Fantasy Football: How to pick a defense for 2023

2M5F6T2 San Francisco 49ers' Fred Warner (54) celebrates his interception against the Miami Dolphins late in the fourth quarter at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., on Sunday, Dec. 4, 2022. (Photo by Nhat V. Meyer/The Mercury News/TNS/Sipa USA)

• To sell out or stream: Is there actually any advantage to locking down one of the top defenses, or are fantasy football managers better off playing matchups week by week?

• Bucking the trend: Since (at least) 2003, no defense has finished No. 1 in fantasy in back-to-back years. Does this continue to ring true?

• Fantasy draft approaching? Use PFF’s AI-powered Live Draft Assistant to win the draft and dominate your 2023 fantasy football league.

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

Defense is typically an afterthought in fantasy drafts often rightfully so due to the volatility associated with defensive scoring, making fading defense an unwritten rule for a successful fantasy team. From year to year, the metrics associated with typically strong fantasy defenses — such as sacks, turnovers, and defensive scores — are mostly unstable. Most years will not see a huge discrepancy between the top defenses, so a trade-off must be considered if fantasy football managers are set on taking one of the top teams. Drafting high-upside rookies or handcuffs with those last couple picks and opting to stream defenses week-to-week is a more than viable option, but hitting on an outlier defense (2021 Dallas Cowboys, 2019 New England Patriots) can provide a clear edge.

How do we identify these outliers though? Simply looking at the schedule – who has the favorable matchups? Many of the top projected defenses for fantasy this season by consensus (San Francisco 49ers, Buffalo Bills, New York Jets, Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles) all have PFF strength of schedules below 2.0, ranking in the bottom third of the league in this regard, meaning the offenses they face on average will be more talented/productive than other options on a weekly basis. So who are the options for those opting to target a top defense with one of their last picks? Who do you target if you miss out on the “elite” options? How do you approach drafting a defense if you plan on streaming week to week? Let’s take a look at a few options in each category and their viability.

Click here to unlock the Live Draft Assistant now!


Option 1: Lock up a top Defense

While these might be considered the top defenses, the opportunity cost for picking one must be considered. There is a much more likely chance that the “top” teams regress from their 2022 outputs and become streaming plays than the chance that they repeat their production year to year. If you’re dead set on taking a defense though, consider these options. 

San Francisco 49ers 

The 49ers defense is the consensus pick for the top fantasy defense because they feature elite talent at all three levels and are coming off an 84.1 overall defensive grade, not finishing below fifth in any team grading category. A pass rush spearheaded by reigning DPOY Nick Bosa (provided he ends his hold out) and supplemented by a strong interior in front of Fred Warner (83.7 defensive grade in 2022) and Talanoa Hufanga (four INTs, two forced fumbles) roaming the middle of the field with nasty intentions has the weekly potential to cause major issues for opposing offenses regardless of the talent on the other side of the ball. The 49ers rank dead last in PFF’s SOS metric, but this is largely attributed to their first-place schedule and out-of-conference matchups with the AFC North. However, this does cut both ways as they draw the Arizona Cardinals and Los Angeles Rams twice, matchups that could prove highly fruitful for fantasy scoring, as well as facing off against the Commanders offense on fantasy championship weekend.

Philadelphia Eagles

The Dallas Cowboys and Eagles are both worthy of inclusion here, but the Eagles get the edge for their more favorable playoff matchups and scheduling quirks as well as an offense more focused on controlling the clock and grinding out possession. They draw most of their unfavorable matchups at home – the Minnesota Vikings, Miami Dolphins, Buffalo Bills and San Francisco 49ers all have to travel to Philadelphia while they go on the road against promising matchups in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Los Angeles Rams and New England Patriots. With one of the deepest defensive fronts in football, the Eagles should be primed to repeat their league-leading 88.6 pass-rush grade and 70 sacks from 2022, especially given the Jalen Carter (91.8 defensive grade for Georgia in 2022) and Nolan Smith additions. The backend remains strong with Darius Slay and James Bradberry (three INTs a piece in 2022) holding down the outside CB positions despite some turnover at linebacker and safety. 


Option 2: Mid-Range Targets with Upside

Teams in this tier do not have San Francisco or Philadelphia's talent but possess a lot of favorable matchups throughout the year, so keep an eye on them as streaming options or potential weekly plays if everything comes together.

