It is no longer difficult to find a league that allows for the use of individual defensive players (IDP) on your roster and is incorporated in your lineup on a weekly basis. This is no longer a growing trend to expand the fantasy football roster to include the players on both sides of the line of scrimmage in our contests but rather the trend has arrived in full force, with linebackers, defensive linemen and defensive backs being part of the draft pool, much in the same way that offensive players have been available for many seasons of fantasy football competition. In some schemes, these IDPs have supplemented the Team Defenses and Special Teams (DST) roster slot, while in others the defensive players supplant the entire team defense roster position. Since IDP tends to collect fantasy points from the same categories as the team defense, it makes sense to avoid duplication of point production.

Every fantasy football league I’ve set up has an IDP component, and this generates a substantial attribute in terms of weekly scoring results for each team. In an IDP league, an owner not only drafts the normal offensive players (QB, RB, WR, TE, K), but also linebackers, defensive backs, and defensive linemen (LB, DB, DL). Having IDP slots proves to be interesting and valuable for the same reason as using holds (or the recently popular SOLDS) as a statistical category in fantasy baseball, in that it opens up a whole group of additional players that have significance in your league. Naturally, you now have to study IDP as well as the usual offensive players to effectively compete against the other owners in your league. This also allows the fantasy player to enjoy watching football from both sides of the line of scrimmage on Thursdays, Sundays, and Monday nights. Most fantasy team owners are already aware of the star IDPs but when you are involved in an IDP league, it is necessary to study such aspects as the defensive scheme a team employs which will affect how useful a linebacker will be for your fantasy team.


NFL Defensive Schemes

The two main defensive set-ups that a team might employ are a 4-3 or a 3-4 scheme. If a team has three defensive linemen (a 3-4), then you want to target their outside linebackers. The OLBs on a 3-4 defense are more likely to pick up sacks, as the linemen generally just clog up the running paths up front and are not used to rush the quarterback. Defensive linemen and inside linebackers on a 3-4 team will get you tackles and not much else. Of course, in a tackle heavy IDP league, this can prove valuable, too. Scoring systems will be discussed a bit later in this article.

A 4-3 team provides a boatload of IDP value with its defensive ends and the middle linebacker. The DE (edge rushers in some fantasy football platforms) spot will supply your best option for sacks, while the Middle Linebacker is a tackle machine. Also, in a 4-3 defensive scheme, all three LB spots will give you points, as there is less spreading of the tackles, interceptions, and passes defended among the three linebackers in this type of defensive system. Overall, you want to draft your IDPs from a team that runs a 4-3 scheme, as the points will flow to you better on a week-to-week basis, since you will have five defensive players putting up numbers for you. A 3-4 team will provide decent numbers from the weak side LB, while the strong side LB will often be tied up by the tight end’s blocks, and as discussed above, the three defensive linemen will provide some tackle points but little else.

Fantasy Football Linebackers

Linebackers are gold in IDP leagues. They provide tackles, interceptions, fumbles, and fumble returns (although any IDP can cause or recover a fumble), and will also put up passes-defended (PD) points. That being said, there are also a lot of linebackers that you can draft and find fantasy goodness with, so you do not necessarily need to target your linebackers as your first defensive players to draft. Provided, that you have the opportunity to nab a stud LB as your first IDP pick, you should do so without question. If you can get two stud LBs, take them and do not look back. If your other league members have drafted their initial IDPs early, however, you can afford to be patient as value exists in the middle-round picks. The above discussion about knowing what sort of scheme a team employs is essential to picking your linebacking crew, but you also want to populate your roster with “three-down” linebackers. It only stands to reason that the more time a player spends on the field, the more likely he is to provide your team with fantasy point production. Also, seek out linebackers on bad teams, as they will undoubtedly have more opportunities to tackle the opponent’s RBs, WRs and TEs (and on a more limited basis, the quarterback).

