2023 Fantasy Football D/ST Draft Strategy

Cameron Jordan
Cameron Jordan

We're now two weeks into NFL preseason and the final weeks of fantasy football draft season are before us, so we have no time to waste. Today we'll continue our discussion of D/ST strategy by focusing specifically on your approach to drafting a D/ST in all your fantasy football leagues. (If you missed last week's article with my full DST Rankings, make sure to check that out here.)

While many people will say, "Who cares?" or "Just take whoever's left in the last round," I do believe we can maximize the effectiveness of our drafts with just a touch of strategy. Drafting a D/ST doesn't have the same make-or-break consequence as drafting your first round wide receiver or your sleeper RB in the middle rounds, but it is still a decision with ripple effects that can cost you one week or potentially more during your season.

In short, every position on your team is worthy of some modicum of thought.

With that said, in this article I'll lay out my general strategy for drafting defense in five easy bullet points with the last one being some of the teams that I'm targeting in drafts based on my guidelines. Let's dive in.

#1: Never be the First Person to Draft a D/ST

OK, obviously if you have the first pick in the last or second-to-last round and no defenses have been taken, you can be the first, but that also rarely ever happens. Another way to put it is: D/ST and kicker should be your last two picks.

I know some people will tell you that it's OK to pick a defense early if you really want to get a particular unit, but that has just never really borne out.

In 2017, ESPN analyzed 15 years of ADP data and found that ONLY TWO TIMES over 15 seasons did a D/ST that was drafted first, second, third or fourth, according to ADP, actually finish as the top-ranked fantasy defense. That means only two times have the top 60 D/STs selected every actually wound up as the best D/ST. Generally, we want to avoid doing something that has a 3.3% success rate.

Only, according to the ESPN data, it gets worse for those who draft D/STs early since "the actual average end-of-season placement in those 15 seasons for the top four D/STs drafted was 10th."

It hasn't gotten much better recently.

According to FantasyPros, the Bills were the first D/ST off the board by ADP last year, going 118th overall. The Bills finished as the fourth-ranked defense, scoring 8.9 points per game, which isn't bad. Meanwhile, the Patriots had an ADP of 12th amongst D/STs and finished the year as the top-scoring unit in most league formats.

In 2021, the Rams were the first D/ST drafted, being selected 103rd overall on average. They finished as the 12th-ranked defense, averaging 7.1 points per game. The top D/ST that year was Dallas with 10.9 points per game with New England behind them at 9.3 points per game. Dallas was the 24th-ranked D/ST by ADP, while the Patriots were 9th.

In 2020, it was the 49ers, being drafted 107th on average as the first D/ST selected. They finished 20th, averaging just 5.6 points per game, while the Rams, Steelers, and Colts all finished top three. The Steelers were the second defense drafted that year, but the Rams and Colts were both outside the top 10.

So, again, do not feel the need to jump your leaguemates and draft "the best" defense a few rounds early.

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#2: Never Draft More Than One DST

I know the above stats may have you thinking, "Maybe I should draft two defenses to improve my chances of landing the top defense." My answer to that would be a pretty simple, "No."

While I am in favor of holding two defenses later on in the season so that you can play your matchups without having to cut bait on a good DST, there is simply no argument in favor of holding a D/ST on your roster during the preseason over a lottery ticket running back or wide receiver.

In fact, if your league doesn't force you to draft a D/ST, I wouldn't even draft one, and I'm the guy who writes about defenses every week.

I'd much rather be drafting a position player who could win a job in the preseason and emerge as a difference-maker for me in my league. If you're in a format like ESPN, you can complete your draft and then cut the kicker or defense they made you draft in order to scoop up another position player if you see somebody you like. Then you just drop your two worst players for a K and D/ST right before Week 1.

#3: When in Doubt, Hunt for Turnovers

We covered above that the best fantasy D/STs in recent years have been the Patriots, Cowboys, and 49ers in 2022; the Cowboys, Patriots, and Dolphins in 2021, and the Rams, Steelers, and Colts in 2020.

Last season, all of the Patriots, Cowboys, and 49ers finished top six in turnover rate. The Cowboys and Patriots were also top four in sacks, but the 49ers were 11th. The Cowboys and Patriots were also each top seven in pressure rate, but the 49ers were 11th.

In 2021, the Patriots and Cowboys were both top three in turnovers, while the Dolphins were 10th; yet, the Dolphins were the only D/ST of the three to finish in the top 13 in sacks with the Cowboys finishing 14th and the Patriots 19th. But they were all top 10 in pressure rate.

In 2020, the Colts and Steelers were both top six in turnover rate, while the Rams finished 17th. The Steelers and Rams were the top two defenses in football in sacks that season, with the Colts finishing 13th; yet, only the Steelers finished in the top 16 in pressure rate.

