Positional Strengths of the NFL Draft: IDP Edition

Jason King

Ask any IDP aficionado about this year’s NFL Draft, and you’re likely to get a response along the lines of, “Hey, how about that wide receiver class?”

OK, maybe it’s not that bad. IDP managers are a passionate bunch and don’t need much to get wound up for rookie prospect talk. And while in general, I agree with the NFL Draft pundits that this is a weaker crop of defensive prospects from top to bottom, there are some highlights and some positional groups with intriguing depth options.

In this article, I’ll examine the state of each positional group – ranked according to perceived strength – and how it aligns with fantasy needs.

Are There Any Elite Edges? Maybe

It’s entirely possible when I’m writing the 2024 rookie review series there are a couple of edge rushers listed as elite assets. And though I’m not quite seeing that as the case, you can make a good argument for Alabama’s Dallas Turner, Florida State’s Jared Verse, UCLA’s Laiatu Latu and maybe even Penn State’s Chop Robinson. Regardless, this group is at minimum solid with up to 11 edge rushers viewed as future fantasy starters. With three to four prospects who you could potentially see become elite fantasy producers and another handful who could become meaningful contributors for fantasy lineups, I’d consider EDGE to be the strongest positional group on the defensive side. Here’s how my rankings fall out with the draft approaching.

For dynasty’s sake, Turner is my top EDGE prospect (No. 3 overall among incoming IDPs). Having just turned 21, the Alabama product is a full two years younger than Verse and Latu. His Relative Athletic Score revealed elite speed and explosion numbers – not surprising if you watch him explode off the line and speed into the backfield. He does almost everything well, but for sure I’d like to see him consistently win with his bull rush – a skill that almost always translates.

Speaking of bull rush, Verse is a bully with speed-to-power prowess. When he gets a runway, it’s not a fair fight for most tackles, and the Florida State star knows how to use his 33.5-inch arms to keep opponents hands off his chest. Like Turner, Verse boasts elite speed and explosion numbers – just in a little larger package.

Latu is my third EDGE and No. 5 overall dynasty prospect. The biggest knock on Latu of course dates back to his Washington days when he medically retired and sat out two seasons due to a spinal injury. That’s not as bad as it sounds given he’s played two full seasons since then, but it’s enough for me to put him below the top two. Latu’s hand usage and moves are second to none, and his swim move makes a lot of tackles look bad. I feel like his impact will likely be immediate, so if you need instant EDGE starts and don’t want to trade for a veteran, Latu is your guy.

I think there is a pretty decent-size gap between the top three and everyone else. I’ve seen plenty of first-round love for Robinson, but for as quick as he is off the snap, he logged just five quarterback hits and three sacks on 303 snaps last season. Situational pass rushers have value, but for fantasy if you’re not on the field enough to build tackle totals and can’t quite get your paws on the quarterback, you’re just a roster clogger – or free agent fodder. Still, I’d take a shot on Robinson as the fourth EDGE off the board.

Not all of of the other edge rushers I have included in my top 40 rookie IDPs – Missouri’s Darius Robinson (No. 15), Alabama’s Chris Braswell (No. 16), Washington’s Bralen Trice (No. 20), Kansas’ Austin Booker (No. 21), Utah’s Jonah Elliss (No. 24), Western Michigan’s Marshawn Kneeland (No. 25), Penn State’s Adisa Isaac (No. 26), Colorado State’s Mohamed Kamara (No. 30) and UCLA’s Gabriel Murphy (No. 32) – will become fantasy contributors, but I feel relatively comfortable with four or five of them hitting.

A Good Crop of Corners

While there are no corners at the prospect level of a Sauce Gardner, Trent McDuffie, or Christian Gonzalez from the past couple of drafts, it is a pretty deep group from an NFL perspective. Alabama’s Terrion Arnold and Toledo’s Quinyon Mitchell are sure-fire first-rounders, though no locks to go in the top ten. Clemson’s Nate Wiggins, Iowa’s Cooper DeJean, and Alabama’s Kool-Aid McKinstry are at minimum round one possibilities. In all, NFL.com draft analyst Lance Zierlein pegged 16 corner prospects as good enough to become at least an average NFL starter at the position, and The Athletic’s Dane Brugler graded 15 corners as worthy of day one or day two selections.

