Fantasy Football Rankings 2011: The 16 Best Defensive, Special Teams Units
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Defense and special teams.
The red-headed stepchildren of the fantasy football universe, and yet they can make or break a lineup if you get it wrong.
Clearly at this point of the season the average fan's head is swimming with the swathe of draftees, free agent pickups, retirements, trades, free agent losses and injuries, all of which can upset the balance of power in both the NFL and fantasy football.
So we come to it: Which teams benefited in 2011? Are 2010's powerhouses the same teams to pick up in 2011? Who to shun?
I've conveniently ranked the top half of the NFL (and avoided the cellar dwellers and fantasy football lepers) to give an indication of fantasy football prospects for the 2012 season.
No. 16: St. Louis Rams
Chris Long is quietly living up to his draft billing
The poster boy of the Rams defense would have to be the former-No. 2 overall pick Chris Long, who has quietly begun to play to his highly touted draft status and become a genuine force as a pass-rusher. Throw in fellow first-round draft pick Robert Quinn as a bookend pass-rusher and the Rams could be featuring a 2011 version of the Osi Umenyiora/Michael Strahan tag team that coach Steve Spagnuolo had at the Giants.
They also have talent further back in James Laurinaitis, Na'il Diggs and Ben Leber, and they picked up underrated, free agent safety Quintin Mikell.
However, the feature that might most benefit their defense/special teams ranking is actually on the other side of the ball in the addition of Josh McDaniels as offensive coordinator. If McDaniels gets the offense ticking over, opposition teams will have to throw to keep up, and that brings Long and Mikell into the game in a big way.
If this happens, the only weakness to their unit might be kicker Josh Brown, who has some question marks attached to his temperament.
No. 15: Dallas Cowboys
DeMarcus Ware's wingspan is as phenomenal as his talent
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The Cowboys have a ridiculous amount of talent on their defensive unit but don't feature higher for a few reasons.
While DeMarcus Ware is a wrecking ball and Keiwan Ratliff is as good a penetrating 3-4 DT as you can get when he's in form—and linemates Igor Olshansky and Marcus Spears shouldn't be sneezed at—there's just something missing from the 'Boys: Wade Phillips.
While Rob Ryan isn't a bad defensive coordinator by any means, it seems like the Cowboys may have lost a bit of their gap-shooting, heavy pass-rush identity. That means their secondary might be tested more often, and I'm not sure they have the personnel to stand up to it on every down—especially not in a division with such strong passing ability.
Their special teams aren't all bad, though, especially if live wire wide receiver Dez Bryant gets his hands on the ball in a punt return role.
No. 14: Atlanta Falcons
John Abraham - destined to be frustrated?
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Another team with a lot of talent, but question marks over its ability to come together as a destructive force.
On the positive side of the ledger, there's John Abraham, young (and improving?) phenom Sean Weatherspoon and tackling machine Curtis Lofton. There's also the ability to return punts and kicks with some ability, with Eric Weems gracing the field under the high ball.
However, there are some issues. Brent Grimes is a keeper at cornerback, but just what version of Dunta Robinson is going to show up on the other side of the field? And to what extent was Ray Edwards a beneficiary of Jared Allen being his bookend, and with Abraham being opposite him in Atlanta, will it even matter?
There's enough talent to take a punt on them earlier than 14, but there are as many questions as answers.
No. 13: San Diego Chargers
Colts fans shut your eyes; Bob Sanders has a new team
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The Chargers are in an interesting position, in that they were an already fairly strong defensive unit, but have added a swag of new players and changed coach.
Of the new guys, you have ex-Defensive Player of the Year in Bob Sanders, plus likely starters Travis LaBoy, Takeo Spikes and Donald Butler.
They've also added first-round draft pick defensive end Corey Liuget, who has apparently impressed and may make an early contribution.
To cap it all off, there's also new defensive coordinator Greg Manusky.
So why only No. 13? Well, there's the fact that they have five new starters, a new defensive coordinator and a special teams unit that if you described its 2010 as "woeful," you'd be being fairly generous. It has a lot of gelling to do, and that can be tough under fire.
Maybe they'll string it together. And maybe Sanders will have a completely injury-free, uber-productive year. It's possible, but I couldn't in good faith rate it as likely.
No. 12: San Francisco 49ers
Strong up the middle - Willis, Goldson and Whitner.