Fantasy Football Defensive Backs

If you are not required to have both cornerbacks and safeties on your fantasy team, always go for safeties as your defensive backs. Safeties are the safest choices (pun intended) as they will provide you with the most tackles on a weekly basis, since their role in the defense is to stuff the run. Even if your league puts a high value on interceptions, these plays are notoriously inconsistent from week to week, and especially year to year. Also, a shutdown corner is a bad IDP choice, as the opposing team will avoid passing to whatever WR he is covering. Drafting a rookie cornerback that is starting for a team is often a good strategy here as opposing offenses will likely test him repeatedly until he proves he can cover his man. Thus, a rookie starting CB will give you points for tackles and potentially, passes defended and an occasional interception. Even so, safeties provide the best consistent value at DB and you should target them when drafting your squad.

Fantasy Football Defensive Linemen

When targeting defensive linemen, you will want to select defensive ends as opposed to defensive tackles. DEs will be the best source of sacks as well as tackles, although there is the occasional DT that provides value. As a general rule, however, unless your league requires that a DT be started, avoid them altogether. If you find that all the top-tier LBs have been snatched up when you begin to draft your IDPs, then go for one of the top-tier DEs who will most likely still be available. Remember, look for a DE that starts in a 4-3 scheme and in this case, you should look to last year’s stats for some guidance as far as sack totals and tackle numbers (some guidance, only, as production, can shift wildly from season to season). Target at least one of the top five-seven DEs for your roster, as the drop-off after the first tier is drastic.


IDP Draft Timing

You should not begin drafting IDP until you have your starting offense set. Even then, the suggestion would be that you grab at least one backup RB and WR, and possibly wait until you have three backup offensive players. Do not rush to draft defensive players, no matter what your league mates are doing early on. You run the risk of missing out on the top-tier LBs, but usually, DBs and DLs will be there for you to select for your initial IDP options. With the exception of Two-QB and Superflex leagues, you should fill all your IDP starting spots before you go back to selecting backup offensive players (aside from the initial two or three mentioned above), but as with all draft advice, adjust and adapt to your particular draft; i.e., if an offensive bargain falls to you in the later rounds, you need to take advantage at the expense of grabbing an IDP. No matter how highly you may have an IDP ranked on your cheat sheet, it is urged that you not reach for him over a starting QB/RB/WR/TE. If you use a tiered cheat sheet (highly suggested), you should have a separate sheet for IDP, but even though certain players may be ranked as top-tier IDPs, do not get carried away; a tier-one IDP is a round ten selection, not a fourth-round draft choice. It should go without saying that all IDP starters should be selected before your kicker, and if your league uses a team D/ST together with IDPs, it is recommended that you wait on that position, too. Another suggestion is to draft a D/ST in the slot just before you select your kicker, or the next-to-last draft slot. You should have taken any backup offensive players as well as any valuable IDPs based on predicted production or bye week use before considering taking a team defense or kicker.

IDP League Scoring Setup

Ideally, your IDPs will provide point totals every week that are nearly equivalent to an offensive player. For example, a good LB can usually give your team 10-15 points a week, which is what you want at a minimum from your RB or WR. Occasionally, if a player blows up, his totals can rival those of a top-tier QB. Be warned that many IDP leagues follow the recommended settings found in various places around the web. Now, if you have any say in the IDP scoring set up, it is suggested that you value IDP stats differently. For example, interceptions, sacks, forced fumbles and blocked kicks are more valuable than fumbles recovered (a lucky occurrence) or passes defended. This is because these defensive plays reverse possession (interceptions) or stop momentum (sacks and forced fumbles) and have a greater impact on the game than simply tackling an RB or stopping a reception. Sacks are of significantly more consequence in the course of a game than a tackle, and thus are assigned an appropriate importance when setting up an IDP scoring system. Here is a recommended set of scoring values for what is best described as a hybrid IDP system:

  •     Solo Tackle (or Total Tackles); 1 point
  •     Assisted Tackle: 1/2 point
  •     Sack: 4 points
  •     Interception: 6 points
  •     Pass Defended: 3 points
  •     Fumble Forced; 4 points
  •     Fumble Recovered; 2 points
  •     Safety: 2 points
  •     Blocked FG/PAT/Punt: 6 points
  •     All Defensive Touchdowns: 6 points

As noted above, some IDP leagues dispense entirely with the usual D/ST slot, and thankfully some leagues are disposing of the PK slot as well, mostly due to a belief that over the course of a season, all kickers are basically the same. It also frees you from feeling like you are settling for your final two picks; rather, you are looking for a sleeper IDP or RB/WR/TE at the end of the draft.

