UPDATED: September 6, 2010
Every year brings new surprises in fantasy production at all positions but especially for team defenses. It's hard to gauge how strength of schedule, scheme changes, or player performance will ultimately impact the team's defensive cohesiveness. In 2007, the San Diego Chargers and New England Patriots were the dominating team defenses. Last season they dropped to 10th and 25th respectively. In 2009, New Orleans came out of nowhere to be the #1 fantasy defense after placing 21st and 15th the previous two seasons.
More surprising were the ascension of the San Francisco 49ers and Denver Broncos defenses. After placing 26th in team defense in 2008, coach Mike Singletary got his squad to perform at a level worthy of 4th best overall. The Bronco's new head coach, Josh McDaniel saw even better results as Denver went from 2nd to last in team defense in 2008, to fifth best in 2009.
So who will rise to the top in 2010? Will the Saints march on? Can the gold diggers mine more fantasy gems? Or will it be the birds flying high again; the Philadelphia Eagles and Baltimore Ravens?
The Eagles have remained fairly steady the last few seasons, but the Ravens dipped to number eight last season. Still not bad for the league's stalwart defenses. And let us not forget the Packers, who have been 3rd best two years in a row.
- Philadelphia Eagles - The Eagles have a new QB and the 9th toughest schedule in 2010. They've been a top 2 fantasy defense the last two seasons, despite turnover, and they spread their fantasy value across the board. I think they are improved this season, and I expect them to spend more time on the field this year as well, which means more opportunity. They tied the league for 3rd in sacks in 2009.
- Minnesota Vikings - They led the league last season with 48 sacks. They were 6th overall in points with only one defensive TD. If they can improve their interceptions this year they can do even better. Of course having Percy Harvin's kick return skills can't hurt either.
- Green Bay Packers - There's no reason to believe the Packers can't make the top five for the third consecutive season. They've taken to Dom Caper's new defensive scheme. They spread their fantasy points around, and no team had a better run defense last year than GB. They were also number one with 30 interceptions.
- New York Jets - I've seen a lot of experts picking the Jets as the #1 fantasy defense in 2010. They may well be the #1 defense on the field, but as we saw last year, that doesn't mean much. The Jets were often stifling, but that did not translate to fantasy points. They ended 2009 ranked 17th. I do think they'll bring those numbers up this season. Their defense just keeps getting better which will translate to more big play opportunities, but first in fantasy? I think not. Even if Revis holds out, they are still a solid pick. Update: Revis ended his hold-out.
- Baltimore Ravens - I think the Ravens rise back up this year and start to reassert their fantasy dominance. Not that they fell far last season; #8 overall. They gave up the 3rd fewest points in 2009, and with an improved offense, look for the defense to tighten it up even more.
- Pittsburgh Steelers - The Steelers were 2nd in sacks with 47. They were a dominating defense most of 2009, even without their spark plug, Troy Polamalu for much of the season. With their QB on the shelf to start the year, look for the Steelers D to really step it up.
- San Francisco 49ers - While I think the Denver Broncos will crash back down to fantasy earth this season, I believe the 49ers are for real. They have a solid core of players, led by fantasy studs like Patrick Willis, Dashon Goldson and Justin Smith. They also have one of the game's best defensive minded coaches in Mike Singletary. If all that isn't enough they play in one of the NFL's weakest divisions and have the 5th easiest schedule (on paper) this year. People will still overlook them, so they could be a steal. While it's only preseason, they did manage to go 4-0.
- Dallas Cowboys - The Dallas fantasy defense was all but worthless to start last season. They were dead last in fantasy points the first couple of weeks, and other than a couple of big weeks never really lived up to their hype. They ended the year 15th overall. Call it an off year. I think they'll start to make big plays again this season, and take better advantage of some opportunities that slipped by them last year.
- New Orleans Saints - The Saints were an explosive fantasy defense last year turning 38% of their interceptions into defensive touchdowns...8 in all. Double the number any other team had. But defensive touchdowns are as much fortuitous luck as skill. How rare is it? Only one other team, the 2008 Vikings had 8 defensive TDs, this decade. So a lot of GMs will be snapping the Saints D up early this year, but they'll likely end up with far fewer defensive TDs, which makes their overall fantasy value less. If not for their soft schedule this season I'd probably rank them lower.
