August 28, 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 Rookies.

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).

Aaron Curry, LB, Seahawks

Plain and simple, Curry is going to be overdrafted in just about every league. He's arguably the best defensive player in this rookie class and there's little doubt he'll be in the starting lineup Week 1. But Curry isn't in a spot that will translate to fantasy production. He'll do the grunt work playing over the tight end, but that won't lend itself to many tackles, and he's not really a pass rusher. Even 60 solo tackles might be a stretch this year. Let someone else take him.

Kevin Ellison, DB, Chargers

It's not often that a sixth-rounder is immediately competing for a starting spot, but that's the situation Ellison finds himself in. Incumbent starter Clint Hart just isn't good enough to run with the first team, and while Ellison has his limitations (while he doesn't cover well, it was a troublesome knee that really sunk his draft stock), the oversized safety could excel playing in the box. It could be midseason before Ellison overtakes Hart, but if it happens, he's going to be a nice DB2 in tackle-heavy scoring formats.

James Laurinaitis, LB, Rams

Laurinaitis is a no-brainer as the safest IDP pick among the rookies. He's going to be the starting middle linebacker in St. Louis, and the Rams could be forced to play him in a three-down role because of their paper-thin linebacking corps. The question is whether Laurinaitis is a safe LB2 or a potential LB1, and the answer will depend on how well the Rams new offense performs. If Steven Jackson and company can control the clock and stay on the field, Laurinaitis doesn't have the true sideline-to-sideline range to really pile up the tackles. But if Pat Shurmur's new West Coast offense sputters and opponents dominate time of possession while protecting leads, Laurinaitis could be on the field enough to get 90 solo tackles.

Clay Matthews, LB/DL, Packers

Matthews' value depends heavily on whether or not he qualifies at DL in your league. He'll play outside linebacker in Green Bay's new 3-4 and was a hybrid at USC, but he spent more time with his hand down. He's been slowed by a hamstring injury throughout training camp, but it's only a matter of time before he's starting. And with Aaron Kampman rushing the passer on the other side of the field, Matthews could make a run at 8-10 sacks as a rookie. He can sit on the waiver wire until he's healthy, but keep an eye on Matthews as a midseason pick-up.

Rey Maualuga, LB, Bengals

Before the draft, Maualuga was shaping up to be among the best IDP rookies. But it's been all downhill since then. He slipped to the second round and landed in Cincinnati. It's not a terrible place to be, but the Bengals are working Maualuga on the strong side rather than at the MIKE, seriously hampering his fantasy upside. On top of that, he's been slowed by hamstring and groin injuries. Sure, it's only a matter of time before Maualuga overtakes Rashad Jeanty. But don't look for him to have any fantasy value even after he does.

Michael Mitchell, DB, Raiders

Mitchell entered the preseason as a super sleeper. The second-round pick from Ohio was one of the biggest reaches in draft history, but he had a chance to step into Gibril Wilson's old starting job, a spot that piled up tackles behind Oakland's swiss cheese front seven. Mitchell can't cover, but he's a decent enough tackler. Unfortunately, a hamstring injury has erased any chance he had a entering the regular season as a starter. But Tyvon Branch, more of a centerfield-type, can't hold down that spot for long. If Mitchell comes back healthy, he could be waiver wire gold come midseason.

William Moore, DB, Falcons

Moore is another in-the-box safety who deserves attention in tackle-heavy scoring formats, but like Mitchell, the injury bug is really holding him back. Moore had arthroscopic surgery on his knee and won't be back until the end of the preseason, meaning he's not going to push for a starting job. Moore is a huge liability in coverage, but he has a ridiculous size-speed combination and can play in the box. He's worth watching, but not worth drafting this season.

Brian Orakpo, DL/LB, Redskins

Orakpo is my absolute favorite among the rookie IDPs, especially because he still qualifies at DL in just about every league. The Redskins plan on using him as a linebacker on first and second downs and a defensive end in passing situations. Basically, he'll be on the field a lot. He has the potential to get more tackles than your average DL, but it's his sack potential that makes him so intriguing. Last year at Texas, Orakpo lived in the backfield despite being targeted on every down. In Washington, teams will be much more worried about Albert Haynesworth, and Andre Carter should be rejuvenated on the other side of the line. He has a real shot at 50 solo tackles and and 10 sacks, which would make him an elite fantasy player and the clear-cut IDP rookie of the year.

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