Power Ranking Every NFL Defense After the 2021 Draft

Alex KayContributor IMay 13, 2021

Power Ranking Every NFL Defense After the 2021 Draft

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    Steve Luciano/Associated Press

    A good defense is the best offense.

    Defense wins championships.

    There are plenty of tropes related to how important a quality defense is, but all are for a good reason. Teams boasting the best defenses tend to be quite successful in the NFL, with all but one of the top-nine total defenses making the postseason field last year.

    It's time to project how each team's defense will fare in 2021. A variety of factors were included in these rankings, including returning personnel, how these defenses performed in recent years, free agency acquisitions and the incoming draft class.

    With that in mind, here are the latest power rankings in order from the league’s worst defenses to the best the NFL has to offer:

32. Houston Texans

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    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    2020 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 30

    2020 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 27

    The Houston Texans are in rough shape.

    Not only is there an uncertain situation surrounding franchise quarterback Deshaun Watson—who currently has 22 civil lawsuits against him stemming from allegations of misconduct during message therapy sessions—but the team also has a dearth of talent across the rest of the roster.

    To make matters worse, the Texans did not have any early draft picks this year after mortgaging their future for left tackle Laremy Tunsil. With the picks Houston did have, it mostly focused on offense.

    The Texans made a trio of offensive picks to start their draft and didn’t address defense until the fifth round when it took linebacker Garret Wallow at No. 170. The club also acquired nose tackle Ryan Lopez a round later at No. 195, a player that could wind up seeing the field right away for this depleted team.

    Houston didn’t acquire much veteran talent this offseason either, with the most notable signings including a pair of linebackers in Jordan Jenkins and Kevin Pierre-Louis, as well as cornerback Terrance Mitchell. Given the club parted ways with star pass-rusher J.J. Watt, things are looking quite bleak for this club in 2021.

31. Detroit Lions

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    Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press

    2020 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 32

    2020 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 32

    The Detroit Lions were, by most metrics, the worst defensive team in the NFL last year and they probably won’t be much better this coming season. The team hired a new general manager in Brad Holmes and head coach in Dan Campbell, a duo that will be tasked with rebuilding this organization from the ground up over the next few seasons.

    Detroit, which recently parted ways with several seasoned vets—a series of transactions that was headlined by trading longtime quarterback Matthew Stafford to the Rams for Jared Goff—will be rather short-handed defensively in 2021. The club didn’t ink many experienced players in free agency, with budget signings of Alex Anzalone, Charles Harris and Quinton Dunbar being the most notable of the bunch.

    This rebuilding defense—led by first-time coordinator Aaron Glenn—will be aided by a pair of third-round picks in defensive tackle Alim McNeill and cornerback Ifeatu Melifonwu, but there isn’t much more help on the way in terms of impact rookies.

30. Atlanta Falcons

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    Kevin Sabitus/Associated Press

    2020 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 19

    2020 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 29

    The Atlanta Falcons defense was toasted often last year, blowing three leads of 16 or more points and losing four games in which they squandered a fourth quarter advantage.

    Because of their poor pass rush and secondary—which was hardly addressed in free agency outside of cheap signings like Erik Harris and Barkevious Mingo—some experts believed that the Falcons would trade down from No. 4 in exchange for a haul of draft capital, selections the club could have used to improve these problem areas.

    Atlanta instead stayed put and took a transcendent tight end prospect in Kyle Pitts. For all his strengths, the Florida product unfortunately won’t be of much assistance to this much-maligned defense.

    The Falcons didn’t completely ignore their defense during the draft, as they picked up a quality safety in Richie Grant at No. 40 overall and snagged cornerback Darren Hall at No. 114. The pass rush still needs some work, but Atlanta did take a pair of fifth-round prospects to bolster the edge in Ta'Quon Graham and Adetokunbo Ogundeji.

29. New York Jets

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    John Minchillo/Associated Press

    2020 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 26

    2020 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 24

    The New York Jets defense left a lot to be desired in 2020 and it’s going to be an uphill battle for this group to get to a competitive level next season.

    Even though the club hired Robert Saleh—best known for being the architect of an elite San Francisco defense that helped get the team to a Super Bowl two years ago—to be its head coach, New York has mostly prioritized offensive improvements this offseason.

