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2021 NFL Power Rankings on Defense – Assessing All 32 Teams

| May 23, 2021 5:24 am PDT

The Buccaneers front seven steamrolled the Chiefs in Super Bowl 55. Considering Tampa’s bringing back all their defensive starters, it’s a no-brainer to slot the Bucs atop my 2021 power rankings for NFL defenses.

Once you get past the defending champs, that is where the debate begins.

Using a variety of metrics – from combing through last year’s numbers to assessing depth charts following the draft, I have ranked every NFL defense in descending order.

*The yards per play and points per game statistics reflect the 2020 regular season.

32 – Houston Texans

  • Yards Per Play Allowed: T-29th
  • Points Per Game Allowed: 27th

To say the outlook in Houston looks bleak is an understatement. Forget about their issues on offense, the Texans defense is in a world of hurt heading into 2021.

They let J.J. Walk with no compensation and signed a bunch of low-level talent in free agency. Once the draft rolled around, Houston waited until the fifth round to address their D. And when they did, they selected a 220-pound linebacker.

New DC Lovie Smith has his work cut out for him just to get this group playing at a competitive standard.

31 – Jacksonville Jaguars

  • Yards Per Play Allowed: T-31st
  • Points Per Game Allowed: 31st

Trevor Lawrence can cover up a lot of the holes on offense, but the face of the Jaguars franchise cannot make up for the lack of direction on defense.

I love what Joe Schobert brings to the table and expect Josh Allen to bounce back switching from DE to outside linebacker. CB Shaquill Griffin was a nice addition in FA.

However, Trent Baalke and Urban Meyer made some head-scratching decisions during the draft process that could come back to haunt this organization.

Notably, they drafted Tyson Campbell at #33 despite having Griffin and 2020 first-round pick C.J. Henderson already penciled in at cornerback. Campbell intercepted just one pass during his career (33 games) at Georgia.

30 – Detroit Lions

  • Yards Per Play Allowed: T-31st
  • Points Per Game Allowed: 32nd

The defense in Motor City cannot get any worse. The stats above reflect their failure to get stops, which can be traced directly back to their inability to apply consistent pressure. Here is some perspective.

Not only did the Lions rank dead last in pressures; they didn’t even register half as many pressures as the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Dan Campbell should breathe some fire into the defense, but it won’t be enough to combat the absence of playmakers at each level. Detroit’s secondary is as underwhelming as any in the league.

29 – Las Vegas Raiders

  • Yards Per Play Allowed: 26th
  • Points Per Game Allowed: 30th

Luring Yannick Ngakoue to Sin City was a clear sign of the Raiders desperately trying to create a sustainable pass rush. Clelin Ferrell simply hasn’t panned out – Vegas finished 29th last season in sacks and led the lead in missed tackles.

They ranked 30th in third-down defense and committed 44 penalties that resulted in a first down (T-29th most in the league).

Mike Mayock was fortunate that Trevon Moehrig slipped into his lap on day two of the draft, but this won’t be an overnight fix. The Silver and Black still don’t have a defensive leader who’s willing to grab the bull by the horns.

28 – New York Jets

  • Yards Per Play Allowed: 21st
  • Points Per Game Allowed: 26th

Clearing house on the sidelines and appointing Robert Saleh as the man in charge will boost this defense. On the other hand, all the offseason energy was spent on rebuilding the offense.

New York’s biggest free-agent splash was on a receiver, and they utilized each of their first four picks on offensive players.

The combination of Quinnen Williams and Carl Lawson gives Saleh a couple of foundational pieces up front, but this secondary is nowhere near up to par. Nor is the middle level.

The good news is C.J. Moseley is eager to get back on the field after playing in just two games since the start of the 2019 season.

27 – Atlanta Falcons

  • Yards Per Play Allowed: T-29th
  • Points Per Game Allowed: 19th

Blowing multiple big leads in the fourth quarter revealed the Falcons true colors on defense. They were undisciplined, and at times, looked unmotivated.

