NFL defense rankings: Offseason outlook for top defenses, Arizona Cardinals soar with J.J. Watt

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
Feb 7, 2021; Tampa, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers inside linebacker Devin White (45) reacts during the fourth quarter against the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

NFL defense rankings: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers won Super Bowl LV in large part because of their defense. Not only did shutting down the Kansas City Chiefs lead to hoisting the Lombardi Trophy, but defensive coordinator Todd Bowles might have also presented the blueprints for containing Patrick Mahomes across four quarters. 

Of course, shutting down an elite talent requires a team to have great players of their own on the defensive side. Very few NFL teams have the coaching and ability to match up with the Buccaneers, but a few offer that potential. If the right moves are made this offseason, teams with respectable defenses this past season can make a huge step forward in 2021.

It can happen quickly. Tampa Bay allowed the fourth-most points per game (28.1) last season, with its secondary being a major part of the problem. Just a few months after the Buccaneers’ cornerbacks were ranked last in the NFL, they held opponents to 246.6 passing yards per game in the regular season and quarterbacks average an awful 72.9 passer rating against Tampa Bay in the postseason.

We also saw the Miami Dolphins, Washington Football Team, New York Giants and Green Bay Packers make tremendous strides this year. Promising young players took that pivotal next step in their careers, elevating their game and raising the entire defense’s play. There will be plenty of focus on additions made via the 2021 NFL Draft and free agency, rostered players improving in the offseason is another important element that shapes defenses each year.

Let’s dive into our first NFL defense rankings as we enter the offseason.

Updated: March 1, 1:10 PM EST

NFL defense rankings: 2021 NFL Draft, free agency will shape intriguing defenses

20. Kansas City Chiefs

NFL defense rankings: Kansas City Chiefs
Dec 1, 2019; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Chiefs defensive end Chris Jones (95) celebrates after sacking Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr (4) (not pictured) during the game at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Super Bowl LV highlighted problems with this defense. It’s great to have Chris Jones and Tyrann Mathieu, two outstanding players who are among the best at their respective positions. Unfortunately, Kansas City has little around them to help. Frank Clark is a free-agent bust, this might be the worst linebacker corps in the NFL and the cornerbacks don’t exactly inspire confidence. Offensive line might be the team’s most significant needs this offseason, but this defense is one of the big hurdles blocking this team from becoming a dynasty. Frankly, there’s a legitimate chance the Chiefs fall out of our NFL defense rankings early into free agency.

Kansas City Chiefs draft picks: Best 2021 NFL Draft targets, Chiefs mock draft

19. Cleveland Browns

NFL defense rankings: Cleveland Browns
Oct 11, 2020; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett (95) after the game against the Indianapolis Colts at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

A defense with one of the NFL’s top edge rushers (Myles Garrett) and a potential No. 1 cornerback (Denzel Ward) provides reason for optimism. When on the field, both players showed they can dominate. The problem is, outside of those two and safety Ronnie Harrison, there are a lot of concerns defensively. The return of Grant Delpit will help this secondary, but the Browns need a No. 2 cornerback on the outside and a complementary edge rusher to pair opposite of Garrett. Did we mention they also desperately need help at linebacker? We love the elite talent and coaching, but there are too many issues to move the Browns higher in our NFL defense rankings.

Cleveland Browns draft picks: Top 2021 selections, ideal prospects to target

18. Seattle Seahawks

NFL defense rankings: Seattle Seahawks
Jan 9, 2021; Seattle, Washington, USA; Seattle Seahawks safety Jamal Adams (33) yells to the sidelines during the first quarter against the Los Angeles Rams at Lumen Field. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

For most of the season, Seattle’s defense looked like it belonged in the Canadian Football League. Then, as this offense collapses, the Seahawks stepped it up defensively. Seattle held opposing quarterbacks to an 89.1 quarterback rating and 194.5 passing yards/game over the final eight weeks. Jamal Adams will be healthy next year and D.J. Reed Jr. looks like a quality cornerback. With the positives out of the way, the Seahawks don’t have a pass rush nor a No. 1 cornerback. Both issues, even if everyone stays healthy, will lead to problems next season. Of course, it isn’t easy to address those spots when you mortgaged most of your draft picks for a box safety.

