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Tony Avelar/Associated Press
“Defense wins championships” is a classic trope for a reason.
The Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs might have been an offensive-minded team, but it was their defense that came up with the big stops against the San Francisco 49ers and allowed Patrick Mahomes and Co. to get back into the game in the second half of Super Bowl LIV.
Needless to say, a franchise cannot expect to win a championship based solely on offensive firepower. In fact, it is often the case that teams with a dominant defense—like the 2000 Baltimore Ravens or the 2013 Seattle Seahawks—have a better chance of carrying a merely serviceable offensive unit to the Super Bowl.
Most teams have finished reconstructing their defensive units with the conclusion of the NFL draft. Though there are still some quality free agents to be had, the brunt of the work is over for the majority of front offices.
With that in mind, we’ll be ranking all 32 defenses after the draft.
Recent production will serve as a baseline, but other considerations will be made. Key additions and subtractions at positions of need will be weighed heavily, as will the potential impact of incoming rookies.
We’ll also take into account the implementation of a new defensive scheme or the hiring of new coordinators. Some defensive minds will weigh more heavily into the rankings than others.
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Jeff Roberson/Associated Press
The Jaguars nearly rode a dominant defense to a Super Bowl appearance in 2017. But just a few short years later, the outlook has changed drastically.
Jacksonville has entered rebuilding territory. This offseason, they traded veteran defensive end Calais Campbell to the Baltimore Ravens while shipping cornerback A.J. Bouye to the Denver Broncos.
In short, the Jaguars are going to need major contributions from their newcomers. Jacksonville signed inside linebacker Joe Schobert in free agency, and they used their top draft choice to select Florida cornerback C.J. Henderson.
Jacksonville also selected LSU edge-rusher K’Lavon Chaisson later in the first round and took Ohio State defensive tackle Davon Hamilton in the third round. They also addressed the front seven with a slew of late-round picks.
Perhaps this overhaul will be successful from the jump. It’s possible Chaisson can fill in immediately for Ngakoue while Henderson develops as a lockdown corner in place of Bouye.
Still, the Jaguars defense ranked just 29th in defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA) last year, per Football Outsiders. Losing impact players like Campbell and Bouye hardly seems to predict major improvement.
If Jacksonville hopes to make any strides, it needs Henderson to become a better tackler, and Chaisson will have to be more of a run-stuffer in addition to his ability to rush the passer.
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Ed Zurga/Associated Press
The Texans promoted former defensive line coach Anthony Weaver to the coordinator position, with Romeo Crennel moving into a role as associate head coach. However, Weaver might struggle to get the most out of a defense that made very few adjustments to the secondary this offseason.
Houston’s big moves were re-signing cornerback Bradley Roby and adding safety Michael Thomas as a replacement for Tashaun Gipson, which is not enough for a secondary that ranked 26th in passing DVOA last year.
Not to mention, the Texans also lost run-stuffing tackle D.J. Reader. While Houston drafted defensive tackle Ross Blacklock out of TCU and signed veteran Timmy Jernigan, they could be hard-pressed to match Reader’s steady pressure. Reader had 13 quarterback hits in 2019 and was ranked Pro Football Focus’ third-best tackle against the run.
Plus, there have to be questions about J.J. Watt’s durability. Watt is one of the most game-changing players in football, but despite being healthy for all of 2018, he has missed 32 games in the last four years.
Perhaps Weaver’s experience as a D-line coach can get the most out of the newcomers, and maybe Watt can string together a full season.
Still, the loss of Reader as well as a sense of complacency in the secondary doesn’t bode well for the Texans.
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Chris O’Meara/Associated Press
The Panthers are in a position similar to the Jaguars’.
First-year head coach Matt Rhule certainly made drafting defensive players a priority, which makes sense because, as ESPN’s David Newton noted, new defensive coordinator Phil Snow likes to run “multiple schemes.” In fact, all seven prospects drafted by the Panthers are on the defensive side of the ball.
There is certainly potential there. First-round pick Derrick Brown was one of the most athletic defensive tackles in the country last year, and he gives the Panthers a tremendous pass-rushing presence in the middle of the line. Carolina also selected Yetur Gross-Matos out of Penn State to slot in at one of the edge spots.
But there are plenty of questions. The most pressing one, of course, is how the Panthers will make up for the loss of five-time All-Pro Luke Kuechly.
Carolina signed former Las Vegas Raider Tahir Whitehead, though he is more of an outside linebacker, and Mario Addison left Carolina for the Buffalo Bills. Now, the Panthers are seemingly asking Shaq Thompson to fill an enormous void of both leadership and production due to Kuechly’s retirement.
The Panthers also lost their top corner in James Bradberry and—aside from drafting Notre Dame corner Troy Pride Jr. in the fourth round—did not add much to the secondary.
Carolina ranked 25th in total DVOA last season, and Kuechly’s departure makes improvement even harder.
To be clear, this is a unit with upside, especially given the prowess of guys like Brown and Gross-Matos. But there is also plenty of inexperience, especially when compared to other defenses around the league.
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Paul Sancya/Associated Press
The Lions made the best decision for their defense by staying at the No. 3 spot in the draft and selecting Ohio State cornerback Jeff Okudah, who was dominant during his tenure with the Buckeyes. According to Pro Football Focus, he allowed first downs on just 20 percent of all targets at the outside corner since 2018. He also dominated in press coverage, making him the perfect replacement for Darius Slay.
Detroit also signed former Atlanta Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant earlier in the offseason while acquiring ball-hawking safety Duron Harmon from the New England Patriots.
The problem is, the secondary figures to see a ton of action due to a relatively lackluster pass rush. The Lions cut edge-rusher Devon Kennard and defensive tackle Damon “Snacks” Harrison, but the only move they made to upgrade the line was signing former Pats defensive tackle Danny Shelton.
