Fantasy Football Rankings 2014: Early Breakdown of Top Defenses, Kickers, IDPs

Eric MackFantasy Football Lead WriterJune 18, 2014

Fantasy Football Rankings 2014: Early Breakdown of Top Defenses, Kickers, IDPs

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    John Froschauer/Associated Press

    Fantasy football tends to be as lopsided toward offense and skill positions as this modern-day NFL. We tend to overlook defense and special teams.

    We don't do that here, delivering our early look at the top 10 defenses/special teams, kickers and individual defensive players at defensive line, linebacker and defensive back in this tidy slideshow.

    You might see these positions as the fantasy football leftovers, but being right with these supplemental pieces can make the difference in being a true fantasy contender every year.

Early Ranking of the Top 10 Defense/Special Teams to Target in Drafts

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Call this an offense-friendly era all you want. After all, the Denver Broncos did boast the most prolific offense in NFL history last season. Go ahead and forget the fact the Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl by playing tough defense.

    Defense still wins, and because so many offenses have high-octane production, you need to make sure you don't get stuck with a skunk unit here. Here are the leaders of the class:

     

    Top 10 Defense/Special Teams for 2014

    1. Seattle Seahawks (*ECR: 1)

    This should be the only unit you consider coming off the board first in drafts. The Legion of Boom limits the wide-open passing offenses, and the 12th Man helps it be lights-out at home, especially in prime time.

    The Seahawks were the No. 1 defense in yards against, the only team to allow less than an average of 300 per game (273.6). They were No. 1 against the pass—the only team to allow less than 3,000 yards passing—and No. 1 in fewest points allowed (14.1 per game).

    There were some losses, but all of the major pieces remain, including pass-rusher Michael Bennett.

     

    2. San Francisco 49ers (ECR: 2)

    They didn't have a great season in fantasy, so you can debate their status here, especially amid some early-season losses. Aldon Smith's off-the-field indiscretions might lead to a potential suspension, USA Today's Tom Pelissero reports, and NaVorro Bowman (knee) might not be back until midseason.

    Still, we like this unit because it bends but doesn't break. The 49ers allowed just 17 points per game a year ago.

     

    3. Carolina Panthers (ECR: 3)

    The Panthers entered the elite class of NFL defenses a year ago with the maturation of pass-rusher Greg Hardy into one of the beasts of the NFL. Retaining him was the key move of what has been a disappointing offseason otherwise. Carolina was the only unit to challenge Seattle in points per game (15.1, which was good for second in the league). That was no flash in the pan.

     

    4. Denver Broncos (ECR: 6)

    The Broncos might have boasted that offense, but their offseason was structured around bolstering John Fox's defense. Fox has always been a defensive guy. The additions of pass-rusher DeMarcus Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward can make this one of the best fantasy units—even if they give up points in some Peyton Manning-led shootouts.

     

    5. Cincinnati Bengals (ECR: 4)

    Here is another team coached by a defensive-minded guy, Marvin Lewis. The Bengals might not have many stars, but they play sound team defense and are the annual leaders of the defensive-minded AFC North.

    The loss of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer might hurt some, but they will play good defense as long as Lewis is there. Perhaps the best thing to say about the Bengals is they play a lot of low-scoring games in that division.

     

    6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (ECR: 11)

    This is the speculative pick. The Bucs were merely the 15th-best fantasy defense a year ago, and that was with Darrelle Revis. New head coach Lovie Smith figures to be a game-changer for them. Smith's teams are famous for forcing turnovers and scoring defensive touchdowns. With Lavonte David, Gerald McCoy and Michael Johnson, there is plenty for a defensive guru like Smith to work with.

     

    7. St. Louis Rams (ECR: 5)

    Gregg Williams is back as a defensive coordinator for the first time since Bountygate, and he has a lot to work with here. The Rams can rush the passer with the best of them, with Robert Quinn and Chris Long, and they added defensive tackle Aaron Donald and defensive back Lamarcus Joyner via the draft. This unit has breakthrough potential, despite a real tough division to play in.

