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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 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 – 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.
The Colts play a 4-3 defense with an aggressive, one-gap approach, allowing their linemen to penetrate and create chaos regardless of the offensive call. When matched with quick, explosive players that can get to the passer, this combination is golden for IDP managers. Indianapolis had a good group of players along their front four last season, including three starters with at least seven and a half sacks. Denico Autry and Justin Houston are gone, leaving the organization looking to fill two starting positions and replace the 15.5 sacks they contributed.
Indianapolis rotated a lot of players along the defensive front in 2020. Only DeForest Buckner played more than 631 snaps, but even at 751, it was 73 fewer than his lowest count in any of the four seasons he spent with the 49ers. The goal of keeping his snap count down was to keep Buckner fresh late in games as well as late in the season. From that perspective, it seemed to be a success. His tackle totals were up slightly from 2019. He recorded two more sacks on the year and had seven over the final five games. Buckner is the kind of player that would never come off the field if it were up to him. The Colts will almost certainly continue to rotate regularly along the line positions, but Buckner should still get his 750-800 plays. He is simply too good to have on the sideline any more than that.
Buckner is a generational talent and the best interior lineman in the game. Unless you count Aaron Donald among the league’s defensive tackles, no one else is even close. In terms of fantasy production, he has three consecutive No. 1 finishes at tackle and has ranked seven, six, and three over that span in leagues that lump the positions together.
Defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus is not afraid to use the blitz to get pressure on the quarterback, but like most, he would rather not have to. With the front four accounting for 33 of their 40 sacks, the Colts did not have to blitz a lot in 2020, but that might change this year. Justin Houston contributed 8 sacks on 608 snaps as the starting defensive end. Denico Autry played both end and tackle, contributing 7.5 on 631 plays. Al-Quadin Muhammad, Tyquan Lewis, Kemeko Turay, and Ben Banogu are the other players that saw a lot of action on passing downs. Between them, they logged 1189 snaps and produced seven sacks.
Muhammad has been with the team since 2017. He has proven to be a solid, early-down run defender from the defensive end position, but there is not much pop in his pass rush. Both Lewis and Turay were second-round picks by the Colts in 2018. Both have battled injuries at times, especially Turay, who has missed 22 games in three seasons, including nine in 2020. Even when healthy, neither of these players has impressed. They currently stand at 48 tackles and 12.5 sacks between them in three seasons. Both with a career-best off four sacks. Then there is 2019 second-round pick Ben Banogu who the organization hoped would be the reincarnation of Robert Mathis. He is 9-8-2.5 over his first two years combined.
The organization has not given up on any of these guys. Turay showed potential as a pass rusher with four sacks as a rookie. If he can stay healthy for more than a few games, he might flourish. Lewis saw the most action of his young career in 2020, posting his personal best of 19-5-4 and batting down two passes on 401 snaps. He could move into the starting lineup in 2021 and is a possible breakout player. While there is still hope within the organization for these players, confidence and expectations may be a different story.
In a draft that was thin at the top on pass rushers, the Colts used their first two picks on defensive ends Kwity Paye and Dayo Odeyingbo, respectively. Paye was the second edge defender off the board, following Jaelan Phillips, who went to Miami three picks earlier. He was a test monster, moving up draft boards after showing off his quickness, agility, and athleticism in workouts. The traits and potential are there, but on film and in box scores, Paye is a work in progress. He missed two games in Michigan’s COVID-19 shortened 2020 season but had 16 combined tackles with 2 sacks in the four that he played. As a junior for the Wolverines, he started all 12 games and was 26-24-6.5, so in what would have amounted to a 16 game season, he recorded 38-28-8.5. IDP managers would be more than happy to get those numbers from a defensive end, but we need to see if he can do it at the next level.
Odeyingbo was a talent-based pick with an eye on the future. He suffered a torn Achilles in January and might spend his rookie season on IR. At the least, he will spend some time on the PUP and is unlikely to get on the field in the first half of the season. With time to heal and some good coaching, Odeyingbo has a chance to be special. He was a three-year starter for Vanderbilt, but it was not until his senior year that his production began to stand out. In eight games last season, Odeyingbo totaled 32 combined tackles and 5.5 sacks. He has rare physical traits that include excellent size at 6.5” 285 pounds, a huge wingspan, a strong first step, and enough athleticism to get around the corner. With some work on his technique as a pass rushed and time in the weight room to help him as a run defender, Odeyingbo has the potential to be a highly productive three-down defensive end in a year or two. He is not a target in re-draft leagues but would make a good taxi stash for dynasty managers.
Grover Stewart recorded the second-most solo stops in the league by a defensive tackle last season with 39. This is particularly impressive considering he played less than 600 snaps. The 2017 fourth-round pick shed about 30 pounds before last offseason, getting down to 315 so he could move better and make more plays. The effort paid off as Stewart went from 14-16-3 in 2019, to 39-14-.5 in 2020, despite being on the field for 50 fewer snaps. Even with the strong tackle totals, Stewart ranked just 18th among interior linemen in 2020. We need to determine whether his three sacks in 2019 a fluke or are his tackle numbers with half a sack from last year the outlier? At a position so thin beyond the first dozen or so, Stewart is worth a shot as a DT2 either way.
