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Five tips for IDP drafts

J.J. Watt has sacked Blake Bortles six times in two games. AP Photo/David J. Phillip

There's no such thing as the perfect draft strategy, especially in IDP leagues. Each fantasy draft presents a unique set of challenges. Decisions we need to make. Strategies we can potentially deploy.

That's why scripting your draft is a big mistake. With a rigid plan, you essentially lock yourself in a box and limit your potential to capitalize on your opponents' mistakes.

Instead, I suggest taking a flexible approach that allows you to have a variety of tactics at your disposal. To help you develop that strategy for IDP leagues, here are five tips that will give you a leg up on the competition:

Know your league settings

Sure I'm stating the obvious here, but I can't tell you how often I see people overlook their league settings. Regardless of the league format, knowing your roster requirements and scoring settings is essential to a sound draft strategy.

This advice is particularly important in IDP leagues, as there really isn't a "standard" league type. The simplest IDP leagues use just one defensive flex position, while those at the other end of the spectrum field full 11-man IDP rosters. However, it's likely your league falls somewhere in between. Knowing the exact amount of IDP positions you're required to start relative to offensive positions is vital to your draft strategy. The fewer IDP starters you're required, the later you should draft defensive players. Just like on the offensive side of the ball, IDP owners also need a strong familiarity with scoring settings and how these settings impact IDP fantasy production. The first thing you need to figure out is the relative value of IDPs to offensive players. The easiest way to do so is with tackle scoring. If solo tackles are valued at one point, then your IDPs won't produce fantasy points comparable to the output on the offensive side of the ball.

I know a lot of leagues like to score solos this way, but I'm not a fan. Take a look at the top IDP scorers in this system, and you'll see they essentially produce the same amount of fantasy points as kickers. I don't know about you, but it doesn't sit well with me when Stephen Gostkowski outscores Luke Kuechly. As my friend from Oklahoma would say, "that just ain't right."

Instead, it's now common to score solos at 1.5 points per game. With this setting, the top defensive players rival the top offensive players in terms of fantasy production. I know some of the old-school purists out there resist using fractional points, but to that I say get with the times. The game is evolving, and whole-number scoring is going the way of the video rental store. Remember those?

If you're league insists on using one point per solo, I'd wait until the late rounds to select defensive players. You're just wasting value on the offensive side of the ball if you start any earlier. However, it makes sense to break the seal on IDPs in the middle rounds if you score solos at 1.5 points.

From here, you'll also need to consider the value of tackles compared to other defensive scoring categories. Some leagues tend to be more tackle-heavy where sacks and interceptions are worth roughly double the value of tackles. Off-ball linebackers have the most fantasy value in these formats. Other leagues weigh big plays more heavily. In these formats, sacks and interceptions are worth four times or more the value of solo tackles. Obviously, your strategy has to change in this format. Here, you'll want to prioritize rush outside linebackers, sack-producing defensive ends, and ball-hawking defensive backs.

The fantasy industry default, in most cases, is a balanced scoring system where sacks and interceptions are worth roughly three times the value of solo tackles. These settings tend to produce the best blend of the defensive positions among the scoring leaders.

Don't draft IDPs too early

While I typically follow this rule 100 percent of the time, I'm willing to make one exception this year for J.J. Watt. It's fair to argue that Watt gives the single biggest weekly advantage of any player at any position. Last season, Watt averaged 7.8 more fantasy points per game than the second-best defensive lineman, Jason Pierre-Paul. In comparison, Rob Gronkowski outscored Antonio Gates by just 1.9 fantasy points per game in standard scoring leagues.

Now, if you want to own Watt this season, be prepared to pay a premium price. His current ADP is at the beginning of the second round, and I was in a recent industry mock draft where Watt went first overall. You read that right, first overall.

Besides Watt, it's tough to advocate selecting any IDP in the early rounds. Remember that everything is relative to your league settings, and the fewer IDP positions you start, the later you should wait to select defensive players. I know the appeal of owning Luke Kuechly or Lavonte David, but if you draft IDPs in the early rounds you sacrifice too much value on the offensive side of the ball.

So here's the scenario: You're in a 10-team league with ESPN standard requirements for offense and eight IDP starters - two defensive linemen, three linebackers, two defensive backs, and one flex spot. You pick in the middle of each round, and Watt goes before your pick in the second. You go with an offensive player, and then Kuechly and David get scooped up before it gets back to you in the third round. Don't panic. You'll have plenty of strong options later on. Just continue to build up your offensive roster.

While your opponents start to grab defensive players, they let quality options at running back and wide receiver slide. Make them pay for it, and out-draft them later at IDP. Your goal should be to build a solid core of offensive starters during the first seven or eight rounds. Ideally, you could come away with three running backs, three receivers, a quarterback, and a tight end before you even look at defensive players. With that roster construction, you're going to have a strong advantage on a weekly basis.

Build your IDP corps around linebackers

Linebackers form the foundation of any IDP roster. That being said, remember that you don't want to start picking defensive players until you've solidified your offensive roster. That means you're not going to own Kuechly or David, like in the example above. But that's OK. You don't need these guys to dominate your league.

One of my favorite linebackers to target in the eighth or ninth round is NaVorro Bowman. With Patrick Willis and Chris Borland retiring in the offseason, Bowman is in a great position to post strong IDP numbers. Yes, he missed all of last season with a nasty knee injury he sustained in the 2013 playoffs, but Bowman participated in OTAs and is on track to be on the field in Week 1. As we've seen in the past, Bowman has elite-level fantasy potential, and this year you can get him at a nice discount.

