The 2017 draft class gave us a handful of IDP prospects whose massive upside is obvious, even to the casual fan. Yet, the players who will truly help you build a formidable dynasty roster are the sleepers whose value is masked by the depth chart and disregarded by your league-mates. This draft was loaded potential sleepers, just waiting for an opportunity to inject themselves into the lineup and show the coaching staff what they can do.
Over the course of the next three months, we’ll hear numerous reports out of training camps across the league, which not only inform us of these player’s developments but more importantly, tell us about the opportunities for a sleeper to assume a bigger role. Some of these players will be inserted into the line-up during the preseason, while others may have to wait until the regular season kicks off. In order to maintain an edge on the competition, you need to stay ahead of these developments.
Those who chose to wait for confirmation in the form of declarations by coaches or in-season points production may find themselves losing out on a potential sleeper in the weekly waiver race. Rather than waiting, let’s do our homework now and sift through the rosters to find the players with the talent and opportunity to become bustout IDP contributors. Here are some of the more promising IDP rookie sleepers on the market.
Adoree Jackson, CB TEN
Granted, much of his upside is dependent on how your league’s scoring system is set up, but if that system awards points for things like kick and/or punt return yardage while allowing defenders to tally their offensive production as well, then how could Jackson not be on your radar?
Legendary defensive guru Dick Lebeau offered high praise of Jackson’s potential, saying,
“That’s the game today in the NFL. You’ve got people spread out all over and the quarterbacks are pretty adept at getting the ball out to them. You need people to match them, and he’s one of the kind that can.”
Lebeau is speaking of how Jackson’s speed gives him the ability to dominate in the short passing game, something multiple teammates have reiterated throughout spring practices. The Titans spent the 18th overall pick on Jackson and will put him to his highest and best usage. He’ll be on the field early and often, in all types of situations.
Jackson racked up 46 solo tackles and 11 pass breakups as a junior at USC. He’ll have more than his fair share of each in the NFL, to go with a few interceptions, punt return touchdowns, and eventually pass receptions, as well. Expecting him to become a top-36 to 48 IDP defensive back early in his career seems conservative. Jackson’s potential is out of this world, relative most other NFL cornerbacks.
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Xavier Woods, S DAL
Woods is a talented, sixth-round free safety, entering a secondary which suffered major attrition this offseason. Jeff Heath is currently penciled in to start opposite Byron Jones at safety. Second-year contender Kavon Frazier will also be gunning for playing time.
Yet, Woods is the player to watch — equally capable of forcing turnovers in coverage, as he is at laying the lumber on ball carriers. A combination of Woods and Jones on the backend of the defense gives the Cowboys an interchangeable pair of safeties and allows them to utilize Jones anywhere in coverage, rather than limiting him to the deep zone. Woods has a very good chance of becoming a core contributor immediately and could become a starter by midseason, if not sooner.
Kai Nacua, S CLE
Nacua is a ballhawk with great length, and the athleticism to handle NFL receivers in the open field. The Browns recently acquired Calvin Pryor to join Ibraheim Campbell, Derrick Kindred, and Ed Reynolds, (each of whom saw time in the starting lineup last season). Fellow rookie Jabrill Peppers is also in the mix, but his future is more likely as a box safety.
Cleveland needs to find a sturdy defender, who can play deep zone coverage. Amongst the aforementioned group, Nacua’s the best suited for such a role. He’s already showing off his ball-hawking skills in practice against the lackluster Browns’ quarterbacks. Early buzz out of Cleveland is giving the rookie an excellent shot at making the 53-man roster and a “puncher’s chance” of actually earning the starting job at training camp. Nacua is a must-add to your preseason watch-list, and if you’re feeling ballsy — go ahead and roster him right now. But do not be shocked if at some point this season he becomes a factor for the Browns.
Rayshawn Jenkins, S LAC
Jenkins and fellow rookie teammate Desmond King could each be on this list, but Jenkins is the player who makes the most sense. He tested better than expected at the combine, showing great speed for the position, with above average explosiveness and length. His measurables were eerily similar to Deone Bucannon’s, from 2014.
