By: Ivar G. Anderson
Most fantasy football owners only experience with the defensive side of the game is limited to selecting which Team Defense and Special Teams squad to start on a weekly basis. Sure, you need to look at which teams limit the points scored by their opponents, whether a defense is racking up tackles, sacks, and interceptions on a regular basis and in the more advanced systems, whether the team has a decent return scheme. I tend to draft my team defense just before I draft my kicker, which is to say the next to last pick in the draft. I won’t go into a rant about how a savvy fantasy drafter will stock up on offensive players while his opponents are wasting valuable mid to late round picks on defenses, but it is a general truth that pre-season rankings of defensive teams are highly suspect. Drafting the Jets this past August or September hasn’t hurt anyone, but neither has it pushed their owner over the top in their league, unless your commissioner has decidedly strange settings for team defense/special teams point accumulation. I saw New Orleans go early in many drafts, and that simply was a premature pick. In short, last season’s results mean bupkis for the current year.
Every league I have ever set up has an IDP (Individual Defensive Player) component, and this generates a not an insubstantial aspect of weekly scoring results for each team. In an IDP league, an owner not only drafts the normal offensive players (QB, RB, WR, TE, K), but also linebackers, defensive backs and defensive linemen. Personally, I like having IDP slots for the same reason I like using holds as a statistical category in fantasy baseball, in that it opens up a whole group of additional players that have significance in your league. Of course, this means you have to study IDP as well as the usual offensive players. I also enjoy the fact that using IDP means that I can watch football from both sides of the line of scrimmage on Sundays and Monday night. Most fantasy team owners are already aware of the star IDPs, like Revis or Willis, but when you are involved in an IDP league, it is necessary to study such things as the defensive scheme a team employs as this can affect how useful a linebacker will be on your team.
The main difference will be whether a team employs a 4-3 or a 3-4 scheme. If a team has 3 DLs (a 3-4), then you want to target their outside linebackers. The OLBs on a 3-4 defense are more likely to pick up sacks, as the linemen generally just clog up the running paths up front and are not used to rush the quarterback. DLs and inside linebackers on a 3-4 team will get you tackles and not much else. Of course, in a tackle heavy IDP league, this can prove valuable, too. We’ll discuss scoring systems a bit later.
A 4-3 team gives a lot of IDP value with its defensive ends and the middle linebacker. The DE spot will provide your best option for sacks, while the MLB is a tackle machine. Also, in a 4-3 defensive scheme, all three LB spots will give you points, as there is less spreading of the tackles, interceptions and passes defended among the 3 linebackers in this type of defensive system. Overall, you want to draft your IDPs from a team that runs a 4-3 scheme, as the points will flow to you better on a week to week basis, since you will have effectively 5 defensive players putting up numbers for you. A 3-4 team will provide decent numbers from the weak side LB, while the strong side LB will often be tied up by the tight end’s blocks, and as discussed above, the 3 defensive linemen will provide some tackle points but little else.
Linebackers are gold in IDP leagues. They provide tackles, interceptions, fumbles and fumble returns (although any IDP can cause or recover a fumble), and will also put up pass defensed points. That being said, there are also a lot of linebackers that you can draft and find fantasy goodness with, so you don’t necessarily need to target your linebackers as your first defensive players to draft. Provided, if you have the opportunity to nab a stud LB as your first IDP pick, you should do so without question. If you can get 2 stud LBs, take them and don’t look back. If your other league members have drafted their initial IDPs early, however, you can afford to be patient as value is there in the middle picks. What I said above about knowing what sort of scheme a team employs is essential to picking your linebacking crew, but you also want to populate your roster with “3 down” linebackers. It only stands to reason that the more time a player spends on the field, the more likely he is to provide your team with fantasy point production. Also, look for linebackers on bad teams, as they will undoubtedly have more opportunities to tackle the opponent’s RBs, WRs and TEs.
If you are not required to have both cornerbacks and safeties on your fantasy team, always go for safeties as your DBs. Safeties are the safest choices (pun intended) as they will provide you with the most tackles on a weekly basis, since their role in the defense is to stuff the run. Even if your league puts a high value on interceptions, these plays are notoriously inconsistent from week to week, and especially year to year. Also, a shutdown corner is a bad IDP choice, as the opposing team will avoid passing to whatever WR he is covering. For example, Darrelle Revis is a superb football player, but a lousy fantasy football player. In fact, if a rookie cornerback is starting for a team, he is a particularly good draft option, as the offense will test him repeatedly until he proves he can cover his man. Thus, a rookie starting CB will give you points for tackles and hopefully, passes defended and an occasionally interception. Even so, safeties provide the best consistent value at DB and you should target them when drafting your squad.
When targeting defensive linemen, you will want to go for defensive ends as opposed to defensive tackles. DEs will be the best source of sacks as well as tackles, although there is the occasional DT that provides value. As a general rule, however, unless your league requires that a DT be started, avoid them altogether. If you find that the all the top tier LBs have been snatched up when you begin to draft your IDPs, then go for one of the top tier DEs which will most likely still be available. Remember, look for a DE that starts in a 4-3 scheme and in this case, you should look to last year’s stats for some guidance as far as sack totals and tackle numbers. Target at least one of the top 5-7 DEs for your roster, as the dropoff after the first tier is dramatic.
