Baltimore Ravens. Despite a relatively mediocre 10 INTs (tied for 23rd) and 39 sacks (14th), the Ravens were a top-five fantasy defense in 2020. Not only did Baltimore limit points (second fewest per game) and force fumbles (league-high 22) at elite clips, it also managed to get into the end zone four times on defense and special teams. Those latter two stats don’t always translate from season to season, but Baltimore recovered just 12 fumbles last year (54.5 percent recovery rate), which is actually below league average (70.5 percent) according to FantasyPros’ forced fumble/fumble recovery data. Baltimore still boasts a host of playmakers and added some talented defensive players in the draft, including first-round pass-rusher Jayson Oweh. If DB Tavon Young can stay healthy (just two games played in 2019 and ’20 because of neck and knee injuries), the Ravens will have even more big-play potential.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Perhaps surprisingly, Tampa brought back virtually all of its key defensive players from last year’s Super Bowl squad, and it added first-round pass-rusher Joe Tryon. Jason Pierre-Paul, Ndamukong Suh, Lavonte David, and William Gholston will all be on the wrong side of 30 when the season starts, but LB Devin White, DB Carlton Davis, and DB Antoine Winfield Jr. are only getting better. This deep, talented unit is a near lock to finish in the top 10 — maybe even top five — especially playing in a division with Matt Ryan, Sam Darnold, and either Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill as the other starting QBs. Last year, Tampa finished ninth in fantasy points despite managing only one D/ST touchdown.
Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers are annually one of the best defenses in the NFL, and that usually extends to the fantasy ranks, too. Last season, Pittsburgh led the league in sacks (56) and tied for the lead in INTs (18) while scoring three D/ST touchdowns and allowing the third-fewest points per game. Even with the losses of LB Bud Dupree (eight sacks in 11 games) and DB Steven Nelson (two INTs), Pittsburgh has enough stars and a good enough scheme to be among the top-five fantasy defenses once again.
New England Patriots. The return of Dont’a Hightower (Covid opt-out) and signings of LBs Kyle Van Noy and Matt Judon and run-stuffer Davon Godchaux (among others) should have the Patriots D/ST back in the upper tier. Few teams can match New England’s secondary when it comes to ability and playmaking, and we all know Bill Belichick can scheme as well as any coach in the NFL. Even in a down year that included a league-low four fumble recoveries and just 24 sacks (tied for sixth fewest), the Pats finished 11th in D/ST fantasy points. It’s reasonable to expect noticeable upticks in both categories this year, so even if New England doesn’t lead the league in INTs or score four D/ST touchdowns again, it should be a top-10 fantasy unit. The biggest worry for the Pats is the schedule, particularly in the second half, but don’t be surprised if they get off to a hot start with games against suspect QBs Tua Tagovailoa, Zach Wilson, Jameis Winston/Taysom Hill, and whoever is starting for Houston in the first five weeks.
Los Angeles Rams. The Rams lost some key contributors, including leading tackler John Johnson and big-play specialist Troy Hill (three defensive TDs) from last season’s top-ranked fantasy D/ST, but this is still a star-studded unit that will once again challenge for the league lead in sacks and fewest points allowed. L.A. was tied for the league lead in defensive touchdowns last season (4), which is always a fluky stat, but it wasn’t overly high, which bodes well for this season even if that number is cut in half.
Miami Dolphins. Miami’s young defense was one of the big surprises of the fantasy world last year, finishing tied for fourth thanks to solid numbers across the board. Despite losing LB Kyle Van Noy, Miami looks poised to be even better in 2021. Adding former Pro Bowl LB Bernardrick McKinney and first-round LB Jaelan Phillips should help shore up the second level, while second-round DB Jevon Holland could give the Dolphins even more big-play potential. Veteran DB Jason McCourty also has a knack for big plays. The Dolphins won’t sneak up on anyone this year, but that might not matter.
Washington Football Team. Washington finished as the No. 6 fantasy defense last year thanks to solid numbers in virtually all categories (though with just seven fumble recoveries on 13 forced fumbles, an improvement can be expected there). Almost all key players are back, including budding superstar Chase Young and last season’s team leader in sacks, Montez Sweat. Washington also added talented-but-raw LB Jamin Davis, who figures to be a big-play contributor, if nothing else. For fantasy purposes, that has value. The QBs in the NFC East should be better this season, but there will still be INTs and sacks there for the taking. Expect another solid season from the WFT D/ST.
Buffalo Bills. Buffalo didn’t really stand out in any one particular category (aside from scoring four D/ST touchdowns), but it still finished eighth among fantasy defenses last year. With all key players returning, plus the additions of first- and second-round picks Gregory Rousseau and Carlos Basham Jr., Buffalo is set up for another solid season. With a first-place schedule this year, the Bills might not be an every-week play, but overall, Buffalo should have more favorable opponents than tough ones.
