable but is a savvy technician with a great motor. He will have an opportunity to contribute right away with a shot at starting at some point this year.
- ILB Zach Cunningham – Low-end LB1 with top-5 potential
- ILB Benardrick McKinney – Marginal fantasy value at best
- ILB Dylan Cole – Injury sleeper with limited upside
- ILB Tyrell Adams – No fantasy value expected
- OLB Whitney Mercilus – Potential dep[th in big play leagues
- OLB Brennan Scarlett – No fantasy value
- OLB Jonathan Greenard – Dynasty sleeper in big play leagues
- OLB Jacob Martin – No fantasy value expected
- OLB Duke Ejiofor – Special teams guy with no fantasy value
The jury is still out on a Houston secondary that could be anywhere between pretty good and pretty bad. Strong safety Justin Reid is a talented third-year player whose performance has been affected by nagging injuries over his first two years. Reid played through a sore wrist as a rookie that required surgery following the season. Despite the bad wrist, he still managed solid production, going 69-18-0 with 6 turnovers, 10 passes defended, and a score.
Reid initially started having issues with the shoulder during training camp last summer. It got progressively worse as the season moved along and began noticeably impacting his play around week five. To get an idea of what he is capable of, take a look at Reid’s number over the first month of 2019. Heading into week five he was a top-20 defensive back, averaging better than 11 points per game, and had the second-most solo tackles at the position.
Missed tackles are a common problem that plagues guys when they try to tough it out through bum shoulders. This was a big problem for Reid last year as well. He is expected to be healthy entering camp and has the potential to be a top-12 defensive back if he stays that way. There is plenty of risk with him though. His short track record has not been good on the injury front, and so far has mirrored that of his brother Eric who has also been highly productive at times, but rarely healthy for long.
Heading into the 2019 season, the Texans signed both Tashaun Gipson and Jahleel Addae. Gipson was supposed to be their long term answer at free safety with Addae seeing a lot of action in sub-packages. Neither played particularly well, so Gipson was released and Addae was not invited back. This year’s version of the Texans includes Eric Murray and Jaylen Watkins to fill the same roles. The question being, is this an upgrade?
Murray spent much of his first three seasons as the third-safety in Kansas City. He went to Cleveland in 2019 after Gipson left there for Houston. He started a couple of games early in the season when Damarious Randall was out, but Murray sprained his knee just before the Browns released Jermaine Whitehead, so once again he was not able to make an impact. Murray should do no worse as a starter than did Gipson, but with 93 tackles, 1 interception, and 9 passes defended in four NFL seasons, there is not much reason to think he will be an improvement either.
Watkins is largely an unknown commodity. The 2014 fourth-round pick was injured for most of his first two seasons in Philadelphia and has been a backup for the last three years with the Eagles and Chargers. His main contribution so far has come on special teams, but it is not too far fetched to think he could beat out Murray for a starting spot.
With three former first-round picks on the roster, the Texans have a ton of talent at the corner positions, at least on paper. The Raiders took Gareon Conley 24th overall in 2017. He missed most of his rookie season with an injury, then was in and out of grace with the team for two years before being traded to Houston after week seven last year. He started the first few games after joining the Texans before missing time with a hip injury. Conley has not lived up to his draft status so far, but the sample size with the Houston as a healthy participant has been small.
Vernon Hargreaves was the 11th overall pick by the Buccaneers in 2016. He played well and made a lot of tackles as a rookie, but the wheels fell off after that. Unlike most corners that go on to great careers, Hargreaves did not take the next step in year two. In fact, he regressed a bit before suffering a hamstring injury that would eventually land him on IR. Hargreaves was bothered by a sore groin throughout much of the summer leading up to 2018, missing a lot of the offseason program. He then suffered a shoulder injury in week one and landed on IR again. He was held out of a practice session last May when according to coach Arians, he was not mentally ready to participate. Hargreaves ended up starting 10 games for the Buccaneers before being outright released in November. The Texans claimed him off waivers and he started the rest of the way for them.
There is no doubt the player is talented, but there are some concerns about his commitment, and some speculation Hargreaves may be somewhat of a head case. That said, the Texans liked what they saw from him enough to sign a new contract in April. With two career interceptions and one forced fumble, Hargreaves has shown little in the big play columns thus far, but he is a physical tackler with the tools to excel both on the field and in the box scores. If he stays on the field, he could be a factor for managers in corner required leagues.
There are no concerns when it comes to Denver’s 2014 first-round pick Bradley Roby. He became an immediate starter for the Broncos, before settling into the nickel role in year two. Roby held that spot throughout his career with Denver before signing with Houston during last year’s free-agency period. Roby missed a few games last season but has otherwise shown good durability, and he is a playmaker with 19 takeaways in six seasons. Chances are high that Roby will settle in as the Texans slot corner as well, but there is at least some chance he could play outside.
Texans corners have provided decent fantasy value over most of the last few years. Hargreaves seems the most likely player to keep that trend going, but he is far from a sure thing. If you must start corners, keep a close eye on these guys during whatever preseason we get.
