NFL Analysis


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Ranking NFL's Top 7 Defensive Cores Heading Into 2024 Season

Oct 23, 2022; Denver, Colorado, USA; New York Jets cornerback Sauce Gardner (1) celebrates with linebacker Quincy Williams (56) after a play in the fourth quarter against the Denver Broncos at Empower Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The 2023 season was the year of the defense in the NFL. Teams like the Ravens, Browns, and even the Chiefs, leaned on their defenses to win games. That played out in the postseason, too, with the Chiefs stopping all of the top offenses in the NFL on their way to a Super Bowl.

But which team has the three best defensive players on their roster heading into the 2024 season? For the purposes of this article, we are only looking at each team’s top pass rusher, off-the-ball linebacker, and top secondary player.

It’s important to note that a team’s defensive coordinator and the rest of the depth on defense were not considered for this exercise. It’s also important to point out that positional value matters.

An All-Pro level cornerback is more valuable than an All-Pro safety. The same is true at linebacker. A top-flight linebacker just doesn’t carry the same weight as an excellent EDGE defender.

>> READ: Ranking NFL's Best Offensive Cores

So without further ado, here are the top seven defensive cores in the NFL going into the 2024 season:

Ranking Top NFL Defensive Cores

7. Dallas Cowboys

No. 1 Pass Rusher: Micah Parsons

No. 1 Linebacker: Eric Kendricks

No. 1 Defensive Back: Trevon Diggs

I was tempted to cheat here and call Micah Parsons a linebacker, but most of his snaps come as a pass rusher, and he primarily plays on the edge. Still, Parsons is one of the NFL’s best defensive players, and his presence alone makes the Dallas Cowboys worthy of being on this list.

While he is still searching for his first Defensive Player of the Year award, Parsons has finished second or third in the race in each of his first three seasons. He has racked up 40.5 sacks in three years, and his 89 quarterback hits are the second-most from during that span.

The Cowboys have the luxury of having two All-Pro cornerbacks with Trevon Diggs and Daron Bland, so take your pick at that spot. We will go with Diggs, given he is more experienced, but it is worth noting he is returning from a torn ACL that cost him most of the 2023 season. However, when Diggs is healthy, there isn't a cornerback with better ball skills than him.

The biggest reason this unit isn’t higher is because of its linebacker play, which hasn’t been up to par in big games. If one of its young linebackers breaks out in 2024, this group could be much higher next offseason.

Baltimore Ravens safety Kyle Hamilton (14) celebrates with linebacker Roquan Smith (0) after scoring a touchdown against the Cleveland Browns. Jessica Rapfogel-USA TODAY Sports.

6. Baltimore Ravens

No. 1 Pass Rusher: Justin Madubuike

No. 1 Linebacker: Roquan Smith

No. 1 Defensive Back: Kyle Hamilton

Positional value aside, the Baltimore Ravens have arguably the most unique unit on this list. Roquan Smith is arguably the NFL's best linebacker and has been a first-team All-Pro selection in back-to-back seasons. He is the defense's leader, and his ability to read and diagnose plays is unmatched.

Kyle Hamilton is another middle-of-the-field defender who had a big breakout season in 2023. He isn’t a traditional safety but is another defender who makes plays all over the field.

Then there is Justin Madubuike, who the Ravens just rewarded with a massive contract extension after a 13-sack season. He isn’t quite in the Chris Jones or Quinnen Williams tier of interior defensive lineman, but he isn’t far off.

5. Pittsburgh Steelers

No. 1 Pass Rusher: T.J. Watt

No. 1 Linebacker: Patrick Queen

No. 1 Defensive Back: Minkah Fitzpatrick

The Pittsburgh Steelers jump way up on this list after signing Patrick Queen earlier this offseason. While it remains to be seen how he fits in Mike Tomlin’s defense, Queen had the best season of his career in 2023. He should be a major upgrade over Elandon Roberts, Cole Holcomb, and Myles Jack, who were Pittsburgh's top three linebackers last year.

T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick are All-Pro players (when healthy) and have a strong track record of producing turnovers. Pittsburgh leans on its defense to win games, and why wouldn’t you with this unit?

The Steelers are strong at every spot and have plenty of star power with Watt, Queen, and Fitzpatrick.

