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How Does Defense Work In Fantasy Football, Explained

Buffalo Bills free safety Jordan Poyer (21) celebrates getting an interception as strong safety Dean Marlowe (31) reacts in the first quarter at Bills Stadium.
Photo Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

In football, it is often said that defense wins championships. In fantasy football, defense has much less of an impact on whether or not a team wins a title, but it can still play a role in determining the outcome of your league. Here, we look at how fantasy football defense works, how defenses score fantasy points, and what value defenses should have on your fantasy football draft board.

How does defense work in fantasy football?

Fantasy football defenses work differently than the other positions on your roster. While fantasy football owners pick individual players at positions such as quarterback, they draft defenses as entire units. That means that owners are drafting a team’s defensive line, linebackers, and secondary all in one package.

This requires the ability to identify the strengths and weaknesses of a defense as a whole before the NFL season starts. For example, if a pass rush is the weak link of a team, that could have a negative effect on their secondary by forcing the secondary to defend passing plays for longer. That can lead to more open receivers, more big passing plays against a defense, and more points allowed by that defensive unit.

How does a defense score points in fantasy football?

On defense, fantasy points are scored in a few ways, some of which have more impact on the result of a game than others. The primary way is by keeping their opponents off the scoreboard. Most fantasy football leagues give defenses a specific number of points at the start of each game for not allowing any points. That number then decreases throughout the game when that team allows points.

Other forms of scoring on defense come from big plays made by defenses over the course of a game. Sacks, interceptions, fumble recoveries, fourth down stops, and special teams returns can all yield points depending on the settings for your league. A full list of plays that trigger scoring for fantasy football defenses can be found in the scoring settings section of your league dashboard throughout the season.

Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett (95) celebrates his touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens during the second quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium.
Photo Credit: Scott Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

A form of scoring that often flies under the radar when picking a fantasy football defensive unit is special teams scoring. In addition to the above defensive scoring methods, special teams units can earn owners fantasy points via kick returns, punt returns, blocked punts and kicks, and the ensuing return touchdowns from those blocks. These are rare relative to traditional defensive scoring methods, but are something to keep in mind when drafting a fantasy football team.

What to consider when drafting a fantasy football defense

A team’s schedule

The most important thing to consider when drafting a defense in fantasy football is the type of competition that defense is going to play throughout the NFL season. Analyzing the schedule is important to do when picking any individual player or defense in fantasy football, as that schedule can determine how much resistance they will face at different points of the year. On defense, this is not just important to do for the defenses an owner is thinking about drafting, but for all of the defenses on the waiver wire and free agent pool each week.

With positions such as quarterback, running back, and wide receiver, owners can rotate players between their starting lineup and bench depending on the matchups they are facing. But with defenses, where most owners only have one defense rostered at a time, mapping out the matchups for the whole league can help identify spots where it is advantageous to drop your current defense and replace them with a team with a more favorable matchup that week.

Roster depth

Along with analyzing the schedule of each defense to scout out their matchups, owners will also want to consider what the depth situation is on each defense before selecting one. Some NFL rosters have more depth on their defensive line than their secondary, and vice versa, which can impact a defense in different ways when injuries inevitably strike in the NFL. It is useful to project the degree to which injuries can turn a good defense into a struggling defense in a short period of time.

Don’t forget special teams

Finally, fantasy football owners should consider the impact of special teams when selecting a defensive unit for the upcoming season. Remember, returns on special teams can also earn fantasy points, making it worthwhile to brush up on which return units have had success in recent seasons and which ones project to making big plays occasionally in the year to come.

When to draft a defense in fantasy football

When to draft a defense is a question that is often asked by newer team owners. The short answer is that they should typically be drafted within the last two rounds of a draft. Let us illustrate why fantasy players are doing themselves a disservice by taking a defense any earlier.

In the below table, we have compiled the top-12 defenses in fantasy football per NFL.com fantasy scoring figures over the last three seasons, along with the average point production from positions 1-12 over that time frame. The reason we compiled the top-12 is that there are typically 12 defenses drafted in a standard fantasy draft, one for each team. As you will see, there is not a huge difference between the top fantasy defense and the 12th best fantasy defense each season.

