32. Oakland Raiders
2017 College Stats: 20th in points allowed, 26th in pass defense, 12th in rush defense, 31 sacks, 5 interceptions
DE/LB Khalil Mack There’s Mack, and that’s it.
Now that Mack is a member of the Chicago Bears, there really isn’t anything for Oakland fans to be excited about on defense.
The Raiders were absolutely dreadful on this side of the ball in 2017. They didn’t record an interception until Week 12, were abysmal in third-down situations, and gave up prolific stat lines to the likes of Joe Flacco, Jay Cutler, and Trevor Siemian. Opposing QB’s posted a 24:5 TD-to-INT ratio against Oakland’s defense, and completed an astonishing 68.1 percent of pass attempts.
Oakland’s decrepit secondary and linebacker units were the main culprit for the defensive mishaps. Starting corner Sean Smith was embattled in legal issues all year long, oft-penalized David Amerson was cut after six games, and rookie Gareon Conley suited up just twice all year.
The Raiders tried to bolster the unit this offseason with the additions of cornerback Rashaan Melvin and linebacker Tahir Whitehead, but this defense lacks talent and productivity at every level.
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31. Indianapolis Colts
2017 Stats: 30th in points allowed, 28th in pass defense, 26th in rush defense, 25 sacks, 13 interceptions
Key Players: DE Jabaal Sheard, FS Malik Hooker
Defensively inept squads are becoming all too familiar in Indianapolis. Although they’ve been tough in the red zone over the past couple of years (15th in 2017, 6th in 2016), the Colts have been in the bottom half in points allowed for the past half-decade.
Colts fans need to hope that the sum is better than its individual parts, as there aren’t any standout players in this unit. Their best hope is Hooker — a ball-hawking center fielder that collected three interceptions in seven appearances during his rookie campaign.
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30. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2017 Stats: 22nd in points allowed, 32nd in pass defense, 23rd in rush defense, 22 sacks, 13 interceptions
Key Players: DT Gerald McCoy, LB Lavonte David
The Buccaneers could be in for a long season. Not only will they be without the services of their starting quarterback, Jameis Winston, for the first three weeks of the season (@ New Orleans, vs. Philadelphia, vs. Pittsburgh), but Tampa Bay’s defensive unit also has its fair share of problems.
Even a three-time All-Pro like McCoy can only anchor a defense for so long. Lavonte David, the team’s best linebacker, is coming off a hamstring injury, and there’s no telling how his body will respond. Outside of those two, Tampa Bay doesn’t have much in the way of blue-chip talent. The Bucs threw a ton of money at Jason Pierre-Paul this offseason, but the 29-year-old’s best days appear to be behind him. Kwon Alexander has a fiery motor and offers upside at linebacker, but his play has been up-and-down.
Former first round pick Vernon Hargreaves was drafted to be a playmaker, but he only has one interception in 25 career games. Lining up at the opposite corner is a player that made his NFL debut when Hargreaves was still in middle school — 35 year-old Brent Grimes.
The Bucs will need a big season from 2018 first-round pick Vita Vea, as they will need all hands on deck to keep pace in a rugged NFC South.
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29. Green Bay Packers
2017 Stats: 26th in points allowed, 23rd in pass defense, 17th in rush defense, 37 sacks, 11 interceptions
Key Players: LB Clay Matthews, DT Mike Daniels, S HaHa Clinton-Dix
From a talent perspective, the Packers are in far better shape heading into 2018 than they have been in past years. Daniels is coming off a Pro Bowl season, Clinton-Dix was a second-team All-Pro in 2016, Matthews provides veteran leadership, and Blake Martinez is a tackling machine. However, Green Bay will need to prove they can stop offenses when it matters most, and improve on their rankings from a year ago.
The Packers ranked 30th overall in red zone defense last season. Aaron Rodgers being on the mend contributed to that (more turnovers = less field to cover for opposing offenses), but the script wasn’t much different with a healthy Rodgers in 2016 when they ranked 27th in the category. Green Bay’s new front office regime hopes a trio of young, promising corners — Jaire Alexander, Josh Jackson, and Kevin King — can help alleviate some of the team’s defensive woes.
