Sure it's great to root for game-breaking touchdown catches from your fantasy wideouts, or power runs from your goal-line back, but if you don't also have individual defensive players on your league rosters, you're missing out on half the game. And is seeing your pass-rushing linebacker burst around an offensive tackle and fling the opposing quarterback to the ground, or your playmaking defensive back bring back a pick to the house any less thrilling than a great play by the offense? In our opinion, it's not. And in the event you agree with us, we've ranked the top individual defensive players by position below. Note that our rankings assume one point for a tackle, three for a sack, five for an interception and six for a touchdown.
1. Jason Taylor, DE, MIA
Ho-hum, another 60 total tackles and double-digit sacks. Eight passes defended? He had nine in both 2004 and 2005. Must've been a down year. Not exactly. At 32, Taylor was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Those stats, including 13.5 sacks, are phenomenal enough, but when you add the two interceptions he returned for touchdowns, it truly was a special year. The funny thing is, those interceptions were not out of character for Taylor; he has four others in his career and always has strong pass-defend numbers. At 6-foot-6, 255 pounds, Taylor is stringy for defensive end, but his body control, speed and quickness get him around the edge more often than not, and more often than most players: he's averaged nearly 13 sacks per year the past seven seasons. His closing ability and range not only help him reel in quarterbacks, but ball carriers of any stripe. His height and quickness help him tip passes and his ability to drop back into coverage like a 3-4 outside linebacker also helps with passes defended and interceptions. Miami re-signed both defensive tackles who eat up blockers next to him, Keith Traylor and Vonnie Holliday, so there's little reason to doubt that Taylor will continue to vie year for the top spot among IDP linemen.
2. Julius Peppers, DE, CAR
Peppers tried a new trick last year. He started hot instead of finishing hot. Beginning in Week 2, he had sacks in five consecutive games, totaling eight. In the first nine games he recorded 11 sacks. Finally, Peppers gave owners a reason to be confident in him early in the season. Of course, finishing with a career-high 13 sacks means only two came in the last seven games. All of which really is nitpicking since most linemen don't come close to delivering what Peppers does. He moves his rangy body faster than most offensive linemen can think and closes in a flash. Despite listing at 283, he can run with tight ends and has picked off his share of passes. That Superman scouting report translates to better numbers year after year than anyone, save possibly Jason Taylor, who might not have quite the same raw physical skills as Peppers but uses what he has more effectively. But not always: Peppers was the top IDP lineman in 2004, and threatens to be there again.
3. Aaron Kampman, DE, GB
Kampman pulled off quite a feat last year. The last two years he's been in on 80 tackles each year. That alone puts him in the year-end linemen Top 20. His usual smattering of five or six sacks was just a nice little bit of frippery to confirm that Kampman is in fact a defensive end. But last year, Kampman hauled off and led all linemen with 15.5 sacks, nearly 10 more than his previous career high. Whuh? It made for a fantasy year that, in terms of total fantasy points, most linebackers and defensive backs would drool over. Kampman was long the dirty little secret of the IDP lineman world: an all-tackle, no-sack mainstay who won't quicken your pulse, but fills the stat sheets every week-the heir to Kelly Gregg and Pat Williams. Adding the sacks made him a phenom. Can he do it again? Kampman isn't fast or quick, doesn't really have the brute strength to take on offensive linemen and isn't the most versatile athlete. What he lacks in gifts he makes up for in desire, motor, technique and intelligence. While we can't imagine he'll match last year's sack output, it's clear he's developed his game enough to beat his previous career high of 6.5 sacks in the coming season. With the tackle base near 80, just eight or nine sacks gets Kampman into elite company.
4. Aaron Schobel, DE, BUF
You're not excited about Aaron Schobel. You're reading about him, but unless you're from Buffalo, Schobel doesn't quicken the pulse. Maybe that's because, as fine an athlete as he is with the range and strength to be a perennial fantasy all-star, Schobel is a classic trench soldier. Sure, he's got plenty of physical talents, but it's recognition and the motivation to fight through traffic and get to the ball that make him dangerous. Quarterbacks can tell you, he's quite good at that. After a somewhat slow start in the first four weeks last season, Schobel had sacks in 10 of his next 11 games, totaling 13 in that span. He finished the season with 14, third-best in the league. It was actually a down year as his tackle total, in the 70s the previous two years, dipped to 53. Want another nice streak? Schobel hasn't missed a game in his six-year career. With Darwin Walker brought in opposite Larry Tripplett, Schobel has a stronger set of tackles eating up blocks on the inside. His desire, intelligence and ability will do the rest for one of the best ends in the game.
5. Will Smith, DE, NO
Here's an upside bet for 2007. Smith has just three NFL seasons under his belt, and he's generally gotten better in each of them. He missed two games last year, but still notched a career-high 10.5 sacks and was on pace to approach 2005's tackle total. There's nothing to worry about with that bruised knee. He missed just one game with the injury; the second missed game came when the team held him out of regular-season finale for rest. At 6-3, 282, Smith is a beast who can lower his center of gravity and push through walls. What gives him such an edge is that he can move that big body with some pace to track down ball carriers. More important, he has highly polished technique, especially for someone his age. With Charles Grant playing the opposite end position, Smith is poised to excel yet again this year.
6. Leonard Little, DE, STL
Unlike some of the other big-name sack artists, Little achieves his double-digit sack seasons without much help. Since Grant Wistrom left for Seattle in 2004, Little hasn't had a consistent threat opposite him at the other end position. Little struggled, in fact, when Wistrom left, but some of that might have had to do with his legal problems. A high-motor, extremely athletic monster, Little is aggressive in the pass rush, which nets plenty of quarterbacks but often takes him out of position against the run. He can match guys like Jason Taylor and Aaron Kampman in solo tackles, but usually turns in single-digit assists compared to their 20 or 30 assist efforts. Still, he's one of the few players for whom you can predict double-digit sacks with confidence, and you can't argue with a track record that puts him in the year-end Top 20 year after year.
7. Terrell Suggs, DE, BAL
Suggs has been remarkably consistent the past three years. His total tackles have ranged from 60 to 69 and his sack count has hiccupped between eight and 10.5. His solo tackle numbers have been even more scary: 45, 46 and 46. What's more, he's finished the last two seasons strong, including 6.5 sacks in the last seven games of 2006. He's even done it regardless of whether Baltimore lines up in a 3-4 or 4-3 alignment. Either way, Suggs puts his first step, explosiveness and closing ability to work. In addition to the solid tackle numbers and strong sack tally, Suggs is athletic enough to do well with the little extras, like 14 fumbles forced in his four-year career and three interceptions. The final happy fact about the disruptive force that is Terrell Suggs: he's never missed a game in his career.
