The Best Kept Secret in Fantasy Football
By Jene Bramel
August 9th, 2010

This article was originally posted on The New York Times Fifth Down blog.

Most fantasy football owners use lineups dominated by offensive positions. It's easy to see why. Television cameras follow the offensive players and the football from the snap of the ball until the whistle is blown. Maybe more important, a majority of early fantasy football leagues were based on touchdowns and offensive yards because those stats could be tracked on television and in the newspaper box scores we relied upon to score games before the Internet revolutionized fantasy football.

Unfortunately, those factors keep many fantasy football players blind to the best kept secret in the game: individual defensive players.

If you're not using individual defensive players (IDP), you've limited the potential player pool by over 50 percent. You're passing on the excitement of rooting for a DeMarcus Ware sack to give you a victory on "Monday Night Football." You're missing the added rush when Darrelle Revis picks off a pass or when Ray Lewis makes another big hit. You're having half the fun.

Though IDP leagues have exploded in popularity over the past decade, only one in five fantasy leagues (according to a top league management software site) use IDPs and enjoy the full fantasy football experience. The reliability and availability of defensive statistics have made scoring and following defensive players much easier in recent seasons, but many fantasy owners are still wary of introducing defensive players to their leagues. They worry that IDPs score too randomly or inconsistently on a weekly and yearly basis or that great defenders make bad IDP starters while average defenders too often become stud IDP starters.

Those worries are easily put to rest.

1. IDPs do not score more randomly than offensive players.

The most common argument against using IDPs is that the top scoring defensive players change too much from week to week and season to season, making the success or failure of your team too dependent on luck. In fact, defensive players do remain consistent from week to week and season to season. The percentage of defensive linemen and linebackers that repeat as fantasy starters the following year is nearly equal to the number of quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers and tight ends that do so. When you consider that the pool of NFL defensive starters is deeper than the pool of NfL offensive starters, IDPs are every bit as consistent from season to season.

The very best IDPs have a below-average week three to five times a season. That may sound high, but Chris Johnson and Adrian Peterson both had three well-below-average games last season. Larry Fitzgerald and Andre Johnson each had a similar number of disappointing weeks. That variability is even more pronounced in non-PPR leagues. The comparison also holds with lesser starters.

Much of the "randomness" in the week-to-week and season-to-season differences in top offensive players comes from matchup, depth chart, coaching and coordinator changes. The same differences affect defensive players. Understanding the impact of those changes and correctly predicting how they affect player value is possible on both sides of the ball.

2. Good NfL offensive players can also sometimes be poor fantasy players.

It is true that, without a tweak or two to your scoring system, a shutdown cornerback like Nnamdi Asomugha or a Pro Bowl nose tackle like Pat Williams will not be as valuable in IDP fantasy football as they are to their teams on Sundays. But that's not exclusive to defensive players. Kevin Faulk has long been a critical part of the Patriots' passing down packages but never more than an afterthought in fantasy leagues. Lorenzo Neal was vital to the success of many stud fantasy running backs but was never worth a start himself. Lee Evans arguably has the talent to be a top-20 fantasy receiver but has yet to play on an offense that can provide enough quality targets. And one of the greatest NfL quarterbacks was never more than a middling fantasy option; Emmitt Smith's dominance in the red zone relegated Troy Aikman (who never threw for more than 3,500 yards in a season and had only one season with more than 20 touchdown passes) to fantasy obscurity.

Faulk, Neal, Evans and Aikman are rightly considered exceptions on the offensive side. Asomugha and Williams are the same rare exceptions on the defensive side. By season's end, Pro Bowl defensive talent like Jared Allen, Trent Cole, Julius Peppers, Patrick Willis, Ray Lewis, Jon Beason, Charles Woodson and Brian Dawkins will rank among the best IDPs. Like their offensive counterparts, the NfL's best defenders are more often than not top fantasy performers.

3. Poor defensive players aren't more likely to be top IDP starters.

A perfect situation - e.g., a bad offense allowing lots of snaps for its defense and a poor surrounding cast leading to lots of opportunity - sometimes elevates a mediocre NfL defensive player to IDP stardom. Players like Kirk Morrison and Gibril Wilson are certainly valued more by their fantasy owners than their NfL teams. Similar situations occur with offensive players. For every Gibril Wilson, there's a Bernard Berrian or Eddie Royal. For every Kirk Morrison, there's a Matt Forte or Steve Slaton. Both sides of the ball have their outliers. But both sides of the ball will generally see the most talented rise to the top, while the less talented fall toward the bottom of the year-end rankings.

There is a learning curve involved in becoming a good IDP owner. You'll need to learn which defensive roles provide the most opportunity. You'll need to learn how to take advantage of whatever scoring system and lineup your IDP league decides to use. But the extra work will be worth it. Your eyes will be open to another side of the ball on game days. You'll better understand football strategy - offensive and defensive.

If you're interested in learning more about IDP leagues, two articles published at Footballguys.com can help flatten the learning curve for you. Incorporating IDP Concepts is a quick introduction to all things IDP, and Breaking Down Defenses by the longtime IDP guru John Norton is a beginner's guide to understanding the differences between defensive fronts and the roles of each defensive position.

Try an IDP league this year. Your Sunday football experience will never be the same. And you'll soon share my standard response to those who ask, "Why IDP?"

"Why not IDP??"

Questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to bramel@footballguys.com.

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