Defensive Line Tiers - Footballguys

Takes a look at the landscape for defensive linemen in 2018 and breaks them up into tiers to help with your IDP draft.

Why Tiers?

Most fantasy owners are used to drafting off a simple ranking of players, but that can mask underlying differences that exist between players. For example, two players may be ranked right next to each other on a cheatsheet but there could be a wide gap in the expected production for them. In that case, you would probably want to draft the higher-ranked player a full-round earlier than the lower-ranked player. Similarly, there may be a large group of players with very similar projections that are bunched together on a ranking sheet. It may seem that a player ranked 10th is much more valuable than a player ranked 15th, but if only a few projected points separate them then they are roughly equivalent in value. Rather than force yourself to pick one, it may be best to focus on another position and then come back to this position in the next round since you’re likely to get a player of nearly identical value.

Grouping players into distinct tiers or buckets provides additional context that allows a drafter to make more informed decisions. The projections we offer at Footballguys also help a lot in this regard, but those are still static projections that may not fully indicate the range of likely outcomes for a player. For example, two players may be projected with similar numbers but one may have significantly more upside and/or a higher floor than the other. Those types of risk vs reward decisions are inherent in any fantasy draft. While drafting the safe players will typically help you build a solid team, you often need to take some chances and hit on some players who significantly exceed their preseason expectations to win.

Rankings are typically helpful in ordering players within the same position group, but tiers can help you figure out which position to take as you move through a draft. If you see a large group of linebackers that are all capable of putting up LB1-type numbers but only one defensive lineman likely to put up elite numbers, it’s obviously wise to grab the lineman and assume at least one of the linebackers will be there for your next pick. This helps you maximize the value of your picks, and is a strategy that all strong fantasy players likely use to some extent.

How To Use The Tiers

  1. These tiers are based on expected performance for the 2018 season in a balanced scoring system. While dynasty owners always need to consider long-term outcomes to some extent, the upcoming season is most critical for player value. I’ll highlight some dynasty stash options in a separate tier that you can focus on if you are less concerned about 2018 and want to focus on 2019 and beyond
  2. Positional classifications can differ depending on what your league-hosting website uses. For consistency, I will rely on the official Footballguys player classifications. For the most part, these should match up well with the major sources that exist online but there could be differences. Assigning edge rushers to linebacker or defensive end is the main area that causes issues here as the classification can have a huge impact on fantasy value.
  3. Will add an asterisk (*) for any players that have added value in big-play scoring systems. There is a lot of scoring variability that exists among IDP leagues, so if your league places added value on big plays (i.e., sacks, interceptions, forced fumbles, etc.), this information should help you identify some key targets in each tier.

DEFENSIVE ENDS TIER 1: ELITE DE1

There has been a changing of the guard at the defensive end position recently as there are major question marks with several of the elite options in this group. J.J. Watt used to be in a tier of his own, but is now trying to come back from his second season-ending injury in a row and there are doubts about whether he can return to form. Khalil Mack’s tackle numbers help set him apart from the field but he continues to sit out in a contract dispute, which could result in him missing time or even being traded. Joey Bosa has been an elite performer since entering the league 2 years ago but he has missed time in camp with a foot injury. Cameron Jordan joined the ranks of the elite after the Saints moved to a 4-3 and finally upgraded their secondary. Calais Campell was always one of the most productive tacklers at the position during his time in Arizona, but he found a new gear and led the talented Jaguars front with 14.5 sacks in 2017. Chandler Jones joins the ranks of the elite this year as he will move from outside linebacker to defensive end in the Cardinals new 4-3 defense. What Demarcus Lawrence lacks in tackle production, he makes up for with a relentless pass rush that saw him average nearly a sack per game last year. Assuming health concerns and contract issues get resolved before the season opens, each of these players is a sound DE1 to build your team around.

