After four parts of the Complete Guide to Dominating IDP, we have given fantasy managers loads of information that can help propel them to IDP success. We have discussed the importance of Knowing your Scoring. We have covered basic IDP Draft Strategy. We have gone in depth in regard to both Defensive Linemen and Linebackers.
That leaves one position group left for us to go into detail here. In this day of the nickel as the new de facto base defense, it is far and away the deepest position in IDP—over 150 players see significant snap counts over the course of a season. Unfortunately, it is also far and away the most unpredictable position in IDP—one that has given more than a few fantasy managers migraines over the years.
It's time to talk about the defensive backs.
There are two main things to know about defensive backs in IDP. The first is that they are plentiful. At the very least, there are two cornerbacks and two safeties on the field at all times. That's 128 defensive backs for the math-averse. With just about every team in the league in the nickel (or dime) 60-70 percent of the time now, that number swells even more.
As plentiful as defensive backs are, they are equally unpredictable. Using an industry league I participate in that follows a fairly straightforward IDP setup, of the top 10 defensive backs drafted in 2022, one (Derwin James of the Los Angeles Chargers) actually finished in the top 10. Two more finished inside the top 20.
That's three of 10 that came close to returning value. And that's not an aberration—it happens every single year.
Conversely, just as big names routinely fail to meet expectations, every year, there are players who come from nowhere to post big fantasy numbers. The number of people who predicted that Kansas City Chiefs cornerback L'Jarius Sneed would be the second-highest scoring fantasy defensive back in 2022 numbered exactly zero—including Sneed's mother.
A certain wise IDP scribe may have mentioned San Francisco 49ers safety Talanoa Hufanga as a potential IDP sleeper in 2022. But I'm not going to sit here and say I expected Hufanga to finish seventh in fantasy points among defensive backs. Jacksonville Jaguars safety Rayshawn Jenkins. Dallas Cowboys safety Donovan Wilson. Houston Texans safety Jonathan Owens. All were surprise IDP stars for at least part of the 2022 campaign.
Are there a few defensive backs who have shown to be reliable fantasy options from year to year? Yes. But few is the keyword. For the most part, defensive backs are a crapshoot. Always have been. Always will be.
It's a technical term.
What to Look for in a Defensive Back
The Safety Dance
Last year, rookie safety Jalen Pitre of the Houston Texans led all defensive backs with 147 total tackles. He was one of 16 defensive backs who surpassed the century mark in stops. Of those 16 defensive backs, one (Sneed) was a cornerback. Some years there may be two or even three cornerbacks who hit the 100-tackle mark, but unless your IDP league requires cornerbacks (we'll get to that in a bit—don't worry), you are much better off targeting safeties on draft day.
They are more consistent at racking up stops, and that consistency will help IDP managers avoid that most dreaded of happenings—the doughnut. The zero. The big nada.
Among my top 50 defensive backs here at Footballguys, barely 25 percent are cornerbacks, and of those, there are maybe five I'd draft in IDP leagues that don't require the position.
Guru Tip: Corners are for Gamblers, but Sometimes They Pay Off
Gary and I must walk a slightly different path when it comes to the number of starting defensive backs in our leagues. Nearly every IDP league I have ever played in started either three defensive backs or two safeties and two corners. As he pointed out, in those three DB leagues, box safeties are the go-to targets with a few exceptions sprinkled in. That said, I've had success by using that third starting spot on a high-upside corner. Either a player that is on a big-play roll or one that has a great matchup for that particular week. Safeties provide more consistency, but corners tend to give us the most explosive games.
This is something of an overgeneralization, but there are two types of defensive backs. There are those who depend mostly on tackles for fantasy production and those who are more dependent on big plays like interceptions. There's not necessarily anything wrong with the latter group, but they are going to be significantly more high-variance from week to week and take a sizable hit in tackle-heavy scoring systems. Unless your IDP league awards heavily for big plays, you are much better off targeting high-tackle safeties.
In a perfect world, you can get a bit of both. Minkah Fitzpatrick of the Pittsburgh Steelers tied for the league lead in interceptions last year while adding 96 total tackles. Kevin Byard of the Titans logged 108 total tackles and added four interceptions last year. Both were top 20 IDP options.
Roles Matter Too—but they are Changing
It used to be that knowing which defensive backs to target was easy to figure out—strong (box) safeties were preferable to free (deep) safeties. But as NFL defenses have evolved, so has the safety position. Many NFL teams now essentially use interchangeable safeties—one on the left and the other on the right. Some teams are using safeties as subpackage linebackers. We're also seeing more teams put a safety like Isaiah Simmons of the Arizona Cardinals in the slot.
And no, manning the slot doesn't automatically make a player a cornerback. Chauncey Gardner-Johnson played box safety for a good chunk of last year with the Philadelphia Eagles. His moving to the slot doesn't make him a corner. It makes him a safety playing in the slot.
The strategy by NFL teams may have changed, but in IDP leagues, it hasn't so much. Safeties who spend more time in the box (or at linebacker) are generally going to see more tackle opportunities than those playing 10-15 yards from the line of scrimmage. Those opportunities mean more IDP value.
Guru Tip: Bad Front Sevens Are Your Friend
Gary mentioned last year's starting safety tandem from the Texans. Jalen Pitre and Jonathan Owens were one and two in the league in solo tackles among defensive backs. Jalen Thompson was third and Julian Love was fourth on that list. What do these players have in common? The linebackers in front of them were not very good. Opportunity rules in fantasy football. Defensive backs on teams that have a leaky front seven tend to put up better numbers, not because they are great players, but because they see more ball carriers reach the third level.
Likewise, don't count on big tackle totals from safeties on good teams with strong defenses. Talanoa Hufanga put up a lot of fantasy points because he was a playmaker, not a tackling machine. There are not many safeties that will post six turnovers, two sacks, and nine passes defended. Meanwhile, Hufanga's 66 solo tackles ranked 22nd.
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