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.
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