Human beings operate with a lot of biases and fallacies in their daily lives. Familiarity bias, hindsight bias, the gambler’s fallacy; these are all ways that we try to make sense of the random events around us by calling them “patterns” and making decisions based on them.
Recency bias, in particular, is dangerous for our perceptions when we look at the National Football League and fantasy football in specific: if we see the most recent season’s outcomes as what is most likely to happen, we miss the nuance of possibility and risk losing an edge on our opponents.
This is why we need to examine what new Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator Todd Bowles – recently fired from an unsuccessful tenure as the head coach of the New York Jets – with fresh eyes. Only look at his failures with Gang Green, and you’ll miss out on some interesting value for your Individual Defensive Player teams; examine his whole body of work and you’ll be rewarded.
How will Bowles alter the course of the Tampa Bay defense from 2019 onward?
The Bucs have run a 4-3 base defense since 1991, one of the longest continuous stretches of a defensive scheme in the league. The last time the Bucs weren’t in a 4-3 base, linebacker Broderick Thomas (who?) was the team’s leading tackler; it’s been a while.
Bowles, however, has tended to run a 3-4 base defensive front (three defensive linemen, four linebackers/edge rushers) when given the choice as a defensive coordinator. The one exception to his uniform scheme track record was the 2012 Philadelphia Eagles, where Bowles was promoted from secondary coach to interim defensive coordinator after Juan Castillo was fired midway through the season; Bowles couldn’t wholesale change the team’s scheme overnight, so he dealt with what he was given there.
With that in mind, here’s a tentative outline of what the Tampa Bay sets could look like under Bowles.
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The primary changes from 2018 to next season that we’d expect come in the probable change of positional eligibility from DE to LB for Jason Pierre-Paul and Noah Spence, as they seem the most likely players to shift to the strong-side and weak-side OLB roles, respectively. When a team shifts from a 4-3 to a 3-4 front, the easiest way to accommodate that is simply by changing the title and positioning of the edge rushers’ roles. This does reduce their positional value, especially in leagues that do not reward sacks and tackles for a loss (TFL) heavily.
In addition, Gerald McCoy should become classified as a DE on most league manager sites, and we should consider this similar to the Aaron Donald situation last year: he’ll likely have similar responsibilities, just a different title. Those in DT-specific leagues are most affected by this.
With only two off-ball linebacker roles to fill, the big casualty of this changeover would be LSU alum Kendell Beckwith, who saw some time as the strong-side linebacker (SAM) in Tampa’s previous alignment. Adarius Taylor, Devante Bond, and Riley Bullough would also be relegated to backup roles, if they maintain their spot on the 53-man roster. In general, Lavonte David will remain a more coverage-focused linebacker, while Kwon Alexander should continue to be a focal point for those in tackle-heavy scoring leagues.
Bowles has shown openness to mixing in 4-3 looks, but his primary preference outside of the 3-4 has been his nickel set – just like the rest of the league in response to increasingly pass-happy offenses. What will that look like?
Based at least on the players available to him, Bowles’s passing-down sets have tended to feature 2-4 (two linemen, four linebackers/edge rushers) or 3-3 fronts. This helps us to understand how many of the defensive snaps in his tenure will be composed, since NFL offenses dropped back to pass on 58.8 percent of their snaps this past season.
In the nickel, Tampa Bay would likely pull big-boy nose tackle Vita Vea, while leaving the more adept pass-rushers in McCoy and Nassib on the field for those passing-down situations. Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III will shift into the slot in nickel and dime situations as he has in the past, allowing M.J. Stewart a spot on the outside.
Usage and Production
Now that we have an idea of what the defense will look like, how will Bowles use them?
Using 2018 snap assignment data from Pro Football Focus, I looked at the New York Jets’ situational snap breakdown by position group to get an idea of how Bowles’ defense was used (i.e. what percentage of snaps they rushed the passer, were in run defense, or in coverage).
There is some bias in this data based on the team’s success – for instance, a team often had a much higher run defense rate if they lost frequently, due to their opponents grinding down the clock through the run game – but when comparing each team’s position groups to the league average at each position, we see some interesting trends emerge.
In the case of Bowles’ Jets, every position group was around league-average in their usage rates, except for the edge rushers (outside linebackers in the 3-4) and the safety group.
Starting with the edge rushers, Jordan Jenkins drew the most snaps in this position group in 2018. When we examine his usage, we do see that he had a sub-50 percent pass-rush rate and a run defense rate north of 40 percent on his 660 defensive snaps this season. In fact, Jenkins’ run defense rate was higher than every Jets’ defender to average at least 25.0 snaps a game except for the interior defensive linemen.
Clearly, Bowles favors a powerful strong-side outside linebacker to drop down and play sturdy run defense, a role that we could see Jason Pierre-Paul or Vinny Curry filling quite well. A role primarily in run defense could mean a reduction of IDP production for JPP, however, as Jenkins earned just a 4.2 percent rate of tackles per snap; Pierre-Paul turned in a superior 5.4 percent rate in 2018 on nearly 300 more snaps.
A bit worrisome is that we do see the edge rushers come in 3.4 percentage points above the league average in coverage snaps. With the move from DE to LB eligibility already dampening their fantasy value, any additional chances to sack the quarterback taken away from JPP, Curry, and Spence will reduce their fantasy impact. Bowles could especially look to use the thinner, speedier Spence as a surprise coverage man at points.
What is positive is seeing the safety usage in the Todd Bowles defensive scheme. Bowles’ Jets were one of just four defenses to have its safeties rush the passer 1.0 percentage points more than the league average, and they were left back in coverage the fifth-least often (4.6 percentage points less than average). This is beneficial for safeties Justin Evans and Jordan Whitehead, who should get plenty of chances to drop down into the box and attack the football, rather than sitting out in centerfield and hoping the play comes to them.
Consider the production difference between Whitehead and Jets star safety Jamal Adams last year: Adams earned 21 more total pressures and 38 combined tackles than Whitehead in 2018 but played 20 times more pass-rush snaps than him and nearly double the run defense snaps. Whitehead – or whoever earns the starting strong safety job – is in for a big-time fantasy boost this season.
Todd Bowles’ defense should bring some upheaval for IDP positional eligibility, as we’ll likely see one of the best DE’s and DT’s for fantasy each move to a new position. That said, his impact should buoy the fantasy value of the Tampa Bay defensive backs, which provides at least some sort of consolation prize.
Will his tenure with the Buccaneers be a success? Only time will tell. Yet, our ability to adapt to his scheme will determine whether we succeed or fail as IDP players.
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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