- DE Kwity Paye – High upside rookie that might take a year to develop
- DE Kemoko Turay – Watchlist player with low expectations
- DE Al-Quadin Muhammad – No fantasy impact
- DE/DT Tyquan Lewis – Watchlist player with a little potential
- DE/SLB Ben Banogu – No impact expected
- DE Dayo Odeyingbo – Dynasty stash
- DE/DT Isaac Rochell – No impact expected
- DT DeForest Buckner – Elite DT1 and solid DL1
- DT Grover Stewart – Good DT2 if he matches last season’s numbers
- DT Taylor Stallworth – No impact
- DT Antuan Woods – No impact
- DT Robert Windsor – No impact
As a rookie in 2018, Darius Leonard lit up both the NFL and the IDP world with an incredible season. He led the league with 112 solo tackles, adding 49 assists, 7 sacks, 8 turnovers, and 8 passes defended, to outscore the number two defensive player by 49 points. The only other player to dominate so completely in my 29 seasons playing this game was J.J. Watt early in his career.
As the team has gotten better around him, Leonard has fallen back toward the pack. In 2019 he was the number three linebacker in total points, but only because he missed three games. Leonard’s average of 17.32 points per game was a full three points better than Jordan Hicks at number two. With the emergence of guys like Anthony Walker, Bobby Okereke, and Khari Willis to compete for tackles and the addition of DeForest Buckner to kickstart the Colts pass rush, Leonard’s per-game average slipped to 14.4 in 2020, second to Devin White.
Leonard’s big-play production had declined a little each year thus far. From eight turnovers in 2018 to seven in 2019, and five last year. As the defensive line has gotten better, the team’s reliance on the blitz has lessened as well, taking his sack total from seven to five and down to three in 2020. This is where things should level off. Reasonable expectations for Leonard going forward are tackles in the mid to upper 90s, around 50 assists, 5-6 turnover, and 3-4 sacks. He has company on the elite first tier with the emergence of White, but those two are heads above the rest.
A manager could not go wrong in making either White or Leonard the first defender off the board. The only thing that separates the two, in my eyes, is a slight durability concern with Leonard. There have been no serious injuries, but he has missed five games over the last two years. Three with a concussion in 2018, and two last year with a groin. He also battled through an abdominal strain late in 2018 and was questionably for some games late last season with a sore back.
Indianapolis had two other excellent linebackers on their roster last season in Anthony Walker and Bobby Okereke. This was a good problem for the Colts but not so much for fantasy managers. With both players more than capable of three-down roles, the coaching staff had Walker start at middle linebacker with Okereke starting on the strong side. The two then split time in sub-packages virtually equally. As a result, Walker finished 65-27-0 with 2 turnovers and 5 pass breakups on 697 snaps, while Okereke went 57-15-0 with 2 turnovers and 6 pass breakups on 685.
This time around, it is bad news for the Colts that they could not keep Walker, who signed with Cleveland, and good news for us because Okereke will now move into a full-time role at middle linebacker. For anyone that might have concerns about someone else taking over the timeshare with Okereke, all we need to do is take a look at the two games Leonard missed last year. In weeks five and six, Walker moved to the week side, and Okereke played in the middle, with the two staying on the field for every defensive play in both games. Coincidentally, Okereke was 13-4-0 with an interception and 3 passes defended in those games. Working next to Leonard will probably keep Okereke out of the LB1 conversation, but he could be a strong LB2 or a high floor third starter at the least.
Zaire Franklin is the favorite to start on the strong side. He is a capable player but is not likely to see much action in sub-packages or be an IDP factor. If anyone were to give Franklin a run for the job, it would probably be free-agent addition Malik Jefferson, who spent last season with the Chargers. The team likes both E.J. Speed and Matthew Adams, but they are best suited to play the middle or weak-side positions, giving the team good depth across the board.
- WLB Darius Leonard – Elite tier LB1 worthy of being the first defender off the board
- MLB Bobby Okereke – Priority LB2 ceiling with quality LB3 floor
- SLB Zaire Franklin - No fantasy impact
- MLB/WLB E.J. Speed – Injury sleeper with LB3 potential
- WLB/MLB Skai Moore – Special teams contributor
- MLB/WLB Matthew Adams – Injury sleeper
- Malik Jefferson – No impact
The Indianapolis secondary gave up more yards than they would have liked in 2020, but they made up for it in the big play columns. As a unit, they recorded 13 interceptions, forced 5 fumbles, recovered 2, and even chipped in 4 sacks. Unlike the 2019 team that had no individual make more than 54 solo tackles and provided little fantasy value, the 2020 Colts gave us a pair of IDP starters.
The Colts' strong safety position was unsettled for a few years, but they have found their guy. Khari Willis is a player that is quickly and quietly becoming one of the best in the game at the position. He has good size at 5-foot-11 and 217 pounds, has good range and cover skills and packs a punch in run support. Willis gave us some productive games as a rookie in 2019. The signs of things to come were there, but he was all over the place in terms of consistency. The inconsistency was largely due to situations outside his control, so it was not a surprise that he stepped up nicely in year two. In 14 games last year, Willis was 66-18-2 with a pair of picks, a forced fumble, 6 pass breakups, and a score, for an average of 11.5 points per game. With at least nine points in ten of those games, the previous year’s inconsistency was easily forgotten. A glance at the final ranking from 2020 shows Willis as the number 18 defensive back, making him a good DB2. If we look at his per-game average, however, he slides into the top ten. Target him as a priority DB2 but expect Willis to produce top-12 numbers.
Julian Blackmon was a third-round pick of the Colts last spring. He was supposed to be the backup to Malik Hooker at free safety, but a Week 2 injury to Hooker opened the door. Blackmon played nearly every snap the rest of the way, and Hooker was not offered a contract after his expired at the end of the year.
