Over the past few weeks, PFF has unveiled its positional rankings and unit rankings for the 2021 NFL season. The secondary is the last unit remaining.
Having an elite cornerback who is capable of traveling with an opposing team’s top receiving threat, such as Jalen Ramsey, can take pressure off other players in the secondary. However, having no weak links in the unit may be more valuable, given how adept offenses have become at finding advantageous matchups and exploiting them.
These secondary rankings look at each team’s three starting cornerbacks (including the nickel) and two starting safeties, attempting to balance high-end talent with depth.
No team improved its secondary more than the Broncos this offseason. Last year, third-round rookie Michael Ojemudia, an injured A.J. Bouye and Bryce Callahan — who played out of his natural slot position — were the team’s top three outside cornerbacks. Denver now has the luxury of deciding which of Kyle Fuller, Ronald Darby or top-10 pick Patrick Surtain II will start the season on the bench due to Callahan likely moving back inside.
The Broncos also have a case for fielding the league’s best safety tandem. Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson rank second and sixth, respectively, in PFF's Wins Above Replacement metric since the start of the 2019 season.
Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters were the only teammates to find themselves inside the top 10 of PFF’s outside cornerback rankings entering the 2021 season. Granted, Humphrey has spent much of the past two years in the slot, but a healthy Tavon Young could allow him to play more on the outside next year. Humphrey is the only cornerback in the NFL with coverage grades of at least 80.0 from both the slot and outside since 2017. He brings a rare and valuable skill set to Baltimore's secondary, which also received solid play from Chuck Clark and DeShon Elliott in 2020.
This Cleveland secondary will look very different from last year’s iteration. Not only did the team add John Johnson III and Troy Hill from the Rams in free agency, but it also spent a first-round draft pick on Greg Newsome II in the 2021 NFL Draft. Newsome is coming off an excellent 2020 season at Northwestern in which he allowed just 12 catches on 34 targets. Those additions are supplemented by the returns of Greedy Williams and Grant Delpit from injury last year to give the Browns a much deeper group heading into next season.
Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer make up one of the best starting safety tandems in the NFL. Since 2017, those two rank fourth and 12th, respectively, in PFF WAR. They’ve done a tremendous job of taking away the deep ball, allowing a league-low 67 receptions on passes 20 or more yards downfield over that four-year stretch. Tre’Davious White has been one of the more productive cornerbacks in the league during that same time frame. The only real question heading into next season is whether Levi Wallace, Taron Johnson and Dane Jackson can give Buffalo enough production at the other two cornerback spots.
The Patriots have had one of the more impressive collections of secondary talent for several years now. However, some of their bigger names started to show signs of decline in 2020. That includes Stephon Gilmore, whose 58.5 coverage grade last season was his lowest mark since 2013, and Devin McCourty, whose 64.3 coverage grade at 33 years old was his worst performance since 2011. Injury and COVID-19 were both factors in the down year for Gilmore.
It wouldn’t be a shock to see him and McCourty bounce back, given their prior track record of success, and there is plenty to like about what the younger J.C. Jackson, Jonathan Jones and Kyle Dugger showcased in 2020.
The high-end talent in Green Bay’s secondary is undeniable. Jaire Alexander and Adrian Amos rank first and second, respectively, among all defensive backs in PFF WAR over the past two seasons. Darnell Savage also took a step forward in his second season out of Maryland last season, improving his PFF grade to 72.1 (17th among qualifying safeties).
The Packers don’t finish any higher in these rankings because Kevin King was picked on often at the other cornerback spot in 2020. It’s why the team added additional competition in Eric Stokes this offseason.
In two years, the Giants have gone from starting Janoris Jenkins and a combination of B.W. Webb and Eli Apple at outside cornerback to a projected James Bradberry–Adoree’ Jackson duo in 2021. Bradberry’s 79.9 coverage grade last season ranked seventh among qualifying cornerbacks in his first year with the Giants. Jackson’s 82.5 mark in 2019 in his last full season of action ranked sixth. The potential is there for this to be one of the best cornerback tandems in the NFL.
Tampa Bay is one of the preeminent examples of why teams should continue to invest in the secondary. From 2013 to 2015, the Buccaneers ranked 29th in the league in expected points added allowed per pass play. They then proceeded to draft eight defensive backs in the first three rounds of the next five drafts. Not all of those players developed into quality starters, but enough panned out to allow Tampa Bay to finish last season ranked fifth in EPA allowed per pass play.
