Let’s start at the top of the DL dynasty rankings, where you’ll find a new #1 …
Raiders edge rusher Khalil Mack officially moved from LB to DE in most fantasy football leagues in 2016, issuing an immediate challenge to Texans DE J.J. Watt’s reign atop the DL rankings in any format. We pushed Mack ahead of Watt in our 2016 draft rankings, especially after Watt went down for back surgery.
Houston’s defensive leader, of course, made it back for the season opener … only to go down again before the 1st month had ended. And then he missed the rest of the season.
Watt seems to have taken his 2nd shot at rehabbing the back more responsibly, and I’m not worried about him for 2017 at the moment. But he’s heading into his age-28 season, with a pair of back surgeries and a groin operation behind him—among other dings. Watt has also previously said that he’s not necessarily looking to play until his body won’t let him.
Mack is 2 years younger and has delivered 26 sacks over the past 2 seasons—plus 3 straight years of more than 70 tackles. He’s a stud. He’s younger. He doesn’t have the injury history. So he’s the top D-lineman in our keeper rankings.
But Watt’s not even #2 anymore.
Like Mack, Rams DT Aaron Donald will be 26 when the coming season begins. Like Watt and Mack, Donald’s a dominant force in real-life football. That only translated to 47 tackles (35 solo), 8 sacks, 5 pass deflections and 2 forced fumbles last season. Donald likely finished barely inside the top 20 at his position in your league in 2016.
So why’s he 2nd on the new list? Because I’d bet that we haven’t seen Donald’s best stat season yet.
With Watt out of the way, Donald led the entire league in QB hits last season, sitting 5 ahead of the 3 players tied for 2nd. That gap equaled the separation between #2 and #23 in the rankings. The top 44 included just 5 other true 4-3 DTs: Minnesota’s Tom Johnson (a part-time rush specialist) trailed Donald by 8; Jacksonville’s Malik Jackson sat 12 back; and then came Minnesota’s Linval Joseph, Miami’s Ndamukong Suh and Carolina’s Kawann Short with 17 apiece (14 fewer than Donald produced).
And Donald actually fell short of his 2015 total (37) in the category. He ranked 2nd only to Watt the year before. Even when Donald tallied just 13 hits as a 2014 rookie, he racked up 18 tackles for loss—tied for 5th most league wide.
In short, Donald has been getting into opponent backfields ever since he entered the league. His value gets a more obvious boost if you’re required to start any DTs in your IDP outfit. But I think age + talent + injury history now makes him the 2nd most attractive D-lineman.
Of course, dynasty is even more subjective than redraft fantasy football. I certainly wouldn’t bet on Donald outscoring Watt in fantasy numbers over the next year or 2. And I can only guess at how much longer any player will stay in the league. So are 2 more years of Watt worth more than perhaps 6 years of Donald? That’s up to you.
Ultimately, who you prefer here probably doesn’t even matter. If you hold Mack, Donald or Watt in a dynasty IDP league, then you should be happy with the commodity.
Welcome, Jadeveon Clowney
As I mentioned back in the LB update article, I’m making a preemptive strike here. I’ve already moved Clowney to DL on our site, anticipating that MyFantasyLeague.com and others will do so before the 2017 season commences. If they don’t, I’ll switch him back.
In the meantime, I’ll be crossing my fingers for the move. Clowney finished last season among the top 25 linemen in fantasy points per game (having missed 2 weeks) despite a modest traditional stat line. His 6 sacks tied for just 47th in the league. Among players with 6 sacks or fewer, though, only 5 beat his 17 total QB hits. And Clowney’s 16 tackles for loss tied for 6th in the league.
He’s finally healthy, just starting to deliver on the promise that made him the #1 pick in 2014 and he should spend at least 2017 lining up opposite a healthy J.J. Watt. Keep in mind, too, that he’ll still be just 24 when next season begins.
Don’t be surprised if Clowney truly explodes for fantasy owners in 2017.
Plenty of other young guys enjoyed an encouraging 2016, as well, including an impressive rookie class …
Leonard Williams, Jets
His sack numbers slipped from a torrid start, as Williams registered just a pair of half-sacks over his final 9 outings. But his 19 QB hits beat all other Jets by at least 6, while his 68 total tackles trailed only the team’s 2 ILB starters. At the least, Williams should set a strong annual tackle base. We’ll see if he can continue building the sack totals.
