Ranking Every NFL Team’s Defense Heading Into 2020

It’s official; there will be no preseason this year in the NFL. This move was certainly made as a precautionary measure to limit the spread of COVID-19, but, on the bright side, training camps appear to be set to go on as planned, and with baseball returning, there’s hope that the NFL season can take place in 2020. With there being no preseason games, teams’ rosters would appear to be more set in stone than normal, and with there being just over a month before the anticipated start of the regular season, now would appear to be a good time to take a look at each team’s defensive outlook heading into the season.

In order to rank each defense, I used past Pro Football Focus grades to project future grades for each team’s players, and weighted their overall grade in key areas (quarterback, receiver) based on findings from a previous study conducted at this website. Meanwhile, defensive play-callers were placed into one of four tiers (one being the highest, four being the lowest) with regards to how they’ve been able to elevate a team’s defensive production in the past, and from there, a multiplier was given their overall defensive talent grade.

Without further adieu, let’s rank every offense in the NFL! We’ll start with the worst defense, and will work our way to the top from there. In addition to their overall rank, each team will also be given a play-caller tier grade, as well as ranking for their passing and rushing defense. As you’ll see, defenses who project to have strong coverage units, as well as a high-end defensive coordinator, rank very favorably on this list.

*Stats via Pro Football Focus

*NOTE: These are rankings generated from a model I created, rather than my own rankings. My model is looking for the mean outcome of each offense, rather than focusing on their ceilings or floors. 

#32: Houston Texans

merciluswatt
Photo Cred: FlurrySports

Pass Defense: 32nd

Run Defense: 9th

Play-Caller Tier Rank: 4 (Below Average)

The Texans have had a very confusing offseason, but something that doesn’t get discussed enough was their failure to improve a defense that ranked last in yards/play last season. Outside of safety Justin Reid, they don’t currently have a defensive back on the roster who graded out as an above-average player last year, and it’s not like they have the pass rush to compensate for the lack of coverage ability- JJ Watt will have to be a one-man wrecking crew for them. Meanwhile, although Benardrick McKinney and Zach Cunningham are strong in run defense, they’re very inconsistent in pass coverage, and that run defense is likely to regress anyways following the loss of nose tackle DJ Reader.

Anthony Weaver will take over as the defensive coordinator for Romeo Crennel, and all indications are that he’ll run a very similar system with man-heavy principles. The team’s current group of cornerbacks (Gareon Conley, Bradley Roby) have the athleticism to thrive in that scheme, but they didn’t play well in this system last year, and if you’re going to run a lot of man coverage, you’d generally like to have better cornerbacks. Really, this defense appears to be Watt, Reid, McKinney, and a lot of potential weak-links, and thus, they easily rank as the worst unit in the league.

#31: Washington Football Team

NFL: Washington Redskins at Carolina Panthers
Photo Cred: NBC Sports

Pass Defense: 29th

Run Defense: 22nd

Play Caller Tier-Rank: 3 (Neutral)

This ranking is likely to surprise many, as there has been a lot of talk this offseason about how improved Washington will be defensively. However, that really only stems from the addition of #2 overall pick Chase Young, and although he’s a fantastic pass rusher, he won’t be able to carry this defense on his own. Paired with interior rusher Matt Ionnadis and edge rusher Ryan Kerrigan, he’ll certainly upgrade the pass rush, but I’m not sure they’re going to pressure the opposing quarterback like many expect them to do. A lot of the hype around the pass rush centers around three former first-round picks in Montez Sweat, Da’Ron Payne, and Jonathan Allen, yet none of them have been productive at the NFL level, so it’s unlikely that they’ll be a game-breaking group. If that’s the case, they’re in major trouble, given the outlook of their coverage unit. Having Ronald Darby and Fabian Moreau as your top-two cornerbacks is far from ideal, and unless they give Shaun Dion Hamilton the bulk of the playing time at linebacker, nickel corner Kendall Fuller is the only member of their defense that can be counted on in pass coverage; safety Landon Collins is a traditional box safety known for his run defense, and that role isn’t very meaningful in the modern NFL.

My models believe that a team’s pass coverage is more indicative of defensive success than a team’s pass rush, which explains the Redskins’ ranking here. Simply put, their pass coverage projects to be abysmal, and if receivers are getting open immediately, the upside of their pass rush won’t matter. Heck, I could’ve been even harsher on the team’s defensive play-calling; head coach Ron Rivera and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio have actually had an inverse effect (worse rank than talent would indicate) on their defenses in recent years.

#30: Arizona Cardinals 

chandlerjonespatpete
Photo Cred: Arizona Sports

Pass Defense: 26th

Run Defense: 15th

Play-Caller Tier Rank: 4 (Below Average)

In terms of recognizable star talent, the Cardinals would appear to be in a positive spot defensively. Both edge rusher Chandler Jones and cornerback Patrick Peterson have anchored this defense since Jones came to Arizona in 2016, and they will be asked to do the same in 2020. Jones remains a very productive pass rusher, while Peterson is coming off of a down season, but is still a very reliable cornerback. The depth behind those two, however, is not in good shape. Jones will likely have to generate pressure on his own, based on the team’s other front-four players, while the team’s other cornerbacks (Byron Murphy and Robert Alford) can’t be counted on to produce in 2020. In terms of the rest of their pass coverage, the safeties (Jalen Thompson and Budda Baker) are fine, as is the team’s linebacking corps, but they won’t be able to elevate a lackluster cornerback group.

If the Cardinals were willing to be creative with first-round pick Isaiah Simmons, then perhaps he could be chess-piece that could make a huge difference for their defense. Unfortunately, it appears they’ll have him be more of a straight-up linebacker, which not only hurts his value, but also demonstrates a huge flaw with the Cardinals defensively- their defensive coordinator. Between his time as the head coach of the Broncos and the defensive coordinator in Arizona last season, Vance Joseph has generally had a negative influence on his defenses’ overall performance, and without a lot of talent, it could get ugly (again) for the Cardinals in 2020. They’re a great example of the coverage versus pass rush debate, as despite grading out as the 7th-best pass rush last season, they finished 28th in yards/play with the league’s worst coverage unit; said coverage unit doesn’t look much improved heading into this season.

#29: Carolina Panthers

treboston
Photo Cred: GoHeels.com

Pass Defense: 30th

Run Defense: 12th

Play-Caller Tier Rank: 3 (Neutral)

It’s the end of an era in Carolina, as not did they move on from quarterback Cam Newton, but superstar linebacker Luke Kuechly retired. In fact, there’s a lot of turnover with the defense- only five starters from last year remain. Carolina picked a defensive player with each of their seven picks, and three of them (interior defender Derrick Brown, edge rusher Yetur Gross-Matos, safety Jeremy Chinn) will be asked to star right away. Thus, this defense will go through their growing pains, especially since there isn’t a substantial amount of talent present. If edge rusher Brian Burns can progress in his second season, he could lead a decent pass rush with interior rusher Kawaan Short coming back from a season-ending injury. However, the pass coverage doesn’t look pretty on paper. Safety Tre Boston is one of the premier coverage safeties in the NFL, but the linebacking core was decimated with the loss of Kuechly, while the cornerback duo of Eli Apple and Donte Jackson shouldn’t inspire a lot of optimism. Meanwhile, as things stand, I have no idea who’ll be defending the slot for them, which is a major issue in a division with Michael Thomas and Chris Godwin.

