JJ Watt Hands Up
Written by Sean Kirby (@scurvyidp)

In recent history, 4-3 defenses have dominated the NFL landscape.  This has gone hand-in-hand with the IDP philosophy that 4-3 DEs are superior to players in 3-4 systems.  It’s a concept that has been challenged as 3-4 defenses become more prominent in the NFL.  The question will become even more critical in 2015.  In the upcoming season, 17 teams are expected to run base 3-4 schemes, compared to only 15 4-3 teams.  While there’s some subjectivity in those numbers, the point is that pure 4-3 DEs are becoming harder to find.

So what?  At DE, tackle volumes typically aren’t very impressive.  Therefore, finding sack producers is a big part of success.  The NFL sack leader typically emerges from 4-3 systems.  With the exception of 2 outstanding years by JJ Watt, 4-3 DEs have clearly mopped the floor with the 3-4 guys.  In fact, it’s fairly difficult for 3-4 DEs to crack double digit sacks.  In the past four years, a 3-4 DE has only managed double digit sacks 7 times.  Meanwhile, there have been 49 such performances by 4-3 DEs.

Annual Sack Leaders

Annual Sack Leaders

So 4-3 is better, right?  Not so fast.  3-4 defensive ends have seen a rise in IDP value in recent years.  Currently, the top 10 DEs by DFW consensus rank are split perfectly 50/50 between the two systems.  This finding isn’t specific to DFW.  The idea that 3-4 DEs are gaining value in the NFL and fantasy is almost ubiquitous.  Here are some of the arguments for this belief.

  1. JJ Watt’s done pretty well for himself.  This is the most obvious one.  JJ Watt has dominated almost every statistical category for IDPs.  Analysis of what makes a good DE often begins and ends with Watt.  Unfortunately, he’s not a classic 3-4 DE.  He lines up all over the field and even plays offense.  Any argument based on Watt probably doesn’t translate to the entire field of 3-4 DEs.
  2. There are simply more to choose from.  It’s true that your options at 3-4 DE have expanded greatly in recent years.  You now get to choose from a wide array of physical talents, coaches, home stat crews, etc.  The IDP planets are likely to align for 3-4 DEs now more than ever.
  3. 3-4 schemes are diverse.  All 3-4 defenses are not the same.  Partially, it’s the defensive coordinators job to conceal their packages.  Additionally, increases in the passing game have increased the prevalence of sub-packages.  A team may only run their “base defense” a handful of times per game.  Bottomline, 3-4 DEs on different teams will be used differently and will therefore produce different stats.  Even within the 3-4 category, the comparison’s aren’t apples to apples.  For example, Justin Smith has been a drastically different player than Calais Campbell.  Some schemes will be more benficial for IDP.   The easiest thing to do is see which Defensive Coordinators have produced successful IDP DEs in the past.  For instance, Rex Ryan and Todd Bowles have routinely produced solid IDP numbers from their 3-4 DEs.  However, we haven’t seen as many impressive performances from Baltimore or Cleveland.  Keeping track of all of the moving schemes, coaches, and players is one of the things that makes IDP fantasy football challenging, volatile, and rewarding.
  4. 3-4 DEs post better tackle numbers, right?  I base a lot of my IDP philosophy around high floor players, which most often translates to players with high tackle volumes.  I am guilty of buying into the belief that 3-4 DEs provide higher tackle volumes.  It makes sense, as they have more gap assignments in run defense than their 4-3 counterparts.  It’s also reinforced by the fact that 6 of the 7 most recent leaders in solo tackles have all come from 3-4 teams, despite being outnumbered.   However, I was surprised how close some of the numbers were. Therefore, I wanted to investigate this idea a bit further.
    tackle leaders

    Tackle Leaders

    • First, I pulled the top 20 3-4 DEs and top 20 4-3 DEs for each of the past 4 years.  I was shocked to find that the average top 20 4-3 DE actually posted more tackles than the average 3-4 player.  In addition, the stats confirmed the idea that they post superior sack volumes.  Perhaps more importantly, they boasted significantly higher fantasy points in balanced scoring (1.5 pts/tackle, 0.75 pts/assist, 4 pts/sack)

      Top 20 DEs (average of past 4 years)

      Top 20 DEs (average of past 4 years)

    • Not wanting to believe the stats, I repeated the study for the top 5 players at each position.  My justification was that going 40 deep was perhaps not relevant to IDP, especially 4 years ago when fewer 3-4 defenses were in the league.  However, the results were similar.  The top 5 cohorts found both varieties of DE performed similarly with regard to tackle volumes.  Stud 4-3 DEs again comfortably outpaced their 3-4 counterparts (JJ Watt included!) in sacks and fantasy points.

      Top 5 DEs (average of past 4 years)

      Top 5 DEs (average of past 4 years)

Conclusions:

  1. When breaking a tie, go with the 4-3 guy.  This isn’t a ground-breaking statement by any means.  However, as 3-4 schemes become more prominent and more 3-4 studs arise, it’ll be tempting to give more credit to the scheme.  Instead of increasing the value of 3-4 DEs, the rise in 3-4 schemes should only inflate the value of the few 4-3 guys left.
  2. While 3-4 DEs boast a higher tackle ceiling, the “high tackle floor” might be a fallacy.  For this one I owe some apologies.  I’ve preached the high tackle floor of 3-4 DEs and it appears suspect at best.  The tackle ceiling does appear highest for 3-4 DEs and it’s  likely that the tackle leader each year will be a 3-4 player.  However, the idea that 3-4 DEs universally provide some type of “tackle” security blanket is not supported by recent stats.
  3. A stud 3-4 DE is still better than a 4-3 depth player.  Again this seems obvious, but you’ll notice that the top 5 3-4 DEs performed drastically better than the top 20 4-3 DEs.  The numbers certainly do not support a 4-3 or bust philosophy.

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