Streaming defenses is growing increasingly popular in fantasy football as drafters realize that the benefits of drafting the defenses with the top ADPs is usually marginal at best. Last year’s New England Patriots provide a great example, as they plummeted to 12th-best in 2020 after an historic year in 2019. The year before, Chicago fell from first in 2018 to 17th in 2019. Instead of using a high pick on those defenses, why not use that pick on a high-upside WR, RB, QB or TE and then draft D/ST with one of your last picks in order to set yourself up to stream defenses? If that strategy catches your eye, keep reading for a ranking of stream-worthy defenses to get good returns through the first few weeks for a low cost (opponents in first five weeks in parentheses).
Atlanta Falcons (PHI, @TB, @NYG, WSH, NYJ)
Your comfort level with Atlanta will probably depend on which you value more: the quality of the defense or the quality of the offenses they are playing against. Outside of a very tough matchup with TB, Atlanta faces four of the five weakest offensive matchups from 2020 for D/ST fantasy points. This pick is not for the faint of heart, as Atlanta’s defense was 24th in fantasy in 2020, but there is a ton of upside because of the matchups.
Jacksonville Jaguars (@HOU, DEN, ARI, @CIN)
The Jaguars are another team that had a bad defense (29th) in 2020 but now has a favorable schedule 2021. With Deshaun Watson’s status for Week 1 very much up in the air, Houston, Denver and Cincinnati are all good fantasy matchups for a defense, and Arizona isn’t too bad for a fourth matchup. This is another team that won’t be an easy or popular choice but has potential because of good matchups.
Buffalo Bills (PIT, @MIA, WSH, HOU)
The Bills are listed as an honorable mention mainly because it might be stretch to consider them “streamable.” Their current ADP on ESPN is 110.5, fourth among defenses, so if streaming defenses is your plan, they may go off the board too quickly for your liking. The matchups are very solid, and Buffalo’s defense was ninth in 2020, so if they’re available late on in the draft, you should definitely scoop them up.
New York Jets
- (First three opponents: @CAR, NE, @DEN)
The Jets are another team with a bad defense (25th in 2020) but a favorable schedule to start the season. Carolina, New England and Denver were all in the bottom half in terms of D/ST fantasy points against in 2020 and could be expected to do similarly in 2021. It is possible, albeit unlikely, that all three teams could be using new QBs for these games, but even if they aren’t these are still good matchups for a Jets defense that should be improved over last year’s. The DL is extremely good and the return of C.J. Mosley and addition of Jarrad Davis helps improve the LB group, so the secondary is the biggest concern. Carolina has the weapons to expose that group, but Sam Darnold might not be the QB for that, especially in his first game with Carolina. New England is a more run-oriented team, especially if Cam Newton is still the starting QB, which is where the Jets are better equipped defensively. Denver could be starting either Drew Lock or Teddy Bridgewater for that game, but the overall offense is likely to look similar to the one from 2020 that was 29th in D/ST fantasy points against. Overall, the quality of the Jets defense prevents them from being any higher, but these are very favorable matchups, even for one of the lower-tier defenses.
- (First three opponents: NYJ, NO, @HOU)
CAR D/ST was ranked 19th in 2020 but is currently being drafted 26th among defenses on ESPN. Even at a ranking of 19, that may not sound like a defense you’d want, but there are reasons to think that improvement may be coming, especially early in the season. CAR D/ST closed 2020 with 40 points in the last four games, three of which came against playoff teams. They get Zach Wilson in his first career start to open the season, then get two teams with as-of-yet unknown starting QBs. New Orleans has Taysom Hill and Jameis Winston, and neither one should scare fantasy owners away from CAR D/ST, while Houston is dealing with Deshaun Watson’s investigation and it’s unknown if he’ll be available when the regular season starts. If he is available, that matchup in week 3 becomes much less favorable for Carolina, but if he isn’t, it might be the best matchup for a D/ST to have. Due to all the question marks surrounding the final two matchups, this is a tough team to rank, but this feels like a good spot for them.
New England Patriots
- (First three opponents: MIA, @NYJ, NO)
The differentiator between New England and Carolina is the quality of the Patriots defense. NE D/ST is probably just outside of the group of defenses that most people would consider keeping for a full season, so they should be a streaming option. With an ADP that is 10th among D/STs, you can get them for a relatively low price, and they should give good returns for the first three weeks. The Jets were the best offense to have your D/ST against in 2020, and while improvement should be expected, Belichick’s defenses have great history against rookie QBs like Zach Wilson, and this one will be his second game. As for the other two matchups, Miami and New Orleans weren’t among the best teams to stream against in 2020, with New Orleans actually being one of the worst, but the departures of Ryan Fitzpatrick and Drew Brees change the offenses. In Tua Tagovailoa’s 9 starts, opposing D/ST’s scored 59 points, a rate which would’ve ranked 24th over a full 16 games. In the four games that Taysom Hill started, opposing D/STs scored 19 points against the Saints, a per game rate that would’ve ranked 16th over a full season. If New Orleans chooses to start Jameis Winston instead, his last full season as a starter ended with him throwing 30 interceptions, so defenses will score points against him as well. Especially early in the season, these are matchups to take advantage of, and you get a good New England defense as well that is well-equipped to capitalize on these offenses’ shortcomings.
New York Giants
- (First three opponents: DEN, @WSH, ATL, @NO)
NYG D/ST was ranked 14th among defenses in 2020 but is currently being drafted as the 22nd defense off the board. Coming off 55 points in the last five games of 2020 and having added Adoree’ Jackson to improve the CB2 spot, this is a potential top-10 D/ST for the whole of the season, but the start of the season is where NYG D/ST will really shine. Denver and Washington were the third and fourth most-favorable offenses respectively for a D/ST to face in 2020. Atlanta was 21st as an admittedly tough matchup while New Orleans was 27th, but the Saints will almost certainly slide down the list after the loss of Drew Brees. If you don’t love the matchups against Atlanta and New Orleans, drop NYG D/ST after week 2 and start streaming another defense for week 3. The first two matchups are good enough that it will likely have been worth it, especially considering you can probably get the Giants defense in one of the last two rounds of the draft. If you choose to keep them, you can still probably expect decent performance for weeks 3 and 4.
- (First three opponents: @NYG, @JAX, NYJ)
Denver is the clear No. 1 option here as long as you’re satisfied with only covering the first three weeks, as they have the two best offenses for a D/ST to play against from 2020 in the Jets and the Giants, with the Jaguars being the 8th best. The Jets and Jaguars will both almost certainly be starting rookie QBs in those games, so Denver can look to take advantage of two QBs playing in their first three career games. And in the other game they get a turnover machine in Daniel Jones to start the season. You can’t really ask for much better matchups for a defense to have to start the season. Denver has the eighth-highest ADP among defenses, but with it being 142.5, you can still get them quite late in a draft. If their ranking as only the 22nd ranked D/ST in 2020 scares you off, the return of Von Miller from an injury that made him miss all of 2020, as well as the additions of Kyle Fuller, Ronald Darby and Patrick Surtain, should help with those concerns. This should be a much-improved defense in 2021 and one of the very best to start the season, which makes them the perfect and only choice for top spot on this list.