"Sleeper" isn't an outdated term everywhere. It continues to thrive on defense.
We mentioned in the offensive sleepers article how fantasy players pretty much know everyone these days and it's really just a matter of who you like more than others do. Well, that's different here in IDP land. Even among the comparatively few who play with IDPs, many fail to inject the same gusto into their defensive preparations as they do on offense.
That's cool, though. It just means that you can capitalize on their laziness. Go ahead and chuckle softly to yourself as you draft these guys -- and be prepared to laugh much more loudly when they help you win a title.
Chandler Jones, DE, Patriots
Injury is the concern with him. We've heard rumors that some Pats observers already compare Jones to Darren McFadden and question how he dealt with ankle injuries last year. We see a rookie who missed just 2 games while sprains to both ankles devastated his production.
None of us can know how much either injury hurt or how his body will hold up long term. But Jones got serious with his workouts this offseason and appears determined to deliver on his exciting ability.
New England jumped up to 21st overall in the 2012 draft to pick a guy who notched just 10 career sacks over 3 years at Syracuse. Jones rewarded the team early with sacks in 3 of his 1st 4 games, 5 in his 1st 6 outings and 6 over his 1st 8. But he sprained his right ankle in the 10th game and didn't register a sack thereafter.
Jones still managed to rank 16th overall among 4-3 DEs in Pro Football Focus' grading. He had been performing as a top 5 player at the position before getting hurt. And he was supposed to be a raw pass-rusher. In addition to his 6 sacks, Jones forced 3 fumbles, deflected 5 passes and put up 45 tackles in his injury-shortened debut.
Perhaps he'll prove brittle, but we'll take a shot on the multi-category upside. If healthy -- and he's had no issues through the offseason and start of camp -- Jones could quickly turn into a perennial top 10 IDP lineman.
Derrick Morgan, DE, Titans
Injury also delayed Morgan's development in the NFL. The former 1st-round pick tore his left ACL in just his 4th pro game back in 2010. It wasn't until last season that he got back near full strength. The results: Morgan finished 4th overall in PFF's 4-3 DE grades, 6th in the pass-rushing category.
So why does he sit just 16th in the aggregated DL rankings over at FantasyPros.com? Because Morgan finished 2012 with only 6.5 sacks. PFF credited him with 21 more QB hits, though, which ranked 2nd at the position behind only Cameron Wake. Morgan also tallied 42 hurries, 8th most among 4-3 DEs. That suggests significant sack upside in 2013. He also tied for 9th among all linemen in total tackles last season.
We have Morgan projected 12th among linemen for 2013, which puts him at the fringe of DL1 territory. He carries upside beyond that -- and you can probably get him as your DL2.
Rob Ninkovich, DE, Patriots
Clearly, people are simply overlooking Ninkovich when they look back at previous numbers. Or perhaps they just don't like guys who sound like they should be Russian henchmen in a Steven Segal flick.
Ninkovich finished each of the past 2 seasons among the top 10 fantasy linemen across most IDP formats, and he checked in 20th the year before. He's not flashy -- just 18.5 total sacks over that span -- but he hasn't missed a game in 3 years while making no fewer than 58 total tackles in any campaign and recovering 3+ fumbles in 3 straight seasons. That's a luck-driven category, but Ninkovich's consistency points to his activeness and his defense's penchant for jarring the ball loose.
He forced a career-high 5 fumbles last year while setting a personal best with 8.5 sacks. Ninkovich should remain the left DE starter and heads into a contract year. (ESPN Boston deemed him a candidate for an extension.) New England's rejuvenated defense also features too many talented players for offenses to game-plan against Ninkovich.
Our #14 ranking for him even sits below Ninkovich's results from the past 2 seasons, and still no other "expert" polled by Fantasy Pros projects him higher.
Nick Fairley, DT, Lions
Speaking of higher ... Fairley has already turned around his biggest issue from 2012. The former 1st-round pick notoriously got arrested twice last offseason on marijuana-related charges. Once the games started, injury again got in the way.
Fairley missed 3 contests and played less than half the snaps in 5 others. He still managed 5.5 sacks and graded out 5th overall among DTs, according to PFF. He's aiming for more in 2013.
"He's slim, he's focused and he's about his business," teammate Stephen Tulloch told the Detroit Free-Press about Fairley this offseason. "He's going into his third year, he's taking a step, he's grown as a player, he's put all that negative stuff behind him, and he's moving forward."
