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. Most often these players are 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.
We have heard a lot about the Broncos potentially trading for Aaron Rodgers. If this defense does not play better, it is not going to matter who is at quarterback. Denver was mediocre against the pass in 2020 and ranked in the Top 10 in sacks with 42, but only three teams were worse versus the run and only three teams created fewer turnovers.
It was a tough year for the defensive line in 2020. There were high expectations for defensive ends Jurrell Casey and Shelby Harris going into the season, but those expectations were not realized. Casey played in three games before suffering a biceps injury. Harris was plagued by a sore neck and quad early to a mid-season elbow problem, and eventually, a knee sprain ended his season. He even missed some time while on the COVID-19 reserve list. The good news is, none of the issues Harris dealt with were serious, so he should be healthy heading into 2021.
From an IDP perspective, there are no standout targets along the Broncos' defensive line, but there might be some contributors. Harris is no threat to become a double-digit sack artist, and he has not reached 30 solo tackles in any of his six NFL seasons, but he did go 28-21-6 with a turnover and 9 batted passes in 2019. He had five and a half sacks for Denver in 2017 and knocked down seven more passes last season despite the injury struggles. Generous assists totals and a knack for batting passes are enough to compensate for the marginal solo tackle numbers. If Harris can manage 6-7 sacks, he will be roster worthy as a DL3 in many leagues and a low DL2 in some.
Harris is not the only Denver defensive end worthy of some attention. The emergence of 2019 third-round pick Dre'Mont Jones led to the decision to release Casey this offseason. Jones recorded three sacks in limited action as a rookie but opened 2020 as the third man in the defensive end rotation. Early in the season, he missed some time with a knee sprain, then returned as a starter after Casey landed on IR. In 13 games, Jones posted 26-15-6.5 with a pair of swatted passes. Those are not eye-catching numbers, but at age 24 and entering just his third season as a pro, the best may be yet to come.
Mike Purcell rounds out the starting lineup at nose tackle. He missed ten games last year with a foot injury but put up decent tackle totals in 2019, finishing 25th among interior linemen in the final rankings. Purcell is not going to hole IDP value for most managers, but he could be a low-end DT2 or solid depth for those in leagues starting two interior linemen.
No potential superstars lurk behind the starters in Denver, but they have some solid, dependable depth. Last year’s third-round pick, McTelvin Agim, and third-year pro DeShawn Williams are the backups at defensive end. Agim played sparingly as a rookie. Getting on the field for 141 plays, he made virtually no impact in the box scores. However, he shed ten pounds over the offseason to get quicker and hopefully make more plays in year two. There are no grand expectations for Agim as a pass rusher, but he did have 14.5 sacks over four years at Arkansas.
Williams saw a lot of time at nose tackle after Purcell was lost last year, but the addition of former Viking Shamar Stephan should push Williams back outside. Barring injuries, Willians is unlikely to see time as more than a spot player to give someone a break. Stephan, however, could end up starting at nose tackle, especially if Purcell is not fully recovered from his Lisfranc surgery.
- DE Dre'Mont Jones – Probable DL3 with a little upside
- DE Shelby Harris – Solid DL3 with some upside if he stays healthy
- DE McTelvin Agim – Injury/dynasty sleeper with limited ceiling
- DE/NT DeShawn Williams – No impact expected
- NT Mike Purcell – Possible DT3 is fully healthy
- NT Shamar Stephen – No impact expected
The Broncos defense will need more from their inside linebacker position if they are going to turn things around, especially in the big-play department. Alexander Johnson and Josey Jewell combined for a paltry three sacks, two forced fumbles, and six pass breakups in 2020. The organization’s only response was the selection of Ohio State’s Baron Browning in the third round. Browning has the physical tools and a lot of potential but is far from a sure thing. He was not particularly productive in college, totaling 109 combined tackles, 7 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and a pair of recoveries in 32 games. There is even some question about his ability to play inside in a 3-4 at the NFL level. However, he saw time both in the middle and on the strong side for the Buckeyes, with some scouts seeing him as a better fit on the edge. We will be keeping a close eye on Browning this summer but unless he stands out unexpectedly, consider him worthy of no more than a taxi stash in dynasty leagues.
Unless they add someone via trade, it looks like Denver will be sticking with Johnson and Jewell for the immediate future. Both of these players are generally considered to be good run defenders with room for improvement in coverage. They did not look so good against either last year, but better play from the defensive line might make a considerable difference versus the run. There may be a different plan in the works when it comes to coverage.
When he broke into the starting lineup during the 2019 season, it looked like Denver might have something special in Johnson. Then the adrenalin wore off. In eleven starts that season, he recorded four or fewer solo tackles seven times, averaging 3-3-0 over the final five games. As a 16 game starter last year, Johnson averaged slightly under five tackles and just short of three assists per game. Those are respectable tackle numbers, but it makes him no better than depth in most formats without more significant contributions in other areas.
Jewell earned a starting spot in his third season and, despite shortcomings in coverage, stayed on the field in most sub-packages. His final numbers were similar to Johnson's at 68-41-2 with 4 pass breakups but lacked other splash plays. It will be a surprise if the coaching staff continues to have Jewell play full-time going forward. Browning might be an upgrade as a nickel linebacker, especially with his ability to rush the passer, but keep an eye on rookie safety Jamar Johnson. The fifth-round pick is a versatile player with the size and instincts to earn playing time as a nickel linebacker. He is a willing tackler in run support and has a high football IQ which could help him transition to such a role.
When Von Miller and Bradley Chubb are healthy, the Broncos are as strong as anyone at the outside linebacker positions. The problem is, those two have finished four games together since 2018. Chubb missed all but four games due to an ACL injury in 2019, and Miller was lost to a season-ending ankle injury after a few snaps last season.
Both are looking good for the 2021 season, but now there are whispers from some that suggest age is catching up to Miller, who turned 32 in March. Entering his eleventh year as a pro, Miller is looking to prove them wrong. Except for an injury-shortened 2013, he had double-digit sacks in each of his first eight seasons. In 2019 Miller’s sack total dropped to eight, despite playing all 16 games. So has he indeed lost a step, or was 2019 just a bit of an off-year? Only time will tell for sure, but I, for one, am not buying the theory of a player in decline. At least not just yet.
In many ways, Chubb is a younger, bigger version of Miller. He put up 12 sacks as a rookie in 2018 and was poised to build on those numbers when the injury struck in his second season. Chubb played all 16 games last season but was not the same player. Recovery from the ACL injury was undoubtedly the main factor but not having Miller on the other end of the line contributed.
Providing they remain healthy, both players will likely get back to double-digit sacks in 2021. That kind of production will once again make them highly valuable in leagues that emphasize big plays, but both Miller and Chubb have the same downside in balanced or tackle-heavy formats, that being, low tackle totals. Chubb managed 43 solo and 16 assists as a rookie, which is about what we can expect from him in most seasons going forward. Miller had a career-high of 61-16 in 2016 and has reached 50 three other times, but has averaged about 43-13, which again, is about what we can expect in 2021.
Malik Reed stepped up well in place of Miller last year, going 34-19-8. He will work as the third man at outside linebacker this season and is in line to take over the starting job should Miller not return once his contract expires at the end of the season.
