Defense is still prevalent in the NFL, despite the incredible amount of offensive records being broken year in and year out. Super Bowl LVII didn't exactly back that up (the final score was 38-35), but the best teams still find ways to go deep into the playoffs because of their defense.
The Baltimore Ravens won two championships this century backed by their defense. Ditto with the New York Giants. The San Francisco 49ers made three NFC Championship Games in the past four seasons thanks to their defense, while the Philadelphia Eagles reached Super Bowl LVII in big part because of a defense that had the third-most sacks in a season in NFL history.
Defense still matters and will play a major factor for the teams that will compete for a Super Bowl title this season. So, which defensive position groups make the biggest impact? Let's rank the best ones in the league heading into 2023.
Like the offensive position groups (), the factors the separated the best from the best relied on a few aspects:
- Top end talent
- Impact of starters at the respective position
- Importance to their respective team
The defensive line, linebackers, and secondary were not clumped together. This list includes edge rushers, interior defenders, cornerbacks, off-ball linebackers, and safeties.
Without further adieu, the top 10 defensive position groups in the NFL:
10. 49ers safeties
The 49ers defense is loaded as a whole, but this group isn't talked about enough as one of the best in the NFL. Talanoa Hufanga was one of the best safeties in football last season, earning first-team All-Pro honors in just his second year in the league.
Hufanga's coverage numbers significantly improved in Year 2. Opposing quarterbacks targeting Hufanga had a 70.1 passer rating, even though they threw six touchdowns off him. That shouldn't take away what Hufanga was able to do with his opportunities, having four interceptions and nine passes defended. He also finished with 97 tackles and two sacks.
Lining up next to Hufanga was Tashaun Gipson, who was one of the best coverage safeties in football last year. In his 11th season, Gipson had five interceptions as opposing quarterbacks targeting him had just a 19.3 passer rating (Gipson didn't allow a single touchdown pass). Gipson wasn't selected to the Pro Bowl, although he should have been.
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Hufanga and Gipson will be back in 2023, leading a safety position that has Ji'Ayir Brown waiting in the wings. This group will be a problem for opposing quarterbacks.
9. Jets cornerbacks
Amazing how one position is elevated by the performance of one player. That's how impactful Sauce Gardner was for the Jets in his rookie season.
Gardner already is one of the best players at his position in the NFL, becoming the first rookie cornerback named as a First Team All-Pro since Ronnie Lott in 1981 -- and winning Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. He allowed just a 44.9 passer rating in coverage, as opposing quarterbacks targeting Gardner completed just 44.2% of their passes (Gardner had two interceptions and allowed just one touchdown).
D.J. Reed is no slouch either. One of the best free agent signings from the 2022 offseason, Reed allowed just two touchdowns last season, as opposing quarterbacks had just a 62.5 passer rating targeting him (Reed had just one interception). Reed also had 80 tackles and 12 passes defensed.
The Jets defense had the best turnaround in scoring since the 2000-2001 St. Louis Rams (-11.1 points per game), dropping their points per game allowed from 29.7 in 2021 (last in NFL) to 19.6 in 2022 (fourth in NFL). The pass defense went from 30th in the NFL (259.3 yards allowed per game) in 2021 to third in 2022 (189.4 yards allowed), a tremendous turnaround thanks to Gardner and Reed.
With Michael Carter II in the slot, the Jets cornerback position is in good hands. Gardner and Reed are in the running for best cornerback tandem in the league.
8. Giants interior defenders
Lawrence had a monster season at defensive tackle, recording 68 tackles, 7.5 sacks, and two forced fumbles. His impact came when getting to the quarterback, with 63 pressures, 28 quarterback hits, and a 12.9% pressure rate (only Chris Jones had more pressures and quarterback hits at defensive tackle).
Williams is coming off a year which he had 45 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 33 pressures, and a forced fumble. He did battle a neck injury last season and ended up missing five games, the first time he's missed any games in his career. Regardless, Williams is still a force to be reckoned with in the A-gap and B-gap (he does switch to the edge on certain formations).
A'Shawn Robinson is also part of this rotation, but Williams and Lawrence are the two that makes the defensive interior elite.
