Athlon Sports looks at three defensive/special teams units on the rise for the 2011 season, and three others on the decline. See where they rank in our defense/special teams rankings.
THREE GOING UP
DETROIT » The back seven is a concern, but the Lions should have one of the top defensive lines in the NFL this year. Ndamukong Suh anchors a deep rotation up front, which will help take the pressure off a questionable secondary. Detroit finished No. 13 in fantasy points last year and should see its sack and turnover numbers increase once again in 2011. Expect the Lions to work their way into the top 10 fantasy defenses this year, and they could go even higher if the back seven improves.
NEW ORLEANS » The Saints finished as the No. 3 fantasy defense in 2009 but slipped last year as their sack and turnover totals dipped. Reinforcements are on the way in the form of free agent signees Aubrayo Franklin and Shaun Rogers and draft picks Martez Wilson, Cameron Jordan and Johnny Patrick. Gregg Williams is one of the NFL’s top coordinators and should make this unit a quality spot-start based on matchups.
TAMPA BAY » The Buccaneers have spent their first two picks in the last two drafts upgrading the defensive line. Tackle Gerald McCoy is primed for a breakout year in 2011 and should receive help from draft selections Adrian Clayborn and Da’Quan Bowers off the edge. Health is a question mark where the line is concerned, but if all of the pieces stay on the field all year, the Buccaneers should easily finish higher than last season’s No. 20 ranking among fantasy defenses.
THREE GOING DOWN ARIZONA » Despite ranking No. 30 in points allowed last season, the Cardinals finished as the No. 6 fantasy defense. New coordinator Ray Horton comes from Pittsburgh and should help improve Arizona’s 3-4 scheme, but the fantasy numbers won’t show it. The Cardinals have a battered secondary with Greg Toler lost for the season (ACL) and Adrian Wilson currently battling torn biceps. They need to get more production from the pass rush and show more consistency from week to week. Arizona could finish among the top 15-20 fantasy defenses, but it may be a year before the Cardinals blossom into an every-week starting option.
MINNESOTA » The Vikings are a team in transition, and even though there are some pieces to like in 2011, the defense appears to be trending down. The line lost Ray Edwards and Pat Williams, while the secondary is thin and will be a question mark all season. The Vikings’ additions through the draft won’t be enough to raise this unit back to weekly consideration this season.
SAN DIEGO » The Chargers were one of the top team defense waiver wire additions last year but proved to be inconsistent week to week. Although San Diego finished 2010 ranked No. 1 in total defense, there are reasons to expect a drop-off. Coordinator Ron Rivera left for Carolina, and last year’s schedule wasn’t particularly difficult. San Diego’s first three picks in the draft were on defense, which should keep this unit playing at a high level. However, expecting the Chargers to finish among the top-10 defenses in fantasy points is probably unrealistic.
HOUSTON, WE HAVE A NEW DEFENSE
The recent proliferation of 3-4 defensive schemes has been a boon to fantasy owners. The blitz-heavy gameplan is fantasy-friendly, as it is based on making big plays and creating chaos around the line of scrimmage.
The Houston Texans are making the switch with new coordinator Wade Phillips pulling the strings. Houston drafted two key pieces in end J.J. Watt and blitz-backer Brooks Reed — a nearly identical strategy employed by the Green Bay Packers when they made the successful switch by selecting nose tackle B.J. Raji and edge-rusher Clay Matthews in 2009.
There is also a precedent indicating a defense can go from worst — the Texans ranked last in ’10 — to first in one season. The Eagles were the worst fantasy defense in ’07 before landing as the No. 1 option in ’08. Will the Texans be the top fantasy defense? No. But they won’t be last, either.
We currently have them ranked 14th, and could just as easily move them into the top 10. Either way, the Texans will be a far cry from the 30th-place team in this scoring system that they were last year.