It's always interesting to see the market for talent evolve during the course of the long fantasy football offseason. Free agency and the draft play their significant roles in reshaping rosters and depth charts around the league, and we spend months formulating the pricing and projections for all these players. Once we have this framework -- a specific 2013 marketplace -- we begin to fall in love to varying degrees with certain sleeper commodities. While it was a pretty girl at camp in 1992, my summer crushes are now exciting rookie running backs for the Bengals or promising young linebackers in Chicago. It's somewhat sad, but entirely true -- and we all do it. We work with our sleepers in secrecy as best we can, offering to deal them on the black market for fantasy information but only in exchange for another's sleepers.
Thing is, as the summer cools down, the sleepers often heat up and rise in drafts. So we need to keep mining and working for good names up until that glorious draft day is upon us. Since I'm not exactly being employed to hoard all my hard-earned sleepers and favorite values, it makes sense to share some of the choice individual defenders I am particularly keen on heading into the new campaign.
What we look for most commonly in our upside investments is a nice blend of talent and opportunity, and that was a key influence in building this list, focusing on defenders who have starting opportunities to begin the season and possess the talent to thrive in their given roles. In some sense, we can consider this my attempt at "planting flags," as my colleague Christopher Harris has over the years, only we are focusing on the other side of the ball.
For a look at the entire top-150 rankings for IDPs this season, click here.
With a premium placed on racking up tackles in most formats, linebacker is the naturally dominant position when it comes to fantasy production. But this doesn't mean we always have to pay a premium to invest in the position, because it's also a deep group. It's certainly advisable to invest in at least one proven star at this position, but for adding depth or even hunting down a really profitable LB2, consider this group an ideal place to start.
Wesley Woodyard, Denver Broncos: Undrafted out of Kentucky, Woodyard has gone from the roster bubble to key cog on a contender. His presence as a fantasy resource, particularly one you can profit greatly from this season, is also on the rise. While Woodyard enjoyed a breakout 2012 with 117 total tackles, four forced turnovers and an impressive 5.5 sacks, the market hasn't regarded him as elite just yet. With Von Miller serving a six-game suspension and Elvis Dumervil gone after Faxgate, Woodyard's demanding and versatile role for 2013 figures to be exciting for his fantasy prospects. Expect not only more usage as a pass-rusher than ever but also amazing tackle upside manning the middle lanes as the Mike in Denver.
Kiko Alonso, Buffalo Bills: This exciting rookie out of Oregon joins a defense in Orchard Park that has been starving for an every-down answer at inside linebacker since Paul Posluszny left town, and possibly even before that. Off-the-field concerns certainly contributed to seeing Alonso slip a bit on draft day, but the on-field upside is tantalizing given how aggressive the new read-and-react, seek-and-destroy scheme under new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine bodes to be. This is a team that employs two -- count 'em, two -- full-time linebacker coaches as it seeks to overhaul the entire position and scheme at once. Will there be some growing pains? Of course, but I'm not sure they limit Alonso's snaps or ability to produce given the investment the Bills placed in him and the thin nature of their depth chart at the position. As a potential indicator of the type of fancy stat line we might get, Alonso flashed his dynamism with the Ducks last fall with four interceptions, one sack, two forced fumbles, seven passes defended and 81 tackles. On a defense that might be on the field a lot this fall (Bills were the 31st-ranked run defense in 2012), Alonso will be calling the signals and chasing the ball an awful lot.
Mychal Kendricks, Philadelphia Eagles: Not only does your defensive roster gain that extra "Y" it was missing, you also might just get a breakout year from Kendricks. Similar to Woodyard, this is another case of an inside linebacker who might also be a maven at blitzing. With 8.5 sacks as a junior at Cal, the pass-rush pedigree is present, as are some indicators that a good deal more usage in blitz packages is on the way. Similar to Alonso's situation in the Buffalo, the Eagles desperately need some playmaking from a defense that has been absent in terms of big plays for a few seasons.
Honorable Mentions: Green Bay's Brad Jones is another interior 'backer capable of blending some healthy tackle numbers and consistent sack upside. … Bruce Carter could feast on running backs all season, given how the Monte Kiffin Tampa 2 system funnels the ball his way so often. … If Jon Bostic takes the middle gig in Chicago and never looks back, he could be the best investment of all in IDP leagues.
While a supremely volatile position in terms of turnover atop the leaderboard in points, we still can identify some roles that are ripe for production. As you might expect, this portion is heavy on playmaking safeties.
Eric Berry, Kansas City Chiefs: No really, this is the year. If you are an ardent IDP player, you have been waiting in line to watch this awesome Eric Berry movie for a few years, yet we still haven't seen it. Endorsing Berry isn't exactly deep-sleeper territory, but for the cycle of hype and deflation we've witnessed with him, the price might just be perfect. Offseason hype and hyperbole shouldn't induce instant trust or excitement, but when you consider that Berry might be deployed regularly as the blitzing safety in the nickel or even serve as the dime linebacker in those rare instances, the upside and chatter become understandable.
Johnathan Cyprien, Jacksonville Jaguars: Don't let the Sun Belt résumé fool you; this guy is widely regarded as a dynamic safety capable of smothering the passing lanes with size and athleticism and policing the running lanes with punishing hits. It helps that the math is so inviting. Cyprien steps in for Dawan Landry at the strong safety spot for the Jags, the spot from which Landry led all NFL defenders with 1,096 snaps in 2012. Talent just met opportunity, and they might get along famously in this case.
Honorable Mention: Cleveland's defense is getting some attention as a sleeper group in both real and fantasy regards heading into the season, and for good reason. It's a pretty balanced and talented unit, especially with vets like T.J. Ward ready to thrive in this aggressive and safety-friendly Ray Horton system.
I often preach to pay at the top for linemen and stock up on 'backers and defensive backs as the draft develops. That said, there are still some savvy buys out there to target.
Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, New England Patriots: It just so happens that I like both of these teammates quite a lot, but for different reasons. Jones oozes upside. He flashed dominance at times early in 2012 (six sacks in his first eight games) before hitting a major wall and some injury issues on his way to a silent second half. The hope is that a full offseason in Bill Belichick's system and a healthy batch of snaps while learning could lead to a double-digit sack breakout. With Ninkovich, we should think more of the Mike Vrabel mold -- a savvy veteran with supreme versatility and adaptability to different roles. A healthy blend of sacks, tackles and the rogue big play is expected from Ninkovich at a bargain price tag.
Anthony Spencer, Dallas Cowboys: It's not breaking ground endorsing a guy with 111 career sacks and 32 forced fumbles over his eight professional campaigns, so telling you that DeMarcus Ware might be a wise top investment could be a bit redundant to our rankings. But I have seen Spencer slip in the IDP drafts I've done so far and on rankings lists across the Web, and you would be wise to invest in shares of Spencer as he transitions into a defensive end role after years of rushing from an outside 'backer role. Playing across the field from Ware and in a system that will ask him to collapse the pocket with regularity, the true breakout might finally be on the way for the former first-rounder.