Commentary

Team defense: Too much unpredictability to warrant high pick

Updated: August 27, 2008, 3:24 PM ET
By Christopher Harris | ESPN.com

Here's a fun game. Let's take a look at last year's preseason top-10 fantasy defenses, as predicted by our preview issue of ESPN the Magazine, followed by how they actually performed in standard fantasy leagues:

Top 10 Preseason Fantasy Defenses, 2007
Team Ranked Performed
Baltimore Ravens 1 23
Chicago Bears 2 4
New England Patriots 3 2
San Diego Chargers 4 1
Jacksonville Jaguars 5 13
Denver Broncos 6 26
Miami Dolphins 7 32
Minnesota Vikings 8 5
Philadelphia Eagles 9 27
Carolina Panthers 10 22

And just to close the loop, here's how the top fantasy defenses from 2007 were rated before the season began:

Top 10 Fantasy Defenses, 2007
Team Ranked Performed
San Diego Chargers 4 1
New England Patriots 3 2
Seattle Seahawks 13 3
Chicago Bears 2 4
Minnesota Vikings 8 5
Indianapolis Colts 26 6
Green Bay Packers 14 7
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 28 8
Dallas Cowboys 12 9
Tennessee Titans 32 10

While that's actually some nice prognosticating in picking three of the top four defenses correctly, we seriously swung and missed on the Ravens. Also, look at some of those other defenses that were supposed to be horrible (Colts, Bucs, Titans) but ended up well above average, and some of those other supposedly above-average defenses (Broncos, Dolphins, Eagles, Panthers) that performed poorly. Do these same charts for past seasons, and you'll see much of the same. The point is this: It's extremely tough to gauge a fantasy defense's future fortunes. There can be small or gigantic swings from season to season, with few constants, which makes a preseason list of defenses fraught with complications.

That's not to say fantasy defenses are entirely random the way, for example, fantasy kickers often are. Once a defense has established itself as viable fantasy-wise in a season's first month, it usually stays that way. It's just tough to predict big changes before the season starts, which is why, as you'll see below, we recommend you wait a good long while to draft your fantasy defense.

The Elite

Team defense rankings (by tier)

Shawne Merriman and the Chargers' defense grab the top spot here thanks to the team's ability to both sack opposing quarterbacks and get big plays from the secondary.

Tier 1
1. San Diego Chargers
2. Seattle Seahawks
3. New York Giants
4. Chicago Bears
5. Green Bay Packers
6. Indianapolis Colts
7. Minnesota Vikings
8. Pittsburgh Steelers
9. New England Patriots

Tier 2
10. Dallas Cowboys
11. Philadelphia Eagles
12. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
13. Arizona Cardinals
14. Jacksonville Jaguars
15. Tennessee Titans
16. Baltimore Ravens
17. Buffalo Bills

Tier 3
18. Cleveland Browns
19. New York Jets
20. Kansas City Chiefs
21. Detroit Lions
22. Denver Broncos
23. Cincinnati Bengals
24. New Orleans Saints
25. Oakland Raiders

Tier 4
26. Washington Redskins
27. St. Louis Rams
28. Miami Dolphins
29. Carolina Panthers
30. San Francisco 49ers
31. Houston Texans
32. Atlanta Falcons

