Power Ranking Every NFL Defense After the 2019 Draft

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistMay 3, 2019

Power Ranking Every NFL Defense After the 2019 Draft

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    Stacy Revere/Getty Images

    While it's true the NFL is a passing league, a strong defense gives teams a legitimate shot to reach the postseason. For some spectators, a 16-10 game isn't appealing, but the clubs that consistently win slugfests can take that play style anywhere—in any type of weather—and pull out victories.

    Last year, seven of the top 10 scoring defenses clinched playoff berths. Two of those units played alongside bottom-four offenses that made it difficult to win low-scoring battles.

    Following the draft, we'll rank all 32 defenses. Several factors went into the listing.

    Past trends provide clues for what's ahead, but projection matters, especially with an incoming rookie class loaded with defensive talent. The impact of stars, rising playmakers and depth are also significant factors.

    Lastly, there's coaching. An experienced defensive coordinator with a good track record will receive the benefit of the doubt over a first-year play-caller between teams with comparable roster talent. 

    Going from worst to first, which defensive group sits atop the rankings?

          

32. Oakland Raiders

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    Oakland Raiders cornerback Gareon Conley
    Oakland Raiders cornerback Gareon ConleyBill Nichols/Associated Press

    2018 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 32

    2018 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 26

    The Oakland Raiders don't have an elite defender. Based on performance and upside, cornerback Gareon Conley is the best player in this group. He's only suited up for 17 career games but took a major developmental step forward last year, logging three interceptions and a team-leading 15 pass breakups.

    Beyond Conley, there's a scarcity in proven high-impact talent. Nose tackle Justin Ellis can stop the run, but he's not a pocket-pusher and will likely play in a rotational role. Linebacker Brandon Marshall heads over from the Denver Broncos following a knee injury and an ineffective season.

    According to Las Vegas Review-Journal's Michael Gehlken, the Raiders plan to use defensive back Lamarcus Joyner in the slot, though he had his best season at free safety with the Los Angeles Rams in 2017.

    For the most part, Oakland will rely on upside. Interior tackle Maurice Hurst led the team with four sacks last season. If his heart condition doesn't cause him issues, he'll have another solid year. The Raiders drafted edge-rusher Clelin Ferrell (fourth pick), safety Johnathan Abram (27th pick) and cornerback Trayvon Mullen (40th pick) as foundational pieces of a revamped unit. 

    The Raiders have a young defense that's still in transition and have much hope but little certainty.

31. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Tampa Bay Buccaneers edge-rusher Jason Pierre-Paul
    Tampa Bay Buccaneers edge-rusher Jason Pierre-PaulMichael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    2018 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 31

    2018 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 27

    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers hired a new coaching staff, and according to The Athletic's Michael Lombardi, veteran defensive tackle Gerald McCoy is on the trade block.

    It's common for a new staff to move, release and trade assets amid schematic changes. Defensive coordinator Todd Bowles will implement more 3-4 looks—similar to what he did in the same role with the Arizona Cardinals in 2013 and '14 and the New York Jets as their head coach over the last four years.

    Barring an unforeseen transaction, the Buccaneers will have Jason Pierre-Paul on the edge; he led the team in sacks with 12.5 in 2018. Rookie first-rounder Devin White will likely pair with Lavonte David at linebacker; the veteran's coverage production dropped in recent seasons, but he's a solid chase-down defender.

    The Buccaneers also added hybrid linebacker-safety Deone Bucannon. He's familiar with Bowles, dating back to his rookie season of 2014.

    Tampa Bay's defense has a ton of upside but lacks proven components other than Pierre-Paul, David and McCoy (if he stays). A slew of cornerbacks, including Carlton Davis, M.J. Stewart and Ryan Smith will battle for snaps with second- and third-round rookies Sean Bunting and Jamel Dean.

    The Buccaneers' schematic shift brings more questions than answers, though.

30. Seattle Seahawks

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    Seattle Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner
    Seattle Seahawks linebacker Bobby WagnerRob Leiter/Getty Images

    2018 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 11

    2018 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 16

    The Seattle Seahawks have Bobby Wagner, arguably the game's best middle linebacker, but head coach Pete Carroll and defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. don't have many high-end players around him. Tackle Jarran Reed (26), who put together a breakout 2018 season with 10.5 sacks, and cornerback Shaquill Griffin (23) are the young playmakers.

    Linebacker K.J. Wright and safety Bradley McDougald can provide veteran experience and solid play in the back seven. The former has to stay healthy, though; he underwent a knee scope last offseason and only suited up for five games in 2018.

    The Seahawks traded defensive end Frank Clark to the Kansas City Chiefs and dealt a major blow to the front line. Since 2016, he's logged 32 sacks; his absence may allow offensive linemen to double-team Reed on the interior. Rookie first-rounder L.J. Collier flashed as a pass-rusher at TCU but played in a rotational role for most of his collegiate career.

    Seattle extended quarterback Russell Wilson's deal for four years and $140 million and had to sacrifice its pass rush. As expected, the team lost a ball hawk in safety Earl Thomas during free agency. Opposing quarterbacks should be able to avoid Wagner in the middle of the field and feast on the secondary with ample time in the pocket.

29. Miami Dolphins

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    Miami Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard
    Miami Dolphins cornerback Xavien HowardMark Brown/Getty Images

    2018 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 27

    2018 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 29

    The Miami Dolphins have ample talent on the back end. The secondary features two Pro Bowlers in cornerback Xavien Howard and safety Reshad Jones. The former tied with Kyle Fuller and Damontae Kazee for a league-leading seven interceptions in 2018.

    Despite giving up yards and points in bunches, the Dolphins ranked second in interceptions (21). Four players snagged at least three picks: linebacker Kiko Alonso, safety T.J. McDonald, Jones and Howard.

    It's difficult to sustain a high rate of interceptions, though. Random tipped balls and quarterback play also factor into those opportunities. Also, the Dolphins have a weak defensive line, which may lead to more time for opposing passers in the pocket.

    Rookie first-rounder Christian Wilkins has the potential to develop into a Pro Bowler, but there's no help around him. The Dolphins let defensive end Cameron Wake go in free agency and traded pass-rusher Robert Quinn to the Dallas Cowboys for a 2020 sixth-rounder. Charles Harris, a 2017 first-rounder, hasn't shown much on the end, recording three sacks in 27 contests.

    In addition, Miami has a new coaching staff. Head coach Brian Flores hired Patrick Graham as his defensive coordinator. They have to figure out how to utilize the versatile talent in the secondary.

    Minkah Fitzpatrick and Bobby McCain moved around last year; both lined up at slot cornerback and on the outside. Fitzpatrick also played safety.