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28. Washington Redskins
2017 Stats: 27th in points allowed, 9th in pass defense, 32nd in rush defense, 42 sacks, 16 interceptions
Key Players: CB Josh Norman, LB Ryan Kerrigan
After a strong start to the year in 2017, Washington’s defense fell back to earth during the latter part of the season. The Redskins hemorrhaged points in their defeats. In eight of their nine losses during the season, Washington gave up at least 29 points.
Losing Kendall Fuller and Bashaud Breeland shouldn’t affect Washington’s putrid run defense much, but the team will certainly have a tougher time covering opposing wide-outs. Washington’s front office better hope the $10 million they paid undrafted corner Quinton Dunbar pays off, because this group lacks any sort of depth in the secondary.
Washington’s two stars — 2015 All-Pro Norman and 2017 Pro Bowler Kerrigan — are responsible for the Redskins not falling further down this list.
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27. New York Giants
2017 College Stats: 27th in points allowed, 31st in pass defense, 27th in rush defense, 27 sacks, 13 interceptions
Key Players: S Landon Collins, LB Olivier Vernon, DT Damon ‘Snacks’ Harrison
The Giants entered 2017 with high hopes for their defense. The year prior, New York ranked second league-wide in opponent’s scoring, and were stout against both the run and the pass. Unfortunately for Ben McAdoo and the Giants faithful, New York’s defense took a major step back this past season.
Most of the unit from the impressive 2016 season still remains on the current roster — sans defensive back Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. For that, New York places a bit higher than their 2017 defensive rankings would indicate. Collins remains a premier safety, and ‘Snacks’ Harrison still commands double-teams on just about every play. While there’s talent on the roster, the G-Men will have to play better as a unit in order to be taken seriously as a contender.
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26. Miami Dolphins
2017 Stats: 29th in points allowed, 16th in pass defense, 14th in rush defense, 30 sacks, 9 interceptions
Key Players: S Reshad Jones, DE Cameron Wake
While the Dolphins are likely relieved to have Ndamukong Suh’s hefty contract off the books, they don’t have an obvious replacement in the middle of their defensive line. 2015 second-round pick Jordan Phillips has been mostly underwhelming as a Dolphin, and former Detroit Lion Akeem Spence is nothing more than a placeholder. A team that finished in the top half against the run last year will likely take a tumble with the loss of Suh.
Miami’s strength lies in its pass rushers. Former Rams defenders Robert Quinn and William Hayes are accomplished at bothering opposing quarterbacks, veteran Cameron Wake continues to defy the laws of aging, and 2017 first-rounder Charles Harris is primed to break out. If they can get solid play from their improved secondary (defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick is the most versatile player in the 2018 draft class), the Dolphins could be one of the more potent pass defenses in the league.
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25. Cleveland Browns
2017 Stats: 31st in points allowed, 19th in pass defense, 7th in rush defense, 34 sacks, 7 interceptions
Key Players: DE Myles Garrett, LB Jamie Collins
The Browns enter the season hoping to avoid being the butt of everyone’s joke for the third consecutive year. There aren’t many positive things to be said about a team that has gone 1-31 over the past two seasons, but their defense certainly isn’t anything to scoff at.
Garrett was as good as advertised as soon as he hit the field. The former first overall pick fits the mold of a prototypical pass rusher, recording 7.0 sacks in just 11 games as a rookie. Collins was great for the Browns after arriving via a trade with New England. Denzel Ward is projected as the most complete defensive back in this past draft, and should inject the team with some toughness and playmaking ability.
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24. New York Jets
2017 Stats: 22nd in points allowed, 21st in pass defense, 24th in rush defense, 28 sacks, 11 interceptions
Key Players: DE Leonard Williams, S Jamal Adams
The difficult part is already over for the Jets — they found their superstars. Williams and Adams are two of the brightest prospects at their respective positions. Both guys have the chance to be perennial All-Pros for years to come.
Now, the Jets face the task of structuring the rest of their defense around Williams and Adams. Gone are long-time veterans Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson. Joining Gang Green are linebackers Kevin Minter and Avery Williams, as well as highly-touted free agent Trumaine Johnson. Johnson hopes to bolster a secondary that allowed 30 passing touchdowns to opposing quarterbacks last season. If he can lead the defensive backs, he’ll be worth every penny of the five-year/$72 million contract he received in the summer.
