Eyes of the Guru IDP Info, Part 8: NFC West

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

This article is about a 44-minute read.

Links to other divisions:

Arizona Cardinals

Defensive Linemen

The Arizona defense was just short of mediocre in 2019. They totaled 40 sacks and recovered 10 opponents fumbles, but were 28th against the pass, 20th versus the run, and tied for the fewest interceptions with 7. The organization responded by signing three potential front-seven starters in free agency, then drafting four more guys at those positions.

The Cardinals had a good group of defensive linemen last season, but they had no special players. The result was a decent run defense and a defensive line that accounted for nine and a half total sacks. That is if you count Cassius Marsh, who had two and a half, as a defensive end instead of a linebacker. To solve the problem, the team spent a chunk of money on former Bills tackle Jordan Phillips to play end, then drafted nose tackle Leki Fotu and defensive end Rashard Lawrence in the fourth round. Arizona also added Trevon Coley in free agency in the hope he can improve their depth.

Phillips could be an immediate game-changer. Unless of course, his nine and a half sacks in 2019 were a one year wonder. Phillips spent his first three and a half seasons in Miami where he was a starter for two years before having his workload reduced in 2017, then being traded early in 2018. Phillips was the fourth man in the interior rotation for the final 12 games that year before climbing into a starting spot in 2019. Over his first four seasons, Phillips totaled 54 tackles, 30 assists, and 6.5 sacks. In his first full year with the Bills, he was 24-6-9.5. So was last season a case of a player finally finding his place in a scheme that fits his game, or was it a fluke? If it was the right fit scenario, will he have similar success playing end in a 3-4 for the first time? Unless you can still play him as a tackle, there are a lot of good reasons to stay away from Phillips until the late rounds.

The other starting spot at defensive in is up for grabs this summer. The coaching staff hopes second-year man Zach Allen will step up and claim it. The former third-round pick started the first four games of his career, recording six tackles and a pair of assists before suffering a neck injury five plays into the week-four game. The sample size is small but so far looks good. Allen did not land a sack in his short time last year but got to the quarterback for 16.5 sacks in three seasons at Boston College, where he also contributed 7 turnovers and knocked down 14 passes. If he can stay healthy, Allen is the favorite to start and has the potential to make some noise for IDP managers.

Veterans Trevon Coley, Jonathan Bullard, second-year man Michael Dogbe, and Rookie Rashard Lawrence will all be in the mix for playing time. Any of them could end up playing a lot or even starting, but there is not much box score potential here after Phillips and Allen.

Corey Peters has done a fine job as the Cardinals starting nose tackle over the last three seasons. A former third-round pick of the Falcons in 2010, he has been a starter over most of his career, working in both 4-3 and 3-4 defenses over his career. Peters is a good fit in his current situation. He is a tough, dependable anchor for the run defense, can get off blocks to make plays, and has the push to pressure the quarterback once in a while. Peters could have DT2 value as he did in 2018 when he was 32-18-2.5, but he has only recorded that kind of production in two of his previous ten seasons.

Peters is 32 years old and in the final season of his contract, so the team drafted Leki Fotu to be the potential heir. He has a long way to go before being ready for the job though. Both Bullard and Coley would be considerations for the job if Peters were to miss time.

Linebackers

Heading into the offseason, the Cardinals knew they needed a second starting inside linebacker to pair with Jordan Hicks. I have to wonder if they would have signed De’Vondre Campbell had they known Isaiah Simmons would be there when they picked in round one. This makes for a particularly interesting situation since members of the organization have eluded to both players as starting linebackers over the course of the offseason.

Campbell is coming off his most productive season as a pro by far. For the first time in his four year career, he was a near full-time linebacker in Atlanta. The result was good both on the field where he played well, and in the box scores where Campbel finished 74-52-2 with 6 turnovers, 5 passes defended, and a top-12 ranking. Campbell is not an elite player but is a solid veteran who does everything well. When he plays enough, he produces well, so how and how much the coaching staff decided to play him, will be the deciding factor for Campbell’s IDP value.

We know what role Jordan Hicks will have. He has been a starter but not always a three-down player since breaking into the league as a third-round pick of the Eagles in 2015. During his four years in Philadelphia, Hicks showed glimpses of both on-field and IDP greatness but was not able to stay healthy. After missing nine games in 2017 and four more in 2018, he joined the linebacker needy Cardinals as a free agent last summer. A big part of the reason Hicks signed with Arizona was their intention to play him in all situations. Not only did the team live up to their promise, but he was also one of the few defenders to play every snap for his team in 2019.

Hicks lived up to his part of the bargain as well. He stayed healthy all season and parlayed the opportunity into the third-highest solo tackle total among linebackers with 93, adding 55 assists, 1.5 sacks, 6 turnovers, and 6 passes defenced to land at the top of the final IDP rankings at the position. There is no doubt Hicks will continue to be successful in this situation providing he can stay on the field, but expecting a repeat of last year’s production might be a stretch. In 2019 the Cardinals had Hicks and safety Budda Baker contending for tackles. Only one other player (rookie corner Byron Murphy) had more than 46 solo stops. This year there will be a lot more competition. Hicks remains a strong LB1 but he will be hard-pressed to repeat as top-dog.

One of the players eating into the tackle opportunities will be the eighth overall pick, Isaiah Simmons. What we know is that Simmons is an elite athlete with a freakish combination of size, speed, and versatility. This guy can do pretty much anything. He played 738 snaps as a junior at Clemson in 2019. According to Pro Football Focus; 106 of those snaps were on the defensive line, 239 came as an inside linebacker, 256 as a slot corner/safety, 130 as a deep safety, and 7 as an outside corner. Simmons was also highly productive for the Tigers, totaling 67-37-8 with three interceptions, two forced fumbles, a recovery, and eight pass breakups in 15 games.

