Buffalo Bills (now 4-3)
This is good news for fantasy owners. Not only do you get increased value out of your DL, but the linebackers’ value is much easier to define and rely on. Sean McDermott, as a branch of the Jim Johnson tree, and a major reason the Carolina Panthers had success on the defensive side of the ball, will reinstall the 4-3 scheme for the Bills. Exotic blitz packages and some Cover-2 components highlight this defense, which can be a huge fantasy boon to the players that best fit the system. Let’s take a look at the probable starters (and package guys that figure to get enough playing time to matter) at each position and discuss value based on the change.
Jerry Hughes (DE): Rex Ryan killed what upside Hughes had in big-play leagues as a 3-4 OLB. Moving him back to DL immediately shifts him back into a high-upside pass rusher. The rangy Hughes was thought of by many as a top-10 dynasty DL under Jim Schwartz, prior to Rex Ryan. Not saying he’s immediately back there but he should put up decent numbers, especially in a shallower DL pool. The potential for double-digit sacks and other “big plays” could make Hughes a weekly starter in all leagues.
Shaq Lawson (DE): The biggest jump, potentially, may be made by Lawson. The #19 pick in the 2016 draft only played in 10 games last year and was handcuffed by the “tweener status” as an OLB in the 3-4. Now he shifts back to his natural edge spot in the 4-3 and could once again be looked at as a high-upside DL. He belongs on larger IDP dynasty league rosters, but won’t be startable unless he can improve on his tackling numbers (never more than 1 solo in any game… yikes).
Marcell Dareus (DT): In leagues where DE and DT are lumped together, Dareus’ value is slim. But in leagues where you must start DT separate of DE, he remains a high-upside guy that should be not only rostered but started most weeks. He began the 2016 campaign suspended, then was hurt, but showed us what he could do when healthy by posting 3.5 sacks and 24 tackles in 8 games. Dareus will be a gap-buster in this scheme that could make some big plays.
Kyle Williams (DT): Williams is a giant dude, let’s get that out of the way. He had one monster season (2013, with 10.5 sacks and 68 total tackles), and since then hasn’t really done much, although his tackle total shot up as an end in the 3-4 last season. Expect Williams to put up just enough tackles plugging up the middle to warrant a roster spot in deeper leagues where you start DT, but anything over 3-4 sacks will be a minor miracle.
Adolphus Washington (DT): At some point, Washington may replace Williams as the starter opposite Dareus. He needs to work on gap responsibilities but has the athleticism to be a force up front. In leagues that start DT, he’s a name to watch.
Preston Brown (MLB): There was talk of moving Brown to the strong side or even trading him with Reggie Ragland waiting in the wings. But as of press time, Brown was holding Ragland off and was running with the ones. Brown had a huge 2016 and would be in line for a ton of tackles again in 2017 even with the scheme change - if he can hold off Ragland.
Gerald Hodges (WLB): Sleeper alert! At first, it looked like there’d be a no-name (Ramon Humber) or perhaps a rookie (Matt Milano) manning the weak side. Enter Hodges, who has had a few solid seasons in Minnesota and San Francisco. A bit underrated, Hodges will fit nicely in this spot and could be a big-time value, if he stays at WLB (see below)
Lorenzo Alexander (SLB): Really this is just a placeholder, according to inside reports. They want Alexander to be more of a “floater” and lead the special teams units. There’s talk of moving Hodges over to this side, which would open up the WLB spot to someone else. Alexander’s value is basically nil at this point.
Micah Hyde (SS): There’s some value to be had here with Hyde. A little undersized, Hyde was a do-everything type of DB for the Packers and will feel right at home on the strong side in McDermott’s offense. Won’t say there’s huge upside, but Hyde can move, cover and tackle. And he has absolutely no competition so based on opportunity alone, Hyde is a guy you should have rostered and could draw some starts on your team.
Jordan Poyer (FS): Like Hyde, Poyer is a little smallish, but he has range and has experience both at corner and safety. This is what McDermott likes in his safeties and it means that either Hyde or Poyer (or possibly even both) could have some value as a backup or even starter-level DBs in larger leagues.