Shelton was a run-stuffing machine for New England last year, and perhaps the Lions are counting on the additions of linebackers Jamie Collins and Reggie Ragland to help against the run as well. Still, they don’t have much of a pass rush outside of Trey Flowers, which does not bode well for the overhauled secondary. Collins did have seven sacks last season, but he will be 31 in October, and the Lions might need him to be more of a cover backer.
Third-round draft pick Julian Okwara might be able to help set the edge, but the Lions ranked 29th in passing DVOA last year, and the relative shortage of pass-rushing threats will test Detroit’s secondary once again.
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Sam Craft/Associated Press
The Giants did not make a ton of moves this offseason, but they did sign cornerback James Bradberry and former Green Bay Packers linebacker Blake Martinez, who should be a sizable upgrade over Alec Ogletree. He swarms ball-carriers, repeatedly shedding defenders and getting into the defensive backfield. He had a much better missed tackle percentage as well, 10.4 percent to Ogletree’s 15.8 percent.
Bradberry should have a similar impact in the secondary, though he might not be worth $15 million per year. New defensive coordinator Patrick Graham loves to disguise coverage in base 3-4, and the Giants figure to have a high percentage of plays with defensive backs on the field.
This scheme might also suit second-round pick Xavier McKinney quite well. McKinney, a safety out of Alabama, lacks some size at 6’0″ and 201 pounds, but he had a tremendous ability to blitz the A-gap for the Crimson Tide. Adding defensive backs could give him more freedom to make plays all over the field.
However, adding defensive backs means the Giants will need to generate pressure. Unfortunately for New York, this is still an area of need.
Defensive end Leonard Williams can get to the quarterback and showed improvement after he was traded to the Giants in 2019. But despite using the unrestricted free-agent tender, the Giants still figure to lose linebacker Markus Golden, who was arguably the team’s defensive MVP last season.
While the Giants bolstered the secondary and added talent at the linebacker position, they lack quality depth and pass-rushers on the defensive line, which is not the best recipe for success in Graham’s base 3-4 scheme.
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Michael Wyke/Associated Press
The Bengals were wise to sign defensive tackle D.J. Reader.
Cincinnati ranked last in rushing yards allowed in 2019, but pairing Reader with Geno Atkins gives Cincinnati a pair of excellent tackles who can clog the middle and get in the quarterback’s face. Reader should also help account for more attention from opposing offensive lines, which should free up the likes of Atkins and Carlos Dunlap to rush the passer and make plays in the backfield.
The biggest question marks come in the secondary.
Cincy pilfered both Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander from the Minnesota Vikings. However, Waynes has really struggled in coverage the past few seasons, and Alexander’s starts have been few and far between.
Perhaps Waynes will improve playing a lot more man coverage this season. Still, his track record is less than encouraging with just one interception in each of the last two years. The Bengals need more takeaways next season after generating just 16 in 2019, good for 28th in the league.
The addition of Vonn Bell could be very consequential. Bell should allow Shawn Williams to move into a nickelback role or continue to line up at linebacker. He might not be the best cover man, but Bell is terrific against the run and can play up in the box as a blitzer.
Cincinnati might still struggle defending the pass, but it beefed up its run defense quite a bit, which is certainly an improvement.
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Gerald Herbert/Associated Press
The Falcons desperately needed an upgrade in the secondary, particularly after cutting ties with Desmond Trufant. They got their man in Clemson cornerback A.J. Terrell with the No. 16 pick. Though Terrell wasn’t one of the more lauded corners like Jeff Okudah or C.J. Henderson, he was still tremendous in press coverage.
Outside of Terrell, however, the Falcons didn’t do a whole lot to address the secondary. They drafted safety Jaylinn Hawkins in the fourth round but failed to add depth at the corner spot.
Instead, Atlanta will rely on its front seven to ease some of the pressure on the defensive backs. The Falcons made defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. their marquee free-agent addition and selected Auburn defensive lineman Marlon Davidson in the second round. Davidson should be particularly valuable because he can play inside or outside, potentially forming a fearsome tackle duo with Grady Jarrett.
But the Falcons will miss linebackers De’Vondre Campbell and Vic Beasley. Even if Beasley didn’t meet expectations, he still had eight sacks last year and showed marked improvement over the previous two campaigns.
The bottom line is the Falcons, once again, will have to rely on their front seven if they hope to have any chance of making the playoffs in 2020.
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Jeff Haynes/Associated Press
The Cowboys lost a pair of major impact players in cornerback Byron Jones and edge-rusher Robert Quinn, and their departures point to glaring holes in Dallas’ defense.
Dallas was fortunate enough to have Alabama cornerback Trevon Diggs fall to it in the second round of the draft, but it hasn’t added a whole lot of other depth outside of former Raiders cornerback Daryl Worley. Worley is a good cover corner, but he also gives up explosive plays. Opposing receivers averaged close to 16 yards per reception and burned him for five touchdowns last season, per Pro Football Reference.
The Cowboys did improve at the safety spot, however, as they signed Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to replace Jeff Heath.
Quinn’s departure might be even more consequential. He had 11.5 sacks and 22 quarterback hits for the Cowboys last year, and the team has yet to replace him with an adequate edge-rushing presence. Instead, it will be relying on the likes of Gerald McCoy and—if he is cleared to return—Aldon Smith, who has not played in the NFL since 2015.
Not to mention, the Cowboys also lost Maliek Collins in free agency, though they are hoping third-round pick Neville Gallimore and veteran Dontari Poe can help fill the void at defensive tackle.
New defensive coordinator Mike Nolan wants to be more “complex” this year, per ESPN’s Todd Archer, and the Cowboys might need to invest in scheming to disguise coverage and blitzes due to a lack of personnel.
There is still talent in Dallas, though; linebackers DeMarcus Lawrence and Leighton Vander Esch are perennial Pro Bowl candidates. But the Cowboys ranked 19th in total DVOA last year despite that talent, and they could slip even further without a steady pass rush or a lockdown corner like Jones.
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Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press
The Raiders did well to upgrade their defense this offseason.
