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For reference, when I mention where players finished in the rankings last season, my model will be the standard Footballguys scoring system. This is the basic stuff:
- Tackles = 1.5
- Assists = .75
- Sacks = 4
- Forced fumbles = 3
- Fumble recoveries = 3
- Interceptions = 4
- Passes defended = 1.5
- Touchdowns = 6
When tackle numbers are mentioned, solo stops and assists are not lumped together. Unless there is a reference one way or the other, tackles refer to solo stops. When talking about the total number of takeaways for a player, I am counting interceptions, fumble recoveries, and fumbles forced since all of these are scored very similarly in most leagues. Keep in mind that based on scoring systems, rankings will vary (sometimes greatly) from league to league.
From time to time, the rookie corner rule will be referenced. For those who are new to IDP or the EOTG, the rookie corner rule is the basic fact that in the NFL, starting a rookie on the corner is like throwing chum to the sharks. Offensive coordinators will target young and inexperienced players as weaknesses. Thus, these guys have an accelerated number of opportunities. These players are often the cream of the crop at the position (which is why they are starting so soon), and their numbers will begin to drop steadily after their rookie seasons.
The Cowboys' defensive woes in 2020 start with a season-ending injury to tackle Gerald McCoy in the team’s first padded practice. It was a sign of things to come. By the end of the year, they had used 13 players along the defensive line, not counting McCoy, and were among the league’s worst units. Dallas ranked 22nd against the pass at 7.4 yards per attempt, totaled 31 sacks, gave up the third-most points, and were one of three teams to surrender five or more yards-per-carry on the ground. About the only thing they did well took the ball away 23 times.
The organization responded to the defensive line struggles by moving on from a lot of their older veteran players. Some were even let go during the season. Gone are McCoy, Dontari Poe, Everson Griffin, Aldon Smith, and Tyrone Crawford. In their places are a group of younger guys with both less name recognition and, for the most part, less baggage.
Not all of the big-name guys up front are gone. Demarcus Lawrence is still there and remains a cornerstone of the unit. He is a classic three-down defensive end equally effective as an edge setter against the run or chasing down quarterbacks in the passing game. The 2014 second-round pick is entering his seventh season as the Cowboys starting defensive end. Other than an injury-shortened 2016, he has been both durable and productive.
Lawrence is also a reliable IDP target. In 2015 he had 55 combined tackles, 8 sacks, and a forced fumble in his first full year as a starter. That season he was the number 20 defensive lineman. After missing most of 2016, Lawrence exploded for the best production of his career in 2017, going 36-22-15 with 6 turnovers and a top-five finish. The 2018 season brought the best tackle numbers of his career. At 42-21-10.5 with 4 more turnovers, Lawrence landed a second consecutive top-ten finish.
Some IDP managers soured on Lawrence after a disappointing 2019 campaign that saw him drop to 32 in the defensive line rankings. He took the field for every game that season but people tend to overlook the fact that he was bothered by nagging heel, knee, and shoulder injuries that entire year. A healthy Lawrence was back in the top-12 last year on the strength of 58 combined tackles, 6.5 sacks, and 5 turnovers.
It would be nice to see his sack totals get back in the double-digits in 2021, and that may well happen. Aldon Smith played 808 snaps last year while Lawrence was on the field for 666. Smith is gone, and there are fewer mouths to feed, so Lawrence should at least get back to the 750 play range. The supporting cast is another potential plus. Smith opened last season on a mission but quickly faded, recording one sack after Week 3. No one else on the team managed more than three and a half on the season. With Randy Gregory finally settling in at the other defensive end position, Lawrence should have more help going forward.
Since joining the Cowboys as a second-round pick in 2015, Gregory’s career has been dominated by off-field issues and suspensions, mostly related to drugs. At 28 years old, he finally seems to have overcome those demons and is ready to put his football talent to good use. Gregory was reinstated from the most recent suspension in early September of 2020. After working his way into football shape, his first action came in Week 6. Still, despite his talent, former defensive coordinator Mike Nolan was reluctant to put Gregory in a major role. That will change under new coordinator Dan Quinn who expects Gregory to be a fixture in the starting lineup.
When it comes to IDP value, not many managers realize how good Gregory can be. The most statistically productive season of his career was in 2018, when he played in 14 games and finished 18-6-6 with 3 turnovers while working mostly as the third man in the rotation. Gregory saw action in ten games last season but once again was not a starter, so his line of 15-6-3.5 and 3 forced fumbles is not going to grab anyone’s attention unless, of course, we consider that he played just 270 snaps.
