There is one key statistic to keep in mind when evaluating individual defensive players(IDPs): 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 place 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.
Willis had a tremendous rookie season in 2007, totaling 174 tackles and four sacks. What's more, he played half the season with a broken hand. Willis' sack production is a bonus at a position where sacks are typically in short supply. Our main criticism (if you can call it that) is that he's not much of an interception threat, but you can't argue with this guy's nose for the ball. With tackles a prime category in most IDP leagues, you really can't do better than Willis. He's big, fast and has great instincts.
We might never know why the Man-genius didn't hand a starting role to Harris until Week 9. He still turned in monster numbers (122 tackles and five sacks) as a rookie, no less. Harris made 41 tackles (30 solo) in Weeks 8 and 9 alone. His upside is tremendous. In his nine starts, he averaged 11.3 tackles per game, about half a tackle per game more than the league-leading season pace of fellow rookie Patrick Willis. Assuming Harris can take the pounding for an entire season (we think he can, especially as a 24-year-old), then he should challenge Willis for the league lead in tackles this season. He possesses an enticing mix of speed, power and instincts.
3. Nick Barnett, MLB, Green Bay
Barnett made 131 tackles in 2007, just seven off his career high from 2005 and the third time in four seasons that he recorded 123 or more stops. Barnett is consistent and provides a modest boost in other categories (two interceptions in each of his last two campaigns and a career-high 3.5 sacks in 2007). Patrick Willis and David Harris are two great young tacklers, but Barnett isn't far behind and he's not over the hill at age 27. His best attribute is his agility, so his stock will drop once he loses a step. We don't think that will happen this season.
Ryans didn't match his incredible 155 tackles from 2006, but the second-year man was still tough in 2007 (127 tackles, two sacks, one interception). His decline seemed to be more related to the Texans' improvement on defense than any slip in skills. He'll be 24 when the season opens and figures to be in the 130-plus range in tackles in 2008. Ryans is a great tackler whose main downside is that he doesn't offer quite as much sack or interception potential as his elite colleagues. His motor is relentless and he has good field vision.
5. Kirk Morrison, MLB, Oakland
Morrison has been extremely consistent in the tackling department in three NFL seasons. He made 116 tackles as a rookie and 127 in 2006. Last season, he posted 119. Morrison had six interceptions the last two seasons, an impressive total for a linebacker. While he doesn't record quite as many tackles as his elite counterparts, Morrison makes up most of the difference with his interception potential. He has the ability to see the whole field and the speed to close gaps in a hurry.
6. Zach Thomas, MLB, Dallas
A head injury limited Thomas to five games in 2007 and marked the first time since 2000 that he appeared in fewer than 13 contests. Thomas has long been one of the most consistent tacklers in the NFL. He made between 145 and 165 tackles in each season from 2001 through 2006. Thomas' stock is diminished somewhat in 2008 because of his age (35 in September) and a 2007 concussion (though doctors have given him a clean bill of health). Still, don't wait too long on Thomas, who at age 34 still averaged 10.4 tackles in five games last year. He's not as fast as he used to be, but his instincts are up there with the best of them.
Like Patrick Willis and David Harris, Beason burst onto the scene as one of the NFL's elite rookie linebackers in 2007. He made 137 tackles and avoided the proverbial rookie wall. Beason actually got better down the stretch, compiling 10 or more tackles in six of his last nine games. He had one interception and no sacks, causing a slight downgrade due to lack of versatility, but Beason is clearly a great young tackler and should only get better. After pushing aside the oft-injured Dan Morgan last season, Beason doesn't have to worry about any competition this year as Morgan signed with New Orleans this offseason then subsequently retired.
8. Brian Urlacher, MLB, Chicago
It's funny to think of Urlacher as an elder statesman, but he turned 30 in May and seems even older than that considering the ages of other elite linebackers. But there's something to be said for a track record, and Urlacher certainly has that. He compiled 123 tackles in 2007, his third straight season with 121 or more. Except for an injury-shortened 2004 campaign, Urlacher has 116 or more tackles in every season since he entered the league in 2000. After going without a sack in 2006, Urlacher notched five last season, in line with his previous usual production. He has eight interceptions the past two years, including a career-high five last season. Clearly, Urlacher still has a lot of versatility to offer.
At age 33, Fletcher fits into the Zach Thomas and Brian Urlacher mold of elite tacklers over the age of 30. Last year was his eighth year as a starter, and Fletcher dipped below 130 tackles for only the second time, albeit barely (128). The main culprit was a weak finish that included only eight tackles over Washington's final two games. Fletcher made 142 or more tackles in four of the last five years, so there are early signs of a drop, but not a huge one by any means. Throw in his seven interceptions over the last two seasons and Fletcher shouldn't slip too far down your draft board. He still has enough speed to catch up to ball carriers.
