Offense is kind in the modern NFL, but that doesn’t mean defense is altogether irrelevant. Because while offense has a greater effect on overall team performance – and is more consistent year over year – than defense, you still need to put up some resistance in order to actually win football games.
For that reason, we’re going to rank the league’s defenses now that the player-acquisition portion of the offseason is mostly over. Rather than go through every team from 32-1 on this side of the ballwe’re going to group the teams by how likely they are to finish the year among the league’s top 10 defenses.
Without further ado …
Atlanta Falcons, Detroit Lions, Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Giants, New York Jets, Seattle Seahawks
None of these teams finished last season in the top half of the league in either EPA per play or Football Outsiders’ DVOA. Only the Seahawks, Giants, Texans, and Falcons finished above-average in any of yards per play (Seattle, Giants), points per drive (Seattle), opponent’s turnover rate (Giants, Houston, Atlanta), and the share of opponent drives that ended in a touchdown or field goal (Seattle). None of them ranked better than 10th in any of those categories.
The most notable talent additions for any of these teams are rookies: Travon Walker in Jacksonville, Aidan Hutchinson in Detroit, and Sauce Gardner and Kayvon Thibodeaux in New York. Even if those players contribute at a high level right away, it seems unlikely to make up the difference between where these teams stood, and the top 10 in the NFL. It’s possible some of these teams could work their way to slightly below-average on defense rather than awful, but even above-average might be a bit of a stretch.
Carolina Panthers, Chicago Bears, Kansas City Chiefs, Tennessee Titans
The Panthers began last season on fire defensively, but slowed over the second half of the season. They lost Haason Reddick in free agency and don’t have a ready-made replacement. Their secondary should be a strength but it’s tough to see the front being good enough to push them toward the top 10. Chicago was a disaster defensively last season, and while new head coach Matt Eberflus and a couple of early draft picks should help, the trade of Khalil Mack robs the Bears of their best pass-rusher.
Kansas City used four of its first five draft picks on the defensive side of the ball, so perhaps we’re being a bit unkind to the Chiefs here, but even while forcing a ton of turnovers last season they still finished outside the top 20 in EPA per play, DVOA, yards per play, and points per drive. That’s a lot of ground to make up. Tennessee had an above-average defense last season but there’s just not enough high-level talent aside from Jeffery Simmons and Kevin Byard for us to see them crashing the top 10.
Arizona Cardinals, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Green Bay Packers, Los Angeles Chargers, Las Vegas Raiders, Minnesota Vikings, Philadelphia Eagles, Washington Commanders
This is the largest group of teams, and also the one with the widest range of outcomes.
Arizona finished top 10 in both EPA per play and DVOA last season, but got far better than expected performances from some of its players in the secondary and doesn’t have much pass rush to speak of. Still, if that secondary holds up and the flexible linebackers the team has drafted in recent years take steps forward, the Cardinals could keep their place there. The Bengals fared better than expected last season as well, and thankfully did not rest on their laurels when it came to talent acquisition. They added three draft picks to a defensive backfield that played above its head last year and needed an infusion of more talent.
We were quite high on Cleveland’s defense heading into last season, only for the unit to be somewhat of a disappointment. They probably still need to add more pass-rush juice across from Myles Garrett, but he and Denzel Ward are such studs that they could carry this unit to greater heights this year. Green Bay suffered under the weight of injuries last season and should be healthier this year, but it’ll be interesting to see how Joe Barry manufactures a pass rush without Za’Darius Smith all year again. That said, adding Devonte Wyatt and Quay Walker to the two most questionable units on the defense should be of great help.
The Chargers had a bunch of talent on defense last year, but the outfit was undermined by glaring holes at a few spots. Thankfully, Tom Telesco went shopping for a few Brandon Staley favorites like Sebastian Joseph-Day and Morgan Fox, while also adding Mack, JC Jackson, Austin Johnson, and Bryce Callahan. There’s a ton of upside for this group. The Raiders adding Chandler Jones across from Maxx Crosby gives them one of the league’s most formidable pass-rush duos, and while there are questions elsewhere, that could provide the foundation for a strong defense if everything works out under Patrick Graham.
