Drafting a fantasy football defense differs significantly from selecting any player at any specific position. Picking a fantasy defense is more of a logic game than a mathematical equation.
To that end, it’s essential to understand the capability and ceiling of each defense when figuring out which one to draft. Knowing how many appealing matchups each defense has and when they take place is also valuable.
Here’s what we’re looking for in an appealing defensive matchup:
- A below-average offensive line.
- Inexperienced or otherwise volatile quarterback play.
- Below-average offenses likely to be an underdog.
Each opponent we treat as an appealing matchup checks at least one of those boxes. The capability of each defense and how many appealing matchups they have drives our rankings.
Additionally, appealing early-season and fantasy playoff matchups have more value than strong matchups in the middle of the season.
Without further ado, here are our top 15 fantasy defenses entering opening day.
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1. San Francisco 49ers
The San Francisco 49ers already had an elite front led by Defensive Player of the Year Nick Bosa, and then they added DT Javon Hargrave. The 49ers’ defense is consistent, reliable and capable of dominating a game.
They even gave up the fewest points per game in the league last season (16.3). On top of that, they begin the year with four excellent matchups, including two against bottom-five offensive lines.
The cherry on top is San Francisco gets Washington in Week 17, which enters the year with an unreliable offensive line and quarterback play.
San Francisco’s defense has seven appealing matchups: Week 1 at PITT, Week 2 at LAR, Week 3 vs. NYG (TNF), Week 4 vs. ARI, Week 11 vs. TB, Week 15 at ARI, Week 17 at WAS.
2. Philadelphia Eagles
The Philadelphia Eagles led the league in sacks last season with 70, 15 more than any other team. The Eagles still have an elite front and one of the best corner duos in football. However, they have a more challenging schedule this year and will rely more on young, unproven players.
The Eagles have four strong matchups in their first five games, then two home matchups against below-average offensive lines in Week 16 and 17.
Philadelphia’s defense has seven appealing matchups: Week 1 at NE, Week 3 at TB (MNF), Week 4 vs. WAS, Week 5 at LAR, Week 8 at WAS, Week 16 vs. NYG, Week 17 vs. ARI.
3. Dallas Cowboys
The Dallas Cowboys are one of few teams with an elite pass rush and top-tier cornerback duo. Like the Eagles and 49ers, the Cowboys are a reliable, highly talented defense.
Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn further elevates the defense. The Cowboys open the year with three excellent matchups in their first four games, but they square off with high-end offenses in the fantasy playoffs.
The timing of Dallas’s late-season matchups is why we have its defense behind San Francisco and Philadelphia.
Dallas’s defense has seven appealing matchups: Week 1 at NYG, Week 3 at ARI, Week 4 vs. NE, Week 8 vs. LAR, Week 10 vs. NYG, Week 11 at CAR, Week 12 vs. WAS (TNF).
4. Buffalo Bills
The Buffalo Bills fought through many injuries on defense last season, yet they still allowed the second-fewest points per game (17.9).
At full strength, Buffalo pairs a high-end secondary with a top-10 caliber front. The Bills have a solid mix of volatile early-season opponents, with one of the better Week 17 matchups. That’s why they’re above the Steelers and Jets for fantasy purposes.
Buffalo’s defense has six appealing matchups: Week 2 vs. LV, Week 3 at WAS, Week 6 vs. NYG, Week 7 at NE, Week 8 vs. TB (TNF), Week 17 vs. NE.
5. Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh’s defense has eight appealing matchups: Week 3 at LV (SNF), Week 4 at HOU, Week 7 at LAR, Week 9 vs. TEN (TNF), Week 10 vs. GB, Week 13 vs. ARI, Week 14 vs. NE (TNF), Week 15 at IND.
6. New York Jets
The New York Jets enter the year with a top-five caliber pass rush and secondary. Unfortunately, they play the Bills, Cowboys and Chiefs within their first four games.
The Jets have enough talent on defense to be playable against anyone, but they do not have an advantageous fantasy schedule. If they did, they’d be in contention for the top spot on this list.
New York’s defense has five appealing matchups: Week 2 vs. NE, Week 8 at NYG, Week 10 at LV, Week 14 vs. HOU, Week 16 vs. WAS.
7. New Orleans Saints
The New Orleans Saints’ league-easiest schedule raises the ceiling of their offense and defense. New Orleans doesn’t have the talent of the top-tier defenses, but it has the most advantageous matchups in the league.
The Saints have the second-weakest pass rush out of any other team in these rankings. Therefore, matchups against bottom-tier offensive lines like the Rams and Titans are less exploitable by New Orleans than they are for nearly all of the other defenses on this list. However, they have the best schedule by quite a wide margin.
