In the modern NFL, it may seem like players get injured more often than they ever have before and have a lower tolerance for playing through pain than the forefathers of the league. In reality, with better medical technology and more awareness of injuries’ effect on the human body, teams and players just have a better sense of which injuries are safe to play through and which can be potentially damaging if they are forced.
Still, there’s an odd fixation we have as a sports culture on “toughing it out” and playing while hurt; that quality is one of the most highly-prized in players, despite the logical knowledge we have now about injuries and health.
With this kind of fixation on living up to a fictional “iron man” playing style, it’s no wonder that NFL players sometimes rush themselves back into action before they’re ready. This desire to push one’s self could be a contributing factor in Houston Texans defensive end JJ Watt’s latest setback with his recovery from off-season back surgeries. He was never expected to recover before a month or so into the season, but raced to beat timetables and made it back for Week 1. He re-aggravated the injury in Week 3 and now may be shut down for the year.
When healthy, we know that Watt is head-and-shoulders above the next-best edge rushers in the NFL, but this is a serious blow to the defensive lineman’s career. Who does Watt’s latest injury affect in IDP dynasty fantasy football?
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J.J. Watt, DE
Going forward, this shouldn’t impact Watt’s dynasty value too much. Watt is still the top DL-eligible player for now due to his blend of 20-sack and 80-tackle upside at an immeasurably scarce position. His closest competitors from the off-season for the top of the heap are either injured as well (Ezekiel Ansah), underperforming (Khalil Mack, Aaron Donald, Carlos Dunlap), or performing well enough in just one category (Robert Quinn). Perhaps the only defensive lineman poised to overtake Watt at this moment in time is Minnesota Vikings defensive wunderkind Danielle Hunter, who has 13 total tackles and three sacks so far — but his track record is far too short to anoint him into the elite tier yet.
If anything, an IR stint may actually preserve Watt’s dynasty stock, as he was struggling before this move as well, with just eight tackles and 1.5 sacks. He’ll benefit from his peers’ lack of impact early this season and we can hopefully just write 2016 off as a lost season.
The one wrinkle to watch: Watt mentioned retirement briefly this off-season, when the injuries flared up. Watt has never missed a game in his regular-season NFL career, and Week 4 of the 2016 season will end his 83-game streak. Still, if smoke of these rumors starts to billow again, it could be worth moving on from him for another top-tier DE plus (think Robert Quinn and a rookie pick).
Jadeveon Clowney, DE/LB
With Watt’s dominating presence bookending Jadeveon Clowney on the Texans’ defensive line, the now-healthy Clowney has been able to find some success creating disruption early this season. He has racked up four quarterback hits through the first three games (per Fantasy Data), for a 2.86 percent quarterback hit rate on his 140 snaps. Among linebackers playing at least 30 snaps per game, that rate ranks behind only five others, including superstars Von Miller and Chandler Jones.
Without Watt to pressure the weak-side of the offensive line, Clowney is going to find himself the subject of more double teams when he puts his hand in the dirt. He is now the clear top disruption force in this front-seven, and opposing offenses will game-plan him out of action; they couldn’t do that to Watt, even with double-teams, but this will change the makeup of the Texans’ pass rush entirely. Clowney is an extremely gifted talent, but isn’t the transcendental player Watt was.
If Clowney is DE-eligible in your league, he’s worth a buy-low transaction in a few weeks (or the off-season) when his production slips. It will pick up again when Watt returns in 2017.
Whitney Mercilus / John Simon, OLB
See: Clowney, Jadeveon.
In all seriousness, when a top-tier pass-rusher is injured it affects the rest of the team in an extremely domino-esque fashion. Think of it in the same way we set our DFS lineups: if I don’t have to spend $9,000 of my budget dealing with stopping J.J. Watt, I can diversify where my attention is and plug many other holes instead. Outside linebackers Whitney Mercilus and John Simon will be the unfortunate focuses of more attention with Watt out.
Mercilus had struggled to make an impact for the last few years since being a 2012 first-round selection — despite the presence of Watt — but when Jadeveon Clowney lined up in front of him this year at defensive end and consumed a ton of attention, that freed up Mercilus to make plays in the backfield. In Week 1 against the Chicago Bears, Mercilus earned two sacks.
Simon, similarly, has fed off of teams adjusting to the newfound impacts of Clowney and Mercilus and has racked up 15 total tackles, 2.5 sacks, and the second-highest quarterback hit rate among linebackers so far this year.
It’s unlikely many of you were rostering them outside of deeper and sack-heavy leagues anyway, but with the foundation piece of Watt gone, offensive blockers will be able to address the outside linebackers more, and Simon and Mercilus’ production should become much less consistent once again.
In the 2016 off-season, Christian Covington appeared to be in a contest with defensive lineman Brandon Dunn for the starting defensive end spot opposite J.J. Watt. Once Week 1 hit, though, it became clear that the Texans were starting Clowney as their other down lineman and Covington would simply be relegated to depth. Through three weeks, he’s played just 45 snaps and picked up three tackle assists — no solos yet — but he did have four quarterback hits (2.40 percent) and two sacks (1.20 percent) across 167 snaps played in 2015. He has a much lower ceiling than Watt, obviously, but Covington has some pass-rush upside as a 3-4 lineman.
With Watt out, this could be a moment for the smaller but explosive Covington to step into a bigger role in more even rotation at the vacated second defensive end spot. The Texans might rotate in veteran Devon Still as a run-plugger and did just sign veteran Antonio Smith, but Covington has the highest upside among the reserves and should get his chance. He’s worth a roster spot in IDP leagues deeper than 16 teams.
Benardrick McKinney, ILB
Not all of the news is bad news. With Watt soaking up 80 tackles a year before they even make it beyond the line of scrimmage, this means that around five tackles a game are now available for someone else to clean up. One of those “someones” will likely be inside linebacker Benardrick McKinney, who has already seen his tackle volume increase this season; it’s no coincidence that Watt has been hampered by his back early and McKinney’s tackles have swelled.
The same reason that we love strong safeties on teams with bad middle linebackers for fantasy, we should be very fond of McKinney going forward this season as more tackle chances open up for the linebackers. He’s a weekly low-ceilinged LB1 in tackle-heavy leagues now.
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