NFL Defense Rankings: All 32 Teams Ranked & Why It Matters for Bettors
Getty Images. Pictured: T.J. Watt and Micah Parsons.
Defense wins championships.
So the old adage goes, and if the man the Super Bowl trophy is named after thinks defense is paramount, who are we to argue with Vince Lombardi?
The modern NFL is about offense, but that's all the more reason defense is important. Defense is reactive, but today's great defensive units are learning to be proactive. Positionless tweeners from a decade ago are flexible weapons now, the defensive version of "skill players."
It's a fool's errand to attempt to rank all 32 defenses before the season since they're especially difficult to predict and not particularly sticky from one year to the next — but I'm going to do it anyway.
Yesterday, we ranked offenses. Today is about defense, though these rankings are less about 1-to-32 and more about the likelihood of finishing near the top, middle or bottom.
Be sure to check out the whole rankings series:
|Tier 1||The Stalwart Greats|
|Tier 2||Weapons, Weapons Everywhere|
|Tier 3||The 2023 Wild Cards|
|Tier 4||Falling From Greatness|
|Tier 5||Just Getting to Average Would Be Success|
|Tier 6||Trending in the Wrong Direction|
|Tier 7||Just a Great DC Is Not Enough|
|Tier 8||Prognosis: Negative|
Tier 1 — The Stalwart Greats
1. Dallas Cowboys (Last year's preseason ranking: 15)
2. New England Patriots (19)
3. Buffalo Bills (1)
As difficult as defense is to predict, nearly everyone ranks the Cowboys at the top for the upcoming season.
Micah Parsons is one of the most impactful non-QBs in the NFL. He helped Dallas lead the league in Pressure Rate and the Cowboys were further ahead of No. 2 than Philadelphia — who came two sacks from setting a record — was from No. 15. Parsons is also my pick for Defensive Player of the Year. He wreaks havoc on every play and is the DPOY favorite at +550 (Caesars).
But it's not just Parsons. DC Dan Quinn is as good as any defensive play caller, and his unit has led the league in takeaways in back-to-back seasons. Additionally, Dallas addressed its weaknesses, adding Stephon Gilmore opposite Trevon Diggs at corner and investing in the defensive line.
The Cowboys may not finish the year at No. 1, but they're easily the most likely team to finish near the top.
The Patriots have finished top-four in Defensive DVOA in three of the past four seasons and also ended last season No. 1 in Weighted Defensive DVOA.
Bill Belichick is always innovating. He's built a team of defensive weapons, athletes without a position and abandoned by other franchises, turned instead into do-everything munitions. Belichick's positionless weapons allow the Patriots to match schemes and formations. First-round CB Christian Gonzalez gives this young secondary even more upside. Belichick wins again.
Many pundits aren't as high on the Bills, but I still think this defense is as good as any.
It starts with getting healthy again. Tre'Davious White, Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde missed a combined 31 games for a pass defense that still finished in the top quarter of the league, and that was also without stud edge rusher Von Miller down the stretch.
Add those names back into the mix — the best four defenders on the roster — and this unit should soar. The wrinkle this season is that HC Sean McDermott will call the plays with former DC Leslie Frazier gone, but McDermott is a terrific defensive mind whose defenses almost always finish near the top of the league against the pass.
Don't overlook Buffalo. The Bills defense isn't going anywhere.
Tier 2 — Weapons, Weapons Everywhere
4. Pittsburgh Steelers (10)
5. Miami Dolphins (12)
6. New York Jets (22)
7. Cleveland Browns (8)
For the Steelers, it's all about T.J. Watt. The former DPOY missed seven games last year, but Pittsburgh's defense was outstanding once he returned over the back half of the season, and that's been the case for years. When Watt plays, Pittsburgh's defense is as good as any. It's that simple.
Mike Tomlin's defense has finished in the top half of the league in Defensive DVOA in 14 of his 16 seasons. With stars like Watt, Cameron Heyward and Minkah Fitzpatrick, expect the Steel Curtain to do its job once again if the corners hold up.
Last season, the Dolphins offense broke out. This year, it could be the defense.
Miami added Bradley Chubb midseason, then picked up Jalen Ramsey, David Long and legendary DC Vic Fangio in the offseason. Ramsey is injured and out until December, but this roster is littered with present and future stars like Jevon Holland, Christian Wilkins and Jaelen Phillips.
It's a defense that will be built to stop explosive plays, the exact sort of defense Mike McDaniel's offense is built to beat the other direction. Iron sharpens iron.
The Jets skyrocketed from 32nd in Defensive DVOA to fifth last fall under Robert Saleh and were led by an elite cornerback pairing in D.J. Reed and Defensive Rookie of the Year Sauce Gardner.
