Building a high-powered offense is a sustainable way to win in the NFL, but ensuring the defensive secondary isn’t a liability is what separates the contenders from the rest. So, which secondaries were a boon and which were a hindrance this season? With the help of PFF’s advanced database — which is used by all 32 NFL teams — we'll rank all 32 NFL secondaries from the 2021 regular season.
This is not a forward-looking list, nor is it considering what a group accomplished prior to this season. These rankings are solely analyzing the performance and impact of every secondary in the NFL from the 2021 regular season.
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Buffalo’s secondary endured a crushing blow in Week 12 when CB1 Tre’Davious White went down with a season-ending torn ACL. And yet, the Bills still sustained a top-five pass defense in terms of expected points added (EPA) allowed per pass down the final stretch of the 2021 regular season.
That’s a tip of the cap to everyone in the secondary for stepping up, including 2020 seventh-rounder Dane Jackson, who didn’t allow a touchdown in any regular-season start after replacing White. The real stars of this group are Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde, who rank second and third, respectively, in coverage grade among safeties.
Tampa Bay dealt with a pile of injuries and COVID-19 in their cornerback room for most of the season, forcing the team to cycle through players. Despite that, the Buccaneers’ outside cornerbacks still combined for the highest unit coverage grade in the NFL. Pair that with three top-25-graded safeties — Antoine Winfield Jr. (second), Jordan Whitehead (18th) and Mike Edwards (22nd) — and you have yourself one of the best secondaries in the NFL ready to help the franchise compete for another Super Bowl.
No team covered the slot better in the 2021 regular season than the Patriots. Their team slot coverage grade ended up multiple grading points higher than any other NFL franchise. They made a league-leading 23 plays on the ball from the slot en route to allowing the lowest passer rating (71.1). Outside corner J.C. Jackson was also one of the best at his respective position, earning a top-five PFF grade in the regular season.
Opposing quarterbacks netted a 71.8 passer rating when throwing at one of Cleveland’s outside cornerbacks this season, the lowest among the 32 defenses. Led by Denzel Ward, Greedy Williams and rookie Greg Newsome II, the Browns' cornerback grade finished with the third-best coverage grade in the NFL.
Ward and Newsome, in particular, produced top-10 coverage grades when in single coverage. Cleveland also received some sneaky high-quality play from 2020 undrafted free agent A.J. Green, who posted a 90.3 coverage grade across his 116 coverage snaps. Green allowed only six receptions for 70 yards on 22 targets while breaking up five and picking off one. This group should contend for the top spot next season.
Marshon Lattimore was the highlight of a Saints secondary that ranked seventh in coverage grade and allowed an open target at the third-lowest rate in the league. The 2017 first-round pick earned a 76.4 coverage grade and led the league in pass breakups (18) en route to being the second-most valuable cornerback in the league, according to PFF WAR. He wasn’t alone out there, either — safety Marcus Williams also helped anchor the group with an 84.3 coverage grade that ranked seventh at the position.
Kansas City's defense looked dead in the water after the first five weeks of the season. The back-to-back AFC champions stood at a 2-3 record, and the secondary was performing at league-low levels. Those struggles wouldn’t last, though. With some personnel tweaks, the Chiefs’ secondary revived itself.
Chiefs’ Coverage in 2021
|Weeks 1-5||Weeks 6-18|
|54.8||Secondary Coverage Grade||90.0|
|+0.25||EPA Allowed Per Pass||-0.04|
|55%||Successful Pass % Allowed||46%|
|21.3%||Explosive Pass % Allowed||12.6%|
Kansas City took Daniel Sorensen off the field while bringing back Juan Thornhill and increasing its rate of dime coverage. Cornerback Charvarius Ward was also playing exceptionally better after missing a month due to injury. From Week 7 on, Ward allowed more than 50 yards in coverage just once. Rashad Fenton also saw his playing time increase after the first month of the season and closed out the regular season with an 81.1 coverage grade.