10. Angelo Crowell, SLB, Buffalo
In his third year as a starter, Crowell recorded a career-high 126 tackles in 2007. He started 16 games for the first time in his career (12 in 2006; 13 in 2005). Crowell may have shown signs of fatigue down the stretch. He recorded five or fewer tackles in three of his last four games, but those games were played in adverse weather conditions and can't be taken too seriously. Overall, Crowell is a skilled tackler who should be nearing his physical peak (27 this season). He offers modest bonuses of multiple sacks in each of his last three seasons and five interceptions during that span. The Bills signed Kawika Mitchell in the offseason, but Crowell is expected to stay on the strong side.
11. E.J. Henderson, MLB, Minnesota
Henderson set career highs in tackles (118) and sacks (4.5) last season after moving from the weak side to middle linebacker. He also chipped in three forced fumbles and has steadily improved throughout his five-year career. Henderson might be at his physical peak this season (he will turn 28 in August). He has totaled 7.5 sacks over the last two seasons, but might not receive as many pass-rushing opportunities this season with the addition of defensive end Jared Allen and the overall strength of Minnesota's defensive line. Henderson should be considered mainly as a tackler, something he does very well.
12. Michael Boley, SLB, Atlanta
Boley is a well-rounded player who offers significant upside. He has improved markedly each of his three NFL seasons and won't turn 26 until late August. Boley started 16 games last season for the first time and netted 102 tackles, four forced fumbles, three sacks and two interceptions. That versatility is a nice bonus at a position where all-around play is important. If Boley continues on his current trajectory, 120 tackles are well within reach. Boley was arrested and charged with assault in May, which likely will result in some form of punishment from the team.
Sims is still young (he won't turn 24 until Dec. 23) and has averaged 129 tackles in his first two NFL seasons. His contributions in other categories are minimal, but his strong tackling makes that less relevant. He added 10 overall tackles and 16 solo tackles last season to his rookie numbers. We'd like to see some more consistency -- he made eight or more stops in 11 games but five or fewer in four contests last year -- but we can't be too picky over the long haul. He ranked fourth in the NFL last season in tackles and is boosted by teammate Paris Lenon, who tied for 14th in the league last year and takes some heat off Sims. This allows Sims to use his excellent speed to track down the ball carrier.
14. Barrett Ruud, MLB, Tampa Bay
In his first year as a starter, Ruud burst onto the IDP scene with 114 tackles and two interceptions in 2007 as Tampa Bay's middle linebacker. He's only 25 and offers tremendous upside. Ruud could have been more consistent last season -- he mixed seven double-digit tackle performances with five games of five or fewer stops -- but such is often the case with young players, especially first-time starters. And Ruud was bothered by a lingering minor knee injury, which also might have been a factor. Look for more improvement from Ruud in 2008; he could easily exceed 120 tackles.
15. David Thornton, OLB, Tennessee
Thornton racked up 122 tackles in 2007, his best total since 2003. Thornton also chipped in two interceptions and a sack, but the real story is his tackling ability, which has been impressive, especially for an outside linebacker. Thornton averaged 115 tackles over the last two seasons. He has a great nose for the ball and should continue to post strong tackling numbers and minimal stats in other categories.
Dansby avoided drama in 2007, one year after he groused that a thumb injury might end his career and publicly feuded with then-head coach Dennis Green on a variety of subjects. Under rookie head coach Ken Whisenhunt, Dansby made a career-high 98 tackles in 2007 in just 14 games. The 26-year-old threw in 3.5 sacks and three interceptions and received Arizona's 2008 franchise tag. That could be a good thing for Dansby, who thrived under contract-year pressure in 2007. If he continues to rise toward his high potential, Dansby could be in for a huge pay day next spring. He has all of the tools to be successful: size, speed and instincts.
17. Morlon Greenwood, WLB, Houston
Greenwood racked up a career-high 118 tackles (90 solo) in 2007. A consistent tackler, he's posted between 108 and 118 stops in each of his last four campaigns. Greenwood will turn 30 in July and has probably reached his physical peak, but his consistency reduces our fears of a sharp drop in performance. Greenwood should be in triple digits in tackles once again this season, but don't count on much in the other statistical categories, especially with the cornerstones of a good young defense in place in Houston.
18. Ray Lewis, ILB, Baltimore
Lewis fought through a litany of injuries last season to post his fourth 100-plus tackle campaign in the last five years. He finished with 120 stops, his highest total since 2004, and he did so in only 14 games. Age (33) and injuries are a legitimate concern for Lewis, who missed two games in 2007, two in 2006 and 11 in 2005. He's still a threat for 120 or more tackles, though, and he usually adds a couple sacks and interceptions. He can't make up ground like he used to, although Lewis is still a fast, powerful player with great instincts.
