IDP Flag Plants for 2021

With the first game of the 2021 season in the books and the rest of the Week 1 slate right around the corner, we're sharing our flag plants for IDP this season.

Here’s the thing about bold predictions in fantasy football: you’re probably going to get them wrong. Unlike being bold in real life, which can sometimes lead to remarkable outcomes, boldness here usually ends with egg on your face.

That said, here’s what we know about fantasy football (and football in general): it’s a bit like organized chaos. Our perfectly reasoned rankings get blown to hell the minute the pigskin starts getting run and passed all over the field. Players who weren’t on anyone’s radars somehow finish in the top 12 of their position. (Hi, Kamren Curl!)

So, bold predictions are a helpful exercise in that they force us to consider unlikely outcomes that might actually come to pass. Will we get it exactly right? Maybe not (OK, probably not), but the fact remains that breaking from consensus should not only be acceptable, but applauded. After all, none of us will get this season 100% right.

With that long preamble out of the way, we’re excited to unveil our IDP Flag Plants for 2021. You can hear the podcast episode with Josh, Bobby, and Evan right here. What you’ll find below are 9 players we’re willing to “plant our flag on.” Not just because we think they’re good—but because we think they’re going to do something remarkable, which is what you’ll see in parentheses for each guy. And as a bonus, we’re including Adam’s Flag Plants at the bottom since he couldn’t be on the episode.

Let’s plant some flags!

Josh #1: Kenneth Murray (top 12 LB)

Murray was LB42 in total points last year according to Big 3 scoring (when you factor out dual designation guys who are typically thought of as EDGE or DB). This finish wasn’t great given the expectations and since he played all 16 games (93% of the snaps).

He had 107 tackles, which for reference, is 1 more than Deion Jones. Where he fell short of expectations was in the sack department: only 1 sack on 35 pash rush snaps, which is 2.8%. Compare that to Devin White: 9 sacks on 109 attempts (8.3%). This was on target in terms of effectiveness, but LOW on the number of attempts. I don’t expect Murray to hit White’s outlier numbers, but I expect his attempts to increase.

From this data, I think we can draw a couple of conclusions. First, 100 tackles is a safe floor. Yes, Derwin James is back, by Rayshawn Jenkins—the team’s second-leading tackler in 2020—is gone. That was 84 tackles, and for reference, Derwin had 105 tackles in his rookie season. So I don’t expect Derwin to steal a ton of Murray’s tackles. Also, keep in mind that Denzel Perryman and his 48 tackles on 31% of snaps are gone.

This isn’t truly predictive, but fun: Murray’s best comparable player on PlayerProfiler is Demario Davis, which feels like a good comp in more ways than just measurables. After 101 tackles in his first season as the starter with the Jets, Davis has averaged 110 tackles per season. If I had to peg Murray’s tackles for 2021, that’s about right. For what it’s worth, PFF’s projections have him at 124.6 total tackles.

Second, I expect Murray’s pass rush snaps to increase in 2021. This bit I’m taking directly from new coach Brandon Staley, via The Athletic: “Staley’s new scheme is expected to feature the Oklahoma product heavily, asking Murray to blitz and attack the gaps far more frequently than last season, when Gus Bradley's defensive approach saw the rookie drop back in coverage far more than he was comfortable doing.”

This was reflected in his coverage grade, which was pretty booty: 50.8. Kyzir White, by comparison, was better, at 61.1. So perhaps Staley is looking at Murray more in the Devin White role (go get the QB), with Kyzir in the Lavonte David role (coverage).

Yes, a tackle floor in the 110-120 range is a bit low, but keep in mind the #12 LB by total points in 2020 (Foyesade Oluokun) had 117 tackles. Same with #11, Lavonte David: 117. So that tackle range is enough for LB1 numbers, especially when you combine that with a higher expected sack total, which I’m doing given how Staley wants to use Murray. That’s why I’m going Murray as a top 12 LB in 2021.

Bobby #1: Jordan Fuller (top 12 safety)

Fuller put up a solid performance in his rookie year for the Rams. He finished the year with 60 tackles (42 solos), 5 PDs, and 3 interceptions, all while only playing in 12 games due to a neck injury he sustained. Let’s put some context around his season, though.

Fuller was a bit of a surprise starter at strong safety in 2020, but keep in mind that Taylor Rapp (the incumbent) was out to start the year. Fuller made the most of his early opportunity, notching 8 tackles on 72 snaps in Week 1 and 9 tackles on 73 snaps in Week 2. Then Fuller suffered that neck stinger and Rapp came in to replace him.

