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Defensive Weak Spots - NFC

Preseason Matchup Analysis

By Doug Orth | 7/4/23 |


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 that is paying attention to matchups, 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 and/or stud cornerbacks.

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 20-plus seasons I've 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.) almost 70 percent of the time in today's game, it makes sense to use their likely sub-package personnel as the basis for our 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. shadow cornerbacks 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. The players in italics are likely rotational players or ones that will be replaced on certain downs for any number of reasons. Most of the players have projected grades next to their ages, but some of them will not because I want the final team projected scores (coverage, pass rush and run defense) to reflect the defenders logging the most snaps. Much as I did for the offensive line at the end of the two-part Big Uglies series, this week's column will rank each team in terms of projected coverage, pass rush and run defense scores.

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
Red text - Player is returning from a major injury
# - Rookie
23 Cov - Projected 2023 coverage grade
23 Run - Projected 2023 run defense grade
Grades - Coverage (Cov) and run defense (Run D)

Player Pos Age 23 Cov 23 Run Cov Grade Run D Grade
Cameron Thomas ED 23 6 39.3 63.8
Rashard Lawrence DI 24 6 60.0 63.8
Carlos Watkins DI 29 5 66.7 54.0
BJ Ojulari# ED 21
L.J. Collier DI 27 4 60.0 34.4
Myjai Sanders ED 24 46.8 46.9
Zaven Collins LB 24 6 5 70.1 45.2
Kyzir White LB 27 6 6 66.4 64.9
Antonio Hamilton CB 30 6 5 69.4 59.7
Marco Wilson CB 24 5 4 61.2 28.9
Garrett Williams# CB 22
Rashad Fenton CB 26 56.2 59.1
Isaiah Simmons S 24 7 5 69.9 47.0
Budda Baker S 27 7 7 69.1 80.2
Jalen Thompson S 24 6 6 59.7 77.4

Prominent players to avoid in the passing game: S Isaiah Simmons, S Budda Baker

Prominent players to target in the passing game: Any cornerback not named Marco Wilson.

Summary: Rallis is a 29-year-old assistant who is running a defense for the first time in his coaching career. He joins the Cardinals after coaching linebackers for the Eagles over the last two seasons. Rallis figures to be less aggressive than his predecessor, Vance Joseph, in part because of his personnel and in part because few defensive play-callers dial up the blitz as often as Joseph (34.5 percent blitz rate in 2022). Other contributing factors: Arizona will very likely run significantly fewer plays per game under new HC Jonathan Gannon than it did under former HC Kliff Kingsbury and will also likely try to limit possessions, at least as long as QB Kyler Murray (knee) is sidelined.

The Cardinals are clearly in a rebuilding phase right now and unlikely to perform very well offensively in 2023, so it would be an upset if their defense does not finish among the league leaders in terms of most rushing attempts and rushing yards allowed. Further complicating matters is that Arizona lacks a significant presence on its defensive line - one that can command a double team and let its athletic linebackers flow to the ball in the running game.

Player Pos Age 23 Cov 23 Run Cov Grade Run D Grade
Lorenzo Carter ED 27 6 56.8 67.7
Grady Jarrett DI 30 7 63.3 61.4
Calais Campbell DI 36 7 57.1 74.1
Bud Dupree ED 30 47.1 61.8
David Onyemata DI 30 7 72.8 53.0
Arnold Ebiketie ED 24 76.3 70.0
Troy Andersen LB 24 5 5 34.0 49.0
Kaden Elliss LB 27 6 7 67.5 81.1
A.J. Terrell CB 24 7 6 61.8 67.3
Jeffrey Okudah CB 24 6 6 54.4 74.0
Mike Hughes CB 26 5 6 51.4 81.1
Clark Phillips# CB 21
Jessie Bates III S 26 7 8 64.9 88.3
Richie Grant S 25 7 6 69.0 57.1

DC: Ryan Nielsen (first year)

Prominent players to avoid in the passing game: CB A.J. Terrell, S Jessie Bates

Prominent players to target in the passing game: CB Mike Hughes, LB Troy Andersen

Summary: Nielsen is also a first-time coordinator, although (unlike Rallis) he is a 44-year-old with significant NFL experience - most of which has come coaching the Saints' defensive line. The major concern with the Falcons is the age of their key defensive stalwarts up front (Campbell, Onyemata, Jarrett and Dupree are all in their 30s), but there is no question Atlanta upgraded its defensive talent this offseason. Adding Bates further shores up the run defense and should also enable Terrell and Okudah to be as aggressive as they want to be on the outside on likely passing downs. Andersen is a highly athletic linebacker who should perform much better in coverage in his second season. Until that happens, receiving backs should feast against Atlanta.

Assuming most of the other key players such as Terrell continue on their current path, the additions of Bates and Okudah could (should?) take this defense to the next level. Bates should remain a top-five safety in the league, but the Falcons could enjoy some of the New Orleans-caliber of defense Nielsen is used to if Okudah can regain his confidence. Atlanta should put more pressure on the quarterback than Detroit ever did during Okudah's time in the Motor City. The former No. 3 overall pick did flash that kind of upside on occasion last year. The Falcons could emerge as a dark-horse top-10 pass defense if Okudah thrives with his change of scenery and rookie Phillips overtakes Hughes - as he should - as the team's primary slot corner.

