Returning for yet another year for guiding you through the mess that is the IDP free agent pool is yours truly, TJ Ford. For those who followed this weekly report last year, you’ll note that not much has changed. For those new to the column, I will try to provide you with a few potential options from the waiver wire to help your IDP fantasy squad throughout the year. I assume a balanced scoring system between tackles and big plays as well as trying to distinguish between short and long-term upside. I also like to offer up some dark horse, one week flier options for the truly picked-over waiver wire hunters. I’m not going to list obvious rookies to add in this week’s report as they should be drafted accordingly (see my 2016 rookie LB ranking). Rookies will appear on the report assuming that you could expect them to be on some waiver wires out there.
As this is the first column of the year, I try to outline defensive scheme or coordinator changes for all affected teams. For those unfamiliar with scheme and how it affects fantasy values for IDP, Steve Gallo, fellow Huddle writer, has a very informative article called “Scheme Matters” in the articles section that is very much worth a read. While scheme change is more important for dynasty owners, redraft owners need to beware of value changes going into their draft. Major changes to teams in terms of scheme are as follows (full listing can be found here – Getting Defensive):
- Philadelphia from 3-4 to 4-3 (Doug Pederson HC; Jim Schwartz DC)
- New Orleans from 3-4 to 4-3 (Dennis Allen DC)
Along with scheme changes affecting the production of certain IDPs, the scheme change can also bring about changes in a players position designation. As always, check your fantasy football provider before making any decisions as not every providers position listing is the same. The value difference between a 40 tackle/ 5 sack LB and a 40 tackle/ 5 sack DL is night and day so there is importance in paying attention to your players’ position. Hybrid safety/linebackers were the target of many providers so fantasy teams hoping to get LB1/2 production out of their safety spot with players like Deone Bucannon of Arizona and Mark Barron of Los Angeles will need to use LB spots to keep those players in their starting lineups instead of the safety spots they were last year. Khalil Mack is also a watch for would-be owners. He is arguably the top overall IDP if he is designated as DE (given JJ Watt’s back issues muddying the waters) but as a LB he is an upside LB2 depending on the scoring system. Outside of those changes, the dreaded 4-3 DE to 3-4 OLB change, bane of the IDP fantasy community, claimed a few more victims this year with Chandler Jones, Jerry Hughes and Vic Beasley being changed from DE to LB. On the other side of the coin, with the scheme changes noted above, Brandon Graham, Connor Barwin, Hau’oli Kikaha (IR, knee) and Kasim Edebali all went from 3-4 OLB to 4-3 DE. The last point I’d like to make in this section is what LB position within the defense plays a huge role as well as in value. Guys like Nigel Bradham, Stephone Anthony and Daryl Smith are likely to see a large reduction in stats moving from inside linebacker to the strong-side.
On the injury/suspension front, Reggie Ragland, would-be rookie ILB starter in Buffalo, will miss the 2016 season with a partially torn ACL. Rob Ninkovich, DE for the Patriots, will miss a guaranteed 4 games due to PED suspension and potentially more due to a triceps injury. An interesting note here, the NFL can’t force Ninkovich to serve his suspension healthy so even though he likely wouldn’t play in the first four games anyway due to triceps injury, the suspension is counted as served as long as Ninkovich remains on the roster. Dion Jordan was expected to make his comeback this year at DE for the Dolphins but had a surprise knee issue coming into camp and will not be ready for the start of the season. Vontae Davis is expected to miss a few weeks with an ankle sprain. Mario Edwards is not expected to be available in September due to a hip issue. Keanu Neal was expected to open as a starter on the Falcons defense as well as many fantasy teams but knee surgery is expected to keep him out of the lineup for the majority of September as well. The Kansas City Chiefs’ LB corps is severely depleted with starting ILB Josh Mauga slated to miss the 2016 season with a shoulder issue and OLB Justin Houston undergoing ACL surgery in February. Houston can still return late in the year but he is unlikely to be an impact until late November at the absolute earliest. Hau’oli Kikaha owners hoping to cash in on the value increase of the Saints’ switch to 4-3 will have to wait a year as the sophomore rusher will miss 2016 with the third torn ACL of his career. Rookie Jaylon Smith will likely not play this year due to ongoing nerve damage in his knee and encumbent Cowboy MLB Rolando McClain is out for the first 10 weeks due to substance abuse policy violation. Finally, Steelers OLB Bud Dupree is likely to miss 8 weeks or more with a groin injury.
