Top 32 Defenses for 2020

Benjamin Haller talks defenses for the 2020 season.

The beauty of watching defenses sync in perfect, violent harmony is one of the most underrated and exciting aspects of football. And when a team “has a day” it can win you a week in your fantasy league. Special teams are also so vital in today’s possession football world.

There are seven standard categories for D/ST scoring and the ones that count the most are individual player sacks (1 point), interceptions (2 points) and forced fumbles (2 points), and then the team category of points allowed (see below for details).

Defense Points In Fantasy Football

 

Obviously there are points for special teams TDs, safeties, and 2pt conversions but these are too difficult to predict. Many fantasy players choose to stream defenses because of the strength of schedule and the potency of the offense they are facing in any given week so these factors have also been taken into account. It is also useful to consider DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) too.

Defense Fantasy Points vs. DVOA

 

Tier 1: Beatdown Alley

 

1. Baltimore Ravens An elite unit for a few years now thanks to Defensive Coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale and their flexible and sometimes chaotic 4-3 scheme. The only aspect that let them down last year was sacks, where they were ranked 21st. So they went out and acquired defensive end Calais Campbell from the Jaguars, and signed ex-Denver Bronco Derek Wolfe in free agency. They franchised-tagged the fierce edge rusher Matt Judon and made a splash in the first round of the NFL Draft by selecting standout LSU inside linebacker Patrick Queen. The strength of this defense is in the secondary led by Marcus Peters, Marlon Humphrey, and upcoming free safety Chuck Clark. The Ravens led the league with a 54.5% blitz rate last season, and they should be allowed to be equally aggressive this year thanks to their eclectic offense.

 

2. Pittsburgh Steelers – This elite unit led the NFL in takeaways last season with 20 interceptions and 18 fumbles recovered according to Pro Football Reference. The trade for former Miami Dolphins 1st round pick Minkah Fitzpatrick worked out perfectly, and rookie 1st rounder Devin Bush was unlucky to be in the same class as Nick Bosa, as in any other year his 109 tackles, 9 tackles for loss and 2 interceptions would have nabbed him the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award. Veteran Cam Heyward leads a front 7 that is arguably the most underrated in football, and which led the league in sacks with 54. TJ Watt and Bud Dupree provide elite pass rush to a defense that ranked 3rd in DVOA last season (-18.4%) according to Football Outsiders. Expect more of the same this time around.

 

3. Los Angeles Chargers – This may be a little high for some but the potential has been brewing for a few years now, and after the Chargers made a splash in the 1st round of the NFL Draft by selecting stud Oklahoma inside linebacker Kenneth Murray, all the pieces are finally in place for Anthony Lynn to unleash his weapons at last. The primary two being Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa, who were both restricted by injury last year but should benefit from a healthy camp and the presence of veteran defensive tackle Linval Joseph, a big-money free-agent acquisition from the Minnesota Vikings. I will have my eyes on the secondary too, Derwin James is back fully fit at strong safety after a stress fracture in his foot limited him to just 5 games last season. The Chargers were dead last in takeaways last season with just 14. In all seriousness, I think that at least doubles this season. Bolt up!

 

4. San Francisco 49ers – The impact of Defensive Rookie of the Year Nick Bosa can not be understated. Defensive Coordinator Robert Salah had survived two pretty miserable years where his defense ranked 25th in 2017 and 28th in 2018 according to Pro Football Reference, despite a talented roster. That all changed last year and it was all Bosa, with 25 quarterback hits, 9 sacks, and a dominating 16 tackles for loss that sounds impressive on paper but it was even better to watch on film. He galvanized this defense and lifted those around him to another level, including Arik Armstead, who notched 10 sacks and 11 tackles for loss and was rewarded with a new five-year, $85 million contract extension. The leadership of the secondary by the impervious Richard Sherman, who had the best season of his career at age 32, was a surprise that couldn’t quite claim a Super Bowl ring after the secondary was lit up by the Chiefs in Miami. Questions remain about that unit, Salah and the biggest worry is the impact of losing DeForest Buckner, who was traded to the Colts mainly due to salary cap mismanagement. A lot rests on Bosa once more, and rookie 1st round pick Javon Kinlaw will need to produce a similar season to what Bosa did last year for them to return to the Super Bowl. They will be productive week to week and should be one of the top D/ST’s off the board.

