With fantasy drafts looming just over the horizon, for most of us this is a time of last-minute web-site perusing and web-site scouring in hopes of cooking up that special lineup that will get us a coveted fantasy football championship. In the search for that magical recipe, we all need one key ingredient: a good, strong defense. Take a minute and peruse this portion of our fantasy cookbook that will let you in on the top five fantasy defenses that should slide under the radar in most drafts this summer.
5. Arizona Cardinals: Year after year we look to this team to be a fantasy defense standout, but like rice pudding without raisins, they seem to be missing that one necessary bit of pizzazz that moves them from average dessert to dining delicacy. This season, we think Denny Green's finally getting it right. He focused more on defense in the draft this season, spending first and third round picks on cornerbacks Antrel Rolle and Eric Green, which should help round out a now solid secondary that actually has the depth to incorporate productive nickel and dime schemes. With third and fifth round picks used to bulk up a linebacking core that needed a little help, the Cards have properly rounded out a defense that has always had a strong defensive line. A look in at the numbers reveals that Arizona allowed just 20.1 points per game in 2004, good for 12th in the league, while only allowing 35 touchdowns (T-9th in NFL). At 9th in passing defense (189.8 yd/gm) they force teams to pound the ball, which always eats up clock and lowers point totals, which are necessities for any fantasy defense. Overall, the Cards were right in the middle of the pack in turnovers, 30, with 15 picks and 15 fumble recoveries. However, they had a turnover differential of just +1. This typifies the missing link for the Cardinals in the recent past - they've lacked a strong offense to help keep the defense rested and off the field. But, it's hard to have an offense when you don't have a good quarterback or running back. Finally, Denny Green has seen the light and has drafted a quality running back in J. J. Arrington to compliment a quarterback, Kurt Warner, who can actually get the ball to his top flight receivers. To boot, this team held on to Josh McCown, which gives them the option of now one of the best back-ups in the league. Expect a top 10-15 defense out of the Cardinals, who might now have the tools to get it done in the NFC-West.
4. Miami Dolphins: No matter how bad their record, never count this team out as having a bad defense. They are like the Atlanta Braves of the football world , as whoever they put out there on defense knows how to get the job done. Despite a troublesome 4-12 record last season, the Dolphins quietly allowed just 22.1 points per contest. Digging a bit deeper, one might realize this number would have been still lower had the Dolphins not thrown 8 interceptions that were returned for touchdowns (no other team had more than 4). This alone would bring down their points allowed down to 18.6 per game, good for 8th in the league! This problem should be remedied as Miami is going to get back to the type of football that kept them in the playoffs year after year in the recent past: running the football. With Ricky Williams cleared for camp and Ronnie Brown ready to roll, this team is going to spend down after down between the tackles and little time in the air. That means low-scoring, fast games - a great defensive recipe. And like a true master chef, Dave Wannstedt still had his faculties about him enough to draft 4 defensive players after Arrington, including Matt Roth (Iowa) and Channing Crowder (Florida). Add these ingredients to a defensive dish that already includes names like Jason Taylor, Zach Thomas, Junior Seau, Tebucky Jones, Kevin Carter, and Sam Madison, and you're staring at one tasty treat. Still not convinced? Keep in mind this Dolphin defense was still 2nd in the league against the pass last season (162.0 yd/gm) and will finally be happy and healthy up front on defense to stop the run. This is a great year to get back on a perennial favorite defense that many will have written off.
3. Houston Texans: “Four". That is the number that typifies this defense. Not only does 4 represent the number of marshmallows I can fit in my mouth at one time, it also signifies the number of rushing touchdowns the Texans allowed all of last season. Four - wow, that's easily best in the league. However, that might lead you to believe that they have a suspect secondary that gives up a lot through the air. Not so. With Philip Buchanon, Dunta Robinson, Marcus Coleman and Glenn Earl back there, they have the names to get it done. This year should show a cohesiveness to this group, who still managed 22 interceptions last year (5th in NFL), that may have lacked a bit in the past, as these young players are all maturing and learning the NFL game and how to play with each other more and more. Regardless, this team still only allowed 21.2 points per game, and keep in mind they play Indy twice every year. They gave up 10 or less points in 4 games last season and helped sure up the middle of their d-line by drafting DT Travis Johnson (Fla St. ) in the first round. Taking Vernand Morency (Okl St. ) in the 2nd round of the draft helped solidify a ground game that should keep this young, active defense well-rested this season, making them more appealing than a rack of ribs and an ice-cold beer for this year's fantasy fanatics.
2. Washington Redskins: This defense was my personal choice for fantasy drafts last season, which worked out wonderfully. This new season has whetted my appetite for drafting them once again. Quietly, the Redskins were a defensive juggernaut last season. Playing in the low-scoring, grind-it-out NFC-East, they are in the perfect division for low-scoring games. With Steve Spurrier at the helm, they could never play this type of football - they were too loose and gave up too many big plays. Now, in just one season under Joe Gibbs, the Skins have turned this defense into what many have been hoping it would blossom into for years. In ‘04 they were 7th in the league in pass defense (186.1 yd/gm) and amassed a solid 40 sacks (T-9th). With numbers like that, it would be natural to assume their run defense was suspect. Not so! In fact, it was quite the opposite, ranking 2nd in the league at just 81.5 yards per game, allowing league bests of 3.1 yards/carry and 76 total first downs on the ground! It's hard to score on a team with numbers like these. Perhaps that's why the Skins were 5th in the league in points against (16.6 per game) and tied for 4th in the league in total touchdowns against (30). Now, Spurrier would have thought this cake was finished cooking and let it simply cool by the window. However, Gibbs is a wise old man and decided to tinker with the icing a bit, drafting CB Carlos Rogers (Auburn) with the 9th pick in the draft and adding a couple of solid linebacking prospects with his 5rd and 6th round picks. Rogers has brought a nice little position battle to camp, which should raise the levels of play of all involved. This defense will by dangerous again this year and, perhaps, is worth your pick on fantasy draft day.
1. Buffalo Bills: Our top sleeper choice for fantasy defenses for the 2005 season has to be the Buffalo Bills. This team has all the ingredients, has passed the taste-test, and is ready for Betty Crocker's cookbook. Look at the numbers here. The Bills were 8th in the league allowing just 17.8 points per game in 2004. They allowed just 6 rushing touchdowns all season, good for 2nd in the league. Their passing defense was 3rd in the league at just 164.0 yards per game, totaling 45 sacks, good for third in the league. This well-rounded D was also 7th in the league against the run at 100.2 yards per game. Ok, now, sit down and brace yourself. Without much press, this Bills team grabbed a league best 39 turnovers! Only Carolina had more interceptions and only 3 teams recovered more fumbles. Overall, Buffalo allowed under 10 points 3 times last season and 20 or less points in 12 of their 16 contests. You could almost make the argument that this was the best defense in the league and almost certainly top five. Not much has changed in the offseason and this team continues to improve on offense, which should help the defense as well. Further, the Bills dodge the Colts again this season and play a soft out-of-division schedule including Tampa Bay, New Orleans and Oakland, which should help in turnover differential and low point totals. This is the steal of the fantasy draft this season, so if you have the chance, be sure to grab up the Buffalo Bills defense on draft day.
Jay Richardson is a senior staff writer for the sports publication, Picks Digest Magazine. (http://www.PicksDigest.com )