Ranking the NFL's 7 Best Defenses After the 2022 Draft
In an offseason characterized by quarterback and wide receiver movement, it can be easy to forget the vital role of defense in the quest for a Super Bowl.
There were plenty of offensive superstars who found new homes this offseason. The AFC, in particular, saw an arms race for offensive firepower throughout the spring. From Russell Wilson and Deshaun Watson to Tyreek Hill and Davante Adams, there were plenty of offenses that got much better.
But all that movement only serves to remind us how important defense is going to be for those that want to make a deep run in the playoffs.
Here, we'll project at the top defenses heading into the 2022 season. Previous performance in defense-adjusted value over average from Football Outsiders, ESPN's defensive efficiency and more traditional statistics were used as a baseline and adjusted based on talent acquired and lost this offseason.
The result is our list of the seven best defenses. These units feature the right balance of pass rushing, coverage and run defense to cause headaches for even the top offenses in 2022.
7. Los Angeles Rams
The Rams defense was one of the biggest reasons they won the Super Bowl last year. The front office went all-in on adding defensive playmakers, and it paid off in a big way.
But of everyone that made this list, the Rams have the most questions for the upcoming season based on outgoing talent. In particular, Von Miller was a huge loss. With limited salary-cap space or draft capital, the Rams never truly found a reasonable way to replace his production and leadership.
Miller opting to sign a free-agent contract with the Buffalo Bills overshadowed the loss of Darious Williams, which casts doubt on the cornerback position opposite Jalen Ramsey. The departures of Sebastian Joseph-Day and Ogbonnia Okoronkwo on the defensive line could also be more significant than originally thought.
That being said, the addition of Bobby Wagner and the return of Troy Hill are big boosts for a unit that was great last season, and there's still plenty of star power left. Aaron Donald is a singular talent on the interior, and Ramsey is among the best corners in the league.
The Rams have been top-10 in ESPN's defensive efficiency in each of the past three seasons, which should inspire confidence that they will maintain their defensive prowess despite losing those key players.
6. Miami Dolphins
Nearly all of the Dolphins' major acquisitions this offseason came on offense.
The reason they were able to focus on that side of the ball, though, was the stellar defense they already have in place. Head coach Brian Flores is the Miami defense's most significant loss, but Mike McDaniel was able to retain Josh Boyer as the defensive coordinator.
There's a lot to like about the Dolphins' secondary, in particular. Xavien Howard is capable of top-tier play at corner while Byron Jones is a strong second corner with elite athleticism. Jevon Holland was the fourth-highest graded safety in the league, per PFF.
The Dolphins don't necessarily have an elite pass-rusher, which dings them in the rankings. However, Boyer has found ways to scheme around that, as the Dolphins were second in blitz percentage last season and their pressure rate of 28.5 percent was a positive byproduct.
Bringing back Emmanuel Ogbah will help the pass-rush, while second-year player Jaelen Phillips also could become the elite pass-rusher they need after registering 8.5 sacks as a rookie.
5. Green Bay Packers
The Green Bay Packers turned some heads when they selected defensive players with both of their first-round picks in the 2022 NFL draft.
Despite key injuries that kept All-Pro defenders Jaire Alexander and Za'Darius Smith out for most of last season, the Packers still put out a high-level defense in 2021. Their defensive-minded Day 1 draft picks might not have been popular, but they rounded out an already well-balanced unit.
In some of the biggest spots of last season, it was actually Green Bay's offense that betrayed its defense. Specifically, a Week 9 loss in which the Packers held the Chiefs to 13 points stands out. Then, in an even bigger spot in the playoffs, the Packers defense surrendered just two field goals—not counting a blocked punt for a touchdown—in a 13-10 loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
Though they lost Smith in free agency, the Packers will get Alexander back for 2022, and they retained breakout performers De'Vondre Campbell and Rasul Douglas. That's in addition to drafting Quay Walker and Devonte Wyatt, who are both primed to make an instant impact.
Green Bay's ranking here is a bit more of a projection than with the other teams on this list. That projection is riding on the assumption Alexander will be back to top form when healthy and that Campbell and Douglas weren't just one-year wonders.
But if everyone plays up to their potential, this unit will be lights-out in 2022.
