My projection for the top nine offenses in 2018 is in the books. Now it’s time to hit the other side of the ball.
Yeah, offense gets all the shine in today’s fantasy-obsessed world, but don’t overlook the importance of stout D. All four of last season’s Championship Sunday participants ranked in the top five in scoring defense: Minnesota (No. 1), Jacksonville (2), Philadelphia (4) and New England (5).
So, which units appear most imposing heading into the new season? Here are my top defenses, Schein Nine style:
1) Jacksonville Jaguars
Yep, the Jaguars will have the best defense in football this season. Why? Well, they’re oozing with talent at every level.
Starting up front, Calais Campbell is the ultimate leader. And the versatile 31-year-old just got to the quarterback a career-high (and AFC-best) 14.5 times last season. It’s not that opposing offenses overlook the 6-foot-8, 300-pound behemoth; the Jacksonville D just has so much to account for. Flanking Campbell up front: Malik Jackson, Marcell Dareus and the grossly underrated Yannick Ngakoue, who quietly piled up 12 sacks and six forced fumbles in 2017. I haven’t even mentioned Dante Fowler Jr., who, yes, needs to stop fighting teammates and start living up to his No. 3 overall pick pedigree. Nor have I spoken of first-round pick Taven Bryan. Bottom line: This is the best and deepest defensive line in the game today.
On the second level, Telvin Smith is an athletic tackling machine who’s also good in coverage — basically the ideal modern linebacker. And Myles Jack brings the same kind of skill set.
Last, but certainly not least, Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye comprise the top cornerback pairing in the NFL. By a pretty good margin. (Just lay off the local beat writers, will ya, Jalen?) These two are so good that the safeties (Barry Church and Tashaun Gipson) go completely overlooked, but that’s a dandy duo in its own right.
Jacksonville enters the 2018 campaign squarely in Super Bowl contention because Jacksonville has an embarrassment of riches on the defensive side of the ball.
2) Minnesota Vikings
This defense is coached up incredibly well. No surprise: It’s a Mike Zimmer defense. And the unit possesses three bona fide stars: DE Everson Griffen, CB Xavier Rhodes and S Harrison Smith. Rhodes and Smith earned first-team All-Pro honors last season, and Griffen was en route to such an honor (with 10 sacks in the first eight games) before a torn plantar fascia sapped his production down the back half of the season. I talked to Griffen last month on my SiriusXM Radio show, “Schein on Sports,” and the three-time Pro Bowler wouldn’t take the cheese when I called the Vikings’ D special. The 30-year-old vet stressed that the unit needs to maintain consistency and do the little things. That comes from Zimmer. And that, well, makes the group special.
It’s not like Minnesota’s lacking beyond that Big Three, either. DE Danielle Hunter is still just 23, but he already has 25.5 sacks to his name. (And a whole bunch of new money.) DT Sheldon Richardson can be a game wrecker — when motivated. And Linval Joseph gets completely lost in the shuffle, yet the highly consistent nose tackle has made the Pro Bowl in each of the last two seasons. Strong safety Andrew Sendejo has developed into a nice player, too.
Like the Jags’ group, this is a power-loaded unit from front to back.
3) Arizona Cardinals
Surprised to see Arizona ranked this high? Don’t be. The Cards have some special individuals, and I love the stamp new coach and defensive guru Steve Wilks is putting on this team in the early goings.
Patrick Peterson is like a blanket in the defensive backfield. When I asked Vikings star Xavier Rhodes on SiriusXM Radio this summer who is the best corner in the league — besides himself, obviously — he didn’t hesitate: It’s Peterson. And Rhodes studies him. Smart.
Chandler Jones never gets the credit he deserves. Who led the NFL in sacks last season? Who has the most sacks over the last five seasons? Yep, it’s Jones on both fronts. The guy’s a true sack artist.
