Generally, there are two strategies when it comes to team defenses: reaching or free agency. You never want to reach for a defense while there are still any premier position players on the board, but having a top defense could turn a poor fantasy week into a win, as Bears owners in 2012 would know. The alternative strategy to drafting a top defense is finding free agent defenses on a week-to-week basis that play against bad or injured offenses. This method will only work in a shallow league however, so if you’re in a league with ten or more teams, you may want to look at drafting these defenses so you’re not stuck playing the Raiders defense against Jacksonville in a must-win game:
Seattle surprised most people in 2012 by looking dominant at times with a roster of young players who had yet to prove themselves in the league. Previously unheralded cornerback duo Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner evolved into perhaps the best coverage tandem in the NFL. A deep rotation along the defensive line ensured each player would stay fresh and add production. This unit was extremely successful, allowing 24 fewer points than any other defense in the league. Adding free agent pass rusher Cliff Avril only strengthens their defensive pressure for the coming season, making this defense look even better than the top defense in 2012.
The top fantasy defense in 2011, the 49ers entered 2012 with very high expectations. Unfortunately, the defense underperformed, but not by a large amount. The 49ers finished just outside of the top five, but had a very impressive mid-season run where they showed their true potential. The offseason addition of cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha was a very low-risk high-reward signing. After a forgettable couple of years in Philadelphia, Asomugha will be motivated to prove he can once again be a top shutdown cornerback in the league. The 49ers also traded up in the first round of the draft to take safety Eric Reid from LSU. An improved secondary should be enough to bring this defense back into the top few fantasy defenses.
Chicago’s defense finished with the most fantasy points in 2012. Losing future Hall of Famer Brian Urlacher to retirement will definitely hurt. Former Broncos linebacker D.J. Williams is expected to step in as a replacement, but management doesn’t seem to be sold on him long-term considering they only offered him a one-year contract. This defense may allow some more points and score fewer touchdowns in 2013 (they scored a league leading 10 in 2012), but with Julius Peppers applying constant pressure to the quarterback, linebacker Lance Briggs and cornerback Charles Tillman will have an easy job maintaining a top five defense.
JJ Watt could already be the best defensive player in the league after just two seasons. The 2012 NFL Defensive Player of the Year will now be joined by one of the greatest safeties of all time, Ed Reed. Ed Reed brings a veteran presence and championship experience to a defensive unit filled mostly with young talent. None of the other starters on defense have ever advanced to a conference final, and Ed Reed’s leadership could very well change that. Talented cornerbacks Kareem Jackson and Jonathan Joseph will likely learn the most from Reed.
Denver finished 2012 tied with St. Louis for the most sacks in the NFL. Unfortunately, a big part of this production was due to Elvis Dumervil, who is now with the Baltimore Ravens after a huge error involving a missed deadline and a fax machine. I expect Denver won’t be able to fully replace the eleven sacks, six forced fumbles, and safety that Dumervil contributed a year ago. Cornerback Champ Bailey isn’t as good as he used to be, but at times still looks like a top five cornerback in the league and can shut down any receiver. Linebacker Wesley Woodyard had a breakout year in 2012, leading the team in tackles. This should scare opposing offenses since he plays next to one of the best young linebackers in the league, Von Miller.
The Cardinals started last season 4-0 and the defense looked like one of the best in the NFL. They held the Eagles to six points and harassed Tom Brady and the Patriots in New England. The fairy tale ended quickly as the offense couldn’t keep pace with the defense, and the team won only one more game for the rest of the year. Arizona’s atrocious offense allowed their defense to fly under the radar, and with a more stable offense that can advance the ball without turning it over, the defense should look even better. There’s just no chance Carson Palmer scores as many points on his own team as the 2012 collection of Cardinals “quarterbacks.” Cornerback Patrick Peterson is one of the elite young players in the league, and second round pick Kevin Minter from LSU can step in immediately at linebacker.
Despite finishing tenth best in points allowed in 2012, the Patriots defense finished second in fantasy points scored. This was mostly a result of good versatility. The Patriots defense finished fifth in interceptions, first in fumble recoveries, and third in defensive touchdowns. Second-year pass rusher Chandler Jones will likely improve upon his six sacks in 2013. A pass rush is really the only thing currently holding the Patriots back from looking like a top five fantasy defense.
It took a few years for the defensive draft picks of the Bengals to pan out, but the team now has one of the youngest and best defenses. Losing defensive tackle Pat Sims to the Raiders could mean the defense will be a little worse at stopping the run in 2013. This defense finished one sack away from the most in the NFL last year, and squeaked into the top five in fantasy points by ending the year strong after a weak start. In preseason, watch the position battle for strong safety. It could ultimately determine the success of the defense. Free safety Reggie Nelson will be joined in the secondary by a combination of Leon Hall, Terrence Newman, and Dre Kirkpatrick. If the other starting safety can be effective, look for the Bengals to finish around the top five in fantasy points once again.
Head coach Jeff Fisher changed the mentality of the Rams’ defense in 2012. The defense now plays with an aggression unseen in the past decade in St. Louis. The Rams tied the Broncos for the most sacks last season with 52. Sacks are generally a strong indicator of fantasy success because top athletes can often replicate them with more consistency from year to year than they can with other defensive statistics. Statistics such as defensive touchdowns are more unpredictable, and depend a little bit more on luck. To improve in 2013, the Rams need to allow fewer points per game. This is a realistic goal considering most of the key players are young, such as defensive end Chris Long and cornerback Janoris Jenkins. Veteran Cortland Finnegan is in his prime and has worked with Jeff Fisher long enough to understand the defensive schemes thoroughly.
San Diego’s defense somehow finished tied for fifth in fantasy points in 2012 despite the teams struggles. Promising young pass rusher Melvin Ingram will miss the 2013 season after tearing his ACL in May. The Chargers defense is in the middle of a rebuilding project, and starters are getting younger, potentially risking overall defensive performance. Second round pick Manti Te’o should immediately step in the middle of the defense and provide leadership and instincts in stopping the run. Nonetheless, I expect the defense to finish a little worse this season because of the youth.
Defensive end John Abraham and the Atlanta Falcons organization decided to part ways, allowing the team to acquire Osi Umenyiora from the New York Giants. This seems like a good series of transactions for Atlanta since Abraham was 35 years old and had trouble staying healthy. Umenyiora should be a more reliable option at pass rusher, giving more sacks to the defense that finished sixth in points allowed and fifth in interceptions last season. At cornerback, 2013 first rounder Desmond Trufant should be able to step in for Dunta Robinson, who is now on the Kansas City Chiefs.
Green Bay finished fourth in sacks and eighth in interceptions in 2012. In a rebound year, Clay Matthews looked impressive once again with more sacks (13) than games played (12). The defense seemed to have issues keeping opposing offenses from scoring, but the organization invested their first round pick in defensive end Datone Jones to help this. Another reason to draft Green Bay: their defense usually is at its best in the fantasy playoffs because it’s hard for quarterbacks to throw in December in Green Bay.