Like the WBNA All-Star Game, this intro is going to be rife with layups.
What I mean is, by popular demand -- and by that I mean a single e-mail from a guy named Marty from Milwaukee -- I present the just-past midseason D Up Awards. You see, a midseason award article is widely considered an easy and somewhat fruitless endeavor. But I promise I'm putting my all into this one, not only highlighting the top performers to date but also infusing it with some actual actionable fantasy information. Think of it as awardysis, merging seemingly futile awards with some telling analysis.
The Ambien Award (the best preseason sleeper): While it's somewhat confounding for a former Pro Bowl talent to be labeled a sleeper, consider that Buffalo's Aaron Schobel had completely fallen off the fantasy radar after consecutive disappointing seasons but has resurged to become a dominant force once again. With five sacks, an interception returned for a touchdown and a uniquely healthy tackle clip for a lineman, Schobel is a top-10 fantasy option at his position yet is rostered in just a third of ESPN.com IDP leagues.
The Larry Taylor Award (top rookie defender): Named in honor of Lawrence Taylor's ridiculous 1981 campaign that saw him post 133 tackles and 9.5 sacks (although sacks were not an official stat until '82), it goes to Houston's peerless Brian Cushing. I detail Cushing's impressive exploits in detail below.
The Roderick Woodson Award (top fantasy defensive back): The infusion of veteran talent on defense and the deft design of Greg Williams' schemes have the Saints in uncharted territory as a franchise, in part thanks to Darren Sharper's providing big-plays on a weekly basis as Woodson once had. Going forward, Sharper is to be considered an elite option, but be prepared for some lean outings because his numbers are reliant on interceptions much in the way a guy like Osi Umenyiora's are dependent on sacks.
The Surly Sacker Award (top lineman): Although Steve Sabol from NFL Films has repeatedly offered to scour the tapes, or more likely have a video intern scour the tapes, to accurately tally Deacon Jones' assuredly absurd, yet unknown, career sack totals, it will likely never happen. Regardless, the guy got to the quarterback more often than sideline reporters, and Jared Allen is following in his footsteps this season with another amazing campaign in Vikings purple. Allen owners need little advice besides to sit him for his current bye week and to enjoy his ridiculously entertaining personality, but it is worth mentioning that the guy playing opposite of him, Ray Edwards, is starting to heat up and should see some good looks at the signal-caller going forward as teams chip and double-team Allen as best they can.
The Zack Thomas Award (top linebacker): Um, this Patrick Willis guy is pretty good. While Willis is clearly the top dude, just like Thomas was for much of his prime, there are some really great 'backers whom I at least considered, among them James Harrison and David Harris. But the most notable 'backer to mention is breakout sophomore Curtis Lofton, who overtook the tackle lead this past week and will face off with the league's second-leading tackler in Washington's London Fletcher this week.
Front Four: The weekly word on the world of defenders
Raring Rookies: Jerry Maguire may have missed out on signing "Cush" just before the draft, but there's no excuse for you to miss out on Houston's Brian Cushing if for some odd reason he's still available in your league. If he's not, try to pry him away with a savvy offer, as the rookie from USC has been an absolute fantasy monster this season, and not just by rookie standards. It's fitting that he plays alongside DeMeco Ryans, who also enjoyed one of the best statistical rookie seasons ever for a linebacker. With a rare blend of tackles and turnovers, Cushing will likely end up as a top-five overall fantasy defender by season's end and has assuredly taken the lead for the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year from the St. Louis Rams' consistent, albeit less prolific, James Laurinaitis. Rookie safety Jairus Byrd of the Buffalo Bills has certainly made the most of his injury-induced starting gig with seven larcenies, tied for the NFL lead in picks with Darren Sharper. And all have come in just the past four games.
Shawne Sighting: So I checked it out, and it's not an error: Shawne Merriman is alive and well and proved it with his first breakout game of the year this past week, notching his first two sacks since the 2007 season finale. The bad news? It was against the Raiders and their Rubenesque quarterback. The good news? Both he and Shaun Phillips got untracked and the Chargers have a favorable defensive schedule from Week 12 on.
Freakish Freeney: Segueing from an ultimately inconsistent fantasy commodity to arguably the most consistent lineman in football this season: The Colts' Dwight Freeney has a sack in every game this season and is looking simply unstoppable to opposing tackles. With a spin move that most point guards would covet and with line mate Robert Mathis diffusing double-teams, Freeney is on pace for one of the all-time steadiest fantasy seasons from a lineman.
Fun with Numbers (again): I made light of Darrius Heyward-Bey's struggles a few weeks back by mentioning that fellow rookie receiver Michael Crabtree had surpassed his reception total in just his first week of action, and while "DHB" is a really good kid -- I know this because I interviewed him this past summer -- an even more embarrassing stat has surfaced: Darren Sharper and Jairus Byrd have caught more balls than he has so far this season, with their seven interceptions apiece trumping Heyward-Bey's five receptions.
IDP Ranks Week 9: The Top 10 linebackers, lineman and defensive backs
So that we're working from agreed parameters, we'll use what many consider traditional scoring modifiers for an IDP league: Tackle -- Solo (1), Tackle -- Assist (0.5), Sack (3), Interception (3), Forced fumble (3), Fumble recovery (3), Touchdown (6), Safety (2), Pass defended (1), Blocked kick (2).
Bargain Bin: Worthy defenders available in more than half of ESPN leagues
Aaron Curry should excel against the generous Lions line, trading shots at Matthew Stafford with Patrick Kerney. Thomas DeCoud has been elite lately at a shallow position and deserves immediate ownership in leagues that specifically roster corners. While the sacks aren't legit, the tackles and reps are there. Erik Coleman is another Atlanta defensive back who has enduring value; his steady tackle clip makes him a trusted week-to-week value to invest in. Clay Matthews' value is inflated by being eligible at defensive end, and this week he'll be chasing down rookie quarterback Josh Freeman. Tampa will likely be down early and passing often, affording both Matthews and Aaron Kampman a number of shots at sacks.
Ryan Johnson: Quick question on evaluating a defender's worth when compared to an offensive player: I was offered Patrick Willis and Steve Smith of the Giants today for my Andre Johnson. Now this seems like an out-of-line trade offer to me and I'm probably going to counter with something, but I'm wondering how you value defenders alongside other fantasy football assets. In our league, Willis has scored 81 points to date, while Randy Moss has 80, the Broncos' defense has 82, Chad Ochocinco has 82 etc. Should Willis be valued similarly to these guys?
Jim: Great question, Ryan. The trade market rarely equates individual defenders with offensive talent. Roster size, scoring settings and a number of other factors influence this, but just because defenders aren't traditionally valued on par doesn't mean that they don't provide on par production. Most leagues equate the production of an individual defender to a team defense, in that even though a team defense can have significantly more points than, say, a relatively productive receiver or running back, the trade market doesn't bear them out as equals. Same goes for defenders: You're not likely to get equal value for a defender even if the production argues for it. An elite commodity like Willis should be respected as a valued trade chip, but given the smaller defensive rosters most leagues employ, he's simply not as coveted as a Moss or Ochocinco. In your case, try to counter by offering a depth receiver or running back for Willis and play to this owner's need for offensive help.
Jim McCormick is an IDP and fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com, as well as the editor and publisher of BLITZ Magazine, a print and online publication covering football from prep to pro. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org with all of your IDP concerns.