The New York Giants won Super Bowl XLVI despite having a defense that finished the 2011 season ranked No. 27 in the NFL. The team they beat, the New England Patriots, had a defense that was ranked even lower, at No. 31 in the NFL in 2011. So, what does that say about the importance of defense in the current NFL?
Or, for the teams that are about to enter the postseason, does it make more sense to analyze defenses in a two-phase manner? Part one is the way that the defense played during the regular season, and then part two would be what can the team do to upgrade their defense for the second season and turn their playoff team into champions?
Clearly, the New York Giants defense drastically improved once they got into the playoffs, compared to its regular-season showing. Of course, getting some of their injured players back helped them out in that regard.
But on the flip side, the best NFL defense in the regular season, the Pittsburgh Steelers, did a role reversal in the playoffs, and came up with an abysmal showing in the playoff loss at Denver.
For this presentation, we will project every 2012 NFL defense, recognizing that every team has made some degree of changes from the 2011 version and attempt to rank where we think they will stack up. We will conclude with a 32-team NFL power ranking on the final slide.
Please note from a timing perspective that this is being written two weeks prior to the 2012 draft, so it would probably be a good idea to do a similar story after the draft, because that should have an impact on the projected 2012 rankings as well.
Overall defense rank in 2011: No. 29. Overall defense rank in 2010: No. 11
Just a short two years ago, the Oakland Raiders just missed out on having a top 10 defense, as the 2010 season ended with them being ranked at No. 11 overall.
Then the 2011 season rolled around, and everyone wondered where that great defense went. The Raiders plunged 18 places, all the way down to No. 29 overall in 2011.
The 2011 Raiders finished in the bottom 10 in overall defense, pass defense, rush defense and points allowed. They did not have any top 10 finishes in 2011.
Now as we approach the eve of the 2012 NFL Draft, and things are actually looking worse for the Raiders defense. General Manager Reggie McKenzie walked into a mess with the Raiders salary cap and he was forced to release a number of veteran players to stay under the salary cap. The players who have left include Stanford Routt, Kamerion Wimbley, Trevor Scott and John Henderson.
To make matters worse, the Raiders have limited draft picks to use in the 2012 draft, due to prior trades they made, so the defense actually has the potential to be even worse in 2012 than they were in 2011 due to all the circumstances we addressed.
Once the salary-cap issues are behind them, and they stop trading away their key draft picks, the Raiders can rebuild their defense again.
The Raiders signed Giants defensive lineman Dave Tollefson (pictured), once they had cleared out enough salary-cap room.
Projected 2012 Defense Power Ranking: No. 32
Overall defense rank in 2011: No. 24. Overall defense rank in 2010: No. 4.
The New Orleans Saints are in a world of hurt. The have lost their head coach Sean Payton for the 2012 season, as part of the punishment handed down by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for the bounty scandal.
The NFL has failed to announce what the specific suspensions and/or fines will be for the Saints defensive players who participated in the bounty program, but the net impact is that it could severely limit what kind of personnel the Saints will have available for some games in 2012.
Joe Vitt, the assistant head coach and linebackers coach, has just been named to step in and serve as head coach in Payton's absence, but he is going to be serving his own six-game suspension to start the year.
Now it's time to go back and talk about the 2011 defense. The Saints dropped from the No. 4 defense in 2010 to No. 24 overall in 2011. That is a huge 20-team drop in the rankings. They weren't ranked in the top 10 in any defensive category in 2011, but were in the bottom 10 in both overall defense and pass defense.
One thing I have been wondering about, is how will the Saints defense be viewed by NFL officials in 2012? Will they look the other way to a degree, knowing that this team has been hit hard and is basically shorthanded, or will they really look to crack down on them for the smallest infraction?
Sure, it could be somewhere in the middle, and be officiated like every other NFL team, but I think after the team has concluded their September schedule, we will have a better handle on that topic.
The only bit of good news to report is that the Saints were active in free agency, as they landed a trio of veteran linebackers who can help out in 2012. They are David Hawthorne, Curtis Lofton (pictured) and Chris Chamberlain.
The Saints don't even own a draft pick until towards the end of the third round, so the draft won't have a huge impact on this defense in 2012. When they do have more picks to work with on Day 3, look for the Saints to pick up a cornerback and other help for the secondary.
Projected 2012 Defense Power Ranking: No. 31
Overall defense rank in 2011: No. 30. Overall defense rank in 2010: No. 17.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers needed to restore order to their franchise, as the 2011 season featured a 10-game losing streak. The Bucs hired Greg Schiano to serve as head coach, and changes will be taking place in Tampa Bay across the board.