Safeties Kevin Byard and Amani Hooker both finished the regular season as top-five-graded players at the position. The cornerback room was more in the middle of the pack, ranking 16th in PFF WAR generated. Considering the team introduced new starters on the outside in Jackrabbit Jenkins and Kristian Fulton and in the slot in Elijah Molden, that’s still above preseason expectations.
No group of cornerbacks played more man coverage than the Miami Dolphins. Still, they held up well, ranking sixth in coverage grade and second in EPA per pass play allowed on such plays. Nik Needham was an underrated player among the group by producing a top-10 slot coverage grade in the NFL. And we mustn’t forget about the impact of rookie safety Jevon Holland. His 84.6 PFF grade finished as the third-best at the position. And he only got better as the season progressed. Holland was the highest-graded safety since Week 9 by over four grading points.
Cornerback Trevon Diggs has been possibly the biggest boom-or-bust cornerback of the PFF era. He led the position in interceptions (11), yards allowed (1,026) and penalties (11) this regular season. As a result, Diggs' coverage grade rang in just above the 50th percentile among cornerbacks.
Not a single one of Dallas' top eight defensive backs by snaps earned a coverage grade in poor territory below 60.0. Safety Jayron Kearse was the highest-graded defensive back on the roster, due in large part to his strong tackling. His 3.2% missed tackle rate was the second-lowest among safeties.
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10. LOS ANGELES RAMS
The Rams' pass-defense unit regressed some from 2020, but make no mistake: This is still an above-average group. And star cornerback Jalen Ramsey is a huge reason why. He has featured in a versatile role this season, with over 300 snaps each in the slot and on the outside. It doesn’t matter where Ramsey is at, though — he’s been a top-tier player at either position. He ranks top 10 in both slot and outside coverage grade. Ramsey produced the highest coverage grade and most PFF WAR among all cornerbacks in the regular season.
Cincinnati’s passing offense wasn’t the team's only unit to take a major leap in 2021. The Bengals' pass coverage finished the regular season as the seventh-most improved group year over year in terms of EPA allowed per pass. Two free-agent signings, in particular — Chidobe Awuzie and Mike Hilton — have helped them get there. Awuzie was the second-highest graded cornerback of the regular season, while Hilton was the seventh-highest graded slot corner in coverage.
The Raiders entered 2021 on a streak of arguably the worst defensive back play in the entire NFL. They consistently ranked near the bottom of the league in every metric imaginable, including defensive back PFF WAR generated:
Raiders Secondary WAR by season
|Season||Group PFF WAR (w/ Rank)|
Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley brought his patented Seahawk Cover 3 defense and got the right players in place to carry it out at a quality level. Veteran Casey Hayward Jr. — who played in Bradley's scheme with the Los Angeles Chargers — was the 13th-highest graded outside corner of the regular season, while rookie Nate Hobbs was the highest-graded slot corner. With their help, the Raiders ranked top five in yards per attempt and explosive pass rate allowed this year. Now the question is, are they able to maintain that if they undergo another coaching change?
No Jaire Alexander? No problem. The Packers still fielded a top-10-graded cornerback room this season despite losing one of the best cover corners in the game for most of the season.
Rookie Eric Stokes stepped up and grew into his role as the season wore on. From Week 12 to the end of the regular season, he was one of the 10 highest-graded cornerbacks in the NFL. He allowed a mere 0.46 yards per coverage snap and 3.1 yards per target in that span, both of which ranked second among cornerbacks. The Packers signed veteran Rasul Douglas midseason, and he far surpassed expectations with a 76.5 coverage grade.
Darius “Big Play” Slay played a big part in the Eagles cracking a spot in the top half of the league. The veteran had a career year, earning the highest coverage grade (83.9) of his nine years in the NFL ranks. That mark was also good for fourth-best at the position in the 2021 regular season. Overall, Philadelphia's cornerback room finished second in coverage grade this season.
15. NEW YORK GIANTS
Cornerback Adoree’ Jackson and safety Xavier McKinney helped claw this secondary to a No. 16 ranking despite the team's poor state overall. Jackson was one of the five highest-graded outside cornerbacks in the NFL and allowed the second-fewest yards per coverage snap at the position. Meanwhile, McKinney ranked in the top 10 in coverage grade among safeties.