The responsibilities of the free safety position in the Indianapolis scheme are not conducive to good box-score production. Blackmon will continue to line up 12-15 yards off the ball where he can see the entire field and be a safety net. In two full seasons at the position, Hooker averaged 30 tackles and 17 assists with a few turnovers. Blackmon, 35-7-0 with 3 turnovers and 6 passes defended, was right on par for the position. We could see a little improvement in 2021, but not enough to make him relevant.
George Odom and Sean Davis provide veteran depth at the safety spots. Odom has been a backup for the Colts since making the team as an undrafted free agent in 2018. He made a few starts as an injury replacement in 2019 but has otherwise made his most significant impact on special teams. Davis was a starter for the Steelers early in his career. He brings experience and the versatility to play either position.
The other Colts defensive back who is IDP-relevant is corner Kenny Moore. He made the team as an undrafted free agent in 2017. After seeing little action in the first nine games, an injury to Rashaan Melvin put Moore on the field for the last six weeks. They have not been able to get keep him off it since. He is not flashy, is not blazing fast, and is not very big at 5-foot-9 and 190 pounds. There are a lot of things Moore is not when you look at him on paper. On the field, he is a good NFL corner that plays with a lot of heart and savvy and a guy who manages to make many plays.
Moore has accounted for 14 turnovers, 6 sacks, and 29 pass breakups over his brief career. If not for the four games he missed at the end of 2019, he would have three consecutive seasons with more than 60 solo stops and at least 12 assists. The 2020 season was Moore’s most productive to date. At 69-12-2 with 12 passes defended and 5 takeaways, he was the fantasy game’s number eight defensive back and ranked third among corners. It was his second top-three finish at the corner position in three seasons, and his 10.4 points per game in 2019 ranked eighth. Maybe opponents keep looking at Moore on paper instead of watching his film. Whatever the reason, they keep throwing at him, and he keeps getting the job done. Year-to-year consistency is rather rare at the corner position. Moore is one of the few we can count on to buck the trend.
- SS Khari Willis – Quality DB2 with top-10 upside
- FS Julian Blackmon – No fantasy impact
- SS George Odom – No impact
- FS/SS Sean Davis – Injury sleeper with limited potential
- SS/LB Jordan Glasgow – Nickel linebacker and special teams contributor
- CB Xavier Rhodes – Marginal impact at best
- CB Kenny Moore II – Strong CB1 or low-end DB2 with some upside
- CB Rock Ya-Sin – Slot corner with no fantasy impact
- CB T.J. Carrie – Injury sleeper with low CB2 ceiling
- CB Isaiah Rodgers – Special teams contributor
When Joe Cullen was first hired to take over the Jacksonville defense, he spewed all the same coach speak we are used to hearing from incoming defensive coordinators. "We are going to be multiple." "We will use both three and four-man fronts." Yadda-yadda. However, the further we get into the offseason, the more it is starting to sound like Cullen will fall back on his 3-4 roots. This makes a lot of sense when we look at the makeup of the roster. Specifically, the two players being counted on most to provide a pass rush. Josh Allen and K’lavon Chaisson are both undersized to play defensive end in a 4-3, and both were outside linebackers in college. Another tell-tale sign of a 3-4 leaning scheme is the addition of Roy Robertson-Harris and Jihad Ward. Both come over from 3-4 schemes, with Ward having worked as a defensive end under Cullen in Baltimore. The Jaguars should continue to sprinkle in 4-3 looks just like most other 3-4 teams, but we should expect to see a three-man front from their base defense most of the time. Ultimately, it makes little difference what label we give the scheme. Just be sure you understand the value of the players at their designated position in your league.
The Jaguars will enter training camp with a lot of bodies in the defensive line room, many of which have no clear-cut position. Meaning that Cullen will have a lot of sorting to do. Robertson-Harris, Ward, Doug Costin, DaVon Hamilton, Taven Bryan, Adam Gotsis, and possibly even Dawuane Smoot will all be in the mix at the defensive end positions. Malcom Brown is penciled in at nose tackle, but Hamilton, rookie Jay Tufele, Daniel Ekuale, and Daniel Ross could also get a look. One thing all these players have in common is a glaring lack of production. Only Smoot has ever put up more than three sacks in a season, and he is the least likely of the bunch to see time at defensive end in three-man fronts.
When in the 3-4, this group will closely resemble the one Cullen coached in Baltimore for several seasons. They will field big bodies that will eat up space and occupy blockers but are not going to make much of a contribution to the pass rush or in box scores. Unless you can still play Allen, Chaisson, or maybe Smoot as defensive ends, look elsewhere for defensive line help.
- DE Taven Bryan – No impact
- DE Roy Robertson-Harris – No impact
- DE/OLB Dawuane Smoot – Watchlist with some potential if Chaisson flops
- DE Jihad Ward – No impact
- DE Adam Gotsis – No impact
- DE Doug Costin – No impact
- NT Malcom Brown – Potential DT2
- NT/DE Davon Hamilton – No impact
- NT Jay Tufele – No impact
When Myles Jack came out of college in 2016, everything on his scouting report screamed weak side linebacker. The Jaguars needed a middle linebacker to replace Paul Posluszny, but Jack was the most talented linebacker on the board, so they took him anyway. They needed Jack to play in the middle but put him on the strong side as a rookie so he could get his feet wet, and he struggled. They left him there in 2017, thinking he would be better with a year of experience, and he struggled. In 2018, they finally moved Jack to the middle, where he was drafted to play. He played better but not up to expectations, so in 2019 he went back to the strong side, where he was mediocre until he was injured once again. In Jack’s fifth year with the team, someone said, let's see what happens if we put him on the weak side. In 14 games, he totaled 73-45-1, created 4 turnovers, defended five passes, averaged 12.3 fantasy points per game, and made plays all over the field. In short, he flourished. So the Jaguars brought in a new coaching staff, and there is no longer a weakside linebacker position at all. You just can not make this stuff up.
