Eyes of the Guru IDP Info, Part 6: NFC North

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

Links to other divisions:

Chicago Bears

Defensive Linemen

The Bears are a franchise with a tradition of great defenses. The 2019 version ranked fourth against the pass at 6.6 yards per attempt and fourth versus the run at 3.9 yards-per-carry, but they came up short of expectations in the big play columns. Chicago’s 32 sacks ranked 24th, they were middle of the pack in fumble recoveries and only four teams intercepted fewer passes.

The Bears run a 3-4 scheme so eye-catching numbers are generally not expected from their defensive linemen. In 2019 Nick Williams surprisingly led the group in tackles with 22, assists at 18, and sacks with 6. Williams came from nowhere, having previously recorded 12 career tackles since being drafted by the Steelers in 2013. Unfortunately, that meant he was working on a one year deal and is now playing for the Lions. Williams did a fine job while standing in for an injured Akiem Hicks. It would have been nice to see the two work together but at least the team will get Hicks back from injury.

Hicks missed time early last season with a sore knee. Shortly after getting back on the field, he suffered an elbow injury that would land him on IR. In all, Hicks appeared in five games and finished two of them. The good news is both injuries have had plenty of time to heal, so he should be 100% when the season opens. This is a situation that could work in favor of knowledgeable IDP managers. Since Hicks missed most of 2019, it will be out of sight, out of mind for many managers, which means he could be a draft bargain

Hicks is not an elite fantasy target but he is dependable and consistent as a quality second starter. After joining the Bears in 2016, he rolled out three consecutive seasons with top-20 rankings, the highest of which was 14 in 2018. Over those three seasons, Hicks averaged 39-15-7.5 with 5 forced fumbles and 3 recoveries. It is reasonable to expect similar production in 2020.

Beyond Hicks, we should expect no IDP help from this group. Roy Robertson-Harris was the second most productive of Chicago’s front-three in 2019, with a meager 22-8-2.5. No other lineman had more than one sack. Robertson-Harris will compete with Bilal Nichols and Brent Urban to establish the rest of the pecking order at defensive end. What we are likely to see is something like the 2018 Bears when Hicks played almost twice as many snaps as anyone else while the next three guys all had between 297 and 354 plays.

Managers in leagues starting two defensive tackles might find some value in a second Bears lineman. Eddie Goldman had the least productive of his five NFL season in 2019, going 21-8-1, but he has opted out for this season. Goldman had four and a half sacks as a rookie in 2015 and was well on the way to a significantly better 2016 when he was injured after six games. In 2018 Goldman finished 27-12-3, slipping into the top-24 interior linemen. This offseason there has been some chatter about Goldman seeing time at defensive end, in an effort to re-kindle some production.

The free-agent addition of John Jenkins further promotes the possibility of Goldman playing some end. Jenkins has little IDP upside but is a good early-down option at nose tackle.

Linebackers

Chicago lacks proven depth at the linebacker positions, but if they stay healthy, this group can play with anyone. Danny Trevathan and Roquan Smith form a formidable tandem on the inside. From a skillset perspective, they are interchangeable players. Both are dependable tacklers that make plays versus the run, have good speed, range, and coverage abilities. Both are also productive IDP targets.

When assembling your draft board, list Smith ahead of Trevathan. Not so much because he is more productive, but because he has a much shorter laundry list of injuries. Smith had some nagging issues as a rookie in 2018 but managed to play through them all. In 2019 he missed one game due to personal issues but was healthy until suffering a torn pectoral in Week 14. He is now recovered from surgery and will be healthy entering camp.

Over his first two seasons, Smith has averaged 11.8 points per game and has been a rock-solid LB2. He is a tackling machine, averaging better than five and a half tackles and two assists per game but has been somewhat quiet in the big play columns. In 28 games Smith has a respectable seven sacks but just two turnovers and six passes defended. Before the injury, he was on pace to finish just outside the top-12 in 2019 and has a shot at getting inside that group in 2020.

Due to injuries, Danny Trevathan has been a big tease for IDP managers during his seven-year career. His latest injury is a dislocated elbow suffered in week ten of last season. That should not present an issue entering this season, but there is a trend here.

So far Trevathan has missed a total of 32 games, completing a full schedule twice. The first time was his rookie campaign with Denver in 2013. That season he was the number eleven linebacker with an average of 13.6 points per game. The second time Trevathan played a full schedule was 2018 when he ranked 21st at linebacker. His tackle numbers are slightly lower on a per-game average than those of Smith, but Trevathan is more of a big-play threat. In 36 games over the last three seasons, he has accounted for five sacks, eight turnovers, and twelve pass breakups. His ceiling is a bit lower than that of Smith and the injury risk greater, but so long as he remains healthy, Trevathan will produce like a good LB2 or excellent third starter.

In Khalil Mack, Chicago has one of the best edge defenders in the game. His talent and versatility transcend schemes, allowing Mack to be equally productive as a pass rusher while playing defensive end in a 4-3 or outside linebacker in a 3-4. Over his two seasons with Chicago Mack has 21 sacks, 10 forced fumbles, 3 recoveries, 8 batted passes, an interception, and a score. The change of teams and scheme has, however, had a significant negative impact on both Mack’s tackle numbers and overall IDP value.

In four seasons with the Raiders, Mack’s lowest tackle totals were 54 solo and 19 assists, while 2019 brought the lowest overall production of his career at 40-6-8.5. A good portion of the decline comes down to supporting cast. Simply put, with Akiem Hicks out, the Bears had no one to keep opponents honest, allowing them to game plan against Mack with little concern that someone else would step up. The other outside linebacker position produced just five total sacks on the season with starter Leonard Floyd landing three. The organization resolved the issue with the addition of Robert Quinn, so we can expect a bounce-back season from Mack.

