IDP Roundtable - Rankings, Rookies, and Early Sleepers
By IDP Staff
May 19th, 2010

The first set of rankings -- before depth charts are set and all the free agent veterans find new homes - can be full of potential landmines. What are your basic rookie and redraft ranking philosophies? How do you account for possible biases, upside vs historical production, last season's numbers, etc?

Matt Waldman: I am new at ranking IDPs, but I have been playing IDP for several years. My rankings are based on a number of concepts and factors.

LB is the RB of IDP in terms of value, but LB has less turnover and greater longevity than RB when it comes to its top players. As I know the staff has mentioned these concepts every year, but it always bears repeating: ILBs (3-4 defenses) and MLBs (4-3 defenses) tend to be safer picks than OLBs. Of the OLBs that have value, it is the WLBs that are capable of top-tier numbers. LBs are more difficult to acquire off the waiver wire and I prefer to draft them early and often. Rookie LBs are capable of a big impact (DeMeco Ryans, Brian Cushing, and Patrick Willis are all examples) and they are good early picks in drafts. Because of the lower turnover and longevity at the top, I base my initial rankings on last year's stats while factoring injury, changes to defensive scheme, offseason developments, etc. I value young LBs with quickness, flexibility, and vision. Although I am impressed with LBs that have the speed to chase players down from the backside, I'm more impressed with defenders that can read and react quick enough to meet the ball carrier where he is going.

Having a DE with a high sack total is the goal. You will find most of these players in 4-3 defenses and they are frequently favorite early defensive picks in IDP leagues to get the value advantage. I understand the concept, but I don't always agree with how early top DEs go off the board. The points separation might be greater among DEs than it is among other positions, but if I can play twice as many LBs, I'd rather draft as many top LBs as I can. Therefore, I am much more LB heavy in the top end of my rankings. I look for DEs that play on teams with quality play at DT and LB. Although it isn't a hard and fast rule, a DE sees better opportunities when the offense is preoccupied with a dominant DT that can destroy the middle of the pocket and provide its edge rushers single teams. This is a position where the turnover is high enough that I don't obsess over taking them early. DTs are a lot like DBs in the sense that you can find quality players in free agency and the turnover tends to be higher than other positions. When I draft DTs, I value players in 4-3 systems with some quickness and skill at rushing the passer (Darnell Dockett and Tony Brown are good examples).

DBs are the least predictable position and the easiest to acquire a valuable contributor off the waiver wire. One of the blind spots that I have seen with IDP rankings for years is that older safeties are underestimated every year. For the past 5-6 years I can always count on a Sammy Knight or a Brian Dawkins to be excellent value. Unlike LB, sometimes the best difference makers in real defensive football are not the best fantasy players. I tend to like safeties that lack great LB play in front of them and have to be a big part of defending the run. As for CB, the same guidelines about bad passing defenses and good skills against the run apply. So does the idea that you generally don't take the best NFL players at the position as much as you take players that get picked on. Darrelle Revis and Charles Woodson were exceptions to that rule last year, because the defensive schemes for their respective teams were so good that QBs were forced to throw the ball in their direction. So is a player like Cortland Finnegan, who is good enough to compete with top WRs on an island, but he lacks great support from his teammates so QBs won't shy away from him.

Sigmund Bloom: No 3-4 DE, no matter how good, will ever crack the elite 4-3 DEs at the top of the tier, but as we see more teams going to the 3-4, top-flight 3-4 DEs like Darnell Dockett and Justin Smith are gaining more value in IDP leagues. After that group, I am looking purely at upside. I don't believe in carrying mediocre ends except to cover bye weeks, so middling, but consistent producers have little value on my board.

The stud ILB/MLBs will always eat up most of the top 10, but WLBs (mostly in Cover-2 defenses) like Clint Session, Michael Boley, Geno Hayes, and Thomas Davis are inching closer to crashing that party. Elite 3-4 OLBs have trouble cracking my top 20 because of their inconsistent scoring profile and, just like at DL, I don't value consistent, but limited scorers as much as I value unproven players who at least have the potential to be top 25-30 options in the upcoming season.

Even though there is a lot of turnover at fantasy DB year-to-year, your best bet if you are going to be one of the first people to take one (which I don't recommend) is a top producer from the previous season. I tend to rank proven vets coming off down years assuming that they will return to form more than I project young DBs to "make the leap". There are some feisty talents at CB who arguably belong in the top 10 overall DBs, and in general the stigma of CB in IDP leagues is going away because of the amount of young talent right now.

As the number of 4-3 teams dwindle, the number of elite 4-3 DEs goes with it. While that makes them more valuable due to scarcity, the resulting rise in their overall ranking puts them with the elite LBs, and I tend to agree with Matt that I just can't take one over an LB. So many teams will be lacking that elite 4-3 DE punch that it doesn't really hurt that much to pass on them altogether, I just can't put a DE in my top 10-15 overall IDPs. LBs will make up more than two-thirds of my top 30-40 players, and I don't know that more than two or three DBs would crack that list. The annual volatility and ease of adding startable players on the WW makes it hard to give any DB too much value. The consensus #1 DB right now - Bernard Pollard - was cut last year and available on just about every league's waiver wire.

John Norton: I'm not going to be so long winded with this question as some of my honorable peers.

