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Read & React Defense
Part 3

This series of articles is intended to discuss different rules for IDP leagues, and their impact on your draft strategy and in-season team management based on how important the IDP component of your league is to achieving success. Part 1 and Part 2 of this series covered the Number of IDP Starters and Scoring Systems.

Part 3 closes out the series discussing starting Lineup Options, the effects of leagues defining different IDP Positions and Waiver Wire Flexibility.

Lineup Options
Flex lineup options are running rampant in fantasy football these days. In fact, you rarely see a new league now without some kind of option for the owner to start 1 or more players at a choice of positions. IDP is no different. The most common examples of different formations that leagues use coincide with what real NFL defenses do, the 3-4 (3 DL, 4 LB, 4 DB), the 4-3 (4 DL, 3 LB, 4 DB) and Nickel defense (3 DL, 3 LB, 5 DB). Some leagues are less strict to these “known” formations. I’ve seen 4-4-3, 2-2-2 +2 flex any position, and many others.

The important thing is to of course maximize your points every week. To do that you want to start the formation using the most players at the position that scores the most points, on average. Since most leagues use the same scoring system for all of DL, LB and DB, and assuming reasonable tackle scoring in the league, then you are probably never going to want to start a nickel defense with 5 DB versus only 3 DL and 3 LB, and most often start as many LB as you can. If you are in a position of starting 5 DB on a regular basis, then it probably means you are in some dire straits at the other positions. Equate it to starting a second TE at your offensive flex position. Maybe you can pull it off for a short time in a pinch, but long term it certainly hurts your chances of success.

Make sure to analyze all possible lineup formations that your league allows. Then, draft and actively manage your team accordingly. Do you feel odd drafting your 3rd or 4th LB before your first DB? Don’t, it is the right move. In season do you drop that 5th DL for a 7th LB who probably won’t start for you but looks like a good prospect? Sure, if you are typically starting only 3 DL, then how much is that 5th DL player helping you anyway? And, is he easily replaceable down the road? He probably is.

Some people can try to get cute and think, hey, if I draft Julius Peppers (CAR), Simeon Rice (TB), Shaun Ellis (NYJ) and Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila (GB), then I’ll have a big advantage at DL and happily start those guys every week along with only 3 LB. While I don’t like to lock into certain positions during my draft prep, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this. Players disappoint, but referring back to the scoring system section in Part 2, players at certain positions disappoint more. Sacks fluctuate more game-to-game and year-to-year than tackles, so banking on guys who rely a lot more on sacks can look like a good strategy heading in, but turn horribly wrong in a hurry.

DB are very difficult to predict because their success or failure depends on how much the opposing team wants to challenge them. At times, I loathe doing weekly rankings for DB they are so frustrating. If you think you have the top DB unit in your league heading into the season, there is a high probability this group is going to disappoint you. It is just the way it goes.

Lineup options effect your roster management, and properly managing your roster means performing appropriate risk management. DB are high risk, DL are moderate risk and LB are the lowest risk, all with varying levels of reward depending on the scoring. Assess the risk-reward in your league, then manage your roster and set your lineups to maximize your points, and therefore maximize your chance of victory.

Defined IDP Positions
To this point all the discussion has circled around 3 primary defensive fantasy positions, DL, LB and DB. Ok, get ready to enter super-geekdom. More leagues these days are splitting up these positions into their truer NFL position. DL becomes DE and DT. DB becomes S and CB. And I’m almost afraid to ask the question, but I’m sure there is somebody out there tracking OLB versus ILB and MLB. Oh wait, it just came to me. I have seen that before.

So what does this mean? One thing it involves is keeping a closer eye on your competition to make sure they enter legal starting lineups each week, as most online league management services do not split up these IDP positions as such (yet). But what we are concerned with here is the impact on the value of IDP to your league, and how do you react to it. Here is a quick rundown:

Defensive Linemen
When a league is just drafting DL, they are mostly DE, so not a lot is going to change in this respect. Watch how important sacks are to your league and that will increase the value of DE who as a group record most of the sacks in a season.

The DT position split off from DL is where things gets interesting however. A DT who produces like a DE is gold in these leagues. And the reason for that is because most DT down right suck for fantasy purposes. Is Casey Hampton (PIT) the best DT (actually NT) in the NFL? He just might be, but not for fantasy purposes. That is because his job is to tie up blockers, something he is excellent at, but there isn’t nearly as much opportunity for tackles and sacks as a result.

