The NFL, like an unruly pup in its nascent stages of growth, is difficult to pin down. For every move, there is a
counter move which has yet another counter to the counter somewhere downstream. We don’t know when it will happen;
what we do know is that it is an ever-changing and untameable beast.
While offensive football garners the majority of onlookers’ jaw drops and exasperated sighs for every touchdown and
incomplete pass, it is defensive football that has had to undergo a more sweeping change. Football literature like
‘Smart Football’ by the brilliant Chris Brown has expertly detailed the adjustments masterminded by defensive
coaches to the option and spread attacks that have become the norm rather than the exception in college football.
Pro football is an old boy’s club in many ways, slow to embrace change and reluctant to adopt it when it arrives on
their doorstep. What we have seen in the past decade is a definite shift that has had an irreversible impact on the
future of individual defensive players.
And that is where fantasy football comes in.
Back when I started playing IDP fantasy football in 2007, the hierarchy of positions and their relative values was
abundantly clear. The diktat consisted of securing a stud at linebacker and a strong 4-3 defensive end or two, then
picking off value players that other owners let slip through the cracks, eventually picking off defensive backs in
the latter stages of the draft.
That model has been turned on its side, shaken a few times and tossed all over the place, revealing a stark, new
landscape that will be the playing field for IDP fantasy football in the coming years.
This past season was by no means a game changer in terms of witnessing this transformation, but it served as
another step along the way and provided insight into what this wonderful hobby of ours is turning into – and where
we should be mining value in our rookie drafts not just this season, but in future seasons.
So what did we learn from our leagues in 2015 and how can we use this information, framed as it is by an ever-
changing NFL, to maximize our roster spots on defense and construct a championship-winning unit?
Subpackages redefining player values
Perhaps no single aspect of IDP fantasy football is more frustrating than predicting which players will earn roles
in their teams’ subpackages. Players who occupy these roles must possess a particular skill set; they must be able
to play downhill and stop the run while having the recognition and awareness in their game to backpedal and drop
It used to be that teams deployed five – or six, depending on the number of receivers – defensive backs and two
linebackers, with four defensive linemen. However, these subpackage unit are changing with the new vanguard of
Players like Deone Bucannon have made a living from excelling in this position, with Mark Barron the latest in a
growing number of safeties being moved closer to the line of scrimmage. Some defenses utilize these players as a
safety on first and second down before transitioning them to a LB/S hybrid in obvious passing situations. Last
season, Bucannon played 95% of the defensive snaps, as he was deployed as the Cardinals’ ‘Swiss Army Knife’ on
defense. Barron only reached the 79.4% mark, but was still a tackle machine. They say the NFL is a copycat league,
and perhaps this is most true at this newly created position.
My colleague at Footballguys, Jene Bramel, had this to say about the emerging trend:
It wasn't that long ago when the only regular defensive substitution was a slot cornerback for an run-stuffing
outside linebacker. Now we arguably have 15-16 players on every defense playing 30-40 snaps per game on average.
Over the past three seasons, 150 defensive backs have seen a minimum of 500 snaps during the season. That's due to
player rotation and a clear trend away from the traditional 4-2-5 nickel subpackage. Add in the increased number of
snaps teams align in a subpackage and understanding how a team uses its personnel has become as critical as talent
in IDP evaluation.
If we as fantasy owners can read between the lines of a team’s player acquisitions and decipher their defense and
its personnel, we can pinpoint possible hybrid players. However, what this league comes down to is talent; if you
don’t have it, teams will simply not invest in you. And while the scouting process in the NFL has its flaws,
generally the league brass will tell you what they think of a prospect by where they are drafted or how they are
So when we try to project the future value of players, a sensible place to start is their skill set. Do they have
the requisite movement skills to occupy this valuable hybrid position? Are they solid tacklers and can they
transition sideline to sideline as quickly as they can move north and south? Have they shown the ability to be a
part of blitz packages and effectively disrupt the passer?
But before we obsess over a new era dawning, it’s worth asking if this is truly a trend or just a short-term
Jene Bramel weighed in on the topic:
I'm not certain this is a trend yet. The number of safeties dropping into a six man box has clearly increased, but
it's not just safeties that fit this description. We're seeing as many Telvin Smith and Shaq Thompson types listed
as linebackers as we are Deone Bucannon listed as safeties. The take home message for me here is: Classify them
however you like, teams are again prioritizing every down players in the second level of the defense.