They had the highest-scoring fantasy defense last year, so it makes sense that the San Diego Chargers would have the top-ranked unit to begin 2008. Surprisingly, this team generated its fewest sacks since 2004, but it still scored 12.4 fantasy points per game in ESPN standard leagues, thanks greatly to six defensive touchdowns and a whopping 30 interceptions. Cornerbacks Antonio Cromartie and Quentin Jammer lock down the outside, Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips are star linebackers and linemen Luis Castillo and Jamal Williams are immovable objects up front. … If you have a complaint about the Seattle Seahawks' defense, it's the lack of size, especially up front. But Patrick Kerney and Julian Peterson are sackmeisters, and cornerback Marcus Trufant finally lived up to his hype in '07. A steady offense and a weak division help as well. … The New York Giants might have the only defense that could withstand the retirement of Michael Strahan (although the added injury loss of Osi Umenyiora sure didn't help that). There will be games in which the Giants get burned because coordinator Steve Spagnuolo regularly sends the house to cover up for an average-at-best secondary. But Justin Tuck and Mathias Kiwanuka can still get after the quarterback, so this unit should hold up OK. … Even amid a season-long offensive meltdown, even with Brian Urlacher having a subpar year, even with injuries galore, the Chicago Bears continue to play winning fantasy football on defense. I'm not sold on Mike Brown coming back truly healthy, but tackle Tommie Harris and cornerback Charles Tillman should be all right, and Urlacher will be fine. … I continue to maintain that the Green Bay Packers' cornerbacks, Al Harris and Charles Woodson, are overrated and take too many risks. But there's a lot to like about that linebacking corps, including Nick Barnett and AJ Hawk, and that defensive line has some beasts: Aaron Kampman, Cullen Jenkins, Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila and Michael Montgomery rotate at end, while Ryan Pickett, Colin Cole and Daniel Muir rotate at tackle, and that's to say nothing of '07 first-rounder Justin Harrell, who'll look to improve on a disappointing rookie campaign. … The Indianapolis Colts have the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in Bob Sanders and shored up the NFL's worst rush defense from 2006 with a far stingier unit last year. There's definitely a lot of talent here. But whether or not Indy duplicates its strong fantasy performance from '07 depends mostly on Dwight Freeney's surgically repaired foot. He's supposed to be ready for training camp, and if he is, the pass rush should be good again. … At least in terms of the "buzz factor," the hottest fantasy defense this summer belongs to the Minnesota Vikings, who added defensive end Jared Allen to what was already one of the league's best defensive lines. Between Allen, Kevin Williams and Pat Williams, the Vikes should have the toughest D-line in the league. What worries me are the corners: Antoine Winfield and Cedric Griffin have big names, but they both proved to be burnable last year when opposing quarterbacks had time to throw. Of course, if the pass rush is as dominant as it appears to be, quarterbacks won't have time.

Not sexy, but they get the job done

Asante Samuel
Drew Hallowell/Getty ImagesThe Eagles' addition of Asante Samuel makes an already-good defense even better.
Every year, Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson tells you exactly what he's going to do, and every year teams struggle to stop it. The Eagles are all about pressure: They've registered 40 and 37 sacks, respectively, the past two years, and have scored 23 touchdowns in the past three seasons combined. Cornerback Asante Samuel comes over from New England to shut down one side of the field, and defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley looked like a different man in his second year. The NFC East is tough, but the Iggles always find a way on defense. … Speaking of veteran defensive coordinators who always find a way, meet Monte Kiffin of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bucs have reinvented themselves defensively on the fly every year, losing the famous players you know (Warren Sapp, Simeon Rice, John Lynch, Brian Kelly, et al), filling in with new players (Jovan Haye, Gaines Adams, Barrett Ruud, Tanard Jackson, et al), and rarely skipping a beat. The "Tampa 2" defense is still in effect, which means this will never be an elite defense in terms of sacks, but they rarely get beaten with big plays, and they don't allow many points. … One interesting, under-the-radar coaching change took place on the Jacksonville Jaguars' defense, where conservative coordinator Mike Smith left to be Atlanta's head coach, and blitz-happy Gregg Williams replaces him in Jacksonville. That's exciting news for the possibility of more sacks from Mike Peterson, Paul Spicer and Rob Meier, but it also introduces more risk into a defense that showed cracks against the run last year. Still, with two good cover corners in Rashean Mathis and Drayton Florence, I don't expect to see the Jags beaten deep often.

Falling down

There are still big names galore on the Baltimore Ravens' defense, but don't be fooled again. Sure, a lot of what ailed the Ravens last year can be traced to injuries to starting corners Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle. But those guys are both over 30 now and still starting, so more missed time is a real possibility, and Baltimore blitzes so much that they're almost forced to play man-to-man coverage outside. No, it's not like I suddenly think teams will run like crazy on Ray Lewis and Co. But they don't have to, not when it's easy to throw. … The Pittsburgh Steelers will still be good on defense, but I don't think they'll be among the league's best in '08. I still don't buy Deshea Townsend as a starting corner, and too many times in '07, passing offenses put together big days against the Steelers (the past two seasons, Pittsburgh has allowed 20 or more points in 14 of 32 regular-season games, compared to nine such games the two previous seasons). The Steelers also could have some trouble stopping the run. Defensive end Brett Keisel is a good pass-rusher, but he struggled to disrupt running plays last year, and Larry Foote is a good blitzer but isn't stout at the point of attack. … Gone are Kris Jenkins and Mike Rucker, and gone are the days when the Carolina Panthers had an elite defense. I still think the secondary is decent, with guys like Chris Gamble and Ken Lucas manning the corners, but Julius Peppers looked like a shell of himself last season, and it seemed like middle linebacker Jon Beason had to make every tackle himself. This unit was 18th against the run and 17th against the pass in '07. In other words, it was far shy of a top fantasy defense, and will be again in 2008.

