After recently unveiling our final quarterback, wide receiver and offensive line rankings for the 2020 NFL season, it’s now time to do the same for the secondaries. Below, you will find every secondary ranked from Nos. 1-32 based solely on the unit PFF grade of each team’s defensive backs during the 2020 NFL season.
The Rams allowed an NFL-best -0.13 expected points added (EPA) per pass this season. For perspective, only four teams in the entire league allowed negative EPA per pass. The Rams' unit, from top to bottom, has been nothing short of exceptional.
First-year defensive coordinator Brandon Staley has crafted a great scheme, and Jalen Ramsey, Troy Hill, Darious Williams and John Johnson III have all executed at an elite level. Williams and Ramsey ranked fourth and seventh, respectively, among outside corners in coverage grade this season, while Hill was the second-highest-graded slot corner and Johnson was the fourth-highest-graded safety in coverage.
Green Bay’s secondary is anchored by the NFL’s most valuable cornerback, Jaire Alexander, and most valuable safety, Adrian Amos. Those two also led their respective positions in coverage grade along with ranking No. 1 in PFF WAR. Amos has been one of the most productive cover safeties in the league, racking up 12 passing stops (tied for ninth), 10 forced incompletions (second) and a couple of interceptions.
Alexander, meanwhile, is as stingy as they come, allowing just 21.5 yards per game (second to Ramsey) and as many plays on the ball as first downs/touchdowns (16).
Pittsburgh's 41.7% successful pass-play rate ranked first in the NFL this season. Very few quarterbacks found success against the Steelers’ secondary when throwing deep. The unit allowed just a 45.9 passer rating on throws over 10 yards downfield (second-best).
Joe Haden and Steven Nelson were quality starters on the outside, as they ranked 24th and 39th, respectively, among 93 qualifying outside corners in coverage grade. However, the backbone of the unit's success came elsewhere. Cameron Sutton and Mike Hilton played nearly equal snaps in the slot and came away ranking third and seventh, respectively, among 40 qualifiers in coverage grade at the position. Minkah Fitzpatrick also provided standout play on the back-end with the third-best coverage grade among deep safeties.
Indy’s secondary was one of the biggest surprises of the 2020 season. Xavier Rhodes was expected to be a major liability at one of the outside spots, as he recorded a 44.7 coverage grade, a 84.3% catch rate and a 127.8 passer rating allowed in 2019.
However, he looked vastly different in 2020 than during his final days in Minnesota. His coverage grade jumped to 77.5 and his catch rate allowed dropped to 50.7%. He produced at a top-10 level on the outside, and Kenny Moore II played at a top-three level in the slot with an 84.6 coverage grade at that position.
The top defensive back in Baltimore is none other than Marlon Humphrey. He held his own on the outside (394 snaps), but his best play came from the slot (484 snaps). Humphrey produced the fifth-best slot coverage grade this season and led the Ravens with 18 passing stops.
Jimmy Smith may have played only 11 games this year, but he was a secret superstar from start to finish. He surrendered an NFL-best 0.37 yards per coverage snap (played 313 coverage snaps) en route to a 75.7 coverage grade.
Jamel Dean and Carlton Davis gave the Buccaneers impressive corner play on the outside this season. They ranked third and 25th, respectively, among all outside corners in coverage grade during the regular season. Only two other teams had two outside corners rank inside the top 25 in coverage grade this season.
Ronald Darby led Washington's secondary in his first season with the team, and he was wildly inconsistent — a trend throughout his NFL career. Darby allowed the second-most deep passing yards in coverage among all defensive backs (328), but at the same time, he led the league in forced incompletions (20).
In his return to Washington, D.C., Kendall Fuller played predominantly on the outside for the first time in his career. And it went quite well. He allowed only 0.84 yards per coverage snap on the outside, ranking 15th among 90 qualifiers.
One of the most improved units we saw this season from 2019, regardless of team or position, was Cincinnati's secondary. The team saw strong play from returners Jessie Bates III, William Jackson III and Darius Phillips — but also from free agent signings Vonn Bell and Mackensie Alexander.
Bell finished in the top 15 in PFF grade down in the box while Alexander ranked among the top 15 defensive backs in the slot. Phillips earned the third-highest forced incompletion rate on the outside (21.6%), and Jackson finished above the 70th percentile in outside coverage grade. Bates was the clear-cut top performer of this group. He led all safeties in the NFL in PFF grade and in interceptions plus pass breakups (15).
