On the offensive side of the ball, we are publishing a detailed sleeper article per team throughout the Summer. That has left many IDP fans thirsty for a more detailed discussion on sleepers and breakout players. With that, we decided to put together an article per conference discussing players to watch, target, and/or stash for each team. Some of the listed players will only be immediately relevant for deeper leagues, while others are targets for all types of leagues.
The discussion below will focus on three types of players:
Breakout: These are players primed for a breakout season who are currently undervalued in dynasty leagues and start-up drafts. Quite simply, they demand more attention then they are receiving. They represent players who are on the cusp of becoming dominant weekly options at their respective positions.
Sleeper: These players will vary in their level of sleeperness. Some will be long-term sleepers who may take a year or two to develop, while others are players who are older and presented with a new role that results in increased fantasy value which is currently downplayed by the masses.
Stash: These are players who are not talked about much, but deserve to be placed at the end of benches in IDP leagues due their talent or opportunity. Many of these guys will take a few years to emerge and become household fantasy names. These are targets for the deeper IDP leagues.
Buffalo Bills: Mark Anderson, DE (Sleeper)
The Bills’ defensive line is well equipped for 2012. With Mario Williams on the left side, Mark Anderson on the right, along with Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams in the middle, the Bills front four are set to be a dominant force this season. Most importantly, with those three monsters on the left side and in the middle, it is unlikely that Anderson will see many double teams. Instead, he’ll often be left one-on-one with the offensive tackle. Given his pass-rushing skills, we could be looking at a great season from 29 year old defensive end.
Anderson is known for his pass rushing skills, which he put on display last season tallying ten sacks in a situational role with the Patriots. With the expectation of an every down role with the Bills in 2012 and the other talent up front, Anderson represents fantastic value being drafted and ranked around the #25 defensive end. He should hit double digit sacks again, but with the every down role, we can also expect an up-tick in his tackles.
Others to watch: Aaron Williams, CB (Breakout); De’Norris Searcy, SS (Stash), Nigel Bradham, WLB (Stash)
Miami Dolphins: Olivier Vernon, DE (Sleeper)
After being selected in the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft by the Dolphins, the former Miami Hurricane is penciled in as the backup to Jared Odrick on the right side of the Dolphins new 4-3 base defense. Odrick is known as a prototypical 3-4 defensive end, which means that he’s a big guy that doesn’t have great pass rushing skills. That leaves a long-term opportunity for Vernon in the Dolphins new scheme, but also a short-term opportunity in passing situations. The expectation is that Odrick moving inside and Vernon will play defensive end in passing situations in 2012.
Despite lining up against offensive tackle Jake Long on a daily basis in practice, Vernon is quietly impressing in the early weeks of training camp. Should this continue, Vernon is will not only secure snaps in passing situations, but continue to earn snaps from Odrick as the season progresses.
Currently, Vernon is being selected in the 6th or 7th round of rookie drafts. With the opportunity to line up opposite Cameron Wake this season or next, Vernon is a great target. However, with the expectation for a situational role in 2012, Vernon is more of a long-term sleeper than one for 2012.
Others to watch: Josh Kaddu, LB (Stash); Randy Starks, DT (Sleeper)
New England Patriots: Tavon Wilson, SS/FS (Stash)
Many people screamed “reach” when the Patriots drafted Wilson in the second round of the 2012 NFL Draft. Most teams tabbed Wilson as a third day pick. Based on how he looks thus far though, it appears Belichick wins again. Apparently, Wilson has seamlessly rotated in with Steve Gregory as part of a three-man rotation at safety. He’s currently playing mostly in passing situations.
So, why the stash if he’s just expected to play a situational role?
Despite not being athletically gifted, Wilson is spending a ton of time studying the defense and is proving to be a disciplined student. He did that at Illinois and he’s doing the same at the NFL level. He’s picked up the defense quickly and is working hard to prove his value to the Patriots. It’s obviously working as reports are that he is transitioning to the NFL well and getting more comfortable each day.
Wilson played some cornerback at Illinois, which makes him much more valuable given the continued emergence of the pass catching tight end. He’s seeing time at multiple positions including cornerback, safety, and even linebacker. That may lead to more opportunities and snaps than many expect. Most importantly, fellow safety Patrick Chung isn’t exactly the poster child for health. Given how quickly Wilson has picked up things so far, he’d likely slide right in to the starting lineup should Chung go down.
