Eyes of the Guru IDP Info, Part 2: AFC East - Footballguys

An overview of defenses in the AFC East with an emphasis on individual defensive players and their fantasy value.

Welcome to the 2018 Preseason Eyes of the Guru, where you'll get a team-by-team overview of the IDP landscape. Next up is the AFC East.

Buffalo Bills

Defensive Linemen

The Bills defense has not been good in recent years. The team hired Leslie Frazier last season to turn their fortunes but so far that has not worked out well. In 2017 Buffalo was 20th against the pass and 29th versus the run, while they were one of four teams to finish with fewer than 30 sacks. Frazier has been the architect of some excellent defenses over the course of his career, so instead of making another coaching change the organization wisely looked to make significant personnel upgrades over the offseason.

After trading Marcel Darius during the season, Buffalo added Star Lotulelei in free agency then picked up Harrison Phillips in Round 3 of the draft. The 14th overall selection in 2013, Lotulelei spent the first five years of his career in Carolina. The big man made a significant, on-field contribution for the Panthers during his time there but his value never translated to the box scores very well. His career best of 30 solo tackles came as a rookie but he has not reached 20 in a season since. Lotulelei had a personal best of four sacks in 2016 but a total of four and a half in 2014, 2015 and 2017 combined. It seems there is little to get excited about here in fantasy terms, but it is worth mention that Buffalo has a long history of quality production from the tackle positions. While he may not be a draft day target, If Lotulelei comes out of the gate strong we should waste no time picking him up.

Veteran Kyle Williams and third-year pro Adolphus Washington should be the other significant contributors to the defensive tackle rotation this year. Williams’ career has been a rollercoaster ride for fantasy owners. Four times in his 11-seasons Williams has exceeded 40 solo tackles with at least 4 sacks. In three other years, he managed 30 or fewer tackles and he missed most of 2011 and 2015 with injuries. He has been with the Bills through scheme changes and has played multiple positions for them including both end and nose tackle in a 3-4, and both tackle positions in a 4-3. Strangely Williams’ up and down box score success has not coincided with scheme/position changes or any other logical events. His best years were 2010 when he was 54-22-5 as a 3-4 nose tackle and 2013 when Williams finished 42-13-10 while lining up all over the Bills multiple fronts. There is clearly plenty of fantasy potential here but we should approach with caution. Williams turned 34 in March and the 20 solo stops he recorded last season were the fewest of his career in a non-injury season. The three sacks he posted in 2017 were second fewest in a non-injury year since his rookie campaign. What we have to figure out is if this was simply another down year that he will bounce back from or if his days as a top-10 interior lineman have run out. The risk of the later is significant.

Washington should serve as the third man in the tackle rotation but he could lose snaps to the rookie. Phillips is seen by many as a younger clone of Williams. He is both quick and athletic for a big man, with the size and strength to hold the point of attack versus the run, and the ability to contribute as a pass rusher. He is unlikely to make a big statistical splash in 2018 but dynasty owners in leagues breaking out the line positions might want to stash Phillips on the taxi squad for safe keeping.

Getting to the quarterback was a problem for the Bills in 2017. Ends Jerry Hughes and Shaq Lawson tied for the team lead in sacks with four. For Hughes, it was his lowest total since becoming a starter in 2012. This is the kind of player that gives fantasy owners grey hair. Hughes has the talent and opportunity to be a quality second starter but it is difficult to tell what we should expect going forward. In 2013 and 2014 he combined for 68 tackles, 31 assists, and 19 sacks, adding 6 turnovers and a defensive score. While the tackle totals have only regressed slightly, his big-play production over the last two seasons has been cut fully by half. The organization remains confident in the soon to be 30 years old. He is no threat to lead the league in sacks but if Buffalo can get things headed in the right direction chances are Hughes will be a big part of it. At this point, he is no more than a late-round target as depth with low DL2 upside. On the other hand, if Hughes looks good early on it is not a fluke and will probably continue.

The Bills used a first-round pick on Lawson in 2016 but so far their return on investment has been disappointing.  He missed the first six games of his rookie season with an injury and had a minimal role upon return. Last season Lawson opened as the starter but failed to make a strong impression on the new defensive staff before landing on injured reserve for the final four games. Speculation has Lawson fighting for playing time this year with the possibility of being traded or outright released if he fails to step up. Teams generally like to give early draft picks every possible opportunity before moving on. With the trades of Marcel Darius and Reggie Ragland last season, the organization had established their willingness to cut their losses with players that are not a good fit.  

The addition of Trent Murphy in free agency feeds the speculation of Lawson being on the way out. This is a situation that could pay big dividends for astute fantasy owners. From 2014 to 2016 Murphy worked mostly at outside linebacker in Washington’s 3-4. He combined for six sacks over his first two seasons with 2016 being somewhat of a breakout year. That season Murphy had career highs across the board with 27 tackles, 19 assists, 8 sacks and 4 takeaways. Unfortunately, his 2017 season ended in August with a knee injury. The rehab is on schedule and Murphy is expected to be available when training camp opens. The contract he signed is a three-year deal worth $22.5 million which is starter money. Clearly, the team expects a significant contribution from him right away. Because he missed all of last season Murphy has been a forgotten man in early fantasy drafts. He could end up a solid second starter for us by the time October gets here.   

Linebackers

Just as with stud rookie running backs like Saquon Barkley, IDP owners should never hesitate to jump on standout rookie linebackers like Tremaine Edmunds. It is difficult to find anything negative about this young man. He has throw back size at 6’5” and 250 pounds, while possessing the speed and athleticism of new the era safety conversion we are now seeing at linebacker throughout the league.  Edmunds has the experience of being a two year starter in the ACC where he was highly productive. Over his final two seasons at Virginia Tech he totaled 112 solo stops, 101 assists, 10 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, a recovery and a pick. He has the versatility to work from any linebacker position in any scheme and at least for now, has little competition for tackles. Edmunds is a leading candidate for defensive rookie of the year and should be no lower than the second defensive player off the board in rookie drafts with Roquan Smith being the other consideration.

Edmunds gives the Bills a great cornerstone to build around at the second level. Unfortunately, they are short on talent to put around him at this time. Matt Milano was the Bills fifth round pick a year ago. After working his way into the lineup late in his rookie campaign, Milano is the favorite to start on the weak side going forward. He is undersized at 6’0” 223 pounds, but has excellent speed and strong instincts. Milano’s cover skills likely mean he retains a 3-down role in 2018 as well, which could in turn lead to some fantasy value as depth or possibly a third starter. Milano was not particularly impressive either on the field or in the box scores in 2017 but the experience could prove invaluable going into his second season. 

Lorenzo Alexander had a career year in 2016 that included 12.5 sacks and the only top 40 fantasy finish on his 11-year career. Two years later the 35 year old veteran is in danger of losing his job all together. Everything about his 2017 was similar to the previous season except the gaudy sack totals. The role Alexander played in 2016 included a lot of pass rush opportunity as a defensive end in sub packages. With the new coaching staff, those extra big play opportunities went away for the most part. If he remains with the team for another season it will be largely because the Bills simply have limited options at the position. In NFL terms Alexander is a solid but overpriced, two down strong side linebacker. For fantasy owners, he is a one year wonder with a low floor and little upside.

Behind the starters, Buffalo has a collection of career backups and special teams contributors with no one likely to push for significant playing time.  

  • MLB Tremaine Edmunds- Rookie with perennial top-10 potential
  • WLB Matt Milano - Sleeper with LB3 upside
  • SLB Lorenzo Alexander  - Marginal value at best
  • WLB Julian Stafford - Career backup with no fantasy value
  • MLB/WLB Ramon Humber - No fantasy value at this time
  • MLB Tanner Vallejo - No fantasy value

Defensive Backs

In many scoring systems, the Bills gave us three of the top-10 defensive backs last year. Safeties Jordan Poyer, Micah Hyde and corner Tre’Davious White all averaged better than 10 points a week yet none of them recorded more than 65 solo tackles. One important lesson learned in over 20-years at this game; tackles provide consistency both week to week and year to year. Big play production is important but one big season is not a trend and is not something we can count on to be repeated.

Poyer finished highest of the trio in the final ranking. His 63 tackles and 32 assists are highly respectable for a free safety but much of his value came from 5 interceptions, 2 sacks, a fumble recovery, 13 passes defended and a score.  In 20 starts for the Browns over the previous two seasons, Poyer combined for 57 solo stops, 25 assists, 3 takeaways, a sack and 4 pass breakups. It is entirely possible the change of teams/schemes has put Poyer in a golden spot where his true ability and potential can shine through. On the other hand, this situations sends up red flags that say beware the one year wonder.  Another factor to consider is the addition of Tremain Edmunds at linebacker. If the young man lives up to expectations there will be fewer tackle opportunities for Poyer going forward. He is clearly a player worthy of a spot on our rosters but counting on Poyer as a DB1 could be a mistake. Let someone else roll the dice early on draft day if they so choose.

Some of the same points can be made when it comes to Hyde but there are some important differences as well. He finished last season just inside the top-10 on the strength of 65 tackles, 17 assists, 13 passes defended and 5 interceptions. The two most important factors in Hyde’s favor are position and history. As the strong safety, he will spend more time close to the line of scrimmage. This will naturally provide more opportunity in run support and should cause Hyde to be less affected by the presence of Edmunds. Hyde has a solid track record from his time in Green Bay as well. During his four seasons there he served as the third safety, seeing much of his action in sub package situations. In that role, he averaged 49 tackles, 10 assists, 3 turnovers, a sack and 8 pass breakups from 2014 through 2016. One downside for Hyde in his first season with Buffalo was week-to-week inconsistency. He reached at least nine fantasy points in all but six games but averaged barely four points in those six, including a pair of goose eggs. All things considered, Hyde should be targeted as a solid DB2 or excellent third starter heading into fantasy draft season.  

