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NFL defense rankings: New England Patriots climb, big changes after first wave of NFL free agency

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NFL defense rankings: New England Patriots climb, big changes after first wave of NFL free agency

NFL defense rankings: After witnessing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers win Super Bowl LV thanks to their defense, 31 NFL teams have taken notice this offseason. While we’re only a few days inbto NFL free agency, big moves are happening throughout the league that have shaken up our NFL defense rankings.

Many of the top talents didn’t even head elsewhere. Leonard Williams re-signed with the New York Giants, Shaq Barrett is staying with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Justin Simmons is headed for a contract extension. With that said, John Johnson, Carl Lawson, William Jackson and Bud Dupree all landed huge contracts and found new homes.

The additions and losses have brought some changes to some of the top defenses. We expect even greater overhaul as more trades go down and the 2021 NFL Draft unfolds.

Let’s dive into our update NFL defense rankings early in the NFL offseason

Updated: March 21, 10:15 AM EST

NFL defense rankings: NFL free agency shapes intriguing defenses

20. Kansas City Chiefs

NFL defense rankings: Kansas City Chiefs
Dec 1, 2019; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Chiefs defensive end Chris Jones (95) celebrates after sacking Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr (4) (not pictured) during the game at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Super Bowl LV highlighted problems with this defense. It’s great to have Chris Jones and Tyrann Mathieu, two outstanding players who are among the best at their respective positions. Unfortunately, Kansas City has little around them to help. Frank Clark is a free-agent bust, this might be the worst linebacker corps in the NFL and the cornerbacks don’t exactly inspire confidence. Frankly, there’s a legitimate chance the Chiefs fall out of our NFL defense rankings in a matter of weeks.

Kansas City Chiefs draft picks: Best 2021 NFL Draft targets, Chiefs mock draft

19. Seattle Seahawks (18)

NFL defense rankings: Seattle Seahawks
Jan 9, 2021; Seattle, Washington, USA; Seattle Seahawks safety Jamal Adams (33) yells to the sidelines during the first quarter against the Los Angeles Rams at Lumen Field. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

For most of the season, Seattle’s defense looked like it belonged in the Canadian Football League. Then, as this offense collapses, the Seahawks stepped it up defensively. Seattle held opposing quarterbacks to an 89.1 quarterback rating and 194.5 passing yards/game over the final eight weeks. Jamal Adams will be healthy next year and D.J. Reed Jr. looks like a quality cornerback. With the positives out of the way, the Seahawks don’t have a pass rush and their secondary is still a bit concerning. Now, the Bears offered to fix that via a Russell Wilson trade offer, but that move would have been foolish.

Related: NFL Power Rankings – Tom Brady and Tampa Bay Buccaneers win Super Bowl LV, offseason outlook for all 32 teams.

18. Cleveland Browns (19)

NFL defense rankings: Cleveland Browns
Oct 11, 2020; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett (95) after the game against the Indianapolis Colts at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

A defense with one of the NFL’s top edge rushers (Myles Garrett) and a potential No. 1 cornerback (Denzel Ward) provides reason for optimism. When on the field, both players showed they can dominate. The problem is, outside of those two and safety Ronnie Harrison, there are a lot of concerns defensively. The return of Grant Delpit will help this secondary, but the Browns need a No. 2 cornerback on the outside and a complementary edge rusher to pair opposite of Garrett.

Cleveland Browns draft picks: Top 2021 selections, ideal prospects to target

We like the addition of John Johnson III, who should be a tremendous fit at free safety. As for Takkarist McKinley, he’s a fine addition as long as he’s a situational edge rusher. If the Browns can’t trade for Danielle Hunter, the ideal move, they can land a quality pass rusher with their first-round pick.

17. Buffalo Bills (15)

NFL defense rankings: Buffalo Bills
NFL: AFC Divisional Round-Baltimore Ravens at Buffalo Bills

Once the home of one of the NFL’s most suffocating defenses, Buffalo took a significant step back in 2020. The Bills struggled to create pressure, generating just a 22.2% pressure rate and this group allowed 23.2 points per game. Tre’Davious White can still be a great corner and the safety pairing of Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer is reliable. But the inability to consistently get to the quarterback is a problem. This defense is respectable enough to help this team win double-digit games next year, but there are pieces missing that prevent Buffalo from being a legit Super Bowl contender.

