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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. Most often these players are the cream of the crop at the position (which is why they are starting so soon) and their numbers will begin to drop steadily after their rookie seasons.
Figuring out what Falcons defenders will be productive is a challenge at this point. Particularly along the defensive line. The biggest issue is a glaring lack of standout talent. Linebacker Deion Jones led the team with four and a half sacks in 2020 while tackle Grady Jarrett led the defensive line with four. Atlanta addressed the defense early in the draft but did not take a lineman or outside pass rusher until round five, nor did they invest free agent capital on any of the top-shelf free agents. So how are they going to improve on last year’s weak sack total of 29? According to new defensive coordinator Dan Pees, they will have to be creative.
That brings us to the second issue, which is figuring out what kind of defense the team will run. Pees has been a mostly 3-4 guy at his previous stops with New England, Baltimore, and Tennessee, but in a press conference statement shortly after accepting the job, he was unclear on the issue. He was not specific about players or scheme but suggested that the 3-4 or 4-3 debate would be pointless. He pointed out that his previous defenses, while often referred to as 3-4, used multiple fronts and constantly shifted based on personnel and situational matchups. Pees made it clear that he plans to create a scheme in Atlanta that is custom fit to the personnel. He went on to say that all teams would love to get 50 sacks from their defensive line, but that rarely happens. Adding that this defense will find a way to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Taking a look at what Pees has to work with suggests we will see plenty of three-man fronts. There is no one on the roster with much experience as a nose tackle in an odd front, but Grady Jarrett, Tyeler Davidson, John Atkins, and Deadrin Senat are all north of 300 pounds. All four are capable of anchoring the run defense and holding ground at the point of attack and are accustomed to lining up over the guard/center gap.
Jarrett’s versatility will be particularly valuable in that he will only need to come off the field for a breather once in a while. He. is a quick and athletic big man with a low center of gravity. When it comes to the battle in the trenches, the low man usually wins. At 6-foot-0 and 305 pounds, he has a naturally lower pad level than most blockers which allows him to gain vital leverage. Jarrett is among the league’s outstanding run defenders but has enough quickness and athleticism to also contribute as a pass rusher. With 26.5 sacks over his six NFL seasons and a career-best of 7.5 in 2019, he could excel as a 3-4 end that can slide inside on 4-3 calls, allowing Pees to change up looks without having to make substitutions.
Jarrett also looks to be the best IDP target among the Falcons defensive linemen. In 2019 he put up a line of 38-32-7.5 with a pair of forced fumbles. That season he was the fantasy game’s number three tackle, finishing 13th among all linemen. His positional designation will be important for many managers as Jarrett’s value could be far greater in leagues that require interior linemen.
He was not selected by the current regime, but last year’s second-round pick Marlon Davidson might be a great fit in the new defense. He played both tackle and defensive end during his time at Auburn, working mostly on the outside as a senior despite weighing in at 303 pounds. His scouting report leading up to the draft suggested that he would be best suited to work at end on early downs then slide inside in passing situations. That sounds like the description of a 3-4 defensive end to me. Davidson shed about 25 pounds heading into his rookie campaign, in hope of becoming quicker off the edge, but was still not able to get on the field much. He could put most of it back on and still be effective as a 3-4 end, who like Jarrett, could stay on the field and play tackle when four-man fronts are called.
Davidson posted 14.5 sacks over his career with the Tigers, recording 48 combined tackles and getting to the quarterback for 6.5 sacks as a senior. He is not someone we will be looking to draft but keep an eye on him once the season opens, especially if he continues to hold the positional designation of tackle.
Johnathan Bullard, John Cominsky, Tyeler Davidson, John Atkins, Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, and rookie TaQuon Graham are the other players that could figure prominently into the equation along the front line. Dante Fowler and Steven Means might also put their hands in the dirt some, but I see them more as linebackers in this defense. Bullard has experience in both a 3-4 from his time with Chicago and Arizona and in a 4-3 after spending last season with Seattle. He failed to make a significant statistical impact at any of his previous stops but was a solid contributor on the field for the Bears and Cardinals.
Cominsky, Davidson, and Tuioti-Mariner are all tweener-type players that will be looking to fit in and contribute somewhere, while at 320 pounds, Atkins is the biggest of Atlanta’s defensive linemen. He saw some action as the one-technique tackles with the Lions in 2019 but did not get on the field at all in 2020.
Graham has the advantage of being drafted by the current regime with a specific plan in mind. He has the physical tools to be a solid contributor on early downs but offers little as a pass rusher. It is safe to say the Falcons are not finished shaping their personnel. Once Pees has a chance to work with them on the field, we could see additional roster adjustments.
- DE/DT Grady Jarrett – Solid DT1 or decent DL3
- DE/DT Marlon Davidson – Watch list player with limited potential
- DE/DT Tyler Davidson – No impact expected
- DE/DT John Cominsky – No impact expected
- DE/DT TaQuon Graham – Developmental prospect with no immediate value
- DE/DT Jonathan Bullard –No impact
- DT/NT Deadrin Senat – No impact
- NT John Atkins – No impact
It is not so hard to figure out where players will line up at the second level under Pees, and we have a pretty good idea where the fantasy value will be, but even the linebackers are not without uncertainties. In last year’s 4-3, Deion Jones lined up in the middle with Foye Oluokun on the strong side and rookie Mykal Walker on the weakside. In sub-packages, Walker went to the bench. This arrangement allowed both Jones and Oluokun to finish inside the top-12 at the position. Neither player cracked the 80 solo tackle mark but both exceeded 100 solo and assists combined. They did the rest with big-play production. At 78-37-3 with 7 turnovers and 4 passes defended, Oluokun finished a few slots higher than Jones, who was 70-38-4 with 4 turnovers and 11 pass breakups.
All three of these players will be inside linebackers in 3-4 alignments. When faced with the question of who will be the odd man out, the initial reaction is, of course, Walker, because Oluokun and Jones were so productive as three-down linebackers last season. This is most likely the correct answer considering that both are solid in coverage, strong versus the run, force turnovers, and have been successful on the blitz. Keep in mind, however, that with a new coaching staff, players start with a clean slate and Pees will approach things with an open mind as he looks to make the most of his resources. With that in mind, dynasty managers might want to at least see some preseason action before throwing in the towel on Walker.
His numbers were not impressive last year at 32-15-0 with a forced fumble and one pass defended, but Walker was only on the field for 385 snaps. In terms of tackles per snap, he outproduced Jones and virtually equaled Oluokun. Playing mostly in base packages on early-downs limited the number of big-play opportunities for Walker, but his numbers at Fresno State say he is capable. In 26 games for the Bulldogs, Walker had six and a half sacks, seven turnovers, ten pass breakups, and a score.
Despite recording three sacks in 2020, Dante Fowler is the Falcons' biggest pass rush threat. It has been an up and down career for the 2016 third overall pick of the Jaguars. Fowler managed four sacks as a rookie which was below expectations for his draft status, but not so far out of line for a first-year edge defender. In year two he upped the number of sacks to eight but was still not able to claim a starting role, seeing action on a little more than 40% of the snaps as a rush specialist. Fowler had just two sacks in seven games for Jacksonville in 2018 before being shipped to the Rams, where he added two more the rest of the way.
Along with the trade to Los Angeles came a move from 4-3 defensive end to 3-4 outside linebacker. Fowler won a starting job at the new position, going on to record 11.5 sacks and force three turnovers in 2019. The cap-strapped Rams were not able to afford the contract that comes after such a productive season, so Fowler signed with the Falcons, returning to a 4-3 where he was once again a virtual non-factor. This story tells us that Fowler has experience in both odd and even front schemes, but is most productive when working from a two-point stance. Rest assured this fact is not lost on the new coaching staff.
