News & Analysis

Ranking all 32 NFL teams' secondaries heading into the 2017 season

By PFF Analysis Team
Jul 18, 2017

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EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - NOVEMBER 20: Landon Collins #21 of the New York Giants celebrates with teammates after an interception in the final minutes as they defeated the Chicago Bears 22-16 at MetLife Stadium on November 20, 2016 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

After ranking several position groups as units on the offensive side of the ball, and ranking all 32 NFL team’s front sevens on defense, the time has come to unveil our rankings of team’s secondaries as we get ready for training camp to begin.

These rankings, churned out by our PFF grading system and compiled with our exclusive PFF statistics including signature stats and player participation, here are the rankings for all 32 team’s secondaries as a whole, entering the 2017 season:

1.

Landon Collins was PFF’s number one breakout player of 2016, as well as making the PFF All-Pro first team and contending for Defensive Player of the Year.  Both Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Janoris Jenkins finished in the top 10 among cornerbacks in passer rating against in 2016 as DRC saw just a 56.0 passer rating when targeted, fourth best and Jenkins saw a 64.8, T-10th best. They combine to make up one of the best cornerback tandems in the league, while last year’s No. 10 overall draft pick Eli Apple has his best football ahead of him. In his debut season, Apple averaged 11.4 snaps in coverage per reception allowed, which was fifth best among all rookie cornerbacks last season.

2.

Devin McCourty finished the 2016 tied with Denver’s Chris Harris Jr. for top coverage grade out of all cornerbacks and safeties at a 91.5. Malcolm Butler fielded an 88.5 coverage grade making the duo of McCourty and Butler the only pair of teammates to finish in the top eight in terms of coverage grade representing why both both PFF All-Pro selections. This season, the Patriots have also added Stephon Gilmore, who despite a down year last season, still saw just the 15th lowest passer rating when targeted at 70.6. CB Eric Rowe figures into the cornerback rotation as well, who finished last season with the sixth lowest passer rating when targeted (63.0). Solidifying the safety spot opposite McCourty, they re-signed safety Duron Harmon, who led all safeties in 2016 in both cover snaps per target (69.2) and cover snaps per reception allowed (86.5).

3.

The core of the Legion of Boom has been around for a while, but are still one of the best units in the NFL. Despite missing some time, Kam Chancellor had the most productive season of his career, finishing with a career-high grade of 91.2, third best among safeties. His counterpart, Earl Thomas is still one of the best safeties when healthy, finishing last year with his fourth consecutive season with a grade at 84.6 or above. Richard Sherman led all cornerbacks in cover snaps per reception allowed last season, averaging 14.9 snaps in coverage per reception. Jeremy Lane, who is the favorite to open the season opposite Sherman, had the third best slot coverage snaps per target at 7.8 (min. 250 slot coverage snaps). This unit also plays the run extremely well as four players ranked among the top 10 at their position in run-stop percentage in 2016. The young rookie duo of Shaquill Griffin from UCF and Cedric Thompson from Colorado could see real benefits under the Legion of Boom’s tutelage and could excite the 12s in Seattle for years to come.

4.

Chris Harris Jr. was the top graded cornerback (91.6) in 2016 and tied with New England’s Devin McCourty for top coverage grade at 91.5 while Aqib Talib was right behind him at No. 3 overall, finishing with a 90.6 overall grade. Harris Jr. continues to set the standard for slot coverage, leading the league in yards per cover snap allowed while in the slot at just 0.59. As a rookie in 2016, Justin Simmons was the only safety in the NFL without a single missed tackle and at least 200 snaps played.

5.

The Falcons had some young players step up in their secondary last season in Brian Poole, who led all rookie corners in yards per cover snap allowed (0.80), and Keanu Neal who finished as the top graded rookie safety with a 79.5 overall grade. Jalen Collins graded well in his second season during increased playing time, but the Falcons will also return potential top-ten corner Desmond Trufant, who missed the second half of the 2016 season with a pectoral injury. Safety Ricardo Allen was absurdly efficient, giving up just 0.18 receptions per snap, which was the third lowest rate of all safeties while spending more snaps (710) in coverage than any defensive back in the league.

6.

A.J. Bouye, who finished 2016 as the second highest graded cornerback (90.7), will be looking to prove he is worth the money he made in free-agency in signing with the Jaguars. Bouye will pair with Jalen Ramsey to form one of the NFL’s best young cornerback duos. During the final five weeks of last season, Ramsey was the most targeted cornerback in the NFL, yet he allowed an opposing passer rating of just 37.8, while recording a combined 11 interceptions and pass-breakups versus just 17 receptions allowed. Barry Church is another free-agent addition, who had a career year with the Cowboys last season grading 86.2.

7.

