The following list details nine lesser publicized defensive backs who could be major contributors to your title hopes this season. The list is geared toward leagues which award 1.5 points or more for solo tackles. In such leagues, the DB1 (Morgan Burnett) outscored the TE1 (Rob Gronkowski) in 2014, illustrating the value defensive backs hold in IDP formats. However, players of Burnett’s caliber will be among the first defensive backs off the board come draft day – you need to dig deeper to find the hidden gems that will carry your team to victory. That’s what we’re here for!
Here is a compilation of players who fit that description. Some are established veterans who are flying under the radar. Others are still on their rookie contract looking to make a name for themselves. All will be available in the latter stages of your draft, providing valuable production at a discounted price.
Corey Graham, S BUF
Since his days with the Ravens, Graham has been a solid special teamer and nickel/dime defender. In 2014, he signed with the Buffalo, playing over 700 snaps while overtaking Leodis McKelvin as the starting cornerback. Early reports suggest the Bills will ask Graham to fill in at safety this year, as the off-season departure of Da’Norris Searcy has created a void at the position. Depending where you get your depth chart information, you can find Graham listed at either safety position, or his natural cornerback. With training camp underway, we’ll soon receive confirmation on his role. However, you can rest assured Graham will be a starter and major contributor for an elite Bills defense in 2015. He is well suited to step in and provide both strong coverage, and sure tackling. As a full time starter he’s a potential top 12 scorer amongst defensive backs. You’ll be able to grab him toward the end of your draft, well after names like Eric Weddle and Burnett come off the board.
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Deone Buccannon, Hybrid S/LB ARI
In a very talented Cardinal safety group, Buccannon is the wild card. Arizona lost inside linebacker Daryl Washington to suspension in 2014, exposing a major talent gap at the position. Todd Bowles, the Cardinals Defensive Coordinator at the time, did himself and fantasy owners a HUGE favor allowing Buccannon to play a hybrid linebacker role in all kinds situations last year. One can only hope the Cards expand upon that role this year. Neither the signing of oft-injured linebacker Sean Weatherspoon or the yet unresolved status of Washington’s suspension inspire confidence in Arizona’s linebacking situation. Spending more playing time in the box is a major plus for any defensive back in fantasy. The final snap count will determine if Buccannon is a frustrating spot starter or weekly contributor. His days in a platoon role won’t last. Dynasty owners should buy low while they still can.
Bradley Roby, CB/S DEN
If the rumors are true, the Broncos are toying with the idea of moving Roby to safety opposite TJ Ward. Roby has tremendous talent and could quickly become a productive safety in the league. It makes sense for the Broncos, who already field an elite pair of corners in Aqib Talib and Chris Harris. The athleticism at tight end in the AFC West has improved tremendously this off-season with the emergence of Travis Kelce, the Raiders drafting Clive Walford and the temporary furlough of Ladarius Green from the shadow prison on “Gates Island.” Moving Roby to safety will help Denver counter these emerging threats – he allowed 63 of the 98 passes thrown his direction to be caught in 2014, a higher than desirable completion rate. Seeing more one-on-one match ups with tight ends and running backs will make his athleticism a greater advantage in coverage, while also boosting his tackle numbers. If Roby stays at cornerback, he should remain off your radar. But if the rumors hold true, look to grab Roby late in your draft.
Shamarko Thomas, SS PIT
Opportunity is knocking on Shamarko’s door and all he has to do is answer the bell. After waiting two seasons for the end of the Troy Polamalu era, Thomas is finally in line to be the Steelers starting strong safety. At only 5’9″, 213 lbs., critics doubt Thomas is capable of performing the duties of a box safety, yet his teammates praise his high character and relentless work ethic as reasons he will succeed. Shamarko suffered through serious hamstring issues his rookie year. He was stuck behind journeyman Will Allen in his second season. The lack of playing time leaves little on-field evidence to point out in Shamarko’s defense. He will have to beat the 33-year old Allen in camp to lock down the starting role. This task was made easier when the Steelers legendary Defensive Coordinator Dick LeBeau, who was known to favor veterans over inexperienced players, left Pittsburgh this off-season to join the Tennessee Titans. The only other noteworthy back-up is Gerod Holliman, an undisciplined rookie free safety from Louisville. The former Cardinal led the NCAA in interceptions in 2014 by abandoning his assignments to play the football on a regular basis. This lack of discipline will prevent Holliman from challenging for a starting job in the NFL, where quarterbacks will use his wandering eyes against him. It appears Thomas will finally get his chance to start. Whether he plays well enough to remain the starter beyond 2015 is anyone’s guess, but the opportunity to be a solid IDP safety is here.
