Eyes of the Guru IDP Info, Part 2: NFC East

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

Find other IDP articles here.

Dallas Cowboys

Defensive Linemen

Over the last few years, the Cowboys defensive line has been plagued by off-field problems and an inability to keep quality players. Dallas would have an elite defensive line if guys like David Irving, Randy Gregory, Robert Quinn, and Michael Bennett were still part of the equation. Irving is no longer with the team, Gregory is on the reserve/suspended list, Quinn took his 11.5 sacks to Chicago since the Cowboys made little effort to stop him, and Bennett is currently unemployed. At least the Cowboys get Aldon Smith back. If he or one of the young developmental projects the team has drafted over the last three years pans out, they should still be in pretty good shape.

Demarcus Lawrence had a down year in 2019. Good IDP managers may be able to use that as an advantage. He finished at 29-16-5 with a couple of forced fumbles and recoveries last year. Those numbers will cause a lot of managers to devalue Lawrence, which means he could be a draft day bargain.

In 2017 and 2018 Lawrence combined for 78 tackles, 43 assists, 25.5 sacks, 10 turnovers, and a pair of top-10 rankings. Even though the numbers were off last season, he still put pressure on the passer his play remained solid. What most will not consider is that Lawrence was banged up all year. He came out of the preseason with a sore shoulder and carried it into October. Just when he stopped showing up on the injury reports for the shoulder, he had a neck injury in November, followed by an aggravation of the shoulder and a sore heel in December. Lawrence showed toughness and determination by playing through all this but it did have an effect. With time to heal up, Lawrence should look more like the 2018 version that finished 42-21-10.5 with 5 turnovers.

The main concern with Lawrence is where will his help come from? The Cowboys signed Gerald McCoy, and Dontari Poe to solidify the interior positions. Both of those players are strong versus the run. At 6’3”, 346 pounds, Poe is the anchor. He is tough to move even with double teams and will help those around him greatly by eating up space and blockers. Poe had a pair of productive fantasy seasons early in his career but has been a non-factor for IDP managers since 2014.

McCoy is a plus for the run defense but is also one of the league’s best interior pass rushers. He has at least five sacks in every season since 2012, with a career-best of eight and a half in 2015. McCoy’s shortcoming in fantasy terms is a lack of strong tackle numbers. He has reached the 30 solo mark twice in 10 seasons and has fallen short of 20 in each of the last two. The Cowboys scheme should be a great fit for McCoy so he could step up. Target him as a DT2 or depth in tackle required leagues.

The question here is what can the team get from the defensive end spot opposite Lawrence, and who will provide it? This may be as true an open competition as any in the league. Aldon Smith is by far the favorite from a talent perspective. In his first two seasons as a pro, he racked up 80 tackles, 21 assists, 33 sacks, and 6 turnovers. But that was way back in 2011 and 2012 right after he was the seventh overall pick by the 49ers. The wheels came off for Smith in 2013 starting a string of injuries and suspensions. Smith is now 30 years old and has not played since 2015. Does he still have it, and can he keep it clean if he does? There is a ton of risk here but he may still be worth a last round flier.

Dallas has several young developmental guys with upside in the mix as well. Dorance Armstrong (2018 fourth round), Joe Jackson (2019 fifth round), Jalen Jelks (2019 seventh round), and this year’s sixth-round selection Bradlee Anae will compete for their place in the pecking order. Armstrong was thought to have the best shot before Smith was re-signed and reinstated, but it is Anae who catches my eye. He is a little undersized, not particularly fast, and has short arms for an edge defender. Those are the reasons he fell to Round 6. The Cowboys took a chance on him because Anae is a tough, relentless tactician that plays bigger versus the run and was a team captain at Utah. Not to mention he had 27.5 sacks as a three-year starter, including 13 last year as a senior. He may not come out of camp as a starter but Anae is an upside target on a team desperate for someone to step up. Stick him on the taxi squad and see what happens.

Linebackers

Providing everyone stays healthy, Dallas has as strong a group of starting linebackers as anyone. That could be a big if, considering all three have a history of injuries. After piling up 105 solo tackles, 38 assists, 7 pass breakups, and a pair of interceptions as a rooking in 2018, Leighton Vander Esch was the first Dallas linebacker on most draft lists and a top-10 target at the position for virtually everyone heading into last season. That will not be the case this season for a couple of good reasons. The main issue will be the risk of injury. Vander Esch had surgery in January to correct cervical spinal stenosis. He is expected to make a full recovery, possibly even in time for the start of a delayed training camp, but when the words neck and surgery are used in the same sentence, it can be cause for concern.

What it comes down to is that Vander Esch will fall farther in most drafts than his talent and production level would suggest but not so far that he will be drafted as a third starter or depth. So whoever rolls the dice on him will either get a deal if he stays healthy, or take one on the chin if he does not. Until we see him in action there is no way to know for sure he is healthy, and even if he looks fine there will be a pucker factor every time he makes a tackle.

The other factor that will keep Vander Esch from being the first Dallas linebacker drafted, is last year’s performance by Jaylon Smith. With 84 tackles, 56 assists, 2.5 sacks, 4 turnovers, 8 passes defended, and an average of nearly 13 points per game, 2019 saw Smith finish among the top-10 linebackers for a second straight season. He entered the league in 2017 with a lot of concern over the major knee injury he suffered in college. Three years later that injury is ancient history. Smith was not 100% in 2017 but he has now played in 48 straight contests without a setback and has become one of the most complete linebackers in the game both on the field and in the box scores.