- SS Justin Reid – Injury risk with top-12 upside
- FS/SS Eric Murray – Not much expectation but worth watching early
- FS Jaylen Watkins – Deep sleeper at best
- CB Gareon Conley – Marginal value expected
- CB Vernon Hargreaves – Potential low-end CB1 or priority CB2
- CB Bradley Roby – Value depends on the role, but expectations are low
- CB Phillip Gaines – Injury sleeper at best
- CB John Reid – Developmental rookie, not likely to see much action outside special teams
The Colts play a 4-3 defense with an aggressive, one gap approach, allowing their linemen to penetrate and create chaos regardless of the offensive call. When matched with, quick, explosive players that can get to the passer, this combination is golden for IDP managers. Indianapolis had good players in their front four last season but they had only one star. Even then the result was a solid 41 sacks. With the trade for DeForest Buckner, they now have two of those players along with some young guys that might step up and join them.
Buckner finished last season as the top defensive tackle in the fantasy game and has been in the top-five every year since he was drafted in 2016. With career averages of 42 tackles, 24 assists, 7 sacks, 3 batted passes, and 2.5 turnovers, he has also been a solid DL1 for those managers in leagues that lump the positions together. Buckner is consistent as it gets for an interior lineman and has done it all in a system that was very similar to what the Colts run. With good talent surrounding him, there is no reason to think Buckner will slow down anytime soon. Considering the scarcity of quality production at the interior line positions, an argument can be made for Buckner as the first defensive player off the board in tackle required formats, especially those that start two.
Buckner will dominate playing time as the three-technique tackles but he may not be the only Indianapolis interior lineman with IDP value. Denico Autry battled through a string of injuries last season before a concussion finally shut him down in week 16. As a result, his numbers were mediocre at best, but keep in mind that he was 28-9-9 with 3 turnovers in 2018, despite not landing a starting spot until week 10. With Buckner at the three-technique and Grover Stewart seeing a lot of the early-down work as the nose tackle, Autry will not start many games, but he should see a good deal of time on passing downs. He is far from a sure thing but has the potential to make a solid DT2.
Justin Houston was the standout among the Colts linemen last season. He was a tad light in the tackle columns in terms of fantasy production at 33 solo and 11 assists, but made up for it with 11 sacks and five turnovers, for a top-10 finish. This is the guy that had 59 solo tackles and 22 sacks back in 2014. That was the last time he played a full season until last year. Starting in 2015, a string of injuries disrupted Houston’s career, leading to the Chiefs parting way with him at the end of 2018. He is no longer that player at age 31, but he is still an outstanding edge defender that has at least nine and a half sacks in six of his nine seasons as a pro, including every year that he played at least 11 games. The injury risk is real but Houston did manage a full slate of games last year for the first time since 2014. Target him as a priority DL2 with top-10 potential.
Jabaal Sheard saw the majority of the playing time opposite Houston last year, but he was not brought back after a four-and-a-half sack season. Al-Quadin Muhammad, Kemeko Turay, and Ben Banogu will compete during camp to determine who will hold what role. Muhammad is the favorite to start entering camp with Banagu likely to see plenty of action on passing downs. Turay could challenge for the starting spot and has the potential to be a three-down guy if he can stay healthy. The 2018 second-round pick has missed 13 games in his first two seasons, including 11 last year when he suffered a broken ankle in week five.
- DE Justin Houston – Priority DL2 with top-10 upside
- DE Kemoko Turay – Deep sleeper with some promise if healthy
- DE Al-Quadin Muhammad – Marginal value expected
- DE/DT Tyquan Lewis – Utility man, can lineup at any DL position, but unlikely to be a factor
- DE/SLB – Ben Banogu – Undersized edge rusher/passing-down specialist
- DT DeForest Buckner – Elite tier DT1 or solid DL1
- DT Denico Autry – Sleeper with DT2 potential
- DT Sheldon Day – No IDP value expected
- DT Grover Stewart – No fantasy value
- DT Robert Windsor – Developmental rookie with long term potential
There are players at other positions that we could make an argument for taking as the first defensive player off the board, but when it comes right down to it, Darius Leonard is going to be that guy in virtually any format. The only defensive player to dominate his position as Leonard has over the last two seasons, was J.J. Watt before the injuries started. As a rookie in 2018, Leonard was the fantasy game’s top linebacker with an average of 18.5 points per game. Bobby Wagner was second that season with just short of 15. Leonard was the number three linebacker overall in 2019, only because he missed three games. His per-game average of 17.3 was once again a full three points more than number two Jordan Hicks.
It is hard to find a weakness with Leonard either on the field or in the box scores. He makes plays all over the field, is great in coverage or on the blitz, and looks nearly unblockable most of the time. Over 28 career games, he has averaged 6.5 tackles and 3.5 assists, with a combined total of 12 sacks, 7 interceptions, 6 forced fumbles, 2 recoveries, 15 passes defended, and a score. If you are a manager that looks at players in tiers, there is the Darius Leonard tier, then there is the elite tier somewhere below him.
Indianapolis has a great problem at middle linebacker where both Anthony Walker and Bobby Okereke are good enough to be quality NFL starters. The problem is going to be how to get them both on the field, or deciding which one will play. They each have something different to offer.
Walker earned a starting job as a second-year pro in 2018 and managed to hang onto it throughout last season. He is a smart, dependable player that makes all the plays he should, but not many special ones. At 6’1” 238 pounds, he is the prototypical middle linebacker of the 1980s. A big, physical run stopper with good instincts, decent speed, and adequate cover skills. Walker has the advantage of experience, which might be why he kept the job last year, and he rarely makes mistakes.
Walker’s numbers in 2018 were not flashy at 70-33-1 with a pair of turnovers, at least not at a glance. They are fairly impressive, however, when taking into account that he played roughly 65% of the snaps. His total snaps were up to 79% in 2019 when Walker finished at 84-41-2.5 with a pair of takeaways, and a ranking on the cusp of the top-20.
We know Walker can be productive if given the opportunity, which leads to the one big negative IDP managers need to be aware of. In 31 games as a starter, he has played more than 85% of the snaps seven times. Three of those games coming when Darius Leonard was out last season, and another one in the week 17 mop-up game.
Bobby Okereke is one of my favorite late-round targets this summer. While watching the week three game last year, I mistook him for Leonard on the opening series until I realized he was wearing a different number. Okereke looked good during the preseason and was already a player of interest, but that game was an eye-opener. He finished with six tackles and two assists on 55 snaps that day and had seven solo stops on 57 plays the following week before returning to a sub-package role.
Okereke is nearly identical to Walker in stature, but he is faster, more athletic, and good in coverage. He is also less experienced and somewhat prone to make mistakes, or at least that was the case as a rookie. Mistakes are fixable and last year’s experience could go a long way.
This situation will be near the top of the preseason watch list, but it feels like Okereke could come away as a three-down middle linebacker. For those wondering what to expect if he does, Okereke has 47 tackles, 16 assists, a sack, and 3 turnovers on about 46% of the snaps last season. At 92% that would be 94-32-2 with 6 turnovers.
Zaire Franklin is the early favorite for the strong side position, mostly by default. Matthew Adams is more of a middle backer type, E.J. Speed and Skai Moore are players that have looked good when given an opportunity, but both have more of a weak-side skill set. One option that might work out is moving Walker to the strong side. He has not worked there much but the strengths of his game point to what could be a good fit.
- WLB Darius Leonard – Most productive defensive player in the IDP game over the last two seasons
- MLB Anthony Walker – Solid third starter if he keeps the same role
- MLB Bobby Okereke – Sleeper with top-25 upside
- MLB Matthew Adams – No IDP value expected
- MLB E.J. Speed – Injury sleeper
- SLB Zaire Franklin – No fantasy value expected
- WLB Skai Moore – Injury sleeper
The Colts secondary was opportunistic in 2019, intercepting nine passes, forcing four fumbles and recovering four, but they gave up a lot of yards and the second-highest completion percentage in the league. This is a great formula for IDP value. As a unit, Indianapolis defensive backs were credited with 344 solo tackles, 102 assists, 5 sacks, and 17 turnovers. Yet they somehow managed to a leading tackler with 54 solo stops.
The team dealt with some injuries in the secondary but they also did some shuffling in an effort to find the right combination of players, both for 2019 and beyond. What they took from the season led to the additions of veteran corners Xavier Roads and T.J. Carrie, along with the draft selections of safety Julian Blackmon in round three, corner Isaiah Rodgers, and safety Jordan Glasgow in the sixth.
Some see the addition of Blackmon as a sign of lacking confidence in Khari Willis, but that is not necessarily the case. Willis was the team’s fourth-round pick last spring and was thrown into the mix right away. He looked great at times and not so great at others, but that is often the case when first-year players are baptized under fire. The question is, did he show enough positive to return as the starter? I believe he did but it is hard to say if the coaching staff sees it that way.
Willis has good size at 5’11” 217 pounds, has good range and cover skills, and packs a punch in run support. He spent much of last season sharing time with Clayton Geathers at strong safety. With Geathers out of the picture, the path to a full-time role is less obstructed. Willis was on the field for about 61% of the snaps in 2019, recording 53 tackles and 18 assists. He made no impact at all in the big-play department as a rookie but his college stats suggest that to be somewhat of a fluke. Willis was not exactly a ballhawk at Michigan State, but he did account for three sacks and five turnovers in two seasons as a starter. In summary, Willis is not a sure thing but I believe he is the Colts best option at strong safety. He should be a quality DB2 if the Indianapolis coaching staff agrees.
Malik Hooker has been the starting free safety since the Colts made him the 15th overall pick in 2017 when he has been healthy enough to play that is. In all, he has missed 14 games with injuries, including three last year. Even when healthy Hooker has underwhelmed. Injuries, average play, the fact he has been shopped around this offseason, and the drafting of Blackmon are all possible indicators that Hooker’s time as a Colts starter may be short.
Blackmon’s scouting report suggests he has the skill set to play either safety spot. He is not blazing fast but reacts quickly with the range to play deep. He was a playmaker at Utah, with nine interceptions and two forced fumbles in three seasons as a starter, and he is willing to square up against ball carriers in run support. His size, on the other hand, screams free safety. At 187 pounds Blackmon would be among the leagues lightest strong safeties if he were to play there.
George Odum, Marvel Tell, and Jordan Glasgow are all young players with two or fewer years of experience. Both Odom and Tell played more than 225 snaps in 2019, and both started at least one game. Neither of them shined particularly brightly when given their shot but no one is out of the mix at this point.
