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Columns - Magazine

Defense at a Discount

by Gary Davenport
Updated On: October 4, 2018, 4:04 pm ET

There isn't a more popular (or overused) word in fantasy football than "sleeper." Every year articles galore endeavor to point out hidden gems flying under the radar who can help you win a championship.

So many of these articles focusing on the same players (who can't really be called "sleepers" after 137 people all highlight them as such) is a little ironic. But hey, whatever, I don't judge.

The thing is, while the term "sleeper" might get used more than paper towels at a barbecue joint that doesn't mean those articles aren't of value. Long story short, "sleepers" are simply players who are undervalued; there's a good chance they will outperform their relatively modest asking price in fantasy drafts.

The more of those you can load up on late, the better.

That's the case with each of the Individual Defensive Players listed here. None are going to carry a hefty price tag on draft day. But each has the potential to emerge as weekly starters in IDP leagues in 2018.

There's value to be had here. If you want to be successful in fantasy football, value is the name of the game.

Mario Addison – DE, Carolina Panthers
Despite making 16 starts for the Panthers last year and setting a career-high in both tackles (44) and sacks (11), Addison's something of an afterthought in IDP drafts this season. However, it's worth pointing out that not only was Addison a top-20 fantasy option in many scoring systems last year, Addison was also a pretty consistent producer. In fact, there were only three games in 2017 in which Addison didn't rack up at least half a sack. The 30-year-old appears to be the definition of a late bloomer; Addison had just 16.5 sacks over the first eight seasons of his career but has 20.5 over the past two years.

Akiem Hicks – DE, Chicago Bears
Hicks is starting to become the Rodney Dangerfield of IDP defensive linemen. Despite tallying 54 tackles and a career-high 8.5 sacks in 2017, Hicks just can't seem to get any respect. Those numbers marked the second year in a row that Hicks has topped 50 total stops and added at least seven sacks, as well as the second consecutive campaign in which he's finished inside the top 20 defensive linemen in fantasy points. Hicks isn't going to blow up for 14 sacks or crack the top-10, but his steady tackle production offers a high IDP floor. At the very least he's a solid selection late as depth up front or a bye-week fill-in as something of a poor man's Calais Campbell.

Muhammad Wilkerson – DE, Green Bay Packers
Remember when Wilkerson was a top-10 defensive lineman in IDP leagues? Yeah, neither do many people it would seem; Wilkerson's falling outside of the top 30 at his position in the majority of IDP drafts after two straight down seasons led to his unceremonious departure from New York. Now in Green Bay, Wilkerson is at a crossroads at his NFL career and motivated to attempt to recapture past glories (and with them hopefully a fat contract extension). Wilkerson has just eight sacks over the past two years, but as recently as 2015 the 28-year-old piled up 12 sacks, made the Pro Bowl and finished sixth in fantasy points among d-linemen. He's also averaged over 55 tackles a season over his seven-year career.

Preston Brown – ILB, Cincinnati Bengals
Brown isn't a true "sleeper" per se. The fifth-year veteran, who joined the Bengals in free agency after four years in Cincinnati, is coming off most draft boards in LB4 territory. In some drafts he's even climbed into the ranks of the LB3s. Even at that higher price tag the 25-year-old has the potential to be a steal. Brown may not be an elite talent, but to this point in his career he's put up some big-time numbers, including a career-high 144 tackles in 2017 that landed Brown inside the top 25 fantasy linebackers for the third straight year. With Vontaze Burfict suspended the first four games of 2018, there's a good chance that Brown could get off to a hot start this season.

Oren Burks – ILB, Green Bay Packers
More so than any other player on this list, Burks is a true "sleeper"; a dart-throw of a pick late in deep IDP drafts. It's entirely possible that two weeks from now Burks will be right back in the ranks of "no thanks" again. But recent developments from Packers camp have opened at an opportunity for the third-round rookie to produce. With Jake Ryan out for the season with a torn ACL, the Packers need an inside linebacker to step up opposite Blake Martinez. It's possible that the Packers will kick Clay Matthews back inside (at least some of the time), but it's something the team would as soon prefer not to do if they don't have to. Burks will have a chance to show the Packers they don't.

