Which Teams Invested in Defense in 2023?
Every offseason, once the main part of free agency is over, I compile all the defensive free agent signings to get a quantitative sense of which teams are investing on that side of the ball. One of the best measures of a player's value and ability is the contract that they sign, so I compile the Average Annual Value for each team's free agents in (players the team signed) and free agents out (players signed away by other teams) to come up with a net dollar value for each team.
A team with a large positive number means that they brought in significantly more salary (i.e. talent) than they lost and, if they spent wisely, the team should be better on that side of the ball. Conversely, a team with a large negative number means that they lost significantly more talent than they brought in, and the team should be worse on defense. Caveat: Quality coaching, draft picks, and the development of younger players can offset losses in free agency.
To sum up, here are the five factors that I consider when evaluating a fantasy defense:
- Previous year’s finish
- Quality of coaching
- Strength of schedule
- Quality of offense
- Personnel changes from the previous year
Examining defensive free agency spending (as well as high-capital draft picks) helps to quantify the fifth factor.
Last Season Overview
Last year, 10 teams spent a net of $7.5 million or more on defense and those teams averaged a 13% increase in year-over-year fantasy scoring. Those teams allowed 9% fewer real-world points as well. The top four spenders, all spending $20.4 million or more, averaged a -2% drop in fantasy scoring, so there are no guarantees that a bigger bankroll will equate to defensive success.
Historical Trends in Defensive Spending
Since I started tracking this data in 2016, the 61 teams that have invested a net of at least $7.0 million on defense in a given year enjoyed an average increase in fantasy scoring of 20%. Thirty-seven of the 61 teams improved, while the other 24 teams had no change or a negative change in fantasy scoring. Again, results are a mixed bag, but the positive trends are there.
Teams that invested less than a net of $7 million or had a net decrease in defensive payroll saw a 3% decrease in fantasy scoring. (For those wondering, teams that invested $0 to $7 million saw a 1% increase in fantasy scoring, on average.)
On the flip side, the 82 teams that saw a net decrease of at least $4 million on the defensive side of the ball saw their fantasy production decline 7% on average.
Ultimately, defensive spending in free agency is not a magic bullet for evaluating fantasy defenses, but it is another valuable data point that can indicate defensive units that are poised for an increase (or decrease) in production.
2023 Defensive Spending
Below is a table of the 2023 net free agency investment by each team. I also included the number of draft picks used in the first three rounds on defensive players to see which teams were using significant draft capital to shore up that side of the ball.
|Team||Net # In||Net $ In||Rank||Defensive Draft Picks In First Three Rounds|
A Few Takeaways
I’ll provide some team-by-team context below. I’ll include the collective Average Annual Value for the team’s free agent crop along with notable individual players.
Since I started gathering this data, only the 2020 Dolphins spent more (+$53.8 million) on defense in free agency than the 2023 Falcons (+$41.7 million) did this year. The Dolphins doubled their fantasy scoring the following season. Safety Jesse Bates ($16.0 million), tackle David Onyemata ($11.7 million), linebacker Kaden Elliss ($7.2 million) and defensive end Calais Campbell ($7 million) were the biggest acquisitions. The Falcons also added defensive end Zach Harrison in the third round. The Falcons were 30th in fantasy scoring last year, so there’s a lot of room for improvement.
The Bears (+$26.7 million) were last in the league in fantasy scoring in 2022. Not only did they add linebacker Tremaine Edmunds ($18.0 million) and defensive end DeMarcus Walker ($7.0 million), they added tackle Gervon Dexter and cornerback Tyrique Stevenson in the second round, and tackle Zacch Pickens in the third round. This defensive unit should look very different in 2023.
The Browns (+$26.0 million) scored the eighth-most fantasy points in 2022, so they were already a good unit before adding tackle Dalvin Tomlinson ($14.3 million), safety Juan Thornhill ($7.0 million) and defensive end Ogbonnia Okoronkwo ($6.3 million). They did not use a pick in the first three rounds on a defensive player.
The Seahawks (+$25.1 million) were the No. 11 fantasy defense last season. They added stud cornerback Devon Witherspoon in the first round and outside linebacker, Derick Hall, in the second round. Their big signing was defensive end Dre’Mont Jones ($17.2 million), though they added safety Julian Love ($6.0 million), linebacker Bobby Wagner ($5.5 million), and defensive end Jarran Reed ($4.5 million) as well. This unit should be improved.
The Lions (+$18.8 million) were the No. 18 fantasy defense last year, so if they can make a leap, they could become a top-12 unit. They added cornerback Cameron Sutton ($11.0 million), safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson ($6.5 million), and cornerback Emmanuel Moseley ($6.0 million). Detroit also drafted linebacker Jack Campbell in the first round, safety Brian Branch in the second round, and drafted tackle Brodric Martin in the third round. The Lions’ pass defense should be improved in 2023.
The Panthers (+$14.9 million) had the No. 15 fantasy defense last season. They added safety Vonn Bell ($7.5 million) and tackle Shy Tuttle ($6.5 million) in free agency and drafted linebacker D.J. Johnson in the third round. If Bryce Young can help get the offense (29th in yards last season) to a better place, it will help the defense as well.
The Eagles (-$31.1 million) lost a lot of talent. Defensive tackle Javon Hargrave ($21.0 million), safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson ($6.5 million), and safety Marcus Epps ($6.0) are all gone, but the Eagles drafted tackle Jalen Carter in the first round to replace Hargrave, and safety Sydney Brown in the third round to help replace Gardner-Johnson and Epps. They also added linebacker Nolan Smith in the second round. So it looks like the Eagles reloaded on defense.
The Saints (-$29.7 million) were a bottom-eight unit last year and took a hit in free agency, so I’m not expecting a bounce-back season. The Rams (-$22.4 million) finished a very disappointing 27th in fantasy scoring and lost a net of seven defensive players when accounting for free agency and the draft. The Bengals (-$19.6 million) finished 29th in fantasy scoring and don’t appear to be positioned for success in 2023, though they did add defensive end Myles Murphy in the first round along with a corner and a safety in the second and third rounds, respectively. The Cardinals (-$17.9 million) lost quite a bit of talent in free agency as well after being a mediocre fantasy unit last season.
The Bills (-$14.1 million) lost linebacker Tremaine Edmunds ($18.0 million) but drafted Dorian Williams in the third round to help shore up the linebacker room.