Top targets, when to draft, and more
Identifying individual defensive player (IDP) sleepers for the 2021 fantasy football season can be difficult. A team changing their defensive scheme or a player moving up on the depth chart are optimal scenarios. Another is when a player is signed by or traded to a new team. All of the players mentioned below are in a position to prosper in 2021.
Beginning with the maulers up front, who are the top IDP sleepers heading into 2021?
Derrick Brown, DT, Carolina Panthers
Brown finished last season with only 2 sacks. Still, the 2020 first-round selection consistently pressured opposing quarterbacks. Brown accumulated 12 quarterback hits last season. Did you know that 75% of them came in the final six games?
The 320-pound defensive tackle saw extensive playing time as a rookie, playing 70% of the Panthers’ defensive snaps. Brown has used the offseason to continue to develop as a professional. He will be joined by veteran defensive tackle DaQuan Jones and edge rusher Haason Reddick in 2021. These new additions will free Brown up and allow him to flourish this season. The Panthers have Brian Burns and Yetur Gross-Matos to complement him. Brown is one of my favorite IDP fantasy sleepers in drafts this summer.
Jeffery Simmons, DT, Tennessee Titans
Simmons has shown everyone flashes of what he’s capable of over the last two seasons. The former 19th-overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft took a substantial step forward in 2020. Most of Simmons’ snaps are at defensive end, but he qualifies as a defensive tackle in certain IDP formats, only increasing his value.
To date, Simmons has appeared in 24 games and has stockpiled 89 total tackles, 5 sacks, 5 tackles for loss, 1 forced fumble, and 3 fumble recoveries. He’s apparently in the best shape of his career, both mentally and physically. The Titans have surrounded Simmons with additional defensive help this year. He is someone to keep on your radar in IDP leagues.
K’Lavon Chaisson, DE/LB, Jacksonville Jaguars
Chaisson’s rookie season left much to be desired. He only had 1 sack and 12 quarterback pressures. Chaisson will be switching to Sam linebacker in 2021. This will provide him more opportunities to rush the quarterback.
He was dominant at LSU, playing in 24 games. Chaisson finished his college career with 92 tackles, 19 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks, and 1 forced fumble.
Chaisson is a sleeper you shouldn’t overlook in IDP formats. He struggled early transitioning to the NFL but closed the 2020 season strong. Chaisson will pick up where he left off.
Linebackers are tasked with stopping the run and dropping into coverage. As a result, they are typically the most productive IDP position, thanks to their production in the middle of the defense.
Cory Littleton, LB, Las Vegas Raiders
Littleton arrived in Las Vegas last season with high expectations. He had consecutive LB1 seasons with the Rams. Littleton went from an undrafted special-teams player to an every-down starter. Unfortunately, he was a disappointment in his first year with the Raiders.
The good news is that fantasy managers should be more optimistic about Littleton heading into 2021. Littleton finished the 2020 campaign strong once Rod Marinelli was inserted as the defensive coordinator.
The Raiders’ new defensive coordinator, Gus Bradley, has plans to leverage Littleton’s tremendous speed and coverage skills differently than Paul Guenther. Littleton could be positioned to accumulate tackles in space or be used as an edge rusher. Bradley has extensive experience in maximizing the potential of linebackers in his defensive schemes.
Isaiah Simmons, LB, Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals selected Simmons in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft. Yet, he only played 34% of the defensive snaps. Simmons finished last season with 54 tackles, 2 sacks, an interception, and a forced fumble. These were decent stats considering he only played 376 defensive snaps.
At Clemson, Simmons saw playing time on the defensive line, in the box, and as a defensive back. He’ll have an opportunity in 2021 to showcase that versatility and earn more playing time as an every-down athlete.
One of Arizona’s starting linebackers from last season, De’Vondre Campbell, is now with the Packers. The other starting linebacker, Jordan Hicks, has been given permission from the Cardinals to seek a trade. Simmons and rookie linebacker Zaven Collins will be starters in 2021.
Logan Wilson, LB, Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals’ defense allowed 148 rushing yards per game last year. That was the fourth-most in the NFL. Cincinnati’s front office only added four defensive linemen in the draft. The Bengals are counting on Wilson to step up in 2021 as the starting Mike linebacker. This is evident when examing Cincinnati’s linebacker depth chart.
Wilson made two starts last season, playing 343 defensive snaps and racking up 33 tackles. He finished his collegiate career at Wyoming with 421 tackles, 35 tackles for loss, and 7 sacks. Additionally, he generated 24 passes defensed, 10 interceptions, 4 forced fumbles, 4 fumbles recovered, and 3 defensive touchdowns.
Wilson will play a pivotal role for the Bengals’ defense this season alongside Germaine Pratt.
Which defensive backs should you target in IDP fantasy leagues?
Xavier McKinney, S, New York Giants
McKinney’s rookie season was derailed by a broken foot that landed him on injured reserve until late November. He only played in six games but amassed 24 tackles and an interception.
The Giants added cornerback Adoree’ Jackson this offseason to line up opposite of James Bradberry. This duo should have opposing quarterbacks thinking twice about attacking the perimeter. McKinney will be in a great position to thrive by accumulating tackles and interceptions in the middle of the field.
Tracy Walker, S, Detroit Lions
Walker will return to more of a free safety role in 2021 under the new coaching staff. Defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn will have him playing the high safety role. This will allow Walker to roam the field and make plays. The previous scheme pigeonholed him into more of a box-safety position.
The former third-round pick out of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette averaged nearly 8 tackles per game back in 2019. The Lions’ defense needs all the playmakers it can get. Detroit’s defense allowed the most total yards per game (420) last season.
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Eric is a Senior Fantasy Analyst for Pro Football Network and a member of the FSWA (Fantasy Sports Writers Association). You can read more of his work here and follow Eric on Twitter @EricNMoody.