Daryl Smith, (3-4) ILB, BAL
Smith was one of the NFL's most underrated defenders in recent years while playing with the Jaguars, but a lingering groin injury in 2012 led Jacksonville to cut ties with Smith when he became a free agent in the offseason. With Arthur Brown as the lone promising player at inside linebacker, the Ravens targeted Smith as a bargain pickup in June, and Smith reportedly established himself as a standout in the Baltimore defense not long afterward. He looks like a heavy favorite to play as a three-down defender in 2013, making him a third-tier LB at worst in most IDP leagues.
Kiko Alonso, MLB, BUF
Alonso has consistently played as a three-down linebacker in Bills training camp, and it appears as if the second-round pick out of Oregon is a realistic threat to lead Buffalo in tackles as a rookie. Along with second-year player Nigel Bradham, Alonso appears poised to play almost all of Buffalo's defensive snaps, making Alonso a fantasy option in many leagues after posting 81 tackles (14 for a loss) and four interceptions in 12 games for Oregon a year ago. A shoulder injury will keep Alonso out of Buffalo's preseason game against Minnesota on Friday, but it's not expected to be a lingering issue.
Alec Ogletree, OLB, STL
Although the Rams drafted Ogletree in the first round (30th overall) to eventually serve as a three-down linebacker, it wasn't a given that he'd be able to snatch that role away from Jo-Lonn Dunbar, who impressed in run defense last year while serving as a three-down linebacker next to James Laurinaitis. Dunbar received a suspension for the first four games of the 2013 season due to violating the league's PED policy, however, and now it's easy to see Ogletree establishing himself as a three-down player in Week 1. Will Witherspoon could hold down the nickel role as he steps in for Dunbar in the first four weeks, but Witherspoon will be 33 on Aug. 19, and he hasn't hit the 100-tackle mark since 2007. It would be great if Ogletree could win the nickel role next to Laurinaitis, because he would have first-tier upside after posting 111 tackles in 10 games for Georgia last year. He has upside in coverage and as a pass rusher, too.
Ezekiel Ansah, DE, DET
Mark Sanchez gets almost all the credit for Ansah's interception returned for a touchdown when the Jets and Lions made their preseason debuts, but exciting as the play was, it was too fluky and meaningless to provide any insight on Ansah's IDP value heading into this year. What is worth noting, however, is the fact that Detroit defensive line coach Kris Kocurek said Tuesday that Ansah will be more than a situational player for Detroit as a rookie. That's something you probably presumed when you saw a Detroit depth chart that had just Ansah, Jason Jones, Israel Idonije and Devin Taylor as its top-four ends, but now the idea is more than a presumption. It's worth noting that Jones, the projected starter opposite Ansah, has had a lot of injury trouble in his career, which is another fact that aids Ansah's odds of a big snap count. He looks like a legitimate fantasy option off the bat as a rookie, and he has solid upside playing next to Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley.
Olivier Vernon, DE, MIA
It appears that Jared Odrick will primarily focus on defensive tackle in 2013, opening up a starting defensive-end role opposite Cameron Wake. Third overall pick Dion Jordan was the on-paper favorite to earn the role, but shoulder troubles and Vernon's strong play in training camp have made the second-year pro out of Miami the favorite over the rookie from Oregon. Plus, Jordan can easily play outside linebacker, so it's not as if the Dolphins need to show Jordan favoritism at the end position to get him on the field. Vernon is in any case emerging as an intriguing sleeper on the defensive line, as he posted 32 tackles and 3.5 sacks as a rotational player a year ago. With Wake, Odrick and Randy Starks playing next to him, moreover, Vernon should almost never see double teams.
Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, NYG
Giants GM Jerry Reese publicly stated he expects Pierre-Paul to be ready for Week 1 after undergoing back surgery in June, but Pierre-Paul himself hasn't provided a guarantee, and he implied that he doesn't feel much pressure to be ready for the first game given the depth the team has in players like Justin Tuck, Mathias Kiwanuka and Damontre Moore. New York Daily News writer Ralph Vacchiano, meanwhile, said he was "very skeptical" that JPP would play in Week 1, and even expressed concern about JPP's ability to contribute in the first month. If you miss out on Luke Kuechly and J.J. Watt as the first IDP picks in your league, it looks like you might be better off going with DeMarcus Ware, Jared Allen or your top-ranked linebacker on the board than gambling on JPP's back.
Colin McCarthy, MLB, TEN
McCarthy showed a lot of per-play potential as a rookie, posting 63 tackles over the final eight weeks as a fourth-round pick, but the Miami product hasn't been able to stay healthy since, and it appears as if McCarthy is liable to lose his starting middle linebacker role to free-agent signing Moise Fokou. Fokou has shown well in training camp while McCarthy sits out with a hamstring issue, and the Tennessee coaches have little reason to believe in McCarthy's durability after he missed nine games in 2012 due to ankle and concussion issues.
Desmond Bishop, OLB, MIN
Bishop was an IDP monster in Green Bay in 2011, totaling 115 tackles (90 solo) and five sacks in just 13 games, so it's very disappointing to see the toll injuries have taken on him since. A preseason hamstring injury ended his 2012 season before it could start and, after signing with the Vikings in June, Bishop picked up a groin injury in early August. Minnesota coach Leslie Frazier implied that Bishop might not make the team if he doesn't get back on the field in a hurry, so he's apparently not held in the highest regard by his new coach. That means Bishop looks like a long shot to earn nickel snaps even if he does make the Minnesota roster, making his IDP prospects appear dim.
Jonathan Vilma, (3-4) ILB, NO
The pieces were in place for Vilma to experience a resurgence as an IDP in 2013 as a likely starter next to Curtis Lofton at inside linebacker in Rob Ryan's 3-4, but knee trouble forced Vilma to undergo an arthroscopic procedure Thursday, and suddenly his availability for Week 1 isn't guaranteed. Vilma's absence will also allow David Hawthorne, a standout linebacker for the Seahawks as recently as 2011, to gain ground on Vilma on the depth chart.
Anthony Spencer, DE, DAL
It was reported Monday that Spencer remained 2-to-3 weeks away from returning to the field after a minor surgery in July. Spencer should safely be ready for Dallas' season opener against the Giants on Sept. 8, but his prognosis cuts things a bit close, and that leaves open the possibility that he will deal with one or both of compromised conditioning and a limited snap count. Spencer still heads into this year as a strong fantasy candidate in most formats, but his owners might not get a full return on that value until a week or two into the year.