 

Tier 2: “On our day, we will beat anyone”

 

5. New England Patriots – To drop a Bill Belichick controlled defense into the second tier could be seen as a little disrespectful. However, after seeing the volume of talent to walk out the door in the offseason, I smell trouble, making it near impossible to replicate last season’s success – allowing the least yards allowed per game (275.9) while leading the league in interceptions (25) and finishing second in takeaways (36). The biggest loss is sometimes linebacker, sometimes edge rusher Kyle Van Noy. Jamie Collins and Danny Shelton are gone too. Patrick Chung and Dont’a Hightower have opted out. Belichick is going to need to use his defensive genius to turn the unproven talent on this roster into a top defense in a matter of months, a tough ask. Draft picks Josh Uche, Kyle Dugger and Anfernee Jennings will all be thrust into starting. 

 

6. Buffalo Bills – Sean McDermott has built a young, hard-working defensive unit lacking only one thing – the ability to generate pressure. So they went out and paid former Carolina Panther Mario Addison in free agency hoping he can replicate his 9.5 sacks and 14 QB hits from last season. They also drafted A.J Epenesa in the second round of the NFL draft. If they hit out of the gate the Bills could give you first-tier production for second-tier value. Josh Norman has joined a top-tier secondary that includes star cornerback Tre’Davious White. Expect Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano to take further strides forward and excite week in, week out.

 

7. New Orleans Saints – The arrival of Malcolm Jenkins to provide much-needed leadership to a young, and at times naive, secondary that has cost the Saints in big games cannot be underestimated. This defense has playmakers from front to back, and Defensive Coordinator Dennis J. Allen allows them the freedom to be aggressive on every down. Hybrid linebacker/edge rusher Zack Baun was a steal in the third round of the draft and will immediately produce alongside Cameron Jordan and Marcus Davenport, who needs to take a step forward to justify his first-round selection in 2018. Warning, this could be a boom or bust offense outside of their home dome.

 

8. Minnesota Vikings – Mike Zimmer is all about his defense yet they have simply gone missing at times in the past two seasons when it has counted the most. Maybe it was showing too much faith in veterans like Xavier Rhodes, Everson Griffen, and former first-round pick Trae Waynes, who have all moved on to new pastures. Dom Capers has come in as a defensive assistant and will look to shake things up and coach up rookies Cameron Dantzler and first-round pick Jeff Gladney who join outstanding safeties Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris, who led the league with 6 interceptions last season. The star here is defensive end Danielle Hunter who is as good as any pass rusher in the NFL on any occasion.

 

9. Seattle Seahawks – The “Legion of Boom” days are well and truly over, however, Pete Carroll has managed to reinvent his defense and make the playoffs 4 of the last 5 seasons with winning records each year. New recruits Jordyn Brooks, an inside linebacker who was probably overdrafted in the first round, and edge-rusher Darrell Taylor will need to get up to speed quickly, but with veteran free agents Benson Mayowa and Bruce Irvin ready and waiting, the Seahawks have plenty of depth up front. Quinton Dunbar and Shaquill Griffin brought stability to the secondary, and Quandre Diggs, acquired from the Lions in a trade, ranked third in coverage among safeties from Week 11 on, per Pro Football Focus. Pair Diggs with the best strong safety in the NFL, Jamal Adams who comes over from the Jets in a blockbuster trade, and all the chips are on the table in Seattle. The Seahawks are my sleeper D/ST pick for 2020.

 

10. Tennessee Titans – I have to admit, I love Mike Vrabel and his no-nonsense defenses. The Titans were wonderful to watch after ditching Marcus Mariota early in the season, and the defense propelled them all the way to the AFC Championship game where they were finally overwhelmed by the Chiefs’ offense despite giving them a good scare. Kevin Byard is one of the league’s top safeties and Logan Ryan balls out from corner. If there is a weakness it is in the departure of Pro Bowl defensive tackle Jurrell Casey

 

Tier 3: Spin the Wheel

 

How lucky do you feel? Almost all these teams are either hyped up or much-maligned in the media for their offenses, which means their defenses are generally overlooked and never steal the headlines. There are some potential top 5 units here, but with obvious flaws. They will all be solid D/ST picks in the final rounds of your draft.