    For Flores and Graham, it's a good problem to have, but failure to optimize skill sets could limit coverage on the back end. 

28. New York Giants

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    New York Giants cornerback Janoris Jenkins
    New York Giants cornerback Janoris JenkinsSteven Ryan/Getty Images

    2018 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 23

    2018 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 24

    The Dolphins have more proven talent than the New York Giants, but defensive coordinator James Bettcher has the edge in play-calling experience. Secondly, he oversaw three top-six defenses in yards allowed with the Cardinals.

    Last year, the Giants had a mix of younger players and veterans contribute in a new system. B.J. Hill and Dalvin Tomlinson are solid interior pieces. The former logged 5.5 sacks last year in his rookie campaign; the latter has been stout against the run over the last two seasons.

    Inside linebacker Alec Ogletree notched five interceptions and eight pass breakups. Cornerback Janoris Jenkins had a team-high 15 pass breakups and two picks.

    The Giants used a variety of resources to fill holes on each level of the defense. General manager Dave Gettleman signed edge-rusher Markus Golden and safety Antoine Bethea—two familiar faces who played for Bettcher in Arizona.

    Gettleman landed safety Jabrill Peppers in the trade involving wideout Odell Beckham Jr. and used the Cleveland Browns' picks in that deal to select defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence 17th overall and pass-rusher Oshane Ximines 95th. Big Blue also moved up to the 30th spot for cornerback Deandre Baker.

    On the downside, the Giants lost key veterans. They traded the team's 2018 sack leader, Olivier Vernon, to the Browns. Safety Landon Collins inked a six-year, $84 million deal with the Washington Redskins.

    The Giants desperately need their young talent to develop into solid starters at the edge-rusher, outside and slot cornerback spots.

27. San Francisco 49ers

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    San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman
    San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard ShermanThearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    2018 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 28

    2018 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 13

    The San Francisco 49ers made a concerted effort to bolster the front seven. General manager John Lynch signed linebacker Kwon Alexander, sent his 2020 second-round pick to the Chiefs for edge-rusher Dee Ford and selected defensive end Nick Bosa with the No. 2 overall pick.

    Based on those acquisitions alone, the 49ers run defense and pass rush should show vast improvement. Bosa, Ford and interior tackle DeForest Buckner could become a dominant trio in the trenches.

    Still, injuries and inconsistency give reasons to hedge bets. Bosa only played three games last season for Ohio State because of a core muscle injury, which required surgery. Ford has two double-digit sack seasons in five years. Alexander suffered a torn ACL in October.

    Aside from cornerback Richard Sherman, who's going into his age-31 season, the secondary needs consistency at just about every other position.

    Cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon's production took a step back last year. Safety Jaquiski Tartt has missed 15 games since 2016 because of a broken forearm and shoulder injury. Versatile defensive back Jimmie Ward has played through a full 16-game schedule once in five seasons.

    The 49ers may continue to have major issues with their secondary. Last year, the defense ranked 31st in passing touchdowns allowed.

26. Cincinnati Bengals

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    Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins
    Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Geno AtkinsRoger Steinman/Associated Press

    2018 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 30

    2018 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 32

    The Cincinnati Bengals defense should seemingly rank higher. Defensive end Carlos Dunlap is a two-time Pro Bowler. Interior tackle Geno Atkins has put together a pair of All-Pro seasons. Sam Hubbard and Carl Lawson, who suffered a torn ACL last September, will keep the pass rush fresh in rotation.

    The secondary features three first-round picks at cornerback: Dre Kirkpatrick (2012), Darqueze Dennard (2014) and William Jackson III (2016). Safeties Shawn Williams and Jessie Bates III combined for eight interceptions last season.

    The decorated resumes, draft pedigree and solid numbers didn't amount to strong results following former defensive coordinator Paul Guenther's departure to Oakland, though. In 2018, under play-caller Teryl Austin, the unit struggled, causing his dismissal.

    The Bengals parted ways with head coach Marvin Lewis and hired first-year head coach Zac Taylor, who added defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo. Both are inexperienced in their roles. In 2015, with the Dolphins, Anarumo held the interim play-caller spot after he took over for defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle.

    Anarumo has a skilled group, but the former defensive backs coach must mold the talent into a solid defense. It's a tough task for a first-year full-time play-caller under a rookie head coach.

25. Kansas City Chiefs

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    Kansas City Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones
    Kansas City Chiefs defensive tackle Chris JonesJamie Squire/Getty Images

    2018 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 24

    2018 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 31

    At No. 25, the Kansas City Chiefs also have a new play-caller. The team hired Steve Spagnuolo to replace Bob Sutton, who will shift the unit to a 4-3 base alignment.

    Kansas City lost four notable defensive players. Cornerback Steven Nelson signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The team traded edge-rusher Dee Ford to the 49ers. The Chiefs also released pass-rusher Justin Houston and safety Eric Berry, who's suited up for just three regular-season games since 2016 because of an ailing Achilles.

    General manager Brett Veach acquired Frank Clark to restock defensive end. The former Seahawk will pair with interior tackle Chris Jones for a strong inside-outside pass-rush combo.

    Kansas City signed Tyrann Mathieu to a three-year, $42 million contract. The versatile safety should patch up coverage on tight ends and chase down pass-catching ball-carriers. It's a much-needed addition; the team allowed a combined 125.5 receiving yards per game to tight ends and running backs, per Football Outsiders.

    The Chiefs hope to see cornerback Bashaud Breeland produce in a full season after a seven-game 2018 campaign with the Green Bay Packers. Fellow cover man Kendall Fuller has a lock on the slot position.

    Spagnuolo needs more from the linebacker corps, which struggled with coverage in the middle of the field last year. Although Mathieu can help in that area, experienced quarterbacks will attempt to isolate Anthony Hitchens and Reggie Ragland in space.

    On the back end, rookie second-rounder Juan Thornhill has to impress during training camp to fill the safety spot next to Mathieu.

24. Carolina Panthers

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    Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly
    Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke KuechlyBrett Carlsen/Getty Images

    2018 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 19

    2018 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 15

    According to Charlotte Observer's Jourdan Rodrigue, Carolina Panthers head coach Ron Rivera will continue to call defensive plays. He took that responsibility in December amid a seven-game losing streak last season. The defense allowed 26-plus points three times in that stretch.

    Rivera may feel the urgency to save his job going into his ninth season at the helm. He'll experiment with 3-4 looks featuring rookie first-rounder Brian Burns, per ESPN.com's David Newton.

