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Fantasy Football 101: Drafting defenses

In this installment of our fantasy football series, we look at 2018 fantasy defenses – who to draft, and when

Cincinnati Bengals v Denver Broncos Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

Fantasy football season is right around the corner. Today we look at fantasy defenses.

The Minnesota Vikings had the No. 1 scoring defense in the NFL last season, only surrendering 250 points. Despite this, they only finished as the 14th best fantasy scoring defense last season. In a 12-team league, that means last year’s top defense in the NFL wasn’t even worth starting. Meanwhile, the Detroit Lions defense allowed 346 points last year, placing them 20th in the NFL. Despite this, the Lions were a top-6 fantasy defense. What’s going on here?

In fantasy football, factors such as points allowed, sacks, and turnovers will all affect scoring for your defense, but if you want to know who the top fantasy defenses are in the NFL, you only need look at list of defensive touchdowns scored. If you compare the list of defensive touchdowns and compare the list of top fantasy defenses, you’ll see that these lists pretty much match every season.

  • 2009: The Saints led the NFL with eight defensive touchdowns and were the top fantasy defense.
  • 2010: The Saints only scored two TDs and fell to 25th in fantasy, while the Patriots finished second in the NFL with five defensive TD’s, and led fantasy scoring.
  • 2011: The Patriots fell to sixth, while the Lions led the NFL with seven TDs, and led fantasy defenses.
  • 2012: The Lions scored zero TDs and fell to 29th, while the Bears led the NFL with nine defensive DT’s and led fantasy.
  • 2013: The Bears dropped to eighth, while the Chiefs led the NFL with seven TD’s and led fantasy scoring.
  • 2014: The Chiefs fell from first to 25th with only one TD, while the Eagles finished second in defensive TD’s and first in fantasy.

Repeating that theme, the top fantasy defenses in 2015, 2016, and 2017, the Cardinals, Chiefs, and Jaguars all led the NFL in defensive touchdowns. And in the following years, their touchdown totals dropped, as did the fantasy relevance.

What we see historically is that the top fantasy defenses often don’t repeat their success. This is primarily due to the fact that defensive fantasy scoring is greatly affected by the fluky, unpredictable nature of defensive touchdowns. The top fantasy defense from one year had an average finish of 14th in the following season and averaged 3.6 fewer defensive touchdowns scored in that following season.

In most drafts there is usually that one owner who will draft last year’s top fantasy defense with a mid-round pick. Instead of waiting until the last few rounds, this drafter will pat himself on the back for such a savvy move. Such a person should be kicking themselves, not congratulating themselves. All they are accomplishing is wasting a mid-round pick, chasing last year’s random, unrepeatable defensive touchdowns.

When should you draft a fantasy defense?

Aah, if I had a dollar for every time I was asked that question, I suppose I’d have a dollar. Seriously though, it’s interesting how an NFL team with a good offense also tends to have a good defense. And conversely a team with a bad offense will also have a bad defense. Looking back historically, the top couple fantasy defenses each year will score a lot because they get those unpredictable defensive touchdowns. But the remainder of the top dozen defenses are going to only vary by a point or two per week over the course of the season, and will usually belong to NFL teams who have a solid offense, and a solid real-world defense.

The 12 best defenses will score a lot more than your 12 worst defenses in fantasy. And those 12 worst defenses typically belong to NFL teams who have some of the worst offenses. Basically put, the worst fantasy defenses usually belong to the worst teams in the NFL.

Since trying to predict defensive touchdowns is essentially a fool’s errand, its kind of pointless to target the top fantasy defense with an earlier than usual pick, as nobody has any idea who that defense will be until the season ends. So the best strategy tends to be to wait on defense and just avoid drafting one from among the league’s worst teams.

With this in mind, the most historically sound strategy is to use your mid-round picks on starters and depth at positions which are more predictable by nature (QB, RB, WR, TE) and save your defense for one of your last picks. Just make sure you avoid a defense on an awful team, and you should be ok.

But what if I am too scared to wait until the 12th round to pick a defense!!

Good question. I suppose fantasy football isn’t for the faint at heart? If you are tempted to grab the Jaguars defense with your 8th round pick, quickly splash a bucket of cold water on your face and reconsider. Do you still want to grab the Jaguars and be that guy who selects the first defense? Splash another bucket of cold water on your face until the temptation subsides. If the temptation persists, remind yourself how you did the same thing last year when you drafted the Chiefs defense as the first one off the board, only to watch them become borderline starter-worthy in 2017.

Disclaimer: In the past 17 years I’ve won the championship in exactly 50% of the leagues I’ve participated in. Over that span, I’ve been able to learn what some of the key factors are in building a good team that will give you the best chance for fantasy football success. In these posts, my goal is to share some of what I’ve learned with our readers to help them build better fantasy football teams.