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Defensive Weak Spots - AFC

Preseason Matchup Analysis

By Doug Orth | 7/2/24 |

Sometime between the end of the preseason and the first week of the season, fantasy managers and analysts alike shift gears from not caring one iota about their players' matchups to making it their primary consideration when setting about 70 percent of their lineup. A tough three- or four-game stretch for a player at the beginning or end of the season should not surprise anyone who calls watching or analyzing football their job, yet many are shocked to learn some of their players open the season with three of their first five or six games against likely top 10 pass defenses or rush defenses.


I am not going to pretend as if I am shocked by this; I have exploited this shortcoming in the industry since creating Preseason Matchup Analysis in 2006. Fantasy analysts are, by and large, fantasy drafters. Drafters want to draft. Analyzing matchups requires too much effort and is too time-consuming. Every additional day spent in the lab is a day that could spent doing something more fun or winning millions in best ball. Most analysts turn to models to speed things up. Why do any more work than you have to if history gets us in the ballpark with projections? The problem is that many projection models only tell us what we should expect from a certain archetype or inform us that certain players are due for regression for any number of reasons. All of this work is helpful, but it fails to account for one important thing: the offense must still face the defense on every play. Every defense is different.

Defense may not matter as much as it used to, but it is a mistake to not account for it at all. Doing so suggests a belief that NFL games are like seven-on-seven drills. I realized as early as 2004 that I did not like the idea of my players having to face the Ravens or the Steelers, especially during the fantasy playoffs. Certainly, my approach has evolved significantly from that initial premise, but I think my track record of success speaks for itself (finishing in the black in each of the 24 seasons I have played fantasy football) and suggests there is substantial value in putting a fair amount of weight into "the matchup." The key is giving potential matchups the proper amount of weight to a player's evaluation. By itself, a matchup will not transform an every-week RB3 into an RB1 or turn a perennial WR1 into a bench option, but it is helpful for fantasy managers trying to find weekly and even season-long values and avoid potential busts.

That brings us to our focus for the next two weeks. With defenses operating out of sub-packages (nickel, dime, quarter, etc.) around 75 percent of the time in today's game, it makes sense to use their likely sub-package personnel as the basis for matchup analysis. Furthermore, it helps to have an understanding of how each veteran defensive player who will be playing in those packages graded out and/or performed last year. With the help of sites like Pro Football Focus and Pro Football Reference, we can do that.

Defense is a team endeavor, so the process is never as easy as spotting a player with a weakness and having an offense exploit that matchup repeatedly. An important part of coaching in any sport is the ability to maximize players' strengths and mask their weaknesses; players either will get help from the scheme or be benched if they continue to struggle. Nevertheless, the goal of any good offense is to isolate the weak link in the passing defense as often as possible or take advantage of what may be a "soft" run defense (assuming that matches up with the run-blocking ability of the offensive line). It is also important to understand that no defender lines up across any offensive player on every play, so we are playing odds here as opposed to dealing with virtual certainties (i.e. the few shadow cornerbacks that exist usually only "shadow" about 50-60 percent of the time).

The color-coding in this two-part series is based on last year only because we have no information about this season. Last year's color codes help set the stage for this year. Film analysis and advanced analytics help us predict what may happen.

Each team table below will contain more than 11 players. Projected starters will have projected grades next to their ages, but the rotational players will not because I want the final projected scores (coverage, pass rush and run defense) for each team to reflect the defenders logging the most snaps. Much as I did for the offensive line piece two weeks ago, I will rank each team in terms of projected coverage, pass rush and run defense scores next week.

The purpose of this article is simple, even if the execution of it is not: attempting to identify what defenders present fantasy owners with an opportunity for success. There is a heavy amount of subjectivity that goes into my color-coding matchups in advance of the Big Board. It is my hope this process reduces most of that and gives readers a look under the hood, so to speak.


Green box - Player graded 80 or higher in that particular discipline per PFF (100-point scale)
Blue box - Player graded between 70 or 79.9 in that particular discipline
Yellow box - Player graded between 60 or 69.9 in that particular discipline
Red box - Player graded 59.9 or lower in that particular discipline
Black box - Player did not log a snap in the NFL snap or the discipline does not apply to his position

Italic (player name) - Likely (but potentially important) rotational player
# - Rookie
24 Cov - Projected 2023 coverage grade
24 Run - Projected 2023 run defense grade
Grades - Coverage (Cov) and run defense (Run D)

****All personnel stats courtesy of Ryan Weisman. Check his work out here. All grades courtesy of Pro Football Focus. ****

Player Pos Age 24 Cov 24 Run Cov Grade Run D Grade
Michael Pierce DI 31 7 77.9
Justin Madubuike DI 26 6 66.4
Odafe Oweh ED 25 6 71.7
Roquan Smith LB 27 7 7 83.2 72
Malik Harrison LB 26 7 6 69.4 71.1
Kyle Van Noy ED 34 6 55.7
Nate Wiggins # CB 20 5 5
Brandon Stephens CB 26 6 6 65.5 68.8
Marlon Humphrey SCB 27 7 6 63.2 57.9
Marcus Williams S 27 7 7 76.4 60.2
Kyle Hamilton S 23 8 7 90.1 48.5
Rotational players
Travis Jones DI 24 66.9
Broderick Washington DI 27 44.6
David Ojabo ED 24 57.9
Trenton Simpson LB 23 77.4 66.3
Arthur Maulet CB 30 64.2 73.2

DC: Zach Orr (first year)

Most common personnel package in 2023 (DL-LB-DB): 2-4-5 - 749 snaps (under former DC Mike Macdonald, whom Orr served under)

DC Comment: Orr takes over for Macdonald, who left this offseason to take the head coaching job with the Seahawks. It is a good bet that Orr will implement some of the same simulated pressure packages that his predecessor used to great effect as Baltimore finished with the No. 1 scoring defense last season. My personal opinion is that Orr will lean toward a more aggressive approach - one that Baltimore used under then-DC Dean Pees when Orr played for the Ravens from 2014-16.

Run: Very little has changed from a personnel perspective up front. Pierce has long been a standout run defender and Jones might be ready to join him in that regard as he enters his third NFL season. The great mystery for this defense in 2024 will be if Orr will show the same indifference to stopping the run as Macdonald did. Simulated pressure comes at a price when linebackers and defensive backs are in a backpedal after faking a blitz and the offense runs the ball. With that said, the Ravens may welcome the idea of letting opponents try to outrush a team that has Lamar Jackson and Derrick Henry on its side.