Quinn’s departure from Dallas is a perfect example of how paying a quarterback big money affects the rest of the roster. Because they had to leave room for Dak Prescot, the Cowboys were not able to re-sign Quinn, who was by far their best pass rusher. His greatest production has come as a defensive end in 4-3 schemes, including 19 sacks while with the Rams in 2013, and last season’s 11.5, but Quinn is no stranger to the outside linebacker role in a 3-4, having played there at times during his Rams career. He has not exceeded 30 tackles in a season since 2014 and is unlikely to break that trend in 2020, making Quinn a great addition for the Bears but a marginal factor in IDP leagues not predicated on big-play numbers.

With Nick Kwiatkoski looking for a starting opportunity in Las Vegas, the Bears have virtually no experience at inside linebacker behind the starters. Joel Iyiegbuniwe projects as the third man, backing up both starters, The 2018 fourth-round pick currently has 12 career tackles, which is rather impressive considering he has played 26 snaps.

The team is a little better off at outside linebacker where Aaron Lynch, Barkaveious Mingo, and Isaiah Irving have 16 years of experience between them, but none of those guys have more than four sacks in a season since Lynch had six and a half back in 2015.

  • ILB Danny Trevathan – Target as LB4 or low-end LB3 due to risk
  • ILB Roquan Smith – Strong LB2 with top-12 potential
  • ILB Joel Iyiegbuniwe – Injury sleeper
  • OLB Kahlil Mack – LB1 in big play based leagues, LB3 at best in balanced leagues
  • OLB Robert Quinn – Possible LB3 in big-play formats, matchup based depth at best for most
  • OLB Aaron Lynch – No impact expected
  • OLB Isaiah Irving – No impact expected
  • OLB Barkeveious Mingo – No impact expected
  • OLB Trevis Gipson – A rookie project with some long term potential

Defensive Backs

Chicago’s secondary was a busy place in 2019. There were 305 solo stops awarded to defensive backs on the season. Between all those tackles and knowing that both starting inside linebackers missed time, one might assume the Bears safeties would have held significant value. That was not so much the case though. Instead it was corner Kyle Fuller who provided the best numbers as his 73 solo stops led the entire Bears team and tied Logan Ryan for the league lead among corners.

This is nothing new for Fuller who is the only corner to finish among the top-10 in each of the past three seasons. He was also a top-30 overall defensive back in each of those seasons. His production from 2017 to 2019 presents an interesting twist. Last year he did most of the work in the tackle columns, finishing at 73-10-0 with 3 picks and 12 passes defended. In 2018 it was a different path to the same result. That season Fuller was the number three corner with a line of 45-10-0, 7 interceptions and 19 passes defended. In 2017 he made the top-10 with a more balanced stat sheet of 60 tackles, 8 assists, 2 picks, and 22 pass breakups. Fuller is as solid a CB1 target as we can find. It matters little how he gets there in 2020, so long as he does.

The release of Prince Amukamara opens the door for competition at the corner opposite Fuller. Buster Skrine would be the best of the team’s returning options, but he is a better fit as the slot corner. The coaching staff may be counting heavily on second-round pick Jaylon Johnson to pick up the torch. Johnson is at his best as a press corner, getting in the face of receivers at the line of scrimmage and disrupting timing routs. This makes him a good fit in Chuck Pagano’s defense. Johnson will be given every opportunity to win the job. If he succeeds, the rookie corner rule could be in effect.

The team’s other rookie corner could also be in the mix for one of the top three spots. Kindle Vildor is undersized for a press corner but is tough as they come at the position. He is not exceptionally fast and missed some tackles at Georgia Southern, but was a ballhawk with nine career interceptions. In all the Bears will take 18 defensive back into training camp, many of them young guys looking to make a team for the first time. The coaching staff just needs a couple of them to step up.

The Bears play a lot of cover-2 which keeps both safeties deep and makes the strong side corner a bigger factor in run support. This contributed greatly to Fuller’s success in 2019, and also helps to explain why neither safety was able to capitalize fully. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was the team’s strong safety when they did decide to move one of them into that role, but his 63 tackles, 14 assists, and 4 turnovers amounted to no better than a DB4. With Clinton-Dix now in Dallas, Chicago will be auditioning for the job this summer. Journeyman Tashaun Gipson Sr will compete with DeAndre Houston-Carson for the job, while both Deon Bush and Jordan Lucas could cast their names into the hat as well. Regardless of who comes out on top, there will be limited potential from this situation.

In 2017 and 2018 Eddie Jackson was arguably the best big-play safety in the game. He missed a pair of games in 2018 but in the other 30 over that span, Jackson accounted for a sack, two forced fumbles, four recoveries, eight interceptions, twenty passes defended, and five touchdowns. In 2018 his average of 12.58 points per game ranked fifth among defensive backs. In 2019 Jackson’s numbers came crashing back to earth with a thud. He still made some plays, with four total takeaways and a sack, but it was not enough to overcome his marginal tackle totals and wild week to week inconsistency. Over 55% of Jackson’s 2019 point total came in five games while he averaged 5.13 points over the other eleven. He is a rebound candidate in 2020 but we should take a wait and see approach with him at the lease.

Detroit Lions

Defensive Linemen

As the Lions enter year three of the Matt Patricia era, they are still looking for the magic he once brought to New England’s defenses. Detroit was solid versus the run and forced a good number of turnovers on fumbles in 2019, but beyond that, they remain a work in progress. They were 26th against the pass at 7.8 yards per attempt, no one had fewer interceptions, and only the Dolphins recorded fewer sacks. As we would expect, there will be several new faces in the lineup this year. Taking a page out of the Patriots manual for success, Detroit signed no high priced free-agents and used no early draft picks to bolster the front seven, but that does not mean they have failed to improve.

