Best-Ball Notebook: Defense/Special Teams


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Best-Ball Notebook: Defense/Special Teams

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Now that we’ve covered all four of the major positions in the best-ball notebook series it’s time to turn our heads to everyone’s favorite position to draft: D/ST. Defensive scoring can be tricky and frustrating on a weekly basis, but in best-ball leagues with no weekly management, we should never just treat the position carelessly. It seems like a common theme among most drafters is to just act like D/ST doesn’t really matter and any defense will do as long as the ones you pick don’t have the same bye. That’s an easy way to lose an edge.

Best-ball leagues are not just won and lost by picking the right players. Appropriate roster construction is just as important. Not only are we trying to outscore 11 opponents over the full season but you’re also trying to beat the game with so. With finite roster spots (20) and mandatory minimums at quarterback (must have 2), running back (4), wide receiver (6), and tight end (2) -- there is inherently limited flexibility at defense. In fact, nearly 75% of the team’s drafted in Fanball’s BB10s this year have taken only two defenses.

But, just because D/ST is the last position we think of on our teams doesn’t mean we can just ignore it until the final two rounds. You rarely ever want to be the first person in your league to draft a defense in any fantasy league but waiting until the last minute to take your D/ST is a surefire way to lose out on upside.

SharpFootball’s Rich Hribar studied win rates over the last three years of BB10s and found that the sweet spot for D/ST was not in the final two rounds but instead in the Round 16-18 range. Hribar saw that drafters that sprung for a D/ST too early (Round 14-15) only managed a 7.5% win rate while waiting until Round 19 for your first defense yielded virtually the same result (7.6% win rate). Instead, drafting your first D/ST in Round 16 (8.9% win rate), Round 17 (9.5% win rate), or in Round 18 (9.6%) is clearly more optimal.

Drafting 3 defenses can be an optimal strategy in best-ball too but only under certain conditions. For example, let’s say you go with the three late-round QB approach we previously discussed. If you also take three D/ST along with three QBs, you’re automatically putting more pressure on your depth at other positions because at least 8 of your 20 total roster spots will have been spent on positions where we only need to start one player (QB/TE/Defense).

Taking 3 D/ST in best-ball leagues makes sense if you have 2 QBs and 2 TEs that can be standalone weekly starters. Let’s say you paired Dak Prescott-Matthew Stafford and Mark Andrews-Hayden Hurst on a team. In this situation, it could make sense to draft 3 D/ST since you’re not hurting your other onesie positions (QB/TE) in doing so and the late-rounds are filled with duds at RB/WR anyway. Drafting that third D/ST could be a bigger net advantage to your team than an 8th WR or 7th RB that may never even come close to cracking your starting lineup.

Remember, best-ball is a game of opportunity cost. When you pick one position, it affects another. For that reason, I recommend taking your first defense in the 17th or 18th round in almost all leagues. We know we don’t want to rely on replacement-level production and, as you will read below, that particular ADP range is full of chock full of great options.

Wins and sacks drive D/ST scoring

To know which stats matter most for fantasy defenses, I went back and looked at the past three seasons of scoring data and ran some correlation figures for various stats. The most influential stat in terms of positive correlation to fantasy points wasn’t touchdowns scored, turnovers, or sacks. It was winning.

INT% (INT/pass attempts)0.65
Fumbles forced0.43
TDs Scored0.36
YPC Allowed-0.05
Rush Yds Allowed-0.34
Pass Yds Allowed-0.39
Points Allowed-0.51
YPA Allowed-0.65

Correlation does not always equal causation, but in this case, it makes perfect sense. Winning correlates to more fantasy points at defense. Why? Because when defenses are ahead on the scoreboard, the other team is likely throwing the ball to keep up. When the opposing offense is forced to the air more, those extra pass attempts allow defenses to have more opportunities to rack up sacks and turnovers. This has a broader application to DFS lineups, too. If you’re trying to decide between two similarly priced defenses and one is a +1 underdog and the other is a -3 favorite, the best decision over the long run would be to play the favorite.

Also, note that yards per pass attempt (YPA) allowed is significantly more influential on D/ST fantasy scoring than yards per carry (YPC) allowed. That’s because how well teams are passing dictates how the majority of NFL games go; and, as a result, passing dictates defensive scoring.

