This season, and all fantasy seasons to come, I beg of you to heed one piece of advice from me above all others:
Don't draft a defense until one of the last few rounds.
By now, this should be pretty common fantasy advice that you've heard countless times before. The reasoning is simple, too: Defenses are infinitely replaceable --- there are 32 defenses in the NFL, but only 10-14 are typically started in fantasy each week -- which means drafting one early puts your squad at a disadvantage. There are always defenses on the waiver wire, but there won't always be talented running backs or wide receivers there. Drafting the Denver Broncos defense in Round 8 might seem like a good idea at the time, but you'd be passing up on potential fantasy stars like Jamison Crowder, Willie Snead, LeGarrette Blount and so on. This holds true for every round after that until you reach the very end of your draft. Will you miss out on a "top" defense? Sure, but the difference in year-end scoring between the top defense and a mid-tier defense is not that great. Especially when you employ the "streaming" strategy that grows in popularity with each passing year.
Streaming, for the uninitiated, requires you to add and drop defenses each week, picking up ones that will be starting against subpar, low-scoring, or turnover-prone offenses. These defenses often end up providing more stable production and higher ceilings than keeping one defense all season and enduring the highs (playing the Jets!) and lows (playing against Aaron Rodgers!). It can be risky and may burn up some waiver priority or FAAB (free agent acquisition budget), but in the end, it's a superior strategy to sinking a mid-round pick in a defense that will put your fantasy team in a better position to succeed.
This will be a weekly column during the season as usual, and as with year's past, I'll rely on the streaming D/ST qualifications previously established by Matt Harmon and Matt Franciscovich in this column: good matchups, home teams, favorites, and obviously talented defenses. Let's get to it.
Week 1 Streaming Defenses
Buffalo Bills D/ST (6.8 percent owned) vs. New York Jets
The New York Jets are in full-on tank mode this year, making them a prime target for streaming defenses every week. In fact, I'd be willing to bet that if at the end of the year you add up the fantasy points scored by all of the teams the week they face the Jets, you'd have a top-10 fantasy defense. Kicking things off in Week 1 is a Bills defense that sacked opposing quarterbacks on 7.09 percent of their drop backs, the fourth-highest percentage in the league. The Jets offense is lacking playmakers at every position and is currently trying to trade Matt Forte after already parting ways with Brandon Marshall, Eric Decker, and losing Quincy Enunwa to a season-ending injury. This unit is going to struggle to score points, especially on the road, and the Bills are already a tough enough opponent inside New Era Field. The Bills are the ideal last-round defense to target in drafts, or a top-notch waiver adds before the season.
Los Angeles Rams D/ST (52.7 percent owned) vs. Indianapolis Colts
The Rams are just above my usual ownership threshold for this piece (50 percent), but their matchup is too good not to include considering they're still available in so many leagues. Wade Phillips has arrived as the defensive coordinator and brings with him a long history of fantasy success. Nine of the last 10 defenses Phillips has led as a coach or coordinator have finished 13th or better in scoring, with seven top-10 finishes to boot. The Rams defense is an imperfect, but talented unit likely facing off against Scott Tolzien in Week 1. That is not a typo. With Andrew Luck's status looking bleaker with each passing day, the odds of Tolzien playing significant snaps (especially in Week 1) increase. Tolzien owns an astronomical 5.5 career interception rate (Ryan Fitzpatrick led the league last year with a 4.2 interception rate) and will have to manage the pressure from the Rams without starting center Ryan Kelly. Aaron Donald's holdout could depress the Rams' scoring ceiling in this matchup, but a Tolzien-led offense on the road is ripe for picking on in fantasy. The Rams follow this game up by facing the currently struggling Washington offense and the Brian Hoyer-led 49ers offense, making them potentially viable for a few weeks if the Phillips effect comes out of the gates strong.
Jacksonville Jaguars D/ST (13.8 percent owned) at Houston Texans
The Texans defense will be a top play in Week 1 facing turnover machine Blake Bortles, but don't sleep on the Jaguars as well. The Texans offense isn't exactly set up to break any scoring records with Tom Savage starting under center and No. 2 wide receiver Will Fuller out with a broken collarbone. The Jags defense was a sleeper last year but struggled in the early goings. They finished strong, though, averaging over 10 fantasy points per game in the final three contests. Savage failed to throw a touchdown and took five sacks in his three appearances last season, though he figures to be at least marginally better this year after a full offseason of taking starter reps. However, the Jaguars also got better this offseason, improving their secondary by signing A.J. Bouye and Barry Church, while adding to their pass rush with Calais Campbell. This game figures to be a low-scoring one in general, which benefits both defenses. Those in need of a starting stop unit could turn to the Jaguars on the road in Houston.
Cincinnati Bengals D/ST (11.7 percent owned) vs. Baltimore Ravens
If you haven't been following the Ravens closely this offseason, you may not know how much their offensive line has suffered ... er, changed. The team lost right tackle Ricky Wagner in free agency, center John Urschel retired "hours before the team's first practice," and rookie fourth-round guard Nico Siragusa tore multiple ligaments in his knee and will miss the entire season. Other starters have missed time with injuries in camp as well, which poses additional problems as the Week 1 starting unit will lack chemistry and cohesiveness when they travel to face the Bengals' reloaded pass rush. Cincinnati only sacked opposing quarterbacks 33 times last year but addressed that problem in the draft by taking Jordan Willis and Carl Lawson, who combined have four sacks already in three preseason games. Add in the fact that Joe Flacco is no guarantee to start Week 1 and this could be a rough outing for the Baltimore offense and set the Bengals defense up for success.
Atlanta Falcons D/ST (33.5 percent owned) at Chicago Bears
The Falcons defense may have started 2016 off slowly and disappeared (along with a 28-3 lead) in the Super Bowl, but this unit could be ready to make some fantasy noise in 2017, starting right away in Week 1 against the lowly Chicago Bears. Atlanta bolstered its pass rush this year by selecting Takkarist McKinley in the first round of the NFL draft and signing Dontari Poe in free agency. They'll make life easier for the NFL's reigning sack leader, Vic Beasley, who broke out in his second year with 15.5 quarterback takedowns. The Falcons managed two-plus sacks in nine of their 10 final games last year without McKinley and Poe, so big things could be on the horizon for this pass rush. Also working in favor of the Falcons will be the return of Desmond Trufant, a top-notch cover corner who missed seven games last year after tearing a pectoral muscle in Week 9. This defense is now loaded with playmakers and guided by Dan Quinn, one of the NFL's best defensive minds, and set to square off against a talent-deficient Bears offense. While Jordan Howard is back to shoulder the load for the Bears in the backfield, the passing attack carries HUGE question marks after Cameron Meredith, the presumed No. 1 wide receiver, suffered a ghastly, season-ending knee injury in the third preseason game. Now Mike Glennon will have to rely on Kendall Wright, Kevin White, and Victor Cruz as his top pass-catching options. That's not an overly inspiring group, and one the Falcons should be able to corral for much of the game. The Falcons offense also remains one of the best in the league and should get out to an early, sizeable lead over the Bears. That'll put Glennon and co. into a pass-heavy game script, setting up more opportunities for sacks, interceptions, and most importantly fantasy points.