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2023 NFL Draft: Rookie sleepers for IDP fantasy football

Cincinnati, Ohio, USA; Cincinnati Bearcats linebacker Ivan Pace Jr. (0) runs onto the field prior to the game against the Indiana Hoosiers at Nippert Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

  • Small but mighty: If not for his smaller size, Cincinnati’s Ivan Pace Jr. could have been the best linebacker in this year’s class. 
  • Two ideal safeties for IDP: Illinois’ Sydney Brown and Boise State’s JL Skinner have the right stuff to become IDP darlings as long as they land in the right spot.
  • Elite athleticism could lead to significant upside: Northwestern’s Adetomiwa Adebawore has some freaky traits and if can continue to improve as a pass-rusher, look out!
Estimated reading time: 13 minutes

Most fantasy managers are well versed with the key names at the top of the draft, and which ones will be first-round picks in fantasy rookie drafts this offseason. While the early rounds are crucial for dynasty managers, maximizing value in the later rounds of drafts is often a more complicated task. By identifying these players' potential, fantasy managers can bet on talent in the later rounds of rookie drafts instead of just taking blind fliers on random names hoping to find the next Foyesade Oluokun, Maxx Crosby, Grady Jarrett or Talanoa Hufanga.

This list consists of two players at key defensive positions for IDP who project to go in Round 3 of the NFL Draft or later. Most of these players are far enough removed from the top names at their position in positional rankings that they typically do not come up in the conversation as the best five, six, or even 10 players at their position. 

Linebacker

Ivan Pace Jr., Cincinnati

There is an argument to be made that if not for his size, Pace would be in consideration for the top linebacker in this year’s class given everything he put on tape over the past two seasons at Cincinnati and Miami (OH). One of Pace’s greatest strengths is his ability to make plays in the run game, which he does by utilizing his smooth quickness to get around blockers. He has a strong understanding of his gap assignments and executes them with confidence and speed, which allowed him to post an elite 90.7 run defense grade this past season. His shorter wingspan did pop up as an issue in wrapping up ball carriers, which led to a high 13.1% missed tackle rate, but he was still able to post an impressive 126 total tackles in 2022, as he is so good at getting himself in the right position to make plays.

Pace played very close to the line of scrimmage for the Bearcats, so he wasn’t asked to drop too deep into coverage or carry tight ends up the seams, but there is evidence that he can handle himself in that regard back in 2021 with Miami (OH). There he was asked to do a bit more in coverage and performed well, leading to the best coverage grade (82.7) of his college career on 26 targets.

Pace is a real threat on passing downs as a blitzer, where he rushed the passer 180 times for a 93.3 pass-rush grade that resulted in 55 pressures and 12 sacks in 2022. The same ability that allows Pace to phase through blockers in run defense translated to his blitz attempts as well, using his quickness to get around offensive linemen, running backs or tight ends on his way to pressure opposing quarterbacks.

Pace is likely to go somewhere late Day 2 or early Day 3 in the Draft, and despite his size would be a great value either way, especially for a blitz-heavy system that can play to his strengths and maximize his impact and opportunities.

Isaiah Moore, North Carolina State

Moore takes us a bit deeper into the linebacker pool, as he may not get drafted until late on Day 3, if at all, which has a lot to do with his lack of coverage ability. He is coming off a year where he earned a 46.6 coverage grade by allowing 12.3 yards per reception on just 19 targets. However, as teams start to rotate linebackers more based on situations, not unlike the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns this past season, there could be a significant role for Moore as an early-down thumper who also offers up some pass-rush upside as a SAM linebacker in the right system.

Moore’s ability to make plays against the run was second to none this past year, earning a 94.4 run0defense grade that was first in the nation among all linebackers. He showed a strong ability to get off of blocks and quickly make stops before the runner found his way out of the backfield, posting a 1.24-yard average depth of tackle against the run in 2022, which was over a full yard shallower than any other linebacker in this class. 

Moore will almost certainly need an ideal landing spot to get on the field early in his NFL career, somewhere where the depth chart is shallow and the need for a plus run-defender is necessary. Those teams do exist in Las Vegas as a replacement for Denzel Perryman, or the Los Angeles Chargers as a compliment to Eric Kendricks, and even the Buffalo Bills, who currently projects to start one of the smaller linebacker duos in the league between Matt Milano and Terrel Bernard. There’s a spot out there for Moore, and he’ll have a shot for high-tackle upside if he gets there, even in a limited role in the NFL.

Isaiah Moore’s 2022 numbers and rankings versus the 2023 rookie linebacker class
Metric Value Rank
Run defense grade 94.4 1st
Average depth of tackle vs the run 1.24 1st
Tackles for loss or no gain 21 1st
Run stop rate 13.46% 2nd
Negatively-graded run defense plays 7.7% 3rd

Defensive line

Adetomiwa Adebawore, Northwestern

One of the truly freak athletes among this year’s defensive prospect pool, Adebawore blew up the combine by running a sub-4.5-second 40-yard dash at over 280 pounds. While he didn’t dominate some of the key pass-rush metrics among edge defenders, his athleticism and explosion off the line pop on tape as a significant strength he can use to his advantage as he develops more of a pass-rush repertoire. His ability to utilize his explosion and leverage against offensive linemen to drive them backward is a great sign that he understands how to use his tools to his advantage. It likely won’t take long for Adebawore to develop his game, as he has consistently improved his pass-rush grades and production over the past three years as a starter, most recently earning an 80.3 pass-rush grade to go along with 31 pressures and six sacks.

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