Links to similar discussions on other divisions:
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 the total number of takeaways for a player, I am counting interceptions, fumble recoveries, and fumbles forced since all of these are scored 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 on the 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. These players are often the cream of the crop at the position (which is why they are starting so soon), and their numbers will begin to drop steadily after their rookie seasons.
The Buffalo defense did a lot of things well in 2020. They had some issues against the run, ranking 25th at 4.6 yards-per-carry, but the pass defense was top-ten, their 38 sacks were respectable, and only the Steelers and Dolphins created more turnovers. One major contributing factor to their success in 2020 was their ability to stay healthy. They had some guys miss a few games along the way, but the players that started in September were all available in late December. The Bills will have some new players in the mix at all three levels, but all eleven of last year’s starters are back.
Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison are the starting defensive ends. Hughes has been a fixture with the team since coming over from the Colts in 2013, but the end could be near for the soon-to-be 33-year-old. Hughes has never been an elite pass rusher with a career-best of nine and a half sacks, nor has he ever been a superior run defender. What he has provided is stability and a solid contribution versus both pass and run.
Hughes was a three-down starter in Buffalo from day one and was a decent IDP contributor for several years. Between 2013 and 2018, he averaged 32 tackles, 13 assists, almost 7 sacks, and 2 turnovers. In 2019, however, Hughes seemed to hit a wall. He played more snaps than any other Bills’ defensive lineman over the last two seasons, totaling 31-21-9 in 31 games. Hughes has more than four and a half sacks once in the last four years and has not reached 40 combined tackles and assists since 2017. With the team using first and second-round picks on defensive ends Greg Rousseau and Boogie Basham, respectively, the writing could be on the wall for Hughes. At the very least, he is no longer an IDP consideration.
It has been a lot of years since the Bills last had a standout defensive end. Over the last five seasons, we have seen guys like Hughes, Shaq Lawson, Eddie Yarbrough, Trent Murphy, and most recently, Addison, among the players that have started for Buffalo. One thing all these guys have in common is that none of them have ever reached 40 solo tackles or double-digit sacks as members of the Bills.
Addison was coming off four consecutive years with at least nine sacks and two forced fumbles, so the organization had high hopes when they signed him last offseason. He came out of the gate strong with a sack in each of the first two games, but it was downhill from there. Addison’s final totals of 20-5-5 were not what they paid for. He will be 34 in September and is in the final year of his contract, so Addison is not long for Buffalo. The only question is if he can hold off the rookies for the starting job all season. Unless he steps it up, my guess is no.
There is plenty of reason for Bills fans to get excited about their rookie edge defenders, but there are reasons to be cautious with expectations as well. Rousseau had one phenomenal season at Miami, but that was his entire college career. He played sparingly in two games as a freshman in 2018 before a fractured ankle ended his season. In 2019 Rousseau played in all 13 games, starting seven, and exploded in the box scores. His 54 combined tackles were strong, and he accounted for three turnovers, but Rousseau’s 15.5 sacks were second in the nation to Chase Young. He elected to opt-out of the 2020 season and declared for the draft instead of returning to Miami this year.
The general lack of experience is not the only concern with Rousseau. Scouts often point out that much of his pass rush success came as an inside rusher in nickel situations. Others spin that as a positive, pointing out his versatility to shift inside in sub-packages. No one argues that Rousseau has a great motor, plenty of athleticism, great size at 6-foot-7 and 265 pounds, a huge wingspan, and a knack for getting around blockers.
Basham does not have his fellow rookie's measurable traits and natural talent, but he is more polished and has a much more proven track record. He played in 42 games at Wake Forest, starting all 31 over his final three seasons. He produced well over those 31 games, going 82-67-19.5 with 10 forced turnovers and 8 batted passes.
While Rousseau probably has a higher ceiling and greater long-term fantasy potential, Basham comes with less risk and is more likely to make an immediate impact. At 6-foot-3 and 274 pounds, Basham is more compact. Where Rousseau uses length and reach, Basham will rely on leverage, technical expertise, and an arsenal of moves and counter moves over pure physical ability. One thing they do have in common is the ability to slide inside in passing situations. Both of these young players will get on the field as rookies, and they should be the starting bookends for the Bills by 2021.
The Bills are both talented and deep on the interior of their defensive line. In Ed Oliver, Vernon Butler, Harrison Phillips, Star Lotulelei, and Justin Zimmer, the team has five players with the talent to be NFL starters. That is where the problem lies for IDP managers.
Buffalo’s interior line has given us some IDP value in the past. In 2019, both Oliver and Butler produced at least 32 combined tackles and five sacks, landing both in the solid DT2 range. That value went away last season, largely due to the number of players involved in the rotation. Five interior linemen played at least 275 snaps in 2020, with none of them seeing action on more than half the team’s defensive plays. Oliver and Butler are the projected starters and have the potential to put up decent numbers if they get a big enough piece of the playing time pie. At this stage, there is no reason to believe that will happen.
- DT Ed Oliver – DT2 potential if he gets enough snaps
- DT Vernon Butler – Low DT2 if he is on the field enough
- DT Harrison Phillips – No impact expected
- DT Star Lotulelei – No impact
- DT Justin Zimmer – Injury sleeper
- DE Carlos Basham Jr – Low-risk dynasty target with high DL2 ceiling
- DE Greg Rousseau – High ceiling, low floor dynasty stash
- DE Mario Addison – No impact
- DE Jerry Hughes – No impact
- DE Efe Obada – No impact
- DE A.J. Epenesa – No impact
The linebacker situation in Buffalo is not very complicated. Tremaine Edmunds, Matt Milano, and A.J. Klein are the clear-cut starters. Edmunds is the IDP headliner of the group. He was banged up in week one and missed week two the shoulder injury last year, but other than that has played virtually every snap of every meaningful game over the last three seasons. From that perspective, Edmunds is dependable, but there are holes in his game both on the field and in IDP terms. Pro Football Focus says that Edmunds is more hype than production, and so far, the numbers would agree for the most part.
As the 16th overall pick in 2018, Edmunds comes with grand expectations. He looked great as a rookie, making plays all over the field while compiling a stat line of 80-41-2 with 4 turnovers and 11 pass breakups. That year he was the fantasy game’s number ten linebacker. What happened after that is something everyone, including the Buffalo coaching staff, is trying to figure out.
On the field, Edmunds is a solid three-down contributor with good speed, sideline to sideline range, and strong cover skills, but despite checking in at 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, he has not been great at stacking and shedding blockers as a point of attack run defender. That undoubtedly was a contributing factor to the team ranking 25th against the run in 2020. The other negative is a glaring lack of game-changing plays. On 1907 plays over the last two seasons, Edmunds has 3.5 sacks, 11 pass breakups, and 1 takeaway. Some will point to the sore shoulder as the problem last season, but what happened in 2019?
We know Edmunds is capable of much better production than he has shown over the last two seasons. Despite having three years of NFL experience, he just turned 23 in May and is still growing as a player. The organization appears to agree since they showed confidence by picking up his fifth-year option this spring. Yet, it is still hard to overlook his back-to-back rankings in the mid to low LB3 range and expect much more in 2021.
