2013 fantasy football profiles and projections (DEFs 1-15)

Statistical projections are provided by EA Sports/NFL.com

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The NFC West morphed into one of the most physical divisions in the National Football League last season, thanks to the emergence of an improved Seahawks defense. For the second year in a row, coach Pete Carroll's team was in the top 10 in points allowed (first) and yards allowed (fourth). This unit boasts a bevy of young playmakers in lineman Bruce Irvin and defensive backs Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas (to name a few), and free-agent additions Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett should improve Seattle's defensive line and 18th-ranked pass rush. Given their favorable schedule from a defensive perspective, this opportunistic team is going to be one of the first (if not the first) defense selected in a lot of 2013 fantasy drafts. Don't be shocked to see these Seahawks come flying off the board somewhere in the middle to late rounds.

The 49ers proved their defensive prowess yet again in 2012, scoring double-digit fantasy points on eight occassions while finishing seventh in points overall. That's pretty impressive for a team that scored just three total touchdowns. The Niners have arguably the most talented front seven in the league, led by game changers such as linebacker Patrick Willis and lineman Aldon Smith. The secondary will look a little different this season with the loss of Dashon Goldson, but the addition of veteran Nnamdi Asomugha could be huge. A very favorable schedule that pits the 49ers against the mistake-prone NFC South signal-callers (they threw a combined 10 interceptions that were returned for touchdowns last season) only solidifies this unit as one of the safest and best defenses in fantasy land.

The seemingly always-reliable Bears defense dominated fantasy football last season, and it wasn't even close. These Monsters of the Midway finished first in fantasy points among defense -- a full 40 points ahead of the second-best unit ( Broncos). The Bears forced a league-high 44 turnovers and turned an incredible 10 of them into touchdowns. It will be quite difficult to duplicate that level of production, however. Coach Lovie Smith and linebacker Brian Urlacher have been run out of town, so this team will have a bit of a different look. Regardless, it'd be more difficult to envision a scenario where the Bears aren't one of the first five defense drafted -- even with four games against Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford. Just be aware, there is going to be at least a slight statistical decline from Chicago this season.

The Texans defense duplicated their fantasy football success from 2011, once again finishing eighth in fantasy scoring last season. Superstar lineman J.J. Watt was an absolute monster, boosting the Houston defense in both sacks and turnovers forced during his Defensive Player of the Year campaign. The core of the Texans defense that finished in the top 10 in most major categories returns with a few changes. Defensive back and future Hall of Famer Ed Reed replaces Glover Quin at safety via free agency, and linebacker Brian Cushing should return from last year's major knee reconstruction -- that's all great news for fantasy owners. In fact, the Texans averaged 12 fantasy points per week with Cushing in the lineup, and just over eight points per week without him. Draft this unit with confidence as a No. 1 defensive team this season.

The Patriots made the most of their opportunities on defense in 2012, forcing 41 total turnovers -- that was good for second most in the NFL. They also had a nose for the end zone with seven total touchdowns. Despite giving up a ghastly 373.2 yards per game, all of those turnovers kept the Pats in the top 10 for points allowed, which is a more telling fantasy statistic. The arrow is pointing up for the P-Men too, as they have a favorable schedule against turnover-prone offenses this season. In addition to facing the carousel of Jets quarterbacks twice, they also have the NFC South on the schedule -- their starting quarterbacks threw a combined 10 interceptions for touchdowns last season. All told, owners should expect the P-Men to put up similar numbers and remain a starting fantasy defense.

The 2012 campaign marked the third time in Mike Zimmer's current four-year stint as the Bengals defensive coordinator that he put out a top-10 unit in total defense. However, it was the first time that same team was also a top-five fantasy football team. The Queen City cats allowed the sixth-fewest points and totaled 30 turnovers to go along with four total touchdowns. Furthermore, this unit has now finished no worse than 12th in fantasy points at the position three times since 2009. The pass rushing presence of linemen Geno Atkins and Michael Johnson terrorized opposing offenses as well, as the Bengals' 52 sacks were tied with the St. Louis Rams and Denver Broncos for most in the entire league. A top-10 option from a fantasy perspective, owners should target the Bengals in the late rounds.

After three straight years of finishing in the top six in fantasy scoring among defenses, the Packers fell all the way to 16th in 2012. Still, this team has Dom Capers leading a defense that has talent in the form of linebackers Clay Matthews and Desmond Bishop, not to mention lineman B.J. Raji. The departure of veteran Charles Woodson will allow a pair of young playmakers in Sam Shields and Casey Hayward to see more action in the defensive backfield as well. Assuming this defense can improve on the meager 23 total turnovers it forced a year ago, not to mention the return of difference makers like Bishop and Nick Perry from injuries, and it's pretty clear that the Packers are still a legitimate No. 1 defense in fantasy land. In fact, this squad will be drafted in the late rounds in most 2013 fantasy football leagues.

While their record on the football field might suggest otherwise, the Cardinals were a solid fantasy defensive unit in 2012. This team recorded 38 sacks, scored four touchdowns and forced 33 total turnovers. It was also in the top 10 in terms of allowing the fewest points to opposing offenses. Since 2009, the Cardinals have also ranked 11th or better in terms of fantasy points three times. That's a pretty consistent unit. If linebacker Daryl Washington were in a Patrick Willis-less division, he'd get much more attention as one of the most complete middle linebackers in the NFL. The departure of Adrian Wilson isn't a huge cause for concern, as the 33 year-old veteran appeared to be losing a step. Patrick Peterson remains a threat on defense and in the return game too, making the Cards a starting fantasy defense in all formats.

