Everyone wants a good fantasy football defense, but no one wants to pay up for one. Quite the pickle, huh? To be fair, that’s true at all positions, but it’s especially difficult at D/ST, where in-season matchups can make virtually any team unplayable in any given week. It’s easy to think a defense is better than their spot in the rankings — and it indeed might finish the year in the top 10 — but given the circuitous route it could take to get there, is it worth drafting? If you’re willing to carry multiple D/STs, then trying to find a breakout late in your draft might make sense, but chances are, you don’t want to do that.
So, yes, quite the pickle. Our recommendation is to play the stream game with D/STs throughout the year, which is why we’re specifically highlighting units at the bottom of this article that have potential favorable matchups in the first few weeks. We say “potentially” because, let’s be honest, we don’t know for sure which matchups are favorable and unfavorable. All we can really do is look at QBs with shaky turnover histories and offensive lines that failed to protect last year and likely didn’t get much better this offseason. Ultimately, like much at this position, we’re just guessing, though.
Our picks below all have a lot of upside based on personnel, but if you really like the Cardinals, are you going to play them Week 1 against the high-powered Titans offense? Probably not, so why even bother drafting them at all? They’ll be on the waiver wire if you really want them a week or two later. The same goes for the Browns (at Kansas City in Week 1). As we highlight below, their schedule is very favorable in the few weeks after that, but you shouldn’t be starting them (or anyone) against the Chiefs.
Again, you have to be comfortable either carrying two D/STs or playing the stream game if you really want to find a “sleeper D/ST.” If you’re not good with either, just draft the Steelers or Patriots. Even those teams have matchups in which you don’t want to use them, but at least you know they’re supremely talented.
DOMINATE YOUR DRAFT: Ultimate 2021 Cheat Sheet
2021 Fantasy Football Defense Sleepers: Potential D/ST breakouts, steals
Arizona Cardinals. Franchise staple Patrick Peterson is no longer in Arizona, and with Dre Kirkpatrick also leaving, the Cardinals lost six INTs from last season. However All-Pro Budda Baker is still patrolling the backend, and he’ll be joined this year by DBs Malcolm Butler and Robert Alford, which should minimize any potential drop-off. (Update: Butler was placed on the reserve/retired list just before the start of the season.) Arizona also added pass-rusher J.J. Watt in free agency to replace departed team sack leader (and forced-fumble maestro) Haason Reddick and will hope to get more than five games from the admittedly unhappy Chandler Jones (biceps). Markus Golden, who came over last year in a midseason trade, will also play more. Throw in first-round LB Zaven Collins, and Arizona should feature an overall unit similar to last season when it finished 10th in fantasy points despite not scoring any D/ST touchdowns. That will certainly increase this year, so consider the Cards a strong matchup-based sleeper.
Minnesota Vikings. Minnesota made some big additions in the offseason, most notably run-stuffers Dalvin Tomlinson and Sheldon Richardson and big-play DB Patrick Peterson. Perhaps none will be bigger than the ostensible returns of former Pro Bowlers, LB Anthony Barr (two games played last year because of a pectoral injury) and DL Danielle Hunter (no games played because of a neck injury). The loss of LB Eric Wilson (three INTs, two fumble recoveries, three sacks) hurts, but Minnesota’s anemic pass rush should be greatly improved. Considering Minnesota still had 15 INTs last year (tied for seventh), more pressure could really lead to an improved all-around fantasy performance. Expect a nice bounce-back year from the Vikings.
Cleveland Browns. Pass-rusher Jadeveon Clowney might be the biggest name among Cleveland’s offseason additions, but production-wise, he’s not the most notable. Cleveland also picked up former Rams John Johnson and Troy Hill, who combined for 182 tackles, four INTs, two fumble recoveries, and three TDs last season. With first-round pick Greg Newsome also joining the secondary, Cleveland looks to build on last season’s subpar 11 INTs and 22nd-ranked pass defense. Outside of Myles Garrett, pass rush is still an issue, but if the Browns can do a better job limiting points, they should be playable most weeks.
Denver Broncos. Denver finished ninth in sacks (42) last year despite missing Von Miller (ankle/foot), but poor showings in INTs (tied for 23rd), fumble recoveries (t-25th), and points allowed (24th) made its D/ST unplayable most weeks. The return of Miller and additions of big-play DBs Kyle Fuller, Ronald Darby, and first-round pick Patrick Surtain II could really go a long way to helping this squad return to fantasy prominence.