The Lions spent the 13th overall pick in 2011 on Fairley despite already having Ndamukong Suh and Corey Williams at DT because his talent was too good to pass up. Fairley racked up 60 total tackles, 24 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks in his final season at Auburn. Look for the refocused 25-year-old to tap into more of that upside this season.
Fairley's an awesome value in leagues that require DTs. He's an upside DL2 in formats that don't separate the positions, where you'll be able to draft him as a reserve.
Lavonte David, OLB, Buccaneers
D'Qwell Jackson, ILB, Browns
We've combined David and Jackson because they're not so much "sleepers" as they are underrated. According to the consensus rankings at Fantasy Pros, David checks in 9th and Jackson 10th among LBs. As you've probably already seen, we project them 2nd and 3rd.
You can read all the details of why we love David and Jackson this season on their respective player pages. The short version: They're both tackle machines in defenses that set them up to dominate in that category. We expect both to challenge for the NFL tackle lead -- or at least battle for the #2 spot behind Luke Kuechly.
Bruce Carter, OLB, Cowboys
If you've done any IDP drafts since our rankings came out, you probably drafted this guy.
It's difficult to find a Cowboys beat writer who doesn't expect a breakout campaign from the talented 3rd-year LB, and yet we haven't seen another fantasy site rank Carter higher than 22nd among LBs. That has made Carter a dynamic LB3 on many of our teams already, and we couldn't be more excited.
Carter takes over the role that helped make Derrick Brooks a star in Tampa. Brooks led the Bucs in tackles in 9 of his 12 seasons under Kiffin. The other 3 times, he finished within 5 total stops of the team leader.
MLB Sean Lee is no slouch, but DC Monte Kiffin's scheme has always asked the weak-side guy to be the active playmaker -- and there's room for both to put up numbers. Carter stands an imposing 6'3, 246 pounds and brings track speed. He so athletic that he returned 4 punts in his college career at UNC. He returned all 3 of his INTs for at least 41 yards, including a pair of TDs. Carter even brings pass-rushing upside.
There's no telling just how high his ceiling is for 2013. But we aim to be on board when we find out.
Sean Weatherspoon, OLB, Falcons
People must be wary of Weatherspoon's injury history. He did miss a lot of his 2010 rookie season (including 5 full games) and then sat out 3 more last year with an ankle sprain. 'Spoon followed that with an offseason knee scope. But he didn't have any setbacks through the offseason and has been fine in camp.
Even if Weatherspoon continues to have health issues, we'll take the healthy games from this cross-category talent. Weatherspoon ranked #1 among 4-3 OLBs in PFF's pass-rushing productivity last year. He also graded out as the stingiest at his position in terms of allowing receptions. And PFF rated him #4 at the position against the run in 2011, his lone full season to date.
Weatherspoon can do it all. He flashed his ultimate upside in a junior season at Missouri that included 155 tackles, 5 sacks, 3 INTs and 2 TD returns. He finished 2011 17th among fantasy LBs, and that came with no INTs and just 115 tackles. We expect better numbers in each of those categories from a healthy Weatherspoon this year.
You should be able to draft him late in LB2 range, which would be terrific value for our #13 player at the position.
Sio Moore, OLB, Raiders
We're more than happy to be alone on this rookie. We have Moore 27th right now. Only 4 other IDP "experts" included in Fantasy Pros' polling ranked him at all, none higher than 50th.
If you're reading this article, you probably already read Moore's outlook. If you haven't, you should. He'll be an IDP difference-maker this year when you get starter value from a player no one else in your league is considering.
Moore proved his ability as a tackler with 110 total stops as a 1st-time starter his sophomore year at UConn. Then the Huskies asked him to play more aggressively, and he tallied 14.5 sacks and 31.5 tackles for loss over his final 2 college seasons.
Raiders HC Dennis Allen has been working Moore at multiple positions in the role that Philip Wheeler played last year.
"His ability to understand multiple positions has been good," Allen told CSN Bay Area in May. "He's athletic in space, which was something Philip (Wheeler) was really good at. I think he's got great awareness for the game and he's probably got a little bit more coming off the edge."
We can't wait to see the numbers Moore puts up in 2013 ... and beyond.
