Ouch. Talk about a rough Week 1. With a number of stars bowing out to major injuries in this first week, many fantasy owners are trying to pick up the pieces just 10 days into the long fantasy season. While losing a star player for the season is certainly no fun, for him, his real team and your fantasy squad alike, it is important to remember that injuries are part of what makes fantasy so compelling.
Just a few seasons ago, I had a team that hosted more ACL tears than Veterans Stadium. On both sides of the ball, key contributors were regularly getting little red "IR" labels next to their names. The rapid erosion of talent on my team forced me to get creative, to play unknowns and make dramatic trades. My team, "The Dr. James Andrews Project," somehow made the league finals that winter with a starting lineup that looked like an NFL Europe roster. Managing that team and maximizing the limited talent available made the season ultimately rewarding, even more than some championships I've won.
The point being, you can recover from your losses if you hustle. The ideal way to do improve your team is, of course, the free way. Even in deeper leagues, the waiver wire is still ripe with talent. This rings even truer in IDP leagues since many managers are slower to edit their defensive rosters. Don't wait to make changes to your team solely based on timing. Who cares if it's early in the season? Get out there and make your team better when the opportunity presents itself.
Consider using these players if you are in immediate need of impact defenders, especially in deep leagues.
Linebackers and linemen: Pittsburgh's James Harrison shot up the ownership chart this week thanks to a dominant effort versus the Texans. For those new Harrison owners expecting him to keep up this prolific pace, temper your expectations somewhat given that he was a boom-or-bust performer last season. The Eagles haven't had an athletic, big MLB like Stewart Bradley since Jeremiah Trotter had healthy knees back in the early 2000s. Bradley is getting added en masse across IDP leagues and could be this year's Barrett Ruud, but with more upside. Speaking of Ruud, he is known to be valuable early in the season but apt to wear down as the season progresses. Consider him a nice buy-now, sell-soon commodity to target, a "flip that linebacker," if you will. John Abraham made this list last week and he responded with a three-sack outing. Not sure his being mentioned in this column actually inspires a game-day response from Abraham, but he's a must-add regardless for anyone looking for sacks on the cheap. The Bengals' super rookie Keith Rivers burst onto the fantasy scene in his NFL debut with an impressive nine solo tackles, while teammate Dhani Jones racked up 10 total tackles. With a sieve of a defensive line in front of them, these Bengals 'backers should be safe sources of tackles throughout the season. Because of a down 2007, Aaron Schobel is owned in less than half of ESPN leagues, but he needs to be on more teams. Schobel was an IDP stud for several seasons before injuries ravaged the Buffalo defense and left him with little help last year. With a much stronger surrounding crew and a clean bill of health, look for Schobel to reward his fantasy owners for forgiving his poor 2007 production.
Defensive backs: San Diego's relatively unheralded safety tandem of Eric Weddle and Clinton Hart deserves to be owned in more than just 10 and 30 percent of ESPN leagues, respectively. The duo combined for 21 tackles this past week and could be busy with ball carriers all season behind an ailing Bolts front seven. Add Tennessee's Cortland Finnegan not only because he has a pretty rad name, but because he's also a consistently productive DB who'll win you some weeks with a breakout performance, like his two-interception effort this past week. Hard-hitting legend Rodney Harrison hasn't been a valued fantasy commodity since 2004, the last season he suited up for a full 16 games. He's off to an auspicious start so far with a dominant 14-tackle debut, but be wary of looming injury concerns for a player who's racked up nearly 1,200 tackles. Chris Harris is a punishing, game-changing fantasy writer, um, I mean safety, who had a simply awesome 2007 campaign, leading the league in forced fumbles. Whatever he did last offseason to adjust his tackling technique, it continues to work, as he jarred yet another ball loose this past week. Add him now if you can, as he's still available in more than 40 percent of ESPN leagues. Despite getting annihilated by the beast that is Brandon Jacobs last week, LaRon Landry still put up solid numbers and will start inflicting punishment rather than taking it as the season wears on.
Target these guys for depth and bye-week plug-ins with an eye on their potential to be full-fledged starters.
Linebackers and linemen: Denver MLB Nate Webster further cemented his role with 11 tackles against a reeling Oakland offense. For further proof that there is a lag on the wire in IDP leagues, Webster is available in 94 percent of ESPN leagues despite his stellar debut while fellow breakout Bronco Eddie Royal is now owned in over 90 percent of leagues. D'Qwell Jackson is a worthy depth addition to your defensive roster and may be the only member of the Browns' front seven who currently possesses any fantasy value. Travis LaBoy is yet another tweener project for the Cardinals to unleash from the OLB position. In his first game for the underrated Arizona defense, LaBoy wrecked shop with two sacks and a forced and recovered fumble. LaBoy's expected production compares favorably to what Calvin Pace did for the team in a similar role last season. Switching to the strong side limits Scott Fujita's tackle potential, but it may actually improve his sack and interception potential, as he's free to create havoc with Jonathan Vilma manning the middle in New Orleans. Add Mathias Kiwanuka immediately if you like having breakout players on your team. Kiwanuka has long been the heir apparent to Strahan and is now in a position to fulfill that promise.
Defensive backs: Sadly, most football fans will remember Bernard Pollard as the guy who rolled on Tom Brady's knee. He should be known, however, for being an emerging young safety with a growing reputation for punishment in the open field. He's primed to break out this season, so make room for him on your roster. The Dolphins' Yeremiah Bell is forcing his way onto fantasy teams with his awesome Week 1 that saw him post 10 tackles and a forced fumble versus the Jets. He should be busy once again this Sunday chasing the Cardinals' talented receivers. Owned in over 48 percent of ESPN leagues, Adam Jones gets waaaay too much fantasy love for what he currently offers. For one, the nickname is gone so it's not nearly as fun to own him, and two, he simply doesn't put up legit fantasy totals outside of leagues that count returns. Nick Harper, on the other hand, who has replaced Jones on the Titans, is a vastly undervalued corner with just 7 percent of fantasy managers considering him roster-worthy. Harper posted 77 tackles last season and is a veteran leader on an emerging Titans defense that will need to be stellar throughout to keep this team in contention.
Jim McCormick is an analyst for ESPN.com fantasy football.