While not as random as kickers, Defense/Special teams rankings wildly fluctuate( Chicago 07-08 for example) from year to year. If you are in a league that only gets you scoring from TD's in this category, and doesn't subtract points for negative attributes , special teams return men are as key as a whole defense. Often in these type of leagues a bad real life( 08 Oakland, New Orleans ) defense , but one prone to the big play , will be as valuable as the leagues real life top defense. If your league also provides scoring for other real life categories, (points allowed ,forced turnovers, sacks, safety's , shutouts etc.) generally your best strategy for them is to look for a good real life team Defense with at least one solid special teams returner.
1. Baltimore Ravens- Attacking defense that forces turnovers, and has at least 4 legitimate( Reed, Lewis, Suggs, Ngata) big time playmakers. Yamon Figurs regressed as a returner last season, and is on the bubble to make the team , but returner Chris Carr has signed with the Ravens as a FA. He may be able to finally break one off to add to the special teams TD total. 3rd round pick Ladarius Webb may also be in the mix as a returner, and has the skills to make a big splash .
2. Minnesota Vikings- Their D-line alone causes all kinds of turnovers. Whether it sacking the QB and forcing him to fumble, stripping guys trying to run by , or a pass rush that causes mistakes ,they are a force to be reckoned with. They still possess some ball hawks in the secondary, and Greenway is one of the leagues quicker LB's in coverage. Throw in Percy Harvin returning kicks and punts ( Jaymar Jhonson is no slouch either) and they should be in for a big year.
3. New York Giants- Would be number 1 if they had more proven return men. Likely suspects Bradshaw and Hixon both seem to possess the explosiveness to run one back ,but neither did a lot in the return game last year. Perhaps Moss or Manningham will get a crack at it. The reason they are ranked this high is they posses the best DL rotation in the NFL. Tuck, Osi, and Kiwanuka all are deserving of double teams. Add underrated Rockie Bernard & Chris Canty to go along with Robbins & Cofield pushing the pocket and QB's should be running for their lives all game. This team should force more turnovers when they are on the field than anyone. Only a clock controlling running game keeps them from doing even more damage, as they are not on the field as much as most defenses. S Kenny Philips showed signs of developing into a playmaker this preseason as well. The loss of Steve Spagnuolo calling the defenses and blitzes could affect them a bit too.
4. Dallas Cowboys- Despite leading the league in sacks last year, and forcing a lot of fumbles, Dallas intercepted very few passes last season. With the addition of Gerald Sensabaugh at SS, and the quicker Orlando Scandrick & Mike Jenkins taking the place of Anthony Henry & Pacman Jones ,Dallas should improve in this area. Ware needs Anthony Spencer to step up and fill the hole Dallas made when they chose Spencer over Greg Ellis, as Ware is all over the field even when double teamed, but an unholy terror when he is single blocked . Ratliff is one of the leagues better interior pass rushers, and allows Ware to use his speed to run the arc to the outside on most passing downs . Add that a healthy Felix Jones is a huge boost to their return game and the Dallas D/ST unit should be strong this season.
5. Green Bay Packers- A team built mostly of young highly athletic players with a years more experience will be showing new blitz packages with the 3-4 added to their arsenal, and already possesses a high positive turnover ratio. Their interior pass rush should also improve with BJ Raji to help collapse the pocket. Their secondary also possess a few ballhawks to go along with a strong return game. If Jolly plays as well as he did in the preseason this allows Raji to slide to end and it would also improve their defense against the run. Will Blackmon took 2 to the house last year and 07 key returner Tramon Williams should be his partner on kickoff returns.
6. San Diego Chargers- Both Sproles and Cromartie are definite home run threats in the return game. The return of Shawn Merriman to the defense should give them a boost. Add that Merriman is in a FA year, and the chargers drafted Larry English as a possible replacement and he should be motivated to have a big season. This will give everyone else 1 v 1 assignments on passing downs and should force more turnovers. Cromartie played all last year with a serious hip injury, which the Chargers kept to themselves till the end of the season to keep other teams from taking advantage of his inability to move laterally well. Expect a return closer to Cromartie's 2007 form this year on defense. Throw in the lesser quality of QB's and offenses the chargers face in the AFC west , and all signs point to a good season for San Diego's defense.
7. New York Jets- They already ran a 3/4 defense, but Rex Ryans 3/4 is more attacking and big play oriented than Mangini's. The addition of playmakers Bart Scott and Jim Leonard should help significantly . Leon Washington is a big play waiting to happen when returning the ball. Biggest worry is the often injured Kris Jenkins. His health is the key to that entire defense, and if he is in shape and on the field they are a real threat . If only they could get something out of Vernon Gholston now.
8. Chicago Bears- Despite Devin Hester falling off the map as a returner last year this defense still scored a lot of points. The addition of Cutler should give them less time on the field as their will be far fewer 3 and outs on offense . Rod Marinelli obviously didn't have success as a head coach , but he is fantastic coaching the DL. The Tampa 2 defense they primarily run requires pressure from the front 4 to cause QB's to make mistakes,and they should get it under Rod. Playmakers Urlacher & Briggs at LB, and a healthy Tommie Harris should spur them back to being a top 10 D/ST this year. If Hester just runs a couple back who knows how high they will finish?
