News & Analysis

Fantasy Football: 2021 IDP bounce-back candidates

Fantasy football seasons are always full of surprises, especially when it comes to individual player performances. The worst surprises, of course, are the ones involving our highly drafted players underperforming. But there's another side of the coin: players available at a discount in fantasy drafts who might have disappointed last season but offer reason for optimism heading into 2021.

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Some of these bounce-back candidates dealt with injuries in 2020, but that doesn't explain all of their struggles. Let's dive into some of the 2021 IDP options who I believe have very real bounce-back potential.

S DERWIN JAMES, LOS ANGELES CHARGERS 

Part of the inspiration for this article was the news that Derwin James is 100% healthy entering offseason team activities. For IDP gamers, this is a big reason to be excited heading into 2021.

Back-to-back seasons with major injuries have scared plenty of people off of James, but there are still plenty of reasons why you should be targeting him as one of the top safeties going into this season. By now, we’re all aware of just how good James’ rookie season was from both an NFL and IDP perspective, as he immediately put himself in the conversation as one of the league’s best safeties, finishing that year as an All-Pro, Pro Bowler and second in defensive rookie of the year voting behind Darius Leonard.

James was utilized all over the field as a rookie, functioning as one of the biggest playmakers in every role he played. He managed overall defensive grades above 75.0 at each defensive alignment on the field (defensive line, box, free safety, corner) in 2018. The term “defensive weapon” is thrown around often, but James truly personifies that moniker with his play.

So we know James is an elite player in the NFL, but we need him healthy and on the field to see that translate to his IDP production. James saw action in just five games in 2019 but was used less creatively in what was already a lost season for the Chargers. While he still produced plenty of top-10 numbers as a safety in those games, they weren’t quite what we saw in 2018.

With new head coach Brandon Staley coming in and the Chargers likely to be more competitive than in 2019, there’s reason to believe James will be used more like he was as a rookie, especially if the Chargers want to have an advantage on defense. Let’s all hope we get a full season from the former All-Pro, which would make him the No. 1 bounce-back candidate on defense in the league.

LB MATT MILANO, BUFFALO BILLS

Savvy IDP managers over the past couple of seasons are probably aware of the value Milano offers as one of the more underappreciated linebackers in IDP leagues. Milano will always be the second Bills linebacker drafted in IDP leagues after Tremaine Edmunds — usually by a significant margin. Coming off a year in which he was injured and used sparingly, this is going to be the case once again in 2021.

I’m certainly not saying you should be drafting Milano ahead of Edmunds, but it should probably be a bit closer than most assume. Heading into the 2020 season, Edmunds was being drafted as LB12 on average (according to MyFantasyLeague.com), while Milano was going as LB32, despite how close they were in the 2019 season.

Tremaine Edmunds vs. Matt Milano | 2019
Snaps Total Tackles Tackles for a loss Sacks PBUs Total Pressures
Tremaine Edmunds 981 109 11 1.5 4 8
Matt Milano 893 93 11 1.5 4 14

PFF’s Sam Monson recently ranked Milano as the 11th-best linebacker entering the 2021 NFL season due to his strong coverage ability — actually ahead of Edmunds (24th). Injuries were a significant reason why Milano had a down year in 2020, but I would fully expect a bounce-back in 2021.

The Bills will have both Edmunds and Milano on the field a ton (if healthy), as usual, which will lead to just as much opportunity for Milano to produce as Edmunds. While health has been the biggest difference between the two recently, Milano comes off as the better value of in IDP leagues assuming he can stay on the field.

ED JOSH ALLEN, JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS

The defensive end position in fantasy suffered a lot of disappointment in 2020, as top-10 options like Danielle Hunter, Nick Bosa and Josh Allen all struggled and/or missed time. While injuries played a major part in all three players not having an impact in 2020, Allen was the only one who saw a decent amount of playing time before his injury and still ended disappointing as an IDP option.

After posting 10.5 sacks and 44 total tackles as a rookie, there was hope that Allen could elevate himself even further in Year 2 as one of the league’s premier pass-rushers. This, unfortunately, did not come to fruition from a production standpoint, as Allen only mustered 2.5 sacks and 13 total tackles through eight games this past season. While certainly a far-cry from what was expected of him in 2020, the former seventh-overall pick is certainly capable of getting back to his productive ways in 2021.

