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IDPs: In Fantasy, Defense Can Win Championships

Last year was my first foray into the world of fantasy Individual Defensive Players (IDPs), and my first glimpse into the future of fantasy football. In a few years leagues without IDPs will be as uncommon as leagues with IDPs were a few years ago. While some of the lazier owners bemoan the extra homework that a roster with IDPs requires, the true junkies relish the thought of adding a new dimension to their league as another chance to gain an edge over the competition. While one can be certain that the hardcore FF ballers will not be caught unawares by the additions of defensive linemen, linebackers, and cornerbacks to their squad, IDPs are only this year becoming a mainstream staple, and a successful IDP draft strategy can be a difference maker.

The most common question I hear about IDPs on forums is not whom to draft, but when. The first thing to remember is not to drastically alter your drafting strategy. Adhering to the basic principles of value-based drafting (VBD), excellently explained by this site, is the best strategy, but for those new to the IDP game it can be extremely hard to accurately judge the value of, say, an Ed Reed versus a Reggie Wayne. First of all, there are no problems of apples-to-oranges comparisons because points are the great equalizer in fantasy football, but you need to know much more than 2004 point totals to execute an effective IDP drafting strategy. Here are a few pre-draft tips:

Know Your Scoring System

For the purposes of this article, we will use the most common IDP scoring: 3 points per sack, 2 for interceptions and fumble recoveries, 1 for forced fumbles and solo tackles, a half-point for tackle assists, 1 point per 20 return yards, and 6 for all TDs. It is important to note that since IDPs are a relatively new fixture, scoring varies more from league to league. Make sure you know your scoring system, specifically if return yardage applies. If so, pay a lot of attention to the DBs that are return men. This type of scoring makes guys like Terrence McGee, Nate Clements, and Jerry Azumah more valuable than big names like Lito Sheppard and Ty Law. Keep a close eye on training camps and see to whom the return duties fall.

Know Your Enemies

Be aware of how experienced the other owners are with IDP leagues. In some scoring formats, IDPs can easily outscore most receivers, and this can lead to rookie mistakes. If someone takes Ray Lewis in the third round, do not feel compelled to follow suit. Jump on quality offensive players while others take the premier linebackers. According to the Footballguys VBD estimator, the top LBs and DBs should start flying off the board while guys like Michael Clayton, Andre Johnson, Gonzo, J.J. Arrington, and Antonio Gates are still on the board. Personally I feel this is a mistake. I simply can't believe that there will be more separation between Ray Lewis (listed as the no. 1 LB) and Lance Briggs (listed at 51) than there will be between Antonio Gates and Dallas Clark. Last year I probably had the best squad of 4 DBs and 3 DLs in my league, and at least half were waiver-wire picks. There is also the matter of depth. NFL teams have 3-4 starting LBs and at least 4 starting DBs, whereas the offenses normally only offer 2 viable fantasy receivers and 1 viable fantasy back.

Know your friends

You want offensive fantasy players who play on above-average offenses, but the opposite applies to IDPs. You don't necessarily look for the best defense but the worst offense. In fact, if you can find a team that has an anemic offense and a bend-but-don't-break defense, you should target any viable players from that team. You would think that the Ravens would offer the best IDPs, but the fact that their defense is such a three-and-out monster will keep your players off the field, and thus provide your players less opportunity to score. Also, the fact that Baltimore is stronger on the run than the pass means even more clock eaten up by the offense, so that's actually another mark against IDPs from the league's most feared D. Of course, players like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed can make up for their quick stints on the field with their enormous talent, but it's always best not to swim upstream when there are options. Definitely draft Ray Lewis if he is available in a mid-to-late-round, but do so with the knowledge that he finished the season with two less solo tackles than Lance Briggs, whose pathetic offense kept him on the field for most of the game. In fact, Ray-Ray really shouldn't be the first IDP taken, or even the first LB. He finished sixth in standard scoring last year among LBs, and ninth among IDPs.

