Defenses are a bit of a conundrum in fantasy football – it is often not advisable to spend a high pick or tons of your DFS budget on one, but the playoff and championship teams always seem to get consistent production from their D/ST units. There is nothing sweeter than watching your D carry you to a W with a couple of TDs. Playing matchups, watching for injuries, and pouncing on an underperforming unit with VS. JAX or AT LA RAMS on the schedule can eek you out the few extra points you need to win week to week. Seriously, is there anything more glorious than knowing your defense is going up against pick-six factory Blake Bortles?
Throughout the year, we will be providing our take on the top 16 defenses each and every week, based on matchup, injuries, and recent performance. They will fall into the following tiers:
DOMINANT – I don’t believe that there are any true “set-and-forget” options at the defensive position, as there are scarcely ANY such players at any position in the NFL. However, these groups are as close as you’re going to get. They can be started with supreme confidence most weeks and will just require the odd benching to avoid Foxboro or Mr. Rodger’s Neighborhood as I’ve conveniently renamed the whole of Green Bay, Wisconsin.
DISTINGUISHED – This is the high-end streamer tier. They will probably be added and dropped multiple times throughout the course of the season, getting the green light for plus matchups and benched at the first sight of danger. Some lunkhead in your league following the three defense strategy may even draft one or two of these units, but most will likely be available on the wire to start the year. Careful, intelligent management and usage of options in this tier will yield positive results more often than not. There will likely be a few breakouts in the upper half of this group, and this is the tier I’d be looking to draft my defense from.
DEFENSIBLE – Defensible, get it? You could certainly pick a starter from this tier, preferably against a weaker offense at home but these squads are by no means a safe bet. Cover your eyes, hold your nose, and maybe even get out of the house. Do your blood pressure a favor and just check the score after the game. Go take in that indie film you’ve been wanting to see!
DESPERATE – These are the teams you could probably throw on some pads and score against. The dregs of the league reside in this tier. These teams should be started in only the most extreme circumstances (you lost a bet, you hate yourself, you are playing in a bizarre league that rewards awful defensive play) but for the most part will be available on the wire all year long, and for good reason.
Below are our pre-season thoughts on all thirty-two defenses and the tier in which they will most frequently reside:
1. Denver Broncos – (Week 1 vs. LA Chargers) Unfortunately, Denver faces the NFL’s toughest schedule this year in terms of opponent 2016 winning percentage. They are likely to receive middling quarterback play at best, forcing inconsistent field position and game script. Trevor Siemian showed some cojones last year and played competently, but Tom Brady he is not. It is thus a testament to Denver’s talent on the defensive side of the ball that they could still be ranked so highly. This unit is returning studs at every level of the defense and has depth to spare. Von Miller is a candidate to lead the league in sacks and the corner duo of Aqib Talib and Chris Harris is still among the league’s best. Their week 1 matchup, at home vs. the newly glamorous Los Angeles Chargers, is likely to be a low scoring slugfest. Start with confidence all year, especially in Denver where the thin air gives them a slight competitive advantage over their breathless opponents. DE Derek Wolfe suffered an ankle injury early on in the pre-season but it is currently being discussed as though it isn’t terribly serious.
2. Houston Texans – (Week 1 vs. Jacksonville Jaguars) An injury to JJ Watt led to a somewhat disappointing year for this unit, but they still held opponents to the fewest yards per game. They were a much better real life defense than fantasy one, as Watt is largely responsible for the things fantasy owners lust after (sacks, picks, tds, bench-pressing freight trains, crushing anvils, and dating Caroline Wozniacki.) By all accounts Watt’s back has responded well to surgery and as long as he is healthy this unit will be elite. They also boast a phenomenally deep linebacker core with Brian Cushing, Benardrick McKinney, Jadeveon Clowney, and Whitney Mercilus. The fact that they have Blake Bortles on the schedule for week one is just icing on the cake.