So what does the move to inside linebacker in a 3-4 do for, or to Jack? Time will tell, but if they play him at the weak inside linebacker spot, I think he will be alright. Jack’s game is speed and athleticism. He is at his best when free to move without having to think too much or fight through blockers. The closest thing to that in a 3-4 is the weak ILB spot. If he lands there and the guys up front do their jobs well, it could be a great situation for Jack.
Joe Schobert is less scheme-dependent and should fit well at either inside linebacker position. He has no problem taking on and shedding blockers at the point of attack and is comfortable working in tight quarters. Most importantly, Schobert has not struggled with anything that has been thrown at him since becoming a starter in the league in 2017. He played both weak and middle linebacker in a 4-3 scheme with the Browns and, except for an injury-shortened 2018, has been both exceptionally productive and consistent. In his three full seasons as a starter, Schobert averaged 87-52-2.5, 5 turnovers, and 5 passes defended, with rankings of 12th, 4th, and last year 8th among linebackers. There is always risk associated with change, but I am not moving Schobert out of my top ten over this one.
The addition of Damien Wilson in free agency was a bit of a head-scratcher since he has been a 4-3 strong side backer for his entire six seasons as a pro. That said, his size, toughness, and ability to stack and shed could make him an excellent fit as a backup at strong inside linebacker. Shaquille Quarterman, Leon Jacobs, and Quincy Williams might be competing for one roster spot.
Josh Allen and K’Lavon Chaisson were probably the happiest players on the team when Joe Cullen was announced as the new defensive coordinator. Both players are listed on the team’s current roster as LB/DE, but we should not get too wrapped up in that. All it means is that if/when they want to jump to a four-man front, those guys will not have to come off the field.
Allen made a surprisingly smooth transition from stand-up edge defender at Kentucky to putting his hand down in the NFL. As a senior with the Wildcats, he had one of the great seasons for an edge defender in college history, totaling 88 combined tackles, 17 sacks, 4 batted passes, and 7 turnovers. The numbers were not that impressive in his first season as a pro but were pretty good for a rookie at 32 tackles, 13 assists, 10.5 sacks, and 3 forced fumbles. He was bothered by a knee injury nearly all of last season and was eventually shut down because of it. The knee did not require surgery and is good to go for 2021. On the field, Allan will be productive from a two or three-point stance. His fantasy value will be much greater if he can be played as a defensive end, though.
Dawuane Smoot is currently listed as a defensive end on the Jaguars roster. Still, I expect him to compete with Chaisson for whatever positional title the team gives their edge defenders. Chaisson was a one-year starter at linebacker for LSU. He put up good numbers there in 2019, going 34-24-6.5, and was taken in round one by the Jaguars last spring. It is hard to say if it was the level of competition or the move to defensive end, but Chaisson was a virtual non-factor in his first season as a pro. He had plenty of opportunities to step up, having played 568 snaps, but managed a weak 12-7-1 on the season.
Most will not remember that Smoot was back and forth between linebacker and defensive end throughout his time at Illinois. As an OLB in 2015, he went 21-18-7 with 4 turnovers for the Illini. He lined up mostly at defensive end as a senior, adding 30-26-5 with a pair of forced fumbles to his resume. After being selected in round three of the 2017 draft, Smoot was buried behind some outstanding players for a couple of seasons. With six sacks in 2019 and five and a half last year, he was beginning to come on as a defensive end under the previous regime. In my eyes, Smoot is much more NFL-ready than Chaisson, who simply looked overmatched much of last season. Again we will have to see how this all plays out and keep our fingers crossed that most league host sites allow these edge guys to be counted as defensive ends.
Jacksonville added Jordan Smith with a fourth-round pick this spring. Smith averaged 45 combined tackles and had 12.5 sacks in two seasons as an outside linebacker at UAB. He is generally considered to be a developmental prospect but has a good deal of long-term potential.
- ILB Joe Schobert – Dependable LB1
- ILB Myles Jack – High upside LB2 with some risk
- ILB Damien Wilson – Injury sleeper
- ILB Shaquille Quarterman – No impact
- ILB Leon Jacobs – No impact
- ILB Quincy Williams – Roster bubble
- OLB/DE Josh Allen – High ceiling but a low floor, the positional designation means everything
- OLB/DE KLavon Chaisson – Has potential, but I am less than excited
- OLB/DE Dawuane Smoot – Watchlist player
- OLB Jordan Smith – Dynasty watchlist
Only the Lions allowed more yards per pass attempt than Jacksonville in 2020, so we would naturally expect some changes. As it turns out, there is a fairly strong possibility the Jaguars will have four new starters at the third level. The organization made a significant investment in the secondary this offseason. Free agency netted safety Rayshawn Jenkins and corner Shaquill Griffin. Then they used second and third-round picks on corner Tyson Campbell and safety Andre Cisco respectively.
Most assume that Jenkins is automatically going to be the starter at strong safety. I would agree that he has been penciled in at the position, but everyone knows what happens when you assume too much. He signed a four-year contract, a sign that the front office expects Jenkins to be the starter, but the front office does not make those decisions.
Jenkins was a fourth-round pick of the Chargers in 2017. He played sparingly for the first two seasons, combining for fewer than 175 snaps. Jenkins earned a starting spot in 2019, but it was at the free safety position where he was a placeholder while that year’s second-round pick, Nasir Adderly, got up to speed. Jenkins might not have finished that season as the starter had Adderly not suffered a shoulder injury in October. With Adderly ready to play, Jenkins was headed back to a reserve role when Derwin James was lost. The move to strong safety brought his numbers up a little, but Jenkins was a little better than adequate on the field.
