This week, the Breakout Stars. These guys should already be familiar to IDP owners, but 2009 is when they become stars.
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).
Gaines Adams, DL, Buccaneers
Adams has broken many an IDP owner heart over his first two seasons, putting together the occasional multi-sack game before going MIA. But there's every reason to think a breakout season is on the way. Jim Bates takes over the Tampa defense, and while he played to mixed reviews during his most recent stint in Denver, one thing Bates has always done is develop speed pass rushers. In Miami, he helped make Jason Taylor into a superstar. More recently, in Denver, he made Elvis Dumervil into a 12.5-sack monster. In Bates' run contain scheme, Adams will line up much wider than he did in Monte Kiffin's Tampa 2. This will definitely play to Adams' strengths: speed and athleticism. Adams will never be great against the run, but his production under Bates should be outstanding for anyone in sack-heavy scoring formats.
Andre Carter, DL, Redskins
Sticking with our theme of underachieving pass rushers, Carter belonged on a milk carton in 2008. After 43 solo tackles, 10.5 sacks, and four forced fumbles in 2007, he responded with a 23-4.0-0 line last year. But it can't be pinned on him entirely. No offense to fourth-year tackle Kedric Golston or C-list celebrity wannabe Jason Taylor (okay, I guess that is meant to be offensive to Taylor), but Carter was a marked man by default on the 'Skins defensive line last season. There was no one else worth blocking. Enter Albert Haynesworth and Brian Orakpo. Haynesworth will line up next to Carter and absolutely demands a double team on every play. And while you can't bank on a rookie, Orakpo is the kind of relentless pass-rusher that Taylor was not last season. Teams will have to pay attention to him on the other side of the line. It all opens up a world of opportunities for Carter, who will consistently get to work one-on-one. He's set up for a career year and is as good as it gets among late-round IDP fliers.
Bradie James, LB, Cowboys
You're a fool to rely strictly on numbers for fantasy football success, but you can't ignore what James did in the second half of 2008. Head coach Wade Phillips took over the defensive play-calling midseason, including using James more as a blitzer out of his inside spot. The results were stunning: 55 solo tackles and seven sacks over nine games. There are some red flags with James. First the Cowboys were at least tinkering with the idea of holding him back on third downs (to that I say "not bloody likely"). I'm more worried about new ILB Keith Brooking, who should absolutely prove to be an upgrade over Zach Thomas, stealing some of James's tackles. But when it boils right down to it, over the past 15 seasons only two players have had 80 solo tackles and double-digit sacks in a season (Cleveland's Jamir Miller in 2001 and Washington's Ken Harvey in 1994). James has a chance to join that elite IDP company.
Curtis Lofton, LB, Falcons
It doesn't take a mathemagician to figure out that Lofton is in for a big statistical jump. After playing almost exclusively on first and second downs last season, he will make the jump to third down duties this year. In anticipation, he has slimmed down and should have more range and be able to diagnose plays quicker in his second season. Atlanta's ball control offense generally keeps their defense off the field, but Lofton's leap in playing time and ability makes him one of the safest IDP linebackers out there, with an upside of 90 solo tackles if things break right.
Richard Marshall, DB, Panthers
This is the nicest way it can be said: Opposing quarterbacks are going to salivate when they see Marshall lined up on the outside. He's the kind of physical corner who was a nice fit in the nickel for three seasons, but I just don't think he can survive on the outside. Of course, this is great news for his IDP value. All those throws coming his way means more chances for PDs and, more likely, tackles. And Marshall will still mix it up against the run. Marshall has a similar skill set to Chicago's Charles Tillman, who was the top scorer among DBs in most IDP leagues last year. Quarterbacks will love picking on Marshall just as much as they love picking on Tillman.
Brandon Meriweather, DB, Patriots
He took over when Rodney Harrison went down last season, and Meriweather is a rising star as a two-way safety. He's not a prototypical in-the-box type, but he'll generally play closer to the line of scrimmage than James Sanders, meaning he's in line for more tackles. He had 43 solo tackles in 10 starts after Harrison went down last season. But the Pats will count on Meriweather's coverage skills as well, and he's spent his first two seasons focusing on improving his ball skills. Meriweather had four picks last season, and is one of the few safeties out there capable of 70-plus solo tackles and five-plus interceptions. With his versatility, you can't go wrong.
Jermaine Phillips, DB/LB, Buccaneers
Phillips is another no-brainer. A former in-the-box safety and one of the most valuable DBs in fantasy leagues back in 2006 (83 solo tackles), he's making the move to weakside linebacker. The beauty of it is that Phillips will retain DB eligibility in almost every league. The only real red flag is that Jim Bates' run control scheme often funnels ball carriers to the middle linebacker (in this case Barrett Ruud). Still, with Phillips' range and increased focus on stopping the run, it would be a shock to see fewer than 70 solo tackles. He's near the top of the board among DBs in tackle-heavy scoring formats.
Ernie Sims, LB, Lions
Sims certainly had some success in Rod Marinelli's dinosaur of a Cover-2 defense the past three seasons, including 97 solo tackles in 2007. But it's tough to be as active as you should be in the defense requires that you read, read, read, read, read, read, read, the react. New defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham's scheme will have Sims in more of an attack and ask questions later mode. With his range, and the fact that teams will likely run it often while protecting leads against Detroit, Sims should shoot back towards the elite class of linebackers in tackle-heavy formats.