Let me state that the new kickoff rules will inevitably end up hurting teams that are able to rack up fantasy points through their Special Teams play. As we’ve seen in the first two weeks of preseason, having the ball kicked off at the 35 yard line makes the returns and return game moot. Thus, I will focus more on the strengths and weaknesses of the Defensive units listed below. But don’t fret, I will sprinkle in a little bit of Special Teams tidbits as well for each team I’ve selected. So before I go on a rant about the physicality and excitement being taken out of the game, here are my rankings of the 10 best Defense/Special Teams units that are available for the 2011 fantasy season:
10. Dallas Cowboys (Bye: Week 5)
The Cowboys could surprise this year with the addition of Rob Ryan as their D Coordinator. Had Dallas had a full offseason to implement Ryan’s Defense, their ranking would be a couple of spots higher. Still, Ryan’s presence and coaching ability will allow Dallas to improve on Defense in 2011. While their Defense was putrid at times last year and ranked 23rd in Total, and 26th against the Pass, their Run Defense finished a respectable 12th, and there is still a heap of talent for the Cowboys to work with. In addition, Dez Bryant (if he gets his priorities in order) will also give Dallas a real threat in the Punt Return game and could be good for a TD or two during the regular season. Dallas has a favorable schedule that includes 2 games against Washington, the whole NFC West, as well as underwhelming teams like Buffalo and Miami. If all goes according to plan, Dallas could be a real jackpot for those that are willing to take a risk and pick them up in a later round.
9. New Orleans Saints (Bye: Week 11)
The Saints were unable to recapture their turnover/defensive scoring magic from 2009, and saw their status as the #1 Fantasy Defense take a nose dive in 2010. The Saints were able to acquire Cameron Jordan and Shaun Rogers in the offseason to help bolster their run D, and the combination of the athletic Jordan and the space-eating Rogers should improve the Saints’ 16th ranked Run Defense from a year ago. The Saints being ranked 9th I must add is contingent upon two things. The Saints must not only play strong against the pass, but most of all, New Orleans must also create and force turnovers that lead to points like they did in 2009. Yet if their D plays like they did at the end of the season/Wild Card Game in Seattle, it could be a long season for the Saints. One factor that New Orleans has going in its favor in the Special Teams department is the pickup of Darren Sproles. The diminutive Sproles can easily replace the productivity of Reggie Bush and give the Saints a Special Teams X-Factor that many teams do not have the luxury of on their rosters.
8. New England Patriots (Bye: Week 7)
While not statistically sexy in terms of allowing yardage, the Patriots Defense could end up surprising some people in 2011. The Pats. in 2010 had a Defense that accumulated a lot of turnovers over the regular season. New England’s Defense snagged 25 picks last year with Rookie Devin McCourty leading the way with 7. While their secondary is young, it is quickly emerging as one of the best in the League, and if teams continue to test them, Fantasy Owners of the Patriots Defense may be in luck. The Pats. Achilles Heel this year could be their Run Defense and/or Pass Rush. Granted they brought in some veterans to help (Ellis, Haynesworth, and Carter), but don’t be surprised if this turns against New England, and come late in the season they are being run like the Jets did to them in the playoffs. Also their pass rush was not adequately addressed in the Draft, and unless they can find a solution, sack numbers may be low. However, the Patriots should be helped by a schedule that includes the pathetic AFC West and playing against Buffalo and Miami twice. In terms of Special Teams, Brandon Tate had an excellent year in 2010 with 2 Return TD’s, but the new kickoff rules will probably hamper his stats. Yet, Julian Edelman is a good punt returner and helps New England in all areas of Special Teams with his solid play.
7. Baltimore Ravens (Bye: Week 5)
Much like death and taxes, one can always be sure that the Baltimore Ravens will have a good Defense. While Lewis and Reed are beginning to show their age, Baltimore still is a viable option for a solid fantasy Defense. A healthy Ed Reed always has a knack for turning turnovers into points, and if Rookie Jimmy Smith pans out, Baltimore will be difficult to throw against this season and should improve its 21st ranked Pass Defense from a season ago. Baltimore’s Run Defense should be stout as well after finishing the season 4th in the N.F.L. in 2010 and Haloti Ngata is probably the best NT in the N.F.L. right now and shows no sign of slowing down. The Ravens also have solid return units on both kickoffs and punts which should not hurt them come time for the regular season. Thus, Baltimore should get a strong look, and could have some real value for your fantasy team if those in your league decide not to be believers in their Defense/ST.
6. Chicago Bears (Bye: Week 8)
As per usual, the Bears come into the 2011 season with their Super Bowl hopes riding on their Defense. Last season saw the Bears’ Defense get a tremendous spark after the signing of Free Agent and Pro Bowler Julius Peppers. The Linebacking Corps, while getting long in the tooth, still is as effective and savvy as ever with Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs leading the way. The Bears secondary led by Chris Harris and Charles Tillman (who is a turnover machine) helped the Bears to have a +4 Turnover Differential in spite of Jay Cutler’s large INT total. In terms of their 2010 rankings, the Bears were 9th overall in Total Defense, 20th against the Pass, 2nd against the run, and finished 4th overall in fantasy points. If the Bears can keep opposing Offenses in check like they did last season, and Cutler can sustain drives for their Offense, the Bears could be one of the top scoring D’s in the League in 2011. Despite the League’s best efforts, Devin Hester should be the ultimate weapon for the Bears and increase the team’s fantasy value. “The Windy City Flyer” is liable to take the ball back for 6 every time he gets his hands on it, and since the rules haven’t changed for punt returns yet, Hester will still have chances to make a difference.