Seems like since Rapp was the incumbent coming into 2020, the job would be his to lose after replacing an injured Fuller, right? Well, in Week 10, a fully healthy Fuller came in and snatched the job back from Rapp. Here’s why this is important:

Rapp was not a scrub, replacement-level player. He saw tons of IDP relevance in 2019, averaging over 20 PPG over his final 8 games that season. So, what happened?

The coaching staff clearly saw that Fuller was the better player—and this coaching staff was led by Brandon Staley, the new head coach for the Las Angeles Chargers. Now, it appears that Fuller has gained the trust of new Rams DC Raheem Morris, as The Athletic’s Jourdan Rodrique confirmed to Mike Woellert (very cool moment) that Fuller will be wearing the green dot and calling the plays to start the season.

So, let’s project: what does all this mean? It means a couple of things. First, it means that the Rams new DC likes Fuller’s potential, his skill set, and his leadership. On a team that has recently shipped off stud safety John Johnson and CB Troy Hill, the need for Fuller to be great is very high. And sure, while high draft capital safety Terrell Burgess and Rapp are still there, I honestly think all 3 have IDP relevance in 2021.

I think the Rams have given Fuller the green dot because they see how rough it could be at linebacker in 2021. Will it be Kenny Young, Troy Reeder, Ernest Jones, or even Travin Howard? I am putting my money on Jones long-term—but not a lot of money, as I see it potentially being a while before he sees a significant number of snaps.

But the main reason I like Fuller is this: snap counts. I think Fuller is going to see 98-99% of the snaps since he’s carrying the gree dot. Is he as skilled as Budda Baker? No. Hard-hitting as Khari Willis? No. Rushing the passer as much as Jamal Adams? No. But he is going to be out there for the Rams’ potential top 5 defense? Yes, he is.

Evan #1: Alex Highsmith (10 sacks)

Highsmith was thrust into the spotlight last season when Bud Dupree went down with an injury. The Steelers loved what they saw from him so much that they didn't resign Dupree. I assume the main reason they didn’t bring Dupree back was that they had so much faith in Highsmith, which I believe spells good things for his IDP value.

Highsmith stepped into a larger role starting in Week 13, and from then on, if you use his pressure rate and extrapolate it out for a full season, he would’ve had 58 pressures. A league-average pressure-to-sack rate is about 15%. Last season, Dupree and TJ Watt both had a pressure-to-sack rate of 20%. In the preseason, Highsmith had a pressure-to-sack rate of about 15%, albeit in a small sample: 7 pressures and 1 sack. Knowing where Dupree finished in 2020, where the average is for edge rushers, and what we’ve seen from Highsmith so far, a rate between 15-20% seems safe.

Let’s look at how Highsmith has performed. In the preseason, his PFF grade was a 90.1, good for 11th among all edge rushers who played in the preseason. This is another reason I believe we’ll see a pressure-to-sack rate closer to 17% or so.

But even if he sticks closer to 15% on, let’s say, 60 pressures, we’re looking at 9 sacks. So, I’m going even bolder than that and believing in my guy, Highsmith. I’m calling for 10 sacks for the Steelers edge rusher, especially now that we have 17 games.

Now, I think it's important to note that positional designation is important, and for Highsmith, it varies depending on what platform you're on. If you're on Sleeper, he's eligible as DL/LB, which is beautiful. On other platforms, he may be a DE/DL or an LB, which would hurt his value a bit. So, go take a peek and see what he's registered as on your platform. What I can tell you is that he's severely underrated right now and you're not going to be able to get him cheap for very much longer. As soon as Week 1 rolls around, oh baby, people are going to remember the name: Alex Highsmith.

Josh #2: Khari Willis (top 6 safety)

Willis was S15 according to Big 3 scoring in 2020. On the DB 13-24 pod, I called for a top 10 finish but I’m getting even bolder here: Willis will be a top 6 safety in 2021!

The biggest argument for this is something we’ve been saying all offseason: after those top 4 guys (with Derwin being an unknown due to health), it’s a total crapshoot.

But let’s dig in a little more. Willis achieved that finish despite missing 2 full games (week 13 against Houston and week 17 against Jacksonville) and the 2nd half against the Steelers in week 16 with a concussion, which led to his absence in week 17.

Keep in mind the Colts also played the 4th fewest number of snaps in 2020, with 1,032. Compare that to Seattle with 1,152 snaps, or essentially 2 extra games of snaps.