One interesting twist to the story that is worth mention; the coaching staff is looking at a possible position swap for Smith and Vander Esch. Smith is one of the fastest linebackers in the league, has excellent cover skills, and all the other trimmings of a great week side backer. Vander Esch is not slow, is solid in coverage, and is a capable option on the weak side. He is also considerably bigger, more of a downhill, physical presence, and is a natural middle backer. If they do swap spots, it should not have a major impact on either player when it comes to box-score production, but might make the Cowboys a better defense overall.

After working from the weak side most of his career, Sean Lee was asked to line up on the strong side early last season. He slid back to more of a weak side role down the stretch when Vander Esch was out but will go back to the strong side in 2020. It is not the best positional fit for Lee but allows the coaching staff to get three excellent linebackers on the field together on early downs. Coming off in passing situations also lessens the workload and injury risk for the off-injured Lee. 2019 was the first time in his nine pro seasons that he did not miss a game. He is not going to be a fantasy factor as a two-down player but will be a strong add if Smith or Vander Esch miss time.

The Cowboys might survive an injury to one of the three starters but losing two of them would be ugly. Joe Thomas and Justin March are the only backups with much experience. We have seen enough of both to know they are a significant step down from the starters.

  • WLB Leighton Vander Esch – Top-15 linebacker if he stays healthy
  • MLB Jaylon Smith – Quality LB1 with top-5 potential
  • SLB Sean Lee – Grab him if one of the first two are injured
  • SLB Justin March – No fantasy value
  • MLB Joe Thomas – No fantasy value

Defensive Backs

It has been a while since the Cowboys gave us a significant, fantasy-friendly defensive back. This could be the year they break the trend. With the emergence of Xavier Woods and the signing of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, this is arguably the best safety tandem Dallas has fielded in a decade. Woods is the consummate free safety. Speed and cover skills are complemented by intelligence, savvy, and big-play ability. Because he works off the ball and serves as the last line catch-all, Woods’ contributions on the field are not going to fully show up in the box scores. He was a marginal fantasy option at best in 2019 and is not likely to be anything more in 2020.

Clinton-Dix could be a much different story. His numbers with Chicago last year were not much better than those of Woods, but his responsibilities in the Bears scheme was a major contributing factor. In Chicago, both safeties have similar, free safety like responsibilities. They do not put safeties in the box as often as most teams, and the corners have more run support responsibilities. As the Cowboys’ strong safety, Clinton-Dix should look more like the player that had 81 solo stops, a sack, and six turnovers in 2018.

Clinton-Dix has bounced back and forth between free and strong safety since coming into the league in 2014. He has never fallen short of 60 solo stops in a season and is a proven playmaker with 24 turnovers and 5.5 sacks on his career resume’. He has two top-12 finishes among defensive backs. The first in 2015 as a strong safety for the Packers, and the second in 2018 when he went from the Packers to the Redskins during the season, playing strong safety for both. He may not reach 80 solo tackles but Clinton-Dix should produce well enough to be a solid second starter or excellent DB3.

The Cowboys lost Byron Jones to free agency but they may turn out to be better on the corners anyway. Chidobe Awuzie is locked into the starting job on one side. The organization would like to see more big plays from the 2017 second-round pick, but he has developed into a fine number two corner. His tackle totals have been respectable since taking over as a starter in 2018, but Awuzie has not produced more than two turnovers in a season yet. He might make decent depth in some corner required leagues but there does not seem to be much upside.

There will be an open competition for the starting spot opposite Woods. Veteran free-agent addition Daryl Williams will try to hold off rookie second-round pick Trevon Diggs for the spot. Much like Woods, Worley is a physical press corner who covers well and makes a fair number of tackles but provides little in the big-play columns.

Diggs is a tall lanky, former receiver turned press corner. He did not make a lot of tackles at Alabama but made a considerable big-play impact with five turnovers and a pair of scores in 12 games. There is little doubt he will become a starter at some point early in his career, but it is not a given that he will open his rookie campaign in that role. Diggs saw some time as the slot corner and at free safety during his college career, so he may end up as the nickel back initially. If he does end up playing full time, the rookie corner rule could be in play.

Both Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis are solid veteran players that will compete for sub-package snaps on defense and contribute heavily on special teams.

New York Giants

Defensive Linemen

If we look only at tackle and sack stats, the Giants have a mediocre defensive line. If we look from an on-field perspective, this is a pretty solid group. As a unit, they recorded a pedestrian nine and a half sacks and no one had more than 25 solo tackles. A closer look at the scheme reveals that those are not poor numbers under the circumstances.

Regardless if it is a three or four-man front, in some schemes the defensive line is all about penetration and disruption, while others are more of a finesse, read, and react zone. Linemen in the first type of scheme tend to make more plays because their main mission is to seek and destroy right from the snap; with a tackle the ball carrier on the way to the quarterback mentality. Those in the latter are often asked to first control blockers, take up space, or defend an area as the play develops, then go to the ball.

The Giants fall into the latter category and they are built for it. Four players are expected to see extensive action in New York’s three-man front. Dexter Lawrence, Dalvin Tomlinson, Leonard Williams, and B.J. Hill all check-in at over 300 pounds and are at least 6’3”. Lawrence is a mountain at 6’4”, 342 and is the anchor at nose tackle. Williams is the fly-weight at 6’5”, 302. He will see the vast majority of his action at the end position. Tomlinson, at 6’3”, 319, should start at defensive end and play some nose tackle when Lawrence needs a break. Hill is the fourth man and has the versatility to rotate in at any position. We will not get much fantasy production from any of these guys, but they will make the players behind them better.

Linebackers

The Giants traded for Alec Ogletree in 2018 and got the short end of the stick. This time around they waited on free agency and got a better player. Blake Martinez gives New York some much-needed stability. He is not the fastest or most athletic of inside linebackers, but he is dependable, consistent, durable, and a good leader. Martinez is strong against the run and good enough in coverage to stay on the field full time.

