There’s no position in fantasy football that has more significant year-to-year variance than defense and special teams. Of course, this is the only “position” in which you’re relying on multiple players, dozens, to succeed in registering fantasy points. It’s challenging to identify which defenses will achieve every season – over the past three years, the only units to finish in the top-ten in each season were the Baltimore Ravens and LA Rams. Even the most elite DSTs in fantasy usually don’t replicate their success year-to-year. Dating back to 2012, the number one DST in each season went on to finish with an average rank of 15th in the following year, which rendered them barely usable week-to-week.
All this is to say that you should never be compelled to take a defense before the last or second-to-last round in your fantasy drafts. If you are waiting that long, there’s a good chance the Patriots, Steelers, and Ravens of the world will have been gone for a few rounds, but given the year-to-year variance of fantasy defenses, you’re going to be just fine. You never want to be the guy taking the Bears’ defense in the 7th round only to watch them be mediocre all season. You’d feel stuck and tied to utilizing the asset you overpaid for, like AMC continuing to renew the Walking Dead even though it jumped ship several seasons ago.
Streaming is also a crucial thing to keep in mind. It’s incredibly rare that I keep the same defense starting in every week of the fantasy season. Usually, I will rotate based on the strength of schedule and matchups. For example, I’d start the Giants’ meh defense against Nathan Peterman than the Steelers’ elite defense against Lamar Jackson. It’s challenging to plan for the entire season with streaming defenses at this point. Still, this article will focus on the units I think could make the most significant leap forward in 2020 and have a tantalizing early-season schedule.
ADP: 164.5, DST #20
The Broncos are coming off a season in which their defense generated the 6th-fewest turnovers in the league and ranked outside the top half of the league in total sacks. However, there are reasons for optimism in Denver this year. Bradley Chubb should be fully healthy this year after an ACL tear kept him out of most of 2019’s season. He has picked up 13 sacks in 20 career games and should help provide more of a pass rush alongside Von Miller. Jurrell Casey was acquired in free agency to shore up the defensive line and help replace Derek Wolfe. A.J. Bouye and a hopefully healthy Bryce Callahan will offer the secondary more options alongside Kareem Jackson and Justin Simmons. Alexander Johnson had an excellent rookie season as a UDFA and should only improve in Year 2. This defense has plenty of talent, and they are starting to come together under the image of what a Vic Fangio defense looks like. The first three weeks of the season are mediocre schedule-wise, with the Titans and Steelers both featuring likely above-average and not very turnover prone offenses, and the Buccaneers featuring Tom Brady. However, after that, a three week stretch against the Jets, Patriots, and Dolphins should present plenty of fantasy opportunities for the Broncos. I won’t be thrilled about starting this DST against the Chiefs (twice), Falcons, or Saints, but there are enough excellent matchups on their schedule that Denver could end up being one of the few units worth holding onto all season.
New Orleans Saints
ADP: 155.4, DST #13
The Saints ranked 3rd in sacks last season and 11th in total turnovers, making their current ADP a bit curious. The Saints certainly are more known for their play on the offensive side of the ball with Drew Brees, Alvin Kamara, and Michael Thomas, but their defense is outstanding as well. The front seven features Cameron Jordan (15.5 sacks in 2019), Sheldon Rankins, Marcus Davenport, Kiko Alonzo, and Demario Davis (111 tackles) – not exactly a star-studded cast, but still very good overall. The secondary will be shored up by the addition of Malcolm Jenkins, who will replace Vonn Bell and start alongside Marcus Williams, Janoris Jenkins, and Marshon Lattimore to form one of the best defensive backs units in the entire NFL. The midseason addition of Jackrabbit to their defense was particularly underrated, as the corner had five interceptions last season and should only improve as he’s surrounded by improved talent. The Saints face the Buccaneers in Week 1, a matchup I won’t be thrilled about starting their defense in. However, ensuing games against the Raiders, Lions, Chargers, Panthers, and Bears should be more inviting. One issue to keep in mind with the Saints, however, is since they are so good offensively, they can be prone to build early leads and play more prevent defense as they let the opposing offense pick up garbage time yardage late in games. That can hurt their bottom line for fantasy football scoring.