There are currently no players on the Lions roster that have ever recorded more than seven and a half sacks in any season at the pro level, but they do have a quality player and IDP contributor in Trey Flowers. There is no guesswork when it comes to Flowers. On the field, he is a dependable three-down defensive end that sets the edge well versus the run and will contribute as a pass rusher. In IDP terms he is not a star but is very consistent. Flowers has recorded no fewer than 51 and no more than 61 combined tackles, and between 6.5 and 7.5 sacks in each of the last three seasons. As a member of the Lions last year, he finished 34-17-7 with 5 forced fumbles. Over the last three seasons, Flowers has ranked 13, 21, and 26 respectively. He will never challenge for a sack title and may never reach double digits, but Flowers can be counted on as a low-end DL2 or priority DL3 with limited upside.

As with many teams, the Lions like to rotate players along the defensive line to keep everyone fresh. Flowers led the way with 62% of the snaps in 2019, while Romeo Okwara saw the next most action with a mere 53%. In 2018 the Lions defensive line was decimated by injuries, providing Okwara an opportunity. When he recorded seven and a half sacks the organization thought they had something. Unfortunately, Okwara was not able to take the next step in 2019. In fact, he regressed significantly, recording just a sack and a half. The team has not given up on the fourth-year player, but his role could be reduced to that of a sub-package rush specialist this year, providing Da’Shawn Hand can stay healthy.

Hand got off to a fast start as a rookie in 2018. In his first five games, he totaled 15 tackles, 4 assists, 2 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and a recovery. Then came the bye week, after which Hand seemed to hit the rookie wall and faded away quickly. His 2019 season was derailed by an early elbow injury followed by an ankle sprain that would lead to injured reserve. He is healthy entering camp and should be a factor for the Lions in 2020

Hand is a defensive end trapped in the body of a tackle. At 6’3” 297 pounds, he lacks the quick-twitch acceleration and top-end speed of a great edge rusher but can set the edge versus the run and has enough pass-rush ability to contribute. Hand might be better suited to play inside full time, but the Lions have great depth at the interior positions so it would make a lot of sense for him to work outside on early downs then shift inside in passing situations as he did in 2018. The way his rookie campaign started suggests Hand has some potential from an IDP perspective, especially if he is designated a tackle.

The Lions invested a third-round pick in tweener Julian Okwara, the younger brother of Romeo. Julian had a good career at Notre Dame, recording 15.5 career sacks, forcing 4 fumbles and interception a pair of passes. The question is, how does he fit into the plan? Okwara has the versatility to rush the passer as either a defensive end in a 4-3 or outside linebacker in a 3-4, but he can be a liability versus the run from either of those positions. Even in college, he was often used as a pass-rush specialist, leading to a paltry 47 solo tackles and 32 assists over four seasons with the Fighting Irish. Okwara could get a look at the strong-side linebacker position in Detroit’s 4-3, but that spot probably belongs to Jamie Collins Sr. Okwara could develop into a serious contributor in time, but for now, we should not expect to see him on the field much.

Danny Shelton and Nick Williams project as the early-down starters at tackle. Shelton is a 345-pound road grader that will anchor the run defense. He managed three sacks while with the Patriots last year, giving him a career total of four and a half over five seasons. Shelton was the number 11 tackle in 2016 and finished at 13 last season, so there is a chance he will be a decent contributor in tackle required leagues. On the other hand, he finished outside the top-40 in each of his other three seasons. Over his career, Shelton has rarely seen the field on passing downs. That trend is sure to continue.

Nick Williams is an interesting prospect. After playing very little early in his career and being out of football altogether in 2017, he took full advantage of the opportunity with Chicago last season. Williams was a defensive end in the Bears 3-4, a position that translates well to the three-technique role in Detroit’s 4-3. He held up well versus the run in 2019, recording 22 tackles and 18 assists, but it is the ability to contribute as a pass rusher that makes Williams an intriguing IDP prospect. His six sacks were the second-highest total by a Chicago defender and would have been second-most among the Lions as well. That should spell a good number of third-down opportunities for Williams and potential IDP value in tackle required formats.

The Lions have no superstars but they do have young depth with high potential. Last year’s fourth-round pick, Austin Bryant, played all of his 133 snaps over the final six games. He did nothing special with the opportunity but keep in mind Bryant had 95 combined tackles and 17 sacks over his final two years at Clemson. He could take a big step in year two.

Rookies Jashon Cornell and John Penisini were added in the final two rounds of this year’s draft. Cornell is an interesting prospect. His career at Ohio State took some strange turns so he did not see a lot of playing time before 2019. Even then he was not a full-time starter, but Cornell’s 30 combined tackles and 4 sacks were enough to garner some attention. He is a versatile player who lined up at both tackle and end as a Buckeye, suggesting Cornell could be viewed in some ways as a poor man’s DaShawn Hand.

  • DE Trey Flowers – Bottom half DL2 or priority DL3
  • DE Romeo Okwara – Deep sleeper
  • DE/DT DaShawn Hand – Value will depend on the positional designation; possible DT2
  • DE Julian Okwara – Dynasty longshot
  • DE Austin Bryant – Breakout candidate
  • DE/DT Jashon Cornell – Developmental rookie with potential
  • DT Danny Shelton – Hit or miss DT2
  • DT Nick Williams – Sleeper with good upside in tackle required formats
  • DT John Atkins – Injury sleeper at best
  • DT John Penisini – Developmental rookie

Linebackers

Matt Patricia was so successful as the Patriots defensive coordinator that it got him a head coaching gig. He and his former boss did an outstanding job of picking players for their particular strengths and then fitting those strengths into the scheme. Of course, he would look to build a similar system in Detroit. Linebacker play is vital to Patricia’s defensive genius, and the Lions did not have the players to make it happen at the second level initially. They may finally be there.

