Defense may not win Super Bowls as often as it used to, but it occasionally helps you win fantasy football leagues.
Training camps are open, preseason games are around the corner and fantasy owners should be shaping up their cheat sheets. And while many fantasy owners are worried about ranking the quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers, defenses should not be forgotten.
Turnovers, sacks, defensive touchdowns and shutouts can help win fantasy games just as much as Aaron Rodgers touchdown tosses and Arian Foster 20-yard runs. So let’s look at all 32 NFL defenses and rank them fantasy-wise 1-32.
Note: We’re just talking defense here, not factoring in special-teams touchdowns into the equation for the most part, since that stuff is pretty hard to predict.
1. San Francisco 49ers
The hardest-hitting defense in the NFL should also be the most valuable in fantasy. The 49ers tied for the league lead in fumble recoveries, tied for second in interceptions and tied for seventh in sacks in 2011.
Plus San Fran is a young defense that led by middle linebacker Patrick Willis and outside linebacker and sack master Aldon Smith could get even better, and the NFC West is not exactly loaded with high-powered offenses.
2. Philadelphia Eagles
Converted defensive coordinator Juan Castillo took tons of heat when Philly struggled with his wide-nine system during the early going, but they finished strong by allowing just 46 points during a season-ending four-game winning streak.
The Eagles tied for first in sacks and were in the top 10 in total defense and scoring defense. With superstars Jason Babin (18 sacks), Trent Cole (11 sacks) and Nnamdi Asomugha returning, this should be one of the top fantasy defenses.
3. Houston Texans
Houston was second in total defense, sixth in sacks and in the top half in takeaways. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has turned this unit around, and the losses of Mario Williams and DeMeco Ryans should not mean much, since their impacts were minimal last season.
4. Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh’s fantasy value might depend on the rules of your league. If yardage is important, the Steelers’ worth escalates considering they were No. 1 in total defense last year. But the Steelers were dead last in takeaways with only 15, and the superstars on their unit are not getting any younger.
5. Seattle Seahawks
One of the more underrated defenses in the NFL, the Seahawks are an energetic, attacking bunch that finished in the top 10 in total defense, points allowed and sacks in 2011. If first-round reach Bruce Irvin improves their subpar pass rush the Seahawks, will be an outstanding defense to own.
6. New England Patriots
The Patriots might have finished 31st in total defense in 2011, but they tied for third in takeaways and used all of their high draft picks on defensive players. If you honestly believe Bill Belichick will allow his unit to be ranked 31st again, you are sadly mistaken.
7. Green Bay Packers
Green Bay is a carbon copy of New England. The Packers finished dead last in total defense last season but made up for it fantasy-wise by leading the league in interceptions and tying for first in takeaways. And just like the Pats, the Packers spent all their high draft choices on defenders, so look for loads of improvement.
8. Detroit Lions
If Detroit can keep its defenders out of jail and off the suspension list, they should be a top-10 fantasy defense. The defensive line, led by Ndamukong Suh, is quick, powerful and loaded with pass rushers. Retooling the linebacker and cornerback crews hopefully will cut down on the points allowed.
9. Baltimore Ravens
Baltimore’s pass rush will be mediocre without Terrell Suggs coming off the end, Ed Reed seems more concerned about his contract than making interceptions and Ray Lewis just turned 75. The Ravens will still be decent but will not be a top-5 defense.
10. Buffalo Bills
Buffalo landed (conned?) the biggest free agent by signing Mario Williams for multi-millions. With Williams and fellow free agent Mark Anderson improving the pass rush, expect the Bills to have one of the most improved defenses in fantasy football.
11. New York Jets
The Jets’ fantasy hopes revolve around two things—a happy, healthy Darrelle Revis and their ability to rush passers without always having to blitz. Not sure if Revis will be happy or healthy, and the Jets still lack the dominant quarterback sacker they need, but Rex Ryan will not let his group be anything but above-average.
12. Cincinnati Bengals
Pittsburgh and Baltimore garner all the attention when it comes to staunch AFC North defenses, but where’s the love for Marvin Lewis’ crazy crew? Cincy’s defense finished in the top 10 last season in total defense, scoring defense, sacks and fumble recoveries.
13. New York Giants
Which Giants defense will fantasy owners get in 2012? Will it be the dominant defense that helped the Giants win the Super Bowl or the pathetic defense that was ranked 27th overall and allowed 121 points over a three-game span to New Orleans, Green Bay and Dallas?
New York has a plethora of pass rushers, but a rough schedule and a Super Bowl letdown will prevent the defense from being a weekly play.
