Potential Fantasy Defensive Juggernauts
Sleeping on defenders while other teams amass high-sack guys like James Harrison and DeMarcus Ware, or consistent 100-tackle linebackers like Patrick Willis or Ray Lewis could leave you high and dry at critical positions. You wouldn't be stuck with Donald Driver and Devin Hester as your top two receivers, would you?
However, it'll get to that point in the draft where 20 or 30 defenders are off the board at a certain position, and you need to add a sleeper or two to your IDP core, someone who has the ability to finish in the top ten at their position. Today, I'll examine a few potential breakouts at each position -- hopefully, you'll add one or two of the good ones on draft day.
Curtis Lofton, Falcons -- After finishing 2008 with 67 tackles, 27 assists and one sack, Lofton will assume a larger role in 2009. Only in his second year, Lofton has the ability and opportunity to jump into the top-ten linebackers as an every-down player. His value goes up in dynasty leagues, as he should be the leader of the Atlanta defense for several years.
Stephen Cooper, Chargers -- If not for a four-game suspension at the beginning of the season, Cooper could have finished as a top-five linebacker last year. The 30-year-old looks to be improving in pass coverage and as Shawne Merriman spreads out the offensive line, Cooper should find some easy lanes to the ball-carrier. A repeat of last year's stats over a full season should have Cooper in the top ten.
Justin Durant, Jaguars -- If Durant recorded just 71 total tackles, no sacks, and no interceptions, why is he in this group? Not a full-time player in 2008, he gets the opportunity to start every day with Mike Peterson moving on. Jacksonville also moved Durant, whom they view as their most talented linebacker, into the middle of the defense after speculation he would start on the weak side. This can only be a good thing for Durant's fantasy numbers.
Lawrence Timmons, Steelers -- As a part-time player, Timmons was able to rack up solid numbers in his season season with the Steelers. At 23 years old and on the verge of a breakout, he'll replace Larry Foote next to James Farrior in the Steelers' 3-4. Now that he'll be on the field in rushing situations, Timmons could double his tackle total en route to becoming a dynasty owner's dream.
Dhani Jones, Bengals -- How is a guy that racked up 116 total tackles last year a sleeper? When the Bengals spent an early-second round pick on Rey Maualuga, most people thought Jones' days as a starter were numbered. Throughout minicamp, Maualuga has split time with Rashad Jeanty at strong-side linebacker, making it seem that Jones' job in the middle is safe. A top-twenty LB last year, you could very well steal Jones at the end of your draft.
Alex Brown, Bears -- No one will benefit more from the firing of Detroit head coach Rod Marinelli than Brown. Confused? After Marinelli captained the Lions to the first 0-16 season in history, he was terminated and free to sign anywhere. He chose to come to Chicago to coach the defensive line, a role he enjoyed huge success in while with Tampa Bay from 1996 to 2005. Brown could challenge for 10-plus sacks immediately, making him a great value in your draft.
Antonio Smith, Texans -- Leaving the 3-4 defense of the NFC-champion Arizona Cardinals as a free agent, Smith signed a five-year, $35.5 million contract to play with Mario Williams in Houston. He's expected to play defensive tackle on passing downs and end on rushing downs, meaning he should rack up a bunch of tackles but have a hard time reaching a high-sack total. If you play in a league that values tackles and devalues sacks, Smith is a great target toward the end of the draft.
Derrick Harvey, Jaguars -- After selecting Harvey at No. 8 overall in 2008, big things were expected for the pass-rush prospect. But when the Jaguars defense struggled, Harvey couldn't piece together anything and came away with a disappointing season. Despite that, the Jaguars will look to keep him on the field for most defensive snaps, and Harvey should see a big increase in both his tackle and sack totals. As a result, he makes a great end-game sleeper.
Brian Orakpo, Redskins -- If he's available at DE in your draft (which was his position at the University of Texas), O-Sack-po makes for a great sleeper candidate. He gets the benefit of playing OLB on rushing downs, which will have a positive effect on his tackle totals, while moving to defensive end on passing downs, which is great for his potential sack production.
Tamba Hali, Chiefs -- Hali will switch to strong-side outside linebacker in the Kansas City 3-4, but he'll be eligible at DE in your fantasy leagues. While he's not going to win you your league, he's a nice sleeper candidate in tackle-heavy leagues that require defensive-line starters as he could produces 50-60 tackles with a handful of sacks thrown in.
Kerry Rhodes, Jets -- A former top DB while at strong safety, Rhodes has posted mediocre stats since being moved to free safety. The Jets signed Jim Leonhard in the offseason, and he figures to be a better asset at FS. If the Jets stick Leonhard in center field and play Rhodes back at SS, his tackle number will shoot up, and it could lead to Rhodes claiming DB1 status again.
Michael Mitchell, Raiders -- When Oakland used a second-round pick on Mitchell in the draft, draftniks everywhere looked at each other and said, "Who?" Don't let Oakland's massive reach deter you from spending a pick on Mitchell. He'll likely start at the spot vacated by Gibril Wilson, the top DB in the league last year after posting 129 total tackles. If he does see most of the time at strong safety, he should be fantasy football's Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Jermaine Phillips, Buccaneers -- Phillips has been such a tackling machine during his time in Tampa that the coaching staff is trying to turn him into an OLB to replace Derrick Brooks. If the move is successful, Phillips could increase his tackles while possibly picking up a few sacks, and Sabby Piscitelli would also make a great sleeper at Phillips' old position. If the transition proves unsuccessful, Phillips will return to his starting SS position, where he's always a threat to finish in the top ten at DB.
Rashean Mathis, Jaguars -- If you have to start cornerbacks in your league, Mathis makes for a great value pick. An injury limited his overall numbers last year, but if he can stay healthy (and he says that he's 100% recovered), he should be a lock for 60 tackles and five interceptions or more. If those are numbers than can help in your league's scoring setup, select Mathis with confidence.
Leodis McKelvin, Bills -- The rookie out of Troy flashed enough potential in the second half of 2008 that the Bills decided not to bring back Jabari Greer. Now in the starting lineup, McKelvin should be targeted often playing opposite of Terrence McGee. Fifty tackles and five interceptions aren't out of the question for the emerging second-year player.