Eyes of the Guru IDP Info, Part 4: NFC South

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

Links to other divisions:

Atlanta Falcons

Defensive Linemen

Over the last three seasons, we have been trying to figure out who is to blame for the lack of production by Atlanta’s pair of former first-round edge defenders. Vic Beasley Jr was a ninth overall pick in 2015 and had one standout season for the team back in 2016. Over the next three campaigns, he averaged 22 tackles and six sacks. Tak McKinnley was the 26th overall pick in 2017 and has averaged 16 tackles and just less than 6 sacks. Neither player has been a complete bust, but both have fallen well short of expectations. In 2020 we will finally be able to tell if it was the players or the scheme that caused the low numbers.

Beasley moved on an will now be chasing quarterbacks for the Titans, so we will soon know if he was held back by something beyond his control in Atlanta. Nothing will change for McKinley who will be the control subject for this experiment, while free-agent prize Dante Fowler Jr Jr. will be the, more or less, proven commodity. The experiment would work better if Atlanta had signed someone like Joey Bosa who has a more consistent track record, but we will have to settle for Fowler who was arguably the best edge defender available.

Fowler traveled a rocky during his time with the Jaguars, who drafted him third overall in 2015. It started with a torn ACL on the first day of mini-camp as a rookie. He returned in 2016 and had what was a relatively typical first season for a young, high profile defensive end coming back from injury, going 23-9-4. Fowler had eight sacks in 2017, working in a crowded rotation that included some great players. It is not clear what happened after that, but his relationship with the organization seemed to deteriorate, leading to a trade with the Rams.

Last year was a coming-out party for Fowler who exploded for 40 tackles, 16 assists, 11.5 sacks, 3 turnovers, 6 pass breakups, and a score. Somewhat surprisingly, Los Angeles did not tag him, so Fowler cashed in with a big contract and moved to Atlanta. We have only seen one big season from the sixth year player so there is always the possibility he will be a one year wonder. The risk is amplified considering the recent history surrounding Atlanta’s edge defenders. On the other hand, we can look at the rollercoaster ride Fowler has been on and possibly give him a pass on the early part of his career. From a fantasy perspective, Fowler is not someone we want to depend on as out DL1, but he is a viable target as a second starter with upside.

Tak McKinley is a fast and athletic player with a lightning-quick first step as a pass rusher and the ability to chase down plays from the backside. His problems start when he is not on the backside. He struggles to set the edge versus the run, wears down late in games, and has a hard time getting off blocks when his initial burst fails to gain separation. With the addition of Fowler, McKinley could fall into the role of nickel pass-rush specialist, likely working in a rotation with Allen Bailey.

Bailey spent the first eight years of his career with Kansas City, where he played tackle before the team moved to a 3-4, and defensive end after the change. He has 20.5 career sacks including 6 in his final season with the Chiefs in 2018. Bailey has not played outside much in four-man fronts and lacks the explosiveness to be a great edge rusher, but he is solid versus the run. He may end up starting opposite Fowler, playing outside on early downs then shifting inside in passing situations. That kind of versatility is a plus for the Falcons but as a defensive end, Bailey is not going to be much help for IDP managers.

Three years into his career, Charles Harris is the definition of an NFL bust. He was selected at 22 overall by the Dolphins in 2017 and has been invisible ever since. Miami gave him plenty of opportunities to step up. They tried Harris at both defensive end and tackle in four-man fronts, and as a 3-4 end. On 1287 snaps over three seasons he produced 34 tackles, 28 assists, and 3.5 sacks. Harris gets a fresh start with the Falcons but there are no grand expectations.

Fowler may have the highest ceiling among Falcons linemen but Grady Jarrett has the highest floor. Jarrett was the number three defensive tackle in 2019, and number two if your league had Aaron Donald at end. With 39 tackles, 31 assists, 7.5 sacks, and a pair of forced fumbles, Jarrett finished 13th among all defensive linemen in the final rankings. Those were the best numbers of his five seasons as a pro, but not the first time he has shown significant IDP value. In 2017, Jarrett was the number 12 tackle at 34-21-4. He followed that up with 28-24-6 and 3 forced fumbles in 14 games the next year, with a points per game average that ranked ninth among interior linemen.

Jarrett is a quick and athletic big man with a low center of gravity. When it comes to the battle in the trenches, the low man usually wins. At 6’0” 305 pounds, he has a naturally lower pad level than most blockers which allows Jarrett to gain vital leverage. The best selling point for Jarrett is that he continues to get better each year, both on the field and in the box scores. From 20-27-4 as a first-time starter in 2016, through last year’s totals, his numbers have improved a little each season. Sooner or later they will level off, but even it that happens this season, Jarrett will continue to be a high-end DT1 or a dependable DL2.

Tyeler Davidson started next to Jarrett last season and did a more than adequate job. He will open camp this summer in the same spot but will be hard-pressed to keep it with rookie Marlon Davidson in the mix. Marlon Davidson is a defensive end trapped in the body of a tackle. At 6’3”303 pounds, he was a supersized outside defender at Auburn, that would shift inside to rush the passer at times. Early indications suggest the Falcons plan to use him inside from the start but that could change once they get a look at Davidson on the practice field. Regardless of where he lines up, the young man is going to be on the field a lot and will see time on passing downs. So far nearly all league host sites have him at tackle, which is unlikely to change.

Linebackers

Atlanta’s linebackers struggled last season. Middle backer Deion Jones was not himself, De'Vondre Campbell was, and we are still not sure who Foye Oluokun is. Jones was somewhat of a mystery in 2019. When watching him on Sundays, he moved fine, looked good in coverage, and seemed to be healthy, but at the end of the day, the numbers usually we not what they should have been. Jones had a good rookie season in 2015, then blew up for 91-47-1 with 4 turnovers as a second-year pro. IDP managers anointed him as a top-10 linebacker heading into 2018. That season started okay with Jones posting nine combined tackles, and an interception in week one before suffering a broken foot. He returned from IR in week 13 with a bang, piling up a career-high 13 solo stops and a sack. Since that game, however, Jones has recorded four or fewer solo tackles in 12 of 20 games with no sacks and three total turnovers.