The Colts had issues on the corners last season. Second-round pick Rock Ya-Sin had an up and down rookie season. He was the nickel corner to open the year, moved into a starting role for six games beginning in week four, had his role reduced in week-11, was benched all together in week-12, then played virtually every snap over the final four games after Kenny Moore was shut down. In the end, Ya-Sin played more snaps than any other Colts defensive back and led the group in tackles with 54. As with all rookies starting at corner in the NFL, there were highlights and lowlights for Ya-Sin. The organization still believes in him as a potential starter, but the singings of Xavier Rhodes and Travis Carrier suggest they are not willing to make that bet in the short term.
Rhodes is a veteran of seven NFL seasons, all as a starter for the Vikings. He was paid like a starter when he signed with the Colts and is a virtual lock to remain in that role with the Colts. He is a solid and versatile player with the physical stature to play press coverage, the speed to match up man to man, and the presence to play zone. During his career in Minnesota, Rhodes was never more than a marginal CB2 in fantasy terms. He has only reached 50 solo tackles twice and half of his 10 career interceptions came in one season (2016). In short, Rhodes is good for the Colts but not so much for us.
That leaves Ya-Sin in his second season, third-year man Kenny Moore, and veteran journeyman Travis Carrie to compete for the other corner roles. Moore is a former undrafted free agent who made the team in 2017 then landed a starting job in his second season. He started all of the 15 games he played in that season, making a strong impression both on the field and in the box scores. Moore’s 64 solo tackles were tied for the second-most among corners and he added 14 assists, 1.5 sacks, 3 interceptions, a forced fumble, and 9 passes defended for a top-five fantasy finish at the position. He was on pace to eclipse nearly all those numbers in 2019 had he not missed five games. Moore is by far the most interesting IDP prospect among the Colts corners and is a strong target this draft season if the position is required, but he is not a lock to win the starting job. Ya-Sin will be the main competition but Carrie could be an option as well.
Carrie earned a roster spot as a seventh-round pick of the Raiders in 2014. He worked in the slot as a nickel corner for most of his first three seasons, before landing a starting job in 2017. That year Carrie led all corners in tackles with 70, but marginal big-play totals held him just outside the top-12 in most IDP formats. Two seasons with the Browns saw Carrie’s tackle numbers level off but he did account for seven turnovers and a pair of sacks in 28 games. If he somehow manages to land a full-time job, Carrie could be a solid fantasy option. Chances are he will return to his familiar nickel role though.
- SS Khari Willis – Solid DB2 if all goes as expected
- FS Malik Hooker – No fantasy value
- FS/SS Julian Blackmon – Deep sleeper with limited upside unless he plays strong safety
- SS/LB Jordan Glasgow – Nickel linebacker and special teams contributor
- SS George Odum – Deep sleeper at best
- FS Marvell Tell III – Deep sleeper at best
- CB Xavier Rhodes – Marginal IDP value expected
- CB Kenny Moore II – Possible CB1 if he starts opposite Rhodes
- CB Rock Ya-Sin – Wait and see approach suggested
- CB Travis Carrie – CB2 potential
- CB Isaiah Rodgers – Developmental player
Calais Campbell is gone and Yannik Ngakoue wants to be. There has been no movement or update on the status of Ngakoue’s trade demands since April when the Raiders were rumored to have an interest, and Las Vegas is currently rumored to be pursuing Jadaveon Clowney. Ngakoue is adamant about not playing for the Jaguars so unless the two sides make peace or a trade partner is found, a holdout appears imminent.
Fantasy managers get excited when they see the big-play numbers Ngakoue puts up. He has at least eight sacks in each of his four seasons as a pro, along with career totals of 15 forced fumbles, 3 recoveries, 2 interceptions, 9 passes defended, and a pair of scores. His ability to impact the passing game is clear and Ngakoue’s production as a pass rusher is enough to provide IDP value on their own, but his lack of production versus the run both on the field and in the box scores has a considerable negative impact.
At 6’2” 246 pounds, Ngakoue is a featherweight for a three-down defensive end in a 4-3 scheme. As a result, he often struggles to set the edge versus the run and as a point of attack defender. Those struggles are directly reflected in his tackle numbers. Over his first three seasons, Ngakoue recorded 20, 24, and 25 solo tackles respectively before improving to 36 last season. Such low tackle totals lead to wildly inconsistent fantasy production on a week-to-week basis, and that is what we have seen from Ngakoue over his career. Even last year with the increase of tackles, he reached double-digit points in six games and posted five or fewer in six others. We will need to re-assess Ngakoue’s IDP value once we know what uniform he will be wearing. One thing to keep in mind if you draft early, his skill set is compatible with the outside linebacker positions in 3-4 schemes as well. So he may not even be a defensive end in 2020.
The Jaguars will miss the versatility of having Campbell slide inside on passing downs and the 14.5 sacks he and Ngakoue combined for in 2019, but the team has prepared for life without them. Last year’s seventh overall pick Josh Allen had a stellar rookie season with 32 tackles, 13 assists, 10.5 sacks, and 3 forced fumbles on 60% of the snaps. Allen now moves into the lead role which will add 150-200 more opportunities in 2020. Allen has the size, skill set, and tenacity to flourish as a three-down player, and the potential to quickly become one of the game’s elite. He was just outside the top-20 last season and is a safe bet to improve significantly on that ranking in year two. This is a player with the talent and potential to challenge for a sack title at some point and is in a situation/scheme that could make him a perennial top-10 IDP target over the next decade.