Total defensive snaps don’t perfectly correlate with terrible offenses like we tend to think. After all, Seattle was 17th in yards per game in 2020 and 8th in PPG. But there are quite a few bad offenses in the top 12. The #2 Jets were last in YPG and PPG. The Jaguars, Eagles, Giants, and Broncos were also bottom 10 units. The point is: with the offensive regression I expect for the Colts, I see their defensive snaps/game increasing, perhaps not to the Seahawks level, but enough to where they’re middle of the pack.

Taking out the Steelers game, Khari played 96.38% of the snaps. If he’d managed to stay healthy all 16 games, his 10% tackle rate would’ve given him 100 tackles, tied for 8th with Keanu Neal (who also had 100 tackles). So the tackle floor is pretty safe, especially with the defense not changing much in front of him.

What you love to see are the big plays: 2 INTs (including a pick-6), 2 sacks last season, plus a forced fumble. He also graded really well with a 73.2 overall PFF grade.

Let’s add another 11 solos and 4 assists to get Khari to his 100 tackles. That’s an additional 16.75 points by Big 3 scoring, which gets him to S9 behind Justin Simmons, and just 15 points behind Jessie Bates, the S6 in 2020 with 3 INTs and 109 tackles.

That’s how close the margins are we’re talking about. Give Khari more snaps, better health, a slightly better tackle rate (the elite range is between 10.5 and 12.2% looking at Jamal, Budda, and Poyer), and 1-2 more big plays, and he’s a top 6 safety.

Bobby #2: Josh Sweat (double-digit sacks)

This one is a bit simpler: it’s all about the snap count. Sweat saw only 38% of the defensive snaps in 2020. That’s it! And during that 38% share, he had 6 sacks.

So, we’re safe to pencil Sweat in for 18 sacks if his playing time triples, right? Not exactly, but I do think as his playing time increases, the sacks will, too. And I do expect his snaps to increase: former DC Jim Schwartz is out in Philadelphia and all the buzz out of camp was how good Sweat looked. Which is no surprise: he’s good!

There is still Brandon Graham, Derek Barnett, Ryan Kerrigan, Fletcher Cox, and Milton Williams there, but I still believe Sweat will see more snaps in 2021. Our very own Joshie boy with his fancy subscription to The Athletic shared that Sheil Kapadia’s 2021 bold prediction for the Eagles was the team would lead the league in sacks. I truly don’t think that’s too far-fetched—this D-line isn’t star-studded, but it’s solid.

Sweat should see more 1st and 2nd down work this year than in 2020, when Shwartz primarily used him as a 3rd down pass rush specialist. He was faded in almost all the drafts I was in and not sure why. If we are looking for the potential opportunity to grab a guy who is, as Fat Joe says, “All the Way Up,” Josh Sweat is that guy.

Evan #2: Micah Parsons (top 12 LB)

If you need a sign on Parsons, yesterday’s game was your sign. The rookie played 78% of the Cowboys’ 65 defensive snaps, which led all LBs. Yes, there were some moments where he looked like a rookie, but he saw the field a ton, which is what we want.

Let’s rewind back even further. In the three games he played in the preseason, he had a PFF defensive grade of 78.8, then 80.5, then 90.8. In other words, he got better as the weeks went along. Over that span, he was rated as the 6th best LB in the NFL. (Granted, a lot of starters didn’t play, but that’s still impressive.)

The best part about his PFF grades is that they were well-rounded. He didn’t show any glaring weaknesses. Now, as we start to get into regular season action and teams start throwing a lot more at Parsons (like we saw against the Bucs), that grade will dip. And while we always pay attention to PFF grades, it won’t have a huge impact on his IDP value because he’s going to be on the field more than any other Cowboys LB.

One of the reasons why: Parsons is wearing the green dot. Another reason why: DC Dan Quinn is lining him up all over the field. From our friend, Jon Macri:

Alignments on 51 snaps

  • D-line: 10

  • In the box: 38

  • Corner: 3

Quinn is another factor in Parsons’ favor because the new DC doesn’t have allegiances to Jaylon Smith or Leighton Vander Esch, who both got replaced for different reasons. Will they have a role on this defense? Yes, but not to the extent that Parsons will.

There’s another argument for Parsons—a game theory one—that I’ll share when I talk about my next flag plant. But just know: I’m planing this flag with confidence!

Josh #3: Jamin Davis (top 6 LB)

At first glance, Davis didn’t seem like a screaming need for the Washington Football Team at #19 overall. Especially for IDP heads. After all, Jon Bostic had 118 tackles last year and Cole Holcomb had 72. That’s good enough to stick around… right?

