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.
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.
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.
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.
Here is how we should tier the tight end position heading into the preseason: