BRADIE JAMES HAS ALWAYS ENJOYED RUSHING the passer—the sensation that comes with attacking the line of scrimmage, blowing up a would-be blocker and mashing some glamorous quarterback into the ground. One problem: Nobody knew. In the nine seasons before 2008 (four at LSU and five with the Cowboys), James had only one season (2000) with more than three sacks. "I like to blitz," he says. "But the coaches didn't know that because they didn't use me that way."
Now everyone knows, including coaches, opposing quarterbacks and fantasy owners. Used almost strictly on first and second downs during his first four seasons with Dallas, James was forced to be a three-down linebacker in '08 because of injuries to teammates. The result was a breakout year, both in NFL and in fantasy terms. James, who had always been a productive tackler as an inside guy in Dallas's 3-4 defense, excelled as a blitzing linebacker on passing downs, tackling the quarterback eight times. "A lot of the coaches were joking that eight sacks had to be an NFL record for an inside linebacker," he says, "because you never hear of an inside guy getting that many."
His ability to make both tackles and sacks makes James fantasy gold. In addition to having three more sacks than any other inside linebacker, James also had 117 tackles, which tied for 16th in the league. Of the 47 players with the most tackles, only one other linebacker (Chad Greenway) had more than four sacks.
"DeMarcus Ware draws the attention of the backs," says Brian Stewart, who was the Cowboys' defensive coordinator last year, of Dallas's pass-rushing monster. "With that being the case, Bradie rushes up the middle, and he punishes anybody who's going to come up to block him: a running back or a tackle or a guard who is already backing up. The sky's the limit for him. He's a perfectionist, and he'll do whatever he can to be the best."
James is a must-have fantasy pick for other reasons as well. At age 28 he is just hitting his prime, and he has not missed one regular-season game in the last five years. His 2009 numbers should also be helped by the acquisition of 11-year veteran linebacker Keith Brooking, who had two of his best seasons while playing in Wade Phillips's 3-4 scheme in Atlanta in '02 and '03. Brooking will occupy the inside spot that was manned last year by Zach Thomas, who admitted after the season that he was not comfortable in the system. "Keith knows how to play, and that helps me," James says. "When everybody knows their role in the defense, then we all play well."
There is one reason to be wary about James's potential production. He is still uncertain whether he will play in passing situations on third down again; if he doesn't, his value will take a significant hit. So keep an eye out for that in preseason games and early in the year.
But as James argued, "I should be in there. If it's not broke, don't fix it, right?"