In the role of Dont'a Hightower, we have Jahlani Tavai. A 250-pound linebacker that brings high energy to the huddle and hits like a truck, but is a little suspect in coverage. The team selected Jahlani Tavai in the second round last spring. He failed to secure a three-down role as a rookie but was able to get on the field for around 53% of the snaps. Tavai was not spectacular but played and produced well for a rookie with 39 tackles, 23 assists, 2 sacks, and a pair of takeaways. It is safe to assume that he will have at least a similar role in year two but it is hard to say if his role will expand.

In the Brandon Spikes/Jerod Mayo role, I give you Jarrad Davis. The Lions have been mediocre at linebacker for a long time and last year was no different. The former first-round pick was banged up most of last season but has been rather inconsistent over his three years as a pro, even when healthy. Davis has shown signs of greatness including 10 sacks and 9 turnovers in his brief career, but just when you think he is ready to blossom, he vanishes for a game or two. The talent is there, so if Davis can ever put it all together, he could be an every-week must-start for IDP managers.

And finally, in the Jamie Collins Sr role, we have… Jamie Collins Sr. This was a huge and welcome free agent signing for Patricia and the defense. Not only do they get a player with the right skill set, but they also get one that has already flourished in the system. In 34 games under Patricia from 2014, until he was traded halfway through 2016, Collins collected 157 solo tackles and 92 assists which is not bad, but most importantly, Collins was/is a playmaker. In what amounted to just over two seasons worth of games under Patricia, he totaled 12.5 sacks, forced 11 fumbles, recovered 3, broke up 12 passes, picked off 5, and scored once. Collins has been just as productive since parting way with his old coordinator. Over the past two seasons, he has added 11 sacks, 10 turnovers, and another score to his resume. There is a chance that either Davis or Tavai will step up and provide some IDP value but the safe target here is Collins who should be at least a solid LB3 and probably more.

The Lions have solid if unspectacular depth at linebacker. Veteran Reggie Ragland is a two-down thumper who should backup Tavai, Jalen Reeves-Maybin has been around for a few years and offers positional versatility while Elijah Lee and Christian Jones are veterans with starting experience at both outside positions. What the Lions do not have behind the starters, is a young guy with the potential to step up and push for a job somewhere down the road.

Defensive Backs

Detroit’s secondary was so dismal in 2019 that the only starter to survive the purge is free safety Tracy Walker. The 2018 third-round pick won the starting job in training camp and went on to have a monster season. Walker seemed to be everywhere on game days. Despite missing three games, he racked up 83 solo tackles which ranked third among defensive backs league-wide, while his 12.3 points per game ranked sixth. Exceptional consistency added to Walker’s IDP value. In 13 games played he reached at least 9 fantasy points 12 times, reaching double digits in 10 of them. His worst game of Walker’s season was an injury-shortened week 11 when he was 4-2-0 on 23 plays. The coaching staff would like to see Walker have lower numbers simply because the front-seven plays better, but he should have enough opportunity to repeat as a solid DB1.

Walker was not the only useful IDP target among Detroit defensive backs in 2019. Tavon Wilson moved into the starting strong safety job in week four and also put up good numbers, recording 65 tackles, 24 assists, and 3 turnovers in 13 games. Wilson was not re-signed so the job will go to either second-year pro, Will Harris or yet another former Patriots player picked up in free agency, Duron Harmon.

Harris was the team’s third-round pick last spring. For most of the season, he served as the third safety, in a role strikingly similar to that of Harmon in New England. Harris made a few starts when Walker was injured and was on the field for a total of 675 snaps. That experience, together with the fact he was selected by the current regime and is a natural strong safety, has most people projecting Harris as the full-time starter and a player to target late in the draft. Nothing is written in stone here, however.

Coincidentally, Harmon was also a third-round selection, taken by the Patriots in 2013. Except for a few starts as an injury fill-in, Harmon has been a nickel safety over his entire career. That and the fact he has more of a free safety skill set, are also good reasons to believe he will hold the same sub-package role with the Lions that he had in New England.

There will be two new starters at the corner positions in Detroit this fall, and there should not be much debate or competition to it. Former Falcons star Desmond Trufant will be plugged in on once side with third overall pick Jeff Okudah opposite him. Trufant has dealt with some injuries over the past four seasons. He missed seven games in 2019 with a combination of toe and forearm issues. When healthy, however, Trufant is one of the league’s top-shelf cover men. As is often the case with great corners, Trufant’s best box score production came as a rookie in 2013. Since that time he has put up respectable numbers at times but not enough to garner serious fantasy interest.

The contributions of Jeff Okudah to his Ohio State team over the past two seasons are not reflected in his statistics. In 26 games as a starter, he totaled 52 tackles, 14 assists, 3 interceptions, and 17 pass breakups. The story those numbers fail to relate is that opponents completed less than 39% of the passes thrown in his direction.

Okudah will have to prove himself at the NFL level before any quarterback fears him enough to affect their choice of targets. In fact, teams will try to pick on his inexperience until/unless he makes enough of them pay for it. As a rookie starter, Okudah could have decent IDP value in corner required leagues, but it should not take long for him to emerge as one of the elite.

Justin Coleman started several games for the Lions last season. This year he will compete with free-agent newcomer Darryl Robert and second-year man Amani Oruwariye for nickel and dime sub-package duties. Roberts has worked as a slot corner for much of his career and could have an advantage heading into camp.

Green Bay Packers

Defensive Linemen

The Packers defense had its problems in 2019, finishing in the bottom third versus both run and pass. They were successful at creating big plays in the passing game though. Only two teams had more interceptions and they recorded a respectable 41 sacks. The sack total is particularly interesting considering how little the team got from its defensive line.

Green Bay has run a 3-4 for a long time now. Despite using a good amount of early-round draft capital on the front-three over the years, they have never had an Aaron Donald or Calais Campbell type player. Some of this can be attributed to the two-gap approach they often employ. Regardless of the cause, the important point is that Tyler Lancaster was the only Green Bay defensive end that got to a quarterback in 2019, and he totaled a sack and a half.

