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Predicting the 2023 NFL First-Team All-Pro: Defense

Written by: Grant Mitchell
Published July 24, 2023
7 min read

The NFL is arguably the most talented that it has ever been. And while the young quarterbacks tend to steal most of that praise, the race to make the 2023 first-team All-Pro defense is one of the fiercest competitions in the league.

Whether it be the slugfest to win the sacks title or a climb to the top of a stockpile of cornerback talent, being named one of the two or three best defenders at a position is one of the greatest honors the NFL has to offer.

Here are our picks for the 2023 NFL first-team All-Pro defense.

NFL First-Team All-Pro Defense Prediction

2023 First-Team All-Pro Picks at a Glance

  • T.J. Watt
  • Myles Garrett
  • Chris Jones
  • Dexter Lawrence
  • Roquan Smith
  • Tremaine Edmunds
  • Fred Warner
  • Patrick Surtain II
  • Jaycee Horn
  • Minkah Fitzpatrick
  • Kevin Byard

Edge Rusher: T.J. Watt, Pittsburgh Steelers

Watt was the 2021 Defensive Player of the Year and is third in odds to win the award again at +850, according to DraftKings. He tied Michael Strahan’s all-time record for sacks in a single season at 22.5 in his ‘21 campaign and averaged over 16 per season for four years until suffering a torn pectoral muscle last year.

Despite the major injury, the Steelers went 8-2 in games in which Watt appeared. Considering they finished the year 9-8 overall, that’s highly impressive. Watt is clearly the best player on this side of the football in Pittsburgh, even with the other outstanding talents that have suited up for Mike Tomlin’s defense.

Watt is already a three-time first-team All-Pro and is firmly one of the most fearsome pass-rushers when he is healthy. Assuming he puts the pec issue behind him, expect a dominating season for a Steelers defense that has top-three-in-the-league potential. 

Edge Rusher: Myles Garrett, Cleveland Browns

Garrett (+750 to win DPOY) will be locked in a battle with New England Patriots star Matthew Judon to rack up the most sacks in the AFC this year. We are giving the edge to Garrett because of his consistency, seeing as he has recorded double-digit sacks in five straight seasons, including 16 in each of the last two.

Garrett has been a constant pillar of excellence for a Browns franchise that has dealt with dissension, chaos, and disappointment. He was relegated from two straight first-team All-Pros to the second team in 2022 but should earn his way back onto the top list in 2023.

Garrett, along with Watt, will be fighting with reigning DPOY Nick Bosa and reigning runner-up Micah Parsons, but we are giving the spot to Garrett because he is doing more with less next to him, and is doing it just as well.

Interior Defender: Chris Jones, Kansas City Chiefs

Jones is still working on a new deal with the Chiefs but has as great of a chance as anyone at surviving negotiations, whereas ex-teammates such as Tyreek Hill, Frank Clark, and others did not. That’s a worthy investment for the Chiefs, seeing as Jones was Pro Football Focus’ 's top-graded interior defender and got 49 of 50 first-team votes in 2022.

Defensive tackles aren’t always mainstays in the pass rush because their job is to anchor the center of the line and provide solidarity, especially against the run. Jones is different because he has been lined up all over the place, and he just racked up 15.5 sacks en route to a Super Bowl championship.

The Chiefs gave defensive rookies the third-most snaps in the regular season last year, leaving Jones as the standout veteran in that group. With Clark now gone, he will once again be at center stage for the best team in the NFL, giving him the platform to impress voters and end up back on the first team (and in the DPOY conversation at +2500 odds).

Interior Defender: Dexter Lawrence, New York Giants

Lawrence is a massive human at 6-foot-4, 342 pounds, and he uses every inch and ounce of his frame to his advantage. Despite being only 25 years old, he made a name for himself in 2022 and wound up on the second-team All-Pro list and as PFF’s second-best interior defender.

Lawrence’s 7.5 sacks aren’t as eye-catching as Jones’ or the other edge rushers, but he applied 70 pressures and was excellent at defending the run. Because of his age and youthful inexperience, it’s very likely that he only continues to improve over the next couple of seasons, whereas someone like Aaron Donald is coming off of a career-worst season and is 32.

The Giants are working to fix their defensive issues but still have some holes in that unit. Lawrence fixes many issues and will be a shining star for them as they look to beat the odds and make the playoffs for the second season running (which they are +160 to do).

Linebacker: Roquan Smith, Baltimore Ravens

Smith started 2022 in a Chicago Bears uniform and ended it in Baltimore Ravens colors. The move, which came via trade, helped him elevate from two consecutive second-team All-Pro appearances to his first first-team selection, still at just 26.

Smith gained such notoriety because of his impact on Baltimore’s defense. Whereas they were subpar before he showed up, they finished the year second in points and third in yards allowed during the nine games he played for them.

The Ravens’ stud finished the year third in tackles and picked off three passes, tied for the most of any non-cornerback or safety. He was also a physical presence against the run and figures to be even better after a full offseason of chemistry-building with his new teammates and coaching staff.