Pass rush/coverage: Madubuike broke out in a big way and probably only needs to repeat last year to be considered a top-10 defensive tackle in the NFL. The Ravens did not miss much of a beat defending the pass despite enduring long stretches without their top cover corner in Humphrey, who missed seven games in 2023. There is plenty of credit to go around, starting with Macdonald. It is easy to like what Baltimore has at the second and third level of its defense against the pass. Smith and Simpson are both very good athletes who can hang with just about any running back or tight end in coverage. Ditto for Hamilton. Wiggins figures to be greeted rudely after Stephens held up well despite being targeted more than any other player in the league in 2023. The rookie has the speed to play with any receiver in the league, but his 182-pound frame may open him up to getting beat by receivers who can win the physical battle against him. He appears to be the one clear weak link on an otherwise very talented pass defense.

Player Pos Age 24 Cov 24 Run Cov Grade Run D Grade
Greg Rousseau ED 24 7 79.6
DaQuan Jones DI 32 6 74.6
Ed Oliver DI 26 6 48.5
A.J. Epenesa ED 25 5 53
Matt Milano LB 29 7 6 73.6 65.4
Terrel Bernard LB 25 5 6 54.8 69.9
Christian Benford CB 23 8 6 83.3 75.7
Rasul Douglas CB 28 7 7 81.8 78
Taron Johnson SCB 27 7 5 81 61.5
Cole Bishop # S 21 5 6
Taylor Rapp S 26 6 6 57.6 57.9
Rotational players
Austin Johnson DI 30 48.4
Von Miller ED 35 52
Kaiir Elam CB 23 65.8 62.3
Mike Edwards S 28 58.6 53.6

DC: Bobby Babich (first year)

Most common personnel package in 2023 (DL-LB-DB): 4-2-5 - 623 snaps (under HC Sean McDermott, whom Babich served under)

DC Comment: As long as McDermott is in charge, it is almost a given that he will have significant input on the defense side of the ball.

Run: Not much has changed up front except for Epenesa replacing Leonard Floyd as a starter and Milano returning from injury. Milano's presence should be a boon for the defense that was among the worst in the league in stopping the run (4.6 yards per attempt). Jones is a stout defender against the run at 6-4 and 320 pounds, but the rest of the line is undersized and could get overpowered from time to time by bigger offensive lines that rely on man-blocking schemes.

Pass rush/coverage: Oliver started to come into his own last year, but he may be the only player on the front four who will scare offenses as a pass rusher. Epenesa and Rousseau still have room for growth, but neither one appears on the verge of becoming a terror off the edge. Miller is obviously a recognizable name, but he is a 35-year-old who probably cannot be counted on to be much more than a rotational player. While his recovery from a torn ACL likely minimized his impact in 2023, he is probably not a great bet to reach his former glory given his age. Benford took a huge step forward in his second season and was easily the team's best corner, almost to the point where Babich could consider using him as a shadow in the right matchup. However, that will depend on Douglas' ability to adjust after experiencing some peaks and valleys following his midseason acquisition from Green Bay. The real question marks come at safety after Buffalo will not have Micah Hyde or Jordan Poyer patrolling the middle of the field for the first time since 2017. While McDermott's defenses have typically been very good at limiting big plays, Hyde and Poyer likely had a lot to do with that. It is a near certainty that Rapp and Bishop will give up a few more than Buffalo has become accustomed to over the years.

Player Pos Age 24 Cov 24 Run Cov Grade Run D Grade
Trey Hendrickson ED 29 6 51
Sheldon Rankins DI 30 5 39.1
B.J. Hill DI 29 6 63.3
Sam Hubbard ED 29 6 61.1
Germaine Pratt LB 28 6 6 65.3 57.3
Logan Wilson LB 27 6 6 57.9 66.5
Cam Taylor-Britt CB 24 7 5 70.3 46.7
Dax Hill CB/S 23 5 7 43 70.9
Mike Hilton SCB 30 7 6 80.4 64.2
Vonn Bell S 29 6 6 63.8 59.8
Geno Stone S 25 7 5 85.3 34.2
Rotational players
Kris Jenkins Jr. # DI 22
Cam Sample ED 24 61.8
Myles Murphy ED 22 46.8
Akeem Davis-Gaither LB 26 56.7 57.3
DJ Turner II CB 23 48.4 64.4
Jordan Battle S 23 76.4 81.3

DC: Lou Anarumo (sixth year)

Most common personnel package in 2023 (DL-LB-DB): 4-2-5 - 645 snaps

DC Comment: Very little went right in 2023 for Anarumo, who went from being a reasonably hot head coaching candidate last offseason to a man who oversaw the second-worst total defense in the league. What this defense needs is better health in 2024. Anarumo can mask deficiencies, but he is not going to be able to do it with a multitude of second-string players.

Run: D.J. Reader was about the only player up front who consistently showed up against the run. His absence over the final four games (he played two snaps in Week 15) essentially led to the Bengals giving up at least 100 yards rushing each time. Adding Rankins in free agency was a nice touch, but he is more pass rusher than run-stuffer and cannot be expected to fill the void left behind by Reader. Jenkins should be a very good player early in his career, but he cannot be expected to replace Reader as a rookie either. It is going to take B.J. Hill to be the run-plugger he once was with the Giants if Cincinnati has any hope of not getting trampled by good running games again in 2024.

Pass rush/coverage: Reader was also the Bengals' second-best pass rusher in 2023, but Rankins and Jenkins are more likely to fill that void more capably than the aforementioned one in the run game. Hendrickson continues to be the stud up front and Cincinnati's best shot to affect the quarterback. If he were to miss significant time for any reason, the Bengals' league-worst pass defense (7.1 net yards per pass attempt) would get considerably worse. Wilson and Pratt both took a step back in coverage last year and can be beaten by capable running backs and/or tight ends. Cincinnati has enviable depth at safety and should expect better play there in 2024 after signing Stone and bringing Bell back for another tour of duty. Dax Hill is reportedly having such a good spring that he is running ahead of Turner. If Hill can provide the kind of sticky coverage Turner did not last year, the Bengals could be in great shape on the back end. Taylor-Britt has all the tools necessary to become a top corner, while Hilton has long been one of the league's best slot defenders and is a player who does a great job of blitzing off the edge.

