In order to rise above the competition in fantasy football leagues we need to differentiate our portfolio with breakout players who enjoy smashing success in comparison to previous efforts. With a focus on the defensive side of the ball -- specifically on individual defensive players -- we aim to identify some of the key breakout candidates for 2016.
For opportunity on offense we have actionable information, such as touches and targets, which help reveal how players are consuming and converting usage into on-field production. On defense, we mostly track snaps as the key surface stat to appraise opportunity. While glaringly obvious, being on the field is requisite for fantasy production. Once we identify snap exposure, we can then look for tackle rates and big-play indicators like turnover creation and sack production.
By sifting through past performance and weighting the potential for opportunity this coming season, we've found some of our favorite breakout defenders at each position. With a nod to dynasty and keeper formats, we also detail some of the key rookies of the 2016 class at each defensive position.
James Laurinaitis -- now with the Saints -- led all linebackers in snaps as the middle linebacker for the Rams last season. Even from an outside role, Alec Ogletree enjoyed a 17 percent tackle rate last season, a rich clip that could spell league-leading potential given his valuable new role as the team's middle linebacker. Ogletree won't come cheap, as he's going fifth at the position on average in ESPN drafts, but indicators suggest a strong return on investment.
The Vikings' Eric Kendricks is a rare athlete for an inside linebacker, as he rates at least in the 90th percentile among positional prospects since 1999 in the 40-yard dash and vertical and broad jumps, per MockDraftable. NFL Nation's Vikings beat reporter Ben Goessling expects every-down exposure for Kendricks this season, "Both Mike Zimmer and defensive coordinator George Edwards have noted how much more assertive Kendricks looks this year. As Zimmer put it, there were times last season when Kendricks seemed like he'd had too much coffee. This year, he knows where he's supposed to be, and he's doing a better job of making calls in the defense. He'll be in the base, and I expect he'll play in the nickel, as well."
Speaking of athletic specimens, word is linebacker Ryan Shazier beat out fellow Steelers Antonio Brown and Sammie Coates in the 40-yard dash this offseason. Arguably the fastest player at the position in the league, Shazier needs only to stay on the field in order to become a fantasy star. Not only can Shazier reasonably top 100 tackles this season, we should recognize his pass-rush potential given he rushed the quarterback on 20.2 percent of passing snaps last season, good for 12th highest among inside linebackers, per Pro Football Focus.
The aforementioned breakout candidates are all going within the top 18 at the position in ESPN drafts, so for a stronger value angle, let's look at the Chargers' Denzel Perryman. Perryman rated tops among 59 qualifying inside 'backers in run stop percentage in 2015 -- registering a tackle on 18.3 percent of run snaps, per Pro Football Focus. If Perryman can secure every-down work (88 percent snap rate for final two games last year), he could rate among the leaders in solo tackles.
The Bears brought in Danny Trevathan to add a playmaking dynamic in the linebackers corps. While durability remains a concern, Trevathan's upside as a fantasy producer in Chicago is undeniable. As evidence, he led all linebackers with at least 500 snaps in tackles per snap last season and trailed only this guy named Luke Kuechly in fantasy points per play among that snap sampling.
It's hard to not like the low draft price on Anthony Hitchens in Dallas, as he's perched atop the depth chart at middle linebacker and can be found in the twilight rounds in most drafts. Similarly, Zachary Orr of the Baltimore Ravens, the Houston Texans' Benardrick McKinney and the Oakland Raiders' Ben Heeney could all surge as starting inside linebackers on their respective front sevens.
It's sad to see the Buffalo Bills' Reggie Ragland lost for the season with a knee injury, but we can still find some fantasy gems in the rookie class at the position. ESPN Nation's Vaughn McClure told us LSU speedster Deion Jones is in competition for meaningful work on the Falcons' front seven: "Jones is fighting Paul Worrilow for playing time and is likely going to be one of the linebackers on the field in the nickel because of his speed and coverage ability."
The Jets' Darron Lee might be the most immediately valuable freshman fantasy linebacker, as he needs to supplant Erin Henderson for an inside gig. Lee enjoyed a stellar preseason debut with two tackles for loss and a sack.
The Lions' Ezekiel Ansah is a strong contender to lead the league in sacks this season. Ansah led all linemen with at least 300 snaps in both fantasy points and sacks per play last season.