8. Michael Strahan, DE, NYG
How big is your bench? If there's space for an extra defensive lineman, Strahan becomes a much better, and safer, pick. He is the most complete defensive end in the game, but he enters the season 35-years old after missing seven games last year to a joint sprain in his right foot. He re-injured the foot when he returned in December, but no surgery was needed, and it was expected to heal in the offseason. Still, that makes 15 games in the last three years Strahan has missed. The good news is that when Strahan misses games, it is not ticky-tack, week-to-week stuff that's hard to prepare for. He's either in or out, giving owners a chance to replace him. Thus the extra bench spot: the points-above-replacement he offers when he's in the lineup offset whatever's lost when your second stringer is used. And Strahan does score when he plays. In 2004 and 2006 when he missed significant games, he still turned in exceptional per-game averages. Plus, it's not guaranteed he'll miss time this year; he played 16 games in 2005. So take Strahan knowing he might miss some time, but when he plays you've got a defensive end every bit as good as Jason Taylor or Julius Peppers.
9. Robert Mathis, DE, IND
Used to be, Mathis had the sacks but not the tackles to be a worthy IDP. As a passing down specialist in 2004, he made an impressive 10.5 sacks, but his 36 total tackles weren't enough for fantasy owners, even if an outstanding number for someone not playing every down. But come 2005, Indianapolis plugged the undersized speed freak into the standard package, and Mathis not only totaled 11.5 sacks but also 54 tackles- all in just 13 games. His 65 total tackles in 16 games last season show Mathis has clearly learned how to support the run. The same pace and body control that get him through to quarterbacks, also help him change directions and track down runners. Mathis spent time on injury reports last year with ankle, knee and hip dings, which partly account for his slightly low 9.5 sacks. Indy's defense has undergone many offseason changes, but Anthony McFarland is still tying up blockers as the defensive tackle alongside Mathis, so there should be no changes in Mathis' production.
10. Derrick Burgess, DE, OAK
Burgess barely played for Philadelphia during the first four years of his career, in part due to season-erasing injuries in 2002 and 2003. Come 2005, he signed with Oakland and led the league with 16 sacks. Sure, he came out of nowhere, but last year Burgess proved he's no one-season wonder, turning in a slightly less stellar season, but one that's still awfully solid for an IDP lineman. Burgess does it in part with his speed and athleticism, but also extend-o arms and quick hands that expertly keep blockers away from his body. With such strong technique and fantastic drive, the undersized end has developed into a leading threat, one of the few on Oakland's defense.
11. Osi Umenyiora, DE, NYG
Not too many linemen were better than Umenyiora in 2005, when he recorded 70 total tackles and 14.5 sacks. He was topped only by teammate Michael Strahan and Jason Taylor, which is some amazing company to keep. But last year Umenyiora played just 11 games, including a half of one, because of a hip flexor injury. When he was in the lineup, he played fairly well but not up to his standard. That partly had to do with Strahan's absence -- it helps to have Strahan drawing the spotlight on the other end of the line. Umenyiora's lone sack after returning from injury in December came in the only game Strahan played over that stretch. Still, Umenyiora showed in 2004 that he can be a star without Strahan, and he was solid last year with or without his teammate. He gets off the line fast and uses a variety of moves including a surprisingly effective bull rush. Given a healthy full season, Umenyiora has the tools to succeed. He'll be elite if he's got his buddy playing alongside him.
12. Justin Smith, DE, CIN
Got your lunchpail? Oh wait, Smith just snatched it from you. This guy shows up every day, every week, every year. He's missed one game in six years, and it was during his rookie season. He's never turned in fewer than 53 total tackles, including a career-high 81 last year. Every year he's had between five and 8.5 sacks. You know exactly what you're getting from Smith, and he always gives it to you. Funny thing is, he's not doing it on pure talent but on a relentless motor. He's just a little light for defensive end, so he doesn't make his trade on strength, but he's not fast, either. Smith just works hard, and the proof is in exploits like an impressive three games last season featuring double-digit tackles. Few are this consistent at such a high level.
13. Kyle Vanden Bosch, DE, TEN
Vanden Bosch's career has been a lot like that of Derrick Burgess, who spent four fruitless, oft-injured years in Philadelphia before changing teams and turning in two stellar campaigns. Vanden Bosch toiled in Arizona for four years, often injured, and then became a star in Nashville in 2005 with 65 total tackles and 12.5 sacks. His sack count dropped by nearly a half to 6.5 last year, but he increased his tackles to remain fantasy viable. He had shoulder surgery prior to last season, but that certainly didn't stop him from making 75 total tackles and playing 16 games (for the third year in a row). He might never hit 12.5 sacks again, but with 140 total tackles the last two years, it's clear Vanden Bosch only needs a handful of sacks to be worth drafting.
14. John Abraham, DE, ATL
Let's pile on the cons. Abraham has played 16 games just three times in seven NFL campaigns. Last year wasn't one of them: he played eight due to a groin problem that required midseason abdominal surgery. He returned to full-time duty and registered just one sack in the season's six remaining games, and 14 fantasy points in that span. The snake-bit star also tore ligaments in his right thumb, but played through the injury. During the offseason, opposite end Patrick Kerney left in free agency, and stud tackle Rod Coleman was injured and could miss the beginning of the season. There have got to be an awful lot of pros to counteract that list of cons, and there are. Foremost is Abraham's tantalizing talent. A bit undersized at end, Abraham has exceptional body control and initial burst. He's a phenomenal athlete with matching instincts and feel for the game. Some without as much talent get the most of their ability through hard work. When Abraham can get the most of his body, there's hardly anyone better on the field. To make up for losing Kerney, the Falcons drafted Jamaal Anderson, who should go a long way toward replenishing the line. The final word on Abraham? When he plays 16 games, he makes at least 10 sacks and 58 total tackles. Pray for health and reap the rewards.
15. Charles Grant, DE, NO
After averaging more than nine sacks per season his first three years and ranking as the third-best lineman in the 2004 year-end standings, Grant fell off the side of the earth in 2005. It's hard to believe someone as talented as the big 290-pounder made just 2.5 sacks with Will Smith and Darren Howard around to occupy blockers. He still made 62 total tackles, and linemen only need 80 fantasy points to crack the Top 20, but with such paltry sacks Grant was a colossal disappointment. He redeemed himself last year, however, recording a similar number of tackles and kicking the sacks up to six. More respectable, but not the hot-shot stats we once expected from him. Will Grant ever be the double-digit sack threat he once was, or is he now in the Justin Smith mold? Either way, he's at least in the second string of fantasy linemen and only worth it if your league runs that deep.
16. Bertrand Berry, DE, ARI
Here's a new phrase: "4-3 defense with 3-4 tendencies." New coach Ken Whisenhunt describes his defense that way, and it sounds like Berry will be used as an outside linebacker at times. That likely means more tackling but a drop in sacks. Berry can handle the position because he is a demon in pursuit, a highly mobile animal who never gives up on a play. Perhaps bigger than the possible change in how he's used is his health. He missed eight games in 2005 to a torn left pectoral muscle and six more last year with a torn right biceps muscle. He had surgery to repair the latter and has skipped some minicamps because the team is being cautious to make sure he's healthy for 2007. His prior statistical profile (few total tackles but double-digit sacks when he plays 16 games) goes out the window if the team really does use him as an outside linebacker for a significant amount of time. Remember, though, this is just "3-4 tendencies," so a healthy Berry should largely be the Berry we already know.
