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My first fantasy football draft stunk.
Literally, it stunk. The draft took place in a basement in Iowa City, and it smelled like Keystone and cigarillos. It was either 1991 or 1992. In those days, football drafts were boozy things that lasted five hours. You went into them with an NFL preview magazine and a spiral notebook. If you were lucky, you left with Warren Moon and a manageable buzz.
All I can clearly remember about my first draft, aside from the odor, is that my co-owner was useless and we selected Derrick Thomas very early. Too early, as it turned out. But at the time we felt that Thomas was among the best of the Individual Defensive Players (IDPs). In that league, in addition to the usual offensive skill positions, we started a full 11-man defensive lineup.
If your football league has similar settings, you'll need more than just this article. This is merely a primer. It's an introduction. If you're starting 11 IDPs, that's a pretty hardcore league. The guiding principles below will apply, but you'll find the position rankings to be insufficient. IDP configurations will normally use fewer than 11 players, though. In my primary league we start a total of four defensive players. But I've played in leagues that use one IDP, and I've played in leagues that use 11. If you're a league commissioner planning to replace the DEF position with some yet-to-be-determined number of IDPs, I'd recommend starting slow. Don't overwhelm your owners. Use only four or five defensive players this season.
If you're an owner struggling with draft preparation in an IDP league, these are a few important things to consider …
Know your scoring system
This seems brutally obvious, but fantasy owners blow it all the time. They blow it in every sport, too. Custom configurations require customized rankings. Nearly every list of IDP rankings you'll encounter was developed using the assumption that fantasy points will be awarded for tackles and assisted tackles. My list assumes that, too. That's why middle linebackers rule the IDP rankings. But I've played in leagues that don't use tackles at all, and I've played in leagues where sacks are assigned absurd values. In those configurations, defensive ends were significantly more important.
These are the scoring settings we use for defensive players in my main IDP league:
1 point per tackle
0.5 points per assist
2 points per sack
4 points per interception
2 points per forced fumble
2 points per fumble recovery
2 points per safety
1 point per pass defended
3 points per blocked field goal
6 points per defensive touchdown
That's fairly standard. But if you tweaked it just a little, you'd have to alter your player rankings to reflect the changes.
Don't draft Brian Urlacher in the fifth round
This also goes for Ray Lewis, Jason Taylor, Champ Bailey and anyone else you think might be the best player at his position. The likely fantasy point differential between those players and a guy you can get six rounds later is … well, it's almost nothing. There's really not a ton of separation among the IDPs.
In my IDP league in 2006, Urlacher was the ninth-leading scorer among all defensive linemen and linebackers (DLs). He finished the fantasy season with 142.5 points. Nice, but the 25 DLs after Urlacher all finished within 32 points of his year-end total. So Urlacher was no more than two points per week better than a several players who were available in the free-agent pool all season.
In fantasy, the difference between the No. 1 IDP at any position and the No. 10 guy isn't anything like the difference between, say, Peyton Manning and Jon Kitna. I won't generally draft IDPs until I've sketched out most of my offensive lineup and added depth at running back. This was a lesson that I learned in the early-90s. (See above). Basically, I'm not likely to draft any of the players I've ranked one through five at DL or DB. There's not a discernable drop-off at the end of my lists, either. There are plenty of defensive players who can produce stats comparable to the guys ranked 15 and beyond.
The best real-life defensive players aren't necessarily the biggest fantasy scorers, by the way. Sometimes they are, sometimes they aren't. For example, Champ Bailey was a Pro Bowl cornerback in 2004. That season he had three interceptions and 12 passes defended – not a very helpful fantasy season. Bailey can have a profound impact on an actual game, obviously. Opposing quarterbacks often avoid the receiver he's covering, resulting in fewer opportunities to make plays that have fantasy relevance. He was still a stellar fantasy DB in 2005 and 2006, though. So it goes with corners.
Just draft players who make tackles
In other words, draft as many tackle-prone middle and weak-side linebackers as you can. Those are the players who will score 8-12 points for your team every week. Occasionally, those guys might have an exceptional week, getting a pick, forcing a fumble. Or they may never have an exceptional week. Either way, they'll always give you points. Tackles and assists are relatively predictable.
