DB rankings: Here’s why Jets top the Pack
It should come as little surprise that in the midst of one of the great passing eras in NFL history, secondary play is also at an amazingly high level. From the Jets’ secondary to the ageless Broncos foursome to the amazing potential in Miami, the NFL is loaded with great cornerbacks and safeties these days. In fact, most safeties in this era could have been good cornerbacks 20 years ago.
That’s how it has to be. You don’t see the high interception numbers of decades ago because today’s passing game is so sophisticated. That puts a premium on individual cover skills for just about everybody.
It also means that even if your favorite team isn’t somewhere in the top 10, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a good secondary. The only questionable groups reside from roughly No. 26 down.
Here’s the rundown:
1. New York Jets: With all due respect to Oakland’s Nnamdi Asomugha(notes), Darrelle Revis(notes) is now the best cornerback in the game. Revis proved it during the stretch run and the playoffs last season. Sadly, Asomugha has never been on that stage. But here’s the scary thing: As good as Revis is, new fellow Jets CB Antonio Cromartie(notes) has more athletic ability than him. Cromartie has the ability to be the second-coming of Deion Sanders. The problem is that Cromartie doesn’t have the focus and his personal life is a mess. The depth could be great with Dwight Lowery(notes) and Kyle Wilson(notes) and the safety spots will be above average with Jim Leonhard(notes) and Eric Smith(notes). That said, if Revis and Cromartie are as good as projected, the rest of the secondary doesn’t have to be great. The Jets allowed only eight TD passes last season and could be better this year.
2. Green Bay Packers: While the combination of Charles Woodson(notes), the league’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year, and Al Harris(notes), who is returning from injury, is no longer the best cornerback tandem in the league (you don’t have to look far to find the best pair), it’s not like they have fallen very much. Throw in Atari Bigby(notes) and Nick Collins(notes) at safety and you have an extremely quick and athletic group. If the front seven can generate a little more pressure, they should improve on the 30 INTs from last season and reduce the 29 TD passes. The depth is really good with the likes of Jarrett Bush(notes), Tramon Williams(notes) and Will Blackmon(notes).
3. Cincinnati Bengals: Best CB duo in the league: Johnathan Joseph(notes) and Leon Hall(notes). Some might argue for the Green Bay combo. Others might argue for the potential of the Jets. But if you go on the results of last season, Joseph and Hall were the best. Not only are they both excellent cover guys, but they are both terrific tacklers. They are so good that they allowed the Bengals to get away with having an average front seven and safeties. The Bengals defense is essentially built from the outside in, which works fine in this era. The rest of the secondary has major flaws. SS Roy Williams can’t cover and FS Chris Crocker(notes) lacks great range. The Bengals are trying their latest reclamation project with Adam “Pacman” Jones. Good luck with that.
4. Denver Broncos: Over the first half of last season, the combination of CBs Champ Bailey(notes) and Andre’ Goodman(notes), FS Brian Dawkins(notes) and SS Renaldo Hill(notes) were excellent. Even in the second half, they were still really good. The problem: they’re all really old and there was some inevitable regression. Bailey, Goodman and Hill will all be 32 by December. Dawkins will be 37 before the season ends. You won’t find a smarter, more experienced secondary in the league, which allows the overall defense to function even at the worst moments. The team has Alphonso Smith(notes) in the wings, but that’s not enough because this group could go in a hurry.
5. Baltimore Ravens: The Ravens are defined by where Ed Reed(notes) is at this point in his career. Is he coming back? Based on his request for more money, you get the feeling he’s going to play. If so, he’s still one of the best ball-hawking safeties in the history of the game, a guy who should make the Hall of Fame despite playing only eight seasons. The corners, Domonique Foxworth and Fabian Washington(notes), are discarded parts that play well together. Not great, but solid. SS Dawan Landry(notes) is likewise solid.
