There aren’t any hard and fast rules to fantasy drafts, especially in IDP leagues. Each draft really has its own character. So if you go in with a rigid plan, you’re essentially locking yourself in a box and limiting your potential to exploit your opponents’ mistakes.
Fantasy drafts are a lot like improvisational jazz. You don’t necessary know where you going to end when you start. You just have to know how to play the right notes. In fantasy drafts those pitch perfect notes are value picks.
While you don’t want to script your draft, there are a few strategies you can look to employ that will help you build a strong fantasy squad.
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1. Know your league settings.
This may sound obvious, but folks overlook their league settings on a far too frequent basis. While it’s good advice for any fantasy league, it’s especially important to be keenly aware of your scoring system and roster requirements in IDP leagues.
IDP leagues come in all shapes and sizes. Some leagues slide just one IDP flex spot into the roster, while others require you to field a full 11-man IDP squad. However, most IDP leagues lie somewhere in between. Knowing just how many defensive players you start is vital to your draft strategy, as you’ll need to key certain positions at specific points in the draft. More about that later.
Just like on the offensive side of the ball, IDP owners also need a strong familiarity with scoring settings and how these settings impact IDP fantasy production. The first thing you need to figure out is the relative value of IDPs to offensive players. The easiest way to do so is look at your tackle scoring. If solo tackles are valued at one point, then your IDPs won’t produce comparable fantasy points to the output on the offensive side of the ball.
I know a lot of leagues like to score solos this way, but if you look at IDP production at the end of the season, the top defensive players are often on par with kickers. I don’t know about you, but that just doesn’t sit well with me. That’s why I prefer scoring solos at 1.5 points per game. With this setting, the top defensive players rival the top offensive players in fantasy production. With just one point per solo, I’d wait until the late-rounds to select IDPs, though you’ll have to start in the middle rounds if you score solos at 1.5 points.
From here, you also need to consider the value of tackles compared to other defensive scoring categories. Some leagues tend to be more tackle-heavy where sacks and interceptions are worth roughly double the value of tackles. In terms of fantasy value, linebackers who play off the line of scrimmage dominate in these leagues.
Other leagues weight big plays more heavily. In these formats, sacks and interceptions are worth four times or more the value of solo tackles. Obviously, your strategy has to change in this format. Here, you’ll want to prioritize rush outside linebackers, sack-producing defensive ends, and ball-hawking defensive backs.
At Rotoworld, we use balanced scoring settings for our rankings and projections where solos are valued at 1.5 points, sacks at four points, and interceptions are five points. These settings achieve the most parity in fantasy production between the three IDP positions.
2. Don’t draft IDPs too early.
The biggest mistake I see even out of seasoned IDP vets is drafting defensive players too early. Sure, it’s great to own J.J. Watt or Luke Kuechly, but consider their price tag. In the recent Rotoworld IDP mock (which you can view along with my insights in the Draft Guide), Watt went in the third round and Kuechly in the fourth. While the teams that take these players are certainly set at IDP, they’re nearly always behind the eight ball at their offensive positions.
Let’s say you’re in a 12-team PPR league, and your starting lineup requires eight IDPs – two defensive linemen, three linebackers, two defensive backs, and one flex spot. Just like in the mock draft, Watt goes at the tail end of the third, and Kuechly gets scooped up in the mid-fourth. Don’t panic. There's going to be plenty of strong options for you later on. Just continue to build up your offensive roster.
While your opponents start grabbing defensive players, they let quality options at running back and receiver slide. Make them pay for it, and out-draft them later at IDP. Your goal should be to build a solid core of offensive starters over the first seven to eight rounds. Ideally, you could come away with three running backs, three receivers, a quarterback, and a tight end before you even look at defensive players. Just think of the competitive advantage you’ll have on a weekly basis.
3. Wait at defensive end.
The old adage in IDP leagues was grab an elite defensive end early. While that certainly worked in 2007, I don’t know if it’s the best course of action this year. Like I’ve already said, Watt is going to go early and Robert Quinn won’t be far behind. You’re also likely to see Chandler Jones come off the board well before you’re ready to address the defensive side of the ball.
Instead, it might be a better idea to wait at the position, and look to scoop value in the middle-rounds. There’s a good chance at least one strong option slips through the cracks. I’ve seen DeMarcus Ware hang around far too long in drafts this year. He’s an ideal defensive lineman if he’s available in the middle of your draft.