Corner Tre’Davious White was the other Buffalo defensive back to land among the top-10 in 2017. He may prove to be yet another example of what we like to call the rookie corner rule. When offensive coordinators see an inexperienced young player in the lineup it is like chum in the water to a shark. They will often try to exploit him as a weakness by designing plays to fool him and/or get him in coverage on their top receiver. These young players are targeted often which provides an accelerated number of opportunities. Rookie corners generally get into the lineup right away because they are special players so once they gain some experience and have proven themselves, the volume of opportunity lessens in year two. Corners providing quality fantasy production on a year to year basis are somewhat rare and highly valuable to IDP owners, especially those in dynasty formats. White was impressive as a rookie both on the field and in the box scores. With 53 tackles, 16 assists, 4 interceptions, a hand in 3 fumble turnovers, 18 pass breakups and a defensive score, he was the fantasy games second ranked corner in 2017. What often happens is players like White see their tackle totals go down over time while the big play production sometimes goes up. The moral of this story being, White should still be a solid option in corner required leagues but he will be hard pressed to repeat the top five finish at the position.

The Bills added several players to their secondary over the offseason. Vontae Davis was among the best corners on the free agent market and should start opposite White. Phillip Gaines comes over from the Chiefs and brings four years of experience as a slot corner. The team drafted corner Taron Johnson in round four and safety/corner Siran Neal in the fifth to provide depth as they are groomed for possible bigger roles in the future. This group should make the secondary better right away but none of them appear likely to make a significant box score impact in 2018.   

Miami Dolphins

Defensive Linemen

The Dolphins have a long way to go defensively after a 2017 season that saw them finish in the bottom half of the league against both pass and run. Only five teams recorded fewer sacks while three teams had fewer takeaways.  There are changes up front heading into 2018 but it remains to be seen if Miami has made much improvement.

Cameron Wake is a known commodity here. After missing more than half of 2015 due to injury, the 36-year-old has played 32 straight games, proving durability is not an issue. With 21.5 sacks over that span of games, he has shown that getting to the passer is still not a problem either. In fact, the only problem with Wake in terms of IDP value is the lack of quality tackle totals. He has reached 30 once since 2012 and has fallen short of 25 in each of the last two years. As a result, the week-to-week inconsistency limits Wake’s value to that of a bye-week fill-in or matchup based DL2 at best.

Miami added Robert Quinn over the offseason to start opposite Wake. This could turn out to be a great move for the organization, but on paper, it brings as many questions as answers. From 2012 to 2014 Quinn was a beast, recording at least 10.5 sacks per season with a monster 2013 that included 50 solo tackles, 19 sacks, 7 forced fumbles, 2 recoveries, a score and a top-3 slot on the final fantasy rankings at the position. The wheels came off in 2015 as Quinn endured the first of two injury plagued seasons in which he suited up for 16 total games and recorded 9 total sacks. Quinn was healthy for 15 contests last year but was miscast as an outside linebacker when the Rams shifted to a 3-4 scheme. Even so, he managed a respectable 7.5 sack on the year. The 28 year old is back in his natural position as a 4-3 end and seems to have put the injuries behind him. If Quinn can return to form both the Dolphins and those fantasy owners who grab in the later rounds will have a steal. Target him in the area of a priority DL2 and be prepared to play him as your top gun at the position.

The Dolphins have quality veteran depth in William Hayes and Andre Branch. Both are experienced and capable of stepping into a starting role if needed. Both also have the versatility to play inside if called upon. Neither player has much fantasy upside however.  Hayes enters season 11 and has a career bests of 6.5 sacks in 2012 and 37 tackles in 2015. Branch is a seven year veteran with a career best of 30 tackles and 6 sacks in 2013.

The Wildcard among the Dolphins front four is last year’s first round pick Charles Harris. Back in February head coach Adam Gase said Harris would compete for a starting job. Of course, this was before the addition of Quinn and the loss of Ndamukong Suh. Gase never said at what position Harris would compete so there is speculation he will see a lot of time at tackle, at least in sub package situations. Harris played at around 253 pounds as a rookie. To be an every down tackle in today’s NFL he would need to pack on some muscle and get up into the 270 range at the least. It might make a lot of sense for the team to have him start at end in base packages and shift inside on passing downs. This would save a lot of wear and tear on Wake while putting Harris in a prominent role. Should Harris end up in a swing role, which seems likely, his positional designation could prove vital in terms of IDP value. As a defensive end, he might be the third best fantasy option on his own team. At the production-starved tackle position, he could be an every week starter for many of us.

There will be plenty of competition to determine the pecking order at the interior positions. Davon Godchaux earned a starting role as a rookie last season partly due to Jordan Phillips battling injuries early in the year. Second year pro Vincent Taylor will be in the mix for playing time as will veteran free agent addition Akeem Spence. Other than the possibility of Harris, none of Miami’s interior linemen give us a reason to expect much in the box scores at this point.