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If you blinked too fast, you'd think the 49ers were a team assembled by Bill Belichick in the mid-2000s: strong across the defensive line and deadly up the spine of inside linebackers and safeties.
Defensive linemen Justin Smith and Isaac Sopoaga, inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman and safeties Donte Whitner, Reggie Smith and Dashon Goldson offer a fearsome mix of athleticism and strength, with side-to-side ability in all three levels.
However, they seem a bit softer around the edges. Outside linebackers Ahmad Brooks and Parys Haralson aren't exactly household names, and Carlos Rogers and Shawntae Spencer have some holes to their game.
What might be the biggest blow to this defense, though, might be the disruption on the other side of the ball. With the question marks at quarterback on this team, it's likely that oppositions won't be passing very often, solely because they won't have to. That rules out the lucrative sacks and picks for more mundane tackle stats. Willis might crack 150 tackles this year, and that'll be through no fault of his own.
There's also the addition of kick/punt returner Ted Ginn, but with the new rules about placement of the ball on kickoffs, a kick returner's value just dropped that little bit.
No. 11: Kansas City Chiefs
Tamba Hali just wants to tackle everybody.
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Scott Pioli and Romeo Crennel have quietly put together a solid, and very Patriots-looking, defensive/special teams unit.
Up front you have the obligatory solid 3-4 front, with free agent pickup Kelly Gregg flanked by Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson and backed up with sprightly rookie Allen Bailey.
In the linebacker corps, you have wrecking ball Tamba Hali, underrated bookend Andy Studebaker and some solid inside linebacking including Derrick Johnson.
Then you have the stars of the defense: Brandon Carr, Brandon Flowers and safeties Eric Berry and Kendrick Lewis.
And to top it off, the special teams unit is dangerous, with returners Javier Arenas and Dexter McCluster both able to take kicks and punts home for touchdowns, and Ryan Succop is occasionally impressive, with a range of up to 53 yards out in both his seasons in the league.
No. 10: New Orleans Saints
New kid on the Who Dat block, Cameron Jordan.
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The Saints are built to defend a lead—that's why they've invested heavily in pass-rushers like Cameron Jordan in 2011 and pass-defenders like Patrick Robinson in 2010.
Clearly they've struggled to stop the run this preseason but that's not what they're built to do, so it's unlikely Gregg Williams will be losing any sleep at the moment.
The Saints defense's best asset is Drew Brees. If he's upright and scoring quickly through the air, the opposition will be forced to play the Saints' game and follow suit.
If and when they do, Williams can scheme his blitzes to put Jordan, Alex Brown, Will Smith, and Jonathan Vilma in a position to get to the quarterback, and conversely allow players like Robinson, Roman Harper, Malcolm Jenkins, Tracy Porter, and Jabari Greer to make a play on the ball.
Their special teams are not to be sniffed at, either, with athletic Devery Henderson, live wire Darren Sproles, Robert Meachem and Lance Moore all willing and capable of returning the ball upfield.
No. 9: Detroit Lions
Ndamukong Suh's going to earn a lot of fines this season, and owners will enjoy almost every one.
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Jim Schwartz has crafted a nasty, nasty defensive line. Ndamukong Suh, rookie Nick Fairley, Corey Williams, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Cliff Avril and Lawrence Jackson all have lashings of talent and athleticism that'll give offensive linemen fits.
He's also improved the linebacker corps, throwing free agent pickup Stephen Tulloch into the mix as a likely future signal caller. And behind the linebackers, the Lions have a solid safety pairing of Amari Spievey and Louis Delmas, with a fairly experienced pool of cornerbacks to draw upon.
But really, it's all about that defensive line. In a division with the Packers, Vikings and Bears, opportunities for sacks and picks will abound, especially given the offensive line struggles of the Vikings and Bears and general shotgun approach of Jay Cutler and (lately) Donovan McNabb.
Stefan Logan also happens to be an underrated returner who is mostly under the radar, but is still fairly productive and may spring a touchdown or two.
No. 8: New York Jets
Sione Pouha is underrated in the 3-4, and may break out further this year.
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This is one of the teams whose presence at No. 8 may raise a few eyebrows. The Jets are one of the highly touted defenses, having rated themselves as Super Bowl favorites in April of last year.
Yet I'm not buying them for 2011, only scraping into the top 10 units.
Firstly, they've lost Shaun Ellis, who was both a leader and main disruptive influence in two of their biggest wins last year (both against the Patriots). While Mike DeVito has talent as his replacement, they've lost some je ne sais quoi in the trenches and the whole defense will find it that little bit harder to operate.
