As a new feature in the 2021 Sharp Football Preview Book, the Sharp Football Analysis team ranked positional units across the league for the 2021 season. The ranking guidelines were up to the specific voter with the only requirement that the focus is on the upcoming season only, not the future outlook.
With a combination of numbers, film, and projections, the rankings were averaged for quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers/tight ends, defensive front seven, defensive secondary, and head coach.
We’ll be running each position separately. For the defensive front seven, defensive lines and off-ball linebackers were considered, as were the entire units with weight given to the starters.
2021 NFL Defensive Front Seven Rankings, by Unit
32. Houston Texans
If our evaluation of their front seven proves too harsh, it will likely be due to offseason addition Shaq Lawson, who generated a pressure rate of 17.0% in Miami last season. That should help replace J.J. Watt, whose pressure rate sunk to 8.9% in 2020.
31. Jacksonville Jaguars
The front seven features three recent first-round picks (K’Lavon Chaisson, Josh Allen, and Taven Bryan) and still ranks 31st. Allen showed promise last year (11.8% pressure rate) but the rest of the defensive line needs work. Myles Jack remains steady at linebacker, holding opponents to -2.7 EPA in coverage in 2020
30. Detroit Lions
Detroit added some nice talent to the defensive line in the draft (Levi Onwuzurike, Alim McNeill) but neither is likely to offer a substantial upgrade to the pass rush. 12 Lions saw at least 75 pass-rush snaps in 2020 and only Everson Griffen (not re-signed) generated a pressure rate over 10%. This unit won’t scare anyone.
29. Cincinnati Bengals
The loss of Carl Lawson hurts the Bengals’ front seven, but if we prove to be too low on the unit, it will be because of the addition of Trey Hendrickson. In 2020, with New Orleans, Hendrickson generated a 20.3% pressure rate when quarterbacks took a 3+ step dropback, second-best in the league.
28. Atlanta Falcons
LB Deion Jones and DT Grady Jarrett deserve better than the 28th-ranked front seven unit, but with virtually no proven production among the edge-rushers, it’s tough to justify a higher ranking.
27. Las Vegas Raiders
Clelin Ferrell improved his pressure rate from 8.9% to 11.0% last year, but he’ll need to take another significant leap forward for the Raiders front seven to earn respect. This unit survives more on depth than high-end talent right now.
26. Los Angeles Chargers
Despite investing in the front seven with first-round picks in 2019 and 2020, this is the Chargers’ lowest-ranked unit. In the 12 games he played, Joey Bosa generated 25% of the team’s QB pressures and is probably being asked to shoulder too much of the pass-rush burden.
25. Tennessee Titans
When opponents took a 3+ step dropback, Tennessee got pressure on them just 37% of the time, the second-worst rate in the league. The addition of Bud Dupree will help, but that’s not an issue one player can fix.
24. Seattle Seahawks
Seattle’s numerous recent draft mishaps have hurt the front seven more than any other area, as first-round selections DL L.J. Collier and LB Jordyn Brooks have yet to impact the team in any meaningful way. Bobby Wagner remains a star, but unfortunately one off-ball linebacker can’t carry a defense.
23. Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys’ front seven was among the worst in every aspect of the game, especially versus the run. Even when stacking the box with 7+ defenders, opponents picked up 4.7 yards per carry (ranked 30th). Five draft picks spent on the front seven should help, but it won’t be a quick fix.
22. New York Giants
The strength of the Giants’ front seven was stopping the run. When stacking the box with six or fewer defenders, they allowed 4.7 yards per attempt, the third-best rate in the league. The pass rush needs work, however, and second-round pick Azeez Ojulari will need to contribute immediately.
21. New York Jets
The front seven is New York’s top-ranked unit, primarily based on the addition of Carl Lawson, arguably the most talented player on the roster. Though depth is lacking, one elite pass rusher changes how an offense game plans for your defense.
20. Green Bay Packers
When opponents took a 3+ step dropback, Green Bay generated a pressure rate of just 39.8%, ranked 27th. With the front seven remaining largely unchanged, their inability to get pressure likely remains an issue holding back this defense.
19. Miami Dolphins
The front seven will rely heavily on rookie Jaelan Phillips, after losing Kyle Van Noy and Shaq Lawson. This unit received just one vote in the upper half of the league.
18. Kansas City Chiefs
Kansas City’s lowest-ranked unit on defense is the front seven, but a case could be made we’re undervaluing the pass-rush. In 2020, the unit generated a 54% pressure rate when opposing quarterbacks took a 3+ step dropback, ranked sixth in the league.
17. Buffalo Bills
Buffalo’s front seven features two aging pass-rushers (Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison) and two rookies (Gregory Rousseau and Carlos Basham Jr.), making it a difficult unit to evaluate. As a result, ballots ranged from ninth to 29th. If Hughes and Addison remain effective while the rookies catch on quickly, the high end of that spectrum is within reach.
