2014 Fantasy Football Draft Guide: Eric Mack's Defense/Special Teams Blueprint

Eric Mack@@EricMackFantasyFantasy Football Lead WriterAugust 11, 2014

2014 Fantasy Football Draft Guide: Eric Mack's Defense/Special Teams Blueprint

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    You are going to hate this comprehensive review of the defense/special teams position in fantasy football 2014. We give you reasons to pick almost any defense in the NFLexcept the Dallas Cowboys; there is no salvageable reason to consider them—if you miss out on Richard Sherman's defending Super Bowl champion Legion of Boomers.

    That is also the reason you will love this slideshow. You have options. Tons of them. You merely need to care about your reasons for picking a unit, as opposed to which one you actually pick.

    We break down all the rankings, tiers, draft-day strategies, breakouts, busts and sleepers here. Even if defense/special teams won't be a position that decides your season, this slideshow stands to blow your mind on how to attack this late-round spot.

Defense/Special Teams Rankings and Tiers: There's More Than Legion of Boom

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    Defense/special teams are generally picked later than all but kickers in fantasy football, but there might be some units you will want to pluck off the board before the very last rounds in your league—especially if your scoring system gives points for tackles and bonus for low totals for yards or points against.

    We break down the top options of the position one through 20 and by tiers here:


    Tier I: Every-Week Starts

    Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers, Carolina Panthers

    In our estimation, these three defenses are the only ones you can trust in your fantasy starting lineup every week no matter the opposition. We will call it the stud-quarterback test. Would you start this defense against Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers or the Philadelphia Eagles? Those are the top four NFL offenses from a year ago. Those are the top-tier quarterbacks and the No. 1 rushing offense. This is the only tier you can trust against those teams.


    Tier II: Regular Starters

    Denver Broncos, Cincinnati Bengals, St. Louis Rams, New England Patriots, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    This group will be viable starts more often than not. You probably don't need to draft a backup defense if you have these options, but you won't feel comfortable using them every week either. They don't quite pass the stud-quarterback test.


    Tier III: Matchup-Based Starts

    Arizona Cardinals, Kansas City Chiefs, New Orleans Saints, Baltimore Ravens

    This collection completes the units drafted as starters, but if you wind up with one of these, you will need to pick another defense to use as a matchup play. These units have potential, but you won't want to start them every week. You have to sit them more than just when they fail the stud-quarterback test.


    Tier IV: Draftable Units

    Houston Texans, New York Jets, New York Giants, Pittsburgh Steelers

    These units have proud histories of playing elite defense, but they have some work to do to live up to that this season. If not for some questions on offense—yes, that makes a difference—we would have ranked them in the matchup-based starts tier. For instance, Houston has added Jadeveon Clowney to the other side of J.J. Watt, but a suspect offense is going to put a talent-laden defense in tough spots more often than not.


    Tier V: Bye-Week Replacements

    Green Bay Packers, Cleveland Browns, Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins

    We wouldn't necessarily advise drafting these units, but we can see them holding some measure of value at times this season. These D/STs are going to wind up in starting lineups from time to time, so we will consider this the bye-week replacement tier.


    Tier VI: Everybody Else

    These defenses are so sketchy for NFL and fantasy purposes we won't even mention them here. Consider them the unmentionables. Sure, some defenses can rise from these ashes to surprise, but there is no reason for them to suck up a roster spot until they prove something in the early going of the season. 

    2014 Defenses and Special Teams Draft Rankings—Eric Mack
    RankDefenses and Special TeamsTeamECRvs. ECR
    1Seattle SeahawksSea10
    2San Francisco 49ersSF20
    3Carolina PanthersCar30
    4Denver BroncosDen6+2
    5Cincinnati BengalsCin50
    6St. Louis RamsStL4-2
    7New England PatriotsNE70
    8Tampa Bay BuccaneersTB11+3
    9Arizona CardinalsAri8-1
    10Kansas City ChiefsKC9-1
    11New Orleans SaintsNO14+3
    12Baltimore RavensBal10-2
    13Houston TexansHou12-1
    14New York JetsNYJ20+6
    15New York GiantsNYG21+6
    16Pittsburgh SteelersPit160
    17Green Bay PackersGB170
    18Cleveland BrownsCle13-5
    19Buffalo BillsBuf15-4
    20Miami DolphinsMia19-1
    Expert Consensus Rankings (ECR) from over 100 experts provided by FantasyPros

Draft-Day Strategies: Here Is Where Things Get Complex

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    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:

    1. Carolina Panthers: Ron Rivera
    2. Denver Broncos: John Fox
    3. Cincinnati Bengals: Marvin Lewis
    4. St. Louis Rams: Jeff Fisher
    5. New England Patriots: Bill Belichick
    6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Lovie Smith
    7. New York Jets: Rex Ryan
    8. Pittsburgh Steelers: Mike Tomlin
    9. Cleveland Browns: Mike Pettine
    10. Minnesota Vikings: Mike Zimmer
    11. Jacksonville Jaguars: Gus Bradley
    12. 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:

    1. Denver Broncos
    2. Kansas City Chiefs
    3. New Orleans Saints
    4. Green Bay Packers
    5. 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:

    1. Carolina Panthers (at Bucs)
    2. St. Louis Rams (vs. Vikings)
    3. Kansas City Chiefs (vs. Titans)
    4. New York Jets (vs. Raiders)
    5. Pittsburgh Steelers (vs. Browns)
    6. Washington Redskins (at Texans)
    7. Oakland Raiders (vs. Jets)
    8. Philadelphia Eagles (vs. Jags)
    9. 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:

    1. Week 12: Carolina Panthers, Pittsburgh Steelers
    2. Week 11: Baltimore Ravens, New York Jets, Jacksonville Jaguars (not advisable), Dallas Cowboys (avoid at all costs)
    3. Week 10: New England Patriots, Houston Texans, Washington Redskins, Indianapolis Colts, Minnesota Vikings, San Diego Chargers (not advisable) 

Breakouts: Tampa Bay Buccaneers Get Huge Boost from Lovie Smith

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    As we stated in the previous slide, an NFL team's button-pusher can have a lot to do with a fantasy unit's success. When a talent-laden defense like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hired a defensive-minded head coach like Lovie Smith, we got really excited here.

