While offenses control destiny in the modern NFL, it’s impossible to win the Super Bowl without a defense performing at a high level. The San Francisco 49ers made it all the way to the NFC Championship Game on the backs of their defense after seeing three different quarterbacks go down, and their opponents, the Philadelphia Eagles, may have had the most complete unit in the NFL.
With that in mind, it makes sense for teams hoping to catch up to the elite offenses to make defensive investments. That’s why we produced our 2023 NFL defense rankings.
Defensive performance is much more difficult to project than offensive performance. Defensive performance is unstable from year to year when compared to offensive performance — there is no quarterback on the defense who helps define the unit. Not only that, individual players on defense have more volatile performances from year to year — a cornerback is more likely to fall back down to earth next year than a quarterback by a substantial margin.
As an example, the top defenses in EPA per play from 2021 were Buffalo, New Orleans, Dallas, New England, and Tampa Bay. Those defenses ranked seventh, 10th, second, third, and 11th in 2022. Last year’s top defense, San Francisco, ranked 14th in 2021. The Eagles ranked fourth in 2022 and 17th in 2021.
There is a loose relationship, but teams rapidly rise and fall. With that in mind, the model accounts for more than just last year’s performance — it takes individual player performance at each position and uses their history of performance over the last two years to project performance going forward. It also estimates performance for rookies based on the historical performance of first-year players at each position and draft slot and attempts to account for losses and gains through free agency, the draft, trades, and retirement.
Want to see more? Make sure to check out our rankings of the best NFL offenses as well.
Who Has the Best Defense in the NFL?
We project that the New York Jets will have the best defense in the NFL in 2023. They ranked sixth in the NFL in expected points last year but have a great chance of having the best cornerback duo in the league with Sauce Gardner and D.J. Reed on the back end, along with some improvements in the secondary with Chuck Clark at safety.
MORE: FREE Mock Draft Simulator With Trades
Their pass rush should improve with the addition of Will McDonald IV, and they’re likely to continue having a strong interior with Quinnen Williams. Despite having a quarterback group that created short-field positions for them in 2022, the Jets ranked fourth in points allowed last year. Without that restriction, we may recognize the Jets as a top-tier defense in 2023.
Ranking the Remaining NFL Defenses
2) Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys look like they may have the best pass rush in 2023 and supplement that with a secondary featuring both Trevon Diggs and Stephon Gilmore. Losing Anthony Brown means very little in that context, and they have very little roster turnover aside from that. They should continue to play at a high level going forward.
3) San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers suffer a little bit for having a defense reliant on turnovers to generate value, but they still have the fundamentals for sustainable play. The issue keeping them out of the top two is that linebacker — their position of strength — and defensive interior — which they focused on in free agency — matter less than cornerback does. They’ll be a high-level defense, but losing EDGE depth, Emmanuel Moseley, and safety Jimmie Ward hurts.
4) Washington Commanders
The Commanders finished seventh in points last year and fifth in EPA per play allowed but aren’t considered a high-level defense. They should be. They added to the secondary with a first- and second-round pick at cornerback and have a capable safety in Kamren Curl. They have a fantastic interior and should have high-level EDGE play, even if Chase Young isn’t completely healthy the entire season.
5) New England Patriots
The Patriots have traditionally outperformed their level of talent holistically and added Christian Gonzalez. Re-signing their defensive free agents and adding Keion White to the group should mean that they maintain their high-level defensive performance.
6) Buffalo Bills
The Bills are projected to have a full season with Von Miller and Tre’Davious White, which helps in a big way. The elite safety pair is still there, but there are questions about cornerback and EDGE play opposite White and Miller. They also suffer a small amount for losing Tremaine Edmunds. Nevertheless, the foundation of the defense is strong.
7) Miami Dolphins
Last year, the Miami Dolphins finished 24th in EPA on defense. But adding Jalen Ramsey and DeShon Elliott in free agency, along with David Long, goes a long way to projecting a high-level performance on that side of the ball. Second-round pick Cam Smith changes things as well. With a projection that Xavien Howard finds something close to his old form, it’s not difficult to envision a Dolphins defense bursting onto the scene despite their underperformance last year.
8) Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles lost their starting duo of linebackers, an interior defensive lineman, both starting safeties, and defensive line depth. Nevertheless, keeping their cornerbacks and continuously adding to the defense in the draft in the previous two years has allowed them the flexibility to maintain their defensive edge — though not at quite the level they played at last year.
9) Denver Broncos
The Broncos didn’t help themselves by exchanging Dre’Mont Jones for Zach Allen, but without that, adding a third-round player in the secondary with Riley Moss and finding themselves supporting Pat Surtain II on the back end is critical to value. Losing Bradley Chubb partway through the season hurts, but it’s important not to discount Randy Gregory or Baron Browning.
10) Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals lost two good safeties and a starting cornerback and are still considered a potentially good defense. Some of that has to come from the fact that Dax Hill is projected to play well in replacement, as is Nick Scott. Losing Eli Apple might even be addition by subtraction. With Myles Murphy added to the pass rush, the Bengals are largely expected to play well
11) Indianapolis Colts
The Colts have one of the strongest units along the defensive interior with Grover Stewart, DeForest Buckner, and rookie Adetomiwa Adebawore. They should also see some good play in the secondary with Julius Brents, Julian Blackmon, Isaiah Rodgers, Kenny Moore, and Rodney Thomas II.
Most importantly, they should see Shaquille Leonard return to action. The Colts have some of the best units at linebacker and defensive line, though they don’t crack the top 10 because those positions historically matter less.
12) Baltimore Ravens
Aside from safety, where the Ravens might be elite, Baltimore seems to be average across the board. They should see some upgrade in linebacker play with the addition of Trenton Simpson. They may need a jump in performance from Odafe Oweh to really establish themselves as a high-level defense.
13) Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs had an exciting and young secondary last year, but losing Frank Clark is tough. They have a first-round edge rusher to help make up the difference, but it is tough to overcome. Not only that, a young secondary without a strong history of play is difficult to project — they are a volatile unit that could just as easily improve as rapidly fall off.
14) New Orleans Saints
Adding Bryan Bresee and Isaiah Foskey should help the Saints, who finished 10th in defensive EPA last year. But they lost quite a bit of defensive talent — Marcus Davenport, David Onyemata, Kaden Elliss, and Shy Tuttle are all gone. Not only that, it’s tough to project high-level play for Paulson Adebo and Bradley Roby despite the excellent secondary players they have otherwise. So, the Saints lose a little bit of ground in 2023.
15) Detroit Lions
The Lions had one of the worst defenses in the NFL last year but should improve dramatically through a combination of regression and additions like Emmanuel Moseley, C.J. Gardner Johnson, Cameron Sutton, Brian Branch, and Jack Campbell — even after they lost Jeff Okudah. They should also see a bit more in the way of a pass rush than last year despite limited investment there, which should mean they can compete.
16) Pittsburgh Steelers
There is something to be said about the Steelers’ second-round investments in the defense, which is a reason that they moved up in the rankings from last year. They made slight upgrades at linebacker, and though replacing Sutton with Patrick Peterson isn’t fantastic, having Joey Porter Jr. and the likelihood of a high-level pass rush with T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith makes them a reasonable defense.
17) Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals added a second-round pick at pass rusher and a third-round pick at corner, which should improve their prospects. Still, the improvement won’t be much after losing Byron Murphy and Zach Allen.
18) Cleveland Browns
The Browns get a boost with Za’Darius Smith and should have a great pass rush to work with. On paper, that secondary should return some substantial gains, but there has been inconsistency amidst all that talent. They have some weaknesses at positions that matter a little bit less, but primarily may need to see improvements at safety and consistency at corner.
19) Green Bay Packers
The Packers have been a collection of talented players without results on the field for quite some time, which is always difficult to account for. The model dings the Packers perhaps a bit too harshly for losing Dean Lowry because it projects replacements from the draft instead of from the first-round pick they had last year.
MORE: 2023 QB Power Rankings
Nevertheless, it’s not optimistic about the safety duo or the linebacker group. If defensive coordinating brings the talent out, however, they should be fine.
20) Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Buccaneers don’t have a pass-rush solution but do have an exciting secondary. Nevertheless, they lose ground by having lost substantial depth across the defense. Calijah Kancey improves things, as does YaYa Diaby, but it’s difficult to fully trust a third-round pick as a premier edge rusher.
21) Houston Texans
The Texans went on a free agency blitz and added the top pass rusher in the draft, which should have improved their defensive showing over last year. But last year, the defense was helped with explosives and unsustainable plays — their success rate (26th in 2022) should improve, but their EPA should drop despite being a much more talented team.
22) Carolina Panthers
Aside from Brian Burns and Jaycee Horn, there isn’t much in the way of marquee players on the defense. Vonn Bell will help as well, but without investment in the draft, the Panthers are projected to be about as good on defense as they were last year.
23) Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks ranked 26th in the NFL defensively last year and don’t project to change all that much despite a fifth-overall investment at cornerback. While that should improve the quality of play there, it’s not as if cornerback was the issue for Seattle last year. The model might undercount Jamal Adams’ return to play, but it knows that there isn’t much in the way of pass rush or interior talent.
24) Tennessee Titans
The Titans were active in free agency, losing players like Bud Dupree, Lonnie Johnson, and Demarcus Walker while adding Sean Murphy-Bunting and Arden Key. But they didn’t add anyone on defense in the draft, which keeps the Titans in the bottom half defensively.
25) Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers have some underrated players in the secondary, and they added Eric Kendricks to replace Drue Tranquill, but they still have some holes on the defensive line, linebacker, and at safety next to Derwin James. They should improve their pass rush with Tuli Tuipulotu, but they lost a lot of depth along the way.
26) Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings are slated to improve defensively, but not enormously. They revamped their secondary, which helps, but the turnover they’ve had makes them difficult to project. Losing Za’Darius Smith deals a pretty big blow to their hopes, but they’ve improved overall. Where they’re coming from wasn’t that great to begin with, though.
27) Jacksonville Jaguars
Jacksonville has some pieces to work with, as Josh Allen and Tyson Campbell played well last year, but there are quite a few unknowns and nothing specifically that stands out as an elite piece on their defense. In order to crack the top half, they’ll need big improvements from Devin Lloyd and Travon Walker.
28) Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons added a lot of pieces to their defense, but they functionally replaced underperformers with underperformers. With the exceptions of Jessie Bates III and Jeff Okudah, it’s hard to tell where the new pieces represent an upgrade over the old ones. With all of that in mind, Atlanta doesn’t move much from where they were last year.
29) New York Giants
The Giants had a glaring hole at cornerback that they fixed with Deonte Banks, but they still have work to do at that position and safety. Without a strong projected unit at linebacker and only a modest pass rush despite the excellent names there, there’s reason to believe the Giants will stay about the same defensively.
30) Las Vegas Raiders
The Raiders didn’t lose astounding players in free agency, but they didn’t replace those losses with big upgrades either, except perhaps with Marcus Epps at safety. The biggest improvement comes from draft pick Tyree Wilson at EDGE overtaking Clelin Ferrell. But with a weak secondary and linebacker unit, it’s hard to call that enough to see substantial change.
31) Chicago Bears
The Bears invested heavily in the defense in free agency, but the truth of the matter is that linebacker seems to impact outcomes the least. They made some improvements in the secondary, and perhaps the model doesn’t account for how much the young cornerbacks will improve, but without a pass rush and an inconsistent back end, the Bears have very little going for them at the moment.
Who Has the Worst Defense in the NFL?
The Los Angeles Rams are projected to have the worst defense in the NFL. It’s a shame, given that the Rams have the single-best defensive player on their team, but no one player can swing outcomes, especially when surrounded by talent that might be on par with their extraordinarily large undrafted free agent class starting. Byron Young should help with the pass rush, but he’s paired with Michael Hoecht, a virtual unknown.
Next to Aaron Donald are Bobby Brown III and Marquise Copeland, unless a seventh-round pick outplays them. The linebacker unit has been raided, and the cornerback group is unrecognizable. It’s a difficult defense to project outcomes for, but it makes sense to err on the side of caution in this case.