By Lucas Kochevar
It's the lull of the NFL offseason as the only thing happening are teams holding OTAs. Similar to last weeks introduction, it's a lot of players running around in shorts. Before we get into today's topic on LK League Notes, there were a couple tidbits of news that came out that caught my eye. The first thing was some quotes from Lamar Jackson regarding new play caller Todd Monken. "Coach is basically giving us the keys to the offense," Jackson said. This seems like an obvious quote from a quarterback that just signed a big-time extension, but for the Ravens, this seems like a new experience. Greg Roman was the offensive coordinator for the past couple seasons and ran such a specific run-first offense. Now, the former Georgia offensive coordinator takes over and will employ a very different offense. Despite being the college game the last couple of seasons, Monken isn't a rookie to the NFL as he had stops in Tampa Bay and Cleveland. I think Monken has a chance to really expand Jackson's game and elevate him. If Monken can make Stetson Bennett IV a two-time national champion, I have faith he can elevate Jackson's game.
The second thing I saw was New England getting in trouble for doing too much in OTAs. This is just funny because the Patriots getting in trouble seems like a tradition that happens every couple years. There's the cheating they did in Cincinnati a couple seasons ago and there was deflate gate. Head coach Bill Belichick really loves to try and get the extra edge. That's why he has all these championship. Now for this edition of LK League Notes, I want to rank the top five defenses in the league starting at number five.
5. Pittsburgh Steelers
The Pittsburgh Steelers are the model of consistency when it comes to having a strong defense. Throughout their tenure with Mike Tomlin, I can't remember a bad Steelers defense. There were times where the three B's on offense stole the headlines, but the defense would always be the backbone of the Pittsburgh Steelers. I can't see that changing anytime soon. I do think the Steelers have some concern in their secondary with an older Patrick Peterson and a rookie Joey Porter Jr., but then I look at the front seven and my worries go away. On top of their strong front seven, they always have star safety Minkah Fitzpatrick patrolling the back end to help alleviate those concerns I mentioned earlier. When healthy, T.J. Watt is a threat to break the single-season sack record and makes such an impact of this defense. From Statmuse.com, the Steelers have an astonishing 59-26-2 record. If the Steelers defense was a car, Watt is the engine that gets them going.
Outside of Watt, the Steelers veteran leader is Cameron Heyward. Although he's getting up there in age, he can make an impact for a couple plays and then mentor young guys such as Keeanu Benton and Nick Herbig. I love Elandon Roberts' fit on this team and I think Alex Highsmith can build off a solid 2022 campaign. The Steelers will need the offense to catchup to the level of the defense if they want to be in the playoffs. The defense will keep this team in many games.
4. Dallas Cowboys
The Dallas Cowboys came onto the scene last year as a defensive unit with the emergence of Micah Parsons as a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. Parsons is the early odds-on favorite for the award in 2023 and there were reports that he's putting on weight to be more of a true edge. Although Parsons will be the face of this defense, the secondary is where I think they can make some noise. I've said multiple times that the addition of Stephon Gilmore will be huge for the Cowboys defense. He isn't quite at the level that he used to be, but he still posted solid number for last season with the Colts.
With Gilmore's arrival, I think Trevon Diggs benefits the most from this. He's a gambler. The issue with being the number one corner on your team as a gambler is that you can get burnt constantly. He manages to get those high interceptions, but the yards given up number is massive. Gilmore takes the pressure off Diggs and he can take those risks that made him an All-Pro. My concern with the Cowboys is the inexperience at linebacker. Dan Quinn is at his best as a defensive coordinator and he hasn't been hired away yet. For that reason, I think the Cowboys will be a strong unit.
3. New York Jets
The New York Jets were a quarterback away from their first playoff appearance in over a decade. The main reason was the defense. This year the team has the quarterback and they'll hope that the defense can produce again. The Jets have multiple players to hand their hat on. Sauce Gardner is already in the upper echelon for NFL corners and Quinnen Williams, who finally turned the corner as an elite force inside. The defense looks like the defense that Robert Saleh wants to have for his team.
The Jets secondary outside of Gardner is also very formidable. Jordan Whitehead and Chuck Clark makeup a solid safety duo. D.J. Reed isn't a slouch either on the other side of Gardner. He's been improving for the past three seasons and was a very consistent performer for the Jets last season. When you go to the defensive line, it's full of young talent that I think will make the next jump. Jermaine Johnson II is the guy I have my eye on to make the leap. I know that Aaron Rodgers is getting all the headlines, but this defense is just as good.
2. Philadelphia Eagles
The Philadelphia Eagles lead the league in sacks last season by a considerable margin and they're returning a good number of those guys, Haason Reddick. Despite the possibility of Darius Slay and James Bradberry leaving, they retained both of those guys too. They did lose Chauncey Gardner-Johnson and Javon Hargrave. The only thing that has me hesitant from putting this team in first is the uncertainty in inexperienced guys. Jordan Davis was good when he played last year, but he had that one injury that sidelined him and he'll take on a bigger role. Nakobe Dean hardly played last year and he'll have to step up. There's the rookies in Jalen Carter, Sydney Brown and Kelee Ringo.
They still have a great mix of veteran leadership with their young talent and their management of that young talent will be paramount in their success moving forward. Another question with this Eagles defense is the new coordinator they have. Jonathan Gannon left to Arizona in the offseason and they hired a new guy in Sean Desai. He has brief experience as a DC with the Bears in 2021. He's being given a very solid team to work with and he'll have to get the best out of these young guys. Despite my concerns, I still think they'll be a strong group that plays together well. With veterans like Fletcher Cox and Darius Slay, it's hard to imagine them falling too far. They'll be a strong unit in 2023.
1. San Francisco 49ers.
The number one team on my list of best defenses features the reigning Defensive Player of the Year with Nick Bosa. The dominant edge rusher is one of many great players along this defense. Arik Armstead has been a steady player on the other side of Bosa and they added Javon Hargrave to that middle to be a force. Moving to the linebacker spot they have the best middle linebacker in the league with Fred Warner. He has terrific range sideline to sideline and disrupts everything in the middle. An underrated player on this defense is Warner's partner in crime with Dre Greenlaw. Similar to the dynamic I want to see with Gilmore and Diggs on the Cowboys, the 49ers have that at linebacker with Warner and Greenlaw.
My concern for this team is similar to the Steelers with their cornerbacks. I think their secondary is in good hands with good safeties, but the corners inexperience could come to light against fast, high octane offenses. The 49ers also have a similar concern as the Eagles with their defensive coordinator leaving. Demeco Ryans left to Houston and he was terrific these past couple of seasons pressing the right buttons. The 49ers did hit a home run in hiring his replacement by getting Steve Wilks. Wilks is the guy that turned the Panthers around last season down the stretch as the interim head coach. Many thought he might be promoted to head coach, but they went in a different direction. A great hire and a fantastic front seven puts the 49ers at number one on my list. The uncertainty with the offense is going to put added pressure on the defense and I think they'll step up to the plate.