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 Bears are a franchise with a tradition of great defenses. The 2020 version was not bad but did not exactly live up to the high expectations. In 2019 they were fourth against the pass at 6.6 yards per attempt. Last year they fell to 15 at 7.1. The run defense remained strong, slipping from fourth to eighth, and for the second year in a row, they came up short of expectations in the big play columns. Chicago’s 35 sacks were middle of the pack, but only seven teams produced fewer turnovers than the Bears' 18.
They made some moves on the defensive side, but the team’s offensive woes took precedent in the offseason. The defense was not addressed in the draft until round six, and the most impactful free agent signing was a lateral move at corner where they lost Kyle Fuller and replaced him with Desmond Trufant.
The first responsibility of defensive linemen in the Bears version of the 3-4 is to occupy space in the running lanes and keep blockers off the linebackers so they can make plays. Anything else they get from the front-three is a bonus. They play a lot of 2-gap responsibilities, which means the linemen are not free to penetrate and disrupt every play as, for example, the Steelers do. As a result, the Bears' defensive line as a whole totaled 15 sacks in 2020, with no individual producing more than five.
With the scheme's design, the skill set of the players that fit in it, and the fact that the team rotates a lot of players, there are no great pass rushers or potential breakout IDP players in this group. Starters Akiem Hicks, Bilal Nichols, and Eddie Goldman average 314 pounds, with Nichols being the flyweight at 290. Free-agent additions Mike Pennel and Angelo Blackson and rookie Khyiris Tonga, are all at least 319 pounds, with Mario Edwards Jr at 279 being the smallest of the defensive linemen likely to make the final roster. Pennel, Blackson, and Edwards have each been in the league for six years. Combined, they have 22.5 sacks over 18 NFL seasons, with 15.5 of those belonging to Edwards. In 2020, the Bears had six defensive linemen with at least 245 snaps, and that was with Goldman opting out. All of these guys will have a place in the rotation.
Managers in leagues with a lot of teams and/or deep rosters might get some value from Nichols or Hicks. Over three years between 2016 and 2018, Hicks averaged 39-15-7.5, accounted for 8 turnovers, and swatted 7 passes. He missed much of 2019 with a dislocated elbow and fell well short of those numbers last season, but Hicks did lead Chicago’s defensive lineman with 795 snaps and 48 combined tackles in 15 games. He was also their highest-scoring lineman. Hicks got off to a great start, totaling three and a half sacks in the first three games. Unfortunately, he finished the season at 29-19-3.5 after being bothered by a hamstring much of the year. Some will suggest he is not the same player at age 31, but many guys are still going strong at that age. I like his chances of bouncing back with 55+ combined tackles and 5-6 sacks in 2021.
It was Nichols that led the group in sacks last season with five. He also saw the second most playing time at 617 snaps. Nichols shed about 20 pounds entering his third year to be more of a factor as a pass rusher. While that has worked out well so far, his 39 combined tackles (16 solos) leave a lot of room for improvement.
Eddie Goldman could be an option for managers in leagues starting two interior linemen. After sitting out last season due to COVID, Goldman will return to the lineup as the Bears starting nose tackle. Surprisingly mobile for a man of 320 pounds, he has 12.5 career sacks over five seasons and can play any of the line positions in this defense if needed. Goldman has seen some time at defensive end in years past. Over his last three seasons, Goldman averaged 25-12-2, with a career-best of 27-12-3 in 2018. Those numbers aren't useful to most but are good enough to make him a DT3 at a perennially thin position.