Steven Means, Barkevious Mingo, Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, Brandon Copeland, and rookie Ade Ogundeji will all be in the mix for playing time opposite Fowler. Means showed potential as a defensive end under the previous staff, but at 250 pounds, is way undersized to put his hand down in a 3-4. Mingo was the sixth overall pick of the Browns in 2013 but became a journeyman after totaling seven sacks in three disappointing seasons there. The Falcons are his sixth team in six seasons since leaving Cleveland. With 12.5 career sacks to his credit, Mingo is not likely to make much of an impact, but he does have experience as both a 4-3 end and 3-4 outside linebacker after playing for New England in 2016, then Houston and Chicago over the past two seasons. Tuioti-Mariner is a third-year, former undrafted free agent. He saw a fair amount of action as part of the defensive line rotation last year, but like Means, is undersized for a 3-4 lineman. If he is not a fit at outside linebacker, his day as a Falcon may be numbered. played a lot last year. Brandon Copeland is listed as an inside linebacker on the Falcons roster and might make the team as a backup at that position playing special teams, but it is noteworthy that he had 5 sacks as a rookie outside linebacker for the Jets in 2018.
That takes us to fifth-round pick Ade Ogundeji who had 10.5 sacks over a 30 game career at Notre Dame. He is viewed by most scouts as a developmental player with the traits and potential to improve with coaching at the next level. Like fellow fifth-round rookie TaQuon Graham, Ogundeji has the advantage of being picked by the current regime. While that likely makes him a lock for the final roster, it does not guarantee early playing time.
- ILB/MLB Deion Jones – Priority LB2 with low LB1 upside
- ILB/SLB Foye Oluokun - Priority LB2 with both upside and a little risk
- ILB/WLB Mykal Walker – Dynasty/injury sleeper that will be productive if he gets on the field
- ILB/OLB Brandon Copeland –No impact
- OLB/DE Dante Fowler – Possible LB3 in leagues emphasizing big plays
- OLB/DE Steven Means – Marginal value at best
- OLB Barkevious Mingo –No impact expected
- OLB Ade Ogundeji – Dynasty sleeper in big play formats
- OLB/DE Jacob Tuioti-Mariner – No impact expected
The Falcons are starting from scratch at the safety positions. Keanu Neal, Ricardo Allen, and Damontae Kazee are all wearing different uniforms in 2021 and even backup Sharrod Neasman was sent packing. The only returning member of last year’s squad is 2020 fourth-round pick Jaylinn Hawkins, who played 74 snaps as a rookie. The replacements include free-agent additions Eric Harris, Duron Harmon, and second-round pick Richie Grant. All four of these players offer some positional versatility so it is hard to say for certain how they will line up come week one.
This is what we do know; Harris saw action at both strong and free safety during his two-year stint as a starter for the Raiders. He was at his best in 2019 when he started 13 games at strong safety after Jonathan Abram was lost. That season Harris totaled 71 combined tackles, with 3 interceptions, 9 pass breakups, and a pair of scores. In 2020 Harris worked mostly at free safety, shifting to strong for the three games Abram missed. He missed three games and most of a fourth with minor injuries, finishing at 44-17-0 with a forced fumble and five pass breakups. Harris is adequate in coverage but at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, is better when working closer to the line in a run support role. He is a physical tackler that rarely misses in close quarters but is prone to whiff once in a while in the open field.
Harmon spent seven seasons with the Patriots where he worked as the third safety in most nickel situations but never held a full-time job. In 2020 he joined former Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia in Detroit. There, Harmon started at free safety and played full-time, but did not impress. He finished the year at 55-17-0 with zeros in all the big play columns despite playing over 1100 snaps.
Hawkins was not on the field much as a rookie so we have little to look at from last season. He entered college as a corner but moved to free safety early on. Hawkins did not make a lot of tackles for the Golden Bears but caught the eye of the Falcons' previous regime by putting up 13 turnovers over his final three seasons. Despite playing mostly at free safety in college, some pre-draft scouting report suggested Hawkins was a liability in coverage and best suited to work as a box safety at the pro level.
Rookie Richie Grant presents the whole spectrum of options. At 6’0” 197 pounds, he is on the small side for an NFL strong safety but is a physical tackler. Grant worked at both safety spots over his time at UCF but was at his best as the high safety where his coverage and ball-hawking skills were on display. Over three seasons as a starter for the Knights, he accumulated 258 combined tackles, 10 interceptions, 5 forced fumbles, 3 recoveries, 16 pass breakups, and a score.
IDP managers have gotten good production from the Falcons safety positions in recent years so knowing who to grab here could be important. The best thing that could happen for us would be Grant at the strong safety spot, but that seems unlikely. I expect to see Harris at strong and Grant at free with Harmon as the third man, though it would not be a surprise if Harmon gets the starting job over Harris. If that happens, look elsewhere for your safety help.
Fortunately, there is not as much guesswork at Atlanta’s corner positions. Last year’s 16th-overall pick A.J. Terrell was an immediate starter, recording the eighth-most solo tackles (62) among corners as a rookie. With four turnovers and seven passes defended added to his totals, Terrell was the number 15th-ranked corner. He has the potential to become one of the NFL's elites at the position, but if the rookie corner rule holds, which happens more often than not, his box score production will start to decline going forward. That said, until we see it, consider him a CB2. Corner is the most inconsistent position in the game on a year-to-year basis, but we have to start somewhere.
Isaiah Oliver started opposite Terrell last season and should continue at that spot. Kendall Sheffield and Darqueze Dennard shared time as the slot corner last season. Dennard is gone so unless rookies Darren Hall or Avery Williams make an early impression, Sheffield should have that job to himself. Oliver has 50 solo stops in each of the last two seasons but does not make enough splash plays to have value as more than a backup in deep drafted leagues.
- SS Eric Harris – Sleeper with DB3 potential
- FS Richie Grant – Anywhere between DB2 and DB4 depending on his role
- SS/FS Duron Harmon – Marginal IDP impact
- FS/SS Jaylinn Hawkins – No impact expected
- CB A.J. Terrell – Possible CB2
- CB Isaiah Oliver – Marginal value at best
- CB Kendall Sheffield – No impact
- CB Fabian Moreau – No impact
- CB Darren Hall – Injury sleeper, rookie corner rule
- CB Avery Williams – Drafted mostly as a kick returner
The Carolina defense racked up 53 sacks in 2019 but was otherwise a shambles. A coaching change and return to a 4-3 in 2020, along with the organization using all seven of their draft picks on defense, has them heading in the right direction but there is still work to do. Last year’s pass defense improved to eighth in yards per attempt and the Panthers produced a strong 22 turnovers, but the sack numbers plummeted to 29 and the run defense ranked 27th at 4.7 yards-per-carry. Thus, the organization continued the defensive emphasis this offseason committing four more draft picks and a lot of free agent capital on that side of the ball.
In all, the Panthers added seven defenders that will have a chance to either start or contribute significantly this year. Three of them are defensive linemen. Haason Reddick was arguably the best edge defender available in free agency. He is coming off what was by far the best year of his young career, but is he a good fit in this defense?
Reddick was horribly miscast as a rookie when the Cardinals tried to make him an inside linebacker. He was eventually moved back to the outside where he belonged but was relegated mostly to backup status. For a while the Cardinals coaching staff used Reddick like a utility man, plugging him in wherever and whenever someone was banged up. Over his first three years in the league, this former first-round pick totaled 117 tackles, 70 assists, 7.5 sacks, 4 turnovers, and 11 pass breakups. While those are not horrible numbers in general, they are not what teams expect from a linebacker taken 13th overall.