As the offseason comes to a close, depth charts start to firm up and the season begins, you will find that the potential to add value to your team for very little investment is never really as high as it is right before the season starts as true values have yet to be established. I understand that depth in every league is different depending of scoring, bench size, starting lineup requirements etc. but even if some of my targets are owned in your league, a trade for these players right now might be as cheap as you’ll ever see right now. Let’s get started with some recommendations. This is going to be a big one so buckle up.
While not as plentiful as last year, the LBs returning from major injury still have some serious value worth considering and as with every year, those simply using last year’s stats to dictate this year’s production will miss out on some potential gems. Depending on your league structure, you might be laughing at me right now with the guys at the top of this list but short bench leagues are famous for these kinds of pickups and in those leagues, a guy like Ogletree could win you your league. In DeAndre Levy’s case, he hasn’t put up a stat in almost 20 months but prior to that, he was a consensus LB1 in all formats. Exploit accordingly.
- Alec Ogletree LA MLB (fibula) – High-end LB1 to High-end LB2
- Jordan Hicks PHI MLB (pectoral) – Mid LB1 to Low-end LB2
- DeAndre Levy DET WLB (hip) – High-end LB1 to Mid LB2
- Terrell Suggs BAL OLB (Achilles) – Big play LB2/3 option
Make a point of combing over the waiver wire in your league to see who may have been passed over or forgotten about. I’m not going to tell you that there’s no risk here. Anytime you have guys returning from injury, there is risk in how they come back and what role they are actually returning to but someone is going to cash in on the guys that come back to post solid years, it might as well be you.
DeMario Davis CLE LB – ILB 3-4
Davis is more of a recommendation for shallow leaguers or for would-be owners prior to the draft as it is likely that a 2015 campaign of 90 total tackles and 2 sacks for the New York Jets would have him on a few rosters but in my defense, Davis has been left off of many top 50 LB rankings list in this offseason. With his move to the middle of Cleveland’s defense after the release of Karlos Dansby, Davis seems poised to improve on his standing in 2016 in a big way. Excluding an injury-plagued 2014, the middle of Cleveland’s defense has posted solid LB2 numbers at a minimum with LB1 upside for the last 5 years, be it Karlos Dansby or D’Qwell Jackson. No one is taking Davis off of the field in subpackages and he is the playcaller of the defense; both of those things along with being on a Cleveland Brown team that went 3-13 last year will ensure that the tackle opportunity presented to Davis is among the best in the NFL. Davis is not being drafted anywhere close to the top 10 LBs in IDP but he has a lot of potential to finish there.
Roster Recommendation: Low-end LB1 to Low-end LB2
Ben Heeney OAK LB – MLB 4-3
Malcolm Smith was a monster score for IDP waiver wire players as he blew up from afterthought to 122 total tackles, 4 sacks and 4 splash plays to finish in or around the top 5 in almost all scoring systems. What people don’t talk about as far as the 2015 Oakland LB corps goes is the colossal disappointment that was Curtis Lofton. Then rookie Ben Heeney seemed to chip away at Lofton’s snap counts throughout the year until he outright started in the base defense later in the year. He posted low-end LB2 to low-end LB3 numbers over that timeframe with less than a full compliment of snaps. Going into this year, Lofton is long gone and Heeney appears to have ascended to become the playcaller of the defense, not Smith as was the case in 2015. In addition, the Raiders appear to be running more 3-4 looks as well as getting new SLB Bruce Irvin’s hand in the dirt on passing downs. This should help ensure that Heeney gets a much better snap count even in subpackage situations. Malcolm Smith will remain the OAK LB to own but Ben Heeney could be a solid play with some upside in start 3 LB leagues for next to no investment.
Roster Recommendation: Low-end LB2 to Low-end LB3
Zach Orr BAL LB – ILB 4-3
Zach Orr appears to be the LB that emerged to replace Daryl Smith after he left to Tampa Bay. Beside running mate CJ Mosley, Smith posted high-end to mid LB2 seasons over the past two seasons. The third year North Texas product is slated to be the next in a growing list of quality ILB starters that Baltimore has groomed from undrafted prospects. Don’t let the tag of undrafted scare you away, Orr was put into pass rush, run support and coverage situations last year and did fairly well in all three aspects of the game. He faced a stiff challenge from Kamalei Correa, a 2nd round pedigreed rookie, this offseason but never gave up the job he has held since early training camp. Everything I see on this guy suggests upside but the snap count is the major risk that has yet to be dealt with. Watch his early game snap counts and usage to determine his viability as a fantasy starter. Orr isn’t really a known commodity, I’ve been able to get him on FCFS waivers in the majority of my leagues, I’d expect similar results in yours.
