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Reading the Defense is a famous column title in IDP fantasy football. Long-time Footballguys writer Jene Bramel reported player utilization and communicated how it impacted players’ performance for fantasy football. Bramel further addressed what league-wide trends portended for the unfolding season and beyond.
Your writer, new to staff at Footballguys, is honored and humbled by the opportunity to carry the mantle of Reading the Defense. The 2022 season is my fourth writing about individual defensive players in fantasy football. I’ve been playing versions of fantasy football since the late 1980s. I grew up primarily playing defense and have always valued that aspect of all team sports more than most as a fan. My fantasy football content before arriving at Footballguys has focused foremost on defensive scheme changes and the impacts on player productivity I expect as a result.
In years past, the most notable impact of a scheme change was to alter the position designation of pass rushers on the edges of the defense. Defensive ends became outside linebackers and vice versa.
In 2022, every team runs hybrid or at least multiple fronts that render the distinction between defensive end and outside linebacker insignificant. Differences in defensive aggressiveness and similarities within position groups have more subtle but still significant impacts on tackle accumulation and the likelihood of big plays.
The Decline of the Off-Ball Linebacker
Jenel Bramel often visited the topic of defensive sub-packages and reduced roles of linebackers across the NFL. The website FootballOutsiders.com publishes an annual review of defensive personnel package deployment. Its findings for 2021 indicate that fully three-quarters of defensive snaps omitted a third off-ball linebacker once considered standard (base 4-3 defense). However, the trend toward additional defensive backs abated somewhat from 2020 to 2021.
Fantasy writers and fans alike debated on social media whether several young linebackers would ascend to full-time roles in 2022. Also in this context, a quarter of the NFL’s defensive-coordinator positions turned over, per usual, leading to questions about increased or decreased linebacker deployment.
Proponents of these youngsters are emboldened if not celebrating after Week 1 of the 2022 NFL season.
Nick Bolton, Kansas City
No linebacker played full-time for Kansas City in 2020 or 2021 in part because the Chiefs have been among league leaders in three-safety sets. Additionally, a coverage specialist typically played middle linebacker in dime sub-packages.
A popular platitude in fantasy football is that certain coaches like to rotate players. This lazy analysis neglecting the rationale behind a rotation precludes fantasy gamers from capitalizing on emerging young talent. The Chiefs’ 2021 second-round pick from the University of Missouri, Nick Bolton flashed as a rookie, making incumbent veteran middle linebackers Anthony Hitchens and Ben Niemann expendable. Bolton earned the responsibility of calling plays during the summer. After the preseason, the team cut Jermaine Carter, who looked like a candidate to succeed Niemann and replace Bolton in certain dime sub-packages.
Nick Bolton collected 10 tackles (including one for loss) in 50 of an available 50 snaps playing full-time with Kansas City’s first-string defense. The Chiefs routed the Cardinals, enabling them to pull Bolton and other starters like safeties Justin Reid and Juan Thornhill late in the game. Pro Football Focus gave Bolton a grade of 87.4, the second highest among NFL linebackers in Week 1.
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