Here’s a hot take: Defense/special teams shouldn’t be a fantasy position (and don’t get me started on IDP leagues). Fantasy football is all about offense. It’s about yards and touchdowns and receptions and all that fun stuff. Defense is the enemy of that, so why are we rewarding it with precious real estate on our draft cheat sheets? Why are we devoting brain cells to studying D/ST rankings or looking for breakout sleepers? Why are we spending even more time putting those defense rankings into tiers and trying to come up with the best draft strategy for a position that we’ll inevitably resort to matchup-based streaming with by Week 4?
Why am I writing this and why are you reading it? Damn, fantasy defense sure gets meta in a hurry.
DOMINATE YOUR DRAFT: Ultimate 2019 Fantasy Cheat Sheet
Chances are, defense still has a spot in your fantasy league, so you need to know how to handle this notoriously unpredictable position on draft day. Our advice is always to wait and give defense only slightly more thought than kicker. Most won’t do that, though. Working the waiver wire and playing the streaming game during the season requires too much effort for some, and everyone likes getting a “good” D/ST on draft day to fluff up that auto-generated draft grade, right?
Ultimately, there’s no right way to approach drafting defenses. Anything can work if you hit on the right one and do a diligent job on the waiver wire. Still, we’re here to take you through our rankings and give you an idea of what you can expect when you draft a defense at various points in your draft.
LISTEN TO THE SN FANTASY D/ST PODCAST PREVIEW BELOW
Fantasy Football Defense Tiers: Who’s the best fantasy defense?
Draft Strategy 1: Be the first to take a D/ST
It’s easy to say, “Don’t be the first to draft a defense”, but somebody has to do it. When it happens, it will almost certainly be the Bears, but that’s irrelevant. All that really matters is when you do it.
Chicago’s current ADP is No. 89, according to FantasyPros, making it an eighth-round pick in 12-team leagues. Assuming you play in a one-QB, two-RB, three-WR, one-TE, one-FLEX league, that means you’d be taking your defense before you have every offensive starter, never mind any backups. That’s a high opportunity cost for a position where there are no sure things.
The Bears look great on paper, but it’s likely their takeaways and D/ST TDs will regress, at least slightly. Furthermore, we know that there will be matchups where you will want to sit them. That might come as early as Week 1 against the Packers. Chicago does have a fairly favorable early-season schedule after the season opener, facing the Broncos, Redskins, Vikings, and Raiders in Week 2-5, but a stretch of Saints, Chargers, Eagles, Lions, and Rams after that isn’t quite so appealing. Even worse, Chicago’s fantasy playoff schedule consists of the Cowboys, Packers, and Chiefs — not exactly the matchups you want to see in Weeks 14-16.
Can you live with taking Chicago in the eighth or ninth round? Sure. You can make anything work if you draft well/work the waiver wire well after that Bears pick. But is it the best way to construct your roster? Probably not. We all know the consensus top fantasy defense doesn’t usually finish there (see Jaguars, 2018 and Broncos, 2017), so you’re giving up some value if you’re taking the Bears that high.
Many would say the Rams are the only other defense that can make a case for being in Tier 1 with the Bears, and they’re being drafted about 20 spots lower. We’re higher on the Chargers than anyone else, so you don’t need to worry about them for several more rounds, but that’s kind of the point — the Chargers could easily finish close to or above the Bears in fantasy points and you can get them 50 picks later. The same can’t be said for those valuable backup RB/WRs who are going around pick 90.
Fantasy Football Draft Strategy: When’s the best time to draft a defense?
Draft Strategy 2: Wait until after Round 12
This is what the majority of owners will do in a 12-team league. The top thee or so D/STs will get drafted in the ninth/10th/11th rounds, but the “D/ST run” will really start toward the end of Round 12/beginning of Round 13. At that point, D/STs could fly off the board in any order. Our Tier 2 includes teams like the Chiefs and Colts, who aren’t getting as much buzz, and it doesn’t include the Eagles, who seem to be more popular. The Jaguars are the last team we include in this tier, but they’re going fourth off the board in early drafts, so obviously we’re lower on them than most.
This might seem like too many defenses to include in the second tier, but, again, that’s the point: There’s not much difference in the outlooks for these units. At the end of the season, some will rank considerably above others, but because it’s impossible to predict D/ST touchdowns and nearly impossible to predict takeaways (especially fumble recoveries), it’s tough to feel strongly one way or another. Again, it’s going to come down to weekly matchups.
Just thinking about Week 1, the teams that stand out in this tier are the Chiefs (@ Jaguars), Cowboys (vs. Giants), and Ravens (@ Dolphins). Every other team has what we think is an unfavorable or neutral matchup on paper. Do you want to play the Vikings against the Falcons? How about the Jaguars against the Chiefs? Or better yet, let’s knock out four teams at once in the Steelers-Patriots and Texans-Saints games.
If you draft the Steelers or Texans, you might be looking to stream in Week 1 with the Bills (@ Jets), Jets (vs. Bills), or Lions (@ Cardinals). Makes you wonder if a D/ST is even worth a 12th-round pick.
Whenever you draft your D/ST, make sure you’re looking ahead to that Week 1 matchup, and if you don’t like what you see, either take another defense from this tier or take a second D/ST so you have your streamer ready to go.
Fantasy Defense Sleepers: Early-Season Matchup Plays
Draft Strategy 3: Play matchups
Given how many teams we included in our second tier, it almost doesn’t matter who’s in Tier 3 and Tier 4. You might see the Eagles, Seahawks, and Packers drafted while the Redskins, Colts, Cowboys go undrafted, but in the end, we know all six of those units will likely be on and off waiver wires this year.
But even with that said, these D/STs aren’t all afterthoughts. At least a couple will surprise and be good for most of the season. Even more important, some have what look to be favorable Week 1 matchups. We already mentioned the Bills (@ Jets), Jets (vs. Bills), and Lions (@ Cardinals), but the Eagles (vs. Redskins), Seahawks (vs. Bengals), and 49ers (@ Bucs) figure to be in good spots, as well. If all you care about is Week 1, then those are the late-round D/STs to target.
If you want someone who can help you in Weeks 1 and 2, you’re really only looking at the Bills (@ Jets, @ Giants) and the 49ers (@ Buccaneers, @ Bengals), though we don’t recommend the latter. If you jump to the tier above, the Ravens (@ Dolphins, vs. Cardinals) and Cowboys (vs. Giants, @ Redskins) are in the best spots, with the Browns (vs. Titans, @ Jets) and Chiefs (@ Jaguars, @ Raiders) also looking fairly decent.
If you want to get really next level, you can focus on taking one team for Week 1 and grabbing the Giants for Weeks 2-4 when they face the Bills, Buccaneers, and Redskins.