In this two-part series, I will rank the offenses and defenses on the Falcons’ schedule. The criteria for the rankings in both parts will be similar but contain minor differences. I will consider difference-making starters, role & rotational players, and positional schemes.
The difference between my offensive and defensive rankings is how much I value players vs. coaching and scheme. Offensively, schematics are more critical and can play a vital role in sustaining an elite unit. Defensively, roster turnover is more prevalent, which makes it more challenging to maintain. Therefore, personnel will be valued more in the defensive article than the offensive one.
I will assign league ranks to better illustrate where the defenses are among the rest of the NFL, not just within Atlanta’s schedule.
13. (NFL: 31) Carolina Panthers – Defensive Coordinator: Phil Snow
Fans will be enthusiastic to see a division rival among the worst defenses in the league. Giving up 29.4 points in 2019 was second-most in the NFL, and the team’s front office did little to mitigate the risk of dropping to last this year.
With the loss of Panther great Luke Kuechly, the defense is incredibly inexperienced. Kawann Short is the best defensive player on the team and potentially the only game-changer. Tre Boston is a borderline top 20 safety but cannot be counted week in and week out. This defense is extremely young with a lot of unknowns, including first-year defensive coordinator Phil Snow.
12. (NFL: 25) Detroit Lions – Defensive Coordinator: Cory Undlin
Detroit allowed the second-most yards per game last year while giving up 26.4 points on average. With the loss of Darius Slay, the Lions drafted Jeff Okudah out of Ohio State with the third pick in this year’s NFL draft.
What is to be expected is growing pains for a rookie cornerback; what is not to be expected is that the third overall pick will not start. Okudah is currently listed as the third cornerback in Detroit, and reports are, he is adjusting to the pace of play in the NFL. If Okudah has more growing pains than expected, the defense will be scrambling for a corner opposite of Demond Trufant.
The Lions do have high character individuals like Jamie Collins, Desmond Trufant, and Trey Flowers, who will do precisely what Matt Patricia asks them to. Still, their complementary players are just not up to par.
Cory Undlin is a first-time coordinator but has coached with Patricia before in New England. This is Patricia’s defense and only works when every individual does his job. Relying on unproven players is especially difficult in a defense as responsibility oriented as Patricia’s.
11. (NFL: 20) Las Vegas Raiders – Defensive Coordinator: Paul Guenther
Though I have the Raiders low on the list, I believe the group can exceed expectations and surprise teams this year. Adding Corey Littleton and Nick Kwiatkoski dramatically improved their defense. Both are three-down linebackers, and Littleton is arguably the best coverage linebacker in football.
Outside of those two, it gets questionable. The defensive backs are young and unproven but do have potential. Trayvon Mullen is a breakout candidate, and opposite of him is Damon Arnette, who has reportedly been impressing the coaching staff. I believe Jonathan Abrams will be a good safety in this league for a long time if he can stay healthy.
Max Crosby is trending upwards, but former first-round pick Clelin Ferrell must improve for this defensive line to pressure any quarterback. DC Paul Guenter is a below-average coordinator, posting 24th and 32nd ranked scoring defenses with the team. If the Raiders can find a consistent pass rush, they could be a slightly better than average defense.
10. (NFL: 19) Seattle Seahawks – Defensive Coordinator: Ken Norton
The addition of Jamal Adams has profound effects on the defensive projections. He’s an instant difference-maker. Quinton Dunbar should excel in Seattle’s scheme, and Shaquill Giffin had a breakout season in 2019. Bobby Wagner is a top three linebacker and the defensive leader in Seattle. However, their line might be the worst in the league.
Even though the secondary has improved, the pass rush in Seattle will be nonexistent, making coverage nearly impossible. The scheme is old, a 4-3 press-zone, but can be effective with the right personnel, which they do not possess. Ken Norton is not a good defensive coordinator that will not alter the trajectory of this unit. I expect a below-average group.