Allen was still able to generate 22 total pressures and a 74.2 pass-rush grade while battling injury this past year, which bodes well for his production when fully healthy. Going into his third season, Allen should be healthy playing on a team that should be better in coverage this season considering it will be difficult to be any worse after the Jaguars finished with the second-worst coverage grade (33.0) in the league last year. This will hopefully offer Allen more time to get home and build those box score numbers back up.

S TRACY WALKER, DETROIT LIONS

Walker has been one of my favorite safety targets later in redraft, mock drafts and even dynasty startups, simply because he was so untrustworthy last season — in part because of his situation — that many are avoiding him. After his 2019 season when he led the Lions in tackles (100) and added eight pass breakups, an interception and a forced fumble, his ADP skyrocketed to the fifth safety overall — to the point where he was so overvalued I actually stayed far away from him. Now the total opposite has happened after he was used inconsistently by the 2020 Lions coaching staff.

Walker really didn't have a full-time role in 2020 and was mostly being used as a part-time player, along with the likes of Jayron Kearse and Will Harris. It was anyone’s guess as to which one would be the leader in snaps at strong safety on any given week. This led most people to drop Walker, or at least not even consider him for a starting spot on their rosters by midseason.

Luckily for Walker and his fantasy managers, the Lions have a new coaching staff that has done very little at the position to cause any real competition for snaps for Walker. This is what made him one of my IDP winners after the NFL Draft, which should lead to a more consistent role in 2021.

Getting on the field for a full game is huge for any IDP, but Walker has shown that he can produce at a high level for fantasy, no matter what kind of role he is playing as one of the team’s starting safeties. Walker finished as DB10 overall in 2019 (according to FantasyPros scoring) playing mostly deep, and when given a significant box safety role in 2020 (Weeks 16-17), he was DB1. Don’t forget about Walker in drafts — chances are he’ll fall, and he’s going to be worth the value in 2021. 

LB C.J. MOSLEY, NEW YORK JETS

Mosley was of the biggest names in IDP prior to the last couple of seasons. He was one of the most reliable and productive IDPs in Baltimore for five straight seasons. After signing a massive deal with the Jets during the 2019 free agency period, Mosley has played just two games for the franchise. He only played 114 snaps in his first season with the Jets and then opted out of 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Mosley has finally rejoined his new-ish team this offseason and is seemingly ready to contribute and earn that monster contract he signed just two seasons ago. Mosley has not just been a productive linebacker in terms of box score numbers — he has also always graded well throughout his NFL career. His cumulative grade of 78.5 from 2014-2019 ranks inside the top 25 linebackers over those five seasons among LBs that have played a minimum of 200 snaps over that time.

Just one look at the Jets linebacker depth chart shows that they will be relying on Mosley heavily to play the bulk of the snaps this coming season. With new head coach Robert Saleh coming in, expect him get the most out of Mosley like he did with Fred Warner in San Francisco. He should be playing every down and utilized as both a pass-rusher and in coverage as the team’s signal-caller in the middle of the defense. As long as Mosley is healthy and/or doesn’t get traded, (which was apparently a possibility at one point), we should see him re-establish his status as a must-own linebacker in IDP leagues this year.

ED JADEVEON CLOWNEY, CLEVELAND BROWNS

The former first-overall pick has not exactly had the career most expected coming out of South Carolina, which has caused many IDP managers to fade him in recent years. This is understandable, as Clowney seems to have a lower ceiling in terms of his pass-rush ability, having never hit double-digit sacks in his NFL career. Much has been made of Clowney’s ability to play the run and to function as more of an early-down edge player, which is not overly attractive for IDP purposes because it doesn’t allow as many chances to rush the passer. Because of this narrative, he’s become someone that most now avoid in IDP leagues.

