Fantasy D/ST: To wait, or not to wait?
Written by George Haraktsis
There seems to be a million strategies when it comes to drafting your fantasy football team that vary from person to person. Never draft a QB in the first round. Always go RB, WR, RB, WR in the first four rounds. Hold off on a kicker until late. The Zero-RB strategy. These are just a few popular game plans folks have when they approach their fantasy drafts. One topic that is still highly debated amongst fantasy owners is what round to draft their starting defense in. Some like to get ahead of the game and draft their D/ST early, while others wait until the last two rounds to secure an option. I’m here today to answer a simple question, “When is the most effective time to take a fantasy defense?”
Are they worth an early pick?
While I personally don’t like taking a defense with any of my picks except my last two, some owners choose their defense as early as the late single digit rounds! For example, 2017’s projected number one defense, the Denver Broncos, had an ADP of 9.02 in mock drafts. The same area (Round 9–10) where prominent fantasy contributors in 2017 (PPR) were going, such as; WR11-Marvin Jones (9.08), QB8-Philip Rivers (9.06), QB7-Matthew Stafford (10.06), RB11-Duke Johnson (10.06), and WR9-Adam Thielen (10.09), to name a few. And where did Denver end up last year? As D/ST13, with 155 points and just under 10 points averaged per game. A complete bust at the position they were drafted. While you’re not always going to get the players I mentioned above, you at least give yourself a shot to. Still don’t believe me? Let’s dive a tad bit deeper.
As you can see from the picture below there were seven D/STs drafted outside of the top 10 and after pick 14.06 that finished in the top 8 in fantasy scoring at their position. And as for those D/ST who were drafted in the top 10? Only three finished in that range, the highest being Seattle with a number 7 finish and an ADP of 10.07. The other two? Minnesota and Pittsburgh at 9 and 10 with an ADP of 11.09 and 13.06 respectively. Now let’s see who we could have gotten in those rounds had we waited. Between rounds 10–14 players like QB5- Carson Wentz (12.01), WR18- Robby Anderson (13.04), RB3-Alvin Kamara (13.12), QB4-Alex Smith (14.05), and RB13- Dion Lewis (14.06) were all drafted. These were team altering players, ones who propelled owners to a championship.
Had an owner chosen a team like the Jaguars or Chargers in the 15th round and drafted one of the players mentioned above, their team would have looked drastically different. Even if an owner had forgone selecting a defense in the draft at all and just picked up an undrafted team like the Saints in week one, they would have given themselves more shots at these late round steals!
This wasn’t just a one year outlier either. If we look at 2016 (Picture Below) as well we see a similar pattern. Only four teams drafted in the top 10 actually finished there, and six teams that finished in the top 10 were undrafted! Now I won’t run you through all of the players you could have drafted in this area, but it’s a similar outcome to what you
saw from before.
Do defenses really win championships?
The old adage “Defense wins Championships” might hold true in professional football, but does it hold up in the fantasy football world? The answer is not a simple yes and no. If we take a look at ESPN’s article on the most popular players on fantasy football finalists roster, a majority had three of the top four defenses on their roster. Does this mean if you didn’t have one of the, Ravens, Eagles, or Jaguars on your roster that you couldn’t win a championship? No. Not to toot my own horn, but I won quite a few championships last year and had zero of these defenses on any of my teams. Was it easier to win with them? Well duh! If you have the best players at all the positions across your roster, it’s understandably going to be a hell of a lot easier to win.
But let’s not forget the most important factor about these three teams, not one of them was drafted as a top 10 performer. Each one was drafted outside of the top 10 and could be had after pick 14.06. My guess is these championship rosters had either drafted these teams in the 15th round or later and stocked up on these late round steals, or just picked these D/STs on waivers! I’m also certain these D/STs aren’t what put these teams over the top and propelled them into a championship.
The list in the article attached has only three defenses on it and is littered with skill position players. So if you think you’re going to win a championship because you have a strong defense, you’re doing fantasy football wrong. So why not throw draft capital at skill positions late in the draft and hope to land a stud, rather than banking on a D/ST who has a somewhat immaterial value to your team?
To stream or not to stream?
I already iterated before that drafting a defense is essentially a lottery, so what should you do instead? Stream.
As FFToolbox puts it, streaming is as follows: “Rather than having a reliable week-to-week starter at a position, an owner opts to use an in-season strategy of rotating starters by adding new players with favorable matchups from the waiver wire as needed.”
In short, you pick up a D/ST every week depending on if they have a favorable matchup or not. Take the Packers for example, in week one they have a great matchup at home against the Bears. While I don’t think the Packers will be a great defense all year, they will certainly hold their own against a young Bear’s offense.
Don’t like the Packers? Then maybe draft a defense like Pittsburgh in the 15th round, they have a great matchup against Cleveland week one. If they don’t pan out, no big deal. You spent such little capital on them that you can just dump them the next week and pick up an emerging defense. Just like folks did with the Jaguars last year.
What makes a defense streamable? Well there’s a few factors. For one, if they’re playing the Browns, start them. I’m not kidding. If you started every team that played the Browns last year you would have fielded the number one defense in fantasy football. Even better than the Jaguars. But the Browns have gotten better this year, so maybe don’t implement that strategy. So what else should you be looking for?
Struggling offenses. Look for team’s who have been averaging under 20 points per game in a three-game window. Now this number isn’t an exact science, but it gives you a good threshold of what a bad offense might look like. Now you might need a more immediate strategy than waiting three weeks to see if an offense falls under this category, that’s where the next factor comes in.
Look for teams with bad QBs. You know who the bad QBs are in this league, and if you don’t you’ll find out very quickly. Teams who are starting rookies or backup QBs will understandably have a much tougher time producing on offense than before. Making it much easier for your D/ST to take advantage of this and capitalize. Look out for those matchups, because they are the juiciest.
Lastly, injuries or suspensions. While an injury or a suspension to a QB is usually more detrimental to an offense than any other position, don’t let that stop you from targeting defenses who are playing other teams who have lost their superstar skill positions to injuries. Look at the Giants last year when they lost Odell, they finished as the 21st ranked offense in the league. Making them a treat for fantasy defenses. And when Tyrod Taylor went out with an injury, Nathan Peterman filled in and proceeded to throw 5 INTs to the LA Chargers. What a gift!
While streaming defenses isn’t an exact science it’s a tried and true method that works more times than not. I swear by it.
So should I wait?
Yes. There’s just too many factors against drafting a D/ST early to say otherwise. The return on investment is for high pick is very usually poor, and the opportunity cost for giving up on skill players is significant. The top performers are almost always drafted late or not drafted at all, and the position itself is just crazy volatile year after year.
With all of the shortcomings that accompany drafting a D/ST early and all the viable alternatives that are readily available and were presented above, I can not advise any owner to draft a D/ST early. The point of each and every draft pick is to maximize value, and you are not doing that in the slightest when you select an early round D/ST. With that being said, wait on your defenses. I am pleading with each and everyone of you that reads this. Wait on your defenses and you will not be dissapointed.