Defensive players have long been the faceless guys running around the stars like Adrian Petersen and Aaron Rodgers. Not any more to fantasy owners.
What was once a sub-culture amongst leagues has quickly emerged as a new, even essential, facet to fantasy football that could envelop plenty of leagues around the country.
Of course we are talking about defensive players (IDP officially the acronym, for now) and the impact they will have on fantasy teams this season and beyond. Teams are expanding beyond the typical offensive skill positions, and depending on your league, a few extra tackles from Houston defensive end J.J. Watt could swing your weekly matchup.
Scoring and rosters vary with each league, but tackles, sacks, interceptions, and return touchdowns are the usual measurements of a player’s worth to your defense. The most consistent play coming from linebackers like Carolina’s Luke Kuechly and Minnesota’s Chad Greenway, as both were league leaders in tackles last year.
Sacks and interceptions are great for points, but obviously happen at a much less frequent rate. Meaning Watt, while arguably the best all-around defender in the league, has less value on your fantasy defense than say Colts linebacker Jerrell Freeman (147 tackles in 2012). That is, unless, Watt can repeat his 20.5 sack performance from last season.
Consider Dallas’s DeMarcus Ware is the only player to lead the league in sacks twice over the last five seasons. Same goes for interceptions with safety Ed Reed totaling eight in 2010, and nine in 2008. Sacks and picks are great on points, but it's tough to predict who will lead from year-to-year.
But just like every other position, there are plenty of players that can anchor your defense and lift your team to the next level this season. Checkout a few sleepers below, with all of last year’s combined tackle totals.
Anthony Spencer, Dallas Cowboys (2012: 95 tackles, 11.0 sacks)
He got his big contract, which to some might seem like a red flag, but very few players have the potential to give you nearly 100 tackles and 10-plus sacks. That kind of balance is hard to find, and Spencer is not a marquee name outside of Dallas, so he could very well fall to you.
Tamba Hali, Kansas City Chiefs (2012: 51 tackles, 9.0 sacks)
Loading up on linebackers is the key, and Hali could easily be your third option. Depending on how many spots you have open and who is available he could also be a solid No. 2 if the Chiefs 27th ranked rush defense makes strides this year.
Akeem Ayers, Tennessee Titans (2012: 104 Tackles, 6.0 sacks)
Entering his third year, Ayers upped his tackles and sacks from his rookie season, and Tennessee defensive coordinator Jerry Gray has predicted a huge year. It might be a concern that the Titans are considering playing him at defensive end, so perhaps pair him with a more high volume tackler like the Rams James Laurinaitis.
Wesley Woodward, Denver Broncos (2012: 117 tackles, 5.5 sacks 3 INTs)
With Elvis Dumervil gone Woodward could see his role expanded, which would seem crazy considering he led the team in tackles and tied for the lead in interceptions. But Von Miller needs to keep his off-field issues under control, and if not, that weighs more on Woodward. He might be hard to steal, but if you grab him with your first pick, you can pair him with any of the above or below and be safe for the rest of the season.
Greg Hardy, DE, Carolina Panthers (2012: 61 tackles, 11.0 sacks)
Hardy only appeared in 11 games last season, but that makes his numbers even more eye-popping. Health is always a huge factor, but he’s entering a contract year which typically serves as the best motivation for every player.
Linval Joseph, DT, New York Giants (2012: 59 tackles, 4.0 sacks)
The Giants are still waiting for Jason Pierre-Paul to resume practicing after back surgery, even though they’re encouraged by his recent workout. Joseph is obviously not going to start bouncing outside for sacks, but should Pierre-Paul’s recovery spill into the regular season, there could be an expanded role for the former second round pick. Joseph was already tied for ninth amongst defensive lineman in combined tackles last year, but that number could shoot up.
Michael Johnson, DE Cincinnati Bengals (2012: 52 tackles, 11.5 sacks)
Great stat balance and with o-lines focused on Geno Atkins, Johnson could benefit once again. He had a breakout year with 11.5 sacks in 2012, and while that number might slip, he’s worth a late round pick.
Michael Griffin, Tennessee Titans (2012: 79 tackles, 4 INTs)
Think of defensive backs as running backs in PPR leagues. On a good day they can hit every category big. Tennessee’s defense needs help across the board, but Griffin has consistently posted 70-plus tackles for five straight years, and at least four picks in three of those years. He’s also never missed a game in his seven-year career.
Harrison Smith, Minnesota Vikings (2012: 104 tackles, 3 INTs, 2 TDs)
Smith can build on a terrific rookie year, and may emerge as the leader of a young Vikings secondary that ranked 24th overall against the pass.
Eric Weddle, San Diego Chargers (2012: 97 tackles, 3 INTs, 1 TD)
Out of a possible 96 regular season games, Weddle has missed just four. Also he’s snagged 10 of his career 16 interceptions over the last two seasons. He’s worth a shot as your final defensive pick.