News & Analysis

Yes, you should trade away the Patriots DST in fantasy

Sep 8, 2019; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots free safety Devin McCourty (32) reacts after defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers during the second half at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

This time of year in fantasy football, you’re probably thinking trade. Maybe you’re hurting and need to make improvements. Maybe you’re in good shape and just trying to fortify. But the number of rosters that can afford to avoid talking trade altogether is very small. And if you’re lucky, you might have the single best (and most surprising) trade chip in the league on your roster — the New England Patriots DST.

The Patriots DST, at this very minute (entering Monday’s action), is the 13th-best fantasy “player” across all positions after (most of) six weeks. The ridiculous production so far, featuring more than twice as many fantasy points as almost every other defense and with more touchdowns than guys like Le’Veon Bell, Travis Kelce, and Alvin Kamara, has sparked conversation: Should you trade the defense now and capitalize on this early production? Or will this run continue, making this defense as valuable as any RB/WR2 in the league?

Of course, we don’t know the answer to that. But we can draw some conclusions based on historical data, and those conclusions almost universally lead to the same answer: It’s time to trade the unit.

There are a few things we know about defense/special teams scoring. I’ll touch on them briefly.

(One note before I go too far here: Defense/special teams fantasy scoring varies more from site to site than any other positional scoring. When I cite fantasy points here, I’ll be using the PFF scoring system. Your system of choice might vary slightly from these numbers, but it won’t materially change the greater point.)

Defensive touchdowns are wildly unreliable

The Patriots have 5 touchdowns so far on defense. That’s good! The Jets DST, with 3, is the only other unit in the league to have scored more than twice. But there’s no real reason to think they’ll continue to average nearly a score per game, or close. Looking at year-over-year production in the last decade, there is essentially no correlation to defense/special teams touchdowns (R-squared value of 0.029), and that correlation is reflected in in-season scoring as well. Interceptions are a skill. Defensive touchdowns are largely random.

We’ve seen this level of production before

Fun bit of trivia: As good as this Patriots unit has been so far, it’s not even the best six-week stretch for a fantasy defense in the PFF era. In Weeks 4-9, 2012, the Bears defense averaged 21.6 fantasy points per game (just ahead of the Patriots’ 21.3 so far this year). In all other games, that Bears defense averaged 10.6 points per game. Take out Weeks 4-9, and that defense was only the No. 6 unit on the year. That’s still very good! It’s not “Oh my god, don’t trade them for Odell Beckham Jr.” good.

In fact, there were 35 six-week stretches in which a DST averaged at least 15.0 fantasy points per game, encompassing 23 different units (with some — like that 2012 Bears group — averaging 15.0 over multiple different six-week stretches). Of those 23 units, only two — those 2012 Bears and the 2017 Jaguars — averaged even 10.0 points per game in their games outside of that six-game sample. They averaged a falloff of 8.3 points per game from their peak stretch to their rest-of-season, peaking with the 2014 Rams, who averaged 17.0 points in Weeks 9-14 but only 4.0 in all other weeks.

The schedule

The Patriots have famously played just about the easiest possible schedule slate so far this year. A deteriorated Pittsburgh, Miami, Buffalo, Washington, and the two New York teams is just not much of a slate of opponents. And while things don’t get that intimidating right away — they draw the Jets and the floundering Browns in the next two weeks — the Patriots face the Ravens, Eagles, Cowboys, Texans, and Chiefs in a six-weeks stretch (with their bye in there) in Weeks 9-14. Yes, they close with the Bengals-Bills-Dolphins in Weeks 15-17, but even at that, things overall get tougher.

And on that late-season schedule: Yes, in the fantasy playoffs, the Patriots have a cake schedule. Granted. But that brings us back to the “defensive touchdowns” point. Even if they played their exact six-game schedule so far again, in order, I’d expect a far worse result. This has been 99.9th-percentile results. That the schedule gets harder for a while just adds to it.

Streaming works

Every offseason, I write a fun piece in which I explore streaming a DST without knowing anything about football. Using only recent point totals, streaming a defense — picking a widely available unit with a good matchup — leads to a top-tier fantasy unit regularly. Here’s this summer’s edition. And I do the same thing with the piece every year — I write as I research. I leave myself open to the idea that my method won’t work in a given year. And I’ve done it for six years now, and (so far), it has worked every time. In my home league, I picked up the Buffalo DST Saturday morning, because they were on a Week 6 bye and have the Dolphins in Week 7. I got what might be Week 7’s DST1 or DST2 for free. Streaming works.

If we redid fantasy rankings for the rest of the year starting from right this moment, the Patriots would be the No. 1 defense. That’s pretty clear. But the gap between them and the next-best fantasy DST will, with very little doubt, be much closer than it is right now. If you have that unit and can get anything like the returns I’ve seen discussed on social media (anything like a top-20 receiver or running back), you need to take that trade in a second. And if you don’t have the Patriots DST … don’t trade for them. The price you will have to pay is just so unlikely to be worth it.

As I said on Twitter: If you have the Patriots DST on your roster in, say, Week 11 (no matter whether you have the unit now or not), you have almost certainly made a mistake.

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