Sustaining success on defense from one year to the next is challenging. Injury luck, turnover luck, and strength of opponent are all significant factors in determining which defenses perform well.
In all likelihood, some of last year’s best units will drop off in a big way. And some of last year’s worst units will take a huge step up. How about some predictions for which teams might fall into those categories?
But first, a quick explainer on some of the terms we’ll be using.
DVOA: A Football Outsiders metric that measures performance against league average while adjusting for strength of opponent. This measures overall performance or efficiency.
EPA: Expected points added. A performance metric that measures the degree to which each play helps a team get closer to scoring. All EPA references below are courtesy of TruMedia and Pro Football Focus.
AGL: Adjusted games lost. A Football Outsiders metric that measures which teams were most impacted by injuries. This can also be broken down by offense and defense.
1. Baltimore Ravens
Explaining their struggles from last year—the Ravens ranked 28th in efficiency—is pretty simple: They were decimated by injuries, and they were schematically predictable. The defense finished 31st in AGL, and the Ravens had the most-injured secondary in the NFL. That was a disastrous formula for a group whose identity was to blitz and play man coverage.
This offseason, John Harbaugh replaced defensive coordinator Don Martindale with Mike Macdonald. The goal is to be more varied and be more flexible—essentially, to be able to find different answers for different problems.
The Ravens have talent. They finished in the top 10 in DVOA for five consecutive seasons prior to 2021. Baltimore signed safety Marcus Williams and nose tackle Michael Pierce in free agency; they brought back veteran defensive lineman Calais Campbell and edge defender Justin Houston; and they used the 14th pick on safety Kyle Hamilton and the 76th pick on defensive tackle Travis Jones.
Add it all up—better injury luck, better talent, more flexibility—and I see a defense that’s likely to make the biggest leap of any on this list.
2. San Francisco 49ers
Did any defensive coordinator in the NFL do a better job than DeMeco Ryans last year? The 49ers pretty much had no corners they could trust to play man coverage. The defense ranked 29th in AGL, with the NFL’s second-most-injured secondary. And they still finished fifth in DVOA.
In free agency, the 49ers signed Charvarius Ward to give them a quality starting corner. But the strength of this group is the defensive line, led by Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead. Javon Kinlaw has 1.5 sacks in 18 games and is coming off of an injury. He is a key player in 2022.
The defense has blue-chip talent in Bosa, Armstead, and Fred Warner. Elsewhere, it’s mostly competent, but unspectacular, options. Just getting better injury luck (I know, we say this about the 49ers every year!) should help. Given what we saw from Ryans last year, I trust him to do more with less if he needs to.
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Bucs have produced a top-10 defense for three straight seasons, and there’s every reason to believe Tampa Bay is going to be really good once again.
The Bucs’ top three corners—Carlton Davis, Jamel Dean, and Sean Murphy-Bunting—combined to miss 17 games last season. Just getting better injury luck will give the unit a big boost. Up front, Shaq Barrett and Vita Vea lead the way. Free-agent defensive tackle Akiem Hicks, if healthy, could be an upgrade over Ndamukong Suh, and second-year defensive end Joe Tryon-Shoyinka has the upside to be an impact player.
We know head coach and defensive play-caller Todd Bowles is going to be aggressive. The Bucs blitzed a league-high 38.7 percent of the time last year, according to TruMedia/PFF. This is a talented, well-coached group that is poised to again perform at a high level.
4. Los Angeles Rams
The Rams have had a top-10 defense in four of five seasons under Sean McVay, and that’s been with three different coordinators.
Losing Von Miller hurts. Edge rush is one of the biggest question marks on the roster, especially with Leonard Floyd dealing with an ankle injury. But elsewhere, the Rams are in good shape. Bobby Wagner and Ernest Jones look like a nice linebacker duo. Aaron Donald is still Aaron Donald. And Jalen Ramsey is still Jalen Ramsey.
We know that the Rams will not be shy about adding talent if they feel the need to in the months ahead. The Donald-Ramsey foundation can mask a lot of weaknesses. This should be a strong group once again.
5. Buffalo Bills
The Bills had the second-ranked defense last year and added Von Miller. That’s pretty good.
The hope in Buffalo is that Miller can help unlock some of the Bills’ young pass rushers. The team has spent first- or second-round picks on Ed Oliver, Greg Rousseau, Boogie Basham, and A.J. Epenesa in recent years, and GM Brandon Beane has complemented that group with veterans like DaQuan Jones, Shaq Lawson, Jordan Phillips, and Tim Settle. This is a deep and talented group that has the potential to be one of the NFL’s best defensive lines.