To solve this mystery, we just need to do a little basic math. If we add his playing time from those two seasons, we get 727 plays, roughly the equivalent of one full season as a starter. If we add his production on those 727 plays, we get 33-16-9.5 with six turnovers and 148.5 fantasy points. By last year’s standards, 148.5 points would have ranked ninth among defensive linemen. There is plenty of risk with Gregory, but there could be plenty of reward if he can stay on the wagon.
The Cowboys are not putting all their marbles in one basket, which is smart considering Gergory’s history. The fourth-year pro, Dorance Armstrong, Last year’s fifth-round pick Bradley Anae, former Colts third-round pick (2017), Tarell Basham, and rookie third-round selection, Chauncey Golston, will compete this summer to establish the rest of the pecking order at defensive end.
Armstrong has seen a fair amount of action in three seasons as a backup. He is a solid run defender but has not shown much as a pass rusher. Anae is a little undersized, not particularly fast, and has short arms for an edge defender. Those are the reasons he fell in the draft. The Cowboys took a chance on him because he is a tough, relentless tactician that plays bigger versus the run than his stature would suggest and was a team captain at Utah. Not to mention he had 27.5 sacks as a three-year starter, including 13 as a senior at Utah in 2019. Basham is a veteran presence who gained a lot of experience with the Jets over the last two years. He is not starter material but can give the team a few snaps per game or be a steady short-term replacement if needed.
If you listen to some scouts, Golston was taken a couple of rounds too early. He was nothing special as a pass rusher off the edge at Iowa but a player who can lineup outside on early-downs then slide inside to rush the passer. That could be important, considering all the team’s returning interior linemen have one career sack between them.
If we include free-agent additions Brent Urban and Carlos Watkins, the Cowboys' entire roster of defensive tackles has 11 total sacks. Granted, that has a lot to do with the fact they are very young at the position. The projected starters are 2019 second-round pick Trysten Hill and 2020 third-round selection Neville Gallimore. Hill played sparingly as a rookie but moved into a starting role in his second season after Gerald McCoy was lost. After his fifth game as a starter, Hill joined McCoy on IR with a torn ACL. If he is ready, Hill should return to the lineup as the Cowboys’ one-technique tackle. That position is generally not fantasy-friendly, so there is no reason to expect useful numbers.
With the loss of Hill, Gallimore took on a bigger role, seeing action on 416 plays over the season. His numbers were respectable considering the limited playing time, at 11-17-.5, but Gallimore did nothing to suggest he will be special. Brent Urban and Carlos Watkins are former 3-4 defensive ends that project as tackles in the Dallas 4-3. Both are veterans with starting experience and should at least see time as part of the rotation. If the young players struggle, either or both of these guys can hold down the fort as short-term starters.
The most interesting fantasy prospect at the tackle position is rookie Osa Odighizuwa. He has experience in various alignments from his time at UCLA, so his versatility is a plus. Odighizuwa can be an edge defender with the skillset to work outside on early downs if needed. Still, at 280 pounds, he is probably better suited as a three-technique tackle where he is more likely to earn immediate playing time with the potential to excel. Odighizuwa might need to add some muscle to land the starting job but could see immediate action as an inside pass rusher in sub-packages.
- DE Demarcus Lawrence – Low end DL1
- DE Randy Gregory – Risk/reward player with high DL2 upside
- DE Dorance Armstrong – No impact
- DE Bradlee Anae – Dynasty watchlist
- DE Chauncey Golston – Dynasty watchlist
- DT Trysten Hill – No impact expected
- DT Neville Gallimore – Marginal value expected
- DT/DE Brent Urban – No impact
- DT Osa Odighizuwa – Dynasty prospect with long-term potential
- DT Carlos Watkins – No impact
The Cowboys' selection of Micah Parsons in the first round was a puzzler. Not for any question of his talent, but because Dallas already had Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch at the position. This creates a particularly sticky situation for IDP managers trying to figure out where the best value lies. Adding to the mystery, the team’s initial depth chart lists Parsons in the middle with Vander Esch on the weak side and Smith strong, but Smith worked as the starter in the middle during the team’s minicamp. The only thing we know for sure is that all of these guys are talented players with the versatility to move around and line up at any of the three linebacker positions.