For both the coaching staff and IDP managers, the first order of business with Simmons is figuring out how he will be used now and in the future. Not long after the draft, Coach Kingsbury revealed the intent to have Simmons concentrate on the inside linebacker position. In late July, Simmons confirmed that he is currently focusing on that spot. So at least we have a starting point which makes it safe to call him an ILB for 2020, but it may not be long before he starts moving around.

Having a player like Simmons opens up a multitude of options for defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, which might include fielding five linebackers in a lot of situations. On early downs, Simmons could take the place of the strong safety, while in passing situations the team could go with two defensive linemen in what would be a hybrid 2-5-4 alignment. However they elect to go about it, we can safely expect Simmons to be on the field virtually full time and provide at least solid IDP value right from the start.

Outside linebacker Chandler Jones exploded for a career-best 19 sacks in 2019, half a sack away from tieing Shaq Barrett for the league lead. With 42 tackles, 12 sacks, 9 forced fumbles, 3 recoveries, and 5 batted passes to go with them, Jones was the highest scoring 3-4 outside linebacker, averaging 11.1 points and ranking 18th.

He is one of the league’s elite pass rushers but Jones is also an excellent run defender, allowing him to play at least 90% of the snaps in nearly every game. Jones was highly successful as a 4-3 defensive end with the Patriots at the beginning of his career but has found his sweet spot in the Cardinals 3-4. Since joining Arizona in 2015, he has 59 sacks, has forced 18 fumbles, and recovered 6. Jones has also been one of the few 3-4 outside backers to consistently finish among the top-36 at the position in balanced scoring formats. A bit of week to week inconsistency holds his value back in those leagues but Jones is an elite LB1 for managers in search of big-plays.

While Jones had an outstanding season, no other Arizona defender could muster more than three sacks in 2019. The addition of Simmons should help in that area, but it is former Lions and Giants starter Devon Kennard they are counting on to pick up the pace opposite Jones. Kennard has never played in a 3-4 so he is unproven at the position, but he has been successful as a pass-rushing strong side linebacker in 4-3 schemes. Kennard has 23.5 career sacks since 2014, with 14 of them coming been over his last two seasons with Detroit. He is not likely to reach double-digit sacks but is a strong edge setter versus the run and is the best pass rush option the team has had at the position since they lost Markus Golden to injury early in 2017. Kennard has never exceeded 45 solo tackles in any season and has a career-high of seven sacks, thus his upside appears limited, but he could have value as depth in some situations.

Sixth-round pick Evan Weaver may be the early favorite over veterans Dennis Gardeck and Tanner Vallejo for the fourth inside linebacker spot. It is not a lock that the team will keep more than four but their value on special teams could force the issue. Arizona’s depth at outside linebacker consists of 2017 first-round pick Haason Reddick and last year’s sixth-rounder Kylie Fitts. Fitts played little as a rookie and remains a project. Reddick was drafted with the plan to shift him inside after he had played outside at Temple. Between his struggles with the position change and the team’s dire need for someone to play the edge, Reddick was moved back outside during the 2018 season. While he is more comfortable on the outside, Reddick has not been very productive. Over three seasons as a pro he has a pedestrian seven and a half sacks, recording one on 710 snaps in 2019. His roster spot should be safe but Reddick’s playing time could take a big hit.

Defensive Backs

When a safety leads the team in tackles, it is generally not the sign of a good defense. Budda Baker led the entire league in tackles and was one of two players to hit triple-digits solo stops in 2019. While it is not a good sign for the team, Baker’s 106 tackles and 42 assists are particularly impressive when we consider he is 5’10” 195 pounds. He has a warrior’s mentality, anticipates and reacts as quickly as any safety in the game, rarely misses a tackle, plays much bigger than his size, and was in the perfect storm last season.

Just the addition of De’Vondre Campbell in front of him would have had some impact on Baker’s production. The presence of Simmons as well could have a huge effect in that it not only adds competition but also has the potential to alter the entire scheme, including Baker’s responsibilities.

He makes a ton of tackles but Baker is not so much of a big-play threat. In three seasons as a pro, he has three and a half sacks, four forced fumbles, and four recoveries, but is still looking for his first career interception. If Simmons becomes the extra man in the box, it could mean more of a deep safety role for Baker, which would in turn lead to fewer tackle opportunities. I am still approaching him as a solid DB1 but Baker is certainly not risk-free. I believe we will see numbers more like his 2018 campaign when he was 80-42-2 with three turnovers on fumbles. On the other hand, Baker could have a better shot at that first interception.

Jalen Thompson and Deionte Thompson each had a fair chance to claim the other safety spot after the team parted ways with D.J. Swearinger Sr early last season. They shared time initially before Jalen eventually won out. If the Cardinals continue where they left off at safety, Jalen Thompson, who is a former corner, would handle most of the deep safety responsibilities. He was 44-11-0 with a pair of takeaways on 53% of the snaps last season, so there is at least some chance Thompson could provide a little IDP value, but we should take a wait and see approach with him in this situation.

Arizona is in better shape at cornerback than their 28th ranked pass defense last year would suggest. On one side they have proven veteran Patrick Peterson who is among the game’s best cover men. He is often in the conversation when people discuss shutdown corners. While he is probably a little short of that status, Peterson is a quality number one on the field. He is also a great example of the rookie corner rule. As the fifth overall pick in 2011, Peterson recorded 59 tackles, 4 assists, a sack, 2 picks, and 13 passes defended. In year two the tackle totals slipped to 52-3 but he picked off 7 passes and had 17 breakups. Since that time Peterson has not produced more than 46 tackles or 3 interceptions in any season, and he has not seen double-digit pass breakups since 2013.

