Best Defense for Fantasy 2023 (Updated August)
What is the Best Defense for Fantasy Football?
If you’re looking for a single team to answer that question, then you’re probably going to wind up disappointed.
Counting on one defense throughout a season is not going to yield you the best fantasy defense every week – or even most weeks.
Why? Two key reasons that both spring from the volatility of DST (defense and special teams) scoring. So let’s start there.
Want to Add a Dimension to Your League?
Team defenses are fine. But using individual defensive players really spotlights that side of the ball. And IDPs add a fun challenge to your league.
How Does DST Scoring Work?
Most fantasy football leagues score team defenses on these categories:
- Points allowed
- Fumble recoveries
At 6 points per TD, that category (including defensive scores, kick returns and punt returns) often produces wide swings. Pick a DST that happens to find the end zone in a given week, and you’ve almost certainly got a top-12 unit.
The problem: Those scoring plays aren’t predictable.
Four players have intercepted at least 20 passes over the past five years. Those four guys have combined for just 4 TD returns.
S Daniel Sorensen has three himself on just 10 INTs over the same span. (He doesn’t currently have a job.)
More Unpredictable Categories
It’s not just the TDs. INTs are volatile. The same players rarely top the leaderboard in that category year to year.
Fumble recoveries are even less predictable. And even sack totals fluctuate.
We’re still interested in team defenses that can make big plays. We want stud pass rushers and DBs who get their hands on the ball in coverage.
But as far as DST scoring categories go, points allowed is the one we want to chase the most.
Target Positive Matchups
The first reason you shouldn’t just count on a single fantasy defense every week is the volatility of most scoring categories. The other is the volatility of opponents.
There will certainly be team defenses better at limiting opponent scoring than others. But if one of those top fantasy defenses is playing the Chiefs, then you’ll probably want to start a different DST instead.
Strength of Schedule is just 1 of 17 value indicators at work in your Draft War Room
Best Fantasy Defenses Based on Early-Season Schedule
Pay attention to the schedule throughout the season and play the matchups. These three fantasy defenses get some attractive early matchups and are likely to linger on your draft board.
- New Orleans Saints
- Denver Broncos
- Jacksonville Jaguars
New Orleans Saints
The Saints open at home against Tennessee, which finished last season 28th in points and 30th in yards. Week 2 holds a visit to Carolina and rookie QB Bryce Young.
A Week 3 trip to Green Bay could be another spot to start the Saints or not, depending on how Jordan Love fares over the first two weeks.
But a Week 4 home date with the Buccaneers looks like a spot to use this fantasy defense.
The Broncos open with a pair of home dates against offenses with downside risk.
First come the Raiders, who sport a limited ceiling even with a healthy QB Jimmy Garoppolo. The former 49er will be making his first start with a new team and his first start since offseason foot surgery.
After that comes the Commanders, likely led by new starter Sam Howell – a 2022 fifth-round pick.
The Jaguars were probably a better fantasy defense than you realized in 2022. They finished among the 12 best fantasy defenses nine times in 17 games, with a median weekly finish of 11th. Only four fantasy defenses beat that.
Jacksonville opens on the road against the Colts, who will either be starting Gardner Minshew or rookie Anthony Richardson behind center. Either makes for an upside matchup.
You won’t want to play the Jaguars in Week 2 against the Chiefs. But after that come home dates against the Texans and Falcons.
That seems like enough to justify carrying a second Week 2 fantasy defense.
Best Fantasy Defenses for 2023
Of course, there will be some defenses that are just better than others overall. These five defenses lead our fantasy football rankings.
You won’t find them up top if you check the site rankings. But those rankings also won’t be specific to your league.
Fortunately, you can customize your own cheat sheet to see which will be the best defense for fantasy football in your particular league.
1. Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens made a big rebound in the pass rush last season, jumping to 48 sacks after finishing with 37, 39, and 34 the previous three years. But why should we believe that will continue?
Only one player (Justin Houston) tallied more than 5.5 sacks. So the improvement was spread around a defense that leaped from 28th in Football Outsiders DVOA in 2021 to seventh last season.
Baltimore locked in LB Roquan Smith with a big contract after acquiring him via trade. The team also made some secondary moves and appears to be hoping former first-round Edge Odafe Oweh steps up in Year 3.
The Ravens climbed ahead of the Patriots in these ranks after further schedule analysis. New England gets challenging matchups with the Eagles, Jets, Cowboys among the first four weeks. Baltimore opens with the Texans and then finds several more favorable spots over the season's first half.
2. New England Patriots
The Patriots led last year’s best fantasy defenses, and the same team basically never finishes first for two straight years. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bet on New England.
The Pats benefited from 8 combined defensive and special-teams TDs. But they ranked fourth in DST scoring even if you remove all TDs.
Plus, New England does well perennially at creating turnovers and scoring defensive TDs. No team has averaged more INTs or more defensive scores over the past three years.
After a tough four-week stretch to open, the Pats host New Orleans and then visit Las Vegas in consecutive games.
3. Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles racked up 15 more sacks than any other team last season. That’s not likely to happen again, but that doesn’t mean the performance was a fluke.
Philly finished 14 of 17 weeks among the 12 best fantasy defenses. And the three times they didn’t included Week 18, when the Eagles rested many starters after clinching the NFC’s top seed.
This year’s version has to replace two LBs and both safeties. But the front seven added first-round DT Jalen Carter to an already stellar group. And a strong CB duo remains.
4. San Francisco 49ers
The Niners finished third among fantasy defenses last year (by ESPN scoring). A league-high-tying 20 INTs played a key role -- and is a good bet for regression.
San Francisco hadn't exceeded 12 INTs since 2014. But no other categories presented outlier numbers. And the defense ranked No. 1 in Football Outsiders' DVOA.
Then it added free-agent DT Javon Hargrave. Plus DL Arik Armstead missed half the season, and LB Dre Greenlaw lost 2+ games
This season opens with upside matchups at the Steelers and Rams. Home dates with the Giants and Cardinals the next two weeks look usable as well.
5. Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys have finished two straight seasons ranked second in the league in defensive DVOA. They proved third-best against the pass and fifth against the run last year.
The unit should be just as good this year after adding CB Stephon Gilmore and first-round DT Mazi Smith to otherwise basically the same cast.
Micah Parsons has turned into a full-time edge player -- and one of the best in the league. Sam Williams, a second-round pick last season, adds further upside to the pass rush.
Draft Your DST Late
Why shouldn't you reach for a top fantasy defense? Because you don't need to.
Eight fantasy defenses posted a median weekly finish of 12th or better last season, with no DST doing better than a median finish of eighth (New England).
Thirteen more had a median weekly finish of 15th or better. And 14 defenses posted at least eight top-12 weeks.
Why does median matter? Because that finds the midpoint in a range of weekly scores that fluctuate quite a bit.
We got similar numbers the previous two years.
In 2021, 13 fantasy defenses had a median finish of 12th or better. Seven more had a median of 15th or better.
In 2020, 11 teams had a median of 12th or better; 19 teams hit 15th or better.
Early DST Does Not = 'Best'
What does that all mean? You're not likely to get significantly better performance from a team defense that you draft early than another that you can select later.
Keep an eye on the schedule -- and our in-season Strength of Schedule -- and play the matchups.
What About Your League?
There's no single scoring format that applies to all fantasy football leagues. Yours is likely unique in some way.
That's why you you'll want to customize your own Draft War Room, so you'll know exactly when it makes sense to grab one of the best fantasy defenses in your specific draft.
This 6-minute video will tell you more about the most dynamic draft tool in fantasy football ...