Linebacker: Tremaine Edmunds, Chicago Bears

We have gone on record throughout the offseason saying that Edmunds’ arrival in the Windy City will be the most influential move of the offseason within the context of the 2023 season. Edmunds has the ability to sniff out fires in the middle of the field and will fill the void (fittingly) left by Smith’s trade to the Ravens.

Edmunds was PFF’s fifth-graded linebacker and will have all the motivation in the world in his first season with a new team and on a shiny big-money contract. He’ll also partner T.J. Edwards in the heart of the linebacking corps, giving him the same level of competence and ability he was used to having with Matt Milano in Buffalo.

We believe the Bears will win the NFC North (and as a fallback love them to make the playoffs at +160), and Edmunds will get a large share of the credit if that plays out. He’ll do himself a great favor if he continues the excellent play in coverage he showed for the first time in his career in 2022.

Linebacker: Fred Warner, San Francisco 49ers

Warner is simply a freak of a football player. At 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, he’s big enough and nasty enough to stick his nose into the trenches and plug holes, fast enough to go sideline-to-sideline, and also possesses corner-like coverage skills that make him the most unique linebacker in the NFL.

The 49ers gave up the fewest points and yards per game in the NFL in 2022 and have been among the best units in the league for the past few years, and a large part of that is Warner’s gifts allowing them to play the system they do.

It’s unlikely that Warner sticks his nose into the DPOY conversation at +4500, especially with teammate Nick Bosa having just won it last year, but he’s already made the first-team All-Pro twice in the past three years and is widely regarded as the best linebacker in the league.

Cornerback: Patrick Surtain II, Denver Broncos

Lost amongst the outstanding performances of rookies Sauce Gardner and Tariq Woolen was the excellence of second-year pro-Patrick Surtain of the Broncos. He made his way onto the first team alongside Gardner and is poised for an excellent career, following in the footsteps of his dad and former first-team All-Pro member himself, Patrick Surtain.

The younger Surtain was drafted out of Alabama with the ninth pick in 2021 and showed potential as a rookie before taking a massive leap in 2022. He only had one interception and 10 pass break-ups, but that can be attributed to opposing quarterbacks avoiding him entirely. He also gave up an average of just 24.5 yards per game while appearing in all 17 regular-season games.

Surtain is as fundamentally sound of a corner as there is in the league and is only just entering his third year. He’ll have a tough go in the division having to guard Davante Adams, a combination of Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Quentin Johnston, and at times, Travis Kelce, but he’s proven he’s up for the task.

Cornerback: Jaycee Horn, Carolina Panthers

Horn is yet to earn an All-Pro or Pro Bowl nomination but is in line for increased recognition in 2023. He was taken one pick ahead of Surtain in the ‘21 draft, giving the cornerback part of our first team list a youthful revolution.

Horn was injured after three games in his rookie season and only played 13 times in his sophomore campaign. However, he has given up just 19.9 yards per game to opponents and one total touchdown in a limited sample size, which is a truly elite return. 

The NFC South is light on quarterback talent with Derek Carr, Desmond Ridder, and Baker Mayfield likely comprising six of his 17 opponents this coming season. If he can stay healthy, he has all of the tools and potential to have a true breakout year.

Safety: Minkah Fitzpatrick, Pittsburgh Steelers

Fitzpatrick walked into the NFL as a ready-made pro and is coming off the best season of his career, one that saw him make the first-team All-Pro and even receive a DPOY vote. His six interceptions in 2022 tied for the league lead, and he was able to do it while playing in only 15 games.

The Steelers, as we mentioned earlier, have the potential to field one of the three best defenses in the league. Fitzpatrick may have to cover for mistakes made by rookie corner Joey Porter Jr., but his ability to read the game is second to none at the position.

Fitzpatrick will face stark competition from the freakishly athletic Derwin James, C.J. Gardner-Johnson, Micah Hyde, and other top safeties, but his youth and proven ability, plus the coaching of Mike Tomlin, make him our favorite pick to secure the spot.  

Safety: Kevin Byard, Tennessee Titans

Notice how we didn’t mention Byard in the list of players competing for Fitzpatrick’s spot? That’s because we believe that he will wind up on the first team for the third time in his career and the second time in the past three seasons.

Even with the Titans giving up the most passing yards per game in the NFL (274.8), Byard was the sixth-best safety in coverage according to PFF’s rankings. He also led his team in total tackles (108) and picked off four passes for a team that, despite their inability to limit passing yards, was 12th in points allowed.

There’s no doubt that Byard is a pillar of the Titans’ D, just like there is no doubt that coach Mike Vrabel would love to get his team to finally not have one of the seven worst pass defenses in the league (which they have for four straight seasons). Whether they accomplish that goal or not, they can count on Byard to play at an elite level week in and week out. 

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AUTHOR

Grant Mitchell

472 Articles

Grant is a sports and sports betting journalist who prides himself on delivering breaking news and insightful analyses of the industry. Grant graduated from Virginia Tech in 2021 and is feverishly pursuing his ambitions in the sports betting field.

In his free time, Grant can be found passionately watching sports, doing a workout, or searching for adventure with his friends.

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