Fantasy Football: Top 25 IDP's for 2013

Mike MattesContributor IIIJuly 20, 2013

Fantasy Football: Top 25 IDP's for 2013

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    It's time to get a little defensive about fantasy football.

    No, I don't mean it's time to come up with lame and over-the-top excuses for your worst picks from last season in order to defend yourself from the onslaught of ridicule that's sure to be fired your way at the upcoming draft (it's cool, it happens to all of us).

    Rather, I mean it's time to give some shine to the top fantasy players on the defensive side of the ball.

    While the vast majority of fantasy football leagues still only give credence to individual players on the offensive side of the ball and simply go with the tried-and-true overall defense/special teams format, the popularity of individual defensive players (IDP's) has risen over the past few years as fantasy sports continue to explode.

    And why shouldn't they? These guys grind it out every week just as much as the offensive stars, and this piece is for owners who play in leagues that reward these defensive studs with the recognition they so rightly deserve.

    So, here is my list of the top 25 IDP's for 2013. (You can find last year's rankings here.) And remember, these rankings are aimed toward leagues that actually award points for tackles, instead of only acknowledging sacks, interceptions and touchdowns.

    Just as a point of reference, these rankings are based off of a typical IDP scoring system (such as this one listed on NFL.com): 0.5 points per assisted tackle, 1.0 points per solo tackle, 1.0 points per pass defensed, 2.0 points per sack, 2.0 points per any turnover (interception, forced fumble or fumble recovery), 2.0 per safety and 6.0 points per touchdown.

    As a result, you will see a lot of linebackers on this list followed by a few defensive linemen and barely any defensive backs. While you certainly can tweak your points system to create a more balanced field, I am basing these rankings off of the most common type of system.

    Read on to find out the list, and be sure to leave some comments below. After all, what's fantasy football without the banter?

     

    * All statistics courtesy of ESPN.com, unless otherwise noted.

1. Luke Kuechly, LB, Carolina Panthers

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    2011 Stats: N/A

    2012 Stats: 164 TACK (103 solo, 61 AST), 1.0 SACK, 2 INT, 0 FF, 3 FR, 8 PD, 0 TD

     

    Though it was hard for me to rank a second-year player so highly, it wasn't when I remembered that it was Luke Kuechly whom I was referring to.

    This guy is simply a machine. Yes, the term "machine" may be a bit trite when it comes to talking about defensive stars, but Kuechly has been one of the most efficient tacklers that the game of football has seen in quite some time, dating back to his days at Boston College.

    Not only did he lead the NFL in tackles as a rookie last season with 164, but he also led the NCAA in tackles during his final two seasons in college. Oh, and his total tackle numbers in those two years were 183 and 191, respectively.

    Yeah, the dude can wrap people up.

    Kuechly may not provide much in the way of turnovers or sacks, but his tackle totals and consistent play are enough to cement his status at the No. 1 defensive fantasy option in 2013. Plus, with the improvements that Carolina made along its defensive front this offseason, Kuechly may see his numbers climb even higher.

    This guy could ultimately become one of the best linebackers that the game has ever seen; I truly believe that.

2. NaVorro Bowman, LB, San Francisco 49ers

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    2011 Stats: 143 TACK (111 solo, 32 AST), 2.0 SACK, 0 INT, 0 FF, 3 FR, 8 PD, 0 TD

    2012 Stats: 148 TACK (96 solo, 53 AST), 2.0 SACK, 1 INT, 1 FF, 0 FR, 6 PD, 0 TD

     

    There's a new leader in the 49ers linebacking corps.

    While Patrick Willis still remains the heart and soul of the San Francisco 49ers defense and one of the top linebackers in the league, it is NaVorro Bowman, three years Willis' junior, that has taken over as the most dangerous defender in the Bay Area.

    Again, no disrespect to Willis, but Bowman has 291 tackles over the past two seasons, compared to Willis' 217, and he also has four sacks over that spana decent total for a guy who also gets such a high amount of tackles.

    With such an incredibly talented defense surrounding himwhich includes two other guys who appear on this list, with one of them being WillisBowman should continue to wreak havoc in 2013.

    Much like Kuechly, Bowman will not get you very many points in the sacks or interceptions department, but his extremely high and consistent tackle totals make him a very rare asset and one of the top defensive studs in the league.

    He is also one of only two players who made the top five on this list for two years in a row, and there is no reason to think that he won't make it three straight appearances next season.

