With most free agents signed and the NFL Draft complete, the league’s 2020 rosters are mostly complete. After examining offenses on Tuesday, Luke Inman takes a look at which defenses improved the most this offseason.
* Denotes Rookies
Best Defensive Line Improvement
NFC: Dallas Cowboys
Summary: Creating turnovers and takeaways are the name of the game in today’s pass happy league, which bodes well for the Cowboys defense now that Mike Nolan is running the show. Nolan is known for being aggressive when dialing up the blitzes and showing off his players’ versatility in multiple spots and formations.
The front office added a slew big-name talents with Gerald McCoy and Dontari Poe but my personal favorites are drafting Neville Gallimore, a Senior Bowl crush I spent time with down at the Senior Bowl, as well as Bradlee Anae to give the unit a fresh and explosive rotation.
Gallimore has tremendous upside as an explosive 3-technique that can bolt through the backfield in a flash and disrupt the play. Getting him next to Demarcus Lawrence is going to be a nightmare for opposing interior lineman, and with a sudden plethora of options, Nolan will have a great rotation to choose from as he dials up different looks.
AFC: Baltimore Ravens
Summary: Holy s***. By December we’ll be asking ourselves how in the world the league let John Harbaugh and the Raven get ahold of one of the best defensive lineman in the NFL to add to their already potent mix. Calais Campbell is about to turn this already-great defense to elite in a heartbeat, especially knowing the way the Ravens want to bully you around in the trenches.
Much like Gallimore with the Cowboys, Justin Madibuike fits this team like a glove with an explosive first step and ability to quickly find himself in the backfield and disrupt. Playing next to Campbell and Derek Wolfe will only open up his one-on-one looks, which is where he thrived in college at Texas A&M.
The Super Bowl favorite Ravens got sucker-punched out of the divisional round playoffs by a team that knocked the snot out of them in the trenches. Harbaugh and the front office just made sure that won’t happen again in 2020 with the additions this offseason.
Runner Up: Carolina Panthers
Summary: Gotta love a guy who has a plan and sticks to it. New head coach Matt Rhule put his cards on the table when he used literally every single pick on the defensive side of the ball. After taking reins of a team that was thrashed and gashed all season long at every level, Rhule made it his first priority to stop the bleeding and improve his defense as his first priority.
Rhule didn’t have much of an option in the first round when the All-SEC defensive player of the year fell in his lap. Derrick Brown may never be like Aaron Donald with his pass rushing skills However, Brown absolutely swallows his opponents on every snap and opens up a new world of options for the players around him.
Meanwhile Rhule did quite the number on the edges with Stephen Weatherly, who quietly filled in for Everson Griffen in 2018 and did a tremendous job of staying on his keys, playing fundamental football and making plays when they presented themselves. He’s going to be a rock solid addition.
Lastly, Yetur Gross-Matos has some more work to do, but when he can pin his ears back and let her rip he turns into a monster with over 20 tackles for loss for the NIttany Lions in 2019. While Gross-Matos may be a pass rushing specialist right now and work his way in the rotation as a fresh body, Brown and Weatherly will make an impact as soon as they hit the field. A great start to his rebuild for the first-year coach.
Best Linebacker Improvement
NFC: Arizona Cardinals
Summary: Simmons is a guy coaches drool over because of the fact he can play literally anywhere you want to, and do it at a high level. In summary, he’s a unicorn, and the Cardinals defense just hit the jackpot.
The real secret to the sauce is Evan Weaver, who led the entire nation in tackles with an absurd 182 takedowns, making him the PAC-12 defensive player of the year.
Campbell offers great depth at a unit depleted by injuries and a lack of overall talent last year. However, the addition of Simmons and Weaver turned the Cardinals group from a weakness into a legitimate strength in just one draft haul.
When you get a true understanding of how impactful Simmons will be as soon as year one, it’s hard to not to assume he’ll be a ROY candidate when you think about the tackles, sacks and turnovers he has a sixth sense for.
AFC: Cincinnati Bengals
Summary: Addition by sheer numbers puts the Bengals in the driver’s seat to be one of the most improved at the linebacker position. It’s always a gamble to put heavy faith into a rookie, but this front office picked three of the best this class had to offer.
Wilson led his team three straight years in tackles and showed off great instincts and leadership to wear the green dot even in his rookie season.
I personally got to watch and talk to Davis-Gaither, who has spent his entire career shaking off the small school label and will finally get the respect he deserves when he shows off his athletic ability to line up at linebacker or strong safety, offering outstanding versatility and options for the Bengals defensive coaching staff.
