Each year, rookie defensive backs get selected progressively higher in the NFL Draft. Why? The simple answer is that the NFL has morphed into a passing league. You can still win with defense and playing ball control offense holding on to the football. It has just become harder. The Atlanta Falcons found that out in the playoffs against the Saints last year. So this year, the Falcons spent a ton of assets to move up in the draft to select Julio Jones in an effort to add another game-breaking offensive piece. On the flip-side, teams are constantly trying to counter these moves by adding pass rushers and good defensive backs in order to slow down these explosive offenses. This brings me to the entire point of this article:
Rookie Defensive Backs Are a Gold Mine
Every year, some rookie defensive backs provide exceptional value and return on investment (ROI) for their fantasy owners as long as the owners get them late and do not overpay based on the hype. This article identifies some guys to target that could give you the best ROI amongst the rookie DBs this coming season. The guy I am targeting: Jimmy Smith, CB, Baltimore Ravens.
Now before I get into why I like Jimmy Smith, let me throw out some numbers to demonstrate the value you can gain by selecting the right rookie defensive back.
In the past three seasons, some rookie DBs have come out and delivered solid performances for fantasy teams. A lot of times, these DBs were not the highest selected rookie DBs either.
2008: Brandon Flowers (12th), Brandon Carr (13th), and Tracy Porter (30th) were amongst the top 30 cornerbacks in terms of points per game. Flowers cracked the top-30 overall amongst DBs in 2008 when he finished 27th.
2009: Jerraud Powers (12th) and Jacob Lacey (13th) were amongst the top-15 cornerbacks in terms of points per game. Louis Delmas was the best rookie safety and Delmas and Lacey finished 12th and 25th amongst all defensive backs that season.
2010: Alterraun Verner (5th) and Devin McCourty (8th) were amongst the top-10 in ppg amongst cornerbacks. TJ Ward, Eric Berry, and Earl Thomas were all top-50 DBs as well. Overall, Ward (3rd), Verner (13th), Berry (20th) and McCourty (22nd) finished in the top-25 overall DBs as rookies.
As you can see, 2010 was a particularly good year for rookie DBs. Part of that was the level of talent and part of it was the opportunities those players had. This is always the formula for success amongst almost any fantasy player: talent + opportunity = success.
The other thing to take a close note of is that rookie cornerbacks can fair very well in the fantasy world. While Safeties usually rule the IDP world, rookie CBs can be fantasy gold since most experienced NFL quarterbacks will key on a rookie corner and try to pick them apart early and often.
This leads to my endorsement of Jimmy Smith of the Ravens as a deep IDP sleeper candidate this coming season. Smith has some serious talent. By most scouts’ assessments, he was THE best cover corner available in this year’s draft. Yes, better then Patrick Peterson. Smith fell in the draft due to some character issues, but couldn’t have landed on a better team. The Ravens have no reservations taking on players with perceived or previous character issues. They have faith in their locker-room and players like Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, and Haloti Ngata will not let Smith get out of line. Below is a video showing just a preview of Smith's ability to play the run and his closing speed in pass defense.
One thing that I noticed in quite a few highlights I have seen of Smith is that while he has great cover skills, he is also willing to stick his nose in the backfield to support the run. Smith is quite big for a cornerback, standing at 6’2” and 211 pounds. He can match up against bigger, more physical receivers, yet has the coverage skills to run with the quicker WRs (4.4 speed).
The talent is there, but the big thing for me is the opportunity Smith has. The Ravens have already come out and said they expect him to start, play early and often, and maybe even shadow opposing teams’ #1 receivers. I fully expect teams to challenge him and go at him often. Since Smith has great ball skills, this could mean big opportunities for turnovers. However, even if he doesn’t net the turnovers, Smith is physical enough to rack up some serious tackles as teams throw at him.
The Ravens’ D is excellent at stopping the run, and as a result teams throw on the Ravens a lot. Last season, the Ravens’ defense was 3rd in the league in passing attempts against per game at 37.2 attempts per game. If that continues, Smith could prove to be this year’s CB that puts up DB2 numbers and he will likely come at the DB5 price or later. Keep an eye on him if you are looking for a deep IDP sleeper at defensive back.
Other rookie DBs to consider (although some will not offer much in the realm of ROI since they will be over drafted based on hype):
Patrick Peterson, CB, AZ- Peterson will be over hyped and over drafted in many fantasy leagues, but he does have the exceptional talent to put up numbers and plays across from Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, so he will get his chances. He will have to share a lot of tackles with Adrian Wilson and Kerry Rhodes, however.
Rahim Moore, S, DEN- Moore could be a huge stud if Brian Dawkins is not re-signed and Moore is given the starting SS job in Denver. Play the wait-and-see game for now, but keep him firmly on your radar.
Jaiquawn Jarett, S, PHI- Jarett is slated to step right in to Quintin Mikell’s SS spot and should put up some really good numbers there. If he is hanging around later in drafts and is not drafted too highly, grab him as a DB3 and stash him for when he rises.
Brandon Harris, CB, HOU- Harris has the talent and Houston certainly has the need. Kareem Jackson disappointed in Houston last year, and if Glover Quinn moves to safety this year, Harris could see a lot of playing time. Peyton Manning and other veteran QBs will pick on him and Harris should put up decent numbers if that happens.
Aaron Williams, CB/S, BUFF- There is some question whether Buffalo will play Williams at corner or at safety. He is talented enough to succeed at either position and Buffalo has a need at both. That said, if he somehow lands at SS next to Jarius Byrd (unlikely, but possible) then he becomes a must-own prospect. He is still worth a late round stash in bigger leagues or dynasty leagues either way.
Curtis Brown, CB, PIT- Brown could see some significant time if Pittsburgh loses Ike Taylor and he is thrust into a larger role than was anticipated. Brown is not worth drafting in most leaguers, but is worth monitoring as the season approaches and progresses.
Prince Amukamara, CB, NYG- Prince has some serious talent, but is currently lacking the opportunity in NY. He is currently a nickel DB at best, but if he ends up cracking that starting lineup anytime this season, then the Prince could end up being a steal. He is definitely worth keeping track of in dynasty leagues, especially those that require you to start CBs.