Read More: Ranking the best NFL stadiums

16. Arizona Cardinals (16)

NFL defense rankings: J.J. Watt
Jan 12, 2020; Kansas City, MO, USA; Detailed view of the jersey of Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt (99) against the Kansas City Chiefs in a AFC Divisional Round playoff football game at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

J.J. Watt is joining the Cardinals, an outcome no one saw coming. No one can fault the future Hall of Fame edge rusher for choosing Arizona, especially for the opportunities it could create. Many will look at Watt’s five sacks last season and assume he is a shell of his former self. Keep in mind, though he finished with 17 quarterback hits, 14 tackles for loss and graded as one of PFF’s top defensive ends this past season. Putting him and Chandler Jones together is absolutely terrifying and NFC West quarterbacks, especially Russell Wilson, should be worried.

With that said, Arizona still doesn’t belong higher in our NFL defense rankings. Patrick Peterson is leaving in free agency and that leaves them with next to nothing at cornerback. Even nickel corner Byron Murphy is a liability, allowing a 97.4 passer rating last season. The Cardinals desperately need to dedicate early picks in the 2021 NFL Draft to defensive backs.

NFL salary cap tracker: Where each team stands in 2021

15. Green Bay Packers (14)

NFL defense rankings: Green Bay Packers
Jan 16, 2021; Green Bay, Wisconsin, USA; Green Bay Packers cornerback Jaire Alexander (23) reacts against the Los Angeles Rams during the NFC Divisional Round at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Given his stops in Washington and Detroit, Joe Barry doesn’t inspire confidence as this team’s new defensive coordinator. With that said, it’s hard to ignore the talent in Green Bay. Jaire Alexander is the best cornerback in the NFL, the safety tandem of Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage is outstanding. This pass rush boasts Kenny Clark, Preston Smith, Za’Darius Smith and Rashan Gary. If the Packers bolster the defensive line and find a No 2 cornerback, this can be a top-10 defense next season.

Green Bay Packers draft picks: Best 2021 NFL Draft targets, potential draft selections

14. New Orleans Saints (9)

NFL defense rankings: NFL Playoffs: New Orleans Saints
Nov 22, 2020; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan (94) and defensive tackle David Onyemata (93) celebrate against the Atlanta Falcons during the second half at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

New Orleans did a tremendous job slashing salaries to approach the NFL salary cap, but it came at a cost. Janoris Jenkins, Trey Hendrickson and Kwon Alexander are gone. It leaves holes at every level of this defense and the draft is the only way to address them, which is even tougher to accomplish due to the lack of draft capital. Ultimately, this is a good defense that is no longer great.

New Orleans Saints draft picks: Top selections, prospects to target in 2021 NFL Draft

13. Denver Broncos (17)

NFL defense rankings: Denver Broncos
Nov 1, 2020; Denver, Colorado, USA; Denver Broncos safety Justin Simmons (31) in the fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Chargers at Empower Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Vic Fangio is one of the smartest defensive-minded coaches in the NFL, but his defense hasn’t quite played up to a high standard under his watch. Some of that can be blamed on injuries and it can also be attributed to a lack of personnel. Denver hoped adding Jurrell Casey and A.J. Bouye, with a healthy Bradley Chubb, would fix things. Thanks to more injuries, everything backfired. Chubb and Justin Simmons will be back in 2021, but Bouye and Casey have already been cut.

Von Miller will be back in 2021, giving Denver’s defense a great pass-rushing duo. The Broncos also helped Fangio out by signing Ronald Darby, a quality No. 2 corner for this scheme. Even better, the Broncos reunited Fangio with cornerback Kyle Fuller. There’s some risk, given Fuller’s struggles in 2020, but he could easily return to the Pro Bowl-caliber corner we saw in previous years. If he does and Denver adds even more talent via the 2021 NFL Draft, it moves into the top-10 of our NFL defense rankings.

Denver Broncos draft picks: Best 2021 NFL Draft targets, potential draft selections

12. San Francisco 49ers (13)

NFL defense rankings: San Francisco 49ers
September 13, 2020; Santa Clara, California, USA; San Francisco 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa (97) before the game against the Arizona Cardinals at Levi’s Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The San Francisco 49ers will get Nick Bosa back in 2021 and Javon Kinlaw is poised for a big leap in his second season. This defense also has Fred Warner, the best linebacker in the NFL. Even statistically, despite injuries, this unit ranked near the top in major categories. The problem is San Francisco’s secondary. Richard Sherman and Ahkello Witherspoon are gone, leaving holes at cornerback. San Francisco can add a top cornerback in the NFL Draft, but we had to push this team down our NFL defense rankings.

