2019 Team Defense Strategy
We project the team defenses for the coming season, just like we do every other position that’ll be part of your fantasy football draft. The difference here is that you probably shouldn’t bother using them.
It’s not that we don’t believe the Bears will lead the league in fantasy points, or that the Bears and Steelers should battle for the NFL lead in sacks. It’s just that no defense is likely to deliver you starter value all year.
First, you can’t count on last year’s defense to repeat. In fact, no team D dating back to 2001 has repeated as fantasy’s top-scoring unit in standard fantasy scoring.
Would we bet on the Bears being a pretty good defense again? Yes. Of course. Does that mean you should draft them? No.
Even the Bears -- who outscored their nearest competitor in the D/ST standings by 25% last year -- only delivered 11 starter weeks among their 16 games. The Rams (who finished 2nd in NFL.com’s rankings) posted 10 such weeks. And 3 defenses provided 9 top-12 finishes, 8 others delivered 8 and 7 made the top 12 seven times.
All together, that’s 20 defenses who offered up at least 7 starter weeks. Only 3 posted fewer than 5 such weeks.
But this isn’t an article about not drafting the Bears D. (Well, actually, it kinda is.) Your MVP Board will almost certainly already keep you from doing that.
What we want to do here is figure out how to attack the D/ST position in our upcoming drafts and beyond.
Whenever possible throughout the season, you’ll want to target positive matchups in selecting your starting defense. That’s not even a controversial statement at this point.
“Streaming” defenses has become so prevalent that you might need to look a week or 2 ahead to have a shot at claiming the positive-matchup D for a given week. But let’s take a minute to look at a little bit of the why.
In last year’s edition of this article, I looked at how much each spot in the rankings can impact your scoring. I did so by looking back over every year of fantasy points allowed in the NFL.com database, dating back to 2010.
First I found the 9-year median for each spot in the rankings. Then I found the median for the whole set (7.41 fantasy points, in this format). And then I compared each ranking spot with that overall median. Here are the results:
Over the past 9 years, the most generous matchups for your team defenses have added about 75% to the median scoring. The top 9 matchups have added 20+%. The bottom 10, meanwhile, have taken away 20+% vs. the median. And the low matchup has removed nearly two-thirds of your scoring potential.
Where Does the Scoring Come From?
You know the main scoring categories for team defenses in most fantasy leagues. But which one(s) most strongly impact the fantasy points. Let’s check out the correlations over the past 9 years …
The median correlations between fantasy points allowed to team defenses and sacks allowed, INTs allowed, fumble recoveries allowed and defensive TDs allowed all checked in between 0.42 and 0.56.
The solo orange line at the bottom of the graph, meanwhile, represents offensive points scored. And the 0.77 negative correlation makes it the most closely tied to fantasy scoring. (It’s a negative correlation because fewer points scored for the offense means more fantasy points scored for the defense.)
Projecting the Matchups
Unfortunately, none of the stats above carries over especially strongly year to year. Offensive scoring is the strongest, though, over the aforementioned span. So with an eye on that, an eye on which offenses supplied the most fantasy points to team defenses last year and -- of course -- attention paid to offseason changes, here’s how we’re breaking down the matchups for 2019:
Favorable (green in the schedule grid below)
The Colts joined this group with Andrew Luck’s surprise retirement. They supplied the league’s 4th most fantasy points to opponent defenses back in 2017, when Jacoby Brissett last filled in for Luck (shoulder surgery).
The Cardinals have generated plenty of buzz throughout the offseason for their offensive upside. They’ll need to prove they’re not a positive matchup, though. Kyler Murray looks dangerous, but he’s also a rookie QB bound to endure at least some struggles, working behind a shoddy offensive line and in an offensive scheme making its pro debut
The Lions presented a positive matchup for defenses overall last year. Their increased focus on the run game this season isn’t likely to boost their scoring (and thus make them more dangerous as a matchup).
The rest of this list shouldn’t prove too controversial.
There’s turnover upside (for opponent defenses) to several of these offenses, and some could certainly turn into positive matchups overall. It’s tempting to move the Titans from this range into favorable, but they have hovered in neutral range for the past 3 seasons.
Is it premature to put Cleveland in this category? Maybe. But the Browns jumped from 18.6 points per game under HC Hue Jackson last season to 23.8 per game after he got the boot. Turnovers were up in the 2nd half, but I’d bet on that improving in Baker Mayfield’s 2nd season. And he owned the league’s 10th-lowest sack rate in 2018, despite being a rookie behind an iffy O-line.
The Seahawks might not look like a scary offense, but they have finished every season of Russell Wilson’s 7-year career as a negative scoring matchup for team defenses.
We all know we can’t possibly get all of those projections right. Some team will drastically outperform or underperform vs. expectations. Some team will prove much tougher at home than on the road. And some matchups will just wind up going against what we should reasonably expect. (Remember last year’s Week 2 Bills-Vikings game?)
But we seem to have a reasonable starting point for placing these offenses in appropriate matchup buckets. So now let’s look at every schedule …
Whether a defense was home or away didn’t generally make a huge difference last year for producing higher fantasy scores. Traditionally, though, you’re better off betting on a favored home defense than a team on the road.
For the purpose of this exercise, though, I just marked the matchups by team, without altering for home/away.
Here are the defenses with the most favorable matchups:
7: Cowboys, Chiefs, Patriots, Eagles, Titans
And these defenses face the most negative matchups:
8: Buccaneers, 49ers, Cardinals
7: Falcons, Seahawks
Of course, getting those favorable matchups bunched together and spacing out the bad ones are what will help us target the proper defenses at appropriate times. So let’s break it down a little further.
Top target: Chargers
Luck’s retirement turned the Week 1 Colts visit into a strong positive matchup. That bolsters a defense that just might be starter-worthy until its Week 11 clash with the Chiefs.
L.A. sports 4 favorable matchups among the first 5 games. A visiting Houston team will bring a high-powered offense but also lots of sack upside. Getting the Steelers at home rather than in Pittsburgh makes that a better matchup as well.
And the Chargers look worth holding through the Chiefs matchup and their Week 12 bye. At Denver, at Jacksonville, home for Minnesota and home for Oakland could carry you through your fantasy playoffs.
Other Good Starts
High-Ranking Defenses to Avoid Early
Other Stretches to Keep in Mind
Browns’ 2nd half (Week 9 on)
Eagles’ final 5 weeks
Jets’ weeks 8-14 (we’ll see if the D merits consideration)
We'll have our weekly streaming article going for the regular season again to highlight the top options throughout the year.