How has free agent moves affected some of the linebackers who have changed teams in 2018, are they still worth a roster spot? Or are they more valuable now?
In general, the success of a defensive player as a fantasy commodity is limited by his opportunity. Gauging opportunities is how you can find late round gems. Players like Deion Jones are not limited by the players around them, they are the players limiting others. Players like Tahir Whitehead are not going to create their own opportunities at the same level of regularity, however.
Whitehead is a player that is difficult to pin down. He went to a new team as a free agent. He was a fantasy performer for multiple consecutive seasons with the Lions, but in 2018, he will be in a different scheme with a different team. Leagues are won and lost on decisions regarding players like this.
Whitehead is a legitimate NFL starter. The 2014 Lions proved that if he is one of the worst players on a defense, it is a damn fine defense. The 2016 and 2017 Lions defenses showed that if he is one of the best players on your defense, it is not a very good defense.
In 2018 players like Whitehead, Preston Brown, Demario Davis, Jon Bostic and Avery Williamson all fall into this category. They were all solid to great fantasy performers with their last team. How they perform for IDP purposes in 2018 will largely be determined by the opportunities their new situations present.
Find The Diamonds In The Rough
The first way to judge their opportunity is to look at the person they replaced. Williamson, for example, is stepping directly into Davis’ old job. Davis was one of the NFL’s most productive tacklers for the Jets in 2017. It is reasonable to work under the assumption that Williamson’s opportunity to succeed will be very good.
Jon Bostic is competing to fill the hole in the Steelers defense left by Ryan Shazier. Bostic is nowhere near the same level of player. In the Steelers first depth chart released, Bostic appears to be losing that battle. Tyler Matakevich is running with the ones in practice, and they both looked terrible in the first preseason game. Bostic’s opportunity right now appears to be poor. An injury to Williamson or Matakevich, however, puts him in a very good place to be successful. He is a waiver wire watch list candidate to keep in mind.
Preston Brown is stepping into a Bengals team that is made even more difficult to project because they changed defensive coordinators. In this case, though, the defensive coordinator coming in happens to be the man who was at the helm of Whitehead’s ascension to fantasy relevance. Teryl Austin’s defensive scheme has been very linebacker friendly. DeAndre Levy, Stephen Tulloch, Whitehead, and Jarrad Davis have all been solid fantasy performers as one of the linebackers getting nickel snaps. Brown’s opportunity is added to by the fact that we never really know how many games Vontaze Burfict will play. The new rules governing tackling may cost Burfict even more games.
Davis is walking into a vastly different situation from last season. He will still log snaps for his new team, but the players around him are much better. The presence of Cameron Jordan on the defensive line does hurt Davis’ relative opportunity. Jordan tends to stop a lot of running plays cold himself. However, the secondary Davis plays in front of should add to his opportunities to log tackles in the passing game.
The Saints are likely to be up in a lot of games due to their fantastic offense. That, in turn, means that teams will be passing a lot. The addition of Marcus Davenport to the Saints lackluster pass rush should give opposing quarterbacks a reason to check down when their primary target is covered. That will likely bolster Danis’ tackle numbers but only if he’s on the field.
Alex Anzalone and A.J. Klein have been working with the first team nickel defense. That may just be their relative level of familiarity with the defense or it may be more. Davis is not a renowned coverage linebacker, which is half of his appeal to fantasy owners.
Returning to Whitehead, the Raiders defense in front of him is solid against the run. Khalil Mack, assuming he does play in 2018, is very good at stopping plays before they get to the linebackers, as is Justin Ellis. Maurice Hurst and PJ Hall joined the team as depth players on the interior line. Hall will likely log some of the obvious run snaps and should be a stout addition to their line. Whitehead is a victim in the passing game, so his tackle numbers should be solid, but there are plenty of others to steal his run stops.
Williamson is walking into a better opportunity than he had previously. Brown is walking into a similar level of opportunity as they had previously. Whitehead may disappoint fantasy owners who draft him high expecting him to be a top ten linebacker. Davis might have dropped to a level of a bye week filler. Bostic has gone from a must-start in late 2017 to an undraftable player at this point for the 2018 season.
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