5. Philadelphia Eagles (Bye: Week 7)
The “Dream Team’s D” makes an appearance on this list at #5. Philly’s Defense wasn’t what you would call stellar last season by most people. The Eagles finished 12th in total fantasy points, 15th against the pass, 15th against the run and 12th total. Yet the signings of Jason Babin, Cullen Jenkins, Nnamdi Asomugha, and Dominique Rogers-Cromartie should logically help Philadelphia and make their Defense even better. But only time will tell if these offseason acquisitions allow the Eagles to shine, or just illustrate that they are a “paper tiger” and unable to cope with high expectations. In terms of the return game, DeSean Jackson is always a threat to score whenever he fields a punt, and can always help boost the Special Teams unit when needed. If you are willing to believe in the Eagles Defense and can take a gamble, they are definitely worth looking at. Yet if you would like to play it safe and aren’t wowed by all the offseason pickups, it may be better to avoid them altogether.
4. San Diego Chargers (Bye: Week 6)
If you asked someone who had the #1 Total Defense in the League last season probably 9 out of 10 would have answered incorrectly. Give up? It was the San Diego Chargers! Yes, the Chargers had the best Defense statistically in the League last season. Anyway, the Bolts should reap the benefits of Free Agency if Bob Sanders is able to stay healthy and help the #1 ranked Pass Defense from a year ago, but Sanders could also help in run support for the 4th ranked Rushing Defense as well. Since the Chargers play 6 of their 16 games against the AFC West (Denver, K.C., Oak.) and their awful Offenses, look for San Diego to seek revenge after last seasons pathetic performance against division foes and be out for blood. The return game could be a weakness for the Chargers if a replacement isn’t found for Darren Sproles though. Yet if the Chargers can learn on the fly under new D.C. Greg Manusky, San Diego is definitely worth picking up as a fantasy Defense/ST and should be at least in your Top 6 choices.
3. Green Bay Packers (Bye: Week 8)
The Super Bowl Champs led by former Steeler D.C. Dom Capers, former Steeler Kevin Greene, and former Steeler Darren Perry check in at #3. The Packers really illustrated how good their Defense on all fronts was in the 2010 playoffs, and that was after a damn good regular season to boot. The secondary led by Charles Woodson and Nick Collins that finished 2nd in INT’s a year ago will be intact, and despite the loss of Cullen Jenkins the Run Defense should be fine. Matthews should lead the charge again for their lethal pass rush and wreak havoc on the opposition’s Offensive Line. The Packers finished in the Top 5 in Total, Rushing, and Passing Defense and return almost all starters. Most importantly, Green Bay finished #2 in Turnover differential with a +10 in 2010. If Tramon Williams or another player can have a successful year returning punts to add to their already stellar Defense, Green Bay might end up being the best Fantasy Defense/ST unit in 2011.
2. New York Jets (Bye: Week 8)
The Jets were able to finish 5th in terms of total fantasy points on Defense a year ago, and that showed in numerous areas. Their Run Defense was excellent, and finished 3rd in the league, the Pass Defense was ranked 6th, and the Jets Total Defense was ranked 2nd overall. Rex’s aggressive style allows for numerous sacks and turnovers that come in handy when they are your fantasy defense and need points. Barring injuries, the Jets should be out to prove that they are the class of the A.F.C. this season and will use their strongest unit (the Defense) to achieve that goal. As an aside let me state that in terms of Cornerback tandems, I’ll take Revis and Cromartie over any combination of Nnamdi, Rogers-Cromartie, and/or Samuel any day of the week. Their cover skills alone can just absolutely shut down an opposing Offense. If teams are forced to the air early in games this season because of run troubles against New York, look for turnovers galore to be had by the Jets secondary. In terms of the status of the Jets’ Special Teams, gone is Brad Smith and his Kick Return wizardry. But Jim Leonhard is a serviceable if not good punt returner. So while the Jets may see less Special Teams productivity, they are not technically screwed and will perform as well as most teams in the League. Expect New York to be one of the first three Defenses off the board.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers (Bye: Week 11)
The Steelers should be a number one option when considering a Defense/ST unit in 2011. The Run Defense, like most seasons during the last decade was ranked #1 giving up 62.8 yards per game. With an infusion of youth in Hood and Heyward to go along with the vets. Keisel, Snack, and Smith, the Steelers’ D-Line should be stellar not only against the run, but also getting to the QB when asked. The Pass Defense however is a tad more suspect when one looks down the depth chart at CB below Taylor and B-Mac. Yet if depth is found in the form of Lewis, Brown, Warren, or Allen, the Steelers’ 12th Ranked Pass Defense could be even better. Polamalu is always a threat to score when he is healthy and getting turnovers, and Silverback and Woodley are usually good for 10+ sacks per season. In my opinion, as long as the secondary is shored up, this could be the best unit in the N.F.L.. And since there will be so many more touchbacks, the Defense will have more room to work and not have to rely on the Steelers’ shoddy coverage units to give them field position as much. As for Special Teams, Antonio Brown or whoever wins the PR job can provide a spark put up some decent stats it’ll be gravy for your fantasy team if you decide to go with the Steelers.
Just missing the cut, but still viable options: Atlanta, New York Giants, San Francisco, Miami, Detroit
Hopefully this little primer helps you readers that are interested in playing Fantasy Football this season. As you can see, I put another five teams below the list that just missed the cut, so if you aren’t sure of any of the teams I listed, those five are viable options also. In addition, Special Teams will most likely factor even less this year due to the kickoff rules being changed by the N.F.L.. Moreover, with more teams having to start out at the 20 yard line because of the touchbacks, we should see the dominant Defenses rising up and pinning teams back in their own territory. Hopefully the Steelers can finish #1 in both fantasy and Total Defense in the N.F.L., because it will be a very special season to watch if the secondary decides to step their game up. So choose wisely, and leave me any comments/criticism.
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