Jonathan Bales is the author of Fantasy Football for Smart People: How to Dominate Your Draft. He writes for the Dallas Cowboys and New York Times.
Fantasy owners sure have wised up over the years. Back when I began playing fantasy football about a decade ago, the top defenses from the previous season would fly off of the board in the middle rounds (sometimes before we even got into the double-digits). And I’m not talking about the leagues with my Uncle Bruce; I’m talking “expert” leagues.
Nowadays, defenses are rarely chosen before the last few rounds of fantasy drafts. Owners have realized that the success of NFL defenses is simply too fluky to count on. In writing Fantasy Football for Smart People, I found that the most consistent defensive stat—points allowed—still has a year-to-year correlation of just 0.35. That basically means that only 35 percent of the points a defense allows “carry over” to the subsequent season, with the other 65 percent regressing toward a league mean.
Plus, the majority of defensive fantasy points come from things like interceptions, fumble recoveries, and touchdowns, not points yielded. All of those stats are extremely volatile. Good luck trying to predict which team will lead the league in fumble recoveries and defensive touchdowns this year. It ain’t happening.
On top of all of that, the scarcity of defenses is minimal. Whereas the elite quarterbacks and running backs are projected to score dozens of points more than their second-tier counterparts, the lack of consistency among team defenses means projecting one to score many more points than another isn’t a wise decision.
Of course, there is a little bit of predictability among defenses. Even if it is minimal, a small advantage is superior to none at all. Even though points allowed is the most consistent stat among defenses, it isn’t extremely useful to fantasy owners because fantasy points are often rewarded on a tiered basis; that is, owners get a specific number of points for a shutout, a slightly lower number of points if their defense allows 2-7 points, and so on. This tiered system creates more volatility for fantasy owners, and thus decreases the value of its practical application into projections.
Instead, I suggest fantasy owners choose their defense based on team sacks. Most fantasy leagues reward one point for each sack, providing an incremental scoring system that isn’t as susceptible to randomness as points allowed.
I devised a formula to accurately project team sacks using hurries from Pro Football Focus. Hurries are a measure of how much actual pressure teams place on quarterbacks. Since sacks are quite fluky, hurries are superior even to past sacks as a way to project future sacks.
I spent some time tracking sacks and hurries for all 32 NFL teams over the past three seasons. It turns out teams’ total sacks add up to around 25.7 percent of their hurries. These percentages tend to even out over the long run for entire defensive units, meaning we’d expect a team that brought down the quarterback on 35.0 percent of their hurries to regress in the following season.
In 2009 and 2010, there were 20 instances of a team sacking the quarterback on fewer than 22.0 percent of their hurries. In the following seasons, those teams registered more total sacks an amazing 75.0 percent of the time. Similarly, teams that acquired a sack on over 28.0 percent of their total hurries over that time totaled fewer sacks 78.9 percent of the time.
These stats are an attempt to factor luck out of the equation when it comes to sack totals. By using hurries to gauge a team’s pass rush, you can get a more accurate representation of their true talent.
So how will 2012 play out? Assuming teams’ total hurries from 2011 remain stable this year, here are their most likely sack totals (based on a 25.7 percent sack rate). . .
2012 Sack Projections
1. Philadelphia Eagles: 54 sacks
2. San Francisco 49ers: 53 sacks
3. Detroit Lions: 50 sacks
3. St. Louis Rams: 50 sacks
5. Dallas Cowboys: 49 sacks
6. Miami Dolphins: 47 sacks
6. Oakland Raiders: 47 sacks
8. Atlanta Falcons: 46 sacks
9. Chicago Bears: 45 sacks
9. Seattle Seahawks: 45 sacks
11. Houston Texans: 44 sacks
12. Arizona Cardinals: 43 Sacks
13. New England Patriots: 42 sacks
14. New Orleans Saints: 41 sacks
15. Green Bay Packers: 40 sacks
16. Minnesota Vikings: 39 sacks
17. New York Giants: 38 sacks
17. Washington Redskins: 38 sacks
19. Pittsburgh Steelers: 37 sacks
20. Cincinnati Bengals: 35 sacks
20. San Diego Chargers: 35 sacks
22. Carolina Panthers: 34 sacks
22. Denver Broncos: 34 sacks
22. Tampa Bay Bucs: 34 sacks
25. Baltimore Ravens: 33 sacks
25. New York Jets: 33 sacks
27. Jacksonville Jaguars: 32 sacks
28. Buffalo Bills: 30 sacks
28. Tennessee Titans: 30 sacks
30. Cleveland Browns: 29 sacks
30. Kansas City Chiefs: 29 sacks
32. Indianapolis Colts: 27 sacks
Comparing those projections to 2011 sack totals, you can see the big winners are those teams that were just unlucky last year, i.e. had a lot of hurries but not a lot of sacks. Detroit, St. Louis, Oakland, Atlanta, and Chicago are all set to see a probable increase in team sacks in 2012. The New York Jets and Baltimore Ravens, in particular, will probably see a decline in total sack production.
It’s important to note that these projections use past sacks and hurries only, taking no personnel or defensive scheme changes into account. Still, it’s a solid foundation from which to draft your defense. While others are drafting the Ravens and Jets because of their names, you can wait and grab the Lions defense, feeling confident that they’ll at least be in the top 10 in team sacks.
As a final note, I want to say if you can get away with it, don’t draft a defense at all. Unless your league requires you to draft a defense, forgo one completely and draft another skill position. Then, you can wait until the week before the season to drop a player and add a defense with a favorable matchup that week.
If you absolutely must draft a defense, weigh projected team sacks heavily into your decision. Assuming you must also draft a kicker, wait until the second-last round to grab your defense. I promise you that both Detroit and St. Louis will still be on the board.