To take the temperature of the current IDP landscape, four IDP-loving Footballguys – John Norton, Dave Larkin, Aaron Rudnicki, and Justin Howe – recently sat down for an early-June discussion of four key IDP questions. Here’s what they had to say.
1. In a standard-scoring IDP system, of course, tackles are king. They’re voluminous, they’re (relatively) predictable, and the make up the meat of our IDP scoring on most weeks. As a result, many of the NFL’s most gifted pass rushers are mere afterthoughts in quite a few leagues. Justin Houston, for example, likely won’t eclipse 60 tackles in 2018, and therefore slots in as an LB4 type with standard scoring. Still, some of these guys carry true potential to reach 15+ sacks and/or create gobs of turnovers in the backfield. How should IDP leaguers approach the more one-dimensional edge rushers in IDP leagues? Should they shy away and put all of their eggs into the tackle basket? Or be more willing than others to take a chance on someone like Houston or Khalil Mack and their splash-play ceilings?
John Norton: This is a simple question that comes with a multi-layered answer. There’s a groundswell of support to tweak the IDP game by updating positional designations to include an edge rusher position. This is something that needs to happen since even the NFL is using the term. Anyone who followed this year’s draft on NFL.com saw a number of guys listed as edge rushers. These are the guys the football world used to call tweeners.
The reason such a change would be beneficial is that guys like Houston, Mack, and Von Miller are some of the league’s greatest players. It’s a shame their value is so limited in IDP leagues just because they may carry the title of linebacker.
Getting back to the point of the original question: when assembling a defense, it makes the most sense to emphasize consistency over upside from the linebacker position. Houston had 59 tackles and 22.0 sacks back in 2014; that season he was a top-5 linebacker in virtually any scoring system. The problem is that he has never come close to those numbers again. Mack produced 61 tackles last year along with 10.5 sacks. His total points on the season ranked in the Top 25 despite posting six or fewer points in more than a third of the games – a solid finish but not reflective of Mack’s actual, on-field dominance.
Dave Larkin: John hit the nail on the head with positional designations. The sooner we see league management sites – and the NFL at large – move to a more progressive labeling of positions, the more IDPers will be chasing these aforementioned great players. Like John, I am referring specifically to all outside linebackers and defensive ends being called “edge defenders,” while all other linebackers would be called “off-ball” (3-4 inside linebackers and 4-3 linebackers).
Some leagues emphasize a balance of scoring potential between these two distinct groups, but in general, it makes sense to eschew the Houston and Mack types and opt for more surefire bets at linebacker.
Aaron Rudnicki: Paying close attention to the scoring system is critical to any IDP league. If you are looking at the linebacker position, elite NFL players like Miller simply don’t have much value in balanced scoring leagues. They can obviously put up some huge weeks with multiple sacks that will help carry your team, but they are just as likely to follow those weeks up with some very low totals. The increased variability makes them risky and less appealing in general, since it makes more sense to chase guys who have a higher floor but still have significant upside.
That being said, there’s a ton of merit to the points raised so far, that IDP leagues need to adapt to the changing landscape in the NFL. It’s very frustrating to see players like Miller or Mack have their fantasy value minimized when they get classified as an outside linebacker, even if their primary responsibility is rushing the passer. They can be some of the most productive and valuable players in the league if they were grouped with defensive ends where they often belong, but often, they wind up as average starters when grouped with the linebackers. That’s of course due mainly to the disparity in tackle numbers. One solution is to create a new classification of edge rushers that allows these players to all be grouped together. Barring that type of change, it’s also probably a good idea for league managers to consider bumping up the scoring weight for big plays like sacks and interceptions to make some of these guys more valuable and maybe adding in more IDP Flex spots.
Justin Howe: Indeed, the first step in tackling (ha) this issue is double-checking your league rules. If you’ve already checked them, check them again – it’s easy to gloss over the difference between a standard IDP league (sacks are worth 2.67x solo tackles) and one that rewards splash plays further. A standard league runs on tackles as its primary fuel, and it ultimately punishes drafters for taking shots on more volatile (but also more impactful) players, like edge rushers.