17. Bryan Thomas, OLB/DE, NYJ
Perhaps no one benefited more than Thomas when coach Eric Mangini instituted a 3-4 defense. Thomas, who never showed the technique or refinement necessary to be successful as a down lineman, stepped back, stood up as an outside linebacker and used his mobility and athleticism to be an intriguing pick in leagues that still listed him as a lineman. Fewer leagues will do that this year, but the Jets have the personnel to switch between the 3-4 and 4-3, so his listing here is somewhat legit. His amazing 2006 season included just two games with fewer than four fantasy points, and he had three in each of those. That's what happens when you have 77 tackles spread over all games. He has to prove that last year wasn't a fluke, but what a year it was. Would you turn your nose up at the No. 6 lineman from last year?
18. Robert Geathers, DE, CIN
The upside bet on Geathers hinges on whether he can play more against the run. Consider him Robert Mathis in the years before Mathis became an every down end. Geathers is 6-3, 265, so he's undersized, and everything that goes with that: He finds his success on the move using speed and dexterity to get quarterbacks and other ball carriers. If he can improve his recognition and technique, he'll start pushing Bryan Robinson to the sidelines more. He's already shown great improvement, turning in 42 total tackles in 2006 after 33 in 2005. Consider that Dwight Freeney has never totaled as many tackles as Geathers did last season, and you have to consider Geathers on draft day.
19. Chike Okeafor, DE, ARI
How's this for consistency? In the last four years, Okeafor has had 8, 8.5, 7.5 and 8.5 sacks. His total tackle numbers have been almost as level: 47, 53, 51 and 52. More of the same from Okeafor? Not exactly. With new coach Ken Whisenhunt talking about shading his 4-3 alignment with some 3-4 tendencies, Okeafor might slot back as an outside linebacker at times, which traditionally means more tackling and potential for plays like interceptions, but fewer sacks. Okeafor is nimble and plays with an extreme motor, but his game has more to do with using his body for power and using his hands to keep blockers away from him. That's not your classic linebacker, but Okeafor is versatile. It's unclear how often these "tendencies" will come into play, so we're banking on a proven talent who continues to deliver. He's played 16 games five years in a row and had a run last year of five consecutive games with a sack. You can't ignore the man's ability.
20. James Hall, DE, STL
Hall will fly under the radar in most IDP drafts. Scan his career stats and you'll see an awful lot of years with five sacks or fewer that will scare away most fantasy owners. In fact, his breakout 2004, during which he posted 11.5 sacks, is the only campaign with more than five sacks. But consider his struggles with injuries in 2005 when he missed two games. Yes, he finished with just five sacks, but he matched a career high with 59 total tackles. Then he missed nine games in 2006 with a shoulder injury. He was on pace for 11.5 sacks and 55 total tackles, which would have placed him in the Top 15 of the year-end linemen standings. So it seems his 2004 was for real- he just needs to stay healthy. A speed rusher who frustrates blockers with extreme mobility, Hall moves to St. Louis, where he'll be matched up on the other side of the line with Leonard Little, who'll draw far more attention. A healthy Hall (St. Louis felt confident enough to trade for him) playing with the space Little creates is a bet worth taking in deeper linemen drafts.
Tamba Hali, DE, KC
John Henderson, DT, JA
C Simeon Rice, DE, TB
Trevor Pryce, DE, BAL
Ty Warren, DE, NE
1. London Fletcher-Baker, MLB, WAS
Who's to argue with consistency? Fletcher-Baker has been the best IDP in each of the last two seasons and was third among linebackers the year before. We're never one of those just to reprint last year's year-end rankings, but there's reason to love Fletcher-Baker this year as well. In nine years he has never missed a game. He can play in any package, on any down, with the recognition skills, block-slipping, range and sure tackling to make every snap count. He's remarkably consistent week to week, never contributing fewer then seven fantasy points in a game last year, and delivers even with nagging injuries, such as at the beginning of 2005. He tackles like few others, often adding 50 or more assists to roughly 100 solo tackles per year; in seven years as a starter he's dipped below 130 total tackles just once. None of this is to say that there aren't caveats. There's always uncertainty when a defender changes teams, but even here there are positives. Fletcher-Baker goes to a Washington team whose defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams, was his head coach in Buffalo in 2002 and 2003. Granted, it was under Williams that Fletcher-Baker stopped intercepting passes, but last year he showed the speed to cover routes well enough to pick off a career-high-tying four passes. Even at 32 he continues to bring a complete package as a linebacker.
2. Zach Thomas, MLB, MIA
Here he is, the best tackler in the NFL. Thomas has averaged 10 total tackles per game in each of the last six years save for 2002 when he missed the mark by just four tackles. At least 54 assists in each of those six years is a good reason why. With all those tackles, Thomas delivers fantasy points game in and game out. The most notable risk with Thomas is that he's played 16 games in less than half of his 11 NFL seasons, and he'll be 34 entering this year. On the flip side, last season he posted a career high in total tackles (165) and tied a career high in sacks (3) thanks to his first 16-game season since 2002. He's had at least a piece of a sack in all 11 of his campaigns and an interception in 10 of them. He's never had more than three sacks or three interceptions in a year but does just enough of that icing, guaranteed, to turn those tackles into a very special cake. If you're playing in a tackle-based system, it's Zach Thomas's world, and we're just living in it.
3. Keith Bulluck, WLB, TEN
You want Bulluck on your team. In five years as a starter, he's made at least 125 tackles and one sack every year. It's usually more like 3-5 sacks. He's made an interception every year as a pro. Bulluck gets around the field so easily and makes plays because he's fluid, takes excellent angles and uses his hands effectively to wrap, strip, catch and shed. And he does what fantasy owners love: he plays every week and plays consistently well. He had fewer than eight total tackles just three times last year. Bonus: Bullock has scored five touchdowns in seven professional seasons. He's never ranged into the stratosphere as the top linebacker in the league, but he's come close, is always Top 10, if not Top 5, and is as consistent as they come.
4. Donnie Edwards, WLB, KC
There is a lot to like about Donnie Edwards. He's one of the few men in the NFL to have recorded 100 total tackles in each of the last 10 seasons. He has missed just two games in 11 years, and they were both in the last century. That's 137 consecutive regular-season games, exactly what you want from a do-everything linebacker who you can just draft and play, knowing he will be there week in and week out scoring big. In fact, he turned in fewer than five fantasy points just once last year. Edwards is a bit undersized and can get swallowed up by big linemen, but his game is all about speed, range, elusiveness, intelligence, experience and instincts. He's also a terror in coverage, picking off 17 passes in his five years in San Diego. Despite weighing just 227, his tackling skills are strong with more total tackles in each of the last four years than in any previous year. Last year was a down year with "just" 142 total tackles, but he did miss most of the preseason with a back problem and started slowly. This year he's back with Kansas City, where he excelled before moving to San Diego. It's a different system, of course, but Kansas City coach Herman Edwards oversaw Jonathan Vilma's ascendance in New York as coach of the Jets.