6. Pittsburgh Steelers: Assuming SS Troy Polamalu(notes) returns to health, the Steelers will have the same starting secondary this season that they had during their 2008 championship run. That’s both good and bad. It’s good because the unit was strong enough to get past strong-throwing teams. It’s bad because, aside from Polamalu, that group isn’t all that fast. Sure, CB Ike Taylor(notes) can still run as well as most corners in the league, but CB Bryant McFadden(notes) and FS Ryan Clark(notes) aren’t speed demons. The depth is decent with guys like William Gay and Will Allen, but hardly remarkable.
7. San Diego Chargers: The Chargers grew tired of waiting for Antonio Cromartie to join the program, so they chucked his amazing athletic ability for the quiet-yet-consistent style of Quentin Jammer(notes) and Antoine Cason(notes). Cason has some juice to his athletic ability, but he’s a long way from Cromartie. The depth should be good with Nathan Vasher(notes) and Donald Strickland(notes). The key to this group is how much the team is able to get out of safety Eric Weddle(notes). Weddle is a terrific player, but he hasn’t played to his full potential over an entire season.
8. New Orleans Saints: At the beginning of last season, this group had a middle-of-the-road look. Somewhere along the way, CB Jabari Greer(notes) became one of the most consistent cover guys in the league and Tracy Porter(notes) emerged as a wonderful complementary corner. The safety play of Roman Harper(notes) and Darren Sharper(notes) was consistent, although Sharper showed some decline. The most important element is that the group fits with what defensive coordinator Gregg Williams likes to do. Beyond that, the Saints are hoping that 2009 first-round pick Malcolm Jenkins(notes) becomes a playmaking safety to replace Sharper at some point, and that 2010 first-rounder Patrick Robinson(notes) solidifies the depth.
9. Arizona Cardinals: Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie(notes) can claim to be the best cornerback in the NFL with the last name “Cromartie” the past two years. That’s not a joke. It’s very serious and says a lot about how consistent DRC has been. It also speaks to how little Antonio Cromartie has done, but that’s another matter. DRC not only has 10 interceptions in his two seasons, he has an impressive total of 44 passes defensed. That’s a strong total and speaks to how often he gets to the ball. He’s also a strong tackler despite his narrow build. As for the rest, SS Adrian Wilson(notes) is a big hitter, but probably is living more on reputation than actual performance. FS Kerry Rhodes(notes) also gets by on a lot of rep, mostly from his own big talk. The CB depth is, at best, weak after DRC.
10. Oakland Raiders: Any unit that starts with Nnamdi Asomugha is going to be well above average. Asomugha is either the best or second-best cornerback in the NFL, depending on your view of Darrelle Revis. Either way, Asomugha is great and rarely gets challenged. While he’s not overwhelmingly strong, he uses great leverage. He is the ultimate technician. As for the rest, it would be nice to celebrate the Raiders for finding a bunch of solid-to-good starters like CB Chris Johnson, SS Tyvon Branch(notes) and FS Hiram Eugene(notes). Unfortunately, their emergence only highlights the failure of such high picks as Michael Huff(notes), Stanford Routt(notes) and Mike Mitchell(notes).
11. Buffalo Bills: Amid an otherwise lost season, rookie FS Jairus Byrd(notes) had an outstanding season for the Bills with nine interceptions and moved ahead of former first-round pick Donte Whitner(notes) for the starting job. Perhaps Whitner will make the move to the strong spot, but he’s not built for that and the depth is pretty good there with Bryan Scott(notes) and George Wilson(notes). At CB, the Bills have great speed with the combination of Leodis McKelvin(notes) and Terrence McGee(notes). They also have depth with Ashton Youboty(notes) and Drayton Florence(notes). What they need, however, is more consistent play at those spots.
