In fantasy football, defenses rarely perform as expected. Every year, five or six defenses are usually overdrafted, while the rest go in the last round or in free agency. Looking back at the results from the past few years, there is no significant relationship between the preseason and end-of-season rank for defenses. Of course, if used correctly, defenses can be the top fantasy scorers on some teams and can win owners fantasy matchups. If I drafted today, here is how I would rank the NFL defenses for fantasy purposes.
1. Carolina Panthers
While the Panthers’ offense looks anemic after letting their already-mediocre receivers leave in free agency, the defense retained all key members and is primed for a repeat of last season’s domination. With the addition of safety Roman Harper, the Panthers could even improve upon their sixth-ranked run defense.
2. Arizona Cardinals
When Patrick Peterson said he is a better shutdown corner than Richard Sherman, he could be onto something. Football Outsiders’ DVOA shows that teams’ top wide receivers performed better against the Seahawks than the Cardinals, who qualified as the second-best overall defense in 2013. The absences of Tyrann Mathieu (until he returns from injury) and Karlos Dansby might hurt, but the core is still intact and the signing of corner Antonio Cromartie went under-the-radar.
3. Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks ranked as the top defense by a wide margin according to Football Outsiders, but lost many key pieces in efforts to resign Michael Bennett. With defensive linemen Red Bryant, Chris Clemons, and Clinton McDonald now playing elsewhere, the defense may struggle to pressure the quarterback and stop the run.
4. Buffalo Bills
One might disagree with this ranking given the loss of star safety of Jairus Byrd. He was crucial to the quiet, yet elite Bills pass defense, but the scheme has and will always operate around the front seven. Credit the Bills for adding corner Corey Graham to start opposite Stephon Gilmore, and recognize that linebacker Kiko Alonso and defensive linemen Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus, and Mario Williams can still disrupt offenses.
5. New York Giants
Last year, the Giants did not put up a decent fantasy week until Week 7, but they were one of the top defenses from that point forward. They have solid defenses against both the run and the pass, and countered the losses of starters Linval Joseph, Justin Tuck, and Keith Rivers by bolstering the secondary with Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Walter Thurmond.
6. St. Louis Rams
This is the first instance where a team is receiving a boost for the difference between actual defensive performance and fantasy performance. The Rams have a great front seven and terrible secondary, so it made little sense to draft defensive lineman Aaron Donald in the first round. The Rams will allow yards and points in the pass game, but they will also fill up stat sheets with turnovers.
7. Cincinnati Bengals
The loss of coordinator Mike Zimmer should sting, but the meat of the fifth-ranked defense is still in Ohio. Hopefully, the drafting of corner Darqueze Dennard in the first round should strengthen a pass defense that already gives offenses fits and produce more interceptions.
8. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
In theory, the Bucs are primed for a run at the #1 spot. They fared as the eight-best defense in 2013, and added three starters in free agency while losing Darrelle Revis. I have yet to research how good of a fit Tampa is with Lovie Smith’s defense, but we know the ceiling of his system.
9. San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers have become a bit overrated, as they are often considered second to only the Seahawks while rating as only the 13th-best defense in 2013. Unfortunately, Justin Smith keeps getting older, Aldon Smith is not a lock to play all 16 games, and NaVorro Bowman will miss most or all of the regular season. They are also weak at corner and did not strengthen their secondary this offseason with the exception of safety Jimmie Ward.
10. Kansas City Chiefs
One of the NFL’s best stories over the 2013 first half, the Chiefs’ defense fell apart over the course of the season due to injuries to linebackers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali. They have an elite pass rush and capable run defense, but most of their success in 2013 was due to likely unrepeatable touchdowns.
11. New York Jets
According to Football Outsiders, they boasted the second-best rush defense in 2013 thanks to another step forward by Muhammad Wilkerson. However, the pass defense was mediocre, and GM John Idzik did not add any corners in the offseason. Rookie safety Calvin Pryor should help in the pass game, though.
12. Baltimore Ravens
Although the end result was a disappointment compared to a Super Bowl win, the Ravens still put together a balanced, consistent defense in 2013. They would have placed in a higher tier had they not lost four starters in free agency. However, Ozzie Newsome and co. have earned our trust by now, and they did use their first three picks on defensive players this year.
13. New Orleans Saints
Signing Byrd is an upgrade to a defense resuscitated by Rob Ryan, but no effort was made to improve a subpar run defense. Still, the emergences of Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette bode well for a team that is trying to pressure the quarterback more often.
14. New England Patriots
Although not highly regarded of by Football Outsiders, the Patriots succeeded in attaining fantasy relevance in 2013 by forcing turnovers. They did improve the secondary by adding Revis and Brandon Browner, so the pass defense could transition from good to great. However, the main reason for worry is a poor run defense that was ignored in both the draft and free agency.
15. Indianapolis Colts
Considered slightly above average in the pass game by Football Outsiders, the Colts can be a surprisingly worthy fantasy defense in the proper situations. They forced the second-most fumbles in the league last season, and the pass rush should continue to prosper if Robert Mathis can get out of his suspension.
16. Houston Texans
The Texans already feature a decent run defense, and drafting Jadeveon Clowney should enhance sack and fantasy numbers. Nobody will confuse the secondary with the Legion of Boom, but the combination of J.J. Watt and Clowney should compensate for that.
17. Denver Broncos
18. Cleveland Browns
19. Miami Dolphins
20. Chicago Bears
21. Pittsburgh Steelers
22. Minnesota Vikings
23. Detroit Lions
24. Philadelphia Eagles
25. Tennessee Titans
26. Oakland Raiders
27. Washington Redskins
28. Dallas Cowboys
29. Atlanta Falcons
30. Green Bay Packers
31. Jacksonville Jaguars
32. San Diego Chargers