Roster Recommendation: High-end LB2 to Low-end LB3
Will Compton/Mason Foster WAS LB – ILB 3-4
Washington just finished a complete overhaul of their ILB corps. 2015 starters Perry Riley (2016 cut) and Keenan Robinson (Giants) are both no longer with the team. 2016 reserve ILBs Will Compton and Mason Foster are now manning the inside for the Redskins. Compton and Foster both saw starting roles over the course of the season last year. Over his starts in 2015, Compton logged 7.3 tackles per game and while the splash plays weren’t there, the tackle production was solid. Washington is among the most-friendly venues for assisted tackles which helps upside as well. Foster also played well albeit inconsistently in spot duty. As such, I think that Compton is the better play of the two, if given the choice but both players have some upside.
Roster Recommendation: Mid LB2 to Low-end LB3
Kiko Alonso MIA LB – MLB 4-3
Does Howie Roseman have some incriminating pictures of Chris Grier/Adam Gase? How else can you explain that predraft trade that sent Byron Maxwell and Kiko Alonso to the Dolphins? Regardless, shortly after Alonso’s arrival in Miami, he was anointed starting MLB for the Dolphins as 2015 MLB Kelvin Sheppard left for the Giants. Alonso has been a shell of his former self after a major knee injury prior to the 2014 season but I think that he is better than what the Dolphins had last year. Alonso’s production was pretty weak last year between his snap count in the Eagles LB rotation and he had clearly had slowed down in his return from injury. Hopefully, he slows more explosion this year after being two years removed from the ACL tear. His value is still pretty low right now for a guy that has LB2 upside.
Roster Recommendation: Mid LB2 to Mid LB3
Jake Ryan/Blake Martinez GBP LB – ILB 3-4
Last year, I recommended 4th round rookie Jake Ryan as a good stash because his path to playing time was easier than most and the Packers are among the best teams in the league for getting their own rookies on the field. This year, the Packers drafted Blake Martinez in the 4th round and low and behold, his path to playing time might be even easier. Jake Ryan missed a good chunk of the preseason with a hamstring injury but is expected to be a three down LB as he will wear the green dot and call plays for the defense. What is interesting to me is that Blake Martinez wore the dot while Ryan was out with injury. Sam Barrington was cut, leaving Ryan and Martinez as the lone ILB of note on the team. In addition, Clay Matthews appears to be limiting his ILB snaps and moving back to a more traditional fulltime OLB role. This bodes well for Ryan and Martinez to become startable fantasy commodities. Ryan is the safer bet of the two right now but the Packers clearly like with they see in Martinez. Watch snap counts with the rookie to determine his value go forward.
Roster Recommendation: Low-end LB2 to Low-end LB3
Sneaky Linebacker Plays
Justin March KCC LB – The Chiefs inside linebacker position went from high depth to low depth quickly this offseason. 2015 starter Josh Mauga will miss the 2016 season with a shoulder injury whereas spot starter and 2015 4th round rookie Ramik Wilson finds himself unemployed after a surprise cut this week. I’m speculating that the emergence Justin March, who took a larger chunk of snaps as training camp and preseason wore on, is the reason that Wilson was let go. In a corresponding move, Sam Barrington was claimed from the Packers by the Chiefs. Barrington hasn’t gotten much football on tape after missed all but one game in 2015 with the Packers after an ankle injury ended his season. Barrington is a stash if you have the room, March is the play here. Derrick Johnson is 33 years old, been seriously injured more than once and can’t make all of the tackles despite his best efforts.