Coordinator Jack Del Rio wasted no time turning Denver's defense from waiver-wire fodder to a top-notch fantasy team in 2012. This unit finished second in total defense, fourth in points allowed and most importantly, second in fantasy scoring among defenses; only the Bears were more productive. Unfortunately, the loss of Von Miller through suspension for the first six games of the season will have a negative effect. Losing Miller in addition to linebacker Elvis Dumervil to the Ravens in the infamous fax-machine fiasco will hurt their pass rush, but the addition of lineman Terrance Knighton and rookie Sylvester Williams should help shore up the middle of the defense until Miller returns. The emergence of Trindon Holliday as a return threat only adds to the potential of this unit. Had Miller avoided suspension, owners could have targeted the Broncos as a No. 1 defense. Now, they're more of a second-tier unit until they are at full strength.

Age didn't affect the Ravens during their championship run last season, but it did impact their fantasy numbers -- this unit finished outside the top 10 in fantasy scoring for the third time in the last four years. They also allowed more than 300 points for the first time in four seasons. This unit also lost former starters Ed Reed, Bernard Pollard, Dannell Ellerbe and Paul Kruger to new teams during the offseason -- and future Hall-of-Fame linebacker Ray Lewis decided to retire. The team did pick four defensive players in the NFL draft and added Elvis Dumervil, whose reunion with linebackers coach Wink Martindale could be gangbusters for his sack total. The addition of veterans Chris Canty and Marcus Spears will also help in the overall personnel transition, but the Ravens are now better suited as a borderline No. 1 or 2 unit.

Coach Jeff Fisher's first season in St. Louis was successful from a defensive perspective, as he helped turn the 29th-ranked fantasy defense in 2011 into a top-10 unit in 2012. The pass-rushing combo of linemen Chris Long and Robert Quinn helped the Rams tie for the league's top pass rush with 52 sacks, while 2012 draft pick Janoris Jenkins solidified the secondary with four interceptions and three defensive touchdowns. The presence of veteran Cortland Finnegan was a blessing for an improved defensive backfield, and the addition of rookie Alec Ogletree is a positive move. While the NFC West has become an offensive juggernaut with the emergence of the Seahawks and 49ers, the Rams are still a defense on the rise. In fact, this unit should now be considered a borderline starting option in most 10- and 12-team fantasy leagues.

The G-Men had a less than stellar performance in the stat sheets when it came to total defense last year, as they ranked an unimpressive 31st in the league. Still, the G-Men finished 11th in fantasy points among defenses on the strength of their 35 total turnovers. That goes to show that even if a defense gives up a lot of yardage on the gridiron, it can still be a valuable asset in fantasy land. Superstar lineman Jason Pierre-Paul will continue to be as disruptive to opposing quarterbacks as ever, and the Giants have other savvy veterans like Justin Tuck and Antrel Rolle to go along with newly-added lineman Cullen Jenkins. This defense might not be what it once was from a fantasy standpoint, but it still has plenty of fight left. Consider the Giants a borderline No. 1 or 2 fantasy defense when heading into your 2013 draft.

If you wanted to move the football against the Falcons last season, you didn't encounter a whole lot of resistance -- this unit was 24th in total defense. Putting the ball into the end zone was a different story, however, as the Falcons boasted the fifth-best scoring defense in the league. Unfortunately, that didn't translate into immense fantasy success as the team registered a meager 28 sacks and barely finished in the top 15 in points. The addition of lineman Osi Umenyiora fills the void of John Abraham, though, and rookie cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford will help to replace Dunta Robinson. Of course, it's still tough to trust a team that has put up top-10 fantasy numbers just one time in the last four seasons. Overall, owners should consider the Falcons a No. 2 fantasy defense and matchup-based starter in most leagues.

The Chargers defense made a huge leap from a fantasy standpoint, jumping from 25th in points in 2011 to sixth last season. In fact, it was the second time in the last three years this was a top-10 fantasy defense. Their success was due in large part to the nine total touchdowns scored between their defense and special teams. The Bolts also posted gains in sacks and turnovers, due to the impact of 2012 first-rounder Corey Liuget and second-rounder Kendall Reyes. The inside pressure provided by that duo helped unleash lineman Shaun Phillips for 9.5 sacks, and that trend should continue in 2013. The Bolts are hoping to get the same impact from new rookie Manti Te'o. The arrow is pointing up for the Chargers as their young playmakers gain experience and continue to gel, so consider this team a low-end No. 1 option.

The Vikings did their best to claw back into fantasy relevance last season, finishing 15th in points at the position. Their run defense stiffened, but their pass unit finished in the bottom third of the league in yards allowed. The one consistent aspect in Minnesota aside from the freezing temperatures is the pass rush, in larger part thanks to another stellar season from lineman Jared Allen. In fact, the Vikings recorded at least 44 sacks for the fourth time in five years. The addition of rookies Sharrif Floyd and Xavier Rhodes will also help make this unit a No. 2 fantasy option.

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