Defense wins championships. This philosophy applies to winning a Super Bowl but it’s also very relevant in fantasy football. Most leagues feature a D/ST (defense/special teams) position in lineups, while some go a step further and add an IDP (individual defensive player) position. For now, let’s focus exclusively on D/ST to discover which units will be the most lucrative investments in 2021.
If you’re new to fantasy football, D/ST is typically ignored until the final round of fantasy drafts. However, I’m here to tell you that strategy doesn’t always need to be followed. Drafting a top-five D/ST requires fantasy managers to sacrifice a late-round wide receiver or running back prospect, which occasionally possesses league-winning upside. On the other hand, taking a stout defense and special teams unit often creates a competitive advantage in close matchups. Yards allowed, points allowed, sacks, turnovers, safeties, and touchdowns comprise a unique scoring system that, if leveraged correctly, yield wins instead of losses.
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Los Angeles Rams D/ST (ECR 2)
It’s a hefty investment to make but the Los Angeles Rams have a top-three defensive unit heading into 2021. The Rams’ front office spent five draft picks on the defensive front seven while returning All-Pro players Aaron Donald (DT – LAR) and Jalen Ramsey (CB – LAR). Last season, the Rams’ defense ranked first in yards per play, yards per attempt, first down percentage, and points. They will only become better due to continuity and depth acquired through the draft. The Rams D/ST is currently valued with an average draft position (ADP) of 108.8, which translates to a mid-10th round draft pick. Expensive? Yes. Worth it? Absolutely.
San Francisco 49ers D/ST (ECR 5)
Want to wait until the 12th round to draft a top-five D/ST in 2021? If so, the San Francisco 49ers should be your preferred unit. An injury-riddled 2020 season saw defensive ROTY Nick Bosa (DE – SF) suffer a torn ACL in the second game, which seemingly rippled throughout the rest of the team. Expect a much grittier defense that pressures opposing backfields frequently, despite the departure of former defensive coordinator Robert Saleh. Without Bosa, the 49ers ranked 21st in sack percentage but still ranked within the top five for total yards allowed and yards per play. There’s an All-Pro caliber player at every level of the defense and rookie third-round draft pick Ambry Thomas (CB – SF) should fill the void left by Richard Sherman (CB – FA).
Los Angeles Chargers D/ST (ECR 12)
One of the sneakier D/ST units in 2021 fantasy drafts has to be the Los Angeles Chargers. Asante Samuel Jr. (CB – LAC) was selected with the 47th overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, joining forces in the Chargers secondary alongside Florida State alum Derwin James (S – LAC), who is now healthy after an incredible All-Pro rookie season in 2018. Joey Bosa (DE – LAC) and Kenneth Murray (DE – LAC) are the notable players in the front seven and helped the defense rank sixth in total yards allowed in 2020. Chris Rumph II (DE – LAC) could bring pressure opposite of Bosa to improve their 22nd-ranked sack percentage from a year ago, while Samuel and James will instantly improve a secondary that allowed a pedestrian 97.24 FPPG that ranked 16th in 2020. The key for the Chargers D/ST to succeed in 2021 will be getting off the field on third down. With additional pass rushers and a stout secondary, the Chargers are one of the few elite defensive units that can be taken in the final round of fantasy drafts.
Denver Broncos D/ST (ECR 13)
There were elements of the Denver Broncos defense that were impressive last season, particularly allowing the 10th fewest points. They ranked 23rd in interception percentage, which will definitely rise in 2021 thanks to the selection of Patrick Surtain II (CB – DEN) in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft. Kyle Fuller (CB – DEN) and Justin Simmons (S – DEN) are other notable players in the Broncos secondary, while Von Miller (LB – DEN) will continue to be the elite pass-rusher he’s displayed across the last decade. Vic Fangio is a defensive-minded head coach but the effectiveness of the defensive unit will only rise when the quarterback play improves. A well-rested defense with a ball hawk secondary is a recipe for creating fantasy points. It’s certainly a riskier D/ST based on their ADP rising into the back of the 12th round across the last couple of weeks. However, it’s a unit that could stifle offenses while flooding your lineup with points.
Cleveland Browns D/ST (ECR 15)
The Cleveland Browns absolutely crushed their 2021 NFL Draft, using five of their eight draft picks to add depth to their defense. This includes Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (LB – CLE) and Greg Newsome (CB – CLE), two players who will make opposing quarterbacks hesitate that much longer when looking for an open target from the pocket. Despite Myles Garrett (DE – CLE) constantly bringing pressure off of the edge, it wasn’t enough to stimy opposing rushers, as the Browns ranked 30th in total rushing yards and rushing yards per attempt in 2020. The addition of Jadeveon Clowney (DE – CLE) and Malik Jackson (DT – CLE) during free agency will drastically improve this area. An extra incentive for rostering the Browns D/ST is that it ranked fifth in kick returns last season, which rewards lineups with six points if it succeeds in returning a touchdown. It’s a defense that can rely on its run-centric offense to preserve its endurance and effectiveness, making for a great late-round D/ST to target at the end of drafts.
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Whether you’re new to fantasy football or a seasoned pro, our Fantasy Football 101: Strategy Tips & Advice page is for you. You can get started with Starting Your Own Fantasy Football League or head to a more advanced strategy – like What is the Right Amount of Risk to Absorb on Draft Day? – to learn more.
Matthew MacKay is a featured writer and editor for FantasyPros and BettingPros. For more from Matthew, check out his archive and follow him @Matt_MacKay_.