Any good fantasy football fan worth their weight in wings knows that the team defense is the secret sauce when it comes to racking up sneaky, big points on a weekly basis. While the real value comes in assessing the fantasy team defense each week and starting those teams with cream-puff matchups, it's equally important to maintain one trusty stalwart to start week-in, week-out if need be. So with that in mind, here comes our earlier-than-early rankings for the top 20 team defenses for 2010 (look familiar?).
| 1. New York
| With Rex Ryan at the helm and the league's elite play-making cornerback in Darrelle Revis, the Jets make the jump to the league's top defense in 2010. The sack and interception totals reveal room for improvement, but the additions of Jason Taylor and Antonio Cromartie should properly address those shortcomings and help make the Jets the 2010 "top dog."
| 2. Baltimore
| Never doubt the Ravens. Even after losing Ryan and some of his key cogs in 2009, the Ravens proved yet again that defense is an institution. They beefed up the defensive line in the draft to bolster the one weak spot of 2009's third-best defense in terms of both points and yardage allowed. Look for more of the same and then some in 2010.
| 3. Minnesota
| A leading candidate for the best in the league, the Vikings defense provides nice consistency courtesy of Jared Allen and the Williams "brothers," as they always provide hefty sack totals. The pass defense should improve as well, with the addition of trusty vet Lito Sheppard and first-round draft pick Chris Cook.
| 4. San Francisco
| After some absolute monster fantasy games in 2009, it's impossible to ignore the rapidly improving 49ers unit. What we love -- perhaps more than many fantasy advice outlets -- is the balanced attack and general toughness of Mike Singletary's platoon. The team earned 44 sacks in 2009 and a lot of "scoreboard" points, sans any real star power leading the charge. This is a true team defense that plays well together and gets it done.
| 5. Green Bay
|The proof is in the the pudding. Charles Woodson earned Player of the Year honors in 2009 and led the Pack to a league-best 30 interceptions and 44 total turnovers.
| 6. Pittsburgh
| Even though Pittsburgh basically stunk it up in 2009 on the defensive end, we hesitate to devalue them too much as stalwarts Troy Polamalu and Aaron Smith return. Hence, we expect a reversion to the mean in 2010, which means the Steelers will go back to being Steelers and playing game-changing defense.
| 7. Dallas
|The Cowboys quietly played terrific defense from a fantasy perspective in 2009. They didn't post too many huge one-off games, which translated to them flying under the radar, but they finished second overall in points allowed. The Cowboys should offer a good trusty defense at a nice value in terms of average draft position.|
| 8. Philadelphia
| The Eagles enter 2010 with a much younger team and some holes, particularly in the defensive backfield, so they remain a bit of a wild card, after forcing 38 turnovers, 44 sacks and four touchdowns in 2009, anything close to that represents a top-10 squad.
| 9. San Diego
|The San Diego defense continues to work through a transitional period as Cromartie left for the Jets and Shawne Merriman both holding out and continuing to decline as a play-maker. On the positive side, the division continues to be the weakest in the NFL, so the matchups give a nice shot in the arm from a fantasy perspective.|
| 10. New Orleans
| On paper, the Saints defense doesn't look like much of anything, but you can't really argue with the league-leading 41 turnovers last season. I'm still a bit of a skeptic, but if they fall to the right draft spot, this unit will get the job done one way or another. The intangible here seems to be the offensive cushion. When you're have the support of Drew Brees and company, these guys play loose and have fun. That turnover total is no coincidence.
| 11. Chicago
| The Bears hope that the addition of Julius Peppers and the return of Brian Urlacher will be the necessary remedies for last season's slip in performance. This is a totally different team with Urlacher on the field, so expect a big uptick for 2010. Urlacher leads this defense and plays linebacker like it's 1977. Take the Bears defense on the cheap, and with confidence.
| 12. New York
|We can only expect improvement for the Giants as it's literally impossible they could get any worse after last season. Without question, the Giants defense earned our "biggest underachiever" award for 2009. In 2010, they see the return of Osi Umenyiora and the addition of phenom-in-waiting Jason Pierre-Paul. It's safe to assume the Giants to be a draft-day steal this season.|
| 13. Cincinnati
| The Bengals are a spot-start wrecking crew. They proved in 2009, that against the weaker offenses, they can post some of the biggest fantasy games of any player, any position. They fall below "every week, every opponent" caliber, however, so if you decide to go with Cincy, either make sure you have another decent unit to rotate or be prepared to work the waiver wire each week.
| 14. Miami
|The Dolphins could provide a nice surprise in 2010. They jacked up the defense in the draft, spendng all but one pick on the unit, and added a couple juggernauts in Koa Misi and Jared Odrick. The defensive line should be even better than the group that helped Miami earn 44 sacks last season.|
| 15. New England
| The Pats brought in Amon Gordon and Gerard Warren to help improve the defensive line and boost 2009's sub-par sack total by New England standards. The defense is still nothing compared to the star-studded units of five years ago, but the Pats have a proven system, so you can trust this is going to be a serviceable group.
| 16. Tennessee
| Despite completely collapsing in early 2009 after being easily one of the premier defenses in 2008, the Titans showed signs of life as the season wore on. Clearly, they miss the days of Albert Haynesworth's sacks and Jim Schwartz's leadership, but this unit should continue to get better. I'd recommend them for a regular spot-start play when the league "goats" come to town.
| 17. Denver
| The Broncos started 2009 as a surprisingly beastly unit, posting some of the best single-game performances of the season, but they sputtered marvelously. At this point, the Broncos should make for a great spot start at times, but temper any expectations until we see some consistency.
| 18. Atlanta
| The Falcons showed flashes of greatness in 2009 and improved over the course of the season, but in the end they manged only the league's 28th-best pass defense. Atlanta put its faith in free-agent corner Dunta Robinson to shore up coverage, so a modest improvement is a fair expectation.
| 19. Indianapolis
| Indianapolis really struggled against the run in 2009, but from a fantasy perspective they proved a serviceable unit. They continue to merit a roster spot in 2010 as three top picks in the draft and a healthy Dwight Freeney should translate to better numbers. Just be aware, the Colts' division continues to improve as well (Houston, Tennessee).
| 20. Houston
| The news of Brian Cushing's four-game suspension (for performance-enhancing drugs) certainly does not help the cause, but the Texans continue to get better on both sides of the ball. The defense needs to improve on getting to the quarterback (30 sacks in 2009), but don't underestimate the power of being part of a winning team. Houston could be a good sleeper unit for 2010.