NFL Positional Rankings: The Best, Worst, and Most Improved Defensive Fronts
In the conclusion of our series on the NFL’s best and worst units at each positional grouping, we’re using our advanced data to evaluate the front sevens.
NFL quarterbacks face several kinds of pressure, but the one that consistently produces the most obvious impact is the pressure applied by opposing front sevens.
However, those tasked with dismantling opposing passing attacks have the distinct misfortune of residing in an NFL age where quarterbacks with lightning-fast releases and play-callers adept at designing creative quick-game concepts are enjoying a harmonious marriage.
That has led to a debate over whether it is better to build a defense from the front or to instead focus on the secondary and limiting the quarterback’s options through coverage.
Yet, as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers proved so devastatingly in Super Bowl LV, having a front that can make life hell for the quarterback still has tremendous value. If that same group is also able to keep the ground game in check, then that is a recipe for an elite defense.
Which teams can claim to possess such fronts? We’ve used our model to project how often each team’s average pass rusher will create a pressure and how regularly their average defender will disrupt a run. This will data will play a key role in identifying the defenses that have the best and worst front sevens, and those ready to take a leap forward in 2021.
1. Chicago Bears
No front seven can claim to be as strong overall as Chicago. The Bears rank seventh in the NFL with the average pass rusher projected to generate a pressure 11.4% of the time and fourth against the ground game, a player creating a run disruption on 10.2% of snaps.
Unsurprisingly critical to the Bears’ success rushing the passer is Khalil Mack, the 2016 Defensive Player of the Year who is still firmly among the elite at his position. Mack is projected to register a pressure on 17.64% of his pass rush attempts, putting him sixth among edge rushers.
That number dwarfs fellow edge rusher Robert Quinn’s 12.66% and Quinn could lose time to 2020 fifth-round pick Trevis Gipson, who will look to take a year-two leap after producing flashes of his potential on limited snaps as a rookie.
Defensive tackles Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman can be considered the heart of the defense when it comes to stopping the run. Hicks’ projected run disruption rate of 27.29 is good for fifth in the league, with Goldman 13th on 23.82.
Mario Edwards Jr. will miss the first two games of the 2021 season due to suspension but will be expected to provide an interior pass rush when he returns. Edwards is projected seventh among defensive tackles with a pressure on 14.38% of pass rush attempts.
All the havoc caused by his teammates allows linebacker Roquan Smith, who had a breakthrough season in 2020, to clean up with tackles, often in the backfield. He ranked second in both total tackles and tackles for losses last season.
The Bears defense is arguably now underrated having failed to reproduce its 2018 zenith. However, with a dominant edge rusher and stacks of talent on the interior, the front seven is still the strength of the team.
2. Philadelphia Eagles
The one area of the Philadelphia roster that did not deserve to be maligned as much as the Eagles were last year was the front seven. If Nick Sirianni is to oversee an unlikely bounce-back year in his first season as head coach, then this group will likely play a crucial role.
With the average pass rusher on the roster projected to produce a pressure on 12.97% of attempts, the Eagles rank first in the league when it came to getting after the quarterback, with the aging but still supremely effective Brandon Graham leading the way for Philadelphia.
Forecasted to log a pressure on 18.38% of pass rushes – fifth among edge rushers – the 33-year-old Graham will want more support from the likes of Derek Barnett (10.05%) and Josh Sweat (12.2%), the latter delivering signs he is ready to make the leap with an adjusted sack rate of 4.4% that was well above the 2020 average (3.0%) for edge rushers. The addition of veteran Ryan Kerrigan (15.23% projected pressure rate) should also lessen the burden on Graham.
On the interior, Javon Hargrave proved his worth after coming over from the Pittsburgh Steelers, his predicted rate of a pressure on 14.52% of pass rush attempts placing him fifth for defensive tackles, with perennial Pro Bowler Fletcher Cox (13.84%) 12th at the same position.
It is against the run where the Eagles have a clear weakness, the average player projected to register a disruption on just 8.53% of rush defense attempts, 23rd in the league.