The questions above are by no means exhaustive; a lot of work must go into any analysis of a player. The overriding
message that the league is sending out, however, is that while ‘standard’ positional players are still and will
remain the rule, the league is more than willing to embrace the exceptions – the Bucannons and Barrons of this
world – and deploy them where they make the biggest impact.
Defensive linemen – exceptions to the rule making presence felt
As I began the process last week of constructing my preliminary dynasty rankings for the defensive linemen, it
occurred to me just how shallow this formerly deep position has become. As with most positions, the more you can do
as a defensive lineman the more snaps you will get and the better chance you will have of making an impact both in
the tackle column and as a pass rusher.
The old rules of IDP fantasy football stated that it was 4-3 defensive ends that should be the most coveted
players, and to an extent that is still the case. However, the exceptions to that rule are beginning to make their
presence felt. No player sums this up than J.J. Watt, but it isn’t just the fact that these players are in a
different alignment. It is their usage in subpackages that bumps up their value.
If a defensive lineman who normally lines up on the edge has the ability to kick inside on passing downs and create
havoc – think Joey Bosa in this year’s draft class – then we are looking at a potential IDP stud. Versatility isn’t
the be-all-end-all, of course. Plenty of players with below average physical tools have gone on to become IDP
studs. I’m thinking of recently retired Jared Allen, who started off as a raw kid with a spotty record off the
field and blossomed into a potential Hall of Fame edge player.
Dwight Freeney has made a living on the speed rush. Yes, in his prime he had the ability to turn speed into power
and mix up his pass-rushing moves, but by and large his calling card was to bend the edge and wreak havoc. The
NFL’s defensive line groups will continue to be a rich tapestry of speed, power and technique. Finding the players
with the perfect mix – or players who excel at one – can often give you a solid contributor on your rosters for a
While it is wise to acquire as many elite defensive line talents as you can in start-up dynasty drafts or via
trades or the waiver wire, the position that is the beating heart of IDP fantasy football is, and will continue to
Linebackers – 'the new breed'
The future looks bright if the top tier of talent in the upcoming draft class is anything to go by. With the shift
away from 12 and 22 personnel sets in college football to spread passing attacks, by necessity the linebacker of
yesteryear has been replaced by a speedier, more athletic player capable of running sideline to sideline to cover
the areas that these passing offenses target.
While the beauty of a true form tackle is a dying art in college - with players eschewing the wrap-up method for a
highlight hit - the aforementioned new breed provides plenty of encouragement. Myles Jack, Reggie Ragland, Jaylon
Smith (who reportedly won’t even play in 2016 due to injury) and even Antonio Morrison are players the NFL will
salivate over – and should be coveted prospects in any IDP rookie drafts.
The problem in the modern NFL is that there are plenty of linebackers who play a significant percentage of
defensive snaps, but there are so many variables involved in how effective they are for our purposes as tacklers or
big play creators. Discounting edge players, true off-the-ball linebackers can sometimes see their value spike and
subsequently crash all because of how they are used in the game plan in a particular week.
All of this makes evaluation and week-to-week predictions of their values very difficult, but the truly savvy
owners will have a picture in their minds of how the talent of the players on the field mesh with the particular
game script that unfolds. It’s an inexact science, certainly, but one that keeps us coming back for more year after
Defensive Backs – a crap shoot or value to be mined?
Both. Defensive backs are more difficult to project than ever because snap count and offensive game plans are more
difficult to pin down than ever. That makes it tough to know which defensive backs will see the most opportunity.
And it's often independent of snap count. But there's still value to be mined. Look for players who fly to the ball
and finish tackles and have the recovery and ball skills to add to the boxscore in coverage. Some of them may play
40-50 snaps a game. Others may be in the 60-70 snap per game range.
The wise words of veteran Footballguys staff member Jene Bramel, who must echo the thoughts of countless IDP
fantasy football players frustrated by the swinging pendulum of value that is the defensive back position.
