2024 NFL secondary rankings: New York Jets, San Francisco 49ers take top spots

2K7202F October 16, 2022: New York Jets cornerback D.J. Reed (4) and cornerback Sauce Gardner (1) celebrate once the game is in hand during the NFL football game between the New York Jets and the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Darren Lee/CSM/Sipa USA(Credit Image: © Darren Lee/Cal Sport Media/Sipa USA)

• The Jets are back at No. 1: The Jets return four starters from 2023. They also get Chuck Clark back from injury and have the best cornerback in the league, so it's no surprise they top the list.

• The Bills round out the top three: The Bills quietly return three cornerbacks who produced coverage grades north of 81.0 last year: Christian Benford (83.3), Rasul Douglas (81.8) and Taron Johnson (81.0).

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Estimated reading time: 13 minutes

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PFF has clarified its position on the coverage versus pass rush debate for team-building purposes. Nothing on the defensive side of the football translates better to points allowed than a secondary's performance in coverage.

That means if a team expects to field a top-three defense in the NFL, it better end up as a top-ranked unit on this list when we revisit after the season.

1. New York Jets

The Jets return four starters from 2023. They also get Chuck Clark back from injury and have the best cornerback in the league, so it's no surprise they top the list.

Sauce Gardner followed up an impressive rookie campaign with an equally remarkable sophomore season, and Michael Carter II and D.J. Reed are excellent cornerbacks in their own rights. This is a unit that is difficult for opposing offenses to pass on.

2. San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers secondary doesn’t boast household names, but the team consistently puts together a unit that makes life difficult for opposing quarterbacks and receivers. The group is led by Charvarius Ward, who put up an 86.5 coverage grade in 2023. The Niners also added Isaac Yiadom (80.4) to man the slot and selected a couple of players in the draft to generate good depth in the room.

3. Buffalo Bills

The Bills quietly return three cornerbacks who produced coverage grades north of 81.0 last year: Christian Benford (83.3), Rasul Douglas (81.8) and Taron Johnson (81.0). With the release of longtime starter Jordan Poyer and the uncertainty surrounding Micah Hyde‘s playing future, the Bills will rely on Dee Delaney and Taylor Rapp at the safety position, but both players have proven effective.

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4. Baltimore Ravens

A unit that relies on the strength of its safeties also rosters Marlon Humphrey, one of the most talented cornerbacks in the NFL. Humphrey has battled injuries the past few years but is dominant when he is on the field. Kyle Hamilton has also emerged as one of the best safeties in the NFL, while Marcus Williams has been one of the league's best deep free safeties for several years. The team also added Nate Wiggins in the first round of the 2024 NFL draft.

5. Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins secondary struggled in 2023, as Jalen Ramsey missed half the season through injury, and several other players underperformed. This offseason, Miami added cornerback Kendall Fuller and safety Jordan Poyer, two of the best at their positions over the past several years. With a bounce-back year from Ramsey and more stellar play from Jevon Holland (90.4 PFF grade in 2023), the pieces are there for the Dolphins to field a dominant secondary.

6. Cleveland Browns

The Browns defense played lights out in 2023, as the relentless pressure it put on quarterbacks helped a secondary that faced multiple injuries at the safety position. Denzel Ward has also battled injuries the past two years but has transformed the unit into one of the best in the NFL when he has been on the field. Greg Newsome II and Martin Emerson Jr. also make life difficult for opposing offenses.

7. Seattle Seahawks

The additions of cornerback Devon Witherspoon and safety Julian Love elevated this group, as the Seahawks will field five players who earned coverage grades above 70.0 last season. Tariq Woolen didn’t produce the gaudy interception numbers he had as a rookie, but he was arguably more consistent down to down. This is a unit with a good mix of youth and experience.

8. Green Bay Packers

Recent free-agency signing Xavier McKinney earned a 91.2 coverage grade in 2023, while Jaire Alexander has proven to be a difference-maker when he's fully healthy. The Packers also added safety Javon Bullard in the 2024 draft to help transform the safety room. This ranking might be a bit high on paper, but the talent of the top three should be able to elevate the group.

9. Kansas City Chiefs

The defending Super Bowl champions lost shutdown cornerback L’Jarius Sneed in free agency, but they return most of the core that held the team together back when the offense was trying to get going. Trent McDuffie is one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, while the rest of the secondary is underrated. Safety Chamarri Conner and cornerback Joshua Williams are not household names, but both graded above 75.2 in coverage in 2023.

