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2022 NFL defense rankings: Outlooks for top 20 defenses entering summer

Matt Johnson

The 2021 season is in the books and defensive play culminated in the Los Angeles Rams becoming Super Bowl champions. It’s something to keep in mind for the 2022 season and we take it into consideration in the first edition of our 2022 NFL defense rankings.

Naturally, the 2022 NFL Draft will have a significant impact on our rankings. This is a deep class of prospects, especially on the defensive side. With teams able to fill multiple needs with potential starters and key impact players, it’s a great time to add on this side of the ball.

Bookmark this page throughout the summer and 2022 season for frequent updates of our NFL defense rankings. When the regular season arrives, we’ll provide weekly analysis and previews of matchups for the top-20 teams.

NFL defense rankings – 2022 team outlooks

Stats courtesy Football Outsiders, Pro Football Reference, ESPN and Pro Football Focus.

20. Arizona Cardinals

NFL: Houston Texans at Arizona Cardinals
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The Arizona Cardinals are banking on a lot of things to go right next season. First, they need J.J. Watt to stay healthy for the first time in years. Otherwise, this is going to be a defensive front that seemingly can’t get to the quarterback in crucial moments. Second, Arizona thinks linebackers Isaiah Simmons and Zaven Collins are finally going to click. Even if all that goes right, which is unlikely, the Cardinals’ secondary that allowed a 121.9 QB rating in its final five games largely remains unchanged.

Arizona did address its pass rush, adding Cameron Thomas and Myjai Sanders. Thomas is the most intriguing player, with Sanders’ thin build serving as a concern. The thing that pushes Arizona down is our concerns in the secondary.

19. Kansas City Chiefs (Previously: 20)

NFL: NFL Draft
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The Kansas City Chiefs are clinging to life in our NFL defense rankings. It’s possible that replacing Tyrann Mathieu with Justin Reid is an upgrade in terms of talent and athleticism. However, the Chiefs will sorely miss Mathieu’s on-field leadership. Kansas City lost one of its top cornerbacks and this pass rush is inconsistent outside of Chris Jones.

Credit to the Chiefs for spending their first-round picks on the defensive side. Trent McDuffie is one of the smartest players in the 2022 draft class and while he’s not the perfect schematic fit, talent wins out. He can be a quality No. 2 corner quickly. Meanwhile, George Karlaftis provides this team with overwhelming brute force and a relentless motor on the edge, something badly needed.

Not to be outdone, Kansas City added linebacker Leo Chenal. He’s going to see the field on early downs, helping shore up the run defense. With the additions made earlier to the secondary, we’re starting to feel more confident in this defense.

18. New England Patriots

NCAA Football: Georgia Pro Day
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It’s difficult to trust Bill Belichick right now. The numbers from this past season look great for the New England Patriots defense. It allowed the third-fewest yards per play (5.1), the second-lowest scoring rate (29.4%) and opponents converted just 36.5% of their third-down attempts against the Patriots. That’s the good news.

Look at the final games against the Buffalo Bills, allowing 622 passing yards and 8 touchdowns to Josh Allen. If you’re wondering what steps Belichick took to improve the defense, none were made. Top corner J.C. Jackson is gone, aging players are back and wide receivers are drooling when they look at his secondary. There are just too many concerns about the pass rush and cornerbacks to consider this a great defense.

Unfortunately, none of those issues were addressed in Round 1. We love Marcus Jones as a return specialist, even sending him to New England in mock drafts for that reason. However, the 5-foot-8 slot corner doesn’t resolve our worries with this defense.

17. Tennessee Titans

NFL: AFC Divisional Round-Cincinnati Bengals at Tennessee Titans
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Credit to the Tennessee Titans for turning things around in 2021. Much of the credit goes the ferocious pass rush with Harold Landry III (64 pressures, 14 sacks), Jeffery Simmons (62 pressures) and Denico Autry (61 pressures). If this entire unit wants to take a step forward, becoming a more consistent defense that can challenge for a top-10 spot, cornerbacks Caleb Farley and Kristian Fulton need to prove themselves this fall. One way to help those young cornerbacks, drafting another edge rusher. Instead, the Titans focused on offense with their 2022 draft class. We liked the picks, it just doesn’t do a lot for this side of the ball.

16. Denver Broncos

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Denver Broncos
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Similar to a few teams on our NFL defense rankings, everyone is focused on what the Denver Broncos did at quarterback. It’s certainly the most important position, but Denver also improved defensively. If Randy Gregory stays healthy, he creates a substantial improvement for this pass rush.

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We’re also expecting Patrick Surtain II to make even more strides in his second season, much like Jaire Alexander did in Green Bay. The Broncos still need another boundary cornerback and there are unknown with Vic Fangio gone, but projecting this as a top-15 defense is reasonable for the talent pool.