When I rank players I first look for dependability - guys who are a sure thing or close to it. If a guy has a history of quality production, is in a good situation and nothing has changed around him that would reflect negatively, he goes to the top of the list. Unfortunately these guys are a pretty rare commodity, especially at the DB positions. Where I probably differ from many of my peers is that when those top flight guys are gone I turn more to upside over marginal production. I prefer to take risks and swing for the fences rather than settle for the consistent backup types who can be counted on for backup type numbers. The way I look at it, those types of guys can always be found on the waiver wire if you need them, particularly when it comes to defensive players. If you can hit on a few risk-reward type guys it opens up a lot of options for you during the season. The guys who don't hit provide roster room to move on free agents. A lot of things have to go your way to win a championship. My philosophy is that the guy with the most studs wins. You don't often get studs in the middle rounds without gambling.

Jene Bramel: I like to put together a set of projections as a jumping off point for my rankings. It keeps me from falling in love with a player that isn't supported by the numbers and makes sure I don't undervalue a player whose talent I don't think supports numbers that his situation does. That process generates some biases, however.

I'm more comfortable projecting tackles than big plays and tend to be conservative with sacks and interceptions. Since our default scoring system slightly undervalues big play performers already, I'm almost always going to rank one-dimensional pass rushing DEs, 3-4 OLBs and corners who don't tackle well in run support -- like John Abraham, Elvis Dumervil and Darrelle Revis -- lower than others on staff.

Also, my rank lists reflect my personal draft strategy, which looks for relative value and upside over steady production and replacement level numbers. In short, I'd much rather risk some downside in the hopes of drafting a player that can jump multiple tiers than take the safe player with a high floor. That pushes me to "overvalue" players like Jerod Mayo or DJ Williams or Curtis Lofton (or Kevin Burnett) before they've proven themselves. This year, that bias will probably have me higher on DeAndre Levy, Stephen Tulloch, Daryl Washington and Everette Brown.

Finally, I try very hard to avoid what I believe are the two biggest obstacles to ranking defensive players well. First, I try to not react to last season's numbers. Defensive schemes and player movement make IDP rankings extremely fluid. I need to be able to make a very good argument before continuing to project an outlier finish (i.e. Can Brian Cushing really top 85 solos again?) or projecting a breakout season (i.e. What is it about Curtis Lofton that makes it likely that he'll project to big numbers as an every-down player?). Second, while I'm a big fan of history, finding the players that bust the generally accepted IDP defaults (don't draft a 3-4 ILB, always consider the SS over the FS, corners are a crapshoot, etc) is a must.

Aaron Rudnicki: Since I don't have my projections done yet, my initial rankings are based primarily on past production with adjustments based on changes in a situation. I do tend to bump up players that finished strong last year and vice versa, and also try to factor in expected improvement from young players who are still reaching their peak. In terms of positional rankings, LBs are obviously most important since they score the most and most consistently, but the elite DEs are generally very important as well because there just aren't usually enough to go around. As for DBs, they are much less valuable because there isn't as much scarcity. All this stuff seems pretty standard. As for the other stuff, I think my rankings are generally weighted more towards reliability and stability but I don't want to ignore players with upside either. If I think a player is talented and in the right position to succeed, I'll certainly bump him up even when he hasn't shown much in the past.

As for rookie rankings, I tend to favor players who will be in the starting lineup sooner rather than later. If I think a player is really talented, however, I'll often overlook the situation and project that he'll eventually emerge as a star within a year or two.

Anthony Borbely: In a balanced scoring system like the one we use at Footballguys, I almost always have my rankings biased towards players who generate consistent tackle numbers. I think it is important to separate the wheat from the chaff with regards to the previous season. Jene mentioned Brian Cushing, who has been heavily discussed in the IDP forums. In his case, he put up huge numbers across the board along with the 85 solos Jene mentioned. Too often I see people wanting to use the previous season to rank players this year. If a player like Cushing does much better than I thought he would or outperforms what I think his talent is, that raises a big red flag to me and I am going to take a closer look. In Cushing's case, I found his numbers to be off the charts all the way across the board. I never considered him an elite talent so it made me wonder where those numbers came from. I had a problem believing he could put those numbers up again. This was before the suspension and that changes things even more. The point is to trust your judgment if something does not seem right.

I'm with Sig in that my DE rankings are dominated by 4-3 DEs and with those, you have to watch out for players falling off the cliff due to age. It's very difficult to see just looking at stats, so watching them play is a must. Assuming there are no injuries, you can usually see the drop-off in the elite DEs because their explosive first step diminishes. Staying ahead of that curve can help you win or lose.

With LBs, it's all about tackles for me. I want the upper end tackle guys. Players like London Fletcher that get 90 solos every year are always at the top of my rankings. I also want 3-down LBs. I rarely rank any 3-4 OLB inside the top 25 or so because they never finish that high on a yearly basis.

