Five defenses that could be fantasy difference makers
When it comes to fantasy strategy, few practices are more provable than streaming defenses. The Chicago Bears and the Cleveland Browns each gave up a top-10 defensive performance to their opponents in 10 of their 16 outings in 2015. Therefore, the odds were in your favor if you just started one of the defenses going up against one of those teams every week.
On the other hand, the Denver Broncos graded out as the best overall defense in 2015 and tied for the second-most fantasy points. We ranked them second in run defense, second in pass rush and third in pass coverage. Still, the Broncos only scored double-digit fantasy points in eight of their 16 performances.
And for the not-fun fact of the day: since we started grading games in 2007, no defense has repeated as the top fantasy unit. The Bears were the closest, finishing third in 2011 and first in 2012, only to rank 18th in 2013.
Streaming defenses based on matchups works. In theory. It’s a fine strategy. The problem becomes if half or more of your league employs it. Having the pick of waiver defenses is a path to success; having to fight for the seventh choice is a path to sadness. Not having to compete with like-minded fantasy players each week and sticking with elite talent has its upside. So, even if streaming is the general recommendation these days, it isn’t the only strategy. And even though the production of a team varies from year to year, there are predictable factors.
The best defenses
With so much variability in “standard” scoring for fantasy defenses, evaluating them by fantasy scoring is dicey, so for our purposes, we’ll just look at the units’ actual NFL production. The overlap is significant.
The top 10 defenses in 2015 as determined by Pro Football Focus were the Arizona Cardinals, Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, Carolina Panthers, Minnesota Vikings, Pittsburgh Steelers, Seattle Seahawks, Houston Texans, St. Louis Rams and the Cincinnati Bengals.
Here is what they all had in common:
- Nine of the 10 teams allowed fewer than 20 points per game to their opponents. The only exception, the Rams, only allowed 20.6 points.
- Eight of the 10 teams allowed an average of 100 or fewer rushing yards per game, although only five of the 100 allowed fewer than 250 passing yards per game.
- Eight of the 10 teams logged 47 or more sacks over the course of the season.
- Eight of the 10 teams scored three or more defensive touchdowns, all of the top-four fantasy defenses scored four or more touchdowns.
- Seven of the 10 teams recovered 10 or more fumbles.
- Only five of the 10 teams logged 15 or more interceptions.
- Only Minnesota and Seattle scored more than one kick and/or punt return.
- Only four of the 10 teams scored a safety over the course of the season and none of the top teams blocked more than two kicks.
With the data above in mind, I turned toward the individual defensive player, because strong individual players make strong defenses, not the other way around. Even if you don’t play IDP, attention to individual players is crucial. If you focus on the players that performed well on an individual basis last year, and where they will play in 2016, you can best determine which teams have a better chance of putting up sacks, fumbles, and interceptions. When a team racks up takeaways, they have a better chance of scoring touchdowns as well.
The following are the five teams that have five or six players on their roster that posted seven-plus sacks, three-plus interceptions and/or three-plus forced fumbles. I considered forced fumbles rather than fumble recoveries because the person creating the turnover is more likely to repeat that action than the person in the vicinity to fall on it. All ADP numbers are based off of the information at FantasyFootballCalculator.com.
Arizona Cardinals (current ADP: 105, No. 2 DEF)
This is the only defense listed here that you would need to take before the second-to-last round in standard leagues. If you play in a deep league, in an MFL10 or a best ball, you’ll have to go higher on defenses in general. But if I’m sitting in the 10th round and I don’t like my options, I’m considering the Cardinals.