If you’ve played fantasy football for any length of time, then you’ve probably heard the term “positional scarcity.” Long story short, positional scarcity ties a player’s value (or at least some of it) to the number of quality starting options at that position.
It’s why running backs are more valuable than quarterbacks. There’s no issue finding 12 viable weekly starters under center, but once you get toward the bottom of the Top 20 (and beyond) in the backfield things can get a little dicey.
Well, the same holds true on the defensive side of the ball. There’s one position in particular where the pool of available talent is shallower, whereby the time you get into the bottom half of the second weekly starters consistent fantasy production can be hard to come by.
That position is the defensive line. And by knowing that – and securing two (or even three) weekly starters you’re reasonably confident in rolling out there each week – you can give yourself a nice little edge over the competition.
Before we go any farther, let’s just get this out of the way. Step 1 in this strategy is realizing that defensive backs are both plentiful and unpredictable. There are a handful of elite weekly starters like the New York Giants’ Landon Collins and Miami’s Reshad Jones. And an argument can be made for drafting one. But after that there’s a deep second tier and then an even deeper third one.
The secondary doesn’t have to be a priority on draft day. In fact, in most formats it shouldn’t be. You can wait, grab a second-tier DB1 and pair them with a late dart throw. If the first dart doesn’t hit the target the waiver wire holds any number of others.
Given that, the temptation for many Individual Defensive Player (IDP) league owners is to load up at linebacker, especially in scoring systems that tend toward tackle-heavy. Depending on just how tackle-heavy that scoring is it might be the right course of action (know your scoring folks), and I’m certainly not dismissing the importance of “anchor” linebackers – of my Top 25 IDPs in 2017, 15 are linebackers. Having one (or two, depending on your lineup requirements) trustworthy tackle vacuums as the foundation of your defensive team is paramount.
For the majority of IDP teams this year, their first defensive pick will be a linebacker.
But when it comes to the back end of the weekly starters, the numbers point to the defensive line as being more important. You’re better off with the No. 24 (or even No. 36) linebacker in your lineup than the No. 24 defensive lineman.
The chart below demonstrates that fact.
In 2016, the dropoff from the top defensive lineman (Oakland’s Khalil Mack) and the 24th-ranked one (Denver’s Derek Wolfe) in Fantasy Sharks Default IDP Scoring was 66 fantasy points. Meanwhile, the drop from 1-24 at linebacker was 43 fantasy points. The drop from 1-36 was 57 fantasy points.
Not a huge difference. But a difference nonetheless.
Ditto for 2015. The top defensive lineman (Houston’s J.J. Watt) outscored No. 24 (Denver’s Malik Jackson) by 75.5 fantasy points. The gap from 1-24 at linebacker was 56 points. From 1-36 it was 72 points.
It’s also worth noting that the No. 1 guy along the defensive line out-paced the runner-up by an average of 24 fantasy points over that span. The gap between the top linebacker and No. 2 was less than half that amount.
The thing is, it doesn’t take a fancy chart to really hammer this point home. All I have to do is glance at my own IDP Rankings here at Fantasy Sharks to be convinced to hit the defensive line relatively early on draft day this year.
Assuming a league where fantasy owners start three linebackers each week (a common format), there are a handful of players ranked outside my Top 40 who are decent bets to at the very least function as viable third starters.
Players like Pittsburgh’s Vince Williams, Indianapolis’ Sean Spence, Los Angeles Chargers’ Denzel Perryman and Baltimore’s Kamalei Correa might not be household names, but many are already well-known to IDP pundits. Young players in favorable situations on the verge of a potential breakout season.
It’s a different story on the defensive line – and not in a good way.
This isn’t to say there aren’t a couple guys ranked outside the Top 25 who I think have some upside. If New England’s Trey Flowers can build on his hot finish last year or Cleveland’s Emmanuel Ogbah has the second season I believe he’s capable of, they both could work their way into starting lineups.
But we aren’t even out of the Top 20 before we hit players that are either streaky, face substantial question marks this year, or both. Let’s put it this way – I like Miami’s Cameron Wake as much as the next guy. He’ll have a couple of monster weeks. But he’s also apt to need a cup of coffee to go with all his doughnuts.
It’s left me in something of uncharted territory in 2017. In previous years, 90 percent of the time at least three of my first four defensive picks would be linebackers. Maybe all of them. But this year I find myself “splitting” a lot of the time. Two picks each at linebacker and the defensive front. Bookends all around.
In fact, as often as not I’m grabbing a third lineman before some teams have their second. I’m that much more confident I can find value later at linebacker and in the secondary.