While the Eagles’ efforts in pressuring the quarterback have put their front seven in the top three, they need more defenders to replicate the efforts of T.Y. McGill, the team leader with a projected run disruption on 18.7% of attempts, and Cox (17.89%), to ensure bad run defense does not undermine their performance rushing the passer.
3. Cleveland Browns
The Eagles and Browns appear poised to reside on opposite ends of the NFL spectrum again in 2021, but in terms of their respective front sevens they are in the same boat, with an efficient pass rush ensuring Cleveland’s position among the very best.
With their average pass rusher predicted to deliver a pressure on 12.44% of attempts, the Browns rank second behind the Eagles in pursuing the quarterback, their standing owing much to Myles Garrett’s 12-sack 2020 campaign.
Only three edge rushers are projected to produce pressure more regularly than Garrett (18.94%), with his 2020 adjusted sack rate of 5.2% seventh among edge defenders with at least 100 plays.
Having allowed Olivier Vernon to walk in free agency, the Browns are hoping the recent acquisition of Jadeveon Clowney can provide crucial support to Garrett. Clowney did not have a sack in eight games with the Tennessee Titans last year. However, he ranks 17th for edge rushers with a projected pressure rate of 15.57%.
His persistent excellence in defending the run is reflected by his forecasted run disruption rate of 19.47%. The 2020 season saw him finish fifth among edge rushers as he registered a disruption on 20% of run defense snaps. With the average Browns run defender projected to disrupt a run on 8.84% of attempts – 18th in the league – Clowney will be under pressure to replicate that performance.
Questionable depth on the interior means there may be an immediate onus on rookie Tommy Togiai to prove himself a steal. Togiai’s pressure rate of 23.1% was second among Power 5 nose tackles with at least 50 snaps in 2020. The Browns, though, should be able to lean on veteran Malik Jackson in the run game, with his projected disruption rate of 18.70% second on the team behind Clowney.
If that pair can live up to their forecasts and elevate the rush defense, the Browns could find themselves at top of the pile next year.
30. Seattle Seahawks
The average Seahawks defense is projected to deliver a pressure on 8.92% of pass rush attempts (28th) and a run disruption 8.32% of the time (26th), reflecting a lack of game-changing talents up front for a defense that has been far too vulnerable for far too long.
In addition to being one of the best coverage defenders in the NFL, inside linebacker Bobby Wagner is by far the Seahawks’ best pass rusher on the front seven by projected pressure rate. Only Aaron Donald and Joey Bosa are predicted to create a pressure on a higher rate of attempts than Wagner (19.64).
Though safety Jamal Adams led the Seahawks with 9.5 sacks last year, Wagner is otherwise lacking in support, especially from those up front.
Much of the burden figures to be on veteran edge rushers Carlos Dunlap and Kerry Hyder Jr. Dunlap (9.28%) had six sacks and Hyder (10.86%) 8.5 for the San Francisco 49ers last year, but neither boasts forecasted pressure rates to suggest they will consistently affect opposing quarterbacks.
Hyder’s 2020 pressure rate of 19.2% for the Niners is grounds for optimism but, if the Seahawks pass rush is to take a jump in 2021, then it will likely need to be inspired by one of a clutch of recent draft picks.
Alton Robinson had four sacks last year but is predicted to produce a pressure on 9.44% of pass rush attempts. Past performances mean relatively little is also anticipated of former first-round pick L.J. Collier (7.74%), Darrell Taylor (10.39%) and Rasheem Green (6.39%) and, if none of that quartet outperforms expectations, it could be another frustrating year for the Seattle pass rush.
Seattle can afford to have slightly higher hopes for the run defense, largely because of the strength of the interior defensive line in that area. Nose tackle Poona Ford is projected to disrupt a run on 21.66% of attempts with Al Woods, who will likely line up next to him on base downs, not far behind on 19.48%.
Ford has been a consistent bright spot since signing as an undrafted free agent in 2018, but the Seahawks need a lot more players up front to shine for this defense to be one that can help them defend the NFC West title.
