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For reference, when I mention where players finished in the rankings last season, my model will be the standard Footballguys scoring system. This is the basic stuff:
- Tackles = 1.5
- Assists = .75
- Sacks = 4
- Forced fumbles = 3
- Fumble recoveries = 3
- Interceptions = 4
- Passes defended = 1.5
- Touchdowns = 6
When tackle numbers are mentioned, solo stops and assists are not lumped together. Unless there is a reference one way or the other, tackles refer to solo stops. When talking about the total number of takeaways for a player, I am counting interceptions, fumble recoveries, and fumbles forced since all of these are scored very similarly in most leagues. Keep in mind that based on scoring systems, rankings will vary (sometimes greatly) from league to league.
From time to time, the rookie corner rule will be referenced. For those who are new to IDP or the EOTG, the rookie corner rule is the basic fact that in the NFL, starting a rookie on the corner is like throwing chum to the sharks. Offensive coordinators will target young and inexperienced players as weaknesses. Thus, these guys have an accelerated number of opportunities. These players are often the cream of the crop at the position (which is why they are starting so soon), and their numbers will begin to drop steadily after their rookie seasons.
The 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 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 – 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 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 – 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 – 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 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 – 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.
The new regime has moved Walker back to his natural position at free safety, and there does not appear to be anyone on the roster to threaten his job. Walker was exceptionally productive in 2019 when his 83 solo tackles (in 12 games) were the third most among defensive backs, and his 12.28 points per game ranked seventh. He was well on the way to a repeat in 2020 had his playing time not been slashed. In the nine games that he played full time, Walker averaged almost six tackles and two assists with a pace that would have led him to about 94-32.
In run support and as the last line of defense catch-all, Walker does a fine job, but his big-play impact has been marginal at the pro level. Three years in the league have produced a pair of interceptions, one forced fumble, a sack, and 14 pass breakups. The new regime will need to re-kindle the playmaker that Walker was at Lousiana, where he accounted for 13 turnovers and 19 pass breakups in 46 career games. Matt Patricia is gone, and Walker is back where he belongs. It is not only safe to go back in the water, but we can probably land him much later in the draft than his value would suggest.
The Lions used a third-round pick on Will Harris in 2019. He started a few games as an injury replacement in his rookie campaign but has otherwise served in the role of third safety over the last two seasons. After some house cleaning by the new staff, Harris is set to make his debut as the full-time starting strong safety in 2021. He has not been very box-score friendly thus far as a pro, totaling 56-21-1 with 4 passes defended on 989 career plays, but there are reasons for optimism. It is hard to say how much difference the scheme will make, but it will not hurt. Outside of Jamie Collins, the Lions are, at the least, unproven at inside linebacker, which should mean a fair amount of opportunity. A look back at his College production suggests Harris is capable of better. His final two years at Boston College led to 158 combined tackles with 8 turnovers in 25 games. I am far more excited about Walker, but if you are looking to fill that last DB spot with an upside guy, Harris might be a worthy target.
Detroit is rather thin behind the starters at safety. Dean Marlow and C.J. Moore are the only other safeties with any NFL experience, and Moore has nine career tackles. Marlow is a guy to keep an eye on if either starter is injured or Harris fails to seize the opportunity. He made the Bills roster as an undrafted free agent in 2018. Marlow was not on the field much in any of his three seasons with Buffalo but made the most of what opportunity he had last year, particularly in splash plays. On 265 snaps, he was 16-6-1.5 with a pair of interceptions and a fumble recovery. He should come out of training camp as the third safety and top backup at both positions.
In last year’s third overall pick, Jeff Okudah, Detroit has the makings of an elite NFL corner and a foundation to build their secondary around, but both he and the team have a long way to go. Several issues sidetracked Okudah’s rookie season. It started with the pandemic all but eliminating live training camps. That put him behind in the learning curve. Then a pre-season hamstring injury that kept him out of week one. Instead of being eased into the lineup, injuries to Desmond Trufant and Justin Coleman made Okudah the number one corner in his first game, just in time to face Aaron Rogers and Davante Adams. That did not go well. After a few games in a tough situation, Okudah aggravated a core injury that he had dealt with at Ohio State. He tried to play through it for a while but struggled greatly and was eventually shut down.
