Defense/special teams is the one position in fantasy football where scoring rules vary greatly from league to league. A point per reception might alter your strategy at receiver and running back by a round or two. A league that rewards points for shutouts and has bonuses or penalties for points and yards against can make a defense the difference between winning and losing each week.
Studying the nuances of your league's scoring system can be a great way to gain an edge on your competition -- particularly as it impacts your defense/special teams position.
We break down the position to depths you might have never imagined before:
1. Get a set-it-and-forget-it unit. There aren't many defenses that are immune to matchups, but if your league rewards big points to D/STs (some leagues penalize for points and yards against), you'll want to be one of the first owners to draft a defense. You don't want to burn two roster spots on defenses and you definitely don't want to subject an elite fantasy defense to waivers in weeks it faces an elite quarterback such as Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees or Peyton Manning. This means you will want to draft a defense late in Round 7 or early in Round 8. That should net a defense good enough to set and forget in all weeks excluding the bye.
2. Go with a defensive-minded team. A handful of teams in the NFL approach this pass-happy era a bit differently, believing games are still won on defense. These teams might not be elite fantasy defenses -- because defensive scoring is often tied to freak circumstances like defensive touchdowns -- but they won't post a terrible week, either, because they tend to keep scores low on defense and call plays conservatively on offense. If you don't like going early with the Seahawks or 49ers, you can find a sleeper from the likes of the Steelers, Ravens or Jets.
3. Go with a contender. If you like to wait on picking a defensive unit until a few have already been drafted, you'll need to be more clever in how you select one. The defensive stalwarts, sack machines and turnover machines are going to be gone. In that case, ignore the quality of the defense and take a contending team's unit. No matter the talent on the unit, contending teams win games and their defenses tend to benefit. Teams that win a lot get big leads, and when they do, their defenses can get after the quarterback. That leads to turnovers, scores and blowouts. The Patriots were one of those units a year ago. Despite ranking 25th in the NFL in total defense (29th against the pass), they scored points in fantasy. Other teams that fit this strategy include the Texans, Packers, Broncos and Falcons. None of these options are great defenses on their own, but those teams can score fantasy points even when they're locked into shootouts with a top quarterback.
4. Take a shot on a great returner. This is a bit of an overrated strategy because special teams touchdowns are generally rare and cannot be relied upon year to year. If a team has an elite return man, smart opponents won't kick to him. They will surrender the field position and take their chances on defense instead of trying to contain an explosive return threat (see: Devin Hester, Chicago Bears). But some scoring systems rely heavily on return yardage in addition to scores, which places a premium on the league's elite special teams, such as the Cardinals (Patrick Peterson), Ravens (Jacoby Jones), Packers (Randall Cobb), Browns (Travis Benjamin), Bills (Leodis McKelvin) and Raiders (Josh Cribbs). The latter three teams are dangerous in most leagues, but important in return-yardage ones -- or as bye-week replacements.
5. Pick one late and play matchups. If you don't get a defense from the first couple of tiers, the best strategy might be to punt the position until the very late rounds, perhaps not picking one until right before a kicker. At that point, whatever defense you decide on probably won't be starting on a regular basis anyway. And since you shouldn't burn roster spots on multiple defensive options for matchups, you should use your waiver wire as your bench at this position. This will require starting Week 1 with matchup plays, fringe defenses have the most favorable first matchups: Patriots (at Buffalo), Steelers (versus Tennessee), Colts (vs. Oakland), Rams (versus Arizona), Chiefs (at Jacksonville) and Dolphins (at Cleveland). Meanwhile, popular defensive units like the Niners (vs. Green Bay), Atlanta (at New Orleans), Ravens (at Denver) and Broncos (vs. Baltimore) have tough Week 1 matchups.
6. Pick one with a late bye week. In formats that award points only for sacks, turnovers and touchdowns -- no bonuses for shutouts or penalties for points or yards allowed -- you won't want to select a defense until very late. You also might not want to burn waiver priority or pickups (some leagues limit them) on playing the matchups with your defense. In that event, get a unit with a late bye week like the Seahawks (Week 12), Bengals (Week 12), Patriots (Week 10), Rams (Week 11), Jets (Week 10), Cowboys (Week 11), Browns (Week 10) or the Chiefs (Week 10). By that time, a lot of fantasy teams will be settled on their defensive unit, so subjecting these defenses to the waiver wire could be less costly. Again, you don't want to burn precious fantasy roster spots on the limited potential of a defense.