As I'm sure everyone will agree, DBs are extremely frustrating to rank. Their volatility has grown exponentially over the years and mainly because defenses are changing. The old in-the-box strong safety that did not have to cover is becoming a dinosaur. There are still some solid strong safeties, but in today's pass happy NFL, they have to be able to cover. I see this trend continuing. I thought the volatility was bad, but until I took a closer look at the last three years. There was only a single DB that finished in the top 25 in FBG scoring in each of the last three years and that was Bernard Pollard. I knew they were inconsistent, but that was really mind boggling. It just goes to show how hard it is to rank DBs and if anyone wants to see proof, go look at all of our positional IDP rankings. The fluctuations among the staffers in the DB rankings are much more wild than the other positions and this extends to the top of the rankings, which does not happen much at any other position. Again, I look for those that I think will give me high tackle numbers.

Rolando McClain, Sean Weatherspoon and Daryl Washington are certain to be the first three rookie linebackers drafted this year. Behind them are a few intriguing prospects who may pay big dividends once they earn opportunity. Where and why did you rank Donald Butler, Sean Lee, Brandon Spikes and Phillip Dillard?

Larry Thomas: In my preparation for my dynasty draft I had them ranked Lee, Butler, Edds, Spikes and Dillard, with Lee, Butler and Edds in the same tier. Lee's durability was a concern for me, but he has all the tools to be a very good LB. I liked Butler better as a Will in a 4-3, but even though he is strong (led LBs with 35 reps on bench press at Combine) I have concerns about his ability to take on blockers. I think in time he'll be fine, but may have an adjustment period translating from a 4-3 to a 3-4. I think Edds is being overlooked. He's one of the most instinctive LBs in the class. Like Butler, I have some concerns with his ability to stack and shed. He has the coverage skills to be a 3 down LB, and I also like Iowa's track record of producing defensive players who become very solid IDP's on Sundays. Even with all the talk of lack of speed I still feel Spikes can be a 3 down LB, however because of the question marks surrounding his ability to become that, I knocked him down my board. I have Dillard and Spikes ranked very close. From the scouting reports I've read Dillard appears to have the coverage skills necessary to play Mike in Perry Fewell's defense. I think he's a long shot to start this year, but without question the opportunity is there. The Giant MLB position will be one of the most watched IDP position battles this summer.

John Norton: McClain is most certainly the #1 prospect and in a tier by himself. My second tier is Washington ahead of Weatherspoon. Once you get past those guys there is still a great deal of long term potential to be had, but chances are you will have to wait a year before reaping any benefit. In my third tier I have Lee and Butler pretty even with Dillard slightly behind. All three of these guys are in situations where they are in line to become the centerpiece of their respective defenses. In Dallas they have Keith Brooking who will be 35 in October and Bradie James who is a solid but unspectacular player. Brooking is near the end and James is somewhat of a liability in coverage. As a rookie Lee will take over the nickel and dime package duties that Bobby Carpenter held previously and I expect that by 2011 he will be the main guy and bump James into the lesser (2 down) role. It's a similar situation in San Diego where Kevin Burnett was not the answer they had thought he would be, and Stephen Cooper's play dropped off considerably last year, leaving the organization questioning if the soon to be 31 year old can be their long term answer. By 2011 I expect to see both of these teams building around these young linebackers. Of this trio Dillard probably has the lowest ceiling but has the most potential to provide an immediate return. He will step right into a competition for the starting MLB job in New York. Jonathan Goff and Chase Blackburn have already had their auditions and were less than impressive. The coaching staff has to hope that Dillard can step up for them and will give him every opportunity to do so.

I also like Perry Riley and Pat Angerer as dynasty prospects. London Fletcher is 36 and Rocky McIntosh is not the heir to that throne. Riley will be looked at hard to see if he can be groomed for the job. The Colts didn't spend a second round pick on Angerer to have him play special teams for his entire career. The LB positions in Indy are consistently productive and history tells us this club has no loyalty to starters at that position. If Angerer plays well he will get a shot in the next year or two.

Jene Bramel: I think Daryl Washington is in a tier by himself over Sean Weatherspoon. Although I think Weatherspoon's role in Atlanta will suit him well, I like Washington's overall fit much better. Washington has immediate every-down upside in a role that should be productive for him with less competition for tackles than Weatherspoon faces in Atlanta. I was disappointed that Donald Butler didn't land in a position with more immediate upside, but I think there's an argument that he'll also be a better long-term bet for numbers than Weatherspoon. I've cooled on Dillard a little since draft weekend, when I thought he was a top three linebacker in this class. I like the opportunity for an every-down player at MLB in New York, but I don't like Dillard's long term staying power as much as the others (including Sean Lee).

Aaron Rudnicki: I like Stephen Cooper a lot in San Diego, but his production last year was disappointing as they seemed to move to more of a rotation at ILB. That being said, I think Donald Butler can emerge pretty quickly as the best of the bunch and a guy who will be on the field in all situations so I have him ranked highest among the second tier of rookies and really not far from the Weatherspoon/Washington tandem long-term. While I like Sean Lee's potential the next best among this group, I'm a little worried about him being stuck behind Keith Brooking and Bradie James for at least a year or two as the Cowboys are a veteran squad with Super Bowl aspirations. After those two, I like Brandon Spikes to take over the starting spot next to Jerod Mayo in New England. The Patriots have little depth at linebacker and he should not have too much trouble beating out Gary Guyton. He will probably start out as a 2-down linebacker but he should at least be productive early on and I think his talent will eventually win out. Dillard seems to be in a great situation as the eventual heir apparent to Antonio Pierce, but he's also a later round pick who will not be handed anything and I could easily see him winding up as a long-term backup. Pierce's production lately had also been kind of a disappointment from a fantasy perspective anyway given that he played on all downs and situations.

