This is the second of what will be four articles in the Ultimate Power Ranking series, this time covering the defense. Check out the first article on the offense for more information on what this project is about, but in short, I was motivated to improve upon Pete Prisco’s woefully incomplete “Four-Pronged Approach” in his early Power Ranking released a few weeks ago.
As I mentioned before, this Ultimate Power Ranking is not my prediction for how each team will finish the 2013 season. Rather, it is a Power Ranking of where the teams are as of this moment. Using the end-of-regular-season data from 2012, and taking into account free agency and the draft, this power ranking takes into account every team’s current depth chart, as posted on ESPN. I have ranked every starter listed on the depth charts, and then simply added up every ranking number to come up with a “team” total. So teams with more highly ranked players will have a higher overall score. I found ranking the defensive players was much more involved than ranking the offense, due to much more movement in free agency, and scheme differences as well as my decision to rank individual linemen, rather than the whole unit. In short, I had a heck of a lot more players to rank!
Football Outsiders had some great statistics to measure the “value” of each offensive player, but unfortunately they don’t have similar stats available for individual defensive players. They do rank defensive lines and overall defenses, and I was tempted to do a ranking utilizing those two bits of info, or even just copy and paste their defense rankings. But this is the ULTIMATE power ranking, and I’m interested in the individuals on each team and how they are ranked among their peers. So, I turned to Pro Football Focus who does provide rankings of every single NFL position. Like Football Outsiders, they track every single snap, but they are looking at things a little differently. Football Outsiders is looking for how well a player does above an average replacement player in the same situation to determine value, whereas Pro Football Focus is placing a value judgment on each player’s performance on a given play. PFF is more subjective by nature, but makes for a great secondary source in place of Football Outsiders, in my opinion.
What makes this more challenging is that PFF lumps all the tackles and inside linebackers together, regardless of defensive scheme. It would have been better to separate out inside linebackers from middle linebackers and 4-3 defensive tackles from 3-4 nose tackles. Even cornerbacks have different responsibilities in each scheme. But, at least they ranked the defensive ends and outside linebackers in the two schemes separately. So, it makes the rankings and point totals a little trickier to deal with than they were for offense, but this is a limitation I am willing to accept, because there isn’t a better source!
In any case, every team has two safeties and two cornerbacks, so the top end point total is set at 64 based on the pool of starters at those positions. There are 17 teams with a 4-3 alignment, and 15 teams with a 3-4 alignment, which sets the pools of DT/NT the next biggest with 49, and then ILB the next biggest with 47. 4-3 ends and outside linebackers each have 34 players, and 3-4 ends and outside linebackers were the smallest player pools, both 30 players each. Also, just like I valued the QB a little more highly in an offense than the other positions, I’m going to value a pass rusher (both 4-3 DE and 3-4 OLB) a little more highly than the other defensive positions. The point totals for each position in the rankings break down as follows:
4-3 DE: 72-39 (34 total)
3-4 OLB: 72-43 (30 total)
3-4 DE: 64-35 (30 total)
DT/NT: 64-16 (49 total)
ILB: 64-18 (48 total)
4-3 OLB: 64-31 (34 total)
CB: 64-1 (64 total)
S: 64-1 (64 total)
So, regardless of scheme, if a team had the top ranked players at every position then they would have a max potential point total of 715. However, a 4-3 team with the worst ranked players at every position would bottom out at 199 points. A 3-4 team with the worst ranked players at every position would bottom out at 217 points. So the scheme a team employs can have a small impact on where a defense will rank, in that a 3-4 scheme runs a little less risk of having the worst players since their player pool by position is a bit smaller. Lastly, since the top end total of 715 is a bit higher than the offense’s top total of 701, this will make a team’s defensive ranking a little more valuable in the overall rankings. I think this is perfect, because as they say, “defense wins championships.” The individual player rankings are too detailed to cram into this post, but if you’re interested in viewing them, check out the spreadsheet here. So, without further ado, here are the Ultimate Power Rankings for defense:
Ultimate Power Rankings – Defense
1. Pittsburgh Steelers 546
The Steelers have a legacy of being defensive masters, and defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau has been frustrating NFL offenses for decades. But this ranking isn’t just about them being historically good. The Steelers have what might be the highest ranked secondary in the league, and only one player on the whole team is ranked lower than 27th overall at their position: inside linebacker Larry Foote. Safeties Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu are the 6th and 7th best safeties in the NFL, and inside backer Timmons is ranked #5. Corners Cortez Allen and Ike Taylor are both ranked in the top half of all corners at #11 and #21 respectively. Their pass rush is anchored by #12 ranked Lamar Woodley, and they have a player in the top half of the rankings at every position. There just isn’t a major weakness, despite the loss of James Harrison in free agency.