Adequate is a fair description of Jenkins’ IDP production as well. In 14 games, he totaled 59 tackles, 11 assists, 3 passes defended, a fumble recovery, and one interception. The raw numbers ranked Jenkins 25th among safeties and 44th among all defensive backs, with a per-game average that landed him at 36 and 65.
Jacksonville’s other strong safeties include Andrew Wingard, who has been average when called upon over the last two seasons, last year’s fifth-round pick, Daniel Thomas, who played fairly well in the one game he started, and Josh Jones, who started most of last year when he was not sidelined by chest and shoulder injuries. Wingard may not make the team, and Thomas is probably not ready to seriously contend for a starting spot, but Jones could give Jenkins a run for his money.
Jones was a second-round pick of the Packers in 2017. He played 735 snaps as a rookie, working mostly as the third safety in Green Bay’s big nickel base package and lining up at linebacker depth often. Considering the playing time, his totals of 60-11-2 with an interception, and 5 pass breakups, were strong. Jones was set to start in 2018 before an ankle injury kept him out of all but four plays of the first seven games. He returned to start the last nine but was bothered by the ankle the rest of the way. His relationship with the Packers went bad in the offseason when the team made some moves at safety and presumably wanted to move Jones to linebacker. In August, he was released, spent some time on the Cowboys practice squad, and was claimed off waivers by the Jaguars at the end of the 2019 season.
Injuries have plagued Jones throughout his career, which might have been a factor in the team’s decision to sign Jenkins. The new regime liked Jones enough to offer him a contract extension at the end of last season, albeit just a one-year deal.
The decision on who starts will likely come down to what the coaching staff is looking for. Both players check-in at over six feet and 220 pounds. Despite the size, Jenkins is more of a finesse player and is the better option in coverage. Jones plays with more of a linebacker's demeanor, is far more physical, and much better in run support. He averaged 6.3 tackles, 3 assists, and almost 12 fantasy points in the seven games that he played more than 50 snaps. IDP managers should be rooting hard for Jones.
The wildcard here is rookie Andre Cisco. The consensus is that he will be the starting free safety for Jacksonville from day one, but there are reasons to question that. He certainly has the tools for the job. Good size, very strong, excellent speed, smooth hips, quick change of direction, elite athleticism, and true ballhawk are the things you will find on his pre-draft scouting reports. That and the fact Cisco racked up an almost unheard-of 13 interceptions in 24 games, playing mostly as a free safety at Syracuse, are good reasons to draw that conclusion.
Some of the other things in Cisco’s scouting reports make me wonder if he is ready to start there right away. Boom-or-bust chance taker, downhill run support, versatile enough to play anywhere, lack of instincts in man coverage, poor pursuit angles, and the big one, not the last line of defense type safety, are all things that might suggest he either sits for a while or starts his career at strong safety. In either case, the Jaguars can play Jenkins at free safety and either Jones or Cisco at strong.
The bottom line here is that someone should put up good numbers, but the starting jobs, positions, and fantasy value among Jacksonville’s safeties are not set in stone.
The only starter from last year’s Week 1 lineup that is sure to be there this year is corner C.J. Henderson. He was arguably the best man-to-man cover corner in last year’s draft and was the ninth overall pick. Henderson can match up with opponents' top receivers all over the field and the hands to make plays on the ball. There is nothing to dislike about him when it comes to coverage, but he entered the league with a reputation for not liking contact. Henderson did nothing to dispel that reputation as a rookie. In half a season (eight games) before landing on injured reserve with a groin, he was 27-9 in the tackles columns. Henderson will make some big plays but not enough to be an IDP factor unless the tackle totals improve.
Tre Herndon started opposite Henderson in 2020. His best shot at staying on the field this season is to hold off Tyson Campbell for the nickel duties. Shaquill Griffin will be the starter and will be a significant upgrade. Griffin was a four-year starter for the Seahawks. He is not an elite shutdown type but is a solid and dependable number two on the field. Griffin has shown flashes all along as an IDP prospect and had his most productive season in 2020, going 52-10-0 with 3 interceptions and 12 passes defended in 12 games. His 10.4 points per game ranked 19th among defensive backs and eighth at the corner position. Herndon led the team’s defensive backs with 64 solo stops a year ago. That is a good sign for Griffin’s potential value.
Tyson Campbell was not particularly productive in the box scores at Georgia, but he was impactful on the field. He could prove to be a steal for the Jaguars in round two. He is a talented outside corner with the physical skills to be an outstanding pro when he reaches his potential. It would not be a shock to see Campbell move into a full-time role at some point this season, but it is hard to imagine either Henderson or Griffin coming off the field much if they are healthy. As the nickel corner, Campbell would see plenty of action and have a chance to gain some needed experience before being promoted. When he is on the field, I would expect Campbell to line up outside with Griffin likely in the slot, which would be a plus for Griffin’s value. Herndon should compete with Sidney Jones and Chris Claybrooks for playing time as the fourth corner spot in dime packages.
