The offseason is the prime time to stock up on potential breakout players, sleepers, and undervalued guys. That’s true for both the offensive and defensive side of the ball, but I’ll focus on defense here. If you play it right, you’ll end up with a 2011 Navarro Bowman or Kam Chancellor who will carry your defensive deep into the playoffs and, hopefully, a league championship. Bowman and Chancellor were two players who, a year ago, weren’t at the top of many rankings, but many targeted anticipating a breakout. That proved to be a dynamite move.
Working the wire and acquiring players at a low price before a breakout are two of the most important areas to focus on throughout the offseason. That’s the only way to get your dynasty team to a championship level.
Here are some defensive players who are worth stashing, acquiring “cheap,” or keeping an eye on depending on your league size. I’ve also added a few choice breakout players for 2012.
Players to Target:
Here’s a list of guys I’d pick up or buy cheap right now:
KJ Wright, LB SEA
The Seahawks aren’t looking to give David Hawthorne a huge contract given his durability concerns. That will leave a hole in the middle in Seattle. Pete Carroll has already stated that the coaching staff is comfortable with Wright in the middle and he already started in the middle in early 2011 when Hawthorne was out due to injury. He was decent filling in, but nothing spectacular (3 tackles, 2 assists), but keep in mind that was also week one of his rookie season. Even if Hawthorne tests the market, isn’t satisfied, and comes back to Seattle, Leroy Hill was recently arrested (his third arrest in three years), which would leave the weak side linebacker spot open. Does Wright move there? Maybe. Bottom line is that Wright is still on the wire in many leagues and is worth a stash given his rookie year success, uncertainty at the two fantasy lucrative spots in Seattle, and the coaching staff’s support of Wright.
Quinton Carter, S, DEN
More likely than not, Brian Dawkins is retiring. From what we saw in 2011, that should leave Carter as the starting strong safety in Denver. He’s outplayed Rahim Moore at this point. Carter is a solid in the box safety who already started a few games at strong safety with Dawkins out with an injury at the end of 2011. Despite some initial struggles while starting at free safety in eight games earlier in the year, Carter showed improvement in the playoffs. He claimed it took him time to get familiar with NFL defenses and things started to slow down for him towards the end of the season. As a result, Carter showed improvement in the wildcard and divisional games (five tackles/INT in the wildcard game; 2 tackles/INT before leaving with an injury in the divisional game). Carter has upside in tackle heavy leagues and is worth an add or a cheap buy as he looks to be the starting strong safety in Denver for the foreseeable future.
Nate Irving, LB, DEN
Once the popular linebacker pick in rookie draft last season, Nate Irving saw nothing but the bench in 2011. Actually, he saw a healthy seven snaps. Not exactly what early rookie drafters were hoping for, but it should have been expected given John Fox’s history with rookie linebackers and the impact of the NFL lockout on a rookie’s preparation. Lack of patience with Irving led to some owners dropping him in dynasty leagues and, if not dropped, leaves current owners fed up. Now with a season under his belt and a full offseason this year, Irving should be looking at increased time and a shot at the starting middle linebacker gig. Joe Mays is strictly a two-down linebacker and may not be re-signed, while Irving has the talent and skills to ultimately be a three down linebacker. Now is the time to take a shot and grab him cheap before he grabs the starting spot.
Bruce Carter, LB DAL
He played a few more snaps than Irving in 2011 (roughly 40), but Carter is another second year player that people need to be patient with. He’s an uber talented inside linebacker that is just now two years removed from an ACL injury. As we know, it typically takes players two years to recover from ACL injuries. With that, it’s prime time for Carter in 2012. Many believe he’s the favorite to start next to Sean Lee heading into 2012, but Jerry Jones pulled back on that though calling it “presumptuous.” Even if Carter doesn’t start initially, he has tremendous upside and will ultimately be the starter alongside Lee. He’s a must buy.
Martez Wilson, LB NO
Wilson is another second year linebacker who is likely to see increased time in 2012. Unlike Irving and Carter though, he did see quality playing time towards the end of 2011 and into the playoffs. The playoffs were most telling for Wilson when he saw a spike in snaps played. He went from playing roughly 20% of the team’s snaps to over 40% in both playoff games. Not only that, but in the divisional game against the 49ers he came away with two sacks. Granted, Wilson currently has a number of guys ahead of him on the depth chart and there are rumors the Saints will bring in linebackers via the draft or free agency, but given the glimpse he flashed down the stretch and his freakish athletic ability, Coach Spagnuolo is likely to use Wilson beginning in 2012. He’s a perfect upside target given his physical attributes and his upside in Spag’s linebacker friendly system.