Player Pos Age 24 Cov 24 Run Cov Grade Run D Grade
Myles Garrett ED 28 7 83.7
Shelby Harris DI 32 6 68.8
Dalvin Tomlinson DI 30 6 49.2
Za'Darius Smith ED 31 6 59.6
Jordan Hicks LB 32 6 7 70.2 74.2
Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah LB 24 7 6 73.2 66.9
Denzel Ward CB 27 7 6 69.4 63.1
Martin Emerson Jr. CB 23 7 5 63.6 59.5
Greg Newsome II SCB 24 7 5 69.9 48.2
Juan Thornhill S 28 7 7 62.6 72
Grant Delpit S 25 7 6 75.5 53.4
Rotational players
Quinton Jefferson DI 31 38.7
Ogbo Okoronkwo ED 29 59.3
Mike Hall Jr.# ED 21
Devin Bush LB 25 56.3 57.9
Rodney McLeod S 34 52.5 61.3

DC: Jim Schwartz (second year)

Most common personnel package in 2023 (DL-LB-DB): 4-2-5 - 562 snaps

DC Comment: Schwartz's first year in charge was a rousing success, as the Browns led the league in total defense and passing defense, tied for first in yards allowed per play (4.6) and second in net yards per passing attempt (4.8). Based on those numbers, one could easily conclude that Cleveland's weakness is against the run. It is not that simple in reality, but it is likely an area Schwartz wants to improve in a division that features the Ravens and the Arthur Smith-led Steelers' offense.

Run: Cleveland's starting front four remains the same - as do most of the projected backups - so whatever improvement the Browns make against the run figures to come as a result of swapping out Sione Takitaki and Anthony Walker Jr. for Hicks and Bush. Hicks, in particular, has been a strong run defender for several years and should fit nicely alongside Owusu-Koramoah. Bush has failed to live up to his draft pedigree, but the former No. 10 overall pick is still young enough (26 in July) to find his way in what should be a great defense again in 2024. While anything Cleveland gets out of him should be considered a bonus, he will also be working behind one of the best defensive lines in the league.

Pass rush/coverage: About the only questions on the linebacker and defensive back level in regards to coverage are if Hicks can repeat what he did in Minnesota last year and if Ward and Newsome can play most of the season. (Ward missed four games and Newsome missed three in 2023. Neither has ever played a full season.) Outside of those slight concerns, this is a scary good pass defense made better by the pressure heat Garrett and Smith put on quarterbacks. With Owusu-Koramoah, Delpit and Thornhill spending a lot of their time defending tight ends on pass plays, it should not come as a surprise why the Browns were so stingy against the position last year and why they figure to be again in 2024.

Player Pos Age 24 Cov 24 Run Cov Grade Run D Grade
D.J. Jones DI 29 5 49
Zach Allen DI 26 7 66.6
Jonathon Cooper ED 26 7 65.7
Alex Singleton LB 30 5 7 42.9 78.2
Cody Barton LB 27 5 5 66.2 43.9
John Franklin-Myers ED 27 7 64.3
Pat Surtain II CB 24 7 8 64.7 78.7
Levi Wallace CB 29 5 5 60.4 44.1
Ja'Quan McMillian SCB 24 6 7 62.1 84.9
P.J. Locke S 27 5 6 55.2 74.8
Brandon Jones S 26 6 6 76.2 64.4
Rotational players
Angelo Blackson DI 31 66.1
Malcolm Roach DI 26 72.5
Nik Bonitto ED 24 53.9
Baron Browning LB 25 46.4 80.7
Drew Sanders LB 22 37 46
Kris Abrams-Draine # CB 22

DC: Vance Joseph (second year)

Most common personnel package in 2023 (DL-LB-DB): 2-4-5 - 350 snaps; 3-4 base - 222; 3-3-5 - 202

DC Comment: Year after year, Joseph tends to blitz at a very high rate (35 percent in 2023). He may need to do it at a higher rate than usual this season considering Denver does not have a lot of size up front and may not get enough support from the offense to force opponents to abandon the running game.

Run: Allen proved to be a worthy addition in free agency last year and is a foundational piece on the defense. Franklin-Myers is cut from a similar cloth and may be viewed in the same way at this point next year. D.J. Jones has not been the same against the run since leaving San Francisco in 2021 and lacks the size to be a true anchor on a three-man line. Perhaps Blackson can help in that regard. If that is the case, then maybe Browning, Barton and Singleton will be able to help the Broncos improve the league's worst run defense (allowed five yards per carry last season).

Pass rush/coverage: The Broncos moved fast in free agency to land Barton after getting shredded by opposing tight ends last season. After that, it is anyone's guess if Denver will use another linebacker in nickel defense or ask a safety to move closer to the line of scrimmage. The problem is one of the best candidates to fill that role is a player the Broncos decided not to re-sign in S Justin Simmons. Unless Denver makes a move during the preseason to address this potential weakness, fantasy managers should still be confident in starting marginal tight ends against this defense (as the addition of Barton is likely not enough). Surtain is coming off a down year but remains one of the best cover men in the business. McMillan accounted for himself nicely in his first full season as a nickel back and appears to be locked into that role for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, Denver still has an obvious hole opposite Surtain. While Wallace is an upgrade on Damarri Mathis, it will not stop quarterbacks from mercilessly targeting him (to avoid Surtain). Jones is a reasonable replacement for Simmons and coming off his best season as a pro, but he and Locke are unlikely to be anything more than an average duo that could get lit up by deep passing attacks from time to time.