Without a ton of draft capital, Denver made the best of its situation. Nik Bonitto is a designated pass rusher, perfect for the No. 3 role in a defense. He’ll provide some juice to a pass-rushing unit that needs Randy Gregory and Bradley Chubb to have big years.

15. Las Vegas Raiders

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Las Vegas Raiders
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So much of the focus on the Las Vegas Raiders offseason centers on the Davante Adams trade. It started with the Maxx Crosby extension, keeping one of the best edge rushers in the NFL wearing the Black & Silver for years to come. After that, Las Vegas turned Yannick Ngakoue into Chandler Jones and Rock-Ya Sin. There are still concerns at safety and linebacker, but the Raiders’ pass defense could take a nice step forward in 2022.

Related: Las Vegas Raiders mock draft

Looking at the NFL Draft from the perspective of the Raiders’ defense, three needs stand out. Safety and linebacker could benefit from potential role players and defensive tackle is also a spot to address, likely on Day 2.

14. Pittsburgh Steelers

NFL: AFC Wild Card Playoffs-Pittsburgh Steelers at Kansas City Chiefs
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It wasn’t that long ago we put the Pittsburgh Steelers near the top of our NFL defense rankings. T.J. Watt still dominated and this pass rush held up, but Pittsburgh couldn’t do anything to stop the run. After allowing opponents to average 146.1 rush ypg this past season, Pittsburgh added linebacker Myles Jack and will be hoping healthy seasons from Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu turn things around. We’ll need to see it happen before we’re ready to call this a top-10 defense.

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12. Cleveland Browns

NFL: Las Vegas Raiders at Cleveland Browns
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Investments made in the Cleveland Browns defense provided some rewards. The unit allowed the second-lowest yards per play (5.0) and the Myles Garrett-Jadeveon Clowney duo dominated. However, Cleveland surrendered the sixth-worst conversion rate (66.7%) inside the red zone. Jadeveon Clowney was expected to re-sign this summer, but there now being some uncertainty creates a bigger red flag with the pass rush.

12. Miami Dolphins

NFL: New England Patriots at Miami Dolphins
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Losing Brian Flores is a blow for this defense. Fortunately, Mike McDaniel is maintaining continuity with the defensive coaching staff. It’s great news for a unit that posted the third-highest pressure rate (28.5%) and finished with the seventh-lowest QB rating allowed (85.4) during the regular season. If Jaelan Phillips can improve in his second season and Byron Jones does a better job in coverage, Miami should maintain a top-12 spot in our NFL defense rankings throughout the reason.

11. Indianapolis Colts

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Buffalo Bills
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The departure of defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus leaves us with questions. We’ve seen the Indianapolis Colts defense consistently perform well under his direction, but there are always risks when a new voice enters the locker room. Gus Bradley needs to improve a pass rush that had the second-lowest pressure rate (18.1%) in the NFL during the regular season.

We’ve got confidence Kwity Paye, DeForest Buckner and Yannick Ngakoue will create havoc. However, the secondary still looked like a real weak spot. Fortunately, the Colts signed Stephon Gilmore. The veteran cornerback surrendered just an 80.7 quarterback rating when targeted in 2021, per Pro Football Focus, proving he is still outstanding in coverage. He’s a fantastic addition, vaulting Indianapolis up our NFL defense rankings.

10. Philadelphia Eagles (Previously: 18)

NFL: Pro Bowl-NFC at AFC
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We saw the Philadelphia Eagles make a big splash at the start of free agency, bringing Haason Reddick in on a great deal. While he isn’t a household name, he posted the eighth-highest pass-rush win rate (23%) in the NFL last year. Joining forces with Fletcher Cox and Javon Hargrave, Philadelphia’s pass rush should improve. If they can find a quality corner opposite Darius Slay, we might even see this become a top-10 defense.

Yes, adding Jordan Davis warrants this big of a move up the 2022 NFL defense rankings. As analyst Ben Bennell explained, Davis can be an overwhelming force on the interior. He’s also a perfect fit in Jonathan Gannon’s system. Even as a rookie, Davis will change the way we look at Philly’s defense.

The rich got even richer on Day 2. Nakobe Dean was a top-20 talent in the draft class, but fell due to medical concerns and his size. Those aren’t issues for us in 2022. Dean’s instincts, athleticism and nose for the football address everything Philly needed at linebacker.

Naturally, Philadelphia wasn’t done after the NFL Draft ended. Once James Bradberry was released by the Giants, he seemed like a natural fit for the Eagles. He’s going to immediately step in as the No. 2 cornerback opposite Darius Slay, providing Philly with two high-end starters who can match up against a variety of receivers. With Bradberry on board, we feel even more confident about the Eagles’ position in our NFL defense rankings.