The best way to approach a dynamic rusher like Houston or Miller is simple: don’t take them early, but be there to catch the value. Houston, for example, looks like a strong pick after the late-RB2 cohort – think Brandon Marshall or Vince Williams. After the surefire tacklers are off the board, feel free to chase the 18-sack potential. But coming up short on tackles spells doom in tackle-heavy leagues, and generally speaking, sacks can be found on the wire throughout the season. A few minutes spent leveraging available edge rushers with their opposing offensive lines can build sack numbers much cheaper than chasing expensive names like Miller’s.
2. Most are familiar with the typical tackle monsters at linebacker and target them accordingly. But who should we expect to break into that category in 2018? Give us two or three players who aren’t currently being drafted as fantasy LB2s, but carry the potential to chase 120 tackles cheaply.
Norton: In most years, this would be a relatively long list, but this year, it’s limited. There are several rookies with the potential to land among the Top 25 including Tremaine Edmunds, Roquan Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, and Rashaan Evans. On the veteran side, I could see Anthony Hitchens, Malcolm Smith and/or Preston Brown taking that step.
Hitchens has a solid track record of quality production on a per-game basis. The Cowboys never gave him the opportunity to be an every-down player, but the Chiefs will do so. Pairing with Reggie Ragland means Hitchens will not only have a secure starting spot – he will likely hold a three-down role.
After posting strong numbers in back to back seasons (2015-2016), Smith spent last year on IR. Reuben Foster is the favorite to lead San Francisco in tackles providing his legal issues are resolved, but history tells us the 49ers can support two big-time fantasy options at linebacker.
The Bengals have long been in search of a dominant middle linebacker. It’s hard to say whether Brown will be that player, but he will be given an opportunity. The big question here is: will he have a three-down role? While Vontaze Burfict serves his suspension, Brown likely pairs with Nick Vigil in sub packages. It’s too early to say whether Brown keeps the sub-package role once Burfict returns, but if he does, I like his chances of making the top 25.
Larkin: I will have to second John's mention of Tremaine Edmunds. He is an ideal fit from a skillset perspective for Sean McDermott's heavy zone scheme, giving him the opportunity to click and close quickly on ball carriers. Game scripts (aided by a rookie quarterback in Josh Allen making inevitable mistakes) will likely see Buffalo's defense on the field more than average, so that will help.
A veteran some may be overlooking is Shaq Thompson who, in all honesty, is still a young man at just 24. Thomas Davis' 4-game suspension for violating the league's PED policy opens the door for Thompson, who only played a little under 700 snaps last season. The Luke Kuechly factor has to be accounted for, but don't be shocked if Thompson ousts Davis and runs with the job.
In the “hope more than expectation” category, it will be interesting to see just how the Cardinals deploy Haason Reddick in his second season. The switch to a 4-3 scheme under new head coach (and former Panthers defensive coordinator) Steve Wilks should be a positive one for Reddick's value. We can probably expect a zone-heavy scheme where Reddick's athleticism will be a trump card. Are 80 solo tackles and 25-30 assists out of the question? Absolutely not.
Rudnicki: As already mentioned, there are several rookies that could blow up right away in Edmunds and Smith, but I assume they will be drafted very highly as well. Looking around the league, there are some clear opportunities to pay attention to. For example, Demario Davis put up 97 solo tackles with the Jets last year and moved on to New Orleans. Darron Lee is an emerging talent with plenty of upside there, and Avery Williamson could also rebound after being reduced to a two-down role in Tennessee last year.
Another player to keep in mind is NaVorro Bowman, who remains a free agent but was highly productive in Oakland last year. If he lands in the right opportunity, he could certainly provide great returns for fantasy owners. Looking at the Raiders right now, Derrick Johnson probably doesn’t have a whole lot left to offer at this point, so Tahir Whitehead is likely the most intriguing option unless they are able to sign someone like Mychal Kendricks.
