The Huddle presents an early take on players who didn’t quite crack our IDP Top 50 Positional Rankings, but could still have a surprising impact once the season unfolds.
Muhammad Wilkerson – New York Jets
Wilkerson finished 37th among defensive linemen last season, but didn’t crack the Huddle’s initial projected Top 50. The hype surrounding rookie Quinton Coples has quickly shifted to Wilkerson after a great OTA campaign, and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said that after Darrell Revis, Wilkerson has been the Jets’ best defensive player this offseason. The Jets’ coaching staff will look to make Wilkerson an every down defensive lineman this season, and with the Jets playing a lot more 4-3 defense, he could potentially crack the top fifteen DL.
Michael Bennett – Tampa Bay Buccaneers
After playing the first ten games of last season at defensive end, Bennett injured his groin and struggled for the remainder of the season. An undrafted free agent for the Seahawks in 2009, Bennett was offered a first round tender in March to stay with the Buccaneers. He’s quick off the ball, and has experience playing both defensive end and tackle, which could ultimately get him more snaps as Tampa tries to find consistency up front. With Da’Quon Bowers sidelined for the year with a torn Achilles tendon, Bennett will have a full, uncontested season at defensive end, and potentially a very productive year as your 2nd or 3rd defensive lineman.
Cory Liuget – San Diego Chargers
A rookie in 2011, Liuget played in fifteen games and struggled to make an impact for the Bolts. Despite being a DE in a 3-4, Liuget will have opportunities to be successful this season, especially under new defensive coordinator John Pagano, who has spent the past 10 seasons with the Chargers developing pass-rushing LBs in Shawn Merriman, Shaun Phillips, and Antwan Barnes. Pagano stated one of his goals this season is to try and put the Chargers’ playmakers, like Liuget, in better situations to make big plays throughout the game. Combine the organization’s confidence in Liuget with 1st round pick Melvin Ingram to help take away pressure on the defensive line, and Liuget could be poised for a great break-out year.
Shawne Merriman – Buffalo Bills
A very deep, yet very intriguing sleeper. Merriman has been on quite a journey since dominating the 3-4 outside linebacker position for the Chargers, and it’s led him to sitting behind Mario Williams and Mark Anderson at defensive end in the Bills’ new 4-3 system. While he has almost no chance of beating out either player for a starting role, if one of them were to be injured he would almost certainly get a crack at showing what he’s got left. We haven’t seen an incredibly dominant Merriman since 2007 when he was caught using steroids, but he’s an athlete and a competitor and could be a very nice sleeper if you’re looking for depth on your defensive line.
Rey Maualuga – Cincinnati Bengals
Maualuga has been one of the more disappointing USC linebackers the past few years, but could finally be on track to turn some heads this season. The Bengals drafted Rey in the second round in 2009 and moved him out of position to play strong side linebacker while Dhani Jones finished his career at MLB. Once Jones retired, Maualuga moved to the middle and failed to impress. He has since admitted he was playing “wrong football” and was more concerned with not re-injuring himself than being productive. New linebacker coach Paul Guenther has made a point to help Maualuga regain some of his confidence and enter the season with a clear head, which should translate to a very productive year on the field.
Jasper Brinkley – Minnesota Vikings
After locking down his role as a starter, Brinkley was forced to sit out the entire 2011 season with a hip injury. This season, the Vikings clearly demonstrated their commitment to Brinkley at middle linebacker by not pursuing any depth at the position via free agency or draft. Despite this commitment, even G.M. Rick Spielman has publicly expressed concern in his durability. A fourth year pro out of South Carolina, Brinkley is an aggressive tackler and a decent cover man. Playing middle linebacker in a 4-3 defense is about as good as it gets for IDP production, and if Brinkley can prove he’s capable of staying healthy (he’s already tweaked his groin during OTAs), he could have a great year as a LB2 or LB3.
Akeem Dent/Lofa Tatupu – Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons’ new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is known for developing studly middle linebackers like Ray Lewis, DJ Williams, and Patrick Willis. With Curtis Lofton departing to fill Jonathan Vilma’s role in New Orleans, the MLB position is wide open in Atlanta. While Lofa Tatupu has more experience and put up great numbers at MLB in Seattle, many critics feel he’s lost a step as he’s struggled with his injuries. Dent on the other hand is a fresh-faced sophomore in the NFL, and will be looking to show he can make an immediate impact with his speed and explosive run support. Neither has an advantage heading into training camp, but whoever wins the starting job will be poised for a productive year as a guaranteed two-down linebacker in Atlanta’s 4-3 defense.
Keith Rivers – New York Giants
After being blind-sided by Hines Ward his rookie season, Rivers has struggled to reach his potential as a 9th overall first round pick. Before being traded to the Giants for a 5th round pick this offseason, the former Bengal missed half his rookie season due to Ward’s hit, posted sub-par numbers in ’09 and ’10 due to injuries, then sat the entire 2011 season with a wrist injury. While health will always be the biggest red flag for fantasy owners, he’s now part of a linebacking crew that has struggled to produce relevant IDP numbers; the G-Men were even forced to use three-safety sets at times last season to try and make up for their lacking depth at linebacker. Rivers has taken reps at WLB and MLB so far this offseason and either position would mean good things for IDP production. If Rivers can lock-in a starting role and keep himself healthy, he could be just the starter Tom Coughlin and your fantasy squad are looking for.
Taylor Mays – Cincinnati Bengals
It seems as if the stars might have finally aligned for Taylor Mays; the third year defensive back out of USC is penciled in as the Bengals’ starting strong safety and could put up decent numbers in 2012. After a decent rookie season with the 49ers as a part-time safety and special teams standout, Mays was shipped to Cincinnati with Harbaugh’s arrival. With Reggie Smith and Madieu Williams leaving as free agents, Mays is the most experienced safety on the roster to line up opposite of FS Reggie Nelson. While Mays has always struggled with pass coverage, he has the potential to put up great IDP numbers in a run dominant AFC North that features Ray Rice and Trent Richardson.
Quinton Carter – Denver Broncos
A fourth-round rookie out of Oklahoma, Carter started twelve of the final thirteen games for the Broncos last season, including both playoff games where he picked-off Big Ben and Brady. This season, Carter and fellow second-year safety Rahim Moore look to fend off veteran Mike Adams, and solidify their roles as the teams starting safeties. So far, Carter and Moore have been interchanging at SS and FS, but expect Carter to secure the starting strong safety job and pick up right where he left off last season. While he’s not Brian Dawkins just yet, he’s certainly well on his way.
Aquib Talib – Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Talib’s 2010 and 2011 seasons were ended with injuries, and after a felony warrant was issued in March it looked like 2012 wasn’t going to start any better for the Buc’s stand-out corner. With the charges recently dropped however, Talib is looking to get back on track and turn his reputation around. While Talib could still face disciplinary consequences from the NFL, he’s more likely to be tasked with locking down Steve Smith, Marques Colston and Roddy White; The Buccaneers are thin at defensive back this season, and with Eric Wright facing suspension from the NFL, Talib will be the cornerback for the Buccaneers. Talib is buying into new head coach Greg Schiano’s no-nonsense attitude, and could put together a very productive season as a hard-hitting, aggressive cornerback.