PFF has spent the best part of the NFL offseason been ranking players and position groups to give fans a better idea of where things stand. After ranking every team’s offense by tiers, it’s now time to turn attention toward the defensive side of the ball.
Rather than list teams from top to bottom and split hairs between similarly elite or poor groups, we have arranged the NFL's 32 teams into groups of comparable units, comprising five tiers.
The league’s No. 1 defense a season ago is sure to see some regression, in part because of losses in both personnel and coaching, but they should still be an elite unit. The Rams defense boasts the best single player in football in the shape of Aaron Donald – who once again led the league in total pressures with 98 – but also elite players like Jalen Ramsey that can change how offenses have to try and attack them. There is no reason the Rams won’t continue to have one of the game’s best defenses in 2021.
Tampa Bay’s defense finished sixth last year in expected points added (EPA) allowed per play, and they did that despite rookies featured prominently and Vita Vea missing for most of the year after looking like the best nose tackle in football for the first month of the season. Just like their offense, the Bucs have depth and talent on the defensive side of the ball, and the prospect that many of their youngest players will be better this season with another year of development under their belts. There is good reason the Bucs are seen as one of the favorites to repeat as Champions, and it extends beyond Tom Brady.
No team had a higher pressure rate last season than the Pittsburgh Steelers, whose 45.1% rate was one of the best marks PFF has recorded in 15 years of grading. They were almost five percentage points better than the next-best team, and look ready to run it back again in 2021 with most of the same players on board and potentially even an upgrade opposite T.J. Watt if Melvin Ingram can stay healthy. Coverage is still a question mark in certain spots, but the Steelers get enough pressure that it helps paper over any cracks.
The Denver Broncos are building a juggernaut on defense and loading up in the right areas. Bryce Callahan was one of the best cornerbacks in the league last season but was frequently asked to play out of position to cover for injuries. Since then, the team added Kyle Fuller, Ronald Darby and then Patrick Surtain II in the draft to turn an area of weakness into a strength. Add in the return of Von Miller and Bradley Chubb, and a coach consistently at the forefront of modern defense, the Broncos will be a formidable unit in 2021.
Washington has assembled a fearsome-looking defensive line, but they have been making moves behind it too. William Jackson III replaces Ronald Darby at cornerback and should be an upgrade there. Jackson allowed just 52.2% of passes thrown his way last season to be caught. Jamin Davis bolsters the linebacker group from the draft, but may not be an impact player in Year 1 given the recent trend of linebackers struggling to make the leap to the NFL level. Washington’s questions are in the back seven, but their defensive front may be good enough to hide all those concerns.
Baltimore’s defense was already good, and they made some pretty significant moves to reinforce it in the offseason. Matthew Judon departs as a free agent, but he has been replaced with Odafe Oweh in the draft and Justin Houston as a late signing. Oweh is one of the most gifted athletes in the game and the Ravens do an outstanding job of scheming favorable opportunities for their pass rushers thanks to leading the league in blitz rate (46.3% last season). If Patrick Queen can take a step forward in development after his baptism by fire as a rookie, this group could be outstanding.
The Saints always have plenty of turnover given their approach to the salary cap, but their defense is still loaded with talent. A suspension to David Onyemata on the defensive line is a blow as he was their best-graded defender last season in a career year, but they still have the players to absorb that hit. Their secondary had question marks heading into camp, but the addition of Prince Amukamara should guarantee at least passable play from their second cornerback spot opposite Marshon Lattimore.
A new defensive coordinator in San Francisco will be an interesting element to monitor for this team, but most of the pieces remain in place from a defense that has been amongst the league’s best over the past couple of seasons. Since the start of 2019, the 49ers are tied for the league’s best yards per play figure allowed (4.8) and only the Steelers had allowed fewer EPA per play. The secondary needs to figure out life beyond Richard Sherman, who had been a real stabilizing force within Robert Saleh’s defense but otherwise should remain imposing.
The Colts’ zone-heavy approach to defense paid major dividends in 2020, allowing players like Xavier Rhodes to revive his career after an ugly end to his tenure in Minnesota. Rhodes posted the best single-season PFF grade of his career (77.3), and went back into the double-digits for pass breakups for the first time in five seasons. He was retained this offseason, and The Colts will look to maintain their status as a defense that is good across the board, finishing top-10 last year in any number of metrics, including EPA per play, yards per play and scoring drive percentage.
Green Bay’s season ended in part because Kevin King and the secondary couldn’t stop the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC Championship game. That belies how good the unit as a whole was for much of the season. Rashan Gary began to put it together as a pass-rusher last season, and a continuation of that performance into this year would give the Packers an imposing edge rush tandem with Za’Darius Smith. Gary had 46 total pressures over the season including the playoffs, and three of his final six games saw him notch five or more in a game.
The Patriots' defense had a rare down year last season, but they have called for plenty of reinforcements over the offseason and must also hope for some positive regression from players like Stephon Gilmore, whose overall PFF grade was down more than 20 grading points from the previous season. On top of the new additions, the team will also welcome back Dont’a Hightower – one of the lynchpins of the defense over the past few seasons, after he opted out of 2020. Hightower is a well-rounded linebacker that adds a positive presence to all facets of the game and can add to the pass-rush as a blitzer, and his return will be a huge boost.
Cleveland’s secondary was a weakness by the end of last season, and they attacked it hard throughout the offseason with both free-agent and draft additions. It remains to be seen whether every one of those additions will work out, but if their strike rate is even average it should represent a significant upgrade. John Johnson III at safety in particular has earned an overall PFF grade of at least 80 in every healthy season he has had in the NFL. Up front, they became the latest team to give Jadeveon Clowney the platform to prove he can be an elite playmaker, and the team has still yet to get a full season from a healthy and dominant Myles Garrett. Expect Cleveland’s defense to be better in 2021 than it was a year ago.
The Giants had a defense that seemed to consistently play above the level of expectations in 2020, but it might be time to just give them the credit they deserve this year. The Giants allowed 5.3 yards per play last season, a top 10 figure in the league. James Bradberry had a career year at cornerback, looking like one of the best players in the league. Bradberry had 14 pass breakups and three interceptions from just 78 targets. The team’s biggest issue a year ago was a lack of edge rush, with Kyler Fackrell leading the group with just 19 total pressures. If they can upgrade there with rookie Azeez Ojulari then things will be much better.
Miami’s defense is definitely heading in the right direction, and last season posted some pretty impressive numbers even if there were still flaws to work on. Finding an answer to their slot cornerback woes was needed, and the team at least increased their chances by bringing in Justin Coleman, a contingency play in case Noah Igbinoghene doesn’t take a step forward in Year 2. Jaelen Phillips also represents one of the highest upsides of any pass-rusher in the draft and could give the team a boost in that facet of play, in turn helping the secondary cover man-to-man for just a little less time on average.
Brandon Staley was defensive coordinator for the best defense in the NFL last season, and though he is now the head coach for the Chargers, you can bet his impact will be felt on a unit that has had a lot of talent for some time, but come up short of expectations. Joey Bosa is one of the league’s best pass-rushers, coming off a career-best 90.2 overall PFF grade, but the return of Derwin James from injury is arguably the single biggest needle-mover on this team. James has run through an injury gauntlet lately, but when healthy is one of the most unique talents in the game.
Minnesota’s defense was uncharacteristically soft last season for a Mike Zimmer group, but much of that was due to losses or personnel circumstances that have changed. Danielle Hunter missed all last season, but in 2019 had his best season as a pro, notching 80 total pressures. He now teams up with Michael Pierce – who opted out last year – and Dalvin Tomlinson to give Minnesota three new linemen that weren’t there last year. Patrick Peterson may not be the player he once was but could see a mini-revival in this defense in 2021, and if nothing else shouldn’t be gashed as badly as the young players they had manning the cornerback spot last season.