For IDP, it’s unfortunate of course that the corner position sits near the top of the list of positions from a strength standpoint. In some rookie drafts the position may be devalued to the point that none are drafted, and even in “start 11” formats with at least two starting corners, it’s not overly difficult to stream decent starts on a weekly basis.

If corners do matter in your league, know which type of corner to target once your rookie draft rolls around. I don’t want anyone to think I’m taking a stance that Arnold and/or Mitchell aren’t capable of providing CB1 production, but you’re much more likely to see sustained and predictable fantasy points from corners who see the majority of their snaps lined up over the slot.

Slot defenders will spend the majority of their snaps closer to the box, typically in off-coverage to allow time to react to a slot receiver’s quick breaks. And given the nature of quick passing games today, slot receivers are targeted frequently. Slot defenders are also in better position to provide run support – aiding those tackle numbers – and have less ground to cover to the quarterback when blitzing. And even though most play fewer snaps than full-time outside corners, the volume of targets and higher tackle numbers offset the difference in snaps.

Here’s a look at 2023’s top dozen fantasy corners, pulled from a league I’d consider to be fairly typical of scoring ratios of tackle to big play (2.5 points per solo tackle, 1.25 points per assist, eight points per interception, and three points per pass defensed). These corners are ranked on a points-per-game basis

CB Total tackles PPG finish Season finish Total snaps % of snaps in slot or box
Devon Witherspoon, SEA 79 1 5 883 58.0%
DaRon Bland, DAL 69 2 1 963 18.2%
Paulson Adebo, NO 76 3 6 948 10.0%
Kenny Moore, IND 93 4 3 1089 79.0%
Nate Hobbs, LV 86 5 18 775 83.1%
Tyrique Stevenson, CHI 86 6 4 830 12.7%
Darius Slay, PHI 57 7 25 809 7.5%
Charvarius Ward, SF 72 8 2 931 7.1%
Cam Taylor-Britt, CIN 50 9 32 653 16.1%
Roger McCreary, TEN 86 10 15 934 75.5%
Keisean Nixon, GB 80 11 7 808 92.6%
Taron Johnson, BUF 98 12 8 954 94.8%

(Alignment data via Pro Football Focus)

Tackle volume has a much higher probability of repeating year-over-year than interceptions, and of the corners finishing among the top 12 in points per game in 2023, five of the six who predominantly played outside were among the league leaders in interceptions (Bland with nine; Ward with five; and Adebo, Stevenson, and Taylor-Britt with four each).

So if we’re targeting slot corners – or corners who at least have a chance to see the majority of their snaps out of the slot – I like three incoming rookies above all others.

DeJean’s prolific tackle numbers and ball production – 116 total tackles, 20 passes defended, and seven interceptions over his final 23 collegiate games – have made him the darling of many IDP managers. I’ve heard some respected player evaluators question his ability to stick on the outside, and for fantasy that’s just fine. He should at least be able to play on the perimeter in base personnel, and move inside for nickel and dime snaps. It’s possible the Iowa star is seen as a safety by NFL teams, but I’d assume any team drafting him in the first round is going to want to give him every opportunity to stick at outside corner.

There are significant length (5-foot-9, sub-31-inch arms) concerns with Michigan’s Mike Sainristil, but the converted receiver fits well as a full-time slot. An aggressive downhill player, Sainristil showed the ability to quickly read what was in front of him and break quickly toward the ball. It’s hard not to watch Sainristil and not get serious Mike Hilton vibes. As a senior, he converted two of his six interceptions into touchdowns, and he tallied 11.5 tackles for loss during his two seasons on defense.

I’m also into Kentucky’s Andru Phillips, whose quickness and aggression should help him transition to full-time slot work as a pro.

DeJean and Sainristil are my top two fantasy corner prospects, and Nos 22 and 23, respectively, in my pre-draft rookie rankings. Phillips comes in at No. 43 as my third-ranked rookie corner.

A Few Loveable Linebackers

Have you ever fallen for someone and had your friends tell you it’s not a good fit? You probably let them know (in the kindest way possible, of course) that you could give a flip about what they think. And you know how that story turns out.