So which Jones do we get in 2020? Without being able to put a finger on what happened last year, this is a tough call. There is a chance he is back to the top-five form of 2017, but that is far from a sure thing. Jones was the number 28 linebacker in 2019. We should rank him a little higher than that based on potential, but let someone else gamble that he will return to LB1 form. There are simply too many safe options inside the top-20.

De'Vondre Campbell had what was by far the most productive season of his career in 2019. He played about the same number of snaps as previous seasons, but this time around he was beating people to tackles and making big plays. Campbell was probably the biggest factor in Jones having a down year. He played so well in fact, that the Cardinals gave him a big contract, leaving IDP managers trying to figure out who will take over the job. There are three candidates heading into camp. Foye Oluokun is the incumbent option, Deone Bucannon the free-agent entry, and fourth-round pick Mykal Walker the rookie candidate.

Oluokun has a clear advantage and is already penciled in as the starting weak-side linebacker. The former Yale safety played well as a rookie, starting seven games while Jones was out. There was some anticipation that he would pass Campbell for the starting job last season but that never happened. Instead, Oluokun returned to a backup role, starting three games but seeing more than half the snaps in just two. He was 217 pounds as a rookie but has added muscle to check-in north of 230 now. Being a former safety, Oluokun has excellent speed and cover skills for a linebacker, and he was a tackling machine at Yale, making him just the kind of player Coach Quinn is looking for at the position.

Bucannon is the veteran of the group with more than four years of starting experience from his time in Arizona. Injuries have been an issue since Bucannon’s breakout season in 2015 and he was unable to earn a role with either the Buccaneers or Giants last year. He does fit the Falcons blueprint though, as a former safety turned linebacker with good speed and cover skills. One negative, however, is that Bucannon has never been able to add muscle to his frame, and is still only 211 pounds. He should make the final roster and will at the least provide experienced depth, but he has an uphill battle for significant playing time. If he does end up on the field with a full-time role, Bucannon has some upside. He was 93-19-3 with 6 turnovers and a score the last time he started a full slate of games.

Mykal Walker will probably earn a living mostly on special teams as a rookie, but he has serious long term potential. Simply put, this kid is a football player. He is a tough rangy run defender with good speed and positional versatility. Walker lined up at every linebacker position and defensive end during his two years as a starter for Fresno State. He was productive in college, averaging 91combined tackles per season while recording 6.5 sacks, 7 turnovers, and 10 pass breakups in 26 games. Walker’s ability to stuff blockers at the point of attack then shed and tackle could get him on the field early in three linebacker sets. Once he has that opportunity anything can happen. He is one of my favorite rookie sleepers this summer and is a good taxi squad target for dynasty managers.

Defensive Backs

Atlanta’s run defense sorely missed injured strong safety Keanu Neal in 2019, while the pass defense missed both Neal and number one corner Desmond Trufant. The Falcons brought in reinforcement via the draft in an effort to ensure there will be no repeat.

Neal was a rising star over his first two seasons as a pro, both on the field and the stats sheets. He played 14 games as a rookie, finishing 71-32-0 with 4 forced fumbles, a recovery, and 8 passes defended. Those numbers placed him eighth among defensive backs overall, while his 11.9 points per game average ranked fourth. In 2017 Neal played a full slate of games with a mark of 83-33-0, 6 turnovers, 6 pass breakups, and ranked second. Since that time he has started four games and finished two. Neal tore his ACL in week one of 2018. After recovering from that he tore his Achilles in week three last season.

All is well so far in Neal’s recovery and he is on track to be ready for week one, if not the beginning of camp. Serious injuries like those can be hard to recover from so there is at least a little concern his play will not be the same. On the other hand, Neal is 27 years old and should be in the prime of his career. From an IDP perspective, this is a risk/reward situation. Neal will slide for a while on draft day but someone will gamble on him as a top-12 defensive back. If he stays healthy, they will likely not be disappointed.

If you do elect to gamble on Neal, it might be a good idea to grab the Falcon’s other fourth-round pick, Jaylinn Hawkins as a late-round handcuff. Most scouting reports suggest that Hawkins will be limited to work as an in the box strong safety at the pro level, but he was much more than that at California. He entered college as a receiver then shifted to the defense because the team was short on corners. While it is true that his biggest asset is toughness in run support, he is capable of contributing much more. In three seasons as a starter at Cal, Hawkins saw time as an outside corner, in the slot, and at both safety positions, recording 156 combined tackles with 10 interceptions and 3 forced fumbles.

Ricardo Allen is locked in at the free safety spot. He is not a game-changer but is a dependable centerfielder with the range, cover skills, and veteran savvy to get the job done. Allen has turned in respectable numbers in three of his four full seasons as a starter but has not shown much upside. He might be worthy of a roster spot in some deeper drafted leagues.

Desmond Trufant missed time with injuries in two of the last four seasons, but the salary cap was the main cause of his release. Isaiah Oliver now takes over the lead role at corner. The 2018 second-round pick played well for the most part after landing a starting job in his second season but the organization would like to see more from him in the big-play department. Oliver turned in a respectable 50 solo tackles in 2019 but his only mark in the turnover columns was a single forced fumble. He was not much of a splash play threat in college either, recording three picks and forcing a fumble in two years as a starter for Colorado.

If there is any IDP contribution to be found among Atlanta’s corners, it will belong to whoever starts opposite Oliver. The organization would like to see first-round pick A.J. Terrell win the job but he is not a sure thing. Terrell has decent size and excellent speed but was inconsistent as a tackler at Clemson. He played a lot of press coverage for the Tigers but sometimes struggled against physical receivers at the line. Pure speed and athleticism covered up a lot of his shortcomings, but that was against college receivers. Life in the pros is a different story altogether. If he is thrown into the fray as a rookie Terrell will quickly learn to tackle better or he will end up sitting next to the coach for a while.

Damontae Kazee and Kendall Sheffield are the two veterans with a shot at the job. Sheffield played a lot as a rookie last season, though that may have been out of necessity rather than choice. Either way, he did a decent job on the field, taking over the starting spot in week five after Trufant was injured, but Sheffield’s statistical contribution was minimal.

Kazee is an interesting prospect. Everyone keeps calling him a corner yet whenever a safety goes down, he is the guy the coaching staff calls upon. Kazee missed eight snaps in 14 games after replacing Keanu Neal in 2018. He split time with Kemal Ishmael for a few games after Neal’s injury last season before taking over the job full time for the final eight games. Kazee is tough, tackles well, and has 10 interceptions over the last two seasons. The addition of Hawkins might finally free him up to play some corner where he belongs. He is a longshot to start on the outside but Kazee might be a great fit as the slot man in nickel packages.

