In 2006, the Baltimore Ravens' defense and special teams posted an incredibly elite fantasy campaign with 236 points in ESPN standard leagues. The performance was so spectacular that the third D/ST that year in fantasy, the New England Patriots, posted 165 points, or just less than 70 percent of the Ravens' output. (The Bears were also a force in 2006, putting up 220 points as the No. 2 D/ST.) Baltimore's 14.8 fantasy points per game that season is a clip that rivals the average production of a top-five running back or a top-two wide receiver in most seasons.
Since the Ravens and Bears each broke 200 points in 2006, no fantasy defense has done so, and the average tally of the top-scoring fantasy defense since 2007 has been 178.2 points. That 2006 Ravens group was special and buoyed many to fantasy titles that season. While it's completely understandable that the Baltimore defense was drafted as the top unit in 2007 drafts with a midround average draft position (ADP) of 61.9, it ended up with just 90 points and as the 24th overall fantasy defense that year, dramatically disappointing those who invested considerable draft coin.
This might read as cherry-picking an extreme example of how volatile fantasy defenses can be, but it's simply the case that outside of a few exceptions, investing heavily in fantasy defenses is a misallocation of resources. In that 2007 season when the Ravens' defense collapsed, for example, the Chargers' D/ST unit posted the top fantasy effort with 197 points, only to follow up their No. 1 ADP in 2008 with just 90 points that season (ending as the 19th defense by fantasy production).
Check out the top five D/ST by ADP since 2009. (For a complete list of D/ST performance since 2009, click here.)
2011 Preseason D/ST Rankings
2011 Top 10 Fantasy D/ST
Reaping strong returns from one of the top defenses by average draft position in a given year is certainly possible, but you are just as likely to lose on such a venture, given how often expensive defensive commodities don't live up to their price tag. Busts abound at every position, every year; but with the nature of how top defenses are valued each season, it makes more sense to stockpile offensive talent while some of your peers pay premiums for defense.
It's understandable that fantasy owners want a top D/ST that they can plug in every week and trust for consistent production, but the numbers suggest it's not necessarily likely that you'll net a consistent producer at the position. Even last season's top unit, the San Francisco 49ers -- a group drafted as the 18th D/ST on average in 2011, which is to say undrafted in the majority of standard leagues -- posted four games with four or fewer points. The Baltimore Ravens and Seattle Seahawks ended up as the third and fourth fantasy defenses last season, respectively, and each posted multiple outings with negative fantasy production. There is a good deal of volatility found in every fantasy defense; it's simply the nature of the position. Don't get me wrong: There is still strong value in having an elite fantasy defense on your roster. I'm just not sure that you'll necessarily get that one in the draft. You might succeed in applying a different approach to managing your defensive production.
Instead of investing heavily and feeling compelled to start that same defense every week, it's better to play the most favorable matchups as they approach. Much like in fantasy baseball where managers may be apt to "stream" one or several pitching spots, I suggest that you seek to stream your defense throughout the season.
In fantasy baseball, it can prove prudent to seek out the most favorable splits and scenarios among available starting pitchers in order to reap strong numbers out of the position, versus simply plugging in what might be one middling arm for a long stretch and hoping for the best. The result is often a Frankenstein of stronger statistics as a result of seeking out pitchers who are in favorable positions to produce; like pitching in friendly parks in Seattle and San Diego or facing the Houston Astros' lineup.
In applying this to fantasy football, you simply seek out the sloppiest and suspect offenses available to you on the schedule. Given that in most leagues there are a number of available defenses each week on the waiver wire, you should have a reasonable selection of defenses to seek out in a majority of weeks (in heavy bye weeks, however, you'll want to plan ahead a bit more). Just like the way a hurler might get rocked by the Astros or blasted in an otherwise friendly pitching park, a seemingly inviting matchup can go awry when selecting a fantasy defense. Whether you find a stretch of several weeks of inviting matchups with one specific defense or need to hunt for your group on a near weekly basis, the goal is to seek out favorable matchups.
The theory of playing to matchups sounds simple enough, but how do we approach the application of it? Seeking out favorable offenses isn't an exact science, but using some helpful indicators can lead us in the right direction. While a number of 2011's poorest offenses could certainly improve this season, we can focus our matchup hunt by concentrating on some of the scenarios with inexperienced quarterbacks, porous offensive lines and generally limited offenses.
Using last season as an example, let's explore how D/STs that were drafted outside of the top 10 in 2011 produced versus some of the identifiably weaker offenses in football. Fantasy defenses averaged 12.8 points versus the St. Louis Rams last season, and in only three matchups last season did the defense facing the Rams fail to hit double-digit fantasy production. Last season, there were 12 fantasy defenses with ADPs outside of the top 10 that played the Rams; these units averaged 13 fantasy points per outing (the 49ers averaged 10.6 fantasy points per game last season).
The 12 teams with ADPs outside of the top 10 that faced the Indianapolis Colts last season averaged 10.8 points per game, while the 12 such D/STs that played the Tampa Bay Buccaneers averaged 10.1. The 11 teams that faced the Jacksonville Jaguars that were drafted outside the top 10 averaged just over eight points, while the 12 such teams that played the Cleveland Browns averaged just under nine points. These fantasy point averages compare favorably to the top D/STs from the past several seasons. It's not a foreign concept to apply matchups when picking up a team defense, but it does seem to be an underutilized approach when we consider the potential for successful point production.
Looking ahead to the first several weeks of the upcoming season, we can identify some matchups that appear inviting. The Buffalo Bills, for example, play the New York Jets in Week 1 and are bringing a capable secondary and a vastly revamped pass rush with an eye on exposing what could be a troubling protection scheme for New York. In Week 2, the Oakland Raiders visit the Miami Dolphins and could potentially be facing a rookie signal-caller, while that same week Cincinnati Bengals host the Browns' rookie quarterback. As the season unfolds, it becomes clearer which offenses are prone to struggle and afford opposing defenses a good deal of sacks and turnovers.
The value in this approach is really multifaceted: Your roster depth and production potential can see a significant boon if you decide to bypass one of the top eight defenses in terms of ADP (the top eight defenses had an ADP of 103.8 in 2011) and instead invest in lottery tickets at skill positions like running back and wide receiver. Another advantage is that in your hunt for ideal matchups, you might just unearth a diamond of a defense like the Houston Texans, San Francisco 49ers or Seattle Seahawks and choose to retain them for an enduring stretch. It's also unlikely that you'll find such a surprising commodity when bound to a high-cost fantasy defense. The greatest value of a successful "stream team" is, of course, the potential for strong point production.