Who will be this year's Kiko Alonso in your IDP league?
Well, the most likely answer is: nobody. Sure, another LB could come out of relative obscurity and finish among his position's top 10 in fantasy. But that doesn't mean you should bet on it.
That said, you can definitely bet on the rest of your league completely overlooking some strong IDP value come draft day. Some such sleepers will be understandably missed because they're new. Others will be the type that your league mates will kick themselves for not selecting.
Here's a list of 13 defensive sleepers you can draft to help bring about that kicking ...
Lamarr Houston, DE, Bears
Houston should be well known to IDP owners after cracking the top 15 at his position last season, but he remains undervalued in drafts. It's probably because he has never been the flashy sack guy that many other DEs are, but he'd make for a terrific DL2 on your squad.
Houston has been a poster boy for hidden pass-rushing productivity over the past couple of years. While his sack numbers have climbed just modestly across 3 years as a full-time starter -- from 1 to 4.5 to 6 in 2013 -- Houston has discomforted QBs at a much higher rate.
According to Pro Football Focus, he generated 39 total pressures (including 5 sacks) as a 2010 rookie who played the 2nd most snaps among Oakland D-linemen (and not as a pass-rushing specialist). That productivity dipped in his 2nd season -- 34 total pressures -- but then spiked the past 2 years. Houston racked up 54 total QB disruptions in 2012 and then 63 last year. His 2013 total tied Rams DE Chris Long for 12th best among all 4-3 DEs.
Tying with Long seems particularly noteworthy because Long is a pass-rushing demon and weak run defender -- basically the opposite of what you might think about Houston.
Now that Houston has moved to Chicago, he just might find a few more sack opportunities. Fellow free-agent addition Jared Allen will start on the opposite end, upgrading what Houston has paired with in the past. And 3rd DE Willie Young (a former Lion) probably could have started for at least a couple of those Raider teams.
Will moving back to left DE after playing on the right last season hurt Houston's pass-rushing production? We'll see. But his 2013 sack total shouldn't be difficult to approach, match or even exceed -- regardless of his overall performance.
More importantly, Houston ranked 6th among all D-linemen in total tackles last year after tying for 2nd in 2012. So he lays a strong, consistent fantasy base on which to build whatever he can in the sack category. That has us projecting Houston 13th in our site rankings, compared with his DL21 ADP so far in MyFantasyLeague.com drafts.
Aaron Donald, DT, Rams
If you watched Donald's preseason debut Friday night against the Saints, you might have heard the TV crew call him out for failing to get off his block on Mark Ingram's 2nd-quarter TD run. Should we worry about that play, which came after many starters had left the game? Well, maybe if we weren't talking about a guy who led the NCAA with 28.5 tackles for loss last year.
That kind of play's going to happen, especially when a D-lineman is just starting out in the league. Heck, it might wind up occurring a little too often with Donald, who weighs in at an atypical (for NFL DTs) 285 pounds. But you know what else will happen often? He'll get into the backfield and disrupt plays.
He did so over 4 years at Pittsburgh, which included a pair of 11-sack seasons and 66 total tackles for loss. Donald also forced 4 fumbles as a senior and deflected 11 passes over his 4 seasons. That shows awareness on top of playmaking ability.
In St. Louis, he'll play in arguably the league's most talented line group, with Robert Quinn and Chris Long harassing passers from the outside and DT Michael Brockers ascending as a hefty, disruptive 23-year-old nose man.
We project Donald as the #1 DT on the IDP board right away and expect starter level fantasy production across leagues that start at least 2 linemen.
Lance Briggs, OLB, Bears
Eleven seasons in at age 33, Briggs really has no business qualifying as a "sleeper." But he absolutely does, with MFL's ADP list putting him 46th among LBs so far.
Why? Because a fractured shoulder cost Briggs 7 games last year, and people don't pay enough attention to the IDP universe to remember just how good he was in the other 9.
So, how good was he? Try 8th best among LBs in fantasy-scoring average. And if you look at just his first 7 games -- including the one he left early with the shoulder injury -- you'd get the 4th best LB scoring average, ahead of Lavonte David's (depending on the format).
Will he match his 2013 numbers this year? Maybe, though some per-game regression is possible as well. His 3 sacks marked a career high -- in just 9 games. That could either mean fluky numbers or a significant role change under then-new DC Mel Tucker after years in Lovie Smith's "Tampa 2" scheme (which favors coverage with its LBs and pass-rushing with mainly just the front 4). Briggs' 7.9 tackles per game also marked his best rate since 2006.
