Draft season is in full-swing now, so I’ll be brief before getting to the meat and potatoes of this article. The saying goes that the Middle Linebacker is the Quarterback of the defense. Well in IDP leagues, the Linebacker is the Runningback of the defense. Take them early, take them often, and ride them to championships. You might take J.J. Watt or JPP before an LB, which is the defensive equivalent of taking Calvin Johnson or Drew Brees before an RB. But by doing this, on offense or defense, you leave a huge hole in what is more often than not the most valuable spot in your lineup. And unlike on offense, where Brees and Megatron are more than likely to rack up stats due to their superior talent, Watt and JPP can spend a week getting double-teamed constantly. They still wreak havoc on the field, but not necessarily on the stat sheet. So unless you believe Watt can repeat his other-worldly 2012 season, load up on LBs before moving on to other IDP positions.
Tackles Reign Supreme
They may seem boring, but tackles win championships in the IDP world. Understanding that fact alone will help you decipher who among the hundred or so starting linebackers deserve a spot on your team. If you want some next-level analysis, look for players with high-assisted tackle rates. Assist rates for defensive players are somewhat like BABIP for baseball players. They may be extremely high or low one year, but over the long run they are likely to regress to the mean. So players like Perry Riley with an assist rate of 1.27 (solos per assist) are likely to see some of those assists turn into twice-as-valuable solo tackles in 2013, while players like Derrick Johnson with an assist rate of 7.33 may see their point totals drop off. The stat crew at each stadium has a lot to do with this rate, but while some teams rank high in assists from year-to-year (Bills, Giants, Titans) and others rank low (Bucs, Panthers, Vikings), the majority are variable and should not play a part in your draft strategy.
Don’t Fall Prey To The Sexiness Of The Sack
I’ve been preaching this non-stop since May, but too often IDPers ignore this piece of advice and get tempted by the sack. I get it. It’s more fun to watch one of your players crush the QB than it is to watch the same guy make a tackle 6 yards downfield. And it’s worth more points as well. But simple math tells you that when Jerrell Freeman has 145 tackles and 2 sacks, and Aldon Smith has 65 tackles and 19.5 sacks, then sacks need to be worth at least 4 times as much as tackles for Smith to be more valuable than Freeman. So unless your league has a sack-to-tackle ratio of 4 or more, if you’re taking Smith 4+ rounds before Freeman (as he’s going now), you’re paying for sacks. Which I believe only legal in Amsterdam.
3 > 2
This seems like an obvious thing to say, but when applied to IDP linebackers, it can make an enormous difference. The LBs that play three downs have a huge advantage over their two-down counterparts. Not only in tackle opportunities, as a 50% increase in downs played is an overly simplistic way to express the advantage, but also in big-play stats. You know by now that I don’t advocate targeting LBs based on their big-play ability, but the mere presence of a backer on the field on 3rd down can give them big-play chances. When a defense switches to a nickel or dime package, they assume the offense is throwing the ball. This hugely increases the odds of an interception or pass deflection in coverage, or a sack if the LB rushes the passer. The difference between a two-down LB and a three-down LB is why Wesley Woodyard and Demario Davis are more valuable than they might otherwise seem.
Weak > Strong
This one is a little more counterintuitive at first glance, but absolutely holds true when it comes to linebackers. Strong side LBs line up on the side of the field with an additional blocker to assist with run support, an extremely valuable responsibility to a defense. For IDP leagues, the only thing that matters is the first part of that sentence: the side of the field with an additional blocker. Why would you target a guy who is lessening his chances of a tackle on every single play? Sure, some strong side LBs are consistently good fantasy options, but that has more to do with them playing 3-downs (Lance Briggs) than it does with them lining up on the strong side. When it comes to your third or fourth LB, and the MLB studs are gone, target underrated weak side LBs for cheap options with potentially big pay-offs.