Joey Bosa, Chargers
We expected the #3 overall pick to be good, but he outplayed even the high expectations—especially when you consider the summer holdout and season-delaying hamstring trouble. Bosa looked like a potential Justin Smith redux a year ago. Now he seems to present a sack ceiling much higher than the longtime Bengals and Niners DE.
DeForest Buckner, 49ers
Just like with Bosa, we entered 2016 optimistic about this 1st-round pick and emerged more impressed than we expected. Buckner not only delivered on the stat front – top-10 finish on just 6 sacks – but he also played nearly all of the defensive snaps over his 15 games for the defense that led the league in total plays. Durability + production + remaining talent upside = a terrific dynasty asset.
Noah Spence, Buccaneers
Spence opened the year barely playing for a weak Tampa Bay defense, and then finished it quietly. In between, though, he tallied 5.5 sacks over an 8-game span. For the year, Spence registered QB hits in 9 of his 12 games.
Yannick Ngakoue, Jaguars
This rookie will need to significantly pick up his tackle numbers to become a regular in IDP lineups. But the 3rd-round pick started 15 games, led his team in sacks (8) and forced fumbles (4) and totaled 3 more QB hits than a former 1st-round teammate that we’ll address in a few minutes.
Robert Quinn, Rams
You should give more injury leeway for a guy who has proved his elite talent. But you can’t ignore the durability factor completely. Quinn dealt with a knee injury in 2015 before a back issue finally shut him down. In 2016, it was a shoulder injury first before a concussion ended the year prematurely. Overall, he has lost 15 games to injury over the past 2 years. Heading into his age-27 campaign, Quinn has as many seasons of 5 sacks or fewer (3) as he does with 10+. And he has just 1 line of more than 10.5 sacks. I’m not saying to dump him or even hit the fire-sale button on him. It’s just time to get a bit more wary of the Rams DE.
Dante Fowler, Jaguars
Let’s start with the positive: Fowler rebounded from a rookie season lost to an ACL tear and played in every game of his 2nd year. Unfortunately, he contributed just 4 sacks. Perhaps more significantly, he played 136 fewer snaps than 3rd-round rookie DE Yannick Ngakoue. I’m not giving up on Fowler by any means, but I didn’t love his ceiling to begin with. He has said he was a “caged animal” in 2017—perhaps referring to a shoulder injury he played through, the since-deposed defensive coaching staff, or both. He’ll have plenty to prove going forward.
Kony Ealy, Panthers
Ealy has flashed talent, but he has also failed to step up when given the chance to start. This past season – his 3rd in the league – Ealy surrendered the starting right DE job to Mario Addison. Injuries to Addison and Charles Johnson helped Ealy lead Carolina DEs in snaps played. But he managed just 5 sacks and 7 total QB hits. The latter found him 8 shy of Addison’s total and 7 short of Johnson.
Buy: Henry Anderson, Colts
We didn’t expect much from Anderson’s 2nd season, which started late because of the right ACL tear that ended his encouraging rookie year. He dealt with left knee trouble while missing 5 games overall, but Anderson did manage to finish the season. He has yet to put much in stat columns as a pro, which might even leave him available on many dynasty waiver wires this offseason. In 2014, Anderson earned Pro Football Focus’ top pass-rushing productivity grade among all draft-eligible 3-4 DEs. PFF’s Sam Monson said Anderson graded out even with classmate Leonard Williams as a 2015 rookie at the time of his injury.
Trey Flowers, Patriots
Jabaal Sheard disappointed in 2016 and played his way out of the starting lineup. Now he’s a free agent. Flowers took advantage of the opportunity and dramatically increased his role in his 2nd season. We might have witnessed the start of Flowers’ breakthrough, and he’s the current best bet to at least start at right DE for the Pats in 2017. But let’s see what the team does at the position, which also has old guys Chris Long and Rob Ninkovich nearing the end of their careers.
Randy Gregory, Cowboys
The talent’s there, but is the brain? Gregory’s worth a stash in deep leagues, but he’s not a “must” keep.