9. (NFL: 15) Kansas City Chiefs – Defensive Coordinator: Steve Spagnola
Though the Chiefs are ranked only one spot higher than Seattle within the Falcons’ schedule, they are miles ahead of the Seahawks among the entire NFL. Like Atlanta’s, the Kansas City defense struggled mightily in the first half of the season in 2019 but finished the second half among the league leaders in turnovers and points per game.
Spagnola’s scheme can be partially attributed to the jump from 24th to 7th in scoring defense in a year’s time. Chris Jones is the best interior defensive lineman not named Aaron Donald, and Frank Clark is a top ten edge rusher. Their safety tandem is among the league’s best with Tyrann Mathieu and Juan Thornhill. However, with skeptical role players, this defense is average that caught fire heading into last year’s playoffs.
8. (NFL 12) Minnesota Vikings – Defensive Coordinator(s): Adam Zimmer/ Andre Patterson
Do not get it confused; this is still Mike Zimmer’s defense, who is one of the best defensive minds in the NFL. The Vikings lost four starters from last year in Linval Joseph, Trae Waynes, Xavier Rhodes, and Everson Griffen. Yannick Ngakoue is a slight upgrade over Griffen, but Danielle Hunter was just placed on the injured reserve list, which eliminates the threat of two potent pass rushers.
The best safety room in the NFL is in Minnesota. Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris are premier playmakers and will help an extremely inexperienced cornerback room. Linebackers, Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr, are a formidable pair that can do it all. The defense has question marks at cornerback and the interior line, but Zimmer is an elite defensive mind who will draw the best out of his personnel. They will be a borderline top ten defense in 2020.
7. (NFL 11) Green Bay Packers – Defensive Coordinator: Mike Pettine
For the first time in a decade, the Packers defense was better than the offense. Before last season, the front office brought in Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith, and Adrian Amos, which paid significant dividends.
The Smiths combined for the most pressures in the league among teammates, but with the emergence of Kenny Clark, they have three uber-productive pass rushers on the defensive line. Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage are both around the 16th-20th best safeties in the league. Combining them with Jaire Alexander, who is on the cusp of becoming an elite cornerback, makes for a young and dynamic backend.
The team lost Blake Martinez but replaced him with Christian Kirksey, who is injury prone. The Packers might have the worst off-ball linebackers in the NFL, but it is one of the least essential roles in Pettine’s defense. Pettine runs a base 3-4 and disguises his blitzes on third down exceptionally.
Rashan Gary had a developmentally slow year his rookie season but has garnered immense praise from teammates and coaches. If Pettine can get the Smiths, Clark, and Gary (if his play continues to ascend) on the field at once, this will be one of the best pass-rushing groups in the league. Without another reliable big man beside Kenny Clark, the team is susceptible to the run.
6. (NFL: 10) Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Defensive Coordinator: Todd Bowles
Atlanta fans might not like this one, but on paper, this defense is littered with talent. And with Todd Bowles, the defense is in safe hands. He is not an elite DC but has been apart of top ten scoring defenses with three different teams.
Last year’s numbers might show a dramatic jump in statistical rankings, but Jameis Winston threw 30 interceptions, which put the defense in more bad situations than usual.
The defense’s front seven is among the league’s best. Devin White and Lavonte David are uber-athletic, do-it-all linebackers. The NFL’s 2019 sack leader, Shaq Barrett, resides in Tampa and is accompanied by veteran JPP. The team also added Ndamukong Suh to pair with Vita Vea, forming one of the best front sevens in football.
Where the Bucs have doubts is on the backend. If the pass rush is what I expect, the defensive backs will have an easy year riding their coattails. This will be the most improved defense in 2020.
5. (NFL: 9) New Orleans Saints – Defensive Coordinator: Dennis Allen
Unfortunately for Atlanta fans, New Orleans and Tampa Bay will have impressive defenses. The Saints are ranked just a little bit higher due to their defensive backs.
Beginning with Dennis Allen, he is an average defensive coordinator, and the playoffs have proven that. With that being said, the Saints have a difference-maker at every level of the defense.
