Back in 2014, the Detroit Lions rode the NFL’s second-ranked defense to 11 wins and a playoff spot. Last year, with Ndamukong Suh in Miami and linebacker DeAndre Levy on the sideline, that defense (and the Lions as a whole) fell off quite a bit.
The Lions probably won’t be fielding a top-five defense in 2016 either. But there’s talent to be had by IDP owners at all three levels — including a couple of potentially elite options.
Numbers in parentheses denote 2015 finish in Fantasy Sharks Default IDP Scoring.
One of those elite options, and the crown jewel of IDP’s in the Motor City, is fourth-year defensive end Ezekiel Ansah (DL2), who exploded for 47 tackles, 14.5 sacks and four forced fumbles in 2015. According to ESPN’s Michael Rothstein, defensive coordinator Teryl Austin thinks Ansah is only getting started.
“If you ask [Lions defensive line coach] Kris [Kocurek], it is 20 sacks,” Austin said. “I think he just has to continue to improve, just like we said the past couple years. Just continue to improve on his pass rush techniques, get better in the run game and he’ll continue to grow. He’s got a lot of room for growth still.”
Twenty sacks may be pushing it, but Sports Illustrated ranked Ansah among the league’s best pass-rushers. “Ansah is a dominant edge player after finishing third in the league in 2015 with 14.5 sacks,” they said. “He had very little in the way of a supporting cast in the front seven after Suh left in free agency and Levy suffered a season-ending injury, and Ansah still had a career year.”
Ansah’s run defense still needs some work — which can lead to higher weekly variance, but there’s no denying he’s a top-five fantasy option among defensive linemen.
Ansah’s not the only DL worth a look on draft day. With Jason Jones (DL62) no longer in town, fellow four-year veteran Devin Taylor (DL37) moves into a full-time role after seven sacks in a rotation last year. As one writer here at Fantasy Sharks said, “Taylor finished last season 37th among defensive linemen in Fantasy Sharks Default IDP Scoring, posting 35 tackles and a forced fumble to go along with those seven sacks. Assuming a 10-sack season, a small bump in tackle production and say one more forced fumble (which would appear a reasonable expectation) Taylor would have slotted just inside the top 15 in 2015.”
Not bad for a DL3.
The biggest boon to the Lions defense is the return of weak-side linebacker DeAndre Levy (LB263), who missed all but a handful of snaps last year with a hip injury. Teammate Tahir Whitehead (LB88) told Dave Birkett of The Detroit Free Press he has no doubt Levy will return to pre-injury form.
“He’s been looking really good,” Whitehead said. “I know the type of guy Lev is. I know he missed the game last year and he was going to work and get back, and what we’ve seen is exactly that. He’s worked to get back on the field with us.”
In the two years prior to his injury, Levy was one of fantasy’s most productive linebackers, to the tune of 270 tackles and seven interceptions. Assuming he really is healthy, there’s no reason to think a return to the top 10 is out of the question.
With Stephen Tulloch (LB27) released, the question in Motown now becomes who slots at middle linebacker next to Levy. Right now the smart money’s on Whitehead, who fared well filling for Tulloch at MIKE two years ago. Levy told Paula Pasche of The Oakland Press he’s on board with that idea.
“Tahir has really developed into a really good player, a trustworthy player that I can count on,’’ Levy said. “I don’t think there’s a transition, I think you’re on the field, you have a job to do, whoever is next to you they’re required the same thing to do.’’
If Whitehead does keep the job, that same writer here at Fantasy Sharks sees IDP sleeper appeal there as well. “If you’re looking for a depth add late in deeper IDP drafts,” he said, “with the potential to emerge as at least a viable bye-week player or even “flex” option, keep Tahir Whitehead in mind. No one else is.”
Hey, the guy’s been right once or twice in the past.
Just like the Lions as a team, safety Glover Quin (DB36) took a step back in 2015 from a fantasy perspective after posting top 20 numbers the season before. And the 30-year-old told Carlos Monarrez of The Detroit Free Press that he’s aware he and the Lions are flying under many radars in 2016.
In fact, that’s just the way he likes it.
“You can really only get up, you know?” he said. “If you don’t play well, they didn’t expect you to. If you play well, they say, ‘Oh, wow, those guys are playing good!’ So I kind of like to fly under the radar and just go play the games.”
Quin’s shown enough fantasy upside in recent years to potentially merit a late dart throw in deeper IDP leagues as depth in the secondary. But in three years with the Lions Tate hasn’t hit even 75 tackles in a season, so know going in that he’s going to be big-play dependent and hard to trust on a week-to-week basis.