The NFL, like an unruly pup in its nascent stages of growth, is difficult to pin down. For every move, there is a counter move which has yet another counter to the counter somewhere downstream. We don’t know when it will happen; what we do know is that it is an ever-changing and untameable beast.
While offensive football garners the majority of onlookers’ jaw drops and exasperated sighs for every touchdown and incomplete pass, it is defensive football that has had to undergo a more sweeping change. Football literature like ‘Smart Football’ by the brilliant Chris Brown has expertly detailed the adjustments masterminded by defensive coaches to the option and spread attacks that have become the norm rather than the exception in college football.
Pro football is an old boy’s club in many ways, slow to embrace change and reluctant to adopt it when it arrives on their doorstep. What we have seen in the past decade is a definite shift that has had an irreversible impact on the future of individual defensive players.
And that is where fantasy football comes in.
Back when I started playing IDP fantasy football in 2007, the hierarchy of positions and their relative values was abundantly clear. The diktat consisted of securing a stud at linebacker and a strong 4-3 defensive end or two, then picking off value players that other owners let slip through the cracks, eventually picking off defensive backs in the latter stages of the draft.
That model has been turned on its side, shaken a few times and tossed all over the place, revealing a stark, new landscape that will be the playing field for IDP fantasy football in the coming years.
This past season was by no means a game changer in terms of witnessing this transformation, but it served as another step along the way and provided insight into what this wonderful hobby of ours is turning into – and where we should be mining value in our rookie drafts not just this season, but in future seasons.
So what did we learn from our leagues in 2016 and how can we use this information, framed as it is by an ever-changing NFL, to maximize our roster spots on defense and construct a championship-winning unit?
Subpackages redefining player values
Perhaps no single aspect of IDP fantasy football is more frustrating than predicting which players will earn roles in their teams’ subpackages. Players who occupy these roles must possess a particular skill set; they must be able to play downhill and stop the run while having the recognition and awareness in their game to backpedal and drop into coverage.
It used to be that teams deployed five – or six, depending on the number of receivers – defensive backs and two linebackers, with four defensive linemen. However, these subpackage unit are changing with the new vanguard of safety/linebacker hybrids.
Players like Deone Bucannon have made a living from excelling in this position, one of the latest in a growing number of safeties being moved closer to the line of scrimmage. Some defenses utilize these players as a safety on first and second down before transitioning them to a LB/S hybrid in obvious passing situations. Bucannon did not reach the lofty heights of the 90+% last season like he did in 2015, but players like Mark Barron of the Rams filled the void, featuring on 95% of all defensive snaps.
My colleague at Footballguys, Jene Bramel, had this to say about the emerging trend:
It wasn't that long ago when the only regular defensive substitution was a slot cornerback for an run-stuffing outside linebacker. Now we arguably have 15-16 players on every defense playing 30-40 snaps per game on average. Over the past three seasons, 150 defensive backs have seen a minimum of 500 snaps during the season. That's due to player rotation and a clear trend away from the traditional 4-2-5 nickel subpackage. Add in the increased number of snaps teams align in a subpackage and understanding how a team uses its personnel has become as critical as talent in IDP evaluation.
If we as fantasy owners can read between the lines of a team’s player acquisitions and decipher their defense and its personnel, we can pinpoint possible hybrid players. However, what this league comes down to is talent; if you don’t have it, teams will simply not invest in you. And while the scouting process in the NFL has its flaws, generally the league brass will tell you what they think of a prospect by where they are drafted or how they are used.
So when we try to project the future value of players, a sensible place to start is their skill set. Do they have the requisite movement skills to occupy this valuable hybrid position? Are they solid tacklers and can they transition sideline to sideline as quickly as they can move north and south? Have they shown the ability to be a part of blitz packages and effectively disrupt the passer?
But before we obsess over a new era dawning, it’s worth asking if this is truly a trend or just a short-term anomaly?
Jene Bramel weighed in on the topic:
I'm not certain this is a trend yet. The number of safeties dropping into a six man box has clearly increased, but it's not just safeties that fit this description. We're seeing as many Telvin Smith Sr and Shaq Thompson types listed as linebackers as we are Deone Bucannon listed as safeties. The take home message for me here is: Classify them however you like, teams are again prioritizing every down players in the second level of the defense.
