News & Analysis

The season that was: Fantasy IDP lessons from 2017

JACKSONVILLE, FL - NOVEMBER 5: Defensive End Calais Campbell #93 of the Jacksonville Jaguars celebrates a tackle during the game against the Cincinnati Bengals at EverBank Field on November 5, 2017 in Jacksonville, Florida. The Jaguars defeated the Bengals 23 to 7. (Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images)

Now that the Super Bowl teams have been decided (congratulations to Philadelphia and New England), it’s a good time to take a look back at the season that was from an IDP perspective.

As always, there were many ebbs and flows due to schemes, suspensions, injuries as well as some veterans seeing their roles drastically reduced (I’m looking at you, Paul Posluszny).

Every season takes on its own identity — as does each and every week. for that matter. That’s why we love the roller coaster ride that is IDP fantasy football. Let’s take a look back at the 2017 season, as well as a brief look ahead to 2018.

Defensive linemen had a bounceback 2017

Led by veterans and youngsters alike, the defensive line position produced some very nice fantasy totals last year. Following a 2016 campaign in which only six DL managed to post double-digit sacks, 14 reached that plateau in 2017.

The young guns were led by the likes of Joey Bosa (12 sacks), DeMarcus Lawrence (15), Aaron Donald (11), and Yannick Ngakoue (12). Even more impressively, Ngakoue led all DL with seven forced fumbles, followed by Donald with five. Khalil Mack posted double-digit (10.5) sacks for the third consecutive season and posted a career-high 61 solo tackles. (For our purposes, we are including Mack as a DL, since new defensive coordinator Paul Guenther is likely to employ a 4-3 scheme in Oakland.)

Not to be outdone, there were notable performances by veterans such as Calais Campbell, who posted a career-high 14.5 sacks in his first year with Jacksonville. Campbell also produced the second-highest total tackle numbers of his 10-year career with 67. All told there were five DL 30 years or older who managed to rack up double-digit sacks — Campbell, plus Cameron Wake (10.5), Everson Griffen (13), Julius Peppers (11), and Mario Addison (11) proved that there is life after 30 at the position.

It was a particularly good year for D-linemen named Cameron

The aforementioned Wake was very effective, racking up 10.5 sacks while playing roughly only 58 percent of Miami’s defensive snaps in 2017. Wake held more value in big-play scoring formats, as his tackle numbers were not very good. He managed just 35 total tackles but did put up one or more sack in 14 games.

It was the duo of Cameron Jordan and Cameron Heyward that brought great production to the name. Jordan finished with top-three fantasy numbers in most balanced scoring formats finishing with a career-high 13 sacks. He also added a forced fumble along with 11 passes defended, an interception, and a defensive touchdown.

Heyward also put up a career-high in sacks with 12, along with a forced fumble and fumble recovery, which placed him in the top-12 for fantasy purposes in balanced scoring formats. Heyward led the Steelers in quarterback hurries with 39 and finished the season with 62 total QB pressures, second-highest among 3-4 defensive ends.

Somewhere, Ferris Bueller is smiling.

The linebacker position took a beating (literally)

Perhaps it was an omen of what was to come when rookie Raekwon McMillan — who was slated to be the Dolphins starting middle linebacker — was lost for the year with a torn ACL before the season even kicked off. Not long after that, Chargers starting weakside linebacker Denzel Perryman would suffer an ankle injury that would keep him out until Week 10. Highly ranked Kwon Alexander of the Buccaneers would injure his hamstring and play just 17 snaps in the first five games.

Even more disconcerting was the barrage of injuries the position suffered as fantasy seasons entered the all-important home stretch and playoffs. After posting top-five totals through the first 13 games, Washington’s Zach Brown would miss Weeks 15-17 with a foot injury. The frightening back injury suffered by Ryan Shazier would end his season in Week 13. Both Telvin Smith (missed Weeks 13-14) and Vontaze Burfict (missed Weeks 14-15) suffered concussions that kept them out of lineups during the fantasy playoffs.

Tackling machine Sean Lee of the Cowboys missed Weeks 11-13 with a hamstring injury and potential Defensive Player of the Year Bobby Wagner was visibly slowed by his own hamstring issues in the season’s final weeks. The injury bug hit the linebacker position hard both early and late in 2017, once again highlighting the importance of working the waiver wire.

Waiver-wire wonders that saved the day at linebacker

With so many top-tier LBs missing significant time due to injury, it left many IDP owners scrambling to plug holes on their rosters. Fortunately, there were a few players that stepped up to lead teams to victory.

