When the heat turned up in the playoffs, everyone saw the defensive line was a bit better than expected. Hendrickson played superbly and showed how he could beat most left tackles. Inside, with DJ Reader, B.J. Hill and Sam Hubbard at the other end fit nicely too. Watch for 2021 third-rounder Cam Sample, who hurt his knee in the preseason. The linebackers are staunch: Germaine Pratt and Logan Wilson are young and athletic. In their secondary, the Bengals have three good cornerbacks in Chidobe Awuzie, Eli Apple and Mike Hilton. Vonn Bell is a talented strong safety. FS Jessie Bates is a key guy.
What the Bills have up front is enviable. They added Von Miller to their first-round pick last year, Greg Rousseau, and Shaq Lawson on the edge. They are solid inside, though Ed Oliver needs to kick it up a notch to become an elite player. Also at linebacker, they are good with Matt Milano, a team leader, and Tremaine Edmunds. So it’s the secondary that needs to play at the same level. It could if CB Tre’Davious White recovers from his knee injury. Both safeties have excelled, but do Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer still have enough speed? The lack of it was noticeable against the Chiefs in the playoffs.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Green Bay has a top-level front seven featuring a penetrating rush and a solid secondary. There are times it seems the Packers have focused on all defensive elements of the team and told Aaron Rodgers “you carry the offense” while we keep trying to make the defense into a top 10 unit. LB De’Vondre Campbell was an All-Pro in a breakout 2021. He’s surrounded by such talent as Kenny Clark, Preston Smith, Jarran Reed and Rashan Gary. CB Jaire Alexander is the mainstay of the DBs, and the Packers are very high on FS Darnell Savage.
Denver has been busy adding to its front seven since dealing away Von Miller. Joining veterans Bradley Chubb are D.J. Jones are Alex Singleton and Randy Gregory. In the draft, the Broncos got Nik Bonitto and Jonathon Cooper on the edge. If Chubb and Gregory can stay healthy for 17 games, it’ll be a top edge rush. Their secondary is excellent. Patrick Surtain II, coming into his second year, can be an elite cornerback. Having Ronald Darby as the number two corner is impressive. Keon Williams is the rover, Justin Simmons is an outstanding big-play free safety, and his sidekick is veteran Kareem Jackson.
LOS ANGELES CHARGERS
Obviously, the Chargers have added Khalil Mack, an elite linebacker when healthy. They already have Joey Bosa on the edge, and Sebastian Joseph-Day and Austin Johnson are excellent newcomers. They’ve improved their pass rush big time. Mack should raise the game of fellow LBs Drue Tranquill and Kenneth Murray. Bringing in J.C. Jackson as the main cover cornerback means Asante Samuel Jr. will see plenty of work – Jackson is among the best ballhawks in the league. If SS Derwin James can stay in the lineup, they’ve improved their coverage in the secondary immensely.
Miami’s defense will open people’s eyes this year. Defensive Coordinator Josh Boyer will use a bunch of skilled players to make it stingy. There is more skill now in the pass rush with Christian Wilkins. Complimenting him will be Raekwon Davis, Melvin Ingram and an underrated group of linebackers highlighted by rapidly rising Andrew Van Ginkel. Their secondary is strong with shutdown CBs Xavien Howard, Byron and Brandon Jones, and, in particular, Jevon Holland. The second-round safety out of Oregon in 2021 had a strong rookie season. He’s a center fielder with range who can also play in the box. He’s got some Ed Reed-type skills.
The pass rush is the area to focus on. There’s age with Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox, but if they still have gas in the tank, this is a solid defensive line. Javon Hargrave comes off a strong year, and first-round pick Jordan Davis will be a massive presence inside. The LB unit has improved with Haason Reddick, a local guy who has really come on elsewhere the last two seasons, Kyzir White and T.J. Edwards. The secondary has struggled in recent years, but the corners are good with Darius Slade joined by newcomer James Bradberry and holdover Avonte Maddox. Are safeties Anthony Harris and Jaquiski Tartt good enough?