Other defensive scoring categories are far more difficult to project. You can't really predict defensive touchdowns for any player. Nobody had more than two of them last season. Similarly, you can't reliably predict that any player will get turnovers in a given week. If you're in a Yahoo! league that uses DL and/or D positions, get the linebackers who post big tackle totals. It's the safest, most reliable path. Except …
Well, OK, maybe you can draft one non-tackling freak
Just get the right freak. In my IDP league last year, I owned DB Devin Hester. He was only credited with nine tackles, but he scored six special teams touchdowns and almost single-handedly won two weeks for me. In a deeper IDP league, an explosive kick returner can be worth a flier.
Pre-rank the top IDPs before drafting
In the Yahoo! default rankings, Dan Klecko is number 233 and Zach Thomas is 808. Klecko is a defensive tackle for the Indianapolis Colts who played 10 games last season. He was credited with four tackles. He sacked no one. Zach Thomas had 103 solo tackles in 2006, and he assisted on 62 more.
Even if my suggestions and my player ranks disgust you, it's important that you listen to me on this point: you'll want to pre-rank your IDPs. Yahoo! didn't do it for you. Auto-pickers who don't prepare for their draft will suffer consequences.
Top 35 at DL
1. Keith Bulluck, Tennessee
2. Brian Urlacher, Chicago
3. DeMeco Ryans, Houston
4. London Fletcher, Washington
5. A.J. Hawk, Green Bay
6. Zach Thomas, Miami
7. Will Witherspoon, St. Louis
8. Antonio Pierce, NY Giants
9. Lofa Tatupu, Seattle
10. Kirk Morrison, Oakland
11. Mike Peterson, Jacksonville
12. Keith Brooking, Atlanta
13. Shawne Merriman, San Diego
14. Jason Taylor, Miami
15. Ray Lewis, Baltimore
16. Lance Briggs, Chicago
17. Karlos Dansby, Arizona
18. Ernie Sims, Detroit
19. D.J. Williams, Denver
20. DeMarcus Ware, Dallas
21. Adalius Thomas, New England
22. Derrick Brooks, Tampa Bay
23. Bart Scott, Baltimore
24. E.J. Henderson, Minnesota
25. Gary Brackett, Indianapolis
26. Andra Davis, Cleveland
27. Donnie Edwards, Kansas City
28. Julius Peppers, Carolina
29. Jonathan Vilma, New York Jets
30. Paul Posluszny, Buffalo
31. James Farrior, Pittsburgh
32. Terrell Suggs, Baltimore
33. Nick Barnett, Green Bay
34. Aaron Kampman, Green Bay
35. Freddy Keiaho, Indianapolis
Top 30 at DB
1. Adrian Wilson, Arizona
2. Kerry Rhodes, NY Jets
3. Chris Hope, Tennessee
4. Gibril Wilson, NY Giants
5. Roy Williams, Dallas
6. Sean Jones, Cleveland
7. Bob Sanders, Indianapolis
8. Ronde Barber, Tampa Bay
9. Brian Dawkins, Philadelphia
10. Troy Polamalu, Pittsburgh
11. Champ Bailey, Denver
12. Ed Reed, Baltimore
13. Sean Taylor, Washington
14. Charles Tillman, Chicago
15. Antoine Winfield, Minnesota
16. Madieu Williams, Cincinnati
17. Stuart Schweigert, Oakland
18. Dunta Robinson, Houston
19. Rashean Mathis, Jacksonville
20. Michael Lewis, San Francisco
21. Antrel Rolle, Arizona
22. Donte Whitner, Buffalo
23. Nnamdi Asomugha, Oakland
24. Will Demps, New York Giants
25. Richard Marshall, Carolina
26. Jermaine Phillips, Tampa Bay
27. Nick Collins, Green Bay
28. LaRon Landry, Washington
29. Asante Samuel, New England
30. Ken Hamlin, Dallas