The strength of this secondary is at the safety position, starring Eric Weddle who was not only PFF’s top-graded safety in 2016, but at 93.8 was the highest graded player across the secondary and tied for fourth highest grade across the entire league’s defensive units. Weddle will pair with free agent addition Tony Jefferson, who had the second highest run defense grade (95.6) and run stops (27). Losing Tavon Young for the season is a blow to this unit, and they’ll be hoping for some contribution from first round pick Marlon Humphrey. The addition of Brandon Boykin could prove to be underrated, as while he missed the entire 2016 season, he has been one of the league’s more effect slot corners when able to get on the field. Boykin saw the sixth lowest passer rating when targeted in the slot back in 2015 when healthy.

8.

The Vikings return one of the NFL’s top cornerback duos in Terence Newman and Xavier Rhodes. Remarkably at age 38, Newman finished as a top 10 graded cornerback (86.3), while giving up the lowest yards per cover snap rate of all cornerbacks (0.57). Meanwhile, Rhodes had the lowest passer rating when targeted of all cornerbacks in the league at a paltry 47.0. Safety Harrison Smith had his lowest graded season since his injury shorted 2013 at just 85.6, yet he still graded above average at No. 15 and finished top five in run stops among safeties with 21.

9.

2016 free agent addition Casey Hayward proved to be one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks last year, grading as the sixth best cornerback in the league with an 88.4 overall grade. Health has been an issue for Jason Verrett, but a return to form could turn this cornerback duo into one of the league’s most feared. In 2015, Verrett finished the season tied for the highest coverage grade of all corners. Jahleel Addae was a top 15 graded safety last season checking in with an 85.2, while he and his duo at safety, Dwight Lowery, finished with the 11th and 12th best coverage grades among safeties, at 85.2 and 85.1, respectively. The addition of S Tre Boston from Carolina will also help bolster depth and make rotation easier in the Chargers secondary in 2017.

10.

Safety Eric Berry finished 2016 with the sixth highest grade among safeties at 89.2 marking the third time in four years he has graded out within the top 10 of all safeties. Fellow safety Ron Parker had his best season grade-wise finishing as the 23rd graded safety with an 81.9 overall grade. Marcus Peters is an exciting young corner who had 17 combined pass breakups and interceptions last season, tied for the second-most in the league, however fellow projected starter Phillip Gaines finished 2016 ranked 117th of 119 qualified cornerbacks at overall grades at the position, and the Chiefs did not make any significant additions to this unit via free agency or the draft.

11.

Patrick Peterson is as talented as any corner in the league, but there is not much to get excited about at the outside corner position after him. It will be interesting to see how the Cardinals use versatile defender Tyrann Mathieu in 2016, and if he can return to his elite 2015 form when he was the highest graded defensive back in the NFL. The draft selection of Mathieu-clone Budda Baker from the University of Washington should help continuity should Mathieu suffer another injury. They added free agent safety Antoine Bethea, who projects as a starter but has seen the quality of his play drop recently, finishing last season as the 68th graded safety a season ago.

12.

William Gay had a solid year at cornerback for the Steelers in 2016, finishing with the 18th best grade at the position (82.9), and allowing the third fewest yards per cover snap (0.57). Ross Cockrell was also solid, finishing top 30 with an overall grade of 79.1 while both corners finished the season in the top 10 in cover snaps per target, 8.2 for Gay (fourth-best) and 7.8 for Cockrell (ninth best). Veteran starting safety Mike Mitchell missed just one tackle against the run last season while setting a career-high with his coverage grade of 81.9. The development of their top draft picks from 2016 in Artie Burns and Sean Davis will be key as they are projected as starters for the upcoming seasons. Exciting third round draft pick from Tennessee – Cameron Sutton also figures into the mix.

13.

The Texans lost their top-graded defensive player in A.J. Bouye to free agency, but have some options they hope can replace his production. Talented former first round pick Kevin Johnson is entering his third year, and earned the fifth-highest overall grade at the cornerback position through six weeks last season before he got injured. Both Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson were average last season, but have graded above average in previous seasons and will be heavily involved. The safety position is a huge question mark, as their top safety from a year ago Quintin Demps has also left via free agency.

14.

The Raiders looked to inject some talented youth into this unit the past two offseasons as they invested three high draft picks into CB Gareon Conley and safeties Karl Joseph and Obi Melifonwu. Joseph did not miss a single tackle on passing plays last season, while Conley and Melifonwu were both top-35 prospects on the 2017 PFF draft board. Also returning are veterans Reggie Nelson (79.3) and Sean Smith (83.5), who were both above average grade-wise in 2016.

15.

At age 33, Brent Grimes finished 2016 with the highest overall grade of his career at 90.2, which was fourth highest among all cornerbacks. As a rookie starting opposite Grimes, Vernon Hargreaves III saw more passes thrown into his coverage than any defender in the league while giving up over 200 more yards than the next player. The safety position could be a strength as new addition J.J. Wilcox finished last season with the 14th highest coverage grade (84.2), while Keith Tandy was the highest-graded safety over the final five weeks of the season, allowing a passer rating of just 34.3 into his coverage over that span.

