Get Out of Here With Your Elite Defense

Chicago Bears defensive end Henry Melton

The most offensive strain of fantasy football dogma might be defensive.

In a convention hall full of fake footballers last August in Atlantic City, the thinking was everywhere, infecting everyone like some End Times plague: We must, at all costs, draft the San Francisco 49ers’ defense, for there is no other defense that can pray to post numbers even remotely close to that of Jim Harbaugh’s elite unit of fiendish defenders.

San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh
San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh calls in a play against the New Orleans Saints John David Mercer US PRESSWIRE

I attended Fantasy Football Fest in AC mostly as an observer of those who would travel from across the country – the world, even – to talk make-believe football, mock draft with equally feverish owners, and shamelessly ogle lingerie-clad women toss the pigskin before a crowd of saucer-eyed little boys and their fathers.

So much fantasy groupthink was on display, including the theory that if you didn’t draft Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton, or Matthew Stafford, 2012 would be a lost year for your fantasy squad. That quarterback-centric thinking, however questionable, was downright scientific compared to the obsession with drafting the San Francisco defense in the middle rounds of every mock draft in the convention center.

People cheered when they snagged the Niners’ defense in the fifth round, as if they had locked up their fake football championship with a single, majestic stroke.

“Honestly, I was surprised they fell to me in the fifth,” Steven Collins of Massachusetts told me after his mock draft at Fantasy Football Fest. “I felt like I had to get them there since I already had my quarterback and running backs … I couldn’t pass up the No. 1 defense there.”

The 49ers were inarguably a fearsome fantasy defense in 2011, scoring in double digits an astounding eight times and collecting 169 fantasy points. A fantastic season, no doubt. What many fantasy owners didn’t know when they were reaching for the 49ers in the middle rounds of their drafts last summer: the Bears finished 2011 with 163 points. The Ravens’ defense scored 161 points. The Seahawks’ defense, an undrafted unit in 2011, finished just 22 points behind the 49ers. That means San Francisco outscored Seattle’s defense by 1.4 fantasy points per game.

Yet, owners happily threw away a fifth or sixth or seventh round draft pick on the 49ers’ defense, forgoing their chance to snatch a fantasy commodity far more likely to outscore others at his position by healthy margins.

There, at Fantasy Football Fest, was nary a mention of streaming defenses, week in and week out, using mediocre defenses in favorable matchups against the NFL’s most putrid, most discombobulated offenses. It’s true – streaming defenses takes some patience and research, and a bit of a riverboat gambler mentality. I’m going to use the Rams’ defense, you ask yourself in a Sunday morning panic. You’re less panicked, of course, when the Rams rack up 23 fantasy points against Ryan Lindley and the Cardinals, as they did in Week 12.

Drafting the 49ers’ defense before the final rounds of your fantasy draft was, in short, an affront to the value based drafting system.

Jonathan Bales, in “Fantasy Football For Smart People,” showed in simple terms that there are many predictive qualities in player statistics, but almost none in fantasy defenses and kickers. Nothing is guaranteed in this little game of ours, but defenses are a special kind of crapshoot. The top-scoring defenses from last year, however dominant they appeared on the gridiron, are statistically no more likely to lead the league in fantasy points the following year than those bottom-rung defensive units.

As Bales points out, fantasy defensive scoring is based mostly on sacks, interceptions, fumbles, and touchdowns, all unstable measures. Sure, a defense might allow low yardage totals to their opponents – that’s fairly predictable — but that says nothing of that unit’s prowess for forcing turnovers and scoring defensive and special teams touchdowns.

This is why, as I’ve preached for 13 weeks on, owners should stream their fantasy defenses, targeting floundering offenses prone to turnovers and sacks. Rolling with whichever defense is taking on the Chiefs or Cardinals or Jets or Chargers, for instance, is a good gamble. It won’t always work, but what in fantasy football will?

Chicago Bears defensive end Henry Melton
Chicago Bears defensive end Henry Melton celebrates a sack during the second half against the Indianapolis Colts at Soldier Field Dennis Wierzbicki US PRESSWIRE

The 49ers’ defense, even after back-to-back dominant performances against the Bears and Saints, are this year’s seventh highest scoring fantasy defense. They weren’t in the top 10 defenses before those combined 36-point outbursts these past two weeks.

The Bears’ defense, drafted an average of four rounds after the 49ers’ defense, has scored 164 points this year, 58 more than San Francisco. The Patriots’ defense, which owners drafted a cool seven rounds after the 49ers, has outscored San Fran by 27 points through 12 weeks.

Another harsh lesson in taking defenses before the final two rounds of your draft: The Eagles sported the fifth highest average draft position of 2012 among fantasy defenses, and now sit in 31st place, just ahead of the lowly Raiders.

Next August, when your fantasy league members are frothing over the prospect of drafting the Chicago defense in the fourth or fifth round, say nothing. Be grateful, in fact, that your buddy is throwing away a valuable draft pick. Smile like the evil genius you are and let your friend bank on some of the least stable fantasy statistics.

As for me, I’ll stream.

author avatar
C.D. Carter Fantasy Football Analyst
C.D. Carter is a reporter, author of zombie stories, writer for The Fake Football and XN Sports. Fantasy Sports Writers Association member. His work  has been featured in the New York Times.

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