ADP: 162.3, DST #18
The Cardinals should be one of the most-improved teams in the NFL this season – the addition of DeAndre Hopkins to an offensive core of Kyler Murray, Kenyan Drake, Larry Fitzgerald, and Christian Kirk is the headliner. However, the Arizona defense should also be much-improved under defensive coordinator Vance Joseph. The Cardinals drafted Isaiah Simmons in the first round, who should immediately become one of the most stat-stuffing linebackers in football. Chandler Jones is coming off a 19-sack season, which was the 2nd-highest mark in the NFL. Along with Jones, Budda Baker is also coming off a Pro Bowl campaign in his third professional season. Patrick Peterson is still one of the better cornerbacks in the NFL. The additions of De’Vondre Campbell and Devon Kennard should help support what was a mediocre linebacker depth chart last season, and Jordan Philips will provide a big-bodied run defender in the middle of the defensive line. Since the Cardinals finished last in their division last season, they have the distinct honor of taking on fellow bottom feeders in the Redskins, Lions, and Panthers all within the first three weeks of the season. They will later play the Jets, Dolphins, Patriots, and Giants, none of whom seem like particularly imposing matchups. The NFC West does feature some great offensive teams in the 49ers, Seahawks, and Rams, so in-division games might not be the best for starting the Arizona DST. However, I like their chances of finishing inside the top-ten for fantasy, given the talent they have added.
Kansas City Chiefs
ADP: 164.5, DST #19
The Chiefs have finished as a top-ten fantasy defense in each of the past three seasons, and yet they’re being drafted well outside that range this year. Chris Jones and Frank Clark are quietly one of the better defensive line pairings in the NFL and are coming off a season where the duo combined for 17 sacks and 23 tackles for a loss. Tyrann Mathieu provides a playmaking presence at safety – he compiled 75 tackles, two sacks, four tackles for a loss, and four interceptions in 2019. Juan Thornhill also provided an excellent rookie season with his three interceptions and 58 tackles. The Chiefs are a little weaker at linebacker than you would like to see, but their secondary is very deep, and they can run a lot of nickel and dime sets this season. Kansas City also has the combination you want from your fantasy defense – pass rushers and playmaking ballhawks in the secondary. The early-season schedule is less enticing with the Texans and Ravens in the first three weeks, but after that, the Chiefs see a string of games where they should be able to produce for fantasy – Patriots, Raiders, Bills, Broncos, Jets, Panthers, and Raiders again. I won’t be looking to draft the Chiefs’ DST as I don’t carry two defenses and won’t play them against Lamar Jackson and Deshaun Watson, but after the first three weeks they will likely end up on a lot of waiver wires, at which point I’ll scoop them up.
ADP: 167.8, DST #23
The Washington DST is going to be drafted in very few leagues this season. However, I believe in their ability to produce for fantasy this season after the excellent offseason moves the team made. Of course, Chase Young will make a day one impact on the defensive line, but he joins a front seven with a ton of talent in Montez Sweat, Da’Ron Payne, Jonathan Allen, Ryan Kerrigan, and Thomas Davis. I won’t be surprised if the Redskins have one of the better front sevens in the entire NFL this year. On the back end, Landon Collins is a playmaker at safety. The defensive coaching should improve drastically under Jack Del Rio, as well. Washington plays the Eagles, Cardinals, Browns, and Ravens in the first several weeks, none of which I’m thrilled about, but later matchups against the Giants (twice), Lions, Bengals, and Panthers should provide plenty of opportunities. I won’t be drafting Washington’s DST in any leagues, but I won’t be surprised if they comfortably beat out their ADP and utilize their improved talent as a stream-worthy asset on multiple occasions.
Best Week 1 DST Matchups to Target
Often, when I’m drafting defense in the last round of my fantasy leagues, I’ll just look for teams that I think have a matchup in Week 1 that’s conducive to their fantasy success. I often stream the position, so I’m looking more for a short-term option than a season-long high scorer. That being said, bonus points do go to teams with a few good matchups early in the season.
ADP: 144.5, DST #6; early-season schedule: vs Jets, at Dolphins, vs Rams, at Raiders, at Titans
ADP: 155.9, DST #12; early-season schedule: at Redskins, vs Rams, vs Bengals, at 49ers, at Steelers
ADP: 166.8, DST #21; early-season schedule: at Jaguars, vs Vikings, vs Jets, at Bears, at Browns, vs Bengals, at Lions
Los Angeles Chargers
ADP: 145.8, DST #7; early-season schedule: at Bengals, vs Chiefs, vs Panthers, at Buccaneers, at Saints, vs Jets, at Dolphins, vs Jaguars, vs Raiders
A viable strategy for streaming defenses can also be to find two units whose schedules map out nicely. The combination that first catches my eye here is the Saints and Chargers. If you drafted both defenses, you could play the Chargers in Week 1 against the Bengals, Saints in Week 2 against the Raiders, Chargers in Week 3 against the Panthers, Saints in Weeks 4-7 against the Lions, Chargers, Panthers, and Bears, etc. You can use the Lineups fantasy points allowed tool to start to map these matchups out – comment below if you find any exciting DST pairings!