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Fantasy Football: How to Project the League’s Top Tacklers

by Vaughn Dalzell | @VaughnDalzell | Featured Writer
May 15, 2020

Budda Baker led the league in solo tackles last year.

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If you play in a unique fantasy league, then you may have the liberty of not only drafting a defense but an individual player from that defense as really, another starter. Over the last four seasons, linebackers have led the way as the top individual defensive position to go after, but defensive backs are making a case worth considering.

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Defensive Backs in a Linebacker’s World

In 2019, Cardinals safety Budda Baker led the league in solo tackles (104), the first time a non-linebacker has led the league in solo tackles since Jets cornerback Victor Green did so in 1996. Only Green and cornerback Terry Wooten (1995) have led in solo tackles since 1994. Baker finished 11th in total fantasy points per game (225.2) and tied-9th among in fantasy points per game (14.1) among players who played 16 games.

The last time a defensive back led the league in fantasy points was 2015. Then-Dolphins safety Reshad Jones had the most fantasy points (278.9) and led the league in fantasy points per game (17.4) among players that played in 16 games. Titans cornerback Logan Ryan (8th) and Panthers safety Eric Reid (13th) were the only defensive backs to rank in the top 15 in fantasy points in 2019, and only Jets safety Jamal Adams made the list in 2018 (7th).

Of all the defensive backs listed, only Budda Baker led the league in solo tackles, with Jones coming the closest with 106 in 2015, which was second behind Navorro Bowman’s 116. While Jamal Adams and Budda Baker are strong defensive backs to consider for the tackling crown and also the top individual defensive fantasy player, who else is worthy of consideration?

The Favorites

As of May 11, Eric Reid and Logan Ryan are free agents, so two of the best fantasy options are off the table. Baker’s teammate Jordan Hicks (LB) led the league with 252.3 fantasy points and a league-high 15.8 fantasy points per game for those who played 16 games.

Hicks quietly erupted for 157 total tackles, 97 solo, three interceptions, and 1.5 sacks after leaving the Eagles in 2018. He went from a Philadelphia defense that ranked 19th in points per drive (1.99), 21st in yards allowed per drive (33.16), and 22nd in plays per drive (6.04) to a Cardinals defense that was not he field far more in 2019.

There are a couple of players that will enter positions similar to Hicks’ next year: Cory Littleton, Blake Martinez, and Joe Schobert. All three players have moved onto a new team in the offseason that ranks worse statically than their previous team. In 2019, all three players finished top five in overall fantasy points and fantasy points per game. That could stay the same in 2020, as we may see career years for one (if not all three) linebackers.

However, Darius Leonard, the unanimous fantasy leader, should be the number one once again in 2020. Leonard finished first as a rookie in fantasy points (309.2) and points per game (20.6) in 2018, then sixth in 2019 with 231.2 fantasy points and a league-high 17.8 points per game despite playing only 13 games in 2019. He led the league in solo tackles (111) and combined (163) as a rookie.

Leonard trailed the league lead in overall defensive fantasy points by 21.1, and he would have led the league once again if he had played a full season, or potentially just one more game. He’s had 284 tackles, 182 of them solo, 12 sacks, and seven interceptions in his first two seasons with the Colts. In the past two seasons, the Colts have finished ranked 23rd in 2018 (6.04) and 20th in 2019 (6.11) in defensive plays per drive.

Defensive Lineman Need Love, Too

In 2019, only Danielle Hunter ranked top 25 in fantasy points per game (22nd) as a defensive lineman, joining the few superior linemen worth drafting. Only Aaron Donald (2018) and J.J. Watt (2015, 2018) have finished top-10 in overall fantasy points or fantasy points per game in a single-season since 2015. Watt battled a pectoral tear that limited him to eight regular-season games in 2019, so his 2020 season can be risky at 31 years old.

Donald returns to the Rams as the back-to-back NFL Defensive Player of the Year with 33 sacks and 65 quarterback hits during that span. At 28 years old and having only missed two games in six seasons, he’s clearly the front-runner from a defensive lineman standpoint to be number one. Donald finished 43rd last season in total fantasy points (173.2) after a career-best third overall in 2018 (244.7). Donald has averaged at least 10.8 fantasy points per game in a single-season since 2017.