Josh Allan is not a secret to anyone, so if you want him it will require a significant investment of capital. If you are not willing to make that investment or get punked by a fellow owner on draft day, there are a couple of potential bargains among Jacksonville’s defensive linemen as well. The Jaguars had four defensive ends record at least six sacks in 2019. Two of them are gone, one was Josh Allan and the other was 2017 third-round pick, Dawuane Smoot.
Smoot has been buried on the depth chart behind some great players for three years, but will finally have a chance to shine. He was the fourth man at end in his rookie season, recording 14 tackles and six assists in a limited role. Injuries stunted his grown heading into 2018 when Smoot was inactive for the first half of the season. He had not shown much promise leading up to 2019 but the organization stuck with him, and it may finally pay off for both parties. Smoot finished 12-5-6 in 412 plays as the fourth man in the rotation last year. This summer he will compete with the team’s first-round pick, K’Lavon Chaisson for a starting job opposite Allan. Smoot made a good showing in 2019 and will be playing for his future in a contract year. This could be his breakout season.
K’Lavon Chaisson has a ton of long term potential but there are some things he must overcome quickly if he is to earn the starting job for 2020. The biggest challenge will be changing positions without an offseason program to help him do it. Chaisson was an outside linebacker at LSU where he played in 24 career games. He started only 13 of those games, so the lack of experience could be another obstacle. Then there is the age factor with him currently being 20 years old. Last but not least, Chaisson is undersized for the position, checking in at 250 pounds. A couple of seasons on the field and in the weight room could produce an outstanding player and a fantasy stud. In the short term, however, Chaisson is likely to be mostly a sub-package contributor.
Just in case Smoot is not able to take the next step and/or Chaisson needs more time to develop, the Jaguars picked up veterans Cassius Marsh and Aaron Lynch to provide depth. Both are journeymen with starting experience and the ability to hold down the fort for a while if called upon.
The Jaguars run defense was horrible in 2019, giving up the second-most yards per carry in the league. While much of that falls on the poor play at linebacker, it puts the defensive tackle position under a microscope as well.
Former first-round pick Bryan Taven has been somewhat of a disappointment on the field and in the box scores. He was the fourth option at tackle as a rookie in 2018, posting fair numbers for the limited playing time at 13-7-1. Taven became a starter early last season but the additional playing time did not add up to much statistically as he finished 18-13-2. He had 37 tackles and 4 sacks in his final season at Florida and is set to be the starting three-technique right out of the gate this year, so maybe year three will be his breakout. With Campbell gone, Taven could see more pass rush opportunity which would be another plus. There are no grand expectations but Taven is worth keeping an eye on if your league starts tackles.
There is no IDP potential with Abry Jones who is a space-eating, two-down, run stuffer at nose tackle, but veteran Rodney Gunter and third-round pick Davon Hamilton could be worth watching. Gunter was 31-12-4.5 with a pair of forced fumbles as a defensive end in Arizona’s 3-4 two years ago and was on a similar pace last season before missing time. Hamilton is best known as a run defender but added six sacks to his resume as a senior at Ohio State last year. Someone has to play on third-downs this year.
- DE Yannick Ngakoue – Boom or bust DL2 on any given week, providing he is playing for someone
- DE Josh Allen – Priority DL2 with top-five potential
- DE KLavon Chaisson – Dynasty target with some short term upside in big-play formats
- DE Dawuane Smoot – Sleeper with good potential and a great opportunity
- DE Cassius Marsh – Marginal value at best
- DE Aaron Lynch – No IDP value expected
- DT Taven Bryan – Possible DT2
- DT Abry Jones – No IDP value
- DT Rodney Gunter – Sleeper with high DT2 upside
- DT Davon Hamilton – Sleeper with DT2 potential
- DT Dontavius Russell – No fantasy value
The Jaguars have been without a true middle linebacker since Paul Posluszny retired after the 2017 season, which is a big part of the reason they were so bad against the run a year ago. Being a fan of Joe Schobert from the time he was drafted by the Browns in 2016 and having him in several dynasty leagues, I was ecstatic to see him land in Jacksonville. Visions of Posluszny’s multiple seasons with triple-digit solo tackles danced through my head. Schobert could be just as good here and has the potential to be even better.
Joe Schobert is a great fit for the Jaguars. He has the size and determination to be a downhill thumper versus the run, with enough speed and athleticism to play in any down and distance situation. He is both a leader and a playmaker and has landed in arguably the most fantasy friendly situation the league has to offer.
Schobert became a starter as a second-year pro in 2017. Since that time he has 16 turnovers, 8 sacks, and 19 pass breakups. He missed some time in 2018 but in the two full seasons he has played, Schobert averaged 90 tackles and 50 assists. To get a clear picture of just how productive linebackers have been in Jacksonville, between 2012 and 2018, Posluszny and Telvin Smith Sr recorded at least 96 solo tackles and finished among the top-12 linebackers seven times.
