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2014 Fantasy Football Preview: Defense & Special Teams Rankings

Posted Aug 21, 2014

SportingNews.com's Matt Lutovsky provides his expert analysis on the top fantasy football defenses and special teams units heading into the 2014 season.

For more fantasy football analysis, follow Matt Lutovsky on Twitter (@MLutovsky) and listen to the Sporting News Fantasy Football Podcast.

I've been asked, more than once, “Why do we have defense/special teams in fantasy football?”

OK, I haven't been asked, “per se” – I've been the one asking. But, after many years of playing a game that causes grown men (and women) to threaten each other on message boards over lopsided trades and shady roster moves, I've finally figured it out: D/STs exist so we can laugh at the owners who take one in the eighth or ninth round because they think they're “getting a sure thing.”

MORE POSITION PREVIEWS: QB | RB | WR | TE

Just as with kickers, D/STs undoubtedly make a difference week-to-week, but trying to figure out which will be the best at the beginning of the season is tough. A lot of unsustainable factors, particularly TDs, can change the top of the leader board from year-to-year (or week-to-week) in a hurry.

When you factor in byes and matchups, most fantasy owners wind up owning several D/STs throughout the season anyway, so why invest heavily in one when you could be getting valuable backups at RB or WR?

NOTE: Want to host your fantasy draft in the Rams war room? Click here for details.

You shouldn't. Of course, someone will use a single-digit-round pick on a defense, but that's your cue to think, “More good players for me.”

Of course, you will eventually need to draft a D/ST, so here are some tips:

MORE FANTASY FROM MATT: Twitter | Sporting News archive | WR preview podcast

Ignore TDs

Last year, the Chiefs were the No. 2 fantasy defense, largely because they scored 11 D/ST touchdowns. Here's a hot take for you: That's not going to happen again. The Bears were No. 1 in 2012 after scoring 10 TDs. Here's a factual take for you: That didn't happen again. Chicago finished 26th in fantasy points last year.

Such a dramatic drop isn't as likely for the Chiefs, as they finished second in takeaways and tied for sixth in sacks. They're legit, but a repeat as the No. 2 D/ST would be very surprising.

Ignore “special teams”

The “ST” part of D/ST often has too much influence on simple-minded fantasy owners (not you guys...you guys are smart). Predicting a defensive touchdown is virtually impossible (unless Matt Schaub is involved); predicting a special teams touchdown is downright silly.

Sure, some teams clearly have better playmakers than others. Arizona is more apt to make big plays while Patrick Peterson is there; the aforementioned Chiefs are as dangerous as any team with rookie DeAnthony Thomas fielding punts and kickoffs. But other factors – namely sacks, points allowed and even takeaways are more repeatable and sustainable.

What shouldn't you ignore?

If a team keeps mostly the same personnel from the previous season, you can expect a somewhat similar total of sacks, points allowed and takeaways. Of course, with the way injuries pop up throughout any given season, it's tough to expect a team to keep mostly the same personnel.

It occasionally happens where a team keeps yards and points down but gets few sacks, takeaways and defensive touchdowns. But “good defenses” (Dolphins, Saints) usually have fantasy value and will be more consistent than “big-play defenses” (Bucs, Bills). Obviously, finding a defense that does both (Seahawks, Rams, Bengals) is optimal.

Don't ignore personnel changes – but don't overrate them either

Unfortunately, there's been no discernible pattern of new players or new coordinators making consistent, sustainable changes in fantasy performance. Focusing on players/coordinators in their second or third seasons with a team is likely more beneficial. Take Robert Quinn. He had five sacks as a rookie and undoubtedly helped the Rams D/ST, but when he jumped to 10.5 sacks as a sophomore, the Rams became a starting-caliber fantasy unit, finishing 12th in fantasy points. Last year, when Quinn finished with 19 sacks, St. Louis ranked seventh among all D/STs.

Players like Olivier Vernon in Miami, Ziggy Ansah in Detroit, Barkevious Mingo in Cleveland, and Sheldon Richardson with the Jets could all continue to take big steps forward and really be difference-makers. And even though he's a rookie, we have to mention Jadeveon Clowney, who should make an immediate impact in Houston.

Byes and matchups

As we said earlier, there's a decent chance you'll drop your drafted D/ST at some point, be it because of disappointing results, a bye, or because you'd rather have another D/ST with a better matchup that week.

But if you plan on sticking it out with your drafted D/ST because, damnit, you're sure you know what you're doing, then go for one with a late bye week. You don't want to drop a “real” player in Week 4 so you can pick up a second D/ST.  It's too early to give up on a potential sleeper and/or miss out on picking up a breakout player.

Rankings
1.    Seahawks
2.    Bengals
3.    Panthers
4.    Rams
5.    Cardinals
6.    Patriots
7.    Chiefs
8.    Dolphins
9.    49ers (Note: San Francisco will be much better after Week 8 when LB NaVorro Bowman [knee] and LB Aldon Smith [suspension] are expected to return)
10.    Saints
11.    Buccaneers
12.    Ravens
13.    Bills
14.    Jets
15.    Colts
16.    Eagles
17.    Broncos
18.    Giants
19.    Browns
20.    Lions
21.    Steelers
22.    Texans
23.    Cowboys
24.    Bears
25.    Packers
26.    Titans
27.    Chargers
28.    Jaguars
29.    Falcons
30.    Raiders
31.    Vikings
32.    Redskins

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