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Reading the Defense: Defensive Line Tiers

Updated tiers and strategy on how to approach J.J. Watt and 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 2016 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 UP for those players making a move up in my tiers and DOWN 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.

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

There are lots of defensive ends I like this year. Khalil Mack is a stud and may now be eligible as a defensive end in most league management systems. Robert Quinn should rebound if his back is healthy. Carlos Dunlap, Ezekiel Ansah, Everson Griffen, and Cam Jordan are in the prime of their careers and have 15+ sack potential. I love the upside of Jabaal Sheard and Vinny Curry -- two players you could have had for nothing last year who carry top five upside this year. And there's a long list of high floor talents, especially in leagues that lean tackle heavy.

Add in an intriguing mix of ascending young talent, elite talents returning from injury, and some promising scheme changes and depth chart elevations and there's a lot to like in this season's defensive line group.

In general, I like targeting defensive ends before linebackers. The linebacker pool is usually deeper. Injuries and depth chart movement have more impact among the linebackers. And defensive ends who unexpectedly emerge during the season to finish in the top 5-8 at his position by year's end are rare.

This season, while all of the above remains true, there's enough value at the top of the defensive line tiers to stick with a best defensive lineman or linebacker available approach -- making sure you secure at least one of the top 7-10 names on the defensive end list. Don't overdraft your roster. You don't need more than three defensive linemen if you start two each week. But don't shy away from drafting two linemen before a linebacker or four linebackers before a defensive end if you feel that's where the draft takes you.


TIER SUPERNATURAL | J.J. WATT

What I wrote last year still holds here:

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.

In 2015, Watt suffered multiple core muscle tears on both sides of his abdomen and groin and broke his hand. He still played 16 games and put up 56 solos and 17.5 sacks without any consistent pass rushing threat alongside. After offseason surgery, Watt recovered and reconditioned and was taking part in OTAs. He's entering his age 27 season and is still in the prime of his career.

In each of the past two seasons, I've argued that Watt should be considered in the first two rounds of your draft. I believe he's easily worth considering as the first overall pick in every scoring setup.

(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.)

I recognize you can get a DL1 rounds and rounds later than you can get an 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 again this year.

Watt could be injured or have a down year. So could Antonio Brown or whomever else you're considering with your top pick. Rob Gronkowski was the only other player who had a puncher's chance to run away from the next closest player at his position last year. He outpaced Jordan Reed by 22 points. Watt outpointed Muhammad Wilkerson by nearly 50 points in our standard scoring system (which leans slightly tackle heavy). Reshad Jones destroyed his closest competition by 50 points, too, but that's a topic for another set of tiers.

The pack may be deeper behind Watt this season, but good luck correctly choosing the best challenger to get within 10-20 points of the king. Watt represents supreme value again this season. Don't be afraid to draft him accordingly.

Bummer.

J.J. Watt's back surgery makes the above argument -- one I've written and put into practice in each of the past two seasons -- moot. I believe Watt will recover from surgery to address a herniated disc that's limited him for two years. But I don't think the 8-10 week recovery period originally provided will prove accurate. The two best comps for Watt here are Jason Pierre-Paul (same surgery in June 2013) and Dontari Poe (same surgery in summer 2015). Both players returned to play in Week 1, but both players would later say it was 3-4 months before they felt like themselves again. Pierre-Paul told reporters earlier this year that his back surgery was tougher to recover from than last season's amputation.

While Watt may make it back sometime during the first month of 2016, it may not be until midseason before he's anything close to his former self. And that's enough to drop him back to the pack.


TIER 1 | ELITE DE1

This tier has changed drastically since July.

J.J. Watt's back surgery has me worried he won't be himself until midseason. No longer in the supernatural range above, he's still near the top of this elite tier. Khalil Mack joins this tier after Rotoworld (and thus MyFantasyLeague) joined other outlets in classifying the stud as a defensive end for 2016. And I've moved Jabaal Sheard, Cameron Jordan, and Jason Pierre-Paul up into this tier. I just don't see that much difference between those three and the rest of the players behind Mack and Watt.

I like all eleven players in this tier. Mack is a half-tier ahead of Watt, who is a half-tier ahead of the rest. But it is very close from top to bottom. That's why I argued for the best player available approach above. There's little reason to draft anyone in the top half of this tier ahead of the bottom half, especially if it means giving up value at linebacker or an enticing depth target on offense. 

Robert Quinn has reassuring been practicing regularly early in camp after last season's back injury. Muhammad Wilkerson is off PUP and while he's no longer playing for a big payday, he's in a great situation and in the prime of his career. Ezekiel Ansah and Everson Griffen are two of my favorite young upside picks who proved they belong in the elite tiers.

Jason Pierre-Paul convinced me last year. He lost none of his quickness off the ball and effort in pursuit. He's had the benefit of an offseason to learn how to use his injured hand to better disengage from blockers and likely won't need the further limiting bandage/wrap this year. I feel like I'm underrating him here.

