Fantasy Football: 2021 D/ST Rankings
Defense and special teams??? That’s not as fun to talk about as quarterbacks and skill position players! Yes, I know, but most leagues still require teams to roster a team defense/special teams unit, right? With that in mind, I guess we better rank the best defense/special teams units in the NFL!
As opposed to offensive production, team defense production has been found to be very unstable on a year-to-year basis. Rather than banking on one defense for the entire season, you’re much better off streaming defenses based on matchups on a weekly basis. Still, we need to rank them, so how did I go about doing it? Rather than focusing on who the best defenses were last year, we’ll be projecting for the upcoming season. Based on prior research on what leads to the most effective defense, I was able to use projected unit Pro Football Focus (PFF) grades to project the quality of each defense. From there, I also calculated the strength of their opposing schedule, which is significant with how much of defensive production is dependent on the offenses they are facing.
There are some defenses that stand out above the rest, but outside of the first five or so, a great weight was placed on strength of schedule; it is much easier to identify the quality of the offenses they’ll be facing than the strength of the defense itself. Additionally, the better one’s ability to rush the passer was, the more confidence you can have, as that is one of the more easier defensive statistics to project.
I may not always completely agree with all of the projections I built, but, hey, that’s what rankings are for, right? Here are my defense and special team rankings for the 2021 fantasy football season!
All Stats via Pro Football Focus
NOTE: Easiest Ranked 1st For Strength of Schedule (SOS), Most Difficult Ranked 32nd
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D/ST Rankings for 2021 Fantasy Football
All Stats via Pro Football Focus
NOTE: Easiest Ranked 1st For Strength of Schedule (SOS), Most Difficult Ranked 32nd
#1: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
- 2020 Rank: 9th, Projected Rank: 1st, SOS: 1st
Continuity is critical for defenses, and the Bucs will return EVERY starter from last season. While their early schedule (Cowboys, Falcons, Rams) isn’t ideal, they have a very soft schedule down the stretch, including in the playoffs. From Week 15 to Week 17, they’ll face the Saints, Jets, and Panthers, with other favorable matchups (Washington, Giants, Colts, Eagles) on their slate as well. Expect them to rank near the top in sacks once again and see a lot of turnover luck simply based on their schedule.
#2: Baltimore Ravens
- 2020 Rank: T-4th, Projected Rank: 3rd, SOS: 18th
Life, death, taxes, and the Ravens being amongst the best defenses in the NFL. Their continued investment in their pass coverage and defensive coaching has led to unparalleled consistency defensively, and there isn’t any reason to expect that not to carry over into 2021. Although they may not have the easiest schedule (Chiefs, Browns twice), there may not be a “safer” pick amongst these units than them.
#3: San Francisco 49ers
- 2020 Rank: 20th, Projected Rank: 4th, SOS: 23rd
Last season did not go as planned for the 49ers, who went from being in the Super Bowl to finishing with a losing record. Luckily, they should be much healthier in 2021, increasing their chances of getting back to very strong defensive production. Returning is star edge rusher Nick Bosa, and there is little doubt they have one of the most effective pass rushes in the NFL. I’m a little worried about the loss of defensive coordinator Robert Saleh and a thin secondary, yet it’s still a very strong group. Starting the year with the Lions and Eagles also makes them a very appealing unit to draft.
#4: Pittsburgh Steelers
- 2020 Rank: 2nd, Projected Rank: 2nd, SOS: 32nd
The Steelers rode their defense to an 11-0 start last season, but we know how difficult is to rely on that on a yearly basis. Being given the league’s most difficult schedule won’t help them, nor will a depleted secondary without cornerbacks Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton. They still boast the top pass rush, which increases their fantasy floor, but they are likely a unit I’d want to stay away from at their current average draft position (ADP).
#5: Buffalo Bills
- 2020 Rank: 8th, Projected Rank: 11th, SOS: 3rd
It is common for defensive-minded head coaches to field consistently strong defense, and that is the case with the Bills. Head coach Sean McDermott’s disregard for investing resources on run defense has allowed them to be quite strong from a pass defense standpoint, greatly increasing my confidence in the unit as a whole. Playing in a division with strong offensive teams, in addition to an overall easy schedule of opposing offenses, also helps with that.