Seattle Seahawks. The Seahawks lost playmaking DB Shaquill Griffin, pass-rushing DT Jarran Reed, and long-time LB K.J. Wright, but the additions of DE Kerry Hyder, DT Al Woods, and LB Ahkello Witherspoon should help. Even more than that, improved injury luck will go a long way, as DB Jamal Adams (four games missed), DB D.J. Reed (6), LB Carlos Dunlap (8), and second-round edge-rusher Darrell Taylor (season) all missed time. The ‘Hawks still managed to finish tied for 13th in fantasy points without even scoring a D/ST touchdown, which shows how much upside they have heading into this year.
Tennessee Titans. After finishing 30th in sacks (19) and 29th in pass defense (277.4 yards allowed per game), Tennessee made some big changes in the offseason, adding pass-rushers Denico Autry (7.5 sacks last year) and LB Bud Dupree (8.5 sacks in 11 games) and DBs Caleb Farley (first-round pick) and Janoris Jenkins (three INTs ,TD last year). Barring some further improvements from recent high draft picks Jeffery Simmons and Rashaan Evans, Tennessee will likely still have a mediocre pass rush, but given its knack for big plays, the Titans should still be much improved.
Green Bay Packers. The Packers are always in the streamer mix thanks to a solid pass rush (41 sacks last year) and generally solid overall defense (ninth in total yards allowed), but a shaky secondary is a worry. First-round DB Eric Stokes is one of the only notable newcomers to this defense, so it’s easy to expect a similar finish as last year’s No. 18 ranking. However, a highly favorable early-season schedule vs. potentially shaky QBs (@NO, vs. DET, @SF in Weeks 1-3; @CIN, @CHI, vs. WAS in Weeks 5-7) could mean a hot start. Things get considerably tougher in the second half, but the Packers are still a solid team to target late in drafts. Ride them while you can.
Favorable early-season schedules. Here, we’re basically just looking at defenses set to face potentially shaky QBs in the first few weeks of the season. This isn’t a perfect equation — remember when we thought Josh Allen was still mistake-prone early last year? — but it’s the best we can do when trying to evaluate matchups before seeing teams in action for a few weeks. Making it a point to draft a defense with a favorable early-season schedule — whether it’s jumping a round to draft a defense in the top 10 or waiting until the very end to draft a D/ST few are considering — can give you an edge on the owners who draft, say, the Colts and want to bench them the first two weeks when they face the Seahawks and Rams.
Through Week 2:
- Jacksonville (@ HOU, vs. DEN). We’re not going to recommend using the Jaguars defense, but we just wanted to make you aware that the first two matchups are at least favorable.
- Los Angeles Rams (vs. CHI, @ IND). The Rams are high in rankings and likely to get overdrafted anyway, but if you really want to get them, at least you know they should start well.
- New York Giants (vs. DEN, @ WFT). The Giants were actually solid in fantasy last year, and this two-game opening schedule is as good as it gets. Weeks 3 and 4 (vs. ATL, @ NO) aren’t terrible either.
- San Francisco (@ DET, @ PHI). The 49ers are in the 10-12 range in most rankings, and these first two games should get them off to a good start. The bottom will fall out after that (vs. GB, vs. SEA, @ ARI).
Through Week 3:
- Carolina (vs. NYJ, vs. NO, @ HOU). Let’s hope Jameis Winston is starting in Week 2, but either way, the Panthers open the season against some suspect offenses.
- Cleveland (@ KC, vs. HOU, vs. CHI). You’re obviously not playing Cleveland Week 1, so they’re better left undrafted, but you gotta like the next two weeks. You can draft-and-stash or be ready to pounce after the opener.
- Denver (@ NYG, @ JAX, vs. NYJ). Trevor Lawrence might be great immediately, but we’ll always take our chances with a strong pass-rushing team against a rookie in his second start.
- Green Bay (@ NO, vs. DET, @ SF). See above in the Packers write-up. Six of their first seven games look like above-average matchups.
- New England (vs. MIA, @ NYJ, vs. NO). Like the Rams, the Pats are already a top D/ST in most rankings, but their early-season schedule makes them even more appealing.
- New York Jets (@ CAR, vs. NE, @ DEN). Are the Jets good enough to play in fantasy? Maybe not, but the schedule is soft and a “revenge game” to start the year against former QB Sam Darnold is enticing.
Through Week 4:
- Buffalo (vs. PIT, @ MIA, vs. WFT, vs. HOU). Pittsburgh isn’t exactly “favorable,” but you’re also not scared of the Steelers because of their shaky o-line and immobile QB. The other three matchups all feature QBs with question marks.
- New Orleans (vs. GB, @ CAR, @ NE, vs. NYG). It sure would’ve been nice if Jordan Love was starting that opener, but either way, after keeping New Orleans on your bench in Week 1, you should be riding high the next few weeks. The Saints also play Washington in Week 5, so the good times will keep rolling.