Getting Defensive: Team Defense Tier Rankings - Footballguys

Our Ari Ingel provides his defensive tier rankings and comments for every NFL team. 

Time to get defensive. When I draft, I always have a tier sheet handy. I find that organizing players by tiers is far more beneficial than merely ranking players. I could rank the Jaguars over the Rams, but it is impossible to honestly predict which defensive unit will have a better season between the two of them, but I do know that both should finish better than a team like the Raiders.

Whether you are streaming or riding one defense the whole season, don’t ignore the position. Make sure to also check out Sig Blooms tier rankings for Quarterbacks, Running Backs, Wide Receivers and Tight Ends.

tier 1

Jaguars > Rams > Vikings > Eagles > Chargers

The Jaguars are loaded with talent and they were last seasons top defense. With corners A.J. Bouye and Jalen Ramsey locking down the outside and defensive linemen Calais Campbell, Malik Jackson and Telvin Smith Sr wrecking havoc up the middle, a repeat of last years finish looks inevitable. Their only weakness is the loss of slot cornerback Aaron Colvin who was replaced by perennial disappointment D.J. Hayden. The Jaguars should dominate again, however, keep in mind that Andrew Luck is back for the Colts and Deshaun Watson for the Texans, so it's not going to be quite as easy this season.

Like the Jaguars, the Rams defense is going to be lethal. Shutdown corners Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib man the outside with Lamarcus Joyner roaming the field at strong safety. Up front, Aaron Donald and free agent signing Ndamukong Suh are going to be a major problem for opposing teams. Quarterbacks should be very afraid. The best place to attack this team is at their linebackers, but the ball better come out quickly.

The Vikings defensive line is deadly; comprised of studs Everson Griffen, Linval Joseph, Sheldon Richardson and Danielle Hunter. Meanwhile, linebacker Anthony Barr calls the shots with Xavier Rhodes locking down opposing top receivers and the leagues best strong safety, Harrison Smith, shutting down the middle of the field. Free safety Andrew Sendejo is excellent as well, with the team's other cornerback, Mackenzie Alexander, being their only real weakness.

While the three teams mentioned above are interchangeable, the Eagles are a slight downgrade. Up front, they are scary, with Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox, and Michael Bennett all elite talents. In fact, per PFF, over the past two seasons, Graham averaged just 5.8 pass rushes per pressure generated, which is second to only Von Miller. With elite safety play, the weakness of this team continues to be at linebacker particularly with the loss of Mychal Kendricks. They also need Jalen Mills and Sidney Jones to step up outside alongside corner Ronald Darby, but their ball-hawking safeties will continue to rack up a boatload of fantasy points.

The loss of cornerback Jason Verrett to an Achilles injury last week was brutal, fortunately for the Chargers though, his availability this year was essentially gluttonous with Casey Hayward, Trevor Williams and Desmond King all still healthy. The Chargers even added safety Derwin James with their first pick in this year's draft. Up front, Melvin Ingram III and Joey Bosa form a formidable duo as any in the league, but they need to have big years from defensive tackle Brandon Mebane and outside linebacker Denzel Perryman. This is a great defense, but they can’t afford any more injuries.

tier 2

Saints > Ravens > Patriots > Texans > Titans

The Saints defense finally showed up last season, except for linebacker A.J. Klein who needs to play better this year. Elsewhere they are looking solid, with defensive ends Cameron Jordan’s ability to get to the quarterback, the return of first-rounder Sheldon Rankins, the drafting of rookie Marcus Davenport and linebacker Demario Davis patrolling the infield. The Saints also have a solid secondary consisting of corners Ken Crawley, Patrick Robinson and second-year studs Marcus Williams and Marshon Lattimore to go along with newly signed safety Kurt Coleman. This defense could quickly join the ranks of the elite.