New York rebounded from having the most injuries in the league a season prior to having the healthiest defense in football. That sort of thing tends to regress the following season, and so can elite corner play, but this unit should be electric and fun either way.
If I had to pick a defense poised to leap from the bottom of the league to the top this year, I'd put my money on the Browns.
Myles Garrett is a stud. He's the second favorite for DPOY at most books, and his pass rush infuses this defense with life. This year, he gets help across the line from Za'Darius Smith, another great edge rusher. Cleveland also remade the rest of its defensive line, adding tackles Dalvin Tomlinson and Shelby Harris to beef up what was a horrendous run defense.
New DC Jim Schwartz has made a career out of building strong run defenses and generating pass rushes off the edge in the wide-nine technique, so he might be the perfect mind to bring this defense together. Add in outstanding corners and weapons like Grant Delpit and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, and Cleveland has the potential to put together a stunning defense. The Browns are +400 to go from worst to first in the AFC North.
Tier 3 — The 2023 Wild Cards
8. San Francisco 49ers (9)
9. Los Angeles Chargers (4)
10. Carolina Panthers (25)
11. Baltimore Ravens (5)
12. Houston Texans (30)
The seven teams above look like good bets to finish among the top-10 defenses. The teams in this tier have the potential to join them, but could just as easily finish in the bottom half of the league.
There are more questions about the 49ers defense than you think.
The first big question is how much this unit will miss DC DeMeco Ryans. Ryans was terrific with this group, especially game-changing LBs Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw, and new DC Steve Wilks has seen his past three defenses finish 20th or worse in both points and yards allowed. San Francisco has lost a ton of defensive acumen in recent years. Will Wilks be able to pick up the thread?
There are also personnel questions. DPOY Nick Bosa is still holding out and could miss the start of the season, and there's precious little pass rush behind him. The corners are also subpar and thin, so this pass defense could go sideways quickly. Even great defenses aren't built to last forever.
The Chargers built a great defense on paper, but have never found the on-field production.
For starters, blame the injuries. Los Angeles got almost nothing out of star free agent signing J.C. Jackson, then lost Joey Bosa for most of the year. The return of those two should lift this defense. Bosa's presence releases Khalil Mack off the opposite edge, and Jackson can be a star corner and leave Asante Samuel Jr. to thrive at CB2. This can be a game-changing pass defense.
But, can the Chargers stop the run? That remains to be seen. LA has ranked bottom four in Run Defense DVOA in both Brandon Staley's years at the helm, and if they repeat the feat a third time, he might not get another chance.
Could the Panthers be a shock entry among the top-10 defenses? The pieces are there.
Brian Burns, Shaq Thompson, Jaycee Horn, Derrick Brown and Frankie Luvu have all flashed star potential and new DC Ejiro Evero could be ready to unlock it. His style fits the pieces on this roster, and recent signing Justin Houston could be the missing piece off the edge.
Carolina's defense has all the potential if Evero can pull everything together. The Panthers are +400 to win a wide-open NFC South.
The Ravens would have ranked further up this list a few weeks ago, but I was already worried about the corners and the Marlon Humphrey injury only worsens a secondary that already lost Marcus Peters.
Baltimore took half of last fall to find itself under new DC Mike Macdonald but did finish No. 3 in Defensive DVOA from Week 11 forward, once Roquan Smith joined the team and rookie Kyle Hamilton emerged. This year's defense has questions at corner and pass rush, but the Ravens have finished top 10 in Defensive DVOA 20 times this century. Eventually, they always find a way.
If you're looking for one shock defense to make a leap, it could be the Texans.
DeMeco Ryans' guys leaped into the top 10 in DVOA over the back half of last season and unleashed a ferocious pass rush that got to No. 2 in Pass Defense DVOA during that stretch. And most of that was without rookie Derek Stingley Jr., who looks like a true shutdown corner.
This defense added Sheldon Rankins and Jimmie Ward and returns a healthy Stingley. It'll also feature No. 3 overall pick Will Anderson Jr., the Defensive Rookie of the Year favorite, off the edge. Houston is young and still coming together, but don't be shocked if Ryans molds this unit into something special.
Tier 4 — Falling From Greatness
13. Philadelphia Eagles (6)
14. Washington Commanders (13)
15. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7)
16. Cincinnati Bengals (17)
17. New Orleans Saints (2)
All five defenses in this tier finished among the top 13 in Defensive DVOA a year ago, but each one looks set to take a step back in 2023.
The Eagles are maybe the most important name on the list. Each time I considered the rankings and prepared for the new season, I found myself sliding Philadelphia down another slot or two.
