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Reading the Defense: Defensive Line Tiers

Updated tiers and strategy on how to approach the defensive line position during your draft

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 in a balanced IDP scoring system. I stopped producing dynasty rankings years ago when it became clear I weighted the current season significantly more than future seasons. In deeper dynasty leagues, I'll save a roster slot for a strong developmental prospect but otherwise still use these tiers as my primary roster philosophy. A separate dynasty stash tier is included at the end of each positional article.

Note 2: I'm basing positional classifications on the MFL database (which syncs to the Rotoworld depth charts). 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'll add a ^^^ for those players making a move up in my tiers and vvv 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 an ADP column after training camp begins. The ADP number will be an average of our FBG rankings, the FantasyPros Consensus Rankings, and ADP data from drafts at MFL.

Note 4: I've added a column to note which players have added big play value. Refer to this article on big play strategy to get a sense of just how much these players should move up in your own tiers.

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 long, but necessary, introduction to the important stuff. Thanks for bearing with me.


STRATEGY THOUGHTS

What a difference a month makes.

Since the mid-July tier update…

Jason Pierre-Paul had part of his hand amputated. Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes have been re-classified to defensive end. Greg Hardy had his suspension cut to just four games. Sheldon Richardson was suspended for four games and could be gone significantly longer after another off-field incident. The Saints cut Junior Galette and moved Cam Jordan into a more fantasy efficient role.

Since March, I’ve advocated attacking the defensive line position early and often in your drafts unless you were supremely confident in your ability to stream the position effectively. You can read the extended rationale for my argument in the July tier update.

While the addition of Williams and Hughes and Jordan (and Hardy) has improved the depth at the top of these tiers, the middle tiers and potential breakout candidate list still fails to impress. I don’t believe players like Demarcus Lawrence and Damontre Moore are the sure-fire DL2+ values available as DL3 or later Cameron Wake, Ezekiel Ansah, Jerry Hughes, Everson Griffen, and Cameron Jordan were in recent seasons.

You may not need to cast aside ADP and draft an elite defensive end a round early to ensure you get one. But I still strongly recommend getting at least two strong defensive line prospects before drafting multiple linebackers or an elite defensive back.

No matter what your opinion of the choppy waters at the defensive end position may be, there’s an easy way to navigate them with certainty.


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.

PLAYERTRENDADPADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
J.J. Watt <> DL1   25 years old averaging 64-16-17 over past three seasons; consider as first round pick in all formats

Watt could be injured or have a down year. So could Antonio Brown, Adrian Peterson, Odell Beckham, Rob Gronkowski or whomever else you're considering with your top pick. Le'Veon Bell is being considered a possible first overall pick despite a multi-game suspension. Other than Gronkowski, none of those players have a legitimate chance to nearly double the yearly production of the other players in your 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

In industry drafts over the past two weeks, I've found myself waiting an extra round or two and drafting Williams, Griffen, and/or Ansah if I miss on Watt, Jones or Mack. That means the tiers have to reflect those players moving up in my thought process.

I'm having a difficult time drafting Quinn over Jones. But there's still just enough uncertainty about the New England front seven and what Jones role will be to recommend Quinn very narrowly. If the Patriots clearly show a 4-3 front with Jones as a traditional 7-technique in a preseason game, I'm going to swap the two studs. 

Had Hardy been suspended eight or more games, he would have dropped from this tier. With just a four game suspension, you'll get more than enough from Hardy and his fantasy-friendly role to warrant drafting him over the group of ends in the tier to follow.

I expect I'll be higher than Mack than most here. I've had Mack about even with Justin Houston in the edge rush LB tiers for months. That's a 50+ solo, 12+ sack expectation for me, which puts Mack squarely in the elite tier. Rotoworld has yet to reclassify Mack to defensive end, but I'm still convinced it's coming. NOTE: Rotoworld has yet to move Mack to defensive end and it's getting late enough in the preseason it may not happen. If Mack isn't moved to defensive end in your system, he's a strong LB2 with upside (between Justin Houston and Von Miller) in balanced scoring systems and a clear LB1 in sack-heavy systems. 

PLAYERTRENDADPADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
Robert Quinn <> DL2   Remained top 5 fantasy DL in down year; 40-10 floor with 50-15 upside
Chandler Jones <> DL3   Patriots likely to lean 4-3; Jones classification at DE should be safe
Khalil Mack *** DL10   Still a chance he'll be re-classified but time is ticking for MFL move
Calais Campbell <> DL4   Safe and elite; 48-7 despite horrid surrounding cast and missed time w/ MCL injury
Greg Hardy <> DL24   Suspension cut to just four games; will be elite producer in DAL scheme
Mario Williams ^^^ DL9   Looks young and explosive; has 50-10 potential in Ryan's front
Everson Griffen ^^^ DL5   39-12 in 2014 but production no fluke; looks improved this preseason
Ezekiel Ansah ^^^ DL7   Must stay healthy and continue to develop but elite upside is here

TIER 2 | ELITE DE1 UPSIDE

Jordan has been a tease at times, but I like what I'm reading about the Saints' plan to use him as a roaming pass rusher and isolate him against matchups he can exploit. There's risk with Dunlap and I couldn't pull the trigger on him over the three I've moved up from this tier. I might be short-changing Hughes' upside a bit here, but I'm not sure the tackles are here to support an elite ranking. 

PLAYERTRENDADPADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
Rob Ninkovich <> DL8   Patriots likely to lean 4-3; lots of rotational talent could cut into snap count
Carlos Dunlap <> DL6   Consistency issues persist but big time talent and 800+ snap expectation
Cameron Jordan <> DL15   Role change after Galette's release is promising and opportunity rich
Jerry Hughes <> DL17 XX Has mid-double digit sack upside but tackle count will limit him

MID-TIER STRATEGY THOUGHTS

I've discontinued the Tier Jumper | Watch List group, deleting players I'm no longer interested in drafting or moving them into one of these middle tiers. There are now 30 players in this third tier of DE2 potentials. I've broken them into strong talents with upside (3A), players who will probably have more dud weeks than stud weeks (3B), and players with a strong floor but lower ceiling (3C). 

In most years, I'd prefer the high variance plays over the high floor plays. The stud weeks help more than the dud weeks hurt. But this season's high variance group is full of projection and my confidence in the unproven talents listed there is low. So, in a straight rank list, I'd have the majority of the high floor players listed ahead of the high variance players this year. If you miss out on the elite talents in the above tiers, you may want to roster a solid group of high floor ends.

TIER 3A | DE2 WITH DE1 UPSIDE

These three players narrowly miss the Elite DE1 Upside tier. I believe all three have top 5-10 upside -- they've finished in that range in previous seasons. But I like the floor of the players above a bit better. I'm not surprised Vernon regressed last season. 2015 is huge for him. If he develops into a more reliable pass rusher, he'll be an elite tier fantasy performer. If not, he'll slide back into the high variance tier as Chris Long and Michael Johnson have done over the past few seasons.

PLAYERTRENDADPADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
Cameron Wake <> DL10   Tackle trend worrisome but surrounding cast and pass rush talent keep floor high
Muhammad Wilkerson <> DL12   Higher variance than other elite 3-4 ends; hamstring may limit snaps early
Olivier Vernon <> DL16   Must convert higher percentage of pass rush chances to sacks to be elite

TIER 3B | HIGH FLOOR DE2

As noted above, I'm marking the higher floor options as my 3B plays at this point in the preseason. This group is much closer to a 3A>3B>3C list than it's been in prior years.

PLAYERTRENDADPADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
Fletcher Cox <> DL22   Could be on verge of breakout (again)
Cameron Heyward <> DL25   35-40 solos and 6-8 sacks = definition of high floor DE
Corey Liuget <> DL26   Not much season-long or single-game upside but can be high floor depth
Michael Bennett <> DL28   Talented two-way player but limited by low volume opportunity in Seattle
Justin Tuck <> DL39   Healthy and could get chance to play opposite Mack on most downs
Leonard Williams ^^^ DL34   Don’t overdraft rookie linemen but should get early opportunity w/ Richardson suspensions
Robert Ayers <> DL48   Opportunity should increase w/ Pierre-Paul injury
Malik Jackson <> DL43   Has my attention as potential 700+ snap attacking 5-tech for Wade Phillips
Jared Odrick <> DL65   Could be used as Michael Bennett is used in Seattle; 40-6 upside?
Timmy Jernigan <> DL49   Played well last year and opportunity coming with Ngata trade

TIER 3C | HIGH VARIANCE DE2

If Jason Pierre-Paul is healthy enough to play, he would move into the DE2 with DE upside tier. I'm more concerned with the skin grafts and associated damage than the amputation. Loss of range of motion and sensation and muscle tissue in the remaining fingers and thumb would be more difficult to overcome than the loss of a finger that isn't critical to grip strength.

With every passing week, the lack of any news on Pierre-Paul and his continued refusal to allow the Giants to examine him heightens concern. I've maintained for weeks that there's more than an amputation and thumb fracture here, and I'm more concerned than ever that Pierre-Paul's injuries are career-threatening. He's undraftable until he shows up in New York.

One of the remaining players may prove to be the 2015 version of Everson Griffen or Jerry Hughes.