2. Chicago Bears 542
The Bears are another team that prides itself on their defense, and despite the retirement of Brian Urlacher, they remain near the top of the ranking. The fact is they have league’s best cornerback tandem with #2 ranked Charles Tillman and #6 ranked Tim Jennings. They have a strong defensive line anchored by #6 ranked tackle Henry Melton and #12 ranked end Julius Peppers. Lance Briggs is one of the best outside linebackers in the league too, ranked #3 overall. They do have a weakness at safety as Chris Conte is in the bottom half of the league of starting safeties, but free agent signing D.J. Williams, ranked #16 should help fill the void left by Urlacher. If not for their safety situation, they would easily be the top-ranked defense.
3. Seattle Seahawks 526
The Seattle Seahawks find themselves in the #3 spot thanks to a couple of elite playmakers in #1 ranked corner Richard Sherman and #2 ranked inside linebacker Bobby Wagner. Their outside linebackers are underrated with K.J. Wright and Heath Farwell (Special Teams Ace) ranked 10th and 17th respectively. The rest of the secondary is ranked in the top half of the league at their positions, giving this unit incredible strength. The one weak point is along the defensive line where they need better pass rushers than aging vets Red Bryant and Cliff Avril, ranked #31 and #28 respectively and #40 ranked defensive tackle Tony McDaniel needs to improve. Otherwise, this defense is stacked.
4. New England Patriots 522
The New England Patriots have a very strong defense with playmakers all over the field. The linebacker corp is one of the strongest units in the NFL led by #2 ranked outside linebacker Jerod Mayo, and linebackers Brandon Spikes and Donta Hightower, ranked #10 and #7 respectively. They also have #9 ranked safety Devin McCourty roaming the secondary. Their defensive line is very strong, anchored by #12 tackle Vince Wilfork and pass rusher Chandler Jones, ranked #11. They could use some improvement from #51 ranked cornerback Aquib Talib as well as #43 ranked tackle Tommy Kelly, but otherwise this defense is loaded with talent.
5. Miami Dolphins 513
Like the Patriots, the Dolphins have a very strong set of linebackers, let by outside backer Philip Wheeler, ranked #5, along with #12 inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and outside backer Koa Misi, ranked #9. They have two other elite playmakers in #1 defensive end Cameron Wake and #3 safety Reshad Jones. Their first of two weak points are at cornerback with veterans Brent Grimes, ranked #38 and Richard Marshall, ranked #43; the second being defensive tackle where Randy Starks and Paul Soliai are merely league average, ranked #25 and #33 respectively. If they could improve those two positions, this defense will be very scary indeed.