#6: Los Angeles Rams
- 2020 Rank: 1st, Projected Rank: 5th, SOS: 29th
The Rams were the league’s best defense last year, but, as we know, that has far less predictive power than we’d like. Without defensive coordinator Brandon Staley, cornerback Troy Hill, or safety John Johnson III, it’s inevitable that they face some sort of regression, especially with a very difficult schedule. They are still a very talented unit with two easy (Bears, Colts) matchups to start the year, but I’d be careful raising our expectations of them too much.
#7: Denver Broncos
- 2020 Rank: T-22nd, Projected Rank: 8th, SOS: 19th
Investing in your secondary is the optimal way to build a strong pass defense, and that is exactly what the Broncos have done. With Ronald Darby, Bryce Callahan, Kyle Fuller, Patrick Surtain II, they have arguably the deepest cornerback group in the NFL, while their pass rush is in good shape with the return of Von Miller. Head coach Vic Fangio may not have been given a high-end offense, but he’ll lead a very strong defense. With the Giants, Jaguars, and Jets to start the season, they might be THE defense I’d keen in on drafting.
#8: Green Bay Packers
- 2020 Rank: 18th, Projected Rank: 6th, SOS: 26th
The Packers’ defensive projection may surprise some, but it is easy to see why the projection is so strong. Cornerback Jaire Alexander is one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, while they may have the top safety duo in the NFL in addition to a deep pass rush. We’ll see how they transition to a new defensive system, while the middle of their schedule is brutal. Still, they’ll draw the Saints and Lions to start the season, and have a very nice core to rely on at the back-end of their defense.
#9: Los Angeles Chargers
- 2020 Rank: T-22nd, Projected Rank: 14th, SOS: 12th
Speaking of defensive play-caller shifts, no team will benefit from that more than the Chargers, who’ll now benefit from the services of new head coach Brandon Staley, whose modern approach (few resources invested in the box) helped gear the Rams to an elite defense in 2020. There’s no doubt that Los Angeles will be able to rush the passer at a high level, while safety Derwin James is quite the piece to build around. Yet, they’ll be with a lot of new pieces in their secondary, while their early schedule is brutal.
#10: Washington Football Team
- 2020 Rank: 6th, Projected Rank: 15th, SOS: 21st
Washington’s projections look a bit low, though there are some slight concerns about the depth of their secondary. While injuries could prove problematic for them, they’ll still positioned to rush the passer and be an overall very strong defense, albeit one that might be getting too much hype based on feasting on easier opponents at the end of last season. Having the Chargers, Bills, Falcons, Chiefs, and Packers on their schedule for five of the first seven games won’t help matters, either.
#11: Miami Dolphins
- 2020 Rank: 4th, Projected Rank: 21st SOS: 10th
The Dolphins were a very strange defense, ranking 6th in points/game allowed, yet in the bottom ten in yards/game allowed; that doesn’t add up. Expecting them to once again lead the league in takeaways would be silly, though having Xavien Howard and Byron Jones as your top-two cornerbacks increases your chances of fielding a strong defense. Their fantasy value may come down to the success of head coach Brian Flores when it comes to manufacturing sack production again.
#12: Cleveland Browns
- 2020 Rank: 17th, Projected Rank: 22nd, SOS: 11th
Although the Browns were a bottom-ten defense last season, they did a great job replenishing their secondary with the additions of former Rams Troy Hill and John Johnson III, in addition to first-round rookie cornerback Greg Newsome II. You’re not starting them against the Chiefs, but with the Texans and Bears up next, you might consider stashing them to use after that.
#13: Kansas City Chiefs
- 2020 Rank: T-11th, Projected Rank: 7th, SOS: 16th
The Chiefs are generally perceived to have a poor defense, yet that wouldn’t appear to actually be the case. The schedule of opposing offenses is quite difficult, however, so you’re more banking on the extra opportunities to have to produce turnovers or sacks by being ahead in games if you roster them this season.
