Fantasy defenses are important. In 2012, the top 10 fantasy D/STs averaged 10.1 fantasy points per game and produced 41 games in which they scored 15 fantasy points or more (or almost exactly one-quarter of their combined outings). Indeed, there's a much more significant difference between the better and worse fantasy defenses than there is, for instance, among the better and worse kickers. So the reason I urge you to wait on drafting a D/ST has nothing to do with their relative significance, or their ultimate similarities.
Rather, it's just very, very difficult to pick out the better fantasy defenses before the season begins. Here were the top 10 fantasy D/STs heading into the '12 season, and where they ranked by year's end (see chart on right).
Kind of pathetic, right? Only 40 percent of the D/STs drafted to be fantasy starters last year turned out a performance worthy of such trust. And 30 percent wound up 20th or worse!
This isn't a new phenomenon. Sure, some units are more reliable year-over-year than others. But with NFL free agency, copious injuries and the sometimes fluky nature of D/ST fantasy scoring -- the Patriots finished 25th in yards allowed in '12 yet somehow finished sixth in fantasy -- combine to make forecasting these units quite difficult.
Season after season, unexpected D/ST producers rise from the lower ranks, while highly touted D/STs stink it up. That doesn't mean it's not worth evaluating this fantasy position. But it does mean that such analysis should be taken with a big grain of salt.
The Seattle Seahawks are in win-now mode, having brought in Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett to supplement a pass rush that figures to be without Chris Clemons (torn ACL) for a while. There are really no other weaknesses, especially not a secondary consisting of Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Brandon Browner and Kam Chancellor. Add in Percy Harvin returning kicks, and expectations are rightly sky high. … The San Francisco 49ers didn't create turnovers last year, which led to "disappointment" among those who reached for them early in fantasy drafts. (Let that be a lesson.) But they allowed the NFL's second-fewest points (behind only Seattle), and were also top four in both rushing and passing yards allowed. Losing Dashon Goldson is a story in the secondary, where rookie Eric Reid should substitute right away. Otherwise, this is a scary group. … The Houston Texans needed to improve against the pass, where they faded down the stretch in '12. That explains the addition of Ed Reed, though Reed needed hip surgery this spring and figures to miss some of training camp. Assuming he can go, however, the play of J.J. Watt and the return of Brian Cushing stand this unit in good stead. … It seems unfair not to rank the Chicago Bears D/ST as the best in the league after they dominated the fantasy landscape for so much of '12, but remember that turnovers and defensive TDs are cyclical. There are definitely questions here. Will the departures of Lovie Smith and Rod Marinelli slow down this unit? What will the loss of Brian Urlacher mean? Can Devin Hester and the return unit get back on track? Perhaps you'll get fewer big defensive plays out of Chicago in '13, but the personnel is still too good for a major drop-off. … John Fox sure can coach defense. I liked some of the Denver Broncos' defensive pieces heading into '12, but worried about the secondary aside from Champ Bailey, the loss of Broderick Bunkley in the middle and the fact that D.J. Williams was suspended for six games. Those worries look silly now. Wesley Woodyard makes a fantastic complement to Von Miller, Kevin Vickerson was awfully good on the inside and my namesake Chris Harris was a revelation at corner. Add Terrance Knighton in the middle and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie on the outside, and this group looks strong again.
Not sexy, but they get the job done
Geno Atkins makes the Cincinnati Bengals defense tick, creating pass-rushing havoc as a three-technique defensive tackle. His excellence frees things up for franchise-tagged end Michael Johnson, and if this front seven stays healthy, expect elite sack totals to recur. If I have a question here, it's at safety; Taylor Mays and Reggie Nelson don't do it for me. But if Dre Kirkpatrick (last year's No. 17 overall pick) is ready to contribute at corner, watch out. … New England Patriots fans know this team's defense can occasionally struggle against stronger offenses, but it also tends to fatten up against the Little Sisters of the Poor. The midseason snag of Aqib Talib was an immediate difference-maker, Devin McCourty has turned into one of the best free safeties in the game and Adrian Wilson will be a nice replacement for Patrick Chung. However, weaknesses include cornerback depth and generating a pass rush in key situations. … The Pittsburgh Steelers were without their best playmaker, Troy Polamalu, for nine games last year, and it showed: They finished just 25th in takeaways. But once again, they were tough to move against, as they allowed the fewest yards per game in the NFL. This group will move forward without James Harrison and Casey Hampton. What's crucial is that younger players like Jason Worilds, Ziggy Hood, Cameron Heyward and Jarvis Jones show they're ready to step up and continue the Steelers' tradition of defensive excellence. … The St. Louis Rams tied for the NFL lead with 52 sacks last year, which is partly a product of having defensive ends like Chris Long and Robert Quinn who regularly charge around the end, barely acknowledging the possibility of a running play. Indeed, run defense is an overall weakness here: St. Louis allowed a whopping 18 rushing TDs in '12. Kendall Langford did not play well on the inside in the first season of his huge contract, and Michael Brockers has yet to look like the 14th overall pick in the '12 draft. Still, Janoris Jenkins had three pick-sixes as a rookie, and it's never bad to own a piece of a playmaker like him. … Clay Matthews played only 12 games for the Green Bay Packers last year, but still finished fifth in the NFL in sacks. Certainly the Pack needs him to stay healthy, but they could also use a complementary pass-rusher: Nick Perry didn't look good in '12. Getting Desmond Bishop back in the middle would help a soft spot, too, and Jerron McMillian or M.D. Jennings will have to step up at strong safety with Charles Woodson gone. However, the rest of the secondary looks elite.