6. San Francisco 49ers 512
The 49ers have the potential to be the best defense in the NFL, but fall just outside of the Top 5 for two reasons. First, their safeties are abysmal. Donte Whitner is ranked #44 overall and new rookie Eric Reid finds himself near the bottom at #62, until he can prove otherwise. Second, nose tackle Ian Williams slots in as the starter after Sopoaga left in free agency, and he’s ranked a paltry #47 overall…third worst. Those issues are not insurmountable however, and the rest of the roster is stocked with Top 10 talent. The 49ers have maybe the best pair of pass rushers in the NFL with Aldon Smith ranked #2 and Aaron Brooks ranked #5. The talent surrounding Williams along the D-line is elite too with McDonald and Justin Smith ranked #9 and #5 respectively. And let’s not forget about the #1 inside linebacker in the NFL, Patrick Willis or the #7 cornerback Tarell Brown. There are so many pieces for an offense to worry about, that having Williams on the nose may not make a difference. Also, if Reid can show he’s worth the 18th overall pick in the 2013 draft, then this defense could easily find itself ranked #1 overall by season’s end.
7. Buffalo Bills 511
In what may come as a surprise, the Bills find themselves in the Top 10, thanks to having star power in the right places. This defense is led by #2 safety Jarius Byrd, and is helped by #4 pass rushing outside linebacker Mario Williams. The defensive line is strong led by #4 ranked 3-4 defensive end Kyle Williams, #10 ranked tackle Marcel Dareus, and #18 ranked end Alan Branch. This defense does have a few weak spots however. Rookie Kiko Alonso joins the ranks of inside linebacker, ranked #45 until he prove otherwise, and 2nd year man Stephen Gilmore will try to make a jump in improvement after a disappointing 1st year, ranked #46 overall.
8. Houston Texans 505
The Texans defense is kind of all over the rankings, but regardless they have some elite playmakers. It all starts with #1 ranked 3-4 DE J.J. Watt, and continues with #6 ranked end Antonio Smith and #8 overall cornerback Kareem Jackson. But they also have some holes. Their nose tackle Earl Mitchell is ranked a lowly 31st, and despite the name recognition, Ed Reed is only the 47th best safety, and he isn’t getting any younger. The rest of the their roster is stocked with average talent, or young guys with a lot of upside like linebackers Brian Cushing and Brooks Reed and cornerback Jonathan Joseph, ranked #15, #14 and #28 respectively. This defense is good, but not without its issues.
9. Tennessee Titans 503
In what might be another surprising ranking, the Titans find themselves in the Top 10. They are like a more extreme version of the Texans, with some really great talent, and some really not-so-great talent. Their defensive line is one of the better ones in the NFL led by defensive end Derrick Morgan ranked as the #4 rushing end in the NFL and defensive tackle Jurrel Casey, ranked #7. They also have cornerback Jason McCourty, ranked as the #3 corner in the NFL. However, at the opposite end of the spectrum, they have the #57th ranked safety, Michael Griffin, and the #41 ranked inside linebacker Colin McCarthy. These are pretty clear weak links. The rest of the defense is solid with players like #18 ranked Sammie Lee Hill alongside Casey, and #15 ranked linebacker Zach Brown. This defense ends up looking pretty good on paper.
10. Minnesota Vikings 488
Rounding out the Top 10, we have the Vikings defense. While they are lacking elite playmakers at the top end of the rankings, they have very few weaknesses. If you had to guess which player on defense had the highest ranking, which would it be? The answer might be surprising; as that distinction belongs to #9 ranked rotational starter and defensive tackle Fred Evans. It remains to be seen if he’ll be the Week 1 starter alongside #11 ranked tackle Kevin Williams or if it will be worst ranked tackle in the NFL Letroy Guion, but Evans has been getting some starter’s reps in OTAs the past few weeks, and coaches are pushing for him to get more looks. The linebacker corp is led by #17 ranked Erin Henderson who will slide over to the middle, but has a weak link in rookie Gerald Hodges, ranked #32. The secondary is still the weakest link with two very low ranked cornerbacks in #34 Chris Cook and #64 rookie Xavier Rhodes. The safeties look quite a bit better than in recent years with #14 ranked Harrison Smith and #18 ranked Jamarca Sanford. Cornerback and Linebacker are pretty clearly the two weakest links, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise since there are rookies starting at both positions. But despite that, this team is stocked with above average talent. If the rookies can impress right away, the sky is the limit for this defense.
11. Dallas Cowboys 485
The Dallas Cowboys fall just outside the Top 10, mainly due to their secondary. Their defensive line and linebackers are very good, led by #3 ranked defensive end Anthony Spencer, #3 ranked defensive tackle Jason Hatcher and #6 ranked inside linebacker Sean Lee. DeMarcus Ware may be the household name of this defense due to his sack totals, but his overall performance according to Pro Football Focus is merely average, ranked #19 among 4-3 defensive ends. Their outside linebackers are solid with Justin Durant and Bruce Carter ranked #16 and #11 respectively, but oh, the secondary. Their safety play is still well below average with #39 ranked Will Allen and #40 ranked Barry Church. Brandon Carr is ranked an average #32, but Morris Claiborne had a disappointing rookie season, only ranked #47. And with all those below average rankings in the secondary the Cowboys defense finds itself outside the Top 10. If they can get improved play out of their secondary, this defense can easily climb back into the Top 10.
12t. Cincinatti Bengals 483
The Bengals have a few superstars on defense in #1 ranked tackle Geno Atkins, #5 ranked safety Reggie Nelson, and a pair of elite 4-3 defensive ends with #7 Carlos Dunlap and #9 Michael Johnson. What keeps this defense from being higher is the lack of talent after that. They have a pair of respectable outside linebackers in #13 ranked James Harrison (coming over from Pittsburgh) and #18 ranked Vontaze Burfict. Cornerback Leon Hall is also quite good, ranked #17. But they have some holes too with #38 ranked tackle Domata Peko, #43 ranked inside backer Rey Maualuga and #64 ranked rookie safety Shawn Williams. #33 ranked cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick had an unfortunate rookie season last year and will look to rebound, but will he? This is a defense loaded with talent, but with a fair amount of question marks too.
12t. Green Bay Packers 483
Like the Bengals, this is a defense with a few superstars, but also a fair number of holes. Pass rusher and outside linebacker Clay Mathews tops the rankings at #1. B.J. Raji is also the #8 ranked tackle, and Sam Shields is holding his own in the secondary as the #9 cornerback. Morgan Burnett is a strong safety ranked #12 and even Ryan Pickett and AJ Hawk are underrated both ranked #19 at their respective positions. But backer Nick Perry had a dreadful rookie season ranked as the worst starting 3-4 OLB in the NFL. Desmond Bishop had a disappointing 2012, ranked #44, and it shouldn’t be a surprise to see the Packers interested in trading, cutting or restructuring his contract. It would be wise for the Packers to elevate #11 ranked linebacker Brad Jones to a starting role, but as it sits now, he’s in a backup role. Safety M.D. Jennings is a below average safety, ranked #41, and they’ll need to get something out of rookie end Datone Jones, ranked #29 if they hope to improve.
14. Arizona Cardinals 479
While the Cardinals sport the worst ranked offense in the Ultimate Rankings, their defense is above average. They have a pair of superstars in #3 ranked 3-4 defensive end Calais Campbell, and inside linebacker Daryl Washington. They also brought in #11 ranked inside linebacker Karlos Dansby and have a talented young corner in #12 ranked Patrick Peterson. But their secondary beyond Peterson is dreadful. Antonie Cason is bad, ranked #56 overall, and so is #45 ranked safety Yeremiah Bell. Their pass rushers are below average with outside backers Lorenzo Alexander and Sam Acho ranked #25 and #21 respectively. They will need to upgrade their talent on defense if they want to be consistently good.