5. DeMeco Ryans, MLB, HOU
Ryans beat out Sam Cowart in the preseason last year for the starting middle spot and never looked back. The defensive rookie of the year, Ryans posted a league-leading 125 solo tackles and was second to Zach Thomas with 155 total tackles, including an amazing nine games with double-digit tackles. If you've got a ball in your hands, you don't want Ryans on your tail. He's relentless, forceful and intelligent, always in the right place and determined, but also refined. His sprinkling of sacks and interceptions show he is as comfortable rushing, whether from a three-point stance or standing up, as he is making plays in coverage. Scouts agree with what those stats say. While Ryans obviously lacks a track record, he also has the potential to improve from his third standing among IDPs last year to the top of the list.
6. Mike Peterson, MLB, JAC
Do you think Peterson is healthy? If so, draft him now. In eight NFL seasons, Peterson has had two years during which he suffered a major injury and missed a significant number of games. In every other year he has made 100 total tackles and been an IDP stud. Unfortunately, one of those injury years was last year, as he played just five games after tearing a pectoral muscle. Peterson has already been shining in voluntary offseason workouts, so we're not too worried about his recovery. What's to worry about a guy who at 235 pounds can effectively handle blockers and has great range and speed? Peterson can get to the quarterback (11 sacks in his last two full seasons) and is good in coverage (three seasons with at least three INT). When he puts those skills together with his tackling ability, Peterson vies to be the best IDP in football. Just make sure his health is progressing, and draft with confidence.
7. Keith Brooking, MLB, ATL
It really doesn't matter where you put Brooking-he always succeeds. After three stellar years as Atlanta's middle linebacker from 2001 to 2003, he moved to the weak side and predictably logged fewer tackles, but the position switch worked awfully well with his overplaying style. The past few years, he has switched between the middle and weak side spots due to teammates' injuries. With Ed Hartwell gone, Brooking slides back to the middle this year where he can use his brute strength and ability to shed blocks to get through traffic to the ball. He can pass rush and still has speed to play man coverage, as a steady stream of sacks and interceptions attest. With six consecutive 100-tackle seasons, Brooking is a Top 10 pick. His durability (six straight years without missing a game) and playmaking seal the deal.
8. Antonio Pierce, MLB, NYG
After the really big names are gone, and even before a bunch of them, Pierce provides everything needed from an IDP linebacker. Since becoming a starter in 2004 he's turned in one Top 10-caliber season after another. He missed three games in 2005 and just missed 100 total tackles by the narrowest of margins (99), but has had 100 every other year as a starter and at least one sack and one pick. Like his non-marquee name, Pierce isn't flashy but plays at a consistently strong level. He's undersized but moves quickly and fluidly. Pierce doesn't take chances, working well against the run and the pass, in coverage and the rush. Wait a few rounds, then take a Pro Bowler just about as good as all the linebackers taken before him.
9. Ray Lewis, MLB BAL
Lewis entered last year coming off surgery to repair his hamstring and needing help with blockers from his defensive tackles. Both situations resolved themselves nicely, and Lewis turned in a Top 10-caliber year, at least as far as points per game are concerned. Lewis missed two games because of a pool of blood that caused stiffness in his back and had to be drained. Even with that problem, Lewis had the mobility to snag two interceptions and the power to make five sacks, but his tackling diminished. In reaching 103 total tackles last year, his fewest when playing at least 14 games, Lewis turned in a season of consistently strong games but few amazing ones. He's entering his 12th season and has had injury problems the past few years, but so long as he plays at least 13 games, Lewis is worth a pick. His superhuman athleticism might now be merely mortal, but he has size, incredible know-how and instincts. He plays with an aggression and intensity that may know no parallel. He needs to re-establish trust with fantasy owners who've expected the league's top IDP, but who've gotten an injury prone, middle-of-the-road option. Late in a draft, Lewis offers a ton of value.
10. Nick Barnett, MLB, GB
Barnett has been a mainstay among IDP linebackers since his 2003 rookie campaign. He's turned excellent athleticism, mobility and ability on the move into four consecutive 100-tackle seasons. Last year his numbers were down, as he missed a game with a broken hand and had six games of five total tackles or less. Barnett is below the elite even in his best tackling years, so it's good that in each of his four pro seasons he's had at least one pick and one sack. Maybe that dip in tackling had to do with rookie A.J. Hawk vacuuming up all the tackles from the weak side. That little bit of uncertainty drops Barnett a touch, but he's been a consistent performer throughout his career and delivered a Top-20 level of points per game last year, so we're not that concerned.
11. Derrick Brooks, WLB, TB
A man can lose some of his speed, agility and strength, but as he ages he gains experience and keener instincts. And it's not like Brooks is Old Man Linebacker- with 12 years experience, he has just one more year on the job than guys like Zach Thomas, Donnie Edwards and Ray Lewis. OK, they're all old for the rough and tumble play of an NFL linebacker, but it's not like Brooks is that much older. At 6-foot, 235, Brooks obviously relies on his speed, and he still has plenty of it. Between that, the knowledge of his defensive scheme that comes from experience and the lack of wasted motion, Brooks is always where he needs to be and usually doesn't miss a tackle or pick when opportunities arise. Wait, did we say Brooks is old? Well, he hasn't missed a game in his 12-year career. His impeccable care for his body has translated into fantasy stats over and over again: Brooks has reached 100 total tackles in each of the last 11 years, and he's had an interception in every one of them.
12. Andra Davis, ILB, CLE
Cleveland's switch to the 3-4 hasn't much bothered Davis. He continues to pour in the fantasy points at a clip that places him just outside the Top 10 most years. Davis plays like a smaller man. At 254, he should be a bull locking horns with linemen, but instead makes his trade with athleticism, deceptive quickness and by slipping blocks. He obviously has strong instincts and tackling skills, but tackles at a rate just below the elite, more like Nick Barnett and Keith Brooking than Zach Thomas and DeMeco Ryans. Davis' playmaking is certainly evident in four consecutive years with a sack and three straight with an interception, but again below the elites. His incredible drive powers his game, but keep a watchful eye on him early in the season. He missed the last two games of 2006 to a concussion, which is always a worry, both mentally and physically, for a man whose value is in hurling his body at moving objects.
13. James Farrior, ILB, PIT
Farrior is one of the NFL's most fundamentally sound all around linebackers, which translates to solid fantasy returns most years. He has the strength and technique to deal with blockers, the reading and instincts to fill holes fast, and the speed and range to cover the field and opposing backs and tight ends underneath. He's totaled 100 tackles four times, and in 2004 when he had 94 total tackles he added three sacks and four interceptions, showing he has the playmaking ability to fill the stat sheet. He has some nagging back problems, and is 32, but he's been a Top-25 linebacker year in and year out for a while now. Pittsburgh had some turnover on its defense but Farrior's left side (Clark Haggans, Casey Hampton, Aaron Smith) returns intact. Farrior usually gets it done, as just one game with fewer than six fantasy points last year attests.