     

3. James Laurinaitis, LB, St. Louis Rams

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    2011 Stats: 142 TACK (105 solo, 37 AST), 3.0 SACK, 2 INT, 0 FF, 1 FR 7 PD 0 TD

    2012 Stats: 142 TACK (117 solo, 25 AST), 0.5 SACK, 2 INT, 0 FF, 1 FR, 4 PD, 0 TD

     

    There was actually quite a bit of temptation to put James Laurinaitis at No. 1 on this list, because he presents the best all-around ability of any of the top four linebackers, but his uncharacteristically low sack total from last season slides him in at No. 3.

    Regardless, this guy is a beastwhich should come as no surprise since his dad is WWE Hall of Famer Road Warrior Animal. Animal instincts and the ability to lay the wood is simply in his blood.

    While his two straight seasons of over 140 tackles are impressive enough, his 8.5 career sacks and seven career interceptions in just four seasons are phenomenal for a guy who plays primarily on the inside. What's even more impressive is the fact that Laurinaitis is only 26 years old, and we still may have not seen the very best of him yet.

    If he can bring his sack total back up to around three or more this season and continue to put up over 140 tackles, I think it'd be safe to label Laurinaitis as the best all-around linebacker in the game.

     

4. Chad Greenway, LB, Minnesota Vikings

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    2011 Stats: 154 TACK (89 solo, 65 AST), 2.0 SACK, 0 INT, 0 FF, 1 FR, 2 PD, 0 TD

    2012 Stats: 148 TACK (98 solo, 50 AST), 3.0 SACK, 1 INT, 0 FF, 2 FR, 4 PD, 0 TD

     

    Chad Greenway is easily one of the most underappreciated players in the entire NFL.

    Here's a guy who has recorded over 140 tackles for three straight seasons and has served as the leader of a very disrespected Vikings defense. Not only that, but his five sacks over the past two seasons and his 5.5-sack output from 2008 demonstrate his excellent pass-rushing skills.

    Furthermore, his 71-game start streak shows how durable he is, and this durability coupled with his perennially high tackle numbers proves his status one of the most consistent and reliable defenders in the game.

    He is the last of the Holy Quadruplet of linebackers on this year's list, as these first four guys are truly in a class of their own.

    Now on to the rest...

5. J.J. Watt, DL, Houston Texans

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    2011 Stats: 56 TACK (48 solo, 8 AST), 5.5 SACK, 0 INT, 0 FF, 2 FR, 4 PD, 0 TD

    2012 Stats: 81 TACK (69 solo, 12 AST), 20.5 SACK, 0 INT, 4 FF, 2 FR, 16 PD, 0 TD

     

    The 2012 NFL Defensive Player of the Year tops in at No. 5 on this list because, remember, fantasy football value and actual NFL football value are two very different entities.

    It is actually J.J. Watt's astronomical sack total from last season that places him within the top five IDP's. That is not to say that 81 tackles is anything to scoff atin fact, it is an extremely high total for a defensive linemanbut it is his almost-record-breaking sack total that awards him such high praise. Also, his 16 passes defensed last year are absolutely absurd for a defensive lineman, as the telephone poles that he calls his arms allow him to bat passes down at the line like no one else.

    Watt is simply a freak of nature, and his freakish athleticism to go along with his monstrous frame is something that does not come around often.

    Not only will he provide you with the most balanced production out of anyone on this list, but he also forced four fumbles last year, recovering two of them. At some point, he is bound to take one to the house.

    With his non-stop motor and phenomenal skill set, Watt is easily the best defensive lineman availableand that should come as a surprise to no one.

     

6. Jerod Mayo, LB, New England Patriots

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    2011 Stats: 95 TACK (58 solo, 37 AST), 1.0 SACK, 2 INT, 1 FF, 0 FR, 4 PD, 0 TD (14 games)

    2012 Stats: 147 TACK (88 solo, 59 AST), 3.0 SACK, 1 INT, 4 FF, 1 FR, 3 PD, 0 TD

     

    In his first five seasons, Jerod Mayo failed to record at least 100 tackles only once, and that was only because he missed two games during his 95-tackle output of 2011. Oh, and that performance was one year after he posted an astounding 175 tackles in 2010.

    Simply put, this guy is good.