I love Jabaal Sheard this year. I tend to overdraft players who have shown production in limited sample sizes if I like the talent. I liked Sheard in my pre-draft evaluations and hated how Cleveland used him. A stud all-around talent who will see near full time snaps with Chandler Jones traded to Arizona, Sheard has a great shot at a top three fantasy season. And don't be afraid to reach to get Cameron Jordan either. He'll play a more traditional pass rushing role now, with fewer and fewer two-gap responsibilities. 

PLAYERTRENDADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
Khalil Mack NEW   Now likely to be listed at DE on most league management sites
J.J. Watt DOWN   Surgery to address herniated disc will limit him early in season
Calais Campbell     Sacks trending down but addition of Jones should help, tackle count elite
Robert Quinn   XXX  Returning from back surgery, only DE to challenge Watt over past five years
Muhammad Wilkerson     Stud w/ favorable stat crew in prime of career
Carlos Dunlap     Always around 40 solo plateau, showing more consistency as pass rusher
Ezekiel Ansah     Finally fully broke out last year, durability key to reaching 40-12+ ceiling again
Everson Griffen     Think there's more upside than 37-11 he's averaged over past two seasons
Jabaal Sheard UP   28-8 w/ good peripherals last year -- in 550 snaps, looking strong in camp
Cameron Jordan     900 snap player who will align favorably on every play this year
Jason Pierre-Paul UP   Pursued and played run as well as ever last year, pass rush should improve

TIER 2 | ELITE DE1 UPSIDE

Olivier Vernon looked great in the first preseason game and he has a strong supporting cast on the front four. But I'm not fully sold on him yet. I've moved Vinny Curry down to the DE2 tier. The Philadelphia defensive end rotation looks like an equal opportunity situation, with Curry, Brandon Graham, and Connor Barwin each getting two of every three series. More on that below.

The first two defensive tackle prospects -- Fletcher Cox and Aaron Donald -- get elite DE1 billing here, too.

PLAYERTRENDADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
Olivier Vernon     High floor option but needs to finish more plays in pocket to reach elite status
Sheldon Richardson     Could go 45-25-8+ in contract year
Fletcher Cox     Penetrating DT in Schwartz scheme still a favorable role
Aaron Donald     Arguably best DT in football, would benefit from healthy return of Quinn

TIER 3A | DE2 WITH DE1 UPSIDE

This is a weird tier. There's some bust potential in every player here.

I moved Vinny Curry down to this tier due to the rotational situation in Philadelphia, but I probably shouldn't have because I'm likely to draft him a round or more ahead of the remainder of this tier. Still, the risk that he sits every third series could cost him 250-300 snaps this year.

Mario Williams feels overrated here, but he had 38 sacks between 2012 and 2014 and five sacks last season despite seemingly not caring whether he was in the huddle or not. I still don't see a special player on film, but I can no longer ignore the production from Demarcus Lawrence. Proceed with caution, however, especially with the four game suspension killing at least 25% of his fantasy season value. Rob Ninkovich was a little higher but his recent torn triceps muscle has me a little leery.

PLAYERTRENDADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
Vinny Curry DOWN XXX Breakout candidate but rotation w/ Graham and Barwin could limit upside
Mario Williams     Has 40-12 upside but last year's effort off ball and around pocket worrisome
Demarcus Lawrence     Tape doesn't match production but hard to deny 55 total tackles / 8 sacks (susp x 4gms)
Rob Ninkovich DOWN   May be used more as rusher w/ Jones gone; has 40-6 floor

TIER 3B | HIGH FLOOR DE2

I generally won't draft these players. I'd rather spend up to get the ends with elite upside or wait and take shots on the higher variance, higher upside players to follow. But if you're in a deep or tackle-heavy league, this group needs to be on your radar as rosterable talent worth slotting into your DE2/DE3/flex spots.

PLAYERTRENDADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
Michael Bennett     Would be higher but has never threatened 40 solos
Jurrell Casey     Solid talent w/ solid surrounding cast but doesn't have 12+ sack ceiling
Malik Jackson     Favorable situation in JAX, could increase solos and sacks
Leonard Williams     Value boosted by assist-heavy NYJ crew, needs increased pass rush numbers
Derek Wolfe     34-5 in 12 game "recovery" season, likely to see 800 snaps this year
Cameron Heyward     Steady 35-7 performer; could improve if Steelers' offense generates more leads
Jaye Howard     Volume play -- stats went up w/ increased snap count last year
Stephon Tuitt     Bookend to Heyward w/ similar floor/ceiling profile
Corey Liuget     Limited by foot injury and conditioning last year, upside w/ Ingram/Attaochu

TIER 3C | HIGH VARIANCE DE2

I still love Brandon Graham. He'd be much higher if I was certain he'd get more than 700 snaps. He's the best risk-reward play in this tier. I also would love to push Danielle Hunter higher in the tiers, but he's not being trusted with enough base defensive snaps yet. It's a shame for fantasy owners. Clueless at times on college film, Hunter looked like he was getting it -- and quickly -- last year. Slot him opposite Everson Griffen for 800 snaps with continued offseason development and there's elite upside here.