Calling Myles Jack a bust might be a little harsh, but he has certainly fallen short of expectations. The 2016 second-round selection worked as a two-down strong side linebacker as a rookie. The following season he switched positions to the middle, pushing Posluszny outside. When Jack struggled like a fish out of water, the decision was made to swap them back. Jack moved back inside in 2018 after Posluszny retired and had the best season of his career at 74-32-2.5 with 3 turnovers, but it was obvious Jack was not the long term answer at the position. He was less than impressive again last season before being shut down due to injury after week 12.
With the addition of Schobert, the experiment is over for Jack as a middle linebacker. The question now becomes, does he play on the strong side as he has in the past, or will he get a look on the weak-side? The answer could determine if he has any IDP value at all in 2020. The responsibilities of the strong-side linebacker in Jacksonville’s scheme are generally not compatible with good box score production. If Jack plays there and stays on the field in nickel situations, he might provide decent depth or a low-end LB3 value at best. If he gets a shot on the weak-side and plays on all three downs, Jack could be as much as a decent LB2.
Giving Jack a shot on the weak-side would make sense for the team. Rookie Shaquille Quarterman lacks the range and cover skills to play there, and will most likely earn his paycheck on special teams. During last year’s training camp and preseason, the organization thought they had found their man in then-rookie third-round pick Quincy Williams, but when games started to count he all but vanished and was eventually benched. Third-year pro Leon Jacobs is a natural strong side backer. So unless Telvin Smith Sr decides to resume his career or Williams becomes the player everyone thought he was last August, the Jaguars are short on options.
- MLB Joe Schobert – Quality LB1 with elite tier potential
- MLB Shaquille Quarterman – No value expected
- WLB/SLB Myles Jack – Low LB2 ceiling with LB4 floor
- WLB Quincy Williams – Deep sleeper with good upside if the light comes back on
- SLB Leon Jacobs – No IDP value
The Jacksonville pass defense ranked 27th in 2019, at almost eight yards per attempt, with both injuries and questionable play being factors. There were no highly significant personnel changes at the safety positions, so the organization is counting on a healthy Ronnie Harrison to make a difference there.
Harrison was a third-round pick of the Jaguars in 2018. He served as the third safety during his rookie campaign, working behind Barry Church. Harrison ascended to the starting role last summer but he was sabotaged by injuries right from the start. The knee injury that ended his rookie year in December, was not yet 100% as the season opened. By the end of October, he was dealing with an ankle sprain and a sore neck as well. In November Harrison suffered an eye injury. He toughed it out and played through all these ailments until a late November concussion shut him down for a couple of games.
When the final whistle blew, Harrison was sitting at 44 tackles, 27 assists, 2 sacks, 3 turnovers, and 10 pass breakups. His splash play numbers look fine but the low tackle totals will cause many managers to overlook him. Do not be one of those managers, especially when he is available in the late rounds. When fully healthy, Harrison can put up strong numbers across the board. In 14 games as a starter for Alabama, he averaged 11.2 combined tackles and assists per game, with 3.5 sacks, 7 interceptions, a forced fumble, 2 recoveries, and a pair of scores. If he can stay remotely healthy, Harrison will be at least a solid DB3 in 2020 and possibly more.
Jarrod Wilson won a spot on the team as an undrafted free agent in 2016. After contributing mostly on special teams as a developmental prospect for three-seasons, he earned the starting job at free safety last summer and was one of the few to play every snap for his team in 2019. Wilson may not be the most talented of free safeties but proved to be smart, savvy, and dependable enough to keep the job for at least another year. His stats were not bad for a free safety that rarely worked close to the line, but Wilson will have a tough time improving on them much. He could be worthy of a roster spot in deeper drafted leagues.
Andrew Wingard is another undrafted free agent safety that played his way onto the Jaguars roster last season. He saw some action as the backup to Harrison and could be the next man up if either starter misses time this year. Rookie Daniel Thomas would be the other option and will compete for the job, but he is a more natural strong safety that lacks the speed and range to play center field. In short, depth could be an issue at safety for the Jaguars.
The Jaguars had issues at the corner positions in 2019. A.J. Bouye joined the team in 2017 and was a solid second corner opposite Jalen Ramsey. When Ramsey was traded during the season, Bouye was expected to take over as the number one, but he simply is not that player. As a result, Jacksonville had a collection of good corners but no great ones entering the offseason. Bouye signed with Denver leaving them even shorter at the position, so the Jaguars used the ninth overall pick on C.J. Henderson.
Henderson was arguably the best man to man cover corner in this year’s draft. He has the speed and coverage skills match up will opponents top receivers all over the field and the hands to make plays on the ball. There is nothing to dislike about Henderson when it comes to coverage, but he has a reputation for not wanting to hit anyone. Both Henderson and his former coaches at Florida are quick to point out that he was not asked to tackle much in college. That dog doesn’t hunt for me. If you are a defensive player, you are asked to tackle. One way or another we will know soon because he will have to tackle now. Henderson projects as a week one starter so the rookie corner rule could come into play.
