Every season fantasy owners debate when to nab their first rookie defender. From experience I can tell you that there will be at least 3-4 IDP rookies that can make an average team a playoff team, and a good team a playoff contender. Defense is important in fantasy sports, and there are some rookies you will want to grab early to be a strong contender in your league. While it is still reasonably early in the preseason, some rookies have already made an impression on their teams and look to be fantasy starter worthy this season. Generally, it’s a good idea to target the linebackers and safeties before your DEs, CBs, and DTs as the former two are more reliable than the latter three. Rookie IDPs are no different, except for those leagues that count passes defensed (PD), stuffs (STF) and tackles for loss (TFL). In those leagues (i.e. MLFF leagues) make sure to grab at least one strong corner and one stud DE. The corners to target are those playing opposite shutdown corners (Asomugha), and the DEs to target are those that were explosive and sack monsters in college, or those in favorable defensive schemes (Clowney). This list is by no means complete and could change by Week 1, but as of today, these would be the top 20 rookie IDPs to target in MLFF and dynasty leagues counting PDs, STFs, and TFLs.
1.) Khalil Mack (LB-OAK) – Simply put, Mack is going to step in and dominate from Day 1. The Raiders got the most explosive OLB in the Draft, and Mack will wreak havoc early. I was bullish on him in my Linebacker Rankings, and I’m bullish now. (Photo courtesy of bleacherreport.com)
2.) Ryan Shazier (LB-PITT) – The more I read on Shazier, the more I like the guy. Playing alongside Lawrence Timmons, Shazier should push for leading tackler on the Steelers and will easily out-sack Timmons. Shazier will be a cornerstone for the Steelers and fantasy owners alike for years to come.
3.) Anthony Barr (LB-MIN) – Barr is the perfect fit for Mike Zimmer’s defensive scheme. He’s a 3-down backer who will play outside on early downs then bring the heat on 3rd down, or in sub packages. He might be as consistent as the two rookies above him, but he is going to be one of the top rookies this season, with room for growth.
4.) C.J. Mosley (LB-BAL) – Mosley was the best pure ILB in the Draft, but Shazier gets the nod over Mosley initially as Ryan will dominate earlier. Mosley, however, could be the better all-around package, given his ball skills and instincts. The Ravens have their staple ILB of the future, and it’s only a matter of time before Mosley puts it all on the field. A definite challenger for Defensive ROY this season.
5.) Jadeveon Clowney (LB/DE-HOU) – Clowney is listed as OLB in Houston, but he will also play opposite J.J. Watt and rack up the sacks. The Texans defensive line is becoming incredibly nasty with sack monsters Watt, Clowney, and Mercilus, and it’s not out of the question that Clowney, a “once in a generation player,” could eclipse the 8-sack plateau his rookie season. He and Watt could form a deadly duo for the next decade. (Photo courtesy of firstroundgrade.com)
6.) HaHa Clinton-Dix (S-G.B. ) – Alas, a non-linebacker rookie! No, really, that was meant as sarcasm. Clinton-Dix is the best safety from the Draft class and he lands in Green Bay, where he should find immediate success. The Packers were looking for secondary help (24th in pass defense last season), and they found it in Clinton-Dix, who should be an immediate impact playing alongside Morgan Burnett.
7.) Calvin Pryor (S-NYJ) – Another top safety from the draft, he may not be the ballhawk that Clinton-Dix is, but he might also hit harder. It’s no secret the Jets are rebuilding from the ground up, and Pryor should be one of their focal points. If you watch tape of Pryor, you will notice he’s defensively sound, and is strong in run defense.
8.) Christian Kirksey (LB-CLE) – Kirksey could shoot up Draft boards this year, as he will play alongside Karlos Dansby in a Mike Pettine scheme that placed Kiko Alonso in fantasy stardom in 2013, before he was lost for 2014 (ACL). Kirksey should excel in the inside position from the start, as he is good in coverage and will jar the ball loose. Make sure to tab Kirksey in your drafts, as he will be a monster in his rookie season.
9.) Deone Bucannon (S-ARZ) – One of the more underrated safeties from the Draft class, Bucannon (out of Washington State) is a hard-hitting, defensively sound DB. His cover skills might still be raw, but with Arizona needing to fill a gap at strong safety, Bucannon will play from Day 1 as starting SS, and play nickel in sub packages. The trio of Bucannon, Mathieu, and Peterson should be formidable for years to come.
10.) Kyle Van Noy (LB-DET) – KVN is one of those hybrid OLB/DEs that can play both positions equally well. The Lions will capitalize upon his ability to hold the edge against the run on early downs, as well as a pass rusher on 3rd downs to keep pressure away from their weak secondary. He’s very disruptive at the line and has a knack for defending the pass, as evidenced by his 26 sacks, 7 picks, and 11 forced fumbles. (Photo courtesy of deepshadesofblue.com)
11.) Justin Gilbert (CB-CLE) – While it is true that most fantasy leagues don’t give a ton of value to corners, MLFF leagues and leagues counting passes defensed see corners’ value increase. Gilbert steps into an ideal situation in Cleveland, lining up opposite shutdown corner Joe Haden, and should instantly upgrade the corner position over Buster Skrine, who was awful in coverage last season. Look for Gilbert to be oft targeted as teams shy away from Haden. It’s entirely possible Haden leads all rookie DBs in interceptions this season. If the Browns choose to use him in the return game, his fantasy owners see a nice boost from investing in Gilbert.
