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Reading the Defense: Defensive Line Tiers [Early July Update]

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 years. 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'm also including a separate dynasty stash tier 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 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'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 later this summer. The ADP number will be an average of our FBG rankings, the FantasyPros Consensus Rankings, and ADP data from drafts at MFL.

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

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 14 of 32 teams project as a base 4-3 right now. That's a potential pool of just 28 starting edge players who will earn a defensive line classification. Teams rotate and platoon in the base defense, so the pool actually 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 WilliamsJerry Hughes, and DeMarcus Ware off the DE board. Free agency didn't help either. Hughes re-signed in Buffalo. Brandon GrahamDerrick MorganPernell McPheeTrent ColeBrian Orakpo, and other edge rushers signed with 3-4 teams. Every one of them will be classified as linebackers in 2015.

It could have been worse.

There are now strong signs New England will lean 4-3 in their base front, putting Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich back in play as defensive ends. Jabaal Sheard could be a sneaky matchup play, too. And for the first time in years, many of the best edge prospects were drafted to play end in a 4-3. Dante Fowler was unfortunately lost to a torn ACL in rookie camp, but Randy Gregory and Owa Odighizuwa will see time at defensive end this year. Atlanta is playing depth chart shenanigans with Vic Beasley, but Rotoworld has correctly surmised that LEO = DE and has Beasley classified at DL right now.

Earlier this year, I felt comfortable with just 15 defensive ends as every-week fantasy starters. That number is creeping closer to 20 -- assuming Jones and Ninkovich stay classified at defensive end. The addition of Jones in particular gives those who strongly believe in drafting elite linebackers early some flexibility in the sixth through tenth rounds. However, there are still no Cameron Wake, Ezekiel Ansah, Jerry Hughes, Everson Griffen, Cameron Jordan type players who stick out as strong breakout candidates with a likely DL20+ ADP.

So, I still believe prioritizing defensive line in your draft is the correct play.

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; consider as first round pick in all formats

Watt could be injured or have a down year. So could Calvin Johnson, 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

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. Jones is back in this tier. The Patriots spent their offseason improving the front seven and the pieces suggest a 4-3 look.

I'm keeping Hardy in this tier strictly on talent. If his suspension is reduced to eight games, he's still a top ten defensive line pick. He'll give you four full games before the fantasy playoffs begin and should be in good form for your stretch run and playoff weeks. If his suspension is ten games (returns in Week 12 due to DAL Week 6 bye), he's hard to roster except in leagues with deep rosters. If Hardy's suspension is 10+ games, those in shallow leagues should wait and hope he's on the waiver wire after Week 6.

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
Chandler Jones <>   Most signs point to Patriots leaning 4-3 in multiple base fronts
Calais Campbell <>   Safe and elite; 48-7 despite horrid surrounding cast and missed time w/ MCL injury
Greg Hardy <>   DAL = terrific landing spot; may be draftable in this tier if suspension cut by four games

TIER 2 | ELITE DE1 UPSIDE

The addition of Ninkovich and Jones brings the number of ends with elite tier potential to ten (eleven, if you include Hardy). I like the potential in this tier. In fact, I'm probably splitting hairs on the differences in expectation between Campbell (and Hardy) above and Ansah and the others in this tier. Though there are some intriguing high floor names to come, I'm planning to draft two players from these top tiers in my redrafts this year.

PLAYER TREND ADP CONTEXT
Ezekiel Ansah <>   Must stay healthy and continue to develop but elite upside is here
Rob Ninkovich <>   Patriots likely to lean 4-3; lots of rotational talent could cut into snap count
Carlos Dunlap <>   Consistency issues persist but big time talent and 800+ snap expectation
Everson Griffen <>   Near ceiling with 39-12 in 2014 but production no fluke; still room to grow
Cameron Wake <>   Tackle trend worrisome but surrounding cast and pass rush talent keep floor high

MID-TIER STRATEGY THOUGHTS

I'm listing 16 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. Richardson and Wilkerson need a lot to go right to top eight sacks in any given year and it's possible Leonard Williams will cut into their snap count this season. 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 with as Chris Long and Michael Johnson have done over the past few seasons.

PLAYER TREND ADP CONTEXT
Muhammad Wilkerson <>   Higher variance than Richardson last year but essentially same value
Olivier Vernon <>   Must convert higher percentage of pass rush chances to sacks to be elite
Sheldon Richardson vvv   Strong run defender with improved pass rush last year

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.

