Last season, we opened this article by saying D/ST shouldn't be a position in fantasy football. After a year of careful reflection...we feel the exact same way. And if there was ever a season to get rid of D/STs, it would be this one, as surprise inactives due to COVID-19 could make defenses instantly worse or matchups instantly better. Sadly, most leagues still have a D/ST slot, though, forcing us to go through the charade of compiling defense rankings, breaking them down into tiers, and trying to pinpoint sleepers.
Fortunately, we're true professionals, so we took on this challenge with minimal complaining -- still some complaining, but minimal.
DOMINATE YOUR DRAFT: Ultimate 2020 cheat sheet
In some ways, handicapping defenses shouldn't be that difficult. There are only 32 teams. It's not like the 120-plus WRs or 90-plus RBs we have to worry about. It's the week-to-week unpredictably that makes defense so frustrating. You will play your top position players in virtually any matchup; with defenses, you could opt to play a waiver-wire streamer as early as Week 1 if the matchups dictate it. Example: The Rams are a consensus top-10 D/ST according to Fantasy Pros, but they play the Cowboys in Week 1, who were one of the stingiest teams last year in allowing fantasy points to the position. Do you really want to start them when you could potentially grab the the No. 13 Chargers (@ Bengals), or No. 14 Titans (@ Denver), who are facing inexperienced young QBs?
Maybe you just like to bet on talent and think the investment in the Rams will pay off in the long run. That's fine, but when you factor in the opportunity cost of where you have to draft them, that might changes the equation. Either way, there's no perfect strategy for drafting D/STs, so we'll look at the three most basic ways to attack this position while breaking down our D/ST rankings.
2020 Defense Rankings Tiers: Who are the best fantasy D/STs?
D/ST Draft Strategy No. 1: Be one of the first to draft a defense
1 San Francisco 49ers
2 Pittsburgh Steelers
3 New England Patriots
4 Chicago Bears
5 Baltimore Ravens
6 Buffalo Bills
Last season, the Bears were the runaway No. 1 fantasy defense in the consensus preseason rankings. They wound up finishing 20th. The year before, the Jaguars were the "easy" call as the preseason No. 1. They finished 15th. You get the idea. Most people, including the fantasy experts, are a year too late on defenses. Unlike the skill positions, where the most talented players usually find a way to produce at starter-worthy levels, talented defenses can plummet because of regressions in fluky stats, such as fumble recoveries and touchdowns. Touchdowns fluctuate for skill players, too, but a drop of five touchdowns for a running back might result in him going from No. 5 to No. 18 -- still an every-week starter. For defenses, a drop from No. 1 to No. 14 puts them out of the starter's tier more often than not.
The Bears had an ADP of 89 last year, which put them in eighth round of 12-team drafts (which is ridiculous). This year, the consensus top D/ST is the 49ers, but their ADP is just 115. That Steelers are one spot behind, which puts both in the middle of the 10th round. That's still high when you factor in the year-to-year bust rate of D/STs and the week-to-week volatility that can result from matchups.
We've always advocated for waiting until late to draft your defense, and as mentioned earlier, that seems more prudent than ever in a season that figures to be more unpredictable than ever. So, even though we also rank the 49ers and Steelers in the top two, we don't advocate taking them that high -- which is basically saying we don't advocate taking them at all since they likely will go that high. (If you're curious, the Steelers and 49ers finished Nos. 2 and 3, respectively, in standard D/ST fantasy points last year, so at least they'll avoid the dreaded "Curse of No. 1."). If they happen to fall in your draft because everyone has a wait-on-defense-strategy, by all means scoop them up in the 12th or 13th round, but, again, that's unlikely to happen.
The Patriots, who we have at No. 3, were that runaway No. 1 team last year thanks to a slew of favorable matchups in the first half of the season (which they took advantage of in a major way). The main reason they aren't No. 1 this year is because a late-season slide, a less-favorable schedule, and several key players either leaving via free agency or opting out of the season due to COVID-19 concerns. The latter is the biggest worry, but Bill Belichick has earned that benefit of the doubt when it comes to letting players walk and finding replacements who perform in a similar fashion.
The consensus rankings have the Pats at No. 5, so it's not as if there's much difference. Early fantasy drafters aren't quite so bullish, picking the Patriots eighth (185). The consensus rankings (and early drafters) say Baltimore is third, but with an ADP of 131, are the Ravens really worth four-plus rounds of valuable draft real estate compared to the Patriots? Even if you like Baltimore more, that's a lot of opportunity cost.