Larry Thomas: Like John, I also like Angerer‘s dynasty potential, but I don't think Riley will be a three down backer. I also like Rennie Curran as a sleeper. He could be a possible replacement for Stephen Tulloch if they can't get a long term deal done and Titans let Tulloch walk in 2011. Tulloch still hasn't signed his tender, but though I expect that to happen soon, you never know with Drew Rosenhaus.

Anthony Borbely: I think there is a pretty big drop off after McClain, Weatherspoon, and Washington. I do like Butler quite a bit, then Sean Lee. Butler is in a pretty good situation because the LB spot next to Cooper has been a troublesome area for the Chargers. I also think Cooper's play has gone down. Lee is in a similar situation, but I don't think he is as talented as Butler. After these two tiers of LBs, I think there is a steep drop to the rest of them. I am not a big fan of Spikes. I know the 40 times are not the most important thing, but his times were as slow as a lineman. There is such thing as too slow and that is it. He might be a 2-down LB in the 3-4, but that's his ceiling and I just don't think it justifies the cost. I'm also not a big fan of Dillard. I don't care for his talent and like Spikes, I see him as a 2-down LB at best. They will both be long gone before I would take them. I actually like Edds and Sharpton just as much and they will both be much cheaper. In the end, I just do not like this class of LBs after the top five are gone.

Eric Berry would seem to have a strong consensus as this season's top rookie safety target. Lots of players could arguably be the next safety off the board. Who would you draft after Berry and why?

Matt Waldman: Currently I'm torn between Earl Thomas, Nate Allen, and Morgan Burnett. Taylor Mays is another player worth mentioning because he has the Adrian Wilson-like frame that I believe Mike Singletary and the 49ers drooled over after dealing with Wilson on their schedule twice a year. However, Mays has never impressed me with his consistency or his coverage skills. Thomas is a nice player because he's smart and versatile and he landed on a team with decent pieces in the secondary, but lacking the big-play ability up front to put them in advantageous situations. Thomas is probably the safest pick after Berry, but I would consider waiting on Nate Allen, the South Florida safety projected to replace Brian Dawkins over the long haul. His upside is on par with Thomas and he is on a defense that should maximize his use. He's a physical player, but regarded as an inconsistent tackler - something that Andy Reid disputes. Morgan Burnett is another nice prospect with a short-term opportunity to get into the lineup due to the inconsistency of Atari Bigby. Burnett is an opportunistic defender that the Packers traded up to pick. If I were to draft one, I would wait on Allen. He fills a void in an aggressive defense that has brought in more help up front to rush the passer. I think Allen will have consistent opportunities for big and small plays. His pass coverage is very sound and he's a big, strong, athletic player at the position.

Larry Thomas: I like Cleveland's T.J. Ward. He's an aggressive run support safety with adequate coverage skills and an opportunity in Cleveland to start from the onset. Ward loves contact and can pack a punch. A tough player who will play through injuries, he has a great motor, character, work ethic, and passion for game. At times he goes for the big hit instead of wrapping up, but he's still a good, solid tackler. He was not one of the better cover safeties in the draft, however he has a nice burst and takes good angles. He's the type of player that will bring a physical presence to a defense. Because of his style of play durability may be a concern, ala Bob Sanders. With Taylor Mays I see Thomas Davis. I expected a 4-3 team to draft him with back up plan to move him to Will if he's too big a liability in coverage.

Sigmund Bloom: I think it's a toss-up between Mays and Ward for #2, but I wouldn't spend a rookie pick on either. I would rather wait for post-draft waivers and pick up guys like Darrell Stuckey and Reshad Jones, who will have chances to compete for starting jobs right away. Stuckey is in San Diego and Jones is in Miami, and both are vying for jobs that produced decent fantasy numbers in the past.

Larry Thomas: I hear you, Sig. Stuckey was drafted in my dynasty draft, Jones was not. With Miami upgrading the talent at ILB, I don't see both safeties being as productive (in terms of tackles where they had combined for almost 25%) as they were in 2009. Ward was the only DB I was targeting, as I knew Berry would go long before I would consider him. I was pleased to see Ward sitting there at a three pick run I had with the 4.12, 5.01 and 5.02.

John Norton: This is a rich year for rookie safeties and there are a lot of guys with good potential. I'll let someone else step up and spend the early pick on Berry then sit back and grab one of the other big potential guys in the third round or later. I like Taylor Mays for the long term because of his big physical nature but I see a lot of bust potential there as well. Darryl Stuckey would be my value target as a guy who will likely fall to the late rounds. My favorite target however, is Morgan Burnett. This is based as much on situation as it is the player. There is a long history of quality production from the Packers' safety positions and a league wide history of quality numbers from the SS in 3-4 schemes. Atari Bigby had a good year way back when but has been banged up and generally unimpressive the last couple of seasons. The Packers had so little confidence in their strong safeties last year that they went to a 3-5-3 alignment with Nick Collins as the lone safety. Morgan has the size, speed and instincts to be an excellent SS in this league. He's not a liability in coverage and can scoot up to play in the box. He's the physical presence the club has been looking for. I see him not only starting from week one but having an impact both on the field and in the box scores.

Jene Bramel: I think this will end up being the best IDP safety class in years. A number of these guys may end up undervalued a bit as free safeties in interchangeable schemes, but that's a bias I'm trying to force myself to get over. On paper, guys like Major Wright, Nate Allen, TJ Ward and Earl Thomas may not slot as in-the-box strong safeties, but they are the kind of free safeties that will play force against the run. That profile has served guys like Dashon Goldson, Antoine Bethea, Eric Weddle and others well enough in recent years. Given the competition that some of those guys have for tackles right now, it won't shock me to see at least gain consideration among the league's top ten fantasy safeties as soon as this year.

Still, I'm with Norton (as usual) on this one. Given the choice between a free safety with run support upside and a strong safety that projects reasonably well in coverage, I'm going with the latter every time. I think Morgan Burnett pushes Atari Bigby aside very soon and begins pushing the 70 solo tackle plateau immediately. I also agree with Sig that the value is likely going to be among the third tier safeties. While your competition is filling their safety need with Allen, Ward and Thomas, you can take a confident flyer on players like Darrell Stuckey or Larry Asante (unless we hear that Ward ends up slotting at SS over Abram Elam immediately) rounds later.

Aaron Rudnicki: I'm on board with Earl Thomas, mainly because I know he's going to play early and often. While he's probably less exciting to some given that he will likely start out at free safety, I don't consider Jordan Babineaux to be a prototypical SS anyway so I think the safeties in Seattle will be somewhat interchangeable. Although not known as a big hitter, Thomas has great range and is a sound tackler who could also be a big-time playmaker. Even if TJ Ward is in the best situation currently, he felt like a reach when the Browns took him and I'm not convinced he can hold that SS job long-term. Taylor Mays has exciting potential but he also seems to be blocked for the time being by Michael Lewis. Morgan Burnett is another player I like in the same tier, but I just feel like his upside may not be as great and he still may need to get past Atari Bigby. Basically, I think Thomas has the most talent and I also think Seattle will be committed to giving him every opportunity to succeed. That's good enough for me to take him first after Berry.

Larry Thomas: I'm with you Jene. I prefer the run safeties who can cover over the cover safeties who can play the run. This is why I had Ward ranked #2. I think Thomas and Burnett are more cover safeties, especially Thomas. Neither are solid wrap up tacklers, but that is something that can be fixed. I've seen mixed reviews on Burnett's run support skills. Allen appears to fit the bill of a run safety who can cover. The Browns did a good job drafting a pair of safeties who can do both. Elam sees the writing on the wall. Like Burnett, Asante has gotten mixed reviews. Wes Bunting (National Football Post) calls Asante a ball hawk but Nolan Nawrocki (PFW) disagrees. However he appears to have the edge over Ward in the cover skill department. I see the Browns future with Asante at cover safety and Ward at run safety.

Anthony Borbely: I am not a big fan of this IDP class and therefore, I doubt I would take many of the safeties because of where they will be drafted. That being said, I would take Earl Thomas after Berry. He has a ton of talent and is great in coverage, but could also be a great strong safety and Seattle does not currently have a true strong safety. Thomas should have plenty of opportunity immediately. I doubt I would ever be able to draft him because I would not take him as early as he will go off draft boards.

Among the late round sleepers, I like Darrell Stuckey. He has a great opportunity in San Diego and is a bit underrated to me.

Our monster, staff review of under- and over-valued players will be published this summer, but it's never too early to get a head start on 2010 potentials. Is there a player or two at each position that you feel will have a breakout season that may be overlooked as we enter the minicamp and OTA season?

Matt Waldman: Michael Boley OLB/Giants - I wouldn't call this a breakout as much as a rebound. Boley wasn't bad last year, but he was coming off injury after moving to a new team. I wouldn't be surprised if he gels a little more with the Giants' scheme this year and he makes enough big plays to complement his tackle numbers, vaulting him into the top 15 at his position once again.

Thomas Davis OLB/Panthers - Another rebound special coming back from injury. Davis was a top-five player in 2008. He might have to do a lot more saving of the Panthers' bacon when it comes to cleaning up what the defensive line can't finish.

Dannelle Ellerbe ILB/Ravens - A free agent due to injury and character concerns, Ellerbe was good enough to make the roster and get significant time with the Ravens last year. He actually started in the playoffs and was 3rd on the team in postseason tackles. Some believe he has limited athleticism, but I wonder if those people are making lazy assumptions based on his draft status. He is going to be competing with Tavares Gooden for the second ILB spot. If he wins I think he has a shot to develop into a steady and productive player capable of adding punch to your IDP lineup this year. If not, Ray Lewis is playing on limited time so Ellerbe is a solid choice to eventually succeed him. However, I think it will be Ellerbe who wins the job and Gooden who has to prove he can develop or the Ravens draft a higher profile guy to replace Lewis down the line.

Jene Bramel: I'm really interested to see what everyone has to say on this one. I think many of the same up-and-coming talents are finding themselves on everyone's early sleeper lists. Unlike last season, I'm not sure it's going to be easy to get guys like Everette Brown, William Hayes, DeAndre Levy or Stephen Tulloch for pennies on the dollar. I think it's going to prove especially difficult in dynasty startups.