He doesn't need to reach those rates again to deliver big value vs. his draft position, but he might be able to. Briggs played in all 16 games in 2 straight years before last season, and PFF graded him among the top 10 OLBs in 4-3 schemes for 3 straight seasons before 2013.
This is a historically good player and IDP performer who merely stepped up further early last year. The Bears' LBs remain shaky around him, while the D-line improved via the signings of DEs Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young.
You should definitely target Briggs as a LB2 or LB3 in your IDP league.
Brandon Spikes, MLB, Bills
The Patriots viewed Spikes as just a 2-down player, but his new team might not agree with that treatment.
Spikes has stayed on the field so far in passing situations through 2 preseason games with Buffalo. That included a position-high 8 coverage snaps among a position-high 16 total snaps against the Panthers on Saturday night, according to Pro Football Focus' numbers.
Such a 3-down role is all that has stood between Spikes and significant fantasy value thus far.
PFF graded Spikes the top run defender among all ILBs each of the past 2 years, but the Pats kept him on the field for just 59.5% of the snaps last season and never played him on more than 72.4% of the snaps in any single game.
That seems like it'll change this season, which should easily push Spikes past 100 total tackles for the 1st time in his career -- potentially well past. Spikes will play behind arguably the league's best DT duo, Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams. He'll play between a couple of new outside starters (with Kiko Alonso injured), and he's playing for a new contract after signing a 1-year deal with the Bills.
For what it's worth, Spikes also picked off 6 passes over his final 2 seasons at Florida, returned 4 of them for TDs and defensed 18 total throws over his 3 years as a starter.
Not bad for a guy who can't cover.
Jamie Collins, OLB, Patriots
A lot of guys you can project based on what they've done before. But a 1st-time starter presents a fresh canvas, and Collins brings more different colors of paint than most new starting LBs.
He entered the league last year as a noted coverage player, touted as a potential matchup demon for TEs and RBs. But Collins showed well as a pass rusher in spot duty as a rookie, including his 1st pro sack in the playoff-opening defeat of the Colts.
Between the playoffs and regular season, Pro Football Focus counted up 5 QB hits and 8 hurries to go with the sack -- and graded him better as a rusher than a cover man. That probably shouldn't have surprised anyone after he finished college as primarily a DE, with 16.5 sacks over his final 2 seasons (plus 18 career pass breakups).
Collins figures to ply both skills as a full-time player in 2014, and the combo of desirable 3rd-down traits should keep him on the field in passing sub packages. That can only help his tackle total, in addition to providing big-play chances. Collins picked off 3 passes , returned 2 for TDs and forced 7 fumbles across his 4 years at Southern Miss. Add that to a pair of 90+ tackle seasons his last 2 years, including 39.5 tackles for loss, and you see a well-rounded talent with a high IDP ceiling.
Kevin Minter, ILB, Cardinals
We just had to move this guy down the rankings a bit ... but not because we like him any less than before training camp opened. It's all about situation.
Cardinals HC Bruce Arians admitted last week that he doesn't even know yet what his preference is at nickel LB. He said that 34-year-old Larry Foote remains capable of playing a 3-down role, despite the fact that Foote has started a full 16 games just once in the past 5 years. Perhaps that's a knock on Minter's coverage play more than a vote in favor of Foote, though.
The 2nd-year replacement for Karlos Dansby certainly entered the league with questions about his ability to cover, and he hasn't yet had the chance to dispel them in game action. Dansby and Daryl Washington blocked Minter for most of his rookie year, but he failed to force his way onto the field even while Washington served a 4-game suspension to open the season.
Still, the Cards allowed Dansby to walk in free agency and made no big free-agent moves even after the league banned Washington for the entire 2014 season. They're giving him the green-dot helmet, which means he'll relay the play calls from the sideline to the defensive huddle. Minter and Foote might be sharing sub-package duties so far, with S Deone Bucannon's role as a sub-package LB cutting further into the available snaps. But we'd bet against a full season from Foote in 2014.
The risk is that Minter proves to be Brandon Spikes-like (at least in his New England days) in that his team removes him for passing situations. That's why he fell down our rankings a few spots this weekend. But the upshot would be Arizona leaving him on the field for such situations more often than it removes him.
When on the field, Minter has impressed with his thumping hits and regularly made plays at the line of scrimmage and in the backfield during his lone starting season at LSU. We'll take a chance on a potentially dominating run player as a high-ceiling LB3 in IDP drafts this summer.
