Early in fantasy draft season, the focus among individual defensive players is squarely on the incoming rookie class. It makes sense – the only drafts going on in May and June (or at least the only ones that should be going on) are dynasty rookie drafts.
It was no different here at Rotoworld. Back in May I rolled out a set of rookie rankings, with a focus squarely set toward dynasty formats.
However, much has changed in the last three months. We've rolled through rookie camp. And OTAs. And minicamp. NFL teams from coast are well into training camp, and the 2018 preseason is well underway.
In other words, we know a lot more now than we did then. Which rookies have shined in camp and who has struggled. Who's surging up depth charts and who has fallen off the pace.
Also, the focus has changed a bit. The overwhelming majority of IDP drafts left to go are either dynasty startups or redrafts. In those leagues, knowing how this rookie class stacks up against the veterans is more important than how they compare to one another. Knowing who is capable of making a dent this year is as important to IDP owners as who has the potential to do so in 2020.
So while we're going to discuss some "project" types here worth a late look in dynasty startups in 2018, the main focus of this re-examination of the rookie class of 2018 will focus more on which first-year IDPs have the best shot at making a fantasy impact this season.
Probable 2018 IDP Starters
Tremaine Edmunds – ILB, Buffalo Bills
At just 20 years old, Edmunds is being tasked with starting and playing all three downs for the Bills at middle linebacker. Per Heather Prusak of WGRZ-TV, Bills head coach Sean McDermott is confident after an impressive camp that Edmunds has the maturity to fill that role. "He’s off to a good start. He picked up where he left off in the spring. The communication part will be big, that he can run our defense and, not only know what he’s doing, but what the people around him are doing and anticipate so he can check us in and out of some defenses," McDermott said. "He is a young man that seems mature."
Frankly, Edmunds age and inexperience are just about the only things stopping me from ranking Edmunds inside LB1 territory. The opportunity is certainly there – the MIKE spot in Buffalo has long been an IDP goldmine. It's not a matter of talent either – Edmunds is a wildly athletic player with all the tools to be a force in the NFL. If he's as quick a study as he's appeared on the practice field, look out.
Roquan Smith – ILB, Chicago Bears
Smith (the eighth overall pick in 2018) remains the highest-drafted unsigned player by a country mile, but Bears GM Ryan Pace said (via WBBM Radio and the team's website) that there's been no progress on the contract stalemate related to offset language in his deal. "There are really no new developments to this point," Pace said. "It's something that we're working through and obviously I feel like a broken record here, but we want him to be here but it's just part of the process."
That the Bears still haven't gotten Smith in camp because they want assurances they can recoup money if he strangles a zebra during a game (despite the fact he has zero history is disciplinary issues on or off the field) is a brilliant way to start a working relationship with a young man you hope will be your next great inside linebacker. And Smith's that good – good enough that he has the talent to one day perhaps be mentioned among the other Bears greats. He's as NFL-ready as you can ask a linebacker to be. But young players need reps. Smith's not getting any, and there's no clear end to this in sight. So while he was my No. 1 rookie IDP back in May, Edmunds has bypassed him now.
Derwin James – S, Los Angeles Chargers
James was limited early in camp by a hamstring injury, but as ESPN's Eric Williams reported head coach Anthony Lynn said that James will see more time with the starters moving forward. “Now that he’s back, we’re going to definitely sprinkle him in there with the 1s and rotate him a little bit,” Lynn said. “You’ll see him and Jahleel (Addae) going at strong safety and free safety, because it’s not fair if we don’t get Jahleel some free safety reps because we’re going to need him back there.”
The expectation from the moment James was drafted is that he would quickly assume a role as the starting strong safety for the Chargers. Now that it appears he's getting up to speed, James looks to be on a collision course with the IDP value we expected for him in 2018 – a DB2 with significant upside behind a suspect group of linebackers in L.A.
Leighton Vander Esch – ILB, Dallas Cowboys
Vander Esch was both rangy and wildly productive at Boise State a year ago, and his athleticism has been on display in training camp for the Cowboys. Per Kate Hairopoulos of the Dallas Morning News, some members of the coaching staff have been duly impressed. "He's got a really good chance to be a really good player," said Kris Richard, the defensive passing game coordinator. "I love his level of humility - that's what's key. He's got an awesome, even keel. He's poised."
Vander Esch isn't running with the starters just yet, but he's been making the play-calls for the second unit, and it's just a matter of time before he works his way into the starting lineup. A slow statistical start to his rookie season is a possibility, but in the long-term Vander Esch's upside is only slightly lower than Edmunds and Smith – and maybe ahead of James.
Darius Leonard – OLB, Indianapolis Colts
A nagging quad injury hampered Leonard this summer, but he's been dropping jaws since getting back on the practice field. According to Kevin Bowen of 1070 Radio in Indianapolis, defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus has been impressed – but not surprised. “It’s really what we saw on tape,” Eberflus said. “There was really no surprise as to what he brings to the table. Just athleticism, a fluid athlete, a speed player and has a lot of upside. We are excited to have him.”
Leonard played at a tiny school in South Carolina State, so he's usually slotted behind the bigger names among IDP rookies this year in rankings. But the Colts thought enough of the 6'2", 234-pounder to spend a second-round pick on him – and Leonard's path to an every-down role with the Colts is just about as clear as it gets. There's potential for big-time value here.
Rashaan Evans – ILB, Tennessee Titans
Evans hasn't practiced since late July and missed the exhibition opener, but good luck getting information about it from head coach Mike Vrabel. "You know what? Those injuries -- listen guys -- the injuries, I know everybody's focused on injuries," Vrabel said, via Mark Inabinnett of AL.com. "I'd like to focus on what's going on out here on the field. Let's talk about the guys that practice and are with us. When I have to give you an injury report, it's going to be in September, and that's the next time we'll talk about injuries."
