Power Ranking All 32 NFL Defenses Post-Draft
Now that teams are heading into OTAs and rookie minicamps, it's time to take a look at how franchises did adding talent to their defenses in the offseason.
Some teams went heavy after talent in free agency, looking for veterans with upside and filling holes with bargain players.
Other teams attacked their defensive weaknesses in the draft, looking for players who can step in immediately and perform.
Many teams did both.
The success or failure of any of these plans won't be clear until they strap on their equipment in September for real games, but we can take a look on paper and see how teams stack up against each other after the majority of them are done adding talent.
So let's do just that.
32. Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins allowed seven defensive players to leave in free agency, including Chris Clemons, Paul Soliai, Chris Owens and Nolan Carroll.
None of these weaknesses were addressed in the NFL draft, though they added Louis Delmas at safety and Cortland Finnegan at corner in free agency, which should will help.
The problem is that help could be minimal, as Delmas is often hurt and Finnegan is coming off a very poor season which might point to a decline.
Jordan Tripp, an outside linebacker they got in the fifth round, and Walt Aikens, a corner they grabbed in the fourth, are solid backups right now, but both need work. And defensive end Terrence Fede is a neat story coming from tiny Marist College, but he too is pretty raw.
None of these players can be expected to step in and improve the defense immediately.
It’s a risky gambit going into the season—replacing solid parts with questionable ones and not improving visibly.
31. Dallas Cowboys
The defense for the Cowboys was an absolute mess last year, and cutting DeMarcus Ware, while fiscally responsible, didn’t make the situation better.
The Cowboys addressed some issues in free agency, adding Henry Melton, Jeremy Mincey and Terrell McClain and then grabbing a potential impact player in defensive end Demarcus Lawrence during the draft.
Lawrence will bring pressure off the edge but is versatile enough to play all over the line.
It would have been great if they still had Ware and added Lawrence, but as it stands, the draft pick mostly keeps them even.
The big key for the defense won’t be talent though, so much as the scheme new defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli brings to the table. That’s the biggest question mark.
Once we see how the defense looks on the field in OTAs and training camp, this ranking will probably rise.
Last season, I never got the impression that the pass rush was the issue with this defense.
To me, it seemed as if the front seven got to the quarterback often enough—it was the secondary which couldn’t hold the receivers long enough to allow the pass rush to take opposing quarterbacks down.
Maybe it bounces back this year, but the team didn’t add many new players, so I am skeptical.
I still like the front seven, even with London Fletcher potentially retiring.
But that secondary gives me pause.
29. Indianapolis Colts
The free-agency moves the Colts made left me a bit cold, and they didn’t add all that much in the draft—though with just five picks, they were limited with what they could do and didn’t do a terrible job with their resources.
Jonathan Newsome is a solid depth pick at defensive end, as is inside linebacker Andrew Jackson.
One move I was intrigued by was adding Loucheiz Purifoy as a street free agent.
The former Florida cornerback is an athletic corner who can be productive covering as well as a contributor on special teams, but he had off-field issues like being suspended to start the 2013 season and an arrest for drug possession in 2013.
If he can keep himself out of trouble and work off the rough edges of his game, Purifoy could be a heck of a steal.
But his impact this season will likely be minimal.
Overall, this is an OK defense which seems to have become even more OK after the draft.
28. Tennessee Titans
Losing Alterraun Verner is going to be tough to overcome, and Coty Sensabaugh or Blidi Wreh-Wilson are clear steps down.
They added only depth on defense during and after the draft, standing pat with the defense from last year.
It's not a bad plan. Aside from the loss of a corner, the Titans will return a defense ranked No. 14 overall last season. For the most part, while they didn’t improve, they kept the core group together.
So we expect them to be a decent next year but I'd like to see some training camp first to be sure.
27. Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jacksonville Jaguars were ranked a poor No. 27 in total defense in 2013, per NFL.com, but they didn’t focus on the defense at all in the 2014 NFL draft.
However, they did do work during free agency, adding Seattle defensive ends Red Bryant and Chris Clemons and Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Ziggy Hood.