You should not begin drafting IDP until you have your starting offense set. Even then, I would suggest you grab at least one back up RB and WR, and possible wait until you have 3 backup offensive players. Do not rush to draft defensive players, no matter what your league is doing early on. You run the risk of missing out on the top tier LBs, but usually DBs and DLs will be there for you to select for your initial IDP options. Except in 2 QB leagues, you should fill all your IDP starting spots before you go back to selecting backup offensive players, but like all draft advice, if a offensive bargain falls to you in the later rounds, you need to take advantage at the expense of grabbing an IDP. No matter how highly you may have an IDP ranked on your cheat sheet, I urge you not to reach for him over a starting QB/RB/WR/TE. On my tiered cheat sheet that I publish each year, I have a separate sheet for IDP, but even though I have certain players as tier 1 IDPs, my notes tell you not to get carried away; a tier 1 IDP is a round 10 selection, not a 4th round draft choice. It goes without saying, I hope, that all IDP starters should be selected before your kicker, and if your league uses a team D/ST together with IDPs, I suggest you wait on that position, too. I typically draft a D/ST in the slot just before I select my kicker, or the next to last draft slot. I will have taken any backup offense players as well as any valuable IDPs based on predicted production or bye week use before I consider taking a team defense or kicker.
I want my IDP to provide point totals every week that are nearly equivalent to an offensive player. For example, a good LB can usually give my team 10-15 points a week, which is what I want from my RB or WR. Occasionally, if a player blows up, his totals can rival those of a top tier QB. When I first began setting up my IDP leagues, I followed the recommended settings I found in various places around the web. Now, though, after several years experience, I tend to value IDP stats differently. For example, I see interceptions and fumble recoveries as more valuable than sacks or passes defended. I do this because these defensive plays reverse possession and have a greater impact on the game than simply tackling a RB or dropping a QB for a loss. Sacks are of significantly more consequence in the course of a game than a tackle, and I assign them an appropriate importance when setting up my scoring system. Typically, I use the following values:
- Tackle 1 point
- Assisted tackle 1/2 point
- Sack 2 points
- Interception 4 points
- Pass defended 2 points
- Fumble forced 1 point
- Fumble recovered 4 points
- Safety 2 points
- Blocked FG/PAT/Punt 2 points
- All defensive TDs 6 points
In my newer IDP leagues, I frequently do not use a D/ST slot, and I’ve taken to dispensing with the PK slot as well, mostly because I believe over the course of a season, all kickers are basically the same. I will admit, I really like drafting in those leagues, as I no longer feel like I am settling for my final two picks; rather, I am looking for a sleeper IDP or RB at the end of the draft.
I also use 6 to 8 defensive slots in all my leagues. The normal setup is 2 LB, 2 DL, 2 DB and perhaps 2 defensive players that can be LB, DB or DL. I have been considering deleting the dedicated DL slots, however, and instead letting each owner decide if he wants a DL on his roster by using 2 to 4 general DP slots. There are so few great DLs, it only seems fair to let the few top tier DEs fill a DP slot and allow the other owners to draft IDP that provide good numbers each week.
Unlike the situation with offensive players, where rookies are generally to be avoided when drafting a starting lineup, rookie defensive players frequently have great value immediately. As noted above, a rookie CB will rack up points for you simply because he will be targeted by the opposition until he proves himself to be a capable defender. Depending on the team that drafts him, a DL or LB can step into a starting role immediately. The learning curve for IDPs is not as steep, and on a regular basis you can find exceptional worth from a rookie that is taken in the first few rounds of the NFL draft, depending on the team situation he steps into.
Consistency is the key to having success in an IDP league. That means drafting for tackles: Middle linebackers and defensive ends in a 4-3 scheme, outside linebackers in a 3-4 scheme, and safeties over cornerbacks. All the other statistical categories, with the exception to an extent for sacks, are too unpredictable to project when you draft.
Look for tacklers on bad teams. The defense on a lower scoring team will be on the field much more with a resultant increase in tackles and other defensive scoring plays. The winning team also will most likely run the ball more than turn to the pass to try and run out the clock. Draft your defensive backs from good teams, conversely, as the opponent will likely have to air it out to play catch up, and this will increase the interception and tackle opportunities in the backfield.
The waiver wire will be your friend, since aside from some top tier IDPs, fortunes fluctuate over the course of the season, based on injury, performance (or lack thereof) and match ups. Especially with DBs, do not sweat it if you don’t manage to draft your top targets. All DBs, and especially CBs, are wildly inconsistent and you can use that to your advantage, snatching up those mid to late season rising stars to replace the underperforming dogs cluttering your roster.
Unless you have an absolute stud IDP, don’t worry about dropping him on a bye week. Most likely, no one will pick him up that week, and you have a chance to put him back on your roster once the bye week is over. Even if you don’t get him back, it’s likely some other top IDP will be dropped due to bye week pressures by another owner and you can then pick his castoff up. Besides, there are plenty of good IDPs on the waiver wire or free agent market every week, simply based on matchups.
If your league gives points for return yards, look for IDPs that play on special teams as kick returners. This will make these players valuable even if they don’t put up a bunch of tackles or interceptions for you.
I went IDP several years ago and will not set up a league without having at least 6 IDP slots in the starting lineup. I implore you to take the plunge and open up the world of IDP in fantasy football. After all, we’ve been doing basically the same thing in fantasy baseball all along when we draft hitters and pitchers, or in fantasy hockey where goalies are drafted alongside skaters. Why not extend the same concept to fantasy football. If nothing else, it will make every game even more meaningful no matter the score, as you will now have defensive players to pull for or root against. The first week you win a matchup with a superb performance from your starting linebacker on Monday night you’ll be hooked, I’d bet my league fees on it.
First published on www.fantasygameday.net
Ivar G. Anderson is a staff writer for Fantasy Gameday. Read his articles on the site and be sure to download his cheat sheets and projection spreadsheets from his blog at www.planet10meanderings.blogspot.com and from Fantasy Gameday to help you with your fantasy drafts.