What’s wild is the fact Markus Bailey could be the best of the bunch five years down the road. It was injuries his final season that caused him to miss 10 games and get flung off scouts’ radars, a main reason he slipped into the seventh round. Prior to the knee injury, though, Bailey was a three-time captain and started four straight years. Great instincts and football IQ will earn Bailey a role on the defense as long as he can stay healthy.
Three rookie linebackers with a good blend of athletic upside and smart football instincts for the position. It’s going to be a treat to watch the Bengals linebacker room grow into a cohesive unit together for years to come.
Runner Up: Las Vegas Raiders
Summary: The Raiders played smart and took note of the thin depth at linebacker in the draft. Instead of forcing one of their two first-round picks on Kenneth Murray or Patrick Queen they instead decided to open their wallet and grab two above average linebackers in free agency.
In fact, Littleton may be the best linebacker you’ve never heard of who was absolutely dominant in pass coverage last season for the Rams and immediately fills one of the Raiders’ biggest needs. As opposed to Kwiatkoski, who you’ll see in the Raiders base defense more often as a physical downhill thumper who can add more tone to the group.
More importantly, though, was the fact that by plucking these gems in free agency the Raiders were able to come out of the draft with Henry Ruggs III and Damon Arnette. Huge win for the Mayock and Gruden combo.
Best Secondary Improvement
NFC: Philadelphia Eagles
Summary: It hasn’t been from a lack of effort, but the Eagles have had a stroke of bad luck when it comes to rebuilding their cornerback room with misses on players like Rasul Douglas and Sidney Jones. The front office did the next best thing in trading for a proven veteran that has been one of the better man-to-man cover guys in the league over the past few seasons. And they did so at what many thought was just a fraction of his cost for just a mid-third-round pick.
Slay will instantly improve the Eagles secondary and defense, giving his coordinator the ability to cut the field in half in many scenarios, while Robey-Coleman was another great addition as one of the more consistent nickel cornerbacks in the NFL for quite some time.
With a suddenly improved No. 1 cornerback and inside slot man the Eagles need just one of their current corners to come back to life to give them a fresh restart and a solid unit to build around.
While the team did lose veteran leader Malcolm Jenkins to the Saints I think the transition to Clemson rookie K’Von Wallace will be smoother than people think. Wallace brings a big physical presence down in the box and has a knack for flying to the ball and making big plays.
AFC: Miami Dolphins
Summary: As previously mentioned here, when you’re ranked so low in specific categories there’s usually one place to go, and that’s up. The Dolphins crushed their offseason, staying aggressive in the draft. However, their biggest splash came in free agency when they plucked Byron Jones from Dallas. When the Cowboys finally moved him to cornerback full time he quickly turned into one of the stickiest covermen in the league which is why he got paid as one of the top three of his position.
Jones gives coach Brian Flores a true shut-down No. 1 cover man while he can groom Auburn rookie Noah Igbinoghene, who has lightning fast speed to carry opposing teams’ offensive burners up the field on fly routes right away.
Texas safety Brandon Jones is more of a wild card of the group, but with his hard hitting nature and the recent success the Longhorns have had bringing in NFL secondary talent, Jones could turn this group into a winning trifecta ticket for the Dolphins new pass defense.
Runner Up: Detroit Lions
Summary: I know what you’re thinking, how could a team that lost a top-five cornerback in Darius Slay show any type of improvement in their back end, if not for major regression? It’s true losing Slay will sting, at first, but trust me when I say third overall pick Jeffrey Okudah is going to fill those shoes and then some under Matt Patricia, maybe even during his first season. He’s that good.
Adding Desmond Trufant was a sneaky smart transaction, as well, that could take a step back and ease some pressure from being the Falcons number one man to the Lions second option. Remember, it wasn’t long ago Trufant was one of the best up-and-coming covermen to develop into the NFL out of the same draft class as Xavier Rhodes.
The real reason the Lions made my list was because of Jayron Kearse. I watched every single game of Kearse, and for whatever reason Coach Zimmer never gave him a fair shot as a true back end starter.
That didn’t stop Kearse from shining and making play after play when he did see time, though, even helping seal the Vikings most dramatic comeback victory of all time in 2019 against the Broncos with pass breakups on the final two plays. He’s tall at 6’4” with long arms and great length, and if Patricia knows what he’s doing, he will implement Kearse in the big nickel role as he is one of the better tackling corner/safeties down in the box you will find.
To see Kearse get passed up by the Vikings for mere peanuts on a cheap deal to Detroit makes me think he’ll be playing with a chip on his shoulder that could prove huge for the Lions’ secondary improvements.