 

11. Kansas City Chiefs – Steve Spagnuolo has a solid group that can produce turnovers yet also bleed mistakes week in, week out. Chris Jones is the beating heart in the middle of the defensive line and Frank Clark proved a shrewd investment after Dee Ford left for San Francisco. Just hope for more + points than – in any given week!

 

12. Los Angeles Rams – Any team that has Aaron Donald has a chance to score big every week. The best defensive player in the NFL just had zero support last year. Big money veterans like Clay Matthews and Eric Weddle didn’t work out so former Denver Broncos outside linebackers coach Brandon Staley assumes the Defensive Coordinator position with a slew of guys with points to prove. It’s boom or bust for the Rams…again.

 

13. Chicago Bears – you may see the Bears in a few top 10 lists in the lead up to the season, however, that is far from justified for a unit that struggled mightily in a tough NFC North last year. Not helped by a sputtering offense, Khalil Mack and the so-called “New Monsters of the Midway” will look to the signing of defensive end Robert Quinn and a fully healthy Akiem Hicks to rejuvenate this team.

 

14. Dallas Cowboys – They finally replaced Jeff Heath! Rejoice. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix provides an instant improvement. New defensive coordinator Mike Nolan will look to stars DeMarcus Lawrence and Leighton Vander Esch to lead a unit that must improve on their 19th ranking in total DVOA. I like rookie Neville Gallimore, look to him to make an instant impact.

 

15. Green Bay Packers – last year this team ranked 23rd in rushing DVOA, and now they lost Blake Martinez and Kyler Fackrell in the offseason. The injury-prone Christian Kirksey will attempt to fill that void but I am not convinced. They have an elite pass rush and a young secondary that made strides last season but the jury is still well and truly out in Green Bay.

 

16. Philadelphia Eagles – Jim Schwartz must have grimaced every time he watched film of his secondary last year, who gave up several big plays each week it seemed. They also lost Malcolm Jenkins to the Saints. So, they went out in the offseason to trade with the Lions for cornerback Darius Slay, a great bit of business. Javon Hargrave also joined from the Steelers to solidify an already elite defensive front. Maybe this is low for the Eagles but until we see that the secondary problems are fixed, I am loathed to rank them any higher.

 

17. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – there is a lot of talent here and the front 7 is absolutely stacked with Vita Vea, Ndamukong Suh, Jason Pierre-Paul, and the enigmatic NFL sack leader from last season, Shaquil Barrett. Last season the Bucs defense inherited the worst average starting field position, per Football Outsiders. Hopefully, Tom Brady will improve that and give this defense a chance to be as aggressive on the field as they look on paper.

 

18. Indianapolis Colts – Matt Eberflus’ unit was pretty awful in pass coverage last year but excelled in run defense. And General Manager Chris Ballard negotiated a huge coup in prizing the league’s best run defender, Deforest Buckner away from the 49ers. The Colts will be a no-doubt stream against run-heavy teams this season.

 

Tier 4: Best of the Rest

 

This tier you should only rely on for strength of schedule and weekly matchup purposes. They might bring you some joy on the odd occasion but it would be foolish to rely on them all season.

 

19. Denver Broncos – Things need to start happening in Denver. With Vic Fangio pulling the strings and Von Miller and Bradley Chubb providing elite pass rush from the outside, there really is no excuse. The aforementioned free agent signing Jurrell Casey could be the missing link to propel this defense into the top 10 consideration.

 

20. Jacksonville Jaguars – an ugly offseason saw lots of big names leave, can the franchise recover with a new unit headed by last’s year’s first-round pick Josh Allen and new rookie outside linebacker K’Lavon Chaisson out of LSU. Look out for a potential scheme change and a lot of previous backups getting the chance to show what they can do, à la Taven Bryan.

 

21. Cleveland Browns – despite boasting an impressive pass rush with Myles Garrett returning from suspension, the Browns need to improve on their 22nd ranked DVOA unit. New Defensive Coordinator Joe Woods comes in from the 49ers, where he coached up the defensive backs to give up the fewest yards allowed per passing attempt (5.92).

