Unlock More Content Like This With a Footballguys Premium Subscription
"FBG is the best fantasy football advisory service anywhere."
Nigel Eccles, Co-Founder, FanDuel
Links to similar discussions on other divisions:
For reference, when I mention where players finished in the rankings last season, my model will be the standard Footballguys scoring system. This is the basic stuff:
- Tackles = 1.5
- Assists = .75
- Sacks = 4
- Forced fumbles = 3
- Fumble recoveries = 3
- Interceptions = 4
- Passes defended = 1.5
- Touchdowns = 6
When tackle numbers are mentioned, solo stops and assists are not lumped together. Unless there is a reference one way or the other, tackles refer to solo stops. When talking about the total number of takeaways for a player, I am counting interceptions, fumble recoveries, and fumbles forced since all of these are scored very similarly in most leagues. Keep in mind that based on scoring systems, rankings will vary (sometimes greatly) from league to league.
From time to time, the rookie corner rule will be referenced. For those who are new to IDP or the EOTG, the rookie corner rule is the basic fact that in the NFL, starting a rookie on the corner is like throwing chum to the sharks. Offensive coordinators will target young and inexperienced players as weaknesses. Thus, these guys have an accelerated number of opportunities. These players are often the cream of the crop at the position (which is why they are starting so soon), and their numbers will begin to drop steadily after their rookie seasons.
The 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.
The 11.5 sacks by Williams is nearly double his previous best of 6 while with the Jets in 2016. At this point, it is a career outlier, but with an asterisk. Because it was his first full season with the Giants and in the scheme, was it really an outlier, or was it simply the start of bigger things? The answer may lie somewhere in between.
What we know for certain is that Williams is a highly talented big man with a skill set that fits perfectly at the defensive end position in an aggressive, penetrating 3-4. Another thing we know is that he became a pro at an unusually young age, so even though Williams is entering his seventh season, he just turned 27 in June and is in the prime of his career. While we probably should not count on a repeat of his double-digit sack total, we should not be shocked if he does so. What we can count on from Williams is 50+ combined tackles and enough big plays to make him at least a high ceiling DT2.
Despite checking in at 342 pounds, Dexter Lawrence lined up at defensive end on most of his 653 snaps last season. He will likely continue to do so going forward, yet some league host sites designate him as an interior lineman. Lawrence made a big jump from year one, when he had 38 total tackles and 2 sacks, to 53 combined tackles, 4 sacks, and a pair of batted passes in his second NFL season. The scheme change may have contributed, but this is a talented player that was a first-round selection in 2019.
In 2020 Lawrence held marginal value as depth where he was considered a defensive end or in leagues that lump the line positions together. If he could be played as a tackle, however, Lawrence squeezed into the top-12. He will never be mistaken for a quick twitch edge defender, but he is still young at 23 and has not yet reached his full potential.
With Dalvin Tomlinson moving on, the Giants signed Danny Shelton to play nose tackle. The 2015 first-round pick of the Browns has become a journeyman and is playing with his fourth team in the last five seasons. Shelton has been a 1-technique tackle in four-man fronts for most of his career, but the 346-pound roadblock has some experience in the middle of a 3-4 from two seasons in New England’s multifront scheme. He put up decent numbers with Cleveland in 2016, going 33-27-1.5, and again with the Patriots in 2019 at 32-29-3 with a forced fumble. So there is some potential for value in tackle required leagues, but Shelton’s ceiling is limited to the mid-DT2 range.
One other player of interest here is B.J. Hill. The former third-round pick went 32-15-5.5 as a rookie in 2018 when he opened as the third man in the defensive end rotation and became a starter when Damon Harrison moved on around mid-season. Hill has been back in the rotational role over the last two years but could have a bit of value if someone were injured. He will be the backup at both defensive end spots, and if Shelton were injured, Hill would probably play end so Lawrence could move inside.
- NT Danny Shelton – Possible DT2
- NT Austin Johnson – No impact
- DE/NT Dexter Lawrence – Low DT1 or strong DT2
- DE Leonard Williams – Priority DL2 with top-10 upside
- DE B.J. Hill – Injury sleeper with DL3 ceiling
- DE R.J. McIntosh – No impact
When it comes to fantasy football, the Giants have only one important player to talk about at linebacker. Until last year, this team had been without a top-shelf inside linebacker since Michael Barrow in 2003 or maybe Antonio Pierce in 2009 if you want to count him. They got burnt on a trade for Alex Ogletree in 2018 before finally finding their man in free agency last year. Blake Martinez is about as top-shelf as it gets. He is durable, dependable, consistent, and provides some long-missing stability and leadership for a defense on the rise. Martinez is not the fastest or most athletic of inside linebackers, but he is a strong physical run defender who is good enough in coverage to stay on the field full time and make some big plays.
In three seasons as a starter for the Packers and last year with the Giants, Martinez has never made it into the top three. Still, incredible consistency provides an easy argument for making him the third linebacker off the board this year. Over his three seasons starting in Green Bay, Martinez never fell short of 93 solo tackles and 49 assists, recoded a combination of at least five turnovers and sacks every year, averaged 13.30 or more points per game twice, never falling short of 12.4, and finished fourth, eighth, and sixth in the linebacker rankings from 2017 to 2019, respectively.
Since it would be hard to improve on his production in Green Bay, when Martinez moved to the Giants last year, there was some concern the change could have some negative impact on his IDP value. Martinez set a career-low in solo tackles at 86 but made up for it with a career-high of 65 assists and a personal best seven combined sacks and turnovers. He averaged 13.25 points and was the number six linebacker. He is a step below Devin White and Darius Leonard when it comes to big plays and upside, but no linebacker is a more safe and reliable LB1 than Martinez.
