With the NFL free agency signings slowing down, there is the opportunity to take a breath and evaluate the defense/special team outlook for the upcoming season. Rosters will of course continue to be altered via the NFL draft later this month but there is a clearer view of the direction that teams are taking.
Each season will bring some surprises as defenses are often just looked at from how they performed in the previous season which is a mistake that fantasy owners make. Every season is a brand-new marathon and needs to be evaluated as such. There will be new coaches and schemes as well as the usual personnel changes a new season brings.
There will be surprise defenses that finish much higher than expected (I’m looking at you, Detroit) and those that fail to reach preseason expectations. These sleeper defenses are ones that finished outside the top 12 in standard scoring formats last season that will bring excellent fantasy potential into the 2018 season.
Tampa Bay was a middle of the pack defense/special team unit for fantasy purposes in 2017. In most standard scoring formats, they finished roughly in the 15th-17th position. That is a bit surprising considering the fact that they finished with a league-low 22 sacks. This defense did manage to roll up decent big-play totals with 13 interceptions, 13 fumble recoveries, and four defensive touchdowns.
The Buccaneers have made strides to improve the pass rush this offseason, adding Jason Pierre-Paul via trade and signing Vinny Curry. The duo combined for 11 sacks last season and were credited with 89 quarterback hurries and hits according to PFF. A healthy Noah Spence can also bring edge pressure while veteran Gerald McCoy will continue to bring an interior push.
Tampa Bay has two impact linebackers in Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander that accounted for eight big plays last season despite missing a combined seven games. This is a defense/special team poised for a top-10 finish in 2018.
Despite finishing last season at 0-16 the Browns have a young talented defense that can definitely be fantasy relevant in 2018. Injuries hampered the edge rushing pair of Myles Garrett and Emmanuel Ogbah as they would miss a combined 11 games last year. Garrett would lead the team with seven sacks and Ogbah would finish tied for second with four. The Browns amassed a total of 34 sacks in 2017 and having Garrett and Ogbah healthy will definitely boost that number significantly.
It was an inability to force turnovers that hurt this unit as Cleveland would manage just six fumble recoveries with seven interceptions. While the secondary struggled to create big plays, the linebacking corps did their part. Christian Kirksey, Joe Schobert, and Jamie Collins (who played only six games due to injury) totaled 7.5 sacks, four forced fumbles, and two interceptions, along with a fumble recovery.
After the secondary managed just five interceptions and one fumble recovery with half a sack, Cleveland has shaken thing up via free agency and trades. They signed cornerbacks E.J. Gaines, T.J. Carrie, and Terrance Mitchell and traded for Damarious Randall, who will start at free safety. These four players combined for 13 interceptions last season with three fumble recoveries and a defensive touchdown.
The Texans have finished outside the top 12 in most standard scoring formats in each of the past three seasons. The simple explanation would be to attribute these finishes to the fact that J.J. Watt has missed 24 regular-season games over the past two years due to injury. That’s not actually the case though, as even during Watt’s dominant run 2012-2015 there were two seasons Houston failed to crack the top 12 and they were dead last in fantasy production in 2013. Yes, a healthy Watt will definitely help this unit immensely but he doesn’t guarantee fantasy production by himself.
The reasons to like this defense moving forward lie in the production of some of Watt’s teammates starting with Jadeveon Clowney. In his fourth season, Clowney put up career highs in total tackles with 59 as well as sacks with 9.5 and forced fumbles/recoveries with a pair of each. The duo of Watt and Clowney along with Whitney Mercilus gives the Texans an edge rush to be reckoned with. The addition of safety Tyrann Mathieu brings big-play potential to the secondary. During his five seasons in the league Mathieu has racked up 11 sacks, four forced fumbles, four sacks, a fumble recovery, and a defensive touchdown.
This is another defense that boasts some nice young talent, especially along the defensive line. Solomon Thomas, DeForest Buckner, and Arik Armstead are all under the age of 26 heading into 2018. While Thomas finished with just three sacks in his rookie season he was dealing with a MCL sprain for much of the year. Buckner has amassed nine sacks in his first two seasons and Armstead is a solid depth as well as rotational option along the defensive front.
Linebacker Malcolm Smith missed the entire 2017 season with a torn pectoral and his return will bring big-play production. In his two seasons with the Raiders, Smith had four sacks, two interceptions, five forced fumbles and a recovery. Reuben Foster proved to be the real deal, grading out positively in both run defense as well as coverage according to PFF in his rookie campaign. Foster does face some legal issues that need to play out and could face a league suspension. If and when the duo of Foster and Smith are on the field San Francisco’s linebackers will produce nicely from a fantasy standpoint.
The addition of cornerback Richard Sherman brings veteran leadership to a young secondary. It remains to be seen how Sherman bounces back from the Achilles injury that ended his 2017 season. A healthy Sherman is a ball-hawking corner that has posted positive pass-coverage grades in each of his seven seasons in the league. The 49ers defense an ascending unit that should make a significant fantasy leap in 2018.
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