9. Philadelphia Eagles- With Dallas letting go of ( TO, Pacman, Tank) or losing ( Burnett, Canty) some talented players , and the Eagles making some significant off season additions ,Philly now possesses the most talented top to bottom roster in the NFL. The death of Longtime D coordinator Jim Jhonson could hurt, but their team has no major holes , and even significant depth in case of injury in most areas. Desean Jackson and Quintin Demps are already dynamic return men. If Jeremy Maclin is thrown into the mix this unit could be special. The D-line led by Cole and Bunkley will still bring significant pressure even if Johnson's replacement doesn't call the defense as well. CB Asante Samuel is probably the best big play corner in the NFL and is always looking for a pick 6 . Only weakness is a relatively unproven linebacking core.
10. Oakland Raiders- They are not ranked this high because I expect them to be a great real life defense, although they certainly possess the talent to be one, if not the coaching and discipline . On the defensive side of the ball they posses more speed than any D in the NFL. They also have Nnamdi cutting off half of the field which allows others to gamble for the big play. However the main reason they are ranked in the top 10 is lightning in a bottle return men Higgins and Miller. These 2 are the most likely combo to give a opposing special teams coach a coronary.
11. Arizona Cardinals- Expect a step up from this defense across the board this season. Playmaking secondary led by Adrian Wilson. DRC is an emerging playmaker and A. Rolle is getting more comfortable at safety. Also the D is now less likely to be stuck on the feild so much, as the addition of Beanie Wells should allow for a improvement in clock control on offense. Steve Breaston is a better WR than returner so far, and I think AZ would be better served to give Roille and Cromartie more of a shot returning, but the probable big play returner for the Cardinals this season is pint sized LaRod Stephens-Howling. Was electric in the preseason and runs a lot like Darren Sproles. Could seemingly appear out of thin air from behind larger blockers and blast past defenders ( the same way Sproles does) fro AZ this season. Also another year into playing the 3/4 should create a bump in the amount of pressure brought to bear by their pass rush . Dockett and Dansby are on the cusp of super stardom and being payed like it.
12. Washington Redskins- Haynesworth makes every player on this defense better. No one has a better bull rush, and Andre Carter can expect to benefit most from Haynesworth's presence , as QB's wil have less chance to avoid him by stepping up in the pocket. Not to mention everyone in the secondary's eyes should light up when QB's are making throws under pressure all season. One of the most talented secondary's in the league. Young safety's Landry and Horton made great strides last year and have shown well in the preseason. A couple of veteran gambler corners ( Hall and Rogers, ) make it likely their turnover ratios will climb significantly and more pick sixes should follow. Dynamic rookie Orapko will be playing strong side LB in a 4-3 for a change, but expect WA to find ways to get him chances to rush the passer with his hand on the ground as well as blitzing standing up. Vastly underrated London Fletcher is still the QB of the defensive unit. Randle El was once one of the best PR's in the game, but hasn't broke one for few years, and they rarely give Moss the chance to be a part of the return game anymore, even though he busted one last year in limited duty . Cartwright is nothing special on kicks, but Devin Thomas has the speed to make something happen if he gets the chance.
13. Pittsburgh Steelers- Similar to the Ravens as a Defensive unit, although they take less chances ,and don't attack quite as much. Big plays and playmakers are ( Polamalu, Harrison, Farrior, ) there but they just don't seem to score quite as much as they should . Haven't had dynamic full time returner in awhile. Perhaps rookie Stefan Logan will give them a dimension they are currently lacking in the return game. Good turnover ratio, and a ball control offense, but need better corner play to jump any higher.
14. New Orleans Saints- Much like the Raiders the Saints possess big play abilty on defense and in the return game. Still make far too many mental mistakes, and aren't quite as athletic as Oakland. Make or break year for Reggie Bush and if NO continues to have him return kicks full time he should breakout if healthy. Lance Moore and Robert Meachem are pretty explosive as well. Vilma and Ellis look more comfortable thsi year, but the ends( Grant & Smith ) need to play the way they did before they got new contracts to make them a good real life defense. Darren Sharper has lost a step but his main value is still as a ball hawk. The secondary should improve once first round pick Malcolm Jenkins earns a starting spot. NO still passes too much and they will end up on the field more than they should to be at their most effective . Much better D/ST in fantasy than real life, and most valuable in a fantasy league that doesn't punish for points allowed.
15. New England Patriots- Solid defense being called by good coordinators, and making the transition from too old to a healthier mix of ages. Will be faster this season , and just need a few young guys to step up rushing the passer. Young secondary now full of high level athletes with big play capabilities. Wes Welker & Kevin Faulk are steady returners but are more concerned with not making a mistake than breaking a big one. Past first round bust( always hurt) Maroney is supposed to be returning kicks this year and he needs to do something big to keep his job next season. Rookie Matthew Slater is a former All American kick returner and could give them a boost if gets the job. Jerod Mayo could become a pro bowler this season.