The big question for the Bills is corner. Tre’Davious White is rehabbing from a torn ACL suffered in November and might not be ready to start the season. Levi Wallace left in free agency. The team could be forced to start two rookies—Kaiir Elam and Christian Benford—to open the season, along with Taron Johnson in the slot.
Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier have a strong track record. The Bills have finished seventh or better in defensive DVOA in three of the past four seasons. Buffalo could have some issues early on, but this is a defense that could peak late, once White gets back and the rookies get some reps under their belt.
6. Los Angeles Chargers
They made the offseason decision to load up on defensive talent after finishing 25th in DVOA in 2021. The Chargers added stars in edge defender Khalil Mack and corner J.C. Jackson, along with complementary pieces in defensive tackles Sebastian Joseph-Day and Austin Johnson, linebacker Kyle Van Noy, and slot corner Bryce Callahan.
It’s not like the cupboard was bare, either. Edge rusher Joey Bosa and safety Derwin James (who is currently “holding in” while awaiting a contract extension) are two of the best defensive players in the NFL.
The Chargers have an elite pair of pass rushers, a deep cornerback group, improved run stuffers at defensive tackle, and one of the NFL’s best safeties. Brandon Staley has plenty of talent to produce a top-10 defense.
7. New Orleans Saints
They’re on an impressive defensive run. The Saints have finished in the top quartile (eighth or better) in defensive efficiency for five straight seasons. That’s really hard to do.
For the most part, the Saints are running it back in the front seven. Cam Jordan is one of the NFL’s best defensive linemen, and Demario Davis is one of the league’s best off-ball linebackers. If Marcus Davenport can stay healthy and/or Payton Turner can make a second-year leap, this group could be ferocious.
The question for the Saints is at safety. Malcolm Jenkins retired, and Marcus Williams signed with the Ravens in free agency. New Orleans brought in capable players in Tyrann Mathieu and Marcus Maye, but the turnover at that spot is at least somewhat concerning.
Dennis Allen has been one of the NFL’s best defensive coordinators. Now, he’s expected to still call the plays but will obviously have additional head-coaching duties to fulfill on game day. The Saints could see a bit of a dropoff, but this is still a talented group.
8. Dallas Cowboys
Dan Quinn did an excellent job last year of adjusting his scheme and putting his playmakers in positions to succeed. Micah Parsons was a monster. Trevon Diggs was a turnover machine. And the Cowboys ranked first in defensive DVOA.
So can they do it again? The big thing working against Dallas is turnover regression. Not only did the Cowboys have the highest EPA on takeaways last year, they had the highest turnover EPA of any defense in the past five years. That is highly unlikely to happen again.
However, the turnover point probably underrated how well the defense played on a snap-to-snap basis. Success rate looks at whether each play was a positive for the defense. It treats a forced incompletion on third-and-7 the same as a pick-six. And the Cowboys ranked fourth in defensive success rate. Translation: It wasn’t just the takeaways that made them good.
Parsons is my pick for Defensive Player of the Year. They’ve got above-average corners. And scheme continuity will help. The Cowboys defense is unlikely to be as good as it was last year, but I still think it can be a top-10 unit.
9. Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers have finished in the top half of the league in defensive DVOA for seven straight seasons, and produced a top-10 unit three times during that stretch. T.J. Watt led the NFL with 22.5 sacks and 39 QB hits last year, and Cam Heyward is coming off of an All-Pro season. Adding defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi could prove to be a shrewd move that really pays off. I like this pass rush.
The Steelers added Myles Jack at linebacker and signed safety Minkah Fitzpatrick to a contract extension. The big question is at corner, where the team parted ways with Joe Haden and added Levi Wallace.
With Mike Tomlin, defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, and senior assistant Brian Flores, this coaching staff should be able to cook up some fun stuff. The corner situation gives me some pause, but the combination of blue-chip players and proven coaches has me convinced that this is going to be a really good defense.
10. Minnesota Vikings
I have foolishly fallen for the Vikings defense in the past, and I will not fall into that trap again. Or will I?
