News & Analysis

Identifying 2020's best fantasy football D/STs

Fantasy football would probably be better off without defenses or kickers. Obviously these positions are incredibly important to the real-life goal of, you know, winning games, but it’s annoying and tilting to have fantasy matchups decided by often-confusing scoring from these non-offensive players.

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The reality that any given field goal earns a kicker at least 75% as many fantasy points as a QB receives for throwing a TD is absolute malpractice from the industry as a whole.

This article won’t be about those half-breeds known as placekickers. We’ll instead focus on what makes a great fantasy defense and which defense/special teams (D/ST) investors should look to target in 2020.

Scoring

Defenses can earn fantasy points by accomplishing the following tasks:

  • Sacks: 1 point
  • Interceptions: 2 points
  • Fumbles Recovered: 2 points
  • Safeties: 2 points
  • Defensive Touchdowns: 6 points
  • Kick and Punt Return Touchdowns: 6 points
  • 2-Point Conversion Returns: 2 points

Additionally, a lump sum of fantasy points is awarded for allowing the following point totals:

  • Points Allowed (0): 10 points
  • Points Allowed (1-6): 7 points
  • Points Allowed (7-13): 4 points
  • Points Allowed (14-20): 1 points
  • Points Allowed (21-27): 0 points
  • Points Allowed (28-34): -1 points
  • Points Allowed (35+): -4 points

Limiting points as well as creating turnovers and negative plays are the crux of fantasy football production. Of course, plenty of these factors are fairly random and difficult to predict. Just 14 combined kicks and punts were returned for scores in 2019; there were 17 safeties; and only 25 times was an offense held to six or fewer points.

Trying to predict these rare point-heavy occurrences with any sort of accuracy would largely be a useless endeavor. The overwhelming majority of fantasy point situations for defenses to rack up production comes from sacks, interceptions and recovered fumbles.

Enter: Havoc.

Havoc is one of the best stats for identifying great fantasy defenses

A featured stat for college football sharps, Havoc is incredibly helpful in determining which defenses live in the offense’s backfield:

  • Havoc = (tackles for a loss + forced fumbles + interceptions + pass deflections + pressures) / plays

The top-10 defenses in havoc last season were as follows:

  1. Steelers (38%)
  2. 49ers (38%)
  3. Saints (36%)
  4. Buccaneers (36%)
  5. Bills (35%)
  6. Eagles (35%)
  7. Patriots (35%)
  8. Rams (34%)
  9. Ravens (34%)
  10. Vikings (32%)

The only defense to rank among the league’s top-10 squads in havoc but not fantasy points was the Eagles (14th). The Jets were the only defense to rank inside the top-10 units in fantasy points and not the top-10 in havoc, although their 11th-place finish in the latter category reinforces the idea that this metric does a great job quantifying the types of defenses we should be looking for in fantasy land.

Strength of schedule consideration

PFF recently created an incredibly cool Fantasy Football Strength of Schedule (SoS) tool for EDGE and ELITE subscribers. The system factors PFF player grades into the methodology, which provides especially important early-season benefits to account for roster turnover from the previous year. This also comes in handy during the season by projecting how a defense will perform while dealing with injuries.

We’ll have so much more information on defenses after the first chunk of the season that it’s fairly useless to project season-long or playoff-specific strength of schedules. Still, identifying which players and teams have a troubling first four weeks could provide an early edge in fantasy football drafts of all shapes and sizes.

Easiest strength of schedule Weeks 1-4:

  • Indianapolis Colts (Jaguars, Vikings, Jets, Bears): The soft QB schedule for the Colts persists up until their Week 7 bye with matchups against the Browns and Bengals in Weeks 6 and 7, respectively.
  • Tennessee Titans (Broncos, Jaguars, Vikings, Steelers): The Broncos and Steelers *should* be much tougher than what we saw in 2019.
  • Buffalo Bills (Jets, Dolphins, Rams, Raiders): Three consecutive matchups against porous offensive lines ends with a trip to Las Vegas to take on Derek Carr and company. 
  • Miami Dolphins (Patriots, Bills, Jaguars, Seahawks): The Dolphins retooled their secondary in a major way this offseason, but there are still enough concerns across the line of scrimmage to wonder if “average” is the ceiling from this defense.
  • Carolina Panthers (Raiders, Buccaneers, Chargers, Cardinals): Good for Carolina for using every draft pick on its defense. They need it. And so much more.