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10. New Orleans Saints

Last season, the Saints put up the sixth-best team coverage grade in the NFL while finishing ninth in expected points added (EPA) allowed per play. Safety Tyrann Mathieu and cornerback Paulson Adebo graded top-15 at their respective positions, while CB Marshon Lattimore has allowed just two touchdown passes in the past two years.

11. Detroit Lions

The Lions have completely rebuilt their secondary in the hope that the new pieces will help develop the group into a top unit. Safety Ifeatu Melifonwu was the ninth-highest-graded safety in 2023, while Brian Branch posted a 78.9 overall grade in his excellent rookie season. The team added cornerbacks Amik Robertson and Carlton Davis this offseason and picked up Terrion Arnold and Ennis Rakestraw Jr. in the first two rounds of the 2024 NFL Draft. The speed at which this unit can mesh together will determine its effectiveness in 2024.

12. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Buccaneers have arguably the best safety in the NFL in Antoine Winfield Jr., and they have a solid supporting cast surrounding him. Cornerback Jamel Dean is ultra-consistent, and they added slot cornerback Tavierre Thomas and safety Jordan Whitehead in free agency. While the two new pieces will be question marks to start, they both prevented separation at very high levels in their previous stops.

13. Dallas Cowboys

The Cowboys falling out of the top 10 might surprise some, but as of this writing, cornerback Stephon Gilmore is still a free agent and will be a big loss. Cornerbacks DaRon Bland and Trevon Diggs will form a formidable duo, but they are as boom-or-bust as they come at the position — they give up a ton of separation and big plays for the payoff of the interception. It ends up as a net positive for them, but the lowlights bring them down in the grading and the rankings.

14. Cincinnati Bengals

The Bengals defense took a step back in 2023, as they made some significant changes at the safety position. Not happy with the results, the team added safety Geno Stone in free agency and brought back Vonn Bell, who should complement Jordan Battle, who finished the season as the eighth-highest-graded safety in the league. Cornerback Mike Hilton (80.4 coverage grade) returns, as does Cam Taylor-Britt (70.3), so a bounce-back year for the unit could be in the cards.

15. Tennessee Titans

The Titans' big move this offseason was trading for L’Jarius Sneed to pair with Roger McCreary, who took a second-year leap. Chidobe Awuzie also follows new head coach Brian Callahan from Cincinnati and will be a nice addition, but this safety room will need to step up, as the highest-graded safety on this team last year was Amani Hooker at just 65.0.

16. Denver Broncos

Patrick Surtain II is the crown jewel, but the rest of the Broncos' secondary will be completely rebuilt in 2024. The team released longtime stalwart safety Justin Simmons and signed Brandon Jones (76.2 coverage grade) in his place. Cornerback Ja’Quan McMillian returns and had spurts of excellent play in 2023 but will need to be more consistent in 2024.

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17. Las Vegas Raiders

The Raiders were better than expected in 2023, as they graded as the 11th-best unit and finished 16th in EPA allowed per pass. Cornerback Jack Jones (71.9 coverage grade) brings excitement to the field, and safety Tre’von Moehrig’s advanced grading was excellent in 2023. As usual, this group will have it difficult dealing with Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert in the division, but they’re battle-tested enough to handle the high-flying AFC West.

18. Houston Texans

Cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. came on strong in 2023 to finish the year with an 85.3 coverage grade, but the Texans lost Steven Nelson to retirement and slot cornerback Tavierre Thomas in free agency. Jimmie Ward has been a good NFL safety, but his 68.4 overall grade in 2023 marked his lowest PFF grade since 2018. The Texans have made moves in the secondary this offseason, but they don’t look great on paper and will need cornerbacks Jeff Okudah and C.J. Henderson to live up to their draft statuses.

19. Chicago Bears

The Bears signed cornerback Jaylon Johnson to a big contract extension this offseason after a career year. They also added safety Kevin Byard, who’s been one of the best safeties in the NFL since entering the league. Cornerbacks Kyler Gordon and Tyrique Stevenson had their ups and downs in 2023, as did safety Jaquan Brisker, but this unit could be extremely good in 2024 if it plays to its high-end abilities.

20. Los Angeles Chargers

Not much went right for the Chargers in 2023, and it resulted in major changes this offseason. The secondary will get big contributions from rookies, but the team will return Alohi Gilman (89.2 coverage grade in 2023), Asante Samuel Jr. (75.6) and Derwin James. James struggled in 2023, grading below 77.6 for the first time in his career. Expect him to bounce back in 2024.