12. Indianapolis Colts: The Colts always walk a tightrope when it comes to pass coverage. They generally don’t use high picks on cornerbacks; they tend to get by from year to year with having a good pass rush lessen the burden on coverage. That philosophy blew up in the Super Bowl. CB Kelvin Hayden(notes) is solid, but hardly spectacular, and Jerraud Powers is OK. The depth is abysmal. The safeties are really good if Bob Sanders(notes) is healthy, which remains a major concern. Antoine Bethea(notes) has become a very good player in his own right, but not a game-changer.
13. Philadelphia Eagles: In 2008, a lot of people thought the Eagles overspent on CB Asante Samuel(notes). Well, he had nine picks last year, has 13 in two years with Philly and 35 in his seven-year career. Those are impressive numbers. Sure, he has flaws, but hardly anything you would call an exploitable weakness. With Ellis Hobbs(notes) on the other side, the Eagles are OK, not great. The safety play of Quintin Mikell(notes) is solid and Macho Harris(notes) was OK for a rookie, but hardly a lock to hold the job long-term.
14. Carolina Panthers: The combination of CBs Chris Gamble(notes) and Richard Marshall(notes), FS Charles Godfrey(notes) and whoever fills the spot vacated by Chris Harris(notes) (Aaron Francisco(notes), Marcus Hudson(notes) and rookie Jordan Pugh(notes) will compete) has generally been a group that plays better than its individual talent. This unit isn’t bad, but it isn’t great. That said, the results are really good. Gamble and Marshall both do a good job of forcing turnovers, but neither is a shutdown guy. The secondary’s depth is good, but the primary concern is whether the lack of a great pass rush is going to expose this group. Generally, coach John Fox’s staff successfully does a nice job of mixing coverages from week to week. They better be great at it this season.
15. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Bucs possess the most volatile secondary in the league, a group defined by mercurial CB Aqib Talib(notes). When Talib is right, he’s a ball-hawking machine. When he’s not, he disrupts the team in every way possible. This group could be great or it could be a train wreck, which is one of the reasons CB Ronde Barber(notes) is coming back for his 14th season. Barber is supposed to help keep the likes of Talib, Tanard Jackson(notes) and Elbert Mack(notes) going in the right direction. Talk about a tough job.
16. San Francisco 49ers: CB Nate Clements(notes) has fallen off the map the past two years, going from one of the top half-dozen corners in the league to something of a liability. Perhaps he can regroup, which would be nice because he’s fun to watch when he’s at his best. Fellow CB Shawntae Spencer(notes) is solid, but a long way from spectacular. The combination of safeties Michael Lewis and Dashon Goldson is in the top half of the league, but hardly overwhelming.
17. Dallas Cowboys: There’s something strange about CB Terence Newman(notes). For all you hear from wide receivers about how Newman is great at shadowing their every move, he doesn’t turn that ability into a lot of interceptions. He had three last season and 23 in his seven-year career. Not bad, but hardly commensurate with his ability. In fact, fellow CB Mike Jenkins(notes) became a better ballhawk last year, nabbing five INTs. The depth is solid with Orlando Scandrick(notes). At safety, the Ken Hamlin(notes) experiment ended after two mediocre seasons. That said, the new combo of Michael Hamlin(notes) and Gerald Sensabaugh(notes) doesn’t make your toes tingle.
18. New York Giants: The Giants secondary was so bad last season that they should have been the ones trading for then Knicks guard (and former college CB) Nate Robinson. The unit was stunning in its ineptitude because the group was much more talented than its play reflected. Sure, the loss of SS Kenny Phillips(notes) (knee) hurt a lot and having CB Aaron Ross(notes) (hamstring) miss much of the season was bad, but the group shouldn’t have been terrible. On paper, the addition of FS Antrel Rolle(notes) and the return of Phillips, who is still a question mark, will stabilize the coverage. If Ross is healthy, he should combine with Corey Webster(notes) and Terrell Thomas(notes) for nice depth. But there are a lot of ifs back there.