John Henderson (JAC) and Marcus Stroud (JAC) on the other hand, their job is to get to the ball, and they do it well. Warren Sapp (OAK) was probably the best example of a stellar DT that provides a big advantage over your fantasy competition who are not able to procure a quality DT. He had 16.5 sacks back in 2000. Wow. That is nuts.

So the point here is, if your league does split DE and DT from each other, pay more attention to grabbing a quality DT who’s role is conducive to making a big impact in the box score. It is tough to figure out with rookies until we see them play, and the fact the player got drafted higher has little to do with it. Coaches would love to draft the next Casey Hampton or Anthony McFarland (TB). Fantasy owners want to stay far away from these guys. The next Warren Sapp however, that’s who we’re after.

So few leagues split up the LB, and I touched earlier on identifying OLB who score well in the sack department, I won’t spend much time here. Entering the 2002 season, after the Ravens replaced DC Marvin Lewis, they decided to implement a 3-4 base formation. The general thinking in the fantasy community at the time was that this would hinder Ray Lewis’ tackle numbers, both from learning to play in a new system and because there would now be 4 LB to share the tackles instead of just 3.

Lewis has since debunked that theory scoring better on a per game basis the past 2 years than the previous 2 playing in a 4-3. Other inside LB have been successful in the 3-4 as well, like Jamie Sharper (HOU), Keith Brooking (ATL) and Chris Draft (ATL) last season.

In general, MLB and ILB are the first targets for a scoring system rewarding well for tackles. OLB in a 3-4 play a pass rushing role so should score sacks, but tackles can suffer to somewhat negate the benefit of extra sacks, plus they are less consistent as a result. WLB provide a compromise and can contribute nicely to sacks if they have the speed, timing and as an added bonus, opportunity to play as an extra DL on pass plays. SLB have a tough job of facing the TE side of the offensive line, and therefore tend to be the least effective for fantasy purposes.

No matter what position they play in the base defense, all LB are subject to being pulled in passing downs unless they have a defined role of pass rusher or their coverage skills are not a liability to the team. There is so much passing in the game today, you want versatile LB who can stay on the field in all situations. Watch the team reports for this type of information, as it is something that doesn’t make the headlines. Last year rookie Nick Barnett (GB) showed great coverage skills early, and took away dime defense responsibility from veteran Na’il Diggs. Barnett was a huge addition to many a fantasy squad in 2003.

Defensive Backs
In my opinion, Ed Reed (BAL) is the best safety in the NFL right now. However, I was criticized for repeatedly putting him at or near the top of my weekly DB rankings last year when he went on a stretch of games recording 1 tackle, 2 tackles, 1 tackle. Just when he seemed to get it together after that with back-to-back INT games, he had a similar poor stretch to finish out the season during fantasy playoffs.

The safety position is all about opportunity. Some games they get it, and some games they don’t. Reed has a very good set of teammates playing around him, which last year both hurt his fantasy score in the above noted games, and helped him by creating big play opportunities in the huge games he did have, like scoring 4 INT and a sack in a 4 game stretch weeks 2 through 6.

The safety position is a real mixed bag of success stories and disappointments. Rodney Harrison (NE) played on a great defense, and was used in such a way to always be around the ball. This was the same with Reed which helped him some games but he disappeared in others. Greg Wesley (KC) on the other hand played on a terrible defense, but a team that also had such a good offense it forced their opposition to throw a lot, which helped him snag 6 INT. Ifeanyi Ohalete (WAS) is not considered a very talented safety, yet for fantasy purposes he scored well in tackles as the Redskins had a poor front-7 and no one to adequately replace Ohalete in the lineup (until this year, hello Sean Taylor).

The advice here is to go with the top talented guys at the position first, in aggressive systems and with teammates that give them opportunities to make big plays. The teammates I’m referring to are typically the CB, and whether those CB are good enough to cover the receivers on their own, or if they need constant help from the safety. SS are also in most circumstances more desirable than FS, because they tend to have more tackle opportunities in run support whereas the FS has more pass coverage responsibility and relies more on INT for scoring.

