Just how hard is it to predict which fantasy defenses will score the most points? Let's look at 2009 to get an idea.
First, here were the 10 most-favored preseason defenses in fantasyland, according to Average Draft Position (ADP) in ESPN.com standard leagues, and how well they actually performed once the season began:
And here's how 2009's top fantasy defenses were rated, via ADP, before the season:
*-went undrafted, on average, in ESPN.com leagues
Lest you believe this is a one-year anomaly, let me assure you it isn't.
It's not that fantasy defenses are random. Once you get into a season, the best performers tend to rise to the top within four or five games and assert themselves as elite. But figuring out which defenses will be best before the season begins? Well, that appears to be beyond the skills of anyone who tries. To wit:
I think you know where I'm going with this. It doesn't pay to reach for a fantasy defense. Let's look at the leading storylines surrounding some of the top fantasy candidates, then reconvene to discuss the implications of these startling numbers.
It's a fact: The NFL's rules are stacked against defenses. Corners are hamstrung. Safeties and linebackers have to pull up for fear of unsportsmanlike conduct. Offensive linemen hold on every play. The truth is, part of why I don't think we can know which defenses will perform best in fantasy is that many of the numbers we reward in fantasy (especially turnovers) don't follow much logic. The straightest line I can draw between defensive philosophy and fantasy performance is: Does a team blitz a lot? And the New York Jets do. They called the second-most blitzes in football last year as Rex Ryan likes to send the house. The Jets also have the benefit of starting the best cover corner in football, Darrelle Revis, which takes pressure off the secondary should a blitz initially fail to reach the quarterback. Given how the past five years have gone, our ranking of the Jets as the No. 1 defense in fantasy is truly a curse. But on paper, this team appears to feature the best combination of scheme and personnel. The Philadelphia Eagles had the only defense that blitzed more than the Jets in '09, so they, too, belong on the short list of high-upside fantasy squads. Even among a litany of injuries to linebackers, Philly brought the heat, so despite the fact they allowed 48, 38, 34 and 31 points in separate contests last year, they still produced enough sacks and turnovers to reward their fantasy owners. The Green Bay Packers got amazing play from rookie Clay Matthews in '09, making their transition to a 3-4 defense much smoother than it might otherwise have been. Like the Eagles, Green Bay was beaten early and often by the deep ball throughout last season; they allowed 30-plus points in six of 17 games. But they were stout against the run and led the NFL with 30 interceptions. They're boom-or-bust, no question, but the Pack could be worth the risk in '10. The Baltimore Ravens have as good a front seven as anyone in the NFL, but they do have big-time questions at corner, where two of their top three players are coming off torn ACLs. Yet the blitzing is nearly constant in Baltimore, and they have so much experience and depth along that front line that it's hard to think opposing quarterbacks will have tons of time to pick apart whatever the team sends out in the secondary.
Not Sexy, But They Get The Job Done
The Dallas Cowboys' questions mostly come at safety, where the underwhelming Gerald Sensabaugh and Alan Ball look like starters. But like the Ravens, Dallas has such a powerful front seven that it's hard to see the team being brought down by its secondary, especially in run support, where Sensabaugh and Ball are the most suspect. If the Cowboys get Anthony Spencer going again opposite DeMarcus Ware, watch out. The San Francisco 49ers were fantasy's top defense last year. But it was aided by scoring 39 points in Week 4 against the woeful St. Louis Rams (the most points any defense scored in a single game last year). Otherwise they would more likely have finished somewhere around seventh. Still, this freshly converted 3-4 unit is very strong up the middle, including nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin, linebacker Patrick Willis and free safety Dashon Goldson. The biggest question I have is whether the group of middling outside linebackers can get after the quarterback enough, but the NFC West definitely doesn't look strong this year. You know the Minnesota Vikings' routine by now: great against the run, so-so against the pass. They'll stuff your rushers and sack the heck out of you, but they'll also give up huge plays via the air because the corners are either injured (Cedric Griffin is coming off a torn ACL and Antoine Winfield has missed 12 games the past two seasons) or stinky (Lito Sheppard? Really?). Truthfully, this isn't a great NFL defense because it's so imbalanced. But for fantasy, their baseline production of sacks and forced fumbles feels safe. The Cincinnati Bengals boast a defensive squad I'm willing to take a chance on this year. I love the combination of those cornerbacks (Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph) with that run-stuffing defense (led by Keith Rivers, Rey Maualuga and Domata Peko). The question comes down -- as it does for a lot of NFL defenses -- to the pass rush. Antawn Odom is back from his ruptured Achilles, and there are a lot of highly touted players who could potentially play at defensive end, including Michael Johnson and rookie Carlos Dunlap. If they get to the quarterback, the Bengals D has the potential to be super-nasty.
