Do Defenses Repeat Fantasy Football Performances?

Jun 21, 2024
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 2013–2023, 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.

* Advanced metrics courtesy of 4for4's NFL Team Stat Explorer.

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 .27, 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, 2023
Team Rank Total Fantasy Pts Allowed Fantasy Pts/G Allowed
Washington Commanders 32nd 352.7 20.7
Philadelphia Eagles 31st 349.9 20.6
Detroit Lions 30th 329.9 19.4
Arizona Cardinals 29th 320.6 18.9
Los Angeles Rams 28th 319.2 18.8

Washington allowed the most passing yards (4,627), and passing TDs (39) to opposing QBs in 2023. They were also 31st in the league in explosive pass percentage, which ranks the percentage of passing plays that gain at least 15 yards. The Eagles yielded the second most passing scores and the fifth-highest yards through the air but were decent against the rushing QB, only allowing two TDs with the 19th most rushing yards to those mobile signal callers.

Coming off the most fantasy points allowed to the QB title from 2022, the Lions moved up a few spots last season. Detroit was among the bottom seven defenses in the NFL in passing yards and touchdowns allowed, along with rushing yards and TDs to the QB position. Their explosive pass percentage was the lowest in the league. Speaking of the lowest in the NFL, the Cardinals sat last in pressure percentage, which is the percent of pass plays in which the QB was either hurried, hit, or sacked. Arizona also allowed the third most passing TDs (32) in 2023, while the Rams failed to stop the dual-threat QB, ranking 26th or worse in all QB rushing stats.

2024 Outlook: The Lions, Cardinals, and Commanders have the highest potential to climb out of the basement in 2024, as all three invested the most money in the NFL in improving their defense this spring. Detroit revamped their cornerback room with a trade for Carlton Davis and the additions of Terrion Arnold and Ennis Rakestraw via the NFL Draft. They also added DT D.J. Reader and DE Marcus Davenport. The Cardinals signed DT Justin Jones, cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting, and DE Bilal Nichols, then added DE Darius Robinson in the first round and cornerbacks Max Melton and Elijah Jones in the second and third rounds, respectively. Washington spent the third-most money this offseason improving their defense with DE Dorance Armstrong, LB Bobby Wagner, safety Jeremy Chinn, and DEs Clelin Ferrell and Dante Fowler the biggest free agent acquisitions. They also added two rookie DTs during the draft.

Top-Five Defenses vs. QB, 2023
Team Rank Total Fantasy Pts Allowed Fantasy Pts/G Allowed
New York Jets 1st 206.8 12.2
Baltimore Ravens 2nd 209.2 12.3
Carolina Panthers 3rd 219.2 12.9
Cleveland Browns 4th 227.2 13.4
Buffalo Bills 5th 235.9 13.9

The Jets moved up eight spots from 2022, allowing the fewest fantasy points to QBs by yielding the fewest passing TDs and the third-fewest passing yards. The Ravens were balanced at defending opposing QBs, surrendering the second-fewest passing and rushing TDs to the position. Also fairly equitable were the Panthers, who gave up the fewest passing yards along with the lowest number of rushing yards to enemy QBs.

Cleveland allowed only 185.2 passing yards per contest, which ranked second in the NFL and was first in the following metrics.

Buffalo maintained its top-five status by being solid against the pass and run. In 2024, it yielded just 18 passing TDs, which is tied for the second-fewest, and only four quarterback rushing scores.

2024 Outlook: The Ravens, Jets, Bills, and Browns are all in great positions to repeat this year as top fantasy defenses. Carolina ending up anywhere near the top is a very tall order, as they traded away their best pass rusher in Brian Burns, and Frankie Lulu left during free agency.

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, 2023
Team Rank Total Half-PPR Pts Allowed Half-PPR Pts/G Allowed
Arizona Cardinals 32nd 427.0 25.1
Seattle Seahawks 31st 412.0 24.2
Denver Broncos 30th 409.7 24.1
Washington Commanders 29th 402.1 23.7
Indianapolis Colts 28th 40.05 23.6

The Cardinals featured the worst run defense in the league last season, allowing the most rushing yards (2,027) along with a last-place designation in explosive rush percentage - the percent of running plays that gain at least 10 yards. Arizona also surrendered the most TDs through the air to enemy RBs in 2023(8). Seattle sat 31st in both rushing yards allowed per game and rushing EPA per play while allowing a whopping 19 rushing touchdowns, which was just two fewer than the worst defense in that category.

Denver was 31st in yards yielded on the ground to rushers with the sixth most receptions and third most TDs via the air to opposing RBs, while the Commanders came in as 26h in rushing yards allowed, and 29th in both receptions and receiving yards surrendered to the RB position.

Indy's defense was just all-around meh in 2023, finishing among the bottom five in defending rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, and receiving yards to RBs.

2024 Outlook: The Seahawks could be the one group to step out from the basement this season with the addition of Byron Murphy II in Mike MacDonald's system; however, it may take a full season to get there.

