There is one key statistic to keep in mind when evaluating individual defensive players: Tackles. By far, this is the easiest stat to project year to year, and it is the most valuable defensive stat in typical leagues because tackles, unlike sacks and interceptions, are more consistent from week to week.
Of the top 30 tacklers in 2006, 16 were in the top 30 again in 2007. Compare that with sacks, where only 10 players placed in the top 30 in both 2006 and 2007, and interceptions, where nine did so.
Also, avoid drafting defensive players too early -- even the stars.
Like quarterback and kicker, IDP is a deep position and not one to overemphasize. There likely will be more quality IDPs on your league's waiver wire than any position, and every year several unheralded IDPs emerge during the season. A corollary to this guideline is to keep a close eye on injuries throughout the season.
Key players went down early in the season, and many of the replacements turned into valuable IDP options. Another example is Washington safety Reed Doughty, who played very well in relief of the late Sean Taylor. Finally, load up on linebackers, which typically offer the most tackles and the most versatility and draft strong tacklers at other positions.
You probably won't win your league because of your IDP unit, but you can definitely lose it because of a weak group.
1. Leigh Bodden, CB, Detroit
Bodden set career highs last season as a Cleveland Brown with six interceptions and 88 tackles in his first season a full-time starter. Bodden, who turns 27 in September and was traded to Detroit in March, emerged as one of the better cover corners in the league last year and offers dual potential in tackles and interceptions. If he stays healthy in 2008 (he missed a total of 10 games over the previous two seasons), Bodden could approach 100 tackles and should once again be in the neighborhood of a half dozen interceptions. He has a good nose for the ball and the speed to stay with opposing receivers.
2. Sean Jones, SS, Cleveland
Jones recorded a monstrous 111 tackles in 2006 and came close to the century mark again in 2007, finishing with 96. He made five interceptions for the second straight season and has been extremely consistent in his two seasons as a starter. Jones might receive even more chances to make plays in 2008 after standout cornerback Leigh Bodden was traded to Detroit in March. Jones is fast, powerful and is like a heat-seeking missile when he approaches a ball carrier.
3. Nate Clements, San Francisco
Clements is a tackling machine. He made 92 stops (77 solo) in 2007, just seven fewer than the career high he set in 2005. That he totaled nearly 100 tackles is even more impressive considering he played behind standout linebacker Patrick Willis, who had 174 tackles. Clements has made 70 or more tackles in four consecutive seasons. He is also adept at picking the ball; Clements made four interceptions in 2007 and has 15 picks in the last four seasons. He has a touchdown in five of his seven NFL seasons and is valuable as a ball-hawking cornerback. He won't turn 29 until December and is still at or near his physical peak. So far, there haven't been any signs that he is losing a step.
4. Oshiomogho Atogwe, FS, St. Louis
Atogwe, in his second year as a starter, put together a 75-tackle, eight-interception campaign in 2007. The big jump was in the picks department, where he almost tripled his 2006 output. It's hard to expect quite so many interceptions in 2008, but Atogwe offers an enticing mix of tackles, interceptions and youth. He's a free safety with a solid nose for the ball on a team that makes enough mistakes to give him plenty of chances to make plays. Eighty tackles and a half-dozen interceptions are well within reach for Atogwe in 2008.
A ruptured Achilles' tendon limited the usually durable Wilson to only nine games in 2007. He was reasonably productive (44 tackles, two interceptions), but surprisingly was held without a sack just two seasons after he set the NFL single-season record for sacks by a defensive back (eight). Wilson was expected to be used in the box, similar to the blitz-happy schemes of former coach Dennis Green, but instead typically dropped into coverage last year under new coach Ken Whisenhunt. Assuming Wilson stays healthy, look for more solid contributions in tackles and interceptions this season, but don't expect a high sack total if he continues to be used more in coverage than in blitzes. Wilson has dropped a bit from his monstrous 2004, 2005 and 2006 seasons, but he's still a Pro Bowl candidate.
6. Atari Bigby, SS, Green Bay
Bigby is a punishing tackler and has a nose for big plays. He notched 84 tackles, five interceptions and three forced fumbles last season, his first as a starter. His speed and Green Bay's allaround good defense largely made up for Bigby's flaws in coverage. His four pass interference calls tied for the league lead, and he tied for third with three personal fouls. Bigby got better as the year went on, though, recording four interceptions in the final five weeks. If he can learn to keep his penalties in check, Bigby has all of the tools to be an elite safety.