Carolina Panthers

Defensive Linemen

In 2019, the Panthers coaching staff decided a shift to a 3-4 scheme would be a good idea. Carolina pass rushers got to quarterbacks 53 times and the team recorded 14 interceptions. Beyond those two statistics, however, it was the worst defense in Panthers’ team history. They were near the bottom of the league in allowing 7.3 yards per pass attempt, were dead last against the run, and surrendered the second-most points in the league.

Things hit rock bottom for the team when defensive captain and future Hall of Fame candidate Luke Kuechly retired at the age of 29. At that point, ownership decided to scrap everything and start over. The coaching staff was fired and several veteran players were sent packing. The organization hired a head coach that will return the team to a 4-3 scheme and added some defenders in free agency, then did something rare by using all seven draft pick on defense. It may be a bit before everything comes together, especially with the lack of an offseason program, but this will certainly be a different looking defense in 2020.

Brian Burns survived the purge because he was the team’s first-round pick last year. The problem is that he was drafted specifically to play linebacker in a 3-4. At 6’5” 250 pounds, he is lanky, slight of frame, and built for speed off the edge. Putting his hand in the dirt and taking on offensive tackles on running downs is not something that fits his skill set. Burns will hit the weight room and work hard to add muscle for his new role, but he will probably end up seeing most of his action as a sub-package pass rusher, at least in the short term.

Free-agent addition Stephen Weatherly and second-round pick Yetur Gross-Matos project to be the Panthers Week 1 starters at defensive end. Weatherly was a late-round pick of the Vikings in 2016. He did not play much until 2018 when he became the third man at defensive end behind Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen. Weatherly saw plenty of action in 2018 when Griffen missed time, finishing with 23 tackles, 12 assists, 3 sacks, and a forced fumble on 524 snaps. He did not play as much last season but still managed to contribute three sacks. Weatherly is not a prolific pass rusher and is unlikely to approach double-digit sacks, but he gives the team a stout presence versus the run. Chances are good that we will see Weatherly work in a timeshare time with Burns.

The organization has high expectations for Yetur Gross-Matos who was quite possibly the best defensive end in this year’s draft not named Chase Young. He has the size, strength, and determination to set the edge versus the run, is a sound tackler, and can kick inside on passing downs if asked to do so. As a pass rusher Gross-Matos is tall at 6’5”, has a huge wingspan, and an extra gear to get around the corner. He has a rather impressive resume as well. As a two year starter at Penn State, Gross-Matos recorded 64 tackles, 47 assists, 18.5 sacks, and 4 turnovers. The Panthers had seven players produce three or more sacks in 2019, only one of them is still with the team, so Gross-Matos has a clear path to a three-down role.

Kawann Short landed on injured reserve after two games last season with a torn rotator cuff. Everyone else that played on the Panthers defensive line in 2019 is gone. Short has prospered throughout most of his career. He became an immediate starter after being drafted in the second round in 2013. Short’s first two seasons we good but it was year three when he really blossomed. In 2015 Short exploded for 35 tackles, 18 assists, 11 sacks, and 5 turnovers. He even knocked down five passes that year, on the way to being the fantasy games top-scoring interior lineman by a wide margin. That started a three-year span during which he averaged 31-22-8 and forced 8 turnovers, reaching the top-five among tackles each year. Then the injuries started.

Short was bothered by ankle and calf injuries for much of 2018. He only missed two games but was not fully healthy for several more and it showed in his numbers. A down year followed by one spent on IR has Short out of sight and out of mind for many IDP managers. He is expected to be full-go for the start of training camp, and at age 31, still has fuel in the tank. If he can stay healthy, Short is a comeback candidate for IDP managers in tackle required leagues.

The foundation of any good defense starts in the trenches, so it is no surprise that Carolina addressed the defensive tackle position with their first draft pick, taking Derrick Brown third overall. At 6’5” 326 pounds, Brown is a big, powerful, relentless anchor who excels versus the run. He is not an elite inside pass rush threat but can crush the pocket with his bull rush and is a disruptive penetrator regardless of the play call.

For managers in IDP leagues that start interior linemen, Brown’s college production is particularly intriguing. As a three year starter for Auburn, he tallied 89 tackles, 81 assists, 12.5 sacks, 5 forced fumbles, and 4 recoveries against SEC competition. How well that transfers to the NFL stats sheets remains to be seen, but the fact he can stay on the field in passing situations is a clear plus.

Depth could be an issue all across the Panthers defensive front. Third-year former undrafted free-agent Efe Obada is the next man up at defensive end. He saw a fair amount of action last season but was not part of the sack parade. Obada has one sack on 481 plays over two seasons, that came when he was a rookie in 2018. Zach Kerr is a veteran journeyman that has been a 3-4 defensive end over the past three seasons, playing in Denver and Arizona respectively. He offers experience but has no upside. Bravvion Roy is sort of a generic version of Derrick Brown. The rookie sixth-round pick is a less expensive version that has a lot of the same ingredients but does not quite produce the same results.

Linebackers

Shaq Thompson was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal 2019 for the Panthers defense. With Thomas Davis gone, Thompson finally had the opportunity he had been waiting on since the Panthers made him a first-round pick in 2015. He was ready for it and up to the challenge. Lining up next to Luke Kuechly at inside linebacker in last year’s 3-4, kept Thompson’s numbers down a bit, but the situation allowed him to have an every-down role for the first time in his career.

Thompson should return the familiar role of weak-side linebacker when the team goes back to a 4-3 this year. That will allow him to take full advantage of his speed, range, and knack for chasing down plays from the backside. A glance shows that Thompson put up solid numbers in 2019 of 75-33-3. The raw numbers are a bit misleading in that he missed the final two games with an ankle/foot injury. Add 10 more tackles and 4 assists to get a better feel for what Thompson accomplished in 2019, then consider that Kuechly played virtually every snap as well.

Thompson is in line for a big season in terms of tackle production. The one question about his overall IDP value is big plays. Because he was often on the sideline in most sub-package situations prior to last season, it is hard to get a good fix on what to expect there. What we have seen from him over five seasons is less than exciting at two fumbles forced, two recovered, nine and a half sacks, and one interception. On a positive note, Thompson just turned 26 in April and is under contract through 2023.

