Ranking the NFL's top 10 secondaries entering the 2015 season
Ahead of the 2015 season, SI.com is ranking the NFL's best at every position. After ranking the league's top 10 linebacker corps, defensive lines, offensive lines, wide receivers, running backs and quarterbacks, we finish the series with our assessment of the best secondaries.
1. Seattle Seahawks: The Legion of Boom secondary is immensely talented but has also been the beneficiary of injury luck. Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas missed just a handful of snaps last season, and that's been par for the course through their careers. Kam Chancellor played through injury early in the season and worked back to his usual greatness as the season went along; all three of them logged more than 1,000 snaps last season. That could be difficult to repeat in 2015.
Thomas is still recovering from the separated shoulder and torn labrum he played through in Super Bowl XLIX, and Chancellor played that game with a torn MCL. Of course, Chancellor is getting more rest than usual because he's one of a handful of Seattle defenders unhappy with their current contracts, and he's made his feelings known by holding out through training camp so far. Slot cornerback Jeremy Lane suffered a gruesome slate of injuries early in that Super Bowl that put the Seahawks' depth to the test.
If all the major players are able to come back at full strength, there isn't a finer secondary in the NFL. Sherman enjoyed the best season of his career in 2014, and was particularly amazing in the playoffs: five receptions allowed on just 10 targets for 57 yards, no touchdowns, two picks, and a 27.9 quarterback rating. Thomas is by far the rangiest safety in NFL, and Chancellor has developed from a linebacker-hybrid box player into a completely versatile player who can cover well—he completely took over in Seattle's divisional round win over the Panthers. The Seahawks lost their second starting corner, Byron Maxwell, to the Eagles in free agency and signed former Eagle Cary Williams as his replacement. Williams is a limited player who should fit decently in Seattle's aggressive scheme in the short term. Here's one stat the team had to like, given the tenuous health of the other members of this secondary: Williams logged 1,198 snaps in the regular season, tops in the NFL among cornerbacks in 2014.
2. New York Jets: After the Jets fired Rex Ryan after the 2014 season, they acknowledged that it wasn't all his fault with a complete overhaul of their secondary in free agency. Ryan had to make do with very little last season, and new coach Todd Bowles definitely won't have that problem. The Jets brought Darrelle Revis back home with a five-year, $70 million deal with $39 million guaranteed, and reunited him with Antonio Cromartie, who signed on for a second stint in green and white on a four-year, $32 million deal after one excellent year in Arizona. Then, the Jets added a potentially great nickel cornerback in Buster Skrine, the former Brown who signed a four-year, $25 million deal. Add in second-year free safety Calvin Pryor and veteran strong safety Marcus Gilchrist, and you have all the ingredients for a secondary that can do everything Bowles will want to do in his various schemes.
We'd feel sorry for Rex, but the place he landed has a pretty decent secondary of its own ...
3. Buffalo Bills: The Bills didn't go all in on their secondary like the Jets did, but they didn't need to. Buffalo's front four gets a ton of pressure without help, and that makes things easier for a talented group of defenders in the second level. The leader here is cornerback Stephon Gilmore, the 2012 first-round pick who has improved in each of his three NFL seasons and could really take off in Ryan's defense. Veteran Leodis McKelvin had excellent charting stats last season, but he's suffered setbacks in recovering from the ankle injury that cost him the last six games of the 2014 season.
Second-round pick Ronald Darby is expected to get a lot of reps if McKelvin isn't ready to go. The 5'11", 193-pound Darby has all the athleticism to succeed, though the subtleties of NFL coverages may elude him for a while. Ryan plans to move the hugely underrated Corey Graham from cornerback to safety, which would be a big boon for the team's deep coverage—Graham allowed a 57.0 quarterback rating on 706 total snaps last year. Another star in this secondary is Nickell Robey, who has become one of the league's best slot cornerbacks, allowing just one touchdown on 56 targets last season. Duke Williams and Aaron Williams will round out the safety rotation in a group that could really surprise in 2014.
4. Cincinnati Bengals: The Bengals ranked seventh in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted pass defense metrics last season despite a league-low 20 sacks, which says a lot about their secondary. Last year, per FO, the Bengals finished first in efficiency against No. 1 receivers, third against No. 2 receivers, and second against No. 3 receivers (generally slot guys). Terence Newman is now with the Vikings, but he was the only starting cornerback for Cincy with an opponent passer rating over 80.5—the rating given up by Leon Hall, the team's top cornerback over the last few years.
Hall is in the last year of his contract, and he'll turn 31 in December, so it's time for recent top draft picks Dre Kirkpatrick and Darqueze Dennard to take over. Dennard played just 77 snaps as a rookie first-rounder last season, but coaches say they're impressed with his increased awareness. Kirkpatrick played well in limited duty last season, and he's the projected starting left cornerback this year. Adam Jones and Hall may split time in the slot. Things are secure at safety, where George Iloka has developed into a punishing run defender and Reggie Nelson remains a reliable veteran.
