The Lambeau Leap, with its 20th anniversary around the corner, was born from a wild defensive touchdown on the day after Christmas in 1993. For the few old-school IDP nerds playing the game back then, they had to enjoy seeing Packers great LeRoy Butler force a fumble that Reggie White recovered, only to have Butler get the ball back on a lateral from White in order to score the fateful touchdown that led to an indelible jump up the green padded wall.
Another important leap has been around about as long as the game has been played; it's really the leap, actually -- when we witness a player make a transformative shift in the arc of his career. From depth contributor to starter is impressive. From starter to star even more so, but only the special few really earn the "super" prefix that we likely use too freely when lauding top talents. The leap to superstar is rarely linear and often somewhat sudden. Richard Sherman and J.J. Watt were impressive as rookies in 2011, but became unquestioned superstars as sophomores last season. Pro Football Focus' Khaled Elsayed recently penned a piece for ESPN Insider focusing on the breakout sophomore stars in the league this season. A notable name Elsayed discusses is Bucs linebacker Lavonte David, an astoundingly consistent playmaker tied for second in the league in tackles for loss with the Rams' Robert Quinn, yet another player who has made "the leap" from respected to feared. It's quite likely that David is the best 4-3 linebacker in the league right now, while Quinn is arguably the top 4-3 end, along with Carolina's Greg Hardy.
The investments their respective NFL teams have made in these talents have already been massively profitable, and the same can be said of the players' fantasy investors. If you didn't land a "leaper" this season, there are some emerging names showing signs of potential superstardom to consider for 2014. Tyrann Mathieu has played corner for the majority of his snaps for the Cardinals, but really has been used all over the field and is proving to be the potent playmaker his college tape had suggested he could become. On pace for 98 tackles and an elite 93 solos for a defensive back, Mathieu's blend of big plays (on pace for 2 sacks, 5 turnovers and 10 passes defensed) and steady tackle production has him heading for a top fantasy season already, with a super sophomore season potentially in the wings. Buffalo's Kiko Alonso is another rookie who also slipped a bit in the draft due to doubts over off-field concerns, but is trending toward star status, and as we discuss below, could possibly even make some all-time history this season with a few more interceptions.
Front Four: The weekly word on the world of defenders
High Wattage: I've received several e-mails this season wondering why Watt has been so steadily atop the weekly defensive line rankings, even if he's not always the top defensive lineman each week for fantasy production, or if another top talent has a seemingly more attractive setup for production. Watt is averaging a higher average game grade from Pro Football Focus this season than last, even if the coveted stats, notably the sacks, aren't on the same historic pace as 2012. Watt is still trending for 14 sacks, 5 forced fumbles and 75 tackles this season from the 3-4 defensive end position, one famous for suffocating big-play production. It's a reasonable question because his numbers aren't quite as prolific this season. I believe there is a reasonable answer; Watt is simply the best in the league at his position by the widest margin and at his position, surface stats won't always tell us the story, as they rarely do with line play across the league.
Ascending in Atlanta: Thanks to another epic outing, Falcons undrafted rookie linebacker Paul Worrilow merits even more space in this column. The Delaware product now has 54 tackles in his past three games, 21 more than the second-leading tackler in that span, the Bengals' Vontaze Burfict. That gap of 21 tackles between Worrilow and Burfict would tie for 24th in the NFL since Week 9 in tackles with studs like NaVorro Bowman and Mark Barron. If this three-game pace were extrapolated to a full season, the result would be 288 tackles. Imagine if the Bucs' Bobby Rainey didn't just tally 167 total yards last week, but had been doing so for three straight weeks, he'd be more than just a hot waiver acquisition and more like a newly minted fantasy star. Even in the midst of this torrid stretch, Worrilow is owned in just 8.5 percent of leagues and deserves far more attention for these crucial upcoming weeks.
Spoon Man: Fellow Falcons 'backer Sean Weatherspoon returned to action Sunday and both he and Worrilow were on the field for full three-down service, quelling fears over a snap share. After a long absence from the field due to injury, the playmaking Weatherspoon is available in well over half of ESPN leagues and is an ideal addition for those seeking a boost at linebacker for the stretch run.
Larcenous Linebackers: The most picks recorded by a linebacker in a season in league history is seven -- Atlanta's Al Richardson set the mark in 1980 and the Jets' Lance Mehl tied him in 1983. According to Pro Football Reference's data, no linebacker has ever led the NFL in interceptions for a season. Now 65 percent into the regular season, Detroit's DeAndre Levy is tied for the league lead with five interceptions, and Buffalo's Alonso is in striking distance with four picks. Dallas' Sean Lee unfortunately was recently injured, as his four picks and consistent coverage skills were a threat to consider as well. Levy is the key guy to target here for fantasy consideration, given that Alonso is widely owned and the Lions' linebacker is heading for 130 tackles -- in addition to the thievery in the passing game -- and is available in more than 60 percent of ESPN leagues.
Bargain bin -- Defenders available in more than half of ESPN leagues
Denver's Danny Trevathan has racked up 32 tackles in the past three games and should be busy chasing Patriots this Sunday night. … The Eagles' Trent Cole could be a wise playoff stash given his three sacks in the past three games and his eligibility at end in our game. … Carolina's Thomas Davis has endured multiple ACL injuries and long, arduous recoveries, making it so cool to see him thriving again on this aggressive front seven. … Andrew Sendejo's 30 tackles for the Vikings the past three weeks are the most among defensive backs.
Week 12: 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).