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23. Kansas City Chiefs
2017 Stats: 15th in points allowed, 29th in pass defense, 7th in rush defense, 31 sacks, 16 interceptions
Key Players: S Eric Berry, LB Justin Houston
The production from Kansas City’s defense lies in its ability to navigate through multiple moving parts. In the offseason, Kansas City saw both Marcus Peters and Derrick Johnson leave for two California teams (Rams and Raiders). While those two players boast unique skill-sets that can’t be immediately replicated, the Chiefs did a fair job in filling the holes left behind (and getting a healthy Berry back will help).
Cornerback is the position of intrigue for KC. Steven Nelson was great down the stretch last year, and they added Kendall Fuller from the Redskins in exchange for Alex Smith. If Nelson, Fuller, and Berry can simultaneously play at a high level, this secondary will be troublesome for offenses to deal with.
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22. Cincinnati Bengals
2017 Stats: 16th in points allowed, 8th in pass defense, 30th in rush defense, 41 sacks, 11 interceptions
Key Players: DT Geno Atkins, LB Vontaze Burfict
The Bengals are one of the many teams that shuffled their coordinators during the offseason. After an average year under Paul Guenther, Cincinnati opted to bring in former Lions coordinator Teryl Austin. It’s a mostly lateral move in terms of coaching pedigree, but change can sometimes ignite a team in immeasurable ways.
Up front is where the Bengals’ strengths lie. Atkins has made the Pro Bowl in six of his seven healthy seasons. Defensive end Carlos Dunlap is as consistent of a pass rusher as you will find in the AFC. The duo have each posted 29.0 sacks over the past three seasons.
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21. San Francisco 49ers
2017 Stats: 25th in points allowed, 22nd in pass defense, 22nd in rush defense, 30 sacks, 10 interceptions
Key Players: CB Richard Sherman, LB Reuben Foster
Adding Jimmy Garoppolo mid-season galvanized the San Francisco fanbase, and helped drive the team towards five straight wins to close the season. Garoppolo’s emergence has kick-started the offense that coach Kyle Shanahan envisioned when he took over the 49ers job. Now it’s time for Shanahan and general manager John Lynch to bring the defense up to the same level.
There’s plenty of talent on the roster. Foster looked the part of a first-round pick, ranking first among all rookie linebackers (and fourth among linebackers overall) according to Pro Football Focus. Few defensive lines are more intimidating than one comprised of Solomon Thomas, DeForest Buckner, and Arik Armstead — all former top-20 picks. Sherman has a chance to bring everything together, as his leadership and winning mentality will be a breath of fresh air in San Francisco’s young locker room.
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20. Detroit Lions
2017 Stats: 21st in points allowed, 27th in pass defense, 18th in rush defense, 35 sacks, 19 interceptions
Key Players: CB Darius Slay, DE Ezekiel Ansah
The Lions have struggled to field an elite defense since Ndamukong Suh left for Miami in 2015. Since ranking third in points allowed during Suh’s last season in Detroit, the Lions have finished 23rd, 13th, and 21st in the league. The Lions’ front office brass hope that new hire Matt Patricia will bring some of the juice that helped him succeed as New England’s defensive coordinator.
Ask Slay and he’ll tell you he’s the best corner in the league. The brash Mississippi State standout is confident in his abilities, and rightfully so after he collected a league-leading eight interceptions last season. Slay and safety Glover Quin are a terrific tandem in the defensive backfield, allowing Detroit’s plethora of pass rushers ample time to get to opposing quarterbacks.
A player to watch for is 2017 first round pick Jarrad Davis. Davis flashed absurd talent in Year 1, but will have to develop into a leader on this defense if Detroit wants to stand any chance against Aaron Rodgers and Kirk Cousins.
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19. Pittsburgh Steelers
2017 Stats: 7th in points allowed, 5th in pass defense, 10th in rush defense, 56 sacks, 16 interceptions
Key Players: DT Cameron Heyward, LB T.J. Watt, CB Artie Burns
It feels a bit strange having Pittsburgh this low. They ranked in the top-10 in virtually every statistical category last year, and did a marvelous job at getting to opposing quarterbacks. Why is it then that we have them this low? It’s because this defense isn’t the same without Ryan Shazier in the lineup.