     

    8. Arizona Cardinals (ECR: 7)

    Speaking of the NFC West, the Cardinals make it four of the top eight fantasy defenses coming from that division. You can make a case we are underrating the Cardinals here, too, especially if Tyrann Mathieu can beat Bruce Arians' Oct. 1 target date for a return from major knee surgery, as Darren Urban of the Cardinals' official website chronicles.

     

    9. Kansas City Chiefs (ECR: 9)

    Last year's fantasy scoring champ, per FFToday.com, barely checks into the top 10. The Chiefs didn't play as well in the second half of the season after a scorching start, and expecting them to repeat those seven defensive touchdowns and four kick TDs is asking too much.

    Justin Houston, Tamba Hali and Derrick Johnson might be the best trio of linebackers in football, which helps make up for some of the deficiencies in the secondary.

     

    10. New Orleans Saints (ECR: 14)

    Ask the Dallas Cowboys how much of a difference defensive coordinator Rob Ryan makes. The Cowboys made a change with Ryan, which was the Saints' gain.

    He made this unit the second-best against the pass. Then, the Saints went out and got arguably the best player of free agency in safety Jairus Byrd. There is some work to do with the front seven, but Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro might be the best one-two safety combo this side of Seattle's LOB.

     

    ECR is the Expert Consensus Ranking from FantasyPros.com.

Early Ranking of the Top 10 Fantasy Kickers

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    No one will, or should anyway, select a kicker before the penultimate round in drafts, but you still have to pick one. So, we still rank the top options for you here:

     

    Top 10 Kickers for 2014

    1. Stephen Gostowski, New England Patriots (ECR: 1)

    He is steady year to year, as is Tom Brady and the Pats. Gostkowski has earned top billing by finishing No. 1 in fantasy scoring each of the past two seasons, per FFToday.com.

     

    2. Matt Prater, Denver Broncos (ECR: 2)

    You might not like the prospect of all those extra points, but Peyton Manning's offense just moves the ball too easily for Prater to miss out on finishing among the highest-scoring kickers again.

     

    3. Steven Hauschka, Seattle Seahawks (ECR: 4)

    You want a good defense and running game to win the position battle week to week. That is how field goals are collected in bunches. The Seahawks do those two things better than anyone, and Hauschka capitalizes.

     

    4. Justin Tucker, Baltimore Ravens (ECR: 3)

    In terms of talent, Tucker can make a case for the No. 1 spot. We just don't trust that Ravens offense, particularly in that division, to put up as many points as the trio above.

     

    5. Phil Dawson, San Francisco 49ers (ECR: 5)

    Yet another beneficiary of an elite defense and a team that can run the football. Dawson was a mild disappointment in the first half of last season, but he was a monster down the stretch.

     

    6. Mason Crosby, Green Bay Packers (ECR: 7)

    After nearly getting run out of town in 2012, Crosby enjoyed a renaissance last year. The Packers even developed a running game with rookie Eddie Lacy. Expect Aaron Rodgers to be healthy the entire season, which will make the Packers offense among the most productive, along with their kicker.

     

    7. Adam Vinatieri, Indianapolis Colts (ECR: 11)

    You might see the 41-year-old as over the hill, but he kicks more than half of his games indoors in favorable conditions (mostly indoors), and the Colts offense has some huge breakthrough potential in Andrew Luck's third season.

     

    8. Matt Bryant, Atlanta Falcons (ECR: 8)

    The Falcons were the bust team of 2013, but Matt Ryan and Co. will enjoy a huge rebound that will make their kicker one of the top fantasy options again. If they can just find a running game...Devonta Freeman should help that.

     

    9. Alex Henery, Philadelphia Eagles (ECR: 15)

    Henery might be a debatable option in some eyes, but that offense is going to put up points generously, and we have a hunch Henery is better than he showed a year ago. Fantasy kickers depend on the running game, as we said, and the Eagles had the No. 1 rushing attack, and running back (LeSean McCoy), in football last season.

     

    10. Dan Bailey, Dallas Cowboys (ECR: 6)

    Bailey misfired on just two attempts last season, and the Cowboys figure to play in a lot of shootouts again this season. It should keep Bailey a productive option you can feel good about starting every week in fantasy.