Minnesota had the option to try a hard reset this offseason after firing Mike Zimmer, the architect of the Vikings defenses from the past eight years. Instead, the Vikings are trying to be competitive right now. That might not prove to be a wise decision in the long run, but for 2022? Well, they got better. The Vikings added a trio of free agents in edge defender Za’Darius Smith, linebacker Jordan Hicks, and defensive tackle Harrison Phillips. They used a first-round pick on safety Lewis Cine and a second-round pick on corner Andrew Booth.
Losing Mike Zimmer hurts, but the Vikings replaced him with veteran defensive coordinator Ed Donatell. For as bad as last season was, the Vikings still finished 17th in DVOA.
If healthy, Danielle Hunter and Smith offer a menacing pair of pass rushers. Phillips and Dalvin Tomlinson are solid on the interior. Eric Kendricks and Hicks give the Vikings an above-average set of veteran linebackers.
If things go badly, it’ll be because of issues in the secondary. But even there, the Vikings have options with a blend of veterans and rookies.
Uh-oh, it’s happening again! Consider this a cry for help.
11. Cleveland Browns
Their defense is built to stop the pass, and the Browns did that well in 2021, finishing seventh in passing DVOA and 12th in overall DVOA. Myles Garrett is a game-wrecker, and Jadeveon Clowney, coming off of a nine-sack season, offers a nice no. 2. At linebacker, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah is a potential breakout player to watch.
Cornerback is another strength with Denzel Ward and Greg Newsome II offering one of the league’s top starting duos.
Defensive tackle is a question, but the Browns seem content to be somewhat vulnerable against the run. They can rush the passer, and they can cover. Those qualities give the Browns a relatively high ceiling.
12. Tennessee Titans
In the past three years, the Titans have spent four top-100 picks on cornerbacks: Kristian Fulton, Caleb Farley, Elijah Molden, and Roger McCreary. Tennessee’s fate on defense hinges largely on how well those young corners perform in 2022.
Up front, the Titans aren’t deep, but the pass-rush group of Jeffery Simmons, Denico Autry, Harold Landry, and Bud Dupree has the potential to be as good as any in the league. On the back end, safety Kevin Byard is coming off of an All-Pro season.
I’m bullish on the Titans to be a fun, feisty defense.
13. Denver Broncos
On one hand, going from Vic Fangio to another defensive coordinator (in this case, Ejiro Evero) is almost always going to mean a downgrade. On the other hand, the Broncos defense ranked 30th in AGL last year. Just getting better injury luck is likely to give them a nice bump from their no. 21 DVOA ranking in 2021.
Denver’s pass rush is a high-variance group. Bradley Chubb and Randy Gregory could offer an elite edge-rushing duo. That’s with one huge caveat, of course: if they stay healthy. Chubb played in seven games last year and has appeared in 41 games in four seasons. Gregory played in 12 games last year and 10 in 2020, and he was out of football in 2019. D.J. Jones was a nice addition at defensive tackle, edge defender Malik Reed has been productive, and rookie Nik Bonitto is a fun wild card.
At corner, Patrick Surtain II is coming off of an impressive rookie season and could be an All-Pro in 2022. Ronald Darby is a competent no. 2. And K’Waun Williams is a feisty slot defender. Justin Simmons is one of the NFL’s best safeties.
There is enough talent here for the Broncos to outperform this ranking significantly if they benefit from some injury luck. And given the talent in the secondary, I think their floor is pretty high.
14. Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins are a prime candidate to take at least a slight step back defensively from their no. 10 DVOA ranking in 2021. They had the healthiest defense in the NFL last year. They also had a very good defensive coach in Brian Flores, who is no longer there.
Having said that, it might not be a huge step back. The Dolphins have unmatched continuity. Among the 15 Dolphins players who logged 400-plus snaps last year, 14 are back. The only exception is defensive lineman Adam Butler.
The Dolphins have talented options up front in edge defender Jaelan Phillips, along with defensive linemen Christian Wilkins and Emmanuel Ogbah. They have talented corners in Xavien Howard and Byron Jones.
The Dolphins played the highest percentage of man coverage last year, and that’s likely to continue in 2022. Flores is gone, but defensive coordinator Josh Boyer is still with the team.
I see a dropoff from last year, but the Dolphins still have enough talent defensively to be decent.
15. Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles defense was a flat-out bore last season. They finished 24th in defensive DVOA—the third-worst ranking for the franchise going back to 1981. The ranking dipped after the Eagles rested their starters against the Cowboys in Week 18. But it also got a boost going up against backup quarterbacks like Jake Fromm, Trevor Siemian, and Garrett Gilbert earlier in the season. Whenever the Eagles faced a competent or good quarterback, the defense got torched.