I know this is an inexact science, but it's just one way of saying that, in the draft or early in the season while we are still figuring out these defenses, a defense with a strong turnover rate has a better chance of finishing as a top tier defense than one that has a high sack total or allows the fewest yards per play. Shoot, the Broncos were third in the NFL in yards allowed per play last year and finished outside the top 20 in fantasy defense.

Obviously, before Week 1, it's hard to figure out which D/ST will be more turnover-happy, but we can target specific offenses (see more below) or bet on the strength of a team's secondary, since that's where the majority of turnovers come from. In that regard, Mike Clay ranked the best cornerback units and safety units in the NFL. His top three CB units were: Jets, Eagles, and Packers, while his top three safety units were Bills, Saints, and Titans. That could mean that, in a tiebreaker type of scenario early in the season, siding with one of those six teams would be beneficial.

You could also try to target the defenses that have the most green in their CB and Safety Unit Grades below, also courtesy of Mike Clay . That would appear to be Buffalo, Dallas, Miami, New Orleans, and Pittsburgh.

DST Grades
DST Grades

#4: Plan Just Two or Three Weeks at a Time

Even with everything I said above, we're not really looking to find the D/ST1 when we leave the draft room. Sure, it would be great to land the 2021 Dolphins D/ST in drafts considering they were drafted 13th amongst D/STs that season and finished third at the end of the year. However, they also scored more than six points just once before Week 9, including a four week stretch from Week 4-7 where they had 10 TOTAL POINTS. You would have almost assuredly dropped them by that point.

The best defenses will emerge as the year goes on, but we really want to be taking things two to three weeks at time. This means that, in my opinion, we're not technically streaming defenses as much as we're managing risk.

The goal is to maximize your point total while minimizing waiver dollars spent, so, for me, that doesn't mean swapping my defense every single week. Sometimes you'll have to pay more than you'd like to land your top D/ST of the week, and oftentimes a good defense in a bad matchup will score a similar number of points to a mediocre defense in a good matchup. You'd rather have saved the waiver dollars or priority rather than gotten the two extra points from your new defense.

This is my way of saying that you want to play matchups and look for a good Week 1 matchup in the draft, but you don't want that to overshadow a strong early season schedule. For example, the Vikings play the Bucs in Week 1, and I like that matchup, but they get the Eagles and Chargers the two weeks after. Similarly, the Jaguars get a good matchup against the Colts in Week 1 but then face the Chiefs in Week 2.

Instead of just drafting for Week 1, I'd look at a defense like the Packers, who plays the Bears, Falcons, and Saints and might not require any waiver moves in the first three weeks. Or even a D/ST like Seattle, who gets the Rams, Lions, and Panthers.

I'm not saying to take a team like that over the top D/STs (SF, PHI, DAL) if they fall into your lap, but I am saying that looking beyond just one week at a time can help you maximize the talent on your roster and also keep you positioned to make moves of consequence later in the season.

#5: Target (and Avoid) These Defenses

So, with all of that said, what defenses am I going into the draft looking to take?

If I'm positioned to wait and get any of the 49ers, Eagles, and Cowboys then I'll jump because I'm not scared off by any of their matchups. I'd still probably also take the Bills if they fell to me because the Jets offensive line has had issues and a lot of New York's pieces are new to one another. Plus, the Bills get the Raiders and Commanders in the two weeks that follow.

If I don't get the opportunity to grab one of those teams, then I like Baltimore, who is ranked 6th for me in my season long rankings and only their Week 2 matchup against the Bengals worries me early. They get the Texans in Week 1 and then the Colts, Browns, Steelers, Titans, Lions, and Cardinals in their next six games. With Joe Burrow's calf potentially not 100% early in the season, I could see an argument for taking the Ravens and holding onto them for eight weeks.

I'm also targeting the Saints in most drafts considering they have six games I like to start the season against the Titans, Panthers, Packers, Bucs, Patriots, and Texans. None of those teams has an offense I'm avoiding, and I have a strong feeling many of those will be offenses we actively target.

I also like Green Bay since they get the Bears, Falcons, and Saints to start the season, and the Commanders, who get Arizona and Denver before you'd have to drop them ahead of their games against Buffalo and Philadelphia.

Under no circumstances could I see myself drafting the Patriots, Dolphins, and Bucs defenses because I don't see a way I'd want to start them in Week 1 and, as rule three said, I don't want two defenses on my team outside of really deep formats.

Hopefully some of that was helpful. I'll be back next week with some more analysis on my favorite deep league D/STs to target in drafts and you can follow me here and on Twitter (@SamskiNYC) for my weekly rankings/discussion all season long.

Happy drafting.