Player Pos Age 23 Cov 23 Run Cov Grade Run D Grade
Brian Burns ED 25 5 78.3 50.9
Derrick Brown DI 25 7 53.1 80.6
DeShawn Williams DI 30 5 69.0 51.6
Yetur Gross-Matos ED 25 5 59.3 58.9
Shy Tuttle DI 27 7 56.0 67.1
Marquis Haynes ED 29 78.0 37.2
Shaq Thompson LB 29 5 7 56.0 90.3
Frankie Luvu LB 26 6 7 51.5 90.1
Jaycee Horn CB 23 8 5 73.2 54.2
Donte Jackson CB 27 5 5 55.2 51.1
C.J. Henderson CB 24 48.9 69.7
Jeremy Chinn S 25 7 6 58.0 43.2
Vonn Bell S 28 7 7 68.4 66.1
Xavier Woods S 27 6 7 64.0 67.9

DC: Ejiro Evero (first year)

Prominent players to avoid in the passing game: CB Jaycee Horn (will shadow on occasion), S Jeremy Chinn

Prominent players to target in the passing game: CB C.J. Henderson

Summary: Evero may only be going into his second season as a defensive coordinator, but he did well enough in his one year with the Broncos to generate head-coaching interest around the league. It remains to be seen whether the Panthers already have the personnel to run Evero's favored 3-4 defense, although lining up Williams, Tuttle and Brown next to each other is a great start to freeing up the linebackers. Tuttle (305 pounds) and Brown (320) are both well-equipped to handle the rigors of occupying multiple blockers. Less congestion up front should allow Thompson to focus more on being the strong coverage 'backer he was in 2021. As evidenced by the two first-round picks the Rams were willing to give up for him, Burns is a stud and figures to be the main reason the switch to the 3-4 works for Carolina - assuming it does.

Perhaps even more important than Burns' presence is Horn's ability to stay healthy. Horn has proven to be an elite cover corner when he has been on the field, but playing 16 of a possible 33 games through two seasons is not close to enough. (He played in 13 last season.) Jackson and Henderson should be better than they have been to this point, and it is worth wondering if the likely increase of quarterback pressures up front in 2023 leads to either one or both having career years. Carolina is legitimately four-deep at safety, although a healthy Chinn (11 games last season) may be as important as any Carolina defender. Keeping Horn and Chinn on the field will also allow Jackson and Henderson the luxury of playing against No. 2 and No. 3 receivers most weeks.

Player Pos Age 23 Cov 23 Run Cov Grade Run D Grade
Justin Jones DI 26 5 55.9 43.4
Andrew Billings DI 28 7 69.3 72.3
DeMarcus Walker DI 28 6 58.8 68.7
Gervon Dexter# DI 21
Trevis Gipson ED 26 5 54.3 39.7
Tremaine Edmunds LB 25 7 6 90.0 60.1
T.J. Edwards LB 26 7 7 78.4 79.0
Jack Sanborn LB 22 6 6 67.8 53.6
Jaylon Johnson CB 24 7 6 65.2 58.5
Tyrique Stevenson# CB 23 5 5
Kyler Gordon CB 23 6 5 46.4 65.8
Eddie Jackson S 28 7 7 74.3 73.5
Jaquan Brisker S 24 6 6 65.0 64.2

DC: Alan Williams (second year)

Prominent players to avoid in the passing game: CB Jaylon Johnson, S Eddie Jackson

Prominent players to target in the passing game: CB Kyler Gordon, CB Tyrique Stevenson

Summary: With the exceptions of trading away Robert Quinn and Roquan Smith last season, the Bears may have upgraded at each of the other five front-seven spots - either via experience in Williams' defense or because of a talent boost. Billings can eat up blockers, while Walker has flashed at times with Denver and Tennessee. Edmunds may not be an upgrade on Smith, but he is a good enough athlete to handle the Shaq Leonard role in this defense at a high level. Edwards was also a huge addition for this defense - both for the run and pass defense - following consecutive seasons with at least 130 tackles with the Eagles. After three seasons as a part-time player in Philly, he graded out at career-high levels in his first full year as a starter in 2022.

The Bears were not expected to have a great defense last season as it was, but it did not help matters for Johnson (six games), Gordon (three), Jackson (five) and Brisker (two) to combine to miss 15 games. There still is not enough pass rush to believe Chicago will be even average defending the pass in 2023, but the aforementioned quartet in the secondary at least gives the Bears' front seven a fighting chance - assuming better injury luck - to top last season's pathetic season sack total of 20 by mid-November.

Player Pos Age 23 Cov 23 Run Cov Grade Run D Grade
Micah Parsons ED 24 8 84.9 73.8
Mazi Smith# DI 22 6
Osa Odighizuwa DI 24 6 66.4 58.6
Demarcus Lawrence ED 31 6 66.5 65.9
Dorance Armstrong ED 26 73.5 57.3
Dante Fowler Jr. ED 28 76.3 43.0
Leighton Vander Esch LB 27 6 6 76.7 63.7
Damone Clark LB 23 7 6 64.8 64.3
Stephon Gilmore CB 32 8 6 81.1 65.6
Trevon Diggs CB 24 7 6 67.0 66.2
Jourdan Lewis CB 27 5 5 55.9 66.0
Malik Hooker S 27 7 7 74.8 76.0
Donovan Wilson S 28 6 6 65.9 74.6
Jayron Kearse S 29 68.4 75.2

DC: Dan Quinn (third year)

Prominent players to avoid in the passing game: CB Stephon Gilmore

Prominent players to target in the passing game: CB Jourdan Lewis

Summary: Except for adding a 337-pound fire hydrant in rookie first-rounder Smith, very little is changing up front for the Cowboys. While the selection of Smith can be attributed at least in part to helping Dallas defend the Eagles' rugby scrum quarterback sneak play better, the truth of the matter is Dallas was a middling run defense again last season. Having the ability to pair Smith with fellow run-stuffer Jonathan Hankins should go a long way in correcting that issue. Better run defense should only increase the number of pass-rush opportunities for a deep and talented defensive end group led by Parsons, Lawrence, Sam Williams and Fowler.

