Offenses may drive the NFL these days, but football purists will still love discussing defenses all day.
Here is a 2020 projection of the stingiest NFL defenses from first to worst:
Baltimore became so explosive on offense last season that it's easy to forget its defense was also third in points allowed and fourth in yards yielded. Defensively, the Ravens could be significantly better this season. They never really did properly replace inside linebacker C.J. Mosley last year, but the Ravens have now with first-round pick Patrick Quinn. They also added Derek Wolfe and Calais Campbell to the defensive line to help a pass rush that finished 21st in sacks. Edge rusher Matt Judon was a free agent, but Baltimore is bringing him back on the franchise tag. In the secondary, cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey each made the All-Pro team last year; safety Earl Thomas makes big plays as well. The three of them combined for eight interceptions in 2019.
The Bears defense finished 2019 fourth in points allowed and eighth in yards allowed, and it was a down year for the group. That just speaks to how high the expectations are for the defensive talent in Chicago. Outside linebacker Khalil Mack, a microcosm of the defense's 2019 season, was good but not great, with 8.5 sacks and 8.0 tackles for loss. Getting Mack back to All-Pro form or at least into the double-digit sack range will go a long way to Chicago fulfilling its potential on defense. Defensive tackles Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman eat up the middle, while Mack and fellow linebacker Roquon Smith feast on opponent running games and quarterbacks. This offseason, the Bears also added Robert Quinn to be another pass rusher. Chicago lost safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix but still has Eddie Jackson playing center field. Cornerback Kyle Fuller is underrated, but the weak link on the defense is the cornerback spot opposite him. Former Pittsburgh first-round pick Artie Burns will compete with 2020 second-round choice Jaylon Johnson for playing time at that spot.
There are quite a few groups — maybe as many as seven — that could finish as the No. 1 defense this fall, and Buffalo's defense is certainly in that category. The Bills finished second in points allowed and third in yards yielded last season. They did lose two defensive linemen, Shaq Lawson and Jordan Phillips, but added Mario Addison in free agency and hope the development of 2019 first-round pick Ed Oliver fills the void left by Phillips. They also drafted former Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa in the second round. In the back end, cornerback Tre'Davious White has become a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, and safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer provide veteran leadership. The Bills also signed former All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman for depth.
San Francisco's stockpiling of defensive talent all came together last fall when defensive end Nick Bosa arrived. He did it all for the 49ers as a rookie, posting 9.0 sacks, 16 tackles for loss, 25 quarterback hits, a forced fumble and an interception. With Bosa demanding so much attention, the other 49ers defensive linemen have been able to make more plays. San Francisco traded away DeForest Buckner but drafted defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw in the first round to replace him. The 49ers allowed the second-fewest total yards despite not having big free agent signee Kwon Alexander for half of 2019. He adds even more speed to the unit when healthy, and cornerback Richard Sherman finally made the impact San Francisco was hoping when the team added the three-time All-Pro in 2018. leading the defense with three interceptions last year.
With the Tom Brady era ended, the Patriots have come full circle under Bill Belichick. Like in the early 2000s, they are once again a defensive team, ending last season first in yards allowed and points allowed and second in takeaways. But the Patriots watched key members of their defense walk in free agency, most notably, linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins who left for Miami and Detroit, respectively. Defensive lineman Danny Shelton also departed, while New England signed safety Adrian Phillips. In the draft, the Patriots moved back from the first round but then added a safety and two linebackers with their first three picks in the second and third rounds. Of course, reigning Defensive Player of the Year and cornerback Stephon Gilmore will be back, and mastermind Belichick will find a way to get this defense playing well in 2020. Whether it can finish first again is a question mark.
The Vikings lost three cornerbacks in free agency, including starters Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes, along with defensive tackle Linval Joseph, and yet they are still expected to have a good defense. Third-year cornerback Mike Hughes will step in to start as likely will first-round pick Jeff Gladney. Safety Harrison Smith will be a great compass for the two young players as will free safety Anthony Harris, who is coming back on the franchise tag. In the front seven, Minnesota is still among the best in the league. Defensive end Danielle Hunter led the team with 14.5 sacks, while linebackers Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr combined for 189 tackles. Defensive end Everson Griffen left in free agency, but he remains unsigned. There's probably a small chance he returns to the Vikings.
After investing first-round picks into the unit seemingly every year, the defense finally came together for the Steelers in 2019. Trading for free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick appeared to make a huge difference, as Pittsburgh ended last year first in takeaways and in the top six in points allowed and yards allowed. Outside linebacker T.J. Watt made his first All-Pro team and projects to be a Defensive Player of the Year candidate for the next several years. His bookend pass rushing partner, Bud Dupree, will be back on the franchise tag, and Devin Bush should continue to come into his own in the middle of the defense to replace Ryan Shazier. The Steelers will miss defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, who left in free agency, but Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt will still make the Pittsburgh defensive line a stout group. The unit's biggest weakness is the other safety spot where Terrell Edmunds has failed to live up to his first-round billing.
This might seem a little high for this group, but with better situational defense, the Chargers can easily have a top-10 defense in 2020. They finished sixth in yards allowed last season but just 14th in points yielded. Part of that difference was third-down and red-zone defense, but the Chargers were also last in turnover differential during 2019. If the quarterback takes better care of the ball this season, the Chargers defense has the talent to be a great group. Defensive end Joey Bosa was the defense's best player with 11.5 sacks last year, and they added defensive tackle Linval Joseph along with two strong cornerbacks, Chris Harris and Casey Hayward, in free agency. Getting safety Derwin James healthy for a full season will help too.
The Saints run defense took a small step backward in 2019, but it improved elsewhere and is a unit, despite losing two starting members of the secondary, that could finish in the top 10 during 2020. One of the most underappreciated defenders around the league, defensive end Cameron Jordan posted a career-high 15.5 sacks. He's reached double digits in the sacks category in each of the last three years. Jordan is now 30, but former first-round pick Marcus Davenport, who had 6.0 sacks last year, appears ready to make a bigger impact in 2020. At linebacker, Demario Davis was an underrated addition for the Saints defense in 2018. Last year, he became an All-Pro for the first time in his career. Both safety Vonn Bell and cornerback Eli Apple left in free agency, but the Saints did a terrific job replacing them with Malcolm Jenkins and Janoris Jenkins, respectively. They should fit in nicely with Pro Bowl cornerback Marshon Lattimore.
The Titans are losing one major piece in safety Logan Ryan, but there's still a lot to like about their defense, and they keep adding more depth, including defensive tackle Jack Crawford and linebacker Vic Beasley from the Falcons. Each of them is coming off somewhat disappointing years, but they could work well with what's already in place on defense in Tennessee. Linebacker Rashaan Evans has the makeup of a franchise cornerstone, after breaking out last year with 111 combined tackles and 2.5 sacks. Plus, while the Titans won't have Ryan (although he's still a free agent), cornerbacks Adoree Jackson and Malcolm Butler, along with safety Kenny Vaccaro, create a strong secondary.
Some might say the Chiefs won the Super Bowl despite their defense, but that's really not true — at least not when defensive tackle Chris Jones is playing. Jones is a terrific player and finally received recognition with his first Pro Bowl last year. He has 24.5 sacks in his last 29 regular season games. Kansas City gave up 13.7 points in the last seven games in which Jones played last year, including the playoffs. Defensive end Frank Clark and safety Tyrann Mathieu were both key additions for the Chiefs defense last year too, but with Jones, this unit goes from below average to borderline great. Kansas City lost cornerback Kendall Fuller to free agency, but the team was able to retain fellow cornerback Bashaud Breeland.
It might not be at the same level as the Bills and Patriots, but the Jets defense is definitely a respectable group, finishing seventh in total yards allowed and second in run defense last year. That translated to 16th in points allowed, so there's improvement to be made, with some of that coming offensively, as the Jets posted a minus-4 turnover differential. First-round pick Quinnen Williams missed most of September, but he came on strong toward the end of the year. Linebacker C.J. Mosley, who was a big free agent acquisition from last offseason, played in just two games, which really hurt. If he's healthy, he's a difference maker who can turn the Jets defense into a top-10 unit. Third-round pick Ashtyn Davis was a nice later Day 2 selection and adds depth to the secondary.
While the Cowboys finally added the safety they needed on defense, Dallas saw its best cornerback, Byron Jones, leave in free agency. He will be difficult to replace, but the Cowboys did draft cornerback Trevon Diggs in the second round, and he could push for a starting role. Making matters worse, defensive end Robert Quinn, who led Dallas in sacks last season, also left in free agency. Fellow defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence remains, but he experienced a down year with only 5.0 sacks. Linebacker Jaylon Smith played well, but fellow linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, who starred as a rookie, played only nine games because of injury. The Cowboys have some great pieces, but losing their best cover man and leading sacker from last year kept this defense from being ranked higher.