Evans' injury is real cause for concern, and if he's still not back on the practice field by the time your league drafts burning a redraft pick on the former Alabama standout is the definition of a dice-roll. However, prior to the injury Evans was already sharing first-team reps with Will Compton. When he does finally get on the field, it isn't going to take long for Evans to start producing. His long-term ceiling (if healthy) is higher than Leonard's. That's worth a late pick in deeper leagues.
Possible 2018 Fantasy Starters
Bradley Chubb – OLB, Denver Broncos
Chubb's value in IDP leagues has a lot more to do with his positional eligibility than his talent. In leagues where he's slotted as an outside linebacker, that value takes a sizable hit unless your scoring leans heavily toward sacks. However, if your league offers Chubb positional eligibility as a defensive lineman, it's a different story. There Chubb has the makings of an upside DL2 pick with a relatively high fantasy floor.
Fred Warner – OLB, San Francisco 49ers
Warner missed the preseason opener with a chest injury, and for now at least he's behind veteran Malcolm Smith in the pecking order in San Fran. However, the third-rounder out of BYU is the future at WILL behind Smith, who missed all of last year with – wait for it – a chest injury. If Smith gets injured again, the future could become the present in a hurry.
Minkah Fitzpatrick – S, Miami Dolphins
Fitzpatrick is a Round 1 talent with a do-it-all skill set who appears to have a very bright future prowling the back of the defense with the Dolphins. But so long as veteran Reshad Jones is locked in as the starter at strong safety in Miami, Fitzpatrick's role (assuming he starts) will be at the very back of the Miami defense as a deep safety. Fitzpatrick's day is coming – but it probably won't be in 2018.
Justin Reid – S, Houston Texans
It wasn't that long ago that Reid was one of my favorite defensive backs in this class and it looked like he had a relatively clear path to starting at strong safety for the Texans. However, Houston's decision to move veteran cornerback Kareem Jackson to safety has muddied those waters. If Reid wins the job, he'll be a steal – but that's a sizable "if."
Oren Burks – ILB, Green Bay Packers
Burks could be the poster boy in 2018 for the positive impact of opportunity on IDP value – maybe. A few weeks ago the third-rounder out of Vandy was a late flier in dynasties at best. But with starting inside linebacker Jake Ryan now out for the season, a window has opened for Burks to rack up quite a few snaps as a rookie. If, that is, he can win the job.
Terrell Edmunds – S, Pittsburgh Steelers
A surprise first-round pick of the Steelers in April, Edmunds is another talented young safety who may have to wait for consistent snaps behind veteran safeties Morgan Burnett and Sean Davis. However, it's possible Edmunds could see PT as a third safety/nickel linebacker, and if either veteran goes down Edmunds would quickly assume a prominent defensive role.
Maurice Hurst – DT, Oakland Raiders
Hurst was a first-round talent who free-fell to Round 5 after his medical check at the combine revealed a heart condition that caused him to be removed from many teams' boards altogether. However, a Raiders team that's hurting for talent along the defensive line rolled the dice on Hurst, who has reportedly impressed in training camp.
Denzel Ward – CB, Cleveland Browns
In only the deepest of CB-required IDP leagues is it advisable to even consider taking Ward – or any first-year corner, for that matter. But someone's going to emerge as a "rookie corner rule" waiver target and in theory Ward fits that bill. He's a physical defensive back who isn't afraid to get dirty, but top-five pick or no he isn't so good in coverage that NFL teams are going to avoid him.
Give It a Year (or Two)
Marcus Davenport – DE, New Orleans Saints
Davenport is loaded with natural ability – there's a reason why the Saints mortgaged next year's first-rounder to move in the 2018 draft. But coming from tiny UTSA Davenport faces an even steeper learning curve than most rookie edge-rushers. Like just about all of the first-year ends, Davenport's a year away (or a big injury away) from the sort of snaps that might bring with them steady IDP value.
Ronnie Harrison – S, Jacksonville Jaguars
Here we go again. Like the aforementioned Fitzpatrick and Edmunds, Harrison's a talented young defensive back with the potential to be an impact defender in the pros. The problem is that won't be coming in 2018 unless starter Barry Church gets hurt in Jacksonville, and Church has missed just five games in the last five seasons combined.
Jerome Baker – OLB Miami Dolphins
Baker's range was on full display in Miami's preseason opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Mike Hull's knee injury should serve to boost Baker that much farther up the depth chart. However, the three-down role that Baker needs to be IDP-relevant probably isn't coming so long as Kiko Alonso is the weak-side linebacker for the 'Fins. Hopefully the team will realize soon that Alonso isn't especially, um, good.
Malik Jefferson – OLB, Cincinnati Bengals
Jefferson's cut in the mold of today's modern WILL in the NFL—a quick 6'3", 236-pounder with sideline-to-sideline range. He's also quite possibly insurance for the Bengals against the next time Vontaze Burfict does something stupid. But the Bengals have a crowded depth chart at the linebacker position. Snaps are going to be hard to come by as a rookie.
Shaqem Griffin – OLB, Seattle Seahawks
As things stand today, there's zero doubt that Bobby Wagner and KJ Wright are entrenched as the top two linebackers in the Emerald City. But the Seahawks have already started jettisoning high-priced veteran defenders – it's possible one of them could befall a similar fate. And it seems every day we get a new reminder that one hand or no, Shaqem Griffin can play.