     

    Get all of FantasyPros.com's Expert Consensus Rankings (ECR) here.

IDPs: Early Ranking of the Top 10 Defensive Linemen

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    Pat Sullivan/Associated Press

    Jadeveon Clowney was the No. 1 overall draft pick, so he will get all the training-camp headlines, but J.J. Watt is still the man for the Houston Texans. We break down the defensive-line position, arguably the thinnest of the IDP positions, here:

     

    Top 10 Defensive Linemen for 2014

    1. J.J. Watt, Houston Texans (ECR: 1)

    Even in a down year, Watt led all defensive linemen with 65 tackles, according to FFToday.com. The addition of Clowney and the probable overall improvement of the Texans should make Watt the No. 1 pick in IDP fantasy football drafts.

     

    2. Robert Quinn, St. Louis Rams (ECR: 3)

    He is coming off a 19-sack season, is the reigning scoring leader and is just 24 years old. Scary. Don't wait to call his name after Watt in drafts—quickly do it. 

     

    3. Greg Hardy, Carolina Panthers (ECR: 4)

    He will play this season under a franchise tag, which leaves him in a relative contract year all over again. It worked out to the tune of a breakthrough and 16 sacks. Expect big numbers for the prime-aged 25-year-old.

     

    4. Chandler Jones, New England Patriots (ECR: 3)

    Jones nearly doubled his numbers from his rookie season a year ago, so Year 3 should shape up to be a great one. He could emerge as one of the game's best edge-rushers in 2014.

     

    5. Mario Williams, Buffalo Bills (ECR: 9)

    The pass-rusher is a better pick in leagues that have scoring systems that put an emphasis on sacks. Williams' value is cut into some because defensive tackle Marcell Dareus makes so many stops in the run game.

     

    6. Jason Pierre-Paul, New York Giants (ECR: 7)

    JPP should be healthier this season, and the loss of Justin Tuck to the Oakland Raiders via free agency should force more numbers on this 25-year-old physical marvel. JPP is a lot better than he showed last year.

     

    7. Muhammad Wilkerson, New York Jets (ECR: 10)

    He enjoyed a breakthrough in Year 3, so we should now consider him among the elite at his position. He is now only entering his prime at age 24.

     

    8. DeMarcus Ware, Denver Broncos (ECR: 6)

    He is coming off a disappointing year, but his move to Denver can revitalize him. That stands to be a great defense, and there should be a lot of chances for Ware to pin his ears back in the pass rush in Peyton Manning-orchestrated blowouts.

     

    9. Rob Ninkovich, New England Patriots (ECR: 8)

    He is not a big-time pass-rusher, but he makes a lot of tackles in the running game and is a consistent producer. That is an important trait at such a volatile position.

     

    10. Calais Campbell, Arizona Cardinals (ECR: 11)

    The 27-year-old is one of the more underrated players in the league. He trumps some bigger names such as Cameron Wake for his year-to-year consistency.

     

    Get all of FantasyPros.com's Expert Consensus Rankings (ECR) here.

IDPs: Early Ranking of the Top 10 Linebackers

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    A linebacker might be the first IDP you consider drafting, because of all those tackles these guys pile up, but this is a real deep position. You might want to get a defensive end first. We break down the top options you have to pick through at linebacker.

     

    Top 10 Linebackers for 2014

    1. Lavonte David, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (ECR: 1)

    The addition of Lovie Smith is going to take that Bucs defense from good to great, which is where David already is. He should lead the league in tackles this season.

     

    2. Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers (ECR: 2)

    He is not a pass-rusher, but you don't draft your IDP linebackers to pass rush. You want them around six-plus tackles a game. Kuechly is a consistent force on an elite defense.

     

    3. Kiko Alonso, Buffalo Bills (ECR: 8)

    He is moving to the weak side, which should get him more sacks. That was quite a first season to build upon. This is one of fantasy's budding stars.

     

    4. Vontaze Burfict, Cincinnati Bengals (ECR: 3)

    If David doesn't lead the league in tackles, this 23-year-old emerging monster will. The Bengals figure to play a lot of tough defensive games, too.

