Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire
In fantasy football, there are seven ways for a D/ST unit to score points: sacks (1 point), interceptions (2 points), fumbles (2 points), safeties (2 points), d/st touchdowns (6 points), 2-point conversion returns (2 points) and points allowed (see table below for details). Most of these (2 pt conversion returns, special teams TDs, fumbles, safeties) are highly random, so we will ignore them for now. They are great when they happen, but predicting them is impractical. Other stats (interceptions, sacks, points allowed) are more stable. These are the numbers I want to focus on.
First, let’s talk about points allowed. Here’s a quick look at the top 5 scoring defenses last year:
|Team||Points allowed per game|
|Los Angeles Chargers||17.0|
|New England Patriots||18.5|
And here are how teams scored based only on points allowed:
|Points allowed by the defense||Fantasy points scored as a result|
The best scoring defense last year gave up 15.8 points per game on average. In other words, they average 1 pt per game from this or 16 for the season if they perfectly balanced the scoring over each game. On the other hand, the Jaguars had 21 interceptions and 17 forced fumbles resulting in 7 defensive touchdowns. Those 3 stats resulted in 118 points, regardless of points allowed. Interceptions and sacks are both tied into the passing game, and interceptions are where defensive TDs most often come from. So, we want to focus on the strength of a team’s pass defense…specifically their secondary and their pass rush.
As a final measure, I will occasionally bring up two more factors: strength of schedule and strength of the offense that plays on the same team as my defense. For strength of schedule, we simply focus on finding the worst offenses as the year goes on. Some favorite “bad offenses” for me to target right now are the Buffalo Bills and the New York Jets. They have plenty of question marks and bad quarterback situations. Really, bad quarterback play is the first thing I look for. I will also sometimes mention a team’s offense as well. The thought here is that the better a team’s offense, the less time their defense has to spend on the field. This keeps them fresh and decreases opposing scoring opportunities. Look for workhorse running backs and QBs who play it safe (low INT numbers). Without further ado, let’s get into the rankings.
Tier 1: The best of the best
1. Jacksonville Jaguars: Jacksonville was in a class of its own last year, and I expect them to get right back at it. It’s hard to decide whether the secondary (with Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Buoye at corner) or the defensive line (with Calais Campbell and Malik Jackson) was the stronger unit. That’s a good problem to have. The Jaguars should be matchup proof, and they are the only defense I would take before the last 2 rounds of a standard draft. If Andrew Luck and Deshaun Watson aren’t their pre-injury selves, the schedule will be beautiful as well.
Tier 2: The (other) Elite Four
2. Los Angeles Rams: The Rams took an amazing player in DT Aaron Donald and decided to help him by adding fellow DT Ndamukong Suh. That’s simply unfair. They back up the big boys with a strong secondary, and the offense is good at controlling clock on the other side with Todd Gurley. The Rams were my closest team to joining the Jags in elite-land. It may take time for the elite talent to gel though.
3. Los Angeles Chargers: The Chargers, like the Rams, boast a beast on the D-line in DE Joey Bosa, and they probably have the best outside rush in the league. The secondary, while not top-heavy as some others, truly goes 4-5 men deep. Add in rookie safety Derwin James, and all looks right here. The offense will help by eating away clock with Melvin Gordon who has proven reliable through 3 years.
4. Minnesota Vikings: The Vikings secondary is lead by one of the best safeties in the league, Harrison Smith, while Xavier Rhodes had a standout season at corner. This is paired with an impressive front 7 with standouts being Everson Griffin at edge, Linval Joseph inside, and Anthony Barr at linebacker. It doesn’t hurt to have a stacked offense on the other side and a young workhorse back in Dalvin Cook.
5. Philadelphia Eagles: The Eagles might have the best pass-rush from top to bottom with DE Brandon Graham and DT Fletcher Cox leading the way. On top of the talent, they are deep here as well. The secondary returns Ronald Darby, but the second corner spot is up for grabs. This is the biggest question mark they have right now, and training camp/ preseason will hopefully help flesh it out.
Tier 3: What about us
6. Baltimore Ravens: Baltimore’s secondary was strong last year, and now they get Tavon Young back from injury. I have no worries about their coverage. The D-line is lead by Terrell Suggs who turns 36 this year, and this is where some trepidation pops up. I don’t love counting on players over 30, and even less so over 35. There is some other talent here, but most of it is unproven. All this being said, the Ravens lead the league in picks last year, they get to see the Bengals and Browns twice each, and I love Alex Collins in their backfield. You could certainly do worse.
7. New Orleans Saints: Thank God for Marshon Lattimore…right Saints fans? The rookie corner was better than anyone could have expected, making the Pro bowl and turn New Orleans into a true contender. The rest of the secondary is likewise strong…save for one bad moment last year against the Vikings. The standout on the D-line is Cameron Jordan, coming off a 14-sack season. On top of the D, the Saints have two beast running backs to help eat clock all day long. The division has some strong offenses (Carolina, Atlanta) but I still like the talent.