9. Los Angeles Chargers (Previously: 7)

NFL: Denver Broncos at Los Angeles Chargers
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It’s fair to say we’re feeling bullish about the 2022 Los Angeles Chargers defense. Brandon Staley didn’t quite live up to his defensive savant reputation in his first season. However, he also lacked the tools to achieve success. Because of it, the Chargers couldn’t stop the run (128.9 rush ypg allowed) and allowed opponents to convert nearly 50% of third-down conversions.

Things should be a lot different this season. Khalil Mack, acquired for 2nd and 6th round picks, ranked fifth in RBWR (29%) in 2020 and recorded 13 stops in seven games last year. He’s a three-down edge rusher who will find it much easier to create disruption opposite of Joey Bosa.

Signing J.C. Jackson gives Los Angeles a shutdown cornerback to line up with No. 1 receivers, all while pushing Asante Samuel Jr. into his more natural slot position. Rounding out the group, Sebastian Joseph-Day reunites with Staley and will really help LA’s run defense improve. We’ve got enough confidence to put the Chargers at No. 9 in our 2022 NFL defense rankings.

8. Baltimore Ravens (Previously: 11)

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Baltimore Ravens
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The Baltimore Ravens defense was bad in 2021. Allowing opposing quarterbacks to average a 99.4 passer rating with a 31-9 TD-INT ratio and an 8.0 ypa is going to lose a lot of football games. If that same unit returned in 2021, it wouldn’t appear on this list.

Baltimore played without Marcus Peters and Derek Wolfe all season. It also didn’t have star cornerback Marlon Humphrey for the majority of the year. All of those players are back in 2022. On top of it, the Ravens finally landed their playmaking deeps safety (Marcus Williams). Health is the X-factor here, but the talent and coaching can make this a top-10 defense.

It seems unfair that Kyle Hamilton fell to the Ravens. Months removed from Baltimore’s safety tandem being one of the worst in the AFC, it could soon become one of the best in the NFL. Ignore Hamilton’s speed concerns, film doesn’t lie. The Ravens will know exactly how to use this Swiss Army knife in their secondary, making the defense a lot better moving forward.

Somehow, Baltimore kept receiving good fortune. David Ojabo, a consensus top-20 pick before tearing his Achilles find the perfect home. We’re not betting on a 2022 contribution, but he was another draft-day steal. On top of that, defensive tackle Travis Jones will help eat up gaps and defend the run.

7. San Francisco 49ers

NFL: NFC Wild Card Playoff-San Francisco 49ers at Dallas Cowboys
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In his first season post-ACL tear, Nick Bosa registered 75 pressures, 16 sacks and played at an elite level. He’s certainly not the lone elite player on this San Francisco 49ers defense. Fred Warner is the best off-ball linebacker in the NFL and Arik Armstead took his game to an absurd level in 2021. The main issue with San Francisco’s defense was its secondary and Charvarius Ward is a significant CB1 upgrade. The icing on the cake, DeMeco Ryans will have even more to show the NFL in his second year as DC.

In the 2022 NFL Draft, San Francisco further strengthened its pass rush with Drake Jackson. Once viewed as a potential first-round pick, he only showed flashes of excellence at USC. This is the perfect landing spot for a long, flexible and athletic edge rusher who could rack up a few sacks as a situational player.

6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Atlanta Falcons
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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense went through a myriad of injuries all year, pushing them down from the No. 1 spot in our weekly NFL defense rankings into a top-10 team. With the band getting back together again and everyone healthy, we’re once again excited about what the Buccaneers can accomplish.

While Todd Bowles is giving up his duties as defensive coordinator to become head coach, it doesn’t shake our confidence in this defense. While Jason Pierre-Paul likely isn’t returning, Tampa Bay added to its defensive line with Logan Hall. This team loves betting on size and athleticism, both qualities that Hall brings to the table. Even with Jason Pierre-Paul and Ndamukong Suh not returning, this is still a great defense. It just isn’t as deep as it used to be.

5. Dallas Cowboys

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys
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Losing Randy Gregory is a significant blow for the Dallas Cowboys defense. It creates a pressing need for an edge rusher opposite of DeMarcus Lawrence, adding to the positions Dallas must address in the NFL Draft (linebacker, cornerback). However, there are still plenty of things to like about this group.

Related: 2022 Dallas Cowboys mock draft

Micah Parsons should be the favorite for Defensive Player of the Year in 2022, his combination of skills is hard to match. We’re also expecting Lawrence to play at an elite level, especially if he plays 14-plus games. The Cowboys also deserve credit for retaining Dan Quinn and signing Malik Hooker, a coach-player tandem that is best for everyone.