The Lions pass defense was historically bad in 2020, and the only thing Okudah got out of his rookie campaign was some experience and a dose of perspective. In the box scores, he looked like a typical rookie starter for about six games, giving up a lot of completions and making a lot of tackles afterward. This was a completely dysfunctional defense, especially in the secondary, so it does not accurately reflect Okudah’s ability or potential. He is a much better player than anything from last season would suggest. That said, opponents will likely continue to target him as if he were still a rookie until his play catches up.
In all the madness that was the Lions’ secondary last year, 2019 fifth-round pick Amani Oruwariye emerged as a starter. Most unofficial depth charts outside of the organization have him as the projected starter opposite Okudah. While that remains entirely possible, unless/until veteran Quinton Dunbar is injured, it is not likely to happen. On the other hand, Dunbar has never completed a full slate of games in his six years in the league.
What it comes down to is a wide-open competition for the job between these two, with rookie third-round pick Ifeatu Melifonwu right in the middle of it as well. Oruwariye is a developing young player with some potential. Dunbar is a solid veteran starter when healthy, which has not been often enough. Melifonwu lacks experience but has the skillset to become a very good NFL starter. He is big at 6-foot-2 and 205 and is a tough, physical press corner with elite traits and developing instincts. Melifonwu hits like a safety, and when he does give up a catch, he gets the receiver on the ground quickly. None of these corners are deserving of a roster spot at this point, but keep an eye on Melifonwu, who I believe has the most IDP potential of the group.
- FS/SS Tracy Walker – Target as a low DB2 or third starter but don’t be surprised if he ends up top-12
- SS Will Harris – Late round sleeper with marginal upside
- FS Dean Marlow – Injury sleeper
- CB Jeff Okudah – Watchlist/rookie corner rule
- CB Quinton Dunbar – Too injury prone to draft
- CB Amani Oruwariye – No major impact expected
- CB/FS Ifeatu Melifonwu – Sleeper/dynasty potential
- CB Corn Elder – No impact
- CB Alex Brown – No impact
Green Bay Packers
In 2019 the Packers finished in the bottom third on defense against both run and pass. The 2020 edition improved to the middle of the pack in both categories and totaled a healthy 41 sacks for the second straight year, but they were still in the bottom third with 18 turnovers.
In 2019 Green Bay got a sack and a half from their entire defensive end group. Last year’s group made a substantial improvement, but substantial is a relative term. Keke Kingsley led the way with four of the groups seven and a half. With no high-profile additions over the offseason, there is no reason to expect more in 2021.
Green Bay has run a 3-4 for a long time. Despite using a good amount of early-round draft capital and plenty of free-agent money on the front-three over the years, they have never had an Aaron Donald or Calais Campbell-type player along the front. Much of this can be attributed to the two-gap approach they often employ, where the responsibility of the linemen is to occupy space and keep blockers off the second-level defenders. Linemen are generally asked not to penetrate, which would allow them to make more plays, but could open lanes for both running backs and scrambling passers. Regardless of the cause, the important point is that no Green Bay defensive end averaged more than 4.25 points per game in 2020.
There has traditionally been marginal production from the Packers defensive end positions, but Green Bay has one of the best nose tackles in the game. Kenny Clark was a late first-round pick in 2016 and has been well worth the price. Over four seasons as a starter, he has been rock solid on the field and consistently productive in the box scores. From 2017 through 2019, Clark ranked no lower than eighth among interior linemen and inside the top-30 in leagues that lump the positions together. If not for the groin injury he suffered in week one last season, that streak would almost certainly have continued. He sat out three full games and much of another with the injury but was slowed by it through the entire campaign. Clark still managed respectable tackle totals and ranked among the top-20 tackles, but after totaling 17 sacks over the previous three years, he managed just two in 2020.
We know just what to expect from a healthy Clark who has been remarkably consistent from year to year. From 2017 to 2019, he was between 55 and 61 combined tackles and 5 or 6 sacks each season. Last year he slipped to 28-14-2 in what amounts to 12 games of action. The injury is behind him, so Clark should bounce back to his former status and a low-end DL2 or quality depth in leagues that do not break out the positions, but if you must start tackles, he is a dependable DT1.