Shazier’s horrific injury will likely keep him off the football field for at least another year. There’s a good chance he may never play again. Shazier is the leader of this defense, and is as talented of a linebacker as any in the NFL. His raw speed and anticipation granted Pittsburgh’s defense unique options in terms of their coverage and blitzing schemes.
Look no further than their AFC Divisional round matchup against Jacksonville for proof of Shazier’s impact. It’s highly unlikely a Shazier-led defense allows a Blake Bortles-led offense to hang up 45 points in a playoff game.
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18. Dallas Cowboys
2017 Stats: 13th in points allowed, 11th in pass defense, 8th in rush defense, 38 sacks, 10 interceptions
Key Players: LB Sean Lee, DE DeMarcus Lawrence, CB Byron Jones
Much like the Steelers, the Cowboys are a far different team when their leader is on the field. We’ve seen Lee’s effect on this team over the years, and with him entering the year healthy as can be, Dallas projects to have a solid year stopping opposing offenses.
While Lee is the ‘heart and soul’, the most talented player on this defense might be Lawrence. The 6-foot-3, 265-pound pass rusher had a breakout campaign in 2017, totaling 14.5 sacks and four forced fumbles on his way to making the Pro Bowl.
Jones appeared to come into his own as a safety in 2017, making the news that the team was switching him to corner all the more surprising. Fortunately for Jones, his elite athleticism should help him transition seamlessly.
Two big wild cards at play for the Cowboys are LB Jaylon Smith and DE David Irving. The former fought through a major injury to appear in all 16 games last year, while the latter faces a four-game suspension to begin 2018. Smith’s health will be a talking point for the early part of his career, while Irving’s off-the-field issues could be detrimental to his role moving forward.
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17. Buffalo Bills
2017 Stats: 18th in points allowed, 20th in pass defense, 29th in rush defense, 27 sacks, 18 interceptions
Key Players: S Jordan Poyer, S Micah Hyde, CB Tre’Davious White
Defensive backs are all the rage in Buffalo, as they have one of the best DB groups in the entire NFL. Poyer and Hyde weren’t expected to develop this quickly. A former seventh-round pick, Poyer bounced around the league before settling in Buffalo to begin the 2017 season. He collected five interceptions as the team’s starting free safety. Hyde, a former fifth rounder, was scooped up by Buffalo after his former team, Green Bay, failed to send him an offer. Hyde has developed into one of the league’s best strong safeties, making second-team All-Pro for his efforts in 2017.
White joined the Bills with far higher expectations than his teammates. That comes with the territory of being a first-round pick. That pressure didn’t seem to affect White in his rookie year, as Pro Football Focus gave him a 91.6 grade for his rookie season — third among all qualifying cornerbacks.
There are few other talented guys littered through the roster — DE Jerry Hughes and DT Kyle Williams are the emotional leaders of this crew — but the secondary will be Buffalo’s calling card.
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16. Seattle Seahawks
2017 Stats: 13th in points allowed, 6th in pass defense, 19th in rush defense, 39 sacks, 14 interceptions
Key Players: LB Bobby Wagner, S Earl Thomas
A few years ago, it would have been blasphemous to have Seattle outside of the top-five defenses. Now, this team is a bit slower, a bit older, and far less intimidating. While they still possess some star power, the Seahawks don’t invoke the same type of fear they once did.
Wagner and Thomas remain top players at their respective positions. Both guys are still firmly in their primes, and exhibit elite level smarts and athleticism.
Outside of their two leaders, the Seahawks feature a mix of underachievers and journeymen. KJ Wright is the best of the bunch, though he underwhelmed in 2017 (one interception and zero sacks) after making the Pro Bowl the previous season. Barkevious Mingo joins Dion Jordan as first-round flame-outs that found their way to Seattle. Inconsistent cornerback Byron Maxwell is set to make his third stint with the Seahawks.
