Defenses are wildly important in the NFL, even in today’s offense-driven environment. The Seahawks won the Super Bowl two seasons ago, and nearly became the first team in 10 years to claim the title in back-to-back seasons, on the strength of its defense. And yet, the 11 guys on the field who aren’t in control of the ball are justifiably mere afterthoughts in the fantasy game.
Like kickers, defenses belong in the final rounds of your draft for a handful of reasons. First of all, there’s simply too much turnover at the position in the fantasy realm. The Chiefs were the No. 1 fantasy defense in 2013. They finished 25th last season. Meanwhile, last year’s top fantasy defense, the Eagles, finished 16th two seasons ago. Lest you think I’m just cherry-picking from recent seasons, just four times since 2000 has the No. 1 fantasy defense from the previous season followed that with a top-10 showing the next year. Secondly, just because a defense is good in real life doesn’t mean it will be good in fantasy, as we will cover shortly. Finally, if you actually want one of the top-rated defenses, chances are you’ll have to use too valuable a pick to get it.
I suggest you hop on the defense carousel with me, streaming defenses based on matchup every week, a strategy that I will write about as we get closer to draft season. Until then, let’s take a look at the defense position, one you will be able to put off for nearly your entire draft or auction.
Elite: Seattle Seahawks
When you return all the principal characters from a unit that has led the league in total defense for two straight years, and spearheaded a team that came two yards away from winning consecutive Super Bowls, it’s only natural that you’re on top of the fantasy rankings. From a real-life standpoint, the Seahawks were just as dominant last year as they were in 2013. They held opponents to 267.1 yards and 15.9 points per game, both of which were the best marks in the league. However, they ranked just 23rd in fantasy points in standard-scoring leagues. That’s because they trailed in the two areas that make fantasy defenses go: sacks and takeaways. Their 37 sacks were good for 20th in the league, while they finished 21st in takeaways with 23.
Most of the players that have turned this into a dominant group—Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, Michael Bennett, Brandon Mebane, Bobby Wagner, Earl Thomas and K.J. Wright—are still here, though the Seahawks need to figure out Chancellor’s contract situation. That may not have translated to fantasy success last season, but it remains the best way to bet on a defense, if that is indeed part of your strategy.
Breakout: St. Louis Rams
The quickest way to both fantasy and real-life success is to get after the quarterback, and there may be no team better at that than the Rams. The team racked up 40 sacks last season, and that was without Chris Long for the better part of the season. The star defensive end missed 10 games after undergoing ankle surgery for an injury suffered in Week 1. He returned for the final five games of the season, but was never quite 100%. Long is back to full strength this season, teaming up with Robert Quinn to form one of the best pass-rushing duos in the league. On the inside, Aaron Donald starred in his rookie year, grading as Pro Football Focus’s top defensive tackle.
The front four is the face of the defense, but the Rams have a lot of potential in their linebacker corps, with James Laurinaitis flanked by Alec Ogletree and Akeem Ayers. Ayers had four sacks with the Patriots last season but played just nine games, the second straight year in which he missed significant time. Laurinaitis and Ogletree played all 16 games last year, totaling 220 tackles. If Long, Quinn and Donald live up to their billing, they’ll make the rest of the defense that much better by taking the pressure off the second level and putting it on the opposing quarterback.
Steal: Miami Dolphins
Rather than thinking of the Dolphins' defense as a steal, think of it as breakout unit 1-A behind the Rams. The Dolphins are legitimate contenders to knock the Patriots off their perch in the AFC East, and it has just as much to do with the defense as it does with Ryan Tannehill and the improving offense. Cameron Wake is arguably the best defensive end in football. The former CFL star racked up another 11.5 sacks last year, giving him 35 over the last three seasons, and rated as the top defensive end by Pro Football Focus metrics. On the other side, Olivier Vernon took down the quarterback 6.5 times, running his two-season total to 18. According to Pro Football Focus, he was the league’s 17th-best defensive end. All Miami added to that mix was Ndamukong Suh, the best defensive tackle in the NFL over the last five seasons. With these three guys along with Earl Mitchell in the front four, life is going to be awfully tough up front against Miami.
The Dolphins did lose linebacker Philip Wheeler to San Francisco, but Jelani Jenkins and the woefully underrated Koa Misi return this season. Brent Grimes regressed a bit last season, but he has been a top-10 corner for the balance of his career. He remains the leader of a secondary that is at worst league average and could improve this year with the Wake-Vernon-Suh triumvirate wreaking havoc in the backfield. When defenses start flying off the board late in your draft, make sure you’ve got the Dolphins on your mind.
Reach: New England Patriots
Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski may have received the headlines last season, but the New England defense was just as responsible as the offense for the organization’s fourth Super Bowl title in the last 14 years. The group ranked sixth in overall defense on Pro Football Focus, trailing the Broncos, Ravens, Lions, Seahawks and Jets. Much of that owed to a secondary that rated third in pass coverage. Unfortunately for the 2015 Patriots, the two key members of that secondary, Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, are no longer in New England. Revis went back to the Jets, while Browner landed down in New Orleans. Vince Wilfork is also gone, potentially opening up a whole in the middle of the line.
That could put pressure on a linebacker group that is easily the weakness of this defense. Jerod Mayo is healthy for now, but he has played just 12 games over the last two seasons. To be fair, the secondary is still imposing, with the underappreciated Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty leading the unit from the safety spots. It’s up to Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler and third-year player Logan Ryan, who has seven interceptions in his career, to prove they can handle being starters. The strength of the defense is up front, where Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones terrorize quarterbacks. The Patriots also used their first-round pick on defensive tackle Malcolm Brown out of Texas to replace the departed Vince Wilfork. There’s still a lot to like on this defense, but there were too many high-profile departures to consider them a top-tier unit this season.
|3||St. Louis Rams||STL||$2||6|
|11||New England Patriots||NE||$1||4|
|12||New York Jets||NYJ||$1||5|
|13||Kansas City Chiefs||KC||$1||9|
|14||Green Bay Packers||GB||$1||7|
|18||San Francisco 49ers||SF||$1||10|
|24||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||TB||$1||6|
|25||San Diego Chargers||SD||$1||10|