14. Lance Briggs, WLB, CHI
Whatever team Briggs plays for, whether he stays with the Bears or is traded, he should keep doing what he does best. That's making 100 tackles with an interception or two, and often a sack and even a touchdown. Briggs is excellent in space and in pursuit, which makes his coverage game among the best in linebackerdom. He is also pretty big for a weak side linebacker and can use his hands well to keep blockers off of him. It's tough to project a player without knowing what team or scheme he'll play in, but it's not as hard with Briggs considering his scouting and consistency: he's finished each of the last three years in the Top 25 of IDP linebackers and rarely has a weak game, none with fewer than five fantasy points last year. His preseason ranking suffers only due to the uncertainty of where he'll play.
15. Brian Urlacher, MLB, CHI
For a while, Urlacher looked like he'd be the No. 1 IDP linebacker every year for the rest of his career. Well, maybe not, but on the field it's hard to find his equal. Urlacher is as big as a defensive end but just as fast as smaller linebackers. When a hole opens, that speed combines with amazing football instincts and vision to put him in it as soon as it appears. Still, the proof is in the pounding. Although he notched 141 total tackles last season, his most since 2002, Urlacher, as explosive as he is, doesn't usually tackle as much as the leading linebackers. He usually makes up for it with five or more sacks, but last year he inexplicably had no sacks whatsoever. He did set career highs in assists (49) and interceptions (3), however. One assumes those sacks will return this year, and that the expected loss of Lance Briggs means Urlacher will pick up a few more tackles. Keep in mind, though, that defensive tackle Tank Johnson likely will be suspended for most, if not all, of the year, and that Urlacher had a horrible year in 2003, the last time he didn't have adequate defensive line protection.
16. Gary Brackett, MLB, IND
Plenty of changes have occurred around him since the Colts won the Super Bowl, but Brackett remains constant, in more ways than one. He remains the starting middle linebacker, and since he took on that job in 2005, Brackett has been a great fantasy play. He's made at least 120 total tackles in each of the two years as a starter and can often be counted on to make a pick or three. Even better, he reached 120 tackles in 14 games last year, and only twice had fewer than seven tackles in a game. Brackett's pretty small for a middle linebacker but makes up for it with speed and has an uncanny ability to keep blockers off of him so he can slip through to make the tackle. That speed is partly why he totaled six interceptions in the three previous years combined, though he didn't have any last year, or sacks, either. Losing the highly mobile Cato June next to him means Brackett might poach some tackles from his weak side. He fought through leg injuries last year, including a hamstring one that cost him two games, so the big caveat here is whether Brackett can keep his wheels under him for the duration.
17. A.J. Hawk, WLB, GB
Hawk's teammate Nick Barnett was also a rookie phenom, but Hawk might have had an even better freshman season. Hawk was a more prolific tackler (119 total tackles to 112, granted, with one fewer game) and reached the quarterback more often (3.5 sacks to two). Barnett picked off three passes, and Hawk just two, but it's clear that Hawk has that facet to his game. Just as Barnett improved with one year under his belt, don't be surprised if Hawk takes a step up, possibly into the Top 10 among linebackers. Why? Not just because of the statistical similarity to his teammate, but for his toughness, smarts and aggression. And also because Hawk had three consecutive double-digit tackling games in late November. He'll have to improve his consistency; he had some barren games last season. Although he has decent speed and range, and exceptional recognition skills, Hawk is not a classic weak sider, especially in coverage. Therefore, it might not be wise to expect another pair of interceptions, but with his strength and great angles, Hawk could easily improve on that sack total.
18. Shawne Merriman, OLB, SD
Pick a monster, any monster. The Hulk, the Thing, Frankenstein. Merriman is bigger, stronger, faster and meaner. He led the league with an impressive 17 sacks in just 12 games. He's possibly the most exciting on-field defender in the league, but he's dangerously close to being a tweener who falls through the fantasy cracks. As an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme, he doesn't have nearly the tackle base to guarantee his fantasy viability. Whereas a typical fantasy stud makes at minimum 100 total tackles in a season, Merriman's pass rushing duties mean he'll peak in the 70s or 80s. That means he needs tons of sacks each year to be a decent option at linebacker (if he qualifies at lineman in your league, he's off-the-charts studly). OK, so last year he managed that, but how much of that was a result of the steroids that earned him a four-game suspension? He did make 8.5 of those sacks, a neat and clean half of his total, in five post-suspension games, but he was still potentially benefiting from an offseason, preseason and early season of steroid use. The true test will come after an offseason of honest workouts. Just how much of a beast is Merriman really? He had minor offseason shoulder surgery, but that's not expected to do much more than make him miss minicamps. Truth be told, he's got plenty to learn in pass coverage and play recognition- he could get better. That's how exceptional his physical exploits have been. Exceptional is the right word for Merriman: it would be truly exceptional for him to sustain the level of sacking required to be a viable fantasy linebacker given his tackle base, but so far Merriman has been the exception.
19. Jonathan Vilma, ILB, NYJ
What happened to Vilma? In 2005, he was half of a fantasy point away from tying London Fletcher-Baker for the top spot among all IDPs. Last year in a new 3-4 alignment he dropped to just outside the year-end linebacker Top 25. That's still treating fantasy owners fairly well, but absolutely not paying off for where he was drafted. The problem? Vilma weighs 230 and excels at free ranging and using his speed. In a 3-4 alignment, there's less protection in front of him to keep blockers off him. The good news is that Vilma turned in a decent enough year, and the slightly better news is that the Jets don't use the 3-4 exclusively. He's a bit of a risk this year, but his talent and performance even in a disadvantageous situation are hard to ignore. If your league goes this deep, Vilma can deliver good value.
20. Lofa Tatupu, MLB, SEA
See him there, just inside the Top 20 in each of his two years in the NFL? Tatupu doesn't tackle enough to join the elites, but his solid production and consistent playmaking have made for a winning combination for fantasy owners. He's aggressive, driven, intelligent and tough, with excellent recognition and tackling skills that portend well for his total tackles in years to come. He overcomes the lack of great size or speed through his motor and instincts, so it's hard to say if he'll match the four sacks and three interceptions he set as benchmarks in his rookie season. It will be more opportunity than exceptional physical ability that determines his playmaking totals through the years.
21. Ernie Sims, WLB, DET
Sims was the final member of the 2006 draft class to make it into the Top 25 among IDP linebackers last year, behind DeMeco Ryans and A.J. Hawk. That makes the trio the best linebacker draft class in quite some time. Sims turned in a better tackling year than Hawk, and that's not too surprising considering how much smaller (232) he is and how much more speed and range he has. What is surprising is that Sims was unable to turn in any playmaking in coverage (no picks and just one pass defended) and logged just half a sack in 16 games. He should improve to be Hawk's superior in coverage and start to get at quarterbacks given his big motor, closing skills and the ability to play larger than his size. Also note that he garnered all those tackles essentially in 15 games, racking up just one tackle in an irrelevant Week 17 game. Other than that tame final contest, Sims had just one game with fewer than five tackles, making him a good deal more consistent than Hawk.