There has traditionally been marginal production from the Packers defensive end positions but Green Bay has one of the best nose tackles in the game. Kenny Clark was a late first-round pick in 2016 and has been well worth the price. Over three seasons as a starter, he has been rock solid on the field consistently productive in the box scores. For the past three seasons, Clark has ranked no lower than eighth among interior linemen and inside the top-30 in leagues that lump the positions together. We know just what to expect from Clark who has been remarkably consistent from year to year. Since 2017 he has between 55 and 61 combined tackles and 5 or 6 sacks in each season. In leagues that count all linemen together, Clark is a low-end DL2 or quality depth, but if you must start tackles, he is a dependable DT1.

Linebackers

Over the past three seasons respectively, Blake Martinez has been the third, eighth, and six rankled linebacker. Most of his value has come from gaudy tackle totals averaging 95 solo and 52 assists, but Martinez made at least some contribution in the splash-play columns each season. There is no doubt the position is highly productive, so let us take a look at Christian Kirksey who will be playing there.

Kirksey has spent more of the last two seasons in the trainer’s room than on the field. He missed several games in 2018 with ankle and shoulder injuries, then landed on IR after a week two chest injury in 2019. All the injuries have healed and Kirksey should be good to go for the start of camp. There remains some concern with his durability but there is no question about his playing ability.

As a healthy three-down starter for Cleveland in 2016 and 2017, Kirksey averaged 91 tackles and 52 assists, with a total of 6 sacks, 3 turnovers, 9 pass breakups, and a pair of top-10 rankings. So what the Packers have basically done is replaced Martinez with an equivalent player that they were able to sign for substantially less money. Now they just have to hope the injury risk doesn’t come back to bite them.

Kirksey is certainly capable of top-10 numbers in this situation, but there are simply too many strong options with less risk. Grab one of the safe guys as your LB1 and see if Kirksey slides into the mid-LB2 range since he has done nothing in two years. Remember, it is not just about who you draft, it’s about the value where you get them.

This is a team that has championed the use of a big-nickel as their base defense. As a result, the Packers had two inside linebackers on the field less than 30% of the time in 2019. B.J. Goodson saw most of that playing time with Oren Burks picking up some scraps. Goodson is gone so Burks will compete with Ty Summers and fifth-round pick Kamal Martin for the job. Both Burks and Summers have shown flashes to strong play, but if the organization believed in one of them, would they have brought in Kirksey to start?

Rookie Kamal Martin is a guy to keep an eye on. His scouting report heading into the draft reads similarly to those of both Kirksey and Martinez. Martin is a physical run defender with good speed, optimal size, and the ability to get off blocks and make tackles in traffic. He is a capable pass defender in zone coverages but has limitations in man to man. Martin gained a lot of experience as a starter over most of the last three seasons but needs to clean up some missed tackles that were an issue during his career at Minnesota. Neith out, he could be groomed as the eventual starter.

The Packers were loaded with talent at the outside linebacker positions last season. So much so in fact, that first-round pick Rashan Gary could only get on the field for 23% of the snaps as the fourth man on the depth chart. Last year’s number-three, Kyler Fackrell has moved on so Gary will have a significantly larger role in 2020, but the way Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith performed in 2019, Gary may have to wait a while longer for a starting spot.

Both Za’Darius and Preston Smith were on the field for better than 84% of the snaps in 2019, combining for 25.5 sacks. As with most outside backers in 3-4 schemes, marginal tackle totals held their IDP value down in the LB5 range. For those in balanced scoring formats, however, the Smith’s will continue to have much more value.

For big-play managers, picking which Smith to draft first is a coin toss. At 41-16-13.5 with 1 forced fumble, Za’Darius had the most tackles and sacks of the duo, while at 36-19-12 with 2 forced fumbles, Preston had more assist, an extra turnover and added 4 batted passes.

  • ILB Christian Kirksey – Likely LB1 is healthy but target as LB2 due to risk
  • ILB Oren Burks – No impact expected
  • ILB Ty Summers – injury sleeper at best
  • ILB Kamal Martin – Dynasty target if you have room to taxi
  • OLB Za'Darius Smith – Quality LB2 in big-play based leagues
  • OLB Preston Smith – Quality LB2 in big-play based leagues
  • OLB Rashan Gary – Injury/dynasty sleeper in big-play leagues
  • OLB Tim Williams – No impact expected
  • OLB Jonathan Garvin –Late round developmental pick

Defensive Backs

Green Bay uses the nickel as their base defense much of the time. They might also use dime packages more than anyone else in the league. On most downs, they will have a third safety in a nickel linebacker alignment. In passing situations they will often replace a defensive lineman with an additional defensive back, lining up in what is a 2-3-6. Playing soo many defensive backs leads to a lot of tackles by the secondary as a whole, but it has produced no great IDP targets in recent years.

Strong safety Adrian Amos was usually the player called upon to move up into the linebacker spot in three safety sets. He is a physical tackler with the size and skillset for the job, and will likely continue in that role in his second season with the team.

Amos was somewhat of a disappointment to IDP managers in 2019. Despite being one of the few defenders in the league to play every snap for their team, he totaled a modest 66-16-1 with a pair of picks and 8 passes defended. Those numbers were good enough to make Amos a decent third starter, but many thought he should have been more productive based on the overall situation. On the other hand, all those numbers were equal to or greater than his previous career highs, so maybe we should have had different expectations to begin with. There is still some upside with Amos but we should not count on him as more than a marginal third starter or quality depth.

The Packers selected Darnell Savage 21st overall last spring and plugged him right into the lineup at free safety. Savage is a true center fielder that tackles well in the open field, has plenty of speed, range, and some playmaking ability. In 13 games as a rookie, he broke up five passes, picked off two, and forced two fumbles. There is splash-play upside with Savage but since he generally works deep as the safety net, he is not going to have strong tackle totals.