Mychal Kendricks, ILB, Eagles
Mystery surrounds the Philly defense heading into 2013 just as much as it does the offense. It's becoming clear the Kendricks will carry star potential.
The team website reports that Kendricks will get to blitz more this season in his ILB role. Kendricks proved his strength in that area with 11.5 sacks and 29.5 tackles for loss over his final 2 years at Cal.
Kendricks' terrific speed should serve him well in various ways. He has also drawn rave reviews in coverage, recently chasing a WR 40 yards downfield to force an incompletion and regularly challenging TEs over the middle. That coverage ability could make him a stronger candidate for sub-package duty than veteran DeMeco Ryans.
The big question figures to be Kendricks' tackle upside. At 5'11, he might have trouble taking on blocks in the new defense. But his speed should help in that area as well. Besides, a tackle 6 yards down the field counts just as much for your IDP team as a tackle 1 yard down the field.
Draft this upside Eagle as a mid-level LB3.
Erin Henderson, MLB, Vikings
Desmond Bishop's arrival from Green Bay was supposed to doom Henderson to another season of 2-down work on the outside. But someone forgot to tell HC Leslie Frazier.
Minnesota has kept Henderson in the middle, while Bishop has rotated on the weak side with Marvin Mitchell. Bishop's recent groin injury certainly doesn't help his quest to become a 3-down starter for his new team.
Henderson, meanwhile, has already proved himself as a run defender. His primary issue has been coverage lapses, which have seemed more mental than physical. In other words: It's not that Henderson can't do it; he just hasn't put it all together yet.
Frazier repeated this offseason when the Vikes re-signed Henderson that he believes the player will break out at some point. Frazier said he continues to hope that will happen in Minnesota.
We pointed to Henderson as an IDP sleeper last year, and he opened the year with 10+ tackles and a sack in each of his 1st 2 games. Then he missed 2 games with a concussion and found just 2-down duty upon his return.
If Henderson proves he can stay on the field for passing downs, he'll bring huge fantasy upside to his 1st season of starting in the middle. At this point, though, he's not even getting drafted in many IDP leagues.
William Moore, S, Falcons
Moore lost the final 4 games of last season to a hamstring injury -- and apparently made a bunch of people forget just how good he was over the 1st 12.
If you subscribed last year, you probably drafted Moore for your IDP squad and didn't regret it. He posted a fantasy scoring average that ranked as high as 2nd at the position in some formats. He racked up a career-high 75 tackles, which put him on pace for 100 over 16 games. He nabbed 4 INTs, forced a pair of fumbles and narrowly missed returning a pick for a TD in Week 2 against Denver.
Moore doesn't have to improve on last year to easily outperform his 2013 draft position. He doesn't even have to do as well. So why doesn't everyone else like him more? Well, Moore has missed 4+ games in 3 of his 4 seasons. Factor that into your projections, and it's bound to shave off some points. But DB is different from the offensive fantasy positions. You don't need to worry as much about his injury penchant, because a quality replacement will be easy to find -- even if you don't draft such insurance. If your roster is deep enough for that player, you can find options below.
We liked Moore as a top 5 DB last season and see no reason to change that this year.
Johnathan Cyprien, S, Jaguars
The Jags are excited about their 2nd-round safety, and you should be, too.
The crappy Jacksonville defense from last year needs playmakers, and Cyprien already displayed that kind of ability in offseason workouts. He grabbed 6 INTs over 4 college seasons, including 3 as a senior, and broke up 22 others. He also forced 6 fumbles and tallied 78+ tackles every season, topping out at 113 as a sophomore.
Cyprien will work in the box often on early downs, which should help his tackle consistency. Then he'll help in deep coverage for a secondary breaking in 2 new starters at CB. He provides much more multi-category upside than departed Jacksonville SS Dawan Landry, who tied for 10th among DBs last year with 100 total tackles.
We'll gladly take Cyprien as a low-end DB1 this year or a terrific DB2. He'll bring immediate top 5 upside.
T.J. Ward, S, Browns
It's a bit worrisome that Ward has already sat out some practice time with a sore hamstring. Like with several other players on this list, injuries have helped hold him back early in his career. This one, at least, doesn't seem like a big deal, as he expects to play in Thursday's exhibition opener.