If he doesn’t see a regular role in 2012, Wilson is likely to be in the long-term plans at safety if he continues to impress as he has thus far. For a guy that isn’t even looked at in rookie drafts, Wilson is a nice stash.
Others to watch: Ras-I Dowling, CB (Sleeper)
New York Jets: Muhammad Wilkerson, DE (Breakout)
Muhammad Wilkerson had a rough first season, which is typical for most rookie defensive ends as they assimilate to the NFL level. Wilkerson’s play in 2011 was largely inconsistent, though he became more consistent after week nine. From week ten through the end of the season, Wilkerson posted six of his eight quarterback hurries and excelled against the run. With the 2012 offseason being his first complete with all the activities, that consistent play should continue in 2012. He’s already getting positive reviews with noted improvement through the first few weeks of camp.
The Jets play multiple packages, but most often are in 3-4 packages and thus, Wilkerson is considered a 3-4 defensive end. As we know, that limits his fantasy upside. However, the Jets coaching staff has already stated that they plan to play a lot more four man fronts in 2012, which bodes well for Wilkerson’s fantasy value. As he plays in those situations, his tackle numbers should increase.
The first full year of off-season activities and more tackle opportunities have not impacted Wilkerson’s dynasty status. Despite these positive factors emerging for Wilkerson, he’s still an oversight being drafted and ranked around the 45th defensive end. He’s primed for a breakout season.
Others to watch: Aaron Maybin, OLB (Sleeper); Demario Davis, ILB (Sleeper); Antonio Allen, SS (Stash)
Baltimore Ravens: Jimmy Smith, CB (Breakout)
Smith suffered a back injury last week, but he’s currently battling Cary Williams for the starting spot opposite Lardarius Webb. Smith had a rough start to camp and is currently listed as a backup on the depth chart. However, he’s in better shape as compared to his 2011 rookie season. He’s dropped 15 pounds to play lighter and help with speed and quickness, which was a big weakness in his rookie season as he struggled with the speed of the NFL game.
Despite the slow start to camp, Smith received praise from Coach Harbaugh throughout off-season activities and is set for increased snaps in 2012 even if he doesn’t win the starting job. As he sees increased snaps, expect significant tackles for this guy. He’s a physical press coverage corner who will rack up the tackles. That makes him a dynamite fantasy cornerback with huge tackle potential.
Smith struggled with an ankle injury last year, but if he’s healthy in 2012, there’s no reason why he can’t be a top fantasy corner option.
Others to watch: Pernell McPhee, DE (Sleeper); Jameel McClain, ILB (Stash)
Cincinnati Bengals: Taylor Mays, SS (Sleeper)
Mays is situated to be the Bengals’ starting strong safety in 2012, which causes his fantasy value to continue to creep higher. He’s battling rookie George Iloka and Jeromy Miles in camp, but he shouldn’t have an issue beating those guys.
Mays possesses enormous unrealized potential. After being drafted by the 49ers in the second round of the 2010 NFL Draft, this is the first time he’s in a situation to see a majority of snaps. He did start a handful of games his rookie season and performed reasonably well, but in 2012 he’s poised to consistently play a majority of snaps for the entire year. Often, potential plus opportunity equals success and that’s exactly what we have here.
Many question Mays’ instincts on the field, but given that he is being drafted after the 40th safety in dynasty start-ups, he represents one of the better sleeper options despite the questions surrounding his instincts.
Others to watch: Carlos Dunlap (Breakout); Michael Johnson, DE (Sleeper); George Iloka, SS (Stash); Vontaze Burfict, MLB (Stash)
Cleveland Browns: James-Michael Johnson (“JMJ”), WLB (Sleeper)
Chris Gocong tore his Achilles last week and will miss the 2012 season. Early indications are that the vacated WLB starting spot will go to JMJ given his early play in training camp. JMJ received rave reviews from head coach Pat Shurmur last week saying that he separated himself from the pack when the team put the pads on.
If JMJ starts at WLB for the entire season, we could be looking at a solid rookie season. He figured to be a long-term player at WLB, but he unexpectedly is positioned to be an immediate starter. That gives his owners a nice boost immediately.
The only point of caution I’d note is that Scott Fujita (starting SLB) is suspended for the first three games of the season due to his role in “bountygate,” but early indications are that Kaluka Maiava will assume that role in Fujita’s absence. Given JMJ’s versatility, he is certainly an option to play SLB, but it seems that WLB is the best place for him given the fact that blitzing is not his forte.