- DE Akiem Hicks – Possible depth in 12 team leagues if he can get back to form
- DE Bilal Nichols – Marginal impact expected
- DE Angelo Blackson – No impact
- DE Mario Edwards Jr – No impact
- NT Eddie Goldman – DT3 without any upside
- NT Khyiris Tonga – No impact
- NT Mike Pennel – No impact
Roquan Smith was the lone standout in an otherwise mediocre year for Chicago linebackers. The 2018 eighth overall pick rebounded strongly from a dismal 2019 campaign marred by inconsistency, personal issues, and injury. The personal issues were never aired publicly but seemed to affect his play considerably. Despite having speed and coverage among the strengths of his game, Smith was held out of some sub-packages in several games and was not the player we had seen in his rookie season. His 2019 campaign came to an end with a pectoral injury in week 14.
Whatever ailed Smith in 2019 was behind him in 2020. He played nearly every snap over the first 15 games and showed the world that he was well worth the Bears' investment. His 100 solo tackles were second only to Zach Cunningham, and Smith set new career marks with four sacks, seven passes defended, and two interceptions. He was the poster boy for consistency with at least seven combined tackles and double-digit fantasy points in 13 of the first 15 contests. He was the .15 points short of being the fantasy game’s number two overall linebacker. All that, and he just turned 24 in April.
Smith is a complete linebacker with size, speed, instincts, cover skills, and everything else a coach would want in a middle backer. He is set to be a perennial Pro-Bowl player and a constant presence in the IDP game’s top ten over the next decade.
Danny Trevathan has dealt with some injuries over his career but has otherwise been a solid and steady contributor to his teams and ours over the last nine years. He is a well-rounded linebacker that can stay on the field in all situations and is a big-play contributor. Trevathan has proven to be a quality third starter for IDP managers throughout his career, but 2020 was his least productive to date on a per-game basis. At 68-44-1 with a forced fumble and 5 passes defended, he fell short of ten points per game over a season for the first time. The culprit here is not declining play but declining playing time. For the first time in his career, Trevathan consistently came off the field in sub-package situations, seeing action on less than 80% of the snaps in 11 games. With the emergence of Smith, there is no reason to expect anything different from Trevathan in 2021. He still holds some value as a spot play or bye week option but is no longer a player we can start every week.
Depth at the inside linebacker positions will be provided by 2018 fourth-round pick Joel Iyiegbuniwe, third-year man Josh Woods, journeyman Austin Calitro, and veteran free-agent addition Christian Jones. Jones has the most experience and would likely get the first call. He was an inside linebacker for the Bears from 2014 to 2017 before playing outside in the Lions 4-3 over the past three seasons. Jones excels as a physical down-hill run defender and is serviceable in coverage. His most productive season came in 2017 when he went 60-29-2 with a pair of turnovers and 2 pass breakups on just 624 plays as an injury replacement for Jerrell Freeman. Jones could be a good addition if either Trevathan or Smith miss significant time.
In Khalil Mack, Chicago has one of the best edge defenders in the game. His talent and versatility transcend schemes, allowing Mack to be equally productive as a pass rusher while playing defensive end in a 4-3 or outside linebacker in a 3-4. Over his three seasons with Chicago, Mack has 30 sacks, 13 forced fumbles, 5 recoveries, 11 batted passes, 2 interceptions, and a score. However, the change of teams and scheme has had a significant negative impact on both Mack’s tackle numbers and overall IDP value. The 29 solo tackles he recorded in 2020 were by far the fewest of his career, but at least Mack was credited with a career-best 21 assists.
Most players would be ecstatic with the 17.5 sacks Mack has recorded over the last two seasons with the Bears, but for him, those numbers are below expectations. From 2015 with the Raiders through 2018 in Chicago, Mack averaged 52-15-12.5, 5 turnovers, and 3 batted passes. The turnover numbers have been there, but over the last two years, he averaged 35-13-8.75. I believe the biggest reason for his decline is the lack of a supporting cast. Injuries to Akiem Hicks and lackluster performance from Leonard Floyd hurt in 2019. Hicks was back last year but was not himself. The Bears replaced Floyd with Robert Quinn, but no one would have known it other than the jersey number. The edge position opposite Mack produced six sacks, split between three players, with Quinn accounting for two. Unless someone steps up and takes some pressure off, Mack will be hard-pressed to get back to double-digits in 2021.
