Earlier this season, we looked at the top 10 secondary groups at the time, and recently, Cris Collinsworth, Neil Hornsby and Steve Palazzolo ranked the top five secondaries in coverage. Now that the final week of the NFL’s regular season is here, let’s run through our player grades see which secondary unit is at the top with one game remaining.
While being at the top of any positively-focused list is a good thing, probably the most interesting stat is the collective W-L of the 10 teams listed below—102-48—with only two having a losing record and eight soon to be postseason participants.
Editor's note: For this ranking, the top five DBs (two CBs, two safeties, and a fifth DB) from each team were considered, given the primary formation used by NFL teams is a three-WR set, and the fifth DB is essentially a starter. In the case of a true rotation or variability, snap count numbers and/or more recent playing time were used to determine the five players. Remember, the ranking is reflective of the entire group's season (including currently-injured players, in some cases). Thus, a group that has two elite players might be brought down by three players with much lower grades.
1. New England Patriots
Average PFF grade: 82.7
New England is only one of two teams in the league who has four defensive backs with a rating above 80. This group has been very consistent and continues to get better. Ryan is PFF’s 11th-ranked cornerback, and is first in combined tackling efficiency (includes both run and pass game). Butler’s growth from unsung Super Bowl hero to current 24th-ranked cornerback has offset the loss of Darrelle Revis to the rival Jets. Ryan and Butler have even combined to log over 1,900 snaps this season. If this unit can reach full health by the postseason, it will play a major factor in New England's playoff success.
Standout stat: Fifth defensive back Duron Harmon has only been targeted seven times in 417 coverage snaps.
2. Denver Broncos
Average grade: 81.1
While much of the discussion of Denver’s No.1 rated PFF defense has focused on the pressure they generate up front, the secondary has continually shown itself to be elite and keeps its the second spot on this list. Stewart, our eighth-ranked safety, has been a fantastic free agent signing, while Harris Jr. is allowing an NFL-low 44.6 QB rating in slot coverage.
Standout stat: T.J. Ward gets after the QB, as well, with two sacks and eight total QB pressures, fifth-best among safeties.
3. Green Bay Packers
Average PFF grade: 80.9
Since returning for good in Week 8, Burnett has played all but eight snaps for the Packers, and now grades as our fourth overall safety. The youth of this unit has also improved throughout the season. A first-round pick, Randall has played competently, with an 11th-best 10 pass deflections this year. Rollins, a second-round pick, (80.0), who has surged late in the season and isn’t even listed above, has only allowed an NFL QB rating of 59.9 in his coverage. Clinton-Dix is still the roaming constant for Green Bay, coming off the field for only three snaps all season.
Standout stat: Rollins’ 59.9 QB rating allowed is good for sixth in the league.
4. Kansas City Chiefs
Average PFF grade: 80.8
Berry has beaten both Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and opponents to a pulp in 2015, grading out as our third-best safety overall. A first-round pick, Peters has been up and down in his rookie campaign, but has spurred enough ups to lead all cornerbacks with 17 passes defensed, and is tied for the NFL lead in interceptions, with eight. It took awhile, but Smith has finally returned to his 2014 form, as is now our 13th-rated CB.
Standout stat: Marcus Peters is still by far the most-targeted cornerback in the NFL, with 131 targets—26 more than the next CB.
5. St. Louis Rams
Average PFF grade: 76.8
All five Rams' players listed are fourth-year players or younger, and keep progressively getting better. Johnson is now the fifth-ranked cornerback, ranking No.1 in NFL QB rating allowed in his coverage (47.4) to go along with seven interceptions. McLeod is currently the ninth-ranked safety, and has played the second-most snaps among all secondary players, with 1,096, behind only Philadelphia’s Malcolm Jenkins. McDonald had also improved prior to his season-ending shoulder injury.
Standout stat: The average age of these five is exactly 25 years old.
6. Cincinnati Bengals
Average PFF grade: 75.1
Outside of New England, the Bengals are the only other team garnering four defensive backs with a PFF rating above 80. If not for the struggles of Kirkpatrick, who is our 110th-ranked cornerback and the second-most targeted, with 105 passes sent his way, this group would be much higher. Nelson is tied with Kansas City’s Peters for the league-lead in interceptions, and even with Iloka missing time recently with a groin injury, Shawn Williams (73.4) has given the Bengals starter-level play off the bench.
Standout stat: Among cornerbacks with at least 275 snaps, Dre Kirkpatrick is the 116th highest-graded player, only ahead of Antwon Blake (PIT) and Brandon Browner (NO).
