Ranking Each of the 32 NFL Defenses: From 32 to 1
Ranking Each of the 32 NFL Defenses: From 32 to 1
Last season, the Buffalo Bills surprised many, boasting not only an elite offense led by Josh Allen but quite possibly the best defense in all of the NFL. They did it without a superstar name and behind the likes of Tre'Davious White, Jordan Poyer, and Micah Hyde in the secondary.
On the heels of that season, this offseason has seen a number of big-time defenders switch uniforms. Among others, Khalil Mack, Von Miller, and Stephon Gilmore headline that elite group. But the question is, how do those moves impact and shape the landscape of top defenses around the NFL?
Let's take look at which teams should benefit from new additions, and which ones we can expect to stay at the top when all is said and done.
Ranking Each of the 32 NFL Defenses
32. Jacksonville Jaguars
Jacksonville did a lot this offseason, but the wide majority of it was accomplished on the offensive side of the ball. Defensively, they left a lot to be desired outside of two moves: adding young pass-rusher Travon Walker in the draft and signing linebacker Foyesade Oluokun (albeit to an overpriced contract). Their defensive backfield still has the shape of a team that will repeat their 31st-place finish in Football Outsiders' pass DVOA (Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average) and a 28th-place finish in points against per game a year ago.
31. Detroit Lions
People seem to be generally higher on the Lions' defensive prospects this year, but outside of Aidan Hutchinson and Tracy Walker, I'm just not seeing it. Jeff Okudah was a high pick that showed some promise, but he has been struck down by injuries, and when healthy, hasn't performed up to the lofty pre-draft projections. Until we see it from him, Walker has a lot to make up for on the back end. Hutchinson should make a difference long-term, but offensive lines should be able to key on him and feast on what was last year's 29th-ranked unit.
30. Seattle Seahawks
We should positively expect Seattle to take another step back in 2022, and the only question around their fall-off might just be, "By how much?" Last season, they were 11th in points against per game, but that was hidden in the league's 26th-ranked pass defense. Against the rush, they held their own, but they've lost some very valuable skill sets over the last six months. On top of losing Bobby Wagner, the Seahawks will move on without rising corner D.J. Reed as well as Carlos Dunlap and Rasheem Green, the latter two have combined for 15 sacks between them. Uchenna Nwosu will do his best to fill Wagner's void, but there are still a number of weak points that require addressing.
29. Atlanta Falcons
If anything, the Falcons were at least fairly balanced as it pertained to their defensive struggles last time around. They ended the campaign 30th overall, consisting of the league's 29th-rated pass defense and 29th-rated rush defense. Without a doubt, they lacked both consistency and game-breaking plays, but they did just enough to maintain this coming season. Grady Jarrett will return to lead the defensive front, while they signed vet Casey Heyward to line up opposite budding star A.J. Terrell. That duo should give receivers more trouble, but if the pass rush isn't more effective we can expect a repeat of last year's woes versus the pass and overall.
28. Houston Texans
In 2021, the Texans' defense was 27th in points per game and 23rd in Football Outsiders' total DVOA (Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average). Lovie Smith, who was the defensive coordinator, has been elevated to the team's head coach, and while he has a proven track record the problem was a lack of talent in Houston. This year, the front office has brought in some proven veterans in Mario Addison and Jerry Hughes to complement an underrated Maliek Collins to put in front of a secondary that will now feature rookie Derek Stingley. There's a chance that Houston outperforms expectations and improves on its 2021 results.
27. Kansas City Chiefs
For all the glory and praise Patrick Mahomes and the offense warrant, the defense has been far less worthy of those same high marks. While it's true that for a time they held their own last season, behind the addition of Melvin Ingram along the line, they were still 24th in DVOA -- despite allowing the eighth fewest points per game. This year, they've added Carlos Dunlap alongside a returning Frank Clark up front and proceeded to backfill Tyrann Mathieu with Justin Reid.
The question is whether the corners are improved enough for it to matter. Trent McDuffie has a lot to prove after his 21st overall selection, and L'Jarius Sneed -- projected to start opposite the rookie -- is coming off a year in which his coverage grade dropped by more than 11 points. Their success could hinge on slot corner Rashad Fenton, who was a bright spot relative to his peers.
26. Chicago Bears
The Bears are a bit of a toss-up, but for now, it seems like they'll have Roquan Smith playing on a prove-it deal before getting his bag in the offseason. The issue is that, after the departure of Khalil Mack, in addition to Justin Jones and Akiem Hicks, there aren't many names for opposing offenses to fear. The back end is full of upside, but only Eddie Jackson has any proven experience. That, combined with last year's 24th-ranked rush defense and -- more importantly -- what could be a bottom-three to-five pass rush, will in all likelihood lead to some big offensive games for the other teams in the NFC North.
