With the 2018 NFL combine in the rear view mirror and the free agency frenzy at full force it’s beginning to smell a lot like NFL and fantasy football. Throw in the fact that the NFL draft is just over a month away and I couldn’t be happier.
Despite hours of research and preparation for fantasy draft day there will inevitably be players that disappoint owners with less than expected production in a given season. Many factors can come into play when trying to dissect the reasons for a player’s falloff in production such as injury, scheme change, or simply a down season.
Let’s take a look at a few IDP options I like to bounce back in 2018 after leaving owners scratching their heads last season.
The defensive line position has been missing the once-dominant Watt for the majority of the past two seasons due to injuries. Watt has played just eight games in the last two years with back and leg issues. Still just 29 years old, Watt appears on track to be ready for training camp after suffering a tibial plateau fracture last October. A healthy Watt is a top-five defensive lineman with the real possibility to regain the top spot.
Let’s take a quick look back at just how big a fantasy force Watt was 2012-2015. He finished as the best defensive lineman in each of the seasons, averaging 78 total tackles while racking up 70 sacks. He put up a pair of 20-sack seasons in that time as well as an interception (returned for a touchdown) with 15 forced fumbles and 10 fumble recoveries.
Watt may be hard-pressed to dominate the position in the manner he did during that dominant run after the litany of injuries he’s dealt with, but he will still be just 29 years old in 2018. He will also benefit from teammate Jadeveon Clowney garnering more attention as Clowney stepped up last season with Watt out. Clowney set career highs in total tackles with 59 and sacks with 9.5 with a pair of forced fumbles. Look fort a healthy and motivated Watt to bounce back with at least a top-10 performance in 2018.
Hunter was one of the most disappointing defensive linemen last season from a fantasy prospective. After posting 12.5 sacks in 2016, Hunter secured a starting role prior to the season and carried an average draft position as the third defensive lineman off the board. He left IDP owners wanting, finishing with just 44 total tackles (11 fewer than in 2016) and only seven sacks. Those totals landed Hunter in the DL3 range in most balanced scoring formats.
Despite the regression in tackles and big-play totals from 2016 to 2017 there is plenty of reason for hope heading into 2018. While veteran Everson Griffen led the team in sacks with 13, Hunter was credited with the most quarterback hurries, racking up 49 according to PFF. Hunter will turn 24 in October and remains entrenched as the starting left defensive end having amassed 25.5 sacks in his first three seasons. Another strong showing from Griffen will lessen the double-teams or chip blocks Hunter faces, allowing some of those quarterback hurries to be turned into sacks. The smart money says that Hunter will enter the season ranked in the top five at defensive end and finish with DL1 numbers.
The sky seemed to be the limit for Alexander entering his third season as the starting middle linebacker for the Buccaneers. Alexander had finished his sophomore campaign as the top scoring fantasy linebacker, racking up over 140 total tackles with six big plays including an interception return for a touchdown. Unfortunately, just 17 snaps into the season opener Alexander suffered a hamstring injury that would keep him out until Week 7.
Despite missing four games Alexander already began to bounce back last season, managing to finish with low-end LB2 fantasy totals. From Weeks 12 to 17 Alexander put up top-five fantasy production posting 44 solo (58 total) tackles along with a pass defended and interception. Twice in that timespan he had double-digit solo stops in a game and would finish the season averaging 5.8 solo tackles per game. Alexander also set a career high in interceptions with three and has totaled six in his first three seasons. There is little reason to doubt that a healthy Alexander will regain a spot at the top of the linebacker position in 2018.
Bucannon is another example of a player who had a down 2018 campaign mainly due to an injury. After undergoing offseason ankle surgery, Bucannon reinjured the ankle in training camp and didn’t see the field until Week 4. Never seeming close to 100 percent last year, Bucannon finished outside the top 40 in fantasy scoring. Despite dealing with the ankle issue Bucannon did continue to flash his big-play skills, managing a sack, interception, and two forced fumbles in just 704 snaps.
New head coach Steve Wilks and defensive coordinator Al Holcomb mainly ran a 4-3 base defense while working together in Carolina but have yet to commit to a base scheme they’ll employ in Arizona. It’s safe to assume that the Cardinals will run a hybrid that does utilize the 4-3 scheme at least part of the time and figuring out where Bucannon will fit is a bit of a mystery. Although a bit undersized, an ideal role for fantasy purposes would be the weakside linebacker position where Bucannon is freed up to chase the ball-carrier.
Bucannon has showed a knack for the big play since joining the NFL, with 18 in his first four seasons. After amassing five sacks in his first two seasons, Bucannon has managed just one in the past two years — that could change under Wilks/Holcomb. The Panthers brought the trio of Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis, and Shaq Thompson in a pass rush a combined 252 times in 2017.
The injury bug rears its ugly head again here, as Cyprien struggled with hamstring and knee issues during his first season with the Titans. A preseason darling, Cyprien played just 10 regular-season games, finishing well outside the top 100 in scoring. Let’s chalk this down season to the injuries as there are plenty of reasons to believe Cyprien will deliver a rebound performance in 2018.
During his four years in Jacksonville, Cyprien averaged 113 total tackles per season and posted 80-plus solo tackles three times. He also showed a bit of big play potential putting up two sacks, two interceptions with four forced fumbles and a pair of fumble recoveries. While it didn’t help fantasy owners Cyprien was a big factor in the Titans playoff victory over the Chiefs looking like the player he was in Jacksonville. A big hit knocked Travis Kelce out of the game and Cyprien broke up a fourth-down pass to ice the victory for Tennessee.
The Titans are committed to Cyprien, having released Da’Norris Searcy this offseason, and he will turn just 28 years old in July. Free safety Kevin Byard emerged as a ball-hawking force with eight interceptions last season and will free up Cyprien to do what he does best, which is rack up tackles. There’s no reason to believe that a healthy Cyprien can’t return to the top-five fantasy form he showed in the 2016 season.