Eyes of the Guru IDP Info, Part 3: AFC South

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

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Houston Texans

Defensive Linemen

The Texans have committed plenty of resources to their defensive line over the years, but if we take away J.J. Watt there has been virtually no fantasy value. At least when it comes to this team, it is not hard to figure out why. It comes down to a combination of scheme, playing time, and the type of players they put on the field.

In Houston’s 3-4 scheme, linemen are responsible for defending two-gaps, absorbing blockers without giving ground, and keeping the linebackers clean to make plays. The organization does a good job of bringing in players to fit this approach, so they have neither a scheme that promotes pass rushers nor the type of players that get up filed quickly. They also like to get a lot of linemen involved in the game. For example, with Watt injured in week eight last season, seven defensive linemen played at least 223 snaps. D.J. Reader logged 629, largely due to an increase after Watt was lost, while no other lineman saw action on more than 482. As a result of this approach, no Texans lineman other than Watt has recorded more than four sacks in a season since Antonio Brown had seven in 2012.

With 28 tackles, 24 assists, and 2.5 sacks, Reader was the closest thing to an IDP contributor that Houston’s defensive line had in 2019, and he signed with Cincinnati. The team replaced him with second-round pick Ross Blacklock, who is a typical Texans lineman. He is a stout run defender who stacks and sheds blockers well, has some quickness and athleticism, and a little pass rush potential. He could land the starting job at the end opposite Watt, but will almost surely see less than 50% of the snaps.

Carlos Watkins, Charles Omenihu, and Angelo Blackson are the other guys that will rotate in at the defensive end position. Blackson has worked at nose tackle in the past and could line up there as well on occasion. Brandon Dunn should start at nose tackle with Eddie Vanderdose spelling him.

J.J. Watt is the exception to everything here. He has battled injuries in recent years, including 2019 when he missed the final eight games, But when healthy he is arguably the best in the game. Watt is given the same set of responsibilities as the others, but he is so physically dominating that he can cover those responsibilities on the way to the quarterback.

Watt was 49-7-5.5 as a rookie in 2011. From 2012 through 2015 he averaged 62 tackles (unheard of for a defensive lineman), 17 assists, and 17 sacks while forcing 15 fumbles, recovering 10, and batting down 41 passes. Since that time he has played one full season, going 47-15-16 and forcing 7 fumbles in 2018. In 2016, 2017 and 2019 Watt missed a combined 32 games with injuries. He plays a lot of snaps when healthy (962 in 2018), so there are a lot of miles on him for a man of 31 years. There is plenty of risk involved if he is drafted early, but Watt could be a top-five lineman if he can stay on the field long enough.

Linebackers

Zach Cunningham and Bernardrick McKinney are entrenched as Houston’s starting inside linebackers. Both are former second-round picks of the Texans, Cunningham in 2017, and McKinney in 2015. That is about where the similarities end. McKinney is huge for an inside linebacker, checking in at 6’4” 257 pounds. He is a physical, downhill thumper who lines up at the strong inside spot, where he does a great job of stacking blockers and filling lanes. McKinney will see some sub-package snaps but is not strong enough in coverage to stay on the field full time. In 2019, he logged 863 plays, which was just short of 80% of the team’s defensive snaps. Cunningham has good size as well, at 6’3” 238. He is not exactly a coverage linebacker but has enough range, speed, and athleticism to stay on the field sub-packages. He was not a full-time player all of last season but moved into that role after the bye week, playing at least 94% of the snaps in each game between weeks 11 and 16.

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