- DE Dean Lowery – No Fantasy Impact
- DE Kingsley Keke – Marginal impact at best
- DE Tyler Lancaster – No impact
- DE Delontae Scott – No impact
- NT Kenny Clark – Solid DT1 or DL3
- NT Tedarrell Slaton – No impact
There are two things we know for certain about the Packers’ inside linebacker position. It can be a goldmine for IDP production, and they like to use a third safety as part of their base packages, so only one ILB will be relevant. The trick in 2021 is to determine who, if anyone, can claim and keeps the lead role. How important is this? Just look at Blake Martinez, who went for three consecutive years with at least 93 tackles, 49 assists, and top-ten rankings before moving on to New York. The numbers were still there in 2020. They were just spread among too many players for anyone to stand out.
I could spend a lot of time filling several pages breaking down the pros and cons of all the characters in the mix for playing time at these positions. Instead, we are going to go with the Cliffs notes on these guys. Chris Barnes is exceptionally productive in the box scores considering his limited playing time. In 2019 he was 49-31-1 on 423 plays, but he was never able to maintain the starting job and was in and out of the lineup despite the production. Ty Summers showed flashes and had some opportunity in his second season. He is a capable two-down player but is not likely to get serious consideration for the full-time job. Kamal Martin showed some promise as a rookie but was not ready for prime time. He could be a factor with an offseason program but may need another year. So why the short version on these guys? Let us follow the Packers inside linebacker track from last year.
Christian Kirksey started and played every snap of the first two games, with Barnes getting 15 plays as the number two linebacker in each of them. In week three, Kirksey was injured. Summers replaced him with Barnes keeping the same minimal role. Summers started and got most of the playing time in week four at 74% of the snaps, while Barnes had an increased role with 38 plays. Coming out of the week five bye, Barnes was the starter playing 88% with Summers st 34% and Oren Burks with 22%. Week seven saw Martin get in the mix. All four inside backers played with no one getting 50% of the playing time. Then we had a week with both Barnes and Martin on the field more than 80% of the time, followed by a nearly equal threeway split. Kirksey returned in week nine and played every snap in four straight, with Martin getting the scraps and Barnes on the bench. In weeks 14 and 15, Kirksey shared time with Barnes. And finally, the last two games had Kirksey playing seconds to Barnes.
Some of the playing time shuffles were the result of injuries. Still, it was obvious the Packers never settled on a pecking order behind Kirksey, who couldn’t stay healthy and is now wearing a different uniform. Maybe this was all by some sort of design, but what it says to me is that the coaching staff is not comfortable or satisfied with anyone on last year’s roster. Enter free-agent addition DeVondre Campbell.
He is not the biggest of the bunch and is not an elite talent, but when Campbell stepped on the field for the first time, he was the team’s best coverage linebacker and their most complete package. Campbell has four years of experience as a starter and has worked in sub-packages for the last two seasons with Atlanta and Arizona. He is durable, dependable against the run, has good range, and will contribute some splash plays. In four seasons as a starter, Campbell has 7.5 sacks, 10 turnovers, and 19 pass breakups. He brings much-needed experience and stability to the position. I like the upside of Barnes and Martin, but Campbell is the guy I expect to come out on top here, at least in the short term. He is currently on a one-year deal, but Campbell could be a long-term solution if he pans out.
The reality is, anything could happen here. Barnes could earn the trust of the staff and become a perennial stud. Martin could improve with last year’s experience and an offseason program this summer and win the job in training camp. Campbell could steal the show, or he could struggle, having never played in a 3-4. With such potential value in the balance, this is a situation we will be watching closely as we get closer to week one.
There is no guesswork at Green Bay’s outside linebacker positions. ZaDarius Smith, Preston Smith, and Rashan Gary are the main characters and will see almost all the work between them. The only other player to get snaps at the position last season was Randy Ramsey, who got on the field for 57 total plays.
Smith has been everything the organization could have hoped for. He is a strong edge setter against the run and is one of the league's elite pass rushers with 26 sacks and 5 forced fumbles in two seasons with the team. As with nearly all 3-4 outside linebackers, the nature of the position limits Smith’s tackle potential to 55-60 combined stops, making him no more than depth in balanced scoring systems, but Smith is a solid LB1 if your league format calls for big plays.
The only question with this trio is if Gary can finally move past Preston Smith to become a starter. Gary was the team’s first-round pick in 2019, number 12 overall. So he comes with grand expectations. He was quiet as a rookie, going 13-7-2 as the fourth wheel behind Kyler Fackrell. Fackrell moved on after the 2019 season, and Gary moved up on the depth chart and the stat sheet. Last season he finished 19-15-5 on 455 plays, while Smith had a down year dropping from 36-19-12 in 2019 to 29-12-4 on 817 snaps in 2020. At the least, we should see a more similar share of playing time between these two.