Vander Esch and Clark are not elite in coverage, but the majority of NFL running backs and tight ends will find it difficult to shake them very often. The acquisition of Gilmore was a bit of a risk given his age (turns 33 in mid-September), but one worth taking if he still has another year of high-end play in his tank. If Gilmore remains as sticky in coverage as he has been for the better part of the last six years, it should give Diggs even more opportunities to jump routes, which may be the role he is most suited for - and not as the team's top corner. With Lewis and DaRon Bland behind them, Dallas has some quality cornerback depth if it should need it. The Cowboys also go three-deep at safety with Kearse, Hooker and Wilson.

Player Pos Age 23 Cov 23 Run Cov Grade Run D Grade
Aidan Hutchinson ED 22 7 84.7 68.4
Isaiah Buggs DI 26 60.2 47.0
Alim McNeill DI 23 6 66.6 59.8
John Cominsky ED 27 6 79.4 62.8
James Houston IV ED 24 6 51.5 56.6
Alex Anzalone LB 28 6 6 58.9 58.5
Malcolm Rodriguez LB 24 55.1 66.4
Jack Campbell# LB 22 7 6
Cameron Sutton CB 28 6 6 70.4 73.6
Emmanuel Moseley CB 27 6 6 73.5 58.6
Brian Branch# CB 21
Chauncey Gardner-Johnson S 25 6 5 66.2 54.7
Tracy Walker S 28 6 6 75.4 58.5
Kerby Joseph S 22 7 6 65.0 58.0

DC: Aaron Glenn (third year)

Prominent players to avoid in the passing game: N/A

Prominent players to target in the passing game: LB Malcolm Rodriguez

Summary: It is hard to get a good read on just how bad the Lions' run defense was last season (5.2 YPC allowed) in part because they had the misfortune of facing Justin Fields twice (combined 279 yards rushing in two games against Detroit). With that said, most of the team's improvement against the run during the second-half surge appears to have been the product of jumping out on opponents early. Make no mistake about it: the Lions did not do a lot to address their front seven this spring other than parting with DT Michael Brockers and adding a first-round linebacker in Campbell. Detroit likely needs either McNeill to take another huge step forward or 330-pound third-round pick Brodric Martin to fill Brocker's shoes at the very least if it hopes to avoid getting pummeled again on the ground in neutral game scripts.

The Lions' pass defense may have been the most pleasant surprise down the stretch, as only two opponents topped 300 yards passing during their 8-2 finish. The emergence of Houston - coupled with the development of Hutchinson - played a huge role in this development. Detroit spent a ton of resources trying to build on its progress, including adding the freakishly athletic Campbell to a very capable cover 'backer in Anzalone. The Lions overhauled their cornerback room and will likely start Sutton and Moseley (replacing Jeff Okudah and Amani Oruwariye). The surprise development of the offseason may have been adding two highly capable cornerback/safety types in Gardner-Johnson and Branch, each of whom can handle slot duties.

 Green Bay
Player Pos Age 23 Cov 23 Run Cov Grade Run D Grade
Kenny Clark DI 27 5 64.0 53.0
Tedarrell Slaton DI 25 60.0 61.9
Devonte Wyatt DI 25 6 60.6 60.9
Preston Smith ED 30 6 61.4 64.1
Rashan Gary ED 25 6 90.1 67.1
Lukas Van Ness# ED 21
De'Vondre Campbell LB 30 7 6 78.8 60.3
Quay Walker LB 23 8 5 70.8 34.9
Jaire Alexander CB 26 9 6 82.1 71.2
Rasul Douglas CB 27 7 6 71.5 71.5
Keisean Nixon CB 26 6 6 63.6 71.8
Eric Stokes CB 24 60.3 33.8
Darnell Savage S 25 6 5 43.8 56.2
Rudy Ford S 28 6 5 77.8 58.9

DC: Joe Barry (third year)

Prominent players to avoid in the passing game: CB Jaire Alexander

Prominent players to target in the passing game: CB Keisean Nixon

Summary: Barry is likely on his last leg in Green Bay, as the Packers have generally underperformed during his time in charge despite having an abundance of highly drafted talent on that side of the ball (seven first-round picks if we include 2023 first-round pick Van Ness). Working against Barry is his apparent refusal to be aggressive when the situation calls for it. The run defense has been abysmal under Barry (4.7 YPC in 2021 - third-worst - and 5.0 YPC in 2022 - fifth-worst) and little has been done to address it through personnel. Considering Barry's defenses have never finished higher than 23rd against the run (YPC), another long year appears to be on the horizon for Green Bay's run defense. Perhaps the only hope for the Packers is 2022 first-round selection Wyatt approaches the level Clark played at during the early part of his career.