Maybe a sleeper team in the NFC–as long as Chase Young gets on the field soon. The recovery from his knee injury has been slower than first projected. Montez Sweat will be the main edge guy until Young is ready. Past first-rounders Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne are inside. Can the D-line carry the defense? Not to disparage the linebackers, Cole Holcomb broke out in 2021, and there are high hopes for Jamin Davis. A veteran secondary features Kendall Fuller and Bobby McCain.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
Other than at cornerback, you have to like the look the 49ers present. Having Nick Bosa on the edge with Arik Armstead inside is the makeup teams seek. The key will be the 2021 top pick, Javon Kinlaw. Does he stay healthy and does he become a force inside? It’s always been the line with the Niners that has carried that defense. At linebacker, Fred Warner is exceptional. So that leaves the corners: Emmanuel Mosley, Charvarius Ward, Jason Verrett and Deommodore Lenoir. Can they stay healthy and produce?
It would be a bit shocking if the Jaguars aren’t better defensively. Start with the first pick of the draft, Georgia’s Travon Walker at linebacker. He’s a dynamic talent but not really experienced. He joins Josh Allen, Dawaune Smoot and K’Lavon Chaisson, which creates a very good edge without even seeing what fellow rookie LB Devin Lloyd does. Atlanta’s tackling machine, LB Foyesade Oluokun, was signed in free agency. This also could be a high-level secondary with Shaquill Griffin, Rayshawn Jenkins and Darious Williams.
LOS ANGELES RAMS
When a player such as Von Miller leaves, it usually has a major impact on a team. It could be for the Rams, but remember they still have all-world DT Aaron Donald, the premier inside rusher in the game. A’Shawn Robinson is on one edge and Leonard Floyd on the other. This will still be a top-five pass rush. That remains the key for the Rams on defense. It is a dangerous rush group in front of Jalen Ramsey, their shutdown corner. Then, there are smart safeties in Jordan Fuller and Taylor Rapp. Leadership won’t be an issue either with the addition of LB Bobby Wagner and holdovers such as Donald.
The Colts have some true reliables in LBs Darius Leonard and Bobby Okereke, and DT DeForest Buckner. They added in 2021 first-rounder Kwity Paye, and he could flourish this season. Grover Stewart is fine inside, as well. Indy is aggressive in the front seven, which fits perfectly for Leonard, a perennial All-Pro. Safeties Nick Cross and Rodney McLeod must show they have the speed and range to match up with top receivers–though the AFC South doesn’t have many of those. Stephon Gilmore comes in to anchor the corner, with Kenny Moore II and Isaiah Rodgers alongside.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Among Tampa Bay’s high draft picks on defense, NT Vita Vea has been a terrific choice. He is dominant inside, strong, relentless and with good feet. The rest of the line is aging and not particularly impressive, and pass rusher Jason Pierre-Paul has left. Shaq Barrett is the main sack guy, and the Bucs will need more from LB Devin White and Lavonte David. The secondary has some skilled players in Carlton Davis, Sean Murphy-Bunting, Antoine Winfield Jr and Jamel Dean, but there are injury concerns.
It all starts with the stars, T.J. Watt, Cam Heyward and Minkah Fitzpatrick. Watt was the Defensive Player of the Year and hasn’t entered his prime yet. Nor has ball-hawking Fitzpatrick, a very good center fielder. Heyward is in his 12th NFL season and remains a smart, consistent and impactful player. The Steelers added Larry Ogunjobi from rival Cincinnati, who is coming off an injury but could be a steady DE presence. The cornerbacks are not shutdown players, so play safe, smart and sound and let the front seven win the games. Don’t let balls get thrown over the CB’s heads for big plays.
LAS VEGAS RAIDERS
Raiders fans have to like their edge rushers with the addition of Chandler Jones, a consistent threat when healthy. Maxx Crosby already is a standout, and on the interior, they have Johnathan Hankins, Bilal Nichols and Vernon Butler. The linebackers are nothing to rave about, and while Las Vegas has spent a lot of attention and money on the secondary, it hasn’t worked out particularly well. Aside from off-field issues damaging that group, neither Johnathan Abram nor Trayvon Mullen Jr. has shown much.