Pete Carroll hopes brothers Shaquill and Shaquem Griffin inject some life (and speed) into this once vaunted defense. With their former leader Richard Sherman now in San Francisco, the Seahawks face plenty of uncertainty in 2018.
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15. New England Patriots
2017 Stats: 5th in points allowed, 30th in pass defense, 20th in rush defense, 42 sacks, 12 interceptions
Key Players: LB Dont’a Hightower, S Devin McCourty
After a sluggish start to the year, the Patriots gathered themselves well and fought their way to a top-five scoring defense by season’s end. While you can never count out a defense led by Belichick, there are some reasons to be pessimistic about New England heading into 2018.
The most obvious loss the Patriots suffered in the offseason is the departure of CB Malcolm Butler. Butler blossomed into an elite corner after saving the Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX. Belichick rewarded the 2016 All-Pro by sitting him for the entirety of Super Bowl LII in what became one of the most puzzling stories of the year.
Not to be overlooked, New England will also have to navigate through losing their defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to the Lions. Instead of hiring an official replacement, the play-calling duties will simply be handed to linebackers coach Brian Flores.
Fortunately for Flores and the Pats, they’ll be getting their leader Dont’a Hightower back. The seven-year pro made just five appearances last season after making second-team All-Pro the previous year.
New England’s defensive line remains very good. They added Cleveland’s Danny Shelton and Atlanta’s Adrian Clayborn in the offseason to join Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise Jr.
If the Patriots can stay healthy throughout the year, they’ll probably still be an above-average defense, but they don’t possess the high-end talent of some of the teams ranking above them.
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14. Arizona Cardinals
2017 Stats: 19th in points allowed, 14th in pass defense, 6th in rush defense, 37 sacks, 15 interceptions
Key Players: CB Patrick Peterson, LB Chandler Jones
The Cardinals defense didn’t receive the credit they deserved for a strong 2017 performance. Arizona was down its star running back and its starting quarterback, and still managed to finish with an 8-8 record thanks to the stellar play of the defense. With defensive-minded head coach Steve Wilks in tow, expect Arizona to have one of the stingier defenses in the league.
From top to bottom, the Cardinals are filled with both high-end specialists and versatile playmakers. Jones, the reigning NFL sack leader, returns for his third year in Arizona, and appears to get better with each passing season. Peterson is a special talent that has already made first-team All-Pro three times. Deone Bucannon and Budda Baker are both plenty capable of dropping back in coverage as safeties or filling in the box as a linebacker. Additionally, the Cardinals have plenty of young talent in the form of LB Haason Reddick and DT Robert Nkemdiche.
While the loss of Tyrann Mathieu will be felt, the Cardinals have plenty of talent to make up for it.
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13. New Orleans Saints
2017 Stats: 10th in points allowed, 15th in pass defense, 16th in rush defense, 42 sacks, 20 interceptions
Key Players: DE Cameron Jordan, CB Marshon Lattimore
New Orleans’ emergence as a top defense in 2017 wasn’t projected by many. Breakthrough performances from veterans and rookies alike have transformed the once shaky Saints defense into a formidable group.
You can’t talk about New Orleans’ stellar season without mentioning the reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year. Lattimore was a revelation for the Saints after being selected 11th overall. The corner hauled in five interceptions and defended 18 passes in 13 games as a rookie. He’ll be even better with a year of experience under his belt.
Jordan is the longest tenured defender and the team’s best pass rusher. He set a career high with 13.0 sacks in 2017, utilizing his massive frame and lightning-quick first step to elude offensive linemen on his way to opposing QB’s. New Orleans would love to get big performances from third-year player Sheldon Rankins and rookie Marcus Davenport to help draw some blockers away from Jordan.
The Saints won’t catch anybody by surprise this season, though they might not have to with the amount of talent they possess.
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12. Carolina Panthers
2017 Stats: 11th in points allowed, 18th in pass defense, 3rd in rush defense, 50 sacks, 10 interceptions
Key Players: LB Luke Kuechly, DL Kawann Short, LB Thomas Davis
The Panthers are in contention for having one of the strongest front-sevens in the league. Kuechly has been a game-changer ever since he made his NFL debut. He has blossomed into the most complete player at his position. Davis and DE Julius Peppers have continued to play at a high level in the latter-half of their 30’s. Short was an All-Pro just two seasons ago, and DE Mario Addison was tied for a team-leading 11.0 sacks.