Budda Baker and Haason Reddick are young studs who could really emerge in Year 2. And David Johnson being healthy will help keep this defense fresh.
4) Los Angeles Chargers
I’m obsessed with the Joey Bosa-Melvin Ingram tag team. It’s the best pass-rushing duo in the NFL today. And when you bring that kind of heat up front, everyone reaps the benefits — especially a playmaking secondary …
It was horrible to see Jason Verrett suffer another devastating injury last month. That cat is so damn talented, but he just can’t stay on the field. Even so, the defensive backfield should still be a big strength for the Bolts. Casey Hayward is one of the top ball-hawking corners in the NFL today, while Desmond King immediately flashed his versatility and playmaking skills as a rookie in 2017. Oh, and I still cannot believe Derwin James lasted until L.A.’s No. 17 pick in April. That was highway robbery.
5) Philadelphia Eagles
Coordinator Jim Schwartz is so aggressive, which makes this fantastic defensive line so fun. I’ve been a Fletcher Cox fanboy for quite some time, giving him a slot on my “most indispensable defenders” list in each of the past four years. Brandon Graham was slept on for too long, but he became a nationally recognized stud in the Eagles’ Super Bowl season. (Remember the strip-sack that essentially handed Philly the Lombardi Trophy?) I think second-year man Derek Barnett is going to be terrific. And while Michael Bennett isn’t the player that he was in his Seahawks heyday, having these four on the field together during passing situations is dreamy — or nightmare juice, if you’re a quarterback.
It also must be said that the Malcolm Jenkins-led defensive backfield ain’t chopped liver. That’s an underrated component of this overwhelming defense.
6) Houston Texans
This is my flier. Yes, I know J.J. Watt hasn’t played in 24 of Houston’s last 32 games. But Texans head coach Bill O’Brien has been raving about Watt this summer, and Billy O isn’t typically subject to hyperbole. When healthy, Watt’s an all-time great. No questions asked. Once Jadeveon Clowney returns to the gridiron following an offseason knee clean-up, we could finally experience the kind of dynamic destruction Texans fans have been dreaming of since the team drafted Clowney to flank Watt.
Two other players with Pro Bowl-caliber games, health permitting: Whitney Mercilus and Tyrann Mathieu. Like I said, this is a flier. But if everything clicks, watch out.
7) Los Angeles Rams
Let’s assume for a minute that the Rams come to terms with the single best defensive player on the planet. Aaron Donald puts pen to paper, and I’m all in on this team. Donald is the most unstoppable defensive force in the NFL. He makes everything go — everything including Ndamukong Suh, who will be highly motivated on a one-year deal.
I loved the Marcus Peters and Aqib Talib acquisitions. Knuckleheads? Yeah, they’ve had some well-documented issues. But the Rams suddenly have a top-two cornerback combination in the NFL. And the great maestro, Wade Phillips, will make this unit sing.
8) Atlanta Falcons
Atlanta’s defense is routinely overshadowed by its star-studded offense. But I think this D, which really started to perform down the stretch last season, is going to really surprise some people in 2018.
On the day Matt Ryan raved about Ricardo Allen to me on SiriusXM Radio, the Falcons smartly rewarded the safety with a new contract. The defensive backfield is strong as a whole, with Keanu Neal establishing himself as one of the league’s most imposing hammers. Up front, Grady Jarrett is a menace on the defensive interior. Defensive end Vic Beasley is capable of being special, but the Falcons have to put him in positions to succeed as an edge rusher. And I expect Takk McKinley to have a vastly improved second season.
In the middle of it all is Deion Jones, a stud middle linebacker who excels against the pass and run. Pro Football Focus had him ranked as the No. 4 linebacker in football last season.
9) New England Patriots
OK, let’s be honest: The talent is relatively weak here. But there’s no chance I’m leaving a Bill Belichick-coached unit off this list. The guy is the greatest coach in sports history for a reason. He’ll find a way to keep points off the board.
Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.