Tre’Davious White (CB): The real upside play here is White. With Ronald Darby in Philly, White will probably be the Bills' "number one" corner. Many rookies that start at corner out of the gate get tested early and often, thereby increasing their chances at making plays (or at minimum, tackles). White has a ton of elite-level college experience and while his measurables won’t blow you away, his size fits the McDermott mold of aggressive corner that can play the slot and outside. That may translate into a lot of fantasy opportunities.
Kevon Seymour (CB): Seymour steps into the #2 corner role, and if White starts locking down opposing WRs early and often, it may be Seymour that has the upside, not White. Seymour was drawing heavy praise this time last year as a favorite of Rex Ryan. Let's see if he sticks.
Cleveland (now 4-3)
It looks like Cleveland is putting some decent pieces in place to have a fairly good defense at some point in the near future. If they want to win more than a game or two every season, their defense will have to come along quickly since the offense looks like a work in progress with a lot of youngsters. With a mix of solid veterans and a lot of good, young talent, new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams definitely has something to work with. He is known for exotic blitz packages in a very complicated scheme that typically only sees 2 LBs on the field much of the time.
Jamie Collins (SLB): Many depth charts have Collins listed on the strong side, and in most cases, the strong side means fewer opportunities for fantasy stats. Probably won’t be the case with Collins. Even as a pass-rushing linebacker, he will make his share of tackles and big plays, and that makes him a top-15 redraft and dynasty guy. Solid LB1 in all formats with massive upside in “big play” formats.
Christian Kirksey (MLB/WLB): It may not matter what you classify him as, but Kirksey - with Demario Davis gone - will be the other linebacker that gets most of the snaps for Williams’ defense. Kirksey is below average in pass coverage so he may watch some third down snaps from the sidelines. But in this defense, he should continue to rack up tackles. On sheer tackle potential alone Kirksey’s knocking on the door of the top-25 in standard IDP scoring. If you want a steady LB2, he’s your guy.
Other LBs: Tank Carder is still on the roster (for now) and may appear as the MLB on certain depth charts. Nothing to see here. Dominique Alexander was productive in college but is limited physically. But he’s probably first in line for snaps behind Kirksey, who’s fairly limited himself, so this could be a name to watch. Joe Schobert is also there, but he is just a guy.
Emmanuel Ogbah (DE): Great news for those that scooped the former OSU Cowboy up in their rookie drafts last year, hoping he’d be reclassified as DL. As an edge LB, his fantasy relevance was next to nil. As a DL he will be a name to watch opposite mega-stud rookie Myles Garrett. Ogbah logged 5.5 sacks as a rookie and would have finished as the 27th-best DL last year. With room to operate and more regular playing time, Ogbah could be a nice sleeper in larger leagues.
Myles Garrett (DE): The no-brainer #1 pick in this past draft, most experts peg Garrett as a “generational” talent. To me, it looks like he takes plays off and dominated weak competition while disappearing against elite talent But he “looks the part”, appears to have it between the ears and will be given every opportunity to prove he was worthy of the #1 pick. Gotta think Gregg Williams will design looks for him to bust through and rush the passer. With DL a perennial shallow position, Garrett looks to be an easy top-10 guy in dynasty formats. In redrafts, he’s obviously worth a shot but could have games where he’s stymied and held in check fantasy-wise.
Danny Shelton (DT): Shelton has some Geno Atkins to his game. Last year he topped 50 total tackles and playing between two aggressive pass-rushers could mean his tackle totals remain on the high side for an interior lineman. In leagues that break apart DT from their DE brethren, Shelton is an intriguing option. He actually had just a couple points less than Ogbah last season.