GM Howie Roseman did his job this offseason, adding edge defender Haason Reddick, linebacker Kyzir White, and cornerback James Bradberry. The Eagles drafted defensive tackle Jordan Davis in the first round and linebacker Nakobe Dean in the third. The defensive line goes eight-deep with starting-caliber players. Bradberry, Darius Slay, and Avonte Maddox give the Eagles three solid veteran corners.
The Eagles played a high percentage of zone coverage last year and blitzed at the fourth-lowest rate, as first-year defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon prioritized stopping explosive plays above all else. But opponents completed 70 percent of their passes against the Eagles—the worst mark of any defense over the past two seasons.
In terms of talent, this is a top-10 group. But Gannon needs to prove he can maximize the personnel available to him.
16. Cincinnati Bengals
A stat that stunned me: The Bengals were the best man coverage team in the NFL last year in terms of EPA per play, according to TruMedia/PFF.
Cincinnati’s strength under defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo is in its flexibility. The Bengals don’t just do one thing. They are willing to adjust based on game, situation, and opponent. That’s what we saw against the Kansas City Chiefs when they consistently dropped eight into coverage against Patrick Mahomes. Kansas City’s second-half possessions in the AFC championship game: four punts, two interceptions, and a field goal.
Among the 13 Bengals defensive players who logged 400-plus snaps last year, 12 are back. The only exception is Larry Ogunjobi. The team drafted versatile safety Dax Hill in the first round.
It’s not the most talented group, and the Bengals were far from a defensive juggernaut last year (they ranked 16th in DVOA), but this is a competitive group that is coached well.
17. Green Bay Packers
I understand why some might like the Packers defense to make a significant leap from their no. 18 ranking in 2021, but I can’t get there.
Last year’s defense produced turnovers at the eighth-highest rate in the NFL. Could that happen again? Sure. But turnovers are part skill and part luck, and they’re unpredictable year to year. The Packers might not benefit as much from takeaways in 2022. Having cornerback Jaire Alexander available is huge. He’s one of the best corners in the NFL, and he played in only four games last year. But overall, the Packers defense ranked seventh in AGL. Their depth could get tested more in other areas of the defense if they experience league-average injury luck.
The Packers ranked 27th in ESPN’s pass rush win rate metric last year. Defensive tackles Jarran Reed and Devonte Wyatt are nice additions, but Reed had 2.5 sacks for the Chiefs last season, and Wyatt had 2.5 sacks at Georgia. I’m not sure either guy is going to really give the pass rush a big boost.
Then there are the individual performances from last year. Linebacker De’Vondre Campbell was incredible. But is it more likely that he will have a second straight All-Pro season or that he’ll revert a bit to the solid but unspectacular player he was for his first five seasons? Cornerback Rasul Douglas had five interceptions in his first 60 NFL games. He had five interceptions in 12 games for the Packers last season. Is he going to be able to repeat that performance?
I like a lot of the players on the Packers defense. I just think that incremental improvement is more likely than a big leap.
18. Carolina Panthers
They have some fun young players in defensive end Brian Burns, defensive tackle Derrick Brown, cornerback Jaycee Horn, and safety Jeremy Chinn. The Panthers finished second in ESPN’s pass rush win rate, which measures how often a defense produces pressure in 2.5 seconds. Losing edge defender Haason Reddick in free agency hurts, but Carolina still has talent up front.
Horn is probably the key here. A foot injury limited him to three games as a rookie. If he can live up to his draft slot (eighth overall), the Panthers could produce a sneaky-good defense. They ranked 14th in DVOA last year, and coordinator Phil Snow stood out as a creative schemer. Outperforming this ranking and jumping into the top 10 is within the range of reasonable outcomes.
19. Washington Commanders
They were third in defensive DVOA in 2020 and then fell to 27th last year. The most likely scenario in 2022 is that the Commanders settle in the mediocre range this season.
One reason to be somewhat optimistic that the Commanders can rebound is their performance on third and fourth downs last year. According to the Football Outsiders Almanac, Washington was last in DVOA on third and fourth downs and nearly 10 percent worse than any other team. Football Outsiders’ research suggests that that’s usually something which regresses to the mean from one year to the next.
