NFL defense rankings: Outlook before 2021 NFL Draft

It’s been a wild NFL season, with defenses falling behind early in the year without the benefit of a full offseason and preseason games...

By Matt Johnson

After witnessing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers win Super Bowl LV thanks to their defense, 31 NFL teams have taken notice this offseason. NFL free agency is in the books and big moves happened throughout the league that shook up our NFL defense rankings.

Many of the top talents didn’t even head elsewhere. Leonard Williams re-signed with the New York Giants, Shaq Barrett is staying with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Justin Simmons is headed for a contract extension. With that said, John Johnson, Carl Lawson, William Jackson and Bud Dupree all landed huge contracts and found new homes.

The additions and losses have brought some changes to some of the top defenses. We expect an even greater overhaul as more trades go down and the 2021 NFL Draft unfolds.

Related: 2021 NFL mock draft – QBs dominate top-10 picks, big trades

Let’s dive into our updated NFL defense rankings before the NFL Draft arrives.

Updated: April 15, 12:50 PM EST

20. Seattle Seahawks (19)

It’s been a busy offseason in Seattle. The Seahawks added Akhello Witherspoon to replace Shaquil Griffin on the outside and Kery Hyder Jr. should provide some help creating pressure. But K.J. Wright, who was outstanding in 2020, is gone and this front seven will now be weaker than before. Some of the defensive needs could be addressed in the draft, but the overpay for Jamal Adams (a pass-rushing safety only) makes filling those voids far more difficult.

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19. Kansas City Chiefs (20)

The Kansas City Chiefs certainly recognized coming off that Super Bowl loss that defense and the offensive line were big problems. Most of the spending this winter went towards improving in the trenches and protecting Patrick Mahomes is smart. Defensively, bringing in Jarrad Reed (20 pressures last season) was a smart move. But the Chiefs are still incredibly weak at linebacker and that must be addressed in the NFL Draft for this defense to garner more respect.

18. Buffalo Bills (15)

Buffalo boasted an elite defense in 2019 and then it all came crashing down this past offseason. Based on the moves made this spring, re-signing the same players, it seems the front office is convinced last year’s defense is the anomaly. The Bills’ secondary is still a weak spot, especially if Tre’Davious White doesn’t return to pre-contract form. On top of that, it’s hard to see anyone besides Jerry Hughes being a reliable pass-rush threat. There are some big areas to address when the NFL Draft rolls around.

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17. Arizona Cardinals (16)

NFL defense rankings: J.J. Watt
Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Many will look at J.J. Watt’s five sacks last season and assume he is a shell of his former self. Keep in mind, though he finished with 17 quarterback hits, 14 tackles for loss and graded as one of PFF’s top defensive ends this past season. Putting him and Chandler Jones together is absolutely terrifying and NFC West quarterbacks.

The positives are out of the way. Arizona’s biggest weakness is at cornerback, a position they have tried to address. Malcolm Butler looked good in 2020, receiving a 75.8 PFF coverage grade. Cornerbacks don’t typically improve into their 30s, which makes trusting him as the No. 1 option very difficult. The Cardinals need a lot more help on the outside and a player like Jaycee Horn or Caleb Farley would elevate this defense higher.

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16. Green Bay Packers (14)

Fans are understandably frustrated by Green Bay’s offseason. After Jim Leonhard turned the team down, Joe Barry was hired as defensive coordinator after doing very poorly in his previous two gigs. Then, instead of signing a quality No. 2 cornerback, the Packers re-signed Kevin King and likely overpaid him. There are a lot of negatives there. But if the Packers can add a cornerback like Farley or Greg Newsome, this secondary is set. Put that together with this pass rush, this could be a top-12 defense.

15. New Orleans Saints (9)

New Orleans did a tremendous job slashing salaries to approach the NFL salary cap, but it came at a cost. Janoris Jenkins, Trey Hendrickson and Kwon Alexander are gone. It leaves holes at every level of this defense and the draft is the only way to address them. Our Saints’ mock draft might offer some solutions or a specific free agent can help, but something needs to be done. As currently constructed, this team is closer to being the Aints than a Super Bowl contender.