To no one's surprise, Tre’Davious White finished as one of the best outside corners in the league this season. He ended eighth in both coverage grade and forced incompletion rate at the position (21.1%). At safety, Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde formed one of the top safety tandems in the league for the fourth year in a row. They helped Buffalo’s safety room earn the seventh-best coverage grade among the 32 units.
Unlike in 2019, Kansas City cracks the top 10 because of its cornerback room — not because of the Honey Badger. Charvarius Ward and Bashaud Breeland ranked 12th and 14th, respectively, in yards allowed per coverage snap on the outside. And when second-year corner Rashad Fenton and rookie L’Jarius Sneed filled in on the field, they looked pretty sharp considering their lack of experience.
Fenton recorded an 82.3 coverage grade when on the outside earlier in the year. Whether Sneed was in the slot or manning the outside, he provided valiant play for the Chiefs with a 73.8 coverage grade on the season. He allowed just 13 first downs in coverage while intercepting three passes, breaking up four balls and forcing seven passing stops.
Alex Smith appears to be a shoo-in for Comeback Player of the Year after what he endured, but in any other year, it would go to 49ers corner Jason Verrett. From Week 5 of 2016 through the 2019 season, Verrett played only 67 snaps due to various injuries. San Francisco gave him another shot this year, and he finished the regular season with the 10th-best coverage grade among outside corners.
While we saw Richard Sherman and Ahkello Witherspoon only on a limited basis this year, they played extremely well when on the field. Each played just under 200 coverage snaps on the outside, allowed 0.48 (second) and 0.87 (19th) yards, respectively, per coverage snap.
12. DENVER BRONCOS
Denver had one of the best, if not the best, safety tandems of the 2020 season. Kareem Jackson and Justin Simmons ranked fifth and seventh, respectively, among 91 qualifying safeties in coverage grade. This made it back-to-back years in which they each were among the NFL's 10 highest-graded safeties.
Still, neither was the most valuable player for Denver's defense. That honor went to Bryce Callahan, who generated more wins above replacement than anyone on the offensive side of the ball, too. He played in 10 games this season and spent time both in the slot — his normal position prior to his time in Denver — and on the outside. Regardless of where he lined up, Callahan made plays. The 5-foot-9, 188-pound corner was the third-highest-graded player at the position this season.
New England's secondary took a step back from a 2019 season in which the unit claimed the top spot. This also breaks an eight-year streak of the Patriots ranking among the 10 highest-graded secondaries.
Stephon Gilmore didn’t quite play up to his typical elite standards when on the field this year compared to 2019, as his catch rate allowed ballooned 15 percentage points to 64%, and his forced incompletion rate dropped 10 percentage points to 5%. Jonathan Jones and J.C. Jackson performed quite well, though, and helped slot the Patriots inside the top 15. They ranked fifth and 29th, respectively, in coverage grade among all cornerbacks this season.
14. MIAMI DOLPHINS
Anchored by 18 interceptions, Miami was one of four teams to allow negative expected points added per pass play this season. Xavien Howard was easily a top-three-performing cornerback this season, ranking second to only Jaire Alexander in coverage grade (89.6) at the position this season. His 20 combined pass breakups plus interceptions tied for the second-most we have seen by a defensive back in a single-season over the past five years.
So, why are the Dolphins at No. 14? Well, the rest of the group didn’t come close to producing at an elite level. Neither Byron Jones nor Noah Igbinoghene was able to rank in the top half of the league in coverage grade when playing on the outside, and Nik Needham was ninth-to-last in slot coverage grade.
15. CHICAGO BEARS
The Achilles’ heel for Chicago’s defense was once again Buster Skrine in the slot, where he ranked seventh-to-last in the league in coverage grade. Kyle Fuller did improve on his slump year in 2019 and was the team’s top defensive back; he ranked 30th among 93 qualifying outside corners in coverage grade. While that’s still not nearly as good as his 2017 and 2018 seasons, most teams would love a corner capable of reaching such heights.
Rookie Jaylon Johnson was a bit of a roller coaster, but he showed signs of life as other first-year corners struggled. Johnson gave up five touchdowns and 41 catches in 13 games for an average of 14.3 yards per reception while also ranking sixth among all outside corners in forced incompletion rate (21%).