With Matt Rhule taking as head coach, long-time Baylor defensive coordinator Phil Snow will be calling the shots for Carolina’s defense. Based on their current personnel, I’d expect that they play a lot of man coverage, as well as a lot of dime packages. That may work over time, but, right now, the defense is just too inexperienced and thin on talent to hold their own in an NFC South division filled with high-powered passing offenses; this could be a long season for Snow.

#28: Cincinnati Bengals

batesdunlap
Photo Cred: Cincinnati Enquirer

Pass Defense: 25th

Run Defense: 5th

Play-Caller Tier Rank: 4 (Below Average)

The Bengals used premier draft picks to improve the long-term outlook of their passing offense by selecting quarterback Joe Burrow and receiver Tee Higgins, but they spent a lot of money to improve their defense, which was tied for last with the Texans in yards/play allowed last season. Their main signing was nose tackle DJ Reader, who is coming off a career season in which he was a force as a pass rusher and run defender. Paired with Geno Atkins on the interior, as well Carlos Dunlap, he’ll help solidify a top-notch defensive line. Ideally, you’d hope for a little more certainty from the #2 edge rusher spot, but both Sam Hubbard and Carl Lawson are quality options; they’ll pressure the opposing quarterback and will be able to defend the run well. After that, though, the defense’s outlook is a lot more murky. Although they paid $14 million per year for cornerback Trae Waynes, he’s been an average starter throughout his career, while William Jackson III is coming off of a poor season. Speaking of disappointing seasons, safety Jessie Bates III really regressed in 2019 – as an aggressive player, he’ll be more inconsistent that you’d like – and pairing him with free-agent signing Vonn Bell, who was a liability in coverage last year, won’t help. Now, they did bolster the linebacking core by signing Josh Bynes, as well as drafting Logan Wilson and Akeem Davis-Gaither, but Bynes certainly benefitted from playing in a very linebacker-friendly scheme in Baltimore, while the latter two players were mid-round picks- they shouldn’t be expected to contribute immediately.

The Bengals should be able to stop the run at a high rate, and they’ve clearly chosen to build through their front four. Nevertheless, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about their pass coverage, as they don’t have a single back-seven player that has proven to be a consistently above-average player. Meanwhile, defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo didn’t impress last season, as his single-high safety scheme appeared to have negative effects on some of the team’s defensive backs, while they severely underperformed as a unit, based on their Pro Football Focus overall defense grade rank (24th). Cincinnati’s defense should be improved from last season, but considering how much of a liability they were, that isn’t saying much.

#27: New York Giants

giantsdline
Photo Cred: New York Post

Pass Defense: 28th

Run Defense: 8th

Play-Caller Tier Rank: 3 (Neutral)

General manager Dave Gettleman has taken his fair share a lot of criticism since taking over in New York, and one of his main weaknesses is what he values from his defense. He’s built the Giants to be strong in the trenches and stop the run, and, unfortunately for them, that simply doesn’t move the needle. Now, interior defenders Dexter Lawrence, Leonard Williams, and Dalvin Tomlinson all are talented players, but I wouldn’t exactly call that trio a fearsome one when it comes to rushing the passer; they also have very little in terms of edge rush talent. However, that lack of a pass rush wouldn’t much if they have sound pass coverage, which they must have, right? Nope. To be fair, the safety trio of Julian Love, Xavier McKinney, and Jabrill Peppers will be a lot of fun to watch, especially if they utilize a lot of dime packages. Still, if defensive coordinator Patrick Graham is going to run a man-heavy scheme (he did so in Miami last year), you’d hope that they’d have more reliable cornerbacks. James Bradberry hasn’t been very productive throughout his four-year career, and he wouldn’t appear to have the athleticism necessary to play in this style of scheme. As for the rest of their options, do Sam Beal, Grant Haley, or Corey Ballentine excite you? Even if linebacker Blake Martinez reverts back to his 2018 form, the safeties aren’t going to be complemented well whatsoever, which is really a shame.

This Patriots-style scheme that Graham will implement in New York has had a positive effect on defenses in the past, but the Giants just don’t have the talent at cornerback to succeed in it. They’ll stop the run at a high rate, yet teams will gladly expose their shortcomings in pass defense, so I’m not sure that really matters. They had the resources to supplement their secondary this offseason, but it’s safe to say that they failed to do so.

#26: Las Vegas Raiders

raidersdefense
Photo Cred: Las Vegas Review-Journal

Pass Defense: 23rd

Run Defense: 29th

Play-Caller Tier Rank: 3 (Neutral)

If the Raiders slotted in their players they way they should, they’d rank much higher on this list. Yet, it appears that they’ll continue to play Lamarcus Joyner at slot cornerback, which is a travesty. After emerging onto the scene as a top-ten free safety, the 29-year-old was abysmal (42.8 coverage grade) in the slot last season, and it’s a shame to see a talented player be put in such a tough situation to succeed. Thus, their secondary is in worse shape than it should be. On the bright side, the addition of cornerback Prince Amukamara means that they’re only relying on one of their young players (Trayvon Mullen and Damon Arnette) to step up to be the team’s #2 corner, and that’s not an unreasonable expectation. Plus, the safety duo of Damarious Randall and Jonathan Abram should get the job done, and we can’t overstate how improved their linebacking core is. They couldn’t defend the middle of the field at all last year, and free-agent signings Cory Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski complement each other tremendously; Littleton is an elite cover linebacker, while Kwiatkoski is talented there as well, but also can compensate for some of Littleton’s issues in run defense. As for the pass rush, the young edge rush duo of Clelin Ferrell and Maxx Crosby needs to develop, as it appears that the Raiders will be getting most of their pressure from interior rushers Maurice Hurst and Maliek Collins.

Defensive coordinator Paul Guenther has done a reasonable job with the Raiders, and was well-regarded during his time with the Bengals. He wants his defenses to play a lot of man coverage, though, like some of the other teams on this list, I’m not sure they’ll be able to. The cornerbacks outside of Amukamara drag down this defense, but they’re going to defend the middle of the field much better, and if all goes well, I definitely could see them overachieving this ranking.

