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Fantasy football defense primer: Everything to know heading into 2016

It's a truly terrible strategy to take a defense early in your fantasy draft. So what should you do instead to make sure the defense you do end up with still helps you keep a leg up on your opponents?

Defense certainly doesn’t, and never has, won fantasy championships. In the fantasy world, the defense position is essentially on par with kickers, though it has even more volatility from week to week. A good kicker on a solid offense is going to be mostly consistent while defenses are going to have more outlier performances, based largely on their opponents. That helps make it a spot where an active owner can gain a leg up on the rest of his or her league.

Get a full overview of the position with our 2016 defense primer. My complete defense rankings, as well as those of fellow fantasy writer Pat Fitzmaurice, can be found at the bottom of the story.

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Burning questions

Does it make any sense to jump into the defense pool early?

No. I cannot stress this enough. It’s truly a terrible strategy. You want to know what the worst pick in a draft is? The first defense selected, unless it’s one of the final rounds. I’m using short, declarative sentences because I want you to know how serious I am. Do not take a defense early under any circumstances.

The top three defenses by average draft position—Denver, Arizona and Seattle—are coming off the board within picks No. 99 and 110 in a typical draft. Want to know the offensive players in that same range? There’s Charles Sims, who totaled 1,090 yards from scrimmage and five touchdowns last year, and is a Doug Martin injury away from being a feature back in an ascending offense. There’s also Torrey Smith, who was a top-25 fantasy receiver in four of his first five seasons in the league. Travis Benjamin is here, too, and he caught 68 passes for 966 yards and five touchdowns as a member of the putrid Cleveland offense last year. Now he’s Philip Rivers’s prime deep threat in San Diego.

On top of that, we’re not nearly as good at predicting defensive performance as we might like to think we are. Denver, last year’s No. 1 defense, was the ninth unit selected in a typical draft. Arizona, which finished second in fantasy points, was eighth in ADP. Meanwhile, Seattle, Houston and Buffalo—last year’s top three by ADP, finished 11th, 13th and 26th, respectively.

Do not take a defense early. I promise you it is a waste.

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Should fantasy owners stream defenses?

Yes, absolutely. I don’t think there’s any place for exclamation points in writing outside of text messages, but I almost used one there. Streaming defenses is your best bet for consistent production all season long.

First, remember that you’re too smart to burn a real pick on a defense like Denver or Seattle, so you don’t have to worry about dropping a defense someone else will snatch up in a heartbeat. Second, the NFL is an offensively driven league, especially in the regular season. It takes a truly special defense to carry a team, like we’ve seen the Broncos and Seahawks do over the last three seasons. More often than not, good offense is going to win games and bad offense is going to lose games. It’s easier to target those bad offenses than you might think.

Eleven teams had 28 or more giveaways last season. Of those, eight were among the top 11 in fantasy points allowed to defenses. Four teams surrendered at least 50 sacks. Three of those—the Titans, Jaguars and Browns—were the three friendliest teams to defenses from a fantasy perspective.

Streaming doesn’t work out every week. Occasionally you won’t have a great option, and even ones that look strong on paper will fail to come through from time to time. More often than not, however, streaming at the position leads to your best allocation of overall roster resources.

Which defense has the best chance to jump into the top tier this season?

Yes, this is basically the same as the breakout section below, but there are two units I want to highlight, and there are only so many burning questions at a low-value fantasy position. The Oakland Raiders are a chic playoff pick this season, thanks in part to a young offense that is getting better with Derek Carr and Amari Cooper. The defense could be even better, and there’s little question that the team’s best player is part of that unit.

Defensive end Khalil Mack leads one of the most promising defenses in the league. Mack is unquestionably the best player in Oakland, and just might be the best defensive player in the NFL, but he doesn’t have to do it alone. Linebacker Malcolm Smith came over from the Seahawks last year and led the Raiders with 122 total tackles. GM Reggie McKenzie was active on the defensive side of the ball this off-season, signing another Seattle castoff, linebacker Bruce Irvin, as well as cornerback Sean Smith and safety Reggie Nelson. He then used the team’s first three picks on defenders, grabbing safety Karl Joseph, defensive end Jihad Ward and linebacker Shaq Calhoun. Joseph is expected to start, while Ward and Calhoun will have prominent rotation roles.

