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Defensive Line Tiers

Updated tiers and strategy on how to approach the defensive line position

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 2017 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. If a player has a chance to be classified at multiple positions, I'll add that player to more than one position.

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

I'll have a more detailed strategy discussion in future releases after I've considered the landscape at linebacker and defensive back.

I felt last year was flush with defensive line fantasy value. Most of those targets didn't pan out. Players with injury concerns like Robert Quinn and Muhammad Wilkerson didn't return to form and hopeful projections on Ezekiel Ansah and Jabaal Sheard flopped. But last season's misses aren't suppressing my excitement for this year. I again see 10-12 players with elite upside -- and that does not include Khalil Mack and Jadeveon Clowney, both of whom have an outside chance at defensive end eligibility on some league management sites.


TIER 1a | super-elite de1

Football players push the limits of recovery and J.J. Watt was no exception last year. Watt returned before recovering his core strength after back surgery and was ineffective and then re-injured. Back surgeries are scary for defensive linemen but we've seen explosive edge rushers have similar surgeries and return to full form -- most notably Jason Pierre-Paul. Though players are sometimes cleared to return in 3-4 months after microdiscectomy, many say it took 5-6 months to fully regain their former strength and conditioning. Watt will be ten months removed from his most recent surgery when training camp starts.

Watt was cleared to return to football-related activity in February and should be in form for Week 1. A healthy Watt is a dominant fantasy option. Despite the positive offseason reports, I'm tempering expectations a bit -- partly due to the multiple back surgeries and partly because there are so many players capable of 50-15 production this year.

Joey Bosa was shockingly productive last year. I never doubted Bosa's talent but worried about the long (and quickly forgotten) holdout that could have stunted his early development and the possibility he would see limited opportunity due to his expected 5-technique snaps in the Chargers' 3-4 front. But Bosa was immediately put into a position to succeed. The Chargers did not use Bosa as a base 3-4 end. They installed him as their nickel edge rusher and moved Melvin Ingram III and company around the formation to ensure as many one-on-one reps as possible for Bosa.

Unlike many other rookie edge rushers in similar scenarios, Bosa thrived to the tune of 30 solos and 10.5 sacks in just 562 snaps. It's a little risky to slot Bosa so close to Watt -- he'll have to prove he can succeed when teams game plan for him, he'll likely see more strong side snaps with Ingram at LEO in the new 4-3 front, and he'll have to maintain his production over 800+ snaps -- but there are exceedingly few rookie edge rushers who have done what Bosa did last year. 50-15 is absolutely within a reasonable range of expectation here.

I will not be alone in drooling over Danielle Hunter this year. It won't surprise me if I'm not alone in ranking him in the top three despite the glut of other talented players to follow. There's no way you could have convinced me I'd have Hunter in this tier two years ago. His college tape was maddening. Oozing w/ measurables and flashes of dominance, Hunter often looked like a moose on a frozen pond incapable of moving in a productive direction. But his rookie tape showed a ton of improvement and he was even more of a revelation last year.

More than an edge rusher, Hunter often dominated against the run. The Vikings gave Hunter 598 snaps last year, with the majority in subpackages, while Brian Robison played over 836 snaps. That ratio will swing in Hunter's direction this season, as Minnesota has already said Hunter will see the majority of base snaps in 2017. If Hunter continues to play the run as well over a larger volume of snaps, he may finish as the DE1 this year.

NOTE: Khalil Mack is a stud. If he's classified as a DE in your league, consider him the #1 overall IDP.

PLAYERTRENDADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
(Khalil Mack)     Likely to remain classified at LB; top overall DE if your league site allows DE eligibility
J.J. Watt     Only positive reports after second back surgery but no longer in his own tier
Joey Bosa     Thrived in 500 snap one gap role now entering prime as full time 4-3 defensive end
Danielle Hunter     Now starter and still improving after breakout 55 total tackles & 12.5 sacks in 600 snaps

TIER 1B | ELITE DE1

This is the tier you must focus on this year. You'll have to pay top dollar for Watt, Bosa, and -- I suspect -- Hunter. This tier doesn't have quite the same ceiling or floor but it will present very strong value. I don't think my advice will change after putting the linebacker tiers together. If you like this tier, wait until the first three come off the board and then take your best available from this group 1-3 rounds later.

