IDP Divisional Preview: NFC West
Jase Abbey from DLF and IDP Guys helps us break down the IDP studs, sleepers, breakouts, and busts from the four teams in the NFC West.
For our next stop on the divisional preview tour, we’re headed out west to check out the Cardinals, Rams, 49ers, and Seahawks. With some help from our friend Jase Abbey, who covered the NFC West with us on the podcast, we’re going to look at the IDP studs, sleepers, busts, and breakouts you need to know, starting in the desert.
Stud: J.J. Watt
I know this sounds like I’m about five years too late, but hear me out! Watt is not the player he once was; that much has been evident for a couple of years now. Injuries have seemingly taken their toll on the guy; he’s missed vast chunks of time in 4 of the last 6 seasons, including 10 games in 2021. However, he can still play. Yes, he only had 1 sack in the 7 games he played last year, but he still brought pressure. Between Weeks 3-6, he had 22 pressures—in just four games. That’s very good. His pass rush grade of 83.1 from PFF ranked 8th among all interior defensive linemen in 2021.
He moves between DT and DE quite a lot, and as with other guys who do this (e.g. Leonard Williams and Cam Heyward), Watt has added value in any league that designates him as a DT. Another factor in Watt’s favor: his pressure rate (which was high) vs. his finishing rate (which was low). In theory, those players with the largest positive difference between those two rates should become more productive.
The player with the largest gap between his pressure rate and his finishing rate is… you’ve guessed it, J.J. Watt. Now, Watt is only worth rostering in redraft or in dynasty for fantasy managers in win-now mode. But he can be had for next to nothing.
Breakout: Zaven Collins
Everyone is aware of how disappointing Collins’ rookie season was. The first-round pick was expected to slide into the starting spot opposite Isaiah Simmons, supplanting Jordan Hicks, who was widely expected to be traded before the season got going. We know how that worked out. Not well for Collins!
With Hicks now gone and Simmons seemingly slated to perform in a similar role to how he did last year, I’m tentatively expecting Collins to be the full-time guy in a more orthodox role, which should be good for his tackle volume. I say “tentatively” because of the presence of Nick Vigil. Mike covered him with Jon on the 3-down LB episode of Big Nickel, but Vigil has the annoying habit of limiting the value of other linebackers on the teams he plays for, by finding his way onto the field and stealing snaps. I could see the same thing happening here if Collins doesn’t impress.
It would be a real indictment of how the Cardinals view Collins if Vigil is given the nod. If Collins does take Hicks’ role, will he be uber-productive? I’m not 100% sure. Hicks had a healthy year, played over 1,000 snaps, and barely broke 100 tackles, needing some big plays (4 sacks) to finish as LB17 in 2021.
Would we be satisfied with the same output for Collins? Yeah, I’d take it.
Los Angeles Rams
Stud: Bobby Wagner
For the first time since he entered the league, Wagner will be playing for a new team in 2022 after leaving the Seahawks in free agency to join divisional rivals, the L.A. Rams. Adding a savvy veteran to an otherwise weak position group is a shrewd signing for the reigning Super Bowl champions, who hope the 32-year-old can continue to produce as he has over his career.
Platitudes aside, Wagner wasn’t quite the same player in 2021. He posted bottom-three PFF grades in coverage, tackling, and run defense compared to the rest of his career. PFF graded his last two games in weeks 15 and 16 as two of the worst of his career. Let’s not overreact. Compared to his peers, Wagner still compares favorably in most categories. He has much farther to fall than most. He recorded a career-high in tackles, helped by the fact that he remained healthy most of the season, and finished 7th in total snaps among all NFL linebackers.
Ernest Jones and Troy Reeder interchanged at the position in 2021 and managed 148 tackles between them. I wouldn’t be in the least bit surprised if Wagner had similar numbers on his own in 2022, health permitting.
Bust: Ernest Jones
Many in the IDP community won’t like this call (sorry, Bobby). Many are relying on Jones to take a big step forward. I don’t dislike him as a player. I think he showed much promise last year (especially that Jaguars game when he was targeted 7 times, allowing just 2 receptions for 13 yards). This take comes back to my last point about Wagner: where is the opportunity coming from? No team in the NFL is more committed to a single-linebacker scheme than the Rams.
Wagner will undoubtedly be the sole every-down player at the position. Are the Rams suddenly going to deploy a much higher percentage of two linebacker sets to involve Jones? I am not as ready to accept that they intend to buck the trend where the rest of the league is playing fewer off-ball linebackers each year that passes.
