2022 NFL Defense Rankings: Promising Saints, Packers Units Are Just Below Top Spot
Getty Images. Pictured: Cameron Jordan (left) and Tom Brady.
- Ahead of the NFL season, Brandon Anderson unveils his latest rankings of every NFL team.
- This time, it's defenses. Check out his rankings below.
“Go back through football, and you will see that the team with the best defense wins.”
The man who said that has his name engraved on the Super Bowl trophy, and if Vince Lombardi thinks defense wins championships, who are we to argue?
As fast as modern offenses advance, defense is always reacting and catching up. An elite defense can elevate even the blandest of attacks, while a porous one can undermine everything a great offense does with a single bad play. It’s still a team game, with 22 starters and 53-man rosters.
It’s a fool’s errand doing any 1-to-32 rankings before the season, but defenses are especially difficult to predict. Defense is far less sticky from one season to the next, which makes sense since elite QBs drive elite offenses and typically stay at the top year to year. No one on defense touches the ball every play or has nearly as much impact as a quarterback. It’s all more volatile.
Yesterday, we ranked offenses. Today, we’ll rank every defensive unit, though these rankings are less about 1 to 32 and more about the likelihood of finishing near the top, middle or bottom. Pay more attention to tiers and potential than the numbers. Defense should matter just as much to bettors! Let’s dive in.
Once you’re done here, be sure to check out the other team rankings:
Tier I — The Whole Package
1. Buffalo Bills (2021 preseason rank: 11)
2. New Orleans Saints (13)
3. Green Bay Packers (9)
The Bills finished the year ranked first in Defensive DVOA, but they also played the easiest defensive schedule and had the second highest variance, implying that they were great against terrible teams but not nearly as strong otherwise. Typically, that would scream regression.
But last year’s Bills didn’t have stud pass rusher Von Miller, and they were also missing star corner Tre’Davious White down the stretch. The return of White and addition of first-round corner Kaiir Elam should make this a top-five secondary and improved defense overall. The Bills D has been terrific under defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. Buffalo’s scheme purposely skews toward stopping the pass, and it works. It probably won’t finish No. 1 again, but it’s the best bet to rank near the top.
The other surefire great defense belongs to the Saints, who have finished top-eight in Defensive DVOA five consecutive seasons, with a top-five run unit in all of them and top-three overall the last two years. New Orleans has a deep cadre of pass rushers and a strong secondary, buoyed by the addition of safeties Tyrann Mathieu and Marcus Maye. Dennis Allen is the head coach now, but he should keep this unit dominating. The Saints only rank below Buffalo because their shaky offense could put the defense in tight spots at times.
And then there’s the Packers, the shock addition to this top tier. Truthfully, my model rates Green Bay highest of any defense, in a tier of its own by talent. The Pack are the one defense that rates well above average at every position, and now that Jaire Alexander is back healthy, this looks like the best secondary in the league. In a pass-happy league, it’s no coincidence that the top three spots here are occupied by the three best secondaries. Still, Green Bay’s run defense was a sieve, and that’s not a new problem. Rookie Quay Walker should help, but ultimately worries about the run game kept the Packers out of the top spot.
Tier II — Potential Number Ones
4. Los Angeles Chargers (18)
5. Baltimore Ravens (7)
6. Philadelphia Eagles (14)
7. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4)
The most improved defense in the league belongs to the Chargers. Los Angeles added a pair of stars in corner J.C. Jackson and former Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack — and they also overhauled its D-line adding Sebastian Joseph-Day and Morgan Fox. This team got boat raced in run defense last year in Brandon Staley’s two-high scheme designed to take away the pass.
Now, the line is improved and the pass defense could be the best in the NFL all things considered, with a great secondary, Mack and Joey Bosa rushing the passer and Derwin James doing a bit of everything at safety. The Chargers are still a bit light up the middle by design, but Staley’s unit should be very aggressive and force heaps of turnovers. If everything clicks — for them, or anyone else in this tier — they could be the best defense in the league.
The bottom fell out on the Ravens last year, plummeting to 28th in Defensive DVOA after ranking in the top 10 five straight years. Baltimore was ravaged by injuries, and the secondary was in shambles before the season even got underway. The return of Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey — plus the additions of Kyle Fuller and rookie S Kyle Hamilton — should return this secondary to its typical elite status. Baltimore also gets a new voice in defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald, who had a ton of success at Michigan last year. The Ravens D has somehow ranked top-10 in 20 of the last 23 seasons. That’s sustained greatness.
