As has become clearer and clearer in recent years, offense is king in the modern NFL. But that doesn't mean defense is wholly irrelevant. Because even though offense has a greater effect on overall team performance -- and is more consistent year over year -- than defense, you still need to occasionally get some stops 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 ball like we did on offense, we're once again grouping the teams by how likely they are to finish the year among the league's top 10 defenses, based on the quality of their personnel and coaching.
Without further ado... (Note: Teams within each section are listed in alphabetical order.)Most Unlikely
Arizona Cardinals, Las Vegas Raiders
The less said about these two depth charts, the better. We also had the Rams in this section at first, but we can't discount the possibility that Aaron Donald can turn them into a top-10 defense all by himself, so they got bumped up a tier.Somewhat Unlikely
Atlanta Falcons, Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Los Angeles Rams, Minnesota Vikings, New York Giants, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tennessee Titans
Atlanta added Jessie Bates III, Calais Campbell, David Onyemata, Bud Dupree, Jeff Okudah, Zach Harrison, and Clark Phillips III this offseason, but there was so far to go between where they were and being a top-10 unit that we can't help but feel it's still pretty unlikely -- even with a new defensive coordinator as well. The same applies to the Bears, even after adding Tremaine Edmunds and T.J. Edwards in free agency and Gervon Dexter Sr., Tyrique Stevenson, Zacch Pickens, and more in the draft.
Even with Aidan Hutchinson, Detroit lacks the pass-rush juice to make a push for the top 10 despite a much-improved secondary thanks to numerous additions in free agency (Cameron Sutton, C.J. Gardner-Johnson, Emmanuel Moseley) and the draft (Brian Branch). Bringing in DeMeco Ryans as head coach and landing the top pass-rusher in the draft in Will Anderson Jr. is a nice start for the Texans, but this is still a very shallow bunch of talent. It's likely at least a year or two away from being able to call itself a top group.
The Colts finished last season 14th in defensive DVOA, but the strength of their defense is at linebacker, defensive tackle, and safety, and those positions are just less likely than edge rusher and corner to turn a defense into a top-10 unit. L.A. was in the previous section until I remembered Donald's existence, and the only reason Minnesota isn't in that section is because of the faith I have in Brian Flores to coax better-than-expected results out of the talent on hand.
Bobby Okereke and Deonte Banks aren't enough to make up the difference between where the Giants were last year and where they'd need to get to be a top-10 defense. Wink Martindale has a bit better personnel than he did a year ago, but it's still not at the level it needs to be for him to successfully run his style of defense. The Bucs had one of the NFL's top defenses for several years, but despite Todd Bowles still being around to coach them up, it's a unit that is getting older and thinner and may not have the ceiling it once did. The Titans are here out of respect for Jeffery Simmons and Kevin Byard, but there's just not a lot of talent elsewhere on the defense.Possibly
Carolina Panthers, Cleveland Browns, Green Bay Packers, Jacksonville Jaguars, Kansas City Chiefs, Los Angeles Chargers, Miami Dolphins, New Orleans Saints, Seattle Seahawks, Washington Commanders
Hiring Ejiro Evero to coordinate the defense may have been the best move the Panthers made this offseason. There are even some interesting pieces for him to work with, from Brian Burns and Frankie Luvu to Derrick Brown and Jaycee Horn. It's just not quite a group on the same level as what he had in Denver, or before that, Los Angles. The Browns have had the top-end talent to be an elite defense for a while, but haven't been able to put all the pieces together. Myles Garrett remains, and is now joined by Dalvin Tomlinson and Za'Darius Smith up front. Can the cornerback trio finally coalesce into a special group? The Packers seem to continually underperform relative to their talent level on defense. Why? Who knows. But it's been happening often enough over the past few years that they belong in this group rather than higher.
Jacksonville has its pass-rushers in Josh Allen and Travon Walker and seemed to settle on a cornerback trio over the second half of last season. But this group still finished 26th in DVOA a year ago, and its most significant offseason additions were Day 3 draft picks. We know what will happen with the Chiefs: They'll be fine-to-meh for most of the season, but by the end of the year Steve Spagnuolo will have his unit in shape for a Super Bowl run. It's just not likely that shape will take the form of a top-10 defense.
Brandon Staley finally got the Chargers to play above-average defense over the second half of last year, but defensive coordinator Renaldo Hill left for Miami during the offseason and there are still question marks and injury issues galore among the personnel on hand. Miami adding Hill, plus Jalen Ramsey and Cam Smith, and getting a full season of Bradley Chubb, raises the ceiling for the Dolphins' defense. We're just not sure how high the floor is.
New Orleans lost co-defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen to the division rival Falcons, plus Onyemata, Marcus Davenport, Shy Tuttle, and Kaden Elliss along the defensive front. None of those losses is nearly a death knell on its own, but the collective does introduce enough uncertainty to knock the Saints into this group. The Seahawks added Devon Witherspoon to last season's elite cornerback find in Tariq Woolen, and signed Dre'Mont Jones to bring some interior pass rush. The addition of Derick Hall just isn't enough to make them an elite pressure unit, so the Seahawks land here. We had a ton of confidence in the Commanders a couple years ago and they let us down. Then, they outperformed expectations last year. So, what do we expect this season? It's anybody's guess.
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Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, Denver Broncos, New York Jets, Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers
Baltimore finished seventh in DVOA last season, but Calais Campbell is gone and there are more questions than usual at cornerback. The Ravens still seem fairly likely to be a top-third defense, but it's not nearly a guarantee. Retaining defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo -- who inexplicably was not among the top head-coaching candidates this offseason -- keeps the Bengals in the mix here, despite the loss of both their starting safeties and other injuries in the secondary. On the other hand, downgrading from Ejiro Evero to Vance Joseph bumps the Broncos down from the next group to this one, just because of the uncertainty that comes with a coordinator change and how the personnel will be used. (Plus, Dre'Mont Jones left in free agency.)
The Jets certainly have the personnel to remain a top-10 unit, but because so much of their success was based on not just high-level but truly elite cornerback play -- which tends to be less consistent year over year than pass rush -- we have to place them here rather than in the "most likely" group, even if we are extremely confident in Sauce Gardner maintaining his top form. The Eagles are in something like the same situation, but their cornerbacks are getting up there in age and they replaced one of their best pass-rushers (Javon Hargrave) with a rookie (Jalen Carter). There are also question marks at linebacker, as usual.
The Steelers, meanwhile, are just a little bit thinner than the group we've gotten used to. The bone structure of the defense is still there with T.J. Watt, Minkah Fitzpatrick, and Cameron Heyward, but players like Stephon Tuitt, Tyson Alualu, Cameron Sutton, most of their linebackers and other corners, and more have moved on and been replaced by less-sure things.Most Likely
Buffalo Bills, Dallas Cowboys, New England Patriots, San Francisco 49ers
Even without longtime defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, the Bills still have the infrastructure to remain among the league's top defenses. Sean McDermott, a returning Von Miller, Greg Rousseau, the NFL's best safety tandem, and Tre'Davious White another year removed from his ACL tear should do the trick -- even with Tremaine