Ranking the NFL's Top 7 Defenses Heading into 2020

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistAugust 13, 2020

Ranking the NFL's Top 7 Defenses Heading into 2020

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    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    While the spotlight will always shine on the high-profile quarterbacks and offensive stars who put up big stats, NFL defenses deserve just as much attention for the unenviable task of keeping up with players like Patrick Mahomes. 

    Some might argue defenses don't win championships anymore, but the retooled Kansas City Chiefs unit gave Mahomes and Co. a huge assist last season en route to a championship. 

    Looking ahead, the best defenses had proven production in 2019, have superstar names and likely made key additions. In today's league, the pass rush—with its ability to disrupt an offense's timing—is king. That played the biggest factor in formulating this list, along with versatility and the quality of each team's defensive backs.

    Notable greats from a season ago that lost droves of talent such as the New England Patriots (losses include Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins Sr.) didn't make the cut. 

    These are the top seven defenses heading into the 2020 season.                 

7. New Orleans Saints

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    A Drew Brees-led offense naturally gets the spotlight, but he won't make a ton of noise in a packed NFC without a big assist from the New Orleans Saints defense. 

    Last year, the Saints only allowed 21.3 points per game and posted 51 sacks (third leaguewide), 13 interceptions and 11 forced fumbles. Demario Davis quietly recorded 111 tackles, and edge-rusher Cameron Jordan remains one of the NFL's best players. He recorded the third-most sacks last year with 15.5 and received a grade of 87.6 from Pro Football Focus. 

    It doesn't hurt to mention the Saints' offseason additions either. They swapped Vonn Bell for veteran Malcolm Jenkins, a do-it-all safety who can bang against the run or match up well with tight ends. He's joining a versatile secondary that includes Marcus Williams, P.J. Williams and C.J. Gardner-Johnson.

    And the pass rush should get more of 2018 No. 14 pick Marcus Davenport, who has battled injuries. He has not yet played more than 50 percent of his team's defensive snaps.

    Add in third-round pass-rusher Zack Baun, and the Saints have a nice mixture of past production and big upside, with their unit able to withstand a large number of pass attempts as opposing offenses try to keep up with Brees.                     

6. Los Angeles Chargers

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    The Los Angeles Chargers probably aren't the first team that comes to mind when talking about top defenses. 

    But the pass rush rules all. 

    Even though the team only had five wins in 2019, Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram are one of the best pass-rushing duos in the league. Bosa put up 11.5 sacks last year, and Ingram had seven over 13 games.

    The unit only mustered 30 total (fifth-fewest) with 11 interceptions and surrendered 21.6 points per game. Los Angeles worked to better surround the star duo, though. 

    Linval Joseph is coming off a 71.2 PFF-graded performance on the interior of the line, and 2020 first-round pick Kenneth Murray is the type of speedy modern linebacker who can do it all and be quicker to react when an offense's timing breaks down thanks to Bosa and Ingram. 

    The secondary didn't go unaddressed either. Veteran Chris Harris Jr. arrived, and he only allowed 49 catches on 73 targets in 2019. Most important of all, elite safety Derwin James—who received a 88.3 PFF grade as an All-Pro rookie in 2018—should be able to play more than the five games he appeared in last season. 

    James' presence alone could make this a top-10 defense, though the organization's additions seal the big leap.                                                   

5. Denver Broncos

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    The Denver Broncos are a budding defensive powerhouse in the AFC West. 

    Von Miller is one of the greats at getting after the passer, recording eight sacks last year after five consecutive campaigns of 10 or more. Bradley Chubb, a first-round pick in 2018, is getting there too. He had 12 sacks in his rookie season, though he played in just four games last year because of a torn ACL. 

    Two critical items help explain why a leap is on the way. One, the unit had some of the worst injury luck last season. Two, 2020 is the team's second year in head coach Vic Fangio's scheme, which should mean better play. 

    Now the additions. Corner A.J. Bouye is joining the secondary, and the team got a steal when it gave up only a seventh-round pick for Jurrell Casey, an interior disruptor with five or more sacks in each of the last seven campaigns. 

    Then there's franchised safety Justin Simmons, who received a grade of 90.7 from PFF grade last year and recorded 15 pass breakups and four interceptions while allowing a 52.8 percent completion rate in coverage. The defense only permitted 19.8 points per game in 2019 and was upgraded. It should be more consistent in 2020.          