The Panthers' defensive line got better and better, peaking in the playoffs last year. Kony Ealy was an important part of that. Still, I need to be convinced he's more than a role talent before ranking him more highly. Robert Ayers and Cliff Avril are better players than you'd think. Each has a chance to be more consistent this year -- Ayers in a new and favorable scheme, Avril to build on last year's anomaly.

Many of the players in the former tier jumper group have moved here. Dante Fowler has been dominant in camp by all reports. He's still likely to experience the variance all young edge rushers have as they develop their craft -- otherwise he'd be in the elite upside tier. Derrick Shelby's usage in the first two preseason games has me very intrigued.

PLAYERTRENDADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
Dante Fowler UP   Destroying JAX offensive line in camp, has elite upside if develops quickly after lost 2015
Brandon Graham     Will rotate w/ Curry and Barwin, finally will see 600+ DE snaps
Geno Atkins     Looked more himself last year, still in prime of career
Danielle Hunter   XXX Athletic but clueless at LSU, Zimmer coached him to 23-5 in 400 snaps
Connor Barwin   XXX Rotational role w/ Graham and Curry, can do damage w/ 600+ snaps
Robert Ayers     31 yo now but has a chance at a 35/10+ season if stays healthy
Derrick Shelby UP   Playing end in base and 3-tech in subpackages early in camp
Cameron Wake   XXX Already working in OTAs, many 30+ yo edge rushers returned successfully from Achilles tear
Kony Ealy     Flashed impressive edge rush, has DE1 upside if game comes together
Cliff Avril   XXX Doubled solo tackles last year but still only 31-9 over 16 games
Jacquies Smith   XXX 10 sacks in 18 games but only 13 non-sack solo tackles
Charles Johnson     2015 season was bust until playoffs, talented enough to consider here
Frank Clark   XXX Expect snap count to increase, 15-3 in 300 snaps last year

ROSTERABLE DT

Aaron Donald and Fletcher Cox are every week DL1. In leagues that combine DE and DT into the DL lineup slots, both Donald and Cox should be considered DL1. The next mini-tier includes Geno Atkins, Malik Jackson, Kawann Short, Ndamukong Suh, and Gerald McCoy. Atkins and Jackson are listed in higher tiers. Don't overdraft Short, but he belongs in the group of high variance defensive tackles that can be considered in the DL2 lineup slot, especially during bye weeks or prime matchup situations.

PLAYERTRENDADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
Kawann Short     Huge 2015 likely not fluke but lack of elite edge rusher could limit upside
Ndamukong Suh     Can still be dominant but has to finish more plays in pocket
Gerald McCoy   XXX  8.5 sacks over past two years despite poor health
Marcell Dareus DOWN   In rehab after four game suspension for substance abuse, has upside if returns
Dontari Poe     Back and ankle problems plagued him last year likely to rebound
San'Derrick Marks     Barely played after late 2014 ACL then midseason tricep tear

DYNASTY STASH

Leonard Williams and Dante Fowler have moved into draftable tiers. Mario Edwards (ongoing durability issues) and Joey Bosa (long holdout, unfavorable role) have dropped down into the stash and observe tier. Owa Odighizuwa, Randy Gregory, and Noah Spence are the next most likely young guns to put talent and opportunity together. Odighizuwa has to contend with a crowded depth chart, but has started to see regular duty in subpackages. Gregory has off-the-field struggles to manage. Spence will need a developmental year to realize his full potential. But all three need to be rostered in most dynasty leagues.

PLAYERTRENDADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
Mario Edwards DOWN   Hip injury has shelved him after first preseason week, durability continues to be issue
Joey Bosa DOWN   Holdout shows no sign of ending and killing any chance of early season production
Henry Anderson     Recovery from ACL tear progressing slowly, may not return to form until mid-late 2017
Owa Odhighizuwa     Seeing first team snaps at 3-tech in subpackages
Randy Gregory     Suspended 4 games but still running w/ first team
Noah Spence   XXX Needs to translate pass rush skill to pros and prove he can play run effectively
Deforest Buckner     Best pure 5-tech prospect in this rookie class
Jihad Ward     Attractive size-speed, already seeing time w/ first team
Hau'oli Kikaha     Had a chance at Top 15 numbers before 3rd torn ACL of career
Robert Nkemdiche     Has upside to become all-around interior line prospect
Sheldon Rankins DOWN   Broken fibula and surgery gives him slim chance of playing in 2016

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