Edmunds is the fantasy headliner, but he is not the only Buffalo linebacker with IDP value. Matt Milano was the only Bills defensive starter to miss more than four games last season. He tried to play through an early pectoral injury before eventually landing on short-term IR. It is hard to look at his overall numbers from last season and see his true potential, but it is greater than most managers realize.
Milano earned a starting spot in 2018 when he went 52-26-1 with 6 takeaways and 7 passes defended on 741 snaps before missing the final three games. That season Milano averaged 11.2 points per game which ranked 24th at the position. In 2019, he played every down in 13 games and finished at 66-35-1.5 with 2 takeaways, 8 passes defended, and ranked 23rd with an average of 11.36 points per game. Last year, Milano was on pace for a breakout season had he not been struck with the injury. He finished at 36-8-3.5 with an interception and four pass breakups on just 335 snaps. Average that production over the 906 plays he participated in the season before, and we get 97-22-9.5 with 3 turnovers, 11 passes defended, and an average of 13.7 points per game. The moral of this story is, if he can stay healthy, Millano could be a steal for those that draft him as an LB4 or LB5. He is certainly worth the risk at that point in the draft.
All three of the teams that A.J. Klein has played for have tried to have him line up at middle and/or weak-side linebacker. All three have eventually understood that he is a really good strong side linebacker that can give them some snaps at other positions in a pinch, but Klein is not a long-term answer at those positions. Klein is a tough, hard-nosed run defender that can blow up lead blocks and make tackles. He was even able to contribute in the big-play columns, adding three takeaways and a career-best five sacks to the count. Unfortunately, Klein has never exceeded 75 combined tackles in a season, nor has he ever finished inside the top-40 at the position in fantasy terms.
Tyrel Dodson, Tyler Matakevich, and Andre Smith filled out last year’s roster at linebacker. All three of them saw some action and held up well when called upon. All three are back for the 2021 seasons as well, but they are less likely to get on the field with the free-agent addition of Tyrell Adams. Adams took over as a starter for the Texans when Bernardrick McKinney was lost last year. Once he got on the field, Adams was rather impressive. So much so that he earned sub-package snaps over Zach Cunningham in several games.
In terms of IDP value, Adams was an excellent in-season addition that helped many managers win their leagues. In 12 starts, he totaled 74-46-2 with a pair of forced fumbles, 4 passes defended, and an average of 13.7 points per game. He signed a one-year deal with Buffalo at a backup's salary, so Adams is not likely to get any consideration as a starter unless someone goes down, but if he gets the call, jump on him quickly.
- MLB Tremaine Edmunds – LB3 with some upside
- WLB Matt Milano – Injury risk with a high ceiling if he can stay on the field
- SLB A.J. Klein – Marginal value at best
- MLB/WLB Tyrell Adams – Injury sleeper
- MLB/SLB Tyler Matakevich – No impact
- SLB/MLB Andre Smith – No impact
- MLB/WLB Tyrel Dodson – No impact
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. When the duo was Initially paired back in 2017, Poyer was considered the free safety and Hyde strong, but in reality, they were interchangeable pieces. The Bills were not very good defensively that season, so both of these players put up strong numbers. Since that time, however, Hyde’s production has plummeted while Poyer has become one of the elite at the position.
The shift in production came from a change in responsibilities. While they continue to line up as right and left safeties much of the time, Hyde has settled in as the deep safety, with Poyer spending a lot of time near the line of scrimmage as a box safety/nickel linebacker. The effect was never more evident than last season when Poyer’s 94 solo tackles were the most in the league by a defensive back. Since 2017, Poyer has finished third, seventh, fifth, and third again among defensive backs. He makes a lot of tackles, forces plenty of turnovers, and even has seven sacks over the last four seasons. If Matt Milano stays healthy and Tremaine Edmunds plays up to his potential, Poyer is not likely to repeat last year’s gaudy tackle totals, but he should log another top-ten finish just the same.
In 2017, Hyde had career-highs in tackles with 82 combined, interceptions with five, and passes defended at 13. He has been an excellent last line of defense for the Bills and a major contributor to their overall success but has not come remotely close to that production in any other season.
In 2017 first-round pick TreDavious White, the Bills have one of 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. As the team’s number one corner, White does not make a lot of tackles, but big-play production helped him finish as the fantasy game’s number seven corner in 2019 and number 14 last season. White has 13 takeaways, 2.5 sacks, and 29 passes defended between the two seasons, with an average of 58 combined tackles and assists. Marginal tackle totals usually mean week-to-week inconsistency. That rings true with White, who reached double-digit fantasy points in six games last season while falling short of six points in half a dozen others. That makes it hard to count on him as an every-week starter, but White is a worthy backup in leagues that start two corners.
In each of the last two seasons, Buffalo has provided another top-12 option at the corner position. The problem is, it has not been the same guy. In 2019 Levi Wallace was number 11 at the position. Unlike White, Wallace did most of his damage in the tackle columns with 66 solos and 10 assists, adding a pair of picks and 8 passes defended. He came out of the gate on fire in 2020, totaling 15 tackles, 6 assists, an interception, and 2 passes defended in the first three games before missing time with an ankle injury. Wallace was able to get back on the field a few weeks later, but the production did not return. This leaves us to wonder if he was a one-year flash in the pan as many corners are, or will the numbers come back in 2021 when he is healthy? With a player like White on one side, opponents are naturally going to pick on whoever plays opposite him, so Wallace should have plenty of opportunities.
In 2020 it was 2018 fourth-round pick Taron Johnson who stepped up big in the box scores while playing in the slot/nickel role. Johnson was the seventh-ranked corner at 72-24-1 with 2 turnovers, 7 pass breakups, and a score. He is not particularly fast and has average ball skills for an NFL starter, but Johnson is an aggressive, physical player that fits what the Bills want from their slot defender. His cover skills are good enough to get the job done, and Johnson is more than willing to get involved in run support.
Ultimately the question is the same with Johnson as it is with Wallace. Will he prove to be a one-year outlier, or was 2020 the beginning of a trend? The team did not add anyone specifically to compete for the job, so it looks as if Johnson will continue in the same role. Outside of a select few guys, production from corners is a year-to-year gamble anyway. The way I see it, Johnson is worth a shot as a low-end CB1 or priority CB2. If he starts slowly, move on quickly to someone with a hot hand.
The Bills have no one waiting in the wings to become the next great starter at corner. Instead, they have a collection of mid to late-round young players and undrafted free agents in varying stages of development, looking for an opportunity to prove themselves. Jaquan Johnson, Siran Neal, Dane Jackson, and Cam Lewis will compete to establish the pecking order behind three starters.