After a less-than-stellar season in Cleveland, Demario Davis returned to the Jets and finished the season as a top-10 fantasy linebacker. Davis set career highs in total tackles with 133 as well as sacks by posting 4.5 last season.

Another veteran who had fallen off the fantasy radar of late is Wesley Woodyard of the Tennessee Titans. Woodyard hadn’t put up top-20 numbers since the 2012 season when he was still a member of the Denver Broncos. In his 10th NFL season Woodyard bounced back in a huge way finishing in the top-10 in most balanced scoring formats. He posted a career high in solo tackles with 84 along with five sacks, and scored his second career touchdown.

It wasn’t just veterans who came out of the shadows to help IDP owners overcome injuries, as a pair of second-year players burst on the fantasy scene with stellar fantasy seasons. Both Blake Martinez of the Packers and Joe Schobert of the Browns finished as top-10 fantasy options and were most likely undrafted in most leagues.

The Packers finally turned the full-time ILB job over to Martinez and he took the bull by the horns with a dominant season. From Week 5 on, Martinez played 806 of 815 defensive snaps (he had been playing 72 percent of the snaps in Weeks 1-4) and put up huge tackle numbers as well as big plays.

Martinez would finish the season with 145 total tackles as well as five big plays. More importantly he was solid during the fantasy playoffs, racking up 40 total tackles in Weeks 13-16. The youngster from Stanford saved many IDP owners seasons and should be a fantasy force again in 2018.

In Cleveland, Schobert was one of the bright spots in a winless season after being named the starting middle linebacker prior to Week 1. He would play every defensive snap and lead the team in total tackles with 141 with 85 being of the solo variety. Schobert also showed big-play skills, posting three sacks, two forced fumbles, and an interception. In the all-important Weeks 13-16, Schobert stepped up with 31 total stops along with 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble. There’s no reason to expect a drop in production next season.

Defensive back continues to be a confounding position

When I try to evaluate and rank the defensive back position on a yearly (as well as weekly) basis I’m reminded of one of my favorite Super Bowl commercials. I don’t remember the product but the ad had old-west cowboys herding cats. That’s what it feels like.

With so many defenses running multiple dime and nickel packages and shuffling DBs on and off the field it can be dizzying at times. The trend to line up a safety as basically a linebacker continues to grow as well further complicating matters.

The number of qualified safeties who lined up within eight yards of the line of scrimmage at least 70 percent of the time last season was 22. In 2016, there were 11 who did so; back in 2015, there were only seven. Things are trending upward. It will be important to keep an eye on player designations as some of these safeties may be considered linebackers next season.

There’s no surprise that in most balanced scoring formats that there were nine safeties in the top-10 in 2017. The lone outlier was cornerback Darius Slay of the Lions and he crashed the party by putting up eight interceptions and a fumble recovery.

So it stands to reason that safety remains the position to covet among defensive backs but even that strategy has its pitfalls. Consider that among the top-10 scorers at safety in 2017 only two also finished there in 2016 and they were Landon Collins and Keanu Neal. Only four defensive backs with an average draft position in the top-10 heading into the season managed to post top-10 numbers.

A healthy Reshad Jones of the Dolphins reclaimed his position at the top of the position and Harrison Smith not only graded out as the top safety according to PFF but also landed in the top-10 in scoring. After that there were the likes of Kevin Byard, Jordan Poyer, Sean Davis, and Micah Hyde. It was the first top-10 finish for all of those players. The Byard finish also highlights the need to look inside the numbers, as he finished that high due to eight interceptions but also had less than five points in in six games last year.

You get the picture. This is why I’m still an advocate of drafting defensive backs not named Reshad Jones, Harrison Smith, or Keanu Neal late in the draft.

A quick look ahead to 2018

The rise of the defensive line will be the story next season. The possibility that J.J. Watt (it wouldn’t feel right to do an IDP piece without mentioning him) can finally return to health and play a full season. The future is in good hands as youngsters such as Myles Garrett, T.J. Watt, Carl Lawson, Takkarist McKinley, and Derek Barnett should flirt with double-digit sacks in their sophomore campaigns.

The hiring of Steve Wilks in Arizona will almost certainly see the defense switch a 4-3 scheme, returning Chandler Jones to a DL designation. That will further deepen a talent pool that will also include the aforementioned Khalil Mack.

The linebacker position is in good hands with the likes of Bobby Wagner, Luke Kuechly, and C.J. Mosley holding down the fort. The player that I’m eyeing as the top dog at the position for next season is Deion Jones, as he’s become a dominant force.

With both Tyvon Branch and Antoine Bethea being long in the tooth and a bit injury prone of late, the door is wide open for Budda Baker of the Cardinals to post top-five defensive back totals in 2018.

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