The NFL season is right around the corner, and 2021 fantasy football leagues are starting to take shape. This series will focus on starters, startable players and sleepers for IDP leagues, working through all eight divisions. With the AFC East covered, we move onto the NFC East.
What each category means:
Starters: IDPs who should be drafted highly and expected to be utilized on a regular, if not weekly, basis once the season begins. They are the most trustworthy players who offer the highest upside and fantasy potential.
Startable: IDPs who are likely being drafted in most leagues but aren’t players in the “set it and forget it” category. They can provide value as depth pieces who can fill in on bye weeks or in case of injuries to starters.
Sleepers: IDPs who are more under the radar and not necessarily even in a starting role for their respective teams but are good enough to make an impact if situations work out for them. These players are not always being drafted and most will be easily attainable in the average IDP league.
Despite the depth and potential uncertainty for the Cowboys at linebacker, one thing has remained constant this offseason: Parsons will play a big role in this defense. The Hall of Fame game was the first time we got to see him play since 2019 at Penn State, and any signs of rust were minimal. Parsons earned the highest defensive grade (78.8) of the game for Dallas, notching one defensive stop, three solo tackles and a fumble recovery on just 11 snaps.
The No. 12 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft excelled as a blitzer during his time at PSU, earning a 91.8 pass-rush grade over two seasons with 36 pressures and eight sacks. This type of usage would certainly raise his fantasy floor, assuming he’s able to convert a handful of attempts. Expect Parsons to be an every-down linebacker as a rookie — he's the LB17 in the most recent IDP rankings for 2021.
Lawrence's production took a hit in the first month of 2020 as he played behind a combination of Aldon Smith, Everson Griffen and Randy Gregory off the edge. By Week 5, it was back to business as usual for Lawrence, and he kicked off his return to the starting lineup with nine pressures and a sack against the Giants. From that point on, he totaled 39 pressures and a team-leading 6.5 sacks. Lawrence is entering his eighth season in the NFL and has yet to fall off a cliff in terms of PFF grades, earning an 88.7 overall grade and 85.7 pass-rush grade in 2020. Lawrence is the 14th-ranked edge defender in the 2021 IDP rankings — still one of the better options at the position.
Demarcus Lawrence Production and Team Rank | 2020
|Weeks 1-4||143 (13th)||8 (3rd)||0||10 (11th)||62.3 (4th)|
|Weeks 5-17||525 (6th)||39 (1st)||6.5 (1st)||46 (6th)||90.2 (1st)|
LB Jaylon Smith
The Cowboys’ nickel defense will likely allow one other linebacker next to Parsons to be IDP-relevant, and it appears it will be Smith. The sixth-year LB led the team in snaps (1,083) and tackles (154) last year. While it wasn’t his best season from a PFF-grading perspective (54.2 overall), his contract and overall dependability should keep his role from diminishing much in Dan Quinn’s defense. Smith doesn’t come in too far from Parsons in the 2021 IDP rankings at LB21.
Gregory has yet to start more than two games in consecutive NFL seasons since entering the league in 2015, but 2021 appears to be the year for him to break that trend. Coming off a career-best season in terms of PFF grades, Gregory earned an 80.5 overall grade and 81.9 pass-rush grade on 270 snaps from Weeks 7-17 as a situational pass rusher for the Cowboys. He even posted the exact same pass-rush win-rate as Demarcus Lawrence (17.1%) with a slightly better pressure rate (14.7% vs 12.8%). Gregory’s role should increase this season as a starter next to Lawrence to begin the year, which should lead to a lot more production by this solid pass rusher.