NFL News & Analysis

Most improved secondaries following free agency and the 2021 NFL Draft

Arlington, Texas, USA; Cleveland Browns cornerback Denzel Ward (21) reacts after making an interception late in the fourth quarter against the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

It’s difficult for teams to have too much depth in the secondary. NFL offenses are getting better at identifying and attacking weak links in coverage, meaning that one liability can bring down an otherwise strong unit. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Baltimore Ravens have provided a blueprint in recent years on how to continue to build through the backend.

The below squads, and the top two teams, in particular, have attempted to follow that blueprint this offseason with their additions to the secondary.

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1. Cleveland Browns

It’s hard to find much fault in how Cleveland has bolstered its defense, the team's biggest weakness last season. The Browns ranked second on the list of the most improved defensive lines in the NFL so far this offseason following the additions of Jadeveon Clowney, Takkarist McKinley, Tommy Togiai and Malik Jackson. That pales in comparison to what they’ve added in the secondary, though.

The Browns signed two starting members from the NFL's top defense last season: John Johnson III and Troy Hill — to play safety and slot cornerback, respectively. Johnson wore several hats within Los Angeles’ defense, including the helmet with the green dot. He brings a well-rounded game to Cleveland and has earned PFF grades above 80.0 in three of his four NFL seasons.

Meanwhile, Hill played the largest role of his career in 2020, and it was the first time he lined up primarily in the slot. It’s difficult to call that stint inside anything other than a success. Hill’s 87.8 overall grade when lined up in the slot led all defenders during the 2020 season. It’s where he figures to slide into the Browns’ defense in 2021.

The additions kept coming in the draft, with Northwestern cornerback Greg Newsome II and Notre Dame hybrid defender Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah being selected by the Browns with their first two draft picks.

Newsome has some injury concerns, but he might be the smoothest off-ball coverage cornerback in this class with his feet and movement skills. His 2020 season at Northwestern was as good as it gets from a production standpoint. Newsome allowed 12 receptions and fewer than 100 yards into his coverage on 34 targets over six games.

Owusu-Koramoah took a surprise tumble into the second round following concerns about a potential heart issue, and Cleveland was the beneficiary. He earned coverage grades of 77.0 or higher in each of the past two years while playing essentially a slot role in Notre Dame’s defense. Wherever he lines up in the NFL, JOK should help Cleveland in coverage.

This first-place ranking doesn’t even account for the expected returns of Greedy Williams and Grant Delpit. It leaves the Browns in a really good spot to overcome an injury or two in 2021.

2. Denver Broncos

This is more of a 1A and 1B situation at the top of this list given how much talent Denver has added in the secondary. Five cornerbacks played at least 250 defensive snaps for Denver in 2020: Michael Ojemudia, Bryce Callahan, A.J. Bouye, Essang Bassey and De’Vante Bausby. The only one to grade above 60.0 was Callahan (84.1), who missed some time with injury. That group is going to look a whole lot different in 2021.

Detroit, Michigan, USA; Chicago Bears cornerback Kyle Fuller (23) puts his hands up after a play during the first quarter against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Denver added Kyle Fuller and Ronald Darby in free agency, presumably to be the team’s starting duo outside. Fuller has ties to head coach Vic Fangio from his time in Chicago and has been one of the NFL's more productive cornerbacks in single coverage over the past five seasons. Darby is coming off a bounceback season in Washington, marking his fifth 68.0-plus season grade in six NFL seasons.

The Broncos weren’t content to stop there, though. They proceeded to add four defensive backs in the 2021 NFL Draft, including spending their top-10 pick on Alabama’s Patrick Surtain II. Surtain has a strong case for being the highest-floor cornerback in this class thanks to his consistent technique, experience at Alabama, good size and strong athletic testing.

Even if Darby or Callahan miss time due to injury — as they have been liable to do throughout their careers — Denver has enough depth to not miss a beat defensively.

3. New York Giants

Don’t look now, but the Giants currently boast of the deepest secondaries in the NFL. They’ve consistently added pieces to the unit in recent years via trade (Jabrill Peppers), free agency (James Bradberry and Logan Ryan) and the draft (Xavier McKinney, Julian Love and Darnay Holmes). That only continued this offseason with the additions of Adoree’ Jackson following his surprise release from the Tennessee Titans and cornerbacks Aaron Robinson and Rodarius Williams in the 2021 NFL Draft.

Jackson missed most of the 2020 season due to injury, but he was developing into one of the better young cornerbacks in the NFL prior to last season. He graded at 73.0 or higher in each of his first three seasons and entered last season off a career-high 82.5 grade in coverage. Few receivers beat him deep. Since entering the league in 2017, Jackson has allowed just 14 receptions on passes 20-plus yards downfield while forcing 18 incompletions (second-most in NFL).