16. TENNESSEE TITANS
Tennessee’s pass coverage was truly boom-or-bust this season. The unit didn't allow explosive plays often, but the few that slipped through the cracks were big. The Titans surrendered the seventh-lowest explosive pass play rate (13%), but at the same time allowed the second-most deep completions over 20 yards downfield (35).
This group ranked fifth-to-last in expected points added per pass allowed but still rings in here at the halfway mark when it comes to grade. Tennessee was just one of five teams in the league this year to have one or fewer defensive backs to play 200 coverage snaps and produce a poor coverage grade below 60.0.
The Panthers rank a lot higher here than expected, largely because of their slot coverage. Carolina's secondary ranks fourth in the NFL in slot coverage grade, and the team's defensive backs racked up the second-most passing stops in the slot (26). Donte Jackson also took a step forward manning the outside. He went from giving up 641 yards on 60 targets in 2019 to 366 yards on 57 targets in 2020.
18. NEW YORK GIANTS
New York is this high because of one man only: James Bradberry. The fifth-year corner was signed to a monster contract this past offseason after four middling years with the Carolina Panthers. He didn't play at a high level in his four years with Carolina, failing to surpass a 70.0 PFF grade in every season, so the contract was risky, to say the least.
But Bradberry proved all the doubters wrong and justified his pay this season. He ranked fifth among outside corners in coverage grade and fourth in forced incompletion rate (21%). There were quite a few missed tackles from him (14), but that’s something you can live with if he keeps up this shutdown play.
The Chargers’ defense had high expectations entering the 2020 season. But with Derwin James being ruled out injured before Week 1, Desmond King being traded away a few games into the year and Chris Harris Jr. being limited to just over half the season, those expectations weren’t quite met.
Cornerback Casey Hayward Jr. established himself as one of the league’s best defensive backs ever since entering the NFL in 2012, with every season of his career (minus his 2013 when he missed most of the year) ending in a PFF grade above 75.0. This year, he fell well short of that mark with a 59.5 PFF grade. Hayward was rather inconsistent in 2020. The ninth-year corner allowed fewer than 25 yards in seven of his 14 games played, but he also gave up the fourth-most receptions (nine) to result in a 25-plus yard gain.
Led by Rodney McLeod, the Eagles' safety play wasn’t all that bad. They ranked sixth among the 32 safety units in coverage grade this season. However, the cornerback group — whether from the outside or in the slot — fared poorly. Philly produced the fourth-to-last coverage grade among all the cornerback units. Darius Slay was the highest-graded man in the group, but he still surrendered 1.4 yards per coverage snap on the outside (67th of 90 qualifiers).
Penalties killed New Orleans’ secondary rankings. The group committed 45 penalties in the regular season, six more than any other unit in the NFL. Nine came courtesy of Marshon Lattimore, who earned a 53.7 coverage grade this season. Lattimore did have decent ball production, with nine combined pass breakups plus interceptions, but he also gave up more touchdowns than any other cornerback in single coverage (six).
Arizona had veterans Patrick Peterson and Dre Kirkpatrick manning the outside spots, and each put together one of the worst seasons of their careers. Peterson ranked 83rd among 121 qualifying cornerbacks in coverage grade (53.1), and Kirkpatrick slotted in at 107th (46.1).
Minnesota’s cornerbacks were as expected this season: Not good. Led by rookies Cameron Dantzler and Jeff Gladney, the Vikings had five corners log at least 125 coverage snaps this season. Just one produced a coverage grade above 51.0. That lone player was the 89th overall pick Dantzler, but he was still rather inconsistent. He did have the two best games we saw from a rookie corner this season in Weeks 13 and 15 — both of which eclipsed a 90.0 coverage grade — but he also had three games in which he earned a coverage grade in the 40s.
24. SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
Through Week 11, Seattle’s secondary was the worst in the NFL. The unit ranked dead last in coverage grade and gave up more pass plays of 15-plus yards than any other team. Seattle then got to pad its stats down the stretch against Dwayne Haskins, Carson Wentz, C.J. Beathard, Sam Darnold, Colt McCoy and Jared Goff.
Jamal Adams’ coverage performance wasn’t nearly as strong as it was with the New York Jets. He finished the regular season with a 53.1 coverage grade, over 34 grading points lower than the marks he posted in 2018 and 2019. Tre Flowers and Quinton Dunbar each disappointed when on the field, as well. Both surrendered triple-digit passer ratings when targeted and had coverage grades below 52.0.
