Here’s the thing: We shouldn’t worry about preseason fantasy football rankings for defense as much as we do. It’s 2018, and we’ve all been doing this long enough to know that once the season starts, one-week streamers and schedule-based sleepers rule the day. Your cheat sheet and projections don’t matter anymore. Oh, you nabbed one of the top-ranked fantasy D/STs in the middle rounds of your draft? Cool. They’re playing the Patriots in Week 1. Now what are you gonna do? Head to the waiver wire for a pickup. Sweet draft strategy, bro.
But that’s not going to stop us from trying to get the best D/ST we can on draft day. Heading into this season, there’s no shortage of solid units that you might feel comfortable starting every week (“might” being the operative word). Of course, we know that because of the fluky nature of takeaways and defensive touchdowns, some teams will disappoint (looking at you, Minnesota and Denver) and others will surprise (Detroit, New Orleans). And as much as we might want to project favorable/unfavorable matchups in the summer, things can change in a hurry once a stud rookie like Deshaun Watson or an surprising veteran like Case Keenum starts playing like Russell Wilson or Drew Brees in Week 4.
Of the many variables that must be taken into account with D/STs, the most important is personnel changes. Whether it’s a new defensive coordinator, offseason acquisition, offseason loss, or player returning from injury, being aware of the key differences from last season is important. As far as stats, sacks tend to be at least somewhat repeatable, and both total and scoring defense can give an idea of how “good” a defense is, even if that doesn’t always translate to fantasy success. Takeaways, particularly fumbles, have a way of fluctuating wildly, and defensive/return scores are not something that can be counted on at all. It’s fair to assume a proven defense full of playmakers will score at least a couple touchdowns, but the difference between three TDs vs. seven TDs (24 fantasy points) is the difference in five-to-10 spots in the final rankings.
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And that’s why we normally recommend waiting in drafts until one of the final three rounds to take a defense. Most will get antsy and draft a D/ST before then, which is fine, but just remember that you will have to drop your drafted defense or carry two D/STs on your roster at some point in the season. There’s no need to invest too much in this position, even if a bunch of the teams below look like high-upside, can’t-miss units.
These rankings will be updated throughout the preseason, so check back for more analysis.
DOMINATE YOUR DRAFT: Ultimate 2018 fantasy football cheat sheet
Fantasy Football 2018: Defense rankings
Rankings based on standard scoring leagues
|1. Jacksonville Jaguars. Jacksonville led all D/STs in fantasy points last year while finishing second in sacks (55) and interceptions (21) and first in TDs (8). Veteran linebacker Paul Poluszny is gone, but that’s not a huge loss at this point. The rest of Jacksonville’s top defensive playmakers are back, giving this unit the most upside of any in fantasy.|
|2. Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles were solid across the board last year, sporting the top run defense and finishing third in fantasy points. The pass defense (17th) and sack totals (tied for 15th) were more on the mediocre side, but offseason acquisition Michael Bennett should help in both areas. This big-play unit is poised for another good season.|
|3. Minnesota Vikings. Despite ranking first in total defense last year, the Vikings were considered a bit of a disappointment in fantasy circles, finishing 12th in standard leagues. A lot of that can be blamed on only scoring one D/ST touchdown and recovering only five fumbles, tied for second fewest in the league. Given Minnesota’s stable of stud defenders – all of which return and are joined by Sheldon Richardson – you can expect this unit to improve and post numbers closer to 2016 (seven TDs, 10 fumble recoveries)|
|4. Los Angeles Rams. There’s a legitimate worry that the Rams “overdid it” in the offseason, particularly in regards to signing players with character concerns. But if Aqib Talib, Marcus Peters and Ndamukong Suh can keep their cool, this unit could better last year’s, which finished fourth in D/ST fantasy points. The losses of Robert Quinn (8.5 sacks), Trumaine Johnson (two INTs, TD), and Alec Ogletree (95 tackles, INT, TD) shouldn’t be overlooked, but with Aaron Donald, Mark Barron, Lamarcus Joyner and Michael Brockers still in tow, the Rams are loaded once again.|
