Fantasy Football 2012: Preseason Top 20 Defense/Special Teams

Jay Clemons@ATL_JayClemonsFantasy Sports Lead WriterJuly 30, 2012

Fantasy Football 2012: Preseason Top 20 Defense/Special Teams

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    The following slideshow touts the NFL's 20 best defense/special teams combinations in the fantasy realm.

    To clarify, this listing isn't an endorsement for reaching for any of the 20 teams listed here before Round 13 (or 14) of a 12-team draft. It's merely an educated guess for which teams will finish the season with the most combined points.

    The reality is this: Most fantasy owners will burn through two or three D/STs during a fantasy campaign, as a means of juggling lineups during bye weeks or riding a club's short-term hot streak.

    So, let's not pretend the vast majority of defense/special teams are undroppable once the NFL calendar hits October. Just make sure to get great value with defense and kickers on draft day.

    Enjoy the show!

20: New York Giants

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    2011 Stats
    Defensive TDs: 1
    Kick/Punt-Return TDs: 0
    Sacks: 48
    Interceptions: 20
    Fumble Recoveries: 11
    Yards Allowed Per Game: 376.4

    Skinny: It's easy to look past the Giants' weekly average allowance of 376.4 yards after applauding the defense's six games of four-plus sacks and six outings of multiple interceptions.

    And to finish our tribute of the number 6...the Giants defense surrendered just 17 points or less six times during the 2011 regular season.

19: Denver Broncos

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    2011 Stats
    Defensive TDs: 3
    Kick/Punt-Return TDs: 2
    Sacks: 41
    Interceptions: 9
    Fumble Recoveries: 9
    Yards Allowed Per Game: 357.8

    Skinny: This ranking for the Denver defense hinges on three main categories: Defensive touchdowns, kick-return scores and points allowed.

    If the Broncos defense, led by Von Miller and Champ Bailey can maintain last year's trend of seven outings of 17 or fewer points and tally at least five defense/special teams TDs, the other aspects will surely follow through, as well.

18: St. Louis Rams

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    2011 Stats
    Defensive TDs: 1
    Kick/Punt-Return TDs: 1
    Sacks: 39
    Interceptions: 12
    Fumble Recoveries: 6
    Yards Allowed Per Game: 358.4

    Skinny: The Rams have some serious defensive playmakers in Chris Long (above), James Laurinaitis, Cortland Finnegan and Robert Quinn. Throw in high-profile rookies Michael Brockers and Janoris Jenkins, and it may be time to forget this unit's across-the-board struggles of recent years.

    Minus the six games of three sacks or more, of course. That seems like a good jumping-off point for a defensive unit that tallied 39 sacks last year.

17: Dallas Cowboys

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    2011 Stats
    Defensive TDs: 1
    Kick/Punt-Return TDs: 0
    Sacks: 42
    Interceptions: 15
    Fumble Recoveries: 10
    Yards Allowed Per Game: 343.2

    Skinny: For starters, let's congratulate the Dallas defense for forcing at least one turnover or collecting four sacks in 15 games last year, with the lone exception coming in the winner-take-all clash with the Giants in Week 17 (zero turnovers, two sacks).

    The Cowboys also deserve praise for surrendering 75 or fewer rushing yards seven times.

    But here's why Dallas garners such a pedestrian ranking: Zero kick-return touchdowns, one defensive touchdown and seven games of 24 points or more allowed.

16: Pittsburgh Steelers

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    2011 Stats
    Defensive TDs: 1
    Kick/Punt-Return TDs: 1
    Sacks: 35
    Interceptions: 11
    Fumble Recoveries: 4
    Yards Allowed Per Game: 271.7 

    Skinny: According to Fantasy Football Today (one of my favorite publications), the Steelers D/ST ranked 29th of 32 NFL teams last year.

    It also surrendered 316 yards passing and two touchdowns to Tim Tebow in the AFC playoffs—on just 10 completions.

    All this begs the questions: How does one justify a No. 16 ranking for a club that had just one defensive touchdown and one kick-return score for the season? And how does one expect improved play from one of the NFL's oldest defenses?