There is some potential for useful numbers at the other inside linebacker position, but that is not something we can count on. New York used three players at the second inside linebacker spot in 2020. Rookie seventh-round pick Tae Crowder had the highest snap total at 403 and would have had a lot more if not for missing a month with a hamstring injury. Crowder, Devante Downs, and David Mayo combined for 806 of a possible 1084 plays, going a combined 77-43-1 with 3 turnovers. If all those snaps and stats would go to one player, he might make a decent LB3, but the chances of that happening are slim.
The Giants signed free-agent journeyman Reggie Ragland, who is penciled in as the starter, but he might not get on the field as much as even Crowder did. With Logan Ryan, Jabrill Peppers, and Xavier McKinney all healthy, I expect to see a ton of big-nickel sets with the three safeties on the field together. That was probably the plan last season before McKinney missed the first ten games and most of two more. It is a situation we will keep an eye on, but I believe the fantasy value will lie with the safeties.
Teams running 3-4 defenses rely on their outside linebackers to get pressure on the quarterback and make big plays. Despite totaling 40 sacks as a team, no Giants OLB had more than four, and they had seven and a half between them. This had a lot to do with injuries, as both Lorenzo Carter (Achilles) and Oshane Ximines (shoulder) were out for the season by Week 5. When they were already thin due to the injuries, the organization strangely decided to trade Markus Golden to Arizona before Week 7, leaving journeymen Kyler Fackrell and Jabaal Sheard as the starters the rest of the way.
Fackrell and Sheard are gone, Carter and Ximines are working their way back from the injuries, and the organization used a good deal of offseason capital to create both depth and competition at the positions. Free agency brought former Viking Ifeadi Odenigbo and Washington’s Ryan Anderson into the fold. Then the Giants added Azeez Ojulari and Elerson G. Smith in the second and fourth rounds, respectively. None of these guys are sure superstars. Only Odenigbo has ever recorded more than five sacks in a season as a pro. He had seven as a rush specialist in 2019 and followed it up with three and a half as a starter last year.
The best chance for IDP value here comes from the rookies. Ojulari totaled 9.5 sacks in 10 games at Georgia last year and had 5.5 the previous season. Physically and maturity-wise, he was arguably the most pro-ready edge defender in this year’s draft. Ojulari needs refinement as a pass rusher and could use more moves/counter moves in his arsenal, but he could be a day one starter.
Elerson Smith hails from Northern Iowa, so the level of college competition is a question. He is a tall thin athlete with a huge wingspan and a frame that can handle more muscle. Smith could see some action as a rookie but will likely need some time to develop before being a factor.
- ILB Blake Martinez – Rock solid LB1 with outstanding consistency
- ILB Reggie Ragland – No impact expected
- ILB Tae Crowder – No impact expected
- ILB Devonte Downs – No impact
- OLB Lorenzo Carter – Marginal value at best
- OLB Azeez Ojulari – Rookie with significant potential in big play based formats
- OLB Ryan Anderson – No impact
- OLB Ifeadi Odenigbo – Marginal impact at best
- OLB Oshane Ximines – Marginal impact expected
- OLB Elerson Smith – Dynasty deep sleeper
The Giants plan to change things up in the secondary in Patrick Graham’s second year as defensive coordinator. Personnel and injuries dictated a lot of zone coverages, limiting the aggression and creativity of the entire defense in 2020. Actions have been taken to improve the pass rush. While that is a vital piece of the picture, a more aggressive approach in the secondary is just as important to achieving Graham’s ultimate vision.
The goal entering the offseason was a shift to mostly man-to-man as the base coverage. In James Bradberry, the Giants had one corner that excels in man, but they needed another physical presence opposite him. That need was filled by signing Adoree Jackson.
While both Bradberry and Jackson fit the bill, their strengths are complementary but different. Bradberry is at his best when lining up off the ball. He is particularly effective when working against great rout runners that do not rely on top-end speed. He is fast enough to cover the speedsters but tends to rely more on technique and fundamentals than speed and athleticism to stay on the hip of the pass catcher. Jackson prefers to work in press coverage, getting in the face of receivers at the line and disrupting routs before they can get started. He matches up well with faster, more agile receivers and has excellent makeup speed when someone beats his jam at the line.
Since Graham was only Miami’s defensive coordinator for one year and is shifting the approach in year two with the Giants, it is tough to project what influence the scheme might have on IDP values. Both Bradberry and Jackson, however, have some history of good numbers.
Bradberry had a career-high of 85 combined tackles (66 solos) with the Panthers in 2017, with at least 63 in each of his final three seasons. His tackle total slipped to 55 in his first season with the Giants, but Bradberry turned in 18 pass breakups and 6 takeaways which were both career bests. He is not a threat to make the top-five but has finished as high as seventh among corners and no lower than 17th over the last four years.
Jackson was 61-9-0 with 17 passes defended and 3 interceptions as a rookie in 2017. In year two, he led the league in tackles by a corner with 67 solos. Jackson finished inside the top-20 in each of those seasons. He has dealt with injuries over the last two years, missing six games in 2019 and the first 13 of last season.
Bradberry seems a safe bet to be at least a good CB2 and may have some upside with the new plan. Jackson is more of a watchlist/sleeper until we have a chance to see some game action, but he has CB2 potential as well.
The Giants added Aaron Robinson in round three. The rookie can play outside or in the slot and might be the lead candidate for the third corner role entering training camp. He will compete with Isaac Yiadom, Darnay Holmes, and Sam Beal for sub-package duties. Barring injury to one of the starters, none of these guys will see enough action to be an IDP factor.