19. Miami Dolphins: The top three cornerback combos in the NFL reside in Cincinnati, Green Bay and with the Jets. However, if you’re looking for a pair who have the talent to break into that realm, second-year CBs Vontae Davis(notes) and Sean Smith(notes) have all the talent. If you throw in veteran Will Allen, the Dolphins have arguably the best nickel group of CBs in the league. The safety situation isn’t quite as good, which is why the Dolphins allowed an obscene 8.2 yards per pass attempt last season. SS Yeremiah Bell(notes) is solid, if he can stay healthy, and FS Tyrone Culver(notes) won the job by default. Not great, but you’d rather be good at cornerback first.
20. Washington Redskins: If you listen to DeAngelo Hall(notes), the Redskins have the greatest combo of corners since the heyday of Mike Haynes and Lester Hayes. Let’s get real. Hall and Carlos Rogers(notes) have their moments, but Hall goes for too many interceptions and has problems in press coverage. Given that the Redskins are going to a 3-4 scheme, Hall could get exposed if the coaching staff isn’t careful. Rogers has had a solid career, but with six INTs in five years, he’s not earning the money he made as a first-round pick. FS LaRon Landry(notes) is better suited for the strong spot because of his inconsistencies in coverage and SS Reed Doughty(notes) is little more than a plugger.
21. Tennessee Titans: CB Cortland Finnegan(notes) is the type of guy that every team would like to have … as a No. 2 corner. He’s feisty, tough and never stops playing hard. He’s also amazingly quick. But he can be overpowered and he’s a tad brittle. Former first-round pick SS Michael Griffin(notes) has shown flashes of greatness, but has hardly been everything the Titans were hoping for. CB Jason McCourty(notes) might develop into something more, but he doesn’t have the look of a No. 1 corner. Likewise, SS Chris Hope(notes) is solid, but he can’t run.
22. New England Patriots: Over the past four years, the Patriots have gone through defensive backs faster than BP has gone through ideas to solve the Gulf crisis. The problem is that, like the oil giant, the Patriots are plugging too many holes. Between draft picks Brandon Meriweather(notes), Darius Butler(notes), Patrick Chung(notes), Jonathan Wilhite(notes) and now Devin McCourty(notes), the Pats have found only one consistent starter (Meriweather) and he still looks clueless from time to time. The Pats still have some stopgaps with vets like Leigh Bodden(notes), but they really need to find some good, long-term answers.
23. Minnesota Vikings If you can protect just a little bit against the Vikings’ pass rush, there are all sorts of opportunities for big plays because this secondary isn’t very good. Antoine Winfield(notes), 33, was once an excellent player, but now is showing his age. Injuries have forced him to miss 12 games the past three seasons. CB Cedric Griffin(notes) and FS Madieu Williams(notes) were expected to be better, but neither have been great ballhawkers on a team that usually plays with a lead and has a good pass rush. The projected starting group (SS Tyrell Johnson(notes) is listed as the starter right now) had a total of six interceptions last season. That’s odd for a team this good.
24. Cleveland Browns: If there is one thing that Browns coach Eric Mangini can do, it’s pick and train defensive backs. He was the guy pushing for the Jets to draft Revis when he was in New York and he coached the great Patriots secondaries earlier this decade. That speaks well for first-round pick Joe Haden(notes). If Haden is the real deal, the Browns have a respectable secondary that could quickly become great. Haden would allow Eric Wright(notes) to be a top-flight complementary corner and Sheldon Brown(notes) would be there for depth. Haden is not the biggest corner in the world, but he’s very physical and his speed is stunning. The safety position is average with Mike Adams(notes) and journeyman Abram Elam(notes), and the depth is suspect.