Personnel-wise, Atlanta did not add much that jumps off the page. The hope is hiring Dean Pees and implementing his proven philosophies will be the catalyst in turning the tide.

Pees, the former defensive coordinator in Baltimore (2012-2017) and Tennessee (2018-2019), brings an aggressive mentality designed to strike fear in the opponent.

“One of the things that our defense will know, if you’re on our defense, every position will blitz. Every position. Not just the safeties. Not just the linebackers. It’s corners. It’s everybody.”

26 – Cincinnati Bengals

  • Yards Per Play Allowed: T-27th
  • Points Per Game Allowed: 22nd

Ja’Marr Chase was the crown jewel of the Bengals offseason, but do not discount the moves this franchise made on defense.

Needing to replace Carl Lawson, Duke Tobin went out and signed Trey Hendrickson to a $60 million deal. The 26-year-old defensive is coming off a 13.5-sack season and gives Cincy a much-needed presence on the edge.

And that was the beginning of Tobin re-tooling on the D-Line.

Joseph Ossai, Cameron Sample, and Tyler Shelvin represent three incoming rookies who will vie for playing time immediately. The Bengals finished dead last in sacks and were 31st in pressures, it can only “go up” from here.

25 – Dallas Cowboys

  • Yards Per Play Allowed: T-23rd
  • Points Per Game Allowed: 28th

The Cowboys could not get off the field on third down and ranked 31st against the run. With the inefficiency of the D shooting to the forefront, at least Jerry Jones made attempts to revive the defense in Dallas.

Jones fired Mike Nolan and Jim Tomsula after the duo failed to generate results and hired Dan Quinn to captain the ship.

He then spent each of his first six draft picks on defensive players, including grabbing Micah Parsons 12th overall.

Parsons’ versatility as a do-it-all linebacker will be felt right away, but a leaky back end and unreliable pass rush will ultimately hold this bunch back.

24 – Tennessee Titans

  • Yards Per Play Allowed: T-23rd
  • Points Per Game Allowed: 24th

The Titans were abominable in a lot of different areas on D in 2020. Want the specifics?

  • 32nd in third-down defense
  • 30th in sacks
  • 29th in passing yards allowed
  • 28th in hurries

Fortunately for fans in Nashville, Jon Robinson made it a point to address these shortcomings. It started in March with the Titans GM shelling out a wad of cash to a trio of Pro Bowl-caliber players.

  • Bud Dupree – 5-years/$82.5 million
  • Denico Autry – 3-years/$21.5 million
  • Janoris Jenkins – 2-years/$15 million

Drafting Caleb Farley and Elijah Molden help shore up the secondary; it shouldn’t take much time for Tennessee’s D to start leapfrogging teams in the NFL defensive power rankings.

23 – Carolina Panthers

  • Yards Per Play Allowed: T-18th
  • Points Per Game Allowed: 18th

The Panthers have intriguing assets on defense – from Brian Burns and Derrick Brown up front to Jeremy Chin and now Jaycee Horn roaming in the secondary.

But before your judgment gets clouded with thoughts that this can be a top-10 defense, remember that this unit has a long way to go.

The Panthers intercepted just seven passes in 2020 and allowed opponents to convert 49.3% of their third downs. Carolina ranked 31st in both of those statistics. Denzel Perryman and Hasson Reddick arrive via free agency to aid what was a weak middle level.

22 – Philadelphia Eagles

  • Yards Per Play Allowed: T-12th
  • Points Per Game Allowed: 20th

The continuity between Nick Sirianni and Jonathan Gannon should help the Eagles defense transition out of the Doug Pederson/Jim Schwartz era. Philly didn’t have a lot of maneuverability given their cap situation but acquiring Anthony Harris from the Vikings was a big move. As was signing Ryan Kerrigan in mid-May.

The Eagles added depth to the interior of the defensive line during the draft and extended Brandon Graham, but it’s not all hunk-dory on this side of the ball.

Even with the addition of Darius Slay, Philadelphia ranked 29th in interceptions a season ago.