    To be honest, I have no tangible answers, other than to say Pittsburgh averaged 49.7 sacks from 2009 to 2011, and last year's unit was the only NFL defense to surrender fewer than 175 yards passing and 100 yards rushing per game.

    When discussing defensive gems such as Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, Ziggy Hood and Ryan Clark, that still counts for something in the fantasy realm.

15: Kansas City Chiefs

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    2011 Stats
    Defensive TDs: 2
    Kick/Punt-Return TDs: 0
    Sacks: 29
    Interceptions: 20
    Fumble Recoveries: 6
    Yards Allowed Per Game: 333.3

    Skinny: The Chiefs defense collected 20 sacks in its final seven games while allowing just 17.1 points per game in that span.

    That finishing kick propelled Kansas City to a top-15 ranking. Of course, it also helps that Eric Berry is back to anchor the defense after incurring a season-ending injury last September.

    On the downside, the Chiefs had zero kick-return touchdowns last year and forced only one or zero turnovers in nine games. With Berry back in the mix, there's no reason to expect a replication of that deflating trend.

14: Seattle Seahawks

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    2011 Stats
    Defensive TDs: 4
    Kick/Punt-Return TDs: 0
    Sacks: 33
    Interceptions: 22
    Fumble Recoveries: 9
    Yards Allowed Per Game: 332.3

    Skinny: You don't have to search very long to find the main reason behind the Seahawks' marginal ranking, despite four defensive touchdowns last year.

    Sacks.

    Sure, Seattle had three or more sacks six times last season; but I also count six outings of zero or one sack. To dominate in the fantasy realm, the pass rush must show major improvement.

    Perhaps this is why the Seahawks splurged to land West Virginia's Bruce Irvin in Round 1 of April's NFL draft.

13: Cincinnati Bengals

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    2011 Stats
    Defensive TDs: 3
    Kick/Punt-Return TDs: 1
    Sacks: 45
    Interceptions: 10
    Fumble Recoveries: 12
    Yards Allowed Per Game: 316.3

    Skinny: Aside from the four outings of zero forced turnovers in the six final games (including the playoff loss to Houston), there aren't many gripes with the Cincinnati defense.

    Three games of three-plus turnovers forced, seven games of 17 or fewer points allowed, 12 outings of multiple sacks and three total touchdowns is quite respectable for a young defense that's still developing stars from their under-27 core.

12: Minnesota Vikings

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    2011 Stats
    Defensive TDs: 0
    Kick/Punt-Return TDs: 1
    Sacks: 50
    Interceptions: 8
    Fumble Recoveries: 15
    Yards Allowed Per Game: 358.2

    Skinny: The Vikings' strong ranking is based on three significant factors:

    1. Defensive end Jared Allen (22 sacks, one INT last year) was a one-man wrecking crew on passing downs, freeing up the other Vikes defenders for non-QB pursuits.

    2. Largely thanks to Allen, the Minnesota defense shared an NFL-high mark of 50 sacks with Philadelphia.

    3. The Vikings defense also co-opted a league-high mark in fumble recoveries (15) with the NFL's best overall defense in 2011 (49ers).

11: Arizona Cardinals

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    2011 Stats
    Defensive TDs: 0
    Kick/Punt-Return TDs: 4
    Sacks: 42
    Interceptions: 10
    Fumble Recoveries: 9
    Yards Allowed Per Game: 355.1

    Skinny: Here's a classic example of why it's difficult to forecast a D/ST's fantasy success from year to year:

    In 2010, the Cardinals posted eight defensive touchdowns, tops in the NFL. But in 2011, even with Patrick Peterson (above) patrolling the secondary, the unit didn't score once.

    Conversely, Arizona had zero kick/punt-return touchdowns two seasons ago...but cleaned up with four in 2011 (thanks to Peterson).

    So, how do we judge the Cardinals this season? As long as Peterson, Calais Campbell and Adrian Wilson are in the lineup...they're viable threats for a top-10 finish.

