Another fall of football is coming soon to a stadium -- or couch -- near you. Maybe just as noteworthy is that another fun, stressful and nerdy campaign of fantasy football is en route, as well. The page has turned to 2013, and it's time to pore over rankings, spend a few hundred hours mock drafting (slight exaggeration) and essentially turn our brains into football sponges.
In this positional preview, we'll look to prepare you to navigate the market for defensive talent for the upcoming season. As a helpful reference for this guide, please peruse our top-150 IDP rankings.
We often identify linebackers, especially middle men in the mold of recently retired legends Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher, as team leaders. Likewise, in fantasy, linebackers -- namely the top inside talents -- are often viewed as the pacesetters for defensive rosters. At their best, Lewis and Urlacher provided fantasy investors with an amazing blend of tackles and turnovers. It's not just the big names, however, that are capable of prolific production, as this is the deepest of all defensive positions for fantasy purposes. And for good reason, as 'backers are tasked with such a diverse set of roles, from rushing the passer to stopping the run and working in pass coverage.
Opportunity for statistical contribution knocks on nearly every snap for a stud three-down linebacker. To put the position in context with offensive counterparts, in a scoring format that rewards solo tackles with a full point, an elite 'backer can mimic the production of a high-end No. 2 wideout or tailback. In terms of roster construction, it's wise to pursue middle and weakside linebackers from 4-3 schemes (think of James Laurinaitis and Sean Lee as prime examples) and some choice inside linebackers in a 3-4 look (San Francisco's duo of Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman fit the mold). There are some prominent examples of productive outside linebackers in 3-4 systems, such as Aldon Smith and Clay Matthews, but it's generally prudent to avoid players in such roles given the tendency for sack-or-bust outings.
In a league with two or three linebacker spots -- or even a defensive flex position -- a sound draft strategy would include netting at least one top-15 linebacker from your pre-draft rankings and then seek out value with the rest of your linebacker corps into the later rounds. It's true that linebackers are quite productive in most formats, but don't feel hard-pressed to apportion multiple early draft picks at the position when such profound depth has been found on a yearly basis into the later tiers. I'd still want to get some studs in the stable, but this can still be accomplished while also paying mind to the shallower and more fickle positions, such as defensive line and defensive backs.
It's safe to say that there are a number of top talents to consider at this uniquely deep position. In our current IDP rankings, 15 of the top 20 overall defenders are linebackers. Much like how the markets for quarterbacks and wideouts are shaping up to be quite deep heading into the new fantasy season, linebacker is proving to be especially rich in talent for 2013.
The cream of this cash crop is, indisputably, Luke Kuechly, who capably transitioned from college legend to professional tackling machine this past season. Expecting 170 total tackles from the sophomore sensation is actually reasonable -- which is conversely just silly -- but expect Kuechly's price tag in drafts to come at a midround premium, at which most managers are still primarily focused on acquiring starting offensive contributors. The drop from Kuechly to the next batch of stud 'backers isn't very significant, as the aforementioned Laurinaitis, Lee, Willis and Bowman all qualify as elite-caliber commodities. These guys really do it all, providing a weekly batch of gaudy statistics across the board. In order to establish a more specific framework for this elite tier at the position, I'd consider any of the top 12 linebackers in our rankings worthy of the distinction.
Digging for late-round gems remains one of the most entertaining and rewarding aspects of drafting a fantasy roster. Continuing on this recurrent theme of obscene depth at linebacker, you can afford to wait and still net some compelling impact talents in the later rounds.
If you don't invest in your first linebacker until, say, No. 16 and No. 17 are already off the board, you could still realistically acquire a tandem of worthy starting talents. Use the depth at the position to your advantage by seeking out promising young middle linebackers such as Colin McCarthy and Mason Foster. … There are also a number of veteran 'backers who could prove particularly profitable, namely Wesley Woodyard and Bruce Carter. … In terms of the freshman class, Manti Te'o could prove to be a nice two-down tackle machine in San Diego, but I'm more excited to see Arthur Brown flash in Baltimore and Alec Ogletree's three-down upside in St. Louis. … If you can afford to stash him for the first month, Arizona's Daryl Washington could immediately be a top-five option at the position after he returns from suspension. … K.J. Wright can get lost in the shuffle a bit on a supremely deep and talented Seattle defense, but don't let him slip too late in drafts, as he's capable of producing LB2 numbers at a dramatic discount in drafts.
As much as it pains me to say this, I can no longer champion Carolina's Jon Beason as an annual bounce-back candidate. At his healthy best, Beason was a remarkable fantasy contributor, but considerable durability concerns and a new role on the outside of the defense could spell the end of the glory days from a fantasy perspective. … Even though they can accumulate a healthy number of sacks and momentum-shifting big plays, 3-4 outside linebackers can be fool's gold, in many cases, as fantasy commodities. The premise is that they are often deployed in a somewhat similar fashion to traditional defensive ends, with a priority on applying pressure to the pocket, a gig that doesn't lend itself well to consistent tackle production. Some relevant examples are Justin Houston and Tamba Hali from Kansas City, a dangerous duo of pass-rushers who rightfully earn respect for their impact on opposing pockets but not always in ways (hurries, pressure and hits) recognized as fantasy currency.
The secondary is notorious for being the most fickle of defensive positions. It's not uncommon to see a good deal of turnover at the top of the defensive back rankings from season to season, making the handful of truly consistent producers quite valuable. Playmaking safeties remain the most sound of secondary investments as a somewhat general rule, although a handful of worthy corners factor into the upper echelon.