Reddick’s big break came last year when an early-season injury to Chandler Jones opened the door. As fate would have it, 2020 also happened to be the final year of Reddick’s rookie contract. Over the first six games, he averaged about 50% of the playing time, splitting snaps opposite Jones. Over the final ten games, he was an every-down edge defender. Once the season ended, the Cardinals were wishing they had extended Reddick when they had the chance. Since they did not, he was able to take his 12.5 sacks and 6 forced fumbles to the highest bidder, Carolina.
Three things make me a bit nervous about Reddick. He has only been highly productive for one season, which happened to be a contract year, he weighs less than 240 pounds, and last year’s success came as an outside linebacker in a 3-4. This first part can be explained by the lack of opportunity, but the other two remain realistic concerns. Reddick played some defensive end at Temple but that was a long time ago and in a different world. There is no doubt he can get after the passer, but how will he hold up versus the run and can he be as effective with his hand down? He was 43-20-12.5 last season, so the potential is there for 40 tackles and double-digit sacks, but I will believe it when it happens. He should still be productive but keep in mind that Julius Peppers was the last Carolina defensive end to put up that kind of production.
One point of optimism for Reddick is the production of Brian Burns in 2020. He was drafted 16th overall in 2019, to play linebacker in the previous regime’s 3-4. At 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, he is lanky, slight of frame, and built for speed off the edge. When the new coaching staff moved back to a 4-3 last summer, there were similar concerns about Burns’ ability to stand up versus the run. He served as a pass rush specialist as a rookie, working mostly in sub-package situations. That season Burns proved his ability to rush the passer with seven and a half sacks on about 45% of the snaps. He managed a respectable 27 combined tackles but did it from a two-point stance.
I admit to being among those that were somewhat pessimistic about his potential when Burns moved to a three-down role as a 4-3 end in his second season. He proved us all wrong. Burns fell short of the 40 solo tackle and 10 sack watermark, but his 35-24-8 with 3 forced fumbles and 4 batted passes were beyond expectations. They were also enough to make him a top-ten defensive lineman despite missing the final game of the season.
It seems the old target number of 40 solo tackles may be outdated in today’s NFL. Indeed, the only defensive lineman to reach that level last year was Washington’s, Jonathan Allen. Maybe that will prove to be a fluke, but it probably has much to do with the evolution of the league and defenses using more players in situation-based packages. Whatever the reason, the fact is, Burns’ 35 solo stops were the fifth most among linemen, and having Reddick on the other end can do nothing but help take the blocking scheme focus off him. Look for Burns to have another strong season and possibly break the double-digit sack mark in his third year. Target him as a low DL1 with a top-five upside.
Reddick was the biggest name but he was not the only important addition at the defensive end position. The Panthers also signed former Ram, Morgan Fox. He was never able to win a starting job over four seasons with Los Angeles, but Fox developed into a significant contributor. Last year he tallied 21-5-6 with a pair of turnovers on 403 snaps. At 6-foot-3 and 275 pounds, Fox is the biggest of Carolina’s defensive ends, which could mean a fair amount of early-down action, especially if Reddick struggles against the run. At worst, Fox will compete with second-year pro, Yetur Gross-Matos, for rotational snaps to spell the starters. He is unlikely to make a fantasy splash unless someone is hurt, but if he gets the opportunity, Fox could be highly productive.
Gross-Matos was a second-round selection last spring. He had a fairly significant role as a rookie, playing 377 snaps over 13 games. His production does not jump off the stat sheet at 9-15-2.5, but he has a good deal of long-term upside. He is bigger than both starters, does a good job of setting the edge versus the run, is a sound tackler, and can kick inside on passing downs if asked to do so. As a pass rusher Gross-Matos is tall at 6’5”, has a huge wingspan, and the extra gear to get around the corner. He was marginally productive last season but has a rather impressive college resume. As a two-year starter at Penn State, Gross-Matos recorded 64 tackles, 47 assists, 18.5 sacks, and 4 turnovers. With this player on the roster, it was a little surprising to see the organization bring in so many other guys. They have certainly not given up on the 23-year-old, but he might have to be patient for another year or two.
Tackle Kawann Short was part of the Panthers’ plans but he was not able to stay healthy, so the organization has moved on. They used the seventh overall pick last year on Derrick Brown who had a quiet rookie season. Playing time was not an issue as Brown was on the field for 742 plays, but his production was marginal. He finished the year with 34 combined tackles, 2 sacks, and 2 batted passes. Anyone looking for reasons to be optimistic might note that both sacks and both batted passes came over the final three games of last season.
Brown has gotten off to a slow start but his college production and pre-draft scouting reports are another reason for optimism. His skill set is much like that of a young Kawann Short. At 6-foot-5 and 326 pounds, Brown is a big, powerful, relentless anchor who does his best work versus the run. He is not an elite inside pass rush threat but can crush the pocket with his bull rush and is a disruptive penetrator regardless of the play call. As a three-year starter for Auburn, Brown tallied 89 tackles, 81 assists, 12.5 sacks, 5 forced fumbles, and 4 recoveries. He has shown us nothing to get excited about so far but the young man has a lot of football left to play. At age 23, Brown is just reaching his physical prime and with a year of experience under his belt, is poised for a possible break-out season. Slide him onto your sleeper list and pick him up as your second or third interior lineman. The minimal risk could pay dividends.
The Panthers have a trio of other young interior linemen in the development pipeline. Bravvion Roy was a sixth-round pick in 2020, and the team used fifth and seventh-round selections on Daviyon Nixon and Phil Hosking respectively this spring. With four first or second-year players filling the depth chart, Carolina needed both an immediate starter and some veteran leadership at the tackle positions. They got both with the signing of DaQuan Jones. He was never able to make much of an impact in the box scores, but Jones spent six seasons as a starter for the Titans. During that time he played tackles in 4-3 alignments as well as nose tackle and some defensive end in a 3-4 more recently. The best fantasy production of his career came last year when Jones was 30-17-2 and forced a fumble. He might provide a little value as a DT2 or depth in leagues with deep benches, but the upside is limited.
- DE Brian Burns – Strong DL1 with top-five potential
- DE Haason Reddick – Target as DL2 due to uncertainty
- DE Yetur Gross-Matos – Injury sleeper with dynasty potential
- DE Morgan Fox – Injury sleeper
- DT DaQuan Jones – Marginal value at best
- DT Derrick Brown – Boom or bust sleeper with breakout potential
- DT Bravvion Roy – No major impact expected
- DT Daviyon Nixon – Developmental player with no immediate impact
- DT Phil Hoskins – Developmental prospect
The biggest debate when it comes to Panthers linebackers is the positional designation of Jeremy Chinn. Some league host sites have him as a safety others as an outside linebacker. Even the Panthers have flip-flopped on this issue, listing Chinn as a linebacker on their website while referring to him as a safety in various conversations, statements, and interviews over the past year. Chinn opened 2020 lining up mostly at strong-side linebacker but as the season progressed, he began to move around. He recently said that there is no name for the hybrid position he plays and that he would continue to move all over the field.
The Panthers deployed three linebackers on about 64% of their defensive snaps last year, which was more than most teams. Tahir Whitehead lined up in the middle until he was replaced by Jermaine Carter around mid-season. Chinn and Shaq Thompson lined up on the outside, but not necessarily as strong and weak. At times they seemed to be playing as right and left, regardless of the offensive formation. When they did follow the formation, Thompson was on the weak side most often. In nickel sets, the middle backer went to the sideline leaving Chinn and Thompson as three-down backers. The only thing likely to change at the positions in 2021 is that free-agent addition Denzel Perryman could supplant Carter in the middle.