We’re more concerned with offense in the fantasy game, and that’s why too many fantasy owners would tell you Carr or Cooper is the best player in Oakland. In reality, it’s Mack, and his presence could help make this defense a fantasy weapon in 2016.

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What’s an under-the-radar factor that matters when picking a defense?

As I explained in the question about streaming defenses, opponent matters more than the actual quality of the defense in question. The best way to secure a good run of opponents is to get a defense in a weak division.

The first division that jumps out in this exercise is the NFC West, thanks to the Rams and 49ers. They could realistically end the season as the two worst offenses in the league, and will likely be among the worst, even with Todd Gurley and Carlos Hyde in their respective backfields. Of course, the other two teams in that division, the Seahawks and Cardinals, feature defenses that are going to be off the board early. The logic holds up, however. Find a defense in a division with multiple bad offenses, and you’ve likely found yourself a unit that’s going to be useful more often than not.

There’s no shortage of candidates. Mark Sanchez, Derek Carr and Philip Rivers, one bad quarterback and two turnover-prone ones, all start in the AFC West. Jay Cutler, Matthew Stafford and Teddy Bridgewater start in the NFC North. Are the offenses in the AFC South that imposing, especially when Indianapolis and Jacksonville have quarterbacks who can be less than careful with the ball? Make sure you keep divisional composition in mind when selecting your defense.

Which teams get a boost in leagues that combine special teams with defense?

Some leagues use a defense and special teams slot, while others simply use defense, awarding blocked-kick points to the defense and return touchdowns to just the individual player. The rankings for both are largely the same, but there are a handful of defenses that improve when the special teams units are added. Unsurprisingly, they’re the ones with good punt and kickoff returners.

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We’ll focus mostly on punt returners, since kickoffs are mostly going the way of the wishbone formation. Three of the four teams in the NFC West get a boost—none of which really need it—led by the Rams’ Tavon Austin. The fourth-year player has been a bit of a flop as a receiver, but he has returned one punt for a touchdown in each of his first three seasons. Seattle’s Tyler Lockett burst on the scene as both a returner and receiver last season, taking one punt and one kickoff back to the house. Arizona’s Patrick Peterson has yet to take a punt back since doing so four times as a rookie, but he’s still dangerous every time he gets the ball in his hands.

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As for others, the Dolphins continue to let Jarvis Landry return punts, despite how important he is to their offense. He had 36 punt returns last year for 356 yards and a score, and makes an insipid defense more intriguing in leagues that include special teams. Dwayne Harris has long been one of the most imposing returners in the league, first for the Cowboys and now for the Giants. He has returned at least one punt for a touchdown in three of the last four years, and last season scored on both a punt and kickoff.

The Marcus Sherels (punts) and Cordarelle Patterson (kickoffs) pairing in Minnesota makes Mike Zimmer’s defense even better for fantasy purposes when special teams are added to the equation, while veteran Darren Sproles still gets the job done returning punts for the Eagles. Finally, Travis Benjamin won’t bring just his receiving skills to San Diego this season. He’s also penciled in as the team’s punt returner after starring in that role with the Browns. 

Defense Categories

Elite: Denver Broncos

The Seahawks could just as easily be in this spot, but any defense that returns most of its starters from a Super Bowl run for which it was mostly responsible deserves the elite tag. Sure, the Broncos waved goodbye to a few players, most notably Danny Trevathan and Malik Jackson. The most crucial pieces, however, are still in place. That makes this the best fantasy defense heading into the 2016 season.

It says a lot about this defense that it can lose players like Trevathan and Jackson and not really skip a beat. That’s what happens when you have a player like Von Miller, who has at least 11 sacks in all but one of his five seasons, and he missed seven games the only time he fell short. He can still lean on Brandon Marshall as a rock in the middle of the defense, as well as DeMarcus Ware and Derek Wolfe rushing the passer with him. With all due respect to the Seahawks, no team can match a cornerback duo like Chris Harris and Aqib Talib, and only a pair of corners like that could overshadow starting safeties T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart. The Broncos, noticing the departures, added defensive end Jared Crick from Houston and drafted another end, Georgia Tech’s Adam Gotsis, in the second round.

Now, remember, just because this defense is elite doesn’t mean you want to take them at their ADP. That would be a grave mistake. Still, that shouldn’t take away from just how good the Broncos defense can be again this season.


