32 Teams, 32 IDP Questions: NFC East

Mo Brewington

While the offenses in the NFC East make all the headlines, it’ll be the defenses which determine divisional supremacy. The public perception is that the NFC East is a wide open race. Reality may need only a few weeks to turn that belief on it’s head.

There are some very good position groups who will propel their teams to victory this year, and with in those groups, a handful of difference makers who will lead the charge. We’ll take a look at those players, and help you identify where to spend your acquisition capital heading into this season.

New York Giants

How good can the teams young safety duo be in their first year together?

In 2015, Landon Collins proved to be an exceptional IDP safety. In reality, his game still needs some refining. His rookie season instantly placed him among the best IDP options at defensive back. He posted 108 total tackles, 80 of which came solo, along with nine passes defended, a pick and a forced fumble.

His play was a revelation for a Giants team that has been seeking a viable option at safety since allowing Antrelle Rolle to walk in 2014. With one half of their back end issues solved, the team went into the 2016 Draft looking to find a free safety to pair with Collins. The player they came away with was Boise State product, Darian Thompson.

[am4show have=’g1;’ guest_error=’sub_message’ user_error=’sub_message’ ]

The 6’2” Thompson tallied 12 interceptions in his final two seasons for the Broncos, prior to entering the NFL Draft. Once in camp, he quickly climbed the depth chart, and now sits poised to be the teams starting free safety, alongside Collins- who will man the strongside.

Inexperience aside, the two safeties will face many challenges as the last line of defense, for a Giant team unable to field a dominant unit since their last Super Bowl run. Big Blue made a massive investment to improve their stopping power this off-season, signing corner backs Janoris Jenkins and Leon Hall, linebackers Keenan Robinson and Kelvin Sheppard, and defensive linemen Olivier Vernon and Damon Harrison.

Showing no aversion to spending money to fill holes, the team has clearly placed a great deal of faith in Collins, and Thompson to hold it together at safety, rather than bringing in more seasoned players to fill those roles, a fact that should lend confidence to IDP owners who might otherwise shy away from unproven talent.

Collins resume dating back to his days at Alabama is that of a defensive back with a linebackers mentality. He’s a better player in coverage than he’s been credited as, yet not someone you want left alone with “single high” responsibilities. He possesses outstanding closing speed, and finishes tackles with authority.

While Darian Thompson’s reputation as a ballhawk has been stated, the sword cuts both ways. The same aggressive nature which puts Thompson in line to make picks, also tempts him to fall for double moves and pump fakes, leaving him beaten. This will be his number one challenge at the NFL level- staying disciplined, and playing with in the scheme. The Giants corners aren’t good enough to prevail on an island. It will be Thompson, not Collins who draws the deep center assignments, and must be in position to stop long pass plays, more often than not.

One of the bigger concerns for this duo is their lack of overall speed, and elite athleticism. I’m typically not one to harp on combine scores, and agility test, but these two players registered so far below the average in so many categories, one has to question how they will fair against the leagues more polished passing attacks. With games against New Orleans, Green Bay, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Chicago and Detroit, not to mention their divisional match-ups against Washington and Dallas, the 2016 schedule will pit this duo against some of the best quarterback/receiver combinations the NFL has to offer. The results may not always be so pretty.

For our purposes as IDP owners, however, targets lead to tackles. And the more these two are challenged, the more opportunity they’ll have to make plays, and score points for us. An ideal position on either of these young safeties would place them as the attacking, “box safety”, on a defense next to a player with a better pedigree in covering the deep zones- allowing Collins or Thompson to play more freely, utilizing their skills around the line of scrimmage, while limiting their coverage exposure to tight ends and running backs.

Unfortunately, this is the big leagues, and these two will have to grow up quickly. They will be targeted by many veteran quarterbacks, and receivers who know how to attack inexperienced secondaries, and exploit their lack of knowledge. Players who get challenged as often as these two are about to, will by default be faced with more opportunities to make tackles, and plays on the ball, than a competent veteran safety would be. The lack of depth behind them on the New York roster virtually ensures their job security, and makes them solid IDP targets in all formats. Their dynasty value will be determined by how quickly they learn the ropes in live fire.

