The Schein Nine

NFL's top nine defenses in 2021: Rams and Bucs reign supreme, but Broncos have immense upside

As I said in last week's Schein Nine, NFL offenses are more creative and dynamic than ever before. Consequently, defenses are more stressed than ever before. But certain units can still answer the bell.

Now, in 2021, I don't think there's an '85 Bears or 2000 Ravens in the bunch. But I believe the nine units listed below have what it takes across the board -- talent, coaching, scheme -- to stifle the league's best offenses on any given Sunday.

My two toughest omissions? The 49ers and Chargers. Both teams boast talented defenses with the capability of making me look stupid in the coming season. And the Cardinals' D could surprise many folks this year. Meanwhile, the Steelers have consistently fielded a stout defense, but I think Bud Dupree's free-agent departure is a bigger loss than many people realize.

Enough about who didn't make the cut, though -- let's get to who did. A week after predicting the NFL's top offenses in 2021, here is my forecast of this season's best defenses, Schein Nine style.

Rank
1
Los Angeles Rams
2020 RANKINGS · Points: 1st | Yards: 1st

It's Aaron Donald's world and we are just living in it. The guy has been a Pro Bowler in each of his seven NFL seasons. Shoot, he's been first-team All-Pro every season but his rookie campaign, when he was just Defensive Rookie of the Year. Did I mention he's been Defensive Player of the Year in three of the past four seasons? Long story short: It's not hyperbole to throw Donald's name into consideration for the NFL's all-time defensive Mount Rushmore. You simply cannot contain him. He's the best non-quarterback in the league today.


This isn't a one-man band, either. Jalen Ramsey could be the NFL's best cornerback, while his running mate, Darious Williams, just posted PFF's ninth-highest CB coverage grade last season. And safety Jordan Fuller, who's wearing the "green dot" as the Rams' defensive signal-caller in just his second NFL season, has already proven to be an absolute steal of a sixth-round pick.


Now, the Rams will indeed miss Brandon Staley, who coached this unit to a No. 1 ranking in scoring and total defense last year, but I loved Sean McVay's appointment of Raheem Morris to take the reins. Safety John Johnson's relocation to Cleveland is another blow, but clearly Fuller's immediate impact factored into L.A.'s decision to let the veteran walk in free agency.


In a highly competitive NFC West, the Rams' ferocious defense could be the deciding factor.

Rank
2
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2020 RANKINGS · Points: 8th | Yards: 6th

Todd Bowles is a fantastic defensive coordinator, and he has incredible tools to work with in Tampa. General manager Jason Licht gave the Bucs a fantastic opportunity to repeat as Super Bowl champs by keeping the band together, including re-upping sack artist Shaq Barrett and defensive heartbeat Lavonte David.


Where is the weakness on this unit? Vita Vea, Ndamukong Suh and William Gholston form a wall against the run, while Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul and impressive rookie Joe Tryon get after the passer. On the second level, David and Devin White comprise a spectacular linebacking duo. And the Bucs are flush with young, rapidly improving talent in the secondary.


Remember what happened the last time we saw this unit in a real game? Tampa Bay held Patrick Mahomes and Co. to three field goals on Super Bowl Sunday. Stunning stuff. Get ready to see more of it in the coming months.

Rank
3
Indianapolis Colts
2020 RANKINGS · Points: 10th | Yards: 8th

love the Colts defense, led by energetic and smart coordinator Matt Eberflus. The man gets the most out of the defensive talent at his disposal -- and there's plenty of it heading into the 2021 campaign.


It all starts, of course, with Darius Leonard. He just became the highest-paid inside linebacker in league history, and for good reason: He's a freak and a stat-stuffing machine, as the only NFL player with 400-plus tackles and 15-plus sacks over the past three seasons, per NFL Research. Like Leonard, DT DeForest Buckner earned first-team All-Pro honors last season, racking up 9.5 sacks in his Colts debut. First-round pick Kwity Paye, another athletic freak, will give the Colts even more juice up front. Meanwhile, veteran CB Xavier Rhodes just enjoyed a fine bounceback season, while Julian Blackmon and Khari Willis form one of the better young safety tandems in the league.


I won't bat an eye if Indy fields the elite defense in 2021 -- that was a bold prediction I tossed out back in May, and I fully believe this unit can be sensational.

Rank
4
Baltimore Ravens
2020 RANKINGS · Points: 2nd | Yards: 7th

Always bank on Baltimore. Don "Wink" Martindale is a fine coordinator, having fielded a top-three scoring defense in each of his three seasons on the job. Credit is due to general manager Eric DeCosta, who put together an excellent brew of defensive players, as always. Let's go front to back ...


Calais Campbell, Brandon Williams and Derek Wolfe form a rock-solid core up front. Baltimore will surely miss free-agent departures Matt Judon and Yannick Ngakoue, but are you willing to bet against the Ravens creating pressure off the edges? It's what they do. At linebacker, it really feels like Patrick Queen is going to break out into stardom in Year 2. He was everywhere in the preseason opener, piling up four tackles (two for loss) and a sack in just 20 snaps. The secondary is headlined by the stellar CB duo of Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters, but the unit is exceedingly deep and talented.