None of the Giants' current safeties have ever gone to a pro-bowl, but this might be the best/deepest group in the league right now. Logan Ryan is a former corner that made a transition to safety as smooth as we have ever seen. He seems to relish run support opportunities, putting up good tackle totals even as a corner and is a playmaker with 12.5 sacks and 30 takeaways over his eight seasons in the league. Jabrill Peppers was a little quiet while with the Browns at the beginning of his career. Since coming to the Giants, he has averaged over six combined tackles per game, with seven takeaways, two and a half sacks, and 16 pass breakups in 27 outings. Xavier McKinney was injured before Week 1 and missed ten games as a rookie. He was exceptionally productive in college and was the most talented and complete safety in last year’s draft in the eyes of many scouts.
All three of these players, and possibly Julian Love, will factor heavily into the team’s plans in 2021. There will be a lot of production from them as a group. The challenge for IDP managers is deciphering who will have the most statistical success. What makes this particularly difficult is that there are no defined positions or responsibilities. They have varying strengths and weaknesses but are thoroughly interchangeable parts. For example, Ryan played 96 percent of the defensive snaps in 2020. He lined up at free safety 512 times, played 246 snaps in the box as a strong safety, and 221 in the slot.
Ryan produced well as a corner over his first six seasons. He was 74-19-1 with 3 takeaways, and 11 passes defended with the Patriots in 2016 and was the fantasy game’s top corner. Ryan’s transition to safety started while with the Titans in 2019. He worked at corner much of the time but began to move around some. Ryan responded with a huge statistical season. At 73-39-4.5 with 4 interceptions, 4 forced fumbles, and 18 passes defended. He was the number one defensive back overall, outscoring number two Budda Baker by nearly a point per game.
Ryan signed a one-year deal with the Giants in late August, a few days after McKinney was lost. Considering he was changing teams and positions a week or so before the opener, Ryan’s transition was impressive. He not only started in Week 1 but was immediately productive. His overall numbers were down, but Ryan still managed 93 combined tackles, a sack, 6 turnovers, and 9 passes defended for a top-15 among defensive backs. The organization loved what he brought in terms of both play and leadership. So much so, in fact, they signed him to a three-year deal with $20 million guaranteed.
McKinney was not the biggest of last year’s rookie safeties, but he hits like a truck. He was not the fastest among them either but has the speed, cover skills, instincts, and versatility to play deep, in the box, or over the slot. Most importantly for IDP managers, he checked the box for production against the best competition in the college game. In two seasons as a starter for Alabama, McKinney totaled 169 combined tackles, 15 pass breakups, 12 turnovers, and a pair of scores. In short, there is a lot about this young man’s play that reminds me of former Giant Landon Collins.
We did not get to see much of him in 2020, but McKinney looked good in limited action, finishing at 14-11-0 with an interception on 209 snaps after returning from the foot injury. He was on the field for 68% of the plays in Week 16 and 89% in Week 17, going 11-5-0 with a pick and scoring 11+ points in both games.
In his first year with the Giants, Peppers totaled 52 tackles, 26 assists, and 4 turnovers in 11 contests, with an average of over 11.5 points per game that ranked ninth among defensive backs in 2019. It was by far the best per-game production of his young career. His overall numbers were slightly higher in 2020, but Peppers' per-game average slipped below ten points and ranked in the low-30s. He hit a hot streak during 2020, reaching double-digit points in seven consecutive games starting in Week 7, but Peppers reached ten points once in the other eight outings, averaging fewer than six points in those contests.
There are some other side notes to think about when considering these three on draft day. In Week 15 of last year, the Giants had four safeties on the field for 40 of 64 snaps, with Julian Love seeing a lot of action. It was the same situation in Week 17 with all four in the game for 68 of 82 plays. It is hard to say if this was by design or simply a side effect of lacking play at the corner opposite Bradberry, but we know the coaching staff is high on Love.
Another thing to consider is the contract status of Peppers, who is set to be a free agent after this season. That may not be a factor for managers in re-draft leagues, but with the other three all signed at least through the 2023 seasons, Peppers is most likely done in New York after this year.
There are a lot of ways to look at this situation, and managers will have varying perspectives. That said, McKinney ranks highest on my draft list among this trio based on the combination of situation, history, skillset, and upside. I see him as a priority DB2 with top-ten potential. Ryan is second on my list but not far below McKinney. I see him having the higher floor of the two and being the more safe play. Peppers sits well below the others based on lacking consistency and the possibility that he could be phased out to an extent down the stretch if he is not in the team’s long-term plans. I have him ranked in the low-DB4 range though I expect he will be a decent third starter on most weeks.
- FS/SS Xavier McKinney – High upside DB2
- FS/CB Logan Ryan – High floor DB2
- SS/FS Jabril Peppers – Decent third starter or quality depth
- FS Julian Love – Dynasty watchlist/injury sleeper
- CB James Bradberry – Solid CB2
- CB Adoree Jackson – Sleeper with high CB2 potential
- CB Darnay Holmes – No impact
- CB Sam Beal – No impact
- CB Aaron Robinson – No immediate impact
- CB Isaac Yiadom – No impact
The 2020 Eagles were a team of highs and lows. The Defense fell right in line with that theme. The pass defense ranked in the bottom third of the league at 7.8 yards per attempt, but they were tied for tenth best versus the run at 4.2 yards-per-carry. Only eight teams had fewer takeaways than Philadelphia’s 19, but only the Steelers and Rams had more than the Eagles' 49 sacks. New players were drafted or signed at all three levels of the defense, but the only anticipated lineup changes from last year are at one of the linebacker spots and strong safety.
The organization drafted four defensive linemen with the future in mind. They will have time to develop because the Eagles have one of the NFL’s best units already, according to Pro Football Focus, who ranked them the fifth-best defensive line in the league last season. Most would not recognize this because there are no superstars—just a collection of talented, blue-collar contributors.
Defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon is entering just his second year with the team. Still, he inherited a group that prides itself on getting pressure on the quarterback without the need for blitzing all the time. Just four teams blitzed less than the Eagles last year. With 38.5 sacks from their front four alone, Philadelphia’s defensive line had more sacks than three of them.
Unfortunately for IDP managers, this group is the definition of a team effort. Brandon Graham led last year’s pass rush with eight sacks, while Fletcher Cox contributed six and a half, Josh Sweat six, Derek Barnett five and a half, Javon Hargrave four and a half, with four other linemen contributing the other eight.
While IDP managers will find no stud DL1 here, there are some solid starters. Graham has recorded at least 31 solo tackles every season since 2014 and has 8 or more sacks in three of the last four years. Over the last seven seasons, Graham has averaged 35-13-7 and 3 turnovers. He ranked inside the top-20 in four of the last five years, including the last two. He is getting up there in years by NFL standards, but at 33, Graham has shown no sign of slowing down yet. There is not much upside, but he can be counted on as a dependable DL2 or excellent DL3.
Derek Barnett is the current starter opposite Graham. With career-highs of 32 combined tackles (2020) and 6.5 sacks (2019), the 2017 first-round pick has been somewhat of a disappointment thus far. Injuries have been a contributing factor as Barnett has been out at least two games in three consecutive seasons, but even when healthy, he has fallen short of the expectations that follow his draft status. It seems that every season both Eagles fans and IDP managers expect a breakout that has so far not come.
There are two reasons to have some optimism about Barnett. He just turned 25 in June and still has a lot of football left, and he is in a contract year. Unless you are in a deep drafted league or plan to roster more than four linemen, Barnett is no more than a watchlist player with some upside.
As a fourth-round selection in 2018, Josh Sweat does not come with such grand expectations, but he looks like the better player so far. Sweat did not get on the field much as a rookie but earned a fairly significant rotational role in 2019, recording 21 combined tackles and 4.5 sacks on 355 snaps. His playing time was up to 421 plays last year, and Sweat came through with a mark of 24-14-6, with 3 forced fumbles. He put up better significantly better numbers than Barnett on 113 fewer snaps, and from what I saw, was a superior player on the field as well. No one in the organization has said anything about it, but it would be no surprise to see Sweat start opposite Graham this season. Like Barnett, Sweat is in the final year of his contract. The team is not likely to re-sign them both, so they may be competing for a payday, a starting job, and the luxury of not having to re-locate in the offseason. Sweat is one of my favorite sleepers for 2021.
With Vinny Curry out of the picture, the team made a one-year investment in 33-year-old, former Washington starter Ryan Kerrigan. Unless someone is injured, he should see around 300-350 snaps as a rotational backup. If he were to end up in a starting role, Kerrigan could provide low DL2 value as an in-season addition.
The Eagles give us a strong target at tackle for those in leagues that break out the defensive line positions. For his first two years as a pro, Fletcher Cox was stuck at defensive end in a 3-4 experiment gone wrong. He still managed decent numbers for the situation but was not a great fit. When Philadelphia went back to a 4-3 in 2012, Cox exploded. He was the number 12 defensive lineman and the top defensive tackle in the fantasy game. He topped that in 2014, finishing as the number one tackle and was second among all linemen. His production slacked up after that, but Cox has three top-ten finishes among interior linemen over the last five seasons, including last season, and has never finished lower than 18. Because he came into the league in 2012, most people assume he is near the end of his career. He turns 31 in December and has plenty of football left.
Javon Hargrave parlayed two highly productive years with the Steelers into a big payday last before last season. His impact on the field followed to Philadelphia, but the box score production did not. After totaling a combined 66 tackles, 40 assists, and 9.5 sacks in 2018 and 2019, Hargrave went 16-22-4.5 for the Eagles. Hargrave is a strong inside pass rusher and holds up well versus the run. The statistical production could catch up in 2021, so he is probably worthy of a late/last round shot as a DT3 with upside in leagues that start two.
The Eagles invested a third-round pick on tackle Milton Williams, a sixth on tackle Marlin Tuipulotu, another sixth on defensive end Tarron Jackson, and a seven on end Patrick Johnson. The three late-round guys are all developmental prospects with some upside. Barring a rash of injuries, none of them are likely to see much action. On the other hand, Williams could replace Malik Jackson as the third man in the tackle rotation. Jackson was on the field for 537 plays over 15 games. Unless there is an injury to Cox or Hargrave, Williams would be hard-pressed to make enough plays to have significant value, but if he gets on the field enough, there is some potential. He put up good numbers a Lousiana Tech, totaling 108 combined tackles and 10 sacks in 22 games for the Bulldogs over the last two years.
- DE Brandon Graham – Dependable DL2
- DE Josh Sweat – Sleeper with potential long-term value and fairly high ceiling
- DE Derek Barnett – Limited value expected
- DE Ryan Kerrigan – Injury sleeper with low DL2 ceiling
- DE Tarron Jackson – Developmental rookie
- DE Patrick Johnson – Developmental rookie
- DT Fletcher Cox – Dependable low-end DT1
- DT Javon Hargrave – DT3 with some upside
- DT Hassan Ridgeway – No impact expected
- DT Milton Williams – Injury/dynasty sleeper
- DT Marlon Tuipulotu – Developmental rookie
For a lot of years, Philadelphia dealt with mediocre play at their linebacker positions, and IDP managers looked elsewhere. There were flashes from guys like Mychal Kendricks and Jordan Hicks, but no one stuck. Nigel Bradham was decent on the field for a while but never more than depth in IDP terms. Now, within a short time, we have the emergence of Alex Singleton and the free-agent signing Eric Wilson, which potentially gives both the Eagles and IDP managers a pair of quality players to rely on.