The Cardinals have already paid their dues with last year’s second-round pick Byron Murphy, who started every game as a rookie and played 1132 total snaps. Being a rookie starter and playing opposite a strong number one in Peterson, gave Murphy a lot of opportunities to make plays. The result was 66 solo tackles that were tied for third-most among corners. The tackles were enough to put Murphy on the IDP map as a solid DB2, but he was not able to make much noise in the splash-play columns where he had 10 passes defended and one interception. Improving big-play production has been a focus of the organization this offseason and the team expects Murphy to take a big step in that direction in 2020. He accounted for six interceptions and two forced fumbles in 20 games at Washington before turning pro, so the potential is there.

Veteran Robert Alford should be the third man at the corner position, though he could challenge Murphy for a starting spot. Alford was a starter for most of his six seasons with Atlanta, before joining the Cardinals last summer. Unfortunately, his 2019 season was washed out by a leg injury. Alford had 58 solo tackles and 20 passes defended in 2017 but has otherwise been of little value to IDP managers. His career-high of three interceptions was in 2014 and Alford has accounted for one turnover in his last 31 games.

Los Angeles Rams

Defensive Linemen

The Rams' shortcomings in 2019 were no fault of the defense. This unit was top-third versus both run and pass, racked up 50 sacks, and averaged a turnover and a half per game. The salary cap pinch forced some tough decisions for the team but the defensive line returns mostly intact. They might even be a little better with the free-agent addition of A'Shawn Robinson.

Aaron Donald is the headliner of the Rams defensive line. He is a generational talent and one of the best to ever play the game. How else could we look at a player with 12 sacks and three turnovers and still say he had a down year? Donald has set the bar high for himself. In 2018 he was the league’s sack leader with 20.5, forced 4 fumbles, and recovered 2, totaling 41 tackles, and 17 assists along the way. That season Donald was the fantasy game’s number on lineman, averaging better than half a point more per game than J.J. Watt who was second.

The 12 sacks were actually the second most Donald has recorded in a season, but his 28 solo tackles were the lowest of his career, and the three turnovers his fewest since 2016. They were, however, enough to make him the number eight defensive lineman and the number two defensive tackle. There is little doubt Donald will return to the top-10 again in 2020, but there is some discussion about his positional designation.

The Rams run a base defense that includes three down-linemen, but they like to offset those linemen so that the nose tackle is in the guard/center gap with Donald often lining up over or inside the offensive tackle. Thus the team calls two of their linemen tackles and designates one as a defensive end. Many league host sights still recognize Donald as a defensive end but some adopt the Rams terminology and consider him a tackle. Because he transcends positional designations, this is splitting hairs when it comes to Donald, but he is even more valuable to managers that can play him as an interior lineman.

Not so coincidentally, a look at the roster on the team’s website (therams.com), shows Morgan Fox as the only player listed as a defensive end. The rest of their linemen are either DL or DT. This makes some sense for the Rams because they have several interchangeable parts to work with. Sebastian Joseph-Day handled a lot of the nose tackle duties in 2019 with Greg Gaines backing him up, but Michael Brockers has also played the position in the past. This year the Rams also have 330-pound A’Shawn Robinson in the mix, who is likely to start in the middle. Outside of Donald, however, there is not a lot to get excited about here in IDP terms. Brockers has consistently produced solid tackle totals in the mid-30s range but has averaged less than two and a half sacks since 2014. Since most league hosts consider him a defensive end, his value is marginal. Robinson has at least 32 solo tackles in each of the last three seasons with a career-high of 2 sacks in 2016. One plus for Robinson is that he will be a tackle in most leagues that break out the positions, making him a solid DT2 with limited upside.

Linebackers

The salary cap problem bit Los Angeles hard at the linebacker positions where they were unable or simply unwilling to retain star inside linebacker Cory Littleton, breakout edge defender Dante Fowler Jr or even veteran Clay Matthews who was third on the team with eight and a half sacks. With those three gone, the Rams have a lot more questions than answers at the second level heading into the second week of training camp.

The situation at inside linebacker is similar to where the Rame were leading up to the 2018 season after trading Alec Ogletree to the Giants. They officially have an open competition for the jobs but just like 2018 when Littleton burst onto the scene, they have a good feeling about one guy in particular. Micah Kiser was drafted in the fifth round in 2018. He played little as a rookie but was slated to start next to Littleton last season before suffering a torn pectoral muscle in August. Kiser is fully recovered and is the lead candidate to replace Littleton both on the field and in the box scores.

We have virtually nothing to go on from Kiser as a pro, but his college numbers were rather impressive. As a three year starter for Virginia, he averaged 131 combined tackles with 19 career sacks, 15 turnovers, and 12 passes defended. At 6’0” 244 pounds, Kiser has prototypical size, good speed, and the skillset to be successful at the position. He is not as good in coverage as Littleton was, but is not a liability either, and he could be even better as a pass rusher. Littleton was a player that came from nowhere to become one of the fantasy game’s elite linebackers. Before the draft, general manager Les Snead suggested people should buy stock in Kiser. Could history repeat itself?

With Kiser out last year, the coaching staff had a good opportunity to see what they had in youngsters Troy Reeder, Bryce Hagar, and Travin Howard. All three were given ample opportunity to prove themselves. Each showed some positive signs but none of them were able to stand out. While it is not inconceivable that one of these three will have the light go on and step up, it is unlikely. If someone is going to challenge Kiser, it will likely be either Kenny Young or rookie Clay Johnston.

Young appeared to be a throw-in player as part of the trade that sent Marcus Peters to Baltimore, but maybe the Rams coaching staff saw something different. As a rookie fourth-round pick, Young held a significant role over the first three games of 2018 for the Ravens. He appeared to play well in those games, totaling 17 solo tackles, 5 assists, and a sack on roughly half the snaps, but there was something the coaching staff did not like. His role was reduced to scraps the rest of the way and Young finished with a mark of 40-11-2.5 and a forced fumble on 370 plays. Young did not play a snap for the Rams after joining them in week seven last year, but he has been mentioned by coaches as one of the players they are considering.