25. NEW YORK JETS
Even with Marcus Maye ranking third among safeties in coverage grade and Brian Poole ranking 10th among all cornerbacks, the Jets fail to crack the 25th percentile among the 32 secondaries. That’s how bad their outside coverage has been this season. No team produced a worse outside coverage grade this season as a group than the Jets.
26. CLEVELAND BROWNS
Cleveland comes in here at No. 26 because of the team's safety and slot play. The Browns ranked dead last in safety coverage grade. And in the slot, Kevin Johnson, Tavierre Thomas and M.J. Stewart all underwhelmed. Each logged at least 100 coverage snaps in the slot and produced a sub-50.0 coverage grade at the position.
Cleveland has, however, gotten standout play from Denzel Ward, who is establishing himself as one of the NFL's top corners in single coverage. He ranks 13th in outside coverage grade this season and is tied for third at the position in forced incompletions (14). Considering he missed four of the last six regular-season games due to injury and COVID-19, Ward's numbers are impressive.
27. HOUSTON TEXANS
Houston kept Bradley Roby on the outside this season, and he was their best defensive back. Roby has always been a lot better on the outside as opposed to the slot. In his nine games of considerable action this season, he finished 20th in outside coverage grade. Vernon Hargreaves III — who manned one of the Texans' starting outside spots — didn’t have nearly as much success. In fact, he ranked seventh-to-last among outside corners in coverage grade. Hargreaves gave up a whopping 837 yards and six touchdowns in coverage on the year.
28. ATLANTA FALCONS
A lot went wrong for the Atlanta Falcons this season, but perhaps the biggest flaw was their coverage on the outside. Kendall Sheffield, Isaiah Oliver and A.J. Terrell ranked 80th, 88th and 89th — respectively — among 90 cornerbacks to play at least 150 coverage snaps at outside corner this season. Atlanta’s outside corners were responsible for more 15-plus yard passing gains (50) than any other team in the NFL.
29. DALLAS COWBOYS
Dallas wasn’t tested downfield nearly as much as other weak secondaries, facing just 151 targets over 10 yards downfield, yet the secondary still managed to give up 16 passing touchdowns of 15-plus-yards (tied for third-most). Thirteen of those were over 20 yards downfield, tying for the most in the NFL. When targeted over 10 yards downfield in general, Dallas gave up the second-worst passer rating (123.6).
On a more positive note, rookie corner Trevon Diggs made progress as his rookie campaign went on. He went from a 43.9 coverage grade in his first six games to 83.4 over his last six outings (missed four games due to injury).
Jacksonville had to throw the kitchen sink at the cornerback position this season, featuring six different players with at least 70 coverage snaps on the outside. And just one of them performed at an at least manageable level.
That was Sidney Jones, who the Jaguars grabbed after Philadelphia waived him earlier in the year. He did give up over 100 yards in coverage in two of his six starts, but Jones didn't produce a poor coverage grade below 60.0 like every other cornerback on the roster. Safety Josh Jones didn’t help matters, either, with a 39.2 coverage grade.
The Raiders have ranked near the bottom of the league in secondary performance for four straight years. They took a swing in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft with Damon Arnette at the 19th overall pick, but the returns weren’t all that great. He finished as the league’s lowest-graded corner on the outside.
It’s a small sample (216 coverage snaps), and Arnette still has ample time to improve, but he didn’t help matters. Neither did Trayvon Mullen, who was a boom-or-bust player and didn’t make a significant Year 2 leap. He did tie for seventh in total pass breakups (11) but finished with a sub-60.0 coverage grade. Meanwhile, second-year safety Jonathan Abram was the lowest-graded player at his respective position in coverage.
It’s a young group, but Las Vegas has to keep looking to improve the unit this offseason.
32. DETROIT LIONS
Detroit didn’t just have the worst secondary of the 2020 NFL season; it had one of the worst we have seen in the PFF era, dating back to 2006. This group surrendered 0.36 expected points added per pass play, the worst any defense has allowed in a season since 2006 by a considerable margin (0.30 was next worst).
Expectations for rookie corners should always be relatively low, but the performance from 2020 third-overall pick Jeffrey Okudah was far worse than anticipated. Okudah allowed 20 first downs and a league-worst 2.1 yards per cover snap at outside corner while making just three plays on the ball in nine games this season. There is a lot of ball left to be played for Okudah before anyone should be writing him off, but Year 1 was not great.
More of PFF's postseason rankings