Player Pos Age 24 Cov 24 Run Cov Grade Run D Grade
Will Anderson Jr. ED 22 7 77.4
Folorunso Fatukasi DI 29 6 60.7
Denico Autry ED 33 5 52
Danielle Hunter ED 29 6 51.7
Azeez Al-Shaair LB 26 6 7 61.3 73.7
Henry To'oTo'o LB 23 5 6 41.8 56.5
Derek Stingley Jr. CB 23 8 6 85.3 59.5
Kamari Lassiter # CB 21 5 5
Desmond King II SCB 29 7 8 80.7 80.5
Jimmie Ward S 32 7 8 67.8 73.9
Jalen Pitre S 25 7 6 61.6 62.4
Rotational players
Mario Edwards Jr. DI 30 59.8
Derek Barnett ED 28 74.3
CJ Henderson CB 25 43.9 46.9
Jeff Okudah CB 25 46 68.8
Calen Bullock # S 21

DC: Matt Burke (second year)

Most common personnel package in 2023 (DL-LB-DB): 4-2-5 - 610 snaps

DC Comment: While the Texans have done a fine job of turning things around quickly under second-year HC DeMeco Ryans, Burke's unit will need to continue to overachieve in the same way hope to finish anywhere close to where they did last year versus the run (second in yards allowed per rush attempt and sixth in rush defense overall). Houston ranked 28th in blitz percentage last year at 21 percent.

Run: Houston faced a lot of bad teams or offenses that just could not commit to the run for one reason or another in 2023. When teams like the Colts and Ravens really wanted to impose their will on the Texans late in the season, they did. Houston did well to add big bodies like Fatukasi and Settle to shore things up in that regard, but this is still a unit that is much more geared toward defending the pass than the run. Al-Shaair was also a nice addition and could have a career year if Fatukasi and Settle manage to hold up reasonably well. He will need to play well because To'oTo'o has yet to play at a high level against the run in limited action.

Pass rush/coverage: Two of the biggest keys to Houston's surprising defensive turnaround last year were the pass-rush boost that Jonathan Greenard and Anderson gave them AND the health of Stingley. The Texans essentially swapped out Greenard for Hunter this offseason and continued to add more pass rushers. Autry, in particular, could have a huge year if he continues to hold off Father Time (he will turn 34 in mid-July) because offenses will have no choice but to be preoccupied with Anderson and Hunter. The Texans have a wealth of high draft picks at cornerback (Stingley, Henderson and Okudah) - two of which have mostly disappointed in their career. Lassiter appears to be the leader of the pack behind Stingley, although it should come as no surprise if Okudah and/or Henderson enjoy fine years behind the Texans' impressive collection of pass-rushing talent. Regardless of the winner in that cornerback group, quarterbacks figure to target him with Stingley having established himself and King putting together consecutive good seasons as a slot corner. As long as Ward and Pitre stay healthy (durability has long been a challenge for Ward), then we should expect last year's vulnerability against tight ends to improve.

Player Pos Age 24 Cov 24 Run Cov Grade Run D Grade
Laiatu Latu # DE 23 5
DeForest Buckner DI 30 6 63.8
Grover Stewart DI 30 7 77.3
Kwity Paye ED 25 8 78.1
Zaire Franklin LB 27 6 6 56.4 66.1
E.J. Speed LB 29 5 8 56.1 78.8
JuJu Brents CB 24 7 6 64.5 58.8
Jaylon Jones CB 22 6 6 55.8 57.1
Kenny Moore II SCB 28 7 7 79.3 71.5
Julian Blackmon S 25 6 6 72.6 59.2
Nick Cross S 22 6 6 63.2 81.2
Rotational players
Raekwon Davis DI 26 51.5
Samson Ebukam ED 29 80
Grant Stuard LB 25 33.7 52.1
Dallis Flowers CB 27 70.6 45
Rodney Thomas II S 26 60.1 48.1

DC: Gus Bradley (third year)

Most common personnel package in 2023 (DL-LB-DB): 4-2-5 - 710 snaps

DC Comment: Bradley has never been overly aggressive (league-low 15.7 percent in 2023, 16.4 percent in 2022 and 20.2 in 2021 - all three marks ranked 28th or lower in their respective seasons).

Run: Sometimes, the absence of one player can make a great run defense an average one or an average unit a poor one. In the six full games Stewart missed, the Colts allowed an average of 153 yards on the ground. In Indy's 11 games with Stewart, that average fell to 108 yards. The combination of Stewart and Buckner should be a frightening one for offenses and could easily help lead Indy to a top-10 finish against the run in 2024 (24th last year). While Paye has not quite lived up to expectations through three NFL seasons as a pass rusher, he also holds his own versus the run. Speed and Franklin obviously benefit from their presence but have been very good against the run for multiple years anyway.

Pass rush/coverage: While there is hope that Latu and Buckner can wreck game plans with their pass-rushing prowess, the Colts' downfall could be in the secondary. Brents accounted for himself nicely as a rookie and is a great fit in Bradley's heavy Cover 3 scheme, but he has not ascended into elite territory yet by any means. Moore has consistently been among the league's top slot corners for years. Indy's biggest issue figures to be deciding between Jones and Flowers. The former is a 2023 seventh-round draft pick and the latter is a former undrafted free agent in 2022 who was starting to feel comfortable in Bradley's defense before tearing his Achilles in Week 4. Even though Brents looks like he could be the real deal, none of the aforementioned corners is going to keep quarterbacks or offensive coordinators up at night … at least not yet. Cross and Blackmon are both young safeties who graded out well in coverage despite the team's disappointing 4.5 percent hurry rate and 19.7 percent pressure rate. Given Bradley's lack of aggressive play-calling, Latu will either need to become an immediate force or the young back seven will need to improve exponentially if the pass defense is going to improve this year.

Player Pos Age 24 Cov 24 Run Cov Grade Run D Grade
Josh Allen ED 26 7 73.2
Arik Armstead DI 30 5 52.7
Roy Robertson-Harris DI 30 6 62.3
Travon Walker ED 23 5 49.7
Foyesade Oluokun LB 28 7 7 72.6 70.2
Devin Lloyd LB 25 7 8 67.8 90.3
Tyson Campbell CB 24 7 7 56.4 86.5
Ronald Darby CB 30 6 6 72.9 56
Antonio Johnson SCB 22 6 6 72 64.9
Andre Cisco S 24 7 7 71.5 66.1
Darnell Savage S 26 6 6 74.2 71.8
Rotational players
Maason Smith # DI 21
Jordan Jefferson # DI 22
Trevis Gipson ED 27 66.3
Chad Muma LB 24 55.8 29.9
Jarrian Jones # CB 23
Andrew Wingard S 27 75.1 71.3

DC: Ryan Nielsen (first year)

Most common personnel package in 2023 (DL-LB-DB): 3-3-5 - 482 snaps; base 3-4 - 159 (Nielsen's 2023 deployment with the Falcons)

DC Comment: New Orleans blitzed only 16.8 percent of the time with Nielsen as a co-defensive coordinator with the Saints in 2022. As the Falcons' DC in 2023, that number increased to 23.9.