21 – Green Bay Packers

  • Yards Per Play Allowed: T-12th
  • Points Per Game Allowed: T-13th

If Eric Stokes is as good as advertised, the Packers won’t have to rely on Kevin King much longer. Green Bay’s first-round selection has a chance to start opposite Jaire Alexander and give the Green and Gold a legit tandem of CBs.

The problem is this slightly above-average defense in 2020 didn’t do much else to get better.

The Packers signed no free agents. Literally, not even one. The only defensive rookie outside of Stokes likely to make the roster is a fifth-round nose tackle (Tedarrell Slayton).

 It’s too early to classify Green Bay as a bottom-tier defense, but don’t be shocked if they start heading in that direction once the season gets underway.

20 – Seattle Seahawks

  • Yards Per Play Allowed: T-12th
  • Points Per Game Allowed: 15th

Let’s give Seattle the benefit of the doubt. Say we chalk up losing Shaquill Griffin and gaining Ahkello Witherspoon as a wash. Pete Carroll’s defense is still fighting an uphill battle.

Other than Bobby Wagner and Jamal Adams, the Seahawks are starting a bunch of guys that even hardcore NFL enthusiasts probably have not heard of.

Are you familiar with Poona Ford? How about Ben Burr-Kirven?

Talk about horrific execution in 2020, Seattle clocked in 31st in the NFL in pass defense and 27th in stopping the opposition on third down.

19 – Chicago Bears

  • Yards Per Play Allowed: T-10th
  • Points Per Game Allowed: T-13th

Following Chuck Pagano’s retirement, Ryan Pace decided to stay in-house and promote Bears safeties coach Sean Desai to defensive coordinator.

The 38-year-old inherits a unit with a spiffy core of linebackers, but the other two phases of Chicago’s D will be a work in progress.

Kyle Fuller’s departure leaves a gaping hole at CB, that as of mid-May, was still unfilled. The front line of the Bears 3-4 D will be counting on day three draft picks to rotate in and provide an impact.

All in all, not exactly the way you want to start the year. Especially with a road game at the Rams looming in week one.

18 – Kansas City Chiefs

  • Yards Per Play Allowed: T-18th
  • Points Per Game Allowed: T-10th

The Chiefs didn’t do a lot in free agency to bolster their defense. Jarran Reed will rotate in the trenches and Mike Hughes will eat up some snaps at nickel corner.

Having said that, Nick Bolton (58th pick) is a game-wrecking linebacker that most experts had a first-round grade on. Complementing Willie Gay Jr., KC is now strapped with a pair of young and hungry linebackers who are set to wreak havoc.

Where Steve Spagnuolo runs into trouble is trying to keep opposing wideouts from getting loose on the perimeter.

 After missing nearly half of his rookie season with a broken collarbone, the spotlight is on L’Jarius Sneed to make a big jump.

17 – Minnesota Vikings

  • Yards Per Play Allowed: T-27th
  • Points Per Game Allowed: 29th

Mike Zimmer wasn’t shy about calling his 2020 defense the “worst he’s ever been a part of.” Thankfully for Zimmer and those who root for the Vikings, we will see a much more competent defense in Minnesota in the upcoming season.

Danielle Hunter returns as one of the most ferocious DEs in the sport; Dalvin Tomlinson arrives as a run-stuffing DT. What was a dreadful secondary gets jolted by welcoming in Patrick Peterson and Xavier Woods.

One of the futures bets that piqued my interest is the Vikings winning the NFC North. You can latch on at +300 at XBet, but I suggest locking it in now. If Green Bay trades Aaron Rodgers, this juicy price tag will quickly disappear.

16 – San Francisco 49ers

  • Yards Per Play Allowed: T-4th
  • Points Per Game Allowed: 17th

So much for Javon Kinlaw being able to replace DeForest Buckner’s production, John Lynch is still scratching his head about that decision. Buckner was named a First-Team All-Pro with the Colts in 2020 while Kinlaw struggled to influence the game at all.

We can give the Niners a pass given all the injuries that mounted up but studying the secondary in 2021 is going to leave you wanting more.