12.) Chris Borland (LB-S.F.) – This may come as the biggest surprise on this list, but given the serious knee injury Bowman is coming back from, and the decline of Willis, Borland could be inline to see immediate action as a rookie. The Wisconsin product not only is a sound tackler, but also profiles as an elite tackle machine with sack and fumble production. However, his cover skills are deficient, so the 49ers will rotate him out in certain situations. For 2014, while Bowman is working his way back to football, the 49ers will use Borland in a rotation, and put him in situations where he can disrupt the pocket, deliver hits on running backs, and get to the QB.
13.) Telvin Smith (LB-JAX) – The Jags 5th round pick, Smith should have no problem beating out Geno Hayes for the weak side spot this season. The Jags see him as an immediate plugin for nickel packages to rush the passer. My money says he’s week 1 starter as a 3 down backer. Watching him play, you see why the Jags want to use him immediately. He’s fast off the line and has great instincts in coverage as well as on the line.
14.) Kyle Fuller (CB-CHI) – Man, the Bears corners are nasty. Along with Peanut and Jennings, the Bears added Fuller through the Draft. It is going to be interesting to watch the Bears secondary this season, as Fuller figures to play both slot and on the outside. Long-term, Fuller projects as an outside corner with his size and ball skills, but in his inaugural season, he’ll play a hybrid outside-inside role where he’ll get opportunities to snatch passes.
15.) Aaron Donald (DT-StL) – The Rams offense might be in disarray, but their D-Line is stacked. Donald will join Long, Quinn, and Brockers on the line and he will provide immediate disruptions in the run game. Short, versatile, and explosive, opposing offensive lines will have trouble containing Donald. While DTs aren’t generally fantasy contributors, Donald could sneak into the top 10 DTs this season and be a force for stuffs.
16.) Jason Verrett (CB-S.D.) – After being among the league-worst pass defenses in 2013, the Chargers look to be in the middle of the pack this season, anchored by Verrett and Wright on the outside, and Flowers in the slot. The Chargers will have questions opposite Weddle at the safety position, but Verrett should be able to bolster a revamping Chargers secondary. (Photo courtesy of nfl.com)
17.) Darqueze Dennard (CB-CIN) – I know I’ve been bullish on Dennard this off-season. Instead of getting long-winded about him here, I’ll just leave it as look for him to provide immediate press coverage and be a good source of passes defensed and some picks. His upside is a shutdown corner. The Bengals found the physical corner they have needed for a while.
18.) Stephon Tuitt (DE-PITT) – If there were an award for drafting the best defensively, the Steelers may have taken the award this season. After they grabbed Shazier in the first, the Steelers went on and nabbed one of the better DEs in this year’s draft class in Tuitt in the second. With no true options opposite Hayward, Tuitt will be an immediate impact player and play disruptor this season. He may not be starter from Week 1, but he will be a force providing the Steelers a need edge presence and fantasy owners a sleeper at DE.
19.) Prince Shembo (LB-ATL) – After Weatherspoon went down with a torn ACL early in the off-season, the Falcons immediately needed a starter alongside Worrilow. Bartu is currently slated as starter in the Atlanta new 3-4 scheme, but Price looks good this off-season and figures to push Bartu for the role. He initially profiled as an OLB coming out of Notre Dame, but with deficiencies in closing speed, the Falcons tried him on the inside and he has been impressive thus far. With no true answer alongside Worrilow, the Falcons will experiment with both Shembo and Bartu inside. Regardless of his role, look for Shembo to be utilized by Atlanta to jam tight ends and penetrate the pocket starting in sub packages. He’s a deep league sleeper. (Photo courtesy of uhnd.com)
20.) Anthony Hitchens (LB-DAL) – The Cowboys linebackers are going down like flies. First they lose Lee (ACL) for the season, then their first round pick, Demarcus Lawrence (foot), is lost for 8-10 weeks. With only Justin Durant to beat for snaps, Hitchens could be a diamond in the rough for the Cowboys this season. He is deficient in coverage, but he is a strong tackler and will be forced into action given the state of the Cowboys linebacker core. Hitchens is by no means a finished product, but he will be thrown into the fire this season, as the Boys will need him to step up.
I hope this list helps you all in your drafts and good luck this season as Week 1 draws nearer. If there are any major changes, I will be sure to note that at the bottom of this piece as they happen to keep fantasy owners updated on the most impact-ready rookies. Thanks for turning to MLFS for fantasy advice, as we only work to provide you all with the best fantasy advice we can. Remember, championships aren’t won with offense, they are won by your IDPs, and if you doubt that, look back at my piece entitled “Defense Doesn’t Win Championships.”
Major League Fantasy Baseball Radio: Join us this Monday the 18th of August from 1-2pm EST for another episode of Major League Fantasy Sports Radio sponsored by the Sports Palooza Radio Network. This week our guest include Eric Paulen and Joe “65 Mustangs” Iannone. This week our featured guest is Eric Paulen who is the Founder & President of Bald Bull Entertainment. Eric has produced projects for companies & organizations such as ESPN, WWE, Fox Sports, CBS Sports, NBC Sports, NCAA, HBO Sports, History Channel, MLB, A&E, and is an owner in Major League Fantasy Sports in baseball, basketball, and football. Joe is a writer for majorleaguefantasysports.com and an owner in baseball & football. You can call in at 646.915.8596, listen live online anywhere, or if you can’t listen live you can download the podcast on I-Tunes or Google Play stores. Search for Sports Palooza Radio Show.