Ranking all 32 NFL defenses heading into 2017 season

Star quarterbacks and top offenses make the most highlights around the NFL. It’s all about what fans might deem to be entertaining when watching 20-second clips.

But in reality, defenses are as important to success around the league. Just look at Von Miller’s Super Bowl MVP performance for the Denver Broncos a couple years back. What about Malcolm Butler sealing his New England Patriots Lombardi with an interception against Russell Wilson a year before that?

Heading into the 2017 season, let’s take a look at how each team’s defense around the NFL stack up. Are the Oakland Raiders still a Super Bowl contender despite boasting a substandard defense? Is the Houston Texans’ defense good enough to win the AFC South once again?

We’ll take a look at those questions and more as we rank all 32 NFL defenses heading into the 2017 season.

32. New Orleans Saints

Courtesy of USA Today Images

The Saints were dealt a huge blow during the summer with news that starting corner Delvin Breaux would miss the start of the season with a fractured fibula. This adds more issues to a defense that ranked dead last in the NFL against the pass last season. And despite adding first-round corner Marshon Lattimore to the mix, there’s still a ton of issues here.

More than that, New Orleans racked up just 30 sacks en route yielding over four touchdowns per game in 2016. The team has not added anyone of real substance to go with Cameron Jordan here. Yeah, we can surely expect another bottom-end defense in the Bayou this season.

31. New York Jets

The Jets were wise to move on from veterans on a unit that yielded the fifth-most points in the NFL last season. The likes of David Harris, Darrelle Revis and Calvin Pryor simply were not productive starters in this scheme. For the team to completely rebuild, getting younger on defense made sense.

Unfortunately, this will cause some major learning curves for the Jets’ defense in 2017. Veterans Morris Claiborne and Buster Skrine are set to start at corner for a secondary that yielded 30 touchdown passes and a 98.5 quarterback rating last season. Meanwhile, the linebacker trio of Jordan Jenkins, Demario Davis and youngster Darron Lee leave a lot to be desired here. Sure the Jets have a strong defensive line, but the rest of this unit is a hot mess.

30. Chicago Bears

Chicago’s defense was somewhat of a surprise last season in that it ranked in the middle of the pack in total yards allowed. The issue here was an offense that continued to force the Bears’ defense to contend with a short field. That led to this unit ranking in the bottom 10 in points allowed.

We’re not really expecting Chicago to do a whole lot better on offense in 2017, especially if Mike Glennon is indeed under center. Add in the injury issues to starting edge rusher Pernell McPhee as well as cornerback Kyle Fuller, and there’s just not a whole lot of available talent on defense in the Windy City. Look for an actual downtick in production from this unit in 2017.

29. Cleveland Browns

Rookie first-round picks Myles Garrett and Jabrill Peppers should help out here. But they are definitely going to go through some growing pains.

Garrett looked downright dominant in his preseason debut, which should help Cleveland’s pass defense improve from a No. 21 ranking. But he’s not going to be able to do much to fend off opposing offenses on the ground. Cleveland ranked 31st in this area last season and yielded an absurd 4.6 yards per rush.

In fact, teams put up 200-plus rushing yards against the Browns three times last season. That’s going to be the biggest issue for a defense that’s void of any starter-caliber run stuffers along its defensive line.

28. Indianapolis Colts

We do like what first-year general manager Chris Ballard did on defense in free agency. Johnathan Hankins, John Simon and Jabaal Sheard should be great additions to the front seven. At the very least, the team might be able to put up more than the 33 sacks it recorded last season. Unfortunately, these additions also came with subtractions. Indianapolis lost Erik Walden, who recorded a team-high 11 sacks last season, to free agency.

Meanwhile, five-time Pro Bowler Robert Mathis retired from the NFL following a five-sack 2016 campaign. Outside of that, Indy’s returning player with the most sacks last season is David Parry, who recorded three quarterback take downs. Coming off a 2016 season that saw the Colts rank in the bottom 10 against both the rush and the pass, this is going to be a substandard unit once again.

27. Green Bay Packers

There are just too many issues here. We could write a 5,000-word column on why the Packers themselves will struggle in 2017. And in reality, it starts on the defensive side of the ball. Pass rusher Clay Matthews, playing out of position recently, seems to be a shell of his former self. And outside of that, the Packers have no real pass rush to speak of.