Robinson and Williams both appear to be good values at where they were selected, as well. Robinson has a good chance to compete for the starting slot job — a position he manned at UCF. His size and experience in press coverage will also give him an opportunity to compete outside.

Williams is an older prospect, turning 25 in September, but his 2020 performance at Oklahoma State was good enough to warrant Day 2 consideration by itself. He allowed 10 receptions across nine games this past year and has an interesting man coverage skill set. 

Those secondary additions paired with a revamped receiving corps have the Giants looking like an intriguing team heading into next season.

4. Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars were an interesting team to place in this exercise because they have made several significant investments in their secondary, but it remains to be seen how those pieces will fit together.

Shaquill Griffin was one of the top free agent cornerbacks this offseason. Jacksonville paid him as such with a three-year, $40 million deal that includes $29 million guaranteed, per Over the Cap. Griffin projects as a solid starting option on the outside opposite of C.J. Henderson, but he did take a step back in 2020 after earning a career-high 78.0 PFF grade in 2019. Still, Griffin brings plus size, speed and experience to a Jaguars’ group that could use all three of those things.

Jacksonville’s second big free agent signing in the secondary was former Chargers safety Rayshawn Jenkins. The Jaguars were clearly higher on Jenkins (PFF’s 184th-ranked free agent) than we were given the contract they handed out. Jenkins has been solid in coverage these past two years in both box and deep roles, but his 68.9 overall grade in 2020 was a career-high mark.

The Jaguars then went out and made Georgia cornerback Tyson Campbell the first Day 2 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. Campbell was another player whom PFF was lower on than the consensus due to concerns about his ball production and change-of-direction ability. He doesn’t project to step in and play in the slot, but neither Henderson nor Griffin is a great fit inside, either. Henderson may be best suited to play the slot, but do you really want to move your former top-10 pick inside?

It’s hard to argue that the Jaguars added talent on the back end over the past few months. It was a group that sorely needed new talent. The team just might have overspent to fortify the unit.

5. Detroit Lions

The Lions’ secondary had some of the most room to improve of any group in the league following a 2020 season in which the group allowed a 114.9 passer rating (second-highest in the NFL, behind only the Houston Texans). Detroit didn’t make many splashy moves in the secondary, but the team added several solid players.

Nov 8, 2020; Orchard Park, New York, USA; Buffalo Bills wide receiver John Brown (15) catches a pass in front of Seattle Seahawks cornerback Quinton Dunbar (22) during the second quarter at Bills Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

In free agency, Detroit signed Quinton Dunbar and Corn Elder. Dunbar disappointed with the Seattle Seahawks last season — a year that was derailed by injury and off-the-field questions — but he’s just one year removed from an excellent season in Washington. Dunbar was the second-highest-graded cornerback in the NFL in 2019 (87.6). It’s unrealistic for Detroit to expect that kind of performance next season, but he was certainly worth a one-year, $1 million flier as the No. 60 overall player in PFF’s free agent rankings entering the offseason.

Elder isn’t all that exciting of an addition, but he did provide solid play for the Carolina Panthers in the slot last year, earning a 68.5 overall grade on over 400 snaps. He figures to replace the combination of Justin Coleman and Darryl Roberts at that spot for the Lions in 2021.

Detroit then went out and spent its first non-offensive or defensive line pick on Syracuse cornerback Ifeatu Melifonwu in the third round of the 2021 NFL Draft. The Lions landed Melifonwu — the 70th-ranked player on PFF’s Big Board — with the 101st overall selection. He has rare physical tools at his size but just needs a bit more polish to make the most of that skill set.

Assuming Jeffrey Okudah takes an expected step forward in his second season, Detroit’s cornerback group should improve in 2021.

Honorable mentions: Washington Football Team and Carolina Panthers

William Jackson III‘s signing was one of my favorite moves of free agency. It provides the Football Team some flexibility to incorporate more man coverage into their defense, with Jackson profiling as someone who can stick with opposing No. 1 receivers in coverage. Benjamin St-Juste — one of “my guys” leading up to the draft — is another intriguing addition. He has a rare combination of size, length and change-of-direction ability that makes his draft slot worth it.

The only reason Washington doesn’t crack the top five is that the team already had a productive secondary in 2020, and the additions of Jackson and St-Juste go partially toward replacing Darby, who had a solid season last year.

As for Carolina, the addition of Jaycee Horn alone raises the talent level of this group a fair bit. It should mean that the Panthers utilize more press-man coverage to take advantage of his skill set. Carolina just didn’t do as much beyond adding Horn as some of the other teams on this list. A.J. Bouye qualifies as a flier more than anything now that he's two years removed from quality play outside.   

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