Despite being surrounded by new faces and in a new role, the IDP value of Indianapolis Colts defensive lineman DeForest Buckner in 2020 should be more of the same for him.
It’s hard to hit the ground running when you join a new group. I often wait back a bit and read the room so I can know how to fit in, rather than kicking through the wall and announcing my presence Kool-Aid Man-style. Even when you want to dive in headfirst, sometimes it takes you a while to get accustomed to new ways of doing things or even just to figure out where everything is. New Indianapolis Colts defensive lineman DeForest Buckner will also be getting accustomed this year, and it will affect his value in IDP fantasy leagues.
Buckner was nothing short of ridiculous through his first four years in the NFL. He has averaged 67 combined tackles (10 for a loss) and 7 sacks while with the San Francisco 49ers. In addition, he has averaged 166 IDP fantasy points in big-play formats and was a top-5 defensive tackle over the past two seasons. That is despite shifting from a 3-4 end to a 4-3 tackle role and already having multiple defensive coordinators in his career.
After being traded to the Colts this offseason, however, I am curious about Buckner’s value in IDP fantasy football for the 2020 campaign. How will the new situation change his production?
Gold Rush: Buckner on the 49ers
I started researching this piece thinking that Buckner’s new team would set him back this season. I believed Buckner was walking into a less prolific role as a whole and that that would dampen his upside.
Boy, was I wrong – but more on that shortly.
Buckner operated as the 3-technique defensive tackle in 49ers’ defensive coordinator Robert Saleh’s 4-3 front, meaning he tended to line up outside the shoulder of an offensive guard.
In traditional 4-3 fronts, the 3-tech is the primary interior pass-rusher. Buckner has played 64.7 percent of his defensive snaps at that position since 2017. Primary Colts’ three-techniques Margus Hunt and Denico Autry/Grover Stewart had similar snap breakdowns, as demonstrated by the table below.
Even more interesting is how the defensive line was structured around Buckner and his new team. The typical 4-3 front also utilizes a second defensive tackle at the 1-technique, called the nose tackle or “NT”. This position tends to be the primary run defender on the line. They reduce the total pass-rush pressure but create more sack opportunities for others.
In 2019, however, both the 49ers and Colts went away from using a primary nose tackle. Instead, they both deployed dual pass-rush 3-techniques. The table below shows the snap breakdown of all interior defensive linemen on these teams from 2019.
In 2018, Al Woods was the primary nose for the Colts and Earl Mitchell was the same for the 49ers. Both teams gave over 350 snaps to the position in those years, but then basically eliminated it last year. This seems to correlate with the news that the 49ers shifted to a “wide-9” base in 2019, as well as the fact that the Colts began using “NASCAR” (four edge rusher) fronts on passing downs to accommodate veteran Justin Houston as well as the continued development of Tyquan Lewis as an interior-exterior versatile defensive lineman.
How did that affect the value of the primary pass-rushing 3-tech – Buckner’s projected role?
Giddy-Up: DeForest Buckner to the Colts
The table below shows the change from 2018 to 2019 in pressure rate and sack conversion rate (sacks per pressure) for Indianapolis and San Francisco.
I’ll be working on an article later this summer about this, but we should largely think of pressure rate as a skill of an individual player that normalizes around the same rate year-to-year (think BABIP in baseball), while sack conversion rate can fluctuate based on contextual factors, sample sizes, and luck (raw batting average in baseball).
The data suggests that there is little change to the pressure rate due to the shift to the no-nose alignment. The drop in the Colts’ rate came likely as a result of negative regression and a diminished role for Hunt and Stewart’s promotion over Autry.
What drastically shifted for the original 3-tech is the sack conversion rate, however. With an added pass-rusher, it’s logical that they would sap off some of the sacks from the original 3-tech. Especially with no positive change in pressure from the added pass-rusher position, that’s just another mouth to feed.
The tackle opportunity rate (percent of snaps with a tackle, assist, or miss) remained roughly the same in both schemes. We should feel fairly confident that things won’t be too off-putting when Buckner dons the blue-and-white.
The scheme Buckner should arrive in will be like leaving your cubicle at one job and coming to the new one, only to find they’ve perfectly replicated the old cubicle. Less talent around him may mean his sack rate is lower. Still, Buckner shouldn’t have a hitch in his productivity thanks to the familiarity with the scheme.
My projections have Buckner pegged for 850 snaps. He averaged 843 over the last three years, and Indianapolis’s defense should be on the field slightly more often. With those I have him earning 40 combined tackles, 7.0 sacks, and two forced fumbles. In big-play scoring, that equates to around 180 fantasy points as the DL8 and DT2; in balanced scoring, he remains the DT2 but drops to the DL16, or a high-end second starter.
We should view this as Buckner’s floor, too. My projections use the team’s previous production as the basis and adjust based on the player filling the slot. Buckner has a historical tackle and pressure rate much higher than his predecessors as the Indianapolis 3-tech. Due to this, he could reach 50 combined tackles and 9 sacks; the DL1 spot is within reach.
Despite a change of scenery, the outlook with the Colts is still really bright for DeForest Buckner.
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