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NFL defense rankings: Outlook for 2021 season

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.

Let’s dive into our updated NFL defense rankings before summer practices begin.

20. Buffalo Bills (last week: 19)

Buffalo Bills defensive ranking
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a scenario where the Buffalo Bills return to defensive dominance, delivering the caliber of performances we saw in 2019. But Ed Oliver, the ninth pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, has been a bust to this point. Gregory Rousseau, the No. 30 pick in April, will take at least a year to develop. Oh, corner is also a huge question beyond Tre’Davious White. Sean McDermott is a great coach, but he can only do so much with the Bills depth chart.

19. Indianapolis Colts (LW: 20)

NFL defense rankings: Indianapolis Colts
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Consider us skeptical of the Indianapolis Colts defense. Early in the 2020 season, we put them in the top-5 of our NFL defense rankings and it was deserved. But from Week 5-16, opposing quarterbacks posted a 19-5 TD-INT ratio against this secondary, averaged 7.6 yards per attempts and running backs averaged 4.4 yards per carry. 

How did Chris Ballard address a defense that struggled to generate passer? By spending a first-round pick on a raw pass rusher (Kwity Paye) and a second-round pick on an edge rusher (Dayo Odeyingbo) who tore his Achilles in January.

Related: Everything you need to know about the 2021 NFL season

18. Arizona Cardinals (LW: 17)

Chandler Jones trade
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Chandler Jones trade rumors put the Arizona Cardinals defense in limbo. If he isn’t playing this fall, an aging J.J. Watt and athletic linebackers aren’t nearly enough to cover up for this woeful secondary. Given jobs are at stake in Arizona, it would be wise to pay Jones. Otherwise, this team doesn’t sniff the playoffs.

There’s an interesting dynamic here. Arizona is in the same position with Chandler Jones as the Miami Dolphins are with Xavien Howard. In a perfect world, one where this team would enter the top 10 of our NFL defense rankings, the Cardinals keep Jones and acquire Howard. More likely, Jones is traded and Howard is playing elsewhere.

17. Minnesota Vikings (LW: 18)

NFL defense rankings
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Mike Zimmer was humiliated by the Minnesota Vikings defense in 2020 and deservedly so. But there’s real optimism for a rebound this fall. Danielle Hunter is back and he’s outstanding when healthy. On the interior, Minnesota’s rotation of Michael Pierce, Dalvin Tomlinson and Sheldon Richardson will live in the backfield. If the Vikings’ secondary improves, this unit becomes a feature in fantasy defense rankings.

Related: NFL mock draft 2022 – Quarterbacks once again dominant

16. Kansas City Chiefs (LW: 16)

NFL Defense rankings: Kansas City Chiefs
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If you’re looking for a breakout NFL player in 2021, look no further than cornerback L’Jarius Sneed. He flashes the tools to be an outstanding weapon in coverage, which the Kansas City Chiefs need. If the 2020 fourth-round pick takes that next step, pairing nicely with Tyrann Mathieu and Chris Jones, the ceiling for this defense rises.

15. Chicago Bears (LW: 15)

Top NFL defenses: Chicago Bears
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The Chicago Bears used to have one of the NFL’s best defenses, but departures and injuries have led to a decline. Opponents averaged a 109.5 passer rating with an 18-5 TD-INT ratio in the final seven games. It’s possible new defensive coordinator Sean Desai makes changes to turn things around, but holes in the secondary raise doubts.

14. New Orleans Saints (LW: 12)

NFL defense rankings: New Orleans Saints
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Years of pushing cap hits down the line was inevitably going to bite the New Orleans Saints. It resulted in Janoris Jenkins and Kwon Alexander being released. On top of that, the lack of financial flexibility meant New Orleans couldn’t retain its top free agents. We still like Cameron Jordan, Marcus Williams and Marshon Lattimore, but this defense will take a step back in 2021.

If the Saints had a normal cap situation, they’d be a perfect landing spot for a Xavien Howard trade. Adding a playmaking corner alongside Lattimore would be fantastic. As things stand, though, opposing quarterbacks are going to target the CB2 and there’s a chance Lattimore is suspended to start the season.

13. Green Bay Packers (LW: 14)

NFL defense rankings
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In Green Bay’s final 10 regular-season games, its defense held opponents to an 81.2 passer rating, 60.7% completion rate and allowed just 12 touchdown passes. Jaire Alexander, one of the best defensive players in the NFL, is a huge part of that. But don’t sleep on safety Darnell Savage, who could enter the “elite” tier this time next year. If the Packers had a reliable No. 2 corner or could stop the run, this would be a truly phenomenal defense.

Will Aaron Rodgers end his career in Green Bay?

Related: If you’re a fan of the Packers, check out #GoPackGo rumors, rankings, and news here.

12. New York Giants (LW: 13)

NFL defense rankings: New York Giants
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Giants entered the offseason needing to find a No. 2 cornerback and a pass rusher. Opportunity struck when the Tennessee Titans released Adoree Jackson, gifting the Giants an immediate upgrade at CB2. In the 2021 NFL Draft, New York selected edge rusher Azeez Ojulari and added depth to the secondary with corner Aaron Robinson. Patrick Graham, a top 2022 NFL head coach candidate, is going to do fantastic work with this group.

11. Los Angeles Chargers (LW: 11)

NFL defense rankings: Los Angeles Chargers
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Injuries and coaching prevented the Chargers from achieving their potential. Los Angeles played without its best defensive player this past season, losing Derwin James before the regular season. The All-Pro safety is back, joining a defense with Joey Bosa and Chris Harris Jr. With Brandon Staley calling the plays, this is a fantasy football sleeper pick.