As a rookie seventh-round pick, Clay Johnston is an afterthought at best for most IDP managers, but maybe he should be more. He is a bit undersized at 227 pounds and had injury issues at Baylor that included a season-ending ACL tear six games into last season, but had it not been for the injury he might have been drafted much higher. In 17 games as a starter over the last two seasons, Johnston totaled 99 solo tackles, 58 assists, 3.5 sacks, an interception, and 7 passes defended.

Kiser is the clear favorite for the lead role as a three-down inside linebacker, but it is anyone’s guess who will line up next to him. There is a good chance that whoever wins that job will not be on the field full time anyway.

With almost half the team’s 2019 sack total belonging to players no longer with the team, the Rams outside linebacker situation might be an even bigger mystery. Samson Ebukam was the third man in the edge rotation last season and is now competing to be a full-time starter once again. He is not new to the role, having been there in 2018, and is a quality run defender, but so far has not shown the pass rush ability necessary to hold the job for the long term. Ebukam played a significant role in all three of his seasons as a pro, with a career total of nine and a half sacks on 1619 plays, which equates to roughly two seasons as a full-time starter.

The team was able to sign Leonard Floyd via free agency. He is expected to start but may not be much if any, better an option than Ebukam. As the Bears first-round pick in 2016, Floyd recorded 23 tackles, 10 assists, 7 sacks, and two turnovers. He seemed to have a bright future but instead of getting steadily better with experience, Floyd’s production steadily faded. In 2019 he was 27-13-3 without forcing a turnover for the first time in his young career. The talent and potential are there so the Rams hope their coaching staff can unleash it. At worst Floyd is a decent place holder until the team can better address the need.

The Rams hope rookie third-round pick Terrell Lewis will be a long term answer. Drafting Lewis was all about the potential. His college career at Alabama was cut short by an arm injury in 2017 and an ACL in 2018, so he is lacking in experience and has not put much on tape. Lewis looks that part with a chiseled 6’5” frame. He is quick, fast, agile, and athletic with long arms and good balance but still has to prove he can parlay all that into production. In 10 games with the Crimson Tide last season, Lewis was 21-10-6, so he has shown glimpses.

Another young player the Rams have high hope for is 2018 fifth-round selection Ogbonnia Okoronkwo. His rookie campaign was washed out by a foot injury and he played sparingly last season, but Okoronkwo has a lot of potential. Over two seasons as a starter at Oklahoma, he totaled 97 tackles, 49 assists, 17 sacks, 5 forced fumbles, 2 recoveries, and 5 batted passes in 26 games against good division one competition.

  • ILB Micah Kiser – Strong sleeper with high LB2 upside
  • ILB Kenny Young – Deep sleeper with good potential in the right role
  • ILB Troy Reeder – No impact expected
  • ILB Bryce Hager – No impact expected
  • ILB Travin Howard – Deep sleeper at best
  • ILB Clay Johnston – Deep/dynasty sleeper with good upside
  • OLB Samson Ebukam – Marginal value at best
  • OLB Leonard Floyd – Marginal value with some upside in big-play formats
  • OLB Terrell Lewis – Sleeper with big-play potential
  • OLB Ogbonnia Okoronkwo – Deep sleeper with big-play potential
  • OLB Justin Lawler – No impact

Defensive Backs

There has been a lot of turnover in the Rams secondary since week one of 2019. Both starting corners (Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters) were traded away during the season then nickel back Nickell Roby became a cap casualty in March, as did free safety Eric Weddle. The only returning starter from the group is strong safety John Johnson III who has not played since suffering a shoulder injury in week six. With corner Troy Hill as the elder statesman of the group at age 28, the Rams will certainly be a lot younger in the secondary this season and there is a chance they could be even better.

Johnson has fully recovered from the shoulder injury and is set to reclaim his job at strong safety. He first took over the starting spot in week five of his rookie season in 2017 and was nothing short of impressive right up to the injury. There are no apparent weaknesses to his game. Johnson has decent size, good speed, and all the other necessary traits to be successful, but it is his ability to contribute equally in all aspects of the game and his football IQ that makes him special. Johnson seems to always be in the right place. He is physical in the run game rarely missing a tackle, plays the pass well, and is a big-play threat as well as a tackling machine.

As a 16-game starter in 2018, Johnson tied for third among defensive backs with 81 solo tackles, adding 34 assists, 4 interceptions, a forced fumble, and 11 pass breakups to finish as the IDP game’s number three defensive back. He was on a similar pace last season leading up to the injury and providing he remains at strong safety, should pick up right where he left off when the Rams take the field in September.

When Johnson was lost last year, the Rams looked to a rookie to fill the void. Taylor Rapp played well enough during training camp and preseason action to earn a job as the third safety in big-nickel situations right out of the gate. He took over as the full-time strong safety in week seven and went on to have a great year. Rapp made his share of rookie blunders along the way but never seemed to make the same mistake twice. Over the final 10 games, he went 50-24-0 with 3 turnovers and 6 passes defended for an average of 12.95 points per game, which ranked fourth among defensive backs over that span.

The concern here is that both Johnson and Rapp are best suited to play strong safety, so something has to give. There is some speculation that Rapp, who is a little bit bigger, could see action as the second inside linebacker. That is a logical answer for many situations but it still leaves the team without a full-time free safety. That answer could involve third-round pick, Terrell Burgess. The versatile defensive back played all over the field at Utah, seeing action at every secondary position at some point during his time there, including work as an in the box third safety in nickel situations. Burgess has excellent speed and cover skills but was not a big-play guy in college where he had one interception and two fumble recoveries as a senior last fall.

This is where a preseason game or two would really come in handy. Since we do not have that luxury in this twilight zone year, we are left to speculate, so here goes. Considering the situation at inside linebacker. I expect we will see Johnson and Rapp working as interchangeable safeties in base package sets and staying on the field full-time. I expect to see Burgess come on to play deep or in the slot on passing downs so that one of the other two can slide up to linebacker depth in nickel situations. If this is indeed how they play it, both Johnson and Rapp could have solid IDP value as at least quality second starters. In the end, I still feel like Johnson is going to come out on top in terms of IDP value with Rapp not far behind.

