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Footballguy Sigmund Bloom often opines that there is no longer an information advantage in fantasy football. Increased media coverage of the NFL scouting combine, breaking news on social media, and advanced analytics are all equalizers in fantasy football.
Coverage of skill-position players is a daily exercise. NFL defenses, however, do not enjoy the same limelight. Offense is to the big city what defense is to the small town.
News of defenders travels more slowly and is less sensationalized. IDP fantasy gamers find themselves unaware of important changes to player values hiding in plain sight.
Fantasy gamers drafted perennial DB1 Jordan Poyer with confidence last summer, only to be disappointed. He played deep too often to compile tackles. A year ago, Josey Jewell, Jordan Hicks, and Frankie Luvu were afterthoughts at best. Each finished among fantasy football's top 24 linebackers.
Clues foreshadowing these revelations exist. This series interprets changes in rosters, player contracts, personnel groupings at organized team activities (OTAs), and insights new coordinators will offer into defensive philosophy. The goal is to read a new defense and anticipate fluctuations in IDP fantasy values.
Bloom also speaks of talent, situation, and opportunity as the three legs of a tripod that supports fantasy value. Defensive position changes are so impactful to fantasy value that they constitute a fourth leg.
Dynasty gamers are accustomed to premier pass rushers changing from defensive end to linebacker simply because a new defensive coordinator takes charge. Awareness of which coordinators install 4-3 architecture versus 3-4 architecture is critical to spring trading in IDP dynasty leagues.
Off-ball linebackers, whose primary duties are tackling running backs and covering pass-catchers in shallow areas of the field, have long been the top fantasy-point scorers among defenders. Good pass rushers rarely compete with linebackers' productivity unless quarterback sacks are weighted very highly in fantasy league scoring systems.
Until recently, astute fans of NFL defenses immediately knew which teams were subject to change from 4-3 to 3-4 and vice versa based on the coordinator hire. The architecture of each defensive format, however, has been converging for decades. Tom Landry's 4-3 Flex is extinct, and Bill Parcells's 3-4 has evolved. No team asks three linemen to two-gap across its defensive front. Every team used multiple fronts in 2022. Many use hybrid fronts.
The Raiders hired Patrick Graham to lead its defense in 2022. His history had been to install heavy doses of odd fronts as a play-caller. He had learned hybrid and even fronts while in New England under Bill Belichick.
Media pressed Graham to address whether he would change the Raiders' defense from a 4-3 to a 3-4. He refused to answer, explaining that the game revolves around nickel sub-packages, typically with four-man fronts. Star defensive end Maxx Crosby's role didn't change. Some fantasy football platforms left Crosby's position designation as it was in 2021 – defensive end.
Consistently applying the DE designation to pass rushers who routinely play on the edge in sub-packages is a component of True Position designation. (Read more here about true-position designations.) Fantasy gamers playing in leagues with this approach need no longer worry about defensive scheme changes' single biggest impact on fantasy value.
Contrasts in defensive fronts continue to affect the fantasy values of linemen and linebackers more subtly. This article considers how incoming defensive coordinator Sean Desai will deploy an assortment of productive veterans and exciting rookies in the 2023 Eagles' defense.
Desai's one year of experience coordinating a defense occurred in 2021 in Chicago. A self-proclaimed fan of Desai on Twitter, @TheHonestNFL, displays a variety of the defensive fronts he expects Philadelphia to show under Desai's direction in 2023 in this thread.
Some examples of the fronts Desai used in Chicago that will be carried over to the Eagles. They’ll look quite similar in spacing to last year, but I think the mechanics will work better on early downs. pic.twitter.com/VvpgBhzXI6— Honest NFL (@TheHonestNFL) April 5, 2023
Eagles Edge Rushers
Haason Reddick posted a double-digit sack total for the third consecutive season, each for a different team. Reddick might have finally convinced a franchise and fantasy gamers alike that he's a good player. He was 2022's third-leading edge rusher in Footballguys scoring.
Reddick was classified as a linebacker on this site last season. He returns to Philadelphia in 2023 and remains an outside linebacker in the nomenclature of Sean Desai's defense. His role will be substantially similar this season as it was in 2022. His coverage responsibilities will constitute less than ten percent of his snaps. Coming off a 16.0-sack season, he's a good bet to repeat as a DE1 in 2023.