10. Miami Dolphins (LW: 6)

NFL defense rankings, Miami Dolphins
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It’s time to be concerned. The Xavien Howard situation is turning from a potential distraction into a likely trade. Regardless of the return, losing one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL would be a significant blow for this secondary. It puts added pressure on a defense that really struggled to generate pressure last season. With Howard, this team is No. 6 in our NFL defense rankings and you see where they are without him.

Related: If you’re a fan of the Dolphins, check out #FinsUp rumors, rankings, and news here.

9. San Francisco 49ers (LW:10)

NFL defense rankings
Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Nick Bosa returning to the San Francisco 49ers means everything for this defense. He immediately proved he is one of the best edge rushers in the NFL and that should still be the case following a full recovery from a torn ACL. Fred Warner is the best off-ball linebacker in the league and San Francisco’s front seven is elite. The concern is the secondary. If Jason Verrett goes down, which is possible given his durability issues, the 49ers will get attacked by QBs.

8. Cleveland Browns (LW: 10)

NFL defense rankings
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Recognizing this unit was its biggest weakness in 2020, the Cleveland Browns were aggressive in the offseason. Andrew Berry signed Troy Hill, John Johnson III and Jadeveon Clowney. But the Browns weren’t done. They landed Greg Newsome II in Round 1, then stole linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah in Round 2 of the 2021 NFL Draft. Everything is in place for this to be the breakout defense this season and that creates a Super Bowl contender.

7. New England Patriots (LW: 8)

NFL defense rankings, Stephon GIlmore
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The Stephon Gilmore situation makes things a bit more complicated. If the former All-Pro cornerback sits out, there is suddenly a huge void at outside corner. It would be a shame because the New England Patriots really strengthened their front seven this offseason and linebacker Dont’a Hightower returning is huge. With Gilmore, the Patriots have one of the five best defenses in the NFL. If he isn’t around, New England falls down the NFL defense rankings.

6. Baltimore Ravens (LW: 7)

NFL defense rankings: Baltimore Ravens
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The Baltimore Ravens have a fantastic defensive backfield. Marlon Humphrey is an elite cornerback, Marcus Peters is a playmaker on the opposite side and Jimmy Smith is underrated. But the Ravens’ pass rush is concerning. Baltimore blitzed 44.1% of the time in 2020, though, by far the most aggressive defense in the NFL. Wink Martindale knows how to manufacture pressure as well as anyone, so expect the Ravens’ defense to soar once again this year.

Related: NFL Top 100 Players of 2021 – The GOAT is #1, Bills duo near Top 10

5. Pittsburgh Steelers (LW: 4)

NFL defense rankings: Pittsburgh Steelers
Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

The confidence still held in Pittsburgh’s defense is tied entirely to the defensive front. Pittsburgh owns the best defensive line in the NFL, featuring TJ Watt, Cam Heyward and Stephon Tuitt. We could even see a breakout season from edge rusher Alex Highsmith. Getting Devin Bush back from injury to lead the linebacker corps alongside Vince Williams and having Minkah Fitzpatrick patrolling the backfield give the Steelers a truly elite defense.

4. Denver Broncos (LW: 5)

NFL defense rankings, Denver Broncos
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Vic Fangio might be the brightest defensive mind in football. After seeing this group disappoint in 2020, largely due to injuries, the Denver Broncos invested heavily to correct the issues. Kyle Fuller and Ronald Darby are huge additions, and Patrick Surtain II might be the best dime back in the league. We can’t forget about standout safety Justin Simmons, nickel corner Bryce Callahan and the pass-rushing duo of Bradley Chubb and Von Miller. This is the breakout defense of 2021 and it should be everyone’s fantasy football sleeper.

3. Los Angeles Rams (LW: 3)

Top defensive lines in the NFL: Los Angeles Rams
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Losing defensive coordinator Brandon Staley, prized safety John Johnson III and nickel corner Troy Hill really hurts. But when you have the two best defensive players in the NFL, a few losses can be afforded. Aaron Donald is the most disruptive player in football and Jalen Ramsey is the best cornerback in the NFL. Put these two together and you’ve still got a dominant group.

Even with the personnel losses, expectations remain high. The beauty of having the best cornerback in the NFL is the flexibility it provides the entire secondary. Ramsey can line up against an opponent’s No. 2 receiver, allowing the opposite corner and safety to shift towards the No. 1 weapon. Pair that with Donald eating up two or three blockers, you see why this team remains near the top of our NFL defense rankings.

2. Washington Football Team (LW: 2)

NFL defense rankings
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The Washington Football Team boasts an absurd amount of young talent. Everyone knows about Chase Young, the future Defensive Player of the Year recipient who racked up 40 total pressures in a rookie season limited by injuries. Montez Sweat erupted for 47 total pressures and former first-round pick Jonathan Allen was credited by PFF with a 17.1% pass-rush win rate. Oh, Washington also boasts Daron Payne and Matt Ioannidis.

Keep in mind, we haven’t even talked about the secondary. William Jackson III is an upgrade at CB2 over Ronald Darby and this secondary should take a step forward in 2021. We really could be looking at the best defense in football by October.

1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (LW: 1)

NFL defense rankings
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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers tore through the playoffs, holding opposing quarterbacks to a 59.7% completion rate with 10 sacks and a 6-7 TD-INT ratio. After hoisting the Lombardi Trophy, the best defense in the NFL retained every impact player and spent a first-round pick on edge rusher Joe Tryon. With a confident, young secondary, arguably the best front seven in the NFL and a genius coordinator in Todd Bowles, the Bucs remain No. 1 in our NFL defense rankings.

Related: Predicting NFL playoff teams and Super Bowl 2022 winner