Ranking all 32 NFL defenses heading into 2018

By Vincent Frank
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

If they can’t put points on the board…

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Defenses may not win championships, but it sure helps to have one of the best defenses in today’s NFL. The Philadelphia Eagles are a prime example of this. Fresh off their first ever Super Bowl title, most of the focus has been on the highly rated Carson Wentz and the team’s offense. But what about a defense that finished in the top five last season?

The same can pretty much be said for the New England Patriots. Certainly, Tom Brady and some unsportsmanlike incidents are the primary reasons that franchise continues to find itself in championship contention. All the while, New England’s defense has finished in the top 10 in points allowed each of the past six seasons.

With up-and-coming squads such as the Vikings, Jaguars and Rams boasting top-level defenses, the tide has turned around the league.

It’s in this that we rank each team’s defense heading into the 2018 season.

 

New York Giants

This unit took a major step back last season, ranking 31st in total defense and in the bottom five in points allowed. Cornerback Eli Apple struggled, both on and off the field. Meanwhile, Pro Bowl safety Landon Collins didn’t act like the ball hawk we saw the previous season. The trade of Jason Pierre-Paul and an offensive-centric draft didn’t do New York’s defense any favors heading into the 2018 campaign. It’s certainly going to be one of the worst in the game.

 

Oakland Raiders

The Raiders are close to finalizing a deal with Gareon Conley

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Oakland sought to fortify its secondary in the 2017 NFL Draft, adding cornerback Gareon Conley and safety Obi Melifonwu in the first two rounds. The two combined to see action in a combined seven games. It led to Oakland finishing last season in the bottom 10 in total defense while yielding a 101.8 passer rating to opposing quarterbacks. Some veteran reinforcements came the Raiders’ way this offseason, most notably Derrick Johnson and Rashaan Melvin. In no way does this mean the Raiders’ defense is worthy of a higher ranking despite boasting all-everything pass rusher Khalil Mack.

 

Indianapolis Colts

Indianapolis Colts rookie safety Malik Hooker

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The only real standout performer along this unit is an elite-level safety in Malik Hooker who missed all but seven games during his rookie season. Outside of that, it’s a mix of unassuming veterans and unproven youngsters. Can second-year corner Quincy Wilson step into a No. 1 cover role?

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Who will provide the pass rush for a unit that recorded just 25 sacks last season? Coming off a 2017 campaign in which they yielded the third-most points in the NFL, it’s hard to imagine this defense taking that next step to respectability.

 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Gerald McCoy

Teaming Gerald McCoy up with the recently acquired Jason Pierre-Paul and Vinny Curry should help Tampa’s defense improve off what was a league-worst showing. If Lavonte David is able to return to Pro Bowl form next to Kwon Alexander at linebacker, that will only be magnified. Even then, there’s major concerns in the secondary. An aging Brent Grimes will be tasked with being the No. 1 corner now that former first-round pick Vernon Hargreaves is relegated to slot duties. Tampa will also be relying on two rookies in M.J. Stewart and Carlton Davis to perform well. That’s a whole lot to ask for a Bucs defense that yielded the most passing yards in the NFL last season.

 

New York Jets

New York Jets defensive end Leonard Williams sacks Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck

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Defensive lineman Leonard Williams has proven himself to be among the game’s best at his position. We also love the young safety duo of Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye. Outside of that, there’s certainly a lot of questions for a Jets defense that yielded the eighth-most yards and 30 touchdown passes last season. Is free agent acquisition Trumaine Johnson worth all the money New York threw in his direction? Where is the pass rush going to come from? Can Avery Williamson and Jordan Jenkins prove themselves to be starter-caliber linebacker? With so many questions, it’s hard to imagine the Jets’ defense being even average in 2018.

