Some might conclude that defenses dominated the landscape of the NFL last season based simply on how the Super Bowl itself played out. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
A total of five defenses around the NFL allowed a triple-digit quarterback rating while 18 teams gave up 90-plus ratings. If we rewind just a decade, those numbers stood at zero and five respectively back in 2006.
This is definitely an indication of just how much the NFL’s landscape has changed, formulating a league in which pass-first offenses have dominated.
In this, the importance of an elite-level pass rush becomes paramount. Unfortunately, the teams that we project to be among the 10 worst on defense this upcoming season simply don’t have much when it comes to that.
Anyway, in following up with a previous article focusing on the top-10 defenses heading into the 2016 season, let’s reverse course and look at the worst of the worst.
1. New Orleans Saints
The Saints defense was historically bad last season. It ranked 31st in total yards allowed (413.4), 31st against the pass (284), 31st against the run (129.4) and dead last in points allowed (476). If this wasn’t bad enough, the Saints allowed an absurd 116.2 quarterback rating.
Without much wiggle room under the cap, New Orleans did what it could to improve this unit, adding veteran defensive tackle Nick Fairley and linebacker James Laurinaitis to the mix in free agency.
Couple that with the additions of first-round pick Sheldon Rankins (defensive tackle) as well as second rounder Vonn Bell (safety), and there’s definitely more talent on this unit in 2016.
Unfortunately, the team simply didn’t do enough to improve off what we saw last season. Linebacker Hau’oli Kikaha will miss the year after tearing his ACL during off-season activities. Without him in the mix, New Orleans will continue to struggle from a pass-rush standpoint.
Not a single member of this team’s defense outside of Cameron Jordan recorded more than five sacks a season ago. Without a consistent pass rush, issues will continue in terms of pass defense. That’s one of the primary reasons the Saints were so bad in that category a season ago.
2. New York Giants
Adding corner Janoris Jenkins, defensive end Olivier Vernon and defensive tackle Damon Harrison to the mix on huge free-agent contracts surely can’t hurt New York here. These were areas of utmost need for a horrendous defense a season ago.
Though, it really does remain to be seen whether any of these three are the impact players the Giants signed them to be.
The primary question here is about Jenkins’ ability to actually act as a shut-down guy on the outside. Remember, the Rams needed to throw over the top coverage his way on a consistent basis last season.
More than that, the Giants did very little to upgrade what has been a disastrous linebacker group.
Following the retirement of Jon Beason, there’s a whole bunch not to like here. Devon Kennard and Mark Herzlich will be competing for the strong-side linebacker job. J.T. Thomas and Jonathan Casillas will be competing for the weak-side spot.
None of these names strike us as being able to be difference makers as starters moving forward. The same can be said about Jasper Brinkley and Keenan Robinson in the middle.
Not as bad as the Saints were last season, this is still a unit that ranked dead last against the pass and in total defense. Simply put, the Giants haven’t upgraded this defense enough for the team to have confidence in wholesale improvements.
3. Indianapolis Colts
Can the Colts finally get that pass rush they need in their 3-4 scheme? This has been the biggest issue for their defense for some time now.
It came out in droves a season ago with Indianapolis ranking in the bottom 10 of the NFL against the pass while allowing 29 touchdowns through the air. The correlation is real here, as Indy also ranked in the bottom 10 of the league in sacks.
Unfortunately for fans of the horseshoe, there has to be very little confidence upgrades will come in 2016. Erik Walden and Trent Cole are once against expected to be the team’s starting outside linebackers. They recorded a combined six sacks a season ago.
Meanwhile, aging veteran Robert Mathis (seven sacks) will come in as a pass-rush specialist. This simply isn’t going to cut it, especially when we take into account the lack of talent in Indy’s secondary behind corner Vontae Davis.
4. Dallas Cowboys
With both DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory suspended for the first four games of the season, the Cowboys are going to be missing that punch from a pass-rush standpoint. Add in the “loss” of Greg Hardy, and this is magnified even further.