Though, the biggest issue here is in the secondary, where Green Bay has exhausted multiple early-round picks to try to find a fix. Green Bay spent its first two picks in Aprils draft, both second rounders, on defensive backs.

Unfortunately, the first of those picks, cornerback Kevin King, has been absolutely brutal during the summer. Considering Green Bay yielded 32 touchdown passes and ranked 31st against the pass last season, it simply has not done anywhere near enough to fix these issues.

26. Dallas Cowboys

Dallas didn’t have a strong defense to begin with last season. This unit yielded the seventh-most passing yards in the league while racking up 36 sacks on the season. This tells us a story of a defense that failed to provide good coverage in the backfield in large part due to the fact that it didn’t get to the quarterback on a consistent basis. In fact, no player on the Cowboys’ defense put up more than six sacks last season.

The problem here is two fold. First off, Dallas didn’t do a whole lot to address these issues in the offseason. Sure it spent a first-round pick on Taco Charlton, but he looks to be a project. In addition to this, David Irving is suspended for the first four games of the season. Add in the fact that both starting safeties from last season are gone, and the issues will likely be here again in the Big D this season.

25. Oakland Raiders

Boasting the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, most figured Oakland’s defense would be much better. Unfortunately, there’s just not a whole lot outside of Khalil Mack. Oakland ranked in the bottom 10 of the NFL against the pass and in total yards allowed last season. It also gave up a surprisingly high 24-plus points per game for a 12-win team.

Outside of adding two defensive backs in the draft, the Raiders didn’t do a whole lot to address this area of the team. Heck, we’re not even sure cornerback Gareon Conley and safety Obi Melifonwu will be able to make huge impacts after the rookies were limited throughout training camp. If the Raiders are to contend for a title in 2017, the onus is going to fall squarely on their elite-level offense.

24. Los Angeles Rams

Aaron Donald is one of the NFL stars next in line for a huge payday

New defensive coordinator Wade Phillips should help this unit improve even more than its top-10 finish from last season. Then again, the Rams’ ability to put up a tremendous defense is solely reliant on All Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald ending his holdout. At this point, that doesn’t seem to be in the cards. And in reality, losing one of the top-three defensive players in the game will set this unit back big time.

There’s also a lot more to look at here. Los Angeles placed the franchise tag on uninspiring cornerback Trumaine Johnson. It then looked to trade him because he wasn’t a fit for a Phillips-led defense. That’s not showing much confidence in the high-priced corner. Add in the trade of E.J. Gaines and Robert Quinn switching positions, and there’s definitely a good chance this defense will regress in 2017.

23. San Francisco 49ers

Talented, yet unproven. That would be the best way to describe this defense under first-year head coach Kyle Shanahan. There’s so much untapped talent here that it’s hard for us to draw a conclusion about where this unit might finish. It could be top-10 or finish in the bottom five like we saw last season.

Rookie first-round picks Solomon Thomas and Reuben Foster have been super impressive thus far this summer. Both are expected to start, with Foster potentially vying for Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. Add in fellow former first-round picks Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner in the front seven, and there’s a lot to like here. Heck, recent acquisition Elvis Dumervil — a former Pro Bowler in his own right — thinks second-year corner Rashard Robinson could be the best player at his position in the NFC West. But until it all comes together, this is still a bottom 10 unit in the NFL.

22. Buffalo Bills

Is E.J. Gaines an upgrade over Ronald Darby at corner? That remains to be seen. What we do know is that the Bills did lose leading tackler Zach Brown, top corner Stephon Gilmore and starting free safety Corey Graham in free agency. That’s three important cogs on a defense that ranked in the bottom half of the NFL last season.

In order for Buffalo to earn its first playoff spot since 1999, this unit needs to improve leaps and bounds from last season. The issue here is that we don’t know where said improvement will come from. Are 2016 top-round picks Reggie Ragland and Shaq Lawson ready to make impacts after suffering through injury-plagued 2016 campaigns? If not, where does this improvement come from in Western New York?

21. Miami Dolphins

Losing Koa Misi to retirement and rookie middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan to a season-ending injury hurts the Dolphins big time in 2017. Who will now be called on to take over on the strong side in a defense that relies a great deal on that position?

Equally as important, can Miami find a way to stop the run after finishing 30th in the NFL in that category last season? Neither Ndamukong Suh nor Jordan Phillips have proven to be especially good in that area. There’s just too many question marks here to rank the Dolphins’ defense any higher.

20. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Gerald McCoy

Tampa has three strong building blocks on defense in defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, linebacker Lavonte David and cornerback Vernon Hargreaves. It also has to nice young cornerstone pieces in Kwon Alexander and Justin Evans. The issue here is that the Buccaneers simply have not been able to put it all together. With this type of talent, this unit should have yielded a lot less than an average of 23 points per game last season.

The Buccaneers also finished in the bottom 11 against the pass despite putting up 38 sacks on the season. That’s where Hargreaves and fellow corner Brent Grimes must show more consistency. If this doesn’t happen, we’re probably looking at a defense that will rank in the bottom half of the NFL once again.

19. Jacksonville Jaguars

Speaking of unproven talent. Jacksonville’s defense could be among the best in the NFL in a couple years. But for now, we have yet to see this side of the ball gel. A lot of this will depend on Myles Jack and Dante Fowler Jr. upping their games from inconsistent levels last season. For his part, Jack has already been moved from the all-important MIKE position because of his struggles actually making tackles during the summer.

What we do know is that the Jaguars’ defense will be vastly improved when it comes to defending the pass. Second-year corner Jalen Ramsey has All Pro potential written all over him. Meanwhile, Jacksonville added a Pro Bowl-caliber corner in A.J. Bouye from the division-rival Houston Texans in free agency. Should these two act like the shutdown corners we know they can be, the Jaguars’ defense will finish a lot higher than this ranking.

18. Detroit Lions

It’s rather simple here. Detroit will need more of a pass-rush presence from both Ziggy Ansah and A’Shawn Robinson if this team wants to return to the playoffs. Last year’s sack leader, Kerry Hyder, is lost for the season. He recorded eight sacks in 2016. Ansah and Robinson combined for a grand total of four.

In reality, it won’t matter if Darius Slay returns to pre-2016 form at corner. It also won’t matter if Tahir Whitehead and rookie Jarrad Davis form an elite linebacker tandem. If the Lions are unable to generate a pass rush, the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers in the NFC North will eat this defense apart. And even an MVP-caliber performance from Matthew Stafford won’t save the team.

17. Washington Redskins

Josh Norman gave the Skins some sense of consistency in the defensive backfield last season. While he didn’t earn a Pro Bowl nod, the former Panthers star did record 67 tackles and 19 passes defended en route to finishing as one of Pro Football Focuses top cover guys. This enabled Washington to give up just 22 passing touchdowns as it played a bend, but don’t break defense.

Whether this will translate to the 2017 season remains to be seen. Washington simply can’t rely on that red-zone luck if it wants to return to the playoffs. That’s where the likes of Ryan Kerrigan as well as rookies Ryan Anderson and Jonathan Allen must step up from a pass-rush standpoint. If this doesn’t happen, we’re going to be looking at a mid-tier defense once again.

16. Tennessee Titans

There’s a whole heck of a lot to like about this unit. Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan from the EDGE positions combined for 19.5 sacks last season. Meanwhile, the interior of the team’s defensive line performed at a high clip, yielding the second-fewest rushing yards in the NFL.

Unfortunately, this still equated to a defense that ranked in the middle of the past in both yards and points allowed. The primary issue here is that Tennessee yielded the third-most passing yards in the league. It just couldn’t stop opposing team’s quarterbacks. That’s most definitely not a good sign in the weak AFC South. It’s also where rookie first-round pick Adoree’ Jackson free agent addition Logan Ryan must step up at cornerback. If that doesn’t happen, we’re looking at another pedestrian season from this defense.

15. Atlanta Falcons

Desmont Trufant

Last season saw Atlanta’s defense yield the seventh-most points in the NFL. Sure a lot of that had to do with its offense running up and down the field, but it’s still alarming. Given the fact that Vic Beasley led the NFL with 15.5 sacks, that’s magnified even further.

Though, we must also note that the Falcons were without Pro Bowl cornerback Desmond Trufant for almost half the regular season. He’s a true shutdown guy, and without him, the Falcons themselves were vulnerable against the pass. Now that Trufant is back at 100 percent and the team has a solid corner in Robert Alford opposite him, this shouldn’t be an issue in 2017. Look for a marked improvement from this defense.

14. Los Angeles Chargers

Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram might represent the best pass-rush tandem in the AFC West. That says a lot considering what the other teams have (Justin Houston, Khalil Mack, Von Miller). The two combined for 18.5 sacks last season, and there’s definitely room to grow here.