If Ware isn’t there, don’t force the issue and grab just any player. You can exercise patience and still come away with a strong option. Michael Johnson tends to fall in drafts, most likely due to his meager 3.5 sacks last season. That number is a bit misleading, as he was a very disruptive pass rusher. I expect him to convert more of his pressures for sacks with Tampa Bay this season.
If you want to go even deeper, there are some other intriguing names to target. Justin Tuck was essentially unblockable down the stretch last season. He has a DL1 ceiling, but typically is available long after the first 15 defensive linemen have been selected. Everson Griffen is taking over for Jared Allen, and figures to see a lot of snaps for the Vikings this season. Likewise, Allen should still have solid fantasy value in Chicago. A little further down the list, Jerry Hughes is coming off a breakout season where he posted double-digit sacks and now is classified as a defensive end in Buffalo.
4. Get an elite linebacker (or two).
In many ways, we’re really reversing the conventional IDP draft strategy that said grab an elite defensive lineman and wait at linebacker. Remember, you don’t want to start picking defensive players until you’ve solidified your offensive roster. That means you’re not going to own Luke Kuechly, Lavonte David, Vontaze Burfict, or Paul Posluszny. But that’s okay. You don’t need these guys to dominate your league.
One of my favorite linebackers to target in the eighth or ninth round is Patrick Willis. With NaVorro Bowman sidelined until the middle of the season, Willis is in a great position to post strong IDP numbers. Let’s not forget that before Bowman’s arrival in San Francisco, Willis was annually the top-ranked fantasy linebacker.
If Willis gets plucked before you break the IDP seal, all is not lost. You’re likely to get your hands on Jerod Mayo, Derrick Johnson, or Paul Worrilow. Mayo is coming off a torn pectoral, but he’s ready to roll and plays in front of a favorable home stats crew. Likewise, Johnson continually puts up strong numbers and has one of the league’s most solo tackle friendly stats crews in Kansas City. Sean Weatherspoon’s season-ending torn Achilles opens the door for Worrilow to put up big numbers in Atlanta. He was one of the league’s top fantasy scorers down the stretch last season.
While we’re on the topic of linebackers, I often get asked which linebacker position puts up the most fantasy points. Most people generally assume middle linebacker is the most productive, but take a quick look at Tampa Bay last season. Lavonte David played weak side linebacker and vastly outscored MLB Mason Foster. Why?
The answer is simple - subpackage snaps. David played every down for the Bucs, while Foster was often taken off the field in passing situations. So it doesn’t matter where they line up in the base defense. The linebackers who play three-downs are the most productive fantasy options.
In today’s pass-happy NFL, most teams spend a majority of their snaps in their subpackages. Last season, only six teams splayed 50-percent or more of their snaps in their base defense – Chicago, Houston, Jacksonville, New York Jets, Philadelphia, and Seattle.
5. Defensive backs are a dime a dozen.
Of the three IDP positions, we see the most year-to-year fluctuations at defensive back, so there’s no reason to prioritize them on draft day. That being said, if Barry Church, Eric Weddle, or Harrison Smith is still hanging around in Round 14, by all means snatch them up. But the top options are likely to be long gone by that point in your draft.
As we’ve done throughout the draft, we’re again going to exercise patience at the position. In a league that starts three linebackers and two defensive backs, I typically have four linebackers before I even look at defensive back. Even then, I may wait if the value isn’t right. However, at this point look to grab Kenny Vaccaro, Johnathan Cyprien, Antrel Rolle, or Bernard Pollard as your top option.
From there, you wait and wait some more. There will be plenty of solid options in the tail end of the draft like Deone Bucannon, who’s a good bet to put up strong numbers in his rookie season given the fact that he’ll be playing linebacker in the Cardinals’ nickel packages. If you miss out on Bucannon, you might also want to give T.J. McDonald and/or Matt Elam a long look. McDonald stands to benefit from Gregg Williams’ defense, while Elam is moving to his more natural strong safety position.
Defensive back is the most streamable of the IDP positions, so keep a close eye on the box scores. Every season we see players break out and post DB1 numbers. Last year, James Ihedigbo did it for the Ravens. Two years ago Stevie Brown broke out for the Giants. The savvy fantasy owner saw this as it was happening and pounced on them before their league could catch up. They also stockpiled more offensive weapons because they didn’t waste early draft picks on defensive backs.
There’s a lot of nuance to fantasy draft strategy, and these five guidelines are only the tip of the iceberg. We could certainly peel the onion back even further and dive down the rabbit hole, but these strategies are easy to implement and will give you a significant leg up on the competition.