Melvin Ingram III has 119 solos, 22 sacks, 11 forced fumbles, and 14 passes defensed in 41 games. He's moving to a weak side edge rushing role this year -- which might depress his solo tackle upside just a bit more than increase his pass rush upside -- or I'd have him in the super-elite tier above. Jason Pierre-Paul will have had two offseasons to adjust to his hand injury and should be fully recovered from last season's core muscle repair. Calais Campbell moves to a 4-3 end role for the first time in his career and will be surrounded by front seven talent. Olivier Vernon has answered every possible question about whether he can sustain production and it's not a stretch to see him convert a small handful of his huge pressure numbers into sacks this year.

NOTE: It looks like the Texans will use Jadeveon Clowney at linebacker this year despite showing a potentially dominant Watt-Clowney bookend last year. If that changes or you can get Clowney at DE in your league, he belongs in this tier.

PLAYERTRENDADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
Melvin Ingram III     All around talent moving to favorable four man front
Jason Pierre-Paul     Multiple core surgeries (back/abdomen) in recent years but still has 50-15 upside
Calais Campbell     Should continue to thrive among young and emerging 4-3 front
Olivier Vernon     Continues to build on early career numbers but yet to have double digit sack season
(Jadeveon Clowney)     Classified at LB in most systems but would slot as Top 10 DE if your site allows DE eligibility

TIER 2 | ELITE DE1 UPSIDE

We're 7-9 edge rushers deep and still looking at names with 45-10 upside. These five players have one minor wart keeping them from the top tiers. Carlos Dunlap still hasn't put together a consistently elite season. Brandon Graham was disruptive last year but didn't convert pressures to sacks at the same rate he did as a situational stud. Cameron Jordan probably doesn't have mid-double-digit sack upside. Aaron Donald moves to a defensive end position and will have to prove he can be as successful off the edge as from the interior. Everson Griffen has yet to top 40 solo tackles in a season.

Most of these players will be available multiple rounds after the top names. If you prefer to slough IDP until late in your draft and hoard offensive depth, you'll still find upside here.

PLAYERTRENDADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
Carlos Dunlap     Top 5 ceiling but 35-8 floor in deep class keeps him out of elite tier
Brandon Graham     Disruptive in all phases and good bet to convert more pressures to sacks this year
Cameron Jordan     Quietly dominant but would greatly benefit from secondary pass rusher in front seven
Aaron Donald     Moving to 5-technique role and will need to translate elite interior pass rush to edge
Everson Griffen     Above-average pass rusher but yet to show high tackle ceiling

TIER 3A | DE2 WITH DE1 UPSIDE

Outside of the large group of players I've labeled tier jumpers below, these five players are the most likely to move up or down during the preseason.

I think Leonard Williams could take another leap this year but he won't fit into the elite tiers until he shows double digit sack upside. He's not there yet. DeForest Buckner had a tremendous statistical season for a rookie and will move to a more favorable pass rushing role. But the Niners are on record saying they'd like to cut his snaps back significantly from the 1000+ he played last year. That could be a net positive but it's hard to argue that the high volume played a role in his numbers last year. Trey Flowers and Ezekiel Ansah (a player with elite talent and replacement level durability) are the two upside targets I feel most comfortable elevating about the High Variance DE2 tier today.

PLAYERTRENDADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
Leonard Williams     Will get 30 assists from favorable stat crews and has 40 solo 8+ sack upside
DeForest Buckner     Moving to edge role but 49ers say they'd prefer to limit him to 700-800 snaps
Muhammad Wilkerson     Should be healthy this year and capable of 35-8+ production again
Trey Flowers     Plays the run well w/ pass rush numbers likely to improve w/ higher snap count
Ezekiel Ansah     Lack of durability remains major limiting factor but remains under consideration here

TIER 3B | HIGH FLOOR DE2

I generally don't draft players from this tier. I'd rather have upside than floor. But Sheldon Richardson (in a contract year) and Cameron Heyward (recovering from injury) would be exceptions. I've added Michael Bennett and Jurrell Casey, with Akiem Hicks, Stephon Tuitt, Andre Branch, Derek Wolfe, and maybe a few others to be added later in the preseason.

PLAYERTRENDADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
Sheldon Richardson     Tough to project but has shown 40-8 upside and should be motivated for next contract
Cameron Heyward     Can safely project 35-7 but slim chance at double digit sacks
Michael Bennett     Talent does not routinely translate to statistical projection
Jurrell Casey     Can take advantage if improved offense leads to more pass rush opportunity

TIER 3C | HIGH VARIANCE DE2

This group has at least as much pass rush upside as Tier 3A but does not have the tackle upside. Those in sack-heavy scoring systems can combine 3A and 3C.

PLAYERTRENDADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
Jerry Hughes     Cannot reliably project tackle numbers necessary for DE1 upside
Cameron Wake     Remains one of league's most consistent pass rushers
Noah Spence     Still unclear whether he can play run well enough to hit 40 solo tackle plateau
Mario Addison     Snap count should increase but risky to expect situational numbers to translate
Kerry Hyder Jr     Revelation last year and will continue to see high snap count
Frank Clark     Tackle counts are a worry but still time to prove he can put up more than sacks
Cliff Avril     Not enough tackles to count on as more than a matchup play

Tier Jumpers | Redraft Watch List

I'll be watching Dante Fowler, Vinny Curry, the Tampa Bay rotation, the New England rotation, and Myles Garrett closely this preseason.

PLAYERTRENDadded big play valueCONTEXT
Dante Fowler     Inconsistent flashes of upside and will be surrounded by talent
Myles Garrett     Edge players need development but Garrett should see 700 snaps immediately
Vinny Curry     Limited by injury last year and played better than numbers suggest
Demarcus Lawrence     Multiple back surgeries and unclear rotation are concerns
Kony Ealy     Have not been impressed w/ play but warrants monitoring as Belichick target
Mario Edwards     Must prove recovered but nice opportunity in OAK w/ Mack drawing attention
Emmanuel Ogbah     Watch for signs of development and how Cleveland rotates edge players in preseason
Jacquies Smith     Bucs have more depth than ever but unclear who gets most high leverage snaps
Robert Ayers     Bucs have more depth than ever but unclear who gets most high leverage snaps
William Gholston     Bucs have more depth than ever but unclear who gets most high leverage snaps
Robert Nkemdiche     Still developing but Arizona depth chart wide open
Julius Peppers     Worth watching closely but not a redraft investment yet
Henry Anderson     Knee recovery remains uncertain but will get enough snaps for production if returns to form
Arik Armstead     Niners will play Armstead at end but may not see many pass rush snaps
Yannick Ngakoue     Situational pass rusher likely to see big drop in snaps behind Campbell and Fowler

ROSTERABLE DT

Losing talent like Aaron Donald is really, really frustrating. So much so that I've kicked around an argument that IDP leagues should return to a DL/LB/DB format. But we're still in a golden age of defensive tackle production. Even without Donald, there's more than enough talent to go around.

PLAYERTRENDADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
Fletcher Cox     27-17-6.5 was disappointing last year but snap count and talent suggest rebound
Ndamukong Suh     40-20-6 is mid-range expectation => DL2
Marcell Dareus     Has thrived in attacking fronts in past
Geno Atkins     Disruptive pass rusher but middle of DT pack due to weaker tackle numbers
Malik Jackson     Will play inside w/ multiple all-around edge talents keeping him clean to make plays
Kawann Short     Stat line regressed more than pass rush last year and should rebound
Gerald McCoy     Has struggled w/ durability but entering year healthy
Kyle Williams     High floor option moving back to 4-3 front
Damon Harrison     Tackle stud will not repeat 59 solo season but 35-30-2 well within expectation
Grady Jarrett     Continues to improve and has 6-8 sack upside w/ strong surrounding linemates
Linval Joseph     High floor option every week
Sheldon Rankins     15-4 in just over 300 snaps after returning from injury
David Irving     DT1 upside if snap count is there after suspension
Danny Shelton     Needs to prove capable of repeating tackle numbers in new scheme
Nick Fairley     Heart condition under review - do not add to roster until cleared to play

DYNASTY STASH

One or two of these players may emerge as worthy of a lineup spot this year. But none project to the volume or production necessary to consider as more than dynasty holds/watches for now.

PLAYERTRENDADDED BIG PLAY VALUECONTEXT
Derek Barnett     Eagles may give Barnett 500-600 snaps immediately
Solomon Thomas     Unclear where Niners plan to use him w/ Buckner and Armstead at end
Shaq Lawson     Still developing after shoulder surgery limited him last offseason
Jonathan Allen     Versatile and skilled enough to have immediate impact
Charles Harris     Three veterans will see snaps in MIA this season
Derek Rivers     Patriots will rely on rotation making ETA unsure
Taco Charlton     Could see 500 snaps this season if depth chart breaks correctly
Trey Hendrickson     Underrated edge prospect who could surprise in NO in time
Demarcus Walker     Developmental prospect w/ most upside on DEN depth chart
Jordan Willis     CIN depth chart open for long term value
Takk McKinley     Inexperienced and recovering longer term prospect in ATL
Malik McDowell     Seahawks planning to use as rotational end rather than 3-tech for now
Hau'oli Kikaha     Still watching Kikaha but number of knee surgeries hard to overcome
Tanoh Kpassagnon     Not great fit as 3-4 end but size and athleticism intriguing


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