Buffalo is one of the best-coached teams defensively, able to consistently get a bit more than the sum of its individual parts. Last year in particular, that sum wasn’t great, and the unit is probably due for some positive regression in several cases. Matt Milano is coming off a career-low PFF coverage grade of 56.4, but his two previous years had seen him at 77.3 and 81.9 respectively. Similarly, Ed Oliver and Tremaine Edmunds each had career-worst grades last season. The Bills were top-10 in passer rating allowed last season (95.8) despite those issues.
Seattle’s defense has fallen a long way since their heyday as one of the best the league has ever seen, but they still have some elite players (like Bobby Wagner) and are too well-coached to just fall completely off the map. A season ago they tied for 12th in yards allowed per play (5.5) and were 11th in passer rating allowed (96.5) despite having virtually nothing in the way of pass-rush and steadfastly refusing to use a nickel cornerback because they just didn’t trust anybody enough with the job. Many of those same issues remain, but it also shows how high the floor of this unit should be.
Philadelphia’s defense was once built off the strength of the front four, which could run seven players deep including rotational bodies who could all rush the passer. They were still good in 2020, but dropped to third in the league in pressure rate (38.4%), some way short of their rate at their peak. Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox remain very good players, but each seems to be on the decline given their age, and there is no obvious replacement on the roster who seems set to match the elite level those players were at during their best seasons. The good news for the Eagles is that the secondary all of a sudden could actually be the best it has been for a few seasons with Anthony Harris coming on board as a free agent signing.
Arizona’s defense has the potential to be a lot better than this ranking. They have made a lot of interesting moves over the last year or so, with the additions of linebackers like Isaiah Simmons and Zaven Collins – both rare athletes – as well as the addition of J.J. Watt to bolster the pass-rush. Watt’s powers appear to be waning – at least as an edge rusher – and the linebackers have yet to show dominant play at the NFL level, but the potential is there. The biggest question mark is at corner, where Malcolm Butler is the new No. 1, but Butler hasn’t earned a PFF coverage grade above 76 since 2016.
Chicago’s defense still boasts one of the best individual players in football in Khalil Mack, as well as some up-and-coming potential stars like Roquan Smith at linebacker and Jaylon Johnson at corner, but the depth has been eroded in recent years and they aren’t the force as a group that they once were. Last year, they ranked 11th in EPA per play and 8th in pressure rate. They need some significant improvements from certain areas of the defense to get back to among the league’s best once again. It’s possible, but perhaps not likely.
The Kansas City Chiefs are another defense that is evidently well-coached under Steve Spagnuolo, and that has led to them consistently achieving what may have been a struggle under different coaches. They have some star power – with Chris Jones one of the best defensive linemen in the game, and Tyrann Mathieu still a game-changer in the secondary – but they lack depth across the board. Hitting on low-round surprises like L’Jarius Sneed last season is a huge boost. Sneed allowed a passer rating of just 66.6 as a rookie and could be the team’s No. 1 corner this year.
Cincinnati’s defense has begun to undergo a lot of turnover in personnel. Longtime stars like Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins are now gone, as well as less-heralded players like Carl Lawson. The group has been replaced, and they weren’t necessarily bad moves, but it remains to be seen if the replacements can upgrade those positions. Jessie Bates is the star amongst the group, but he needs to show that last season’s overall PFF grade of 90.1 was a breakout season and not just a new high watermark to his game. Linebacker remains a huge lingering weakness on paper
The Dallas defense was one of the worst units in football last year, but how much of that was due to the scheme that they were trying to get used to playing under Mike Nolan? The team switched coach in the offseason to Dan Quinn, and will be running a vastly more simplified defensive scheme. Micah Parsons has the potential to be an impact addition at linebacker, and even potentially as part of the pass rush, but the ceiling for this group really comes down to how many players have bounce-back seasons in a new scheme.
