Fantasy football leagues that use individual defensive players open up the fantasy football game on the other side of the ball. But fantasy owners will often find that good defensive players in fantasy football aren't the best NFL players.
The reason for this is relatively simple -- if the defensive player is very good, his defense is likely very good as well. Therefore, the defensive unit keeps opposing offenses off the field, meaning the defensive player now has fewer chances to garner fantasy points.
This generally applies to linebackers and defensive backs, however. For instance, a rookie defensive back might end up tallying a good amount of fantasy points because opposing offenses will continue to beat against him, allowing the defensive player to tally more tackles, passes defended and possible interceptions.
Also, a mediocre linebacker on a bad defense will rack up plenty of tackles, as the running back drags him for two yards at a time. Case in point: Barrett Ruud with the Buccaneers in 2009. He was ranked top-five in tackles that season, despite the Buccaneers defense being a bottom-of-the-barrel defense. He was on the field more than most linebackers, so he got more tackles.
Smart IDP owners understand the scoring
Most IDP leagues score fantasy points differently. Some might reward more for sacks or interceptions than tackles, some might even have too many points rewarded for passes defended. Some leagues use several IDP players while some use just a few, and then some just have one player at each line of defense: defensive line, linebackers and secondary. If I mention a player is poised for a breakout year, it’s still very likely he’s not worth drafting in these small IDP formats.
Sacks, Tackles and Interceptions
We’re going to focus primarily on these stats because they are the equivalent of receptions, yards and touchdowns on the defensive side of the ball.
Sacks and interceptions are relatively difficult to project because a great sack artist is usually double- and triple-teamed to keep him from disrupting an offense. Great cornerbacks that rack up a ton of interceptions one year are likely not going to get that same chance in the next season. (Sometimes, it happens, like with Richard Sherman getting eight interceptions in both 2012 and 2013, but it’s not common enough for us to project that.)
A great sack man sometimes has a lethal partner on the other side of the line that disrupts life just enough to allow him easier access to the quarterback (see Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora). But while sacks and picks are less predictable, tackles are usually easier to project, so loading up on linebackers, like a standard fantasy owner would load up on running backs, is traditionally a smart idea.
Elite IDP Players
J.J. Watt, defensive back, Houston Texans -- With No. 1 overall draft pick Jadeveon Clowney lining up on the other side and a healthy Brian Cushing behind him, Watt should be free to lead the league in sacks again.
Lavonte David, linebacker, Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- With Lovie Smith returning to the Gulf Coast, David will do his best to come out of Hall-of-Famer Derrick Brooks shadow. He could lead the league in tackles.
Harrison Smith, defensive back, Minnesota Vikings -- The Vikings defense is not expected to be greatly improved, so there should be plenty of opportunities for Smith. The third-year player would have come close to 100 tackles last season if a turf toe injury didn’t rob him of half the season.
Jared Allen, defensive line, Chicago Bears -- Thought to be close to retirement, Allen signed a three-year deal with Chicago. While a mild bounce-back could occur, don’t let the big name dupe you into drafting him among the top-20 defensive linemen.
Karlos Dansby, linebacker, Cleveland Browns -- On his third team in three seasons, Dansby is coming off two of his best IDP seasons ever, which will push his ADP up. But he’ll turn 33 years old this season, and he’s on yet another defense.
Earl Thomas, defensive back, Seattle Seahawks -- He was one of the best IDP players in the first half of last season before falling off. Free safeties generally don’t garner as many tackles as strong safeties or as many interceptions as cornerbacks.
Jerry Hughes, defensive line, Buffalo Bills -- The former first-rounder will move from linebacker to defensive end this season in Bills new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s 4-3 defense. Offenses will work to stop Mario Williams on the other side, freeing up Hughes for the pass rush.
Von Miller, linebacker, Denver Broncos -- Coming back from a torn ACL from last season will no doubt scare a lot of owners away from him. But linebackers don’t have to make the same cuts as running backs as wide receivers, so a return from the injury should be less difficult. Having DE DeMarcus Ware in front of him should make things even easier.
Stevie Brown, defensive back, New York Giants -- After missing 2013 with a torn ACL from last preseason, he’ll look to get back to the eight interceptions he made in 2012.
Geno Atkins, defensive line, Cincinnati -- The heart of the Bengals’ defensive line tore his ACL in Week 9 last season. He should be full go for Week 1, but stay updated on his injury.
Jon Beason, linebacker, New York Giants: Still just 29 years old, Beason has posted a few 100-tackle seasons in his career, but injuries have kept him back in the past two seasons. He’s currently dealing with a foot injury.
Tyvon Branch, defensive back, Oakland Raiders -- He’s coming off a broken leg that stole most of last season from him, but as the Raiders’ strong safety, he’ll rack up lots of tackles once again.
FANTASY FOOTBALL POSITION RANKINGS AND PROJECTIONS:
Rookie IDP Players
Will Clarke, defensive line, Cincinnati Bengals -- At 6-foot-6, Clarke has the body to replace DE Michael Johnson, who left in free agency, but we’ll see if he has the pass-rushing talent.
Khalil Mack, linebacker, Oakland Raiders -- The Raiders were happy to get Mack early in the NFL draft, and he could be in line for double-digit sacks in his first year. (Check the position designation on Clowney in your league service, first. He’ll likely be a linebacker, which makes him much less of a fantasy value than at defensive end.)
Justin Gilbert, defensive back, Cleveland Browns -- Gilbert will work on the opposite side of Pro Bowler Joe Haden, which means quarterbacks will take their chances on the rookie’s side of the field until he proves them wrong.