Washington Football Team

Will Preston Smith become an elite pass rusher?smith

Washington managed 37 sacks as a team in 2015. Veteran Ryan Kerrigan led the squad with 9.5 of those take-downs, while Preston Smith was in second with eight sacks in his freshman campaign. Entering his sophomore season, Smith is likely to see an increase in playing time from the 683 snaps he logged last year as a back up to Trent Murphy at outside linebacker. With Murphy being bounced first to defensive end, then back to linebacker, one thing is clear, Smith’s position on the first unit is written in stone.

A second round pick at 38th overall, Smith, a product of Mississippi State, had just 16 total sacks in his collegiate career, nine of those coming as a senior. Combined with the eight sacks he made (while playing just two thirds of the team’s snaps) in his rookie season, this could be a case of the proverbial light coming on at just the right time for the Washington defense.

A 6’5”, 270 pound frame gives Smith the ability to hold his own in the trenches, while contending with tackles and tight ends. His versatility allows him to remain on the field regardless of down and distance, with the hand skills and speed to be more than a bull rusher from his post on the right side of the defense. Smith’s improvement in run defense is just another factor that will ensure his viability as a three down linebacker. In fact, on third downs, he and Kerrigan play as “down linemen” in the teams sub-packages, forming one of the more talented pass rushing duos in the league.

Those talents were on display in the team’s first preseason game, giving the Falcons Jake Matthews all he could handle against the run and pass. He anchored two “three and out” series with a pair of tackles, one for loss on the evening. Owners in sack-heavy formats would do well adding Smith to their short list of edge rushers with double-digit sack potential. His youth and his promise offer tremendous dynasty appeal.

Philadelphia Eagles

Is Jordan Hicks an IDP stud or dud?

Many were shocked when Jordan Hicks came off the board in the fourth round of the 2015 draft. The pundits had him pegged as a fifth to sixth round selection coming out of the University of Texas. Personally, Hicks was never on my pre-draft radar. I put a lot of time into the pre-draft process in 2015, developing high expectations for players like Stephone Anthony, Eric Kendricks and Denzel Perryman. In full disclosure, Hicks never made my watch list until after his selection by the Eagles.

What I learned after the fact is that Hicks, despite a lengthy injury history, was a very good cover-linebacker. His drops were fluid and natural. He could break on passes, and make interceptions with ease. It was impressive. His physicality left something too be desired, yet he still complied a staggering 147 total stops in his senior year for the Longhorns, with 3.5 sacks to boot . Although he won’t knock anyone out, he consistently takes down the ball carrier, which is all that matters in the end.

In the second game of the Eagles 2015 season, Hicks made his presence felt with a seven tackle performance, in a 20-10 loss to the Cowboys. Over the next six games he would go on to post 49 total tackles, (42 solo), earning a spot in the Birds starting line-up for five of those contest.

With the Eagles defense struggling, in large part, due to the uninspired play of then starter, Kiko Alonso, Hicks insertion gave the unit a boost, displaying the excellence in pass defense that jumped off the screen in his college tape. Unfortunately, another trait from his amateur days reared it’s head as well, his durability issues. At Texas, Hicks suffered a litany of ailments which forced him from the playing field. There was a fractured foot suffered during spring ball in 2011. Then ten games of the 2012 campaign were lost to a hip flexor. And in 2013, it was a torn Achilles which cost him all but four contest. In his first season with the Eagles, it would be a torn pectoral muscle halting an otherwise breakout performance, which could have put Hicks in the conversation for “Defensive Rookie of the Year”. Instead, he landed back in the infirmary.

