2012 Fantasy Football: Improving and Declining Defense/Special Teams

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Athlon Sports offers its take on four defenses on the rise and four that are slipping

<p> 2012 Fantasy Football: Improving and Declining Defense/Special Teams</p>

Choosing the right defense/special teams unit for your fantasy football team is not a decison that should be taken lightly. Last season, three DSTs (San Francisco, Philadelphia and Houston) scored 180 or more fantasy points. That total put them among the top 55 overall and top 33 if your remove quarterbacks.

While every defense isn't as productive in fantasy scoring as the likes of the 49ers, Eagles and Texans, there are some units out there on the rise that could prove valuable. Likewise, there are some that you may be better off passing on this season. Here's Athlon Sports' take on four of each.

GOING UP

1. Buffalo Bills
After the Bills allowed 371.1 yards per game last season, it was clear changes needed to be made on Buffalo’s defense. Dave Wannstedt replaced George Edwards as defensive coordinator, and the team switched to a 4-3 alignment. The change in schemes likely helped lure standout end Mario Williams away from Houston. The two-time Pro Bowler will team with fellow offseason acquisition Mark Anderson to inject some much-needed punch to the pass rush. Rookie cornerback Stephon Gilmore will help a secondary that allowed 30 passing touchdowns last season.

2. Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks ranked ninth in the NFL in total defense last year and made solid moves to improve this unit even more in the offseason. The addition of first-round pick Bruce Irvin out of West Virginia should help a pass rush that tied for 19th in the league with 33 sacks last season. The linebacking corps has question marks, but rookie Bobby Wagner brings speed and a physical presence to the middle. The Seahawks ranked fourth in the NFL with 22 interceptions in 2011, and the secondary returns intact.

3. Dallas Cowboys
The secondary was the biggest weakness for Dallas last season, but the offseason acquisitions should turn it into a strength. Brandon Carr was signed away from Kansas City to anchor one cornerback spot, while the team traded up in the first round to pick LSU product Morris Claiborne, who will start at the other spot. Both players are an upgrade over last season’s starters. Dallas needs linebacker Anthony Spencer to have a big season.

4. Kansas City Chiefs
Despite the absence of safety Eric Berry, the Chiefs finished 11th in the NFL in total defense in 2011. With Berry back in the mix, Kansas City’s defense could climb into the top 10. Stanford Routt was signed to replace Brandon Carr at cornerback, and the team expects a breakout year from outside linebacker Justin Houston. Rookie nose tackle Dontari Poe has upside, but his production didn’t match his talent at Memphis. If Poe, Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson produce up front, this defense will be a good bargain on draft day.

GOING DOWN

1. New Orleans Saints
It’s been a tumultuous offseason in New Orleans, and the distractions could take a toll on this team in 2012. The Saints finished a disappointing 24th in total defense last year, and linebacker Jonathan Vilma is expected to miss all of this season due to a suspension. Signing Chris Chamberlain, David Hawthorne and Curtis Lofton should bolster the linebacking corps, but the pass rush remains a question mark. Veteran Steve Spagnuolo was a solid hire as defensive coordinator, but it’s hard to envision this unit emerging as an every week starter in fantasy leagues.

2. Oakland Raiders
Considering the pieces in place, finishing 29th in the NFL in total defense was a major disappointment last season. New coach Dennis Allen should bring some aggressiveness to this unit, but the back seven is littered with question marks. Linebacker Rolando McClain could miss time in 2012 due to legal issues, while Aaron Curry has been a disappointment. The safety spots are set with Michael Huff and Tyvon Branch returning, but Shawntae Spencer and Ron Bartell will be tested frequently at cornerback.

3. Baltimore Ravens
Baltimore should remain one of the top 12 fantasy defenses, but this unit is on the decline. Linebacker Terrell Suggs will likely miss all of 2012 due to a torn Achilles. Rookie Courtney Upshaw is a capable option, but replacing the NFL Defensive Player of the Year is no easy task. The depth took a hit with Jarret Johnson now in San Diego and Cory Redding and Tom Zbikowski departing to join former defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano in Indianapolis.

4. Miami Dolphins
Miami finished 15th in total defense last season, so there are reasons to be optimistic about this unit’s performance for 2012. However, the Dolphins are transitioning from a 3-4 to a 4-3 and had to cut safety Yeremiah Bell in a salary cap move. The Sean Smith-Vontae Davis cornerback tandem has had its moments but needs to play more consistently. Miami could be an option in select matchups, but with some players changing positions due to the new scheme, 2012 is a transition year.

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