Where Carolina could fall into some trouble is their secondary. The safeties — Da’Norris Searcy and Mike Adams — are castoff journeymen from Tennessee and Indianapolis, respectively. Cornerback James Bradberry had a dreadful year in 2017 after being pegged as the heir to former Panther corner Josh Norman. They spent a second-rounder on LSU’s Donte Jackson, but it remains to be seen if Jackson is a good football player and not just a track star.
The Panthers’ experience and talent up front will help alleviate any issues within their secondary.
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11. Baltimore Ravens
2017 Stats: 6th in points allowed, 10th in pass defense, 15th in rush defense, 41 sacks, 22 interceptions
Key Players: LB Terrell Suggs, LB CJ Mosley, S Eric Weddle
It’s difficult to recall the last time Baltimore had a shaky defense. Whether it’s Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, or Suggs leading the way, Baltimore typically possesses the scheme and personnel to be one of the top defenses in the league.
The aforementioned Suggs remains a lethal pass rushing weapon. In 2017, Suggs became just the 8th player to ever record 11.0+ sacks in a season after the age of 35.
Mosley might not be the next Ray Lewis, but the three-time All-Pro has carved out a nice niche with this team. He’s equally as qualified stuffing the run as he is dropping back into coverage. Mosley’s mind and vision far exceed that of a typical four-year player.
Simply put, it’s the Ravens. They’ll fight and scrap their way to a top-10 ranking regardless of their personnel. It’s a forgone conclusion that Baltimore will be stout on the defensive side of the football.
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10. Tennessee Titans
2017 Stats: 17th in points allowed, 25th in pass defense, 4th in rush defense, 43 sacks, 12 interceptions
Key Players: DL Jurrell Casey, S Kevin Byard, CB Malcolm Butler
Outside of the Rams, no team did their defense more favors in the offseason than the Titans.
With new coach Mike Vrable, Tennessee was not shy about spending big on defensive playmakers. The grand prize was former New England Patriots corner Malcolm Butler. Butler is capable of blanketing No. 1 receivers on a weekly basis, and will afford Tennessee flexibility in its play-calling.
Additionally, the Titans added some potential impact players through the draft. With their acquisitions, Tennessee is now filled to the brim with young prospects that could take the league by storm in the near future. 2018 draftees Rashaan Evans (21) and Harold Landry (22), join the electric Adoree’ Jackson (22), and the thieving Kevin Byard (24).
In just a few years, we could be talking about this Titans defense as the most impressive lineup in the NFL.
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9. Houston Texans
2017 Stats: 32nd in points allowed, 24th in pass defense, 13th in rush defense, 32 sacks, 11 interceptions
Key Players: DE JJ Watt, S Tyrann Mathieu, LB Jadeveon Clowney
The Texans entered 2017 with high hopes for their defense and low-expectations for their offense. Naturally, Houston’s defense gave up more points than any team in the league, while fielding quite possibly the most entertaining offense in all of football (funny how things work out like that). While there’s plenty of hype surrounding Deshaun Watson and their offensive attack, there’s no reason to give up on this talented defensive group.
Houston’s defense was battered by injuries last year. Watt and LB Whitney Mercilus were lost for the season in the same game (Week 5 against Kansas City). Additionally, enigmatic linebacker Brian Cushing missed 11 games as well. Interestingly enough, Clowney ended up being one of the healthiest players on the team after dealing with nagging injuries throughout his career.
Watt and Mercilus will both be back, and their pass rushing abilities will be more than welcomed. Joining them will be former Arizona safety Mathieu. Mathieu was a Swiss Army Knife for the Cardinals, and is already the most talented safety in Texans history.
With a healthier team, and the Honey Badger in tow, expect big things out of Houston.