PLAYER TREND ADP CONTEXT
Cameron Jordan <>   Likely to improve but opportunity took a hit with Saints’ free agent moves
Cameron Heyward <>   35-40 solos and 6-8 sacks = definition of high floor DE
Kyle Williams <>   Will play 5-technique for BUF; tackle upside strong w/ solid pass rush
Fletcher Cox <>   Could be on verge of breakout (again)
Corey Liuget <>   Not much season-long or single-game upside but can be high floor depth
Michael Bennett <>   Talented two-way player but limited by low volume opportunity in Seattle

TIER 3C | HIGH VARIANCE DE2

One of these 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.

PLAYER TREND ADP CONTEXT
Charles Johnson <>   Impressive rebound as pass rusher in 2014 but tackle trend is major concern
Jurrell Casey <>   May deserve to be alongside Richardson/Wilkerson but needs more rush chances
Randy Gregory <>   Love long term pass rush upside but don’t expect 35+ solos/10+ sacks in 2015
Vic Beasley ^^^   ATL will list as LB but Rotoworld has him at DE; believe he’ll ultimately be DL
Demarcus Lawrence <>   Will be commonly listed as sleeper target; still needs seasoning
Jacquies Smith <>   Flashed as pass rush talent last year but needs work v run; will get 700+ snaps
Chris Long <>   At least 8.5 sacks from 2010 to 2013 before last year’s injury; tackle count poor

TIER JUMPERS | REDRAFT WATCH LIST

I'm not excited about any of these names. There's rosterable potential here, but none are an elite fantasy option in waiting.

Moore has gained 10-15 pounds this offseason. That doesn't excite me. If his body could support the extra weight and his game needed it, why has it taken years to make it happen. More likely, this is evidence that Moore's preferred methods of play can't hack it against NFL caliber linemen. Adding weight and re-inventing yourself in your third year in the league shouldn't inspire confidence. With Ayers playing well and Owa Odighizuwa likely to compete for snaps soon, the path to a higher snap count isn't any easier either.

Jackson and Odrick (and Crichton) will have my attention in camp. All three could be in line for a higher snap count than expected.

PLAYER TREND ADP CONTEXT
Damontre Moore <>   May not top 500 snaps again; Giants tagged JPP, drafted Owa, like Robert Ayers
Malik Jackson <>   Has my attention as potential 700+ snap attacking 5-tech for Wade Phillips
Michael Johnson <>   Back in Cincinnati; consistency and finishing skills are concerns
Leonard Williams ^^^   Don’t overdraft rookie linemen but should get early opportunity w/ Richardson suspension
Robert Ayers <>   Opportunity may be limited with depth chart improving but 600+ snaps possible
Timmy Jernigan <>   Played well last year and opportunity coming with Ngata trade
Jared Odrick <>   Could be used as Michael Bennett is used in Seattle; 40-6 upside?
Adrian Clayborn <>   Injuries and lack of elite talent limiting factors but could see high volume in ATL
Jeremy Mincey <>   Put on your DT watch list and monitor for 3-tech snaps in camp

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 very 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. Hankins and Poe are high floor options with upside.

PLAYER TREND ADP CONTEXT
Gerald McCoy <>   Slowed by injury last year and questionable DL mates but 17 sacks in last 29 games
Aaron Donald <>   All-around stud whose quick penetration plays v run and pass and will only improve
Ndamukong Suh <>   One of safest DT plays on board with 40-7 floor
Geno Atkins <>   Showed signs of rounding into form in second half of 2014; now 2yrs post-ACL surgery
Marcell Dareus <>   Rex Ryan gives 5-tech big pass rush opportunity and Dareus can take advantage
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
Damon Harrison <>   Tackle monster for tackle-heavy scoring consideration
San’Derrick Marks <>   Injury may keep him from contributing this year

DYNASTY STASH

PLAYER TREND ADP CONTEXT
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 <>   Crowded depth chart but chance to eventually be near full time next to JPP
Dominique Easley <>   Will get a chance to earn more playing time; could be good if burst returns
Scott Crichton <>   Not much upside here with Robison looking likely to recover from pectoral injury
Kony Ealy <>   Still not ready to assume starting role opposite Johnson
Tank Carradine <>   Still like the upside here and SF will give him a chance in 2015
Arik Armstead <>   Deeper league stash only; won’t get extended look this year
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