- Miami Dolphins - They are a quiet sleeper this season. Most fantasy GMs probably didn't know the 'Fins ended 2010 as the 7th most productive fantasy defense. In 2010 they have a new defensive coordinator in Mike Nolan. They also add Karlos Dansby from the Cardinals-- a beast at linebacker.
- New York Giants - 2010 was miserable for the G-men but their once dominant D should surface again this season. Osi Umenyiora returns, as does Kenny Phillips. The team also added stud safety Antrel Rolle from the Cardinals, and the drafted defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. The final piece may have been the recent addition of veteran LB Keith Bulluck who steps in to replace Antonio Pierce. All signs point north in 2010.
- Arizona Cardinals - The Cardinals were 6th in sacks last year and 13th on fantasy defense overall. This season they've lost some vets but gained a firecracker in Joey Porter, a sick defensive back in Kerry Rhodes, and some great young rookies. With less power on the offensive side of the ball, the defense will spend more time on the field, and they have a soft schedule. Rookie linebacker, Daryl Washington looks like the real deal.
- Cincinnati Bengals - The Bengals are starting to put it together, and an improved offense will keep the defense fresh. The more I see this preseason, the more I like their chances in 2010. With a linebacking corp that features Dhani Jones, Rey Maualuga and Keith Rivers, and two of the league's best corners in Leon Hall and Jonathan Joseph, they have the blueprint for fantasy production.
- San Diego Chargers - The Chargers did not live up to their fantasy capabilities last year. They should get back on track this season, but without any real changes along the defensive line, they haven't given themselves any new tools to work with.
- New England Patriots - I originally had them ranked 20th this season. The defense is losing veterans left and right, and they are in a rebuilding stage on that side of the ball. However, they have two solid young safeties in Patrick Chung and Brandon Merriweather, and they just signed Jarrad Page for depth and experience. Jerod Mayo is back and healthy, and rookie LB Brandon Spikes looks like the real deal. They are weak at corner back, but that should mean plenty of tackles in the secondary.
- Chicago Bears - Da bears lost a lot to injuries last season so you may be able to snag a sweet deal on a team defense, as they will likely outperform this ranking.
- Indianapolis Colts - Their defense is solid but unspectacular
- Tennessee Titans - They were a tale of two teams last season, but they have the play makers to be special.
- Houston Texans - They have a great offense, and a playmaking defense, but they have a terrible schedule this season and they are without their top defensive playmaker to start the season.
- Denver Broncos - They will fall back to earth after last season's surprise start.
- Carolina Panthers - This is one team with a chance to rise this year, but you can't bank on maybes.
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers - They are improving, but they'll need some luck to be fantasy viable.
- Buffalo Bills - They had some fantasy highlights last season but still had a poor showing overall. 2010 will be more of the same.
- Cleveland Browns - They were better on defense than people gave them credit for, but that won't help your fantasy team.
- Washington Redskins - A lot of people think highly of their defense, but they were 3rd to last in fantasy points last season in the league's toughest division, with a tough schedule in 2010.
- Atlanta Falcons - Not a lot of big play makers.
- Kansas City Chiefs - Eric Berry should improve their INT #'s but that's about it.
- Seattle Seahawks - Still too many holes and growing pains.
- Oakland Raiders - They improved this off-season, but not enough to escalate them from the basement.
- Detroit Lions - They are a better offensive team than people give them credit for but when your defense gives up an average of 31 points per game, well, there ya go. I expect improvement this season, but not enough to get them out of the fantasy defense cellar.
- Jacksonville Jaguars - Their defense was deplorable all the way around last season. They had only 14 sacks and were the worst fantasy defense in the league. A switch to a 4-3 scheme should help this year, but I'm still not expecting anything better than a bottom five outcome.
- St. Louis Rams - The Rams will be one of the leagues whipping boys this season and their slowly improving defense will feel it.