If you have never taken part in an Individual Defensive Players league, or you simply like to mine gems in the later rounds on draft day, we have done the homework for you. We've got a handful of special players with big-time potential who might tip the scales in your favor.
Mincey getting more help
Jurrell Casey, Tennessee Titans
Casey played in all 16 games, of his rookie season in 2011 starting 15. Casey racked up 52 TKL (39 solo) with 2.5 sacks, one pass defended and a forced fumble with a recovery. Those statistics are nothing compared to what he can do.
Former NFL pass rusher and current Titans pass-rushing consultant Keith Millard recently compared Casey to former NFL standout Warren Sapp. Casey's 2011 camp was abbreviated, and Tennessee was recovering from losing sack-generating D-line coach Jim Washburn. Casey is known for his run stopping but with a full prep program should certainly add to his sack total this season while being turned loose in getting at the QB. Look for a big increase in tackles, too.
Lamarr Houston, Oakland Raiders
Houston took a step back in his sophomore NFL season. While his tackle numbers were up, his sack totals dropped from five in 2010 to just one in 2011. Houston is worth a roster spot in the final rounds on draft day due to his potential.
Oakland is incorporating more 3-4 alignments, though, which might complicate his sack upside, but he should have more chances to record tackles in those formations. Still, he has the athleticism to get to the QB from either setup. He will also face some slow-footed AFC West quarterbacks like the Kansas City Chiefs' Matt Cassel and the San Diego Chargers' Philip Rivers. Each of those teams has issues along their offensive lines, which might mean Houston can feast in divisional games.
Jeremy Mincey, Jacksonville Jaguars
Over the past two seasons, Mincey has racked up 13 sacks for the Jaguars. Fantasy owners who have done their homework might not even consider Mincey a true sleeper. However, he has not reached his ceiling, and the Jaguars will be focusing even more on the pass rush.
He is considered a clear-cut starter on a defensive line still trying to figure out its identity. That's good and bad news. Initially, he could face double-teams until someone else steps up. Look for Mincey to be more effective once rookie Andre Branch settles in and can help take pressure off Mincey. Once that happens, a double-digit sack total is not only within reach, it's likely.
Foster the tackles
Mason Foster, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Foster did a solid job last season, picking up 82 TKL, a pair of sacks and an interception in his rookie year. He is the favorite to start at middle linebacker, but he has the ability to play inside or outside. Foster's versatility and athleticism will get him on the field one way or the other.
The coaching staff flirted with the idea of moving him to weak-side linebacker, so they certainly have a high opinion of his abilities. The only knock is the staff would like him to play with more speed and confidence. Still, he's an MLB in a 4-3, so look for 110-120 TKL with a handful of sacks and a forced fumble or two from Foster.
Akeem Dent, Atlanta Falcons
He'll fill the void left by the injury to and release of Lofa Tatupu (pectoral), and Dent will be thrust into a starting role after serving primarily in a special teams role last season. He is expected to be a two-down player, with veteran Mike Petersen there to pick up the pieces if the youngster struggles. Dent has plenty of talent, speed and awareness that could make him a productive 4-3 middle linebacker.
He suffered a concussion in the preseason opener, so fantasy owners must take a leap of faith that injury won't set him back too much as he learns how to be an everyday player in the NFL. His tackle numbers might not approach the 132 average stops Curtis Lofton posted the past over three seasons, but 100-110 TKL are easily within reach.
Perry Riley, Washington Redskins
Riley managed 63 tackles last season, which is substantial since he did not record his first stop until Week 10. Riley is not going to sneak up on anyone this season. He is a proficient run stopper who will be leaned upon heavily, as he tries to stop the likes of NFC East foes LeSean McCoy, Ahmad Bradshaw and DeMarco Murray, among others.
He and London Fletcher might comprise one of the best one-two ILB combinations in the NFC. Though Fletcher is a tackle machine of his own, he might lose a step at 37 years old and leave more for Riley to pick up.
Nick Roach, Chicago Bears
Keep an eye on the knee of Brian Urlacher (knee). If his troublesome knee forces him to rest during games or miss time completely, Roach should step in and do an admirable job. He can do a solid job in the middle, and he'll rack up plenty of tackles if given the chance.
Mays may surprise
Taylor Mays, Cincinnati Bengals
Mays tops the depth chart at strong safety, but it is a tenuous hold. He tends to look a little slow and plays stiff, but man can he hit. Mays is a tremendously physical player, and that is the key.
He is entering his third NFL season, and he has the chance to average a couple of tackles per game, while racking up a handful of forced fumbles and passes defended. The good news is that Mays has good awareness and outstanding football acumen. While those aren't necessarily traits that will garner fantasy points, it will mean plenty of playing time. Sometimes you have to take a little risk for tremendous reward.
Jason McCourty, Tennessee Titans
McCourty steps into the starting lineup following the departure of Cortland Finnegan to the St. Louis Rams. Around the league, McCourty isn't viewed as a dangerous player like Finnegan. In fact, McCourty has struggled in pass coverage in the past, so opposing QBs might test him early and often. That might lead to more fantasy statistics, at least initially.
He should easily eclipse 100 TKL again this season, and he should see an increase in interceptions. Fellow Titans CB Alterraun Verner is expected to work in the slot, and he too is worth a look in the middle to late rounds on draft day in IDP formats.
Captain Munnerlyn, Carolina Panthers
Munnerlyn is a deep sleeper, but he's not cemented into a starting job. Josh Norman is challenging him. Still, Munnerlyn, even in a nickel role, has even more fantasy appeal for owners in leagues which reward individual return yardage. Munnerlyn proved somewhat valuable down the stretch in 2011, posting 14 tackles (TKL) with nine solo stops over his final three games.
Ras-I Dowling, New England Patriots
The biggest drawback with Dowling is his propensity for injury, which we saw in his initial NFL campaign and his college career. If he could just stay on the field, he can make a serious impact. If he does not win the starting CB job opposite Devin McCourty, he could very well see time at the safety position due to his physicality and size.
Even if he stays at nickel, teams will probably have to throw often against the Pats to catch up to their high-scoring offense, so Dowling could probably be on the field in other teams' desperate pass-happy situations. Either way, he is expected to see plenty of time when healthy.