Related: NFL Power Rankings – Tom Brady and Tampa Bay Buccaneers win Super Bowl LV, offseason outlook for all 32 teams.

17. Denver Broncos

NFL defense rankings: Denver Broncos
Nov 1, 2020; Denver, Colorado, USA; Denver Broncos safety Justin Simmons (31) in the fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Chargers at Empower Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Vic Fangio is one of the smartest defensive-minded coaches in the NFL, but his defense hasn’t quite played up to a high standard under his watch. Some of that can be blamed on injuries and it can also be attributed to a lack of personnel. Denver hoped adding Jurrell Casey and A.J. Bouye, with a healthy Bradley Chubb, would fix things. Thanks to more injuries, everything backfired. Chubb and Justin Simmons will be back in 2021, but Bouye and Casey have already been cut. With the future uncertain for Von Miller, this defense will have even less experience and talent to execute Fangio’s defense. It will take a strong draft class to feel better about Denver’s defense.

Denver Broncos draft picks: Best 2021 NFL Draft targets, potential draft selections

16. Arizona Cardinals

NFL defense rankings: J.J. Watt
Jan 12, 2020; Kansas City, MO, USA; Detailed view of the jersey of Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt (99) against the Kansas City Chiefs in a AFC Divisional Round playoff football game at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

J.J. Watt is joining the Cardinals, an outcome no one saw coming. No one can fault the future Hall of Fame edge rusher for choosing Arizona, especially for the opportunities it could create. Many will look at 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, especially Russell Wilson, should be worried.

With that said, Arizona still doesn’t belong higher in our NFL defense rankings. Patrick Peterson is leaving in free agency and that leaves them with next to nothing at cornerback. Even nickel corner Byron Murphy is a liability, allowing a 97.4 passer rating last season. The Cardinals desperately need to dedicate early picks in the 2021 NFL Draft to defensive backs.

NFL salary cap tracker: Where each team stands in 2021

15. Buffalo Bills

NFL defense rankings: Buffalo Bills
NFL: AFC Divisional Round-Baltimore Ravens at Buffalo Bills

Once the home of one of the NFL’s most suffocating defenses, Buffalo took a significant step back in 2020. The Bills struggled to create pressure, generating just a 22.2% pressure rate and this group allowed 23.2 points per game. Tre’Davious White can still be a great corner and the safety pairing of Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer is reliable. But the inability to consistently get to the quarterback is a problem. This defense is respectable enough to help this team win double-digit games next year, but there are pieces missing that prevent Buffalo from being a legit Super Bowl contender.

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NFL defense rankings: Green Bay Packers, San Francisco 49ers have big talent, questions entering NFL offseason

14. Green Bay Packers

NFL defense rankings: Green Bay Packers
Jan 16, 2021; Green Bay, Wisconsin, USA; Green Bay Packers cornerback Jaire Alexander (23) reacts against the Los Angeles Rams during the NFC Divisional Round at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Given his stops in Washington and Detroit, Joe Barry doesn’t inspire confidence as this team’s new defensive coordinator. With that said, it’s hard to ignore the talent in Green Bay. Jaire Alexander is the best cornerback in the NFL, the safety tandem of Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage is outstanding. This pass rush boasts Kenny Clark, Preston Smith, Za’Darius Smith and Rashan Gary. If the Packers bolster the defensive line and find a No 2 cornerback, this can be a top-10 defense next season.

Green Bay Packers draft picks: Best 2021 NFL Draft targets, potential draft selections

13. San Francisco 49ers

NFL defense rankings: San Francisco 49ers
September 13, 2020; Santa Clara, California, USA; San Francisco 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa (97) before the game against the Arizona Cardinals at Levi’s Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The San Francisco 49ers will get Nick Bosa back in 2021 and Javon Kinlaw is poised for a big leap in his second season. This defense also has Fred Warner, the best linebacker in the NFL. Even statistically, despite injuries, this unit ranked near the top in major categories. The problem is San Francisco’s secondary. Jason Verrett, Richard Sherman and Ahkello Witherspoon are all free agents this offseason. There are no guarantees even two of the three return. Given the questions in the secondary, we had to push the 49ers down in our NFL defense rankings.