#25: Miami Dolphins

brianfloresphins
Photo Cred: Sun Sentinel

Pass Defense: 31st

Run Defense: 10th

Play-Caller Tier Rank: 2 (Above Average)

Last season, the Dolphins defense had zero talent whatsoever. They finished with the worst Pro Football Focus grade by a wide margin, and also ranked last in coverage grade and pass-rush grade. However, they added a lot of impact talent this offseason, so although they still won’t have a great defense, they shouldn’t be a liability. Head coach Brian Flores is running a Patriots-style defensive scheme with a lot of man coverage and hybrid looks, and he built his defense in a way to better fit said scheme. In comes star cornerback Byron Jones, who is not only one of the elite players at his position, but has also thrived in single coverage in the past. Now, what they get from Xavien Howard, who is rather inconsistent, and first-round pick Noah Igbinoghene, who was seen as a project coming out of Auburn, remains to be seen. However, saying that their cornerback room is in much better shape than it was last year would be an understatement. Meanwhile, Kyle Van Noy will be able to play the hybrid edge rusher/off-ball linebacker role that’s a staple of this defensive scheme, while Shaq Lawson is also a quality pass rusher. Nevertheless, the rest of their defense has some major holes. Although their defensive line will have no trouble stopping the run, how much they’re able to rush the opposing quarterback remains to be seen. Additionally, linebackers Jerome Baker and Raekwon McMillan both were liabilities in pass defense last season, and their safety group also appears to be thin on paper.

This defense is heading in the right direction, especially with Flores leading the way; the fact that they didn’t finish last in yards/play last season is very impressive. Nevertheless, this is still an incomplete defense, so we should still expect this to be a transitionary year for them. I’m excited to see what this unit could look like as a finished product (better linebackers, safeties, and one more pass rusher), but that time is not now.

#24: Cleveland Browns

mylesgarrett
Photo Cred: NFL Spin Zone

Pass Defense: 21st

Run Defense: 29th

Play-Caller Tier Rank: 3 (Neutral)

A lot of the attention regarding the Browns’ failure to meet expectations fell on Baker Mayfield on the offense, but it’s not like the defense held their end of the bargain either- they were the fourth-lowest graded defense last season. They’ll look to improve in 2020, and there is reason to be optimistic. They have one of the top edge-rush tandems in the NFL with Myles Garrett and Olivier Vernon, and also have other rotational pieces (Adrian Clayborn, Sheldon Richardson, third-round pick Jordan Elliot) that’ll solidify their pass rush. Outside of that, though, there are a lot of question marks. Denzel Ward is a terrific cornerback who’ll thrive in new defensive coordinator Joe Woods’ man-heavy scheme, while Kevin Johnson should be able to hold his own in the slot. The key, however, will be for second-year cornerback Greedy Williams to take a step forward in his second season; he’s coming off a 53.6-grade season, but should be better in Woods’ defense. Honestly, the cornerbacks have to able to encourage Woods to play man coverage; if not, the back-end of the defense will be exposed. A linebacking group headlined by Mack Wilson, BJ Goodson, and Sione Takitaki isn’t in a great spot, and if second-round pick Grant Delpit can’t be an immediate contributor, they’ll be relying on the safety duo of Anthony Sendejo and Karl Joseph.

Theoretically, the personnel is better suited for Woods’ man-heavy scheme, if that’s the defense he intends to run. If all goes well, this could be a strong defense. Nevertheless, their performance is too dependent on unproven players, and, thus, they feel like a boom-or-bust defense heading into this season.

#23: Los Angeles Rams

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Photo Cred: Sportsnet

Pass Defense: 26th

Run Defense: 11th

Play-Caller Tier Rank: 3 (Neutral)

With interior rusher Aaron Donald and cornerback Jalen Ramsey, the Rams aren’t lacking well-regarded star players. What they do lack, however, is depth in every area. Donald, for instance, is the undisputed best pass rusher in the NFL, but, as per usual, he won’t be supported by impact pass rushers. After losing edge rusher Dante Fowler, the Rams’ other front-four players consistent of run-stuffing defensive tackles (Michael Brockers, A’Shawn Robinson), as well as unproven edge rushers (Samson Ebukam, Leonard Floyd, Terrell Lewis)- they’ll have a good, but not great pass rush. Meanwhile, Ramsey anchors a strong secondary, but who defends the slot is a bit of a question, while safety John Johnson III will team up with a pair of players who haven’t yet shown they can produce at the NFL level- second-year player Taylor Rapp and third-round rookie Terrell Burgress. Then, there’s the team’s linebackers. Sure, they’ll likely use a lot of dime (one linebacker) packages next season, but that only puts more pressure on the single linebacker to hold his own in coverage and run defense. To that end, Cory Littleton was a huge part of that defense, and now that he’s gone, they’ll try to replace him with some combination of Kenny Young, Travin Howard, Micah Kiser, and Troy Reeder??? We’ll see how that goes when they have to face a team like the 49ers, who love to attack the middle of the field.

New defensive coordinator Brandon Stanley was an understudy of Vic Fangio, which could mean a lot of split-safety sets and zone coverages. However, that puts a lot of pressure on the team’s linebackers, so Stanley will have to be creative; he wasn’t given the ideal personnel to run a defense that’ll effectively hold offenses in checks. It’s astonishing how quickly the Rams have fallen, as their lofty investments in multiple star powers have really hampered the overall depth of their roster.

#22: Jacksonville Jaguars

Jacksonville Jaguars v New York Giants
Photo Cred: Black and Teal

Pass Defense: 18th

Run Defense: 31st

Play-Caller Tier Rank: 3 (Neutral)

Similarly to the Seahawks, the Jaguars once had a historically dominant defenses, but as all defenses do eventually, they regressed- their life span was rather short, as most of their top players were veteran free-agent signings. Now, they’re trying to rebuild what was once known as “Sacksonville”, especially after they were the fourth-worst defenses in yards/play allowed last season (6.0). They had already moved on from cornerback Jalen Ramsey, and this offseason, they parted ways with two pillars of that elite 2017 defense- defensive lineman Calais Campbell and cornerback AJ Bouye. Meanwhile, edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue will not report to the team, so when it’s all said and done, only one starter from the 2017 team will feature for them in 2020. That would be linebacker Myles Jack, who is coming off of a miserable season, but should bounce back, given the injuries he dealt with and his previous production as a high-end coverage linebacker. Helping that cause is the signing of Joe Schobert, one of the top linebackers in the NFL in terms of coverage, and the two of them should give Jacksonville significantly better production covering the middle of the field than they had last season; safeties Jarrod Wilson and Ronnie Harrison have been solid coverage players as well. Meanwhile, although the pass rush won’t be as loaded as it once was, their defensive front has a high ceiling. Josh Allen and Taven Bryan are both former first-round picks who have shown signs of promise in their early careers, and if K’Lavon Chaisson can make an impact as a rookie, they’ll be more than adequate rushing the passer. The same goes for their pass defense, which stems on first-round rookie cornerback CJ Henderson’s ability to quickly transition to the NFL. If he does, he and slot corner DJ Hayden may be able to help compensate for the fact that their #2 cornerback situation isn’t in a great spot, though it’s the only egregious weakness on this unit.

The Jaguars were a severe disappointment defensively last season, but a major reason for that was how much of a liability their linebackers were. A bounce-back from Jack and the addition of Schobert will stabilize them in that regard, and if their young players take the next step in their progression, this could actually be a solid defense. It’s more likely that all the new pieces will mesh together in 2021, however, which is why my model has them slotted outside the top 20.