My experience of dealing with defensive backs from a dynasty perspective – scouting them, ranking them and creating
tiers within those ranks – is to embrace the volatility but always focus on the player’s situation and skill set in
A scan of the top defensive backs from the 2015 season brings up names like Corey Graham in Buffalo, a ninth-year
pro who just came off a career year that he may never repeat. The secret to his success? A consistently high snap
count – he dipped below 60 snaps only four times all season – and a willingness to come up in run support with
Look further down the list and we find Dallas safety Barry Church, a name that might be unfamiliar to those less au
fait with the defensive side of the football. Church has just produced back-to-back 70+ solo tackle seasons, with a
105-solo effort in 2013 the outlier. Before his breakout, nobody in their right mind would have endorsed him to
succeed, let alone at this pace.
The theme here is that perhaps unlike any other position in IDP fantasy football, defensive back is the one you can
get by with savvy acquisitions in-season with a smattering of solid veteran players to prop up your DB corps.
So you’re probably asking yourself: is the position just a crapshoot as we originally posited or is the value there
just waiting to be uncovered?
The answer, as Jene said, is both.
What role do the rookies have?
The Scouting Combine in Indianapolis has just wrapped up, leaving in its wake a multitude of metrics that even the
most diehard of numbers freaks can get lost in. After all, the bulk of the work is already done; scouts have a
picture in their minds of a prospect’s strengths and weaknesses from the tape. The Combine certainly provides some
context to a player’s athletic prowess, like how a wide receiver measures up against comparable prospects in terms
of quickness in and out of breaks or hand size.
From a defensive standpoint, many prospects raised their hands for inclusion in the ‘All-Underwear’ team, but the
key thing to keep in mind when watching these future NFL players is how they fit within a scheme and on a team. In
short, what will their role be?
In wider terms, rookies have a large role to play in the ever-evolving defensive landscape of the NFL. Every class
will of course have its strengths and weaknesses, but we are seeing a trend towards smaller, quicker linebackers
capable of being field roamers, while defensive linemen are only getting bigger and more athletic. Defensive backs
are more attuned to the wide open passing offenses of college which are bleeding into the NFL, but many cornerbacks
are not even asked to play press coverage. It is an adjustment that coaches have to be patient with, but players
like Marcus Peters of the Chiefs and Ronald Darby of the Bills have shown how useful rookie defensive backs can be
in IDP fantasy football.
Injury attrition – know your depth charts
Injuries were a massive factor last season in determining the destination of championships. Players were falling by
the wayside week after week, with owners scrambling for replacements to even have a hope of filling their starting
line-up. In the modern NFL, where players hit harder and are gaining rather than shedding girth, knowing your depth
charts is more important than ever.
It is not just the names you need to know, but the talents of that particular player. There are a plethora of great
resources online – none better than Footballguys.com – to keep on top of the second- and third-string players and
whether or not they will, in fact, be of any value. At times one injury forces a team to start a platoon at, say,
linebacker. That throws your best-laid plans of an every-down linebacker into disarray for the week and may even
cost you a title if you pick the wrong week.
This one goes without saying, which is why it is all the more important to say it: study the depth charts and keep
abreast of preseason buzz around players to intuit who the coaching staff trusts – and who they are propping up for
the sake of ego.
• Although the NFL is clearly seeing a sea change in how its players are deployed, it is still the second
level, athletic playmakers that will rack up the points. Whether they are classified as linebackers or safeties is
beside the point.
• The constant threat of injury in a game predicated on collisions means that staying on top of depth charts
is crucial to long-term success. A savvy pick-up mid-season can turn into a solid cog for a championship run, while
an ill-prepared owner who fails to see where the chips may fall might be left devastated.
• Offensive game plans will force wild fluctuations in the snap counts of defensive players; it is up to us
to predict and interpret these metrics as best we can. For me, it all comes down to the talent of the individual
player. Does he have the varied skill set necessary to cope with what the opposing offense throws at him? How will
the game script unfold and how can we leverage this into giving our players the best chance to succeed?
• Defensive linemen are still commodities worth pursuing, even if it takes a few attempts to get a hit at the
position. Securing a future top-10 defensive end or a stud defensive tackle (think Aaron Donald) in start-up or
rookie drafts can be a massive boon for your roster.