Injuries forced the third safety role to change hands a few times last year. Raven Greene was on the field for 56 of 73 plays in week one but was lost in week two. Will Redmond carried the torch for a few games before handing it off to Ibraheim Campbell. Woven into those changes was Tramon Williams seeing some action at the position as well. Williams has moved on so seventh-round pick Vernon Scott will throw his name into the hat for what looks to be an open competition.

The highest-scoring member of Green Bay’s secondary in 2019 was corner, Kevin King. With respectable tackle totals of 56 solo and 10 assists, a sack, 14 passes defended, and a team-high 5 interceptions, King was the fantasy games number six corner and number 23 defensive back overall. As is often the case with corners, week to week inconsistency had an ill effect on King’s value in leagues that combine the positions, but he was a solid CB1 in formats that break them out. What we do not yet know is if King will pick up where he left off or become another tally in the one-year wonder column. He was a second-round pick in 2017 but missed a lot of time with injuries over his first two seasons, so we have just one year to look at.

Jaire Alexander was the team’s first-round pick in 2018 and has done a solid job. He is still looking to make a name for himself on the field but is off to a good start toward that goal. From an IDP perspective, Alexander has so far been a great example of the rookie corner rule. He opened 2018 as the nickel corner but soon took over a starting spot when Kevin King was injured. Alexander played in 13 games as a rookie that year, starting 10 of them and finishing 61-6-.5 with a pick and 10 passes defended. In 2019 Alexander missed nine snaps all season, recording 11 fewer tackles but accounting for 4 turnovers and 17 pass breakups. With Alexander showing signs of a potential emerging star, his tackle totals are not likely to rebound, but he could make up a lot of ground in the big-play columns.

The starters are set so long as they can stay healthy. With Tramon Williams gone, the rest of the pecking order as well as sub-package roles will be decided by competition. Third-year players Josh Jackson, Chandon Sullivan, and Tremon Smith are all in the mix, as is second-year pro, KaDar Hollman. This competition will have no impact unless one of the starters is lost.

  • SS Adrian Amos – Quality depth with a DB3 ceiling
  • FS Darnell Savage – Potential depth in deep drafted leagues
  • FS Will Redmond – No impact expected
  • SS Raven Greene – Injury sleeper at best
  • SS Vernon Scott – Developmental rookie worth watching in dynasty formats
  • CB Kevin King – Possible CB1
  • CB Jaire Alexander – Depth with CB2 upside based on big-play potential
  • CB Josh Jackson – No impact
  • CB Chandon Smith – No impact
  • CB KaDar Hollman – No impact
  • CB Tremon Smith – No impact

Minnesota Vikings

Defensive Linemen

Minnesota boasted the tightest defense in the NFC North last year. They were middle of the pack versus the run but finished seventh against the pass, tied for the third-most interceptions with 17, recovered 14 opponents fumbles, and were fifth in the league with 48 sacks. One of the keys to the Vikings’ success was getting to the quarterback without having to blitz all the time. 41 of their sacks were recorded by defensive linemen and 32 by defensive ends.

Danielle Hunter sets the bar for defensive ends heading into fantasy draft season. He should be the first defensive lineman off the board in most leagues and an argument can be made for taking Hunter as the first defensive player overall. In each of the past two seasons, he has reached 50 solo tackles and 14 sacks. Hunter was a top-three lineman in 2018 and was number one in most scoring systems last year. For a guy that checks in under 255 pounds, Hunter is remarkably good against the run and has an arsenal of pass rush moves to go with great speed and athleticism as a pass rusher. There are several players among the elite tier of defensive linemen these days, so there will be plenty of competition for the top spot in 2020, but Hunter is very much capable of repeating. Oh, by the way, he is only 25 years old.

Everson Griffen was second on the team with eight sacks last season. Coach Zimmer keeps saying he would like to re-sign Griffen, who remains a free agent as camps begin to open, but the front office appears far less interested. As of late July, there is nothing to suggest the two sides are even talking. So who are they counting on to fill the void?

The organization stockpiled 14 picks in this year’s draft then used one of their fourth-round selection on South Carolina’s D.J. Wonnum, and a late pick on Michigan State’s Kenny Willekes. Wonnum saw plenty of starts with the Gamecocks, totaling 14 career sacks, but he needs time to develop as a run defender. Willekes is a former walk-on that became a three-year starter and team captain for the Spartans, averaging 76 combined tackles and almost 8 sacks per season. Both of these young players have intriguing potential and I am keeping a particularly close eye on Willekes who is more well rounded and better versus the run. There is, however, a returning player that I believe is a strong breakout candidate for 2020.

Ifeadi Odenigbo was a seventh-round pick of the Cardinals in 2018. He appeared in one game as a rookie, recording a single assist. The Vikings brought him to camp last summer and could not have been happier with the decision. Odenigbo played a total of 19 snaps over the first four games but his role began to grow from there. By the end of the season, he had produced 18 tackles, 5 assists, 7 sacks, 3 turnovers, and a touchdown. Those seem like marginal numbers until we consider he was on the field for a total of 342 plays. In comparison, Danielle Hunter played 897. If we break it down to per-play production, Odenigbo would have been 47-13-18.5 with 8 turnovers had he played as much as Hunter. Unless his 2019 was a mirage and he turns back into a pumpkin, I don’t see how the coaching staff can keep this guy off the field.

The rest of the defensive ends on the roster will probably be competing for the last roster spot at defensive end, providing the team decided to keep more than four. Anthony Zettel would be the early favorite for that spot due to experience and versatility.

There is a history of good IDP value at the Vikings tackle positions as well. Much of it compliments of Linval Joseph who has been a regular among the top-12 interior linemen throughout most of his ten-year career. With Joseph gone, the team is looking for someone to step up at his position.