Green Bay quickly fixed its defense last offseason, signing bookend pass rushers Za'Darius Smith and Preston Smith to be difference makers. They did just that by combining to post 25.5 sacks. The new pass rush led to the Packers finishing seventh in takeaways, which was a big part of the reason Green Bay went 13-3. This offseason, the Packers lost middle linebacker Blake Martinez but signed Christian Kirksey to replace him. To get the defense to the next level, though, Green Bay needs more of its young high draft picks to reach their potential. Former first or second-round picks Rashan Gary, Darnell Savage, Jaire Alexander and Josh Jones have left something to be desired in their play. But cornerback Kevin King did emerge as a budding star last season, intercepting five passes.
Linebacker Von Miller remains, but the rest of the Broncos defense is undergoing a major makeover. Cornerback Chris Harris and defensive end Derek Wolfe are key departures, while the Broncos are adding five new potential defensive starters to the roster. Three of those are in the secondary in cornerbacks A.J. Bouye and Bryce Callahan along with safety Kareem Jackson. Linebacker Bradley Chubb and defensive end Shelby Harris also are key players still on this defense, but Chubb played in only four games last season after posting 12.0 sacks as a rookie in 2018. His health is important to this defense bringing all these new pieces together, especially with Miller entering his 30s.
There's a lot to like about the Buccaneers defense, but the cliche that "one is only as good as the weakest link" seems to apply here. Tampa Bay has a strong front seven but major question marks in the secondary, which could derail the entire unit. First, the good: Tampa Bay finished first in run defense last year, and that group is going to be back. Defensive tackle Vita Vea is a strong presence in the middle especially next to veteran Ndamukong Suh. Middle linebacker Devin White should flourish in his second season as well alongside Lavonte David. We haven't even gotten to Shaquil Barrett yet, who had a career year last season with a NFL-high 19.5 sacks. But the Tampa Bay secondary allowed the third-most passing yards in the league last year, an area the team didn't address during free agency or the draft's first round. In the second round, the Buccaneers selected safety Antoine Winfield Jr.
The defensive line in Philadelphia continues to be a stout group, but similar to the Buccaneers, the Eagles secondary is suspect to really big plays, bringing the whole unit down. Injuries have severely derailed Philadelphia's secondary each of the last two seasons, so as expected, the Eagles have made significant moves in free agency, signing cornerbacks Darius Slay and Nickell Robey-Coleman to shore up their depth. Philadelphia also brought back safety Rodney McLeod on a new deal. But the biggest free agent signing the Eagles made was bringing in defensive tackle Javon Hargrave from the other side of the Keystone State. Combining Hargrave with defensive linemen Fletcher Cox, Derek Barnett and Brandon Graham, the Eagles have a chance to be among the leaders in run defense.
Last year was the first time the Seahawks weren't ranked in at least the top half of total defense since 2010, and during many of those seasons, their defense was ranked in the top five. So even with another playoff appearance in 2019, the Seahawks have rightfully fallen on our list, with the biggest issue being the pass rush. The Seahawks were tied for second-to-last with 28.0 sacks in 2019, which contributed to poor passing defense and total defense. Seattle knew it needed help in its pass rush after trading away Frank Clark last offseason, so they made another deal for Jadeveon Clowney, but that move didn't work out, as he produced just 3.0 sacks. Clowney is still a free agent. Cornerback Shaquill Griffin is a solid player, but the "Legion of Boom" is gone. Seattle's biggest saving grace defensively is linebacker Bobby Wagner, who made his fourth straight All-Pro team last year.
Similar to their offense, the Browns defense has tremendous potential because of the talent on the roster, but the unit has yet to put it all together. Defensive end Myles Garrett has Defensive Player of the Year potential and will be on a revenge tour of sorts this fall. If Garrett cuts the distractions out of his career, it would also benefit Olivier Vernon, who Cleveland brought in to be a bookend pass rusher with Garrett but who had only 3.5 sacks during his first season with the Browns. The best part of Cleveland's defense is the secondary. Cornerback Denzel Ward didn't make as many big plays his second season, but he's still improving at 23 years old. Ward, fellow cornerback Greedy Williams and rookie safety Grant Delpit make up a secondary that could be the most improved in the league this year. However, Cleveland does have to replace linebackers Joe Schobert, who went vastly underappeciated while with the Browns, and Christian Kirksey. Cleveland drafted linebacker Jacob Phillips in the third round.
