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Welcome back for part four of this year’s column. 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
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 basically the fact that in the NFL, starting a rookie at corner is like throwing chum to the sharks. Offensive coordinators will target young and inexperienced players as weaknesses, so 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 after their rookie seasons. 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 categories score similarly in most leagues.
When your defense is last against the run, last in turnovers by a wide margin, 30th versus the pass, and middle of the pack in sacks, it is probably time to do something different. The Texans moved to a 3-4 in 2011, and their first draft pick that spring was J.J. Watt. Ten years later, Watt is off to Arizona, and Houston is going back to a 4-3.
History tells us that when teams move between three and four-man fronts, it often takes a couple of seasons for an organization to fill its roster with players that fit the new scheme. The first step in that process is identifying what players from the old scheme can transition to the new one. Houston and their defensive coordinator Lovie Smith's problem is that there were not many guys on the defensive roster that could play in either scheme.
The Texans had no draft picks in the first two rounds, then used all three of their third-round selections to fill major holes on offense. The defensive line got a bone with the selection of tackle Roy Lopez in Round 6, and the team added linebacker Garrett Wallow in the fifth. The rest of the defensive holes were addressed by spending free-agent dollars on a slew of bargain-priced guys. In all, the Texans added eight free agents that either project to start or have significant roles.
It is hard to say how well Watt would have transitioned to a 4-3, but at least he would have given the defensive coaches a great talent to work with along the front-four. As it stands, they will have to do some exceptional coaching to get the best from what is largely a group of veteran journeymen.
At the defensive tackle position, holdovers Ross Blacklock and Brandon Dunn will compete with the rookie Lopez and free agents Malik Collins, Jaleel Johnson, Vincent Taylor, and DeMarcus Ware. This should be a wide-open battle with all these guys in the mix for a starting spot at the start of camp. By the end of camp, this battle will probably be for roster spots. There is a pretty high possibility that regardless of who wins the title of starter, nearly everyone that makes the team will have some role, and none of them will make enough plays to be roster worthy.
There is a little more hope for useful IDP production at the defensive end position, but no unseen stars lurk here. The best shot we have at fantasy value lies with holdover Whitney Mercilus. Positives and negatives surround the potential for Mercilus to become a viable fantasy option. On the negative side, he lacks a strong supporting cast and has been a stand-up outside linebacker for his entire nine-year NFL career. Mercilus has not regularly put his hand in the dirt since 2011 when he was a junior at Illinois. On a positive note, he has 52 career sacks with a personal best of 11, has forced 23 turnovers, and Mercilus was 28-29-16 with 9 forced fumbles for the Illini as a junior when last he played defensive end. Consider Mercilus a sleeper and slip him onto your roster in the final rounds as depth with a little upside. He could be a pleasant surprise.
Free-agent addition Shaq Lawson is an early favorite for one of the starting spots. A former first-round pick by the Bills, Lawson’s career has been disappointing to date. He has an average of just over four sacks per season with a career-best of six and a half in 2019. Lawson totaled 21 solo stops in 2019 but has not reached 20 in any other year.
Third-year Texan Charles Omenihu and free-agent pickup DeMarcus Walker are guys to keep an eye on early in the campaign. Both players were 3-4 defensive ends with their previous teams, both had four sacks in part-time roles last season, and both provide the versatility to line up wide on early downs then shift inside to rush the passer. Walker might be of particular interest in formats requiring interior linemen. A lot of league management programs are calling him a tackle.
- DE Whitney Mercilus – Sleeper with DL2 potential
- DE Shaq Lawson – Marginal value at best
- DE Charles Omenihu – Watch list with low expectations
- DE Jonathan Greenard – No impact expected
- DE Jordan Jenkins – No impact expected at this point
- DE Derek Rivers – Longshot to make the final roster
- DT/DE DeMarcus Walker – Watchlist player with some upside if he plays tackle
- DT Vincent Taylor – No impact expected
- DT Ross Blacklock – No impact expected
- DT Brandon Dunn – No impact
- DT Malik Collins – Potential DT3
- DT Jaleel Johnson – Possible DT3
- DT Ryan Lopez – Project player with no immediate value expected
Zach Cunningham is one of the relatively few starting defenders to survive the Texans roster purge. The organization needs someone to provide a foundation as they rebuild this woeful unit. Cunningham might be that guy, but there are some things to think about.
When it comes to skillset, Cunningham would appear to be a good fit. After playing the weak inside linebacker spot in Houstons 3-4, he will line up at middle backer in the 4-3. At 6-foot-3 and 238 pounds, he excels as a physical presence and downhill thumper against the run. That part of his game is rock solid, but he is not exactly a great coverage linebacker. Cunningham has enough range, speed, and athleticism to stay on the field in sub-packages, but Lovie Smith might have to design the defense to protect him from bad situations. We will have to see if he can be the long-term answer, but considering he is signed through the 2024 season and is currently the best linebacker on the roster, Cunningham will be the answer for now.
