Fantasy football owners tend to overthink things on draft day, and defense/special teams is probably the position that causes the most overthinking.
That's not to say D/STs aren't important, but the fact is it's almost impossible to find a consistently excellent D/ST that you'll feel comfortable starting every week throughout the season. Even the best don't seem like good options when you see a “vs. NO” or “vs. DEN” next to their names on your team page.
Many fantasy owners favor playing matchups with their D/STs throughout the season – find a particularly inept offense and stream whatever D/ST is going against them. This isn't necessarily a foolproof method, but it seems to work more often than not.
Using a valuable middle-round pick on a D/ST – even ones that seem like a “lock” to be good – isn't making the best use of your resources. Defensive and special teams touchdowns are almost impossible to predict from season-to-season, and those are what really inflate a D/ST's ranking. Moreover, one injury to a key pass-rusher or defensive back could be enough to sink a D/ST's value.
Let's break down the best way to navigate this position during your draft, plus the best bets to produce at a consistently solid level this season.
THE BEST BETS
Only one team, the Bears, has been in the top 12 in standard leagues among fantasy D/STs in each of the past three seasons. That should tell you how volatile this position is. If you want to go back just two years, then the Bears are joined by the Seahawks, Bengals, Texans and 49ers in the top 12 both seasons.
These teams, along with the Patriots, who ranked 13th in 2011 and lead the NFL in total takeaways over the past three seasons (113), are the most likely to be “every-week” starters again. As we said before, touchdowns are tough to predict, but these are the defenses most likely to get sacks and turnovers, plus be able to withstand an injury to a key player. The Bears might actually be the most vulnerable of this group because former head coach Lovie Smith is gone and “quarterback-on-defense” Brian Urlacher is retired, but they still have good pass-rushers and plenty of ballhawks.
Draft tip: At some point around the 10th round, none of the available skill position players are going to look very appealing, so you'll think to yourself, “Why not just grab the best D/ST?”. Resist that urge. Not only are there no sure things at this position, but every owner also has a different big board. The Bengals might be as high as No. 2 on someone's personal rankings, but they could easily be the eighth or ninth D/ST drafted in your league. There's no need to reach at this position.
THE COULD-BE ELITES
On paper, the Rams (tied for the league lead in sacks last year), Broncos (tied for the league lead in sacks), Cardinals (fourth in takeaways), Giants (third in takeaways last year, third over the past three seasons), Packers (tied for fourth in sacks last year, fourth most takeaways the past three seasons) and Browns (tied for 11th in sacks and ninth in turnovers, added some key defensive pieces in the offseason) look like they could challenge for top-five status among D/STs this year.
The Broncos will take a serious hit if sackmaster Von Miller is suspended for six games (especially with Elvis Dumervil now in Baltimore), but the rest of this group seems to have the right mix of pass rush and big-play potential to pay off most weeks. Arizona is the most “boom-or-bust” of the group, but they're also the most likely to get TDs from their return men with Patrick Peterson, Tyrann Mathieu and Javier Arenas handling kicks.
Draft tip: Don't get caught up trying to analyze a team's schedule. It's tempting to think that the Broncos will perform better because they're in the “soft” AFC West – and they certainly might – but the Chiefs and Chargers should be better and more efficient with new coaches and offensive systems. And even if a team's intradivisional rivals are weak, one of those games will be in Week 17, so it likely won't matter for fantasy purposes, and there are still 10 games against other teams that could qualify as “bad matchups.”
THE SLEEPERS/BYE-WEEK FILL-INS
Last year, many fantasy experts (myself included) were trumpeting the Lions as a potential elite D/ST and the Bills as a big-time sleeper. Both flopped, mainly because their respective takeaway totals plummeted. Both still have potential this season, particularly the Lions, who added S Glover Quin and should see significant improvement from DT Nick Fairley.
The Steelers and Ravens are always tough in terms of total and scoring defense, but the Steelers are aging and haven't been able to generate many takeaways the past two years. The Ravens lost their heart (Ray Lewis) and soul (Ed Reed) this offseason – plus sack leader Paul Kruger (Cleveland) and top tacklers Bernard Pollard (Tennessee) and Dannell Ellerbe (Miami) -- and even though they brought in Dumervil and will hopefully be getting a full season out of CB Lardarius Webb, it's tough to imagine them significantly improving on last year's No. 15 fantasy finish. Both of these units have more value if your league heavily rewards points allowed or rewards yards allowed.
The Falcons and Jets might be the steadiest D/STs in this group, and both are borderline starting units. They're both well-coached and have some big-play guys in their secondaries, but both had problems getting to the quarterback last year, which ultimately limits their values.
The Vikings were actually a top-12 D/ST last season despite recording just 22 takeaways (22nd). They were bolstered by five D/ST touchdowns (two on returns), but their pass rush is legit and they're solid on every level of defense. The Dolphins, Cowboys and Panthers were similar last year, and all have the potential to be every-week starters if they can manage to get some more takeaways. The Cowboys made some wholesale changes this offseason by bringing in Monte Kiffin to run the defense, while the Dolphins beefed up their LB corps with Ellerbe and former Raider Philip Wheeler. Miami is more likely to see significant improvement than Dallas, but both have upside.
The Bucs are also an interesting team after adding CB Darrelle Revis and S Dashon Goldson to their secondary. Tampa had the No. 1 run defense and the No. 32 pass defense last year. Obviously, there was some cause-and-effect with those numbers, but if their pass defense improves as it should, this could be a fairly strong unit.
Draft tip: You don't need to draft a backup D/ST, but if you do, just look at the first couple weeks of matchups for your starting unit, then try to find a D/ST that has a seemingly better matchup for one or two of those games. For instance, if you draft Arizona to be your starter but don't plan on starting them Week 3 against the Saints, it's not a bad idea to get Buffalo as your backup since they face the Jets that week. Don't look too far down the line, but a little early-season planning never hurts.
It might seem weird to put the Chargers and Titans in this group since they finished Nos. 6 and 11, respectively, in fantasy points last year. But both teams scored a fluky nine D/ST touchdowns and will likely see a serious regression to the mean.
That's not to say they couldn't have decent seasons. They have some talented players, as do the Redskins, Eagles and even the Chiefs. But there's really no reason to consider these teams on draft day. The Saints, Colts, Jaguars and Raiders round out this group and will only have potential value in good matchups during by weeks.
Matt Lutovsky is a fantasy football writer for Sporting News' Fantasy Source. You can read more of his work on the Fantasy Source football homepage.