IDP strategy guide

Updated: June 24, 2014, 11:04 PM ET
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 real estate and punish offenders who seek to take it.

[+] EnlargeLuke Kuechly
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsNo one has more total tackles than Luke Kuechly's 320 the past two seasons, and he's added six interceptions as well.
You are a football fan, of course, so you already know some of their names: J.J. Watt, Luke Kuechly and Earl Thomas. Household names to you, fantasy monsters to us.

With some incumbent knowledge about the impact defenders in the league, the next step is getting into an IDP league, or five, and enjoying what the other side has to offer that traditional fantasy football leagues 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, fumbles, interceptions, touchdowns and passes defended.

It's common to see individual defenders take the place of a team defense in complementing the offensive roster you build. Some of the truly hard-core play in defense-only leagues, but that can take a few years into the obsession. I am in one league where we start 11 defenders with scoring implications for how successfully the alignment (4-3, 3-4, 3-3-5 etc.) matches with our opponent's offensive formation for that week.

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 those who are green but game, 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, defensive tackles can be a separate position from defensive ends or they all can be regarded as a singular defensive line spot ["DL"]). A common framework for a defensive roster often includes five or more spots broken down by position. As an example, here's what we can consider 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: utility or "flex" or spots in which you can start any defender

Traditional scoring modifiers

The first rule we learned in fantasy kindergarten is to always have a sound grasp of 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. A bold commissioner might set sacks at six points, and thus you must adjust your pricing in pursuit of that production. That said, I've found the scoring format below is a reasonable framework 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 defended (1)
Blocked kick (3)

Drafting in an IDP league

So, you are entering the second half of your fantasy draft and you have what (hopefully) amounts to 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 top linebacker in your first two or three defensive investments and seek to build out the secondary and tertiary options at the position later in the draft.

Truly elite fantasy linebackers like Derrick Johnson and Lavonte David have been known to average as many as 10 fantasy points per game, even in a conservative scoring format. These are fantasy contributions comparable to valued offensive commodities, such as No. 2 wideouts and tailbacks. One element that has changed in time is that it isn't solely inside 'backers putting up prolific totals; with variations of the 3-4 scheme sweeping through defensive playbooks in greater numbers over the past decade, we've witnessed a crop of outside linebackers regularly collect double-digit sacks and generally create havoc, as Aldon Smith and Clay Matthews have shown.

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 upside and value here with some greatly productive if lesser-known commodities, such as Mason Foster or Nick Roach.

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 DeAngelo Hall are proven commodities. It's simply less common for a corner to be a consistent fantasy source, given the nature of the position. One glaring discrepancy between the "real" and fantasy realms is that sometimes the true shutdown cover corners, such as Darrelle Revis, rarely put up fantasy-worthy production 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.

[+] EnlargeJ.J. Watt
AP Photo/TUSP/Jay BiggerstaffIf you're looking for star power on the D-line, look no further than J.J. Watt, who has the most sacks in the past two years (31) and is a big help in tackles.
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, this position is extremely 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 sack-masters in hopes of not having to hustle and grind for production at a lean 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 the premium commodity.

The manager who drafts a supposed top 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 can fluctuate greatly 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 foundation is stable, to begin investing. This might make you miss out on some choice talents such as Kuechly and Watt, just as you likely won't land the Seattle defense if you plan to wait in a traditional draft, but there will be plenty of valuable fantasy defenders past the top handful 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 Titans' 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 diversify your fantasy football résumé. The idea with these individual defensive leagues is to try something new, something different, and to enjoy investing 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.

Jim McCormick is an IDP and fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com.

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