Linebackers

The linebacker positions in Miami are loaded with opportunity and potential. The question is do they have anyone capable of fully capitalizing on it? Unfortunately, it might be mid October before we know the answer for sure. Kiko Alonso is a safe bet to provide at least some solid value. After a huge rookie season with the Bills in 2013, Alonso suffered a devastating knee injury before the start of year two. He got back on the field some with the Eagles in 2015 but was far from completely recovered. Alonso joined the linebacker needy Dolphins in 2016 and looked much better. His tackle totals remained well short of the marks set as a rookie but seven turnovers and a defensive score helped pushed him to a top-20 finish among linebackers. Alonso’s tackle numbers continued to improve in 2017 but much of the big play production faded. With 79 tackles, 36 assists, a pair of forced fumbles and a sack, he was outside the top-20 but remained a solid LB3 option. What we have seen from him over the last two years is probably a strong indication of what we can expect going forward. He may never be that explosive IDP stud we saw as a rookie but can be counted on as a solid LB2 or excellent third starter.

Alonso is the safe target here but second year man Raekwon McMillan probably has more upside. The 2017 second-round pick was set to open as the starting middle linebacker last year before suffering a knee injury in the first preseason game. McMillan had solid numbers as a two year starter at Ohio State before declaring for the draft after his junior season.  He is a physical player with prototypical size for the position and the kind of leadership skills the defense is in dire need of. The only real question from the outside entering last season was McMillan’s ability to handle coverage in sub packages. Miami’s coaching staff has never expressed those concerns and is counting on him as a three-down player and leader of the defense for years to come. There is always a risk with unproven young players but McMillan is a prime target for those in search of value after the first 20 linebackers are gone.

Stephone Anthony has been working with the starters at strong side linebacker. He is far from a lock to hold that position when we get to September and even if he does it will be in a 2-down role with no fantasy value. Anthony will have to fend off former Seahawk Terence Garvin for the job.

The other player to keep an eye on here is rookie Jerome Baker. Another Ohio State player that came out after his junior season; Baker is blazing fast with exceptional cover skills in both zone and man. If either McMillan or Alonso struggle with coverage duties, Baker could see sub package time early on. Scouting reports point to a lack of toughness and instincts as problems Baker will need to overcome before mounting a serious challenge for the starting job on the weak side, but we never know when an injury might force the issue.

Defensive Backs

Strong safety Reshad Jones is easily the top IDP target on the team. He has a rare combination of linebacker size with free safety speed and cover skills. Jones has settled in at strong safety in recent years but is capable of playing either safety spot or weak side linebacker. He is both tenacious in run support and opportunistic in coverage but most importantly for us, Jones is on an elite tier with little company in terms of box score production. He has been the game’s top defensive back in two of the last three seasons and may be on a streak of three in a row if not for an injury early in 2016. In the box scores Jones simply does it all. In 2015, he totaled 107 solo stops with 6 takeaways and a pair of scores. Last season Jones piled up 94 solo stops with 5 takeaways and a pair of scores. If not for Landon Collins, Jones would be the clear cut top target at the position. No one else is close to these two. In fact, they are so far above the field there can be an argument made for taking either of them among the first defenders off the board.  

In years past the IDP value in Miami’s secondary stopped with Jones; that may not be the case in 2018. The Dolphins have invested heavily at these positions in recent years and continued to do so by selecting Minkah Fitzpatrick in the first round this spring. This player is an outstanding talent with huge potential both on the field and in the box scores. The problem for fantasy owners (and possibly the Dolphins coaches as well) is figuring out how he will be used and if the on field contribution will be reflected in the stat columns. We are starting to see a lot of these type players in the league. Fellow rookie Terrell Edmunds of the Steelers is another one as are Su’a Cravens, Obi Melifonwu, and Jabrill Peppers. These guys were are all talented college players with a similarly versatile skill set and the same problem now that they are in the NFL, no one has figured out how to take full advantage of their abilities yet. The argument can be made that Fitzpatrick is a more talented player than any of these guys but they were all first or second round picks by their respective teams.  The Dolphins are in need of a free safety so simply plugging Fitzpatrick into that role and letting him play might be the best thing for him, the team and fantasy owners.  

T.J. McDonald is a super sized safety who lined up next to Jones over the second half of last season. While he worked from a free safety alignment much of the time, it is not a role he is suited for. In fact, McDonald could easily be the next strong safety to be converted to weak side linebacker or to work as a linebacker in nickel situations. However, he fits into the Dolphins plan it seems unlikely McDonald will hold an every-down role in 2018.