7. 49ers off-ball linebackers
Another elite group on the 49ers defense, this unit has to of the most feared players in the league at their position. Fred Warner is arguably the best middle linebacker in the league, notching another First Team All-Pro season with 130 tackles, one interception, two sacks, 10 passes defensed, and a forced fumble. Warner has notched 100-plus tackles in each of his first five seasons as he and Bobby Wagner are the only players in the league who have 115-plus tackles in each of the last five years.
Dre Greenlaw had his best season, recording 127 tackles, one interception, six forced fumbles, and two forced fumbles. Greenlaw also allowed a 76.9 passer rating when opposing quarterbacks targeted him while Warner allowed a 71.5 rating, an underrated aspect of their games.
Both Warner and Greenlaw played integral roles in the 49ers run defense allowing 77.7 yards per game and 3.4 yards per carry, both second in the NFL. The duo is one of the best in the league and the backbone of a dominant 49ers defense.
6. Bills safeties
There hasn't been a more consistent safety duo in the past five years than Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde, two underrated players at their position. Poyer had a huge year at the age of 31, finishing with 63 tackles, eight passes defensed and four interceptions. The Bills were 12-0 when Poyer played last season, as he is the only player with 20-plus interceptions and 10-plus sacks since 2017.
While Poyer is the heart and soul of the Bills defense, Hyde has been just as productive. Hyde played just two games last season, but he's just one of four players in the NFL with 22-plus interceptions and five-plus sacks over the last decade (Poyer is also one of those four). When Poyer and Hyde last played a full season together (2021), they led the NFL safety duos with 10 interceptions -- the second time they led the league in that category. Hyde also allowed a 49.7 passer rating when opposing quarterbacks targeted him in 2021 while Poyer allowed a 64.7 rating in 2022.
When Hyde was out, Damar Hamlin did an admirable job in his place. Hamlin had 88 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and two passes defensed in the 13 games filling in for Hyde. The Bills missed Hyde last season, but safety too a massive hit after Hamlin was lost for the season after suffering on-field cardiac arrest in Week 17 (let's not forget the emotional toll it took on the Bills).
Poyer, Hyde, and Hamlin are arguably the top safety trio heading into 2023, as those three give Buffalo the deepest group of impactful safeties in the league.
5. Browns edge rushers
For years, the Browns pass rush began and ended with Myles Garrett -- one of the best edge rushers in the NFL. Garrett finally has a complimentary edge rusher that can help him out in Za'Darius Smith, a huge upgrade over what Jadeveon Clowney brought Cleveland last year.
Of course the pair haven't played a snap together, but their resumes speak for themselves. Garrett recorded 16 sacks last season, trailing only Nick Bosa for most in the NFL. His 73 pressures were sixth in the league and his 26 quarterback hits were tied for eighth, finishing with a 16.1% pressure rate as he earned second-team All-Pro honors. The definition of consistency for a pass rusher, Garrett has the second-most sacks (32) and tackles for loss (35) over the last two seasons, also compiling the fourth-most pressures (152).
Smith was coming off a back injury that limited him to just two games the season prior, recording his third double-digit sack season in four years. He finished with 10 sacks on the year and earned a Pro Bowl appearance.
Smith notched 78 pressures and 24 quarterback hits in 2022, finishing with a pressure rate of 16.7%. He finished fourth in the league in pressures. Of pass rushers with more than 500 defensive snaps, Smith was behind only Nick Bosa, Micah Parsons, and Trey Hendrickson in pressure rate.
Two of the top edge rushers in the NFL are on the same defensive line. The Browns pass rush should feast in 2023, even if the depth behind Garrett and Smith is still in question.
4. Eagles cornerbacks
Darius Slay and James Bradberry made their statement as the best cornerback duo in football last season, which should have the Eagles excited they were able to run it back for 2023. Slay was dominant in coverage the first half of the year, parlaying that into his fourth Pro Bowl selection in five years.
Opposing quarterbacks targeting Slay had just a 60.0 passer rating, as Slay allowed just 53.2% of passes thrown in his target area to be caught. Slay finished with 55 tackles, three interceptions, and 14 passes defensed -- the most he's had since 2018.
