After going over the top NFL offenses for 2019, we’re now going into the league’s top defenses for this season. Offenses were pretty difficult to rank, but ranking defenses was more challenging than anticipated—there are probably a couple dozen groups that could arguably be in the top 12, but these are my thoughts on where NFL defenses will rank in 2019. Please note, these are not fantasy football defense rankings.
12. Philadelphia Eagles
The Lions, 49ers, Falcons, Panthers, Seahawks, Steelers, Colts, and Saints are all arguably top-ten defenses for this season, and I won’t be surprised if a team not mentioned is a top-five defense. But I gave the Eagles the nod for the No. 12 spot, as they have one of the best defensive lines in the league and can put teams away late in games if they’re ahead. The loss of linebacker Jordan Hicks hurts, but Zach Brown is a solid fill-in for the defense, including in nickel packages. Philadelphia has a bunch of options at cornerback that can step up, but that position is a slight concern, too, as there’s a chance no one does step up, which will make it difficult to stop top quarterbacks like Drew Brees in the NFC. Still, the defensive line powers the group, and it’s enough to have the Eagles listed among the NFL’s best defenses.
11. Tennessee Titans
The Titans were third in scoring defense last season, allowing 18.9 points per game in their first year under head coach Mike Vrabel. The defense can undoubtedly far surpass this No. 11 ranking in their second year in Vrabel’s system, but I think Tennessee’s front seven has less upside than other teams ahead of them. However, the secondary possesses great athleticism, including from third-year cornerback Adoree’ Jackson and All-Pro safety Kevin Byard. Overall, the Titans defense might also have pressure taken off them if the offense commits to running the ball more consistently with Derrick Henry after the big back was used sparingly for much of last season.
10. Los Angeles Chargers
You can throw the Titans and potentially the Eagles into the mix too, but I think these defenses in the No. 10 down to No. 4 range in particular could go in about any order. Initially, the Chargers were going to be higher than this, but they struggled against top offenses last season, including in their playoff loss to the Patriots when they gave up 41 points. Adding veteran linebacker Thomas Davis, first-round defensive lineman Jerry Tillery, and second-round safety Nasir Adderley will give the squad a boost, though, and the Chargers have the talent to become an elite defense in 2019.
9. Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys play as hard as anyone on defense, and that leads to mostly solid, consistent play from a group that also has star power on all three levels with defensive end Demarcus Lawrence, linebackers Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch, and cornerback Byron Jones. One concern for Dallas’ defense is that teams were able to bully them on the ground a bit toward the end of last season—like the Colts in Week 15 and the Rams in the Divisional Round. But they also had stretches of exceptional run defense—like in the Wild Card Round against the Seahawks—so the potential is there for them to be a shutdown unit.
8. Jacksonville Jaguars
Coming off a dominant defensive season in 2017, the Jaguars weren’t bad on the whole last season—they were tied for fourth in points per game allowed (19.8) and gave up the second-fewest passing scores in the league. However, the Jacksonville defense did look truly look bad at times, and they clearly took a step back. It won’t be easy to get back to their 2017 level of play, especially with Telvin Smith taking a year away from football; but the secondary still has lockdown ability, and the pass rush has a plethora of players that can get to the quarterback—including rookie defensive end Josh Allen, who was arguably the best player in this year’s draft class but dropped to the seventh overall pick.
7. Houston Texans
The Texans were tied with the Jags for the fourth-best scoring defense last season, and they added cornerbacks Bradley Roby (from the Broncos) and Lonnie Johnson Jr. (a second-round rookie from Kentucky) for more depth at the weakest spot of the defense. J.J. Watt put in a healthy campaign last year and remains a dominant player, while Jadeveon Clowney should be at his best as he looks to earn a long-term contract next offseason (assuming Houston doesn’t extend him by this year’s deadline); the two of them in particular can make gamebreaking plays for their defense, but the entire front seven is stout. The Texans allowed a league-low 3.4 yards per carry last season, and they figure to remain among the best run defenses again in 2019.