5. Denver Broncos: Few secondaries boast as talented a starting cornerback duo as the Broncos' does with Aqib Talib and Chris Harris. Last season, Talib allowed a 72.2 passer rating in 590 passing snaps, and his only liability was the occasional touchdown allowed. That wasn't a problem for Harris in his first full year in transition from his former status as the NFL's best slot man: Harris allowed a miniscule 47.8 passer rating and allowed no touchdowns in 623 passing snaps. Harris did play a bit in the slot last season, splitting those reps with 2014 first-round pick Bradley Roby, who struggled at times but has a great deal of potential. T.J. Ward is the group's run-stopping safety, while Darian Stewart is the projected free safety starter. The Broncos also intend to experiment with formations that give Roby a chance to play hybrid safety on passing downs.
6. Cleveland Browns: With Buster Skrine off to the Jets, it's definitely time for Justin Gilbert to step up and ... well, do something. The eighth overall pick in 2014 out of Oklahoma State, Gilbert was a disappointment on the field and in the locker room, playing just 252 passing snaps as a rookie. He'll compete for the third cornerback spot behind Joe Haden and Tramon Williams, and the smart money for that spot generally is on Pierre Desir, the small-school star who created a buzz in limited action.
Haden has been the star of this secondary since he was picked seventh in the 2010 draft. He's become one of the more consistent pass defenders in the NFL. Williams has had a couple rough years in coverage, and he's not the weapon he once was, but the hope is that he'll come around in this defense. At safety, Tashaun Gipson was playing at an All-Pro level before he suffered a knee injury and missed the final five games of the season—he picked off six passes in just 11 games and was a key asset in coverage. Donte Whitner also played at a high level at the safety position. This secondary has the potential to be the strength of the Browns' roster.
7. Detroit Lions: Nobody expected Detroit's pass defense to play as well as it did in defensive coordinator Teryl Austin's first season, but the Lions moved from 20th to eighth in FO's pass defense metrics, and everybody in that back four stepped up. Actually, it was a back five, as no defense played a higher percentage of snaps with five or more defensive backs than the Lions in 2014: 76.3% of the defensive plays, per Pro Football Focus.
Everybody stepped up, starting with the safety tandem of Glover Quin and James Ihedigbo. Both players were perfect fits for Austin's aggressive but precise schemes. Quin is the centerfielder, while Ihedigbo is the enforcer against the run. Veteran Rashean Mathis and youngster Darius Slay fit perfectly as the outside cornerbacks, with Slay showing huge progress in 2014. Cassius Vaughn, the primary slot cornerback, was the relative liability, and was signed by the Ravens in the off-season. Josh Wilson, Quandre Diggs and rookie Alex Carter are the prime candidates to take Vaughn's place.
8. Arizona Cardinals: The Cardinals played with six defensive backs on the field an NFL-high 54% of their snaps, and even put seven defensive backs on the field on 6.8% of their snap—another NFL high. With Todd Bowles off to New York, it will be up to new defensive coordinator James Bettcher to deploy one of the most versatile secondaries in the league. Cornerback Patrick Peterson is the big name, but he's not always the star of the group. Peterson is better than his charting stats indicate, due to his tendency to follow the opposition's best receiver all around the field, but his eight touchdowns allowed are a problem, especially since Antonio Cromartie followed Bowles to the Jets after excelling in his contract year.
Jerraud Powers, who shined as a slot-safety hybrid last year, will compete with Justin Bethel (who has made the Pro Bowl the last two seasons as a special teamer) for the spot Cromartie used to occupy. At safety, Tyrann Mathieu and Deone Bucannon are two of the league's more interesting defenders. Mathieu plays all over the place in a hybrid corner/safety role and has as much athletic ability as anyone at his position. Bucannon is a guided missile against the run.
9. Houston Texans: The Texans finished sixth in FO's pass defense metrics in 2014 and still selected a cornerback in the first round, taking Wake Forest's Kevin Johnson with the 16th pick. Veteran Johnathan Joseph played well last year, leading the team with 117 total targets, allowing 68 catches for 814 yards, four touchdowns to two picks and an opponent quarterback rating of 83.8, but he turned 31 in April. Johnson is a rangy, aggressive defender who will get a chance to grow into the defense before taking over.
Houston's best cornerback last year was Kareem Jackson, who was rewarded with a four-year, $34 million contract in March. Jackson missed three games with a knee injury in 2014 but enjoyed a breakout season in which he improved greatly as an all-around player. Houston signed former Broncos safety Rahim Moore to patrol the deep third, while Stevie Brown looks to be the main candidate for the open strong safety spot. The Texans released D.J. Swearinger in May after tiring of his boom-and-bust nature.
10. Carolina Panthers: Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman got quite a haul in the late rounds of the 2014 draft, landing eventual starting safety Tre Boston in the fourth round and eventual starting cornerback Bene Benwikiere in the fifth. Boston replaced Thomas DeCoud as the primary free safety as the season rolled along and was good enough to keep that spot for 2015. Benwikiere earned his first starting role in Week 5 of his rookie campaign and was lights-out thereafter, allowing no touchdowns and a 72.9 opponent passer rating in 2014. Fellow cornerback Josh Norman, taken in the fifth round of the 2012 draft, was even better, allowing a 53.2 passer rating on 58 targets. Only Vontae Davis, Chris Harris and Richard Sherman were better in that category. Ex-Bears cornerback Charles Tillman will be given a chance to show what he has left in the tank. Veteran Roman Harper fills out a starting four that is schemed to perfection by defensive coordinator Sean McDermott.
GALLERY: The NFL's best offensive lines entering 2015