22. Karlos Dansby, MLB, ARI
It's never been physical talent holding Dansby back. Dansby has the size, strength and technique to deal with blockers, so much so that Arizona has played him on the strong side the first three years of his career and he still managed to average 5.7 sacks per year. His secret weapons, perhaps, are great speed for his size and phenomenal explosiveness. He can close on anyone, from quarterbacks to ball carriers to receivers. So what's a guy from the strong side doing on this list? Dansby's been moved to the middle for 2007. He couldn't make enough tackles on the strong side to deserve fantasy attention, but in the middle his freakish ability should pay ample dividends. But there's the rub. Dansby has been inconsistent and needs to keep his head in the game to take advantage of those talents. Here's the pick you can wait on, because your rival owners won't see him coming.
23. Demorrio Williams, WLB, ATL
Here's one Falcon who's happy the team is moving on from the Ed Hartwell era. What on earth were the Falcons thinking moving a successful weak side linebacker in 2005 who weighs 232 pounds to the strong side? With Hartwell gone, and Keith Brooking in the middle, Williams can go back to his natural position, where his gifts in speed, range and closing ability can put him in position to make play after play. As a weak side starter in 2005, he netted at least six total tackles every week, except for Weeks 16 and 17, when most leagues were already finished playing. All told, he showed how his speed can produce in tackling (127 total) and coverage (two picks) and how his college experience at defensive end (!) could produce on the rush (three sacks).
24. D.J. Williams, MLB, DEN
If Williams is indeed the man to slot into the middle now that Al Wilson is gone, he's due for a big jump in value. After a fantastic 2004 rookie season on the weak side, Williams has played mostly on the strong side, where fantasy points are few and far between. His value rebounded at times last year when he and Ian Gold switched between weak and strong sides, but any time spent on the strong side killed his fantasy value. Now Williams will have a lot more space with which to work. He might actually be better mixing it up in the box with blockers, but he excelled on the weak side, which offers the most space of any linebacker position. Moving to the middle shouldn't be a problem-so long as he has the smarts for the position. We know he has the strength, quickness and technique. Check in during training camp to make sure he's the man in the middle, then give him a look on draft day.
25. Tedy Bruschi, ILB, NE
Offseason rumors had Bruschi retiring, but if a stroke can't stop him, unfounded rumors certainly won't, either. Bruschi played the first three months of last season in a cast after breaking his left wrist and still managed to be close to the linebacker Top 25, mostly on tackling but also with 1.5 sacks and a pick. The year before, he missed time due to a minor stroke. The last time he was fully healthy, in 2004, Bruschi tackled like a demon but also turned in 3.5 sacks and three picks, good enough for a Top-10 finish. He had some follow-up surgery on that wrist this offseason to remove a pin, but otherwise enters this season healthy and energized for another championship drive- this season may be his last, after all. Bruschi has made a career out of turning solid physical talents into exceptional performance through smarts, focus, technique and perhaps the most superb drive of anyone on the field. He's made at least one sack in each of his 11 years in the league and only once made just one. That excellent motor also means he racks up the assists- he doesn't stop when he sees a teammate is there. He's 34, and while fully healthy for him doesn't mean what it once did, there are few more skilled players in the NFL.
Adalius Thomas, OLB, NE
Will Witherspoon, MLB, STL
Angelo Crowell, WLB, BUF
Kirk Morrison, MLB, OAK
DeMarcus Ware, OLB, DAL
1. Adrian Wilson, SS, ARI
For the second year in a row, Wilson enters the season as the top-ranked defensive back, partially because he's not built like one. At 230 pounds, he's as big as most weak side linebackers and, boy, does he hit like them. Wilson explodes through ball carriers, has speed in pursuit and makes things very physical. He's picked off four passes twice in his career, but more than one or two is fluky because his change-of-direction skills in coverage aren't the greatest. What isn't fluky is his ability to reach quarterbacks. Wilson set a defensive back record with eight sacks in 2005 and tacked on five more last season even though coach Dennis Green limited blitzes. New coach Ken Whisenhunt made a point of emphasizing that Wilson will be blitzed heavily this year, so expect Wilson to challenge his own record. He'll likely also rebound for 100 total tackles after a down year last season of 82. With the position's premiere skills at tackling and sacking, Wilson is consistently reliable. Even if his coverage skills aren't the best for a strong safety, Wilson's value is in the box, and that's exactly where the team is going to place him this year.
2. Ronde Barber, CB, TB
Barber's statistics are amazing enough. He has played nine consecutive years without missing a game and over that span has never dipped below 71 total tackles or at least two interceptions per season. His total tackles the last four seasons have been 97, 98, 99 and 98. Last year was the first year in nine seasons without a sack. With so many tackles to spread over a season, he has very few empty games, recording three games with double-digit tackles last year. Amazing, but here's the kicker: these are linebackers stats, not to mention safety-caliber numbers, but Barber is a cornerback, the least likely of the three positions to be so productive. In Tampa Bay's cover 2 scheme, the aggressive, hard-hitting Barber can release receivers to the safeties and play run support. He's not blazingly fast but is extremely fluid and consistent. When given an opportunity, he makes the play and is one of the game's best blitzing cornerbacks. Don't count on him taking two picks to the house again this year, but it's worth noting that he's scored eight touchdowns in his 10-year career.
3. Gibril Wilson, SS, NYG
Here's the prototypical model for a fantasy safety: an athletic 200-pounder with speed, range and strong closing ability; someone who can break down in space and is strong fundamentally with wrapping up and completing the tackle; the kind of guy who frustrates opposing coaches and rewards fantasy owners by aggressively pursuing big plays. The ruse was probably up from the beginning-we're describing Wilson. Even though he missed a game last year, he converted his second 100-tackle season in a row, one of just seven safeties to reach 100 last year. He also had two picks, giving him at least two in each of his three years in the league, which is even more impressive since he missed eight games as a rookie. After three sacks in each of his first two years, he failed to make one last year, but it's quite clear he can be one of the position's best with this aspect of the game as well. He's one of the best tacklers and best playmakers in the secondary all wrapped into one. Punch his ticket early in the secondary run of your draft.
4. Antoine Winfield, CB, MIN
The key to Winfield's aggressiveness is that his talent backs it up. He's one of the better cover corners in the game and is even better in run support. He's fluid and fast with exciting closing speed that translates to three, four and four interceptions the last three years, respectively. Despite being just 5-9, 180, he plays with strength and toughness. His angles in the open field are dead on, and his wrap-up skills when tackling leave nothing to be desired (107, 85, 98 and 97 total tackles the last four years). This base of fundamental skills is complemented by strong decision-making. Although he's aggressive, he takes risks at the right time. Corners are often on an island and removed from the play, but Winfield involves himself quickly. Perhaps the greatest testament to this is that he has recovered fumbles in each of the last three seasons and five of the last six. So long as Minnesota plays cover 2, Winfield will be around the ball with the talent and mindset to make plays.