Two things you can count on in life: taxes and a good Ravens defense. They are getting up there in age, but Terrell Suggs, Brandon Williams, Jimmy Smith and Eric Weddle will give you good fantasy production every week. Like the Titans and other defenses in this tier, there are very few weaknesses, even though they don’t have any elite young talents. Age is the only cause for concern.

Head coach Bill Belichick always gets the Patriots defense going, albeit after a slow start last season. They are solid up front and on the backend but are vulnerable in the middle. After a promising rookie campaign, inside linebacker Elandon Roberts disappointed, his reemergence would be massive for them. The Patriots get linebacker Dont’a Hightower back from injury too, along with defensive end Derek Rivers. The Patriots also bolstered their defense by signing some excellent veteran talent in cornerback Jason McCourty, nose tackle Danny Shelton, and defensive end Adrian Clayborn.

The Texans secondary is getting long in the tooth, but they are still capable. It’s also going to be interesting to see what newly signed safety Tyrann Mathieu has left in the tank. Health permitting, we could finally see J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus on the field at the same time for an extended period. If that happens, this defense has a chance to be elite. They also have one of the easiest schedules in the league.

While they don’t have many elite players, the Titans have a great all-around defense with no real deficiencies. Defensive lineman Jurrell Casey leads the way and is one of the best at his position in the league. His cohort Brian Orakpo is getting up there in age, but still an outstanding player. The team’s secondary is exceptional as well, with former Patriot Malcolm Butler joining Adoree' Jackson, Kevin Byard and Logan Ryan. Strong safety Johnathan Cyprien was just lost for the season, but the Titans quickly filled that hole with free agent Kenny Vacaro who just may be an upgrade. This secondary will be one of the leagues best.

tier 3

Broncos > Falcons > Bears > Packers > Steelers > Panthers > Buccaneers

This is no longer the elite Broncos defense of the past few seasons, but there is still a lot of talent on this team. First-round rookie Bradley Chubb should form a formidable duo with perhaps the leagues best defensive player, Von Miller. Chubb could easily have a Joey Bosa type impact rookie year. Up front, they need Derek Wolfe and Domata Peko Sr to stay healthy, but both are still capable disruptors. The most significant turnover is on the backend, where Chris Harris Jr Jr. is the only elite corner that remains from the no-fly zone. It’s now up to Bradley Roby to step up and prove that they were right in letting Aqib Talib go. The Broncos are also counting on strong safety Su'a Cravens, who they traded for this year. He was drafted by the Redskins in 2016, but debated retirement in 2017, causing him to miss the whole season. Is he ready to play?

Despite the losses of Adrian Clayborn and Dontari Poe, the Falcons defense is still rock solid. Their most significant deficiency last year was in the turnover department, ranking 29th in interceptions and 18th in fumble recoveries. Much of this was just bad luck, and they are bound for regression towards the mean. There are playmakers at every level of this defense, with defensive tackle Grady Jarrett upfront, Deion Jones at linebacker, Desmond Trufant at corner and Ricardo Allen at free safety. There is a lot to like here, and they are a potential steal for teams waiting on their defense.

Like the Falcons, the Bears could easily end up being a Tier 2 team. Defensive end Akiem Hicks is a force to be reckoned with, while linebacker Danny Trevathan quarterbacks things in the middle of the field, not to mention rookie first-round pick Roquan Smith out of Georgia who is a heck of a player, although still unsigned and thus not in camp, which is an issue. The Bears also have a great secondary with corners Kyle Fuller, Prince Amukamara and Bryce Callahan, to go along with free safety Adrian Amos, who is right up there with the Viking’s Harrison Smith as the best safety in the league. Last season he recorded 62 tackles, three passes defended, one interception, two forced fumbles, and a touchdown. Buckle up; this defense is ready to roll.