Top-Five Defenses vs. RB, 2023
Team Rank Total Half-PPR Pts Allowed Half-PPR Pts/G Allowed
Detroit Lions 1st 236.9 13.9
Los Angeles Rams 2nd 245.9 14.5
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 3rd 264.0 15.5
San Francisco 49ers 4th 267.2 15.7
Atlanta Falcons 5th 281.1 16.5

The Lions surrendered the second-fewest attempts and the fewest yards on the ground to opposing RBs in 2023 and did not allow one score via reception to the position all season, while the Rams tied for second in allowing the least TDs scored by RBs vias both ground and air. Tampa Bay was stout when it came to the end zone, as they surrendered just five rushing TDs last season, which tied for the fewest, and they ranked fifth in explosive rush percentage. The Falcons were first in the NFL in rushing EPA per play and, like the Bucs, yielded only five ground scores to enemy RBs.

2024 Outlook: Tampa Bay and Atlanta could struggle as bottom-half defenses in 2024, but the other three squads should still be fantasy competitors.

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, 2023
Team Rank Total Half-PPR Pts Allowed Half-PPR Pts/G Allowed
Philadelphia Eagles 32nd 630.3 37.1
Washington Commanders 31st 617.1 36.3
Detroit Lions 30th 564.2 33.2
Los Angeles Chargers 29th 540.5 31.8
New York Giants 28th 534.6 31.4

It's not surprising to see three repeat offenders from this article's bottom QB section again for WRs. The Commanders were dead last in yards, and TDs to opposing WRs, the Eagles surrendered the second-highest number of yards and TDs to the position along with the most receptions, and the Lions were 30th in all three categories and sat last in points per red zone drive. LA couldn't stop much via the air as they ranked 30th at defending passing yards per game and allowed the fourth-most TDs to WRs, but somehow, they only gave up the 15th fewest receptions to the position.

As a secondary, the Giants sat 24th or worse in all categories against wideouts in 2023, including points per red zone drive.

2024 Outlook: As mentioned above, the Commanders and Lions invested heavily in their defenses this offseason and could play their way out of the bottom in 2024.

Top-Five Defenses vs. WR, 2023
Team Rank Total Half-PPR Pts Allowed Half-PPR/G Rank Half-PPR Pts/G Allowed
New York Jets 1st 287.9 1st 16.9
Kansas City Chiefs 2nd 375.6 3rd 22.1
Carolina Panthers 3rd 375.6 2nd 22.1
Cleveland Browns 4th 383.8 4th 22.6
Dallas Cowboys 5th 398.9 5th 23.5

The Jets not only repeated as the top defense against WRs from 2022 but also led this category by a wide margin, allowing 88 fewer fantasy points overall and just over five points per contest less than any other NFL defense. As a unit, New York allowed the fewest receptions and receiving yards to opposing WRs, all while yielding just five touchdowns the entire season, which was also first. The Chiefs, Panthers, and Cowboys were all among the top-7 defensive squads when it came to the least amount of receptions, yards, and touchdowns allowed to the WR position, with the Browns yielding the second-fewest receptions, third-fewest yards, but allowed 13 TDs, which was the 12th fewest in the league.

2024 Outlook: The Jets, Browns, Chiefs, and Cowboys have the potential to repeat again in 2024, with Carolina projected as a bottom-feeder defense 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, 2023
Team Rank Total Half-PPR Pts Allowed Half-PPR Pts/G Allowed
Denver Broncos 32nd 217.4 12.8
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 31st 197.2 11.6
Cincinnati Bengals 30th 195.5 11.5
Los Angeles Rams 29th 187.7 11.0
Atlanta Falcons 28th 184.3 10.8

If you streamed tight ends at all last season, you knew that the Broncos were a sieve for fantasy points. They sat dead last in yards and yielded touchdowns to the tight end, plus they surrendered the fifth-most receptions to the position. The Buccaneers, Bengals, Rams, and Falcons were all ranked 22nd or worse in all tight-end defensive categories, allowing an average of 11.3 half-PPR points to enemy TEs weekly.

2024 Outlook: 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, 2023
Team Rank Total Half-PPR Pts Allowed Half-PPR/G Rank Half-PPR Pts/G Allowed
New England Patriots 1st 121.5 1st 7.1
Cleveland Browns 2nd 123.9 2nd 7.3
Tennessee Titans 3rd 130.5 3rd 7.7
Buffalo Bills 4th 135.2 4th 8.0
Carolina Panthers 5th 137.0 6th 8.1

The Patriots shut down the tight end above everyone last year, allowing a league-low two TDs to the position and a mere 695 receiving yards (2nd). Cleveland, Tennessee, Buffalo, and Carolina all fell within single-digit numbers when it came to defending receiving yards against TEs, with the Browns tops in that category, along with the least number of receptions surrendered to the position.

2024 Outlook: The Browns, Bills, and Patriots are projecting similar for 2024 so treat them as you would for any other position you’re looking at during the draft. The duo of the Titans and Panthers are ranked in the lower third 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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