Last week, spurred by the quietest weeks of the NFL schedule, I ran through the NFL's offensive triplets and ranked them, 1-32. The Steelers finished first and the Browns last. Most people agreed on those two, but just about every team and every spot in between were up for serious debate.
It will be even harder to sort through the league's defensive triplets. Great quarterback play is more obvious and plainer to see than the work of a dominant nose tackle or a sideline-to-sideline linebacker. There's no obvious trio of positions to approach like there are with offensive triplets, so one team's group could include three defensive linemen, while another organization might send out three defensive backs. Comparing those groups is inherently more difficult.
I did it anyway. As with the offensive triplets, I considered each team's best three-man group for the 2016 season. I weighted past performance so that 2015 was each player's most important past season but not his only relevant piece of data. I projected injuries for players who don't have a pre-existing condition as if it would be a typical year of health. In cases where two defenses were relatively close, I leaned my rankings toward the team with the best individual player. And after running through the rankings over and over again before I came up with a satisfying list, I found myself in the same place where I began the last batch:
32. Cleveland Browns
And so, sadly, the Browns finish at the bottom of the offensive triplet rankings and the bottom of the defensive triplet rankings. Years of disappointing first-round picks and questionable free-agent signings have left the Browns bereft on the defense. They have a legitimate No. 1 cornerback on the roster in Haden, but the former Florida star was riddled with injuries last season and may not be ready for the start of the 2016 campaign. There's still time for players such as Danny Shelton and Justin Gilbert to develop under a new coaching staff, but there's little to be enthused about on defense for Cleveland.
The Saints were the league's worst defense by almost a comical amount last season, finishing further away from the 31st-ranked Chicago in DVOA than the Bears were to the Patriots in 12th place. New Orleans has a legitimate, above-average pass-rusher in Jordan, and Breaux developed into an above-average slot corner as the year went on, but the Saints will still be hoping that the likes of Jairus Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro take steps forward into the players they looked like in 2013. Moving on from Rob Ryan might help, but defensive coordinator Dennis Allen will have his work cut out for him in his first full year at the helm.
30. Chicago Bears
Things will get better for the Bears, who have one of the league's better defensive coaching staffs with John Fox and Vic Fangio running things. They upgraded massively at their weakest position this offseason, adding inside linebackers Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman. The problem is still Chicago's porous secondary, a unit that wasn't upgraded by anything more valuable than a fourth-round pick this offseason. The Bears should get more help from McPhee, who had five sacks in his first seven games last season before a knee injury sapped his effectiveness.
29. Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys are blessed to have Rod Marinelli, who perennially coaches up relatively anonymous defensive linemen into meaningful contributors, but there's not a lot of top-level talent to work with in Dallas. Pedigreed players such as Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne haven't lived up to expectations, while valuable slot corner Orlando Scandrick is coming off of a torn ACL. The Cowboys have a useful second tier of starters in Cedric Thornton, Rolando McClain and Byron Jones, but this is a team full of offensive stars and bereft of difference-makers on defense. One notable problem: The Cowboys stopped creating turnovers. They forced takeaways on a league-high 17.2 percent of possessions in 2014, only for that figure to fall to a league-low 6.0 percent of possessions last year. They'll likely be somewhere in the middle in 2016, which should aid matters.
28. Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons have a legitimate star in Trufant, one of the most underrated players in football and a genuine No. 1 cornerback for a team with one of the league's worst pass rushes. After Trufant, though, the cupboard is mostly bare. Beasley was supposed to get after quarterbacks, but he finished last season with four sacks and just five quarterback knockdowns while playing through a torn labrum in his shoulder. He's already moving to strongside linebacker and playing the role Bruce Irvin played in Seattle, which invites distressing comparisons given how Irvin failed to live up to expectations. The roster is otherwise full of low-ceiling placeholders, and 2015 second-rounder Jalen Collins is already suspended for the first four games of 2016. First-round pick Keanu Neal will hopefully bump Clayborn out of this grouping next year.
The 49ers might have topped this list a few years ago, when they could have thrown Bowman into the mix with Patrick Willis, Justin Smith or Aldon Smith. Things have sadly gone south since then, and while the Niners have replenished their defense with first-round picks in each of the past four seasons, many of those contributors remain unfinished products at best. Two of San Francisco's triplets are mid-round picks, with Bowman a former third-round pick and Lynch a fifth-rounder. Reid is just about all the 49ers have to show for a pair of disastrous drafts in 2012 and 2013, unless Vance McDonald delivers on the promise he finally showed at the end of last season.
