Though the Green Bay Packers’ defense has been a useful unit for fantasy football players for most of Mike McCarthy’s tenure, specific years stick out as being exceptional. The 2009 squad finished as the second-best fantasy defense, while the 2010 version was third. Even the 2011 team, which finished 32nd in passing yards allowed, was a top-15 fantasy unit thanks to its league-leading 31 interceptions.
In 2016, the Packers’ defense could return to glory as a top-five unit, despite its ranking around 10th or so by many fantasy services at this point.
Green Bay’s defense always appears near the top of the league’s leaderboards in interceptions, and therefore in turnovers forced. Here are their rankings over the last four seasons in picks, with the number of interceptions noted in parentheses: 9th (16), 7th (18), 26th (11), 8th (18), 1st (31). The only outlier there was the 2013 unit, which featured a revolving door at safety next to Morgan Burnett and numerous injuries across the secondary.
This season, the Packers look poised to jump back into the top five in picks. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix has recorded just three interceptions in the regular season, but has three more in four career playoff games. Second-year corner Damarious Randall had three last season as a rookie, while fellow 2015 draftee Quinten Rollins had two more. With another year of experience for each of these players, their numbers will likely increase.
Furthermore, the Packers’ luck in recovering opposing teams’ fumbles is likely to regress back towards the mean, as this stat tends to be highly random. In 2015, the average defense recovered 9.7 fumbles, but the Packers ranked 29th in the NFL with just six. Even returning to the mean would net them another 8 points, and a little good luck would boost that number even further.
Another critical piece to the fantasy puzzle is points allowed. In that category, the Packers ranked 12th in 2015 - a respectable but not outstanding rank. The schedule also sets up well for this category in 2016. The Packers play just one team that finished in the top five in the NFL in scoring (Seattle), and just three out of the top 10 (New York Giants and Washington). On the other hand, the team plays two games against teams in the bottom-five in scoring last season (Dallas and Tennessee) and a total of six against teams in the bottom ten (Houston, Chicago x 2, Indianapolis). However, in 2015, the Packers played three of the top five scoring teams in the NFL - Carolina, Arizona, and Seattle - but also three of the bottom five (St. Louis, San Francisco, and Dallas). So projecting that total is a bit of a wash based on statistics.
One other stat worth examining is defense and special teams touchdowns. Last season, the Packers got only two such scores (pick-sixes by Rollins and Randall), after recording 4 in 2014 and three the year before. If the team records more turnovers, that would increase the likelihood for defensive touchdowns, and the return game appears improved as well thanks to the return of Ty Montgomery and the addition of Trevor Davis. Four scores seems a reasonable number to expect.
Finally, we will look at sack numbers, which found the Packers in 7th last season with 43. That seems to be a sustainable number, as the team got significant contributions from numerous players. Only one defender, Julius Peppers, hit double-digits, and only one other had more than 4.0 sacks - Clay Matthews. Behind them there was a group of six players with between 3 and 4 sacks each, and the team’s tendency to bring creative blitzes should help them maintain those numbers.
Ultimately, the Packers’ defense looks like a good buy-low option for 2016. Expect their turnover numbers to increase from a season ago and their points allowed to drop somewhat, while their sack numbers should stay consistent. Add in the potential for another couple of non-offensive touchdowns and the Packers could very easily be a top-five fantasy defense this season.