On the field, Martinez is an upgrade for the Giants. In the box scores, he is an IDP stud. He has not missed a game since becoming a full-time starter in 2017, has at least 93 solo stops and 49 assists in three consecutive seasons, and will make a little contribution in the big-play columns as well. There is always some concern when a perennial top-10 player switches teams, simply because there is usually no place to go but down. There is also the point that Ogletree had just 48 tackles and 31 assists in this position last season. These issues might warrant dropping Martines a few spots on the draft board, but keep in mind that Ogletree was banged up much of the year and was not as good a fit for the scheme even when healthy.

There are two candidates for the other inside linebacker job. David Mayo started most of last season for the Giants, replacing Ryan Connelly who tore his ACL in week four. Mayo has plenty of experience having also started some games during his tenure with the Panthers before coming to New York. We have seen enough of Mayo to know he is an adequate starter when called upon but in the long run, is best suited as a quality backup and special teams ace.

If there is a long term answer currently on the roster, it is Ryan Connelly. He was the team’s fifth-round pick last year and made an immediate impression. Connelly played 26 snaps in week one and landed a starting spot by week two. He was nearly full time, playing all but 18 snaps in weeks two and three before the ACL injury ended his season. There have been no recent updates on his recovery but considering he was lost early in the campaign, there is both speculation and optimism he will be ready.

We only have a small sample to look at when trying to place a value on a healthy Connelly, but that sample is good. In about two and a half games as a starter, he accumulated 18 combined tackles, a sack, and a pair of interceptions. When/if he can get back to where he was before the injury, Connelly could be a sneaky, high upside sleeper addition for IDP managers.

Quality play from the outside linebacker positions is key to the success of any 3-4 scheme. The Giants could be both strong and deep on the edge if they can keep Markus Golden in the fold. Golden had 12.5 sacks for the Cardinals in 2016 before suffering a serious knee injury early the following year. He was not at full strength in 2018 and parted ways with Arizona after the season. Golden then signed a one-year prove-it type deal with the Giants last summer, and prove it he did, totaling 72 combined tackles and leading the team with 10 sacks. He has not officially signed as I write this, but received a UFA tag from the team, giving him until July 22 to sign elsewhere. Golden said on June 13 that he would return to the Giants if he has not signed with another team by the time training camps open.

Lorenzo Carter was a third-round selection of the Giants in 2018. He was drafted to be one of the starting edge defenders when New York switched to a 3-4 scheme. Carter has proven to be a good fit in the scheme and a solid edge defender, but he has not been the playmaker the team needs. In 31 starts over two seasons, Carter has nine sacks and one forced fumble. The organization has not given up on him but they have brought in competition to push Carter for the starting job.

Kyler Fackrell broke out with 10 sacks in his third year with the Packers (2018). Green Bay surprisingly responded by signing Preston Smith and drafting Rashan Gary in the first round that offseason, suggesting their strong belief that Fackrell was a one year wonder. The Packers showed little interest in bringing him back after recording one sack in a reduced role last year. One team’s trash can be another team’s treasure, so the Giants signed Fackrell to serve as an insurance policy in case they lost Golden, and someone to push for a starting job opposite him if they did not. Either way, Fackrell will have an opportunity to prove the decision-makers in Green Bay wrong.

There is a fourth player in the mix for playing time at outside linebacker. Oshane Ximines was the team’s third-round pick in 2019. He saw action on about 45% of the snaps as a rookie, making a solid contribution as the third man in the edge rotation. Like Fackrell and Carter, Ximines will be given a clean slate by the new coaching staff and an opportunity to improve on his four and a half sacks as a rookie.

  • ILB Blake Martinez – Tackling machine that should continue the string of top-10 rankings
  • ILB Ryan Connelly – Sleeper with LB3 upside
  • ILB David Mayo – Marginal fantasy value at best
  • ILB Nathan Stupar – Career backup and special teams contributor
  • OLB Lorenzo Carter – Marginal fantasy value expected
  • OLB Markus Golden – 40+ solo tackles and double-digit sacks are reasonable expectations
  • OLB Kyler Fackrell – Sleeper with possible value in big-play formats
  • OLB Oshane Ximines – Deep sleeper in big-play formats

Defensive Backs

The talented wide receiver class got most of the attention in this year’s draft, but it was a good year for teams in need at the safety position as well. The Giants are one of the teams that took advantage by landing Xavier McKinney in round-two. In the eyes of many scouts, McKinney was the most talented and complete safety available. He is also my favorite rookie at the position from the IDP perspective.

McKinney is not the biggest of the rookie safeties but he hits like a truck. He is not the fastest of the safeties either but has the speed, cover skills, instincts, and versatility to play deep, in the box, or over the slot. Most importantly for IDP managers, he has the production against the best competition in the college game. In two seasons as a starter for Alabama, McKinney totaled 169 combined tackles, 15 pass breakups, 12 turnovers, and a pair of scores. In short, there is a lot about this young man’s play that reminds me of former Giant Landon Collins.

Then there is the situation McKinney will step into as the replacement for Antoin Bethea who was fourth among defensive backs with 81 solo tackles in 2019. Granted, the Giants should be improved at linebacker with the addition of Blake Martinez and a healthy Ryan Connelly, but New York’s secondary has been a gold mine of safety production for a long time. It is not going to dry up completely all at once.

There is not much point in labeling either of the team’s safeties as strong of free. They both have similar enough skill sets to be interchangeable pieces and are likely to be used that way. At a glance, Jabrill Peppers’ 52 tackles, 26 assists, and 4 turnovers in 2019 are solid but unspectacular numbers. When we consider that he missed the final five games, they become rather impressive.