The 2017 second-round pick became a starter early in his rookie season but served mostly in a two-down role opposite Bernardrick McKinney. Cunningham’s role was expanded during his second year when he played every snap in five games but less than 85% of the plays in eight others. That season he was 72-36-0 with 4 turnovers, 5 pass breakups, and a score on just 752 snaps over 14 games, placing Cunningham among the fantasy games best on a per snap basis.
Cunningham has still not seen action on more than 86% of the team’s defensive plays in a season, but that minor detail has not stopped him from leading all linebackers with triple-digit solo tackles in each of the last two years. With 100 solo stops, 43 assists, and two sacks in 2019, he was the fantasy game’s tenth-ranked linebacker. At 107-57-3, he moved up to number two overall last year, placing third in points per game average behind Devin White and Darius Leonard. What we have not seen from Cunningham since 2018 are a significant number of turnovers. Over the last two seasons, he has been credited with one forced fumble, two recoveries, and four pass breakups.
Being the best player on a bad defense should add up to another outstanding year for Cunningham in terms of tackle numbers. It is hard to imaging the coaching/scheme change hurting him, but it will not be a shock if it makes Cunningham even more productive, especially if they keep him on the field more and can find a way to awaken the playmaker in him. Include Cunningham with the tier of stud linebackers right below White and Leonard. He may not be a match for those two when it comes to NFL talent, but he could be right on their heels in the fantasy game.
Cunningham is the only safe target among the Texans linebackers. Whoever comes away with the weak-side job could also have good value if they stay on the field in sub-packages. Christian Kirksey is the favorite for that spot but is far from a lock. His career has been a rollercoaster. The 2014 third-round pick spent his first two seasons as a two-down starter for the Browns. He landed full-time roles in 2016 and 2017, playing well on the field and producing back-to-back top-ten fantasy finishes. Over those two seasons, Kirksey combined for 181 tackles, 102 assists, 6 sacks, 6 turnovers, and 11 passes defended.
In 2018 the wheels fell off. It started with nagging shoulder and ankle issues early in the year and ended with a November hamstring injury that landed Kirksey on IR. His 2019 campaign ended early and abruptly with a chest injury in September, and the Browns released him after the season. Not long after his release, Kirksey signed with the Packers. He played every defensive snap in the Packers’ first two games last year, posting 15 tackles and 9 assists. In Week 3, he suffered a pectoral injury that would cost him five games. Kirksey returned to action in Week 10 but was not the same productive player and was phased out over the final month. The Packers released him with a failed physical in February.
A healthy Kirksey should have little trouble winning and keeping the starting job. He has the tools and experience to stay on the field in sub-packages and might be better in coverage than Cunningham. Statistics suggest that, at the least, Kirksey is more of a big-play threat. He is on a one-year deal, so there will be no motivation to play for his NFL future. There is plenty of risk, but if everything aligns for him, Kirksey could end up a solid LB2 that can be picked up in the later rounds when managers are filling backup slots on their rosters.
As they did with the defensive line, the Texans have filled their training camp roster with several veteran free-agents that will be competing for a place in the pecking order. Holdovers Dylan Cole, Nate Hall, and Jake Martin are joined by Neville Hewitt, Kevin Pierre-Lewis, Joe Thomas, Kamu Grugier-Hill, Hardy Nickerson Jr Jr., and Tae Davis.
Hewitt is the most interesting prospect of this group. He spent much of 2019 and last season as the Jets starting middle linebacker after C.J. Mosley was injured and then opted out. Hewitt played virtually every defensive snap last year, including sub-packages. He proved more than adequate for New York on the field and was highly productive in the box scores. His 90 solo tackles were fourth-most among linebackers, and at 90-43-2 with 2 turnovers and 4 pass breakups, Hewitt’s 190.4 fantasy points landed just inside the top-12. He is best suited to play in the middle but will be hard-pressed to unseat Cunningham. Hewitt could present a serious challenge for Kirksey, though. The coaching staff also needs someone to line up as the strong-side linebacker. Hewitt is versatile enough to fill that role if needed, but it is probably not his best fit. The only thing we know for certain is that if he plays enough, Hewitt’s numbers will be good.
- MLB Zach Cunningham – Dependable and consistent LB1 with top-three potential
- WLB Christian Kirksey – Risk/reward gamble with LB2 upside
- SLB Jake Martin – No IDP impact expected
- MLB/OLB Neville Hewitt – Watchlist/injury sleeper that will put up numbers if he gets a chance
- WLB/SLB Kamu Grugier-Hill – Deep sleeper with marginal potential
- WLB/MLB Garrett Wallow – Dynasty sleeper, could be groomed to eventually start at WLB
- SLB Tae Davis – No impact
Moving between three- and four-man fronts usually does not change a lot at the third level, but in this case, it will. It has little to do with the front-seven and everything to do with the new defensive coordinator. We have not heard much about the so-called Tampa-2 in recent years. A big reason is that one of its main proponents, Lovie Smith, has been coaching in the college ranks for the last five years.
Nearly all teams have some cover-2 in their playbooks and will bring it out on a situational basis. Smith likes to use it as the base scheme. Like everything else, there are variations and specific calls that change players’ responsibilities on a situational basis. In essence, however, the Tampa-2 is a two-deep zone that has both safeties line up well off the ball and makes each of them the safety net for their half of the field.
The ripple effect of a Tampa-2 scheme impacts both the responsibilities and box score potential of everyone in the secondary and, to a lesser extent, the middle linebacker. With the safeties deep, corners start closer to the line and, in this alignment, have help over the top. This allows them to be more aggressive, often working in press man-to-man underneath. It also puts them closer to the action on running plays, which in turn means more run support responsibilities and usually results in more tackles. The corner lining up on the strong side becomes of particular interest to IDP managers because he ends up making a lot of plays that would go to the strong safety in other schemes. With the safeties usually starting outside the hash marks, the middle zone becomes the responsibility of the middle linebacker. This is the role Brian Urlacher played when Smith was coaching the Bears. His ability to drop quickly and take away slants to inside receivers was vital to the Bears’ success. If no one has noticed, there are no Brian Urlacher’s at linebacker in Houston, so we will have to see how this works out.
All this says to IDP managers is that even though the Texans’ defense will probably be bad for a while longer, stay away from their safeties. Justin Reid showed some signs of fantasy value over the last two seasons, but that came in a more traditional strong safety role. Since the new scheme calls for both deep defenders to have more of a free-safety skillset, Reid is not even certain to be a starter come September. This should be a wide-open competition with Reid, Eric Murray, Lonnie Johnson, Terrence Brooks, A.J. Moore, and possibly others getting a look from the coaching staff.
If you are trying to find the fantasy value in this secondary or need a high-upside sleeper at corner, put Vernon Hargreaves III on your list. He might be the best fit of all the returning players trying to find a place in this scheme. If asked to compile a list of active corners that excel at press coverage and relish contact in run support, the list would be short, but Hargreaves would be on it.
At 5-foot-10 and 204 pounds, Hargreaves has good size for a corner and, unlike many at the position, seems to thrive on contact. He was the 11th overall pick by the Buccaneers in 2016, and coincidentally, was drafted to play in a scheme that used a lot of cover-2. That was the year after Lovie Smith was fired as the head coach, but the Tampa-2 continued to be a staple under defensive coordinator Mike Smith.
Hargreaves jumped right into the lineup as a rookie and went on to total 68 tackles, 8 assists, a pick, and 8 passes defended. He was on pace to improve on those numbers in 2017 when his season was cut short by injury. Hargreaves’ 2018 season ended with a Week 1 shoulder injury. He did not even finish that contest but recorded six tackles, an assist, and a forced fumble. He quickly fell out of favor with the Bruce Arians regime and was released in November of 2019. The next day Hargreaves was claimed by the Texans.
In his first full season with Houston, Hargreaves produced 61 tackles, 11 assists, an interception, and 7 passes defended. His big-play production could use some help, but the guy makes a lot of tackles for a corner. To shine a light on the potential Hargreaves has in this system, take a look at what Charles Tillman did in Lovie Smith’s scheme. Between 2005 and 2012, Tillman missed six games but still averaged 68 solo tackles, 12 assists, and 12 pass breakups per season. In half of those years, Tillman put up 74 or more solo stops, and all of those Bears defenses were better than the one he is in now.
With Bradley Roby suspended for the first six games, Terrance Mitchell and Desmond King will compete for the starting job at the other corner. Neither are destined to be long-term solutions, but both players solid veterans with ample starting experience. In true rookie corner rule tradition, King ranked sixth at the position in his first season but has not sniffed the top 25 in the three years since. Mitchell had a highly productive 2017 as an injury replacement with the Chiefs but has otherwise been an afterthought in IDP circles.
- SS/FS Justin Reid – Depth at best
- FS/SS Eric Murray – Marginal potential
- FS Lonnie Johnson – No grand expectations
- FS Terrence Brooks – No impact
- FS/SS A.J. Moore – No impact
- CB Vernon Hargreaves III – Sleeper with CB1 or DB3 upside
- CB Terrance Mitchell – Possible depth in leagues starting two corners
- CB Desmond King – Potential depth in corner required leagues
- CB Bradley Roby – No impact, six-game suspension
- CB John Reid – Special teams contributor.
There was a time not so long ago when the Colts were all about scoring points, and the defense was constantly forced to make do with leftovers. That philosophy has changed over the last few years, and so has the quality of this unit. They were mediocre versus the pass in 2020, ranking 19th at 7.3 yards per attempt, but that was where the mediocrity stopped. Indianapolis had the number-two run defense, totaled 40 sacks, and created 25 turnovers which ranked fifth. There were no wholesale changes, just a few tweaks designed mostly to help them get a little younger, so we can expect another big year from this unit and quality individual production from some of its players.
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