DraftKings NFL Strategy: Decoding Defense
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Decoding the Lies – Team Defense DVOA
Let me guess. You've already started on your list of defenses to target against in DFS, right? You probably already ticked the Browns defense due to their 2016 DVOA and other various statistics, yes? Noticed that the Colts were almost dead last in most meaningful defensive categories for the 2016 season? Yeah, it's okay. We've all done that before in preparation for the new NFL seasons with assumptions that each and every defense will play exactly the same as the aforementioned statistics. Unfortunately, life just isn't that easy. Every year the landscape of the bottom feeders in the NFL generally go through subtle changes that may go unnoticed to the casual DFS player. Luckily for those of us that actually use our eyes, that is where the edge is found in the early goings of the new season. I'll be highlighting the top 3 defenses that underwent the most significant changes for the better and worse. Decoding the DVOA statistics and the additions/subtractions a team makes will be crucial in creating the best possible scenarios for Week 1 lineups. It's all about targeting the ideal situations, AKA don't pick the bums that the fish will roster. Capisce?
Defensive Units Ticking Up
Jacksonville Jaguars – The Jags had a great offseason that may end up pushing the defense into top five territory by season's end. The Jaguars were already one of the more underrated defenses from the 2016 season, and the additions of A.J. Bouye and Calais Campbell through free agency just bolsters that stingy defense. They were ranked the 12th best total defense DVOA with a 12th and 15th ranking in pass/rush defense. Bouye had a fantastic year with the Texans, posting an impressive 90.7 PFF grade, with only the Broncos' Chris Harris Jr. posting a higher grade. That's going to make that secondary a must avoid with the strong 2nd half play from their rookie Jalen Ramsey, who posted a very solid 81.4 grade and bounced back from his bad early starts. The Jags already have one of the best coverage linebackers in Paul Posluszny, posting a whopping 87.3 coverage grade that ranks him as the 3rd best coverage Lbs. The tandem of Poz and Telvin Smith (6th best run defender among Lbs) were a lethal duo, and now they get another beast up front to help attack the gaps and get after the QB with Calais Campbell.
The 2016 season was Campbell's best season to date, posting an impressive 92.9 overall PFF grade that ranked him as the 2nd best interior defenders next to PFF darling Aaron Donald. J.J. Watt was injured and didn't play the season, which may have put Campbell in third had Watt played. That's still elite company for the 30 year old Campbell, who also bring his 56.5 career sacks (8 last year) as one of the premier interior pass rushers in the NFL. He's not too shabby against the run either, ranking 6th in that category. The combo of Campbell's versatility and Malik Jackson's pass rushing ability (7th best pass rusher among interior defenders) along with Poz/Telvin provide the Jags with a potentially top 5 defensive front that shouldn't be overlooked for DFS purposes.
The Jags also added Fournette through the draft and hired Doug Marrone as their head coach, creating the sense that they're committed to a controlling gameplan on offense through the run game. The Jags were the 2nd highest paced team last season with the 8th most offensive snaps on a per game basis. That number will drop as the season progresses. The Jags defense gave up the 13th most offensive snaps and that number should drop down with their improvements on both pass and rush defense. Unless Bortles just decides to YOLO it in the 1st couple of weeks, forcing Marrone to start Pornstache King Chad Henne which only makes it even harder for the defense to actually stay alive on the field after Henne chucks up interceptions. I mean, it could happen.
Tennessee Titans – The Titans had one of the worst secondaries last year, both due to injuries and just having no talent on the roster. Despite the Titans' rankings in pace (26th slowest team with the 11th fewest offensive snaps), their “exotic smashmouth” offensive gameplan didn't prevent the defense from seeing the field often. The Titans defense were still giving up the 12th most offensive snaps per game which negated their 10th run defense DVOA ranking. So why are they my 2nd most improved defense? Easy! They got rid of all the dead weight that was dragging them into the abyss and improved the secondary through free agency/NFL draft. They added Logan Ryan from the Patriots in FA, bringing a respectable 83.1 overall rating that ranked him as the 17th best CB. Alongside Ryan will likely be their 1st round pick in Adoree' Jackson, who's been having a strong camp and preseason thus far. He's still going to be a massive improvement from the guys they signed off the street last season. Those two additions alone should change their 27th ranked pass defense, but there's also one under the radar signing that the Titans pulled off during FA that should have a big impact.