This seems like a low rating for a defense with J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus in the front seven, but Watt struggled to stay on the field again in 2019. With both players in their 30s to begin the season, it wouldn't at all be surprising to see both decline just a little, which would severely hurt this unit. Last year, the Texans acquired cornerbacks Bradley Roby and Vernon Hargreaves to play with budding star free safety Justin Reid, but that didn't appear to help much. Houston finished 29th in pass defense and 28th in total yards last year. To be an above-average unit, Houston needs a healthy Watt, as the defense doesn't have the depth to overcome the loss of its leader.
Any defense with Aaron Donald has the potential to be great. Donald made All-Pro for a fifth straight season last year, posting 12.5 sacks with a league-leading 20.0 tackles for loss and 24 quarterback hits. But the Rams have to replace linebacker Cory Littleton and defensive end Dante Fowler. They brought in defensive lineman A'Shawn Robinson and linebacker Leonard Floyd in free agency, but even still, more of the pass rushing responsibilities this season will fall on Donald. Los Angeles has shutdown cornerback Jalen Ramsey, but the rest of the secondary has question marks. The team selected safeties Terrell Burgess and Jordan Fuller in the middle rounds of the draft to add depth.
The Giants lost arguably their best defensive player in Marcus Golden in free agency this winter, but they did a lot of other things to shore up the unit. Defensive end Leonard Williams will be back in New York, and the team signed linebacker Blake Martinez and cornerback James Bradberry to help the other levels of the defense. The Giants now need some of their young draft picks, such as defensive end Dexter Lawrence and cornerback Deandre Baker, along with safety Jabrill Peppers, to play up to their first-round potential. Added to the mix will be safety Xavier McKinney, who had first-round talent but slid to the second round in the 2020 draft. It's also not out of the question Golden returns to "Big Blue" as he still remains a free agent.
The Jaguars are a difficult defense to grade going into 2020. While they've lost a majority of the defensive stars that led them to the AFC championship game just three seasons ago, they've continued to invest first-round picks into that side of the ball. That strategy has been met with mixed results. Defensive tackle Calais Campbell and cornerbacks A.J. Bouye and D.J.Hayden are the latest notable defenders to leave Jacksonville. The Jaguars tagged defensive end Yannick Ngakoue, but he's voiced his displeasure and may not remain on the team either. The arrivals of first-round picks, cornerback C.J. Henderson and linebacker K'Lavon Chaisson, give Jacksonville optimism that the defense can be a great unit again soon. The Jaguars also picked defensive end Josh Allen in the first round last year.
While the Colts didn't technically have a first-round pick, they spent it in a trade for defensive lineman DeForest Buckner, who has 19.5 sacks in the last two seasons. Pairing him with veteran defensive end Justin Houston should improve the Indianapolis pass rush, which was ranked 15th in sacks. Indianapolis also added cornerback Xavier Rhodes on a one-year "prove it" deal. Rhodes did not play well last year, but if he bounces back, the Colts secondary will be in better shape as well. Having linebacker Darius Leonard return to his All-Pro rookie form would help this unit too. Leonard was good in 2019, but he had 40 more tackles and 5.0 additional tackles for loss in 2018.
Last year's fourth-round pick defensive end Maxx Crosby was a tremendous surprise, as he posted 10.0 sacks and 16 tackles for loss as a rookie, but not enough of the Raiders' other top defensive picks are reaching their top potential. First-rounders from 2016 and 2017, safety Karl Joseph and cornerback Gareon Conley, are already off the roster while 2019 first-round picks, defensive end Clelin Ferrell and safety Johnathan Abram, still need tremendous improvement. Las Vegas found cornerback Damon Arnette in the second round of this year's draft and signed safety Damarious Randall in free agency. Arnette will play opposite of 2018 second-round choice Trayvon Mullen while Randall joins fellow free agent addition (from last year) Larmarcus Joyner in the defensive backfield.
There's no such thing as a "sure-thing" in the NFL draft, but No. 2 overall pick Chase Young is as close as it gets. He's a game-changer in every sense of the word, and pairing him with defensive end Ryan Kerrigan and 2019 first-round pick Montez Sweat could be a lethal combination. The rest of the Washington defense should be better as well. Washington signed cornerback Kendall Fuller and safety Sean Davis in free agency to join former All-Pro safety Landon Collins in the secondary. Former fifth-round pick Cole Holcomb was a breath of fresh air for the Washington defense with 105 combined tackles as a rookie last year. It's far from complete, but the pieces are starting to come together for the Washington defense.