Given the investment the Commanders have made in their defensive line, they need the pass rush to be dominant. Last year, it was not. In fact, they had the worst pass defense in the NFL (EPA per play) when they rushed four or fewer.
The Commanders still have plenty of talent on the defensive line with Montez Sweat, Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne. Chase Young is coming back from a torn ACL and could miss the start of the season. 2021 first-round pick Jamin Davis needs to give the Commanders more in his second season. They have good continuity in the secondary.
Bottom line: This defense should be better than it was a year ago.
20. New York Jets
Two areas where the Jets could benefit from the randomness of football:
- Injuries. The Jets suffered the worst injury luck of any defense last year, according to AGL. Even worse than the Ravens!
- Turnovers. They ranked 28th in turnover EPA last season.
Defensive end Carl Lawson returns from injury and joins a deep group that includes Quinnen Williams, John Franklin-Myers and rookie Jermaine Johnson. This pass rush has a chance to be really good. In the secondary, the Jets signed corner D.J. Reed and safety Jordan Whitehead in free agency. They used the fourth overall pick on corner Sauce Gardner.
Robert Saleh coached good defenses in San Francisco, but last year’s Jets ranked 32nd in defensive DVOA. I expect significant improvement in 2022.
21. New England Patriots
It’s hard to come up with a scenario where the Patriots defense is as good as it was last year when it ranked sixth in DVOA. It might instead have one of the bigger drop-offs we see from 2021 to 2022.
The Patriots produced takeaways on a league-high 17.8 percent of opponents’ possessions last year. That’s highly unlikely to repeat, especially considering that the team let corner J.C. Jackson (8 INTs and a forced fumble last year) walk in free agency. The Patriots ranked 17th in TruMedia’s success rate metric, which measures whether or not the defense produced a positive result on each play. Those numbers suggest that the Patriots’ success last year hinged quite a bit on producing turnovers.
Could Bill Belichick’s decision to let Jackson walk signal a move to more zone coverage? Maybe. The Patriots played man at the fourth-highest rate last year, according to TruMedia/PFF. Either way, corner is a big concern.
Up front, edge defender Matt Judon and defensive tackle Christian Barmore are good players. But the Patriots have generally leaned on their coverage to help their pass rush, not the other way around. That strategy might not be available to them this year.
The most likely scenario is that the Patriots defense slips into mediocrity in 2022.
22. Las Vegas Raiders
This is a group that could benefit from a little regression to the mean. The Raiders finished 31st in turnover EPA last year, according to TruMedia. Just getting closer to league average would give the defense a big boost. The Raiders defense finished 27th in AGL last year. Not having to rely on so many backups would help too. The Raiders defense wasn’t terrible last year. It was just OK, finishing 19th in DVOA.
New defensive coordinator Patrick Graham has shown a willingness to adjust his scheme to his personnel. That will be key this year, considering the uncertainty at cornerback. The Raiders are expected to rely on some combination of Trayvon Mullen Jr., Rock Ya-Sin, Anthony Averett and Nate Hobbs. The Raiders lost their best cover corner, Casey Hayward Jr., in free agency.
Up front, Maxx Crosby and Chandler Jones give the Raiders an elite edge-rushing duo. Bilal Nichols at defensive tackle could prove to be a savvy addition.
It’s possible that the Raiders outperform this ranking, but the secondary questions concern me.
23. Indianapolis Colts
There are no secrets to how new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley is going to want to play. In Vegas last year, Bradley’s defense played zone at the highest rate in the league and blitzed at the lowest rate, according to TruMedia/PFF. The approach is likely to be the same in Indy.
The Colts have a quality defensive line with defensive ends Yannick Ngakoue and Kwity Paye, along with defensive tackles DeForest Buckner and Grover Stewart. But the Colts have questions throughout the rest of their defense.
All-Pro linebacker Shaquille Leonard had offseason back surgery, and his status for Week 1 is uncertain. In the secondary, the Colts signed cornerback Stephon Gilmore, but he turns 32 in September and and wasn’t a full-time player in seven of the eight games he was healthy for last season. At safety, Julian Blackmon is coming back from an Achilles injury, with rookie Nick Cross or veteran Rodney McLeod filling the other spot after presumed starter Khari Willis retired in June.
The Colts forced turnovers at the third-highest rate last year. That’ll be tough to repeat. As a point of reference, Bradley’s Raiders ranked 31st in the same category.