Gary (ACL), Van Ness and Smith make for an exciting pass-rush trio assuming Gary is good to go for Week 1. Unfortunately, Barry's conservative play-calling vastly undermines Alexander's sticky coverage skills. Douglas has come into his own with the Packers, but he would likely benefit more from a more aggressive play-caller too. Barry's play-calling also affects the play-making ability of Savage.

 LA Rams
Player Pos Age 23 Cov 23 Run Cov Grade Run D Grade
Byron Young# ED 25
Aaron Donald DI 32 8 61.4 75.6
Marquise Copeland DI 26 6 60.3 73.5
Michael Hoecht ED 25 6 58.6 66.3
Bobby Brown III DI 22 6 60.0 62.1
Kobie Turner# DI 24
Ernest Jones LB 23 6 5 51.2 78.8
Christian Rozeboom LB 26 5 70.0
Ahkello Witherspoon CB 28 42.8 61.5
Derion Kendrick CB 22 5 4 44.8 38.0
Cobie Durant CB 25 6 6 74.3 58.3
Tre'Vius Hodges-Tomlinson# CB 23
Jordan Fuller S 25 6 7 55.4 76.2
Russ Yeast S 24 5 7 47.1 85.9

DC: Raheem Morris (third year)

Prominent players to avoid in the passing game: N/A

Prominent players to target in the passing game: Virtually every back-seven defender is fair game, although Hodges-Tomlinson should be a good slot corner sooner than later.

Summary: The fate of this defense rests largely on the shoulders of 32-year-old Donald, as is typically the case. In the 10 full games he played, the Rams yielded 100 yards rushing only three times (95.3-yard average). In the other seven games (including the Nov. 28 game against the Chiefs when he injured his ankle), six opponents crossed the century mark (143.2 average). After Donald, it gets dicey fast. Then again, injuries wreaked so much havoc on this team in 2022 that many of the players above probably deserve a pass for their grades. Second-round draft choice Young can quickly become the second-best player on the front seven if his athletic traits carry over. Perhaps that same athleticism allows him to become a good coverage 'backer quickly, but the outlook appears bleak for this unit to stop the run or defend the bulk of capable running backs/tight ends this year.

While Jalen Ramsey did not play to his usual standards last season, his trade to Miami leaves the Rams with a secondary full of potential starters that have been selected on Day 3 over the last four drafts. Durant (5-10) graded out well in 2022 but was limited to seven games. Hodges-Tomlinson (5-9) is an athletic freak who should become a solid slot NFL slot corner soon. Unfortunately, both are a bit on the short side and could be liabilities if they get isolated against the likes of DK Metcalf or Deebo Samuel very often. Neither Robert Rochell (6-0) nor Kendrick (5-11) has played well enough in their short time in the league to suggest they can provide much help. The team picked up the 6-2 Witherspoon in late June, but size may be his best quality. Fuller was limited to 90 snaps last year; he may be the only player in the secondary that gives the Rams any kind of hope entering the season.

Player Pos Age 23 Cov 23 Run Cov Grade Run D Grade
Danielle Hunter ED 28 6 84.6 72.3
Harrison Phillips DI 27 7 67.8 73.8
Khyiris Tonga DI 26 7 73.3
Marcus Davenport ED 26 7 72.4 69.7
Dean Lowry DI 29 60.2 56.7
D.J. Wonnum ED 25 57.1 60.2
Jordan Hicks LB 31 6 7 52.5 80.2
Brian Asamoah LB 23 6 7 78.1 74.2
Byron Murphy Jr. CB 25 7 6 63.9 73.6
Mekhi Blackmon# CB 24 4 4
Akayleb Evans CB 24 5 5 40.5 76.0
Harrison Smith S 34 7 6 69.1 64.0
Camryn Bynum S 24 5 7 50.9 74.1
Lewis Cine S 23 60.1

DC: Brian Flores (first year)

Prominent players to avoid in the passing game: CB Byron Murphy Jr., S Harrison Smith

Prominent players to target in the passing game: CBs Mekhi Blackmon and Akayleb Evans, S Camryn Bynum

Summary: While blitzing is not a magic elixir for a defense, former DC Ed Donatell's blitz rate of 18.9 percent last year was simply not enough. Enter Flores, whose Miami defense sent five or more almost 40 percent of the time in his final year as the head coach of the Dolphins. Perhaps the most difficult thing to project in 2023 is whether the Vikings will be able to get into enough third-and-medium or third-and-long situations to make Flores look smart for being aggressive. Minnesota did not defend the run particularly well with a more passive approach under Donatell (4.5 YPC) and could be further taxed after losing Dalvin Tomlinson to the Browns.

It will take a leap of faith for the Vikings to trust Asamoah in a full-time role, but he flashed in coverage as a rookie in 2022 - albeit on 121 total snaps (63 in coverage). The idea of pairing Hunter with Davenport would be appealing for a team with a proven veteran secondary, but that duo's upside and patience will be tested with this youthful set of cornerbacks. Minnesota did well to replace Patrick Peterson with Murphy, but Evans, Andrew Booth Jr. and Blackmon possess a whopping nine games of NFL experience between them. At 34 years of age, Smith cannot be expected to erase mistakes on the back end as often as he did five years ago. Outside of Murphy, Minnesota figures to be a defense to exploit for fantasy purposes - against the run and the pass.