- ILB A.J. Johnson – Decent LB3 or quality depth without much upside
- ILB Josey Jewell – Depth at best
- ILB Justin Strnad – No impact expected
- ILB Barron Browning – Dynasty/taxi stash unless he impresses early
- OLB Von Miller – Solid LB2 or excellent LB3 in big play formats if he stays healthy
- OLB Bradley Chubb – Quality LB2 or excellent LB3 in big-play leagues
- OLB Malik Reed – Big play sleeper/injury replacement
- OLB Derrek Tuszka – No impact expected
When a defense struggles versus the run, it usually leads to good production from the safety positions. This rung true with Denver last year when strong safety Justin Simmons not only led the team in solo tackles with 78 but also had the sixth-highest total in the league among defensive backs. Simmons joined the Broncos as a third-round pick in 2016. He worked his way into the starting lineup during the 2017 season and has improved both on the field and in the box score each season since. Following a pair of top-20 finishes in 2018 and 2019, he broke into the top-five last season, adding 18 assists, 6 turnovers, and nine pass breakups to the strong tackle numbers. Simmons has at least three takeaways in each of his three full seasons as a starter and 24 passes defended over the last two campaigns. His consistent splash play production and the fact Denver has done virtually nothing to improve at the inside linebacker position are signs that another top-ten finish could be on the horizon.
Simmons is in his prime at 27 years old and is signed through 2025, so he will be a Bronco for years to come. His running mate at free safety is at a different place in his career. Kareem Jackson has been a dependable NFL starter since coming to the team as a free agent in 2019, but he is 33 years old and in the final year of his contract. Jackson’s best fantasy production came in his last season with Houston (2017) when he was the number-12 defensive back. He has not found the top-20 since joining Denver, but Jackson’s 67-23-0 with 3 turnovers, was enough to make him a good DB4 in 2020. He might call it a career after this season, or at the least will be done in Denver, but Jackson should have one more solid season in him.
The Broncos began preparing for Jackson’s departure by selecting a pair of safeties in this year’s draft, where both Caden Sterns and Jamar Johnson were taken in the fifth round. Sterns projects as an in-the-box strong safety due to his size, aggressive style of play, and somewhat inconsistent coverage. On the other hand, Johnson has the versatility, skillset, and instincts to contribute right away. He is physical enough to get on the field as a nickel linebacker, with the range and cover skills to play the deep safety position if called upon. He could earn playing time right away as a sub-package contributor and will be groomed to take over the starting free safety job next year. Managers in deep dynasty leagues might want to slip Johnson onto the taxi squad and see how the plan works out.
Even though the pass defense was respectable in 2020, the organization made a concerted effort to upgrade at the corner positions. They signed veteran free agents Kyle Fuller and Ronald Darby, then used the number nine overall pick on Patrick Surtain II II. The newcomers project to be Denver’s top three corners come week one. Both Fuller and Darby have histories of quality box score production as corners go. Unfortunately, the Broncos do not share that history. Michael Ojmudia led the team’s corners with 56 tackles a year ago, but no other Denver corner has exceeded 50 solo stops in at least three seasons. The new trio of pass defenders brings a good balance of experience, youth, and talent that should make the Broncos much harder to throw on, but take a wait-and-see approach when it comes to drafting any of these guys.
- SS Justin Simmons – Solid DB1 with top-five potential
- FS Kareem Jackson – Depth is 12 team leagues
- FS Trey Marshall – No impact expected
- SS Caden Sterns – Developmental prospect
- FS Jamar Johnson – Dynasty stash with high long term upside
- CB Kyle Fuller – Potential CB2
- CB Patrick Surtain II – Rookie corner rule could apply
- CB Ronald Darby – Potential CB2 with long injury history
- CB Michael Ojemudia – No impact expected
- CB Bryce Callahan – Sub-package contributor
- CB Duke Dawson – No impact expected
Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs were a middle-of-the-pack defense in 2020. They were 14th versus the pass and 21st against the run. Their 32 sacks ranked 14th, and their 22 takeaways were tied with eight other teams for 10th. Considering how good the offense is, the middle of the pack is probably good enough for the Chiefs to win many games again this year, but that is not their goal. Thus the Chiefs have made significant additions at all three levels.
Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo does not like to rely on the blitz for pressure. In 2019 the defensive line accounted for 94% of the team’s 45 sacks. Last year the defensive line was responsible for just 78% of their 32. This year’s draft class was shallow at the top when it came to pass rushers, and the Chiefs did not have a first-round pick, so they waited until round four to address the position with Florida State’s Joshua Kaindoh. Kaindoh is more of a developmental prospect with some long-term potential but is not likely to make a major contribution this season.
Kansas City had many players looking to get paid, so they were limited as to what they could do in free agency. The one significant signing they were able to make was former Seahawks tackle Jarran Reed. On the surface, Reed seems like a solid yet unspectacular addition. However, when you take a more in-depth look at Spagnuolo’s plan, it could be huge.
He lasks the fanfare, but Reed is similar to Chris Jones in a lot of ways. Both are quick, athletic big men that check-in at about 310 pounds. Both are excellent run defenders, and both are among the premier interior pass rushers in the league. Paired together on the inside, they will create nightmares for offensive linemen and coordinators alike. Reed’s presence gives Spagnuolo another option as well.
The Chiefs plan to use Jones at defensive end a lot more this year. Likely having him play outside on early downs and slide inside in passing situations. This is not a new concept as Jones has seen time at defensive end in the past, lining up 124 times over the last two seasons. Between them, Reed and Jones have 51.5 sacks over the last three years.
The similarities between Jones and Reed spill over into the IDP realm as well. Both players have reached double-digit sacks once in the last three seasons, and both tend to be a little light in the tackle columns. Both have recorded more than 30 solo stops just once in their respective careers, and both did so in 2018. Jones holds a bit more fantasy value, but for managers in leagues that break out the defensive line positions, 25 tackles, 12 assists, and 8-9 sacks, along with a sprinkling of turnovers and a few batted passes, are reasonable expectations and are enough to make Jones and Reed top-flight DT1 prospects.
Filling out the roster at defensive tackle are Derrick Nnadi, Tershawn Wharton, and Khalen Saunders. All three are solid players that contributed in recent years. Wharton saw the most action of any Kansas City tackle other than Jones last year, going 15-11-2 on roughly half the team’s defensive snaps. At 255 pounds, he is undersized for an interior lineman, with most of his playing time coming in passing situations. Nnamdi represents the other end of the spectrum. At 312 pounds, he is a space-eating roadblock who sees most of his action on early and short-yardage downs. Nnadi played a little less than Wharton last season and totaled 23-24-0. These guys provide quality depth and situational value on the field but do not have much to offer in fantasy terms.
Moving Jones outside on early downs should provide a boost for the Chiefs' run defense, but all 16.5 of his sacks over the last two seasons have come as an inside rusher. That is where he will continue to line up on most passing downs. Thus Kansas City is still in need of more production off the edge in passing situations. Frank Clark is the first player the coaching staff will look to.