- SS/FS Rayshawn Jenkins – Possible DB3 with limited upside
- FS/SS Andre Cisco – Playmaker with high upside if he somehow lands at strong safety
- SS Josh Jones – Sleeper with DB2 potential if he gets on the field
- FS Jarrod Wilson – No impact
- SS Daniel Thomas – Deep/injury sleeper
- SS/FS Andrew Wingard – No impact
- CB C.J. Henderson – No impact
- CB Shaquill Griffin – CB2 with upside
- CB Tre Herndon – No impact
- CB Tyson Campbell – Dynasty potential
- CB Sidney Jones – No impact
- CB Chris Claybrooks – No impact
The Titans were a middle-of-the-pack defense in 2020 against both the pass and the run in terms of yardage. They were opportunistic in creating 23 takeaways but could not get much pressure on the quarterback, with only the Bengals and Jaguars recording fewer sacks. The low sack number (19) was particularly puzzling, considering they had 43 in 2019. One major contributor to the slide was the signing of Jadeveon Clowney, who recorded zero in eight games, then landed on IR. Tennessee will not have that problem in 2021 since he will be wearing a different uniform, as will longtime starter DaQuan Jones.
The Titans' defensive line accounted for seven and a half sacks in 2020, with Jeffery Simmons contributing three. Much more is expected from the 2019 first-round pick in his third season. Simmons is a special talent in line to be taken near the top of the draft until he suffered an ACL injury while training that February. The Titans were so high on him that they still took him at number 19, knowing that he might not play at all as a rookie. So far, that looks like a great decision.
Simmons opened 2019 on the Physically Unable to Perform list, so he missed the first six games. As soon as he was eligible to return, he was on the field. In 10 games, he recorded 18 tackles, 14 assists, and a pair of sacks. That was rather impressive for a player eight months removed from ACL surgery. Simmons only added one sack to his total in year two but was a considerably bigger factor in both NFL and fantasy circles. He was disruptive on the field at 27-22-3 with 4 turnovers and 5 batted passes, managing to finish as the number seven defensive tackle and 29th in leagues that do not break out the DL positions. Simmons turns 24 in late July and is just entering his prime as a player, so his best football may be yet to come.
Simmons’ IDP value is largely contingent on the positional designation. He will line up as a 3-4 defensive end the majority of the time, yet some league host sites still call him a tackle. As a defensive end, he has a DL2 ceiling, but he has top-five potential if Simmons can be played at tackle.
The addition of free agent Denico Autry should be a major plus for Simmons and the Titans defense. Autry totaled 19-13-7.5 with the Colts last season, working at both defensive end and tackle. The raw numbers are not all that impressive, but keep in mind how much the Colts rotated players. Autry only played 631 snaps. In comparison, Simmons saw action on 839. Tennesse will not substitute like that, so Autry should see a considerable uptick in playing time.
While with Indianapolis over the last three seasons, Autry totaled 19.5 sacks, including a 2018 season that saw him post career-best numbers of 28-9-9 and force 3 turnovers in just 12 games. That production came while working mostly as an interior defender in the Colts 4-3, which is the closest thing in that scheme to a 3-4 defensive end.
Autry has played in four-man fronts for his entire seven-year career to date but is a tweener that has never settled into one position. Guys that are tweeners in four-man fronts often make good defensive ends in 3-4 schemes. The ability to hold up against the run with enough quickness and athleticism to contribute as a pass rusher is the perfect combination for the job. How well that translated to the box scores remains to be seen, but Autry has the skillset and potential to excel both there and on the field.
The nose tackle position is wide open entering training camp. Free-agent additions Woodrow Hamilton and Abry Jones will compete with the second-year pro, Teair Tart for playing time at the position. Jones is the favorite, having spent seven seasons as a rotational starter with Jacksonville. There has not been much IDP value from this position since the Titans moved to the 3-4 several years ago, and there is no reason to expect anything to change.
Former Jet Trevon Coley could also be a factor at the nose tackle position but is more likely to see time as a backup defensive end along with last year’s fifth-round pick Larrell Murchison. Tennessee will not carry many backups on the final roster, so all these guys should see a little action.
- DE/DT Jeffery Simmons – Quality DT1 or decent DL3 with some upside
- DE Denico Autry – Sleeper with low DT2 ceiling
- DE Larrell Murchison – Injury sleeper at best
- DE/DT Trevon Coley – No impact expected
- NT Abry Jones – Marginal value expected
- NT Teair Tart – No impact expected
- NT Woodrow Hamilton – No impact
At this time a year ago, the Titans looked rock solid at the linebacker positions, at least on paper. The story took a different path once the games started. A combination of questionable decisions by the organization, disappointing play, and injuries left the coaching staff trying to hold this group together with Duct Tape and bubble gum for much of the season.
The Titans signed Vic Beasley Jr early in free agency with the hope that he could kickstart his career. At the least, they expected him to provide quality depth. The addition of Jadeveon Clowney right before the start of the season was supposed to be the icing on the cake. Instead, Clowney battled a sore hip right from the start, then suffered a knee injury in early October that would eventually land him on IR. Clowney was ineffective when he did play, failing to record a single sack, and Beasley was released in early November.
Before the signing of Clowney, Kamalei Correa was slated to start. Upset by the late addition, Correa requested a trade and was shipped to Jacksonville ahead of Week 6, leaving the Titans without much of a plan behind Clowney. Second-year undrafted free agent Derick Roberson made a few starts after Clowney was shut down. Roberson showed why he had gone undrafted and was benched for the final two regular-season games in favor of Brooks Reed, who was signed off the street after Week 14.
While all this was going on, Harold Landry managed to provide some stability at the other outside linebacker spot. The 2018 second-round pick was coming off an excellent second season in which he recorded nine sacks and created four turnovers. He was supposed to take the next step in 2020 and become one of the league’s premier pass rushers. Instead, Harold backslid to five and a half sacks and one turnover. The unexpected decline should not be seen as an indictment of Harold’s ability, however, as it had a lot more to do with the lack of support around him. With the addition of Autry at defensive end, the return of inside backer Jayon Brown from injury, and the signing of Bud Dupree to play the other outside linebacker position, lack of supporting cast should not be an issue in 2021. Look for Landry to bounce back nicely and possibly hit double-digits in sacks for the first time in his young career.