Quinn is still considered the starter as we close in on training camp, but keep an eye on Jeremiah Attaochu. The last time he was a starter for a full season was with the Chargers in 2015. That year Attaochu totaled 43-8-6. Injuries sidetracked his career for a while, but he re-emerged with Denver in 2019, working as the third man in their rotation after Bradley Chubb was lost. Last season, he held the same role when the team lost Von Miller. Attaochu played 745 snaps between the two seasons, which would be a little light for a three-down starter, posting 39-12-9 with a pair of turnovers. If Quinn starts slowly again this year, we might see a lot of Attaochu.
- ILB Roquan Smith – Strong LB1 with elite tier upside
- ILB Danny Trevathan – Good LB4 with upside if Smith is injured
- ILB Joel Iyiegbuniwe – Third-year player with some long-term potential
- ILB Christian Jones – Injury sleeper
- ILB Austin Calitro – No impact
- OLB Kahlil Mack – LB2 with a high floor and high ceiling in big-play formats
- OLB Robert Quinn – No impact expected
- OLB Jeremiah Attochu – Big play sleeper with LB3 upside
- OLB James Vaughters – No impact expected
- OLB Trevis Gipson – No impact
The Chicago secondary had little to offer IDP managers in 2020. Free-safety Tashaun Gipson Sr led the unit with two interceptions, but Buster Skrine was the most productive corner with 52 tackles, 13 assists, a forced fumble, and 3 passes defended. The Bears' highest-ranking defensive back was Eddie Jackson, who finished 39th.
So, where did the production go? To be brutally honest, there has not been much here for a long time now. The last Chicago defensive back to average double-digit points over a season was Jackson in 2018, and he did most of it as a one-hit-wonder in the big play columns, totaling nine turnovers and a sack. Kyle Fuller had a good year at corner in 2019, but other than that, no Chicago defensive back has come close to 70 solo stops since sometime before 2016. Fuller went from 73-10-0 with 3 picks in 2019 to 52-12-0 with 1 interception last season, then was let go by the team. His replacement, Desmond Trufant, is an eight-year veteran that has never recorded more than 55 tackles in a season or finished in the top-20 at the corner position.
The Bears are fine at the top, but their questionable depth could be exposed with an injury or two. Barring an injury, this year’s starters will be Jackson and Gipson at safety, last year’s second-round pick, Jaylon Johnson on one corner, with Trufant on the other. Last year’s fifth-round selection Kindle Vildor should compete with 2019 six-round pick Duke Shelley, veteran journeyman Artie Burns, and possibly backup safety DeAndre Houston-Carson, for the role as the fifth defensive back.
Suppose you find yourself in a tough spot. Jackson is the best guy to target here. They call him a free-safety, but he spent more time close to the line in 2020. The result was the best tackle totals of his four years as a pro, at 63-20. Jackson failed to intercept a pass but did force three fumbles, recovered one, knock down five passes, and score once. The biggest downside to his value is inconsistency. He managed nine or more points in six games last season but totaled fewer than five in six others.
- FS Eddie Jackson – DB4 with limited upside
- FS Tashaun Gipson Sr – No impact
- SS DeAndre Houston-Carson – Injury sleeper at best
- SS Deon Bush – No impact
- SS Jordan Lucas – No impact
- CB Desmond Trufant – CB3 at best
- CB Jaylon Johnson – Watchlist player with no grand expectations
- CB Artie Burns – No impact
- CB Kindle Vildor – No impact
- CB Thomas Graham Jr – developmental rookie
When the Lions hired Dan Campbell as their head coach in the offseason, no one gave much thought to the defensive scheme. Campbell had been an offensive coach on teams that ran 4-3 schemes for his entire pro career, and his defensive coordinator, Aaron Glenn, coached defensive backs in a 4-3 with the Saints for the last several years. It took the IDP community by surprise when Campbell announced in May that the Lions would move to a 3-4, sort of. As he continued to explain their defensive approach, Campbell laid out the Lions' plan. Not surprisingly, it perfectly explained why the IDP game needs to update positional designations for edge defenders.