I would have liked to see them make some defensive picks prior to the fourth round, but you can’t complain at getting a new quarterback and two new receivers early in the draft when you need them.
Overall, this defense did improve this offseason, though, and should improve on last year’s effort.
26. Cincinnati Bengals
How much of the success of this defense was down to now-departed defensive coordinator (and Minnesota Vikings head coach) Mike Zimmer? We’re about to find out for sure, but I have always suspected the answer will be "a lot."
On top of losing Zimmer, the Bengals also lost one of the best defensive ends in the league in Michael Johnson.
They didn’t seem worried about it, opting to address corner first by grabbing Darqueze Dennard—a great press corner from Michigan State.
They got around to a defensive end in the third round when they selected West Virginia’s Will Clark, an athletic player who does a good job of shedding blocks and penetrating the backfield. He could develop into a 5-technique player, though he isn’t there yet.
The Bengals also added a couple more depth players late on Day 3, but overall, this is a team who clearly felt their unit was fine just the way it is.
25. Pittsburgh Steelers
The Pittsburgh Steelers’ Steel Curtain defense got old and rusted. It happens to the best of us, and then we have to rebuild and start over.
The Steelers did an excellent job during the draft of doing just that by getting younger and adding first-round talent with both their first picks in Ryan Shazier and Stephon Tuitt.
Shazier’s stock rose dramatically in the last few weeks before the draft, and he will be a punishing presence on the outside. Tuitt, meanwhile, can play inside or out and clog the middle up completely.
There is still a lot of work to do, but Pittsburgh got better during the draft.
24. Oakland Raiders
The Raiders lost Lamarr Houston, a young and up-and-coming defensive end, as well as cornerbacks Mike Jenkins, Tracy Porter and Phillip Adams and defensive tackle Vance Walker.
Houston was ranked as the No. 11 4-3 defensive end by Pro Football Focus (subscription required), but Oakland didn’t seem to make a big effort to grab him, which was odd. On the other hand, nobody else they lost was all that critical a piece.
They were all replaced as well—though most by much older players. Tarell Brown and LaMarr Woodley are entering their eighth seasons, while Carlos Rogers, Antonio Smith and Justin Tuck are all entering their 10th seasons.
That said, we’re not talking about the 2015 season and beyond—we’re looking at this season, and on that short-term basis, this team got better.
And then you add a dynamic player like Khalil Mack, a solid defensive tackle in Justin Ellis, a big, long corner in Keith McGill and depth with corner Travis Carrie, defensive end Shelby Harris and safety Jonathan Dowling.
Overall this defense got better, and while a lot of their positions got older, they did get some young, key pieces.
23. San Diego Chargers
The big addition for the Chargers on defense during the draft was adding Jason Verrett, a short but competitive corner with great instincts and ball skills. The Chargers hope he can be the answer across from Eric Weddle, who has never had help covering the field.
Jeremiah Attaochu can play inside or outside in the Chargers’ 3-4 base, but he is buried on the depth chart. So is nose tackle Ryan Carrethers, a strong two-gap defender.
Overall, the Chargers added some talent, but aside from Verrett, it will be some time before they see the field.
The Chargers defense ranked No. 23 in the NFL, per NFL.com, and should improve this year, but that improvement will have to be achieved by players already on the team.
22. Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles added free safety Malcolm Jenkins to shore up the secondary but made few other big-impact signings on defense in free agency.
They added some value to the unit during the draft though. Marcus Smith is a great player to put on the edge and rush the quarterback. He’ll likely take over for Trent Cole down the road (and maybe not far down the road).
Taylor Hart is a defensive end who broke his foot near the end of last season, but he has a lot of experience, and NFL Network’s Brian Baldinger says he “has a promising future as a 5-technique in any 3-4 defense." Jaylen Watkins has experience at safety, so he can play in multiple spots, and Ed Reynolds provides depth at the safety. Beau Allen is a good run-stuffer and will help slow opposing running backs down.
Overall, this is a defense which was a mess again last year (ranked No. 29 at NFL.com for 2013) but looks like it has improved at least a bit going into 2014.
21. Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons did an excellent job in free agency, adding Tyson Jackson and Paul Soliai to shore up the defensive line.
Ra’Shede Hageman, their second-round pick, has the talent to have gone in the first, though he needs to be more consistent. He impressed me at Senior Bowl practices with his effort, energy and pass-rushing skills, but that isn’t always evident on tape. If he can bring it on Sundays, Atlanta will have gotten a steal.
Dezmen Southward is listed as a safety but has experience playing corner as well. It’s not clear exactly where they will plug him in, but he should be able to have an immediate impact.
The rest of the draft added some depth at linebacker and corner—altogether a solid draft finishing off what the Falcons started in free agency.
20. Cleveland Browns
I’ll let others weigh in on whether trading back and taking cornerback Justin Gilbert instead of staying put, but grabbing Sammy Watkins was a smart move considering Josh Gordon’s imminent suspension.
Gilbert is an excellent addition to the secondary, which already had Joe Haden in it along with Donte Whitner at strong safety.
The Cleveland Browns lost youth with the departure of T.J. Ward and D’Qwell Jackson, but while he’s old, Whitner will be a solid replacement for Ward. Adding outside linebacker Christian Kirksey and cornerback Pierre Desir (a good value in Round 4) will also provide some good depth.
I don’t see this defense changing a ton from 2013 to 2014 if everyone stays healthy.
19. Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens continued to strengthen the middle of their defense during the draft, adding C.J. Mosley in the first and Timmy Jernigan in the second.
Terrence Brooks was a solid pick to pair up with former first-rounder Matt Elam as well, and he should have no problem replacing the departed James Ihedigbo.
The Ravens were No. 12 in defense, according to NFL.com, and didn’t lose much on the defensive side of the ball this offseason.
I expect them to continue to improve towards where they once were.
18. St. Louis Rams
The Rams took an excellent defensive tackle in first-round pick Aaron Donald, who will help solidify the middle of the defense between Chris Long and Robert Quinn, and replaced the departed Cortland Finnegan with second-round pick Lamarcus Joyner.
Joyner is a versatile defensive back who can play corner or safety and flashes some incredible explosiveness. Donald is a 3-technique who is a bit small (as Joyner is considered as well) but who some compare to Geno Atkins and can be a disruptive force in the backfield.
The Rams then added a ton of depth in the secondary during the rest of the draft, as well as Michael Sam. Sam will be an interesting player to watch (and not for the reasons you think or a documentary) as he has a lot of ability but doesn’t fit neatly into either the linebacker or the defensive line position.
He’ll start on special teams, but I think has the ability to be a rotational player down the road.
The Rams did an excellent job of adding to a defense which underperformed in 2013 and could see a bounce-back season.
17. Buffalo Bills
Losing Jairus Byrd hurts, even if Aaron Williams played well last season and can fill in this year.
You just don’t replace Byrd easily.
Or, in the Bills’ case, at all—at least not in free agency or the draft.
Overall, I liked the draft Buffalo had, and the safety class wasn’t phenomenally deep, so they were up against the wall. And you love the front seven with Marcell Dareus, Mario Williams, Kiko Alonso as well as corner Leodis McKelvin and Stephon Gilmore at the corners.
While they didn’t do a ton in the draft, this is a defense which—if everyone continues to improve—could be very good and build on their No. 10 defensive ranking, per NFL.com, from last year.
16. Chicago Bears
Chicago’s defense sure didn’t look like Chicago’s defense last season. NFL.com has them ranked as the No. 30 defense in the NFL last year, and it isn’t hard to believe.
One of the biggest issues was the interior defense where they missed an injured Henry Melton and a retired Brian Urlacher.
So two of their first three picks addressed that issue by adding Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton. Both will probably back up the current tackles—Jay Ratliff and Stephen Paea—but have the upside to start pretty soon if need be.
Adding safety Kyle Fuller in the first round was also a great addition, planning for the day when Tim Jennings or Charles Tillman departs, while safety Brock Vereen will have a chance to compete with Ryan Mundy at strong safety.
Overall, this looks like an improved unit, and while it may not reach the heights that the old one did, it will be a very good defense this year.
15. Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings continue to be a defense in transition as they move away from aging veterans to youth and inexperienced players.
The addition of Captain Munnerlyn across from second-year player Xavier Rhodes will help the secondary an awful lot, but players like Rhodes, fellow 2013 first-round pick Sharrif Floyd and some others will need to continue to improve.
The team lost Jared Allen and Chris Cook (among others) but added Anthony Barr and Scott Crichton in the first two days and a lot of depth later on.
The key to the success of this defense—which looks pretty different at more than a few spots than it did when it was ranked No. 31 by NFL.com for the 2013 season—is head coach Mike Zimmer.
Zimmer seemed to pull off miracles at times in Cincinnati with the Bengals, and the Vikings have to be hoping he can do the same in Minnesota. Barr, a raw rookie with upside for days, is his first big project, but Zimmer getting the most out of the rest of the defense will define this season’s defense.
14. New England Patriots
The New England Patriots continued to do what they do best—build depth and grab value.
Dominique Easley was a guy coming off a torn ACL, but the Patriots weren’t willing to risk him going before they picked again. Easley is a very good tackle who explodes off the snap and shows tremendous motor. He may still not be 100 percent healthy, but you can bet he’ll be contributing early in the season.
They didn’t address the defensive side of the ball until the sixth round, where they selected another great value in defensive end Zach Moore. Moore is a small school prospect, but at 6’5”, 269 pounds, he’s a big player. He’s raw, but has a lot of upside.
The Patriots, like many of the past year’s playoff teams, didn’t have to revamp everything on defense. While they ranked No. 26 in defense, per NFL.com, a lot of that was due to injury, and if guys like Vince Wilfork are healthy, this defense will bounce back.
13. Green Bay Packers
It was poor safety play which burned the Green Bay Packers against the San Francisco 49ers when they allowed linebacker A.J. Hawk to try to take on tight end Vernon Davis.
On the play, Morgan Burnett was trying to give some help to the outside and couldn’t react fast enough to prevent the pass from reaching Davis (although he also went for the pick, not the play, so that didn’t help).
It also was clear they needed better tackling from their safeties, so when Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was available at their pick in the first, they jumped on him. Clinton-Dix has great range and recovery speed, hits like a Mack Truck and rarely misses a tackle.
With that out of the way, the next defensive picks were Khyri Thornton at defensive tackle and Carl Bradford at outside linebacker.
Thornton has an awesome motor and is a great anchor in the middle—I could see him pushing B.J. Raji for snaps this coming season.
Mike Mayock of NFL Network said he sees Bradford as a 3-4 linebacker in a 3-4 defense because “he's (not) long enough to be an edge pass-rush guy in the NFL,” per NFL.com. He will have time to improve behind Brad Jones, who isn’t going anywhere right now.
Overall, the Packers did a good job addressing some needs both in the draft and in free agency. If Casey Hayward can come back healthy, the secondary should (finally) be set and the defense has a chance to be good once again.
12. Kansas City Chiefs
Along with two pieces of their offensive line, the Chiefs lost two safeties and defensive end Tyson Jackson.
Dee Ford could replace Jackson or back up Tamba Hali at outside linebacker, but the truth is that in the short-term, Ford’s impact might be small.
Phillip Gaines is a corner with long arms and a large coverage radius, but he is a bit raw and could take some time to mold into a starter.
The Chiefs didn’t do anything else in the draft, but they really don’t have to. This was a good defense last year, and while they lost some pieces, overall they will be solid, if not quite as effective as they were last season.
11. Detroit Lions
Picking Eric Ebron made some folks unhappy, as the Lions secondary has been an issue for quite a while. But credit to the team for sticking to their board and not reaching on a corner or safety they aren’t sold on.
Skipping those positions early also means they have faith in Darius Slay, Bill Bentley or Rashean Mathis to lock things down alongside Chris Houston and Glover Quin.
Aside from the secondary, the rich got richer on the front seven as they added Kyle Van Noy at outside linebacker. Van Noy can play inside or out, and his versatility could place him anywhere among the linebackers.
