Do Defenses Repeat Fantasy Performances?

Jun 29, 2020
Do Defenses Repeat Fantasy Performances?

We often turn to strength of schedule as a tool in determining a player’s potential for success over the course of a season. In this study, we retreated to a dark corner of the fantasy library and complied defensive data from 2010–2019, in an effort to see if fantasy points allowed to each position correlated strongly, somewhat or not all from one year to the next, hoping for a sticky stat or two to sink our teeth into.

Below is a position-by-position analysis of the best and worst defenses in terms of half-PPR fantasy points allowed last season, and what it all potentially means for 2020.

Fantasy Points Allowed to Quarterbacks

When looking at year-to-year fantasy points allowed across all positions, points allowed to quarterbacks had the highest correlation coefficient of .35, which is still on the lower side of moderate. The top-five defenses against signal-callers repeated their performance 33% of the time the next season, with an average finish of DEF11.

On the other side of the spectrum, the defenses in the bottom five versus quarterbacks, ended up there again 22.2% of the time, with an average ending rank of DEF19.

Bottom-Five Defenses vs. QB, 2019
Team Rank Total Half-PPR Pts Allowed Half-PPR Pts/G Allowed
Arizona Cardinals 32nd 370.5 23.2
Miami Dolphins 31st 353.9 22.1
New York Giants 30th 341.0 21.3
Houston Texans 29th 338.2 21.1
Detroit Lions 28th 332.5 20.8

The Cardinals were abysmal against opposing quarterbacks last season, ranking dead-last in both passing yards allowed (4,785) and passes completed (421), along with a 31st-place finish in passing touchdowns allowed (38). The Giants, Texans and Lions were all pretty brutal when it came to defending the quarterback as well, ranking 22nd or worse in all three categories. Miami owned the basement spot in passing touchdowns defended, but were the 11th-best unit in the league against completed passes.

Two defensive groups from last year’s cellar that have the potential to climb out of the bottom in 2020 could be the Dolphins and Lions. Miami made attempts to elevate their pass rush by signing former Patriot edge defender Kyle Van Noy and the Bills’ 2016 first-rounder Shaq Lawson. They also drafted two rookie defensive linemen who could make immediate pass-rushing contributions.

The Lions addressed their fourth-worst QB pressure percentage (18.8%), by drafting Julian Okwara to complement Trey Flowers, giving Detroit two legit edge threats. They also brought in two former Patriots in Jamie Collins and Danny Shelton which should also aid in their overall defense of the position. Collins was one of just two linebackers with 30 or more quarterback pressures in 2019, which doesn’t hurt their cause.

Top-Five Defenses vs. QB, 2019
Team Rank Total Half-PPR Pts Allowed Half-PPR Pts/G Allowed
New England Patriots 1st 200.0 12.5
Baltimore Ravens 2nd 204.4 12.8
Buffalo Bills 3rd 214.3 13.4
Pittsburgh Steelers 4th 224.4 14.0
Green Bay Packers 5th 229.6 14.4

New England was the best fantasy defense across the board against the quarterback in 2019, allowing the least amount of passing touchdowns (12) and completed passes (301), along with the second-fewest passing yards (3,188). The Ravens were also solid in all three categories, ranking sixth in both passing yards allowed and pass completions, and second at defending passing touchdowns. The Bills, Steelers and Packers were all ranked in single-digit numbers in two of three mentioned statistical categories, with one category sitting 14th or worse.

Green Bay took a risk by signing edge rushers Preston and Za’Darius Smith in 2019, but it paid off, as they both had career years, accounting for 25.5 sacks combined. With a contract year ahead for Kenny Clark and decent depth, the Packers are lined up nicely to remain towards the top in 2020. Pittsburgh is also in a great spot to repeat their quarterback stuffing, as they have four proven pass rushers that have led the NFL in sacks for three-straight seasons.

The one group that is primed to take a dip this season in terms of signal-caller defense is New England. They allowed their two top sackers from 2019 (Jamie Collins and Kyle Van Noy) to sign with other teams during free agency, leaving the Pats thin at pass rush. Of course, Bill Belichick has been known to scrape together a potent pass defense out of nothing before.

Fantasy Points Allowed to Running Backs

The running back position proved the second-highest year-to-year correlation in terms of FPA at .30, which makes sense as the good teams tend to remain that way and game script is extremely important for running back production. The five defenses that finished the best against rushers repeated 27% of the time with an average ending rank of DEF11.