Secondly, while they retained Antonio Cromartie, it appears the Jets didn't really want to. Instead, the Jets clearly wanted Nnamdi Asomugha, and they wanted him bad.That has to be an indication of a lack of faith in both Cromartie and the pass rush as it stood in 2010.
The Jets must be credited for making some additions in an attempt to make them a better team: Muhammad Wilkerson out of Temple and third-round pick Kenrick Ellis add to the defensive line. But there's a possibility of deportation for Ellis, and it's putting a lot of pressure on Wilkerson to immediately produce at 3-4 DE, which often causes a breakdown in a rookie (see: Jared Odrick).
The special teams unit has suffered, too, with the loss of returner Brad Smith to division rival, the Buffalo Bills.
The main thing keeping them in the top 10 at all happens to be that guy Rex Ryan, who seems to have a knack for putting guys in places to make plays.
No. 7: New York Giants
Nose for the QB and nose for the football - Pierre-Paul and Rolle.
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The Giants' 2007 team under Steve Spagnuolo had one particular strength: defensive end (Michael Strahan, Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and (at least for a while) DE/OLB Mathias Kiwanuka).
A couple of years on, and the Giants are back on the same track. Umenyiora, Tuck, Kiwanuka and Jason Pierre-Paul round out a fearsome pass-rush unit.
They also added some interesting personalities in undersized overachiever Tyler Sash in the secondary and special teams and cancer survivor Mark Herzlich into the linebacker corps. With Antrel Rolle making calls from the back, this defense could be in a position to dictate terms to opposition offences, especially if they can mix and match defensive fronts with Tuck at defensive tackle, the way Spagnuolo did.
Lawrence Tynes might be worth a look for his kicking, too, hitting two of three 50-plus yarders last season.
No. 6: Baltimore Ravens
Terror en masse - Ngata, et al.
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The Ravens are one of the perennial top defenses, and for good reason: constant investment and reinvestment in the front seven.
Haloti Ngata is as destructive as any other individual defensive lineman, up to and including Ndamukong Suh or Richard Seymour. Terrell Suggs flashes as much talent as Clay Matthews III, but it's drowned out by having stalwart Ray Lewis, Jarett Johnson and Jameel McClain around.
Sergio Kindle may or may not be healthy and contribute, while Bernard Pollard has somehow skipped over solid Tom Zbikowski as a safety option. Ed Reed will still be able to poach interceptions tossed up under the withering fire of the Ravens pass rush.
With Zbikowski's seeming demotion from the starting lineup, he'll be free and available to run back punts with aplomb, as will Lardarius Webb and David Reed. Even Billy Cundiff rose to the occasion last season, kicking his longest field of 49 yards and overall kicking at a healthy 89.7 percent.
No. 5: Chicago Bears
Brian Urlacher is back to health and hungry for wins.
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There's a lot to like about the Bears D, especially the front seven: Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Julius Peppers, Israel Idonije.
Recent additions Amobi Okoye and Stephen Paea find themselves in a Tampa-2/Cover-2 D that'll play to their strengths and help the Bears out to some extent.
Further back, Chris Harris had five picks last season, yet seems to have not been mentioned for it nationally.
Charles Tillman had another five picks in a patchy season, and the rest of the secondary were fairly solid in the assignments. The upgraded defensive line should help reduce the time opposition quarterbacks have and make life easier for the defensive backfield.
The Bears special teams are always useful, with Devin Hester finding some of his early career form last season in the return game. Robbie Gould is now the second most accurate kicker of all time, and increased his career-long field goal length twice last season, hitting a 53-yarder and then a 54-yarder in December.
No. 4: Philadelphia Eagles
Big name free agent Nnamdi Asomugha signed with the Eagles
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The Eagles have a clear philosophy in the arrangement of the 2011 defense: Stop the opposition pass. They're clearly banking on their ability to score, and score quickly, with Michael Vick, Jeremy Maclin, DeSean Jackson, et al.
That means they can fairly safely assume the opposition will be passing early, and passing often, if only because they have to catch up to the Eagles. For that reason, they've got a heavy pass-rush ability: Trent Cole and Jason Babin at DE with Darryl Tapp and ex first-rounder Brandon Graham as depth, and pass-rushing interior lineman Cullen Jenkins at DT.