 New Orleans
Player Pos Age 23 Cov 23 Run Cov Grade Run D Grade
Cameron Jordan ED 33 8 85.5 82.0
Khalen Saunders DI 26 62.3 55.8
Nathan Shepherd DI 29 6 60.0 58.6
Carl Granderson ED 26 7 64.4 84.4
Payton Turner ED 24 7 79.4 68.4
Bryan Bresee# DI 21
Isaiah Foskey# ED 22
Demario Davis LB 34 7 7 79.8 73.6
Pete Werner LB 24 6 7 69.5 59.8
Marshon Lattimore CB 27 7 6 70.1 52.2
Paulson Adebo CB 24 5 5 48.6 49.6
Alontae Taylor CB 24 6 5 56.3 48.9
Tyrann Mathieu S 31 8 6 87.9 62.9
Marcus Maye S 29 7 7 71.3 67.2

DC: Joe Woods (first year)

Prominent players to avoid in the passing game: CB Marshon Lattimore, S Tyrann Mathieu, S Marcus Maye, LB Demario Davis

Prominent players to target in the passing game: CBs Paulson Adebo and Alontae Taylor

Summary: HC Dennis Allen will likely call the plays for the Saints, but it would be an interesting development if Woods ends up running the defense at some point because his conservative nature and/or indifference against the run is a large part of the reason why he was fired in Cleveland. With that said, a bigger issue for New Orleans was losing proven run-pluggers David Onyemata and Shy Tuttle in free agency this spring. Using a first-round pick on Breese was a step in the right direction, although more is needed; this defense ranked in the back half of the league in stopping the run in 2022 (4.5 YPC). Jordan and Davis have been consistently excellent for years now, so if the Saints get what they expect from Breese and one of their two new arrivals inside (Saunders and/or Shepherd), the run defense could return to the high level of effectiveness it has enjoyed for most of the time that Allen has been in charge.

Perhaps the biggest issue with New Orleans heading into 2023 is the lack of a second pass-rush threat after Jordan, although Turner was drafted to be that guy two years ago. If Turner (eight games) and Lattimore (seven) can stay healthier this year, then the pass defense could also rebound from what was an up-and-down campaign. Taylor flashed as a rookie, while Adebo finished better than he started for the second straight year; both would benefit from not lining up against the opponent's top receiver as often as they had to in 2022. The safety position is in great hands with Mathieu and Maye.

 N.Y. Giants
Player Pos Age 23 Cov 23 Run Cov Grade Run D Grade
Kayvon Thibodeaux ED 22 7 67.3 71.8
Leonard Williams DI 29 7 64.2 66.3
Dexter Lawrence DI 25 8 80.3 81.2
Azeez Ojulari ED 23 53.0 52.4
A'Shawn Robinson DI 28 7 60.8 68.7
Jihad Ward ED 29 38.9 49.8
Jarrad Davis LB 28 6 6 59.3 59.9
Bobby Okereke LB 26 7 7 67.4 79.3
Adoree' Jackson CB 27 8 5 71.0 62.7
Deonte Banks# CB 22 5 5
Cordale Flott CB 21 7 5 73.0 43.0
Xavier McKinney S 24 6 6 58.8 58.3
Bobby McCain S 29 7 5 69.5 33.9

DC: Don (Wink) Martindale (second year)

Prominent players to avoid in the passing game: CB Adoree' Jackson

Prominent players to target in the passing game: CB Deonte Banks (at least early in the season)

Summary: The Giants have built an impressive starting defensive line, amassing nearly a half-ton's worth of athletic humanity among its top three linemen. Williams and Lawrence are both worthy of commanding double teams against the run or the pass. Landing Okereke in free agency to replace Jaylon Smith and push Micah McFadden into more of a reserve role should only enhance a run defense that should improve dramatically on its woeful finish (5.2 YPC allowed) in 2022. New York may not quite be there yet with its primary pass-rushers (24-year-old Ojulari and 22-year-old Thibodeaux), but their time could come as soon as this season.

Martindale reportedly sees a bit of his former pupil in Baltimore (Marlon Humphrey) in 2023 first-round pick Banks. If Martindale ends up being right, he and Jackson could be the best cornerback trio the Giants have had in a while. The primary area of concern could be at the slot corner, although Flott performed well enough last year to work his way into the nickel package eventually in 2023 - whether he ends up being the primary slot or pushes Banks inside. The departure of S Julian Love to Seattle robbed this secondary of a player who could line up just about anywhere and do just about anything a team could ask from a defensive back - a description that could easily apply to McKinney if he could stay healthy. McCain is also a viable candidate to handle slot duties at a reasonably high level.

