Team defenses can be a tricky business early in the season.


One of the main reasons that investing a lot of fantasy draft capital in team defenses is frowned upon by so many is that they are wildly unpredictable. Much can change on a defense from one year to the next – or one week to the next.


Ask the Oakland Raiders. If anyone figures out what the heck Jon Gruden was thinking in trading arguably the best defensive player in the NFL, I’m all ears.


Anyway, this isn’t to say that past performance and future production are unrelated. We have a pretty good idea that the Minnesota Vikings will carry over last year’s defensive success to 2018, given that an already loaded defensive line added Sheldon Richardson. We also can be fairly confident that the Indianapolis Colts are not a defensive unit that many fantasy owners will be trotting out this season.


Gonna be a long year in Indy.


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But there’s going to be a defense that looks good on paper who underperforms on the field—and a defense we didn’t expect to fare as well as they do. It happens every season—this one won’t be an exception.


Once we get a month or so into the season, we’ll start to develop some data that will be useful in determining just how good both this year’s team defenses are and how favorable certain weekly matchups will be.


Of course, we have to make it that far first. No one wants to start a brand-new campaign at 1-3 or 0-4.


So, for now it’s a mixture of how defenses (and their opponents) fared in 2018, considerations of the changes those defenses underwent in the offseason, and some good old-fashioned speculation.


I reckon that beats blowing smoke by pretending to know things I don’t.


Week 1 No-Doubters

Baltimore Ravens (vs. BUF)

Of all the team defenses in the NFL, there isn’t one set up better for success out of the gate than the Baltimore Ravens. It’s not so much a matter of Baltimore’s second-place fantasy finish last year or that the Ravens led the NFL in takeaways. Frankly it’s fair to expect some regression in that regard in 2018—turnovers can be a fluky stat. But Baltimore’s home tilt with Buffalo is as good as fantasy matchups get. The Bills will be starting Nathan Pickerman (Peterman, whatever) behind a line with three new starters that looked like hot garbage in the preseason. Can you say bloodbath?

Los Angeles Rams (at OAK)

The Rams were a top-five fantasy defense in most scoring systems in 2017—and that was before the team added a pair of ball-hawking cornerbacks in Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib and a force in the middle in tackle Ndamukong Suh. The final game of Week 1 features that loaded Rams defense travelling up the coast to face a Raiders team left reeling after the Mack trade. The Rams should be able to limit Oakland’s ability to run between the tackles with Marshawn Lynch, and Amari Cooper could be in for a long night against those cornerbacks. Oakland was also fourth in the league in giveaways in 2017.

Jacksonville Jaguars (at NYG)

The Jaguars were fantasy’s top defense last year and ranked at or near the top of the league in more statistical categories than I can count. First in pass defense. Second in total defense. Second in interceptions. Second in takeaways overall. And second in sacks. The Jags are a fantasy owner’s dream—a team built around making “splash” plays. The Giants are going to be better than they were in 2017 with a healthy Odell Beckham and Saquon Barkley at tailback, but Eli Manning can be turnover-prone. Another top defense that should start hot.

New Orleans Saints (vs. TBB)

I know, I know—it can be hard to wrap one’s head around the idea of the Saints as a team that plays defense. And to be fair, the Saints are a good defensive team but not necessarily a great one—New Orleans was 17th in total defense last season and barely cracked weekly starter territory from a fantasy perspective. But this has the feel of a game in which New Orleans races to an early lead and forces the Ryan Fitzpatrick-led Buccaneers into catch-up mode. That’s going to allow Cameron Jordan to pin his ears back and sets up well for a takeaway or three.

Minnesota Vikings (vs. SFO)

The Vikings were a much better real-life defense (first in yards allowed at 275.9 yards per game) than fantasy unit last year—largely due to middle-of-the pack rankings in sacks and takeaways (otherwise known as the stats that rack up fantasy points). However, Sunday’s home tilt against a 49ers team that lost tailback Jerick McKinnon for the season still offers a team drafted as a high-end weekly starter an opportunity to start the season off right.


Streamers of the World, Unite!

Cincinnati Bengals (at IND)

Yes, the Colts will have Andrew Luck back for 2018, which is good news for the team. It’s also just about the extent of said good news. The addition of guard Quenton Nelson isn’t going to magically fix a woeful Colts O-line that surrendered a staggering 56 sacks in 2017. The Bengals front four looked dominant in the team’s dress rehearsal win over the Bills, and Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins will likely be all up in Luck’s business most of the afternoon. The Bengals also have an underrated trio of corners, and the Colts don’t have a run game to take advantage of Vontaze Burfict‘s absence.

