(With attentions turning forward across fantasy football, this week is 2018 Storylines Week on PFF Fantasy, with an article a day highlighting what our writers think are the biggest fantasy storylines we’ll see in the 2018 season.)
It’s fitting for this piece that one of the biggest plays in the Super Bowl was a strip sack by defensive end Brandon Graham that was recovered by fellow defensive lineman Derek Barnett. The defensive line position stood out on the biggest stage and put a nice finale on what was a very productive 2017 season from a fantasy perspective.
The position has been a bit of a conundrum over the years due to a lack of depth, scheme changes altering position designations, and injury. There has also been a steep dropoff from the elite-scoring defensive linemen to the next level that can make drafting the position difficult.
Much of that disparity can be contributed the tear that J.J. Watt was on from 2012 to 2015. Watt led the position in scoring in each of those seasons and averaged 48 more points than the second-highest defensive lineman in most balanced scoring formats. Twice in that time Watt outscored the second-place defensive lineman by more than 60 points.
By comparison, with Watt missing 11 games last season, the top four scoring defensive linemen were separated by eight points and sixth through 12th by just six. The parity in scoring and a more level playing field helps boost the value of defensive linemen as more IDP owners will be able to land a sold producer at the position.
It’s also encouraging that for the second time in the last three seasons there were at least 12 defensive linemen that put up double-digit sacks. Even in balanced scoring formats the sack remains the bread and butter for defensive linemen, as 10 of the top 11 scoring players put up double digits.
Things are trending upward in that category and there are more reasons to be encouraged for defensive linemen heading into 2018.
The 2017 rookie class heading into their sophomore seasons
It’s a rare occurrence for rookie edge rushers — especially defensive linemen — to put up double-digit sack totals. The Chargers' Joey Bosa did so in 2016, racking up 10.5, although some sites had Bosa listed as an outside linebacker for that season. Before Bosa reached the plateau we have to go all the way back to 2011 when Aldon Smith and Von Miller had 10 or more sacks as rookies.
In 2017, Carl Lawson of the Bengals led the way for the rookie class with 8.5 sacks followed by top overall pick Myles Garrett with seven. Garrett did his work in just 11 games because of multiple injuries, but he managed at least one sack in six games — the future is very bright.
A few other rookies of note who should make fantasy waves in 2018 are Solomon Thomas, Takkarist Mckinley, and Derek Barnett. All three flashed their skill sets last season, with at least 27 combined quarterback hurries/hits, with Barnett leading the way with 31. Last season, two second-year defensive linemen (Joey Bosa and Yannick Ngakoue) had double-digit sacks, and this talented class should easily match that number.
Bounce back seasons from Olivier Vernon and Danielle Hunter
After finishing as top-10 fantasy options in 2016 both Vernon and Hunter put up disappointing totals last season with just seven sacks apiece. An ankle injury sidelined Vernon for four games and hampered him throughout much of the season. Look for a healthy Vernon to finish as a top-10 lineman in 2018.
Hunter seemed on track for a huge 2017 after rolling up 12.5 sacks in 2016 and taking over a starting role on the Vikings defensive line. Instead it was his teammate Everson Griffen who had a big year, with 13 sacks. On the plus side, Hunter did lead the team in quarterback hurries with 47 and is still just 23 years old. Double-digit sacks could be on the table for both Griffen and Hunter next season.
Defensive scheme changes and player designations
One of the biggest factors altering a player’s IDP fantasy potential is the scheme he plays in and the player designation he plays under.
When a team changes head coach, that can lead to a change in defensive philosophy as well as scheme. There are two such cases as we look ahead to 2018.
The Arizona Cardinals have named former Panthers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks head coach and that likely will lead to a switch from a 3-4 base to the 4-3 scheme Wilks ran in Carolina. That will mean a defensive end designation for Chandler Jones, and that’s great news for the defensive line position. In his two years in Arizona Jones has racked up 27 sacks with an additional eight big plays. Had Jones been listed as a defensive lineman in 2017, he would have been the third-highest-scoring player at the position.
With the return of Jon Gruden as the head coach in Oakland there will also be a scheme change as he’s hired Paul Guenther to lead the defense. In Cincinnati Guenther employed a 4-3 scheme, meaning Khalil Mack will end up with a defensive lineman designation. Mack’s 2017 numbers would have landed him in the top five had he been listed among defensive linemen.
The additions of Jones and Mack to the defensive line position adds top tier players that further deepens the player pool.
Players’ values can also be altered when they are traded to or sign with a team that runs a different scheme. A great example of this is Calais Campbell moving from Arizona to Jacksonville last season. After years of being a productive 3-4 defensive end for the Cardinals, Campbell finally had the chance to play in a 4-3 base defense. He set a career high in sacks with 14.5 and finished the season with 67 total tackles.
Some key free agents at the defensive line position to monitor are Demarcus Lawrence and Ezekiel Ansah. It’s likely that Lawrence is franchise-tagged and remains in Dallas, retaining his DL designation. Ansah’s future is a bit cloudier as the Lions will be running multiple defensive fronts under new head coach Matt Patricia and their base defense has yet to be named. It will benefit the IDP world if Ansah signs with a team that runs a 4-3 scheme for sure as he comes off a 12-sack 2017.
A healthy J.J. Watt
It might be unrealistic to expect Watt to return to the form he flashed in that 2012-2015 run, as he’s played just eight games in the past two seasons. Watt will turn 29 years old in March, but his return would add even more depth to a position on the rise. The latest reports are that Watt is on track to be ready for training camp after suffering a left tibial plateau fracture last October. A healthy Watt will also boost the value of his teammate Jadeveon Clowney, who just missed double-digit sacks last season at 9.5.