Linebacker is the one area Carolina did not address via the draft. The only significant addition there coming in the form of free-agent Tahir Whitehead. He is not a special talent, but Whitehead will provide a steady, smart, and physical veteran presence on the field. He is versatile enough to have played all three linebacker spots at some point during his seven pro seasons, spending the majority of his career bouncing back and forth between strong-side and middle. The Carolina coaching staff plans to play Whitehead in the middle, at least initially. That could change if third-year man Jermaine Carter steps up.

Whitehead is not particularly fast, nor is he particularly strong in coverage, but he is smart and quick to react. Enough so that he has held a three-down role with the Lions and Raiders respectively, over most of the last four seasons, even when playing the strong side on early downs. He does not make many splash-plays, producing one sack, one forced fumble, four recoveries (all in 2017), and two interceptions over the last four seasons, but Whitehead can be a tackling machine. He was just short of 100 solo stops with the Lions in 2016 and has at least 78 of them in every season since. He is no Luke Kuechly, but Whitehead should be able to parlay this opportunity into another solid season as a dependable and consistent LB3.

Beyond Thompson and Whitehead, the Panthers linebacker situation is shakey. Jermaine Carter and Andre Smith were late-round picks by the team in 2018, right after a season when Kuechly missed a lot of time. Both are natural middle linebackers that are expected to contribute almost exclusively on special teams unless someone is injured. That said, one of them might get a look at the strong-side position on early downs.

The coaching staff would like to see either Christian Miller or Marquis Haynes land the strong-side job. Both were drafted as edge defenders; Haynes in 2018 as a rush specialist 4-3-end, and Miller in 2019 as a 3-4 outside linebacker. Both are too small to make much impact along the front four, but they could give new defensive coordinator Phil Snow some interesting blitz options from the second level.

Defensive Backs

Free safety Tre Boston and corner Donte Jackson are back, beyond those two and a sprinkling of special teams guys, the secondary was stripped clean. Even veteran strong safety Eric Reid who finally stayed healthy for a season and led the league’s defensive backs with 97 solo tackles, was not invited back. Instead, his job will be handed to second-round pick Jeremy Chinn.

When trying to place an IDP value on Chinn, we should not put much emphasis on the big numbers Reid produced last season. This will be a completely different team both in scheme and personnel. Even without that consideration, Chinn has the air of a potential stud from both an NFL and fantasy perspective.

At 6’3”, 221 pounds, Chinn is bigger than some NFL linebackers, yet he ran a 4.45 in the 40-yard dash at the combine, grading out near the top in most other drills as well. He was a four –year starter and team captain at Southern Illinois, so we can check off the leadership and experience columns. Run support you ask? Chinn had 243 combined tackles and assists over his college career, forcing six fumbles and recovering two; check. Big-play production? On top of the forced and recovered fumbles, how about 13 interceptions, a sack, and 31 pass breakups; check that off too. Chinn even has the cover skills and athleticism to line up at free safety or over the slot is asked to. He is an interesting tool for the new coaching staff to work with and should be an immediate impact player for his team and ours, providing we can land him. Chinn has been the first safety off the board in most of the dynasty rookie drafts I have seen.

Tre Boston returns as the starting free-safety but his job will be more than covering receivers and making tackles. He will be asked to take on a leadership role for the young defense. As a player, Boston has developed into a quality starter. He did not get on the field much in his first stint with the Panthers who drafted Boston in 2014 and let him go at the end of 2016, but he returned last year as a seasoned veteran with two years of starting experience. Boston lines up in a deep centerfield role most of the time, so his tackle production is limited. He has made up for some of that by contributing significantly in the splash-play columns over the last three seasons, accounting for 11 picks, 28 pass breakups, a forced fumble, and a recovery. With 55-60 tackles and a few big-plays, Boston will hold some value as a backup in leagues with deeper rosters, but there is not much upside.

Justin Burris and T.J. Green provide a veteran presence on the safety depth chart but six-round pick Kenny Robinson Jr is the one that could eventually develop into a starting quality free safety. He picked off seven passes in two years at West Virginia before getting the boot due to academic violations. Rather than transferring to a different school, Robinson decided to play a year in the XFL where he added two more interceptions in five games. In short, Robinson is a playmaker that is not afraid to lower his should and hit someone. His late-round draft status had more to do with circumstance than ability.

The most glaring question for Carolina’s defense is at the corner position. Four-year starter James Bradberry moved on when his rookie contract expired and the Panthers were not willing to meet his salary demands. Ross Cockrell was not brought back after playing the nickel corner role for most of 2019. That leaves 2018 second-round pick, Donte Jackson, on one side and whoever steps up during camp on the other.

So far, Jackson has been a perfect example of the rookie corner rule in play. As the team’s second corner in 2018, he racked up 62 solo stops, 10 assists, a sack, a forced fumble, 9 pass breakups, and 4 interceptions. In year two Jackson’s tackle totals slipped to 32-8 in 12 games while the big play numbers were at a similar pace. From an IDP perspective, there are more one-year wonders at corner than any other position. Jackson is worth keeping an eye on once the season starts but is probably not worthy of a roster spot at this point.

The Panthers may have their man opposite Jackson in veteran free-agent addition Eli Apple who was the tenth overall pick of the Giants in 2016. Apple had a strained relationship with New York right from the start. Injuries and behind the scene issued led to a trade that sent him to New Orleans where Apple looked pretty good, but not good enough to get a new deal. He had a good 2018 season statistically, going 62-13-0 with 5 turnovers and 14 passes defended between the two teams, but Apple’s numbers slumped last season.

The draft netted Notre Dame’s Troy Pride Jr in round four and Stantley Thomas-Oliver III III out of Florida International in the seventh. Pride could challenge Apple for a starting spot and is a strong candidate for the nickel role if Apple starts. If Pride does come away with the job, the rookie corner rule would be in play as Carolina has consistently given us solid corner prospects in recent years.

Thomas-Oliver will compete with Corn Elder and Natrell Jamerson for what is left of the playing time. One advanced warning here; when you start seeing reports about Elder starting, don’t believe them. That tale has been spun repeatedly over the last two years, yet the guy has played a total of 61 snaps.

