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.