It has always been an interesting reality that every single season in fantasy football superstar producers are available for the mere click of a plus symbol. Last season, Victor Cruz won many early investors fantasy titles before going on to win the real thing for the Giants. In individual defensive player (IDP) leagues last year, we saw San Francisco's NaVorro Bowman turn in an elite campaign after going undrafted in most leagues. The 2012 versions are out there; they are materializing with each impressive snap and game-changing play. The real key to unearthing these gems is to stay informed and active even this early in the season. Some managers tend to be a bit static with their roster this early, and prove too tied to the commodities they acquired in the draft, if for no other reason than they liked their prospects in August. Simply put, you need to try to find room on your roster when available talent compels you to do so. There's no perfect approach to mining the market for the next Cruz or Bowman, but it's a fact that you'll never land that next waiver wonder if you aren't actively fluid with the bottom rungs of your rosters. We'll try our best to suggest who's next, beginning with some of the names below.
Front Four: The weekly word on the world of defenders
Getting Freeman: Scanning the leaderboard at linebacker just two weekends into the season, we can find a number of the expected elites to show up, with D'Qwell Jackson at the top and other profound talents such as Daryl Washington and Clay Matthews in the mix. But there is one name that stands out most, as former Saskatchewan Roughrider Jerrell Freeman of the Colts is right behind Jackson in fantasy production. From the powerhouse that is the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, in his first two NFL starts Freeman has already made a name for himself with 18 tackles, a forced fumble, one sack and an interception after entering the offseason as a camp curiosity. Fantasy fans remain skeptical, as Freeman is owned in only 17 percent of ESPN leagues, and the hesitation might be warranted because Freeman is filling in for tackle machine Pat Angerer, who is healing from a broken foot suffered in the preseason. We also should keep in mind that in a league built on playmakers, Freeman could force the Colts to limit the role of fellow Colts inside 'backer Kavell Conner once Angerer is back in action (possibly after the team's Week 4 bye). If you have some room on your roster, consider Freeman.
The Best of the West? Many NFL insiders, from scouts to tape gurus, have long felt that San Francisco's Justin Smith is one of the most underrated talents in the sport. It's certainly true that Smith worked his way into an elite 3-4 defensive end and has been a pivotal reason the 49ers' defense is consistently imposing. But given just how well Calais Campbell has been playing for the Cardinals over the past two years, it's time to recognize the big man's amazing value to an exceedingly scary Cardinals front seven. Campbell is built like a left tackle, or a bulky power forward, at 6-foot-8 and 300 pounds, but he also plays from the edge with great leverage. Campbell gets low and is impressively able to keep his pad level down for such a massive frame. I spoke with Campbell last fall about his high school days as he was in the midst of a breakout campaign that saw him post 72 tackles, eight sacks and an absurd 10 passes defended. Just this past week, he was a key reason the Cardinals upset the Patriots on the road, with 10 tackles and two sacks in the game that surely knocked many out of their office eliminator pools. Like Smith, Campbell's tackle production is likely to be healthy given the run-stopping duties of a 3-4 end. He's available in nearly 45 percent of ESPN leagues, so get on the Campbell bandwagon before everyone else catches up.
MG1: After years of roaming the field as the free safety in a productive role for the Titans, Michael Griffin is now the strong safety in Nashville. While the Titans' secondary has been torched so far this season, allowing opposing passers to compile five touchdowns to only one interception on the way to a 118.5 passer rating, it's also worth considering that Philip Rivers and Tom Brady were the arms behind the production. More important, Griffin's role as a starting safety is secure, and playing behind a particularly porous front seven should afford him a volume of tackle opportunities, as the 18 tackles (16 of them solos) from Week 2 suggest. In the strong safety role last season for Tennessee, Jordan Babineaux posted 93 tackles, so there is legitimate potential for Griffin to hit triple-digits this season. He is owned in less than a quarter of ESPN leagues, so at least you can net an elite Griffin for your fantasy team if you missed out on that Redskins rookie.
Bargain Bin: Here are some more worthy defenders available in more than half of ESPN leagues. Middle linebacker Mason Foster of the Bucs has shown a dramatic improvement against the run this season and is primed to enjoy a monster season in terms of tackle production. Even though he's not a true every-down stud, Foster is a must-add in nearly any format given the potential for production on early downs. Russell Allen of the Jaguars is locking down the "Will" gig with steady tackling, as his 12 solos Sunday confirm. Zach Brown of the Titans is benefiting from Colin McCarthy's injury that still has him in a walking boot. With ball carriers hitting the second level against Tennessee with relative ease, Brown will be busy corralling them in place of McCarthy. Patriots rookie end Chandler Jones proved his Week 1 impact wasn't an aberration with a strong outing against the visiting Cardinals in which he had five tackles and his second forced fumble in as many games. Given what a fickle position defensive line has historically been in fantasy terms, consider Jones as a premier pickup if you're dealing with middling returns. According to the awesome pass rush productivity (PRP) metric that Pro Football Focus crafted, it's Anthony Spencer leading 3-4 outside linebackers in the custom statistic and not DeMarcus Ware -- and by a significant amount. The stat accounts for the entirety of pressure that a player puts on the pocket, going beyond just sacks. The Cowboys have proven patient with Spencer, and it's going to pay off. Safety T.J. Ward of the Browns will be a top-10 defensive back in most formats this season, if you're into that kind of thing.
IDP rankings Week 3: The Top 30 linebackers, linemen and defensive backs
So that we're working from agreed parameters, we'll use what many consider traditional scoring modifiers for an IDP league: Tackle - Solo (1), Tackle - Assist (0.50), Sack (3), Interception (3), Forced fumble (3), Fumble recovery (3), Touchdown (6), Safety (2), Pass defended (1), Blocked kick (3).