7. Arizona Cardinals
Average PFF grade: 74.9
The impact of Mathieu’s season-ending injury cannot be understated, as he is PFF’s No.1 ranked cornerback. Arizona’s secondary depth and prowess on the offensive side of the ball will help alleviate Mathieu’s loss. Also, the individual greatness of Peterson (first in coverage snaps per reception allowed, at 20.0, and fourth in NFL QB rating allowed, at 55.5) helps lift the group. If not for Powers’ subpar play this season, this group would have retained the top spot it held earlier. Stepping in for Mathieu is special teams standout Justin Bethel (70.9), who must play better than he has recently if the Cardinals want to make a deep playoff run.
Standout stat: Mathieu is the No.1 cornerback in run stop percentage, No. 8 in pass rushing productivity (11 total QB pressures), and No.6 in NFL QB rating allowed in slot coverage at 70.3.
8. Houston Texans
Average PFF grade: 74.2
Outside of Joseph, PFF’s 10th-ranked cornerback, the view of the Texans’ secondary is solid across the board. Johnson, a first-round pick, is only behind Joseph in number of snaps, Jackson is sixth in run stop percentage, and 2014 seventh-round pick Andre Hal is 15th in terms of coverage snaps before a reception, at 36.8.
Standout stat(s): Andre Hal has only allowed a catch on 39.3 percent of the targets in his coverage, second-best behind only the Steelers’ Michael Mitchell.
9. Detroit Lions
Average PFF grade: 73.2
Very quietly, the Lions secondary has played well in 2015. Also very quietly, Slay has turned into one of the best cornerbacks in the league, evident by his current third-overall ranking. Additionally, Diggs, a 2015 sixth-round pick, has been a splendid surprise for the Lions. His playing time has greatly increased during the second half of the season, and his performance has followed. Diggs is now Detroit’s third-highest graded defensive player behind Slay and Ziggy Ansah. If not for the below-average performance from the second-year corner Lawson, who stepped in place of the injured Rashean Mathis, the Lions' group as a whole would be pushing the top five.
Standout: The rookie Diggs is second only behind Arizona's Mathieu in run stop percentage, with just two missed tackles.
10. Carolina Panthers
Average PFF grade: 72.1
While Norman found himself in the national spotlight for his matchup against Odell Beckham Jr., it was his actual performance in that game, as well as this past week against Julio Jones and the Falcons, that has cost him in PFF’s cornerback rankings. Even though he is now our 16th-ranked CB, Norman is still third among cornerbacks in NFL QB rating when in coverage (54.7). The emergence of Kurt Coleman has been huge. He’s currently our 11th-ranked safety, and is also tied for second in the NFL with seven interceptions. Carolina has seen starter-caliber play from aging veterans Charles Tillman and Roman Harper, and the secondary is a main reason the Panthers are poised for a deep playoff run. Recently, Cortland Finnegan replaced Benwikere in the lineup, after the latter suffered a broken leg in a 38-0 smashing of Atlanta earlier in December.
Standout stat: Defenses have not totally avoided Josh Norman yet, as he is 13th among cornerbacks in targets (90).
Missed the cut
Average PFF grade: 71.4
While PFF’s No.1 safety Harrison Smith (94.8) has led this group, fellow safety Andrew Sendejo (50.0) and cornerback Xavier Rhodes (50.6) have struggled in 2015.
Average PFF grade: 71.4
Rex Ryan has one of the best cornerback tandems in rookie Ronald Darby (87.1, fourth overall) and Stephon Gilmore (84.6, 14th overall), but the remaining pieces have not played anywhere near the expectations of a Ryan-led defense, especially nickel corner Nickell Robey (46.1).
Average PFF grade: 68.9
The Legion of Boom still has its three main pieces in Earl Thomas (86.1, No. 6 safety), Richard Sherman (84.9, No. 12 cornerback), and Kam Chancellor (81.6, No. 17 safety), but DeShawn Shead (43.5), and now Jeremy Lane (48.6), have struggled to complement their more established teammates.
New York Jets
Average PFF grade: 64.8
While Darrelle Revis (79.7) has had a pretty significant drop in play, he is still the No.2 cornerback in NFL QB rating allowed in coverage, at 51.2. Marcus Gilchrist has also played well at safety (81.3, No.18 safety). The remaining pieces have left much to be desired, though, in particularly Antonio Cromartie (45.2) and Buster Skrine (43.5).