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Reading the Defense: Defensive Line Tiers [Post Free Agency]

A deep look at the thinnest defensive line tiers in years

WHY TIERS?

Rank lists and cheatsheets can be deceiving when they're presented without commentary. Our rankings have been vastly improved by adding staffer comments, but it can be hard to see the all-important context in the consensus rankings and sheets. It's critical to know where a significant drop-off in fantasy value occurs. A simple rank list can't tell you if the DL4 is closer in value to the DL10 than the DL3. A cheatsheet can't tell you if the ranker feels the LB10 is a boom-bust play with LB2 upside and LB40 downside while the LB11 has a much narrower range of expectation.

That's where tiers are helpful.

Using tiers allows you to lump and split players in context. Using tiers can help keep you on the right side of draft runs. Seeing that you have five linebackers of equal value left on your board might prompt you to take a player at another position. Noting that there's only one wide receiver left before a major drop in value will show you when you must draft a position sooner than expected. A tiered draft board keeps you from making panicked decisions while on the clock.


HOW TO USE THE TIERS

Note 1: These tiers are based on 2015 expectation only. I stopped producing dynasty rankings years ago when it became clear I weighted the current season significantly more than future years. If you choose to use these tiers for dynasty leagues, lightly weight younger players -- especially those with established track records or a clear positive trend -- more highly. In deeper dynasty leagues, I'll save a roster slot for a strong developmental prospect but will otherwise use these tiers as my primary roster philosophy. I'll include a separate dynasty stash tier at the end of each positional article.

Note 2: I'm basing positional classifications on the MyFantasyLeague database (which syncs to the Rotoworld depth charts later in the offseason). Early in the offseason, I'll deviate from the Rotoworld depth chart when I'm reasonably certain a positional change is coming that Rotoworld will reflect later in the offseason.

Note 3: I will add a column to address trends inside and throughout the tiers in future articles. I'll add a ^^^^ for those players making a move up in my tiers and vvvv for those players who have dropped since the previous tier release. For reference, you'll be able to see the earlier versions of these tier articles within the IDP article list, but the trend column should help you see where player movement is happening within the tiers at a quick glance. I'll also be including ADP data after training camps begin. The ADP number will be an average of our FBG rankings, the FantasyPros Consensus Rankings, and ADP data from drafts at MyFantasyLeague.

Finally, the date on this article represents the last time the tiers were updated. Each update will be published as a stand-alone article. Make sure you are viewing the most recent tier article by checking the complete IDP article list here.

That's a necessary, but way too long, introduction to the important stuff. Thanks for bearing with me.


STRATEGY THOUGHTS

Unless you're supremely confident you can stream this position effectively, you will have to attack this position early and often in fantasy drafts this year.

Although I advocated making sure you drafted at least one elite linebacker last season, taking a defensive line as your first IDP isn't a new philosophy. But it's more critical than ever this year.

Only 13 of 32 teams project as a base 4-3 right now. That's a potential pool of just 26 edge players who will earn a defensive line classification. As teams rotate and platoon in the base defense, the pool contains more names. But a larger rotational pool also means fewer snaps for those in the pool. What's more, a significant number of those 4-3 teams don't have a viable edge player capable of producing consistent fantasy value.

There are only two new 3-4 base fronts this year. But those two changes -- Denver and Chicago -- are taking Mario Williams, Jerry Hughes, and DeMarcus Ware off the DE board. And we've already seen Rotoworld reclassify Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones. It's possible Jones could be re-classified to defensive end, but there's always inertia in the New England depth chart and I wouldn't count on a change even if the Patriots spend the entire preseason lining Jones up at 5-technique again. Rotoworld has Junior Galette listed at defensive end, but I'm not convinced that will stick. Throw in a small chance the Lions publish a base 3-4 depth chart this preseason and move Ezekiel Ansah to linebacker and the pool shrinks even further.

Unfortunately, free agency didn't throw us a single bone either.

Hughes re-signed in Buffalo. Brandon Graham, Derrick Morgan, Pernell McPhee, Trent Cole, Brian Orakpo, Jabaal Sheard, and other edge rushers signed with 3-4 teams. Every one of them will be classified as linebackers in 2015.

And, while this year's draft class of edge rushing prospects is extremely deep and talented, many will be drafted to play linebacker and rookies drafted to play defensive end nearly always need a developmental year (or more). 

How ugly is it?