Run: The Jaguars finished as a top-10 rush defense in 2023, although the 4.2 yards per carry they allowed was a bit less inspiring. Jacksonville caught a rare big fish late in free agency when Armstead decided to come aboard, essentially replacing Folorunso Fatukasi. Allen was the only member of the starting front four to grade out particularly well against the run, but the team could be getting some help from 300-pound rookies Smith and Jefferson. Overall, the Jags should be stronger against the run than it was in 2023. One reason it should happen is that Lloyd and Oluokun are back for another bite at the apple in what should be a more talented defense than Jacksonville had under former DC Mike Caldwell.

Pass rush/coverage: Armstead's arrival will not cure everything that ails this defense, but he is a significant upgrade as a pass rusher on Fatukasi. A healthy Armstead should only make things easier for Walker and Allen, both of whom had career years in 2023 despite the lack of a strong interior presence. Assuming the front four creates the pressure they should, the combination of Lloyd, Oluokun, Cisco and Savage should make it much more difficult for tight ends to enjoy much success against Jacksonville. After a middle-of-the-pack showing against the position last year in fantasy, the Jaguars should be one of the stingiest units in that regard. Darby has graded out well in coverage when he has been healthy, but it has been a struggle for him to stay on the field throughout his nine-year career. Campbell's star was on the rise in 2022 before enduring an injury-plagued campaign in 2023. As long as his hamstring is no longer an issue, it would not be surprising if Nielsen asks him to shadow on occasion.

 Kansas City
Player Pos Age 24 Cov 24 Run Cov Grade Run D Grade
George Karlaftis ED 23 6 58.4
Chris Jones DI 29 7 60
Derrick Nnadi DI 28 4 42
Charles Omenihu ED 26 5 54
Drue Tranquill LB 28 7 5 66.9 55.9
Nick Bolton LB 24 6 7 50.5 74
Trent McDuffie CB 23 8 7 81.5 71.8
Nazeeh Johnson CB 25 5 5
Chamarri Conner SCB 23 6 6 78.4 79.6
Justin Reid S 27 6 6 51.8 63.8
Bryan Cook S 24 6 7 63.1 66.4
Rotational players
Mike Pennel DI 33 67.3
Mike Danna ED 26 56.1
Felix Anudike-Uzomah ED 22 51.5
Cam Jones LB 24 50.3 80.4
Jaylen Watson CB 25 66.2 70.6
Joshua Williams CB 24 75.2 62.6

DC: Steve Spagnuolo (sixth year)

Most common personnel package in 2023 (DL-LB-DB): 4-2-5 - 354 snaps; base 4-3 - 254

DC Comment: Spagnuolo's defenses are among the most creative and aggressive year after year. Last year, Kansas City ranked seventh in blitz percentage (32.9 percent). In 2021, the Chiefs ranked sixth (33.5). In 2020, they ranked ninth (35.7).

Run: The Chiefs were in the middle of the pack in overall rush defense, but they were near the bottom in terms of yards allowed per carry (4.5). Some of that was the product of the league's third-stingiest pass defense (4.9 net yards allowed per attempt) and some of that is personnel that is not necessarily equipped to stop the run at a high level. On a line with the pass-rush talent Kansas City has (Jones and Karlaftis, most notably), the responsibility for being even average against the run falls on the "other" defensive tackle and his ability to occupy two blockers. Nnadi is that man for the Chiefs and has been sub-par at best over the last three seasons. Perhaps Pennel can replace him on early downs this year, but it is a lot to ask of any 33-year-old journeyman. Bolton has been one of the unsung stars of this defense during the team's run to back-to-back Super Bowl titles. He consistently grades out well against the run.

Pass rush/coverage: Kansas City had to choose between keeping Jones and L'Jarius Sneed and opted for the former. That decision puts the capable McDuffie into the hot seat Sneed used to occupy, but more importantly forces the Chiefs to rely heavily on one of two 2022 seventh-round picks - Johnson or Watson - opposite him. Johnson has yet to play a defensive snap in his pro career (he tore his hamstring as a rookie, then was making a strong impression before tearing his ACL last summer), while Watson has generally played well in two seasons as a pro. Spagnuolo frequently asked Sneed to shadow and may end up doing likewise with McDuffie, especially considering he was easily the team's primary slot defender. However, all that might do is make the opponent's second receiver a potential target monster each week. What Tranquill lacks as a run defender, he typically makes up for in coverage, giving Kansas City a solid duo at the second level. With Sneed gone and the team's cornerbacks about to be tested, Cook needs to be able to get his hands on the ball more often. He has one interception and four passes defensed across 28 games and 699 coverage snaps.

 Las Vegas
Player Pos Age 24 Cov 24 Run Cov Grade Run D Grade
Maxx Crosby ED 26 9 92.7
Christian Wilkins DI 28 7 69.5
Tyree Wilson ED 24 5 47.6
Malcolm Koonce ED 26 5 66.3
Divine Deablo LB 25 6 6 60.2 60.4
Robert Spillane LB 28 5 8 58.9 89
Jack Jones CB 26 7 7 71.9 81.7
Nate Hobbs CB 25 6 7 68.1 78.8
Jakorian Bennett SCB 23 5 5 41.1 49.4
Tre'von Moehrig S 25 6 6 68 73.4
Marcus Epps S 28 6 6 62.3 69.7
Rotational players
John Jenkins DI 34 59.1 55.6
Janarius Robinson ED 25 77.8 71.3
Tommy Eichenberg # LB 23
Brandon Facyson CB 29 55.4 42.9
Isaiah Pola-Mao S 25 66.6 30.4

DC: Patrick Graham (third year)

Most common personnel package in 2023 (DL-LB-DB): 4-2-5 - 739 snaps

DC Comment: Graham's unit blitzed just 19.4 percent of the time in 2023 - the fourth-lowest mark in the league. One year earlier, he sent five or more at the 12th-highest rate (26.2).

