- Jim McCormick, Fantasy Sports
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He's out there, just waiting for you. To be honest, there are probably several of them out there: the unearthed gems that will go onto to sway fantasy seasons. Every campaign has its crop. Last season, the offensive side of the ball saw the likes of Miles Austin and Jamaal Charles ascend to fantasy stardom, with our side enjoying the works of David Hawthorne and Bernard Pollard.
Instead of waiting for these soon-to-be-desirable free agents to emerge, let's speculate on which widely available defensive talents have the potential to fortify your roster. It's a lot cooler to have the breakout talent before he even breaks out, right? Given that I didn't get you a sleepers and rookies report this preseason, let me lay down some of the lesser-coveted commodities I've been pursuing in my many IDP leagues so that you can begin to target, and even acquire, some of these promising players. Peruse this week's Front Four for a variety of different players to target and consider.
Front Four: The weekly word on the world of defenders
Rated Rookies (linebackers): We're not talking about Donruss '88 classics here, rather, the promising crop of rookies going unnoticed in fantasy leagues. The Oakland Raiders' imposing Rolando McClain is getting some love in IDP circles (not enough, mind you), but several impact talents remain in this freshman class. Two promising linebackers, the Arizona Cardinals' Daryl Washington and the Atlanta Falcons' Sean Weatherspoon, secured starting gigs on their respective defenses and are both in good positions to produce a nice blend of numbers, with Washington's inside role for the Cardinals being distinctly favorable.
Rated Rookies (linemen and secondary): The somewhat undersized but adequately motivated Brandon Graham has been talking and playing a good game so far the Philadelphia Eagles and gets a crack at a Green Bay Packers offensive line that should still have some protection issues. Fellow Eagle Nate Allen locked down a starting safety gig in Philly, which historically has been a very productive perch from a statistical standpoint. Don't forget the Seattle Seahawks Earl Thomas, who under the tutelage of Lawyer Milloy, should blossom into quite the playmaker. More rooks will emerge, no doubt, but consider these names worthy of consideration.
Middle Men: The most consistent producers in most any format are middle and inside linebackers, particularly "mike" linebackers in a traditional 4-3 scheme. If a "sleeper," by definition is an under-recognized talent who bears considerable upside, then look no further than the man who is taking over for one of the most prolific fantasy producers. If you can, acquire the Carolina Panthers' Dan Connor. This "Linebacker U" (Penn State) product took over the middle once Pro Bowler Jon Beason shifted to the outside on account of Thomas Davis' unfortunate injury. We won't be expecting Beason-like production from Connor, but triple-digit tackles and a handful of turnovers are well within reason for this season. The New York Giants' Jonathan Goff won the statistically bountiful role manning the middle for Perry Fewell's downhill scheme and is literally absent in fantasy leagues, as in 0 percent ownership. This will change as the next few weeks play out.
Leftover Legends: People rarely doubt what Bob Sanders can do on a football field. The reservations emerge from his inability to stay on the field. That said, he's supposedly healthy and ready to lead the Indy secondary (if not the entire defense). For a blend of tackles, deflections and turnovers, Sanders can likely be yours for just the click of a plus symbol, considering that he's available in over 70 percent of ESPN leagues. While he doesn't share the same injury history as Sanders, Champ Bailey has struggled with injuries over the past few seasons and his fantasy stock has depreciated substantially. Back in the lineup for a vastly underrated Denver Broncos secondary, the widely available Bailey makes for a compelling addition for leagues that specifically roster cornerbacks, and is even worthy of consideration as a general defensive back in the right format.
The Kansas City Chiefs' Derrick Johnson has never truly been a fantasy star, but he was at a time a very relevant option, and he now returns to prominence as a starter over Demorrio Williams in a role that is incredibly favorable for tackle production. The Giants will surround the young Goff with veterans Keith Bulluck and Michael Boley, both of whom merit greater consideration on the market.
IDP Rankings Week 1: The Top 10 linebackers, linemen and defensive backs
So that we're working from agreed parameters, we'll use what many consider traditional scoring modifiers for an IDP league: Tackle - Solo (0.5), Tackle - Assist (0.25), Sack (3), Interception (3), Forced fumble (3), Fumble recovery (3), Touchdown (6), Safety (2), Pass defended (1), Blocked kick (2).
Bargain Bin: Worthy defenders available in more than half of ESPN leagues
Keep an eye on Antrel Rolle, a productive but gambling safety for the Giants. He's being underappreciated and once he makes some big plays for a big market team he won't be so easy to acquire. As thin as the defensive line positions are both in real football and particularly in fantasy, it should be noted that the Jacksonville Jaguars' Aaron Kampman has a Pro Bowl pedigree and faces a Broncos team that will pass early and often. Make sure to have some depth ready if you own the Cincinnati Bengals' Antwan Odom, who recently tested positive for banned substances but will play this weekend against the New England Patriots. The Giants' Mathias Kiwanuka, for example, provides great Odom insurance, or simply merits replacing him if you want to move on from his situation. Give his penchant for floating between outside linebacker and defensive end in his Miami Dolphins days, Jason Taylor is tabbed as an end, which provides a significant boost to his value as he should see considerable snaps with fellow tweener Calvin Pace out with an injury. The aforementioned David Hawthorne is holding down an outside 'backer spot in Seattle and makes for a great play in deeper leagues for as long as he can hold off the currently-suspended Leroy Hill.
Each week I'll sift through your defensive queries and post the most relevant and interesting ones. I'll also do my best to answer any of your questions even if I don't get to them in the column. My e-mail and Twitter addresses are below, feel free to hit me up on either. Enjoy a much-deserved Week 1 of NFL action.
Jim McCormick is a fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com, as well as a regular contributor to the Washington Post's "Behind the Helmet" and Sirius XM's Fantasy Sports Channel. You can reach Jim with your questions and comments at email@example.com or on Twitter @JMcCormickESPN.