Make Pass-Rushing Linebackers Fantasy-Relevant

Ryan Early

Twenty years ago, the term ‘3-4’ defense versus ‘4-3’ had stark differences. A 4-3 defensive end was very different than a 3-4 outside linebacker. The Pittsburgh Steelers used this to their advantage in the 1990s when they were the only team running a 3-4, because these so-called “tweener” players, not big enough to play DE, but too big to play linebacker, weren’t in demand by any other team but were perfectly suited for the 3-4. The Steelers were able to draft them later than their talent merited because there was no competition for their services. Joey Porter was a third-round pick, and Greg Lloyd was a sixth. But football is ever evolving, and as more teams switched to the 3-4, competition for those bigger edge rushers intensified, and the Steelers lost their advantage.

This evolution in defensive formations and player roles has accelerated in the last few years with rule changes favoring passing even more than before. Teams now spend the bulk of their snaps in a nickel formation, with four to five players on the line, one to two off ball linebackers, and five defensive backs. Some teams spend more time in a dime formation with six defensive backs than in their “base” formation with only four defensive backs. As such, old names for positions are being replaced. Yet, even as the distinctions between a 3-4 defense and a 4-3 defense blurs and merges, the use of designating a team’s defense as a 3-4 or 4-3 carries on, with significant and outsized effects for fantasy football.

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If you play fantasy football with individual defensive players, you quickly become accustomed to off-season anxiety surrounding NFL team coaching changes. The root of this anxiety is not from whether the new coaching staff will know how to best utilize your defensive stalwart, but instead whether the new coaches call their base defense something different than the prior coaches. Because with a difference, your player will be assigned to a new position. A switch from defensive end to linebacker can destroy the fantasy value of a pass rusher. What is most frustrating is that the player’s role will barely change. Yet because the team now calls their base defense a 3-4 (in which they will only line up in approximately 40% of plays), they now call their edge pass rusher a linebacker.

At defensive end, he may have been one of the league leaders in statistics, grouped together with a cohort that acquired between 30 to 55 tackles per year, 10 to 20 assists, and 10-15 sacks. And now in his new role as an outside linebacker, he will still acquire between 30 to 55 tackles per year, 10 to 20 assists, and 10-15 sacks. He remains the same player, with almost the exact same role, and thus will compile very similar statistics.

Here’s a comparison in 2018 stats for the top five fantasy 3-4 OLBs and 4-3 DEs:

screen shot 2019 04 15 at 09.57.35 screen shot 2019 04 15 at 09.57.40 And why shouldn’t they have similar statistics? The role they are tasked to play really hasn’t changed much. The top five fantasy 4-3 DEs rushed the passer on around 37% of downs last year compared to 35% of downs for the top five fantasy 3-4 OLBs, or less than one play per game difference. And the OLBs are tasked with dropping back into pass coverage about five plays per game, compared to just once per game for DEs, whereas the DEs make up the difference in run defense. That’s it. On average, about four to five plays per game out of 57 total.

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There is one key difference: weight. 4-3 DEs tend to weigh a little more, in order to account for their greater run defense responsibilities (on those 1.8 snaps per game), whereas OLBs tend to be lighter in order to handle those 3-4 more pass cover snaps per game. But there are exceptions, including in these sample of players above.

TJ Watt is 6’4” tall and weighs 252 pounds. Danielle Hunter is 6’5” tall and weighs 252 pounds. One is called an LB and the other a DE.

Bradley Chubb is 6’4” tall and weighs 275 pounds. Demarcus Lawrence is 6’3” tall and weighs 265 pounds. Chubb is called an LB and Lawrence a DE.

In my eyes, the key is what role they’re tasked to play in the defense. And having the same role for 92-95% of the game’s snaps isn’t a significant difference.