Las Vegas signed former Los Angeles Rams linebacker Cory Littleton, who is one of the most versatile players at his position. Littleton has had at least 125 tackles, 3.5 sacks and two interceptions each of the past two seasons, and he is one of the best cover linebackers in the game.
The Raiders also signed former Chicago Bears linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski, who was a sure tackler and played up in the box in place of Danny Trevathan. Kwiatkoski figures to have to improve his cover skills this season, but he should help solidify the defensive front against the run. So should Maliek Collins,, whom the Raiders signed away from the Dallas Cowboys.
Though the selection of Ohio State cornerback Damon Arnette in the first round garnered some skepticism, Buckeyes head coach Ryan Day spoke very highly of his toughness and the fact he was tested often opposite Jeff Okudah.
The Raiders brought in former Tampa Bay Buccaneers edge-rusher Carl Nassib to replace Benson Mayowa, which was a big move considering they failed to add to their defensive line in the draft. Nassib actually had more quarterback hits than Mayowa (11 to 10) in 2019, and he was stout against the run, which should make for a good addition opposite Maxx Crosby.
Realistically, this unit should be drastically improved from 2019, when they ranked 31st in DVOA. The question will be whether Arnette and Trayvon Mullen—who excelled in coverage last season but also started just 10 games—can hold up in what is likely to be a pass-happy AFC West.
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David Richard/Associated Press
Most of Cleveland’s defensive unit from last season remains intact, though they did lose Joe Schobert in free agency. Myles Garrett and Larry Ogunjobi will anchor the pass rush, and the Browns will hope Olivier Vernon can stay healthy and get back on track after posting just 3.5 sacks last year.
The secondary ranked 17th against the pass in terms of DVOA, and cornerback Denzel Ward is a menace in coverage. He had the lowest completion rate allowed in 2019, per PFF, and should return to Pro Bowl form if he can clean up his tackling and stay healthy.
Cleveland also brought in Kevin Johnson to play some slot corner, which should add depth alongside Greedy Williams after losing Juston Burris in free agency.
The Browns made LSU safety Grant Delpit their second-round selection, which could serve as a massive boon in the secondary. Delpit is a physical breed of safety who can help against the run and jostle with tight ends and receivers. They will need Delpit’s physicality in the box, particularly after losing Schobert considering Cleveland ranked 30th in rushing DVOA last year.
The Browns also drafted Missouri defensive tackle Jordan Elliott and LSU linebacker Jacob Phillips in the third round, though only Elliott figures to see immediate playing time.
Incoming defensive coordinator Joe Woods said in a news release that he will stick with the 4-3 base scheme this season, but that might not be the best formula for a team that needs to limit opponents on the ground.
The defensive backs should benefit from Woods’ tutelage, but the Browns are lacking some much-needed oomph in the front seven.
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Sean Rayford/Associated Press
The Cardinals drastically improved their defense with their first-round selection of do-it-all hybrid defender Isaiah Simmons out of Clemson. Last season, Simmons tallied 104 combined tackles, eight sacks and three interceptions to go along with eight passes defended. He can play up in the box or drop into coverage, and the Cardinals might look to use him in the same capacity as New York Jets star safety Jamal Adams.
Arizona also signed outside linebacker Devon Kennard to improve the pass rush, and new inside ‘backer De’Vondre Campbell is a sure tackler who plays the run well and had five passes defended and three forced fumbles last season.
Those additions should all make a huge impact for a team that ranked 32nd in total yards allowed last season. The Cardinals also did well to bring back defensive end Jonathan Bullard, adding depth to a line that already features the menacing Chandler Jones.
The secondary should also benefit from a full year of cornerback Patrick Peterson after he missed six games last year due to suspension. Peterson was rusty upon returning, but he rounded into form at the end of the year and should be hungry as ever for a Cardinals team looking to make a massive jump in 2020.
The additions to the front seven might be the most consequential. If Kennard and Simmons can get into the backfield, it could make all the difference for an already strong corner duo of Peterson and Byron Murphy.
Despite the lackluster traditional numbers, the Cardinals actually ranked 23rd in DVOA last year. The moves made in free agency and the draft, plus a full year from Peterson, should help this unit improve.
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Rick Scuteri/Associated Press
Washington’s offseason improvement starts with Chase Young.
Hailed by many as the top talent in the 2020 draft class, the defensive end had the best scouting grade of any prospect this year, per NFL.com. He has tremendous size and speed comparable to that of Jadeveon Clowney and gives the Redskins an imposing front line.
Young joins a front that will switch to a 4-3 base for the first time in 10 years, per ESPN, which should allow defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio to exploit the talents of guys like Montez Sweat, Ryan Kerrigan, Matthew Ioannidis and Jonathan Allen. The Redskins also signed veteran linebacker Thomas Davis to improve their depth at the position, which is vital considering they ranked 31st in rushing yards allowed last year.
Cornerback Kendall Fuller is another notable addition for the Redskins. Fuller began his career in Washington, and he should return to an outside corner role, which is his favored spot in coverage. Free-agent signing Ronald Darby should also see plenty of playing time if he is healthy.
The Redskins will need more from Landon Collins in 2020. Collins allowed a 70.1 percent completion rate and five touchdowns last season, per Pro Football Reference, and they cannot afford a ton of lapses in a secondary that mostly employs a committee look. In fact, it seems likely the Redskins will be far better against the run this season with the addition of Young and the switch to the 4-3.
Washington has every reason to make a big jump on the defensive side of the ball in 2020, and Del Rio is going to demand a lot out of his group. But so much depends on improvement in the secondary, especially on Fuller’s ability to readjust to outside corner after spending time in the slot with the Kansas City Chiefs.
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Chris Szagola/Associated Press
The Seahawks made a point of adding defensive talent this offseason.
Seattle took a pair of defenders early in the NFL draft, selecting Texas Tech linebacker Jordyn Brooks in the first round and Tennessee edge-rusher Darrell Taylor in the second. Both figure to play big roles from the start, with Brooks likely filling Mychal Kendricks’ shoes and Taylor joining a number of pass-rushing options.
