News & Analysis

2021 NFL Free Agent Rankings: Defensive Backs

Jan 3, 2021; Denver, Colorado, USA; Denver Broncos free safety Justin Simmons (31) celebrates his interception in the fourth quarter against the Las Vegas Raiders at Empower Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

With the 2020 NFL regular season officially in the books, it's almost team-building season for most franchises around the league. So let's get our first look at the 2021 free agent class.

The PFF free agent list is based upon our player evaluations and positional value — and it's a fluid list, as the 2020 season is still unfolding. We will continue to update this list as we head toward the March free agency period. 

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1. S Justin Simmons

After a few solid seasons to begin his career, Justin Simmons has blossomed into one of the game’s best safeties. Simmons had a 90.7 overall PFF grade in 2019, with four picks and 11 pass breakups to his name. He was a rare free safety who was also extremely active against the run and in the box, notching 28 defensive stops over the season. So far this year, he hasn’t quite backed up that phenomenal performance but has a better grade than in any of his previous NFL campaigns, proving that last year wasn’t a complete outlier.

Simmons has not only the range to impact plays in coverage, but he also possesses the ability to read and diagnose plays quickly enough to support against the run or on shorter passes over the middle in a way a lot of free safeties simply don’t.

Contract Analysis: Vic Fangio coached Bears safety Eddie Jackson into the biggest safety contract in the NFL at the time of signing, and the same thing could happen with Simmons this offseason.

Prediction: Broncos sign Simmons for five years, $82.5 million ($16.5M APY): $45 million total guaranteed, $22.5 million fully guaranteed at signing.

2. S Anthony Harris

Anthony Harris has been one of the best safeties in football for the past few seasons, steadily earning himself increased playing time in Minnesota. He put together an All-Pro caliber season in 2019 before taking a step back this year along with the rest of the Vikings’ defense. Harris earned a 91.1 overall PFF grade a season ago, which came hot on the heels of the 89.0 mark he posted the year before that when he played 624 snaps and started half the season due to injury. He has been a perfect free safety within Mike Zimmer’s defense, which employs a lot of split-safety looks and has been particularly adept at making plays on the football, with coverage being by far his biggest asset.

Harris has shown the ability to read route concepts and quarterbacks at the same time, putting himself in position to make plays. He should be primed for a big deal.

Contract Analysis: Minnesota has a huge decision to make at safety with the anchor of their defense in Harrison Smith entering the final year of his deal in 2021, as well. Harris’ emergence opposite Smith has been a welcome development, and although he’s the younger player, it’s hard to imagine the Vikings letting Smith play a single snap outside of Minnesota before his potentially Hall of Fame career is over.

Prediction: Football Team signs Harris for four years, $56 million ($14M APY): $27.5 million total guaranteed, $16 million fully guaranteed at signing.

3. S Marcus Williams

Since entering the league in 2017, Williams has ranked near the top of the league in every significant category for safeties. He has a coverage grade that ranks in the 90th percentile to go with the highest rate of forced incompletions. Williams is also a solid run defender and with the skills to fit as a free safety in any scheme.

Contract Analysis: Williams is infamous for the Minneapolis Miracle, which is a shame because he’s been a great player for the Saints on the back end. New Orleans brought their 2009 first-round pick, Malcolm Jenkins, back to the bayou this offseason, which could be a sign that they are preparing for the departure of Williams.

Prediction: Jaguars sign Williams for four years, $57M ($14.25M APY): $30M total guaranteed, $18.5M fully guaranteed at signing.

4. CB William Jackson III

Jackson was the Bengals’ first-round pick in 2016 and is playing in 2020 on a $9.6 million fifth-year option. After tearing his pectoral and being lost for the year before his rookie campaign even kicked off, Jackson responded with a 90.2 defensive grade in his (redshirt) sophomore season — the sixth-best defensive grade for a cornerback in a second season since 2011. The players ahead of him feature a slate of all-pros. We expected Jackson to become one of the game’s best corners after that season and it never happened. He hasn’t had a season within 15 grading points of that year since, and while he allowed a passer rating of 36.1 when targeted in that great year, he has allowed one of at least 86 in each subsequent season. The situation in Cincinnati has been ugly, but the prospect that Jackson will become the great player he threatened to be is getting less and less likely.

Contract Analysis: The Bengals invested big money in former Vikings CB Trae Waynes this past offseason, signing him to a three-year, $42 million deal ($14M APY). He, unfortunately, suffered a similar fate to Jackson, with a pectoral injury keeping him out for the entire 2020 season.

Prediction:  Bengals sign Jackson for three years, $40 million ($13.33M APY): $22.5 million total guaranteed, $18 million fully guaranteed at signing.