8. Denver Broncos: Von Miller was good enough to carry a dilapidated Peyton Manning to a Super Bowl win against a physically superior Panthers team. He is still that good. Now, he gets rookie Bradley Chubb to line up with him up front. The secondary is solid with Chris Harris Jr. and Bradley Roby at corner, and I’ve always believed in the Denver home-field advantage (the thin mountain air). My only worry is the offense not improving from its dreadful showing last year, and the teaming losing faith as a result.
9. Houston Texans: Houston has been a perennial powerhouse on defense. They are loaded on the D-line when J.J. Watt is healthy, but the problem is that he missed the last 2 years (back and leg injuries). If you promised me 16 healthy games of Watt, I’d bump them up. However, this is life and back/ leg injuries tend to worry me. The Texans were weak in the secondary last year, but added safety Tyron Mathieu from Arizona and cornerback Aaron Colvin from Jacksonville. Another boost for Houston would be a healthy Deshaun Watson. Offenses with scrambling quarterbacks are great at eating clock, and one of the reasons Carolina tends to finish strong.
Tier 4: The best of the rest
10. New England Patriots: The Patriots have two distinct strengths this year: their secondary and their schedule. The secondary is headlined by Stephon Gilmore and Jason McCourty at corner and Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon at safety. What I really want to get into is the schedule. The Patriots play the Jets, the Dolphins, and the Bills twice each. All 3 of those offenses are strong candidates to end up in the bottom 10 and I could see any of the 3 as the worst team this year.
11. Carolina Panthers: The Panthers always seem to rank well in team defense, and it starts with Luke Kuechly at linebacker…possibly the best linebacker in the league right now. The secondary is young and unproven while the defensive line is more veteran (Julius Peppers, Kawann Short, Donatari Poe, Mario Addison). The last strength for the Panthers defense is the offense’s dynamic rushing attack. They feature a 3-headed monster of Christian McCaffrey, C.J. Anderson, and Cam Newton, and this should really help keep the defense off the field as much as possible.
12. Chicago Bears: The Chicago Bears did not play well last year. Starting Mike Glennon will do that to you. However, their defense was certainly a bright spot. Vic Fangio is back as defensive coordinator and he will be working with a good secondary lead by Adrian Amos, who was excellent at safety last year, as well as both starting cornerbacks returning as well. The pass rush is a definite question mark, but it could step up if Leonard Floyd can stay healthy and rookie Roquan Smith can make an impact.
13. Atlanta Falcons: The Falcons pass rush is led by DT Grady Jarrett and they would love to see Vic Beasley Jr. get back to producing at his first-round pedigree. The secondary is strong (Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford at corner, Keanue Neal and Ricardo Allen at safety) and deep with the addition of rookie Isaiah Oliver in the draft. Add in a good offense with two proven running backs, and I could easily see this group breaking into the top-10.
Tier 5: Early streamers
14. Detroit Lions: The Lions start the season at home, and they get to play the Jets. Anyone who plays the Jets should be on your fantasy radar. The Lions have a good secondary even without the matchup, though their pass rush is nothing special. If you miss out on the top 5 teams above, this is a good place to look.
15. Tennessee Titans: The Titans begin the season with Miami, another offense I want to face as much as possible. They have an all around good defense, but the schedule is pretty tough over 16 games. They face the Jaguars and Texans twice along with the Patriots, Eagles, and Chargers. Throw in a possibly healthy Andrew Luck for the Colts, and this could be a minefield. Nevertheless, I like what I see in week one.
16. Pittsburgh Steelers: The Steelers defense is really the tale of two seasons: with Ryan Shazier and without. With Shazier, they were fierce and looked like a Super Bowl front-runner. Without him, they gave up 45 to Blake Bortles and the Jaguars in a do or die game. Needless to say, I have my doubts since Shazier is still out. All this being said, the Steelers play the Browns in week 1. I like to target the Browns with my defenses because, well, they just aren’t very good.
17. Cincinnati Bengals: The Bengals actually are pretty talented along their secondary and up front. Geno Atkins had a great 2017 and William Jackson III was excellent at cornerback. This is a team that could find their way into that top-10 list. What I really like, though, is the week 1 opponent. If Andrew Luck isn’t 100% yet, which is a fair concern at this point, then this is an A+ matchup. If Luck is healthy, I would probably stay away.
The bottom 15:
I want to briefly explain this tier. I’m not guaranteeing failure or swearing these teams off all year. I’m simply saying that I wouldn’t draft them because of the plethora of better options above. They could find value later on as a weekly streamer or even season long if things break the right way. However, I’d stay away for now. Without further ado, your bottom 15:
18. Dallas Cowboys: Demarcus Lawrence had a great season last year and will be playing on the franchise tag. I expect another great season. However, they need more out of Taco Charlton in his second season. The secondary is full of promising young players, and it could be quite good if they take another step forward. Ezekiel Elliott and the strong offensive line will be the BFF of the defense.
