Finding Success in IDP Fantasy Football Leagues

By Gary Davenport

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The Denver Broncos didn’t win Super Bowl 50 because of their offense. Sure, the team has a great wide receiver tandem in Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas, but Peyton Manning alternated between serviceable and awful in 2015. The run game was erratic, too.

No, the Broncos won the Super Bowl because of linebacker Von Miller, cornerback Aqib Talib, coordinator Wade Phillips and the NFL’s best defense. It may sound cliché, but it’s as true now as ever – defense wins championships.

And that makes it all the more mind-bending that defense is an afterthought in many fantasy football leagues. You pick a team defense late in your draft, they score you a handful of points each week, and the moment they even appear to falter it’s off to the scrap heap they go.

However, if you’re reading this you’re at least considering righting that injustice. Restoring order and balance to the universe.

You’re playing in a league that uses Individual Defensive Players. Giving the defense their due. Adding a whole new dimension to the fantasy football experience.

And whether this is your first IDP league or your 31st, here are some tips and players to bear in mind as draft day nears.


It seems like a no-brainer, but it never ceases to amaze me how many IDP owners tank their seasons right out of the gate by not understanding their league’s scoring and roster requirements.

How do the top scoring IDPs fare relative to their offensive counterparts? If the top defensive players score on par with a WR3, that’s one thing. If they score on par with a WR1, that’s another altogether.

Does your league start only a few IDPs or a full defensive lineup? The more your league tilts toward the former the longer you can wait to draft defenders. But if your league starts several IDPs, hesitate too long and the player pool could run dry.

It’s also vital to know what type of IDP league you’re in scoring-wise, which can be determined by examining the ratio between solo tackles and “big plays” (sacks, interceptions, etc.)

If that ratio is less than 3-to-1 (say tackles are worth 1.5 points and sacks are worth 4) then you’re in a tackle-heavy IDP league. In that format high-volume “tackle vacuums” like Indianapolis Colts linebacker D’Qwell Jackson rule the roost.

If the ratio is greater than 4-to-1 (say tackles are worth 1 point and sacks are worth 5), then you are playing in a big play-heavy format. In those leagues rush linebackers like Miller and cornerbacks like Talib who rack up interceptions get a value boost.

Then there are balanced IDP leagues, where the ratio falls between 3-to-1 and 4-to-1. In those leagues the safer bet is to lean toward the high-tackle types, but mixing in a high-upside sack artist can make for some huge weekly scores.

For the purpose of this article, we’re going to work under two assumptions. The first is a scoring format that is the tackle-heavy side of balanced (a ratio of about 3-to-1 between stops and big plays). The second is a defensive lineup that calls for two defensive linemen, two linebackers, two defensive backs and a “flex” spot. The majority of IDP leagues feature similar scoring and lineup requirements.


Along the defensive front, the name of the game is scarcity. There just aren’t that many truly reliable weekly fantasy options – a dozen or so, tops. And assuming that your IDP league starts at least two players at the position that means someone is going to get left out in the cold.

Don’t be that team. Be prepared to spend an early IDP pick on at least one defensive lineman you can plug in with confidence on a weekly basis. Ideally the plan is to pair a high-floor option like Calais Campbell of the Arizona Cardinals (who makes up for relatively low sack numbers with strong tackle production) with an upside play like Jason Pierre-Paul of the New York Giants or Brandon Graham of the Philadelphia Eagles – a player you hope will tally 12+ sacks on the season.

The king of the defensive linemen (and the top IDP overall) is unquestionably J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans. There isn’t a position on offense or defense where the gap between No. 1 and No. 2 is as wide as the canyon separating Watt and every defensive lineman who isn’t him. In the Deathmatch IDP league at Fantasy Sharks, Watt outscored the runner-up on the DL (Ezekiel Ansah of the Detroit Lions) by five fantasy points per game in 2015.

But if you want Watt he’s going to cost you. In fact, if your league offers IDPs any real weight Watt is well worth consideration with the first overall pick. If you can somehow land him in any round that isn’t the first, pull the trigger without hesitation. You just committed robbery.

SLEEPER: Mario Williams – DE, Miami Dolphins: After a disastrous 2015 season that led to his departure from Buffalo, Dolphins DC Vance Joseph told the team’s website Williams is eager to recapture his “Super Mario” form. “Mario, in my opinion, he’s motivated,” Joseph said. “When he’s motivated, he’s pretty good.” Prior to last year the 31-year-old Williams had posted three straight top-15 seasons. Not bad for a player with an early ADP at My Fantasy League of DL25.

