The Houston Texans were a surprise playoff team last year, spurred on to a 9-7 finish and the AFC South championship in large part due to a defense that finished the season third in the NFL in both total and passing defense.
The engine that makes that defense go, of course, is three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt (DL1). Watt is the top individual defensive player at any position in 2016, but the gap between him and the rest of the pack has narrowed considerably due to concerns over Watt’s injured back and early-season availability.
Numbers in parentheses denote 2015 positional finish in Fantasy Sharks Default IDP Scoring.
Watt’s 79 tackles and 17.5 sacks last year was just another day at the office for arguably the best defensive player of his generation. It also was enough for him to finish the season as the top defensive lineman by a sizable margin. So sizable that before news of his back surgery Watt was worthy of first-round consideration in most IDP leagues. The 1.01 pick in some.
Now, Watt will miss training camp and the entirety of the preseason — in a best-case scenario. As Judy Battista of NFL.com wrote, “Of all the offseason injuries and suspensions that will affect teams, J.J. Watt’s back surgery is the most worrisome. The Houston Texans are hopeful Watt will be back for the season opener — he has never missed a game in his five NFL seasons — but back injuries often nag and linger, and there is almost no way he will be 100 percent when he returns.”
That unknown timetable (and fears that Watt won’t be close to his normal dominant self until well into the regular season) have combined to effectively knock Watt from first-round consideration. If we find out in a few weeks he’ll miss significant regular season time, it may be enough to knock him from his perch above the IDP rankings as well.
Should Watt indeed have to sit in September, it’s possible the Texans and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel could use more four-man fronts, with Whitney Mercilus (LB34) and Jadeveon Clowney (LB94) sliding from outside linebacker to defensive end due to Houston’s shortage at the latter spot. Mercilus took a big step forward in his NFL career with a 12-sack 2015, and DL eligibility for either young pass-rusher could create a sneaky value play.
Veteran inside linebacker Brian Cushing (LB38) told Drew Dougherty of the team’s website that he expects a second-year breakout for batterymate Benardrick McKinney (LB106) in 2016. “Very talented football player with a high ceiling,” Cushing said. “You want guys who love football in your room. I think we’ve got a bunch of those. We’ve got a really good group of linebackers in our room, him being one of them.”
“You can see the progression in his game from week-to-week, and the kind of level he was playing at towards the end of the season,” Cushing said. “He’s a very good counterpart. Someone I’m excited to play again with this year and see him grow some more.”
McKinney didn’t make much of an IDP impact as a rookie, managing only 63 tackles and a sack. And that lack of production is reflected in his ADP this summer. However, that’s also what makes McKinney an interesting case for fantasy owners. Young players with an excellent chance at outperforming their draft slots are exactly the sorts of players savvy IDP owners should target later in drafts. And as a three-down inside linebacker McKinney most assuredly fits that bill in 2016.
Cushing, for his part, did post 100+ tackles last season for the first time since 2011. He insisted to Aaron Wilson of The Houston Chronicle that as he nears the big 3-0 he still has plenty left in the tank. “There’s a lot of ball left for me, both physically and mentally,” Cushing said. “When you get to this part of your career, you only get better or you get worse. I’m just trying to get better every day. I think I’ve trained hard in the offseason but at the same time, the further I get away from my injuries, the better I’m going to get.”
The problem is that all those injuries appear to have cost Cushing a step or two. He was slower to the ball in 2015, which resulted in nearly half his tackles being assists. This isn’t to say he doesn’t still have value as IDP depth, but given the choice between the two inside linebackers my money’s on the youngster as the preferable fantasy option in 2016.
There’s more than a bit of uncertainty in the Houston secondary — and not a lot that should appeal to IDP owners. Third-year pro Andre Hal (DB119) made the switch to safety from cornerback last year, and Crennel talked up the young player while speaking to Wilson.
“We took a corner and made him a safety, and he had to go through growing pains,” defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel said at the close of last season. “He’s adapting nicely and understanding where he needs to fit, how he needs to cover and be able to match up on receivers and tight ends. Then he’ll come up and tackle as well. That bodes well for a safety.”
However, Hal had only 36 tackles last year, finishing outside the top 100 defensive backs. Given that, it’s hard to imagine either Hal or the winner of an uninspiring camp battle between youngster Eddie Pleasant (DB167) and veteran Quintin Demps (DB86) at strong safety rating a roster spot even in deeper IDP formats.
The most “valuable” defensive back in the Houston secondary is probably either veteran cornerback Johnathan Joseph (DB47) or batterymate Kareem Jackson (DB57). Joseph has finished as a top-20 fantasy option at his position two years running, and Jackson was ninth among fantasy cornerbacks on a points per game basis in 2015. However, Jackson hasn’t played in 16 games since 2012, and Joseph saw his production tail off quite a bit a season ago after finishing third at his position in fantasy points in 2014. Neither is more than a late flier in deeper CB-required IDP leagues.