Shamar Stephen, Jaleel Johnson, Armon Watts, and Jalyn Holmes are all returning players with their names in the hat but keep a close eye on free-agent addition Michael Pierce. With Joseph missing a couple of games, Stephen saw the most playing time among Minnesota’s interior linemen. He was adequate but not so impressive as a starter after being a backup for most of his six-year career. Holmes and Watts are young guys, taken in the fourth and six rounds of the last two drafts respectively. Neither has done anything to stand out and if the coaching staff thought either would be the answer, they would not have signed Pierce.

Jaleel Johnson is an interesting prospect. The 2017 fourth-round pick did little over his first two seasons but made a good showing in year-three. Johnson served as the third man in the rotation last season, recording 15 tackles, 13 assists, and 3.5 sacks in the part-time role. Because he is strong against the run and showed some pop as a pass rusher, Johnson seems a logical candidate for the three-technique spot, which is the more fantasy-friendly of the two in most situations, but is not where Joseph lined up.

At 329 pounds, Joseph usually lined up as the nose tackle and was the anchor of the run defense first and foremost, with a little bit of pass-rush presence. Pierce is a 6’0” 345-pound bowling ball that gives offensive linemen fits with his low pad level and an even lower center of gravity. He is four years younger than Joseph and lacks the track record, but Pierce has been handicapped statistically as the nose tackle in Baltimore’s two-gap 3-4 scheme. He managed a respectable 32 tackles and 17 assists in 2017 but has just 3.5 career sacks. Call it a gut feeling or an educated guess, but I believe Pierce could flourish in the Vikings penetrating one-gap scheme.

Fourth-round pick James Lynch is an interesting prospect here as well. He played some defensive end at Baylor and brings positional versatility to the table, but is expected to work inside as a pro. His 13.5 sacks as a junior for the Bears last season are eyebrow-raising and could point to a sub-package role early in his career.

Linebackers

We have not seen Vikings linebackers in a lot of highlight reels over the last few years, nor is one commonly mentioned in conversations about which linebackers to target in IDP drafts. We should not mistake this to mean there are no good linebackers in Minnesota, however. The truth is quite the contrary in fact.

The Vikings began building their linebacker corps by making Anthony Barr the ninth overall pick in 2014. He became an immediate starter at the weak-side position and was on pace for a top-20 finish before missing the final four games. That season Barr totaled 55 tackles, 15 assists, 4 sacks, and 5 turnovers. Barr was on a similar pace in 2016 when he missed the final two games. Then came 2016 when he was moved to the strong side. Even staying on the field in sub-packages was not enough to save his IDP value. From 2016 through 2018, Barr finished outside the top-60 linebackers, averaging fewer than 50 solo tackles while totaling 6 sacks and 3 turnovers in 45 games.

The story is not yet over, and it could still have a happy ending. With the emergence of Eric Wilson, Barr was seeing time on the weak-side again in 2019. Even though he missed two games and was not on the weak-side all the time, Barr had his best statistical season sine 2014, with a career-high 56 tackles, 23 assists, a sack and a half, 4 pass breakups and his first season with 3 takeaways since 2015. Granted, those numbers are nothing to get excited about, but it was enough to move Barr into the LB5 conversation and make him worthy of a roster spot in many leagues.

What we do need to be aware of, however, the coaching staff plans to start Wilson on the strong side going forward, moving Barr to the weak-side full-time. He is not a tackling machine and the Vikings linebacker positions have not been particularly IDP friendly in recent years but Barr could break 60 solo stops for the first time in his career, and he has enough big-play ability to make a solid LB4 with a little upside.

The team added Eric Kendricks in the second round of 2015. Like Barr the season before, Kendricks became an immediate starter, working at middle linebacker. He played 14 games that season and was a solid third starter for IDP managers with a line of 73-20-4 and a pass breakup, finishing at LB32 in the rankings. In year-two, Kendricks went 70-39-2.5, adding 3 turnovers, 8 passes defended, and a score to finish just outside the top-12. Everything pointed to him becoming a superstar in both NFL and IDP circles. Unfortunately, that has been the high-water mark of his career so far from an IDP perspective.

Kendricks has been rock solid on the field throughout his five seasons. He is a dependable three-down player with the talent and skill set to be great but has never managed to take the next step. The 73 tackles from his rookie campaign remains a career-best while Kendricks has combined for only five sacks over the last four seasons. To his credit, Kendricks has made more big plays of late, with eight turnovers in the last two seasons after totaling five in his first three. In 2017 he was the 18th ranked linebacker, followed by 27th in 2018 and 23rd last season. When someone shows you who they are, believe them. Kendricks is a solid LB2 without much upside.

Before the emergence of Eric Wilson, the Vikings were using a nickel base defense much of the time. Later in the season, we were seeing more three-linebacker sets, which was directly related to the desire to get Wilson on the field. He will not get enough playing time in the current situation to sustain any IDP value, but the former undrafted free-agent has shown what he is capable of when given the opportunity. There were three games in 2019 in which Wilson started and played more than 35 snaps. In those three games, he had seven solo tackles in each of those games and was a combined 21-11-3. If something happens that puts this guy on the field full time, do not wait to see if he produces or you may be too late.

With the emergence of Wilson, one might ask why the organization used a fourth-round pick on Tony Dye. Both Barr and Kendricks tend to get knicked up from time to time. Kentrell Brothers was supposed to be the top backup to Kendricks and would have been a good one had he not received a nine-game suspension. Tye was a productive four-year starter at Oregon, averaging 98 combined tackles per season with 13 sacks, 5 picks, 4 forced fumbles, a recovery, 14 pass breakups, and a score. Both Barr and Kendricks are signed through 2023 so there is no foreseeable path to a starting job for Dye, but if he somehow gets an opportunity, he could be surprisingly productive.