Xavien Howard was the team’s second round pick in 2016. He moved into the starting role last season and is set to continue there in 2018. Last year’s third round selection Cordrea Tankersly is the favorite to join him in base packages with veterans Tony Lippett and Bobby McClain competing for sub package work. None of this is written in stone however, with only Howard’s status being secure. Lippett was a starter in 2016 and was in line for the job last summer when injury struck. The bottom line here is Miami has some good young corners in the fold and a secondary that could emerge as the strength of the defense. What they do not have is a corner with obvious fantasy value. In fact, no Dolphins corner has produced more than 45 solo stops or 4 interceptions in at least four years. Nothing suggests that will change this season.

  • SS Reshad Jones – Elite tier one with the potential to be the top DB for a third time in four years
  • SS T.J. McDonald – Potential is there but the opportunity is probably not
  • FS Minkah Fitzpatrick – Big upside with value ultimately decided by role
  • FS Trae Elston – No fantasy value
  • CB Xavien Howard – Possible depth in corner-required leagues
  • CB Tony Lippett – No fantasy value at this time
  • CB Cordrea Tankersly - No fantasy value at this time
  • CB Bobby McCain – No fantasy value at this time
  • CB Cornell Armstrong - No fantasy value at this time

New England Patriots

Defensive Linemen

The Patriots defense is much like their offense; plenty of production but difficult to figure out where it will come from on any given week. This is a unit that recorded 42 sacks last season so it would stand to reason there would be at least one standout pass rusher. There were 13 Patriots defenders with at least one sack last season, 5 of them were defensive linemen including Trey Flowers who led the team with six and a half. In all, the defensive line group accounted for 17 sacks while the linebackers added 21 split among seven players. These statistics illustrate two important factors; New England uses a lot of players and their hybrid scheme tends to spread the production out among them. They are generally considered a 4-3 team but the Patriots will switch back and forth between three and four man fronts at the drop of a hat. While all this lowers the ceiling for New England players in general, there are some who still give us solid value.

The versatility of Flowers keeps him on the field no matter what the alignment. He will play end in four man fronts and can line up at end or outside linebacker in three man fronts. As a result, Flowers was on the field for about 80% of the team’s defensive snaps last season despite missing a couple games. All the main league-management sites recognize him as a defensive end so the 43 tackles, 18 assists, 6.5 sacks and 2 forced fumbles made Flowers top-12 at the position with a point per game average inside the Top-10. The target numbers for IDP owners when it comes to starting defensive ends are 40 tackles and double digit sacks. Flowers is not the only New England lineman with the upside to reach those totals but he is the most likely to do so. Target him as a low DL1 or priority DL2 if you think he will fall that far.

It will be interesting to see how the Patriots defense evolves with Matt Patricia gone, especially since the team elected not to hire a replacement.  This organization has a reputation for adapting their scheme to the available talent so it will also be interesting to see if the free agent addition of Adrian Clayborn and presence of a healthy Derek Rivers has an effect on the approach. This is a talented group of 4-3 ends that could give the team something they have been missing since the trade of Chandler Jones.

Clayborn is a player we will want to watch closely this summer as he seems a perfect fit for New England. He is not a star but does a lot of things well. Clayborn has the versatility to play end in either three or four man fronts and can shift inside on passing downs in a 4-3. He is strong versus the run and is coming off a career best of nine and a half sacks. Injuries derailed his career early on. After going 27-13-7.5 and forcing 3 fumbles as a rookie in 2011, he missed almost all of 2012. Clayborn had his best year as a pro in 2013 going 44-20-6 with a pair of turnovers. He followed that by playing in one game the following season due to injury, and the Buccaneers let him walk. The injury bug seems to be behind him as Clayborn missed three games in three seasons with Atlanta (all in 2016). He failed to reach 20 solo stops in any of those three seasons but his sack production steadily climbed from three in 2015 to four and a half in 2016 and nine and a half last year when he added five turnovers. Before writing off Clayborn due to low tackle production, fantasy owners should consider the multi-player rotational system in Atlanta which pretty well limits all their linemen to barely half the snaps. He is far from a sure thing but Clayborn has the potential to be a 40 tackle and 10 sack guy with the Patriots. At worst he should provide solid depth for us.

Derek Rivers is the wildcard in the mix here. He was the Patriots top pick last spring, joining the team in round three after they had traded away their first and second round selections. He was working with the first team as a rookie before going down with an ACL injury early in camp. Rivers is back on the field this offseason and is once again seeing time at left end with the first unit. There is little doubt he will have a significant role but it is hard to say what we should expect in the box scores. For those with drafts early this summer it is best to approach Rivers as a late round DL4 with upside. He has a little more value in dynasty leagues, especially if he can be stashed on a taxi squad. Hopefully, we will have a better feel for what to expect from Rivers by the time those late summer drafts get here.

Deatrich Wise Jr and Eric Lee got into the action last season as Rivers’ injury left the coaching staff in a struggle to replace Rob Ninkovich. Both players flashed on the field and received praise from the coaching staff but chances are neither will be more than part time contributors buried in the rotation.   