5. Chris Hope, SS, TEN
Hope has gotten better in each of his three years as a starter. His tackle counts have moved from 89 to 96 to 121, while his picks have jumped from one to three to five. Can he get even better? It would be awfully difficult, since he was the top IDP defensive back last year-by a wide margin of 11 points over second-place Champ Bailey. It was the best year by a defensive back since the days of Rodney Harrison and would have put him in the top 10 among linebackers. Hope gives himself the opportunity to be in on any play with sideline-to-sideline range, speed for deep coverage and effective aggression in run support. Strong change-of-direction skills and quick feet have made him an effective ball hawk, but even after five interceptions in 2006 he has room to improve through better recognition and greater aggression. There are plenty of holes on this defense, especially with Pacman Jones suspended for the season, so Hope will have ample opportunities to keep pouring in the points.
6. Kerry Rhodes, FS, NYJ
Rhodes might be better in the fantasy world than he is on the field. No coach could argue, of course, with his four picks and five sacks last year, the latter of which tied for the league lead among defensive backs. Nor would anyone be displeased with 98 total tackles. Nonetheless, scouts criticize his dexterity, body control and ability to follow a route in coverage. He's also a bit thin and blockable in run support. Then how has he been a fantasy star in both his years in the NFL? Rhodes plays with a high motor and sticks his nose everywhere he can. If he lacks great fundamentals against the run, he still manages to get everywhere he needs to be. His coaches discovered he has elite ability to mask on a blind-side blitz. At 6-3, he competes well in the air for balls, and playing free safety means he has the freedom to take risks as the second man in on coverage. Experts might not like the complete package, but in the fantasy world that's exactly what Rhodes is.
7. Troy Polamalu, SS, PIT
When you've got this many tools, you can control the game like it's a grand symphony. Or, in Polamalu's case, a demolition derby. With his speed, recognition and instincts, he can be anywhere on the field he needs to be, testified to by his 96, 91 and 76 tackles the last three years (just 13 games last season). He launches his body into holes on run support and uses unique closing burst against the run, on blitzes and in pass coverage. His playmaking ability needs no scouting report: you've seen his highlight reels, popping ball carriers and returning interceptions since he entered the league. Of course, when you treat your body like a bowling ball, the downside is battling injury. He hadn't missed a game in three seasons entering 2006, but missed three last year. He played through a separated shoulder early in the season, a midseason concussion and a Larry Johnson tackle by his legendary, wildly long hair on an interception return. But he couldn't stay on the field with a sprained MCL. So be it. He still turned in a worthy fantasy year and fantastic per-game averages. He makes a sack every year and has picked off 10 passes in three years as a starter. It's not often you get as much enjoyment from watching an IDP as you will by having him on your roster.
8. Donte Whitner, SS, BUF
When a rookie places fifth among all defensive backs with 104 total tackles, you stand up and take notice. As a strong safety, Whitner's job in part is to support the run, and he does it with fearless abandon. At 5-11, 205, he's not large, but is very strong. Strong safeties tend to be the worst defensive backs in coverage, but Whitner shows great versatility with his speed and playmaking skills. That he had just one interception last year, then, is misleading and there's potential for him to expand that role this year. Speaking of expanding, with the Bills losing London Fletcher-Baker and Takeo Spikes this offseason, a lack of linebacker experience in front of Whitner likely will allow him to poach even more tackles this year.
9. Champ Bailey, CB, DEN
Forget cornerback, Bailey is one of the best players in the NFL - period. He has translated rare body control, speed, instincts and knowledge of passing offenses into the very definition of "shut down corner." Often, however, that meant opposing offenses didn't throw the ball his way enough for him to be fantasy viable. He made a decent number of tackles for an IDP (he isn't the most aggressive run supporter in the world) but just didn't get enough opportunities to pick off passes. All that changed the last two years in Denver. Bailey now consistently accounts for 80-plus total tackles in 16 games and turned his usual three to five interceptions into jaw-dropping numbers. And remember, three to five interceptions is a quality year that exceeds expectations for many players. Bailey turned that trick every year, with a career-low two picks just once, in 2003. But then in 2005 he had eight interceptions and in 2006 another 10, scoring touchdowns in both years. Even if he's not a star in run support, consider that after the first two games of 2006, opposing teams had thrown at him just three times, yet he led the team with 17 tackles. With Darrent Williams on the opposite corner and Dominique Foxworth at safety last year, quarterbacks couldn't avoid Bailey as much as they'd like. That could continue with the Broncos adding Dre Bly in the offseason. There's no safe place to throw against the Broncos, and that's one reason it's not unreasonable to expect more than five picks out of Bailey.
10. Erik Coleman, SS, NYJ
Show us a defensive back who's had more than 100 total tackles three consecutive years. Show us a defensive back who's had more than 100 total tackles every year of his career. It'll come as no surprise that Coleman loves to fill against the run, so much so that he bites on play-action a little more than his coaches might like. He has good enough speed to get himself into position, can handle blockers and knows how to wrap up when he gets to the ball carrier. On the flip side, he doesn't have the best feel for coverage. He can go deep with receivers and has good playmaking ability and hands, but is shakable. His unmatched tackling track record puts him in the picture as an IDP, but he must regain his touch with balls in the air-his interception totals have dropped every year, from four to one. Granted, he played free safety but now plays the strong side. Yes, he needs the playmaking to be worth a roster spot, but he needs less of it than just about anyone else in the league because of his tackling prowess.
11. Charles Tillman, CB, CHI
Much like blondes, cornerbacks in the cover 2 have more fun. Because they can pass off receivers to their safeties, they remain close to the line of scrimmage and have far more run support and blitz responsibilities than corners in other schemes. With great burst and a mean streak, the big and tough Tillman excels in taking on the run. That's translated to 80-plus total tackles when he plays at least 14 games. He uses his hands well to bump receivers at the line and to make plays on the ball, using that same quality closing burst. But for 2004, in which he played just eight games, Tillman has never failed to make at least four interceptions. If this sounds a lot like the formula that made cover 2 corners like Ronde Barber and Antoine Winfield stars, you've got the right idea.
12. Madieu Williams, FS, CIN
He can play corner, but Williams spots up at free safety, where he can use his toughness against the run more and sky for errant balls in double coverage. At 6-1, and with a fantastic closing burst and strong recognition skills, Williams has been a solid ball hawk from the get-go of his three-year career. He played just four games in his second season in 2005, but in his other two seasons he's picked off three passes both times. The key to Williams as an IDP, however, is that as a safety he can move into the box and fill spaces. Williams hits hard, though he could be better at wrapping up tackles, and plays with a toughness that belies his relatively thin frame. His career low in 16 games is 88 total tackles-even in 2005 when he played only four games, he was on pace for more. When he's on the field, Williams fills the stat sheet.
13. Ken Hamlin, FS, DAL
So that settles that. Hamlin missed most of 2005 after fracturing his skull, or having it fractured that is, in a fight outside a bar. That and the attendant blood clot in his brain sent us into cliché land: football became unimportant, and just recovering to a healthy life took center stage. But returning to football was a motivating goal for Hamlin, nicknamed the Hammer for his hard hitting. He returned, but no one thought he'd turn in his best year as a pro, resuming his smashmouth ways. After 96 tackles, two sacks and three interceptions in a full 16-game season, there's little doubt about Hamlin. He's got a rare combination of hitting and coverage ability. He's got the size and punishing attitude to fill holes against the run, but also the hip control, speed and playmaking hands to play man coverage. The final ingredients are strong recognition and instincts to know which mode to play. Moving to Dallas, he'll allow strong safety Roy Williams to do his thing in the box. That means the team will shy away from cover 2 and use Hamlin as a true center fielder. Our boy the Hammer is back.