    "The Panthers hope those qualities, as well as Burns' ability to play end in a 4-3 scheme and outside linebacker in a 3-4, will bolster a pass rush that ranked 27th in the NFL in sacks last season, as coach Ron Rivera makes a defensive transition to more odd-man fronts," Newton wrote. 

    The personnel variation should help revitalize interior tackle Dontari Poe, who had little impact on the defensive line last year.

    Following Julius Peppers' retirement, defensive end Mario Addison and Burns will spearhead the pass rush off the edge. Perhaps Kawann Short can generate consistent pressure on the inside similar to his 2015-17 run with 24.5 sacks. He took a step back in that category with three in 2018. 

    The Panthers have All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly in the middle to stabilize the defense. The team released Thomas Davis, so there's added pressure on Shaq Thompson to develop into a consistent playmaker. 

    On the back end, there are question marks at safety and slot cornerback. According to Rodrigue, Rivera will give 2018 third-rounder Rashaan Gaulden a chance to start at either position, but he's an unknown after a quiet rookie campaign.

    The Panthers' experiment with more 3-4 alignments could backfire. They have the talent to ease in variety, but it's fair to wonder if they'll generate enough pocket pressure to help the secondary. In 2018, Carolina ranked 27th in passing touchdowns allowed and sacks.

23. Arizona Cardinals

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    Arizona Cardinals edge-rusher Chandler Jones
    Arizona Cardinals edge-rusher Chandler JonesChristian Petersen/Getty Images

    2018 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 26

    2018 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 20

    Although the Arizona Cardinals have a new coaching staff, defensive coordinator Vance Joseph will work with multiple high-production players.

    Chandler Jones seems like an overlooked star; he's recorded the most sacks (41) since 2016. The team added edge-rusher Terrell Suggs, who's still a viable threat near the pocket. They could become a strong pass-rushing duo.

    General manager Steve Keim acquired Robert Alford to fill the No. 2 cornerback spot opposite All-Pro cover man Patrick Peterson. Safeties D.J. Swearinger Sr. and Budda Baker will provide a good mix of coverage and solid tackling at the position. The former returns to Arizona for a second stint. He's picked off 11 passes in the last three years.

    On the second level, linebacker Jordan Hicks can support the run and disrupt the passing game on underneath routes.

    Joseph has the cumulative talent to turn this group into a competitive bunch. If the coaching staff develops cornerback Byron Murphy, defensive lineman Zach Allen and Deionte Thompson into first-year starters, this unit should surprise some opponents.

    On the other hand, in three combined years as a defensive coordinator in Miami and head coach for the Broncos, Joseph has fielded groups that have ranked 13th or worse in points allowed.

22. Houston Texans

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    Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt
    Houston Texans defensive end J.J. WattTim Warner/Getty Images

    2018 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 4

    2018 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 12

    Houston Texans defense will struggle because of losses and uncertainties in the secondary.

    The team allowed defensive backs Tyrann Mathieu and Kareem Jackson to walk during free agency. They combined for 25 pass breakups and four interceptions last year. Andre Hal's retirement also hurts the pass defense. He missed a portion of the 2018 campaign because of Hodgkin's Lymphoma but logged three interceptions in eight games.

    Aaron Colvin had an uneventful first year in Houston; he finished with one pass breakup in 10 contests. The team recently acquired Bradley Roby, who experienced ups and downs on the perimeter with the Broncos. One of them will play opposite 35-year-old Johnathan Joseph—an average starter.

    Safety Justin Reid could develop into a ball hawk. Next to him, Tashaun Gipson hopes to rebound from a down year with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

    The Texans will need pass-rushers Jadeveon Clowney and J.J. Watt at their best for a 16-game slate to disrupt passing attacks. The former hasn't signed his franchise tag, and the team may consider dealing him before the season, per ESPN's Chris Mortensen (h/t ProFootballTalk).

    Watt returned to All-Pro form after he missed 24 games in 2016 and 2017 with a herniated disc and a tibial plateau fracture in his left leg. If he shows decline or misses games, opposing quarterbacks will have time to tee off on average secondary with new faces.

21. Los Angeles Rams

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    Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald
    Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron DonaldPaul Sancya/Associated Press

    2018 Points Allowed Rank: No. 20

    2018 Yards Allowed Rank: No. 19

    Last offseason, the Los Angeles Rams signed star defensive tackle Aaron Donald to a six-year, $135 million extension. Team brass want to extend its top cornerback, Marcus Peters, as well, per the Rams' official site.

    At times, Peters may have a clunker, struggling in coverage. Saints head coach Sean Payton said he liked a November matchup between the All-Pro cornerback and wideout Michael Thomas. The plan worked out for New Orleans, as Thomas exploded for 211 yards on 12 catches.

    Overall, Peters' gambles have paid off, though. He's snagged 22 interceptions over the last four seasons—the most in that span. The four-year veteran hasn't played at an elite level since 2016, but he's still a high-end cover man.

    Alongside Peters, Aqib Talib remains serviceable. The savvy veteran knows how to use physicality to his advantage, but he's past his prime. Eric Weddle is also approaching his career sunset. In 2018, the 34-year-old had his worst statistical season with three pass breakups and zero interceptions with the Baltimore Ravens.

    Safety John Johnson possesses the tools to become a rising star. He's a reliable tackler, supports the run defense and covers downfield. The 2017 third-rounder notched a team-high four interceptions in his sophomore term.

    Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips has to figure out how to optimize the talent in the front seven around Donald. The front office likely won't re-sign nose tackle Ndamukong Suh, which adds pressure on the star interior pass-rusher to beat double- and triple-teams. Dante Fowler Jr. has to produce on the edge; he inked a one-year, prove-it deal in March.

20. New Orleans Saints

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    New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan
    New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron JordanChris Graythen/Getty Images

    2018 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 14

    2018 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 14

    The New Orleans Saints have two high-caliber defenders ready to suit up for Week 1: defensive end Cameron Jordan and cornerback Marshon Lattimore. Interior tackle Sheldon Rankins could start the season on the physically unable to perform list because of an Achilles tear, though, per Nick Underhill formerly of the New Orleans Advocate.

    The Saints' pass rush had a dynamic one-two punch with Jordan on the end and Rankins on the inside. New Orleans won't have the same push up front with the three-year veteran possibly on the sidelines early in the year. The front office signed nose tackle Malcom Brown, but he's a run-stuffer without a track record for quarterback pressures.

    A.J. Klein, Demario Davis and Alex Anzalone are a serviceable trio on the second level. They're all solid chase-down linebackers who can break up passes in small coverage zones, but it's not a strong suit for any of them.

    At safety, Vonn Bell will provide reliable tackling with some heavy hits, and Marcus Williams can track the ball in center field.

