August 05, 2009

All season long, Eight in the Box is the place for your weekly Individual Defensive Player Report. During the preseason, we'll be focusing on the four food groups of fantasy football: Sleepers, Breakout Stars, Busts, and Rookies.

This week, the Sleepers. These guys have likely never spent a day on a fantasy roster, but look for them to become solid contributors in 2009.

Analysis is based on the four main statistics for most IDP leagues (solo tackles, sacks, passes defensed and takeaways) in three-position formats (defensive linemen, linebackers, and defensive backs).

Cliff Avril, DL, Lions

There were two bright spots during Detroit's legendarily bad 2008 campaign: (1) The NFL season is only 16 games long, and (2) Avril showed signs of becoming a pass-rushing beast. A hybrid LB/DE out of Purdue, he barely saw the field early in his rookie season. Once he did, Avril proved to be too quick coming off the end, recording four sacks and forcing three fumbles over the final six games of the year. Nothing gets new Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham giddier than speed on the edge (his star pupils include Leslie O'Neal and Jared Allen), and Avril seems a lock for double-digit sacks playing wide in Cunningham's scheme.

Justin Durant, LB, Jaguars

There's a lot of uncertainty in Jacksonville (a 3-4 look with their personnel? Not bloody likely...), but Durant is a pretty sure thing. He's a rangy linebacker who will move from the weakside to the middle this season. Despite coming out of D-IAA (or FCS, if you're into unnecessary rebranding) Hampton, he has already made 20 starts in two seasons. He's not much for big-play leagues and I'm a little worried about his ability to shed blocks playing the MIKE. But Durant is a solid LB2 in tackle-heavy scoring formats, with 80-plus solo tackles looking like a pretty safe bet.

Chris Johnson, DB, Raiders

Anyone who's ever played in an IDP league knows that shutdown corners are the worst because no one throws at them. And there's not a better shutdown corner in football than Nnamdi Asomugha. So against the Raiders, where is the ball going if it's not going to Asomugha's side of the field? Right at Chris Johnson. A journeyman who stepped into the starting lineup midseason after the end of the debacle known as the DeAngelo Hall Era, Johnson had 30 tackles and was tied for seventh in the NFL with 11 PDs over the second half of the season. His willingness to make tackles in run support as well makes Johnson a solid DB2 in most leagues.

Akeem Jordan, LB, Eagles

The worst news of the 2009 offseason may have happened for Philly, as Stewart Bradley, a rising star at middle linebacker, was lost for the season with a torn ACL. The injury will likely force Philly to move Omar Gaither back to the middle. Now, Gaither will be serviceable at the MIKE; he had 68 solo tackles as the starting MLB two seasons ago. But the biggest fantasy beneficiary will be the man who took Gaither's starting job on the weakside (and who was likely to hold him off in training camp): Jordan. A third-year 'backer who went undrafted out of James Madison, Jordan has the sideline-to-sideline range that Gaither lacks. He had 35 solo tackles in six starts late last season, and without Bradley swallowing up tackles in the middle, 90-plus solo tackles is in his range for 2009. He's a high upside LB2.

Manny Lawson, LB, 49ers

Lawson is teetering on the edge of bustdom. A first-round pick in 2006, Lawson has delivered a mere 5.5 sacks in his first three seasons. His struggles have been because of a combination of injuries and scheme. The latter shouldn't be a problem this year. After coming off the field in most third down situations last season, defensive coordinator Greg Manusky plans on making Lawson a three-down player in 2009. With the chronically underrated (and absurdly named) Parys Haralson in San Fran's 3-4, Lawson will have an opportunity to make plays. Health-wise, Lawson could recapture the explosiveness that made him a first-round pick. He tore his ACL in 2007, and typically a player won't get back to full strength until the second season back. A season of 40-plus solo tackles and double-digit sacks is well within reach.

Brandon Mebane, DL, Seahawks

Each year, there are a handful of defensive tackles who end up being roster-worthy. In 2009, Mebane will be one of them. Playing primarily in the run-stuffing nose tackle role last season, Mebane still broke through for 5.5 sacks. This year, the Seahawks have brought on Colin Cole to man the nose fulltime, freeing up Mebane to play the three-technique, a spot that will have him penetrating and rushing the passer rather than occupying blockers. Mebane responded by shedding a ton of weight during the offseason. A 40-solo tackle, eight-sack season could be the result.

Aqib Talib, DB, Buccaneers

Talib has the blend of skills that makes him a potential IDP dream. First, he's big and willing to step up in run support. Second, he has the ball skills of a wide receiver. And third, with Philip Buchanon gone and Ronde Barber losing a step, he's going to be asked to cover a lot of top receivers but isn't really good enough to do it yet. Talib will be an easy target for opposing offenses. Because of that, he's a lock for a good number of solo tackles and PDs. But the big-play potential is what makes him a fantasy DB1, and potentially one of the top 5 DBs in fantasy football. He had four interceptions as a nickel back last season. With a little luck, that total could double in 2009. If your league's scoring system is big play-heavy, Talib should be one of your top DB targets.

Lawrence Timmons, LB, Steelers

If you're going to take a Pittsburgh ILB, pass on Farrior and go with Timmons. The third-year 'backer is nothing but upside. He had 35 solo tackles and five sacks last season playing almost exclusively on passing downs With Larry Foote gone, Timmons becomes an every down player. He has tremendous range (there's a reason Mike Tomlin mentioned Derrick Brooks' name after drafting Timmons in 2007) and can pick up another five or so sacks in Dick LeBeau's Blitzburgh scheme. In sack-heavy leagues, he could end up being a top 10 LB.

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