No team is poised to fly up these rankings in a year like the Jags, given that they have a bevy of young talent on the roster with Ramsey, Myles Jack and 2015 first-rounder Dante Fowler Jr., who missed all of his rookie season with a torn ACL. They could very well be the new triplets in these rankings next season. It's also fair to point out that the Jags haven't really developed defensive talent under Gus Bradley; Smith, who has rounded into a useful, versatile cover linebacker, is the one exception. The Jags were 26th in defensive DVOA last season; they'll almost surely be better in 2016, but they'll need some of their prospects to turn into stars to rise up the rankings.
If the Jags become a cautionary tale for spending extensively in free agency and failing to improve matters, they'll only be taking that title away from the Colts, who have a defensive lineup full of names who have failed to live up to their contracts or their résumés. (Davis, remember, was acquired via trade.) Adams, who has made the Pro Bowl in consecutive seasons at the ages of 33 and 34, has been one of the rare exceptions, but he's also entering his age-35 season. The Colts might very well start two homegrown players -- 2015 fourth-rounder Clayton Geathers and fellow fifth-rounder David Parry -- on defense this season. You don't necessarily need to develop your own talent to find stars, but your chances of finding a dominant player in free agency in an era when the cap is rising by close to 10 percent on an annual basis is remarkably slim.
The Chargers invested heavily in upgrading their defense this offseason, using the third overall pick on Joey Bosa while signing Brandon Mebane, Casey Hayward and Dwight Lowery. The Chargers will certainly be deeper, which will reduce the number of snaps that went to sub-replacement players such as Donald Butler and Jimmy Wilson, both of whom left this offseason. That will help the team overall, but the only real star on the defense is Verrett, and even he has missed 12 of his first 32 games as a pro.
23. Tennessee Titans
Quietly, and despite the fact that nobody on their team finished with more than seven sacks, the Titans had one of the league's best pass rushes last season. They finished third in the league in adjusted sack rate, taking down opposing quarterbacks on 7.8 percent of their dropbacks. The problem is that nobody needed to throw on Tennessee, as the Titans were often trailing; they faced a league-low 503 pass attempts last season. Casey and Orakpo were the primary contributors to that pass rush, although McCourty struggled through an injury-riddled season. The Titans will have to hope he returns to form in 2016; everyone in their secondary was stretched without McCourty playing like an upper-echelon corner last season.
While few could question the Steelers' offensive triplets standing at the top of the NFL leaderboard, their defensive triplets don't reach the same heights. They have a pair of effective inside linebackers in Timmons and Shazier, and Heyward had his best professional season after signing a lucrative contract extension in July, which explains why the Steelers had the league's fifth-best run defense by DVOA. They weren't as effective against the pass, because the secondary was still a mess and the team got precious little out of first-round picks Bud Dupree and Jarvis Jones on the edge. Pittsburgh's best pass-rushers were 37-year-old James Harrison and minimum-salaried Bills castoff Arthur Moats. The Steelers did use their first two draft picks on defensive backs and brought back Harrison and Moats, which will help, but this is still a top-heavy defense without a truly dominant player.
21. Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens were riddled with injuries on both sides of the football last year, and it's reasonable to wonder whether former stars Terrell Suggs and Jimmy Smith will ever return to their former selves. Salary-cap concerns also have forced the Ravens to shed young talent, like the aforementioned Pernell McPhee in recent years, leaving them with two relatively young contributors and a lot of veterans who will hopefully play at a high level. Williams is one emerging star Ozzie Newsome will have to keep around; there are few nose tackles in the league who play at such a high level. Williams and Mosley are the anchors in a Baltimore run defense that was 12th in DVOA last season, which was one of the few bright spots for what was a pretty bad football team. Weddle should still have something left in the tank at 31, but with question marks surrounding him in the secondary, even his much-needed arrival may not be enough.
20. New York Giants
The Giants certainly added all the talent they could in free agency, bringing in Vernon, Harrison and Janoris Jenkins to turn around a defense that finished 30th in DVOA last season. The Giants will be better, but it comes at an enormous cost, and it's reasonable to wonder whether they've brought in transcendent talent. Harrison was an effective nose tackle for the Jets, but he was playing alongside Mo Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson, who would help make a lot of nose tackles look great. Vernon played end across from Cameron Wake and, in 2015, next to Ndamukong Suh. Those stars aren't coming along to New Jersey for the ride. The Giants might have assembled a top-10 group of triplets, but they also might have collected a batch of second bananas.