This should be an improved group, led by Brian Burns on the edge and Derrick Brown next to him. Brown reminds some of Fletcher Cox–the Panthers will take that. There also are some talented guys in the secondary, from underrated SS Jeremy Chinn, who makes plays everywhere, to young cornerbacks Jaycee Horn and CJ Henderson. They need to stay healthy: Horn played in only three games in 2021. Shaq Thompson is a solid linebacker.
Due to strong coaching, this defense might exceed expectations. The Titans need more consistency from veterans Harold Landry III, who got paid, and Bud Dupree, a major disappointment. The building block is edge rusher Jeffery Simmons, who finally was healthy in 2021 and damaged many on offense. Kevin Byard is a solid safety and leader of the unit. But SS Amani Hooker and cornerbacks Kristian Fulton, Caleb Farley and Roger McCreary, all young, have to show they can match up.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Lots of experience on this defense, and given the question marks for the Saints’ offense, it will need to be stingy. DE Cam Jordan has been one of the NFL’s best for a decade. Help must come from Marcus Davenport on the other side and David Onyemata inside. Payton Turner, the 2021 first-round pick, barely played as a rookie. Demario Davis is a frequent Pro-Bowl linebacker, and the only proven LB on the roster. In the back are veterans Marcus Lattimore, Marcus Maye and Tyrann Mathieu, another strong leader. Some of them might be on their last legs.
Edge rusher Myles Garrett is a frequent contender for All-Pro and even the top defensive player in the league. He’s more consistent than Jadeveon Clowney on the other side, but it’s a solid pair. Are they good enough inside with Jordan Elliott, Taven Bryan (a previous bust) and Perrion Winfrey? Cleveland is in good shape in the secondary with Denzel Ward, Greedy Williams, Greg Newsome II and Grant Delpit–if they can stay healthy. It’s been a challenge. Anthony Walker has been a steady linebacker in his career.
Danielle Hunter and Za’darius Smith on the edge make for a good start. The Vikings have Dalvin Tomlinson and Harrison Phillips up front, Jordan Hicks and steady Eric Hendricks at linebacker. But Smith and Hunter haven’t been healthy recently with the type of injuries that tend to be career-threatening issues. That’s a big concern, as is the age factor with some of them. Then there’s the question of speed and athletic ability in the secondary with aging Patrick Peterson, Harrison Smith and Cameron Dantzler. Add in the change to a 3-4 front with the new coaching regime. That means people with different responsibilities and looks than they are accustomed to.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
Bill Belichick often has worked magic with lesser talent on the defense. That might need to be the case again. The front seven is good with Christian Barmore, Matthew Judon, Lawrence Wise and Deatrich Wise Jr. There’s not as much to brag about at linebacker, and losing J.C. Jackson at corner could be a major blow. Malcolm Butler is back, working alongside Jalen Mills, Kyle Dugger and team leader Devin McCourty. Are they good enough to stop what’s coming from the opposing receivers in the division, especially Tyreek Hill, Stefon Diggs and Jaylen Waddle?
Dan Quinn earned a few head coaching interviews after his work in 2021 with this unit earned him Assistant Coach of the Year honors. He stayed, but he’ll need to work hard to develop a wave pass rush. The Cowboys have DeMarcus Lawrence and Dante Fowler Jr. outside, but the mainstay is 2021 Defensive Rookie of the Year Micah Parsons. He has drawn comparisons to, yes, Lawrence Taylor. The cornerbacks include All-Pro Trevon Diggs, a ballhawk who also gambles too much and allows plenty of big plays.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
Chris Jones inside on the D-line is the lead guy. It’s fair to wonder if Frank Clark has much left. The Chiefs drafted George Karlaftis in the opening round, and he will get every chance to start. Linebacker-wise, it’s a good group with Nick Bolton, Jermaine Carter and Willie Gay. The secondary has a wide chasm that needs to be filled: who moves in for Tyrann Mathieu at safety? Justin Reid and Juan Thornhill are projected back there. The secondary will face all sorts of brilliant WRs in this division.