Of course, 11th-round picks are often handcuffs or lotto tickets anyway, so you might figure you're not really missing out on much. Let's face it -- there's a decent chance your 11th-round pick will be off your team by Week 3 anyway. But there's an equally good chance you'll be benching the Ravens in Week 3 when they host Kansas City. To be fair, we do like the Ravens' early-season schedule, which is a key component to the streaming strategy we'll talk about later, but reaching for them isn't necessary. Pittsburgh (@ Giants), San Francisco (vs. Cardinals), Buffalo (vs. Jets), and New England (vs. Dolphins) have the best Week 1 matchups, for what it's worth.
Any of our Tier 1 defenses could score a bunch of touchdowns and have a difference-making season like New England had last year, but that could be said about our Tier 2 defenses, too. These six units feel like the safest bets, but the experts are often wrong on this position, so unless they fall, it's best to let someone else spend up for them.
Fantasy D/ST Tiers: Second-round RB targets
D/ST Draft Strategy No. 2: Wait to draft a defense
7 Minnesota Vikings
8 Kansas City Chiefs
9 New Orleans Saints
10 Denver Broncos
11 Los Angeles Rams
12 Seattle Seahawks
13 Philadelphia Eagles
14 Tennessee Titans
15 Los Angeles Chargers
The definition of "wait" depends on the flow of your particular draft. If D/STs start coming off the board in the ninth or 10th rounds, then "waiting" means after the 12th round. When defenses start to go, there's usually a run, so regardless of when the runs start, "waiting" more generally means being one of the last three or four people to take one.
The advantage of this strategy is you have only slightly reduced odds of hitting on a season-long winner as the people who drafted D/STs earlier, but your backup skill players should be slightly better/have slightly higher upside. Your odds of really hitting on those picks are fairly low, too, but they aren't going to be starting for you every week like your defense will be. Thus, they won't be potentially costing you early-season wins.
The units in our second tier are arguably as talented as most in our first. A few lucky bounces in the ways of turnovers or touchdowns, and they'll finish the season in the top five. Adding playmakers in the secondary, like Jamal Adams (Seahawks) and Darius Slay (Eagles), can go a long way toward boosting big-play potential. That's also true when teams add good pass-rushers, like Vic Beasley (Titans) and Bradley Chubb (played just four games for the Broncos last year).
Most of the teams in this tier lost at least one key player, too, like Logan Ryan (Titans) or Everson Griffen (Vikings), but they're still talented units that mostly finished in the top half of the league in D/ST fantasy points last year. The Chargers (27th) and Broncos (18th) will be looking to make the biggest jumps, but the 49ers went from No. 31 in 2018 to No. 3 last year, so don't rule anything out.
2020 Fantasy Rankings: Third-tier RBs
D/ST Draft Strategy No. 3: Play matchups
16 Indianapolis Colts
17 Jacksonville Jaguars
18 Cleveland Browns
19 Houston Texans
20 Green Bay Packers
21 Carolina Panthers
22 Tampa Bay Buccaneers
23 Dallas Cowboys
24 Washington Football Team
25 Las Vegas Raiders
26 New York Jets
Most seasons, you can find at least a few defenses from this tier (i.e. D/STs that won't normally get drafted) that figure to have highly favorable matchups the first week or two. This isn't one of those seasons, so for the "always stream, even in Week 1" crowds, you might have to target some of the defenses in Tier 2, such as the Eagles (@ Washington), Titans (@ Broncos), and Chargers (@ Bengals). The Colts (@ Jaguars) and Jaguars (vs. Colts) are the best bets from Tier 3.
The Jaguars have a potentially decent first six weeks, facing the Colts, Titans, Dolphins, Bengals, Texans, and Lions. None of those, with the possible exception of the Dolphins, stands out as a really plus matchup, but none stand out as particularly terrible. The Titans will be the toughest matchup, but even the Texans and Lions could allow above-average amounts of fantasy points to D/STs due to their notoriously shaky pass-blocking.
Cleveland is another interesting team to target -- just not for Week 1. You won't want to start them against the Ravens, but Weeks 2 and 3 bring Cincinnati and Washington to town. After a "sit 'em" game against Dallas, Cleveland then faces the Colts and Bengals in two of the next three weeks.
The downside to this strategy is that it often requires carrying two D/STs, which most owners don't like to do. You have to be always looking a week ahead. If you draft, say, Indianapolis for Week 1, you should also have Cleveland ready to go for Weeks 2 and 3. Any draft advantage you get from waiting on defense might be nullified by devoting a second roster spot to a D/ST.
Playing matchups is obviously tougher to do early in the season when we're not entirely sure how good offenses will be. Moreover, home-field advantage will be all-but-neutralized in a season with zero/minimal fans in the stands. All of these factors suggest this strategy is risky this season, at least early on, but as we said earlier, all strategies are risky for this position, so as long as you don't reach for a D/ST in the single-digit rounds, you can make it work. Just don't be afraid to stream defenses during the season because matchups trump all at this position.