Pittsburgh Steelers (at CLE)

The Browns should be better in 2018 than last year’s dumpster fire of an offense that led the league in giveaways and fantasy points allowed to opposing defenses—if only because they can’t possibly be any worse. But let’s not get carried away about just how much better—Tyrod Taylor‘s Bills last year were an above-average fantasy matchup for defenses in their own right. The Browns also have problems on the offensive line heading into a matchup with a Steelers team that led the NFL in sacks last year. Add in the possibility Hue Jackson does something dumb, and this Browns fan is rolling out Pittsburgh in more than a few leagues in Week 1. I’m cold-blooded like that.

Detroit Lions (vs. NYJ)

To be honest, Matt Patricia‘s Lions didn’t look especially impressive on either side of the ball in the preseason. And even if Detroit’s defensive numbers last year had been lights-out (they weren’t), there are so many schematic changes in Motown this year that those numbers couldn’t be trusted. Given all that, you may be wondering why the Lions are listed here as a quality Week 1 streaming option. The reason is simple—rookie Sam Darnold will be making his first career NFL start on the road in a packed Ford Field. You can bet the rent that Patricia has some blitzes and coverages drawn up that Darnold has never seen before, and his biggest bugaboo at USC was turnovers.

Tennessee Titans (at MIA)

The Titans were quietly a pretty good defensive team in 2017—they ranked 13th in total defense, slotted inside the top 10 in sacks and in the top half of the NFL in takeaways. That didn’t equate to a great fantasy finish, but there’s reason to think it could pave the way for Tennessee to be a good matchup play in Week 1—even with a nicked-up pass rush. That reason is a Miami offense that was sixth in fantasy points given up to defenses. Granted, that was without Ryan Tannehill, but the Dolphins haven’t shown much in the preseason to indicate they’re set for a big leap forward with him. Adoree Jackson’s return skills are a nice little bonus, too.


Green Bay Packers (vs. CHI)

Following their acquisition of Khalil Mack, the Bears are the new “it” team, with pundits far and wide talking Chicago up as a potential player in the NFC North. And it’s true that with the additions of Allen Robinson, Trey Burton and rookie Anthony Miller, Mitchell Trubisky has much better options at his disposal in the passing game. But we’re still talking about an offense that was dead last in the NFC last year and allowed the seventh-most fantasy points per game to opposing defenses. At Lambeau in prime time, I expect Trubisky to struggle.


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Washington Redskins (at ARZ)

The Washington Redskins didn’t exactly have the sort of season in 2017 that inspires a ton of confidence in the unit’s ability to be a high-end fantasy producer in 2018—Washington barely cracked the top 20 in fantasy points. But where Washington did have considerable success was in getting after the quarterback—the team’s 42 sacks tied for sixth-most in the NFL. That just so happens to also be an area where the Cardinals struggled—no team in the NFC allowed more sacks than the Redbirds. Trusting Washington on the road’s a reach, but Sam Bradford‘s not out-running any more pass-rushers than Carson Palmer did.


Caveat Emptor, Folks

Chicago Bears (at GBP)

The hype around Chicago’s defense with the acquisition of Mack is getting Five Finger Death Punch concert-levels of loud, and with good reason. The Bears ranked inside the top-10 in total defense last year and ninth in fantasy points WITHOUT Mack. In a month we could talking about the Bears defense in the same breath as their NFC North rivals in Minnesota. But even if Mack plays Sunday night he’ll be on a pretty tight snap count, and the Bears are heading to Lambeau. To play the Packers. With Aaron Rodgers. When’s the last time that worked out well for the boys in blue?


Philadelphia Eagles (vs. ATL)

Make no mistake. The Eagles are a very good defensive team. A front four that was already among the NFL’s best added Michael Bennett in the offseason and the defense allowed just 18.4 points per game last year—fourth-best in the league. Philly also held Atlanta to just 10 points in last year’s Divisional Round victory. With that said though, Philly’s fifth-ranked fantasy defense last year will be without linebacker Nigel Bradham in the opener (suspension), and the Eagles offense hasn’t looked good even a little bit in the preseason. Those offensive woes are honestly my biggest concern about the Eagles in this game. You drafted the Eagles as an every-week starter, but don’t be stunned if they come out of the gate a bit slow.


Houston Texans (at NEP)

The good news is that for the first time in a long time, Houston’s pass-rush trio of Jadeveon Clowney, Whitney Mercilus and JJ Watt might actually play in a game together. If Houston can keep them on the field together for any length of time, this is a team that could easily lead the NFL in sacks and pile up fantasy points. But Clowney’s already nursing his bum knee, and Mercilus and Watt are both coming off major injuries—in Watt’s case his second in as many seasons. A trip to Foxboro to face the Golden Boy (who rarely gets sacked) is a rotten matchup to begin the year.

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