As the flurry of rookie drafts continues and we survey the landscape of the league in its nascent 2017 guise, it is instructive to pause and take stock. Player and coach movement in the NFL constantly creates and destroys opportunities, causing a domino effect of downstream change that can turn IDP studs into afterthoughts.
If you are one of the many fantasy owners who, like most of us, has a life outside of this wonderful hobby, it can be easy sometimes to switch off and let what appear to be insignificant offseason activities slip under the radar. Now, that is not to say that all the so-called puff pieces we consume during the barren summer days of the news cycle are filled with actionable data; rather, they represent the latest point in a series of data points.
If we act on these trends early enough, we can get a leg up on the pile in our leagues and be ahead of the game while your fellow owners are floundering in reams of statistics and news reports.
Like a stock market, we have to be discerning with our choices and act at the right time, but which players are trending up and which are trending down towards obscurity?
Chris Jones, Kansas City Chiefs
The first instinct among the IDP cognoscenti when they hear a 3-4 defensive end being touted as the next big thing is healthy scepticism – and I can completely understand that – but Jones is in a different class. A physical specimen who made a big impression in his rookie season, Jones played a little over 50% of the snaps as veterans like Dontari Poe and Jaye Howard were rotated in. The 2017 iteration of the Chiefs’ defensive depth chart speaks for itself: apart from Allen Bailey, no other player has the talent or opportunity of Jones. Full disclosure: I am higher on his prospects than any other FBG staff member, and I believe doubling his tackle count (27 total tackles in 2016) and contributing a few more big plays is well within his reach. Gathering talented defensive linemen is always a sound strategy; Jones is poised to prove that point in 2017.
Sheldon Rankins, New Orleans Saints
Injury derailed what could have been a terrific rookie campaign in 2016 for the former 12th overall pick, but better things are ahead this year. Rankins is a born interior disruptor and has the skill set to make the lives of offensive linemen very unpleasant indeed. The Saints have him listed as a defensive tackle, as most fantasy league management systems do, but the team’s use of a hybrid 3-4/4-3 depending on down and distance will give him ample opportunity to rush as a 3-technique. This is where he can assert himself and wreak havoc. John Norton’s prediction of 35-12-9.0 looks about right for Rankins’ sophomore season. The recent news about Nick Fairley’s heart condition – and the fact the veteran may miss time – means additional work for Rankins as well.
Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams
Most league management software has changed Aaron Donald’s designation from DT to DE, but it isn’t that significant a move if you believe in his talent. Enduring a down year in 2016 on a Rams team going nowhere, he still managed to disrupt on a near every-down basis, recording 36 solo tackles and 11 assists. The situation is what creates doubt for his prospects. The arrival of Wade Phillips should bring improvement to the unit overall, where Donald figures to play the 5-technique role. Phillips’ scheme is a 1-gap 3-4, so Donald will be occupying the J.J. Watt role. All these factors sound like check marks in Donald’s favour, but position switches can take some adjustment – and he simply won’t be able to affect opposing offenses like he did at 3-technique.
DeForest Buckner, San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers are in rebuilding mode, but first-time general manager John Lynch has already shown clarity and vision with his decisions thus far. Perhaps one that has gone under the radar is the appointment of Robert Saleh, a Pete Carroll disciple, as his defensive coordinator. Saleh will adopt the Seahawks’ 4-3 under front, which will place the talented defensive linemen the team has accumulated in the best position to succeed. It is all projection at this point, but Solomon Thomas figures to play the 4-tech that Michael Bennett made his own, while DeForest Buckner is likely to kick inside to 3-technique. On paper, this represents a decent opportunity for the behemoth defensive lineman to shine; in practice, it may be more difficult to make waves. The Niners, perhaps in a shot across the bow to their young linemen, signed Elvis Dumervil and have plenty of depth as it is. There are many mouths to feed as well, and that is my main concern. I can’t see the relentless Thomas or the combination of Navorro Bowman and Reuben Foster not racking up their fair share of tackles.
Lawrence Timmons, Miami Dolphins
The erstwhile Steelers linebacker may be getting up there in years, but his signing with the Dolphins could end up being one of the steals of the offseason. The deal is two years with $11m guaranteed, no chump change. Clearly the team, and specifically in-house promotion at defensive coordinator Matt Burke, have a plan in place. Timmons is slotted to play the middle, bumping Kiko Alonso to the weak side. Timmons has an excellent track record of staying healthy, something his teammate Alonso cannot claim to. The former Pittsburgh stalwart has missed only two career games, and has failed to reach 100 total tackles just once in the past six seasons. There is little in the way of reserve options for Miami at linebacker to even challenge Timmons for three-down work, so he will see plenty of action. A player many are sleeping on, Timmons could vault into high-end LB2 or low-end LB1 territory by the end of the 2017.
