Top 5 Underrated Defensive Ends
Defensive end is a fantasy position where the “underrated” label certainly does apply, and as a result, keen-eyed individual defensive player (IDP) owners can reap rewards. Cameron Wake has been one such high achiever in past seasons who didn’t garner the media attention his performances deserved. This list will look to identify other defensive ends that will be overlooked for their flashier counterparts, as well as players that can outperform their current average draft position (ADP).
Based on Jeff Ratcliffe’s, Eric Yeoman’s and my rankings, here are the top-five most underrated defensive ends as of July 1, 2013.
Cliff Avril – Seattle Seahawks
Ross’s Rank – DE No. 19, Jeff’s Rank – DE No. 20, Eric’s Rank – DE No. 15
Cliff Avril seemed to be on the verge of a breakout campaign last year for a young, improving Lions team after improving his sack total in each of his first four seasons in the league, reaching 11 in 2011. However, a muddling 2012 season and a lack of a long-term deal with Detroit (he was franchise tagged in 2011) opened up opportunities for Avril to test free agency, and he landed in Seattle.
Avril is being pegged for the “Leo” role in Pete Carroll’s defense, a position that has seen fantasy success for several players in the past. Seahawks DE Chris Clemons had 11 sacks in each of the last three years, and he could easily have been on this list if he was healthy. It’s realistic to expect 900 snaps from Avril despite Seattle’s defensive line rotation. Avril’s career year came in 2011 when he had 889 snaps, so with a projected snap total in that range in a productive role in the Seattle defense, he could sneak into the DE1 range.
Osi Umenyiora – Atlanta Falcons
Ross’s Rank – DE No. 17, Jeff’s Rank – DE No. 15, Eric’s Rank – DE No. 18
An offseason move from New York to Atlanta has reinvigorated Osi Umenyiora’s fantasy value. He immediately becomes the top defensive end on the roster for the Falcons, and he can expect to see a spike in his snap count, having only surpassed 660 once in the past four years.
Umenyiora has recorded 13-plus sacks in three seasons during his career, the last time being 2010 when he saw 830 snaps (80.2 percent), a percentage of playing time he is likely to match in Atlanta this season. An added bonus for owners who invest in Umenyiora is his penchant for the strip-sack. Over his career, Umenyiora has forced a fumble on 42.3 percent of his sacks, including 10-of-13 in his standout 2010 campaign. Umenyiora is a dark horse DE1 candidate, especially in big-play scoring systems.
Anthony Spencer – Dallas Cowboys
Ross’s Rank – DE No. 21, Jeff’s Rank – DE No. 17, Eric’s Rank – DE No. 25
The prospect of increased playing time and a change of teams has landed the first two players on this list, but Anthony Spencer works his way into our top-five underrated defensive ends due to a scheme change. The switch in Dallas from 3-4 to a 4-3 base defense means the former outside linebacker will be playing with his hand in the dirt in 2013 and will have a much improved fantasy outlook.
Recent rumors that Spencer is playing his last season for the Cowboys will only serve to keep his fantasy value down, but that shouldn’t be the case. Coming off a career year in which he posted 95 total tackles and 11 sacks despite only playing 14 games, Spencer’s ability against the run will add a layer of safety for owners who draft him. Although he’s unlikely to score enough to be a DE1 (unless he finds 80-plus total tackles within reach), he’ll be a stout DE2 in all formats.
Rob Ninkovich – New England Patriots
Ross’s Rank – DE No. 33, Jeff’s Rank – DE No. 23, Eric’s Rank – DE No. 26
If any player on this list personifies the underrated label, it has to be Rob Ninkovich, who had a career-best eight sacks last season while also racking up five forced fumbles. A versatile member of the Patriots’ defense, Ninkovich had previously seen time at outside linebacker, but he saw plenty of snaps at defensive end with New England’s shift to more four-man fronts last season.
Ninkovich’s ability to stand up and play in space as a linebacker gives him fantasy value, because when given those opportunities he can rack up tackles at a higher rate than other defensive ends. Add in the fact that the Patriots’ defense can turn out unheralded sack artists (Mark Anderson, Andre Carter in 2011, Tully Banta-Cain in 2009) and there is potential for Ninkovich to quietly put up respectable DE2 numbers.
Mathias Kiwanuka – New York Giants
Ross’s Rank – DE No. 39, Jeff’s Rank – DE No. 30, Eric’s Rank – DE No. 35
Mathias Kiwanuka is shifting back to his preferred defensive end spot and projects to see increased playing time. The departure of Umenyiora to Atlanta, Jason Pierre-Paul’s recent surgery, and Justin Tuck’s waning performances have opened a big opportunity for Kiwanuka to step up. Although he has only recorded more than five sacks in a single season once back in 2008, owners looking for fantasy sleepers should take note.
Looking back at 2008 and 2009 when Kiwanuka was last used regularly as a defensive end, he recorded 11.5 sacks and forced four fumbles, while still showing enough against the run (111 total tackles) to be fantasy relevant. He’ll be used in rotation when Pierre-Paul returns, which does limit his upside, but he remains an excellent buy-low candidate in the later rounds of your draft.
Do you disagree with our suggested selections as the top-five underrated defensive ends? Are their players that should be on this list, but aren’t? Let us know on Facebook by joining the conversation.
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Ross Miles is a Lead Writer for Pro Football Focus Fantasy. Follow him on Twitter – @PFF_RossMiles