Clark exploded for career highs across the board while playing for Seattle in 2018, going 35-8-14 with 4 forced fumbles, 2 recoveries, and an interception for good measure. He promptly used the monster season as leverage to cash in on a big free-agent contract with the Chiefs. In 32 games with Kansas City to date, Clark is a combined 47-18-14 with 3 forced fumbles, 2 recoveries, and an interception. Those are not horrible numbers for two seasons of work by any stretch. The problem is, at 21-8-6 with a lone forced turnover, last year’s production was his lowest since Clark was a rookie in 2015. There is nothing that motivates a player like being in a contract year. Unfortunately for the Chiefs, Clark is signed through 2023, so they will have to figure out another way to get him going.
Clark averaged 25-14-11 and 3+ turnovers in three seasons as a starter in Seattle. The Chiefs would be happy with such numbers, but IDP managers would like to see more in the tackle columns. Outside of 2018, he has averaged about 23 tackles and 15 assists as a starter. Even if he bounces back in the big play columns, Clark is no more than a matchup-based spot play or bye week fill-in for IDP managers.
There are three other players in the mix for significant playing time at defensive end. Tim Ward, Mike Danna, and Taco Charlton are all likely to make the final roster, but their playing time remains up in the air. Ward was signed to the practice squad as a rookie in 2019. He was added to the active roster last November and saw his first playing time as a pro when he played in the season's final game against Seattle. To his credit, Ward made the best of his opportunity, recording five tackles and a sack. The Chiefs were resting players when they faced Seattle, so Danna joined him as a starter. Unlike Ward, however, Danna had seen action during the season. He played 333 total snaps, recording26 combined tackles and 2.5 sacks.
It feels like every year at this time I am asking the same question about Taco Charlton. Why is it that no one wants to give this guy a shot? His career got off to a rocky start in Dallas. As a first-round pick in 2017, Charlton played 401 snaps, recording 19 combined tackles and 3 sacks. He battled injuries in 2018 and failed to make much of an impact. Two games into the 2019 season, Charlton was traded to Miami. Again he was limited to a part-time role, going 14-7-5 with a pair of forced fumbles. Charlton landed with the Chiefs last year, where he played just 90 snaps but still managed a pair of sacks. Throw out the injury season, and Charlton’s career numbers are 33-14-10 with 4 forced fumbles and one recovery on what amounts to about one season's worth of snaps for a three-down defensive end. There are a lot of teams out there that would be happy with that production. Maybe the Chiefs will be the team to allow him to prove himself. They could sure use the help.
- DE Frank Clark – Spot play DL3 if he bounces back from a poor 2020
- DE Taco Charlton – Deep sleeper with good potential if he gets a fair shot
- DE Mike Danna – Deep sleeper at best
- DE Tim Ward – Dynasty watch list
- DT/DE Chris Jones – Stud DT1 or solid DL2
- DT Jarran Reed – Low end DT1
- DT Derrick Nnadi – No IDP impact
- DT Khalen Saunders – No impact
- DT Tershawn Wharton – Marginal impact at best
When your team’s leading tackler is a safety and your best linebacker has 48 tackles in 13 games, you have a problem. That is where the Chiefs found themselves heading into the offseason. Granted, Daniel Sorensen spent a lot of time near the line as an in-the-box safety or nickel linebacker, but that does not change the point. The issue is not that Anthony Hitchens, Damien Wilson, Ben Niemann, or Willie Gay Jr were not productive when on the field. The problem was that none of the Chiefs linebackers had the skillset to stay on the field in all situations. The result was five players sharing the positions, which led to zero IDP value.
We should see a different approach from the Chiefs in 2021. Wilson is no longer with the team, and Gay has a year of experience under his belt. The coaching staff and the many dynasty managers that drafted him last year hope/expect he will be ready for an expanded role. The wild card in the mix is rookie second-round pick Nick Bolton. This remains a fluid situation, and the coaches will undoubtedly look at several different options. Ultimately we should see Bolton in the middle with Gay on the weak side. If they get to that point this season, the versatile Hitchens could work on the strong side. It would be a surprise to see the Chiefs get to that point this season, though.
Hitchens joined the Chiefs as a free agent in 2018. In his first season with the team, he worked as a three-down middle linebacker. His average cover skills and glaring lack of playmaking ability were quickly exposed, but Hitchens still managed a solid 82 tackles, 55 assists, and a forced fumble in 15 games that season. Since that time, Hitchens has been relegated to a lesser role as a two-down base package starter, and his box score numbers have slumped considerably. He is expected to continue in that role when training camp opens, and chances are, he will hold it for the duration of this season. Hitchens is in the final year of his contract. If he were to return for the 2022 season, it would probably be in a lesser role as a strong side backer.
Willie Gay Jr started slowly as a rookie, seeing 15 snaps over the Chiefs' first three games. His role grew a little after that, but he was on the field for more than 25 plays in just five games, working mostly on the strong side. Easing Gay into the NFL was part of the team’s plan from the start. He was selected for his talent, but the organization knew going in that he was raw.
Gay was suspended for eight games as a junior at Mississippi State in 2019, so he made just six starts for the Bulldogs before turning pro. His college numbers provide little insight, but it is noteworthy that Gay had five sacks and a pair of interceptions in a part-time role as a sophomore. He has optimal size at 6-foot-1 and 243 pounds, excellent speed, and athleticism, sideline to sideline range, solid cover skills, and is a physical tackler that arrives with an attitude. His skill set fits well with what Steve Spagnuolo wants in a three-down weak-side linebacker. There were several excellent linebackers with high IDP potential in Gay’s draft class. He has not yet shown much, but he could prove to be the best of them when it is all said and done.
Ben Niemann had an opportunity to start ahead of Hitchens as the middle linebacker for a couple of early games in 2019, but he fared no better. Later that season, he saw some time ahead of Wilson on the strong side, with mixed results. Both Neimann and 2018 third-round pick Dorian O'Daniel are safe bets to make the final roster, but they are not threatening to claim a significant role.
That brings us to Nick Bolton. Unlike his teammate Willie Gay Jr, Bolton has two full years as a major college starter under his belt. He is a sharp contrast to Gay in many other ways as well. Where Gay is a speed and athleticism guy, Bolton is a strength and physicality-based, hard-nosed thumper that makes opponents think about him as they head back to the huddle. He is not particularly fast but makes up for it with quick reaction and tenacity. As a three-down starter for Missouri, Bolton excelled against the run, was efficient in coverage, and had a knack for making plays on the ball. He checks the box for college production as well, with 198 combined tackles, 4 sacks, 12 pass breakups, and 3 takeaways as a starter.
Early speculation suggests the coaching staff might try to ease Bolton into the NFL as they did with Gay by having him play the base-package strong-side role as a rookie. Once they put the pads on in training camp, he could force them to re-think that plan. Bolton is the future of the middle linebacker position in Kansas City. All that remains is to see how long it takes for him to get started.
- WLB Willie Gay Jr – Excellent long term upside
- MLB/SLB Nick Bolton – Dynasty target with potential to emerge as a rookie
- MLB/SLB Anthony Hitchens – Marginal IDP value
- WLB Dorian O'Daniel – No impact expected
- WLB/SLB Ben Niemann – No impact
The Chiefs' pass defense was mediocre in terms of yards allowed in 2020, ranking 14th. They were rather opportunistic, though, accounting for 20 turnovers and four sacks. Splash plays are the great equalizer in terms of IDP value among defensive backs, so try not to get stuck on the fact that only one Kansas City DB had more than 48 solo tackles last season. There is some production to be mined here, but it may not be found where last year’s numbers might suggest at a glance.