Peppers average of over 11.5 points per game ranked ninth among defensive backs in 2019. It was by far the best per-game production of his young career, making Peppers a poster boy for what a change of team/scheme can do for a player. There will be more competition for tackles in New York this year, but there are enough to go around for both safeties to be quality IDP contributors; especially since they can both contribute in the big-play columns.

When the Giants added James Bradberry early in free agency, they seemed to be set at the corner positions. Then came the off-field issues for last year’s first-round pick DeAndre Baker. The league has not yet suspended Baker as they wait for the legal system to run its course, but in the end, he could miss games, potentially several of them. This could have an impact on the Giants but probably not so much on IDP managers. Even as a rookie starter, Baker was not able to make much of an impact in the box scores.

New York’s corners have provided decent numbers over the years, but if we are to get IDP value from the position in 2020, it is most likely to come from Bradberry. He is a physical press corner that has recorded at least 50 solo tackles and finished among the top-20 at the position in each of the last three seasons, including a top-10 while with the Panthers in 2017. Bradberry is not exactly a ballhawk, but he will make some contribution in the big-play columns and is coming off a career-best of three interceptions. He should continue to make a solid CB2.

Second-year pro, Sam Beal, third-year man Grant Haley, and rookie fourth-round pick Darnay Holmes are expected to compete to complete the pecking order. If Baker misses time, Bradberry should become the number one with the winner of the competition between the young guys determining the other starter and slot corner. Should Holmes come away with the job, the rookie corner rule could be in play.

Philadelphia Eagles

Defensive Linemen

The Eagles defensive line does not have a big-name star for IDP managers to target, but that does not mean there is no value to be found here. They rely on a team concept where everyone contributes, and it has worked well for them. In 2019 the defense finished third versus the run and totaled 43 sacks, with the front-four accounting for 32.5 of them, spread among eight players.

Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox have been the cornerstones for the Philadelphia defense over most of the last decade. Graham is a versatile three-down edge defender that excels versus the run, contributes steadily as a pass rusher, and has worked as both a 3-4 outside linebacker and a 4-3 defensive end over his 10 seasons with the team. Graham is also an iron man, missing one game since 2013. His biggest asset in fantasy terms is predictability with a ten-year resume’ allows us to know exactly what to expect.

There is little threat of Graham reaching double-digit sacks as he has never done so before, however, excluding an injury-shortened 2013, he has at least five and a half in six of the last seven seasons with a career-best of nine and a half in 2017. Graham had the second-highest sack total of his career in 2019 at eight and a half but sandwiched in between 2017 and 2019 was that ugly four sack campaign. When it comes to tackle totals the story is much the same. Graham has reached the 40 solo mark once in his career but has exceeded 30 in every season since 2013. The numbers and consistency add up to Graham falling in the area of quality depth or maybe a low-end DL2 in some deeper leagues.

When the Eagles used a first-round pick on Derek Barnett in 2017, they expected him to become that big-name star they have been missing. So far he has fallen short of those expectations, but there is still hope. His rookie season followed the script of many high profile pass rushers in their first year. Barnett worked into the rotation, playing about 40% of the snaps, producing a stat line of 19-3-5 with 2 forced fumbles and a pair of recoveries. His second season started according to plan with an increased role and better numbers through the first six games, but it ended with a torn rotator cuff. The injury setback slowed Barnett’s progress, but year-three gave us room for optimism.

In 2019 Barnett played 14 games with a stat line that shows a career-high in both solo stops with 25, and sacks with 6.5 sacks, along with a pair of forced fumbles. In those 14 games, he was on the field for nearly 75% of the snaps. Those are not eye-catching numbers but we need to keep in mind that he turned 24 in June and is just entering his prime. There is room for improvement against the run but all in all, Barnett is a strong candidate for the breakout watch list entering his fourth year.

With Vinny Curry gone, third-year pro, Josh Sweat, should be more involved going forward. The former fourth-round pick is undersized, which could limit his playing time on early downs, but he contributed four and a half sacks in a limited, mostly sub-pack role last year. Sweat has added a few pounds of muscle since the beginning of last season and continues to work on improving versus the run. With Grahm being 32 years old and having a big cap number in 2021, Sweat could eventually push for a starting spot.

Daeshon Hall was a third-round pick of the Panthers in 2017 but has struggled with knee injuries since coming into the league. The Team would like to see him get healthy and contribute, but he has an uphill battle at this point; especially if last year’s fourth-round pick Shareef Miller can get something going.

The Eagles are going to be strong up the middle. In Fletcher Cox, they have one of the league’s best interior linemen. He has the size and power to anchor as a run defender and even at 310 pounds, the athleticism, quickness, and tenacity to be one of the game’s better inside pass rushers. For IDP managers, however, Cox is a mystery bag of year to year inconsistency.

Cox put up good numbers as a rookie in 2012, then not so good in 2013. In both 2014 and 2015, he was a top-three tackle with a combined 99 solo stops, 34 assists, 13.5 sacks, and 9 turnovers. The following two seasons he was mediocre, combining for 42 tackles, 27 assists, 12 sacks, and 4 turnovers. Cox was back in the top-10 in 2018 thanks to a career-best 10 sacks, followed by last season when he finished with 25 solo stops and matched the lowest sack total of his career with three.

Cox should be on the draft board of all managers in tackle required leagues, but be prudent when placing a value on him. He is a high upside target, who could be a steal if drafted in the range of a priority DT2, but will be overvalued by some based on the good years. His chances of making the top-12 are about 50/50.