    The Jets didn’t start drafting defenders until fifth round, when they picked linebacker Jamien Sherwood at No. 146 and nickel cornerback Michael Carter II at No. 154.

    Gang Green’s defensive free-agency acquisitions will be more impactful than this rookie class, as the team splurged on a great pass-rusher in Carl Lawson and got a fantastic nose tackle in Sheldon Rankins. The Jets also inked safety Lamarcus Joyner and linebacker Jarrad Davis, adding more veterans who can play key roles on this relatively young roster.

28. Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    2020 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 31

    2020 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 31

    A new era has begun for the Jacksonville Jaguars, who made a splash by hiring collegiate legend Urban Meyer to be their head coach.

    While there is plenty of upside with the Jags—who may have finally found a franchise quarterback in No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence—their defense still has lots of room to improve. Only the Lions were worse in terms of points and yards allowed last year, but Jacksonville at least had plenty of cap space to splurge on improvements this offseason.

    Although the team may have overpaid a bit for its top free agents, it will feature a much better secondary in 2021 thanks to the additions of cornerback Shaquill Griffin and safety Rayshawn Jenkins. The defensive line received a significant boost with the signing of defensive tackle Roy Robertson-Harris as well.

    The Jaguars draft class had several early defensive picks too, with cornerback Tyson Campbell being the team’s strongest pickup at No. 33. Safety Andre Cisco (No. 65), defensive tackle Jay Tufele (No. 106) and defensive end Jordan Smith (No. 121) could all play prominent roles as well this year.

27. Philadelphia Eagles

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    2020 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 20

    2020 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 19

    The Philadelphia Eagles were mired by salary cap issues this offseason. These financial woes forced the organization to part ways with numerous players and left it with little cash on hand to sign new ones.

    The front office made the most of this unfortunate situation by inking veterans like safety Anthony Harris and linebacker Eric Wilson to below-market deals. Philadelphia should also get early contributions from some draft picks such as third-round defensive tackle Milton Williams and fourth-round cornerback Zech McPhearson.

    The Eagles still have plenty of work to do on this side of the ball under new head coach Nick Sirianni. He tapped Jonathan Gannon as defensive coordinator after a successful stint as Indianapolis’ safety and cornerbacks coach, a hire that should maximize the talents of Philly’s secondary.

    It would still be a stretch to predict the Eagles to be a good defensive team in 2021, as there are too many holes that the team just couldn’t afford to fill.  

26. Cincinnati Bengals

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    Zach Bolinger/Associated Press

    2020 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 22

    2020 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 26

    The Cincinnati Bengals are quickly becoming one of the more exciting up-and-coming teams in the NFL, but that status is largely a product of their exciting offense.

    The club embraced this offensive renaissance with its first two draft picks—getting quarterback Joe Burrow and elite receiving prospect in Ja’Marr Chase at No. 5 and better protection with offensive lineman Jackson Carman at No. 46—but did switch focus to defense with its next set of selections.

    The Bengals scored a pair of edge-rushers in Joseph Ossai and Cameron Sample, taking them at No. 69 and No. 111, respectively. Cincy didn’t do too much to improve the defense outside of these picks, with most of their free-agent signings being used to replace departed players.

    The team’s pass rush took a hit when Carl Lawson signed with the Jets. The Bengals came to terms with Trey Hendrickson—for the same average annual value that New York paid Lawson—to fill that void. They also lost cornerback William Jackson to Washington, picking up an adequate replacement in Mike Hilton.

    Cornerback Chidobe Awuzie and defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi were Cincinnati’s other key signings this offseason, but there still likely isn’t enough talent here to become even a league average defense.

25. Las Vegas Raiders

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    2020 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 30

    2020 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 25

    The Las Vegas Raiders struggled to stop opponents last year and worked relentlessly to address their defensive woes this offseason.

    The club made a handful of moves to shore up the most concerning areas of the roster. The biggest was signing a legitimate pass-rusher in Yannick Ngakoue, an acquisition that will greatly improve a unit that recorded just 21 sacks last season.

