You Deserve Better Defensive Scoring: 2018 Preseason

Introduction

Do these numbers mean anything to you? 0, 6, 13, 17, 27, 34, 45, 100, 199, 299, 399, 499, 549

They're the standard D/ST scoring tiers on ESPN (and other mainstream fantasy sites) for Points Allowed and Yards Allowed. At each tier the D/ST loses a chunk of fantasy points (usually spread from +5 to -5), resulting in a +10 bonus for your team score at kickoff, only to teeter and (usually) trend negatively over the course of a 3-hour game. You might agree: it's terribly annoying to watch your team's projection shoot up, then taper off every single week.

Having been dissatisfied with ESPN's default scoring for D/ST for several years now, I set out to find a better scoring format that more closely mirrors how scoring occurs for other positions. I implemented most of the scoring settings below in a dynasty league I started in 2016 on Fleaflicker, and the response has been positive, though there is a learning curve to offset years of being brainwashed by chunked tiers that can go very negative very fast.


Guiding Principles

  1. D/ST should start with zero points at kickoff and trend positive throughout a game, like other positions
  2. Top D/ST squads should not outperform top positional players (in fact, most folks agree they should be far less valuable)
  3. There should exist a tiered value for elite D/ST performance through a full season compared to good, middle, and bad defenses - again like the tiers that exist for other positions

I want to share my settings with you, for you to implement at your own discretion. While this scoring format isn't regarded as perfect, it is entirely preferential and, in many obvious ways, better than most default settings. So here we go... we'll start with the easy stuff. There's a TLDR at the bottom for those who could care less about science and logic.

edit: I mention it a couple times, but it's worth saying here at the top: 2017 was an above average year for defense. Around the league, offenses scored fewer points and gained fewer yards compared to annual averages. Cause and effect: D/ST points were higher overall and the Jags had an incredible year. This is not indicative that these scoring settings make defenses more powerful. It actually makes them weaker.


Easy Stuff

Defensive TDs of any kind are worth 6 points. Just like a TD for a skill player, you gotta credit the D when they directly put points on the scoreboard. Counts for INT and FR.

Punt/Kick return TDs are worth 8 points. I like to give a boost for return TDs because they are momentum shifters and won't receive a natural bonus from turnover points. And, some leagues already give value to return yards but I find that's hard to balance since nearly every return nets 5-25 yards and there are many returns every game. Running a kickoff to the 20 yard line isn't an accomplishment, but adding a 2pt bonus to a return TD compensates for the yards they must've covered to take it to the house. /rant

Turnovers are worth 2 points. Whether it's an Interception or a Fumble Recovery, it's worth 2 points. I like to split Forced Fumble and Fumble Recovery (1 point each) but you do you.

Safeties are worth 4 points. Not only is it 2 points on the scoreboard, but it's also a turnover. So it's 4 points total because math.

2-PT Conversion Returns are worth 4 points. They put 2 points on the board for the team and prevent 2 points from the opposing team: a 4-point swing in theory. They can shift the momentum of a game just a much as a Safety, if not more so.

Using only these settings, these would have been the top-tier Defenses from last year:

Rank Team Points
1 Jaguars 120
2 Ravens 114
3 Lions 110
4 Rams 102
5 Eagles 90

This list includes 4 of the Top 5 squads from last year, so we can assume we're on the right track. If you're a nerd and wondering who the bottom D/ST squads are with these settings, it is the Browns and Raiders with 38 and 34 points, respectively.


Consider Your Sweet Spot

Pause here and consider: where do you want the top D/ST to rank overall? Relative to other elite positional players (250-300)? Or maybe on par with a mid-range TE (140-150)? My league likes their DEF nicely nerfed, so by the time we get to the end of this, we will have top performers in the 150-175 range. Spoiler!

Skip to my league's 2016 D/ST scoring settings and end-of-season rankings

Now let's move into the more volatile settings: Sacks, Blocks, etc. These will boost our overall points.


Volatile Settings

Sacks are worth 1 point. We can't make them worth 2 points (bc they're not equivalent of a turnover) so for simplicity we'll charge it as one. As a rule, just say they're worth half a turnover (in case we change our turnover points later).