New Orleans Saints 

To be frank, the Saints have the most favorable defensive strength of schedule outside the Atlanta Falcons, giving a clear path to fantasy production. Their toughest matchups, on paper, come against the NFC North (Week 10 against the Minnesota Vikings, Week 13 versus the Detroit Lions) while also drawing the Jacksonville Jaguars at home in Week 7. The clear benefit of the Saints' schedule is the division matchups and out-of-conference matchups against the AFC South, as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Carolina Panthers, Atlanta Falcons, Houston Texans, Tennessee Titans and Indianapolis Colts all have significant question marks on the offensive side of the ball. While the Saints' depth on the defensive side of the ball may not measure up to others in this category, they still have significant talent at all three levels, giving them a solid floor for the more volatile statistics. Veterans Cameron Jordan (nine sacks in 2022) and Marshon Lattimore each had down years in 2022, but are certainly talented enough to bounce back. 

Pittsburgh Steelers 

The Steelers and Cleveland Browns both fall into this category, ranking ninth and 10th while drawing third and fourth place schedules respectively. While the AFC North may be the toughest division in football, these teams tend to play each other closely, driving up defensive fantasy scores. Outside their division, the Steelers face the NFC West and AFC South, two divisions already noted for potential defensive upside while getting debatably their toughest matchup against the San Francisco 49ers out of the way in Week 1. The Steelers finished middle of the pack in most defensive metrics last season (aside from a league-leading 20 interceptions) and ended with a 71.1 overall defensive grade, but a fully healthy T.J. Watt (83 career sacks in six seasons) opposite Alex Highsmith and Cam Heyward will do wonders for the pass rush while newly acquired talent — such as Joey Porter Jr., Patrick Peterson (2022 PFF All-Pro 2nd Team), and Desmond King II (71.8 coverage grade in 2022) — should prove an upgrade over last season’s secondary unit. 


Option 3: Fade and Stream

If fantasy managers want to save those late picks for high-upside plays on the other side of the ball, they should target teams on the waiver wire with strong early matchups to allow time for context for the other streaming options. If waiting until Week 1 to add a defense is the strategy, keep an eye on these defenses for early-season streaming options. 

Jacksonville Jaguars

Outside of a Week 2 matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs, a Week 5 game against the Buffalo Bills, and a Week 10 game at home against the San Francisco 49ers, the Jaguars 2023 schedule has a lot to like. The other three AFC South teams have significant question marks on offense to exploit, and their out-of-conference matchups against the NFC South (including late-season matchups against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and at home against the Carolina Panthers) could make them a dark horse to greatly exceed their middling projections. They finished sixth in fantasy scoring for defenses last season out of seemingly nowhere, posting a 77.6 pass-rush grade despite ranking in the bottom third of the league in sacks. While they don’t have the flash of some of the more popular defensive options, the Jaguars have ascending talent at all three levels, including Josh Allen (six sacks, four forced fumbles in 2022) and Travon Walker up front as well as Tyson Campbell (81.2 coverage grade in 2022) at corner. Keep an eye on Jacksonville to be a strong weekly play depending on the matchup.

Atlanta Falcons

To be clear, this is in no way an endorsement of drafting the Falcons defense to carry you through the 2023 season. However, if you are looking to spend that final draft pick elsewhere and begin the weekly excursion of streaming based on matchups, look no further than Atlanta to start the season. Their first two games of 2023 are both at home, drawing the Carolina Panthers in Week 1 and the Green Bay Packers in Week 2 — both of which offer access to new, young quarterbacks that offer the volatility that is exploitable by average defenses. The Falcons' offensive approach centers around the run game and controlling the clock, which should bode well for early season success while the passing game catches up. Their overall talent on the defensive side of the ball is not super impressive, but they have made significant acquisitions to positively regress. Jessie Bates III (three-plus INTs in four out of five seasons) steps in at free safety while Calais Campbell, David Onyemata and Bud Dupree all represent improvements to the defensive front. It might not look pretty, but the pathway to a strong start in 2023 is there.


Unlock the 2023 Fantasy Draft Kit, with League Sync, Live Draft Assistant, PFF Grades & Data Platform that powers all 32 Pro Teams

$31 Draft Kit Fee + $8.99/mo
$89.88/yr + FREE Draft Kit