Last season was the most productive of Daniel Sorensen’s seven-year career. With a personal best of 69 tackles and 23 assists, the strong safety led not only the secondary but the entire team in stops. He added a career-best five turnovers and his first defensive score to finish as a top-15 defensive back for the first time in his career. Sorensen had similar tackle totals in 2017 but otherwise had never come close to this level of statistical production. The dilemma for IDP managers is figuring out if this is the beginning of a trend or simply a mirage that will be proven a career outlier in time. From where I sit, the smart money is on the later.
Sorensen’s skillset makes him a great fit for the role he has been asked to play in recent years. He is a physical, in-the-box safety that relishes contact and excels as a run defender. As a safety, his cover skills are average at best, but as a second-level defender, they are considerably more valuable. The Chiefs used a nickel base defense roughly 70% of the time in 2020. In that set, Sorensen most often lined up at linebacker depth. Thus, with the team being short on linebackers that could cover, Sorensen’s role was significantly expanded. In 2020, he was on the field for almost 900 plays. In 2017 he played over 900 snaps. The most action Sorensen has seen in any other year is 574. If he has a nearly full-time role in 2021, we can expect similar tackle totals and a sprinkling of big plays, but we can not overlook the team's additions at linebacker in the past two drafts. As a result, there is a good chance Sorensen’s playing time will be diminished going forward. If not right away, certainly once Gay and Bolton step into their long-term roles.
Sorensen was not the only Chiefs safety whose 2020 numbers were skewed. Tyrann Mathieu has never been known as a tackling machine, but his 48 solo stops in 15 games were, by far, the lowest total of his eight-year career in a non-injury season and well below his career average of 69. Much of Mathieu’s IDP value comes from his ability to make game-changing plays. With career totals of 29 turnovers, 9 sacks, and two defensive scores in 113 career games, Mathieu averages one big play in every three outings and is coming off a career-best of six interceptions. In two seasons with the Chiefs, he has accounted for 11 turnovers, a pair of sacks, and 22 passes defended. Mathieu was the fantasy game’s number five defensive back in 2015. If not for the decision to rest players in the final game of last season, he would have finished among the top-30 in every season since. Look for a rebound in the tackle columns and slot Mathieu on your draft board as a solid DB3 with big-play upside.
As a rookie second-round pick in 2019, Juan Thornhill became an immediate starter. For a season and a half, the Chiefs had him line up as the deep safety with Sorensen in the box and Mathieu moving around to find favorable matchups. That changed over the final seven games of 2020. Coming out of the week-ten bye, Thornhill’s role was reduced to the point that he saw fewer than 25 snaps in five of the last seven games. We will have to see if this was just a warning shot to get Thornhill’s attention or if there is more to it. Regardless of the answer, whoever works as the Chiefs deep safety will struggle to produce fantasy-friendly numbers.
One major factor in Thornhill losing time was the return of rookie L’Jarius Sneed from a broken collar bone. Sneed was a fourth-round pick of the Chiefs last year. He made an immediate impression on the coaching staff and was a week one starter. At the time, Sneed getting the start was presumed to be because Breshad Breeland was suspended for four games. In hindsight, that may not have been the case. Sneed suffered the broken collar bone early in week three. When he returned, Breeland was back and was paired with Chavarius Ward as the outside starters, so Sneed took over most of Thornhill’s playing time. He lined up mostly as the slot/nickel corner, which in turn shuffled Mathieu to more of a deep safety role, which contributed to Mathieu’s low tackle totals.
Breeland has moved on, so Sneed now projects as the starter opposite Ward. If we look at what he did as a rookie, it is easy to see why IDP managers need to have Sneed in their sights. He started six games and played 410 total snaps, which was less than 40% of the Chiefs' defensive plays. Yet he produced 30 tackles, 9 assists, 2 sacks, 3 interceptions, and broke up 7 passes. Corners can be wildly inconsistent from year to year, and Sneed could be in a completely different role, but if those numbers are not a fluke, this guy could be a perennial top-five corner for the next several years. Good IDP managers will wait until the late rounds to pick up corners. When you get there, think seriously about making Sneed a priority. Corner is an easy position to stream if need be, and there are always decent ones available if he flops. On the other hand, elite corners that provide consistent production are rare.
Sneed will play a big role, but figuring out where everyone will line up is a tough call at this early stage. Ward projects as one of the starters and is, at the least, sure to see a significant role if he is not. That said, the addition of former Vikings' first-round pick, Mike Hughes, has the potential to re-write the story. Hughes has missed 20 games over three seasons, including 10 last year, but he is a quality cover man when healthy.
Muddying the water even further, the Chiefs signed the Giants 2019 first-round pick DeAndre Baker to an extension this spring. Baker played well as a rookie but was waived last September due to off-field/legal issues. The Chiefs picked him up after all charges were dropped. He suffered a broken femur in the Week 17 game, so Baker’s health could be an issue for the immediate future.
In short, the Chiefs' secondary is loaded with talent from top to bottom, and there is the potential for a couple of these guys to provide legitimate IDP value. We may not know who that will be for sure until at least the preseason, but Mathieu and Sneed are heavy favorites.
- SS Daniel Sorensen – Buyer beware, DB3 potential with low floor
- FS Tyrann Mathieu – Expect a bounce-back season unless he ends up playing the deep safety role
- FS Juan Thornhill – No fantasy impact expected
- FS Armani Watts – No impact
- SS Will Parks – No impact
- CB L'Jarius Sneed – Strong sleeper with CB1 potential
- CB Chavarius Ward – No impact expected
- CB Mike Hughes – No impact expected
- CB Rashad Fenton – No impact
- CB Deandre Baker – No immediate impact
Las Vegas Raiders
The Raiders defense was not good in 2019. They were tied for last against the pass, tied for 23rd in sacks with 32, just three teams had fewer interceptions, and seven recovered fewer opponents fumbles. The good news is they were much better than the 2018 squad that had 13 sacks. The bad news is, they went in the wrong direction in 2020 or at least failed to take the next step. Last year’s Raiders were 24th versus the pass at 7.4 yards per attempt and tied for 23rd against the run at 4.6 yards-per-carry. Only two teams managed fewer than their 15 takeaways, and the pass rush backslid to 21 sacks which were the fourth-fewest in the league. Coach Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock still have a lot of work to do, but the Las Vegas lineup will have many new faces in 2021.
Let me start this with a warning to dynasty managers; DO NOT give up on Maxx Crosby! He was a major part of why the Raiders jumped from a league-low 13 sacks in 2018 to a respectable 32 in 2019. Yes, his numbers were way down last year after finishing as the number 12 defensive lineman two years ago, but there is a good reason. Crosby never showed up on an injury report, but he underwent two surgeries in January. One to repair a torn labrum and another to fix a broken metal plate in his hand. No one outside the organization knows how long he played with those injuries, but it is worth mention that six of his seven sacks came in the first nine games.