 

Buffalo Bills

Bills safety Micah Hyde

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To be perfectly clear, Buffalo’s offense isn’t going to do this unit any favors in 2018. Relying on a combination of A.J. McCarron, Nathan Peterman and rookie Josh Allen will put a lot of onus on Buffalo’s defense. Unfortunately, there’s just too much untapped talent on this defense to expect an improvement from a unit that ranked in the bottom seven last season. Led by Tre’Davious White and Micah Hyde, Buffalo’s secondary is a strong point. That might help alleviate what promises to be issues rushing the passer and a still-questionable linebacker group. Buffalo’s defense might not be as bad as its numbers will show next season, but it’s certainly not going to be good.

 

Washington Redskins

Josh Norman

When Washington signed cornerback Josh Norman to a five-year, $75 million deal back in 2016, it expected him to elevate the team’s defense. Through two seasons, that simply has not happened. Sure Washington finished last year in the top 10 in pass defense. But it also yielded the fifth-most points and ranked dead last against the run. Adding Da’Ron Payne in this year’s draft to team up with 2017 first-round pick Jonathan Allen might help in this regard. Though, that doesn’t change the fact that Washington dealt a talented young corner in Kendall Fuller to Kansas City in the Alex Smith trade. With issues rushing the passer and a lesser secondary than we saw last season, expect Washington’s defense to take a major step back.

 

Dallas Cowboys

Mar 5, 2017; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Michigan defensive back Jourdan Lewis speaks to the media during the 2017 combine at Indiana Convention Center. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Trevor Ruszkowski, USA Today Sports

Dallas should be confident that second-year cornerbacks Jourdan Lewis and Chidobe Awuzie will up their games from what were solid rookie campaigns. But can a defense without a consistent pass rush rely on two young corners to change its outlook? We’re not too sure about that. Not to mention, Dallas has multiple defenders on the suspended list and boasts a very questionable starting safety tandem. With the face of its defense, Sean Lee, suffering through myriad injuries over the past couple seasons, it’s just hard to rely on this unit to be anything more than mediocre.

 

Cleveland Browns

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This unit surprised the masses last season by ranking in the top half of the NFL in yards allowed. Unfortunately, Cleveland did yield the second-most points in league. A lot of that had to do with turnover-proneness from the quarterback position. There’s still a whole lot of unproven talent here. Can 2017 No. 1 overall pick Myles Garrett show that he’s able to stay on the field? Did Cleveland overdraft cornerback Denzel Ward in the top five of this year’s event? How will the rest of the secondary perform with new additions Damarious Randall, E.J. Gaines and Travis Carrie? When you have this many questions, it’s unrealistic to expect a whole lot.

 

Detroit Lions

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There’s multiple aspects to look at here when coming to a conclusion about the Lions’ defense. Outside of All-Pro cornerback Darius Slay this secondary was a disaster. While he recorded a league-high eight interceptions, Detroit yielded the sixth-most passing yards in the league. It also gave up the second-most rushing touchdowns in the NFL. Without any real reinforcements in the secondary, this is a major question mark heading into 2018. Detroit’s going to have to rely on Ezekiel Ansah and a group of unproven defensive linemen to stem the tide. Should that not happen, we’re looking at a bottom 10 unit once again in 2018.

 

Miami Dolphins

Dec 11, 2016; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Miami Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake (91) takes the field prior to the game against the Arizona Cardinals at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Jason Vinlove, USA Today Sports

There’s a decent chance Miami will boast one of the better pass-rush groups in the AFC this coming season. That includes ageless wonder Cameron Wake and the recently acquired Robert Quinn. Each possesses double-digit sack upside. That’s about the extent of the excitement in South Beach. This unit gave up 26 touchdown passes while recording just nine interceptions last season. It’s also going to be relying on youngsters Xavien Howard, Cordrea Tankersley and Minkah Fitzpatrick to head the secondary. That’s a lot to ask, especially given that the team moved on from its best interior pass rusher, Ndamukong Suh, during the offseason.

 

Seattle Seahawks

How the mighty have fallen. Richard Sherman, Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril and Sheldon Richardson are all gone from last season’s team. Kam Chancellor may never play football again after suffering a neck injury. Meanwhile, fellow safety Earl Thomas promises to be a training camp holdout. That’s a total of 19 Pro Bowls right there. Seattle might think it has in-house replacements for this group, but that’s certainly a far-fetched conclusion to come to. While there’s talent with the likes of Frank Clark, Bobby Wagner, K.J. Wright and Shaquill Griffin on this unit, we’re not expecting much more than a below-average defense in Seattle this coming season. A mass exodus like we saw during the spring only magnifies that further.