15t. Cleveland Browns 475
As we get further down the list we to get to our average ranked defensives, with a few stars and everyone else. The Browns starts are led by safety T.J. Ward, ranked #4 overall, and #6 ranked pass rusher Paul Kruger, signed from Baltimore. Desmond Bryant leads the defensive line as the #7 ranked tackle. They have talent at other positions as well with #13 corner Joe Haden and #13 end Ahtyba Rubin. But this defense isn’t without its holes. They are relying on a pair of rookies in outside backer Barveous Mingo and safety Leon McFadden to fill starting roles, so until they can prove to be effective they sit at the bottom of the rankings. And safety Tashaun Gipson is merely average, ranked #32. Their inside linebackers also leave something to be desired with #30 ranked Craig Robertson and #34 ranked D’Qwell Jackson. So, this defense has some questions to answer before they can be considered elite.
15t. Denver Broncos 475
While the Broncos may have the best ranked offense in the Ultimate Rankings, their defense is feeling the loss of free agent Elvis Dumervill. Like the Browns, they have some elite talents as well as some below average talents and rookies in starting roles. The defense is led by outside linebacker Von Miller, ranked #1 overall. The ageless Champ Bailey is still elite, ranked #6 and safety Rahim Moore ranks #7 overall. They have other talented pieces in #12 backer Wesley Woodyard and #18 ranked end Robert Ayers. 2nd year end Derek Wolfe had a disappointing rookie season, ranked #27 overall, and rookie Sylvester Williams slides into a starting role with a lot to prove. While Bailey and Moore head up the secondary, their teammates are not nearly as accomplished as Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is ranked a terrible #54 overall and safety Quinton Carter is a below average #35. This defense has talent, but it also has question marks, putting it right in the middle of the pack.
17. Kansas City Chiefs 473
Continuing with our average defenses, we get to the Chiefs. Like those teams just above them, they have a few talented pieces and some not-so talented pieces. This defense is led by #3 rushing linebacker Justin Houston, #4 ranked corner Brandon Flowers and #4 ranked inside linebacker Derrick Johnson. Don’t forget about #15 outside backer Tamba Hali and #10 ranked 3-4 end Tyson Jackson. But they have serious holes in the secondary where Eric Berry is ranked an average #34 and other safety Kendrick Lewis is terrible, ranked #55 overall. The end opposite Hali, Mike DeVito is below average, ranked #25. They brought in free agent Sean Smith to help out at corner, but they shouldn’t expect much from him as he ranked #44 overall, a below average ranking. Dontari Poe was a big disappointment at tackle in his rookie year, as he ranked #42 overall. This defense will need to see improvement in the secondary if they want to be considered for a Top 10 ranking.
18. Philadelphia Eagles 467
The Eagles once-vaunted defense has been steadily slipping as their playmakers age or leave in free agency. They only have two Top 10 players: #9 ranked rushing linebacker Trent Cole and #10 ranked safety Kenny Phillips. They scored big in last year’s draft with 2nd year end Fletcher Cox ranked #11 overall, and DeMeco Ryans performed well last year after coming over from Houston in free agency, ranked as the #14 inside linebacker. But after that the talent is mostly average or below. There aren’t too many truly bad players on this defense, with the exception of #46 ranked tackle Isaac Sopoaga (4th worst). But most of the talent falls in the middle of the rankings: #22 outside backer Connor Barwin, #23 end Clifton Geathers, #24 corner Bradley Fletcher and #29 safety Patrick Chung. If the Eagles want to jump the rankings, then they will need to acquire more elite talent.
19. Tampa Bay Bucs 460
The Bucs have two elite playmakers in #2 ranked tackle Greg McCoy and #4 ranked outside linebacker Lavonte David. And they are hoping Darrelle Revis, ranked #18 last year can return to form. Da’Quan Bowers is another talented end ranked #17, and their secondary is helmed by #15 ranked Dashon Goldson. But the talent after that falls off quickly. They are hoping #33 end Adrian Clayborn can make a triumphant return, and that safety Mark Barron can rebound from a terrible rookie year ranked #54 overall. They have other below average talent in #28 tackle Gary Gibson, #31 inside linebacker Mason Foster, #30 ranked outside linebacker Juan Casillas and #39 ranked safety Eric Wright. If this defense wants to be taken seriously, they will need to hope their players can rebound and improve.
