In IDP Fantasy Football Defensive Scheme Matters
Steve Gallo
July 13, 2012
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Playing in IDP fantasy football leagues presents owners with an obstacle that fantasy owners that play in team defense leagues just don’t have to deal with – the impact of scheme changes.  Sure fantasy players that don’t keep up with things could draft Adrian Peterson 1st overall if they weren’t paying attention and didn’t realize that he is recovering from ACL & MCL injuries he suffered in week 11 last year.  But those aren’t exactly astute fantasy players.

When it comes to the IDP side of things, it isn’t just good enough to know if a player is healthy going into the season, you have to know if the scheme he played in changed.  And not just changed but if it changed for better or worse.  A great example is Mario Williams who in 2010 was a defensive end in the Texans 4-3 scheme – a position that made him a top option at the defensive end position.  Then in 2011, Wade Phillips and his 3-4 defensive scheme came to town – with that Williams was no longer a defensive end, but instead an OLB – not a good move for Williams’ fantasy value.  Unfortunately Williams was lost for the season due to an injury in week 5 so we can’t look at what the end result would have been to his fantasy value.

What we can do is use David Thornton as an example from the past and look at what a scheme change did to his fantasy value.  In 2003, David Thornton was playing weak side linebacker (WLB) for the Colts and he had a phenomenal season – ranking as the #2 fantasy linebacker (20.4 points/game {PPG}) after posting 112 solo tackles, 33 assists, 1 sack and 3 passes defended.  The following season Thornton moved to the strong side linebacker (SLB) position – ranking as the 37th overall linebacker, recording only 69 solo tackles, and 23 assists.

When it comes to offensive players, it is pretty easy to tell if a running back is on a run first team or if a wide receiver is on a pass friendly team but when it comes to IDP the different defensive schemes can make a dramatic difference in a player’s value.  Before we get into those differences here is a brief summary on each of the base defenses that NFL teams will be employing this year. 


Teams that employ a 4-3 base defense: Atlanta, Baltimore*, Buffalo, Carolina, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Denver, Detroit, Jacksonville, Miami, Minnesota, New Orleans, New England Patriots, NY Giants,  Philadelphia, Seattle, St. Louis, Tampa Bay & Tennessee
* Baltimore is a multi-front team, meaning they employ both the 4-3 and 3-4 defense but their players positional designations match that of a 4-3 team. 
NOTE:  The Oakland Raiders have not said if they will play a 4-3 or 3-4 defense yet.  My best guess is that we see them play a 4-3 defense with some 3-4 looks.  I just don’t think they have the personnel to make a complete transition to a 3-4 defense.                                                                                                             
The 4-3 scheme may not dominate the NFL landscape like it did in the past, but it is still a good system.  Probably the most fantasy friendly of all the defensive schemes.  The 4-3 employs four defensive lineman (2 defensive ends (DE) & 2 defensive tackles (DT)), three linebackers (SLB, MLB & WLB), & four defensive backs (2 cornerbacks (CB), 1 free safety (FS), 1 strong safety (SS)).

Defensive Line

Normally in a 4-3 one of the DT’s will play a “2 gap technique” (normally responsible for taking up two or more blockers (usually the center and guard) and stopping the run) while the other DT will play a “1 gap technique” giving them the responsibility of the other guard, stopping the run and rushing the quarterback.  The DE’s main responsibility is to pressure the quarterback and get sacks.  This leads exactly to why DEs in 4-3 defenses are the most productive fantasy options.

4-3 DE Fantasy Best Bets
 Jason Pierre-Paul (NYG), Jared Allen (MIN), Justin Tuck (NYG), Mario Williams (BUF), Trent Cole (PHL), Jason Babin (PHL), Elvis Dumervil (DEN) & Cliff Avril (DET)

4-3 DE Fantasy Watch List
Cameron Wake (MIA), Pernell McPhee* (BAL), Chris Long (STL) & Andre Carter** (FA)
* Plays in a multi-front system.
** If Carter signs with a 4-3 team he presents DE1 upside.

4-3 DE Fantasy Dynasty Watch
 Adrian Clayborn (TBB), Cameron Jordan (NOS), Robert Quinn (STL), Andre Branch (JAX), Chandler Jones (NE), & Courtney Upshaw* (BAL)
*Plays in a multi-front system.