Two of Indianapolis' outside cornerbacks earned top-20 coverage grades this season: Rock Ya-Sin and Isaiah Rodgers. They each produced coverage grades above 70.0 for the season. Ya-Sin made his best plays on his few snaps in press-man, while Rodgers' top moments came in off-zone when racking up stops.
Ya-Sin's 2020 coverage grade was over 20 points lower than his 2021 mark, and Rodgers played just 38 NFL coverage snaps entering the season, so this wasn’t expected.
17. DENVER BRONCOS
The Broncos' secondary underwhelmed to a certain extent in 2021, with veteran safety Kareem Jackson and cornerback free agent pickups Kyle Fuller and Ronald Darby all producing poor coverage grades below 60.0. On the other hand, safety Justin Simmons sustained his high-level play by finishing as one of the 10 most valuable players at the position.
Rookie Patrick Surtain II also showed a lot of promise and looks like a star in the making. After a few poorly graded games in the first quarter of the season, the first-round pick stepped up and was a legitimate CB1 for Denver. From Week 7 on, he was one of the 25 highest-graded players at the position and allowed more than 60 yards in coverage just once this season.
The 49ers brought in veteran Josh Norman out of necessity at the start of the season, and it didn’t go well. He earned a 47.4 coverage grade for the regular season while also allowing a 125.0 passer rating when targeted and being called for 10 penalties. The low-level play ultimately led to his benching by the season’s end.
On the bright side, Emmanuel Moseley played admirably with a 17.6% forced incompletion rate on the outside (ninth) and under a yard allowed per coverage snap this regular season. Safety Jimmie Ward was the team’s highest-graded defensive back in coverage (73.7).
Kendall Fuller was one of the three most valuable cornerbacks of the 2021 season and helped a great deal in Washington ranking even this high. Free safety Bobby McCain also played a role in the Football Team not being in the bottom tier, snagging four interceptions and breaking up five passes en route to a 72.6 coverage grade.
Free-agent signing William Jackson III was an up-and-down performer. He finished in the top 10 in yards per coverage snap on the outside (0.76), but five touchdowns allowed and eight penalties brought his coverage grade down to 59.5 for the year.
20. SEATTLE SEAHAWKS
But from the slot, the Seahawks' coverage unit was a bit of a nightmare. They ranked dead last in slot coverage grade following the regular season.
Cornerback was a major area of concern for the Cardinals. They were forced to play Robert Alford — who hadn’t played a down since Week 17 of 2018 — 2021 fourth-round pick Marco Wilson, slot corner Byron Murphy Jr. and NFL journeyman Antonio Hamilton at outside corner this season.
Defensive coordinator Vance Joseph did a good job of adjusting his defense and playing less man coverage to take stress off that unit, but the Cardinals still finished 26th in outside coverage grade for the year. The position should be an area of emphasis this offseason.
There’s reason to believe this secondary can take a big step forward in 2022 with its young core of safety Jeremy Chinn and cornerbacks Jaycee Horn and C.J. Henderson. But with Horn getting shut down after a Week 3 injury and Henderson struggling to get acclimated after getting traded to the team a month into the season, it was a subpar year for the secondary. The Panthers' outside coverage, in particular, was the weakest link. Carolina ranked 24th in outside coverage grade and allowed the fourth-worst passer rating to the outside (107.8).
23. CHICAGO BEARS
This kind of ranking for the Chicago Bears was expected this season, considering their cornerback situation outside of Jaylon Johnson. And even he had a volatile season with a 60.5 coverage grade. Opposite him for most of the season was Kindle Vildor, who posted a 45.6 coverage grade that ranked in the bottom five in the NFL.
Veteran Artie Burns and seventh-round rookie Thomas Graham Jr. were small-sample darlings with 85.1 and 90.6 coverage grades, respectively, but they didn’t get enough reps to make a sizable dent. The slot was also a considerable issue all year long, as Chicago produced the sixth-worst coverage grade at the position this season.