In 2017 the Patriots gave us a pair of top-20 interior linemen. Malcom Brown missed three games but slipped in right around DT12 in most tackle required leagues in terms of point-per-game average. Lawrence Guy played a full slate of games ending up just inside the Top 20. Brown has turned in similar numbers in each of his three seasons as a pro. Around 30 tackles, 20 assists, and 3 sacks are safe expectations for a player that should give us another solid season. Guy, however, will probably see his playing time drop due to the addition of Danny Shelton and the return of 2016 third-round pick Vincent Valentine, who missed last year with an injury. New England has a lot of beef on the inside which they hope will change the fortunes of their 31st ranked rune defense from a year ago. Outside of Brown however, IDP owners will have to wait and see if someone emerges.  

Linebackers

The Patriots were a little needy at the linebacker positions even before trading their best one (Jamie Collins Sr) to Cleveland during the 2016 season. A subsequent trade landed Kyle Van Noy who has since stepped into the lead role formerly held by Collins. Van Noy may not be a special talent in the eyes of many but his skill set is a good fit. He has the versatility to handle multiple responsibilities, the football IQ to limit mistakes and enough physical talent to succeed in coverage, run support and as a pass rusher.

In fantasy terms, Van Noy is vastly underrated by most owners. A glance at his 2017 totals can explain why but a deeper look will cast him in a different light. A mark of 59 tackles, 15 assists and 5.5 sacks with no other big play production is nothing to get excited about. If we take into consideration he missed three games and nearly all of a fourth with injury, then sat out nearly all of week 17 when the team was resting starters, those numbers suddenly look a lot better. Before missing the final four plus games Van Noy was on pace for 84 tackles, 20 assists and 7.5 sacks. Granted those are not stellar numbers but they are certainly strong enough to make him a quality third starter. Sprinkle in a few big plays and he becomes a solid LB2. There is a good reason to believe the big plays will come. The Lions never gave him an opportunity but seven games in a part time role with the Patriots in 2016 produced a pair of turnovers. A look back at his college career at Brigham Young will really make us think. In four years there Van Noy totaled 25 sacks, 7 interceptions, forced 5 fumbles, recovered 4 and scored 4 times. Target him as a quality LB3 with strong upside.  

Beyond Van Noy, the Patriots linebacker corps has little to offer IDP owners. Don’t’a Hightower is one of the biggest teases in the game. He will blow up two or three times a season but has never been able to sustain useful production. Injuries have been a considerable factor throughout his career but the bigger issue has been an inability to earn sub package snaps. At a whopping 265 pounds, Hightower is a physical two-down thumper who will go a long way toward improving the team’s run defense if he can stay healthy. IDP owners need to look no further than he face he has never recorded more than 55 solo tackles in a season.   

New England has neglected the second level all together in recent years. They have managed to hold it together with a collection of unknown young players and bargain basement free agents plugging holes. While they have still not been willing to commit resources to any high profile players at the position, the organization did use fifth and sixth round draft picks on Ja’Whaun Bentley and Christian Sam respectively this spring. Bentley is basically a clone of Hightower; big (260 pounds), strong and physical with below average speed that will limit his role. 

Sam is a developmental type we will want to keep track of. His scouting report says things like average speed and athleticism with questionable football character. It also says he has the size and play strength to handle middle linebacker duties with the versatility to play weak side. The Patriots organization has a way of getting the most out of players so the questionable football character is probably going to be a non-issue and we have seen a lot of great NFL linebackers with average speed and athleticism. When it comes to young players like this it is always good to take a look at college production. In that area, Sam checks all the boxes.  He was a two year starter for Arizona, declaring for the draft after his junior season.  His sophomore numbers were good while Sam’s 2017 production was strong at 87 tackles, 40 assists, 3 sacks and a pair of turnovers in 12 games. A little time in the Patriots system could turn this young man into a good NFL player and a solid IDP option.

  • WLB Kyle Van Noy – Strong LB3 with LB2 potential
  • MLB/SLB Dont'a Hightower – Marginal value at best
  • SLB Marquise Flowers – No fantasy value
  • MLB/WLB  Christian Sam -  Dynasty sleeper
  • SLB Elandon Roberts – Marginal value at best
  • SLB/MLB Ja’Whaun Bentley – No value at this time

Defensive Backs

After the departure of Lawyer Milloy way back in 2002 the Patriots secondary went on a long stretch of years providing no more than spotty fantasy production for IDP owners. Much of this comes down to the birth of a dynasty that included strong defenses and excellent play in the front seven. There simply was not a lot of opportunity at the third level. The team is still winning and the defense has been opportunistic but this is not the same outstanding unit of years past. As is usually the case, the evidence is in the numbers. New England ranked 30 versus the pass and 31 against the run in 2017. As a result, Devin McCourty led the team with 80 solo stops last season and Patrick Chung was second with 72. In fact, four of the team’s top-five tacklers were defensive backs.

