Do Defenses Repeat Fantasy Football Performances?

Jun 21, 2023
Do Defenses Repeat Fantasy Football 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 2012–2022, 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 2023.

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 .26, which is still on the lower side of moderate. The top-five defenses against signal-callers repeated their performance 30% of the time the next season, with an average finish of DEF13.

On the other side of the spectrum, the defenses in the bottom five versus quarterbacks, ended up there again 20% of the time, with an average ending rank of DEF21.

Bottom-Five Defenses vs. QB, 2022
Team Rank Total Fantasy Pts Allowed Fantasy Pts/G Allowed
Detroit Lions 32nd 371.8 21.9
Miami Dolphins 31st 333.1 19.6
Kansas City Chiefs 30th 331.7 19.5
Tennessee Titans 29th 323.3 19.0
Las Vegas Raiders 28th 320.0 18.5

The Lions' defense was an equal opportunist when it came to allowing QB play in 2022. They surrendered the third most passing yards in the NFL (4,446) and the eighth most TDs through the air (26), while also giving up the most rushing yards to the QB position (700) and the second-highest number of touchdowns to running QBs (7). Detroit was also dead last in the league in explosive pass percentage, which ranks the percentage of passing plays that gain at least 15 yards.

Miami was 28th in the NFL in passing yards surrendered to the QB position and 31st in rushing yards allowed. Despite a killer run defense, the Titans' main struggles were defending the pass (32nd pass yards, 31st in pass TDs). Kansas City failed to stop the dual-threat QB, ranking 25th or worse in all QB rushing stats, while Vegas mainly struggled to defend the air ball last year with bottom 10 finishes across the board.

The Dolphins and Lions have the highest potential to climb out of the basement in 2023, as Detroit invested in improving their defense this spring, revamping their cornerback room with Emmanuel Moseley, C.J. Gardner Johnson, and Cameron Sutton. Miami made a huge splash by snagging All-Pro corner Jalen Ramsey, who's a perfect fit for new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio's defense and joins an already stout defensive line.

Top-Five Defenses vs. QB, 2022
Team Rank Total Fantasy Pts Allowed FP/G Rank Fantasy Pts/G Allowed
Buffalo Bills 1st 213.8 4th 14.4
Cincinnati Bengals 2nd 215.9 3rd 14.2
Houston Texans 3rd 218.6 1st 13.8
Cleveland Browns 4th 224.0 2nd 13.9
San Francisco 49ers 5th 231.4 6th 14.7

For the second season in a row, Buffalo allowed the fewest fantasy points to QBs, standing solid against those mobile signal callers, with zero rushing touchdowns yielded in 2022. The Bengals were balanced at defending opposing QBs surrendering the third-fewest passing touchdowns and rushing yards to the position. Also fairly equitable were the Browns, who surrendered the fourth-fewest passing yards and completions last year, and allowed the lowest number of rushing yards to enemy QBs.

With just 15 touchdowns scored on them through the air in 2022, Houston sat first in that category despite being brutal against the run, while the 49ers yielded the fifth-fewest rushing yards to QBs and the sixth-fewest air scores.

The 49ers, Bills, and Browns are all in great positions to repeat this year as fantasy defenses with both the Texans and Bengals in danger of taking a few steps back. While Houston held their own against the pass in 2022, they are still short-handed in talent and are all-in on rookie Will Anderson making an immediate impact, which is dicey.

Cincy returning as a top defense is a tall order, due to the loss of safeties Vonn Bell and Jessie Bates this offseason, along with their No.1 corner Chidobe Awuezie still rehabbing from a torn ACL. The Bengals are still a talented defense but could struggle a tad more to defend QB play from a fantasy perspective in 2023.

Fantasy Points Allowed to Running Backs

The running back position proved the second-highest year-to-year correlation in terms of FPA at .24, 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 20% of the time with an average ending rank of DEF12.

For the poor defenses, the five worst units found themselves in the bottom 32% of the time in the following season, with an average rank of DEF19.

Bottom-Five Defenses vs. RB, 2022
Team Rank Total Half-PPR Pts Allowed Half PPR/G Rank Half-PPR Pts/G Allowed
Houston Texans 32nd 493.3 32nd 29.0
Chicago Bears 31st 445.3 31st 26.2
Arizona Cardinals 30th 428.5 30th 25.2
Seattle Seahawks 29th 423.0 29th 24.9
Los Angeles Chargers 28th 401.7 26th 23.6

The Texans featured the worst run defense in the league last season. allowing the most rushing yards (2,411) and a whopping 22 ground scores by RBs which were the most by any defensive unit. Chicago was 30th in yards yielded on the ground to rushers with 20 total touchdowns (second-most), while the Cardinals came in as 29th in rushing yards allowed, and 30th in both receptions and receiving yards surrendered to the RB position.

Seattle ranked 25th or worse in all defensive categories against RBs in the ground game and also allowed the fifth-most yards to RBs through the air (788). The Chargers were a little better than the others at defending the air ball from the RB position with ranks of sixth in both receptions and receiving yards but allowed the second-most rushing yards from RBs, along with the seventh-highest rushing touchdown total from opposing backfields in 2022.

The Seahawks could be the one group to step out from the basement this season with the addition of Bobby Wagner and Devin Bush, plus Jordyn Brooks is on track for a return sometime this fall, however, there are still deficiencies that could keep them in the bottom half of fantasy defenses.

