Sometimes we have to look past the surface stats to identify the players on the brink of breaking out. Sometimes players without much box score buzz are close to taking off, but only the game film and some advanced metrics would suggest this. One helpful indicator is to evaluate the pass-rush percentage of players at valuable positions. Pro Football Focus tracks the percentage of passing play snaps that defenders rush the passer. When things are close between two players for a fantasy spot, it can help to go beneath the surface a bit to unearth where valuable opportunity might exist. We invest in not just production, but the opportunity to produce; the potential to compile big numbers that convert into fantasy goodness. Rushing the passer is certainly an opportunity to produce, and a simple metric like pass-rush percentage can help us possibly identify which linebackers might be best for bye-week help or for big-game gambles.
The Steelers' Lawrence Timmons currently paces the inside 'backer crowd with 28.6 percent of his snaps on passing plays devoted to pursuing the pocket. Timmons has been relatively quiet this season, but his valuable role and this savory matchup in Oakland on Sunday have him elevated in our rankings this week. To give you an idea of the low end of the pass-rush usage spectrum, the Bengals' Rey Maualuga has blitzed on just 13 of his 196 passing snaps (6.6 percent). Eagles veteran leader DeMeco Ryans has been deployed as a pass-rusher on a whopping 78 snaps (Timmons has been sent 58 times, but just a higher percentage of his passing play snaps), pacing the inside linebacker position by 16 pass-rush snaps (his teammate Mychal Kendricks ranks third). The widely-available Ryans was all over the field versus the Cowboys last week (nine tackles, a sack and an interception), and a meeting with another familiar foe could lead to another strong week. With four sacks, two hits, five hurries for a total of 11 pressures already, the Cardinals' Karlos Dansby is the most successful sack artist at inside linebacker so far, which is no surprise given the high volume of plays he's rushed the passer (22.3 percent of his 287 passing snaps). Some other names that might be overlooked for their pass-rush roles would be Kiko Alonso (rushing on 17.5 percent), Wesley Woodyard (18.4), A.J. Hawk (22.1) and Perry Riley (18.5). For those hunting down potentially productive pickups at the position, the 'backers who rank well in this simple but useful metric could be of service.
Front Four: The weekly word on the world of defenders
Vontaze the value: From undrafted in this past April's annual NFL job fair due to a costly combo of character and conditioning concerns, to now leading the NFL in tackles on an aggressive and contending defense, the Bengals' Vontaze Burfict has had quite a remarkable rise to both real and fantasy stardom. Having played on 481 of the team's 487 defensive snaps so far, it's safe to say that Burfict is always on the field, and often around the ball. At nearly midseason, with a pace for 169 tackles and a healthy 112 solos, Burfict is owned in just 64 percent of ESPN leagues.
Briggs down, Bostic up: Bye weeks open up unique opportunities to stash worthy commodities that hit the market, based on the presence of the bye alone. It was certainly disheartening to hear that Bears stalwart linebacker Lance Briggs will miss up to six weeks with a fracture in his shoulder, but as fantasy investors we must move on. As Briggs hits fantasy free agency due to the injury, we can catch our competitors sleeping on the Bears' bye by adding rookie Jon Bostic as a stash. While the somewhat raw and assuredly green Bostic will endure some very real growing pains manning the middle for the Bears, the potential to tally quality numbers is very real with both D.J. Williams and now Briggs sidelined. Available in more than 90 percent of ESPN leagues, Bostic makes for a fine bye-week buy.
Overlooking Osi: In his time with the Giants, it was nearly impossible to overlook Osi Umenyiora. Once an annual staple atop the defensive line rankings for his healthy sack production and uncanny ability to force fumbles (his 20 forced fumbles since 2009 ranks second only to Chicago's Charles Tillman's 25), Umenyiora has been a marginal fantasy asset the past few years thanks to injuries and underwhelming production. Now in Atlanta and enjoying a quietly productive start to the season (four sacks, two forced fumbles, an interception and a touchdown), Umenyiora makes for an ideal pickup for this week's visit to the desert to take on one of the league's most porous offensive lines. While weekly trust as a fantasy asset might never reemerge for Umenyiora, the ability to put up a big week given a great matchup remains.
Bargain bin -- Defenders available in more than half of ESPN leagues: Funny that Chiefs QB menace Tamba Hali is owned in just 21 percent of ESPN leagues and is on pace for 21 sacks. ... As a top-20 fantasy linebacker in most formats so far, Rams rookie Alec Ogletree has enjoyed a great start to this imaginary career. A meeting with the run-heavy Seahawks could help him see double-digit tackles for the second time in three games. ... Panthers safety Mike Mitchell is making a name for himself with consecutive big games that included healthy tackle production and sacks in each outing. ... Denver's Duke Ihenacho remains criminally underappreciated in fantasy leagues. You get a cool name and a productive defensive back. What's the problem here? ... Dallas' Jason Hatcher could enjoy another quietly effective outing collapsing the pocket versus the pass-happy Lions.
Week 8: The Top 25 linebackers, linemen and defensive backs
So that we're working from agreed parameters, we'll use what many consider traditional scoring modifiers for an IDP league: Solo tackle (0.5), Assisted tackle (0.25), Sack (3), Interception (3), Forced fumble (3), Fumble recovery (3), Touchdown (6), Safety (4), Pass defended (0.5), Blocked kick (3).