Every 2021 NFL Defense Ranked From 1 to 32: Why It Matters for Bettors
Abbie Parr / Getty Images. Pictured: Aaron Donald
As the old adage goes, “Defense wins championships.”
That saying may not be as true as it once was, with elite offenses typically winning the day in modern football, but defense still sets the tone.
A bad defense can undermine everything a great offense does with one bad play or missed coverage, while an elite defense can elevate even the blandest of attacks. There are 22 starters after all, not 11.
It’s easy to just reduce things on one side of the ball to “the defense” as though it’s just one unit, but every unit has strengths and weaknesses. Corners and edge rushers matter more than ever in a pass-oriented league.
Yesterday we ranked the offenses. Today let’s rank every NFL defensive unit from 1 to 32 and consider the impact it should have on us as bettors.
Tier I — The Cream of the Crop
1. Denver Broncos
2. Minnesota Vikings
If you’re looking for a sleeper to make a run to the playoffs despite an underwhelming offense, you just found your two best options.
The Broncos are absolutely loaded. Vic Fangio may still be the game’s most elite defensive mind, and he sure has a lot to work with.
Denver overhauled its secondary, reuniting Kyle Fuller with his hold coach and grabbing rookie Patrick Surtain Jr. to elevate a shaky secondary to one of the league’s best, especially with Justin Simmons at safety.
Add in Bradley Chubb and a finally healthy Von Miller rushing the passer, and this unit looks set to dominate.
Think about some of those Bears teams over the past decade, with just enough offense and an elite D carrying the day. Fangio ran those defenses, and this team could mirror them.
The Vikings saw their defense fall apart last season, but Mike Zimmer usually has this unit near the top of the league. Minnesota ranked top-four in Defensive DVOA per Football Outsiders in each of the three seasons before last year, when they had some of the worst defensive injury luck in the NFL.
This year’s team returns stars like Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr but reworked the entire defensive line. Danielle Hunter returns from injury, while the additions of Michael Pierce, Dalvin Tomlinson, and Sheldon Richardson should solve the leaky run defense in a hurry. Patrick Peterson and Bashaud Breeland could also take corner from weakness to strength.
The Broncos and Vikings look a cut above the rest of the field with their remade secondaries and elite defensive coaches.
Tier II — Can They Match Last Year?
3. Washington Football Team
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
5. Pittsburgh Steelers
Elite offensive production is typically more sticky from one season to the next, in part because it often involves an elite quarterback elevating the team.
Conversely, defense is not so sticky, and a great defense one year can falter the next. These three teams all ranked top-five in Defensive DVOA a year ago and start the year there in 2021, but we’ll see if they hold up.
Washington should be most optimistic because they’re the one team of the three to make clear upgrades.
William Jackson improves the corners, and rookie LB Jamin Davis mans the middle of the field and should learn quickly from DC Jack del Rio, who played his position, and that helps Washington’s weakest defensive unit, the linebackers.
The strength of this team is the pass rush, of course. Chase Young and Montez Sweat are still young and getting better, so this defense should be here to stay.
The Bucs defense was even better than the offense much of last season. Tampa Bay has had a historically great run defense two seasons in a row, No. 1 in Defensive Rushing DVOA both years, and that starts up front with run-stuffing DT Vita Vea and ultra-dynamic linebackers Devin Smith and Lavonte David.
The Bucs are uber-aggressive under DC Todd Bowles. The weakest spot on the team is almost certainly the secondary, though. Safety remains a weak spot, even as Antoine Winfield Jr. is on the rise, and corner is still a question mark. Nothing derails a defense quite like a leaky secondary, so it’s something to keep an eye on for the defending champs.
The Steelers had the league’s best defense a year ago, but it’s typically impossibly hard to replicate that feat in consecutive years.
The Steelers still boast T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick as two of the best individual defenders in the league, but the team lost Bud Dupree along with two of its top three corners.
The pass rush is surprisingly weak outside of Watt, and the linebackers are shockingly weak for a franchise that usually dominates there. Pittsburgh is sure to take a step back. The question is how far down.
Tier III — Hoping for a Title Run
6. Cleveland Browns
7. Baltimore Ravens
8. San Francisco 49ers
9. Green Bay Packers
These four defenses look good enough to make a deep playoff run for their teams, or maybe even win a Super Bowl.
Don’t look now, but the Browns defense could even end up better than their offense by season’s end. Myles Garrett is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, and he’ll get a lot of help from new additions Jadeveon Clowney and Malik Jackson.
The secondary has also been reset. Denzel Ward is back from injury, while rookie Greg Newsome and Troy Hill help at corner, and John Johnson is a huge step up at safety. The Browns offense took a huge leap forward last season. This year that big leap might be coming on defense.