Top-Five Defenses vs. RB, 2022
Team Rank Total Half-PPR Pts Allowed Half-PPR Pts/G Allowed
San Francisco 49ers 1st 238.2 14.0
Dallas Cowboys 2nd 275.9 16.2
Tennesee Titans 3rd 276.4 16.3
Washington Commanders 4th 277.5 16.3
New England Patriots 5th 286.8 16.9

The 49ers surrendered the fewest attempts and yards on the ground to opposing RBs in 2022 and gave up zero touchdowns through the air to the position all season, while the Cowboys were eighth or better in rushing TDs allowed along with receptions, receiving yards, and air TDs yielded to RBs. Tennessee was brutal against the pass last year, but made their doughnuts against pure runners, allowing the second-fewest rushing yards and touchdowns to enemy backs.

The Titans could still struggle in the pass rush department in 2023 as a bottom-half defense, but the other four squads should still be fantasy competitors in 2022.

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, 24% repeated the next season, with an average rank of DEF13. At the bottom, the five least efficient groups against the receiver were there again 24% of the time, with an end ranking of DEF19.

Bottom-Five Defenses vs. WR, 2022
Team Rank Total Half-PPR Pts Allowed Half-PPR Pts/G Allowed
Tennesee Titans 32nd 563.8 33.2
Minnesota Vikings 31st 544.6 32.0
Detroit Lions 30th 534.1 31.4
Carolina Panthers 29th 527.1 31.0
Dallas Cowboys 28th 515.1 30.3

It's not surprising to see two repeat offenders from the bottom QB section of this article show up again for WRs. The Titans were bottom three or worse in receptions, yards, and touchdowns to opposing WRs, while the Lions surrendered the second-highest number of yards to the position along with the sixth-most receptions. The Vikings couldn't stop much via the air as they ranked dead last in both receptions and yards to WRs but somehow only gave up the 10th fewest touchdowns to the position.

As a secondary, the Panthers sat 22nd or worse in all categories against wideouts in 2022, while the Cowboys make this list due to the most end zone dances allowed last season in the NFL to WRs (22). Dallas should be among the Top-5 fantasy defenses in 2023, with the addition of Stephon Gilmore to an already talented squad.

Top-Five Defenses vs. WR, 2022
Team Rank Total Half-PPR Pts Allowed Half-PPR Pts/G Allowed
New York Jets 1st 342.3 20.2
Denver Broncos 2nd 361.5 21.3
Seattle Seahawks 3rd 367.7 21.6
Houston Texans 4th 375.2 22.1
Arizona Cardinals 5th 414.6 24.2

The Jets make their first appearance in this column after a fairly dramatic one-year turnaround. As a unit, New York allowed the fewest receptions and receiving yards to opposing WRs all while yielding just 10 touchdowns which ranked third. The Broncos, Seahawks, and Cardinals were all among the top-7 defensive squads when it came to the least amount of receptions and touchdowns allowed to the WR position, with the unbalanced Texans yielding the fewest scores to the position (6) and coming in fifth in receptions allowed and seventh in air yards surrendered.

The Jets and Broncos have the potential to repeat again in 2023, with Seattle, Houston, and Arizona projected as bottom-half defenses for fantasy purposes.

Fantasy Points Allowed to Tight Ends

We saw the lowest year-to-year correlation points allowed to tight ends (.17) 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 22% 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, 16% landed in the basement that next season, with an average finish of DEF19.

Bottom-Five Defenses vs. TE, 2022
Team Rank Total Half-PPR Pts Allowed Half-PPR/G Rank Half-PPR Pts/G Allowed
Seattle Seahawks 32nd 235.1 31st 17.5
Arizona Cardinals 31st 235.7 32nd 17.4
Atlanta Falcons 30th 205.0 30th 16.1
Miami Dolphins 29th 205.6 29th 15.5
Tennesee Titans 28th 199.8 28th 15.4

If you streamed tight ends at all last season, you knew that the Cardinals were a colander for fantasy points. They sat dead last in receptions and yielded touchdowns to the tight end, plus they surrendered the third-most receiving yards to the position. The Seahawks, Falcons, Dolphins, and Titans were all ranked 25th or worse in all tight end defensive categories, allowing an average of 16.1 half-PPR points to enemy TEs weekly.

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, 2022
Team Rank Total Half-PPR Pts Allowed Half-PPR/G Rank Half-PPR Pts/G Allowed
New Orleans Saints 1st 93.9 1st 5.5
Buffalo Bills 2nd 103.1 3rd 6.2
Dallas Cowboys 3rd 105.6 2nd 6.4
Washington Commanders 4th 122.7 4th 7.2
Chicago Bears 5th 124.6 5th 7.3

The Saints shut down the tight end above everyone last year, allowing a league-low 58 receptions to the position, a mere 509 receiving yards (1st), and they only gave up two touchdowns which tied for third. Buffalo, Dallas, Washington, and Chicago all fell within single-digit numbers when it came to defending receiving yards against TEs, with Dallas tops in shutting down the red zone by not allowing one single TE touchdown last season.

The Bills and Cowboys are projecting similar for 2023 so treat them as you would for any other position you’re looking at during the draft. The trio of Saints, Commanders, and Bears are ranked in the lower half of the league so adjust strategy accordingly. I know that tight end is unilaterally the least favorite position 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.
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