The best IDP leagues employ six-to-eight defensive slots. The normal setup is two LBs, two DLs, two DBs and perhaps two flex defensive players that can be LB, DB or DL. Certainly, you can consider deleting the dedicated DL slots, however instead letting each owner decide if he wants a DL on his roster by using two-to-four general DP slots. 

IDP Fantasy Football Rookies

Unlike the situation with offensive players, where rookies are generally to be avoided when drafting a starting lineup, rookie defensive players frequently have great value immediately. As noted above, a rookie CB will rack up points for you simply because he will be targeted by the opposition until he proves himself to be a capable defender. Depending on the team that drafts him, a defensive player can step into a starting role immediately. The learning curve for IDPs is not as steep as other positions, and on a regular basis you can find exceptional value from a rookie that is taken in the first few rounds of the NFL draft, depending on the team situation he steps into. Also, some rookie IDPs drafted in the first round are slated to start due to their predecessor being traded, dropped, or retiring from the league.

When drafting rookies, make sure you have a backup plan in mind. Rookies are not accustomed to the grind or length of the NFL season, and can “hit the wall” later in the season, reducing their value when it is needed most. Also, these newcomers are now facing an entirely different level of competition in the form of savvy veteran NFL players. 

IDP Fantasy Football Draft Strategies

First, as with any fantasy league you are involved in, you simply must understand your league rules. This is an essential commandment in all fantasy sports, but one that sadly is often neglected. The manner in which your commissioner has set up scoring, roster limits and position eligibility is essential when determining how you approach the draft and implement in-season management of your roster. 

Secondly, you need to figure out just exactly how your IDPs rack up points for your team. Are you in a "big play" league, where sacks, interceptions, and defensive takeaways are valued highly? Or is your league more of a tackle-oriented system, where the value of your players is increased when they are on the field every down as opposed to being specialty substitutions on passing downs? A three-down linebacker in a tackle-oriented league has tremendous value, while a nickel or dime back that takes the field on obvious passing downs is the kind of player to target in a league that rewards heavily for defensive turnover production.

It is tempting to grab the stud IDPs early on in your drafts, thinking you will get a leg up on your competitors. You are better served by filling your starting offensive roster prior to drafting IDPs, unless you play in a league that dramatically pumps up defensive stats. You need to have a firm offensive foundation to compete in fantasy football in general, as there are only so many top-notch QBs, RBs, WRs, and TEs. While Danielle Hunter, Darius Leonard or Jamal Adams can be a key foundation for your team, there are also many other good-to-excellent defensive players that can carry you week to week. Equate it to the decision to grab a stud QB or wait on the position and use a committee approach; both techniques can work, so long as you can adjust during the season to take advantage of matchups and work the waiver wire effectively. Plus, if you read the weekly IDP Reports on Fantasy Alarm, you will be able to make savvy free-agent additions to your squad and seriously outperform your opponents each scoring period.

When drafting IDP, keep the scarcity of certain positions in mind, but not at the expense of building depth. For example, if your league uses defensive tackle as a required position (as opposed to the general defensive lineman designation), you will find that after the top few DTs, the pool thins out rapidly. That is not a reason to take a DT prior to selecting a top 20 linebacker, though, as the point difference between the top DT and the tenth DT off the board will not win you many weeks, while the 20th-best LB may just give you enough tackles to win a close matchup once or twice a season.

Understand the eligibility options employed by the platform your league plays in, as getting a linebacker that also qualifies as a defensive lineman can yield significant benefits. Not all platforms determine eligibility equally, and sneaking in an IDP that outperforms those other players at his position due to dual eligibility status can be the difference between making the playoffs and playing in the consolation round. 

