- Jim McCormick, Fantasy Sports
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Please don't hang up, but this is admittedly a sales pitch. What I'm selling is a way to augment, and potentially improve, your fantasy football experience.
How much will this "additive" run you? $15.99? Nope, go lower. $9.99? No dice.
Try free. (Did I mention that playing ESPN Fantasy Football is free, too?) All that is required of you is that you incorporate some defensive players into the mix in one of your fantasy leagues. We call it IDP -- individual defensive players -- because all of the other cool names were taken.
As an alternative to relying on the cumulative production of a team defense each week, IDP leagues require that you roster and manage a variety of individual defenders, organized by position (i.e. defensive linemen, defensive backs, etc.). The statistics that your individual defenders accrue go well beyond the common team defense settings (sacks, points allowed, touchdowns and turnovers). In this format, defenders accumulate tackles (both solo and assisted), sacks, interceptions, touchdowns and passes defensed.
To be honest, we're also selling a time-share here. Not a two-bedroom getaway in North Dakota, rather this format likely requires more of your time than a traditional setup. Consider how fantasy baseball works, asking that you manage essentially two independent rosters made up of a pitching staff and a stable of position players. This is similar to how IDP breaks down. Another shared element between fantasy baseball and playing in an IDP league is how familiar you become with the entire collection of talent in each respective sport. A fantasy baseball nerd knows not only about the big bats and power arms around MLB but also the middle relievers with the calmest innings and the versatile utility infielders. An IDP nerd knows not only about the starting wide receivers and MLBs (middle linebackers) but also the burgeoning nickel backs and the rare sack-savvy defensive tackles. Don't be intimidated or turned off by this element, as sometimes it's the minutia and intimate knowledge born from these hobbies that affords us the payoff.
For the interested and uninitiated, let's discuss just how the IDP format works:
There are many settings you can employ, from establishing the scoring key (how many points are awarded for a sack or an interception) to how positions are organized (for example, with respect to defensive linemen, defensive tackles can be a separate position from defensive ends or they can all be regarded as "DLs," depending on the preferences of a specific league).
A common framework for a defensive roster often includes five to eight spots broken down by position. As an example, here's the setup for an IDP league I've played in for the past decade:
• two DP slots (defensive player): A "flex" or utility spot where you can start any defender
• two LB slots: Linebackers
• two DB slots: Defensive backs that can either be safeties or cornerbacks
• two DL slots: Defensive linemen that can either be tackles or ends
Traditional Scoring Modifiers
It's elementary to have a sound grasp on the scoring settings in any fantasy league you join. This is especially true when entering an IDP league, as variations in scoring are more profound given that there isn't a truly accepted set of scoring standards among the IDP community. That said, I've found that both through personal experience and research, the following scoring format is a sound example to work with:
Solo tackle (1 point)
Assisted tackle (½)
Forced fumble (3)
Fumble recovery (3)
Pass defensed (1)
Blocked kick (3)
Drafting in an IDP league
So you are entering the second half of your fantasy draft and you have what (hopefully) seems like a compelling collection of offensive talent, it's now time to start developing the defensive roster. Here is a breakdown of each defensive position, followed by a basic overall draft strategy.
Linebackers: While the running back position once dominated the fantasy landscape on the offensive side of the ball only to become diluted by realities like specialization and shared backfields, the linebacker has remained the most coveted commodity on the IDP market. Simply put, linebackers put up consistent numbers, and like running backs, you can be confident that they'll get a volume of attempts to produce. If the old adage was to take two stud fantasy tailbacks right off the bat, then the current truism on defense is to nab at least one, if not two, elite linebackers to start off your defensive roster. Truly elite fantasy linebackers, like Patrick Willis and Jon Beason, have been known to average (using the scoring settings above) nine to 11 points per game, numbers comparable to valued offensive commodities like Cedric Benson and the Steve Smiths.
One element that has changed is that it isn't solely the middle 'backer that puts up prolific totals anymore. With the 3-4 scheme sweeping through defensive playbooks during the past decade, we've seen an emerging crop of outside linebackers that regularly collect double-digit sacks, as DeMarcus Ware and the Pittsburgh duo of James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley have proven. A sound strategy for this position would be to pair a true 4-3 middle linebacker, such as a James Laurinaitis or Barrett Ruud, with a QB predator in the mold of the guys previously mentioned.
Defensive Backs: Safeties are the safest. Like linebackers, they have consistent opportunities to take down ball carriers, and the elites combine stable tackle numbers with a variety of turnovers and passes defensed. Cornerbacks certainly factor in, as productive playmakers like Charles Woodson and the workmanlike Antoine Winfield are proven commodities. It's simply rarer for a corner to be a consistent fantasy source given the nature of the position. One discrepancy with the "real" and fantasy realms is that dominant cover corners like Darrelle Revis and Nnamdi Asomugha simply don't put up worthy numbers since they are avoided by opposing signal-callers. If fantasy value is predicated on opportunity to produce, then drafting a blend of ball-hawking free safeties (i.e., Darren Sharper) and punishing strong safeties (Brian Dawkins) is your best bet.
Defensive Linemen: Defensive ends are the valued commodities at this position, with the atypical productive defensive tackle (Kevin Williams) entering the discussion. You are hunting for a volume of sacks and fumbles from these guys, with the top talents also collecting a nice clip of tackles. I find that outside of, say, the top five guys, this position is amazingly fickle from season to season. This means that you can either draft one trusted stud and some upside guys in the twilight rounds or go all out and get two studs in hopes of not having to consider the position for much of the season.
Draft Day Strategy
As is the case in standard drafts, it is best to wait on defense until you are confident with the depth you've built on the offensive side of the ball. Just as you are likely to -- outside of a few elite exceptions -- toggle your team defense at some point in the season, your defensive roster will be edited and somewhat fluid as well. By this, I mean that while it's certainly important to build your roster via the draft, it's also vital not to invest too early or at too high of a price, as offensive talent remains more scarce given roster sizes among other factors. The standard-league manager who drafts a supposed elite team defense in the sixth or seventh round often regrets it down the line, as he or she passed on potential offensive fixtures. The same can be said for drafting individual defenders. It's best to wait into the later rounds (ninth and on) to begin investing.
In an attempt to reduce the positional breakdowns into a basic overall IDP drafting strategy, I would advise that out of your first four defensive selections you should net two star linebackers, a choice defensive back and an elite defensive end. With this foundation, you'll be free to take gambles and go into "best available" mode with an eye on the upside "sleepers." Pre-ranks in most formats often overvalue the previous season, leading to overrated players who had inflated interception and sack totals thanks to a few big games. Since this fantasy football thing is generally a weekly pursuit, it makes the most sense to pursue the talents who will produce on a weekly basis. The best part, however, is in the management, as you'll regularly be compelled to tweak your defensive roster as talent emerges on the wire and the trade market warms up.
The overall idea with these leagues is to try something new, something different. This format has a reputation for winning over its participants given how immersed one becomes with the defensive side of the ball. No offense to those who like to solely play what is essentially offensive fantasy football; we're just asking that you consider getting defensive.
Jim McCormick is an IDP and fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com, as well as the editor and publisher of BLITZ Magazine, a print and online publication covering football from prep to pro.
19hPat McManamon and Jeremy Fowler