14. Jacksonville Jaguars
Besides Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville’s defense was the only redeeming quality of the team last season. While they lack a pass rush, the Jags do everything else well, whether it is being on the stingy side giving up points and yards or creating turnovers. This underrated unit has upside, so keep an eye on them in the later rounds.
15. Chicago Bears
Julius Peppers, Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher are still there, even if they are arguably all past their primes. Take their 2011 stats with 1,000 grains of salt because the defense was on the field 50 minutes a game down the stretch when Jay Cutler was injured and Caleb Hanie was passing like a poor man’s Tyler Palko.
16. Dallas Cowboys
Is Rob Ryan an overrated defensive coordinator, or did Dallas have overrated defensive players last year? The blustery coach’s defense was middle-of-the-road for fantasy purposes and constantly torched by high-powered passing attacks.
First-rounder Morris Claiborne will shut down some receivers, but unless DE DeMarcus Ware gets more pass rush help from his teammates, Dallas’ defense is just OK.
17. Denver Broncos
Bookends Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil could be the best one-two pass-rushing punch in the NFL. Now that Peyton Manning will be putting up points, there will not be as much pressure on the defense to hold opponents under 17 points, and that might not be a good thing.
18. Kansas City Chiefs
The youthful Chiefs defense plays its heart out for head coach Romeo Crennel. They held opponents to 16 points or less in five of their final six contests. The major problem is that their underachieving crop of former first-round defensive linemen does not sack anybody.
19. Atlanta Falcons
Nothing too great to cheer, nothing too bad to boo about with this defense. The typical No. 2 fantasy defense that you can use four or five times per season when the matchup is right. Maybe newly-acquired Asante Samuel will regain his interception form.
20. Cleveland Browns
Cleveland’s defense got plenty of practice in last season considering how long they were on the field thanks to Cleveland’s offense. This group of no-names is light on the turnovers and sacks but is better than average when it comes to allowing points and yards.
21. Washington Redskins
Brian Orakpo and Co. should be slightly above-average in sacks and overall defense, though unless they create more turnovers than they did last season, they will only be worthy of a late-round fantasy pick.
22. Minnesota Vikings
The good news is Minnesota was tied for the league lead in fumble recoveries and sacks in 2011 and have sack champ Jared Allen ready to roll again. The bad news is the Vikes tied for last in interceptions and cannot cover turtles. Use this defense only against teams with bad offensive lines and in snowstorms.
23. San Diego Chargers
This defense was a lot more fun to watch and productive when Antonio Cromartie and Shawne Merriman were there. The Chargers ranked near the bottom in sacks and fumble recoveries last season and are annually one of the most injury-prone defenses.
24. New Orleans Saints
The Saints offense might take a hit without head coach Sean Payton around to run things, but their defense should be better with newly acquired linebackers Curtis Lofton and David Hawthorne and defensive lineman Brodrick Bunkley shoring up the tackling and new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo coaching them.
25. Tennessee Titans
Tennessee rushed the passer as poorly last season as Olympic badminton players cheat. The Titans’ 28 sacks was second-worst in the NFL, and unless Jevon Kearse circa 2001 somehow shows up on the roster, the Titans’ fantasy worth is average at best.
26. St. Louis Rams
New head man Jeff Fisher is a defensive-minded coach and Chris Long is one of the best all-around defensive ends in the sport, but it is going to take another year or two to overhaul this below-average outfit.
27. Arizona Cardinals
This defense has always suffered from an identity crisis, not to mention from its cheap ownership not re-signing its best players or signing new ones. Patrick Peterson’s punt-return touchdowns help in leagues where special teams scores count, but otherwise this D gets an F.
28. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tampa spent millions on its offense in the offseason, yet its dilapidated defense deserved the upgrade considering it was ranked 30th overall and was last with a paltry 23 sacks. Free agent CB Eric Wright and first-round phenom S Mark Barron will only help so much.
29. Carolina Panthers
Saying Carolina’s defense was not as successful as Cam Newton was last year is like saying Vin Diesel is not the actor Robert DeNiro is. Pray first-round pick Luke Kuechly can start turning this defense around.
30. Miami Dolphins
You want evidence that Miami lacks playmakers? How about the fact that they only recovered three fumbles all of last season? Yes, three! Cameron Wake will record some sacks. Otherwise, not too much here to be excited about.
31. Oakland Raiders
The Raiders defense laid down like dogs at times last season. They ranked 24th or lower in rushing defense, passing defense, scoring defense, total defense and fumble recoveries. New head man Dennis Allen has his hands full.
32. Indianapolis Colts
New head coach and former Baltimore defensive czar Chuck Pagano is changing everything about the Colts defense, most notably beefing up the defensive line and transforming long-time stud defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis into linebackers. Bank on big-time growing pains.