Having spent the offseason training with Adrian Peterson, "undersized" Vikings edge rusher Danielle Hunter is earning offseason hype for added bulk. Hunter was seventh in both fantasy points and sacks per snap among linemen with at least 300 snaps last season. Goessling told us, "The coaching staff is pretty excited about how he looks coming into his second year. They've been touting him as a real find for their scouting staff, and I'd expect he'll get more snaps in the base defense this year, while still playing as a pass-rusher in the nickel package."
The Eagles brought in Jim Schwartz to deploy his attacking defense that employs the Wide 9 technique with frequency. This technique means edge linemen line up a full gap from where the tight end would line up pre-snap. Schwartz relies on a four-man pass rush, which should lead to increased exposure for both Brandon Graham and Vinny Curry. Graham has compiled 12 sacks and seven forced fumbles in limited snaps at linebacker over the past two seasons, while Curry was second among linemen in forced fumbles in 2014 and led all linemen in sacks per snap (min. 300) that season.
One of our favorite breakout edge talents is the Patriots' Jabaal Sheard, as he ranked second in Pro Football Focus' signature stat pass rush productivity last season (sacks, hits and hurries divided by snaps) among 4-3 ends. Sheard finished 2015 with four sacks and three forced fumbles over the final three games and was fourth in fantasy points per play among linemen with at least 500 snaps for the season.
As far as rookie linemen, the 49ers' DeForest Buckner could earn streaming interest playing on a defense that could be on the field more than any other in the league.
It might take some time for former prep phenoms Robert Nkemdiche and Noah Spence, of the Cardinals and Bucs, respectively, to earn meaningful work, but both could eventually shine as playmakers in their rookie seasons.
NFL Nation Bills reporter Mike Rodak offered insight into the role versatile rookie Adolphus Washington night serve this season, "He'll be a starter at 3-4 DE, 5-tech unless there is an injury or setback in his development. Washington will be an interior rusher with snap counts most likely north of 50 percent, probably closer to 75 percent."
Breakout defensive backs
A thin linebacker depth chart for the Jets could set up Calvin Pryor with steady tackle opportunities cleaning up in the second level. We also like the Saints' Kenny Vaccaro as an enforcer behind a suspect crew of linebackers. Laurinaitis ranked last among inside linebackers in run stop percentage last season, meaning Vaccaro could be busy in the box in 2016.
Chip Kelly's snap-happy scheme saw Malcolm Jenkins average 70.4 plays per game over the past two seasons, the most among defenders by nearly six percent. This means strong safety Antoine Bethea -- who was third in run stop percentage among safeties last season -- could challenge the Dolphins' Reshad Jones for the tackle crown among defensive backs. The Eagles' defense was on the field for 11.4 percent more plays than the league average last season.
NFL Nation's Cowboys beat scribe Todd Archer believes we'll see a lot of uber-athlete Byron Jones this season, "Jones will be their starting free safety. The Cowboys believe his range is his best asset. He can go after the ball with his athleticism and they've not had a safety like that in some time."
The Colts were 22nd in sacks last season and could again struggle to produce pocket pressure this season. Safety Clayton Geathers could be busy all season with the lack of pressure feeding the ball into the second level with regularity. Similarly, Ibraheim Campbell could thrive in Cleveland as a stud strong safety behind a shaky linebacker group and an ineffective pass rush.
Sticking in Ohio, the Bengals' Shawn Williams -- flush with a new contract -- should earn every-down snap exposure. Pro Football Focus notes Williams finished ninth among safeties with 0.27 yards per coverage snap.
In Denver we could see veteran strong safety T.J. Ward playing in the box as a pseudo dime linebacker given preseason trends. Ward was 11th in run stop percentage last season at the position, per PFF.
It's seemingly a banner season for targeting young secondary talents, as the Jaguars' Jalen Ramsey could be heavily targeted and the Raiders' Karl Joseph could produce a linebacker-like tackle rate as the box enforcer in Oakland.
In what could be another fun hybrid safety/linebacker role in the mold of Deone Bucannon and Mark Barron, the Redskins' Su'a Cravens is going to play a unique role this season. NFL Nation's John Keim notes that while Cravens is a sub-package specialist, "I can definitely see him getting good work with the starters in nickel and dime packages. He's a good athlete and I think they'll want his quickness up near the line." Cravens is eligible at both safety and linebacker in our game due to his rare role, adding immense value if he eventually earns steady snaps.
NFL Nation's McClure offered his take on safety Keanu Neal's immediate upside, "He certainly is an every-down player. He's displayed more speed than initially advertised. He's athletic enough to defend big tight ends. He'll fly down into the box and be that heavy hitter, but the Falcons seem to trust him in coverage as well, so maybe some interceptions will come his way."