Matt Elam, S, Ravens
Elam disappointed some IDP owners by not claiming a starting job right away as a 2013 rookie. Then he let down the rest of us by delivering mediocre -- at best -- production once in the lineup. But that wasn't all his fault.
He's more of a strong safety, and Baltimore asked the 1st-year guy to take over for FS Michael Huff early last season. Elam fared OK but didn't excel in any area.
Baltimore has toyed with its safeties in camp so far, including forcing Elam to split reps at times. But he sat in the SS spot on the Ravens' 1st depth chart, which would set Elam up for some nice fantasy upside.
For starters, James Ihedigbo ranked 9th among league DBs in tackles and cracked the top 16 in fantasy points from that position last season, the 1st time in his 6-year career that he started a full season. The Ravens showed how special they consider Ihedigbo by letting him walk in free agency for a meager 2-year deal in Detroit ($3.15 million, with just $750,000 guaranteed).
Elam unquestionably brings more talent, which is why the Ravens took him at the end of 2013's 1st round. In his 2 seasons as a starter at Florida, Elam snagged 6 INTs, defensed 18 total passes, recorded 4 sacks and ranked among the team's top 2 in tackles for loss each year. That included leading the Gators in 2011, as a sophomore 1st-time starter.
Elam clearly comes forward well but can also make plays in coverage and tackles without hesitation. He has had a fairly quiet camp so far, but he'll carry significant IDP upside into 2014 as long as he keeps the SS job.
T.J. McDonald, S, Rams
When last Gregg Williams coordinated an NFL defense (New Orleans, 2011), he helped SS Roman Harper rack up 7.5 sacks. Only 1 DB in the history of the league has beaten that total (Adrian Wilson with the 2005 Cardinals).
Between that year and the season before, Harper tallied 10.5 total sacks, 16 passes defensed and 9 forced fumbles. Huge numbers for a safety, but not totally atypical of a Williams safety.
The longtime coordinator has always favored aggressive D, and McDonald projects as his in-the-box guy in the 2014 St. Louis secondary. McDonald brings intriguing athleticism -- 4.59-second 40 time, 40-inch vertical, 10'11 broad jump at 2013 Combine -- especially for a guy who stands 6'2 and 219 pounds. He snagged 8 INTs over 3 starting seasons at USC and finished his career with a 112-tackle senior campaign.
A right leg fracture cost him 6 games as a rookie, derailing his debut campaign right in the middle. But McDonald managed a solid 35 tackles over his final 6 outings after returning. That extrapolates to 93 total stops over a full season.
Combine that sturdy tackle base with the big-play potential of playing SS under Williams, and you have a DB2 at draft time who could wind up in DB1 territory.
Leodis McKelvin, CB, Bills
McKelvin has spent much more time out of the lineup than in over his 6 seasons since Buffalo drafted him in Round 1 back in 2008. He has started more than 6 games in a season just twice, but the 2nd came last year and produced easily his best pro campaign to date.
Pro Football Focus graded McKelvin the league's #17 corner overall, #7 in coverage. (By comparison, Bills CB Stephon Gilmore -- regarded as the team's top cover man -- graded out 79th in coverage.) The last time McKelvin started more than 6 games in a season (2010), PFF rated him tied for 53rd overall and tied for 51st in coverage. We've questioned PFF's grading on DBs plenty of times, but that disparity sure seems to indicate significant improvement whether you trust the numbers or not. It's also worth noting that McKelvin started just 10 total games over the next 2 seasons after that 2010 campaign.
This time, though, he appears locked into an opening-day starter role after breaking up 19 passes last year, 8 more than his previous high. McKelvin picked just 1 pass and has just 7 career INTs through 6 seasons, though. He also never picked more than 2 passes over 4 college seasons. So his INT ceiling might not be high, but 3 should be reachable for a guy who defensed 20 total passes a year ago.
What makes McKelvin most dangerous, though, is what he can do after the ball gets into his hands. The speed that helped make him the 11th overall pick back in 2008 also helped him return 7 career punts and 1 kickoff for TDs at Troy. McKelvin has also returned 3 punts and a kick for TDs in the NFL, including a pair of punts in 2012. He led the league with 18.7 yards per punt return that year.
If your league counts special teams production for individual players, McKelvin obviously gets a value boost. But even if it doesn't, that return prowess makes him a threat to take any INT the distance. That kind of boom/bust potential becomes easier to add if you've laid a solid base with your earlier picks at the position.
Jerry Hughes, DE, Bills
Did you even realize that this guy finished with 10 sacks last year, tying for 20th in the league -- ahead of linemen such as Gerald McCoy, Calais Campbell, Michael Bennett and Chris Long?