New Orleans Saints

Defensive Linemen

The New Orleans defense got it done last year. They were fourth against the run, finished in the top third of the league in yards per pass attempt, averaged nearly a turnover per game, and were third in sacks with 51. With numbers like that, one would think there would be at least two or three Saints defensive linemen worthy of IDP lineups each week, but that was not the case, at least not last season. What we got from them instead was the number three ranked defensive lineman, Cameron Jordan, a bunch of guys that should have held decent value for ours but fell short.

Jordan is a do it all stud from any perspective. On the field, he sets the edge and forces runner inside as well as any three-down defensive end in the league, stack, sheds, and escapes block to make tackles without giving ground, and is one of the game’s elite pass rushers. When Jordan does not get home on a pass rush, there is no one better at hitting the breaks and getting his hands up into the passing lanes.

When it comes to IDP production, Jordan is firmly entrenched as part of the elite first tier and is as close to a sure thing as it gets. Since over the last eight seasons, he has averaged 36 tackles, 16 assists, 10.5 sacks, 2.5 turnover, and 5.5 passes defended. Like a fine wine, Jordan has gotten even better with age. Since 2016 those numbers are up to 40-14-12 with 2.5 turnovers and 7 batted passes. Jordan recently turned 31 but has shown no signs of slowing down. In fact, he is coming off a career-best of 15.5 sacks in 2019.

New Orleans used the 14th overall pick in 2018 on Marcus Davenport, expecting him to bookend Jordan. His two seasons with the team have produced mixed results, but there have been positive signs. Davenport started slowly as many rookie edge rushers do, posting four sacks in his first eight games. The rest of his season was a wash as he battled a turf toe injury that would require offseason surgery. He came out of the gate faster in year two with 18 combined tackles and 3 sacks over the first six games, then it was like he hit the rookie wall even though it was year two. Davenport seemed worn down and all but vanished for a few games. As a result, the coaches decided to back off his playing time. Following the Saints week nine bye, Davenport’s snap counts dropped for roughly 75% per game before the bye, to about 45% after. The plan seemed to work as he was 5-2-2 with a pair of forced fumbles in the two games before suffering a foot injury in week 14 that ended his season.

Taking all things into consideration, including the Saints aggressive IDP friendly scheme, Davenport’s positive skillset, the strong talent that surrounds him, and the fact he recorded 21.5 sacks at the University of Texas at San Antonio, I see Davenport as a strong breakout candidate in his third season. Target him as a late-round DL3 and keep a close eye on him come August and September.

After spending most Sundays as a healthy inactive over his first two seasons, 2017 third-round pick Trey Hendrickson took over as the third defensive end for the Saints in 2019 and made a good impression. He played in 11 games and was on the field for about 38% of the team’s total defensive snaps, recording 20 combined tackles and 4.5 sacks. Our sample size of Hendrickson at the pro level is limited so it is hard to judge what he is capable of should one of the starters be lost for an extended time. On the other hand, the fact he had 29.5 sacks as a three-year starter for Florida Atlantic is very intriguing. Keep Hendrickson in mind and move quickly on him if either Jordan or Davenport are injured.

For both the Saints and I(DP managers in tackle required leagues, Sheldon Rankins has been a huge tease. He was the number 12 overall pick in 2016 and was highly touted as a three-down interior lineman who could dominate versus the run and get after the passer with equal vigor. He drew comparisons to former New Orleans great La’Roi Glover who put up 18 sacks and more than 40 tackles one season and was a 40 tackle and double-digit sack guy more than once. The initial rush of excitement ended with a broken leg during training camp. Rankins made it back for a few games late in the season but was limited.

Rankins was supposedly healthy in 2017. He played 812 snaps but was virtually absent from the stats sheets more often than not, with a season total if 16-11-2 and a couple of turnovers. The poor production was largely attributed to the leg injury so he was more or less given a pass. Rankins showed signs of life in 2018 when he was 26-15-8 with a forced fumble on 641 plays. The buzz was back, right up until he tore his Achilles in the divisional round of the playoffs. Rankins opened last season on the PUP while recovering from that injury, played about half the time in nine games, then finished the season on IR with a sprained ankle. If this guy can ever get right physically, he has the talent to be a top-five interior lineman. At this point, he is an upside DT3 on draft day.

David Onyemata has been a steady contributor for the Saints. He has not missed a game due to injury since being drafted by the team in 2016 and has 10 sacks over the last three seasons. Unfortunately, he has been short in the tackle columns when it comes to box score production, having never recorded more than 22 solo tackles in a season.

Former Patriots first-round pick (2015) Malcolm Brown is the other player that will see significant time in the tackle rotation. He is mostly an early-down run stopper and was 19-14-1.5 in 2019, which was his first season with the Saints. Brown has three decent statistical seasons with New England to start his career but has been rather quiet since that time.

If the Saints have injuries at the tackle positions, keep an eye on second-year undrafted free-agent Shy Tuttle who had 19 combined tackles, 2.5 sacks and 3 batted passes in a very limited role last season.

Linebackers

As of mid-July, the only thing we know for sure about the Saints linebackers is that Demario Davis will start and play full time. We are not even certain where he will line up. The injury status of Kiko Alonso could be the hinge that everything swings on. First, let us take a look at what the coaching staff has to work with if everyone is healthy.

Demario Davis is one of the more versatile yet underrated linebackers in the game. He was a third-round pick of the Jets in 2012 and has been a starter since his second season in the league. Over the course of five seasons with the New York, one in Cleveland, and now two with the Saints, Davis has played on the weak-side and in the middle in 4-3 schemes, as well as inside in a 3-4. He is a smart, savvy player with enough speed, athleticism, and cover skills to play on all three downs, is accomplished as a pass rusher with 22.5 career sacks, and is a sound, physical tackler with good instincts versus the run. His most statistically productive season came in 2017 when Davis finished at 97-36-4.5, with a fumble recovery and 3 passes defended. That year he was the number eight linebacker. The second-best statistical season of his career came in 2019 as the Saints middle linebacker at 87-25-4 with a pick and a career-high 12 passes defended.