Here's a fine nugget from NFL Research: The Ravens have allowed 20.0 or fewer PPG in each of the last four seasons, the longest active streak in the NFL. In today's offense-centric league, that's quite an accomplishment.

Rank
5
Cleveland Browns
2020 RANKINGS · Points: 21st | Yards: 17th

With the 17th game added to the regular season, I don't even need oven mitts to predict Myles Garrett will break Michael Strahan's single-season sack record (22.5). It's not a hot take. Garrett had nine sacks in the first seven weeks last year, but injuries and COVID-19 took a heavy toll in the second half of the season. If Garrett stays healthy, he's going to enjoy a monster campaign -- especially now that he has a viable pass-rushing partner in fellow former No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney. These two are going to wreak havoc off the edges.


Clowney wasn't the only inspired offseason addition, either. GM Andrew Berry upgraded all three levels in free agency (SEE: DT Malik Jackson, LB Anthony Walker, CB Troy Hill and my favorite signing of all, S John Johnson). Then in the first two rounds of the draft, Cleveland nabbed a pair of instant-impact defenders: CB Greg Newsome II and LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah.


While the offense has received most of the shine in the Browns' recent ascendancy, the upgraded defense makes this one of the most well-rounded rosters in football.

Rank
6
Washington Football Team
2020 RANKINGS · Points: 4th | Yards: 2nd

I'm obsessed with Chase Young. He was great in Year 1 -- earning Defensive Rookie of the Year honors with 7.5 sacks and a host of splash plays -- but his 2021 campaign is going to be next level. Washington invested first-round picks on the D-line in four straight drafts, and now the Football Team is reaping the benefits, perhaps boasting the best defensive front in football.


So why is the WFT defense only ranked sixth on this list?


Well, the back seven isn't nearly as imposing as the front four. That said, those players will benefit greatly from Young and Co. wrecking games up front. And it's not like the back two levels of the defense are devoid of talent. First-rounder Jamin Davis is an athletic marvel at linebacker, and he's been a trendy pick this offseason for Defensive Rookie of the Year. Seeing safety Landon Collins play in Washington's preseason opener -- just nine months after tearing his Achilles -- was quite encouraging. And you can do much worse than a starting CB duo of William Jackson and Kendall Fuller.

Rank
7
New England Patriots
2020 RANKINGS · Points: 7th | Yards: 15th

Bill Belichick is the greatest coach in sports history, with defense being his bread and butter. Out of necessity, Belichick restocked the cupboard this offseason, adding solid depth and talent on the line and in the defensive backfield. I especially loved the Matt Judon signing. Fresh off his second straight Pro Bowl season, the 29-year-old is squarely in his prime, giving the Patriots the kind of edge-rushing presence they sorely lacked last season, when they finished 27th with just 24 sacks.


Meanwhile, the return of Dont'a Hightower -- who opted out of last season during the COVID-19 pandemic -- is a huge lift. He was a critical cog on the Patriots' three most recent Super Bowl title teams. And the defensive backfield remains flush with talented cover men. Our resident analytics guru Cynthia Frelund says New England has the best CB duo in football.

Rank
8
Denver Broncos
2020 RANKINGS · Points: 25th | Yards: 21st

Don't sleep on Denver. The Broncos significantly upgraded the cornerback position for head coach Vic Fangio. After adding Kyle Fuller (who earned first-team All-Pro honors while playing under Fangio in Chicago) and Ronald Darby in free agency, Denver selected Patrick Surtain II with the No. 9 overall pick. I had Surtain as the best defensive player in this draft class. Add those three to a secondary that already includes top-notch nickel corner Bryce Callahan and the spectacular safety duo of Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson, and Fangio's really cooking with gas. This could be the best defensive backfield in football.


The scary thing is that I haven't even mentioned Von Miller and Bradley Chubb. With better health luck, this could be the best pass-rushing duo in football.

Rank
9
Buffalo Bills
2020 RANKINGS · Points: 16th | Yards: 14th

I was stunned how nondescript the Bills' defense was last season. Sean McDermott is a fantastic head coach and defensive mind, and I love coordinator Leslie Frazier. I expect a major bounceback in 2021. It has to start with a pair of highly pedigreed players: LB Tremaine Edmunds and DT Ed Oliver. Both selected in the top half of their respective first rounds, Edmunds and Oliver were far too inconsistent last year. The talent is there -- there's no excuse. I'm expecting a breakthrough season from last year's highest draft pick, A.J. Epenesa, as well. The pass rush just needs to be better in Buffalo. And hey, rookie first-rounder Greg Rousseau flashed in his first preseason offering, beating Penei Sewell for a sack.


The unit's best player is Tre'Davious White, a Pro Bowler in each of the past two seasons and a game-changing talent at cornerback. Meanwhile, the safety duo of Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde just continues to provide quality play without much fanfare. Same story with LB Matt Milano. If the rest of the unit can catch up with these guys, McDermott/Frazier's defense will be back where it belongs as a top-10 group.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter.

Related Content

Gamepass_vert_web_r

See all the Action

Replay every game all season.