Smith’s 12 sack season is a career outlier. It was sandwiched between a pair of four sack campaigns and is the only time in his six-year career that he has totaled more than eight. On the other hand, Gary is 23 years old and still on the upside of his career, with the best yet to come, making him a breakout candidate in 2021.
- ILB Krys Barnes – Big upside but far from a lock
- ILB DeVondre Campbell – LB2 with upside if he plays full time
- ILB Kamal Martin – Sleeper with a low floor and high ceiling
- ILB Ty Summers – No major impact expected
- ILB Oren Burks – No impact
- ILB Isaiah McDuddie – Developmental rookie
- OLB Za’Darius Smith – Stud LB1 in big-play based formats, LB3 or depth in balanced scoring
- OLB Preston Smith – Marginal value with a little big-play upside
- OLB Rashan Gary – Potential breakout player with LB2 upside in big-play formats
- OLB Randy Ramsey – No impact
- OLB Jonathan Garvin – Developmental second-year player
There is no competition for the Packers starting safety jobs where Adrian Amos will play strong and Darnell Savage weak. Amos was a four-year starter for the Bears from 2015 to 2018, but his two most productive fantasy seasons have been with the Packers over the last two years. In 2019 his 68-16-1 with a pair of interceptions and eight pass breakups was enough to make Amos a solid DB3 with a final rank of DB31. His tackle totals were about the same lasts season at 65-18, but he added a few marks in the big-play columns totaling two sacks, four takeaways, and nine passes defended to move up to DB25.
Amos is a safe target as your third starter but here is why I think he could move up even further in 2021. Through five games in 2020, Amos was sitting at 11-6-0 with one pass breakup and an average of 4.5 fantasy points. With good reason, IDP managers were dumping him left and right. Then something lit a fire under him. I have still not figured out what changed, but the result was an average of 6-1 in the tackles columns, with 2 sacks, 4 turnovers, 8 pass breakups, and nearly 11.8 points over the final 11 games. From week seven through the end of the season, Amos was the number two defensive back behind Kamren Curl. I will not predict a top-ten finish this year, but Amos may well be a high-end DB2.
Whatever it was that changed for Amos seemed to have the same effect on Darnell Savage. His tackle production was a little more evenly balanced, but Savage stepped up big in the other scoring areas over the second half of the season. Through week nine, he was sitting at 22-10-0 with a pair of passes defended in seven games. Over the final eight games, he went 34-9-1 with 4 picks, a fumble recovery, and 10 passes defended, for an average of 13.2 points per game. Savage showed his playmaking ability in 2019 as well, with four takeaways as a rookie. He will not have as much opportunity to make tackles as the free safety, but the plays he makes in the passing game are more than enough to push Savage into the high DB3 conversation with some upside.
The only thing I can come up with that would have contributed to the statistical surge of these two safeties was the progressively poor play at inside linebacker and the injury that sidelined Raven Greene for the last month of the season. For much of 2020, Greene worked as the third safety/nickel linebacker. The Packers have used a lot of this so-called big-nickel in recent years, often making it their base defense against pass-heavy offenses. The loss of Greene changed things up a bit in terms of defensive calls and responsibilities, but he was not injured until week 13, so that does not exactly fit the timeline.
Greene moved on in free agency, leaving the Packers to decide what to do with their big-nickel base package. They can either make it a true nickel and play a third corner, do away with it as a base defense, or find another defensive back to fill the role. After Greene’s injury, the package was not used nearly as much. When it was called, rookie Vernon Scott worked as the third safety. Unless Scott is ready for a much bigger role in his second season, the coaching staff is short on options when it comes to safeties. One other option might be to play corner Josh Jackson at the position. The 2018 second-round pick has not found a way to make much of a contribution thus far. He is undersized for the job, but so was Greene.
The selection of corner Eric Stokes in round one is a strong indication that the organization has moved on from the possibility of Jackson being a starter on the outside. Jaire Alexander is locked in as the team’s number one corner. Beyond that, nothing is certain. Kevin King started opposite Alexander last season, with Chandon Sullivan getting most of the playing time as the third corner. It is unclear if the organization sees Stokes as a possible upgrade over King outside or plans to use him as a slot defender. They will probably look at several options over the summer, and as we have already seen from this coaching staff, they are more than willing to move guys around during the season. Teams expect their first-round picks to make an immediate impact, so stokes should have some significant role as a rookie.
