Barkevious Mingo hasn't played a snap yet in the NFL, but felt moved enough after OTAs and minicamps to proclaim that the Cleveland Browns defense "could be the best in the league." We'll chalk that up to rookie exuberance, but it does bring up an interesting question: Which team will field the best defense in 2013?
I could make a strong case for any of the teams in the NFC West, but I'm going to predict the Houston Texans will field the top defense this fall.
Houston has the NFL's most dominant defender (J.J. Watt) and a creative defensive coordinator (Wade Phillips). Also, the unit will benefit from the healthy return of a top-five inside linebacker (Brian Cushing). The secondary is the only concern, but that group won't be exposed too much because of the Texans' ferocious pass rush.
My choice is the Seattle Seahawks. When making a prediction at this time of year, the assumption is that the team you pick will be healthy, so I am banking on a clean bill of health for Seattle's two new defensive ends (Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett). Bruce Irvin is suspended for the first four games of the season, but ultimately Seattle will field an excellent outside pass rush. This will show up even more at home, with the added advantage of the crowd noise. I like the addition of fifth-rounder Jesse Williams, who can help solidify the inside run defense. I think the acquisition of cornerback Antoine Winfield provides quality depth at a position that is already stout. The Seahawks boast what is probably the best safety combination in the NFL in Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas. This gives them the best secondary in the NFL, with a good pass rush. That is hard to beat.
Also, this is a defense that should be well-rested, thanks to an offense that hit its stride down the stretch last season and will only get better in Russell Wilson's second year at the helm. (Not to mention, the offseason addition of Percy Harvin.)
I know this isn't an exciting answer, because there's nothing new or cool about it, but my expectation is the Pittsburgh Steelers will field the top-ranked defense in 2013 -- just like always.
Pittsburgh spent a first-round pick on pass rusher Jarvis Jones, who fits the team's tradition of employing hard-nosed, disruptive players. Troy Polamalu will be healthy for the first time in a while. And two new running backs from the draft should help the offense sustain drives and keep the defense rested.
Oh, and no doubt, the Steelers will have to listen to a preseason of everyone writing them off as old and slow again. Expect a loud response. Have we all forgotten how good Dick LeBeau is?
Chris Long and Robert Quinn rival any edge-rushing tandem in football. Michael Brockers is set for a breakout season at defensive tackle. James Laurinaitis and rookie Alec Ogletree are both dynamic linebackers. There are questions at safety, but I love the starting cornerback combination of Cortland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins. This group is ready to dominate.
The best defense will be played in the NFC West this season. All four teams will be pretty stout this year. But the Seattle Seahawks are going to be the best of a very good bunch.
The Seahawks were very good on defense in 2012, as they ranked fourth in yards allowed. But if there was one spot they could have improved, it was in their pass rush -- the team ranked 18th in sacks. Free-agent addition Cliff Avril, late of the Detroit Lions, should be a huge improvement in this area. Avril, along with the best secondary in the league (according to Earl Thomas), will make it tough for offenses to move the ball against Seattle this year.
Who dey think gonna have a better defense dan dem Bengals? With a unit that finished sixth overall last season, the Bengals did a very smart thing over the last couple of months: keeping the guys they wanted, rather than going out and spending a ton of money in free agency on a pass rusher, shutdown corner, etc. The truly great defenses are the ones that stay together over a few years with as little turnover as possible. Hey, if you have a hole, by all means plug it. But wholesale changes hardly ever work -- just ask the Eagles. You have to let defenses simmer and bake for a while. Now, Mike Zimmer's defense is ready to take over the league and allow somewhere between 15 and 17 points per game.
Cincinnati has employed a great philosophy over the last couple of years: build depth on defense. Also, the Bengals haven't given anyone crazy long-term money that would imbalance the roster. (Only four players are making more than $3 million a year.) This gives Cincy good sub-package depth. For example, the Bengals boast a talented dime package; they're not just throwing the last two DBs on the roster into play because that's all they have. Lose a guy in free agency? Someone else is ready to immediately step in. Not only are the Bengals set up for success in 2013 -- they're equipped for many years to come.