    Training camp battles will sort out the cornerback spots. Patrick Robinson could reclaim the slot position over P.J. Williams in a contested competition this summer. Team brass acquired Eli Apple before the October trade deadline. He had a solid year in New Orleans, logging nine pass breakups and two interceptions in 10 games, but the Saints declined to pick up his fifth-year option.

    Aside from Lattimore and Williams, it's difficult to rely on the Saints pass defense. Apple may put forth a great effort in a contract year, but he's been inconsistent.

19. Philadelphia Eagles

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    Philadelphia Eagles interior tackle Fletcher Cox
    Philadelphia Eagles interior tackle Fletcher CoxDylan Buell/Getty Images

    2018 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 12

    2018 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 23

    The Philadelphia Eagles' front seven took a few hits during the offseason, and there's another potential loss on the way.

    They traded defensive end Michael Bennett and a 2020 seventh-rounder to the New England Patriots for a 2020 fifth-round pick; he finished second on the team in sacks with nine in 2018.

    Linebacker Jordan Hicks signed with the Cardinals. Despite his injury history, the 26-year-old was a mainstay in the middle of the defense for four seasons. Rotational pass-rusher Chris Long is mulling retirement, per USA Today's Jarrett Bell.

    Zach Brown will replace Hicks. The Eagles have the depth at defensive end to comfortably move on from Bennett and compensate for Long's potential absence. 

    Still, play-caller Jim Schwartz needs more pressures from Brandon Graham, 2017 first-rounder Derek Barnett, Vinny Curry, 2018 fourth-rounder Josh Sweat and potentially the 138th overall pick in this year's draft class, Shareef Miller. Fletcher Cox will likely command double-teams on the interior.

    At cornerback, Philadelphia has potential, but there are injury concerns. Since he headed over from Buffalo via a 2017 trade, Ronald Darby has missed 15 outings with a dislocated ankle and torn ACL. Sidney Jones, a 2017 second-rounder, suited up for 10 games in his two years with the team. Jalen Mills had an inconsistent 2018 campaign that ended in October because of a foot ailment. 

    Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod form a solid safety duo, but the latter went into the offseason on the mend with a surgically repaired ACL.

    Even if we're to assume the Eagles will avoid major injuries, it's difficult to gauge the pass defense because we've yet to see prominent defenders such as Darby and Jones play full seasons in Philadelphia.

    Update: Eagles moved from 23rd to 19th following Zach Brown's signing Friday.

18. Cleveland Browns

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    Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett
    Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles GarrettJason Miller/Getty Images

    2018 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 21

    2018 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 30

    General manager John Dorsey isn't opposed to trades. In March, he acquired defensive end Olivier Vernon and a fourth-rounder for guard Kevin Zeitler and a fifth-round pick. With 51 career sacks, the seven-year veteran is an upgrade over Emmanuel Ogbah, who was sent to Kansas City for safety Eric Murray.

    Vernon will team with Myles Garrett to seal the ends and collapse the pocket. Larry Ogunjobi and Sheldon Richardson are set to provide pressure up the middle. The Browns should field one of the league's top pass-rushing defensive lines.

    The linebacker corps doesn't feature star players, but Genard Avery has the ability to burst around the corner to take down the quarterback. Assuming Christian Kirksey makes a full recovery from a hamstring injury, he and Joe Schobert can cover in space.

    Issues pop up in the secondary, though. Cornerback Denzel Ward had a solid 2018, notching 11 pass breakups and three interceptions, but the Browns may to turn rookie second-rounder Greedy Williams on the other side of the field. The LSU product has the height (6'2"), length (31½" arms) and speed (4.37-second 40-yard time) to cover athletic wide receivers, but he's taken criticism for his subpar tackling ability.

    The Browns don't have a physical playmaker in the secondary. Stronger wideouts like JuJu Smith-Schuster could stiff-arm Ward and Williams. T.J. Carrie has been serviceable in the slot, but he doesn't force turnovers at a high frequency. The five-year veteran has four career interceptions. Damarious Randall has ball-tracking skills with solid tackling, but he's the last line of defense in the deep safety role.

    Cleveland has speed on the back end, but wide receivers who hand-fight and jostle downfield could give this unit issues in the passing game.

17. Baltimore Ravens

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    Baltimore Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey
    Baltimore Ravens cornerback Marlon HumphreyScott Taetsch/Getty Images

    2018 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 2

    2018 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 1

    In 2018, the Baltimore Ravens had a stout, stingy defense that gave up few yards and points. What happened during the offseason?

    They lost high-production contributors in their front seven. Terrell Suggs signed with the Cardinals, C.J. Mosley inked a deal with the Jets, and Za'Darius Smith went to Green Bay.

    The departures knock this group down several notches. Suggs and Smith combined for 15.5 sacks in 2018. Mosley called the plays on defense; the group will miss his veteran experience, downhill play and short-area coverage in the middle.

    Over the last three seasons, Matt Judon developed into a consistent pocket-pusher with 19 career sacks. Tim Williams will likely move into a bigger role on the edge while rookie third-rounder Jaylon Ferguson serves in a rotational role.

    Baltimore needs solid play from its front line to ease the edge-rushers' jobs on the outside. Perhaps Willie Henry performs at a level close to his rookie season after he missed 13 contests with a back injury in 2018. Brandon Williams and Michael Pierce are solid gap-stuffers who are capable of occupying initial blocks.

    The secondary seems like the strength of the Ravens defense. The front office upgraded at safety, signing Earl Thomas to replace Eric Weddle. There's also tremendous depth at cornerback with Marlon Humphrey, Brandon Carr, Jimmy Smith and Tavon Young.

    Offensive coordinators may hesitate to test the secondary, but Baltimore should watch out for opponents that challenge the team's front seven with the ground attack early and often. 

16. Atlanta Falcons

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    Atlanta Falcons linebacker Deion Jones
    Atlanta Falcons linebacker Deion JonesDanny Karnik/Associated Press

    2018 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 25

    2018 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 28

    Head coach Dan Quinn will handle play-calling duties in Atlanta after opposing teams ran up and down the field on the defense in 2018.

    At least for the beginning of the year, Quinn will have a healthier roster. Safeties Keanu Neal (ACL) and Ricardo Allen (Achilles) are coming off season-ending injuries. While that's a positive, it's unknown if they'll pick up where they left off.

    Although linebacker Deion Jones missed 10 contests because of a foot injury last year, he suited up for five games in December. The three-year veteran should be at full strength once the 2019 season kicks off.

    Quinn has three major defensive tasks for the upcoming term. He must find the 2016 version of Vic Beasley—the pass-rusher who led the league with 15.5 sacks that season.