It was written above but bears repeating: When considering defensive backs, do not be charmed by a shutdown corner, such as Marshon Lattimore or Jaire Alexander. Shutdown corners are the quintessential great real life/mediocre (at best) fantasy football players. Offenses will avoid throwing the ball to his side of the field, and therefore, a better option is the corner playing on the opposite side of the field that sees more action and has more chances to make tackles, pick off passes and generally be involved in the game. The trend to use multiple receiver sets has diminished this effect somewhat, but it is still not wise to trust a cornerback that has proven his ability to keep any receiver off the stat sheet with his coverage skills. 

Speaking of defensive backs, if your league does not differentiate between cornerbacks and safeties, the rule of thumb is to draft safeties for their tackle production. Unless your league uses a big play format, then you will want to seek out the “good hands” corners that see significant action on a weekly basis. Safeties are especially valuable during weeks when they face run-oriented offenses, as they usually wind up filling gaps and making tackles all game long. 

When trolling the waiver wire, whether to cover a bye week issue or replace an injured IDP, look to the upcoming schedule. Is the player you are targeting going to face a high-powered offense or some plodding run-oriented, grind-it-out team? Are there going to be significant tackle opportunities or is a big play week in store? Adjust and adapt to the schedule when you make your waiver claims.


IDP Fantasy Football Rankings 

This article in previous incarnations contained tables with extremely early IDP rankings, which were naturally subjective as they were compiled by this writer, based on his projections. As a Fantasy Alarm reader, though, you now have access to our rankings on the site. You will still need to adapt any set of rankings to the idiosyncrasies of your league settings, and the IDP Report on a weekly basis during the season will also provide current updates on those defensive players you need to put on your roster or those you should be cutting loose.

Final Thoughts

Consistency is the key to having success in an IDP league. That means drafting for tackles: middle linebackers and defensive ends in a 4-3 scheme, outside linebackers in a 3-4 scheme, and safeties over cornerbacks. All the other statistical categories, with the exception for sacks to an extent, are too unpredictable to project when you draft.

Look for tacklers on bad teams. The defense on a lower scoring team will be on the field much more with a resultant increase in tackles and other defensive scoring play opportunities. The winning team also will most likely run the ball more than turn to the pass to try and run out the clock. Draft your defensive backs from good teams, conversely, as the opponent will likely have to air it out to play catch up, and this will increase the interception and tackle opportunities in the backfield.

The waiver wire will be your friend, since aside from some top-tier IDPs, fortunes fluctuate over the course of the season, based on injury, performance (or lack thereof) and match-ups. Especially with DBs, do not sweat it if you do not manage to draft your top targets. All DBs, and especially CBs, are wildly inconsistent and you can use that to your advantage, snatching up those mid-to-late-season rising stars to replace the underperforming and injured dogs cluttering your roster.

Unless you have an absolute stud IDP, do not worry about dropping him on a bye week. Most likely, no one will pick him up that week, and you have a chance to slide him back onto your roster once the bye week is over. Even if you do not get him back, it is likely some other top IDP will be dropped due to bye-week pressures by another owner and you can then pick up his castoff. Besides, there are plenty of good IDPs on the waiver wire or free-agent market every week, simply based on matchups.

If your league gives points for return yards, look for IDPs that play on special teams as kick returners. This will make these players valuable even if they do not put up a bunch of tackles or interceptions for you.

I went to IDP several years ago and will not set up a league without having at least six IDP slots in the starting lineup. I implore you to take the plunge and open up the world of IDP in fantasy football. After all, we’ve been doing basically the same thing in fantasy baseball all along when we draft hitters and pitchers, or in fantasy hockey where goalies are drafted alongside skaters. Why not extend the same concept to fantasy football? If nothing else, it will make every game all the more meaningful, no matter the score, as you will now have defensive players to pull for or root against. The first week you win a matchup with a superb performance from your starting linebacker on Monday night you’ll be hooked, I will wager my league fees on it.

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