Fantasy leagues that use individual defensive players (IDPs) are becoming more popular every year. No longer are IDP leagues a fringe effort left to those committed fantasy football players who eagerly awaited the Monday newspaper and scoured the box scores to tally tackle, sack and interception statistics by hand.
Today, IDP leagues are readily available from a wide range of league hosting services and statistics for defensive players are easier than ever to find. More and more veteran fantasy owners are scrapping the outdated team defense position in favor of IDPs. Owners new to fantasy football are now seeing IDP leagues as the standard rather than the exception.
There's no denying that IDP leagues are more complex and time-consuming than leagues that use team defenses. Successful IDP owners must monitor a much larger pool of players and manage a larger roster. But there's also no denying that most fantasy owners come to enjoy their IDP leagues as much or more than their non-IDP leagues. IDP owners get just as excited watching James Harrison explode for 3.5 sacks on Monday Night Football or Patrick Willis rack up tackles for their teams as they do when Randy Moss has a huge week for them. More players in your starting lineup means more players to root for on Sundays and the extra level of complexity makes winning your league championship even more gratifying.
For those of you ready to take the plunge and start playing IDP fantasy football, Footballguys.com can help accelerate your IDP learning curve. In this article, we'll crack the playbook on IDP strategy. We'll discuss the general strategies for IDP success and address some common questions IDP owners have while managing their rosters.
The first step in becoming a successful IDP owner is studying and understanding your league's defensive scoring system, roster and lineup requirements. On the offensive side of the ball, player values can change dramatically if players are given points for receptions, or if quarterbacks are awarded four points per passing touchdown rather than six. Understanding the details of your defensive scoring system is just as critical, especially since there is no industry-standard IDP scoring system and strategy. What's right for one league may be very wrong for another.
Your first step is to decide whether your system favors tackles or big plays. Leagues that value tackles more than sacks or interceptions are often referred to as "tackle-heavy," while those that value sacks and interceptions highly are "big-play heavy." A quick way to determine which way your league leans is to calculate your league's sack-to-tackle ratio. Just divide the number of points awarded for a sack by the number of points awarded for a solo tackle. For example, if your league awards 4.5 points per sack and 1.5 points per solo tackle, your sack-to-tackle ratio is 3:1. A sack-to-tackle ratio less than 2.5 means your league values tackles more than big-plays, while a ratio of more than 4.0 suggests a big-play heavy system.
Why is that ratio important? A tackle-heavy scoring system will decrease the value of rush linebackers (e.g. Shawne Merriman), cover corners (e.g. Terence Newman) and rush defensive ends (e.g. Dwight Freeney), all classes of players who don't make many tackles compared to others at their position. Merriman is much more likely to finish among the top 10 linebackers in leagues with a sack-to-tackle ratio of 5:1 than leagues with a ratio of 2:1. In fact, Merriman would have finished outside the top 25 linebackers in each of his first two seasons in a league with a ratio of 2:1.
Professional defensive football is the ultimate team sport. Every defender has a defined role (gap to fill, zone to cover, etc.) and how well each teammate does his job affects how a given defender performs in the box score. Talent cannot be ignored, but it is opportunity that makes or breaks the value of an IDP.
Many things can affect a defensive player's opportunity. A player's surrounding cast can have a major impact on his boxscore production. Facing a well above league average number of offensive plays and rushing attempts can lead to big solo tackle numbers and turn a mediocre talent like Paris Lenon into a reliable IDP option. David Harris and Patrick Willis, two rookies with plenty of talent, likely saw their gaudy 2007 tackle numbers inflated by the lack of another playmaking option in their respective front sevens.
The role a player has in his defense will also affect his value. Linebackers who don't play on nickel downs may sit as many as 8-10 snaps each game. San Diego's Matt Wilhelm may have approached Donnie Edwards' solo tackle numbers had he played on more passing downs last year. Teams that rotate defensive linemen may greatly change the value of their defensive ends. Rookie cornerbacks who are repeatedly tested by opposing offenses often have big statistical seasons. Last season, Cleveland's Eric Wright finished with big numbers, in large part due to the "rookie corner rule."
