2012 D/ST fantasy preview

Updated: August 28, 2012, 9:37 PM ET
By Christopher Harris | ESPN.com

Fantasy defense/special teams units (D/ST) are important. In 2011, the top 10 fantasy D/STs averaged 9.1 fantasy points per game and produced 38 games in which they scored 15 fantasy points or more (which is nearly one-quarter of their combined outings). Indeed, there's a much more significant difference between the better and worse fantasy defenses than there is, for instance, among the better and worse kickers. So the reason I urge you to wait on drafting a D/ST has nothing to do with their relative significance, or their ultimate similarities. Rather, it's just very, very difficult to pick out the better fantasy defenses before the season begins. Here were the top 10 fantasy D/STs heading into the '11 season, and where they ranked at season's end:

True enough, if there were two fantasy defenses that owners "reached" for last year, it was the Steelers and Packers. While they weren't disastrous, they certainly weren't worth drafting once you were finished filling out the rest of your starting lineup. And meanwhile, here were the 10 actual best fantasy defenses of '11 and where they were ranked in the preseason:

This isn't a new phenomenon. Sure, some units are more reliable year-over-year than others. But with NFL free agency, copious injuries and the sometimes fluky nature of D/ST fantasy scoring -- the Lions finished 23rd in both points and yards allowed in '11, yet somehow finished eighth in fantasy -- combine to make forecasting these units quite difficult. Season after season, unexpected D/ST producers rise from the lower ranks, while highly touted D/STs take the pipe. That doesn't mean it's not worth evaluating this fantasy position. But it does mean that such analysis should be taken with a big grain of salt.

The Elite

The San Francisco 49ers have ridden a roller coaster the past few seasons: They finished No. 1 among all D/STs in '09, finished 14th in '10, and went right back to first last year. What gives? Honestly, I didn't believe in the unit back in '09; their fantastic fantasy numbers came as a result of a couple huge games, and I wasn't surprised to see them drop from their pedestal. Last year was different. It's rare for a D/ST to register only three combined TDs and still top the fantasy rolls, but that's how good Justin Smith, Ray McDonald, Aldon Smith, Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman were. This unit didn't allow a rushing TD in the first 14 games of the '11 season (they wound up allowing only three all year) and gave up an NFL-low 77.3 rush yards per game. All 11 starters return. I think these guys will be great again. … The Houston Texans made perhaps the league's biggest jump on defense last season, as the "Bulls on Parade" unit switched to a 3-4 and got massive seasons from Brian Cushing, J.J. Watt, Antonio Smith and especially Johnathan Joseph, whose coverage helped turn around maybe the NFL's worse secondary. Losing Mario Williams sounds dangerous, but remember that Williams missed 11 games last season. … The Chicago Bears defense didn't have a great season in 2011; their fantasy output looks better than it was because of six defensive TDs, which tend to be hard to replicate. But it's hard to argue with such consistency: The Bears have finished as a top-10 D/ST in seven of the past eight seasons. The personnel is fairly solid, and the secondary improved in '11. If there's a nit to pick, it's a lack of pass rush other than Julius Peppers. … I had the Baltimore Ravens ranked No. 2 before Terrell Suggs tore his Achilles playing basketball this spring, but it's fair to be concerned about their pass rush. Second-rounder Courtney Upshaw will have to step into the void. You can probably expect this unit to be stout against the run, thanks to Ray Lewis and Jameel McClain, and Lardarius Webb stepped into the ranks of elite corners last year. If they run into trouble, it'll be because they can't get to the opposing QB, post-Suggs. … Believe it or not, the Philadelphia Eagles may be better without Asante Samuel. The team's high-profile trio of corners last year was a mismatch: While Samuel tends to play off and break on the ball, Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie are better playing press. The big addition this winter may have been DeMeco Ryans, who needs to prove he can return to pre-injury form. If he can, Ryans may finally solve the middle linebacker problem that's plagued these guys for years.

Not Sexy, But They Get The Job Done

It's time to give the Seattle Seahawks' D/ST some credit. Overall, the team wasn't great in '11, but its problems were largely on offense. The run defense should continue to be strong, anchored by the likes of Chris Clemons, Red Bryant and new acquisition Jason Jones, and the corners (Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner) played very well last year. Pete Carroll usually constructs fantasy-relevant defenses, and if first-round reach Bruce Irvin is anything like Aldon Smith (a guy the Niners supposedly "reached" for last year), the pass rush should come around, too. … I'm tempted to rank the Pittsburgh Steelers outside my top 10. Aaron Smith and James Farrior are already gone, while Casey Hampton (recovering from a torn ACL) and Brett Keisel could join them soon. If the young, potential-laden defensive linemen in Pittsburgh can't handle the job, this unit could suffer a free fall. But I tend to think they can. If the likes of Ziggy Hood, Cameron Heyward, Alameda Ta'amu and/or Sean Spence step up, this group that led the NFL in yards allowed last year shouldn't miss a beat. And it never hurts to have playmakers like Troy Polamalu, LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison on your side. … Darrelle Revis, David Harris and Sione Pouha represent the very best of the New York Jets defense at each level, and they're the reason I believe that, even if the Jets' D/ST struggles some, there's only so low they can go. The big questions with this unit should come down to pass rush: Calvin Pace and Bryan Thomas seem unlikely to vault back among the league's elite sack artists, and if you believe Aaron Maybin and Quinton Coples are ready to dominate, well, that makes one of us. Still, this should be a starting group, unless Revis winds up holding out into the season. … The Atlanta Falcons have huge dollars wrapped up in their cornerbacks with Dunta Robinson, Brent Grimes and Asante Samuel, but the pass rush is utterly focused on aging John Abraham, and while he's been relatively healthy in back-to-back seasons, surely injury concerns linger. Losing middle linebacker Curtis Lofton also hurts. But new coordinator Mike Nolan is usually a fairly steadying hand, and I can envision enough sacks and turnovers -- with an explosive Falcons offense helping out -- to make these guys ownable. … As I mentioned above, the Detroit Lions' defense probably didn't play well enough to deserve their high end-of-year fantasy ranking; in '11, they produced three games of 20-plus fantasy points (thanks to defensive TDs) but they scored three fantasy points or fewer on six occasions. The defensive line should continue to be a strength (it produced the fourth-most QB pressures in the league last season), and there are playmakers at linebacker and safety, but I still wonder whether the Lions have done enough to shore up the cornerback spot. Against teams who are able to block the likes of Ndamukong Suh, Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch, the secondary may once again be exposed.