3. New England Patriots – (Week 1 vs. KC Chiefs) The Patriots are really interesting in the sense that their defense is more than the sum of its parts. Sound technique, impeccable scheming, and positive game script gifted by what is likely to be the league’s best offense will make this unit a high-end weekly starter that will get you what you need more often than not. Opponents will often be trailing, and forced into unfavorable throwing situations where enemy QBs will need to play loose, and thus make mistakes. Workmanlike safeties Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty will pounce on these mistakes. Bill Belichick made waves by shipping talented linebacker Jamie Collins to Cleveland, but if Bill doesn’t want him I don’t either. The Chiefs in week 1 aren’t a cupcake but projected starter Alex Smith is unlikely to light up the scoreboard. The Patriots are a solid play right out of the gate.
4. New York Giants – (Week 1 @ Dallas Cowboys) The G-Men had a historically bad defense two years ago where they really couldn’t stop anyone, and then coming into last year they committed what is usually a cardinal sin – they threw money at the problem, looking to patch up a sinking ship with band-aids. Miraculously – it worked. Olivier Vernon gave them a menacing pass rusher to pair with Jason Pierre-Paul, whose strong play was amazing in it’s own right given that he was still adapting to playing with a compromised hand. Janoris Jenkins bolstered an already strong secondary corps of Dominque Rodgers-Cromartie, super-stud safety Landon Collins and rookie corner Eli Apple. Snacks Harrison clogged running lanes up the middle, and at the end of the day only the Patriots allowed fewer points per game. This team is a likely super bowl contender and if they get there it will be on the back of their phenomenal defense. Don’t be scared off by the Cowboys in week 1- Big Blue was one of the few teams to figure out dynamo rookies Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliot last year, sweeping the season series vs. Jerry’s boys.
5. Minnesota Vikings – (Week 1 vs. NO Saints) Defensive-minded head coach Mike Zimmer is building a beast in Minneapolis. This was the surprise breakout unit of 2016, launching the team to a 5-0 start and sitting atop the D/ST rankings for much of the season due to studs Xavier Rhodes, Everson Griffen, and MLB Eric Kendricks. Xavier Rhodes, particularly, is a huge asset in this league, using his size to put opposing number one receivers on house arrest. Inconsistency dogged Minnesota after their hot start, but this is a solid young defense on the come-up, helmed by a brilliant defensive mind. They may take a step-back from a defensive touchdown standpoint, but they will still be a tough unit to score and move the ball on. Don’t be afraid of the Saints week 1- Drew Brees and co. take a major step back away from the Superdome and the season-opening contest sees Minnesota enjoying a home game.
6. Kansas City Chiefs – (Week 1 @ New England
Touchdown Factory Patriots) A strong unit, but I’d fade them week 1 in Foxboro. This was one of the elite TD scoring defenses of last season, so a regression there could weaken their overall performance. They also lost DT Dontari Poe to Atlanta. I still imagine this team being one of the league’s better defenses.
7. Seattle Seahawks – (Week 1 @ Green Bay Packers) Seattle has a reputation as one of the league’s elite defenses, but this is the unit I’d be least shocked to see fall out of the top tier. safety Earl Thomas is coming off a broken leg and reportedly contemplated retirement at times last year, and outspoken mouthpiece Richard Sherman was the subject of offseason trade rumors. There is also reportedly a growing rift between QB Russell Wilson and the rest of the team. This defense still has gobs of talent but more question marks than ever. There’s a chance this ranking makes me look foolish but I certainly wouldn’t love starting them out of the gate at Green Bay.
8. Arizona Cardinals – (Week 1 @ Detroit Lions) Losing the utterly monolithic Calais Campbell will hurt this unit quite a bit, but they still have a talented secondary and I think coach Bruce Arians will keep everything moving relatively smoothly. Start with confidence week one against Matt Stafford and the Lions.
9. Carolina Panthers – (Week 1 @ San Francisco 49ers) Everything went utterly, horribly, disgustingly wrong for Carolina last year but this is still a team that is relatively intact from the Superbowl squad two years ago. The offense will be stronger and give the defense better situations to work with. Perhaps this defense will continue to feel the loss of elite CB Josh Norman, but I am betting on a rebound. Regardless of what they do over the course of the season, they are likely to record 500+ fantasy points in week one and are the recommended start of the week going against the hapless 49ers.