The responsibilities of a given defensive position will also greatly affect the value of an IDP. A strong side linebacker who must contend with more blockers than his teammates will struggle to make enough plays to hold consistent value. That was a painful lesson learned by many owners of Cato June last year, who watched their former top-20 linebacker fall out of the top 60 overall after moving from the weak side position in Indianapolis to the strong side position in Tampa Bay. Similarly, the responsibilities of a defensive end in a 3-4 front make them much less likely to be productive pass rushers than their 4-3 counterparts.
While there are exceptions to every rule, here are a few simple flow diagrams by position to use as an approximation of each role's expected opportunity.
4-3 DE > 4-3 undertackle (DT) > 3-4 DE > 4-3 DT > 3-4 NT
In nearly every scoring system, an every-down dual run-support/pass-rush threat 4-3 end should be your primary DL target. There are exceptions - undertackles (a penetrating 4-3 defensive tackle like Warren Sapp or Rod Coleman in past seasons) and talented 1-gap 3-4 defensive ends may also have consistent production - but focusing on 4-3 ends is essential.
4-3 MLB > 3-4 WILB > 4-3 WLB > 3-4 SILB > 3-4 OLB > 4-3 SLB
This is where flow diagrams can get tricky. As discussed above, the linebacker position is the most sensitive to variations in scoring systems. The flow diagram here assumes a tackle-neutral or tackle-heavy scoring system. Leagues that award big points for sacks will need to shift the 3-4 OLB well up in the flow diagram. In general, inside linebackers get more tackle opportunities and thus hold better IDP value.
Be aware of the notable exceptions within certain types of defensive schemes. Without getting into too much detail, it's worth paying attention to which 3-4 teams play like 4-3 teams in the front seven (i.e. play 1-gap instead of 2-gap techniques). Those particular 3-4 teams generate RILB that are as productive as 4-3 MLBs, with the top-five seasons of Patrick Willis in 2007 and Donnie Edwards' later years in San Diego serving as prime examples. You'll also want to target weak side linebackers on teams that play Tampa-2 zone coverage. The increased opportunity for those WLBs has produced top IDP options like Lance Briggs, Cato June and Derrick Brooks.
SS > some Cover-2 CB > FS > non Cover-2 CB
Defensive backs are also sensitive to scoring systems. Your most consistent DB targets will be in-the-box strong safeties, especially those who also have solid cover skills. Be aware, however, that the current trend in the NFL is to use both safeties interchangeably, with both safeties sharing run support and cover responsibilities. Those alignments often provide both safeties the opportunity to have IDP value. Gibril Wilson and Madieu Williams have been top IDP values as free safeties in interchangeable safety schemes. And it's not just WLBs that benefit from the Tampa-2 scheme. Many cornerbacks have been able to take advantage of that scheme to generate big IDP values (e.g. Ronde Barber and Charles Tillman).
You've prepared by teasing out the positions emphasized by your scoring system and you have a working knowledge of which IDPs are primed for big seasons. But how do you know when to draft your first IDP? Which IDP position should you focus on first? Should you deal an offensive player for an IDP for your stretch run? What do you do when your highly regarded IDP starts the season poorly? Here are a few tips on how to handle the most vexing problems that face IDP owners every season.
The prevailing wisdom among veteran IDP owners is to fill out most of your offensive starting lineup and even draft a key offensive backup or two before drafting your first IDP. Because offensive talent quickly grows scarce, most owners fall in line and the first IDPs runs won't happen until somewhere between Rounds 8 and 10.
In most cases, that will indeed be your sweet spot. But your understanding of scoring system and IDP opportunity will keep you flexible during the draft. You can exploit your lesser prepared leaguemates in multiple ways.
Often, your preparation will allow you to wait even longer to fill your IDP starting slots. While your competition relies on last year's stats and misunderstands the scoring system, you'll be able to find very good mid-round IDP value, unearth late round gems and successfully work the waiver wire. The number of starting defensive players in the NFL (3-4 DL, LB and DBs on every NFL team) also aids this strategy. Last season's prepared IDP owners recognized that Patrick Willis and D.J. Williams were primed for big seasons and had them in the top tier of linebackers. Those owners were able to slough the linebacker position well into the middle rounds while filling other positions and losing no ground to their competition.
However, some leagues take concerns about the scarcity of offensive talent too far and give you an opportunity to stack your lineup with stud IDPs. In leagues where defensive players carry as much value as offensive players, jumping on the top IDPs while your leaguemates are grabbing backup wide receivers will give you a big defensive advantage while not giving up much with your back-end offensive players. Again, your knowledge of the scoring system allows you the flexibility to confidently exploit whatever your competition gives you.