Will Hill, SS BAL
The Ravens hope Hill has matured beyond the petty infractions and immaturity that cost him his first job with the Giants. He came on in week seven and stabilized a Ravens secondary in flux. Signed to a one-year contract this off-season, Hill will get to show his skills for a full 16 games as a starter. The results could earn a lengthy extension for the five year pro who won’t turn 26 until May 2016, an excellent sign for his Dynasty prospects. Betting on players in contract years is often a great wager. Hill should be a Top 24 safety in fantasy scoring this year, potentially higher. You should have no apprehension drafting him.
Landon Collins, SS NYG
There will be plenty of growing pains for Collins as he finds himself on a defense desperately trying to build an identity. The Giants struggles at inside linebacker give Collins the chance to make a ton of tackles – the ideal situation for a fantasy safety. At Alabama, Collins showed the ability to defend deep passes, running plays, screens and designed quarterback scrambles with equal speed and aggression from his perch in Cover 2. Collins is less adept in Cover 1 situations, as the lone safety responsible for the deep zone. Bigger than many of today’s linebackers, Collins is the prototypical “good safety on a bad defense” you are looking to build your roster around. He should be the first rookie defensive back off the board in dynasty drafts, possibly exceeding 100 tackles in year one. Make sure he lands on your roster.
Other Notable Breakout Candidates
Eric Reid, S SF
Second year pro Eric Reid, like the aforementioned Collins, plays for a team with serious questions in the front seven. The 49ers lost both Patrick Willis and Chris Borland to retirement this off-season. Their other standout inside linebacker, Navarro Bowman, is finally returning from the gruesome knee injury suffered in the 2013 NFC Championship Game, which cost him the entire 2014 season. Such uncertainty bodes well for Reid, a free safety with the chops to hold his own against the ground game. The 49ers’ NFC West rivals are all intent on playing smashmouth football. Should their revamped linebacking corps struggle, Reid will become the last line of defense, a duty he is more than capable of excelling at. Dynasty owners should lock Reid up for the foreseeable future.
Jahleel Addae, SS SD
The third year veteran Addae will get first crack at replacing free agent departure Marcus Gilchrist, but will he capitalize? His safety counterpart, Eric Weddle, is already a top defensive back in the NFL and fantasy alike. A lingering contract dispute leaves Weddle’s future in San Diego (much like the Chargers themselves), full of uncertainty. A breakout 2015 puts Addae in position to be the Chargers top safety should Weddle move on, bolstering his future dynasty value. His coverage statistics for 2014 were terrible, despite the small sample size. Per Pro Football Focus, he surrendered ten completions in 11 attempts against, with only a single pass defended. This will have to improve if Addae is to become the future in the Chargers secondary. Yet, the team was confident enough to let Gilchrist walk in the off-season. You should be confident enough to take a flier on Addae as a DB2/ DB3, with upside.
Kemal Ishmael, S ATL
During a solid 2014 season that featured him replacing injured veteran William Moore, Ishmael was a Top-24 Fantasy scorer among defensive backs. This year he’ll compete with Moore and Charles Godfrey for a starting role in Atlanta’s secondary. Landing the “Earl Thomas” role in new Head Coach Dan Quinn’s incarnation of the Seahawks scheme could ensure Ishmael’s viability as a scorer. He’s a relative unknown, likely to be ignored by your league-mates on draft day. Owners can look to Ishmael for DB2 production provided he wins the starting job.