2014 D/ST fantasy preview

Updated: July 15, 2014, 6:11 PM ET
By Brian Gramling | Special to ESPN.com

There are plenty of factors to consider when deciding which fantasy defense/special teams unit (D/ST) to call your own. Below are the 2013 ranks in each of the six main categories that comprise D/ST points for last year's top-10 scorers based on the ESPN standard scoring system:

So as you can see, the closest correlation of aggregate statistical rank to fantasy scoring output was sacks (70), followed closely by points allowed (75), then interceptions (86) and fumble recoveries (90). Touchdowns (110) and yards allowed (112) have much less bearing on fantasy success than the first four categories, which is refreshing because of the difficulty in predicting which teams will score the most points and allow the most yards.

ESPN Stats & Information provides a different breakdown for D/ST fantasy points. Last season, the average D/ST scored 106 fantasy points, broken down like this:

40 points for Sacks
31 points for Interceptions
22 points for Touchdowns
19 points for Fumble Recoveries
3 points for Blocked Kicks
1 point for Safety
1 point for Points Allowed
-11 points for Yards Allowed

Both of these methods reveal that sacks are the most important statistic in determining value for fantasy defenses. This makes sense, since sacks (and pressuring the quarterback) are the greatest cause of turnovers, and pinning teams into second-and-long and third-and-long situations obviously diminishes their chances for opponents to gain yards and score points. So with an emphasis on the QB punishers, below is the breakdown of D/STs this season.

The elite

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Steven Bisig/USA TODAY SportsBobby Wagner is just one of many impact players on the stout Seattle Seahawks defense.
The Seattle Seahawks are clearly the top dog among D/STs this season, just like they were last year when they led the NFL in total defense (274 yards per game allowed), scoring defense (14.4 points per game allowed), red zone efficiency defense (36.1 percent) and interceptions (28, five more than any other team). Just how good was the Seahawks' D/ST last year? In ESPN standard fantasy scoring, this unit outscored consensus No. 1 overall pick RB Adrian Peterson, as well as prior Super Bowl MVP QB Joe Flacco and the seventh-best WR in 2013, Dez Bryant. Although the losses of DE Chris Clemons and CBs Brandon Browner and Walter Thurmond seem big on the surface, consider that these three players combined for only 5.5 sacks and two interceptions last year. That leaves plenty of productive players eager to defend their title, including CB Richard Sherman (8 INTs), FS Earl Thomas (5 INTs), do-it-all LB Bobby Wagner (120 tackles, 5 sacks, 2 INTs) and DEs Michael Bennett (8.5 sacks) and Cliff Avril (8 sacks). ... The Carolina Panthers were outstanding last year with a league-high 60 sacks and a No. 2 ranking -- behind only the Seahawks -- in both total defense (301 yards per game allowed) and scoring defense (15.1 points per game allowed). With an offseason upgrade in the secondary in the form of CB Antoine Cason and safeties Roman Harper and Thomas DeCoud, the unit is stacked throughout. The only concerns I have are whether the Panthers' offense can come close to duplicating their gaudy time of possession (31:53, fifth in NFL) with a banged-up quarterback breaking in a new group of wideouts. The more pressing worry is leading sack man DE Greg Hardy (15 sacks) not yet signed and still facing possible disciplinary action for his domestic violence arrest in May. But I still think only Seattle is finer than Carolina this year. ... I thought the San Francisco 49ers would have the league's top-scoring D/ST last season, so the fact they finished sixth in fantasy scoring was quite disappointing. However, this unit was consistent all season with seven double-digit outputs, while tallying at least eight points in 12 of the 15 traditional fantasy weeks (discounting Week 17). I realize ILB Navorro Bowman (knee) will miss at least six games and OLB Aldon Smith (42 sacks in three seasons) will likely get a half-year suspension, but Smith missed five games last year and still tied OLB Ahmad Brooks for the team lead in sacks (8.5). ILB Patrick Willis (104 tackles, 3 sacks) and DL Justin Smith (6.5 sacks) are still two of the best veteran leaders in the game, and star FS Eric Reid (5 INTs) and newly added SS Antoine Bethea (110 tackles) provide stability to a reworked secondary. ... The Denver Broncos are the one "elite" D/ST that did not finish in the top 10 in scoring last year, but 2014 is a whole different ballgame. In addition to having the second easiest NFL schedule this coming season, the signings of pass-rushing maven DE DeMarcus Ware (117 career sacks), smother CB Aqib Talib (4 INTs) and hard-hitting SS T.J. Ward (112 tackles) add to an already talent-laden unit. It's also possible that OLB Von Miller (35 sacks in 40 career games), who tore his ACL in December, could be ready by Week 1. ... The Arizona Cardinals have no weakness on defense, as they placed among the top seven NFL defenses in points, yards, sacks, interceptions and touchdowns last year. While OLB John Abraham (11.5 sacks) and DE Calais Campbell (9 sacks) were constantly in the grill of opposing quarterbacks, CB Patrick Peterson (3 INTs) shut down the opposition's top wideout. The team signed another shutdown corner this offseason in Antonio Cromartie (3 INTs) and also inked ILB Larry Foote (23 career sacks), who can still play at age 34. The reason the Cardinals aren't higher on the list is because they saw versatile ILB Karlos Dansby leave via free agency and lost ILB Daryl Washington to a year-long suspension for marijuana.