#21: Kansas City Chiefs

chiefsdefense
Photo Cred: Chiefs Wire-USAToday.com

Pass Defense: 24th

Run Defense: 32nd

Play-Caller Tier Rank: 1 (Elite)

The Chiefs have had an extremely explosive offense over the past two seasons, but an underrated story was the improvement of their defense. Sure, they weren’t terrific by any means, but they went from being one of the league’s worst defenses to being an average group, which is very encouraging as they look to win a second-straight Super Bowl title. Essentially, Kansas City returns the same exact group from last season. Although they lack any sort of depth at cornerback, Charvarius Ward is at least a reliable starter, while Tyrann Mathieu’s ability to play nickel corner is very beneficial for them. Between Mathieu and second-year safety Juan Thornhill, Kansas City has two players that can move around and compensate for some of their clear deficiencies, primarily cornerback, and that’s a major asset for them. Plus, if Frank Clark can get back to his previous form, he and interior rusher Chris Jones will be able to form a respectable pass rush, though this team projects to be atrocious versus the run. A major reason for that is a linebacking group that has, at times, been a noticeable liability, though second-round rookie Willie Gay Jr. could change that if he can be an immediate starter.

The Chiefs won’t be able to stop the run at all, but I’m guessing they couldn’t care less. When you have such a dynamic offense, you’re worried about defending the pass, and in that regard, Mathieu, Ward, and Thornhill will help them. So will defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who undoubtedly elevated this defense last season by putting his players in position to succeed (less coverage responsibilities for his linebackers, employing Mathieu as a do-it-all playmaker, lots of zone coverage). The talent here isn’t great, but the presence of a very smart defensive mind, as well as players like Mathieu and Thornhill, should keep them from being a bottom-ten defense.

#20: Tennessee Titans 

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Photo Cred: Tenn Truth

Pass Defense: 21st

Run Defense: 19th

Play-Caller Tier Rank: 3 (Neutral)

The Titans are another team that generally was known for their defense, but have become more of an offense-centric team. That’s certainly the way the go, though it does speak to the slight fall of their defense. Generally, this has been a team that has built through their secondary, and that’s evident with the presence of impact players such as cornerback Adoree’ Jackson and safety Kevin Byard. However, the depth behind them isn’t great. Their big-money investments in cornerback Malcolm Butler and safety Kenny Vaccaro haven’t worked out, so unless a young player (cornerback Kristian Fulton, safety Amani Hooker) plays his way into a large role, the faces of their defense won’t be complemented properly. It’s a similar story at linebacker, where Jayon Brown has proven to be a potential staple of their defense, but Rashaan Evans severely limited in pass defense; there are clear holes in their back-seven. Plus, since they’ve rightfully built from their secondary, they don’t have much of a pass rush, especially on the edge; Harold Landry III hasn’t produced in his two seasons in the NFL, and who plays opposite of him is a major question mark.

The Titans have tried to construct their defense the right way, but players like Evans and Vaccaro really hurt their ability to field a strong coverage unit. In my opinion, the X-Factors are Butler and Fulton, as if they can solidify a strong cornerback trio, I’m confident that this defense can get back on track. Nevertheless, it appears unlikely that’ll happen.

#19: Indianapolis Colts

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Photo Cred: 1070 The Fan

Pass Defense: 16th

Run Defense: 23rd

Play-Caller Tier Rank: 3 (Neutral)

As recently as 2017, the Colts had one of the worst defenses in the NFL, but through the draft, general manager Chris Ballard has done a great job building a unit filled with a lot of depth. For me, the strength of this team is with their linebackers, as Darius Leonard, Bobby Okereke, and Anthony Walker make up an excellent trio when it comes to pass coverage. Add in the very competent safety duo of Malik Hooker and Khari Willis, and Indianapolis’ coverage over the middle of the field should very strong. So, when you add in a talented defensive front led by Justin Houston, DeForest Buckner, Denico Autry, and Kemoko Turay, they should easily have one of the top pass defenses, right? Unfortunately for the Colts, their cornerback situation will likely get in the way of that. They executed a very confusing swap at the position this offseason, cutting Pierre Desir in order to sign former Viking Xavier Rhodes. The 30-year-old Rhodes was an impact player in his prime, but he’s been a liability over the past two seasons, and shouldn’t be starting for a contending team. Plus, the stability at the position isn’t great outside of him, as Rock Ya-Sin and Marvel Tell are unproven young players; nickel corner Kenny Moore II is the only cornerback they can truly count on.

With an abundance of resources this offseason, I was really hoping the Colts would add an impact cornerback, whether it be Byron Jones, or a draft prospect such as Kristian Fulton or Trevon Diggs. Instead, they opted to trade a first-round pick in order to pay DeForest Buckner $21 million per year, and although he’ll fill a need, he won’t move the needle the same way a high-end cornerback could’ve. This is a defense filled with youth, athleticism, and depth, but entrusting Rhodes with a starting role really hurts my model’s view of them.

#18: Atlanta Falcons

jarrettjones
Photo Cred: Blogging Dirty

Pass Defense: 19th

Run Defense: 18th

Play-Caller Tier Rank: 3 (Neutral)

For the first half of the season, the Falcons really struggled defensively. Nevertheless, they were able to make some necessary changes, and they’re hoping to translate that into success in 2020. While many teams are starting to catch onto the idea that building a strong coverage unit is the way to go, Atlanta isn’t quite on board. They’ve invested a lot of resources into their pass rush, and between Grady Jarrett, Dante Fowler Jr., and Takkarist McKinnley, their defensive line is in good shape. Plus, for what it’s worth, they have a trio of talented safeties in Ricardo Allen, Keanu Neal, and Damontae Kazee, and combined with linebacker Deion Jones, they’ll hold their own over the middle of the field. In the end, though, the fate of this defense will come down to their cornerbacks. The late signing of nickel corner Darqueze Dennard could pay monumental dividends for them next season, while they invested a first-round pick in AJ Terrell. However, Terrell didn’t look like a finished product coming out of Clemson – he tended to struggle with physicality – and Isaiah Oliver is coming off of a poor season.

A lot of credit for Atlanta’s late-season improvements last year have to go to Raheem Morris, who took over defensive play-calling and will do so again as the team’s defensive coordinator in 2020. If the outside cornerbacks reach their potential, this defense could really surprise people. However, I don’t see that happening, and, in the end, they have too many holes for them to be more than an average defense. They’re very fortunate that Dennard was available for them so late in the offseason, as their acquisition of him could propel them forward in a way they couldn’t have imagined.

#17: Philadelphia Eagles

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Photo Cred: Bleeding Green Nation

Pass Defense: 13th

Run Defense: 21st

Play-Caller Tier Rank: 3 (Neutral)

No team has had a more consistently dominant defensive line recently than the Eagles. In fact, they’ve graded as a top-five pass rush in each of the past five seasons, which says a lot about the fantastic duo of interior rusher Fletcher Cox and edge rusher Brandon Graham. Since 2014, those two veterans have had a Pro Football Focus overall grade over 80 in each season, and although they’re not coming off of their best seasons, they’ll still continue to wreak havoc on the opposing quarterback. That’s especially true given the support they’ll have, as even if edge rusher Derek Barnett isn’t much more than a replaceable pass rusher, interior defenders Javon Hargrave and Malik Jackson should provide a massive boost. As per usual, Philadelphia will have a healthy collection of pass rushers that they’ll be able to rotate, which will allow their defensive line to stay fresh and produce at a high level. Nevertheless, how this defense fares will depend on the same aspect that put them over the edge in 2017- their pass coverage. The additions of nickel corner Nickel Robey-Coleman and former Lion cornerback Darius Slay should stabilize their coverage, especially with safety Rodney McLeod also back in the fold. At the same time, Slay is getting close to age 30 and is coming off of the worst season of his career, and based on their options at linebacker and safety, their middle-of-the-field coverage could become a pressing issue.

