Fantasy football owners often, and rightly, wait until the closing rounds of their drafts to select a defense (D/ST) that’s either still available and or was simply the highest ranked unit left on the board. It’s a fantasy position that most spend little time fretting over since week-to-week your D/ST is highly unlikely to be the highest scorer in your starting lineup.
However, based on stats from FantasyData.com, the difference between a good D/St and a bad one is more than six points on average each week. Last season, the Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs defenses were tied as the best in fantasy with 10.9 points per week, while the woeful San Francisco 49ers were the worst at a mere 4.0 points a game.
As league drafts get underway in the next couple of weeks, the first D/ST’s off the board are the most recent lineup of usual suspects. The Broncos, Seattle Seahawks, Arizona Cardinals, Carolina Panthers, and Houston Texans are the first five defenses off the board, according to FantasyPros.com.
Yet, assuming you’re in a standard 12-team league, increasing your chances of landing any of those five D/STs means spending a pick as high as the 10th or 11th round. That’s a spot in most drafts where a solid third wide receiver, backup tight end, or a running back with high sleeper potential could be unearthed.
So rather than face a lack of depth at running back, receiver, or tight end, owners can still wait until the late teen rounds to select their defense.
Here are four defenses who could surprise owners and their respective fantasy leagues and become respectable to very good defenses during the 2016 season. Each pick includes the D/ST’s current average draft position (ADP) from FantasyPros.com.
Washington Redskins (ADP: 20.0)
Thanks to ranking eighth in turnovers forced, the Redskins finished last season as the 13th highest scoring fantasy D/ST with 8.0 points a game despite allowing the 17th most points in the NFL. With the addition of former Carolina Panthers All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman, ex-Indianapolis Colts corner Greg Toler, and Super Bowl winning strong safety David Bruton to the secondary, Washington’s quickly revamped its pass defense and could be poised for a breakout fantasy year. As the 20th D/ST off the board, owners may not have to spend a draft pick on Washington and could wait until waivers or free agency has started.
Oakland Raiders (ADP: 12.0)
Even with a middling pass rush totaling 38 sacks and allowing the 10th most points in the NFL last season, the Raiders still put up a respectable 6.3 fantasy points a week last season. But like our last two sleeper picks, Oakland spent the third-most money during free agency ($169.4 million) and its first three draft picks on some high-quality rookies to spruce up its defense. The additions of cornerback Sean Smith and linebacker Bruce Irvin make Oakland stronger and take a little pressure off All-Pro linebacker/pass rusher Khalil Mack.
Jacksonville Jaguars (ADP: 16.0)
No one promised more money to players in the offseason than the Jaguars (more than $224 million) and half of that went to ex-Bronco defensive tackle Malik Jackson and former Cleveland Browns free safety Tashaun Gipson. Head coach Gus Bradley’s defense needed both of those guys as Jacksonville was 29th in passing yards allowed, 19th in passing touchdowns surrendered, and just 20th in sacks. Still, the Jaguars didn’t have rookie pass rusher Dante Fowler, who suffered a major knee injury before even signing his contract last year, and many praised Jacksonville’s work on draft night, a haul that included cornerback Jalen Ramsey and linebacker Myles Jack. Going further, Jacksonville spent six of its seven picks on defenders and it should be loaded this season.
New York Giants (ADP: 21.0)
New York was second to Jacksonville with $208.7 million divvied out to free agents, and none were bigger than defensive end Olivier Vernon and cornerback Janoris Jenkins. The Giants desperately needed some fresh blood on defense after ranking last in yards and third-worst in points allowed in 2015. But it’s very possible Vernon and Jenkins, with the help of rookies like first-round cornerback Eli Apple and third-round safety Darian Thompson, could drag New York at least back to the middle of the fantasy D/ST pack. Like Washington, the Giants will probably go undrafted in your league, so perhaps keep a watch on them as the season progresses and aim for a waiver pick-up.