Run: In this very space last year, I wrote the Raiders are one stout defensive tackle away from having an upper-tier defensive line. Hello, Christian Wilkins. Along with Jenkins, who has enjoyed a long career in the league based almost solely on taking up space and blockers in the run game, Las Vegas is almost certain to go from middle of the pack against the run to a very good rush defense. Crosby is another major reason why. Another reason is that Spillane's toughness and Deablo's athleticism further enhance and complement the talent up front.

Pass rush/coverage: Wilkins' arrival figures to boost the pass rush more than the run defense. The threat of Crosby and Wilkins lining up on the same side of the defense and forcing opponents to pick their poison should make Raiders' fans salivate. Wilkins' presence should also free up Wilson to show why he was the No. 7 overall pick last spring. One of the 2023 draft class' freakier defensive line prospects should enjoy a solid season or two of facing a single blocker with all the attention his aforementioned teammates will draw. All of this is great news for a secondary that is starting to round into form even if it lacks name recognition. Jones was a savvy addition late in the season and played exceptionally well over the team's final four games. Hobbs had been the team's best corner before Jones' late surge. The biggest question mark - perhaps on the entire defense - is Bennett, who seemed to find his way late after a rough start to his rookie campaign. Moehrig keeps getting better and better and may not be far away from becoming more of a household name.

 LA Chargers
Player Pos Age 24 Cov 24 Run Cov Grade Run D Grade
Khalil Mack ED 33 8 90.8
Poona Ford DI 28 5 47.6
Morgan Fox DI 29 5 43.1
Joey Bosa ED 28 7 70.7
Denzel Perryman LB 31 5 7 38.4 77.9
Junior Colson # LB 21 5 6
Asante Samuel Jr. CB 24 7 5 75.6 60.6
Kristian Fulton CB 25 5 5 46.9 44.1
Ja'Sir Taylor SCB 25 6 5 58 47.3
Alohi Gilman S 26 7 6 89.2 75.2
Derwin James Jr. S 27 7 7 57 74.4
Rotational players
Otito Ogbonnia DI 23 43.6
Scott Matlock DI 24 38.8
Justin Eboigbe # DI 23
Tuli Tuipulotu ED 21 88.4
Bud Dupree ED 31 65.4
Tarheeb Still # CB 22
JT Woods S 24 54.9 61.1

DC: Jesse Minter (first year)

Most common personnel package in 2023: Minter was the defensive coordinator for the University of Michigan last season.

DC Comment: Gone are the days of Brandon Staley's soft defenses. The Chargers actually began last season as a solid run defense before surrendering at least 100 yards on the ground in nine straight contests to end the season. That is highly unlikely to happen to Minter's first NFL defense with the size Los Angeles has assembled up front.

Run: Fox, Ford and Ogbonnia may not have the run defense grades fans would like to see, but they each have the size to occupy blockers. Their job will be to make Mack and Bosa look good and keep Colson and Perryman clean. Perryman has long been a plus run defender, while Colson excelled at it while playing for Minter at Michigan. James sometimes acts as another linebacker and gets it done at a high level against the run as well.

Pass rush/coverage: The challenge for Minter will be to get this pass defense corrected. It is a problem, especially considering Bosa (when healthy) and Mack wreak the amount of havoc they do. While the Chargers have seen Samuel play well, it does not seem like he has come anywhere close to his ceiling. Taylor got his hands on several passes in 2023 (eight PBUs on 361 coverage snaps), but one interception in 33 career games is not going to scare quarterbacks from attacking him in the slot. Los Angeles' most glaring weakness right now is Fulton, who never seemed to distinguish himself over his first four pro seasons in Tennessee. Fulton will probably start for as long as he can stay on the field in 2024, but his seat is the warmest of anyone in this secondary. Fifth-round rookies Cam Hart and Still will try to change that, but it seems clear that opponents will pinpoint whoever plays opposite Samuel. One of the few things Minter will likely keep the same is how Gilman was used last season. The former sixth-round pick played much more center field than he did in his first three years and he responded with one of the best seasons by any safety in the league.

Player Pos Age 24 Cov 24 Run Cov Grade Run D Grade
Calais Campbell DI 37 8 80.2
Zach Sieler DI 28 7 63.4
Bradley Chubb ED 28 7 71.1
Jordyn Brooks LB 26 5 6 59.9 49.3
David Long Jr. LB 27 5 8 29.8 92.6
Jaelan Phillips ED 25 7 77.7
Jalen Ramsey CB 29 7 8 65 68.8
Kendall Fuller CB 29 8 7 82.8 78.1
Kader Kohou SCB 25 6 7 62 69.8
Jordan Poyer S 33 6 6 69.5 65.7
Jevon Holland S 24 8 8 89.9 82.5
Rotational players
Benito Jones DI 26 32.3
Neville Gallimore DI 27 54.6
Shaquil Barrett ED 31 68.9
Chop Robinson # LB 20
Anthony Walker Jr. LB 28 76.8 59.1
Cam Smith CB 23 73.7 61.3
Marcus Maye S 30 57.6 57.2

DC: Anthony Weaver (first year)

Most common personnel package in 2023 (DL-LB-DB): 2-4-5 - 749 snaps (under former DC Mike Macdonald, whom Weaver served under)

DC Comment: DC Vic Fangio left for Philadelphia, paving the way for Weaver to get his second coordinator job. In 2020, Weaver's Houston defense ranked near the bottom in most major rush and pass defense categories. His defense blitzed at the seventh-highest rate in the league that season, however (35.9 percent).

Run: Xavien Howard and Christian Wilkins are among the key defenders who are no longer on the roster. For what it is worth, Miami was one of the better run-stopping units in the league. This version of the Dolphins could be on par with last year's edition, especially after the club added Campbell last month. Sieler is also a very good run defender, which means Long is probably primed for another great season after grading out as the third-best run defender in the league in 2023. The same cannot be said for Brooks, who began his career strong against the run but has fallen off since. Phillips and Chubb will both be hard-pressed to repeat last season after suffering a torn Achilles (Week 12) and torn ACL (Week 17), respectively. The team did well to add talent in Barrett and first-round pick Robinson, so Miami should not get caught shorthanded on pass rushers again.

