The first time I ever participated in an IDP fantasy league was 17 years ago, as I fondly recall gloating about plucking Ray Lewis off the waiver wire early in his 1996 rookie season. This gold-mine waiver grab -- he wound up with 94 solo tackles in 14 games that season -- was not only a product of witnessing Lewis destroy my alma mater Syracuse and the rest of the Big East for three seasons at Miami, but also my nerdiness of creating a tackle game log, via USA Today box scores, the lone publication that printed individual defensive stats at the time.
Although nobody needs to spend the time gathering information like a chump anymore, there is still a startling lack of IDP research available for consumption heading into each NFL season. As the defensive coordinator carousel keeps churning and salary-cap casualties try to revive their careers while hordes of NFL-ready defenders ascend from the college game, it's difficult to figure out the most meaningful of the hundreds of offseason transactions that occur. I did my best to sort it all out by compiling what I think are the most notable defensive faces in new places this season in terms of IDP value.
1. Dannell Ellerbe, LB, Miami Dolphins (from Baltimore Ravens)
If you are looking for tackles, you have found your man. Ellerbe was a relatively unknown fantasy quantity heading into last season, but the aforementioned Lewis getting injured gave Ellerbe an opportunity to shine. He racked up 44 combined tackles (27 solo) in four games before being slowed by a sprained ankle. Ellerbe also made his presence felt during Baltimore's playoff run with 32 combined tackles (25 solo), prompting the Dolphins to shell out $35 million over five years for his services. Miami will use Ellerbe as a three-down MLB alongside former Oakland Raiders SLB Philip Wheeler in what will quickly be a potent Miami Dolphins defense once rookie DE Dion Jordan, former Atlanta Falcons CB Brent Grimes and CB Richard Marshall all get healthy. DE Cameron Wake's pass-rushing prowess will also provide plenty of room for Ellerbe to wrap up ball carriers.
2. D.J. Williams, LB, Chicago Bears (from Denver Broncos)
The move to Chicago's playmaking 4-3 scheme surrounds Williams with talented playmakers that will create more space for him to operate. This change of scenery will also help revive Williams' career, which was derailed by a combined nine-game suspension last season for taking PEDs and driving while impaired. Williams was inked to a mere one-year deal this offseason with no guaranteed money, but a fat incentive clause gives him plenty of reasons to work hard in his first season in the Windy City. To add more pressure, consider that Williams is also replacing the legendary Brian Urlacher. However, when the football is snapped, Williams makes all kinds of plays with his natural ability and on-field smarts. In his past three full seasons (2007, 2009 and 2010), Williams has posted 382 combined tackles (300 solo), 21 passes defended (PD), 10 sacks and six forced fumbles.
3. Elvis Dumervil, LB/DE, Baltimore Ravens (from Denver Broncos)
A poorly sent fax by his former agent sent Dumervil packing for Baltimore, where he'll be the key to the Ravens' new-look defense. Dumervil will play primarily as an outside 'backer, the same position he played for the majority of 2009 when he posted an NFL-best 17 sacks. Lining Dumervil up opposite Terrell Suggs will not only give opposing quarterbacks nightmares but will most certainly lead to Dumervil's fourth double-digit sack season in a six-season span. And although he's never churned out big gobs of tackles – he had a career-high 54 combined stops in 2012 -- consider that the Ravens were credited with 1,157 tackles last season (second most in NFL) while his former Broncos team had just 993 stops in 2012 (seventh fewest in NFL).
4. Desmond Bishop, LB, Minnesota Vikings (from Green Bay Packers)
He's certainly the biggest boom-or-bust candidate on this list, having missed all of last season with a torn hamstring. But so far, so good with the hammy, and the middle linebacker is fitting in quite nicely with his new Vikings teammates and the 4-3 scheme. Bishop has all the tools that the great MLBs possess -- speed, strength, toughness, instincts and intelligence -- and he's only 29 years old. He averaged nearly eight total tackles and six solo tackles per game in 2010 and 2011, including eight sacks in those 28 games. Minnesota is loaded with defensive stars who also warrant serious blocking assignments, such as DE Jared Allen, DT Kevin Williams and SLB Chad Greenway, which certainly helps boost the fantasy value of the former Packer.
5. Bernard Pollard, S, Tennessee Titans (from Baltimore Ravens)
He may not be allowed in any of the six New England states because of his history of inflicting major injuries on star Patriots (Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Wes Welker and Stevan Ridley), but Pollard has produced strong fantasy numbers in all three of his prior stops. In the past six seasons -- split in three two-season segments between Kansas City, Houston and Baltimore -- Pollard has posted yearly averages of 96 combined tackles (73 solo) and seven PDs. His 98 combined stops (71 solo) last season were tops among all Ravens defenders. Expect more gaudy production with a Titans scheme that now has three talented safeties in Pollard, Michael Griffin and George Wilson, who is coming off a career-best 79 solo tackles with Buffalo. There will be plenty of times when all three of these safeties will be on the field together, so don't worry about Pollard not getting his opportunities, because this is a man who always makes his presence felt in some capacity.