 

Green Bay Packers

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It’s hard not to like what GM Brian Gutekunst did this offseason. He addressed a major need by doubling down at cornerback with Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson in the first two rounds of the 2018 NFL Draft. The addition of Pro Bowl defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson in free agency also helps. Even then, there are some major questions here. Are either of those two rookies ready to upgrade a Packers pass defense that yielded a 102.0 quarterback rating last season? Where is Green Bay going to get a pass rush from now that Clay Matthews has fully regressed? Can a combination of Jake Ryan and Blake Martinez hold down the fort at linebacker? If all of these questions are not answered in the affirmative, we’re still looking at a below-average defense.

 

San Francisco 49ers

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In the five games that Jimmy Garoppolo started last season, San Francisco yielded an average of less than 20 points per game. In the other 11 games, this unit gave up 25.8 points. This is the prime example of a quarterback helping his defense out. Youngsters such as DeForest Buckner, Reuben Foster, Solomon Thomas, Ahkello Witherspoon and Adrian Colbert will soon lead this defense into top-10 territory. The veteran presence of Richard Sherman will also help matters. But unlike San Francisco’s offense, this unit is probably a year or two away from making its impact fully known around the NFL. That’s what happens when you rely so much on unproven talent.

 

New England Patriots

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Tom Brady is a prime illustration of a quarterback that can make a defense look much better than it actually is. For the sixth consecutive season, New England’s defense ranked in the top 10 of the NFL in points allowed. Though, it also gave up the fourth-most yards. It’s a product of opposing teams having to drive long distances with New England’s offense not turning the ball over. This season is going to be one of transition for the Pats’ defense. After losing Malcolm Butler in free agency, Bill Belichick and Co. will be relying on the recently acquired Jason McCourty to star with his brother in the secondary. New England also returns a pass-rush group that’s spearheaded by Trey Flowers and his 6.5 sacks from last season. It’s a unit that’s just not anywhere near as talented as we’ve seen in the past.

 

Tennessee Titans

Kevin Byard has morphed into one of the best safeties in the game.

Here’s a defense that could surprise the masses big time next season. General manager Jon Robinson did a tremendous job addressing specific weaknesses during the offseason. That included signing cornerback Malcolm Butler to team up with All-Pro safety Kevin Byard to form one of the best secondary groups in the AFC. By adding linebacker Rashaan Evans and pass rusher Harold Landry in the first two rounds of the 2018 NFL Draft, Robinson killed two birds with one stone. Both should make immediate impacts, with Evans starting at middle linebacker out of the gate and Landry providing a pass-rush punch behind Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo. Add in holdovers such as Logan Ryan and second-year corner Adoree’ Jackson, and the Titans have a real foundation on defense.

 

Chicago Bears

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This defense has a chance to be a lot better than most might think. Retaining former first-round pick Kyle Fuller after the cornerback put up a Pro Bowl-caliber performance last season was huge. His presence along an otherwise questionable secondary will help young pass rushers Leonard Floyd and Aaron Lynch big time. Though, it’s the addition of rookie linebacker Roquan Smith that should make a world of difference here. Potentially the best middle linebacker prospect to enter the league since Luke Kuechly, we’re expecting huge things from Smith. If so, this Bears defense will take the next step in 2018.

 

Kansas City Chiefs

Eric Berry

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Surprisingly, Kansas City Finished in the middle of the pack in points allowed last season. It led to the team moving on from longtime defensive stalwarts such as Derrick Johnson and Tamba Hali. Both moves were expected and had to be made. Though, the decision to trade Marcus Peters will hurt Kansas City over the short term. He’ll be replaced by Kendall Fuller as the team’s No. 1 corner with fellow recent addition David Amerson taking on a huge role. Should veterans Justin Houston and Eric Berry fail to perform at a high level, this Chiefs defense will be in the bottom half of the NFL. The good news here is that we expect both to continue doing their thing.