The Seahawks also signed Benson Mayowa and Bruce Irvin, giving them another pair of pass-rushers in the event they do not re-sign Jadeveon Clowney.
There was also some growth in the secondary. Shaquill Griffin was a Pro Bowler last season, just one year after ranking 111th out of 112 cornerbacks. Griffin had 13 passes defended, with opponents completing just over 57 percent of their passes when targeting his side of the field.
But the most important move the Seahawks made was acquiring Quinton Dunbar. The former Redskins corner had the second–highest coverage grade of 2019, per PFF, and he should take over for Trey Flowers at the outside corner spot.
Do not discount a full season from Quandre Diggs, either. Diggs had three interceptions in just five games with the Seahawks last season, and he ranked third in coverage among safeties from Week 11 on, per PFF.
Seattle’s defense could trend in either direction. It loses some all-around production and unique edge coverage abilities if it cannot re-sign Clowney, but it also added a number of guys who can make impact plays.
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Paul Sancya/Associated Press
Miami’s defense will look quite a bit different in 2020.
The Dolphins were among the most active team in terms of adding defensive pieces this offseason, and they will also have a new defensive coordinator in Josh Boyer.
Undoubtedly, the headline move was signing Byron Jones. The former Cowboys cornerback was arguably the most coveted defensive back on the market, and the Dolphins gave him a five-year, $82.5 million contract to hold down the corner spot opposite Xavien Howard.
Pairing Jones and Howard gives the Dolphins one of the best cornerback duos in football. Remember, Howard played just five games last season before hitting injured reserve. But he is an elite corner, having notched 11 interceptions and 25 passes defended over the two seasons prior to that. Miami also added Auburn cornerback Noah Igbinoghene in the first round, and he should play the majority of snaps in the slot.
These are consequential moves for a team that ranked 32nd in passing DVOA. But the Dolphins also added pass-rushers on the front line, signing Shaq Lawson and Emmanuel Ogbah as well as former New England Patriots linebacker Kyle Van Noy, who can line up all over the field. Van Noy excelled in the outside spot with the Pats last season, and the Dolphins figure to utilize his speed and instincts on the edge.
The Dolphins also drafted Alabama defensive tackle Raekwon Davis in the second round. Davis is a big body who will likely have to play a major role in the run defense.
Miami ranked last in sacks last season, per NFL.com, but it added impact players both in the secondary and on the defensive line. The Dolphins might have benefited from drafting a top safety, but Boyer’s experience working with the defensive backs should help this unit make a big jump.
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Andy Clayton-King/Associated Press
Contrary to some of the teams above them on this list, the Packers have the most potential to slide down.
Green Bay ranked 15th in total DVOA and just 23rd in rushing DVOA in 2019. Then they lost linebackers Blake Martinez and Kyler Fackrell in the offseason, replacing them with oft-injured linebacker Christian Kirksey, who played just nine games in the last two seasons with the Cleveland Browns.
The Packers figured to add defensive talent early in the draft then, right? Well, they added Minnesota linebacker Kamal Martin in Round 5, but their first three picks were all offensive players.
Fortunately, the Packers have a strong pass rush and good pieces in the secondary. Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith combined for 25.5 sacks, with Kenny Clark racking up six of his own.
Cornerback Jaire Alexander followed a strong rookie season with a fantastic sophomore campaign, finishing fourth in the NFL in passes defended (17). Meanwhile, Kevin King was finally healthy and led the team with five interceptions. Plus, Adrian Amos was an invaluable pickup at the safety spot.
There is a chance Green Bay establishes even more cohesiveness and growth under defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. On the flip side, the unit was extraordinarily healthy last season, and signing Kirksey to replace a bona fide run-stuffer in Martinez prompts uneasiness.
The Packers will have to rely on a dominant front and health in the secondary to avoid sliding further.
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Lynne Sladky/Associated Press
The Chiefs retained nearly all of their defensive starters from last year, which is obviously good news for a team that just won the Super Bowl.
Kansas City’s success starts on the front line with Frank Clark and Chris Jones, who combined for 17 sacks and 34 quarterback hits last season. Clark is a force of nature on the edge, while Jones disrupts activity in the gaps and persistently gets in the quarterback’s face.
Tyrann Mathieu is arguably the best safety in football. Mathieu was named first-team All-Pro last season, and he is equally proficient in hunting the ball and playing up in the box to help stop the run.
The Chiefs brought back cornerback Bashaud Breeland, though he was somewhat of a disappointment last season, and could be facing a league suspension. However, formerly undrafted corner Charvarius Ward was incredibly proficient in his first full season. Opponents completed just over 48 percent of their attempts when targeting Ward, who gave up just one touchdown last year. Regardless, Kansas City’s corners really benefit from having Mathieu in the secondary
But the question for the Chiefs figures to be, can they extend Jones? He told Colin Cowherd in February he essentially has no desire to play on the franchise tag.
Jones is a staple of Kansas City’s defense, and a holdout would be enormously effective in all the wrong ways.
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Julio Cortez/Associated Press
The Titans are another team with fairly minimal offseason activity on the defensive side of the ball.
However, Tennessee did make a downright puzzling trade, sending five-time Pro Bowler Jurrell Casey to the Denver Broncos for just a seventh-round pick and then signing former Atlanta Falcons nose tackle Jack Crawford, who had six sacks in 2018. However, they are asking a lot out of the journeyman Crawford if he’s going to help replace Casey.
The Titans did add to their edge-rushers by signing Vic Beasley, who had eight sacks last year and was more reminiscent of the guy who led the NFL in sacks in 2016. Tennessee will need Beasley to repeatedly get to the cornerback, specially considering how often they used players like Logan Ryan to blitz from the slot corner spot.
Speaking of Ryan, he is unlikely to return in free agency. However, the Titans will hope for a full year from Malcolm Butler after he played just nine games last season. Tennessee also drafted LSU cornerback Kristian Fulton and signed veteran Johnathan Joseph. Both guys could see time in the slot or in disguised zone coverage.