With Chip Kelly, the man responsible for Hicks’ fourth round selection, now off to San Francisco, and a new defensive coordinator in Jim Schwartz running tings in Philly, Hicks appears to be starting from square one. He spent a good deal of the off-season program recovering not only from the pec injury, but also a banged up quad, Hicks was again at a disadvantage learning the new scheme.

There hasn’t been much fanfare surrounding Hicks performance to this point, in fact it’s been quite the opposite. Reports have centered around the Eagles desire to sign a veteran linebacker, most notably Stephen Tulloch, a former Schwartz foot soldier during the coaches stints in Tennessee, and Detroit. Following the team’s second preseason game, in which Joe Walker, Hicks’ back-up for most of training camp, suffered a torn ACL, the team pulled the trigger on the Tulloch deal, inking the vet to a one year pact.

Now what seemed like Hicks’ chance to man the helm is in question. There has been a debate as to whether Tulloch was brought in to push Hicks or Mychal Kendricks, one the Eagles presumed starters at outside linebacker in Schwartz’s 4-3. While nothing is impossible, this seems highly implausible, as Tulloch has been an inside linebacker for the entirety of his ten seasons as a pro.

So there’s the rub. If Hicks gets his chance to play, there is every reason to believe he will be a successful NFL, and IDP linebacker. He’s intelligent, and technically sound, with phenomenal skills in defense of the pass, which make him a shoe in for a three-down role. He has a monstrous defensive line in front of him, that should give him plenty of room to run and make plays. However, should he wind up having some portion of his snaps siphoned off by Tulloch, a player well versed in Schwartz’s scheme, who requires little in the way of a learning curve, Hicks will need a position switch to be truly relevant in IDP this season, which isn’t completely out of the question.

Dallas Cowboys

Is there anything inspiring about this defense?

Trying to conjure a topic to write about this team has left me stumped the past few days. Every player I consider is flawed in some way that makes me want to look elsewhere for IDP production.

jonesDefensive end Demarcus Lawrence will have to overcome the loss of four games before he can get on the field this season. Owners may capitalize on the discount created by his suspension and possibly find a bargain pass rusher who has potential to be a disruptive force on the the Dallas line. 2015 will be Lawrence’s third year as a pro. He’ll look to improve on his eight sack total from last year.

The player I most want to own is Sean Lee. He has the best chance of posting a strong IDP campaign, but has a terrifying injury history, having never played a 16 game season. In 14 contests in 2015, Lee was roughly an LB2, which gives you a sense of where he could rank if he managed to stay healthy for a full year. The ten game suspension handed out to Cowboys middle linebacker Rolando McClain this summer makes Lee an even more integral force on this defense. He has the three down pedigree we seek in our IDP linebackers, skills in pass defense, plus the ability and opportunity to compile over 100 tackles. But without his health, he is of little use.

Filling in for McClain during his suspension will be Anthony Hitchens, a third year linebacker who’s started 20 games for the Cowboys over the last two seasons, posting 105 tackles in those starts. Hitchens is an intriguing buy, as a young player who could be the team-s long term answer to the trials and tribulations McClain has subjected the club to during his tenure.

Rounding out the Cowboys top IDP prospects are safeties Barry Church, and Byron Jones, who could stand to make a ton of plays as the last line of this defense. In Church we have a player who has proven to be a solid IDP start over the past few years. He ranked ninth in solo’s last season at safety, and should have the chance to do the same this year. The ultra-athletic Jones is a player to keep an eye on. His meteoric rise into the football public’s consciousness, from a relative unknown at UConn, made him a darling of the draftniks. Having apparently settled the questions of whether he was best suited to play on the outside at corner, or move back to safety, we will look to see if Jones can utilize his gifts to become a playmaker on the back end. In 11 starts in 2015, Jones had eight passes defended to accompany 47 solo tackles, but failed to make an interception. This final component of taking the ball away could put Jones over the top as a viable IDP candidate. With all the physical tools he possesses, Jones could be a dominant force, if and when it all finally clicks for him.


mo brewington
Latest posts by Mo Brewington (see all)