It sure seems like the Ravens just about always end up in the top quarter of the league’s defenses. Sure enough, Baltimore has finished top-9 in Defensive DVOA an incredible 20 of the last 22 seasons.
DC Wink Martindale always gets the best from this team with a lot of aggressive pressure, and Baltimore has the best and deepest cornerbacks in the NFL. The difference between good and great might depend on a leap from sophomore LB Patrick Queen or a return to form from Justin Houston on the edge.
It’s an absolute miracle that the 49ers finished top 10 in both Passing and Rushing Defensive DVOA last season considering how ravaged this team was by injuries. The Niners had the worst injury lucky in football by a wide margin, per Football Outsiders.
Nick Bosa is healthy again to lead a fearsome pass rush, and Fred Warner has quietly become one of the league’s best backers. There are real questions in the secondary though, and we’ll see how new DC DeMeco Ryans does replacing the departed Robert Saleh.
The Packers defense is better than it gets credit for. Jaire Alexander is one of the league’s best corners, and Za’Darius Smith and Kenny Clark are outstanding defenders too.
Green Bay has a strong secondary and a good pass rush, so this defense is good at protecting the lead and fits this team well. The switch to DC Joe Barry could be interesting. He’s most well-known for running the Detroit defense in 2008 that went 0-16.
Tier IV — Is There Still Something Great in There?
10. New England Patriots
11. Buffalo Bills
12. Los Angeles Rams
13. New Orleans Saints
Would you believe Bill Belichick’s Patriots have only had one top-10 defense over the past decade? Last year’s team was not even close, ravaged by COVID opt-outs. The Pats were worst in the league against the run and second worst in pass rush win rate, per Pro Football Focus.
This defense gets Dont’a Hightower and Kyle van Noy back, and Matt Judon should be a big addition as a pass rusher. The Patriots still have one of the league’s best secondaries and Stephon Gilmore should have a bounce-back year.
The Bills defense is also a fringe top-10 unit that could be in for a big season. This side of the ball has always been the specialty for Sean McDermott and DC Leslie Frazier, and the Bills have a good secondary, featuring star corner Tre’Davious White.
Buffalo returns DT Star Lotulelei, and if he and Ed Oliver step up, this unit could ascend back toward the top of the league. Last year’s offense carried the Bills, but it was the defense that led the way before that. If both sides coalesce, that Super Bowl dream could become a reality.
The Rams and Saints were the best two defenses in the league in many metrics last season, but it’s fair to expect a step back from each this year because of what was lost.
LA saw John Johnson, Michael Brockers, and Troy Hill leave, and maybe most importantly, DC Brandon Staley is gone too.
Raheem Morris has had mixed success, but it’s never a bad thing when you get to start with the two best defenders in the NFL in Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey. But this roster has gotten expensive and increasingly top heavy, so just how far can two superstars carry an 11-man defense?
New Orleans faces a similar attrition problem after four straight top-10 defensive seasons under Dennis Allen. The Saints shed a ton of salary this offseason, with Janoris Jenkins and Trey Hendrickson among the biggest losses on this side of the ball. Demario Davis leads a still terrific group of linebackers, but this defense is more good than great now.
Tier V — Perfectly Competent
14. Philadelphia Eagles
15. Chicago Bears
16. Indianapolis Colts
This trio of defenses probably won’t be at the top where they’ve each been recently, but they should be perfectly fine and get the job done.
The Eagles face their first defense in years without DC Jim Schwartz, but Fletcher Cox is still around to make things happen, and Anthony Harris is a big addition at safety. There’s no super standout unit on this defense but no huge hole either. Health will be a factor, but Philly should hold its own just fine.
For the Bears, it’s all about Khalil Mack and Roquan Smith. Mack can still be one of the league’s best pass rushers when everything is right, and Smith was a breakout stud last year in the middle of the field. The problem here is the secondary, particularly the very weak corners, and that could be a really big issue with Chicago facing the toughest schedule in the NFL.
The Colts have had great metrics under DC Matt Ebeflus with a balanced rushing and passing D that’s been good-not-great across the board. DeForest Buckner was the star this team needed on the line last year, and Darius Leonard is one of the league’s finest linebackers, but the pass rush leaves this team wanting.
Could rookie Kwity Paye be the difference? The Colts faced the league’s easiest schedule last season and forced a ton of turnovers, so if both of those things regress to the mean, the defense might too.
