Where Have All the Three-Down Linebackers and Reliable Safeties Gone?

DFF Tripp highlights two emerging trends in the NFL that are making life difficult for IDP gamers.

We had the pleasure of talking with DFF Tripp on this week’s episode, and during our conversation, we asked him this question related to schemes in the NFL:

As you've watched these teams over the past seven weeks, has there been anything interesting or unexpected scheme-wise that you've noticed across the league?

His answer was so good, we knew we had to share it on our website:

There have been a couple of things that are really league-wide trends. And I can't say this for sure because I haven’t seen numbers that bear this out, but just watching it and looking at a number of different players that are evidence of this, there are two things that really stand out to me.

#1: Three-Down Linebackers are Disappearing

The first thing is that the number of linebackers that are playing full-time seems to be coming down a little bit. It’s something that was on the precipice happening for several years. I can tell you that guys like Justin Varnes and Jene Bramel, who've been playing IDP forever, have been banging the drum on this for a long time. I feel like it's really not happened as quickly as they thought it would, but I feel like it's finally starting to happen now.

What I think is happening is that you have these offenses, which are very situational, operating like a basketball team: playing two or three of its best players, and then you put out two or three other guys to go with those star players. They might be the rebounders, free throw shooters, or three-point shooters. So, you have the offenses changing personnel and the refs are literally stopping play, putting their hand on the ball at the line of scrimmage, and allowing the defense to make changes. This has been a rule for a few years, so most teams are making those substitutions. There are a few teams with consistent personnel like Washington (which is not doing really well with that) and Tampa, where they're playing the same guys every snap.

But the majority of teams only have a handful of guys out there who are playing close to full time and then they're rotating these packages. Part of it's because of the offenses they’re facing and part of it's because of the multiple defenses: three-man fronts, four-man fronts, bear fronts.

With that big change, you see the linebacker position not being as consistently full-time as it’s been. It used to be that you would see a second linebacker play like 85-90% of the snaps. Now you're seeing a second linebacker play 60%, like Kenny Young when he was in Los Angeles. You have Troy Reeder and Young playing 81% and 55% as your top two linebackers the week before Young was traded. I think we're seeing more of that, and this shift has a big impact on IDP because it's making those guys who are full-time linebackers far more valuable.

Every time I go into a draft for a redraft league, I'm asking myself, “Who are the last four or five linebackers I think I can get at value in a draft?” Wherever they go is where they go, and at that point, I have to start taking them because I don’t want to be caught without solid options.

The question then becomes: do you start to rely on those guys who are only three-quarter-time players? When you're dealing with bye weeks and injury situations, you might have to start some of these guys like Josh Bynes, who took over the starting middle linebacker spot from Patrick Queen, who was displaced due to performance issues. But even with that, Bynes only played 73% of the snaps. You’re not normally looking at a guy who plays so few snaps to start for you, but given this new world we’re living in, you might not have a choice.

Think about it like this: with a defense, you have two to three interior defensive linemen, two edge defenders, two cornerbacks, and one to two safeties, leaving you with three guys. Those guys don't have to be linebackers, even though we typically think of them that way. But that’s not necessarily the case—think of Landon Collins in Washington. So it could be a safety and two linebackers. There are basically three roles swishing around in that void in the middle of those eight players, and how they mix and match those roles varies by team.

Some teams have a full-time linebacker, but I think there are fewer teams thinking those players have to be full-time linebackers, and this philosophy represents a challenge for us in IDP.

#2: More Two Deep Safeties

The second thing I see is that more and more teams are playing two deep safeties. You see this particularly against Kansas City as a way to slow down their offense. Because of that, a guy who’s really been impacted through seven weeks has been Justin Simmons, who was an All-Pro last year and S7 overall according to FantasyPros. This year? He’s S40.

The reason why is because he's been stuck in game flows where he's had to play deep. Budda Baker has been impacted by this as well. It's really making the safety position hard to manage. An awful lot of guys that we drafted high because we thought they were going to be big producers and safe selections have been underwhelming. Think of Jeremy Chinn.

There are a lot of guys being impacted by the NFL-wide trend of playing more two high safeties, by playing more conservatively, and by NFL teams gambling with six in the box versus the run and thinking they can get a stop.

Buffalo has been doing some of this, highlighted in the game they had against the Chiefs where they had Tremaine Edmunds, Matt Milano, and four linemen, just daring the Chiefs to run at them. And you know what? The group got it done, in large part because they have 6’6”, 250 pound Tremaine Edmunds flying all over the place.

So, there you have it: because of those emerging trends league-wide, it’s been hard on IDP gamers. We have fewer full-time linebacker options and riskier safety options.

To hear the full discussion with Tripp, check out the podcast episode here.

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