Regarding the Sam Williams, pick it’s a risk-reward. Purely looking at his on-field ability, he was a pass rusher worthy of a potential first-round selection. However, there are major off-field concerns with him that led to some teams removing him from their draft board. It could work out, but this is like the Kelvin Joseph pick.

4. Green Bay Packers (Previously: 5)

NFL: NFC Divisional Round-San Francisco 49ers at Green Bay Packers
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The Green Bay Packers re-signed linebacker De’Vondre Campbell and will get Jaire Alexander back on the field in 2022. Even if Campbell doesn’t play at an All-Pro level, Green Bay gets an All-Pro cornerback (Alexander) and improvements from second-year cornerback Eric Stokes. Combine that with blue-chip talent Rashan Gary along with impact defenders Kenny Clark, Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage, you’ve got one of the best defenses in the NFC.

Green Bay drew some criticism for selecting linebacker Quay Walker and defensive tackle Devonte Wyatt in Round 1. The truth is, those moves might be the finishing pieces to make this one of the best defenses in the NFL. The Packers can return to deploying two inside linebackers, with All-Pro De’Vondre Campbell and Walker, a 6-foot-4 missile with exceptional speed, roaming the middle and making plays on the ball.

For the first time in years, the Packers also provided some help for Kenny Clark. Wyatt is ridiculously athletic for a 6-foot-3 interior defensive lineman and he is capable of creating a lot of pressure. Green Bay’s front seven got a lot better in Round 1 and it already had a top secondary.

3. New Orleans Saints

NFL: Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints
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The Buccaneers aren’t the only players happy Tom Brady returns in 2022. We saw once again this past year that the New Orleans Saints defense owns Brady in the regular season. The greatest quarterback ever posted an 89.7 passer rating with a 4-3 TD-INT ratio and two losses against the Saints in 2021.

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Brady isn’t the only one who struggled against New Orleans. The Saints allowed the fourth-lowest average quarterback rating (81.7) and allowed the third-lowest touchdown rate (3.4%). Opponents couldn’t do anything on the ground, averaging the lowest yards per rush (3.7) in the NFL. Losing Marcus Williams hurts, but a healthy Marcus Maye and a second-year jump from Paulson Adebo could bridge the gap.

Getting Tyrann Mathieu into the fold will also provide a nice boost for the defense. While he’s no longer an All-Pro talent, the veteran safety is a defensive chess piece that can be moved around everywhere and be brings outstanding instincts. He should have a huge presence in plays over the middle of the field.

2. Los Angeles Rams

NFL: Super Bowl LVI-Los Angeles Rams at Cincinnati Bengals
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The Los Angeles Rams don’t win a Super Bowl without Aaron Donald. Just the threat of his potential retirement should leave everyone appreciating what we have in 2022. If this is going to be one of Donald’s final seasons, there’s no question Los Angeles needs to be near the top of the NFL defense rankings.

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We highlight Donald (86 pressures, 49 stops in 2021) a lot. So, we’ll focus on other members of the Rams’ defense. A’Shawn Robinson and Greg Gaines (41%) were among leaders in ESPN’s run-stop win rate by defensive tackles last year. Safety Jordan Fuller recorded 24 run stops and was one of the highest-graded safeties against the run. When you combine that with Donald and Jalen Ramsey disrupting the passing game, it’s easy to see how dominant the Rams’ defense can be.

Here’s the scary thing. Linebacker was always a weakness for Los Angeles. Insert All-Pro Bobby Wagner into the mix. He’s no longer the player he used to be – the best off-ball linebacker in the NFL – but his combination of leadership, instincts and the remaining talent left in the tank is monumental for the middle of the Rams’ defense.

1. Buffalo Bills

NFL: Miami Dolphins at Buffalo Bills
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The Buffalo Bills belong atop our 2022 NFL defense rankings. Take a look at what this group did with a healthy Tre’Davious White. From Week 1-11, Buffalo allowed just 5.7 total yards per play, helped quarterbacks to a 62.2 quarterback rating and opponents had a 33% third-down conversion rate. We’re prepared to say this unit can be even better in 2022.

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Von Miller (60 pressures, 35 stops, 85.7 run-defense grade) found the fountain of youth last season. He’s going to be a fantastic mentor for edge rusher Gregory Rousseau, who showed flashes as a rookie and offers the raw talent for a second-year leap. Factor in the addition of defensive tackle DaQuan Jones (23 pressures) with two outstanding safeties playing deep, this is the best defense in the NFL.

Now, it adds one final piece. Kaiir Elam brings the length and physicality Buffalo needed at boundary cornerback opposite Tre’Davious White. While the rookie will have some lapses, those can be mitigated by deploying him as the No. 2 corner with safeties helping him.