Oh, defense and special teams. The forgotten fantasy position. At least defense used to rest easy on the bedrock of "Defense Wins Championships." But with the NFL decidedly an offensive, passing league these days, even that is no longer true. And no one wanted to go with the new suggested motto "Defense Keeps You in the Game, but Offense Wins Championships." Too wordy.
But defense and special teams remain part of the fantasy game, and it can actually be a position where you gain a significant advantage over your leaguemates. With all the glory going to the skill positions, and rightfully so, plenty of fantasy owners pay defense and special teams little to no attention. If you widen your knowledge gap over your competition, there are profits to be made at the position.
Ignore defense and special teams at your own peril. Last year the top five defenses -- San Francisco, Chicago, Seattle, Baltimore and Detroit -- averaged 159.4 points in a standard scoring league. While it's fruitless to make apples to apples comparisons across positions -- what matters is how much a player scores relative to the other players at his position, not compared with other positions -- but that average is more than the season totals amassed by Ahmad Bradshaw, Brandon Marshall, A.J. Green, Greg Jennings, Willis McGahee, and on and on.
While I strongly recommend playing the matchup game with defenses from week to week, plucking a strong defense at the tail end of your draft can give you one of the greatest returns on investment in a fantasy football draft. The ROI can be even greater in an auction, where owners will almost invariably throw a buck at a defense as the final addition to their rosters.
We break down the defense and special teams position here, including the top 20 by tiers below.
Houston Texans -- When Mario Williams went down for the season with a torn pectoral muscle during Houston's Week 5 loss last season to the Raiders, it appeared a devastating setback for a defense that looked ready to assert itself as one of the league's best. Instead, the unit allowed just 163 points the rest of the year, an average of 14.8 points per game, and ended the year allowing the second fewest yards per game at 285.7. Williams was the Texans' best pass rusher, but they still had the sixth-most sacks in the league with 44.
Now Williams is in Buffalo, but the Texans still look like one of the up-and-coming defenses in the NFL. J.J. Watt had a strong rookie year, registering 5.5 sacks and 56 tackles. He's joined on the line in Houston's 3-4 defense by prototypical nose tackle Shaun Cody and Antonio Smith.
Connor Barwin, Brian Cushing, Bradie James and Brooks Reed give the Texans quite possibly the best foursome of linebackers in any 3-4 defense in the league, and the secondary is solid, if not spectacular, with Danieal Manning and Johnathan Joseph. Manning doubles as one of the league's best kick returners, as well. And remember, six of their games will come against the Colts, Jaguars and Titans.
Philadelphia Eagles -- While the offense didn't hold up its end of the "dream team" bargain, Philadelphia's defense proved to be one of the league's better units in 2011. New additions Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie solidified the secondary, helping an edge rush led by Trent Cole and Jason Babin. Fresh off helping the Packers win the Super Bowl, Cullen Jenkins was a big body up front to stuff the run and allow the linebackers room to roam.
The Eagles allowed the 10th fewest points per game at 20.5, and eighth fewest yards at 324.9. However, they didn't force the amount of turnovers expected, and that's the true money maker in fantasy. Still, the skill is clearly there, and they have one of the strongest pass rushes in the league. Babin racked up 18 sacks in '11, and Cole added 11. Their 24 takeaways ranked 17th in the league, and that feels fluky. The bet here is that the ball bounces Philly's way more often this season, leading to the opportunistic defense we all expected to see last year.
Baltimore Ravens -- They've been a fantasy mainstay ever since Ray Lewis stepped foot in Baltimore, they became a juggernaut when Ed Reed got to town, and they've given the NFL some of the greatest individual defensive units we've ever seen in the league. But now they're on the wrong side of the slope, a fact that begins and ends with the devastating Terrell Suggs injury. Suggs, now the unquestioned best player on Baltimore's defense, tore his Achilles tendon playing basketball in early May. Suggs won't be back until December at the earliest, making him a non-factor for fantasy purposes. Meanwhile, Lewis is 37 years old, and Reed will celebrate his 34th birthday between the first and second games of the season. There is still a ton of individual talent on this team, with Haloti Ngata and Jimmy Smith joining the stalwarts, but collectively they're not the team we have come to know the last 12 years. Additionally, as they age they'll need more help than ever from their offense to keep them off the field, and that's no safe bet.
Denver Broncos -- Don't get swept up in the fluke run to the playoffs and the justifiable excitement around the offense. This is a defense with one elite player in Von Miller and not a whole lot else. Champ Bailey remains one of the best corners in the league, but his best days are behind him. Elvis Dumervil is coming off a year in which he piled up 9.5 sacks, but he could be looking at disciplinary action after allegedly threatening someone with a firearm during a road rage incident, though he will not be charged. He and Miller are the team's only reliable pass rushers, and teams will be doing all they can to neutralize Miller after his ridiculous rookie season. They had just 18 takeaways a year ago, and didn't add any playmakers that would suggest they turn that around this season. The arrival of Peyton Manning should mean more time for the defense to rest, but they just don't have the talent to make them a regular starter in fantasy leagues. Miller, however, is an IDP beast for those of you in IDP leagues.
Buffalo Bills -- After winning four of their first five games last year, the Bills fizzled in the middle and late parts of the season, limping to a 6-10 finish. A lot of that had to do with a defense that surrendered 27.1 points and 371.1 yards per game. They had just 29 sacks, tied for third-least in the NFL.
The Bills addressed that need in the offseason, landing Mario Williams and Mark Anderson in free agency. That should immediately make this defense a whole lot better. Seven picks later, they added safety Stephon Gilmore from South Carolina, giving the Bills two of the most gifted defensive players in the draft. With the passing game now the dominant weapon in the NFL, the pass rush is equally crucial. If Williams stays healthy and Dareus is what every scout, not to mention the entire SEC, thought he was, the Bills could have one of the best pass rushes in the league. The additions of Williams and Anderson also will allow the Bills to use Shawne Merriman strictly in pass-rushing downs, giving them three elite pass rushers when they're on their respective games. Also, this team had 31 takeaways a season ago, good for fifth in the NFL. The Bills are one of my favorite sleeper teams heading into the season, and the defense is a major reason why I believe they will get back to the playoffs.
New England Patriots -- The Patriots may have won the AFC a year ago, but they did it in a fashion much unlike the first three times they won the conference, and more like the team we saw in 2007: with a dominant offense. However, New England's defense was simply bad a year ago, allowing a ridiculous 411.1 yards per game. Yes, part of that is because of how great their own offense was, which allowed them to sit back in a prevent shell on defense to milk clock late in games, but that still did not sit well with the defensive-minded Bill Belichick. They drafted linebacker Dont'a Hightower out of Alabama with the 25th pick in the draft to help shore up the unit's weakest corps. And while they gave up a ton of yards, they actually had 34 takeaways, tied for third most in the NFL.
Here is how we should tier the tight end position heading into the preseason:
1. Every-week starters -- You shouldn't consider a defense until the latest stages of your draft or auction, but these are the teams you can count on starting week in, week out.
2. Draft worthy -- These defense are worth taking a shot on once the top tier is completely off the board.
3. Matchup plays -- There isn't any reason to draft these defenses, but they all could make solid matchup plays at any point during the season.