I have been writing this column for Rotoworld/NBC Sports Edge for quite a while now (that they keep bringing me back surprises me as much as it does you), and I’m pretty sure that my intro for one of the first couple pieces every year bears a similar message.
This is the trickiest time of year for team defenses.
There are some things we know with a fair level of confidence. The San Francisco 49ers are going to be a good defensive football team, especially once edge-rusher Nick Bosa
puts pen to paper on a new contract. So will the Philadelphia Eagles, Dallas Cowboys and New England Patriots. The Houston Texans and Arizona Cardinals are probably going to struggle offensively and be matchups to target all season long.
But every year also brings surprises, because no fantasy position is affected more by the changes each offseason brings than defenses. Personnel changes. New coaches. Changing schemes. All can have a major impact on defensive performance.
It’s also a position with a lot of annual variance. The Eagles were third in fantasy points last year largely because the team amassed a staggering 70 sacks and 27 takeaways. Those are going to be hard numbers to replicate, even for a defense as talented as Philly’s.
My point is this – some of what we’ll call “surprises” defensively in 2023 aren’t so much surprises as things we didn’t properly account for. For some it could mean the defense drafted as an every-week starter starts slower than expected. For streamers, it makes September a trickier month to navigate.
Either way the advice remains the same. Just take a breath. Don’t overreact to any single week, and in a month or so, we’ll have a much better idea what the defensive landscape looks like in 2023.
In the meantime, there are still calls to be made. So, let’s get to it.
THE NO DOUBTERS
San Francisco 49ers (at PIT)
The prevailing storyline in San Francisco this offseason on the defensive side of the ball has been the contract impasse between Bosa and the team. The 49ers continue to proclaim that a deal is “close,” but so far nothing’s finalized, meaning that San Francisco may face the Steelers without the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. That’s certainly not ideal, but even without Bosa San Francisco remains a defense with talent from front to back that ranked first in the NFL last year in both total defense and scoring defense and fourth among defenses in fantasy points. Pittsburgh’s offense has looked good in the preseason, but we’re still talking about a team that was 26th in scoring in 2022.
Philadelphia Eagles (at NE)
As was stated earlier, the Eagles probably aren’t going to pile up 70 sacks again in 2023, nor will they have four players hit double digits in that regard like they did a year ago. There are questions defensively too – especially at the linebacker position. But the Eagles remain a team stacked with talent on the defensive line and in the secondary that will most likely be among the NFC’s best in 2023. The Patriots will be better offensively this year with an actual offensive coordinator running things compared to last year’s 26th-ranked unit, but it’s not a group that should have fantasy managers reconsidering rolling out a top-five fantasy defense.
Dallas Cowboys (at New York Giants)
There’s actually something of a theme with the so-called “elite” team defenses in Week 1 – the Eagles, 49ers, Cowboys and Bills are all on the road in matchups that aren’t exactly ideal. It’s not that the Giants lit the world on fire offensively last season – the team was 18th in yards per game in 2022 and 16th in points per game. However, the Giants also didn’t make a ton of mistakes, and as a result New York ranked a middling 17th in fantasy points per game surrendered to defenses. You still gotta start Micah Parsons
and Co. on Sunday night, but this could be a week to temper expectations.
Buffalo Bills (at New York Jets)
Were this 2022, Buffalo’s Monday night trip to the Big Apple would have the makings of a bonanza for the Bills defense. But the days of a floundering offense and Zach Wilson
turnovers are over in New York, and there is just a slight difference between Wilson and Aaron Rodgers
. Still, this will be the new-look Jets’ first game that counts with Rodgers under center, and it comes against a Buffalo defense that was sixth in total defense, led the AFC in scoring defense at 17.9 points per game and finished the year fifth in fantasy points among defenses. Rodgers is going to have to earn it in his Jets debut.
Baltimore Ravens (vs. Houston Texans)
The Ravens were quietly a very good defensive team last year – 10th in yards allowed, third in points allowed and ninth in fantasy points. But the Ravens are an attractive Week 1 fantasy start less because of what they did last year than what the Houston Texans failed to do. Last year, the Texans were 31st in the NFL in both total offense and scoring offense, and only one team surrendered more fantasy points per game to defenses. With all due respect to new head coach DeMeco Ryans
and quarterback C.J. Stroud
, there isn’t going to be some miracle turnaround in Stroud’s first NFL game.
