2015 Outlook: The bright spot in a so-so year for the Browns' D came in the form of picks. Lots of 'em. Cleveland finished second overall with 21 INTs. Five Browns defenders had two or more picks on the season, with FS Tashaun Gipson (six) leading the way. The problem came when opponents ran the ball, which they did a lot (31.2 rushes per game, second most in the NFL) and with great success (2,265 rushing yards, most overall). Rookie NT Danny Shelton's presence in the middle certainly helps the cause, but the returning cast of characters remains largely unchanged. The Browns are tough to trust as your starter.
2015 Outlook: It was a turbulent offseason for San Francisco, with perennial stud LB Patrick Willis electing to retire and his heir apparent, Chris Borland, also leaving the game. Though both players will be missed, the 49ers proved capable of putting up fantasy points with a piecemeal linebacker corps last season. They led the NFL with 23 INTs, picking off 4.2 percent of aimed passes. In total, 16.6 percent of drives ended in a forced turnover, second behind only Dallas. With ILB NaVorro Bowman on the mend and edge rusher Aldon Smith in the mix, the 49ers are a streamable option.
2015 Outlook: After leading the NFL with 11 defense/special teams TDs in 2013, the Chiefs had only four such scores last season. Their overall fantasy ranking took a hit (from third to 15th), but part of that can be blamed on 25 combined missed games from linebacker Derrick Johnson (Achilles) and SS Eric Berry (ankle sprain and Hodgkin's lymphoma). Overall, the Chiefs yielded the second-fewest points (281) and seventh-fewest ypg (330.5), but they struggled against the run (4.7 ypc, 30th overall). For fantasy purposes, KC is an intriguing matchup play, given the presence of OLB Justin Houston, who is coming off a league-high 22 sacks.
2015 Outlook: New coach Dan Quinn has his work cut out for him. Outside of its 28 fantasy points in Week 3 against Tampa Bay, Atlanta was among the league's worst fantasy defenses on a weekly basis last season. The Falcons did finish sixth in takeaways (28), but their pedestrian pass rush resulted in a tie with the Raiders for the second-fewest sacks (22). Atlanta also gave up a league-high 279.9 passing yards per game. The offseason signings of Adrian Clayborn and Brooks Reed, in addition to rookie edge rusher Vic Beasley, will help the pass rush, but only marginally. This unit still has a way to go.
2015 Outlook: Following a historically bad performance in 2013, the Bears continued to struggle last season. Chicago ranked No. 31 in points allowed per game (27.6) and No. 30 in yards per game (377.1). The Bears also yielded the highest percentage of opposing drives ending in an offensive score (44.6). New DC Vic Fangio's units in San Francisco annually finished among the league's top D/STs, though it could take him some time to get there in Chicago. With some interesting pieces in place, including OLB Pernell McPhee and LB Jon Bostic, the Bears have the makings of a strong fantasy squad -- just not in 2015.
2015 Outlook: Last season wasn't quite what we expected for the Bengals' defense, which dropped 20 spots from its No. 4 finish in 2013. Cincinnati was unable to generate any semblance of a pass rush, posting a league-low 20 sacks after racking up 43 in the previous season. Numerous factors contributed to this drop-off, including DE Michael Johnson's departure to Tampa, DT Geno Atkins' slow return from a torn ACL and an injury-riddled season for LB Vontaze Burfict. This year's edition isn't an every-week fantasy option, but there's enough talent to give Cincinnati streaming consideration.
2015 Outlook: Low expectations surrounded the Cowboys entering the 2014 season. Already short on stars, Dallas was dealt a significant blow when LB Sean Lee went down in the preseason with a torn ACL. The Cowboys managed to post double-digit fantasy points just four times and were one of only five defenses that did not top 30 sacks. Lee's return and the signing of Greg Hardy on the line were meant to provide a boost. But Lee's inability to stay healthy, Hardy's suspension and the otherwise lackluster state of this defense for fantasy purposes give us pause. There's potential, but we're not holding our breath.