10. Los Angeles Chargers – (Week 1 @ Denver Broncos) I really, really like this squad as a sleeper heading into the year. Once he got on the field, rookie DE Joey Bosa absolutely leapt off the screen; he was relentless in pursuing the QB, recording 10.5 sacks in only 12 games. Look for him to surpass that total. They also have a legitimate shutdown corner in Jason Verrett. Returns could be mixed week 1 in Denver, but the season long outlook is bright.
11. Jacksonville Jaguars – (Week 1 @ Houston Texans) I feel dirty saying it, but the Jags may finally have a pretty nice defense. FA Additions in CB AJ Bouye and DL Calais Campbell are nice complements to the talent JAX has stockpiled in the draft on the defensive side of the ball. Jalen Ramsey is an emerging stud at CB, and 1st Rounder Myles Jack is expected to transition to the play-calling, play-making defensive captain. They have a chance to make some noise against the inconsistent offensive play of the Texans at Houston in week 1.
12. Atlanta Falcons- (Week 1 @ Chicago Bears) Atlanta, Jacksonville, and LAC are my three favorite defensive targets heading into drafts this year. HC Dan Quinn is a defensive genius and is starting to gather the talent he needs to make his ideas work, the same ones he implemented to help build something of a mini-dynasty in Seattle. The dirty birds finally have what looks like a franchise pass rusher in LB Vic Beasley, and CB Desmond Trufant can go toe-to-toe with any opposing wideout. They will also have the benefit of often playing with big leads thanks to the Falcons explosive offense. Their depth will be challenged as the result of a 10-game PED suspension to 3rd-year CB Jalen Collins, but they still have the pieces in place to do some nice things. The outlook is sunny right out of the gate; look for ATL to take out the frustrations of their recent super bowl loss against the Bears who will be starting the uninspiring Mike Glennon at QB.
13. Oakland Raiders – (Week 1 @ Tennessee Titans) This unit is tied to a really strong offense and has monster Khalil Mack who is a threat to post multiple sacks every week. I am a bit wary of the sneaky-good offense of the Tennessee Titans on tap week 1, but you’ll feel good about starting this squad more often than not.
14. Philadelphia Eagles – (Week 1 @ Washington Redskins) The Eagles were the #6 overall D/ST in ESPN standard scoring last year, mainly on the strength of 5 touchdowns (only the Vikings and Chiefs had more.) Touchdowns in general can be fluky, and that goes double for defensive touchdowns. They still have stalwart DT Fletcher Cox up the middle, but a regression in TD scoring could leave this unit as merely average. The addition of CB Ronald Darby late in the offseason should deepen their secondary as the third year corner is solid and still has some theoretical upside.
15. Baltimore Ravens – (Week 1 @ Cincinnati Bengals) A solid group who will always take advantage of a good matchup. Coach John Harbaugh always gets the most out of his personnel and I’d rarely feel bad about starting the Ravens defense. They won’t win you the week but they’re also unlikely to hurt you. They have a decent but unspectacular matchup week 1 at Cinci.
16. Pittsburgh Steelers – (Week 1 @ Cleveland Browns) Ageless James Harrison will lead a young, exciting backer corps that also includes studs Ryan Shazier and Bud Dupree. I’d be thrilled to start them week 1 at the Browns, who are supposedly toying with the idea of starting a fan at QB to open the year.
17. Cincinnati Bengals – (Week 1 vs. Baltimore Ravens) The Cats should be a vanilla play all year long, a dependable start against your lower-half offenses and a recommended option at home. Stud DT Geno Atkins is further removed from his ACL tear and should again threaten double digit sacks after posting 9.0 and 11.0 in the past two seasons. It should be noted that this unit can be wildly undisciplined both on and off the field – elder statesmen Adam “Pacman” Jones is suspended for week 1 and hard-hitting MLB Vontaze Burfict is just as likely to pile on penalty yards and personal fouls as he is tackles and forced fumbles. All that aside, this unit has talent at all 3 levels and will rarely disappoint. Week 1 contest at home vs. the Ravens is a decent play, with AFC North duels often devolving into low-scoring attrition wars.