Breakout: Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars are right alongside the Raiders in terms of being a defense that has some lasting power. For that to happen, four guys who have never played together, including three who have never played a snap in the NFL, are going to have to coalesce into a unit rather quickly.

Let’s start, however, with Paul Posluszny, the heart of the defense. Posluszny notched 133 total tackles last year, the fourth time in his career he has crossed the 130-threshold. He picked off three passes, marking the fifth multi-interception season of his career. Telvin Smith, who had 128 tackles, is also back, giving Jacksonville a strong linebacker group in the middle of the field.

Three youngsters are going to figure prominently for this defense, starting with last year’s third overall pick Dante Fowler. The Florida product missed the entire season after tearing his ACL in mini-camp. In essence, he gives the Jaguars two top-five picks on the defensive side of the ball this season after the team grabbed cornerback Jalen Ramsey out of Florida State this year. The Jaguars cashed in again with Myles Jack, who slipped due to medical concerns, in the second round. He’s participating fully in training camp, and if he’s truly over the knee injury that cost him his final season at UCLA, he could go down as the biggest steal of the 2016 draft.

Finally, the Jaguars lured the aforementioned Malik Jackson away from Denver, giving them a legitimate rush end opposite Fowler to strengthen the front four. If those moves pay off, the Jaguars are going to have a fearsome defense.

Value: Green Bay Packers

We’ve spent this entire primer talking about the players on the field, but sometimes it’s the coaches off of it who make a defense. Such is the case with Dom Capers in Green Bay.

The Packers hired Capers as their defensive coordinator before the start of the 2009 season. Since then, they’ve ranked no worse than 17th in fantasy points, and have been a top-three fantasy defense three times, most recently in 2014. The NFL is a transient league and plenty of the faces on Green Bay’s defense have changed during Capers’s tenure, but he always seems to get the best out of his group.

Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers remain the pillars of Capers’s 3-4 scheme, rushing the passer from their outside linebacker spots. Damarious Randall had a strong rookie year at one corner, while veteran Sam Shields defended 13 passes and picked off three more. The edges are the strength of the defense.

There’s no question the team needs more up the middle, though safeties Morgan Burnett and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix do a fine job. Nose tackle Letroy Guion and inside linebackers Jake Ryan and Sam Barrington have their work cut out for them to take this defense to another level. It’s never a bad idea to bet on a unit coached by Capers, and the return of the Green Bay offense to full strength should help put the defense in more of the blitzing situations that Capers loves so much.

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Reach: Houston Texans

The Texans get a free pass because of J.J. Watt, but they were 13th in fantasy points last year, and that was with six games against three teams that went a combined 16–32. Things likely won’t be so easy this season, thanks to developments both inside and outside of their building.

Let’s start with the former. Watt had back surgery just before the start of training camp, and is almost guaranteed to miss the team’s Week 1 game against the Bears. The Texans aren’t putting any timetable on his return, but it’s entirely possible that he misses more than just that game. Even if he’s back within the first month, a fantasy owner is looking at spending an 11th-round pick on the Texans, and then watching that defense play nearly one-third of the fantasy season without its best player. There are other strong players on the defense to be sure, led by Vince Wilfork and Whitney Mercilus, but Watt makes this group go. Without him, the Texans may be no better than league average.

While you don’t want to read into a team’s schedule too much before the season starts, it’s highly unlikely that the AFC South is as bad this year as it was last year. Andrew Luck is back for the Colts. Marcus Mariota has a full season under his belt. Blake Bortles, too, is another season wiser, and the Jaguars should feature a much-improved defense. That will likely help Bortles cut down on his turnovers, given that the Jaguars shouldn’t be in as many deep holes as they were a season ago. Those six games, in which the Texans scored 64.4% of their fantasy points, likely won’t be quite so cushy this season. Add that to the uncertainty surrounding Watt and a high ADP, and this is a defense to avoid.

Michael Beller's defense rankings

2016 Fantasy Football Rankings powered by FantasyProsECR ™ - Expert Consensus Rankings, ADP - Average Draft Position

Fitz's defense rankings

2016 Fantasy Football Rankings powered by FantasyProsECR ™ - Expert Consensus Rankings, ADP - Average Draft Position