Watching Crosby on the field in 2019 made people wonder how he could have fallen to the draft's fourth round. One contributing factor was the level of competition while playing at Eastern Michigan. The first things that caught my eye were his huge wingspan and upfield quickness off the edge. This player had 162 combined tackles, 20 sacks, forced 8 fumbles, recovered 4, intercepted a pass, and scored twice in three college seasons. In his first year as a pro, Crosby went 38-10-10 with 4 forced fumbles, 4 batted passes, and a top-12 IDP ranking among defensive linemen. His numbers slipped last year, but there are many Day 1 draft picks in the league who would have been happy to boast 17 career sacks heading into their third year.
Another plus for Crosby is the influx of talent around him, most notably Yannick Ngakoue. Under the current regime, the Raiders have not been shy about spending free agent money or draft capital on the defensive line, but Ngakoue is by far the most proven of their additions. He gives up a little as an edge setter against the run, but Ngakoue has 45.5 career sacks in five seasons and has never fallen short of eight. He also has 19 forced fumbles, 3 recoveries, a pair of interceptions, 10 batted passes, and two scores, all before his 27th birthday. From a fantasy football perspective, the only thing that keeps Ngakoue from being a strong, every-week play is a lack of quality tackle production. He had 36 solo stops while with the Jaguars in 2019, but outside that one year, he has never recorded more than 25 or had more than five assists. The big play numbers are enough to make him a solid matchup-based spot play or bye-week fill-in, but the inconsistency that comes with poor tackle totals can hurt.
The Raiders have not yet given up on 2019 fourth-overall pick Clelin Ferrell, but their patience must be worn thin. Most draft prognosticators considered Ferrell a reach when he was taken so high. So far, he has played like it with a combined 6.5 sacks. Ferrell had what has come to be recognized as a typical rookie season for a high-profile edge defender. He played around 62% of the snaps, recording a decent stat line of 24-15-4.5 with a fumble recovery and five batted passes. The problem is, he regressed in year two, finishing at 18-7-2 with a pair of forced fumbles and two batted passes. He is still young, having just turned 24 in May, but NFL teams in situations like the Raiders, do not have the luxury of being patient. It might be a bit premature to call this a make or break season for Ferrell, but there is a reason the organization was willing to foot the bill for Ngakoue, who is signed through the 2022 season.
Another instance of the writing on the wall was the Raiders selection of Malcolm Koonce in the third round of this year’s draft. Koonce was somewhat of a surprise selection in that at 249 pounds, he projected as a stand-up edge defender at the next level and was considered by many scouts to be best suited as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme. Exactly how the Raiders plan to use him remains to be seen, but he could get on the field as a strong-side linebacker which could give the defense a stack edge rush. This team is desperate to create a pass rush, so if Koonce can chase down quarterbacks, they will find a way to use him.
During his four years at the University of Buffalo, Koonce displayed the ability to chase down quarterbacks, albeit in the Mid-American Conference. He accumulated 17 sacks over four years with the Bulls, 13 of them coming in 17 games as a starter over the last two seasons. He could find a niche as a pass rush specialist early in his career but will need to beef up and get stronger against the run if he sees much early-down action.
The Raiders have a slew of new faces at the tackle position, all added via free agency. Darius Philon (Chargers), Quinton Jefferson (Seahawks), Solomon Thomas (49ers), and Matt Dickerson (Titans) are all solid veteran football players that will compete with incumbent Johnathan Hankins to establish a pecking order. None of them have shown much statistical production during their respective careers, and there are no future Hall of Famers in the group. But the competition is worth keeping an eye on for managers in tackle required league, just in case someone surprises.
- DE Maxx Crosby – Priority DL2
- DE Yannick Ngakoue – Quality DL3 or matchup based stream start
- DE Clelin Ferrell – Breakout potential in his third year but more likely to bust
- DE Malcolm Koonce – Developmental prospect
- DE Carl Nassib – Injury sleeper at best
- DT Jonathan Hankins – Depth with low DT2 upside
- DT Quinton Jefferson – Depth with DT2 potential
- DT/DE Solomon Thomas – Watch list player looking to prove he was worth a first-round pick
- DT Darius Philon –Watch list player for tackle required leagues
The Raiders linebacker positions did not get a lot of attention this offseason. Not because there was no need, but because there were only so many resources and bigger issues to address. There is also the point that the organization spent a lot of money there last offseason, bringing in Corey Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski. So far, those additions have brought mixed reviews, but the team is not yet ready to move on.
In his two seasons as the starting middle linebacker for the Rams, Littleton was nothing short of impressive both on the field and in the box scores. He led the team in tackles both seasons, totaling 172 solo stops and 87 assists, adding 11 turnovers, 7.5 sacks, 22 pass breakups, and a score. In his first season as the Raiders weakside linebacker, his production plummeted to 54-27-0 with one pass breakup and no other statistical contributions in 14 games. On the field, Littleton looked lost at times. He was indecisive, slow to react, seemed to lack confidence, and was generally a square peg in a round hole.
The question on everyone’s mind is, can Littleton bounce back and be the old version of himself in 2021? The answer is yes, he can, but the jury is still out on if he will. Littleton still has the same skillset that made him a top-five linebacker for two years. However, we do not know if that skill set is a good match for what the Raiders are asking of him. Keep in mind that there was virtually no offseason last year. So he was asked to learn a new position in a new scheme, with a new supporting cast, and he had to do it without much live practice. That is a tall order in a normal season. However, with an offseason program to prepare, Littleton is sure to be more comfortable with the scheme and his responsibilities, making it all but certain that he will be both better on the field and more productive in the box scores. Expecting a top-ten ranking might be a stretch, but there were signs of hope when Littleton totaled 14 tackles and 4 assists over the final two games.
The good news here is that after last year’s debacle, Littleton will be an afterthought for many, if not most, managers. He will be available as a low-end LB3 or possibly even later in many leagues, so it will not cost much to roll the dice on him. The payoff could be big, but even if it is not, he should be quality depth.
Kwiatkoski was never a top-10 IDP option. He was never even a starter for Chicago unless someone ahead of him was injured. He made the most of opportunities when they came, which is why the Raiders signed him to be their middle linebacker. Kwiatkoski transitioned more smoothly than Littleton. It helped that Kwiatkoski has positional versatility, having been the top backup at all three spots for most of his tenure with the Bears. It also helped that the responsibilities of the middle linebacker in the Raiders scheme were similar to what he was used to.
Kwiatkoski has never turned in great overall numbers in a season in terms of box score production, but he has been highly productive for stretches. For example, in 2019, he started and played full-time in six games while seeing significant time in three others. In those nine contests, he was 53-19-3 with a forced fumble, an interception, 4 passes defended, and an average of 13.9 points per game.