From the IDP perspective, Thompson was a bit of a disappointment last year, but far from a bust. He had been one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal 2019 for the Panthers’ defense. Despite missing the last two games that season, Thompson set a career-best of 75 solo tackles, with 33 assists, 3 sacks, 3 pass breakups, and the first top-30 ranking of his career. With the surprise retirement of Luke Kuechly, the expectations were high for Thompson in 2020. He managed another top-30 finish last season, moving up to 27th in the final rankings but the overall numbers for Thompson were nearly equal at 64-50-0 with 3 turnovers and 5 pass breakups. Instead, it was Chinn swooping in and stealing the fantasy limelight. There is no reason to expect much to be different in 2021. Consider Thompson a solid LB3 target with limited upside.
Chinn’s tackle totals were similar to those of Thompson at 69 solo and 49 assists, but big-play numbers pushed Chinn to a different level. Five turnovers, a sack, five pass breakups, and a pair of scores, made him the number 13 linebacker or number 4 defensive back depending on your perspective. We might give his tackle projections a slight boost since he missed a game but on the other side, defensive scores are not something we can count on. Those things are a wash but one area that might kick Chinn’s value up a notch is even more big plays. The comfort level that comes from a year of experience in the system could add to last year’s turnover and pass breakup totals in particular. Chinn broke up 33 passes over his college career and averaged nearly 7 turnovers a season. Target him as a strong LB2 with low LB1 potential, or as a top-five defensive back if you have that luxury.
Denzel Perryman might be an upgrade over Carter as middle linebacker but neither is likely to see much action in sub-package situations. Since the Panthers spend a fair amount of time in the base package with all three linebackers on the field, Perryman might have enough opportunities to provide useful depth. Anything more would be an unexpected bonus. He will have a few good games along the way but consistency is all but certain to be lacking.
If everyone stays healthy, the Panthers should be in good shape, but they will not be able to absorb many injuries without it having a considerable effect. Either Carter or Perryman will give them one solid backup, though it might require a position shuffle. Julian Stafford and Frankie Luvu are veterans that can stand in short term but are mostly special teams guys.
- WLB Shaq Thompson – Solid LB3 with limited upside
- SLB/SS Jeremy Chinn – Strong LB2 with big-play upside
- MLB Denzel Perryman – Marginal value
- MLB Jermaine Carter – Injury sleeper with limited potential
- SLB Frankie Luvu – No impact
- MLB Julian Stafford – No impact
Where Chinn lines up on any given play, will decide if the team is playing three linebackers or three safeties, but the personnel on the field will remain the same much of the time. One thing we can count on is that Justin Burris will be at one of the safety spots. Beyond that, everything is up in the air, including any potential fantasy value. Carolina was the third team for Burris in his first five seasons as a pro. The journeyman won the strong safety job last summer and seems to have gained the favor of the coaching staff going forward. He performed better on the field than in the box scores, which may have been a product of the system more than an indictment of Burris. Regardless of why, the point remains that he recorded 34 tackles, 19 assists, 1 interception, and 4 pass breakups in 13 games. With Tre Boston moving on, there is at least some chance that Burris will move to free safety, but considering there are no obvious candidates in line to claim the traditional strong safety spot, that seems unlikely. Wherever he ends up playing Burris is not someone to target for your roster until/unless he displays some value.
There are a few veteran free safeties still on the market, including Boston who might be a candidate to return at some point if the asking price becomes reasonable. Back in March, head coach Matt Rhule was asked about the safety situation. He said “I think we like the young group that’s in there. We think that they can develop. We like Myles Hartsfield, Sam Franklin. Kenny Robinson Jr is a guy we drafted last year; we thought had a good year as the year went on. So, I think between that group, we think there’s some young talent there that we’re going to have to get the most out of”. That sounds like a load of coach speak that can be translated into; we don’t know what we’re going to do but we are short on resources so we’ll have to make the best of the young guys we have and hope someone steps up.
Call it a gut feeling but the guy I like here is Robinson, who was a sixth-round pick last year. He picked off seven passes in two years at West Virginia before getting the boot due to academic violations. Rather than transferring to a different school, Robinson decided to play a year in the XFL where he added two more interceptions in five games. In short, he is a playmaker that is not afraid to lower his should and hit someone. His late-round draft status likely had more to do with circumstance than ability. Robinson has as good a shot as anyone else among the current group of safeties when it comes to winning the job, but even if he does, we should not expect it to translate to IDP value.
The Panthers played pretty solid pass defense last season, especially considering where they were at the position talent-wise. In 2018 second-round pick Dontae Jackson, they had one solid cornerstone to build on. He is not an elite, shutdown guy, but is a decent number one or quality number two corner. From the fantasy perspective, Jackson is the perfect example of the rookie corner rule. In his first season, Jackson racked up 62 solo stops, 10 assists, a sack, a forced fumble, 9 pass breakups, 4 interceptions, and was the IDP game’s number six corner. In year two Jackson’s tackle totals slipped to 32-8 in 12 games while the big play numbers were at a similar pace. Last season he slipped even further on the stat sheet, but in his defense, Jackson was banged up much of the season and played through some injuries that would have sidelined most players. Even if when he was healthy, the numbers were modest since opponents found the pickings easier elsewhere.
Journeyman Rasul Douglas started opposite Jackson last year with fourth-round rookie Troy Pride and career backup Corn Elder filling out the passing down sub-packages. Douglas had zero impact in the big play columns but did manage 50 solo stops and 12 assists over 13 games. This is worth mention not because Douglas is back, but because the team used their first-round pick on Jaycee Horn to replace him.
In Horn, the Panthers have their true number one and a potential elite shutdown corner. There are no limits to his coverage versatility. He is fluid and smart in zone coverage and has the size and physical nature to play press, with the speed to play bump and run. Horn was often called upon to travel with opponents' best receivers, which says a lot considering the SEC perennially has some of the best pass-catchers in the college game. in the game coverages and was often matched up with the opponent's top receivers over his three years at South Carolina.
The rookie corner rule could be in play with Horn but there are two points of concern in terms of fantasy potential. Despite his size, Horn’s effort in run support was inconsistent, leading to low tackle totals over three seasons with the Gamecocks, and there are questions about his ball skills. In 30 games as a starter, he intercepted two passes. The sheer volume of passes that will come his way, might force better numbers in both of those areas in 2021.
One of the reasons Carolina is hamstrung at safety is because they spent money to buy depth at the corner position. A.J. Bouye is a capable number two and Rashaan Melvin will provide much-needed veteran depth. Bouye should win the starting job as the slot corner with Melvin likely to be the dime back. If someone steps up at free safety, this group has the makings of a strong secondary.
- SS Juston Burris – No impact
- FS Kenny Robinson Jr – Deep sleeper to keep an eye on
- SS Lano Hill – Injury depth
- SS Sean Chandler – No impact expected
- SS Sam Franklin – Injury sleeper
- FS/CB Myles Hartsfield – No impact
- CB Donte Jackson – Marginal value expected
- CB Jaycee Horn – Rookie corner rule could be in full force
- CB Troy Pride – No impact expected
- CB A.J. Bouye – Injury sleeper with low CB2 ceiling
- CB Stanley Thomas-Oliver III – No impact
- CB Rashaan Melvin – No impact
New Orleans Saints
With Drew Brees at quarterback, the Saints have been an offensive juggernaut over the last 15 years. There have been some good defenses sprinkled in over that time as well, but few of them have been as strong as last year’s unit. The 2020 Saints were fourth versus the run at 3.9 yards-per-carry and sixth against the pass at 6.7 yards per attempt. Their 45 sacks ranked eighth and only two teams had more takeaways than their 26. So what did the organization do? They used their first three draft picks to add a player at all three levels of the defense.