 

Cincinnati Bengals

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Cincinnati’s front seven remains one of the best in the game. We already know what Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins bring to the table. But it was the emergence of rookie Carl Lawson last season that took this front four to a new level. Unfortunately, it didn’t equate to a ton of success. Cincinnati finished in the middle of the pack in points allowed. With linebacker Vontaze Burfict facing another suspension and some major questions at both linebacker and cornerback, don’t expect a dominating Bengals defense that we saw during their multitude of playoff runs prior to the past two seasons.

 

Carolina Panthers

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For the Panthers, it all starts in the front seven. Defensive tackle Kawann Short and linebacker Luke Kuechly are among the game’s best at their respective positions. Meanwhile, the ageless Julius Pepers continues to do his thing rushing the passer. It led to a Panthers defense that ranked among the top seven in the NFL last season. Adding former Pro Bowl defensive lineman Dontari Poe to team up with Short helps a ton here. If a secondary led by James Bradberry is able to perform at a high level in 2018, this unit will be among the NFL’s best.

 

Arizona Cardinals 

Arizona Cardinals safety Budda Baker

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Most will focus on the departure of Tyrann Mathieu in coming to the conclusion that Arizona’s defense is going to take a step back this coming season. With safety Budda Baker having performed at a Pro Bowl level as a rookie, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Baker will team up with Patrick Peterson to form a legit one-two tandem in Arizona’s secondary this coming season. With Chandler Jones acting the part of one of the best pass rushers in the game, it’s certainly a nice mix to create turnovers. And now that the cards have a proven quarterback in Sam Bradford under center, this unit won’t be facing short fields like we saw last season.

 

Atlanta Falcons

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We’re just waiting for this unit to show itself to be elite moving forward. It has the pieces up front to dominate from a pass-rush standpoint with Vic Beasley and Takkarist McKinley along the defensive line. Third-year linebacker Deion Jones is already among the best in the game. And in the secondary, Desmond Trufant continues to prove himself to be among the top cover guys in the league. All of this led to a No. 8 overall ranking last season and should help Atlanta rebound after a somewhat disappointing 2017 campaign.

 

New Orleans Saints

What a difference one rookie can make. The performance from reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year Marshon Lattimore helped bring this unit to an entirely new level last season. New Orleans ranked in the top 10 in total defense and in points allowed. Teamng up with Lattimore in the secondary, fellow youngsters Marcus Williams and Vonn Bell also played at exceptionally high levels. Adding veteran Patrick Robinson to the mix will only help matters here. And with one of the best defensive linemen in the game in the form of Cameron Jordan anchoring the front seven, New Orleans defense could be among the best in the NFL this coming season.

 

Los Angeles Chargers

Joey Bosa, Jack Conklin

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Despite finishing third in points allowed last season, Los Angeles’ defense was in the middle of the pack in total yards allowed. Most of that was a product of an elite-level offense led by Philip Rivers. Even then, there’s very little to suggest this defense isn’t among the top in the game. It boasts one of the best pass-rush tandems in Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. Meanwhile, the recently extended Casey Hayward absolutely dominated as a true ball hawk in the secondary. Should rookie first-round pick Derwin James play at a high level from the strong safety position and Jason Verrett prove himself to be healthy at the other corner position, this could be a top-five unit in 2018.

 

Houston Texans

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What a difference one man makes. With J.J. Watt suffering through his second consecutive injury-plagued season, Houston yielded the most points in the NFL in 2017. Certainly, that had a lot to do with quarterback play outside of the few games Deshaun Watson suited up in. Even then, there’s really nothing not to like about this defense heading into 2018. Watt will team up with Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus to form an elite pass-rush trio. Meanwhile, Tyrann Mathieu fortifies what had been a weak Texans secondary. Now that Zach Cunningham and Benardrick McKinney have proven to be plus-level linebackers, we’re expecting a dominating performance from Houston’s defense in 2018.

