Fantasy leagues that use individual defensive players (IDPs) are becoming more popular every year. No longer are IDP leagues a fringe effort left to those committed fantasy football players who eagerly awaited the Monday newspaper and scoured the box scores to tally tackle, sack and interception statistics by hand.
Today, IDP setups are readily available from a wide range of league hosting services and statistics for defensive players are easier than ever to find. More and more veteran fantasy owners are scrapping the outdated team defense position in favor of using IDPs. And owners new to fantasy football are now seeing IDP leagues as the standard rather than the exception.
There's no denying that IDP leagues are more complex and time-consuming than leagues that use team defenses. Successful IDP owners must monitor a deeper pool of players and manage a larger roster. But there's also no denying that most fantasy owners come to enjoy their IDP leagues as much or more than their non-IDP leagues. IDP owners get just as excited watching J.J. Watt explode for multiple sacks on Monday Night Football or Patrick Willis rack up tackles for their teams as they do when Adrian Peterson has a huge week for them. More players in your starting lineup means more players to root for on Sundays and the extra level of complexity makes winning your league championship even more gratifying.
For those of you ready to take the plunge and start playing IDP fantasy football, Footballguys.com can help accelerate your IDP learning curve. In this article, we'll crack the playbook on IDP strategy, discuss general strategies for IDP success and address some common questions IDP owners have while managing their rosters.
Understanding Your League's System
The first step in becoming a successful IDP owner is studying and understanding your league's defensive scoring system, roster and lineup requirements. On the offensive side of the ball, player values can change dramatically if players are given points for receptions or if quarterbacks are awarded four points per passing touchdown rather than six. Understanding the details of your defensive scoring system is just as critical, especially since there is no standard IDP scoring system. What's right for one league may be very wrong for another.
You'll need to know whether your system favors tackles or big plays. Leagues that value tackles more than sacks or interceptions are often referred to as tackle heavy, while those that value sacks and interceptions highly are big play heavy. A quick way to determine which way your league leans is to divide the number of points awarded for a sack by the number of points awarded for a solo tackle and calculate your league's sack-to-tackle ratio. For example, if your league awards 4.5 points per sack and 1.5 points per solo tackle, your sack-to-tackle ratio is 3:1. A sack-to-tackle ratio less than 2.5 means your league values tackles more than big plays, while a ratio of 5.0 or higher suggests a big play heavy system.
Why is that ratio important? A tackle heavy scoring system may decrease the value of rush linebackers (e.g. Justin Houston and Terrell Suggs may remain studs but Clay Matthews and Elvis Dumervil may struggle to be consistent fantasy plays), cover corners (e.g. Darrelle Revis), and rush defensive ends (e.g. Chris Long), all classes of players who don't make many tackles compared to others at their position. Houston is much more likely to finish among the top-10 linebackers in leagues with a sack-to-tackle ratio of 5:1 than leagues with a ratio of 2:1. But even a stud like Houston may be a disappointment in tackle-heavy leagues in some seasons. A good example of the difference in value between scoring systems had been DeMarcus Ware, when he was classified as a linebacker. While Ware regularly finished in the Top 10, his 2009 numbers kept him out of the Top 20 despite 11 sacks.
Understanding the Importance of Opportunity
Professional defensive football is the ultimate team sport. Every defender has a defined role (gap to fill, zone to cover, etc) and how well each teammate does his job affects how a given defender performs in the box score. Talent cannot be ignored, but it is opportunity that makes or breaks the value of an IDP.
Many things can affect a defensive player's opportunity. A player's surrounding cast can have a major impact on his box score production. Facing a well above league average number of offensive plays and rushing attempts can lead to big solo tackle numbers turned mediocre talents like Paris Lenon and DeAndre Levy into reliable IDP options in recent seasons. Others may see their numbers inflated due to the lack of competition for tackles from average teammates.
The role a player has in his defense will also affect his value. Linebackers who don't play on nickel downs may play less than half of his team's defensive snaps in any given game. Curtis Lofton didn't play in Atlanta's nickel packages in 2008 and managed just 67 solos from his middle linebacker position. As an every-down middle linebacker in 2009, Lofton's solo tackle count spiked to 105. Arizona's Daryl Washington had a similar spike in 2011. Teams that rotate defensive linemen may greatly change the value of their defensive ends. Rookie cornerbacks and corners are seeing their first playing time as a starter are repeatedly tested by opposing offenses and often have big statistical seasons (the so-called rookie corner rule).