- FS Micah Hyde – Marginal fantasy impact
- SS Jordan Poyer – Strong DB1 with elite tier potential
- FS Jaquan Johnson – No impact expected
- SS Damar Hamlin – Developmental rookie
- CB TreDavious White – Low-end CB2 or good CB3 but consistency is an issue
- CB Levi Wallace – Potential CB2, but let him show us something before putting him on your roster
- CB Taron Johnson – Target as mid-CB2 with low CB1 potential
- CB/FS Siran Neal – No impact expected
- CB Dane Jackson – Developmental player in his second season
- CB Richard Wildgoose – Developmental rookie
The Dolphins defense gave up a lot of yards in 2020, ranking 29th against the pass at eight yards per attempt and tied for 16th against the run. On the other hand, their 41 sacks ranked tenth, they created more turnovers (29) than anyone, and Miami allowed the sixth-fewest points. Despite their success, the organization used a pair of early picks on this side of the ball and signed several free agents to make significant contributions. One certain thing, there will be plenty of competition entering year three under head coach Brian Flores.
This unit can be a headache for IDP managers. Like an amoeba, it is constantly changing shape, making Miami players difficult to predict and sometimes hard to trust on a week-to-week basis. Being consistently inconsistent is by design and is an approach that Flores and defensive coordinator Josh Boyer brought with them after several years as defensive assistants with New England. They told us from the start that this would be a multiple defense, and they have followed through on that statement.
Creating confusion among the offense is what leads to mistakes and causes turnovers. The Miami defense can change between three and four-man fronts, not just weekly, but on a play-by-play basis, often without changing personnel. The catch for us is that this can also alter the responsibilities of individual players, which can affect their production potential at times.
One key for IDP managers is to know and understand the effect of a player’s positional designation. This sometimes changes from one league host site to another. The Dolphins have several players in the front seven that are affected by this. Christian Wilkins, Zach Sieler, Adam Butler, and Jason Strowbridge are among the players that line up as defensive ends in 3-4 sets and defensive tackles in four-man fronts. Emmanuel Ogbah and rookie first-round pick Jaelen Phillips are defensive ends in a 4-3 and outside linebacker in three-man fronts.
Figuring out their values in each league will be on the individual manager, but this is what we do know. No Dolphins defensive lineman or edge defender totaled more than 48 combined tackles in 2020. Sieler and Wilkins had 48, with Sieler kicking in three and a half sacks and Wilkins two and a half while chipping in a couple of turnovers over 14 games. These guys have some value as interior linemen, with Wilkins finishing ninth in points per game among tackles last season. Adam Butler had 34 combined tackles and 4 sacks for the Patriots last season and will be a factor in the rotation, but it is hard to say if he will play enough to be an IDP factor.
Raekwon Davis and John Jenkins will work at nose tackle in three-man fronts and play the one-technique in 4-3 alignments. Davis is expected to get most of the playing time, but it is worth mention that Wilkins was the only 4-3 tackle or 3-4 lineman to play more than about 55% of the defensive snaps last season. In short, if you start tackles as a separate position, Wilkins is the only sure target of this group, providing you can play him there. Sieler might be worth a late/last round shot as a potential DT2 of depth at the position.
- NT/DT Raekwon Davis – No IDP impact
- NT John Jenkins – No impact
- DE/DT Christian Wilkins – DT1 or DL4 if you roster that many
- DE/DT Adam Butler – Watchlist player for tackle required leagues
- DE/DT Zach Sieler – DT2 or depth
- DE/DT Jason Strowbridge – No impact expected
- DE Jonathan Ledbetter – No impact
The Dolphins linebacker positions have been in a state of evolution since Flores took over. As we close in on the 2021 season, the process continues, but we are starting to see the pieces fall into place for some long-term stability. The only linebacker set to start for a third consecutive year under Flores is Jerome Baker. The 2018 third-round pick is a perfect fit for this defense because he has the versatility to play any linebacker spot in either three or four-man fronts. Baker is most often lined up inside when in 3-4 alignments. On 4-3 calls, he will usually work in the middle or on the weak side. He is undersized at 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds, but he has great range, good cover skills, is a physical tackler that rarely whiffs. And as the team discovered last year, he has a knack for getting home on the blitz.
Baker shows consistency in his year-to-year numbers. In 2019 he was the 20th ranked linebacker at 78-49-1.5 with 3 takeaways and 4 pass breakups. In 2020 he was the number 19 linebacker at 71-39-7 with 2 forced fumbles and 2 passes defended. However, like many players in New England over the years and with the Dolphins recently, Baker has some issues with week-to-week consistency due to the varying game plans. He opened last season with a bang, going 12-4-1 with a forced fumble in week one, then fell on his face in week two with one tackle and five assists. The rollercoaster ride continued for most of the season. In the end, Baker had eight games with double-digit points and six with five or fewer. On a positive note, four and a half of Baker’s seven sacks came in three December games against the Chiefs, Patriots, and Raiders. Maybe that is a sign of better things to come.
Linebackers are often considered the running backs of the defense. This is where most IDP managers look for and emphasize consistency. So despite finishing in the mid-LB2 range over the last two seasons, in terms of IDP value, Baker is probably more of a decent LB3 target with upside on any given week.
Kyle Van Noy was the Dolphins' other highly versatile, near full-time linebacker in 2020, but he was surprisingly let go after last season. Elandon Roberts, Kamu Grugier-Hill, and Calvin Munson filled out the depth chart at the position. All of them had roles in the defense over the season, more significant in some weeks than others. Roberts and Munson are back for 2021, but their roles will likely remain marginal and undefined.
Miami did make a couple of free agent moves at the position, adding Duke Riley and Bernardrick McKinney. Riley is a former third-round pick of the Falcons (2017) that has not panned out so far. He spent last season on an Eagles team that was hurting at linebacker but was still unable to make an impact. McKinney, on the other hand, was a second-round selection of the Texans in 2015. His six-year stint as a starting inside linebacker in Houston’s 3-4 came to an end last year with a shoulder injury in week five.
The addition of McKinney is somewhat of a headscratcher in that he does not seem to fit the mold. He is not all that versatile, is not a particularly fast or athletic player, and was not part of the Texans sub-packages for most of his time there due to average coverage skills. They signed him with a purpose in mind, but as a rather one-dimensional base-down run-stopper, it is hard to envision a large enough role for McKinney to make a significant IDP splash.
With the veteran presence of Emmanuel Ogbah, the emergence of third-year man Andrew Van Ginkel and the first-round selection of Jaelan Phillips, the Dolphins appear to be set at the OLB/edge positions. Ogbah bounced around a bit after spending his first three years in Cleveland. He was with Kansas City in 2019 before landing with Miami last year, where he seemed to find his happy place.
Ogbah had five and a half sacks as a rookie in 2016; he reached that total again with the Chiefs before breaking out for nine last year for Miami. He does not make a lot of tackles, with a career-high of 28 solos and 52 combined coming in his first year as a pro. Ogbah went 24-18-9 with 3 forced fumbles and 5 batted passes last season. As a defensive end, it was the first top-20 finish of his career. In leagues that designated him as a linebacker, his value was significantly lower.
Ogbah is another argument for scrapping our current positional designations and creating an edge defender position. The Dolphins list him as a defensive end, which is where he lines up when the defense is in a four-man front, but he lines up as an outside linebacker on 3-4 calls. We could get into splitting hairs by counting how many times he lines up with his hand in the dirt versus a 2-point stance, or we could count how many times the defense lines up in each front, but those variables can change from week to week. For now, all we can do is see where he is listed in our leagues and react appropriately. If he is a defensive end, target Ogbah as a mid-level DL2. If he is a linebacker, forget his name unless your scoring leans heavily on big plays.