4. San Francisco 49ers

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    Gregory Payan/Associated Press

    Defense was a big part of the reason the San Francisco 49ers were able to astonish en route to winning 13 games in 2019 after having just four victories the year prior. 

    The 49ers deployed heavy zones and didn't need to send extra guys often to create pressure.

    Credit Nick Bosa (nine sacks), Dee Ford (6.5 over 11 games) and Arik Armstead (10). Things were so good the front office was comfortable trading DeForest Buckner (7.5 sacks) for a first-round selection (used on defensive lineman Javon Kinlaw). 

    The 49ers, who ranked second in total defense in 2019, should play similarly to the unit that permitted the eighth-fewest points per game (19.4) and tallied 48 sacks, 12 interceptions and 23 forced fumbles. 

    Consistency is a big reason why. Fred Warner, who had 118 tackles last year, still headlines the linebacker unit. Richard Sherman is leading the secondary.

    And Kinlaw should flourish given the surrounding talent.

    The scheme that brings it all together on a weekly basis will have the 49ers near the top again.        

3. Chicago Bears

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    D. Ross Cameron/Associated Press

    The Chicago Bears regressed defensively in 2019, yet it's telling the unit only allowed 18.6 points per game, the fourth-best mark in the league. 

    Part of the issue was the absence of elite defensive lineman Akiem Hicks, the elite defensive lineman who had a PFF grade of 91.7 in 2018 before only appeared in five games last season because of an elbow injury. 

    Despite this, the Bears had 32 sacks, 10 interceptions and 12 forced fumbles. Khalil Mack notched 8.5 sacks, and Roquan Smith surpassed the 100-tackle mark. Chicago also added Robert Quinn to rush off the edge opposite Mack after he recorded 11.5 sacks with the Dallas Cowboys in 2019. 

    The secondary, while not as high-profile as the rest of the unit, can't be underestimated either. The unit finished ninth last year. Kyle Fuller is a good No. 1 corner, No. 50 overall pick Jaylon Johnson should see considerable playing time and Eddie Jackson is one of the rangiest playmaking safeties in the game. 

    Most units would flirt with top-10 status merely because of the Mack-Hicks tandem. Adding Quinn in a tight, productive scheme should mean the Bears rank among the NFL's best yet again.          

2. Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Don Wright/Associated Press

    The Pittsburgh Steelers didn't have Ben Roethlisberger for most of last season, but the solid defense was there, hence the .500 record. 

    T.J. Watt is the centerpiece, and he recorded 14.5 sacks, two interceptions and eight forced fumbles and received a 91.3 grade from PFF last year. Pittsburgh will have most of the same unit that allowed just 18.9 points per game (fifth-fewest) and recorded 54 sacks (most in the NFL), 20 picks (second) and 22 forced fumbles. 

    Minkah Fitzpatrick—who came over in a trade with the Miami Dolphins in September—will be available for a full season after a first-team All-Pro nod. Joe Haden (seven interceptions, 17 pass breakups) will be at corner. Bud Dupree is coming off a career year with 11.5 sacks, and Cameron Heyward had nine sacks and a 91.5 PFF grade in 2019.     

    Don't forget Devin Bush, who led the team with 109 tackles as a contender for Defensive Rookie of the Year.

    Typically, offseason additions play a large role in projections for defensive units. But Pittsburgh's blend of superstar talent and immense young upside means the Steelers have one of the best defenses in the league.

1. Baltimore Ravens

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    The Baltimore Ravens didn't take the foot off the pedal this offseason despite finishing with the fourth-ranked defense in 2019 amid notable injury setbacks. 

    A blitz-happy scheme overloaded with defensive backs helped the Ravens to a third-ranked scoring defense (17.6 points allowed per game). The team allowed 20 or more points just five times. 

    Baltimore only recorded 37 sacks in 2019, but in March, it traded for Calais Campbell, who had 6.5 sacks and a grade of 90.3 from PFF. They also signed Derek Wolfe in free agency, adding a player who recorded seven sacks last season. And 28th overall pick Patrick Queen was one of the best linebackers in this year's class and brings modern athleticism to the unit. 

    Those are just the new faces. 

    Matthew Judon is returning on the franchise tag after recording 9.5 sacks. Marcus Peters had three pick-sixes over 10 games. Earl Thomas finished fifth on the team in tackles and had two picks. Marlon Humphrey had three picks. And corner Tavon Young is back after missing all of last season with a neck injury. 

    With Baltimore's defensive scheme and production already strong, the front office made an elite unit even better for 2020.