#14: Indianapolis Colts
- 2020 Rank: 3rd, Projected Rank: 9th, SOS: 28th
Seahawks, Rams, Titans; that’s how the Colts’ schedule starts this season. Their overall defensive depth has allowed them to produce a strong unit consistently, but there aren’t many matchups on their slate that scream “must start”. Thus, this may the year to not roster them.
#15: New England Patriots
- 2020 Rank: T-11th, Projected Rank: 12th, SOS: 20th
After a massive spending spree in free agency, expectations will be high for the Patriots to return to their old ways defensively. The Dolphins, Jets, and Saints make for a nice beginning to 2021, and it’s very easy to count on Bill Belichick. There’s just more pressure/variance with them since they won’t accumulate a lot of sacks, and thus rely more on elite defense and takeaways to be sufficient enough in fantasy.
#16: New Orleans Saints
- 2020 Rank: 7th, Projected Rank: 10th, SOS: 22nd
The Saints were a very easy to defense to rely on last year, but with the loss of several key contributors, it will be tough for them to be as productive in 2021. They’ll still return a similar core of a strong pass rush and multiple high-end secondary players, though things could get problematic if injuries start to pile up. I will say that they get the Panthers, Patriots, Giants, and Washington from Weeks 2-5, so you can maximize their value for their team by rostering them at that point before parting ways with them; the schedule from there is as difficult as it gets.
#17: Chicago Bears
- 2020 Rank: 19th, Projected Rank: 13th, SOS: 31st
The Bears will continue to rush the passer at a while, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be the defensive juggernaut that their reputation may suggest. I’m worried about their cornerback depth, while the strength of schedule is incredibly challenging. A similar finish to last season seems likely.
#18: Seattle Seahawks
- 2020 Rank: T-13th, Projected Rank: 17th, SOS: 15th
With all the talk about their poor defensive performance last season, I’m surprised to see that the Seahawks ranked as an above-average unit in fantasy points. It was nice to see him add a lot to their pass rush, though their secondary is a major question mark. Their opening matchup against the Jacob Eason-led Colts is enough to draft them on its own.
#19: Atlanta Falcons
- 2020 Rank: 24th, Projected Rank: 19th, SOS: 4th
I get that the chances you rostered the Falcons defense last year are next to none, but hear me out. They’ll have a new defensive coordinator this year in Dean Pees, and will face on of the easiest schedules in the NFL. Even if they aren’t a defense you go out and draft, I’m actually pretty confident they’ll end up being a viable streaming option against some of their weaker opponents.
#20: Tennessee Titans
- 2020 Rank: 26th, Projected Rank: 16th, SOS: 6th
Another defense that struggled last season, I’m guessing the Titans’ struggles on third down regress somewhat, which should help them allow fewer points than last year, with their schedule also helping them. I’d hold them in a very similar boat to the Seahawks and Falcons; a better streaming option than they may get credit for.
#21: Minnesota Vikings
- 2020 Rank: 27th, Projected Rank: 18th, SOS: 24th
Last year was a tough season for head coach Mike Zimmer’s defense, so it wasn’t a surprise to see the Vikings attempt to aggressively revamp that side of the ball for 2021. That said, I’m skeptical they’re as proficient as some believe they’ll be, considering that their schedule is quite difficult and most of their additions help them mainly with run defense. Really, the only time I’d want to start them this season is their two games against the Lions.
#22: New York Jets
- 2020 Rank: 25th, Projected Rank: 28th, SOS: 2nd
The Jets have the second-easiest schedule and will benefit from a massive upgrade in defensive play-caller with head coach Robert Saleh now in charge. This is where I encourage you to look at their current cornerback depth chart. If those young players outperform expectations, this group legitimately has “top-10” defense in their range of outcomes based on their schedule, coaching, and pass rush. Thus, even if they aren’t one you’re rushing to draft, you’ll want to keep a very close eye on them.
#23: Philadelphia Eagles
- 2020 Rank: 15th, Projected Rank: 23rd, SOS: 13th
We know the Eagles will rush the passer at a high level, and the addition of cornerback Steven Nelson certainly increases optimism that their secondary will hold up better. You can’t start them (Falcons, 49ers, Cowboys, Chiefs) to start the season, but they may become more appealing with easier matchups down the stretch.