Slay, Robey-Coleman, and Hargrave were nice additions, but the Eagles also lost a key member of their secondary in Malcolm Jenkins, and it’s very unclear how they’ll be able to replace his production. Their middle-of-the-field coverage, as well as their #2 outside cornerback spot, each are concerns that need to be addressed; it won’t matter how tremendous their pass rush can be if quarterbacks are able to quickly distribute the ball to an open target.

#16: Chicago Bears

mackjackson
Photo Cred: WGN-TV

Pass Defense: 15th

Run Defense: 12th

Play-Caller Tier Rank: 3 (Neutral)

Similarly to the Eagles, the Bears have tried to build their defense, and honestly their team, through their defensive front. It worked in 2018, when they won the NFC North with a 12-4 record, but things went south in 2019, and my model isn’t expecting them to be much more than a middle-of-the-pack unit this season. When you pay a player $23.5 million and trade two first-round picks for him, you clearly have enormous expectations for him, and Khalil Mack has essentially been as productive as Chicago could’ve hoped for. However, as an edge defender, he isn’t capable of carrying the defense, which means that the Bears should also have invested a lot of resources in their pass coverage. Rather, they’ve continued to go all-in on their defensive line, as evidenced by their free-agent signing of Robert Quinn to go along with interior rusher Akiem Hicks. Even if Quinn replicates his 2019 production, the $14 million per year he’s making will still be an overpay, but he’s also struggled as a stand-up pass rusher, so there are reasons to be worried about his ability to maintain that production. Still, though, the Bears better hope that he’ll make their defensive front unstoppable, as their coverage is severely lacking. Cornerback Kyle Fuller and safety Eddie Jackson have been inconsistent players throughout their early careers, and, frankly, they’re the only back-seven players this team can count on. Fuller will be supplemented by second-round rookie Jaylon Johnson and below-average nickel corner Buster Skrine, Jackson will pair with the aging Tashaun Gipson, while linebackers Roquan Smith and Danny Trevathan are each coming off of subpar seasons.

Mack drew most of the headlines in 2018, but what really was the driving force behind the Bears’ defensive success was their pass coverage, which graded out as easily the best in the NFL. Since then, however, they’ve failed to replace safety Adrian Amos and nickel corner Bryce Callahan, and unless Fuller and Jackson are able to revert back to their previous form (unlikely considering those were outlier seasons for both of them), there’s no reason to expect any sort of defensive dominance from them. Remember, this is supposed to be the overwhelming strength of their team; general manager Ryan Pace’s roster-construction strategies have been appalling, to say the least,

#15: Green Bay Packers

Green Bay Packers v Minnesota Vikings
Photo Cred: Lombardi Ave

Pass Defense: 11th

Run Defense: 26th

Play-Caller Tier Rank: 3 (Neutral)

Sticking with the theme of defenses that have done what they can to build a stout defensive line, the Packers were able to overhaul their pass rush last offseason, and it worked- they earned a top-five pass rush grade last season. The signing of the Smith brothers, Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith (no relation) allowed them to get significantly more production from their edge rushers, and both remain fantastic fits for this defense- they’re able to be stand-up rushers and can even slide inside on obvious passing downs. Then, there’s Kenny Clark, who is a rare commodity as a nose tackle who is proficient rushing the passer, and if second-year edge rusher Rashan Gary can take a step forward, this pass rush should be exceptional; there’s even talk that they might sign veteran pass rusher Everson Griffen, which would almost be overkill at that point. Plus, unlike Chicago, they’ve done a better job investing in the secondary, as they have a very talented safety tandem in Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage, as well as a true #1 corner in Jaire Alexander. So, what’s the problem with this defense? Well, for starters, the options at cornerback outside of Alexander aren’t ideal, as Kevin King and Josh Jackson are former top picks that have failed to develop- they’ve been replaceable players so far in their early careers. Meanwhile, their linebacker situation is a disaster. Sure, they’ll play a lot of dime defense in order to get safety Chandon Sullivan on the field, but they still could use an athletic, reliable linebacker, and Christian Kirksey won’t be that. Green Bay  struggled defending tight ends and running backs last season, and there isn’t any reason to believe that’ll change in 2020.

Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine is notorious for being extreme in terms of his disregard for his defense’s run defense, which is fine. Still, even if they utilize a lot of sub packages, I have concerns about their depth at cornerback and linebacker. If one of King or Jackson can become a reliable starter, then this should be a top-ten defense, but that’s a major “if”.

#14: New York Jets

greggwilliamspoole
Photo Cred: ESPN

Pass Defense: 23rd

Run Defense: 18th

Play-Caller Tier Rank: 1 (Elite)

Based on talent alone, the Jets have a bottom-ten defense. With linebacker CJ Mosley opting out and safety Jamal Adams being traded, they’ll be without arguably two players they came into the offseason expecting to be pillars of their defense, and there isn’t a lot of recognizable talent on the roster. For instance, linebacker Avery Williamson is a great run defender, but he’s average in coverage, and without Mosley, they’ll be relying upon two middling options in Patrick Onwuasor and Neville Hewitt. Plus, it’s clear they lack any sort of high-end pass rusher, as their defensive line is much more talented in run defense. To be fair, it isn’t all bleak; safeties Marcus Maye and Bradley McDougald are both above-average players at their position, while nickel corner Brian Poole is coming off of a great season- the cornerback duo of Pierre Desir and Arthur Maulet on the outside should also be at least competent.

It’s clear the Jets don’t have a great defense on paper, so why does my model project them as an above-average unit? Simply put, they have one of the top defensive masterminds in the sport. His role in the Saints’ bounty scandal and fiery personality has diminished his reputation, but Gregg Williams is a fantastic defensive coordinator. Since 2016, his defenses, based on yard per play, have dramatically outplayed their overall grade rank, which speaks to his ability to elevate a subpar group of talent. That’s impressive in it of itself, but he’s also done that in three different spots (Rams, Browns, Jets), and he led New York to a top-five rank in yards/play allowed last season. There’s no doubting that this defense is in far worse shape than it was last year, though an argument can be made that they still have their most important member of that unit, and as long as Williams is calling the shots, they should at least be an average defense.