Others to watch: Eric Hagg, FS (Stash); Buster Skrine, CB (Stash)
Pittsburgh Steelers: Sean Spence, ILB/SS (Sleeper)
Spence possesses a high football IQ, is instinctive, and is aggressive. He’s everything that a successful Steelers’ linebacker is. The only thing he lacks is size. Because he’s undersized, Spence is more of a hybrid player. He’s a linebacker in a safety’s body than a prototypical linebacker.
Off-season reports peg Spence as a student of the game and fast/versatile. If we smash all of that together and think about the changing NFL, you have to wonder if Spence is going to be groomed in to a new type NFL linebacker who can defend the run, but also cover the joker tight end. He has the size and skills to do both.
Troy Polamalu is also hitting the end of his career and is having trouble staying on the field for a full season. He’s a difference maker. There’s no question; however, the Steelers need a young replacement if this defense is going to continue to be dominant. It’s quite possible that defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau sees some qualities in Spence that could position him to fill that role when Troy hangs it up. Or, maybe he’ll carve out a new role for Spence. Given his versatility and size, Spence could seize that opportunity given his natural ability and the early camp reports. While these are plausible educated guesses, Spence is fighting for the inside linebacker spot alongside Lawrence Timmons inside (Larry Foote’s current role).
This sleeper pick is more of a long-term pick with Polamalu still flying around and Stevenson Sylvester likely to get the first shot at Foote’s starting spot inside.
Others to watch: Jason Worilds, OLB (Stash); Stevenson Sylvester (Stash); Cortez Allen (Stash)
Houston Texans: Glover Quin, SS (Sleeper)
In 2011, Glover Quin made the transition from cornerback to safety and was a popular IDP sleeper pick. He played adequately in 2011 in his first NFL season at safety, but he didn’t live up to the sleeper expectations amassing 59 solos and 18 assists. His numbers took a hit from his 2010 season at corner when he tallied 71 solos and 14 assists.
Overall, Quin was inconsistent throughout the 2011 season, which was likely attributable to the move from corner to safety. Despite safety being a natural fit and a college position, Quin didn’t even know he was slated to play strong safety in 2011 until he showed up to camp after the lockout broke. The fantasy community jumped on his sleeper status a year too early. He needed time to develop at the position at the NFL level. Now that he’s settled in to the position, Quin should be ready for a bounce back year – this is Quin’s sleeper season.
More specifically, with Quin’s nice mix of coverage and tackling ability, he typically plays 100% of the teams snaps. That means a high volume of opportunity for the young safety. With a year behind him at the safety position and the continued high volume of snaps expected, Quin should be in for an improved season in 2012. Aside from the deep leagues, he is often not rostered in IDP leagues, so he is worth an add.
Others to watch: Connor Barwin, OLB (Breakout)
Indianapolis Colts: Tom Zbikowski, SS (Sleeper)
Zbikowski followed former Ravens’ defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano to the Colts this offseason in a move eerily reminiscent of Rex Ryan bringin Jim Leonhard to the Jets before Ryan’s inaugural season in New York.
Last season, Zbikowski began the year as the Ravens’ starting strong safety but he quickly lost the job to Bernard Pollard after four weeks. Zbikowski is on record saying that he “lost his edge” in 2011 and that he took the starting job for granted. He also noted that he needs to prove himself and “show people the kind of football player [he] should have been [in Baltimore]”.
What kind of player is Zbikowski? He’s a guy with adequate coverage skills who is a smart player and solid tackler. Don’t forget he played for years behind one of the better safeties to play the game in Ed Reed. I’m sure he learned a few things through those years in Baltimore. Zbikowski will bring the Ravens’ no nonsense mentality to the Colts.
Zbikowski isn’t a long-term fantasy option because he’s not a talented player, but given his tackling and coverage abilities and the fact that he’s one of Pagano’s guys, he’s going to see lot of snaps in 2012. With a rookie quarterback, the Colts defense is likely to be on the field a heck of a lot. That means great tackle potential for the hardnosed strong safety.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Brandon Marshall, OLB (Stash)
The Jaguars WLB Clint Session is out indefinitely still feeling the effects of a concussion, so there is an opportunity at the linebacker position in Jacksonville. Marshall is the perfect candidate to step up. The rookie linebacker has an NFL ready frame and is known for his athleticism and coverage ability. He also continues to make plays in training camp. If that translates to the preseason games and Session continues to struggle with the concussion aftermath, Marshall could be looking at unexpected snaps.
Undrafted rookie Julian Stanford has also received encouragement from the Jaguars’ coaching staff who praised his athleticism and awareness. Stanford is Marshall’s main competition right now and it’ll likely come down to preseason play.
