Steve Dawson, Premium Contributor – IDP
You will often hear me speak of a player’s opportunity. While his talent level is important, the opportunity his team’s defensive scheme and philosophy presents will often have an equal impact on his success. Over the years we have developed catch phrases like “always draft the middle linebackers first”, “avoid all strong side linebackers”, etc. While those simplified rules will lead you to some of the good players while steering you away from some of the bad ones they also will steer you away from some of the best players.
In this article we are going to address the two elements of IDP opportunity: defensive scheme and philosophy. A team’s scheme is how it lines up its players on the field. In a 4-3 scheme there will be four lineman (LDE-DT-DT-RDE) and three linebackers (WLB-MLB-SLB). A 3-4 scheme lines up with three linemen (LDE-NT-RDE) and four linebackers (WOLB-WILB-SILB-SOLB). The third scheme is the Tampa-2 cover which is becoming more popular in the NFL. The Tampa-2 starts with a 4-3 but makes some major adjustments. The cornerbacks play close to the line of scrimmage in effect covering the outside much like a linebacker, leaving the safeties to cover deep. The MLB will slide deeper in this scheme to defend passing plays across the middle, operating more as a quasi safety/MLB. With the cornerbacks covering the outside, the WLB and SLB will cheat towards the middle providing coverage between the MLB and the line of scrimmage. Defensive philosophy can be broken into two categories: reactionary and pressure. In a reactionary system, the players will attempt to read what kind of play is developing after the snap and react accordingly. The front seven are assigned two spaces between the offensive linemen in run coverage. Since those gaps are not attacked by the linebackers before a read is made, this system allows more freedom for individual players to react to the play. Think of it as see the ball, go get the ball. A pressure system looks to disrupt the offense before it can properly execute its plays. The linemen and linebackers are assigned only one space between the offensive linemen. Those spaces are attacked as soon as the ball is snapped. The thinking here is to play the run on the way to the QB. Naturally, with so many players committed to the line of scrimmage at the snap, there is not a lot of room for freelance work by individual players. The players have more specific assignments and are expected to stay in those assignments.
Let’s take a look at what teams play which schemes and philosophy and how that may affect your individual defensive players. No team lines up the same on every play. What we will address is each team’s base defense. You can expect to see most teams in their respective base defense on 60%+ snaps.
Here is where you will find a lot of the better middle linebackers when it comes to tackle production. A strong front line will help the MLB on these teams, a strong WLB like Keith Bulluck can hurt his production. The effect on most of the other positions of this scheme and philosophy combination is fairly neutral. Evaluate those players on the strength of their talent.
This is a system that tends to be good for both the MLB and WLB. Sometimes you will see good players produce side-by-side at the two main linebacker positions. A solid DE talent also gets a bump here since they are already on their way to the QB when the ball is snapped. The SS is often involved more in the box for run coverage and can be bumped up due to increased tackle production. The FS will provide deeper coverage in this scheme and usually will not be productive unless he has strong coverage skills on a team with a strong secondary.
This is perhaps the least understood defensive scheme when it comes to the effect it has on fantasy players. It is a difficult scheme for players to make a transition to. Because of this, it will sometimes be the second year before you see the full effect of the scheme on a player’s production. This is the scheme that turns the MLB theory on its head. When it comes to opportunity, the most valuable position for fantasy is the WLB in the Tampa-2. The three teams that had played the Tampa-2 for two or more seasons last year produced two top 10 and one top 20 linebacker at the weak side. None of those linebackers are considered highly talented players but they all produced with the best. The WLB here has the best of both worlds, they enjoy the high tackle opportunities of a 4-3 linebacker, but will have increased opportunities in the big play department as well. As a general rule, middle linebackers should be dropped a notch in this scheme. Remember, they will often be required to drop back in coverage and will lose some tackle opportunities as a result. This system also produces the most valuable cornerbacks like Ronde Barber and Charles Tillman because of their responsibilities in run coverage. Look for guys with decent coverage skills that have a nose for the ball and love to tackle. As the teams playing this scheme for the second year gain experience they will produce more corners of that caliber. Safeties on the other hand are hurt in this system as they are pretty much dedicated to pass protection in the backfield. A good pass rushing DE gets a bump upward here. Most of the short routes tend to be taken away by this defense or at least take more time to develop leaving the ball in the quarterback’s hands longer.
Except for the safeties, leave these guys alone. The inside linebackers will essentially split the production of the MLB in a 4-3. The defensive ends are there to occupy blockers and will produce very few sacks. The safeties are often productive especially if the front seven is not particularly strong.
The linebackers, especially the outside ones on these teams, tend to do particularly well in fantasy leagues where scoring rules favor big plays over tackles. The inside linebacker on the weak side will sometimes be productive even in a tackle heavy league. Defensive linemen can do okay in this system if they are talented enough but most will be mediocre. The SS often does well in this scheme but the FS usually struggles.
* The Ravens and Patriots line up with so many different looks they really don’t have a base defensive scheme.
Don’t stop evaluating a player’s talent, as that will affect a player’s production in any scheme. Just remember that the system he plays in could potentially limit or boost the fantasy numbers he will produce. If you get in the habit of evaluating both, you will find yourself hitting the right target more often. When you find one of those high talent jewels falling into the right opportunity grab them with confidence. Players like Vikings LB Chad Greenway are a good example. A solid talent stepping into the WLB position on a team that runs the Tampa-2. Does anyone really think E.J. Henderson suddenly found an extra measure of talent last year when he played that position? No, but he sure fell into a situation that increased his scoring opportunities. Greenway will be a top-10 linebacker by next year, but he won’t be drafted at his full value because he doesn’t have that coveted MLB tag. On the other hand, Patrick Willis has a ton of talent, and despite his seemingly unfortunate situation in a 3-4, he’s proven that sometimes talent overcomes opportunity. If a player is talented enough, he will overcome a less than ideal situation and post legitimate fantasy stats. Just ask Willis owners from last season.