One of the biggest holes for the Titans was their safety play, and the signing of John Cyprien will be one of their most important signings of the offseason. Cyprien posted an overall grade of 88.9, good for 7th best among safeties. While his coverage skills are average his run defense numbers were tops among safeties and should help ease the burden on the entire secondary. Cyprien not only will bring a presence on the defense with his hard hitting prowess, his ability to guard against the run and stay in the box will allow Kevin Byard to roam and do what he does best. Byard was one of the Titans' best draft picks last season, posting a solid 78.9 overall grade with a 79.5 coverage grade despite having probably too many responsibilities on a mediocre defense. Being able to free lance more and not having to guard everything will be a big boost to Byard, and Logan Ryan's experience in shadowing #1 receivers gives the Titans more chess pieces to use on defense.
The Titans should continue having one of the strongest run offenses in the NFL, which will keep their slow pace/ low offensive snaps to their 2016 numbers. The important number for the Titans will come down to offensive snaps given up, as their run defense still should be stellar and allow for more 3rd and longs. Can their improved secondary co-exist together and actually be able to rush the quarterback without giving up 100-yard touchdown passes? Well, of course, I think they can! They wouldn't be on here otherwise! You bunch of silly billies.
Washington Redskins – Stay with me here. Some of you may have loved targeting the Redskins' woeful 25th ranked overall defense last season, but they had a very strong offseason aided by a fantastic draft. The Redskins had an uncharacteristically good draft, taking one of the top prospects at a bargain with their 1st round pick of Jonathan Allen, who's already showing a strong presence in camp and preseason. The addition of Allen boosts the Redskins' pass rushers as they have another body to help guard against the run, freeing up the likes of Ryan Kerrigan to focus more on getting pressure. They also drafted Ryan Anderson and several others that should be an upgrade for their run defense. The most important additions for their 24th ranked run defense were made through FA with the signings of D.J. Swearinger and Zach Brown. Both guys aren't known for their run defense, but their high coverage grades should help give the defense an identity and be able to actually get some sort of chemistry together. When you have a team full of players that don't have a defined role, it all ends up being clustered with guys who just don't know what to guard against or what gaps to attack. Brown and Swearinger will both have defined roles as their best coverage players at their positions (81.1 and 87.1 grades), which should, in theory, allow the Redskins to give run responsibilities to their run defenders instead of just hoping someone would rise to the occasion. That's already 3 starters the Redskins added through the offseason that should have a positive impact. What more is there? Oh, how nice of you to ask.
The Redskins' pass defense was inconsistent at best, with Bashaud Breeland battling injuries throughout the season and posting one of his worst seasons to date. Breeland's struggles were surprising considering he was a top echelon CB just the season before, which is why I think Breeland can bounce back and return to that shutdown form that made the CB duo of Josh Norman and Breeland a hyped up commodity during the 2016 offseason. Norman didn't have a Panthers-esque season as a Redskin, but he was still a very good CB with an 81 overall grade and the 13th best coverage grade at 83. Kendall Fuller is another CB whose health was another underlying factor for a poor rookie season, as Fuller just simply did not look like the explosive CB from college that had teams drooling at his potential before his injury. Recovering from microfracture surgery isn't an easy thing, and it was obvious Fuller still was feeling the after effects of such a difficult surgery. Thus far throughout camp and preseason, Fuller has gone beyond the coaches' expectations as the primary slot cornerback, and while I don't particularly care for coach speak I can actually tell Fuller seems much improved from his rookie season. Will it actually translate into a positive impact for their pass defense? Only time will tell, but I think the combination of a hopefully Breeland/Norman/Fuller and having legitimate options to cover specific receivers/tight ends give their pass defense a much better prognosis for the season to come. Changing their team name would probably help as well, but I digress.