San Francisco 49ers draft picks: Top 2021 selections, ideal prospects to target

12. New York Giants

NFL defense rankings: New York Giants
Jan 3, 2021; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Amari Cooper (19) catches a pass against New York Giants cornerback James Bradberry (24) in the second half at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

In his first season with the Giants, Patrick Graham helped shape this defense. With a shutdown cornerback (James Bradberry) and a stellar defensive line, he had the chess pieces to cause a lot of problems for opponents. New York allowed just 22.2 points per game and this defense was often kept on the field often or had to defend short fields because of Daniel Jones. If the Giants can add a No. 2 cornerback or an edge rusher early in the 2021 NFL Draft, this will be a top-10 defense.

New York Giants draft picks: Top options in a strong class, ideal 2021 NFL Draft targets

11. New England Patriots

NFL defense rankings: New England Patriots
Oct 6, 2019; Landover, MD, USA; New England Patriots free safety Devin McCourty (32) and Patriots cornerback Jason McCourty (30) leap while running onto the field for warmups prior to their game against the Washington Redskins at FedExField. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Players opting out this past season decimated New England’s defense. After playing a year without multiple key starters, New England will welcome back Dont’a Hightower and Co. for the 2021 season. Of course, Stephon Gilmore might be an offseason trade candidate. Even if he is gone, a secondary with J.C. Jackson, Jonathan Jones, Devin McCourty and Kyle Dugger is an excellent grouping. Age is starting to catch up to some of the top players, but New England will still have a quality defense in 2021. If New England adds a high-end talent in free agency or the draft, they’ll climb back into the top-10 of our NFL defense rankings.

New England Patriots quarterback options: Trade up in the 2021 NFL Draft

NFL defense rankings: Top 10 NFL defenses in 2021

10. Indianapolis Colts

NFL defense rankings: Indianapolis Colts
Nov 22, 2020; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Indianapolis Colts defensive tackle DeForest Buckner (99) celebrates with teammates after making an overtime fumble recovery against the Green Bay Packers at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

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, who turned his career around in Indianapolis, could leave in free agency. Matt Eberflus is a quality defensive coordinator, but there’s reason to expect regression from this unit in 2021.

Indianapolis Colts quarterback: 5 best options to replace retired Philip Rivers in 2021

9. New Orleans Saints

NFL defense rankings: NFL Playoffs: New Orleans Saints
Nov 22, 2020; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan (94) and defensive tackle David Onyemata (93) celebrate against the Atlanta Falcons during the second half at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

If not for that pesky salary cap, the New Orleans Saints could run it back in 2021. Unfortunately, the cap ceiling exists and New Orleans is $75 million over it. The likes of Janoris Jenkins and Kwon Alexander will be cut, just two of potentially notable losses on the defensive side. The likes of Cameron Jordan, Marshon Lattimore, Marcus Davenport and Demario Davis will still make this a quality defense, but not at the level we saw in 2020.

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

8. Chicago Bears

NFL defense rankings: Chicago Bears
Nov 16, 2020; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Chicago Bears outside linebacker Khalil Mack (52) walks off the field after losing to the Minnesota Vikings at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports

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, but he’s got the talent to work with. Khalil Mack remains a dominant edge rusher, Jaylon Johnson showed glimpses of Pro Bowl talent in his rookie season and the interior defensive line is stout. It’s not an elite defense, the past year showed that, but this group is also why the Bears made the playoffs last season.

Chicago Bears draft picks: Top 2021 selections, ideal prospects to target

7. Los Angeles Chargers

NFL defense rankings: Los Angeles Chargers
Dec 30, 2018; Denver, CO, USA; Los Angeles Chargers free safety Derwin James (33) celebrates the win over the Denver Broncos at Broncos Stadium at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

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.