The beginning of Kwiatkoski’s career with Las Vegas was clouded by a pectoral injury in his first game. Fortunately, it was not serious. He only missed a couple of contests but was not fully healthy when he returned to action. That led to a pair of two tackle outings heading into the team’s week six bye. At that point, things were looking bleak for those that drafted him. Littleton had been a disappointment as well, which added to all the second-guessing, and Kwiatkoski had produced eight tackles and three assists in three games. Making things worse, this came at a time when managers were looking to make roster space for hot players off the waiver wire. As a result, a lot of managers cut him during or even before the bye week. That proved to be a mistake. Over the next nine games, Kwiatkoski recorded 45 tackles, 25 assists, two turnovers, a sack, and 4 pass breakups, for an average of 11.5 points per game. A year of experience in the scheme should make him even more productive in 2021, particularly in the splash play columns. He may not have as high a ceiling as Littleton, but Kwiatkoski has a higher floor with less risk. Target him as a priority LB4 but do not be surprised if you end up starting him every week.
When last season opened, no one, including the Raiders coaching staff, expected Nicholas Morrow to be the team’s leading tackler. He opened the season as a two-down strong-side linebacker but ended up playing full-time in several games. Morrow was surprisingly productive, finishing the season at 62-16-3 with 3 turnovers and 9 pass breakups. He reached double-digit fantasy point in eight games and earned the coaching staff's trust in the process. With everyone healthy, Morrow projects to return to the base package role when training camp opens, but we need to keep an eye on this situation.
Both second-year pro Tanner Muse and rookie Divine Diablo are former college safeties making the transition to linebacker. Muse missed most of his rookie season due to injury, so these young players are starting on even ground. Both are developmental prospects, so barring an injury or two ahead of them, they will not be getting on the field much in the short term, outside of special teams.
Darron Lee was signed to provide a little veteran depth at a paper-thin position. He has been a disappointment since coming into the league as a first-round pick of the Jets. If he makes the final roster, it will be because the Raiders need warm bodies behind the starters.
- WLB Cory Littleton – Potential bounce back player, pick him up as an LB4 with upside
- MLB Nick Kwiatkoski – Solid LB3
- SLB /MLB Nicholas Morrow – Injury sleeper, grab him if either of the first two guys misses time
- WLB Divine Diablo – Taxi stash with some long term potential
- WLB Darron Lee – No impact expected
- SLB Tanner Muse – Injury sleeper
It is hard to cover receivers when there is no pass rush. Likewise, it is hard to get to the quarterback when receivers are open. Thus the Raiders strongly addressed both ends of the spectrum this offseason. Between free agency and the draft, there are five new faces in the mix for playing time in the secondary. Six if you count Deablo Divine, who I believe will have a better shot at making an impact as a nickel linebacker type.
Having used a first-round pick on Johnathan Abram in 2019, the strong safety position is in good hands. Abram is somewhat of a throwback to the days when strong safeties were more like extra linebackers against the run and intimidators in the passing game. Deep coverage is not counted among his strengths, but Abram has the size and speed to match up with tight ends or running backs in the short passing game, along with the range and the athleticism to mirror mobile quarterbacks. He is not a liability in coverage, but the coaching staff must be careful to keep him out of certain situations. The strength of his game comes against the run. Abram is quick to respond, works through traffic smoothly, hits like a runaway train, and brings intensity to the field. He has all the tools to become an outstanding NFL player, but there is one area where he has to improve. Abram needs to show better control. He is sometimes too aggressive, which can cause him to be out of position and/or miss tackles.
Abram played in one game as a rookie before landing on IR with a shoulder injury. A glance at his numbers last season might lead the less informed IDP manager to believe he is a marginal contributor. His totals of 60-26-0 with a pair of interceptions and 5 pass breakups look better when considering that he missed three games. Abram’s average of 10.3 points per game ranked inside the top-24, making him a solid DB2 when he played.
The fact that Abram battled and often played through several nagging issues during the season likely impacted his production as well. He dealt with a sore shoulder early in the year, followed by a thumb sprain, a stint on the CIVID-19 list, a sore groin, a sore knee, and a concussion. The injury list culminated when he left the week 17 contest with a hip problem. A healthy Abram with a year of experience and coaching under his belt could push the top-12 in 2021.
Since taking over as the head coach, Jon Gruden has been searching for a playmaker at free safety. In second-round pick Trevor Moehrig, he may finally have one. Moehrig will enter training camp as the favorite to win the job. As a two-year starter at Texas Christian, he showed the versatility to succeed in various coverage schemes, including working in the slot against big receivers and tight ends. He is fast and athletic with the range and ball skills the Raiders are looking for as a last line of defense. Moehrig is not so much a big hitter but rather a sound tackler that will get the ball carrier on the ground effectively. He produced respectable tackle totals for the Horned Frogs, with 113 combined stops over the last two seasons, but it is his big-play production that catches the eye. In 22 games as a starter, he recorded ten total turnovers, with seven coming on interceptions, and broke up 21 other passes. If he plays the high safety role as expected, Moehrig could fall short on fantasy value due to limited tackle opportunity.
He is the favorite, but Moehrig will not be handed the starting job. After a year with Cleveland, the Raiders brought back their 2016 first-round pick Karl Joseph and added two other safeties in the third and fourth rounds of this year’s draft. Joseph has never lived up to his draft status either on the field or in the box scores, but he is a solid veteran contributor that is familiar with the scheme and is capable of stepping right in if needed. Joseph also has the versatility to play either safety spot, which adds to his value on the field. Unfortunately, he has little to offer in fantasy terms. His career-best of 58 solo tackles came while with the Raiders in 2017, and he has one interception in each of his five years as a pro.
Third-round selection Divine Diablo checks in at 6-foot-3 and 226 pounds. He is a hard-hitting, downhill tackler with plus skill in run support but has below-average speed and cover skills for a safety. Most believe his role will be that of a nickel or possibly a weak-side linebacker.
Las Vegas picked up Missouri’s Tyree Gillespie In round four. He projects as more of a developmental player that will contribute on special teams early but has experience playing the high safety spot as a three-year starter for the Tigers. In stark contrast to Moehrig, Gillespie was a virtual no-show in the big-play department over his college career, with no interceptions and one forced fumble in 32 games as a starter.
Injuries and inexperience were probably bigger factors in the Las Vegas pass defense struggles than a lack of talent. They opened the season with 2019 second-round pick Travon Mullen and last year’s first-round selection Damon Arnette as starters. Then, in Week 3, Arnette suffered a broken thumb that would have him in and out of the lineup for the rest of the season, never fully healthy. The Raiders hope Arnette will be a critical component in the long-term solution at the position, but durability concerns date back to his career at Ohio State. The injuries make it hard to get a read on Arnette’s IDP prospect, but it is noteworthy that he had ten tackles and two assists in the two games before breaking his thumb.
Arnette may have to fight to get his starting spot back this year. The team signed nine-year NFL starter Casey Hayward in free agency. Hayward spent four years with the Packers before signing with the Chargers in 2016. In five seasons with San Diego/Los Angeles, he totaled 14 interceptions, and 66 passes defended. Hayward had a career year in 2016 but otherwise has not been much of an IDP factor. He does, however, provide the Raiders with the experience, stability, and leadership they were in desperate need of in their young secondary.