The questions above are by no means exhaustive; a lot of work must go into any analysis of a player. The overriding message that the league is sending out, however, is that while ‘standard’ positional players are still and will remain the rule, the league is more than willing to embrace the exceptions – the Bucannons and Barrons of this world – and deploy them where they make the biggest impact.
Defensive linemen – exceptions to the rule making presence felt
As I began the process last week of constructing my preliminary dynasty rankings for the defensive linemen, it occurred to me just how shallow this formerly deep position has become. As with most positions, the more you can do as a defensive lineman the more snaps you will get and the better chance you will have of making an impact both in the tackle column and as a pass rusher.
The old rules of IDP fantasy football stated that it was 4-3 defensive ends that should be the most coveted players, and to an extent that is still the case. However, the exceptions to that rule are beginning to make their presence felt. No player has summed this up more in the past few years than J.J. Watt, injury notwithstanding, but it isn’t just the fact that these players are in a different alignment. It is their usage in subpackages that bumps up their value.
If a defensive lineman who normally lines up on the edge has the ability to kick inside on passing downs and create havoc – think a Solomon Thomas in this year’s draft class – then we are looking at a potential IDP stud. Versatility isn’t the be-all-end-all, of course. Plenty of players with below average physical tools have gone on to become IDP studs. I’m thinking of recently retired Jared Allen, who started off as a raw kid with a spotty record off the field and blossomed into a potential Hall of Fame edge player.
Dwight Freeney has made a living on the speed rush. Yes, in his prime he had the ability to turn speed into power and mix up his pass-rushing moves, but by and large his calling card was to bend the edge and wreak havoc. The NFL’s defensive line groups will continue to be a rich tapestry of speed, power and technique. Finding the players with the perfect mix – or players who excel at one – can often give you a solid contributor on your rosters for a long time.
While it is wise to acquire as many elite defensive line talents as you can in start-up dynasty drafts or via trades or the waiver wire, the position that is the beating heart of IDP fantasy football is, and will continue to be, linebacker.
Linebackers – the new breed
The future looks bright if the top tier of talent in the upcoming draft class is anything to go by. With the shift away from 12 and 22 personnel sets in college football to spread passing attacks, by necessity the linebacker of yesteryear has been replaced by a speedier, more athletic player capable of running sideline to sideline to cover the areas that these passing offenses target.
While the beauty of a true form tackle is a dying art in college - with players eschewing the wrap-up method for a highlight hit - the aforementioned new breed provides plenty of encouragement. Reuben Foster may have his detractors after an inauspicious exit from the Combine, but his combination of skills is undeniably pro-ready. Zach Cunningham, an excellent run defender and a spitfire between the hashes, is another name to note, while Florida’s Jarrad Davis has shown a propensity for pressuring the passer when he is not wrapping up ball carriers.
The problem in the modern NFL is that there are plenty of linebackers who play a significant percentage of defensive snaps, but there are so many variables involved in how effective they are for our purposes as tacklers or big play creators. Discounting edge players, true off-the-ball linebackers can sometimes see their value spike and subsequently crash all because of how they are used in the game plan in a particular week.
All of this makes evaluation and week-to-week predictions of their values very difficult, but the truly savvy owners will have a picture in their minds of how the talent of the players on the field mesh with the particular game script that unfolds. It’s an inexact science, certainly, but one that keeps us coming back for more year after year.
Defensive Backs – a crap shoot or value to be mined?
Both. Defensive backs are more difficult to project than ever because snap count and offensive game plans are more difficult to pin down than ever. That makes it tough to know which defensive backs will see the most opportunity. And it's often independent of snap count. But there's still value to be mined. Look for players who fly to the ball and finish tackles and have the recovery and ball skills to add to the boxscore in coverage. Some of them may play 40-50 snaps a game. Others may be in the 60-70 snap per game range.
The wise words of veteran Footballguys staff member Jene Bramel, who must echo the thoughts of countless IDP fantasy football players frustrated by the swinging pendulum of value that is the defensive back position.
My experience of dealing with defensive backs from a dynasty perspective – scouting them, ranking them and creating tiers within those ranks – is to embrace the volatility but always focus on the player’s situation and skill set in equal measure.