DEFENSIVE ENDS TIER 2: LOW-END DE1

There is a good mix of players in this group and some certainly have the ability to join the ranks of the elite but many have a clear knock (or two) against them. Aaron Donald, for example, is clearly one of the best players in the league but he’s held back slightly by the 3-4 scheme as well as his current contract holdout. In his first year as a defensive end, Ingram looked dominant while posting 8.5 sacks in 7 games before slowing down and posting just 2 in his last 9 games. Jason Pierre-Paul bounced proved his hand injury is behind him last year but could see a reduction in playing time with the move to Tampa. Everson Griffen is probably the safest option in this group as he’s been remarkably consistent over the past three years with an average of 34 solos and 10.5 sacks. Ezekiel Ansah appeared to finally put his knee injury behind him last year, but he needs more consistency as 6 of his 12 sacks came in weeks 16 and 17. Myles Garrett was drafted 1st overall for a reason and should quickly climb the rankings as the Browns improve around him. Trey Flowers has shown limited upside as a pass rusher but he is close to an every-down player and his tackle production elevates him to this tier.

DEFENSIVE ENDS TIER 3: reliable de2 starters

This group is composed of players who you should target as your #2 defensive end in a balanced league. Some of these players rely more heavily on sacks and some rely more on tackles, but most have a floor of 30 solo tackles and 7 sacks with minimal upside. Brandon Graham finally emerged with 9.5 sacks after many years of being held back by a rotational approach. Danielle Hunter is a talented young player who will try to rebound from a very disappointing season. Carlos Dunlap has been a consistent and productive starter for 6 years but has limited upside. Cameron Heyward is a 3-4 defensive end who will try to prove last year’s 12-sack season wasn’t a fluke. Yannick Ngakoue profiles as a pass-rush specialist but he averaged nearly 50 snaps per game. Bruce Irvin is the latest to see a huge bump in value after switching from outside linebacker to defensive end. Vic Beasley Jr led the league in sacks in 2016 and will need to bounce back from a down year. Frank Clark figures to see a boost in playing time this year with all the departures in Seattle. Akiem Hicks is the anchor of the Bears defense and has averaged over 900 snaps the past two years. Mario Addison had a breakout season at 30 years old and likely earned more playing time. Jabaal Sheard found a home with the Colts and should also see a nice boost in fantasy value with their move to a 4-3 front.

DEFENSIVE ENDS TIER 4: TOP BACKUPS

This is a large tier of mostly DE3-type players. They can be used as a starter when the matchup is favorable or if you are short-handed during the bye weeks. Many of these players are 3-4 defensive ends who don’t have much upside as a pass rusher but who make up for it with strong tackle production. That includes players like Jurrell Casey, Solomon Thomas, Leonard Williams, Muhammad Wilkerson, and Mike Daniels. Robert Quinn is an intriguing player who will try to get his career back on track in Miami after some down years with the Rams. If healthy, Markus Golden might belong in the tier above but he has a good chance to start the year on the PUP list as he recovers from an ACL injury. Derek Barnett and Takkarist McKinley are very intriguing young pass rushers with the talent to rise up if they get enough playing time. Julius Peppers turned back the clock and recorded 11 sacks a year ago but how much is left in the tank at 38 years old.

DEFENSIVE ENDS TIER 5: DEPTH PLAYERS

This group is mostly made up of veterans whose best days are behind them, or young players fighting for more playing time. Adrian Clayborn had a 6-sack game last year but only registered 3.5 sacks in the other 15 games he played. Trent Murphy was signed to start in Buffalo after missing last year to injury but has missed most of camp with a nagging groin injury. Dion Jordan flashed his potential with 4 sacks in 5 games last year but could miss the start of the season to injury. Anthony Zettel and Kerry Hyder Jr will fight for playing time in Detroit now that both are healthy. Alex Okafor looked great before suffering an Achilles injury last year and now has a rookie coming for his job. Cameron Wake is 36 years old and still a productive pass rusher with limited tackle production. Dante Fowler Jr Jr is having trouble emerging from the crowd in Jacksonville and also has a 1-game suspension to deal with.

