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2014 Fantasy Football: Defense/Special Teams Rankings
By Matt Horkman

1. Seattle Seahawks
Outlook: The only team to allow less than 300 yards per game last season returns most of its starters. Last year, the Seahawks were the No. 1 pass defense, and allowed opposing quarterbacks to a league-low 63.4 quarterback rating. The return of Percy Harvin, who boosts the special teams, is yet another reason why Seattle enters the year as the top fantasy defense/special teams.

2. Carolina Panthers
Outlook: Perhaps no team features as much front-seven talent as Carolina does. The defensive line consists of Greg Hardy, Charles Johnson, Star Lotulelei, and Kawann Short. Behind it is a linebacker corps led by Luke Kuechly, who is the reigning defensive player of the year. Together, this unit wreaks havoc on opponents, forcing turnovers and creating sacks.

3. San Francisco 49ers
Outlook: While a potential suspension to star pass rusher Aldon Smith looms, San Francisco has always done a good job of scheming pressure. However, Navorro Bowman won’t be back until the middle of the season at the earliest, so the promising defense isn’t without its holes.

4. St. Louis Rams
Outlook: The Rams, not Seattle or San Francisco, actually led the NFC in sacks in ‘13. The combination of Chris Long and Robert Quinn has combined for 49.5 sacks in the last two years. St. Louis also features a favorable schedule during the fantasy playoffs.

5. Cincinnati BengalsGeno Atkins
Outlook: The departure of defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is a major loss for Cincinnati’s defense. In addition, their week 16 matchup versus Denver makes them unplayable in your fantasy championship. Still, the Bengals feature a talented group of players on the defensive side of the ball, and they’re sure to receive a boost from the return of defensive tackle Geno Atkins.

6. Buffalo Bills
Outlook: Last year, Buffalo was No. 2 in both sacks and interceptions. Losing defensive coordinator Mike Pettine is somewhat concerning, but their talent and schedule makes them a viable starting defense.

7. Baltimore Ravens
Outlook: Don’t buy into the rhetoric pinning the losses of Ed Reed and Ray Lewis on Baltimore’s lack of success a year ago. Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata overtook the future Hall of Famers as Baltimore’s most valuable defenders at the turn of the decade. Heath is the key to Baltimore’s season. As long as they remain healthy, they’ll field a top 10 fantasy defense.

8. Houston Texans
Outlook: It might be a year too soon for Houston to reap the rewards of Jadeveon Clowney. Nevertheless, they do feature a seasoned coordinator, favorable schedule, and arguably the game’s most disruptive defender. Their trajectory is pointing upward.

9. Kansas City Chiefs
Outlook: When the pass-rush combination of Justin Houston and Tamba Hali are on the field together, the Chiefs featured arguably the conference’s top unit. Houston missed the final five regular-season games, though, and Kansas City’s defense wasn’t the same, surrendering an average of 25.2 points per game over that span. As long as their outside linebackers remain healthy, the Chiefs will field a top 10 fantasy defense.

10. Arizona Cardinals
Outlook: Relying on 36-year-old John Abraham for a large bulk of your pass rush is risky, but the Cardinals did finish in the top five in both sacks and interceptions last season. Their schedule outside the division, however, is somewhat worrisome. Dallas, Denver, Detroit, and San Diego all possess high-octane offenses. Unlike their NFC West brethren, they may not have the pass rush to overcome it.

11. New England Patriots
Outlook: Over the last several off-seasons, New England has done a nice job of accumulating young talent on the defensive side of the ball. We saw glimpses of a payoff last season. We’ll get finally get it this season.

12. New Orleans Saints
Outlook: Rob Ryan did a fantastic job in his first year as New Orleans’ defensive coordinator. He inherited one of the league’s worst units, and made them into a viable starting fantasy defense. Look for the Saints to remain respectable running Ryan’s aggressive scheme.

13. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Outlook: New head coach Lovie Smith routinely produced impressive fantasy defenses in Chicago. The Buccaneers have a talented group of players, particularly along the defensive line. If you’re looking for an under the radar pick, then Tampa’s defense might be for you, though beware of a week 14 matchup in Detroit, and a week 16 contest against Green Bay.

14. Pittsburgh Steelers
Outlook: Entering year two of a rebuilding period, the Steelers have enough talent to form a respectable fantasy defense. In fact, their front seven could return to their havocking ways sooner than later. Their secondary, however, keeps them from being a top 10 unit.