Even if he ends up starting opposite Alexander, there is not much expectation for Stokes as a fantasy prospect. He was a non-factor in run support at Georgia and, despite having good size, is not very physical or aggressive as a tackler. In nine games last year for the Bulldogs, he recorded 4 interceptions but only 14 tackles and 6 assists.
If there is to be an IDP-friendly corner in this group, it will probably be King. Alexander is a good example of the rookie corner rule. He had a productive rookie season with 61 solo tackles in 2018, followed by 50 in 2019 and 39 last season. He is generally not considered among the league’s elite but is a solid number one that opponents will not challenge more than necessary. King was the first pick in the second round in 2017. When he finally broke into the starting lineup in 2019, he was the fantasy game’s number six corner on the strength of 56-10-1 with 6 turnovers (5 by interception) and 14 passes defended. His splash play numbers were significantly reduced in 2020, but had he not missed five and a half games, King was on pace for 69 tackles and 17 assists.
- SS Adrian Amos – Target as a solid DB2 with upside
- FS Darnell Savage – Strong DB3 with big-play upside
- FS Will Redmond – No impact
- SS Vernon Scott – Marginal impact expected
- CB Jaire Alexander – No fantasy impact
- CB Kevin King – High CB2 potential if he holds off Stokes for the starting job
- CB Eric Stokes – Possible rookie corner rule, but his ceiling is limited
- CB Josh Jackson – No impact expected
- CB Chandon Sullivan – No fantasy impact
- CB KaDar Hollman – Roster bubble
The 2020 Vikings did not play the caliber of defense we have come to expect from them. The pass defense ranked 28th at 7.9 yards per attempt. The run defense was 25th giving up 4.6 yard-per-carry, and their 23 sacks ranked just ahead of the Bengals, Jaguars, Titans, and Raiders. The statistical high point for the unit was their middle of the pack, 22 takeaways. So what happened to this once perennial powerhouse? Mostly injuries and a lack of quality depth, with a sprinkling of questionable personnel decisions. In 2019 Minnesota piled up 48 sacks. Danielle Hunter had 14.5, Everson Griffen 8, and Ifeadi Odenigbo 7. Hunter missed 2020 with a neck injury, Griffen had six sacks for the Lions, and Odenigbo led the Vikings with 3.5.
The injury to Hunter was a huge blow that no team would have fully recovered from. There is no such thing as a neck injury that is not serious, so no one can blame him or the organization for that one. The decision not to bring back the team’s fourth all-time leading sack master is a different story, especially considering Griffen was not asking for big money. Sure he is getting up there in age from an NFL perspective, but at 32, he could still play, and this is a guy that’s had at least eight sacks every non-injury year since 2012. Instead of bringing back Griffen, Minnesota signed Yannick Ngakoue, only to realize that he was not a scheme fit and shipped him to Baltimore after a few games.
Having Odenigbo get to the quarterback seven times in 2019 may have given the organization a false sense of security. It is a different game when a player goes from being the number three guy to the pressure of being number one. With no proven help on the other end, Odenegbo was not up to the task. He will be playing outside linebacker for the Giants this year.
Last year is behind them, and there is no place to go but up in 2021. Hunter is set to return from the injury and is believed to be fully recovered. That said, considering the nature of the ailment, you can bet everyone in the organization will be nervous until he has a few games under his belt. If he is indeed healthy, Hunter should reclaim his status as one of the game’s elite edge defenders. He is much more than just a pass rusher, though. Hunter is a key component to the run defense as well. His 50 solo stops in 2018 were tied for the second-most by a defensive lineman, and his 51 in 2019 were at the top of that list. Hunter is 26 years old and already has 53 career sacks despite missing a full season. For IDP managers, he finished in the top-three in three of his four years as a full-time starter and was number one when he last played. There is some injury risk here that could be enough to slip him below Myles Garrett, Aaron Donald, and possibly even Chase Young and DeForest Buckner for those that prefer to play it safe, but the potential reward is simply too great for Hunter to slide beyond the fifth lineman selected.