Kevin Byard had five interceptions from the safety spot last year and—despite some bad lapses in coverage—Kenny Vaccaro is a sure tackler who can help shut down the run game at the other safety spot.
Tennessee’s defensive outlook might ultimately depend on whether it signs Clowney. Per Gentry Estes of The Tennessean, general manager Jon Robinson said the team would revisit negotiations with the star edge-rusher depending on what happened in the draft. But the Titans did not add an outside rusher, which might suggest they will pursue Clowney after all.
Until such a precipitous move happens, however, they seem unlikely to improve a whole lot after ranking 16th in total DVOA last year.
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Rick Scuteri/Associated Press
The Rams have two of the most talented players at their respective positions in defensive tackle Aaron Donald and cornerback Jalen Ramsey, but they also face uncertainty ahead of the 2020 season.
The Rams fired defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, replacing him with former Denver Broncos outside linebackers coach Brandon Staley.
Per Stu Jackson of the Rams’ official site, Staley has said he will employ the 3-4 base scheme already in place, though the Rams have to contend with some losses on that side of the ball. Dante Fowler left L.A. after a career year, and the Rams no longer have Cory Littleton patrolling the middle of the field. Safety Eric Weddle retired, and the Rams also cut Clay Matthews.
Former Bears linebacker Leonard Floyd will likely replace Fowler. The former first-round pick had just three sacks last season, but Staley might be able to get the best out of him in the 3-4 scheme. He will have to improve in coverage, however. Samson Ebukam figures to get more action, having notched 4.5 sacks last year despite playing just over 50 percent of all defensive snaps. The Rams also drafted Alabama edge-rusher Terrell Lewis in the third round.
The Rams were fortunate enough to bring back defensive tackle Michael Brockers after his deal with the Baltimore Ravens fell through. Brockers is a top DT against the run, something the Rams desperately needed after the loss of Littleton at the second level.
The secondary is mostly intact aside from losing slot corner Nickell Robey-Coleman, and Ramsey should grow more comfortable playing a full season in L.A.
With all of that being said, the Rams did not do much to replace Littleton in the middle, and they will miss his versatility in coverage as well as his ability to disrupt plays in the backfield.
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Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press
The Los Angeles Chargers have talent on the edge and in the secondary, but they needed an inside linebacker. They got one with their first-round selection of Oklahoma’s Kenneth Murray.
Murray had 102 tackles, including 17 tackles for loss, to go along with four sacks last season. the 6’2″, 241-pound linebacker is a big and athletic guy who can close the distance in the running game and plug the gaps, and he chases the ball to make plays all over the field.
Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley might ultimately be dialing up more blitzes despite his heavy Cover 3 scheme, especially because Murray is at his best when he can hunt ball-carriers and get into the backfield.
Los Angeles also made a couple of veteran additions, signing cornerback Chris Harris Jr. and defensive tackle Linval Joseph in free agency.
Harris has been on the decline in recent years, but he should benefit from playing with a loaded secondary with Desmond King, Casey Hayward and Derwin James.
Speaking of James, he will return healthy for the start of the year after missing 11 games in 2019. The same can be said for Melvin Ingram III, who missed only three games but was hampered by a hamstring injury. Ingram’s abilities as a pass-rusher and cover man are especially valuable in Bradley’s scheme, particularly now that they have Murray.
Joey Bosa can focus on terrorizing opposing quarterbacks even more with Joseph expected to be a run-stuffer in the middle.
As frequently seems to be the case, the Chargers have one of the most talented defenses in football. But the question remains: Can everyone stay healthy?
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Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard made a big splash by trading the team’s first-round pick to the San Francisco 49ers for defensive tackle DeForest Buckner in March.
Buckner might be the second-best player at his position outside of Aaron Donald. He had 7.5 sacks and a pair of forced fumbles last season. Most importantly, however, he should free up space on the line.
The 26-year-old drew the fourth-most double-teams in football in four seasons with the Niners, according to Joel A. Erickson of the Indianapolis Star, and he gives the Colts the interior presence they so desperately lacked in recent years. His ability to draw multiple blockers should make a big difference in the production of guys like Denico Autry and Justin Houston.
Indianapolis cut cornerback Pierre Desir, but it signed Xavier Rhodes to take one of the outside spots and brought in T.J. Carrie to play some slot corner.
Rhodes was abhorrent in coverage for the Minnesota Vikings last season and received just a 46.4 rating from Pro Football Focus. But he is just a couple of years removed from an All-Pro season, and the Colts are taking a flier on him with a one-year deal.
In many ways, Rhodes’ success (or lack thereof) might define the secondary. Rock Ya-Sin and Kenny Moore were strong tacklers in 2019, but both struggled as cover corners. That sometimes left safety Malik Hooker in bad positions, though Hooker is as instinctive and skilled as they come at the safety spot. Darius Leonard was often needed in coverage, even leading the team with five interceptions.
Indy’s run defense—which ranked seventh last year, allowing only 97.9 yards per game—should get even better with the addition of Buckner. But the 23rd-ranked secondary would benefit from more consistency and continuity.
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Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press
The Vikings defense has been Minnesota’s calling card over the past few seasons. But things might look a little different in 2020.
The team doesn’t have a whole lot of depth at the cornerback spot after losing Trae Waynes, Mackensie Alexander and Xavier Rhodes, and Chris Tomasson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported April 21 that free-agent edge-rusher Everson Griffen is “probably” headed out of town.
The Vikings also hired Dom Capers as a senior defensive assistant, which might suggest they will employ more 3-4 base looks this season. At least, it seems they have the personnel to do so. Anthony Barr excels in coverage at the outside linebacker spot, while both Danielle Hunter and Ifeadi Odenigbo can rotate inside and outside.
This scheme would also still allow All-Pro linebacker Eric Kendricks to remain in the middle. The five-year veteran is tremendous in coverage (12 passes defended in 2019) and a sure tackler (110).