John is right on regarding Hitchens having a clear path to a three-down role in Kansas City. There’s also Raekwon McMillan in Miami: they drafted him in the second round a year ago to upgrade their middle spot, but he suffered a torn ACL on the opening kickoff of the preseason. He’s likely fallen well under the radar as a result but should have an opportunity to become a three-down middle linebacker for the Dolphins this year.
Howe: As Aaron mentioned, it does make sense to target Whitehead. Common sense dictates we do so as an LB3/4, but that’s just because he’ll fall too far in drafts. It’s fair to expect another solid LB2 season as he moves over to Oakland. Whitehead can play all three positions in the Raiders’ 4-3, but he’ll likely settle in on the weak side, where he tallied 7.7 tackles per game and forced 4 fumbles as a Lion over the last 2 years. He’ll also be first in line to shift inside if/when Johnson breaks down, and could actually win that job outright this preseason. And Raiders linebackers can certainly rack up stops: as Aaron alluded to, Bowman averaged 8.5 tackles a game in the middle last year. Whitehead has been lost in the enthusiasm shuffle thus far and just oozes value.
There’s also K.J. Wright, who just gets no respect in IDP drafts. Wright is rarely taken as an LB2, as folks tend to chase upside, but he’s been an absolute tackle machine for four years running. He’s averaged 4.6 solo stops and 2.7 assists per game over that span, chiming in with 7.0 sacks, 18 pass breakups, and 7 forced fumbles along the way. Let your leaguemates chase the elusive ceilings of Burfict and Jamie Collins; Wright offers comparable production multiple rounds later.
3. As usual, the annual coaching carousel has several NFL teams likely to switch defensive schemes, from a 3-4 to a 4-3 or vice versa. Some of 2018’s candidates to switch are tasty options that include plug-and-play fantasy value around their front sevens. Which potentially-switching defense should IDPers be most interested in tracking this draft season, and which players from them should be heavy on the radar?
Norton: The easiest answer here is the Cardinals, where moving to a 4-3 will make Chandler Jones a probable top-5 defensive end with Markus Golden not far behind. The team to follow closest, however, is the Colts. There a number of players in their front seven with good IDP potential. Margus Hunt has the skill set to make a fantasy impact in leagues that require defensive tackles. At defensive end, Jabaal Sheard should provide DL2 value with John Simon possibly being a factor as well. Then there are the two second-round rookies, Tyquan Lewis and Kemoko Turay, who both have long-term potential.
The linebacker position offers some intriguing options as well. The tragic death of Edwin Jackson leaves a huge void and a wide-open depth chart. Antonio Morrison led the team with 64 solo tackles and 44 assists in 2017. Early reports suggest Najee Goode is the favorite for the middle linebacker job, but it will be a surprise if Morrison is not the Opening Day starter. Indianapolis used one of their three picks in Round 2 on Darius Leonard, who should emerge as the starter on the weak side. This is a young defense in transition, so chances are they will struggle, which spells a lot of opportunity for tackle producers at the second and third levels. Keep a close eye on the health of safety Clayton Geathers as well. He came back in a limited fashion at the end of last season; if healthy he could be a busy man in 2018.
Larkin: The New York Giants' switch to a 3-4, a foreign defensive system for them based on recent history, intrigues me. Up front, Dalvin Tomlinson and rookie B.J. Hill could be a nice pairing as space-eaters, while Alec Ogletree has potential to rack up the tackles. Olivier Vernon and Kareem Martin will be fascinating to watch as 3-4 outside linebackers. The real concern lies with Landon Collins: will the Giants continue to deploy him as they did in 2017 when he was so lethal, or will they try to fit a square peg into a round hole?
Rudnicki: Last year, the IDP world saw how important scheme was when Melvin Ingram went from being a middle-of-the-pack linebacker to a nearly-elite option at defensive end after the Chargers converted to a 4-3 base. We will probably see something very similar in Arizona this year, as they hired Al Holcomb from Carolina as their defensive coordinator and will move to a 4-3 front. That should make Chandler Jones one of the most valuable IDPs in the league, and could also have a huge impact on Markus Golden as well. He had a disappointing 2017 that ended after 4 weeks with an ACL tear, but is still in his prime and posted 12.5 sacks a year earlier. Reddick will also be a very intriguing player to watch if he can handle the full-time middle linebacker job after spending most of his rookie season in a different role.