DEFENSIVE ENDS TIER 6: DYNASTY STASHES

This tier is filled with rookies or young players who have untapped potential that may be worth waiting on. Charles Harris looks promising but is still behind Cameron Wake and Robert Quinn. Noah Spence is in a similar situation after Tampa signed Pierre-Paul in free agency. Taco Charlton in Dallas and Shaq Lawson in Buffalo also could be blocked by veterans from seeing more of a full-time role this year. Rasheem Green is a rookie 3rd round pick who figures to play right away in Seattle while the Saints paid a steep price for Marcus Davenport who will try to make the jump from a small school. Mario Edwards Jr could see a boost in playing time while Mack is out and Arik Armstead is a former 1st round pick who can’t seem to stay healthy. Deatrich Wise Jr flashed his potential as a rookie but could take a step back in playing time due to the improved depth at the position.

DEFENSIVE TACKLE TIER 1: Every-week starters

There isn’t a lot of separation at the defensive tackle position so you don’t typically need to pay a premium to draft one of the very first players off the board. In terms of Footballguys standard scoring, the gap between the 1st ranked player and the 12th ranked player is not much more than a point per week. In leagues that group defensive tackles together with defensive ends, most of these players can still serve as a 2nd or 3rd starter at the position.

DeForest Buckner stands out as the top option but he doesn’t generate a lot of sacks and the team wants to manage his playing time. Geno Atkins is probably the best pass rusher of the group, yet he could start to slow down at 30 years of age. Malik Jackson has a high floor with significant upside in a stacked Jaguars defensive front. Damon Harrison is one of the best run stoppers in the league but the Giants move to a 3-4 front his year could hurt his production. Ndamukong Suh could actually see a boost in his sack numbers after signing with the Rams due to their great cornerbacks. Kawann Short is one of the safest choices here with the upside to outscore everybody at the position. Fletcher Cox is coming off a down year but should see a boost with the addition of Michael Bennett alongside him. Gerald McCoy is one of the top interior pass rushers in the league but hasn’t always played up to his talent level. Grady Jarrett is the anchor of the Falcons young defense, while Kenny Clark was a 1st round pick of the Packers who came on strong with 5 sacks in his last 5 games last year. Linval Joseph and Sheldon Richardson give the Vikings the best defensive tackle tandem in the league, but will there be enough snaps and production for both to put up DT1 numbers?

DEFENSIVE TACKLE TIER 2: solid backups

This isn’t a particularly deep position as there are plenty of NFL starters whose primary role is to tie up blockers and make things easier for their teammates. Most IDP leagues that break out the defensive tackle position also require just one starting lineup spot as well, so these players may serve primarily as backups or bye week help unless you are in a deeper league that requires two starters at the position. Many of these players are young and able to generate consistent tackle numbers with limited upside as pass rushers. The key is finding players who are quick enough to stay on the field in passing situations as more playing time leads to more consistent production.

There are some productive veterans in here like Marcell Dareus, Clinton McDonald, Michael Brockers but the bulk of this group is made up of young players who can handle a heavy workload and have untapped potential. David Irving would clearly belong among the top tier after recording 7 sacks in 8 games last year. He’s facing a 4-game suspension and is undergoing treatment for substance abuse problems, however, so he may not see the field anytime soon. A’Shawn Robinson is a very young player who could jump up a tier if he can improve on his low sack totals. The same thing could be said for players like Sheldon Rankins, Dalvin Tomlinson, and Trevon Coley. Michael Pierce emerged from the shadow of Brandon Williams last year and likely earned a bigger role for this season. Malcolm Brown is still just 24 years old but has been a very consistent starter for 3 years. Eddie Goldman is more of a space clogger inside but has surprising quickness for a nose tackle. There are several talented rookies here who should play key roles for their teams right away in Maurice Hurst and Vita Vea.

Good luck in your drafts. Feel free to contact me with any questions or comments.

Email: rudnicki@footballguys.com

Twitter: @a_rudnicki