    Vegas also secured several other useful veterans in cornerback Casey Hayward, defensive end Solomon Thomas and defensive tackle Quinton Jefferson.  

    It doesn’t hurt that the Raiders scored one of the biggest draft heists in safety Trevon Moehrig—a prospect many considered to be the top safety and worthy of a first-round pick—at No. 43. The team also grabbed a pair of third-rounders who should contribute this year in defensive end Malcolm Koonce and defensive back Divine Deablo.

    There is plenty of upside to this Vegas defense now, but it remains to be seen if new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley can put it all together and significantly improve things in 2021.

24. Dallas Cowboys

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    2020 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 28

    2020 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 23

    The Dallas Cowboys are coming off a disappointing 2020 campaign and only so much can be blamed on a season-ending injury to quarterback Dak Prescott. The defense was a mess last year, but help is on the way after the team made it a top priority to improve in that department this offseason.

    No player will help turn things around in Dallas more than first-round pick Micah Parsons, the Penn State linebacker who significantly raises the ceiling of this defense. Parsons—already a sizable favorite to win the Defensive Rookie of the Year award—was called the “Saquon Barkley” of linebackers by one analyst and will be making plays all over the field for the Cowboys.

    Not only did the organization invest the No. 12 overall pick into the defense, but also went with defensive prospects with each of its next five picks, including four more in the top-100. Cornerback Kelvin Joseph (No. 44), defensive tackle Osa Odighizuwa (No. 75), defensive end Chauncey Golston (No. 84) and cornerback Nahshon Wright (No. 99) should all help turn this squad around in 2021.

    There will be some veteran free agents pitching in as well, a group that includes cornerback Jourdan Lewis, edge-rusher Tarell Basham and safety Keanu Neal. This defense should look much different this coming season, but it still may not be enough to push Dallas into the upper echelon just yet.

23. Carolina Panthers

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    2020 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 18

    2020 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 18

    The Carolina Panthers boasted a bland and average defense last year and it’s looking to be more of the same in 2021.

    While the front office decided to go with cornerback Jaycee Horn at No. 8 overall—making him the first defensive back chosen in the draft—it didn’t address defense again until the fifth round, grabbing defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon and cornerback Keith Taylor Jr.

    There isn’t much to get excited about regarding the free agency crop either, with defensive end Morgan Fox, cornerback A.J. Bouye, linebacker Denzel Perryman and defensive tackle DaQuan Jones being the most significant of the team’s signings.

    While Horn and Bouye will give Carolina a strong cornerback pairing, the safety and interior defensive line spots leave much to be desired here. Until the Panthers can unearth a bit more talent at these positions, they will not boast an above-average defense.

22. Tennessee Titans

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    2020 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 24

    2020 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 28

    After ranking amongst the worst defenses in the league last year, the Tennessee Titans knew they had to improve on this side of the ball to realistically contend.

    The organization deserves credit for completely revamping some of their most problematic areas this offseason. It overhauled the cornerback position after cutting 2020 starters Adoree’ Jackson and Malcolm Butler, signing Janoris Jenkins and using a first-round pick on Caleb Farley to replace them. The team also added one of the best nickelbacks in the class when it selected Elijah Molden in the third round.

    The Titans also needed to work on their edge-rushing capabilities, accomplishing the goal by paying top dollar for Bud Dupree, getting a proven veteran in Denico Autry and taking Rashad Weaver at No. 135 overall.

    There is still some work to be done here—most notably at the safety position—but Tennessee is poised for a significant improvement this coming campaign.

21. Seattle Seahawks

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    Mark Tenally/Associated Press

    2020 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 15

    2020 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 22

    The Seattle Seahawks started off the 2020 season with one of the most porous defenses in the NFL, but were able to right the ship and ultimately finished near the middle of the pack.

    If the Seahawks can pick up where they left off, they won’t be in bad shape, but there won’t be many new faces on this roster. The team only had three picks in the 2021 draft, but used just one—the No. 137 overall pick—on a defensive prospect in the form of cornerback Tre Brown.

    Seattle did lose its top cornerback in Shaquill Griffin, but adequately replaced him by signing Akhello Witherspoon away from the NFC West rival Rams. It also bolstered the pass rush by inking Kerry Hyder Jr. following his breakout year with another divisional rival, the 49ers.