    Secondly, the Falcons need Isaiah Oliver to claim the No. 2 cornerback spot. The team released Robert Alford, which opens the position for the 2018 second-rounder.

    Finally, Quinn has to carve out a role for safety Damontae Kazee, who snagged seven interceptions last year. He saw an uptick in snaps because of the injuries to Neal and Allen.

    Statistically, the Falcons should improve, but the defensive line may lack pocket pressure on Beasley's side. Foyesade Oluokun has to play well at weak-side linebacker after a solid rookie season, and defensive tackle Deadrin Senat needs to grow into a full-time starter.

15. Buffalo Bills

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    Buffalo Bills linebacker Tremaine Edmunds
    Buffalo Bills linebacker Tremaine EdmundsJeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

    2018 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 18

    2018 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 2

    The Buffalo Bills' pass rush leaves much to be desired, but head coach Sean McDermott has multiple defenders who can contribute sacks. Furthermore, the front office selected Ed Oliver—one of the top interior pocket-pushers in the 2019 class—with the ninth overall pick.

    Last season, the Bills' top two pass-rushers, defensive end Jerry Hughes and linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, combined for 13.5 sacks; the latter is headed into his age-36 term. Shaq Lawson and Trent Murphy added four apiece.

    Oliver should give opposing quarterbacks more to think about on their dropbacks. He saw double-teams as a nose tackle at Houston and still finished with 13.5 sacks in three years. The former Cougar could feast on offensive linemen in a one-gap scheme at defensive tackle.

    The Bills have two linebackers who play well in space. Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano can follow the action sideline to sideline or blanket tight ends in coverage. They combined for 19 pass breakups and five interceptions last season.

    On the back end, the Bills have versatility and defenders with sticky hands. Micah Hyde can line up at either safety spot, in the slot and thump in the box. Jordan Poyer led the team with four picks last year. Tre'Davious White has recorded 26 pass breakups and six interceptions through two seasons.

    Aside from fixing below-average pass rush, the Bills must find a No. 2 cornerback to cover the perimeter. Despite the flaws, McDermott's group could rank in the top 10 in yards allowed in back-to-back seasons because of a talented back seven.

14. New York Jets

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    New York Jets defensive lineman Leonard Williams
    New York Jets defensive lineman Leonard WilliamsSeth Wenig/Associated Press

    2018 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 29

    2018 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 25

    The New York Jets defense has major upside, but there are multiple moving parts that cap their rank at No. 14.

    First, the organization hired a new coaching staff. Head coach Adam Gase added defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. He'll continue to use 3-4 alignments, which maintains the base schematic plan from the previous regime.

    General manager Mike Maccagnan acquired multiple defensive playmakers this offseason. Gang Green landed linebacker C.J. Mosley, who'll immediately improve this unit with veteran leadership and playmaking ability. The team re-signed defensive lineman Henry Anderson, who had a breakout 2018 campaign with seven sacks and four pass breakups.

    The Jets also drafted arguably the top interior pass-rusher at No. 3 in Quinnen Williams, and they took third-rounder Jachai Polite, who may have been a top-32 pick if not for his poor predraft interviews.

    We don't know how Williams and Polite will perform, but the Jets will have an impressive haul if both players turn potential into production.

    The Falcons released Brian Poole, and New York pounced on the slot cornerback. He's a thumper with coverage ability and fills a void. Jamal Adams raised his level of play during his second year and earned a Pro Bowl invite. The LSU product looks like a complete safety who hits in the box, tracks down the action all over the field and breaks up passes in coverage.

    On the downside, Williams hasn't led a top-10 defense in points allowed since 2010. In addition, according to the New York Daily News' Manish Mehta, team isn't impressed with cornerback Trumaine Johnson at his price tag; the seven-year veteran must play with more composure and avoid unnecessary penalties.

13. Indianapolis Colts

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    Indianapolis Colts linebacker Darius Leonard
    Indianapolis Colts linebacker Darius LeonardMark Zaleski/Associated Press

    2018 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 10

    2018 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 11

    In recent seasons, the Indianapolis Colts fielded bottom-of-the-barrel defenses. Coordinator Matt Eberflus changed the narrative last year thanks to in-house growth and general manager Chris Ballard's acquisitions.

    The Colts saw their young talent progress. As the primary slot cornerback, 23-year-old Kenny Moore led the team in interceptions (three) and pass breakups (11). Linebacker Anthony Walker, 23, blossomed in an expanded role in the middle of the defense.

    Linebacker Darius Leonard came out of South Carolina State—an FCS program—but he didn't flinch at an elevated competition level as a rookie. He led the league in solo tackles (111), ranked second on the team in sacks with seven, broke up eight passes and logged two interceptions in an All-Pro season.

    Denico Autry had a few decent seasons with the Raiders from 2015 to 2017, but his sack production skyrocketed in Indianapolis with a team-high nine.

    The pass rush should continue to see growth in the upcoming term. Ballard acquired proven edge-rusher Justin Houston, who's coming off a nine-sack campaign in Kansas City.

    Despite the lack of star power across the unit, the Colts rank one spot above the Jets because of the continuity with Eberflus going into his second year. Furthermore, there's a separation between potential and proven. Gang Green hopes its top rookie defensive talent earns All-Pro honors like Leonard did in the last campaign. 

12. Detroit Lions

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    Detroit Lions cornerback Darius Slay
    Detroit Lions cornerback Darius SlayMichael Reaves/Getty Images

    2018 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 16

    2018 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 10

    The Detroit Lions rank one spot higher than the Colts because of their ability to supplement pocket pressure with contributions from linebackers Devon Kennard and Jarrad Davis. Now, with Trey Flowers, a consistent pass-rusher on the defensive line, this group should see an increase in sack numbers.

    In 2018, no one logged more than 7.5 sacks, but five players had at least four. As a whole, the team ranked 11th in the category.

    Rookie fourth-rounder Austin Bryant will likely serve in a backup role, but the Clemson product, Romeo Okwara, Da'Shawn Hand and Flowers are a solid four-man rotation on the edges.

    Moreover, the coaching staff tapped into nose tackle Damon Harrison Sr.'s pass-rush ability last season. Apparently, he's not just a 353-pound run-stuffer. The All-Pro interior tackle recorded 3.5 sacks in 2018.

    Cornerback Darius Slay continued to perform at an elite level. Safety Quandre Diggs provided solid play in coverage with eight pass breakups and three interceptions. In the slot, Justin Coleman should give the defense more ball production than Nevin Lawson, who hasn't picked off a pass in five seasons.