New Orleans has one of the league’s great defensive ends in Cameron Jordan. He is a three-down player that is an outstanding edge setter versus the run, an exceptional pass rusher, and a leader both on the field and off. From an IDP perspective, Jordan has been among the top-20 at the position every year since becoming a starter in 2012, with a pair of top-five rankings over the last four seasons.
Jordan had a down year statistically in 2020. The 33 solo tackles were his fewest since 2015 and the 7.5 sacks equaled his fewest since 2012. All this means for us now, is that we might be able to get him a few picks later in 2021. Yes, he will be 32 in July, and yes his numbers were down. That will have a lot of IDP managers believing Jordan is a player in decline, but do not overlook the fact that he set a career-high mark with 15.5 sacks and was the fantasy game’s number three linemen in 2019. If there is a weakness in his overall production, it is mediocre turnover totals, where Jordan has not produced more than two in a season since 2015. On the other hand, he has 52 batted passes over his career with a career-best of 11 in 2017. He may fall a bit short of the elite tier but can still be counted on as a high floor DL1 or priority DL2 with top-ten potential.
The Saints will enter training camp with far less clarity at their other defensive end spot. With the selection of Marcus Davenport at 14 in the 2018 draft, the organization believed they would have one of the best defensive end tandems in the NFL for the next several years. Jordan continued to do his part, but Davenport has thus far, fallen well short. The Saints are not ready to throw in the towel and currently have Davenport penciled in as the starter. It is not hard to see where their optimism comes from.
In three years as a starter at the University of Texas San Antonio, Davenport accumulated 185 combined tackles, 21.5 sacks, 9 turnovers, and 8 batted passes. He managed four and a half sacks and forced a fumble on 417 snaps as a rookie in 2018, despite playing through a painful turf-toe injury for much of the season. In 2019, Davenport had 30 combined tackles, 6 sacks, and 3 forced fumbles on 547 plays before a foot injury ended his season early. In 2020, he missed the first four games with an elbow injury and was never able to reclaim the starting job from Trey Hendrickson, who led the team with 13.5 sacks.
Hendrickson cashed in on his great season and signed with the Bengals, giving Davenport another opportunity in what is probably a make-or-break year for his career as a Saint. From an IDP perspective, Davenport has a lot of potential if he can stay healthy. If you have room at the end of your roster, slip him on and see what happens. At the least, Davenport is a player we will want to track over the summer and into the early weeks of the season.
The loss of Hendrickson and uncertainty about Davenport surely played into the Saints’ decision to draft Payton Turner late in round one. Turner was a three-year starter for Houston. The experience is important, but it is the steady improvement over those three years that is most intriguing. As a junior in 2019, turner collected 33 combined tackles and 3.5 sacks in 12 games. As a senior last year, he was 17-8-5 with a forced fumble, in just five games. Turner was battling some nagging injuries so when he tested positive for COVID-19 in November, he elected to shut it down and opt-out.
At 6-foot-5 and 270 pounds, Turner has the size, play strength, and college film that suggest he can be a successful three-down end at the next level. As a run defender, he might already be NFL-ready. As a pass rusher, he has the quickness, agility, and athletic ability to get the job done, with room to improve in terms of technique and adding moves to his arsenal. He should earn at least rotational playing time right away and it would not be a surprise to see Turner in the starting lineup early on.
He has the most potential fantasy impact, but Turner was not the Saints’ only significant addition at the defensive end position. The team also added former Kansas City starter Tanoh Kpassagnon in free agency. Kpassagnon lacks the extra gear to excel as an outside pass rusher but was a good edge setter for the Chiefs against the run. At 6’7” 289 pounds, he could be a good fit playing outside on early downs and moving inside in passing situations. He will likely be a spot/rotational contributor for the Saints, with little or no fantasy value.
New Orleans lost a pair of tackles to free agency this offseason. Malcom Brown signed with Jacksonville and Sheldon Rankins went to the Jets. David Onyemata was drafted in the fourth round in 2016, 108 picks later than Rankins. Yet it is Onyemata that has emerged as the team’s best interior lineman over the last four seasons. He is stout as a point of attack defender versus the run, gets off block well to make plays, and has been a steady contributor to the pass rush. Onyemata collected 16.5 sacks over the last four seasons, with a career-high of 6.5 in 2020. As is often the case with interior linemen, his tackle totals are not eye-catching, but Onyemata averages 21 solo and 17 assists as a starter. At 20-24-6.5 with a turnover and a pair of passes defended, he was the fantasy game’s number 12 tackle last year. That is probably the ceiling for Onyemata, who is a safe target as a late-round DT2.
Third-year pro, Shy Tuttle and second-year man Malcolm Roach are the leading candidates for the other tackle spot. Both are former undrafted free agents that have made the best of their limited opportunities with the team. On 637 snaps over the last two seasons, Tuttle is 25-22-2.5 with 9 batted passes and a takeaway. He is no threat to post big numbers, but if he gets the majority of the playing time next to Onyemata as expected, Tuttle might provide useful numbers as a low-end DT2 or depth at a position that is traditionally thin beyond the first 12 or so.
Ryan Glasgow and Christian Ringo fill out the depth chart at the tackle position. New Orleans tends to rotate a lot of players along the line, so they should contribute a few plays per game and provide solid veteran depth for their team, but they will not hold any value for ours.
- DE Cameron Jordan – Quality DL1
- DE Marcus Davenport – Watch list player with DL2 potential if he can stay healthy
- DE Payton Turner – Sleeper/dynasty target with considerable long term potential
- DE Tanoh Kpassagnon – Marginal impact expected
- DE Carl Granderson – Injury sleeper at best
- DE Noah Spence – Roster bubble player
- DT David Onyemata – Solid DT2
- DT Shy Tuttle – Deep sleeper with low DT2 ceiling
- DT Malcolm Roach – No significant impact expected
- DT Ryan Glasgow – No impact
- DT Christian Ringo – No impact
To say the Saints are thin at linebacker, would be an understatement. The only proven veteran currently on the roster is Demario Davis, who is one of the more versatile yet underrated linebackers in the league. He was a third-round pick of the Jets in 2012 and has been a starter since 2013. Over the course of five seasons with New York, one in Cleveland, and now three with the Saints, Davis has played on the weak-side and in the middle in 4-3 schemes, as well as inside in a 3-4. He is a smart, savvy player with enough speed, athleticism, and cover skills to play on all three downs, is accomplished as a pass rusher with 26.5 career sacks, and is a sound, physical tackler with good instincts versus the run.
Davis’ most statistically productive season came in 2017 when he finished at 97-36-4.5, with a fumble recovery and 3 passes defended. That year he was the number eight linebacker. His second-best statistical season came in 2019 as the Saints’ middle linebacker when Davis finished at 87-25-4 with a pick and a career-high 12 passes defended.
In 2020 the Saints used a big-nickel as their base defense, deploying three linebackers less than 30% of the time. When they did so, Davis lined up on the weak side most of the time. It is hard to say how much the position swap is to blame, but his production dipped to 74-44-4 with 5 pass breakups and for the first time in his career, Davis failed to record a turnover. Even so, he was a solid LB2, ranking number 20 overall at the position. His tackle totals might rebound a bit this year but with 11 total turnovers in nine seasons as a pro, LB2 is his ceiling.
