IDP Free Agent Preview: Battle of the Michael's
In the NFL you can never have too many pass rushers. For those who play in a 4-3 defense, the defensive end is one of the most important positions you can have. As free agency nears, there are only a handful of quality defensive ends available. Some of them are older veterans who will only be a quick fix for a year or two.
Of the younger available players, two happen to share the first name of Michael. Mr. Johnson of the Bengals and Mr. Bennett of the Buccaneers both enter unrestricted free agency after both ranking in the top 20 for fantasy defensive ends and tied at 115 points in our fantasy big play scoring system. Here the two players will be compared to decide which would be a better option for your fantasy team going forward.
When it comes to just looking at how many tackles they record, neither player was overly impressive. Michael Johnson recorded a tackle on 7.9% of his run snaps, while Michael Bennett recorded one on 6.9% of his run snaps, which were both below the league average for 4-3 defensive ends. Based solely on that, Michael Johnson has the edge.
If your leagues scoring system gives credit for tackles for a loss, than Michael Bennett has a big edge. Bennett had 13 tackles for losses in 2012 which was second best for all defensive linemen only behind J.J. Watt. Michael Johnson on the other hand only had two. If you’re worried that Bennett was just a one year wonder, then just look back to 2011 and see that he tied for the lead that year with ten. Bennett had the edge not only in tackles for losses, but stops as well with a 6.0 Run Stop Percentage compared to 5.5 for Johnson. The higher tackles for losses or stops are valued in your league, the higher you need to move Bennett up your draft board.
Some might look at the sack numbers, and see Johnson had 13 while Bennett had nine and decide Johnson is the better player just based on that. If you’ve ever been to Pro Football Focus, you know that sacks don’t tell the whole story with pass rushers.
The reason Johnson had such a high sack number is because he had an abnormally high sack to pressure ratio. He was able to convert 23.6% of his pressure into sacks, which was the second highest rate for 4-3 defensive ends with at least 500 pass rushes. On the other hand, Michael Bennett was below average by converting just 12.7% of his pressure into sacks, the third lowest rate for 4-3 ends with at least 500 pass rushes. Both of those should regress to the mean which would mean more sacks per pressure for Bennett, and less sacks per pressure for Johnson.
What is more consistent is how often a player can get pressure. On the season Bennett had 48 pressures to 34 from Johnson. Bennett was helped by having more opportunities, so looking at pressure per pass rush is a better indicator. Bennett recorded a pressure on 12.5% of his pass plays, while Johnson did on 10.9%. Both numbers are above the league average, but Bennett has been a better pass rusher than Johnson despite the lower sack number. Given an equal number of opportunities next year, I would expect Bennett to end up with a higher sack total.
One thing to worry about for both players is consistency. On the year, Bennett had two great games at Dallas and against Philadelphia. In those two games he had four sacks, four hits, eight hurries and three additional stops. He also had stretches in Week 6-7, and Week 12-13 where he had zero sacks and hits, three hurries and four stops. While he showed he can have dominating performances, he can also go through stretches of being a fantasy bust.
For Johnson, a concern is that 38% of his sacks/hits came out of a four sack and four hit performance at the Washington Redskins. Unfortunately for Bennett, he won’t be going up against Jordan Black every week. While it was one of the best single game performances of the season, you would prefer someone to have his fantasy production more evenly distributed over the season.
A big reason why Michael Bennett has been able to put up such great fantasy numbers is because he is in for 88.8% of snaps. That left him on the field for 985 plays which was fifth most for all 4-3 defensive ends. Michael Johnson on the other hand was in for 78.8% of plays, which left him at 870 regular season snaps which was 19th most.
If these players end up on teams that like to play their defensive ends for nearly the entire game that will greatly help their fantasy value. Tampa Bay has already shown a willingness to do this with Bennett. Another good situation for either could be Buffalo. They have shown a willingness to use a defensive end the majority of snaps with Mario Williams, and the rest of the defensive ends will either be on the wrong age of 30 or are free agents.
However if they end up in a situation like Detroit or Atlanta where their starting defensive ends have typically only seen two in every three snaps with a heavy rotation, this will clearly hurt their fantasy value. A wildcard here might be the Dallas Cowboys who are converting to a 4-3 and could lose Anthony Spencer to free agency which leaves an open spot opposite DeMarcus Ware.
Based on his ability to make big plays in the run game as well as being a more consistent pass rusher, Michael Bennett has the edge over Michael Johnson. Wherever they end up, a team will be happy with their production as you can always use a defensive linemen who is strong against both the run and pass.
While Bennett having the edge is in a situation where everything else is equal, the situation they come into will likely play the biggest role in determining which Michael you want on your fantasy roster.