We’ve spent a lot of time this offseason talking about offenses. But enough of that.
Now, it’s time to move to the other side of the ball. 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. Rather than go through every team from 32-1 on this side of the ball like we did on offense, however, we’re going to reveal our top 10 defenses here, and then debut a list of teams from outside that group that have the best chance to crash the party as the best defense in football.
Without further ado …
The Colts defense took a step forward last season, finishing eighth in yards allowed, 11th in points allowed, and seventh in defensive efficiency, per Football Outsiders’ DVOA. They were led by the interior pressure of DeForest Buckner, the rangy playmaking of Darius Leonard and Bobby Okereke, and a strong back end with talent on the outside (Kenny Moore, Rock Ya-Sin, Xavier Rhodes) and up top (Julian Blackmon). They should remain a top-10 group this year, but there are some more question marks on the edge than there were a year ago. Neither of the team’s top two edge rushers in snaps from last season (Justin Houston and Denico Autry) are on the roster, and Indy will be counting on Al-Quadin Muhammad, Tyquan Lewis, Kemoko Turay, and rookies Kwity Paye and Dayo Odeyingbo to pick up the slack.
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This seems like a step backward for the Saints defense, which was one of four units to finish in the top five in yards (fourth), points (fifth), and DVOA (second) last season. But it’s not without good reason. Trey Hendrickson, one of the team’s most productive pass rushers, signed with the Bengals in the offseason. Defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins and cornerback Janoris Jenkins are no longer in town. Players like Cameron Jordan, Malcolm Jenkins, and Demario Davis, while still very good, are entering their mid-30s. One thing that will negatively affect their performance is also something that is not really under their control: the departure of Drew Brees. The Saints have rarely turned the ball over in recent seasons, and they’ve also scored quite often. That’s led to New Orleans’ defense being afforded favorable field position, with their opponents ranking 24th, 28th, 30th, and 30th in average starting field position over the last four years. Especially in the event that Jameis Winston ends up the starter under center, that’s likely to change.
The Rams were another one of the aforementioned four teams that finished top-five in yards (first), points (first), and DVOA (fourth). They also finished first in weighted DVOA, indicating they played better as the season went on. But defensive coordinator Brandon Staley left and is now the head coach of the Chargers, while John Johnson III and Troy Hill each signed with the Browns in free agency, Michael Brockers was traded to the Lions, and Morgan Fox signed with the Panthers. That’s a significant talent drain, and the Rams should take a step backward because of it.
This would be a pretty huge jump for the Broncos, but hear me out. First of all, Von Miller will be back, and he’ll free up space for Bradley Chubb. Those two haven’t been on the field together for an extended stretch since 2018. Second of all, the Broncos added Kyle Fuller and Patrick Surtain II at cornerback, solidifying one of the NFL’s deepest and most versatile secondaries. And they have Vic Fangio — one of the league’s best defensive minds — calling the shots. The talent is all there to make this a top unit again.
Here’s what we wrote about the Dolphins after the 2020 free agency period:
Miami splashed the pot in free agency, handing $178.5 million worth of contracts to Byron Jones, Kyle Van Noy, Shaq Lawson, and Emmanuel Ogbah, plus signing Clayton Fejedelem, Elandon Roberts, Kamu Grugier-Hill, and Kevon Frazier, and drafting Noah Igbinoghene, Raekwon Davis, Brandon Jones, Curtis Weaver, and Jason Strowbridge. That is a lot of talent to add in one offseason.
In particular, there is reason to feel good about Miami’s secondary, with Jones and Igbinoghene joining Xavien Howard to form what should be one of the league’s best cornerback units. Head coach Brian Flores came to Miami from New England and knows how to utilize a versatile defender like Van Noy, and is used to generating a pass rush without a single dominant edge rusher, and should be able to utilize Lawson and Ogbah in ways to accentuate their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. Miami is not nearly the favorite in the AFC East, but if the sheer volume of talent added on defense can coalesce into a unit in or near the top 10, perhaps the Dolphins can surprise and challenge for the new No. 7 seed in the conference.