The 2011 defense dropped 13 spots from the prior season, and the coaching staff will have to find a way to restore confidence in the defense again. The Bucs were in the bottom 10 in overall defense, points allowed, rush defense and sacks. They did not have a top 10 finish in any defensive category.
The Bucs were active players in free agency, but that was more on the offensive side of the ball. On defense, the Bucs signed CB Eric Wright (pictured) and DT Amobi Okoye to help begin the transformation.
Help for the defense will also be found at the 2012 NFL Draft, as the Bucs are looking for help at cornerback, outside linebacker and safety.
Projected 2012 Defense Power Ranking: No. 30.
Overall defense rank in 2011: No. 31. Overall defense rank in 2010: No. 25.
The New England Patriots managed to pull out the AFC East Division, and won the AFC Championship with a solid offense, but a defensive unit that was maddening at times to watch. The Patriots spiraled down to No. 31 in the league, being better than only Green Bay's defense.
Since their loss in the Super Bowl, the Patriots have been active at trying to improve their defense. They have signed defensive ends Jonathan Fanene (pictured) and Trevor Scott, along with S Steve Gregory. Those new players should help, along with the abundance of draft picks that Bill Belichick has at his disposal in the 2012 NFL Draft.
The biggest defection from the 2011 season, was defensive end Mark Anderson, who was tied for the lead in sacks with fellow defensive end Andre Carter. Carter has yet to sign a new deal, so right now neither of the Patriots' best pass rushers are coming back in 2012. It is conceivable that Carter will sign a deal after he heals up from 2011 injuries.
Look for the Patriots to draft a safety, a cornerback and some pass rushers.
Projected 2012 Defense Power Ranking: No. 29
Overall defense rank in 2011: No. 25. Overall defense rank in 2010: No. 20.
The Indianapolis Colts team that enters the 2012 season is in a full-out rebuilding mode, and they have their work cut out for them. They still have some key pieces, but the Colts will need to add quite a few players to field a competitive team on both sides of the ball again.
The Colts didn't have any top-10 category finishes in defense in 2011, but they had plenty of categories where they finished in the bottom 10. Those were: overall defense, points allowed, rush defense and sacks.
Keeping Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis was crucial for the Colts, as the pair of outstanding pass rushers will be a key part of the defense going forward.
During the 2012 offseason, new head coach Chuck Pagano started working on recruiting some of his ex-Baltimore Ravens players, and he succeeded in having some of them join him in Indianapolis. They are DT Cory Redding, DT Brandon McKinney and S Tom Zbikowski.
Look for the Colts to target a defensive tackle and a cornerback in the 2012 NFL Draft.
Projected 2012 Defense Power Ranking: No. 28
Overall defense rank in 2011: No. 22. Overall defense rank in 2010: No. 19.
The St. Louis Rams hired new head coach Jeff Fisher to lead the team in 2012, and he then hired his long-time friend Gregg Williams to come over and be defensive coordinator. Well, we all know how that one turned out.
Williams is suspended indefinitely by the NFL, and the Rams haven't decided yet who will actually serve as the defensive coordinator for 2012.
On the surface, this could get a little strange from a continuity standpoint. Who do the Rams defensive players listen to in 2012, and how will they view the defensive coordinator if he is just a one-year lame duck?
In 2011, the Rams defense did have some top 10 category finishes, and they were: overall defense, rush defense, points allowed and sacks. They didn't have a bottom 10 category finish.
Hopefully the mess with Williams doesn't have an impact on the young Rams team. The two biggest names they signed for the defense in free agency were corner Cortland Finnegan (pictured), who played for Jeff Fisher in Tennessee. The Rams also signed DE Kendall Langford.
At the 2012 NFL draft, expect the Rams to draft a cornerback, linebacker and defensive tackle.
Projected 2012 Defense Power Ranking: No. 27
Overall defense rank in 2011: No. 32. Overall defense rank in 2010: No. 5.
While the Houston Texans made the most remarkable jump in defensive rankings in the 2011 season, the clear winner for the worst free-falling defense was the Green Bay Packers of 2011. The Packers fell 27 spots in one year. That is unbelievable but true.
The 2011 Packers defense didn't finish in any top 10 categories, but they had bottom-10 finishes in overall defense, pass defense and sacks.
During free agency, the Packers signed defensive linemen Anthony Hargrove and Daniel Muir, but they are hardly what I would call major moves. The Packers will need to add some talent at the draft, and look for them to select a safety, outside linebacker and a defensive end.