Few teams in the league can sport a one-two punch as good as McCoy and David, who combine to give the Bucs a devastating interior penetrator and one of the league's rangiest linebackers. The only knock on those two: McCoy has struggled with injuries for most of his career, missing chunks of his first two seasons before throwing in four more absences over the past two years. The problem is that the Bucs have to line up nine other guys on defense, and that hasn't gone well. Tampa has repeatedly shopped in free agency to fill those holes and almost immediately regretted its decision to do so. This year, the team is taking shots to improve longstanding holes at cornerback (Grimes) and defensive end (Robert Ayers), with the Bucs hoping that investments in players on the wrong side of 30 will manage to keep their defense from making major mistakes.
Even I'll admit that this feels low for a defense as promising and exciting as Minnesota's under Mike Zimmer. This is a defense that's really built upon its depth. Their best pass-rusher after Griffen is reserve defensive tackle Tom Johnson, and after him, it's probably situational second-year end Danielle Hunter. The Vikings go five deep at corner after adding Mackensie Alexander in the second round. The only real hole on the roster is at safety next to Smith, but for all the young talent they have, they finished 14th in defensive DVOA, one spot behind the Colts. Players such as Barr and Eric Kendricks are likely to continue improving, and there's a ton of talent here, but this is a defense that looks better from a wider lens.
17. Buffalo Bills
It looked as if the Bills were primed for a historically great season after finishing second in DVOA in 2014 and then shutting out the much-vaunted Colts in Week 1 last season, but it turns out that neither the Colts' offense nor the Bills' defense were all that great. Rex Ryan's defense fell all the way to 24th in DVOA, and while Mario Williams served as a convenient scapegoat, the reality is that the team played worse almost across the board after the departure of Jim Schwartz. Ryan managed to develop second-rounder Ronald Darby into an immediate contributor, but the coach will want to re-sign Gilmore, who is quietly one of the league's better corners when healthy.
This is another group that, like Tampa, would look better if we were just considering two-man duos instead of three-man triplets. Norman was the league's best cornerback last season and would have been defensive player of the year if it weren't for the meteor that brought J.J. Watt to this planet. Even if Norman takes a step backward in his new digs, he should still be among the top cornerbacks. And while Kerrigan is a very good edge rusher, there's a huge drop-off from him to the likes of Breeland and Chris Baker elsewhere in the starting lineup. If Junior Galette returns from his torn Achilles to be an impactful contributor across from Kerrigan, Washington could take a leap forward in these rankings next year.
Cox's importance to the Eagles was underlined with the six-year, $102 million deal he signed last week, one that will end up realistically paying him $63.4 million over the next four seasons. New defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has built his defenses around devastating interior linemen such as Albert Haynesworth (Tennessee), Ndamukong Suh (Detroit) and Marcell Dareus (Buffalo), and Cox is next in that line of dominant disruptors. Barwin is one of the most versatile defenders in the league, capable of contributing as an excellent pass-rusher and an above-average cover linebacker at different times, but again, there's a drop-off between those two and the rest of the defensive roster.
14. Oakland Raiders
Few pass-rushers in the league can hold a candle to Mack, who also throws in excellent run defense and the ability to flash as a coverage linebacker during those times when the Raiders decide to give opposing quarterbacks a play off. After Mack, though, there's no real second star on the defense. Mack had 15 sacks and 24 quarterback knockdowns last season; nobody else on the roster had more than four sacks or eight knockdowns. Waiver-wire addition David Amerson knocked away a remarkable 25 passes, but the playmaker in the Oakland secondary was the now-retired Charles Woodson. Smith will help if he can maintain his above-average level of play from Kansas City, and Williams is a wildly underrated anchor for Jack Del Rio's improved run defense, but the Raiders need a second star to emerge next to the monstrous Mack.