San Francisco 49ers draft picks: Top 2021 selections, ideal prospects to target

Chicago Bears (8)

NFL defense rankings: Chicago Bears
Nov 16, 2020; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Chicago Bears outside linebacker Khalil Mack (52) walks off the field after losing to the Minnesota Vikings at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports

Following Chuck Pagano’s retirement, Chicago decided to roll the dice on Sean Desai as its defensive coordinator. It remains to be seen how the 37-year-old will handle the massive responsibilities. It would have helped if the Bears kept Kyle Fuller and weren’t planning to trade Akiem Hicks. Losing a great defensive play-caller is one thing, cutting a top cornerback is another. But if the Bears move on from Hicks, this defense is going to take a huge step back in 2021. That’s a big problem given the state of the offense.

Chicago Bears draft picks: Top 2021 selections, ideal prospects to target

10. New York Giants (12)

NFL defense rankings: New York Giants
Jan 3, 2021; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Amari Cooper (19) catches a pass against New York Giants cornerback James Bradberry (24) in the second half at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

In his first season with the Giants, Patrick Graham helped shape this defense. With a shutdown cornerback (James Bradberry) and a stellar defensive line, he had the chess pieces to cause a lot of problems for opponents. New York allowed just 22.2 points per game and this defense was often kept on the field often or had to defend short fields because of Daniel Jones. If the Giants can add a No. 2 cornerback or an edge rusher early in the 2021 NFL Draft, this will be a top-10 defense. Yes, that’s even after losing Dalvin Tomlinson.

Related: 2021 NFL mock draft – NFC East team trades up for top QB, Carolina Panthers land Justin Fields.

9. Indianapolis Colts (10)

New York Giants draft picks: Top options in a strong class, ideal 2021 NFL Draft targets

NFL defense rankings: Indianapolis Colts
Nov 22, 2020; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Indianapolis Colts defensive tackle DeForest Buckner (99) celebrates with teammates after making an overtime fumble recovery against the Green Bay Packers at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Colts finished the season allowing the eighth-fewest total yards (332.1) and 10th-fewest points (22.6) per game this season. Those numbers are impressive, but we also see cause for concern. After holding opposing quarterbacks to 198.7 yards and an average 78.9 passer rating in the first nine games, the Colts allowed 297 passing yards per game and a 102.5 passer rating in the final seven contests. Xavier Rhodes, who turned his career around in Indianapolis, could leave in free agency. Matt Eberflus is a quality defensive coordinator, but there’s reason to expect regression from this unit in 2021.

Indianapolis Colts quarterback: 5 best options to replace retired Philip Rivers in 2021

8. New England Patriots (11)

NFL defense rankings: New England Patriots
Oct 6, 2019; Landover, MD, USA; New England Patriots free safety Devin McCourty (32) and Patriots cornerback Jason McCourty (30) leap while running onto the field for warmups prior to their game against the Washington Redskins at FedExField. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a wild offseason in New England. The biggest additions came on the offensive side, but Bill Belichick’s defense will also look a lot better in 2021. Yes, even after Stephon GIlmore is traded. Matthew Judon should return to the form we saw from his previous stay in Foxborough, while Matthew Judon will be a nice three-down player. Jalen Mills seems like the replacement for Patrick Chung, who is retiring. The best news for the Patriots, Dont’a Hightower will be back in 2021.

New England Patriots quarterback options: Trade up in the 2021 NFL Draft

7. Los Angeles Chargers (7)

NFL defense rankings: Los Angeles Chargers
Dec 30, 2018; Denver, CO, USA; Los Angeles Chargers free safety Derwin James (33) celebrates the win over the Denver Broncos at Broncos Stadium at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Chargers have enough talent to be a top-five defense, but coaching and injuries got in the way. The first step to unlock this group’s potential, hiring Brandon Staley. His ability to put players in roles they are comfortable with, creating unique looks with his defense and adapting everything for each opponent faced, makes him a great addition. He’ll be taking over a defense with All-Pro defensive back Derwin James Jr., top edge rusher Joey Bosa and a collection of more young talent at every level. This defense can be something special.

Related: 2021 NFL mock draft – Post-Super Bowl mock draft sends Deshaun Watson to new home

6. Baltimore Ravens (6)

NFL defense rankings: Baltimore Ravens
Jan 10, 2021; Nashville, Tennessee, USA; Tennessee Titans wide receiver A.J. Brown (11) makes a catch while defended by Baltimore Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey (44) during the first quarter in a AFC Wild Card playoff game at Nissan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

Baltimore’s pass rush will look very different in 2021. Both Matthew Judon and Yannick Ngakoue are gone, creating an even bigger need for edge rushers. It’s especially important given how much Don Martindale loves to blitz, putting great athletes in spots to get to the quarterback. This used to be a top-five defense, but that was when the Ravens could generate pressure consistently. A great secondary helps, but it only goes so far. Until additions are made, likely via the 2021 NFL Draft, the Ravens are lower than normal in our NFL defense rankings.

