Summer is the season of rest and relaxation for me, and always has been since I can remember. Unlike many other professionals, as a teacher I do get a few months to recuperate from the daily grind of 60+ hour weeks.
Eventually, I’ll be finalizing the tweaks to my curriculum and getting things in gear for the fall, but I do get a few weeks off before then. And that feels good.
In the NFL calendar, this is also a period of downtime. Still, that doesn’t mean that we writers get time off from analyzing football either. Instead, this is the perfect time to start breaking apart the big-picture concepts of the league’s defensive schemes without the weekly grind of the season breathing down our necks.
When we know how teams use their players and how defensive coordinators scheme and deploy their assets, we can maximize the fantasy value of our Individual Defensive Player (IDP) lineups and even find unexpected players in good situations.
How do NFL teams use their defensive linemen (defensive tackles and 3-4 ends), and what does that mean for IDP fantasy football?
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The first thing we need to break down about defensive line usage is how much teams deploy their starters versus employing a rotation.
For those of you data-minded folks, there is a heavy correlation between the amount of snaps a defensive lineman plays and the fantasy points they accrue. For 3-4 defensive ends, that correlation is a whopping 0.95; for defensive tackles, it’s 0.91. R-values function on a scale of -1 to 1, where -1 means the values are perfectly inversely related (more of one equals less of the other), 1 means they are perfectly related (more of one equals more of the other), and 0 means there is no relationship whatsoever.
This means that we want to find teams that use their starters in an every-down role as much as possible, with as little rotational use as possible. Which are those teams?
The table below shows the teams with at least two players seeing 250 more snaps than the average among their team’s defensive linemen in 2017 (snap counts per Pro Football Focus).
These are the teams we are looking to target the most for every-down players on the defensive line.
One team, in particular, is the New Orleans Saints, who used three defensive tackles in substantial roles last season. Sheldon Rankins didn’t end up with a massive production line in the box score, but he was on the field the fourth-most, relative to his unit’s average. That kind of playing time should eventually lead to some sacks and tackles, so Rankins heads our list of defensive line targets due to playing time for this season.
The Los Angeles Rams’ Aaron Donald and Michael Brockers were also significantly above-average in terms of playing time for their teams, and the team should remain starter-dominant, with fellow snap hog Ndamukong Suh joining them for the 2018 season.
Notably, only a handful of 3-4 ends made it above this 250-snaps above average threshold: Leonard Williams, Cameron Heyward, Chris Jones, Allen Bailey, Willie Henry, and Muhammad Wilkerson. These are players and situations to target for consistent playing time.
The teams that had their top defensive linemen with the lowest snaps above the team average (meaning they rotated heavily), however, include the Los Angeles Chargers, Arizona Cardinals, and Denver Broncos. These are units where the top options at the defensive line may have their usage hampered by rotation.
Especially in big-play leagues – where sacks are highly-valuable scoring plays – we also need to pay attention to those teams blitzing their defensive linemen at a higher rate than others. The more times a defensive player is sent to attack the passer, the better chance they have to rack up big sack totals.
The table below shows the top-eight teams from 2017 in defensive line pass rushes per passing down snap played.
Interestingly, our top team in starter snaps – the Rams – also comes in in the top-four of teams that allow their defensive linemen to rush the passer, just a hair under 99.9 percent of the time. There’s no doubt that Aaron Donald is a dominant IDP option, but Suh’s arrival in Hollywood could herald a slight uptick in pass rushing opportunity for him (just 34th-highest pass-rush percentage among 53 defensive linemen with at least 200 pass-rush snaps in 2017).
The Minnesota Vikings also feature on both of our top lists, a further testament to the fact you want to roster whoever is getting the defensive tackle snaps in this front. Linval Joseph is a stalwart defensive tackle, but there is strong value to be had with free agent acquisition Sheldon Richardson, too.
A team much less known for its impressive defensive line than the previous two, the Kansas City Chiefs also double up on our top lists. Chris Jones has proven to be an impressive talent since his arrival in the NFL, but fellow 3-4 defensive end Allen Bailey gets very little credit for his IDP impact every year. Bailey in specific is a sneaky IDP buy due to a third-lowest (among 22 3-4 ends with at least 250 pass-rush snaps) 0.56 percent sack rate on his pass-rushing snaps. With how many opportunities he gets to attack the quarterback, that number should come up going forward.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Cleveland Browns are noted for an aggressive, attacking defense under coordinator Gregg Williams, but they had the lowest pass-rush rate for their defensive linemen last year (remember, as a 4-3 defense, this only includes their defensive tackles). With former Arizona defensive boss James Bettcher headed to lead the New York Giants, they should come up from the bottom of the barrel in 2018, and the Gus Bradley-run Los Angeles Chargers round out the bottom-three for attacking defensive line units.
Finally, we have coverage rates for defensive linemen.
I don’t know about you, but in today’s hyper-speed NFL, I don’t want my 300-pound defensive linemen having to play in coverage to defend the pass. The teams with the lowest rates of dropping their linemen into coverage are teams we want to target; again, chances to attack the quarterback mean better chances for IDP fantasy points.
The eight teams with the lowest defensive linemen coverage rates are below.
Once again, the Chiefs and Rams find themselves in the top-tier of defensive line situations for IDP production. These two are clearly the best situations for defensive tackles and 3-4 defensive ends.
The Denver Broncos have also traditionally been a strong team at this position, an indication that Derek Wolfe and whoever bookends him on the line should continue to be solid IDP options.
The three teams with the highest coverage rates for defensive linemen: the Browns, last year’s Giants, and the Chargers.
He also likes coffee. You can talk to him about IDP, other dynasty things, and various caffeinated beverages on Twitter at @JayArrNFL.
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