Sixth-round pick Jordan Fuller could also find his way onto the field somewhere along the line. He too would be a good fit in the slot but he lacks the speed and cover skills to play centerfield.

The Rams traded away Marcus Peters who is arguably the greatest big-play threat in the game today, but a player that gambles a lot and also gives up a lot of big-plays. In his place, they got a more conservative Jalen Ramsey who is also an excellent cover man but comes at a lower cost and without all the drama. Ramsey is a big, physical corner with the ability to play press man to man, the speed to work off the ball and run receivers down, and the ball skills to make quarterback pay when they make a mistake. He is a strong number one corner and a player the Rams can build around.

The 2019 season was a down year for Ramsey in fantasy terms. Switching teams in mid-stream undoubtedly contributed. Over his first three seasons, however, Ramsey averaged 57 solo tackles, 15 passes defended, and 3 interceptions. In 2018 his 62 solo stops were tied for fourth among corners and he was a solid CB2. Since he is with a new team, it is hard to say if his numbers will rebound. Thus counting on him as a starting corner in week one would be a considerable risk. That said, he is a solid target as a third corner with upside.

Unless the Rams add someone before the season starts, six-year veteran Troy Hill looks like the starter opposite Ramsey. Hill has starting experience in the league and has been a decent number two for the team in the past. He is a serviceable option to hold down the fort until either someone emerges to take his job or the team can better address the position. Having never recorded more than 33 tackles and 2 interceptions in a season, Hill is not much of an IDP prospect.

One longshot to keep an eye on at corner is second-year man Darious Williams. The former undrafted free agent did not play a lot as a rookie but made the most of the opportunity when he got it. He played a total of 210 snaps over five games on the season. In those games, Williams was 14-1-0 with a forced fumble, two interceptions, four passes defended, and a score. In three of the five games, he accounted for at least 12 fantasy points.

San Francisco 49ers

Defensive Linemen

The 49ers would like to improve a run defense that ranked in the bottom half of the league at 4.4 yards per carry in 2019 but beyond that, this unit got it done. San Francisco had the number one pass defense that was helped by their 48 sacks. They intercepted a dozen passes and forced a league-high 23 fumbles, recovering 15. As with all good defenses, everything starts in the trenches for the 49ers. Much of their success came with an ability to get pressure from the front four. This group had four players with at least six and a half sacks while the defensive line as a whole accounted for 41.

Rookie Nick Bosa hit the ground running with a sack in his first game. By the end of the season, he had accumulated nine to go along with four turnovers and solid tackle totals of 32 solo and 15 assists. Those are rather impressive numbers for a rookie and were good enough to land Bosa among the top-15 at the position. The scary part is at age 22, he has just scratched the surface. Nick’s overall production as a rookie was a bit better than that of his older brother Joey, who quickly ascended to the elite status from both an NFL and an IDP perspective. All signs point to the younger Bosa joining his brother as one of the game’s elite in short order.

A supporting cast is important to the overall success of any player and the 49ers front four were able to feed off one another last year. Opposing offenses were stuck in a coin toss situation when trying to figure out who to double team. With Bosa landing nine sacks and his bookend Arik Armstead leading the club with 10, there was no right answer.

Armstead was a late bloomer. After being selected in the first round in 2015, he had a quiet rookie season that was followed by two injury-shortened campaigns in 2016 and 2017. He made it through all 16 games in 2018, playing well versus the run and posting decent tackle numbers at 33-15, but did not contribute much as a pass rusher, totaling three sacks. Then seemingly out of nowhere, and of course in a contract year, Armstead put it all together in 2019, going 32-22-10 with 3 turnovers.

Somewhat surprisingly, the organization decided to pay Armstead over DeForest Buckner who was also in need of a new deal. Armstead was very young when he entered the league so even though this will be his sixth season as a pro, he is only 25 years old. That may have been a factor in the team’s decision to give him the new contract as he has just entered the prime of his career.

Since he recorded nine sacks over his first four years combined, IDP managers are left to ponder if Armstead’s 2019 production was a one-year fling or a breakout season. While this is a legitimate question, all things considered, I believe it to be the later. Armstead was the number 16 defensive lineman last season, one slot behind his teammate Bosa. I am not sure he has the same elite upside as Bosa, but do see Armstead as a quality second starter with DL1 potential.

When the 49ers signed Dee Ford to a high priced multi-year contract last offseason, many saw him as the replacement for Armstead who had to that time been an underachiever. An August knee sprain knocked Ford’s season off track from the start and bothered him all year, then a hamstring injury ended it after 10 games. Ford was never able to claim a starting job but did make a considerable contribution with six and a half sacks as a sub-package rush specialist. That is the role he is expected to hold going forward providing he has recovered from what Ford described as extensive surgery he underwent in February to relieve the tendinitis in his knee. A healthy Ford would also provide an outstanding insurance policy behind Bosa and Armstead.

Veteran Ronald Blair III is yet another weapon in the San Francisco arsenal. This is a player that could start for a lot of teams. He has the versatility to play end or tackle and could contribute as an inside pass rusher as the team tries to compensate for the loss of Buckner. Blair averaged 22 snaps per game for the 49ers in 2019 and had 3 sacks before suffering an ACL injury in week 10. He began running in March but opened camp on the PUP so his status for the early part of the season remains in doubt.

Trading Buckner was a tough decision for San Francisco but in the end, it made the most sense because Armstead was cheaper and Buckner held more trade value. Now the coaching staff has to work on recovering the production they lost. The first step in that process was drafting Javon Kinlaw with the first-round pick they got in the trade with Indianapolis.