Many pundits would have balked at the notion that Keanu Neal could instantly fit in and excel as an enforcer in Atlanta’s secondary. Not only did he do that with aplomb, he was instrumental in the Falcons’ Super Bowl run. He finished with four forced fumbles, 71 solo tackles and ranked as FBG’s fourth defensive back.
Then on the other side of things, you have the ex-49ers safety Antoine Bethea, who recently moved to the Cardinals. He totalled 95 solo tackles and was a beneficiary of a San Francisco defense that had a consistently high snap count week to week. Bethea is a serviceable player, but nothing to write home about. Comparing Neal and Bethea in this way – two players on very different parts of the talent spectrum – shows us how volatile and situation-dependent defensive backs can be.
The theme here is that perhaps unlike any other position in IDP fantasy football, defensive back is the one you can get by with savvy acquisitions in-season with a smattering of solid veteran players to prop up your DB corps.
So you’re probably asking yourself: is the position just a crapshoot as we originally posited or is the value there just waiting to be uncovered?
The answer, as Jene said, is both.
What role do the rookies have?
The Scouting Combine in Indianapolis wrapped up a few weeks ago, leaving in its wake a multitude of metrics that even the most diehard of numbers freaks can get lost in. After all, the bulk of the work is already done; scouts have a picture in their minds of a prospect’s strengths and weaknesses from the tape. The Combine certainly provides some context to a player’s athletic prowess, like how a wide receiver measures up against comparable prospects in terms of quickness in and out of breaks or hand size.
From a defensive standpoint, many prospects raised their hands for inclusion in the ‘All-Underwear’ team, but the key thing to keep in mind when watching these future NFL players is how they fit within a scheme and on a team. In short, what will their role be?
In wider terms, rookies have a large role to play in the ever-evolving defensive landscape of the NFL. Every class will of course have its strengths and weaknesses, but we are seeing a trend towards smaller, quicker linebackers capable of being field roamers, while defensive linemen are only getting bigger and more athletic.
Defensive backs are more attuned to the wide open passing offenses of college which are bleeding into the NFL, but many cornerbacks are not even asked to play press coverage. It is an adjustment that coaches have to be patient with, but players like Marcus Peters of the Chiefs in the past and Jalen Ramsey of the Jaguars last year have shown us how valuable rookie defensive backs can be.
Injury attrition – know your depth charts
Injuries were a massive factor last season in determining the destination of championships. Players were falling by the wayside week after week, with owners scrambling for replacements to even have a hope of filling their starting line-up. In the modern NFL, where players hit harder and are gaining rather than shedding girth, knowing your depth charts is more important than ever.
It is not just the names you need to know, but the talents of that particular player. There are a plethora of great resources online – none better than Footballguys.com – to keep on top of the second- and third-string players and whether or not they will, in fact, be of any value. At times one injury forces a team to start a platoon at, say, linebacker. That throws your best-laid plans of an every-down linebacker into disarray for the week and may even cost you a title if you pick the wrong week.
This one goes without saying, which is why it is all the more important to say it: study the depth charts and keep abreast of preseason buzz around players to intuit who the coaching staff trusts – and who they are propping up for the sake of ego.
• Although the NFL is clearly seeing a sea change in how its players are deployed, it is still the second level, athletic playmakers that will rack up the points. Whether they are classified as linebackers or safeties is beside the point.
• The constant threat of injury in a game predicated on collisions means that staying on top of depth charts is crucial to long-term success. A savvy pick-up mid-season can turn into a solid cog for a championship run, while an ill-prepared owner who fails to see where the chips may fall might be left devastated.
• Offensive game plans will force wild fluctuations in the snap counts of defensive players; it is up to us to predict and interpret these metrics as best we can. For me, it all comes down to the talent of the individual player. Does he have the varied skill set necessary to cope with what the opposing offense throws at him? How will the game script unfold and how can we leverage this into giving our players the best chance to succeed?
• Defensive linemen are still commodities worth pursuing, even if it takes a few attempts to get a hit at the position. Securing a future top-10 defensive end or a stud defensive tackle (think Aaron Donald) in start-up or rookie drafts can be a massive boon for your roster.