Player Pos Age 23 Cov 23 Run Cov Grade Run D Grade
Haason Reddick ED 28 6 46.1 63.4
Jordan Davis DI 23 8 60.0 72.2
Jalen Carter# DI 22 6
Josh Sweat ED 26 8 56.6 79.5
Fletcher Cox DI 32 53.5
Brandon Graham ED 35 79.5 69.7
Nakobe Dean LB 22 7 7 75.8 69.6
Nicholas Morrow LB 27 6 5 61.3 46.8
Darius Slay CB 32 8 5 77.3 46.0
James Bradberry CB 29 8 4 77.1 40.4
Avonte Maddox CB 27 7 6 69.1 72.2
Reed Blankenship S 24 7 8 70.8 89.4
Terrell Edmunds S 26 7 6 68.0 63.4
Sydney Brown# S 23

DC: Sean Desai (first year)

Prominent players to avoid in the passing game: CBs James Bradberry and Darius Slay

Prominent players to target in the passing game: N/A

Summary: The move from Jonathan Gannon to Desai could actually upgrade a defense that registered 70 sacks and pressured the quarterback on 25.5 percent of drop-backs last year. Considering the talent Gannon had at his disposal in 2022, Philadelphia's 4.6 YPC allowed (ninth-most in the league) was inexcusable. With Davis entering his second year and Milton Williams establishing himself as more of a force on early downs, that number should come down a bit under the direction of the more aggressive Desai. First-round draft pick Carter could also quickly emerge as another player on the front line that commands a double team. The biggest question for this defense may be whether Dean is ready to fill the void left behind by the ultra-productive T.J. Edwards. (He should be.) It could be argued Philly's front four is even better than it was in 2022, so Dean's job should be about as easy as any middle linebacker's in the league.

The Eagles are almost as ridiculously deep and talented in the secondary as they are up front. Opponents are more willing to attack Slay than Bradberry, but neither option offers much upside for quarterbacks. Maddox is one of the better slot corners in the game right now, and Philly added two other big and talented corners in Greedy Williams and fourth-round pick Kelee Ringo. Former Steeler Edmunds may start the year for the Eagles, but it may only be a matter of time before second-round selection Brown overtakes him. Both he and likely breakout candidate Blankenship can cover a lot of ground in center field AND make plays in the running game. With the talent and depth in Philadelphia this year, the Eagles are not a matchup fantasy managers want to see at any position.

 San Francisco
Player Pos Age 23 Cov 23 Run Cov Grade Run D Grade
Nick Bosa ED 25 8 70.9 80.1
Arik Armstead DI 29 6 59.6 55.9
Javon Hargrave DI 30 6 60.9 49.0
Drake Jackson ED 22 6 71.0 62.8
Javon Kinlaw DI 25 59.8 28.8
Fred Warner LB 26 8 8 80.4 89.7
Dre Greenlaw LB 26 8 8 82.6 78.1
Oren Burks LB 28 6 6 69.6 82.2
Charvarius Ward CB 27 8 8 76.6 91.0
Deommodore Lenoir CB 23 6 6 56.9 73.8
Isaiah Oliver CB 26 7 7 72.2 81.5
Tashaun Gipson Sr. S 32 6 7 60.7 89.9
Talanoa Hufanga S 24 8 7 74.6 64.1
Ji'Ayir Brown# S 23

DC: Steve Wilks (first year)

Prominent players to avoid in the passing game: CB Charvarius Ward

Prominent players to target in the passing game: CB Deommodore Lenoir

Summary: The loss of DeMeco Ryans will be felt on this unit, but the 49ers possess far too much talent on defense to fall too far and may benefit from a play-caller like Wilks who will likely blitz a bit more. San Francisco finished in a tie with Tennessee for the most dominant run defense in 2022 (3.4 YPC) and could be poised for a more dominant campaign if Armstead and Kinlaw can stay healthy. Warner, Greenlaw and Burks comprise one of the best linebacker trios in the league - versus the run or the pass - and obviously benefit from the presence of players like Bosa and Armstead collapsing the pocket.

The reason the big offseason addition of Hargrave was not included in the first paragraph is that he has mostly transitioned from a run-stopper in the early part of his career to one of the best at collapsing the pocket as a rusher. A healthy season from Armstead or a breakout season from Kinlaw along with the continued excellence Bosa provides would likely thrust this defense into another stratosphere. Ward took his game to another level in his first season as a 49er and is probably worthy of being considered a top 10-15 player at his position right now. The most likely weak spots for this defense are opposite Ward (likely Lenoir) and in the slot (Oliver is expected to replace Jimmie Ward). Hufanga became a certifiable stud in his second season and exhibits Troy Polamalu tendencies at times. Gipson held up exceptionally well in his first year with San Francisco and could have one more good year left in his 33-year-old body (in August). The 49ers should have his replacement in Brown, who was a steal in the third round this spring.

Player Pos Age 23 Cov 23 Run Cov Grade Run D Grade
Uchenna Nwosu ED 26 7 64.9 73.8
Dre'Mont Jones DI 26 5 61.3 41.8
Jarran Reed DI 30 6 63.3 59.1
Mario Edwards Jr. ED 29 6 53.7 72.7
Bryan Mone DI 27 73.0 48.9
Derick Hall# ED 22
Jordyn Brooks LB 25 4 7 40.7 65.2
Bobby Wagner LB 33 7 8 77.9 91.1
Tariq Woolen CB 24 8 5 74.2 49.1
Devon Witherspoon# CB 22 7 6
Coby Bryant CB 24 6 52.2 66.6
Michael Jackson CB 26 56.8 60.4
Quandre Diggs S 30 7 7 75.0 65.0
Jamal Adams S 27 5 7 81.0 58.0
Julian Love S 25 7 6 70.9 55.5

DC: Clint Hurtt (second year)

Prominent players to avoid in the passing game: CBs Tariq Woolen and Devon Witherspoon, S Quandre Diggs

Prominent players to target in the passing game: CBs Coby Bryant and Michael Jackson

Summary: The Seahawks were among the worst run defenses in the league last season (4.9 YPC) and it is hard to see where they improved it much despite adding a wealth of talent to the first level of the defense. Day 3 picks Cameron Young (fourth round) and Mike Morris (fifth round) are Seattle's best hopes of it unless Edwards can coax another decent year out of his 29-year-old body (one that is playing for its seventh team). It would also help if Reed could turn back the clock a few years or for Jones to show something against the run. Bringing Wagner back for a second tour of duty and adding Devin Bush will help matters, however, and should somewhat offset two other potential soft spots - at least early in the season - with Brooks (knee) and Adams (knee, quad) recovering from serious injuries.