Sadly, the situation is much the same for Phillips, a defensive end at UCLA and Miami. The Dolphins were quick to clarify that he would be a linebacker in their scheme, but the reality is that he will almost surely put his hand down often.
As for his potential production, Phillips played in ten games as an underclassman at UCLA before transferring to Miami. In those ten games, he was 28-13-4.5. In ten starts with the Hurricanes last year, he totaled 21-24-8. Many scouts considered Phillips the best edge defender/pass rusher in this year’s draft class, and the Dolphins agreed. He has a quick upfield burst to get around the edge and a large wingspan to help corral quarterbacks and runners. Phillips could stand to add a little muscle to his frame so he could hold up better as a point of attack run defender, but he is expected to have a major role from day one.
Van Ginkel did not play much as a rookie fifth-round pick in 2019, but he stepped up in year two, going 29-19-5.5 with 4 turnovers, 4 swatted passes, and a score on just 479 plays while working mostly as the third man in the edge rotation. Ogbah and Phillips are tweeners; at 6-foot-4 and 242 pounds, Van Ginkel is more locked in as an outside linebacker, working almost exclusively from a two-point stance. He is a fine chess piece for the Dolphins defense, but there is no reason to expect a lot more on the stat sheet than what we saw last season.
- ILB/WLB Jerome Baker – Lack of consistency makes him an LB3 with week-to-week upside
- ILB Benardrick McKinney – Watchlist player with LB3 upside if he lands a three-down role
- ILB Elandon Roberts – Injury sleeper at best
- ILB Duke Riley – No impact
- ILB/SLB Sam Eguavoen – No fantasy value
- OLB/DE Emmanuel Ogbah – Decent DL2 or priority DL3 as a defensive end, marginal value as a linebacker
- OLB/DE Jaelan Phillips – High production ceiling, but his value depends on the positional designation
- OLB Andrew Van Ginkel – Injury sleeper in big play based formats
- OLB Brennan Scarlet – No fantasy value expected
- OLB Vince Biegel – No impact
The Miami secondary could be a goldmine of IDP production in 2020, but we could need a treasure map to find it before week one. In 2020, Eric Rowe, Bobby McCain, and then-rookie third-round pick Brandon Jones were the main contributors at safety. Rowe and McCain were on the field virtually full-time at strong and free safety, respectively, with Jones getting most of the base package leftovers and some sub-package opportunities.
Rowe managed respectable numbers with 67 tackles, 24 assists, 3 turnovers, and 11 passes defended, for a final rank of 24th among defensive backs. All of those numbers were career-highs for the former corner, who is viewed as little more than a placeholder until the team can get around to addressing the position for the long term.
Rowe has been dependable in run support and coverage over his two seasons at the position but is not particularly physical as most strong safeties tend to be, nor is he the kind of playmaker this coaching staff covets. The Dolphins could get by with Rowe at strong safety for another season if need be, but he is not a lock to continue as the starter.
As the deep safety, McCain was not in a position to be highly productive in the tackle columns. Still, the coaching staff expected more than the lone interception he recorded, so he was let go, and the team drafted Jevon Holland in the second round as the replacement. For a team that thrives on the big play, Holland looks like a perfect fit. He opted out last season, but in his two years at Oregon, Holland started 16 of the 27 games he played in. His career numbers with the Ducks were rather impressive at 71-37-0 with 9 interceptions and a score. If Holland jumps right into the lineup as expected, his IDP value will be hard to project, not so much due to his ability, but rather the history and responsibilities of the position he will play.
The wildcard here is Jones. He had some struggles as a rookie but did some good things, particularly in run support. At a glance, his totals of 41-21-1 with 1 forced fumble are rather ho-hum. Once we consider that he was limited to 385 snaps, they take on a different light. His big-play numbers were no better than Rowe's, but Jones was a much more physical presence and made more plays per-capita in the run game. If we average the numbers Jones recorded over the play count of Rowe, we get something like 98 tackles and 50 assists. Granted, Jones’ numbers are a little inflated because he saw some snaps as a nickel linebacker and so forth. Still, the point remains the same - he has the potential to put up the kind of numbers we used to get from Reshad Jones when he patrolled Miami’s secondary. The only question being is he ready to step up and claim the starting job in year two?
Miami corners have traditionally given us little to work with as IDP managers. We have to go back several years to find someone with more than 50 solo tackles. On the other hand, we have to go back even further to find a Dolphins defense that led the league in takeaways. One of the main reasons they could do so in 2020 was the league-leading ten interceptions by Xavien Howard. His 11 total turnovers and 20 passes defended were enough to compensate for low tackle totals of 40 solo and 11 assists, landing Howard among the top-five corners and top-ten defensive backs overall. He missed most of 2019, but the seven interceptions Howard recorded in 2018 show that the turnover numbers are not a fluke. That said, he has a career-high of 51 combined tackles, had no more than 13 pass breakups in any of his four prior seasons, and had never finished higher than CB20 before last year. Considering how rare it is for a player to lead the league in interceptions twice, let alone twice in a row, Howard is probably worthy of consideration as a second starter if you like to gamble or excellent bye-week depth with big upside on any given week, but there are more dependable options as our number one.
Byron Jones is the expected starter opposite Howard and is a solid veteran option, but there will be competition for the job. Last year’s first-round pick Noah Igbinoghene stepped in when Jones missed some time early in the season and performed well. He played sparingly after that, totaling 411 snaps on the year. Teams tend to push their early-round picks into the lineup, so with some experience and a full offseason, Igbinoghene could be looking at a bigger role.
The team also added veterans Jason McCourty and Justin Coleman to provide depth and competition in the secondary. McCourty is more of a utility player than a starter at this stage of his career, but the soon-to-be 34-year-old can still play if called upon. Regardless of who ends up starting opposite Howard, there is no reason to believe the production will be enough to provide IDP value.
- SS Brandon Jones – High upside sleeper
- FS Jevon Holland – Watchlist rookie with big-play upside
- SS/CB Eric Rowe – Solid DB3 or quality depth if he holds off Jones
- SS/CB Jason McCourty – Injury sleeper
- SS Clayton Fejedelem – No impact
- CB Xavien Howard – Stud CB1 in big play formats, gambler’s CB2 for most of us
- CB Byron Jones – No impact
- CB Justin Coleman – No impact
- CB Noah Igbinoghene – Watchlist player if he starts opposite Howard
- CB Nik Needham – No impact
- CB Cre’Von LeBlanc – No impact
New England Patriots
With a combination of injuries, opt-outs, and salary cap woes, the Patriots were in a bad place last season. After the year of salary cap purgatory, they were more active in free agency than ever before under Bill Belichick. With Dont’a Hightower returning, Stephon Gilmore hopefully being healthy, and as many as seven free agents starting or making significant contributions, this should be a much different defense in 2021.
At one point several years ago, the Patriots were a full-blown 3-4 defense. They evolved into a multiple-front scheme for a few years and continue to use multiple fronts, but New England began leaning more toward 4-3 looks over the last two or three seasons. The 24 sacks they recorded last year were a huge step down from the 47 they put up in 2019 and were the fewest of any Belichick-coached Patriots team, so something had to be done. Looking at the current roster, especially at the free agents and draft picks that are new to the team, suggests we will see many more three-man fronts in 2021.