    This team leans on its offense to produce far more now than it ever did during the “Legion of Boom” era, but the Seattle defense at least won’t be a major liability this year.

20. Los Angeles Chargers

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    Peter Joneleit/Associated Press

    2020 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 23

    2018 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 10

    The Los Angeles Chargers have one of the more promising young offenses in the league thanks to a breakout performance from rookie quarterback Justin Herbert. Despite the signal-caller’s incredible potential, the organization decided to make a defensive hire for to fill its vacant head coach.

    The Bolts handed over the reins to Brandon Staley—the mastermind behind the Rams’ top-ranked defense—which reflects their desire to improve drastically on that side of the ball.

    While almost all of LA’s free-agency splurges were focused on offense, the team got tremendous value out of its draft selections. The Chargers took Asante Samuel Jr.—a stud corner with first-round talent who slipped due to concerns about his size—at No. 47 overall, then added a rotational edge-rusher in Chris Rumph at No. 118.

    More importantly, Los Angeles will be getting All-Pro safety Derwin James back after a torn meniscus forced him to miss the entire 2020 campaign. If star pass-rusher Joey Bosa can also stay healthy—he’s failed to start 16 games over the last three seasons—this defense should improve tremendously.

19. Green Bay Packers

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    2020 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 13

    2020 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 9

    Aaron Rodgers made shockwaves last month when the reigning MVP informed the Green Bay Packers that he doesn’t want to return to the team for the 2021 campaign. The team’s defensive improvements won’t amount to much next year unless it can find a way to mend fences with the future Hall of Famer.

    The most pressing need for the Packers this offseason was at the cornerback position after Kevin King was exposed in the NFC Championship Game. While Green Bay did retain King on a one-year deal, it likely won’t have to rely heavily on the 26-year-old anymore. The club used the No. 29 overall pick on cornerback Eric Stokes, a top-flight prospect who looks ready to start across from Jaire Alexander right away.

    While the rest of Green Bay’s top picks patched up a few minor holes on offense, the team did select a potential rotational nose tackle in Tedarrell Slaton in the fifth round. The Packers probably won’t be fielding one of the league’s best defenses this year, but the addition of Stokes may be enough to get them to a Super Bowl so long as Rodgers is back in the fold.

18. Kansas City Chiefs

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    Doug Murray/Associated Press

    2020 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 10

    2020 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 16

    The Kansas City Chiefs achieved their primary goal this offseason of completely overhauling a shoddy offensive line, a flaw that wound up costing them a second consecutive Super Bowl championship.

    The Chiefs put most of their limited resources into accomplishing that goal, including trading away their first-round draft pick for left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. Because of this, the Kansas City defense didn’t see any major alterations, although the team did use a second-rounder on interior linebacker Nick Bolton.

    The high-energy, playmaking Bolton should find a way onto the field during his rookie year, while the team’s other notable defensive pick—Joshua Kaindoh, drafted at No. 144 overall—is more of a developmental prospect.

    Kansas City’s top free-agency signing was defensive tackle Jarran Reed. The former Seahawk ended up being an amazing bargain for his new club, taking just $5.5 million to compete for a championship in 2021.

    Given this defense has been good enough to get to back-to-back Super Bowls, it was wise that team brass decided to keep much of the same core together for another run.

17. Buffalo Bills

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    2020 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 16

    2020 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 14

    The Buffalo Bills are still riding the high from their first AFC Championship Game run since the mid 1990’s, but the team had to make some defensive adjustments to build on its special season.

    Getting younger along the defensive line was important for a team that has several key contributors—such as Mario Addison and Jerry Hughes—on the wrong side of 30. The club elected to go with a pair of edge-rushers with its first two picks in the draft, a solid complement to 2020 second-round pick A.J. Epenesa.

    The Bills used their first-rounder on edge-rusher Gregory Rousseau, a prospect with incredible size for the position and tremendous upside. They then secured Boogie Basham, a stout and pro-ready defensive lineman who should see the field often in Year 1.  