It is actually not a very long list of safeties who qualify as top talent, which would normally mean taking them a little earlier to secure one or more on your roster, but watch to not sacrifice a difference maker at LB or DL for a S. Certainly in a split DB league though, S should come off the board much faster and more often than CB.

Speaking of the CB position, take everything I said earlier in this series of articles knocking the DB position, then magnify it 20 times and apply it to CB. They are horribly unpredictable, but there are a few things to look for. An effective CB in a cover-2 defense needs to be a good tackler, which would help explain Ronde Barber’s (TB) high fantasy ranking year after year, and the rapid rise of Nick Harper (IND) last season.

This is also a position where young guys get tested early and often. As long as they can hold up well enough so as not to get demoted by their team, they can rack up the tackles. Charles Tillman (CHI), Marcus Trufant (SEA) and Rashean Mathis (JAC) are good examples of this theory at work in 2003.

Call this nuance to fantasy football the Champ Bailey (DEN) Effect. There is an inverse relationship between how good a CB is, and how much action he sees to be able to score well for fantasy purposes. Champ Bailey, the guy Denver just handed over Clinton Portis to acquire and paid an $18 million signing bonus to, ranked 62nd in fantasy points among all DB in 2003 (FF Today default scoring). This relationship would also help explain the rapid turnover of players at the top of the DB scoring each year.

The only thing with the last theory for picking your CB, is going into the season it is difficult to decipher who these “picked on” players are going to be. As a rough estimate, likely half of the top 10-12 CB every year (for fantasy) are sitting on the free agent list week 1 of the season, even in a deep IDP league. If you need to start a couple CB, the best approach is to try to draft one guy you think you can rely on like Barber, then just go with high upside guys drafting them very late. Approach the draft knowing you probably will be using waivers to find CB starters, and pay attention early so as not to miss out on them. That about sums up the value of these guys.

Waiver Wire Flexibility
This final section to help you determine the value of IDP in your league comes from an offshoot of the talent pool discussion in Part 1 of the series. Just how flexible are the waivers in your league? Are you limited to how many players you can pick up in a week, or over the course of a season?

A combination of having a large or no limit on waiver pickups, plus the deep talent pool of IDP players available, leads to a declining value in the IDP component of your league, and therefore less need to draft them early or even take up roster spots with extra backups. In many leagues those roster spots are very valuable, so why fill one with a guy who could be the next Charles Tillman (a good player, no doubt) when you could otherwise fill it with a guy who could be the next Domanick Davis or Brian Westbrook. Who has more value now?

I noticed in one of my dynasty leagues this past season that, even though it is 14 teams and 40 players deep, on a week-to-week basis if I need a defensive player fill in then I can find one. Maybe it isn’t ideal, but there always seem to be new hot players pop up all year long to slot in where an existing starter went down or isn’t playing up to par. Another thing I noticed is the defensive side of my roster would tend to outweigh the offensive side because I could continue to find decent defensive players that I felt should be on someone else’s roster in the league.

This year I want to get away from that approach, and instead minimize the defensive players on my roster to starters and minimum required backups, and maximize the number of offensive players by adding young prospects with upside as much as possible. The practice squad which we also use (4 players above the 40 man active roster) I will also only fill with offensive players.

The reason is simple. Given the availability of decent defensive players on waivers, even if I think half the teams in my league could use IDP Free Agent Player A, he has virtually no trade value for me. Few people will tend to trade anything more than another defensive player for a defensive player, unless you are swapping a top tier defensive player (even then it is tough) and/or receiving a low value offensive player, likely an aged veteran on the downside of his career.

I think you can see the potential kink in this whole approach. If your league’s waivers are too restrictive to allow you to constantly attack the free agent pool for IDP replacements, then you’re going to need to cover yourself with better quality starters and backups from the draft. You won’t have the option to churn the roster looking for the next top fantasy CB who opposing QBs are challenging repeatedly every week.

Most IDP leagues, particularly deep leagues, seem to be pretty flexible on the waivers, but this point was worth mentioning in case your experience is something different.

That concludes the Read and React Defense series. Hopefully it provides a good guide for rookie IDP fantasy players, and is also helpful to seasoned IDP veterans with at least one or two new things to think about. Even though I tend to downplay the value of IDP in general, it is a great way to enhance the game of fantasy football. It won’t be long before some high stakes IDP league comes along, at which time you can clean up when your competition drafts Ray Lewis at the top of the 3rd round.