In the 21st century NFL, "base" defense is a misnomer.
Defense isn't about 4-3 vs. 3-4 anymore. Not really. It's all about subpackages—about getting five or more defensive backs on the field to combat pass-heavy schemes and three-wide sets. Per Bryan Knowles of Football Outsiders, the nickel was easily the most prevalent defensive grouping, with teams spending 61.4 percent of total snaps in that alignment. Six teams were in the nickel over 70 percent of the time. The Buffalo Bills were in the nickel over 90 percent of the time.
It has taken longer than it should, but IDP providers are realizing that.
Frankly, it was always somewhat strange to classify 3-4 rush linebackers like T.J. Watt of the Steelers with off-ball linebackers like Bobby Wagner of the Los Angeles Rams. Watt's role in Pittsburgh is a lot more similar to Myles Garrett than Wagner. He's an edge rusher. But with most IDP leagues featuring scoring that favors tackles and 3-4 edge-rushers lumped in with the linebackers, the fantasy value of those players was unfairly minimized.
No more. Many IDP providers have now re-classified or adjusted positional classifications to reflect the modern game accurately. ESPN created new designations—EDGE for 4-3 ends and 3-4 rush linebackers and "Interior Defender" for 3-4 defensive linemen and 4-3 tackles. Sleeper afforded many players dual eligibility as DL/LB. And many at My Fantasy League have taken to using "True Position"—classifying all edge-rushers as DE and all interior defenders as DT.
All are welcome changes. But they are changes that some IDP managers find unsettling. They don't know how to compare the 3-4 edge-rushers to their 4-3 counterparts and worry that they'll botch their draft, so they resist the change altogether and stubbornly cling to the old way of doing things.
However, all it takes to pull off a successful True Position draft is modifying your draft strategy a little—and having a set of rankings that accounts for the influx of talent on the edge.
True Position Draft Strategy
For years, IDP strategy along the defensive front has been primarily motivated by one thing—scarcity. In 12-team leagues with two weekly starters on the defensive line, the reliable options dried up before each team had a pair. Wait too long to grab a second starter, and your team was in a hole.
That's no longer the case. There are defensive linemen ranked outside my top 15 in this new format who have a legitimate chance of cracking the Top 10. There are linemen ranked outside the Top 30 who have a real opportunity of working their way inside the Top 20.
Use that additional depth to your advantage.
Conversely, that additional depth along the defensive line has to come from somewhere. With 3-4 rush linebackers joining 4-3 ends, the depth at IDP's most position takes something of a hit. It's more important than ever to be aggressive in attacking the linebacker spot. To build a strong foundation at the position.
This isn't to say that investing in a high-end defensive lineman isn't a good idea. It is. Draft a cornerstone to build around. But you can be more patient in drafting a second starter, even if it means grabbing a couple of pass-rushers in the 30-40 range and platooning them based on matchups.
There's an important tip to consider when drafting these new-look defensive linemen. It isn't always the case, but sometimes drafters new to this format overlook the 3-4 rush linebackers once the biggest names are off the board. Markus Golden of the Arizona Cardinals flirted with 50 tackles and tallied 11 sacks last year. Alex Highsmith of the Steelers posted almost 75 total tackles and chipped in six sacks in 2021. Both will probably be available later than they should.
A Note on Defensive Tackles
The rankings in this article do not separate defensive ends and defensive tackles. If your league does, then the strategy there doesn't change much with the advent of True Position.
That strategy is essentially the same as at tight end. The IDP equivalent of Let's Make a Deal has three doors to choose from. Door No. 1 is drafting one of the top two or three options—elite tackles with a price tag to match. Door No. 2 is waiting a little longer and getting a steady weekly starter with a lower fantasy ceiling. Door No. 3 is punting the position until late and selecting a high-floor tackle producer with a low ceiling.
I tend to gravitate toward Door No. 2. It offers the best price tag and production combination. But an argument can be made for all three, depending on how a particular draft plays out.
True Position DL Tiers
Tier 1: The Tier of One
- T.J. Watt – DE, PIT
Watt isn't just the unquestioned No. 1 defensive lineman in True Position leagues. He's the No. 1 IDP overall. Watt had surpassed 50 tackles in the past four seasons and registered at least 13 sacks, including a record-tying 22.5 sacks in 2021. Watt's floor is a top-three IDP finish. His ceiling is blowing every other defensive lineman out of the water.
Tier 2: Contenders for the Throne
- Myles Garrett – DE, CLE
- Aaron Donald – DT, LAR
- Nick Bosa – DE, SFO
- Danielle Hunter – DE, MIN
- Joey Bosa – DE, LAC
- Harold Landry – DE, TEN
If T.J. Watt isn't the No. 1 defensive lineman in IDP leagues in 2022, one of these players likely will be. Myles Garrett and Nick Bosa are the NFL's gold standard among 4-3 defensive ends. Aaron Donald is the No. 1 defensive tackle in IDP by a wide margin. Joey Bosa should benefit from the arrival of Khalil Mack this year. Danielle Hunter has shown elite potential, but injuries are a concern after a lost 2021 campaign. Harold Landry posted 75 stops with a dozen sacks a year ago. If Watt's too rich for your blood, this Tier offers high-floor DL1 that carry a multi-round discount.
Tier 3: The Maybe DL1s
- Cameron Jordan – DE, NOS
- Maxx Crosby – DE, LVR
- Cameron Heyward – DT, PIT
- Haason Reddick – DE, PHI
- DeForest Buckner – DT, IND
- Trey Hendrickson – DE, CIN
- Shaquil Barrett – DE, TBB
- Brian Burns – DE, CAR
- Chandler Jones – DE, LVR
- Leonard Floyd – DE, LAR
This is the first tier where the added depth on the defensive line afforded by the inclusion of 3-4 rush linebackers becomes evident. This tier features a little of everything, whether it's a high-floor veteran like Cameron Jordan or outside linebackers like Haason Reddick. Not every player in this tier will post DL1 numbers—but every player here could. Leonard Floyd of the Rams is a favorite target of mine in IDP drafts—he has posted top-10 numbers in the past two seasons and is regularly available well outside the top-20 in drafts. Roster two linemen by the end of this tier, and your defensive line will be a team strength.
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