If any of the Raiders corners is going to have fantasy value, it will be Trayvon Mullen. He moved into the starting lineup about halfway through his rookie year and started all 16 games in 2020. Mullen managed a respectable 65 combined tackles with 14 pass breakups and a pair of picks last year. He finished among the top-20 at the position overall, but Mullen is a perfect example of how fickle IDP production can be at the corner position. His total of 123 points was enough to rank 18th, but Mullen’s average of 7.7 points per game ranked 47. This is because 30 of the top 50 corners missed at least one game last year. It is also why IDP managers often elect to stream starters at the corner positions. Unless you have one of the few studs, you can come out ahead by taking advantage of injury situations and playing your cards right when it comes to weekly matchups.
Nevin Lawson and Rasule Douglas are the best of the rest on the Las Vegas roster. Lawson is a solid veteran cover man with plenty of experience but is void of playmaking ability. Despite playing in 90 games over seven seasons as a pro, most of them as a starter for the Lions, Lawson is still looking for his first career interception. That would be hard to do on purpose. Douglas has rarely been a week one starter but usually ends up on the field due to injuries ahead of him. He had five interceptions over his first two seasons in the league (2017 and 2018) and generally puts up good tackle totals when he plays, making Douglas one of those corners you might look to stream on occasion.
- SS Johnathan Abram – Solid DB2
- FS Trevor Moeheig – He’s a playmaker, but low tackle numbers could hold him back
- FS/SS Karl Joseph – Marginal IDP value at best
- FS Tyree Gillespie – Special teams contributor
- SS Roderic Teamer – Special teams contributor
- CB Damon Arnette – Could have some value in corner required formats, but durability is an issue
- CB Casey Hayward – Marginal value at best
- CB Trayvon Mullen – Probable CB3 value
- CB Nevin Lawson – No IDP impact
- CB Rasul Douglas – Injury sleeper who usually produces when he plays
Los Angeles Chargers
There is no point looking at anything the Chargers defense has done in the past. With a new coaching staff and a new scheme, all that matters is figuring out where players will line up and how successful they will be going forward. The most drastic changes will involve last year’s defensive linemen. At one point early in the offseason, head coach Brandon Staley made a statement along the line of, “We will run a 3-4 scheme in name only”, going on to explain that the Chargers will throw out multiple looks in the future, including some four-person fronts. More recently, Joey Bosa talked about the adjustments of going from a three-point stance in the previous defense to a two-point in the new scheme. At this stage, it is safe to start calling Bosa a linebacker.
One reason Staley was so successful as the Rams defensive coordinator was the presence of Aaron Donald. There is no Aaron Donald on the Chargers roster, but they do have an athletic big man to play defensive end in Jerry Tillery. Tillery was a first-round pick of the Chargers in 2019. Like many other talented players, he struggled to find success in the previous scheme under Gus Bradley, recording 29 tackles and 5 sacks over his first two seasons. Things could be drastically different for him going forward. Tillery recorded 134 combined tackles, 13.5 sacks, and 4 forced fumbles over his career at Notre Dame, with 8 of those sacks and 3 forced fumbles as a senior in 2018. He has the skill set to be a dominating presence and the potential to become a quality fantasy contributor in the new scheme.
Justin Jones is expected to start at the other defensive end spot. Entering his fourth year, the former third-round pick has a similar story to that of Tillery. Over three years at North Carolina State, he produced 108 combined tackles, 8.5 sacks, and three turnovers in 34 career games. Since joining the Chargers, Jones has 79 combined tackles and 1.5 sacks in 44 games. He is not as gifted as Tillery, but Jones should be a good fit as a 3-4 end. His numbers should improve considerably. Where Tillery might be worthy of a late/last-round pick, Jones will need to show something before he is roster-worthy.
Linval Joseph rounds out the starting lineup at the nose tackle position. The eleven-year veteran played the position early in his career while with the Giants, so there is no need to speculate about his fit. At 6-foot-5 and 328 pounds, he is an anchor versus the run regardless of scheme. What sets Joseph apart from most players his size is the ability to hold ground and create a roadblock and shed double teams at the point of attack and make plays. Joseph has at least 33 solo tackles in eight of his ten seasons as a starter, including all three years he was with the Giants. He even has 25 career sacks, reaching 4 in a season twice over his career. For managers in leagues that lump the defensive line positions together, Joseph has minimal value. However, for those who must start interior linemen, he is a dependable DT2.
The three starters should all fit into their new positions well. However, as with most teams that make such a scheme change, it will take some time to build quality depth. Cortez Broughton and Christian Covington are the top backups and are all but certain to earn roster spots. After those two, the Chargers have a collection of young undrafted players competing for a place on the final roster.
- NT Linval Joseph – Solid DT2
- DE Jerry Tillery – Potential breakout player with DL3 upside
- DE Justin Jones – Watch list player
- DE/DT Cortez Broughton – No impact expected
- DE Christian Covington – No impact
One player that might be even happier about the arrival of a new coaching staff and scheme is last year’s first-round pick, Kenneth Murray. He was miscast in Bradley’s scheme, which called on Murray to perform responsibilities that were not his strengths. He was never comfortable in the defense and was even benched at one point. To his credit, Murray was still able to lead the team in tackles.
Under Staley and defensive coordinator Renaldo Hill, Murray will be, in his own words, “turned loose to play downhill.” He will have fewer and simpler responsibilities in coverage and will blitz more often in passing situations. There will be fewer reads on running plays, allowing Murray to react more quickly and rely on his instincts. In short, the defense will be much more like the one Murray played in at Oklahoma that led to his being a first-round pick. All this is music to the ears of the many dynasty managers that drafted Murray last spring and were disappointed by his production. Managers in re-draft leagues will want to move him up appropriately as well. Murray could be a steal if picked up as an LB3, and he might fall even further.
There are a lot of people thinking that Kyzir White will be the other starting inside linebacker. Let them draft him and pick up Drue Tranquill instead. Let me throw out some reminders about this guy. Tranquill was the team’s most impressive player at linebacker in 2019. He was a compensatory fourth-round pick that year and did not get on the field until week four. He only played more than half the defensive snaps in five games all season, but in the end, Tranquil had piled up an impressive 61 tackles and 15 assists on a mere 382 plays. At that rate, if he had played all 984 snaps, he would have had 156 tackles and 39 assists. Tranquill made no splash-play contributions as a rookie, but his career at Notre Dame tells us he is capable. As a three-year starter for the Fighting Irish, he totaled five and a half sacks, three interceptions, a forced fumble, and five recoveries to go along with 292 combined tackles.
Tranquill won the starting job on the weak side last summer then suffered a dislocated ankle a few snaps into the season and was lost for the year. If you need further verification, read some of the articles on Chargers.com or listen to the June 3rd conversation with the guys at Chargers Unleashed. He was introduced as Drue Tranquill, starting inside linebacker for the Los Angeles Chargers. People throughout the rest of the country may not know, but those in Los Angeles sure do.
There is no question who the Chargers starting edge defenders will be. Unlike most teams transitioning from a 4-3 to a 3-4, the Chargers already have a pair of excellent outside linebackers on the roster. He has been a 4-3 end for the last four seasons and played with his hand in the dirt most of the time at Ohio State, but Joey Bosa was an outside linebacker for 12 games as a rookie in 2016. In those games, he recorded 41 combined tackles and got to the quarterback for 10.5 sacks. By his own admission, working from a two-point stance will take some getting used to, but Bosa says he likes being able to see the whole field at the snap of the ball.