Darius Leonard – OLB, Indianapolis Colts
Leonard played collegiately at tiny South Carolina State, but the Colts saw enough from the rangy 6'2", 234-pounder to make him the 36th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. Leonard told Kevin Bowen of 107.5 Radio in Indianapolis that he knows some doubt his ability to make an immediate impact in the NFL. “I’ve heard it,” Leonard said. “I’ve been overlooked ever since I was little. So I love to prove people wrong. I’ve always been an underdog so it kinds of puts a little fuel on the fire and pushed myself to prove everybody wrong.” Simply put, someone's going to have to make tackles for the Colts, and Leonard's arguably the best linebacker on the roster.

 

Cory Littleton – ILB, Los Angeles Rams
Littleton's something of a darling of IDP experts in 2018, although at first glance it isn't readily apparent why. The third-year pro out of Washington has just five starts to his credit in the NFL, and Littleton has yet to amass even 40 total tackles in a season. However, dig a little deeper and you'll discover that with Alec Ogletree gone it's been Littleton (and not Mark Barron) who has been wearing the "green dot" helmet communicator in OTAs and early in training camp. Where that little dot on the back of a player's hat goes highlights an every-down role. In addition, Littleton's per-game numbers have been pretty good when he has started, and you have the makings of IDP production available on the cheap.

Justin Evans – S, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Ryan Doyle of the Pewter Plank labeled Evans as a potential breakout performer for the Buccaneers in 2018. "Last season," Doyle said, "Evans began to find his footing as he solidified his role as the starting free safety. He had 50 tackles and three interceptions on the season. Although, Evans still has work to do, especially in the tackling department. The Texas A&M product brings a hard-hitting attitude to Tampa’s secondary." Doyle isn't the only pundit who expects bigger and better things from Evans in year two of his NFL career, but he's not getting much run in IDP drafts. If his in-game awareness catches up to his considerable talents, we might just see a breakout sophomore year.

Matthias Farley – S, Indianapolis Colts
If you've followed my IDP writing for any period of time (and if you haven't, why haven't you? I'm really good at this stuff. Just ask my mom.) then you know I'm a big proponent of waiting to draft defensive backs and then targeting upside options late. In 2018, that means getting as many shares of Matthias Farley as I can. The third-year pro is hardly a world-beater, but in 15 starts for the Colts last year Farley flirted with 100 total tackles and finished the season as a top-20 defensive back. Despite those numbers and a situation where Farley's the last line of defense behind a suspect LB corps on a bad Colts defense, Farley's going undrafted in more leagues than not. Pounce on him late. You won’t regret it.

Bradley McDougald – S, Seattle Seahawks
It's a time of great transition for the Seattle Seahawks defense. Defensive ends Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett are gone. Ditto for cornerback Richard Sherman. And safety Kam Chancellor. Batterymate Earl Thomas has one foot out the door too. Those defections on the back end have opened up a starting spot for McDougald, a sixth-year veteran who made 31 starts for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2015 and 2016. In 2016 McDougald racked up 91 total tackles, picked off two passes and finished the year as a top-15 fantasy option at his position. He has similar DB2 upside in the Pacific Northwest, upside that's available for a song late in drafts.

Gary Davenport

Gary Davenport is a Senior Staff Writer at Fantasy Sharks, an NFL and Fantasy Football Analyst at Bleacher Report and a contributing author and Associate Editor at Football Diehards. A member of the Pro Football Writers of America and Fantasy Sports Writers Association, Gary was the winner of the 2017 and 2019 FSWA awards for Football Writer of the Year. You can follow Gary on Twitter @IDPSharks.