After Davis, last year’s third-round pick Zach Baun is the team’s most experienced linebacker with 84 snaps as a pro. Rookie second-round pick Pete Werner is the guy most people expect to have a significant role next to Davis. Werner was a three-year starter at Ohio State and is as pro-ready as a linebacker can be coming out of college. He is a physical tackler that is tough versus the run, with enough speed and coverage ability to stay on the field in sub-packages. That said, the coaching staff will have to protect him in some coverage situations.
Werner has the potential to become an instant fantasy factor, but there are some red flags. His box score production with the Buckeyes was less than stellar. In 34 games over three years as a starter, Werner averaged three tackles and two assists. He broke up nine passes, recorded three sacks, and forced two fumbles as a sophomore in 2018, but recorded one sack, four passes defended, and two forced fumbles in 22 games over the last two years.
College production is something to look at but is not necessarily a defining factor. What concerns me most with Warner, is the Saints defensive scheme. They love the big nickel as a base defense, with Davis and safety, Chauncy Gardner-Johnson as linebackers. Davis saw action on 1032 snaps in 2020. Alex Anzelone had the next highest count among the team’s linebackers at 525, while the rest of their linebackers combined for 460. Meanwhile, Gardner-Johnson played 861 snaps as the third safety. Werner may be better in coverage than Anzalone, so there is some chance he will see sub-package snaps, but I would feel a lot better about that possibility if the defense had not been as successful. As the old cliché’ goes, if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.
The best of the rest on the New Orleans depth chart consists of Baun, second-year undrafted free agent Kaden Ellis, and Chase Hansen who has been on and off the team’s practice squad over the last couple of seasons. Hansen is currently penciled in as the strong-side linebacker for what that is worth. There is some speculation the team might bring back Kwon Alexander but they are more likely to sign someone else as veteran depth if they are looking for help. Alexander has not been the same since the major knee injury in 2017.
- MLB/WLB Demario Davis – Steady LB2 with limited upside
- SLB/WLB Pete Werner – Good potential but there are red flags
- WLB/MLB Zack Baun – No impact expected
- WLB/SLB Kaden Ellis – Special teams guy
- WLB Chase Hansen – No impact
There are no mysteries to be solved at the safety positions in New Orleans. We know who the characters are, what their roles will be, and even have a secure idea of where the fantasy value will be. The Saints gave us the top-scoring safety in 2019 when Vonn Bell broke out. When he signed with Cincinnati, New Orleans replaced him with a familiar face in Malcolm Jenkins.
In his first stint with the team from 2009 to 2013, Jenkins lined up mostly at free safety. He never posted big tackle totals in that role, generally finishing in, or on pace for the low 60s in solo stops, but he did account for 15 turnovers and three scores over those five seasons. When Jenkins signed with the Eagles, however, things changed and we learned he was more than capable of both lining up at strong safety and making a lot of tackles from that position.
As a strong safety for the Eagles in 2015, Jenkins was the fantasy game’s number four defensive back on the strength of 87 tackles, 18 assists, 6 turnovers, 10 passes defended, and a score. That remains his best fantasy season but he visited the top ten again while in Philadelphia in 2018 and was back there last year with the Saints. In four seasons as a strong safety, Jenkins has averaged 75-19-2, 5 turnovers, and 8 passes defended. He is 33 years old but has thus far shown no sign of slowing down. He is not an elite tier defensive back but can be counted on as a priority DB2 that you never have to think twice about starting.
Marcus Williams is locked in at the Saints’ free safety spot. As a rookie in 2017, he posted respectable tackle totals and intercepted four passes. His splash-play numbers have remained consistent but Williams has seen a steady decline in tackle production, all the way down to 42 solo and 20 assists in 2020. He is a good fit as a deep safety that can cover a lot of ground and make plays in the passing game, but Williams is not in an IDP-friendly situation.
Before the team signed Jenkins last offseason, there was hope among IDP dynasty managers that Chauncy Gardner-Johnson would assume the role vacated by Bell. There is little doubt that he could handle the job if called upon and be highly productive at it. Jenkins is signed through the 2023 season so both Gardner-Johnson and IDP managers will have to be patient.
For now, the coaching staff loves the skill set he brings to the role of third safety/nickel linebacker. Gardner-Johnson hits like a strong safety, with size to cover tight ends and running backs, and the speed and cover skills of a corner. He did not play much until week seven of his rookie campaign but once he got on the field Gardner-Johnson proved that he belonged. He was in the game for nearly 83% of the snaps in 2020, which was enough to give him more IDP value than expected. He finished at 52-14-1 with a pick and 13 passes defended in 15 games. The issue was a lack of consistency. Gardner-Johnson scored at least eight fantasy points in half of the games, reaching double digits six times, but also had four games with three or fewer. He is a talented player with a bright future and will eventually be an outstanding IDP prospect, but barring an injury ahead of him, that is at least a year away.
When the Saints used the 11th-overall pick on Marshon Lattimore in 2017, they got an outstanding number one corner. Lattimore can match up with the opponent's top receivers all over the field, play zone, or handle any other coverage responsibility that is thrown at him. He is a cornerstone for the New Orleans defense and likely will be for years to come.
From an IDP perspective, Lattimore is another great example of the rookie corner rule at work. In 2017 he missed three games, but was on pace for 66 combined tackles, 21 passed defended, and 7 turnovers. In year two the tackle totals and pass breakups slipped a little, but he racked up 10 turnovers. In 2019, opponents simply avoided him most of the time, causing Lattimore’s numbers to slump considerably. The addition of Janoris Jenkins at the other corner spot last year forced opposing offenses to be a little more honest causing Lattimore’s numbers to bounce back enough to make him a good by-week fill-in. Unfortunately, Jenkins was on a one-year deal and is no longer there, which means teams will probably go back to picking on whoever is playing opposite Lattimore.
We are not going to get much from Lattimore, but the situation gives us another target. Put yourself in the shoes of a quarterback or offensive coordinator. You have the choice of going after Lattimore, who is one of the game's elite corners, or rookie third-round pick Paulson Adebo. Where are you throwing the ball?
Adebo is not a lock to start immediately, but he is expected to. He is a tall, lanky playmaker that still has a lot to learn about playing corner when it comes to refining the mechanics of the position, but offers the versatility to play press or zone with equal effectiveness. He is more of a ballhawk than a shutdown cover man, with his size and ball skills giving him an advantage when the ball is in the air.
Adebo opted out last season so his career at Stanford was limited to 22 games. That was enough to get him noticed, but if he had played in 2020, Adebo might have been picked much earlier. As it is, his numbers are excellent at 97 combined tackles, 8 interceptions, a forced fumble, and an impressive 27 passes defended. This situation might be the perfect storm and is enough to make Adebo the top rookie prospect on my list at the position.
After Adebo, the Saints have familiar faces in Partick Robinson, P.J. Williams, and Ken Crawley to fill out the depth chart at the position. Williams worked as the third corner last season but Robinson has been in that role in recent years as well. All three have been starters for the Saints at some point and all of these guys are solid veterans with the ability to fill in as needed, but there is not much upside on the field with any of them and no IDP value in the box scores.