If you get sniped on Bowman, all is not lost. There's still a good chance you can get your hands on Jamie Collins or Paul Posluszny. With Jerod Mayo coming off a torn patellar tendon and Dont'a Hightower recovering from shoulder surgery, Collins is poised to put up big numbers, especially early in the season. Posluszny had his 2014 campaign cut short due to a torn pectoral, but when healthy he's been one of the most productive fantasy linebackers during the past handful of years.

After the first 10-12 linebackers come off the board, there are several upside top-20 linebackers to target, including Sean Lee, Alec Ogletree, Jelani Jenkins, Nigel Bradham and Danny Trevathan.

While we're on the topic of linebackers, I often get asked which linebacker position puts up the most fantasy points. Most people generally assume middle linebacker is the most productive, but take a quick look at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last season. Lavonte David played weakside linebacker and vastly outscored MLB Mason Foster. Why?

The answer: sub-package snaps. David stayed on the field in passing situations, Foster did not.

It really doesn't matter where a player lines up in the base defense. Those who play all three downs will invariably be the most productive fantasy options. This is especially true in today's pass-happy NFL where most defenses spend a majority of their snaps in their sub packages. Last season, only five teams played base more than 50 percent of the time: New York Jets, Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Washington Redskins.

Understand the impact of home stat crews

Did you ever wonder why certain players like D'Qwell Jackson rack up massive amounts of assisted tackles, whereas others like Derrick Johnson record only a handful each season? The main reason for this disparity is home stat crew bias. Simply put: All home stat crews are not created equally.

The NFL does not define a tackle as an official statistic, so home crews award these statistics based on a set of guidelines that outline what constitutes a tackle. The ambiguity in these recommendations results in significant variation in how tackles are recorded across the league.

Now, it's important to note that we can't just look at the raw tackle numbers each crew awards because this method doesn't take into account snaps played. If two crews award the same amount of tackles, but 250 more snaps are played at Venue A than at Venue B, the latter is the more generous crew on a per-play basis.

To even the playing field between crews, I developed a metric called tackles awarded per opportunity. An opportunity is defined as any play without an incompletion, including punt and kick returns. From there, simply divide total tackles by opportunities, and you have it.

Last season, the Jets paced the league with 1.44 tackles awarded per opportunity. The Buffalo Bills were just behind at 1.41, and the New York Giants came in at 1.39. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the Eagles ranked 31st at 1.07 and the Miami Dolphins brought up the rear with just 1.06 tackles awarded per opportunity.

A great example of how we can apply these numbers would be with Kiko Alonso. The former Bill put up a massive 159 total tackles in 2013. However, those expecting a repeat performance may be disappointed. His new home crew in Philadelphia awards tackles at a significantly lower rate than his former crew in Buffalo.

But remember, tackles awarded per opportunity is only one part of the puzzle. To really get a sense of the best IDP home venues, we also need to factor in solo-to-assist ratios. Last season, five crews awarded solo tackles on more than 85 percent of tackles recorded: Arizona Cardinals, Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, Dolphins and St. Louis Rams. Meanwhile, the Jets, Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens were the only crews in the league to award solos on less than 60 percent of their total tackles.

To really exploit this information in IDP leagues, we want to target players in venues that award tackles at a high rate with a significant portion recorded as solos. Taking both factors into account, here are the top five most tackle-friendly venues with solo percentage and tackles awarded per opportunity in parentheses: New York Giants (73%, 1.39), Buffalo (67%, 1.41), New York Jets (58%, 1.44), San Diego (78%, 1.27) and Tampa Bay (80%, 1.23).

Stream your defensive backs

For fantasy purposes, defensive backs are a dime a dozen. Of the three IDP positions, we see the most year-to-year fluctuation in production at defensive back. So there's really no reason to prioritize them on draft day. Now, if Reshad Jones, Eric Weddle, or T.J. McDonald is still hanging around in the 14th round, by all means pounce. But the top options are likely to be long gone by that point in your draft.

Instead of trying to grab one of the elite players, exercise patience. In a league that starts three linebackers and two defensive backs, I'll typically have four linebackers before I even look at defensive back. Even then, I may wait if the value isn't right. This season I'm targeting Landon Collins, Tyrann Mathieu or Antoine Bethea as my first defensive back.

From there, you wait and wait some more. You'll have plenty of solid options at the tail end of the draft, like Antrel Rolle, who's a good bet to put up strong numbers behind the Bears' suspect linebacker corps. You might also want to give Da'Norris Searcy and/or Calvin Pryor a look. Searcy flashed fantasy potential in Buffalo and should finally get an every-down role at the fantasy-friendly strong safety position for the Titans, while Pryor figures to benefit from Todd Bowles' defensive scheme.

Defensive back is the most streamable of the IDP positions, so keep a close eye on the box scores. Every season we see players break out and post DB1 numbers. Last season, Rashad Johnson, Mike Adams and Ryan Mundy all went undrafted and finished as top-10 fantasy options. The savvy fantasy owner saw this as it was happening and pounced on them before their league could catch up. They also stockpiled more offensive weapons because they didn't waste draft picks on defensive backs.

Remember, when it comes to IDP draft strategy, flexibility is key. Fantasy drafting is a nuanced skill that takes time to develop, but these five tips will give you a significant advantage over your competition.