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Thursday, May 30, 2013
Updated: June 19, 12:07 PM ET
IDP strategy guide

By Jim McCormick
Special to ESPN.com

We are the underground of fantasy football.

A subculture in what has become its own culture. We play in IDP leagues. Or for the uninitiated, our focus is on individual defensive players. You know, the other side of the game. The side that seeks to protect precious ground and punish offenders who seek to take it.

You are a football fan, of course, so you already know some of their names: J.J. Watt, Luke Kuechly and Patrick Willis. Household names to you, fantasy monsters to us.

You have some incumbent knowledge about the impact defenders in the league. The next step is getting into an IDP league, or six, and enjoying what the other side has to offer that the traditional side simply cannot.

As an alternative to relying on the cumulative production of a team defense each week, IDP leagues instead require that you roster and manage a variety of individual defenders, organized by position (defensive linemen, linebackers and defensive backs). The statistics your individual defenders accrue go well beyond the common team defense settings (sacks, points allowed, touchdowns and turnovers). In this format, defenders accumulate tackles (solo and assisted), sacks, fumble recoveries, interceptions, touchdowns and passes defensed.

Most commonly, defensive rosters take the place of selecting a team defense and are a complement to the offensive roster you build. The truly hard-core play in defense-only leagues, but that usually takes a few years into the obsession.

Is playing on the IDP side more consuming in the sense that there are bigger rosters and more players to consider? Of course it is. No misleading pitch here; you are going to have to put in some work, but it's not TPS reports, rather delving deep into the defensive side of the game we love. It's the same box score; just scroll down a bit more.

For the interested and inexperienced, let's discuss just how the IDP format works:

League setup

There are infinite settings you can employ, from establishing the scoring key (how many points awarded for a sack or an interception) to how positions are organized (for example, with respect to defensive linemen, defensive tackles can be a separate position from defensive ends or they all can be regarded as "DL"). A common framework for a defensive roster often includes five to eight spots broken down by position. As an example, here's a standard setup for an IDP league:

2 DL slots: defensive linemen who can be either tackles or ends
2 LB slots: linebackers only
2 DB slots: defensive backs who can be either safeties or cornerbacks
2 DP (defensive player) slots: "flex" or utility spots in which you can start any defender

Traditional scoring modifiers

It sounds cliché, but always have a sound grasp on the scoring settings in any fantasy league in which you play. This is especially true when entering an IDP league, as variations in scoring are more common than in traditional leagues, given that there isn't a truly accepted set of scoring standards among the IDP community. That said, I've found the scoring format below is a reasonable basis to work from:

Solo tackle (1)
Assisted tackle (0.5)
Sack (3)
Interception (3)
Forced fumble (3)
Fumble recovery (3)
Touchdown (6)
Safety (2)
Pass defensed (1)
Blocked kick (3)

Drafting in an IDP league

James Laurinaitis
James Laurinaitis is not only an annual tackle monster, but he's got 8.5 sacks and seven interceptions in his four-year career.

So, you are entering the second half of your fantasy draft and you have what (hopefully) seems to be a dynamic collection of offensive talent; it's now time to start developing the defensive roster. Here is a breakdown of each defensive position followed by a basic overall draft strategy.

Linebackers: Elite linebackers, like stud running backs in traditional fantasy leagues, are coveted as staples for a successful defensive roster. The premier 'backers serve three-down roles and have the opportunity to produce on nearly every snap. It's often wise to net at least one elite linebacker in your first two or three defensive investments and seek to build out the secondary and tertiary options later in the draft.

Truly elite fantasy linebackers, such as NaVorro Bowman and James Laurinaitis, have been known to average nearly 10 fantasy points per game, numbers comparable to valued offensive commodities, such as No. 2 wideouts and tailbacks. One element that has changed is that it isn't solely inside 'backers putting up prolific totals; with the 3-4 scheme sweeping through defensive playbooks over the past decade, we've seen a crop of outside linebackers regularly collect double-digit sacks and generally create havoc, as Aldon Smith and Clay Matthews have proved.