The Eagles have a clear, well-defined identity. They know who they are and invest accordingly, and that also means they know what they're not. They're not a team that invests at linebacker or safety, and that means four new starters right up the middle this season, along with replacing star DT Javon Hargrave.
Philadelphia prepared for Hargrave's exit by drafting Jordan Davis and Jalen Carter and the line should still be good, but the unknowns up Philadelphia's defensive spine leave a wide range of outcomes. The Eagles nearly set an NFL record for sacks, so the pass rush is due for regression. New DC Sean Desai also means change.
The Eagles should figure this out eventually, but it might be one step back to go two steps forward this season. Even if that doesn't make you hesitate on a Philadelphia Super Bowl ticket, it should at least push you to wait for a better price than the +800 you're getting as the second favorite.
The division rival Commanders have been stout against the run under DC Jack Del Rio, but the pass defense has been inconsistent.
The defensive line could be awesome, especially if Chase Young bounces back with a healthy season. However, the linebackers are rough and the secondary is subpar. If Washington's pass rush can't get home with regularity, the pass defense may not hold up.
There are still quite a few names left from the Buccaneers' Super Bowl defense, even if the offense is nothing like it used to be.
The big question for Tampa Bay is whether it can find any pass rush, especially as Shaq Barrett continues to recover from an Achilles injury. The rest of the defense looks stout enough, and HC Todd Bowles has been a master of defense over the years, especially against the run. This unit should at least be average.
The Bengals made a Super Bowl of their own, but this defense is starting to lose some pieces.
DC Lou Anarumo is a terrific leader and does a superb job making second-half adjustments, but his defense asks a lot of his safeties, so it could be a real transition to Dax Hill and Nick Scott. Cincinnati's secondary is the weakest point on a title-contending roster.
It takes real courage to rank the Saints this low, technically below average at No. 17. New Orleans has ranked in the top 25% of the league in Defensive DVOA in six straight seasons under now HC Dennis Allen.
This defense isn't what it used to be, though. The Saints have long dominated on the line but will replace three of four starters this fall, and new DC Joe Woods is a real departure schematically from what Allen's defenses have done in recent years. New Orleans has a heck of a secondary, but I worry this team could be vulnerable to the run.
Tier 5 — Just Getting to Average Would Be a Success
18. Seattle Seahawks (29)
19. Kansas City Chiefs (24)
20. Atlanta Falcons (28)
21. Green Bay Packers (3)
The teams in the prior tier will probably be unsatisfied if they finish this season ranked average in defense. Conversely, these four teams would consider it a serious step forward.
The Seahawks have sneaky defensive upside.
Future Hall of Famer Bobby Wagner is back after a year away and his return, along with a healthy Jamal Adams, should do wonders for a defense that had no chance of stopping the run for much of last season. If Seattle can hang in run defense, the secondary has a chance to be elite with first-round CB Devon Witherspoon added to last year's breakout rookies, Tariq Woolen and Coby Bryant.
Geno Smith got a lot of the credit for Seattle's surprise playoff berth last year, but the surprising development of this secondary was just as important. If it makes another jump, the Seahawks could be right back in the playoffs. They're -120 to make the postseason.
The Chiefs certainly expect to make the playoffs, and DC Steve Spagnuolo has a knack for taking his lumps with this defense early in the season, before molding them into something new and peaking just in time for the playoffs.
Kansas City probably can't expect as incredible a season from Chris Jones this year, though they'd probably settle for a quick end to Jones's holdout at this point. The Chiefs will benefit from a healthy Trent McDuffie. Kansas City ranked 12th in Defensive DVOA, including top 10 against the pass, with its rookie corner healthy last season.
The Falcons finished near the bottom of the league defensively in each of the past two seasons, so getting anywhere near average would be a huge success.
Atlanta added a slew of veteran talent, totally rebuilding a bad defensive line with Calais Campbell and David Onyemata, while also adding S Jessie Bates and EDGE Bud Dupree. It's impossible to state just how much those names should raise this unit's floor, along with the additions of new DC Ryan Nielsen and DBs coach Jerry Gray, both have a great history of developing defenders.
The Falcons defense probably isn't ready to be good just yet, but if it can raise its floor and get a bounce-back season from star CB A.J. Terrell, that could be enough to propel Atlanta to the playoffs. The Falcons are +105 to make the postseason.
A disappointing Packers defense didn't even remotely live up to billing, despite arguably bringing as much talent to the field as any defensive unit. It's hard not to put that on DC Joe Barry, and even harder to understand how he's still there. Barry has led five straight defenses that finished bottom six in YPC in the run game and bottom 10 in YPA against the pass.
