In this offense-oriented era, there's no sense in paying a premium for a fantasy football defense.
It's an argument I've made numerous times on these pages, but the advice rings louder annually as defenses become increasingly volatile week over week and deliver meeker seasonal totals. To quickly summarize:
The top fantasy defense/special teams (D/ST) scored 173 points last season, a total exceeded by 85 skill-position players.
The difference in fantasy points between the Nos. 1 and 11 defenses last season was 68. That's smaller than the difference between the Nos. 1 and 5 quarterbacks, running backs or wide receivers, as well as the difference between the Nos. 1 and 2 tight ends.
Only the New England Patriots, Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers defenses managed a top-10 positional fantasy point total in at least half of their games last season. None had a top-five positional average draft position (ADP) entering the season.
While that's all insightful, there's a natural follow-up question: What should we do at the D/ST position if we're not focusing on it in the draft?
The answer is to piece together the position at minimum cost wherever you can, whether that's spending a late- or final-round draft pick on a preferred team or selecting a defense with a favorable Week 1 matchup and streaming matchups from there.
But let's be clear on one thing when it comes to D/STs: "Not paying a premium" shouldn't be mistaken for "the position doesn't matter -- ignore it all year." Squeezing the most out of this position is important to fantasy success.
D/ST road map
Welcome to the D/ST road map, which helps guide you through both the draft and the season's first few weeks. Listed below are preferred draft-day picks, due to soft September schedules, as well as recommended streaming choices for each of the first four weeks of the season.
Why only four weeks? It's simple: This game changes so quickly, and so dramatically, that it's a fool's errand to try to project an entire season this far in advance. After all, numerous factors influence a team's defense: the head coach, defensive coordinator, defensive scheme, personnel, schedule, and so on. We tend to have a far better read on a team's true talent once four weeks of the new season are in the books.
The stats back that up:
Of the 25 D/STs selected among the top five at the position from 2018 to '22, only seven finished the season in the top five in fantasy points, with 14 finishing among the top 10.
To compare, of the 25 D/STs to rank in the top five at the position in fantasy points through four weeks of any of the past five seasons, 12 finished the season in the top five, and 17 finished in the top 10.
In other words, do your darnedest to successfully navigate your team into October. Perhaps you'll land a D/ST before then that catches fire and sticks around. Otherwise, you can then reevaluate the matchups ahead and continue to successfully stream.
Let's get to the road map and get you off to that good start.
Schedule-driven draft-day target: New Orleans Saints
Currently the No. 5 D/ST in our rankings, and No. 6 in terms of ADP, the Saints aren't widely regarded as one of the very best fantasy defenses entering 2023, but they're certainly talented enough that they'll be almost universally drafted. They've also got the softest September/October schedule, which presents a great combination, especially for those of you not yet comfortable playing the piece-it-together D/ST strategy.
Through Week 6, the Saints will play six of the seven worst-projected offenses (their schedule begins TEN, @CAR, @GB, TB, @NE, @HOU), and it'll be Week 10 (@MIN) before they face a projected top-10 offense. This could be the D/ST you draft on the cheap with the greatest likelihood of sticking long term.
D/ST week-by-week road map
Week 1: Among likely-to-be-available defenses, the Baltimore Ravens (HOU), Washington Commanders (ARI) and Atlanta Falcons (CAR) stand out as the strongest streaming choices. In the event that your league drafts heavy at the position, leaving you with less appealing D/ST choices or ones with scary opening-week matchups, such as the New York Jets (BUF) or Patriots (PHI), going with a Week 1-then-figure-it-out strategy with one of those three makes sense.
Among sure-to-be-drafted defenses, the Saints (TEN) and Eagles (@NE) make ideal draft-day targets if at reasonable cost.
Avoid: Jets (BUF), Patriots (PHI).
Week 2: The road map will certainly shift entering Week 2, though not by a substantial amount, as a single week's returns do not a season make. As things stand during the preseason, the Broncos (WAS) stand out as the top streaming choice for Week 2 among the likely available D/STs. The Los Angeles Chargers (@TEN) and Green Bay Packers (@ATL) will probably also be high on the list of weekly pickups, especially after each faces a below-average Week 1 matchup.
Looking ahead: This might be a good week to add the Cleveland Browns, as they'll have @PIT and TEN as their Weeks 2-3 matchups.
Avoid: Jets (@DAL), another reason why the Jets' D/ST is one of the scarier units sure to be picked on draft day.
Week 3: This far in advance, the aforementioned Browns (TEN) and Seahawks (CAR) have the two most appealing Week 3 matchups among streaming choices. The Ravens (IND) also stand out, especially if you stuck with them through their tougher Week 2 matchup (@CIN). As an additional note, though four weeks presented a greater correlation with full-year success than three in recent seasons, it's still best to reevaluate your defense, as well as which teams represent good and bad matchups for D/STs, after the season's third week.
Avoid: Patriots (@NE), Broncos (@MIA).
Week 4: About the furthest ahead we can reasonably project, at least as far as draft-relevant D/ST advice is concerned, the Detroit Lions (@GB), Minnesota Vikings (@CAR) and Los Angeles Rams (LV) stand out as the week's best streaming choices. Remember, there's a greater likelihood certain defenses might have started the season hot and therefore previously had been added the deeper we get into the season. So a defense like the Lions, who also had an above-average Week 3 matchup (ATL), might be worth adding the week prior to capitalize upon back-to-back plus matchups.
Avoid: Jets (KC), Patriots (@DAL), Dolphins (@BUF).