As preseason football is underway and the NFL season inches closer, the opportunity for players to gain momentum as sleepers increases as the media covers every second of training camp, joint practices and preseason games. We spend a lot of time focusing on offensive sleepers but IDP owners are always looking for the next Everson Griffin and Chris Borland.
We are going through the entire league, division-by-division to highlight IDP sleepers for each team. Some will be players who find themselves in new starting opportunities or currently in a rotation with another player but have the potential to stake claim sooner than later. Today, we focus on the NFC South.
Kony Ealy, DE
Ealy is a borderline sleeper considering he was a second rounder in last year’s draft, but with Greg Hardy in Dallas and Frank Alexander out for the remainder of the year with a torn Achilles, it’s Ealy who is the favorite to start across from Charles Johnson. Ealy struggled mightily as a rookie with an inconsistent year finishing with only eight tackles on roughly 35 percent of the team’s snaps. The one silver lining, though, was he accumulated four sacks on the season with three coming in the last three weeks of the season.
As opposed to considering Ealy a true sleeper since his name is already out there, I’d more appropriately deem him a breakout candidate. He possesses the talent as evidenced by his NFL draft spot – he just needs to prove to the Panthers he’s capable of holding down an every down role. He’s starting to show glimpses. With Charles Johnson out in week two of the preseason, Ealy flashed against the Dolphins with a sack and a forced fumble – a nice showing overall.
The key will be if he can avoid a platoon situation and prove to the Panthers he’s adequate in defending the run. The Panthers want a consistent player like they had in Hardy. Ealy could be it.
[am4show have=’g1;’ guest_error=’sub_message’ user_error=’sub_message’ ]
Allen Bradford, MLB/WLB
Bradford has played well thus far in Falcons camp behind Paul Worrilow. There are more than a handful of reports highlighting his play. Despite that, he’s not on many people’s radars since he’s a converted running back who hasn’t yet produced as a linebacker. He played running back in college and was drafted by the Buccaneers in 2011, but later changed positions after making his way to Seattle. In Seattle, he spent much of his time on the practice squad, but he wasn’t signed to a futures contract following the 2014 season.
So, who picks up Bradford after the Seahawks don’t retain him? None other than former Seahawks’ defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, who is now the Falcons’ Head Coach.
Through two preseason games, Bradford has played roughly 50 percent of the team’s snaps. He’s accumulated seven tackles and six assists exhibiting speed and aggressiveness. With Brooks Reed hurt early on in camp, Bradford also saw some time with the first-team defense and played well. With Quinn on his side and the impressions he’s made in camp, Bradford is a true long-term deep sleeper.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
I would love to use Kwon Alexander, but since he’s Tampa’s starting middle linebacker now, he’s no longer a sleeper. Plus, we’ve been on that train since July. Unless, we’re talking about a sleeper candidate for a LB2 finish. That’s a discussion for a different day, though.
Jacquies Smith, DE
An undrafted free agent in 2012, Smith is an underappreciated starting defensive end across the IDP community. In the last seven games of 2015, he totaled ten tackles, three assists, and six and a half sacks. Not bad for an afterthought. Smith is currently situated to be one of the Buccaneers starting defensive ends and there will be very little competition for snaps – this should give Smith the opportunity to improve on his impressive seven game stretch to close out 2015 and prove he can be a long-term fixture on the Buccaneers’ defensive line.
The important aspect to consider here is Smith is a starting 4-3 defensive end with sack potential. Considering how many teams are playing a 3-4 base defense, a productive 4-3 defensive end can be a hot commodity since there a small number of them. Double digit sacks are a very realistic possibility for Smith in 2015.
New Orleans Saints
Can Kenny Vaccaro be a sleeper after an epic sophomore slump? I don’t think so, but he should be a top bounce back candidate in 2015. Reportedly, he’ll be spending more time in the box, which should lead to increased fantasy production. A role in the box and blitzing is ideal for Vaccaro. But, I digress…
Dannell Ellerbe, WLB
Ellerbe fell out of favor in Miami after struggling to translate his Baltimore production to a new defense. While he may not be an attractive long-term IDP option, Ellerbe is a short-term sleeper with the potential to put together a decent season in 2015. He struggled at middle linebacker with the Dolphins in 2013 and was injured for much of 2014 in what was a lost year, so many will bypass Ellerbe. However, he could be the Saints’ starting weakside linebacker this year. The best thing to do is ignore his 2013 and 2014 disappointments as Ellerbe claims he’s more comfortable on the weakside. If he beats out David Hawthorne for the starting job, there’s a realistic possibility he plays three downs since he’s capable in coverage. That should result in meaningful fantasy production.