New Orleans Saints draft picks: Top selections, prospects to target in 2021 NFL Draft

14. Cleveland Browns (17)

The Browns knew exactly what they needed to do this offseason. Needing a high-end free safety, Cleveland struck quickly to welcome John Johnson III and his all-around skills. He’ll be joined by a former Los Angeles Rams teammate, Troy Hill, who is going to thrive once again as a nickel corner.

Now, the Browns have their edge rusher to pair with Myles Garrett. Jadeveon Clowney isn’t a safe bet to stay healthy, but he also might be underrated. There is plenty of focus on his lack of sacks (12 total in past three seasons), but he can still create havoc. Clowney is credited with 135 pressures since 2018m averaging to and he can be an elite run defender when healthy. He’ll create some real problems in one-on-one matchups, while opponents deal with an All-Pro force on the opposite side. Best of all, the Browns now have the luxury of flexibility with their first-round pick.

13. Denver Broncos (17)

NFL defense rankings: Denver Broncos
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Von Miller will be back in 2021, giving Denver’s defense a great pass-rushing duo. The Broncos also helped Fangio out by signing Ronald Darby, a quality No. 2 corner for this scheme. Even better, the Broncos reunited Fangio with cornerback Kyle Fuller. There’s some risk, given Fuller’s struggles in 2020, but he could easily return to the Pro Bowl-caliber corner we saw in previous years. If he does and Denver adds even more talent via the 2021 NFL Draft, it moves into the top-10 of our NFL defense rankings.

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12. San Francisco 49ers (13)

There are certainly pieces to love from this defense. Jason Verrett returned to his pre-injury form and will be locked in as San Francisco’s No.1 cornerback. Fred Warner is arguably the best linebacker in the NFL, Arik Armstead is a strong run defender and Nick Bosa will be back on the field in 2021. There is also a ton of uncertainty at the starting spot opposite of Verrett, this pass rush looks weaker than previous years and defensive savant Robert Saleh is gone. Due to the uncertainties, the 49ers fall outside our top-10 in the NFL defense rankings.

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11. Chicago Bears (8)

NFL defense rankings: Chicago Bears
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Following Chuck Pagano’s retirement, Chicago decided to roll the dice on Sean Desai as its defensive coordinator. It remains to be seen how the 37-year-old will handle the massive responsibilities. It would have helped if the Bears kept Kyle Fuller. Losing a great defensive play-caller is one thing, cutting a top cornerback is another. Unfortunately, Chicago can’t even really focus on their defensive weaknesses since there are bigger holes on the other side of the ball.

10. Indianapolis Colts

The Colts finished the season allowing the eighth-fewest total yards (332.1) and 10th-fewest points (22.6) per game this season. Those numbers are impressive, but we also see cause for concern. After holding opposing quarterbacks to 198.7 yards and an average 78.9 passer rating in the first nine games, the Colts allowed 297 passing yards per game and a 102.5 passer rating in the final seven contests. Xavier Rhodes is back and that’s notable, but the second-half issues create some hesitancy. Once considered a top-five defense, Indianapolis is now much further down.

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9. New York Giants (12)

New York needed a No. 2 cornerback and it found one, signing Adoree Jackson. Injuries significantly impacted him in 2020, playing only 155 snaps and struggling in coverage. The year prior, he was strong in coverage and now will be tasked with easier matchups as a starter opposite James Bradberry. The Giants have an excellent defense and it will be even better if they find an edge rusher in the 2021 NFL Draft. If recommendations are allowed, Jaelan Phillips would put this unit over the top and could help them win the division.