There are 15 defensive ends -- barely -- I'd feel comfortable with as every-week starters right now. The group of matchup values and candidates to jump into the every-week tiers is less sexy than ever. There will be high floor options among the 3-4 defensive end group and some defensive tackles worthy of matchup value or better. But right now, I don't see an easily identifiable Cameron Wake, Ezekiel Ansah, Everson Griffen, Jerry Hughes, Cameron Jordan type who will carry a ADP of 20 or worse into August and present strong fall back value.

Of course, there's a path that will allow you to avoid any messiness in the defensive line tiers this year. And you should program your GPS to take it now.


TIER SUPERNATURAL | J.J. WATT

Winning in fantasy football is all about filling your lineup slots with the most relative value possible. Watt is the definition of relative value. It took a 50 solo, 19 sack season from Robert Quinn to get close to Watt in 2013. In both 2012 and 2014, Watt was more than 50 points ahead of his nearest defensive end competition in balanced leagues and doubled the value of the DL12 in both seasons. His 2013 season wasn't quite as impressive, but Watt was still strikingly good relative value.

That type of sustained value has never been seen in fantasy football at any position.

Two years ago, I wrote:

If you feel...strongly about Watt, forget about regression to the mean (both for Watt and his competition) and strongly consider taking Watt in the first two rounds of your draft.

Yes, the first two rounds.

This year, I'm going to be even more adamant. You should strongly consider taking Watt in the first round -- in any format -- this year. 

(Okay, not every format. There are scoring systems where the raw value of an IDP is so low they may as well not be included in the lineup. In those leagues, you can win by not drafting an IDP. If you're reading this, I'm going to assume you know better than to play in these leagues.)

Not just the first round.

The first overall pick.

PLAYER TREND ADP CONTEXT
J.J. Watt <>   25 years old averaging 64-16-17 over past three seasons; first round pick in all formats

Watt could be injured or have a down year. So could Le'Veon Bell, Calvin Johnson, Odell Beckham, Rob Gronkowski or whomever else you're considering with your top pick. Other than Gronkowski, none of those players have a legitimate chance to nearly double the yearly production of other players in the top tiers.

I recognize you can get a DL1 rounds and rounds later than you can get a RB1 or WR1. But the relative value in Watt cannot be overstated. There's enough resistance here that you may not have to invest the first round pick to secure Watt. But if you let someone else draft Watt anytime after the second round, you're making a critical mistake this year.


TIER 1 | ELITE DE1

2014 wasn't a great year for Quinn, but if that's his floor you could do a whole lot worse. Pierre-Paul isn't far behind him. I'm including Hardy here on talent, but league discipline is still a major factor. A multi-game suspension seems likely for Hardy, and he'll be at risk of further discipline with any future missteps.

PLAYER TREND ADP CONTEXT
Robert Quinn <>   Remained top 5 fantasy DL in down year; 40-10 floor with 50-15 upside
Jason Pierre-Paul <>   53 solo tackles and 950+ snaps last season = productive and durable
Calais Campbell <>   Safe and elite; 48-7 despite horrid surrounding cast and missed time w/ MCL injury
Greg Hardy <>   Dallas is terrific landing spot; will be elite when returns from still unknown suspension

TIER 2 | ELITE DE1 UPSIDE

I like the four players in this tier. In fact, I'm probably splitting hairs on the differences in the ceiling and floor expectations between them and Campbell and Hardy above.

As my draft strategy crystallizes later this summer, I might convince myself to add them to the above tier or bring Campbell and Hardy down to this group. In the end, I'm likely to try very hard to draft two of the top nine defensive ends this year. If Chandler Jones is re-classified as a DE later this summer, he'll slot in this tier.

PLAYER TREND ADP CONTEXT
Ezekiel Ansah <>   Rumors during free agency about Detroit 3-4 front are mildly concerning
Carlos Dunlap <>   Consistency issues persist but undeniable elite upside on talent on 800+ snap expectation
Everson Griffen <>   Near ceiling with 39-12 in 2014; production no fluke; room to grow
Cameron Wake ^^^^   Tackle trend is worrisome but surrounding cast and pass rush talent keep floor high

TIER 3A | DE2 WITH DE1 UPSIDE

I produce tiers with statistical plateaus in mind. In other words, I won't put a player in the Elite LB1 Upside tier unless they have 95+ solo tackle upside or can supplement 90 solo tackle potential with lots of peripheral and big play value.

It's a relative value thing. In a given year, linebacker may be devalued across the board enough for a player with a good, but not elite, 92 solo season to crack the top 6-8 overall linebackers. But his relative value won't be any higher than it was last year, when those same numbers separated him from his middle tier peers by the same amount -- but he ranked 14th.

Similarly, I reserve this tier for high floor defensive ends I'll be comfortable starting every week but who have a shot at top 6-8 value. In some seasons, this tier may be 4-6 players deep with another 12-14 already tiered higher. In other seasons, this tier -- and the tiers above -- will be much more shallow.

I'm sure you've sensed the theme already. 2015 is going to be a season of shallow tiers.

I'm separating the two New York Jets' stud 5-techniques from a handful of other similar players you'll find in the DL2 and Matchup DL3 tiers because I think they have better upside. Both are strong all-around players and the Jets aggressively addressed their weak secondary by adding four significant coverage talents. That ripple effect will be felt by Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson.

If you choose to slough the elite defensive ends this year, high floor players like this must be your targets. You won't gain much relative advantage this way, but you're less likely to have a lineup-busting set of zeroes.

PLAYER TREND ADP CONTEXT
Sheldon Richardson <>   Strong run defender with improved pass rush last year
Muhammad Wilkerson <>   Higher variance than Richardson last year but essentially same value

TIER 3B | HIGH VARIANCE DE2

I'd like to slot these three players higher, but I can't. There's something about each of them that worries me too much.

I think Cameron Jordan can rebound this year. In my first set of 2015 tiers, I had Jordan in the upside tier above. But the Saints are dismantling their team and I think we'll see their edge talents see much fewer pass rush opportunities this year. Jordan plays the run well enough to hold value, but it's hard to see a double-digit sack ceiling for him.

I was down on Olivier Vernon last year. His per snap pressure numbers weren't great in 2013 and I didn't feel he wasn't an elite enough finisher to continue to run up sacks on low pressure counts. Vernon will probably "regress" in a more positive direction in 2015, but I still see him as a high variance play.

Charles Johnson had a mini-renaissance of pass rush production last year with 8.5 sacks. But his non-sack solo tackle count remained a Freeney-esque 21. Johnson barely earns the last slot in this tier, but he's really not that much different from guys in the Matchup DE3 tier like Brian Robison or Chris Long.

PLAYER TREND ADP CONTEXT
Olivier Vernon <>   Must convert higher percentage of pass rush chances to sacks to be elite
Cameron Jordan vvvv   Likely to improve but opportunity took a hit with Saints’ free agent moves
Charles Johnson <>   Impressive rebound as pass rusher in 2014 but tackle trend is major concern

TIER 3C | HIGH FLOOR DE2

I don't believe any of these players have a strong enough chance at double digit sack upside to slot in a higher tier. But each has strong single game upside with a good season-long floor.

PLAYER TREND ADP CONTEXT
Jurrell Casey <>   May deserve to be alongside Richardson/Wilkerson but needs more rush chances
Cameron Heyward <>   35-40 solos and 6-8 sacks = definition of high floor DE
Fletcher Cox <>   Could be on verge of breakout (again)
Marcell Dareus <>   Rex Ryan gives 5-tech big pass rush opportunity and Dareus can take advantage
Michael Bennett <>   Talented two-way player but limited by low volume opportunity in Seattle

The next two tiers are going to be interesting to watch develop in the coming months. I'm not very excited about any of the players on the Watch LIst right now. Michael Johnson or Jacques Smith or Demarcus Lawrence or Adrian Clayborn will have my attention, but there's work to be done to convince me that any can have Top 20 value. Damontre Moore needs a big summer to move out of the rotational / matchup value group.

TIER 4 | DE3 W/ MATCHUP VALUE

If we don't get to a solid 20-25 defensive ends in the above tiers by mid-August, I'll significantly beef this group up then as we'll all be forced to consider streaming a lineup slot this year. For now, there's are the players I'd consider holding as DE3 in deeper leagues.

PLAYER TREND ADP CONTEXT
Junior Galette <>   Two consecutive double digit sack seasons; worried he’ll be re-classified to LB
Damontre Moore vvvv   May not top 500 snaps again; Giants tagged JPP and like Robert Ayers
Chris Long <>   At least 8.5 sacks from 2010 to 2013 before last year’s injury; tackle count poor
Corey Liuget <>   Not much season-long or single-game upside but can be high floor depth

TIER JUMPERS | REDRAFT WATCH LIST

This group contains the highest upside names remaining. All have significant blemishes in one or more aspects of their game, or have injury or rotational playing time concerns. Even the last couple of names in this tier deserve roster spots right now due to the lack of depth at the position, but don't go out of your way to acquire any of them until their situations become more clear.