    The open starting positions at safety, next to Diggs and opposite Slay keep the Lions out of the top 10. Furthermore, the unit needs another linebacker who's best suited to play in space. Devon Kennard and Jarrad Davis can play downhill, but they're not the best coverage defenders in the middle of the field.

11. Green Bay Packers

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    Green Bay Packers nose tackle Kenny Clark
    Green Bay Packers nose tackle Kenny ClarkStacy Revere/Getty Images

    2018 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 22

    2018 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 18

    Similar to the Jets at No. 14, the Packers added multiple playmakers on defense this offseason, but general manager Brian Gutekunst landed proven players in the prime of their careers. Green Bay's holes are less glaring than Detroit's at No. 12.

    Defensive ends Preston Smith and Za'Darius Smith will immediately improve the pass rush. The former has two eight-sack seasons on his resume, while the latter recorded 8.5 last year in a rotational role with the Ravens. Safety Adrian Amos had a solid contract year with the Bears, and he fills a strong need in Green Bay.

    During the draft, the Packers doubled down on improving the pass rush and safety position in the first round. Defensive lineman Rashan Gary will likely take the field on passing downs to pressure the pocket, while Darnell Savage could start alongside Amos. The Maryland product has enough range to play the deep coverage role.

    With the additions in the front seven, defensive tackle Kenny Clark and defensive end Mike Daniels should benefit. Both can penetrate the interior gaps. If the linemen beat their assignments in the trenches, they likely won't have to worry about an extra offensive lineman on help-out blocks or double-teams. Kyler Fackrell, the team's 2018 sack leader, may see one-on-one opportunities on the edge as well.

    What keeps the Packers out of the top 10? The inside linebacker spot next to Blake Martinez isn't quite settled, although 2018 third-round pick Oren Burks could win the job. Cornerback Kevin King also has to stay healthy and show why he came off the board as the 33rd overall pick in the 2017 draft.

10. Washington Redskins

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    Washington Redskins edge-rusher Ryan Kerrigan
    Washington Redskins edge-rusher Ryan KerriganJoe Robbins/Getty Images

    2018 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 15

    2018 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 17

    We've reached the top 10. Going forward, elite veteran talent, rookie potential and depth separate many of these groups from the rest.

    The Redskins have a loaded front seven. In 2018, four players logged at least five sacks. Edge-rusher Ryan Kerrigan led the group with 13. Jonathan Allen, Daron Payne and Matthew Ioannidis bring a ton of pressure on the interior. In total, they recorded 20.5 sacks.

    Although the Redskins lost Preston Smith to the Packers during free agency, they restocked the edge-rusher position with first-round pick Montez Sweat. The Mississippi State product can win matchups with speed around the corner.

    According to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, the league won't suspend linebacker Reuben Foster for allegations pertaining to domestic violence. He'll join Mason Foster in the middle of Washington's defense.

    The two inside linebackers have the quickness to cover the length of the field. They're often able to take down their target upon initial contact, rarely whiffing in open space.

    Safety Landon Collins, who inked a lucrative six-year deal this offseason, will bring short-area coverage and set the tone on the back end for this unit. Cornerback Josh Norman hasn't performed at an elite level since 2016, but he's still a solid component to the pass defense.

    The coaching staff has to figure out who starts next to Collins at safety and develop 2017 third-rounder Fabian Moreau into a consistent contributor, whether it's in the slot or on the perimeter.

9. Denver Broncos

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    Denver Broncos edge-rusher Von Miller
    Denver Broncos edge-rusher Von MillerJohn Hefti/Associated Press

    2018 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 13

    2018 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 22

    Prior to taking over as as Broncos head coach in January, Vic Fangio called plays in Chicago for the No. 1 scoring defense in 2018. Through four years, he molded the Bears' talent into an elite group. The unit ranked among the top 10 in both yards and points allowed even prior to Khalil Mack's arrival last season.

    Now, Fangio will oversee a defense with a star edge-rusher and a rising talent on the opposite side. Linebackers Von Miller and Bradley Chubb combined for 26.5 sacks last season. If the 2018 first-rounder replicates his rookie campaign, the Broncos may have the top pass-rushing duo in the league.

    Although it's easy to overlook them, interior defensive linemen Derek Wolfe and Adam Gotsis have crucial roles in the trenches. They take on initial blocks, which allows Miller and Chubb to come around the corner in one-on-one situations or take an open pathway to the quarterback.

    In the middle of the field, Todd Davis has developed into a solid starting linebacker. Last season, he led the team in solo tackles (80), broke up seven passes and returned an interception for a score. Josey Jewell, a 2018 fourth-rounder, will have an opportunity to claim a full-time first-unit spot following Brandon Marshall's departure to Oakland.

    This offseason, Denver made two under-the-radar signings to bolster its defense. Kareem Jackson could line up at safety or cover the perimeter. Bryce Callahan became a solid slot defender under Fangio's watch in Chicago, which suggests he'll man the same position with the Broncos.

    Barring a trade, Chris Harris Jr. is the top cover man on the roster. Other than inside linebacker and strong safety, the Broncos won't have many contested position battles across the defense. There's a shining star and multiple ascending playmakers on that side of the ball. 

8. Dallas Cowboys

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    Dallas Cowboys defensive end Demarcus Lawrence
    Dallas Cowboys defensive end Demarcus LawrenceRon Jenkins/Associated Press

    2018 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 6

    2018 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 7

    The Dallas Cowboys have continuity with defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli and defensive backs coach Kris Richard designing the game plans. That's the separation between this club and the Broncos at No. 9.

    The Cowboys kept their defensive personnel intact this offseason. They signed Demarcus Lawrence to a five-year, $105 million extension and added another pass-rusher, Robert Quinn, via a trade with the Dolphins. Quinn is going into his age-29 season, but he proved capable of pressuring the pocket with 6.5 sacks last year.

    Dallas has a budding off-ball linebacker tandem featuring Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith. Both are reliable tacklers in any situation—down in the box or on the chase. More importantly, they have coverage skills to neutralize dynamic receiving tight ends and pass-catchers out of the backfield.

    The Cowboys' depth at cornerback allows them to mix and match assignments week to week. Byron Jones, Chidobe Awuzie and Anthony Brown saw most of the action last year, but Jourdan Lewis could take on a prominent role in case of an injury. The Michigan product logged 10 pass breakups and one interception as a rookie in 2017.

    Dallas' inability to force interceptions knocks this unit down a few notches. Although picks can be a bit fluky, the Cowboys haven't logged more than 10 interceptions in a single season over the last four years. The group needs a ball hawk in the secondary.

7. Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Calais Campbell
    Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Calais CampbellMark Brown Photos LLC/Getty Images

    2018 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 4

    2018 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 5

    The Jacksonville Jaguars released three starting defenders this offseason and still rank seventh leaguewide because of their depth.

    The front office let go of interior tackle Malik Jackson along with safeties Tashaun Gipson and Barry Church. Defensive tackle Taven Bryan, the team's 2018 first-rounder, could see an uptick in snaps as a result. Safety Ronnie Harrison also made a handful of impact plays as a rookie, logging three pass breakups, a sack and an interception.

    The Jaguars selected Josh Allen with the seventh overall pick in this year's draft. The explosive edge-rusher finished his senior season at Kentucky with 17 sacks. If he's able to contribute right away, Jacksonville would have a third pass-rusher along with Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue, the dominant duo on the ends.

    Behind the aggressive defensive line, linebackers Telvin Smith and Myles Jack cover ground and space in passing situations.

    On the back end, star cornerback Jalen Ramsey can shut down half the field. He's one of the league's elite cover men and can match up with wide receivers one-on-one. A.J. Bouye didn't have his best year in 2018, recording only one interception and eight pass breakups, but he'd be a No. 1 cornerback on most rosters based on his resume. The Pro Bowler has 13 interceptions and 58 pass breakups over the last five years.

    The Jaguars fall outside the top five because of a question mark at free safety following Gipson's departure. D.J. Hayden also has to stay healthy to cover the slot.

6. New England Patriots

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    New England Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore
    New England Patriots cornerback Stephon GilmoreMaddie Meyer/Getty Images

    2018 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 7

    2018 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 21

    In 2018, the New England Patriots defense bent but didn't break in the red zone. 

    When this group needs a stop on the fourth down, it's able to force a turnover. In 2018, opposing offenses converted only 37.5 percent of those crucial scenarios against the Patriots, which ranked second in the league behind the Jaguars.

    Last year, the Patriots were tied with the Giants for the second-fewest sacks leaguewide (30). Defensive end Trey Flowers' decision to sign with the Lions this offseason exacerbated that existing issue.

    The Patriots acquired defensive end Michael Bennett from the Eagles to bolster their pocket pressure. Rookie third-rounder Chase Winovich could have a rotational role on the edge, too. The Michigan product recorded 34.5 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks across his final two collegiate seasons.

    The Patriots have incredible depth at safety and cornerback behind All-Pro Stephon Gilmore. Three reserve defensive backsDuron Harmon, Jonathan Jones and J.C. Jacksonlogged at least three interceptions last season. None of them played more than 61 percent of the defensive snaps in 2018. New England also selected cover man Joejuan Williams out of Vanderbilt in the second round of this year's draft. He had a breakout senior year with four picks and 13 pass breakups.

    The Patriots don't have a star-studded linebacker group, but they do have a consistent trio in Dont'a Hightower, Elandon Roberts and Kyle Van Noy.

    There's one minor issue up front. Like Flowers, run-stuffing nose tackle Malcom Brown hit the free-agent market. He signed with the Saints. As a result, opposing teams should consider running through the middle of the Patriots defense.

5. Tennessee Titans

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    Tennessee Titans safety Kevin Byard
    Tennessee Titans safety Kevin ByardWesley Hitt/Getty Images

    2018 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 3

    2018 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 8

    In 2018, Mike Vrabel accepted the Tennessee Titans head coaching job and turned the defense into one of the NFL's best. For the first time since 2011, the club ranked among the top 10 in points allowed. The coaching staff's creative approach to generating a pass rush puts this group above the Patriots at No. 5.

    Jayon Brown came out of UCLA with a reputation for utilizing his quickness to cover the length of the field and drop into coverage. In Tennessee, he's flashed his ability to play the passing lanes, but the former Bruin can also come downhill to push the pocket. The versatile defender recorded six sacks, six pass breakups and an interception returned for a touchdown last year.

    Although he's in the latter stages of his career, 32-year-old linebacker Wesley Woodyard still chases down ball-carriers and takes the appropriate angles for crucial stops. In 2018, the 11-year veteran led the Titans in solo tackles (69) and logged 4.5 sacks.

    The inside linebackers complement interior pass-rusher Jurrell Casey, who led the Titans in sacks with seven in 2018. He's earned a Pro Bowl invite in every year since 2015.

    The Titans have two high-end starters at cornerback and an elite safety. Malcolm Butler brings physicality on the perimeter to complement Adoree' Jackson's ability to shadow quick-twitch athletic wideouts on the opposite side. Kevin Byard is an All-Pro defender who's logged the most interceptions leaguewide over the past two seasons.

    Tennessee's mix of edge-rushers raises some eyebrows, though. Kamalei Correa had some bright moments last year, but he's played in a backup role since the Ravens selected him 42nd overall in the 2016 draft. This offseason, the Titans signed 37-year-old defensive end Cameron Wake, who's close to the end of his career.

    Linebacker Harold Landry put together a decent rookie season with 4.5 sacks, but the coaching staff will likely depend on him in an expanded role. It looks like Vrabel will implement a steady rotation at the position.

4. Los Angeles Chargers

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    Los Angeles Chargers safety Derwin James
    Los Angeles Chargers safety Derwin JamesKelvin Kuo/Associated Press

    2018 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 8

    2018 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 9

    The Los Angeles Chargers mustered an unimpressive 38 sacks in 2018, but top pass-rusher Joey Bosa suited up for only seven contests and finished with 5.5 sacks. In his first two seasons, he tallied 10.5 and 12.5, respectively. Assuming the three-year veteran comes into 2019 healthy, this unit should rank among the top 10 in sacks.

    Along with two-time Pro Bowler Melvin Ingram, several players helped generate pocket pressure last season, including Isaac Rochell, Darius Philon, Uchenna Nwosu, Damion Square and Derwin James. 

    As a rookie, James became an All-Pro, logging 75 solo tackles, 13 pass breakups, 3.5 sacks and three interceptions. He can affect the game at every level of the defense. The Florida State product knows how to pick his spots when targeting the quarterback, tracks ball-carriers in run support, covers tight ends on intermediate routes and possesses enough range to play deep safety. 

    The linebacker corps has a mix of veteran experience and developing talent that flashed in stretches last year. The front office re-signed Denzel Perryman and added Thomas Davis to balance the youth with Nwosu, Kyzir White and Jatavis Brown. 

    When healthy, Perryman and Thomas are serviceable defenders who can sniff out the run. White and Brown have the ability to play in space. Nwosu knows how to reach the quarterback.

    The Chargers have a two-time Pro Bowler in Casey Hayward on the perimeter. While the 29-year-old didn't have an interception in 2018, his 20 career interceptions suggest he should bounce back this season. Desmond King has developed into one of better slot defenders in the league, logging 10 pass breakups and three picks last year.

