While still a smaller subculture of the larger fantasy football landscape, playing with individual defensive players, or IDPs, instead of relying on a team defense, is a steadily growing and increasingly passionate segment of the hobby. Experienced "standard" fantasy football enthusiasts are giving IDP a try as a means to differentiate their game play -- they often never look back. With that in mind, this position preview is designed to introduce investors to the developing 2016 market for individual defenders. Let's go position by position to help you navigate the market for defensive talent.
In order to provide some scoring context and clarity, below you'll find our default scoring key. Tackles are still the primary coin of the realm, but you'll also find we reward big plays handsomely, as sacks and turnovers often produce sizable win percentage and momentum gains for NFL teams.
Solo tackle (1.5)
Assisted tackle (0.75)
Forced fumble (4)
Fumble recovery (4)
Pass defended (1.5)
Blocked kick (4)
A sound draft strategy would include netting at least one top-15 linebacker from your pre-draft rankings, while seeking out value with the rest of your linebacker corps into later rounds. Once you have a cornerstone tackle machine in place, the overall depth at the linebacker position should allow for greater resource allocation to the shallower and more variant positions of defensive back and on the line.
Cool hand Luke Kuechly led the position in fantasy points per play (minimum, 500 snaps) last season, while no NFL player has more total tackles or tackles per game since Kuechly joined the league in 2012. ... Kuechly's draft class peer Lavonte David leads all linebackers in solos and ranks second in interceptions, fifth in pass breakups and 13th in forced fumbles since joining the league in 2012. Consider him a quality consolation prize to Carolina's superstar middle man.
The Rams' Alec Ogletree is replacing James Laurinaitis, who led all linebackers in snaps last season. Even more promising? Ogletree was third among linebackers in fantasy points per snap during an abbreviated 2015. ... The league's leading tackler last season, NaVorro Bowman, is now poised to potentially lead the league in snaps. The Eagles' Malcolm Jenkins did so last year in Chip Kelly's breakneck scheme. Given he's another year removed from a serious knee injury, this every-down enforcer is entirely elite. ... The Pats' Jamie Collins is also a big-play maven with triple-digit tackle upside, as he forced a franchise-record and league-high five fumbles in addition to a career-best 5.5 sacks in just 12 games last season.
Unearthing late-round gems remains one of the most rewarding elements of building a fantasy roster. From a potential bust at safety to breakout linebacker, the Rams' Mark Barron was 10th at the position in tackles per game once he took over starting duties in Week 7 last season. ... Another first-rounder looking to make good on the hype is the Steelers' Ryan Shazier. This freakish athlete in a league full of special specimens rates in the 98th percentile in vertical leap and 96th in broad jump among NFL linebacker prospects since 1999. ... The Falcons were clearly looking for more speed on defense in the draft, as Deion Jones flashed sub-4.4 jets at LSU's Pro Day. If Jones can gain some weight in the offseason and endure every-down work in the NFL, we could be looking at the top rookie IDP asset come December.
Danny Trevathan is a gifted playmaker with natural gravity to the ball. Durability concerns from his days in Denver are legitimate, but risk seems to be baked into his price tag. Trevathan was second only to Kuechly among linebackers in fantasy points per play last season (min. 600 snaps). ... Similarly, the Eagles' Mychal Kendricks' per-game production over his career extrapolates to 100 tackles, four sacks and four turnovers if he can play a full season.
The Texans' Brian Cushing is fine for depth in deep leagues and as a streaming asset into the season, but I'm avoiding him as a fantasy starter given a lack of big plays and enduring durability concerns. ... The Broncos' Von Miller had one of the best Super Bowl performances of all time, but his sack-dependent fantasy profile produces some dangerously lean outings at a position that demands a high floor. ... San Diego's Manti Te'o is mostly an early-down enforcer with little upside on a front seven already providing real competition for snaps at the position.
Secondary is notorious for being the most fickle of defensive positions. Playmaking safeties remain the most sound of secondary investments as a general investing principle, with a handful of tackle-heavy corners mixed in. The ideal strategy in leagues that roster multiple defensive backs might just be to pursue one of the increasingly rare box strong safeties to go along with a ball-hawking centerfielder type.
The Dolphins' Reshad Jones was fourth in the entire league in tackles last season and fourth overall among NFL defenders in fantasy points per game. With an elite box safety's tackle rate and the playmaking upside of a rangy free safety, this dual-threat asset should be the first defensive back off the board heading into the new season. ... 1B to Jones would be the Cardinals' Tyrann Mathieu, aka "The Honey Badger." The sweet part about investing in Mathieu is the rare combination of a high floor and a cathedral ceiling for production at an often-fickle fantasy position. Mathieu was second only to Jones in fantasy points per snap last season while posting a rewarding 89 percent unassisted tackle rate.
The Packers' Morgan Burnett battled injuries last season, yet was still top 25 in per-game fantasy output and produced at least seven tackles in seven of 11 games last season. Burnett leads all defensive backs in tackles per game (7.4) over the past four seasons. ... With multiple top-five fantasy finishes to his name, Harrison Smith earned an historic payday this offseason as one of the league's truly elite coverage safeties. ... New Orleans' Kenny Vaccaro acquired experience at corner in college, which helps this former Longhorn blend capable coverage abilities with stellar run support skills.