It was a tale of two different seasons for the Falcons defense in 2019. Atlanta was nearly last in every meaningful category and had a pitiful seven sacks at the halfway point of last season, but then coach Dan Quinn fired himself as defensive coordinator and the unit progressed nicely in November and December. The hope in 2020 is the defense plays well starting in Week 1 under new defensive coordinator Raheem Morris. His best player will be the nationally underappreciated Grady Jarrett, who finally made his first Pro Bowl with 7.5 sacks in 2019. The Falcons departed with one-hit wonder Vic Beasley but upgraded with Dante Fowler at defensive end too. Injuries have derailed the Atlanta secondary over the last couple of seasons. Safety Keanu Neal will be back, but he's played in only four games since the start of 2018. The Falcons will add first-round pick A.J. Terrell at cornerback as well.
Coach Matt Patricia has to be embarrassed his Lions finished second-to-last in total defense during his second season at the helm. Possibly on the chopping block this year, Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn went for quick fixes that could lead to a defensive bounce back but could also set the franchise back again. The strategy is obvious too, as the Lions added three former Patriots defenders in linebacker Jamie Collins, defensive tackle Danny Shelton and safety Duron Harmon in free agency. They joined defensive end Trey Flowers as former Patriots on the defensive unit. Detroit also signed cornerback Desmond Trufant, who dealt with foot injuries in Atlanta for most of 2019. In the draft, the Lions selected cornerback Jeff Okudah at No. 3 overall, who, along with Trufant and Harmon, will be mostly responsible for fixing the NFL's worst pass defense from last season.
The new regime in Carolina made it clear what it believes is the team's weakness by becoming the first franchise to select all defensive players in one class during the common draft era. That speaks to how poorly the Panthers defense played last year. Carolina was 23rd in total defense but only the Miami Dolphins gave up more points. The defensive line is a great place to start a defensive rebuild. With their top two choices, the Panthers selected defensive tackle Derrick Brown and defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos. They should fit in nicely with 2019 first-round pick and defensive end Brian Burns. Four of their last five selections addressed the secondary, which saw top cornerback James Bradberry leave in free agency. Carolina will be looking for a new defensive leader as well with linebacker Luke Kuechly retiring before turning 29.
The Dolphins have selected a defensive player in each of the last four drafts, but only two of them still remain on the team. That's last year's first-round pick and defensive tackle Christian Wilkins, who Miami needs to see more from this fall, and their third 2020 first-round pick, cornerback Noah Igbinoghene. Those are the two cornerstones this defense needs build around going forward. Miami made some shrewd moves in free agency as well, signing cornerback Byron Jones, linebacker Kyle Van Noy and defensive end Shaq Lawson. Cornerback Xavien Howard returning healthy will be a key for the Dolphins as well. He played only five games last year but led the NFL with seven interceptions during 2018.
As exciting as their offense could be in 2020, the Cardinals still have a lot of work to do on defense. All-Pro defensive end Chandler Jones was second in the NFL with 19.0 sacks and yet, the Cardinals still finished second-to-last in pass defense. Arizona was a little better at stopping the run, but the unit was dead last in total defense last year. The Cardinals' other defensive staple over the last five years has been cornerback Patrick Peterson, but he had a rough 2019 beginning with a six-game PED suspension. Arizona didn't really address its secondary this offseason but did select versatile linebacker Isaiah Simmons. His arrival along with Jones' dominance give the Cardinals hope they can climb out of the NFL's defensive cellar.
There's no argument to be made for the Bengals picking quarterback Joe Burrow, but with that pick, Cincinnati has invested most of its offseason in its young signal-caller. Again, that's the right decision, but as a result, the Bengals defense is probably due for another rough year. Cincinnati has selected just one defensive player before the third round over the last four drafts, safety Jessie Bates. Defensive linemen Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap have been staples of the Bengals defense for years, but both will be at least 31 this season. For now, the pass rushing future will fall to defensive end Sam Hubbard, who had 8.5 sacks last year. The Bengals did add a few defensive players in free agency — cornerbacks Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander along with defensive tackle D.J. Reader. The fifth-year defensive tackle will be directly responsible for helping Cincinnati improve its last-ranked run defense.
Dave Holcomb began working as a sports writer in 2013 after graduating from Syracuse University. Over the past six years, he has covered the NFL, NHL, MLB, fantasy sports, college football and basketball, and New Jersey high school sports for numerous print and online publications. Follow Holcomb on Twitter at @dmholcomb.
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