As fantasy football owners tinker with their lineups before the start of the new season, there might be no more difficult decision to make than which defense, or D/ST, to start in Week 1.
While historically there are some teams known for fielding top notch defenses, the Seattle Seahawks are the only proven D/ST owners can truly bank on at the start of the season. Seattle returns the majority of its top ranked group in cornerback Richard Sherman, safety Earl Thomas, linebacker Bobby Wagner, and defensive ends Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, and should once again be atop the league in points allowed, the main way D/STs collect fantasy points for owners.
Every year there are one or two outlier D/STs that seemingly come from nowhere like Philadelphia leading every D/ST with 176 total points last season, and Arizona finishing No. 5 with 165 points in 2013, according to FantasyData.com. But picking an Arizona or Philadelphia to emerge is no different than lobbing darts at a wall covered with team logos while blindfolded.
The truth is no one, not even the real teams, will know the full capabilities of their defenses until roughly the third or fourth week of the season.
But until then, the best way for fantasy owners to decide their D/ST for Week 1 stems from the additions and subtractions each squad made in the offseason.
With that in mind, here are five DSTs owners should consider starting thanks to some new personnel as well as the opponents they will face.
Opponent: at Washington
Promising defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh more than $114 million completely revamped a Miami defensive line that was tied at No. 16 with 39 sacks a year ago. Washington will need to double-cover Suh at the line, which should only open holes for defensive ends Cameron Wake and Oliver Vernon to feast on quarterback Kirk Cousins.
Washington also did little to improve an offensive line that allowed 58 sacks last season, the second-worst mark in the league, and rookie guard Brandon Scherff seems likely to start on opening day with no other lineman on the Redskins rotation possessing more than four years of experience in the NFL.
Opponent: at San Francisco
The Vikings finished last season No. 7 against the pass, No. 25 versus the run, forced 41 sacks and 13 interceptions, and didn’t lose a single piece of their young defensive squad. They added veteran corner Terence Newman and drafted rookie corner Trae Waynes, promising defensive end Danielle Hunter, and linebackers Eric Kendricks and Edmond Robinson to shore up the run defense.
With star safety Harrison Smith holding down the middle of the field, the Vikings could be one of the top defensive clubs in the league this year and San Francisco might be in trouble at home.
The 49ers have an underwhelming group of receivers in Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith, and will go with unproven second-year running back Carlos Hyde behind quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who’s still a work in progress as a pocket passer.
Opponent: at Buffalo
The league’s deepest group of linebackers, led by D’Qwell Jackson, Erik Walden, and Jerrell Freeman, returns to terrorize a Bills offensive line protecting a quarterback in Tyrod Taylor who will be making his first career start and has completed 19 total passes in his four-year career.
Defensive tackle is an issue after Arthur Jones went down with an injury before the end of the preseason, but the Colts should be able to subdue Buffalo’s main weapon, running back LeSean McCoy, with linebackers Bjoern Werner and the recently-traded-for Sio Moore from Oakland helping to clog up the middle.
Indy put up 41 sacks last season and was 10th in the league with 26 total takeaways, more than half of which came from 14 recovered fumbles. Taylor seems ripe for the picking, and the Colts should generate several of turnovers against a limited Bills offense.
Kansas City Chiefs
Opponent: at Houston
This isn’t to say J.J. Watt and the Texans will have a bad game, but the new-look Chiefs offense should put up enough points to make Houston’s incredible defense look human in Week 1. There are simply too many weapons in running back Jamaal Charles, new receiver Jeremy Maclin, and playmaking tight end Travis Kelce to suggest the Chiefs can’t put up points, even against Watt.
On the flip side, K.C. and top pass rusher Justin Houston have a simpler task in slowing the Texans offense. Houston will miss No. 1 running back Arian Foster with second-year back Alfred Blue in his place, is still working in new starting quarterback Brian Hoyer, and the only proven receiving threat is DeAndre Hopkins.
The Chiefs can counter with Houston, linebacker Tamba Hali, strong safety Ron Parker, and impressive rookie cornerback Marcus Peters, who fought his way from first-round pick to the starting lineup this summer.
The biggest surprise start is also the only home team on this list. There’s a lot to love about the Raiders defense this season, especially along the defensive line. New additions like linebackers Curtis Lofton and former Seahawks Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith, free safety Nate Allen, and defensive tackle Dan Williams join budding star Khalil Mack against a run-centered Bengals offense.
Cincinnati should rely heavily on backs Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard, but Oakland can respond with its bevy of linebackers up the middle with Smith falling back to help Allen against receiver A.J. Green or emerging tight end Tyler Eifert. This figures to be a low-scoring affair, with Oakland coming out on top.