All said, the top-four defensive ends expected to head the Cowboys rotation in the first quarter of the season recorded less than one combined sack in 2015.
That most definitely doesn’t bode well for a defense that yielded a 94.2 quarterback rating in 2015. The good news here for Dallas is that it has a decent secondary that includes Orlando Scandrick and youngster Byron Jones. Though, safety play should continue to be an issue here.
As we have seen in recent NFL history, teams that can’t put up a pass rush are not going to be able to do much to actually stop the pass. Right now, the Cowboys simply don’t have that aspect of their defense set heading into training camp.
5. Cleveland Browns
Cleveland ranked in the bottom three of the NFL against the run last season, yielding an average of 128.4 yards per game. It also finished in the bottom 11 of the league against the pass, ultimately finishing 27th in total defense. If that weren’t enough, the Browns yielded the fourth-most points in the league.
Unfortunately, Cleveland didn’t do a whole bunch to address these issues in the offseason. The team’s two starting outside linebackers, Barkevious Mingo and Paul Kruger, recorded a total of four sacks a season ago. That’s not good for any defense, let alone one that emphasizes pass rush from this position in a 3-4 scheme.
The addition of second-round pick Emmanuel Ogbah could help here, but it’s unreasonable to expect him to change this dreadful pass rush out of the gate.
In terms of the secondary, Joe Haden continued to deal with an ankle injury this spring and simply can’t be relied on to stay healthy after missing all but five games last season (more on that here).
Justin Gilbert, a first-round pick two years ago, has been an absolute bust. Meanwhile, Cleveland lost former Pro Bowl safety Tashaun Gipson in free agency and released veteran Donte Whitner.
In reality, there’s simply not much to like about this unit. Sure, there’s some young talent. The issue here is that most of it is unproven.
6. Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles’ inability to do anything of substance on defense a season ago was surely impacted by Chip Kelly’s fast-paced offensive system. Though, placing all the blame on Kelly would be an absolute joke.
Issues here are vast, and they were not fully addressed during the spring. Trading Byron Maxwell’s ridiculous contract was a coup for the team. Replacing him with the likes of Leodis McKelvin and Ron Brooks obviously isn’t going to be the answer at corner.
Staying in the secondary, Philadelphia also lost safety Walter Thurmond to retirement. Replacing him will be a safety in Rodney McLeod, who simply didn’t prove himself to be a starter-caliber defensive back in four seasons with the then St. Louis Rams. That’s definitely going to be an issue here, even with the likely emergence of Eric Rowe at corner.
Fresh off signing a massive contract extension, defensive lineman Fletcher Cox remains one of the best all-around players in the NFL. He recorded 71 tackles, 9.5 sacks and three forced fumbles last season.
Outside of that, there’s just not a lot to like about the Eagles front four. The other three starters, Brandon Graham, Bennie Logan and Connor Barwin, combined for 14.5 sacks in 2015.
If Philadelphia can find a way to get solid coverage from its linebacker group with that defensive front stepping up from a pass-rush standpoint, its issues will be masked a bit. Though, we have a hard time believing it will be enough to drastically improve last year’s No. 30 overall ranking on defense.
7. San Francisco 49ers
There’s a whole heck of a lot of young talent here, especially in the secondary. The likes of Jimmie Ward, Jaquiski Tartt and Kenneth Acker all played darn well in expanded roles last year. Meanwhile, former Pro Bowl safeties Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea return for yet another season in San Francisco.
In reality, there’s a good chance the 49ers’ secondary will be among the league’s most surprising units. It just remains to be seen how the team’s coaching staff will utilize this talent.
As with most of this defense, it’s all about unproven talent. Aaron Lynch is a Pro Bowl caliber outside linebacker. NaVorro Bowman is among the best all-around defensive players in the league.
The question here is just how the other two linebacker positions are going to play out. As of right now, there doesn’t seem to be many answers there.
Speaking of lacking answers, there’s not one person who could throw together San Francisco’s starting defensive line without displaying a sarcastic smile.
