Week 1 Defensive Rankings

J.J. Watt and the Houston Texans headline RotoWire’s defensive rankings heading into Week One of the 2015 NFL season.

1. Houston Texans — All anyone really needs to know about the Texans is that they feature one-man wrecking crew J.J. Watt, who made a strong case for NFL MVP last season. Watt is simply unstoppable. In addition to 20.5 sacks, he had 60 QB knockdowns — the next closest player was Kansas City’s Justin Houston with 29.5. Watt’s presence leads to turnovers — an NFL-high 34 last season — and helps limit rushing yards (10th) and points allowed (7th). Watt should have more help on the line this season, as well, with free-agent addition DT Vince Wilfork soaking up blockers and the healthy return of 2014 first-overall selection DE Jadeveon Clowney. And perhaps more pressure up front will help a secondary that struggled last year. Romeo Crennel, who has multiple top-5 defenses on his resume, takes over as coordinator this season, and if nothing else his 3-4 scheme will seek to maximize Watt’s game-changing ability.

2. Buffalo Bills The Bills will have their fifth defensive scheme in five years this season as defensive mastermind Rex Ryan was hired as head coach. Ryan’s 3-4 scheme, similar to Buffalo’s 2013 defense under Mike Pettine, replaces last year’s 4-3 that saw the Bills lead the league in sacks. Either way, the front seven, perhaps the most talented Ryan has worked with, should again be one of the league’s best behind Mario Williams (14.5 sacks), Jerry Hughes (10.0) and Marcell Dareus (10.0, most among DT). The Bills are most suspect at cornerback with Stephon Gilmore and the oft-burnt Leodis McKelvin, but Ryan’s pass rush and cover schemes have long contained opposing quarterbacks even while deploying sub-par corners. Using the Bills against teams with lousy passing games is a recipe for fantasy success.

3. Seattle Seahawks — The Seahawks, the league’s best real-life defense three seasons running, proved last year how random turnovers are. After leading the league with 39 takeaways in 2013, Seattle fell to 21st with just 23 last season. The difference was 15 fewer interceptions, despite the Legion of Boom being just as suffocating. With CB Richard Sherman, S Earl Thomas and S Kam Chancellor expected to recover from injuries by Week 1, the LOB shouldn’t suffer a dramatic drop this season, even though the team replaced CB Byron Maxwell with CB Cary Williams in a definite downgrade. And the team should be stronger on the D-Line this season if it merely has better health. Injuries robbed the Seahawks of depth last year, which led to inconsistent pressure. The linebacking corps is still among the league’s best, with tackle-machine Bobby Wagner the anchor in the middle. Seattle’s scheme and elite playmakers give the defense a nice fantasy floor, even if the takeaways don’t return.

4. Philadelphia Eagles  The Philadelphia defense might be the league’s most volatile week-to-week, as the team’s fast-paced offensive style often leads to the defense giving up points and yards even when it plays reasonably well. The Eagles led the league in offensive plays last season, which also gave more offensive opportunities to the opponent — the Eagles’ defense was second in plays against. The flip side is that the Eagles have good coaching and a promising collection of talent, thanks in part to a busy offseason. The team jettisoned its embattled starting corners, Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher, replacing them with former Seahawk Byron Maxwell and second-round pick Eric Rowe, both 6-1. The more physical corner duo could change the entire scheme of the defense; with better coverage, Chip Kelly can get more creative with blitzes. And the more freedom Kelly and defensive coordinator Billy Davis have, the greater the chance of re-creating last year’s success generating takeaways. With solid cornerback play, newly acquired LB Kiko Alonso at full strength and the expected strong performances from DE Fletcher Cox and LB Mychal Kendricks, the Eagles could have the NFC East’s best fantasy defense.

5. New England Patriots — The Patriots might have the biggest challenge of any top-10 defense from last season — they have to replace DT Vince Wilfork and cornerbacks Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner and Kyle Arrington. Much of that responsibility will fall on the shoulders of rookies, as the Patriots used seven of their 11 draft picks on defense, including first-round pick DT Malcom Brown. Second-year DT Dominique Easley, whose season ended Week 13 last year with a knee injury, will move into Wilfork’s spot, but the only significant D-Line free agent was depth-signing DE Jabaal Sheard. The Patriots didn’t attempt to replace the secondary losses, instead relying on in-house options and Eagles castoff CB Bradley Fletcher. Coach Bill Belichick intends to make up for in scheme what he lost in talent, which means more aggressiveness from a linebacking corps that is one of the league’s best. A looser secondary, though, likely means less time for the pass rush to find the quarterback.

6. Indianapolis Colts — The Indianapolis defense struggled in the red zone and against the run last season, which RB LeGarrette Blount and the Patriots had no problem exploiting in the AFC championship game. The Colts were no pushover against the pass, though, thanks in large part to the excellent work of shutdown CB Vontae Davis and S Mike Adams. Of course, the unit benefitted from playing in the NFL’s worst division, and a friendly schedule partially obscured a lack of talent. The Colts surprisingly used their only top-90 pick in the draft on WR Phillip Dorsett, neglecting defense in favor of adding another weapon for Andrew Luck. The team added DE Trent Cole, LB Nate Irving, DE/DT Kendall Langford and S Dwight Lowery this offseason, with only Cole projecting as a true difference-maker, and even he is past his prime. There also is hope 34-year-old pass-rusher Robert Mathis will return from the Achilles’ tendon injury that cost him all 2014.

7. San Francisco 49ers — The 49ers endured a miserable season last year, but the defense did its part, ranking first in interceptions, fifth in yards allowed and 10th in points allowed. The defense, though, has a lot of rebuilding to do this year after losing a slew of talent in the offseason — LB Patrick Willis, LB Chris Borland, LB Dan Skuta, DE Justin Smith, DE Ray McDonald, CB Chris Culliver and CB Perrish Cox either retired or left in free agency. The 49ers also lost defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. Eric Mangini takes over as coordinator, and LB NaVorro Bowman is expected to return healthy after missing last season with a knee injury. First-round draft pick DE/DT Arik Armstead should help the defensive line, but free-agent signee DE Darnell Dockett is 33 and coming off a knee injury. The 49ers lack playmakers and depth in a division that saw its other three teams improve offensively this offseason.

8. Baltimore Ravens — Despite ranking eighth in yards allowed, sixth in points allowed and tied for second in sacks, the 2014 Ravens produced fewer takeaways than all but 10 teams. They also allowed some prolific offensive performances, notably to the Steelers (43 points), Saints (27 points), Chargers (34) and Patriots (35), all teams with upper-echelon quarterbacks. Unsurprisingly, a weak secondary was to blame, as Baltimore entered the season with a promising cornerback duo of Lardarius Webb and Jimmy Smith, only to watch both have their seasons derailed by injuries. An excellent front seven was usually enough to wreak havoc on lesser teams, but the Tom Bradys of the world were not fazed. The Ravens responded by signing S Kendrick Lewis and CB Kyle Arrington, hoping that improved health and depth will solve the problem. The team lost DT Haloti Ngata and LB Pernell McPhee, but the front seven is still littered with talent, including second-year players LB C.J. Mosley and DT Timmy Jernigan. The Ravens also have the benefit of coaching continuity, with defensive coordinator Dean Pees entering his fourth season in the same role.

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