While the Seahawks' run defense has significant question marks, it seems likely that the pass defense will rank among the best in the league. Woolen was possibly the best late-round pick of the 2022 draft and appears poised to be the best corner in the Pacific Northwest since Richard Sherman. That assumes Devon Witherspoon does not take that title from him though. This year's No. 5 overall pick was arguably the most complete corner in the draft. Bryant is going to be the weak link by default in this secondary because his teammates are as rangy as they are good, but he should be expected to take a moderate step forward in Year 2. Why? Because Jones, Nwosu and second-round pick Hall should be able to put more pressure on the quarterback than Seattle got in 2022. The Seahawks' safety trio of Adams (when healthy), Diggs and the versatile Love may be every bit as strong as their starting cornerbacks; they could allow Hurtt to use "big nickel" as a regular part of his game plan.

 Tampa Bay
Player Pos Age 23 Cov 23 Run Cov Grade Run D Grade
Shaquil Barrett ED 30 7 40.0 77.5
Vita Vea DI 28 8 58.8 53.5
Calijah Kancey# DI 22
Joe Tryon-Shoyinka ED 24 6 69.3 63.2
Logan Hall DI 23 59.1 30.2
Greg Gaines DI 27 6 59.0 57.5
Anthony Nelson ED 26 62.4 61.1
Lavonte David LB 33 8 7 88.0 76.9
Devin White LB 25 5 4 49.1 36.7
Jamel Dean CB 26 8 6 75.6 82.5
Carlton Davis CB 26 7 6 65.4 59.0
Dee Delaney CB 28 5 5 67.6 50.7
Antoine Winfield Jr. S 24 7 9 67.0 89.4
Ryan Neal S 27 7 7 84.4 72.9

DC: HC Todd Bowles (fifth year)

Prominent players to avoid in the passing game: CBs Jamel Dean and Carlton Davis, S Antoine Winfield Jr. and LB Lavonte David

Prominent players to target in the passing game: CB Dee Delaney, LB Devin White

Summary: Kacy Rodgers and Larry Foote are listed as the team's co-defensive coordinators, but Bowles remains very much in charge of the defense. For the first time in what feels like a generation, the Buccaneers were relatively lackluster in stopping the run (4.5 YPC). It is hard to believe Tampa Bay will be better at stopping the run this year without Akiem Hicks around, but the team's thinking could be that it will be better off with a younger and more durable Gaines instead. More importantly, Vea needs to stay on the field. In the four games he missed or barely played last year, the Bucs surrendered an average of 149.3 yards on the ground. Vea commands double teams. His presence allows White and David to flow to the ball. If Vea stays healthy, Tampa Bay will stop the run better in 2023.

David is also exceptional in coverage, so it could be a long day for running backs and tight ends who typically thrive over the middle of the field. Tampa Bay did well to keep Dean from leaving in free agency. Along with Davis, they form one of the stronger starting cornerback duos in the league and allow Bowles to bring pressure as he sees fit (28.3 percent blitz rate last season). Delaney gets the unenviable task of trying to replace Sean Murphy-Bunting as the preferred slot corner, although Delaney got a taste of it last year when Murphy-Bunting was sidelined. Without question, he will be the corner quarterbacks will target the most. Tampa Bay caught a break when Seattle unexpectedly cut Neal early in free agency. He is a more-than-capable replacement for Mike Edwards (Chiefs) alongside Winfield, who is another defender opponents will take steps to avoid most weeks.

Player Pos Age 23 Cov 23 Run Cov Grade Run D Grade
Chase Young ED 24 8 85.3 73.9
Jonathan Allen DI 28 6 61.5 66.5
Daron Payne DI 26 5 54.9 49.5
Montez Sweat ED 26 8 76.5 79.6
Phidarian Mathis DI 25 61.9
James Smith-Williams ED 25 56.9 58.8
Jamin Davis LB 24 6 6 56.4 66.1
Cody Barton LB 26 6 6 49.6 62.7
Kendall Fuller CB 28 8 7 75.4 73.6
Emmanuel Forbes# CB 22 6 4
Jartavius Martin# CB 23 5 5
Benjamin St-Juste CB 25 6 6 60.0 50.4
Darrick Forrest S 24 7 7 69.0 63.2
Kamren Curl S 24 7 8 80.8 80.5

DC: Jack Del Rio (fourth year)

Prominent players to avoid in the passing game: CB Kendall Fuller, S Kamren Curl

Prominent players to target in the passing game: CBs Jartavius Martin and Benjamin St-Juste

Summary: The Commanders boast four first-round picks along their starting defensive line. While none of them was necessarily drafted for their run-stuffing abilities, it is slightly troubling the team has not been consistently dominant stuffing the run. (Last year's 4.4 YPC allowed was tied for 15th in the league.) One major issue has been keeping the defensive ends on the field, as Sweat missed six games in 2021 and Young has been sidelined for 21 of 33 possible games since his impressive rookie season in 2020. Assuming Sweat and Allen stay on the field and join relative ironmen Allen and Payne, Washington should be much stingier against the run. Their health also will obviously affect how well Davis and free-agent addition Barton hold up. There is a decent chance the front four's health and two years of NFL experience will allow Davis to break out in 2023. Bear in mind that he was once considered a first-round talent in part due to his coverage abilities.