Kiko Alonso was a second-round pick of the Bills in 2013. He was an immediate impact player, recording 87 tackles, 72 assists, 2 sacks, 7 turnovers, 5 pass breakups, and a rank of sixth as a rookie middle linebacker. He never had a chance at an encore in Buffalo. Alonso suffered a nasty ACL injury in July of 2014 ending his season before is started. He was traded to the Eagles in March of 2015 amidst speculation that he would never be the same player again. Alonso was not the same player that season but he did manage to play some middle linebacker for the Eagles. In March of 2016, he was traded to Miami where Alonso would not only play but play well for three seasons. In 2018 he was 81-44-0 with 7 turnovers and 6 passes defended in 15 games as the Dolphins weak-side linebacker. Alonso was traded to New Orleans last September. Having joined the team late, and then suffering a quad injury that cost him some time, Alonso did not land a major role with the Saints until week seven. He and the coaching staff were starting to get comfortable with one another going into the playoff when Alonso tore his ACL again in the wildcard game.

The bottom line with Alonso is that when healthy he is a very good player. He can play the middle or on the weak-side with equal success, excels as a run defender, is solid in coverage, and makes a lot of big plays. The question is, how healthy can he be so soon after ACL surgery? This injury was not as bad as the first one. In February they were already talking about him being ahead of schedule and potentially being available when the season starts. Now he is said to be on track for training camp and right in the middle of the completion for a starting job.

Alex Anzalone was a third-round pick of the Saints in 2017. He has been a starter for the team but has so far not been able to get a firm grip on the job. Injuries have been a big issue with Anzalone, who has missed more games (26) than he has played (22) so far. He is currently recovering from a shoulder injury and is expected to participate when camp opens. Anzalone also brings some versatility to the field. He has already played all three-spots in the Saints 4-3 at some point but is generally thought of as a middle linebacker.

The last guy in the mix is third-round selection, Zack Baun. The rookie has an interesting skill set. He the size and toughness to play in the middle with the speed and cover ability to play on the weak-side. While both Demario Davis and Kiko Alonso have had success on the blitz, Baun has an extra gear and the ability to be an edge rusher as well. He could be successful at any of the three positions which gives defensive coordinator Dennis Allen a lot of options and IDP managers a lot of potential. As a senior at Wisconsin, Baun recorded 52 tackles, 23 assists, 12.5 sacks, an interception, and two forced fumbles.

This could play out a lot of different ways but considering that all the pieces in play are relatively interchangeable. That said, if everyone is healthy, my guess is Alonso in the middle which is his best position, Davis at his best spot on the weak-side, and Baun on the strong side, with Anzalone the top backup at all three.

  • WLB/MLB Demario Davis – Quality LB2 wherever he lines up
  • MLB/WLB Kiko Alonso – Quality LB2 is healthy and playing full time
  • MLB/WLB Alex Anzalone – Marginal IDP value at best
  • SLB/MLB Zack Baun – Strong sleeper, target as priority depth with significant upside
  • WLB Craig Robertson – No IDP value expected
  • SLB Kaden Elliss – No IDP value

Defensive Backs

New Orleans gave us the fantasy game’s top scoring safety last season in Vonn Bell. What was most surprising about Bell’s sudden and unexpected ascension, is how much of his point totals came from splash –plays. Bell had been known as more on an in the box, run support kind of player, and was not even an every-down participant before 2019. With Bell moving on to Cincinnati, the Saints reunited with Malcolm Jenkins who is the type of safety we might expect to put that kind of numbers in the big-play columns.

In his first stint with the team from 2009 to 2013, Jenkins lined up mostly at free safety. He never posted big tackle totals in that role, generally finishing in, or on pace for the low 60s in solo stops, but he did account for 15 turnovers and three scores over those five seasons. When Jenkins signed with the Eagles, however, things changed. He was back and forth between free and strong safety while with Philadelphia, playing strong safety in three of his six seasons there. As a strong safety in 2015, Jenkins was the fantasy game’s number four defensive back on the strength of 87 tackles, 18 assists, 6 turnovers, 10 passes defended, and a score. That remains his best fantasy season but Jenkins visited the top-ten again in 2018. His three-year averages as a strong safety are a solid 77-18-1.5, 5 turnovers, and 8 passes defended.

With Marcus Williams locked in at free safety and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson in the nickel role, the stage is set for Jenkins to line up at strong safety for the Saints in 2020. He is a bit less physical as a tackler than Bell but will get ball carriers on the ground just the same. Jenkins is an upgrade for the Saints in terms of coverage and is a bonafide big-play threat with 44 turnovers, 10 sacks, and 7 defensive scores over 10 seasons. There is a good chance he will make a third appearance in the top-ten this season, and at worst should be a quality DB2.

As a rookie free safety in 2017, Marcus Williams posted respectable tackle totals and intercepted four passes. His splash-play numbers have improved a bit over the last two seasons, but Williams has seen a decline in tackle production as the defense has improved around him. He is a good fit as a deep safety that can cover a lot of ground and make plays in the passing game, but Williams is not in an IDP-friendly situation.

Before the team signed Malcolm Jenkins, there was hope among IDP dynasty managers that Chauncey Gardner-Johnson would assume the role vacated by Bell. There is little doubt that Gardner-Johnson could handle the job if called upon and be productive at it, but the coaching staff loves the skill set he brings to the third/slot safety role. Gardner-Johnson hits like a strong safety, with size to cover tight ends and running backs, and the speed and cover skills of a corner. As a rookie last season, he did not play much before week seven. Once he got on the field Gardner-Johnson looked like he belonged. Unless there are injuries, he will probably not be on the field consistently enough to be a major IDP contributor, but if he somehow lands a full-time role, move quickly to add him.

The Saints plucked D.J. Swearinger Sr off the street late last season after he was released by the Raiders. It was a good move at the time as they prepared for a playoff push and needed the depth. What was at least somewhat unexpected was the new contract he received in April. Swearinger has the talent to be an NFL starter and has been one for much of his seven years as a pro, but there is more to the story with him. Drafted by the Texans in the second round back in 2013, the Saints are Swearinger’s sixth team, and that does not include two stops in Arizona. In fact, he played with three different teams in 2019 alone. No one ever says what it is about him that wears out his welcome so quickly, but history suggests he will not be with the Saints for long.

