While fantasy football owners will always take quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers and tight ends ahead of defenses in their drafts, they still need those sacks, fumbles and shutouts to win their leagues.
The Buffalo Bills defense was a leaky, inconsistent mess in 2011. The New England Patriots defense was the second-worst in the NFL. But both organizations recognized their problems and addressed them in the offseason, with Buffalo filling holes through free agency and New England using the draft to bolster its talent base.
Both defenses are primed to become two of the most improved units in the league this upcoming season and could be middle- to late-round steals for fantasy owners. Here is a look at the defenses and the moves they have made to get better.
Williams was the best pass-rusher and top defensive player available in the offseason, and Buffalo spent more millions (and buffalo wings) than any other organization to land him. Williams has 53 sacks in his first six seasons even though he has missed 14 games over the past two years because of major injuries.
The Bills did not stop with the pass-rushing acquisitions after signing Williams, though. They then turned around and brought in veteran defensive end Mark Anderson, too.
Anderson recorded 12 sacks in his rookie campaign in 2006. Then he vanished like a person’s sense of humor at a Carrot Top show. Anderson did not bother any quarterbacks between 2007 and 2010 (13.5 sacks total in those years) but burst back onto the scene in 2011 to sack 10 signal-callers.
Buffalo’s fantasy value as a defense was minimal last season. The Bills finished 26th in total defense, 30th in scoring defense and 27th in sacks. All those rankings, especially the sacks, should improve mightily with Williams and Anderson pressuring offensive lines from both sides.
And the Bills were good at creating turnovers in 2011. They finished in the top 10 in both interceptions and fumble recoveries and should stick there with Williams harassing quarterbacks into fumbles and bad throws.
Adding Williams and Anderson to an interesting nucleus of promising phenoms (DT Marcell Dareus and rookie CB Stephon Gilmore) and solid veterans (LB Nick Barnett and S George Wilson) could make Buffalo a top-10 fantasy defense if everything breaks right, and certainly better fantasy-wise than what the Bills D was in 2011.
Just remember that Buffalo’s fantasy worth might only be as good as Williams’ health. Williams has had a knack for season-ending injuries these past couple of years. One torn biceps muscle could turn the Bills from an up-and-coming defense back to a mediocre defense in a millisecond.
New England Patriots
You didn’t think Bill Belichick would stand to have the 31st-ranked defense in the NFL two years in a row, did you? The man is a defensive genius after all.
The Patriots went out and used their top six draft picks, including their two first-round choices, on defensive players, because their defense was more in need of an upgrade than Dez Bryant’s maturity.
Syracuse standout Chandler Jones and Alabama backbone Dont’a Hightower will bring much-needed youth and physicality to New England’s front seven, and second-round pick Tavon Wilson will hopefully stabilize the back line since CB Kyle Arrington was the only decent player in the secondary last season—hence why the Pats were 31st against the pass.
The Patriots could have a defense like the New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts have had in past seasons, one that allows plenty of points and yards but racks up a plethora of sacks, fumbles and interceptions because their second-half leads force opponents into constantly passing play after play, giving their defense more sack and turnover opportunities.
You know New England is not done, either. The Pats always sign a veteran or two during training camp—guys cut from teams because they are slowing down or too high-priced. Sometimes they turn out to be busts like Albert Haynesworth was last year, but more times than not Belichick is adept at picking the perfect players to fit his system.
If anyone can turn New England’s hapless defense into a fantasy force again, it’s Belichick. Do not be bashful about poaching the Patriots defense in the late rounds of your fantasy drafts. It has as much upside for the next year or two as any unit around, and no one will be jumping on the Pats too early because of how disastrous they were in 2011.