Often the hype around rookie players at this time of year is such that wide-eyed owners forget about the value of veteran players. As we know, the NFL is a business and as such the goal is to maximize productivity at the lowest feasible cost. On the football field, this translates to a glut of young, hungry players competing with and sometimes supplanting their elder counterparts.
With the Draft in the rearview mirror and minicamps getting started around the league, now is a good opportunity to step back and assess the landscape of veteran defensive players.
Which have fallen by the wayside, and which have seen their long-term prospects improve by their franchise’s decisions?
LB Vontaze Burfict, Cincinnati
The Bengals have shown surprising levels of patience with the oft-troubled but immensely talented Burfict, whose NFL career is littered with fines and suspensions. The start of the 2018 season will see the linebacker miss four games after he was suspended for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drugs policy.
With the white-hot glare of Roger Goodell’s disciplinarian spotlight fixed on Burfict, and with the Bengals drafting promising weak side player Malik Jefferson, the pressure is on for the veteran to stay on the straight and narrow. Burfict was only signed to an extension by the tolerant Bengals front office last September, but contracts are tricky and it wouldn’t be surprising if Mike Brown opts to part ways.
The Jefferson pick is unmistakably a shot across the bough to Burfict: shape up or you could be shipped out.
Risk level: Medium
CB James Bradberry & CB Ross Cockrell, Carolina
In 2017, Carolina’s back end play hung the rest of the defense out to dry time and again. Solid play up front in their elite front seven was quickly offset by a blown coverage assignment by either the dearly departed Daryl Worley (traded to Philadelphia, released by same and now with Oakland) or the bamboozled James Bradberry, whose sophomore season was less than memorable.
The double dip of defensive backs in the Draft will have gotten the attention of both Bradberry and new signing Ross Cockrell, who was brought in to compete for the No. 2 cornerback position. New boys Donte Jackson, a brash, quick-as-lightning playmaker and Rashaan Gaulden, a matchup weapon at safety and nickel, could upend this depth chart entirely.
Defensive backs are generally left until last in IDP leagues – and justifiably so – but in a division where Drew Brees and Matt Ryan fill the air with footballs on a weekly basis, the Carolina cornerbacks could be a nice bounty for fantasy points. The eventual starters will matter, and this is a battle that could go to the wire.
Risk level: Medium
LB Danny Trevathan & LB Nick Kwiatkoski, Chicago
Mike Singletary, Brian Urlacher… Roquan Smith? The consensus best linebacker prospect in the Draft is the player the Bears have been sorely lacking in the heart of their defense for years. To vault him into the conversation with Soldier Field legends like Singletary and Urlacher might seem premature in 2018, but this young man has the work ethic and talent to be one of the best.
This is not to besmirch the names of incumbent starters Danny Trevathan and Nick Kwiatkoski, both of whom played very well in Vic Fangio’s defense last season. The arrival of Smith, however, muddies the waters for both veterans. Trevathan and Kwiatkoski can both play the weakside position in the Bears’ 3-4 scheme, but so too can Smith. What could result is a position battle where only three men enter, but only two men leave.
We can sometimes talk ourselves into veterans and their perceived value in IDP circles, only for the teams to tell us what they really think with their free agent acquisitions and draft choices. Smith represents a generational talent at the position, so the Bears can’t be faulted for upsetting the apple cart.
Risk level: High
LB Sean Lee & LB Jaylon Smith, Dallas
Still fresh from the emotional Jason Witten retirement press conference, Sean Lee will now turn his attention to what should be a fascinating battle on the Cowboys’ linebacker depth chart. Entering his age 31 season and certainly no spring chicken, Lee has unquestionably been the paragon of consistency when healthy. The selection of Leighton Vander Esch, the promising Boise State product, will have raised Lee’s hackles.
Lee’s contract has a potential escape clause after the 2018 season, and the Cowboys have shown recently in their bitter divorce with Dez Bryant that no veteran is truly safe from the trap door. While Lee may be safe in the short term, Vander Esch may have his eyes on another Cowboy’s starting job – that of Jaylon Smith.
Smith, unlike Lee, was a liability in run defense last season. Vander Esch is known to be a ferocious run defender and has a knack for picking the right holes to attack as he plays downhill. This comes down to instincts, and veteran defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli will choose the best man for the job. Vander Esch would seem to be that man.
Expect a shake-up in Dallas’ linebacker ranks, with Smith (short term) and Lee (long term) in danger of having their dynasty value cratered by the presence of the new kid on the block, Vander Esch.