Like the Saints, the Packers finally have a defense in place to help them get back to the Super Bowl. Perhaps the most significant addition to this defense is new Defensive Coordinator Mike Pettine, who replaces longtime coach Dom Capers. Like the rest of the defenses in this tier, there are very few weaknesses. Up front Mike Daniels, Kenny Clark and newcomer Muhammad Wilkerson are going to be a handful to deal with, while Clay Matthews, Blake Martinez, and Nick Perry bring a ton of pressure from the linebacker spot. The loss of Jack Ryan for the year will hurt though, but they have depth. The weakness of this team the past few seasons has been their secondary, but that should be improved finally with corner Tramon Williams and safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, who is looking like a future star. The Packers also spent their first, and second-round draft picks on corners, Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson. They are determined to fix their secondary.

The Steelers defense nosedived in 2017 after linebacker Ryan Shazier was lost for the year. With Shazier’s career still in question, they are counting on second-year linebacker T.J. Watt to step up in his place after a promising rookie season. Up front, the team has the excellent duo of Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt, and on the backend, they have the capable trio of Joe Haden, Artie Burns, and Mike Hilton to go along with safety Morgan Burnett and rookie Terrell Edmunds. The talent is there, they just need to come together as a unit without Shazier as the glue.

The strength of the Panthers defense is in the pass rush and with Inside linebacker Luke Kuechly, who is one of the best defenders in the league both against the pass and in getting to the quarterback. Upfront Kawann Short is a dominant force and surrounded by the capable duo of 38-year-old Julius Peppers, Mario Addison and Dontari Poe, who replaces the departed Star Lotulelei. This is a unit can cause havoc up front, and they need to since their secondary is a significant concern. They finished 24th in interceptions last season, and that might not change this year. Corners James Bradberry and Captain Munnerlyn will get picked apart if 37-year-old safety Mike Adams doesn’t stay healthy to help them out.

The Bucs had trouble getting to the quarterback last season, at least that shouldn’t be a problem this year. They’ve surrounded elite defensive tackle Gerald McCoy with some menacing cohorts in Jason Pierre-Paul, Beau Allen and Vinny Curry, who comes over from the Eagles. They also drafted rookie defensive tackle Vita Vea in the first round, who was the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and won the Morris Trophy. Lavonte David is one of the best linebackers in the league, but that position is thin besides him. On the backend, Brent Grimes and Vernon Hargreaves are excellent corners, but Grimes is now 35 years old.

tier 4

Bengals > Browns > Cowboys > Seahawks >Lions >Cardinals > Bills > Chiefs

The Bengals field a dominant defensive group as usual, unfortunately, due to their zone scheme, they often don’t put up huge fantasy numbers, as a bend but don’t break unit. Geno Atkins remains one of the best defensive linemen in the league, and Carlos Dunlap is excellent at bringing pressure from the outside. They need linebacker Vontaze Burfict to stay out of trouble, but cornerback William Jackson looks near elite.

It’s a real shame the Browns didn’t draft Bradley Chubb to pair with Myles Garrett. That would have been an elite combination for years to come. That said, the Browns believed he wasn’t necessary as they have Emmanuel Ogbah and Larry Ogunjobi, who both flashed high-end talent. Elsewhere this defense is stocked with young playmakers, including linebackers Mychal Kendricks, Jamie Collins Sr, and a revamped secondary with rookie Denzel Ward to go along with E.J. Gaines, T.J. Carrie, Damarious Randall and Jabrill Peppers. The key to this defense is defensive coordinator Greg Williams. He is an aggressive play caller who brings tons of pressure up front and demands his secondary handle their own business on the backend. If things go awry (again) to begin the year, look for him to be replaced quickly. This defense would be at least a tier higher if they had Wade Phillips or Rex Ryan in charge. It’s a sleeper unit.

The Cowboys led the league in forced fumbles last year, and they look to build on that momentum this season. Defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence joined the ranks of the elite, breaking out with 79 pressures last season, which was second most in the league. Surrounding Lawrence is fellow defensive linemen Tyrone Crawford and David Irving who are both solid. The real key to this defense is the health of linebacker Sean Lee, who is still working his way back from injury. If he can get, and stay, healthy, this unit will be much more consistent. The Cowboys also have a young secondary that played well as a unit, even though they don’t have any big names.