Toughest strength of schedule Weeks 1-4:

  • Washington Football Team (Eagles, Cardinals, Browns, Ravens): This defensive line is beastly, but the secondary is the opposite. Matchups against what could wind up being some of the league’s more-explosive passing games isn’t a great way to start the season.
  • Minnesota Vikings (Packers, Colts, Titans, Texans): Don’t expect too many turnovers from this group of veteran opposing signal-callers.
  • Houston Texans (Chiefs, Ravens, Steelers, Vikings): Things get a little better after September once the Texans can coast into their AFC South schedule, but this opening month is as brutal as they come.
  • Dallas Cowboys (Rams, Falcons, Seahawks, Browns): This defense will need to take advantage of these meh offensive lines in order to avoid consistent shootouts.
  • Green Bay Packers (Vikings, Lions, Saints, Falcons): One high-efficiency passing offense after another will take on the Packers’ underwhelming defense.

Some honorable mention notes: The 49ers, Seahawks, Chiefs, Steelers and Buccaneers round out the top 10 softest schedules for fantasy defenses in September. … The Bucs in particular are worth paying attention to, as they get the Panthers, Broncos, Chargers and Bears following their tough season-opening matchup against the Saints. … The Cardinals, Lions, Falcons, Patriots and Ravens round out the bottom 10 defenses in terms of strength of September schedule.

Top fantasy defenses to target in 2020

Ultimately, the NFL is a passing league. While some stats will inevitably point to attacking weak run defenses, it’s best to double check that the defense in question isn’t simply a great unit that (understandably) chooses to devote more of its resources towards stopping the pass.

The correlations between fantasy points per game allowed to each position and their team’s pass-funnel defense rank confirms that fantasy investors are better off attacking weak secondaries as opposed to perceived shoddy run defenses:

  • QB: +0.76
  • RB: +0.13
  • WR: +0.65
  • TE: +0.35

Because of this, we’ll lean on defenses with strong pass rushes and secondaries as opposed to the league’s better run defenses that might struggle to stop opposing aerial attacks.

Obviously nobody wants to reach on a defense. In fact, don’t be afraid to not draft a defense if your league allows you to do so. Piling up the roster with backup RBs could prove beneficial between now and Week 1; streaming week-to-week is plenty viable in most fantasy leagues.

Assuming your league forces you to draft a defense, I’d recommend the following five units at their present value:

  • New Orleans Saints (ADP: No. 7): Cameron Jordan and Marcus Davenport form a fearsome pass-rushing duo that proved to be dominant for the majority of 2019. The addition of do-it-all safety Malcolm Jenkins, combined with the potential for Janoris Jenkins to serve as the best No. 2 CB the Saints have had with Marshon Lattimore, makes this an already-talented defense capable of creating all sorts of havoc in 2020.
  • Los Angeles Chargers (ADP: No. 8): Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram cause issues for any offensive line in the league. Tyrod Taylor and/or Justin Herbert might not be ideal for the Chargers’ plethora of talented receivers, although the likely move toward a run-first offense should at least help them not finish among the league’s top-four most turnover-prone units again. Two matchups against the Chiefs is unfortunate, but arguably the league’s single-best secondary should be a locked-in start the rest of the season.
  • Tampa Bay Buccaneers (ADP: No. 10): Quietly the No. 5 unit from 2019 in defensive DVOA, the Bucs boast a scary talented front-seven that returns just about everybody from last season. Even if the defensive line experiences some sack regression, the potential for Lavonte David and Devin White to form one of the league’s best LB duos makes them a force to be reckoned with. The secondary remains somewhat of a concern, but further improvement from Carlton Davis and Jamel Dean makes this a defense worth investing in during their soft start to the season.
  • Indianapolis Colts (ADP: No. 13): The addition of DeForest Buckner gives the Colts a strong trio of talent up the middle of their defense when also considering LB Darius Leonard and FS Malik Hooker. The start to the season is borderline erotic: Jaguars, Vikings, Jets, Bears, Browns and Bengals. The potential for Philip Rivers to assume more of a game-manager role calms some concerns about another potential high turnover rate.
  • Philadelphia Eagles (ADP: No. 16): The kryptonite of the Eagles defense for years has been their inability to slow down No. 1 WRs; now they have stud CB Darius Slay to track opposing alpha receivers all over the field. Sure, the likes of Keenan Allen, Stefon Diggs and Terry McLaurin found success against Slay during his overall-meh 2019 campaign, but the massive improvement in the team’s pass-rush department should help immensely. The team’s lack of depth outside of the defensive line is worrisome, although the Eagles remain a defense to buy in fantasy thanks to their always-terrifying defensive front.

The Patriots, Steelers, 49ers, Ravens and Bills are also obviously plenty worthy of fantasy consideration, but spending anything other than a second-to-last round pick on the position is fantasy football managing malpractice and simply unacceptable as far as I’m concerned.

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