#13: Detroit Lions

patricia
Photo Cred: SideLion Report

Pass Defense: 12th

Run Defense: 15th

Play-Caller Tier Rank: 3 (Neutral)

Last season, the Lions really struggled defensively, ranking 24th and 31st in yards/play and overall defensive grade, respectively. Yet, after a very productive offseason, this appears to be a quickly-ascending unit, as indicated by model’s optimistic projection for them. Many will point to the loss of cornerback Darius Slay as a red flag, but Slay graded out as a below-average cornerback anyways, so that’s not much of a loss when comparing them to last season. After all, it’s not as though they didn’t significantly overhaul their cornerback group, as Desmond Trufant has been a consistently above-average player, while #3 overall pick Jeffrey Okudah was a special prospect coming out of Ohio State. Meanwhile, Duron Harmon and Tracy Walker may be the most underrated safety tandem in the NFL, while Justin Coleman should do a better job manning the slot than he did last year, given his previous track record. I commend this front office for getting rid of any potential weak-links in the secondary, and it’s not as though they don’t have a respectable pass rush; in fact, my model believes they’ll be a top-ten pass rush group. Trey Flowers is a reliable edge defender that doesn’t get enough recognition, D’Shawn Hand and Danny Shelton will do their job on the interior, and Jamie Collins Sr. and third-round pick Julian Okwara are equipped to play edge rusher/off-ball linebacker hybrids for this multiple-front defense. Honestly, linebacker is the only spot on this defense that I’m worried about, but even then, Collins Sr. will help them compensate for their deficiencies in that regard.

Head coach Matt Patricia did a nice job elevating this defense last season, and this year, he’ll have much more to work with. When you run a man-heavy, multiple-front scheme, you need athletic, flexible players, and that’s exactly what they’re getting with players like Okudah, Trufant, Harmon, and Collins Sr. The Lions are a sneaky pick to win the NFC North next season, and their massively-improved defense is a major reason why.

#12: Seattle Seahawks 

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Baltimore Ravens
Photo Cred: Seahawks Wire

Pass Defense: 17th

Run Defense: 14th

Play-Caller Tier Rank: 4 (Below Average)

Ever since they had to dismantle the “Legion of Boom”, the Seahawks have done everything they can to get back to those glory days- they want to win with their defense. Their latest attempt to do so involved them trading two first-round picks (and more) for superstar safety Jamal Adams, who is the perfect chess-piece with his all-around skillset- he’ll move around and allow Seattle to be more flexible with their coverages. However, no single defensive player can prompt a unit up on his own, and the Seahawks simply don’t have enough talent. Take their cornerback room, for instance. Shaquill Griffin is coming off of a productive season, but he was one of the worst cornerbacks in the league the season prior, which is precisely what Tre Flowers was last year; Quinton Dunbar appears unlikely to play after being put on the commissioner’s exempt list. Heck, Seattle doesn’t even have enough cornerback depth to play nickel defense, so they’ll continue to foolishly play with three linebackers on the field. That decision had negative effects on the production of linebackers Bobby Wagner and KJ Wright, who had been one of the best linebacker duos previously, and it could do the same for first-round pick Jordyn Brooks, who already projected to struggle in pass coverage. Meanwhile, after letting edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney leave (presumably), Seattle has easily the worst pass rush in the NFL; Bruce Irvin, LJ Collier, Jarran Reed, and Poona Ford aren’t exactly the defensive line that you’d expect from a team that’s trying to build through their defense.

Also hurting the Seahawks is their defensive scheme. As mentioned, they’ve failed to adjust their defensive scheme, and it’s clear that their heavy usage of base defense was getting exposed last season. Instead of modernizing their strategies, they’ve only doubled-down on their beliefs, so, once again, I’m expecting that their actual production (yards/play allowed) is much worse than it should be. Adams is a great player, but without better cornerbacks and some threat of a pass rush, he won’t be able to move the needle the way Seattle clearly believes he can.

NOTE: With news that no charges have been filed against Quinton Dunbar, it’s looking likely he’ll be cleared to play. Thus, Seattle’s ranking is now far higher than it was previously.

#11: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

bucsdefense
Photo Cred: buccaneers.com

Pass Defense: 14th

Run Defense: 16th

Play-Caller Tier Rank: 2 (Above Average)

Before 2019, the Bucs generally had one of the worst defenses in the NFL- they ranked in the bottom-two in yards/play allowed in 2017 and 2018. However, everything changed last year, and I expect that growth to continue in 2020. When analyzing the reason for change last season, we have to start with the secondary. Previously, Tampa Bay’s defensive backs were amongst the least-talented in the NFL, but they’ve continued to take shots on cornerbacks in the draft, and that paid dividends last season. Jamel Dean, Carlton Davis, and Sean Murphy-Bunting figure to be a very productive cornerback trio, and best yet, all of them are just 23-years-old. Heck, they lacked production from their safeties last season, but with Justin Evans coming back from injury and second-round rookie Antoine Winfield Jr. likely to start for them immediately, this has the makings of an elite young secondary that they can shape their defense around. Sticking with the pass coverage, linebacker Lavonte David is the veteran of this defense at 30-years-old, but he’s still an elite player in coverage, while former top-five pick Devin White is the x-factor of this entire defense; he’s coming off of a poor rookie season, but if he reaches his potential, watch out. As for the defensive line, they have a really quality front four that should be able to make an impact rushing the passer and defending the run.

The Bucs have a lot of young players to build around for the future, and they’ll be coached well by defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, who made a noticeable impact last season. The presence of so many young players mean that their floor is lower, but, at the same time, if all goes well, they could have an elite defense. In essence, they’re the poster child for why you continuously throw darts on defensive backs in the draft- if you get the pick right, you can dramatically alter the fate of your defense.

#10: New Orleans Saints

saintsdefensecelebration
Photo Cred: Yahoo! Sports

Pass Defense: 6th

Run Defense: 3rd

Play-Caller Tier Rank: 4 (Below Average)

Similarly to the division-rival Bucs, the Saints spent most of the past decade with an absurdly poor defense, but starting in 2017, they’ve solidified themselves as an above-average defense. What did it take? As is the case with most improved defenses, better pass coverage. Cornerback Marshon Lattimore has been a very inconsistent player throughout his career, but his 2019 season got off to a poor start, so he should naturally regress to the mean in 2020. Furthermore, he’ll be complemented well by Janoris Jenkins, a major upgrade over the departed Eli Apple, and, quietly, Chauncey Gardner-Johnson emerged as one of the better nickel defenders last season. To top it off, it’s hard to not rank Marcus Williams and Malcolm Jenkins as one of the top safety duos in the NFL, while linebackers Demario Davis, Alex Anzalone, and Nigel Bradham will further bolster their pass coverage. Plus, their pass rush has a chance to be lethal with the edge rush duo of Cameron Jordan and Marcus Davenport; you could do a lot worse on the interior that Sheldon Rankins, Shy Tuttle, and David Oneymata.

If we ranked these defenses based on talent alone, my model has the Saints as a top-five unit. However, they’ve consistently underproduced, based on their overall defense grade, which says a lot about defensive coordinator Dennis Allen- how he’s continued to be entrusted as the unit’s play-caller is a mystery. On the bright side, all indications are that they’ll play more press-man this season, which would allow players like Lattimore and Janoris Jenkins to shine. This group has all the makings of a potent defense. Now, it’s up to them to finally perform at the level they’re capable of.