5. CB Richard Sherman

One of the best cornerbacks of his generation, Richard Sherman is still playing the game at a high level, but his age and relative lack of scheme diversity will scare a lot of potential suitors off.

In 2019, once fully recovered from an Achilles injury, Sherman had one of the best seasons of his entire career, allowing just 227 receiving yards all season long. He surrendered a passer rating of just 46.8 before things came unglued a little in the Super Bowl loss to Kansas City. In 2020, Sherman produced a 67.2 coverage grade on just 332 snaps, the lowest grade of his career.

Sherman’s intelligence and tape study gives him a mental edge over most offenses he faces, and that more than makes up for less than stellar straight-line speed. In the kind of defense he plays in San Francisco, he can remain a valuable player even at his age and could be an attractive short-term option for a number of teams in need of a quick fix.

Contract Analysis: Sherman is at the “mercenary” stage of his career where he can sign short-term deals with contenders until he decides to hang up his cleats, much like Darrelle Revis in 2014 when he signed a one-year, $12M deal with the Patriots that included a $20M option for 2015 (the option was declined and Revis returned to the Jets). Sherman has already discussed how the 49ers have too many priority free agents, so he appears to be preparing for a change of scenery.

Prediction: Bills sign Sherman for two years, $28 million ($14M APY): $18M total guaranteed, $14M fully guaranteed at signing.

6. CB Desmond King II

The jury is still out on exactly how good Desmond King is and can be going forward. Since coming into the NFL, King is still — just about — the best-graded slot defender in football, but that is all built on his play over the first two seasons of play for the Chargers. He posted back to back overall PFF grades of 85.7 and then 88.6 before coming off the boil and failing to find that same production since.

He was ultimately shipped out of Los Angeles for close to nothing, suggesting that the team either didn’t believe in him or had bigger concerns about his presence in the locker room. He graded at just 50.5 in coverage during the regular season in Tennessee. King is still young and has shown the ability to be good at every part of defending the slot in today’s NFL, but his elite tape is getting further in the rear-view mirror.

Contract Analysis: Following a deadline trade from the Los Angeles Chargers for a 2021 sixth-round pick, King will now look to cash in with the Tennessee Titans after a likely playoff run. In King’s first game with his new team, he returned a fumble 63 yards for a touchdown en route to a 24-17 win over Chicago.

Prediction: Titans sign King for three years, $17.5M ($5.83M APY): $10M total guaranteed, $7.5M fully guaranteed at signing.

7. S Marcus Maye

Maye has played multiple roles for the New York Jets defense since entering the league in 2017, including lining up for at least 400 snaps at free safety, 200 snaps in the box and 125 snaps at slot corner in each of the last two seasons.

Maye played a more traditional free safety role when the Jets had Jamal Adams on the roster, but he’s even stepped into an Adams-caliber versatile role this season. He can make plays at the catch point, ranking among the league’s best at breaking up passes when targeted, and he’s been solid against the run. Maye does his best work as a traditional free safety, capable of playing both single- and two-high looks, though he is versatile enough to line up all over the defense, making him one of the most coveted safeties on the market.He finished the regular season with the No. 4 overall grade among safeties at 82.8.

Contract Analysis: The Jets shipped Adams off to the Seattle Seahawks for multiple first-round picks, and the play of Marcus Maye was a big reason why they felt comfortable doing so. Maye doesn’t have the ceiling Adams has, but he’s a similarly versatile and talented player, logging snaps all over the defense.

Prediction: Jets sign Maye for four years, $60M ($15M APY): $28.5M total guaranteed, $20M fully guaranteed at signing.

8. S John Johnson III

Johnson has fallen off the free-agent radar a bit after an injury-plagued 2019 season, but make no mistake, he’s an elite safety when healthy. His greatest contribution is also the most important one, as he’s a truly dominant cover safety when called upon. His 85.6 coverage grade ranked fourth among safeties during the regular season, marking the third time in four seasons he was at or above 84.9.

Now that new Rams DC Brandon Staley has gotten his defensive identity established, Johnson is on a tear to close his contract year. Johnson is PFF’s third-highest-graded safety, with an 85.6 grade on the season.

Contract Analysis: The Rams have signaled rather strongly that although Johnson is a special player, they know they can’t afford to keep him around long-term. L.A. drafted two safeties in last year’s draft, both capable of playing free or strong safety, just like Johnson. Third-round pick Terrell Burgess primarily played strong safety at Utah opposite Indianapolis Colts rookie standout Julian Blackmon, but he has experience at both spots. And the Rams’ sixth-round pick out of Ohio State, safety Jordan Fuller, has also spent time at both spots. These picks are in addition to 2019 second-round pick Taylor Rapp — yet another versatile safety who can play down in the box or covering the deep-third if necessary. Long story short, the writing may be on the wall for a cap-strapped Rams team.