Sleepers

Albert Haynesworth
Charles Small/US PresswireAlbert Haynesworth almost single-handedly made the Titans' defense a unit to contend with.
Through nine games last year, Albert Haynesworth looked like the league's Defensive MVP, having registered 26 tackles, five sacks and four passes defended from his spot in the middle of the Tennessee Titans' defensive line. Unfortunately, Haynesworth hurt his leg and was a shell of himself thereafter. But when healthy, he's a top run-stuffer, and he makes the Titans' defense go. Without the Pacman Jones distraction, and with Kyle Vanden Bosch back for another stint as Haynesworth's running mate, the Titans could surprise in '08. … The Buffalo Bills were crushed by injuries on defense last year, and they were one of the easiest teams to run against (just as they had been the two years prior). But this winter they added former Jaguar Marcus Stroud to their defensive line and run-stopping linebacker Kawika Mitchell, too. Once opposing offenses discover that it's not quite so easy to jam it down the Bills' collective throat, they'll find it fun to pick on corners Terrence McGee, Jabari Greer and Ashton Youboty. That said, there's enough talent here in a division with one behemoth and two kittens that the Buffalo D could wind up being interesting. … The Arizona Cardinals finished 14th in defensive fantasy scoring last year, and they did it the hard way. They scored double-digit fantasy points on six occasions, and they scored four fantasy points or fewer on eight occasions. Calvin Pace is gone on the outside, but Chike Okeafor should return from his torn triceps at one outside linebacker spot, and the team signed Travis LaBoy to compete with Bertrand Berry at right defensive end. Now, I'm not a huge LaBoy fan, and Eric Green and Roderick Hood don't sound like a big-league corner tandem to me. But between Karlos Dansby, Adrian Wilson (recovering from his torn Achilles) and Darnell Dockett, Arizona still has some exciting playmakers. I'd like 'em better with Pace, but even without him, the Cards are intriguing. … The Washington Redskins were fantasy's 15th-rated defense last season, despite the Sean Taylor tragedy and other injuries across the secondary. This season, Washington welcomes Jason Taylor and his 10-plus sacks (he's recorded at least 9.5 sacks every season since 2002) to a defensive line that registered a middle-of-the-pack 33 sacks last season and otherwise struggled to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks in key spots. There are questions at corner: Carlos Rogers is recovering from torn knee ligaments and Shawn Springs is 33 years old. But Andre Carter finally seems to "get it" at the defensive end spot opposite Taylor, and London Fletcher is solid in the middle.

Draft strategy

I just don't like taking fantasy defenses early. Period. Everyone and their dog was sold on the Ravens as the top defense last year, so much so that they were the 62nd fantasy "player" taken in the average ESPN draft. Oops. Now, I grant you that in 2006, the Bears were the consensus No. 1 defense, and they wound up performing as the second-best fantasy defense, justifying the fact that, on average, they were taken 63rd overall. Still, I think it's a mistake to feel as though just because you've finished picking all your starters at quarterback, running back, wide receiver and tight end, you should ignore good running back and wide receiver backups to take a defense right away. There are always defensive bargains to be found later in drafts, and even if you make a bad pick, at least half the defenses in the NFL will be sitting on your waiver wire, ready to be plucked. I'd rather take a chance with fliers at other positions and wait until, say, the 12th round or later in a 10-team draft to grab a defense. It's worth noting that while in our top-200 overall fantasy rankings, the Chargers' defense comes in at No. 91, that's because we believe on waiting for a defense. There's little doubt that in most drafts, the first defense (whether it's San Diego's or not) will go before then. But don't be suckered and follow suit. Also, whereas you might worry about drafting bye-week fill-ins at QB, RB and WR, do not worry about that with your defense. You'll be able to grab a one-week substitution in the middle of the season.

Auction strategy

I won't go so far as to say you must spend only one dollar on your fantasy defense, which is what I did suggest in my kickers preview. But don't go much higher, people. If someone goes hog wild early and bids $7 for the Chargers 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. Just don't.

Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner. You can e-mail him here.