The Eagles are another vastly improved defense. Rookie NT Jordan Davis should be an immediate difference-maker on an already loaded line. Philly also added James Bradberry to form a great CB duo with Darius Slay, and Haason Reddick, Kyzir White and Nakobe Dean are impact additions, too. The Eagles also went out and got Chauncey Gardner-Johnson in a preseason trade that should shore up their one relative weakness at safety. The Eagles have the deepest line in the league on both sides. That goes a long way in a long season.
The best thing the Bucs defense did this offseason was get healthy. Tampa Bay was constantly dealing with injuries, particularly in the secondary, and that’s a tough combination for an aggressive defense that led the league in blitzing under Todd Bowles. The Bucs typically obliterate opposing rushing attacks thanks to Vita Vea, and the addition of Akiem Hicks can only help up the middle. The pass rush outside of Shaq Barrett is a bit questionable, but the Bucs should be very good again now that they’re healthy.
Tier III — Huge Strengths, Clear Weaknesses
8. Cleveland Browns (6)
9. San Francisco 49ers (8)
10. Pittsburgh Steelers (5)
11. Los Angeles Rams (12)
12. Miami Dolphins (20)
13. Washington Commanders (3)
The Browns badly need their defense to be great in order to have any chance with Jacoby Brissett at quarterback — they certainly have the talent. Myles Garrett is the DPOY favorite next to Jadeveon Clowney on the edge, and Cleveland has the deepest set of corner talent in the league. The run defense looks pretty rough, but this potentially elite pass defense could help the Browns hang around, both in individual games and in the long run.
No defense finished the season hotter than defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans’ 49ers. Fred Warner is as good as any off-ball linebacker, and Nick Bosa is a budding star and might be a future DPOY winner. San Francisco has churned out great linebacker play under Ryans, and the 49ers have an outstanding front seven. Their secondary is still mostly average, though. Charvarius Ward and a healthy Jason Verrett should help, but it’s definitely the weak spot on the roster.
The Steelers have finished in the top half of the league in Defensive DVOA seven straight years and should do so again with defending DPOY T.J. Watt and a dominant defensive line. Normally the loss of a great defensive coordinator like Keith Butler would be worrisome, but Teryl Austin is highly regarded and the team quietly added Brian Flores on that side as well. They’ll have their work cut out for them at corner, though, even after the additions of Ahkello Witherspoon and Levi Wallace. The hole at corner could make this more of a good defense than a great one.
The Super Bowl-champion Rams did what they do and went star hunting in the offseason by adding future Hall of Fame LB Bobby Wagner to a star-studded defense already with Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey. The question is how many other Rams defenders you can name outside of those three. The rest of the line around Donald isn’t great, and the safeties and pass rush remain iffy. Defensive coordinator Raheem Morris has done great with this unit, but depth is a serious issue.
Most of the big Dolphins’ additions came on offense this offseason, and we’ll see if the aggressive, turnover-happy scheme fades without Flores around, or if retained defensive coordinator Josh Boyer can keep things humming. Miami still has an elite corner duo, and S Jevon Holland looks like he’s on the verge of stardom. The pass defense has been the strength here in recent years.
Few defenses were more disappointing last season than the Commanders. Jack Del Rio’s unit was expected to be elite but instead finished near the bottom of the league. Improved health from star pass rushers Chase Young and Montez Sweat would help after the duo missed 15 games combined last year — but Young was placed on the Reserve/PUP list and will miss the first four games. If those two can eventually stay on the field next to Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne, Washington could bounce back and have the best D-line in the league.
Tier IV — Total Wildcards
14. Denver Broncos (1)
15. Dallas Cowboys (24)
This is a good example of just how volatile and unpredictable defense can be. Not one person anywhere expected the Cowboys defense to be good last year, let alone No. 1 in Weighted DVOA, and many thought the Broncos could be the league’s best defense, but they finished 20th in DVOA.
I’m still optimistic about the Broncos. Patrick Surtain II looks like a star in the making, and Randy Gregory and Bradley Chubb could be an excellent pass rush if they can stay on the field. It’s easy to write them off after losing Vic Fangio’s guidance and plenty of talent, but life under new defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero could be a needed fresh start, and Denver’s secondary has greatness in it if things click.
