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Fantasy football draft strategy: Draft the No. 12 defense and win!

Some people love to take the hip, popular defense relatively early in the draft. Those people are not good decision-makers.


It was almost unanimous last year. I say "almost," because it is apparently impossible to find fantasy football ADP from a year ago. Or I'm just bad at computers. Until ESPN's version of Edward Snowden leaks the information to me, all I have to go on is 2012 mock draft results, ownership percentages, and personal memory. I'd like to think I'm infallible, but perhaps I'm not.

That said, if it wasn't unanimous, it was close. The first defense off the board in 2012 was San Francisco. In ESPN standard leagues, they totaled 146 points. That's perfectly fine, yet it was only good for eighth among defenses in 2012-13.

Team Points (ESPN standard)
Chicago 212
Denver 186
Seattle 172
Cincinnati 160
San Diego 159
New England 149
Houston 147
San Francisco 146
St. Louis 134
Arizona 131

Yes, the everybody-wanted-them, 100%-owned 49er defense outscored the under-20% St. Louis Ram defense by less than a point a game. I could really end this whole point right there, but I suppose I'll keep going so that I can justify my place on the internet.

In most leagues, that eighth-highest-scoring 49ers D cost you a mid-round pick - say eighth, ninth, or tenth. Do you know who else went around there (again, according to my bad-at-internet trolling through old mock drafts)? Doug Martin, Jason Witten, C.J. Spiller and Andrew Luck.

Okay, if I'm being fair, Greg Little, Tim Hightower, and Jahvid Best were also taken in that range. But the point is, you've filled out your skill-position starters. A quarterback, a couple receivers and running backs, a flex, maybe even a tight end if you aren't the waitin' sort. It's normal to want to fill out your starting lineup reasonably early and pick your bench low. I think, at this point, everyone knows that any pick used on a kicker before the last round is a bad pick (if you pick a kicker before the last round, repent now), so the time has come to make it clear - if the last round is the "Kicker Round", then the second-to-last round is the "Defense Round".

I don't care who the primo defense is - Chicago, San Francisco, whoever. Maybe some year my Colts will finally have a top-flight defense. That would be fun. But whichever team it is, you aren't getting value by taking them early. The middle rounds are a time to get handcuffs (Fred Jackson, if you have Spiller?), or lottery tickets (Witten last year, when we didn't know what to expect of him?), or rookies with potential (it was so nice to own Doug Martin last year; you don't even know). Load up on upside.

And then, as late as possible, you finally succumb, you take a defense, and your defense earns you 311 points.

Record scratch, right? You saw my chart earlier; the Bears' defense led the league with 212. This is true. But I posit that, if the defense you draft is the same defense you end the season with, you have done your season wrong, my friend. So you can easily work out a "sum of its parts" situation.

In fantasy baseball, it's the en vogue strategy to stream pitchers - Chad Gaudin starts for you Tuesday, you drop him and pick up Ricky Nolasco for Wednesday, you drop him and pick up Martin Perez for Thursday. Whoever. It requires you to pay more attention, but if you track matchups, you can go crazy accumulating counting stats. Because there is only one game a week, the style hasn't really translated to football. But, if your running back is your third baseman, if your quarterback is your ace starter, then your defense is your mid-level pitcher. Fungible. Unpredictable. Replaceable.

I mentioned tallying 311 points. In all honesty, that would have been pretty tough. But with five minutes of research, you would not have had even a slightly difficult time outperforming, at least, that too-early-drafted 49ers D.

In the absolute basest version of research, I gave it a shot. I went week-by-week through the 2012 season, found the three worst offenses entering each week (where "worst" is defined as lowest points-per-game average over the three weeks leading up to each particular game), and saw how defenses fared against them that week. For week one, I assume an average defense, so I added in the average defense's score (7.3 points) for that week.

Again, this is bare-bones research. I performed no corrections for injuries, for home-and-away, or for Mark Sanchez. I literally checked what would happen if you simply started whatever defenses were facing the incoming least-scoring offenses. And here are the numbers:

Best possible score: 311 points. This is unlikely, as you would have had to perform my measurements, and just happen to pick the top defense from your choices each week. It wasn't happening. Still, though...311 points? That's crazy.

Average score: 151 points. Yup. The average defense-against-a-bad-offense choice beat presumptive best defense San Francisco over the season. And that's before correcting for literally anything. Jacksonville's defense factored into these numbers once. New Orleans' did. Kansas City's. Carolina's. Oakland's did twice. The very minute you start using your brain while streaming defenses, you can bring those numbers way up.

It requires more work than "Dude, I drafted the San Fran defense. I'll start them and check back in the bye week." I will grant that. But for, like, ten minutes more work each week, you can pass on San Francisco's defense. You can draft a quasi-random defense late. You can take Jason Witten in the eighth round instead of Brent Celek late. Or Doug Martin instead of Taiwan Jones. The names are inconsequential; they are lottery tickets. A running back can be a lottery ticket. A defense really can't.

No, when it comes to fantasy defenses, you make your own lottery ticket.

Follow me on Twitter @danieltkelley

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