|5. Los Angeles Chargers. The Chargers D/ST broke out in a big way last season, ranking tied for fifth in sacks (43) and tied for sixth in INTs (18). Their fantasy scoring might have been a bit inflated by six D/ST touchdowns, but this big-play unit could be even better with the return of corner Jason Verrett (knee), who played in only one game last season (UPDATE: Verrett is likely out for the year after injuring his Achilles in practice), and the drafting of first-round safety Derwin James. Those players should offset the loss of safety Tre Boston, who led the team with five INTs. Joey Bosa (12.5 sacks) and Melvin Ingram (10.5) will continue making life miserable for quarterbacks.|
|6. New Orleans Saints. Few people saw the Saints coming in 2017, but impact rookies Marshon Lattimore and Marcus Williams helped New Orleans finish third in INTs (20). The Saints also managed a solid 42 sacks, and the additions of LB Demario Davis (135 tackles, five sacks last year with the Jets) and first-round defensive end Marcus Davenport should help keep that number high. The Saints new commitment to the running game on offense isn’t likely to change this year, which should keep the defense fresh and ready to produce.|
|7. Baltimore Ravens. A league-leading 22 INTs and seven D/ST TDs (tied for second) propelled Baltimore to a No. 2 fantasy finish last season, and almost all of its defensive starters return. So, why isn’t Baltimore ranked higher? Several of its key playmakers (Terrell Suggs, Eric Weddle, Brandon Carr, Jimmy Smith) are getting up there in age, and all those touchdowns and fumble recoveries (12) are going to be difficult to reproduce. The Ravens still have all the makings of a starting fantasy D/ST, but we’re not sold they can repeat last season.|
|8. Carolina Panthers. The biggest worry with the Panthers is Thomas Davis’s four-game PED suspension, but once the veteran linebacker returns, there aren’t many holes in this defense. For fantasy purposes, it would be nice if they could top last year’s paltry 10 INTs, but with 50 sacks (third) and the third-ranked run defense, Carolina’s defense is poised once again to be a problem for offenses.|
|9. Pittsburgh Steelers. Pittsburgh led the league in sacks (56) and finished fifth in total defense and seventh in scoring defense, but it only managed 22 total takeaways and two D/ST touchdowns. Almost every starter is returning and first-round safety Terrell Edmunds joins the mix, but the loss of LB Ryan Shazier, who had 89 tackles, three INTs and a fumble recovery in only 12 games, is going to be felt both on the field and off. Pittsburgh still has the talent to be a top-10 fantasy defense, but the ceiling feels a bit lower without Shazier.|
|10. Houston Texans. J.J. Watt is back, and that seems to be all people need to hear to have Houston back among the top fantasy D/STs after a dismal 2017. Of course, it’s not just Watt who’s returning, as DE Whitney Mercilus is also slated to return after a pec injury cost him all but five games last year. Houston also added DBs Aaron Colvin and Tyrann Mathieu, both of whom should help improve on last year’s 24th-ranked pass defense and disappointing 11 INTs. Houston is a major wild card, as Watt has only played in eight games the past two seasons, but if he can stay healthy, he’s one of the biggest difference-makers in the league.|
|11. Denver Broncos. Denver’s fantasy season was, in part, salvaged by four defensive TDs last year, but the Broncos were still a disappointment overall. With fifth-overall pick Bradley Chubb ready to terrorize quarterbacks alongside Von Miller, this unit should see a bump in its mediocre sack (33) and takeaway totals (17), vaulting it back into the ranks of fantasy’s top units.|
|12. Chicago Bears. You can call the Bears “lucky” for leading the league with 14 fumble recoveries – and, indeed, that number is likely to come down this year – but with only eight INTs (tied for 29th), there’s still room for this improving defense to grow. Chicago added Butkus Award winner Roquan Smith this offseason and should be a solid option most of the year thanks to a combination of big-play potential and a steady pass rush (42 sacks last year).|
