As we await the opening of training camps around the NFL landscape, it seems an appropriate time to start investigating which defensive players and team defenses to invest in once draft season arrives. These weekly articles, as we move toward the regular season, will analyze various defenses and the players that make up those squads.
This week, we begin with one of the worst team defenses from 2016, the Cleveland Browns. The unit was ranked 31st in yards allowed per game with 392.44 (only the woeful 49ers were worse), 30th in points allowed with 28.25 PPG (points per game), 30th in sacks (tied with Detroit) with 26 and in a bit of better news, tied for 23rd in interceptions with just 10 on the season, the other teams that equaled this bit of limited production being the Lions, the Rams and the 49ers. There is plenty of room for improvement this season, as the team has some new blood in the form of rookie defensive end (DE) Myles Garrett (Texas A&M), who is projected to start on the edge of the defensive line and strong safety Jabrill Peppers (Michigan). Garrett was the overall top pick in the draft, and expectations for him are high, but as with any rookie, should be kept in check. It is a difficult task for a rookie pass rusher to show consistency and every week production during their first (and sometimes second) season in the NFL.
Cleveland is shifting from the 3-4 defense employed in 2016 to a 4-3 scheme this season under new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. With a stronger defensive line, the team should improve on it 31st ranking with regards to rushing yards allowed per game, which was a horrific 142.69 YPG in 2016 (only “bested” by the 49ers, who allowed a whopping 165.81 YPG on the ground). There are certainly expectations that 2015 first round pick Danny Shelton will clog up the middle of the line and return value for the team. With team sack leader Emmanuel Ogbah being moved from outside linebacker back to a more familiar role at defensive end (where he played at Oklahoma State), to join up with this year’s first round pick Garrett, expect the pass rush to improve also.
The linebacking crew is anchored by the mid-season addition, Jamie Collins, who the Browns acquired from the New England Patriots in 2016. He will handle the strong side linebacking duties, with Christian Kirksey at middle linebacker and Joe Schobert handling the role of outside linebacker. Kirksey does lack good coverage skills, but is able to blitz effectively and stop the run, so there is potential there for IDP production but he needs to be matched up properly to be an every down LB. The depth at LB is lacking, and injuries could pose a problem if the team has to turn to MLB Tank Carder, WLB Dominique Alexander or OLB James Burgess for any stretch of the season.
The Browns had the 21st ranked pass defense last season, and as noted above, were in the bottom third of the league in interceptions. Thus, a priority in the draft was to beef up the secondary, and the team selected Jabrill Peppers with its second pick in the draft, at pick 25. Peppers has the ability and skills to provide both pass coverage and run stopping. He is a fast, athletic defensive back, who has the physicality to blitz, tackle and provide zone or man coverage. He projects as an immediate starter. Derrick Kindred is seen as the starting free safety, moving out of the strong safety role he filled last season. He started off strong in 2016 but had his season cut short by injury. At corner, Joe Haden is a solid coverage man who has the size and speed to match up against any type of receiver, whether a big man or speedster. The team signed Jason McCourty as a replacement for the now injured fourth round pick Howard Wilson, who will now compete in camp and the pre-season with Jamar Taylor for the other starting corner position opposite Haden. Whoever loses that battle will likely be relied up as the third defensive back in substitution packages. Briean Boddy-Calhoun was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2016, and figures to be the player tagged to step onto the field in dime packages this season.
Obviously, this is not the first D/ST you will want to target in your leagues, although there is certainly more potential for match up value in 2017 than there was in 2016. Last season, the Cleveland defense was only to be used during bye week situations, and then quickly returned to the waiver wire. In 2017, though, players such as Collins, Haden and Peppers are worth considering as an addition to your IDP squad. As a late round DL, Ogbah is an attractive pick option, too.
As ever, good luck and Godspeed in your fantasy efforts. Make sure to read all of our great articles to help you win your fantasy match ups every week and ultimately bask in championship glory. If you have any fantasy football questions, especially about IDP leagues, I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.