When formulating a fantasy draft board, the most difficult position to predict in Individual Defensive Player (IDP) formats is defensive backs. There is a solid group of talented, high-end fantasy point-producing players among the Top 15, and then things begin to get swirly when projecting the position. Consistency, thy name is not defensive back. There are veterans with injury concerns such as Troy Polamalu, LaRon Landry and Antoine Winfield, who are above-average point producers when they can stay on the field. As well as youngsters such as T.J. Ward, Earl Thomas and Darian Stewart, who have flashed fantasy production but have yet to establish that they can be consistently counted on from week to week, let alone an entire season.
With the inconsistency of the position overall, it is a viable strategy to wait on defensive backs while fortifying the linebacker and defensive end positions before selecting defensive backs. Finding fantasy gold at the position late in the draft is absolutely possible, so let your leaguemates reach for the big names early while waiting to dive into the defensive back tank. Here are some sleepers that are more than capable of helping fantasy squads and will be available long after your squad is stocked with high-end linebackers and defensive linemen.
Tim Jennings, CB, Chicago:
Jennings will be lining up opposite Charles Tillman as a starting cornerback for the Bears, and, in the pass-happy NFC North (that feels strange to write), he will be tested often in 2012. Jennings is entering his third season in Chicago and posted a career-high in tackles last season with 76. He also added two interceptions, forced one fumble and recovered another. Jennings benefits from the Cover-2 defense that the Bears employ, and even though he is a small corner (5-foot-8, 185 pounds), he is a more-than-willing tackler in run support. With a current ranking from anywhere between the late-40s to the mid-60s, Jennings will be available late in drafts and will provide very solid fantasy production, especially in leagues that require starting cornerbacks.
Taylor Mays, SS, Cincinnati:
After washing out in San Francisco, Mays has found new life in Cincinnati. Mays was a favorite of former coach Mike Singletary for the 49ers. When Singletary was let go, it was only a matter of time before Mays was shown the door as well. At 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, he has linebacker size and the speed to play in the secondary. He has struggled in coverage at times but is a supreme athlete and a huge hitter. Mays will be entering his third season in the league and will have had an entire offseason to work with the Bengals coaching staff entering 2012. He has been taking snaps as the starting strong safety in Cincinnati so far in training camp and remains the odds-on favorite to land the spot. He will need to take better angles when pursuing the ball carrier and eliminate the missed tackles he has had when looking to land the big hit. He has tremendous upside, and the strong safety position for the Bengals has produced very nice fantasy value over the past few years. The low tackle numbers to-date in his career will allow him to drop on draft day and he will fall right into the savvy IDP owner’s lap at an excellent value as he possesses solid DB2 fantasy potential.
Kurt Coleman, SS, Phiadelphia:
Coleman had an up-and-down 2011 season before finally settling in towards the end of the campaign and finishing with 78 total tackles, four interceptions and a forced fumble. He was replaced as the starter beginning in Week 3 and really did not hit his stride until a 12-tackle game in Week 9 against Chicago. His high water game fantasy points wise actually came in Week 6 against Washington, when he picked off three passes and added seven total stops. Coleman had double-digit fantasy points in five of the final seven weeks of the season, making him the front runner to hold onto the strong safety position for the Eagles. The main reason he is a sleeper, rather than a higher ranked option in these rankings, is that he will have to hold off Jaiquawn Jarrett for the right to continue lining up on a weekly basis. A lot of folks had penciled in Jarrett as the Philadelphia strong safety last season, his rookie year, but the coaching staff does not appear in a hurry to get the youngster on the field full time. Coleman is a gritty, hard-working player who responded admirably after being benched last season. I don’t expect him to give up his spot without a fight. Veteran O.J. Atogwe was also brought on board this offseason but does not appear to be a threat to unseat Coleman and will serve as depth in the Eagles secondary. Whether or not Coleman holds down the position for the whole season or not, as long as he projects as the Week 1 starter, he is a nice late-round selection with DB2 production and a ceiling of a low-end DB1 in a fantasy-friendly Philadelphia secondary.
Tracy Porter, CB, Denver:
Porter has signed with the Broncos after spending his first four seasons with the New Orleans Saints. He had a career high four interceptions back in 2009, but has battled a litany of injuries throughout his career, causing him to miss 10 games over the past three seasons. When healthy, he is a solid cover corner who is a willing run-stopper, averaging six tackles per game the past three years. He is currently penciled in as the starting cornerback opposite Champ Bailey for the Broncos, and that means he will get thrown at a lot. That, in turn, means he will have plenty of chances to improve on the one interception he managed last season as well as having many more tackle opportunities. Porter has mostly been known as the guy who took a Peyton Manning interception back to the house in the Super Bowl, securing the Saints a victory over Indianapolis. He now has the chance to be known as Peyton Manning’s teammate who helped lead fantasy owners to victory as a late-round sleeper with sneaky good upside.
Alterraun Verner, CB, Tennessee:
With the departure of Cortland Finnegan to St. Louis, it is now the Jason McCourty and Verner show in Tennessee. Trust me – any owner lucky enough to have had Verner on their team in 2010, when he stepped in for an injured McCourty, knows what this kid is capable of. As a rookie two years ago, he amassed more than 100 total tackles, three interceptions and a forced fumble. With a healthy McCourty back in tow last season alongside Cortland Finnegan, Verner saw his totals drop to 47 stops and a single interception. Assuming that Verner is used in the role that Finnegan played while a Titan, he will get the opportunity to move inside to cover the slot when Tennessee employs its nickel package. Lining up inside will afford him the chance to step up in run support, and he showed as a rookie he is a capable tackler. He is a great sleeper pick late in fantasy drafts with the absolute upside of a DB1, and chances are that with his drop in totals last season that many owners will overlook this valuable fantasy commodity.
Richard Sherman, CB, Seattle:
Sherman played all 16 games as a rookie for the Seahawks last season, stepping in after Marcus Trufant and Walter Thurmand III were injured. The rookie out of Stanford more than held his own, racking up four interceptions and 55 total tackles. At 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds, Sherman is a physical presence in the Seattle secondary and has entrenched himself as a starting cornerback heading into 2012. Sherman utilizes his size in press coverage to jam receivers off the line, disrupting routes and allowing him to transition into coverage, where he has above-average speed and agility to stay with wideouts. He has already shown that he a nose for the ball and will continue to get better as he refines his overall game. Seattle has one of the most talented, young, emerging defensive backfields in the NFL, and Sherman is a vital part of that group. He is the forgotten man on fantasy draft day as Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas and Brandon Browner garner the most attention. Draft him late as a very solid, high-end DB2 who could easily end the season as a Top 15 fantasy defensive back.
Major Wright, SS, Chicago:
Drafted in the third round back in 2010 by the Bears, Wright worked himself into a starting role in 2011 and looks to build on the 57 tackles and three interceptions he posted last season. He will face a challenge from rookie Brandon Hardin to hold on to his position and will need to show more consistency in order to stay on the field. He has missed nine games over his first two seasons with shoulder and hamstring issues. When on the field, Wright utilizes his athleticism and instincts to be effective against both the run and the pass. The Bears have been looking for someone to step into and hold down the strong safety position for years, and Wright has the chance to be that player as he is a young, ascending talent on the fantasy landscape. He is a solid DB3 and has the potential and ceiling to be a very solid DB2.