Indianapolis Colts. With the departures of Denico Autry and (likely) Justin Houston, the Colts lost 15.5 sacks from last season, but they used first- and second-round picks on pass rushers (Kwity Paye and Dayo Odeyingbo), which should keep the drop-off to a minimum. All-Pro DT DeForest Buckner and All-Pro LB Darius Leonard are both back, and a deep secondary returns intact. Indianapolis’s No. 3 fantasy ranking last year was spurred by a league-leading six D/ST touchdowns and a high fumble-recovery rate (90.9 percent), both of which are likely to come down this year, but the Colts have enough talent and a favorable enough schedule to still easily be a top-10 unit.
Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs give up their fair share of yards, especially on the ground, but consistently playing with the lead should give them more opportunities for sacks and INTs. The Chiefs struggled in the former category last year, registering just 32 QB takedowns, but they certainly have the talent for more (and the addition of Jarran Reed will help). Even without a substantial increase in sacks, the Chiefs will remain a constant big-play threat thanks to DBs Tyrann Matthieu, Daniel Sorenson, and L’Jarius Sneed, who posted three INTs and two sacks despite playing just nine games as a rookie last year.
New Orleans Saints. The Saints lost pass-rusher Trey Hendrickson (13.5 sacks last year) and playmaking DB Janoris Jenkins (three INTs, TD) in the offseason, creating holes at different levels of the defense. Trying to address that in the draft, New Orleans spent its first three picks on defensive players, picking up pass-rusher Payton Turner in the first round, LB Pete Werner in the second, and DB Paulson Adebo in the third. New Orleans still features a deep, well-rounded secondary, as well as Pro Bowl pass-rusher Cameron Jordan and stud LB Demario Davis, so this unit will be solid once again. Its also likely to improve on its one D/ST touchdown and six forced fumbles from last year, making it a solid starting unit most weeks. The potential for a Superdome full of noisy fans should also help this year.
San Francisco 49ers. With Nick Bosa set to return from a torn ACL and Fred Warner coming off an All-Pro season, the 49ers have stars at each of the first two levels. However, the loss of last season’s team sack leader, Kerry Hyder, won’t help as this team tries to get back to its lofty perch among fantasy D/STs. Playing in a division with arguably the best collection of QBs in the NFL also doesn’t help, but San Francisco has a much more favorable non-divisional schedule this year, which will certainly pay dividends if it can keep its key defensive players healthy.
Arizona Cardinals. Franchise staple Patrick Peterson is no longer in Arizona, and with Dre Kirkpatrick also leaving, the Cardinals lost six INTs from last season. However All-Pro Budda Baker is still patrolling the backend, and he’ll be joined this year by DBs Malcolm Butler and Robert Alford, which should minimize any potential dropoff. Arizona also added pass-rusher J.J. Watt in free agency to replace departed team sack leader (and forced-fumble maestro) Haason Reddick and will hope to get more than five games from Chandler Jones (biceps). Markus Golden, who came over last year in a midseason trade, will also play more. Throw in first-round LB Zaven Collins, and Arizona should feature an overall unit similar to last season when it finished 10th in fantasy points despite not scoring any D/ST touchdowns. That will certainly increase this year, so consider the Cards a strong matchup-based sleeper.
Minnesota Vikings. Minnesota made some big additions in the offseason, most notably run-stuffers Dalvin Tomlinson and Sheldon Richardson and big-play DB Patrick Peterson. Perhaps none will be bigger than the ostensible returns of former Pro Bowlers, LB Anthony Barr (two games played last year because of a pectoral injury) and DL Danielle Hunter (no games played because of a neck injury). The loss of LB Eric Wilson (three INTs, two fumble recoveries, three sacks) hurts, but Minnesota’s anemic pass rush should be greatly improved. Considering Minnesota still had 15 INTs last year (tied for seventh), more pressure could really lead to an improved all-around fantasy performance. Expect a nice bounce-back year from the Vikings.
Cleveland Browns. Pass-rusher Jadeveon Clowney might be the biggest name among Cleveland’s offseason additions, but production-wise, he’s not the most notable. Cleveland also picked up former Rams John Johnson and Troy Hill, who combined for 182 tackles, four INTs, two fumble recoveries, and three TDs last season. With first-round pick Greg Newsome also joining the secondary, Cleveland looks to build on last season’s subpar 11 INTs and 22nd-ranked pass defense. Outside of Myles Garrett, pass rush is still an issue, but if the Browns can do a better job limiting points, they should be playable most weeks.
Denver Broncos. Denver finished ninth in sacks (42) last year despite missing Von Miller (ankle/foot), but poor showings in INTs (tied for 23rd), fumble recoveries (t-25th), and points allowed (24th) made its D/ST unplayable most weeks. The return of Miller and additions of big-play DBs Kyle Fuller, Ronald Darby, and first-round pick Patrick Surtain II could really go a long way to helping this squad return to fantasy prominence.