The next tier

For three straight seasons, the Cincinnati Bengals have been an undervalued D/ST, finishing 2011, 2012 and 2013 with at least 43 sacks and three defensive touchdowns, while holding opponents to 20.2 points per game or less and 320 total yards per game or less. New defensive coordinator Paul Guenther has some big shoes to fill replacing Mike Zimmer, but the promoted linebackers coach won't have to mess with this defense that remains virtually intact in 2014, minus only DE Michael Johnson and OLB James Harrison, who combined for 5.5 sacks last year. The team also bolstered an already excellent pass defense (209 passing ypg allowed, fifth in NFL) by signing FS Danieal Manning from Houston and drafting CB Darqueze Dennard. ... The St. Louis Rams tied for the NFL lead in fumble recoveries (15) and have produced more than 50 sacks in two straight seasons. Both of these categories will remain among the league's elite with defensive coordinator Gregg Williams hired in the offseason. Williams, a disciple of Buddy Ryan, is widely regarded as a blitz-scheme guru who teaches his players to always be aggressive, which helps his D/STs achieve the optimal number of sacks and turnovers. With bookend DEs Robert Quinn (19 sacks) and Chris Long (8.5 sacks) to work with, Williams should give the Rams' D/ST a nice boost in fantasy points this year. ... The Kansas City Chiefs' D/ST success in 2013 was a bit fluky with their 11 touchdowns (seven on defense, two kick returns, two punt returns), but there is no denying the pass-rushing prowess of OLBs Tamba Hali (11 sacks, 4 FF) and Justin Houston (11 sacks, 2 FR in 11 games). CB Brandon Flowers (63 solo tackles, 8 PD) is underrated and SS Eric Berry (66 solo tackles, 10 PD, 3.5 sacks, 3 INTs, 2 TDs) continues to play at a Pro Bowl level. The team also beefed up the middle of the field with ILB Joe Mays (109 tackles) and 315-pound NT Kyle Love. ... The New England Patriots usually give up good chunks of yards, but they are able to prevent touchdowns by forcing turnovers and buckling down in the red zone. Last year, the club was able to increase its sack total from 37 to 48, thanks to the continued ascent of DEs Chandler Jones (11.5 sacks) and Rob Ninkovich (8 sacks). With the additions of star veteran CBs Darrelle Revis (93 tackles, 11 PD) and Brandon Browner (10 INTs in three years) to shore up a lackluster secondary, plus ILB Jerod Mayo (5.7 solo tackles per game in career) and NT Vince Wilfork (16 sacks, 12 FR in career) returning from long-term injuries possibly as soon as Week 1, the Patriots could wind up being the best fantasy D/ST in the AFC this season.

