5.) ILB Chris Borland, 49ers:
Playing time - Pro Bowler Navarro Bowman probably won’t be recovered from his gruesome ACL / MCL injury in time to start the season, so Borland should take his place next to Patrick Willis to start the season. If Borland plays like he did at Wisconsin, it will be hard to get him off the field even if Bowman is healthy. I expect Borland to get over half of the Niners defensive snaps this season.
Fantasy outlook - Borland is a tackling machine with the best instincts I’ve seen in college since Luke Keuchly. He’s short, but will be protected in the Niners 3-4 alignment allowing his to roam from sideline-to-sideline as a run-stuffer. Borland’s coverage and blitzing skills are underrated and he’s a big hitter with 15 forced fumbles in his college career. If he can stick in the starting lineup I think Borland is a 8+ fantasy points per game IDP, which makes him draftable.
Auction value - $2
2013 Statistical comparison - London Fletcher
6.) ILB Jeremiah George, Jets:
Playing time - I mentioned earlier how bad Browns ILB Craig Robertson was, but Jets starting ILB Demario Davis wasn’t much better. PFF had Davis ranked as the 7th worst ILB with a -14.5 grade over 1,077 snaps (9th in the league). The Jets could use a replacement for Davis and George has the toughness and tackling ability to take over.
Fantasy outlook - George was a tackling machine at Iowa St and played his best games against better competition (Oklahoma, Baylor). He’s short and will struggle to cover tight ends, but he can be a solid run-stuffer in the middle and has enough speed to get sideline-to-sideline. He’s probably going to go undrafted in most leagues this year, but he has a shot to finish in the top 12 IDPs. If he beats out Davis for the starting gig, he is worth drafting.
7.) LB Anthony Hitchens. Cowboys:
Playing time - There is no chance that Hitchens is on this list if Sean Lee didn’t get hurt, but he did. Undersized OLB Justin Durant (6’0, 240) will probably get the first shot at replacing Lee in the middle, but his strength is running down plays from the weak side. He struggles to shed blocks and doesn’t use his hands well, which doesn’t bode well for the MLB position. Hitchens is actually the same size with the same block shedding weakness, but he is more aggressive attacking plays head on and I think he’s a better fit in the middle than Durant. It’s not a great situation for the Cowboys either way and they don’t have the cap room to fix it so they are most likely stuck with either Durant or Hitchens or a re-tread veteran who gets released late in the preseason. As the starting MLB either player will put up respectable tackle stats and if Hitchens wins the job he deserves a spot on your watch list.
Fantasy outlook - Hitchens was a tackling machine at Iowa, with sideline-to-sideline speed and an aggressive mentality. He was a big hitter, though it may not translate to the NFL since he is undersized at this level. Hitchens is a max-effort guy who was so productive at the college level (236 tackles last 2 seasons) that he is worth keeping an eye on whether he ends up at MLB or WLB, though his fantasy ceiling is higher in the middle.
8.) OLB Jedeveon Clowney, Texans:
Playing time - The #1 overall pick in the draft isn’t going to sit the bench. Clowney will most likely be starting at OLB on the right side and unless he struggles should be on the field for most defensive snaps.
Fantasy outlook - Clowney was a DE in college, so there may be some rough stretches as he transitions to OLB, but he is an elite athlete with the size, speed and explosion to be a star OLB right off the bat. His tackle numbers won’t be that impressive, but it’s his ability to get to the QB that made him the #1 overall pick. With standard yahoo IDP scoring, a pass rush specialist needs at least one sack a game to be a viable fantasy starter. That’s an unrealistic expectation for a rookie, so there will be disappointing fantasy games for Clowney with only a couple of fantasy points, but it will be worth your patience for those 2 sack, 5-6 tackle, and a forced fumble games that he is definitely capable of.
9.) S Deone Bucannon, Cardinals:
Playing time – Last year’s starting SS Yeremiah Bell is no longer with the Cards, so the door is wide open for 1st round pick Deone Bucannon to step into the role. Assuming he can pick up the Cardinals defensive scheme quickly, he should be the starter in week 1 on the field for most of the defensive snaps.
Fantasy outlook – Of the top 40 NFL tacklers last season only 7 weren’t linebackers and all 7 of those were safeties. A top-tier safety can give you similar tackle numbers to a LB with the added bonus of interceptions and pass deflections. Bucannon was a missile in run defense at WSU and he is pretty solid in coverage as well. With stud MLB Daryl Washington suspended for the season, Bucannon could fill the void in the middle of the run defense and put up fantasy worthy stats as a rookie.
10.) S Calvin Pryor, Jets:
Playing time – Neither Dawan Landry nor Antonio Allen were very impressive last year as the Jets starting safeties. With Pryor already impressing HC Rex Ryan in OTAs, I’d be surprised if he’s not the starter in week 1.
Fantasy outlook - Pryor is a little raw in coverage, but he’s already a solid run stopper. He should be a force in the box for the Jets and despite needing some technique work in coverage, he’s talented enough to pick off a few passes as well. I think both Bucannon and Pryor will finished among the top 10 fantasy safeties.
11.) ILB Andrew Jackson, Colts:
Playing time - Undrafted free agent (2008) Jerrell Freeman had a mediocre season last year (0.3 grade in 977 snaps) as one of the Colts starting ILBs, but doesn’t have a ton of upside and I think Jackson could make a run at his job this year. Jackson is primarily a run stopper, so he’s probably just a 2-down player as a rookie, but if he wins the starting gig he could rack up plenty of tackles.
Fantasy outlook - If you like consistency in your IDPs, than Jackson warrants your attention. He’s a beast against the run and should be able to rack up 6-8 tackles per game if he wins the starting job, which I think he will. He’ll be on the sidelines on passing downs, so his upside is limited. If you play in a league with multiple IDP slots, keep an eye on Jackson’s pre-season performance.
12.) OLB Jordan Tripp, Dolphins:
Playing time – WLB Philip Wheeler was the worst 4-3 OLB in the league last year according to PFF. 2013 4th round pick, Jelani Jenkins, is probably next on the depth chart behind Wheeler, but Jenkins didn’t show much promise in 127 snaps as a rookie. Tripp should be in the mix and if he can win the job will be fantasy relevant.
Fantasy outlook – Tripp is the deepest sleeper on this list, but I thought he was one of the most impressive LBs at the Senior Bowl and he backed it up with a solid combine performance. Tripp has sideline-to-sideline speed and showed both coverage ability and natural pass rush moves in the Senior Bowl drills. It’s a long-shot but if he wins the WLB job he could put up fantasy worthy numbers.