    The main reason why he is not included in the same class as the first four linebackers on this list is due to his inconsistent sack totals. Since his zero-sack effort in his rookie campaign, Mayo's sack numbers have looked like this: 1.5 (2009); 2.0 (2010); 1.0 (2011); 3.0 (2012).

    Much of this has to do with the fact that he is the leader of the Patriots defense, and as such, he is often used in a variety of roles within the team's defensive scheme due to Bill Belichick's insistence on versatility. As a result, it is tough to gauge exactly how much you can rely upon Mayo to help you in the sack and turnover department.

    Mayo has also missed five games in the past four seasons, which is really not that high of a total. But it is still more than the top four linebackers, who have missed a combined total of zero games throughout their careers.

    Still, Mayo is one rung below those other four guys, and you can always count on a very high tackle output from him on a year-to-year basis. He is one of the smartest players in the league, and anyone should be happy to have him as their LB1 this season.

7. Paul Posluszny, LB, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    2011 Stats: 119 TACK (69 solo, 50 AST), 2.0 SACK, 2 INT, 1 FF, 0 FR, 9 PD, 0 TD

    2012 Stats: 139 TACK (106 solo, 33 AST), 2.0 SACK, 3 INT, 2 FF, 0 FR, 7 PD, 0 TD

     

    Paul Posluszny is the perfect example of a great player on a bad teamand it has been this way throughout his entire career.

    After playing his first four seasons in Buffalo and the past two in Jacksonville, you'd think the guy might lose a little motivation to perform after being in some historically bad situations. Yet he continues to be a beast, year after year, as he has recorded at least 110 tackles in every season since 2008, including producing a combined 409 of them over the past three seasons.

    The 28-year-old also seems to have a knack for picking off opposing quarterbacks. This is evidenced by the fact that he recorded his second career three-interception effort in 2012 and has a total of five picks over the past two seasons.

    Furthermore, you know that you can count on at least two sacks per year out of Posluszny since that is the exact total that he has recorded in said department in each of the past three seasons. Plus, with Gus Bradley taking over as head coach this year, Posluszny may have even more of a chance to pin his ears back and get after the quarterback in 2013.

    Sure, some of you may have never even heard of this guy, but I promise that you will be stoked to have him on your squad.

8. D'Qwell Jackson, LB, Cleveland Browns

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    2011 Stats: 158 TACK (116 solo, 42 AST), 3.5 SACK, 1 INT, 1 FF, 3 FR 3 PD, 0 TD

    2012 Stats: 118 TACK (63 solo, 55 AST), 3.5 SACK, 2 INT, 2 FF, 2 FR, 7 PD, 1 TD

     

    It's a bit of a fall from grace for my No. 1-ranked IDP from last season, but D'Qwell Jackson is still one of the best players available.

    Though his tackles numbers took a bit of dip last seasonfrom 158 in 2011 to 118 in 2012his past two full-season tackle totals prior to last year were both north of 150.

    Also, Jackson has produced 3.5 sacks in each of the past two seasons to go along with a combined three interceptions. He is also the only player on this list so far to have a touchdown last year, and his five combined fumble recoveries in the past two seasons demonstrate how he is always around the ball.

    With the great players that were added along the Browns defensive front this offseason, I expect Jackson's tackle numbers to reascend to their previous totals. He could easily become a top-three IDP again next season with a better overall performance in 2013.

9. London Fletcher, LB, Washington Redskins

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    2011 Stats: 166 TACK (96 solo, 70 AST), 1.5 SACK, 2 INT, 3 FF, 0 FR, 8 PD, 0 TD

    2012 Stats: 139 TACK (78 solo, 61 AST), 3.0 SACK, 5 INT, 1 FF, 0 FR, 11 PD, 0 TD

     

    Raise your hand if you're getting sick of seeing linebackers.

    I know, I know; everyone wants to grab the sexy sack artist or the electric ball-hawking defensive back because it looks cool. But remember, this is fantasy football, and total tackles still reign supreme. Hence, the run on linebackers.

    And perhaps there is no other player that better exemplifies exactly what a team looks for in a linebacker than the 38-year-old London Fletcher. This is a man who has averaged 140 tackles per season since the year 2000, including a 166-tackle effort in 2011. He also had a career-high five picks last season to go along with his three sacks, and there is not much that this guy can't do.

    Not only that, but throughout his illustrious 15-year career, he has never missed a gameseriously, not one freakin' game.