The secondary is more of an uncertainty. While Rhodes and Waynes did not have great 2019 seasons, they were valuable as press-man guys with experience. The Vikings drafted cornerbacks Jeff Gladney and Cameron Dantzler in the first and third rounds, respectively, but—especially if the team goes to a 3-4 look—it is possible Minnesota will play a lot of zone coverage next season.
Perhaps the most pressing question is the future of safety Anthony Harris, who led the league in interceptions last season and received the franchise tag. Tomasson reported in March that the Vikings were discussing an extension with him, but there has been little noise since.
Minnesota would benefit from retaining a ball-hawking guy like Harris alongside Harrison Smith, especially given the inexperience at the cornerback position.
The good news for the Vikings is they still finished seventh in passing DVOA last year despite poor individual seasons from Waynes and Rhodes. The linebackers are incredibly versatile in their ability to cover, and head coach Mike Zimmer will coach up both Gladney and Dantzler.
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David Dermer/Associated Press
Last year, the New York Jets ranked 10th in DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average), according to Football Outsiders, despite the fact that they were just 23rd in sacks.
New York was second in rush-defense DVOA thanks to a steady front line and a diverse group of linebackers. That group should be strengthened by a healthy C.J. Mosley, who played just two games for the Jets last season but had made the Pro Bowl in four of his first five seasons.
The Jets also added depth at the cornerback spot, signing Pierre Desir and trading for Quincy Wilson while bringing back Brian Poole. These are not the splashiest moves, but they give defensive coordinator Gregg Williams options with whether they will line up in the slot or the outside.
By the way, Williams is an important part of this ranking. The Jets ranked 21st in DVOA in 2018, but they made enormous strides in 2019 despite of hardly getting anything from Mosley and trading Leonard Williams at the October deadline.
And he should, considering Adams produced 6.5 sacks from the safety spot and was named a first-team All-Pro in 2019. In fact, Adams’ ability to generate pressure is what compensates for the Jets’ lack of a marquee edge presence.
New York might still benefit from signing someone like Jadeveon Clowney or Everson Griffen, but it will gain a lot from Mosley’s return and its added depth at the corner spot. A nice sophomore season from Quinnen Williams would help matters as well.
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Much like the Chiefs and the Niners, the New Orleans Saints’ offseason was mostly about retention.
However, they did make one big upgrade, signing veteran Malcolm Jenkins to replace Vonn Bell at the strong safety spot. Jenkins has been a model of consistency, and he is one of the most consummate professionals and leaders in any locker room.
The strength of the defense remains the front seven. Demario Davis was Pro Football Focus‘ highest-graded linebacker in 2019, racking up 111 tackles, 12 pass deflections, 11 tackles for a loss and four sacks.
Cameron Jordan had another Pro Bowl season, recording 15.5 sacks and 15 tackles for a loss, and he may be even better in 2020 after undergoing surgery for a core-muscle injury that hampered him over the final five games.
Marcus Davenport and David Onyemata also generate consistent pressure, and the Saints drafted Wisconsin linebacker Zack Baun in the third round to provide depth alongside Davis and Kiko Alonso.
A question mark is who will take Eli Apple’s place at the outside corner spot opposite Marshon Lattimore. The answer figures to be Janoris Jenkins, with C.J. Gardner-Johnson and P.J. Williams in the slot. Jenkins might be an improvement over Apple, who gave up 14.2 yards per reception last season.
The secondary will largely affect how much the Saints improve in 2020, but adding Malcolm Jenkins was a big step.
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The Philadelphia Eagles already had one of the best defensive fronts in football, but their lack of quality depth in the secondary routinely left the unit exposed. But Philly made one of the biggest moves of the offseason by trading with the Lions for cornerback Darius Slay.
Slay’s production took a bit of a step back last year, but he is still one of the best lockdown corners in the league. And he ranks in the top three for most incompletions forced since 2017, per Pro Football Focus.
The Eagles also signed Nickell Robey-Coleman, who should immediately step in as the premier slot corner.
Losing Malcolm Jenkins is a bit of a blow, but the Eagles plan to move Jalen Mills to safety and signed Will Parks for depth. The safety group, including Rodney McLeod, should benefit from the upgrades at corner. Philadelphia drafted Clemson safety K’Von Wallace (two interceptions, 10 pass breakups in 2019) in the fourth round as well.
The front seven got even better with the addition of former Pittsburgh Steelers nose tackle Javon Hargrave, whose pressure rate of 14.2 percent was third in the NFL last season, according to PFF (h/t John Clark of NBC Sports Philadelphia). Hargrave and Fletcher Cox should be an imposing tandem in the middle, while Derek Barnett and Brandon Graham can wreak havoc on the edges.
The Eagles recorded the 13th-most sacks last season, and they should be able to generate more pressure with the addition of Hargrave. Pair that with Philly’s moves at the corner spot, and the defense should continue to excel under coordinator Jim Schwartz.
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Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press
The Chicago Bears led the NFL in more than one defensive category in 2018, and though the unit was not as dominant in 2019, the foundations are still in place.
Khalil Mack and Akiem Hicks headline the front seven, and the Bears should benefit from a healthy Hicks after he played just five games last season. Chicago let linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski walk partly because of the return of a healthy Danny Trevathan in the middle.
Mack might benefit most from the addition of Robert Quinn, whom the Bears signed to a five-year, $70 million deal after the nine-year veteran posted 11.5 sacks and had the best pass-rushing win rate last season, per ESPN. He gives the Bears a pair of athletic marvels on the edge and should (along with Hicks) take some of the added attention off Mack.
Chicago also drafted Utah cornerback Jaylon Johnson in the second round to play opposite Pro Bowler Kyle Fuller. Johnson might have been a first-round pick were it not for his previous shoulder issues. Still, he has the physical tools to be a top corner. He had seven interceptions and 21 pass breakups over three years with the Utes.