Gerald Hodges SFO LB – Michael Wilhoite ran as a starter in 2015 beside all-pro Navorro Bowman and produced 85 total tackles. While that number appears pedestrian, he amassed that total over 11 games (615 snaps). His tackle/snap percentage in 2015 (13.82%) is actually very comparable to Bowman (13.99%), the downside of Wilhoite was the lack of splash plays. When Hodges took over for Wilhoite after injury ended his season, Hodges averaged 9 total tackles a game over the final five games and those didn’t come at the expense of Bowman either, he logged an average of 9.8 tackles per game over those same games. Those kinds of numbers harken back to the days of Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman manning the ILBs spots in San Francisco and both making cases for LB1 consideration. I’m not saying that Hodges is the next Willis but he did seem to perform better than Wilhoite down the stretch. In 2016, it appears as though Hodges will be the starter alongside Bowman for the 49ers. A potential timeshare situation with Ray Ray Armstrong and Wilhoite is a potential detractor for investment here so a stash and watch is probably your play here unless you need immediate help. This isn’t a well-publicized position battle so the investment level should be pretty low.
Anthony Hitchens DAL LB – 2015 MLB starter Rolando McClain is slated to miss 10 games due to another violation of the substance abuse policy and as much as I’d love 2nd round draft pick Jaylon Smith to be healthy enough to capitalize on this opportunity, he is not likely to play a snap in 2016. Third year LB out of Iowa, Anthony Hitchens, appears to be the Mike out of camp to fill the gap. Hitchens has been solid, if unspectacular; in spot appearances at all other LB spots for the Cowboys over the last two years. He isn’t going to lead the league in tackles, if fact, he isn’t even the best fantasy LB on his own team (Sean Lee is) but any MLB in any system has fantasy merit to a certain degree especially a 4-3. Hitchens could carry some LB3 upside for 10 weeks at least. Watch to see if veteran Justin Durant gets some looks if Hitchens gets out of the gate poorly.
Defensive Linemen Plays
Generally as you progress from the offseason into the regular season, fantasy DL values shift for a variety of reasons; a change in team, a change in scheme or a change in snap counts. Typically, the first is easy to spot with a little digging, the second and third needs some detective work. Ideally, you want a DL who is proficient on the run and can get after the quarterback, a three down DL of sorts. High tackle numbers tend to soften the blow when your guy doesn’t log a sack that week. While not every guy fits that bill exactly, you hope that opportunity translates into production.
Jabaal Sheard/Chris Long NEP DE – DE 4-3
Chris Long signed with the Patriots in the offseason after playing 2015 with Rams in a timeshare situation with William Hayes. Jabaal Sheard played third fiddle to Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich for the majority of the season last year. With Chandler Jones traded to Arizona and Rob Ninkovich injured and suspended, both Sheard and Long stand to get a major increase in playing time. And if the preseason production we saw is any indication of what we are likely to see, would-be fantasy owners are really going to like these guys. I think that familiarity and trust with the current regime gives Sheard the edge to me but Long is no slouch. Ninkovich’s return any time after his 4 week suspension is served will depend on how his triceps heal. Afterwards, the waters get a little murky as a timeshare situation presents itself again but until then, ride the horse until it kicks you off.
Roster Recommendation: Low-end DL1 to High-end DL3
Brandon Graham/Connor Barwin/Vinny Curry PHI DE – DE 4-3
In line with the changing scheme theme, both Brandon Graham and Connor Barwin will have changed from OLB to DE for many fantasy providers whereas Vinny Curry will move from an undersized five technique end to a true 4-3 end. This provided a huge value change for all of them even if their stats don’t change. In fact, if the tackle numbers and sacks stay the same from 2015 to 2016, Barwin becomes a DL1 and Graham becomes a DL2. That said, many of those tackles are likely to come from dropping into coverage or having some gap responsibilities that simply won’t be the same in a 4-3 defense. However, I want to believe that some of those lost tackles will be offset by an uptick in sacks. What complicates the situation here is how Vinny Curry factors in. My best guess is a three man rotation with Brandon Graham getting the lion’s share of snaps. Curry is more of the sack artist and Barwin is probably taking more early down work. All three players are likely under the radar in many leagues due to the scheme change. It’s not often that OLBs return from the dark side of IDP fantasy football, make sure that you are the one to cash in.
Roster Recommendation: High-end DL2 to Low-end DL3
Robert Ayers TBB DE – DE 4-3
Robert Ayers wasn’t the only big dollar free agent signing in the offseason, but Olivier Vernon was on many rosters prior to his move to the Giants from the Dolphins so he isn’t likely to be a free agent anywhere. Robert Ayers is however. Ayers posted a career high 9 sacks last year in a rotation with the Giants. As he was pushed into more and more snaps as injuries took their toll, his final five games yielded stats that would make JJ Watt blush; 25 total tackles (10 for loss), 1 PD and 7 sacks. I like his snap count to increase as the Bucs try to ensure that they get the most out of their $19.5 million dollar man.