19. Green Bay Packers: The Packers biggest name on defense is definitely Clay Matthews (State Farm commercials anyone?), but their interior might be even better with tackles Kenny Clark and Mike Daniels. The secondary, while not great last year, will be helped by rookie corners Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson. The offense (I see you Aaron Rodgers) is also clearly a strength. This is a tough one for me to predict, if only because we don’t know what the corners will be. If they flash, the Packers could easily be Super Bowl bound this year.
20. Washington Redskins: The Redskins had a strong pass rush last year, despite the team’s overall lack of success. This was led by Pro-bowl DE Ryan Kerrigan, and it continues with the tackles. The secondary had a down year, and Josh Norman needs to play up to his contract for the unit to succeed this season. Alex Smith and his safer play style should help the defense avoid bad starting situations.
21. San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers look good on paper, but I’m worried about if Richard Sherman was worth the payday. DeForest Buckner anchors the D-line, but behind him are question marks and a log-jam of talent in the interior. I like the offense and the division (Cardinals and Seahawks specifically), but not enough not invest.
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: If Vita Vea plays well as a rookie and Jason Pierre Paul meshes well, this D-line could be really good. The secondary worries me though. I’m not a fan of the safeties, and the corners may not be much better. With the Jameis Winston suspension, I’m guessing this team is headed for upheaval.
23. New York Giants: After shipping out Jason Pierre-Paul, the Giants pass rush takes a definitive downgrade. Their interior is very good, but mostly at stopping the run. Janoris Jenkins needs to get back to his star form in the secondary while Eli Apple will need to step up and prove he was worth his draft capital. He has flashed at times, but just not consistently enough. The addition of a real run game should help via Saquon Barkley.
24. Oakland Raiders: The Raiders pass rush could be amazing this year. Khalil Mack has been a beast and Maurice Hurst is one of Pro Football Focus’ top-rated rookies at any position. However, Mack wants a new deal (and doesn’t have it) and Hurst had heart issues pop up at the combine which caused most teams to consider him undraftable. The secondary would benefit from a healthy Gareon Conley. The coaching worries me here as Gruden has been out of the game for a while and I’m not convinced he still has it.
25. Kansas City Chiefs: Justin Houston (DE) and Chris Jones (DT) are the strengths of the D-line, though Houston is reaching the twilight of his career (30 years old). They might be all the line really has this year. The secondary lost Marcus Peters but adds Kendall Fuller and starts safety Eric Berry. There is some strength to be sure, but I think the secondary got decidedly worse. At least the offense is capable with Kareem Hunt leading the league in rushing last year.
26. Seattle Seahawks: It feels like every time I looked up this offseason, the Seahawks lost another player. They still have Earl Thomas, but it seems like even he wants out if there isn’t a payday coming. Corners Byron Maxwell and Shaquill Griffin are a strength, but this is a far cry from the vaunted Legion of Boom. The pass rush loses Michael Bennett and Sheldon Richardson, and the dreadful O-line will make it tough to sustain long drives.
27. Arizona Cardinals: Chandler Jones is an excellent DE and dominates in pass rush. Unfotunately, there isn’t much to speak of behind him, including an uncertain Markus Golden coming back from injury at the other edge position. Patrick Peterson has been a Pro-Bowler every year of his career (since 2011) and should continue along smoothly. Again, though, there are question marks behind him. Add in the departure of safety Tyron Mathieu, and there are plenty of reasons to worry.
28. Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins watched Ndamukong Suh leave and the whole line will feel the loss. There is still some talent, but nothing to scare opposing offenses. The secondary is young, including rookie Minkah Fitzpatrick, and will hopefully take a step forward from last year’s uninspiring play. Add on a bad offense, and there is just not much to look at here.
29. Cleveland Browns: Cleveland’s defense, much like its offense, leaves much to the imagination. They added a lot of pieces in the secondary and could see more from existing names (Jabril Peppers) if the scheming is better suited to the talent. We can hardly count on this in Cleveland, however. They should be much improved from last year, but I’d like to wait and see.
30. Indianapolis Colts: Take a second and google Indy’s starting corners. The first name (Quincy Wilson) might be familiar, but I doubt the rest are. This is probably (sarcasm) going to be a problem. The pass rush has one strong name (Jaball Sheard) but not much after that. Let’s hope for their sake that the rookies show up, and that Luck is back to 100%.
31. New York Jets: The Jets are decent at DT, but their outside rush is lacking. In the secondary, I’m impressed by safety Jamal Adams. However, this just isn’t much there behind him. Throw in a rookie QB, a castoff RB from the Browns, and I’m not expecting much at all here. At least Jets fans can watch Sam Darnold and dream of the future.
32. Buffalo Bills: The Bills are actually really strong in the secondary. Their safety tandem (Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde) is the envy of most teams. Throw in Tre’Davious White at corner, and things are looking good. Unfortunately, the pass rush isn’t much to speak of with Trent Murphy out all last year. My biggest worry might be the Bills terrible offense. They sent Tyrod Taylor packing, LeSean McCoy looks to miss a lot of time (discipline) and I imagine the defense spends a lot of time on the field this year.