There are questions at the safety spot, however. The Bears parted ways with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, and they didn’t draft a safety last week. Their answer appears to be Friday’s signing of Tashaun Gipson Sr. to a one-year deal.
To his credit, Gipson limited big plays and had three interceptions in 2019, including a pick-six. Perhaps playing opposite Jackson will help him solidify his skills in coverage. Alternatively, maybe he will produce closer to his 59.5 grade at Pro Football Focus.
The front seven should be imposing, and Fuller and Jackson are sure things in the secondary. But Johnson’s durability and skill set in the 3-4 are unknown, and the Bears lack quality depth at defensive back. That prevents them from being a top-five defense
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Jason Behnken/Associated Press
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers ranked fifth in DVOA and first in rushing DVOA last season, according to Football Outsiders, and it is not hard to see why.
Tampa Bay has an elite front seven that includes NFL sack leader Shaquil Barrett and a pair of run-stuffing linebackers in Lavonte David and Devin White. Defensive tackles Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh plug the middle, and Jason Pierre-Paul is a terror opposite Barrett.
The Bucs invested heavily in the defensive line, using the franchise tag on Barrett while re-signing JPP and Suh. A healthy season from Pierre-Paul could be particularly scary. He had 8.5 sacks an 16 quarterback hits in just 10 games in 2019.
General manager Jason Licht selected Minnesota’s Antoine Winfield Jr. in the second round. Winfield is a smart and instinctive safety who can play in the slot and is excellent at tracking the ball and reading quarterbacks. The Bucs desperately needed more young and emerging talent in the secondary, and Winfield should provide more versatility.
The other good news is 2018 second-round pick Carlton Davis made huge strides in his sophomore year, allowing a completion rate of under 50 percent on 117 targets. He ranked second in pass breakups (19). Jamel Dean showed steady improvement in his first year and might be penciled in as the starter this season.
But here is the other reason the Bucs defense could take a step forward: Tom Brady.
In 2019, it inherited the worst average starting field position, per Football Outsiders. But New England’s defense, with Brady under center, inherited the best starting field position.
Brady is one of the best game managers in football, and he will be surrounded by a plethora of talent, including wide receivers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, at the skill positions. That should mean long drives and plenty of scoring, which bodes well for Tampa’s defense.
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Julio Cortez/Associated Press
General manager John Elway and the Denver Broncos had a huge offseason.
They replaced an aging Chris Harris Jr. with 28-year-old A.J. Bouye, who had a down year in 2019 but remains as talented as any player in football. Perhaps more importantly, the Broncos upgraded the front seven by acquiring Jurrell Casey from the Titans for just a seventh-round pick.
Casey is a legitimate run-stopper who has also recorded at least five sacks and 10 quarterback hits in each of the last seven seasons. He gives the Broncos a legitimate presence in the middle alongside Shelby Harris, who had six sacks last year.
The addition of Casey is good news for Von Miller and Bradley Chubb. Miller might not be the same force of nature he was a few years ago, but he still had eight sacks and 20 quarterback hits, and teams sent extra blockers his way when Chubb wasn’t on the field.
Chubb might be the key to the front seven. He had a dominant rookie campaign in 2018 that included 12 sacks and 14 tackles for loss, but he played just four games last season because of an ACL tear.
Justin Simmons is one of the best safeties in football, and the Broncos are actively pursuing a contract extension with him to avoid a potential holdout. Inking Simmons to an extension would be good news for a secondary mostly defined by Simmons and Kareem Jackson’s abilities in coverage.
The corner spot is a bit of a question mark outside of Bouye. The Broncos will mostly have to rely on 2018 draft picks Isaac Yiadom and Davontae Harris, especially given Will Park’s departure, which opens up the slot. Bryce Callahan is expected to make an impact after missing all of 2019. There’s also third-round rookie Michael Ojemudia.
Denver’s defense is loaded with talent, and it should be one of the top units, especially if Chubb is healthy.
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Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press
The Buffalo Bills added plenty of depth to a defense that ranked sixth in DVOA last season, according to Football Outsiders.
They inked veteran cornerback Josh Norman to a one-year deal and signed former Saints linebacker A.J. Klein, who should fit in nicely alongside Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano. Defensive tackle Vernon Butler also came to the Bills after a career year in Carolina in which he had six sacks.
The most important moves, however, were on the edge. Buffalo signed Mario Addison, who has had at least nine sacks and 12 quarterback hits in each of the last four seasons in Carolina.
The team also drafted Iowa’s A.J. Epenesa in the second round. Not only was Epenesa incredibly productive for the Hawkeyes, with at least 10.5 sacks and four forced fumbles in each of the last two seasons, but he can play both outside and inside, which should help make up for the loss of Jordan Phillips. So can Quinton Jefferson, who joined the Bills in free agency.
The secondary is mostly set. All-Pro corner Tre’Davious White will lock down one outside spot, while Levi Wallace is expected to man the other. Norman and Taron Johnson can split some of the duties at slot corner, with Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde at the safety spots over the top.
Buffalo, which had the 12th-most sacks in 2019, will need to generate more pressure to become an elite unit, but it has the personnel to succeed.
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Stephen B. Morton/Associated Press
The Baltimore Ravens were fourth in DVOA last year, according to Football Outsiders, but they also ranked just 21st in sacks. Naturally, general manager Eric DeCosta went out and got a pair of excellent pass-rushers.
The team acquired defensive end Calais Campbell from the Jaguars, and they signed Derek Wolfe shortly after the deal with Michael Brockers fell apart.
Campbell was not nearly as prolific as he had been in 2017 or 2018, but he still had 6.5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss last season and totaled 25 quarterback hits. Wolfe, meanwhile, thrived in place of Bradley Chubb in Denver. He racked up seven sacks and 12 quarterback hits in 12 games.
The Ravens placed the franchise tag on Matt Judon, and there was speculation they could trade him. But there has not been a whole lot of recent chatter, which might be good for the team in the short term. Judon would allow Campbell to move inside in defensive coordinator Don Martindale’s scheme, with the 2017 All-Pro giving the Ravens a big body (6’8″, 300 lbs) and legitimate run-stopper inside.