If he can get and stay healthy, Ward should be set up to deliver in 2013. He has already raved about the new scheme of former Arizona DC Ray Horton, which he told the team website will have him play "attack style, all downhill." That plays to the strengths of a guy who entered the league with highlight reels of his big college hits. Ward's fearless, physical style has likely contributed to the injury issues that have followed him from Oregon, but it also can mean big tackle numbers.
As a 2010 rookie, Ward ranked 2nd among all DBs with 123 total stops, 12 ahead of the next guy. His 95 solos also ranked 2nd at the position. It's easy to envision similarly large tackle tallies this year behind a weak group of inside LBs in the new 3-4 setup. S Adrian Wilson ranked 3rd in the league among safeties in total run snaps played "in the box" in each of his 2 years under Horton with the Cardinals. That should be Ward in Cleveland. Ward's hitting also produced 5 forced fumbles over his final 2 seasons at Oregon and 5 more in his 1st 3 years as a pro.
From what we've seen, we like Ward well ahead of anyone else in the industry, even without projecting him as a DB1.
Patrick Chung, S, Eagles
We don't project Chung terribly high this year, but we still recognize his considerable upside. He looked like a top 10 performer just 2 years ago before losing 13 games over the past 2 seasons to injuries.
Chung finally lost his starting job in New England last season but found an advocate in Eagles HC Chip Kelly, who knew him from their Oregon days. Philly committed a 3-year contract to Chung when many others worried about his health. That almost guarantees him a starting job at the back of a defense that needed renovation.
When he's healthy, Chung will play behind a questionable group of LBs that must get used to a very different scheme. That could promote more time in the box for Chung and mean more tackle chances get through the front 7.
Chung also brings turnover upside, as he showed with 3 INTs and 9 other pass breakups in 2010, his healthiest starting season (at just 14 games). Kelly undoubtedly remembers that Chung picked 9 passes over 4 years with the Ducks. He also surpassed 90 tackles 3 times and proved his athleticism with a healthy amount of kick-return duty.
Health is the big question, and Chung hasn't shown us enough to be worth the same high pick as William Moore or Sean Weatherspoon on that front. Plus, we like many of the DBs among this year's top 20. Still, when a guy has finished among fantasy's top 15 and you can easily draft him as your 3rd DB, he qualifies as a sleeper.
Matt Elam, S, Ravens
Unfortunately, the abundance of value DBs we rank ahead of Elam has made it tougher to draft him so far. That's unfortunate because this rookie arrives with a high ceiling.
The whole Baltimore staff was thrilled to nab the All-American from Florida at the end of Round 1 in April. It's easy to see why.
The most impressive stat from his college days might be the fact that Elam led the Gators in tackles for loss as a sophomore starter in 2011 and then tied for the team lead in 2012. That came on 1 of the nation's best defenses, which saw 5 players get drafted this April -- including 3 in the 1st 2 rounds.
Elam also finished 2nd on that defense in total tackles each of the past 2 years. And what about turnover upside? Six INTs, 3 forced fumbles and 12 pass breakups in his 2 seasons as a starter. Blitzing? 5 sacks over 3 seasons.
We wouldn't be surprised to see Elam land among the top 10 fantasy DBs in his 1st season.
Charles Woodson, S, Raiders
T.J. McDonald, S, Rams
Joe Haden, CB, Browns
We won't bother going deep on all of the upside DBs, because there are just so many. It's not like you can draft all of them. So we'll just toss out a few more.
We'll believe in Woodson until he proves that we shouldn't. So far, the only thing that's gotten in the way has been the fractured collarbone that cost him 9 games last season. Otherwise, Woodson has delivered incredibly consistent IDP value.
This season brings still a relatively new role -- FS -- on a new team, but Woodson has earned benefit of the doubt. Plus, he's fired up after the rest of the league ignored him in free agency.
McDonald faces big scoring opportunity in St. Louis as he steps into Quintin Mikell's old spot. His 6'2, 219-pound frame screams "in-the-box" safety, and he tallied 8 INTs over 3 starting seasons at USC.
Haden doesn't need to prove much at this point. He has proved to be 1 of the league's top cover CBs when healthy and not suspended. A disappointing 2012 -- thanks primarily to that suspension -- has only increased his motivation for 2013. Haden's tendency to shadow opponents' #1 WRs makes it tougher for enemy QBs to avoid him. He's shaping up as a valuable sleeper in leagues that require CB slots.