Don't feel bad if you didn’t. Hughes probably sat in the LB category in your IDP league last year, which would have made him far less of a fantasy factor. But the same point total that would have placed him somewhere outside the top 50 LBs in average IDP formats likely would have cracked the top 30 among D-linemen. And that's where he should qualify this year in new DC Jim Schwartz's 4-3 scheme.
Hughes started his NFL career very slowly after going to the Colts late in the 1st round in 2010. He totaled just 5 sacks over his 1st 3 seasons -- with 4 of those coming in 2012 -- before Indy finally traded him to Buffalo last offseason. Hughes remained only a part-time player with the Bills, reaching or exceeding 50% of the snaps just 4 times all season. But he blossomed as a producer.
Besides the 46 total tackles and 10 sacks, he earned Pro Football Focus' 3rd-best pass-rushing rating for the season among 3-4 OLBs, ahead of Kansas City's Justin Houston and San Fran's Aldon Smith. Hughes backed his 10 sacks with 9 QB hits and 39 hurries, helping to make his sack total look less fluky. The numbers also seem easier to believe if you look back to his college production.
Hughes turned into 1 of the nation's most consistent pass-rushing forces over his final 2 years at TCU, tallying an NCAA-high 15 sacks as a 2008 junior before adding 11.5 more as a senior. Hughes also led the nation with 6 forced fumbles in his junior year and even defensed 7 passes and picked off 3 for his career.
In 2014, Hughes will share time with Manny Lawson, across from DE Mario Williams and next to DTs Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams. The 3 main steadies give opposing offenses more than enough to contend with, and Hughes showed last year that he doesn't need 70+% of the snaps to deliver worthwhile value. He's especially easy to take a chance on when you factor in that he'll likely go undrafted in most IDP leagues.
Jacquian Williams, OLB, Giants
Williams has looked good in flashes over 3 seasons with the Giants, especially in coverage. He defensed 14 total passes while starting 14 total games over that span but worked most often as a coverage player in sub packages.
Williams appears poised to finally get his 1st full starting shot on the weak side in 2014 at age 26. His coverage chops make him a strong candidate to hold 3-down duties. And a broken foot could sideline MLB Jon Beason for the 1st month of the season.
That all means plenty of stat upside for the man on the weak side. Williams makes for a strong bench stash in 2014 IDP leagues.
Keenan Robinson, ILB, Washington
It might have seemed like it would never happen, but London Fletcher has actually retired. In his place, Robinson gets a chance to start after finishing each of his first 2 pro years on IR with pectoral tears.
Robinson impressed in practices before his injuries each of the past 2 years, and he has showed Washington coaches enough this offseason to have inherited play-calling duties from Fletcher (over fellow starter Perry Riley). Just 1 defensive player can wear that green-dot helmet at a time -- receiving the play calls from the sideline -- so any player wearing it should only increase his chances of playing every down.
Indeed, Washington left Robinson on the field for 16 snaps in its preseason opener vs. New England, despite taking the other 3 starting LBs out after 7 plays. Robinson hasn't faced much competition for his job, so the move seems more a matter of helping to get the new guy comfortable before the games count.
If you've played with IDPs for at least the past few years, you need no explanation of the fantasy value that London Fletcher leaves behind. It wouldn't be fair to expect Robinson to approach that level right away. But it would also seem foolish to ignore the situation.
Unless he does something to send him rocketing up IDP draft boards this month, Robinson looks like a late backup selection at draft time who could become a starting option in fantasy.
Nigel Bradham, OLB, Bills
Pro Football Focus rated Bradham the best run defender among all Bills LBs last year, despite the fact that he ranked just 6th at the position in snaps played. Bradham also checked in just 0.1 behind Kiko Alonso in overall grade. That followed a strong finish to his rookie 2012 campaign, when Bradham stepped in as the strong-side starter and a quality run defender.
Now Bradham looks like the favorite to start on the weak side in DC Jim Schwartz's 4-3 scheme. The biggest key to whether he can turn that into fantasy production will likely be whether the Bills keep him on the field in passing situations. Through the first 2 preseason outings, Bradham played 2 more snaps than middle starter Brandon Spikes and 4 more than strong-side front-runner Keith Rivers.
Bills coaches are likely still playing with their passing-down combinations and might not favor pairing run-first LBs Spikes and Bradham in nickel situations. But 3-down duty for Bradham would mean intriguing tackle upside -- at least after he serves his 1-game suspension.
We'll be watching the situation. In the meantime, Bradham's worth a late stash in relatively deep IDP formats.