Derrick Morgan, DE TEN
The Titans continue to have high hopes for Morgan. He tore his ACL during his 2010 rookie season, came back in 2011, but wasn’t himself last year. Now almost two years removed from surgery, it’s a perfect time for a breakout year from Morgan. Most importantly, Coach Munchak recently supported Morgan as a guy they expect big things from. If his second half of the 2011 is any indication when he led the team with 20 quarterback pressures, it looks like we may be in for a nice breakout. Many are down on him after his 2011 comeback was disappointing, which makes it a perfect buy time.
Stevenson Sylvester, LB, PIT
These next two guys are more 2013 plays than 2012. The Steelers linebackers are aging. James Farrior was recently released and Sylvester is the ultimate plan as the replacement. Jump on him right now, right? Not so fast, assuming a linebacker isn’t added in the draft or free agency, Larry Foote will assume the starting position. However, it won’t be long before Sylvester assumes that spot as he’s being groomed for it. He just needs a little more time to develop. He’s worth a stash and monitor.
Jason Worilds, LB, PIT
Like Sylvestor, Worilds will be replacing an aging Steeler linebacker in the near term. In his case, it’s likely to be James Harrison. The 2011 second round pick started four games in 2011 and showed improvement each game. In each game he started, Worilds played 100% of the snaps. That’s a critical fact in scouting future linebacker starters, since that makes it clear that he’s set up to be an every down linebacker once he assumes the starting outside linebacker position. Patience will prove to be crucial with Worilds as we wait for Harrison to retire or more one from the Steelers.
Others of note:
Brandon Graham, DE PHI
Jarvis Jenkins, DE WAS
Both players are returning from injury, on the wire in a majority of leagues and have the talent to be solid defensive end options. The knee surgeries for Graham are somewhat concerning, but he’s flashed potential when on the field. For Jenkins, reports from Washington are that he may start in 2012. He was playing well in the 2011 preseason before tearing his ACL, so he’s worth a long look.
2012 Breakout Potential
These guys will be rostered in most leagues, but players who are in perfect situations to breakout in 2012 and outperform their current price:
Robert Quinn, DE STL
He was a little rusty as a rookie after missing his junior season at UNC due to ineligibility. With the Rams in 2011, he played limited snaps because of that and Coach Spags holding him back a bit, but he played well in the limited time posting five sacks along with 21 quarterback pressures. There is speculation that he’ll start in 2012, while others believe he’ll continue to a part of a rotation. Regardless, Quinn is only 21 years old and possesses tremendous upside. He shouldn’t have that much difficulty passing the elder James Hall after his 2011 tune-up. This guy has the talent to be the next dominant pass rushing defensive end with his quick first step.
Kelvin Sheppard, LB BUF
Recently, Coach Wannstedt called Sheppard a “nucleus player” – that’s big praise for a second year player. Sheppard started week eight through 16 of the 2011 season and played well, though he only posted two games with over five tackles. Despite that, Sheppard has been tabbed as the new starting mike linebacker in the Bills 4-3 defense. Wannstedt even went as far as to call Sheppard the “perfect” 4-3 middle linebacker. Sheppard performed reasonably well playing next to Nick Barnett in 2011 and is primed for a breakout in the Bills new look 4-3 defense in 2012. Most importantly, he saw some nickel snaps last year, which would suggest that he might be an every down linebacker in 2012. We could be looking at a 100+ tackle guy here.
Brandon Spikes, LB, NE
Everyone knows that Spikes is an aggressive tackler. At only 24 years old, the Patriots hadn’t been entirely comfortable in playing Spikes every down, which limited his IDP upside. However, throughout the playoffs and in weeks five through eight, he played the majority of snaps and performed well. While he played most of the snaps in these games and to close the season, there doesn’t seem to be much talk of Spikes as an every down player amongst the fantasy community. If Spikes sticks as an every down player, he has breakout potential written all over him. Given how well the Patriots’ defense played with Spikes as an every down player in 2011, it should stick which makes Spikes a tremendous cheap target.