I’m less optimistic about the Cowboys, who lost Gregory and can’t possibly get as much turnover luck as they did a year ago. Maybe that won’t matter if Micah Parsons does what he did as a rookie, wreaking havoc all over the field, but Trevon Diggs gave up as many big plays as he created — that’s a lot — and this pass defense could regress in a big way. Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn has done a great job calling plays, but the overall talent here is still questionable.
Tier V — High Floor, Low Ceiling
16. Minnesota Vikings (2)
17. Cincinnati Bengals (30)
18. Indianapolis Colts (16)
The Vikings should return to form with better health, even without Mike Zimmer, but this unit has ranked around league average the past two years. They will go as far as pass rushers Danielle Hunter and Za’Darius Smith take them. If they stay healthy all year, Minnesota could surprise.
I’m still not sold on the Bengals as a great defense, but Jessie Bates and Vonn Bell are the league’s best safety duo. The key is defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo, who does a great job adapting strategy each week according to the opponent. Still, this feels more like a safe floor than a high ceiling.
The Colts brought in defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, whose defense is built to produce floor without much potential for more. Bradley’s outdated scheme has a penchant for shutting down bad teams, but struggle to adjust or keep up with elite offenses. Indianapolis was fantastic against the run last year, but if it can’t stop the pass when it matters, can it really be serious contenders?
Tier VI — Coaching Gives Them a Shot
19. New England Patriots (10)
20. Tennessee Titans (22)
21. New York Giants (17)
22. New York Jets (27)
23. Las Vegas Raiders (29)
24. Kansas City Chiefs (25)
There’s not a ton of high-end talent here, but defense is often as much about coaching, scheme and teamwork. The best coaches can create a defense that’s better than the sum of its parts.
Bill Belichick’s Patriots are no stranger to that. New England lost their best defender in J.C. Jackson and stalwart Kyle Van Noy; safety is really the only position of strength now, but Belichick always seems to find a way.
The Titans got bad news before the season when star pass rusher Harold Landry reportedly sustained a torn ACL in practice. With him out for the year, Tennessee’s front seven is much less fearsome. Like the Pats, it’s now strength at safety and not much else, but you trust the coaches to pull this together.
The Giants are stout up the middle and hope Azeez Ojulari and rookie Kayvon Thibodeaux will provide a pass rush, which is key for new defensive coordinator Wink Martindale given how much he likes to blitz. New York has upside, but the secondary is weak and that could be tough as much as Martindale leans on man coverage.
The worst defense last year belonged to the Jets, who never had much of a chance as the most injured unit in the league — even more than the Ravens somehow! New York returns pass rusher Carl Lawson and hopes to transform its secondary with corner Sauce Gardner. The Jets should be much improved, but they’re coming from the back of the pack. It’s time for head coach Robert Saleh to make his mark with the talent he’s acquired.
It’s all about the pass rush for the Raiders. Maxx Crosby broke out last season and now has Chandler Jones playing with him on the other side. Those two will get plenty of chances to rush the QB in a loaded AFC West. They’re going to need to get home though, because the corners aren’t great and neither is the run prevention. New defensive coordinator Patrick Graham has been a hot name, but he has his work cut out here.
The Chiefs are back where they normally are defensively, noticeably below average after losing Charvarius Ward and Tyrann Mathieu in the secondary. Chris Jones is a stud, but it’s concerning that they lost Melvin Ingram after he made such a big impact. Kansas City added a pair of first-round defenders in CB Trent McDuffie and DE George Karlaftis, but will they be ready to contribute? Steve Spagnuolo always seems to have this defense peaking by the playoffs somehow.
Tier VII — It’s Definitely Not Good News
25. Carolina Panthers (21)
26. Jacksonville Jaguars (26)
27. Arizona Cardinals (19)
28. Atlanta Falcons (28)
29. Seattle Seahawks (23)
We’re in the bottom quarter of the league now, and there’s not much hope this far down the list.
The Panthers have the talent to prove me wrong. Brian Burns, Shaq Thompson and Jaycee Horn are potential stars, and this defense balled out at the start of last season before falling off. There’s just not enough depth around them yet.
It wasn’t that long ago the Jaguars had the league’s best defense, but Jacksonville has finished bottom-four in DVOA three straight years. The hope is that No. 1 pick Travon Walker will form a ferocious pass rush duo with Josh Allen, but that could take some time. Still, there are some pieces here that could make this group more bad than awful.
