I won't go so far as to say fantasy defenses are completely random. They're not.
But just because something isn't random doesn't mean you or I can accurately predict its outcome. The truth about fantasy defenses is twofold. First, despite close evaluation of personnel, game tape and strategies, it's very difficult to intuit which NFL defenses are going to be strong in a given season. That's not to say it's impossible; certainly, there are year-over-year patterns and excellent players in which we can put some faith. But injuries, slumps and plain bad luck often intervene. Second, a good real-life defense doesn't always mean a starring fantasy defense, and a starring fantasy defense definitely doesn't always mean a good real-life one. I direct your attention to last year's Arizona Cardinals defense, which finished a respectable 12th in fantasy points despite allowing a whopping 27.1 points and 373.6 yards per game on the actual gridiron.
Season after season, we learn how difficult it is to give an accurate prediction for how fantasy defenses will finish. We try our best. Sometimes we do OK. But in the end, big plays, big turnover margins, special teams madness and several other factors conspire to thwart our predictive lists. Take 2010 for example. I'll give you two charts: The first gives the 10 most commonly drafted fantasy defenses last summer (via Average Draft Position, or ADP), and then shows how they finished in fantasy points:
And the second table shows how 2010's highest-scoring fantasy defenses were rated, via ADP, before the season began:
What this tells us is that it's difficult to predict before the season starts which defenses will produce from a fantasy perspective. 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. 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.
Our top four fantasy defenses have a few things in common. The most obvious is that they all play mostly in a 3-4 alignment. That's certainly a trend in the NFL, but the better, more aggressive 3-4 teams have produced far more quarterback pressure lately, and that usually leads to sacks and turnovers. Certainly the Steelers know what I mean. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's group has finished first or second in sacks each of the past three seasons. In 2010, they also were first in fewest points allowed, second in fewest yards allowed and third in turnovers created. Troy Polamalu's health is an issue: A couple years ago, we saw that this unit doesn't look nearly as strong without him, and he battled a bad Achilles all last season. Assuming Polamalu is back and the Steelers find a solution to bolster their cornerback corps, these guys should be just fine. The Super-Bowl-champion Packers have made a two-year, silky-smooth transition from the 4-3 to the 3-4 under Dom Capers, and have made a star out of Clay Matthews in the process. Green Bay's secondary is maybe the league's best, with Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams and Sam Shields forming a tremendous three-man weave at corner, Nick Collins a solid free safety, and Morgan Burnett (who missed half of last season because of a torn ACL) ready to become an all-world thumper at strong safety. The biggest loss the Pack suffered this summer was the defection of Cullen Jenkins to Philadelphia, and they could use another pass rusher or two. But they should be strong. Jets helmsman Rex Ryan is a charismatic and sometimes bizarre character, but he can coach defense. Last season's defensive inconsistencies and injuries might've broken a lesser defensive mind, but Ryan and his charges persevered and made it to their second straight AFC title game. Darrelle Revis' hamstring woes cut down on his playmaking, and the Jets struggled to generate interceptions as a result, and they made headlines for lagging behind the leaders in sacks for much of the season. But this unit came on strong late and will always be difficult to run against; assuming Revis gets back to full strength, things should only get better for Gang Green. Ho hum, how old is Ray Lewis now, 84? The Ravens seem to lose a couple good players every year but keep on trucking with their core of Lewis (now 36), Haloti Ngata, Ed Reed and Terrell Suggs. The defensive line is ridiculously stout, the safeties hit hard and the corners should be vastly improved: Lardarius Webb hustled back from his '09 torn ACL but wasn't the same player, and Domonique Foxworth tore his ACL in last season's training camp. If healthy, Webb, Foxworth and rookie Jimmy Smith should make a much stronger group in '11. The only worry you have when you own this defense is its lack of sacks: Baltimore has finished outside the top 10 in that category for four straight campaigns, and last season tied for a woeful 27th. The Eagles allowed an uncharacteristic 23.6 points per game last year as the secondary got banged up and the team allowed big plays in bundles. But boy, what a makeover. The Birds traded for Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, signed Nnamdi Asomugha, and at the moment still have Asante Samuel. That literally may be the greatest threesome of cornerbacks in NFL history. And Cullen Jenkins and Jason Babin jump aboard the defensive line alongside Trent Cole. That's a veritable airlift of talent. But there are question marks. Can Casey Matthews really start at middle linebacker Week 1 as a rookie? Will Jamar Chaney make a smooth transition from the middle to the weak side? Will the impressive-looking Nate Allen return from his patellar tendon surgery, and who will replace Quintin Mikell at strong safety? It's also tough to say that a defense with this many new pieces will instantly click. But there's so much talent here, I have to consider the Eagles elite.
Not Sexy, But They Get The Job Done
Julius Peppers didn't leap off the stat sheet in his first season with the Bears (eight sacks, 54 tackles), but he did leap off the game film. He was as disruptive as he ever was in Carolina and forced offenses to focus on him, freeing up guys like Israel Idonije, Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs for rejuvenating seasons. There are questions in the middle of the defensive line and especially at corner, where I'm not a fan of Zack Bowman or Tim Jennings as potential starters on the left side. But if this unit wound up as my Week 1 starter, I wouldn't complain. The Falcons have finally found a rotation of pass-rushing ends to complement John Abraham. Ray Edwards comes over from Minnesota and should help right away, and Kroy Biermann was a revelation last year: He may have only had three sacks last season, but he was a great source of pressure, allowing everyone else on a stout defensive line to do their jobs. Brent Grimes has improved so much at left corner that it's hard to believe he's the same player, and pairing him with Dunta Robinson puts this coverage unit in the top five in the NFL. There are questions at safety and middle linebacker, but I think you can believe in last season's breakout for this group. Predicting the Saints' drop-off from their unexpected run of good fortune from '09 -- in the form of turnovers and defensive touchdowns -- wasn't rocket science. That kind of unlikely fantasy production rarely recurs. Sure enough, this group managed a league-low nine interceptions in '10 and finished 16th in fantasy points. But if this unit's '09 output was artificially high, last year's was probably artificially low. There's still plenty of talent in the Big Easy, including one of the deepest secondaries around. Adding Aubrayo Franklin and Shaun Rogers up front gives New Orleans a spectacular run-stopping rotation, and while Will Smith may face a suspension to begin the season, he had a great '10, and rookie Cameron Jordan could help pick up the slack.