We originally had Minnesota in the previous tier, but with Danielle Hunter back in the fold, plus Lewis Cine and Andrew Booth on board … maybe there’s a universe where it all works out, even if the likelihood of that happening without Mike Zimmer at the helm seems fairly low. The Eagles upgraded their secondary by adding James Bradberry this week, and did the same with their run defense by drafting Jordan Davis and Nakobe Dean. The defense was so poor last year, though, that bumping them into the “likely” top-10 range felt too aggressive. Washington’s defense was one of the most disappointing in the NFL last season, and with Chase Young coming off an ACL tear, it might be tough to reach the heights some envisioned for them a year ago. But if the pass rush is as good as was hoped before last season, this tiering might be too low.
Baltimore Ravens, Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos, Indianapolis Colts, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, San Francisco 49ers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Baltimore’s defense collapsed due to injury last season, but there were some strong underlying metrics that point to a rebound. The Ravens finished third in yards allowed per play and eighth in the share of opponent drives that ended in a score, for example. With better health, plus Marcus Williams and Kyle Hamilton on board, they should be back in or around the top 10. Dallas was buoyed by a wildly unsustainable turnover rate last season, but with Dan Quinn scheming Micah Parsons into favorable matchups, a healthier season from Demarcus Lawrence, full years from Jayron Kearse and Malik Hooker, continued development from the team’s young interior defenders, and even a season with half as many picks as Trevon Diggs had a year ago, the Cowboys should be able to stave off regression enough to finish in the back half of the top 10, or just outside it.
Denver stole Randy Gregory away from the Cowboys, still has a very good secondary, and brought in Ejiro Evero to call the defense. After finishing in or around the top 10 in most efficiency metrics last season, things look pretty good on this side of the ball. The Colts lost Eberflus to the Bears, but Gus Bradley should be able to do his Cover-3, rush-the-passer-with-the-front-four thing after the team added Stephon Gilmore and Yannick Ngakoue to a group that was already deep and talented. Brian Flores is no longer in Miami to call the defense, but there is still a whole bunch to like about the Dolphins, starting with Xavien Howard, Byron Jones, and Jevon Holland on the back end. With Jaelan Phillips and Emmanuel Ogbah up front, there’s enough pass-rush juice for Josh Boyer to maintain some of what Flores was doing the past couple seasons.
The only reason New England is here, and not in the next group, is that the Patriots let Jackson walk without really replacing him. We’ve seen Bill Belichick work his magic after losing top-flight corners before, though, including last year when the team traded Gilmore to Carolina. The 49ers continue to get after the passer with the best of them, continue to get strong play out of unheralded cornerbacks, and still have a very strong group up the middle in coverage. With Arik Armstead playing inside from the jump, this should be a more consistent unit this season.
The Steelers and Bucs both have top-notch talent and there’s not much question about them having above-average defenses. Only Todd Bowles adding responsibilities as head coach and the absence of Jason Pierre-Paul kept Tampa out of the top group, while age and injury issues up front for Pittsburgh are the culprit. Still, two excellent defenses that should be among the best.
Buffalo Bills, Los Angeles Rams, New Orleans Saints
Buffalo finished last season first in DVOA, EPA per play, yards per play, and points per drive, then added Von Miller to a deep group of edge rushers. Even with Tre’Davious White potentially missing part of the season rehabbing his ACL tear, the Bills seem like a near lock to have a top defense. The Rams have Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey, and Raheem Morris will continue innovating off the principles installed by Brandon Staley a couple years ago. New Orleans has Dennis Allen adding more responsibility as head coach just like Tampa has with Bowles, but the Saints have a more reliable defensive backfield than their division rivals, thanks to their adding Tyrann Mathieu to rebound after losing Marcus Williams.