Defenses, much like kickers when it comes to building a fantasy football squad, deserve nothing more than second-to-last-round attention from you when drafting. A defense is such a difficult and tough unit to project during the year, so the thought of using anything higher than a 14th-round selection on them is something that should never cross your mind.
Last season saw defensive units from the likes of both the New England Patriots and the San Francisco 49ers produce multiple weeks of double-digit point totals, instantly inflating the desire for teams to boast league-leading defensive units, at the cost of trading away a solid wide receiver or running back. If you made any sort of a trade for a top-flight D/ST unit last season that saw you give up either a single-digit future draft pick (keeper or dynasty league) or a WR or RB that fit into your top six on your roster, I don’t feel all that sorry.
Short-sighted moves can easily be the difference between making your team’s playoffs and going all the way as the sixth seed, or failing to make the playoffs because a few of your key starters got hurt and your bench was lacking in certain depth areas – the late rounds are for depth pieces, defensive units, and kickers. Use them to your advantage.
If looking for a solid defensive unit, be prepared for your league mates to not heed the above advice ad spring for their favorite one in a single-digit round – there is a ton of value scattered through the middle of the D/ST rankings, so be prepared to sit and wait as they go off the board while you get to reap the benefits of RBs and WRs still be on the board late.
This list includes the top fantasy football defenses and special teams units for the upcoming 2020 season (projected average draft positions [ADP] are all based on 12-team leagues).
10. Denver Broncos
Coming in as the tenth-best option on this list, the Denver Broncos D/ST unit is running a bit under the radar but led by safety Justin Simmons, this unit has the intangibles in all the right places to finish as a top-eight D/ST option by the end of the year.
Starting up front, the D-Line has Jurrell Casey, nose tackle Mike Purcell, and Shelby Harris penciled in as their three guys on the first line of their 3-4 attack. Casey, the former Tennessee castoff, and Harris are both above average, and Purcell is a nice run stuffer that can help plug holes and free up opportunities for the team’s stacked linebacker ranks.
Von Miller and Bradley Chubb are this team’s bookends as outside linebackers, and they are one of the best LB combos in the entire league. Miller’s age is starting to catch up with him, but Chubb is the type of player that is able to take the mantle from Miller and become the defensive leader.
Alexander Johnson and Todd Davis (who is projected to be out for a few weeks dealing with a calf injury) are the two inside ‘backers that help in pass coverage.
In the secondary, recently-acquired A.J. Bouye (who was absolutely stolen for just a fourth-round pick this offseason from Jacksonville) teams up with Bryce Callahan as the top corners, while Simmons and Kareem Jackson help compliment both Bouye and Callahan as one of the better secondaries.
Diontae Spencer is the team’s main returner for punts and kicks, and he is below average, but any member of any return game has the potential to spring one.
9. New Orleans Saints
The defense for the New Orleans Saints is not commonly thought of as being a league leader, yet in 2020, they have one of the better units, helping complement any sort of offensive output that Drew Brees, Alvin Kamara, and Michael Thomas are able to put together.
Defensive end Cameron Jordan, defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, cornerback Marcus Lattimore and free safety Malcolm Jenkins are the stars of their defense, and they will be able to show their strength in a tantalizing Week 1 matchup against the Tom Brady-led Tampa Bay Buccaneers, which may end up turning into a shootout.
Returner Deonte Harris returned a punt for a score last season, but Kamara, Ty Montgomery, and Taysom Hill are also options in the return game.
Be wary of playing the Saints in Week 1, but this is not a D/ST unit that will be on the waiver wire to pick up, as they are good enough that they will be drafted. Brady in a new offensive scheme may be a scary sight, or it could show just how close Brady is to the end of his prime – either way, be careful with this unit to start the season.
8. Indianapolis Colts
A 7-9 finish last year can be chalked up more to the offense than the defense, as they were strong enough to not be the scapegoat. But this offseason has been busy for this unit, and they look to be a ton better than 2019.
De’Forest Buckner was acquired from the 49ers before the draft, and he immediately becomes the second-best player on this defense, behind stud LB Darius Leonard. Anthony Walker, Rock Ya-Sin, and Malik Hooker are all solid options that help lead the 4-3 unit.
Third-down back Nyheim Hines also handles return duties, and he returned two punts for scores last year, so he brings another element to any fantasy points for this unit. Opening up in Jacksonville makes them an intriguing play to start the year as one of the top fantasy football defenses.
7. Kansas City Chiefs
It is nice to not always be talking about KC’s offense for a change, no?
Their defense seems to finally be more than capable of picking up some slack this year, something they will have to do right away against the Texans, and without both Mike Pennel and Bashaud Breeland.