As is the case with the Vikings, the Bengals have a very good defense that benefits from a remarkable amount of depth. The long-awaited breakout season finally came for Dunlap, who hinted at a huge campaign when he finished second in the league in quarterback knockdowns in 2014 with 28, trailing only Watt. Dunlap promptly posted 13.5 sacks last season while jumping to 34 knockdowns. Atkins chipped in with 11 sacks from the interior, finally looking recovered from his torn ACL. The only other team in the league to see two players produce 10 sacks or more was Houston, and it has Watt.
The Packers have neutered their most important defensive weapon over the past year and a half, moving Matthews into an inside linebacker spot that plays more to the team's needs than Matthews' strengths. The Packers do have the seemingly ageless Julius Peppers terrorizing opposing quarterbacks from the edge, and Matthews was still effective as a pass-rusher during the second half of 2014, but he had just 6.5 sacks and 19 quarterback knockdowns a year ago. The Packers have suggested they'll move him back outside in 2016, but those plans have a way of changing once a team sees its weaknesses during the season. If Matthews returns to outside linebacker and his previous level of havoc, the Packers would rise up these rankings.
11. Miami Dolphins
A year ago, this would have been a top-five pairing. Suh was every bit as good as the Dolphins could have hoped after giving him a massive deal (and contractual considerations aren't included in this analysis), and Jones has developed into one of the league's better safeties, even if he's probably not worth the $10 million per year he reportedly wants in a new deal. Wake? It's hard to say what he'll be, given that he is 34 and coming off of a torn Achilles. There are questions about Mario Williams, who is 31 and was run out of Buffalo this offseason, and the likes of Byron Maxwell and Isa Abdul-Quddus have short résumés as contributors. That third spot is up for grabs, which says more about Wake's future than it does about Miami's.
The Patriots run deep with talent even without Chandler Jones. You could throw out any of their triplets and replace them with cornerback Malcolm Butler, who took an enormous step forward while often covering No. 1 wideouts last year, or the stunningly versatile Rob Ninkovich, who took reps at inside linebacker in camp. The only real concern with these triplets is injury: They all missed time last season, with McCourty crucially derailed and then limited by a high ankle sprain late in the season as the Patriots failed to lock up the top seed in the AFC. When all three are healthy, the football field seems to shrink.
It still seems impossible that Donald slipped to the 13th pick in the 2014 draft; the only players who can really touch him as the best player from that class so far are Khalil Mack and Odell Beckham Jr., and Donald might somehow be the most spectacular of those three. Teams do occasionally take advantage of his ability to penetrate on the interior and have success running up the middle against the Rams, but that's like criticizing your Ferrari for being a bear to park. The Rams have to hope Quinn is fully recovered from back surgery, but at his best, he's about as unblockable as Donald. There's a bit of a gap between the Rams' two stud pass-rushers and the rest of their defensive starters, but Johnson finally took hold as an above-average cornerback last season, and the likes of Mark Barron and Alec Ogletree form a solid second tier.
The Lions?! Detroit fell from third to 16th in defensive DVOA last season, but a huge reason why the Lions struggled was the absence of Levy, who was arguably the best coverage linebacker in football during the 2013-2014 seasons before missing virtually all of 2015 with a hip injury. Levy should be back in time for the 2016 season, and in his absence, the Lions developed a pair of young superstars. Ansah, who looked like a budding Pro Bowler heading into the season, finished second in the league in sacks (14.5) and tied for fourth in quarterback knockdowns (34). And while Slay had an ugly performance against the Broncos on national television early in the season, he improved as the season went along and was one of the best corners in football during the second half of the campaign. The Lions do have holes in their secondary and at linebacker, but their big three belongs among the best in football.
The Texans are the toughest team to place on this list. You can make arguments that they're too high and too low. When you get this high in the triplet rankings, you're generally looking at teams that can throw out three (or more) players who are likely to be Pro Bowlers in 2016. The Texans, who just had one defensive Pro Bowler last year, aren't likely to pull that off. Of course, that Pro Bowler is Watt, who isn't your typical Pro Bowler. He's the most transcendent player in the league and arguably playing better than any defender in NFL history when you consider how he laps his brethren.
Even if you treat Watt as a step above any other defensive player in football, the talent around him is ordinary. Jadeveon Clowney hasn't developed. Brian Cushing isn't the player he once was before various injuries. Vince Wilfork is 34. Kareem Jackson is inconsistent. Mercilus had 12 sacks last season, but it's fair to wonder how many of those came by virtue of teams devoting their pass protection toward Watt.
