Another season thankfully is on the way. Sundays truly are fun days, at least the ones with lots of professional football to enjoy. With no lockout to dampen our fantasy offseason, it's due time to set our focus on the upcoming autumn of action.
In this positional preview, we'll look to prepare you to navigate the market for defensive talent and gauge the IDP scene for the 2012 campaign.
Linebackers are often the backbone of a quality defensive roster. Opportunity knocks on nearly every snap for a stud 'backer to produce useful fantasy numbers. The best of the best provide a rare blend of steady tackle production and big plays that include sacks and turnovers.
While it's crucial to net compelling and consistent talents at the position, it's also important to understand that linebacker is the deepest of the individual defender talent pools. A savvy draft strategy would be to target at least one 'backer from the top 15-20 on your draft list (or in our rankings, if you please) and seek to acquire strong building blocks at the shallower positions of defensive line and defensive back. If you can net multiple top talents at reasonable prices, all the better, but the idea here is to not feel bound to investing so heavily at the position when quality depth exists on an annual basis into the later tiers. With this approach in mind, you still want to pursue stud 'backers for your roster; they just don't necessarily have to be your first two IDP investments.
For several years before last season's devastating injury, Adrian Peterson was in the annual discussion as the top overall fantasy selection. And while he didn't finish as the top guy in standard scoring formats, the consistency and amazingly high statistical "floor" he established provided rare security for such a lofty draft investment. On the defensive side of the ball, Patrick Willis serves a similar role, with unrivaled year-to-year consistency and durability during his career. It can be argued that there are players with more upside and less competition for production, as Willis is now surrounded by an immensely talented and deep front seven, but no other linebacker offers the floor that Willis does while also still possessing the requisite big-play potential of such a premier fantasy investment.
An elite commodity like Willis can come at a steep premium in drafts and is often selected in the middle rounds when legitimate offensive options remain on the board. If this seems too expensive for a defender, even an elite one, a solid stable of studs can be found a few rounds later in the likes of D'Qwell Jackson, James Laurinaitis, Daryl Washington and even Willis' teammate NaVorro Bowman, to name a few. While potential-laden talents and breakout candidates are appealing, make sure to not dismiss veteran IDP legends like London Fletcher and Ray Lewis, who have proved that plenty of fantasy fuel remains in the tank.
It's ironic that fantasy fiends are often up late before their drafts take place seeking out the best sleepers. Top picks are often predictable and influenced heavily by ADP (average draft position), making the hunt for late gems one of the most rewarding aspects of the drafting. There is potential for several Ambien All-Stars (corny sleeper wordplay) to emerge at the position this fall, especially given the infusion of some top rookie talent across the league. The discussion for young upside players begins with Luke Kuechly, the supremely talented pro football freshman in Carolina. If he were to win the middle job from Jon Beason entering the season, his value shoots into the elite category before he even takes a regular-season snap. Fellow rooks Lavonte David and Mychal Kendricks are set to start for their respective squads and could have starting fantasy value at the cost of a depth addition. In Seattle, Bobby Wagner has a shot to win the middle job, which would instantly make him a low-end LB2. New England's Brandon Spikes and Buffalo's Kelvin Sheppard are eying starting "Mike" gigs and could be strong sources for tackles at reasonable prices.
Getting too caught up in sack production can prove costly, as most 3-4 outside rushers tend to be boom-or-bust from a fantasy point perspective. In leagues that heavily reward for sack production, this clearly demands an adjusted strategy, but for more standard formats it's best not to over-rely on the low-tackle, sack-dependent talents like Tamba Hali and LaMarr Woodley. Clearly, some exceptions to this approach exist, like with DeMarcus Ware, who posts such consistent and gaudy sack production that it mimics the value of a more traditional tackle-heavy peer. Rostering these QB predators for depth and for inviting matchup plays certainly is still valid, but I'll take a steady stream of solo tackles in most cases.
The secondary is traditionally the most unstable fantasy group on a year-to-year basis. The top 10 performers from one given season can often look quite different in the next, which makes the few enduring and consistent performers that much more coveted. Factors that influence this variance are the common tendencies for schematic shifts and role changes for specific defenders to alter production. Another reason is simply that safeties are often the most productive defensive backs in terms of consistent tackle numbers, and it is not particularly a highly valued position around the league, which lends to a good deal of turnover for many teams at safety.
All this said, safeties remain the safest secondary investments as a somewhat general rule, although some productive corners do factor into the top tiers. The high-volume tacklers like Tyvon Branch and Antoine Bethea spend much of their time closer to the box in a position to aid in run support. There is often greater freedom for safeties to roam and make instinctive plays, which affords the elite talents at the position rare statistical diversity. There are a number of corners who can be viewed as trusted resources thanks to safety-like tackle production, such as Tennessee's Jason McCourty, and they are increasingly valuable in leagues that demand specific rostering of cornerbacks. One thing to keep in mind is that the best corners from a real football perspective don't necessarily translate into valued fantasy commodities. If you are looking for Darrelle Revis or Nnamdi Asomugha to be respected in fantasy rankings, their exclusion is due to the fact that quarterbacks often avoid them, and thus limit their statistical output.
