The NFL has become an offense-first league. Offenses dictate the action, forcing defenses to read, react and adjust. Fantasy football has always been an offensively focused game, with team defense rightly one of its least important positions and typically relegated to the very end of drafts. Not only should that continue this season, but savvy fantasy owners will ignore the position altogether until days before the season begins.
Team defense is the most fungible position in fantasy football. Like any spot where you start just one player, it’s incredibly easy to find value on the waiver wire every week. On top of that, there’s almost zero risk in playing waiver-wire roulette at the position, considering that even the top defenses generally score fewer than 10 points per week. And unless you get your hands on one of those, you’re looking at a marginal scorer over the course of a full season.
Forget the defense position on draft day, and join me on the defense carousel every week. Instead of picking your defense, pick your opponent. Target the Jets. Target the Bills. Target all the bad quarterbacks. That’s the surest, most affordable way to find regular production at fantasy’s least important position.
With that, let’s tackle some burning questions in our defense/special teams primer.
When is it okay to draft a defense?
In one of the last two rounds of your draft. Given what Jacksonville did last year, and the fact that the entire defense returns intact, that might seem crazy to some of you. It’s true, though. The results at the position are simply too volatile compared with draft-day prices. Want proof? Of last year’s top 10 defenses by ADP, two (Seattle and Carolina) finished in the top 10 in standard-scoring leagues, and they ended the year sixth and 10th, respectively. Jacksonville ranked 15th by ADP, while three of last year’s top-10 defenses—Detroit, New Orleans and Chicago—were all outside the top 20 by ADP. The top-three defense selections in a typical draft—the Broncos, Texans and Chiefs—ended the year 21st, 19th and 12th, respectively, in standard formats.
What’s more, defenses don’t move the needle very much on a weekly basis. Jacksonville scored 163 points last year (169 if your league lumps in special teams with defense), the most by a defense since the Bears racked up 187 points in 2012, and the fifth-most points by a defense since 2001. That comes out to 10.19 points per game, which is the same number of points Mike Wallace and Jamaal Williams scored in PPR leagues last year. Defenses look a little better in standard leagues, but there were still 28 receivers and 25 backs with more points per game in those formats than the Jaguars defense. And that, of course, cherry-picks a historically great defense. The top-12 defenses last season averaged 7.44 points per game, equal to the standard-scoring output of Kenny Golladay, and PPR average of Tyler Lockett. Don’t use significant draft capital at a position that can be filled on the waiver wire every week with equal or better results.
Which defense is your top target?
In the rare instance that I draft a defense for what it could be over the entire season rather than what it can do for me in Week 1, I’m chasing the Los Angeles Chargers. As we’ve already seen, much of what leads to fantasy production for a defense, takeaways and touchdowns, is hard to project. That’s why there’s so much turnover at the position from year to year, and why a strong real-life defense (such as last year’s Vikings) doesn’t always perform well in the fantasy game.
The one facet of a defense that is both predictable in real life and lucrative in fantasy is a pass rush. If you’re going to try to nail a season-long defense on draft day, the only thing you should be concerned with is how well it gets after the passer. Not only do sacks come from the pass rush, but a team that can get after the quarterback with regularity will have a better chance of forcing the sorts of bad decisions that lead to big plays. For my money, no team is going to be better at that this season than the Chargers.
Joey Bosa is one of the best individual pass rushers in the league, racking up 23 sacks in his first 28 games. With Melvin Ingram on the other side, the Chargers boast one of the best, if not the very best, pass rushing duos in the league. Brandon Mebane and Corey Liuget round out a fearsome front four in front of a strong linebacker group led by Denzel Perryman. In the secondary, Casey Hayward and Jason Verrett from an elite corner pairing, while rookie safety Derwin James may go down as the steal of the first round of this year’s draft. And for those of you rightly concerned only with what a defense can do for you one week at a time, the Chargers enter the season in good shape. They get a home game with the Chiefs Week 1, and face the Bills, 49ers, Raiders and Browns all in their first six games.
Which trendy defense are you avoiding?
Well, considering that I’m not going to draft a defense I can’t play Week 1, it’s safe to say that the defending Super Bowl champs will not appear on my cheat sheet. The Eagles ended last year as the No. 3 defense in standard-scoring leagues, and No. 5 defense in leagues that include kick and punt return touchdowns in defense scoring. They host the Falcons in the first game of the season, and even though the game is at home, I’d rather not run a defense out there against Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Devonta Freeman and company in Week 1. So the Eagles are out.
That, however, isn’t the only reason to fade the defense this season. First of all, they scored five touchdowns on defense last year, and while they deserve all the credit for their opportunistic ways, those are exactly the plays that have no stickiness from year to year. The Eagles recovered 12 of 16 forced fumbles, a 75% recovery rate compared with the league average of 62.4%. Take the Eagles out of the equation, and the league average recovery rate dips another half a percentage point. Fantasy owners cannot count on the Eagles recovering three out of every four fumbles they force again this season.
History tells us that at least five of this year’s top-10 defenses by ADP will end the season outside the top 10, which is reason enough not to take any of them. The Eagles look like one of the biggest risks in the group.
My league gives defenses points for return touchdowns. Which teams should I bump up my cheat sheet?
Chicago, Kansas City and Carolina are at the top of this list. Tarik Cohen racked up 272 yards and one touchdown on 29 punt returns, and 583 yards on 26 kick returns. He was one of three players in the top 10 in both yards per punt and kick return, along with Pharoh Cooper and Trevor Davis. Cohen is a dynamic player, and even with a larger role in the offense in store this season, he will remain as the Bears’ primary punt returner.
An expanded role in the offense last year cut into Tyreek Hill’s return duties, but he still got 25 punt returns, totaling 204 yards and a touchdown. He didn’t return any kickoffs, and that likely won’t change this season, but he still makes the Chiefs a better fantasy defense/special teams averaging about 1.5 punt returns per game.
Christian McCaffrey didn’t make as significant an impact as a returner as expected last year, but we know he has that club in his bag. He returned 22 points last year, totaling 162 yards. He may not have flashed as a returner in his rookie season, but if you’re questioning his skills check out some of his highlights from his last year at Stanford, and then ask yourself again if he can translate as a returner in the pro game. McCaffrey likely won’t return kicks, but he’s a real weapon as a punt returner, adding to what’s already expected to be a strong fantasy defense in Carolina.
Other teams with top-level returners who make their defenses more attractive include the Rams with Pharoh Cooper, Cardinals with Christian Kirk, Saints with Ted Ginn and Tommylee Lewis and Patriots with Cordarrelle Patterson.