Ascension to NFL stardom can be incomparably rapid. In the matter of a few prolific plays, trust is formed. Evaluation leads to confirmation of the playmaking ability, and then we build expectations. After years of toiling to simply make roster cuts and practice squads, the Giants' Andre Brown suddenly seems like the real deal after an impressive performance versus the Panthers last Thursday night. In Detroit, in his first real NFL game, Mikel Leshoure has given the Lions faithful some hope that their long search for a "post-Barry Sanders" back has been answered.
On defense, we already need to note several rising stars this season. Luckily for us, these emerging defensive talents don't get the immediate hype that leads to en masse ownership spikes in our fantasy leagues. In Houston, J.J. Watt isn't just replacing Mario Williams; he's making people forget about him. Somehow, Watt remains available in a great deal of leagues. In Tennessee, Akeem Ayers, a player owned in just 15 percent of ESPN leagues, is second in the league in tackles on a team that will regularly engage in crazy shootouts. The list goes on, and it's our responsibility to give these rising statistical stars a place to live, a fantasy home, if you will.
Front Four: The weekly word on the world of defenders
Watt's Up? The conventional wisdom in letting Mario Williams get the Scrooge McDuck open vault treatment in Buffalo was the idea that Houston was building a stable of pass-rushers to replace the loss of its former No. 1 pick. The reality, it turns out, is that it simply already had a stronger in-house option in Watt, who has been a menace to opponents so far in 2012. We've been hyping the second-year stud since the beginning of the season, and he's still available in more than 40 percent of ESPN leagues. The 5.5 sacks and persistent pocket pressure are legit, as this amazing stat from Pro Football Focus confirms: On 21.7 percent of all pass rushes, Watt has either deflected a pass or picked up a sack, hit or hurry. These are devastating numbers and an amazing rate of influence. Even with the small sample size, they suggest that enduring production can be trusted. A trip to Hawaii seems more than likely for Watt, so get on board before the ownership numbers are in agreement with his production pace.
Safety Net: If you missed out on a star safety or got caught up in some bigger names like Troy Polamalu, you just might be in need of an infusion of talent at the position. Cleveland's T.J. Ward is still just under the radar as a fantasy star, but his numbers are trending toward a return to the impressive clip he posted as a rookie in 2010 (123 total tackles). A strong start, buoyed by the fact that he plays behind a porous front seven, should lead to a volume of tackles and a handful of helpful ancillary stats. Ward is an ideal addition and is available in more than 50 percent of ESPN leagues. Atlanta's William Moore is thriving for the Falcons, as they build early leads and allow their aggressive secondary to pursue the ball and the pocket. For leagues that specifically add cornerbacks to rosters, it's time to get back together with veteran IDP stud Antoine Winfield. Health, not production, has always been the issue with Winfield. Enjoy the numbers while we have them. Acquiring Tennessee's Alterraun Verner fulfills several needs; you get a productive, big-play defensive back and an awesome name on your roster. The Titans' secondary is going to get a lot of attention this season, and while in real terms that isn't the most flattering reality, it's certainly inviting for fantasy purposes.
Sluggish Starts: Although it's wise to preach patience with talented commodities early in the campaign, there is indeed a breaking point when patience can become punishment. Each season, on both sides of the ball, a number of proven incumbent producers fail to start their engines in the first month of the season. If you add a handful of these disappointing starters to your roster, it can show up in the loss column, so it could be time to cut the line. Pittsburgh's Lawrence Timmons is a prime example of a player I'm ready to set free, as he's simply on a downward trend since his epic 2010 effort. Timmons is owned in more than half of ESPN leagues, but with a bye this weekend, feel free to seek out a new 'backer, possibly using the bargain bin below as a resource. This hurts to type, not my actual fingers but the words they produce: It's time to let Justin Tuck and his zero sacks figure it out on the waiver wire in 10-team formats. I know, I know, it hurts you, too, but the numbers aren't there, and more importantly, the tape suggests that he's not around the pocket with the regularity he was in his best days. In a deeper format where you can tuck Tuck away waiting for a revival, I'd advise that course, but in shallow formats that allow only a few defenders on a roster at a time, it's time for new blood. If you are waiting on Tuck, and Watt or Chris Clemons is available, go make those necessary clicks. John Abraham is the league's active sack king, but he's not doing much this season to add to his lofty totals.
Bargain Bin: Here are some worthy defenders available in more than half of ESPN leagues: Kansas City's Justin Houston was a sleeper of ours in the offseason, and he's living up to the hype so far with four sacks, three of them coming this past weekend in New Orleans. In leagues that heavily reward sack production, head to Houston -- or rather Kansas City -- to get this speedy outside pass-rusher. Oakland's Philip Wheeler is proving to be a consistent source for tackles as teams challenge the Raiders' front seven. Jacksonville's Russell Allen remains busy corralling ball carriers and has another big day ahead of him versus the Bengals. The talent hasn't led to big numbers just yet, but Washington's Perry Riley is an instinctive tackler who is warming up of late and merits consideration in deeper formats. Buffalo's Nick Barnett posted an awesome 2011 effort and is still the every-down 'backer in Orchard Park. Carolina safety Charles Godfrey will be quite busy this fall, as opposing quarterbacks simply have too much time to operate, leading to a number of tackle and pass-deflection opportunities. Philly's Kurt Coleman isn't an elite talent, but he is on the field a lot for the Eagles and will be busy chasing down Giants on Sunday night. Cincinnati's Michael Johnson teed off on Washington's backup tackle Jordan Black on his way to netting the AFC's Defensive Player of the Week award. Johnson has always had the requisite talent, and now the production is materializing. Tampa's Michael Bennett might get the next shot at the Redskins' porous line and is coming off of his own big week, with two sacks against Dallas this past weekend.
IDP rankings Week 4: The Top 30 LBs, DLs and DBs
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).