Are Individual Defensive Players Truly the Most Inconsistent in Fantasy Football?

Lawrence Timmons was a top-20 linebacker in balanced IDP scoring last year, but was startable just 53.3% of the time. Is he the norm for IDP?

If you’ve read much of my work over the last year and a half that I’ve been writing for numberFire, you’ll know that I fancy myself a sort of “mythbuster” when it comes to old adages and assumptions about football and fantasy football. I like to take ideas that people often blindly believe, and explore them statistically to see whether or not they hold up.

I just don’t have nearly the budget for explosives that the TV show does.

One of the things I am very passionate about is my defense of the Individual Defensive Player (IDP) format as an integral part of the fantasy football landscape. In what other place can you truly be proud of your defensive unit, instead of trying to remember which D/ST you streamed in this week?

To this point, I have often heard critiques of IDP as “highly inconsistent”, and therefore a reason why people shouldn’t play the format. It got me wondering: are IDP truly the most inconsistent fantasy players on a week-to-week basis?

Crash Test Dummy

In my first two articles on IDP for numberFire, last week, I compared IDP scoring systems to highlight the pros and cons of each. Some are inherently less stable than others in their high-value players (big-play scoring, especially), but that is part of the appeal in leagues that value it. For the purposes of this study, I will use the semi-standard balanced scoring system for IDP: one point per tackle, three points per sack, four points per turnover made, one point per pass defensed. As we know, this system sees an even amount of stability and upside for its players, due to the balance between big plays and steady tackle count.

Similarly, there is variation between scoring systems for offense. I decided to split the difference and use standard scoring with just one tweak: half-point PPR. This will help to adjust in favor of the reliable target hogs like Jarvis Landry and Randall Cobb, but won’t diminish long-ball specialists like Jeremy Maclin and Mike Wallace. Since most standard leagues also use a kicker and team defense, I included those in the study for reference as well.

I plotted out the fantasy scores for each of these positions, and then determined their weekly ranks among their positional peers. From there, I determined a “startable” and “elite” percentage for each player. Startable, in our terms, is ranking as a top 16 option for quarterbacks, tight ends, kickers, team defenses, and defensive tackles. For running backs, defensive ends, cornerbacks, and safeties, this is top 32. For wide receivers, startable is top 48, and for linebackers, it is top 64.

Elite simply means the top 10 percent of startable options at the position.

Boom! Goes the Dynamite

Let’s look at the numbers then, shall we? The table below shows 2014’s fantasy results in terms of the average Startable and Elite Percentages of a top-16 player (in total fantasy points) at each position. Which are the most consistent positions in fantasy?

Position Start% Elite%
QB 11.25% 61.25%
RB 14.17% 71.25%
WR 18.75% 78.33%
TE 10.83% 51.67%
PK 11.25% 66.67%
D/ST 11.25% 60.42%
DE 15.42% 66.25%
DT 11.67% 50.00%
LB 15.83% 78.75%
CB 9.17% 52.50%
S 11.67% 58.33%

It just goes to show that if you don’t check your work, you might get the problem wrong. One defensive position – defensive tackles – does rank the lowest of all in Startable Percentage, and cornerbacks and safeties are not far behind, but this is why we recommend you don’t invest highly in those positions.

Tight ends are actually the second-lowest position in terms of startable consistency, and the fifth is the cursed team defense. Brandon Gdula, our lead editor, recently confirmed the “Gronk or bust” strategy among tight ends, and team defense has been notoriously inconsistent and matchup-based for years.

Among our most consistent, the linebacker is king of startability, with wide receivers coming in second, and running backs in third. Even if we adjust linebackers to have the same starting requirements as standard wide receivers, they still have an Elite Percentage of 12.50%, and a Startable Percentage of 71.25 – nearly identical to running backs.

The Science Gets Done

What does this mean in a practical sense? There’s a wide range of consistency and startability across positions in fantasy football. In taking on one format or another, you take on a certain level of risk with those players. That risk, however, is fairly even between offensive players and IDP.

We build our teams around wide receivers because of their shocking consistency, and we do the same with linebackers in IDP. It’s no secret that running backs are still incredibly valuable in fantasy, which is why the most consistent ones are coveted, and the same goes for the elite defensive ends in IDP. Everyone ignores kickers and team defense until the last rounds, just like the smart IDP player ignores his defensive backs until late.

The whole lesson of this is that you should not let the myth of inconsistency dissuade you from playing a format that makes fantasy football a holistic experience. In any one week, Eric Berry of the Chiefs may pick off three passes, the same way that Khiry Robinson of the Saints might rumble in for three touchdowns. Some IDP’s are more inconsistent than others, but the same goes for standard fantasy positions.

Just, please: don’t play with team defense, whatever you do.