25. Washington Commanders
To say Washington underperformed last year's expectations would be an understatement. A year removed from a dominant season, headed by Chase Young and the big boys on the defensive line, the Commanders fell from 3rd to 27th in DVOA in 2021. They were 28th versus the pass, and though you believe they'd upgrade over the offseason, it looks like they just haven't. They're counting on the same guys -- Jonathan Allen, William Jackson, and Bobby McCain -- to just perform better. There's a chance they do, but I'll consider them suspect until proven innocent.
24. New York Jets
For last season's worst of the worst defenses, this would be a considerable jump. The reason has to start with the addition of value-add veterans like Jacob Martin, D.J. Reed, and Jordan Whitehead. Reed and Whitehead will be instrumental in upgrading a unit that was dead last against the pass game, but it doesn't stop there. Rookie Sauce Gardner will step into a top corner role opposite Reed, and under the tutelage of Robert Saleh expect big things. Just don't expect them to become a top-15 defense overnight.
23. Cincinnati Bengals
In Cincinnati, almost all of the talk is around Joe Burrow and the supremely talented wide receiver group, and rightfully so. The offense was awesome last year, while the defense was just 19th overall and 24th against the pass. Despite that, though, there were no true additions on that side of the ball, with Cincinnati bringing back Eli Apple and a few others from their own squad. That isn't very promising, and the Bengals might just be a couple of injuries away from a bottom-five defense. Their offense will be forced to carry the load with the talent imbalance that shakes out heavily in its favor.
22. Las Vegas Raiders
The Raiders might be a better defensive team than last year, at least on paper. They brought in Chandler Jones to rush opposite of Maxx Crosby, and though they allowed Casey Hayward to move on, they made a move to bring in Rock-Ya Sin to play corner. Corner is precisely where the question mark is at, though, seeing as the Raiders should have a formidable and experienced front seven. Again, they might be better than their 17th-rated squad in 2021, but it's a matter of other teams performing upgrades of their own and with more stability in the secondary.
21. New York Giants
A lot will ride on rookie Kayon Thibodeaux and his ability to fulfill the lofty expectations put on him coming out in the draft. Even if he's not out of this world, he makes for a fantastic complement to Leonard Williams and Azeez Ojulari along the defensive front. For me, it's more about what Adoree Jackson can do over the course of a whole season, to sustain his outstanding play from last year, and who among his fellow corners (and even safeties) will step up to improve on their ranking (18th) from a season ago. If anyone can help to figure that out and get the most out of a defense, it's long-time Baltimore defensive coordinator Wink Martindale.
20. Baltimore Ravens
Speaking of those Ravens, last year's team was ravaged by injuries, and for that reason, they ended the year a measly 28th in DVOA. They were particularly awful against the pass, ranking 30th in that category, thanks in large part to injuries to Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters, who missed the entire campaign. They will get both back and have since added Marcus Williams and hyped-up rookie Kyle Hamilton. It's likely that they have a truly elite back end, but they are lacking both speed and dynamism inside the box. Either way, they should jump up 8 to 10 spots from where they landed last year.
19. Arizona Cardinals
Chandler Jones, Jordan Hicks, and Jordan Phillips. Those three departures are the reason this spot projects a steep drop-off in the Cardinals' defensive performance for 2022. Jones opens up the largest void and allows Zach Allen the chance to step in opposite J.J. Watt. He's rather unproven, as are Zaven Collins and Marco Wilson, but versatile and productive guys like Budda Baker, Jalen Thompson, and Isaiah Simmons will help to stem any lack of a consistent pass rush in Arizona.
18. Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings were a defense for opposing rushing attacks to tee off on in 2021. But now, they're coming into the new season under a new coach and with a few more tools in their defensive tool bag. The additions of Harrison Phillips in the middle of the line and Za'Darius Smith off the edge are talents that should at least keep Minnesota in this 15-to-20 range with the chance of surprising if the secondary can improve.
17. New England Patriots
The 2021 Patriots rebounded to rate fourth in defense as a unit, but they'll now aim to maintain without star corner J.C. Jackson, who now resides in Los Angeles. Kyle Van Noy has also jumped ship to the Chargers, and in response, New England has rounded up a number of guys on short-term deals in hopes to replace Jackson and Van Noy's places. Mack Wilson, Terrance Mitchell, and Jabrill Peppers are not scary enough to warrant a top-half defense, though. We could see them really struggle in their first run in a Jackson-less world.