    But age may finally be catching up to Fletcher, as he underwent two different surgeries this offseasonone on his elbow and the other on his ankle. Still, this guy is an absolute warrior, and he said back in May that feels "right on schedule to be ready" for the start of the 2013 season.

    While age may finally begin to factor into Fletcher's play this season, there is no doubt that he is still one of the very best defenders in the game. He is still a LB1 in any league, without question.

     

10. Lavonte David, LB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    2011 Stats: N/A

    2012 Stats: 139 TACK (112 solo, 27 AST), 2.0 SACK, 1 INT, 0 FF, 0 FR, 5 PD, 0 TD

     

    Lavonte David was actually one of my favorite prospects available in the 2012 NFL draft, as he always seemed to be involved in every single play on the field during his time at Nebraska and displayed an intelligence that is not often found in such a young defender.

    While his 2.0 sacks, one interception and zero fumble recoveries last season seem to contradict such high praise, his blazing speed and incredible smarts allow him to cover the entire field of play and never be out of position. David really is one of the smartest players in the league.

    Expect his tackle numbers to increase this season, as he will only become more knowledgeable in his second year. And with the additions of All-Pro safety Dashon Goldson along with All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis this offseason, even less attention should be on David this year, allowing him to roam free and wreak even more havoc.

    If you couldn't already tell, I am completely enamored with this guy's ability, and he is someone to keep an eye on in 2013.

     

11. Bobby Wagner, LB, Seattle Seahawks

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    2011 Stats: N/A

    2012 Stats: 140 TACK (87 solo, 53 AST), 2.0 SACK, 3 INT, 0 FF, 0 FR, 4 PD, 0 TD

     

    If not for the fact that Bobby Wagner will only be entering his second season, his numbers from last season would have warranted a much higher spot on this list. Wagner surprised many with his outstanding rookie campaign last year after being selected in the second round by Seattle in 2012.

    Not only are his 140 tackles impressive for a first-year player, but his two sacks and three picks show that he is someone who can be relied upon to make big plays all over the field.

    Furthermore, he plays on the best defense in the league. I don't care what anyone says; Seattle's defense is absolutely disgusting (in a good way), and nobody even comes close to matching the talent that they have on that side of the ball—no, not even San Francisco.

    As a result, Wagner should only improve upon his stellar rookie year. But as with any young player, proceed with caution when drafting him and make sure you have a backup plan in case he puts forth a subpar sophomore campaign.

12. Jerrell Freeman, LB, Indianapolis Colts

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    2011 Stats: N/A

    2012 Stats: 145 TACK (90 solo, 55 AST), 2.0 SACK, 1 INT, 1 FF, 0 FR, 2 PD, 1 TD

     

    Jerrell Freeman is the last of the second-year players to make it on this year's list, proving that 2012 was quite the year for rookie linebackers. Much like David and Wagner, Freeman's numbers from 2012 may warrant a higher ranking, but again, he will only be entering his second season this year.

    Still, for a team that lost so much leadership and talent before last season, Freeman stepped up in a big way during a very trying and emotional year in Indianapolis. Whereas Andrew Luck served as the leader of the offense, Freeman was one of the spark plugs on defense that helped lead the Colts to a very unlikely playoff berth.

    With former franchise cornerstone Dwight Freeney now in San Diego, Freeman, along with Robert Mathis and Antoine Bethea, will need to serve as one of the top leaders on defense once again this season.

    While you could certainly ask for more in the turnover and sack department, you know the tackle numbers will be there. And who knows? Maybe he'll find himself in the right place at the right time more often next season and a few more picks could come via the second-year linebacker.

    Either way, Freeman's non-stop motor should ensure that he has a successful sophomore campaign.

13. Von Miller, LB, Denver Broncos

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    2011 Stats: 64 TACK (50 solo, 14 AST), 11.5 SACK, 0 INT, 2 FF, 0 FR, 4 PD, 0 TD

    2012 Stats: 68 TACK (55 solo, 13 AST), 18.5 SACK, 1 INT, 6 FF, 0 FR, 2 PD, 1 TD

     

    Yup, we have another linebacker.

    But here is where we begin to see a new breed of 'backer come into playa breed that does not focus so much on extremely high tackle numbers, but rather a breed that combines modest tackle numbers with incredible sack totals.

    Von Miller is the best player out of this group, as he is one of the brightest young stars in the game today.

    After being selected with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft, all Miller did to thank the Broncos was record 132 tackles and 30 sacks in his first two seasons, the third-highest sack total in NFL history through a player's first two years.