Related: 2021 NFL mock draft – Post-Super Bowl mock draft sends Deshaun Watson to new home

6. Baltimore Ravens

NFL defense rankings: Baltimore Ravens
Jan 10, 2021; Nashville, Tennessee, USA; Tennessee Titans wide receiver A.J. Brown (11) makes a catch while defended by Baltimore Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey (44) during the first quarter in a AFC Wild Card playoff game at Nissan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

For whatever reason, NFL teams didn’t even want to request an interview with defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale for head-coach vacancies. While the Ravens would love to see him land a gig, they’ll be elated to keep him on staff for the 2021 season. Retaining one of Yannick Ngakoue or Matt Judon will be key for a defensive scheme that blitzed (44.1%) more than anyone. Edge rusher will be a major priority this offseason, but Baltimore’s secondary will help maintain this team’s spot in our NFL defense rankings.

Baltimore Ravens draft picks: Top 2021 selections, ideal prospects to target

5. Miami Dolphins

NFL defense rankings: Miami Dolphins
Dec 13, 2020; Miami Gardens, Florida, USA; Miami Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard (25) celebrates after his interception with free safety Brandon Jones (29) during the second half against the Kansas City Chiefs at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Xavien Howard elevated his game in 2020, leading the NFL in interceptions (10) and receiving the second-highest PFF grade among his peers. Miami could have two shutdown cornerbacks in 2021, if Byron Jones returns to the form we saw with the Dallas Cowboys. On the interior, rookie defensive tackle Raekwon Davis made some noise as a pass rusher and could be poised for a bigger jump next season. With Brian Flores in charge, Miami’s defense allowed the sixth-fewest points. With more consistency on offense and an improved pass rusher, the Dolphins could be a dark horse Super Bowl contender in 2021.

NFL defense rankings: Who has the best defense in the NFL?

4. Washington Football Team

NFL defense rankings: Washington Football Team
Dec 7, 2020; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Washington Football Team defensive end Chase Young (99) reacts after defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field. Washington won 23-17. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

No matter what the team’s name is in 2021, Washington will have a dominant defense next season. 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. We also can’t forget that this team lost defensive tackle Matthew Ioannidis, an impressive pass rusher in his own right, early in the season. Get this group back together, add another outside cornerback and this could be a top-three defense next season.

Washington Football Team draft picks: Top 2021 selections, ideal prospects to target

3. Pittsburgh Steelers

NFL defense rankings: Pittsburgh Steelers
Dec 21, 2020; Cincinnati, Ohio, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt (90) celebrates with inside linebacker Avery Williamson (51) during the third quarter at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Injuries took a toll on the Pittsburgh Steelers. Once the top unit in our NFL defense rankings, torn ACLs for linebacker Devin Bush and edge rusher Bud Dupree ripped holes into this front seven that could never be replaced. Bush will be healthy in 2021 and there’s at least a chance Dupree returns, if the free-agent market isn’t appealing coming off an injury. We would like to see this secondary improve, showing more consistency in coverage and being a group that isn’t so dependent on the pass rush. If that happens, the Steelers will have a shot to boast the No. 1 defense next season.

Pittsburgh Steelers draft picks: Top 2021 selections, ideal prospects to target

2. Los Angeles Rams

NFL defense rankings: Los Angeles Rams
Jan 9, 2021; Seattle, Washington, USA; Los Angeles Rams defensive end Aaron Donald (99) celebrates with outside linebacker Leonard Floyd (54) following a sack against the Seattle Seahawks during the second quarter at Lumen Field. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

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. There’s a real chance strong safety John Johnson – one of the best at his position in 2020 – departs this offseason. Even if that happens, Raheem Morris will get the most out of Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey and Darious Williams.

Related: Most underrated NFL free agents in 2021

1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

NFL defense rankings: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Feb 7, 2020; Tampa, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator Todd Bowles (middle) talks with players during the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LV against the Kansas City Chiefs at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Phenomenal. There are no other words to describe the coaching job defensive coordinator Todd Bowles did in Super Bowl LV. Andy Reid sang his praises after the game and for a good reason, Bowles’ defense held a Patrick Mahomes-led team out of the end zone for the first time since high school. Facing Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees in the playoffs, the Buccaneers allowed them to convert just 3-of-9 red-zone opportunities. Even if Lavonte David isn’t back next season, Devin White is a star, Shaquil Barrett is a lock for a new deal and this secondary with Antoine Winfield Jr, Sean Murphy-Bunting and Carlton Davis is one of the best in the NFL. When this defense is at its peak, with the best defensive coordinator in the NFL, they can shut everyone down.