So who the heck is Alex Singleton, and where did he come from? He played college football at Montana State and was originally signed by the Seahawks as an undrafted free agent in 2015. Singleton played three seasons with the Calgary Stampeders in the Canadian Football League before joining the Eagles at training camp in 2019. That season he played in ten games on special teams.
Entering last season, the team had T.J. Edwards, Duke Riley, and Nathan Gerry as their Week 1 starters, with rookies Davion Taylor (round three), Shaun Bradley (round five), and third-year backup Genard Avery all ahead of Singleton on the depth chart. To be blunt, that was not a lot of competition. Riley struggled from the start, Avery failed to step up, and without a training camp, the rookies were not ready to play. Singleton played 26 snaps over the first four games. With Edwards out in Week 5, Singleton got 28 snaps, made five tackles, and turned some heads. He started for Riley in Week 6 and was off to the races. When Gerry was injured in Week 7, Singleton took over the lead role and was on the field for all but three plays the rest of the season.
With a final stat line of 77-44-2, 2 fumble recoveries, an interception, and a score, Singleton finished at 15 among linebackers. Those numbers look good under any circumstances, but when we consider he played less than 68% of the team’s defensive snaps (748 plays), they are downright impressive. The only questions now are, was he a one-year wonder, and where will he line up in 2021. As for the one-year wonder, time will tell, but I seriously doubt it. He played like a true veteran, made few mistakes, tackled everything, made big plays, and was solid in coverage. Unless the spell wears off, this guy looked like the real deal. Where he will line up is another question, and much depends on what the coaches plan to do with Wilson.
So who is Eric Wilson, and where did he come from? These two starting together have the makings of a great story. Wilson played division one college football at Cincinnati, but like Singleton, joined the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2017. He started as a safety for the Bearcats, then shifted to linebacker as a sophomore and earned a starting role as a junior. In 25 games, Wilson totaled 229 combined tackles, 3 sacks, and 13 takeaways.
Wilson played special teams for Minnesota in 2017. In 2018 he stepped in when for four games when Anthony Barr was hurt, and two more replacing Eric Kendricks at the end of the season. He made three starts as an injury replacement again in 2019 and, by that time, had earned the coaching staff's trust. When Barr was lost in Week 2 last season, Wilson played every snap the rest of the way, finishing with 61-57-2.5, with 6 turnovers, 8 passes defended, and an average of almost 12 points per game.
Wilson wanted to go somewhere that he could start coming off the breakout season in what happened to be a contract year. He did not get the long-term deal he had hoped for but did go where he will start, signing a one-year contract with Philadelphia.
Getting back to where everyone will play, At 6-foot-1, 230 pounds, Wilson is somewhat undersized to play in the middle, but he has the skill set to handle the job if he lands there. There are not many flaws in his game. He excels in coverage, has great range, is a physical tackler, can rush the passer, and has a knack for big plays. The only negative is that Wilson sometimes struggles to get off the blocks of offensive linemen at the point of attack. While he has the versatility to play in the middle, Wilson is a better fit on the weak side, where he played last season in Minnesota.
Singleton has the versatility to play either in the middle or on the weak side as well. He played in the middle last season, and with his size at 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds and ability to get off blocks and make tackles in traffic, Singleton should end up there in 2021.
Shaun Bradley is penciled in on the strong side entering camp. He could have competition for the job from T.J. Edwards and/or Genard Avery. Whoever lands that job will almost certainly leave the field in sub-package situations, rendering them useless to IDP managers. With an offseason to get ready, both Taylor and Bradley should be ready for expanded roles in the event of an injury ahead of them.
- MLB/WLB Alex Singleton – Potential elite tier LB but short track record keeps him out of top-10 LB picks
- WLB/MLB Eric Wilson – Strong third starter with some upside
- SLB/MLB Shaun Bradley – Injury sleeper
- SLB/MLB T.J. Edwards – No impact
- MLB/WLB Davion Taylor – Injury sleeper
- SLB Genard Avery – No impact
Once in a while, we will see a team get by with a patchwork linebacker corps or a defensive line rotation without a standout talent and still be successful. Without talent and investment in the secondary, however, NFL teams rarely win with any consistency. The Philadelphia pass defense was not good in 2020. They gave up way too many yards per attempt, and just three teams had fewer interceptions. The organization made some changes and added a few players this offseason but did not make the kind of impact moves they needed to right the ship.
Other than the signing of Darius Slay in 2020, this team has used little draft or free agent capital on top-shelf secondary talent since signing Malcolm Jenkins in 2014 and Rodney McLeod in 2016, and they let Jenkins leave before last season. The Eagles have taken two defensive backs before the fourth round since 2014. Both were in 2017 when they picked Sidney Jones in round two and Rasul Douglas in the third. Both of those players are gone as well.
At safety, Philadelphia brought in Anthony Harris and Andrew Adams to compete for the starting job vacated when Jalen Mills signed in New England. Harris is a six-year veteran that spent his first four seasons as a backup for the Vikings. He picked off six passes as a starter in 2019 but proved that was a mirage by following it up with zeros in the big play columns last year. Adams made a few starts as an injury replacement for both the Giant and Buccaneers between 2017 and 2019. He also had one season with multiple interceptions, recording four in 2018, but has one total over his other four years in the league. Neither Harris nor Adams tends to make a lot of tackles either. Regardless of who ends up starting, they are unlikely to produce good enough numbers to be fantasy-relevant, but they could still have some impact.