Most drafts are unique, but we take a shot at predicting some of the likely trends at the position:
Reach: Denver Broncos. The Broncos were the No. 1 fantasy unit a year ago in some scoring systems (if it wasn't the Bears), but there are myriad reasons to expect a decline. Champ Bailey is old (35), pass rusher Elvis Dumervil is in Baltimore and Von Miller is facing a four-game suspension, pending appeal. Also, you cannot expect a defense to register six touchdowns (plus two special teams return scores). The Chiefs and Chargers should be improved this year, too, making the Broncos' first-place schedule tougher within the division. Pick the Broncos among the top five, but don't consider them in the class of the elite two.
Steal: Pittsburgh Steelers. If you follow the premise that defensive scores are more fortunate accidents than truly earned, consider the aging Steelers defense one of the elite options. They didn't score among the best last year because they only managed one touchdown, 20 turnovers and 37 sacks. But they were still the No. 1 defense in terms of yardage against (No. 1 against the pass and No. 2 against the run). The bet here is the Steelers get after the quarterback more effectively and "luck" into more turnovers -- especially if Troy Polamalu proves healthier than he has been in years. This should still be considered a top-notch starting fantasy defense.
Injury-risk: New York Giants. The Giants have dealt with myriad defensive injuries in the Tom Coughlin era. They allowed oft-injured pass-rush specialist Osi Umenyiora to go to the Falcons. His replacement, Mathias Kiwanuka, has spent years playing linebacker and those same years dealing with injury. Justin Tuck has a chronic neck issue. And Jason Pierre-Paul is coming off back surgery that will impact the start of his season. That is just the front four in the 4-3. Terrell Thomas is coming off multiple knee reconstructions, too. The Giants have talent and can be better than they were a year ago, but picking their D/ST requires taking on a lot of injury risk.
Top rookie: New York Jets. Hate this disastrous franchise all you want, but the Jets can still put together a pretty good defense. And they will do it without Darrelle Revis. The Jets picked replacement cornerback Dee Milliner at ninth overall and then came back with defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson at 14th. We give the Jets the edge in rookies over the Vikings (DT Sharrif Floyd and CB Xavier Rhodes) and the Rams (LB Alec Ogletree and FS T.J. McDonald). There are many teams that added potentially outstanding individuals in the draft, but those units improved the most as a whole -- with the Jets leading the pack on the fantasy front.
Explaining our D/ST tiers
1. Immovable objects. Only two units in standard leagues cab be trusted regardless of the matchup this year. Use the Saints and Packers as the litmus test. Would you start this defense against Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers on the road? There are the only two you should say yes to in that situation.
2. Consolation prizes. This next quartet won't be great plays in all weeks, but they will prove consistent in most weeks. If you don't want to worry each week about your defensive unit, you will want to get one of the top six.
3. Starter-worthy. Debate the order and composition of these next six, which means you probably shouldn't be picking one of them until the latter rounds. But know that there is not much to choose between the unit after those top six.
4. Draftable backups. Generally you don't want to have to suck up more than one roster spot with defensive units, but if one of these talented four are on the board in the last couple of rounds they would make a more functional flier than a backup tight end or a sixth running back or receiver.
5. Waiver fodder. There won't be many great weeks with these sometimes-suspect units, but they will have weeks where they project to perform better than your starting unit. Don't draft them in standard leagues necessarily, but watch their schedules for favorable matchups -- especially during the bye week.
6. Everyone else. These final 12 units might have a decent week here or there, but they will be as likely to implode on you after you pick them up. You will be better off taking a chance on one of the more elite units above even if the matchups suggest otherwise.
D/ST rankings, projections
|Fantasy football D/ST rankings and projections for 2013|
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Best of the rest
• Miami Dolphins BYE: 6
• Kansas City Chiefs BYE: 10
• Tampa Bay Buccaneers BYE: 5
• Indianapolis Colts BYE: 8
• Buffalo Bills BYE: 12
• Carolina Panthers BYE: 4
• Tennessee Titans BYE: 8
• Detroit Lions BYE: 9
• Philadelphia Eagles BYE: 12
• New Orleans Saints BYE: 7
• Jacksonville Jaguars BYE: 9
• Oakland Raiders BYE: 7