News & Analysis

Raiders or Broncos now own best secondary in AFC West?

Denver Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib celebrates after breaking up a pass intended for New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski during the second half of the NFL football AFC Championship game between the Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots, Sunday, Jan. 24, 2016, in Denver. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Earlier this week, we ranked the cornerback groups for all 32 NFL teams, with the defending champion Denver Broncos coming out on top. But taking a closer look at the entire secondary, does Denver retain the No. 1 rank in the AFC West, or do the Raiders’ offseason moves vault them to the top spot in the division?

Broncos' projected nickel package:

  • LCB: Aqib Talib (79.8 overall grade in 2015)
  • RCB: Bradley Roby (81.2)
  • SCB: Chris Harris Jr. (84.6)
  • SS: T.J. Ward (83.9)
  • FS: Darian Stewart (81.8)

The Broncos lost safety David Bruton, who typically played in their dime package, in free agency, but otherwise the top five defensive backs all return from a year ago. Chris Harris Jr. continues to be one of the best cornerbacks in the league, and allowed less than one receiving yard per snap in coverage for the fourth consecutive year. Aqib Talib has graded positively in each of his eight years in the league, and he’s coming off his highest-graded season in coverage of the past four years. After a decent rookie year in 2014, former first-round pick Bradley Roby took a big step forward last season to finish as our 23rd-ranked cornerback. Last year, all three cornerbacks ranked in the top 30 CBs in overall player grade and in yards per cover snap allowed, the only team to feature three.

At safety, Denver features a pair of top-20 players. Strong safety T.J. Ward missed a couple games last season, but otherwise had a solid year. He remains one of the better run-defending safeties and was one of three at the position to earn above-average grades in run defense, coverage, and pass-rushing. Darian Stewart picked up where he left off from his final season in Baltimore, earning the 16th-best overall rating last season. His missed-tackle frequency is still less than ideal, but he managed positive grades in both run defense and coverage.

Raiders' projected nickel package:

  • LCB: David Amerson (83.4 overall grade in 2015
  • RCB: Sean Smith (83.8)
  • SCB: T.J. Carrie (46.3)
  • FS: Reggie Nelson (84.2)
  • SS: Karl Joseph (rookie)

With Charles Woodson finally retiring, the Raiders lost last year’s top-graded coverage safety across the league. They were able to replace Woodson by bringing in veteran Reggie Nelson, who, while not quite as good in coverage as Woodson last year, still graded among the best coverage safeties and is a much better run defender than Woodson had been of late.

Oakland addressed their other safety spot by selecting Karl Joseph with their first-round draft pick. Joseph played in just four games for West Virginia in 2015, but his overall grade still would have ranked among the top 20 safeties in the draft class on a fraction of the snaps. It remains to be seen how he recovers from the ACL injury, but if healthy, he has shown a lot of potential.

Cornerback David Amerson’s performance in his first year with Oakland was one of the biggest surprises of the year. Amerson struggled with Washington in 2014, finishing the season 108th in overall cornerback rankings, the lowest-graded cornerback in the league. He played just eight snaps over the first two weeks before being cut following Week 2. The Raiders scooped him up and, after a poor performance in his first game, he completely turned his play around. Over the final 14 weeks of the season, Amerson did not grade below-average in coverage in a single game, and had the ninth-best coverage grade among corners during that span. He still needs to prove he can sustain that level of play going forward, but it was a remarkable turnaround that has things looking up for the secondary.

The Raiders also spent a good amount of money to bring in former Chiefs CB Sean Smith off the free agent market, who we had ranked as the top available cornerback in free agency prior to Josh Norman’s late and unexpected availability. Smith hasn’t received much national recognition, but he’s been a solid cover corner who ranked 12th in overall grade in 2015 and second in coverage grading in 2014.

Oakland could have a very good secondary in base defense, but in sub-packages, there is a bit more uncertainty. T.J. Carrie will likely be the defense’s nickel and slot cornerback, and he was a below-average player last season. He had just two above-average games, compared to six below-average games and ranked 87th out of 111 qualifying cornerbacks in overall grade. D.J. Hayden may also see some playing time again, but between injuries and subpar play when on the field, it is difficult to envision him having much of a positive impact next season.

The verdict

Oakland secondary has improved over the past couple seasons, even with former first-round pick Hayden not panning out thus far, and their new additions should only strengthen the unit. However, all of the Broncos top defensive backs have proven themselves over multiple seasons, and have the continuity of playing together already. Despite the upgrades for the Raiders, Denver still easily owns the top secondary in the AFC West for now, and is one of the best groups in the league.

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