Still, I think there's a handful of players who we'll see moving up rank lists quickly this summer.

Among defensive linemen, I think guys like Lawrence Jackson and Mark Anderson will see their stock rise as owners realize that they'll be seeing a big increase in snaps. Neither has been consistent early in their careers, but each fits the talent and age profile of a potential breakout player. I think players like Jason Hunter, Chris Clemons and Kyle Moore also deserve more attention than they're currently getting.

At linebacker, I agree with Matt that Michael Boley is likely to be undervalued. The situation is very similar to that of Clint Session last year, who we pushed hard as a much better bet than his LB4/5 ADP last summer. Boley enters camp healthy and has little competition for tackles in the back seven. If Perry Fewell brings some Tampa-2 to the New York playbook, Boley will be a LB2 at a LB4 price. And I'd expect Daryl Washington to come screaming up the FBG rank lists this summer when he earns the WILB job in camp. You should still be able to steal him from your non-FBG brethren at a discount, though.

At defensive back, I think Patrick Chung and Louis Delmas are undervalued entering camp. I like Chung (along with Eric Berry) to be pushing guys like Yeremiah Bell and Tyvon Branch as top five options this time next year, only with surer long-term staying power.

Aaron Rudnicki: Among linebackers, here are a couple players that look to be currently undervalued based on FBG rankings as it's still early to get any good ADP data.

Lofa Tatupu - Even though David Hawthorne was much more productive after taking over, Tatupu is expected to get his starting MLB job back this year. His season was ended by a torn pectoral muscle last year, which shouldn't be a concern going into this season. The Seahawks also appear to be pretty weak on the defensive line, which should lead to plenty of tackle opportunities. Tatupu put up LB1-type numbers for three straight seasons from 2005 to 2007 and it wouldn't be a huge surprise if he wound up there again.

Brian Urlacher - It's kind of interesting how far Urlacher's fantasy stock has fallen, but at 32 years old I think he still has another strong season or two in him. Last year was a huge disappointment after he suffered a wrist injury in the season opener that ended his season. However, that could also be considered a good thing as he basically had a full year to rest and that could help keep him healthier going forward. The addition of Julius Peppers figures to take some attention away from him and could lead to some more big plays. Urlacher has top-10 potential but it looks like he can be drafted much, much later.

At the DL position, here are a couple guys that might be a bit undervalued currently.

Calais Campbell - Even though I don't see him being a consistent DL1 type of player working out of the Cardinals 3-4 defense, he's a good young player coming off a strong season. While the Arizona offense won't score as much without Kurt Warner and that could limit his pass rush opportunities, I think he clearly has the potential to put up 40+ solo tackles and maybe 6 or 7 sacks which would make him a very reliable starter in most scoring systems.

Kroy Biermann - The former 5th round pick enjoyed a breakout season last year and it looks like he'll have a chance to be a full-time starter this year as the team plans to move 1st round bust Jamaal Anderson inside to DT. If Dunta Robinson can help shore up some problems in the secondary, Biermann should be able to improve on last year's numbers (38 solos, 5 sacks) playing opposite John Abraham. 2nd year pro Lawrence Sidbury is a wild card here and a much deeper sleeper but I think he'll remain a backup and pass rush specialist for this year at least.

As for the DBs, here are some I seem to be higher on than most.

S Sean Jones - We've seen Jermaine Phillips and even Sabby Piscitelli as the strong safety in Tampa put up good numbers for awhile now and we've also seen Sean Jones play like a top-10 DB during his years in Cleveland. Philadelphia was a bad fit for him last year as they already had Quintin Mikell playing up in the box so Jones was forced to play out of position at free safety. In Tampa, he will move back to his natural role at strong safety where he should have little trouble beating out Piscitelli for the starting job. Since he'll be playing a run stopping role on a defense that figures to have a tough time getting off the field, I think we could easily see DB1 production from Jones again this year.

CB Sheldon Brown - Brown quietly had a very strong season in 2009 and finished with 5 INTs, but his low tackle numbers have kept his value down the past two seasons. Following a trade to Cleveland, he figures to see fewer pass attempts but he should also be much more active against the run. With Eric Wright and Sheldon Brown in place, I think the Browns will take things slowly with 1st round pick Joe Haden. Even when Haden plays, there's a good chance that Brown would move inside to play the slot where he would able to play more like a safety than a corner and that should lead to 60+ solo tackles and DB2 type production.

John Norton: I would agree that the sleeper list for this season is going to be slim pickings, particularly at the LB positions. I do, however, feel that this is the year to steal some help along the DL.

I believe that Osi Umenyiora will be vastly undervalued. Yes, he had a lousy 2009 season and lost his starting job but don't overlook the fact that he was coming off a major knee injury. That injury is now two years in the past and I believe Umenyiora will return to form. As for regaining his starting job, let me just point out that the Giants only put up 33 sacks last year (their lowest production in recent memory) and Mathias Kiwanuka had just 3 of those.

I like Chris Long entering his third season. Not only did he show improvement in his second season but James Hall and Leonard Little are gone, so Long will finally have his opportunity to play on every down. I believe he is ready for the challenge.

