There are many players that will be given opportunities to ascend in the NFL 2015. Every year Fantasy IDP players are gifted gems off the waiver wire at unexpected times, though knowing which players are in a position to succeed is one way to mitigate the chance of being surprised when someone like 2014's Chris Borland steps up and produces numbers no owner expects.
Using a variety of resources below are some of those very players. Some listed will start the season and never look back and others might need a few weeks to find their groove but shouldn't be forgotten about as the NFL calendar wanes.
Telvin Smith - LB - JAX
Smith might get overlooked among IDP linebackers on a Jacksonville squad that has finished with a combined 7-25 record over Gus Bradley's two seasons at the helm. As a rookie, the undersized Smith finished just 3 tackles shy of Chris Borland, who dominated the IDP landscape in the second half of the season. Smith posted 104 combined tackles (72 solo tackles and 32 assists), and graded positively against the run. He will be counted on more in 2015 to be an every-down LB in the Jag's 4-3 defense and should see his meager sack (2.0) and INT (1) rise from their 2014 totals.
Another sign that Smith is ascending to the ranks of elite IDP play is his Tackles Per Opportunity (tPOP), which ranked 6th in the NFL in 2014, behind fellow IDP gems Luke Kuechly, Bobby Wagner, DeAndre Levy, Lavonte David and Curtis Lofton. Those are some big names that command a much higher draft cost. While the Jaguars offense should be better and keep the defense off the field more often, Smith is a late-round target that should offer a minimum of LB2 production at terrific value.
Shamarko Thomas - DB - PIT
Replacing a legend like Troy Polamalu in a city where defense reigns supreme cannot be an easy task, which is why I'm sure a talented player like Thomas will jump at the task. Though his numbers regressed negatively entered his second year in the NFL in 2014, Thomas plays a strong game against the run with good speed and tackling ability.
Like a lot of safeties his value will come from strong tackle totals and passes defended, both of which should exceed his 2014 numbers with the increase in snaps. Thomas is a heavy hitter and will have to make up for a lackluster defense surrounding him, which is a perfect opportunity for IDP success. At minimum you're looking at a strong DB4, but keep him in mind as the waiver wire players begin dwindling.
Malik Jackson - DL - DEN
Wade Phillips is nothing if not aggressive. His 5-technique is an attacking style defense that suits a player like Jackson, a DE who's biggest strength might be his agility on the defensive line. According to PFF, in 2014 Jackson finished as the #3 rated 4-3 DE and his frame (293 lbs.) is well-suited to the switch to a 3-4 DE. His run stuffing ability which was above-average in 2013 (4.1 per PFF) became elite in 2014 (12.8 per PFF).
Jackson will be entering the final year of his rookie contract and will have a lot to prove, and despite a 2014 season that was extremely underrated, he'll need to bring more heat and Phillips system can get him there. Expect double-digit sacks and tackle-for-loss totals. He could easily have DL1 upside, but keep him slotted for now as a solid weekly DL2.
Sam Barrington - LB - GB
Linebackers that have the ability to hit hard and play fast are becoming a rarer sight in the NFL these days, which make owning players like the Packers third-year ILB Barrington all the more fun to watch and root for. Still a work in progress when it comes to his pass coverage, he'll make his mark (and IDP money) playing a strong run game. It's rare to see a player actually get better in tighter coverage, but Barrington does.
In 14 games (7 GS) he posted a very slim sack total (1) but followed up with a respectable 53 combined tackles (40 solo and 13 assists). He will be a big piece of the middle of the Packers defense, and to see him put up less than 100 combined tackles would be a gigantic disappointment to fantasy owners. Pair that with an uptick in sacks and you're looking at solid weekly totals any LB3 with upside of an LB2.
Travis "TJ" Carrie - DB - OAK
I've had a few people point out big expectations for Carrie to improve the Raiders defense. I typically stay away from cornerbacks on my IDP teams as they are harder to predict for consistent weekly point totals. On occasion I've been know to make exceptions for speedy CB's that are in unique positions to return kicks and punts (ex. Leodis McKelvin), as most IDP leagues count return yardage and TD's, which can be a game changer. Carrie is a 6'0" DB who fights well for the ball and makes good breaks to stay with receivers, a pair of attributes that should help boost his respectable 2014 numbers in both tackles (44 combined), INT (1) and PD (8). When you pair those with his solid returning skills, you've got the makings of a player with DB3 upside and makes a great plug and play if he's hanging on your waiver wire.
Damontre Moore - DL - NYG
Despite being just a part-time player in 2014, Moore did a solid job of securing IDP owners fantasy production, averaging a steady 0.30 points per snap. He posted rather pedestrian numbers in 2014, a combined 32 tackles (25 solo and 7 assists) but a decent sack total of 5.5, which the Giants expect to rise after they released Mathias Kiwanuka back in February.
Moore will get some increase in hype because of Jason Pierre-Paul's hand injury, but at age 22 and entering his third year in the league he is expected to see some positive growth and with an extra 150 to 200 snaps, should wind up as a DL3 with DL2 upside some weeks.
Kony Ealy - DL - CAR
Ealy didn't grade out so well in 2014, but was also rushed into the lineup to replace one of the best linemen in the game, Greg Hardy. The extra rookie year experience should carry over and Ealy has a great 4-3 defense around him to show him the ropes (including DE Charles Johnson and DT Star Lotulelei). He makes for a good waiver wire pick-up if he starts stringing together a few solid weeks and will have a DL2 ceiling for his double digit sack upside and tackle totals.
Here's to a great 2015 for all you IDPer's out there.
Tyler A. Hunt
You can find more ramblings by me on Twitter @mallowciraptor