Rhodes has started all 48 games since entering the league in 2005. His tackles have dropped each season and 2007 included a particularly sharp fall, from 98 to 67. This can be attributed, in part, to the emergence of linebacker David Harris as one of the NFL's best tacklers. Rhodes is still a worthy and versatile IDP. What he might lack in tackles, he makes up for in interceptions (a career-high five last year as Harris' emergence let Rhodes drop into coverage more often), sacks (seven in the last two seasons) and forced fumbles (two in 2007). Rhodes would rank higher if not for the drop in tackles, but he is versatile so don't underestimate him.
8. Clinton Hart, SS, San Diego
In his first year as a starter, Hart compiled 82 tackles and five interceptions in 2007. He formed a formidable secondary duo with teammate Antonio Cromartie, who led the NFL with 10 picks. Cromartie's presence helps ensure that Hart will receive chances to make plays. Hart has always been a good tackler (48 in 2006 and 45 in 2005 as a part-time player), and he has eight interceptions in the past two seasons (remember, only one as a starter). There's a lot to like about Hart, who is a versatile safety and apparently a late bloomer (he will turn 31 in July).
The outspoken Hall had a tumultuous 2007 season in Atlanta, but he still recorded a careerhigh 70 tackles and missed his career high in interceptions (six) by just one. Hall seems like he's been around forever but he won't even turn 25 until November. He is a consistent playmaker (58-to-70 tackles and four-to-six interceptions in each of the last three seasons) and still has upside. Traded to Oakland this offseason, Hall will form one of the league's best cornerback duos opposite Nnamdi Asomugha, preventing opposing quarterbacks from avoiding his side of the field.
10. Gibril Wilson, SS, Oakland
Wilson is one of the strongest tacklers among defensive backs. He made 112 tackles in 2005, 100 in 2006 and 92 in 2007, all for the Giants. If not for a knee injury that cost him three games last season, Wilson almost surely would have turned in his third consecutive triple-digit total. The 26-year-old signed a six-year, $39 million contract with Oakland in February. He will likely start at strong safety for the Raiders, with the capable Michael Huff at free safety. The strong safety position is a good fit for Wilson; he is an athletic 200-pounder with speed, range and strong closing ability. While he is best known as a tackler, Wilson has at least two interceptions in all four of his NFL seasons and made a careerhigh four picks last season.
11. Roy Williams, SS, Dallas
Williams is part of a very good secondary in Dallas and that lets him roam around looking for tackles. He made 89 tackles last season in 15 games (13 starts) and chipped in two interceptions. Williams is one of the best defensive backs in the tackle category, making him a dependable IDP option. He could be headed for his first career 100-tackle season in 2008 if Dallas' strong defense holds down the fort and lets Williams search and destroy ball carriers. Just don't expect many interceptions; Dallas has other players like Anthony Henry and Ken Hamlin that are better bets in that category.
Knight is an excellent tackler; he has 90 or more stops in five of his last seven seasons. Knight hasn't missed a game since 1998 and averages almost four picks per season. He will turn 33 in September but still ranks among the NFL's best safeties. You're getting consistency if you draft Knight. He will play for the Giants in 2008, his third team in the last three years. A potential concern is the fact that the Giants have a good defense, but while that might mean fewer tackles for Knight, the good news is that it could free him for more interception opportunities.
Trufant turned in a solid 2007 season with 85 tackles and a career-high seven interceptions. The increased interceptions, after he amassed just two picks combined in his previous two seasons, coincided with his moving to the left side of the defense where he got more looks from opposing quarterbacks. That said, his interceptions still seem a bit fluky considering five of them came in two games. Trufant's still valuable - 85 tackles last year and 64 or more in each of his five NFL seasons are nothing to sneeze at - but don't overpay.
Hall had a solid rookie season in 2007. He made 60 tackles and five interceptions in 16 games (10 starts). He averaged 5.6 tackles per game over Cincinnati's last eight contests (all starts), putting him on pace for 90 tackles over the course of a full season. Hall is a well-rounded cornerback with a lot of upside. The 23-year-old has a chance to crack the top 10 at his position this season, his second in the NFL. He is a hard hitter that should grow into an outstanding tackler. Hall lacks elite speed and stands only 5-11, so he can have trouble with fast, tall receivers.
Opposing teams gave Bailey a wide berth in 2007; he went from eight interceptions in 2005 to 10 in 2006 to only three last year. Bailey still posted strong tackling numbers (79 or more stops for the third time in his last four campaigns), but the lack of interceptions is a definite concern. The Broncos defense isn't nearly as good as other recent Denver defenses, which allows opposing offenses to avoid Bailey. Bailey's skills are still strong; he possesses the triple threat of speed, power and instincts. He's such a good tackler that he shouldn't drop too far in drafts, but expect him to be closer to three interceptions than 10 in 2008.
16. Terrence McGee, CB, Buffalo
McGee tied his career high with four interceptions in 2007 (rebounding from zero in 2006) and chipped in 77 tackles, his highest total since 2004. He's probably at or near his physical peak - McGee turns 28 in October - but needs to stay healthy for all 16 games - he's averaged two missed games per season over the last four years. McGee's usually good for 70-80 tackles and three or four interceptions, though he could easily be in the 80-90-tackle range if he doesn't miss any time. McGee is an elite speedster and returns kickoffs (one for a touchdown in 2007), which gives him a boost in some formats.
Cromartie claimed a starting role in Week 10, picked off Colts quarterback Peyton Manning three times and never looked back. At the end of the year, he found himself leading the entire NFL in interceptions with 10. Cromartie benefits from the presence of fellow interception threat Clinton Hart (five picks in 2007) in the Chargers' secondary, but Cromartie's not going to surprise anyone in 2008, and opposing teams should look his way less frequently. Cromartie is not a great tackler despite his good size (6-3, 210), so avoid the temptation to draft him too early.
Rolle will serve as a full-time safety in 2008, an experiment that went well on a parttime basis in 2007. This season, he will start opposite Pro Bowler Adrian Wilson. Rolle began his NFL career with two disappointing seasons at cornerback, but showed good potential in 2007 after the move to safety. He has always been a good tackler, with 84 in 2006 and 58 in 2007 (16 games, but only eight starts). Throw in a handful of interceptions, and Rolle appears primed for resurgence in 2008. The potential is definitely there, as Rolle made three picks in one game last season at Cincinnati. At his previous position, he didn't have the speed to stay with elite receivers (in 2006, he ranked towards the top of the league in pass interference penalties), but the safety position allows him to use his instincts and tackling ability more than his suspect speed.
Bethea dropped from 90 tackles in 14 games as a rookie in 2006 to 65 stops in 13 last season. He did increase his interceptions from one to four, a sign that he is roaming more freely and taking more chances. This makes him less predictable than a player who relies more on his tackling ability. Bethea has missed a total of five games the past two seasons, another reason to pass on drafting him too early. Just don't avoid him too long, because at 24 years old in July, there are still a lot of reasons to like Bethea. He has the tools to be a hard-hitting safety with decent interception potential for years to come.
20. Anthony Henry, CB, Dallas
A high ankle sprain marred Henry's 2007 season, limiting him to 13 games (10 starts). He still managed six interceptions, his highest total in six seasons. Four of those came before the Week 4 injury. Henry could have been on his way to a huge season like the one he had as a rookie in 2001 (10 interceptions). Injuries and age (32 in November) make him a somewhat risky play in 2008. Henry made 76 tackles in 2004 and 81 in 2006 because he stayed healthy, but he was limited to 10 starts in 2005 (48 tackles) and 10 in 2007 (36 tackles). It's hard to expect a best-case scenario from Henry in 2008, though he has the potential to be a top- 10 player at his position if healthy.
OVERALL TOP 20
- Patrick Willis, ILB, San Francisco
- David Harris, ILB, New York Jets
- Nick Barnett, MLB, Green Bay
- DeMeco Ryans, MLB, Houston
- Leigh Bodden, DB, Detroit
- Trent Cole, DE, Philadelphia
- Sean Jones, SS, Cleveland
- Aaron Kampman, DE, Green Bay
- Jared Allen, DE, Kansas City
- Nate Clements, CB, San Francisco
- Mario Williams, DE, Houston
- Kirk Morrison, MLB, Oakland
- Zach Thomas, MLB, Dallas
- Jon Beason, MLB, Carolina
- Brian Urlacher, MLB, Chicago
- O.J. Atogwe, FS, St. Louis
- London Fletcher, MLB, Washington
- Adrian Wilson, SS, Arizona
- Angelo Crowell, SLB, Buffalo
- E.J. Henderson, MLB, Minnesota