If you are looking for a reason to be optimistic about Cox, he should get a lot of help from the addition of Javon Hargrave and the return of a hopefully healthy Malik Jackson. Hargrave comes over from Pittsburgh where he played nose tackle in their 3-4. The 2016 third-round pick became an immediate starter for the Steelers, but he worked almost exclusively on early downs for the first three seasons there. In 2018 Hargrave turned a mere 454 snaps into a solid stat line of 31-17-5.5, so the coaching staff expanded his role last year. The additional playing time helped his tackle numbers but did not add up to more sacks as he finished 35-23-4 on 696 plays. If everyone remains healthy, Hargrave will be part of a three-man rotation, probably starting and once again seeing most of his action on early downs. He was the tenth-ranked defensive tackle in 2019 and has the potential for another top-12 finish, but it is hard to say how changing teams and schemes will affect him statistically.

Malik Jackson could be a late/last round steal if you start interior linemen, especially if you start two. This is a tackle that had at least 33 solo stops and/or at least 6 sacks in five consecutive seasons before his play declined a bit in 2018. The slip in production and his contract, lead to Jackson being released after the season. What most people fail to remember, he was dealing with a sore back for much of the year. Even at less than 100%, he managed decent numbers for a player at such a thin position.

The Eagles were happy to land Jackson last spring. He was in the opening game lineup as the three-technique tackle and expectations were high until a foot injury ended his season after 34 snaps. Lisfranc injuries can be hard to come back from and often heal slowly, so there is plenty of injury risk, but there is also a lot of upside. The Eagles appear to agree since they exercised the option year in his contract.

At 290 pounds, Jackson is the smallest of the three tackles, he may also be the quickest. There is some speculation among Philadelphia writers that he could see snaps at defensive end on early downs, then shift inside in rush situations. This is a reasonable solution considering the situation at end, and Jackson’s prowess as a pass rusher. If he is healthy, there is little doubt he will be on the field in passing situations, so the sack numbers should be there. The only question is, will his role allow for enough tackles to complement them.

Linebackers

The Philadelphia coaching staff has an idea where they want to start at linebacker but without the normal offseason activities and practices, even they have no idea where they will end up at the position. The offseason objective was to get faster and that goal has been met. Now it is just a matter of sorting up roles in what looks like a huge puzzle entering July.

The speed movement started last year with the in-season acquisition of Duke Riley. The undersized Riley had plenty of opportunities to earn a starting job with the Falcons but was never able to secure more than a part-time role. His marginal contribution over almost three-seasons with Atlanta may not have been Riley’s fault though.

If we look at his scouting report leading up to the 2017 draft, Riley is described as a fast, instinctive player with strong cover skills, but lacking a bit in play strength as a point of attack defender. So what did the Falcons do? They played him in a two-down role on the strong side where he had to take on blockers regularly and was not able to use his speed.

Free agency brought in Jatavis Brown who is one of my favorite sleepers this year. He is a former strong safety with the speed and cover skills NFL teams love, and the ability to play on all three downs. Brown was not able to sustain a full time starting job during his four years with the Chargers, but he was highly productive in the box scores when he had the chance. He started nine games as a rookie, averaging six tackles and almost two assists, with three and a half sacks and a pair of turnovers. He opened 2017 as a starter, recording 27 tackles and 13 assists in four games before having his role reduced to almost nothing. Brown was not a starter to open 2018 but ended up seeing near every down action in eight games with the same level of production. Then In 2019, with the team struggling at linebacker, he played all of 94 total snaps.

It is hard to say what it was about Brown that the Chargers coaching staff did not like, but the knock against him coming out of Akron was too many missed tackles and a problem stacking and shedding blockers. Brown will get a look in the middle but his best shot at a starting job will be on the weak side. Regardless of where he lines up, if it is a three-down role, he will be a fantasy factor.

The team added two linebackers in the draft. Third round selection Davion Taylor, and sixth-round pick Shaun Bradley. Both will get their chance to show something once teams hit the practice field. Not surprisingly, Taylor is another linebacker/safety hybrid with good speed and cover skills. He is a little bigger than the other speed/coverage guys he will be competing with and is solid against the run which could be his biggest advantage. Taylor put up good tackle totals as a two-year starter for Colorado, but he did not make that many big plays.

Shaun Bradley played mostly on the weak-side at Temple but he may be asked to work elsewhere due to his size. Except for Genard Avery who should land the strong side job, and T.J. Edwards who has an uphill battle for a roster spot, Bradley is the biggest player in the Eagles linebacker room at 235 pounds. He was a productive, three-year starter for the Owls, posting good tackle numbers and contributing in the big-play columns as well. Bradley had the fifth-best time forty time among linebackers at the combine but lacks the range usually associated with speed. His best shot at playing time could be in the middle.

Holdover Nate Gerry will also get another look this summer. The team’s 2017 fifth-round pick spent most of his first two seasons either inactive or working on special teams. When his opportunity finally arrived last year, he missed too many tackles among other struggles. In January it came to light that he had played the entire season with a core injury that required surgery. These injuries almost always hurt the quality of play, both on the field and in the box scores. So the problem is after three years with the team we may still no know who the real Nate Gerry is.

Taking an educated guess on this group, I like Brown on the weak side with Taylor in the middle and Avery strong. About all we know for sure, however, is that at least one of these guys, and possibly two of them, are going to give us solid production.

