Narrowing the Field to Find 2020’s Patriots DEF/ST
I have to admit, I am a full-on “fanboy” of our Editor Kyle Borgognoni‘s “Narrowing the Field” Series. So, I asked permission to write one of my own. As the DEF/ST writer for The Fantasy Footballers, I write weekly articles telling you who to Start/Sit/Stream but I want to try to get ahead of the curve. In three of the four seasons that I’ve been writing about the other side of the ball, there has been one DEF/ST that has run away with the fantasy crown. In 2017, it was the Jacksonville Jaguars, then the Chicago Bears in 2018, and finally, last season the New England Patriots held it down.
New England was basically the ultimate prize in D/ST last year, at least for the first 12 weeks. They were on pace to beat the best D/ST scoring record of 238 fantasy points, held by the 2006 Baltimore Ravens, and just missed the mark, finishing with 224 fantasy points. That total was better than the TE1, WR4, and RB9 in .5 PPR scoring. Finding them again in 2020 would almost assure you a trip to the playoffs. So let’s see what characteristics the Patriots and these other top DEF/ST shared and see if we can predict what team might help win you your fantasy league in 2020.
1. Not Top-3
It should be noted that no fantasy DEF/ST has repeated as the #1 in back-to-back years since at least 2002 (that is as far back as Fantasy Data has records. In that same period of time, only nine top-3 teams have been able to repeat the feat the following year. Basically, being the best fantasy DEF/ST is a tough act to follow. Specifically for our research, while New England was #4 in 2018, not one of the juggernauts we’ve seen the previous three seasons was a top-3 fantasy defense in the previous season. So why stop at #3? Arbitrarily, because it fit my research? Maybe, but also because fantasy DEF/ST scoring has been crazy over the last five years. We typically have one or two teams lead the pack by a decent margin and then a steep drop off in scoring. The year when New England was 4th, they were 52 points behind #1 and 11 points behind #3.
Teams Eliminated: New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, San Francisco 49ers
2. They are going to hit the QB
In 2019, the Patriots either sacked or hit the opposing QB 148 times. They were ranked in the top-10 of the league in both sacks (47) and QB hits (101). In 2017, the Bears finished with a combined total of 154 and were top-10 in both, and Jacksonville’s 168 in 2017 met the same standards. It must be noted that 2016 and 2015 were a little strange. While neither Kansas City (2016) nor Arizona (2015) was among the league leaders in sacks, the two teams that finished as a close #2 were both among the sack leaders in those years. Interestingly, not one of these teams since 2015 was ranked in the top-5 in sacks during the season before they finished as the #1 DEF. So we are looking for a team ready to make a big leap in the QB sacks/hits department but one that did not finish too high in that category in 2019.
Teams Eliminated: Carolina Panthers, New Orleans Saints, Los Angeles Rams, Minnesota Vikings
3. We Need Them TDs
If you’ve played fantasy football with DEF/ST, you know how great that feeling is watching your team take an interception or kick return back for a TD. It’s pure elation. Turns out, it’s just about required for a top fantasy DEF/ST too. In the last five years, every #1 D/ST has finished with multiple TDs scored. More importantly, when it comes to making this prediction, they all had at least two TDs scored in the previous season. So we need teams that have proven they can score on DEF/ST.
Teams Eliminated: Arizona Cardinals, Los Angeles Chargers, Washington Redskins, Green Bay Packers, Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns, Denver Broncos, Dallas Cowboys
4. Just Win Baby!
Looking at the last five teams to finish in the top spot, they all have two things in common. They won at least ten games and ended the year as division champions. This is where things will get a little arbitrary, but I will be eliminating some of the worst teams from 2019 that seem to have a mountain too tall to climb in 2020.
Teams Eliminated: Cincinnati Bengals, Miami Dolphins, New York Giants, Detroit Lions, Las Vegas Raiders, New York Jets
The DEF/ST with the Best Chance to (almost) Match What New England Did in 2019
At this point, we have eliminated all but 12 teams. Five of them stand out to me as having good shot to be the best in the league in 2020.
While everyone is certain that the Baltimore offense will take a step backward in efficiency, no one can deny their ability to run the ball and control the clock. There will not be many times that the Ravens will put their DEF/ST in bad spots. They literally check every box on this list.
- They were the #4 fantasy DEF in 2019, the same jump New England made from 2018 to 2019
- Their 148 QB hits matched the Patriots last year but their 37 sacks ranked as 21st in the league
- Six TDs on the defensive side of the ball was a big factor in their high finish last year, they know how to score on that side of the ball
- They won their division handily with 14 wins and a six-game lead
The Ravens added Calais Campbell through free agency and LB Patrick Queen in the draft. While the AFC North seems poised to improve in 2020, Baltimore is clearly the cream of the crop and should have little issue repeating their dominance in 2020.
Speaking of teams that know how to run the football. The Titans were the #3 team in rushing last year and have Derrick Henry for at least one more year. Their depth chart is just about impossible to poke holes in on defense and they landed one of the best CBs in the draft, LSU’s Kristian Fulton. They also brought in Vic Beasley to help an already stout pass-rush. The Titans were the #12 fantasy defense last season but had six games where they finished in the top-10. Two of the games where they missed the top-10 were against Houston and DeAndre Hopkins. With Hopkins gone, they seem poised to win a division that they missed by just one game last year.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs are going to win 10+ games and the AFC West, there is little to question there. They are going to get after the QB, as they were just outside the top-10 in sacks and QB hits last year. The biggest obstacle for them to overcome is their own damn offense. They score too much and too quickly. Kansas City allowed 302 points last year, which was 9th best in the league, but they will need to cut about 50 points from that to make a run at the top spot. The Patriots only allowed 195 in 2019 but that was superhuman. If the Chiefs DEF/ST can take better advantage of the situations that their offense puts them in, where they know the other team is going to throw, allowing them to get after the QB and force sacks and turnovers, they have the potential to put up monster numbers.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers are my wild card for this season. They allowed over 400 points last year but still finished as the #9 fantasy DEF. Plus, they may already have the missing ingredient that none of the other four teams can claim…they took New England’s QB. While Tom Brady doesn’t play defense, he will certainly help this defense in two ways. First of all, iron sharpens iron. Practicing against one of the smartest QBs in the league is going to lead to improvement. Secondly, he won’t throw 30 INTs and put them into unwinnable situations. The Bucs DEF/ST has one of the best front-7’s in the league and had eight games finishing at #8 or better in fantasy last year. They also had five games where they finished 26th or worse. If Brady can keep them out of those bad games, this team is ready to make a leap.
The cards are stacked against the Bears in 2020. This offense is likely to be pretty bad and their defense will need to pull more than it’s fair share…just like the Jags defense in 2017, overcoming the mountain that was Blake Bortles. The fact of the matter is this, the Bears still have Khalil Mack, and if he bounces back to 2018 form, they can return to the throne. The division certainly lost more talent than it gained. While the Lions and Packers made no great additions to their offenses, the Vikings lost Stefon Diggs. On defense, the Bears added Robert Quinn to start opposite Mack and drafted Jaylon Johnson to play CB. If Mitch Trubisky or Nick Foles can do their best to not lose games, the Bears have a decent shot to win their division if their defense can return to its 2018 form.