Cam Jordan is the best defensive end in the league and can lineup inside or outside. Demario Davis is a top-five inside linebacker who can play the run while covering running backs and tight ends. Marshon Lattimore is an elite cornerback who is only an ascending talent. Combining those stars with role players like Sheldon Rankins, Malcolm Brown, Alex Anzalone, and Marcus Williams give this defense the best combination of top-end talent and depth thus far on the list.
4. (NFL: 8) Dallas Cowboys – Defensive Coordinator: Mike Nolan
Though the loss of veteran Gerald McCoy hurts, this defense will be fine. After a stale defensive system, 17-year defensive coordinator Mike Nolan will now have his time to revamp this talented group.
Losing Malik Collins and Robert Quinn hurts, but Byron Jones’ departure will have the most significant ripples. They replaced Malik Collins with a cheaper Dontari Poe, who is a run-stuffing specialist.
Though the Falcons are going to play some athletic linebackers, none will be as talented as the Cowboys. Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith will give Dirk Koetter fits and could very well both be top five linebackers again. Demarcus Lawrence hasn’t put it all together since being paid, but D-Law is still one of the best defensive ends in football.
Their depth is exceptional with Tyrone Crawford back, Everson Griffen brought in, and Antwaun Woods. It is the deepest front seven in football, but where the questions lie are in the secondary. Can Trevon Diggs cover the opposing #1 receiver? Was releasing Ha Ha Clinton-Dix smart? These will be answered by the youngest players on the defense.
3. (NFL: 7) Denver Broncos – Defensive Coordinator: Ed Donatell
Ed Donatell led a top-12 scoring defense last year but can attribute the scheme to Vic Fangio. Fangio is one of the most creative defensive minds in football.
The Broncos took a major loss when Von Miller was designated to the IR, but he is expected to return later this season. Bradley Chubb is still an excellent pass rusher and will be expected to produce in Miller’s absence.
The interior line has both difference-makers and depth. Jurrell Casey, Mike Purcell, Shelby Harris, and Dre’ Mont Jones are either already elite or looking to improve their solid foundation.
Safeties Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson are an excellent tandem who thrive in Fangio’s system. A.J. Bouye can shadow a #1 all day but is looking to improve after a down year in 2019.
2. (NFL: 6) Chicago Bears – Defensive Coordinator: Chuck Pagano
The Bears are remarkably similar to the Saints in the way they are built. Like New Orleans, Chicago has a veteran along the defensive line who can play multiple positions in Akiem Hicks, standout linebackers who do it all in Roquan Smith and Danny Trevathan, and an elite member of their secondary in Eddie Jackson. Not to mention a former DPOY who can absolutely wreck game plans in Khalil Mack.
The Bears also have impressive depth and role players in Robert Quinn, Kyle Fuller, and Tashaun Gibson. Chuck Pagano has kept many of the same schematics as former DC Vic Fangio, allowing this defense to flourish.
1. (NFL: 4) Los Angeles Chargers – Defensive Coordinator: Gus Bradley
Under Gus Bradley, the defense has finished every year top ten in points or yards per game. He is one of the better defensive coordinators in the league but has talent at every single level to scheme with.
The loss of Derwin James hurts, but this defense possesses incredible depth in the secondary. Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram are one of the best pass-rushing duos in the league, and Linval Joseph, who left Minnesota this offseason, is the best run-stopping nose tackle in football.
Denzel Perryman is a serviceable linebacker, especially playing behind a defensive line like this. Kenneth Murray is a rookie, but the league should be on notice. Murray is exactly the type of middle linebacker everyone wants on their team; an athletic, hard-nosed, sideline-to-sideline, three-down linebacker.
The secondary would have been dangerous with James, but still has one of the most impressive cornerback rooms in the league. Casey Hayward, Chris Harris Jr., and Desmond King II are all top 20 cornerbacks, and can each play the boundary or slot, though King thrives in the slot. Nasir Adderley and Rayshawn Jenkins are both underrated safeties and will perform admirably in the absence of Derwin James. This is a top-five defense for the next few years.