Defenses? Do fantasy football leagues still require you to roster one of them? A lot of competitive leagues don’t include them in the roster pool, and with defensive performance being so difficult to predict, there isn’t great value for them even if forced to have one. For perspective, the top defense drafted last season, the 49ers, finished just 25th in fantasy points. There are just too many moving factors, such as strength of schedule, overall defensive depth/continuity, and overall variance that makes them more difficult to predict than quarterbacks and wide receivers.
Rather than bank on one defense to be elite, like some may have done with the 49ers last season, I would advise you to stream defenses on a week-to-week basis based on their matchup. This not only allows you the flexibility to take advantage of weak opposing offenses and adjust to new information on the fly, such as injuries and how the unit is performing, but also prevents you from sacrificing any sort of significant capital to draft them.
These ten defenses have the most favorable matchups to start the 2021 season. Draft them, and enjoy being able to start for the first 2-4 weeks of the season! Whether it’s well-regarded defenses or ones you can get in the last round, we should have you covered based on whatever your league size is!
Based on prior research on what leads to the most effective offense and defense, I was able to use projected unit Pro Football Focus (PFF) grades to project the quality of each offense and defense. Any mention of projections is referring to this work. Here is the number of “true points allowed”each defense is projected to allow in 2021:
Meanwhile, as we assess each of these defenses’ strength of schedule, we’ll use the following color-coding system
- Blue= Favorable Matchup
- Orange= Average Matchup
- Red= Very Difficult Matchup
Without further adieu, let us get right to the main question: which defenses are set up to succeed to start the season? Starting with the defenses that should perform the best early on, you should be looking to come away with one of these ten defenses in your drafts.
Stats via Pro Football Focus. Average Draft Position (ADP) via NFC.Com
#1: Buffalo Bills (ADP Rank: 11th)
Early Opponents: vs PIT, at MIA, vs WSH, vs HOU
After finishing as a top-five defense in 2020, the Bills could easily find themselves in a similar spot in 2021, especially early in the season.
In the Steelers and Dolphins, they’ll face two offenses with poor offensive lines. While Ben Roethlisberger’s ability to get rid of the ball quickly, there shouldn’t be many points scored, while the middle two matchups have sneaky turnover potential. Plus, who doesn’t want to start a defense against the Texans?
The Bills last season ranked 7th in PFF pass-rush grade and 11th in coverage grade, a fantastic combination. With the offense likely to be potent and them likely to be big favorites in all four of these games, there will be plenty of opportunities for them to accumulate sacks and turnovers in obvious passing situations, adding to their overall potential. I’m very surprised to see them not being drafted as a top-ten defense, meaning that they can be drafted at a very cheap price in 12-team leagues. It’s hard for this to be the case for defenses, but my mind keeps screaming “VALUE” right into my ears looking at this!
#2: San Francisco 49ers (ADP Rank: 6th)
Early Opponents: at DET, at PHI
Is there an easier first two weeks to the season than playing the Lions and Eagles? There is a lot to be intrigued be here. Not only should the 49ers succeed defensively here, but their offense should perform well against two poor defenses as well. As such, the chances for them to allow points should be limited, while obvious passing situations should be present.
The Lions’ offensive line and Jared Goff likely won’t take a lot of sacks, but that won’t be the case in Philadelphia facing Jalen Hurts. San Francisco’s secondary faces some questions with their depth, yet it won’t get challenged here, while an improved pass rush should be expected with the return of Nick Bosa and Dee Ford. I will say that it’s risky to draft them at their current ADP, especially with the Packers, Seahawks, and Cardinals immediately after, but they’re the easy favorite in my mind to finish as the top-scoring defense over the first two weeks of the season. If that’s all you’re looking for, feel free to take that risk.
#3: Denver Broncos (ADP Rank: 12th)
Early Opponents: at NYG, at JAX, vs NYJ
With a bottom-five offense in points/game last year, the Broncos are missing something that the top-two defenses on this list have: an elite offense to support them. In fact, with how much they likely will struggle to score points, there’s no guarantee they win any of these games (though they could also as easily win all three).
Regardless, we’re still talking about a defense led by head coach Vic Fangio, arguably the most talented secondary in the NFL, in addition to the pass rush duo of Von Miller and Bradley Chubb. Facing three bottom-ten likely offensive lines in terms of pass protection, expect a lot of sacks to be accumulated while facing Daniel Jones and two rookie quarterbacks increases their turnover potential. Sadly, their schedule gets significantly tougher from there, but we should be thrilled by how front-loaded their schedule is. I’d say it’s about 50/50 between them and the 49ers, though the cheaper price makes them quite intriguing.
#4: Green Bay Packers (ADP Rank: 18th)
Early Opponents: at NO, vs DET
It might seem strange to cite the Saints as a favorable matchup, but when taking the name out, it makes much more sense. This is a team that will be quarterbacked by Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill, two turnover-prone quarterbacks who’ll take sacks, while their receiving corps is led by Marquez Callaway, Tre’Quan Smith, and Deonte Harris. Getting New Orleans and Detroit to start the season is quite the draw for the Packers.