This year's unit isn't quite as talented but still has an outstanding cornerback trio. The return of Rashan Gary should be a big help, but there's little reason to believe Green Bay will have any more chance of stopping the run than it did last season.
The Packers are a top-10 defensive unit in terms of talent, but continue to add up to far less than the sum of their parts.
Tier 6 — Trending in the Wrong Direction
22. Tennessee Titans (20)
23. Denver Broncos (14)
24. Indianapolis Colts (18)
Nothing buries a decent defensive unit quicker in the modern era than a bad pass defense.
The Titans suffered the most injury games of any defense last season and were terrific before the body count piled up. Maybe this is underrating them, but I have a hard time getting excited.
Tennessee's defense under Mike Vrabel has finished below average in DVOA in all but one season, and the stout run defense is too often undone by an eminently beatable pass defense. The star safeties are aging and the cornerback room is thin and subpar. This just feels like a team in transition.
Last year's Broncos defense was outstanding under DC Ejiro Evero, but will new DC Vance Joseph find the same success?
Patrick Surtain Jr. and Justin Simmons are studs in the secondary, but Joseph's scheme is aggressive and often leaves the back end of his defense exposed if the blitz doesn't get home. For a unit lacking in pass rush, there's some considerable downside.
Somehow, DC Gus Bradley always manages to get the Colts defense to overperform, but this unit could be up against it after losing Stephon Gilmore, Bobby Okereke and Yannick Ngakoue.
Bradley's defense typically plays even fronts and two deep in an attempt to limit explosive plays and help the pass defense, but even that shell may not be enough for what might be the worst secondary in the league.
Tier 7 — Just a Great DC Is Not Enough
25. Minnesota Vikings (16)
26. New York Giants (21)
27. Los Angeles Rams (11)
A great defensive coordinator is a real value add to any defense, but coaches are more multiplicative than additive. Even the best minds can only work with the talent they've got on the field, and in the case of these three NFC teams, there might just not be enough.
The Vikings were excited to bring in DC Brian Flores, but his arrival means about as massive a schematic change as you'll find in 2023. Gone is the deep, passive Fangio shell. In its place is an aggressive defense that will force the issue, turn all 11 guys into pass rushers and look to make big plays.
That sounds good in theory, but it could be a major adjustment for this roster, especially since there's just not a ton of talent left on defense. Danielle Hunter and Marcus Davenport look like a good edge rush, duo but the corners aren't great, so the pass defense could be left exposed when Flores' pressure doesn't get home.
In Miami, Flores' defense ranked last his first season before breaking out in Year 2. It could take a minute for him to find his guys in Minnesota. All that aggression should mean big plays both ways, so it's probably a good idea to look to play Vikings overs early and often.
Minnesota's season ended at the hands of the Giants last season, but not because of New York's defense.
For as good as Brian Daboll was at overhauling the Giants offense, the defense ranked last against the run and bottom four overall. The arrival of Okereke should help the run defense, but New York's upside is dependent on two rookie corners and edge rushers Kayvon Thibodeaux and Azeez Ojulari.
Nobody blitzes opposing quarterbacks as much as Giants DC Wink Martindale. When his pass rush is firing, Martindale's defenses can be great. When he doesn't have the personnel to blitz and play effective man coverage, his defenses can finish near the bottom of the league.
DC Raheem Morris is one of the premier defensive play callers, but he can only do so much with the lack of talent on this Rams defense.
Quick, name two Rams defenders. I'll spot you Aaron Donald, but can you come up with a second?
Donald is still almost as good as ever, but the rest of this unit might be the worst defense in the league.
Tier 8 — Prognosis: Negative
28. Detroit Lions (32)
29. Jacksonville Jaguars (26)
30. Chicago Bears (31)
31. Las Vegas Raiders (23)
32. Arizona Cardinals (27)
We've made it to the bottom five, and it's hard to see any of these defenses escaping the cellar anytime soon.
The Lions have finished bottom five in Defensive DVOA for five straight seasons, including bottom eight against the pass all five years and bottom seven against the run the past three. Terrible.
Last year's No. 2 overall pick, Aidan Hutchinson, looks like the real deal, and this year's first-round LB, Jack Campbell, should help, but there's just not enough talent here yet. DC Aaron Glenn has his work cut out for him. The Lions are going to have to keep winning with offense.
It looks like the Jaguars will have to win with offense, too.
Jacksonville's numbers aren't quite as ghastly as Detroit's, but the Jaguars have finished bottom seven in four straight seasons and bottom three against the pass in each of the past three.
