- Jim McCormick, Fantasy Sports
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Championships in real and fantasy football can come down to a few deliberate decisions. The right adjustment on a single snap can change the course of a game or even a season. In fantasy, savvy roster assessments can sway the points and create the necessary margin to net an owner a coveted imaginary championship.
As most leagues engage in title tilts in Week 16, it could prove quite valuable to consider some of the emergent defenders found for free in the majority of ESPN leagues. We've all lost and won fantasy matchups by small margins, but, no matter the result, it's always better to go down swinging than to simply trust a fixed lineup on the premise that certain players "got you there." Take a hard look at your defensive roster and consider the available options in a proactive bid to maximize production in this most crucial of weeks. Below are some of the choice defenders available in the majority of ESPN leagues.
Linebacker: The San Francisco 49ers' Aldon Smith (available in 98 percent of ESPN leagues) has proved prolific of late. With Smith's 13 sacks on the season, just 1.5 shy of Javon Kearse's NFL rookie record, talk of Von Miller's conclusive claim to defensive rookie of the year honors has proved a bit premature. For leagues that reward sacks generously, there are few better 'backers to consider, and, in keeper leagues, it's clear that there's long-term value on this young and menacing 49ers front seven. Speaking of Miller, he remains a dangerous force despite being held without a sack for just the third game this season. With his more versatile game, he remains the best bet as the league's top defensive freshman. Although the Buffalo Bills have been sound in protection for much of the season, Miller is a viable play this week thanks to his value in blitz packages. The San Diego Chargers' Antwan Barnes is available in 100 percent of ESPN leagues and is white-hot of late with five sacks in his past two outings. A meeting with the porous Detroit Lions line could add to his late surge.
Defensive line: The Lions' Cliff Avril led off this section last week, and he once again is a premier pickup at the position. A dominant outing in Oakland saw Avril tally two sacks while applying consistent pressure on the pocket throughout. Add Avril with confidence, as few linemen are playing better ball at this time. Another valuable defender who happens to be available in 100 percent of ESPN leagues is the New England Patriots' Mark Anderson. With Andre Carter injured and out for the remainder of the season, he's the Pats' go-to pressure player, and that comes with an uptick in snaps and opportunities to pin his ears back at the pocket. He's an ideal pickup for this penultimate week of football.
Defensive back: Sometimes, struggles in coverage at defensive back can be ideal for fantasy purposes. Sounds strange, but quarterbacks and offensive coordinators are apt to pick on corners who struggle to cover consistently. The Indianapolis Colts' Jacob Lacey is a prime example of this, as he's been heavily targeted the past three weeks, leading to healthy totals in tackles and passes defended. The Miami Dolphins' Vontae Davis should be busy working against the Patriots' passing game this weekend. The Philadelphia Eagles' Kurt Coleman often is targeted when in coverage and likely will be busy this weekend versus the Dallas Cowboys in what could be a playoff-like atmosphere.
Front Four: The weekly word on the world of defenders
Sack party: The Eagles' Jason Babin became just the 10th player in NFL history to produce consecutive three-sack outings, pushing his season total to 18 and taking the league lead over Jared Allen. With the team record set at 21 by Reggie White in 1987 (albeit in a shortened 12-game campaign, which amounted to a ridiculous 1.75 sacks per game), Babin is pursuing local history. If his blistering pace were to continue, the league record (Michael Strahan's 22.5) could be in peril, as well. It's not likely that Strahan's perch is in peril, but it's amazing to consider that Babin had just 17.5 sacks combined in his first six seasons in the league. He has already bested that number this season and has amassed 31 over the past two seasons.
Get Angry: Pat Angerer's production has slowed a bit recently, but this past weekend's dominant performance reminds us that, despite the lull, he's a fantasy force to consider. He is available in more than 57 percent of ESPN leagues.
Down with JPP: If selections had to be submitted this week, I'd tab Jason Pierre-Paul not only as the MVP of defensive linemen in fantasy but also as the league's overall top defensive player this season. From raw prospect to breakout superstar, Pierre-Paul continues in the strong blue blood lines of Giants at the position. With a 16-tackle outing this past week and pressure to the pocket on a regular basis, the battle of New York might just come down to his play.
Young Buc: Tampa Bay rookie Adrian Clayborn is proving to be a bright spot in an otherwise lost season for the crestfallen Bucs. With another big outing this past weekend, he's proving to be more of an immediate gem than many had predicted. For keeper purposes and strong sleepers for 2012, there are few better options at the position.
IDP Rankings Week 16: The Top 20 linebackers, linemen and defensive backs
So that we're working from agreed parameters, we'll use what many consider traditional scoring modifiers for an IDP league: Tackle - Solo (0.5), Tackle - Assist (0.25), Sack (3), Interception (3), Forced fumble (3), Fumble recovery (3), Touchdown (6), Safety (2), Pass defended (0.5), Blocked kick (3).
Jim McCormick is a fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com and high school football editor for ESPNHS.com. Contact him at JMcCormickESPN@gmail.com or @JMacPhillies on Twitter.
Jim McCormick highlights some of the top options for IDP leagues in Week 16.