New Orleans’ defense has 12 appealing matchups: Week 1 vs. TEN, Week 2 at CAR (MNF), Week 3 at GB, Week 4 vs. TB, Week 5 at NE, Week 6 at HOU, Week 8 at IND, Week 9 vs CHI, Week 14 vs. CAR, Week 15 vs. NYG, Week 16 at LAR, Week 17 at TB.
8. Green Bay Packers
The Green Bay Packers’ defense underachieved last season, but they have enough talent to be a top-five unit. If they play to their capability, the Packers have a top-10 front and secondary.
They have seven matchups against volatile offenses but only one against a bottom-tier offensive line.
Green Bay’s defense has seven appealing matchups: Week 1 at CHI, Week 5 at LV (MNF), Week 9 vs. LAR, Week 10 at PITT, Week 14 at NYG (MNF), Week 15 vs. TB, Week 16 at CAR.
9. Washington Commanders
The Washington Commanders might be the most intriguing option on this list. They have an elite defensive front, filled with four former first-round draft picks. If their secondary can take a step forward, their defense has some top-five upside in fantasy.
Washington opens the year with the best possible matchup against the Kyler Murray-less Cardinals. We expect the Commanders’ defense to be chalk on the Week 1 DFS slate.
Washington’s defense has six appealing matchups: Week 1 vs. ARI, Week 5 vs. CHI (TNF), Week 7 at NYG, Week 9 at NE, Week 11 vs. NYG, Week 15 at LAR.
10. Miami Dolphins
The Jalen Ramsey injury is certainly a downer, but Vic Fangio’s Miami Dolphins have the raw materials to be a top-10 defense. More importantly, their young pass rush started to ascend after acquiring edge Bradley Chubb via a midseason trade.
A talented Dolphins defense gets one of the league’s best defensive play callers in Fangio. If Ramsey weren’t injured, Miami would be eighth on this list.
Miami’s defense has seven appealing matchups: Week 2 at NE (SNF), Week 5 vs. NYG, Week 6 vs. CAR, Week 8 vs. NE, Week 11 vs. LV, Week 13 at WAS, Week 14 vs. TEN (MNF).
11. Tennessee Titans
The Tennessee Titans’ secondary is still suspect, but they have a top-10 pass rush and one of the best coaching staffs in the league. The Titans’ defense only faces a few below-average offensive lines but no bottom-five units.
However, they get six games against volatile quarterbacks, including five against rookies. Tennessee’s best opponents come after the season’s first quarter, so the Titans’ defense could be available on waivers in late September.
Tennessee’s defense has six appealing matchups: Week 5 at IND, Week 10 at TB, Week 12 vs. CAR, Week 13 vs. IND, Week 15 vs. HOU, Week 17 at HOU.
12. New England Patriots
Bill Belichick’s defense has been one of the most reliable units in football throughout this century. Their issue this season is they have one of the toughest, if not the toughest, schedules in the league. The New England Patriots’ first four games are so difficult their defense should be left on waivers to start the year in most formats.
New England’s defense has five appealing matchups: Week 6 at LV, Week 9 vs. WAS, Week 10 vs. IND (Germany), Week 12 at NYG, Week 14 at PITT (TNF).
13. Baltimore Ravens
Like New England, the Baltimore Ravens’ defense has been reliable for many years. That said, they have a below-average pass rush, and their secondary suddenly has a few question marks. We wouldn’t overpay for the Ravens’ defense, but they have four strong matchups in the season’s first six weeks.
Baltimore’s defense has six appealing matchups: Week 1 vs. HOU, Week 3 vs. IND, Week 5 at PITT, Week 6 vs. TEN (London), Week 8 at ARI, Week 14 vs. LAR.
14. Kansas City Chiefs
We have them towards the back of this list because they only face five volatile offenses, and none of those have bottom-tier offensive lines. Chris Jones’ contract uncertainty isn’t a positive, either. The best schedule stretch for the Chiefs’ defense comes late in the year.
Kansas City’s defense has five appealing matchups: Week 3 vs. CHI, Week 12 at LV, Week 13 at GB, Week 15 at NE, Week 16 vs. LV (MNF).
15. Denver Broncos
Sean Payton’s Denver Broncos edged out a few similarly talented defenses for our last spot because of their early season schedule. We’d prefer to sit Denver against Miami in Week 3, but the Broncos’ defense is playable in the other three games to start the season.
Denver’s defense has six appealing matchups: Week 1 vs. LV, Week 2 vs. WAS, Week 4 at CHI, Week 7 vs. GB, Week 13 at HOU, Week 16 vs. NE.
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