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First Time Tips for Individual Defensive Players
Tom Nadratowski
July 5, 2004

THIS ARTICLE ASSUMES THE FOLLOWING SCORING SYSTEM:
Passing TDs: 4 Pts 
Passing Yardage: 20yds = 1 Pt 
Rushing TDs: 6 Pts 
Rushing Yardage: 10 Yds = 1 Pt
Fumble Recovery: 3 Pts 
Any TD: 6 Pts 
Forced Fumbles: 2 Pts 
Interception: 4 Pts 
Passes Defensed: 1 Pts 
Defensive Tackle: 2 Pts 
Defensive Assist: 1 Pts 
½ Sack: 2 Pts
Safety: 2 Pts

When playing in leagues that use defensive players, it can be hard to know when to start drafting them. How does a linebacker like Ray Lewis compare to a running back like a Priest Holmes or a Clinton Portis? When do I take a team defense?

There is no hard and fast answer. It depends on your scoring system. If your system uses tackles and assists as well as sacks and turnovers, then your defensive guys are going to be a lot more valuable than you thought. It would not be unheard of to draft a defensive player as early as the fourth round. What will typically happen is that they will start being taken when backup running backs and wide receivers go - starting in rounds six through eight, although drafting a top defensive lineman or linebacker in the third or fourth round is not uncommon. If you are trying to decide between a 3rd RB or WR, that’s a good time to start thinking about taking a top LB or IDP.

Team defenses must be assessed by the same criteria. If your team defenses get most of their points via touchdowns, then continue taking them late in your draft. If points and yards allowed are big scoring categories, then you have to think about taking them earlier than you are used to. Round six or thereafter would not be out of the question.

It is impossible to forecast which defensive team is going to explode for a lot of touchdowns in any given season. One team will get eight or more, but it is never the previous year's touchdown leader. No fantasy team defense has repeated that. You can count on any team defense you draft scoring an average of between two and four defensive/special teams touchdowns per year.

One good strategy for team defenses is to draft a squad that plays a lot of average or worse offenses. These squads have more of an opportunity to have a big day than a superior defense that plays a lot of average or better defenses do. This is what makes teams like Tennessee, Baltimore and Jacksonville so valuable - they play the Browns and Steelers twice a year.

Avoid older players

When drafting, avoid older players. Just like the magic age of 30 for running backs, defensive players start falling off in production around then, too. When in doubt, go with guys in their mid-20s.

What defensive scheme is the team using?

When looking at team depth charts, you often find mention of what kind of base defense a team is using. What they don't tell you is what those schemes mean.

The numbers below show the different base defenses that the teams in the NFL use. A base defensive formation is the scheme the team uses most often on the field. Others, such as nickel (five defensive backs [DBs]) or dime (6 DBs) defenses are used when defensive teams are covering against an offense in an obvious passing situation.

The first number in a base defense is the number of defensive lineman on the line of scrimmage. The second number is the number of linebackers behind the defensive lineman. The one exception is the 4-6 (see below).

3-4

The 3-4 is designed to be a very flexible formation, able to respond to a variety of offensive formations. You could drop seven or eight players into pass coverage, or have anywhere from three to five players rush the QB. It is especially effective at stopping the pass. In case the depth chart you are looking at doesn’t have the scheme on it, look for LILB and RILB – respectively, left and right inside linebackers. The lineman will be LDE, NT, RDE – left and right defensive ends, with a nose tackle between them.

To be successful it depends on having dominant lineman, especially at nose tackle, since only three of them are facing five or six offensive lineman. Without a really good nose tackle, and a tall, physical outside linebacker, this formation will not be successful.

4-3

This scheme is balanced, equally adept at stopping the run or blitzing the QB. It needs ends who are good at both rushing the passer and containing the RB, while the tackles are needed for run stopping and maintaining pressure on the QB.

The middle linebacker has to be the playmaker in this formation. He has to be able to rapidly determine what the offense is doing and react to it, as well as being able to make plays from sideline to sideline. The weak side LB is usually the LB that will blitz most often. This scheme will be at its most successful when five of the seven men in this scheme are top-notch in quality.