#9: Dallas Cowboys

cowboyslbs
Photo Cred: Inside The Star

Pass Defense: 9th

Run Defense: 6th

Play-Caller Tier Rank: 3 (Neutral)

After losing edge rusher Robert Quinn and cornerback Byron Jones, the Cowboys, in the eyes of many, appear destined to regress from their top-ten rank in defense grade and yards/play allowed. Yet, my model doesn’t believe that will be the case. Let’s start with the pass rush. Sure, losing Quinn hurts, but not only do they still have a premier edge rusher in Demarcus Lawrence, they also revamped their interior pass rush by signing veteran Gerald McCoy. As for the pass coverage, they didn’t replace Jones directly, yet they should be able to overcompensate for his loss by improving in other areas. The signing of safety Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix to pair with Xavier Woods gives them one of the top safety duos, and, on top of that, linebackers Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander-Esch should positively regress back to the mean this season. As for their cornerbacks, it’s not all doom and gloom. Chidobe Awuzie and nickel corner Jourdan Lewis are productive players, while you could do a lot worse at the #2 outside corner spot than second-round rookie Trevon Diggs, who was very productive at Alabama.

It’s unclear what new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan will bring to the table, but if I had to guess, he’ll be very aggressive when it comes to blitzing, while utilizing a lot of deep-shell zone coverages. That type of defense would appear to fit the personnel he has in place, so although I’m a little worried about all the moving parts in a shortened offseason, I can understand why my model is enthusiastic about their outlook for this season.

#8: Buffalo Bills

NFL: Buffalo Bills at New York Giants
Photo Cred: Bills Wire- USAToday.com

Pass Defense: 10th

Run Defense: 30th

Play-Caller Tier Rank: 1 (Elite)

With head coach Sean McDermott calling the shots, the Bills have built their team through their defense, which has helped guide them to a playoff spot in two of the past three seasons. However, that approach is risky, considering the year-to-year volatility of defenses, so the organization has the hoping that they’ve done enough to sustain a top-notch defense. At the very least, they’ve constructed their defense with a modern view- they’re not concerned about stopping the run and have invested in their pass coverage. Thus, their secondary appears to be in good shape. The safety duo of Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer is tremendous, as is the cornerback tandem of Tre’Davious White and Levi Wallace. Now, Buffalo may get too cute by starting veteran Josh Norman, who is coming off of an abysmal season, but if nickel corner Taron Johnson bounces back, this should be a phenomenal secondary. At the same time, though, they run a lot of zone coverage, so unless Tremaine Edmunds takes a step forward in his progression, the linebacker spot outside of Matt Milano is a concern. Also, the pass rush, led by edge rushers Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison, as well as interior rusher Ed Oliver, should be fine, but not much more than that.

If the Bills start Wallace over Norman, they should have one of the better secondaries in the NFL, while McDermott is one of the top defensive masterminds in the sport- they have a high floor. Still, between Norman, the pass rush, and Edmunds, there are enough concerns apparent to see a scenario where top offenses could have their way with this defense, which could be problematic for them- they’re trying to win through point prevention.

#7: Minnesota Vikings

smithharris
Photo Cred: Vikings Wire

Pass Defense: 4th

Rush Defense: 24th

Play-Caller Tier Rank: 2 (Above Average)

It’s rare that you can lose four-to-five starters and still be projected to be as productive as you were the following year, but that’s the position the Vikings find themselves in. Of the notable departures, losing two defensive lineman – edge rusher Everson Griffen and interior defender Linval Joseph – isn’t ideal, yet Danielle Hunter emerged as one of the top edge defenders in the NFL last season, while Ifaedi Odenigbo was quietly very productive last season. Plus, at the end of the day, it’s their pass coverage that’ll decide their fate. To that end, they’ll start three new cornerbacks this season, but their departures (Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes, Mackenzie Alexander) are probably worse than the replacements (Jeff Gladney, Holton Hill, Mike Hughes). There isn’t much in the way of proven talent at cornerback, though it’s clear that was the case last year. So, how did they manage to have an exceptional coverage unit? They were able to hide their issues at cornerback with their linebackers and safeties. Luckily for them, the safety tandem of Anthony Harris and Harrison Smith remains intact for at least one more season, and in front of them, Eric Kendricks is coming off an elite season.

Despite all the turnover, the Vikings appear to have a similar-caliber defense, and it helps that head coach Mike Zimmer is one of the better defensive play-callers in the NFL. In a way, with the new cornerbacks in place, there’s actually more upside with this defense than there was last year; they’re younger and more athletic, which should allow Zimmer to be more flexible with his coverage looks.

#6: Pittsburgh Steelers

Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt (90)
Photo Cred: DK Pittsburgh Sports

Pass Defense: 5th

Run Defense: 2nd

Play-Caller Tier Rank: 3 (Neutral)

Whether you use overall defense grade or yards/play allowed, the Steelers had the league’s best defense last season. They’ll have to overcome natural regression (their turnover luck won’t sustain), but, at the end of the day, the key players that nearly carried them to playoffs last season will be coming back in 2020. For many, the prowess of the defense starts with the defensive front, as between TJ Watt, Cameron Heyward, and Stephon Tuitt, they have one of the top defensive lines in the sport. Nevertheless, my optimism for this defense is with their coverage players. In my opinion, cornerback Steven Nelson is the most underrated player in the NFL, and between him and Joe Haden, Pittsburgh’s cornerbacks are up there with any other team’s. Plus, safety Minkah Fitzpatrick made a noticeable impact last season, and if linebacker Devin Bush can take the next step in his development, watch out.

The Steelers don’t have a unique defensive scheme, and with how much turnover luck they had last season, I’m expecting them to regress this season. Nevertheless, they have a lot of talent at key areas, so while they won’t be able to carry this team, they’ll be a very difficult defense for opposing offenses to go up against.

#5: Los Angeles Chargers

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Seattle Seahawks
Photo Cred: Chargers Wire-USAToday.com

Pass Defense: 3rd

Run Defense: 27th

Play-Caller Tier Rank: 2 (Above Average)

Over the past two seasons, the Chargers have failed to produce a top-ten defense, yet the pieces of an elite defense have always in place. They dealt with a lot of injuries last season, so getting those players back, as well as the additions they made, should vault their defense into “elite” status in 2020. As is the theme with most high-end defenses, Los Angeles has invested a lot of resources in their pass coverage, primarily a secondary that, on paper, is one of the best in the NFL. Cornerback Casey Hayward Jr. is arguably the best player at his position, and assuming he moves back to the slot, the signing of Chris Harris Jr. could give them another high-end defensive back. Now, the #2 outside cornerback spot isn’t in great shape, yet they also have some very intriguing, versatile defensive backs in Derwin James, Desmond King III, and Nasir Adderly, so that one potential weak-link shouldn’t come back to bite him. The same is true with their lack of proven production from their linebackers, as James will line up in the box in dime packages, which this team utilizes often. Therefore, I’m very confident declaring this coverage unit as one of the top groups in the NFL, and with a solid pass rush headlined by Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, the pass defense is in great shape; their run defense should once again be a problem, though that’s not much of a factor.

Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley has proven capable of elevating his defense in the past with a cover-three scheme that demands versatility, and with Harris Jr. on board, he has all the playmakers he needs to lead an elite defense. Simply put, the Chargers are strong at every area you want to be strong at, and their weaknesses come in less-significant areas (interior defender, linebacker); I severely appreciate how general manager Tom Telesco has formulated this defense.

#4: San Francisco 49ers

salehsherman
Photo Cred: 49ers Webzone

Pass Defense: 8th

Run Defense: 24th

Play-Caller Tier Rank: 1 (Elite)

Speaking of teams that utilize a traditional cover-three scheme, the 49ers got a lot of recognition for their defensive efforts last season, with some going as far to say that it was the sole reason why the won the NFC. That’s not actually true (they had a top-five offense), but by no means am I trying to diminish their defense- it’s fantastic. The misconceptions don’t stop regarding with this team, though. They’re seen as the poster-child for those who value top-tier pass rushes, and it’s easy to see why. Their defensive line was fantastic last season, and even though they traded interior defender DeForest Buckner, they still have a superb front four: Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, Arik Armstead, and first-round pick Javon Kinlaw. Yet, per ESPN’s pass-rush win-rate metric, they only ranked 13th in getting to the opposing quarterback in under 2.5 seconds, which speaks to their abilities in pass coverage. Richard Sherman, nickel corner K’Waun Williams, and Emmanuel Moseley ought to be considered as one of the better cornerback trios, and between safety Jimmie Ward and linebackers Fred Warner, Kwon Alexander, and Dre Greenlaw, that trio will be complemented by versatile defensive playmakers that’ll allow Saleh to run his zone-heavy cover-three system the way he wants to.

Expecting the 49ers to get career performances from as many players as they did last year would be foolish, but they also dealt with poor injury luck last season, and will have a lot of continuity into 2020. Saleh has certainly established himself as a tier-1 defensive coordinator, and assuming this defense doesn’t disappoint, I’d be shocked if he isn’t a head coach by 2021.

#3: Denver Broncos

fangiomiller
Photo Cred: gazette.com

Pass Defense: 7th

Run Defense: 1st

Play-Caller Tier Rank: 2 (Above Average)

When the Broncos hired Vic Fangio as their head coach, they did so believing that he’d continue to live up to his reputation of being a top-notch defensive play-caller, and, to his credit, the defense improved significantly. After acquiring much more talent and getting back a few players from injuries, that progression should only continue. Until he retires, the face of the defense remains edge rusher Von Miller. Even though he’s coming off of his worst season, he’s a year removed from being considered the top edge rusher in the NFL, and with Bradley Chubb healthy, Denver’s pass rush should be much better this season; Dre’Mont Jones, Shelby Harris, and Jurrell Casey will also provide pressure from the interior. That’ll benefit the team’s pass coverage, but it’s not like they need much help. Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson each graded out as top-ten safeties at Pro Football Focus last season, which will be a major boost to a shaky cornerback group. “Shaky” may be an overstatement, though, considering that AJ Bouye should bounce-back to the mean in 2020, slot corner Bryce Callahan will be healthy, and third-round rookie Michael Ojemudia was very productive at Iowa. Heck, Alexander Johnson was one of the top linebackers in the NFL last season, and for what it’s worth, running the ball against this team is going to be awfully tough- they should be able to force a lot of unfavorable third and long situations.

Ideally, the Broncos would have more certainty at cornerback, but they do have a wealthy dose of upside with their secondary, especially since Fangio’s quarters, zone-heavy scheme will hide some of their deficiencies. With a top-ten pass rush and coverage unit, along with the league’s best run defense, Fangio has a lot to work with. It may not translate to wins, yet Denver should finally back to their old ways of being a dominant defense.

#2: New England Patriots

Divisional Round - Kansas City Chiefs v New England Patriots
Photo Cred: Patriots Wire

Pass Defense: 1st

Run Defense: 20th

Play-Caller Tier Rank: 1 (Elite)

Life, death, taxes, and the Patriots fielding a fantastic defense despite losing multiple starters in free agency; no matter who New England loses, they always find a way to replace them. This time around, the notable departures include edge defender/linebacker hybrids Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins, interior defender Danny Shelton. Plus, making matters more complicated, linebacker Dont’a Hightower and safety Patrick Chung opted out of the season, so they’ll also be without two veteran players that have been critical parts of this defense for a long time. Yet, I’m not sure any of those losses will actually be noticeable. In my opinion, the Patriots have easily the best group of cornerbacks in the league. Not only is Stephon Gilmore the best player at his position, but JC Jackson and nickel defender Jonathan Jones are productive young players to build around, while Jason McCourty is a reliable veteran that is a nice finishing touch to this group. Plus, Chung hasn’t been very productive in coverage, so with Devin McCourty still on board, New England will likely better safety production from his complement this season, whether it be with second-round pick Kyle Duggar, Adrian Phillips, or Terrence Brooks. As for Hightower? Ja’Whaun Bentley and Brandon Copeland should be able to overcome that loss, while former Michigan edge defenders Chase Winovich and Josh Uche should develop into a productive pass rush tandem that they can hopefully count on for the foreseeable future.

The Patriots will be much younger defensively, yet that may be for the best, as their lack of athleticism was an issue at times. As long as head coach Bill Belichick is calling the shots, there’s always going to be reason to be optimistic about this defense. Having the league’s best secondary is simply the icing on the cake.

#1: Baltimore Ravens

humphreypeters
Photo Cred: Ebony Bird

Pass Defense: 2nd

Run Defense: 4th

Play-Caller Tier Rank: 1 (Elite)

In the past, when I’ve made my arguments for why a team’s pass coverage moves the needle more than their pass rush, I’ve referenced the Patriots and Ravens, who continue to attack this market inefficiency by loading up on playmakers in the secondary. Heading into 2020, Baltimore’s defense is simply stacked, and I think they’ll finally be able to get back to being a dominant defense. As alluded to, Baltimore’s secondary is in incredible shape. We’ve talked about a lot of talented cornerback duos, but the best in the league may be Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters, who are each high-end players. Meanwhile, Jimmy Smith and Tavon Young give them some nice cornerback depth, and behind them, Earl Thomas and Chuck Clark are a very productive safety tandem. Heck, between first-round pick Patrick Queen, third-round pick Malik Harrison, and LJ Fort, they were able to overhaul their linebacking core this offseason- there are no holes to found regarding their pass coverage. As for their pass rush? Defensive coordinator Don Martindale has successfully been able to scheme up pressure in the past, but after adding Calais Campbell and Derek Wolfe, Baltimore’s defensive front should be able to rush the passer better, in addition to continuing to dominate versus the run.

In Martindale’s scheme, the Ravens aren’t afraid to blitz anyone, and versatility is demanded. Luckily for them, every starter they have classifies as a versatile weapon, and, as a result, Martindale should have a field day confusing opposing offenses. It’s always nice to see a team build through defense through their secondary, and, as per usual, Baltimore continues to be ahead of the curve compared to other front offices.

2 thoughts on “Ranking Every NFL Team’s Defense Heading Into 2020

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