20. San Diego Chargers 455
The Chargers have a few talented pieces, but also have a lot of weak links and unknowns. Their #1 ranked safety, Eric Weddle, is clearly the highest ranked player on defense, but #8 ranked 3-4 end Corey Liuget is highly underrated. They signed #13 pass rushing linebacker Dwight Freeney and still have #16 ranked Jarrett Johnson on the other side. #13 ranked inside linebacker Donald Butler and #14 ranked end Kendall Reyes are both talented as well. But the talent level drops off quick after that. They have chosen to move corner Michael Gilchrist to safety, where he ranks as the #59 player until he can prove otherwise. And they have rookie Manti Teo occupying the other inside backer position. They could stand to upgrade their cornerback position over their pair of average or below players in #27 Shareece Wright and #42 ranked Derek Cox. This defense will have a lot to prove in 2013.
21. Detroit Lions 447
While the Lions sport the best tackle tandem in the league with #4 ranked Ndamukong Suh and #5 ranked Nick Fairley, they are severely lacking on the rest of the defense. They lost two pass rushers to free agency and are relying on #13 ranked Jason Jones and rookie Ezekial Ansah as replacements. They have a talented cornerback in #15 Chris Houston, but their linebackers are average at best, and the rest of the secondary is horrendous. Corner Bill Bentley ranks #58 after a disastrous rookie year. Safety Louis Delmas ranks #42 after a similarly bad year, and Glover Quin is league average at best, ranking #31. This defense needs an infusion of talent.
22. Oakland Raiders 440
The Raiders have some talented players on defense, especially after signing #7 inside linebacker Kevin Burnett to join #6 ranked outside linebacker Kaluka Maiava. They have a talented pass rusher in #8 ranked defensive end Lamarr Houston and a better than average tackle in #14 ranked Vance Walker. But their cornerbacks are probably the weakest pair in the NFL. Michael Jenkins is ranked #52 overall, and rookie DJ Hayden hasn’t stepped foot on an NFL field yet. They have league average safeties in Tyvon Branch, ranked #24 and free agent Charles Woodson, ranked #28. But they also have weak links at the defensive line after losing Richard Seymour. Lineman Jason Hunter and Pat Sims are ranked #34 and #35 respectively. The Raiders have made some good moves in free agency recently, but they need to look to the draft to rebuild their defense.
23. New York Giants 432
In what may come as a surprise, the Giants defense finds themselves towards the bottom of the rankings, and here’s why. They only have one Top 10 player in #2 ranked pass rusher Jason Pierre-Paul. It’s not that they don’t have talented players; #17 tackle Linvall Joseph is coming into his own, and Justin Tuck is ranked a respectable #21. But they just don’t have a wealth of elite players at any other positions. Their cornerback situation is pretty dire with Corey Webster ranked #57, and Prince Amukamara a disappointing #31. Sheldon Brown holds down one safety spot, ranked a respectable #20, but Antrelle Rolle is a liability, ranked #49. The rest of their talents are average at best, with Cullen Jenkins, Dan Connor, Mathias Kiwanuka and Jacquin Williams all ranked in the 20s at their respective positions. If not for premier pass rushing specialist Pierre-Paul, this defense might be even lower.
24. Washington Redskins 429
Like the Giants, the Redskins also have only one Top 10 player: outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, ranked #10. And like the Giants, they have some talented players, but no elite playmakers. Cornerback Josh Wilson might be the next most highly ranked player at #23. But, inside linebacker London Fletcher and DeAngelo Hall aren’t getting any younger, ranked #42 and #41 respectively. The Redskins have a hole at safety with #43 ranked Reed Doughty struggling next to Brandon Meriweather (who only played 1 game last year). The rest of their players all rank in the 20s and are basically league average at their positions: Brian Orakpo, Barry Cofield, Jarvis Jenkins, Stephen Bowen, and Perry Riley.