Unfortunately for the Chargers, they did lose starting MIKE linebacker Denzel Perryman for an extended period of time after he suffered a serious injury in the team’s preseason opener. That could be somewhat of an issue here. Though, the return of Jason Verrett at cornerback after he missed all but four games last season could be a boon. As with their neighbors up north (San Francisco), this unit could finish in the top 10 or the bottom 10 at the end of the season.

13. Carolina Panthers

To say that Carolina missed Josh Norman last season would be a gross understatement. Here’s a unit that finished in the bottom four of the NFL against the pass after ranking in the top 11 the previous season. In order for the Panthers’ defense to get back into dominant form, it will need to rely on James Bradberry and Daryl Worley to up their games at corner.

In reality, that’s all Carolina needs to get back to the top. Luke Kuechly and the recently extended Thomas Davis represent one of the best linebacker tandems in the game. Meanwhile, Kawann Short has morphed into one of the better all-around defensive tackles in the NFL.

12. Cincinnati Bengals

We really like what Cincinnati brings to the table on the defensive line. Geno Atkins remains one of the most-underrated interior linemen in the game, especially from a pass-rush standpoint. He’s racked up 20 sacks over the past two seasons, earning a Pro Bowl spot each year.

Meanwhile, Carlos Dunlap has been consistently good with 37 sacks over the past four seasons. This has helped an otherwise questionable Bengals secondary perform much better than its talent suggests. The primary issue keeping Cincy out of the top 10 is linebacker.

We’re not sure Vontaze Burfict’s mentality will enable him to play a full 16-game season. His track record is less-than-stellar in that area. Meanwhile, the combination of Nick Vigil and Carl Lawson at strong side next to new addition Kevin Minter leaves a lot of question marks.

11. Philadelphia Eagles

Philadelphia addressed a major issue on defense by trading for Ronald Darby earlier in the summer. That’s a pretty big thing considering the team’s cornerback play was absolutely atrocious during training camp. It also enables either Patrick Robinson or Ron Brooks to move into the slot, where each one of them is more comfortable.

Given the Eagles’ plus-level pass rush, this is going to be a big deal. The team picked up former Tennessee EDGE rusher Derek Barnett in the first round of April’s draft, and he’s already making a strong impact. Add in the presence of Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham, and the Eagles pass rush could be dominant in 2017. If that happens, this unit will improve off its No. 13 ranking from a year ago.

10. Kansas City Chiefs

Last season saw Kansas City’s defense regress significantly from the previous year. It ranked 24th in total yards allowed and 26th against the run. What’s interesting here is that the Chiefs still ranked in the top seven in points allowed. It’s this bend, but do not break defense that defined the unit in 2016.

We’re expecting more consistency from the Chiefs in 2017. It starts upfront, where Justin Houston returns to full health after missing all but five games last season. Remember, Houston is two years removed from recording 22 sacks. If he can stay healthy, Dee Ford and Tamba Hali should be able to do their parts. That’s going to be absolutely key with a ball-hawking corner in Marcus Peters (14 interceptions in two seasons) and All-Pro safety Eric Berry dominating in the secondary.

9. Pittsburgh Steelers

Did Pittsburgh finally solve the pass-rush issues that has plagued this team in the draft in recent seasons? After exhausting first-round picks on EDGE rushers in two of the past four drafts, Pittsburgh tripled down at that position with T.J. Watt in April. For his part, the Wisconsin product was dominant in his preseason debut (watch here).

This is really the biggest key for Pittsburgh. Running a base 3-4 defense, it needs to get consistent pressure on the quarterback. Despite issues in that area, the Steelers were still able to finish 12th in total defense and 10th in points allowed. Any progression in terms of getting to the quarterback, and this could be a top-10 unit in 2017.

8. Arizona Cardinals

Deone Bucannon

Despite some depth issues at cornerback last season, Arizona still found a way to finish No. 2 in the NFL in total defense. Unfortunately, red-zone defense was an issue here. The Cardinals ranked in the middle of the pack in points allowed.

That’s where someone needs to step up opposite Patrick Peterson at cornerback. If it means playing All-Pro caliber defensive back Tyrann Mathieu at corner, then so be it. By adding safety Budda Baker in the second round of April’s draft, the Cardinals might be able to do this. Either way, the team has a front seven that’s good enough to be dominant. It’s now all about the secondary rounding into form.

