There are a lot of styles and aspects to fantasy football. In dynasty, it doesn’t make sense to play with team defense as those units often vary widely from year-to-year. But defense is still a part of the game, and for those that want a more realistic experience, IDP (Individual Defensive Player) is the way to go. I was introduced to IDP a few years ago and, like all newbies, I struggled to understand the format.
As a casual fan, the players on defense that tend to stand out are the guys that make the splash plays. The guys that get sacks, return an interception for a touchdown or serves as a shutdown corner that dissuades quarterbacks from throwing that way get the glory and the publicity, and naturally, they’re the ones that stick in our minds. While splash plays like sacks and interceptions are great, you should look for consistency in your IDP guys. That’s what makes the unsexy middle linebacker so key to scoring.
The most important ingredient in succeeding is finding value. As I watched the Broncos in 2019 there was a piece of the defense that didn’t get the headlines but put up consistent numbers—middle linebacker Alexander Johnson. He could be a hidden gem for IDP players in 2020.
A Crucial Starter
The Broncos signed Johnson as an undrafted free agent prior to the 2018 season. The talk was Johnson was a player the team liked, but it didn’t translate to much on the field. When Vic Fangio came in for the 2019 season many were curious to see how the linebacker would be used. But to start the season, the team relied on veteran Todd Davis, a stalwart in the middle, and former fourth-round pick Josey Jewell. Jewell had impressed at times in previous years but didn’t seem to find that same kind of shine in Fangio’s system.
After starting the season 0-4 and the team surrendering 269 yards rushing to Jacksonville in the Week 4 loss Fangio decided to change things up. In Week 5 against the Los Angeles Chargers the Broncos gave Johnson a start in the middle. The team responded by limiting the Chargers to just 35 yards rushing and won its first game of the year. In Week 6, against the Tennessee Titans, the Broncos held the opposition to just 204 yards and only 39 yards rushing for a team led by Derrick Henry, earning their second win.
The look of the defense was enough to make the changes permanent, and Johnson remained the starter the balance of the season. He ended up starting 12 games, recording 93 tackles, 51 solo tackles, five tackles for a loss, four quarterback hits, three passes defensed, two forced fumbles, 1.5 sacks, an interception and a fumble recovery. Pretty impressive for an undrafted player that was finally seeing the field.
Heading into this year, Johnson figures to be the starter again opposite Davis. While Davis is the name that draws more attention in fantasy, Johnson could be the better value. Davis is a solid, if unimpressive, veteran. He played and started 14 games, recording 134 tackles, 78 solo tackles, six tackles for a loss, a quarterback hit and a forced fumble. While his tackling was robust, he had few other impact plays. He remains the top option at linebacker for Denver, but I like the potential of Johnson.
In 2019, Davis finished as the No. 29 linebacker. Johnson, who played two fewer games, finished as No. 42. He finished ahead of players like Thomas Davis, Kyle Van Noy, Whitney Mercilus and Anthony Barr, and he finished just over a point behind Khalil Mack. He did that in 12 games as a starter. With a full season, I think Johnson could grow his numbers.
With the Broncos returning Bradley Chubb alongside Von Miller, the team figures to present plenty of pressure. The defensive line—which includes Jurell Casey and Mike Purcell—is solid, leaving Davis and Johnson to clean up the middle. That portends a potentially big season as the Broncos lean on their defense to support a young offense.
Johnson made a splash in 2019 and the Broncos’ defense improved, which is a positive sign. But Johnson only had three games with double digit tackles in 12 starts, which is not great for a middle linebacker. He’s also only played 12 games, and it’s possible that his performance in 2019 becomes an outlier. So, it’s wise to be cautious, and I’m not saying he’s going to instantly vault to the top of the position, or the top of defensive scoring.
But Johnson is an under-the-radar player on a good defensive unit. He seemed to have found favor with the coaching staff and made the most of his opportunities, tying for second on the team in tackles will outstanding safety Justin Simmons. Winning in fantasy football comes down to value, and finding a player you can get cheaply, late in drafts or off the waiver wire that can thrive in your starting lineup is a value. That’s what I see in Johnson: a player you can grab late that could turn out to be one of the biggest values on the Denver defense.
Matthew Fox is a diehard Broncos’ fan. You can find him @knighthawk7734 on Twitter and weekly as co-host of the Fantasy Football Roundtable Podcast.
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