This pick is more of a long-term selection, so you’ll need to be patient and stash Marshall (or Stanford).
Others to watch: Chris Prosinski, SS (Stash); Julian Stanford, OLB (Stash)
Tennessee Titans: Derrick Morgan, DE (Sleeper)
Derrick Morgan is two years removed from a torn ACL – that’s typically the amount of time needed before a player returns to his pre-injury form. The former first round pick has been assured the starting defensive end position by the coaching staff and is prepared for a breakout season. The team has publicized their high hopes for Morgan whose confidence continues to grow after a breakout performance in week 16 of 2011 when he posted seven tackles, six stops, and a quarterback pressure.
Some are questioning Morgan’s ability to breakout in 2012 with Pannel Egboh getting a number of reps with the first team defense in training camp over the past few weeks. The coaching staff assured Morgan (and the media) that the team just wants to see what talent they have in Egboh.
Now is the time to use Egboh’s practice reps as the last opportunity to grab Morgan at a discount. With Kamerion Wimbley and Morgan as bookends, the situation is set for a solid season from this duo.
Others to watch: Zach Brown, WLB (Stash); Robert Johnson, SS (Stash)
Oakland Raiders: Matt Shaughnessy, DE (Breakout)
Another popular sleeper in 2011, Shaughnessy’s season ended after three weeks due to a shoulder injury that put him on injured reserve and ended his season. Looking towards 2012, the Raiders still lack a legitimate pass-rusher. That’s exactly what Shaughnessy was supposed to be in 2011. He showed glimpses of that in limited snaps over the past few seasons, and in 2010 in particular. In 2012, the Raiders are hoping for double-digit sacks from the fourth year player.
For fantasy purposes, the big thing to focus on with Shaughnessy is that not only can rush the passer, but he’s stout against the run. He’ll be a key component to the Raiders’ defense in 2012 and is a breakout defensive end candidate.
Others to watch: Miles Burris, OLB (Stash); Desmond Bryant, DT (Stash); Demarcus Van Dyke, CB (Sleeper)
Denver Broncos: Quinton Carter, SS (Sleeper)
Carter is currently struggling with knee and hamstring injuries and is out two weeks after undergoing arthroscopic surgery as a result. Despite that, he represents one of the top young safety targets given the potential he flashed towards the end of last season and into the 2011 playoffs.
If healthy, Carter should be the Broncos’ starting strong safety despite the recent addition of Jim Leonhard. As a starter,
Others to watch: Danny Trevathan, OLB (Stash); Derek Wolfe, DT (Stash)
San Diego Chargers: Brandon Taylor, SS (Sleeper)
Taylor continues to be hyped by many. That’s been the case since he was drafted back in April out of LSU.
He’s a physical safety who can play in the box and has the ability to rack up the tackles with the potential to be a top tier fantasy safety. Right now he’s listed as the backup to Atari Bigby, but it won’t be long before Taylor is starting for the Chargers. If he’s on your wire, grab him. If he’s not, trade for him. His current value is at a discount as compared to where it will be once he locks down the starting job and starts knocking people out.
It may take some patience with Taylor before he emerges since Bigby has impressed in camp thus far. It may be a few weeks or even much of 2012 before Taylor gets the job.
Others to watch: Donald Butler (Breakout – top 10); Jonas Mouton, ILB (Stash); Marcus Gilchrist, CB (Stash)
Kansas City Chiefs: Justin Houston, OLB (Sleeper)
Justin Houston’s upside is limited in tackle heavy leagues as a 3-4 OLB, but he has double-digit sack potential for the cost of peanuts (55th linebacker as the highest ranking and have seen him drafted around the 70th linebacker several times in dynasty start-ups).
Houston was tagged as a first round talent before off the field issues at Georgia caused him to slip to the third round of the 2011 NFL Draft. His rookie season was reasonably successful and most notably the last seven games of the year. Houston started at OLB over those seven games and saw an overall increase in snaps playing 100%. That makes him a fantasy coveted every down linebacker. Over that seven game period, Houston also improved his game against the run after struggling early on.
Currently, Houston is viewed as a pass rushing specialist, but given the improvement late in 2011, it’s possible he develops in to something more. Given the cheap price of a waiver claim, a trade throw-in, or a late round future pick, Houston is worth acquiring to take advantage of the expected continuation of the trend from the final seven games of 2011.
Others to watch: Jovan Belcher, ILB (Stash)
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