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8. Chicago Bears
2017 Stats: 9th in points allowed, 7th in pass defense, 11th in rush defense, 42 sacks, 8 interceptions
Key Players: LB Leonard Floyd, CB Kyle Fuller, DE/LB Khalil Mack
If there’s any team with the chance to sky-rocket up this ranking in a few months, it’s the Bears. Acquiring Khalil Mack came at a steep price (2019 and 2020 first-round picks), but that’s to be expected when you’re getting a guy who was an All-Pro at two positions in the same year. He’s undoubtedly one of the five best defensive linemen in the game today, and should be an absolute menace in a division featuring strong quarterback play.
Lined up on the other side of the line is Leonard Floyd — Chicago’s first-round pick in 2016 — who also boasts immense potential. The former Georgia Bulldog is already up to 11.5 career sacks in just 22 games. DE Akiem Hicks is coming off his best season as a pro. Safeties Eddie Jackson and Adrian Amos are both criminally underrated. Rookie Roquan Smith will immediately be inserted into the starting lineup, and could prove to be a game changer.
They haven’t reached the elite tier quite yet, but the Bears are trending upwards.
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7. Los Angeles Chargers
2017 Stats: 3rd in points allowed, 3rd in pass defense, 31st in rush defense, 43 sacks, 18 interceptions
Key Players: DE Joey Bosa, LB Melvin Ingram, CB Casey Hayward
The Bolts put everybody on notice in 2017. While they still need to shore up their run defense, their glut of pass rushers and stingy corners make them a nightmare matchup for any team that leans on an air attack.
Bosa is a bona fide stud. The 23-year-old Ohio State product enters the season as a favorite to take home the Defensive Player of the Year award. On the other side of the pass rush is a Pro Bowler in Ingram, who has 29.0 sacks in his past three seasons as a Charger. Hayward is a ball hawk at corner that is tied (with Marcus Peters) for the most interceptions in the league (11) over the past two seasons. Safety Derwin James was initially projected as a top-five pick, and will surely make a case for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
The Chargers’ balance at all three levels could potentially catapult them into being the top defense in the league.
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6. Denver Broncos
2017 Stats: 22nd in points allowed, 4th in pass defense, 5th in rush defense, 33 sacks, 10 interceptions
Key Players: LB Von Miller, CB Chris Harris Jr., LB Bradley Chubb
It’s not totally fair to judge Denver’s defense by their ranking to end the season. This group was consistently put into bad situations due to shoddy quarterback play, and eventually broke by year’s end due to fatigue and injuries. With a few months of rest, a rejuvenated offense, and a promising first-round pick, the Broncos’ defense looks to return to their 2016 Super Bowl-winning form.
To put it plainly, the Broncos will go as far as far as their former Super Bowl MVP will take them. Miller remains one of the league’s premier threats on the edge, and doesn’t appear to have lost even a half-step entering his eighth season. Harris returns as a sure-tackling corner that defends slot receivers as well as any player in the league. General manager John Elway spent his money wisely in the offseason, picking up DT Domata Peko and LB/S Su’a Cravens. And then there’s Chubb, who was widely-regarded as the best defender available in April’s draft.
With a more methodical offense, and a couple of added bodies in the middle, Denver’s defense is in store for a big bounce-back year.
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5. Atlanta Falcons
2017 Stats: 8th in points allowed, 12th in pass defense, 9th in rush defense, 39 sacks, 8 interceptions
Key Players: LB Deion Jones, CB Desmond Trufant, DE Vic Beasley
The Falcons possess arguably the most athletic group of defenders in the NFL. From the freakish Deion Jones to the speedy Robert Alford, Atlanta boasts a surplus of sideline-to-sideline athletes that can run, cover, and force turnovers.
Trufant returned in 2017 to remind everybody why he was selected to the Pro Bowl in 2015. The 23-year-old Jones is on track to become one of the two or three best inside linebackers in all of football. Beasley took a bit of a step back in terms of his sack total last year, but that’s primarily because teams double-teamed him so often. Atlanta’s coaching staff promises to find Beasley more opportunities to run free in opponents’ backfields in 2018.
The Falcons certainly don’t lack depth, with emerging talents in Takkarist McKinley, Grady Jarrett, and Keanu Neal all primed for big seasons.
