The general strategy of picking your defense/special teams unit is to not compromise your selecting of the positions that truly matter on your fantasy team: running back and wide receiver. Make sure you have your starters and a slew of backups there before you consider penetrating the player pool here at D/ST.
If you want something more concrete with attacking D/STs, here are some potential approaches to consider:
1. Set It and Forget It
You don't win fantasy football leagues with defense like real football is decided, but you can lose it by misappropriating for D/STs. Don't suck up roster spots with multiple units. Pick one of the top eight units and set it and forget it. Ride these throughout the regular season to make sure the rest of your roster has your due diligence with lineup and waiver-wire attention. If your league registers big negatives for yards or points against, you need to be one of the first teams to pick a unit.
2. Go with a Defense-Minded Team
There are talented defenses, and then there are teams that are built on defense. You need to know the head coaches in the NFL and their backgrounds. A head coach that has spent time as a defensive coordinator tends to position his team to be fantasy D/ST-friendly.
For instance, while the Denver Broncos project to play a lot of shootouts and give up a lot of garbage-time points, John Fox is a former defensive coordinator who will combat that. He won't want to get into those style of games and will control the clock with his offense to keep his defense off the field. The Broncos' playoff run was a great example of that.
Here are the teams with defensive-minded head coaches—give these units a slight bump for this, regardless of their talent makeup:
- Carolina Panthers: Ron Rivera
- Denver Broncos: John Fox
- Cincinnati Bengals: Marvin Lewis
- St. Louis Rams: Jeff Fisher
- New England Patriots: Bill Belichick
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Lovie Smith
- New York Jets: Rex Ryan
- Pittsburgh Steelers: Mike Tomlin
- Cleveland Browns: Mike Pettine
- Minnesota Vikings: Mike Zimmer
- Jacksonville Jaguars: Gus Bradley
- Oakland Raiders: Dennis Allen
The top six there are starting-caliber defenses, while the rest are in the sleeper category. You can score some late-round value with those, perhaps. Don't draft them before the very late rounds, though.
3. Go with a Contender
Another way to attack the position late is to merely align with the teams projected to win football games. Those teams might not play great defense or have a defensive-minded head coach, but teams that win football games tend to score well in fantasy.
A team like the Indianapolis Colts is in this category. They won't stop many people, but they will win some blowouts and be able to pin their ears back against bottom-feeding offenses by creating sacks, turnovers and defensive scores when they make their opponents one-dimensional in lopsided games.
Some great offensive teams that will blow teams out and score D/ST points that way:
- Denver Broncos
- Kansas City Chiefs
- New Orleans Saints
- Green Bay Packers
- Indianapolis Colts
4. Ignore the Return Game
Unless your league scores points for return yardage, the special teams half of the D/ST is greatly overrated. Waiting for the infrequent return touchdowns is going to turn hair grey on your head.
Sure, the Vikings have a great return man in Cordarrelle Patterson and he can score a couple of touchdowns on punts or kickoffs this season, but that defense was suspect a year ago, ranking second to last.
You are going to give up a lot of yards and points waiting for the fluke-type plays, a return TD. It is a bad way to do business here. In fact, if Patterson is so threatening, good teams are going to gear up to take him out of the equation now. They will make the Vikings offense beat them.
All told, don't pick your D/ST for the return man. Pick it because the team can actually play defense.
5. Pick One Late and Play Matchups
Streaming your defense is a common fantasy strategy that suggests you pound the waiver wire every week for the teams playing the Texans, Jaguars, Raiders, Bills, Browns, Vikings, Titans, Buccaneers or Jets. You know, the teams with deep-seeded quarterback issues.
Taking this approach means you shouldn't waste anything but a last-round pick on a defense, because you will be sending that team right back to the waiver wire the following week.
Here are the defenses playing those quarterback-suspect teams in Week 1:
- Carolina Panthers (at Bucs)
- St. Louis Rams (vs. Vikings)
- Kansas City Chiefs (vs. Titans)
- New York Jets (vs. Raiders)
- Pittsburgh Steelers (vs. Browns)
- Washington Redskins (at Texans)
- Oakland Raiders (vs. Jets)
- Philadelphia Eagles (vs. Jags)
- Chicago Bears (vs. Bills)
This is a maddening strategy to present to you, because we basically have just finished advising you to pick just about every defense in fantasy. Again, that is another reason to not bother reaching up for the Seahawks or 49ers. You can get value in many different strategies at D/ST.
6. Pick One with a Late Bye Week
A final strategy is related to punting the position. You don't want to waste precious waiver moves—some leagues limit them—and will be fine with any gravy points your D/ST provides. Here you merely pick a defense with a late bye week and don't worry about the minutia of matchups or roller-coaster results.
Here are the teams with the late bye weeks:
- Week 12: Carolina Panthers, Pittsburgh Steelers
- Week 11: Baltimore Ravens, New York Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars (not advisable), Dallas Cowboys (avoid at all costs)
- Week 10: New England Patriots, Houston Texans, Washington Redskins, Indianapolis Colts, Minnesota Vikings, San Diego Chargers (not advisable)