In Harold and Dupree, the Titans believe they have a pair of bookends for years to come. That may be true, but Dupree does not come without his share of questions. The 2015 first-round pick was somewhat of a disappointment over his first four years with the Steelers. Through 54 games, he had 19 sacks, 4 turnovers, and 95 tackles. Dupree failed to produce more than 30-13-5.5 in any season, and the Steelers were considering moving on from him once his rookie contract expired. In 2019, Dupree made them glad they did not, exploding for 47-19-11.5, forced 4 fumbles, and recovered 2. His tackle totals were down in 2020, but Dupree was on pace for similar big-play numbers when he tore an ACL in Week 13. So the questions are, with the knee injury coming so late in the season, will he be fully recovered, and even if he is, will Tennessee get the Dupree that had no more than five and a half sacks in any of his first four years or the one that blew up when he was playing for a contract in 2019?
The organization addressed their depth at outside linebacker by selecting Rashaad Weaver in round four. He can develop into a fine starter with some experience, but for now, he should see time as the third man at the position. Despite missing 2019 with an ACL injury, Weaver totaled 109 combined tackles, 17 sacks, 5 forced fumbles, 4 recoveries, and 9 batted passes over 34 games at Pitt.
The inside linebacker positions were not immune to problems either. Jayon Brown was a bright spot for the team until he was injured in Week 11. Brown played virtually every snap over the first nine games and was on the way to a strong statistical season when he was lost to an elbow injury. On the field, Brown is not an elite NFL linebacker, but he is a dependable veteran that provides leadership and can stay on the field in all situations. As an IDP prospect, he is considerably underrated by most.
Brown was a fifth-round pick in 2017. He saw some action as a rookie and became a starter in 2018. Except for the three games that Wesley Woodyard missed that season, Brown was not on the field in all sub-packages. He played about 81% of the snaps on the year, went 64-34-6, forced 4 turnovers, knocked down 6 passes, and scored once. That season he averaged 10.76 points and ranked 18th overall. Brown became a three-down starter in 2019, with his numbers, at a glance, looking similar to those from the previous year. At 68-36-1 with a pair of turnovers, 8 pass breakups, and a score, Brown ranked 24th among linebackers. What is lost on most who do not look closely is that he missed three games and most of a fourth that season with injuries. His average of 12.05 points per game ranked 14th. Brown missed six and a half games last year, so the statistical totals make him easy to overlook, except for the 12.72 points per game he averaged over the nine contests he played before the dislocated elbow shut him down. That average was 11th among linebackers.
Brown has missed some games over the last two seasons, so there might be some durability concerns. Two years is not much of a sample size to label a player injury prone, though. The Titans signed him to a one-year contract extension to make Brown a free agent at the end of this year. Injuries might have made them nervous about a longer deal, but the league’s reduced salary cap likely was a bigger factor. Either way, history shows us what players are capable of when millions of dollars are in the balance. We will have to see what the future holds for Brown, but for 2021 he is set to be a three-down starter and the centerpiece of Tennessee’s defense. He will produce like an LB2 but can be picked up at a bargain price of LB3 in most drafts.
Tennessee used a first-round pick on Rashaan Evans in 2018, expecting that he would solidify the ILB position for years to come. The organization elected not to pick up the fifth-year option on his rookie deal this offseason, making Evans a free agent at the end of the year. As a rookie, Evans was the third wheel in the rotation at inside linebacker, seeing fewer than 500 snaps. He held a three-down role for most of the games in 2019, playing 89% of the time on the season. Production-wise, Evans was not horrible, totaling 70-41-2.5 and a fumble recovery, to average almost 10 points per game, but on the field, he some shortcomings, particularly in coverage.
When Woodyard was let go last year, those of us on the outside expected Evans to be promoted to a full-time role next to Brown. Instead, he worked largely as a two-down, base package contributor, leaving the field in many passing situations. The most telling sign of his status with the team came when Brown was injured. Evans played in sub-packages for two games before backup David Long took over in many of those situations over the final four games.
If the writing on the wall were not already clear for Evans, the team used a third-round pick in this year’s draft on Georgia inside linebacker Monty Rice. Rice is a little short at 6-foot-0 but is stout at 233 pounds. He is fast and athletic enough to be an NFL starter and has a nose for the ball as a run defender. Rice is not a liability in coverage, but there is room for improvement in that area of his game. He is a good taxi squad target for dynasty managers, but it will not be a surprise if Rice replaces Evans during this season. It would not even be a shock if Rice were a two-down starter next to Brown at the end of training camp.
David Long Jr made six starts at the end of last season, playing full time in four of them. He was a pleasant surprise for the coaching staff on the field and a good late-season addition for IDP managers in need. There does not seem to be any consideration for Long to have a bigger role, but the team knows they have a viable option should injuries strike again.
- ILB Rashaan Evans – Marginal value as depth with limited upside
- ILB Jayon Brown – Solid LB2
- ILB Monty Rice – Sleeper/dynasty target
- ILB David Long Jr – Injury sleeper
- OLB Harold Landry – Potential LB2 in big-play formats
- OLB Bud Dupree – Potential LB2 in big-play formats
- OLB Rashad Weaver – Dynasty watch list
- OLB Derick Roberson – No impact
From Alteraun Verner in 2010 to Jason McCourty through the middle of the decade, then Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler over the last three seasons, the Titans have been a stellar source of production for those of us in corner required leagues. In 11 of the last 12 seasons, there has been at least one Tennessee corner among the top-15 at the position. In nine of those years, there was one among the top-six. In 2018, Butler finished second. In 2019 Ryan was number one by a whopping 46 points. With Ryan gone last year, Butler stepped up to carry the torch again, outscoring the number two corner, Troy Hill, by more than a point per game. With Butler now gone, all we have to do is figure out who will pick up the torch in 2021.