Falling down

I don't expect the Buffalo Bills to finish anywhere close to the top eight in D/ST scoring again this season with the departure of defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who was replaced by Jim Schwartz. The Bills will switch to a 4-3 this season under the former Lions head coach, and I can't see the club racking up another 57 sacks in this system. The loss of FS Jairus Byrd will also hurt, and speaking of hurting, both starting CBs Stephon Gilmore and Leodis McKelvin are still not fully healed from offseason hip surgery. Consider Buffalo a backup D/ST at best. ... The Minnesota Vikings allowed the most points in the NFL last season (30.0 per game) and finished second worst in the league in total defense with 398 total yards per game allowed. The team could not keep stud DE Jared Allen (128.5 career sacks) from leaving town, providing very little for new coordinator George Edwards, who was the Dolphins' linebackers coach in 2013, to work with outside of star WLB Chad Greenway (134 tackles, 10th in NFL). The 31st-ranked passing defense (287 passing yards per game) did upgrade its secondary with CBs Captain Munnerlyn (74 tackles, 3.5 sacks) and Derek Cox (38 tackles), but this is far from a Pro Bowl duo. Avoid the Vikings on draft day. ... The San Diego Chargers play a pretty conservative defense that doesn't allow a lot of scoring, but doesn't pressure the quarterback enough to rack up sacks or turnovers. The club had no player record as many as six sacks last season, and it forced just 17 turnovers all season, which was the third-lowest number in the league. With no significant free-agent additions, this has all the makings of a bottom-five fantasy defense for the second straight year.

Sleepers

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Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesRob Ryan helped turn the Saints' defense around last season, and he'll have even more weapons at his disposal in 2014.
The New Orleans Saints went from being the worst defense in the NFL in 2012 to finishing fourth in total defense in 2013, allowing only 305.7 yards per game. They were also the only D/ST in the league not to score a touchdown last year, but still placed 10th in fantasy scoring. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has to be pleased with the additions of CB Champ Bailey (52 career INTs) and the aforementioned Jairus Byrd (22 INTs, 11 FF in five NFL seasons) to provide leadership to the league's No. 2 ranked passing defense (194 passing yards per game allowed). Expect the Saints to remain a top-10 fantasy D/ST this season. ... The Houston Texans took great strides to make sure this year wouldn't be a repeat of their 2013 debacle. In addition to bringing in defensive guru Romeo Crennel as the new coordinator and drafting Jadeveon Clowney first overall, this unit should pile up the sacks in the 3-4 scheme. ILB Brian Cushing returning healthy from a broken leg and mountainous 331-pound rookie NT Louis Nix should be able to take some of the attention away from DE J.J. Watt (80 tackles, 10.5 sacks, 7 PD, 4 FF, 2 FR), who remains the best defensive football player on the planet. ... The Cleveland Browns should be an exciting defense to watch with new head coach Mike Pettine and new defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil, who was Pettine's linebackers coach last year with the Bills. This coaching duo worked miracles in Buffalo in 2013, increasing team sacks by 21 and interceptions by nine while lowering both its points against and yards against. The Browns' D/ST, which averaged 8.4 fantasy points per game at home last year (only 5.0 on road), improved their unit with the free-agent signings of bone-crushing SS Donte Whitner (73 tackles, 12 PD, 2 INTs) and ILB Karlos Dansby (114 solo tackles, 4 INTs, 2 TDs), who was making plays all over the field in Arizona last year. CB Joe Haden (20 PD, 4 INTs) remains one of the better cover men in the league, and while the club doesn't have an elite pass-rusher, it was able to record multiple sacks from 10 different players in 2013.

Draft strategy

I don't usually champion taking a fantasy D/ST in a single-digit round in a standard redraft league, but I think an exception can be made for the Seahawks, who are clearly ahead of the rest of league. If you already have a QB, TE, three RBs and three WRs, go ahead and draft Seattle in the ninth round. The other D/STs in the "elite" group above should be taken about Round 12, and the rest of the lot can be saved until the final two rounds of the draft when you close out your roster with a D/ST followed by a kicker.

Auction strategy

Depending on what your cap is, you could be justified spending up to $5 on the Seahawks and three bucks on the other top-five defenses. This is especially true for the rare leagues that start two D/STs. But for standard fantasy leagues that are drafting only one D/ST unit, spend your big money on securing skill positions and simply bid $1 on a team like the Rams, Patriots or Saints in the waning moments of the auction.

Brian Gramling is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN Fantasy Games.

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