15. Cleveland Browns
Outlook: Neither good nor bad, Cleveland is rather stuck in fantasy limbo. They have the talent -- and with the hiring of Pettine, the coaching -- to emerge as a top 10 fantasy defense, but they often underachieve. 

16. Denver Broncos
Outlook: All in are the Broncos for the 2014 season. They signed T.J. Ward, Aqib Talib, and DeMarcus Ware this season. Count me as a skeptic, though. Ware isn’t a scheme fit and only Bill Belichick managed to get great production from Talib. There’s a bust factor here, especially since teams will attack the Broncos aggressively in order to keep up with their offense.

17. Minnesota Vikings
Outlook: Minnesota's defense will improve as Anthony Barr, Sharrif Floyd, Xavier Rhodes, and Harrison Smith progress. They’re probably a year away from all ascending at the right time, but a Zimmer defense always overachieves.

18. Green Bay Packers
Outlook: In years past, even when Green Bay gave up a ton of yardage, they still did an admirable job of forcing turnovers and pressuring the quarterback. The last few seasons have been different, though, so the team enters a make or break year. Health is the key. If the Packers stay healthy, they have potential. Recent history suggests health will be a problem, however.

19. N.Y. Giants
Outlook: Last year, the only time the Giants showed any semblance of a resurgence on defense is when they played quarterbacks Kirk Cousins, Josh Freeman, Terrell Pryor, and Scott Tolzein. They need to do a better job defending some of the league’s better quarterbacks or they won’t register on the fantasy radar.

20. Tennessee Titans
Outlook: The Titans are probably a year (maybe two) away from being able to transition to new defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s scheme. Nonetheless, they play the Jaguars and Texans each twice this season, giving them four very favorable matchups against teams with woeful quarterback situations.

21. Indianapolis Colts
Outlook: Losing Robert Mathis for the first four games takes a huge chunk for Indianapolis’ pass rush away. Still, the Colts play in the same division as Houston, Jacksonville, and Tennessee. That’s six games against teams with quarterback questions entering ‘14.

22. Detroit Lions
Outlook: With a talented defensive line, Detroit could finish as a top 15 fantasy defense. It seems like we say this every year about the Lions, yet they fail to deliver. Their secondary is the reason why and it’ll continue to drag them down until they fix it.

23. N.Y. Jets
Outlook: A substandard offense will keep the Jets’ defense on the field often in ‘14. It is simply too much for their defense to overcome, even if they do feature one of the best three-man defensive lines in football.

24. Chicago Bears
Outlook: The Bears made plenty of moves this off-season to shore up their defensive line, but the linebacker corps and secondary remain liabilities. They also play in the same division as Calvin Johnson, Adrian Peterson, and Aaron Rodgers.

25. Jacksonville Jaguars
Outlook: A favorable schedule and good coaching can’t overcome the lack of talent in Jacksonville. They’ll remain off the fantasy radar for another year.

26. Oakland Raiders
Outlook: The Raiders are fielding a defense that would’ve been pretty good four or five years ago. Now, it’s simply hit or miss.

27. Miami Dolphins
Outlook: Miami’s schedule doesn’t do them any favors. They play Rodgers, Tom Brady (twice), Jay Cutler, Matthew Stafford, and Peyton Manning this season. Good luck with that.

28. Philadelphia Eagles
Outlook: Because of Chip Kelly’s fast-pace offense, Philadelphia’s defense will find itself on the field a lot. The Eagles also did little to upgrade their horrendous secondary, which could comeback to haunt them when they play Dallas (twice), Green Bay, Indianapolis, and San Francisco. 

29. San Diego Chargers
Outlook: The Chargers made the playoff last year in spite of their defense. They’re off the fantasy radar.

30. Dallas Cowboys
Outlook: The Cowboys are going with their third defensive coordinator (Rod Marinelli) in as many seasons. Only desperate fantasy owners should consider them.

31. Atlanta Falcons
Outlook: Bad talent plus a schedule that features games against Cutler, Rodgers, Stafford, and Drew Brees (twice) doesn’t do the Falcons any favors. Keep your distance.

32. Washington
Outlook: Another bad defensive season is in the cards for Washington. They’re coming off a woeful season, where they allowed nearly 30 points per game. With a bad secondary and an unfavorable schedule, they may find themselves exceeding 30 points per game in ‘14.

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