 

22. Houston Texans – it feels like Romeo Crennel had been fighting fires and injuries for so long that it had taken its toll. So, out he goes with his replacement coming from within in Anthony Weaver, who will still continue to coach the defensive line also. J.J. Watt looked something like his old self last year but the loss of D.J. Reader will hurt this already ailing unit.

 

23. Las Vegas Raiders – the fact of the matter is that there is still a lot going on to reshape this roster in Las Vegas. Clelin Ferrell looked way behind fellow rookie Maxx Crosby, who was a diamond in the rough. Ferrell was a first-round pick, however, and this team cannot afford to miss on those. He will need to take a big jump considering the position was not revisited in the draft. Ohio State cornerback Damon Arnette, one of three Raiders’ first-round selections, will provide needed tough press-corner play in the pass-happy AFC West.

 

24. Washington Football Team – Chase Young. That’s it, that’s the Tweet. But seriously, the transformation of this defense starts now with the best pass-rush prospect in the draft class. New Defensive Coordinator Jack Del Rio will need to get more from young guns like Jonathan Allen and Montez Sweat whilst leaning on veterans Thomas Davis and Landon Collins.

 

Tier 5: Hazardous, Do Not Touch!

 

There is a lot of mess to pluck through here.

 

25. Carolina Panthers – It’s a new dawn in Carolina under new coach Matt Rhule and the Panthers are in complete rebuild mode. All seven draft picks were on the defensive side of the ball and Defensive Coordinator Phil Snow, who followed Rhule from Baylor, will take the year to see what he has. First-round pick Derrick Brown will be exciting to watch, as will edge rusher Yetur Gross-Matos out of Penn State. Don’t’ expect immediate team production in fantasy, however.

 

26. Miami Dolphins – I lost count of the number of defensive personnel the Dolphins rotated through last season. Brian Flores deserved some kind of award for making this team as competitive as they were. This year will be much more focussed on consistency I am sure and there will be more talent too, namely big-money free agent Byron Jones, edge rushers Shaq Lawson and Emmanuel Ogbah, and “secret weapon” Kyle Van Noy.

 

27. Arizona Cardinals – Ranked dead last in total yards allowed last season, the Cardinals had to make a splash with their top 10 pick. They did not disappoint when, somewhat surprisingly, Clemson jack-of-all-trades Isaiah Simmons fell to them. It will be important he finds the right role to be productive, however, there is nobody apart from the perennial Pro-Bowler Chandler Jones to get excited about in this group.

 

28. New York Jets – Oh dear, what is going on with the Jets? More offseason turmoil resulted in trading Jamal Adams to Seattle, which leaves this unit devoid of any premium talent past the defensive line. A stand out sophomore season from Quinnen Williams would be just what the (emergency room) doctor ordered.

 

29. Cincinnati Bengals – big money was spent in free agency bringing in a plethora of NFL experience – defensive tackle D.J. Reader, cornerbacks Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander, and safety Vonn Bell. Time will tell if these stop-gaps prove successful but in terms of fantasy production, don’t hold your breath.

 

30. Atlanta Falcons – Where to start with this group that seems to have had the same needs every year for the last 5 years. A healthy Keanu Neal and Deion Jones would vastly improve their chances to be effective and Dann Quinn did coach them up well in the second half of last season. Lack of pass rush is a glaring worry.

 

31. New York Giants – New Defensive Coordinator Patrick Graham likes a 3-4 scheme but the Giants can’t get to the quarterback and did not address the position in free agency or the draft. Former Green Bay Packers linebacker Blake Martinez is a must-own in all IDP formats but again team defense is not going to be fantasy relevant.

 

32. Detroit Lions – one of my favorite films is This Is Spinal Tap. During an interview in the film, a review for an album called Shark Sandwich is brought up. The interviewer says, “It was a two-word review: Shit Sandwich.” I don’t think I could find a better way to describe this Lions defense. Number 3 overall pick, Jeff Okudah has his work cut out for him.

 

Don’t hesitate to give me your thoughts and hit me up for questions at @benjaminhaller1.

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