4-6 (AKA 4-4)

Buddy Ryan and his defensive teams immortalized this defense with the Bears in the 1980s. It gets its name from Chicago free safety Doug Plank's jersey number, who often lined up as LB. This scheme was designed to do one thing - collapse the pocket and rush the QB. Only the Titans use this scheme today.

This formation can be a liability because it places the cornerbacks in man to man coverage most of the time, and a good QB can pick apart its weaknesses - provided he gets enough time. It can also fail against teams that run wide against it, or offenses that use more option plays

Time of Possession

Here are the top 20 defensive players from 2003:

LB Ray Lewis, BAL
LB Donnie Edwards, SD
LB Jamie Sharper, HOU
LB Keith Bulluck, TEN
LB Mike Barrow, NYG
LB Keith Brooking, ATL
LB Zach Thomas, MIA
LB David Thornton, IND
LB Tedy Bruschi, NE
SS Rodney Harrison, NE
LB Andra Davis, CLE
LB Sam Cowart, NYJ
LB London Fletcher, BUF
LB Chris Draft, ATL
LB Eric Barton, OAK
LB James Farrior, PIT
LB Dat Nguyen, DAL
LB Scott Fujita, KC
LB Shawn Barber, KC
LB Jeremiah Trotter, WAS

 

 

 

 

What is the unifying factor among these players? Most of them played on teams that ranked near the bottom of the league in average time of possession per game. Most of the players listed above play on teams that were in the bottom half of the league in time of possession (TOP) per game. The 12 worst teams in TOP in 2004 were Atlanta, Houston, NYJ, San Diego, NYG, Philadelphia, Detroit, Seattle, Washington, Cleveland, Kansas City and Chicago.

Defensive linemen

If sacks are the emphasis for your defenders, draft defensive ends. In fact, outside of a few defensive tackles (like Warren Sapp or Cortez Kennedy in their heyday), defensive tackles that are worth drafting are very few and far between. Ends typically have more passes defensed than tackles because they are usually more athletic. If your scoring system does not emphasize sacks, and you do not have any starting restrictions, you are better off with linebackers than defensive lineman.

When deciding when to draft defensive linemen, the best strategy to use is to think of them like tight ends. The good ones are scarce, and the talent drop off after the top few players is tremendous. Begin drafting DL where you would begin taking tight ends.

Linebackers

Middle linebackers (MLBs) in a 4-3 scheme are the most valuable players to have, since the 4-3 is designed to funnel the runner towards him

Linebackers are the kings of a fantasy defensive team. No other position amasses their tackle totals, and they get nearly as many sacks as the top defensive linemen. Just like a real NFL team, your fantasy team must have a great corps of linebackers to succeed.

Getting the best linebacker for your team is, like all things fantasy, related to your scoring system. Middle linebackers (MLBs) in a 4-3 scheme are the most valuable players to have, since the 4-3 is designed to funnel the runner towards him. MLBs will out-tackle all but a few of the top 'backers that are in a 3-4 scheme. Brian Urlacher is a MLB. In a 3-4 scheme, the players in the middle are the Left and Right Inside Linebackers. Ray Lewis and Ed Hartwell are Inside Linebackers. If sacks are emphasized, the outside linebackers are the way to go, since they blitz the most. Keith Bulluck is an Outside Linebacker.

Defensive backs

When drafting DBs, you want to select the players that will give you a combination of the best tackle totals and passes defensed numbers. These players will typically be strong safeties or cornerbacks on teams with low sack totals and high Time Of Possession minutes.

Strong safeties
Strong safeties (SS on team depth charts) have run-stopping responsibilities, even though they are in the secondary. Not only do they get those high tackle totals, but they also have a shot at interceptions. The best ones score as many tackles as a LB, making them an extra linebacker for your team. So draft a strong safety over a cornerback if you get points for tackles and assists. Rodney Harrison is a strong safety.

Cornerbacks
Cornerbacks (CBs) are the guys in the secondary who get the most picks. Draft them when you can. One thing to watch is the "name game". Do NOT draft a CB because he plays on your favorite team or that he is a good NFL CB. Most of the top NFL cover corners, like Champ Bailey, are so good that quarterbacks rarely throw at them. So in fantasy terms, look elsewhere for your points. Rookie cornerbacks or ones replacing a starter are the ones to watch out for, because they get thrown at a lot, increasing their chances for interceptions and passes defensed.