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Rookie Defensive Prospects
Tom Nadratowski
June 30, 2004

Blue Chips

Only a few players this year would be what you could call blue chip prospects – players that should be immediate starters for their team and yours from day one. This group is made up of the following players, all of whom carry franchise-level talent grades and are as close to can’t-miss prospects as can be expected for rookies.

DE Kenichi Udeze MIN

Udeze dropped on draft day due to concerns about a possibly lingering shoulder injury. Yet he still managed to perform the 225lb press at his workout day. He carries a franchise talent grade, and still fell due to that negative pre-draft hype. Don’t believe it, and if he performs as billed, he could easily grab rookie of the year honors after it’s all said and done.

WLB D.J. Williams DEN

Williams is slated to start immediately for the Broncos. He has the capacity to be the most productive rookie IDP this year, if the offense falters with the loss of Portis. In leagues that value solo’s and assists, he could be the first rookie IDP taken, in the top part of the second tier. He will produce this year, at worst probably along the lines of Barnett’s production from last season.

FS Sean Taylor WAS

Taylor has good top speed but great quickness and instincts, and in my opinion is comparable to Ed Reed, his college team mate. He also could be an excellent value, should all of the additions that the Redskins have made not pan out, leaving him on the field a lot. However, given Coach Gibbs’ abilities and the addition of Portis, through no fault of his own he could easily bust on you and perform at a level similar to that of Tank Williams.

Needs a break…

This is where the blue chip prospects end and there are more risks associated with the following group of players. They are one break away from being good fantasy starters.

MLB Jonathan Vilma NYJ

Vilma has a franchise talent grade, but being parked behind Sam Cowart kills his potential. There are also questions surrounding exactly which defensive scheme the Jets will employ. Should he beat out Cowart, who has not performed as well as the team would like, and if the Jets keep a standard 4-3 scheme, Vilma could easily be the top rookie LB this year.

SS Michael Boulware SEA

Most scouts agree that Boulware lacks the muscle and the frame to add it, to make him a top LB in the NFL. His good speed and instincts make him a fine prospect at SS which is the position the Seahawks drafted him to fill. Downgrade his talent level a tad since he is transitioning from one position to another, at the hardest level to play the game at. According to those who watch the team, he struggled in his first mini-camp. If he continues to have problems making the switch, he will not start, so move him back down, under FS Sean Jones.

WLB Dontarrious Thomas MIN

Thomas is a heady, high-motor player who fell on draft day from expectations based on his final college season, where he changed position from his natural outside linebacker spot to the middle. He is ranked here not because he has more talent than those in this area, but because he has a great combination of talent and immediate starting capability. Thomas is also incredibly durable – he only missed three games his entire collegiate career. In Minnesota, anticipate that they will move LB Claiborne to the Sam spot, leaving Thomas to fill his natural Will position. He is already playing with the first team defense there.

WLB Karlos Dansby ARI

Dansby has a lot of potential, and needs to work on his run/pass recognition skills. He does have two people ahead of him, but neither has done much to this point. If he can mature quickly enough, he could be a starter by seasons’ end.

OLB Jason Babin HOU

Babin is converting over to OLB from his college position of DE. This concerns me for two reasons. One, he has to learn all over again how to do his job, but this time from a new stance and against the toughest competition possible. Add to that the pressure of being a first round pick and having the expectation that he has to start immediately. Rate him this high because he will be able to make the switch and perform well, but he does have some risks associated with picking him.

WLB Ted Lehman DET

If Lehman starts, bump him up under Udeze. That’s right, ahead of LB Williams in this case, even though they have near-identical grades, simply because the Lions have a greater capacity to fail on offense than Denver, making Lehman a safer pick. He has good speed and great instincts, which will make him a solid player for the Lions and you.

Red Shirts

These players will be great developmental projects, since they are currently stuck in bad fantasy situations which are limiting their ability to immediately contribute.

FS Sean Jones CLE

Jones has a ton of talent, but will have to defeat Earl Little and Chris Crocker to earn a starting spot. While I expect him to be able to do so, these training camp battles have a funny effect on those in the position of ‘holding off the rookie’. It wouldn’t be the first time that a rookie wound up being the primary backup due to an inspired veteran in camp. That said, I expect Jones’ stay as a backup to be short, and if he does start, bump him up into the last blue chip spot under Sean Taylor.

DE Will Smith NO

Smith was a great pick by the Saints but that makes for a bad fantasy situation. He is very talented (in fact, he carries a franchise level talent grade), but he’s stuck behind Darren Howard. Since Smith is Howard’s backup, he’s one injury away from starting right off. Given Howard’s injury history that could turn out to be sooner than you think. For those fantasy owners that can wait, he’s a great project with tremendous upside.

MLB Courtney Watson NO

Watson is not going to make anyone forget Ray Lewis, but what he lacks in talent he makes up for with consistency. He’s mired in a bad fantasy position by being buried on the depth chart. The Saints continue to shift him around from middle to weak side, so his value has been fluctuating. He has the versatility to play either spot, and when given the chance he’ll be a solid fantasy contributor. But it will be fortuitous for him to do that this year.