10: New York Jets

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    2011 Stats
    Defensive TDs: 2
    Kick/Punt-Return TDs: 1
    Sacks: 35
    Interceptions: 19
    Fumble Recoveries: 12
    Yards Allowed Per Game: 212.1

    Skinny: I could only locate two big stats to justify the Jets' top-10 standing here:

    1. The club allowed fewer than 200 yards passing per game for the fourth time in seven seasons.

    2. The 2011 defense enjoyed two different streaks of at least one interception.

    Outside of that, we're left with a handful of excuses to defend the Jets surrendering 24 or more points in eight games—including 30 or more five times.

9: Houston Texans

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    2011 Stats
    Defensive TDs: 1
    Kick/Punt-Return TDs: 1
    Sacks: 44
    Interceptions: 17
    Fumble Recoveries: 10
    Yards Allowed Per Game: 285.7

    Skinny: The 2011 Texans posted across-the-board improvement in sacks, fumble recoveries, interceptions, points allowed, yards allowed, defensive touchdowns and kick-return TDs from the 2010 campaign.

    And even if Houston (minus Mario Williams) can't boast similar progress by season's end, the defense and special teams have more than earned a late-round selection in 12-team drafts.

    After all, what's not to love about a D/ST that forced a turnover in 15 of 16 regular-season games and yielded 17 or fewer points nine times—including a run of six straight in Weeks 7-13?

8: Baltimore Ravens

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    2011 Stats
    Defensive TDs: 4
    Kick/Punt-Return TDs: 1
    Sacks: 48
    Interceptions: 15
    Fumble Recoveries: 11
    Yards Allowed Per Game: 288.9

    Skinny: The loss of All-Pro Terrell Suggs (Achilles injury) is a big one for the Ravens defense; but there's no reason to forecast any major downturns in production, either.

    In 2011, Baltimore's defense ranked third in sacks, seventh in fumble recoveries, 17th in INTs, fifth in defensive TDs and second overall in rushing yards allowed.

    Surely, a unit starring Haloti Ngata, Terrence Cody, Ladarius Webb, Jimmy Smith, Courtney Upshaw and first-ballot Hall of Famer Ray Lewis can forge a similar impact in 2012. Right?

7: New England Patriots

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    2011 Stats
    Defensive TDs: 3
    Kick/Punt-Return TDs: 1
    Sacks: 40
    Interceptions: 23
    Fumble Recoveries: 11
    Yards Allowed Per Game: 411

    Skinny: Forget about the insane number of yards the Patriots surrendered last year, or the 12 regular-season games of 20-plus points allowed.

    From a fantasy perspective, New England collected four or more sacks five times, tallied at least one interception in 13 of the first 14 games and forced at least one turnover in 15 of 16 games.

    Throw in four D/ST touchdowns from last year and two major defensive additions from April's draft (Chandler Jones, Dont'a Hightower)...and the Pats are an easy late-round selection on draft day.

6: Detroit Lions

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    2011 Stats
    Defensive TDs: 7
    Kick/Punt-Return TDs: 0
    Sacks: 41
    Interceptions: 21
    Fumble Recoveries: 13
    Yards Allowed Per Game: 367.4

    Skinny: Say what you want about the state of the Lions' secondary—even before cornerback Aaron Berry got the boot last week—but the unit, on the whole, filled up a defensive stat sheet like few other NFL teams last season:

    1. Three games of multiple defensive touchdowns.

    2. Two or more sacks in 13 of 16 regular-season games.

    3. Four games of three or four interceptions.

    4. Five outings of at least three turnovers forced—including two games of six (Weeks 2 vs. Chiefs, Week 14 vs. Vikings).

5: Buffalo Bills

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    2011 Stats
    Defensive TDs: 6
    Kick/Punt-Return TDs: 1
    Sacks: 29
    Interceptions: 20
    Fumble Recoveries: 11
    Yards Allowed Per Game: 371.1

    Skinny: Looking for draft-day upside with a D/ST that likely won't go until the last round?

    Look no further than the Bills, who amassed 10 sacks and two interceptions in a shutout victory against the Redskins last year.