4. Dallas Cowboys
The improvement of the Dallas Cowboys defense under defensive coordinator Dan Quinn was a major development last season. Assuming there's no backslide in Year 2 under Quinn, the Cowboys should field one of the league's elite defensive units.
Obviously, the emergence of Micah Parsons as the best rookie in the 2021 class and a Defensive Player of the Year candidate was a major factor. He was tied for fourth in total pressures despite only being a part-time pass-rusher.
Parsons' ability to get after quarterbacks should soften the blow of losing Randy Gregory. That's the only major loss the unit will face this season, but Dallas signed Dante Fowler and drafted Sam Williams to try to fill the hole.
Fowler was highly productive the last time he was on a great defense, registering 11.5 sacks playing alongside Aaron Donald in Los Angeles. Williams had first-round production in the SEC last season but fell to the second round, with off-field concerns potentially a factor—in 2020, Ole Miss suspended him indefinitely after he was arrested on a sexual battery charge. Charges were later dropped.
The secondary keeps the Cowboys from being in the top three. Trevon Diggs is a high-risk, high-reward corner who led the league in interceptions (11) in his second year but also gave up 907 yards and four touchdowns in coverage.
He's easily the best defensive back they have, though. Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis are not difference-makers as cornerbacks, and the overall talent in the secondary doesn't matchup with the top three.
3. New Orleans Saints
For years, the Saints' identity centered around Drew Brees and the offense. In 2021, they were quietly one of the best defensive teams in the league.
That should continue in 2022 with former defensive coordinator Dennis Allen taking over as head coach.
Under Allen's watch, the Saints had one of the best secondaries in the league, holding opposing quarterbacks to the fourth-lowest passer rating in the league. They lost Marcus Williams at safety but could actually be better there with the additions of Marcus Maye and Tyrann Mathieu.
The defensive line deserves more credit as well. David Onyemata had an underrated 2021, as he finished seventh among all interior defenders graded by Pro Football Focus. His play on the inside was part of the reason the Saints held teams to a league-best 3.7 yards per carry.
Combine Onyemata with the pass-rushing duo of Cam Jordan and Marcus Davenport, and the Saints are a problem up front. Pete Werner and Demario Davis were each graded as top-10 linebackers by PFF, too.
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Continuity tends to be the most overlooked aspect of the offseason, and the Buccaneers will once again have plenty of it.
The splashy signings and draft picks are always weighed heavily when evaluating teams in the offseason. But there's something to be said for a team that has essentially returned everyone in back-to-back seasons.
Last year, the Bucs brought back every starter and finished in the top 10 of nearly every metric. This offseason, they lost safety Jordan Whitehead and have yet to bring back Jason Pierre-Paul.
Replacing Whitehead won't be easy, but signing Keanu Neal and Logan Ryan gives them two options to pair with Antoine Winfield Jr. on the back end.
Losing JPP doesn't mean what it used to considering he only had 2.5 sacks last season. Joe Tryon-Shoyinka's development could be key in replacing his production, as he had four sacks while playing 49 percent of defensive snaps last season.
Tom Brady returning put the Bucs right back in the mix to win the Super Bowl this year, but the way they've been able to keep their defense together was certainly a good reason for the quarterback to return.
1. Buffalo Bills
Whatever metric you want to look at, the Bills were likely No. 1 last year.
DVOA, FPI, points per game, yards per play...it doesn't matter, the Bills' defense was the best. Now add Von Miller to replace Jerry Hughes and put rookie cornerback Kaiir Elam across from Tre'Davious White and you have the 2022 version of the Bills defense.
The addition of an elite pass-rusher to an already top-tier defense separates this unit from the rest of the pack.
Harrison Phillips and Levi Wallace are losses that shouldn't be understated. Phillips was a significant part of the Bills' run defense, and Wallace played a crucial position as the corner opposite White.
However, Phillips only played 44 percent of the snaps, and the Bills brought in Tim Settle and Daquon Jones who should be able to mitigate the loss. Elam has the potential to step right in and make sure Buffalo's secondary doesn't miss a step.
"Elam is a long, rangy corner with speed and physicality," B/R NFL Scout Cory Giddings wrote in his scouting report. "He has scheme flexibility, with the vision to play zone and the fluidity to play man."
As long as Elam has a successful rookie season and Von Miller continues to play at a high level, this defense should be the best in the NFL.