6. Glover Quin, S, Detroit Lions (from Houston Texans)
An underrated fantasy DB, Quin made great strides in each of his four seasons in Houston, averaging a combined 79 tackles (63 solo stops) and 12 PDs per season. Quin is a tireless worker who plays every down, having logged more than 1,000 snaps in 2012. Now, he moves on to Detroit, where playmaking opportunities are sure to increase on a defense that is far inferior to the Texans', especially along a front seven that has problems stopping ball carriers. The Lions have the second-hardest schedule in the NFL this season (in terms of 2012 winning percentage), with no shortage of Pro Bowl quarterbacks to defend, and Quin had his two most productive games of 2012 against the Vikings (10 tackles, nine solo) and Packers (eight tackles, seven solo), two teams he now shares the division with.
7. Cliff Avril, DE, Seattle Seahawks (from Detroit Lions)
Avril will be slotted in the "Leo" spot, allowing him to take full advantage of his speed-rushing prowess. His participation in minicamp showed that his plantar fasciitis is now a thing of the past, making the 27-year-old primed for a breakout season playing in front of what could be the best back seven in the NFL. In the past three seasons, Avril has averaged more than 10 sacks per 16 games with the lowly Lions, whose back seven is among the worst such groups in the league. Picking him as a DL2 is not really a stretch at all.
8. LaRon Landry, S, Indianapolis Colts (from New York Jets)
After two injury-riddled campaigns in Washington, Landry signed a one-year deal with the Jets in 2012 and posted career-best totals in combined tackles (100) and forced fumbles (four). These gaudy numbers prompted the Colts to lay down $24 million over four years ($14 million guaranteed) for the hard-hitting strong safety to lead a young defense that will rely heavily on him for run support. Indianapolis allowed 5.1 yards per carry last season, which was the second-worst figure in the NFL. Landry had 30 combined tackles (20 solo) in four games versus AFC South opponents last season and should continue this high-tackle pace against his new divisional opponents, whose best skill players are all running backs (Arian Foster, Maurice Jones-Drew and Chris Johnson). Although Landry has averaged just one interception per season in his career, he's been able to tally eight PDs per 16 games.
9. Dawan Landry, S, New York Jets (from Jacksonville Jaguars)
Sticking with the Landry theme, Dawan is replacing his younger sibling in New York and reuniting with Jets coach Rex Ryan, who was Landry's defensive coordinator in Baltimore. Ryan will be much more involved with his team's multiple-set defense this season, which will run a 4-3, 4-2-5, 3-3-5 and even the legendary 46 Bears defense he learned from father Buddy. But no matter what the Jets do, Landry will be asked mostly to help shore up a run defense that ranked 26th in the NFL last season (133.6 rushing YPG allowed), a huge dropoff from their 13th-ranked run defense (111.1 rushing YPG allowed) in 2011. Landry has not missed a game since 2008, averaging 99 combined tackles (77 solo) per season over the past four. He's just not enough of a playmaker -- recording only three picks and 10 PDs in the past three seasons combined -- to be more than a DB3 at this point.
10. Osi Umenyiora, DE, Atlanta Falcons (from New York Giants)
The usually overrated Giants end has now become a bit of a sleeper IDP with his move south to Atlanta for a cool $8.5 million (with another $3.5 million in incentives) over two seasons. This deal comes on the heels of his 0.4 sacks per game last season, his lowest such ratio since his rookie campaign in 2003. However, this is still a man with 75 career sacks and 32 forced fumbles, including 14 FFs over the past three seasons alone. The Falcons ranked 28th in sacks last season, which was a huge reason the team allowed a hefty 5.90 yards per play (fourth worst in NFL). Umenyiora certainly has the speed -- especially playing 10 games indoors this season -- and power to continually pressure the quarterback, which more than makes up for his deficiency in stopping the run.
The top-10 list can't cover everybody, so here are some more new faces and new schemes to concern yourself with while you prepare for your draft. These are listed in alphabetical order by team to also help those of you playing in D/ST leagues.
New defensive coordinator (DC) Todd Bowles has a ton of talent to work with in the desert, as the Cards picked up LB Karlos Dansby and DE Matt Shaughnessy, who could both recapture fantasy glory playing in a 3-4 scheme that also includes do-it-all DL Calais Campbell and stud rookie ILB Kevin Minter among the front seven.
New DC Mike Pettine was bashed for being too vanilla as the Jets DC but has implemented a hybrid 3-4 scheme in Buffalo that aims to force more turnovers. The Bills hope new OLB Jerry Hughes will finally become a fierce pass-rusher lining up along with DE Mario Williams.
