Before I start this year's Eyes of the Guru series, I wanted to touch on the evolution of IDP fantasy leagues. In not much more than twenty years we have gone from finally getting basic defensive statistics in newspapers, to self running leagues recording points for sack yardage. Fantasy owners are constantly looking for more detail in our game. Thus we have evolved from starting one lineman, one linebacker and one defensive back, to breaking out the positions completely, requiring ends/tackles, safeties/corners and in some cases inside and outside linebackers. While technology has been a big part of the evolution and success of fantasy sports, it is the more recent trends on the field and how they have/could change our game, that I want to talk about.
Until ten or so years ago it was much less complicated to be an IDP prognosticator and/or owner. We had the Steelers and their "Zone Blitz" along with a handful of other teams using some form of 3-4 scheme. Everyone else fielded the then standard 4-3. Back then the difference was cut and dry. It was easy to tell who the 3-4 teams were because they used three man fronts nearly all the time. Then came the Patriots and Ravens with their "hybrid" schemes. These defenses moved guys around with a three man front on one play and a four man front on the next, often with few or no personnel changes. With the success of those teams and their defenses came both the opportunity for assistant coaches to advance, and a copycat movement. Thus the coaching trees and philosophies of those early 3-4 teams have flourished and now populate the NFL coaching ranks.
We have now reached the point where more than half of NFL teams are officially using 3-4 defensive schemes as their so called base defense. Many of these teams however, have adopted the hybrid philosophy. In some games they will actually line up in a four man front over half of the time. We are also seeing most 4-3 teams adding some 3-4 packages. As a result we have players lining up at tackle on one play, end on the next and possibly even seeing snaps at linebacker. Safeties are moving to the slot corner position while others work from linebacker alignments based on situations. The biggest issue for fantasy owners is the discrepancy between defensive ends and outside linebackers. This is due to the fact that most leagues have different scoring for the two positions. Thus a stat line of 40-15-10 for a linebacker can equal considerably fewer fantasy points than the same numbers for a defensive end.
The ripple effect of this situation could ultimately be wide reaching as fantasy owner's craving for detail collides with the blurred lines of the hybrid defense. At the least fantasy owners will need to rethink their approach to player values at the defensive line positions. While there have always been a few somewhat rare exceptions; in years past it was 4-3 ends that had dominated the top of the defensive line rankings. Now a sheer lack of teams using four man fronts along with a growing number of productive 3-4 ends, has changed the layout of our draft boards. One thing that has not changed is the fact that the nature of the 3-4 scheme is not particularly box score friendly for linemen in general. Standouts like J.J. Watt and Calais Campbell are rare at any position and the general watering down of production among linemen has made once marginal guys like Fletcher Cox and Cameron Heyward much more relevant. In fact there were eight 3-4 defensive ends in the Top 20 last season. This trend too, is likely to continue.
For a long time 40 solo tackles and double digit sacks were the measure of quality defensive line production. In this new era of defensive schemes, 35 tackles and 7 sacks has become the new expectation for a solid starter in many leagues. Some commissioners have altered their scoring to boost the value of linemen in an effort to maintain the desired scoring balance between positions. The downside to this is approach is that the top end players at the position can become way overvalued. Our best option here may be to simply adjust our approach to the current landscape.
Most early IDP leagues started players based on the level of the defense. This gave us starting lineups that consisted of defensive linemen, linebackers and defensive backs. Leagues had one set of scoring parameters for all defensive players. Tackles were worth X, sacks worth Y etc, regardless of position. A return to this approach solves the issue of tackle versus end and safety/corner, but it does not help with the big question of end or linebacker. The other issue here is that today's fantasy owners are trending toward leagues that break out the positions. Many lineups now require ends, tackles, safeties, corners, inside and outside linebackers.
The versatility of today’s management software allows us to micromanage scoring in an effort to add value to less statistically productive positions. The problem is, who designates the players position? Here at Footballguys we align ourselves with the positional designation listed on NFL.com's team rosters. This makes sense as it is the official site of the NFL, but the truth is there are no perfect sources for this information. Neither NFL.com nor any other source is always correct. This is in part because we are all shooting at a moving target. Until a couple of years ago Pro Football Focus actually tracked where each player lined up on each play. This allowed us to count the snaps Terrell Suggs played at each position. Even this was not a perfect answer as players sometimes line up in a spot that is not clearly one or the other. Ultimately we had Terrell Suggs standing at the same spot on two plays, if he put his hand down he was an end, if he did not he was a linebacker. Often that is the only difference between the two positions. This is not a situation that is going to change on the field anytime soon. If anything it will get worse as teams become more and more situational specific with sub packages. The point here is that fantasy leagues and owners will have to adapt. There are a number of different approaches we can take. One option is to simply adjust our approach to player values as most of us are doing now, but the quickly changing landscape may lead to more structural moves over the next few years. Some commissioners have tweaked scoring parameters a little to keep the positional balances that were intended when their leagues were set up. This may be enough for some, but still does not resolve the positional designation issue.
At some point we may have to look at lumping 4-3 ends and 3-4 outside linebackers into a new position; outside pass rushers. This would seem to be an easy and proper fix. The problem at this point is that management software with all its scoring and setup options, does not give us the versatility to create a new position. For now the discussion continues. We will continue to try and fit our square peg into a round hole when it comes to these issues while we wait for a better mouse trap.