SLEEPER: Rob Ninkovich – DE, New England Patriots: Another veteran player whose numbers were down in 2015, Ninkovich is a prime example of the high-floor fantasy option on the DL I mentioned. All Ninkovich has to do to provide fantasy owners with great value as a DL2 available for a DL3 price tag is match last year’s “disappointing” production. With Chandler Jones now in Arizona and Nink set for a bigger snap count in 2016, odds are he does even better.


In the overwhelming majority of IDP leagues, linebackers form the foundation of your defensive unit. Not only are they often the highest-scoring defensive players (especially in tackle-heavy systems), but they are easily the most consistent.

Given that, as well as the fact that nine times out of 10 the “flex” spot in IDP leagues are going to be filled with a linebacker, the position should be an early priority for fantasy owners. A good rule of thumb for novice IDP drafters is this – two of you first three defensive picks should be linebackers, with the third selection being one of those dependable defensive linemen I mentioned. The order might vary, but whether it’s LB/LB/DL, DL/LB/LB or LB/DL/LB it’s a trio that will provide a good base for your defense.

So when is it time to start drafting IDPs? Well, given the varying lineup requirements, scoring systems and the vagaries of individual leagues, that’s a loaded question. The easy answer is this – if you’re new to IDP let the first few players come off the board before you worry about addressing that side of the ball. Sure, it’s nice to have Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly on your squad, but the earth won’t split in two if you don’t.

SLEEPER: Jordan Hicks – MLB, Philadelphia Eagles: The Eagles thought enough of Hicks’ play as a rookie to trade away Kiko Alonso in the offseason, and the youngster told he’s determined not to let new DC Jim Schwartz down. “I’ve always been one when I’ve been on the field to take control naturally,” Hicks said. “It’s just the position I’ve always put myself in and felt comfortable taking on.” There’s top-10 upside to be had here with a player coming off the board in mid-range LB2 territory.

SLEEPER: Kiko Alonso – MLB, Miami Dolphins: Speaking of Alonso, the 25-year-old now finds himself on his third team in as many years and recovering from his second torn ACL. Durability is a very real concern, but he told the team’s website he’s healthy entering 2016. “I’m just trying to just keep improving and get back to myself,” Alonso said. The fourth-year veteran has shown the ability to produce like an elite fantasy option, and with an ADP of LB40 Alonso’s knee is well worth a roll of the dice.


In 2015, Miami Dolphins strong safety Reshad Jones rode 106 solo tackles (second in the NFL) to the top finish among all defensive players in most scoring systems. That may make what I’m about to tell you seem a little odd.

You don’t want any part of having Jones on your fantasy team in 2016. Or any “elite” defensive back, for that matter.

From an IDP standpoint, defensive backs are two things. The first is unpredictable – the number of people who pegged Jones for that top finish last year numbers exactly zero. The top 10 to end each season almost always looks nothing like the “experts” predictions.

The second thing defensive backs are is plentiful. There will absolutely be high-end DBs who will fall flat on their faces – and they will be easily replaced by the handful of defensive backs who come from nowhere to emerge as weekly fantasy starters.

The strategy then in the secondary is easy – wait to draft defensive backs. And then wait. And then wait some more. Use that draft capital on other positions. Grab upside plays late. And if they don’t pan out, who cares? There will be plenty of low-hanging fruit on the waiver wire.

SLEEPER: Ibraheim Campbell – SS, Cleveland Browns: Campbell told he’s ready for his turn in the starting lineup in 2016. “One thing that I learned early on in this league is you have to be ready for any opportunity that you get and take full advantage of it,” Campbell said, “so I always made sure that I was prepared to step in to a starting role whenever I had to.” IDP owners should be ready for the youngster to rack up stops at the back end of a Cleveland defense that’s going to be spending a ton of time on the field this year.

SLEEPER: Clayton Geathers – SS, Indianapolis Colts: Like Campbell, Geathers is a young safety being asked to take on a much larger role in 2016. Head coach Chuck Pagano told ESPN he likes what he’s seen from the second-year pro in camp. “Clayton is doing a great job and he’s communicating really well back there with Mike,” Pagano said. “He doesn’t make mental errors. He’s a very conscientious guy, and he’s a talented guy. He’s gotten himself in really good shape, looks faster, looks rangier, twitchier. He’s making nice plays.” A poster child for waiting at the position – loads of upside available on the cheap.