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4. Los Angeles Rams
2017 Stats: 12th in points allowed, 13th in pass defense, 28th in rush defense, 48 sacks, 18 interceptions
Key Players: DT Aaron Donald, CB Marcus Peters, DT Ndamukong Suh
Anytime you have the best defensive player in all of football, you’re probably going to be pretty good defensively. Donald is a proven game-changer whenever he steps on the field. The imposing defensive tackle has transcended the position, as his ability to create pressure from the interior is second to none. Donald is flanked by one of the more underappreciated safety tandems in the league in LaMarcus Joyner and John Johnson III.
Where the Rams could face some issues is with their new additions. While Peters, Suh, and former Bronco Aqib Talib have all been effective in the past, they each carry a bit of baggage and volatility. There’s always going to be some unknowns when you add in new starters at multiple positions. If anybody is up for the task of assimilating LA’s new acquisitions, it’s the wunderkind head coach, Sean McVay.
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3. Philadelphia Eagles
2017 Stats: 4th in points allowed, 17th in pass defense, 1st in rush defense, 38 sacks, 19 interceptions
Key Players: DT Fletcher Cox, S Malcolm Jenkins, DE Michael Bennett
While they may not possess the same type of high-end talent as their competitors, the defending Super Bowl champions still have one of the best defenses in the league.
Led by an interior stalwart in Cox, Philly prides itself on flying to the ball and creating havoc in the form of turnovers. Jenkins, now a 10-year veteran, has flourished as a safety after spending a chunk of his career at cornerback. Philadelphia’s front seven — which includes Tim Jernigan, Haloti Ngata, Derek Barnett, Brandon Graham, and the newly-acquired Bennett — forms the backbone of a defense that allowed just one 100-yard rusher all season (Zeke put up 103 yards against the Eagles in a meaningless Week 17 match-up).
They may not have anybody that will challenge for Defensive Player of the Year, but the Eagles have as much depth as any team in the league on the defensive side of the ball.
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2. Minnesota Vikings
2017 Stats: 1st in points allowed, 2nd in pass defense, 2nd in rush defense, 37 sacks, 14 interceptions
Key Players: S Harrison Smith, LB Anthony Barr, CB Xavier Rhodes
The Vikings are virtually stacked at every position. They boast one of the league’s best safeties in Smith — who is just beginning to gain the notoriety he deserves. Rhodes is one of the league’s premier cornerbacks, and has routinely shut down the NFL’s top wide-outs. Former UCLA Bruins Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks have unlimited upside, defensive tackles Linval Joseph and Sheldon Richardson are a formidable interior duo, and both Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen are pass rushing forces to be reckoned with.
The lone blemish on this defense’s record was the thumping they received courtesy of Nick Foles in last year’s NFC Championship game. In that game, Minnesota allowed 38 points and 456 total offensive yards — both numbers were season highs. They’ll need to bounce back in a big way to capture the No. 1 spot on this list.
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1. Jacksonville Jaguars
2017 Stats: 2nd in points allowed, 1st in pass defense, 21st in rush defense, 55 sacks, 21 interceptions
Key Players: CB Jalen Ramsey, DL Calais Campbell, LB Telvin Smith
What more can be said about Jacksonville’s vaunted defense? A top-two squad for nearly all of 2017 returns a majority of their starters, and will only be better this upcoming season.
Ramsey is the star of the group. His quick feet and even quicker mouth has made him the talk of the NFL this offseason. The Florida State product has already ascended the ranks among the elite corners in the NFL. Ramsey’s running mate, former Texan CB AJ Bouye, isn’t too shabby himself, having not allowed a single receiving touchdown throughout the entire regular season.
It doesn’t stop there.
Jacksonville boasts All-Pro talent at every level. Calais Campbell and Telvin Smith both graced All-Pro teams in 2017. Linebacker Myles Jack is one of the most explosive players at his position. Safety Tashaun Gipson is excellent at reading QB’s eyes and forcing turnovers. Malik Jackson, Yannick Ngakoue, and Marcell Dareus are all proven players that would start on 95 percent of teams around the league. Dante Fowler Jr. and Taven Bryan are first-round picks with high upside.
The Jaguars boast the stingiest and deepest defensive roster in the league. With plenty of youth and talent scattered through its ranks, Jacksonville should remain a juggernaut for years to come.
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