Vance Joseph always seems to get the best out of the Cardinals, who’ve actually ranked higher on defense than offense in each of the past two seasons. Joseph’s unit gambles a lot for turnovers and it usually pays off, but with Chandler Jones gone, this defense is weakest where it matters most: Corner and on the edge. If Joseph’s turnover magic wears off, the bottom could fall out.
The Falcons have the best strength of any bottom-10 defense in corners A.J. Terrell and Casey Hayward, but they’ll get precious little help elsewhere. Atlanta is rebuilding and doesn’t bring much to the table at linebacker, safety or edge. Two cornerbacks can only cover so much ground.
Speaking of rebuilds, the Seahawks are well underway after the Russell Wilson trade, but it’s not just the offense. That once great “Legion of Boom” defense is long gone now, reduced to a pair of good safeties, some talent on the line and not much in between. Seattle might have the worst combination of pass rush and corners in the league, which feels like a death knell.
Tier VIII — Hope You Like Points
30. Houston Texans (32)
31. Chicago Bears (15)
32. Detroit Lions (31)
We’ve reached the bottom of the list. I hope you like scoring.
The Texans performed admirably last fall considering the random collection of talent they rolled out. Credit Lovie Smith for coaching up his veterans and coaxing a decent floor out of this group, even if the Cover 2 is past its prime — but there’s just not much talent here, especially on the front seven.
Lovie’s old team, the Bears, will hope Matt Eberflus can find a similar floor from his new roster. That could be difficult with Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks and Danny Trevathan playing elsewhere and Roquan Smith halfway out the door. Eberflus maximizes talent well, but it’s going to be a challenge in Chicago.
The worst defense in the league is up the road in the same division, and that would be the Lions. Detroit is the only team in my roster model that ranks well below average at every single position defensively. The Lions have the worst secondary in the league and really no strength to speak of, at least until No. 2 pick Aidan Hutchinson settles in off the edge.
5 Key Takeaways for Bettors
1. Great defense could keep the Packers and Bucs near the top of the NFC.
The top of the NFC looks to be a bit up for grabs since Green Bay lost Davante Adams and Tampa Bay is dealing with so many injuries on the interior of their offensive line. It’s fair to wonder if these teams are vulnerable.
But the potential drop in offense could be offset by excellent play on the other side. Both teams start the year far healthier than last and have potential to be as good as any defense. That may give them a safer floor than it seems.
2. The Chargers and Eagles could be serious Super Bowl sleepers.
No two defenses improved in more meaningful ways than L.A. and Philly. Both teams added star talent and depth, and both have intriguing playcallers who could maximize the pieces and help their teams take a huge step forward.
Add an improved and possibly great defense to offenses that took a leap last year, and both of these teams could be great sleeper Super Bowl picks. The Chargers are +1500 and the Eagles are +2500.
3. Denver and Dallas’ defenses could make or break its seasons.
It is indeed hard to know what to expect from the Broncos and Cowboys offenses. Russell Wilson starts fresh in Denver with new teammates and a brand new scheme, and while Dak Prescott looks healthy, his offensive line and receivers sure don’t.
The truth is that both offenses should be fine once they settle in, but the real determining factor could be on the other side of the ball. Both Denver and Dallas have the potential to be top-five defenses, but both could fall outside the top 20, too. Defense, not offense, will determine trajectory.
4. The Vikings and Packers could put up big offensive numbers if the Bears and Lions have the two worst defenses.
If the Bears and Lions really are the league’s worst defenses, you have to like the Packers and Vikings’ chances at putting up very good seasons offensively.
That could mean a chance at a third straight MVP for Aaron Rodgers (+1100), and it could boost Dalvin Cook or Justin Jefferson to lead the league in rushing and receiving yards respectively, with both listed at +1000.
5. The Saints might be this year’s Steelers.
The Steelers, who have never finished below .500 in 15 years under Mike Tomlin, always seem to roll out a great defense. Many seem to be penciling Pittsburgh in to do the same this year, but again, its defense is more good than great, and the offense doesn’t measure up.
Instead, this year’s version of the Steelers could be the Saints. New Orleans has played consistently great defense under Dennis Allen and could rank near the top of the league, while its offense should be at least around average. With plenty of defense and just enough offense to get by, the Saints are an intriguing division long shot at +350.