16th-18th Round D/ST to target

Buffalo -- The Bills allowed the league’s third-lowest yards per attempt (6.2) last year just behind the Patriots (6.0) and 49ers (5.9) and, outside of now-Dolphin DE Shaq Lawson, they are bringing back the entire nucleus of their defense again in 2020. If Josh Norman can return to form now that he’s out of Washington and in a new scheme alongside All-Pro CB Tre’Davious White, the Bills will have one of the deepest CB corps in the NFL. 33-year-old Mario Addison was brought in to replace Lawson and he obviously has familiarity with HC Sean McDermott from their days in Carolina together.

New Orleans -- The Saints go off of the board over 20 spots later than the consensus top-3 defenses in drafts this year (49ers, Steelers, and Ravens) and are my top value at the position. The Saints (10.5) have a comparable win total to the Ravens (11.5) and 49ers (10.5) and have been one of the most consistent units in the league. New Orleans has finished top-12 in fantasy points and top-10 in sacks over the last three years and now have added S Malcolm Jenkins to an already talented secondary headlined by CBs Marshon Lattimore and Janoris Jenkins.

Kansas City -- The Chiefs (11.5) are tied with the Ravens for the highest win total in the NFL and just finished 10th in sacks a year ago, but they are the 8th-11th D/ST off of the board in most leagues. Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs high-powered offense will always force their opponents to throw to keep up, which will lead to more opportunities for sacks/turnovers for their defense. Kansas City has finished 5th in fantasy points in back-to-back seasons but they aren’t drafted anywhere near the top-5 defenses.

Philadelphia -- The Eagles win total (9.5) is the same exact figure as the Steelers (9.5) and, even though there is reason to believe their defense gets better in 2020, Philly is only the D/ST16 in average draft position. Malcolm Jenkins’ loss is a big one but the Eagles have finally decided to plan to cover opposing wideouts. Adding Darius Slay is a massive upgrade and slot CB Nickell Robey-Coleman will provide consistency underneath. Philadelphia’s strength has always been along their defensive line and their core that finished 6th in the NFL in pressures last season are all back. Because they are so cheap and such a great value based on win total and talent, the Eagles are my most-drafted D/ST in best-ball this year.

L.A. Rams -- The Rams have finished 5th, 2nd, and 3rd in fantasy points per game over the last three seasons but are the No. 12 D/ST off of the board in best-ball. DC Wade Phillips is gone and the Rams will have to replace 2019 starters Dante Fowler/Corey Littleton/Nickell Robey-Coleman/Eric Weddle, but Fowler’s absence is really the only major loss after he recorded 11.5 sacks last year. Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey are still the lifeblood of the defense and the Rams win total (9.0) is the exact same as the Patriots and Vikings, but both New England and Minnesota go earlier than L.A.

No. 2 D/ST Targets

Indianapolis -- The Colts made some big moves this offseason on defense, trading their first-round pick to the 49ers for stud DT DeForest Buckner and adding former stud CB Xavier Rhodes in free agency. If Rhodes can return to his previous form, the Colts will have a chance to field a top-12 defense this season. Even at 31-years-old, Justin Houston is still one of the league’s premier pass rushers and is coming off an 11.5-sack season while DE Kemoko Turay is only 25-years-old and returning to the lineup after missing 12 games due to injury last year. Obviously, Darius Leonard is one of the best young LBs in the NFL but MLB Anthony Walker led the team in tackles last year while OLB Bobby Okereke is entering his second year and will round out this solid LB corps. Okereke was PFF’s 9th-best LB last season while Leonard was 7th-best. Indy has the NFL's most underrated front-seven talent-wise. The Colts also have the AFC South’s highest win total (9.0) over the Titans (8.5) and Texans (7.5).

Cleveland -- DE Myles Garrett is back after missing six games due to suspension last year and the rest of the Browns defense is loaded with talent beyond their star pass rusher. After being drafted as a top-8 fantasy D/ST last year and failing miserably, the Browns are a nice post-hype sleeper with a new coaching staff in place. Cleveland routinely goes as the No. 20 D/ST off of the board.

Washington -- They might not win many games, but this front-seven is going to force a ton of sacks. Washington has five first-rounders along their front seven and have finished 7th and 10th in sacks over the last two years. If you’re on the clock in the final round and need a second or third defense, Washington is my favorite punt option.

Graham Barfield blends data and film together to create some of the most unique content in the fantasy football industry. Barfield is FantasyPoints’ Director of Analytics and formerly worked for the NFL Network, Fantasy Guru, and Rotoworld.