- SS Malcolm Jenkins – Low-end DB1 or priority DB2
- FS Marcus Williams – marginal value at best
- SS/NLB Chauncy Gardner-Johnson – DB4 with tons of long term potential
- FS Eric Burrell – No impact expected
- FS T.J. Gray – No impact expected
- CB Marshon Lattimore – CB3 at best
- CB Paulson Adebo – Rookie corner rule with big potential
- CB Patrick Robinson – No impact
- CB P.J. Williams – No impact
- CB Ken Crawley – No impact
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tom Brady may have led the Buccaneers to a Super Bowl title but he sure had a lot of help from the defense. This unit was best in the league versus the run at 3.6 yards-per-carry, eleventh against the pass, had the fourth-most sacks at 48, and ranked fifth with 25 takeaways. Just as impressive as their play is the fact everyone is back for another run at it. Teams that win Super Bowls are always picked apart by other teams in free agency but the Buccaneers somehow managed to re-sign everyone. As if that were not enough, Tampa Bay will also get stud nose tackle Vita Vea back from injury.
As is often the case with great 3-4 defenses, the Buccaneers' front-three is the foundation but they do not get the glory that comes with flashy statistical production. This is not to suggest there is no IDP value to be found here, but there are limitations. Ndamukong Suh has been in the league since 2010 and is 34 years old, but he can still be a dominating force when motivated. He was certainly motivated last season and with a good shot at another ring, likely will be again.
Suh finished 2020 with 28 tackles, 16 assists, 6 sacks, a forced fumble, and two batted passes. These were not the best numbers of his career, but the six sacks were his highest total since 2015 and his nine tackles for loss equaled Suh’s best since 2016. Earlier in his career, Suh put together a string of four campaigns with at least 36 solo tackles and 5 sacks. That streak ended in 2016 and he has reached 30 tackles one time since.
There was a time when Suh had a good IDP value regardless of positional designation. At this stage of his career, the position has become more important for fantasy managers. He is a defensive end in the Buccaneers 3-4 base defense, yet some league host sites still have him as a tackle. This is a recurring theme among Tampa Bay’s front seven. In Suh’s case, his value is significantly greater as a tackle where he finished among the top ten last season. That is a stark contrast to those leagues that consider Suh a defensive end where he ranked 23rd, or leagues that lump the defensive line positions together, where he was outside the first 30. Suh will be 35 at the end of this season and is past his prime physically, yet for managers that can play him as an interior lineman, he continues to be a quality every week start.
For much of his eight seasons with the Buccaneers, Williams Gholston was a serviceable starter as a 4-3 defensive end, that would reduce inside or leave the field on passing downs. He was a strong edge setter against the run but never managed more than three and a half sacks in a season. When the team moved to the 3-4, Gholston found his fit as a defensive end. The strength of his game as a run defender that can make a little contribution to the pass rush once in a while merges well with his current responsibilities, but it has not spurred Gholston on to greater box score production.
The sleeper here for those in tackle-required leagues is Vita Vea. The 347-pound space-eating nose tackle was the 12th-overall pick in 2018. He is a nearly immovable object at the center of the Buccaneers run defense, with a bull rush that will collapse the pocket and enough athleticism to make plays despite being double-teamed on virtually every snap. As a rookie, he totaled 29 combined tackles and 3 sacks in 13 games. Vea’s numbers slipped a bit in 2019 but he was 5-3-2 over three games last season and showed signs of a possible breakout before landing on IR with an ankle injury ahead of week six. He may never transcend positional designations, but may yet become a solid starting tackle for IDP managers.
When Vea was lost last year, the Buccaneers traded for Steve McLendon to cover the position. Mclendon offers little in fantasy terms but has the versatility and experience to provide quality depth at all three defensive line positions.
- DE/NT Ndamukong Suh – Solid DT1 or decent DL3 depending on the format
- DE William Gholston – Marginal value with no upside
- DE Jeremiah Ledbetter – No impact expected
- DE Khalil Davis –No impact
- NT Vita Vea – Possible DT2
- NT/DE Steve McLendon – No impact
- NT/DE Rakeem Nunez-Roches - No impact
Tampa Bay might have the best quartet at linebacker, of any 3-4 defense in the league right now. There is no doubt they have the most IDP-friendly group. The Buccaneers are among an exclusive few teams that can boast four outstanding linebackers with IDP value in some context. Two of them exceeded 80 solo tackles, three of them recorded at least eight sacks, between them, they accounted for 18 turnovers and 20 passes defended, and three of them averaged more than 11 fantasy points.
When teams have so many good players, the competition to make plays usually holds all of them back a bit in terms of box score production. Despite working beside Lavonte David, Jason Pierre-Paul, Shaq Barrett, and in front of Antonio Winfield Jr, and Jordan Whitehead, Devin White was the fantasy game’s number one defensive player overall in 2020. He finished the season third among linebackers with 97 solo stops and led all inside linebackers with 9 sacks. White added 43 assists, 4 pass breakups, and a pair of turnovers for an average of 14.83 points per game. Maybe the most telling statistic that shows how dominant White was, he led all defenders in total points with 222.45, and he did it in 15 games.
White has everything going for him. Good size at 237 pounds, the speed and cover skills of a safety, with the physicality and mental approach of an old-school linebacker. He can cover or blitz with equal effectiveness, rarely misses a tackle or makes a mental blunder, and even has an outstanding defensive line keeping blockers from getting in the way. All of that and he just turned 23 in February. Indeed, the only defender on the elite first tier with White is the Colts Darius Leonard with an average of 14.45 points per game last season. The next linebacker on the list in 2020, averaged over a point per game less. When it comes to that stage in the draft where it is time to break the seal on defenders, White should be the first one off the board. You might even want to make that move a round early just to make sure you get him.
There was a time not so long ago when Lavonte David was the fantasy game’s elite, tier-of-his-own linebacker. He topped 100 solo stops three times in nine seasons, and as recently as 2018, was the fantasy game’s number four linebacker, going at 94-24-3.5 with 3 turnovers and the second-highest points-per-game average over 14 contests. Much like White, David has the complete, do anything package with size, speed, range, cover skills, football IQ, etc.
The arrival of White and switch to a 3-4 scheme had some effect on David but calling him the Robin to White’s Batman is not such a good analogy. Rather the two are like Superman and Batman with each taking different paths to the same end. Instead of getting there with massive tackle numbers, David has become the playmaker. He still puts up strong tackle totals, with 83 solos in 2019 and 81 last season, but has also contributed 11 turnovers, 2.5 sacks, and a dozen passes defended to make his way into the top-ten in each of those years. He may have slipped below the elite tier-one guys, but David remains a consistent and dependable, top-sheld LB1.
Both White and David put enough marks in the splash-play columns to transcend scoring formats and have considerable value in all leagues from tackle heavy to big-play based. As an outside linebacker, Jason Pierre-Paul is short in the tackle columns but makes enough game-changing plays to have good value in both big-play and balanced formats. Pierre-Paul once racked up 67 solo stops in a season, but that was a long time ago (2011). Last year he finished with 34 solo stops, which was a career-low for him in years that he missed no games, and 21 assists. He made up a lot of ground with a solid 9.5 sacks, career-marks in forced fumbles with 4, recoveries with 2, and interceptions with 2. The six pass breakups equaled the second-highest total of his career. With at least one sack and/or turnover in ten games, Pierre-Paul averaged better than 11 points per game, reaching double-digits 11 times. A wise manager will expect him to swap a few tackles for turnovers in 2021, but Pierre-Paul should continue to be an elite LB1 in big-play formats and a good LB3 in balanced leagues.
