So far here at Footballguys, we have gone over the biggest breakout steals of 2023 at both Linebacker and along the Defensive Line—the sort of value picks that can help propel IDP managers into the postseason and all the way to a championship.
But now it's time to break down the position where finding breakout stars may be most important of all—because for the last 15 years, I have depended on late-round value plays at defensive back in IDP leagues.
If you have read Part 5 of the Complete Guide to Dominating IDP (and if you haven't, you should), then you know that given how plentiful and unpredictable defensive backs are from season to season, that the wisest course of action at the position is patience. Load up at linebacker. Draft a solid cadre of defensive linemen. And then circle back late in the draft for upside plays in the secondary.
It's a strategy this IDP pundit has long advocated for one simple reason—it works. And there is never a shortage of defensive backs available late with the potential to emerge as viable weekly starters.
Defensive backs just like these.
As always, there are a couple of ground rules for this little exercise. The first is that any player who has posted a top-24 fantasy season is out—they have already broken out. The second is that any player being drafted among the top 30 at their position is excluded.
It's why you won't see Tennessee Titans safety Kevin Byard listed here, despite the fact that the productive veteran continues to be undervalued. Or Dallas Cowboys safety Donovan Wilson, who is being similarly slept on in spite of a top-10 fantasy finish in 2022.
What you will see is value—and defensive backs who should absolutely be on your pre-draft radar.
Ryan Neal, S, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Now on his fourth team, it's been a weird year for Neal, who was originally tendered by the Seattle Seahawks but saw the tender rescinded when the team signed Jordan Love. Now in Tampa, Neal told reporters that he aims to show he's not just a valid starter but one capable of fulfilling a number of roles for the Buccaneers.
"My goal is to show the league I'm a legit starter," he said. "In Seattle, I had my chance to flash and show. Last year was really big, and this year, I want to make that set in stone, send a statement I'm a starting safety. The way the game is changing now, there are no more positions. You see a lot of guys who do a lot of different things, a bunch of hybrids. That's the way the game is going. If you're a football player, you love it because you get to do anything and everything. Me, I'm comfortable with anything."
Neal has already shown he can be a productive IDP asset—over a 10-week span from Week 5 to Week 14 last year, Neal tallied 64 total tackles and ranked sixth in fantasy points among defensive backs. Antoine Winfield has already stated that he'll be playing deep safety in 2023, which means more box snaps for Neal—and more potential for fantasy production.
Kerby Joseph, S, Detroit Lions
Joseph had his moments as a rookie, starting 14 games, tallying 82 total tackles, and intercepting four passes on the way to a DB53 fantasy finish. But, as Lions head coach Dan Campbell told reporters from OTAs, he thinks Joseph has only just scraped the surface of what he's capable of at the professional level.
"We see the plays he is capable of, and now it is just being consistent, over and over," Campbell said. "Here's the thing a little bit with Kerby: Because he's instinctive, he's a good athlete, he's rangy — there are times where he could veer off a little bit and maybe go out of the wheelhouse of what we want. Just a little bit. But that is all part of being a young player that has some ability and is learning to grow. And so just the consistency, just do your job, be conscious of your landmarks, understand what is going on beneath you. But, man, there is a ton of growth still with this player. That is what's exciting."
The safety room in the Motor City is as crowded as any in the NFL—the Lions signed Chauncey Gardner-Johnson in free agency and added Alabama's Brian Branch early in the 2023 draft. But Gardner-Johnson appears headed for a role in the slot, Branch is more of a deep safety, and Tracy Walker is working his way back from an Achilles tear. There appears to be a relatively easy path to the starting box safety role for Joseph in his second season—and DB2 value available late in drafts.
Darrick Forrest, S, Washington Commanders
A fifth-round pick out of Cincinnati in 2021, Forrest barely played as a rookie. But 2022 brought a coming-out party of sorts, with 88 total tackles and four interceptions over 850 defensive snaps. Doug Farrar of Touchdown Wire saw enough from the 24-year-old last season to call him the most underrated player on Washington's roster.
"Playing everywhere from outside cornerback to the box to the slot to free safety," Farrar said, "Forrest allowed 25 catches on 46 targets for 308 yards, 119 yards after the catch, four touchdowns, four interceptions, five pass breakups, and an opponent passer rating of 68.0 — sixth-best among all safeties playing at least 50% of their defenses' snaps. Perhaps the most encouraging thing about Forrest's 2022 season is how much he improved as it went along. He was in a bit over his skis to start, and that resulted in some out-of-position busts against the run and the pass. But as things progressed, Forrest became much more of the kind of deep-third player who could be trusted to make the big play at the right time."
Forrest nearly had too good a second season to make it into this piece—he was quietly 27th among defensive backs for the year, and 17th in points among defensive backs over the second half of the season. Forrest doesn't spend as much time in the box as teammate Kamren Curl, but the Commanders tend to play as much left/right safety as "box" and "free." Forrest gets his shots near the line of scrimmage—and last year, at least, he made the most of them.
Continue reading this content with a ELITE subscription.
An ELITE subscription is required to access content for IDP (individual defensive players) leagues. If this league is not a IDP (individual defensive players) league, you can edit your leagues here.
"Footballguys is the best premium
fantasy football only site on the planet."
Matthew Berry, NBC Sports EDGE