Roster Recommendation: High-end DL2 to Mid DL3
Sneaky Defensive Linemen Play
DeForest Buckner SFO DE – Normally it’s hard to recommend rookies on the defensive line as they are normally worked in on a timeshare basis or redshirted for the most part. However, 7th overall pick DeForest Buckner has worked with the first team defense all offseason and is likely on track to be as close to an every down player as there is on the 49er defensive line. I like him to open with some tackle heavy lines this season and carry some sack upside.
Dante Fowler JAC DE – People are quick to discount rookies that lose their rookie season to injury and savvy fantasy owners are quick to capitalize. The elite talent is still there for the young Florida product and the Jaguar defense has been vastly improved from 2015 to 2016. Short bench leagues or redraft leagues should take a flier on Fowler; I think he going to show everyone why he was drafted 3rd overall a year ago.
Defensive Back Plays
Veterans of this column know that I am a big proponent of not wasting valuable draft choices on defensive backs that can be claimed for free from waivers. As such, “streaming” defensive backs will be a theme that I try to build on week after week in terms of matchups to exploit in terms of streaming defensive backs as well as potential every week starters that can and do emerge from the scrap heap. This week will feature a few swings at players winning jobs or who are expected to take the next step. Next week should flesh a few of the “messy” situations out. Typically though, the majority of my own team’s free agent moves involve defensive backs as I try to capitalize on quality matchups.
Ibraheim Campbell CLE S – SS 3-4
Historically productive spot within the defense and the team? Check. Weaker defense likely to see a large amount of plays over the course of the year? Check. Lackluster defenders on the starting defense in general? Check. All of the boxes are ticked for me in terms of a high value strong safety here. After Donte Whitner was released, Ibraheim Campbell was slotted into the strong safety role and appears to be in line for all of the snaps with little behind him in terms of competition. The strong safety has either been first or second in team total tackles in each of the last three years in Cleveland whether it was Donte Whitner or TJ Ward. I like the opportunity here to score an every week starter here for little cost.
Roster Recommendation: Low-end DB1 to High-end DB2
Jahleel Addae SDC S – SS 3-4
The San Diego Chargers are going to be without the services of free safety and perennial DB1 Eric Weddle for the first time in 10 years. As such, the starting safety pairing for the Chargers is slated to be Dwight Lowery at FS and Jahleel Addae at SS. While Lowery has some upside as well, I think that Addae will vastly improve his 64 total tackle year in 2015 with Weddle out of the picture. Addae logged double digit fantasy points in five of his last six games where Weddle was phased out.
Roster Recommendation: Low-end DB2 to Low-end DB3
Rashad Johnson TEN S – FS 3-4
Rashad Johnson was a top safety option coming into 2015 after a 93 total tackle, 4 INT performance in 2014. The multiple hybrid safety look that Arizona was employing in 2015 hurt his tackle numbers along with an injury that took him out of action in December. With Johnson leaving Arizona to sign a one year deal with the Titans, I like him to return to his high tackle numbers of old. The Titans free safety position has historically been a great fantasy position for IDP owners as recently released Michael Griffin is coming off of back to back 100+ total tackle seasons.
Roster Recommendation: Mid DB2 to Mid DB3
Adrian Amos/Harold Jones-Quartey CHI S – FS/SS 3-4
Chicago drafted two safeties in the 4th and 6th rounds of the draft but neither was able to win a job out of camp. The safety pairing that Chicago finished the last two games of 2015 with return as starters in 2016. Amos has the most experience and better tackle numbers but Jones-Quartey showed some splash play potential (in a limited sample size). Neither are very heralded right now but come very cheap and have some upside at long as they can hold down their starting job.
Roster Recommendation: Mid DB2 to Low-end DB3
Sneaky Defensive Back Play
Justin Bethel ARI CB – Playing cornerbacks can be tricky but I think that teams understand that Patrick Peterson is a tough nut to crack in the passing game. And with Justin Bethel likely to receive much of the action on the opposite side of Peterson in the Cardinal defense, expect the 5th year veteran out of Presbyterian to get more than his fair share of tackle opportunity.