My take on Bradley is that he’ll pretty much coach to the level of talent handed to him. If Leonard is healthy and Gilmore can still deliver, the Colts can outperform this ranking. But those are pretty big question marks.
24. Jacksonville Jaguars
The pieces are in place for them to make the leap from terrible (31st in DVOA last year) to somewhat respectable. The Jaguars’ free agency spending spree included three projected starters on defense: linebacker Foyesade Oluokun, defensive tackle Foley Fatukasi and cornerback Darious Williams.
They then spent three top-75 picks on defense: defensive lineman Travon Walker (no. 1), linebacker Devin Lloyd (no. 27), and linebacker Chad Muma (no. 70). It’s always risky to expect too much from rookies, but the early returns on Walker have been positive. And the Jaguars still have edge rusher Josh Allen (7.5 sacks in 2021), while Shaquill Griffin, Williams, and Tyson Campbell offer a competent set of corners.
The Jaguars defense finished 32nd in turnover EPA. Producing turnovers at just a league average rate would give them a big boost. I’m not telling you this defense is going to be a juggernaut, but it could certainly be a competitive group under new coordinator Mike Caldwell. It wouldn’t shock me to see the Jaguars defense finish in the top half of the league, but as you can see, I’m too cowardly to actually predict that.
25. Seattle Seahawks
Pete Carroll said earlier this offseason that the Seahawks have been “arrogant” with their defensive approach and are ready to make some significant changes. We won’t know for sure what those changes are until the games start, but look for Seattle to incorporate more split-safety coverages and pre-snap disguise.
The Seahawks have had a mediocre defense for a while now, finishing between 13th and 21st in DVOA for five straight seasons. Gone from last year are linebacker Bobby Wagner and cornerback D.J. Reed. In are edge defender Uchenna Nwosu and defensive lineman Shelby Harris.
The Seahawks had the fourth-healthiest defense last year. Chances are their depth is going to be tested more in 2022, and the reality is the Seahawks don’t have a very deep or talented roster. Corner and pass rush are both big question marks.
Because of the expected scheme changes, this group should be interesting. But unless some young, relatively unknown players emerge as difference-makers, Seattle’s defense is likely to be a below-average unit.
26. Houston Texans
This defense was not terrible last season! I think that’s the nicest thing I’ve said about the Texans in the last three years.
They finished 23rd in DVOA and have scheme continuity with Lovie Smith. The Texans added veterans in edge defender Jerry Hughes and corner Steven Nelson. Their draft class included corner Derek Stingley Jr., safety Jalen Pitre, and linebacker Christian Harris. All three are fun players, but they’ll likely experience the usual rookie ups and downs.
Overall, it feels like the Texans defense will perform at a similar level to last year’s unit.
27. Detroit Lions
The Lions are another team whose defense was crushed by injuries last year. They ranked 28th in AGL. Getting better injury luck and adding no. 2 overall pick Aidan Hutchinson should lead to at least some improvement. The Lions defense was 30th in turnover EPA. Getting to league average with takeaways would give Detroit a boost too.
Cornerback Jeff Okudah is a key player for the Lions. The third overall pick in 2020, he’s played in just 10 games in two seasons and is coming off of an Achilles injury. Edge defender Romeo Okwara is coming off of an Achilles injury too.
The Lions ranked 31st in pass rush win rate and 31st in adjusted sack rate last year. For their pass rush to show significant improvement, either Hutchinson needs to be an impact player right away or Okwara needs to be back to 100 percent off of the injury.
Corner Amani Oruwariye and safety Tracy Walker III are nice players, but the Lions have serious questions in the rest of the secondary.
Improvement seems likely, but this still looks like a below-average group.
28. Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs’ defensive rankings in four years with Patrick Mahomes as their quarterback: 24th, 14th, 18th, and 26th. This seems like another year where below-average defense is most likely, and mediocrity might be the ceiling.
The Chiefs have significant defensive turnover with players like safety Tyrann Mathieu, corner Charvarius Ward, and defensive tackle Jarran Reed gone from last year’s roster. They signed safety Justin Reid and used first-round picks on cornerback Trent McDuffie and defensive end George Karlaftis. Not to repeat myself for the 400th time, but it’s hard for rookies to come in and be impact players. For every Micah Parsons, there are a number of guys who struggle to become even competent starters right away.