Other DLs: A couple of rookies in the middle to watch for here. First, Caleb Brantley, the highly-talented but volatile tackle from Florida. He could easily be released if convicted of misdemeanor battery. Or if he continues to take plays off. Either way, fellow rookie Larry Ogunjobi is probably the better dart throw. This fella just ran a sub-5 second 40 (at 300+ pounds, mind you) and sported the second-best SPARQ score at the combine. This dude is a physical freak and could be a major disrupter next to Danny Shelton. Especially since there’s just the ancient Desmond Bryant and so-so Jamie Meder ahead of him. Carl Nassib is the only other DE you should know. Don’t anyone freak out here, but there is a little bit of J.J. Watt here. The key word is “little”. He’s a lunch-pail kind of guy that works hard and has sneaky athleticism and a… wait for it… high motor. Some Cleveland execs think he has double-digit sack potential. Probably not with Ogbah and Garrett penciled in as starters, but definitely a name to watch, especially in dynasty formats.
Jabril Peppers (SS?): Let’s just call him a safety for now. But in Gregg Williams’ scheme, who knows? He could play up in the box a lot as a third LB. He will also figure into the return game, possibly returning both kicks and punts. Oh, and by the way, as he did in college, he may play some offensive snaps. This makes for a very interesting fantasy prospect. What other players have the potential to score in so many ways? Mix Williams’ scheme with Peppers’ range of abilities with the fact that this defense will probably see a lot of time on the field. Peppers’ potential is eye-popping.
Calvin Pryor (FS): Pryor comes to Cleveland after disappointing Jets fans back in New York for far too long. Can Pryor come back and live up to the potential? Don’t see why not. Playing centerfield and cleaning up what Peppers and the LBs miss on could be a fantasy boon. Or he could lose his job to a guy named Ed Reynolds. With Williams often running 5 DBs out there, Pryor should see plenty of time on the field.
Joe Haden (CB): Haden has only played in 18 games the past two seasons. In those games, he has 55 solos, 15 assists, and just 3 picks. Even at age 28 and hampered by injuries, Haden is still considered a fairly solid corner. No real fantasy value here, though.
Jamar Taylor (CB): Playing opposite Haden could give Taylor some opportunities, so in leagues that break out CB, he’s a name to watch. He did have 13 pass breakups in 15 games last season. Don’t get overly excited, though.
Other DBs: Nothing much to see here, even with Williams likely using more than the traditional 4 DBs in the defensive backfield in many packages. Ibraheim Campbell was penciled in as a starter before Peppers and Pryor were brought in. He and Derrick Kindred are below-average but could be next names up if Peppers and Pryor fail or get hurt. That said, Jason McCourty was brought in to help and before Pryor came to town there was talk of him possibly moving to safety. He’s put up fantastic numbers with the Titans, so keep an eye on the veteran.
Los Angeles Chargers (now 4-3)
Gus Bradley, formerly head coach of the Jags, comes west to lead the Chargers D. Bradley lines his guys up in a standard 4-3 set. New head coach is also a “D” guy (Anthony Lynn) and will want his defense to be aggressive.
Jatavis Brown (WLB): When he was actually off the trainer’s table and on the field, Brown was a monster, putting up tackles and sacks and flying around the field. He and Denzel Perryman (see below) fed off each other but also kind of vultured each others’ stats. Now on the weak side in the 4-3, Brown will have room to run and should pile up a ton of stats.
Denzel Perryman (MLB): Before Brown started filling up the stat sheet, Perryman looked like the Bolts LB to own. Now plugged into the middle, he will be a sure source of regular tackles. With Brown eating up the other stats, Perryman’s upside will be on the limited side. Still a safe bet for 100+ combined tackles, though.
Kyle Emanuel (SLB): As in most cases in 4-3’s, the SLB will have limited value here. Emanuel is just a space-eater that will be lucky to top 50 tackles.
Other LBs: Korey Toomer is now the odd man out in the 4-3, but will remain a valuable backup. Toomer had 75 tackles in 13 games in 2016. No one else of value.
Joey Bosa (DE): Bosa burst onto the scene (when he finally saw the field) last season as a rookie and now as a true 4-3 end he should continue to put up excellent numbers. He is supposedly going to play all season with a dislocated finger (as he says he did last season). Something to monitor, I suppose, but it didn’t appear to affect him much in 2016.
Melvin Ingram (DE): Big boost to Ingram’s value here now as a 4-3 DE. His value was snuffed by the LB tag as a pass-rush specialist. If he can repeat his 65 tackle, 10.5 sack campaign of 2015, or even the 60 tackle, 8 sack total from last year, he should be a very valuable DL.
Corey Liuget (DT): Liuget has seen his tackle numbers dip significantly but his value could be boosted by the scheme change. For those in DT-start leagues, he’s a name to keep your eye on or just draft and hope he can get back to form.
Other DLs: Jerry Attaochu would be the only name to monitor should Bosa or Ingram go down with an injury. Perhaps Brandon Mebane at DT if you’re in an incredibly deep league.
Jahleel Addae (SS): Addae was highly productive in his 8 games last season and should lead the secondary in tackles again. He doesn’t necessarily contribute other stats so you need to be happy with the steady stream of tackles.
Dwight Lowery (FS): Lowery’s a vet whose job is probably the least secure out of this safety tandem. In a pinch, he could prove useful in deep leagues.
Jason Verrett (CB): Between Verrett and Casey Hayward, the Chargers have one of the best and most underrated corner pairs in the NFL. Verrett has been beset by injury in his career and is presently on the PUP list at the start of camp. He should be good to go for the start of the season and could be a sleeper in CB-start leagues with Hayward on the other side.
Casey Hayward (CB): Hayward kind of came out of nowhere in 2016 to firmly entrench himself as a legit shutdown corner. Only Patrick Peterson rated higher in terms of covering opposing offenses’ #1 WRs. Somehow, Hayward finds a way to rack up a decent number of tackles and pass defenses despite his shutdown corner tag. Consider him a solid CB option in 2017.
Other DBs: Desmond King put up gaudy stats at Iowa but is considered on the slow side. If he can transition to the NFL, he will probably make his name at safety.
Los Angeles Rams (now 3-4)
Lots of changes in Los Angeles this year, with both the Rams and Chargers completely overhauling their coaching staffs (and defensive schemes). The Rams will switch over to a 3-4 under Wade Phillips. Through the years, though, Philips’ 3-4 tends to let players’ values remain close to what they were in the 4-3. It’s kind of a hybrid, and with the players the Rams have on the front seven, it should work nicely.
Mark Barron (ILB): Barron, once a safety, moves inside to pair with Alec Ogletree. With the likes of Aaron Donald and Robert Quinn creating pressure both inside and off the edge, Barron should still be able to roam free and utilize his safety skills to make plays on the ball and collect tackles. There’s a small chance of a small dip in numbers though based on the scheme change and Barron’s size and recent conversion to LB.
Alec Ogletree (ILB): There’s some cause for concern here. Ogletree was a Jeff Fisher guy, slated to roam free and be a sideline-to-sideline beast on the weak side in a 4-3 set. He converted over to MLB last season and struggled against the run. He will need to improve his run defense if he wants a contract extension. Consider this a make-or-break season for Ogletree with the Rams.
Robert Quinn (OLB): Quinn’s game had already suffered due to injury and just poor play, but the move to LB is a value-killer. Because Phillips’ scheme is a bit of a hybrid, Quinn will still have some pass-rushing-associated stats but not enough consistency to make him a weekly option at LB.
Connor Barwin (OLB): Barwin is a great match for this defense. He flourished under Phillips’ tutelage in Houston, amassing 11.5 sacks in 2011. Now 30, though, Barwin will be hard-pressed to repeat numbers like that.
Other LBs: Given the switch to the 3-4 there isn’t much to see here.
Aaron Donald (DE): Yeah that’s an “E”, not a “T”. Ouch. Talk about a major buzzkill for those in leagues that force you to start a DT. Donald was in a tier all to himself as a DT. He was so good that even as a DE he’s still in the top tier or two. But yes, switching to the 3-4 gives him a DE designation. Him not even being at camp yet is also not great. But once he reports and gets back into football shape he will be a dominant defender and you can slide him in as a DL1 every week.