In essence, Detroit will play a 5-2 base defense with three down linemen and two edge defenders up on the line. The edge defenders will be designated as linebackers simply because they will work from a two-point stance. They will not line up off the line much, as a true linebacker would, nor will they be asked to drop in coverage regularly. At some point, the fantasy community will value their IDP customers enough to make the sweeping, industry-wide change needed to create an edge defender position that includes 3-4 outside linebackers and 4-3 defensive ends, along with a defensive line position that includes 4-3 tackles and all linemen in three-man fronts. Until that happens, we will continue to perpetuate arguments about situations like this and call a guy like Khalil Mack a linebacker, even though he puts his hand down to rush the passer most of the time.
At least when it comes to the Lions, we know who will be playing with the hands down on the inside. The team signed nine-year veteran Michael Brockers to be one of those guys. He might be considered a tackle in some leagues but will be most widely identified as a defensive end. Regardless of title, Brockers is experienced at the position, having lined up there over the last several years with the Rams. His responsibilities might change slightly, but not enough to affect his play or production. For managers that have the luxury of playing him as a tackle, Brockers can provide good value. He consistently puts up more than 50 combined tackles a season and can be counted on for 3-5 sacks in most years. Just to emphasize the difference in positional designation, in 2020, Brockers was 22-28-5. As a defensive lineman (combining the positions), he ranked 50th, while as a defensive end, he was 33rd, and as a tackle, Brockers ranked 18th.
DaShawn Hand was a defensive end on early downs in the old defense and would shift inside in some passing situations. It is hard to get a fix on his fit or value in this scheme because Hand has missed 25 of a possible 48 games with injuries over his three seasons with the team. From a skillset perspective, he can be a major contributor on the field but has thus far shown little in the box scores.
Nick Williams could be in the mix for playing time at both defensive end and nose tackle. He had a strong 2019 season as a defensive end in the Bears 3-4, posting 40 combined tackles and six sacks. Williams signed with the Lions last year and all but vanished, going 13-9-1. His positional versatility might help him make the team, but Williams is a long shot to earn substantial playing time.
Most scouts saw Levi Onwuzuriki as a Sheldon Richardson type 3-technique tackle and expected him to land in a 4-3 scheme. When the Lions used a second-round pick on him, it initially confirmed those expectations. Now that we know he will play defensive end in a 3-4, it sheds a different light on the rookie. He was not flashy in the box scores at Washington, totaling 95 combined tackles and 7 sacks in 34 games, but had some impressive moments that excited NFL scouts. He is a bit undersized for a 3-4 by some standards but is exceptionally strong and stubborn. He has an explosive first step, is agile for a big man, uses his hand well for a young player, and is hard to move without a double-team. If he is asked to play 2-gap techniques and hold position at the line, it will waste his talents. Still, if Onwuzurike is allowed to be an aggressive penetrator, he has a chance to be both highly effective on the field and productive in the box scores.
The selection of Onwuzuriki made sense even before we knew the Lions were changing schemes. It was the third-round selection of Alim McNeill that looked out of place initially. Now that we know he was picked to play the nose tackle position, it all makes more sense. McNeill played over the center at North Carolina State most of the time but was usually shaded to one side. He is quick and athletic enough, but his most impressive traits are strength and power. But he could be hard to handle as a shaded A-gap penetrator where his low center of gravity would allow McNeill to gain leverage and drive the center or guard into the quarterback. McNeill is not a typical 2-gap nose tackle. At the least, he will require the attention of two blockers on a lot of plays, and McNeill could contribute more as a pass rusher than people think. He has 10 sacks in 36 games for the Wolfpack and could eventually become a decent option for managers in tackle-required leagues.
