The defensive side of the football is often overlooked by handicappers, but it often ends up being the difference between cashing and ripping up a ticket.
1. Seattle Seahawks: The early four-game suspension to second-year defensive end Bruce Irvin hurts, but the offseason acquisition of Cliff Avril will likely fill the void. The secondary is absolutely loaded and is the team’s overall strength.
2. San Francisco 49ers: Wouldn’t be surprised if this unit occupied the top spot at the end of the year, as linebacker Patrick Willis enters the prime of his career. The franchise also used its top two picks in the 2013 NFL draft on this side of the football.
3. Denver Broncos: Linebacker Von Miller is in absolute superstar and second-year defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio knows how to use him.
4. Houston Texans: Linebacker Brian Cushing has set a target date of July 17 to return to the football field, as he’s been sidelines since last October after suffering a major knee injury. Cushing and defensive end J.J. Watt make this group dynamic.
5. Carolina Panthers: If you don’t know linebacker Luke Kuechly—I suggest that you google his name. The former Boston College star finished with 165 tackles in his rookie year, and he’s the centerpiece of an improving defense.
6. Cincinnati Bengals: Continuity is key for a group that finished sixth in yards allowed a season ago, while it also knows how to get after opposing quarterbacks.
7. Baltimore Ravens: This group will be overlooked with the departures of linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed, but Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs are absolute superstars.
8. Pittsburgh Steelers: The defense has gotten a bit younger, especially in drafting Georgia Bulldogs linebacker Jarvis Jones, but nobody knows how many games safety Troy Polamalu will play in.
9. Arizona Cardinals: Cornerback Patrick Peterson has the potential of being the best player at his position, but the four-game suspension to linebacker Daryl Washington will hurt in the early going.
10. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: This will be a surprise to many, but it’s hard to ignore the additions of safety Dashon Goldson and cornerback Darrelle Revis. Second-year head coach Greg Schiano won’t allow this defense to play poorly in 2013.
11. Buffalo Bills: The 2012 offseason signing of defensive end Mario Williams was expected to make this unit one of the best in the AFC East, but it didn’t come to fruition. Coordinator Mike Pettine comes over from the New York Jets—where he oversaw a group that finished in the top 10 in total defense each year.
12. Green Bay Packers: Has ranked No. 1 in the league in total takeaways since Dom Capers came on the scene in 2009. The loss of cornerback Charles Woodson could be significant from a leadership and playmaking standpoint. Linebacker Clay Matthews will content for Defensive Player of the Year honors.
13. New York Jets: As long as Rex Ryan is the head coach, the team’s defense will likely always rank in the upper half in this category. Will the offense give this unit any type of breather in 2013?
14. Cleveland Browns: A new 3-4 scheme could be what the doctored ordered for this franchise, as it should allow for the defense to create more pressure on opposing signal-callers, which could lead to opportunities for cornerback Joe Haden.
15. Chicago Bears: A middle-of-the-pack ranking is justified until Lance Briggs demonstrates that he can take over as the leader of the defense with the retirement of Brian Urlacher.
16. Atlanta Falcons: It’s all about creating turnovers for this group, which gets the ball into the hands of one of the more dynamic offenses in the league.
17. St. Louis Rams: With 52 sacks a year ago, the unit demonstrated it can get after the quarterback, but I’m not sure that can be replicated again with Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson in the division. I wouldn’t be surprised with a top 10 finish though.
18. Kansas City Chiefs: NFL handicappers need to look past the fact that this group allowed 26.6 points per game a season ago, as it was placed in horrible situations due to an offense that turned the ball over on virtually every possession.
19. New York Giants: The defensive line could turn into a liability if pass rusher Jason Pierre-Paul is unable to recover from back surgery. A play against team if this unit is unable to get pressure on a talented group of quarterbacks in the NFC East.
20. Minnesota Vikings: Defensive end Jared Allen says he’s fully recovered from an offseason surgery on this left shoulder, which makes this group dangerous if it can get solid play out of its secondary.
21. New England Patriots: Head coach Bill Belichick built a reputation as being a defensive guru in this league, but it hasn’t helped the team’s numbers in that department in recent years. I’m expecting a turnaround—playing the Jets twice will certainly help.
22. Miami Dolphins: Cameron Wake is an unknown star, but that may change with the offseason acquisitions of free agent linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler. The team allowed just 19.8 points per game a season ago despite forcing just 16 turnovers.
23. San Diego Chargers: This group could finish a lot higher than this opening spot, but too many departures for my liking from a solid group in 2012. Linebacker Manti Te’o will be one of the most watched players in the league this season.
24. Tennessee Titans: Coordinator Jerry Gray enters his third season, but was fortunate to return, considering the group allowed an NFL-high 29.4 points in 2012. I’m expecting a mild improvement.
25. Philadelphia Eagles: It’s difficult to rank this defense, as everyone is waiting to see how fast the offense will run plays under new head coach Chip Kelly, who enters the professional ranks after making the Oregon Ducks an offensive juggernaut.
26. Jacksonville Jaguars: If you’re a fan of this team—there’s no group to get excited about.
27. Dallas Cowboys: Letting Rob Ryan go was a mistake in my opinion and it will be interesting to see how quickly Monte Kiffin can adjust to being an NFL coordinator again. I’m a big fan of defensive end DeMarcus Ware, but he’ll need to avoid injuries if this group wants to rank in the upper half in this category.
28. Washington Redskins: The explosiveness of RGIII and the offense overshadowed how bad this unit was at times in 2012. Captain London Fletcher isn’t getting any younger, which pretty much sums up my thoughts on this group.
29. Detroit Lions: The departure of starting defensive ends Cliff Avril and Kyle Vanden Bosch will make things tough on tackle Ndamukong Suh.
30. Indianapolis Colts: I’ll be watching closely to find out if someone can fill the shoes of the departed Dwight Freeney, who was one of the more feared pass rushers in the league for years. Youth is the name of the game for this franchise.
31. New Orleans Saints: There’s no question that the team missed coordinator Gregg Williams just as much as head coach Sean Payton. The numbers don’t lie—allowing 440.1 yards per game is a very large number.
32. Oakland Raiders: Playing defense in the AFC West will be difficult this year, as the Broncos, Chargers and Chiefs are going to put up points. The potential of only two returning starters leaves a lot to be desired.Good luck with your upcoming NFL Picks!