Related: 2021 NFL mock draft – QBs dominate top-10 picks, big trades

8. New England Patriots (11)

NFL defense rankings: New England Patriots
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It’s been a wild offseason in New England. The biggest additions came on the offensive side, but Bill Belichick’s defense will also look a lot better in 2021. Kyle Van Noy should return to the form we saw from his previous stay in Foxborough, while Matthew Judon will be a nice three-down player. Jalen Mills seems like the replacement for Patrick Chung, who is retiring. The best news for the Patriots, Dont’a Hightower will be back in 2021. We’d suggest Bill Belichick drafts a wide receiver or quarterback with his first-round pick, but linebacker Micah Parsons would make for a ridiculous addition.

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7. Los Angeles Chargers

The Los Angeles Chargers have enough talent to be a top-five defense, but coaching and injuries got in the way. The first step to unlock this group’s potential, hiring Brandon Staley. His ability to put players in roles they are comfortable with, creating unique looks with his defense and adapting everything for each opponent faced, makes him a great addition. He’ll be taking over a defense with All-Pro defensive back Derwin James Jr., top edge rusher Joey Bosa and a collection of more young talent at every level. This defense can be something special and it will have an even better chance of reaching its ceiling if the Chargers draft a cornerback early.

6. Miami Dolphins (5)

A year after signing Shaq Lawson and Kyle Van Noy, both players are gone from Miami’s front seven. Expect Miami to replace Lawson with a better edge rusher who can get after the quarterback, likely via the NFL Draft. As for linebacker, Benardrick McKinney can be an upgrade, if he is healthy, over Van Noy. The Dolphins also added Adam Butler and Justin Coleman. If Brian Flores can find some more depth and impact talent in the 2021 NFL Draft, we’ll feel even more confident in Miami’s defense.

5. Baltimore Ravens (6)

Baltimore’s pass rush will look very different in 2021. Both Matthew Judon and Yannick Ngakoue are gone, creating an even bigger need for edge rushers. It’s especially important given how much Don Martindale loves to blitz, putting great athletes in spots to get to the quarterback. This used to be a top-five defense, but that was when the Ravens could generate pressure consistently. A great secondary helps, but it only goes so far. It might be worth it to trade Orlando Brown Jr. for a top-25 pick, then Baltimore can use both first-round picks on the defensive side.

4. Pittsburgh Steelers

Injuries decimated the NFL’s best defense midway through the 2020 NFL season. Fast forward to the spring and salary-cap constraints have taken a toll on Pittsburgh. Bud Dupree and Mike Hilton are gone, significant blows for a defense that needs quality talent around its elite players. This will still be a strong group in 2021, but not nearly at the elite level we saw a year earlier.

3. Los Angeles Rams (2)

Losing Brandon Staley hurts. He was the conductor who orchestrated the NFL’s most dominant defense in the regular season. The Rams held opponents to 18.5 points per game, quarterbacks averaged the second-lowest passer rating (80.4) against this defense and offenses converted just 35.4% of their third-down attempts. Los Angeles also lost safety John Johnson, who was outstanding in this secondary. With Raheem Morris calling plays for a defense that has Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey, this remains one of the best units in the NFL.

2. Washington Football Team (3)

NFL defense rankings: Washington Football Team
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Chase young lived up to all the pre-draft hype, quickly developing into one of the NFL’s best pass rushers late in his rookie season. Of course, he isn’t alone in this dominant front. Young (six sacks, 40 total pressures), Montez Sweat (nine sacks, 47 pressures) and Jonathan Allen (47 pressures) are a dominant front.

Washington did lose Ronald Darby in NFL free agency, but it replaced him with William Jackson. That’s an upgrade at cornerback and if this secondary improves, we expect this entire group to be better in 2021.

1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

NFL defense rankings: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
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Tampa Bay was determined to keep its Super Bowl defense intact. The task seemed impossible, with the declining NFL salary cap, but Tom Brady and his teammates helped make it happen. Shaq Barrett is back, signing a lucrative extension and Pro Bowl linebacker LaVonte Davis returns on a two-year deal. The Bucs re-signed Ndamukong Suh and this defense could still get stronger with the help of the 2021 NFL Draft. With the starters and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles returning, the Buccaneers are easily the No. 1 team in our NFL defense rankings.