Tier VI — Ready to Make a Leap
17. New York Giants
18. Los Angeles Chargers
19. Arizona Cardinals
20. Miami Dolphins
21. Carolina Panthers
The Giants already took a step forward last year under DC Patrick Graham, the next hot young name in coaching. Graham is creative with his schemes and got this defense to surprise last year, coaxing a monster season out of Leonard Williams.
Corner James Bradberry was the big signing last year and paid off, and now the G-Men add Adoree Jackson next to him. This defense could be on the cusp of the top 10, but they’re still really lacking consistent pass rush off the edge. If rookie Azeez Ojulari hits, this unit could be the surprise of the season.
If the Chargers are going to make the leap many believe in this year, new coach Brandon Staley must bring out the best in some of these young LA players who have disappointed so far, guys like Kenneth Murray, Jerry Tillery, and Nassir Adderley.
Of course, the most important thing is getting healthy seasons from Joey Bosa and Derwin James, both talented enough for a Defensive Player of the Year campaign if fully healthy.
The middle of this tier feels like the exact wrong spot for the Cardinals, who profile as one of the more boom-or-bust defenses in the league. Arizona went out and added big names like J.J. Watt and Malcolm Butler, but you wonder if this team is stuck in the past with some of their big ticket offseason additions.
It feels like Arizona could be great for a few weeks while Watt and Chandler Jones stay healthy, then fall off a cliff in other weeks when the inevitable injuries mount.
The Dolphins were one of last year’s breakout defenses, but there’s some fair skepticism here. Miami plays super aggressively under Brian Flores, with tons of blitzing and man coverage, and that was dependent on an incredibly outlier season from corners Xavien Howard and Byron Jones.
What happens if those two take a step back or if the bad safeties are targeted? The Fins have plenty of upside but lots of downside too.
It might be a year too early for the Panthers, but this defense is starting to come together. Brian Burns is the next star pass rusher, and this line could take a step forward if Derrick Brown and Haason Reddick take a leap.
An improved pass rush along with improved corner play with the additions of A.J. Bouye and rookie Jaycee Horn could make this a tough D down the stretch.
Tier VII — The Fly in the Playoff Ointment
22. Tennessee Titans
23. Seattle Seahawks
24. Dallas Cowboys
25. Kansas City Chiefs
All four of these teams have playoff expectations, but it sure looks like those dreams will come in spite of the defenses, not because of them.
The Titans should be closer to average than as bad as they were last season. Bud Dupree should help as a pass rusher, and Janoris Jenkins is a nice addition. Tennessee also quietly brought in Jim Schwartz as a defensive advisor. Improving the pass rush and corners is always a good place to start.
The days of dominant Seahawks Legion of Boom defenses are long gone now. Bobby Wagner is a stud, and Jamal Adams has his moments when healthy, but the corners are about as bad as any team in the NFL, certainly the worst among any playoff contenders. That’s always been Pete Carroll’s specialty, so if he can turn coal into diamonds, maybe the defense will surprise.
The Cowboys defense was horrendous early last season, but Mike Nolan righted the ship a bit late and now DC Dan Quinn will hope to take another step.
Rookie LB Micah Parsons has been champing at the bit to get on the field in Hard Knocks, and Dallas will need him and Aldon Smith to have huge dynamic seasons to elevate this D.
You may know the names on this Chiefs defense after years of deep playoff runs, but that doesn’t mean it’s great. Chris Jones is still a star, and Tyrann Mathieu is a playmaker when he’s not out of place from gambling, but there are real warning signs here.
Kansas City’s defense had the best injury luck last season but still wasn’t great, and a week secondary got even worse with the loss of Bashaud Breeland. It’s a good thing the Chiefs have Pat Mahomes.
Tier VIII — So You’re Telling Me There’s a Chance…
26. Jacksonville Jaguars
27. New York Jets
28. Atlanta Falcons
The Jaguars aren’t there yet, but this smells like a defense that could start to come together late. DC Joe Cullen comes over from the Ravens and that could mean a lot of blitzing and aggressiveness, which could put Josh Allen and Myles Jack in position to break out.
Things looked much better for the Jets before Carl Lawson and Vinny Curry injuries robbed the reworked D-line of its only real pass rush. DC Robert Saleh has worked wonders amidst injuries in San Francisco, and C.J. Mosley and Quinnen Williams are a nice start, but it’s tough to play defense in 2021 with no corners or pass rush.
The Falcons are in a similar boat. Grady Jarrett is a stud and keeps this team among the league’s best run defenses, but he doesn’t get much help. Atlanta somehow coaxed DC Dean Pees out of retirement. He had a lot of great years in Baltimore, but there’s just not much talent here.
