The first stop on our IDP Sleepers list took us on a tour through the AFC East. Given that evolution saw it fit to grant us a prefrontal cortex capable of reason, I suggest we make good use of it and proceed with the remainder of this list in a logical, alphabetical order, beginning with the AFC North.
If ever there were a division whose identity was found on the defensive side of the ball, the AFC North would be it. For years, it was known for its hard-hitting linebackers and play-making safeties. That identity has slowly shifted to the offense in recent years, but at its heart this division remains defensive-minded. As such, the sleeper IDPs in this division are plentiful, with the players mentioned in this article being the most likely to make an impact in 2016 and beyond.
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Zachary Orr, LB, BAL
Daryl Smith, the current starter at inside linebacker for the Ravens alongside C.J. Mosley, is a soon-to-be 34-year-old with decreasing effectiveness. After posting a -9.6 overall grade from Pro Football Focus on 1,002 snaps last year, the odds are exceedingly high that 12-year veteran is either cut (saving the Ravens $2,750,000 in cap space) or retires.
Fortunately for the Ravens, they already have a ready-made replacement, and it isn’t Arthur Brown.
Listed as Smith’s direct backup, Orr played 145 snaps last year (134 more than Brown) and finished the year with a +3.8 overall grade from PFF. What really stands out, however, is that he received positive grades for his work in all three major defensive categories: pass rush, coverage and run defense. These grades are indicative of a player who can assume Smith’s mantle and play an every-down role next to Mosley.
A recent article form the Baltimore Sun also suggests that Orr could earn the starting position in Smith’s absence, or at the very least earn more reps in the event that Smith is still with the team in 2016.
It’s clear that Orr is on an upwards trend, and it won’t be long before Rotoworld and many other fantasy sites start aiming their spotlights on the 23-year-old, making now the best time to acquire him for peanuts.
Shawn Williams, S, CIN
Ever since becoming the 84th pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, Williams has been identified as a potential starter at safety for the Cincinnati Bengals. In the three seasons since, the only stats he has to his name are 54 tackles, two interceptions, a fumble recovery and five passes defended.
And yet, here I am, barking up the same tree as many before me.
The difference this year, however, is that Williams’ path to a starting role is as clear as it has ever been: both of the Bengals’ starting safeties from last year are unrestricted free agents. Both Reggie Nelson and George Iloka are looking to cash in this offseason, and while the team certainly has the funds ($39M) to resign both, the fiscally-sound move would be to resign one of them while letting Williams take the place of the other.
My money is on Nelson getting resigned over Iloka, as the latter will likely command far more money thanks to the seven-year age difference between the two. If that is the case, Williams should have no problem filling the void. When Iloka missed four games last season, it was the third-year man out of Georgia who took his place. In those four games, Williams managed 15 tackles, an interception and three passes defended.
Williams proved he is a capable starter, earning positive marks from Pro Football Focus. He is athletic enough (ran a 4.46 forty at the Combine) to cover the entire field and has the size (6-foot-0, 210 lbs) to make a difference against the run.
Should Iloka follow the money to another team, it is safe to project Williams as a top 20 safety in IDP formats. Considering how little he costs at the moment, he could be well-worth the investment.
Christian Kirksey, LB, CLE
Perhaps best known for his player glitch in Madden, Christian Kirksey has been a mild disappointment in IDP circles thus far in his career. After being taken early in the third round of the 2014 NFL Draft, Kirksey was expected to quickly earn an every-down role at inside linebacker. What happened instead was that he ended up spending the next two years in a timeshare with Craig Robertson next to Karlos Dansby on the inside. That may change in 2016.
Robertson heads into the offseason as an unrestricted free agent, and considering his mediocre-to-poor play last year, it wouldn’t be a shock if the Browns let him test the waters. With Robertson out of the way, Kirksey would be a favorite to slide into a more traditional every-down role next to Dansby, which would lead to more tackle and big-play opportunities.
Kirksey already proved he could be an IDP asset if given the chance to play the majority of snaps on defense. When Robertson missed Weeks 4-7 last year, Kirksey racked up an impressive 25 tackles to go along with a sack. Extrapolated over a full season, those tackle numbers would jump into the triple-digits.
The appeal of Kirksey in IDP leagues has worn thin for many owners since being drafted, which makes him a prime buy-low player who could increase in value as the offseason progresses.