Their linebacker corps isn't elite but is useful and probably won't be called upon to stuff the runs given they won't be coming often.
In the secondary, they have players to burn. Three better-than-average to elite cornerbacks in Asante Samuel, Domonique Rodgers-Cromartie and Nnamdi Asomugha, safeties Nate Allen, Kurt Coleman, Jaiquawn Jarrett and Jarrad Page allows the Eagles to cover injuries or mix and match to suit.
Their special teams also have ability, especially with Jackson returning punts. They also have fourth-round rookie kicker Alex Henery to test out.
The reason they're fourth is that their strength is also their weakness: It's as if they're entirely reliant on being able to put points on the board early. If they don't, then the other team can run, and given their weakness at run-stuffing DT and LB, other teams may be able to run on them.
They can't even call upon safety Quintin Mikell, as he's now elsewhere.
No. 3: Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers D lives and dies by Polamalu.
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The hair. It's all about the hair.
The Steelers coped through four games without starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger last season, winning three and dropping a close game to divisional rivals the Ravens.
They didn't cope so well without Troy Polamalu being involved, with Polamalu only having 12 tackles total in the Steelers' losses in 2011. In the games that were wins, he had 51 tackles, one sack, seven picks, 11 passes defended, one fumble forced and one fumble recovered.
He's the talisman of the D, and he's in a contract year. However, he's also a 30-plus undersized safety who's had two injury-plagued seasons in a row.
I'm picking him to be back to form and have a stunner, which is why the Steelers are No. 3. It also doesn't hurt that the Steelers are coming off Super Bowl form with effectively the same defensive roster and have added talent, including Cameron Heyward at DE.
The Steelers' special teams have speed in Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders, and have a decent, if unspectacular kicker in Shaun Suisham, but aren't quite a top-flight unit in the same way the Bears are.
No. 2: New England Patriots
Jerod Mayo and Rob Ninkovich make life difficult for the QB.
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Bill Belichick has flipped the switch back to 2001 and has the Patriots running a 4-3 front. While I'd expect a subtle mix of the new one-gap 4-3 penetrating scheme and the old two-gap 3-4, it's clear that this year the Pats wish to bring the heat.
That was apparent in their preseason game against the Bucs. Out of 28 first-half Buccaneers offensive snaps, the Patriots hit, sacked or pressured the quarterback on 24 of them.
And that's without Albert Haynesworth, Shaun Ellis or Leigh Bodden playing significant time.
Throw in the fact the Pats were the No. 2 scoring fantasy football D/ST unit and that the Pats appear to have increased talent in both pass-rushing (Haynesworth, Ellis, Andre Carter and Mark Anderson) and have returning players to bulk up the back end (especially Bodden and returning 2010 rookie Pro Bowler Devin McCourty).
Then there's their special teams.
Brandon Tate is on the roster bubble at the moment, but he was good for two kick return touchdowns last year. Julian Edelman sprang some big punt returns last year, taking one back in preseason and getting another during the season that was called back for a penalty. Patrick Chung destroyed the Miami Dolphins in one game with a pair of blocked kicks. Kyle Arrington didn't block the Chargers' field goal attempt in their matchup last year, but if it were on-line to go over, he would've.
The Pats have a complete unit for D/ST fantasy football purposes, and it would be wise not to sleep on them again.
No. 1: Green Bay Packers
The Packers. As if you didn't expect it.
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I couldn't in good faith not have the defending Super Bowl champs in this spot.
The only major loss was DT Cullen Jenkins, and he was a sub-package pass-rusher for the most part. Those tend to be replaceable.
Clay Matthews III is back, as is B.J. Raji, A.J. Hawk, Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams, Frank Zombo, Nick Collins, et al.
Basically, the best team going. Yeah. That helps.
Also, they're bound to be assisted by having the Packers offense being intact (and even improved health-wise). With the Packers able to run the ball with newly healthy RBs, they'll even be able to chew up more clock when they feel like it and wish to spell the D. That can't hurt.
Like the Eagles, they're best when getting after the passer to protect a lead (in fact, in 2010 they surrendered 4.7 yards per carry against the run all season; thankfully they won't be defending the run very often).
As to their special teams, they definitely have some talent. Their one glaring weakness on STs was exposed by the New England Patriots last year: the kickoff units. But with the newly instituted rule that pulls the teeth from kickoffs, even that isn't so much a weakness this year.
The rich get richer, indeed.