16. Cleveland Browns
Basically, on the defensive side of the ball, the 2022 Browns are the same as the 2021 Browns. Both Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney are back at the end spots, and the back four are set to be steady to elite contributors. It will all come down to the linebackers and inside linemen, who were hit up to the tune of the 10th-worst rush defense a year ago. With Sione Takitaki, Anthony Walker, and Jordan Elliott all checking in as very below-average rush defenders, according to PFF's marks, the Browns will need to dodge the bullet again as far as allowing teams to pound them on the ground and set up the play-action pass.
15. Philadelphia Eagles
Despite last year's offseason addition of Darius Slay, the Eagles sputtered to 25th overall and 25th against the pass. What did they do to try and improve on those finishes? They brought in James Bradberry in hopes that the veteran would rediscover his days of elite shutdown coverage. And on top of that, they paid for some high-caliber pass-rushing production in the form of Haason Reddick, who had 11 sacks for Carolina after 12.5 sacks in the previous season. Watch out for Philly, as they could be a top-15 or even top-10 group when all is said and done.
14. Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins had themselves quite an offseason, full of changes and turmoil alike. Most of the chatter is on the offensive side of the ball because of Tyreek Hill's acquisition, as well as the hiring of Mike McDaniel, but could the defense be flying under the radar? They still have Byron Jones and Xavien Howard manning the corner spots, and Emmanuel Ogbah returned after his nine-sack season. Miami has more than enough to compete in their division and, barring health, sneak into a playoff spot with a defense that could blow past this expectation.
13. Tennessee Titans
Tennessee comes into the new year with depleted win projections and a slightly overturned roster. Yet, the defense is for the most part intact. They lost a couple of linebackers that could push them down a spot or two from a weaker run defense, but Jeffrey Simmons raises all from his ability to create havoc from the inside. And the same goes for Harold Landry on the outside. Throw in Caleb Farley and Kevin Byard, and you have yourself a very unexciting yet effective defense going into 2022. Titans' games could very well be some of the lowest on a week-in, week-out basis.
12. Green Bay Packers
As with most NFL defenses, the Packers' deciding factors are at the defensive end and cornerback positions. On one hand, they were forced to let edge rusher Za'Darius Smith leave in free agency, but on the other they were fortunate enough to re-sign corner Rasul Douglas, pairing him with the elite Jaire Alexander on the outside. The fact that they were able to bring back De'Vondre Campbell in the middle is just icing on the cake. If they can stay healthy, the Packers are a team primed to jump a large number of spots compared to their 22nd-ranked unit in 2021.
11. Pittsburgh Steelers
At least defensively, not a lot has changed this year in Pittsburgh. Joe Schobert was their most notable loss, but in his place, they brought on Myles Jack along with corner Levi Wallace who stood out for Buffalo a year ago. They'll all join forces with the defending Defensive Player of the Year, T.J. Watt, who will aim to build off his 22.5-sack campaign. If the Steelers do anything to improve on their suspect run game (27th in DVOA), they could easily be knocking on the door of a top-10 season.
10. Dallas Cowboys
Believe it or not, Dallas was the league's second-best defense last year, according to DVOA. Trevon Diggs shined in his sophomore season, while Micah Parsons exploded onto the scene with 13 sacks in his first NFL run. The two young bucks are joined by respectable veterans -- like DeMarcus Lawrence and Malik Hooker -- who should keep the 'Boys in the top 10. It's just hard to see them being a top 2-to-5 unit with Randy Gregory and Keanu Neal having landed elsewhere in the offseason.
9. Carolina Panthers
Last year, Carolina -- in its second year under Matt Rhule -- seemingly came out of nowhere to be the league's 15th-ranked defense. Earlier on, when things weren't so bad offensively, they were even better. For part of the year, Stephon Gilmore was a lights-out corner, while Haason Reddick and Brian Burns got after quarterbacks on a weekly basis. They lost both Gilmore and Reddick in free agency, but the Panthers brought in some veterans and have a high-ceiling secondary featuring Donte Jackson and 2021 first-rounder Jaycee Horn. The combination of talent and scheme should keep Carolina among the better third of NFL defenses.
8. Indianapolis Colts
Since Frank Reich took over the team four years ago, the Colts have been as consistent as a defense as any. Call it scheme, talent, or some combination of the two, either way, Reich and his defensive coordinators have been getting the most out of what they have on the roster. In three of the last four seasons, they are top 11 in DVOA and top 10 in points against per game. This year, they kept most of their core together, only to throw Stephon Gilmore and Yannic Ngakoue on top of it all. It's difficult to find any path in which the Colts don't again finish as a top-8 to -10 defense.