The Seahawks have been a perennial fantasy staple as a top end defense, but they’ve begun to slide the past few seasons and now are an entirely new team. Michael Bennett, Kam Chancellor, Richard Sherman, Clif Avril and Sheldon Richardson are all gone, while Earl Thomas is holding out for a new contract or a trade. That’s a 2016 all-star team right there. Bobby Wagner is still an elite linebacker; while Frank Clark is a capable edge rusher. The Seahawks were counting on Dion Jordan to emerge finally, but he’s out with a stress fracture in his leg. Rookie Jacob Martin is performing well in camp, but it’s tough to expect much from a a 6th round rookie. On the backend, Byron Maxwell, Justin Coleman, and Shaquill Griffin form a capable corner trio, but not nearly elite by any regard and who knows what to expect out of the team’s safety play. They really need to figure out a deal with Thomas and get him into camp. If he rejoins the team, bump them up a tier.

New defensive minded head coach Matt Patricia takes over the Lions and will be bringing with him years of experience under Bill Belichick. Even before Patricia’s arrival, the Lions defense played above their talent level last season, finishing as fantasy’s sixth-best unit. Ezekiel Ansah is a one-man wrecking crew up front, it’s just a shame the Lions didn’t go out and get him any help. On the backend, Darius Slay is an elite corner, and free safety Glover Quin is one of the best in the league. This defense hinges on the development on their 2016 and 2017 first and second-round draft picks, linebacker Jarrad Davis, defensive tackle A'Shawn Robinson, and cornerback Teez Tabor. The hope is that Patricia can get the best out of all three.

Chandler Jones and Corey Peters form a potent duo for the Cardinals up front, but they badly need defensive end Markus Golden to return from his ACL injury. Beyond them, it's a mixed bag. Patrick Peterson is an elite cornerback, but they have nothing else besides him. They are hoping newly acquired corner Jamar Taylor from the Browns can step up opposite Peterson, but he’s no sure thing. The Cardinals do have two good safeties in Antoine Bethea and Budda Baker, but new head coach, Steve Wilks, has his work cut out for him. He was at least able to do a lot sometimes with a little when coaching in Carolina.

The Bills have great safeties in Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, but just one great corner in Tre-Davious White. Can corner Vontae Davis return to his elite level of play? He just can’t seem to stay healthy. Outside of the secondary, Jerry Hughes is a great defensive end, but not enough to make a difference unless Star Lotulelei can return to form. Last season Lotulelei had only 25 total tackles while playing 58.84% of the Panthers’ defensive snaps. Hopefully, a change of scenery does him good. First-round rookie linebacker Tremaine Edmunds has impressed so far in camp, but he just turned 20 years old a month ago.

Never count out an Andy Reid defense, but this Chiefs defense has been gutted of talent. Kendall Fuller is a great corner, but without Marcus Peters, they really need Steven Nelson to step up or for David Amerson to rekindle the ability he had a few years ago with the Raiders. This secondary could be a sieve if safety Eric Berry doesn’t return to form after suffering an Achilles injury last season. He was one of the best in the game, can he still be? Linebacker is the real strength of this unit, where Justin Houston is still one of the best edge rushers in the league, and Anthony Hitchens compliments him well. The most significant benefits of this unit are how hard it is for opposing teams to play in Arrowhead and that Tyreek Hill is the Chiefs return man. Stream them at home only.

tier 5

Raiders > Dolphins > Redskins > 49ers

The Raiders were the worst defense in fantasy last season, but there is some hope for improvement this year. Khalil Mack is a beast on the edge, but he’s holding out for a new contract right now. He should be back before the season starts. With Mack in the lineup, Bruce Irvin makes for an excellent compliment as a solid pass rusher who can get to the quarterback as well. The Raiders need their young defensive back unit to take a step forward though, and it's certainly possible. Karl Joseph and Rashaan Melvin are good players, and Gareon Conley and Obi Melifonwu showed promise. To shore up the defense head coach Jon Gruden went with experience, signing a slew of old players in corners Marcus Gilchrist, Leon Hall and Shareece Wright, along with linebacker Derrick Johnson. Perhaps the combination of veteran experience and unbridled young talent can be a winning formula. It’s going to be fascinating to watch.