The San Diego Chargers D/ST finished fourth in fantasy points last year, yet we rank them 19th going into this season. What gives? Well, the unit scored seven defensive TDs, and that doesn't often repeat. In addition, losing Melvin Ingram for the season to a torn ACL is brutal; I have real doubts about whether desperation free-agent signee Dwight Freeney is a good enough replacement, especially considering how Freeney struggled against the run in a 3-4 defense last year. Plus, I'm scared of these corners. Derek Cox and Shareece Wright are unproven players (at best). … The Arizona Cardinals finished 10th in D/ST fantasy points last year, but that, too, may have been something of an illusion. This unit scored below-average points in nine of its 16 games, including five games of four fantasy points or fewer (all of which came from Week 8 forward). There's a ton to love about Patrick Peterson, and maybe Tyrann Mathieu">Tyrann Mathieu becomes his playmaking partner, but Daryl Washington's suspension will hurt and Darnell Dockett seemed to fall off a cliff in '12. … If the New York Jets are getting by at all, it's on reputation, because their run defense was in shambles last year: It finished 27th in rush yards allowed. Muhammad Wilkerson is really good, but raw youngster Kendrick Ellis will be counted on to be the prospective anchor at the nose this year, and I'm not sold that rookie first-rounder Sheldon Richardson is a 3-4 end. Losing Darrelle Revis is rough, and there will be lots of pressure on his rookie replacement, Dee Milliner. But perhaps the biggest black mark against this unit is its offense. It just puts too much pressure on this defense.
I know, I know, the world champion Baltimore Ravens seemingly lost everyone. Ray Lewis, Paul Kruger, Ed Reed, Dannell Ellerbe and Bernard Pollard are all gone. But it seems to me this is what GM Ozzie Newsome does: He replaces parts that get too old and/or expensive. Getting Elvis Dumervil to play opposite Terrell Suggs looks like a coup, and by all accounts rookie Arthur Brown is a smart bet to start in the middle right away. Michael Huff has a chance to be a good Reed replacement, and getting back No. 1 corner Lardarius Webb, who missed the entire Super Bowl run with a torn ACL, is huge. These guys present higher-than-average risk because we can't know how they'll jell right away. But the talent level is still very high. … The Miami Dolphins also look like they're in "go-for-it" mode, and while I'm not sure I agree with all of their high-dollar acquisitions, there's potential for some pass-rushing mayhem in South Beach. If rookie Dion Jordan is ready to play right away, and he can get revved up opposite Cameron Wake, watch out. I agree that signing Brent Grimes coming off a torn Achilles doesn't suddenly fix this unit's biggest problem from '12, which was covering pass-catchers. So I'm not saying you draft these guys right out of the box. But if the Wake/Jordan combo goes wild in the sack department, that could conceivably paper over any coverage ills. … Acquiring Darrelle Revis alone would make the Tampa Bay Buccaneers D/ST intriguing, but that's not all the Bucs did. They signed Dashon Goldson, maybe the NFL's best free safety, to pair with thumper Mark Barron, and they snaked a no-guaranteed-money contract to corner Eric Wright, whose talent I've always liked and who could make good opposite Revis. Of course, much of this unit's upside has to do with whether Revis' torn ACL is completely healed, and whether his incredible skills have recovered. If they have, the Bucs D/ST could make a wise midseason acquisition, too.
Don't take your fantasy defense early. Ever. It's a big mistake to think that just because you've filled out your starting lineup at quarterback, running back, wide receiver and tight end, you should go ahead and grab your starting defense. You don't have to get one of the consensus preseason top defensive units. In fact, history has shown that those consensus preseason top defensive units have a really good chance of stinking, at least fantasy-wise. Use your mid-round picks to buy lottery-ticket rushers and receivers. Toward the end of your draft, grab a supposedly middle-of-the-road defense. If you select unwisely, it doesn't matter: There'll always be a ton of fine defenses on the waiver wire. And don't draft a second defense to fill in during your first defense's bye week. You'll figure something out midseason.
I won't go so far as to say you must spend only $1 on your fantasy defense, as I do say when I'm discussing fantasy kickers. But don't go much higher. If someone goes hog-wild early and bids $7 for the Seahawks D? Tip your cap and be glad it isn't you. As I've said several times here, there's enough uncertainty when it comes to predicting team defenses that you're better off spending as little dough as possible. Spend $1 or $2, and that's it. And unless your league mandates it, don't purchase two defenses.