Tre Herndon started all but two games in 2019 with D.J. Haden as the nickel defender. They will have competition this summer from journeyman free-agent addition Rashaan Melvin. Melvin has been with five teams in six seasons but has earned a starting job with each of the last three. He has at least 51 solo stops in three of the last four seasons, so there could be a little value as a second corner. That said, even the good tackle totals are not enough to make up for the lack of playmaking ability. Three of Melvin’s four career interceptions came in 2017, and he has but one takeaway to show for the last 30 games. If any Jacksonville corner is going to provide IDP value, the rookie would be the most likely to do so.
- SS Ronnie Harrison – Solid DB3 with upside
- FS Jarrod Wilson – Marginal IDP value
- SS Daniel Thomas – No fantasy value expected
- SS/FS Andrew Wingard – No fantasy value
- CB C.J. Henderson – Rookie corner rule could be in play if he will tackle
- CB D.J. Hayden – No value expected
- CB Tre Herndon – Possible depth in leagues requiring two corners
- CB Rashaan Melvin – CB3 at best
- CB Josiah Scott – Developmental rookie with no immediate value expected
Jurrell Casey has been a cornerstone of the Titans defense over the last nine seasons. Unfortunately, the organization could not afford to pay everyone so a tough decision was made. With Casey traded to Denver, the Titans are looking for someone to step up. They are counting on last year’s first-round pick Jeffrey Simmons to be that guy.
Simmons is a special talent who was in line to be taken near the top of the draft until he suffered an ACL injury while training that February. The Titans were so high on him that they still took him at number 19, knowing that he might not play at all as a rookie. So far that looks like a great decision. Simmons opened last year on the Physically Unable to Perform list, so he missed the first six games but as soon as he was eligible to return he was on the field. In 10 games he recorded 18 tackles, 14 assists, and a pair of sacks. Those are solid numbers for a healthy rookie tackle, much less a guy eight months removed from ACL surgery.
Simmons should be completely healthy now, so the question becomes, just how good can he be? Pre-draft scouting reports compared him to Chris Jones who is one of the best interior linemen in the game, and his college stats support that comparison. In his final 26 games at Mississippi State, Simmons recorded 123 combined tackles and assist, including 30 tackles for loss, 7 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, and 5 batted passes. He has an exceptional combination of size and quickness, along with some impressive pass rush moves for a young player. So can he step in and be as good as Casey was? Yes, he can, in fact, Simmons has the tools to be even better. There is one issue Simmons will inherit from Casey, which is a lack of help surrounding him. Casey led Tennessee’s defensive linemen with five sacks in 2019 while the rest of the defensive line combined for four and a half.
DaQuan Jones is locked in at the nose tackle spot. He is a good fit for the job which calls upon him to create a roadblock in front of the center that ball carriers must run around. It is a job that brings little notoriety but is essential to the success of those around him.
The third starter for Tennessee remains unclear as we close in on training camps. Journeyman Jack Crawford provides a veteran presence. He will compete with third-year undrafted free agent Matt Dickerson, and fifth-round rookie Larrell Murchison to establish the pecking order after Simmons. Regardless of what the order is, none of these guys are expected to make much of a contribution in the box scores.
- DE/DT Jeffery Simmons – Unproven but loads of upside, especially if you can start him as a tackle.
- DE Jack Crawford – No value expected
- DE Matt Dickerson – No value expected
- DE Larrell Murchison – Deep sleeper at best
- NT DaQuan Jones – Minimal IDP value
- NT Isaiah Mack – No fantasy value
Hats off to the Titans personnel department for assembling an excellent group of young linebackers, and especially for doing it without expending a huge amount of resources. Inside linebacker Rashaan Evans is the only first-day draft pick among the group at number 22 overall in 2018. Outside backer Harold Landry was the team’s second-round selection that year. Jayon Brown is the draft steal of the group, joining the team as a fifth-round pick in 2017. Kamalei Correa was a bargain free-agent addition two years back and started on the outside opposite Landry last season. All four of these guys played well in 2019 and all are 26 years old or less.
A glance at last year’s final rankings shows Brown as the 24th linebacker and Evans at 29. Both should be higher than their respective rankings on this year’s draft boards. Veteran Wesley Woodyard was still in the mix in 2019. His role was limited but there is no doubt the 328 snaps Woodyard played had an impact on both Brown and Evans. There were only three games in which either of them played every snap. Woodyard is no longer with the team, so his 24 tackles, 18 assists, and a sack will now be added to Brown and Evans numbers.
Another reason to be optimistic with Brown is that he ranked so high despite missing two full games and most of two others with a shoulder injury. While he was 24th overall, Brown’s average of 12 points per game ranked 14. He is a bit undersized by traditional standards but is the complete package for today’s game. Brown has good speed, sideline-to-sideline range, is a sound tackler, and excels in coverage. His eight pass breakups ranked among the leaders at the linebacker position.
Both Brown and Evans lost snaps to Woodyard last season but Evans was effected the most in games when all three were available. Evans should see what amounts to roughly two more games worth of playing time in 2020. He is a little bigger than Brown, but in terms of skill set, the two are virtually interchangeable. Evans has the versatility to move around. He can blitz successfully on one play then drop in coverage on the next with equally positive results, and he plays the run well. I rank Brown slightly higher but in reality, they are virtual equals in value.
