I cannot stress enough just how important a good defense/special teams can be in your quest to a league championship. Anyone can sit back and tell you that the Seahawks or the 49ers defense will be great, but unless you’re willing to draft one of those two teams relatively early, you might accidently wind up with a steady rotation of “waiver wire” defenses. This is not always a bad thing, if the match-ups happen to swing your way, but your odds of that happening are slim. The thing to remember is it all starts with the front seven. If a team has a strong front seven that can make a quarterback uncomfortable, it elevates the secondary therefore causing the team to accumulate more sacks and turnovers throughout the season. Here are a few teams that I think could have top 10 defenses in 2014.
Houston Texans (Bye: wk 10)
The Texans chose the best year possible to be the worst team in the league last year. By doing that, they won the Jadeveon Clowney lottery; when they drafted him first overall they got a 6’5”, 266 lb. beast of a human being that also runs a 4.53 40- time to pair with J.J. Watt who averages 12 sacks a year. If that wasn’t scary enough for you, they have Whitney Mercilus going into his third year at outside linebacker. He put up 25 tackles and 6 sacks as a rookie and almost doubled his tackle total in his second season with 47 while getting to the quarterback 7 more times; Mercilus could be an All-Pro this season under new defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel. If their defensive quarterback Brian Cushing can stay healthy, the Texans should return to their winning ways in 2014.
St. Louis Rams (Bye: wk 4)
It’s easy for the Rams defense to get lost in their division, which trots out the best defenses in the NFL week in and week out. But they have arguably the best defensive line in all of football. With the addition of Aaron Donald in the first round, their defensive line went from elite to downright NASTY. Donald is a freakish defensive tackle that has a combination of speed (4.68 40- time) and power (35 bench reps of 225lbs.) that you rarely see from his position, at 6’1”, 285lbs. he’s basically a faster version of Geno Atkins. This is the guy that defensive coordinator Gregg Williams wisely chose to put on the same line that already features Chris Long and Robert Quinn; who have combined for an average of 22.5 sacks per year together since they drafted Quinn in the first round in 2011. In 2012 they added Michael Brockers to the defensive line; he has 9.5 career sacks. 2013 rookie Alec Ogletree didn’t shine in the sack category, but he combined for 117 tackles and forced 6 forced fumbles. They play in a stacked division and that’s exactly what they’re built for.
Chicago Bears (Bye: wk 9)
Obviously the Bears defense was terrible last year, ranking near the bottom of the league in nearly every statistical category, struggling most in rush defense. They did however prove to be a much disciplined group, tying for a league low 69 total penalties. When they added veterans Lamar Houston and Jared Allen in free agency, they got two of the most disciplined run stoppers in the NFL. Houston has never been considered an elite pass rusher, but since 2010 he has graded out as the best edge rush defender in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus. Allen, who also ranks in the top 5 in that category, has averaged nearly 13 sacks a year for the last 10 years. They didn’t just sure up the edge; they re-signed 4x pro bowler Jay Ratliff who averages 26 tackles, and nearly 4 sacks a year when healthy. Add Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton to this team and you have depth and competition on the interior of the line. Sutton was a 2x PAC 12 defensive player of the year while at Arizona State that is light on his feet and has elite use of his hands. While Ferguson is more of a collapse the pocket and let his teammates take all the glory kind of guy, there’s no reason to believe that Chicago can’t return to their old ways of dominating the defensive side of the ball.
Detroit Lions (Bye: wk 9)
Ndamukong Suh, and Nick Fairley form a scary interior defensive line. Suh has been destroying offensive linemen and quarterbacks alike since being drafted second overall in 2010; averaging just under 7 sacks a year. Fairley had a rather underwhelming rookie campaign in 2011, but with 5.5 sacks in 2012, and 6 sacks in 2013, his arrow is pointing up. Last year’s first round pick Ezekiel Ansah had 8 sacks while playing defensive end, he’s 6’5” and ran a 4.63 40 time at the combine. Another player whose arrow is going through the roof is 6th year linebacker DeAndre Levy, Levy led all linebackers with 6 interceptions last season and has averaged 93 tackles a year since joining the Lions back in 2009. In this year’s draft they added pass rushing linebacker Kyle Van Noy in the second round. Van Noy is 6’3”, 243lbs., and ran a 4.71 40 time; it’s because of those numbers he spent most of his collegiate career harassing opposing quarterbacks. He is my early choice for Defensive Rookie of the Year. The Lions biggest problem is they play in the same division as Aaron Rodgers, Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson, and Adrian Peterson; all of whom have the potential to rank in the top 5 in the league at their position when healthy. This defense has the potential to do great things when they get on a roll.
Miami Dolphins (Bye: wk 5)
Olivier Vernon was a stud in his second season for Miami, combining for 57 tackles, and 11.5 sacks. Much of his success was because offenses rightfully focused their attention on quarterback hunting teammate Cameron Wake who has averaged 10 sacks and 42 tackles per year since joining the team in 2009. Dion Jordan may have had an abysmal rookie year last season, but he’s still 6’6”, 250lbs., and runs a 4.6 40- time, it’s way too early to give up on him. The interior line is set with Jared Odrick (6’5”, 302lbs.) and Randy Starks (6’3”, 305lbs.). Since Oderick’s second season in 2011, when he started receiving significant playing time, they have averaged 70 tackles and 9.5 sacks together. They didn’t do much in the draft on the defensive side of the ball, but they did draft outside linebacker Jordan Tripp out of Montana in the fifth round. Tripp didn’t have much hype leading up to the draft since he didn’t play at a big time program, but he is built for this league. At 6’3”, 234lbs, with a 4.67 40- time and almost no body fat, he has great play recognition skills with a nose for the ball forcing a school record 10 while in college.
These are just a couple teams that should see significant improvement this season defensively. Whether it be through free agency, or the draft they have all improved enough to be worthy of being drafted in all of our drafts next month. Stashing any of these defenses away on your bench to have as an option for when you’re starting defense runs into an unfavorable match-up, or to keep away from your opponents is also a smart idea.