Even with Nick Bosa healthy and Fred Warner playing at an elite level, I am hard-pressed to bump the 49ers any higher on these NFL power rankings for defense.

Particularly with me being unsure about how the team will respond to 36-year-old first-time DC calling the shots.

15 – Miami Dolphins

  • Yards Per Play Allowed: T-23rd
  • Points Per Game Allowed: T-5th

It is easy to be captivated with the Dolphins ranking 5th in points allowed. Throw in the fact that they topped the NFL in takeaways (29) and third-down defense. One can make a case that the Phins have one of the best defenses in the league.

Allow me to play devil’s advocate.

Tying for 23rd in yards/play allowed is a heavy indicator that this defense overachieved in 2020. Miami was average against the run (16th) and below-average against the pass (23rd).

Nevertheless, I cannot be too down on a defense that captured Jaelan Phillips and Jevon Holland in the draft. Both look like early contenders to evolve into perennial Pro Bowlers.

14 – Pittsburgh Steelers

  • Yards Per Play Allowed: T-2nd
  • Points Per Game Allowed: 3rd

11 games into the season the Steelers were wheeling and dealing. The defense could no wrong lowing just 17 points per game. Over the last five, it all fell apart.

Pittsburgh surrendered at least 23 points in each of their final five games going 1-4 down the stretch.

Considering the way this team tapered off late in the year, I am reluctant to just assume that Mike Tomlin will be able to right the ship. Pitt’s D is going to be good in 2021, I just don’t think it’ll be great.

13 – Indianapolis Colts

  • Yards Per Play Allowed: T-10th
  • Points Per Game Allowed: T-10th

Almost every draft analyst was certain that Indianapolis would be spending their first-round pick on an offensive tackle.

Instead, Chris Ballard showed his resourcefulness (signed Eric Fisher later on) and drafted Kwity Paye on day one. Wondering what propelled the Colts to opt for this strategy?

Indy was 31st in blitz % and 30th in QB knockdowns. Given the conservative nature of the Colts game plan on defense, they needed a big-bodied defensive end who can win one-on-one matchups.

The presence of DeForest Buckner and Darius Leonard means the Colts are armed with a couple of All-Pros in their front seven.

A mediocre set of defensive backs is what is keeping Indianapolis on the fringe of being a top-10 defense.

12 – New Orleans Saints

  • Yards Per Play Allowed: T-4th
  • Points Per Game Allowed: T-5th

After losing several key cogs to the defense during free agency, the Saints made it a point to load up on young defenders in the draft.

  • 1st-round pick – Payton Turner, DE, Houston
  • 2nd-round pick – Pete Werner, LB, Ohio State
  • 3rd-round pick – Paulson Adebo, CB, Stanford

New Orleans locked in on Cougars defensive lineman on day one to replace Trey Hendrickson on the edge. Turner’s a 6’6” 270 pounds beast who racked up 10.5 sacks in just five games last season. Pete Werner and Paulson Adebo each have a path to starting in week one.

With Cameron Jordan and Malcolm Jenkins nearing the end of their time, it was crucial for Sean Payton to start looking ahead to the future.

11 – Los Angeles Chargers

  • Yards Per Play Allowed: T-12th
  • Points Per Game Allowed: 23rd

Derwin James missed all of 2020. Joey Bosa missed four games. Having both All-Pros at 100% is the first and obvious reason to be high on the Chargers defense in 2021.

Expected progressions from Kenneth Murray and Nassir Adderley is another.

Drafting Asante Samuel Jr. is massive as he can play multiple positions in the secondary, but the guidance of Brandon Staley is what will tie everything together.

Staley orchestrated the top defense in football last year with the Rams. The personnel is different, but the philosophies stay the same.

10 – New York Giants

  • Yards Per Play Allowed: T-8th
  • Points Per Game Allowed: 9th

The Giants were hoping that Patrick Graham could turn the Giants defense into a respectable group in 2020. Graham did a lot more than that and transformed the G-Men’s D from one of the worst in the league to a top-10 unit.