Chase Winovich led the Patriots with five and a half sacks last year and was their most fantasy-friendly defensive lineman. At 33-17-5.5 with a forced fumble, an interception, and a pair of pass breakups, he squeezed into the DL2 range, ranking 22nd. Those numbers are respectable in general, but even more so when considering he played fewer than 600 snaps.
Entering his third season as a pro, Winovich is a breakout candidate. John Simon led the team’s defensive linemen in playing time last year. He is no longer in the picture, opening the door for Winovich to take on the lead role. Even if the numbers are there as expected, there could be a major obstacle for IDP managers in the dreaded positional designation.
To be a three-down edge defender for the Patriots, players must have the versatility to transition between responsibilities and alignments on a play-to-play basis. Winovich has that versatility. At 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds, he is the definition of a tweener. He is undersized for a traditional, hand-down, defensive end role but has shown success in that alignment both as a run defender and pass rusher. Winovich was a 4-3 defensive in college and even played some tackle at Michigan. As an outside linebacker, he remains somewhat of a work in progress but has seen time in that role over the last two seasons in New England.
In anticipation of the team using more 3-4 in 2021, some league host sites have already changed Winovich from a defensive end to an outside linebacker. This move seems a little premature, but it is happening nonetheless. Check out his position in your league and if he is still a defensive end, slip Winovich onto your roster as a priority DL3 with high DL2 upside.
One of the glaring signs that New England will run more 3-4 is the lack of another 4-3 defensive end on the roster. Second-year players Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings come with linebacker backgrounds, Kyle Van Noy is a linebacker that could be used on the edge, and free-agent addition Matt Judon has been a 3-4 outside linebacker for his entire five-year career.
Another strong sign is the defensive line group the team spent their free-agent money on. Henry Anderson has played some tackle in four-man fronts but is an excellent fit as a 3-4 end. Davon Godchaux can play the 1-technique in a 4-3 but was successful as a nose tackle for the Dolphins, and Montravius Adams has been a defensive end in the Packer 3-4 since becoming a pro in 2017. Add these guys to incumbents Lawrence Guy, Byron Cowart, Deatrich Wise Jr, Akeem Spence, and Carl Davis, and you have the makings of a tough and deep three-man front.
There are no great pass rushers among this group, but there are some targets for those in leagues that break out the defensive line positions. Lawrence Guy has at least 61 combined tackles in each of his four seasons with the Patriots. He added five sacks and four turnovers over the last two years to produce back-to-back rankings of eighth among interior linemen. Guy should continue to be productive regardless of the defensive front, but again, his IDP value will depend on the positional designation.
Guy could play some nose tackle but will line up as a defensive end in most three-man fronts. At this point, I am not aware of any league host site that has moved him from tackle to end. This includes sites that have switched Winovich from end to linebacker, which is annoying. Not that I want them to move Guy to a position that will render him all but useless to us, but a little consistency from host sites would be nice. If you project the team as a 3-4 defense, do it with the entire roster, not just select players.
The other potential IDP option is Godchaux. As the Dolphins nose tackle/1-technique in 2019, Godchaux finished as the eleventh-ranked interior lineman with a line of 34-35-2. He had 16 combined tackles before going down with a biceps injury in week five last year. It is hard to say how the roles will pan out, but he can be a quality second starter.
The wildcard here is Christian Barmore, the first defensive tackle off the board in this year’s draft, albeit early in the second round. The Patriots may have gotten a steal with this young man. His combination of first-step explosion, handwork, power, and a relentless motor makes it difficult for offensive linemen to sustain blocks. He has a knack for getting into gaps to penetrate and disrupt running plays or slip past blockers. Barmore would probably be wasted as a nose tackle, but he has the versatility and skillset to wreak havoc from any position in either front.
Barmore checks the box for college production as well. He only played two seasons at Alabama, electing to turn pro after a sophomore year that saw him record 37 combined tackles, 8 sacks, and three forced fumbles in 11 games. He just turned 21 at the end of June and is not yet at his physical peak, but he is a rare talent with tremendous long-term potential.
With Godchaux at nose tackle, Guy and Barmore at the ends, and a group of solid veteran contributors to rotate in and keep everyone fresh, we might not see many four-man fronts from the Patriots in 2021.
- NT/DT Davon Godchaux –Target as depth with mid-DT2 upside
- DT/DE Lawrence Guy – Solid DT2 with low DT1 potential, minimal value as a defensive end
- DT/DE Christian Barmore – High ceiling rookie with serious long-term upside
- DT/DE Byron Cowart – No impact
- DT/DE Montravius Adams – No impact
- DE/DT Henry Anderson – No impact
- DE/OLB Chase Winovich – Solid DL2 if you can play him as a lineman, minimal value as an OLB
- DE Deatrich Wise Jr – No impact
The Patriots have a lot of options at the linebacker positions. Too many, in fact, if you are an IDP manager looking for value. Kyle Van Noy is a big-play threat that can line up anywhere. He worked everywhere except middle linebacker in 4-3 alignments in his first stint with the team. Van Noy never puts up great tackle totals, with a career-best of 59 solos, but he has 20 sacks, 13 takeaways, 13 pass breakups, and 3 scores over the last four seasons. He is a true utility man at the position and gives the defensive coaches a ton of options, but Van Noy is hit or miss as an IDP option from week to week.
At 260 pounds, Dont’a Hightower is like a guard playing linebacker. He is a beast against the run and has been successful as a pass rusher but has never been able to sustain a three-down role. Hightower is the kind of situational chess piece Belichick’s teams love to take advantage of, but he has never been a significant fantasy factor. That is not going to change now.
Ja’Whaun Bentley has a similar skill set to that of Hightower. He did a nice job of holding down the fort when things were bad last year. Bentley was given some sub-package opportunities early in the season, but his role was reduced and inconsistent after week six. Some of that may have been due to nagging injuries, but like Hightower, coverage is not one of Bentley’s strengths. He should see a fair amount of action on most weeks but is unlikely to hold more than a part-time role.
Injuries and the general search for answers led to Terez Hall getting an opportunity over the second half of last season. He got the attention of the IDP community with some big statistical games. He looked pretty solid on the field for the most part, but all the organization's additions made over the offseason tell us they were not as impressed as some of us were. Hall should make the roster as a special teams contributor, but playing time on defense could be hard to come by for him.
The Patriots signed Raekwon McMillan to a one-year deal. The 2017 second-round pick of the Dolphins has quickly become a journeyman and is playing with his third team in three seasons. He is a two-down thumper with little upside and will probably be buried on the depth chart if he makes the final roster.
Rookie Cameron McGrone is an interesting dynasty prospect. The Patriots got him in round five, at least partly due to McGrone suffering an ACL injury in 2020. In his short (16 games) career at Michigan, he totaled 91 combined tackles, 3 sacks, and a forced fumble. McGrone is fast enough, has a quick trigger, Can get home on the blitz, and is a violent hitter, but his ability in coverage remains somewhat of a mystery due to lack of tape.