31. Buffalo Bills
The Bills invested their top two 2021 draft picks in edge rushers, which should be no surprise given their mediocrity in getting after the quarterback in recent years. Buffalo ranked tied 15th in the NFL in sacks for negative yardage (36) in 2020 and their predicted pressure rate does not offer much room for hope that they will be markedly better this year.
Buffalo’s average pass rusher is forecast to record a pressure on 9.81% of attempts – 17th in the NFL – with linebacker Matt Milano and veteran edge rusher Jerry Hughes their sole two predicted to do so more than 15% of the time.
Hughes’ pressure rate of 21.5% in 2020 was tied for ninth for edge defenders with at least 100 plays and he should provide the perfect mentor for first-round pick Gregory Rousseau and second-round selection Carlos Basham.
Rousseau’s adjusted sack rate of 10.4% in his last college season in 2019 was third among Power 5 edge rushers with at least 100 snaps.
Though Rousseau has shown signs of replicating that kind of form in the NFL in preseason, the Bills also must get more from their interior defensive line. Former first-round pick Ed Oliver is projected to produce a pressure on 8.60% of pass rush attempts after taking a step back in 2020 following a five-sack rookie year.
The prospects for Oliver look brighter in terms of run defense, where he is projected to cause a disruption 14.28% of the time. However, the Bills as a team rank last in the NFL in forecasted run defense, with the average Buffalo defender predicted to create a run disruption on 7% of attempts.
In their AFC championship game loss to the Kansas City Chiefs last season, Patrick Mahomes attempted 38 passes, was pressured 12 times and sacked only once. Buffalo must not only get better at creating pressure, but also improve at slowing the ground game to have a hope of bridging the gap to the Chiefs.
32. Houston Texans
There is little cause for excitement about a Texans season that appears destined to end in a top-five draft pick and few position groups on Houston’s roster are more uninspiring than their front seven.
The average Texans defender is expected to register a pressure on 8.46% of pass rush attempts, leaving them 31st in the NFL, and a run disruption 7.90% of the time, a rate only good enough for 29th.
Linebacker Zach Cunningham is arguably the class of the Texans’ front seven and might be their best bet for producing a consistent pass rush. He is projected to force a pressure on 14.82% of pass rush attempts.
There is a considerable gap between Cunningham and the top edge rusher for the Texans, with Jordan Jenkins (11.99%) position as the edge defender projected to produce the most pressure illustrating the lack of pass-rush talent at Houston’s disposal following the end of the J.J. Watt era.
Whitney Mercilus, Shaq Lawson and Jacob Martin make for an underwhelming cast of pass rushers who will be tasked with trying to ensure Houston’s front is one worthy of opponents’ respect. However, arguably their most viable threat comes in the form of the versatile Charles Omenihu.
Projected to create a pressure on only 7.87% of attempts, Omenihu has flashed potential in the preseason to raise hopes he can outperform expectations. Omenihu is forecast to disrupt a run 16.46% of the time, indicating that if Houston’s defense is to provide more resistance than anticipated, he will be a key reason why.
ON THE RISE
San Francisco 49ers
The Niners’ prospects of returning to their Super Bowl form of 2019 hinge largely on the performance of one of the deepest defensive lines in football and the indications are that, providing Nick Bosa and Dee Ford stay healthy, this is a front seven that should regularly dominate offensive lines.
San Francisco’s average pass rusher is projected to pressure the quarterback 11.5% of the time, putting the Niners fourth in the NFL, and much of that expectation is weighted on the anticipated successful return of Bosa from a torn ACL.
Bosa is eighth among edge rushers with a predicted pressure rate of 17.09% and Ford (15.67%) is anticipated to have a significant impact should he put his history of back issues behind him.
Fred Warner is the league’s top all-around linebacker and his value as a blitzer is reflected by him being ninth among middle linebackers with a forecasted pressure rate of 16.59%.