    With veteran pass-rusher Efe Obada—one of the best rotational edge players in the league after he notched 5.5 sacks for the Panthers last year—signing in free agency, the Bills now have an extremely dangerous line that will generate constant pressure.

    That front could help them improve a bit on last year’s middle-of-the-road performance, but there are still some question marks plaguing the rest of this defense.

16. New Orleans Saints

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    Brian Blanco/Associated Press

    2020 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 5

    2020 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 4

    After ranking in the top-five for both total and scoring defense last year, the New Orleans Saints appear due for a significant drop-off in 2021.

    Pushing money to future years and banking on an ever-rising salary cap finally caught up to this organization, which was forced to cut ties with several key defenders, including starters in cornerback Janoris Jenkins and defensive tackle Malcom Brown.

    The Saints did their best to find replacements via the draft, but they will be asking a lot from this class.

    They lost promising pass-rusher Trey Hendrickson to the Bengals and reached for edge-rusher Payton Turner at the end of the first round.  They likely ended up with a starting linebacker in Pete Werner with the No. 60 overall pick, however, and could have a cornerback to pair with Marshon Lattimore after taking Paulson Adebo at No. 76.

    Considering New Orleans was on a limited budget, it’s hardly a surprise to see a lack of worthwhile veteran talent coming in via free agency. The most impactful signing is defensive end Tanoh Kpassagon, a 2017 second-round pick who had just one sack last season.

    If the Saints somehow boast a top-10 defense in 2021, it will be an impressive feat for this cash-strapped club.

15. San Francisco 49ers

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    2020 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 17

    2020 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 5

    The San Francisco 49ers suffered the dreaded "Super Bowl hangover" after falling short in the big game two years ago. The club was decimated by injuries last year and getting healthy will improve the defense more than anything else in 2021.

    Returning superstar pass-rusher Nick Bosa to the lineup will elevate this defense, as San Francisco struggled to get after opposing signal-callers following his ACL tear in Week 2. The free-agency addition of Samson Ebukam, who showed plenty of promise with the Rams, will also help in this department.

    The organization added some rookie firepower in the form of third-round corner Ambry Thomas, who could wind up starting across from Jason Verrett this season. The secondary is still rather thin even after that pick, an issue that could be alleviated by re-signing Richard Sherman this offseason.

    Even with a fully healthy roster, the 49ers will still have to overcome the loss of one of the game's top defensive coordinators in Robert Saleh, who accepted the Jets head-coaching job following four seasons in the Bay Area.  

14. Arizona Cardinals

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    2020 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 12

    2020 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 13

    The Arizona Cardinals' offseason moves made it abundantly clear that they are done rebuilding and ready to seriously contend in 2021.

    After narrowly missing the playoffs, the Cardinals paid several key veterans to push them over the edge this coming season. The team now features one of the most proven and experienced pass-rushing combinations the league has to offer in Chandler Jones and J.J. Watt, who elected to sign in Arizona following his release by the Texans.

    The Cardinals secured one of the most intriguing rookie prospects in this class when they selected Zaven Collins at No. 16 overall. The Tulsa product is listed as a linebacker, but he's an incredible athlete who can line up all over the field and make plays in every facet of the game.

    Arizona still needs a quality corner to get to the next level after losing a pair of starters in Patrick Peterson and Dre Kirkpatrick. The squad inked Malcolm Butler after he was cut by Tennessee, but must bolster a position that doesn’t have much talent outside of Robert Alford—who hasn’t played a snap since 2018 due to injuries—and 2019 second-round pick Byron Murphy.

13. Indianapolis Colts

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    Zach Bolinger/Associated Press

    2020 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 11

    2020 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 8

    The Indianapolis Colts were a solid, if unspectacular, defensive team last year and appear to be in line for a similar performance in 2021.

    New additions include first-round pick Kwity Paye—one of the better edge-rushing prospects in the class—and Dayo Odeyingbo, a first-round talent who slipped to Day 2 due to a torn Achilles. The Colts also drafted safety Shawn Davis at No. 165, getting a player who adds depth to a secondary didn't re-sign the oft-injured Malik Hooker this offseason.

    Indianapolis mostly focused on re-signing its own players in free agency, notably returning starting cornerback Xavier Rhodes on a one-year deal.