But by switching this edge rusher’s designation to a linebacker for fantasy purposes, your player is now included in a cohort that includes Off Ball linebackers such as Bobby Wagner and Luke Kuechly. These players rack up 80 to 100 tackles a year. They may not get the same sack totals as the edge rushers, but sacks would have to count as many points as eight to ten times that of a tackle in order for these edge rushers to retain their place as one of the top players at their position. As a DE, your player scored amongst the most of their position group. But as a linebacker, they may not score enough to be included in your starting lineup.

Acquiring a top tier defensive end likely took significant resources, either in a decently high pick in a startup draft, players to swap via trade, or use of a rookie pick followed by a year or two of patiently waiting as that player developed. And now, with a new label, that player’s value is gone. This year, Chandler Jones got the dreaded move from DE to OLB, and Jason Paul-Pierre will likely soon follow. Last year it was Khalil Mack. And on the flip side, if you were holding Olivier Vernon on your roster at the close of last year, then aren’t you feeling lucky. Being traded from the Giants to the Browns has changed his position designation from LB to DE, and now he is a likely starter.

There is a near identical argument to be made in comparing 3-4 DEs, who play inside the offensive tackle’s shoulder as opposed to outside on the edge, and 4-3 DTs. When Wade Phillips became the defensive coordinator of the Rams, he called his defense a 3-4. It’s really a five-man front, with three interior defensive linemen and two edge rushers, but because one of those edge rushers may drop back into coverage a couple of plays per game, he calls it a 3-4. When Aaron Donald played in the previous 4-3 defense under Jeff Fisher, he was called a defensive tackle but played the 3-tech role where his main job was penetrating into the backfield quickly in the gap between the tackle and guard. Now that he is in a 3-4 defense under Phillips, he is called a defensive end but plays the 3-tech role where his main job is to penetrate into the backfield quickly in the gap between the tackle and guard.

A 3-4 DE has near identical responsibilities as those of a 4-3 DT and very dissimilar to a 4-3 DE. Just as an edge is an edge, regardless of what their team designates their position as on the team website, an interior defensive lineman is an interior defensive lineman.

I wouldn’t be going through this if I didn’t have a solution for you. And by now I bet you have already figured it out. You need to group the OLBs with the 4-3 DEs instead of with the linebackers. Scouts and analysts have begun calling these players Edge Rushers/Edges, or EDRs. Similarly, you need to group the 3-4 DEs with the DTs, and start calling them defensive interior linemen, or DIs. This leaves linebackers as solely Off Ball, or Stack, linebackers. All three groups include players with similar roles on the defense.

With these changes, here is what the top tier of players looks like (at least under my big play scoring rules):

2018 Top Ten Fantasy Edge Rushers:

1) JJ Watt, HOU
2) Danielle Hunter, MIN
3) TJ Watt, PIT (thanks to high tackle numbers)
4) Calais Campbell, JAC
5) Von Miller, DEN
6) Khalil Mack, CHI (would have been higher but missed time to injury)
7) Dee Ford, KC
8) Jason Pierre-Paul, TB
9) Demarcus Lawrence, DAL
10) Cameron Jordan, ARI

2018 Top Ten Fantasy Off Ball Linebackers:

1) Darius Leonard, IND
2) Cory Littleton, LAR
3) Lorenzo Alexander, BUF (PFF found that he spent more time in coverage than rushing passer, and was very efficient at accumulating sacks)
4) Bobby Wagner, SEA
5) Luke Kuechly, CAR
6) Tremaine Edmunds, BUF
7) Blake Martinez, GB
8) Jaylon Smith, DAL
9) Lavonte David, TB
10) Roquan Smith, CHI

2018 Top Ten Fantasy Defensive Interior Linemen:

1) Aaron Donald, LAR
2) Chris Jones, KC
3) DeForest Buckner, SF
4) Fletcher Cox, PHI
5) Akiem Hicks, CHI
6) Jarran Reed, SEA
7) Damon Harrison, DET
8) Jurrell Casey, TEN
9) Cameron Heyward, PIT
10) Jonathan Allen, WAS

As you can see, each group consists of players with the same roles. So their fantasy points reflect how they are performing in those rules, relative to everyone else in the same role. Thus their fantasy points equate to their actual performance, instead of being distorted by an incorrect position designation.