Whoever wins between Harris and Adams should play at free safety, which means Rodney McLeod will work at strong for the first time since 2016. From an IDP perspective, the difference between free and strong safety in Philadelphia is huge. Malcolm Jenkins had 87 tackles and 18 assists as the Eagles’ strong safety in 2015. He moved to free safety when McLeod was signed in 2016 and totaled 46-25. After going back to strong safety, Jenkins was 79-19-1 in 2018. As the strong safety in 2016, McLeod went 68-12 in the tackles columns. He moved to free safety in 2017 and has not sniffed 50 solo stops in a season since.
At 5-foot-10 and 195 pounds, McLeod is a little undersized for a strong safety. His best fit would be to remain at the position he has played for most of his career, but the team has no one else with the versatility to play strong. He is not a physical, in-the-box type of player that makes a lot of tackles, but the position swap and situation could make McLeod a decent third starter by the sheer volume of opportunities.
Darius Slay is not an elite corner by any standard, but he is a solid and dependable number one in NFL terms. From the IDP perspective, he had one standout season over seven years with the Lions, going 54-6-0 with 8 interceptions and 26 passes defended in 2017. That remains the only time in his career that Slay had more than three turnovers in a season, and he had not posted more than 47 solo tackles again until last year when he turned in 53-6-0 with one solitary turnover and six pass breakups.
It is at the other corner spots that the Eagles have questions. Fourth-year man Avonte Maddox is penciled in as the starter opposite Slay. The 2018 fourth-round pick has been adequate as a part-time starter over the last two seasons. Injuries have cost him a few games along the way, but the biggest issue is the complete absence of big plays since his rookie campaign. Maddox had two picks and forced a fumble in 2018 but has made zero contribution in those columns since.
The other contenders for playing time at corner are last year’s fourth-round selection K’Von Wallace, rookie fourth-round pick Zech McPhearson, and a host of other undrafted rookies and minimum-salary young guys trying desperately to make an NFL roster. Wallace is a corner/safety tweener that projects as the slot defender. He was productive as a corner at Clemson in 2018 but had a much better senior year as a safety, recording 72 combined tackles, 2 sacks, and a pair of picks in 2019. If he ends up as a starting safety, which is a possibility, Wallace has some fantasy potential.
McPhearson is a watchlist player for those in corner-required leagues. After transferring from Penn State, he became a two-year starter at Texas Tech. As a senior for the Red Raiders in 2020, McPhearson totaled 53 combined tackles, 4 interceptions, and 2 fumble recoveries. He is not particularly big or fast for a corner but is a physical presence in run support, with good ball skills and enough speed to do the job. The Eagles are short on options, especially if there is an injury to Slay or Maddox. If McPhearson were to land a starting job, he has both the physical tools to put up decent numbers and the rookie corner rule on his side.
- SS/FS Rodney McLeod – Potential DB3 but don’t waste a roster spot until we see something
- FS/SS Anthony Harris – No impact expected
- FS Andrew Adams – Marginal impact at best
- FS Josiah Scott- Deep/injury sleeper
- CB Darius Slay – Marginal impact at best
- CB Avonte Maddox – No impact expected
- CB Zech McPhearson – Watchlist player, rookie corner rule could be in play
- CB/S KVon Wallace – No impact unless he somehow starts at safety
- CB Kevon Seymour – No impact
Washington Football Team
Top to bottom, the Washington defense was one of the best in the NFL last season. They were second against the pass, tied for 10th versus the run, recorded 47 sacks, 23 takeaways, and allowed the fourth-fewest points. As good as they were, the Football Team stands to improve at all three levels in 2021.
According to Pro Football Focus, Washington’s defensive line graded out at number one in 2020. That is what happens when a team uses their first-round pick on defensive linemen four years in a row and strikes gold on all of them. While it is impossible to grade any higher, this group could be even better on the field in 2021. Last year’s unit boasted the fantasy game’s number four defensive lineman in Chase Young, the number ten lineman in Montez Sweat, the fourth-ranked defensive tackle, Da’Ron Payne, and the fifth-ranked tackle Jonathan Allen. All of those players are back, all of them are young, and there is no reason to think any of them will be less productive this season. So what happens when Matt Ioannidis returns from last year’s torn biceps? I have played in IDP leagues for nearly 30 years and have never seen a team place three defensive tackles in the top 12, but it might happen here in 2021.
In Young and Sweat, the Football Team has a tandem of edge defenders that rival any pair in the league. Sweat was a first-round pick in 2019. Young was taken second overall last spring. Sweat is 24 years old. Young is 22. They have three NFL seasons between them and have already produced 23.5 sacks, 8 forced fumbles, 3 recoveries, an interception, 12 pass breakups, and a pair of defensive scores. Both players have been productive in the tackle columns as well, and they are just getting started. Young appears to have already taken his place in the elite tier, and both of these guys have the look of perennial top-12 linemen.
Payne was the team’s first-round pick in 2018. At 320 pounds, he is a surprisingly athletic big man with the size and strength to anchor the run defense from the 1-technique position. He is not exactly a nimble pass rusher but can blow up the pocket with his bull rush and quickly get off blocks and make plays. The five sacks Payne recorded as a rookie remain his personal best and probably will be for some time to come. While we should not expect more than 3-5 sacks per season from Payne, he has given us at least 51 combined tackles every year of his young career, with that number increasing with each additional season. Five turnovers and four batted passes put the finishing touch on Payne’s 2020 season. We should not count on a repeat of those numbers either, but 55-60 tackles, 3-5 sacks, 2-3 turnovers, and a top-12 ranking are realistic expectations.
The Football team began building this powerhouse with the first-round selection of Jonathan Allen in 2017. At 6-foot-3 and 300 pounds, Allen is exceptionally quick and athletic for his size. He is a rock against the run with the strength to beat double teams and make plays in traffic. As the 3-technique, however, he is often left with single blocking on running downs.