Pass rush/coverage: Getting Phillips and Chubb back close to full health would be a godsend for Miami, as their return would give the team four highly athletic and/or productive edge options. Even after losing Howard, the Dolphins should be in great shape because they can pair Ramsey with a proven veteran like Fuller. That becomes a big deal since Weaver will likely blitz more than Fangio did a season ago (21.5 percent). A slightly more aggressive scheme should be music to the ears of Ramsey and Fuller. The presence of the two 29-year-olds will almost certainly compel quarterbacks to try their luck with Kohou in the slot instead. Kohou is easily the weakest link in the secondary, although that is more of a reflection of his teammates being as good as they are. The Dolphins can feel very confident they have three starting-caliber safeties in Holland, Poyer and Maye.

 New England
Player Pos Age 24 Cov 24 Run Cov Grade Run D Grade
Christian Barmore DI 24 6 67.8
Davon Godchaux DI 29 5 51.6
Keion White ED 25 7 67.8
Matthew Judon ED 31 7 67.3
Ja'Whaun Bentley LB 27 6 7 59.7 67.7
Jahlani Tavai LB 27 7 7 82.7 86.2
Christian Gonzalez CB 22 7 7 79.3 71.3
Jonathan Jones CB 30 7 6 75.1 74
Marcus Jones SCB 25 6 6 61 72.9
Kyle Dugger S 28 6 7 50 79.6
Jabrill Peppers S 28 7 8 83.2 90.7
Rotational players
Armon Watts DI 27 75.2
Deatrich Wise Jr. ED 29 49.7
Anfernee Jennings ED 26 85.9
Raekwon McMillan LB 28
Sione Takitaki LB 29 70.2 68.2
Shaun Wade CB 25 59.1 73.2
Marte Mapu S 24 54 51.4

DC: DeMarcus Covington (first year)

Most common personnel package in 2023 (DL-LB-DB): 3-3-5 - 423 snaps (under former HC Bill Belichick, whom Covington served under)

DC Comment: New England is about to enter a brave new world. Former HC Bill Belichick is, at the very least, on the short list of the best defensive minds ever. Neither Covington nor new HC Jerod Mayo has ever officially held a coordinator title.

Run: One of the few things that the Patriots have working in their favor is that they were the league's top rush defense in yards allowed per carry (3.3). Covington has the good fortune of building his defense around Barmore, who broke out in a big way in 2023. White's ceiling may not be as high as Barmore's, but his development may end up going more quickly. Godchaux has not graded out well against the run since becoming a Patriot three years ago, but there is little doubt his 330-pound frame is worth keeping on the field on early downs. Having Judon play more than four games should also be a boon to the defense. Tavai and Bentley have been good at stopping the run for some time. Both men are 27 years of age and should be in the middle of their prime.

Pass rush/coverage: The Patriots' pass defense performed very well considering that it lost Gonzalez and Judon so early. Gonzalez is a future star. Judon's return will likely allow New England to enjoy a higher pressure rate than 20.9 percent in 2024. One of the reasons why the pass defense did not fall off much after Gonzalez's departure was the play of Jonathan Jones. Considering how long Jones has graded out in coverage above or near the blue level suggests his play will not fall off anytime soon. Marcus Jones figures to be the main target for defenses in the slot, although he has not exactly been a liability across his 296 professional coverage snaps. It took a while for Peppers' career to take off, but he has found his home in Foxboro. Dugger is coming off his worst year as a pro, but it is scary to think how good the safety play could be if he returns to 2022 form and Peppers builds off what he did last year. Tight ends had a miserable time against New England as it was in 2023. Mapu did not play a lot as a rookie, but he has the potential to be a fascinating wild card as well.

 N.Y. Jets
Player Pos Age 24 Cov 24 Run Cov Grade Run D Grade
Javon Kinlaw DI 26 4 35.6
Quinnen Williams DI 26 8 90.4
Haason Reddick ED 29 6 63.7
Jermaine Johnson ED 25 7 71
C.J. Mosley LB 32 8 6 90.6 63.8
Quincy Williams LB 27 7 6 88.7 70.4
Sauce Gardner CB 23 9 6 90.8 57
D.J. Reed CB 27 8 6 79.5 70.2
Michael Carter II SCB 25 7 6 83.3 63.5
Chuck Clark S 29 6 7
Tony Adams S 25 7 7 65.2 69.7
Rotational players
Solomon Thomas DI 28 32.2
Leki Fotu DI 25 40.7
Will McDonald IV ED 25 63.2
Micheal Clemons ED 26 66.3
Jamien Sherwood LB 24 56.7 78.9
Qwan'tez Stiggers # CB 22
Isaiah Oliver CB 27 70.9 59.8
Ashtyn Davis S 27 77.9 56.4

DC: Jeff Ulbrich (fourth year)

Most common personnel package in 2023 (DL-LB-DB): 3-3-5 - 566 snaps

DC Comment: Ulbrich and HC Robert Saleh love nothing more than to rush four and keep seven in coverage. The Jets ranked 31st in blitz percentage in 2023 at 16.3 percent after posting a league-low 14.9 percent blitz rate in 2022.

Run: Despite what the grades above suggest, the Jets were actually a top-10 rush defense in yards allowed per carry (4.1). The two things that hurt them the most were a pathetic offense - leading to opponents piling up 517 rush attempts against them - and a great secondary that greatly discouraged offensive coordinators from challenging New York in the air. With Aaron Rodgers hopefully able to play most of the season in 2024, the first problem should be solved and the second problem figures to take care of itself as a result. Williams is the straw that stirs the drink up front for the Jets and a primary reason why this defense has a chance to be elite against the run and pass in 2024. New York is hoping Fotu can be the space- and blocker-eating lineman that it has not had for most of HC Robert Saleh's tenure. If that happens, everything else should fall into place with Mosley and Quincy Williams able to run and chase with the best of them.

Pass rush/coverage: Assuming Reddick gets his contract demands satisfied before Week 1, New York should have three very good pass rushers at its disposal. With Mosley and Quincy Williams among the best coverage linebackers in the NFL and Gardner, Reed and Carter among the best trio of cornerbacks in the league, opponents may have little choice but to tempt fate every time they put the ball in the air. Reed is good enough that the Jets feel no need to use Gardner as a shadow, while Carter did not allow a touchdown pass in his coverage after the season opener. The loss of Jordan Whitehead this offseason stings, but the return of Clark (ACL) should provide a soft landing. All in all, this pass defense could be even stingier than last year (second in pass defense, fourth in net yards allowed per pass attempt in 2023).