McNeill will compete with last year’s sixth-round selection, John Penisini. The second-year pro is bigger and would likely be a better fit if the team is looking for a 2-gap nose tackle. Penisini saw plenty of action as a rookie, winning over both teammates and coaches with his effort and competitive nature. Chances are, he and McNeill will form a rotational situation that could keep both out of the IDP conversation, but there is potential for either of them to shine if they get enough opportunity.
- DE Michael Brockers – Low-end DL3 or solid DT2 if you can use him at tackle
- DE Levi Onwuzurike – Late round sleeper/taxi player long-term with DL2 potential
- DE DaShawn Hand – Marginal impact expected
- DE/NT Nick Williams – No impact expected
- NT John Penisini – Possible DT2
- NT Alim McNeill – Possible DT2 with a little upside
The scheme shift makes for an interesting situation at inside linebacker, and the offseason additions give the coaching staff a lot of options. Jamie Collins Sr would seem to be the obvious fit for one of the starting spots. He has the versatility to do anything at the second level, and over the course of his eight NFL seasons, he has. While with New England, Collins was moved all over the defense. He lined up both on the edge and inside when the Patriots were in a 3-4. When they were in four-man fronts, Collins usually worked from the strong side but saw time at both middle and weak. Over three seasons with the Browns, he worked mostly outside in their 4-3 but moved inside in most nickel situations.
At 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds, Collins excels as a point of attack run defender that can stack and shed blockers. He is not blazing fast, but quick reactions and good angles help him chase down and make plays all over the field. Collins is adequate in coverage but is at his best when blitzing on passing downs. He has 25.5 career sacks with a best of seven in his second stint with the Patriots in 2019. Maybe his most important asset is that Collins is a playmaker. He has forced 18 fumbles, recovered 7, intercepted 11 passes, broken up 36, and scored twice. He is not a tackling machine, but the combination of decent tackle numbers, splash plays, and the ability to stay on the field in sub-packages has made Collins a quality fantasy option over his career. For the most part, he has been a dependable LB3, but this situation might make him even better, especially if he lines up at inside linebacker full time.
Jahalani Tavai is penciled in as the other starter inside entering training camp, but he will have competition. He has seen a good amount of action as a two-down middle linebacker over the last two seasons. The lack of sub-package participation was likely a combination of average cover skills and the desire of the previous coaching staff to keep Jarrad Davis involved in some capacity. Tavai was a highly productive, three-down linebacker and a tackling machine at Hawaii. In 47 games there (34 as a starter), he totaled 390 combined tackles. Tavai also made a solid big-play contribution for the Rainbow Warriors with 16.5 sacks and 8 turnovers. In two seasons with the Lions, he has five turnovers and a pair of sacks. Tavai can be a productive IDP option in this scheme if his role is big enough.
Holdover Jalen Reeves-Maybin and free-agent additions Alex Anzalone and Shaun Dion Hamilton will each get a look at inside linebacker during camp. Reeves-Maybin and Hamilton offer better cover skills than Tavai and possibly Collins, but they are longshots to land a starting spot. Anzelone started at all three linebacker spots in the Saints 4-3 over his three seasons there but was never able to stick. He might be a better fit on the inside in a 3-4 but has done nothing to impress so far in his career.
When a player is drafted by a new regime that has drastically changed their scheme, the team already has a purpose in mind that they believe he will fit. This gives rookie Derrick Barnes an advantage. He is short at 6-foot-0 but not small at 238 pounds. The low center of gravity helps to gain leverage when taking on blockers and makes Barnes tough to move at the point of attack. Barnes has versatility, having played both inside linebacker and defensive end during his college career, and has displayed good production from both positions. In 19 games as a starting ILB, he was 104-45-3. In 12 starts as a defensive end in 2019, he went 47-16-7.5. The rookie is a tough, physical, hard-nosed player with above-average speed for the position and decent cover ability. He will be in the mix for the starting job this summer but might require some seasoning before moving into a major role.