  • MLB Eric Kendricks – Dependable LB2 with marginal upside
  • WLB/SLB Anthony Barr – Target as an LB5 with low LB3 potential
  • SLB Eric Wilson – Sleeper with big upside if he lands a full-time role
  • MLB Tony Dye – Injury sleeper
  • WLB Ben Gedeon – No impact expected
  • MLB Kentrell Brothers – Suspension could impact roster decision, not a lock to make the team

Defensive Backs

The Vikings had 11 players line up for them in the secondary over the course of last season, only five of them are still on the roster. The most shocking part of this; despite recording 17 interceptions and having the number seven pass defense at 6.8 yards per attempt, all three starting corners are playing elsewhere. This situation is all about the salary cap. Both Trae Waynes and Mackenzie Alexander were free agents looking for significant money and Xavier Rhodes was already making it.

The loss of those veterans will hurt but the organization was not caught unprepared. Waiting in the wings they have Mike Hughes who is a third-year, former first-round pick, and they used this year’s 31st overall selection on Jeff Gladney out of TCU. The team continued to address the position with Cameron Dantzler in round three and Harrison Hand in the fifth. Throw in last year’s seventh-round pick Kris Boyd and third-year man Holton Hill, and the Vikings are young but not necessarily thin at the position.

There are reasons to believe we could get good IDP value from one or both of Minnesota’s starting corners. Let’s start with the history of production from the positions. Both Trae Waynes (56) and Xavier Rhodes (54) put up respectable tackle totals in 2019. Waynes added enough splash-play production to land inside the top-25 corners for the second time in three seasons. What the tackle totals fail to express is that the Vikings used a lot of guys on the corners in 2019, mostly because everyone was banged up at some point along the way, but partly because they had a lot of good experienced players available. As a result, Rhodes led the team’s corners with 73% of the snaps while Waynes was second with 71%. Injuries are always possible but there are not as many proven players to work with, thus Hughes and Gladney (the projected starters) should see significantly more opportunities providing they stay healthy.

Then there is the scheme. Minnesota plays aggressive and has a great pass rush. Pressure on the quarterback leads to mistakes and the ability to take some chances allows defensive back to go after big plays. Thus the 17 interceptions last season. The Vikings also like to use a good deal of cover-two, which keeps both safeties deep and allows the corner to play press. This also gives the corners more run support responsibility/opportunity, which leads to tackles.

Lastly, there are the players. Mike Hughes had 40 tackles, 5 assists, 9 passes defended, and 3 turnovers on 302 fewer snaps than Rhodes and 277 fewer than Waynes. At 6’2” 208 pounds, Hughes is a big physical corner who does not shy away from contact and is a great fit in general. Jeff Gladney is undersized for the job but is also a tough physical guy with good speed, a willingness to tackle, and a knack for knocking down passes. He was a three-year starter at Texas Christian where Gladney totaled 146 combined tackles, 5 interceptions, and 37 passes defended. He also has the rookie corner rule working in his favor.

Cameron Dantzler is even smaller, or at least lighter, than Gladney but has similar attributes except for speed. He could push for a starting spot but will probably end up competing with Harrison Hand, Kris Boyd, and Holton Hill for nickel and dime sub-package jobs.

There is nothing to guess about when it comes to Minnesota’s safety positions where Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris will start. Smith gets the title of free safety but he and Harris are interchangeable pieces. In years past the Vikings had a true in the box strong safety type such as Andrew Sendejo working with Smith. In those days it was Smith who would line up deep virtually all the time. When Harris replaced Sendejo mid-way through the 2018 season, things changed. Last year the Vikings tended to play both safeties off the ball a lot in cover-two sets, but when one of them was up, Smith was often the guy.

When he entered the league in 2012, Smith had an immediate impact. He posted good tackle numbers as a rookie of 73 solo and 30 assists, but right from the start, it was his ability to provide game-changing plays that made the difference. That season he created five turnovers, broke up eleven passes, and scored twice on the way to being the fantasy game’s number two defensive back. After an injury-shortened 2013, Smith came back strong and was the number one defensive back with similar numbers in 2014.

In 2015 and 2016 Smith battled injuries, missing some games in each of those seasons and playing at less than 100% in several others. Over the last three campaigns, however, he has been an iron man. In 2019 Smith played every snap in 14 games and no less than 87% of the plays in the other two. He has not reached 70 solo tackles or the top-10 since 2014, but Smith has ranked no lower than DB14 in any of the last three years. Over that span, he has averaged 64-18-1.5, 6 turnovers, and 10 passes defended. With Harris handling a lot of the deep responsibilities, Smith’s tackle totals could get a little boost and he might crack the Top 10 once again. At worst he is a priority DB2.

Harris made the team as an undrafted free agent in 2015. He played sparingly until Sendejo missed time with a groin injury in 2018, but once he got on the field Harris stayed in the lineup. In 23 starts over the last two seasons, Harris has 17 pass breakups, 9 interceptions, and a score. Unfortunately, he does not make enough tackles to be a serious IDP factor. In 14 games last season Harris totaled 36 tackles and 24 assists.

Harris is playing this season on a franchise tag. Providing he keeps up the good work, the team hopes to get a long term deal done after the season. If Harris has another great year and wants too much money, the team has a backup plan for the future in rookies Josh Metellus and/or Brian Cole II. Both are more of in-the-box strong safety types that are sure tacklers with good ball skills, but neither can match Harris for speed and coverage ability.

  • FS Harrison Smith – Priority DB2 that could slip into the top-10
  • SS Anthony Harris – Marginal IDP value due to lacking tackle production
  • SS Josh Metellus – Injury sleeper at best
  • SS Brian Cole II – Injury sleeper at best
  • CB Mike Hughes – Should be at least a solid CB2
  • CB Jeff Gladney – Rookie corner rule likely in effect
  • CB Cameron Dantzler – Potential for rookie corner rule
  • CB Holton Hill – No impact expected
  • CB Harrison Hand – No impact expected
  • CB Kris Boyd – No impact expected

That is going to do it for the NFC North; next up the AFC West.

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