 

Los Angeles Rams

Rams defensive lineman Aaron Donald

Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib and Ndamukong Suh add a completely different arsenal to the mix for Los Angeles’ defense in 2018. All three are Pro Bowl performers that join a defense we saw rank in the top 12 last season. Short of the best defensive player in the game, Aaron Donald, holding out, expect this Rams defense to take the next step to elite status in 2018. It also doesn’t hurt that its led by one of the greatest defensive minds in the history of football, coordinator Wade Phillips.

 

Denver Broncos

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Despite yielding the third-fewest yards in the NFL last season, Denver gave up the eighth-most points. That was a product of disastrous quarterback play with Brock Osweiler, Paxton Lynch and Trevor Siemian sharing time under center. Now that the Broncos have fortified its quarterback situation with Case Keenum, this won’t be an issue. The addition of all-everything pass rusher Bradley Chubb in the first round of April’s draft to team up with Von Miller makes this a scary unit. Add in Chris Harris and Bradley Roby in the secondary, and the Broncos’ defense has a chance to be dominant once again in 2018.

 

Philadelphia Eagles

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We’ll focus on Minnesota’s defensive line here in a bit, but it seems that Philadelphia takes the cake with the best front four in the game. Adding Pro Bowler Michael Bennett to a group that includes Derek Barnett, Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Chris Long and Timmy Jernigan has to scare the jockstraps off opposing NFC East teams. The only real reason Philadelphia’s defense is downgraded some following a No. 4 overall showing last season is a questionable secondary that lost its best player from the 2017 campaign in Patrick Robinson. We’re going to need to see redshirt freshman Sidney Jones and Rodney McLeod perform at a high level before drawing a real conclusion here.

 

Pittsburgh Steelers

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It sure helps to have the likes of Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster on the other side of the ball. That forces opposing offenses to go the length of the field in order to put up points. Even then, a No. 5 overall ranking while yielding the seventh-fewest points in the NFL is nothing to ignore. Without any real standout players, Pittsburgh’s defense has been scheme dependent. This means the likes of Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt upfront perform better in this defense than if they were to star on another team. Meanwhile, cornerback Artie Burns and safety Sean Davis have more than proven themselves to be Pro Bowl-caliber defenders relatively early in their careers.

 

Baltimore Ravens

Ravens safety Eric Weddle intercepts a pass

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Primarily because its offense has held the team back, Baltimore’s defense doesn’t get the credit it deserves. Last season saw this unit yield 18 passing touchdowns compared to 22 interceptions. It started with the performances of safeties Eric Weddle and Tony Jefferson at safety. But what we saw from veteran cornerback Jimmy Smith (sub 70 passer rating when targeted) can’t be overlooked. Meanwhile, ageless wonder Terrell Suggs (11 sacks) continues to do his thing in the front seven. With any help from a reconstructed offense, this unit could very well be one of the best in the game next season.

 

Jacksonville Jaguars

The rich just continue to get richer. Not like they really needed it after boasting the top overall defense in the NFL last season, Jacksonville added potential starters Taven Bryan and Ronnie Harrison in the first three rounds of April’s draft. They join a defense that yielded less than 17 points per game last season. Forming the most dominant cornerback tandem in the game, Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye gave up a sub 55 passer rating when targeted last season. Add in the pass rush forces that are Calais Campbell, Yannick Ngakoue and Malik Jackson (34.5 combined sacks last season), and this is among the most dominating defenses we’ve seen in the modern era.

 

Minnesota Vikings

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It wasn’ easy choosing between Jacksonville and Minnesota for the top spot. In reality, both could hold this mantle over the next half-decade or more. For Minnesota, it starts upfront with the likes of Everson Griffen, Danielle Hunter, Linval Joseph and the recently acquired Sheldon Richardson. That might very well be the best defensive line in the modern history of the NFL. Not to be outdone, a secondary spearheaded by ball hawks Xavier Rhodes and Harrison Smith yielded just 13 touchdowns and a 73.0 passer rating last season. If both Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks can turn in Pro Bowl-caliber performances in 2018, there’s no reason to believe Minnesota’s defense won’t be he best in the game.