Fantasy Football Preview 2013: Defense/Special Teams Sleepers, Busts, Breakouts
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If last year taught you anything about defense/special teams (D/ST) in fantasy football, you should have learned to not overrate the elite ones.
The San Francisco 49ers, picked No. 1 on average among the major draft sites last season, finished third overall in the NFL in total defense (yards against). They were second to the Seattle Seahawks (15.3) in fewest points allowed per game (17.1). All that seemingly added up to a solid fantasy season.
The 49ers were barely in the top 20 in a standard league in fantasy scoring. Not good return on your investment, no matter where you picked your D/ST.
Don't pick your defense before Round 10, which should mean you have at least one quarterback, four running backs and four wide receivers already on your roster before you pull the trigger on one of the fantasy football afterthought positions. Kicker, and perhaps tight end, are the only positions you should consider your primary fantasy option later.
When you do finally decide to peel back the bubble wrap on defenses, here are the recommendations on how to attack the position:
The Pittsburgh Steelers are similar to the 49ers: A great defense in yards against (No. 1) but not fantasy-starter worthy. It was a mediocre, at best, fantasy unit because it was just 17th in sacks, 19th in fumble recoveries, 27th in interceptions and tied for 27th in combined return touchdowns (one). Teams know the Steelers are going to play a tough, defensive game, so they don't take chances through the air.
This season might stand to be a bit different, though.
Troy Polamalu (calf) promises to be healthier this season, and the addition of Jarvis Jones in Round 1 of the draft should help them get after the quarterback better. Those two players alone should help force more opposing teams into mistakes, no matter how conservatively they play the rugged Steelers.
The Steelers are going to stay on the board late, but this could be a top-five fantasy unit.
New York Jets
Last year was an unmitigated disaster and shutdown corner Darrelle Revis is in Tampa Bay, but as long as Rex Ryan is the head coach, this is going to be a potentially starting-worthy fantasy unit. It will even go undrafted in many leagues.
Rookie Dee Milliner will fit right in Revis' place, while Sheldon Richardson should bolster a unit that struggled against the run last season. If the Jets can get anything out of the offense, particularly the quarterback, the defense won't be put in as many compromising positions.
Ryan is going to shackle the quarterback, whoever it is, and make sure the Jets reduce their turnovers and give their defense a chance to compete. Consider the New York Jets a late-round flier with the potential to perform like a top-10 unit in fantasy.
No, we won't suggest the departure and subsequent retirement of Brian Urlacher will make that much difference for fantasy's No. 1 unit from a year ago. Nor are the returning Chicago Bears defenders in the categories of old or risky. What is more disconcerting is the move from a defensive head coach in Lovie Smith to an offensive guru in Marc Trestman.
The Bears just won't play like a defensive team as much.
Expect more shootouts, especially against the potent weapon-laden offenses of the Green Bay Packers (Aaron Rodgers), Detroit Lions (Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush) and Minnesota Vikings (Adrian Peterson). The Bears defense faces the No. 1 fantasy quarterback, running back and receiver in six games this season, and that is not to mention Chicago also faces the New Orleans Saints (Drew Brees), New York Giants (Eli Manning) and the Washington Redskins (Robert Griffin III).
Sleep on defense, which means avoid the Bears and their respective draft position.
The Denver Broncos are coming off of a surprising year, but there are some warning signs for a regression to being middle of the pack defensively.
Who is the best defensive-minded head coach in the NFL?
First, Peyton Manning's stable of weapons will lead to a lot of high-scoring games, and opposing offenses will get an opportunity to face softer coverage in those early blowouts. Second, their leading defender Champ Bailey has entered the twilight of his career. Finally, Von Miller was suspended for the first six games and fellow sack artist Elvis Dumervil is now with the Baltimore Ravens.
All that adds up to the Broncos potentially disappointing the fantasy owners that pick them before the late rounds.
The Cincinnati Bengals just don't get enough credit in fantasy circles, but that might change this year. With the Steelers and Ravens having aged and losing players this offseason, the Bengals might be the best defense in the rugged AFC North now.
Their strength lies along the defensive line, where Geno Atkins, Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson lead arguably the strongest front four in football. The best news is Atkins and Johnson are both in contract years and motivated to put up numbers to make them reach men.
The Bengals play in a small market and are a good bet to go under the radar in drafts outside of the metropolises of southern Ohio.
New England Patriots
We admit, the Pats secondary was bad last season. No, terribly bad.
But the loss of Tom Brady's weapons and the youth and injury risk among his receivers will force Bill Belichick to put some shackles on the aerial attack this season. The Pats also happen to have a very good running game.
This is now a defensive team that will play close (at least closer) to the vest. It helps there is plenty of young talent in the front seven, namely emerging end Chandler Jones, Dont'a Hightower, Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Rob Ninkovich. Plus, the latter two are in contract years along with corner Aqib Talib.
The Pats are going to be a better defense than anyone expects and they were quietly third in standard fantasy scoring and tied for ninth in NFL points allowed (20.7).
Eric Mack, one of the giants among fantasy writers, is the Fantasy Football Lead Writer for Bleacher Report this season. Follow him on Twitter, where you can ask him endless questions about your team, rip him for his content and even challenge him to a head-to-head fantasy game. You can also listen to him on his podcast that he deprecatingly dubbed the Fantasy FatCast.
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