I haven’t run across anyone labeling this switch to Edge and DI positions for easy reference. So may I humbly suggest “True Position” to describe using Edge, DI, and Off Ball LBs? It seems short, to the point, and suggestive of being a better system.

ESPN added the option to use Edge Rushers and DIs in their IDP leagues a couple of years ago. Of course, ESPN has too many limitations in running dynasty leagues to be considered a serious option, including roster construction, scoring rules, and the fact that they shut down the fantasy football portion of their website for four months of the off-season. Unfortunately, no other league hosting service has followed in ESPN’s footsteps to date in using these positions. But many of them do allow your Commissioner to manually override a player’s position in their database for your league.

This is what I have done in two of my leagues that use, and I got my third IDP league to vote in the switch beginning next year. I use Pro Football Focus as our objective third party source for player positions, thereby eliminating any arguments or accusations of bias. Because MFL does not use these positions, I switch all Edge rushers to DE (in my mind, those initials now stand for defensive edge) and switch all DIs to DT. It takes me about two hours total to go through the entire PFF and MFL databases and make the manual position changes. It is not fun to do. But having gone through an entire season with the True Position designations, I am never going back.

As an assist to you, below you will find the full list of current players that need to have their positions switched in MFL. Hopefully, with this step done for you, it will take you significantly less than two hours to complete in MFL. I will update this list shortly after the NFL draft for the incoming rookies, and then again just before the season starts with any last minute changes. My leagues decided not to make any position changes once the season begins. It resulted in a couple of errors last year, such as JJ Watt being grouped the entire year with the DIs instead of the EDRs. So it isn’t perfect. But it is still miles better than what IDP leagues have been dealing with before now.

When you make this switch, you will also need to alter your starting lineup requirements. Below is a list of 67 players being removed from the LB designation and added to DE, and then 52 players being removed from DE and added to DT. So on net, LBs lose 67 players, DTs gain 52, and DEs gain 15. If you do not adjust your LB starting requirements downward, you will create a shortage at the position, and increasing their relative value compared to other positions. Likewise, if you do not increase your required DI (DT) starters, there will be a glut at the position thus decreasing their relative value.

For my leagues that start at least 11 IDPs, I start two DIs (DTs), two DEs (Edge), two LBs, two (or more) CBs, two Ss, and one Flex of any IDP. That way, if teams want to pretend to run a 3-4, they can start three DIs, two Edge, and two Off Ball LBs. To run a 4-3, two DIs, two Edge, and three LBs. A nickel, you add the flex to the CB. Making the flex the Safety is a big nickel formation. This way, all the main formations are covered, and you have players grouped into five distinct positions.

Players to switch from LB to Edge/DE:

PLAYER PFF/Custom Default MFL
Acho, Sam CHI DE LB
Adeniyi, Ola PIT DE LB
Alexander, D.J. PHI DE LB
Anderson, Ryan WAS DE LB
Avery, Genard CLE DE LB
Barrett, Shaq DEN DE LB
Barwin, Connor LAR DE LB
Basham, Tarell NYJ DE LB
Biegel, Vince NOS DE LB
Bowser, Tyus BAL DE LB
Carter, Lorenzo FA DE LB
Chickillo, Anthony PIT DE LB
Chubb, Bradley DEN DE LB
Clowney, Jadeveon HOU DE LB
Copeland, Brandon NYJ DE LB
Correa, Kamalei TEN DE LB
Dupree, Bud PIT DE LB
Ebukam, Samson LAR DE LB
Edebali, Kasim CIN DE LB
Fackrell, Kyler GBP DE LB
Finch, Sharif TEN DE LB
Fitts, Kylie CHI DE LB
Floyd, Leonard CHI DE LB
Fowler, Dante LAR DE LB
Gilbert, Reggie GBP DE LB
Grissom, Geneo IND DE LB
Harold, Eli DET DE LB
Holland, Jeff DEN DE LB
Houston, Justin KCC DE LB
Jenkins, Jordan NYJ DE LB
Jones, Chandler ARI DE LB
Judon, Matt BAL DE LB
Kaufusi, Bronson NYJ DE LB
Kennard, Devon DET DE LB
Kerrigan, Ryan WAS DE LB
Landrum, Chris HOU DE LB
Landry, Harold FA DE LB
Langi, Harvey NYJ DE LB
Longacre, Matt LAR DE LB
Luvu, Frankie NYJ DE LB
Lynch, Aaron CHI DE LB
Mack, Khalil OAK DE LB
Martin, Kareem NYG DE LB
Matthews, Clay GBP DE LB
McPhee, Pernell WAS DE LB
Mercilus, Whitney HOU DE LB
Miller, Von DEN DE LB
Morgan, Derrick TEN DE LB
Nwosu, Uchenna LAC DE LB
Okoronkwo, Ogbonnia LAR DE LB
Orakpo, Brian TEN DE LB
Perry, Nick GBP DE LB
Ray, Shane DEN DE LB
Reed, Brooks ARI DE LB
Smith, Marcus WAS DE LB
Smith, Preston WAS DE LB
Smith, Za’Darius BAL DE LB
Spence, Noah TBB DE LB
Suggs, Terrell BAL DE LB
Wake, Cameron TEN DE LB
Wallace, Aaron DEN DE LB
Watson, Dekoda SFO DE LB
Watt, T.J. PIT DE LB
Wilber, Kyle OAK DE LB
Williams, Tim BAL DE LB
Young, Trevon LAR DE LB
Zombo, Frank KCC DE LB


Players to switch from DE to DI/DT:

PLAYER PFF/Custom Default MFL
Adams, Montravius GBP DT DE
Allen, Jonathan WAS DT DE
Alualu, Tyson PIT DT DE
Anderson, Henry NYJ DT DE
Bailey, Allen KCC DT DE
Blackson, Angelo HOU DT DE
Brantley, Caleb WAS DT DE
Brockers, Michael LAR DT DE
Casey, Jurrell TEN DT DE
Covington, Christian HOU DT DE
Crawford, Tyrone DAL DT DE
Daniels, Mike GBP DT DE
Dickerson, Matt TEN DT DE
Donald, Aaron LAR DT DE
Edwards, Mario OAK DT DE
Fox, Morgan LAR DT DE
Gholston, William TBB DT DE
Gotsis, Adam DEN DT DE
Heath, Joel HOU DT DE
Henry, Willie BAL DT DE
Heyward, Cameron PIT DT DE
Hicks, Akiem CHI DT DE
Hill, B.J. NYG DT DE
Ioannidis, Matt WAS DT DE
Jefferson, Quinton SEA DT DE
Jones, DaQuan TEN DT DE
Jones, Datone DAL DT DE
Kerr, Zach DEN DT DE
Looney, James GBP DT DE
Lowry, Dean GBP DT DE
Mauro, Josh NYG DT DE
McCoy, Gerald TBB DT DE
McGee, Stacy WAS DT DE
McIntosh, RJ NYG DT DE
Nkemdiche, Robert ARI DT DE
Pierre, Olsen NYG DT DE
Robertson-Harris, Roy CHI DT DE
Shepherd, Nathan NYJ DT DE
Sieler, Zach BAL DT DE
Thomas, Chad CLE DT DE
Tuitt, Stephon PIT DT DE
Urban, Brent BAL DT DE
Walker, DeMarcus DEN DT DE
Walton, Leterrius PIT DT DE
Watkins, Carlos HOU DT DE
Westbrooks, Ethan LAR DT DE
Wilkerson, Muhammad GBP DT DE
Williams, Brandon BAL DT DE
Williams, Leonard NYJ DT DE
Wolfe, Derek DEN DT DE
Wormley, Chris BAL DT DE
Wynn, Kerry NYG DT DE