4-3 DE Fantasy Sleepers/Underrated
Mark Anderson (BUF), Kamerion Wimbley (TEN) & Michael Bennett (TBB)

4-3 DT Mandatory Best Bets
Haloti Ngata* (BAL), Ndamukong Suh (DET), Ahtyba Rubin (CLE), Geno Atkins (CIN), Kyle Williams (BUF) & Gerald McCoy (TBB)
*Plays in a multi-front system


Fantasy wise, the MLB (aka MIKE) is usually the linebacker to target in a 4-3 defense.  They are the “quarterback” of the defense and their focus is to stop the run.  MLB’s that are able to play in the “Nickel” have the ability to increase their fantasy stats by as much as 10% or more.  The SLB (aka SAM) normally lines up on the tight end, when he is not engaged in blocking or covering the tight end, he may be blitzing the quarterback.  Normally, a SLB has limited tackle opportunities because of his blitzing/rushing and tight end assignment.  A WLB (aka WILL) has more freedom than a SLB.  The WLB has the ability to pursue a running play as well as cover screens and blitz the quarterback thus giving the WLB the chance to make plays (interceptions, force fumbles, etc.).

Another thing to note is that rather than list their OLBs as WLB or SLB, there are teams that will designate their them as RLB (right side), LLB (left side), and their responsibilities are tied to what side the TE lines up. 

4-3 LB Fantasy Best Bets
D’Qwell Jackson (CLE), Colin McCarthy (TEN), James Laurinaitis (STL), Curtis Lofton (NOS), Paul Posluszny (JAX), Stephen Tulloch (DET) & Ray Lewis* (BAL)
* Plays in a multi-front system

4-3 LB Fantasy Watch List
 Jon Beason/Luke Kuechly (CAR), Mason Foster (TBB), David Hawthorne (NOS) & Lofa Tatupu/Akeem Dent (ATL)

4-3 LB Fantasy Dynasty Watch
Kelvin Sheppard (BUF), Lavonte David (TBB), James-Michael Johnson (CLE), & Luke Kuechly (CAR) & Mychal Kendricks & Bruce Carter (DAL)

4-3 LB Fantasy Sleepers/Underrated

Rey Maualuga (CIN), Nick Barnett (BUF), Karlos Dansby (MIA) & DeMeco Ryans (PHL)
*Plays in a multi-front system

Defensive Secondary

The CB’s main responsibility is simply to cover wide receivers.  How they play in coverage will depend on if they are playing man-to-man or zone.  A FS is the “center fielder” of the defense.  He is responsible for deep coverage in the middle of the field as well as rolling over to help a CB when necessary.  The FS is not usually as active in run support but does have the ability to create interceptions.  A SS is usually a much better scorer from a fantasy perspective than a FS because they are more active in run support but will still have coverage responsibilities.  Some teams treat their safeties as interchangeable positions.

4-3 DB Fantasy Best Bets
 Kam Chancellor (SEA), Tyvon Branch* (OAK), Mark Barron (TBB), Patrick Chung (NE)
* Team scheme has yet to be indicated and may play in a multi-front system.

4-3 DB Fantasy Watch List
Kurt Coleman/Jaiquawn Jarrett (PHL), Major Wright (CHI) & Quinton Carter (DEN)

4-3 DB Fantasy Dynasty Watch

Mark Barron (TBB), Jaiquawn Jarrett (PHL) & Harrison Smith (MIN)

4-3 DB Fantasy Sleepers

William Moore (ATL), Antoine Winfield (MIN), Alterraun Verner (TEN), Dawan Landry (JAX) Taylor Mays (CIN), & Jordan Babineaux (TEN)

4-3 CB Mandatory Best Bets
Charles Tillman (CHI), Charles Woodson (GBP), Jason McCourty (TEN), Antoine Winfield (MIN) & Cortland Finnegan (STL)


Teams that employ a 3-4 base defense: Arizona, Dallas, Green Bay, Houston, Indianapolis, Kansas City, NY Jets*, Pittsburgh, San Diego, San Francisco & Washington
* New England and the Jets are multi-front teams, meaning they employ both the 4-3 and 3-4 defense.  The Jets are expected to possibly play much more 4-3 than in past years.
Last year the 3-4 lost two teams (CLE & DEN) that converted back to a 4-3.  This year the Bills are going exclusively to a 4-3, and the Indianapolis Colts are switching to a 3-4 scheme.  More and more you will see teams that are using multiple looks of 3-4 and 4-3 and that is not an easy transition to make due to the differences in personnel needed for each defense.  The Patriots and Jets are two of the 3-4 teams that will be playing multiple front schemes this year. 