Saying that Kinlaw could eventually be better than Buckner is not a stretch. Pre-draft scouting reports compared Kinlaw to guys like Chris Jones, Jarran Reed, and yes, Buckner himself. At 6’5” 324 pounds, Kinlaw is a physical freak. He has the quickness and pass-rush arsenal of an edge defender with the size and strength of a nose tackle, and he is relentless both as a pass rusher and run defender. Kinlaw checks the box for college production as well. He did not make a ton of tackles at South Carolina, but in two seasons as a starter there Kinlaw totaled 10 sacks, forced 7 turnovers, and swatted down 8 passes. He is easily the top interior lineman on my rookie draft board.

Even before drafting Kinlaw, the 49ers had a solid group of defensive tackles to work with. D.J. Jones should be the starting nose tackle. The fourth-year pro broke into the lineup last season and played well when healthy. He missed a couple of games with hamstring and groin injuries early in the campaign before landing on IR after suffering a high ankle sprain in week 15. Injuries have been an issue for Jones throughout his short NFL career but when he is on the field Jones is productive. He was 19-4-2 with a forced fumble on just 307 plays in 2019 and could see an extended role going forward.

Earl Mitchell is a veteran with plenty of starting experience. He lacks explosiveness but can be a solid two-down anchor against the run if called upon. Solomon Thomas has become the lost man in San Francisco’s front-four. The third overall pick in 2017, he has been a bust for the team thus far despite efforts to get him going by having him line up at various positions. Three seasons with the team have seen Thomas total 74 tackles, 18 assists, 6 sacks, and a forced fumble, with 2019 being his least productive season to date. Kerry Hyder Jr is a veteran that can play either inside or out but is most likely to contribute as an inside guy in sub-package situations.

Linebackers

San Francisco hit the jackpot when they took Fred Warner in round-three two years ago. He looked good both on the field and in the box scores as a rookie in 2018 when he finished among the top-20 on the strength of 84 tackles, 39 assists, a pair of turnovers, and six pass breakups. Warner took the next step in year two when he proved to be one of the most well-rounded linebackers in the game. He continued to play the run well but really stepped up his game in coverage and as a playmaker. Warner’s stat line of 90-28-3 with 4 turnovers, 9 passes defended, and a score pushed him well into the top-10 last season. He turns 24 in November and has all the makings of a perennial top-12 linebacker for the next decade or so.

Kwon Alexander came into the league as a fourth-round pick of the Buccaneers in 2015. He had a great rookie campaign right up to when he was suspended for the final four games for performance-enhancing drugs. In year two he exploded, going 108-37-3 with 3 turnovers, and a score. Alexander was on a similar pace in 2017 when the injuries started. He missed four games that season with thigh and hamstring issues, then suffered a serious knee injury in October of 2018. San Francisco signed Alexander to a juicy four-year deal in March of 2019, with the expectation that he would team with Warner to create a dynamic duo. He was not yet the Alexander of old but was in the week one lineup for San Francisco to start last season.

There were no setbacks with the knee but early in the week nine game Alexander suffered a torn pectoral muscle that not only put him back on the shelf but also opened the door for a fifth-round rookie named Dre Greenlaw. All Greenlaw did in nine games as a starter was to record 57 tackles and 20 assists, with a sack, an interception, and an average of 13.08 fantasy points per game. Alexander is healthy as we close in on the 2020 season but the damage may already be done. Greenlaw impressed the coaching staff so much that he is in line to open the season as a three-down weakside linebacker while Alexander appears to have been exiled to a base package role on the strong side. Like everything else in the NFL, this is subject to change, but for now, push Greenlaw up your draft board to the low-LB2 range and let someone else gamble on Alexander.

It is good that the team has three quality options at linebacker because there is not much in the way of depth here. Mark Nzeocha would be the next man up at either of the outside positions. He is a fifth-year player with 29 career tackles but has shown some promise with three turnovers in his limited role. Joe Walker backs up in the middle. He is a fourth-year pro that saw considerable action with the Cardinals last season but was rather unimpressive for the most part.

Defensive Backs

The 49ers adhered to the old cliché, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. When you have the number one pass defense in the league, there is no reason to mess with a good thing, so the San Francisco secondary returns everyone that had a significant role in 2019. It will be business as usual at safety where Jaquiski Tartt will line up strong and Jimmie Ward at free.

At 6’1” 221 pounds, Tartt is like having an extra linebacker on the field. He is a physical run defender, an intimidator in the passing game, and was a big part of the team’s success last season. Unfortunately, Tartt has never lived up to his potential in IDP terms, largely due to injuries. He was on pace for DB3 type numbers in 2017 and 2018 before missing nearly half the games in those two seasons with a chronic bad shoulder. In 2019 he was bothered by toe and ankle injuries in September then suffered broken ribs in week 13. Heading into his sixth season as a pro, Tartt has never completed a full slate of games. If he manages to do that in 2020, he will be worthy of a roster spot and could be a decent third starter.

Outside of Tartt’s potential, there is little help for IDP managers from San Francisco’s safeties. Jimmy Ward led the team’s defensive backs in tackles last season with a pedestrian 51 solo and 14 assists, and Marcell Harris put together a five-game run at the end of the schedule in which he averaged 11.21 points while standing in for Tartt. If Harris should end up starting at strong safety for an extended period, he could be a solid in-season addition.

If everyone is healthy, Richard Sherman, Ahkello Witherspoon, and K’Waun Williams will be the top three at the corner position, with Emmanuel Mosley likely seeing action as the dime back. Outside of Sherman, this is a strong but largely unheralded group, none of whom recorded more than 42 tackles or 2 interceptions last year. Sherman was top-dog on the team with three interceptions in 2019, adding 11 passes defended and just enough in the tackle columns to look like a decent CB2 based on overall points. Even that goes away when we consider that almost 46% of his points came in three games.

