2014 Outlook: Now that LaMarr Woodley has followed James Harrison out the door, Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor are the only holdover starters on defense from the Steelers' glory days. Yes, a youth movement is in full force, leaving plenty of questions. Was new signee S Mike Mitchell a product of Carolina's awesome front seven? Does Cortez Allen have the chops to eventually take over Taylor's No. 1 CB spot? Will Jarvis Jones play any better in his second year? Who will replace Brett Keisel opposite star-to-be DE Cameron Heyward? Even with the uncertainty, we have faith in Pittsburgh's front office and feel comfortable dubbing the Steelers' D/ST a 2014 sleeper.
2014 Outlook: The Giants finished fifth in net yards per pass attempt (5.95) and sixth in yards per rush allowed (3.8) last year. But this unit was dreadful during an 0'6 start and showed signs of life only when it got to face Josh Freeman, Matt Barkley, Terrelle Pryor and Scott Tolzien in successive games. GM Jerry Reese obviously wasn't fooled. He dropped big bucks on free agent CBs Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Walter Thurmond and re-signed S Stevie Brown. This has the makings of a very good secondary, and it had better be. The linebackers are a question mark for the third consecutive year, and Jason Pierre-Paul has had only 8' sacks since his breakout season in 2011.
2014 Outlook: No question, Chip Kelly is an innovator with offenses, but we're not sure what's going on with the Eagles' D. Trent Cole is an undeniable pass rusher, and we like 3-4 ends Fletcher Cox and Cedric Thornton just fine. But Philly will continue to rely on miscast starting corners like Cary Williams and Bradley Fletcher, and it made the mistake of retaining underwhelming S Nate Allen and pairing him with signee Malcolm Jenkins. That's bad news for a back end that allowed an NFL-worst 289.8 passing yards per game in 2013. Don't be fooled by Philly's top-five turnover figures last season. This isn't a starting-level D/ST.
2014 Outlook: Sometimes we watch this group and scream, "How can a defense with this many studs up front finish 20th in fantasy points!?!" Despite more greatness in 2013 from DT destroyers Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley and OLB DeAndre Levy, the Lions were mediocre in just about everything. They didn't get to the QB and, of course, made head-clutching mistakes in the secondary. Maybe Jim Schwartz's exit will mean more discipline, and maybe second-year DE Ezekiel Ansah is about to become a pass-rushing force. But you have every right to be skeptical.
2014 Outlook: The Indy defense was weird in 2013, looking tremendous in stuffing the 49ers and Chiefs, then getting eviscerated by the Rams and Cardinals. The one constant was OLB Robert Mathis, who led the league with 19' sacks at age 32 but will be suspended for the first four games of 2014. Top corner Vontae Davis and DE Cory Redding also showed some flashes, but really, there wasn't much else to be wowed by, especially in the run game. Indy's 125.1 rushing yards allowed per game ranked 26th. And while the signing of DE Arthur Jones should help in that regard, we're not sold that the run defense is completely fixed.
2014 Outlook: When we say the Bears' run D was historically awful in 2013, that's not hyperbole. The once-proud unit got ravaged for 2,583 yards on the ground, the fourth worst leaguewide since 2001. GM Phil Emery took one look at that number and let D-linemen Julius Peppers, Henry Melton and Corey Wootton walk. And while the much-ballyhooed trio of Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young are a step in the right direction, the front four wasn't the only problem. The safeties were awful, and we don't see a solution on the roster. Was Charles Tillman merely injured last year or is he cooked? Will Lance Briggs regain his coverage skills at age 33? Allen's pass-rushing can't fix everything.
2014 Outlook: Give the Raiders credit: They didn't stand pat. Lacking playmakers all over the field, they drafted pass-rushing stud Khalil Mack. They also signed Justin Tuck, LaMarr Woodley, Antonio Smith, Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown -- all of whom are 29 or older. The veteran presence will be needed on a team that made the dubious decision to keep Nick Roach as its starting middle linebacker; he was Pro Football Focus' eighth-worst run-stopping ILB last season. On the bright side, getting Tyvon Branch healthy to pair with S Charles Woodson should help shore up the Raiders' 28th-ranked pass D. It's a motley crew, but we don't think it'll be terrible.