7. New Orleans Saints
This summer, the Saints watched an elite safety -- Marcus Willaims -- walk out the door in free agency. But lucky them, they backed into a new safety combination in the form of free agent signees Tyrann Mathieu and Marcus Maye. For my money, that's an upgrade, even for a team that was third in DVOA last year. With those two backing up Marshon Lattimore, that makes for one of the three or four best defensive backfields in football. Ultimately, the team's level of success will come down to the performance of second and third corners Paulson Adebo and P.J. Williams, seeing as Marcus Davenport and Cameron Jordan (22 combined sacks in 2021) have things on lock from a pass-rushing perspective.
6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers are pretty much running it back defensively. The only new addition will be Akiem Hicks -- formerly of the Bears -- at one of the end spots, and he brings with him the upside of someone who can get seven or eight sacks while also being a force against the run. He joins a unit headed by one of the best linebacking corps in the NFL, which rated 12th against the run last year and 1st the year prior. On the back end, Jordan Whitehead's absence will need to be addressed by Mike Edwards, but besides Antoine Winfield, this defense is nearly as solid as any from front to back.
5. San Francisco 49ers
The Niners' offseason can be defined as one of quantity over quality, particularly as it pertains to the defense. The largest move they made was to re-sign cornerback Charvarius Ward to a $40-plus million deal surrounded by a number of one-year deals to build up the depth and bring back veteran scheme fits. This is on the back of a season in which San Francisco finished seventh overall and second against the run. Fred Warner and his 77 grade against the run is at the center of that suffocating ground defense, and he'll be back to keep it going in the new season.
4. Los Angeles Chargers
Ahead of the offseason, if you told Chargers fans that in a vacuum Uchenna Nwosu and Kyzir White were both going to leave the team, half probably would have thought the defense would be worse and the other half would have thought that they could only be better. Last year, they were 30th against the run and 19th against the pass. A reformed linebacking squad will be the largest question mark outside of Pro Bowler Khalil Mack, who was acquired in a trade with Chicago. He, Joey Bosa, and the other bigs up front will allow the likes of J.C. Jackson and Derwin James to be aggressive from their positions in the pass defense. If those big names stay healthy, the Chargers have to be a top-five defense or bust.
3. Los Angeles Rams
Aaron Donald -- what else more do I have to say? Honestly, Donald makes almost any team a top-15 defense, but there's a lot more to the Rams. After all, they're home to Jalen Ramsey and now Bobby Wagner. Wagner will be asked to do the things he does at an All-Pro level to make up for the departures of Von Miller and Darious Williams elsewhere. In the event that guys like Troy Hill and Taylor Rapp take their game to the next level, the Rams could be a hair better than they were a year ago on their way to a Super Bowl. At the top, they're as talented as anyone.
2. Denver Broncos
Last season, the Broncos were just 20th in overall DVOA. They had Von Miller for a time, but for the most part, they were -- and still are -- a team without the defensive star power of other teams. You have to add the phrase, "So far", to that statement, though. There are a number of budding stars, from Randy Gregory and Bradley Chubb off the edge to Pat Surtain II and Justin Simmons down the field. Ejiro Evero, the Rams' defensive passing game coordinator from a year ago, is equipped with the experience and tool bag to have these players in the right spots against the likes of Patrick Mahomes, Derek Carr, and Justin Herbert in their own division. It will be a tall task, but I have a feeling we'll be saying "Wow!" in response to the Denver defense and its performance in a handful of AFC West showdowns.
1. Buffalo Bills
The 2021 Bills were the NFL's creme de la creme from the defensive side of the ball. They defended the pass at a ridiculously high-level thanks to the efforts of Taron Johnson, Tre'Davoius White, Jordan Poyer, and Micah Hyde. That foursome will now be joined by rookie Kaiir Elam, who should be a strong asset in the slot. But that pales in comparison to the addition of Von Miller to the pass rush. Miller and second-year player Greg Rousseau will be effective and create opportunities for the list of aforementioned playmakers in the pass game, while at the same time you can't expect the Bills to falter in their pursuit to limit opposing runners. On paper, they're the best defense in the league heading into 2022.
Brett Oswalt has been writing about sports for five years, has covered everything from the NBA to College Football DFS, and previously served as an editor at numberFire. He is a Senior Workforce Planning Analyst at Highmark by day, and an avid sports fan and girl-dad by night. He resides in Pittsburgh, PA with his wife, Marley, daughter, Aria, and goldendoodle, Braun.