DE Andre Branch, JAX - Sleeper (undervalued)
The rookie second-rounder out of Clemson was expected to start his NFL career as a rotational player and designated pass-rusher, but indications out of Jaguars camp suggest he might be in store for a broader role immediately. Already working with the first team in practice, Branch's hopes of cracking the Week 1 starting lineup improved dramatically with news courtesy of the Florida Times-Union that Austen Lane would miss most of the preseason due to an ankle injury. Lane was liable to lose snaps to Branch on passing downs anyway, but now he's given Branch the window he needs to show his chops as a run stopper. He seems to be making the necessary improvements; defensive line coach John Oehser took to Twitter at the end of July to say Branch was "more stout against the run than anticipated."
LB Akeem Dent, HOU - Super Sleeper (high risk/potential)
A second year pro, Dent is first in line to start at middle linebacker for the Falcons. He was slated to battle Lofa Tatupu for the job, but the latter's pectoral injury and subsequent release all but sealed the deal for the lesser-known Georgia product. Curtis Lofton manned the middle for Atlanta last season and was fifth in the NFL in tackles. His successor might not match those stats, but he is in line for solid fantasy production. Though Dent is unlikely to play on passing downs – at least to start the season – he could still rack up good numbers as a two-down run stopper.Injury Status: Out - Undisclosed
LB Erin Henderson, NYJ - Sleeper (undervalued)
Henderson became a starter for the Vikings last season and put up solid numbers (despite playing minimal snaps). He looks set to inherit an expanded role this year in the wake of his as-yet-unsigned brother E.J.'s free agency. With the elder Henderson likely leaving town, Erin should absorb his duties in nickel packages, vastly increasing his own field time. According to Pro Football Focus, "[Erin] Henderson was one of the most effective outside linebackers in the league against the run" and "we have only just begun to scratch the surface of what he is capable of as an every-down linebacker." Even as the 'sam' backer, Henderson offers considerable IDP value. Of course there is also the distinct possibility he might sooner or later displace underwhelming Jasper Brinkley in the middle, vaulting Henderson into IDP star territory.
LB D.J. Smith, --- - Sleeper (undervalued)
Smith will be asked to step in for injured Desmond Bishop, who had emerged as a top five fantasy linebacker before rupturing his hamstring in the preseason opener. Though he can't claim to match Bishop athletically, if Smith can be even 80 per cent as productive he'll be an IDP star. Subbing for an injured Bishop last season, he did record a healthy 27 tackles and an interception over a three-game span. Smith was a sixth-round choice out of Appalachian State and as such might not appeal to fantasy owners preoccupied with college pedigree. However, the Packers have been looking for ways to get Smith on the field more often and there were even rumblings he might unseat A.J. Hawk for the starting "buck" linebacker spot. Bishop's injury saves Hawk his job and gives Smith the chance to man the more fantasy-friendly "mack" position.
LB Bobby Wagner, SEA - Sleeper (undervalued)
Overshadowed thus far by much-hyped fellow rookie Bruce Irvin, Wagner could end up making the bigger fantasy splash this season. He is ostensibly competing with Barrett Ruud for a starting job, but Ruud hasn't been healthy enough to hold up his end of the contest so far. Wagner worked with the starters through OTAs and much of training camp and, provided he doesn't fall apart in preseason play, should open the season as Seattle's starting "mike" linebacker. It's a position that lends itself to fantasy success. Last year's starter, David Hawthorne (now a member of the New Orleans Saints) posted back-to-back-to-back 100-tackle seasons for the Seahawks, remaining on the field in passing situations and contributing a handful of big plays (forced fumbles, sacks, interceptions) each year. The coaches have already given Wagner a vote of confidence by allowing him to handle play-calling duties in training camp, meaning he too should stay on the field for passing downs. But the biggest vote of confidence comes from Wagner's teammate, Michael Robinson, who told the Seattle Times, "I call [Wagner] a baby Patrick Willis because I hadn't seen a linebacker move like that since Pat." Hyperbole or not, any comparisons to Willis bode well for Wagner's chances.