25. Baltimore Ravens 420
In what might come as another surprise, the vaunted Baltimore defense is no longer so vaunted after losing many pieces to free agency and retirement. Ed Reed is a Texan, Paul Kruger is a Brown and Ray Lewis has retired. That doesn’t mean the defense doesn’t still have some playmakers left, but none are Top 10. That said, their defensive line is still formidable with #13 tackle Haloti Ngata, #12 ranked end Chris Canty and #16 end Arthur Jones. They also have two above average pass rushers in #16 Terrell Suggs and new free agent signing Elvis Dumervil, ranked #18. The defensive front is still quite strong. But the weakness comes when you look at the back end where they have a pair of average cornerbacks in #25 Ladarius Webb and #30 Corey Graham, and below average safeties and inside linebackers. They are relying on a pair of rookies Arthur Brown and Matt Elam to replace Ed Reed and Ray Lewis, and Michael Huff was never better than average to begin with, ranked as the #38 safety. If their rookies can prove themselves in 2013, this defense may begin to climb the rankings again, but until then, they have a lot of questions to answer.
26. New York Jets 413
The Jets were a power-house defense just a few years ago. Quinton Coples proved to be the real deal as a rookie last year, ranked #11 and Wilkerson is the #2 ranked 3-4 defensive end. Antonio Cromartie is an elite corner ranked #10 overall, but after that there just isn’t much else. They are relying on two rookie starters in Sheldon Richardson and Dee Milliner, but until they step foot on the field, they are ranked near the bottom. Their safeties are pretty bad with #30 ranked Jerrod Bush and #52 ranked Dawan Landry inspiring very little confidence. Their linebackers are average or worse outside of Coples. After the trade of Darrelle Revis, this looks like a defense in the midst of a rebuild.
27. Indianapolis Colts 409
The Colts haven’t had a decent defense in a number of years and it shows in the rankings as they lack a single Top 10 talent. Their highest ranked player is 3-4 end Ricky Jean Francois, ranked #15. Their front seven is league average with pass rushers Erik Walden and Robert Mathis ranked #23 and #19 respectively. Cory Redding anchors the other end spot at #24 and both surround newly acquired tackle Aubrayo Franklin, ranked #19 overall. Inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman and corner Deon Butler are both ranked 20th at their position, but their secondary after that is pretty bad. Inside linebacker Pat Angerer is looking to rebound after a bad 2012 where he ranked #33, and both safeties are ranked in the 50s. Cornerback Vontae Davis has not been effective with the Colts since coming over in a trade with Miami last year, and he ranked #45. This defense is a mess and needs an overhaul.
28. New Orleans Saints 396
The Saints were one of the worst defenses of 2012, but they still have a few playmakers which bump them out of the bottom slot. Their pair of pass rushers are excellent though with Victor Butler and Junior Gallette ranked #7 and #8 overall. That said, with recent news of Butler’s torn ACL, this unit might fall even further in the rankings. They have a respectable corner in #26 Keenan Lewis. But their defensive line is below average with Akiem Hicks, Will Smith and Cameron Jordan all ranked in the 20s. Their inside linebackers should be in the prime of their careers, but instead are below average with David Hawthorne and Curtis Lofton ranked #32 and #37 respectively. The rest of their secondary was atrocious in 2012 with Jabari Greer ranked #35, Roman Harper ranked #58, and new rookie Kenny Vaccaro at the bottom of the rankings until he can prove otherwise. This is a defense that sorely needs to rebound with new Coordinator Rob Ryan, but they likely have an uphill battle ahead of them.
29. Atlanta Falcons 395
The Falcons have a distinct lack of talent on the defensive side of the ball. Their highest rank player was safety William Moore at #13. After that they have an average defensive line ranked in the 20s with Kory Biermann, Osi Umenyiora, Jonathan Babineaux and Peria Kerry. Their linebackers are similarly non-distinct with Akeem Dent, Stephen Nicholas and Sean Weatherspoon all ranked in the 20s. But it is their secondary that drags this defense down near the bottom. Asante Samuel was not an effective corner, ranked #37, and Desmond Trufant is an unproven rookie. Thomas DeCoud is a bad safety, ranked #50. Until this defense can get a premier pass rusher that isn’t past his prime, and some elite pieces at every level of the defense, they will not go very far up the rankings.