    If Paye can live up to his potential and the younger players on this roster show improvement, the Colts defense could crack the top-10 this season.

12. Chicago Bears

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    Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

    2020 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 14

    2020 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 11

    The Chicago Bears were one of the surprise teams to make the expanded 14-team playoff field last year, a testament to how well their defense played. The squad appears ready for another quality campaign, even if it didn't add too many new pieces into the mix.

    The Bears hardly improved their defense during the draft, only taking cornerback Thomas Graham Jr. in sixth round and defensive tackle Khyiris Tonga in seventh. It's hard to fault the team for this given its offensive woes last year, but Chicago did lose several key defensive players.

    Starting cornerback Kyle Fuller signed with the Broncos and defensive tackle Roy Robertson-Harris joined the Jaguars, leaving the Bears a bit thin at these positions. The team did acquire Desmond Trufant on a budget deal to shore up the secondary, while Jeremiah Attaochu, Angelo Blackson and Christian Jones were all acquired to beef up the defensive front.

    If rookie quarterback Justin Fields and an improved Bears offensive line can do enough to keep this defense off the field, Chicago should be in good shape for 2021.

11. Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    2020 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 3

    2020 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 3

    The Pittsburgh Steelers were an elite defensive squad in 2020, but they will struggle to replicate that success again this year.

    The team needs to replace two top-notch defensive starters in edge-rusher Bud Dupree—who signed a massive deal with the Titans—and cornerback Mike Hilton, who got paid well by the rival Bengals. While the Steelers still have some excellent defenders like T.J. Watt under contract, they won't be as loaded on this side of the ball in 2021.

    Linebacker Buddy Johnson—a fourth-round pick—is the most likely starter from their mediocre draft haul, while sixth-round selection Quincy Roche has potential on the edge but may not even make the final roster.

10. Minnesota Vikings

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    Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press

    2020 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 29

    2020 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 27

    After the 2020 Minnesota Vikings were called the "worst defense" that head coach Mike Zimmer has ever had, this team looks ready to make a huge leap up the rankings.

    The Vikings completely re-tooled their secondary in free agency, signing safety Xavier Woods and a pair of cornerbacks in Patrick Peterson and Dre Kirkpatrick. The club splurged for a massive upgrade along the interior defensive line with Dalvin Tomlinson as well.

    Minnesota didn't turn any heads with its approach to the draft, but prospects such as Chazz Surratt (taken No. 78 overall) and Patrick Jones II (No. 90) and Camryn Bynum (No. 125) could all crack the rotation this season.

    With these additions getting integrated and stars like Danielle Hunter and Anthony Barr healthy, the Vikings should be a much better defensive squad in 2021.

9. Denver Broncos

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    2020 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 25

    2020 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 21

    The Denver Broncos had a chance to land a franchise quarterback when they were on the clock at No. 9, but ultimately decided against drafting Justin Fields. Instead, the club went for Patrick Surtain II, one of the top cornerbacks in the class.

    That pick ensures Denver will likely feature the best secondary in the league this year. Surtain complements the free-agency signings of Kyle Fuller and Ronald Darby at the cornerback position, while the return of Kareem Jackson and Justin Simmons gives the Broncos an enviable set of starting safeties.

    An every down interior linebacker was one of the few missing pieces in the Mile High City, but the Broncos found one when they took Baron Browning at No. 105 overall.

    Denver was able to win a Super Bowl in 2015 on the back of an elite defense, and while this unit isn't quite at that level yet, it is getting much closer after an excellent draft and free-agency haul.

8. New York Giants

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    2020 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 9

    2020 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 12

    Despite a myriad of injuries and poor play on offense, the New York Giants remained surprisingly competitive in 2020 thanks to their defense. This group only got better during the offseason and should be a force in 2021.

    The Giants added a handful of exciting prospects to their roster during the draft, tapping edge-rusher Azeez Ojulari in second round and cornerback Aaron Robinson in the third. The further addressed the pass-rush on Day 3 of the draft, taking Elerson Smith at No. 116.