This draft season, I’m having those same feelings for Edgerrin Cooper that I had last year for Drew Sanders. Sanders, an edge rusher at Alabama before transferring to Arkansas and moving to off-ball, didn’t make it through his rookie season in Denver at his newer position, and has been relocated to the outside linebacker room. Cooper, with good length (6-foot-2, 34-inch arms) and a high-cut frame, just looks more like a 9-tech edge rusher than an off-ball. And indeed, some of his most shared highlights are of Cooper lined up off the edge and screaming downhill for one of his eight sacks as a senior. I love his game, but I do worry whether or not he has enough sand in his pants to hold up at off-ball. He’s still 230, and he’s my No. 1 overall IDP prospect, so I’m only so concerned.

That said, the strength of the off-ball group as a position is highly dependent on some prospects with questions working out. While I’m perhaps irrationally high on Cooper, my No. 2 overall rookie prospect, Payton Wilson, showed everything you could ask of an off-ball as a senior at N.C. State, amassing 138 total tackles and six sacks en route to being named the Butkus Award winner. But he too has concerns entering the NFL due to an extensive injury history that includes multiple knee and shoulder surgeries. There’s really only one other off-ball prospect that looks to have top-50 dynasty IDP upside and pedigree, and that’s Michigan’s Junior Colson.

We could see some eventual hits out of some others in this group, but I get progressively less confident in the group fairly quickly. My overall top 40 IDP prospect sheet includes Clemson’s Jeremiah Trotter Jr. (No. 10), North Carolina’s Cedric Gray (No. 14), Ohio State’s Tommy Eichenberg (No. 18), Mississippi State’s Nathaniel Watson (No. 28), Kentucky’s Trevin Wallace (No. 29), Temple’s Jordan Magee (No. 31), and Washington’s Edefuan Ulofoshio (No. 40). Given the positional value of linebacker in most leagues, I’ll take more swings on this group than others and be prepared to live with the high strikeout rate.

2024 draft coverage 3

A Top-Heavy Interior Group

Wow, were we blessed with the 2023 rookie defensive tackle group. Jalen Carter, Calijah Kancey, and Kobie Turner all look like current and long-term DT1s, and Bryan Bresee, Gervon Dexter, and Keeanu Benton could all be factors in defensive tackle-premium leagues. I might argue we have a couple of elite possibilities in 2024 with Texas’ Byron Murphy II and Illinois’ Johnny Newton, but the depth just isn’t there this season.

In any defensive tackle-premium league with two or more designated flex spots (meaning you can start three or more interior guys), Murphy should garner consideration for the first IDP off the board in rookie drafts. His burst off the snap and movement skills are elite for a tackle, and he’s strong enough to make plays on the ball when two-gapping. Newton is the Latu of the interior group, with hand usage and upper body moves for days on end. Both Murphy and Newton are going to be first-round picks, and are going to be fine in their transition to the pros.

There’s a bit of a step down to my third interior defensive lineman and No. 17 overall IDP prospect, Florida State’s Braden Fiske, whose 9.97 RAS is tempered only by seriously stubby 31-inch arms. I also like Clemson’s Ruke Orhorhoro (No. 27), Ohio State’s Mike Hall Jr. (No. 34), and LSU’s Maason Smith (No. 35), but the upside depth is wanting at defensive tackle.

Safety’s Kind of a Snoozer

Hopefully, no one’s roster is desperate for safety help. If so, I recommend exploring the trade market rather than overpaying in a rookie draft. Granted, I think well enough of four incoming rookies – Washington State’s Jaden Hicks (No. 11), Minnesota’s Tyler Nubin (No. 12), Georgia’s Javon Bullard (No. 13) and Utah’s Cole Bishop (No. 19) – to include each among my top 20 overall IDP prospects. Their inclusion at those ranks is probably more of an indictment of the IDP class as a whole, though, and all will likely be over-drafted in rookie drafts.

If you’re in the market for late flyers, I’d look to Wake Forest’s Malik Mustapha (No. 33), Oregon State’s Kitan Oladapo (No. 36), and the Miami duo of Kamren Kinchens (No. 37) and James Williams (No. 38), although the latter looks like a potential linebacker convert along the lines of a Jamien Sherwood rather than a Divine Deablo.

jason king