Even Sean Murphy-Bunting, the weakest link in the Buccaneers' starting secondary based on PFF grade, came up big in the team's postseason run with three interceptions and two pass breakups over four playoff games.
Jalen Ramsey and Darious Williams are still in place, though, and they formed one of the best cornerback tandems in the league last season. Of the 100 cornerbacks to record at least 250 coverage snaps in 2020, 20 players allowed fewer than one yard per coverage snap. Ramsey (0.5) and Williams (0.9) were both among that group. Los Angeles just needs younger players, such as Terrell Burgess and David Long Jr., to step up and replace the starters lost in free agency.
10. Miami Dolphins
A big part of what head coach Brian Flores wants to do defensively — blitzing and running man coverage at one of the highest rates in the NFL — relies on having reliable cornerbacks in single coverage. Xavien Howard and Byron Jones provide exactly that. Both graded above the 75th percentile in single coverage over the past three seasons.
Second-round selection Jevon Holland should provide quality competition at safety following the release of 2020 starter Bobby McCain, but the safety and slot positions are what keep Miami at the back end of the top 10.
Washington is all-in on its defensive line, but the team also happened to field one of the better coverage units in the NFL in 2020, ending the year ranked sixth in team coverage grade. The addition of William Jackson III in free agency should only bolster the group, and it gives defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio some flexibility to implement more man coverage. Jackson’s 80.0 coverage grade in man-to-man concepts since 2017 is over 15 points higher than Ronald Darby’s coverage grade on the same subset of plays (64.3).
The Steelers will be relying on several younger players to step up following the offseason losses of Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton in the secondary. Cameron Sutton is one of them, and he will likely start opposite Joe Haden at cornerback. Sutton has ranked in the 94th percentile in coverage grade on a per-snap basis among all cornerbacks since 2019, though much of that grade stems from his work in the slot.
Minkah Fitzpatrick has been excellent since taking over as the team’s free safety in 2019. No defense has allowed fewer completions on passes 20-plus yards downfield than Pittsburgh (32) over that stretch.
Xavier Rhodes and Kenny Moore II provided strong seasons at two of the three starting cornerback spots for Indianapolis in 2020. Rhodes bounced back from the worst overall grade of his career in 2019 (47.9) to notch the best grade of his eight NFL seasons last year (77.3). Moore, meanwhile, finished first in PFF’s slot cornerback rankings entering the 2021 season. But the Colts still need more from 2019 second-round pick Rock Ya-Sin heading into next year. Ya-Sin is coming off a 48.2 coverage grade last season and has struggled with penalties throughout the first two years of his NFL career.
Derwin James has played just 299 defensive snaps over the past two — an undeniably disappointing stat. He was dominant as a rookie, earning PFF grades of at least 82.0 as a run defender, coverage defender and pass rusher in a versatile defensive role. It’s hard to imagine that first-year head coach Brandon Staley won’t be able to get the most out of a healthy James.
Los Angeles will also be looking for a healthier season from Chris Harris Jr., who will likely split time between the slot and outside after he appeared in just nine games last year with the Chargers.
A collection of secondary starters that includes Trae Waynes, Chidobe Awuzie, Mike Hilton and Vonn Bell won’t necessarily scare opposing offenses. But there aren’t many weak links in this group, either. The Bengals have done a good job of solidifying the unit through free agency over the past two offseasons.
Jessie Bates III is the star of the unit and will instill fear into quarterbacks. The 2018 second-round pick out of Wake Forest is in the conversation for best free safety in the NFL. Bates’ 12 forced incompletions in 2020 were three more than any other safety in the league.
While Peterson carries more name value than Breeland, the latter was more effective when on the field in 2020. Breeland finished in the 78th percentile of all outside cornerbacks in coverage grade last season, while Peterson came in at just the 37th percentile. Minnesota will hope that a change in scenery and a defense that may be better suited to Peterson’s skill set at this stage of his career can bring out the best in the former All-Pro.
Janoris Jenkins was one of several Saints cap casualties this offseason. His departure puts pressure on third-round rookie Paulson Adebo to step into a starting role immediately. That uncertainty, along with the fact that Marshon Lattimore’s PFF grade declined for the third straight season (59.1 overall in 2020), leaves some questions at the cornerback position in New Orleans. The Saints retaining free safety Marcus Williams on the franchise tag was a pleasant surprise, though. Williams has been the third-most valuable safety in the NFL since entering the league in 2017, per PFF WAR.