At least the Packers were awarded four extra draft choices due to compensatory picks in the 2012 draft, so they can apply a couple of those to add some new blood to the defense.
Projected 2012 Defense Power Ranking: No. 26
Overall defense rank in 2011: No. 28. Overall defense rank in 2010: No. 18.
The Carolina Panthers' overall defense ranking plunged 10 spots last year. They had issues all over the defense, which included bottom-10 rankings in key categories like: overall defense, points allowed, pass defense, rush defense and sacks.
It is great that the Panthers have Cam Newton to run their high-powered offense, but until the defense turns around their performance issues, the Panthers will fall on the short end of a number of shootout games.
Carolina signed safeties Haruki Nakamura and Reggie Smith to help out the secondary. Jon Beason and Thomas Davis should return from injuries to help in 2012. But otherwise, the Panthers didn't do much in free agency to help out the defense.
They will need to add some defensive linemen in the draft along with an outside linebacker.
Projected 2012 Defense Power Ranking: No. 25
Overall defense rank in 2011: No. 21. Overall defense rank in 2010: No. 8.
The Minnesota Vikings defense stumbled in 2011, as they tumbled 13 places in the overall rankings from the year before. In 2010, the Vikings defense was a top 10 unit at No. 8. In 2011, they were all the way down to No. 21.
The Vikings are thought to be going after a tackle with the No. 3 overall draft pick, so the defense may not get much love in the draft until Day 2. The Vikings were in the top 10 in the NFL in sacks, but their pass defense was in the bottom 10, which is also where they ranked in points allowed.
At the draft, the Vikings need to find a defensive tackle, and secondary help with a safety and a cornerback. The Vikings did sign a corner in Chris Carr, but they need more than just him.
Minnesota did re-sign LB Erin Henderson to a new deal, but did not bring back E.J. Henderson. It is possible that this defensive unit might just tumble a little bit more.
Projected 2012 Defense Power Ranking: No. 24.
Overall defense rank in 2011: No. 27. Overall defense rank in 2010: No. 7.
Will the real New York Giants defense please stand up?
The old NFL axiom that defenses wins championships was really placed under a microscope last year when the New York Giants dropped 20 places in the rankings from the previous year, and still came away with a Super Bowl championship. The Giants defense was No. 7 in 2010, and then plunged down to No. 27 in 2011.
Sure, the Giants were hit hard with injuries during the regular season, but every team gets hit with injuries. Some teams have better depth to be able to deal with that than other teams. The Giants were forced to trot out different starters last year, so at least they gained some valuable experience.
The 2011 defense finished in the bottom 10 in overall defense, pass defense and points allowed. The Giants did finish in the top 10 in sacks, but that was it.
But, not all Giants defenders are returning to the fold in 2012. Corner Aaron Ross left in free agency, as did defensive end Dave Tollefson.
The Giants signed CB Antwaun Molden (pictured) and traded for LB Keith Rivers, but that has been the extent of defensive help so far in the 2012 offseason.
The Giants defense started getting healthy at the right time in 2011, but that doesn't mean that this unit is completely out of the woods for 2012 yet.
Expect the Giants to draft a linebacker and defensive tackle as their two biggest target areas in the 2012 NFL Draft.
Projected 2012 Defense Power Ranking: No. 23
Overall defense rank in 2011: No. 15. Overall defense rank in 2010: No. 6.
The Miami Dolphins defense slipped nine spots in the 2011 season, from No. 6 to No. 15. The Dolphins finished in the top 10 in points allowed, rush defense and sacks. They finished in the bottom 10 in pass defense.
In the 2012 offseason, the Dolphins signed CB Richard Marshall and that was their big move besides bringing back nose tackle Paul Soliai.
The Dolphins are looking like a troubled team for 2012, as they lost out on Peyton Manning, trading with the Rams to move up to draft Robert Griffin III and even lost out on Matt Flynn. The defense will need to bring in some young blood to help the defense out. Look for the team to draft some help for the defensive line, an inside linebacker and a safety to replace their leading tackler Yeremiah Bell, who the Dolphins do not plan to bring back for 2012.
Projected 2012 Defense Power Ranking: No. 22
Overall defense rank in 2011: No. 20. Overall defense rank in 2010: No. 32
The Denver Broncos defense rose from the ashes in 2011, as they had been ranked dead last in 2010. In 2011, the Broncos unit jumped up 12 spots to finish the year at No. 20 overall.
Obviously, the Broncos have spent a good portion of their 2012 offseason dealing with the Peyton Manning scenario and a good amount of attention will be devoted to designing an offense that can take advantage of Manning and his skills.
As for the Broncos defense, they did improve their secondary by signing free agents Tracy Porter (pictured) and Mike Adams.
The Broncos finished in the top 10 in 2011 in sacks, but the defense had a bottom-10 showing in points allowed. At least the offense should be better equipped to keep them competitive in wild shootout games in 2012.
At the 2012 draft, I think the Broncos will add a cornerback and look for a defensive tackle, which is one of the main areas of strength of the 2012 draft class.
Projected 2012 Defense Power Ranking: No. 21
Overall defense rank in 2011: No. 19. Overall defense rank in 2010: No. 29.
The Cardinals defense jumped up 10 places in the past year, which is an encouraging sign. The 2011 defense finished in the top 10 in sacks in the NFL and didn't have any category where they finished in the bottom 10.
From the conclusion of the 2011 season to two weeks before the 2012 NFL draft, the Cardinals have signed free agents S James Sanders and CB William Gay. The team also placed the franchise tag on DE Calais Campbell.
The Cardinals are somewhat limited early in the draft, since they only have two draft picks available in the first three rounds. They are picks No. 13 and 80.
It will be interesting to see what side of the ball the Cardinals use those two picks on, as they should be the players that make the most impact on the 2012 team. Expect the Cardinals to draft an outside linebacker and corner as their two main draft targets to improve the defense.
Projected 2012 Defense Power Ranking: No. 20
Overall defense rank in 2011: No. 18. Overall defense rank in 2010: No. 26.
The Tennessee Titans were heading in the right direction on defense. They improved from No. 26 in 2010 to No. 18 in 2011. The defense managed to finish in the top 10 in points allowed, even though they finished in the bottom 10 for rush defense and sacks.
The Titans will be looking to get more physical to improve both their run offense and their run defense. As a result, they will be looking for defensive lineman at the draft, to go along with an outside linebacker, safety and corner.
The big move they made in free agency after they found out that Peyton Manning was not coming back to Tennessee, was to sign LB Kamerion Wimbley (pictured) to a deal right after he became a free agent.
Tennessee lost CB Cortland Finnegan to ex-head coach Jeff Fisher with the St. Louis Rams, so the Titans will need to find a way to replace Finnegan's fire and ability to take the opposition's best receiver out of his game.
Projected 2012 Defense Power Ranking: No. 19
Overall defense rank in 2011: No. 23. Overall defense rank in 2010: No. 18.
The Detroit Lions actually regressed some on defense in 2011, despite making the playoffs. The Lions dropped five spots in the overall rankings, going from No. 18 to No. 23.
The defense was in the top 10 in NFL in 2011 in sacks, but finished in the bottom 10 in these categories: overall defense, points allowed and rush defense.
The Lions signed CB Jacob Lacey and DE Everette Brown in free agency, but really didn't bring in that much talent to help out the defense. The Lions put the franchise tag on DE Cliff Avril but haven't worked out a deal with him yet. The Lions re-signed LB Stephen Tulloch to a deal, but lost CB Eric Wright.
Look for the Lions to add a linebacker and cornerback at the 2012 draft to help round out the unit. The defensive line is solid, but the Lions need to improve the play of their back-seven, if they want to go further in the postseason or to improve their seed in the playoffs.
Projected 2012 Defense Power Ranking: No. 18
Overall defense rank in 2011: No. 16. Overall defense rank in 2010: No. 1.
The San Diego Chargers were the No. 1 defense in the NFL for 2010, but that means the fall was that much further in 2011, as the Chargers dropped down to No. 16 overall last year.
San Diego was didn't have any top 10 finishes in defense, but were bottom-10 in sacks.
The most key free-agent deal on defense was bringing in linebacker Jarret Johnson (pictured) from the Baltimore Ravens. In addition to Johnson, the Chargers signed safety Atari Bigby, and also signed a couple of their own defensive free agents in Luis Castillo and Antonio Garay.
As for the 2012 NFL draft, the Chargers need help at inside linebacker, safety and nose tackle.
Projected 2012 Defense Power Ranking: No. 17
Overall defense rank in 2011: No. 13. Overall defense rank in 2010: No. 31.
The Washington Redskins made major strides in defense in 2011, as they jumped up from next-to-last in 2011 all the way to No. 13 in 2011. That is a 18-team jump in the rankings, which is huge.
In 2011, the Redskins were in the top 10 in sacks. They didn't have any defensive categories in the bottom 10.
As things stand in the 2012 offseason, the Redskins are still awaiting for final word on where things stand with their salary-cap fine from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Up until that point in time, the Redskins had been a very active player in free agency. Since Goodell made his announcement, not so much.
The Redskins signed CB Cedric Griffin (pictured) and S Brandon Meriweather during free agency. They have yet to sign their leading tackler, LB London Fletcher, and until they get their salary-cap mess straightened out, Fletcher will have to sit tight.
For the 2012 NFL draft, the Redskins have traded away some key picks to move up for the rights to draft Robert Griffin III, so the help they draft for defense probably won't be coming until Day 3. They could look to add a safety, linebacker and a defensive end.
Projected 2012 Defense Power Ranking: No. 16
Overall defense rank in 2011: No. 11. Overall defense rank in 2010: No. 14.
The Kansas City Chiefs made a slight step up in their defense in 2011, moving up from No. 14 in 2010 to No. 11. The Chiefs finished in the top 10 in the NFL in pass defense, but finished in the bottom 10 in rush defense and sacks.
One of the better free agents of the 2012 offseason, corner Brandon Carr left the Chiefs to sign a long-term deal with the Dallas Cowboys. The Chiefs are going to miss Carr, and I think their defense will take a slight hit as a result.
The Chiefs did sign free-agent corner Stanford Routt (pictured) to ease the pain of Carr leaving, but there is still quite a distinguishable difference in the level of play between the two players.
At the upcoming draft, expect to see the Chiefs target an inside linebacker, nose tackle and safety.
Projected 2012 Defense Power Ranking: No. 15
Overall defense rank in 2011: No. 12. Overall defense rank in 2010: No. 16.
The Atlanta Falcons defense made a slight improvement in 2011 as they continue to be a slightly above middle-of-the-pack NFL defense. The Falcons rush defense was the only major category that they finished in the top 10 in the NFL. The Falcons didn't have a bottom 10 finish in any major defensive category.
As far as the 2012 offseason goes, the Falcons lost LB Curtis Lofton and have not yet signed franchise tag corner Brent Grimes to a new deal. They have signed LB Lofa Tatupu, and re-signed key defensive ends John Abraham and Kroy Biermann.
Expect to see the Falcons go after a corner, linebacker and defensive end at the draft. It doesn't help out the 2012 defense very much that the Falcons don't own any draft picks until the overall No. 55 pick.
Projected 2012 Defense Power Ranking: No. 14
Overall defense rank in 2011: No. 17. Overall defense rank in 2010: No. 9
The Chicago Bears have made some upgrades to their offense for 2012, so maybe it the offense improves noticeably this season, that will in turn allow the defense to get better at the same time.
The Bears' overall defensive rank dropped eight slots last year. The Bears signed free agents on offense, but didn't bring in anyone that would be classified as a key addition for the defense.
The Bears' run defense was in the top 10 in 2011, while their pass defense was in the bottom 10. Another way to look at it, is why run the ball, when you can pass against them so easily?
It should not be a surprise to see the Bears address their secondary at the 2012 draft, as they probably come out of the draft with a safety and a cornerback. They may add a defensive end as well.
As for free agency, the defensive additions were more minor in nature, like DB Jonathan Wilhite, CB Kelvin Hayden and LB Blake Costanzo for special teams.
There is still some talent on the Chicago defense, but most of the key leaders on defense are getting up there. You can call them the 30-something club, led by Brian Urlacher (33), Julius Peppers (32), Israel Idonije (31), Lance Briggs (31) and Charles Tillman (31) all starting to get up there in age.
Projected 2012 Defense Power Ranking: No. 13
Overall defense rank in 2011: No. 26. Overall defense rank in 2010: No. 24.
When the dust settled on the 2011 season, the Buffalo Bills knew that they had to make some changes. They had lost key veterans in Paul Posluszny and Donte Whitner to free agency before the year began.
The 2011 Bills defense added veteran LB Nick Barnett, but they were hurt badly by injuries to Kyle Williams, Shawne Merriman and Terrence McGee.
The Bills 2011 defense had no Top 10 category finishes, but plenty of bottom 10 finishes. Those were overall defense, points allowed, rush defense and sacks. So they got busy in free agency, by doing as much, if not the most of any NFL team in the 2012 offseason to improve their defense.
As a result, it is difficult to pinpoint where exactly to power rank this unit for the upcoming season, but we will do our best to consider all the issues. We watched the Houston Texans defense soar from a No. 30 rank in 2010 to No. 2 in 2011. I don't expect that drastic a rise, but they will definitely be better.
The key free agent signings of defensive ends Mario Williams (pictured) from the Houston Texans and Mark Anderson from the New England Patriots will do wonders for the transformation of the Bills defensive line for 2012.
In 2012, the Bills will line up Williams and Anderson at defensive ends. In the middle of their defensive line with be All-Pro Kyle Williams and sophomore Marcell Dareus, who was the No. 3 overall pick in the 2011 draft.
One major reason for bumping their defense so much higher for 2012 is their schedule. In 2012, the Bills are facing the eight overall worst offenses from the 2011 season: Jacksonville, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Seattle, Kansas City, San Francisco and the New York Jets.
Between Dareus at No. 3 and Mario Williams at No. 1, these are some high-profile players that the Bills will be counting on.
The amount of pressure that those four players should generate as a group should put them on a par with some of the best defensive lines in the NFL. That will result in offenses using the majority of their blocking personnel to focus on the front four, freeing up the linebackers or blitzing safeties to have a free path to the quarterback.
The Bills should see a dramatic rise in sacks and their overall defensive ranking should clearly shoot up in 2012. As for the upcoming draft, I expect to see the Bills add some depth to this unit, namely some additional pass rushers, outside linebacker and cornerback.
Projected 2012 Defense Power Ranking: No. 12
Overall defense rank in 2011: No. 10. Overall defense rank in 2010: No. 22
The Cleveland Browns didn't make much noise last year in 2011, and as a result some people might be surprised to learn that the Browns defense jumped up from an overall ranking of No. 22 in 2010, to finish in the top 10 in 2011, as they were ranked exactly at No. 10.
I wasn't aware that their defense had shot up that fast, so that is a tribute to the Browns growth on that side of the ball.
Now if the offense would only contribute more, then they would be in business. The Browns finished in the top 10 in these 2011 NFL categories on defense: overall defense, pass defense and points allowed. They did have some bottom-10 category finishes as well, which were: rush defense and sacks, which means that they still have some more work to do, if they want to improve.
In the offseason, the Browns were able to sign defensive ends Frostee Rucker and Juqua Parker in free agency. They also re-signed two of their own key free agents in LB D'Qwell Jackson and CB Dmitri Patterson to new deals.
At the draft, the Browns will probably target a defensive end and an outside linebacker, but even with all of their abundance of great draft picks, the majority of them are slotted to supply a much-needed boost to the offense.
Projected 2012 Defense Power Ranking: No. 11.
Overall defense rank in 2011: No. 14. Overall defense rank in 2010: No. 23
It didn't take long for new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan to make an impact on the Dallas Cowboys defense. In the first year, the Cowboys jumped from No. 23 overall to No. 14. That suggests that with a full offseason, he might be able to boost their 2012 finish even higher.
Having said that, the Cowboys had some salary-cap issues in the 2012 offseason, and had to let some veterans go. Players like Alan Ball and Abram Elam are not expected to be back in Dallas in 2012. Instead, the Cowboys signed free agents Brandon Carr (pictured) and Brodney Pool to help out in the secondary and got Dan Conner to contribute at linebacker.
The Cowboys gave their franchise tag to linebacker Anthony Spencer, and they would like to get him signed to a long-term deal.
In 2011, the Cowboys defense was in the top 10 in run defense and sacks. They were bottom 10 in pass defense. Look for the Cowboys to address their secondary play at the draft, in addition to nose tackle and defensive end.
Projected 2012 Defense Power Ranking: No. 10
Overall defense rank in 2011: No. 6. Overall defense rank in 2010: No. 28
The Jacksonville Jaguars defense made a huge jump in the 2011 season, vaulting up 22 places from the 2010 season to 2011. That was almost as big a jump as the Houston Texans made.
The Jaguars defense might be tested to remain in the top 10 in 2012, especially if the offense struggles to move the ball again or can't consistently score points.
The Jaguars defense had top 10 finishes in overall defense, pass defense and rush defense, which means that they were solid across the board. Their only bottom-10 finish was in sacks, so that is an area I am sure they will address in the 2012 draft.
The biggest 2012 offseason free agent signing was CB Aaron Ross (pictured), who brings some playoff experience with him from the New York Giants.
Projected 2012 Defense Power Ranking: No. 9
Overall defense rank in 2011: No. 7. Overall defense rank in 2010: No. 15.
The Cincinnati Bengals defense made a positive step forward in 2011 as they landed as a top 10 NFL defense. The Bengals finished No. 7 overall, and they were in the top 10 in a number of key NFL defensive categories, such as: overall defense, pass defense, rush defense, sacks and points allowed. The Bengals didn't have any key bottom-10 finishes in defense.
While the Bengals lost some free agents, they also were able to keep the majority of their defense intact. They re-signed Pat Sims, Manny Lawson, Reggie Nelson and Pacman Jones. They signed other free agents, like CB Terence Newman, DE Derrick Harvey and DE Jamaal Anderson.
The Bengals own two draft picks in the first round, so they have the chance to help out the defense with some good young talent. At the draft, I look for the Bengals to add a defensive tackle, cornerback and safety.
Projected 2012 Defense Power Ranking: No. 8
Overall defense rank in 2011: No. 3. Overall defense rank in 2010: No. 10.
The Baltimore Ravens defense continues to be a top 10 caliber unit, but it appears that there have been some defections that might cause the 2012 version to take a slight hit.
When you saw that the Indianapolis Colts hired ex-Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano as their new head coach, you just knew he would go out of his way to try to hire some old players he was comfortable working with.
To be sure, there are going to be some ex-Ravens defenders playing in Indianapolis in 2012 like DT Brandon McKinney, DT Cory Redding and S Tom Zbikowski.
In addition, San Diego signed LB Jarrett Johnson, and Carolina landed S Haruki Nakamura, so the Ravens have clearly lost some of their depth on defense.
For a team that has aging defenders like Ed Reed and Ray Lewis, you don't need to be taking many hits in depth, because you wonder how well the older players will keep holding up from here on out.
From the 2011 season, the good news is that the Ravens didn't finish in the bottom 10 in any key defensive categories. Quite the contrary. They had a number of major top 10 finishes in defense, such as: overall defense, points allowed, pass defense, rush defense and sacks.
The Ravens did sign free agent DB Corey Graham and were able to re-sign two of their own key free agents in corner Lardarius Webb and linebacker Jameel McClain.
The Ravens will need to address their depth issues on defense at the 2012 draft. I expect them to focus on inside linebacker, defensive end, safety and cornerback.
Projected 2012 Defense Power Ranking: No. 7.
Overall defense rank in 2011: No. 9. Overall defense rank in 2010: No. 27.
The Seattle Seahawks jumped 18 places in overall defense in 2011, and now that they are in the top 10 of all NFL defenses, they would like to keep it that way.
The Seahawks were in the top 10 in 2011 in overall defense and points allowed. They did not have a bottom 10 category finish for the 2011 defense.
Their biggest offseason developments for the defense, included signing free-agent defensive lineman Jason Jones (pictured), and bringing back corner Marcus Trufant. The Seahawks lost LB David Hawthorne in free agency, and they will miss him.
In the 2012 NFL draft, I believe the Seahawks will look for a cornerback, linebacker and defensive end.
Projected 2012 Defense Power Ranking: No. 6
Overall defense rank in 2011: No. 1. Overall defense rank in 2010: No. 2.
The Pittsburgh Steelers defense has been as solid as you could ask for during the past two years, finishing No. 1 in 2011 and No. 2 in 2010.
In fact, the Steelers defense has finished in the top five in the NFL for the past five straight years, which is quite an accomplishment. Three of those five years, they finished the year as the best defense in the NFL.
In 2011, Pittsburgh was in the top 10 for overall defense, pass defense, rush defense and points allowed. They did not have a bottom-10 category.
The Steelers have reached a critical juncture in their franchise, as the Steelers seemed to age and get old together all of a sudden. Obviously that is not the case, but it just seemed that way.
So, the Steelers had to say goodbye to James Farrior, Aaron Smith and Bryant McFadden. William Gay left in free agency and Chris Hoke retired.
The Steelers were able to re-work the deals for Lawrence Timmons, LaMarr Woodley and Ike Taylor to save some salary-cap space, or they might have been required to release even more players.
With all of this valuable experience leaving Pittsburgh, it will be curious to see how they compensate for losing all of that knowledge. I expect they will take a slight tumble in 2012, but won't far that much back, due to the talent pool that they still have on board.
As for the 2012 draft, I look for Pittsburgh to draft an inside linebacker and a defensive tackle.
Projected 2012 Defense Power Ranking: No. 5
Overall defense rank in 2011: No. 5. Overall defense rank in 2010: No. 3.
The New York Jets and the Pittsburgh Steelers are the only two NFL teams that can say that their defensive units finished in the top five overall for each of the past two seasons. That is saying something, in light of all these other teams that see them rise or fall 15-20 places in a year.
The 2011 Jets defense finished in the top 10 in 2011 in overall defense and pass defense. They did not have any bottom 10 finishes on defense in 2011.
During the 2012 offseason, the Jets signed safety LaRon Landry (pictured) to a new deal, but that was it for any major transaction to report (from the defensive side of the ball). That leaves the NFL draft for the Jets to land some other talent to bring in for competition and re-stock the depth on the defensive side.
Look for the Jets to draft an outside linebacker and a defensive end.
Projected 2012 Defense Power Ranking: No. 4
Overall defense rank in 2011: No. 8. Overall defense rank in 2010: No. 12.
The Philadelphia Eagles went from the No. 12 overall defense in 2010 to No. 8 in 2011, cracking the top 10 of overall NFL defenses. I expect them to do even better in 2012.
The Eagles have traded with the Houston Texans to bring over linebacker DeMeco Ryans (pictured), who should be a strong upgrade over the linebacker issues the Eagles dealt with in 2011.
The Eagles were in the top 10 in 2011 in overall defense, pass defense, sacks and points allowed. They did not have any bottom 10 categories.
The Eagles tried to trade corner Asante Samuel last year but nothing happened. He could be traded just before the draft, but since his contract is so expensive, it may prove to be too big of a stumbling block for any team to actually being willing to give up any pick of value to acquire him.
Speaking of the draft, look for Philadelphia to focus on a linebacker and defensive tackle.
Philadelphia restructured Cullen Jenkins' contract and signed Trent Cole to a new deal. This Eagles defense has a full offseason to gel and it is very conceivable that they could wind up 2012 ranked even higher than they were in 2011.
Projected 2012 Defense Power Ranking: No. 3
Overall defense rank in 2011: No. 2. Overall defense rank in 2010: No. 30
The Houston Texans finished the 2010 season with the No. 30 overall defense in the NFL. The Texans hired Wade Phillips to come in and be the new defensive coordinator, and Phillips proved to be a miracle worker. He led the Texans from No. 30 to No. 2 in just one season, a remarkable jump of 28 places in the NFL rankings for overall defense.
That has to be an inspiration to any other bottom-five defense out there that it can be done. Now the real question is, how long can Phillips keep the Texans defense on top?
As for the 2011 season, the Texans defense had top 10 finishes in overall defense, points allowed, pass defense, rush defense and sacks. They didn't have any finishes in the bottom 10 of any defensive category.
In the 2012 offseason, the Texans took care of some of their veterans, but a number of other players left for bigger paydays.
Mario Williams left to sign a huge deal with the Buffalo Bills and the Texans traded linebacker DeMeco Ryans away to the Philadelphia Eagles. Jason Allen left in free agency.
The Texans might be able to replace these starters, but it also means that they took a significant hit in their quality depth.
Houston will need to rebuild some of that missing depth in the 2012 NFL Draft. They will probably look to draft a nose tackle, safety, outside linebacker and defensive end.
Projected 2012 Defense Power Ranking: No. 2
Overall defense rank in 2011: No. 4. Overall defense rank in 2010: No. 13.
The San Francisco 49ers rode a dominating defense and a mediocre offense to the NFC Championship game in 2011. The offense has taken steps to improve, so if the defense holds form, they could be a dangerous team again in 2012.
The 49ers finished the 2011 season with top 10 finishes in overall defense, rush defense, points allowed and sacks. They didn't have a single bottom 10 category on defense.
The only defection of note on defense was the loss of CB Shawntae Spencer. The 49ers did sign free agent Perrish Cox. The 49ers were able to re-sign corner Carlos Rogers to a new deal and placed the franchise tag on safety Dashon Goldson.
Since all of the 49ers starters on defense are returning, look for this unit to continue their upward ascent in the NFL overall rankings.
For the 2012 NFL Draft, the 49ers will target a cornerback, linebacker and defensive tackle.
Projected 2012 Defense Power Ranking: No. 1.
Complete power ranking list of 2012 NFL defenses as follows:
1) San Francisco 49ers
2) Houston Texans
3) Philadelphia Eagles
4) New York Jets
5) Pittsburgh Steelers
6) Seattle Seahawks
7) Baltimore Ravens
8) Cincinnati Bengals
9) Jacksonville Jaguars
10) Dallas Cowboys
11) Cleveland Browns
12) Buffalo Bills
13) Chicago Bears
14) Atlanta Falcons
15) Kansas City Chiefs
16) Washington Redskins
17) San Diego Chargers
18) Detroit Lions
19) Tennessee Titans
20) Arizona Cardinals
21) Denver Broncos
22) Miami Dolphins
23) New York Giants
24) Minnesota Vikings
25) Carolina Panthers
26) Green Bay Packers
27) St. Louis Rams
28) Indianapolis Colts
29) New England Patriots
30) Tampa Bay Buccaneers
31) New Orleans Saints
32) Oakland Raiders
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