One of my favorite picks of the draft is former Princeton defensive tackle Caraun Reid, who played in a 3-4 defense at school and can step into this hybrid defense with ease. A sharp, hard-working defender, Reid doesn’t have Ndamukong Suh’s ability, but he could give the team leverage when Suh’s contract is up.
Overall, there are still concerns along the secondary, but the Lions defense is looking very good heading into the 2014 NFL season.
10. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
There is a lot to like about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense right now.
They didn’t do anything on the defensive side of the ball in the draft—not one pick—but they didn’t need to. They’d already added two of the top defensive free agents in defensive end Michael Johnson and cornerback Alterraun Verner as well as safety Major Wright and corner Michael Jenkins.
Really all that was left was to drop the mic and walk off stage.
Lovie Smith always has solid defenses and has some fantastic athletes to work with this year.
I expect some great things this season.
9. New York Jets
Jets fans were panicking when Antonio Cromartie left while Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Darrelle Revis, T.J. Ward, Captain Munnerlyn, Aqib Talib, Alterraun Verner and other defensive backs landed everywhere but Florham Park.
But GM John Idzik had a plan and stuck to it, trying to avoid overpaying for players while improving the team in dribs and drabs. The Jets and Idzik seem to be assembling something similar to what Idzik helped build in Seattle on both sides of the ball.
A solid front seven, good corners and physical safeties.
They addressed that last part first.
For the second year in a row, the Jets front office went with a defensive back for their first pick of the draft, getting the hard-hitting Calvin Pryor with the No. 18 overall pick.
Two rounds later, the Jets grabbed Dexter McDougle, an undersized but fast corner who can tackle. The pick was earlier than most had him going (NFL.com had him projected as a sixth or seventh-rounder), as he was coming off an injury.
They also added depth at with Jeremiah George, Ik Enemkpali and Trevor Reilly, all of whom will have to show they can play on special teams first.
The Jets were the No. 11 defense in the NFL last year, according to NFL.com, and there’s no reason to assume things fall off the rails this year.
8. Carolina Panthers
We’re in sort of a holding pattern with the Panthers as we await the results of the recent legal issues franchise tagged defensive end Greg Hardy is dealing with, per the Charlotte Observer’s Michael Gordon, but let’s say for now that he plays the full 16-game schedule.
The Carolina Panthers were ranked second in the NFL on defense, per NFL.com, trailing only the Seattle Seahawks.
Losing Captain Munnerlyn is a blow, even with Antoine Cason coming in to replace him.
Still, the strength of this team has been the pass rush, which has allowed the secondary to play well despite lacking a wealth of Pro Bowlers.
I think with the addition of Kony Ealy and continued improvement from Star Lotulelei, this defense shouldn’t see a big slip in 2014.
7. New York Giants
The Giants didn’t add much aside from depth during the 2014 NFL draft, having added Robert Ayers, Jameel McClain, Walter Thurmond and—most importantly—Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie during free agency.
I suppose there wasn’t much to do, even if fans seem uneasy about losing Justin Tuck.
This was a defense which played much better in the second half of the 2013 season, and as long as they hit the ground running they should be able to keep up their No. 8 ranking, per NFL.com, all season long.
6. Houston Texans
While we aren’t sure what will happen under center on offense, defensively, the Texans managed to make an already fantastic defensive front even better.
Adding Jadeveon Clowney was a no-brainer from a defensive standpoint, and Louis Nix should be a great fit at tackle.
Hopefully, Brian Cushing will be 100 percent healthy and Jared Crick and Whitney Mercilus can improve their play.
The secondary is still a bit of a question mark, but it was part of the third-best pass defense in the NFL, according to NFL.com. While the interception count is very low (just seven), overall, the front seven brought enough pressure to make things hard on offenses.
And adding Clowney to the front just made it a whole lot better.
5. Arizona Cardinals
While the Cardinals let more than few players go—most notably Karlos Dansby—they added a key player in Antonio Cromartie to play across from Patrick Peterson.
They then added a solid safety in Deone Bucannon, who can play next to Tyrann Mathieu at safety. Bucannon has great length and is a physical tackler who can also contribute on special teams.
