Getty Images

As we all know, the NFL is an offensive league this days. But defenses have been fighting back over the past couple of years, and even if your offense is elite, you still need your defense to be, well, not a disaster to be able to really compete. And if you can get elite play on the less glamorous side of the ball, that's all the better. 

But because defense is less consistent year to year, there's not as much certainty about which units will be the best in the league in any given season. For that reason, rather than go through every team from 32-1 on this side of the ball like we did on offense, we're once again grouping the teams by how likely they are to finish the year among the league's top 10 defenses, based on the quality of their personnel and coaching. 

Among last year's top 10 defenses in FTN's DVOA, we had three (Cowboys, Patriots, 49ers) in our "most likely" category and three (Ravens, Jets, Steelers) in our "somewhat likely" category. The Browns, Jaguars and Chiefs were also listed in "possibly," while the surprising Raiders were all the way down in "most unlikely," so, whoops. Still, a 60% hit rate on our teams that were some degree of likely is pretty darn good, and having 9 of 10 teams considered as at least possibilities is, as well. 

(Note: Teams within each section are listed in alphabetical order.)

Without further ado ... 

Most Unlikely

Arizona Cardinals, Denver Broncos, Los Angeles Chargers

Arizona checked in dead last in DVOA last season, while Denver was 30th and the Chargers were 26th. Then when you take a look at these teams' depth charts, it gets really tough to see the upside of becoming a top-10 unit. That doesn't necessarily mean these will be the four worst defenses in the NFL, but there are just too many holes and not enough firepower for them to reach a high enough ceiling to get into the top 10. Of the three, the Chargers probably have the best chance to get there due to the presence of Joey Bosa, Khalil Mack, Derwin James and new defensive coordinator Jesse Minter, but the unit is depending on a bunch of older players to hold up in important spots and on some other players to take significant steps forward in order to get there. That seems unlikely to all come together at once this season.

Somewhat Unlikely

Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, Detroit Lions, Indianapolis Colts, Los Angeles Rams, Minnesota Vikings, New Orleans Saints, New York Giants, Seattle Seahawks, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tennessee Titans, Washington Commanders

Some of these teams are in this tier instead of the previous one for the most part due to their coaching. Atlanta, Seattle and Washington do not have particularly inspiring defensive depth charts. But Raheem Morris, Mike Macdonald and Dan Quinn will be running those defenses, and they have each shown the ability to get more out of less pretty consistently throughout their careers.

Carolina was in the previous tier at first, but another look at the talent on hand (Derrick Brown up front, Jaycee Horn and Dane Jackson at corner, Jordan Fuller, Xavier Woods, and Nick Scott at safety, Jadeveon Clowney and D.J. Wonnum in the mix to rush the passer, etc) is perhaps better than I thought at first glance, and defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero is a stud. 

The Lions played well at the start of last season before stumbling down the stretch. They upgraded the talent this year with D.J. Reader on the interior, plus Carlton Davis and rookies Terrion Arnold and Ennis Rakestraw Jr. at corner. But Reader's age and health are at least a bit of a question mark and counting on rookie corners to be true positives right away isn't always the best bet. Arnold and Rakestraw should be good eventually, but maybe not soon enough to turn this into a top-10 unit this year -- even if the team showed surprising pass-rush juice last season. 

The Colts are another one of those defenses that seemingly just has a low ceiling. Unless Laiatu Latu has a Will Anderson Jr.-like impact on the pass rush, the secondary doesn't seem strong enough to get this unit into the top 10. The Colts are counting on players like Julius Brents (who was pretty good as a rookie) and Dallis Flowers as foundational pieces of the defensive backfield, and that seems like a shaky proposition if you want to be an elite defense. The Rams ... lost Aaron Donald. And Raheem Morris. They added Jared Verse, Braden Fiske and Kamren Kinchens in the draft, and Kamren Curl, Tre'Davious White and Darious Williams in free agency, but this seems like it's going to be a transition season as they start to navigate a post-Donald world.

I wouldn't put it past Brian Flores to magic the Vikings into the top 10, but it's going to be tough. Danielle Hunter is gone, replaced by the combination of Jonathan Bullard, Andrew Van Ginkel, and rookie Dallas Turner. Can the second level of the defense hold up as well as it did last year to get the Vikings into the top 10? It seemed like a bunch of those guys played above their heads, but if Flores gets the same level of play out of them, perhaps they could make a leap. The Saints defense is getting older, man. And a bunch of the bets they have made to replace aging strarters in recent years (hello, Payton Turner) haven't panned out the way they planned. What happens to this group if any of Demario Davis, Cameron Jordan and Marshon Lattimore gets hurt? That seems like a recipe for trouble. 

The Giants adding Brian Burns to play with Dexter Lawrence and Kayvon Thibodeaux up front was a nice bit of business, and perhaps playing a bit less of a hair-on-fire style under Shane Bowen than they did under Wink Martindale will lead to improvement. But any top-10 season from this group depends on two rookie defensive backs immediately becoming high-level contributors, and that's not something you can take to the bank. Tampa traded Carlton Davis III, but brought back Jordan Whitehead. The secondary seems ... fine. But attrition up front led to the Bucs ranking just 17th in pressure rate last season and it's tough to see this group being much better than that. Tennessee is a strange conglomeration of talent left from the previous regime and new guys like L'Jarius Sneed, Kenneth Murray, Chidobe Awuzie and rookie T'Vondre Sweat. There is some intrigue here and perhaps new DC Dennard Wilson can coax a better-than-expected performance out of these guys, but again, the ceiling doesn't seem to be there to get into the top 10. 


