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Read & React Defense
Part 1

You’re trying your hand at a league with Individual Defensive Players (“IDP”) this year, are you? Excellent. You have passed the threshold into true fantasy football geekdom. This isn’t your garden-variety FF league where you can peruse the ESPN headlines and get the job done. Time to sink or swim, baby. With rosters upwards of 53 players, there are many more things to consider building and managing your team, so every decision is tougher. These are leagues where doing your homework isn’t an option... if you want to be successful.

What is your first step to help you get acclimated to IDP leagues? Read and React. There is such a wide range of league structures these days that you really need to understand the value of the IDP component in your particular league to be successful. To do this, you need to Read your league rules carefully with regards to IDP, and React accordingly. The main points to take notice of and understand in your league rules are the following:

1. Number of IDP Starters
2. Scoring System
3. Lineup Options
4. Defined IDP Positions
5. Waiver Wire Flexibility

Understanding the proper impact of each of these things will be crucial for draft strategy and in-season management so you are not placing too much, or too little, importance on IDP relative to the offensive side of the ball.

Number of IDP Starters
Except in some unique cases, by far the biggest determining factor in assessing the value of IDP to your league overall is the number of defensive players you trot out into your starting lineup each week. This is where IDP leagues differ greatly from one to the next.

Some leagues start as little as 3-4 defensive players each week per team. I believe this is the Yahoo format, or as I like to call it, “token” IDP league. In these leagues, IDPs have very little value. They tend to rank somewhere between TE and K in terms of importance.

If I want to be a little tongue in cheek about it, there is only one defensive stud in fantasy football, Ray Lewis (BAL). Writing this a year ago, Brian Urlacher (CHI) and Roy Williams (DAL) would have gotten the nod for stud consideration as well, but a quick look at the stats from 2003 and we know how that turned out.

After Lewis and a small handful of others at each position, a lot of these guys are very similar to one another in terms of point production. With such a small number of IDP starters per team, there are lots to choose from while remaining competitive. Therefore, why draft IDP early? Build up your offense and then fill your IDP draft slots later.

Moving beyond 3-4 starters, a lot of leagues use somewhere in the neighborhood of 6-8 IDP starters. Now we’re finding a greater difference between the top guys and the bottom guys. The top end players increase in value, and the middle ranked guys are looking more attractive to fill up those roster spots. Some pretty straight forward value-based drafting concepts here.

Instead of kickers, a good comparison would be the WR position from about the 3rd or 4th tier down. Still lots to choose from, but definitely some preferences as different groups of guys start to shine through.

And then there are the hard core leagues, starting 11 (or more?) IDP every week. Unless you’re starting guys along the OL, your IDP roster probably just shot past the offensive side. These leagues are typically reserved for dynasty format, because a 40 or so round annual draft gives even the biggest football junkies among us a shiver up our spine. If there is beer at the draft, forget about getting this done!

Let me make sure I’m clear here in saying that in most scoring systems, even in these leagues, offense is still the most critical part of your team! The IDP studs remain studs, but they still shouldn’t find themselves into the top 2 (even 3-4) rounds of a re-draft or first year keeper/dynasty draft. You will benefit much more by still concentrating on building the offense and waiting on IDP, even if you have to sacrifice losing a few of the studs.

In reality, a top defensive player in these leagues seems to be worth about a mid to late 1st round pick in a rookie only dynasty draft. That would equate to anywhere from a round 4-5 pick, to much later, in a combined veteran/rookie draft. Taking a rookie IDP 1st round in a deep dynasty league isn’t necessarily unwise either, if reserved for only the very best “can’t miss” prospects. It will depend on the available talent. The 2004 rookie class is very deep with offensive talent, so Sean Taylor is still, justifiably, falling to the 12th-20th rookie pick off the board in a deep IDP, rookie only dynasty league draft.

Talent Pool: The defining concept in all of this is that there are a lot more quality IDP players to choose from than offensive players. Obviously there is less choice the more starters you and your league mates need, but the IDP talent pool comes from drafting among 11 starters (DL, LB and DB), plus specialists, on the defensive side of the ball from each of 32 NFL teams. On offense, we are typically drafting from a group of only 5-6 players (QB, RB, WR and TE) from each of 32 NFL teams. Below are some numbers to sketch this out.

Talent Pool Analysis
Position NFL Starters
Fantasy Roster
10 Team
12 Team
14 Team
QB 32 2 20 (63%) 24 (75%) 28 (88%)
RB 40 (2) 4 40 (100%) 48 (120%) 56 (140%)
WR 70 (3) 5 50 (71%) 60 (86%) 70 (100%)
TE 32 2 20 (63%) 24 (75%) 28 (88%)
DL 123 (4) 4 40 (33%) 48 (39%) 56 (46%)
LB 101 (5) 5 50 (50%) 60 (59%) 70 (69%)
DB 128 (6) 4 40 (31%) 48 (38%) 56 (44%)

(1) NFL starters and players who are potentially acceptable fantasy producers, even if they don’t technically start.

(2) Estimate based on 1 primary starter plus extra RB for teams employing running back by committee approach.

(3) Estimate based on 2 starters per team plus extra for teams with productive 3rd WR.

(4) 4 DL starters * 27 teams + 3 DL starters * 5 teams using 3-4 alignment primarily (PIT, HOU, BAL, NE, SD).

(5) 3 LB starters * 27 teams + 4 LB starters * 5 teams using 3-4.

(6) 4 DB starters * 32 teams. Does not include nickel and dime defensive backs.

(7) Fantasy starters plus backups on roster in league starting 1 QB, 1-2 RB, 3-4 WR, 1 TE, 2-3 DL, 3-4 LB, 2-3 DB.

Kind of reinforces the value of getting quality RB and WR early, doesn’t it? As you can see, there are tons of IDP players to choose from. Obviously not all will be of much use, like one or both DT on an NFL team, and the CB position is generally pretty weak. Overall though, the IDP cupboard is reasonably stocked well after the offensive side has gone bare. Even if we changed to an 11 starter IDP league (assume the roster would hold 5 DL, 6 LB and 6 DB), it would be a similar story, just to a lesser degree. This analysis does not take into account quality backups who are expected to start some day, but believe me they are just as or more plentiful for IDP than offense.

One final point I should mention, and one that can confuse some people, even myself at times, is the belief that if the overall scoring system is more heavily weighted to IDP than normal, then IDP must be more valuable than offense and worth drafting earlier. That is not entirely true. Since all players at the same position score on the same basis (x for tackles, y for sacks, etc.), even with an enhanced IDP scoring system the difference between having the 6th ranked LB and the 20th ranked LB is not worth sacrificing the 6th ranked WR for the 20th ranked WR. The key is not how many points a position scores, but what the difference is across each position.

The number of IDP starters your league uses is a much bigger influence on how valuable IDP is thanks to the deep talent pool the NFL provides for us to choose from. So overall, whether your league starts 3 or 11 defensive players, still make sure to focus on the offense first. Don’t overpay for IDP early in your draft. This can often happen to people especially when IDP is a new concept to them, but I’ve seen experienced IDP fantasy players fall into the same trap as well.

That closes out Part 1 of Read and React Defense. Part 2 continues discussion on other aspects of IDP leagues that should be considered to properly strategize for the draft and to get a leg up on the competition. Scoring systems, available formations, how positions are defined and waiver wire flexibility all contribute to how valuable IDP is to your league. More…