Defensive Line

The DE’s in a 3-4 are generally larger than their counterparts are in the 4-3.  For the most part a 3-4 DEs job is to tie up an offensive lineman instead of trying to get to the QB.  That is the major factor in why 3-4 DEs are not usually very good fantasy contributors.  Basically they do the dirty work (blocking) and allow the higher profile rush OLBs to get all the glory (sacks).  A potent running game can expose a 3-4 defense, which is why it is imperative for nose tackles to be large bodies that can eat up blockers, clog running lanes to allow LBs to flow to the ball.  Just look at the size of some of the better NTs in the NFL; BJ Raji-337 lbs, Vince Wilfork-325 lbs & Sione Pouha-325 lbs.


Inside linebackers (ILB) are generally very athletic and stronger than 4-3 LBs, which helps them to shed blockers to get to the ball carrier.  Usually, ILB’s in a 3-4 are designated on the depth chart as either WILB or SILB and they have similar roles to a MLB & WLB.  The WILB will usually put up the better fantasy stats.  Patrick Willis has played a huge role in showing that an ILB in a 3-4 can be extremely productive for fantasy purposes.  A strong point of the 3-4 is its ability to confound the quarterback and the teams passing game and that is why a top-notch rush OLB is vital to a 3-4 defenses success.  Because of this, OLB’s in a 3-4 usually garner their stats from sacks; they tend to be very streaky, and in turn for fantasy purposes are hard to rely on.  Unless your scoring system is very sack friendly, you should avoid most OLB’s in a 3-4.  However, if you are in a league that emphasizes big play scoring over tackles, then you will want to target OLB's that make their hay rushing the QB.  Players like DeMarcus Ware, Brian Orakpo,Tamba Hali, Clay Matthews & James Harrison are some of the best rush OLBs in the game today. 

3-4 Fantasy Best Bets
3-4 DE: Calais Campbell (ARZ), Justin Smith (SFF), JJ Watt (HOU) & Muhammad Wilkerson (NYJ)
3-4 ILB: Desmond Bishop (GBP), Derrick Johnson (KCC), Daryl Washington (ARZ), Patrick Willis (SFF), & Navarro Bowman (SFF)
3-4 OLB: DeMarcus Ware (DAL), James Harrison (PIT), Brian Orakpo (WAS), Clay Mathews (GB), Tamba Hali (KCC) & Aldon Smith (SFF)
3-4 DB:  Eric Berry (KCC), Yeremiah Bell (NYJ), & Morgan Burnett (GBP)
*Plays in a multi-front system

General Guidelines

Here is a general guide that can help you differentiate which linebacker position should be more productive based on the scheme that they play in.

Tampa-2:  WLB>=MLB>SLB
3-4:  WILB>=SILB>OLB’s

It is evident that being a productive fantasy player on the defensive side of the ball has as much to do with a player’s position and the scheme that they play in as it does their talent level.  Do not make the mistake that many make and draft using last year’s top performers lists.  Do your homework!  Make sure you research who has changed teams or positions.  Read up on teams that have a new defensive coordinator and/or are going to employ a new scheme.  If you are just getting your IDP feet wet or are an old pro, remember not to get caught up in the name recognition game, because scheme matters.

As with everything, there will always be exceptions and scoring systems will greatly affect rankings.  For reference, the following scoring system is used for all huddle content:  2 points/tackle, 1 point/assist, 2 points/sack, 2 points/forced fumble, 2 points/INT & 1 point/pass.

Follow me on twitter @IDPSteve and if you have any questions, criticisms, or suggestions feel free to email me at

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