    Eight weeks later, Buffalo plowed through Denver to collect one fumble recovery, three interceptions, four sacks and three touchdowns (two defense/one special teams).

    Of course, John Beck and Tim Tebow were the opposing quarterbacks for those dominant afternoons; but hey, it's not the Bills' responsibility to fill out the other teams' shaky game-day lineups.

4: Philadelphia Eagles

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    2011 Stats
    Defensive TDs: 4
    Kick/Punt-Return TDs: 0
    Sacks: 50
    Interceptions: 15
    Fumble Recoveries: 9
    Yards Allowed Per Game: 324.9

    Skinny: This elite-level ranking can be attributed to five significant factors in Philly's favor:

    1. The defense racked up 28 sacks in their final seven games last year.

    2. Philly produced three defensive touchdowns in Weeks 9-17 (spanning eight games).

    3. The Eagles allowed 17 or fewer points seven times.

    4. The Eagles may have the NFL's best pair of cover corners—Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Nnamdi Asomugha (above).

    5. DeMeco Ryans may end up being the NFL's best offseason acquisition, among defenders. (Even better than ex-teammate Mario Williams.)

3: Green Bay Packers

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    2011 Stats
    Defensive TDs: 5
    Kick/Punt-Return TDs: 2
    Sacks: 29
    Interceptions: 31
    Fumble Recoveries: 7
    Yards Allowed Per Game: 411.6

    Skinny: The Packers defense may have drawn comparisons to Swiss cheese or Charmin's extra-soft toilet paper in real-world circles last season, but the fantasy outlook was much rosier.

    In 2011, Green Bay was the only NFL team to boast 25 interceptions and at least five touchdowns from the defense or special teams; and all this occurred with only 29 cumulative sacks.

    And in 2012, the club that already has Clay Matthews, B.J. Raji and Charles Woodson, drafted six defenders with its first six picks (Nick Perry, Jerel Worthy, Casey Hayward, Mike Daniels, Jerron McMillian, Terrell Manning).

    Bottom line: I would gladly grab the Packers D/ST (featuring kick returner Randall Cobb) in Round 16—assuming the two top-ranked teams here weren't still available...or that Mason Crosby wasn't my kicker.

2: Chicago Bears

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    2011 Stats
    Defensive TDs: 6
    Kick/Punt-Return TDs: 3
    Sacks: 33
    Interceptions: 20
    Fumble Recoveries: 11
    Yards Allowed Per Game: 350.5

    Skinny: Just like the race for No. 1 running back this preseason (Arian Foster vs. LeSean McCoy), there's very little separation between the No. 1 and 2 defense/special teams on my board (San Francisco vs. Chicago).

    Both the Bears and 49ers have all-world linebackers (Brian Urlacher/Patrick Willis), lightning-fast kick returners (Devin Hester/Ted Ginn Jr.) and superb head coaches (Lovie Smith/Jim Harbaugh).

    Bottom line: If you plan on keeping the Bears (Week 6 bye) or 49ers (Week 9) for all 16 fantasy weeks, just pick the club that doesn't have a scheduling conflict with your kicker.

1: San Francisco 49ers

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    2011 Stats
    Defensive TDs: 1
    Kick/Punt-Return TDs: 2
    Sacks: 41
    Interceptions: 23
    Fumble Recoveries: 15
    Yards Allowed Per Game: 308.2

    Skinny: This may be a fantasy countdown, but that's no excuse to let the NFL's stingiest defense (especially against the run) slide down the flag pole.

    Here are five reasons to support the No. 1 ranking:

    1. Last season, the 49ers tallied four or more sacks five times—and that doesn't include the nine total sacks in the NFC playoffs (including six against the Giants).

    2. The 49ers defense forced multiple turnovers in 13 of 16 regular-season games.

    3. San Francisco posted multiple interceptions eight times last year—second in the NFL.

    4. The 49ers allowed 17 or fewer points 10 times—tops among NFC clubs.

    5. The run defense surrendered just 77.3 yards per game; if memory serves, the 49ers didn't allow a rushing touchdown until Week 16 against Seattle (Marshawn Lynch).