McCourty has been with the team since 2010 and had never recorded more than 69 tackles in a season previously. With a career average of 59 it would be easy to say last year was a fluke; in reality, it was not. Instead, it was a combination of a leaky front seven and an evolving NFL that has safeties playing a bigger part. Neither of these factors are going to change in 2018 so look for McCourty to have another strong season.

Prior to last year, Chung had not exceeded 54 solo stops since 2010. Strange as it sounds he may actually out produce McCourty in 2018. The defense struggled considerably over the first half of last season; they came out of the week nine bye looking like a different unit and one of the reasons was Chung. Although he was lining up at strong safety Chung’s responsibilities had been more like those of a free safety. After the bye he was used differently, working up in the box more regularly with a seemingly much greater emphasis on aggression and run support. From week 10 through 16 Chung averaged nearly 6 tackles and over 12.5 points per game. There is no guarantee he will pick up where he left off but considering how much better the Patriots defense played down the stretch, there is a good chance Chung will continue to have plenty of opportunity.

Stephon Gilmore is an elite NFL corner in the eyes of many. As is often the case with great corners his opportunity is limited be his reputation as opponents often look elsewhere for yardage. Opposite Gilmore however, IDP owners could find a dependable starter. Malcolm Butler has moved on after finishing among the Top-20 corners from the position last season. According to the coaches, there is an open competition to replace him between returning veteran Eric Rowe, rookie second round pick and free agent addition Jason McCourty. While coach speak tells us all of these players have a real chance at the job, wisdom suggests it would be a shock if McCourty is not in the week one lineup next to his brother.  The real battle is most likely between Rowe and Dawson for the nickel role. New England used a lot of five and six defensive back sets so all of these players are going to get on the field as will third safety Duron Harmon.

What McCourty has to offer the Patriots that the others do not, is a ton of experience as a number one corner. What he has to offer fantasy owners is a long history of strong production, including a top-10 finish among corners last season. With the exception of an injury shortened 2015 McCourty has at least 54 solo tackles each year since 2011. Over that span, he has collected 28 turnovers and 4 scores, averaged nearly 12 passes defended per year and finished among the Top-10 corners five times while playing for two teams. With the change of teams and supposed competition for the job, there is some risk, but the smart money says McCourty is at least a high CB2 and possibly a Top-5 at the position.  

New York Jets

Defensive Linemen

The Jets defense was full of holes last season. They finished 24th versus the run, 21st against the pass and were one of five teams with fewer than 30 sacks. They made plenty of personnel changes over the offseason, but on paper, it is hard to see where they made any improvement. The Jets claim to be a multi-front defense that will use both 3-4 and 4-3 looks, yet their defensive line roster reads purely as a 3-4. Leonard Williams, Henry Anderson, Mike Pennel and Xavier Cooper all have the skill set to work at end in three man fronts. They are big and physical enough to hold ground at the point of attack and to soak up multiple blockers so the linebackers can flow behind them. None of them have that much needed extra gear to be successful as a pass rusher off the edge. Between them, they had five and a half sacks last year. According to head coach Todd Bowles, Anderson could start this year if rookie Nathan Shepherd is not ready for the job. That is an interesting statement considering Anderson, who was a third round pick by the Colts in 2015, has missed at least five games with injury in each of his three seasons as a pro. Meanwhile, Shepherd is a rookie third round selection coming out of division two Fort Hays State and has never faced this level of competition; in truth, we are just as likely to see Pennel and Cooper figure more prominently in the rotation.  

The only possible IDP target here is Williams and he is far from a sure thing after a horribly disappointing 2017. As a second-year pro in 2016, he was the number 12 defensive lineman on the strength of 35 tackles, 33 assists, 6 sacks and a pair of forced fumbles. The Jets as well as most prognosticators and fantasy owners expected Williams to take the next step in year three. Unfortunately, the step he took was sharply backward with production plummeting to 22-25-2 and a point total outside the Top-50. Williams is an exceptional talent who clearly has the ability and potential for a bounce back in 2018. On the other hand, the lack of surrounding talent will allow offenses to make him the focal point of their blocking schemes. It is a situation that would be tough for any player to overcome no matter how good.

  • DE Henry Anderson – Injury risk with plenty to prove but no obvious fantasy value
  • DE Leonard Williams – Depth with upside, worth a late pick based purely on potential
  • DE  Mike Pennel – No fantasy value
  • DE Xavier Cooper – Deep sleeper at best
  • DE/NT Nathan Shepherd – Possible dynasty target but save the draft pick for a better option
  • NT Steve McClendon – Depth in leagues starting two interior linemen

Linebackers

Demario Davis had a great 2017 in fantasy terms. His 97 solo tackles led the Jets by a wide margin and was tied for most by any linebacker in the league. Davis even managed to lead the team in sacks with 4.5. Despite the impressive numbers, the organization was not impressed enough to pay him, so he will be wearing black and gold for the Saints this year.  Instead, the Jets used the money to land both Avery Williamson and Kevin Minter.