    Again, he will not record very high tackle numbers, but he will certainly get you sacks, and his one interception, six forced fumbles and one touchdown from last year demonstrate that he can also get you some points in a few other areas.

    After the top tackle-heavy linebackers are all gone, Miller should be the next linebacker off the board.

14. Aldon Smith, LB, San Francisco 49ers

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    2011 Stats: 37 TACK (31 solo, 6 AST), 14.0 SACK, 0 INT, 2 FF, 1 FR, 4 PD, 0 TD

    2012 Stats: 66 TACK (50 solo, 16 AST), 19.5 SACK, 1 INT, 3 FF, 0 FR, 1 PD, 0 TD

     

    While Miller may have the third-highest sack total in NFL history through a player's first two seasons, it is actually Aldon Smith who is No. 1 on that list with 33.5. Smith's 19.5 sacks from last season were also one more than Miller's 18.5so why in the world is Smith ranked lower?

    Much of that has to do with the fact that Smith has 29 less tackles than Miller over the past two seasons. But even more so, it has to do with the fact that Smith's production absolutely plummeted after his team's Week 11 matchup with the Chicago Bears last season.

    From Week 12 onward, Smith mustered up only 4.5 sacks, including going sack-less in the team's final three regular-season games. He also failed to record one single sack in the postseason and only had a total of five tackles. His stock has certainly been trending downward since last November.

    Still, there is no denying this guy's incredible talent. And on a defense as star-studded as the one in San Francisco, I have no doubt that Smith will be around the 60-tackle/15-to-20-sack mark once again in 2013.

     

15. Derrick Johnson, LB, Kansas City Chiefs

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    2011 Stats: 131 TACK (104 solo, 27 AST), 2.0 SACK, 2 INT, 1 FF, 1 FR, 9 PD, 0 TD

    2012 Stats: 125 TACK (110 solo, 15 AST), 2.0 SACK, 0 INT, 3 FF, 0 FR, 4 PD, 0 TD

     

    Derrick Johnson is another player who is vastly underrated.

    Though he had a few solid seasons early on in his career, Johnson never lived up to the status of being a top-15 pick until 2010, when he posted his first 100-plus tackle season. Just to put things in perspective, since the beginning of the 2010 season, Johnson has compiled 377 total tackles, 10 less than the 387 tackles that he put up in his first five seasons combined.

    Like a fine wine, this guy just seems to get better with age.

    Sure, he may never be a 140-plus tackle guy, but his 120 to 135 tackles a year are still pretty solid. And while his 2.0 sacks and zero interceptions from last season may not impress you too much, perhaps you may not know that he has 18.0 sacks, nine picks and three touchdowns for his career. His 11 passes defensed in the past two seasons aren't too shabby either, and he is undoubtedly one of the best all-around defenders in the game. Rest assured, this guy can ball.

    Things have finally seemed to click for the 30-year-old linebacker, and he is showing no real signs of slowing down any time soon.

16. Curtis Lofton, LB, New Orleans Saints

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    2011 Stats: 147 TACK (87 solo, 60 AST), 1.0 SACK, 2 INT, 1 FF, 1 FR, 7 PD, 1 TD

    2012 Stats: 123 TACK (82 solo, 41 AST), 1.0 SACK, 0 INT, 2 FF, 2 FR, 7 PD, 0 TD

     

    Curtis Lofton is actually a lot better than last season's numbers would indicate. That is not to say that last season's performance was anything to be embarrassed about, but it certainly is not indicative of the level that Lofton is truly capable of performing at.

    Before joining the Saints last season, Lofton compiled a combined 398 tackles over his past three seasons in Atlanta. The guy is a tackling machine, and you should expect to see his total amount of wrap-ups jump back into the 130 to 140 range in 2013, perhaps even higher.

    Unfortunately, he does not really provide much value in other areas. Lofton has recorded more than one sack in a season just once in his career (2010), and even then, it was only a total of two. Also, though he had two picks in 2011, he has just one other career interception in five seasons, although his 14 passes defensed in the past two seasons are pretty noteworthy.

    Again, Lofton is very talented and will certainly get you some points in the tackle department, but his low totals in the other key areas keep him on the bottom half of this list.