The 49ers' defense finished No. 1 overall in fantasy points in '09, but we weren't buying that: Their season total benefited from a few ludicrously big weeks. We did, however, still rank Patrick Willis and Co. No. 7 in last summer's previews, and even that turned out to be too high. Outside of Justin Smith, the pass rush was almost nonexistent, and the secondary is uninspiring, beginning with Nate Clements. Rookie defensive end Aldon Smith could help with sacks, and Willis is a great player. But there are too many question marks at outside linebacker and throughout the defensive backfield. Yes, Clements and his bloated contract are gone, but will Carlos Rogers, who was a middling performing for the Redskins, be any better? Plus losing Aubrayo Franklin on the nose is a killer, because I'm not sold that Isaac Sopoaga, who's started at end for the past few years, is ready to be that same kind of intimidating run stuffer. You're better off leaving these guys alone. The Cowboys saw their secondary crumble like so much Texas sand last year. Mike Jenkins and Terence Newman were just terrible at corner, and Alan Ball was a disaster at free safety. Yes, DeMarcus Ware is incredible, having registered double-digit sacks five seasons in a row. But is Jay Ratliff really a 3-4 nose tackle? Can Anthony Spencer cover anyone? You can rest reasonably easy that this D will produce an above-average number of sacks, but everything else is up in the air, despite Rob Ryan coming to Dallas to coordinate the defense. I'm not expecting miracles. As you saw in the introduction to this piece, the Vikings' defense was drafted second-highest among all units last year, and like the rest of "FavreCo.", it crashed and burned. The run defense stayed stout, but the pass rush was mediocre and the secondary gave up too many big plays. And now defensive end Ray Edwards is gone, DT Kevin Williams will likely be suspended for four games to begin the season, Pat Williams may retire, the Vikings can't keep cornerback Cedric Griffin healthy opposite Antoine Winfield, and the safeties are (to say the least) unproven. Doesn't it feel like Minnesota is thisclose to going into full-fledged rebuild mode? No defense epitomized the difference between being good in real life and in fantasy last season than the Cardinals. They ranked 29th in yards allowed and 30th in points allowed. An unrepeatable seven defensive touchdowns bolstered them, to say nothing of kicker Jay Feely scoring on a fake field goal. New coordinator Ray Horton comes from the Steelers' school, so maybe you'll see an uptick in blitzes, but does Arizona have the horses? Adrian Wilson and Darnell Dockett have seen better days, and the team would probably have been better off had veteran retreads such as Joey Porter and Clark Haggans been jettisoned. Granted, rookie corner Patrick Peterson looks exciting, but this D is headed for a big fall in fantasy.
The Chiefs finished 17th in fantasy points last season, but if you look up and down their roster, you see myriad intriguing young players ready to bust out. Tamba Hali is a budding superstar, and Wallace Gilberry contributed to a fairly menacing pass rush. My regular readers know I've been gushing about the corner combo of Brandon Flowers and Brandon Carr for more than a year, and Eric Berry is a big hitter at strong safety. Heck, even Glenn Dorsey started contributing as a run-stuffer last season. The fact that Kansas City wants to play ball-control on offense should only help this group. I think this unit has top-10 upside. The Raiders will lost Nnamdi Asomugha to free agency this summer, but they have enough speed in the secondary to patch the void, and they have a frightening set of athletes to play in their front four: Richard Seymour, Lamarr Houston, Tommy Kelly, John Henderson, Matt Shaughnessy and even Jarvis Moss. Stopping the run has been Oakland's bugaboo for nearly a decade and it really wasn't much better in 2010. Getting linebacker Rolando McClain to start stuffing runs up the gut might be the last step in making this unit extremely unpleasant to play against. When the Lions had Nick Fairley fall to them in April's draft, the pundits oohed and aahed. Will Fairley's addition to a D-line that already had Ndamukong Suh, Corey Williams, Cliff Avril and a rehabbing Kyle Vanden Bosch instantly mean fantasy stardom for this unit? I don't buy that just yet, especially because Fairley needed foot surgery early in training camp. Also, the secondary still needs much help, especially at corner, where Chris Houston and former disappointing Cleveland Brown Eric Wright look like the starters. Feh. I like the chances Detroit took at outside linebacker, though Stephen Tulloch has never been a weak-side player before and Justin Durant has more experience in the middle than on the strong side, so there could be chemistry issues. Listen, the upfront portion of this group could produce sparkling sack numbers, especially if Fairley gets right. But for now, they're not more than an intriguing sleeper. I know the Dolphins have to play the Patriots and Jets twice per year, and I know they finished only 22nd in fantasy points last season. But I like so many of the pieces they've gathered. Cameron Wake had 14 sacks in '10. Koa Misi has potential as a pass rusher opposite Wake. Vontae Davis and Sean Smith are a well-above-average starting corner duo. Paul Soliali is bordering on being an elite nose tackle. Karlos Dansby is a beast. Sure, Miami has troubles at its defensive end spots, and it didn't make many big plays last year. But I've got a notion the Dolphins' D will be a surprise unit in '11.
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 one dollar 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 Steelers' 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.