It could be Gregory or Beasley or Lawrence. But young edge rushers -- even those with elite talent -- usually take a year or more of development to catch up to the physically mature and mentally agile offensive linemen they'll face. Lawrence missed vital preseason reps and two-thirds of his rookie season. Whether 200 late season snaps is enough to accelerate his learning curve is debatable. Gregory and Beasley will play in schemes that could allow them to reach double digit sacks this year but it will be tough for either to hit 35 solo tackles.

In this update, I'm including those defensive tackles I see as every-week fantasy options in leagues that combine DE and DT into one DL roster group.

PLAYERTRENDADPADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
Charles Johnson <> DL23   Impressive rebound as pass rusher in 2014 but tackle trend is major concern
Damontre Moore <> DL42 XX Snap count likely to rise with Pierre-Paul's injury but be wary of inconsistency
Gerald McCoy <> DL18 XX Slowed by injury last year and questionable DL mates but 17 sacks in last 29 games
Geno Atkins <> DL27 XX Building on improvement late last season with strong and healthy camp
Jurrell Casey <> DL20   May deserve to be alongside Richardson/Wilkerson but needs more rush chances
Aaron Donald <> DL14 XX All-around stud whose quick penetration plays v run and pass and will only improve
Ndamukong Suh <> DL13   One of safest DT plays on board with 40-7 floor
Marcell Dareus <> DL21   Bills move to 4-3 puts Dareus back into DT consideration
Demarcus Lawrence <> DL30   Looks part but still struggles to defend run and may need pass rush development
Vic Beasley <> DL41   Reluctant to draft rookie lineman but Beasley will see snaps and opportunity
Michael Johnson <> DL36   Back in Cincinnati; consistency and finishing skills are concerns
Jacquies Smith <> DL32   Flashed as pass rush talent last year but needs work v run; will get 700+ snaps
Chris Long <> DL29 XX At least 8.5 sacks from 2010 to 2013 before last year’s injury; tackle count poor
Vinny Curry <> DL47 XX If role expands could have strong matchup value
Randy Gregory <> DL44   Love long term pass rush upside but don’t expect 35+ solos/10+ sacks in 2015
Sheldon Richardson <> DL31   Near elite fantasy performer but four game suspension likely to be lengthened
Jason Pierre-Paul vvv DL19   Off my draft board now until he shows up at camp and allows NYG to assess injury

ROSTERABLE DT

I used to love starting defensive tackles every week. Wayne Martin and La'Roi Glover and John Randle and many others would be sure bets for 45-8 or better seasons. Such production has been rare over the past decade. But times may be changing. This defensive tackle group has the highest upside we've seen in years. And it's deep.

If you choose to slough the elite defensive end tiers, I'd strongly consider adding one high floor Tier 3 end and then using this group as your DL2. McCoy, Donald, Suh, Atkins, and Dareus could all be top 20 fantasy defensive linemen and have been moved into those tiers above. Hankins is another high floor option with upside.

PLAYERTRENDADPADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
Kyle Williams <> DL35   Never seems to play his age; Ryan's defense should give opportunity
Johnathan Hankins <> DL33   Quietly nearly as productive as Donald with 30 solos and 7 sacks in 2014
Haloti Ngata <> DL58   Breaking down but in good situation in Detroit
Sharrif Floyd <> DL37   Limited by injury but dominantly disruptive in early stretches; Zimmer scheme a plus
Tyrone Crawford <> DL70   Running with first team at 3-technique in early camp practices
Sylvester Williams <>     Should Wade Phillips get most out of him as 1-gap nose there’s good value here
Damon Harrison <>     Tackle monster for tackle-heavy scoring consideration
Dontari Poe <> DL51   Back injury will keep him out in early season and may limit during year
San’Derrick Marks <> DL38   Now possible he'll be ready for W1 but production will be down

DYNASTY STASH

These players should be rostered in deep leagues or those with taxi squad slots only.

PLAYERTRENDADPADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
Henry Anderson <>     Skill set and opportunity to develop into elite 5-technique
Dante Fowler <>     Isolated ACL isn’t career ender; should be ready for 2016 offseason
Owa Odighizuwa <> DL57   Injury to Pierre-Paul could open playing time immediately
Kony Ealy <> DL52   Will now see enough snaps to hold value but upside limited
Danielle Hunter <>     Zimmer taking a look at rotating him with first team in early camp practices
Dominique Easley <> DL82   Will get a chance to earn more playing time; could be good if burst returns
Tank Carradine <> DL62   Still like the upside here and SF will give him a chance in 2015
Frank Clark ^^^     Very impressive early in camp and preseason
Arik Armstead <> DL79   Deeper league stash only; wait to move on him until snap count clear
Dion Jordan <>     Suspended again; now 25 years old; MIA out of patience with him
Danny Shelton <>     Could develop into 40-6 player in time

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