19. Will Witherspoon, MLB, St. Louis
Witherspoon turned in his third triple-digit tackle season over the last four campaigns in 2007. He finished with 110 stops (three shy of his career high) and seven sacks. Those sacks were more than double his previous career high of three, which was set in 2004 and matched in 2006. The Rams' defense was bad last season, which meant that Witherspoon had to carry a heavy load and received a lot of attention from opposing teams. The unit should be better this season, especially on the defensive line, where a lot is expected from first-round draft pick Chris Long and Leonard Little who will return from an injury-shortened 2007 campaign. That might cut down Witherspoon's sack opportunities, but conversely, it could allow him to focus more on making tackles as a linebacker. Witherspoon is 28 this season and should be at or near his physical peak.
Ware led all linebackers with 14 sacks in 2007. He also added four forced fumbles to his 84 tackles. One of the NFL's foremost sack threats, Ware increased his total from eight sacks as a rookie to 11.5 in 2006 to 14 last season. He also increased his tackles by 13 each season, though 84 is still low for a linebacker. That can be explained by the fact that head coach Wade Phillips employs a 3-4 format that often utilizes Ware as a pass-rushing linebacker. In many ways, Ware plays like a defensive end. He has great speed, although he is undersized at 251 pounds. Don't ignore Ware too long because he's a monster in the sack category and especially useful for a flex IDP position.
21. Gerald Hayes, MLB, Arizona
In his second year as a starter last season, Hayes again approached 100 tackles, posting 97 stops after 94 the previous year. His sacks jumped from one to four and he also made three interceptions. Hayes, who turns 28 in October, could reach triple-digit tackles in 2008, but he needs to improve his week-to-week consistency. He had five or fewer tackles in nine games last season; in five other games, he had four or fewer. Hayes was sometimes the forgotten man in Arizona last season, with fellow linebackers Karlos Dansby and Calvin Pace eating up a lot of the stats at times. Since Pace has left for the Jets, Hayes should have more opportunities to use his speed to make plays in 2008.
Hawk made 119 tackles as a rookie in 2006 and came close in 2007, recording 104. He has started all 32 regular season games since he entered the league, a good sign of durability. Hawk dipped from 3.5 sacks and two interceptions in 2006 to one and one, respectively, in 2007. He's a tackler first and foremost, and he's a good one, but his numbers suffered because Nick Barnett was healthy all year. Expect him to eclipse the century mark once again this season and he could go much higher if something happens to Barnett.
23. Paris Lenon, MLB, Detroit
In his second year since moving from strong-side linebacker to the middle, Lenon improved to 116 tackles in 2007. He added two sacks, two forced fumbles, an interception and a touchdown. Ernie Sims' presence helps Lenon avoid double teams; Sims ranked fourth in the league in tackles last year and Lenon tied for 14th. Lenon is 30 years old but he has never missed a game in his six-year NFL career, and with less than three years as a starter, he hasn't taken as many licks as most linebackers his age. He might not exceed his 2007 totals, but he should turn in similar numbers.
Pierce is unheralded around the NFL and even on his own team. In four years as a starter, he has turned in the following tackle totals: 110, 98, 139 and 102. If not for a three-game absence in 2005, he would certainly have four straight 100-tackle seasons and probably 110 or more in three of his last four campaigns. He's unheralded in part because he doesn't contribute many sacks or interceptions, and in part because the Giants have a solid defensive corps with several bigger names. Pierce is a hard worker that makes up for average skills. He will turn 30 in October, but his age isn't a significant concern.
Williams moved to the inside last season and responded with a career-high 141 tackles. This season, though, he could shift to the weak side, replacing the departed Ian Gold, with free agent Niko Koutouvides playing middle linebacker. That could mean fewer tackles, but Williams works well in space, and in his rookie year he excelled on the weak side, which offers the most space of any linebacker position. Wherever his spot, he has enough strength, quickness and technique to offer fantasy value. Check the situation through training camp to see where Williams ends up and adjust accordingly.
Shawne Merriman, OLB, San Diego
Lofa Tatupu, MLB, Seattle
Calvin Pace, OLB, New York Jets
James Harrison, OLB, Pittsburgh
Scott Fujita, SLB, New Orleans
D'Qwell Jackson, ILB, Cleveland
Mike Vrabel, OLB, New England
James Farrior, ILB, Pittsburgh
Gary Brackett, MLB, Indianapolis
Keith Rivers, WLB, Cincinnati
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-Baker, MLB, Washington
- Adrian Wilson, SS, Arizona
- Angelo Crowell, SLB, Buffalo
- E.J. Henderson, MLB, Minnesota