|13. New England Patriots. The Patriots always seem to find a way among fantasy’s top-15 D/STs, but last year was a bit of a disappointment, as injuries (most notably to LB Dont’a Hightower, who played in only five games) and inconsistency plagued them. They head into this season with Adrian Clayborn and Danny Shelton new up front and Jason McCourty and second-round pick Duke Dawson new in the defensive backfield. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia is gone, but things shouldn’t change much with former linebackers coach Brian Flores stepping in to handle more responsibilities with the defense. Expect the Pats to improve on their six fumble recoveries and one D/ST touchdown from last year.|
|14. Detroit Lions. Detroit was another defense that relied heavily on the big play last season, scooping up 13 fumbles and scoring seven D/ST touchdowns en route to a No. 6 fantasy ranking. It wasn’t all good for the Lions, as they ranked 27th in total defense and 21st in scoring defense. The losses of leading tackler Tahir Whitehead and defensive coordinator Teryl Austin don’t figure to help either, even with defensive-minded Matt Patricia taking over as coach. The Lions have plenty of playmakers with Darius Slay and Glover Quinn, so there’s still upside here, but at least a slight drop in takeaways and touchdowns seems likely this season.|
|15. Tennessee Titans. Tennessee was a fairly average fantasy D/ST last year, but its 43 sacks tied for fifth most and it sported the No. 4 run defense. Malcolm Butler was added to a secondary that already features last year’s INT co-leader Kevin Byard and emerging second-year playmaker Adoree’ Jackson, and first-round pick Rashaan Evans will help beef up the linebacking corps. There’s major breakout potential here if Tennessee can improve on its 12 INTs and one D/ST touchdown from last year, both of which seem likely.|
|16. Buffalo Bills. With only 27 sacks last season, the Bills D/ST lacked the consistent upside you want in a fantasy defense, but the acquisitions of DT Star Lotulelei and first-round LB Tremaine Edmunds should strengthen the defense as a whole and free up other players to make more big plays. Buffalo’s three returning starters in the secondary each had at least four interceptions last year, and if newcomer Vontae Davis is healthy, Buffalo will have a legit chance to lead the league in INTs.|
|17. Arizona Cardinals. Talented pass-rushers Chandler Jones and Markus Golden and play-making corner Patrick Peterson give this unit upside in any game. While Arizona might not be an every-week play anymore, they certainly have the ability, especially at home, to put up fantasy points. The loss of safety Tyrann Mathieu from a unit that only had 21 takeaways last season doesn’t help the overall outlook, but Arizona could be huge in favorable matchups.|
|18. Seattle Seahawks. R.I.P. Legion of Boom. Seattle underwent a major overhaul on defense this offseason, losing key members of the secondary and in its pass rush. Star LBs K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner remain, and last year’s team leader in sacks, Frank Clark, is also back, along with All-Pro safety Earl Thomas (for now). The Seahawks still have talent, but they will likely have a tough time repeating their five defensive TDs and 11 fumble recoveries from last year, making them more of a streaming unit than an every-week one.|
|19. Atlanta Falcons. Expect to see Vic Beasley unleashed this year after he managed just five sacks in 2017 compared to 15.5 the year before. That alone will help offset the loss of Adrian Clayborn’s 9.5 sacks (six of which came in one game). Third-year LB Deion Jones appears to only be getting better, which is big for a team that lacks big-time playmakers in the secondary. The talent is there, and if Atlanta can improve on its eight INTs from last season, it will be a viable fantasy D/ST.|
|20. Washington Redskins. Washington ranked tied for seventh in sacks (42) last year and had a respectable (and repeatable) 16 INTs and seven fumble recoveries. The loss of Kendall Fuller takes away four of those INTs, but if Josh Norman can improve on his goose-egg in 2017, this secondary could still provide for fantasy owners.|
DRAFT STRATEGY AND RANKINGS TIERS:
|21. Kansas City Chiefs|
|22. Green Bay Packers|
|23. New York Giants|
|24. Cincinnati Bengals|
|25. Dallas Cowboys|
|26. Oakland Raiders|
|27. San Francisco 49ers|
|28. Tampa Bay Buccaneers|
|29. Cleveland Browns|
|30. Miami Dolphins|
|31. Indianapolis Colts|
|32. New York Jets|
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