PLAYER TREND ADP CONTEXT
Michael Johnson <>   Back in Cincinnati; consistency and finishing skills are concerns
Jacquies Smith <>   Flashed as pass rush talent last year but needs work v run; will get 700+ snaps
Demarcus Lawrence <>   Opportunity coming opposite Hardy; run defense/consistency unknowns
Adrian Clayborn <>   Injuries and lack of elite talent limiting factors but will see high volume in ATL
Robert Ayers <>   Opportunity may be limited after Giants tagged JPP but will see Kiwanuka’s snaps
Malik Jackson <>   Has my attention as potential 700+ snap attacking 5-tech for Wade Phillips
Jared Odrick <>   Could be used as Michael Bennett is used in Seattle; 40-6 upside?

ROSTERABLE DT

In most seasons, I'll avoid rostering a defensive tackle as an every-week lineup starter. The days of season-over-season consistency and 50-10 seasons are past. But many of these defensive tackles will have upside in deeper leagues and should provide strong bye week matchup value. Gerald McCoy, Geno Atkins, Aaron Donald, and Johnathan Hankins should all threaten to put up double digit sacks this year.

PLAYER TREND ADP CONTEXT
Gerald McCoy <>   Slowed by injury last year; questionable DL mates; 17 sacks in last 29 games
Ndamukong Suh <>   One of safest DT plays on board with 40-7 floor
Aaron Donald <>   All-around stud whose quick penetration plays v run and pass and will only improve
Geno Atkins <>   Showed signs of rounding into form in second half of 2014; now 2yrs post-ACL surgery
Johnathan Hankins <>   Quietly nearly as productive as Donald with 30 solos and 7 sacks in 2014
Dontari Poe <>   Don’t sleep on Poe; 40 solos and 6 sacks likely again
Haloti Ngata <>   Breaking down but in good situation in Detroit
Sharrif Floyd <>   Limited by injury but dominantly disruptive in early stretches; Zimmer scheme a plus
Sylvester Williams <>   Should Wade Phillips get most out of him as 1-gap nose there’s good value here
San’Derrick Marks <>   Injury may keep him from contributing this year

dynasty stash

There aren't many high upside candidates here. I still believe Jordan can be a top tier fantasy option. But it may come as a linebacker. Timmy Jernigan and Dominique Easley are the only other strong bets to see more than 600 snaps a season for multiple years.

PLAYER TREND ADP CONTEXT
Dion Jordan <>   Now may (finally) be transitioned to SLB where he’ll get volume and opportunity
Timmy Jernigan <>   Played well last year and opportunity coming with Ngata trade
Dominique Easley <>   Will get a chance to earn more playing time; could be good if burst returns
Kony Ealy <>   Young edge players who aren’t speed rushers need time to develop
Scott Crichton <>   Not much upside here but depth chart may be favorable if MIN doesn’t address in draft
Margus Hunt <>   Development stalled last year and Michael Johnson back as starter
Will Clarke <>   May move ahead of Hunt soon but depth chart very crowded

2015 draft prospects

I'll have positional previews soon for this year's draft class soon, as well as notes on which teams have the greatest need at each position. Here's a rough look at the names with the most NFL (and IDP) upside. Though the majority of the edge rushers are likely to be drafted by 3-4 teams, this class has more depth at each tier than any in recent memory. They'll be fun to break down and project in April and May.

PLAYER POSITION   PLAYER POSITION
Randy Gregory EDGE   Owa Odighizuwa EDGE
Vic Beasley EDGE   Danielle Hunter EDGE
Bud Dupree EDGE   Preston Smith EDGE
Dante Fowler EDGE   Zach Hodges EDGE
Shane Ray EDGE   Trey Flowers EDGE
Eli Harold EDGE   Lorenzo Maudlin EDGE
Hau’oli Kikaha EDGE   Markus Golden EDGE
Nate Orchard EDGE   Za’Darius Smith EDGE
         
Leonard Williams DL   Henry Anderson DL
Danny Shelton DT   Arik Armstead DL
Eddie Goldman DT   Mario Edwards DL
Jordan Phillips DT   Grady Jarrett DT
Michael Bennett DT   Carl Davis DT

Follow and ask questions on Twitter @JeneBramel. Reading the Defense will be a regular feature this offseason with free agent commentary, draft prospect previews, tier discussion, links to our offseason IDP roundtable podcasts and much more. Subscribe to The Audible on iTunes or download our IDP podcast here