These additions give the defensive staff much needed depth and some versatility to work with. Both players have experience as inside backers in 3-4 schemes and both have worked at more than one spot in a 4-3. Early expectation has Darron Lee working with Williamson on the inside when the team is in a base 3-4, and Williamson in the middle with Lee on the weak side in four man fronts. Minter could find it difficult to get on the field if everyone remains healthy and even if he does earn a role it is almost certain to be limited to early downs.

The Key for fantasy owners is recognizing who, if anyone will pick up the production Davis left behind. Safety Jamal Adams may actually be the best IDP to target, but if you must pick a linebacker, go with Williamson. As a four year starter for the Titans, he posted a career best of 72 tackles (2016) and never had more than two takeaways in a season. Like Davis, Williamson has some ability as a pass rusher with 11.5 career sacks but he is a downgrade in coverage from Davis. In fact, Williamson was relegated to a base package role for a good portion of his time in Tennessee. He is bigger and more physical than Lee though that is not necessarily saying much. The most important factor to Williamson’s value is earning a spot in sub packages. We should not expect 90+ tackles from him regardless of role but if he stays on the field Williamson should be at least a solid LB3.  

The knock on Lee coming out of Ohio State a couple years ago was his lack of physicality. He has excellent speed and athleticism, strong cover skills and a knack for the big play, but struggles to get off blocks and make things happen at the point of attack. Working as a weak side backer in a 4-3 is a good fit for his skill set as that position is often not accounted for in the blocking scheme on running downs. That is the position Lee played much of last year but he was still able to make just 67 solo stops. The Jets 3-4 package is designed to protect the weak inside backer so he can flow and make a lot of plays. That is where Lee is expected to line up most of the time this year. In the end, we probably see the tackle totals split between Lee, Williamson and Adams with all three having some value. If this unit fails to show significant improvement there will be plenty of opportunity for all.

The Jets have moved back and forth between three and four man fronts over the last few seasons with one constant regardless of the scheme; they have no outside pass rush. The 28 sacks from last year was an upgrade over the 27 from 2016. They managed a solid 39 back in 2015 but that was with Wilkerson, Williams and Sheldon Richardson up front in a 3-4. Even then there was marginal contribution off the edge. Outside linebacker/defensive end Lorenzo Mauldin had six and a half sacks in his first two seasons before spending last year on Ir. David Bass, Jordan Jenkins and Josh Martin combined for eight and a half off the edge last year. Unless someone steps up and takes advantage of the scheme change it will be another long season for Jets fans.

Defensive Backs

New York may have some issues in the front seven but the addition of free agent corner Trumaine Johnson will go a long way toward solidifying the secondary. Johnson was arguably the best corner available in free agency and is undoubtedly a strong number one. He is also among the few with enough year to year consistency to be counted on by IDP owners. In 2015 Johnson was the fantasy game’s second ranked corner. Injuries slowed him for a few games in 2016 but even then his point per game average placed in the CB2 range. He was back in the Top 12 again last season on the strength of 57 tackles, 8 assists, 4 takeaways, 13 passes defended and a score. At 6’2”, 213-pounds Johnson is big for a corner and will use his size to make a strong contribution in run support. He consistently makes a significant big play contribution as well, posting 23 turnovers with three scores and 68 pass breakups over the past six seasons. There is always some risk when a player changes teams but it is safe to say there will be no shortage of opportunity in the Jets secondary this season.

Buster Skrine should land the starting job opposite Johnson. Skrine is coming off a solid statistical season that saw him finish in the low CB2 range for the fourth time in six years, so he too could provide some useful production though likely on a smaller scale. The four turnovers he created last season matched a career best but he has more than one only twice in seven seasons. Skrine may end up on a roster by the end of the season, but in most situations, he will be an in season pickup if he is having a good year.

Morris Claiborne is the favorite for the nickel corner role with veterans Justin Burris, Darryl Roberts and Rashard Robinson along with rookie Perry Nickerson competing to establish the rest of the pecking order.

The Jets started a pair of rookies at the safety positions last season. The experience gained by strong safety Jamal Adams and free safety Marcus Maye should begin to pay off in year two. Neither of them put up big numbers in their first season, but Adams managed to slip in at around No. 36, which made him a marginal third starter in most leagues. While consistency was an issue with Adams early on, he showed improvement as the season progressed including a three game stretch with at least 11 points to close out the year. As the sixth overall pick last spring there are grand expectations for the young man going forward. Between the experience, the situation at linebacker in front of him, the talent level and the improvement he has already shown, Adams is a breakout candidate in 2018.

The rookie numbers put up by Maye were similar to those of Adams but he is a different kind of player. Where Adams will make plays in the tackle columns or by forcing fumbles with big hits, Maye is more likely to make plays in the passing game. Because he generally lines up off the ball further it will be tough for Maye to keep up in the tackle columns as the Jets improve in the coming years, but his play making ability could keep him in the mix as quality depth with the potential for big points on any given week. 

That does it for the AFC East; next up the NFC North.