7. Seattle Seahawks

The Legion of Boom might have taken a step back last season. This was evident in the NFC Divisional Playoffs when the Atlanta Falcons dropped 422 yards and 36 points on this unit. One of the primary issues here was the absense of Earl Thomas, who missed the final five games of the regular season and entire playoffs to injury. That span saw Seattle yield 30-plus points three times.

With Thomas back in the mix, Seattle’s secondary could once again become elite. That’s only magnified by the addition of Tramaine Brock to play opposite Richard Sherman. And with a solid front seven, there’s no reason to believe this unit can’t finish in the top five once again.

6. Baltimore Ravens

Brandon Williams might be the best pure nose tackle in the NFL. Terrell Suggs still has it at outside linebacker. Eric Weddle continued to perform at an All-Pro level in his first season with Baltimore. Meanwhile, the team was able to add a play-making safety in Tony Jefferson to pair with the aforementioned Weddle. That’s a whole lot of talent right there.

This is a unit that finished seventh in total defense, nine in points allowed, ninth against the run and fifth in passing yards allowed last season. Any sort of real production from rookies Marlon Humphrey, Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams this season, and we could be looking at a top-five unit.

5. New England Patriots

Much like everything else New England did in the offseason, it targeted and addressed needs on the defensive side of the ball. It started with the usually fickle Pats adding former Buffalo Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore on a huge free agent contract. The team then picked up veteran linebacker David Harris and defensive end Kony Ealy to help an increasingly dominant front seven.

These three core pieces were brought on to a defense that finished last season first in the NFL in points allowed and in the top eight in yards allowed. There’s just a whole heck of a lot to like about the defending champ’s defense heading into 2017.

4. New York Giants

Dare we say the Giants’ defense has a chance to be elite in 2017? First off, safety Landon Collins proved himself to be among the best ball-hawkers in the entire NFL last year. The Alabama product recorded 125 tackles to go with five interceptions, 13 passes defended and four sacks. High-priced free agent signing Janoris Jenkins also performed better than expected, finishing as one of the top cover guys in the league.

But it’s the defensive line that makes this unit tick. Ends Olivier Vernon and Jason Pierre-Paul recorded a combined 15.5 sacks for a defense that yielded the second-fewest points in the NFL. Meanwhile, interior lineman Damon Harrison anchored a top-three run defense en route to earning his first All-Pro honors. In reality, this unit could very well be the best in the game in 2017.

3. Minnesota Vikings

A defensive line of Brian Robison, Everson Griffen, Danielle Hunter and Linval Joseph might very well be the best in the entire NFL. Heck, Minnesota paid Griffen and Joseph like the top-end players they are in the offseason. All said, these four veterans combined for more sacks than nine teams last season.

With the newly extended Xavier Rhodes continuing to prove himself among the best young corners and Harrison Smith consistently putting up Pro Bowl-caliber performances, the secondary is also stacked. Add in the likely emergence of both Mackensie Alexander and Trae Waynes at corner, and there’s a lot to like here. If Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks can improve off uneven performances at linebacker, the Vikings could boast the league’s best defense in 2017.

2. Denver Broncos

Denver saw a mild regression in terms of points allowed last season, finishing fourth in that category. By no means is this an indication that the defense itself is regressing. Denver was still able to finish first against the pass, yielding an absolutely absurd 69.7 quarterback rating in the process. Heck, the likes of Aqib Talib and Chris Harris in the defensive backfield led a unit that allowed 13 touchdowns compared to 14 interceptions.

We’re also downright giddy about what Shane Ray will bring to the table in a full-time role opposite Von Miller. Despite Ray currently dealing with an injury, this could be the best pure pass-rush tandem in the NFL. The pieces are surely in placed for this unit to be dominant, even minus former defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.

1. Houston Texans

Think about this for a second. Despite missing three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt for all but three games last season, Houston’s defense still finished first in total yards allowed, second against the pass, 12th against the run and 11th in total points allowed. This was made possible by the progression we saw from the likes of Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney, who combined for 13.5 sacks in his stead. Imagine all three lining up for a 16-game schedule. That could be absolutely dominating.

Despite losing A.J. Bouye to Houston in free agency, there’s also a lot to like about Houston’s secondary. Third-year player Kevin Johnson returns after missing all but six games to injury last season. He joins Kareem Jackson and Johnathan Joseph to form a solid trio at corner. And with what we expect to be a dominant pass rush, look for them to create a ton of turnovers in the process. Houston’s defense will be the best in the game this season.