And then… that’s exactly what happened. Miami ranked 11th in DVOA by the end of the year, and ninth in weighted DVOA. With Brian Flores at the controls, Jones and Howard locking things down on the outside, Justin Coleman coming over to play the slot, and Jaelan Phillips and Jevon Holland added to the mix, the Dolphins defense should be firmly a top-10 unit this time around.
Losing Bud Dupree hurts, but Alex Highsmith did a solid job filling in last season, and the Steelers picked up Quincy Roche in the sixth round, and he should help as well. He was underrated in the pre-draft process due to his being the third-best University of Miami edge guy in this class. Pittsburgh is also still just loaded with talent at all three levels, with T.J. Watt, Cameron Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Tyson Alualu, Devin Bush, Vince Williams, Joe Haden, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Terrell Edmunds, Cameron Sutton, and Justin Layne all returning from last year’s team. The only real concern here is second unit depth, which has been sapped by the team’s cap constraints over these past few years.
Yes, they let Matt Judon walk in free agency. No, they still have not really replaced the top-end talent of Earl Thomas at safety after releasing him last offseason. But this was a top-10 unit last year (seventh in yards, second in points, ninth in DVOA), Don Martindale is one of the best defensive coordinators in the league, and the Ravens are still absolutely stacked everywhere. Calais Campbell, Derek Wolfe, and Brandon Williams up front. Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison up the middle. Marcus Peters, Marlon Humphrey, Jimmy Smith, and Tavon Young at corner. DeShon Elliott and Chuck Clark at safety. Oh, and they added Odafe Oweh and Daelin Hayes in the draft to supplement Pernell McPhee and Tyus Bowser on the edge. They drafted Shaun Wade — one of the nation’s best slot corners in 2019 before he got torched as an outside corner in 2020 — in the fifth round and landed diminutive ball-hawk Ad’Darius Washington as an undrafted free agent. Once again, this should be a high-floor, high-ceiling unit.
3. Cleveland Browns
As high a hopes as I have for the Ravens, they are even higher for the Browns. They should be the most improved defense in the league. John Johnson III might have been the best free-agent signing of the offseason, a perfect match of skill set and team need. He’ll diversify the team’s coverages with his ability to play center field and rotate into two-high looks, and to make plays on the ball. Cleveland also added both Troy Hill (in free agency) and Greg Newsome II (in the draft) to Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams at corner, plus they have Grant Delpit coming back from injury and Ronnie Harrison for a full season. They signed Jadeveon Clowney and Takkarist McKinley to supplement Myles Garrett on the edge, and brought in Malik Jackson and Tommy Togiai to work with Jordan Elliott and Andrew Billings up the middle. Throw in linebacker Anthony Walker and jack-of-all-trades Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, and this might be the most versatile group in the NFL.
The one thing keeping me from anointing the Browns with the No. 1 spot is the prove-it factor. The Bucs have that in spades. They return all 22 starters from last season’s defense that ranked sixth in yards, eighth in points, and fifth in DVOA. They brought in Joe Tryon to spell Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaq Barrett and K.J. Britt to develop behind Lavonte David and Devin White. They can provide a bunch of different looks with Vita Vea, Ndamukong Suh, Steve McLendon, and William Gholston on the defensive interior. They’ve still got Todd Bowles. The only issue here is age, with JPP, Suh, and David all in or near their mid-30s. But that shouldn’t be a major drawback, for the most part.
1. Washington Football Team
Did you know that Washington finished second in yards, fourth in points, and third in DVOA last season? Did you know that Chase Young, Montez Sweat, Da’Ron Payne, Jonathan Allen, and Matt Ioannidis are all back, and that Ioannidis is the oldest of the bunch at just 27 years old? They added rangy linebacker Jamin Davis in the draft, and underrated cornerback William Jackson III in free agency. Ron Rivera had these guys absolutely flying all over the field last season, and they’re even more talented this year than a year ago.