Seattle Seahawks

Defensive Linemen

Only the Dolphins had fewer sacks than Seattle’s 28 last season. With no one on the team recording more than four, it was clear something had to change. The Ezekiel Ansah experiment is over and as of the first week of August, no signs are suggesting Jadaveon Clowney will return. The Seahawks have never been a team to shy away from playing rookies, which is a good thing because they will almost surely have to put second-round pick Darrell Tayor and/or fifth-rounder Alton Robinson on the field a lot.

It is not as if there are no veteran options. Bruce Irvin is back where his career started in 2012. In his first stint with the team, Irvin was a hybrid pass-rushing strong side linebacker/edge defender, recording 21.5 sacks over four seasons. After leaving Seattle Irvin spent time with the Raiders and Falcons where he lined up more often as a 4-3 defensive end, before playing outside in the Panthers 3-4 last year.

The downside with Irvin is that at 245 pounds, he is undersized for a three-down end and sometimes struggles as a point of attack run defender. The good news is that Irvin has a career-high of 8 sacks with at least 5.5 in every season since and injury-shortened 2013. Lacking tackle production has kept him out of the IDP conversation for the most part over his career, as he has reached the 30 solo mark three times in eight seasons. There is, however, some reason for IDP managers to have a little optimism. As an edged defender in the Raiders hybrid scheme in 2016, Irvin went 47-10-6, with 7 forced fumbles. He followed that up with a mark of 39-20-8 and 4 forced fumble in 2017.

If there is a breakout candidate among Seattle’s defensive ends it is Rasheem Green. The 2018 third-round pick led the team with four sacks in 2019 and was responsible for four turnovers. He played more snaps (562) than anyone else at the position not named Clowney (624), which is important because the Seahawks like to rotate a lot of guys along their defensive line. This approach makes it hard for any player to stand out in the box scores. Last year eight linemen saw at least 347 snaps, but no one played more than 624 of a possible 1094. Green had 10 sacks in his final season at USC so if he comes out hot, maybe the coaching staff will keep him on the field more, as they have done with players in the past.

The other veteran Seattle could lean on some is journeyman Benson Mayowa. Mayowa has 19.5 career sacks over six seasons, but seven of them came as a pass rush specialist with the Raiders last year. He could see time in a similar role with Seattle, but like Irvin, Mayowa is undersized and does not hold up well versus the run.

The Seahawks raised a lot of eyebrows when they selected L.J. Collier in round one of the 2019 Draft. Most experts called it a reach and had a much lower grade on him. So far it looks as if the experts were right. Collier played 155 snaps as a rookie and had no impact at all, recording two tackles and an assist. He had 14.5 sacks over his career at Texas Christian so it is too early to call him a bust, but there is no reason to expect a breakout either. At 291 pounds, it would not be a surprise if the coaching staff shifts him inside in an effort to get him on the field.

That leads us to the rookies. At 6’4” 267 pounds, Darrell Taylor has both the size and skill set to play on all three downs. As a two-year starter and three-year contributor, he totaled 118 combined tackles, 19.5 sacks, 10 turnovers, and 7 batted passes for Tennessee. He is strong enough to bull rush offensive tackles but quick enough to get around them. Taylor is a physical run defender with all the tools to develop into a quality, every-down defensive end at the pro level.

Alton Robinson is a player that most managers will overlook because he was a late-round pick. Don’t be one of those managers. Robinson fell largely due to off-field questions surrounding a 2016 arrest, even though the charges were eventually dropped. He is less polished than Taylor and needs to hit the weight room hard to improve as a run defender, but Robinson’s numbers at Syracuse were very similar to those of Taylor. Over three seasons Robinson totaled 115 combined tackles, 19 sacks, 7 turnovers, and 5 batted passes. He too has the tools to become a productive starter at the pro level, though it could take a year or two for him to develop.

The Seahawks should be strong up the middle, at least if Jarran Reed can stay healthy and out of the commissioner’s dog-house. The defensive tackle had a huge 2018 season when he was 36-15-10.5 with a pair of turnovers and a top-five ranking among interior linemen, despite battling a sports hernia for much of the season. His 2019 campaign got off to an ominous start with a six-game personal conduct suspension. That was followed by a November ankle injury that would bother him the rest of the season. As a result, Reed’s numbers were way down last year. Looking at his career totals will have some managers thinking he was a one year wonder in 2018, but that is probably not the case. Reed is healthy and has kept his nose clean as far as we know in early August, so a bounce-back year is reasonable to expect. Repeating of the top-five finish, however, remains in question.

There are no questions surrounding nose tackle Poona Ford. The former undrafted free agent won a roster spot with the team in 2018 and a starting job in 2019. He is a bit on the small side for a nose tackle in today’s NFL but has become a dependable anchor for the Seahawks run defense. Ford has little to offer as a pass rusher and is unlikely to make much noise in IDP circles.

Linebackers

The linebacker position has been a strength for the Seahawks in recent years, but they have experienced some injury issues along the way. An argument can be made for Bobby Wagner being the best middle linebacker in the game today. There is nothing he does not do well. As a run defender, Wagner has the size and strength to make plays between the tackles, and sideline to sideline range. Against the pass, he has excellent speed and is one of the best in the game at man coverage, but can also get to the quarterback on the blitz.

As an IDP prospect, Wagner is a perennial top-ten guy and has not finished outside the top-five since 2015. While he puts up good solo tackle totals and has at least 83 in each of the last four seasons, it is the generosity of Seattle’s home stat crew that helps to push Wagner over the top. In 2016 he was credited with 83 assists and last season 71. Both were league highs in their respective years. The only time in the last four seasons that Wagner did not have at least 54 assists was 2017. That year he had 97 solos.

Throughout his career, K.J. Wright has been the sidekick to Wagner both on the field and from an IDP perspective. Wright would out produce Wagner in two or three games a year but has consistently been no more than a quality third starter. He had a career-best of 74 solo tackles in 2014 while, except for two injury-shortened seasons, has never fallen short of 67. Wright too has been helped by generous assist totals. His 64 last season were second-most in the league behind Wagner.