25. Kansas City Chiefs: The Chiefs may have struck … OK, gold is too strong a word for the double-Brandon combo of Flowers and Carr at cornerback, but the pair of 2008 draft picks have been solid and certainly good enough for the type of defense the Chiefs want to play. The real key is FS Eric Berry(notes). GM Scott Pioli went against his better judgment in taking a safety so high in the draft, but Berry provides ample reason. He’s a strong hitter and a ballhawk. Some see him as another Ronnie Lott. Even being just a little shy of that would be fine.
26. St. Louis Rams: The CB combo of Ron Bartell(notes) and Justin King(notes) is about as mediocre as it gets. Then again, it’s a little hard to judge them because so few teams feel the need to challenge the Rams’ secondary. Likewise, FS Oshiomogho Atogwe(notes) is considered a really good player by most people. He re-signed as a free agent this offseason when he didn’t get a lot of interest. SS James Butler(notes) is probably just a placeholder until this team figures out some of the bigger issues, like whether QB Sam Bradford(notes) is good enough.
27. Jacksonville Jaguars: When you watch the Jaguars practice, you get lulled into thinking their secondary is really good. Then, you realize it’s because they’re going up against such a weak passing attack. To be sure, there are a couple of terrific athletes back there with FS Reggie Nelson(notes) and CB Rashean Mathis(notes). Fellow CB Derek Cox(notes) isn’t bad either and the other corners are all workmanlike. However, Nelson still fades way too much in critical moments (like whenever Peyton Manning(notes) throws deep) and Mathis has been inconsistent.
28. Atlanta Falcons: The Falcons’ secondary did more to promote speed training around the NFL than any other group in the league. Opposing receivers took one look at that coverage and realized all they had to do was run straight lines as fast as possible and they were probably going to make a play. That goes a long way toward explaining why Atlanta spent big on CB Dunta Robinson(notes) in free agency, giving him a six-year, $57 million contract. Robinson is really good, but he isn’t a game-changer. The Falcons still have to hope that CB Brent Grimes(notes) makes significant progress. Safeties Thomas DeCoud(notes) and Erik Coleman(notes) are solid against the run, but obviously vulnerable against the pass.
29. Chicago Bears: If you want to know the big reason why the Bears spent so much on DE Julius Peppers(notes) to pressure the QB, take one look at the secondary. Outside of CB Charles Tillman(notes), the Bears don’t have any dependability. Even Tillman is middle of the pack these days. Zackary Bowman(notes) outplayed Nathan Vasher for the other corner spot, but the safety positions are expected to be manned by Chris Harris and Al Afalava(notes). Harris provides experience, but this isn’t the type of secondary coach Lovie Smith was looking for in a season when he probably needs to save his job.
30. Seattle Seahawks: I’m not exactly sure what it is, but Marcus Trufant(notes) and Kelly Jennings(notes), who both posses plenty of talent, seem to forget that they’re good and have stretches where they look awful. It’s so bad that former second-round pick Josh Wilson(notes) could start over one of them all season. New coach Pete Carroll is hoping that rookie S Earl Thomas(notes) will help inject some much-needed speed in the lineup. The rest of the safeties are ordinary.
31. Detroit Lions: CBs Chris Houston(notes) and Eric King(notes) are the placeholders right now for the Lions. Coach Jim Schwartz has spent most of the time rebuilding the front seven, adding only FS Louis Delmas(notes) so far to the secondary through the draft. Delmas has a chance to be really good, but he’s going to need assistance. Houston, King and SS Ko Simpson(notes) aren’t serious help.
32. Houston Texans: Oh boy, this is scary. Projected starting CBs Glover Quin(notes) and Brice McCain(notes) have a combined one interception. Of course, they were both rookies last season, but there’s not much behind them with Jacques Reeves(notes) and rookie Kareem Jackson(notes). At least the safeties, Bernard Pollard(notes) and Eugene Wilson(notes), are experienced. But Pollard and Wilson are both roughly league-average players. Put it together and you have offensive coordinators licking their chops. Bottom line, the Texans’ front seven better have some serious pass rush or this group is going to get lit up.