The Chiefs struck gold when they drafted L’Jarius Sneed in the fourth round of the 2020 NFL Draft. He ended the season with the highest coverage grade of any rookie cornerback (71.2) despite splitting time between the slot and outside alignments. He’ll be the favorite to start in Bashaud Breeland’s old spot entering the 2021 season and is a key component of a relatively young and inexperienced group overall.
Outside of Charvarius Ward, the Chiefs’ top options at the position either consist of players who have played more snaps in the slot than out wide (Sneed and Rashad Fenton) or reclamation projects (DeAndre Baker and Mike Hughes). Playing alongside safety Tyrann Mathieu should make life easier on whichever cornerbacks make their way onto the field next season.
19. Chicago Bears
There were clear positives to take away from Jaylon Johnson’s rookie season, namely that his penchant for making plays on the football at Utah translated to the NFL. His 19.4% forced incompletion rate ranked third among cornerbacks who saw at least 50 targets in 2020. But those highs did come with some lows. Johnson allowed over 14 yards per reception into his coverage and ended the year with a 54.9 overall grade. Chicago’s decision to replace Kyle Fuller with Desmond Trufant this offseason only places more pressure on Johnson to play with more consistency in 2021.
The 49ers were able to retain the majority of their free agents in the secondary this offseason.
Health will be key for this unit. Jason Verrett, Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt have all dealt with more than their fair share of injuries throughout their careers. Emmanuel Moseley and K’Waun Williams both missed time with injury in 2020. San Francisco’s secondary isn’t particularly deep, and especially not enough to deal with injuries next season. Moseley will be an X-factor as an expected starter outside after seeing his overall grade drop over 10 points from 2019 to 2020.
21. Tennessee Titans
There is a chance that Tennessee’s secondary is better in 2021 than it was last season. Going from Malcolm Butler to Janoris Jenkins is a somewhat lateral move, and first-round selection Caleb Farley should be an upgrade (if healthy) over what the Titans were forced to turn to at the other outside spot in the aftermath of Adoree’ Jackson’s injury in 2020. Tennessee will be reliant on youth in the secondary, though. Three of the five projected starters (Farley, Kristian Fulton and Amani Hooker) are currently 22 years old and will be taking on full-time starting roles in the NFL for the first time.
No team in the NFL ran more Cover 1 than the Cardinals last season, per PFF’s charting. That puts a lot of pressure on a team’s cornerbacks — one factor in Patrick Peterson’s decline in play. That could be an issue in 2021, given Arizona’s current collection of cornerback talent. Malcolm Butler outside and Byron Murphy in the slot will be joined by either Robert Alford, who hasn’t played a snap since the 2018 season, or one of Arizona’s Day 3 selections in the 2021 draft (Marco Wilson or Tay Gowan). Safety looks to be in better shape, with Budda Baker being joined by either Jalen Thompson or Deionte Thompson.
The Panthers have selected Jeremy Chinn, Troy Pride Jr. and Jaycee Horn in the past two drafts to join Donte Jackson in the secondary, showing that the team values speed and athleticism. Chinn flashed that athleticism in his rookie season last year, as he led the defense in tackles and produced a number of impressive splash plays while adjusting from FCS to NFL competition. But he did find himself out of position and over-aggressive on occasion. It’s a big reason why he earned just a 59.0 PFF grade in 2020.
Improvement from Chinn in his second season, along with immediate contributions from newcomers Horn and A.J. Bouye, could lead to an improved secondary for the Panthers in 2021.
24. Houston Texans
The cupboard isn’t completely bare for defensive coordinator Lovie Smith as he looks to implement his Tampa 2 defense in Houston next season. Justin Reid ranks in the 79th percentile of all safeties in coverage grade since he was drafted in 2018. Bradley Roby (71.5 PFF grade in 2020) and Desmond King II (67.0 PFF grade in 2020) have both provided solid play over the past few seasons at cornerback, as well.
The second outside cornerback spot will likely be an issue for Houston. Vernon Hargreaves III, who started there last season, has earned PFF grades below 50.0 in each of the past two seasons. He’ll likely compete with Terrance Mitchell for that job once Roby returns from suspension in Week 2.
It's been two years since Darius Slay played at an elite level. His PFF grade dropped from 90.0 over a five-year stint in Detroit to just 59.5 across the past two years. The Eagles need him to return to that earlier form because their cornerback depth leaves a lot to be desired. Avonte Maddox (37.1 coverage grade in 2020) and fourth-round rookie Zech McPhearson are among the most notable names behind Slay on the depth chart.
