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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 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 ^^^ 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

I don't have an IDP draft strategy yet.

Well, that's not entirely accurate. Best player available is its own draft strategy. But I generally have a clear idea whether to strongly recommended an early or mulitple defensive end strategy or early linebacker strategy after the first set of tiers come together. This season, I don't have a strong preference -- yet.

There are lots of defensive ends I like this year. 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 deeper in most years, injuries and depth chart movement have more impact among the linebackers, and there only rarely a defensive end who unexpectedly emerges during the season to finish in the top 5-8 at his position by year's end.

Regardless of how you choose to approach the defensive end vs linebacker question, there's still one player who stands alone in every IDP scoring system.


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.)

PLAYERTRENDADPADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
J.J. Watt       50-15 would be a disappointing season for him, once-in-generation fantasy value

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.


TIER 1 | ELITE DE1

This is a true tier. I'd be just as pleased to add Ezekiel Ansah or Everson Griffen as Calais Campbell. This group is only narrowly ahead of the four below, who I think have similar upside but a slightly lower chance of hitting their ceiling expectation. If you decide not to draft Watt, I'd prioritize one of the next six players with the hope of getting one of the next four at a discount a bit later in your draft.

Robert Quinn hasn't been cleared for contact yet. That's something of a concern, but it's not clear whether he's truly not ready for contact or if the team is exercising caution with Quinn during the less critical OTA period. Carlos Dunlap, Ansah, and Griffen all made the jump from promising elite talent to productive elite talent recently. But I think there's more production in each one. The boasts of 20+ sacks we've heard projected for each this offseason are pie-in-the-sky offseason fluff, but all three have 15+ sack upside.

PLAYERTRENDADPADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
Calais Campbell       Sacks trending down but additional of Jones should help, tackle count elite
Robert Quinn       Waiting for clearance after back surgery, only DE to challenge Watt in past 5 yrs
Muhammad Wilkerson       Stud w/ favorable stat crew playing on franchise tag
Carlos Dunlap       Always around 40 solo plateau, showing more consistency as pass rusher
Ezekiel Ansah       Finally fully broke out last year, must stay healthy to hit 40-12 ceiling again
Everson Griffen       Think there's more upside than 37-11 he's averaged over past two seasons

TIER 2 | ELITE DE1 UPSIDE

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. 

If you see skill position talent you like in rounds 7-10, you could do worse than "missing out" on the elite tier and drafting Sheard and Jordan after the more recently productive names come off the board.

I'm still not sold on Olivier Vernon, but there's more than enough talent to succeed with this supporting cast. I won't argue with anyone who has him in the back half of their top ten.

PLAYERTRENDADPADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
Jabaal Sheard       28-8 w/ good peripherals last year -- in 550 snaps
Cameron Jordan       900 snap player who will align favorably on every play this year
Jason Pierre-Paul       Played run w/ pursuit as well as ever last year, pass rush should improve
Olivier Vernon       High floor option but needs to finish more plays in pocket to reach elite status

TIER 3A | DE2 WITH DE1 UPSIDE

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

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. I love Vinny Curry (and Brandon Graham and Connor Barwin) this year. They're much better fits in the new defense. I'm projecting Curry for the most snaps and most all-around consistency. He will move up if his play and snap count matches my hopeful expectation during the preseason.

Sheldon Richardson, Michael Bennett, and Rob Ninkovich are narrowly separated from the deep high floor DE2 tier to follow.

PLAYERTRENDADPADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
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
Vinny Curry       Breakout candidate but possible rotation w/ Graham and Barwin could limit upside
Sheldon Richardson       Could go 45-25-8+ in contract year
Michael Bennett       Would be higher but has never threatened 40 solos, floor earns him slot here
Rob Ninkovich       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.

PLAYERTRENDADPADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
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
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
Stephon Tuitt       Bookend to Heyward w/ similar floor/ceiling profile
Jaye Howard       Volume play -- stats went up w/ increased snap count last year
Corey Liuget       Limited by foot injury and conditioning last year, upside w/ Ingram/Attaochu
Desmond Bryant       Has more upside than anyone in tier if focused and consistent in approach

TIER 3C | HIGH VARIANCE DE2

If Mike Zimmer shows us this preseason that he's willing to trust Danielle Hunter for more than 400-500 snaps, he'll rank alongside Vinny Curry and Demarcus Lawrence for me. 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.

PLAYERTRENDADPADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
Danielle Hunter       Athletic but clueless at LSU, Zimmer coached him to 23-5 in 400 snaps
Kony Ealy       Flashed impressive edge rush, has DE1 upside if game comes together
Robert Ayers       31 yo now but has a chance at a 35/10+ season if stays healthy
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

TIER JUMPERS | REDRAFT WATCH LIST

Derrick Burgess, Greg Ellis, Terrell Suggs. Three elite edge rushers who returned to post at least one double digit sack season after tearing Achilles' tendons in their 30s. Cameron Wake is already working in OTAs and should be ready for Week 1. His all-around game was slipping a bit in recent years, but his pass rush ability hadn't. If he holds onto to his pre-injury explosiveness, he'll have value this year.

It's rare for an edge rusher to have a consistent impact immediately. Dante Fowler lost his developmental year to an ACL injury, but had an NFL-ready frame and bad intentions on film. He may start the year erratically, but be ready to move on him at any time between July and December. Rotational snaps may limit the upside of Brandon Graham and Connor Barwin but both are DE2+ talents.

The second half of this tier includes the younger talents I'm most intrigued to track during training camp. Others will undoubtedly be added here, but focus your attention on the progress of Frank Clark, Joey Bosa, Mario Edwards, and Ryan Davis in late July and early August.

PLAYERTRENDADPADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
Cameron Wake       Already working in OTAs, many 30+ yo edge rushers returned successfully from Achilles tear
Dante Fowler       Full calendar year to recover from ACL tear, 2016 developmental season w/ upside
Brandon Graham       Will finally get chance to play DE full time, likely to rotate w/ Barwin
Connor Barwin       Rotational role w/ Graham and Curry, can do damage w/ 400-600 snaps
Frank Clark       Expect snap count to increase, 15-3 in 300 snaps last year
Joey Bosa       Young edge rushers need time to develop; SD planning 5-tech role
Mario Edwards       Cleared to participate in OTAs, has chance to move up to DE2 tiers
Ryan Davis       May play mix of SLB and LEO snaps, 40-8+ ceiling if it works

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 alongside Sheard and Jordan. The next mini-tier includes Geno Atkins, Kawann Short, Ndamukong Suh, Gerald McCoy, and Marcell Dareus. 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.

PLAYERTRENDADPADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
Aaron Donald       Arguably best DT in football, would benefit from healthy return of Quinn
Fletcher Cox       Penetrating DT in Schwartz scheme still a favorable role
Geno Atkins     XXX Looked more himself last year, still in prime of career
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       Moving back inside; favorable stat crew gives him bump in tackle-heavy systems
Sheldon Rankins       Rookie w/ most attractive penetrating profile and stat projection
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 needs snaps and an improved pass rush profile. When he proves he's ready and gets the volume, he will move into the DL2 tiers. Danielle Hunter has proven he's ready to move into the upper tiers. Donte Fowler gets the benefit of the doubt for now. 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. 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.

PLAYERTRENDADPADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
Henry Anderson       Recovery from ACL tear progressing slowly, may not return to form until mid-late 2017
Leonard Williams       Value boosted by assist-heavy NYJ crew, needs increased pass rush numbers
Owa Odighizuwa       Crowded depth chart but if healthy has profile of DE2+ player
Randy Gregory       Suspended 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
Hau'oli Kikaha       Had a chance at T15 numbers before 3rd torn ACL of career
Will Clarke       Bengals hoping Clarke becomes what Hunt never became
Sharrif Floyd       Zimmer's scheme and Floyd's skill set should be perfect match
Robert Nkemdiche       Has upside to become all-around interior line prospect

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