Rankings: 2020 DST Rankings

(Photo Credit: SteelCityHobbies)

Malcolm McMillan (@McLateralFF)
The Lateral Writer

There are two types of Fantasy Football managers: Those who love to draft a Defense/Special Teams (DST) properly, and those who do not know what they are doing, so they complain about how "useless" the position is, and how we should get rid of it right after getting rid of kickers.

Jokes aside, DST is a genuinely tricky position. There are certain teams that are good most years, such as the Baltimore Ravens, who have been a Top-5 DST since 2017. Other teams have a dominant season that comes out of nowhere, such as the 2017 Jacksonville Jaguars, who were DST1 despite not being a Top-12 DST any other year since FantasyPros started tracking stats. Jacksonville was not even drafted as a DST based on ADP, and rode to the top of the charts on the backs of career years from A.J. Bouye, Malik Jackson, Yannick Ngakoue, and Telvin Smith

It also helps DSTs when they are supported by a competent offense, which (surprise) the Jags (who normally are a bunch of JAGS) actually were in 2017. These symbiotic relationships exist throughout Fantasy Football (the worse a defense is, the more QBs and WRs are likely to do better, and the more likely RBs are to do worse), but with DST it is particularly pronounced. You cannot (usually) be a bad team and have a good DST.

Need proof? In 2019 4 of the Top-12 DSTs did not make the playoffs. Of those four, the Los Angeles Rams and Pittsburgh Steelers both finished with a .500 or above record, and the New York Jets and Tampa Bay Buccaneers were both 7-9. The Bottom-2 DSTs? The Miami Dolphins and the Cincinnati Bengals, who finished a combined 7-25. Again, you cannot be a bad team and have a good DST.

With that in mind, here are the Tiers for DSTs:
  • Tier 1: Consistent Performers
  • Tier 2: Bounce-back/Contenders
  • Tier 3: Field of Streams
  • Tier 4: Bad News Bears

To create these rankings, I used the following resources to examine historical data:
Then, using historical finishes, I created a three-year Aggregate Ranking (AGR) for each team, and added that rank to the team's 2019 Rank then divided by two to create a Weighted AGR (WAGR). The formula looks like this:

    (2019 Rank + AGR)/2 = WAGR

I then examined Strength of Schedule (SOS), and roster moves/coaching changes to create a final projected finish for 2020. You will see the projected finish in brackets like so:

    Baltimore Ravens (BAL) [X]

This means that based on the data, I expect the Ravens to finish (X), and because their stability as a program makes them a Consistent Performer, I have them listed in Tier 1. 


Rankings and projections should always be taken with a grain of salt. Always. Do not take these as gospel, but instead compare them against your own thoughts and other evidence to create your own educated opinions. That being said, these are my official rankings, and I do stand by them, even though I will surely get something wrong by the time the season is over.


Tier 1: Consistent Performers

1. Baltimore Ravens (BAL) [1]
2. Pittsburgh Steelers (PIT) [2]
3. New Orleans Saints (NO) [4]
4. Minnesota Vikings (MIN) [5]
5. New England Patriots (NE) [6]
6. Kansas City Chiefs (KC) [7]
7. Los Angeles Rams (LAR) [8]
8. Seattle Seahawks (SEA) [9]
9. Tennessee Titans (TEN) [11]

Everyone in Tier 1 had the requirement of being a Top-12 DST two out of the past three years. In fact, aside from Tennessee, all nine teams in this tier had two Top-10 seasons in the past three years. However, given Tennessee's consistency under defensive-minded Mike Vrabel (DST12 in 2018, DST11 in 2019), and the signing of three-time Pro Bowler Jadeveon Clowney, it felt fitting to include them in this tier, especially given their WAGR of DST12. Important Note: Tennessee is going at an ADP of DST16 (which is basically undrafted) despite a consistent Top-12 record, a new star signing, a good team, a good coach, and a weak division that contributed to the 13th weakest SOS for 2020. Just something to think about.

Other teams to keep in mind in this tier are New Orleans and Seattle. New Orleans was a Top-10 DST last year that brought back former team talisman Malcolm Jenkins, and between the loaded offense and weak SOS (9th weakest), they should be able to improve on their DST9 finish in 2019. Seattle should also be trending in an upward direction. They are a consistent program who had an off-year in 2019 after two consecutive DST8 finishes in 2017 and 2018. I almost considered them as a bounce-back and moved them to Tier 2, but the consistency merited their inclusion here, as opposed to the Bears who fell from DST1 2018 to DST20 in 2019. Plus remember the rule that you cannot have a bad team and a good DST? Seattle only lost to one team last year that did not have a winning record, finished 11-5, won a playoff game, and added Jamal Adams to their secondary, which more than made up for the loss of Jadeveon Clowney (who as mentioned already, is pretty good in his own right). Chicago does not have quite such a rosy outlook for 2020, but more on that later.