Two playmaking safeties, Seattle's Kam Chancellor and Buffalo's George Wilson, and a punishing linebacker-esque performer in Oakland's Tyvon Branch, make up the top defensive back trio heading into 2012. Triple-digit tackle numbers and a handful of turnovers and sacks is the expected return on investment from the top "super safeties." For the top safeties, the versatility of their roles adds significant value and statistical potential. Chancellor, for example, has been regularly used in a "Big Nickel" role that demands he serves the role of an extra linebacker versus the run or flexes over to coverage on the tight end. Inclusion in such formations can be a boon to production and should continue to crop up around the league as the two-tight-end formations grow in usage. In addition to having a pretty cool name, the Saints' Roman Harper has been an IDP beast in recent years with 10 1/2 sacks and eight forced fumbles over the past two seasons while also posting 192 total tackles. Eric Berry, no relation to Matthew, is back from an ACL injury that saw his 2011 season cut short after just four snaps. The Chiefs' defense is primed for a big year, and Berry is a key reason. Charles Tillman, Charles Woodson and Jason McCourty are the top corners to consider thanks to healthy tackle numbers and passes defended.
Rookie Mark Barron will be busy policing offenders who come across the middle for a Tampa team that was desperately in need of safety talent. Pair Barron with a steady vet and enjoy the rookie's rise to fantasy stardom. Veteran safety Quintin Mikell might not have the common ingredients for what we consider an upside play, but with new coach Jeff Fisher's safety-friendly scheme coming to St. Louis, he could statistically thrive and prove to be a DB1 at the price of a DB2. Another rookie to consider is Minnesota's Harrison Smith, who like Barron, immediately upgrades what was a shallow and sorry secondary in 2011.
Sometimes we find that emerging secondary stars see diminishing returns from a fantasy perspective. We touched on this with Revis. Baltimore's Lardarius Webb might see opposing arms look to him less this season as he establishes himself as a legit lockdown corner. Sticking in Baltimore, legendary playmaker Ed Reed certainly merits his reputation as a game-changing ball hawk, but with enduring durability concerns and an utter lack of production outside of his penchant for picks, let someone else in your league draft the big name while you seek out his peer Bernard Pollard for stronger numbers.
The drop-off from trusted fantasy defensive linemen to troubling and inconsistent commodities comes pretty quickly, as defensive line is historically the shallowest of the position categories. With position scarcity being a real factor to consider, you would do well to place a premium on getting at least one stud lineman from the top seven in the rankings -- Jason Pierre-Paul, Jared Allen, Trent Cole, Cameron Wake, Mario Williams, Jason Babin, Justin Tuck. Don't be afraid to make a splash with a big lineman as your first defender, as the other positions will allow you some freedom to recover in the later rounds. A nice strategy for those looking to create a balanced group of defensive linemen would be to focus on netting a double-digit sack 4-3 end in the mold of Trent Cole with a 3-4 end like Calais Campbell who tallies lots of tackles and can help even when he's not getting to the QB.
Jason Pierre-Paul is simply a predator who, thanks to being on one of the top lines in the league, opponents will find it difficult to stop for many years to come. Combining a healthy dose of tackles, as he capably works versus the run, with stellar sack production, there is little doubt that you would be well-served to draft Pierre-Paul as your top overall defender. Jared Allen's love of rodeo is apt given how often he corrals quarterbacks. Allen and Trent Cole are awesome consolation prizes if you miss on Pierre-Paul. Look for Mario Williams to reward the Bills and fantasy managers with a great return on their investments, as he transitions back to his natural role as a menace off the edge in a 4-3 scheme. JPP's talented teammate Justin Tuck comes at a bit of a discount coming off of a down season, and could prove to be a great buy. If you haven't seen it yet, peep Tuck's new face mask heading into 2012. It's sure to inspire fear, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle references, all season.
We are quite high on two former 3-4 'backers who are making the transition to the end in their respective 4-3 schemes. Both Tennessee's Kamerion Wimbley and Miami's Cameron Wake are proven sack specialists who are primed to play their new positions well given their burst off the edge. Wimbley's transition isn't so dramatic given that he played end at Florida State and is accustomed to shifting schemes and systems. For many draft pundits, Seattle's selection of Bruce Irvin was somewhat of a reach. While that might have rung true in terms of getting the most out of their position in the first round, Irvin has the tools to be the most pro-ready end of the rookie class and should do well on an underrated and aggressive front seven.
Even though we respect some of these players in our rankings, I tend to avoid boom-or-bust or one-trick talents such as Buffalo's Mark Anderson or Atlanta's John Abraham. These types of ends often produce double-digit sack seasons, but with such a lack of steady tackles and ancillary production, it's difficult to endorse them as weekly plays. Sacks can tend to be the first stat many look for in a fantasy lineman, and that can lead to dismissing the rest of the statistical résumé.