There are no simple answers to this question. So much of what may make a pick good or bad is dependent on the structure of the league and vagaries of your scoring system. Still, it's worth considering a few core thoughts around which to build your draft strategy.
Most IDP scoring systems give linebacker the most value, making them the lifeblood of your roster. The steady tackle production of most linebackers also makes them the most consistent IDP position. With rare exception, they will anchor your lineup and should be your first draft targets.
There are very few defensive ends that are capable of finishing among the leaders in sacks and solo tackles while providing consistent weekly production. Those elite ends are often as valuable as the top linebackers. It's worth considering drafting those rare and consistent defensive ends (e.g. Jared Allen and Aaron Kampman) in the same rounds as the better linebackers.
On the other hand, defensive backs tend to have more year-to-year and week-to-week variability. That variability usually dictates waiting to fill your defensive back slots in favor of safer and surer options at defensive end and linebacker. If you can't get a stud strong safety or all-around cornerback early in the draft, your preparation will help you find exceptional defensive backs off the waiver wire.
This issue most often challenges dynasty IDP owners, but is one redraft owners also face. Many owners, even those with years of experience in IDP leagues, balk at trading offense for defense. Some reasons are legitimate (i.e. it's easier to find a solid IDP without trading a more scarce offensive commodity), others not so legitimate (i.e. IDPs are drafted so much later than offensive players that they don't have as much value).
If you're trying to win your league, however, your overriding goal should be to field the greatest competitive advantage at as many starting lineups slots as possible. Conventional biases aside, there will be situations where it makes sense to deal offense for defense. In fact, owners who refuse to deal offense for IDPs will often give great IDP value for marginal offensive talent.
Don't be afraid to trade offense for defense if the value you get in return improves your starting lineup. Improving an IDP position is just as important to your bottom line as improving an offensive position.
Successful IDP owners avoid replacement level players whenever possible. Drafting or trading for, then starting a player that is no better than what can be picked up off the waiver wire (i.e. replacement level) can cost your team dearly.
Understanding your scoring system and how to forecast IDP opportunity can save you from the two most common mistakes inexperienced IDP owners make during the NFL season. Your understanding of schemes and opportunity will keep you from overpaying for last year's stud linebacker who has changed teams and no longer has the same chance at racking up tackles (e.g. Cato June) or from grabbing a one-week wonder who just had a fluke game instead of the true up-and-comer off the free agent lists. You want your opponents' lineup hurt by replacement level players, not your own.
Understanding how to project IDP opportunity will also save you from reacting too harshly when your studs underperform early in the season. Inexperienced IDP owners are much more likely to overreact to a bad week and cut a good IDP than a good offensive player. They overlook simple reasons why a talented defensive player in a good situation had a bad game or two. Many owners gave up on Aaron Schobel and Donnie Edwards in 2006 or Mario Williams in 2007. All three ended up in the top 10 in most leagues. A well trained IDP owner could have foreseen a rebound for each player after careful consideration of their talent, opportunity and a deeper look at their early-season box scores.
The same thought process can keep you from holding what you thought was a stud IDP too long. Guys like Kerry Rhodes and Robert Mathis were safely dropped in redraft leagues last year by owners who correctly recognized that their opportunity had changed for the worse.
If you're ready to dive into an IDP league of your own, the message board at Footballguys.com has a forum for established leagues looking to find replacement owners. If you love watching defensive football, but are still intimidated by the extra commitment an IDP league requires, our Footballguys.com IDP staff can help coach you up as you get your feet wet. We offer an advice request section, daily analysis of defensive news from around the NFL and deep strategy discussion in a free IDP-only section of our message board. You can also find us talking defense on our free weekly IDP-only Podcast, which is easily accessible on the Footballguys.com website.
Though we've just scratched the surface of the concepts and strategies that you'll need to be a successful IDP owner, we hope the discussion was enough to draw those not currently in an IDP league into the world of defensive players. Most of you in offense only leagues remember the extra enjoyment from following every offensive player rather than just those on your home team. There's still more enjoyment to be found when you bring the rest of the NFL into your fantasy football league.
Once you've gone IDP, your Sundays will never be the same again.