Prediction: Rams sign Johnson for four years, $52M ($13M APY): $25M total guaranteed, $16.5M fully guaranteed at signing.

9. CB Mike Hilton

Hilton epitomizes the do-it-all slot corner who can cover in both man and zone, play the run and blitz effectively. The Steelers' scheme allows him to show off all of those skills, and he’s quietly been one of the most valuable corners in the league since 2017. The one concern is his 26 missed tackles over the last two seasons.

Hilton has only played a handful of snaps on the outside since entering the league, so expect him to play in the slot no matter where he lands. However, given the difficult nature of that position, he should be coveted on the open market. Even at just 184 pounds, Hilton is annually among the top corners in defensive stops, highlighting his willingness to stick his nose in against the run as well as his proficiency as a blitzer.

Contract Analysis: Hilton scrapped his way into significant playing time with the Steelers after starting his career by bouncing around practice squads. He’s become a quality cover corner in the slot with the ability to affect the passer on the occasional pass-rush snap. As evidenced by the predictions for all slot cornerbacks, the market didn’t materialize in 2020, and it’s hard to imagine it will in 2021.

Prediction: Steelers sign Hilton for three years, $12M ($4M APY): $4M total guaranteed/fully guaranteed at signing (signing bonus, Steelers don’t guarantee otherwise).

10. CB Shaquill Griffin

A former third-round pick from the 2017 NFL Draft, Shaquill Griffin has been a starter for the Seahawks pretty much from Day 1, but it wasn’t until 2019 that the team really started to see plus play from him. That year, he posted a PFF grade of 78.0, and though he didn’t have any interceptions, he did record 13 pass breakups. He hasn’t managed to replicate that level of play this season, but he has been dealing with injuries and has still flashed high-end play, like against Miami where he didn’t allow a single reception all game long.

Griffin is one of two Seattle cornerbacks set to hit free agency (Quinton Dunbar), and both have dealt with injury issues for most of the year. After a 2019 season in which Griffin registered a 77.0 defensive grade and 76.0 coverage grade, he slid to 64.1 and 63.6, respectively, in 2020.

Contract Analysis: Healthy once again and with playoff football on the horizon, perhaps Shaquill Griffin can turn things around before free agency. He got off to a good start in that regard with a solid performance against the Eagles in Week 12; more of the same could change the narrative in a hurry before the season is over.

Prediction: Seahawks sign Griffin for three years, $28.5 million ($9.5M APY): $15.5M total guaranteed, $8M fully guaranteed at signing.

11. CB Troy Hill

A player who has earned impressive PFF grades dating back to his college career, Troy Hill displayed versatility in 2020 by moving inside to cover the slot after previously playing primarily on the outside. Hill has high-end play under his belt at the NFL level, but he plays at his best when protected from the most physically imposing receivers in the league — something the Rams have been equipped to do since acquiring Jalen Ramsey. A move to the slot also better facilitates that. Hill can be a solid No. 2 or 3 cornerback.

Hill’s 546 snaps in the slot in 2020 are more than he played in five seasons from 2015-19 combined. Hill has produced coverage grades of 73.0 or better in three of his last four seasons, and his versatility could be appealing to a handful of teams looking for a solid veteran piece in the secondary.

Prediction: Rams sign Hill for two years, $10.5 million ($5.25M APY): $7.25 million total guaranteed, $5.25 million fully guaranteed at signing.

12. CB Chidobe Awuzie

After earning a coverage grade that ranks right in the middle of the league’s corners since 2017, Awuzie epitomizes the league-average cornerback. He’s done his best work in zone coverage, ranking in the 61st percentile in PFF grade, but he’s in just the 35th percentile in single coverage. That matches our scouting report of Awuzie coming out of college, where he looked like an excellent fit in a zone scheme, and that’s likely his best bet once again as he hits free agency.

Contract Analysis: The Cowboys prioritized Dontari Poe, Everson Griffen and Gerald McCoy over retaining CB Byron Jones this past offseason. All three players are no longer on the roster, and Dallas has one of the worst defenses in NFL history. Dallas must now realize they have to invest in coverage to get this unit back on track, just like Miami did with Byron Jones.

Prediction: Cowboys sign Awuzie for three years, $27M ($9M APY): $15.5M total guaranteed, $10M fully guaranteed at signing.

Know tomorrow, today. Western Southern Financial Group.
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