New York Giants Defense – By the Numbers
Year Points/Game Yards/Game Yards/Play Takeaways
2019 28.2 377.3 5.7 16
2020 22.3 349.3 5.3 22

It is worth noting that only one player tallied more than four sacks, but here’s what else is worth noting.

Leonard Williams is back after posting a career-high 11.5 sacks and incorporating Azeez Ojulari into the fray only makes this defense more enticing.

9 – Denver Broncos

  • Yards Per Play Allowed: T-18th
  • Points Per Game Allowed: 25th

I am concerned about the Broncos offense but have absolutely no qualms about their D. Understanding that Denver must face Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert twice apiece (per season) for the foreseeable future, John Elway was hellbent on bulking up in the secondary.

Mission accomplished.

Tagging Justin Simmons and retaining Kareem Jackson took care of the safety position. As for beefing up at cornerback, that’s where things get exciting.

  • Signed Kyle Fuller
  • Signed Ronald Darby
  • Drafted Patrick Surtain II

If Von Miller can avoid the injury bug and play to the level he’s capable of, the Broncos should surge into the top 5 of NFL defense rankings.

8 – Buffalo Bills

  • Yards Per Play Allowed: T-12th
  • Points Per Game Allowed: 16th

I am pegging the Bills defense to make big strides in 2021. Not being able to apply a steady pass rush cost this team down the stretch. Hence, Brandon Beane spent his first two draft picks on high-upside edge rushers.

  • Gregory Rousseau
  • Carlos “Boogie” Basham

First-round selection Gregory Rousseau opted out in 2020, although what more did he need to accomplish after shredding offensive tackles in the ACC throughout 2019?

Rousseau compiled 15.5 sacks in 13 games as a redshirt freshman and will arrive in Buffalo with fresh legs. Boogie Basham totaled 33.5 tackles for loss and 19.5 sacks during his final 31 games at Wake Forest.

7 – New England Patriots

  • Yards Per Play Allowed: 22nd
  • Points Per Game Allowed: 7th

After surrendering fewer points per game in 2020 than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Bill Belichick has a lot to look forward to on D.

Some defenses got better in free agency, some got better in the draft. Others are enhanced simply because they’re getting players back who either opted out or got injured.

The Pats D in 2021 is a byproduct of all four examples.

Matt Judon and Kyle Van Noy were inked in free agency, while Dont’a Hightower is back on the gridiron as the heart and soul of the defense.

2019 DPOY winner Stephon Gilmore’s quad has healed – he is ready to go. Finally, “The Hoody” has big plans for rookies Christian Barmore (Alabama) and Ronnie Perkins (Oklahoma) in their first year in Foxborough.

6 – Arizona Cardinals

  • Yards Per Play Allowed: T-8th
  • Points Per Game Allowed: 12th

4th in the league in sacks and Chandler Jones (19.0 sacks in 2019) only appeared in five games. Jones is back, Isaiah Simmons is another year older, and J.J. Watt saunters into Arizona reinvigorated to play get after the quarterback.

Malcolm Butler has a lot to prove after feeling unwanted in Tennessee; you can see why I’m amped up about the Cardinals D.

Ready for the cherry on top?

In my column dedicated to one bold prediction for all 32 NFL teams, Zaven Collins is my pick to win the Defensive Rookie of the Year.

5 – Baltimore Ravens

  • Yards Per Play Allowed: 7th
  • Points Per Game Allowed: 2nd

Baltimore ranked 2nd in third-down defense and fourth in pressures. They joined the Rams as the only other team in the league that yielded fewer than 19 points per game.

Losing Matthew Judon and Yannick Ngakoue will certainly sting (the former more than the latter) at the outset, but it shouldn’t take long for Don Martindale to bring Odafe Oweh up to speed.

The Penn State product has recognized the long road that’s ahead, but Oweh’s enthusiastic approach is exactly what John Harbaugh was looking for.