Kareem Martin is another potential first-year impact player, a defensive end who does a great job reading the play and locating the ball. He needs to get bigger to really reach his potential and be productive in the NFL, but that can come with training.
They also added Ed Stinson, another defensive end with excellent reach who shows great strength at the point of attack and is very good against the run.
Overall, this wasn’t a defense with many holes and they didn’t have any issues filling most of them. Dansby is still a loss, but hopefully Kevin Minter and Daryl Washington are up to the task of filling in for him.
If so, this defense will be awfully good again this year.
4. New Orleans Saints
Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan did some great work last year, and this offseason seems to have given him even more toys to play with.
After surprising the whole league and locking the top safety in free agency—Jairus Byrd—and adding Champ Bailey to the secondary, Ryan got more weapons in the draft.
The Saints began in the second round when they selected Stanley Jean-Baptiste. There was some conjecture that Jean-Baptiste might sneak into the first round because of his height and length and Seattle’s success filling a secondary with both, but his lack of top-end speed, so-so instincts and his age (he’ll be a 24-year-old rookie) probably contributed to his slide.
That’s fine, as Ryan can mold him into a great cornerback.
The Saints also added a solid interior linebacker in Khairi Fortt, a pass-rusher in Ronald Powell and a project safety coming off a torn ACL in Vinnie Sunseri.
There weren’t a lot of needs on the defensive side of the ball, but the ones they had, the Saints addressed.
3. San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers lost multiple defensive backs in free agency, so, naturally, they went and grabbed four in the 2014 NFL draft—strong safety Jimmie Ward and corners Dontae Johnson, Keith Reaser and Kenneth Acker.
Reaser is still recovering from an ACL injury (he had surgery in the fall but the graft was rejected by his body, per David Fucillo of NinersNation.com) and might start the year on the PUP list.
Acker has good coverage skills and instincts and does a great job reading the play and reacting quickly to it. He’ll spend most of his time watching from the bench, but he should be able to step in for Chris Culliver or Tramaine Brock eventually.
The Niners always work towards the long-term goals. They have no issue grabbing players who will sit on the off chance they become huge assets. Sometimes it works out.
In this draft class, they grabbed a ton of talent. The rich got richer again.
2. Denver Broncos
The Broncos did a lot of their heavy lifting in free agency, getting stronger and more physical in the secondary by adding Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward.
Chris Harris is still recovering from injury, so adding Bradley Roby with the first pick was a no-brainer. And like Talib and Ward, he is a guy who's not afraid to get physical with a receiver or running back. He was inconsistent last season, and the way he plays makes durability a concern, but he has toughness and aggressiveness to spare.
The team wanted a guy like C.J. Mosley to drop, but that didn’t happen, so they went with Plan B.
Denver added only a few more defensive players, both outside linebackers and guys who are more depth than immediate impact players.
Overall, this is a defense which added a ton of talent in free agency and didn’t feel they had to reach for defensive players in the draft.
If everyone is healthy, they should be among the best in the NFL once again.
1. Seattle Seahawks
The Seattle Seahawks, like most Super Bowl champions, had a lot of players looking for pay days elsewhere. The key ingredients are still in place defensively—namely Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor and Richard Sherman—though they lost multiple defensive linemen and some backups in the secondary.
Seattle has been all about rotational players lately, though, and with Michael Bennett returning, it isn’t hard to believe they feel they can succeed without the exact same players.
They grabbed a talented defensive end/linebacker hybrid in Cassius Marsh, though he has some character questions (he was suspended for two games back in 2011 after a brawl against Arizona). Pete Carroll hasn’t shied away from those, so it likely won’t be an issue.
The Seahawks added more depth on Day 3 as well, both along the defensive front and secondary.
Overall, this defense has always used multiple players and rotated different guys in for different situations. While they have lost some players to free agency, the defense itself should be just as good as it was last season.
Andrew Garda is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association. He is also a member of the fantasy football staff at FootballGuys.com and the NFL writer at CheeseheadTV.com. You can follow him @andrew_garda on Twitter.
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