For the poor defenses, the five worst units found themselves at the bottom 31% of the time in the following season, with an average rank of DEF20.

Bottom-Five Defenses vs. RB, 2019
Team Rank Total Half-PPR Pts Allowed Half-PPR Pts/G Allowed
Carolina Panthers 32nd 466.9 29.2
Jacksonville Jaguars 31st 438.3 27.4
Washington Redskins 30th 418.1 26.1
Detroit Lions 29th 404.6 25.3
Kansas City Chiefs 28th 404.1 25.3

Carolina was down in the furnace room when it came to defending the true rush in 2019, as they landed last in both rushing yards and rushing touchdowns allowed. Conversely, they yielded the fewest receiving yards to backs (392), compared to the league-worst Chiefs who allowed 951 to opposing running backs last year.

Speaking of the Chiefs, they joined the Lions, Jaguars and Washington to round out the bottom rush defenses. The Jags allowed the second-most rushing touchdowns (18) and were the third-worst in rushing yards surrendered, with mid-20 rankings in both receiving yards and touchdowns allowed to a running back. Washington and Detroit were in the lower quarter in every running back defensive category, and the Chiefs one bright spot was their 10 receiving scores allowed by a back sat 15th in the league.

As I mentioned above, the Lions made considerable efforts to up their defense this offseason, including the addition of former New England DT Danny Shelton who was effective at stuffing the run in 2019, and are counting on newcomers Jamie Collins and Reggie Ragland to assist against the rush as well.

The one unit that could make a legitimate jump this season is Washington, as they added stud defensive end Chase Young via this year’s draft. He immediately improves their front line that will switch to a 4-3 base for the first time in a decade. They also added veteran Thomas Davis for much-needed depth in an attempt to shore up the run.

Top-Five Defenses vs. RB, 2019
Team Rank Total Half-PPR Pts Allowed Half-PPR Pts/G Allowed
New England Patriots 1st 208.9 13.1
Tampa Buccaneers 2nd 222.7 13.9
San Francisco 49ers 3rd 237.7 14.9
New Orleans Saints 4th 274.2 17.1
Pittsburgh Steelers 5th 274.3 17.1

The Patriots were tops again, this time against running backs. They allowed just one rushing touchdown in all of 2019 and were ranked fifth in both rushing and receiving yards surrendered to a back. The Bucs and 49ers ended in the single digits in all categories, with the Saints and Steelers both receiving a mid-teen ranking in at least one rushing category.

We may see the Ravens sneak into the top five in 2020, as they added a pair of solid pass rushers in Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe. They franchise-tagged Matt Judon, allowing Campbell to move inside as a massive, big-bodied run-stopper. We can’t forget about rookie inside linebacker Patrick McQueen who should make an immediate impact on this unit that ranked eighth in FPA to running backs last year.

Fantasy Points Allowed to Wide Receivers

This is where we start to get very little year-to-year correlation mostly due to the volatility of the position. Of the best five defenses versus pass-catchers, 29% repeated the next season, with an average rank of DEF13. At the bottom, the five least efficient groups against the receiver were there again 27% of the time, with an end ranking of DEF19.

Bottom-Five Defenses vs. WR, 2019
Team Rank Total Half-PPR Pts Allowed Half-PPR Pts/G Allowed
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 32nd 582.1 36.4
Detroit Lions 31st 537.7 33.6
Miami Dolphins 30th 536.5 33.5
Philadelphia Eagles 29th 532.5 33.3
New Orleans Saints 28th 524.2 32.8

Tampa Bay’s secondary was crazy porous in 2019, allowing the most receiving yards (3,176) and receptions (240) to wideouts, along with the third-most receiving touchdowns (21). Both the Lions and Saints earned bottom spots as well, ranking no higher than 25th in any defensive category against opposing wide receivers. Miami and Philly surrendered plenty of yards and scores to wideouts, but were actually in the middle of the pack in receptions to the position.

The Bucs have a solid shot of moving up the rankings this season for several reasons. They drafted rookie Antoine Winfield Jr. in the second round who’s proved excellent at tracking the ball and reading quarterbacks, and there was also some improvement from sophomore corner Carlton Davis last season, who posted a 49.6% completion rate on 117 targets. This group is young and talented with potential. Oh, and they also have Tom Brady which should bolster their starting field position and allow them time to be off the field.