Jatavis Brown, Los Angeles Chargers
In just 12 games during his rookie campaign, Jatavis Brown left little doubt about his talents. Racking up tackles for fun and influencing the pass game with 3.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and six passes defensed, Brown showed his penchant for the big play and being in the right place at the right time. The Chargers may be on the move to Los Angeles, but this talented linebacker will be staying put in the lineup for a long time. The switch to a 4-3 under new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley will see Brown man the weak side position, in all likelihood, freeing him up to make impact plays. His position as a three-down player is untouchable right now. Do not be shocked if Brown is the name on everyone’s lips in the IDP community after 2017.
Navorro Bowman, San Francisco 49ers
The reports have been steadily trickling through on the news wire that the 49ers are shopping Navorro Bowman. This was denied by the team, but there’s no smoke without fire. It was an unexpected move, but the drafting of Reuben Foster was all but a death knell for the oft-injured Bowman’s time in the league. Still just 29, the veteran has taken quite a beating and has endured painstaking surgical procedures, blunting his formerly top-tier abilities. Often all it takes in the NFL is a little drop off to see a player ‘fall off a cliff’ in terms of production; this year could be the one for Bowman. It’s a ruthless business as well; if Foster shines in training camp and makes the position his own, Bowman could be deemed surplus to requirements. As an IDP asset, he is worth as much now as he will ever be again. Cashing out might be the best option.
Paul Posluszny, Jacksonville Jaguars
Much in the same vein as Bowman, Paul Posluszny is approaching the end of the line. He just might have a little bit more leeway in terms of how the organisation sees him, but the writing is on the wall. Posluszny is being moved to the strong side to accommodate Myles Jack in the middle, the first strike against him and a sure sign his tackle opportunity will decrease. Add to this the fact that the Jaguars brass are likely to give Jack as many opportunities as possible – and Telvin Smith Sr is already entrenched in his position – and we could see Posluszny taking a seat on third down. As reliable as the veteran linebacker has been for our IDP squads since being drafted, it is about time we part ways.
Mark Barron, Los Angeles Rams
The former safety produced his best season in terms of total tackles (117) and played all but three of the Rams’ 1,090 snaps on defense, cementing his place among the every-down contingent. His value as an IDP asset is unquestioned, but things might be about to get better. The appointment of Wade Phillips as defensive coordinator will move Barron inside, where he should have his fair share of tackle opportunities. The concern is that the move from the weak side last year to a 3-4 inside linebacker position might need a bit of adjustment, but Barron is talented enough – and never leaves the field. A 90-solo season is well within his reach. If for some reason an owner in your league is sleeping on him, try to acquire him.
Tony Jefferson, Baltimore Ravens
With Arizona, Tony Jefferson consistently showed he had a nose for the football. He blitzed often and was a force in run support, providing a steady presence on the back end. The fact he was signed by Baltimore, who lacked a true box safety, bodes well for his 2017 production. Eric Weddle will likely move back to free safety more often, allowing Jefferson to roam around the line of scrimmage. Apart from C.J. Mosley, the Ravens have questions to answer at inside linebacker. This could play into the hands of Jefferson, who will be eager to mop up tackles.
Tyrann Mathieu, Arizona Cardinals
The issue with Tyrann Mathieu has always been health; his 2015 campaign was spectacular, but it was wedged between two injury-riddled ones. Arizona’s defensive scheme employs multiple safeties at times, and the signing of Antoine Bethea and drafting of Budda Baker spells bad things for Mathieu’s future prospects. There is a role for Mathieu to play on this defense, but one has to wonder whether it will be a specialised role as the team plays it safe with their star safety. The omens are not promising for a revival in fortunes, so I would be selling Mathieu if I had a chance.
The market is ever volatile when it comes to player values, but one thing the good owners do is make moves, even when the payoff isn’t immediately obvious. Don’t be afraid to take a chance and acquire that player in whom you detected flashes of brilliance. The worst mistake you can make in fantasy football is to be idle and let things come to you.
Be the aggressor, and make the market your own.
Don’t hesitate to drop me a line on Twitter @davlar87 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for any queries about the article or IDP dynasty leagues in general.