I think the buzz around Jones has reached a point where people will be disappointed if he doesn’t deliver solid numbers. I want to be clear that this bust nomination isn’t a criticism of Jones as a player. I think he won’t meet expectations because expectations are too high. That said, I’m happy to roster him in dynasty with an eye on the future. Jones should get his shot eventually, and who better to learn from than Wagner?
San Francisco 49ers
Sleeper: Dre Greenlaw
It feels a bit wrong to describe Greenlaw as a sleeper; he’s too established as a player. But here we are. In a series of DLF mock drafts (combined offense and defense) from July, the 49ers linebacker was going as the LB41. He is being taken after the likes of Kamu Grugier-Hill (LB33), Kenneth Murray (LB34), and Zach Cunningham (LB38). I’ll take Greenlaw over all of those guys in a heartbeat.
Greenlaw missed a massive chunk of the 2021 season. His absence is one explanation for why he seems to have been forgotten. The other is Azeez Al-Shaair, who was a productive fill-in for Greenlaw last year. The former UDFA had 111 tackles in 13 games (829 snaps), “earning” a tackle efficiency of 13.1% to rank 39th out of 127 linebackers who played a minimum of 100 snaps.
However, Greenlaw reprised his role towards the end of the season despite still not being fully fit. Al-Shaair is not the player Greenlaw is in coverage and is not even close to Warner’s level in that department, so it’s a good bet that Greenlaw will see the field at least as often as Al-Shaair did alongside Warner. Al-Shaair signed a one-year deal to remain with the team through the 2022 season. However, I believe it will be the 25-year-old Greenlaw who remains the top choice to retain what has historically been a productive role alongside Warner in the heart of the 49ers defense.
Breakout: Talanoa Hufanga
Hufanga didn’t set the world alight in limited opportunities last season. But that isn’t easy to do when you’re on the field for under 400 snaps as he was. He was a bit up and down but you expect that from rookies, especially rookies taken in the fifth round.
There’s a low-level buzz about Hufanga and understandably so. He’s got a chance to deliver decent fantasy numbers that make his current ADP look silly. He’s going as the S54 around the same rounds as Camryn Bynum (who is not even assured of a prominent role) and guys like Julian Blackmon. I’ll easily take Tufanga over both.
However, this nomination isn’t a statement of Tufanga’s ability; it’s more about the opportunity presented to him. The departure of Jaquiski Tartt to the Eagles opens the door for Tufanga to play much more in 2022. In 2021, the 49ers did continue their use of a two-high safety approach. So Hufanga isn’t likely to be in the box a lot, but at that point in IDP drafts, we’re following the snaps rather than trying to find guys that satisfy all the criteria we’re looking for. As the 622nd player off the board, we’re talking about taking him in round 51. Bargain.
Also, have you seen the hit Hufanga put on Tyler Goodson during their preseason game against the Packers? Boom! The guy can hit when needed!
Breakout: Cody Barton
Barton is in a great spot to produce. The former 3rd-round pick has waited patiently for a couple of years behind Wagner and Jordyn Brooks. With Wagner now gone, Barton should be the beneficiary. We saw how productive the two off-ball linebacker spots were for the Seahawks last year. Brooks and Wagner both recorded career-highs and were top 10 fantasy options. I don’t think Barton is a special player, but he doesn’t have to be. He just has to be on the field (unless we’re talking All-22, of course).
Fantasy managers are clearly expecting big things. In July’s mock drafts, Barton was being taken as the LB22. Surprisingly, that’s one spot ahead of the LB23, Nick Bolton, and a massive 18 spots ahead of LB 41, Dre Greenlaw, who we mentioned earlier. Even at that price, I think his label as a breakout candidate is justified.
Bust: Uchenna Nwosu
I’m picking Nwosu here, but this could easily be any edge rushers on the team: Boye Mafe, Darrell Taylor, Rasheem Green. Here’s why: the Seahawks rotate edge rushers like no other team (except maybe the Bills). Six or seven guys played between 200 and 500 snaps (depending on how you classify players like Rasheem Green, who moved between the inside and the outside). One of these guys will have a big performance in any given week. But which one? Good luck playing the guessing game.
I love Seahawks edge rushers in bestball if we have big rosters. In any other formats, I tend to avoid them. They’re too streaky and too volatile. As an individual player, Nwosu wasn’t anything special for my beloved Chargers. I had hopes he could replace Ingram, but he’s capable of consistently performing at that level. In my opinion, $20 million over two years is a bit of an overpay. I hope he proves me wrong.
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