esny 2021 fantasy football preview def
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

ESNY continues with its 2021 Fantasy Football Preview series, and this time around, we look at the top 15 fantasy defenses.

Defense wins championships.

Except in fantasy football…I would probably rely more on my wide receivers, running backs, and quarterback than my defense if I found myself in my league’s title game.

Regardless, choosing your defense is still an important decisison in the midst of your fantasy draft. Just keep an eye on your unit’s bye week so you know when to explore the waiver wire for an alternative one.

Without further ado, let’s continue ESNY’s 2021 Fantasy Football Preview series.

No. 15-11

15. Packers

14. Bears

13. Cardinals

12. 49ers

11. Browns

10. Patriots

Even with numerous opt-outs last season, the Patriots defense still finished seventh in scoring and eighth in pass defense.

The No. 26 rush-defense rank was non-intriguing, but that’s why Bill Belichick added to the front seven and signed linebackers Matthew Judon and Kyle Van Noy as well as defensive tackle Davon Godchaux. New England additionally drafted Alabama defensive tackle Christian Barmore in the second round.

Thus, while already sporting a talented unit, the Pats made it a mission to address the glaring weakness of this group and should improve when it comes to defending the run.

9. Dolphins

The Dolphins didn’t finish strong in total defense, pass defense, or rush defense last year, but were tied for fifth in points allowed. Not only do I like that, but I’m also intrigued by the playmaking ability of the group — in 2020, Miami led the league with 29 takeaways and additionally notched 41 sacks as a team.

The Xavien Howard situation (the star corner recently requested a trade) makes the immediate future a little tricky to predict, which is why the Dolphins come in at No. 9. But reagrdless, the possibility of him departing Miami won’t lead to me knocking its defense off this list. Brian Flores is still a highly intelligent defensive-minded head coach who can adapt if and when changes need to be made.

8. Giants

The Giants defense turned itself around in 2020.

Well, it was mostly Patrick Graham who was responsibile.

In his first year as defensive coordinator, Big Blue finished 12th in total defense, ninth in scoring, and tied for 10th in rush defense.

Better yet, the Giants further improved the unit this offseason (at least on paper).

With the re-signing of Leonard Williams and drafting of edge rusher Azeez Ojulari, Big Blue should increase its sack total from its 2020 mark of 40. The pairing of Adoree’ Jackson with Pro Bowl corner James Bradberry should additionally enhance the talent level of the defensive backfield.

7. Colts

Quarterback Carson Wentz is injured and it’s unclear when exactly he’ll return.

The same goes for star offensive guard Quenton Nelson.

This Colts defense must step up in the meantime and the expectation is that it will; you should definitely consider drafting this unit if the upcoming seven groups aren’t available.

Indianapolis’ unit was in the top 10 in total defense and scoring last year and was also the No. 2-ranked group in terms of rushing yards allowed.

Not to mention, the Colts have the ability to garner notable points for your team by the way of takeaways and sacks (Indy racked up 25 and 40, respectively, last season). That sack total should be similar or potentially even higher now that rookie defensive end Kwity Paye is in the mix. The Colts acquired Paye with the 21st overall pick in this year’s draft.

The team also re-signed cornerback Xavier Rhodes (two interceptions last season) to a one-year deal.

6. Steelers

This Steelers defensive squad has great talent — it led the league with 56 sacks last year and came in second with 27 takeaways.

T.J. Watt has proven to be one of the top pass rushers this league has to offer and led the NFL with 15 sacks last year. Minkah Fitzpatrick has also solidified himself as one of the NFL’s best safeties and is certainly a playmaker in that defensive backfield.

The reason I don’t put Pittsburgh higher on the list, however, is I feel the loss of Bud Dupree in free agency was huge. Dupree also carries the capability of being an elite pass rusher and racked up eight sacks in 11 games last year.

Regardless, the fact the Steelers ranked No. 3 in total defense, pass defense, and scoring in 2020 is really tough to overlook.

5. Ravens

This strong Ravens defense cracks the top five.

And why shouldn’t it?

The unit was in the top 10 last year in total defense, pass defense, and rush defense, and was also No. 2 in scoring.

Despite the loss of linebacker Matthew Judon via free agency, the employment of guys like Calais Campbell and Marlon Humphrey are huge for the 11-man group and should lead to this defense undergoing another strong season.

Humphrey has a knack for jarring the ball loose, having forced a league-leading eight fumbles last year in what was his second consecutive Pro Bowl campaign (a repeat performance in that regard would be huge).

Baltimore additionally notched 22 takeaways and 39 sacks in 2020.

4. Saints

New Orleans fielded one of the top defenses in the NFL last year and it’s reasonable to believe Sean Payton’s staff will have the unit continue its greatness in 2021.

This group was in the top five in total yards allowed, passing yards allowed, rushing yards allowed, and points allowed.

A strong pass rush led by defensive ends Cam Jordan and Trey Hendrickson also notched 45 total sacks and could hover around that same mark this season.

3. Washington

Despite a weak offense that finished near the bottom of the league in yardage and didn’t employ a consistent starting quarterback, the Football Team were able to reach the postseason thanks to their defense. It’s a strong unit that ranked No. 2 in both total defense and pass defense and No. 4 in scoring.

The group encompasses a scary defensive line, and Montez Sweat, Jonathan Allen, and the highly talented Chase Young are back.

Linebacker Jon Bostic (118 total tackles, three sacks in 2020) is additionally returning and talented rookie first-round linebacker Jamin Davis is in the mix as well.

Group all those individuals with a secondary that includes Kendall Fuller and Landon Collins, and you have a unit that’s sure to succeed in 2021.

2. Rams

You want to talk about an absolutely loaded defense?

The Rams employ the top defensive lineman in the NFL in Aaron Donald, arguably the top cornerback in the league in Jalen Ramsey, and a talented edge rusher in Leonard Floyd who racked up 10.5 sacks last year.

Because of this, the Rams defense finished No. 1 in total defense, pass defense, and scoring and also No. 3 in rush defense. The pass rush was additionally second in the league with a whopping 53 sacks.

An improved offensive unit is in place with Matthew Stafford now at quarterback. Thus, long offensive drives are in Los Angeles’ future, which will keep the defense fresh in order to make plays and force turnovers.

1. Buccaneers

This defensive unit is riding high from its title run and returning all 11 Super Bowl starters.

Last year, the Bucs were sixth in yards allowed, eighth in points allowed, and sported the top rushing defense in the NFL.

A pass rush led by Shaquil Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul, Devin White, and Ndamukong Suh should additionally build on its 48-sack season. Not to mention, Tampa was near the top of the league with 25 total takeaways (tied for fifth).

Expect the Bucs to potentially be the top defense drafted in your league.

Ryan Honey is a staff writer and host of the Wide Right Podcast.