A prudent approach to the position could be to pair a hard-hitting, in-the-box safety like LaRon Landry or Roman Harper, with a playmaking dynamo like Eric Berry or Jairus Byrd. Such a combination could serve to provide steady tackle production each week with the possibility of some rewarding big plays mixed in. Given how shallow and unpredictable this position has proven to be over the years, I suggest you allocate significant attention and draft coin to top secondary talents, especially before investing in depth at linebacker.
Chicago's Charles "Peanut" Tillman is a true rarity: a cornerback who produces elite fantasy numbers every autumn. There are some stout safeties in the game, like Oakland's Tyvon Branch, who can be deployed almost as pseudo-linebacker and can turn in strong weekly totals and 100-tackle seasons with regularity. These dudes are valuable thanks to the weekly consistency of their strong play in the box and their volume tackles in the box score. But the most-valuable secondary commodity is undeniably the "super safety," a rare breed that can net you triple-digit tackles but also find a way to contribute multiple turnovers, passes defended and even the odd sack or touchdown during the course of the campaign. Green Bay's Morgan Burnett is the current torchbearer for the archetype, but Berry, Byrd and William Moore all qualify, as well. … Eric Weddle is turning in a quietly special career so far in San Diego, and he might just be the most-trusted source at the entire position given his established statistical résumé.
It almost feels like a great two-for-one deal when you land great value on a productive sleeper at a shallow position. With your later-round picks and discretionary depth, roll the dice on some potential-laden secondary guys before you worry too much about depth at otherwise deep positions like wide receiver or linebacker. … Glover Quin could shine for Detroit in a role suited for his skills as a disruptive force in the passing the lanes. … Entering what has been a fertile role from a fantasy perspective for several seasons, Buffalo's Da'Norris Searcy might be my favorite sleeper in all of fantasy heading into the season. … Cleveland's T.J. Ward is a bruiser in the mold of Branch, who could return to his former glory as a tackle machine this season for the Browns if he can stay on the field. … Just for his playmaking pedigree alone, Earl Thomas could turn in a big season playing on such a disruptive and aggressive defense.
I tend to avoid the aging and injured in the secondary, especially given just how physically demanding and dynamic the roles are in this modern NFL. This includes putting Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu on my "no dice list" this season. Both are prolific playmakers at their best, and while Polamalu could have more in the tank than Reed, the inherent injury risk is simply too present and great to dismiss. … While there are some rare exceptions, avoid the top cover corners. The true stoppers, like Darrelle Revis, are often avoided by opposing signal-callers who choose to forgo throwing to his side of the field for more favorable coverage scenarios.
This position is somewhat similar to the state of running backs heading into 2013; the shift from trusted producers to troubling and inconsistent commodities comes pretty quickly, as defensive line is traditionally quite shallow. Don't be afraid to make a splash with a big lineman as your first defender, as the other positions will allow you some freedom to recover in the later rounds. I've been in a few IDP drafts already this year (sort of sad, but very true), and I've done well taking two linemen to start my defensive roster and working on secondary and linebacker later into the draft.
A number of standout ends in a 3-4 system are getting much more shine these days, and for good reason, as guys like Justin Smith and Calais Campbell emerged as impact defenders over the past several seasons. These 3-4 ends can provide steady tackle totals, as they are tasked with containing the run and interior work more often than true 4-3 ends. True 4-3 ends, meanwhile, like Jared Allen and what should be an exciting transition to the position for DeMarcus Ware, are there to rack up the sacks, pressures, hurries and hits on the quarterback, even if it means they are taken out of run support on a majority of snaps. Impact defensive tackles are truly rare and are invaluable in leagues that specifically roster the tackle position, but only the special few (Geno Atkins, Haloti Ngata) merit attention from investors.
As a general rule, I like to build my entire offensive roster -- or get quite close to doing so -- before I draft my first defender. An exception can always be made for J.J. Watt, however, as he proved to be the most dominant contributor in all of fantasy when you consider just how dramatically he outclassed his peers in 2012 (and yes, this includes what Adrian Peterson and Calvin Johnson accomplished last season). With position scarcity being a real factor to consider, you would do well to place a premium on getting at least one stud lineman from the top seven in our rankings. … Among this elite top seven is Carolina's Greg Hardy, who might just be the best value at the position given the gap between his proficient production and his reputation as a premier edge-rusher.
Cliff Avril didn't get the big dough he dreamed of this offseason, but he did land in an ideal scenario in Seattle. Playing in front of the league's best secondary, in addition to some talented 'backers, should afford Avril the freedom to pin his ears back and hunt the pocket with regularity. This same system saw Chris Clemons emerge as a premier pass-rusher, and Avril might just be next. … Rob Ninkovich plays all over the field in what is almost a Mike Vrabel 2.0 role for the Patriots. This versatile role led to some respectable numbers in 2012, and the pricing remains reasonable on the dynamic vet. … The second season as a true defensive end for Tennessee's Kamerion Wimbley could see him finally gain some traction and turn hurries and pressures into sacks, and thus, fantasy points.
It's a fantasy truism you're better off employing: try to avoid the dramatic boom-or-bust pass-rushers as best possible. The one-trick pass-rush ponies can be fun when started 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. As an example, Cincinnati's Carlos Dunlap is a really fun edge-rusher to watch when he's on his game and thriving in favorable down-and-distance scenarios. Dunlap is capable of producing double-digit sacks in a season but with some absurdly paltry tackle production thanks to his limited snaps and specialized role as a third-down rusher.