The big name here is J.J. Watt, a terrific teammate and a past great, but how much does he have left? The best defender is FS Budda Baker, who is in his prime. Watt, Markus Golden and Devon Kennard are not. The last two first-rounders, LBs Isaiah Simmons and Zaven Collins are playing different positions than in college. Simmons was a safety and Collins an edge rusher. Neither has looked comfortable so far in the NFL.
It’s all about consistency in Baltimore. But the Ravens let DC Wink Martindale leave, so how much change occurs? They have an enviable secondary if everyone can stay healthy, a challenge last year Baltimore did not meet. CBs Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey and safety Marcus Williams are proven players. Will they have the necessary juice on the pass rush with veteran Calais Campbell, youngsters Justin Madubuike, Odafe Oweh, Tyus Bowser and Patrick Queen? And, obviously, the Ravens can’t have the string of injuries that ruined 2021.
NEW YORK JETS
There aren’t many well-known names here, but the Jets are building a sound defense. They probably need another year of doing so. For now, they get back edge rusher Carl Lawson, who was out all of last year. Quinnen Williams, John Franklin-Myers and Sheldon Rankins help him. A mix of kids and veterans. Linebacker C.J. Mosley is closer to the end of his career, but Quincy Williams was a find in 2021. Ultra-confident first-round selection Sauce Gardner steps in at cornerback and free agents D.J. Reed and Jordan Whitehead should contribute on the back end.
NEW YORK GIANTS
The Giants have some skilled guys up front with Leonard Williams and Dexter Lawrence. Bringing in Kayvon Thibodeaux for the edge gives them some flash, but will he be a consistently big-play man? Tackle machine Blake Martinez comes off injury and is the veteran of the linebacker corps. The secondary needed upgrading and instead lost its best cover cornerback, James Bradberry. SS Xavier McKinney is the best back there.
Seattle is a team that went away from the recipe that made them Super Bowl champs. There is no Legion of Boom, with Bobby Wagner the last remnant of it, now in Los Angeles with the Rams. The defense is probably what started Seattle’s decline, and upfront too many high picks haven’t produced at the level they should be. L.J. Collier is a good example. Jordyn Brooks is a solid linebacker, and the Seahawks spent big on safety Jamal Adams, which hasn’t panned out either.
No Monsters terrorizing this Midway. Except, maybe, on the money front with LB Roquan Smith, who is unhappy with his contract. He’s the Bears’ best defender with Khalil Mack gone. Robert Quinn can post some good numbers on the edge but is limited these days. The safety and corner positions have young and raw players. Another team that’s rebuilding, yet flipping from a 30 to a 40 scheme.
There wasn’t a more popular pick at the April draft in Las Vegas than the Lions grabbing Michigan edge rusher and disruptor Aidan Hutchinson. Nice building block for a defense that has no stars. Injuries have plagued CB Jeff Okudah, the 2020 No. 3 overall selection. Functional defenders here include DT Michael Brockers, LB Alex Anzalone and edge Charles Harris. Hutchinson might be the best player on this unit already.
So, this rebuilding squad is adding age rather than youth? Maybe Head Coach Lovie Smith, a defense-minded guy, has a secret plan. Mario Addison is on the edge, Christian Kirksey is at MLB, Maliek Collins at DT and Neville Hewitt at LB. Some of the personnel moves are befuddling. But taking Derek Stingley Jr. in the opening round of the draft to play cornerback was smart.
Letting Foyesade Oluokun, the best defender last season, leave in free agency helped drop Atlanta to the bottom of the rankings. Veteran Grady Jarrett is still formidable on the line, and Deion Jones when healthy is a solid linebacker. A.J. Terrell can play at cornerback. But there’s really not much here.