Fantasy football has evolved from its infancy, when Bill Winkenbach and his friends started the Greater Oakland Professional Pigskin Prognosticators League (GOPPPL) in the early 1960s. There are now countless different rules, scoring systems and guidelines to choose from these days. One of the lesser-known formats are IDP (individual defensive player) leagues, which requires fantasy owners to draft actual defenders rather than defensive units. The scoring for these formats is based heavily on tackles but also includes sacks, interceptions, forced fumbles, passes defensed and safeties as the main categories. For those who want to take that next step in the evolution of fantasy football or are just looking for a new challenge to conquer, here's our look at the top 10 linebackers, defensive backs and defensive linemen as we head into the 2010 season.
1. Patrick Willis, 49ers: Willis is the most valuable individual defensive player in fantasy football. A stat-sheet stuffer, he led the league with 152 tackles last season. Willis also put up four sacks, three interceptions, eight passes defenses, three forced fumbles and scored one touchdown. Grabbing this star is the equivalent of landing Chris Johnson, as Willis is the cream of the crop among defenders.
2. Jon Beason, Panthers: A fourth-year linebacker out of Miami (FL), Beason finished fourth in tackles last season with a career best 141. He also posted personal bests in sacks (3.0) and forced fumbles, while at the same time recording seven passes defensed and three interceptions. Beason is a good bet for continued statistical success as the middle man for coach John Fox, so consider him one of the elite IDP options at his position in 2010.
3. Curtis Lofton, Falcons: Lofton burst onto the IDP scene last season, producing career bests in most statistical categories as the field general of the Falcons' defense. He finished with 133 tackles -- 39 more than he had as a rookie -- to go along with two passes defenses and two forced fumbles. He'll continue to develop during his third campaign at the NFL level and could push for the lead in tackles in 2010. He's a solid No. 1 fantasy linebacker.
4. D.J. Williams, Broncos: A veteran linebacker, Williams has proven in the past that he can produce major numbers for IDP leaguers. In his last two full seasons, he's averaged 131.5 total tackles with a combined 12 passes defensed. In 2009, he increased his IDP value with a career-best 3.5 sacks as well. A consistent option who should continue to product major tackle totals, Williams is a very attractive option in most IDP scoring formats.
5. James Laurinaitis, Rams: During his rookie season, Laurinaitis proved to be quite the "Animal" (get the wrestling reference?) for the Rams and IDP owners alike. He finished with an impressive 107 solo tackles to go along with five passes defensed, two interceptions and one forced fumble. Playing the middle linebacker position with the Rams has been fruitful in recent seasons, so look for Laurinaitis to find continued success in 2010.
1. Oshiomogho Atogwe, Rams: Atogwe was an unrestricted free agent, but he re-signed with the Rams in June and should be considered an elite IDP option among defensive backs. Barring a setback in his return from last season's shoulder ailment, Atogwe should post big tackle totals for a defense that will no doubt be on the field quite a bit. He's a playmaker and an attractive pick in fantasy IDP land, so his recent string of success should continue.
2. Yeremiah Bell, Dolphins: Bell has been an absolute tackles machine, recording a combined 234 combined tackles over the last two seasons. He's also posted averaged better than 97 solo tackles in that time, which is a huge number from a defensive back. Because he plays close to the line of scrimmage often as a run defender, Bell is a good bet for another season with 90-plus tackles and eight to 10 passes defensed. He's a solid and safe choice.
3. Eric Weddle, Chargers: The top defensive back in countless 2009 IDP rankings, Weddle failed to meet expectations in large part due to an injured knee that forced him to miss time. Had he played a full 16 games, however, Weddle would have projected to finish as a top-five option for IDP owners. As long as he avoids further ailments, the Utah product should once again emerge into a top-notch fantasy starter across the board in 2010.
4. Bernard Pollard, Texans: Pollard, who was released by the Chiefs prior to last season, joined the Texans and became an important part of their defensive backfield. In 13 games, he recorded 102 tackles, 1.5 sacks, four interceptions, seven passes defensed and two touchdowns. A serious playmaker for an improving defense, Pollard should be considered one of the most valuable defensive backs in the majority of IDP leagues.
5. Roman Harper, Saints: Harper opened last season on fire and finished with career bests in tackles (102) and solo tackles (84) for the Super Bowl champion Saints. He could have posted even better numbers, but injuries at the cornerback position caused him to be used in coverage more often. With his defensive teammates at 100 percent, however, Harper will be put in an even better position to produce for fantasy owners.
1. Jared Allen, Vikings: Allen is without question the top defensive lineman in all IDP leagues. He's recorded 14.5 sacks in each of the last two seasons, and has averaged a solid 52.5 total tackles in that time. The veteran also forced five fumbles in 2009, so he can produce in several different IDP categories. Still in the prime of his career at the age of 28, Allen is an elite option and will be the top lineman taken.
2. Mario Williams, Texans: Injuries nagged Williams for much of last season, resulting in decreased fantasy IDP production across the board. Still, the veteran finished just outside of the top 10 in points among his fellow defensive linemen despite being at less than 100 percent. Look for Williams to produce 50-plus total tackles and double-digit sacks in 2010, making him one of the top players at his position in IDP formats.
3. Justin Tuck, Giants: The Giants defense was dreadful for most of the 2009 campaign, but Tuck still produced for IDP owners. While he did see a major drop in sacks, the Notre Dame product was able to record 59 total tackles and career bests in passes defensed (8) and forced fumbles (5). Considering that he also played at less 100 percent due to an injured shoulder, Tuck should be projected to experience a rebound in 2010.
4. Julius Peppers, Bears: Peppers, a five-time Pro Bowler and two-time first-team All-Pro, signed with the Bears during the offseason but remains a top IDP option despite his change of address. At the age of 30, he has a ton left in the tank and should provide fantasy owners with solid numbers across the board. The sack master extraordinaire will no doubt be one of the first defensive linemen taken in most IDP formats.
5. Trent Cole, Eagles: Cole has produced at least 43 solo tackles and eight sacks in each of the last four seasons, and he's still just 27 years old. Furthermore, he has the fourth-most sacks in the NFL since 2006 behind only DeMarcus Ware, Allen and Aaron Kampman. Despite the fact that he isn't exactly a household name, Cole is still an absolute IDP monster and one of the best defensive linemen in the league.
Michael Fabiano is an award-winning fantasy football analyst on NFL.com. Have a burning question for Michael on anything fantasy football related? Leave it in our comments section or send it to AskFabiano@nfl.com!