Beyond Bosa and Ford, San Francisco’s strength is in being able to throw waves of defensive linemen at offenses and effectively spell their best pass rushers. Arik Armstead will hope to benefit from more time on the interior with Bosa back and, while Maurice Hurst has a high ankle sprain and Jordan Willis is suspended six games, they each figure to be key parts of the pass-rush rotation upon return.
The 49ers’ team-wide projected run disruption rate of 8.88% leaves them 17th in the league, but San Francisco is not short of run stoppers. Zach Kerr is 16th with a run disruption predicted on 23.32% of his attempts while Kevin Givens (18.88%) and Armstead (18.37%) also excel in that area.
Last year’s first-round pick Javon Kinlaw (17.04%) was stout against the run last year but his lack of output as a pass rusher as a rookie means he is expected to produce a pressure only 6.78% of the time. If he can shake off shoulder issues and live up to his pre-draft billing, this unit could be even better than anticipated.
The Vikings are another front seven relying on a key player returning from injury in 2021, as Minnesota aims to turn things around, having been all too porous for Mike Zimmer’s liking last season.
Minnesota finished 27th in yards per play allowed (6.07) in 2020 having ranked 10th in 2019 and it’s no surprise such a slump coincided with edge rusher Danielle Hunter missing the entire year.
Set to return from neck surgery, a reprisal of the form that saw Hunter record 14.5 sacks in 2018 and 2019 is anticipated in 2021. His projected pressure rate of 17.42% is seventh for edge rushers.
Yet the Vikings (9.85%) rank a disappointing 15th in that metric as a team, illustrating their lack of depth compared to teams like the 49ers. Minnesota should benefit from the presence of two extremely talented pass-rushing linebackers in Eric Kendricks (15.16%) and Anthony Barr (14.79%).
The Vikings’ strength is against the run. No team in the NFL has a better projected run disruption rate than Minnesota, with the average defender predicted to disrupt a run 10.38% of the time.
Defensive tackles Dalvin Tomlinson (27.65%) and Michael Pierce (25.59%) are third and eighth, respectively, in the individual rankings, with the latter aiming to prove he was worth the wait having opted out of the 2020 season.
Sheldon Richardson (22.93%), brought back for a second stint with the team after his time with the Browns, is also in the top 20. The Vikings are blessed with a collection of defenders who can take away the run game. If Hunter gets back to his best as a pass rusher, their defense could return to the top 10 in 2021.
Washington Football Team
Washington’s front was instrumental in propelling Ron Rivera’s team to the playoffs in 2020 and, given they still lack a long-term answer at quarterback, it will likely be asked to carry the franchise’s hopes again this season.
Ranked 10th with the average pass rusher predicted to create pressure 10.94% of the time and 13th in rush defense with a defender predicted to cause disruption on 9.18% of attempts, this is a defense that has reaped the rewards of heavy investment in the trenches.
Chase Young was the Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2020 but his pressure rate of 15% was below the average of 16.2% for edge rushers. Still, his remarkable athleticism and power make him a strong bet to outperform his projection to produce a pressure on 11.48% of attempts.
Montez Sweat, who had a pressure rate of 17.8% in his second year, will try to take advantage of the attention Young commands and ensure his projection of a pressure 10.63% of the time proves an underestimation.
To the inside of those two first-round picks are two more in Da’Ron Payne and Jonathan Allen, the latter coming off a 2020 season in which he posted a pressure rate of 18.9%. Payne and Allen are each anticipated to excel against the run with projected disruption rates of 18.65% and 16.02% respectively.
The perpetually underrated Matt Ioannidis (17.78%) should provide further solidity against the ground game and Tim Settle (22.07%) offers value as a rotational piece who can come in on base downs and enable Payne and Allen the chance to rest and focus more on pure passing downs.
Given the limitations on offense, it is debatable how far an absurdly deep defensive front can take Washington in 2021. But should Washington make it successive playoff appearances, Young and Co. will likely have had just as much influence as Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Data modeling by Kyle Cunningham-Rhoads. Design by Matt Sisneros.