#24: New York Giants
- 2020 Rank: T-13th, Projected Rank: 24th, SOS: 7th
The Giants came on strong down the stretch defensively this season, but it is worth noting that their Pro Football Focus team grades didn’t align with that narrative at all, meaning that a soft schedule may have played a significant role here. The Broncos and Washington Football Team are a great way to start the season, though, so at least they could benefit from similar circumstances again.
#25: Dallas Cowboys
- 2020 Rank: 21st, Projected Rank: 27th, SOS: 5th
The Cowboys’ defensive fate in 2021 will likely come down to how quickly they adjust to defensive coordinator Dan Quinn’s scheme, in addition to the success of their young cornerbacks. I’m encouraged by how they revamped their safety group, and the schedule isn’t too difficult after the beginning of the season. Keep an eye on their Washington-Giants-Washington slate between Weeks 13 and 15, which could be nice come playoff time.
#26: Jacksonville Jaguars
- 2020 Rank: 28th, Projected Rank: 30th, SOS: 9th
Bring us back to the “Sacksonville” days! Simply playing in the AFC South has to help, especially with the Texans and Broncos to start the 2021 season. They’re another team, similar to the Jets, that could vault up in a hurry with how young their defense is, and with a soft schedule (Texans, Jets, Patriots, Colts) to wrap up the year, you may want to monitor their progression closely.
#27: Arizona Cardinals:
- 2020 Rank: 10th, Projected Rank: 25th, SOS: 30th
The Cardinals finished as a top-ten fantasy defense and fourth in sacks last year, get back edge rusher Chandler Jones from injury and now also have signed JJ Watt to revamp their pass rush as well. Of course, this likely translates to a WORSE defense in 2021. Wait, what? Looking at their schedule, only their Week 15 affair in Detroit looks like one where I’d want to start them, especially after they ranked just 25th in PFF team defense grade and still didn’t invest many resources in their pass coverage. You rode the good wave last season, but, now, it’s time to cut bait before it’s too late!
#28: Carolina Panthers
- 2020 Rank: 16th, Projected Rank: 26th, SOS: 14th
The Panthers were another team that produced much better than their PFF team defense grade (26th), though a league-winning 15 fumbles recovered likely played a great role in that. Another team with a nice stretch (Jets, Saints, Texans) to start the year, their reliance on young players gives them a very wide range of outcomes. Just don’t start them down the stretch; they face the Falcons, Bills, and Bucs twice in four of their final five games.
#29: Las Vegas Raiders
- 2020 Rank: 30th, Projected Rank: 31st SOS: 8th
This is where I’d recommend just not considering the next four defenses listed. The Raiders added some nice veteran pieces to their defense, yet no current starter earned a PFF grade of 70 or higher last year. That is less than ideal.
#30: Houston Texas
- 2020 Rank: 31st, Projected Rank: 29th, SOS: 17th
Hey, Lovie Smith is back in the NFL as a defensive coordinator! Unfortunately, given the current state of the Texans roster, it might not swimmingly. The likely candidate to finish dead last in the NFL in sacks, it’s hard to see them being in your lineup at any point this season.
#31: Cincinnati Bengals
- 2020 Rank: 29th, Projected Rank: 20th, SOS: 25th
The projection provides some optimism for the Bengals here, as they quietly ranked 7th in coverage grade this year. There are concerns, however, about the lack of progress despite those strong peripheral numbers in back-to-back seasons, and they’ll likely rank near the bottom of the league in sacks again. With a tough schedule, feel free to avoid rostering them.
#32: Detroit Lions
- 2020 Rank: 32nd, Projected Rank: 32nd, SOS: 27th
Are the Lions really going to finish last in fantasy defense again? A new defensive play-caller in Aaron Glenn will be a massive relief for them over the Matt Patricia era, yet more than half of their projected starters earned PFF grades under 60 last season. Add in their schedule (sadly, they don’t get to play themselves), and there’s a clear tier gap between them and every other defense; trust me, that’s not a compliment.
For more Rankings and Analysis please check out our full 2021 Fantasy Football Draft Kit.
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