Risk level: Medium
DE Kerry Hyder Jr, Detroit
Hands up if you had forgotten the existence of Detroit pass rusher Kerry Hyder Jr. You could be forgiven for it after he missed the 2017 season with a torn Achilles, but his rookie year of 2016 showed great promise. A 23-14-8.0 season helped Detroit’s much-maligned pass rush to respectability.
The only significant move the team made in free agency or the Draft was the selection of Da’Shawn Hand, who profiles more as a developmental player at edge rusher. Hyder is a known commodity and should slot back in opposite Ezekial Ansah. This is one of the rarer cases of a player’s value staying steady or increasing based on a team’s activities.
The caveat with Hyder, a player who could be acquired for pennies on the dollar, is that Achilles injuries can be troublesome for pass rushers to make a recovery from. His rehab time has been significant, but his game was never built on quick-twitch play anyway, so he could become relevant again before too long.
Risk level: Low
DE Hau’oli Kikaha & DE Trey Hendrickson, New Orleans
The Saints, perhaps flush with hubris after excelling in the 2017 Draft, pulled the trigger on a dramatic draft day trade to secure the services of one Marcus Davenport, a UTSA prospect with oodles of upside. Davenport is highly rated but lacks the refinement in his game right now to put all those tools and traits into the total pass rushing package.
This assessment would be music to the ears of Trey Hendrickson, who was drafted last year and performed well in spot duty, and Hau’oli Kikaha, whose career has featured a litany of injuries. It may not be that simple, though. Davenport, as a first round pick, will be given every opportunity to impress and should steal snaps from the aforementioned veterans.
Kikaha is probably a massively depreciating asset in dynasty leagues anyway, but Hendrickson was highly touted in 2017 and faces a little competition to secure the coveted edge rusher spot opposite Cameron Jordan. The Saints will be keen to show the NFL that giving up a future first round pick for Davenport was the right move; to do that, they will need to give the rookie all he can handle, which will hurt the veterans in the process.
Risk level: High
LB Kiko Alonso, Miami
If you only looked at the box score, you would probably deem Kiko Alonso a pretty solid player. A 79-37 season in 2017 isn’t too shabby on paper, but dig deeper and it is clear the Dolphins are ready to move on from Alonso. You need look no further than the moves they have hammered through this offseason.
First, the team traded for Stephone Anthony from the Saints for a fifth round pick in the recently concluded Draft in a deal consummated in September 2017. Anthony failed to make an impression and played only 130 snaps. The Dolphins recently declined to pick up his fifth-year option, a death knell for Anthony’s career.
Just when things started to look promising for Alonso, however, the team went back to the well and drafted Jerome Baker from Ohio State. What Baker does well is what the Dolphins need to stop the likes of New England within their division: he covers backs and tight ends very smoothly. Alonso was a liability in coverage last season, so this represents a significant threat to his snaps – and his future.
Alonso signed a contract extension last season, but that has never stopped the Dolphins brass from making moves to upset the apple cart. If Baker can excel like his athletic profile would suggest, Alonso could be on the outside looking in before too long.
Risk level: Medium to high
LB Kwon Alexander & LB Lavonte David, Tampa Bay
The Buccaneers have aggressively attacked their defensive line this offseason, turning an average unit into one chock full of difference makers. Jason Pierre-Paul is known for his excellent run defense, while Vinny Curry is no slouch either at gobbling up ball carriers. Gerald McCoy is a stalwart for the team and always puts in the grunt work. However, it is the selection of Vita Vea that puts this unit over the top and may have a downstream effect on the team’s star linebackers.
Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander are entrenched as the Bucs’ every-down pairing behind that defensive line, but are they about to see their tackle opportunity ripped from under their noses? Vea is a known penetrator at defensive tackle and should be a force against the run, while the new edge rush pairing will have their fair share as well.
Tampa Bay’s home stat crew could play a part here as well. As recently as 2017, this crew was very generous with solo tackle awards (third) but stingy with assists (24th) (data courtesy of IDP Guru). Players of the caliber of Pierre-Paul, Curry, and Vea are bound to eat into the tackle opportunity for David and Alexander, whether the linebackers like it or not. It is not time to make any drastic moves, but it is something to be aware of.
Risk level: Low to medium
Thanks for reading and I wish you the best of luck in your rookie drafts.
If you have any questions regarding IDP fantasy football, please drop me a line on Twitter @davlar87