    New York's defensive line will remain impressive after the team hammered out an extension for Leonard Williams and added both Danny Shelton and Ifeadi Odenigbo in free agency. Big Blue capitalized on a surprising addition to the open market after Adoree' Jackson became available, signing the former Titan to give the team a legit No. 2 corner to pair with James Bradberry.

    If the Giants miss the playoffs next year, it likely won't be because of a poor defensive performance. This defense is ready to compete and needs the offense to step up to match it.

7. Cleveland Browns

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    Kirk Irwin/Associated Press

    2020 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 21

    2020 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 17

    The Cleveland Browns were one of the big winners of the offseason, addressing many of their most pressing needs through free agency.

    The secondary received a huge boost when John Johnson III, one of the best safeties in the league, signed for just $33.8 million over three years. The Browns also grabbed a quality nickel corner in Troy Hill for just $4.5 million per year, while 2019 second-round pick Greedy Williams will be returning to the lineup after missing all of 2020 due to injury.

    Cleveland had to secure a pass-rusher to replace Olivier Vernon, getting one of the better ones available when it signed Jadeveon Clowney in the second wave of free agency.

    The Browns had a fantastic draft to complement their veteran acquisitions, starting with a likely starter in first-round cornerback Greg Newsome II. They also landed Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah in the second-round, getting one of the top linebacking prospects who most analysts believed would come off the board on Day 1.

    Following years of failure, Cleveland finally appears ready to be a legitimate contender for the foreseeable future. This defense should take the next step in 2021 and help get the Browns back to the postseason for the second straight year.

6. Miami Dolphins

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    John Munson/Associated Press

    2020 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 6

    2020 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 20

    Head coach Brian Flores is spearheading an impressive turnaround for the Miami Dolphins. The former Patriots defensive play-caller is shaping this defense into one of the more impressive units the NFL has to offer and should only see it improve further in 2021.

    While the 'Phins only used two of their seven draft picks on defense this year, both are poised to be immediate contributors for this club. Miami made Jaelan Phillips the first pass-rusher off the board at No. 18 overall, getting an extremely talented player who slipped a bit due to concerns about his past injuries. If the edge-rusher can stay on the field, he'll boost the Dolphins' pressure rate through the roof.

    This club also selected Jevon Holland at No. 36 overall, landing a defensive back who can play multiple positions for the defense. Flores and defensive coordinator Josh Byers should be able to creatively deploy the Oregon product in manners that will flummox opposing offenses.

    While Miami didn’t use much of its cap space to improve the defense in free agency—the most notable signing was defensive tackle Adam Butler on a two-year, $7.5 million deal—the pieces are already in place for the 'Phins to have a top-five defense this season.

5. Baltimore Ravens

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    2020 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 2

    2020 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 7

    The Baltimore Ravens have built a successful franchise on the back of elite defenses, and the 2021 edition should continue that legacy.

    Even though the Ravens parted ways with quality edge talents in Matt Judon, Yannick Ngakoue and Jihad Ward in free agency, they can still end up as one of the league's better pass-rushing units.

    The roster returns Pernell McPhee, Tyus Bowser and Jaylon Ferguson, plus added Odafe Oweh with the first-round pick Baltimore received from the Orlando Brown Jr. trade with Kansas City.

    There are a slew of veterans the Ravens can add to augment the edge as well, with proven assets like Justin Houston and Ryan Kerrigan still available on the open market. Assuming the front office comes to terms with a player of this caliber, Baltimore’s pressure capabilities shouldn’t take a hit this year.

    The Ravens added a handful of other prospects who could see playing time in 2021. That group includes a pair of defensive backs in third-rounder Brandon Stephens and fifth-rounder Shaun Wade.

4. New England Patriots

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    2020 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 7

    2020 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 15

    The New England Patriots just missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008, but they should be back with a vengeance this coming season.

    Although the Patriots were gutted by the departure of superstar quarterback Tom Brady—a factor that contributed far more than any other to New England’s mediocre 7-9 outing in 2020—the team was also hindered by a league-high eight players opting out last year, including a defensive fixture in Dont'a Hightower.

    Not only will Hightower's return give this defense a massive boost, but it was also re-tooled in free agency. The Pats acquired Matt Judon and Kyle Van Noy to improve the pass-rush and brought in a versatile defensive back in Jalen Mills to bolster the secondary.