Carolina’s defense last season was relying on the performance of a lot of young players, and while most of them flashed ability, their overall level of play often left something to be desired. Year 2 should see an improvement in the baseline from them across the board, but how far that can take them remains unknown. Brian Burns is one of the best young pass-rushers in the league, generating 56 total pressures last season with a PFF pass-rushing grade of 86.9, the sixth-best mark among all edge rushers.
Tennessee’s defense was a problem for the team last season, and though they made a lot of changes this offseason, few of them are sure bets for this season. Bud Dupree was the team’s big free-agent signing brought over to address the pass-rush, but Dupree has had one season in the NFL with a PFF pass-rush grade above 62.0, and benefitted from one of the highest rates of unblocked and clean up pressure in the league in Pittsburgh. Caleb Farley has absurd potential at cornerback but was a medical red flag and rookie cornerbacks in 2020 were beaten for an average passer rating of 113, so expecting him to transform the secondary in Year 1 is optimistic.
The Raiders' secondary was a major problem last year, and players that were supposed to be a big part of the future like cornerback Damon Arnette are now seemingly marginalized within a new defensive scheme. Arnette was a shock 1st-round draft pick whose rookie year was a disaster between injury and play, and now may not even be part of the solution as he is running with the second team in training camp. The Raiders also ranked just 25th in pressure rate (28.0%), and are hoping Yannick Ngakoue can reverse the trend of his career which has seen his total number of pressures decrease in each of the last three seasons.
The Detroit Lions defense last season was absolutely gashed on a weekly basis. Over the season, they were beaten for a passer rating of 118.4 by opposing quarterbacks, and the results prompted a regime change in the offseason. The Lions clearly have more talent than they showed last year, but the question of how much of a revival can be done on the group that was there plus a few additions is an open one. Jeffrey Okudah was one of the best cornerback prospects to come into the league in years, but as a rookie was lit up in one of the most man-heavy schemes in the game, earning a PFF coverage grade of just 30.9.
The Jets have a solid-looking front seven, and the addition of Robert Saleh as a coach will certainly help the unit move in the right direction, but their cornerback group is one of the weakest units at any spot in the league heading into the year. Saleh’s defense is one that makes life a little easier for cornerbacks, but even so, the Jets have nobody on the roster at that position that was drafted higher than the 5th round or had more than 200 snaps of capable play last year.
Jacksonville is a defense with a lot of talent on paper, but how close they come to realizing that potential will determine how good this defense will be. C.J. Henderson flashed big potential as a rookie, racking up six pass breakups over the season, but struggled as the season wore on and was beaten for a passer rating of 111.7 overall. Shaquill Griffin has elite play on his resume but isn’t coming off his best year. The team also needs one of their former 1st-round pass-rushers to take a big step forward this year and supply the team with a consistent volume of pressure. Neither Josh Allen nor K’Lavon Chaisson has yet been that guy in the NFL.
Linebacker Deion Jones and defensive lineman Grady Jarrett remain from a defense that was once a formidable force in the league, but the talent level around them has eroded fast, leaving the Falcons with major remedial work needed to get back to where they want to be. A.J. Terrell was one of the better of the rookie cornerbacks last season, but such was the state of offense in the league that still meant he could only post a PFF coverage grade of 57 and allowed 69.7% of passes thrown his way to be caught. Dante Fowler looked like a different player when he wasn’t cleaning up for Aaron Donald in the Rams defense, notching just 30 total pressures last year, less than half the season before.
The Houston Texans defense forced just nine turnovers from opposing offenses all last season and lost one of their best players in J.J. Watt in the offseason. This roster has undergone an incredible amount of turnover, and many of the signings they have made have been intriguing or encouraging, but the group has a real lack of proven, impact playmakers, and unless the scheme works some magic, it’s difficult to see how they will do much to slow down anybody.