Wright’s run as a dependable LB3 is in jeopardy as we close in on week one. The recovery from shoulder surgery casts some doubt on his availability for the opener. In early June Wright proclaimed to be ahead of schedule in his rehab and declared his expectation to be ready for the beginning of the season, but almost every injured player says that. With the team’s selection of Jordyn Brooks in round-one, the shoulder issue is not his only obstacle. There has been talk of a position change that would have Wright lining up on the strong side, which is the role played by Mychal Kendricks over most of last season. A switch to that role could also mean coming off the field in many sub-package situations. There are several factors in play here, not the least of which is the ability of Brooks to pick things up quickly in this condensed offseason. It could be business as usual for Wright in the end but there is a lot of risk and uncertainty as we make our way into the heart of the draft season.

Most scouts had a high grade on Jordyn Brooks but not many saw him as a first-day selection. With both Wagner and Wright on the north side of 30 years old and Kendricks no longer with the team as he recovers from knee surgery, this pick makes a lot of sense for the organization. Brooks was a solid four-year starter at Texas Tech, where he played mostly in the middle. He is a strong, point of attack run defender that works through traffic with ease and can get off blocks to make plays. He has prototypical size at 240 pounds and is a powerful wrap-up tackler. Speed is not a problem for Brooks but there are questions about his coverage skills. Not so much because he has shown any issues, but because he did not have a great deal of responsibility in that area in college.

Brooks checks the box for college production with an average of five tackles and three assists per game. He did not blow up the big-play columns but managed a significant contribution in that area with six and a half career sacks and nine turnovers. Teams are not going to use a first-round pick on a linebacker and have him sit on the bench, so the only real question with Brooks is his short term role. If he lands as a three-down weak side linebacker, he should be at least a decent LB3 right out of the gate. At worst Brooks is a strong dynasty option to stick on the taxi squad for a while.

With the addition of Brooks, Cody Barton, Shaquem Griffin, and Ben Burr-Kirven will probably compete for two roster spots. Both Barton and Burr-Kirven are second-year guys that looked pretty good in very limited time as rookies. Griffen is entering his third season and has so far not shown much outside of special teams.

Defensive Backs

Many question whether Seattle gave up too much to land Jamal Adams. It will be a while before we know that answer but there is no doubt they are a better defense right. Without considering the picks involved, the Seahawks traded a solid veteran strong safety for a difference-maker that is one of the best in the game at the position. Adams can do things and make plays that few others are capable of. We have all heard the cliché jack of all trades but master of none. Adams is more like a master of all trades. He is a physical run defender that anticipates well, reacts quickly, has great range, and arrives with an attitude. Adams has the cover skills of a corner and at 6’1” 213 pounds has the size to cover the league’s great tight ends. To top it all off, he is a play-maker.

Adams started slowly and was outside the top-30 as a rookie in 2017, but he jumped all the way to number two in 2018 when he had the second-most tackles by a defensive back and finished 85-29-3.5 with 5 turnovers, 7 passes defended, and a pair of scores. Adams missed a couple of games in 2019 but still managed to finish seventh while averaging 12.3 points per game. He can be counted on for good tackle numbers but it is the big plays that Adams into the elite category. Over three seasons he has already collected 12 sacks, forced 6 fumbles, recovered 4, intercepted a pair of passes, and scored twice. There are better linebackers in front of him than he had in New York, but that should not stop Adams from picking up right where he left off.

Seattle acquired free safety Quandre Diggs in a mid-season trade last year. He missed time with injuries both before and after changing teams so his numbers are skewed. Lining up as the deep safety in his five games with the Seahawks limited his tackle totals, but it was enough to showcase his big-play ability. From week 10 to week 15 he accounted for three interceptions, forced and recovered a fumble, and scored once. Unfortunately, the marginal tackle numbers will hold his IDP value down and possibly keep Diggs from being roster worthy, but if you are a Seahawks fan, things are looking up.

Some people had grand expectations for second-year safety Marquise Blair, but those went out the window with the additions of Diggs and Adams. Last year’s second-round pick still figures to have a solid role as the third safety and should see action in some nickel situations, but he will have to wait a while before taking over as a starter.

The Seahawks do a great job of finding good corners without having to spend big money or early-round draft capital. This is not a recent trend and goes all the way back to 2011 when they landed Richard Sherman in round five. They also have a history of providing IDP managers with decent options at the position. 2017 third-round pick Shaq Griffin recorded at least 50 solo stops and was a decent CB3 in each of his first two seasons. He has developed into a quality number one for the Seahawks but following the rookie corner progression, his numbers slipped below a useful level in 2019.

Tre Flowers was quick to pick up the torch. He was 54-13-0 with 4 turnovers and 7 passes defended in 15 games as a fifth-round pick in 2018. Those numbers landed him just outside the CB2 range but unlike the normal curve, Flowers was even more productive in his second season. At 65-17-2 with 5 turnovers and 8 pass breakups, Flowers found his way into the top-10 last season. Corners are a fickle lot so it is hard to say for sure which way he will go in 2020, but the fact that he improved in year two is a positive sign.

When the team added former Washington starter Quinton Dunbar in free agency, it looked as if they would have a strong trio of starters. Then Dunbar found himself in hot water with the law. That whole situation is ongoing but Dunbar has been placed on the commissioner’s exempt list until there is some resolution. Even if he manages to avoid jail time, there is a good chance Dunbar will miss some game due to suspension. In the meantime, second-year man Ugo Amadi should compete with Marquise Blair for a share of the sub-package snaps.

That does it for this year’s initial round. I would normally be back after some pre-season action but since there will be no pre-season games, we will have to see how things pan out. At worst I will be back with an update leading up to week one. Best of luck in your drafts.

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