Both Pennel and Breeland were suspended to start the year (Pennel two games, Breeland four), with Breeland’s being for violating the league’s policy on substance abuse (at the time of this article, Pennel’s reason was unknown).
But Frank Clark, Chris Jones, and Tyrann Mathieu will be able to handle the load to start the year, and with Mecole Hardman or Tyreek Hill returning kicks, this unit brings a ton of flexibility to put up fantasy points.
6. New England Patriots
The Patriots were the talk of the fantasy world last year, as they continuously managed to record double-digit affairs what seemed like every week. But with multiple defensive stars opting out, the ADP should hopefully drop – but don’t necessarily bank on it.
Their defensive is going to be looked to help carry the weight with all the uncertainties on offense, which will fall on Stephon Gilmore, and the McCourty brothers (Jason and Devin). Mohamed Sanu and Matthew Slater are not huge threats in the return game, so this unit is going to need to rely on its veterans to make it another formidable unit.
5. Los Angeles Chargers
The tastiest option to start the first week of the season, the Cincinnati Bengals are exactly the team you want your D/ST to start the year off against. And being the third AFC West D/ST unit on this list, the Los Angeles Chargers are going to have a ton of fireworks happening this year, starting against Joe Burrow.
Joey Bosa, Linval Joseph, Melvin Ingram III, rookie Kenneth Murray, Derwin James, and Casey Hayward Jr. all help lead this defense, while CB Desmond King II is a stout returner that puts this unit as a threat to score a touchdown at any point.
Joseph represents the big offseason addition for LAC, and he will fit in just fine next to Bosa and his other DL companions. Week 2 is a matchup with KC, with games against the Panthers, Bucs, and Saints to open the year – start them for sure the first week, and look for a potential different option Week 2.
4. Buffalo Bills
Coming in a close second to having the best opening-week opponent, the Buffalo Bills boast one of the top fantasy football defenses from top to bottom in the league, and the Jets are going to be the first victims in what could become the D/ST1 by the end of the year.
And the next two weeks (Dolphins, Rams) are quite appetizing too, making this defense have a great opening slate that can quickly catapult to the top of the positional rankings right away. Tremaine Edmunds, Micah Hyde, and Tre’Davious White all lead this team, and ol’ reliable Andre Roberts leads their return units, with Hyde second on the charts.
This unit is getting a ton of looks this offseason, but still is under the radar – try and grab them if you can.
3. San Francisco 49ers
Playing against what can be considered as the most-talked-about offense this offseason to open the year is not a great way to start out, but the 49ers offense is very stout, even if they did trade away Forest to the Colts.
Nick Bosa and Javon Kinlaw form one of the more intriguing DL units, Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw are stout LBs, and Richard Sherman and Jimmie Ward are solid DBs to help stop the pass. Recent signees Tavon Austin and J.J. Nelson have been penciled in as the team’s returners, so take that as you will.
As one of the more stout units in all levels, you cannot go wrong with the San Fran D/ST being your every week starter.
2. Baltimore Ravens
Even with this week’s turmoil that led to the release of safety Earl Thomas, this defense is absolutely everything it is being stacked up to be, and then some. And somehow they got better this offseason.
By signing Calais Campbell, he pairs with Brandon Williams, Derek Wolfe, and Matthew Judon to form the best front unit in the league, and with Patrick Queen just having been drafted this year, pairing him with Jaylon Ferguson, Marlon Humphrey, Chuck Clark, and Marcus Peters in the back seven, this team is just disgusting.
A combo of James Proche, Justice Hill, and Kenjon Barner head up the return game, which could use a bit of work but is intriguing nonetheless. Do what you can to draft this unit, you should be guaranteed eight-plus points every week.
1. Pittsburgh Steelers
Yep, your best shot at putting up big points this year from your D/ST position is the Pittsburgh Steelers – and they should be a bit easier to draft than some other units.
Yes, T.J. Watt, Bud Dupree, Devin Bush, and Minkah Fitzpatrick obviously help drive up the price, but they are also what makes this unit clock in as the best D/ST option for you. Not to mention, both James Washington and Diontae Johnson have the chance to make some noise in the return game, so feel free to grab Pittsburgh towards the end of your draft – you should not regret it.
Not to mention, opening up against the Giants, Broncos, Texans, Titans, and Eagles represents a bit of a challenge, yet the Steelers are built to take away whatever option is the strongest for a team, meaning that one week they could take away Saquon Barkley on the ground, and then the next week shut down Courtland Sutton, Noah Fant, and Jerry Jeudy through the air.