Stream your team defense/special teams in fantasy.
Why? Simple: History says to. Moreover, modern scoring shifts hammer home the point.
The 2014 season set a new standard for poor D/ST fantasy scores: The Buffalo Bills topped the position leaderboard with 170 fantasy points, which was the worst position-leading total in any nonstrike year since 1959. Meanwhile, the league as a whole averaged 6.4 D/ST fantasy points per game, which was its worst number in any season since World War II.
This should come as no surprise: NFL scoring is up. It's for that reason that it's wiser to pick a D/ST with greater lean toward weakness of opponent than its own strengths.
Consider that last year, the top five scoring D/STs averaged 9.5 fantasy points per game. The D/STs that faced the top five teams in terms of fantasy points allowed to the position, meanwhile, averaged 11.2. And that difference of 1.7 points per contest, too, was one of the highest in history -- unmatched since the 1950s. In fact, five of the 10 seasons with the greatest such differentials have happened since 2004: (2014, 1.7; 2004, 1.3; 2009, 1.2; 2012, 1.1; and 2007, 1.1).
Taking a draft angle, nine D/STs in 2014 were selected earlier than Round 15 -- the round in which we traditionally advise you to take yours in ESPN standard leagues -- and that group combined for an average of 7.3 fantasy points per game, less than a point per game better than the aforementioned NFL average. Of those nine, only the tops-in-ADP Seattle Seahawks finished among the top five D/STs in fantasy points (152, third behind the Bills and Philadelphia Eagles).
Meanwhile, the D/ST that resided on the most ESPN championship rosters in 2014 wasn't the Seahawks or Bills, but rather the Baltimore Ravens (19 percent). That's perhaps thanks to their 11, 23, 2 and 13 fantasy points scored from Weeks 14 to 17, the 23 leading the position during Week 15 and their 49 during that four-week span tied for third best. One of the D/STs tied for the second-greatest frequency on ESPN championship rosters, the St. Louis Rams, tied for an NFL-best 65 fantasy points from Weeks 12 to 16, a five-week span that's typically regarded as a critical stage to fantasy owners.
Taking a broad perspective to D/ST performance in 2014, the chart below measures draft position, in-season results and frequency of championship appearances. "ADP (Rd.)" is the D/ST's average draft position as well as the respective round in an ESPN league; "/G" is per-game stats from Weeks 12 to 16; and "Top10" is the "Starts" equivalent from my Consistency Ratings, reflecting number of point totals that were weekly top-10s.
The results are all over the map, reflecting the advantage to streaming your D/ST. Consider that, of the top 10 D/STs in terms of ADP last season, eight -- the San Francisco 49ers, Cincinnati Bengals, Denver Broncos, Arizona Cardinals, Kansas City Chiefs, Carolina Panthers, New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers -- finished outside of the top 10 in at least two of the following four measurables: percentage of ESPN championship rosters, total seasonal fantasy points, Week 12-16 average, "Start"-worthy (top-10) games. The Bengals, in fact, finished outside the top 10 in all four. The Rams finished tied for 14th with six "Starts," while only the Seahawks managed to finish top 10 in all four categories.
Ah, but that might suggest that the consensus No. 1 D/ST is worth the investment, right? No, not necessarily. Here's a quick illustration of what the consensus -- read, No. 1 D/ST in terms of ADP and top 75 overall, greater than one-round separation from the No. 2 at the position in ADP -- No. 1 D/ST has done the past 10 seasons:
Now, let's apply that scope of the past 10 seasons to the top 10 D/ST picks in terms of ADP. The chart below reveals each spot's results: "Ovr. ADP" is the average overall selection for that year's D/ST; "FPTS" is its average seasonal total; "Finish" is the average final ranking in terms of fantasy points (so, 8.2 would mean the average finish was roughly 8th); "Top-10" is the number of top-10 finishes (out of 10) at the position; "Top-5" is top-five positional finishes; and "High" and "Low" are the highest and lowest finishes in that 10-year span.
Again, the results are all over the map, though as with the 2014 example, there's an apparent slim advantage to paying for the No. 1 D/ST. That margin, however, isn't nearly great enough to warrant reaching for it more than a round or two sooner than the end of your draft, and even then, with an 8.2 average finish and a 30 percent failure rate (read: a finish outside the top 10), that D/ST would have significant "bust" odds and you might be less apt and slower to replace it due to your greater draft-resource investment.
So, rather than spend a pick earlier than your 15th -- your next-to-last pick in an ESPN standard league, as the last pick is to be reserved for your kicker -- on a D/ST, sit back, take the best combination of skill and first-month matchups at the position in Round 15, then freely mix and match all year. This might seem a scary strategy, but thanks to Jeff Ratcliffe of Pro Football Focus, we've got a handy reference guide to help you navigate it.
You can take the Seahawks 54th overall -- yes, that was their ADP as of the afternoon of Aug. 6 -- or even 80th or 105th, if you wish. I'm not even thinking about it until the 120th pick, and even then, I'm not about to get attached.
After all, the Seahawks play at Green Bay in Week 2.