There are two strong candidates to consider. The Titans signed nine-year veteran Janoris Jenkins at the start of free agency. He has not cracked the 60 solo tackle mark since he was a rookie in 2012, but Jenkins has consistently produced good tackle totals for a corner over his career. If not for an injury-shortened 2017, he would have seven seasons with at least 51. Jenkins is a dependable big play contributor, averaging four turnovers, 12 passes defended, and a score. Since 2013 he has been among the top-12 three times and top-24 six times. The other year was 2017, when he played nine games and was at the top of the position with an average of 11.7 points when he was hurt.
The other candidate is rookie first-round pick Caleb Farley. There is not a lot to go on when it comes to Farley’s college performance. He played in 13 games as a freshman and 10 as a sophomore before opting out last year. Farley posted modest tackle totals over those two seasons, which is not unusual for an underclassman, but managed six interceptions, which is impressive.
At 6-foot-2 and 197 pounds, Farley fits the Titans mold of a big physical press corner that can get in the face of receivers at the line and disrupt routs, yet has the speed and athleticism to stay with them when they escape. He is a little short on experience but considering his draft status and the rest of the team’s roster should be thrown into the starting lineup right away. Before the draft, there was some concern about a back procedure he had done in March, but Farley participated in the team’s offseason program with no issues and is expected to be ready for camp.
In comparing the two players, Jenkins has the advantage of experience and a long history of quality production. While Farley has the rookie corner rule and is a better fit physically to take on the role Butler played last year. Tennessee has given us a pair of top-15 corners in the same season before and might do so again, but all things considered, I see Farley having the higher ceiling here.
Tennessee addressed the position again in round three with the selection of Elijah Molden. He is a corner/safety tweener with the potential to eventually start at one of those positions but may be best suited to work over the slot as the fifth defensive back. Molden should compete with Kristian Fulton, Keven Peterson, and possibly Chris Jones for those responsibilities this season.
The Titans changed up the way they used their safeties in 2020, and it had a huge effect on the production of Kevin Byard. He became a full-time starter as a second-year player in 2017. Lining up as the deep/free safety, Byard tied for the league lead with eight interceptions. He added a respectable 62 tackles, 25 assists, 16 passes defended, and even threw in a pair of fumble recoveries for good measure to finish as the fantasy game’s second-ranked defensive back. In 2018 and 2019, his role remained the same. The interception total fell back a little but was still excellent at four and five, respectively, while Byard’s tackle production was virtually identical. In both of those seasons, he ranked in the mid-20s and was a good DB2 with a little week-to-week inconsistency.
In 2020 the Titans went to more of a right and left safety rather than strong and free. Byard worked on the defensive left, which is more often the strong side of the offensive formation. Instead of starting 12-15 years deep all the time, he moved up into the box often and had a lot more run support responsibilities. The result was Byard’s lowest splash-play totals since becoming a starter but his highest tackle production. His career-best of 80 solo stops were fourth in the league among defensive backs, and he chipped in a career-high 30 assists to go with them but managed just one interception, a forced fumble, and 7 pass breakups. The tradeoff made Byers more consistent week-to-week and bumped him up to DB number 16 in the footballguys default IDP scoring. He went the other way in leagues with more emphasis on turnovers.
Nothing that has come from the organization or coaching staff so far suggests they will do anything different in 2021. If we could get a few big plays back on Byard’s stat sheet, he might revisit the Top 10 for a second time, but he is a safe target as a second starter at worst.
The Titans parted ways with Kenny Vaccaro in March, making Amani Hooker the other starting safety entering his third season. Hooker played 466 snaps in 2020, some as the third safety and some in a timeshare with Vaccaro. At the end of the season, Hooker was 36-15-0 with 4 interceptions, and 8 passes defended, scoring 102 fantasy points. Byard played 1102 snaps on the year and scored 162 points. Unless I did the math wrong, Hooker averaged .219 points per snap while Byard was at .147. If we multiply Hooker’s points per play by Byard’s snap total, we get whopping 241 points. I am not suggesting that Hooker will be the number one DB in 2021, but it sure looks like he could have good value for a player that no one is paying any attention to. The moral of the story, let someone else have Byard in the late-middle rounds and pick up Hooker at the end of your draft.
Dane Cruikshank and Matthias Farley are the backups at the safety positions. Both are capable veteran players that could have a little value as an in-season injury replacement should one of the starters go down. Hooker saw some action as a nickel defender last year, but that job will likely go to Molden or one of the other corners competing with him for time.
- SS Amani Hooker – Late round sleeper with considerable potential
- FS Kevin Byard – Solid DB2 with a little upside
- FS Dane Cruikshank – Injury sleeper at best
- SS Matthias Farley – Injury sleeper
- CB Caleb Farley – Rookie corner rule and other factors make him a potential CB1
- CB Janoris Jenkins – High floor CB2 with low CB1 upside
- CB Christian Fulton – No impact expected
- CB Elijah Molden – Dynasty watchlist
- CB Chris Jackson – No impact expected
- CB Kevin Peters – No impact
That is going to do it for Part 4 of this series. We’re halfway through, and the season keeps inching closer. The NFC North is up next.
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