Defensive Units Ticking Down
Buffalo Bills – This was a hard one to choose from other viable (awful?) defenses, but as I said before this is more about how each defense improved for the better or worse rather than just staying terrible (the Saints for example). The Bills traded away their only talent at cornerback by shipping Ronald Darby for Jordan Matthews, and then replaced Darby with E.J. Gaines with the trade of Sammy Watkins to the Rams. While their 1st round selection of Tre'Davious White should lessen the impact of trading away Darby, the departure of Stephon Gilmore was a big hit to their already low ranked secondary (12th worst). Gaines was one of the few CBs that actually graded out worse than Darby at a shockingly low 37 overall. Rex Ryan was a very stubborn coach and their entire defense regressed under his tutelage, and while some blame may go to the coach and the system, one could argue certain players just gave up on the team. One name to watch in particular is Marcell Dareus, who continues even to this day to annoy the front office with self-inflicted wounds such as not being in shape, failing drug tests, and now was just sent home before their 3rd preseason game for violating a team rule. It's clear the Bills want to change the culture and give a semblance of order and structure, but Dareus is already getting off to a bad start. With all of that said, another main reason why I put the Bills as the worst improved defense over the offseason is the fact their roster makeup closely resembles those from fictional football movies. I'm actually not sure who the Bills will eventually start as many of their positions currently have low graded players such as FS Jordan Poyer (49.4 grade) and MLB Preston Brown (45.9 grade) as their starters.
The new scheme fits for Sean McDermott will likely make or break the season for the Bills' defense, as they'll employ a 4-3 defense instead of the 3-4 that Rex Ryan prefers. In today's NFL, no one really runs base defenses and they're all mostly variants of different formations such as the 4-3 under (think Seattle's “Elephant” or LEO scheme), so it really comes down to tendencies from defensive coordinators. His teams have generally been one gap assignments, which puts less reliance on the DL having to eat up 1-2 blocks every snap. That may change the Bills' run defense as a whole, but do they have the personnel to do so? I don't think they currently do, but in the future, the Bills certainly could improve by adding more talented players such as Shaq Lawson. The scheme change also affected their previous 2nd round pick in Reggie Ragland, who was more of a thumper for a 3-4 base defense. Maybe he finds a role with the Bills, but as of now they just simply do not have enough tools to cover up their holes in the secondary. If McDermott can get penetration from his unit similar to how Dallas attacks the run, they should be able to at the very least improve on their 30th run defense ranking.
It's a new coach with a new defensive scheme who doesn't quite have the players to really get it going. The Bills are undergoing drastic changes for the better as they stockpile draft picks and change the culture of the team. That doesn't mean they won't have a tumultuous season to start before things get better. If the past has any indication, McDermott has proven in the past years he has the ability to quickly change the landscape of a defense as he did with the Panthers. Who knows, maybe next season I'll be putting the Bills as the most improved team for the better! Sorry Leone.
Dallas Cowboys – Might be a surprising team to some, but they've gone through a ton of turnover over the past offseason. Not only is their entire DL basically suspended, they lost several key defensive players to free agency and will be relying on rookies at key spots. They lost two of their better safeties to FA in J.J. Wilcox (Buccaneers) and Barry Church (Jaguars), while both of their starting cornerbacks left in FA as well. Morris Claiborne to the Jets was a bigger hit than Brandon Carr to the Ravens, as Claiborne had his best years as a Cowboy under their predominantly man-press scheme. They will have to rely on Anthony Brown and rookies Chidobe Awuzie/Jourdan Lewis to hold down the fort at the moment. Orlando Scandrick has been a proven commodity as a slot cornerback, but injuries have been a major issue for him so that isn't a given. If the Cowboys don't want one of the rookies starting alongside Brown, then it would be Nolan Carroll and his incredible 44.6 grade on the boundary. Sounds like a delicious Thanksgiving feast to me.