18. Dallas Cowboys – (Week 1 vs. NY Giants.) The Cowboys defense overachieved last year and was still nothing special, riding a powerful ball-control offense to favorable field positioning, frequent leads, and long rest periods on the bench (Dallas was 2nd in the league in time of possession, per SportingCharts.com.) LB Sean Lee has some game but consistently struggles to stay on the field, and the rest of the defense is seriously void of talent. If the offense regresses even a little (which I suspect it will,) this defense may be called upon to do more and find themselves ill equipped for the job. Vegas forecasts 9.5 wins for the Cowboys this year, a far cry from their dominant 2016. And oh yeah, that was before the lynchpin of their entire offense (RB Ezekiel Elliot) got suspended for AT LEAST the season’s opening six contests. Don’t even think about starting them against the revamped Giants passing attack in week 1.
19. Los Angeles Rams – (Week 1 vs.Indianapolis Colts) The Rams have a few interesting pieces in Megastud DT Aaron Donald and former sack-machine Robert Quinn, but for the most part are rather uninspiring. They were stingy against the run, allowing 3.9 YPC to enemy backs in 2016 (per pro-football-reference.com.) Only 7 teams were better there. However, they may be in some trouble up-front with lane clogging DL Dominique Easley projected to miss the full season with an ACL tear. The Rams could make for a dart throw against weaker offenses but for the most part should be left on the wire.
20. Buffalo Bills – (Week 1 vs. NY Jets) I love this matchup week 1 for Buffalo, and I think the tanking Jets will be a target to stream against all year long as they kick off their “Suck for Sam” campaign. As for the season long outlook, the Bills should be left on the bench more often than not.
21. Tennessee Titans – (Week 1 vs. Oakland(-ish) Raiders) Tennessee was a mediocre defense in 2016 and made few impact defensive signings. The arrival of electric 1st round CB Adoree’ Jackson provides some reason for excitement in the secondary: he was a playmaking machine at USC, picking off passes and scoring touchdowns from multiple special teams and offensive positions. Brian Orakpo is a threat for another double digit sack season. The Titans have an interesting little defense but their offense is much more exciting. Week 1 is likely to be an exciting shootout between young franchise QBs Marcus Mariota and Derek Carr.
22. Green Bay Packers – (Week 1 vs. Seattle Seahawks) All of the fantasy goodness housed in Green Bay can be found on the offensive side of the ball. Starting this unit will likely elicit laughter from your opponent, and I’m not talking about S Ha-Ha Clinton Dix.
23. Miami Dolphins – (Week 1 vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers) The Bucs have the looks of one of the year’s breakout offenses and I wouldn’t start the fins against them right out of the gate. I will say that everyone on Tampa Bay should guard their groins whenever vicious DT Ndamukong Suh is on the field.
24. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – (Week 1 @ Miami Dolphins) Tampa Bay has generated a lot of buzz this offseason due to their exciting young offense, but they do have some interesting defenders in veterans DL Gerald McCoy and CB Brent Grimes. Unfortunately, their schedule will do them no favors, as they have 2 matchups apiece with in-division offensive powerhouses NO Saints and ATL Falcons. They also will face arguably the two best offenses in the league in Green Bay and New England. They may have some nice games but will often be relegated to waiver-wire fodder on matchup alone. You’ll likely have tons of better options at your disposal on a consistent basis. This unit does have some light potential against the freshly signed, newly unretired and perpetually uninspired Smokin’ Jay Cutler Week1 @ Miami, however.
