2014 Outlook: Ho-hum. All the Super Bowl champs did in 2013 was allow the fewest total yards (4,378), fewest passing yards (2,752), fewest yards per play (4.4), lowest red zone efficiency (36 percent) and lowest QBR in the NFL (29). There have been a few defections: Red Bryant and Chris Clemons from the D-line and Brandon Browner and Walter Thurmond from the secondary. But DE Michael Bennett, who had 8' sacks and 39 hurries in 2013, gave Seattle a hometown discount to stay, and Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas, Cliff Avril, Brandon Mebane, Malcolm Smith and Bobby Wagner are also still around to re-create the league's best defense.
2014 Outlook: Last season the Panthers were proof of the power of an elite front seven. This unit was a run-stopping, quarterback-sacking nightmare, allowing so-so talent like Captain Munnerlyn and Mike Mitchell to look good in coverage. And because Carolina retained DE Greg Hardy opposite Charles Johnson, we're not concerned that the Panthers' secondary again looks mediocre. Luke Kuechly, Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short compose one of the league's top interiors, and the Johnson/Hardy combo could be the league's scariest for opposing offensive tackles. If the front seven stays healthy and Hardy's potential suspension isn't too severe, this D will dominate.
2014 Outlook: The Niners' defense revolves around perhaps the game's two best inside linebackers: Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. Yes, Aldon Smith and Justin Smith, with 37' sacks since 2012, are fantastic pass rushers, but their abilities are accentuated by the do-everything ILB duo. Unfortunately, Bowman tore up his knee in the NFC championship game and probably won't be ready until midseason. Even with shaky corners, a downgrade at safety (Antoine Bethea replaces Donte Whitner) and a possible Aldon Smith suspension looming, this D/ST will be starting quality. Just don't overreach for it on draft day.
2014 Outlook: The Broncos are going for it: They paid $60 million guaranteed to DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward and Aqib Talib over the winter and drafted Bradley Roby. Meanwhile, Champ Bailey, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Shaun Phillips and Robert Ayers are gone. That sounds like a net win, but there are two wild cards. First, the health of OLB Von Miller (35 sacks in 40 career games) and nickel CB Chris Harris (3 INTs in 2013) remains an unknown. Both are still on the mend from late-season ACL tears. And Denver's revolving door at MLB looks like it'll continue for another year, with Nate Irving penciled in as the starter. Still, if everyone is healthy, this looks like a dangerous group.
2014 Outlook: What the Cardinals lack in elite pass rushers, they make up for with a bevy of born-ready run stuffers, starting with DE Darnell Dockett, DT Dan Williams and LB Matt Shaughnessy. And it showed last season: Zona was tops in rushing yards allowed per game (84.4). Calais Campbell, who's coming off a career-high nine sacks, and John Abraham will again shoulder most of the pass-rushing duties. Arizona certainly has questions on the back end, where Tyrann Mathieu is recovering from a torn ACL, and free agent signee Antonio Cromartie hopes to rebound from a lackluster 2013. But with shutdown corner Patrick Peterson still around, the desert arrow is pointing up.
2014 Outlook: Losing DE Michael Johnson (15 sacks since 2012) will hurt. Losing DC Mike Zimmer might hurt more. Johnson fled for big money in Tampa, so Cincy is still searching for a DE who can play opposite Carlos Dunlap. The Bengals' No. 5 rush defense from 2013 will get a boost as All-Pro DT Geno Atkins returns from his torn ACL, and it can count on LB Vontaze Burfict to continue to right a lot of wrongs. The back end is a question mark, though. Leon Hall is coming off a torn Achilles, while Terence Newman and Adam "Pacman" Jones look a few years past their prime. Rookie first-round CB Darqueze Dennard will be pressured to play right away, but we think he can handle it.
2014 Outlook: With 19 sacks and 51 hurries (fourth in the NFC), DE Robert Quinn could've been the NFL's defensive MVP last year. Now that blitz-happy DC Gregg Williams is taking over, you can bet DE Chris Long and new signee DT Alex Carrington will see more sack opportunities too. As for the back seven? It's too soon to dismiss LB Alec Ogletree or CB Janoris Jenkins, but we're not fans of anyone else. There's a reason this unit was third in sacks (53) but 19th in pass yards allowed (3,874) last year: It doesn't cover well, and that keeps it shy of elite status.
2014 Outlook: Linebackers Tamba Hali and Justin Houston make this defense go. After the Chiefs started 9'1, the duo got nicked up in Week 12 against the Chargers, and KC promptly lost four of its final six regular-season games. The good news is that both of them should be healthy for Week 1, and the team drafted Dee Ford to back them up. The bad news? The cap-strapped Chiefs couldn't afford to add much depth, meaning excellent S Eric Berry will mostly be on his own again in the secondary. KC wasn't horrible against the pass -- its 6.7 net yards per pass attempt was about average -- but former stud corners Brandon Flowers and Sean Smith struggled.