Seattle Seahawks. The Seahawks lost playmaking DB Shaquill Griffin, pass-rushing DT Jarran Reed, and long-time LB K.J. Wright, but the additions of DE Kerry Hyder, DT Al Woods, and LB Ahkello Witherspoon should help. Even more than that, improved injury luck will go a long way, as DB Jamal Adams (four games missed), DB D.J. Reed (6), LB Carlos Dunlap (8), and second-round edge-rusher Darrell Taylor (season) all missed time. The ‘Hawks still managed to finish tied for 13th in fantasy points without even scoring a D/ST touchdown, which shows how much upside they have heading into this year.
Tennessee Titans. After finishing 30th in sacks (19) and 29th in pass defense (277.4 yards allowed per game), Tennessee made some big changes in the offseason, adding pass-rushers Denico Autry (7.5 sacks last year) and LB Bud Dupree (8.5 sacks in 11 games) and DBs Caleb Farley (first-round pick) and Janoris Jenkins (three INTs ,TD last year). Barring some further improvements from recent high draft picks Jeffery Simmons and Rashaan Evans, Tennessee will likely still have a mediocre pass rush, but given its knack for big plays, the Titans should still be much improved.
Green Bay Packers. The Packers are always in the streamer mix thanks to a solid pass rush (41 sacks last year) and generally solid overall defense (ninth in total yards allowed), but a shaky secondary is a worry. First-round DB Eric Stokes is one of the only notable newcomers to this defense, so it’s easy to expect a similar finish as last year’s No. 18 ranking. However, a highly favorable early-season schedule vs. potentially shaky QBs (@NO, vs. DET, @SF in Weeks 1-3; @CIN, @CHI, vs. WAS in Weeks 5-7) could mean a hot start. Things get considerably tougher in the second half, but the Packers are still a solid team to target late in drafts. Ride them while you can.
Chicago Bears. Chicago’s defense looks largely the same as last year’s squad that finished 19th in fantasy points. There are still standouts in this group, most notably LB Khalil Mack and LB Roquan Smith, and at least one big addition was made in DB Desmond Trufant. The Bears were mostly mediocre in every category last year, but nothing stood out as particularly bad. Some better fumble recovery luck (61.5 percent recovery rate) might be in store, but unless Chicago has an outlier season in D/ST touchdowns, it will likely be nothing more than a bye-week fill-in/matchup play again.
Carolina Panthers. The Panthers were largely middle of the road last year, but adding pass-rusher Haason Reddick, veteran DB A.J. Bouye, and first-round DB Jaycee Horn should go a long way to creating more big plays. Carolina had major outlier luck in fumble recoveries and scored three D/ST touchdowns last year, so there could be a correction there, but the Panthers still profile as a high-risk, high-reward defense.
New York Giants. Fantasy owners might be surprised to learn that the Giants finished tied for 13th in fantasy points last year. Sacks (40) and fumble recoveries (11) were a big reason why, but a lack of consistency made them tough to trust. This year will likely be similar, but the Giants have high-upside players at every level, so it’s possible we’re undervaluing them here.
Los Angeles Chargers. It always seems like the Chargers should be better defensively, but they’ve had a habit of disappointing lately. Star DE Joey Bosa remains and will hopefully play more than 12 games this year, but he can only do so much. The key for LA will be whether DB Derwin James can stay healthy. He’s been limited to just five games the past two years because of foot and knee injuries. He’s a big-play machine who will instantly improve the Chargers’ fantasy output, but if he and fellow DB Chris Harris Jr. (nine games last year) once again have injury-plagued campaigns, it’s likely L.A. will finish around last year’s No. 23 ranking.
Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles are one of the toughest defenses to evaluate heading into this season. They finished 15th in fantasy points last year, thanks in large part to 49 sacks (third), but with just eight INTs (29th) and outlier luck in fumble recoveries (91.7-percent recovery rate) and TDs (3), it’s easy to see how things could go south for the Eagles in ’21. DE Ryan Kerrigan can help an already strong pass rush and LB Eric Wilson can be a playmaker in the middle, but the Eagles have major questions in the secondary aside from Darius Slay. Philly’s pass rush will keep it in the plug-and-play conversation from week-to-week (especially against divisional opponents), but it’s tough to imagine this squad being consistent.
Las Vegas Raiders. The Raiders spent three of their first four picks on defense and added DT Quinton Jefferson and DL Yannick Ngakoue. The latter should help Vegas’s pathetic pass rush (21 sacks). If the 2018-’19 Rams version of Cory Littleton instead of last year’s Raiders version shows up, this will be a respectable defense, but there’s no reason to worry about it — or any of the teams ranked below it — on draft day.