Not quite. Dig a little deeper. Bostic had a 52.7 overall grade in 2020, with a terrible run defense grade of 43.9 and a coverage grade of 57.6. Holcomb graded much better: 72 overall, but he’s a 5th round pick who was taken by the previous regime. Yes, Bostic was signed by Rivera, but with the drafting of Davis at 19, it’s clear what Bostic is now viewed as by the Washington brains trust: a stopgap until LB could be addressed.

Rivera selected the generational monster with Chase Young at 2 overall in 2020, and now, he’s drafted his new team’s version of Luke Kuechly, who was the 9th overall pick in the 2012 draft. Don’t forget that Rivera chose to start Jon Beason at MLB that year because of his experience. When Beason tore his Achilles, Kuechly took his job.

Fast forward 9 years and history appears to be repeating itself: we’ve seen mixed packages at LB for the Football Team in the preseason, casting doubt on the belief that Jamin will have a 3-down role. If you recall, Macri said he expects Bostic and Holcomb to start the season with Davis taking Bostic’s job once the rookie gets more comfortable. Will that actually come to pass? Perhaps.

Or it’s possible that Washington was simply keeping Davis on ice for the preseason to not risk injury. That’s what makes this my spiciest flag plant: we’ve got some mystery!

I believe that Davis’ talent is undeniable and Rivera won’t keep him off the field for long, if at all, in 2021. I see the floor for Davis in 2021 being where Bostic finished in 2020: LB27 by Big 3 scoring. Bostic had 118 tackles and 3 sacks. So, the question becomes, where do I see room for improvement? How does Davis finish much higher?

First, tackle efficiency. Davis was insanely efficient his last season at UK, racking up 102 tackles on 592 snaps, good for a tackle rate of 17.22%. If you’re wondering, 11-12% would be considered average, 14-15% really good, and above that, an outlier. So yes, I expect Davis’ tackle rate to come down from the lofty heights of 17.22%, but I also expect it to stay above Bostic’s slightly above average 12.11% rate in 2021.

Second, higher snap count. This is assuming health and a full workload the entire season—a huge, risky assumption, but YOLO baby. However, for historical precedent, look at what Kuechly did once he took over for Beason in Week 5 of 2012 as the full-time starter: he didn’t miss a snap the rest of the season. If Davis can stay healthy all season, I expect he’ll play 95%+ of snaps. As for total defensive snaps, Washington had 1,047 according to PFF, for an average of 65.4 snaps per game. Their 3-year average was 1,071. Yes, total snaps is not a sticky stat, but just pointing out that there is room to go up for the Washington defenders in terms of total plays.

Third, the chance for a high sack total. Remember, Bostic had 3 sacks on 61 pass rush attempts (4.9%). In college, Davis had 3 sacks on… 24 pass rush attempts (12.5%). So, yes, Davis is set for… 78 sacks according to my math! But in all seriousness, even if they don’t blitz Davis anymore than Bostic, he should have more sacks even with an insane regression in his sack rate. I’d set the floor at 5 sacks in 2021.

Fourth, he’s just a much better player than Bostic: 81.6 overall grade in 2020 at UK.

I’m not panicking and I’m not backing down. I might even be a year early on this, but screw it: if he can stay healthy, give me Jamin Davis as a top 6 LB in 2021!

Bobby #3: Cory Littleton (top 12 LB)

The year was 2019 and what a glorious year it was. Prince Harry and Meghan Markle welcomed their first child into the world, there was no sign of any diseases that would bring the world to a halt, and the worst thing we had to think about was Lori Loughlin, the famous Full House actress, paying to get her children into a highly esteemed university. But maybe the best of all, The Los Angeles Rams were not only in a new city but were also in the Super Bowl. (Let’s not talk about the result.)

The defense of those Rams was anchored by linebacker Cory Littleton, who had a career year with 134 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and 2 interceptions. Times were good.

Then the Rams let Littelton walk to free agency and the Las Vegas Raiders picked up the phone. They signed Littleton to a rich deal: 3 years, $35 million. Did Las Vegas get what it paid for in 2020? Eh, not so much. 2020 saw Littleton looking lost. He finished the year with only 82 tackles. That's it! No sacks, no interceptions. Nothing.

So, why should you buy Littleton? First off, he is practically free. 2020 bit people so hard that he has been shipped off of many IDP teams and justifiably so. But his draft and acquisition capital is so low, that it isn’t going to cost you much to acquire him.

Secondly, I think he can return to relevance. Let’s look at the 2021 Raiders. They do have a new DC in Gus Bradly, which scares a lot of people, but I think this could work. Nicolas Morrow was just added to the IR to start the season and Nick Kwiatkowski is being seen by multiple beat writers as the clear backup in Las Vegas. The Raiders have recently added vet Denzel Perryman, but he is so frequently banged up that we aren’t going to pay attention to him. The acquisition I want to talk about is KJ Wright.