DeCosta made an excellent selection in the first round in LSU inside linebacker Patrick Queen. Queen was NFL.com’s second-highest-graded linebacker in the draft behind Isaiah Simmons.
Queen sheds blocks and pursues ball-carriers with good closing speed and athleticism. He should instantly step in and help a Ravens defense that ranked 20th in rushing DVOA in 2019.
Of course, Baltimore’s strength is in the secondary. Marcus Peters had a huge year, racking up 14 pass breakups and five interceptions with the Rams and Ravens. He returned three of those interceptions for touchdowns.
Peters and fellow All-Pro corner Marlon Humphrey are the best duo in the league, and Jimmy Smith should play some nickel and slot to help matters. Plus, Chuck Clark made massive strides at free safety last season, and Earl Thomas made his first two career sacks returned to the Pro Bowl.
The Ravens did not need to add much to their unit, but they made the right additions to ensure some growth in 2020.
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Steven Senne/Associated Press
The New England Patriots had the No. 1 defense last season (275.9 yards allowed per game). They led the NFL in interceptions (25) and finished second in takeaways (36) while ranking in the top 10 in sacks (47). The result was the No. 1 spot in DVOA, according to Football Outsiders.
However, head coach Bill Belichick’s unit suffered some important losses. Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Danny Shelton all departed free agency. Those three combined for 16.5 sacks and seven forced fumbles.
But, as expected, the Patriots traded back and obtained more picks in the 2020 draft. They used one of their second-round picks to select Josh Uche, who might be the perfect prototype edge-rusher for Belichick.
Uche has excellent quickness and lateral movement, especially in the pocket, and he should step into the role Van Noy played last season. Alabama edge-rusher Anfernee Jennings, a third-round selection, is another guy who might blossom into a solid player who’s capable of setting the edge and controlling rushing attacks.
But make no mistake—the Pats will rely on the secondary again in 2020. New England brought back veteran safety Devin McCourty and selected the hyperathletic Kyle Dugger, a product of Division II Lenoir-Rhyne, with its top pick in the second round.
Dugger should be particularly interesting. He has tremendous size (6’1″, 217 lbs) and should be able to compete for jump balls given his absurd 42-inch vertical leap. He and Patrick Chung could be interchangeable at one of the safety spots, and Dugger has the potential to even play the nickel.
Stephon Gilmore is one of the best corners in football. He led the league with six interceptions (tied with Anthony Harris and Tre’Davious White) and 20 pass breakups. Jason McCourty, J.C. Jackson and Jonathan Jones can all play either in the slot or outside as well. Jackson had five interceptions last year.
The Patriots lost some talent in the front seven, but the secondary remains as deep as any. It is hard to bet against any Belichick defense at this stage.
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The Pittsburgh Steelers were close to earning the top spot. They led the NFL with 38 takeaways, and they finished third in DVOA, according to Football Outsiders.
Moreover, they’ll get a full year of safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, a first-team All-Pro who had five interceptions and nine pass breakups in 14 games with the Steelers after coming over in a September trade with Miami.
Fitzpatrick headlines a secondary that also features cornerback Joe Haden, who had arguably the best year of his career in 2019. Steven Nelson, one of the most unheralded corners in football, will man the other outside spot. Opposing quarterbacks completed just 50 percent of their passes on Nelson, who did not allow a single touchdown last year. Terrell Edmunds must improve in coverage, but he can play up in the box and tackle.
The secondary probably does not get the credit it deserves in part because the Steelers led the NFL with 54 sacks last season. T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree combined for 26, and Cameron Heyward (nine sacks) was one of the three best players at the defensive tackle spot.
The front seven has plenty of depth, which should account for the loss of Javon Hargrave. Stephon Tuitt should shift inside if he is healthy. The Steelers also acquired Chris Wormley from the Ravens for more beef on the interior.
San Francisco 49ers edge-rusher Nick Bosa was a deserving Defensive Rookie of the Year, but Devin Bush was a finalist for the award. He recorded 109 tackles, nine tackles for loss and a pair of interceptions.
The Steelers have most of their major pieces in place from last season. If Bush takes a step forward in his sophomore campaign, the defensive unit will be that much harder to solve in 2020.
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The Niners essentially had a choice between Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner this offseason, and they chose Armstead.
San Francisco basically replaced Buckner with the first-rounder they acquired from the Colts in the Buckner trade, taking defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw with the 14th overall pick after moving down one spot.
The South Carolina product, one of the most explosive and imposing prospects at the position, will have large shoes to fill, but he should benefit from playing with Armstead and Nick Bosa.
Speaking of those two edge-rushers, they dominate the line of scrimmage. Bosa had nine sacks and 25 quarterback hits to go along with 16 tackles for loss in his rookie year. Armstead had 10 sacks and 11 tackles for loss.
Dee Ford has had a tremendous impact on the front line. He had 6.5 sacks in 11 games, and his finesse and his ability to play inside should contrast nicely with Kinlaw’s bull-rushing mentality.
Fred Warner is the latest Niners middle linebacker who can stuff the run or play in coverage. He had 118 tackles, three sacks, three forced fumbles and nine pass breakups in 2019.
The linebacking corps should be that much better if Kwon Alexander can stay healthy. He has played just 14 games in the last two seasons, but he should be motivated after returning for the Niners’ run to Super Bowl LIV. Dre Greenlaw also adds quality depth.
San Francisco re-signed safety Jimmie Ward, and its secondary is defined by strength in numbers. Richard Sherman made the Pro Bowl, but he is the only true starter. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh mixes and matches personnel depending on whether he wants to go Cover 3 or send pressure.
The 49ers ranked second in DVOA last year, and this unit will only get better, with guys like Bosa and Warner primed to make big strides. The Niners could miss Buckner, but Kinlaw and a healthy Ford can make up for his loss. The San Francisco defense has the best outlook ahead of the 2020 campaign.