Matt Shaughnessy didn't get on the field much until around midseason as a rookie but finished with 26 solo stops and 4 sacks. The Raiders are keeping us guessing about a lot of things, including how they will use Kamerion Wimbley, but with Greg Ellis gone and Richard Seymour shifting inside on passing downs, I think Shaughnessy is in line for an every-down role and could be a huge surprise. Watching him last season reminded me of a young Jason Taylor.

John Abraham fell off a cliff last year and the Falcons have finally given up and moved Jamaal Anderson to tackle. That opens the door for both Kroy Biermann and Lawrence Sidbury to see a lot of action. Biermann totaled 38 tackles and 5 sacks in what was basically a part time role for much of last season. I expect him to start and play full time opposite Abraham with Sidbury working in often, particularly if the 32 year old Abraham struggles again.

Rey Maualuga was a hot commodity in last year's rookie drafts but became a bust when the Bengals stuck him at SLB. It's not a sure thing that he will move inside this year but its something the coaching staff is considering. The fact is, Maualuga was drafted to be their MLB and once he finally moves there his numbers will be very strong. Don't forget that both Brian Urlacher and Kirk Morrison started their careers at SLB.

Barrett Ruud is the undisputed top dog in Tampa Bay but remember that by design the Tampa-2 scheme features the WLB position. Geno Hayes was the Bucs second leading tackler last year with a solid 80 solo stops, adding three sacks, four takeaways and six passes defended on his way to a sixth overall finish among outside backers. Look for him to improve on those numbers in 2010.

The return to Chicago will be huge for Chris Harris. He was a quality option for us while in Carolina but the Bears SS position is consistently among the most productive in the league. We are always looking for the marriage of a quality player and a productive situation. It's hard to find a better example than this.

Anthony Borbely: I'm with Aaron on Tatupu. He is one of my favorite sleepers. Aaron pretty much gave the reasons. Of course, I was on the Tatupu bandwagon last year and that didn't pan out. I think health is his big issue.

I think this is the year Cliff Avril breaks out. He has been plagued by injuries and inconsistent play and also was not big enough to play three downs. But reports are that he has added about 10-15 pounds and not lost any speed. Buccaneers' key will be to avoid taking plays off and that is where the veteran leadership of Vanden Bosch will come into play. He leads by example and I think it will have a positive effect on Avril, along with adding Suh and Corey Williams to the line. Avril has always been capable of double-digit sacks and I believe this is the year he hits it.

DeAngelo Hall always seems to be overlooked in the fantasy world, but he was a top 20 fantasy DB in the two seasons prior to last year and possibly could have been last year as well had he not missed three games. He is a willing and able run defender and makes enough plays in coverage to make him a viable DB2. Hall's fantasy prospects are helped by his average coverage skills.

There is a plethora of late round DBs that could put up DB1 numbers. The problem is they have to win the starting job on the team they play for. The two teams that come to mind are Buffalo and Detroit. Buffalo may be the best situation for a strong safety, but with George Wilson, Bryan Scott, and Donte Whitner all battling for the job, it's hard to say which safety to go after. I think it is totally wide open and the best thing to do might be to grab a couple of them, assuming you have roster room. Detroit's situation is even harder because there are a load of candidates, including Marquand Manuel, Daniel Bullocks, Ko Simpson, C.C. Brown, and Marvin White. Considering none of these players is all that good, the starter may be a player that is not on the roster.

Which offseason development(s) -- coaching/scheme change, free agent signing, rookie battle - have you most intrigued as minicamp season begins?

Matt Waldman: I'm intrigued by what the Lions are doing defensively. I'm a fan of coach Jim Schwartz for several reasons. Among them is his skill at maximizing opportunities for his players to get something out of practice. I watched him run extremely crisp, high intensity practices that mimicked the pace and effort of football games and they made efficient use of the player's time. I think it's easy to read what Schwartz is trying to achieve defensively because of the good choices he's making. Titans defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch is a high-motor, overachieving, veteran who was brought in for his knowledge of the defense (Schwartz was Tennessee's defensive coordinator before taking the job in Detroit), leadership, and the ability to mentor younger, talented players like Cliff Avril and Ndamukong Suh, He should be like a defensive line coach on the field for Avril, Suh, Sammie Hill, Corey Williams, and Jason Hunter.

Suh is going to be a versatile player for Detroit. Some initial reports say that he isn't much of a pass rusher compared to a prospect like Gerald McCoy, but I think the Lions are going to move him around line for potential mismatches. Within a few years, I think Suh will be wreaking havoc as a rare dual threat at DT. Right now, I think the Lions have the makings of a decent rotation along the line. This should be helpful to MLB DeAndre Levy and S Louis Delmas, who I expect to continue their ascent in fantasy productivity.

This defense isn't going to become great overnight, but I think they make a lot of strides with Vanden Bosch, Suh, and Williams fortifying the unit up front. Suh might be the one DT I would actually consider drafting late because I believe he was the best football player in the 2010 draft class. Dez Bryant, Ryan Mathews, and Jahvid Best might be the most productive fantasy rookies, but I could see Suh having a Darnell Dockett-like impact sooner than many think.