Sure there’s talent here. Arik Armstead was surprisingly good in limited playing time as a rookie. This year’s first-round pick DeForest Buckner has all the tools to be dominating. Both are still incredibly raw and will be asked to play huge roles.
Meanwhile, San Francisco was able to retain Ian Williams in free agency. Though, that came before the team realized he was going to need off-season surgery.
The larger issue here is Chip Kelly. Listen, no one is going to question his ability to put up yards and points on offense. Instead, the problem that we saw in Philadelphia was just how poorly his defenses performed.
Eagles defensive rankings under Chip Kelly pic.twitter.com/b2mC5u2Mg6
— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) June 17, 2016
The Eagles failed to rank any better than 28th in yards against in any of his three seasons as their head coach. If San Francisco’s talent-stricken offense is unable to move the chains, it will put the team’s defense in an unsustainable position. This is something we saw in Philadelphia last season under Kelly.
While the 49ers sure do possess a ton of talent on defense, there are simply too many factors working against this unit heading into 2016.
8. Jacksonville Jaguars
Some might be surprised by Jacksonville’s appearance here. But let us qualify this for a second. Much like San Francisco, there’s a whole heck of a lot of young talent. Some might even conclude All-Pro talent.
The expectation we have for Jacksonville’s defense should be muted due to a wide array of unknowns.
Can pass rusher Dante Fowler Jr. return to full health after missing his entire rookie season with a torn ACL? Were the concerns over Myles Jack’s knee justified in the lead up to the 2016 NFL Draft? If so, was him falling to the second round a sign of further problems?
Can top-five pick Jalen Ramsey make an immediate impact after being injured shortly following his selection in the spring? Will free-agent acquisitions Malik Jackson and Tashaun Gipson live up to expectations after signing huge deals in March?
With so many questions, and coming off a 2015 campaign that saw this unit rank in the bottom 10 in every major statistical category, it’s hard to believe that Jacksonville’s defense will improve drastically in 2016.
9. Detroit Lions
It’s really hard to fathom just how much the Lions’ defense regressed a season ago. After finishing the 2014 campaign second in total defense and first against the run while yielding the third-fewest points, things changed drastically in 2015.
Detroit ranked 23rd in scoring defense. It also ranked in the bottom half of the league in total defense, rushing defense and against the pass.
More than anything, the Lions’ biggest issue last season was defending the pass. It yielded a triple-digit quarterback rating, intercepted just nine passes and allowed 68.3 of the passes attempted against them to be completed.
Cornerback Darius Slay failed to step up and become a top-end cover guy. Though, that wasn’t anywhere near primary reason for Detroit’s struggle. Instead, its other corners failed to do anything of substance with Nevin Lawson and Quandre Diggs both allowing triple-digit quarterback ratings when targeted.
In order for Detroit’s defense to improve in 2016, it’s going to have to get an elite-level pass rush from the front seven. That has to be a bit of a concern considering this unit was still able to record 42 sacks a season ago.
Unless the likes of Ziggy Ansah and rookie A’Shawn Robinson take their games to the next level, this is unlikely to happen.
10. Miami Dolphins
On paper, some might conclude that the Dolphins’ defense is going to be good. Adding defensive end Mario Williams to go with Cameron Wake and Ndamukong Suh up front gives this unit a ton of talent. But just how well is said talent going to mesh?
Wake tore his Achilles last season and is 34 years old. Suh had a less-than-stellar initial season in South Beach and is coming off an interesting spring in which teammates grew upset over his absence from off-season activities (more on that here).
Heck, even Williams enters the 2016 season as somewhat of a question mark following last year’s drama-filled campaign in Buffalo.
If that weren’t enough, the secondary is looking even more questionable. Miami released top corner Brent Grimes during the spring, only to replace him with a veteran in Byron Maxwell who was absolutely horrible last season.
Can all these moving parts come together to form a decent defense? Much like the Jaguars, there just seems to be too many question marks here.