The Seattle Seahawks treated Wright the same as the 2020 Rams treated Littleton: they essentially didn’t want him back and let him find employment on another team. But, I think the addition of Wright really helps Littleton. Here’s why: Bradely historically likes playing a lot of 4-3, leaving 2 LBs on the field. In my eyes, those two LBs will be Littleton and Wright. It is yet to be seen where the Raiders will play Wright, whether that be weak side or strong side, but I really like the thought of Wright grounding Littleton some and giving him the ability to make those plays of old.

You know, like in 2019 when Littleton was making plays in coverage and rushing the passer when needed. With the addition of Yannick Ngakuoue on that line as well as additions in the secondary of Trevon Moehrig and Devine Deablo to play alongside hard-hitting Johnathan Abram, I think the 2021 Las Vegas Raiders could be much improved on the defensive side. Here’s what Littleton had to say about it:

“Everybody’s been able to play faster. Less thought, less thinking about what your assignment is or how you play against a certain concept or formation. It’s a lot more just playing football and ultimately having fun with it because you know what to do.”

I think Littleton, at the age of 27, has a lot to prove and wants to right the ship alongside a guy who seemingly wants to prove Seattle wrong, where he played for years alongside a great linebacker. What was his name? Something Wagner...

Evan #3: Zaven Collins (top 12 LB)

I’m going to give three arguments for Collins, who’s currently sitting as LB25 according to Sleeper’s ADP: a film argument, an analytics argument, and a game theory argument. So, no matter where you fall, hopefully I’m speaking to you.

The Analytical Argument: Collins wore the green dot in both preseason games he started (Week 1 and Week 2), and played 100% of his snaps with the starters. The Cardinals should have at least 2 LBs on the field for the vast majority of defensive snaps. Given all of this, we should expect Collins to be on the field for almost every defensive snap. Snaps are the more predictive stat we as a fantasy community know of for IDP success so far. Maybe we’ll find a better one some day, but for now, that’s it.

The Film Argument: Collins’ athletic measurables are absolutely bonkers. He’s 6’4”, 260 lbs, with 33.5” arm length, a 35” vertical (that’s a lot higher than my 28.5” LOL), a 122” broad jump, runs a 4.66 40-yard dash, and a 4.36 20 yard shuttle. Brett Kollman and EJ Snyder from the Bootleg Football Podcast—two guys I trust a lot when it comes to player analysis—called him the next Brian Urlacher. PFF’s comparison when you look at Collins’ profile was “poor man’s Brian Urlacher.” So, yeah, that’s good.

All of those athletic measurements are about as good, if not better than Urlacher. Here’s the caveat: Urlacher needed to bide his time until he was given the opportunity to shine. Collins looks to get that opportunity from day one.

We also need to look at Collins’ pass-rushing ability when studying the film. When compared to Isaiah Simmons in the first two preseason games (the only games they started), Simmons had a pass-rush snap percentage of 10% (6 pass-rush snaps out of a total 55) and generated zero pressures. Collins had a pass-rush snap percentage of 17% (11 pass-rush snaps of 65 total) and generated 3 pressures. It’s a small sample size, sure, but it isn't nothing. We like linebackers who get opportunities to rush the quarterback, and if the preseason tells us anything, Collins is the one with more sack upside.

The Game Theory Argument: I spoke on one of my first episodes about market value vs. range of outcomes. If you were to graph Collins’ range of outcomes vs. his current market value, we would see that he has WAY more upside than other LBs going around him. Why is that? The rest of them have played in the NFL before. We have some idea of what they're capable of and what to expect from them. So, we can form a relatively accurate perception of their range of outcomes.

However, Collins hasn't played in the league before. He’s a rookie. We as a general fantasy community don’t have a good grasp of what he’s capable of relative to the players going around him. That uncertainty is reflected in his ADP.

Use that to your advantage by trusting the tape, the analysis, and the experts. Everything is pointing towards a totally dominant season from Collins.

BONUS: Adam’s Flag Plants

  • Randy Gregory records 10+ sacks and finishes as a top 20 EDGE

  • Xavier McKinney vaults into the elite DB tier (Jamal, Chinn, Budda, Derwin)

  • Bobby Okereke finishes as a top 18 LB

To hear our discussion of these players, check out the podcast episode here.

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Photo attribution:

Image by Rudy and Peter Skitterians from Pixabay