However, he may very well be a value in IDP at this point in his career entering a decent situation for a potential bounce-back in 2021. After not registering a single sack in 2020 and only three the previous season — both years playing on a poor pass-rushing line — he now gets a shot to play opposite one of the best defensive ends in football, Myles Garrett. The Browns did bring in another former first-rounder in Takkarist McKinley, but I’m not overly concerned that McKinley will be eating too much into Clowney’s workload, with both players being relative disappointments thus far in their careers. Clowney should be on the field quite a bit this coming season and will have an opportunity to out-produce his past two seasons combined.

Playing across from Garrett will certainly help, as Garrett posted 16 total pressures that led to a sack for his teammates in 2020 — tied for third-most in the league among edge rushers. If Garrett can have that same effect this season, we may be looking at one of Clowney’s best statistical seasons since his years with the Texans.

S LANDON COLLINS, WASHINGTON FOOTBALL TEAM

I don’t know if there has been a player the IDP world has turned on faster than Collins over the past eight months. Collins certainly wasn’t having his best statistical season before he tore his achilles in Week 7, but that doesn’t mean his time as a starting-caliber IDP is over. Yes, seventh-round rookie Kamren Curl replaced Collins with elite production through the back half of the year, but suggesting that Collins should be benched, cut or traded because of that is a bit far-fetched.

The main reason Collins makes for a prime bounce-back candidate is simply that he is going to be the starting strong safety in this defense. Cutting him post-June 1 would cost the Football Team upwards of $16 million just to save a little over $200,000. This is not a feasible option for any team, even one with a second-year player in Curl who performed well as a rookie.

While achilles injuries are never easy to come back from, all signs point to Collins being available for Week 1. This means he will resume his starting role as the team’s primary box safety — a position we know yields significant fantasy opportunity — while Curl more than likely goes back to the slot corner role he was playing last year when Collins was active.

Collins may be coming off his worst season statistically and from a PFF grading perspective, but that is part of what makes 2021 a potential bounce-back year for him. Still just 27 years old, Collins has the usage, athleticism and playing time to create a perfect storm of top-end safety production this coming season. 

LB CORY LITTLETON, LAS VEGAS RAIDERS

Arguably the biggest IDP disappointment last season was Littleton in his first year with the Raiders. Expectations were high from both NFL and IDP fans alike after Littleton signed a three-year contract worth $32 million, putting him inside the top-10 highest-paid linebackers in the NFL. Littleton was being drafted among the top five linebackers in most IDP leagues and then struggled significantly in the Raiders system — a big reason the IDP community has soured on him.

Littleton will now enter the 2021 season with new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley and what should be a simpler defensive scheme. The Raiders also didn’t really address the linebacker position this offseason, aside from re-signing Nicholas Morrow and drafting Divine Deablo. Littleton should get every opportunity to start once again for the Raiders and focus on getting back to his 2018-2019 form.

Littleton should be much more comfortable in Bradley's scheme. Bradley’s linebackers typically have a more focused and singular role in the defense, running and chasing from the tackle box as opposed to lining up all over the field with multiple roles. Bradley’s linebackers rushed the passer less than any team in the league during his last four seasons with the Chargers, which should allow Littleton to focus on making tackles. That could help him reemerge as an IDP asset in 2021.

ED TREY FLOWERS, DETROIT LIONS

One year after signing with the Lions and leading the team with seven sacks, Flowers had a quiet and injury-ridden 2020 season. Flowers was one of the more sought after free agents along the defensive line back in 2019, which ultimately landed him a five-year, $90 million contract with Detroit. Considering injuries played a significant part in his disappointing 2020 season, I’m not ready to write Flowers off just yet — it feels like we could see a return to form in 2021.

Flowers was far and away the best player along the Lions defensive line in 2019, but since that time the team has done a fair deal to improve his supporting cast. Along with the emergence of Romeo Okwara, the Lions have also brought in former first-round pick Michael Brockers through free agency and drafted two of the top interior defenders from this year’s class in Levi Onwuzurike and Alim McNeill. Having some help to cause stress on the opposing offensive line will surely open up more opportunities for Flowers to generate production once again in 2021.

Flowers is coming off of four straight seasons with a pass-rush grade in the 70s. He landed inside the top 20 at his position in total pressures in three of the past four seasons while also compiling 23 sacks over that time. 

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