Allen’s rookie campaign was cut short by injury after five games, but his talent was on full display in year two when he went 35-26-8 and was the fantasy game’s number seven interior lineman. He was even better in 2019, going 47-22-6 with a couple of turnovers to land second behind DeForest Buckner. Allen led the league in both solo and combined tackles by an interior lineman in 2020, but his sack total slide down to two. I believe this to be a fluke rather than the beginning of a trend and expect Allen to bounce back nicely in 2021.
Ryan Kerrigan chipped in five and a half sacks as the third man in the defensive end rotation last year. He moved on in the offseason, leaving a hole to fill when one of the starters needs a breather. This is where I think Matt Ioannidis will come in. With Ioannidis missing 13+ games, Tim Settle played 348 snaps as the third man in the tackle rotation last year. Kerrigan got on the field for 397 as the third end. Both Ioannidis and Allen have the versatility to give Washington some snaps as early down defensive ends, so might we see Ioannidis in a swing role, with either he or Allen lining up on the outside in some situations?
We should not overlook that Ioannidis recorded 21.5 sacks in three seasons from 2017 to 2019 and had 1.5 in two games last year before the injury. If he works only as the third man in the tackle rotation, Ioannidis would likely see 350-400 snaps and might not have enough opportunities to be an IDP factor. However, if he can pick up a share of the rotational snaps at defensive end, his playing time could be similar to that of the four starters, and Ioannidis could get back to the production we saw in 2019 when he was 45-21-8.5.
If this is not the plan for Ioannidis, I am not sure what the coaching staff would do, as they are short on other options. Tim Settle did a fine job of filling in at tackle last year and is sure to have a role with Kerrigan gone. However, Washington’s next most experienced defensive end is James Smith-Williams, who played 97 snaps as a rookie in 2020. The most significant offseason additions at defensive end are rookies Will Bradley-King and Shaka Toney, who were picked up in the sixth and seventh rounds, respectively.
- DE Chase Young – Elite DL1
- DE Montez Sweat – Low-end DL1 or priority DL2
- DE James Smith-Williams – Injury sleeper at best
- DE Will Bradley-King – Developmental rookie
- DE Shaka Toney – Developmental rookie
- DT Jonathan Allen – Solid DT1 with top-five potential
- DT Matt Ioannidis – Risk/reward pick with DT1 ceiling and low DT2 floor
- DT DaRon Payne – Dependable DT1
- DT Tim Settle – Injury sleeper with DT2 ceiling
Washington went into last season with some good players at linebacker, but they lacked that one great foundation player teams need at the second level. The guy that makes everyone around him better. In rookie Jamin Davis, they might have him.
Davis shot up draft boards with a combination of physical skills and production at Kentucky. Not many linebackers can run a sub-4.5-second 40-yard dash at 234 pounds. Davis is a rare athlete with great range. He has a natural feel for playing off blocks and finding the ball, with the potential to excel in coverage. He even has great instincts, which is what made him so productive at Kentucky.
Davis needed all that natural ability to offset his lack of experience, so he could go 48-54-1.5 with 3 interceptions, a forced fumble, and a score in 10 games last year. He has perennial stud written all over him, but those ten games he started last year represent almost his entire college career. Davis could be the next Darius Leonard, but he might be on the path of last year’s rookies Devin Bush or Isaiah Simmons. Bush was a week-one starter but never gained an every-down role as a rookie, while Simmons was a backup, seeing limited action. Both are in line to be three-down starters in year two.
For dynasty managers, Davis and Micah Parsons are a coin toss as the first linebacker of the board. Davis is a significant risk for those in redraft leagues but not enough to keep us away completely. If you gamble on Davis as your LB2 or LB3, be sure to land a dependable LB4 just in case you need to move him up for a while.
Jon Bostic and Cole Holcomb will start at the other two linebacker positions. The only questions are where everyone will line up and, most importantly, who will get the sub-package snaps. When it comes to skill sets, Bostic is not a weak-side linebacker, and Davis would be wasted on the strong side. Other than that, all options are in play. The most favorable for us would be Davis on the weak side, Bostic strong and Holcomb in the middle, with Davis and Holcomb in sub-packages. What seems more likely, however, is Holcomb on the strong side and Bostic in the middle.
Sub-package snaps remain a guess for now. Davis has the physical skills and talent, but the lack of experience could keep him out early. Bostic was a two-down player at Chicago, New England, Indianapolis, and Pittsburgh before Washington. With the Football Team, he has played three downs in 26 of 32 games despite having coverage limitations.
Holcomb is a well-rounded utility linebacker than can play any of the positions and is capable in coverage. He went down with a knee sprain in Week 1 last year and missed the first five games. Holcomb was not back to full strength until after the team’s Week 8 bye. He played full-time in five of the final eight games and 90% of the snaps in two more. This proves the coaching staff is willing to keep him on the field but does nothing to help us figure out who gets those snaps in Week 1.
The only other thing to consider is production potential. Davis is a high-ceiling, low-floor gamble for the immediate future. Bostic has been marginally productive over his two years as Washington’s starter. Last season he was 61-58-3 with an interception and averaged just short of ten points a game. With similar totals in 2019, that is about what we can expect as a ceiling if he plays three downs.
Holcomb finished last season at 45-27-2.5 with an interception on about 53% of the snaps. If we average his totals over a full complement of plays, the numbers look something like 85-51-4.5, which would make him a valuable asset. He is better in coverage than Bostic and should come away with a near every-down role. I like him as a sleeper LB4 or LB5, potentially a quality third starter.
Washington cleaned house after last season, moving on from a lot of the warm bodies they had as backups. Now they have a new collection of warm bodies filling out the depth chart. If one of the starters is lost, it could be a problem.