All of these guys could be contributors, but none of them stand out as a player that will be on the field all the time. We have seen from the Patriots in the past a player having a major role one week and a minor one the next based on matchups and game plan. Until/unless the Patriots come up with that special player that can do everything so well they just can’t take him off the field, we should not expect any significant IDP contribution here.
New England’s pass rush should be much improved in 2021. Not only do they possibly have an emerging star in Chase Winovich, but the team also added a proven commodity in Matt Judon and has two more high potential young players in 2020 second-round pick Josh Uche and rookie third-rounder Ronnie Perkins.
Judon brings leadership and stability to a position of need. He is not a superstar and has never reached double-digit sacks in a season but is a durable and reliable veteran that can set the edge versus the run and will make a good contribution to the pass rush. Since becoming a starter for the Ravens in 2017, Judon has averaged 41-16-7.5 and 2 turnovers. He is a great situational fit for the Patriots but, like most outside linebackers, has little IDP value to offer.
Uche only played 178 snaps as a rookie but managed nine combined tackles and the first sack of his NFL career. That is not a lot to look at, but it was enough for Pro Football Focus to give him the highest pass-rush grade among rookies in 2020. Uche started for one season at Michigan but managed 15.5 career sacks for the Wolverines over the 26 games he played in. Look for his playing time to be significant in year two, especially in passing situations.
Ronnie Perkins is one of those guys that is not flashy, is not blazing fast, is undersized, not special athletically, and so forth, but when you put the tape on, the guy just makes plays. Heart, desire, focus, determination, toughness, and smart are all terms you will find when reading various scouting reports. His college career at Oklahoma consisted of 32 games (19 starts) with 98 combined tackles and 16.5 sacks.
The last player I want to mention here is 2020 third-round pick Anfernee Jennings. This guy is a highly versatile Swiss Army Knife that can line up inside or come off the edge as a pass rusher. Anyone who has ever tried to use a Swiss Army Knife to fix something knows that they are neat to look at and admire all the functions, but when it comes right down to it, they are a poor substitute for a designed tool a specific job. Jennings had 13.5 sacks over his final two seasons at Alabama while working mostly as an edge defender. Hopefully, the Patriots will allow him to focus on that position where he might develop into a solid starter.
- ILB/OLB Kyle Van Noy – Could have LB3 value if his role allows
- SLB/ILB Dont'a Hightower – No IDP impact
- ILB Ja'Whaun Bentley – Worth keeping an eye on, but no fantasy impact expected
- ILB Raekwon McMillan – No impact
- ILB Cameron McGrone – Possible dynasty sleeper
- ILB Terez Hall – No impact expected
- OLB Matt Judon – LB3 in big play formats
- OLB Josh Uche – Watchlist sleeper in big play formats
- OLB/SLB Anfernee Jennings – No impact expected
- OLB/DE Ronnie Perkins – Dynasty watchlist in big play leagues
- OLB/ILB Harvey Langi – No impact
- OLB Tashawn Bower – No impact
In last year’s column, I called out Adrian Phillips as one of my favorite sleepers. That worked out pretty well in general, but by the end of the season, it did nothing to curb my deep resentment for the Patriots from an IDP perspective. Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing but respect for Belichick and the organization as a football fan. One of the great football quotes of all time came from Rex Ryan when he said, "Everyone hates a winner unless they are your team. I hope everyone hates us at the end of the season too."
My issue with the Patriots stems from their unpredictability and the fact they take players off the field too much, usually ruining their value and often costing us games. Case in point, Adrian Phillips. He finished last season at 75-34-1 with 2 interceptions, 4 passes defended, and a very respectable ranking of 19. Imagine what he would have done with another 248 plays? Phillips saw action on 747 of a possible 995 defensive snaps or roughly 75%. With only Devin McCourty and J.C.Jackson playing more. Phillips worked as the strong safety/nickel linebacker last year. The defense is still without a linebacker that covers well, so he appears to be in line for the same role in 2021. That said, Phillips could lose some snaps to Kyle Dugger in his second year.
When the team used an early pick on Dugger last year, some of us thought he might be the guy to replace Patrick Chung and provide some value. Instead, he took on more of a part-time role as the third safety, much like Duron Harmon used to have. Dugger’s role grew as the season wore on, so that might have just been the Belichick way of easing him into the defense. With Chungnow retired, Dugger could still be in line to take over the full-time strong safety job, but we will not know that until September because this team plays everything like a game of espionage.
McCourty played more than any other New England defender in 2020, coming off the field for 33 total plays. He does an excellent job filling his role, but as the deep safety/last line defender, there are simply not enough opportunities for him to make plays. He had one big statistical campaign in 2017 but has put up 46 and 45 solo stops over the last two seasons.
The Patriots’ rank of 22nd against the pass last year had a lot more to do with a lack of pass rush than poor talent in the secondary. Even the best corners are not going to stay with NFL receivers forever. In Stephon Gilmore, New England has one of the league’s elite cover corners. He does not make a lot of tackles because he does not give up a lot of completions. In 2018 and 2019 combined, Gilmore had 84 tackles, but he broke up 39 passes, intercepted 8, and scored twice. He battled injuries for much of 2020 and was not the same player. Gilmore is still getting over the torn quad that ended his season, but he reported to camp despite the lack of progress in contract talks. The organization hopes to have him healthy and signed into the future by week one, but neither of those desires is sure to materialize.
Not having Gilmore to open the season would be a major blow, but not one the Patriots would be unable to overcome. J.C. Jackson is also barking about wanting a raise and extension. According to him, he is a number one corner and deserves the payday to match. Considering his nine interceptions were second-most in the league, and opposing quarterbacks had a passer rating of 48 when throwing at his cover last year, it is hard to argue with the man.
With 11 total takeaways and 14 passes defended, Jackson managed a top-ten ranking among corners in 2020. With 19 takeaways and 30 passes defended in his first three years as a pro, there is no argument about his ability to make big plays. Still, I just can’t force myself to trust a player with a career-high of 35 solo tackles as anything more than a bye week option. I see Jackson as a gambler's CB2.
If everyone is healthy and happy, Jonathan Jones will be the Patriots’ third corner. It is a role he is familiar with, having been there since 2017. With Gilmore battling injuries last season, Jones was pressed into a bigger role for much of the season. The result was 60 tackles, 14 assists, 3 turnovers, 6 pass breakups, and a rank of 17th among corners. If Gilmore is not ready when the season opens, Jones could be a surprisingly solid option for those in leagues starting two corners. He reached double-digit points in three of the five games that Gilmore missed last season.
Jason McCourty was a great addition to the Patriots last season. His ability and experience went a lot way as the utility man in the secondary. That role should fall to this year’s free-agent addition, Jalen Mills. Mills is not as talented or experienced as McCourty, but he is not as old or expensive. The former Eagle has started at corner, slot, free safety, and strong safety over his five seasons. If Gilmore is not ready, Mills would be the lead candidate to the third corner spot. At the least, he should be a factor in sub-packages while providing depth at every position.
The Patriots have several other young players and a sprinkling of veterans competing to fill out the rest of the final roster, but no one looks to significantly impact this point.