Players sometimes struggle with the shift between a two and three-point stance. This will not be an issue for the Lions, as Trey Flowers and Romeo Okwara have successfully been outside linebackers in the past. As a three-year starter in New England, Flowers would move between 4-3 end and 3-4 linebacker on a week to week, and sometimes play-to-play basis. This versatility endeared Flowers to Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia in New England and led to him being signed by the Lions when Patricia took over as head coach.
Flowers has never been an elite pass rusher but has been a solid three-down edge defender since becoming a starter in 2016. He sets the edge well and makes a lot of plays in the running game, but is not a one-trick pony. From 2016 through 2019, Flowers consistently totaled 55+ combined tackles, 7 sacks, and at least 2 turnovers per season. As a defensive end, he has been a dependable low-end DL2 or excellent DL3. If you can play him at that position, he should continue to hole good value. As an outside linebacker, however, Flowers falls short in both the tackle and big-play columns. His 2020 season was cut short by a broken arm in week eight, but Flowers is fully recovered.
In Okwara, the Lions might have a top-shelf pass rusher. He did little as an undrafted free agent with the Giants in 2016 and 2017 but stepped up nicely in his first year with the Lions, going 28-11-7.5. Okwara vanished in 2019, partly due to nagging injuries but largely due to the addition of Flowers. In 2020, Okwara was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal season for Detroit. He moved back into the starting lineup and proved that he belonged there. Okwara reached double-digit sacks for the first time and forced three turnovers. At 32-12-10 with 2 forced fumbles and a recovery, he was a top-ten defensive end.
The shift to linebacker will certainly impact Okwara’s value, but it should not change his production for the worse. He is not a stranger to the linebacker position, having played there for his first two years at Notre Dame and again for two seasons with the Giants before landing in Detroit. If he is still a defensive end in your league, look for another strong season from Okwara. As a linebacker, however, his value will be limited in all but big-play formats.
Romeo’s brother, Julian, followed him to Notre Dame but was a defensive end for his entire career there. A leg injury cut his rookie season short at 69 snaps over seven games, but Julian has a ton of potential. With the same physical build and traits as his already successful brother, Julian Okwara should have little trouble moving to a two-point stance. It might even fit him better. Expect Okwara to work as the third man in the edge rotation at the beginning of the season and expect him to see a lot more than the 10 snaps per game he played as a rookie. Flowers is signed through the 2023 season, but at this time next year, we might be talking about the first brother tandem to start on the edge for the same team in NFL history.
- ILB Jamie Collins Sr – Quality LB3 with a little upside
- ILB Jahlani Tavai – Sleeper with LB3 ceiling and low floor
- ILB Derrick Barnes – Sleeper/dynasty target with long term potential
- ILB Jalen Reeves-Maybin – No impact expected
- ILB Alex Anzalone – No impact expected
- ILB Shaun Dion Hamilton – No impact
- OLB/DE Trey Flowers – Quality depth or low DL2 as a defensive end, marginal value as a linebacker
- OLB/DE Romeo Okwara – Top-12 DL1 or decent LB3 in big-play formats
- OLB/DE Julian Okwara – Sleeper/dynasty target in big play formats
- OLB/DE Austin Bryant – No impact
- OLB/DE Charles Harris – No impact
Fantasy managers see numbers and can have a hard time coming to grips with the fact that just because a defensive player puts good numbers on the stat sheet does not always mean he is such a good player on the field. I am guilty of that sometimes myself, but when I see a guy like Tracy Walker get benched despite making plays all over the field and covering for a lot of questionable play in front of him, I have no trouble understanding why that coaching staff is gone. That is what happened in Detroit last year when Walker was first moved to strong safety so Duron Harmon could play free and then relegated to a part-time role for several games in favor of career backup Jayron Kearse.
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