A sound strategy for this position is to pair elite inside 'backers with some of the cheaper upside options that exist at this uniquely deep position. The position is famously productive but incredibly deep as well, so seek out upside and value here with some greatly productive if lesser-known commodities, such as Colin McCarthy and K.J. Wright.

Defensive backs: Safeties are the safest. Like linebackers, they have consistent opportunities to take down ball carriers and patrol the field as playmakers. The top safeties combine stable tackle production with a variety of turnovers and passes defended. Cornerbacks certainly factor in, as productive playmakers such as Charles Tillman and Cortland Finnegan are proven commodities. It's simply less common for a corner to be a consistent fantasy source, given the nature of the position, but a young crop of legit fantasy options is emerging in the likes of Jason McCourty and Janoris Jenkins. One glaring discrepancy between the "real" and fantasy realms is that sometimes the truly shutdown cover corners such as Darrelle Revis simply don't put up worthy numbers, since they are so often avoided altogether by opposing signal-callers. If fantasy value is predicated on a series of opportunities to produce, drafting a blend of ball hawks (i.e., Jairus Byrd) and punishing, close-to-the-box safeties (Tyvon Branch) is your best bet.

Defensive linemen: Defensive ends are the valued commodities at this position, with the atypically productive defensive tackle (Geno Atkins) entering the discussion. You are hunting for a volume of sacks and fumbles from these guys, with the top talents also collecting a nice clip of tackles. Outside of, say, the top five or so commodities, this position is amazingly fickle from year to year. This means you should either draft one trusted stud and some upside linemen in the twilight rounds, or go all-in and get two superstars in hopes of not having to hustle and grind for production at the position for much of the season.

With the shallow nature of the position, it wouldn't be a bad plan to aim for two elite defensive linemen if you can bear the draft cost, given that valuable linebackers and defensive backs crop up in greater volume on the wire than linemen during the long campaign.

Draft strategy

As is the case in standard drafts, it is best to wait on defense until you are confident with the depth you have built on the offensive side of the ball. Just as you are likely to work on your offensive roster throughout the fall, at some point in the season, your defensive roster will need some editing and become somewhat fluid, as well. While it's certainly important to build your roster via the draft, it's also vital to not invest too early or at too high a price, as offensive talent remains scarcer.

Luke Kuechly
Luke Kuechly didn't disappoint as a rookie, piling up more than 100 solo tackles.

The manager who drafts a supposed elite team defense in the sixth or seventh round feels secure in landing what is expected to be a consistent and productive fantasy source, but as we know, most team defenses fluctuate in value from year to year. Regret might set in when considering the potential offensive fixture that was passed over when paying a premium for a defensive unit.

The same can be said for drafting individual defenders, as it's best to wait until the later rounds, when your offensive stock is strong, to begin investing. This might make you miss out on some choice talents such as Kuechly and Willis, just as you likely won't land the San Francisco defense if you plan to wait it out in a traditional draft, but there are plenty of valuable fantasy defenders past the elite tiers who might serve your roster best in terms of establishing offensive and defensive balance. Go get that superstar defender when you want to; this is just to suggest you consider seeking out value on offense as a priority.

In an attempt to reduce the positional breakdowns into a basic overall IDP drafting strategy, I would advise that in your first four defensive selections you net two star linemen, given the position scarcity and inherent volatility of the position; also net one choice defensive back and an elite linebacker. With this foundation, you'll be free to gamble and go into "best available" mode with an eye on upside sleepers to fill out the rest of your defensive roster.

This unique format has a reputation for winning over its participants, given how immersed one becomes in the defensive side of the ball. It simply brings you closer to the game; not only will you know the Steelers' depth chart at tailback, but you'll know about their entire front seven. No offense to those who like to solely play what is essentially offensive fantasy football; we're just asking that you consider getting defensive.

The overall pitch here is that you should differentiate your fantasy football résumé. The idea with these individual defensive leagues is to try something new, something different, and to enjoy engaging in an entirely different market for talent.

Editor's note: This column is an update of what has been published in previous years. Updates include statistical trends and relevant player information to better relate to the upcoming season.