As a group, we at ESPN Fantasy still have the Pittsburgh Steelers D as a starting fantasy unit, but in some respects it's an act of blind faith. If Troy Polamalu and Justin Smith stay healthy, perhaps much of what ailed this unit last year automatically gets fixed. But the corners look shaky. While I know the sacks are always going to be there for James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, beware overrating this unit as it tries to come back from mediocrity. The New Orleans Saints were fantasy's top-ranked defense by a country mile in the first half of '09, then predictably fell back to Earth as their inhuman run of big turnovers dried up. Still, the unit finished third in fantasy points, so how dare we rank them 10th! The thing is, no defense last year was more reliant on big plays. (They scored seven defensive touchdowns in the first half last year, and one in the second.) You take away a few of those, and this unit's numbers start to look pretty average. I like the corner depth here, and Sedrick Ellis has it in him to be a disruptor in the middle. But a lot of the rest of this personnel, to me, is feh. The New York Giants looked like one of the safest bets around last year, with a few big free-agent signings that were supposed to bolster an already-impressive depth chart. It didn't happen. Instead, this squad allowed 40-plus points in five of their final 11 games. Whoa. It's true that injuries were the biggest problem here, which explains why we're willing to give them a No. 12 rank despite the fact they were fantasy's seventh-worst defense last year. But the secondary has a bunch of question marks, and there's no established middle linebacker here. The Tennessee Titans boasted a dominant defense in '08 but crashed and burned in '09. That vaunted defensive line from two seasons ago has only one member remaining (Tony Brown). There are question marks at every level of this D, and several players are coming off surgery. Jeff Fisher likes to play close-to-the-vest football, which often keeps his teams in games by shortening them, but this looks like an average unit living off the recent past. To me, '10 looks like a rebuilding year for the Carolina Panthers on both sides of the ball. Julius Peppers, Maake Kemoeatu, Na'il Diggs, Damione Lewis and Hollis Thomas are gone from a defense that allowed opposing rushers to score 19 total touchdowns and rush for an average of 124.8 yards per game in '09. That means they will rely on undersized defensive ends Charles Johnson and Everette Brown and will hope to patchwork at defensive tackle. This is a defense I wouldn't touch with a 10-foot pole.
I already mentioned the Bengals, who probably qualify as my most surprising highly rated unit. I'm also intrigued by the Denver Broncos, who started '09 so solidly and dropped off severely thereafter. The team recognized how poorly its defensive line played the run last year and remade that unit completely with Justin Bannan, Jarvis Green and Jamal Williams. Williams is probably the key. If he's recovered from his torn triceps, the Broncos may fatten up against a couple weak-sister AFC West squads. The Cleveland Browns play conservative offensive football and thus limit their defense's exposure, but you can really see potential at every level of this unit. Ahtyba Rubin looks like a star at the nose, and if Shaun Rogers is really going to play 3-4 defensive end, that could be one disruptive D-line. Matt Roth needs to get over his contract complaining and establish himself as a pass-rushing outside linebacker for a full season, but he sure showed promise in the latter stages of '09. If Sheldon Brown starts opposite Eric Wright, well, that's easily an above-average corner tandem. The Houston Texans will have to deal with Brian Cushing's month-long suspension for violating the league's anti-doping policy, but they still have plenty of stars in their front seven: Mario Williams, DeMeco Ryans and Zach Diles among them. The questions come at corner, where Dunta Robinson has left for Atlanta and no proven players remain. If Houston gets surprising production out of corners Glover Quin and rookie Kareem Jackson, that could represent a tipping point, because the run defense is really good. No, I'm not telling you to go out and draft the Detroit Lions defense. But it's worth noting how much better Detroit looks up front. Ndamukong Suh, Kyle Vanden Bosch and Corey Williams represent a huge defensive line upgrade. DeAndre Levy is a star in the making at middle linebacker. There's much more talent here. Alas, there are no corners on this roster you'd even consider league-average, which means it'll probably be another season of big plays allowed by Detroit. But keep an eye on 'em anyway.
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. No. 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. Then toward the end of your draft, grab a supposedly middle-of-the-road defense. If you select unwisely, it doesn't matter. There will 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 only spend $1 on your fantasy defense as I do when I'm discussing fantasy kickers. But don't go much higher. If someone goes hog-wild early and bids $7 for the Jets 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 best off spending as little dough as possible. Spend $2 or $3, and that's it. And unless your league mandates it, don't purchase two defenses.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy.