Ranking the NFL's Top 10 Defenses Heading into 2016 Season

Russell S. Baxter@@BaxFootballGuruContributor IMay 27, 2016

Ranking the NFL's Top 10 Defenses Heading into 2016 Season

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    Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

    After recently examining and ranking the NFL’s top 10 running back and wide receiver corps, the units responsible for stopping those skill players and the rest of the offense get their due.

    This is not a forecast of which teams are simply going to give up the fewest total yards in the league. Other factors such as rushing the passer and creating turnovers come into play as well.

    The Kansas City Chiefs, Minnesota Vikings and Baltimore Ravens earned a bit of honorable mention consideration here, but the following 10 clubs are in the best shape on the defensive side of the ball at the moment.

10. Chicago Bears

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    Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

    Time to take the next step.

    After back-to-back seasons of finishing 30th in the league in yards allowed, the Chicago Bears made incredible strides under new head coach John Fox and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio this past season.

    Now armed with free-agent additions such as defensive end Akiem Hicks and inside linebackers Jerrell Freeman and Danny Trevathan, as well as first-round outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, this is a unit on the rise.

    Trevathan earned a Super Bowl ring with the Denver Broncos this past season and played for Fox in the Mile High City for four seasons. He understands what it takes for a defense to elevate its game to another level.

    “You have to be hungry,” said the 26-year-old defender to Dan Wiederer of the Chicago Tribune. “It’s hard to put together great days (all the time). But great teams do it. You come in with that chip on your shoulder every day. Write it down, look yourself in the mirror, tell yourself what you want out of the day, then go out there and attack.”

    The signings of Freeman and Trevathan will do wonders for a group that still has a ways to go when it comes to stopping the run. Chicago was tied for 22nd in the NFL in rushing defense in 2015.

    Making teams one-dimensional will allow Fangio to turn loose outside linebackers such as Floyd and veterans Pernell McPhee, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young.

    The team totaled only 35 sacks and came away with just 17 takeaways this past season. Look for those numbers—as well as the overall play of this restocked unitto improve significantly this fall.

9. New York Jets

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    Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

    There have been changes to the team that gave up the fourth-fewest yards in the league this past year.

    Outside linebacker Calvin Pace was not re-signed, and cornerback Antonio Cromartie was let go. Nose tackle Damon Harrison changed locker rooms in MetLife Stadium, signing with the New York Giants.

    And what about defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson, the team’s designated franchise player who has yet to agree to terms with his current club?

    “He’s the leader of the D-line,” said New York Jets inside linebacker David Harris to ESPN.com’s Rich Cimini earlier this month. “Actually, he’s one of the leaders of the defense. He’s a tremendous talent. He’s one of the best D-ends in the league, hands down. I hope he’s here.”

    There’s still lots to be excited about here. Cornerbacks Darrelle Revis, Buster Skrine and Marcus Williams had 12 of the team’s 18 interceptions. A year earlier, Jets defenders picked off a league-low six passes.

    Harrison’s departure will hurt a club that gave up the second-fewest rushing yards in the NFL in 2015. Free-agent pickup Steve McLendon will now try to plug the middle just as effectively. Whenever Wilkerson returns, he’ll be rejoined by Sheldon Richardson and second-year pro Leonard Williams up front.

    Harris remains one of the league’s unsung defenders. Rookie outside linebacker Darron Lee will certainly pick up a few pointers.

    There will be a bit of slippage here due to a few changes, but this remains a formidable unit capable of big things.

8. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

    In terms of the overall numbers, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were much-improved over the course of one season. This was a unit that ranked 10th in total defense one year after only seven teams in the league gave up more real estate per game.

    But don’t be fooled. The Bucs allowed 43 offensive touchdowns for the second consecutive year. This unit has surrendered 30 or more scores through the air in four of the past five seasons. The pass rush hasn’t produced 40 sacks in more than a decade.

    But Mike Smith, in his first season in Tampa Bay but extremely familiar with the NFC South, has a plan.

    “What we’re trying to do is we’re trying to put together a defense that doesn’t have 11 starters,” said the former Atlanta Falcons head coach to Scott Smith of Buccaneers.com. “We’re trying to have somewhere between 15 and 16 guys that we consider starters on our defense. It’s a long season.”

    There have been some long years for the Buccaneers, who haven’t been to the playoffs since 2007. That aforementioned pass defense was addressed this offseason with the addition of cornerbacks Brent Grimes, Josh Robinson and Vernon Hargreaves—the latter being the team’s first-round pick in April.

    Pass-rushing defensive end Robert Ayers, who totaled a team-high and career-best 9.5 sacks with the New York Giants last year, joins a front seven that already includes defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and productive outside linebacker Lavonte David.

    Rookie defensive end Noah Spence will contribute, and 34-year-old linebacker Daryl Smith’s experience with the current defensive coordinator goes back to the duo’s days in Jacksonville.

    This will prove to be an eye-opening unit this fall.

7. Cincinnati Bengals

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    What a difference a healthy Geno Atkins makes. Look for more of the same this fall.

    Back in 2013, the Cincinnati Bengals were pretty formidable on defense. The team allowed the third-fewest yards in the league and was ranked fifth against both the run and the pass. During the season, Atkins suffered a season-ending knee injury and wasn’t around for the stretch run.

    The 6’1”, 300-pound defensive tackle just wasn’t his dominant self in 2014. It showed in many aspects in regards to the team. The Bengals slipped to 22nd in the NFL in fewest yards allowed. The clubs totaled a league-low 20 sacks.

    The 28-year-old veteran returned to All-Pro status this past season. An improved Cincinnati defense finished seventh in the league against the run and more than doubled its sack total (42) from the previous year.

    Defensive end Carlos Dunlap was named to his first Pro Bowl, linebacker Vincent Rey led the team in tackles and free safety Reggie Nelson totaled a league-high 10 takeaways.

    There have been some alterations, which include Nelson joining the Oakland Raiders. The team used another first-round pick on a cornerback (William Jackson III) and still has Dre Kirkpatrick, Darqueze Dennard and Adam Jones. Meanwhile, Leon Hall appears unlikely to return to the club.

    The elephant in the room is how the club will deal with the early-season loss of linebacker Vontaze Burfict, who was suspended for the first three games due to his actions in the 2015 AFC Wild Card Game versus the Pittsburgh Steelers.

    The club added 34-year-old linebacker Karlos Dansby.

    There have been a few tweaks, but this remains one of the league’s top units that also has its share of depth.

6. Carolina Panthers

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    Grant Halverson/Getty Images

    The defending NFC champions are quite stocked on the defensive side of the ball.

    Their defensive line still includes end Charles Johnson and tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short. Keep an eye on Super Bowl 50 standout Kony Ealy, who supplants retired defensive end Jared Allen.

    The team is stocked at linebacker with Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis. Free safety Kurt Coleman tied for second in the league with seven interceptions.

    But are the Panthers truly comfortable at cornerback? The loss of All-Pro Josh Norman (now with the Washington Redskins) can’t be underestimated, no matter how potent the Panthers’ pass rush is. You don’t simply replace a performer who totaled 56 tackles, 18 passes defensed, three forced fumbles, four interceptions and two fumble recoveries a season ago.

    General manager Dave Gettleman used three of the team’s five draft picks in April on help at the position. Cornerback Bene Benwikere broke his leg in December but is expected to be back for training camp. Rookies James Bradberry, Daryl Worley and Zack Sanchez will make an immediate impact.

    Is this a better defense than a year ago? The Panthers could improve on those 44 sacks, but the secondary could take its lumps on occasion. And minus Norman, will the team approach 39 takeaways again in 2016?

    There are some concerns, but every team should have such problems.

5. New England Patriots

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    With all of the attention seemingly on the quarterback and the head coach, the New England Patriots didn’t win 12 games (again) this past season based strictly on the arm of Tom Brady.

    The team finished ninth in the NFL in fewest total yards and rushing yards allowed. The club finished second in the league with 49 sacks, while the defensive unit surrendered only 32 offensive touchdowns.

    But this organization hasn’t posted 15 straight winning seasons and reached the AFC title game in five consecutive years by standing pat (pun intended).

    Despite the ranking against the run, head coach Bill Belichick is in the midst of revamping the defensive front. New England allowed four yards per carry when opponents opted to run the football. The team was also mediocre in terms of red-zone defense.

    Terrance Knighton, Markus Kuhn, Frank Kearse and former Rams standout defensive end Chris Long are among the newcomers up front. The latter recently spoke about his new employer with Zack Cox of NESN.com:

    I love the way we go about business. I love getting out here and competing. It was a competitive couple of days.

    I have a lot to worry about to get to the point where I can do my job the way I want to do it here. There’s a lot of learning for me, and I’m excited to learn and pick it up. You’ve just got to be a sponge.

    In April, the Patriots added cornerback Cyrus Jones to an already formidable secondary. Defensive end Rob Ninkovich is one of the league’s most underrated defenders. Pro Football Focus tells us that rookie defensive tackle Malcom Brown struggled early but came on like gangbusters late in the year.

    If Brady is indeed suspended for the first four games of the season, this is a defensive unit capable of carrying the load for a spell.

4. Arizona Cardinals

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    Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    The Arizona Cardinals set a franchise record with 13 wins, finished second in the NFL in scoring and boasted the league’s top-ranked offense in 2015.

    The team also played pretty good defense for the most part. The late-season loss of Pro Bowl safety Tyrann Mathieu hurt. And the Cardinals' pass rush managed only 36 sacks, nine of those in one game.

    This offseason, general manager Steve Keim addressed the latter area of concern by trading for Pro Bowler Chandler Jones (12.5 sacks with the New England Patriots in 2015) and drafting Robert Nkemdiche to bolster the defensive front.

    “I go against those guys every day,” said second-year tackle D.J. Humphries to Dan Bickley and Vince Marotta of Arizona Sports 98.7 FM (h/t ArizonaSports.com's Matt Hayman) this week. “We’re not even in pads and it’s like… that damn Chandler Jones. That guy is going to be a problem.”

    Head coach Bruce Arians and defensive coordinator James Bettcher are counting on this unit creating issues for opponents once again. The Cardinals finished fifth in total defense this past season, and only the Carolina Panthers (39) totaled more takeaways than this team (33) a year ago.

    This has evolved into one of the more physical defenses in the league. That won’t change this fall.

3. Denver Broncos

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    Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

    So what can they do for an encore?

    On the way to hoisting a Lombardi Trophy, the Denver Broncos were ranked first in the league in total defense, pass defense and sacks. Only three teams in the NFL allowed fewer points.

    In the team’s three-game postseason sweep of the Pittsburgh Steelers, New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers, the Super Bowl 50 champions surrendered a total of 44 points and four offensive touchdowns.

    Aric DiLalla of DenverBroncos.com asked defensive coordinator Wade Phillips how the Broncos could be better:

    There’s only two ways to go. It’s up or down, and you need to go up in this business because everybody else is trying to shoot at you and they know what you did last year. It’s going to be a big challenge every game. I think we can get better. There are some areas where we can get better. Individually, we gave each player what they could do to improve themselves. We made a list of things that we could improve ourselves on defense overall [and] coaching-wise, what we need to change and do better. We’re always working to get better, no matter how well you do.

    Much has been made about the free-agent losses of defensive end Malik Jackson and inside linebacker Danny Trevathan. Those are significant losses, but not enough to make his unit fall off dramatically.

    Super Bowl 50 MVP Von Miller has yet to sign his franchise tag tender, but he and the team still hope to work out a long-term contract. Earlier this month, ESPN’s Ed Werder did report that there had been no recent movement on that front.

    Defensive end Derek Wolfe recently spoke to Jeff Legwold of ESPN.com. The 26-year-old pro wasn’t lacking in confidence when it comes to this unit:

    Ultimately defense is about effort. Our defense plays with a ton of effort. It doesn’t matter what adjustments people will make. We’re going to play hard. That’s what it comes down to. I think a lot of defenses lose it not just because of people adjusting to what they do, but it’s because they lose guys to free agency. You lose that chemistry. You’ve got to keep that chemistry. That’s why we’re such a great defense. We care about each other. That’s why we’re such a good team because we all have each other’s back.

    Forget the losses. The front seven is keyed by Miller, Wolfe, DeMarcus Ware and Brandon Marshall. Cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Chris Harris and strong safety T.J. Ward spearhead the secondary and a defense that allowed 20 touchdown passes in 19 total outings in 2015.

    Don’t feel too sorry for the defending champions. There’s little room for concern on this side of the ball.

2. Houston Texans

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    John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

    From quarterback Brock Osweiler and running back Lamar Miller to rookie wide receivers Will Fuller and Braxton Miller, the big news this offseason for the Houston Texans was a slew of offensive additions

    But the declaration of a healthy Jadeveon Clowney warrants a headline or two.

    “I feel great,” said the first overall pick in the 2014 draft to John McClain of the Houston Chronicle. “After two seasons, I think I just got healthy enough to be where I need to be.”

    Having Clowney healthy and available can’t be underestimated. “He’s out there with his teammates working hard, taking good reps, being able to carry the information from the meeting to the walkthrough to the field,” said head coach Bill O’Brien to McClain earlier this week.

    Only the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks allowed fewer total yards and passing yards than the Texans last season. Led by three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt, Houston totaled 45 sacks—including a league-high 17.5 sacks by the relentless performer.

    With Clowney complementing outside linebackers Whitney Mercilus and John Simon, the pass rush could be even more potent. The Texans totaled 25 takeaways this past season, and more pressure will elevate those aforementioned numbers.

    This is a unit that has a very confident and fierce look to it these days.

1. Seattle Seahawks

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    Steve Dykes/Getty Images

    When you are the first team in close to 60 years to allow the fewest points in the NFL in four consecutive seasons, you’ve earned the benefit of the doubt. You have to go back to the Cleveland Browns and their five-year run from 1953-57 to see a team in this league accomplish such a feat.

    Over the last four seasons, the Seattle Seahawks have also ranked fourth, first, first and second, respectively, in fewest yards allowed per game.

    They have managed to do this with changes at defensive coordinator, although head coach Pete Carroll is the constant.

    Speaking of reliability, it’s been the same basic cast for the last few years—from defensive ends Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril to linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright. The “Legion of Boom” is once again intact, as Brandon Browner has been reunited with Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas.

    Second-year defensive end Frank Clark bears watching, as does rookie defensive tackle Jarran Reed. Following a two-year stint in Jacksonville, what is 34-year-old Chris Clemons' role with the club?

    All told, this is a unit with a proven track record that looks as good as it ever has. It’s hard to argue against its spot on this list given the talent and the design.

    Unless otherwise noted, all player and team statistics come from Pro-Football-Reference.com and ESPN.com.

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