The worse news for the Jaguars is that this is mostly the same unit, so Jacksonville is largely betting on internal development to take the next step. The team has invested recent draft capital across the defense, and the run defense did perform well last fall.
The big move the Bears defense made last season was trading away Roquan Smith so they wouldn't have to overpay their star linebacker. So what did Chicago do next? It went out and paid two linebackers — Tremaine Edmunds and T.J. Edwards. Super.
The linebackers should obviously be improved, but the rest of the front seven, outside of Yannick Ngakoue, is still sorry and the corners are young and unproven. Chicago ranked bottom three against both the pass and the run last season, so DC Alan Williams has plenty of room for growth.
The Raiders defense knows exactly what its strength is with first-rounder Tyree Wilson adding even more pass rush alongside Maxx Crosby and Chandler Jones.
Most teams would love to have a pass rush like that, but the problem is everything else. Marcus Peters is an upgrade at corner, but the secondary still isn't up to snuff after ranking near the bottom of the league against the pass last fall. If Las Vegas' pass rush doesn't get home, this defense is out of answers.
The nicest thing I can say about the Cardinals defense is at least they didn't get stuck alone in their own tier like their No. 32 offense.
Arizona can't even seem to figure out where to put the star talents it drafts. Isaiah Simmons and Zaven Collins are just the latest weapons who can't find a home in the desert and who will probably explode once they leave for greener pastures.
New Cardinals DC Nick Rallis turned 30 in July. I'd take the over on the Cardinals defensive finish versus Rallis' age.
5 Key Takeaways for Bettors
1. Once again, the AFC looks like an absolute bloodbath.
In the offense rankings, we noticed that six of the top seven offenses are in the AFC. Well, there's some bad news for those offenses — six of the top seven defenses are also in the AFC.
Remarkably, that includes the entire AFC East division. The poor New York Jets came in proudly at sixth in these rankings, but that makes them last in the division (Patriots (2), Bills (3) and Dolphins (5)).
Obviously both sides of the equation can't be true once all the numbers sort out. The AFC can't have all the good offenses and all the good defenses, since one team's offense hurts another's defense.
But it's a good reminder of just how stacked the AFC is. To even make the playoffs, teams may need both great offense and defense.
Maybe we should all forget about guessing who will make the Super Bowl and just bet on the AFC to win the Super Bowl at -120 instead.
2. It's a charmed life for offenses in the NFC — especially the NFC North.
On the flip side of the equation, six of the bottom eight defenses are in the NFC, with only three NFC squads in the top 12. The NFC North looks particularly barren defensively (Packers (21), Vikings (25), Lions (28) and Bears (30)).
The NFC is ripe for a sleeper. If any one of those NFC North defenses steps up to even slightly above average, they're probably the division favorite. If only one NFC team really finishes among the top-seven defenses, that team has a great chance of making the Super Bowl.
Additionally, 12 of a team's 17 games come against opponents within their own conference. That means virtually every NFC offense has a softer schedule than any AFC team, and that should have a profound impact on how we bet MVP and season leader awards, and who you pick in fantasy football drafts.
3. Beware of a step back defensively from Philadelphia, San Francisco and Cincinnati.
All three defenses find themselves outside my top-two tiers.
The 49ers rank highest at No. 8 but are probably the biggest surprise compared to expectations. The Eagles and Bengals come in at Nos. 13 and 16.
Teams can certainly win the Super Bowl with slightly above-average defenses, and this trio may just need some time to find themselves after offseason changes. Still, even if you do believe, you might find a cheaper futures ticket in a few weeks these defenses in transition get off to a slow start.
4. Be careful about being too confident in the Lions and Jaguars as division favorites.
Both Detroit (28) and Jacksonville (29) ended up in the bottom tier defensively.
Of course, both of these defenses were also bad last year and the Lions and Jaguars each went 9-8 anyway. But Detroit missed the playoffs and Jacksonville would have too if not for a late-season surge coupled with a Titans collapse.
It's also notable that both the Lions and Jaguars came in outside the top 10 in my offensive rankings as I'm expecting a slight drop for both after last year's excellence.
One year's darling Cinderella is next year's shocking upset.
5. Carolina and Houston could be great sleepers.
Both young teams look subpar offensively, but we usually see at least one playoff team a year featuring a great defense with a tepid offense.
Carolina and Houston play in the two most wide-open divisions. If the Panthers defense is great, they could be a play at +400 for the NFC South.
If Houston's defense is even good, it has a chance to be the best in the division compared to the Titans (22), Colts (24) and Jaguars (29) in the rare AFC division with poor defensive play. The Texans ([!!) are +1100 to go worst to first and win the AFC South.