Hunter can handle the pressure of being the number one guy, but even he will need someone to step up at the other end to reach his full potential. The Vikings have no proven veterans to lean on, but they have a collection of young players with high potential. Minnesota used one of their fourth-round picks last spring on South Carolina’s D.J. Wonnum and a late pick on Michigan State’s Kenny Willekes. Wonnum saw plenty of starts with the Gamecocks, totaling 14 career sacks over his career there. The word within the scouting community was that Wonnum needed to add some muscle to his 258 pounds and stand up stronger against the run. That proved to be an accurate assessment as he was pushed around a bit in his rookie season, but all in all, Wonnum performed fairly well for a young player thrust into the starting role ahead of schedule. He finished at 16-8-3 with a forced fumble on 471 plays last year and could be ready to step up big in year two.
Wonnum could have a lot of competition. Willekes is one of my favorite deep/dynasty sleepers from last year’s draft class. Unfortunately, his rookie campaign was lost to an ACL injury suffered in a preseason game. Willekes is a former walk-on that became a three-year starter and team captain for the Spartans, averaging 76 combined tackles and almost 8 sacks per season. The injury happening so early was a positive in that it has given Willekes more recovery time. If he is fully healthy, he could be a pleasant surprise in 2021.
The competition does not stop with Willekes. Minnesota used two more picks on edge defenders in this year’s draft, selecting Patrick Jones in Round 3 and Janarius Robinson in the fourth. Like Wonnum, Jones is undersized, but his game is built more around strength and power than speed and athleticism. That could help Jones be a factor right away, but he has plenty of room to improve. Jones has the physical tools to eventually become a good three-down defensive end, including a frame that can handle more muscle. He checks the box for college production as well, with 83 combined tackles and 17.5 sacks in his final two seasons at Pitt.
Janarius Robinson was more of a traits-based pick with developmental potential rather than expectations of immediate impact. He was in and out of the starting lineup during his four years at Florida State. At times he would turn heads, but Robinson would vanish for stretches. He has the physical tools to play in the NFL, including a huge wingspan that reminds me of the Raiders Maxx Crosby, but Robinson needs a lot of work on technique and consistency.
Statistically, it was the lack of production from the defensive end positions that stood out last year, but the play at defensive tackle was not any better. With the return of last year’s free-agent signing Michael Pierce who opted out, and the signings of Dalvin Tomlinson and Sheldon Richardson, the interior line should not be an issue in 2021. Tomlinson will play the 1-technique, lining up in the guard/center gap most of the time. Richardson will start as the 3-technique or under-tackle, with Pierce likely serving as the third man and working at both positions. All three are upgrades over anyone in last year’s rotation.
Tomlinson has a little something to offer for IDP managers in leagues that breakout the defensive line positions. Over his four years in the league, he has never fallen short of 49 combined tackles. He has three and a half sacks in each of the last two seasons, with rankings among tackles of 23 in 2019 and 17 last year. There is not a ton of upside, but Tomlinson is a safe target as your DT2.
Richardson, on the other hand, is a top-shelf DT1 prospect. Including a year with the Vikings in 2018, he has averaged 35-23-4 over the last three seasons, with a pair of top-six rankings in the last two and a finish of third in 2020. With Tomlinson demanding a lot of double teams, Richardson will see plenty of single blocking and should continue to capitalize on it as he has in the past. The Vikings' aggressive, penetrating scheme fits his skillset well and will take advantage of Richardson’s quickness and athleticism. He is not DeForest Buckner or Aaron Donald, but Richardson can be counted as a dependable number one starter with top-five potential.
- DE Danielle Hunter – Elite tier DL1 if healthy
- DE D.J. Wonnum – Watchlist sleeper with DL2 upside
- DE Kenny Willekes – Deep sleeper with intriguing potential
- DE Patrick Jones – Dynasty target
- DE Janarius Robinson – Developmental prospect
- DE Hercules Mataafa – No impact
- DT Sheldon Richardson – Quality DT1 with yop-five potential
- DT Dalvin Tomlinson – Solid DT2
- DT Michael Pierce – injury sleeper with DT2 upside
- DT Jalyn Holmes – No impact
- DT Armon Watts – No impact
- DT James Lynch – No impact
There has never been much argument about Eric Kendricks being one of the best linebackers in the league on the field. From the IDP perspective, however, he has never shined so brightly as last year. At 70-35-0 with 3 picks, 6 pass breakups, and a final overall rank of 22, his numbers at a glance look like every other season of his six-year career. The difference is, in 2020, Kendricks did it in 11 games. Some might contend that the leap in production was due to Anthony Barr being injured, but Eric Wilson recorded better numbers than Barr ever has. What I saw was a great player standing out on a defense that was simply not very good.