Like most great edge defenders that make the change from defensive end to linebacker, the new positional designation will seriously reduce Bosa’s fantasy value in many league formats. The stat line he posted in 2019 of 45-21-11.5 was enough to make Bosa an elite, tier-one defensive end. Those same numbers would have relegated him to backup status or maybe an LB3 as a linebacker in balanced or tackle-heavy scoring systems. Except for an injury-shortened 2018, Bosa’s production last season was the lowest of his career. In a recent interview, he estimated that he played through bout 15 different nagging injuries and was never fully healthy last year. Look for a much better statistical season from Bosa in 2021 and adjust his value based on your league’s scoring.
While Bosa should be just as productive in the new situation, Uchenna Nwosu should excel in it. Nwosu held his own with his hand in the dirt, but at 251 pounds, he was undersized for the physical contact that comes from squaring off against 300-pound offensive tackles on every snap. He was originally drafted to play a pass-rushing strong-side linebacker in the teams 4-3. However, Nwosu moved to the defensive end position out of necessity when Melvin Ingram III was injured. He has ten career sacks over his three NFL seasons. Having some space to work with will allow Nwosu to use his natural speed and athleticism. He may not put up much more than 40 solo tackles, but it would not be a surprise if he were to double his career sack total.
The Chargers lack depth in terms of numbers, but they have someone that can step up at both positions. Kyzir White would be the next man up on the inside. He is a bit undersized and has dealt with injury issues himself, but he is a capable player with strong cover skills.
Kyler Fackrell and rookie Chris Rumph II provide the depth on the edge. Fackrell has 20 career sacks over five seasons, with 10 of them coming in 2018 when he was with the Packers. He can be a capable starter if called upon. Rumph may be the future of the position for Los Angeles. In three seasons at Duke, he accounted for 17.5 sacks and 4 turnovers. Rumph had 52 combined tackles and 8 sacks as a junior last year. He is 22 years old and not yet in his prime physically.
- ILB Kenneth Murray – Quality LB3 with upside in the new scheme
- ILB Drue Tranquill – Strong sleeper with LB3 or better potential
- ILB Kyzir White – Injury sleeper
- ILB Emeke Egbule – No impact expected
- OLB Joey Bosa – Decent LB3 or quality depth in balanced leagues
- OLB Uchenna Nwosu – Possible LB3 in big play based formats
- OLB Chris Rumph II – Dynasty prospect in big play formats
- OLB Kyler Fackrell – Injury sleeper with some big-play upside
Switching between three and four-man fronts usually has minimal impact on the secondary, but in this case, there is a big difference in how the Chargers will play at the third level. The change has little to do with how the front seven align. It is simply a different approach to secondary play than the previous staff.
Under the previous coaching regime, Los Angeles played a lot of cover-three or single-high on the back end. In these coverages, the free safety is always way off the ball, usually in the middle of the field, and provides the safety net as the last line of defense. Pretty much all teams use these alignments at times, but for the Chargers, cover-three was their base defense. They were in it almost 56% of the time last season. In the new scheme, Los Angeles will run split safeties much of the time, which completely changes the responsibilities of those players and gets the free safety more involved, particularly in run support.
The two players impacted the most by the new scheme will be Derwin James and Nasir Adderley. James was outstanding as a rookie. On the stat sheet, he totaled 76-30-3.5 with 13 passes defended and was the fantasy game’s fourth-ranked defensive back. On the field, James played strong safety, which kept him up near the line and in the thick of the action in the previous scheme. A broken foot in August derailed his 2019 season before it started. James managed to get back on the field late in the campaign and was the same productive player in the same productive situation, recording 17 tackles and 8 assists over the final three contests. He was snake bitten again last summer, suffering a torn meniscus in late August that would land him on IR before the start of the season.
As we approach the 2021 season, the questions surrounding James are, is he injury prone, and how much will the scheme change affect his production? The injury question is a tough call. Maybe he just needs to wear a rabbit foot or four-leaf-clover around his neck or burn some sage around his locker to ward off evil spirits. All I know is that he is healthy as of late June and that his level of production when healthy is well worth the risk.
The scheme change could have a little effect in that it will create more competition for tackles from those around him. The inside linebackers should make more stops in front of him, and Adderley will be a bigger factor beside him. That said, I look at the numbers put up by Rams safeties in Brandon Staley’s scheme, and the skillset James brings to the table, and I have to project him among the top-five at the position.
Count Adderley among the many excited about the new defense and move him up on your draft board. There has been a lot of talk about the 2019 second-round pick being a breakout player in 2021, and with good reason. Adderley is a versatile defensive back with the ability to line up anywhere in the secondary. He was considered for the strong safety job when James was lost last season but ultimately landed at free, mostly because the coaching staff considered him a better fit there than Rayshawn Jenkins. Adderley was a corner entering college, moving to safety as a junior in 2017. He has good speed, strong cover skills, a knack for making plays on the ball, and is strong in run support despite being a little undersized. He checks the production box as well, recording 226 combined tackles and 11 interceptions at Deleware.
Adderley’s first season as a pro was a wash when he missed 12 games with a hamstring injury. He bounced back to land the starting job last year, totaling 70 tackles with a pair of turnovers despite being stuck in the deep centerfield role. In the new scheme, both he and James will move around, with Adderley lining up closer to the action much more often than last year. He could even see snaps as an in-the-box strong safety in some situations. Adderley is not likely to finish among the Top 15, but he could become a solid DB3 option in a role very similar to that of Jordan Fuller in Staley’s defense last season.
Chargers corners have traditionally been no help for IDP managers, but that could change. The challenge here is to figure out if there will be someone in a Troy Hill-type role or if the corners will look more like those in Denver, where defensive coordinator Renaldo Hill was the defensive backs coach for the past two seasons. We know that Chris Harris Jr Jr., Michael Davis, and rookie second-round pick Asante Samuel Jr will be the top three corners. Hill did most of his damage from the slot. Both Harris and Davis have worked in the slot at times in their careers, with Davis seeing much of his playing time there last year. Samuel checks in at 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds and is probably better suited on the outside. He may be the odd man out in two corner sets but will probably line up wide when on the field. All things considered, Davis is the most likely to play the Hill role if there is one.
If there is a major weakness in the Chargers secondary, it lacks depth at the safety positions. With both James and Adderley missing significant time over the past two seasons, this is a red flag. Last year’s sixth-round pick, Alohi Gillman, is the most experienced behind the starters, with seven career tackles. Seventh-round rookie Mark Webb would likely be the guy at strong safety if James’ misses time again. Webb is a safety/linebacker tweener and would be a huge step-down. Look for the team to add some veteran depth at some point.
- SS Derwin James – Quality DB1 with elite upside if he stays healthy
- FS Nasir Adderly – Sleeper with DB3 potential
- FS Alohi Gilman – Injury sleeper
- SS/WLB Mark Webb – Injury sleeper
- CB Chris Harris Jr – Marginal IDP value expected
- CB Asante Samuel Jr – Possible rookie corner rule
- CB Michael Davis – Sleeper with CB2 or better potential
- CB Tevaughn Campbell – No impact expected
- CB Brandon Facyson – No impact expected
That is going to do it for the AFC West; next up the NFC South.
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