Fantasy football breakouts and sleepers: Individual defensive players to watch

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One of the most rewarding experiences in fantasy football is correctly identifying a breakout campaign. Some blend of research and instinct develop such exciting outcomes. There isn't even an expiration date on celebrating such victories. I still fondly remember drafting Antonio Gates in 2004. Replicating such profitable calls each season can prove challenging, but it's always worth trying.

With this pursuit of value in mind, I've canvassed the individual defensive player (IDP) pool for my favorite breakout and sleeper candidates ahead of the 2021 NFL season. We can consider a breakout as a player who can reasonably vault into the top 12 at his respective position, while a sleeper is one with real potential to significantly outproduce his average draft position (ADP).

Breakout Defensive Linemen

Montez Sweat, Washington Football Team

Currently priced as a back-end DL2, Sweat could vault into the top tier of the position this season thanks to a uniquely balanced skill set. Sweat finished with the third-highest rush defense grade among edge defenders on Pro Football Focus last season, and he has already established a bankable floor of tackle production. He's also an effective pass rusher, as the Mississippi State product ranked 25th among edge defenders with 46 pressures last season. Given that Sweat could enjoy a series of solo matchups across from an ascendant double-team magnet in Chase Young, he could be on the doorstep of a big statistical season.

Haason Reddick, Carolina Panthers

Yes, five of Reddick's career-high 12.5 sacks last season came in a single December outing against the Giants. Yet the bigger statistical picture reveals Reddick's enduring emergence as a pass rusher. The Temple product posted the 11th-highest pass rush grade among edge defenders last season, per PFF.

Reddick didn't become an every-down force for Arizona until Week 7 last season. His 17-game pace over those final 10 games (each with a snap rate of at least 88%) results in an awesome 82 tackles and 14 sacks. Reddick forced six fumbles during that 10-game finish, finishing second in the league overall. Back with his collegiate coach in Carolina and likely to serve an every-down role for the Panthers, Reddick is a fun target for those who wait on their second lineman in drafts.

Josh Allen, Jacksonville Jaguars

While Buffalo's quarterback with the same name broke into the star tier of signal-callers last season, Jacksonville's Allen endured a down sophomore season. A brilliant rookie effort in 2019 included Allen earning Pro Bowl honors as one of just a dozen rookies since 2000 to compile at least 10 sacks and 44 total tackles. Injuries limited Allen to seven starts and eight appearances last season, yet a dynamic and demanding role in defensive coordinator Josh Cullen's system could see him flirt with 60 tackles this season.

Defensive Line Sleepers

With Bud Dupree now in Tennessee, Alex Highsmith of the Steelers slots into a valuable pass-rushing role across from T.J. Watt. Mind you, Dupree averaged nearly 900 defensive snaps in three seasons from 2017-19. In place of an injured Dupree last season, Highsmith's 17 pressures from Weeks 13-17 tied for the ninth most among edge defenders. A high snap count and a bevy of one-on-one matchups at the edge await Highsmith this season. ... Quinnen Williams flashed with a stellar fantasy points per snap rate last season and now just needs more playing time to join the tier of elite interior defenders in 2021.

Breakout Linebackers

Kenneth Murray Jr., Los Angeles Chargers

An impressive first professional season saw Murray set the franchise rookie record for tackles in 2020. Earning a team-high 959 defensive snaps in the process, Murray enters his second season primed for a playmaking leap in Brandon Staley's linebacker-friendly scheme. Murray is likely to blitz and play downhill more often this season, placing him among my favorite targets at this critical fantasy position.

Micah Parsons, Dallas Cowboys

Jamin Davis, Washington Football Team

This rookie duo is poised for immediate statistical stardom in the NFC East. In 2019, Parsons established the highest collegiate run-defense grade ever recorded by PFF. Davis, meanwhile, paced all Power Five defenders in total tackles in 2020. Both will serve rewarding every-down roles right away for their respective defenses. Parsons is likely to enjoy rare freedom to pursue the pocket and make plays against the run, while Davis is a safe bet for 100 tackles as a force in the box.

Linebacker Sleepers

Seattle's Jordyn Brooks was impressive as a run-stopper on early downs as a rookie last season and should fill a three-down role now that K.J. Wright is no longer on the depth chart. Another name I'm targeting as a value is Willie Gay, as he was stellar in coverage for Kansas City last season and could assume a three-down role rocking the green dot for the Chiefs this fall. For those in deeper leagues, Logan Wilson heads into the season as the starting middle linebacker for Cincinnati. With a nose for the ball on running plays and 10 career collegiate interceptions, Wilson is a fun flier.

Breakout Defensive Backs

Tracy Walker, Detroit Lions

An amazing 2019 season for Walker included a triple-digit tackle tally and a series of splash plays in pass defense. Last season saw Walker struggle to stay on the field amid confusing usage. Tabbed to reclaim the starting free safety role behind what should be a leaky front seven, Walker should thrive roaming the field for Detroit in Aaron Glenn's split-safety scheme.

Xavier McKinney, New York Giants

McKinney missed much of his rookie season due to an injury, but the 'Bama product finished strong with four straight starts that included 24 total tackles and a pick. Buzz from training camp suggests McKinney could become a key playmaker for a deep and talented Giants defense this season.

Defensive Back Sleepers

Like Walker, Taylor Rapp endured a difficult 2020 in regards to playing time and production. While he'll need to stave off position peer Terrell Burgess for starting snaps, there is real upside for Rapp in a Raheem Morris scheme that regularly deploys three safeties. A 100-tackle campaign as a rookie in 2019 signaled how productive Rapp can be in the right position. We'll learn a lot about Rapp's role in this secondary in the early weeks of the season. The Titans overhauled their secondary in the offseason, resulting in a starting safety gig for Amani Hooker. Playing next to a gifted coverage safety in Kevin Byard, Hooker could flirt with a linebacker-like tackle clip.