Honestly, there’s a lot to suggest that Green Bay has one of the more underrated defenses in the NFL. As you can see, they rate quite highly in the projections, and their pass coverage has a lot to do it with it. They finished fourth in PFF coverage grade last year, return a similar group this year, and also have a deep defensive line. We’ll see how they fare with a new defensive coordinator in Joe Barry, though at least for the first two weeks, they should perform at a high level.
#5: New England Patriots (ADP Rank: 10th)
Early Opponents: vs MIA, at NYJ, vs NO
Life, death, taxes, and the Patriots being drafted as a starting defense. As long as they’re coached by Bill Belichick and continue to have a deep secondary, I doubt that ever changes. Hopefully, they’ll be able to rush the passer with more efficiency to boost their sack totals for fantasy purposes, while their offense holds its end of the bargain better.
You’d hope for a better opening matchup, but you can still feel comfortable starting New England for the first three weeks of the season. If you can hold them through Week 4 against the Bucs, you’ll also benefit from them getting to face the Texans in Week 5. Here, I think you’d be drafting more for a high floor, but that might be all you’re looking for. Although I’d much rather draft Denver at their current price, I certainly understand how hard to go against Belichick!
#6: New York Jets (ADP Rank: 27th)
Early Opponents: at CAR, vs NE, at DEN
Now, we get to the defenses that you can essentially draft for free! Should you be like Erik Smith, and simply want to know which defenses to take a look at in the very last round of deep leagues, these next five are the optimal choice for you!
It sure doesn’t help the Jets will be without edge rusher Carl Lawson for the season, while their secondary is very young. There is certainly hope, however, that new head coach Robert Saleh can patch it up enough, especially considering how well he was able to help the 49ers defense overcome significant injuries last season. I’m not worried about New York being able to defend the run, which will help them against the Patriots, and what’s really helping them is facing three potential bottom-ten passing attacks. I would not call this an exciting pick, but one that comes with some potential upside if you strictly care about going on streaming on a week-to-week basis.
#7: Jacksonville Jaguars (ADP Rank: 29th)
Early Opponents: at HOU, vs DEN
Honestly, this article could just be titled: “who plays the Texans in the first month of the season”. In that lens, the Jaguars win out, as they get to play Houston in the first week of the season. With the Broncos the week after, Jacksonville has the easiest matchups to start the season over any other team on this list.
You certainly are betting on Jacksonville’s defense coming into form, which may be difficult with a new coaching staff taking over and a lot of moving parts. I currently have them projected for a bottom-five pass coverage unit and pass rush, which would be far from ideal. It’s hard to see them being challenged by these two offenses, but it might be difficult to bank on them over the Broncos, Bills, or 49ers in standard-sized leagues.
#8: Carolina Panthers (ADP Rank: 22nd)
Early Opponents: vs NYJ, vs NO, at HOU, at DAL, vs PHI
This is an interesting schedule to break down. You certainly get three favorable matchups with the Panthers here to start the year, in addition to the Eagles in Week 5. However, you’ll also have to stash them when they play the Cowboys, which is something not everyone will want to do.
With how many recent investments have been made on the defensive side of the ball in the draft, there is some upside that it eventually all comes together for Carolina soon. They’re projected to have a decent pass rush led by Brian Burns, and the hope is that is complemented by their young defensive backs holding up their end of the bargain. Against the Jets, Saints, Texans, and Eagles, however, the risk is mitigated significantly. If there wasn’t so much “boom-or-bust” associated with such an unproven defense and the Cowboys mixed into their early schedule, they’d rank much higher.
#9: Atlanta Falcons (ADP Rank: 28th)
Early Opponents: vs PHI, at TB, vs NYG, vs WSH, vs NYJ, BYE, at MIA, vs CAR, at NO
In a deeper league, where streaming is much more difficult, I’d give the Falcons serious consideration. They might be more difficult to hold onto for the second half of the year, but will give you a lot of value to start off the season. You’ll have to bench them against the Bucs and during their bye week, but they’ll also have five very soft matchups and two fine matchups mixed into the first nine weeks of the season, which plays into their favor a lot.
The Falcons don’t rate out terribly in the projections without a clear weak link, and they should benefit from a defensive coaching change with Dean Pees taking over. Pees has rated out strongly as a defensive play-caller in the past and might be what Atlanta needs for their talent to start to translate more into results. The fact that you can’t start them in Week 2 and may need to roster two defenses isn’t super appealing, but there’s a chance it could be worth it in the long run.
#10: New York Giants (ADP Rank: 20th)
Early Opponents: vs DEN, vs WSH
I’m not sure the Giants should be drafted as early as they are being taken currently. They did allow the 9th-fewest points per game and 12th-fewest yards per game last year, but they also had to rely on the 3rd-best red zone defense to get there and were in the bottom-ten in PFF coverage grade. With the offenses in the division, especially the Cowboys, likely to be better and the schedule more difficult, it’s hard to have full faith in them.
On the other hand, the cornerback duo of James Bradberry and Adoree’ Jackson could be strong, and even if they don’t rush the passer at a great level, the hope is they have enough coverage depth to get by. Particularly against the Broncos, that shouldn’t be an issue, while the turnover potential is there against Washington as well. It’s not as deep of a schedule as the others, and with the Jaguars getting the Texans Week 1, there are probably easier slates of opposing offenses to chase. Hey, you could hope for those interceptions in Week 1, though!
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