Howe: Dave is spot-on that the Giants’ transition will be fascinating, but there’s concern to be had over Ogletree’s value. He was a round peg in the square hole of the Rams’ new 3-4 last year, yet the Giants paid top dollar to jam him into theirs. Ogletree fell to 6.3 combined tackles per game, down from 8.6 the prior year, and there’s a non-zero chance he just doesn’t fit well at all in New York.
Way down the draft board, IDP leaguers should keep an eye on B.J. Goodson and third-round rookie Lorenzo Carter. Goodson impressed last year, grading well and racking up 53 combined tackles in less than half a season. If Ogletree falters, Goodson could approach those numbers again as a fantasy LB2/3. Carter is a true athletic specimen (a 96th-percentile SPARQ star) who produced wildly at Georgia – 106 tackles, including 14.5 for loss and 9.5 sacks, over his final two years of school. Some draftniks went on record for him as a first-round prospect, in fact. If he locks down a starting job in the preseason, he could pay big dividends as a last-round LB5.
4. Which positional camp/preseason battles are you following closest and why?
Norton: IDPers should be particularly interested in the competition for the Rams inside linebacker spot next to Mark Barron. With Ogletree out of the picture, there is no clear-cut favorite for this job. Entering his third year, former undrafted free agent Cory Littleton is a name to watch. He had 22 tackles, 13 assists, a sack, a forced fumble, and an interception on 279 snaps last season, with most of that production coming over the final month in place of an injured Barron. Littleton’s main competition will be free agent addition Ramik Wilson, who came over from Kansas City where he was highly productive in a stint as the starter in 2016. Playing behind one of the league’s best defensive lines, the winner of this job has big potential.
Larkin: The Saints linebacker situation is worth watching. The signing of Demario Davis was an underrated one, and all signs point to him assuming the middle linebacker role. However, Alex Anzalone will be back after his injury, and both Craig Robertson and A.J. Klein have shown enough to warrant consideration. Bottom line: this could be a messy one on paper, so training camp and preseason will tell us plenty. There is value to be mined here, though.
Rudnicki: John hit the nail on the head in the previous question: the Colts are a defense in transition, but there is clearly an opening for somebody to emerge as a full-time middle linebacker. They drafted Leonard early in the second round, but he is a small-school prospect who clearly fits as a weakside linebacker in their new 4-3 front. That leaves an open competition in the middle between players like Morrison, Goode, and Anthony Walker. Morrison was productive last year and seems to be the incumbent, but Walker has been running with the starters early in OTAs. The second-year pro came into the league a bit too bulked up and has dropped weight to improve his quickness, which could help him earn a three-down role.
The Steelers also have a huge opening at linebacker following the career-ending injury to Ryan Shazier. Vince Williams has been around the longest and seems most likely to hold down one spot, but I’m interested to see whether Tyler Matakevich can beat out the unimpressive Jon Bostic for the other job. Matakevich was working with the starters in early OTAs, but both players will likely get a chance to compete once training camp comes around. Bostic was productive with the Colts last year but offers limited upside, while Matakevich is more of an unknown at this point who could surprise with a bigger opportunity.
Howe: The Ravens remain unsettled at inside linebacker. Terrell Suggs and Matt Judon are the outside men, primarily rushing the passer, which funnels tons of opportunity into the middle of the field. That’s where C.J. Mosley cleans up, but the job next to him isn’t staffed very confidently. Patrick Onwuasor looks like the favorite to start, and he did manage 88 combined tackles last year, but the team would probably like to platoon him with a handful of nondescript youngsters. If one of them can seize the job – or, if a free agent like Mychal Kendricks is brought on board – there’s strong fantasy potential here. Remember: Zach Orr managed 92 solos and 41 assists, with a smattering of other numbers, next to Mosley in 2016. Keep an eye on the joust for snaps among Onwuasor, Kamalei Correa, and especially rookie Kenny Young.