17. Morgan Burnett, DB, Green Bay Packers

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    2011 Stats: 107 TACK (78 solo, 29 AST), 1.0 SACK, 3 INT, 2 FF, 2 FR, 11 PD, 0 TD

    2012 Stats: 123 TACK (88 solo, 35 AST), 2.0 SACK, 2 INT, 2 FF, 1 FR, 5 PD, 0 TD

     

    Finally, we have a defensive back.

    Morgan Burnett has been one of the league's top safeties during the past two seasons, although not many fans may be aware of it.

    Not only has he posted two straight 100-plus tackle seasons, but his 123 wrap-ups last year were the most of any safety in the league. As he gets set to enter his fourth NFL season, he only seems to be getting better.

    Furthermore, the nature of his position allows him to be in a great spot to net you a lot of points in the interception and passes defensed department as well. He might also add in a few sacks, too, just for good measure.

    Burnett is part of a very young and very underrated Packers secondary that could be ready to take the next step in 2013, and his combination of tackling ability and ball-hawking skills makes him a very rare commodity in the fantasy world.

18. Patrick Willis, LB, San Francisco 49ers

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    2011 Stats: 97 TACK (74 solo, 23 AST), 2.0 SACK, 1 INT, 4 FF, 2 FR, 12 PD, 0 TD

    2012 Stats: 120 TACK (88 solo, 32 AST), 0.5 SACK, 2 INT, 2 FF, 1 FR, 9 PD, 0 TD

     

    The third and final San Francisco 49er to make this list is none other than everyone's favorite linebacker, Patrick Willis.

    While I previously mentioned that NaVorro Bowman may now be the best linebacker in the Bay, there is no doubt that Willis is still the true leader of the 49ers devastating defense. He is still one of the most intelligent, hardworking and passionate linebackers in the game, but there is no doubt that his numbers have slipped a bit over the past three seasons.

    Though he missed three games due to injury in 2011, Willis' total tackle numbers over the past three seasons are 128, 97 and 120, respectively. That is quite a bit of a drop-off from the 150-plus tackle seasons that he produced earlier in his career. Also, after compiling a combined total of 10 sacks in 2009 and 2010, he has produced a total of just 2.5 sacks over the past two seasons. 

    However, he is one of the most intelligent defenders in the game, and it would not be a surprise to see his sack totals reascend and his picks to keep increasing. He is used in coverage quite a bit, and his 21 passes defensed over the past two seasons are quite impressive, which is another area where Willis can get you some points.

    Willis is still the heart and soul of San Fran's defense, and he is still a solid fantasy option, but he is getting close to losing his elite LB1 status.

     

19. Jared Allen, DL, Minnesota Vikings

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    2011 Stats: 66 TACK (48 solo, 18 AST), 22.0 SACK, 1 INT, 4 FF, 4 FR, 3 PD, 0 TD

    2012 Stats: 45 TACK (35 solo, 10 AST), 12.0 SACK, 0 INT, 1 FF, 1 FR, 3 PD, 0 TD

     

    Already one of the all-time great sack artists in NFL history, it is scary to think that Jared Allen is still only 31 years old.

    After an incredible 22-sack season in 2011, Allen did see his total drop to 12.0 sacks last season, but he is still one of the best and most consistent pass-rushers you could ever find.

    What is more concerning is that after two straight 60-plus tackle seasons, his wrap-up total dipped to 45 last year. While that is still a pretty good total for a D-lineman, you would like to see a bit more from him in 2013. Otherwise, his spot on this list could be in jeopardy.

    Regardless, Allen has been one of the most feared defensive linemen of the past decade, and he is easily one of the best DL1’s available. After J.J Watt, Allen should be the next defensive lineman off the board.

20. Clay Matthews, LB, Green Bay Packers

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    2011 Stats: 50 TACK (37 solo, 13 AST), 6.0 SACK, 3 INT, 3 FF, 0 FR, 9 PD, 1 TD

    2012 Stats: 43 TACK (32 solo, 11 AST), 13.0 SACK, 0 INT, 1 FF, 0 FR, 2 PD, 0 TD (12 games)

     

    Besides being known for some of the best lettuce in the game (seriously, just look at that flow), Clay Matthews also proved that he truly is one of the game’s elite pass-rushers last season after a subpar effort in 2011. Even more impressive was the fact that he did so by posting 40-plus tackles and 13.0 sacks in only 12 games.

    Matthews came back in a big way in 2012, even while being injured, and he is part of a quickly improving Packers defense. While high sack totals and modest tackles numbers are what you can expect from him, Matthews also has the ability to provide some points in the interception and passes defensed department, as his three picks and 11 batted passes in the past two seasons prove that.

