To this point in the Individual Defensive Player (IDP) tutorial series at Fantasy Sharks, we’ve covered some basic IDP concepts and drafting strategies, and gone into a bit more detail regarding defensive linemen. Now, however, it’s time to let the proverbial big dogs eat, to take a look at the position that is the backbone of most IDP squads.
The reason why linebackers are the backbone of most IDP rosters is quite simple. On the vast majority of NFL teams, the leading tackler in a given week (or season) is going to be a linebacker. Those tackles equal not only fantasy production, but consistent fantasy production. Linebackers, or at least the right linebackers, aren’t nearly as likely to put up a dud week as defensive linemen or a defensive back, and that reliability makes high-end linebackers quite possibly the most valuable commodity in IDP.
(Besides J.J. Watt. I wrote that so he won’t beat me to death with his pinky finger. He could, you know.)
So, what makes a high-end fantasy linebacker? I’m glad you asked! (Mostly because if you hadn’t, I’d have had to fill space by discussing my theory that the North Korean missile threat and a spike in sales of Mentos and Diet Pepsi are related. It totally is, by the way.)
It used to be, that when searching for a stud linebacker to anchor your IDP team, conventional wisdom said that search should begin and end with a middle linebacker in a 4-3 front, such as Luke Kuechly (Carolina).
There are still plenty of 4-3 MIKE linebackers with strong fantasy value, including Kuechly and James Laurinaitis (St. Louis), but in recent years those tables have turned somewhat. The top linebacker in Fantasy Sharks Default IDP Scoring in 2012, Daryl Washington (Arizona), plays WILB in a 3-4 defense (in other words, the inside linebacker on the opposite side of the formation from the tight end).
In fact, among the Top 10 fantasy linebackers a season ago, there were three 4-3 middle linebackers, three 3-4 WILB, two 4-3 strong side linebackers, a 4-3 weak side linebacker, and even a 3-4 “rush” outside linebacker. A 3-4 SILB (San Francisco’s NaVorro Bowman) was 11th.
In other words, while many of the “tackle vacuum” linebackers play the MIKE spot (middle linebacker in a 4-3, WILB in a 3-4), it’s hardly set in stone those positions have the most IDP value. It can vary depending on team, scheme and personnel. The days of a simple “flow chart” that says “4-3 middle linebacker is better than 3-4 WILB, which is better than 4-3 WLB, blah blah blah” are essentially toast. It’s not that cut-and-dried any more.
Before I go on, a note about the term “tackle vacuum.” That’s a turn of phrase used to describe linebackers that are excellent bets to top 90 solo tackles and go well higher than 100 total stops on the season.
An IDP league’s scoring can have a big impact here, but, generally speaking, if you play in a tackle heavy or balanced scoring format, these are the guys you want, rather than “big play” types such as Aldon Smith (San Francisco).
The reason for that is that consistency I alluded to earlier. Sure, there are exceptions (again with the exceptions! Will they never cease tormenting me!), but for the most part “big play” linebackers who rely heavily on sacks for fantasy production are streaky. With defensive linemen and defensive backs already inherently so, loading up on such linebackers can leave you with a defensive roster that goes supernova one week and then completely disappears the next.
It’s sometime possible to have your cake and eat it, too (Washington tallied nine sacks last year to go with more than 130 tackles, and Denver sackmaster Von Miller has posted at least 50 solos in each of his two NFL seasons), but it’s more exception than rule, and not something I’d personally want to bet my season on.
Even in big-play heavy leagues I prefer at least one of my starters at linebacker (and often two if I can start three) to be Hoovers. I want some consistency from my defensive scoring, and big-tackle linebackers are your best bet at getting it.