Without context, you may think that an average difference of 66.33 points from first place to 12th place is significant over a three-year period. But when you compare that to the average difference between first place and 12th place at other positions, you will see that defenses and kickers carry far less variance than skill positions, and therefore should be a lower priority when setting your roster. Here is a look at the average variance from first place to 12th place at the other positions in fantasy football over the last three seasons.

Based on this data, fantasy owners should be sure to target the four main fantasy positions before even thinking about taking a defense or a kicker. Doing so will be beneficial in the long run, as defense is confirmed not to win championships in fantasy football the way it does in real-life football.

Should I have two defenses in fantasy football?

Some fantasy football owners choose to draft two defenses with the goal of rotating them based on matchups and during bye weeks, rather than having to rely on free agents and waiver wire acquisitions to get the best defense possible. But this is a flawed strategy, as rostering two defenses takes an extra bench spot away from a skill position player that carries more value on a week to week basis.

Instead, owners should consider keeping just one defense on their fantasy football roster, and replacing it via waivers or free agency when a more favorable option presents itself. This will allow owners to stash as many skill position players on their bench as possible, allowing them to hunt for value at the most important positions on their fantasy rosters.

Can I draft individual defensive players in fantasy football?

Some leagues do allow owners to draft individual defensive players in fantasy football. This is a rarity in fantasy football, as traditional league settings tend to only allow the drafting of full team defenses. But this is something that owners will want to look for in their league settings before the season gets started, as it could impact their draft strategy.

New England Patriots safety Devin McCourty (32) celebrates with linebacker Matthew Judon (9) after an interception against the Atlanta Falcons in the second half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Photo Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

NFL defenses to draft in fantasy football 2022

Coming into this season, there are a few fantasy football defenses that could make a larger impact than most this NFL season. That does not mean that owners should reach for those defenses, but it does make them worth watching out for when deciding between defensive units in the final rounds of the draft or later in free agency:
  • New England Patriots
    Last season, the New England Patriots finished second in NFL.com fantasy scoring on defense. They gave up the second fewest points in the league last year, and are poised to have another strong defensive season here. As long as Bill Belichick is the coach of the Patriots, New England is likely to disrupt opposing offenses by taking away what they do best, which has translated to fantasy scoring success.
  • Buffalo Bills
    While the Patriots finished second in points allowed last season, the Buffalo Bills finished at the top of the league in that department. Last year, the Bills, Patriots, and Miami Dolphins all finished in the top-five in fantasy points generated on defense, as playing in the same division as the New York Jets was beneficial to all three. But the Bills led the NFL in yards per play allowed last season, and their ability to consistently prevent explosive plays will come in handy in fantasy football.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers inside linebacker Lavonte David (54) celebrates a turn over during the second half against the Los Angeles Rams in a NFC Divisional playoff football game at Raymond James Stadium.
  • Tampa Bay Buccaneers
    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are another team that will benefit from their division in a big way. They share the NFC South with the Saints, Panthers, and Falcons, all of whom have quarterback situations the Bucs can benefit from. Facing Jameis Winston, Baker Mayfield, and Marcus Mariota twice per season could mean interceptions and the potential for defensive touchdowns.
  • Indianapolis Colts
    This season, the Indianapolis Colts are again expected to compete with the Tennessee Titans for the top spot in the AFC South. And their defense is set to have an easier time against the Titans with A.J. Brown and Julio Jones leaving their roster this past offseason. Combine that with four games against the Jaguars and Texans, and the Colts should have plenty of strong games in them on defense in 2022.
  • Cleveland Browns
    Our final defense to keep an eye on this coming NFL season is the Cleveland Browns, whose quarterback situation is in flux for the majority of this year. Deshaun Watson is set to miss the first 11 games of the upcoming season, making it all the more important for their defense to step up. With the Steelers transitioning to a new starting quarterback, and the potential for regression from Joe Burrow and the Bengals, expect the pass rush of the Browns to be influential in fantasy football this year.