Why should I consider drafting the Cleveland Browns defense?
I already invoked this stat for this year's Team Defense positional preview in our amazing (and free!) Fantasy Football Draft Kit, but it bears repeating: Of the five pre-draft consensus No. 1 fantasy defenses in the past five seasons, exactly one finished among the top 10 defenses by season's end:
2009 Pittsburgh Steelers (End-of-season ranking: 16th)
2008 San Diego Chargers (19th)
2007 Chicago Bears (12th)
2006 Chicago Bears (2nd)
2005 Baltimore Ravens (14th)
Not only do the presumptive top fantasy defenses often flop, but strong fantasy defenses often come from nowhere. And that's where I think the Browns D will come from in 2010.
Last year, the Browns' defense finished just 22nd overall in fantasy scoring. But in those final four games -- the games that unquestionably saved Eric Mangini's job, as the Browns went from 1-11 to 5-11 -- things were much better. They scored 15, 11, 14 and six fantasy points while racking up 16 total sacks. It's probably not ethically legit to project a full season at those rates, but if we did, we'd see a defense that would've finished first (that's right, first) in fantasy points scored, and first in sacks. Interested yet?
Now, past performance doesn't guarantee future returns. It helped that the Browns faced the Steelers, Chiefs, Raiders and Jaguars in those final four games. The AFC North figures to be pretty strong in '10, and the Browns' offense is nobody's idea of impressive. I'm not asking you to reach and take these guys in the early rounds of your fantasy draft. But I would consider taking them late, as a sleeper.
Why? I'm intrigued by the front seven. Ahtyba Rubin has emerged as a terrific nose tackle in the 3-4 and Shaun Rogers may be able to move to defensive end. If the Browns can make it work, I love this notion. In his heyday, Rogers was a sack threat even from the middle of a defense (he topped out at seven sacks with the Lions in '07) and he's definitely got bulk enough to set the edge against the run. This feels like a match made in heaven. Robaire Smith is solid at other end. There are no huge names at linebacker, but Scott Fujita played shockingly well on the Super Bowl Saints last year, Chris Gocong could be reborn as an inside linebacker, and after he came over from the Dolphins in Week 12 last year, Matt Roth, known for his run-stopping, broke out with four sacks and 29 tackles in six games. If that continues, watch out.
Obviously, there are things that could go wrong here. It's Cleveland. D'Qwell Jackson, the 2008 NFL tackles leader who was making a comeback from a torn pectoral muscle, reportedly suffered an injury to the other pectoral Tuesday night. Smith and Rogers could face league discipline for gun-related violations. The Browns are relying on rookie second-rounder T.J. Ward to start right away at strong safety. Abram Elam has never lived up to his potential at free safety. It doesn't sound like No. 7-overall pick Joe Haden is living up to his billing at corner yet and probably will be the team's nickel man at best. And at this point in his career, I'm not sold that 31-year-old Sheldon Brown isn't better off moving inside to a safety position. (I love the other starting corner, the underrated Eric Wright.) That's a back four that could impress, or it could flame out. I'm banking on the former, because I think Mangini liked what he saw in December last year, when he released the pass-rushing hounds and his charges got after opposing quarterbacks. If the Browns get pressure, I think they're mostly going to be able to cover well enough.
My point here, I suppose, is twofold. On the one hand, I think the Browns D has it in them to be a surprise this season: they could create sacks and turnovers, and keep scoring relatively low. And on the other hand, I think this unit fits the profile of a group worth drafting late, because it's very difficult to name the best fantasy defenses before the season begins. Will the Jets be great? It's possible. But it's also possible that the "bulletproof" Gang Green goes the way of that supposedly impenetrable New York Giants defense from last year, and using a high draft pick to find that out is folly. Instead, take sleepers at other positions and then select a defense like the Browns' late, and if it doesn't work out -- if I'm wrong, and the Browns limp out of the gate -- don't sweat it. There are always free agent defenses you can try.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy and follow him at www.twitter.com/writerboyESPN.