14. Adam Archuleta, SS, CHI
Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams' defenses in Washington seem to be where good IDPs go to die. LaVar Arrington didn't have the discipline to start for Williams in 2005, though his diminished skills also prevented him from accomplishing much the next year in New York. Archuleta, though, still has it. In his case, while he ceased to be an IDP star, his last few years in St. Louis were absolutely fantasy worthy. He moved to Washington in 2006 and played just seven games before Williams took away his starting job. Williams plain refused to play him on defense, relegating him to special teams. Yet, in those seven games as the starter, Archuleta averaged 7.4 fantasy points per game. We might just be chasing that 2002 season, when he had 102 solo tackles, but at least this year there's a reason. By moving to Chicago, Archuleta is reunited with Lovie Smith, the defensive coordinator who made him a star in St. Louis. Archuleta fits the system because of his speed, aggressiveness and intimidating hitting. This should be a match made in IDP heaven.
15. Bob Sanders, FS, IND
Last year was a lost season for Sanders. He played two games then missed five to knee surgery. After returning for a strong game against New England, he missed three more games, played another and then sat out the rest of the season. He was effective in the games he played, including 11 tackles and an interception against New England. Still, this was the worst kind of year for fantasy owners. Not only was he out, but he was a game-time decision a lot of weeks, and it was never clear when he'd play. At least some have the courtesy to go out and stay out so fantasy owners know they need a replacement. At 5-8, 206, Sanders is built like the wrecking ball he is on the field. That bulk at his size might translate to durability, but in three years Sanders has played just 24 games, topping out at 14 in 2005. That one nearly full season did show what his aggressiveness and speed can do. That year's healthy 91 total tackles were about the only thing you can call healthy about Sanders. He's never made a sack in his career, but has had one pick in each of the last two. The Colts offseason losses at cornerback might give him even more chances in coverage. His value is mainly in prolific tackling, however, but therein lies the dilemma. To keep that up, he'll have to keep putting himself in harm's way, smashing into holes in run support and throwing himself at unsuspecting wide receivers as he flies across the field.
16. Lawyer Milloy, SS, ATL
Talk about a track record. In his 11-year career, Milloy has topped 100 total tackles seven times, including five consecutive at one point. He's been in the 90s twice, including 98 last season. Other than a broken forearm in 2004 that knocked him out for five games, he's never missed a game, playing through the more minor injuries. Imagine having him the season when he made 120 tackles, six interceptions and a sack. But there's the rub: that was 1998. The tough thing about a strong, long track record is that it means you're older and your skills are diminishing. Milloy has had only three interceptions in the last five years, including three blank slates. He's registered a sack in four consecutive years, but those don't rack up the points quite as much. Milloy continues to prove he still has it, and tackling is the one skill needed for anything else to matter, but it's his ability to make plays beyond tackling that will make or break his fantasy year.
17. Kenoy Kennedy, SS, DET
Like many a strong safety, Kennedy doesn't excel in man coverage; while he's fast, he's not the best at changing directions and reacting to routes. So what? He's a hitter. The last two seasons, Kennedy has averaged better than six tackles per game, which puts him in elite territory of defensive backs capable of reaching 100 total tackles a season. Kennedy loves to inch up into the box, make smashing hits and intimidate-he's the reason why it's hard to go over the middle. You still need some playmaking to go with all those tackles, but he's shown he can make a few picks and a few sacks in any given year. He missed six games last year with a foot injury, but closed out the year strong with five consecutive games with five tackles or more and a pick. That means he won't show up at the top of last year's stat sheets, but now you know, and your opponents don't.
18. Antoine Bethea, SS, IND
Fellow rookies Dawan Landry and Donte Whitner had flashier stats, but Bethea was just as impressive last year. He had 90 tackles and a pick in 14 games, but that's really 12-and-a-half since he left one game early and another at the half. That puts Bethea on pace to match Whitner's strong year. It makes sense, since he's a similarly bruising hitter. He bursts into the box in run support, takes excellent angles and is fundamentally sound in open space. His bad 'tude is just what a weakened Colts linebacker and secondary corps needs. Granted, his exceptional tackling came in a season largely absent of the talented Bob Sanders. Will he be just as prolific with Sanders back? The Colts don't figure to be as poor against the run with a full season of Sanders, but Bethea is good enough on run support to create his own opportunities.
19. Dawan Landry, SS, BAL
Used to be there was another safety on the Ravens who got all the fantasy attention. Ed Reed hasn't been tackling enough to earn a slot on most fantasy teams the last two years, however. Funny thing is, Landry played a lot more like a free safety, Reed's position, last year, with just 69 total tackles but a healthy clip of five interceptions. He returned one for a touchdown and also added three sacks to complete a year that showed off his physical skills. He's a big boy at 220, and plays fearlessly, with great drive and abandon. We think that's likely to translate this year to better tackling, considering his impeccable play recognition. He obviously has the talent to convert playmaking opportunities on the blitz and in coverage. If he can establish a stronger tackle base, Landry can weather the inevitable ups and downs in playmaking and be a reliable IDP.
20. Sammy Knight, SS, FA Selecting Sammy might be risky because, at least at press time, he was unsigned. In the last 10 years, he's been a top-20 IDP defensive back just about every single season. He's topped 100 total tackles three times and 90 four more times. He's never failed to make an interception in a season, and has had six twice and five three times. So suffice to say, the Chiefs cut him not for lack of ability but because they didn't want to pay for him. Whoever signs Knight will get a hard-hitting, instinctual safety with, albeit diminishing, ability to move fluidly and seize opportunities for interceptions. Another bonus: Knight hasn't missed a game since 1998. So long as he lands somewhere as a starter, you want Knight.
Greg Wesley, SS, KC
Darren Sharper, SS, MIN
Asante Samuel, CS, NE
Sean Taylor, FS, WAS
LaRon Landry, SS, WAS
Overall Top 20
- London Fletcher-Baker, MLB, WAS
- Zach Thomas, MLB, MIA
- Keith Bulluck, WLB, TEN
- Donnie Edwards, WLB, KC
- DeMeco Ryans, MLB, HOU
- Adrian Wilson, SS, ARI
- Mike Peterson, MLB, JAC
- Jason Taylor, DE, MIA
- Julius Peppers, DE, CAR
- Aaron Kampman, DE, GB
- Keith Brooking, MLB, ATL
- Antonio Pierce, MLB, NYG
- Ronde Barber, CB, TB
- Gibril Wilson, SS, NYG
- Antoine Winfield, CB, MIN
- Ray Lewis, MLB, BAL
- Nick Barnett, MLB, GB
- Aaron Schobel, DE, BUF
- Chris Hope, SS, TEN
- Kerry Rhodes, FS, NYJ