Josh Sweat was a star for the Eagles and a fantasy football sleeper that awoke in 2022. He collected 11.0 sacks and ranked 25th on a list of fantasy-scoring defensive linemen (including all edge and interior defenders). He is an outside linebacker in the nomenclature of Desai's defense and should see his position designation change on some fantasy football platforms.
The Eagles selected Nolan Smith 30th overall in April. He profiles as a reserve rotational piece that's at least a year away from fantasy relevance.
A notable difference that remains between 4-3 and 3-4 defenses is the most common posture of interior defenders. 4-3 defenses commonly, with exceptions, show aggressive stances in which the defenders attack upfield. The interior defenders in a defense built on 3-4 architecture more typically align square to the line of scrimmage.
I like the mechanics Desai used in his Nickel fronts in Chicago. I think Jordan Davis can & will be used in it just like Hicks is here, and he can really excel there. He’s an exceptional RA defender. This is the primary front Fangio and Desai use from Nickel. https://t.co/YgOV2r9qR3 pic.twitter.com/XhmwsDY2so— Honest NFL (@TheHonestNFL) May 22, 2023
Jordan Davis will anchor at the point of attack and thus be a beat slower to the quarterback as a pass rusher. Davis will not be the interior penetrator that Javon Hargrave was in the 2022 Eagles defense both by skillset and design. He'll also play nose in base sets where he'll face the most blocking traffic.
Rated rookie Jalen Carter is scheme-diverse and should thrive as an interior penetrator and a read-and-react tackle. Players like Jeffery Simmons have emerged as successful fantasy options once they've developed pass-rush skills. Those expecting the rookie to match Hargrave's 2022 production (131.8 fantasy points, 16th among linemen) are likely too optimistic.
Veteran tackle Fletcher Cox profiles as a rotational sub-package player in this defense. Milton Williams, as a 4- and 5-technique specialist, could eat into Cox's reps. The drop-off in production from the Eagles' interior defenders is likely the biggest change year over year for which fantasy gamers should plan.
Building Out Coverages
Desai, a former assistant to veteran defensive mind Vic Fangio, is part of the league's trend toward interchangeable safeties that present two-high looks before the snap. Desai's safeties in Chicago did not line up as strong and weak or field and boundary. Instead, the safeties were part of a left and right defense. The reaction of the safeties to rotate down or drop back happened at the snap and resulted from reading the offense.
This is a very crappy edit but it just puts a visual on what I mean when I say there’s no definitive Sam/Will LB or Strong/Weak Safety in this defense…just left/right. Both can be either one on any given snap. Desai did the same thing in Chicago so I expect it to continue. https://t.co/5AxQYK61Iz pic.twitter.com/5MpcRGuckR— Honest NFL (@TheHonestNFL) May 15, 2023
The 2023 Eagles' defense will resemble the 2022 version in many ways. They will blitz at a below-average rate and utilize zone coverages more often than not. The change from 4-3 architecture to 3-4 architecture is bridged by Vic Fangio's tenure as an advisor to Jonathan Gannon in 2022. The ratio of coverage concepts to one another is likely to resemble that from 2022.
| NFL EAST Coverage Matrix |— Cody Alexander (@The_Coach_A) March 15, 2023
> Cov 1 ðŸ‘‘: #Giants (Wink... ðŸ¤·ðŸ»â™‚ï¸)
> Cov 3 ðŸ‘‘: #Cowboys, #Eagles
> MOFâ•ï¸ ðŸ‘‘: #Commanders
- Quinn paired C2 with his MOFðŸš« alignments
- Gannon w/ the 3rd highest % of Qtrs in the NFL#ArtofX x #NFL pic.twitter.com/pMOctTmNxw
Distribution of coverage types matters for tackling efficiency for both safeties and linebackers. Pro Football Focus' Jon Macri reports that the Cover-2 zone yields the highest tackle rate for linebackers. Macri's thread goes on to explain why.
Likewise, safeties are inefficient tacklers in Cover-2. Opportunities to collect tackles are infrequent for players deployed 20 yards from the line of scrimmage. Linebackers typically make up the difference and yield benefits for fantasy gamers. Macri explains here.
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