But remember that Watt looked like a shell of his usual self during a three-game stretch in 2015, one in which injuries sapped his strength and held him to zero sacks and two quarterback knockdowns. The Texans allowed just 43 points in those three games. Granted, they gave up 27 to the Patriots before holding the Colts (with Matt Hasselbeck at quarterback) and Titans (with Zach Mettenberger) to a combined 16 points, but they didn't collapse with Watt looking ordinary. I'm not satisfied with them at seven, but it would feel wrong to place them any higher or any lower.
It's impossible to talk about this Chiefs defense without mentioning Houston, but his status for 2016 remains uncertain at best, given that he had a non-functioning ACL when doctors operated on him this spring. At his best, Houston might be the best non-Watt pass-rusher in the league, and the Chiefs gave him help with a dominant secondary last season. Peters' performance was overstated a bit by his interception totals, but he competed with some of the league's best wideouts as a rookie, which is a stretch for even the league's truly great cornerbacks. And Berry's return from lymphoma was more than inspirational: He also had what was arguably his best season as a pro in the process. The good news for the Chiefs is that you could replace Houston in this list with Dontari Poe, Derrick Johnson or Tamba Hali, and they would rank at or around this spot.
The Jets' big three isn't without question marks, but it's difficult to find a more impactful trio when all three are at their best. Revis slipped a bit from his dominant year in New England -- his misstep at the goal line against Pierre Garcon stands out as the sort of mistake he didn't make the previous season -- but the extent of his decline was overstated. The combination of Richardson and Wilkerson anchored the league's best run defense by DVOA, but Wilkerson broke his leg in the season finale and may hold out in pursuit of a new contract. The Jets might replace Wilkerson with Leonard Williams after this season, both in the lineup and in their triplets, but there's a major gap between that top three (or top four) and the rest of their defensive starters.
Pretty nifty when you can form a trio of stars and leave out Tyrann Mathieu, right? Mathieu would be in this grouping ahead of Jones based on his 2015 form, but the torn ACL he suffered in December raises questions about whether he'll keep that up in 2016, especially because it took him a year to return to form after tearing his ACL at the end of the 2013 campaign. Mathieu may still be useful, but it's enough to push Arizona's new star edge rusher into the triplets combo. Jones could end up being a one-year rental, but he's the exact sort of mid-peak pass-rusher the blitz-happy Cardinals haven't had during Bruce Arians' tenure.
This is like picking your favorite child. If we were picking the best triplet combinations of any defense within 2015, Carolina would win with the trio of Kuechly, Davis and Josh Norman, who was playing out of his mind at cornerback. Of course, Norman is now in Washington. Short is no slouch, as interior disruptors who can produce 11 sacks don't exactly grow on trees, but there's a difference between a very good defensive tackle and somebody playing like the league's best cornerback. That's enough to drop the Panthers ever so slightly to third.
Pick Aqib Talib over Ware if you would like, but after watching what Miller and Ware did to the Patriots and Panthers in the playoffs, I'm not capable of swapping either of them out of this triplet combination. I'd also sneak in Harris, who is criminally underpaid even after signing an extension -- he'll make $27.3 million over the first three years of his deal while somebody like Janoris Jenkins, who doesn't approach Harris' ability, will make $39.7 million. Denver was the league's best defense by DVOA a year ago, and while the Broncos will miss the likes of Malik Jackson and Danny Trevathan, their big three (or four) is so good that it's hard to imagine them slipping far statistically. Now, if Miller holds out ...
As good as the Broncos are, though, there just isn't any team competing with the Seahawks. Seattle has two future Hall of Fame defenders in the prime of their respective careers. Sherman was overshadowed by Norman last season, but there's a reason Seattle posted the NFL's best DVOA against No. 1 wideouts last year while simultaneously holding them to a league-low 46.8 yards per game. Sherman can shut them down on his side, allowing the Seahawks to devote extra attention to taking away the receivers on the opposite side of the field. Thomas' brilliance is almost routine at this point, and he's the best safety in football by a staggering amount. And then, merely in the category of great players, there's the unblockable Bennett. He had 30 quarterback knockdowns last year. I could just as easily swap out Bennett for Bobby Wagner, who is one of the five best middle linebackers in football. If the Broncos had the 27-year-old Ware instead of the 33-year-old version, they might be able to leap past the Seahawks. As is, though, no team can stand up to Seattle's trio of superstars.