Kendricks posted double-digit points in 10 of 11 games in 2020, and his average of 14.45 per game was right there with Devin White and Darius Leonard at the top of the list. Projecting his value for the coming season is difficult because it depends on where we see this defense as a team. If you believe the organization has done enough to once again be among the top units, Kendricks’ value likely goes back to that of a solid LB2 or excellent LB3 as it has been in the past. If you believe their struggles will continue, he becomes at least a priority LB2 if not a low LB1. For the most part, only those with Kendricks on their rosters are going to realize how good he was last year, so he should fall into the LB2 range in many drafts, at which point the risk is minimal while the upside is strong.
Barr has been a mainstay in the Vikings lineup since the team made him a first-round pick in 2014. Even so, with a 12.9 million dollar cap hit in 2021, he would almost surely have been released at the end of last season had he not accepted a pay cut. In a May interview, Barr told reporters that he took the reduced salary largely because he didn’t want to end his Vikings career with an injury.
Over his eight seasons with Minnesota, Barr has mostly been a marginal fantasy option. In his first two years, he made up for weak tackle totals with many splash plays, but even those faded between 2016 and 2018 when he moved to the strong side on early downs. Barr had somewhat of a resurgence in 2019, going 56-23-1.5 with 3 turnovers and 4 pass breakups in 14 games. He lasted 94 snaps in 2020 before suffering a pectoral injury.
Most IDP managers will not give any thought to Barr on draft day, but there are some reasons that we should. First is the 11.93 points per game that Eric Wilson put up as Barr’s replacement, which shows there is potential as the team’s other three-down linebacker next to Kendricks. Second is that Barr’s step up in 2019 came when he was moved back to the weak side on early downs. He is not a priority target but might be worth considering as an LB5 when filling out your roster late in the draft.
Part of Barr’s contract restructure was voiding the last two years, which will make him a free agent at the end of this season. With that in mind, the team’s selection of Chazz Surratt in round three is very interesting. Surratt could get on the field right away as a two-down player in base packages and is the favorite to replace Wilson as the team’s top backup at both outside positions.
Pre-draft scouting reports pick apart Surratt’s tendency to miss some tackles, struggles to stack and shed blockers, and lack of experience as a linebacker after spending his first two years at North Carolina as a backup quarterback. On the other hand, they recognize his sideline-to-sideline range, athleticism, speed, Potential to excel in coverage, and knack for getting home on the blitz. At the end of the day, despite some flaws, what caught my eye was that he filled the stat sheets.
Surratt did not simply switch positions between his sophomore and junior years. He went from a backup quarterback to a starting three-down linebacker. In 24 games for the Tar Heels, he totaled 116 tackles, 91 assists, 12.5 sacks, 6 turnovers, and 5 pass breakups. This is a watchlist guy for everyone. For dynasty managers, Surratt is a priority taxi stash. Those in redraft leagues should keep him on speed dial and move quickly if Barr is injured.
Tony Dye backs up Kendricks at middle linebacker. He did not get on the field much as a rookie but was a productive four-year starter at Oregon, averaging 98 combined tackles per season with 13 sacks, 5 picks, 4 forced fumbles, a recovery, 14 pass breakups, and a score. Kendricks has been durable over his career, with five of his total seven games missed coming last year, but if he goes down, Dye could be a good in-season addition.
Nick Vigil should get the starting job on the strong side. He is a good player with the versatility to play any of the three positions. He has experience in sub-packages but is best served as a two-down run defender. Vigil gives the coaching staff options in the event of an injury to either Barr or Kendricks, but unless one of those guys goes down, was are not likely to hear his name called often.
- MLB Eric Kendricks – High floor LB2
- WLB/SLB Anthony Barr – Depth in 12 team leagues that start three linebackers
- SLB Nick Vigil – Injury sleeper with limited upside
- WLB/SLB Chaz Surratt – Strong injury/dynasty sleeper
- MLB Troy Dye – Injury sleeper
- SLB Ryan Connelly – No impact
- MLB Cameron Smith – Special teams contributor
I am extremely excited about Harrison Smith this year. Over his first three seasons, he was the Vikings' strong safety. As a rookie in 2012, Smith was the fantasy game’s number three defensive back, producing both strong good totals and plenty of big plays. He missed a few games in year two, but the points-per-game average of 12.1 was third again. In 2014 he climbed to number one at 71-20-3 with 6 turnovers, 9 passes defended, and a score. Then came 2015, when Smith was moved to free safety. He continued to put up good numbers but was not on the same level. Making up for less than stellar tackle totals with a lot of big plays, Smith managed to stay in the top-15 from 2016 to 2019 before dropping to 23 last season.