25. Detroit Lions – (Week 1 vs. Arizona Cardinals) The Detroit Lions were positively eviscerated through the air last season, giving up 33 TDs – the second most in football per Pro Football Reference (give yourself a gold star if you just had that feeling that the Browns gave up the most.) CB Darius Slay, their top talent in the secondary, battled hamstring injuries at times and if he is healthy that number could regress somewhat. Detroit used its 1st round draft pick (21st overall) to select Florida LB Jarrad Davis, but it can be tough for rookie LBs to come in and make an immediate impact. They did allow the 2nd fewest rushing touchdowns in the league, but that was likely due to the fact that they were getting thrown all over. After looking like a potential star in his first three years in the NFL (29 sacks in ’13-’15), edge rusher Ziggy Ansah fell off the map in ‘16 with only 2 QB takedowns and his health is already murky heading into the season. This defense is nothing special and can be ignored until further notice.
26. Washington Redskins – (Week 1 vs. Philadelphia Eagles) Las Vegas sees 7.5 wins for this team going into the year. All 7.5 of these will likely have to come on the arm of meme-machine and borderline elite QB Kirk Cousins, because the defense is pretty mediocre. CB Josh Norman is still going to be causing headaches for opposing number 1 receivers and will supposedly be deployed by DC Greg Manusky as a shadow corner, following top-enemy pass catchers all over the field. But can he stuff the run too? Only the Dolphins, Colts, Browns, and laughingstock 49ers allowed more YPC to opposing rushers per Pro-Football-Reference. Running backs flattened DT Ziggy Hood, and he’ll be back this year, waving a white flag as he gets bulldozed. It projects to be another long season for a unit that allowed the 5th most yards to opposing offenses last year. Start at your own peril.
27. New Orleans Saints – (Week 1 @ Minnesota Vikings) The Saints defensive strategy has been, for years, “let the other team score as quickly and frequently as possible so as to maximize the number of times Drew Brees can huck the ol’ pigskin.” It hasn’t really worked, but that hasn’t inspired them to change. Only the 49ers gave up more points last year. The Saints D/ST can be started on weeks where all other 31 teams are on bye but should never really be considered otherwise.
28. New York Jets – (Week 1 @ Buffalo Bills) There may be some who are tempted to use the Jets due to the stockpile of talent they have up front (Sheldon Richardson, Muhammad Wilkerson, Leonard Williams) but the 2017 Jets have the look of one big hot mess and they will be completely out of games early and often. The bad situations their putrid offense will put their defense in will be too much for the strong front 7 to overcome. They have also lost a ton of bodies on the defensive side (Darrelle Revis, Calvin Pace, David Harris.) Buster Skrine is a nice defender but is miscast as a #1 corner. They may be able to stuff the run from time to time but NYJ should be avoided in most situations.
29. Indianapolis Colts – (Week 1 @ LA Rams) If the Colts defense were a baby then ex-GM Ryan Grigson would probably be behind bars for child neglect. Luckily for him, the Colts defense is not a baby and Grigson was simply fired. The Colts boast a nice corps of pass-catchers and a franchise QB but the rest of the roster is pretty devoid of talent. They may make a nice Hail Mary at the Rams and the hapless Jared Goff in week 1, but in week one you shouldn’t need to throw Hail Marys. You can do better.
30. Chicago Bears – (Week 1 vs. Atlanta Falcons) The best thing you can say about the Chicago Bears is that the Cubs won the world Series last year. As far as week 1, I anticipate the Falcons to be up by seven, maybe eight hundred points by halftime. Avoid.
31. San Francisco 49ers – (Week 1 vs. Carolina Panthers) Remember when it looked like the 49ers and Seahawks would be slugging it out for NFL Supremacy for years to come? Well, the Seahawks have won a Superbowl and have had a nice run of continued success, and the 49ers….have a rich NFL history and a storied franchise boasting many hall of fame talents from yesteryear. As for their current squad, Patrick Willis has long since retired, Navorro Bowman is a shell of his former self and Aldon Smith has gone off the team and COMPLETELY off the reservation. The 9ers are a long way from relevance and are unlikely to be a recommended start at any point this year.
THE CLEVELAND BROWNS
32. Cleveland Browns – (Week 1 vs. Pittsburgh Steelers) The Cleveland Browns reside in this tier.