There's a silver lining for the Cowboys though, and its name is Jaylon Smith. If Smith can come back from his devastating injury and actually give good snaps for the defense, then the combo of Lee/Smith can probably survive the DL turnover. The Cowboys aren't as reliant on player talent as other teams are for their run defense, thanks mostly in part to Rod Marinelli's aggressive scheme that asks players to simply explode through the gap as much as possible to create chaos. If Marinelli can get his current group minus David Irving to simply do their job as they have in the past, then their run defense still should be stout behind Lee/Smith's consistent tackling and pursuits. Will it stay at a lofty 8th overall run defense ranking amid all the changes? I don't think so, but their run defense will still be a challenge as long as Marinelli is calling the plays on D.
My biggest worry with the Cowboys defense comes down to whatever will happen with Ezekiel Elliott's situation. The Cowboys have a tremendous OL and a smart QB in Dak Prescott, and the duo of Dak/Zeke helped the Cowboys control the game as the 2nd slowest team last season. That slow pace and game control through the run game and Dak dump-offs allowed the Cowboys to be able to limit their defensive exposures (12th fewest offensive snaps given up). With no official answer on whether Elliott will serve his 6 game suspension or get it reduced/serve it in the 2018 season, I have to assume the Cowboys' defense will be under duress early in the season as they try to find chemistry with all of their new players. I mean, if they're really going to start Nolan Carroll then I am just firing whoever will line up in front of him every single week. Point blank, there is less continuity on the Cowboys defense than ever before, and that's a major sign of a potential regression.
Detroit Lions – They were already one of the worst defenses last year with the last place ranking in pass defense and 19th against the run. So why are they here if the Lions already stink? Well, somehow their defense got worse over the offseason. The Lions tried to address their dead last defense with several FA signings and drafting rookie LB Jarrad Davis, and while that's good and dandy on paper, the reality of their moves is most of the players they got just aren't that good. Signing Cornelius Washington was a good move for their pass rush especially now their sack leader in Kerry Hyder Jr. will miss the season with a torn Achilles. The problem with Washington is he offers virtually no help to their run defense, and the rest of their DL grades out poorly against the run. Add in the fact that they also lost LB Brandon Copeland for the season to a torn pec, thinning out their depth to the point I seriously think they may have one of the worst LB units in the NFL. Here are the current Lbs on the roster for the Lions and their corresponding grades – Nick Bellore (47.6), Tahir Whitehead (36.7), Paul Worrilow through FA (68.7 in limited snaps), and rookie Jarrad Davis. Yikes.
There is a silver lining even for the NFL's lowest ranked defense, and that's their safety play. Both Tavon Wilson and Glover Quin were the Lions' most consistent players, grading out as the 18th and 27th best overall safeties respectively. Add in top tier CB Darius Slay's 15th best grade with an improving Nevin Lawson, and the Lions just might have a solid secondary. Too bad the rest of the defense is in shambles and likely will get destroyed by opposing running backs and tight ends. A shame indeed, but if the Lions' 2nd half offense continues into the 2017 season then the Lions just might have a chance at mitigating their dumpster fire of a defense. The Lions were the 6th slowest paced offense, putting in the 4th fewest offensive plays that resulted in their defense only giving up the 2nd least offensive snaps. That means the Lions' slow play reduced the amount of time the defense had to see the field. Unfortunately, the defense was still the 32nd ranked team defense DVOA despite Stafford's efforts at milking the clock for as long as possible. I don't see any significant changes with the construction of the current roster, and honestly, it just might get even worse for the upcoming season. Fire away!
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