    Similar to the Titans at No. 5, the Chargers can bring pressure from anywhere on the field, but this unit has high-level productivity with Ingram and Bosa on the edge. The Chargers also selected Jerry Tillery, a penetrating interior lineman, in the first round and Nasir Adderley, a ball-hawking safety, in the second round. Both should be able to contribute at open positions right away.

3. Minnesota Vikings

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    Minnesota Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter
    Minnesota Vikings defensive end Danielle HunterBruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press

    2018 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 9

    2018 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 4

    We're down to splitting hairs between defensive units, but the Minnesota Vikings have more proven talent than the Chargers across all three levels of the defense and more depth in the secondary.

    Last year, Minnesota tied Chicago in sacks with 50, the league's third-best total. Defensive end Danielle Hunter had a strong campaign as the team's lead pass-rusher, logging a career-high 14.5 sacks. He accomplished the feat without Everson Griffen on the opposite end for a handful of games. The three-time Pro Bowler took time away from the field to address a mental health issue but still recorded 5.5 sacks in 11 appearances.

    We often overlook off-ball linebackers because they don't accumulate the most talked-about defensive stats—interceptions and sacks—but Eric Kendricks is an upper-echelon player at the position.

    Kendricks splits through defenders for stops in run defense, covers the length of the field, looks smooth in his backpedal to defend the pass and makes plays on the ball. The four-year veteran broke up seven passes and picked two off in 2018.

    It's no surprise the Vikings had the stingiest pass defense in terms of touchdowns allowed last year. Head coach Mike Zimmer wants to see lead cornerback Xavier Rhodes play better, but there's great depth at the position going into the season.

    The Vikings have five cornerbacks who can start in any given game: Rhodes, Trae Waynes, Mackensie Alexander, Mike Hughes and Holton Hill. If a starter suffers an injury or struggles, the coaching staff can plug in an alternative.

    Assuming Hughes fully recovers from a torn ACL and Hill avoids further suspensions, both young cornerbacks should have roles in the upcoming season. They flashed in coverage last year, combining for two interceptions and 10 pass breakups.

    Alongside All-Pro safety Harrison Smith, four-year veteran Anthony Harris emerged as a playmaker, logging six pass breakups and three interceptions in 2018.

    Minnesota has ranked among the top 10 in both yards and points allowed in each of the last three seasons. With Zimmer and defensive coordinator George Edwards still in their respective positions, there's little reason to believe this group will take a step backward in 2019.

2. Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt
    Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker T.J. WattJoe Sargent/Getty Images

    2018 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 16

    2018 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 6

    The pass rush separates Nos. 2 and 3. While the Vikings have a budding star in Hunter on the edge, the Pittsburgh Steelers can attack the pocket from a variety of angles with high-level players.

    This unit led the league in sacks each of the past two years (56 and 52, respectively).

    In 2018, outside linebacker T.J. Watt broke out with a team-high 13 sacks. Defensive end Cameron Heyward has been a consistent threat on the interior for most of his career, but he's cranked the pressure up as of late, logging 20 sacks over the past two seasons. Nose tackle Javon Hargrave also added 6.5 sacks last year.

    Throw in edge-rusher Bud Dupree's handful of sacks every year, Vince Williams' pressure from the inside linebacker spot and defensive end Stephon Tuitt's contributions, and the Steelers can swarm quarterbacks. That overwhelming amount of pressure helps the secondary, too.

    The Steelers pass defense had its lapses in the past, but it should be much-improved moving forward. This offseason, Pittsburgh inked cornerback Steven Nelson to a three-year deal following the best season of his career in Kansas City. He'll play opposite Joe Haden, who had a solid 2018 campaign.

    Although Artie Burns has been a disappointment because of his first-round billing and spotty production, Mike Hilton, Cameron Sutton and rookie third-rounder Justin Layne will provide depth at cornerback.

    Sean Davis has the range to cover deep, and fellow safety Terrell Edmunds should continue to develop in his sophomore season. Moreover, head coach Mike Tomlin thinks he has enough versatility among the cornerbacks if he feels the need to reconfigure personnel groupings in the secondary. 

    General manager Kevin Colbert also made an aggressive move to improve coverage in the middle of the field, trading up to select linebacker Devin Bush 10th overall. The Michigan product can provide the speed and coverage the defense lacks with Ryan Shazier still recovering from a spinal injury.

    Opposing quarterbacks will be hard-pressed to find time in the pocket and open windows downfield.

1. Chicago Bears

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    Chicago Bears edge-rusher Khalil Mack and linebacker Roquan Smith
    Chicago Bears edge-rusher Khalil Mack and linebacker Roquan SmithStacy Revere/Getty Images

    2018 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 1

    2018 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 3

    The NFL's best defensive unit features multiple All-Pro defenders, a stout run defense, a stingy secondary, star power and ascending talent at multiple positions.

    The Bears defense came roaring into the 2018 campaign and also finished on a strong note. General manager Ryan Pace acquired edge-rusher Khalil Mack in September, and he pushed a top-10 unit over the top.

    Chicago's intense pass rush forced a lot of errant throws. The Bears led the league in interceptions (27). With Mack on the edge and Akiem Hicks on the inside, the defense had a consistent pocket-pushing combination that put quarterbacks on notice.

    Pace also hit on his 2018 first-rounder Roquan Smith, who's capable of applying pressure up front and dropping back in coverage. He led the team in solo tackles (89), broke up five passes, had five sacks and snagged an interception as a rookie.

    The Bears have two emerging stars in the secondary: cornerback Kyle Fuller and safety Eddie Jackson. They're both coming off All-Pro seasons, accounting for a combined 13 interceptions and 36 pass breakups. Cornerback Prince Amukamara also had one of his better seasons with three picks and 12 passes defensed.

    Chicago allowed two solid starters, safety Adrian Amos and nickelback Bryce Callahan, walk in free agency. Pro Bowler Ha Ha Clinton-Dix will replace the former, while serviceable cover man Buster Skrine will take over the slot.

    The Bears have a new defensive coordinator, as Chuck Pagano is taking over for Vic Fangio, who left to become head coach of the Broncos. Pagano has extensive experience as a secondary coach, and he also served as the Ravens' defensive coordinator in 2011. His expertise should help compensate for the losses of Amos and Callahan.

    Pagano's 2011 Ravens ranked third in both yards and points allowed. He knows how to utilize high-level talent to stifle offenses. As a result, the Bears defense—loaded with star power and budding playmakers—is the NFL's best heading into the 2019 season.