Falling Down

I still have the Green Bay Packers ranked No. 12 among D/STs, so it's not like I hate them. But shifting from second to 12th probably is best described as "falling down." In half of their regular-season games last year, the Packers' D/ST scored five fantasy points or fewer while allowing a league-worst 411.6 yards per game. Don't blame that all on Aaron Rodgers being really good on offense; Tramon Williams hurt his shoulder and played badly, the team couldn't replace the departed Cullen Jenkins, and they're still looking for pass rushers opposite Clay Matthews. Whether or not this group bounces back could depend on rookies like Jerel Worthy, Nick Perry and Casey Hayward. … We all probably perceive the New York Giants' defense as being great because of the squad's Super Bowl run, but remember that this D/ST finished 22nd in fantasy points in '11. The pass rush is beyond reproach, but somehow, despite generating 48 sacks (tied for third in the NFL), the Giants allowed a whopping 255.1 pass yards per game. Jason Pierre-Paul is a defensive player of the year candidate in '12, and many of the guys who played hurt last season should ramp up their play. But until I see strong work on the back end (and top corner Terrell Thomas must return from his torn ACL), I can't see this as a fantasy-starting group. … I don't trust the Cincinnati Bengals' D/ST to produce a repeat of its ninth-place fantasy finish from last season. I love Geno Atkins in the middle, and Carlos Dunlap looks likely to develop into an above-average edge rusher. But Cincy appears to need good performances from a weird combo of players, either past their prime or who never quite "made it," plus their top remaining corner, Leon Hall, tore an Achilles in Week 10 last year, and if he's not ready to play to start the season, we might be looking at Terence Newman as a starter. Ask Dallas Cowboys fans how that went last season.

Sleepers

Adding Mario Williams and Mark Anderson to go along with Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams means the Buffalo Bills suddenly could have one of the NFL's elite defensive lines, and the linebackers (Nick Barnett, Kirk Morrison and Kelvin Sheppard) were solid in '11. Whether or not the Bills' D/ST makes a big leap may come down to a secondary with many question marks, including whether first-round rookie corner Stephon Gilmore can play right away. But heck, if the pass rush is good enough, it could take a ton of pressure off the back end of this D. … The Dallas Cowboys' D/ST was maddening in '11: They put tons of pressure on opposing QBs, they stopped the run well, yet their coverage was so terrible that they often looked helpless against good passing attacks. The team spent a whole lot of money and emotional capital to fix this problem: They signed Brandon Carr to a megadeal and traded up to take Morris Claiborne in April's draft. The safeties are a worry, and there isn't much serviceable depth, but I can imagine these guys playing much better in '12. … The Kansas City Chiefs have persisted in playing a 3-4 defense year after year despite not having a big enough, tough enough player to man the nose tackle spot. This April, the team hopes it finally solved that problem by spending the No. 11 overall pick on 346-pound stuffer Dontari Poe. If Poe is the answer, look out. There are pass-rushers, run-stuffers and good cover men everywhere else on this D. The Chiefs do need Eric Berry to return from his torn ACL and must find a replacement for the departed Brandon Carr at right corner, but this group could be on the rise. … This May, I asked my friend and ESPN colleague Jim McCormick his favorite sleeper defense for '12, and he said the Arizona Cardinals. That made me take a second look, and I understand Jim's enthusiasm. Patrick Peterson is probably already the league's most exciting punt returner (he scored four times on special teams in '11) and his improvement at corner as the year progressed was a big part of why the Cardinals' defense overall got stronger. Calais Campbell got a new deal this winter, and Darnell Dockett is still a stud, and don't overlook Daryl Washington, who's a playmaker at inside linebacker. This unit is startable in deeper leagues.

Draft Strategy

Don't take your fantasy defense early. Ever. It's a big mistake to think that just because you've filled out your starting lineup at quarterback, running back, wide receiver and tight end, you should go ahead and grab your starting defense. You don't have to get one of the consensus preseason top defensive units. In fact, history has shown that those consensus preseason top defensive units have a really good chance of stinking, at least fantasy-wise. Use your mid-round picks to buy lottery-ticket rushers and receivers. Toward the end of your draft, grab a supposedly middle-of-the-road defense. If you select unwisely, it doesn't matter: There'll always be a ton of fine defenses on the waiver wire. And don't draft a second defense to fill in during your first defense's bye week. You'll figure something out midseason.

Auction Strategy

I won't go so far as to say you must spend only one dollar on your fantasy defense, as I do say when I'm discussing fantasy kickers. But don't go much higher. If someone goes hog wild early and bids $7 for the 49ers D, tip your cap and be glad it isn't you. As I've said several times here, there's enough uncertainty when it comes to predicting team defenses that you're best off spending as little dough as possible. Spend $2 or $3, and that's it. And unless your league mandates it, don't purchase two defenses.