Blocked Kicks are worth 3 points. Not only are they in many ways like a turnover (worth 2 points) but they're also a momentum shifter, which should hold value. "Kicks" applies to punts and field goals.

Split Fumbles Recovered (2) into Forced Fumbles (1) and Fumbles Recovered (1). I like to do this because I feel like creating opportunity should be worth a point, even if the defense doesn't come away with the ball.

Now our top 4 D/ST units are scoring 140-180 points, a shift in the direction we wanted.

Rank Team Points
1 Jaguars 186
2 Rams 172
3 Ravens 162
3 Lions 157
5 Eagles 146

So we're getting closer, and maybe you're done. In fact, I recommend you stop here if you want D/ST scoring based purely on positive achievements, like other positions except for an occasional fumble or INT. They'll be weaker than other positions, which is the popular persuasion.

For me, this is still too vanilla. I like to reward more defensive achievements that are commonly overlooked except in IDP leagues. However, these installments require more effort to sell to a league of 10-12 change-resistant fantasy casuals, so be prepared for some pushback.

Trustworthy stats I like to include: tackles for loss, passes defended, and defensive stops.


Controversial/Unconventional Settings

Tackles For Loss are worth .5 point. Often overlooked, I regard a TFL the same as a sack but occurring on rush attempts and screen passes. They don't usually result in as many negative yards and aren't as highly praised as sacks, and at half the value of a sack TFL boosts our overall D/ST scores substantially, by ~40 points. Yikes. We'll have to dial this back later, probably (with negative points - fun stuff).

Passes Defended are worth .5 point. Also overlooked, but more reliably recorded in box scores than Tackles, are passes defended. It's common (critical, even) in IDP formats, but is forgotten/almost never used for D/ST. At a meager quarter-point, this raises our high-end D/ST another ~40 points. Yikes again, but this setting is great for establishing score variance among DEF units.

Three and Out Drives are worth .5 point. Every change of possession presents an opportunity for a defense to make a stop, and that is another WIN moment that deserves some value. These occur with regularity every week, so we need to keep their value under harsh regulation. At a half-point level, D/ST receives a ~20 point boost.

Fourth-Down Stops are worth 1 point. While not actually a turnover, a stop on 4th Down is definitely a WIN for the defense, and deserves some value. At a full point, this setting boosts top D/ST a modest ~10 points.

Sidebar rant: There will always be haters who will argue that trash time 4th down attempts artificially boost D/ST. For those with better developed sense of logic, we know there are many instances of these statistical defects that go ignored. Debate it in the comments, if you must (again).

Most mainstream fantasy sites like ESPN, Yahoo, CBS won't enable a commissioner to enjoy these uncommon D/ST scoring settings. Fleaflicker does (shoutout /r/NarFFL). If you turn on all these unconventional settings, here are the results you would see from last year:

Rank Team Points
1 Jaguars 303
2 Ravens 284
3 Rams 282
4 Eagles 274
5 Lions 264
31 Jets 167
32 Raiders 155

Whoa, there, bucko! Those point totals are wayyyyy too high! Time to throttle down.


Negative Mechanisms

Since we don't want to be drafting D/ST in the 5th round, we need to bring these point totals back down to our target of ~175 for the top performers. How to do it? Revisit those pesky negative tiers, of course, but with more linear consequences! We'll use negative points for Points Allowed and Yards Allowed to fine-tune our settings and to create more variance. And we only want to punish a defense for poor play, not average play, so it's time for research.

Avg. Yards Allowed Per Game

Reviewing the average yards allowed per team in 2016 and 2015, we see an average yards allowed per game is 351 and 353, and 328 in 2017 (bc it was a really good year for defenses - remember that in a minute). So if that's an average day for a defensive unit, let's not trend negative until we're teetering around these benchmarks. Let's knock -2 points per 100 yards allowed after 300 yards allowed. That'll reduce our top-tier D/ST by... 2 points? That's right... good defense doesn't give up a heap of yards in a game. Shoulda seen that coming... Let's move on for now, because we don't want to anger the horde of Yards Allowed naysayers.