Cincinnati Bengals, Green Bay Packers, Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins, New England Patriots, Philadelphia Eagles

Cincinnati disappointingly slid to 23rd in DVOA last season while counting on younger players to play significant roles after a few free-agent departures. But the Bengals went out and brought Vonn Bell back and signed Geno Stone, replaced D.J. Reader with the younger Sheldon Rankins and drafted Kris Jenkins Jr., and they have Lou Anarumo as their DC. I'm not saying it's likely this becomes a top-10 group, but Anarumo and enough veteran guys who know what they're doing has been a working formula before. 

Green Bay desperately needed to upgrade its defensive backfield and went out and did just that by adding Xavier McKinney in free agency and then Javon Bullard in the draft. Edgerrin Cooper should hopefully help at linebacker, but the biggest addition here is Jeff Hafley at defensive coordinator, replacing Joe Barry, whose schemes were just not at all a good fit for the team's personnel. That's all enough to make this a wait-and-see type of thing, given the holdover talent on hand.

Bringing in Danielle Hunter to rush the passer across from Will Anderson Jr. was an excellent way to take advantage of C.J. Stroud's rookie contract. Derek Stingley Jr. is a star-level corner when he's healthy. But the Texans remain thin on the interior at both defensive tackle and linebacker, and they need Kamari Lassiter and either Jeff Okudah, C.J. Henderson or Desmond King to play at a high level to get into the top 10, and that just doesn't seem all that likely. With DeMeco Ryans and the two edge guys, though, we have to leave the possibility open. 

The Jaguars snuck into the top 10 last season and added Arik Armstead, plus Maason Smith and Jarrian Jones, among others, in the draft. So, better this year, right? Well ... they fired the defensive coordinator from last year's unit. Ryan Nielsen is a good defensive mind in his own right, but things might change a bit, and the secondary seems like a question mark. We can't say it's "likely" that this unit breaks the top 10 in DVOA again.

The Dolphins have a lot of talent and seem much happier under new DC Anthony Weaver than they were under Vic Fangio, but they lost Christian Wilkins in free agency, cut ties with Xavien Howard and have both of their top edge rushers (Jaelan Phillips and Bradley Chubb) working their way back from serious late-season injuries. 

The Patriots are here because we just don't know what things are going to look like without Bill Belichick and we can't really put them anywhere else until we have a better idea of how they're going to operate. 

The Eagles fell apart on defense last season, but replaced Sean Desai and Matt Patricia with Fangio, added multiple corners (Quinyon Mitchell and Cooper DeJean) in the draft, signed Bryce Huff, brought back C.J. Gardner-Johnson, and honestly just get the benefit of the doubt more often than not -- even after a down year on this side of the ball. 

Somewhat Likely

Buffalo Bills, Chicago Bears, Dallas Cowboys, Las Vegas Raiders, Pittsburgh Steelers

The Bills made a ton of changes this offseason to a defense that essentially crumbled under the weight of a boatload of injuries last year. But Matt Milano, Terrel Bernard, Greg Rousseau, and Ed Oliver are still here. Sean McDermott is as well. And this has been a pretty consistent top-flight defense when healthy. Some of the pieces are gone, of course, but especially if they bring back Micah Hyde (who says he wants to return), the infrastructure is enough to say, yeah, it's somewhat likely that they get there. 

The Bears and Raiders were fantastic over the second half of last season. Vegas added Christian Wilkins to the middle of the defense and Chicago brought in Kevin Byard to patrol the deep part of the field. These defenses should be good. But we want to see a longer track record of high-level play before dropping them into the "most likely" bucket.

Dallas lost multiple starters from last year's excellent defense and is making a change at defensive coordinator with Mike Zimmer replacing Dan Quinn. Trevon Diggs coming back will help, but this unit is thinner than it was over the last few years and so we had to drop it down a bracket, even with Diggs, Micah Parsons, Daron Bland and Demarcus Lawrence still around. 

Pittsburgh just keeps printing top-10 defenses year after year and still has T.J. Watt, Alex Highsmith and Cameron Heyward. The Steelers should be able to break into the top 10 again. But there are some questions at corner outside of Joey Porter Jr., and I'm probably more skeptical of the Patrick Queen addition than most. I'd just like to see that really high level of play next to Not Roquan Smith before taking it to the bank.

Most Likely

Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns, Kansas City Chiefs, New York Jets, San Francisco 49ers

Barring injury, the Ravens are pretty much a top-10 defense every year. Even after losing Mike Macdonald, I'm just not comfortable betting against them doing it again. If Myles Garrett isn't the single-best defensive player in the league, he's pretty damn close. With more depth up front than at any time in recent years, Denzel Ward leading a solid secondary, and Jim Schwartz back for another year, the Browns seem likely to repeat their top-10 ranking from a year ago, even if they don't again land in the top five.

The Chiefs lost L'Jarius Sneed, Willie Gay Jr. and Mike Edwards (among others) in free agency. But Chris Jones, George Karlaftis, Nick Bolton, Trent McDuffie, Justin Reid and defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo are still around, as are almost all of Kansas City's key depth pieces from the past few years. There is enough infrastructure here to maintain the Chiefs' place as one of the league's best units.

Sauce Gardner and D.J. Reed might be the league's best corner duo. Quinnen Williams and Haason Reddick are going to wreck offensive lines. The safety room has depth again. C.J. Mosley and Quincy Williams have the second level on patrol. Robert Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich have consistently gotten good results on defense. The Jets are going to be really good on this end, again. And the Niners just have so much talent, even after losing Arik Armstead. They moved on from Steve Wilks as DC, who just wasn't a fit for the way they like to play. With Nick Bosa, Fred Warner, Javon Hargrave, Charvarius Ward and so many good role players around, they can let Dre Greenlaw take his time working back from his torn Achilles and still maintain their place among the elite.