Other DLs: Honestly, not much to see here. Michael Brockers could see time all along the line which could increase his value, but there wasn’t much value to begin with.
Maurice Alexander (SS): With T.J. McDonald departed, Alexander slides in on the strong side. Alexander has struggled to make plays for the Rams and at this point is a risky proposition. There will be some tackles to be made on the second level for this defense so keep an eye on his progress.
LaMarcus Joyner (FS): This is interesting. Only 5’8” and 190 pounds soaking wet, Joyner is looking like he’ll be the starting free safety for Phillips. Joyner was nothing short of a stud at safety in college and could put up some nice stats if he can handle the rigors of being a full-time NFL safety.
Other DBs: Cody Davis would be the only other DB name to watch, if only because Alexander has failed to impress.
San Francisco 49ers (now 4-3)
Complete coaching overhaul in San Francisco, too. Kyle Shanahan will completely transform the offense (many hope), and there is hope that Pete Carroll disciple Robert Saleh can stabilize the defense. Fortunately for him, there are some real stars - both established and younger - that can really make a difference and serve as linchpins on fantasy teams.
Navorro Bowman (MLB): After drafting stud LB Rueben Foster and watching Bowman reportedly look like he was running in mud during OTAs, it appears as if Bowman is a full go in camp and will open the season as the team’s MLB. If he can shake off the rust and avoid re-injury, he should again put up monstrous stats. Even with the rookie Foster siphoning some value from the weak side.
Reuben Foster (WLB): Foster will be playing with a surgically-repaired shoulder that will loom over his short and long term value. Even if he plays lights-out - which is a distinct possibility given his play at Alabama - there will always be concern over the shoulder. If there’s nothing to worry about - like the Niners suggest - then Foster could easily pair with Bowman as the LB1b and an LB1 for your fantasy squad. And with the recent season-ending injury to Malcolm Smith, the door is wide open for the rookie to produce from the start.
Ahmad Brooks (SLB): For now, the 33-year old veteran is manning the strong side in this scheme. Brooks has always put up a decent number of sacks but not quite enough tackles to matter from a fantasy perspective.
Other LBs: With Malcolm Smith shelved for the season, there isn’t much behind the big two of Foster and Bowman. Ray-Ray Armstrong has some upside should Foster or Bowman get injured. Eli Harold could push Brooks for his strong-side job but there’d be no fantasy value there anyway.
Arik Armstead (DE): Armstead is a giant (6’7”, 275 pounds) and simply doesn’t project as an every-down player. If he does manage to play every down, there could be situations where he shifts inside. Either way, his value seems to have a pretty hard ceiling at a backup DL in fantasy circles.
Solomon Thomas (DE): Like Armstead, he has the ability to shift inside, but Thomas’ upside is much higher just based on athletic ability and penchant for sacking the QB and making other “big plays”.
DeForest Buckner (DT): I won’t say he’s the next Aaron Donald, but Buckner’s shift inside is a natural move and he has all the techniques to be a force on the inside, especially with Thomas and Armstead taking up space on the edges. For those in DT-start leagues, Buckner immediately becomes an every-week start. In leagues that combine DE/DT, Buckner’s value may have taken a very small hit.
Eric Reid (SS): Admittedly, I added Reid in every league I could this off-season. He’s effectively held off Jaquiski Tartt, who does have some value (see below) and will be in the Kam Chancellor role for the Niners. He will see a ton of time in the box and his tackle numbers could be on the rise. WIth the amount the Niners’ D could see on the field, Reid could be a tackling machine.
Jimmie Ward (FS): Ward shifts over from corner to safety and will play the center-field role for the Niners’ D. A decent sleeper if for nothing else there will be tackles to be made and passes to be defended.
Other DBs: Jaquiski Tartt, while originally slated to take over the SS role, could potentially slide in at FS if needed. He’s very talented and could be a deep sleeper if the Niners shift things around