2014 Outlook: We kind of like the Jags' D/ST as a deep sleeper -- yes, the same Jags unit that was a bottom-three unit for a second straight year. We have faith that second-year coach Gus Bradley can turn it around. The former Seahawks D-coordinator is doing his best to replicate his Pacific Northwest magic. He even lured DE past Red Bryant and Chris Clemons away from Seattle this winter. Still, even the most optimistic forecaster will admit that a lot must go right for Jacksonville to merit fantasy consideration. While Johnathan Cyprien and Dwayne Gratz are interesting young pieces in the secondary, there's a long way to go to reach Legion of Boom status. But we do like that Seattle-esque D-line.
2014 Outlook: Call us cynics, but if the Packers are banking on a 34-year-old Julius Peppers, we're not drafting this D/ST. Don't be fooled by his seven sacks in 2013: Peppers fell off a cliff in Chicago last year. He didn't consistently pressure QBs, he didn't stop the run, and let's face it, he's never played in a 3-4 defense. Keeping Clay Matthews healthy is a must, but otherwise it's a familiar look in Green Bay: B.J. Raji, A.J. Hawk, Sam Shields. ' Aren't these the same big names who've run hot and cold for a couple of years now? We'll pass.
2014 Outlook: New Titans DC Ray Horton has success everywhere he goes, but it might take a season before he can fully realize his 3-4 plans. The linebackers are probably good enough: We're fans of pass rushers Akeem Ayers and Shaun Phillips and ILB Wesley Woodyard. But emerging 4-3 star DT Jurrell Casey (10' sacks in 2013) doesn't seem to have a position on a 3-4 D-line, and the Titans will be placing a lot of weight on relatively untested D-linemen Ropati Pitoitua and Al Woods. Those are legit problems, especially after losing INT leader CB Alterraun Verner in free agency. This crew will have fantasy potential ' in 2015.
2014 Outlook: If you gave us a choice of any 3-4 defensive line in the NFL, we might take the Jets' Muhammad Wilkerson, Damon Harrison and reigning defensive rookie of the year Sheldon Richardson. Unfortunately, the back eight looks like a mess. Former first-round CB Dee Milliner was benched multiple times in 2013; he'll need to take a big leap forward in year two to be a No. 1 corner. OLB Quinton Coples doesn't get to the QB enough, and Calvin Pace is terrible in run support. And the Jets will rely on rookie Calvin Pryor to instantly be their best safety. Rex Ryan is a magician with a defense, but there's a limit to what he can do.
2014 Outlook: This unit needs bodies. After adding DTs Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson in free agency, the D-line is better. But we're still looking at a defense with zero healthy proven commodities at linebacker, a shaky strong safety in William Moore, no established free safety at all and precious little cornerback depth behind Desmond Trufant. Only five teams gave up more points per game than the Falcons did last year (27.7), and while it's unwise to rule out a bounce-back, let someone else in your league take that risk.
2014 Outlook: After biting down hard on this group in 2013, we won't be fooled again. DE Cameron Wake (11' sacks per season since 2010) is a great player, and we'll buy Brent Grimes as a No. 1 corner. But we're struggling to come up with another Dolphins starter we trust. New free safety Louis Delmas could work out ' if his knee problems don't pop up again. Dion Jordan, last year's No. 3 overall pick, has tons of potential ' if he can stay on the field. (He played only 29 percent of the Dolphins' defensive snaps in 2013.) Oh, and there's Cortland Finnegan, perhaps the NFL's worst corner in 2013, whom Miami just paid $5.5 million guaranteed. Do. Not. Draft.
2014 Outlook: New coach Mike Zimmer brings a reputation for defensive excellence, so it wouldn't shock us to see a Vikings turnaround. With stellar DTs Linval Joseph and Sharrif Floyd, this has all the makings of an elite run-stuffing front. But other than rookie Anthony Barr, the linebackers underwhelm, and if Minny thinks newly signed CBs Captain Munnerlyn and Derek Cox will rescue the secondary, it'll be disappointed. This group should be good for above-average sacks and perhaps turnovers. But we're afraid it will be easy to score against the Vikings again; in 2013 they allowed 30 points per game, the most in the NFL.
2014 Outlook: At least Washington held on to Brian Orakpo; he was spectacular in 2013 (10 sacks) and earned every penny of his $11.45 million franchise tag. Unfortunately, Orakpo and NT Barry Cofield were the only two starters worth a hoot last season. We assumed Daniel Snyder would bust the bank reshaping this unit in free agency, especially that horrid secondary. But no. Get ready for another season of people telling you that DeAngelo Hall is a No. 1 corner (he isn't) and that safeties like Brandon Meriweather and Steelers retread Ryan Clark can play (they can't). This is basically the same group that allowed 7.6 net yards per pass attempt in 2013, dead last in the NFL.