“It’s a lot of hard work, which I pride myself on. It’s a lot of seeping in information, trying to be able to pick up things fast and then be able to do it fast on the field as well.”

4 – Cleveland Browns

  • Yards Per Play Allowed: T-12th
  • Points Per Game Allowed: 21st

Comfortably inside the top 5 in my power rankings for NFL defenses, the Browns D is going to be menacing in 2021. Cleveland’s defense was solid in 2020 relying on Myles Garrett and Denzel Ward to anchor the front line and back end, respectively.

Fast forward to today and Garrett and Ward each have some assistance. I will start with the additions in the front seven.

Jadevon Clowney should have plenty left in his tank. Anthony Walker Jr. is averaging 107 tackles per season since the start of 2018. Browns 2nd-round pick Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah won the 2020 Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker.

Moving into the secondary, Rams safety John Johnson III was the most coveted safety in free agency.

2019 Jim Thorpe Award winner Grant Delpit (the nation’s top safety) makes his debut after missing all of 2019. Cleveland also nabbed Rams CB Troy Hill in FA and drafted Greg Newsome in the first round.

I do not even have time to tout Richard LeCounte as one of the steals of the 2021 Draft!

3 – Los Angeles Rams

  • Yards Per Play Allowed: 1st
  • Points Per Game Allowed: 1st

Aaron Donald is the most dominant defender in the league, hands down. Many consider Jalen Ramsey as one of the top CBs in the sport. And yet people are still asking questions about the Rams defense in 2021.

We cannot determine how big of a loss Brandon Staley is until we see the product Raheem Morris puts on the field, but a little regression out of this D would only be natural.

Not a whole lot but waving goodbye to John Johnson III and Troy Hill wasn’t exactly ideal.

2 – Washington Football Team

  • Yards Per Play Allowed: T-2nd
  • Points Per Game Allowed: 4th

Washington’s defense carried them to the playoffs in 2020 and can do the same thing in 2021. Chase Young lived up to the hype and is on a fast track toward becoming one of the league’s top-tier pass rushers.

And the best part in D.C. is Chase is just one component of the NFL’s best defensive front. From 2017-2020, Washington spent a first-round pick every year on a defensive lineman.

  • Chase Young (2nd pick in 2020)
  • Montez Sweat (26th pick in 2019)
  • Daron Payne (2018 13th pick in2 018)
  • Jonathan Allen (17th pick in 2017)

Every guy is panning out, and then some.

Wash signed William Jackson III to be a shutdown corner and drafted Jamin Davis to be a three-down linebacker. Does this mean we have to give Daniel Snyder some credit?

1 – Tampa Bay Buccaneers

  • Yards Per Play Allowed: 6th
  • Points Per Game Allowed: 8th

The rich get richer. As if returning all 11 starters from its Super Bowl-winning defense was not enough, Tampa snagged a tantalizing edge rusher in the first round who’s going to be absorbing knowledge from Shaq Barrett and JPP.

After getting plucked in round one by the defending champs, Joe Tryon could not wait to get to West Florida and start getting to work.

“I’m going to be a sponge. Those dudes are some really big-time players, they’ve been doing it, playing at a high level for the past decade so I can’t wait to soak all that in and just learn from them. It’s a big-time opportunity.”

Those looking to get some money down in the NFL futures markets, you could a lot worse than betting on Devin White winning the Defensive Player of the Year.

More NFL Power Rankings in 2021

My 2021 NFL defense power rankings are subject to change. Rosters have taken shape and the NFL schedule has been released, but the dog days of summer are still in front of us.

From tracking what happens at training camps and OTAs to monitoring changes to the depth charts, new information will inevitably alter these rankings. Consider this post a preliminary version of all 32 defenses ranked in order.

I have done the same thing for all 32 NFL offenses in the blog below.

Michael Wynn
Michael Wynn

As a former Division I collegiate golfer, Michael Wynn loves writing about golf. He's also an expert in most of America's most popular sports, writing extensively for GamblingSites.com on football, basketball, and baseball.

Michael's a Las Vegas native and has been with the company since 2017.

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