21. New England Patriots

The Patriots are set to experience a season without Bill Belichick running the show for the first time in over two decades. Maximizing the secondary was one of his specialties, but 2023 was the first time we saw holes in the unit. Cornerback Christian Gonzalez is unproven but flashed as a rookie in his four games before injury. Jonathan Jones still graded well at 76.5, while safety Jabrill Peppers had a career year, posting an 87.3 grade. The 2024 season will be an interesting test case for how much Belichick’s magic was holding this defense afloat in the post-Tom Brady era.

22. Atlanta Falcons

The Falcons could suddenly look like a top-10 unit with the new coaching staff in place, as they have top-end talent in the secondary. Safety Jessie Bates III is consistently one of the best safeties in the NFL (90.6 overall grade in 2023), and cornerback A.J. Terrell is talented but inconsistent. If the rest of the unit can play to its strengths, it’s a secondary that has the potential.

23. Pittsburgh Steelers

The standout member of the unit is safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, who has been a bit hot and cold over the past four years. His highs are extremely good, as his 82.4 overall grade in 2022 shows, but his 57.2 grade in 2021 shows the lows. In 2023, he was right in the middle at 73.3 — good but not great. Cornerback Joey Porter Jr. had flashes of brilliant play last year but also showed rookie-year warts. The Steelers' secondary is middle of the pack on paper, but the play of those two will determine whether they can crack the top 10 or stay mid-tier.

24. Philadelphia Eagles

A year ago, the Eagles were coming off a fantastic 2022 season that resulted in a Super Bowl defeat. Then, all of a sudden, they looked old and had communication problems. If Darius Slay and James Bradberry find some youth in their legs while the young players step up, this group could return to the top 10, but the drop-off we saw in 2023 was dramatic as their advanced grading went from third-best to second-worst in the NFL.

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25. Carolina Panthers

The Panthers have the potential to be much higher on these rankings. Jaycee Horn is uber-talented, but injuries in two of his three seasons have prevented him from making a big impact. Xavier Woods had a career year in 2023, posting an 80.3 overall grade. They’ve made some additions this offseason —  safety Jordan Fuller being the standout — that should provide veteran leadership and young depth.

26. Los Angeles Rams

The Rams heavily relied on youth in 2023, and it came with the expected mixed results. This offseason, they brought back cornerback Darius Williams, who had a career year in 2023 with the Jaguars. They also added safety Kamren Curl and the oft-injured CB Tre’Davious White. Curl has shown to play at a high level (82.9 grade in 2022), and White can be a shutdown cornerback, but the Rams will need both to step up in 2024.

27. Minnesota Vikings

Defensive coordinator Brian Flores introduced an exotic defense in 2023, and it came with mixed results. Safety Camryn Bynum was the top-graded player in the secondary (73.2), while Harrison Smith’s 68.9 grade was the fourth-best on the team. Here, you get solid but not great players in the secondary, but no superstar players are taking this unit to higher levels.

28. Indianapolis Colts

The Colts' secondary is led by cornerback Kenny Moore II, one of the best slot cornerbacks in the NFL. Julian Blackmon had a career year in 2023, putting up a 68.3 overall grade, but this is a unit that needs a leap from second-year corner JuJu Brents and someone to step up at safety opposite of Blackmon.

29. Jacksonville Jaguars

The Jaguars made several changes in the secondary, as they added safety Darnell Savage, cornerback Ronald Darby and safety Terrell Edmunds to go along with rookie CB Jarrian Jones from Florida State. Cornerback Tyson Campbell returns after earning a 56.4 coverage grade in 2023, as does safety Andrew Wingard (75.1). It’s a unit that will need a lot to bounce their way, but it could be a solid overall group if they mesh together.

30. Washington Commanders

The Commanders’ highest-graded returning coverage player from 2023 is cornerback Jartavius Martin, who produced a 58.8 grade. The team lost safety Kamren Curl and cornerback Kendall Fuller and hopes that new head coach Dan Quinn can coach up a secondary that does not look great on paper. They selected cornerback Mike Sainristil out of Michigan, and Michael Davis arrives from Los Angeles, but it’ll take great coaching to elevate this group.

31. New York Giants

The pieces are there for the Giants to be successful, but they need 2023 first-round pick Deonte Banks to live up to that draft billing, 2024 second-round selection S Tyler Nubin needs to make an immediate impact, and newcomer CB Tre Herndon needs to have another career year. At this point, there are a lot of question marks for a secondary that struggled in 2023.

32. Arizona Cardinals

General manager Monti Ossenfort recognized the lack of talent in the secondary and threw a ton of resources at the unit, as the Cardinals selected three cornerbacks and one safety in the 2024 draft. Highlighted by second-round CB Max Melton from Rutgers, this group needs some rookies to step up into big roles and will hope safeties Budda Baker and Jalen Thompson have career years.


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