The responsibilities of a given defensive position can also affect the value of an IDP. A strong side linebacker who must contend with more blockers than his teammates will struggle to make enough plays to hold consistent value. That was a painful lesson learned by many owners of Cato June a few seasons ago, who watched their former top-20 linebacker fall out of the Top 60 overall after moving from the weak side position in Indianapolis to the strong side position in Tampa Bay. Only the most talented every-down strong side linebackers will buck that trend. Similarly, the responsibilities of a defensive end in a 3-4 front make them much less likely to be productive pass rushers than their 4-3 counterparts.
While there are exceptions to every rule, here are a few simple flow diagrams by position to use as an approximation of each role's expected opportunity.
4-3 DE > 3-4 DE = 4-3 DT > 4-3 NT = 3-4 NT
In nearly every scoring system, an every-down dual run support-pass rush threat 4-3 end should be your primary DL target. There are exceptions – undertackles (a penetrating 4-3 defensive tackle like Geno Atkins) and talented 1-gap 3-4 defensive ends (e.g. J.J. Watt and Calais Campbell) may also have consistent production – but focusing on 4-3 ends is essential.
4-3 MLB = 3-4 WILB > 4-3 WLB = 3-4 SILB > 3-4 OLB > 4-3 SLB
This is where flow diagrams can get tricky. As discussed above, the linebacker position is the most sensitive to variations in scoring system. The flow diagram here assumes a tackle neutral or heavy scoring system; leagues that award big points for sacks will need to shift the 3-4 OLB well up in the flow diagram. In general, inside linebackers get more tackle opportunity and thus hold better IDP value.
Be aware of the notable exceptions within certain types of defensive schemes. Without getting into too much detail, it's worth paying attention to which 3-4 teams play like 4-3 teams in the front seven (i.e. play 1-gap instead of 2-gap techniques). Those particular 3-4 teams generate RILBs that are as productive as 4-3 MLBs, with studs like Daryl Washington leading the way.
SS > some Cover-2 CBs > FS > non Cover-2 CB
Defensive backs are also sensitive to scoring system. Your most consistent DB targets will be in-the-box strong safeties, especially those who also have solid cover skills. Be aware, however, that the current trend in the NFL is to use both safeties interchangeably, with both safeties sharing run support and cover responsibilities. Those alignments often allow both safeties the opportunity to have IDP value. Antoine Bethea and Eric Weddle have been top IDP values as free safeties in interchangeable safety schemes. Corners that support the run well and play in Cover-2 schemes (i.e. Antoine Winfield and Charles Tillman) can also be consistently productive IDP options.
Applying IDP Concepts
You've prepared by teasing out the positions emphasized by your scoring system and you have a working knowledge of which IDPs are primed for big seasons. But how do you know when to draft your first IDP? Which IDP position should you focus on first? Should you deal an offensive player for an IDP for your stretch run? What do you do when your highly regarded IDP starts the season poorly? Here are a few tips on how to handle the most vexing problems that face IDP owners every season.
When Should You Draft Your IDPs?
The prevailing wisdom among veteran IDP owners is to fill out most of your offensive starting lineup and even draft a key offensive backup or two before drafting your first IDP. Because offensive talent quickly grows scarce, most owners fall in line and the first IDPs runs won't start until somewhere between Round 8 and Round 10.
In most cases, that will indeed be your sweet spot. But your understanding of scoring system and IDP opportunity will keep you flexible during the draft. You can exploit your lesser prepared leaguemates in multiple ways.
Often, your preparation may allow you to wait even longer to fill your IDP starting slots. While your competition relies on last year's stats and misunderstands the scoring system, you'll be able to find very good mid-round IDP value, unearth late round gems and successfully work the waiver wire. The larger number of starting defensive players in the NFL (three to four defensive linemen, linebackers, and defensive backs on every NFL team) also aids this strategy. Last season's prepared IDP owners recognized that Lavonte David and Jerrell Freeman were good candidates for big seasons and had them in the upper tier of linebacker prospects and targeted defensive backs like Jonathan Cyprien as late round sleepers. Those owners were able to slough the linebacker position well into the middle rounds while filling other positions and lose no ground to their competition.