MLB Jorge Cordova JAX

Cordova is a tad small at 6’2”, but he’s very quick. And as the primary backup to Mike Peterson in the MLB spot, he has a lot of potential value. He may not get a chance to shine this year, but he will be a pleasant surprise once he is given the chance.

DE Travis Laboy & Antwan Odom TEN

Laboy and Odom were taken as replacements for departing end Jevon Kearse. They will battle it out in training camp just to be able to serve as backups. Of the two, Laboy has the best chances to make an impact this year, since he only has to be able to out do Carlos Hall. And Hall hasn’t exactly set the world on fire lately. Odom has to fight it out with Thomas Juqua and K.T. Stovall. He should be able to out perform them, but that roots him behind Kevin Carter. So Odom will need more breaks to become an immediate fantasy impact, but you have to wonder, for either player, how patient HC Fisher will be if the incumbent starters don’t generate as much of a pass rush as he’d like.

DE Darrion Scott MIN

Scott has decent talent and is behind only Kenny Mixon. The knocks on him are his average speed (4.7 40 times) and size (6’3”, 285 lbs). He is a complete package, and if he were a lock to start, he would be a good #2 DL for you.

MLB Niko Koutouvides SEA

Niko is another guy that could easily be this years’ Barnett. He’s got good skills and is an excellent tackler. In addition, he’ll have the chance to beat out the vets ahead of him (Solomon Bates and Orlando Huff) in camp.

WLB Demorrio Williams ATL

Like MLB Koutouvides, Williams has a bunch of talent but needs some help to make a hit this year. In Williams’ case, he’s behind Keith Brookings and Eric Johnson. He did himself a great favor by showing up at the combine at a heavier weight (232lbs) and yet still ran a 4.45 40. He should beat out Johnson in camp (Johnson is another guy who hasn’t set the world on fire) to become Brookings’ primary backup. So stash Williams away on your roster or practice squad for a year, and he will pay off when he can start full time.

FS Jason Shivers STL

You have to like Shivers a lot. He’s very talented, and has great character. In fact, he already owns his own business. And for a DB, he’s got good strength – he managed 17 reps of 225 lbs. He occasionally gets burned by play fakes since he has a tendency to peek into the backfield. But he’s the primary backup to Aeneas Williams, and should be a decent starter if given the chance. His rank here is due to the fact that, historically, the Rams D hasn’t produced decent fantasy DBs. If their offense goes into the dumper due to an underperforming Marc Bulger, and he gets a break to start due to an injury to Williams, he could be the fantasy surprise of the year.

MLB Rod Davis MIN

Davis is the primary backup to untested second year man E.J. Henderson. With Davis’ talent, if he was given the shot to start, he’d be in the running for becoming ‘this years’ Barnett’ as well.

Risky picks

These players have some risks that could seriously hinder their ability to make it in the league, so draft them with caution.

SS Bob Sanders IND

Sanders is going to be given the chance to beat out Idrees Bashir to start, but at 5’8” he is very small. He really is a tremendous hitter, but that may not be enough to let him perform at a high level in the NFL. This makes him a big risk.

WLB Leon Joe CHI

He carries a high grade here due to his overall talent and potential starting ability, since the Bears have no depth at LB and Joe is the primary to Joe Odom. He definitely has the speed that DC Smith likes. But he needs to develop better instincts to succeed at the next level.

OLB Keyaron Fox KC

Fox has two things working against him. He’s a bit undersized at 6’2”, 229lbs, and he’s stuck behind Scott Fujita in a battle with Fred Jones to become Fujita’s primary backup. Fox can win that battle, and will make a nice starter if injuries get him into the starting lineup.

FS Madieu Williams CIN

Williams’ risk comes from the crowded situation he finds himself in. But he’s got decent speed, and will be given every opportunity to defeat Kim Herring and Kevin Kaesviharn. Williams could be starting sooner rather than later.

SS Stuart Schweigert OAK

Schweigert is slated to back up Derrick Gibson this year. He’s a good athlete, but a poor tackler and has had off-field issues.

Good players, bad situations

These players fall into one of two categories – either they are very talented NFL players that have been taken by teams with bad fantasy defensive schemes, or they play a position that is traditionally scores badly, fantasy-wise. If your scoring system awards bonuses that will help these players, adjust them accordingly.

CB Dunta Thomas HOU, CB DeAngelo Hall ATL, CB Shawntae Spencer SF, DT Vince Wilfork NE, DT Tommie Harris CHI, DE Marquise Hill NE, DT Marcus Tubbs SEA, CB Ahmad Carroll GB, CB Will Poole MIA, DT Igor Olshansky SD, DT Dwan Edwards BAL, SLB Daryl Smith JAX, DT Junior Siavii KC, CB Chris Gamble CAR, CB Matt Ware PHI.