Bradberry was arguably the best cover corner in the NFL last season. Of players that were targeted a minimum of 75 times, Bradberry allowed 44% of passes thrown his way to be caught -- best in the league. The 4.7 yards per attempt allowed was also the best in the league and the 44.5 passer rating by opposing quarterbacks targeting Bradberry was first in the NFL -- earning second-team All-Pro honors.
The Eagles also have Avonte Maddox to compliment them in the slot, along with Greedy Williams, Kelee Ringo, and Zech McPhearson on the depth chart. Slay and Bradberry are linchpins of the Eagles secondary and should have another strong season together.
3. Ravens off-ball linebackers
Smith made an instant impact in the Ravens defense since Baltimore acquired him prior to the trade deadline, finishing with 169 tackles, 4.5 sacks, three interceptions and six passes defended with the Ravens and Chicago Bears this past season. Smith and Patrick Willis are the only players to have 150-plus tackles, four-plus sacks and three-plus interceptions in a season.
Queen is coming off a season which he notched a career high in tackles (117), sacks (five), interceptions (two) and passes defensed (six). He is one of three defenders (Roquan Smith and Bobby Wagner) with at least 300 tackles, three interceptions and 10 sacks since entering the league in 2020.
In coverage, opposing quarterbacks targeting Smith allowed a 69.9 passer rating while Queen allowed a 73.1 rating. The duo combined for five interceptions and allowed three touchdowns.
A full season of Smith and Queen could spell trouble for opposing offenses -- and gives Baltimore an excellent opportunity to get to the Super Bowl.
2. 49ers interior defenders
Javon Hargrave and Arik Armstead haven't played a game together yet, but Hargrave is expected to make an instant impact as the interior presence the 49ers have sorely missed in the Nick Bosa era. Hargrave had a huge 2022 season for the Eagles, one of four players on the Eagles defense who finished with 10-plus sacks on the season (the most for any team in NFL history). He finished the season with a career-high 11 sacks, 57 pressures, 40 hurries, 16 quarterback hits and a pressure rate of 13.2%.
Hargrave finished fourth amongst defensive tackles in sacks, eighth in quarterback hits, tied for eighth in tackles for loss (10) and 11th in tackles (60). He's fourth among defensive tackles in sacks (23), tied for seventh in quarterback hits (42) and tackles for loss (24) over the last three seasons.
When lined up at defensive tackle, Hargrave had the most sacks (nine) and the highest pressure rate (14%) in the NFL. The 49ers defensive tackles had just one sack and a 7% pressure rate (11th in NFL), showcasing the impact Hargrave will have on the interior.
Arik Armstead rotates between the interior and on the edge, having 19.5 sacks between 2019 through 2021. While Armstead didn't have a sack last season (11 tackles, four quarterback hits, 20 pressures, 9.2% pressure rate), his numbers are expected to go up with Hargrave and Bosa on the same defensive line. Armstead also missed eight games last season with an ankle injury. They also have Javon Kinlaw and Kevin Givens for depth.
The 49ers interior defenders look good on paper, but the production needs to be shown on the field. With Bosa on the edge, this group is expected to be one of the best in the NFL.
1. Eagles edge rushers
Hard to take the top spot away from a group that had three edge rushers who finished with 10-plus sacks last year (and four players had 10 sacks overall, which was the most in a single season in NFL history).
Haason Reddick had a huge season in his first year with the Eagles, finishing tied for second in the NFL (16.5 sacks) with Myles Garrett. His 26 quarterback hits were eighth in the NFL, and he finished tied for 10th in pressures with 68, while also having a career-high 15.9% pressure rate.
Josh Sweat finished with 11 sacks and 43 pressures, compiling a 12.7% pressure rate. In addition to his 23 quarterback hits, Sweat also had a forced fumble and an interception. Brandon Graham was in the edge rusher rotation and he had 11 sacks with 48 pressures and a team leading 17.1% pressure rate. He also had 16 quarterback hits and finished with two forced fumbles.
Honorable mention (in no order): Dolphins cornerbacks, Saints linebackers, Ravens safeties, Cowboys cornerbacks, Steelers edge rushers, Cardinals safeties, Falcons interior defenders, Commanders interior defenders, Chargers edge rushers, Cowboys edge rushers