When the Saints used the eleventh overall pick on Marshon Lattimore in 2017, they got an outstanding number one corner. Lattimore can matchup with opponent's top receivers all over the field, play zone, or handle any other coverage responsibility that is thrown at him. From an IDP perspective, Lattimore is another great example of the rookie corner rule at work. In 2017 he was on pace for 66 combined tackles, 21 passed defended, and 7 turnovers if not for missing three games. In year two the tackle totals and pass breakups slipped a little, but he racked up 10 turnovers. Last season opponents simply avoided him as much as possible, causing Lattimore’s numbers to slump considerably. With Janoris Jenkins on the other corner, it will not be as easy to avoid Lattimore in 2020, so his numbers should rebound a bit, but we should not expect enough to make him an IDP target.

The Saints have spent years searching for a tandem of corners that can help them win a championship. With Lattimore in place, they were halfway there. Then Janoris Jenkins fell in their lap last December. The Giants were going to lose Jenkins when his contract was up at the end of 2019, so when he went off on a twitter troll, they decided to go ahead and cut ties. The Saints grabbed him and Jenkins immediately became a starter over the final two regular-season games and through the playoff run.

Jenkins has been a number one corner for both the Rams and Giants over his eight seasons as a pro. He is a notch below the elite level guys in NFL terms but is a capable and productive player. In he and Lattimore, the Saints now have their championship level tandem at the position. For IDP managers in corner required leagues, Jenkins has been a rock-solid starter over the years. He has exceeded 50 solo tackles six times, has 31 career turnovers (23 picks), 105 passes defended, and 8 scores. Except for an injury-shortened 2017, he has been a top-20 corner every year of his career, landing among the top-12 six times. Even switching teams during the season was not enough to keep Jenkins out of the top-10 in 2019. Playing opposite a guy like Lattimore is sure not going to hurt his chances of adding another highly productive season to his resume.

Patrick Robinson, P.J. Williams, and Johnson Bademosi are all experienced veterans that will fill out the depth chart at corner. With Chauncey Gardner-Johnson getting most of the nickel snaps, none of them are expected to see the field a lot. Robinson is the favorite to step up if one of the starters is injured and will likely see action in dime packages.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Defensive Linemen

Most of the time it takes a couple of seasons for a defense to get comfortable with a major scheme change. The 2019 Buccaneers made what was arguably the smoothest transition from 4-3 to 3-4 that the league has ever seen. Their 47 sacks were tied for seventh-most in the league, they ranked fifth with 28 turnovers, and were first against the run at 3.3 yards per carry. Tampa Bay gave up a lot of passing yards and points but those are misleading statistics because they were in a lot of shootouts. They were among the top third of the league in yards per pass attempt and had the seventh-lowest average in yards per completion.

The unit’s success started with great play in the front three where Vita Vea, Ndamukong Suh, and William Gholston did a great job of plugging running lanes and keeping blockers off the second-level defenders. None of these guys made much of a splash in the box scores though. Gholston led the trio with 26 solo tackles while Vea and Suh each contributed two and a half sacks to the cause. There is no reason to believe the numbers will be much different in 2020.

Before you look at that last paragraph and wonder; no I did not forget about either Carl Nassib or Jason Pierre-Paul who had six and eight and a half sacks respectively. The reason I left them out is that both actually played more snaps on the edge than in typical 3-4 defensive end alignments, and it was common for four of these players to be on the field at the same time. The buccaneers even call him an outside linebacker on their team roster.

We could get into the subject of positional classification or spend a lot of time talking about how the Buccaneers use everyone and move guys around on a situational basis, but all that is important to know here is that Pierre-Paul is designated as a defensive end with all the major league host sites, and no matter where he lines up, the guy makes plays.

Pierre-Paul missed the first six games last season while recovering from a neck injury suffered in an automobile accident. There were initial concerns that the injury could be career-threatening, but once he got back on the field, all that was quickly forgotten. In 10 games Pierre-Paul tallied 23 tackles, 3 assists, 8.5 sacks, and forced 2 fumbles. The sack total was good enough for second on the team while his average of 10.5 fantasy points ranked tenth among defensive linemen. The man is certainly resilient, and if he ever quits hurting himself outside of football, Pierre-Paul would probably have a first-ballot Hall of Fame career.

Linebackers

If we count Pierre-Paul among the linebackers, Tampa Bay might have the best quartet of any 3-4 defense in the league right now. There is no doubt they have the most IDP friendly group. This is the only unit to have all four starters average double-digit points. Both inside backers finished among the top-20 last season while Shaq Barrett tied for the league lead with 19 sacks and was the third-highest scoring 3-4 outside linebacker behind T.J. Watt and Chandler Jones.

Lavonte Davis is as dependable as it gets in fantasy football. He reached triple-digits in solo tackles in three consecutive seasons to start his career with 112 as a rookie in 2012. He has not hit triple-digits since 2014 but has averaged 81 over the last five seasons. David is more than just a tackling machine though, he is also a playmaker, averaging nearly six turnovers, two and a half sacks and five passes defended over his career.

David was a 4-3 weak-side linebacker for the first seven years of his career, so there was a little concern when the team switched schemes last season. It turns out there was no need to worry. He averaged better than 11.8 points per game and once all the numbers were in, sat in familiar company inside the top-12. David is no longer the elite tier linebacker he was early in his career but is a solid pick as a low-end LB1 or priority LB2.

Good as he is, David is not even the top IDP target at linebacker on his own team. That honor passes to last year’s fifth overall pick Devin White. White finished his rookie season about nine points and five slots behind David overall, but that was only because he missed three games and most of a fourth with a knee sprain. Once he returned from the injury in week six, White gave the team everything they had hoped for. His 60 tackles and 30 assists on the season were respectable, but it was big-plays that set White apart. Over the final ten games, he totaled eight turnovers, two and a half sacks, three pass breakups and a pair of scores. All that added up to 13.9 points per game which was fourth-best among linebackers league-wide. The scary part is, White is only 22 years old and has just scratched the surface. He is likely to be a perennial top-10 guy for the next decade and could take his place among the elite tier of linebackers this season.

At 44-11-19 with 6 forced fumbles and an interception, Shaq Barrett averaged 10.7 points per game and was the third Buccaneers linebacker to make the top-25 in 2019. This man’s NFL journey is quite a story. He made the Broncos roster in 2015 as an undrafted free agent. That season he earned significant playing time, recording five and a half sacks and creating six turnovers. That was the best of Barret’s four seasons with Denver. When he signed on with Tampa Bay before last season, his career resume included 14.5 sacks, 6 forced fumbles, and 2 recoveries.