Washington spent its first two picks this spring at cornerback, which says a lot about what the team thought was its biggest weakness in 2022. Fuller continues to play at a high level and remains locked into one cornerback spot. First-round draft choice Forbes could be this year's Trevon Diggs; he consistently displayed the kind of anticipation and ball skills in college that should translate to the NFL. He will also be playing in a defense that should generate a lot of pressure with a four-man rush. The Commanders added Martin in the second round this spring. He could battle St-Juste for primary slot duties. It should not take long before opponents target one of them instead of Fuller and Forbes. Curl broke out in a big way in his third year last season, and it should come as no surprise if fellow safety Forrest follows suit in his third season.

As promised, here are my projected grades for each team's defense (pass rush, run defense and coverage). A red shade means that defense is not very favorable for the opponent, yellow is slightly unfavorable, white is slightly favorable and green is very favorable.

 Pass Rush Projected Grades
Team Gr Team Gr Team Gr Team Gr
49ers 7.75 Bills 7.00 Chargers 6.75 Chiefs 6.25
Commanders 7.75 Bengals 7.00 Patriots 6.75 Saints 6.25
Browns 7.50 Lions 7.00 Falcons 6.50 Buccaneers 6.25
Eagles 7.50 Dolphins 7.00 Ravens 6.50 Panthers 6.20
Vikings 7.25 Titans 7.00 Texans 6.50 Rams 6.20
Giants 7.25 Cowboys 6.75 Jaguars 6.50 Bears 6.00
Jets 7.25 Broncos 6.75 Raiders 6.50 Seahawks 6.00
Steelers 7.25 Packers 6.75 Colts 6.25 Cardinals 5.50

 Run Defense Projected Grades
Team Gr Team Gr Team Gr Team Gr
49ers 10.00 Eagles 9.36 Cowboys 9.09 Lions 8.82
Steelers 9.91 Vikings 9.36 Browns 9.08 Bills 8.68
Commanders 9.71 Titans 9.36 Panthers 9.08 Texans 8.67
Dolphins 9.45 Broncos 9.36 Jaguars 9.05 Rams 8.64
Falcons 9.45 Colts 9.29 Seahawks 9.05 Bears 8.63
Giants 9.41 Ravens 9.23 Saints 9.04 Packers 8.23
Buccaneers 9.41 Bengals 9.18 Chiefs 8.91 Chargers 8.21
Patriots 9.40 Jets 9.09 Raiders 8.86 Cardinals 7.77

 LB Coverage Projected Grades
Team Gr Team Gr Team Gr Team Gr
Packers 7.50 Giants 6.50 Vikings 6.00 Cardinals 6.00
49ers 7.33 Buccaneers 6.50 Titans 6.00 Colts 5.67
Ravens 7.00 Eagles 6.50 Broncos 6.00 Texans 5.67
Bengals 7.00 Cowboys 6.50 Jets 6.00 Falcons 5.50
Browns 7.00 Lions 6.50 Saints 6.00 Panthers 5.50
Chiefs 7.00 Steelers 6.00 Bills 6.00 Jaguars 5.50
Bears 6.67 Commanders 6.00 Rams 6.00 Seahawks 5.50
Dolphins 6.50 Patriots 6.00 Chargers 6.00 Raiders 4.50

 CB Coverage Projected Grades
Team Gr Team Gr Team Gr Team Gr
Jets 8.00 Patriots 7.00 Titans 6.67 Cardinals 6.00
Eagles 7.67 Broncos 7.00 Texans 6.67 Falcons 6.00
Packers 7.33 Bills 7.00 Panthers 6.50 Jaguars 6.00
Browns 7.33 Seahawks 7.00 Ravens 6.33 Steelers 5.67
Dolphins 7.33 Chargers 6.75 Commanders 6.25 Colts 5.67
49ers 7.00 Giants 6.67 Bears 6.00 Raiders 5.67
Bengals 7.00 Buccaneers 6.67 Lions 6.00 Vikings 5.33
Chiefs 7.00 Cowboys 6.67 Saints 6.00 Rams 5.33

 Safety Coverage Projected Grades
Team Gr Team Gr Team Gr Team Gr
Ravens 8.00 Broncos 7.00 Jets 6.50 Lions 6.33
Patriots 7.50 Bills 7.00 Dolphins 6.50 Packers 6.00
Titans 7.50 Chargers 7.00 Chiefs 6.50 Bears 6.00
Saints 7.50 Buccaneers 7.00 Giants 6.50 Jaguars 6.00
Steelers 7.50 Texans 7.00 Cowboys 6.50 Colts 6.00
Eagles 7.00 Panthers 7.00 Cardinals 6.50 Bengals 5.50
Browns 7.00 Commanders 7.00 Vikings 6.50 Raiders 5.50
49ers 7.00 Falcons 7.00 Seahawks 6.33 Rams 5.50


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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