30. Carolina Panthers 377
The Panthers have some elite playmakers on defense, including maybe the best pair of pass rushers in the NFL in #5 ranked Greg Hardy and #6 ranked Charles Johnson. They also have an excellent pair of linebackers in #9 ranked Luke Kuechly (who proved he was worth the 1st round pick last year) and #8 outside backer Travis Davis. But the talent level drops off a cliff after those four. They might have the weakest, most unproven pair of tackes in the league with #41 ranked Dwan Edwards and #48 ranked rookie Star Lotulelei. Outside backer Jon Beason is a bit overrated, ranking only #32. But it is their secondary, which may be one of the worst in the league that drags this unit down. Their pair of corners in Drayton Florence and Josh Norman are ranked #48 and #53 respectively, while their safeties are actually worse. Mike Mitchell and Charles Godfrey are ranked #48 and #56 respectively. Until they have a legitimate secondary that isn’t ranked near the worst in the league, this defense as a whole will likewise remain towards the bottom.
31. St. Louis Rams 368
The Rams have a distinct lack of elite talent on defense with only two players ranked higher than 22nd at their respective positions. Pass rushing end Chris Long might be their best player, ranked #15 overall, but Jon Dunbar is an excellent outside linebacker as well, ranked #14. After that, no one else stands out. Robert Quinn hasn’t made much of an impact in his first two years, ranked #29 overall, and Michael Brockers has been just average, ranked #22. James Laurinaitis always racks up the tackle totals, but even he is still only ranked #28 overall. Their secondary has no elite talents, with Cortland Finnegan regressing to #49, Janoris Jenkins having a disappointing rookie year ranked #55, and a pair of safeties ranked #36 and #37 in Darian Stewart and Rodney McLeod. Like the Falcons, this defense is in desperate need of some elite playmakers.
32. Jacksonville Jaguars 332
And here we are, with the league’s worst ranked defense. The Jaguars used to pride itself on having elite playmakers, but they’ve lost a lot of players to free agency in recent years. If it wasn’t for safety Dwight Lowery, ranked #11 overall, this would easily be the worst secondary in the NFL, with Harris ranked #50 and a pair of new rookie starters in Dwayne Gratz and Jonathan Cyprien. Their linebackers are below average with Posluszny ranked a surprisingly low 39th and Hayes and Allen ranked #31 and #25 respectively. I give them credit for trying to upgrade with free agent Jason Babin, as he ranks #14, but his bookend Mincey only ranks #26, and their pair of tackles is one of the league’s worst in Alualu and Miller. If their young rookies can prove their worth that should help elevate this defense back to its glory days, but if not they could remain in the basement for years to come.
A Few Observations
I’m not sure what I think of Pro Football Focus’s rankings, and it starts primarily with their grading system. They grade every player’s snap on a somewhat subjective scale with players at the top being those that performed “better” on more snaps. Pro Football Focus seems biased towards consistency. A player does well in this system if they perform their role on defense consistently well, and manage to make a few game-changing plays along the way, not just if they show up on the stat sheet with lots of tackles and sacks. So, when I see that the Giants end up pretty low in the rankings, while the Titans end up really high, it raises my eyebrow a bit. But this could perhaps be explained by the consistency issue.
Like the offensive rankings, I’m not sure if this is 100% accurate for defense, but I think it is pretty close. The traditionally stronger defenses in 2012 like those of the Steelers, Bears, 49ers and Seahawks were all at the top, with the worse defenses from 2012 like those of the Saints, Colts, Rams and Panthers were all near the bottom. So, I’m happy enough with the results.