Know What to Value

As usual, hype does not translate into fantasy success. The commentators are going to garner more interest talking about sack leaders than consistent tacklers, because it simply makes for better TV. But just as Michael Vick's highlight-reel ubiquity has led many an inexperienced owner down the primrose path to the postseason trash-heap, keying on the players the media keys on will make you an easy pushover for someone who knows what IDP stats matter most. For instance, Dwight Freeney led the league last year with 16 sacks, but notched only 34 tackles to go with 4 forced fumbles and 3 passes defended. That's only 93.5 total points for the sack leader, which is a lot less than what London Fletcher, Jamie Sharper, and many other LBs totaled from their solo tackles alone. Some leagues require the use of a defensive lineman, but if your DL spot allows either linebackers or defensive ends, go with linebackers every time.

Interceptions are an even more deceptive stat than sacks. Even though Deion Sanders in his prime was the unquestioned king of the pick, he would have made a lousy fantasy DB because of his unwillingness to tackle. When choosing a DB only look at two stats in this order: average return yardage per game (if return yardage is counted) and solo tackles. Interceptions are generally valued less than sacks, usually at two points a piece, and Defensive MVP Reed notched nine to lead the league in '04, collecting a total of 18 points for the picks themselves, 6 more for his lone TD, and perhaps a good bit more if return yardage counted. Of course, if it had, you would better off grabbing a DB with return duties, probably a good six to seven rounds later.

If you need any more convincing about the irrelevance of interceptions, the no. 3 guy had 6 in 2004, while the no. 30 guy had 4, for a difference of 4 whole points. Regardless of position, solo tackles are the stat to watch, and the reason that the Pats' Rodney Harrison is a much better value than stars like Darren Sharper and Champ Bailey: He notched 96 solo tackles and 45 assists to go with his 2 INTs compared with Bailey's 68 and 13 last year. Chances are guys like Bailey, Sharper, and Reed will go a full three to four rounds earlier than lesser-known names like Madieu Williams, Mike Green, and Adrian Wilson. Which leads to the next lesson…

Know When to Hold 'Em

And by 'Em I mean your itchy trigger finger on draft day. Here is something to consider: in standard scoring, the projected difference (again using the VBD application released by this site) between both the no. 1 DB and LB and their counterparts at the ten spot is about 30 points total for the season (going by 2004 stats, the difference between Ray Lewis and Antonio Pierce was about 14 points). The projected difference between the no. 1 wide receiver and the no. 10 is over 50 points, and the projected difference between the no. 1 RB and the no. 10 is almost 80 points. Furthermore, the projected difference between the no. 11 DB and the no. 50 DB is less than 30 points, and for LB it is just over 30. The difference between the 11 and 50 RBs is well over 150, and for WR it is around 75. What these numbers tell us is that owners can afford to wait until they have at least all their starting RBs, WRs, and their starting QB before they start taking IDPs, and if the top 5-6 at each position are gone by this time, I recommend grabbing a TE and one quality backup at RB, QB, and WR before taking a defensive player. Don't be overzealous just because you are new to the scheme. It's the cool hand that wins the pot at the end.

So, in sum, tackles, tackles, tackles. While sacks, interceptions and forced fumbles are much more fun to watch, it's the guys who stick to the fundamentals who will win for your squad. Take a long look at guys on the Browns, Bears, Dolphins, Lions, and Saints, as they all ranked at the bottom of offensive time of possession in 2004, giving their defensive players ample opportunity to pile up tackles. Don't let that figure be the deciding factor, however, as Pittsburgh ranked at the top of the league in time of possession, yet still turned out IDP monsters Troy Polamalu and James Farrior. Ideally, you're looking for a strong combination of opportunity and the talent to utilize it. Do pay attention to the good NFL defenses, but just be sure they aren't so good that they play themselves off the field and into fantasy obscurity.

I encourage everyone to embrace the use of IDPs. It adds an entirely new dimension to one of the fastest growing hobbies in the country, and will undoubtedly become the norm sooner rather than later for most leagues. Staying ahead of the curve now could keep you hoisting your league trophy for years to come.

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