  • WLB/MLB Jatavis Brown – Risk reward target with high ceiling and low floor
  • WLB/MLB Duke Riley – Deep sleeper
  • MLB/WLB Davion Taylor – Dynasty target with possible immediate value
  • WLB/MLB Nate Gerry – Deep sleeper
  • MLB/SLB Shaun Bradley – No IDP value expected
  • SLB Genard Avery – No IDP value expected
  • SLB T.J. Edwards – Roster bubble/special teams

Defensive Backs

The Philadelphia secondary is a little more predictable but is not without its share of new faces and questions. After six seasons as a starter, Malcolm Jenkins signed elsewhere, leaving a big hole in his wake. Jenkins had some good fantasy seasons during his time with the Eagles, including a pair of top-12 finishes. Whoever ends up with his job is going to have potential.

When training camp opens, there will be four players in the mix at safety. Rodney McLeod is locked in at one of the spots, but it is unclear if he will continue in the same deep/free safety role he played in the past or will take over Jenkins’ role which carries more run support responsibilities. That decision may come down to how the other three options fit best. In the Eagles’ scheme, both positions require a free safety like skill set. Players need to be sound open-field tacklers, but speed and cover skills are the first requirements. McLeod is a bit undersized compared to most NFL strong safeties, but he has worked at the position before with success.

Jalen Mills is a former corner making the transition to safety. The coaching staff is confident in his ability to make the move, believing that safety will better fit his talents. Checking in at 191 pounds, Mills is even smaller than McLeod, and a true fly-weight by NFL standards, but he has shown a physical side as a press corner that does not shy away from contact. Mills has the necessary speed and coverage skills; put that with his experience in the scheme and willingness to be physical, and he is the favorite for the job entering camp.

Rookie fourth-round pick K’Von Wallace is the biggest of Philadelphia’s safeties at 206 pounds. He lacks the speed and range to line up deep regularly but is a tough, physical player and a sound tackler. Wallace has also seen time as a corner. During much of his career at Clemson, he lined up over the slot receiver in a hybrid corner/free safety role. He will not be the deep guy but has a shot at landing the short/strong safety job.

Will Parks is the darkhorse candidate. The 2016 sixth-round pick served as a third/nickel safety for Denver over much of the last four seasons. He fits the description in terms of skill set and packs plenty of experience. Parks has playmaking ability on his resume as well. In his part-time role with Denver, he accumulated seven turnovers, including four interceptions.

Most IDP managers will move on once they note that no Philadelphia corner accounted for more than 37 tackles or 2 interceptions last year. That could be a mistake. Looking closer reveals that no Eagles corner except Rasul Douglas, played in more than 11 games, and Douglas was slowed by knee and ankle injuries. In reality, Eagles corners have been fairly productive on a week to week basis in recent years. The only problem has been figuring out which one was healthy enough to produce on any given week.

Ronald Darby is gone and Jalen Mills is working at safety, so there will be new faces on the outside come week one. The new number one will be free agent prize Darius Slay, who is borderline elite at the position in NFL terms. IDP managers might remember the 2017 season when Slay was the fantasy game’s top corner. He was everywhere that year, recording 54 tackles, 8 interceptions, and 26 pass breakups. Unfortunately, that season has been a career outlier for Slay. The second-best numbers of his seven seasons came in 2015 when Slay finished with 48 tackles, 2 interceptions and 17 passes defended.

Slay is worth keeping an eye on but the fantasy value is more likely to be with whoever starts opposite him. Avonte Maddox, Nickell Robey-Coleman, Sidney Jones, and Rasul Douglas will compete to establish the rest of the pecking order. Robey-Coleman has been a slot corner for most of his career and is the favorite for the nickel job. Douglas has been an adequate starter when called upon, but Maddox and Jones are the players to watch. As a second-year pro, Maddox was a starter in most of the games he played last season. As a result, he led the team’s corners in tackles. Jones was the team’s second-round pick in 2017. He has all the tools and talent to be a starter but he has been injured more than he has been healthy over the last three years. He played le4ss than 30% of the defensive snaps last season but has two of the secondaries five interceptions.

Washington Redskins

Defensive Linemen

When teams move from a 3-4 to a 4-3 it usually takes a season or two for the personnel to catch up. That is not the case with a Washington defensive line that could be among the best in the business right out of the gate. In Ryan Kerrigan, Montez Sweat, and Chase Young the Redskins have a trio of outstanding defensive ends, all with the potential to reach 40 tackles and double-digit sacks. Kerrigan and Sweat were outside linebackers in the 3-4 but there is no concern with them making a smooth transition as both were highly successful defensive ends coming out of college.

Kerrigan is a nine-year veteran coming off his worst season as a pro, but that was largely due to the litany of injuries he dealt with. It started with a hip problem at the beginning of the year, then a chest injury, followed by an elbow, then a concussion, and finally a calf strain that finished him off for the season in mid-December. In the previous eight seasons, however, Kerrigan averaged 38 tackles, 13 assists, and over 10 sacks. He has forced 24 fumbles over his career, recovered three, has 25 batted passes, 3 picks, and 3 scores. Simply put, the guy can get it done when healthy. None of his injuries were all that serious enough to require surgery, so Kerrigan should be fine for the start of training camp. He will be 32 years old in August though, so his career is coming down the home stretch.

Washington used the 26th overall pick on Montez Sweat last spring. As a rookie learning a new position, he managed a rather impressive 31 tackles, 19 assists, 7 sacks, and 2 forced fumbles. Now Sweat goes back to his normal defensive end spot where he piled up 22.5 sacks as a two-year starter for Mississippi State before turning pro. Sweat played more snaps last season than any of Washington’s other edge defenders, proving he can be just as effective setting the edge versus the run as getting after the passer.

As if Kerrigan and Sweat were not good enough, Washington used the second overall pick in this year’s draft on Ohio State standout Chase Young. Following in the footsteps of the Bosa Brothers, Young lit it up in his two seasons as a starter for the Buckeyes. He followed 10.5 sacks as a sophomore in 2018, with 16.5 sacks as a junior last year. He is an elite talent that should soon take his place among the elite first tier of linemen on fantasy draft boards.