Having said that, if Karlaftis is the exception, this pass rush could be really good, given that they have Chris Jones, Frank Clark, and Carlos Dunlap on the roster.
The secondary is a big question. The Chiefs ranked 25th against the pass last year. They are replacing Ward with McDuffie and Mathieu with Reid. It’s far from a guarantee that those moves represent upgrades.
Meanwhile, the Chiefs could get stung by a little bit of regression. Their defense was third in turnover EPA last year, and counting on those takeaways year to year is risky. Their defense was third in AGL, meaning they might need to count on backups more in 2022 if they don’t get the same injury luck.
There’s a scenario where Clark has a career year, and Karlaftis is a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate. But short of that, this looks like a defense that will likely struggle.
29. New York Giants
We know what new defensive coordinator Wink Martindale wants to do: blitz and play man coverage. He continued with that formula last year, but the Ravens were decimated by injuries, and they fell apart. Now for the second year in a row, Martindale might not have the personnel to play the way he wants to play.
The Giants’ pass rush has upside. On the edge, first-round pick Kayvon Thibodeaux pairs with Azeez Ojulari, who had a promising rookie season in 2021. Leonard Williams and Dexter Lawrence are good defensive tackles. It’s not a deep group, but the starters could be fun.
Corner, on the other hand, could be a huge concern. The Giants parted ways with James Bradberry. Now they’re relying on Adoree’ Jackson, who’s missed 18 games the past two seasons, and second-year player Aaron Robinson, who started two games as a rookie. If Martindale is committed to playing a high percentage of man coverage, things could get ugly.
It’s going to be a slow rebuild in New York. If the pass rush starts clicking, the Giants defense could surprise some opponents. But overall, there are just a lot of holes on the roster.
30. Atlanta Falcons
The best thing I can say about the Falcons here is that their talent on defense is at least better than their talent on offense. A.J. Terrell was one of the best corners in the league last year, and the Falcons signed Casey Hayward Jr. in free agency. That has the potential to be a pretty good starting duo.
The Falcons’ biggest concern is pass rush. They were 32nd in adjusted sack rate last year, and it’s tough to come up with a reason why they’d improve significantly from that spot. The Falcons don’t have any returning players who had more than two sacks last season. Then again, I guess it can’t get any worse. At least they signed edge defender Lorenzo Carter and drafted defensive end Arnold Ebiketie in the second round.
The Falcons finished 30th in defensive DVOA last year. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees has coached some good defenses in the past and has the ability to do more with less. Improvement is certainly possible, but there’s still not a lot of talent here.
31. Arizona Cardinals
Kliff Kingsbury should’ve sent defensive coordinator Vance Joseph a thank-you note when Kingsbury got his contract extension this offseason. The Cardinals defense has kept the team afloat at times throughout the last two years and has outperformed the offense, finishing seventh and 10th in defensive DVOA.
But 2022 could be ugly. The Cardinals lost two key cogs—edge defender Chandler Jones and linebacker Jordan Hicks—in free agency. GM Steve Keim used first-round picks on linebackers Isaiah Simmons and Zaven Collins in back-to-back years, but neither has looked like an impact player so far. Up front, the Cardinals are counting on J.J. Watt to stay healthy (he missed 10 games last year and is 33) and play well. Arizona’s cornerback situation can best be described as shaky. They finished second behind only the Cowboys in turnover EPA. If they don’t produce those takeaways at such a high rate, they might not be nearly as good.
This defense lacks talent. If Joseph can coach this group to a top-10 ranking again, he should be in the conversation as one of the NFL’s brightest defensive minds. A more likely scenario is that the Cardinals defense takes a big step back in 2022.
32. Chicago Bears
New head coach Matt Eberflus doesn’t try to make defense too complicated. He preaches a HITS principle: Hustle, Intensity, Takeaways, Smart. Part of me loves the simplicity. The only problem? Eberflus might not have enough talent for those principles to really matter.
Linebacker Roquan Smith is coming off of an excellent season, but he wants a new contract and has requested a trade. Defensive end Robert Quinn is coming off of an 18.5-sack season, but he seems like a candidate to be traded to a contender before the in-season deadline.
If Quinn gets injured or traded, this projects as one of the worst pass rushes in the NFL. And the Bears are likely starting two rookies in the secondary. Corner Kyler Gordon and safety Jaquan Brisker could turn out to be great players, but growing pains should be expected.
Add it all up, and this defense could really struggle.