Washington Commanders (vs. Arizona Cardinals)
The Commanders were undoubtedly a hot commodity among the streaming community this summer – a top-five defense in terms of yards allowed last year, top-15 in fantasy points and yet readily available late in most fantasy drafts. Of course, what really made the Commanders appealing is their Week 1 opponent – the Arizona Cardinals appear to be the worst team in the NFL, and after releasing Colt McCoy
it appears that Joshua Dobbs
will be the team’s starter under center. You can expect to see a lot of Arizona’s opponents making appearances in this column this season.
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STREAMERS OF THE WORLD, UNITE!
Denver Broncos (at Las Vegas Raiders)
The Broncos imploded just about across the board last year, and from a fantasy perspective at least the defense was no different – Denver finished the 2022 campaign 24th in fantasy points among defenses. The Raiders weren’t an especially favorable fantasy matchup last year, but reports from training camp about the Jimmy Garoppolo-led offense have been less than encouraging. Add in that Josh Jacobs
only recently reported to the team and will likely be on a snap count in this one and you have the recipe for what could be a sloppy, low-scoring affair.
Jacksonville Jaguars (at Indianapolis Colts)
The Jaguars were one of the most surprising fantasy defenses in 2022, finishing sixth in points. It’s a defense that has quietly added some excellent personnel, including edge-rusher Josh Allen
, linebacker Foyesade Oluokun and safety Rayshawn Jenkins
. This Colts team is very different from the one that led the league in fantasy points allowed to defenses in 2022, but it does feature a rookie quarterback making his first career start and a running back situation that is all kinds of unsettled with Jonathan Taylor
opening the year on the PUP list.
New Orleans Saints (vs. Tennessee Titans)
The Saints have long been something of an underrated team defensively, and 2022 was no exception – the Saints were quietly fifth in total defense and eighth in the NFL in sacks with 46, and as recently as 2021 New Orleans was seventh in fantasy points at the position. The Tennessee Titans finished just outside the top-10 in fantasy points allowed to defenses last season, although Ryan Tannehill’s injury may have played a part there. The Saints might not be a great fantasy defense this week if Tennessee’s offense rebounds, but New Orleans should still be at least a decent play.
Green Bay Packers (at Chicago Bears)
The installation of Jordan Love as the starting quarterback has garnered all the attention, but the Packers have the makings of a really good defense, whether it’s Preston Smith
and Rashan Gary
on the edge, De’Vondre Campbell and Quay Walker
at linebacker or Jaire Alexander
in the secondary. The Bears don’t really have anywhere to go but up offensively this year, and the arrival of wide receiver DJ Moore
should help, but we’re talking about a Chicago offense that was 28th in yards per game last year and fifth in fantasy points allowed to defenses.
Seattle Seahawks (vs. Los Angeles Rams)
To be clear, the Seahawks were not an especially good defensive football team last year – Seattle ranked 25th or worse in both total defense and scoring defense. But thanks to a nose for big plays (45 sacks and 25 takeaways), the Seahawks finished the season inside the top-12 in fantasy points. The Rams are probably going to be better offensively in 2023 than the team that was dead last in yards per game a year ago, but with Cooper Kupp
on the shelf already the Rams’ passing game is in trouble before the regular season even starts.
Pittsburgh Steelers (vs. San Francisco 49ers)
It seems a little odd to call the Pittsburgh defense a streaming play, but after two straight fantasy finishes outside the top-15, that’s essentially what they are now. It also seems odd to call the 49ers a matchup play – only two teams gave up fewer fantasy points to defenses in 2022 than San Francisco. But the Steelers will have a healthy T.J. Watt
back for the season opener, and Pittsburgh’s ability to get after quarterbacks makes them a viable fantasy start more weeks than not.
CAVEAT EMPTOR, FOLKS
New England Patriots (vs. Philadelphia Eagles)
The Patriots are a fantasy-relevant defense more years than not. Last year, no defense scored more fantasy points than New England. The Pats were third in the league in sacks last year with 54 and led the AFC with 30 takeaways. It’s almost as if Bill Belichick
knows something about coaching defense or something. But Darth Hoodie has his work cut out for him in Week 1 – the Eagles are arguably the most difficult team in the league to defend, and in 2022 Philly allowed the sixth-fewest fantasy points per game to defenses.
New York Jets (vs. Buffalo Bills)
All anyone wants to talk about in New York is Aaron Rodgers, but the Jets’ defense is probably the strength of the team. Tackle Quinnen Williams
anchors a stacked defensive front that tallied 45 sacks a year ago. Linebacker C.J. Mosley
is one of the most underrated players in the league at his position. And reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year Ahmad Gardner leads a secondary that was third in pass defense in 2022. But something has to give Monday night against the Bills, who were second in both total offense and scoring last year and were also 29th in fantasy points given up to defenses.