So the big question is, how will playing time break down between these three big guns? It does not matter who is named as starters because the coaching staff will find a way to get all three heavily involved. Even if they end up in a three-man rotation, they could all post quality numbers. The obvious option would be to have one of them shift inside on passing downs, but the team got a combined 16.5 sacks last season from the three guys expected to rotate at the interior positions. So who comes off the field? Kerrigan is set to be a free agent at the end of this season, so the problem could solve itself at that point. In the short term, they might take just enough snaps from one another to keep them all just outside the top-10.

Washington’s decision to switch scheme has given IDP managers a treasure trove of quality targets. As good as the three defensive ends could be, the best value here for those in tackle required leagues could come from the interior positions. In the previous scheme, Da’Ron Payne played nose tackle, with Jonathan Allen and Matt Ioannidis as defensive ends. All three players recorded at least 31 tackles and 22 assists, while Allen had the third most solo stops among all defensive linemen at 47, and Ioannidis was second among all 3-4 defensive ends with 8.5 sacks. There is not a lot of difference in the responsibilities of tackles in four-man fronts and defensive ends in three-man fronts, so there is no reason to think Anderson and Ioannidis will fall short of the top-12. If they had been tackles in 2019, they would have finished one and two respectively.

At 320 pounds, Payne is the anchor of the run defense. He helped with a pair of sacks last season and will surely figure heavily into the mix on early downs. He may still be worthy of a roster spot in tackle required formats, but probably has the lowest ceiling of the three. It is purely educated speculation, but I see near even three-man rotations at both positions.

  • DE Ryan Kerrigan – Top-10 potential if he can stay healthy
  • DE Chase Young – Future star that should contribute significantly as a rookie
  • DE Montez Sweat – Strong second season on tap with huge long term potential
  • DT/DE Matt Ioannidis – Solid DT1 or stellar DT2 if he falls that far, which is possible
  • DT/DE Jonathan Allen – Quality DT1 with top-five potential
  • DT DaRon Payne – Target as priority DT2
  • DT/NT Tim Settle – Injury backup with no immediate value
  • DT Caleb Brantley – Talented college player that has never gotten it going as a pro

Linebackers

Washington is a team that needed a normal offseason program and training camp to help sort out the linebacker positions. They have a ton of options to look at, having collected a roster full of players with positional versatility and/or specific strengths to capitalize on. Washington has some young guys with potential in Cole Holcomb, Shaun Dion-Hamilton, and Josh Harvey-Clemons. They brought back Jon Bostic and signed Thomas Davis, so the coaching staff has proven veterans to work with. They even kept Ryan Anderson to linebacker to get him on the field as an extra pass rusher. Then there is Ruben Foster who is potentially an elite talent if he can ever get healthy.

Jon Bostic has been in the league since 2013 and is with his fifth team for a reason. The journeyman is a downhill run defender with adequate range and plenty of pop as a tackler but is a liability as a pass defender. He is strong at the point of attack, with the size and skill set to play on the strong side in some systems. Bostic has been an interim, two down starter at most of his stops, but has rarely seen consistent action in sub-packages. What Bostic is not, is a target for IDP managers. He has never recorded more than 57 solo tackles in a season, nor more than two and a half sacks, and he does not make very many big plays.

Thomas Davis is something like 80 in football years, yet some managers still think he is going to produce in the box scores with his new team. Davis is near the end of a great career but at age 37, he is not the same player IDP managers once loved to have on their rosters. He is in Washington because he knows the scheme, having played under Ron Rivera for much of his career. Davis will undoubtedly have some role, though he is not a lock to start, much less play full time. That ship has sailed and in the end, his biggest contribution might be as more of an additional coach on the field.

At this moment in time, if I were asked to pick one Washington linebacker for my fantasy team, it would be Cole Holcomb. The 2019 fifth-round pick was a week one starter and an immediate favorite of the previous coaching staff. Despite playing slightly over 63% of the snaps, he managed to finish second on the team with 74 tackles and first among Washington linebackers at over nine fantasy points per game. Much like Bostic, Cole has good size at 6’1” 240, does a good job stacking and shedding, and is a physical tackler. He is not such a coverage liability though. Holcomb has room for improvement in that area but he does have the extra gear and range to eventually land a fulltime job in the middle.

Shaun Dion Hamilton spent the 2019 season as a nickel linebacker, replacing Holcomb in passing situations. This rotation may have come down to the coaching staff believing Hamilton deserved a role, rather than a serious deficiency on Holcomb’s part. It was a convenient compromise that allowed both young players an opportunity to gain experience while playing to their strengths, and it saved the coaching staff having to make a tough decision. By the end of the season, Hamilton had logged 392 snaps. His tackle numbers were on par with the playing time at 36 solo and 12 assists, but his big-play totals were somewhat of an eyebrow-raiser. Despite the limited role, Hamilton managed a sack, interception, forced fumble, and a recovery.

Josh Harvey-Clemons appeared to be in line for a sub-package role heading into last season, then he slipped down the depth chart and was all but forgotten. His best shot at playing time on defense will be in some sort of sub-package role, but he is a major contributor on special teams.

Ryan Anderson is the one Washington edge defender that the incoming staff does not see as a defensive end in their scheme. He was an outside linebacker at Alabama and was drafted to be one in Washington, so he will have the first shot at starting on the strong side. The 2017 second-round pick had just six sacks over his first three seasons so the change of scheme might be exactly what he needs. With Anderson on the field, the defense has a big body to blow up blocks on running plays, and an extra pass rusher to overload the edge versus the pass. It is doubtful he will be productive enough in the box scores to warrant IDP consideration, but Anderson could be an important part of the Washington defense.

