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How Do Defensive Schemes Influence IDP Fantasy Football?

If you’re an IDP fantasy football fantatic, then you know there are many facets to what plays into the performance of your IDPs. In the past I’ve taken a look at some fantasy IDP best practices, and in that article I touched on weighing IDPs based on position, role, and briefly on defensive scheme. Joe Redemann is one of our friends at numberFire.com, and he’s taken a further look into how defensive schemes influence IDP fantasy football. It’s great work by Joe.

People play fantasy sports for many different reasons. Some play it to win money, others to earn honor or bragging rights, and others as an analytical hobby and mathematical pastime (gestures self-deprecatingly to numberFire staff).

I, like many others, find joy in a fourth route to fantasy sports: I play to simulate the experience of being an NFL general manager. While many like to embrace the idea of fantasy football as just that — a fantasy — I find joy in putting myself to the challenges that real roster builders might face.

Chief among those is the expansion from playing with team defenses to Individual Defensive Players (IDP).

IDP is rapidly gaining ground in fantasy circles as no longer just for the “hardcore”, but something that any fan of football can appreciate. If you’ve been a fantasy player your whole life, but your favorite players are defensive ones, how will you have the same satisfaction on draft day as the guy wearing the Aaron Rodgers jersey? You won’t, unless you delve into the world of IDP.

This seems to be a very different format to standard team defense leagues, so where do you start? Fortunately, the numberFire staff -– and our handy-dandy Draft Kit -– is here to help you plan or draft your first IDP league. This first installment in our IDP content will deal specifically with how players and positions are affected by defensive schemes.

Defensive Line

Before a body can start flexing muscles, it has to have a basic understanding of what those muscles do. And before it can really understand what those muscles do, it has to understand the skeleton they’re stretched over. In IDP fantasy football, that means knowing defensive schemes and how their structures affect player and positional values.

I wrote an article this offseason on how defensive schemes affect team defensive production, breaking the study down into defensive fronts and defensive styles. For a short summary here, the defensive front describes the look and basic assignment of the defense: 4-3 means there are four down linemen, three stand-up linebackers; 3-4 means three down linemen, four stand-up linebackers. The two main positions we deal with in the defensive are the defensive tackle (or interior defensive lineman) and defensive end. How does scheme affect positional value on the defensive line?

The table below shows a few categories -– drawing from 2014 balanced scoring fantasy results -– which we can examine to see the value of positions in different base fronts. We will compare the 4-3 and 3-4 in average points among the highest scoring players (top 15) at the position, the average standard deviation for that front’s fifteen highest scoring players, and how many players from that front were in the top fifteen of the position. What do we find?

Position Front Avg. Total FPTS Avg. SDev Top-15
DT 4-3 104.6 1.79 13
DT 3-4 57.6 0.92 2
DE 4-3 143.0 2.59 10
DE 3-4 130.1 2.69 5

For the two defensive line positions, there’s no two ways about it: the 4-3 is more prolific for these players. In raw points as well as top-end scoring, 4-3 defensive tackles and defensive ends greatly outpace their 3-4 counterparts. The standard deviation is the amount from a weekly average that each scheme deviates; here, too, the 4-3 defensive end outdoes the 3-4 version. However, the 3-4 defensive tackle actually has a lower variance than his 4-3 opposite. With this lower-scoring position in general, though, one hopes for upside; we still would prefer a 4-3 player here.

The reason for this is that many 3-4 teams run a two-gap assignment, meaning that each down lineman is responsible for controlling two gaps between offensive linemen. Many 4-3 teams, however, use one-gap assignments, so each player is allowed to attack the offensive line and aim for sacks or tackles for a loss. More opportunity almost always equals more production.

What about the linebackers?


The table below here shows the exact same study as for the defensive line, but this time we are cracking into the linebacker corps of these defensive fronts. We again separate them both by defensive front, and by inside or outside designation. Which is more prolific for fantasy purposes: the 4-3 or the 3-4?

Position Front Avg. Total FPTS Avg. SDev Top-15
ILB 4-3 113.7 2.01 5
ILB 3-4 135.9 1.41 10
OLB 4-3 135.5 2.29 5
OLB 3-4 161.7 1.46 10

Most analysts recommend using 4-3 linebackers in almost any situation, but the data doesn’t seem to support that in this day and age of the 3-4 pass rusher. One explanation for the supremacy of the 3-4 outside linebacker is that they have a much higher upside for sacks in today’s game, and defensive coordinators are calling more complicated blitz packages than ever before. This kind of upside, though, should be marked with a higher weekly variance than the 4-3 outside linebackers; why isn’t it? It’s possible that the prevalence of strong line play in 4-3 schemes limits steady tackle opportunities and the 4-3 outside linebacker thrives on coverage and open-space mobility to make tackles.

Similarly, we see the 3-4 inside linebacker surpasses the 4-3, as well. Many suggest that the 4-3 inside linebacker is the best fantasy option because of the stable floor of points one can expect from them, as well as little competition for other tackle opportunities. However, the fact is that four down linemen limit the number of tackle opportunities coming through for linebackers to make. With only one defensive tackle in a 3-4 scheme plugging the gaps, there’s statistically a better chance for a 3-4 inside linebacker to rack up tackles than a 4-3 one.

Continue reading at numberFire.com… (@numberfire)


K. Smelser About K. Smelser
Kelly Smelser is Owner/Senior Writer for Punch Drunk Wonderland and PDFantasy Sports. Architect of the PDW fantasy football world and general spinster of NFL and Fantasy Football news and analysis. Long walks on the beach, sunsets, and other such niceties are also fine...