2015 Outlook: While Tennessee had the pieces, the puzzle didn't come together in 2014, and the Titans finished as the No. 29 fantasy unit. They allowed an average of 27.4 points per game (tied with Washington for third highest) and managed to force just 16 takeaways, fourth fewest. On the bright side, Jurrell Casey emerged as one of the league's most impressive interior linemen. His presence, along with OLBs Derrick Morgan and new addition Brian Orakpo, gives Tennessee a formidable pass rush, but the Titans have question marks at inside linebacker and safety. Look elsewhere for your fantasy defense.
2015 Outlook: The Colts took fantasy owners on a wild ride in 2014, posting eight games with double-digit fantasy points and five games with negative points. Indy blitzed 41.4 percent of snaps, an aggressive brand of football that only added to its hit-or-miss reputation. In Week 7, the Colts pitched a rare shutout against Cincy, only to allow 51 points to the Steelers the following week. The return of OLB Robert Mathis and addition of veteran Trent Cole will give the pass rush a nice boost, and Indy boasts one of the league's premier shutdown corners in Vontae Davis. Still, we're not completely sold on this unit for fantasy purposes.
2015 Outlook: We can sum up the Raiders' 2014 season in one word: ugly. Oakland was at or near the bottom in almost every major fantasy category. The Raiders were tied with the Falcons for second-fewest sacks (22), gave up a league-high 28.3 points per game and were one of only six teams not to post double-digit interceptions. Oakland's 14 takeaways ranked 30th in the league. While the team is home to emerging talents Khalil Mack and Sio Moore, the rest of the stable is relatively empty. The Raiders have a strong chance of repeating as fantasy's No. 32 unit.
2015 Outlook: The Saints' defense wasn't significantly affected by an offseason full of shake-ups, but LB Curtis Lofton did jump ship to Oakland. That Raiders team was the only one to score fewer fantasy points than New Orleans last season. The Saints generated a minimal pass rush with just 34 sacks and were even worse against the run. Only the Giants yielded more yards per carry (4.8), and no team gave up more 20-plus-yard carries (19). Even with FS Jairus Byrd back from the knee injury that sidelined him for 12 games last season and the addition of rookie LB Stephone Anthony, the Saints will struggle to be fantasy-relevant.
2015 Outlook: Last season's No. 23 fantasy unit actually notched the fourth-most sacks (47) on the strength of one of the league's top DEs, Jason Pierre-Paul. While the G-Men performed well in the pass rush, they struggled mightily against the run. No unit gave up more yards per carry (4.9), and only the Saints gave up more 20-plus-yard runs (17). The early-season loss of MLB Jon Beason certainly contributed to this deficiency. His inability to stay healthy and the Giants' general lack of a surrounding cast don't instill much confidence now, making the unit a middling fantasy contributor.
2015 Outlook: The Steelers plodded through most of 2014 as a middling unit, bearing little resemblance to the elite fantasy option of the latter part of the last decade. Pittsburgh especially struggled with its pass rush last season, generating fewer than three sacks nine times. To make matters worse, their best edge rusher, OLB Jason Worilds, decided to hang up his cleats this past offseason at age 27. To help replace him, the Steelers drafted dynamic OLB Bud Dupree, who joins the youth movement in Pittsburgh. Still, questions abound. We're not comfortable with Pittsburgh as anything more than a sleeper.
2015 Outlook: This Chargers unit was simply blah in 2014, finishing with the fourth-fewest sacks (26) and sixth-fewest takeaways (18). Sure, San Diego is home to one of the league's best safeties, Eric Weddle, but there isn't much else to get excited about. Donald Butler has had trouble staying healthy and hasn't developed into the star linebacker some thought he'd become. Likewise, DE Corey Liuget, a former first-rounder, has flashed potential but has yet to live up to his lofty pedigree. San Diego did nothing in the offseason to warrant a fantasy upgrade, so we're forced to take a hard pass here.
2015 Outlook: Lovie Smith's first season in Tampa was a rough one, but he did inherit a defense chock-full of impressive young talent. DT Gerald McCoy and LB Lavonte David are already among the elite players at their respective positions. But the Bucs' uninspiring pass rush managed just 36 sacks despite the high-profile signing of Michael Johnson. Plus, opposing quarterbacks managed to complete a league-high 68.7 percent of passes against the secondary. The Bucs were a bottom-third fantasy option, and we expect them to stay there this season.