Before you find yourself overwhelmed by the storm of essential information below, be sure to check out the previous preview articles for the San Francisco running backs, tight ends and the quarterback.
There seems to be two theories when it comes to drafting a fantasy defense/special teams (DST):
1. Grab a dependable unit to avoid streaming defenses throughout the season.
2. Wait until you've got your offensive backups and sleeper picks drafted, then select the best remaining defense.
If you want the San Francisco DST you are going to have to get the party started early. According to a few mock drafts I've seen, the Niner defense is going somewhere between rounds 8-10. Your team defense probably won't make or break your fantasy team, but there were a few squads who put up points on the level of top running backs in 2012. Grabbing a top 5 team in the mid rounds isn't a bad investment, especially if you are confident in your core offense.
DST scoring in standard leagues tends to favor teams that don't give up many point or yards and can generate a decent number of sacks. Turnovers and touchdowns are worth big points, but aren't as easy to predict. Many are ranking Seattle as the best DST to own in 2013 with San Francisco being second.
Seattle's secondary is a step above the Niners, but there is less certainty with their pass rush. The team added Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett, but will be without Bruce Irvin for the first few games and Chris Clemons is coming off an ACL tear. The 49ers still have one of the best pass rushers in the league, but may be starting a rookie at safety and have lost Chris Culliver for the year. Adding Nnahmdi Asomugha helps with depth, but the secondary is still the soft spot in San Francisco.
The Niners have a slight edge in special teams. The team never took a return to the house last year, but ranked 6th in kick return yardage. Keep your eye on trusted agent LaMichael James in deep leagues as a flex option. The former Oregon Duck has the wheels and moves to get the job done and if something unfortunate were to happen to Frank Gore or Kendall Hunter his workload would significantly increase.
If you miss out on the top 2 teams, but still want a dependable DST your next best bets are Houston, Chicago, Denver and New England.
Team defense and special teams is by far the most popular setup in fantasy football, but I'm a huge fan of Individual Defensive Players (IDP). San Francisco may be the only team that boasts 3 linebackers worth starting each week in fantasy:
You might expect Patrick Willis would get top billing in this section, but it is NaVorro Bowman who led the team in tackles last season (2nd in the league). Sorry Niner fans, our secret is out and Bowman will be one of the first to go in IDP leagues. Bowman rarely comes off the field which leads to plenty of tackles; by far the most accurate measure of a solid fantasy linebacker. Sacks are great, but tackles are easier to predict.
As the San Francisco defense has improved over the last few seasons, Willis' fantasy stats have taken a slide. His talent hasn't diminished, but his role has changed. Another 100 tackle season may be slightly out of reach, but he is still a consistent top 10 option at linebacker. Don't worry about the hand injury going into the season. If anything, Willis' club hand makes him more intimidating and can be used to conceal foreign objects and mid game snacks.
Most IDP leagues heavily reward sacks and if you know Aldon Smith you know he loves getting to the QB about as much as he loves letting his soul glow. The third year pass rusher will take another stab at leading the league in sacks this season. If Justin Smith and the rest of the d-line stay healthy he should once again challenge J.J. Watt to lead the league in sacks. He won't give you much help with tackles, but the sacks will be there as will the tackles for losses. The Niners have 6 games against teams in the top half of sacks allowed this year. Not a great number, but Aldon is young, improving and should be on the field more this year.
Unfortunately, none of the San Francisco defensive backs are immediately draftable. Safeties tend to be more valuable than corners, but Donte Whitner wasn't much of a fantasy factor last year. If he gets the starting nod, Eric Reid is worth watching. As a rookie, offenses may pick on his side of the field so he could be setup for a decent number of tackles and defended passes.
Where do you stand on team defenses? You going early or are you going to wait until the end of the draft?