What makes me excited is the free-agent addition of free safety Xavier Woods, which means Harris will go back to strong safety in 2021. This is a good move for everyone involved. At age 32, Harris is not quite as fast as he once was but remains a physical presence that loves to get in on the run support action. For the Vikings, it gives them another impact player in the front seven with the versatility to move around and a knack for making impact plays. For IDP managers, it gives us a player that can be drafted outside the Top 12 but will likely finish well inside it.
As a starter for the Cowboys over much of the last four seasons, Woods has been a solid yet unspectacular player. He has plenty of experience as the last-line defender, is a good open-field tackler, is physical enough when needed, has the speed and cover skills to play over the top, and will create some turnovers. All that makes Woods a great package for the Vikings, but he has never produced more than 52 tackles and 25 assists in a season, nor has Woods ever finished among the top 40 defensive backs. That could change with his new team, but there is no reason to have grand expectations.
Minnesota’s corner positions are somewhat up in the air due to the legal issues of Jeff Gladney. The 2020 first-round pick became an immediate starter and, not surprisingly (rookie corner rule), racked up 64 tackles and 18 assists in his first season. The tackle total was sixth-most in the league among corners, but the virtually non-existent turnover production left Gladney barely in the CB2 conversation at 24th. He was a three-year starter at Texas Christian, where he totaled 146 combined tackles, 5 interceptions, and 37 passes defended. So there is some potential for the tackle totals to remain and the other columns to grow.
The biggest question with Gladney is not what his production will be but if he will be available to play at all. He faces some fairly serious charges that could land him in jail for a couple of years if found guilty. The NFL has done nothing so far, which is a sign that they will probably wait for the legal system to run its course. Even if he is not convicted, there could be some action from the league office.
Cameron Dantzler played a lot of football as a rookie, starting several games. This might have been born more of necessity than any coaching staff's desire, as the Vikings were very thin at the position outside of their two rookies. Regardless of how he got there, Dantzler looked like he belonged for the most part. There were growing pains, but he gained much-needed experience and will be in the mix for a job as one of the three starting corners again this summer.
After suffering through salary cap purgatory last season, the Vikings spent some money on their corner position in the offseason. The biggest addition is Patrick Peterson, who will be the team’s clear number one. Some will argue that Peterson is not one of the league’s elite cover men, but he is certainly in the conversation. He was an IDP factor for his first two seasons or so but has only exceeded 50 solo tackles once since 2012, with no more than eight passes defended or three turnovers in a season since 2013. Peterson will make a difference for the Vikings but is not likely to make one for us.
The other important free-agent signing was Bashaud Breeland. After being drafted by Washington in 2014, the journeyman joins his fourth team in the last five seasons. He has been a starter in three of his previous stops. Injuries and a four-game suspension have plagued him since his final season in Washington, but from 2014 through 2016, Breeland averaged about 60 tackles, 15 assists, 5 takeaways, and 13 pass breakups. If Gladney is available, Breeland should compete with Dantzler for the nickel corner job. If Gladney is not available, he would probably start opposite Peterson with Dantzler in the slot.
Minnesota also brought back Mackenzie Alexander, who spent last year with Cincinnati. Before signing with the Bengals, Alexander spent four years with Vikings, the last two as their nickel corner. Barring suspensions or injuries, he should compete with Kris Boyd for a spot as the fifth corner in 2021.
- SS/FS Harrison Smith – Target as a priority DB2 with top-five potential
- SS Xavier Woods – Marginal fantasy impact
- SS/FS Josh Metellus – No impact
- FS/SS Camryn Bynum – Rookie project
- CB Patrick Peterson – Marginal IDP value at best
- CB Bashaud Breeland – Possible CB2 if this fall right
- CB Cameron Dantzler – Possible CB2
- CB Jeff Gladney – CB2 if not suspended
- CB Mackensie Alexander – No impact
- CB Kris Boyd – No impact
That is going to do it for the NFC North; next up the AFC North.
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