Harold Landry’s numbers are so far, following the typical progression for young edge defenders. As a rookie in 2018, he recorded 24 tackles, 20 assists, 4.5 sacks, and forced a fumble. Year two saw a big leap in tackles to 43, his sack count double to 9, and a 75% rise in turnovers to 4. Landry does a solid job of setting the edge versus the run but getting after the passer is his strength. Having played defensive end at Boston College, there were initially the normal concerns about the change of position that some players struggle with. With last season’s breakout, those concerns have been erased. If Landry continues to follow the usual trajectory, we could be looking at a big season from him in 2020. Managers in big-play based leagues should not wait too long on draft day.
Kamalei Correa led the rotation opposite Landry last season, posting a career-best in all columns at 28-10-5. He did it on 439 snaps, which was less than 40% of playing time. A second-round pick of the Ravens in 2016, Correa did not get much opportunity during his two years in Baltimore. When he joined the Titans in 2018, he was buried on the depth chart behind Landry, Derrick Morgan, and Brian Orakpo, but still managed three and a half sacks. Correa could be in line for an expanded role and a breakout season, but just like the rest of his career so far, nothing will be easy. The Titans have already added former Falcons first-round pick Vic Beasley Jr, and with over 19 million in cap space still available, they are currently considering a run at Jadaveon Clowney.
Beasley had one great season in Atlanta, posting 32 tackles, racking up 15.5 sacks, and forcing 6 fumbles as a second-year pro in 2016. He has at least five sacks in each of the last four seasons, including eight in 2019, but he is still considered somewhat of a bust by many due to his draft status of No. 8 overall in 2015. Some will argue that he was a victim of the system in Atlanta, pointing out the struggles of fellow first-round selection Takkarist Mckinley as Exhibit A. Beasley has a fresh start and a golden opportunity to prove his doubters wrong.
- ILB Rashaan Evans – Quality LB2 with upside
- ILB Jayon Brown – Priority LB2 with top-10 potential
- ILB Daren Bates – No value expected
- ILB David Long – Injury sleeper
- OLB Harold Landry – solid LB3 with upside in big-play based formats
- OLB Kamalei Correa – Deep sleeper for big-play managers at best
- OLB Vic Beasley Jr – Sleeper in big-play formats
- OLB D'Andre Walker – Special teams contributor
- OLB Reggie Gilbert – No value expected
From Alteraun Verner in 2010 to Jason McCourty through the middle of the decade, Malcolm Butler in 2018, and Logan Ryan in last year, the Titans have been a stellar source of production for those of us in corner required leagues. In 10 of the last 11 seasons, there has been at least one Tennessee corner among the top-15 at the position. In eight of those years, there was one in the top-six. Two years ago Butler finished second while Ryan was number one by a whopping 46 points last season.
Ryan has moved on, leaving Butler and Adoree Jackson as the projected starters with second-round pick Kristian Fulton and veteran free-agent addition Johnathon Joseph likely competing for nickel duties. Butler shows up on the top-five list in two of the past four seasons. The first time was with the Patriots in 2016. That makes him the top prospect of the group, but not the only one. Adoree Jackson finished at 15 in 2017 and has averaged 64 tackles, 8 assists, 14 passes defended, and 2.5 turnovers in his last two season as a starter on the outside (2017 and 2018). He was relegated to mostly nickel duty before Butler was injured last year, but is in line to start going forward unless Fulton has a great camp.
The moral of this story, if you have to start corners, having a Titan as an option is a good thing. Butler is the safe target but keep a close eye on Fulton. Adding the rookie corner rule to this could make him a late/last round steal, and it is not far fetched to think he might be out Jackson.
There was a run of years early in the decade when Tennessee safeties were also top-shelf targets. That trend has faded recently with scheme adjustments adding more run support responsibilities for the corners and better play at the second level. We have to look back several years to find a Titans safety with more than 62 solo tackles, but that does mean there is no value to be found here.
Free safety Kevin Byard has at least 60 solo stops in each of the past three seasons. In balanced scoring formats, he finished inside the top-20 in each of those years, including a top-three in 2017. Byard has an accelerated value in big-play formats as much of his production comes in the form of interceptions and pass breakups. He has 17 interceptions and 19 total turnovers in the last three seasons, as well as 32 passes defended. It doesn’t hurt that Tennessee’s home stat crew is generous with assists either. Week to week consistency is an issue with Byard, but he can win a game for you on any given week. The overall points suggest he is a DB2 candidate, but I see Byard more as a risk/reward third starter on most weeks.
Kenny Vaccaro is a quality contributor on the field, particularly in run support, and appears to have no challengers for the strong safety spot. On the other hand, but he has not given us much in IDP terms since leaving New Orleans. In fact, Vaccaro has neither exceeded 51 tackles in a season nor scored among the top 40 defensive backs since 2015.
- SS Kenny Vaccaro – No IDP value expected
- FS Kevin Byard – Risk/reward DB3 with big-play upside
- FS Dane Cruikshank – No IDP value expected
- SS Amani Hooker – Injury sleeper at best
- SS Ibraheim Campbell – No IDP value
- CB Malcolm Butler – Probable CB1
- CB Adoree Jackson – Sleeper with CB2 potential
- CB Johnathan Joseph – No fantasy value
- CB Kristian Fulton – Rookie corner watch list
- CB/FS Chris Jackson – Developmental rookie
That is going to do it for Part 3 of this series. The NFC South is up next.