6. Denver Broncos
This might seem a little high for a defense that hasn’t played up to its talent level for most of the past couple of seasons, but new Broncos head coach Vic Fangio will have the freedom to do whatever he wants with a group that has pieces to do damage. Franchise cornerstones Von Miller and Bradley Chubb each have 15+ sack potential screaming off the edge for Denver, and the secondary targeted pieces—like free-agent signings Kareem Jackson and Bryce Callahan—to fit Fangio’s defense. While the Broncos defense was disappointing overall in 2017 and 2018, they did a relatively good job of containing Kansas City’s high-flying offense last year; it’ll be fun to see what should be an improved defense match up with the Chiefs twice this fall.
5. Minnesota Vikings
I stated that the No. 4 to No. 10 range could vary greatly, but I do personally feel pretty good about this top five. Dating back to the NFC Championship Game from the 2017 season in particular, the Vikings have had some surprising showings in pass defense. Basically, when Minnesota gets beat, they can get beat badly if a quarterback is on-fire and can shred their the man-to-man defense (like Nick Foles did in the NFC title game and like Jared Goff did on Thursday night last season). However, Mike Zimmer’s squad is extremely talented, and they can completely shut down opposing offenses by playing straight up and physically challenging receivers—when it’s third and long, they are nearly impossible to convert on. Linebacker Anthony Barr’s decision to re-sign with the Vikings after considering the Jets helps Minnesota remain among the most talented units—offense or defense—in the NFL.
4. Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens lost C.J. Mosley, Terrell Suggs, and Eric Weddle this offseason, but they were able to add Earl Thomas to a top-notch secondary while also adding linebackers Pernell McPhee and Shane Ray for more depth and competition. The front seven is going to be a bit of a “no-name” unit, but Baltimore has shown throughout the years that they play tough defense no matter who is in uniform—that shouldn’t change in 2019. With stout play up front to go along with arguably the league’s best secondary after adding safety Earl Thomas, the Ravens should be tough to score on this season. Getting to the quarterback is likely to be the challenge as the Ravens look to contend in the AFC North, but the team always finds a way to play well on defense.
3. Buffalo Bills
Buffalo probably gets overlooked among the NFL’s best defenses, but they have the talent and coaching to become a known force in 2019. Struggles of the offense last season were a factor in the Bills giving up 23.4 points per game (18th in the NFL), but they were second in yards allowed per game (294.1). Led by standout cornerback Tre’Davious White (arguably the best player at his position in football), uber-athletic linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, and rookie defensive linemen Ed Oliver, the Bills have star-quality players on all three levels of the defense; and head coach Sean McDermott will get the most of his crew.
2. New England Patriots
Because they don’t do a lot of talking or showboating after plays, they might not be considered elite players by many football fans—but I think secondary members Stephon Gilmore, Devin McCourty, and Patrick Chung are clearly among the best players at their positions in the league. The linebacking corps gets reliable play from Dont’a Hightower, Elandon Roberts, and Kyle Van Noy—and Jaime Collins is now thrown back into the mix in his return to the Patriots. The defensive line probably doesn’t have anyone that’ll go for 15 sacks this season, but they are versatile and deep. Bill Belichick leading the defense gives them an obvious boost, too. Statistically, the Patriots probably won’t be atop the league, but they are a promising group; and when the games matter most, and New England needs to make a stop, they’ll make it.
1. Chicago Bears
Finally, the Bears are probably the NFL’s top defense in the eyes of most NFL observers, as they are coming off a superb season and have a unit that’s loaded with talent all over the field. The loss of defensive coordinator Vic Fangio isn’t ideal, but Chicago did extremely well to get former Colts head coach Chuck Pagano for the same post. The linebacking corps of Khalil Mack, Roquan Smith, Danny Trevathan, and Leonard Floyd is insanely good; the secondary has no weak spots and is led by two balanced playmaking safeties in All-Pro Eddie Jackson and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix; and the defensive line led by the underrated Akiem Hicks doesn’t make things easy for the opposition. Unfortunately, many fans don’t care much for defense—but the Bears will be fun to watch on that side of the ball in 2019.