Top-Five Defenses vs. WR, 2019
Team Rank Total Half-PPR Pts Allowed Half-PPR Pts/G Allowed
New England Patriots 1st 320.7 20.0
Kansas City Chiefs 2nd 337.4 21.1
Buffalo Bills 3rd 361.7 22.6
Los Angeles Chargers 4th 367.8 23.0
Chicago Bears 5th 372.0 23.3

Massive yawn, but the Patriots earned the top spot here as well, narrowly beating out the Chiefs, whose Super Bowl-winning unit ranked first in limiting receiving yards and receptions, but came in 10th in allowing touchdowns to the receiver position.

We see the Chargers enter the conversation here, which isn’t shocking at all considering how talented of a secondary they have with Derwin James, Casey Hayward Jr. and Desmond King. Oh, and they signed Chris Harris Jr. this offseason who has proven to be one of the top corners in the league, which should only propel this defensive group even further to the top in 2020.

Chicago may be the one team to take a step back here, as they lost Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and did not draft a safety in 2020 as a replacement. Eddie Jackson and Kyle Fuller will need to step up their production in order to lock down the pass protection in coverage.

Fantasy Points Allowed to Tight Ends

We saw the lowest year-to-year correlation points allowed to tight ends—even a negative correlation bor teams that finished in the bottom five—most likely because facing just a few dominant tight ends can really make a team appear worse against the position, since there are so few big names in general.

Only 20% of defensive units that finished in the top five were there again the next season, with an average end ranking of DEF14. Of the five teams that were the worst at defending tight ends, 24% landed in the basement that next season, with an average finish of DEF19.

Bottom-Five Defenses vs. TE, 2019
Team Rank Total Half-PPR Pts Allowed Half-PPR Pts/G Allowed
Arizona Cardinals 32nd 256.8 16.1
Seattle Seahawks 31st 195.1 12.2
Dallas Cowboys 30th 189.8 11.9
Washington Redskins 29th 184.3 11.5
Cleveland Browns 28th 183.7 11.5

If you streamed tight ends at all last season, you knew that the Cardinals were a sieve for fantasy points to the position. They sat dead-last in receiving yards and receiving touchdowns allowed, and 30th in yielded receptions to the tight end. They should see some improvement in 2020 with draft pick Isaiah Simmons, who could transform this unit single-handily as a multi-role-playing modern linebacker.

Seattle, Dallas and Washington were all pretty permeable as well, ranking no better than 22nd in any of those three categories. The Browns were interesting in that they were the second to worst at defending touchdowns to tight ends, but ranked 16th in both receptions allowed and yards allowed to the position. Giving up double-digit touchdowns to the tight end certainly hikes up that fantasy points allowed total throughout the course of the season.

Since the correlation is so insignificant here, there’s not much point in going over any potential turnover, but if faced with a difficult draft decision and one tight end is in the same division as one of these bottom units, they could edge out the other based on the history of FPA.

Top-Five Defenses vs. TE, 2019
Team Rank Total Half-PPR Pts Allowed Half-PPR Pts/G Allowed
Baltimore Ravens 1st 101.2 6.3
Buffalo Bills 2nd 117.2 7.3
New York Jets 3rd 121.1 7.6
San Francisco 49ers 4th 122.2 7.6
Philadelphia Eagles 5th 122.6 7.7

Baltimore shut down the tight end above everyone last year, allowing a league-low 52 receptions to the position, a mere 575 receiving yards, and they only gave up three touchdowns which tied for second. The Bills, Jets and Eagles were all ranked in the single-digits at surrendering yards, receptions and scores to the tight end, while San Francisco was tops in the NFL at stopping yardage, but ranked 10th in receptions allowed and 23rd at denying touchdowns to tight ends.

All five of these defenses are projecting similar for 2020 so treat them as you would for any other position you’re looking at during the draft. I know that tight end is unilaterally the least favorite positon after defense and kicker, of course, but there is a nice young crop of players emerging, so give them the due diligence when it comes to research.

Bottom Line

We’re all searching for an edge in fantasy football, and using strength of schedule is something that can benefit your roster and bottom line at the end of the season. At 4for4, we created the metric schedule-adjusted fantasy points allowed, or aFPA, which takes schedule bias out and rectifies the concerns over raw fantasy points allowed discussed above, leveling the playing field to compare matchups in an apples-to-apples manner.

After looking at a decade’s worth of data, we found that some positions had a stronger correlation than others when it comes to defensive points allowed from one season to the next.

  • QB showed the strongest relationship, but it still wasn’t exactly sticky
  • Real defense doesn’t always translate to fantasy points
  • Check out 4for4’s hot spot tool for tough SOS decisions, keeping all of this in mind.

About Author

'