16. Philadelphia Eagles
The front seven is also anchored by productive but aging veterans, Brandon Graham and Fletcher Cox. That duo accounted for 30% of the team’s pressures in 2020. This unit might rank higher if not for issues bringing down the ball carrier. The team’s 12.9% missed/broken tackle rate ranked 31st in the league.
15. Indianapolis Colts
The Colts’ front seven was tough to evaluate, earning votes between ninth and 27th. To reach the high end of that spectrum, rookie Kwity Paye likely needs to exceed Justin Houston’s 9.4% pressure rate from a season ago. If interior lineman DeForest Buckner leads the team in pressure rate again (11.5%), it probably means the front seven fell short of those expectations.
14. New England Patriots
Votes for the rebuilt front seven ranged from fifth to 24th. Chase Winovich was the only reliable pass-rusher in 2020 (17.7% pressure rate) but will be joined by newcomers Matt Judon and Kyle Van Noy. The upgraded depth increases the ceiling of this unit considerably.
13. Cleveland Browns
The only potential liability on this roster is the front seven, which suffers from the losses of Sheldon Richardson, Larry Ogunjobi, and Olivier Vernon. Jadeveon Clowney might replace some of that pass-rush production, but there’s a reason he’s on his fourth team in four years. When opponents took at least a three-step dropback, Clowney’s pressure rate was just 9.2% last year (Vernon’s was 11.3%).
12. Arizona Cardinals
The front seven earned votes ranging from ninth to 19th, reflecting a realistic range of potential outcomes. The additions of J.J. Watt and rookie Zaven Collins, plus the potential development of 2019 first-round pick Isaiah Simmons, give them an elite ceiling but it remains a mostly unproven unit.
11. New Orleans Saints
Votes for the Saints front seven ranged from seventh to 23rd. Those on the lower end of the spectrum likely believe the loss of Trey Hendrickson will hurt. Though New Orleans has done an excellent job developing players on this unit and rookie Peyton Turner may be able to contribute. The six-game suspension of defensive tackle David Onyemata is also a significant loss earl;y in the season.
10. Carolina Panthers
The front seven might be a bright spot for Carolina. Recent first-round picks DE Brian Burns (14.9 percent pressure rate) and DT Derrick Brown, appear to be developing into stars.
9. Baltimore Ravens
Baltimore’s philosophy is that pass rushers are replaceable, which is why they let Matt Judon and Yannick Ngakoue walk. That theory will be tested more than usual this year, as those two accounted for 25% of the team’s pressures. Rookie Odafe Oweh and veteran Justin Houston were notable reinforcements added.
8. Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings’ front seven landed in the top seven, but the pass rush needs to improve to live up to that ranking. When Minnesota brought four or fewer pass rushers, it generated a league-worst pressure rate of 26%. The team added four draft picks to the front seven, but none before the third round, so immediate production is unlikely. Eric Kendricks leads a strong group of linebackers.
7. Chicago Bears
Khalil Mack anchors a strong front seven, which ranks in the top 10, but a lack of depth holds the unit back from reaching an elite level. On third-and-long, the Bears ranked 25th with a pressure rate of 43.8% 一 so while Mack is great, teams can shut down Chicago’s pass rush when needed.
6. Denver Broncos
Denver’s front seven cracks the top 10, in large part due to edge-rushers Von Miller and Bradley Chubb. If Miller can stay healthy, it could be one of the top units. However, the depth is noticeably lacking. Without Miller last season (ankle injury), too much was on Chubb’s shoulders, as he accounted for 31% of the team’s QB pressures.
5. Los Angeles Rams
In 2020, the Rams’ front seven featured four players with at least 100 pass-rush snaps and a pressure rate over 10%. Samson Ebukam is gone, but Terrell Lewis (13.3% pressure rate on 80 pass-rush snaps) is likely ready to help replace his production.
4. Washington Football Team
Washington’s best unit is inarguably the front seven. According to ESPN’s pass-rush win rate metric, Chase Young was the seventh most effective edge rusher, while Jonathan Allen ranked seventh among interior pass-rushers 一 one of only three teams with a player in the top 10 on both lists. The addition of rookie Jamin Davis to the linebacking crew further elevates the ceiling for this unit.
3. San Francisco 49ers
A healthy Nick Bosa should return the 49ers’ front seven to the top of the pack in 2021. Even without Bosa, the team ranked a respectable 13th in pressure rate.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers
Anchored by T.J. Watt, we have the most confidence in the front seven, which ranked no worse than third on any ballot. Pittsburgh created pressure on a league-leading 56.7% of opposing dropbacks, the only team above 50% in 2020.
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Bucs are one of the few teams with high-end talent and depth at both defensive line and linebacker, making them an easy choice for our top-ranked front seven. If first-round pick Joe Tryon adds production to an already strong pass-rush, this could be one of the top units of the last decade.
Ranking each NFL Unit for 2021:
For all of the team-by-team unit rankings and full team chapters, including a dozen more visuals & info-graphics, defensive breakdown, and detailed Fantasy football implication — plus the other 31 team chapters — pick up a copy of Warren Sharp’s new ‘2021 Football Preview’ book