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Patrick Willis remains the class of the position, but significant value/production can be found in the middle, and even later, tiers.
Don't get me wrong, both backs and linebackers remain key fantasy contributors, and are often premier point-producers for a given fantasy team. The apparent shift in value has more to do with fantasy investors finding similar or greater value from players at positions that have less depth than linebacker and running back.That said, you still want to pursue stud 'backers for your roster; they just don't necessarily have to be your first two IDP picks, as the start-your-roster-with-two-running-backs strategy once dictated. The Elite Start with this guy out in San Francisco, Patrick Willis. He's the Peyton Manning of linebackers; not a lock to finish in the top spot at the position, but it would be surprising if he wasn't top five in nearly all IDP formats come December. Unlike Manning, Willis doesn't have as many consistent and proven peers, thus his own tier atop the bunch. If acquiring Willis, which often requires a mid-round investment, is too expensive for a defensive commodity, then consider the next crew of tackle machines, with Jon Beason and Jerod Mayo leading the way, as the more digestible second tier of talents. Youth leads at the top, but don't dismiss savvy veterans such as Ray Lewis, Brian Urlacher and London Fletcher. These proven players should be trusted to produce at steady levels despite the lack of coveted upside. The Upsiders Not that long ago -- let's say, a little more than a decade -- the word "sleepers" referred to convertible couches or a general mispronunciation of the word "slippers." Either that or a 1996 Barry Levinson movie. These days we consider a sleeper an undervalued prospect, often in the context of a sports draft, whether real or in a fantasy league. At the linebacker position, several sleepers could wake up and produce at a steep discount for aggressive investors. The Eagles' Jamar Chaney is an ideal upside commodity, as he is likely to be the man in the middle for a revamped defense that feeds tackles to the "Mike" 'backer. The Raiders' Rolando McClain has some posthype sleeper value to him in that he burned hopeful investors in his rookie campaign, but makes for a relative value given his considerable potential. Daryl Washington in Arizona is another sophomore set to succeed after a rookie campaign spent in transition. If Nate Irving can secure a starting job with the Broncos, he could be the rare rookie who pays immediate dividends. The Avoidables The Chargers' Kevin Burnett had a nice 2010 season when viewed as a complete collection of stats, but looking closer at his game logs, it can be said that he was a boom-or-bust option in any given week. As in, he earned much of his cred in just a handful of huge outings. These big games are enjoyable, but they're hard to predict and can be difficult to bear. He's a nice talent; he's just a bit inflated in terms of value. The Lions' DeAndre Levy has been teasing fantasy investors for years now. Not that he's sticking out his tongue and calling them names, but rather by not living up to his considerable statistical potential while manning the middle in Detroit. And finally, Aaron Curry and Shawne Merriman won't be on any of my defensive rosters. For different reasons, mind you, but neither player appeals to me from a statistical standpoint despite their respective physical skill sets. Curry appears to be a 'tweener and isn't elite in any one aspect, and Merriman simply seems shot after years mired in injury and discontent.
For quite some time, there has been comfort and safety in drafting, well, safeties for your fantasy roster. Like linebackers, they are often in positions to play the pass and the run, and even collapse the pocket. The freedom to roam, it seems, affords the position rare statistical diversity. The cornerback position is turning the corner, however, and a mix of both safeties and elite corners can be found at the top of the defensive back class. Overall, the safety position remains deeper and more dynamic, but don't hold the corner position to the same boom-or-bust, interception-or-bust identity any longer.
The trusted tackle-machine safeties, such as LaRon Landry, and big-play corners will be pricey, but you can balance out the position with some savvy buys in the middle tiers.
The EliteThese top fantasy corners we speak of are talents such as Charles Woodson and Terrell Thomas, two players who have ably manned their respective "islands" at corner, but have still produced for fantasy owners over the past several seasons. The safety position, however, is still the more reliable asset. LaRon Landry is a punishing pseudo-linebacker of a safety who could very well lead football in total tackles. The Chiefs' Eric Berry, meanwhile, provides a blend of tackles and big-play upside that is assuredly coveted in fantasy circles. Unlike the linebacker position, youth should be served at the defensive back position, for the most part; veteran stalwarts such as Woodson are the exception to the rule. The Upsiders Michael Huff was widely considered a disappointment in Oakland, but with a new destination likely for 2011 after a strong 2010 season for the Raiders, he could be a steal in fantasy drafts if he lands in the right defensive system. Quintin Mikell is another veteran safety likely headed elsewhere. He merits strong consideration given his production pedigree and potential in a new secondary. Rookies Patrick Peterson and Prince Amukamara should both be busy defenders, as opposing signal-callers likely will want to test their grit and ability to play at the highest level. If you end up drafting Earl Thomas, you won't regret it. The Avoidables DeAngelo Hall is a playmaker; this much is certain. What is also certain is that he will leave fantasy owners craving consistency after just a few weeks of owning him. A route-jumping ball-hawk makes for some awesome, week-swaying performances, but be aware that there is a flipside to such big games. I wouldn't say to entirely avoid Bob Sanders, but I wouldn't pay big money just for his reputation. Injuries have, sadly, sapped much of Sanders' career to date. As a twilight-round depth addition, no sweat, but don't pay for the brand name here.
Monster options such as Tuck, Allen, Suh and Cole come at steep draft prices, but they're generally worth it. Look to pair an elite option with a younger upside commodity rather than a limited, but more proven, veteran option.
Jim McCormick is an IDP analyst for ESPN.com.