Robert Quinn and Cameron Wake are capable of causing havoc up front for the Dolphins, but their linebacker core is a real mess. Their secondary is at least showing promise. Hopefully rookie safety Minkah Fitzpatrick plays up to his draft hype, but he should form an excellent duo with free safety Reshad Jones, who is making plays regularly in camp. Bobby McCain is a chippy corner who can hang with most receivers, and Xavien Howard has shown flashes he can be a shutdown corner and he is dominating in camp so far. This unit could surprise and has some upside.

The Redskins are mixed bags, but just too many holes to be a reliable starter every week. Edge defender Ryan Kerrigan is near elite, and defensive end Jonathan Allen is terrific. Beyond that, there is not much firepower up front to get to the quarterback or contain the run. They are counting on rookie first-rounder nose tackle Daron Payne to stuff up the middle, but he’s sidelined for at least 2 or 3 weeks with an ankle injury. The secondary is also a mixed bag. Josh Norman is an elite talent, but he’s rarely tasked with shadowing opposing corners, playing zone and sides instead. Opposite Norman is 4th-year player Quinton Dunbar who just got a new contract, and they are counting on him to continue to improve, he has the talent to do so. While free safety is a significant issue, at least D.J. Swearinger Sr is a top-notch strong safety and is the vocal leader of this defense. Against bottom tier talent, the Redskins should be streamable, just beware against teams like the Eagles who can exploit their weaknesses.

The 49ers remodel is still in progress. Defensive tackle DeForest Buckner is an absolute beast, leading the league last year at his position with 19 quarterback hits. Hopefully Reuben Foster escapes suspension because he is their only other elite talent on defense. Stopping the run is going to be a significant problem for this team though. On the backend, newly signed corner Richard Sherman looks downright slow in camp, coming off of a torn Achilles. While he may be washed, he at least is a veteran presence and a vocal leader. Corners Ahkello Witherspoon and K'Waun Williams played pretty well last season, while safety Jaquiski Tartt finally played up to his second-round draft slot, earning himself a two-year extension. The secondary is not this team’s problem.

tier 6

Jets > Giants

The best thing going for the Jets is defensive head coach Todd Bowels ability to get more out of their players than their projected talent level and the presence of defensive end Leonard Williams, who is up there with the best in the league. The rest of the defensive line is solid as well, with Steve McLendon, Henry Anderson, and linebacker Avery Williams. After that, it gets a bit rough. While safety Jamal Adams and cornerback Trumaine Johnson are capable, neither is elite, and the rest of the secondary and linebacker core is a sieve. They are streamable at home against teams with bad offensive lines only.

Like the other defenses in this tier, it’s all about stars and scrubs for the Giants. Unfortunately, if you have too many scrubs, it kills you for fantasy. Nose tackle Damon Harrison and outside linebacker Olivier Vernon are great players, but that’s just two out of seven on this front line. They will miss the departed Jason Pierre-Paul, who now plays in Tampa. On the backend, corner Janoris Jenkins and safety Landon Collins excellent players, but that’s just two out of five defensive backs. The holes are just too great.

tier 7


The Colts defense is horrible. By far the best player is defensive end Jabaal Sheard who was able to get 66 quarterback pressures last year, albeit only 5 sacks. That inlays the problem; beyond him, there is nothing else. On the backend, free safety Malik Hooker was their first round pick in 2017, but he is coming off of a torn MCL and ACL. Andrew Luck and the offense are going to have to put up a lot of points.


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