Prior to the 2011 season, FantasySharks’ own James Elvins told anyone and everyone who would listen that San Francisco 49ers inside linebacker Navorro Bowman was set for a monstrous year. I’ll freely admit that I didn’t heed Elvins’ prediction, and not only did Bowman indeed post Top 5 fantasy numbers at his position on the heels of 111 solo tackles and 143 total stops, but he used that very linebacker to beat me in more than one instance over the course of the season. [Editor’s Note: I did heed James Elvins’ advice and couldn’t be happier.]
The moral of this little story is that in order to be successful in Individual Defensive Player (IDP) leagues, it’s incredibly important to identify and target players that could be set for breakout seasons before that explosion occurs and sends their fantasy price tag through the roof. Along those lines, and as a service to forward-thinking IDP owners far and wide, here’s a look at a couple of players at each of the “major” IDP positions (defensive line, linebacker and defensive back) who could fit that “breakout” bill in 2012.
Carlos Dunlap, DE, Cincinnati:
Many IDP pundits predicted a breakout year from Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Carlos Dunlap in 2011 after the 23-year-old racked up 9.5 sacks as a rookie in a part-time role in 2010. But whether due to nagging injuries or the heavy rotation employed by the Bengals up front, that breakout never materialized last season, with Dunlap managing only 23 tackles, 4.5 sacks, and finishing well outside the Top 50 players at his position in Default IDP Manor Scoring.
However, that big year from Carlos Dunlap may simply have been delayed a bit longer than many expected. The third-year pro enters this year healthy and atop the depth chart at left defensive end, and the departures of Jonathan Fanene and Frostee Rucker in free agency should mean an expanded role in the Bengals defense for Dunlap. Whether Dunlap truly makes a leap into fantasy DL1 territory may depend on how the 6-foot-6 280-pounder holds up against the run and how quickly he recovers from the sprained knee that has cast doubts over his availability for opening day. But at the very least, Dunlap represents a very interesting IDP DL3 pick with considerable upside.
Robert Quinn, DE, St. Louis:
Second-year pro Quinn moves into the starting lineup opposite Chris Long at defensive end for the Rams this year. While that ascension got off to something of a rocky start with Quinn’s arrest last month for DUI, there are still a number of reasons to believe that the former North Carolina star could be in for a big season in 2012.
The 6-foot-4 264-pounder has already shown that he has the talent to succeed when afforded the opportunity, tallying five sacks in limited duty as a rookie. With Chris Long drawing the lion’s share of attention from opposing offenses, Quinn should indeed be afforded that opportunity this year, and if he can hold the point of attack against the run and post decent tackle stats this season, there’s no reason to believe that Quinn doesn’t have an excellent shot at IDP DL2 numbers in his sophomore campaign.
Donald Butler, ILB, San Diego:
Much like Carlos Dunlap, the stars seemed to be aligning in 2011 for a big year from San Diego Chargers inside linebacker Donald Butler. However, the every down role that many expected never materialized for the third-year pro, and while Butler’s 96 total tackles last year were enough to place him squarely in IDP LB3 territory, it served as both something of a tease and potentially a harbinger of things to come.
A new day has dawned in San Diego with the promotion of former linebackers coach John Pagano to defensive coordinator, and with it has apparently come the opportunity to play on every down. Assuming that Butler seizes the day and makes the most of this opportunity, he may well be one the best value plays out there at the linebacker position in 2012, with the possibility of IDP LB1 production at a LB3 price tag according to myfantasyleague.com.
Erin Henderson, OLB, Minnesota:
Not all “breakouts” necessarily portend huge statistical seasons, but in an era where many IDP leagues require three starting linebackers, sometimes finding a player who can be a capable weekly starter for pennies on the dollar can be just as important to your fantasy team’s playoff chances. For teams looking for such a late-round gem may I recommend outside linebacker Erin Henderson of the Minnesota Vikings.
The Vikings jettisoned starting middle linebacker (and Erin’s brother) E.J. Henderson in the offseason, which paves the way for little brother to slide into a three-down role on a Vikings defense that should be on the field a ton in 2012. Granted, Erin Henderson may not post eye-popping statistical production, but given that the fifth-year pro is being selected outside the Top 50 players at his position there’s an outstanding chance that Erin Henderson will outperform his modest asking price and then some.
Jordan Babineaux, SS, Tennessee:
Predicting breakout seasons from fantasy defensive backs can be the ultimate exercise in IDP futility. But if there’s one player at the position for whom the writing is on the proverbial wall from an IDP standpoint, that player is likely strong safety Jordan Babineaux of the Tennessee Titans.
With Chris Hope no longer in Tennessee, the door has been opened for Babineaux to serve as the last line of defense for the Titans, and when afforded that opportunity in the past, Babineaux has taken advantage of it, topping 90 total tackles in each of the two seasons in which the ninth-year pro has seen significant playing time as a starter. Babineaux has also cracked the Top 25 fantasy performers at his position in each of those years. Given the strong possibility that this year will make it three, Babineaux is probably the best IDP option available at defensive back that many of your leaguemates have never heard of, as evidenced by his ADP of DB38.
Antoine Winfield, CB, Minnesota:
It’s somewhat difficult to label Minnesota Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield a “breakout” candidate given his rather lengthy resume, which includes five seasons with more than 90 total tackles and the fact that he led all IDP defensive backs in fantasy points per game a season ago. However, glance at the Top 40 IDP defensive backs being chosen in fantasy drafts this summer and you won’t see the 14th-year pro’s name listed, so Winfield is a breakout candidate of sorts, even if that breakout is occurring on the rebound.
Winfield’s 2011 campaign was ended after five games by a shoulder injury, and that combined with the three-time Pro Bowler’s age, have likely led many to steer clear from the 35-year-old. However, Winfield is reportedly healthy, and while the early plan this year is to ration Winfield’s snaps, those plans, like many in the NFL, have a tendency to go flying out the window once games begin to start. Even nickel corners can have significant IDP value in today’s pass-heavy National Football League, and as one of the surest tackling cornerbacks in the NFL and playing in an NFC North that includes the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions, Winfield should still see ample opportunities to post fantasy numbers that significantly outweigh his draft position.
There are a number of other individual defensive players that could be primed for breakout seasons, especially at defensive back, where the unpredictability of the position is outweighed only by the ridiculous number of options available.