Kansas City Chiefs Defensive Lineman Chris Jones
Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Aidan O'Connell (4) is sacked by Kansas City Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones (95) during the first half at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium. Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports.

4. Kansas City Chiefs

No. 1 Pass Rusher: Chris Jones

No. 1 Linebacker: Nick Bolton

No. 1 Defensive Back: Trent McDuffie

The Kansas City Chiefs have the rare combo of an All-Pro defensive tackle and cornerback, which is a big reason why their defense was so good down the stretch last year. With Aaron Donald retired, Chris Jones is widely viewed as the NFL's best defensive tackle. He’s racked up 26 sacks in the last two seasons on top of 58 quarterback hits. He is a game-wrecker and one of the NFL's most dominant players.

Trent McDuffie was a first-team All-Pro selection in 2023 as a slot cornerback. His role might grow in 2024 after the Chiefs traded away L’Jarius Sneed, but he is the top slot player in the league.

Nick Bolton is the weakest player of the three, but he’s started 37 games in the last three seasons and is a fine linebacker. However, the duo of Jones and McDuffie is why this group is ranked so high on this list.

3. Cleveland Browns

No. 1 Pass Rusher: Myles Garrett

No. 1 Linebacker: Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah

No. 1 Defensive Back: Denzel Ward

The Cleveland Browns had the No. 1 ranked defense in yards allowed per game last season and a big reason why is the names listed above. All three players listed made the Pro Bowl in 2023, including Myles Garrett, who was the Defensive Player of the Year.

Garrett has been an All-Pro selection in three of the past four seasons and has racked up 58 sacks during that period. While he's never led the NFL in sacks, his ability to draw and beat double-teams at an absurd rate is the reason why he's the NFL's top rusher right now.

Denzel Ward got back to his Pro Bowl self, recording two interceptions and locking down every team’s No. 1 receiver. The biggest surprise was the development of Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, who turned into one of the NFL’s top linebackers. His speed and instincts made Cleveland's entire defense faster, giving it a bonafide stud on all three levels.  

San Francisco 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa (97) and linebacker Fred Warner (54) defend during the second quarter against the New York Giants at Levi's Stadium. Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports.

2. San Francisco 49ers

No. 1 Pass Rusher: Nick Bosa

No. 1 Linebacker: Fred Warner

No. 1 Defensive Back: Charvarius Ward

You can make a strong case for the San Francisco 49ers at No. 1 and no one would bat an eye. The reason why the 49ers finish at No. 2 on this list is due to their two All-Pro studs at EDGE and LB.

Nick Bosa and Fred Warner have helped the 49ers win a bunch of games, and they finished as a top-three scoring defense in the last two years.

Another reason why the 49ers are so high on this list is due to their cornerback play. Charvarius Ward had a Pro Bowl season in 2023, racking up five interceptions and a league-high 23 pass deflections. While he has started 77 games, his year-to-year consistency isn't as good as some of the other top cornerbacks on this list.

However, Ward is an ascending player and took a big step in the right direction in 2024. His improvement last season has allowed the 49ers to shoot up this list and finish near the top of the rankings.

1. New York Jets

No. 1 Pass Rusher: Quinnen Williams

No. 1 Linebacker: Quincy Williams

No. 1 Defensive Back: Sauce Gardner

It was hard not to put the New York Jets higher on this list because they have the league's top cornerback, Sauce Gardner. Although he has only been in the NFL for two seasons, he's been a two-time All-Pro selection and the 2022 AP Defensive Rookie of the Year.

In the last two years, Gardner has allowed just two touchdowns in coverage, and his length makes him the perfect cornerback against No. 1 receivers.

But Gardner isn't the only reason the Jets rank so highly on this list. Quinnen Williams might be the NFL's best defensive tackle. He is just as good against the run as he is as a pass-rusher. Williams is only 26 and has improved every season. Williams and Gardner might be the NFL's best duo.

And don't forget about Quincy Williams, who is coming off an All-Pro season at linebacker. He is Quinnen's older brother and just had a massive breakout season in 2023. Quincy is still a young player with only 52 career starts, but he's quickly established himself as a dynamic linebacker.

The Jets have three All-Pro defenders who are all in the primes of their careers. For that reason alone, they are No. 1 on our list.