Defense/special teams units are among fantasy football’s biggest mysteries. The most prudent strategy is often to wait or stream defenses week-to-week, and reaching in the mid-rounds can prove to be a useless investment. But if you strike gold (like with New England in 2019), it could win you your league.
We would still suggest that you wait on drafting a defense until much later – the best team-building strategy is often to take swings at the RB and WR position and save a defense until the final two rounds. But there are times when all of your guys are off the board and it makes sense for you to get a premier option at the position.
If that happens, here are our rankings for the top units in 2020:
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh has everything a fantasy player could want out of a D/ST: a trio of outstanding pass rushers in T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree and Cam Heyward, a ball-hawking safety in Minkah Fitzpatrick (who logged five picks after coming over from Miami), and a soft start to the season – they get turnover-prone Daniel Jones and the Giants Week 1, then take on a Broncos team with an unknown QB and a new offensive system Week 2.
2. Baltimore Ravens
Baltimore finished as the fourth-best D/ST last year despite not having much of a pass rush. That shouldn’t be a problem in 2020, as they added Calais Campbell (for a fifth-round pick!) and Derek Wolfe. Not only will those additions add to the sack totals, they should open the door for Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey to log more takeaways.
3. San Francisco 49ers
Many would rank San Francisco as the best defense in the NFL, but their line may take a hit after they shipped DeForest Buckner, one of the best defensive players in the league, to the Colts. They still have Nick Bosa, who could emerge as the NFL’s best pass rusher by the end of the season. One thing to note: their division is loaded, and they could end up in some shootouts.
4. Buffalo Bills
Buffalo is loaded with talent at all levels of the defense, especially in the secondary: Tre’Davious White is among the game’s best corners, and Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer form an elite safety duo. They also play in the AFC East, which features a number of, uh, questionable offenses.
5. Chicago Bears
Chicago took a step back after a dominant, fantasy league-winning showing in 2018, but they lost Akiem Hicks for much of the season, the McCartney to Khalil Mack’s Lennon. Hicks should return, and they added Robert Quinn in free agency, who is a much better pass rusher than Leonard Floyd. The offense could also be bad, making for some low-scoring, grind-it-out games. Plus they have Cordarrelle Patterson returning kicks, who could take one or two to the house.
6. New England Patriots
As was the case for the Bears in 2018, the Patriots were the top-scoring D/ST with a ludicrous turnover differential in 2019 (+21, best in NFL), which is a stat that almost always comes down to Earth. They also had a cupcake schedule and lost several defensive players (Dont’a Hightower, Patrick Chung) to opt-outs. Still, they have arguably the best secondary in the NFL, and some guy named Bill Belichick calling plays.
7. New Orleans Saints
New Orleans has a tremendous unit at all three levels: defensive line (Cameron Jordan, Marcus Davenport), linebacker (Demario Davis) and secondary (Marshon Lattimore, Marcus Williams). They might, however, be slightly better in real life than in a fantasy format, where you go negative when the opposing team scores. They play in a division with explosive offenses, in a dome, and score a ton themselves, lending themselves to shootouts.
8. Denver Broncos
Vic Fangio is one of the best defensive minds in football, and he now has a healthy Von Miller and Bradley Chubb entering year two of his system, as well as new addition CB AJ Bouye. Denver is another team that had bad turnover luck in 2019 (just 17 takeaways), and it wouldn’t be shocking to see that number swing back in the other direction.
9. Los Angeles Rams
The other LA team has finished in the top ten of fantasy D/STs for the past three seasons. You know you’re going to get 15+ sacks from Aaron Donald alone, and while Jalen Ramsey did not play like he was worth two first-round picks in 2019, he’s still an elite player.
10. Minnesota Vikings
Trading for Yannick Ngakoue was massive for Minnesota, as they now have two excellent pass rushers (Danielle Hunter being the other) to complement the best safety duo in the NFL. The issue here is the cornerbacks – some combination of Mike Hughes, Holton Hill, Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler will be taking the snaps, and they may give up some points.