     

    5. James Laurinaitis, St. Louis Rams (ECR: 11)

    He slipped some a year ago and is coming off offseason ankle surgery, but he is key run-stuffer on a very good defense that plays in a run-heavy division. 

     

    6. Patrick Willis, San Francisco 49ers (ECR: 5)

    The loss of NaVorro Bowman (knee) until about midseason should put more of the statistical onus on Willis. He should get up to 100 tackles this season.

     

    8. Derrick Johnson, Kansas City Chiefs (ECR: 6)

    Justin Houston's emergence can help free up Johnson some. The 31-year-old still has plenty left in the tank for IDP owners.

     

    9. Paul Posluszny, Jacksonville Jaguars (ECR: 4)

    He might not be the most physically gifted linebacker, but he is a solid pick because of all of the tackles he racks up for a bad Jaguars team.

     

    10. Bobby Wagner, Seattle Seahawks (ECR: 7)

    The Legion of Boom makes all of the noise...and other linebackers rise up to steal Super Bowl MVP glory...but Wagner has become the glue guy in the middle of the best defense in football.

     

    Get all of FantasyPros.com's Expert Consensus Rankings (ECR) here.

IDPs: Early Ranking of the Top 10 Defensive Backs

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    The fact we could all agree the Legion of Boom is the best secondary in football, but wouldn't necessarily pick them in fantasy football, makes IDP leagues less authentic in our book. Still, many love picking over the mass quantity of defenders. Here is how we rank the secondary guys:

     

    Top 10 Defensive Backs for 2014 

    1. Earl Thomas, Seattle Seahawks (ECR: 7)

    He was just fourth in scoring a year ago, per FFToday.com, but we have to rank the man who makes the LOB a truly dominant No. 1. There is just so many wide-ranging values at this position. Thomas is the sure thing.

     

    2. Barry Church, Dallas Cowboys (ECR: 5)

    This is another farce. The Cowboys have a horrible defense, but that is what makes Church productive. They lean on him to rack up tackles like a linebacker.

     

    3. Eric Weddle, San Diego Chargers (ECR: 4) 

    The Chargers had the fourth-worst pass defense a year ago, which is why Weddle makes so many tackles. They will be better but still not good.

     

    4. Johnathan Cyprien, Jacksonville Jaguars (ECR: 8)

    He proved to be a tackling machine as a rookie. He has a high ceiling and a mediocre defense around him to force him to do a lot of the heavy lifting.

     

    5. T.J. Ward, Denver Broncos (ECR: 6)

    The Broncos are going to push the pace of opposing offenses with all the points they put up. That should mean a lot of garbage-time numbers for one of the best safeties in football.

     

    6. Richard Sherman, Seattle Seahawks (ECR: 64)

    If you ask him, he should go No. 1 overall in fantasy. If you ask fantasy analysts, he shouldn't be drafted. Expect the reality to be somewhere in between. Unlike other elite corners, Sherman just plays one side of the field. It gets him interceptions.

     

    7. Antrel Rolle, New York Giants (ECR: 12)

    He was the top scoring fantasy defensive back a year ago, but his advanced age of 31 should suppress his draft position.

     

    8. Kam Chancellor, Seattle Seahawks (ECR: 17)

    Here is yet another name LOB member we couldn't live with ourselves if we left out of the top 10. He will likely go even higher in standard leagues because of name recognition.

     

    9. Kenny Vaccaro, New Orleans Saints (ECR: 14)

    He was just scratching the surface a year ago. Rob Ryan figures to put him in position for a lot of tackles in that defense, particularly with Jairus Byrd there now to man center field.

     

    10. Eric Berry, Kansas City Chiefs (ECR: 11)

    The Chiefs might have some holes in their secondary that were exposed down the stretch a year ago, bu Berry isn't one of them. This is one of the game's best in-the-box safeties.

     

    Get all of FantasyPros.com's Expert Consensus Rankings (ECR) here.

     

    ric Mack, one of the giants among fantasy writers, was the Fantasy Football Lead Writer for Bleacher Report this past season. He is now an NFL featured writer here. 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.