However, some leagues take concerns about the scarcity of offensive talent too far and give you an opportunity to stack your lineup with stud IDPs. In leagues where defensive players carry as much value as offensive players, jumping on the top IDPs while your leaguemates are grabbing backup wide receivers can give you a big defensive advantage while not giving up much with your back end offensive players. Again, your knowledge of the scoring system allows you the flexibility to confidently exploit whatever your competition gives you.
Which IDP Position Should You Draft First?
There are no simple answers to this question. So much of what may make a pick good or bad is dependent on the structure of the league and vagaries of your scoring system. Still, it's worth considering a few core thoughts around which to build your draft strategy.
Most IDP scoring systems give linebackers the most value, making them the lifeblood of your roster. The steady tackle production of most linebackers also makes them the most consistent IDP position. With rare exception, they will anchor your lineup and should be your first draft targets.
There are very few defensive ends that are capable of finishing among the leaders in sacks and solo tackles while providing consistently weekly production. Those elite ends are often as valuable as the top linebackers. It's worth considering drafting those rare and consistent defensive ends (e.g. J.J. Watt, Robert Quinn) much sooner than the better linebackers. With the increase in the number of teams using 3-4 fronts and the decrease in valuable 4-3 ends, the elite defensive lineman is often a better bet than some of the top linebackers in many scoring systems.
On the other hand, defensive backs tend to have more year-to-year and week-to-week variability. That variability usually dictates waiting to fill your defensive back slots in favor of safer and surer options at defensive end and linebacker. If you can't get a stud strong safety or all-around cornerback early in the draft, your preparation will help you find exceptional defensive backs off the waiver wire.
Trading Offense for Defense
This issue most often challenges dynasty IDP owners, but is one redraft owners also face. Many owners, even those with years of experience in IDP leagues, balk at trading offense for defense. Some reasons are legitimate (i.e. it's easier to find a solid IDP without trading a more scarce offensive commodity), others not so legitimate (i.e. IDPs are drafted so much later than offensive players that they don't have as much value).
If you're trying to win your league, however, your overriding goal should be to field the greatest competitive advantage at as many starting lineups slots as possible. Conventional biases aside, there will be situations where it makes sense to deal offense for defense. In fact, owners who refuse to deal offense for IDPs will often give great IDP value for marginal offensive talent.
Don't be afraid to trade offense for defense if the value you get in return improves your starting lineup. Improving an IDP position is just as important to your bottom line as improving an offensive position.
Managing Your Roster
Successful IDP owners avoid replacement level players whenever possible. Drafting or trading for, then starting a player that is no better than what can be picked up off the waiver wire (i.e. replacement level) can cost your team dearly.
Understanding your scoring system and how to forecast IDP opportunity can save you from the two most common mistakes inexperienced IDP owners make during the NFL season. Your understanding of schemes and opportunity will keep you from overpaying for last year's stud linebacker who has changed teams and no longer has the same chance at racking up tackles or from grabbing a one week wonder that just had a fluke game instead of the true up-and-comer off the free agent lists. You want your opponents' lineup hurt by replacement level players, not your own.
Understanding how to project IDP opportunity will also save you from reacting too harshly when your studs underperform early in the season. Inexperienced IDP owners are much more likely to overreact to a bad week and cut a good IDP than a good offensive player. They overlook simple reasons why a talented defensive player in a good situation had a bad game or two. A well trained IDP owner can foresee a rebound for an underperforming player after careful consideration of their talent, opportunity and a deeper look at their early season box scores. The same thought process can keep you from holding what you thought was a stud IDP too long.
Footballguys.com Can Help
If you're ready to dive into an IDP league of your own, the message board at Footballguys.com has a forum for established leagues looking to find replacement owners. If you love watching defensive football, but are still intimidated by the extra commitment an IDP league requires, our Footballguys.com IDP staff can help coach you up as you get your feet wet. We are active and accessible on Twitter (Follow and ask questions @JeneBramel) and we offer a separate IDP advice request forum on our active IDP message board. You can also find us talking defense on our free weekly IDP Roundtable podcast, which is easily accessible on the Footballguys.com website and on iTunes.
Though we've just scratched the surface of the concepts and strategies that you'll need to be a successful IDP owner, we hope the discussion was enough to draw those not currently in an IDP league into the world of defensive players. Most of you in offense only leagues remember the extra enjoyment from following every offensive player rather than just those on your home team. There's still more enjoyment to be found when you bring the rest of the NFL into your fantasy football league.
Once you've tried IDP, your Sundays will never be the same again.