In this age of instant information, getting an edge on your competition can appear difficult. These days, a fantasy manager can almost find out about a player moving up or down a depth chart before the player does. We can all watch "All-22" tape, read in-depth scouting reports and learn from the growing faction of football experts available online. But having increasingly informed peers isn't necessarily a bad thing; it just means that fantasy leagues get better and more competitive. The ever-growing demand for better information and analysis results in a greater supply, which in the end helps us understand and appreciate the game even more.
Fans of individual defensive player (IDP) leagues are students of the game. Competing in such leagues demands more from managers; asking that they know not just the running back depth chart for the Jaguars, but also their specific defensive scheme and how they might unleash talented rookie Andre Branch across from Jeremy Mincey on the line. With IDP managers having a natural hunger for more information given that they compete in leagues that require they know about both sides of the ball, we felt it made sense to try to delve a bit deeper -- with a great deal of help from our brilliant ESPN Stats & Information team -- into some statistics to possibly unearth some helpful analysis. From one IDP geek to another, let's see if we can get an edge heading into the new season.
Safety in numbers
ESPN's Jeffri Chadiha wrote an interesting piece last season about the shift occurring at the safety position throughout the NFL. In the piece, former Jets safety Jim Leonhard, who recently signed with the Denver Broncos, succinctly explained the trend we're witnessing around the league: "Offenses have morphed from using two-back, power-running formations to where they're always spreading you out. You used to be able to have a safety who could play in the box and one playing free, but now that big safety is getting run out of the league."
While it's true that there is a shift toward athleticism over intimidation at the position, the idea of having a punishing safety to patrol the passing lanes and provide support against the run remains a priority for several schemes in the league. There is clearly fantasy value found in this newer breed of versatile safety that the league is seeking, as we can find a blend of statistics as a result. But for fantasy purposes, we are definitely still fans of the traditional, physical safety, given how a steady role in run support can produce consistently valuable tackle numbers.
While it's a bit of a broad investigation, we put together a chart that details how often specific teams deployed safeties close to the line of scrimmage in the 2011 regular season. We looked into the teams that deployed two safeties near the line the most often, as well as the teams that lined up one safety close to the line the most last season. The positioning of a safety, or even multiple safeties, within eight yards of the line suggests it's likely these players are there to help in run support and thus have more potential to accrue tackles. Again, this isn't a definitive measure of statistical potential, but it can certainly help when seeking out some possible values at the position.
2011 Number of Plays, Safeties Within 8 Yards of Line
Source: ESPN Stats & Information
What we can glean from this is that there could be some value at the position in Arizona, where two proven veterans form a tandem. With the Cardinals re-signing Adrian Wilson to a contract that will likely ensure he is a lifer with the team, we can expect him to be used heavily in run support this season. While Wilson had a down year by his career standards with 65 total tackles and two turnovers in 2011, it's worth noting that he played through a torn biceps for the entire season. Wilson has strong potential to return to the three-year average of 79 tackles, two sacks and 4.6 turnovers he established in 2008-10. Arizona's other veteran safety, Kerry Rhodes, played in just seven games last season due to injury but posted an elite 2010 effort and will come at an extreme discount in drafts this season.
In a Washington system that pushes its strong safety into the box quite often, there is some definite potential for two-time Pro Bowler Brandon Meriweather to revive his career. In Denver, sophomore safety Quinton Carter looks to build on a strong finish to his rookie season in a safety-friendly scheme. T.J. Ward had 123 total tackles for the Browns in 2010 as a rookie and is in a scheme that fits his skill set well. Look for Ward to be one of the top bounce-back players in all of football this fall.
Sticking with the secondary, it's always nice when we net some sacks from a defensive back. The Saints' Roman Harper not only has a cool name that sort of sounds like a publishing company, he also has gray hair and an awesome penchant for getting to the quarterback. With 7 1/2 sacks in 2012, Harper not only led the Saints and proved to be an elite fantasy commodity, he ended up just shy of Mike Berg's nine for Green Bay in 1979 (considered the unofficial record for a defensive back; sacks didn't become an official stat until 1982). With Harper's sack production, he went from stellar to superstar in fantasy. It's no coincidence then that New Orleans ranked second in football in 2011 in applying pressure from the secondary. In addition, there is already some strong sleeper buzz surrounding LaRon Landry as he joins the Jets, and the fact that he could be used as a weapon on blitzes more often could be quite a boon. The hulking safety enters the season with 5 1/2 career sacks and should set a career best in a favorable spot.
The table below illuminates which teams applied pressure from the secondary most often.
Highest Pct. of Dropbacks With Pressure From DBs, 2011 Season
Source: ESPN Stats & Information
When your defensive players aren't creating a lot of sacks and turnovers, there tends to be a need for roster turnover. This can be particularly true with linemen, a fickle position once we get past the handful of consistent elites. We often need to look into playing the matchups when seeking out a waiver addition or free agent. Often you can find value by "streaming" at the position, seeking out the best matchup plays on a regular, if not weekly, basis. While simply looking at sack allowance totals can seem, well, a bit simple, it's worth investigating the specific five-man offensive lines that surrendered the most sacks in 2011. There is always room for these groups to improve, like in Denver for instance, where the line goes from protecting Tim Tebow, who had the ball in his hands more than Kobe Bryant last season, to a deft decision-maker in Peyton Manning. Keep an eye on the Arizona situation, given that as a team the Cardinals surrendered 54 sacks, second only to the Rams' 55 last season. Either way, keep these lines in mind when seeking out sacks.
Bolded players are either no longer on the roster or have been supplanted on the most recent depth chart.
Most Sacks Allowed, Specific OL Groupings, 2011 Season
Source: ESPN Stats & Information
Keeping with the hunt for sack production, let's consider how some advanced statistical analysis might help us unearth some sleepers among edge rushers at the defensive end position. The team over at ProFootballFocus.com consistently produces compelling advanced analysis, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. A useful custom stat they crafted is Pass Rushing Productivity, a metric that considers not just sacks but also hits and hurries in order to specifically gauge the effectiveness of a pass-rusher past the surface stat of just sacks. Some players who might appear to have a "down" season given a dip in sack production, like the Colts' Dwight Freeney last season, can still maintain a good deal of overall pressure on the pocket without netting elite sack production. Being around the pocket and applying pressure is the best way to net sacks, so this stat helps us identify some of the better edge rushers who might not appear obvious based on their surface numbers.
While all we really care about in fantasy is statistical production, using unique indicators like this PRP metric can help direct us to the right players. Miami's Cameron Wake, for example, while a valued fantasy asset as a linebacker over the past few seasons, should prove to be an elite defensive line commodity with the team's shift to a 4-3 scheme. Wake topped the Pass Rushing Productivity ranks for edge rushers over the past three seasons, besting DeMarcus Ware by a good margin. Consider Wake as a top fantasy option this season, even if your peers don't. Another strong name to consider is John Abraham of Atlanta, who can be maddening to own as a top draft selection given the boom-or-bust, or rather sack-or-dust, tendency he's established. Now in his later years, however, the price on draft day has dipped and he remains an effective rusher on an emerging defense. Keep an eye on Abraham's teammate Ray Edwards, who ranks favorably in PRP, as well. Would you be interested in a bargain player at the position who ranked just ahead of Jared Allen in the past three years at the PRP metric? Then target Kamerion Wimbley, who like Wake transitions to a defensive end role and is proven at applying pressure to the pocket.