Tier 2: Bounce-backs, Breakouts, Contenders

10. San Francisco 49ers (SF) [3]
11. Chicago Bears (CHI) [10]
12. Buffalo Bills (BUF) [12]
13. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (TB) [14]
14. Indianapolis Colts (IND) [15]
15. Philadelphia Eagles (PHI) [16]
16. Los Angeles Chargers (LAC) [17]

Okay, it is officially later.

Chicago leads the pool of "bounce-back" DSTs, which is basically a kiddie pool filled by Khalil Mack and Joey Bosa as they hope to keep their respective teams afloat. The Bears fell to DST20 last year, and while people may blame it on Khalil Mack being only a Pro Bowler rather than a First-Team All-Pro linebacker, the answer is way more simple. 

That is pretty much it. They went from being a dominant DST in 2018 with a competent offense, to an above average DST and an offense that turned the ball over as often as before, but stopped scoring to make up for it. They still were not an awful team, finishing 8-8, but the QB controversy that will dominate their locker room bodes poorly for 2020, and without a competent offense, it will be tough for Chicago's DST to bounce-back even if they return to an elite level of play.

Now, the quick hits: Los Angeles should get better, has a decently weak SOS, and is anchored by arguably the better Bosa brother (if only because he is older). However, they just lost star safety Derwin James, and everyone else in their division should get better too. San Francisco and Buffalo should still be Top-12 DSTs as they look to repeat their 2019 successes, but neither had the historical record to be considered a consistent performer, and both have brutal schedules. Tampa Bay, Indianapolis, and Philadelphia are all Top-12 breakout contenders, all adding a nice piece to their already Top-15 DSTs from 2019. Sure, Tampa rookie Antoine Winfield, Jr. is not exactly Indy's DeForest Buckner or Philly's new combo of Darius Slay and Nickell Robey-Coleman, but he will be a nice addition to last year's DST10.

Tier 3: Field of Streams

17. New York Jets (NYJ) [13]
18. Denver Broncos (DEN) [18]
19. Dallas Cowboys (DAL) [19]
20. Green Bay Packers (GB) [20]
21. Cleveland Browns (CLE) [21]
22. Washington Football Team (WSH) [22]
23. Atlanta Falcons (ATL) [23]
24. Houston Texans (HOU) [25]
25. Arizona Cardinals (ARI) [28]

Knowing how to stream a DST is important to succeed in Fantasy Football. Maybe you had to get a Tier 2 DST instead of a Tier 1 DST, and they are just not living up to the hype. Maybe Cam Newton blows up the Bills DST in Week 8, and you do not want to rely on them for your championship in Week 16. That's where streamers come in. These are the teams that are solid options when you need them, but not good enough to necessarily draft. Maybe the Bills vs the Pats with a championship on the line ends up looking scary as the season goes along. You know what sounds potentially less scary? Washington Football Team DST going up against the awful Carolina Panthers, or the Cleveland Browns against Sam "I see ghosts" Darnold. So you drop the Bills, and stream the WFT for the matchup.

Dallas, Cleveland, and Washington have been historically mediocre, if not outright bad (WAGR 17, 25, and 21 respectively), but show signs of improvement and boast Top-5 weakest SOS. Houston (DST3 in 2018), Washington (DST10 in 2018), and Denver (DST8 in 2018) are all just a year off from being Top-10 DSTs, and Washington at least has improved from last year significantly by bringing in Ron Rivera and drafting Chase Young. Do not be shocked if they can leap over teams like Denver, an average team that likely lost future Hall-of-Famer Von Miller for the season. New York and living "This is fine" meme Adam Gase are trending in the wrong direction, but were DST7 last year, so be hesitant to write them off completely.

Finally, good teams are more likely to produce good defenses than bad teams, so keep an eye on Atlanta, Dallas, Green Bay, Houston, and Arizona, who should be fighting for playoff spots given their offensive prowess. Just remember, none of these teams are worth wasting a draft pick on. Do not think you are going to pull one over on your friends by drafting the Washington Football Team DST instead of Bryan Edwards or another sleeper WR, because some schmuck told you Chase Young is #goodatfootball.

Tier 4: Bad News Bears

26. Jacksonville Jaguars (JAC) [24]
27. Las Vegas Raiders (LV) [26]
28. New York Giants (NYG) [27]
29. Detroit Lions (DET) [29]
30. Cincinnati Bengals (CIN) [30]
31. Miami Dolphins (MIA) [31]
32. Carolina Panthers (CAR) [32]

Just stay away from these teams. They are bad. Other than Jacksonville and Detroit, they are always bad. Jacksonville seems to be ready to tank so it can get its third "QB of the Future" in as many years, and Detroit is coached by Matt Patricia, which may honestly be worse. 

Seriously, go look. Detroit was DST6 in 2017, then hired Matt Patricia in 2018 and immediately fell to DST20. They fell even further to DST30 in 2019, and then got rid of former All-Pros Darius Slay and Damon Harrsion, thinking that will make them better in 2020. Avoid this DST until Patricia is gone. 

That is really all I have to say on the matter. You usually only need to roster one DST at a time anyway.

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