24. ATLANTA FALCONS
If it weren’t for A.J. Terrell’s breakout to elite status, Atlanta would be threatening to place last on this list. The 2021 first-round pick was the lone Falcons defensive back to play 200 snaps and earn a PFF grade north of 60.0. Terrell was actually the second-highest graded cornerback in coverage in the 2021 regular season, behind only Jalen Ramsey.
Terrell locked up his opponents on a weekly basis, allowing no more than 32 yards in a single game this year. He ended up allowing 0.37 yards per coverage snap — the third-lowest figure in the PFF era — behind only Asante Samuel in 2019 and Nnamdi Asomugha in 2008 (0.36 each).
Minnesota put forth some of the worst cornerback play in the NFL. The Vikings' gave up the third-most yards on the outside (1,802) while also tying for the third-fewest plays on the ball (18) at the position. None of their cornerbacks had a quality campaign, but Bashaud Breeland — who was waived in mid-December — was the main reason for the outside struggles. His 45.3 coverage grade was the fourth-lowest among qualifying cornerbacks. Slot corner Mackensie Alexander‘s down season didn’t help matters, either. He finished with the lowest slot coverage grade in the NFL.
While Pittsburgh ranked in the top 10 in EPA allowed per pass play for the season, they struggled quite a bit when not producing pressure on the quarterback. The secondary finished 26th in unit coverage grade and ranked in the bottom 10 in passer rating, yards per attempt and separation allowed when the quarterback threw from a clean pocket. Pittsburgh also went from second to 29th in passer rating allowed on deep targets year over year.
Outside of safety Derwin James, the Chargers' secondary left a lot to be desired in 2021. They were among the five least valuable secondaries in the league, and the cornerback room, in particular, finished as the second-lowest graded group.
Asante Samuel Jr. showed some positive play at times this season, with seven pass breakups and two interceptions, but he still finished with a triple-digit passer rating allowed en route to being the 11th-most valuable rookie corner. The 2021 second-round pick is a valuable piece to this secondary moving forward, but the other cornerback spots need some work.
Six cornerbacks played over 100 snaps for the Jaguars in 2021 and only one — Shaquill Griffin — produced a coverage grade above 60.0. Rookie Tyson Campbell was a reason for optimism, as he notched a couple of elite game grades above 90.0 in his last couple of months of action, but his inconsistent play was too severe for him to add considerable value to the secondary. The position as a whole combined for the third-fewest WAR among the 32 groups.
29. BALTIMORE RAVENS
Injuries destroyed the Ravens this past season. No team lost more WAR due to injuries this season than Baltimore. The defense endured blows at multiple position groups, including in the secondary with Marcus Peters (torn ACL in the preseason) and Marlon Humphrey (torn pectoral in Week 13).
Ravens DB Unit Coverage Grade
|Season||Coverage Grade (w/ Rank)|
30. DETROIT LIONS
Detroit’s secondary has been problematic over the past few years, and it didn’t get any better in Year 1 under Dan Campbell. Things got off to a rough start when the Lions lost 2020 No. 3 overall pick Jeffrey Okudah in Week 1 for the year with a ruptured Achilles. It eventually got so bad that they had to move Will Harris from safety to outside corner and were forced to play 2021 undrafted cornerbacks AJ Parker and Jerry Jacobs for more than 300 coverage snaps. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the group finished with one of the three-lowest unit coverage grades of the year.
31. NEW YORK JETS
The Jets’ four most-played cornerbacks on the outside or slot this year were either Day 3 picks or undrafted in one of the past two classes. The lack of talent and experience was apparent, especially without safety Marcus Maye, who ruptured his Achilles midway through the season. Overall, New York allowed more EPA per pass than any other defense in the regular season.
32. HOUSTON TEXANS
Houston’s fielded the lowest-graded secondary in the NFL by a whopping eight grading points. Only one defensive back — nickel cornerback Tavierre Thomas — didn’t produce a sub-60.0 coverage grade. While the group combined for the sixth-most interceptions (14) among the 32 secondaries, it also allowed a successful play at a bottom-five rate. Houston might want to think about using its No. 3 overall pick on a defensive back like Derek Stingley Jr. (PFF’s No. 4-overall prospect).