- WLB/MLB Jamin Davis – Probable star long-term, risk/reward gamble in 2020
- WLB/SLB Cole Holcomb – Target as LB4 or LB5 with LB3 potential
- MLB/SLB Jon Bostic – Depth at best
- MLB David Mayo – No impact
- WLB Khaleke Hudson – Injury sleeper at best
- MLB/SLB Joe Walker – No impact
Having the second most stingy pass defense was not good enough for Washington, so they added the best corner available in free agency and two other veterans that could have significant roles in the secondary. The Football Team will also be getting Landon Collins back from the Achilles injury that ended his 2020 season in Week 7.
Former Bengal William Jackson III has never been an IDP factor, but he is one of the most underrated cover men in the game. Pro Football Forecast ranks him as the ninth-best outside corner entering the 2021 season. Jackson’s career numbers are boring. He has never recorded more than 43 combined tackles in a season and has three career interceptions in four years. Numbers do not always tell the whole story, but here is a big one that explains why Jackson will make Washington’s secondary better. Opponents completed 52% of pass attempts into his coverage in 2020.
Kendall Fuller starts opposite Jackson, giving the Football Team an impressive tandem of outside corners. Fuller flashed some IDP value while with the Chiefs in 2018, totaling 82 combined tackles, 3 takeaways, and 11 passes defended, but he has been nowhere near those numbers in any of his other four seasons as a pro. He allowed a 53% completion rate in 2020 and made the Pro Football Focus list as well, coming in at 26. Fuller also gives defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio some versatility to work with. He has worked in the slot over much of his career and even saw some time at safety during his two years with the Chiefs.
Jimmy Moreland got most of the playing time as the slot/nickel corner last season and will be in the mix to keep that job. Still, he could face stiff competition from rookie third-round pick Benjamin St-Juste and/or free agent additions Darryl Roberts and Bobby McCain. St-Juste is a little raw but has a skillset that says slot defender with the possibility of safety at some point. He has good size, impressive measurables, and a physical tackler that relishes run support opportunities. Roberts spent most of his four years with the Jets and last season with the Lions as a slot defender. He is dependable veteran addition with plenty of starting experience. If he does not win a nickel or dime corner job, Roberts will provide quality depth.
The McCain addition was a particularly interesting one in that he is a former corner that has spent much of the past three seasons as a free safety in Miami. Troy Apke and Deshazor Everett handled the free safety duties for Washington through most of 2020, but there is some uncertainty surrounding that position as we approach training camp.
Washington opened last season with Landon Collins at strong safety and Apke at free, but this rookie named Kamren Curl was picked up in the last round of the draft that kept showing up in practice and turning heads. With Kendall Fuller out for the first two games nursing a sore knee, Jimmy Moreland started with Curl and Fabian Moreau sharing sub-package duties. Curl continued to impress and retain the limited role until Landon Collins was lost in Week 7. From that point, Curl became the starting strong safety, playing virtually every snap for the remainder of the season.
Curl never stopped impressing. Both on the field and in the box scores, he was a clone of Collins. If not for the different jersey numbers, most people might not have known the difference. Curl recorded at least five solo stops with no fewer than seven combined tackles in every game he started except the season finale. Averaging a whopping 15.48 points over the final nine weeks, Curl was an outstanding mid-season pickup that helped a lot of managers to league titles.
With Collins returning, the expectation is that Curl will take over the free safety position moving forward. I would happily drive that bandwagon, but reserve a little caution until this situation is confirmed. What makes me a little concerned is that both Collins and Curl are prototypical in-the-box strong safeties. Pre-draft scouting reports suggest that Curl lacks the range and cover skills of a deep/free safety. Early scouting reports will not always align with what happens on the field when players get to the next level, and so far, Curl has not shown a lack of anything, but he has not been in many situations that would expose those flaws either. All things considered, including the linebacker situation, It would not be a surprise to see McCain on the field as the free safety in sub-packages with either Curl or Collins lining up as a nickel linebacker.
All the ifs and buts make it tough to place a draft value on Curl. Washington’s free safety position has traditionally been short on statistical production, but this team has not had a pair of safeties like this to work with. I have Curl ranked in the mid-DB2 range, but there is plenty of room for error in either direction.
With a six-season track record, there is no guesswork surrounding Landon Collins. If not for the four games he missed in 2018, he would have recorded at least 103 combined tackles and finished among the top ten in each of his five seasons before last year’s injury. In his second year (2016), Collins exploded for 100 solo tackles, 25 assists, 4 sacks, 5 interceptions, and 13 passes defended. He was the fantasy game’s number one defensive back, outscoring the next guy on the list by more than 4.25 points per game. He is no longer an elite tier defensive back, but a healthy Collins will give us quality tackle numbers, a fair share of big-play contributions, and will be a solid DB1. The only possible concern is the injuries. Collins played every snap through Week 16 in 2019 but has finished two of the last three seasons on IR and is coming off a torn Achilles that has the potential to be troublesome. That said, I will continue to target him as a low-end DB1 and keep my fingers crossed.
- SS Landon Collins – Low-end DB1
- SS/FS Karmen Curl – Target as a low to mid-level DB2 with the potential to go either direction
- FS Deshazor Everett – No impact
- FS Bobby McCain – No impact
- FS Troy Apke – No impact
- CB Kendall Fuller – Potential CB2
- CB William Jackson III – No IDP impact
- CB Benjamine St-Juste – Possible dynasty value
- CB Darryl Roberts – Injury sleeper at best
- CB Jimmy Moreland – No impact
- CB Greg Stroman – No impact
And that's a wrap for part seven of this year’s preseason edition. Up next -- the AFC East.
Enjoy this article? Find more from John here.