We've all witnessed or even owned teams that go deep into the fantasy playoffs with a random roster of characters that in no way resembles the cast that was drafted in late August. The erosion of the season and plain underachievement create shifts in value that often define the fates of seasons.
These shifts often unfold instantly on the offensive side of the ball, such as when Ronnie Brown goes down and the already raring Ricky Williams suddenly becomes a coveted elite fantasy playoff prospect. The names Jason Snelling and Justin Forsett have become household, er, league-wide names in just a matter of weeks thanks to the specific shifts in their respective scenarios.
So, who on the defensive side has the right blend of opportunity and productivity to sway the fates of hard-fought fantasy seasons? In New York, mainstay middle man Antonio Pierce is out indefinitely, bolstering Michael Boley's value as the lone proven playmaker behind the Giants' struggling line. Lofa Tatupu's season-ending injury has seen David "Sea-" Hawthorne emerge as an elite fantasy force in a statistical surge reminiscent of when David Harris burst onto the scene in Jonathan Vilma's place in 2007.
Regular reader Tim Ewing wisely wrote in about Cleveland's David Bowens, not to be confused with Bowie, and his enhanced value given his recent switch from defensive end to inside linebacker, the very position from which D'Qwell Jackson led football in tackles in 2008. With Bowens in tow you can now fill a shallow and sporadic position like defensive line with the production of an inside linebacker. In Buffalo, the attrition of the linebacker corps continues as Keith Ellison was recently placed on IR, forcing safety Bryan Scott to replace him on the weak side. How has the career safety responded? With the production of a linebacker, of course: He has posted double-digit tackles in back-to-back games while notching a sack and a forced fumble last week.
From Ron Dayne to Billy Volek and David Harris to James Harrison, each season sees a handful of these "finishers" show up and lead teams to the fantasy promised land as unexpected changes create unexpected stars.
Front Four: The weekly word on the world of defenders
• The other Buffalo 'backer: It's not surprising that Buffalo has faced the most plays of any defense in football this season given that they have one of league's worst rush defenses. Manning the middle for a defense that can't get off the field, Paul Posluszny has been averaging more than 10 tackles and has forced three turnovers since returning from injury six weeks ago. While impact plays (turnovers, sacks) have always been lacking from Posluszny's repertoire, his steady production makes him a valued depth contributor and potential starter in leagues that generously reward solo tackles.
• Safe corner: Tyvon Branch has proven to be a highly productive safety this year and is also eligible as a cornerback in ESPN leagues, adding to his already growing value. As the second-most-productive defensive back to date in most formats and with sustainable production behind a porous front seven, the scarcely owned Branch is an impact addition to consider as the fantasy playoffs loom.
• The other Rated Rookie: While Brian Cushing is on his way to a monstrous first tour of the league, it should be noted that the Rams' James Laurinaitis is on pace for more than 120 tackles and is coming off of a 16-tackle outing this past week. The widely available Laurinaitis doesn't have the peripheral playmakers around him that "Cush" may, but he remains an elite keeper option given his incumbent role in the middle for a generous rush defense.
• Welcoming Winfield: While I can't endorse starting Minnesota's Antoine Winfield in his likely return to action this week just yet, I would advise stashing him for the playoffs in the 60 percent of leagues in which he's free for merely the click of a plus symbol. He's posted seasons with tackles nearing triple-digits on an annual basis along with a coveted blend of turnovers and a uniquely high amount of passes defended. Few corners, or defensive backs in general, are as consistent statistically or play as physical a brand of football as the fiery Winfield.
IDP Ranks Week 12: The top 10 linebackers, linemen 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: Solid defenders available in more than half of ESPN leagues
The Jets' Shaun Ellis tallied two sacks last week and gets the ever-sackable (new word) Jake Delhomme this week. Tampa's Tanard Jackson may be prone to giving up the big play, but he makes up for that with his own penchant for the dramatic and should have some shots at a few daring Matt Ryan tosses this week in the Georgia Dome. Johnathan Joseph has paced his better-known teammate Leon Hall for much of the season and merits consideration given Cincinnati's favorable schedule. Adrian Wilson makes for an ideal playoff flier given his pedigree for production and his savory schedule filled with sloppy passing offenses. Some Turkey Day sleepers: Terrell Thomas for the Giants has been productive and should continue to produce covering the likes of Brandon Marshall this week. Detroit's Cliff Avril plays Green Bay, which, if you haven't heard, usually leads to some sacks. The Lions' Larry Foote has had a quietly stellar season and should remain in Detroit as a stabilizing veteran for a few seasons. Denver's Andra Davis should be busy chasing down the Giants' tailbacks and tight ends throughout the night. Detroit's Louis Delmas, owned in just 16.5 percent of leagues, fought admirably through a tooth and jaw infection to post respectable numbers last week and should remain busy on Thursday pursuing the bevy of effective receivers for Green Bay.
Mike (Chicago): I can have my pick of either Brian Orakpo or Ray Edwards for the rest of this season and beyond. I need the pick to be productive for the playoffs and be worthy of a keeper selection next season. Which one serves both interests best?
Jim: Edwards has been a nice value so far this season playing opposite the peerless Jared Allen, but until he can prove that he can produce on a consistent basis given the clean looks Allen creates for him, he'll remain a marginal commodity and serve solely as a matchup play. Meanwhile, Orakpo has transitioned ably to outside linebacker, and with eligibility as a defensive end in most formats, he has the makings of an ideal keeper candidate. Considering both the keeper implications and the remainder of this season, it seems that both Orakpo's current and prospective potential bests what Edwards offers.
Nick: What sites or stats do you use for predicting how defenders will produce in a given week?
Jim: Good question, Nick, as this leads seamlessly into next week's column. I'm asking that readers e-mail me this week about the best metrics, sites and resources you use in managing your defensive rosters and next week I'll share some of the best offerings, as well as some insight into the sites and resources I peruse to prepare and prognosticate each week.
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.