Only Cameron Jordan and Demarcus Lawrence have averaged that in three-consecutive seasons and Vikings’ Danielle Hunter is the only defensive lineman to record back-to-back seasons of 200 fantasy points or more. Hunter is entering his prime at 25 years old, and he’s well worth grabbing if you’re going the non-traditional way and avoiding a linebacker.

How to Predict the League’s Top Tacklers and Fantasy Options

A couple of factors that you should consider outside of individual player statistics: drives faced, yards allowed per drive, points allowed per drive, plays per defensive drive, defensive time of possession on drives, times targeted, and if you’re selecting a player with a high sack rate, the team’s blitzing percentages.

Starting with Budda Baker and Jordan Hicks’ team, the Cardinals, let’s take a look at some of the ways to pick which of the worst and better defenses are worth selecting players from.

The Cardinals faced 169 drives, allowing an NFL-high 38.03 yards per drive, according to Jim Armstrong of FootballOutsiders. Arizona also allowed the 29th-most points per drive (2.41) and was on the field for the most plays per drive (6.56). Given all that, it’s safe to assume the Cardinals had the worst defense in the league, and they allowed the most total yards per game (402.0), the second-most passing yards allowed (281.9), and the fifth-most points per game (27.6).

Over the last four seasons, Arizona has been in the bottom-five of most drives faced, and no other team has been in the category for more than two times. A couple of teams that resemble the Cardinals in yards allowed per drive and plays per defensive drive are the Cincinnati Bengals and Las Vegas Raiders.

The two leading tackles from that a team a year ago were safety Shawn Williams for the Bengals (114 combined) and linebacker Tahir Whitehead for the Raiders (108). Williams finished 25th in overall fantasy points (196.5), and Whitehead finished 22nd (197.8) last season. Whitehead now joins Carolina, where he could be more versatile, but with Littleton replacing him in Las Vegas, my money is on Littleton for the better season.

The Bengals finished 28th in yards allowed per defensive drives (35.89) and 21st in plays per drive (6.14). While the Raiders ended 2019 ranked 30th in yards per drive (37.19), and 25th in plays per drive (6.18). On both teams, there isn’t much of a talent selection outside of Cory Littleton’s arrival in Las Vegas, but sticking with Baker and Hicks would be the better move. Throw in Cardinals linebacker Chandler Jones or Texans linebacker Zach Cunningham as two more players who finished far above the rest of their defenses in fantasy and statistical standards.

If you aren’t into selecting a great player from a horrid defense, you can always take a star from a defensively-sound unit. Some examples? Fred Warner on the 49ers and T.J. Watt from the Steelers. Both the 49ers’ and Steelers’ defenses ranked fifth or better in yards allowed per drive, points per drive, and total yards allowed per game.

The Steelers’ prized linebacker had 27.5 sacks on 57 quarterback hits in the past two seasons, and he was asked to blitz almost double his production from 2018 to 2019. Watt blitzed the quarterback 80 times in 2019, earning 14.5 sacks while totaling 13 sacks on 46 blitzes in 2018. Warner has consecutive seasons of 118 combined tackles or more, and he has been targeted at least 74 times in both seasons. Watt finished seventh and 16th in fantasy points in 2019, and Warner finished 14th in 2019 and 45th in 2018.

Bottom Line

Taking a lot of those statistics into account can be difficult when drafting a defender, but they will certainly help clear up a lot of questions you have about a player’s caliber in any defense. Taking into account how different fantasy leagues are scored for defensive players, these stats may differ, but ultimately, the players mentioned are all worth drafting. Remember, there is nothing wrong with drafting a lesser-known player like a Jordan Hicks or Joe Schobert over the likes of an Aaron Donald or T.J. Watt if they’re going to rack up 150-plus tackles.

Production over popularity is the main difference-maker in whether to draft a player that is going to week-in-and-week-out impact your weekly matchup in a positive manner.

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Vaughn Dalzell is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Vaughn, check out his archive or follow him @VaughnDalzell.

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