Smith is an outstanding talent both on the field and in the box scores. His rookie season was a wash as Smith was making his way back from a devastating knee injury he suffered at Notre Dame. Since that time, he has averaged 85 tackles, 53 assists, 3 turnovers, 2.5 sacks, and 6 passes defended per season. Along with that, Smith’s average of 12.93 points over his last 48 games has been enough to land him inside the top ten at linebacker in three consecutive seasons. If a coach could create the perfect linebacker, the end product would look much like Smith. He is fast, athletic, physical, and big, is a standout run defender that is solid in coverage, is a tackling machine, and makes a good number of splash plays. All that, and he is 26 years old.
Vander Esch is also an exceptional player when healthy. As a rookie in 2018, his 105 solo tackles were second only to Darius Leonard. Adding a pair of picks and seven passes defended, Vander Esch was the fantasy game’s fifth-ranked linebacker. He is not as fast as Smith, nor is Vander Esch as much of a big-play threat, but he has great range, is a physical beast at 6-foot-4 and 255 pounds, is dependable in coverage, and will contribute some splash plays.
The issue with Vander Esch has been injuries. It started in 2016 with a pinched nerve in his neck while playing at Boise State. In 2019 the neck issue resurfaced and led to season-ending surgery. Vander Esch suffered a broken collar bone in last year’s opener and missed several games. He returned later in the season, only to miss the final two games with an ankle sprain. If it sounds like we have heard all this before with a Dallas linebacker, it’s because we have. The string of injuries has a lot of people comparing him to Sean Lee, who retired after last season.
Parson elected to opt-out last year, leaving Penn State for the NFL after just two seasons of play. That decision did nothing to hurt his draft status, as the Cowboys took him at 12 overall. At 6-foot-3 and 246 pounds, Parsons is a physical specimen with all the accolades one would expect for the first linebacker off the board. He only started one game for the Nittany Lions as a freshman but still managed to lead the team in tackles. As a sophomore in 2019, Parsons started all 13 games going 52-57-5 with 5 takeaways and 5 passes defended. He is a physically gifted player with a high football IQ and a skillset that has no limitations.
Having three stud linebackers is a great problem for the Cowboys. With the talent and abilities of this trio, we could see the base defense stay on the field more than most teams, but someone is going to be the odd-man-out when it comes to sub-packages. There is ongoing speculation that Smith will be that guy, but I am not buying that story. I believe the team drafted Parsons because they are concerned with the health issues of Vander Esch. They shifted Lee to a two-down role late in his career to lessen the chances of getting hurt. I see the same thought process in play here. Another telltale sign is the decision of the team not to exercise the fifth-year option on Vander Eche’s contract, making him a lame duck in his final season with the team.
Smith may indeed end up on the strong side, which could hurt his fantasy value, but that does not mean he will leave the field in nickel situations. If we were talking about lesser players, I might suggest avoiding the situation altogether. There is simply too much value here to do that. This situation will be a focal point when training camps open. Hopefully, we will get some concrete answers before Week 1.
The situation is much easier to resolve for those in dynasty leagues. Whatever happens this season, Parsons and Smith are the long-term answers, with Vander Esch all but certain to be playing elsewhere in 2022.
Dallas addressed their depth at linebacker as well over the offseason. They signed former Falcons strong safety Keanu Neal and moved him to weakside linebacker, then drafted Jabril Cox in round-four to backup in the middle. Tarell Basham is listed as a strong-side linebacker behind Smith, but he will likely see more time as an extra pass rusher. Both Neal and Cox have the potential to put up good numbers if they are pressed into action.
- MLB/WLB Micah Parsons – High ceiling prospect with long-term superstar written all over him.
- SLB/MLB Jaylon Smith – I’m still drafting him as an LB1
- WLB/MLB Leighton Vander Esch – Let someone else take the risk unless you can get him as an LB3
- WLB/SS Keanu Neal – Injury sleeper with LB3 potential
- SLB/MLB Jabril Cox – Injury sleeper
- SLB/DE Tarell Basham – No impact
Strong safety had been a position of need for the Cowboys over the last several years. The emergence of Donovan Wilson was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal 2020 season. Wilson took over for Darian Thompson in Week 4 and made an immediate impact with six tackles, four assists, and a sack against the Browns in his first game. Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan made a lot of poor coaching decisions last year, which is why he is no longer with the team. One of those decisions was not to immediately recognize what they had in Wilson. It took five more games for Nolan to wake up and make Wilson the full-time strong safety, but Dan Quinn knows a good thing when he sees it.