Baltimore Ravens draft picks: Top 2021 selections, ideal prospects to target

5. Miami Dolphins (5)

NFL defense rankings: Miami Dolphins
Dec 13, 2020; Miami Gardens, Florida, USA; Miami Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard (25) celebrates after his interception with free safety Brandon Jones (29) during the second half against the Kansas City Chiefs at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

A year after signing Shaq Lawson and Kyle Van Noy, both players are gone from Miami’s front seven. Expect Miami to replace Lawson with a better edge rusher who can get after the quarterback, likely via the NFL Draft. As for linebacker, Benardrick McKinney can be an upgrade, if he is healthy, over Van Noy. The Dolphins also added Adam Butler and Justin Coleman.

Read More: Houston Texans trade linebacker Benardrick McKinney to Miami Dolphins

4. Pittsburgh Steelers (3)

NFL defense rankings: Pittsburgh Steelers
Dec 21, 2020; Cincinnati, Ohio, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt (90) celebrates with inside linebacker Avery Williamson (51) during the third quarter at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Rival general managers take notice of what makes another defense great. So, when many of the Steelers’ top defenders hit the open market, they were scooped up. Bud Dupree is off in Tennessee, Tyson Alualu is gone and Mike Hilton is gone. All of those are notable losses for this defensive front.

What keeps the Steelers in the top-five of our NFL defense rankings? T.J. Watt, Cameron Heyward, Minkah Fitzpatrick and Devin Bush. Even with the free-agent departures, there’s still enough talent for this to be a great group. It won’t be the dominant force we saw early in the 2020 season, but it will be one of the AFC’s best.

Pittsburgh Steelers draft picks: Top 2021 selections, ideal prospects to target

3. Washington Football Team (4)

NFL defense rankings: Washington Football Team
Dec 7, 2020; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Washington Football Team defensive end Chase Young (99) reacts after defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field. Washington won 23-17. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Chase young lived up to all the pre-draft hype, quickly developing into one of the NFL’s best pass rushers late in his rookie season. Of course, he isn’t alone in this dominant front. Young (six sacks, 40 total pressures), Montez Sweat (nine sacks, 47 pressures) and Jonathan Allen (47 pressures) are a dominant front.

Washington did lose Ronald Darby in NFL free agency, but it replaced him with William Jackson. That’s an upgrade at cornerback and if this secondary improves, we expect this entire group to be better in 2021. WFT grabs the third spot in our NFL defense rankings right now, but they might make a case for the top spot this fall.

Washington Football Team draft picks: Top 2021 selections, ideal prospects to target

2. Los Angeles Rams (2)

NFL defense rankings: Los Angeles Rams
Jan 9, 2021; Seattle, Washington, USA; Los Angeles Rams defensive end Aaron Donald (99) celebrates with outside linebacker Leonard Floyd (54) following a sack against the Seattle Seahawks during the second quarter at Lumen Field. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Losing Brandon Staley hurts. He was the conductor who orchestrated the NFL’s most dominant defense in the regular season. The Rams held opponents to 18.5 points per game, quarterbacks averaged the second-lowest passer rating (80.4) against this defense and offenses converted just 35.4% of their third-down attempts. Los Angeles also lost safety John Johnson, who was outstanding in this secondary. With Raheem Morris calling plays for a defense that has Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey, this remains one of the best units in the NFL.

Related: Most underrated NFL free agents in 2021

1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1)

NFL defense rankings: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Feb 7, 2020; Tampa, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator Todd Bowles (middle) talks with players during the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LV against the Kansas City Chiefs at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Tampa Bay was determined to keep its Super Bowl defense intact. The task seemed impossible, with the declining NFL salary cap, but Tom Brady and his teammates helped make it happen. Shaq Barrett is back, signing a lucrative extension and Pro Bowl linebacker LaVonte Davis returns on a two-year deal. Even if the Bucs can’t get Ndamukong Suh to return, this defense could still get stronger with the help of the 2021 NFL Draft. With the starters and defensive coordinator Todd Bowles returning, the Buccaneers are easily the No. 1 team in our NFL defense rankings.

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