26. Seattle Seahawks
Jamal Adams was Seattle’s best pass rusher last season. He earned at least an 85.0 pass-rushing grade for the third consecutive season, and his 29 pressures were 11 more than any other defensive back. However, Adams wasn’t nearly as effective in coverage compared to the prior two years in New York, posting a career-low 52.5 coverage grade.
Adams standing out as a potential liability in coverage only compounds the team's questionable cornerback depth heading into the 2021 season. Ahkello Witherspoon, D.J. Reed Jr., Tre Flowers and fourth-round rookie Tre Brown are among the top names on the depth chart.
Jacksonville certainly hasn’t ignored its secondary over the past two offseasons. Between the additions of C.J. Henderson, Tyson Campbell and Andre Cisco in the draft and Shaquill Griffin and Rayshawn Jenkins in free agency, it’s a completely rebuilt unit.
There are some questions about how those pieces fit together in new defensive coordinator Joe Cullen’s scheme, though. None of Henderson, Griffin and Campbell is a natural fit in the slot, but they are the three cornerbacks the Jaguars should want on the field. It’s also worth monitoring Jacksonville's volume of man coverage early in the year. Griffin, in particular, has graded much better throughout his career in zone (81.3 coverage grade) than man (37.0 coverage grade).
28. New York Jets
The Jets' top options at cornerback currently include Blessuan Austin, Bryce Hall and Javelin Guidry. Hall profiles as a good fit in Saleh’s defense and was much higher on PFF’s draft board than his fifth-round draft slot. But New York's cornerback group still looks incredibly weak. The saving grace for the unit as a whole is safety Marcus Maye. The fifth-year Florida product is coming off a career-high 82.9 PFF grade last season in his first year without Jamal Adams by his side.
Las Vegas’ secondary projects to be one of the youngest units in the league. 2019 draft selections Trayvon Mullen and Johnathan Abram are the “experienced” members of a projected starting lineup that also includes 2020 first-round pick Damon Arnette at cornerback and 2021 second-round pick Trevon Moehrig at free safety. The Raiders need to see improvement out of each of Mullen, Abram and Arnette in 2021. That holds especially true for Abram (PFF’s lowest-graded safety last season) and Arnette (sixth-lowest graded cornerback last season). Casey Hayward Jr. — the lone veteran with an opportunity to start — is coming off a career-low 59.5 overall grade in 2020.
30. Detroit Lions
If Detroit’s secondary is to pan out as anything other than one of the worst units in the NFL, it will need bounce-back seasons from several players.
Jeffrey Okudah is at the forefront of that after leading all cornerbacks in yards allowed per coverage snap as a rookie (2.3). Okudah surrendered just 0.8 yards per coverage snap in his Ohio State career by comparison. The list extends to free agent acquisition Quinton Dunbar, whose overall grade fell nearly 40 points from 2019 to 2020. Tracy Walker is another player who has proven capable of much better play than the 51.0 PFF grade next to his name in 2020. It’s just a matter of how those players look in Aaron Glenn’s new defense.
31. Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys spent second- and third-round picks on the cornerback position in the 2021 NFL Draft — a clear area of need heading into the season. It’s just hard to say how much value Kelvin Joseph and Nahshon Wright will be able to bring as rookies alongside Trevon Diggs — that is, if they can beat out Anthony Brown (ninth percentile coverage grade in 2020) for the starting job. Diggs did improve as last season progressed, but his 651 receiving yards allowed ranked 21st-most among all cornerbacks despite him playing just 12 games.
Donovan Wilson and Damontae Kazee are the expected safety starters. Dallas will hope Kazee can get back to the form he showed in 2018 as a playmaker in Dan Quinn’s defense (nine combined pass breakups and interceptions).
32. Atlanta Falcons
Four safeties played at least 200 snaps for the Falcons last season — Keanu Neal, Ricardo Allen, Sharrod Neasmann and Damontae Kazee. None of them are still with Atlanta. Veteran free agents Erik Harris and Duron Harmon, along with recent draft selections Jaylinn Hawkins and Richie Grant, will form a new-look safety unit in 2021.
The Falcons will need better play out of their young cornerbacks, as well. None of A.J. Terrell, Isaiah Oliver and Kendall Sheffield have recorded a coverage grade higher than 60.0 in the past two seasons.