    New England's rookie class headlined by Christian Barmore, the defensive tackle selected at No. 38 overall, will be important as well. Ronnie Perkins, the No. 96 pick, will help on the edge, while Joshuah Bledsoe—picked at No. 188—can pitch in on special teams while he develops.

    Expect to see a marked improvement from the Patriots defense this year, with a playoff appearance in the cards if the club can figure things out on offense.

3. Washington Football Team

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    Roger Steinman/Associated Press

    2020 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 4

    2020 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 2

    The Washington Football Team parlayed one of the best defensive performances of the 2020 campaign into a surprise run to the NFC East title. They should be even better this year thanks to some shrewd moves in the draft and on the open market.

    No player will have more of an impact on this defense than Jamin Davis, the linebacker prospect that the club picked up at No. 19 overall. Davis will thrive behind Washington’s loaded defensive line, possessing the speed to get sideline to sideline swiftly and surge through holes to disrupt in the backfield. Third-round cornerback Benjamin St-Juste should see a good amount of snaps as a rookie as well.

    The Football Team didn’t make too much noise in free agency, but signing cornerback William Jackson will offset the loss of Ronald Darby. The club didn't need to make any further big-money signings following a fantastic year on defense.

    While it doesn't help that Washington still doesn't have a franchise quarterback, acquiring the timeless Ryan Fitzpatrick to manage the game and make enough plays to keep the defense well-rested will be a boon in 2021.

2. Los Angeles Rams

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    Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

    2020 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 1

    2020 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 1

    The Los Angeles Rams were the league's top defense in terms of both points and yards allowed, a testament to their numerous playmakers and stars. They're bringing almost everyone back for a Super Bowl push this season, though they did lose a few key pieces this offseason.

    The Rams won't have defensive coordinator Brandon Staley calling plays for them anymore after he left to become the head coach of the Chargers. Safety John Johnson III is also gone after signing with the Browns. There is still enough talent in the secondary to overcome Johnson’s departure, but only time will tell how Raheem Morris does at the helm of L.A.'s defense in comparison to Staley.

    While the Rams didn’t have a first-round pick—hardly a surprise considering they haven't made a selection in the top-32 since Jared Goff was taken No. 1 in 2016—they did manage to get a few potentially impactful defenders in the draft. Los Angeles grabbed linebacker Ernest Jones in Round 3 and followed that up by snagging nose tackle Bobby Brown III and cornerback Robert Rochell in Round 4.

    After trading Goff and a litany of draft capital for Matthew Stafford, the Rams have officially gone all-in on securing a championship in the near future. This defense will be able to get the job done, but the offense must follow suit before L.A.'s window closes.

1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Matt Ludtke/Associated Press

    2020 Points-Allowed Rank: No. 8

    2020 Yards-Allowed Rank: No. 6

    The Tampa Bay Buccaneers didn't rank in the top-five in either total or scoring defense last year, but those stats don't tell the whole story.

    The Bucs transformed into a much better team following their Week 13 bye, ripping off eight consecutive wins to capture the franchise's second Super Bowl championship. Upgrading from Jameis Winston to Tom Brady under center was the main catalyst for the title, but it would be difficult to overstate just how important the defense was during Tampa's late surge.

    Fortunately, the Bucs understood this and made it a priority to retain nearly every key contributor from their Super Bowl run. In fact, the Bucs bring back all 11 defensive players who started in the Super Bowl. The marquee defensive re-signing was pass-rusher Shaq Barrett, who came to terms on a four-year, $72 million contract. Tampa also inked defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Rakeem Nunez-Roches to new deals.

    With little to no glaring needs going into the draft, the Bucs were able to supplement their veteran-laden defense with a high-ceiling prospect in Joe Tryon. The Washington product is still a bit raw, but has all the physical traits and tools to become a great player in the NFL once he develops. Tampa Bay also scored a potential rotational linebacker in K.J. Britt with a fifth-round pick.

    Barring injuries or other unforeseen circumstances, the Bucs will feature the top defense in the NFL next year and will be a force to be reckoned with during their title defense.


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