On the field, Wilson is an aggressive, hard-hitting safety that diagnoses run plays quickly and makes a lot of tackles. He is also an opportunistic playmaker with above-average cover skills and a knack for separating the ball from the runner. When it comes to statistics, many will glance over Wilson’s 48 tackles and 23 assists from 2020, see his perceived inconsistency, then move on. Don’t be one of those people.
By the coach's decision, Wilson played more than 75% of the snaps in nine games last year. He averaged five tackles and two assists in those contests while producing three sacks, two picks, and five turnovers on fumbles, with an average of 13.94 points per game. In seven of those games, he reached double-digit points, falling short of eight only once. The sample size is relatively small, and the front seven should be improved, but the only thing I can see that would keep Wilson from being at least a quality DB3 would be if Quinn moves Keanu Neal back to safety. While that is a possibility, it is not likely considering the play of Wilson and the fact that everyone in the organization has been calling Neal a linebacker since the day he was signed.
Xavier Woods was a four-year starter for the Cowboys at free safety. While he was fairly good on the field, Woods recorded more than 50 tackles or more than 2 turnovers just once. In Quinn’s defense, the free safety is expected to be a playmaker, so Dallas brought in Damontae Kazee to start at the position.
Kazee spent three seasons under Quinn in Atlanta, so both know what to expect. In 28 games as a starter in 2018 and 2019, Kazee totaled 155 combined tackles, 10 interceptions, 14 passes defended, and forced 2 fumbles. He is a converted corner with strong cover skills, a knack for game-changing plays, and full knowledge of the scheme. It remains to be seen if Kazee will have enough tackle opportunities to be a serious IDP option, but he has the potential to be a decent third starter with big-play upside.
Dallas defenses have traditionally given IDP managers little to work with. That may have changed when they drafted Trevon Diggs last spring. He finished 2020 as the number 13 corner, which is more than respectable, but he did it in 12 games which is rather impressive. Diggs average of 10.83 points ranked fifth at the corner position and 14th among all defensive backs. He was on pace to go 65-10-1 with 5 takeaways and 20 pass breakups.
What remains to be seen is if Diggs can continue to be highly productive or was simply the beneficiary of the rookie corner rule. His tackle production at Alabama was far less impressive, but Diggs accounted for six turnovers, eight pass breakups, and a score as a senior in 2019. It would be a bit of a surprise if he reaches 60 solo tackles in his second year, but we could see more splash plays to make up for it.
One factor that contributed to the success of Diggs was the presence of a good number one corner. With Chidobe Awuzie gone, Diggs becomes the number one. Injuries at the corner position had the Cowboys shuffling a lot last season, with both Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis starting some games. Entering camp, Brown is penciled in as the starter opposite Diggs and Lewis as the third corner, but they will face competition from the rookie class. Kelvin Joseph was selected in the second round, and Nahshon Wright was added in the third. Dallas even came back and added another corner, Israel Mukuamu, in Round 6.
Neither of the returning veterans has displayed great statistical production during their relatively brief careers. Still, Brown’s 32-7-1 with 3 turnovers was not bad, considering he played fewer than half the snaps last season. With the rookie corner rule potentially coming into play as well, this situation is worth keeping an eye on if you start two corners.
- FS Damontae Kazee – Depth with DB3 upside
- SS Donovan Wilson – DB3 floor with considerable upside
- SS Darian Thompson – No impact
- FS Jayron Kearse – No impact
- CB Trevon Diggs – Strong CB2 with top-ten potential
- CB Anthony Brown – Watchlist player with CB2 ceiling
- CB Jourdan Lewis – No impact expected
- CB Kelvin Joseph – Rookie corner rule could be in play
- CB Nashon Robinson – Rookie corner rule could be in play
New York Giants
The Giants moved to a 3-4 defense when Pat Shurmer took over as head coach and James Bettcher as defensive coordinator in 2018. Under that coaching staff, New York was more of a 2-gap front, which led to limited statistical production from the front three. In 2019, no Giants’ defensive lineman had more than 49 combined tackles or 3.5 sacks. When Joe Judge was hired as head coach last year, he brought in Patrick Graham to run the defense. The Giants continued to use a 3-4 base alignment but with much fewer 2-gap responsibilities. The result was a top-10 finish for Leonard Williams, who totaled 59 combined tackles and a career-best 11.5 sacks, a top-12 for Dexter Lawrence in leagues that designated him a tackle, and a top-20 among tackles for Dalvin Tomlinson.
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