- FS Devin McCourty – Marginal IDP value at best
- SS Adrian Phillips – Mid-level DB2 with both risk and upside
- SS/FS Kyle Dugger – Watchlist sleeper
- FS/CB Jalen Mills – Utility player with some possible value as an injury replacement
- SS Joshuah Bledsoe – Developmental rookie
- SS Adrian Colbert – No impact
- CB Stephon Gilmore – Limited IDP value at best
- CB C.J. Jackson – Gamblers CB2 based on big-play potential
- CB Jonathan Jones – Potential CB2 if Gilmore misses time
- CB Joejuan Williams – No impact expected
New York Jets
Whatever perceptions you may have had about the Jets in the past, forget them. This is not that team. The coaching staff is different, there have been sweeping changes to the roster on both sides of the ball, and a completely different defensive scheme is now in place. As is often the case, it will be a year or two before the Jets have all the pieces in place for their new 4-3 scheme, but they have done a good job with the resources available.
The defensive line has an outstanding cornerstone to build on in 2019 third overall pick, Quinnen Williams. Drafted by the previous regime to play defensive end in a 3-4, Williams has the talent, versatility, and skill set to play the 3-technique in the new scheme and immediately become one of the league’s elite interior linemen. He is a powerful, athletic big man with the size and strength to anchor against the run and the ability to get off blocks and make tackles in tight quarters. On passing downs, he can push the pocket with a strong bull rush on one play, then beat the blocker with a quick move on the next.
His career got off to a slow start with 16 tackles, 12 assists, and 2.5 sacks in 2019 when, for some reason, the previous coaching staff insisted on limiting Williams’ snap count, making him part of what was, essentially, a nine-player rotation at three defensive line positions. Williams saw an increased per-game workload in year two, managing to more than double his production by going 32-23-7 with 3 batted passes and a pair of forced fumbles in just 13 games. The raw numbers landed him at 15th in the defensive line rankings, but his 10.12 points per game ranked seventh.
Williams has not yet been on the field for more than 586 plays in a season, but playing time should not be a concern going forward. Head coach Robert Saleh likes to keep his stars on the field. As defensive coordinator for the 49ers in 2019, Saleh played DeForest Buckner on 824 snaps, Nick Bosa on 789, and Arik Armstead on 788. All things considered, it would not be a surprise to see Williams join Buckner and Aaron Donald on the elite DT1 tier and become a perennial top-ten defensive lineman.
The rest of the Jets' defensive line can help them be competitive, but there may not be many long-term solutions in the group. Sheldon Rankins signed a two-year deal that will keep him in New York through the 2023 season. He is a former first-round pick of the Saints but has battled injuries throughout his young career and has never met expectations. Rankins is penciled in as the starting 1-technique tackle but may end up sharing time with or even losing the job to Foley Fatukasi, who played well as a second-year man in 2020. At the least, Fatukasi should have a role as the third in the tackle rotation.
Vinny Curry and Carl Lawson are penciled in as the starters at defensive end. Curry is a 33-year-old, nine-year veteran with plenty of starting experience. He had nine sacks way back in 2014 but no more than five in any other season. Curry is a capable, early-down end that can slip inside on passing downs. He can help the team as a one-year placeholder but has little to offer in fantasy terms.
Carl Lawson started his career as a pass rush specialist for the Bengals. He had eight sacks in that role as a rookie in 2017 but has not improved on that mark. Lawson put on some muscle over the time in Cincinnati with the hope of becoming a three-down starter. While he did show improvement, Lawson could not capitalize on his opportunity when the Bengals gave him a chance last year. On 723 plays, he totaled 19-17-5.5 and was not invited back. Lawson is signed through the 2024 season, so he will be around for a while. The Jets will give him another shot at a three-down role, but I look for Lawson to end up back in the sub-package role before long, especially if Ronald Blair III can get healthy.
Blair was a fifth-round pick of the 49ers in 2016. He was not on the field a lot over his first two seasons, but in 2018 earned a significant role in the defensive end rotation. Blair finished that season at 23-13-5.5 on 534 plays. San Francisco drafted Bosa and signed Dee Ford in 2019, so Blair’s role was reduced, but he still managed 13-7-3 before suffering an ACL injury in early November. Complications with his recovery kept Blair out of football last season, but coach Saleh did not forget him. If he can get back to the player he was in 2018, Blair has a shot at a three-down job with the Jets this season and could be a long-term option.
In Bryce Huff and Jabari Zuniga, the Jets have a pair of second-year edge defenders drafted to play outside linebacker in a 3-4. Both guys have some potential and are likely to make the team if for no other reason than the need for bodies. Both are undersized for the job but should have a year to hit the weight room and pack on some muscle. Huff managed to land a pair of sacks last year on limited snaps. He could get some third-down opportunities this year and is worth keeping an eye on.
- DT Sheldon Rankins – Good player that can’t stay out of the trainer's room
- DT Quinnen Williams – Strong DT1 with elite-tier potential or solid DL1
- DT Foley Fatukasi – Injury sleeper
- DT/DE John Franklin-Myers – Watchlist player with limited upside
- DT Nathan Shepherd – No impact expected
- DE Carl Lawson – Marginal IPD value
- DE Ronald Blair III – Deep sleeper with DL3 potential
- DE Vinny Curry – No impact
- DE Bryce Huff – No immediate impact
- DE Jabari Zuniga – No impact
- DE/DT Kyle Phillips – No impact
The Jets have gone through a multitude of issues at linebacker over the last two seasons. In 2020, 11 players took snaps at the positions, including six at inside linebacker, and that is not counting C.J. Mosley, who was supposed to be one of the starters before opting out. Nine of those players are no longer with the team, so it is not hard to figure out the plan for 2021.
Mosley is set to finally make an impact for New York. He was their prized free-agent addition heading into the 2019 season but has so far played 116 total snaps in a Jets uniform. His 2019 season was a wash after a week one groin injury that would eventually land Mosley on IR, and he elected not to play last season due to COVID. One thing is for certain - he is well-rested.
Mosley just turned 29, so despite not playing for nearly two years, once he knocks off a little rust, he should be able to pick up right where he left off. For those that might not remember where that was, Mosley was a top-12 linebacker in three of his first four seasons, and in 2017 he was the fantasy game’s best linebacker. He was a tackling machine that year with 97 solo stops and 36 assists and a playmaker with eight turnovers, a sack, and a score. His 14.36 points per game were almost a point more than Bobby Wagner at number two. From his rookie season in 2014 through his monster 2017 campaign, Mosley totaled 18 turnovers, 8 sacks, 29 passes defended, and scored twice. He battled some nagging injuries in 2018, finishing 71-35-.5 with an interception and five passes defended in 13 games.
So what should we expect from Mosley in 2021? At 6-foot-2 and 250 pounds, he is the prototypical 4-3 middle linebacker with a combination of size, speed, athleticism, and natural ability. The Jets have foundation players at each level of the defense, but this will not be a great unit in the short term, so there will be plenty of tackle opportunities to go around. Mosley is a playmaker in a defense that is designed for playmakers. Fred Warner totaled five takeaways and a sack in the same role under coach Saleh last season, so those numbers should be there as well.