The Bengals are another team I look forward to seeing progress, especially with the signing of Adam Jones and Gibril Wilson. Suddenly this team has some depth in its secondary and can match up with some of the more dynamic offenses in the NFL if Jones is in as good of shape as one would think he should be to get signed by a team after a long layoff. The battle that intrigues me most will be DE Antwan Odom and second-year end Michael Johnson. Odom was considered an excellent physical talent when the Titans drafted him from Alabama, but he never put it all together. Johnson has a similar reputation coming out of Georgia Tech. If these two ends can push each other, the Bengals will have a quite a rotation in front of a pair of talented, young LBs in Rivers and Maualuga. If the Bengals can generate some early leads on offense, the defensive unit could prove to be highly opportunistic.

Jene Bramel: There are a number of things that could shake up the rankings this spring, but I have my eye on three situations in particular.

I want to know how Romeo Crennel sees the Chiefs' inside linebackers and safeties. I'm hoping at least one ILB starts training camp as a favorite to win an every-down job and that Eric Berry gets slotted in the Rodney Harrison/Sean Jones role in this scheme. I want to know whether Stephen Tulloch can hold an every-down role over the glut of OLB prospects in Tennessee. And I want to see who and how Jim Haslett aligns at inside linebacker in Washington.

John Norton: Being both a fantasy fanatic and a Raiders fan, I will be watching the developments in Oakland closely. My attention will focus particularly on how the playing time breaks down at the OLB and DE positions and what/if the coaching staff schemes up to get Trevor Scott, Matt Shaughnessy and Kamerion Wimbley all on the field in passing situations.

I'll also be watching the Bengals MLB, DE and safety situations. If Maualuga moves inside his value takes a huge jump and whoever gets the call at the safety positions should be productive. The late addition of Gibril Wilson really muddies the waters here. I will be watching Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap closely to see if they are indeed the bookends of the (near) future.

I'm watching the DL positions in Tennessee, where I want to know if they are going to continue with the multi-player rotation plan that all but completely ruined several quality players last season and also the DE position in Tampa Bay where I want to see who steps up opposite Stylez White. My gut feeling is that Tim Crowder gets that job but Kyle Moore is clearly in the mix. I'm interested in the SS position in San Diego where rookie Darryl Stuckey could challenge a host of veterans for the starting job and the Seattle MLB role where I want to see if the new coaching staff has the guts to pull the plug on Lofa Tatupu and start David Hawthorne (which I doubt). I also want to see if Mark Anderson can step up in the starting role or if rookie Corey Wootton can pass him on the depth chart at DE in Chicago.

Aaron Rudnicki: As John already mentioned, there are lots of interesting situations to watch in Cincinnati this year. Can Antwan Odom stay healthy and build on the great start he had last season or will they go with the youth movement? Will Maualuga be moved inside to MLB to start the year or will they actually consider keeping the status quo from last year? How does the Gibril Wilson signing impact things at safety?

I'm also curious to see how things shake out with the Lions as there could be a lot of opportunity for whoever wins the starting WLB job, be it Follett, Dizon, or maybe they bring in Bulluck. The Chargers ILB spots appear to have 4 players competing over 2 spots so that could be interesting. I also wonder if Larry English will be expected to take on a bigger role this year. I'd like to try and see if Patrick Chung is ready to take over as the Patriots starter at SS and who the Patriots will use at OLB outside Tully Banta-Cain.

Obviously, the SS spot in Buffalo is a huge question mark as it could be Donte Whitner, George Wilson or Bryan Scott. It will also be very important to know if Aaron Schobel is going to retire or not, as that could have huge implications for the rest of the defense.

There are also some things going on in Washington worth keeping an eye on as Albert Haynesworth is apparently unhappy about playing NT in the new 3-4. Also, a report last week indicated that the Redskins would still use a 4-3 at times and that Andre Carter would not be asked to drop back in coverage very often so perhaps he could keep his fantasy value and DE designation.

Larry Thomas: I'm watching the MLB battle in New York between Goff, Wilkinson and Dillard and I'm curious how much Tampa-2 the Giants will run. I'm also watching the OLB competition in Tennessee, where Rennie Curran could be a sleeper and I want to see how Washington adapts to the 3-4 and if they scheme like Pittsburgh. Other positional battles to follow include the Cleveland and Oakland safeties, and the KC, SD and Miami ILBs.

Anthony Borbely: I mentioned this in the sleepers thread already, but it bears repeating. The Buffalo and Detroit strong safety spots could both be fantasy gold. The problem is determining which safety to grab, especially in Detroit where no fewer than five players are competing for the job. The bad thing: the players are Marquand Manuel, Daniel Bullocks, Ko Simpson, C.C. Brown, and Marvin White. That does not instill much confidence and I will not be surprised if the starting strong safety is not currently on the roster. At least in Buffalo, the candidates (George Wilson, Bryan Scott, and Donte Whitner) can play a little.

The Giants MLB spot is another interesting battle. My gut says Goff will win, but it's pretty wide open right now. I don't think the winner of this job will have much fantasy value.

Gibril Wilson in Cincinnati is pretty interesting. They are playing him at free safety in OTAs and that doesn't make any sense. Wilson simply cannot cover anyone. I would have definite interest in Wilson fantasy wise if he was to start at strong safety.

The Jaguars have to decide which LBs will play in the nickel packages. My guess is Morrison and Smith, but it could be any combination. I really have not been impressed with Smith in coverage, but the coaches like him and he seems likely to be one of them.