Sidebar rant: In the comments there will be debate about how Yards Allowed is the worst metric ever. I get it, I enjoy watching Bend, Don't Break defenses at work. So if you want to leave this out, just leave it out. Cool your jets - the data shows that the top defenses are pretty stingy all around. As for me, if Drew Brees drops 500 yards passing in a game, that DEF should be docked some points for letting him do it. Savvy?

Avg. Points Allowed Per Game

Now we'll do the same calculation for Points Allowed. Here's a table of offensive points per team and another table for special teams points per team. Teams averaged 21.9 and 21.6 total Offensive+Special Teams Points in 2016 and 2015, and 20.6 in 2017 (again... good year for defenses). So let's subtract -2 points per 5 Offensive+Special Teams Points Allowed after 20 Offensive+Special Teams Points Allowed. That's a mouthful, but it's important to distinguish OFF+ST Points because pick sixes shouldn't count against your defense (ESPN only just figured this out last year... guffaw).

At -2 per 5 PA after 20 PA, our top defenses are reduced by ~40 points. That's not nearly enough, so let's make it more severe: -2 per 5 PA after 10 PA, now they're reduced by ~60 points. Let's make yards allowed more severe too: -4 per 100 YA after 300 YA That puts our D/ST squads in this range:

Rank Team Points
1 Jaguars 229
2 Eagles 197
3 Ravens 189
4 Steelers 177
5 Rams 170
10 Seahawks 144
20 Titans 91
31 Jets 43
32 Raiders 36

Now come on... that's a pretty good looking list, compared to what you know from your standard D/ST scoring leagues! Except now you get to root for your defense on Sundays and know that your team's projection is not going to fall off tiered cliffs as your DEF lets its +10 kickoff bonus slip slowly away.

If it's me, I will make the Yards Allowed more severe to decrease these totals even further, because again - my league likes weak D. But you do you... pick and choose from these settings based on what your league rallies behind - only the most engaged/obsessed owners will want to rock the boat with D/ST scoring changes.


Summary

What we've ended up with is a reasonably strong group of D/ST units with similar variance among top 5/top 10 as other positions have. And, when kickoff happens you won't see an inflated projection because of an immediate 10-point bonus to your D/ST. Cheer for defensive playmakers the same you would offensive playmakers, because your D/ST performance is grounded in defensive success, not failure.


TL;DR

Enable D/ST to score points like other positions: starting at zero and trending positive throughout a game, instead of starting with 10 and teetering, while also rewarding defenses for real achievements that are often overlooked. Scoring settings are as follows:

Scoring Settings

Accomplishment Modified Pts Standard Pts
Kick Return TD 8 6
Punt Return TD 8 6
2 Tackles for Loss 1 0
Interception 2 2
Sack 1 1
Fumble Forced 1 0
Fumble Recovered 1 2
Safety 4 2
Defensive TD 6 6
Blocked Kick 3 2
2 Passes Defended 1 0
Conversion Return 4 2
5 Offensive + Special Teams Points Allowed beyond 10 total Offensive + Special Teams Points Allowed -2 10,7,4,2,0,-1,-3,-5,-7
100 Net Yards Allowed beyond 300 total Net Yards Allowed -4 10,5,4,3,1
Fourth-Down Stop 1 0
2 Three and Outs 1 0
Scoring Settings In Action Modified Standard

Top Defenses From Last Year, Compared to Skill Positions (Standard Scoring)

The Standard Points column below isn't for the team seen on that row, it's for the rank position. Make sense? Standard rank order for defenses were: Jags, Ravens, Rams, Eagles, Chargers.

Rank Team Modified Pts Standard Pts TE WR RB
1 Jaguars 229 237 165 226 328
2 Eagles 197 204 151 221 271
3 Ravens 189 191 132 197 250
4 Steelers 177 179 114 183 245
5 Rams 170 173 110 171 235
10 Seahawks 144 148 86 158 180
20 Titans 91 119 64 152 144
31 Jets 43 77
32 Raiders 36 69
X Top Defenses in Action Modified Standard

The results speak for themselves, and we're meeting the goals set forth in the beginning. I typically prefer the overall D/ST to score lower than skill positions, but since 2017 was a strong year for defense overall, I trust that they will regress in 2018.

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