Rod Marinelli oversaw last season's big-play unit that forced an eye-popping 44 turnovers but chose to join his buddy Monte Kiffin as a defensive line coach in Dallas. To replace Marinelli, Jaguars DC Mel Tucker was hired to maintain this elite defense. He won't make dramatic changes and has plenty of talent with new LBs D.J. Williams and James Anderson joining DE Julius Peppers and CBs Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings.
New DC Ray Horton's attacking 3-4 defense should lead to many more sacks, boosting the value of offseason addition OLB Paul Kruger and holdover Jabaal Sheard, who will play outside linebacker in many formations but is also eligible at DE in our game. Rookie Barkevious Mingo is also an exciting option (and also eligible at both LB and DE).
Long-time defensive whiz Monte Kiffin takes over the big D in Big D, but the jury is still out on whether his switch to a 4-3 scheme (likely with some Tampa-2 looks as well) will benefit the Cowboys. It will certainly benefit Sean Lee at MLB and now-healthy Bruce Carter on the weak side, but DeMarcus Ware might need time to adjust to his end position.
Wade Phillips won't mess with what is essentially a 5-2 defensive scheme, but the addition of FS Ed Reed and ILB Brian Cushing coming back healthy from his torn ACL will not only help free stud DE J.J. Watt from constant double-teaming but should also allow OLB Whitney Mercilus to become a relevant IDP in terms of sacks in his second season, especially since he has DE-eligibility.
New DC Bob Babich certainly does not have the talent to work with that he did in Chicago, but the Jags' 32:25 average defensive time of possession last season (second most in NFL) could make decent deep-league fantasy IDPs out of new CBs Alan Ball and Marcus Trufant, who will both see plenty of balls thrown their way as the worst starting corner tandem in the league.
Kansas City Chiefs
After forcing an NFL-low 13 turnovers and getting just five defensive line sacks in 2012, the Chiefs hired DC Bob Sutton to mold a more dynamic defense. His multiple-look scheme with a 3-4 base will feature more blitzing from QB-seeking OLBs Tamba Hali and Justin Houston, but neither will amass enough tackles to be any better than an LB3.
New Orleans Saints
New DC Rob Ryan will try his best to clean up this mess of a defense, which allowed the most yards in NFL history last season (7,042, or 440.1 per game). Ryan has employed an uber-aggressive 3-4 scheme that will continue to benefit playmakers SS Roman Harper and LB Curtis Lofton. Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette both have 10-sack potential under Ryan.
New York Jets
Head coach Rex Ryan and new DC Dennis Thurman will try to compensate for the loss of three key players in the secondary (CB Darrelle Revis, S Yeremiah Bell and S LaRon Landry) by mixing in more blitz packages amongst the front seven. This new scheme could bump OLB Quinton Coples (also eligible at DE) up to the LB2 line in his second NFL season.
Philly has totally revamped its defense with blitz-happy new DC Billy Davis and possibly six new defensive starters, highlighted by OLB Connor Barwin, CB Cary Williams and SS Patrick Chung. However, the only two Eagles players worthy of ownership in typical IDP leagues are run-stuffing ILB DeMeco Ryans and ultra-talented DE Fletcher Cox.
San Diego Chargers
The Chargers are a sleeper D/ST this season with veteran Dwight Freeney (eligible at DE/LB in our game), rookie LB Manti Te'o and blanket CB Derek Cox added to DC John Pagano's 3-4 scheme. Also, don't forget about LB Donald Butler and perennial IDP monster S Eric Weddle on draft day.
San Francisco 49ers
The Niners could have the best fantasy defense in the NFL with the additions of CB Nnamdi Asomugha, DT Glenn Dorsey and FS Eric Reid. But most of the fantasy production will be engulfed by ILBs NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis and the two Smiths, Aldon and Justin.
New DC Dan Quinn takes over the league's top-scoring defense (15.3 points per game allowed) and promises to be more aggressive with blitzing and forcing turnovers. Quinn has this luxury with a stacked secondary that features shutdown corners Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner and fantasy IDP stud safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas.
St. Louis Rams
New DC Tim Walton has a roster loaded with IDP talent, with DEs Chris Long and Robert Quinn, CBs Cortland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins, plus all three starting linebackers -- MLB James Laurinaitis, WLB Jo-Lonn Dunbar and rookie SLB Alec Ogletree.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Bucs made a huge upgrade to their secondary this offseason by signing CB Darrelle Revis and FS Dashon Goldson, who provides more value in fantasy leagues with his punishing hits, while quarterbacks continue to steer clear of "Revis Island." An improved secondary will afford more time for WLB Lavonte David and DE Adrian Clayborn (coming off a torn ACL) to get into opponents' backfields.