    The Chicago Bears, the last team Smith was the head coach of, went from the 28th-ranked fantasy defensive/special teams unit in 2003 to No. 4 in 2004, his first season with the Bears (stats courtesy of FFToday.com). That, my friends, is a game-changer.

    Here are the fantasy D/ST rankings of Smith's Bears teams in the past decade:

    • 2013: eighth
    • 2012: first
    • 2011: first
    • 2010: 10th
    • 2009: 16th
    • 2008: 11th
    • 2007: fourth
    • 2006: second
    • 2005: second
    • 2004: fourth

    Only once (2009) did Smith's Bears fail to finish as a starting-caliber fantasy D/ST in a standard 12-team league. Mostly those units were elite starting options—ranking in the top four in six of 10 years. This Bucs defense has the potential to be better than any unit the Bears had in the Smith era.

    The Bucs were 15th among D/STs in fantasy scoring a year ago, and Smith has plenty of talent to work with. Lavonte David is arguably the best linebacker in football right now. Gerald McCoy is arguably the best defensive tackle. Michael Johnson was signed to rush the passer this winter, while Clinton McDonald signed to team with McCoy and give the Bucs arguably the NFL's best 1-2 punch at DT. Linebacker Mason Foster, defensive end Adrian Clayborn, free safety Dashon Goldson, strong safety Mark Barron and free-agent cornerback Alterraun Verner aren't too shabby, either.

    Smith's Bears teams were predicated on defense, but they did their best damage turning teams over and scoring defensive touchdowns. Smith's befuddling zone schemes create interceptions, and his defensive players are well-schooled in the art of forcing fumbles.

    That is where the real fantasy points rack up. This Bucs defense is this year's Kansas City Chiefs/Carolina Panthers 2013-like breakthrough unit of the year.

    Here are some other breakthrough candidates (with a quick reason added in parenthesis):

    • New England Patriots (Bill Belichick and aggressive corners Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner)
    • New Orleans Saints (defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and free safety signee Jairus Byrd)
    • Houston Texans (defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel and rushers J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney)

Busts: Houston Texans Have J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney but No QB/Offense

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    If you just finished reading the breakouts, you will notice we called the Houston Texans a potential surprise from the depths of fantasy defensive/special teams units. There is no place to go but up after ranking dead last in fantasy a year ago, per FFToday.com.

    The problem—and the reason they are a bust—is that they won't reach expectations because of a suspect offense. The Texans are going to get love because J.J. Watt is arguably the best defensive player in football and Jadeveon Clowney was May's No. 1 overall pick. The hype is going to exceed the production, even if the Texans improve defensively.

    It might not be a matter of talent, either. After all, Watt was healthy all of last season, and the Texans still finished dead last. It was because the offense was horrible and turnover-prone.

    The most turnover-prone teams in the NFL put their defenses in a bad spot. Only Eli Manning's 27 interceptions made the New York Giants worse against opposing D/STs than the Texans a year ago.

    Head coach Bill O'Brien might change the culture in Houston, but it is going to take time—particularly since Ryan Fitzpatrick is the supposed answer to Matt Schaub (aka Pick Six) at quarterback.

    And, finally, every defense in fantasy is going to go late relative to point production. It is tough to call any late-round pick a bust. The Texans will be one, no matter how affordable they are in drafts.

    If you are looking for some earlier-round and higher-ranked D/STs to avoid, we go right to the top (with a reason in parenthesis):

    • Seattle Seahawks (Super Bowl hangover and depth losses via free agency)
    • San Francisco 49ers (aging, injury-hit—NaVarro Bowman (knee)—impacted by suspension—Aldon Smith (see here) and free-agent losses—Carlos Rogers and Donte Whitner)
    • Kansas City Chiefs (suspect secondary, coming off second half decline and playing a much tougher schedule)

Sleepers: Use Aforementioned Strategies to Settle on Your Late-Round Pick Here

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    Every defense/special team in fantasy is technically a sleeper because it can be had in the later rounds, but it is remarkable to see fantasy drafts currently slotting the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 14th in FantasyPro.com's average draft position consensus ranking right now.

    This is going to wind up being a better defensive unit than all but three or four in the league. We might say only the Seattle Seahawks or Carolina Panthers will be better.

    We already dug in deep on why the Bucs are going to smash expectations this season, but here are the defenses to fall back on in drafts if you are merely resigned to the leftovers (with the reason in parenthesis):

    • Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Lovie Smith, elite talent and fourth-place schedule)
    • New England Patriots (Bill Belichick, shutdown cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner and the weak opposing quarterbacks/offenses in the AFC East)
    • St. Louis Rams (best collection of pass-rushers in football—think sack-fumble-touchdown)
    • New Orleans Saints (Rob Ryan and free-agent free safety Jairus Byrd)

    Beyond these there are dozens of viable late-round defenses you can take on "strategery" (refer to the draft-day strategies slide again). All of those options and strategies suggest you not worry about what defense/special teams you pick as much as the reason you have for picking them this season.

    Eric Mack, one of the giants among fantasy writers, is the Fantasy Football Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. 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.