Go big with your depth at defensive back; playing it safe with a veteran safety isn't nearly as rewarding as going after the breakout candidates. Kenny Vaccaro is one to consider. Experience at corner in college helps this former Longhorn blend capable coverage abilities with stellar run support skills. After a breakout 2015, this versatile strong safety has emerged as a legitimate DB1. ... With 10.5 sacks and five picks in his final two seasons for USC, it is clear Su'a Cravens could become a fantasy star right away as an aggressive box safety.
It's rare to see a former fantasy superstar entering his 10th season merit sleeper status, but Eric Weddle qualifies as he joins the Ravens after a disappointing final campaign for the Bolts. We're expecting a big bounce-back as the ball-hawking center fielder for the Ravens' secondary. ... Dallas' defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli deployed Byron Jones all over the secondary as a rookie - earning invaluable reps and a spot as the club's full-time free safety heading into the new season. ... Highlighting a professional freshman with real upside, rookie Keanu Neal claims favorable similarity scores as a prospect to the Cardinals' versatile safety/linebacker hybrid Deone Bucannon. On an Atlanta defense in need of physicality in the secondary, Neal should see the field right away.
While there are some rare exceptions, I generally avoid the top cover corners. The true stoppers, such as Darrelle Revis and Richard Sherman, are often avoided by opposing signal-callers who choose to forgo throwing to their side of the field for more favorable coverage scenarios.
Much like the tailback market, the shift from trusted commodities to troubling options shifts quickly in drafts. I'm most confident building from two bankable linemen as my top two IDP picks, as linebacker and the secondary always prove deeper. The elite It's often wise to build an entire starting offensive roster before dipping into the IDP market in a draft, but J.J. Watt is the clear exception. Watt not only led the NFL in sacks and social media impressions in 2015, he also paced the position in fantasy points for third time in four seasons. Still in the prime of a Canton-bound career, drafting Watt as the Rob Gronkowski of the defensive side -- as in well above his positional peers -- appears completely reasonable given the gap he affords investors over the crowd.
In is his sophomore NFL season; the Raiders' Khalil Mack became the first player ever voted All-Pro first team at two positions (defensive end and outside linebacker) en route to becoming Watt's lone peer in the elite fantasy tier at the position. Mack's emergence as an elite pass rusher who spends plenty of snaps with his hand in the ground has closed the once massive gap between Watt and his next closest position peer. The Texans' No. 99 outscored the No. 2 defensive lineman in fantasy production by 57 percent in 2014, while Mack finished just 15 percent behind Watt in fantasy points this past season.
Robert Quinn's abbreviated 2015 included multiple injuries, leading to a disappointing statistical campaign last fall, but this All-Pro talent was still fourth in fantasy points per snap among linemen and has produced 40 percent more forced fumbles per game than any other lineman since 2013. ... Quinn's linemate Aaron Donald not only fills me with Pitt pride, he's become a coveted commodity thanks to rating fifth in total sacks over the past two seasons while producing stellar tackle rates.
Carlos Dunlap ranked fifth in sacks per snap last season among linemen in 2015 and sits fourth in total sacks at the position over the past two seasons. This speedster is not only a natural fit for a tire endorsement, he's also an entirely bankable fantasy commodity. ... Even if his ADP peers play more snaps, Ansah is particularly elite when it comes to fantasy efficiency, as he led the league in sacks and fantasy points per snap (minimum, 300 snaps) and produced a rewarding 83 percent unassisted tackle rate in 2015.
An ideal edge menace for Jim Schwartz' Wide 9 scheme, Brandon Graham's blend of tackles, sacks and forced fumbles as an outside linebacker last season would have been good for 14th at defensive line in fantasy points. Similarly, despite topping out at just 22 tackles in a season, Vinny Curry's big-play upside - he was second in the league in forced fumbles 2014 - is undeniable in this fantasy-friendly formation. ... Chandler Jones could thrive in the desert as an every-down outside edge rusher for James Bettcher's aggressive 3-4 scheme. With double-digit sack production in two of the past three seasons and entering a pivotal contract year, the ingredients for another big season are in place.
For a cheaper sleeper commodity, consider the Patriots' Jabaal Sheard. Sheard ranked seventh in fantasy points per snap and 16th in sacks per snap among NFL linemen and finished the 2015 regular season on fire, with four sacks and three forced fumbles in the final four games. Even if he remains a specialist for New England, we'll likely see some solid DL2 performances from the former first-round pick. ... Stashing Dallas' DeMarcus Lawrence in deeper formats during his suspension could pay off, as his pass-rush arsenal continues to improve.
A fantasy maxim you can actionably deploy: avoid any costly boom-or-bust pass-rushers as much as possible. The one-trick pass-rush ponies can be fun in the fruitful weeks that include multiple sacks, but there's also great potential for frustratingly lean outings when they don't get to the pocket.