The only thing that concerns me a little with Mosley is the injuries. He missed a couple of games in 2016 and 2018 before losing virtually all of 2019 to the torn groin. However, if he can stay healthy, there is no reason to think he will fall short of another top-12 finish.
Blake Cashman is slated to start at weakside linebacker. The 2019 fifth-round selection has shown promise in his young career but has, thus far, missed more games than he has been available for due to shoulder, groin, and hamstring injuries. Cashman started six games as a rookie, replacing Mosley as inside linebacker. He recorded at least seven fantasy points in all of them, reaching double digits three times. He spent the final nine weeks of the season on IR with a torn labrum. Cashman was a week-one starter last season but lasted three plays before the groin injury. Between that and the hamstring, he played 47 snaps over four games in 2020.
If he can stay on the field, Cashman could be highly productive and might prove to be a long-term solution at the position. As a senior at Minnesota in 2018, he started 12 games and was 62-42-2.5 with a pair of takeaways, five pass breakups, and a score. He was relatively injury-free through college, so hopefully, the rash of injuries is no more than a sad coincidence. Cashman has the potential to be a steady third starter for us, but his injury history and/or lack of prior production at the pro level will keep him out of mind for most IDP managers. Slip him onto your roster as a late-round LB5 and keep your fingers crossed.
Former Lions’ first-round pick (2017), Jarrad Davis, was signed in the offseason to play on the strong side. Had Detroit’s previous coaching staff been smart enough to play him on the strong side, Davis might have been successful there and still with the team. Instead, they all insisted on forcing him into the middle, where he was not a great fit. Davis is a capable run defender and has shown success as a pass rusher, but he has limitations in coverage. His experience as a starter is a plus for the Jets, but like Mosley and Cashman, Davis has dealt with injuries over the last two seasons. If he somehow ends up in a three-down role, Davis has enough game to provide LB4 value or possibly be a third starter late in the year when the ranks have been thinned.
So what we have here are three starting linebackers with injury concerns and a glaring lack of depth behind them. When I say glaring, I mean like the summer sun on a cloudless day glaring. DelShawn Phillips graduated from Illinois in 2018, Milo Eifler graduated from Illinois last year, Brendon White spent three seasons with Ohio State before going to Rutgers in 2020, and Noah Dawkins is a rookie out of The Citadel. All of these guys are young undrafted free agents. Fifth-round pick Jamien Sherwood is listed as a linebacker on the Jets roster but was a safety at Auburn. This is the entire depth chart at linebacker for the Jets entering training camp, and they have zero defensive snaps in the NFL between them. If I were the Jets general manager, I might be putting in a call to Avery Williamson, B.J. Goodson, or Josh Bynes.
- MLB C.J. Mosley – Top-12 potential is he stays healthy
- WLB Blake Cashman – Solid LB3 if he stays healthy
- SLB Jarrad Davis – No value unless Mosley or Cashman are hurt, low LB3 ceiling in that case
- WLB DelShawn Phillips – Developmental prospect
- WLB Jamien Sherwood – Converted rookie safety
- MLB Milo Eifler – Developmental rookie
- MLB Brendon White - Developmental rookie
- SLB Noah Dawkins – Developmental rookie
The Jets secondary lacks big-name players and is sure to get a lot of attention over the next couple of offseasons, but there could be considerable IDP value here. I mean, someone has to make tackles, right? That was not the case last season when, despite the team’s struggles, no defensive back managed more than 53 solo stops. Granted, the team had three players see significant playing time at strong safety, but Bradley McDougald, Ashton Davis, and Matthias Farley combined only recorded 61 tackles and 33 assists.
What makes me think this year will be different is that I expect Marcus Maye to play strong safety. Maye and Jamal Adams were drafted by the Jets in the first two rounds in 2017. Maye landed at free safety because he had the versatility to do so, while Adams was a pure strong safety. If not for the presence of Adams, Maye might have been the Jets' strong safety from the start. Maye has the speed, instincts, coverage ability, and ball skills of a free safety with the size and physicality of a box safety.
Working as the deep, last-line defender, Maye has never reached 60 solo stops in a season, but he is a dependable open-field tackler that can pack a punch and is a proven playmaker. Maye has 11 takeaways, 2.5 sacks, and 21 pass breakups in four seasons as a pro. The move to strong safety should add 20-25 combined tackles to last year's totals of 53-36 and make Maye at least a solid DB2.
Some will contend that second-year man Ashton Davis will be the strong safety with Maye staying at free. That is a possibility, but if that is the case, why did the team sign free safety Lamarcus Joyner? Davis had an opportunity to impress last year after replacing Bradley McDougald around mid-season. He had one good game in fantasy terms but was otherwise unimpressive. Davis graded out poorly according to Pro Football Focus, with a 56.1 and a rank of 70th at the position. With a year of experience and a training camp to help him grow, Davis could be a much-improved player in 2021, but I believe the decision has already been made.
Joyner gives the Jets some versatility. He is a former corner that can play free safety or slot and can even work on the outside in a pinch. Speed, range, and dependable open-field tackling are Joyner’s biggest assets. He is not a long-term answer for the Jets and has never been much of a fantasy factor, but he can provide a veteran presence and help the team be competitive in the short term.
NFL history is littered with players that prove how unimportant draft status is. This has been particularly evident at the corner position over the years. The Jets hope to add more names to the long list of successful late-round or undrafted players at the position. Blessaun Austin was a sixth-round pick in 2019, Bryce Hall was a fifth-round selection last year, Corey Ballentine was taken by the Giants in round five two years ago, and Lamar Jackson was an undrafted rookie last year. Heading to training camp, these guys are the Jets’ top four corners, with this year’s fifth-round picks Michael Carter II, Jason Pinnock, and sixth-rounder Brandin Echols competing for a place in the pecking order as well.
This will be a wide-open competition for the most part, but managers in leagues that breakout the corner positions might want to take a late-round shot on Austin. He was the starter for nine games in 2020, playing sparingly in two others. Austin had at least five combined tackles and eight fantasy points in eight of those games, totaling 49 tackles, 13 assists, 4 passes defended, and a takeaway on the season.
- SS/FS Marcus Maye – Marginal value at FS but top-12 upside if moved to strong as expected
- FS/CB Lamarcus Joyner – No IDP impact
- SS Astyn Davis – Sleeper with low DB3 ceiling if he lands the strong safety job
- SS Hamsah Nasirildeen – Developmental rookie worth keeping an eye on in the preseason
- FS Sharrod Neasman – No impact expected
- CB Blessuan Austin – Possible CB2
- CB Bryce Hall – Watchlist for corner required leagues
- CB Lamar Jackson - Watchlist for corner required leagues
- CB Corey Ballentine - Watchlist for corner required leagues
- CB Michael Carter II II – Developmental rookie but could be in the mix early
- CB Jason Pinnock - Developmental rookie but could be in the mix early
That does it for this year’s offseason Eyes of the Guru. The plan will be to get some updates once we have some training camp and preseason action to evaluate. Things begin to happen/change quickly once teams get on the field, so stay on top of your game!
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