Defense/special teams fantasy preview for 2016

Despite several changes, the Seattle Seahawks remain one of the top D/ST options in 2016. Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The Buffalo Bills' defense and special teams -- commonly coined D/ST in fantasy parlance - were the second defense off the board on average behind the Seattle Seahawks in 2015. The hype in Orchard Park appeared well founded; the Bills led all D/STs in fantasy production by 11 percent in ESPN standard leagues in 2014, while Rex Ryan's aggressive 4-3 under scheme only increased the buzz around this commodity.

Opportunity cost is defined as the loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one options is selected. The Bills had an average draft position of 81st overall last summer. Spending an eighth- or ninth-round pick on Buffalo came at a relatively extreme opportunity cost, as they finished the season 22nd in total fantasy points at the position. When we look at average weekly results, as in the mean weekly fantasy finish at the position over the full season, the Bills were 21st in the league with an average weekly result of 16.5 - decidedly middle-of-the-pack. Buffalo had as many bottom-10 fantasy weeks (six) as top-10 outings.

The 82nd overall pick on average last summer was Larry Fitzgerald, who finished 10th among wideouts in ESPN standard fantasy points. The 92nd pick on average was Cam Newton, who led the league in fantasy points by 38 points. The 100th pick on average was Devonta Freeman, who led all tailbacks in PPR leagues by a whopping 57 fantasy points. You get the premise: We risk leaving significant talents on the board when investing mid-round stock in this variant and often difficult-to-predict position.

So what should we look for when surveying the market for D/ST assets? Employing a straightforward study of statistical ranks in relation to fantasy scoring, we find sack and point allowance results offer the identifiable conversions into fantasy production. Last season, the average D/ST scored 99 standard fantasy points, broken down in the table to your right.

For some historical context to help frame this offensively inclined era in the NFL, below are the past 10 seasons of average D/ST fantasy production. Last season represents a 21 percent dip in the average fantasy output for NFL defenses since 2006.

In an effort to highlight the developing D/ST marketplace for 2016, let's delve into key tiers at the position.

The Elite

The Seattle Seahawks can be considered the Adrian Peterson of fantasy defenses in that, as Matthew Berry often says at our rankings meeting, they might not finish first each season, but we can expect a top-five finish at the position. Such cost certainty helps validate the mid-round pricing Seattle demands, especially in deeper formats. The Seahawks were the only D/ST to post zero bottom-10 weeks last season, and thus are established as our top projected fantasy unit for the upcoming campaign. Rare retention of the defensive core and peaking careers of veteran pass rushers Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril help solidify Seattle as our top projected group heading into the campaign.

The Denver Broncos embodied the idiom "defense wins championships" in 2015 in both real and fantasy football. The Broncos outscored the field in fantasy points by 12.3 percent last season while leading the pack with an average weekly result of 8.7. Denver led the league in sacks and tied for seventh in turnovers en route to six top-five fantasy weeks (tied for tops in the league) and 10 top-10 outings. The best metric from this group might just be the fact they produced just one bottom-10 fantasy finish, buoying weekly consistency rarely found at the position. ... The Kansas City Chiefs' D/ST finished fourth in sacks and fifth in turnovers, while a deep and dynamic incumbent group of defenders should keep them in the trusted tier at the position.

The Houston Texans averaged 11.8 fantasy points from Week 6 on -- second only to the Chiefs over this stretch -- after rating 28th in per-game production for the first five weeks of the season. Awful QB play during that early stretch is a key attributable influence, while offensive upgrades in the offseason and the continued playmaking presence of J.J. Watt drives one of the better fantasy sources at the position. ... The Carolina Panthers were sixth in sacks and tops in turnovers in 2015, while our projections have them fixed second only behind the Seahawks heading into 2016. The loss of top cover corner Josh Norman is notable, but a deep front seven, featuring an elite linebackers corps, should sustain valuable production.

Next Best

The Arizona Cardinals were fourth in fantasy production despite finishing 20th in sacks and thanks to finishing second only to the Panthers in takeaways. Transcendent playmakers in the secondary keep this group in the top-10 mix, while the acquisition of stud pass rusher Chandler Jones from New England could propel some slate-shifting outings from the Cards. ... The Los Angeles Rams should reap the benefits of a healthy Robert Quinn, who is just two seasons removed from a 19-sack campaign. When we fold in the entirely dominant presence of Aaron Donald and a potentially rewarding shift to the middle linebacker role for proven playmaker Alec Ogletree, heavy shares of the Rams for their Week 1 outing against the 49ers could prove profitable early on.

The Bengals' D/ST are seventh in fantasy points per game over the past three seasons and finished ninth last year in standard leagues thanks to rating in the top 10 in both sacks and turnovers. Rare continuity on both sides of the ball in Cincinnati fuels such consistency. ... The New York Jets claim a sound secondary and a stout defensive line with three Pro Bowl caliber talents in Sheldon Richardson, Muhammad Wilkerson and Leonard Williams. Todd Bowles' famously aggressive blitz packages only fuels to the fun for a group we're projecting for a top-10 fantasy season.

Ambien All-Stars

We're projecting the Oakland Raiders for a top-10 fantasy season. This young and upcoming group is led by superstar edge weapon Khalil Mack, who became the first player in league history to earn All-Pro honors at two positions in 2015. Thanks to Mack's emergence and a quietly capable secondary, the Raiders finished ninth in fantasy points per game in the second half last season (Week 10 on). ... The Minnesota Vikings were seventh in fantasy points last season and also seventh in sacks (43), while key playmakers like linebackers Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr and super safety Harrison Smith should thrive in Mike Zimmer's assertive scheme. ... The Eagles' transition to Jim Schwartz's Wide 9 scheme could prove productive in the sack department, but I'm mostly investing for a seemingly choice Week 1 matchup against the Cleveland Browns. The Eagles are an ideal example of an early-season matchup target for those streaming at the position.


Given potentially rewarding offensive commodities available in the ADP range of the top D/ST groups and the often weak trade market for defenses in most competitive leagues, I rarely every invest early or heavily at the position. Fantasy managers who chose to pay a mid-round premium on defense can certainly prove successful, as there are numerous paths to fantasy football glory. I simply chose to embrace the position's variance instead of trying to subdue it with a supposed top option. In a standard 10-team or even 12-team format, I find creating a "Franken-defense" via a series of streaming waiver acquisitions often works out well over the season-long sample. I conducted a study for ESPN The Magazine in 2014 that found home favorites in games with "lower" point totals offers some degree of bankability. The results from the 2014 campaign are found below:

  • Favored Under: 8.6 Fantasy Points/Game in 2014, landed in top 10: 49 percent

  • Favored Over: 6.9 FP/G, landed in top 10: 38 percent

  • Underdogs Under: 5.7 FP/G, landed top 10: 29 percent

  • Underdogs Over: 3.5 FP/G, landed in top 10: 21 percent

In deeper and more demanding formats, say 14-team leagues and beyond, the reasoning for paying a premium is more rational. There are some real benefits to having an enduring and productive option at this position, even in standard leagues, but my counsel is for investors to build a sturdy offensive foundation before venturing into the variance-laden D/ST market.