    If Matthews was able to improve upon his lackluster 2011 campaign in three less games last season, he could truly explode back onto the scene in a big way this year with a fully healthy season. Plus, let’s not forget the fact that he is only 27 years old, and we still may not have seen the best of him yet.

21. Cameron Wake, DL, Miami Dolphins

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    2011 Stats: 42 TACK (37 solo, 5 AST), 8.5 SACK, 0 INT, 0 FF, 0 FR, 3 PD, 0 TD

    2012 Stats: 53 TACK (38 solo, 15 AST), 15.0 SACK, 0 INT, 3 FF, 0 FR, 1 PD, 0 TD

     

    Cameron Wake is one of the most underappreciated pass-rushers in the game, but it is his story and undying determination that truly make him so impressive.

    After a mediocre career at Penn State, Wake signed with the New York Giants as a UDFA in 2005. He was then released in June of that same year, and things were not looking good for the young talent.

    Then, in 2007, Wake signed a contract with the BC Lions of the Canadian Football League, where he went on to become the CFL Most Oustanding Rookie of the Year and the CFL Most Outstanding Defensive Player in his first season after leading the league with 16.0 sacks. He then went on to win the Most Outstanding Defensive Player award again the following season and was named to the CFL All-Decade Team for 2000 to 2009.

    So, needless to say, the guy had two pretty solid seasons north of the border.

    That's why, in 2009, the Miami Dolphins signed Wake to a four-year deal after fending off intense competition from other NFL teams. And all Wake has done to repay them is compile 43.0 sacks over the past four seasons to go along with 175 total tackles.

    After a dip in production in 2011, Wake rebounded to his spectacular 2010 form last season by putting up 15.0 sacks and over 50 tackles. He probably will never get you any picks (what defensive lineman will, though?), but his phenomenal sack totals make him one of the best D-linemen available.

    This is a man who has never let adversity get in the way of a solid NFL career, and who knows what he may truly be capable of?

     

    *All information, except for statistics, are courtesy of Wikipedia.com.

     

22. DeMarcus Ware, DL, Dallas Cowboys

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    2011 Stats: 58 TACK (47 solo, 11 AST), 19.5 SACK, 0 INT, 2 FF, 1 FR, 2 PD, 0 TD

    2012 Stats: 56 TACK (33 solo, 23 AST), 11.5 SACK, 0 INT, 5 FF, 1 FR, 0 PD, 0 TD

     

    Much like Jared Allen, DeMarcus Ware is also one of the NFL’s all-time sack leaders, and he is even younger than Allen. But also like Allen, Ware saw a big drop-off in sack production last season, accumulating just 11.5 sacks after a 19.5-sack campaign in 2011.

    However, Ware will be switching from 3-4 outside linebacker to a 4-3 defensive end this season, and as a result, his sack numbers could be on the rise once again. The 30-year-old has also posted a very consistent 50 to 60 tackles in each of the past four seasons, so you know what you will be getting there.

    Unfortunately, Ware has never been a great coverage guy. This is evidenced by his very low interception and pass defensed totals, and expect those numbers to fall even further as a defensive lineman this year.

    While Ware is still one of the top five defensive linemen available, be advised that while his sack totals should increase this season, his tackle totals could dip a bit as a defensive end. And if he is not providing much in the turnover department either, Ware could soon become a one-trick pony.

23. Daryl Washington, LB, Arizona Cardinals

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    2011 Stats: 107 TACK (95 solo, 12 AST), 5.0 SACK, 2 INT, 0 FF, 0 FR, 7 PD, 0 TD

    2012 Stats: 134 TACK (108 solo, 26 AST), 9.0 SACK, 1 INT, 2 FF, 1 FR, 4 PD, 0 TD

     

    Proceed with caution.

    While Daryl Washington is one of the best young talents in the game and could easily be a top-10 defensive player by season's end, he is also one of the league's most troubled young players at the moment.

    Not only will Washington be suspended for the first four games of this season for violating the league's substance abuse policy, but he could also face more discipline depending on how his court case stemming from an arrest in May for allegedly assaulting his girlfriend pans out. His next court date is scheduled for August 6.

    And while not condoning any of his behavior, there is no denying his immense talent. After a 107-tackle/5.0-sack/two-interception campaign as a second-year player in 2011, he followed that up with a 134-tackle/9.0-sack/one-interception performance last season on a very good Cardinals defense.

    His combination of great tackling ability and pass-rushing prowess is quite rare, and if not for his deviant behavior and the disciplinary action that he will face as a result, he would be ranked much, much higher on this list. In fact, he was my No. 11-ranked player on last year's list as well as my top sleeper pick, and he certainly proved that prognostication to be correct. (Thanks, Daryl.)

    Still, as his head coach Bruce Arians said in June, via SiriusXM Sports, the young linebacker is walking a "very thin line," and if he does not clean up his act, his incredible talent could go to waste. 

    However, if he is able to avoid further suspensions and decides to get his head on straight, you will have one of the very best LB1s available once his four-game suspension is over. He is the ultimate high-risk/high-reward pick this season, so make sure you have a backup plan if you decide to take a gamble on him.

24. Anthony Spencer, DL, Dallas Cowboys

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    2011 Stats: 66 TACK (51 solo, 15 AST), 6.0 SACK, 0 INT, 4 FF, 0 FR, 1 PD, 0 TD

    2012 Stats: 95 TACK (55 solo, 40 AST), 11.0 SACK, 0 INT, 2 FF, 1 FR, 3 PD, 0 TD

     

    Anthony Spencer has always been an interesting player, and he finally had his much-expected breakout campaign last season. Also, much like his teammate who is ranked two spots ahead of him on this list, the seventh-year pro will be making the switch from outside linebacker in a 3-4 defensive scheme to defensive end in a 4-3 format this season.

    When he was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys in the first round of the 2007 NFL draft, he was expected to step in right away and serve as the perfect complement to the Cowboys' other stud pass-rushing linebacker Ware.

    Unfortunately, he labored through his first two seasons, producing only 4.5 sacks during that time, followed by a 6.0-sack effort in 2009, a 5.0-sack effort in 2010 and another 6.0-sack performance in 2011.

    Following the 2011 season, the Cowboys had a choice to make. They could either move on from the underperforming then-28-year-old, or they could hold on for one more year and hope for the best. Ultimately, Dallas decided to apply the franchise tag on Spencer in March of last year—and boy, are the Cowboys glad they did.

    Spencer exploded onto the scene last season with 11.0 sacks, proving that he may finally be transforming into the player the Cowboys always hoped he would be. Not only that, but he also posted 95 tackles, a very solid number for a guy who played primarily on the outside. 

    The Cowboys once again decided to apply the franchise tag to Spencer this offseason, and they are hoping for big things from him again in 2013. I would advise to proceed with caution, though, because nobody knows for sure how well he will handle the switch, and there is always the chance that he could regress to his old form.

    His tackle numbers are sure to drop as a defensive lineman this season, but after finally seeing some success last year, and also due to the fact that he is still chasing that long-term contract, expect Spencer to produce another solid season in 2013. 

25. Richard Sherman, DB, Seattle Seahawks

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    2011 Stats: 55 TACK (47 solo, 8 AST), 0.0 SACK, 4 INT, 1 FF, 0 FR, 17 PD, 0 TD

    2012 Stats: 64 TACK (53 solo, 11 AST), 1.0 SACK, 8 INT, 3 FF, 1 FR, 24 PD, 1 TD

     

    If points were awarded for trash-talking and running your mouth all season, Richard Sherman would not only be the No. 1-ranked IDP, but he would probably be the top-ranked fantasy player overall.

    But even though they don’t award points for that, Sherman is still one of the top defensive players this season. In fact, even though defensive backs are much less valued than linebackers and defensive lineman in the fantasy football world, it is still worth noting that the third-year player out of Stanford is undoubtedly the best shutdown cornerback in the game. (Yes, even better than a healthy Darrelle Revis; it’s really not even a contest.)

    Because of Sherman’s otherworldly football ability, he not only will provide you with points in the interception and passes defensed department, but he will also provide some outstanding tackling numbers for a defensive back who is not a safety.

    In fact, his combination of ball-hawking skills and tackling ability may actually be even more impressive than the previously featured Burnett, but remember, Burnett will get you more points due to the sheer number of tackles that he will put up over Sherman.

    While Sherman may certainly rub people the wrong way due to his loud-mouthed ways, there is virtually no other player that you would want to have as your DB1. In a world that is often so harsh to those who play in the defensive backfield, Sherman is a rare stud who can break the mold and help you immensely on your way to your league’s championship.