16.

The Packers cornerbacks struggled last year with injuries and poor play, highlighted by Quinten Rollins allowing a 135.4 passer rating into his coverage, fourth highest in the league, and Damarious Randall allowing 2.05 yards per cover snap, also fourth highest in the league. Rare free agent addition Davon House does not figure to be the savior as he gave up a league worst 144.9 passer rating (min. 100 snaps). Second round pick Kevin King is a physical specimen and could see a lot of playing time should 2017 unfold similarly to last season. Morgan Burnett and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix return to form one of the league’s most solid safety duo, as both graded in the top 22 at the position in 2016. Burnett finished with the 14th highest overall grade (84.8)while Clinton-Dix finished with the 22nd (82.4).

17.

The Lions stand in the middle of the list, as they have two strong starters in the back end in CB Darius Slay and S Glover Quin, but questions remain on the developing youth of the remainder of the unit. Slay has averaged two interceptions and nine pass break ups in each of his three seasons as a full-time starter, and Quin has picked off 16 passes since joining Detroit in 2016. There is certainly reason to be excited about rookie CB Teez Tabor (who gave up a passer rating against of just 41.3 last season at Florida), but S Tavon Wilson’s ninth place finish in run-stop percentage (7.1) and tackling efficiency last season makes him another rising player to watch.

18.

CB Dre Kirkpatrick was rewarded with a long-term contract off the heels of his best season with the Bengals (his nine total passes defended was a personal best), but needs to prove he can perform on a consistent basis. William Jackson is essentially a rookie again, as he missed all of 2016 with a torn pectoral. Starting safeties George Iloka (75.0) and Shawn Williams (78.5) both graded respectably overall last season, but their health will be critical to the success of what is otherwise a thin group at the position.

19.

On a defense that otherwise appears to be loaded, the secondary is a relative weak spot for the Dolphins. CB Byron Maxwell will look to duplicate a strong 2016 campaign that saw him yield just two receptions longer than 20 yards in 13 games played, and having S Reshad Jones back healthy should provide a much-needed boost to the unit. Elsewhere, youth will be key, as Xavien Howard will look to improve upon the 94.3 passer rating when targeted he posted during his rookie campaign of 2016, and third round pick Cordrea Tankersley should also have a significant role in 2017.

20.

The Titans’ base defense should look very different on the back end this season, as CB Logan Ryan (10 total passes defended and no touchdowns against in his final 10 games with New England in 2016), S Johnathan Cyprien (88.9 overall grade with Jacksonville last season) and first-round pick Adoree’ Jackson are all expected to start. Look for second-year S Kevin Byard to continue his strong play on the back end, as his 52.0 completion percentage on throws into his coverage last season ranked ninth among all safeties.

21.

Josh Norman’s first season in Washington was solid but unspectacular, as his 74.3 passer rating when targeted ranked just 20th in the league. Bashaud Breeland’s 63.9 passer rating against from the slot ranked first in the NFL, but his overall grade of 48.0 put him toward the bottom of the league in 2016. Su’a Cravens is expected to spend his sophomore season at safety full time, and if fellow safety D.J. Swearinger can duplicate his 87.0 overall grade from 2016 with Arizona, this unit could see a significant rise.

22.

James Bradberry made a big splash in 2016, as he was our top-graded rookie cornerback last year with an 82.4. Fellow rookie Daryl Worley made big improvements down the stretch, as he defended six total passes without giving up a score in the final nine games of the season. S Mike Adams is the key addition to the unit, as he posted an overall grade of 82.5 with the Colts in 2016.

23.

The Cowboys are another team dependent on youth, as rookies Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis and Xavier Woods should all be able to compete for starting and sub-package jobs. S Byron Jones enters his third season in Dallas, and will need to improve upon his league-worst seven touchdowns allowed in 2016. The loss of J.J. Wilcox and Barry Church could hurt this unit in the longterm.

24.

CB Trumaine Johnson will be one of the bigger Rams stories to follow heading into training camp, as he did not sign his franchise tag by Tuesday’s deadline. While there are questions throughout the remainder of the secondary, S Maurice Alexander impressed last season with an 83.0 overall grade and a passer rating of 53.9 on throws into his primary coverage (eighth best among all safeties). Nickell Robey-Coleman should factor into the Rams secondary as he saw a 74.9 passer rating when targeted in the slot last season in Buffalo, the fifth-lowest mark across the league.

25.