Tier IX — At Least You’re Not the Texans
29. Las Vegas Raiders
30. Cincinnati Bengals
31. Detroit Lions
The Raiders are better than this ranking on paper, but they’ve also been a bottom-five defense four straight years and have somehow finished outside the top-10 in 14 consecutive seasons.
Vegas brought in Casey Hayward and Yannick Ngakoue to liven things up, but it reeked of Jon Gruden just going after names he recognized.
Jessie Bates is the star safety not many know about for the Bengals, but that’s about the end of the good news. Cincinnati lost two of its three best defenders in Carl Lawson and William Jackson and replaced them with worse players, and it’s not like the D was good even with all three last year.
The best news for the Lions is that Matt Patricia is finally gone. New DC Aaron Glenn has had success with defensive backfields and gets to work with sophomore corner Jeff Okudah, but the rest of the secondary cupboard is bare. Detroit is taking this rebuilding thing seriously; this is a work in progress.
Tier X — Welp
32. Houston Texans
Houston’s offense ranked dead last in a tier on its own, and that’s right where the Texans defense is too. It’s really bad. Houston brought a bunch of veterans in, but they’re mostly replacement-level or below, and DC Lovie Smith lost his fastball a decade ago.
Houston’s D-line ranked dead last as a unit per Pro Football Focus — and then lost J.J. Watt. Welp.
5 Key Takeaways for Bettors
1. The Bucs are the deepest, most talented team in football, but the secondary could be the Achilles heel.
There’s no question that the corners and safeties are the weakest point of Tampa’s defense. The Bucs aren’t quite as deep at either position either, and secondary is the one point of the defense that can pick up a wrong injury or three and really sideline a season.
Tampa Bay is +300 to win the NFC at FanDuel, a deserving favorite there and second to only the Chiefs in Super Bowl odds at +650. If you notice a leaky or banged-up secondary brewing early, be ready to fade.
2. The Browns might be a real Super Bowl contender if the defense makes the same leap last year’s offense did.
Cleveland improved its offensive line last offseason and then reworked the offense under Kevin Stefanski as Baker Mayfield took a big step forward in the second half of the year. Now the Browns run it back on that end and spent the new offseason rebuilding the defense.
Jadeveon Clowney has never seen as little attention as he’ll see opposite Myles Garrett, and the duo could absolutely wreck opponents. They’ll also take the pressure off the secondary, one that should already be much better with the corner additions. Improved health from Garrett and Ward will help too.
Cleveland absolutely has a Super Bowl roster if this defense comes together. The Browns are +1600 to win it all at BetMGM.
3. Denver and Minnesota are a step above everyone else defensively, and that could make them good sleepers.
Each season, we see an awesome defense carry a mediocre offense to the playoffs. The Bears do it every few years. Washington got there last year. The Jaguars had their turn. This year, the Broncos and Vikings are the best such candidates.
Denver’s D is absolutely loaded, and Fangio is no stranger to an elite defense carrying a mediocre offensive attack. Teddy Bridgewater is the safer choice at QB and gives the Broncos a higher floor with fewer mistakes, and that helps the defense.
Kirk Cousins and the Vikings are a high-floor team too, and the revamped Minnesota D-line and secondary could make the Vikings a serious sleeper.
The Vikings are +250 to win the division at DraftKings and +115 to make the playoffs. The Broncos are +600 to win their division since it’s a direct bet against the Chiefs. Like Minnesota, they’re +115 to make the playoffs. The top-five defenses by DVOA all made the playoffs last season, after all.
4. Defense could hold back a playoff run for the Seahawks, Titans, or Cowboys.
All three teams rank in the bottom-10 of NFL defenses, and most of the teams below them either have Patrick Mahomes or are probably going to be fighting for the No. 1 pick in the draft. You can make the playoffs with a below average defense, but it’s really hard to get there if the D is straight up bad.
Last year, only two of the bottom-10 defenses by DVOA finished above .500 (and the Titans were one of them). The year before, all 10 such teams finished below .500.
All three of these teams are minus juice to make the playoffs at any book, so you have to bet more cash than you’ll make in return. If you don’t believe these defenses can at least be below average, be very wary.
5. The Chargers, Cardinals, and Dolphins defenses are wildcards with upside. They could make or break your favorite sleeper.
While the teams in #4 are favored to make the playoffs, these three are all underdogs, with plus juice to hit the postseason. These teams are on the fringe of the playoffs, and that’s where a leap on either side of the ball could be the difference in making a playoff run.
For the Dolphins (+110 at DraftKings), Cardinals (+150), and Chargers (+105), there are some intriguing young pieces on defense plus a great defensive coach capable of putting the pieces all together. If any of these teams leap into the top 10, they could be this year’s sleeper.