On the field, Jenkins is a physical safety, who match up well with tight ends and big receivers. The Chargers’ present starters, Jahleel Addae and Dwight Lowery, were uninspiring, to say the least in 2016 — with Lowery coming in at DB70, while Addae finished his injury-shortened campaign at DB123. Jenkins could be a difference maker in Gus Bradley’s 4-3, playing a Kam Chancellor-type role. While we shouldn’t expect him to step in right off the bat, he will gradually assert his claim for playing time this season and should be a full-time starter by 2018.
Jordan Willis, DE CIN
Willis possesses a mix of athleticism and intelligence which is rarely seen in rookie edge rushers. Where most first-year DEs and OLBs attempt to get by on speed rushing alone, Willis understands how to react to his blocker’s initial move and counter the lineman’s set-up with both speed and power. Willis had an excellent combine, finishing second to Myles Garrett in the vertical leap, and third behind Peppers and Haason Reddick, with a 4.53-second 40 time.
Some have argued that Willis won’t get much of an opportunity behind Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap on the Bengals’ depth chart. Yet, Cincinnati’s head coach, Marvin Lewis, seems thrilled with the rookie’s progression, as he pointed out,
“With Jordan Willis, the light is on now… he’s got a good understanding of what to do, and you can see him applying it over the last three or four practices. He’s playing with what we need him to do, as far as playing with speed and playing faster.”
Do not be surprised if Willis works his way into the rotation on pass rush downs early on and becomes one of the Bengals’ go-to edge rushers as a rookie.
Takk McKinley, DE ATL
McKinley may not seem like a sleeper to you, but he’s been coming off the board entirely too late in the IDP drafts. The prospect of playing on a line with Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett, and Dontari Poe, on an up-and-coming Falcons’ defense, with a strong secondary is enough to make any late-round defensive end an attractive prospect.
Taco Charlton and Jonathan Allen have been coming off the board before him, despite the threat of a rotation in Dallas, and Allen landing on a 3-4 team. Meanwhile, McKinley walked into a prime situation where he’s potentially the best pure defensive end on the roster, (assuming Beasley stays listed at OLB, of course.) McKinley is in a great position to make an impact early in his pro career and should be a player you’re thrilled to see on the board in the final rounds of your rookie draft.
Chris Wormley, DE BAL
Wormley is simply a football player. He’ll have to compete for a five-technique role in Baltimore’s 3-4, but he came out of Michigan polished and ready for the challenge. At 6’5”, 299-pounds, with 34.5” arms, Wormley is the prototype 3-4 end and should excel in run defense.
The Ravens made a concerted effort to get better at OLB, drafting Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams. If they can generate a fearsome pass rush on the outside, a player with Wormley’s tools could find himself winning a lot of one-on-one battles on the interior. In the long-run, he has low-end DL2 to high-end DL3 potential and could see significant playing time as a rookie.
Derek Rivers, DE NE
Rivers’ usage with the Patriots is worth keeping an eye on. The departure of both, Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard, left 1,256 snaps unaccounted for on New England’s defense. Rivers is currently listed behind last season’s breakout lineman Trey Flowers on the Patriots’ depth chart. Between Flowers, new addition Kony Ealy, and veteran Ron Ninkovich, Rivers is clearly the most dynamic athlete of the group.
It’s entirely possible the Patriots drafted Rivers to eventually convert him into a full-time linebacker. Ryan Jackson wrote an excellent story comping Rivers’ measurables and collegiate usage to that of former-Patriot Jamie Collins. While there’s been no indication of such a move as of yet, it is worth filing away in the possible position switch drawer for later. Rivers needs a bit of seasoning, yet he’s a gifted prospect who could pay dividends for your team down the road.
Tarell Basham, DE(?) IND
The problem for Basham in IDP circles will be his classification on the websites which host our leagues. Per the Colts’ website, Basham is listed as a DE. MFL, on the other hand, has Basham listed as a linebacker. The former seems more correct, judging by his history and play at Ohio University, yet only time will tell how the Colts actually deploy him. Head coach Chuck Pagano is excited by what Basham brings to the table,
“He’s got burst, he’s got twitch… He’s a nifty athlete and he’s good with his hands. He’s got some natural pass rush to him. It’s going to be exciting.”
Regardless, there’s a real chance for Basham to make noise in Indy, seeing as they refused to resign Erik Walden, their sack leader from 2016. Basham is worth keeping tabs on early in the season to find out if he can land a full-time role, or if he’ll be used more as a situational pass rusher.
Anthony Walker Jr., ILB IND
Walker will have every opportunity to upend the Colts’ current, lackluster frontrunners at inside linebacker, Sean Spence, and Antonio Morrison. Chuck Pagano told reporters that Walker’s anticipation helps him overcome his marginal 40-time, saying,
“He’s a quick reactor – good key and diagnose. He anticipates things well, sees things well and gets a jump on things so he looks a little bit faster than maybe a timed 40 speed.”
Walker joined the Colts late in OTAs, after finishing his academic obligations at Northwestern. As he gets acclimated during training camp, his athleticism is separating him from Morrison, in particular. Pagano seems willing to entrust a rookie with the duties that come with the “MIKE” linebacker role, leaving Walker in a great position to show off his football acumen and barge his way into a starting job this fall.
Marquel Lee, ILB OAK
The Raiders had a bit of a revolving door at inside linebacker in 2016, with Ben Heeney, Corey James and Perry Riley taking turns manning the position. Riley led the group in IDP scoring as LB101, but the Raiders didn’t extend him a contract offer this spring. James is in the running for the starting ILB job and is splitting first-team reps with second-year linebacker Tyrell Adams, who was previously listed at OLB. Heeney was exposed for his lack of speed and size and has the look of a reserve/special teamer. None of these veterans have a tremendous edge in the experience department over Lee, however.
He’s been running with the second team in practice, putting him within striking distance of a starting job. Watch this situation closely. The Raiders are obviously looking for an upgrade. Lee has the strength and length to tussle with interior linemen and play stout in run defense. Time will tell if he has the ability to handle a three-down role, as his speed and mobility in pass defense have been questioned. Yet, if he can convince the team he’s competent enough to handle the responsibilities of the job, he may wind up with an IDP-worthy role in Oakland.
Josh Harvey-Clemons, ILB WAS
Harvey-Clemons has an opportunity to make a name for himself in Washington, but it’s going to take time. His biggest obstacle is the presence of the three veteran ILBs ahead of him on the depth chart — Zach Brown, Mason Foster, and Will Compton. Harvey-Clemons, a converted safety, isn’t likely to bump any of those veterans from their perch this season. JHC will have to carve out a role on special teams and hope to log a few snaps as the “money” linebacker in the meantime.
Su’a Cravens excelled last season in a similar role, before being made a full-time safety this offseason. At Louisville, JHC found more success attacking the run and playing near the line of scrimmage than he did in coverage. If he can impress the Redskins’ coaches with these attributes, they will find ways to manufacture snaps for him. Harvey-Clemons is well worth a speculative add and stash this season. Owners will have to demonstrate patience, however, as his conversion into a functional NFL linebacker won’t happen overnight.
Calvin Munson, LB NYG
There are several reasons to keep Calvin Munson on your radar. First of which is the fact the Giants’ linebacking corps does not have a single IDP roster-worthy player. Any one of their current starters could be bumped down the depth chart by a promising upstart player.
Munson plays with an understanding of leverage and uses it to get off the blocks of interior linemen fairly consistently. At San Diego State, he made his living as an inside linebacker, averaging almost nine tackles per game, while also generating a good deal of pressure as a pass rusher — lending hope to his prospects of becoming a three-down player. Keep an eye on him throughout the preseason, as an injury to one the Giants’ starters could open up a door for Munson to step into the lineup. He’s just the type of roughneck linebacker who could steal a coach’s heart in practice and carve out a role on the defense.