Player Pos Age 24 Cov 24 Run Cov Grade Run D Grade
Cameron Heyward DI 35 7 67.7
Larry Ogunjobi DI 30 5 53.2
T.J. Watt ED 29 8 80.7
Patrick Queen LB 24 7 6 74.4 66.3
Payton Wilson # LB 24 5 6
Alex Highsmith ED 26 7 77.3
Joey Porter Jr. CB 23 7 7 66.6 64.7
Donte Jackson CB 28 6 5 66.6 52.3
Cameron Sutton SCB 29 6 7 49 67.2
Minkah Fitzpatrick S 27 7 8 67.9 83.1
DeShon Elliott S 27 6 7 60.3 83.5
Rotational players
Dean Lowry DI 30 53.1
Montravius Adams DI 28 50.6
Keeanu Benton DI 22 58.9
Nick Herbig ED 22 78.1
Elandon Roberts LB 30 69 72.5
Darius Rush CB 24 54.1 60
Damontae Kazee S 31 62.3 55.7

DC: Teryl Austin (third year)

Most common personnel packages in 2023 (DL-LB-DB): 2-4-5 - 351 snaps; base 3-4 - 342; 2-3-6 - 201

DC Comment: Austin blitzed at the league's sixth-highest rate last season (34.1 percent) and the season before (31.5). It is at least mildly interesting that Austin personnel usage was relatively similar in 2022, using 2-4-5 on 357 snaps, base 3-4 on 250 snaps and 2-3-6 on 175 snaps.

Run: Pittsburgh was pretty much a middle-of-the-pack defense versus the run and the pass and did not do much to address either, at least up front. Any improvement at the first level of the defense will most likely come because of the leap Benton should make in his second season. Heyward is on the back nine of his career at age 35 and cannot be expected to be the force he once was. Ogunjobi has long been considered a strong run defender, but his grades over the last few years do not reflect that. Queen was a much-needed signing for this defense, but his impact will most likely be felt more in the passing game. While Roberts will likely hold down the fort with Queen on expected running downs, it will likely only be a matter of time before Wilson takes over as the other full-time inside linebacker. Wilson's addition became more of a necessity after Holcomb suffered a serious knee injury last season - one that has his status for the early part of this season in doubt.

Pass rush/coverage: Even with Watt set to turn 30 during the season, he and Highsmith remain one of the more dynamic pass-rush duos in the league. Their ability to maintain that level of respect is one of maybe two things that keep this pass defense from being among the worst in the NFL. The other thing Pittsburgh has going in its favor is Porter, who quickly established himself as one of the best corners in the league as a rookie. Jackson is coming off his best season in a while and was a player the Steelers had their eye on for some time, but he is unlikely to be a long-term answer and figures to be a player opponents will target. Sutton returns after a one-year stop in Detroit and appears to be the favorite to handle slot duties. The 29-year-old played well during the second half of his six-year stint with the Steelers and may end up pushing Jackson out of a job if he returns to that level. Fitzpatrick missed seven games a season ago and Pittsburgh suffered, as four of the seven highest pass-yardage totals the Steelers allowed came in games he was sidelined. Elliott is working on his fourth team in as many seasons, which makes him an easy target for offenses.

Player Pos Age 24 Cov 24 Run Cov Grade Run D Grade
Jeffery Simmons DI 26 6 63.1
T'Vondre Sweat # DI 22 6
Sebastian Joseph-Day DI 29 55.9
Harold Landry III ED 28 6 64.2
Kenneth Murray Jr. LB 25 6 4 55.7 48.2
Jack Gibbens LB 25 6 7 61.3 72.9
Arden Key ED 28 6 60.1
Chidobe Awuzie CB 29 7 6 62.3 68
L'Jarius Sneed CB 27 7 7 73.8 70.8
Roger McCreary SCB 24 7 6 72.2 62
Elijah Molden S 25 6 6 52.3 66.1
Amani Hooker S 26 7 6 65 71.1
Rotational players
Marlon Davidson DI 26 59.5
Rashad Weaver ED 26 48.9
Cedric Gray # LB 21
Caleb Farley CB 25
Jarvis Brownlee # CB 22

DC: Dennard Wilson (first year)

Most common personnel package in 2023 (DL-LB-DB): 2-4-5 - 749 snaps (under former DC Mike Macdonald, whom Wilson served under)

DC Comment: N/A

Run: Although he is more impactful as a pass rusher, it is not a coincidence that Tennessee has finished among the leaders in rush defense since Simmons arrived in 2019. He is a top 10 defensive lineman in the league and a player who regularly draws double teams. The hope is Sweat is the space-filling, fire-hydrant nose tackle every 3-4 defense needs to be effective. If he is quickly able to become the immovable force the Titans drafted him to be and Joseph-Day can just be average, Tennessee could be surprisingly stout against the run. The loss of Azeez Al-Shaair to Houston is one reason to believe the run defense will end up taking a step back, especially since Murray consistently graded out poorly in that area with the Chargers.

Pass rush/coverage: The loss of Denico Autry to the Texans was another blow to the defense. Since Key has always been more of a player who coaches want to fall in love with but never do, the pass rush will most likely live and die with Landry and Simmons. Fortunately for Tennessee, GM Ran Carthon moved a mountain or two to turn the Titans' secondary into a massive strength. Sneed was easily one of the top five cornerbacks in the league for the Chiefs last season and should be expected to see the opponent's No. 1 wideout at least half of the time in 2024. Awuzie was emerging as a shutdown corner himself in 2021 and 2022 before he suffered an ACL tear. If he can return to form in his second year post-ACL and McCreary continues his standout play in the slot, Tennessee could be a surprisingly stingy unit against receivers if everyone is healthy. Tight ends typically fared poorly versus the Titans in 2024 - a sign that Hooker and Molden were doing their jobs well despite their relatively meager coverage grades.

Doug Orth has written for FF Today since 2006 and has appeared as a guest analyst on several national sports radio shows and podcasts, including Sirius XM's Fantasy Drive, FantasyPros and RealTime Fantasy Sports. He is also a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.

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