After totaling 14.5 sacks over four years with Denver, Shaquil Barrett shocked the NFL with a league-high 19 in his first season with the Buccaneers two years ago. The problem with a season like that is, there is nowhere to go but down. Opponents have the film to study and offensive coordinators will game plan to slow a player down. The result was nearly identical tackle totals of 43-14 in 2020, with fewer than half the sacks at 8. This is where having two outstanding edge defenders makes a big difference. Offenses concentrating on Barrett opened the door for Pierre-Paul’s great season. So when opponents watch game film this year, they will have to be more honest with the blocking schemes. I expect Barrett to rebound in the sack and forced fumble columns in 2021. Not to his 2019 levels, but a dozen sacks and 4-5 turnovers to go with 55 or so combined tackles, are realistic expectations.
Pierre-Paul is 32 years old and in the final year of his contract, so it made sense for the Buccaneers to take edge defender Joe Tryon with their first-round pick. Tryon only played two seasons at Washington, opted out in 2020 then declared for the draft after what would have been his junior season. Thus he is short on experience and a little raw. In his only season as a starter for the Huskies, he finished with solid a stat line of 27-14-8 over 13 games. Tryon should replace Anthony Nelson as the third man in the edge rotation while he is getting coached up this season. The expectation is that he will be ready to start in 2022 when/if Pierre-Paul
Nelson and Kevin Minter were the team’s top backups in 2020. The addition of Tryon likely means that Nelson will be relegated to scraps this season, but he is a serviceable backup if needed. Minter could also feel some heat from the rookie class. Tampa Bay used a fifth-round pick on K.J. Britt and a seventh on Grant Stuard. Both players have a similar skill set to that of Minter. They are strong, aggressive run defenders with good energy, but are liabilities in coverage. This makes them the perfect guys to contribute on special teams, and they are less expensive than Minter, which could be a bad sign for the veteran.
- ILB Devin White – Should be the first or second defensive player off the board
- ILB Lavonte David – Low-end LB1 that might be available after the first 12 linebackers are gone
- ILB Kevin Minter – Injury sleeper with limited upside
- ILB K.J. Britt – Developmental prospect and special teams guy
- OLB Shaq Barrett – Low-end LB2 or quality LB3 in big-play formats
- OLB Jason Pierre-Paul – Solid LB1 in big-play based leagues, good LB3 in balanced scoring systems
- OLB Joe Tryon – Dynasty target with high long-term ceiling
- OLB Anthony Nelson – No impact
Tampa Bay ranked 21st in passing yards allowed last season, but that number is a bit skewed. With the best run defense in the league and an offense that scored plenty of points, this unit faced the fourth-most pass attempts in 2020. Thus a better measure of their success would be yards per attempt, where the Buccaneers ranked a solid eleventh. The scary part for their opponents is that while the team has some age issues on the horizon in other areas, this secondary is probably the youngest in the league top-to-bottom. All five starters were drafted by the team over the last three years, and none are older than 24. With both talent and youth on their side, look for this secondary to be even better going forward.
Glancing at the individual production of this group from last year, we see that all five starters recorded at least 51 solo tackles, but none had more than 64. Those numbers are rather mediocre but there is more to the story if we look closer.
Last year’s second-round pick, Antonio Winfield Jr., is the top IDP prospect of this group. The Buccaneers were looking for playmakers and got one with this young man. His skill set is a perfect match for the scheme in that it allows defensive coordinator Todd Bowles to be creative. Winfield is fast, instinctive, tough, physical, and smart. He reacts quickly, is good at navigating through traffic, and makes a lot of tackles in run support, but it was his knack for making game-changing plays that got him noticed by the Buccaneers. In his final season at Minnesota, Winfield recorded 83 combined tackles, 3 sacks, 7 interceptions, and a pair of forced fumbles.
As a rookie, Winfield led the Tampa Bay secondary in tackles with 64, assists with 30, and fantasy points at 155. He edged into the DB2 conversation with a lot of his value coming in the splash play columns where he totaled three sacks, four turnovers, and six passes defended. The one issue with Winfield in terms of IDP value was week-to-week consistency. He scored at least nine points in half of last year’s games, exceeding 20 in two of them, but would vanish once in a while, totaling fewer than four points in three contests. Winfield ranked a respectable 21st at the end of last season, but at age 22, his most productive years are yet to come.
When Jordan Whitehead became a starter as a rookie in 2018, the organization thought they had a long-term answer at strong safety. He was not able to take the bull by the horns, having a solid but rather quiet year two. With the addition of Winfield, defensive coordinator Todd Bowles decided to give Whitehead a look at free safety, where he found a home. Bowles wanted a playmaker at the position. Whitehead was not that guy in 2019, but he has performed well in the deep, safety net role where he is called upon to clean up the mistakes of others and make open-field tackles. As a bonus, the shift seemed to awaken the playmaker in Whitehead as well. He went from two takeaways in 2019, to four in 2020, adding a pair of sacks for good measure. Working in the deep/free safety role will likely keep Whitehead’s tackle totals in the range of 52 solo and 20 assists, as they have been in each of the last two campaigns, but the uptick in other columns are enough to give him some value as a bye week spot play in deeper leagues.
Winfield is the IDP headliner in Tampa Bay’s secondary, but he is not the only target for us, especially for managers in corner-required leagues. Carlton Davis finished the 2020 season as the ninth-ranked corner and number 33 defensive back. His line of 51-17-0 with 4 picks and 18 passes defended was rock solid for a corner, particularly when you consider he missed a pair of games. When we look from the perspective of points per game, Davis remains at nine among corners but jumps into the DB2 conversation with his 10.37 squeezing into the top-20 among all defensive backs.
We get a lot of one-year-wonders at the corner positions, so the biggest concern with players coming of such a season is their potential to repeat. If we look back at his production from 2019, we see that last year was a virtual repeat for Davis. He missed a pair of games in 2019 as well, but still managed to go 54-6-0 with 3 turnovers, 19 passes defended, and an average of over 9 points per game. Perennial top-12 corners are a rare find but as we like to say here at Footballguys, twice in a row is a trend.
Eight games into his rookie season in 2019, Sean Murphy-Bunting moved into the starting spot opposite Davis. There were the customary growing pains of a young corner, but the experience paid dividends last year. The Buccaneers like to be aggressive with their corners, having them play press coverage and disrupt receivers before they can get into their routs. With the corners up, they tend to get more involved in run support, which is a considerable factor in all three of the Buccaneers starters exceeding 50 solo stops. Less than half a point separated Murphy-Bunting and slot corner Jamel Dean in 2020, with the pair ranking 31 and 30 respectively among corners. Both have the potential to put more marks in the big-play columns in 2021 and move up the list, but neither should be targeted as more than depth right now.
Safety Mike Edwards provides quality depth at safety, with the versatility to line up at either spot. The 2019 third-round pick has not yet had an opportunity to break into the starting lineup but has seen enough time as the third safety for the coaching staff to feel comfortable if he has to play. The Buccaneers brought in Raven Greene to provide further depth at safety, but he is expected to earn a paycheck on special teams for the most part.
Veteran Ross Cockrell gives the team a quality option to fall back on if any of the starting corners are lost. Cockrell has starting experience with both the Steelers and Panthers. He should see action in some passing down sub-packages, but is not a threat to make an impact in the box scores.
- SS Antoine Winfield – DB2 with top-12 upside
- FS Jordan Whitehead – Marginal value in the current situation
- FS Raven Greene – Special teams contributor
- FS Mike Edwards – Injury sleeper
- CB Carlton Davis – Solid CB1 with top-five potential
- CB Sean Murphy-Bunting – Decent CB3 with a little upside
- CB Jamel Dean – Low end CB3
- CB Ross Cockrell – No impact expected
- CB Chris Wilcox – Developmental rookie
That is going to do it for the NFC South; next up the AFC South.