The Buccaneers needed outside linebackers for their new scheme and saw Barrett as a guy with experience at the position that could fill the void and contribute until they were able to better address the position. The next thing you know he is tied for the league sack title and signing a franchise tag that will pay him millions.

There is no doubt the organization has long term plans for Barrett, providing of course, that he can prove last year was not a fluke. That is the same concern IDP managers should have. Counting on a repeat of last year’s sack total would be a mistake as players rarely match such gaudy numbers. That said, 40+ tackles and 12-15 sacks are reasonable expectations. As is the case with virtually all 3-4 outside linebackers, Barrett’s IDP value will vary greatly based on scoring systems. In big-play based leagues he could be as much as a solid LB1 with top-five potential. In balanced scoring such as the Footballguys default system, he is more of a priority LB3.

In Kevin Minter, the team has solid veteran depth at the inside linebacker position. He would be a big step down from either starter, but there are not many backups in the league that would not be. Kendell Beckwith showed great promise as a rookie in 2017 but an ankle injury suffered in a car accident prior to the 2018 season is threatening to end his career. He has been activated from the non-football injury list and will participate in camp this summer, but is not a lock to make the team.

The Buccaneers are thin on experience at the outside linebacker positions with last year’s fourth-round pick Anthony Nelson, rookie seventh-round selection Russell Chapelle, and a collection of young, undrafted free agents competing to fill out the depth chart.

  • ILB Lavonte David – Priority LB2 with some upside
  • ILB Devin White – LB1 with top-five potential
  • ILB Kevin Minter – No IDP value
  • ILB Kendell Beckwith – Injury sleeper with potential if he is fully healthy
  • OLB Shaq Barrett – Solid LB3 for most, potentially an elite LB1 in big-play scoring,
  • OLB Anthony Nelson – Developmental prospect coming off an injury
  • OLB Russell Chapelle – Developmental prospect

Defensive Backs

The Buccaneers secondary seemed unsettled virtually all of last season. Much of that was due to injuries but the only player the coaching staff really seemed comfortable with even when guys were healthy was corner Carlton Davis. They dumped corner Vernon Hargreaves III mid-season and never seemed to settle on who would start in his place. Surprisingly, the only significant offseason addition on the third-level was safety Antoine Winfield Jr Jr. who they took in round two.

The safety position is wide open entering camp. Justin Evans and Jordan Whitehead were supposed to be the opening day starters in 2019 but Evans battled an Achilles injury all summer and was placed on injured reserve before he ever played a snap. Whitehead lasted until week 15 when a hamstring injury ended his season.

When Whitehead became a starter as a rookie in 2018, the organization though they had a long term answer at strong safety. He was not able to take the bull by the horns, having a solid but rather quiet year two. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles wants his safeties to be playmakers. Whitehead has accounted for one interception and one fumble recovery in 31 games, leaving the door open for the coaching staff to pursue possible improvement.

If Antoine Winfield Jr Jr. is anything like his father, he will soon be one of the fantasy game’s most productive safeties. At 5’9” 180 pounds, Winfield Sr. was pound for pound one of the toughest corners the game has ever seen and helped a lot of IDP managers to championships in his day. His son is a little bigger at 203 but carries many of the same traits. He is instinctive, tough, physical, and is a ballhawk.

Looking at Winfield’s college production and seeing 83 combined tackles, 3 sacks, 7 interceptions, and a pair of forced fumbles last season, is enough to get the attention of any IDP manager. When we look at scouting reports that say things like aggressive run defender, good stopping power, and looks for contact, it is easy to get excited.

Winfield was drafted because he is a perfect fit for the scheme. That alone gives him a leg up on the competition for the strong safety job. Keeping in mind what Jamal Adams was able to do in Todd Bowles defense in 2018 when he was the fantasy games number two defensive back, is enough to make Winfield a player to target for 2020 and beyond.

If he can stay healthy, Justin Evans is the favorite for the free safety job. He has the skillset to fit the mold coach Bowles is looking for. In his first 17 games as a pro, Evans totaled five turnovers and scored on one of them. He is fast enough for the centerfield role, tackles well in the open field, and is a ballhawk. Unfortunately, Evans has not been able to stay on the field. Before being out all of last season, he missed two games as a rookie and six more in 2018, landing on IR after the week 10 game with a turf toe injury that required surgery. Having two foot surgeries in two seasons is not a good sign for a guy that relies so heavily on speed.

Mike Edwards and Andrew Adams each made starts at free safety in 2019. Edwards was the team’s third-round pick last year and has the best shot if Evans continues to deal with injuries. Considering all the competition for tackles with this team, whoever lands the free safety job is not likely to make much of an IDP impact.

The coaching staff would like to see more turnovers from him, but Carlton Davis did a fine job in coverage last year. At 6’1” 203 pounds, he is a physical press corner that likes to get in the face of receivers and disrupt routes at the line of scrimmage. He has the speed to make up ground when they escape and is a good open-field tackler. Davis played 14 games last season, finishing with 54 tackles, 8 assists, 3 takeaways, 19 pass breakups, and a top-15 ranking among corners. If he stays healthy and plays all 16 games, he could improve on those numbers this season, particularly in the big-play categories, but it is hard to get a read on what to expect here.

Last year the Buccaneers scored a lot and often scored quickly, so opponents threw a lot to keep up. The defense faced a league-high 664 pass attempts, 53 more than the Lions who were second. That meant a lot of opportunities for the corners. With Tom Brady at the helm, Tampa Bay should still score a lot but probably not with as many quick-strike plays. Simple math tells us if the offense has the ball longer, the defense will see fewer plays. All things considered, I see Davis as a good CB2 target with a little upside.

Expect an open competition for the other outside corner spot and the nickel/slot job. The coaching staff has some good young talent to choose from in last year’s second-round selection Sean Murphy-Bunting, Jamel Dean who was taken in the third last spring, fourth-year man Ryan Smith, and 2018 second-round selection M.J. Stewart. Players generally have an advantage when they were drafted by the current coaching regime. That gives an edger to Murphy-Bunting and Dean who both made starts last year after Hargreaves was sent packing.

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

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