We've just witnessed one of the greatest defensive campaigns in NFL history, and that's not mere hyperbole: J.J. Watt's 2012 was one for the record books bearing in mind that the NFL's defensive record book contains significantly fewer pages than its history book.
Defensive statistics aren't available as far back as offensive numbers are, so when measuring Watt's impact, we're left with a limited comparative sample size. Sacks, for example, weren't officially tracked until 1982, and tackles, while unofficially tabulated since 1994, didn't officially enter the league's record books until 2001.
Still, here's what we do know about Watt's 2012:
• His 20 1/2 sacks were sixth most since 1982.
• His 69 solo tackles were third most by any defensive lineman since 1994.
• His 16 passes defensed were the most by any defensive lineman since 1991, which was the first season they were tracked.
• His 170.5 fantasy points were the most by any defensive lineman since 1994, the earliest year for which we can fully calculate them.
• He is the first defensive lineman to top a season's IDP fantasy leaderboard.
• Calculating "VBD" (value based drafting statistics) -- this using the No. 21 scoring player at each defensive position as our replacement-level baseline, making the assumption that most leagues are 10 teams and two starters per position -- Watt's 93 points were the most by any player since 1994.
To say, therefore, that Watt just enjoyed the greatest campaign by any individual defensive player (IDP) in recorded history is fair.
Smart fantasy owners, though, are well versed in the lessons of statistical regression to the mean, and as such are cautious expecting repeats of record-setting years. Watt, after a year like his 2012, will enter 2013 the consensus No. 1 IDP off the board. But what are his odds of a repeat, and is he really worthy of an early-round pick, perhaps as soon as the fifth round?
History says that it's Watt's position that presents his greatest danger of regression. As the following chart, which encompasses all IDP campaigns from 1994 to 2012, shows, defensive linemen are the ones most at risk of "falling back to earth" after big years. Each position is broken down by fantasy points per game in the given season (that listed on the left), with "FPTS/G Year 2" showing what the players in that group averaged the following year, and "Diff." calculating the percentage drop-off in average in that follow-up year. So, for example, the line that begins "7-8" is all players who averaged between 7 and 8 fantasy points per game; linebackers in that classification averaged 7.7 points per game overall in the given year and 7.0 in their subsequent years, for an 8.3 percent decline.
A quick glance at the 2011 and 2012 seasons supports these findings, as all five defensive linemen who managed 100 or more fantasy points in 2011 -- Jared Allen (154), Jason Pierre-Paul (140.5), Cliff Avril (111.5), Calais Campbell (108.5) and Jason Babin (101.5) -- scored fewer than 100 in 2012. In fact, all five of them suffered at least a 25-point drop-off, and the ones who routinely were selected before the eighth round -- Pierre-Paul and Allen -- declined by 68 and 46.5 points.
Here are two more troubling facts, if you're among those who believe that Watt can maintain his level of sheer dominance:
• There have been only 27 instances of a defensive lineman managing as many as 120 fantasy points in a season, or an average of 7.5 in a 16-game campaign. In other words, the samples for everyone from the 7-8 point range and up in the chart above are precariously small.
• Aside from those three examples as well as Watt himself, the other 23 defensive linemen who amassed 120 or more fantasy points in a season declined in fantasy production by at least 20 points; only 10 even scored 100 points.
One reason for this year-to-year variance is the annual volatility of the sack numbers. Watt amassed 61.5 of his 170.5 points from his sacks alone, and had he totaled, say, 12 sacks, he'd have scored a "more human" 145 points yet still ranked among the greatest historical years by any IDP. Be aware that no player since 1982 has amassed 20 or more sacks in multiple years of his career; only nine players have managed at least 16, or an average of one per game, in multiple years.
This isn't to say that Watt can't manage a second consecutive MVP-caliber campaign. It's merely a caution that even the greatest defensive players of the past two decades have had a difficult time maintaining the level he enjoyed in 2012.
That said, the lessons of VBD do still support Watt as the top IDP off the board, even if he drops off by as many as 30 points in 2013. After all, replacement levels at the position are substantially lower among defensive linemen than linebackers or defensive backs. See the all-time VBD leaders among IDPs:
As the odds-on favorite to pace his position again in fantasy points, Watt should be one of your first targeted IDPs -- and arguably your first -- but this merely means that if he costs you a pick within the first 75 overall, or approximately the first eight rounds, he's not worth the price. A good rule of thumb: We stress that you should never draft the top defense/special teams in a standard league before about the eighth round because of the statistical volatility of the position; the same applies when you split up defensive contributions into IDPs.
Now, it's time for a quick IDP history lesson.
Listed below are the top 10 fantasy seasons (1994 to 2012) broken down into each of the three positions used in traditional IDP leagues.
A quick note on linebacker drafting strategy: Linebackers are the players who generate a fantasy team the most points, and they're the ones, as the chart earlier showed, at the least risk for year-to-year regression. Their tackle totals are the reason, as linebackers are responsible for 112 of the 120 seasons, since 1994, in which a player managed at least 100 solo tackles. Linebackers are also the ones with the greatest chance at all of the "big three" point-getter stats: sacks, forced fumbles and interceptions, all of which traditionally earn you three points apiece. Defensive linemen tend to have a more difficult time amassing interceptions, and defensive backs are challenged to record sacks, generally speaking.
It's for this reason that fantasy owners seeking to draft players like Daryl Washington (164 points in 2012), Luke Kuechly (160) or Paul Posluszny (150.5) shouldn't be as concerned about a substantial drop-off as they might be with Watt. Granted, these linebackers will be challenged to score a higher VBD than Watt, but as in the case of a player like Kuechly, who is entering his second year, there's a compelling case to be made for one of these as the first IDP off your board.