It's that time of year again, when the Jim Mora news conference jokes are dragged out of storage and stress among males ages 18-45 hits an all-time high. Yes, my friends, the fantasy football playoffs are here.
On the Fantasy Focus Football podcast on Wednesday, ESPN NFL guru Michael Smith and our resident fantasy expert Nate Ravitz discussed the delicate balance that must be struck with playoff rosters when deciding between trusting the core players who got you into the postseason and the emerging talents who don't necessarily have the name, reputation or statistical résumé you might expect from a starter in a playoff matchup. Over the course of a season we become loyal to certain players and find it difficult not to employ them in the biggest of weeks, but as we all know, it's the team with the most points, not loyalty or popular players, that wins out.
While it is often wiser to stick with proven producers, every league, team and decision is contextual. If you feel that a certain player will outperform a long-standing starter in your lineup, then go for it. Fantasy playoff decisions, or mistakes rather, as nerdy as this sounds, can linger and resonate for years. Defensive rosters are often more malleable and flexible than the offensive side of the ball, as numbers are more apt to fluctuate, specifically at defensive line and defensive back. Essentially, I'm saying that I'm more inclined to take risks and plug in new additions to my defensive roster than to my offense.
Since we're in the midst of these most critical matchups, I thought it appropriate to profile some guys who might just be a boon to your playoff production.
Defensive Backs: The Seattle Seahawks' Jordan Babineaux entered my spell check about a month ago when he started putting up linebacker-like tackle numbers and he might just be worthy of entering your starting roster given the otherwise inconsistent nature of the defensive back position. ... Tyvon Branch has rare eligibility duality as a corner and safety in ESPN leagues and while his Week 12 outing may scare interested investors away, his upcoming schedule should see him post elite tackle numbers as runners regularly break through the Oakland Raiders' line. ... The San Francisco 49ers' Dashon Goldson and the Detroit Lions' Louis Delmas are both available in more than 70 percent of ESPN leagues and afford their few owners with rare stability given their steady tackle clips.
Defensive Line: I discuss Tamba Hali and Clay Matthews in detail below and consider both prominent commodities to target for the playoff push. ... If you're in leagues that specifically roster defensive tackles, then the Raiders' Trevor Scott is your guy for the playoffs; not only is he now a weakside linebacker and putting up numbers, but he has a wicked goatee for leagues that reward that. ... Darnell Dockett and Andre Carter are available in more than half of ESPN leagues and both enjoy savory schedules that should result in some big outings.
Linebackers: Similarly to Hali and Matthews, Clint Session gets a nod in the Front Four and is a premier addition to consider. ... Manny Lawson is emerging from Patrick Willis' considerable shadow, and in leagues that heavily reward sacks he has added value. ... Jerod Mayo was an elite and coveted commodity heading into the season but injury saw his ownership plummet. Now that he's back to making plays for the New England Patriots, he's an ideal addition to target in the 60 percent of leagues where he's available for just the click of the plus button.
Front Four: The weekly word on the world of defenders
Tamba Time: The Kansas City Chiefs' Tamba Hali, much like LaMarr Woodley, is an outside pass-rushing linebacker who has defensive lineman eligibility in ESPN leagues. Hali had played much of his career as a 4-3 defensive end before switching to a 3-4 'backer this offseason and while the transition took a toll on his numbers early in the season, he's emerged of late and put up a monstrous outing this past week. If you have a spotty rotation at defensive line or, say, an injured stud like Robert Mathis, Hali makes for an impressive late addition.
Infirmary: Robert Mathis has missed practice all week with the quad injury that saw him leave early in last week's fracas with the Tennessee Titans, leaving his owners with an ill-timed statistical zero. Mathis hasn't practiced yet this week, so keep an eye on him, as he's a stud when active. ... Outside of keeper leagues I'd cut bait, if you haven't already, on Troy Polamalu and Eric Weddle. Polamalu almost certainly won't return, especially now that the Pittsburgh Steelers seem out of contention. ... St. Louis Rams safety and perennial fantasy stud O.J. Atogwe hit IR this week. He was a surefire starter in nearly any league that rosters multiple defensive backs, so consider some of the suggestions above as a salve to your injury woes. ... Minnesota Vikings middle man E.J. Henderson is also done for the season with a nasty leg injury. Jasper Brinkley steps in and while I can't endorse using a completely unknown commodity, he is worth keeping an eye on in deeper leagues and keeper formats, as Henderson's injury is, sadly, rumored to be of the career-threatening ilk.
The ROY from Troy: The defensive rookie of the year is going to be a USC product. For much of the season, Brian Cushing has paced the class with his stellar blend of contributions for the Houston Texans, but fellow Trojan Clay Matthews III is making a late bid for the award. To be honest, "Cush" pretty much has it wrapped up thanks to his impressive body of work, but Matthews is going to give him some competition as he finishes out the season with a torrid stretch that should see him tally double-digit sacks as a hybrid outside linebacker and defensive end for the Green Bay Packers.
Clint is in Session: Former Pitt Panther and current Colt Clint Session has been on a statistical rampage over the past five weeks, averaging more than 10 tackles per contest while notching three turnovers and a touchdown. The fantasy faithful are wise to Session's emergence as he's the most added defender in ESPN leagues this week. That said, dude is still available in more than 70 percent of leagues and makes for a compelling late-season addition.
IDP Rankings Week 14: The Top 10 linebackers, lineman 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).
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.