2014 Outlook: Hello, Revis! The Pats gladly upgraded from Aqib Talib to Darrelle Revis while also adding CB Brandon Browner (suspended first four games). When you factor in free safety Devin McCourty, this has the makings of a potentially elite secondary. Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich aren't the most overwhelming pass-rushing duo, but they should get a boost if the Pats cover well on the back end. The problem? New England couldn't stop the run last year after Vince Wilfork (Achilles) and Jerod Mayo (torn pectoral) were lost for the season. The team hopes first-rounder Dominique Easley can help the run D, but he's had serious injury issues himself.
2014 Outlook: After one year of running a 3-4, new DC Jim Schwartz is switching the Bills back to a 4-3. In Detroit, Schwartz ran a lot of Wide 9 concepts, which let pass rushers run free off the edges. Thanks to Mario Williams' revival and Jerry Hughes' breakout year, Buffalo was second in sacks last year. The trade-off of such a scheme can be softness up the middle vs. the run, and by most metrics, Buffalo was already a bottom-10 run defense in 2013. If free agent acquisition LB Brandon Spikes shores up that area and the Bills find a replacement for safety Jairus Byrd, maybe we'll see the kind of turnover-happy defense Schwartz occasionally fielded in the Motor City.
2014 Outlook: The Bucs will be fascinating on defense. Lovie Smith presided over some of the NFL's nastiest turnover-machine units in Chicago, but that was with an in-his-prime Brian Urlacher. There's talent here: DT Gerald McCoy and LB Lavonte David were terrific in 2013, and new signees DE Michael Johnson and CB Alterraun Verner fit well in Tampa's cover 2 scheme. But this ain't the 2006 Bears. Big-name safeties Dashon Goldson and Mark Barron were disasters last year. Heck, this team hasn't finished in the top half of the league in sacks since 2007. In deeper leagues, we're willing to risk drafting these guys because we believe so much in Lovie. But it's a leap of faith.
2014 Outlook: So the Saints' defense didn't totally stink last year. Who saw that comin'? Rob Ryan's swap to an aggressive 3-4 worked, especially against the pass. DE Cam Jordan (12' sacks, fifth in the NFL) was a revelation as a pocket-collapsing 3-4 end in the J.J. Watt mold. And CB Keenan Lewis, never anything special in Pittsburgh, became a legit No. 1 cover man. The Saints will now pair big-ticket free agent safety Jairus Byrd with second-year stud Kenny Vaccaro. That should be a dynamite combo. The worry is run defense. This was a bottom-five unit in yards per carry in 2013, and it still hasn't found consistency from defensive tackle or middle linebacker.
2014 Outlook: Maybe we're too low on a defense that was a consensus top-five unit heading into last season and just drafted Jadeveon Clowney No. 1 overall. J.J. Watt (31 sacks the past two seasons) is the best defensive player in the NFL right now, and Brian Cushing is very good when he can stay healthy. But cracks in the Texans' secondary became chasms last year, and highly touted outside linebackers Brooks Reed and Whitney Mercilus failed to meet expectations. New DC Romeo Crennel has a long track record, but does anyone else find it concerning that the Chiefs' D/ST became a force after he left town? Make these guys prove it to you.
2014 Outlook: Getting old is no fun. With the days of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed well behind them, the Ravens have done their best to reshape their defense with limited cap space. But over the winter, they lost another good player in DE Arthur Jones. So it'll be up to reigning Pro Bowlers Terrell Suggs and Haloti Ngata to pick up where they left off, while young players like safeties Matt Elam and Darian Stewart and linebackers C.J. Mosley and Arthur Brown try to plug holes. Unfortunately, those holes are too plentiful to trust this unit to be your fantasy starter in standard leagues.
2014 Outlook: Come on, Browns defense. It's time! This unit has flirted with fantasy goodness for years but has never consistently delivered. It finished 2013 in the top 10 in yards per carry allowed (3.9) and net yards per pass attempt allowed (5.9) but ranked 23rd in points allowed (25.4). NT Phil Taylor, LB Barkevious Mingo and CB Joe Haden, all former first-rounders, give Cleveland fans hope that this year will be different, as does 2014 first-rounder CB Justin Gilbert. And although the loss of safety T.J. Ward hurts, the Browns had a fruitful winter, signing LB Karlos Dansby and S Donte Whitner. It's so tempting to believe the results will finally match the talent, but we've been burned before.