Every year has its sleepers, and the 2012 NFL season will provide nothing different, especially on the defensive side of the football.
Quite a few players emerged down the stretch of 2011 and could continue their success in expanded roles and new schemes. With that in mind, let's take a look at who could lead your team to a title.
After Rocky McIntosh squandered his opportunity to remain a starter in the Redskins defense, Perry Riley gave coaches and fantasy owners more than they could have hoped for down the stretch.
Riley started the final eight games of the season and averaged over eight tackles per contest. Not only that, he showed a keen instincts through his ability to cover tons of ground. Riley showed this by logging five tackles for loss and four defensed passes. In his impressive starting debut against the Miami Dolphins, he allowed three receptions, but for a total of -7 yards.
If we extrapolate what Riley did over the course of a full season, he would have logged 134 tackles, eight defended passes, two sacks and 10 tackles for a loss. Those aren't bad looking numbers on a defense that already includes a human vacuum cleaner in London Fletcher.
Riley still has youth on his side despite embarking on his third season under Jim Haslett's scheme. At just 24 years old, he could be entering the prime of his career and could bolster several fantasy rosters with a late-round pick.
Yet another LSU product could see his production rise once the new season rolls around.
Chan Gailey announced that the Buffalo Bills will switch to a 4-3 defense, and there will be none happier than Kelvin Sheppard and his owners in 2012.
Despite playing next to a rejuvenated Nick Barnett, Sheppard racked up 59 of his 70 tackles in the final nine games as the Bills' "Mike" linebacker in 2011. Once the transition of a 4-3 occurs in 2012, those numbers could very well spike. Gailey has awarded Sheppard with the spot as the lone middle linebacker in his new defense, and that could double his tackling production.
The only downside is that Sheppard hasn't contributed much outside of his tackling prowess so far. If you're in an IDP league that skews scoring toward turnovers, sacks and tackles for loss, you may consider passing on Sheppard.
But a consistent weekly output still has its value. Sheppard could be a safe, reliable play next year and give a consistent 8-10 point output per game. Those aren't staggering numbers, but owners could do much worse. He should satisfy everyone who takes him as a late-round flier.
Adrian Clayborn and teammate Da'Quan Bowers were at one point consensus top-10 picks. But Clayborn's health and Bowers' tendency to disappear from plays caused their draft stocks to plummet.
Tampa Bay took a gamble on both, but their roll of the dice could pay off greatly despite a terrible defensive effort in 2011. Clayborn provided a rare bright spot amid the dark 10-game skid to end the season.
Clayborn recorded a respectable eight sacks in his rookie season, but what's more impressive is that he generated 42 pressures on top of that. He did play in over 400 pass-rushing snaps, so that may not seem very impressive at first glance.
But in fact, it is. A 12 percent sack rate doesn't seem like much, but it's comparable to elite pass-rushers such as Jared Allen (11.48 percent) and Julius Peppers (12.94 percent). It's also more successful than rushers such as Elvis Dumervil (10.04 percent) and Jason Pierre-Paul (10.02 percent).
If Clayborn begins to cash in on his opportunities in the form of sacks and tackles for loss, he could put up huge fantasy numbers.
Does this mean I would target Clayborn ahead of the aforementioned? Of course not. But with a young and talented defensive front that includes Gerald McCoy, Michael Bennett and Bowers, the ceiling is very high for the Iowa product. At the right price, he could turn into a very reliable DE2 next year.