That leaves us with Reuben Foster. The 2017 first-round selection was averaging nearly six tackles per game with San Francisco as a rookie when the injuries started in week-10. First, it was a sore neck. Then off-field issues followed by a two-game suspension and a concussion leading up to the start of 2018. In October of that year, Foster had served his suspension and was cleared from the concussion, but started showing up on the injury reports with a sore shoulder. In late October he missed time with a hamstring injury. That and the pending legal issues were enough for the 49ers who then released him.

Foster was claimed off waivers by the Redskins in December of 2018 but has not yet played a down for them. The chargers were dropped in January of 2019 and everything was finally looking good until he suffered a major knee injury during OTAs that May. The MRI later revealed torn ACL and MCL with artery and nerve damage. Dallas star Jaylon Smith overcame a similar injury but it took nearly three years for him to be close to 100%. Foster is a highly talented player with huge potential if he can follow in Smith’s footsteps, but he has a long way to go and possibly a short time to get there.

Defensive Backs

A whopping 18 different players saw action in the Redskins secondary last season, and only two of the five week-one starters are still with the team. The large number of guys that suited up was mostly related to injuries, while the roster shuffle has more to do with below-average play and a final ranking of 23rd in yards per attempt. The organization elected not to invest much draft capital on the positions or spend big money on the top free agents, but they did manage to add some quality players.

The lone IDP contributor of the group in 2019 was strong safety Landon Collins who is a perennial fantasy stud. He had 84 tackles and 28 assists on a bad Giants team, leading to a top-12 finish as a rookie in 2015. The following year New York was even worse and Collins hit triple digits in solo stops, had 25 assists, 4 sacks, 6 turnovers (5 on interceptions), broke up 13 passes, and scored once to become the fantasy game’s number one defensive back. His numbers leveled off some after that and he was on a slightly lesser pace during the2017 season, then slid a few slots late after missing the final three games. Even then Collins finished among the top-10. Injury shortened his 2018 season but he still managed almost 11 points per game before being shut down. That was his final year with the Giants.

The 2019 season saw Collins sign with Washington and pick up right where he left off as a tackling machine. Despite sitting out week 17, he finished fifth among defensive backs with 79 solo tackles. Collins added 37 assists, a sack, and a pair of forced fumbles for another highly productive season overall.

Collins was a strong and consistent every week starter for IDP managers in 2019 but still landed outside the top-12 for the first time in a non-injury season. The main culprit being a drop in big-play production. From 2015 to 2017 he accounted for eight interceptions, four sacks, two forced fumbles, and three recoveries. Since that time he has not picked off a pass and has three forced fumbles with one sack over 30 games. Collins has fallen off the pedestal of elite first-tier defensive backs for now, but he still has that potential. Even with lower turnover numbers, he is as close as the fantasy game gets to a can’t-miss target and a solid DB1.

Washington solidified the safety position with the free-agent signing of Sean Davis. The former Pittsburgh starter spent last season on IR after tearing his labrum in week two. The injury kept him out of the limelight and off the minds of both NFL personnel people and IDP managers, resulting in a relative bargain price for the Redskins and a potential fantasy resurgence for us.

His most productive season came as a second-year player in 2017. That season Davis worked at strong safety for the Steelers, recording 71 tackles, 22 assists, 5 turnovers, and 8 passes defended to finish number eight, one slot behind Collins. The shift to free safety in 2018 dropped his tackle totals a bit but Davis remained relevant in IDP circles. The three players that started games at free-safety for Washington last season combined to go 67-25-0 with 5 takeaways and 6 passes defended. That would be reasonable expectations for Davis in 2020.

With 13 guys seeing action at the corner positions over the course of last season, it is no surprise that none of them exceeded 33 solo tackles. A little math tells us that Redskins corners totaled 190 tackles and 46 assists in 2019, which means there were plenty of opportunities to go around. A look at history tells us that corners in Ron Rivera’s system tend to be rather fantasy-friendly. Now, all we have to do is figure out who to target among the contenders.

Kendall Fuller is going to have a significant role and will likely be on the field full time. The reported plan is to play him on the outside in base sets then have him move into the slot against passing formations. With the Chiefs in 2018, Fuller finished second in tackles among corners with 64 solos. Adding his 18 assists, 3 takeaways, and 11 passes defended, he made it into the top-12. Fuller was on a monster pace to open last season, with 22 tackles, 7 assists, a sack, and 2 pass breakups in four games, before missing an extended period due to a fractured thumb. We know he has the ability, and he should have the opportunity as well.

Ronald Darby has been a highly productive corner when healthy. Unfortunately, that has not been often enough. In 29 games with the Bills over his first two seasons (2015-2016), Darby combined for 122 tackles, 16 assists, 33 passes defended, and 2 picks. He then went to Philadelphia and either missed or played virtually no snaps in 23 games over the last three seasons due to injury. When he did play for the Eagles, Darby was the same productive player. If he can somehow break the injury trend, the potential is there for Darby to be at least a quality CB2.

Fabian Moreau and Jimmy Moreland are also expected to win spots high in the pecking order. Moreau was the team’s third-round pick in 2017 and has made a significant contribution over the last two seasons, including several starts and some slot work. Morland won a roster spot as an undrafted free agent last year and quickly made a name for himself. The two will likely compete for the nickel corner role but may work on the outside so Fuller can drop over the slot. There is some potential with either of these guys if they can work into a full-time job.

And that's a wrap for part two of this year’s preseason edition. Up next; the AFC South.

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