With little depth at cornerback, 2017 third round pick Ahkello Witherspoon could have a shot at winning a Week 1 starting job. His 14 total passes defensed last season ranked fourth among all defensive back prospects. Opposite him will likely be Rashard Robinson, who outside of rough outings against Tampa Bay in Week 7 and Seattle in Week 17 (he combined to give up 11 catches and three touchdowns on 13 targets) gave up just 11 grabs on 31 throws into his coverage. The 49ers will need more consistency at safety from Jimmie Ward, who amassed a career-high seven total pass defenses last season but also yielded five scores into his coverage.

26.

A return to 2015 form for Ronald Darby will be critical to Buffalo’s success this season. Two years ago, as a rookie, he defended a total of 15 passes, but in 2016 he was burned seven times for passes of more than 30 yards and gave up a passer rating of 104.8 when targeted. Rookie Tre’Davious White should step in immediately opposite Darby, as he gave up completions on just 43.3 percent of throws into his coverage at LSU last year, and defended a total of 14 passes. Mycah Hyde is the key addition to the safety group, as he has amassed eight interceptions over the past three seasons in Green Bay and could help bolster this defense that lost both Stephon Gilmore and Nickell Robey-Coleman in free agency.

27.

The Browns would love to get rookie first round pick Jabrill Peppers signed and on the field as much as possible this year, but for 2017 expect recent addition Calvin Pryor to be the starting strong safety. In three years with the Jets, he successfully defended just six of 99 throws into his coverage, and missed a total of 38 tackles. Jamar Taylor and Jason McCourty should help the cornerback group, as Taylor had an overall grade of 82.0 last year with the Browns while McCourty had two picks and eight pass break-ups in Tennessee. Fans in Cleveland will also hope for an improved season from CB Joe Haden, who finished with a 46.0 overall grade, or 88th overall at the position last year.

28.

Last year, CB Morris Claiborne finally played to the potential that saw him taken sixth overall by Dallas in 2012, as he posted an overall grade of 84.0 in his final season with the Cowboys. He enters 2017 as the clear top cornerback for the Jets, as Marcus Williams and Buster Skrine will again be fighting for reps at both the No. 2 spot and slot cornerback. New York could have two rookies starting at safety this year. First round pick Jamal Adams from LSU was our top-graded safety in this year’s draft class, as he gave up a passer rating of just 54.7 on throws into his coverage, and Marcus Maye yielded just six grabs on 19 throws into his coverage at Florida in 2017.

29.

The Colts are reliant upon a bounce-back season from Vontae Davis (41.2 overall grade in 2016, compared to his 86.0 in 2013, 95.1 in 2014 and 81.9 in 2015) and two rookies to help improve what looks like a below-average back seven on paper. First round pick S Malik Hooker picked off seven passes while giving up just one touchdown for the Buckeyes last year, and Florida’s Quincy Wilson surrendered a passer rating of just 29.9, third best last year among 2017 CB prospects.

30.

S Adrian Amos is the top returning starter from the 2016 Bears secondary. He posted an overall grade of 80.6, but gave up a passer rating of 127.9 on throws into his coverage and has missed 10 tackles in each of his two seasons in Chicago. Quintin Demps comes over from Houston, where his 86.7 overall grade last season represented the best of his career. CB Kyle Fuller earned an overall grade of 77.3 in 2015, but missed last season with a knee injury. Prince Amukamara is on his third club in three seasons after allowing a combined eight touchdowns into his coverage the past two seasons with the Jaguars and Giants. Second year man Cre’Von LeBlanc will look to build on his successful rookie season  that saw him eighth among all cornerbacks with his average of just 0.81 yards allowed per coverage snap last season.

31.

Delvin Breaux’s second season in New Orleans did not go as planned, as he appeared in just six games and posted an overall grade of just 39.1. Starting opposite him is likely to be first round pick Marshon Lattimore, who had four interceptions and six pass break-ups while yielding an impressive 31.9 passer rating against for the Buckeyes last year. He’ll be joined in the secondary by former Ohio State teammate Vonn Bell, who had four pass break-ups but surrendered five touchdowns during his rookie campaign in 2016. S Kenny Vaccaro is the veteran of the safety group, but also look for second round pick Marcus Williams to factor into the equation. He led all of college football last season with just 0.09 yards allowed per coverage snap.

32.

Patrick Robinson is the notable veteran addition to the secondary, but he is coming off a rough season in Indianapolis that saw him give up a passer rating when targeted of 111.7 in eight appearances. Jalen Mills (31.8 overall grade) and Ron Brooks (40.9 overall grade with Buffalo) failed to impress last season, and rookie Sidney Jones is likely to be limited or unavailable for much of the season with an Achilles injury. Third round pick Rasul Douglas should factor into the equation, as his eight interceptions and 18 total passes defended led FBS in 2016. The safety position features Rodney McLeod, who has 52 missed tackles in four seasons as a starter with the Eagles and Rams, and Malcolm Jenkins, who appears to be past his prime after giving up a combined 13 touchdowns the past two seasons.

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