A few key secondary pieces are on new teams as training camps open. A few franchises strengthened already strong DB groups with draft or free agency additions. Here is how the NFL’s secondaries stack up.
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The Giants ditched their No. 1 cornerback and made veteran safety Logan Ryan a cap casualty. No major investments arrived as replacements. Adoree’ Jackson bounced back last season, but the ex-Titans first-rounder has never been asked to anchor a corner corps. He has also missed 22 games over the past three seasons. Thankfully for new DC Don Martindale, Xavier McKinney remains after a safety purge that led Ryan and Jabrill Peppers out of town. The Giants will need more help from their pass rush, and Martindale’s blitz packages would stand to test this fixer-upper secondary.
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Chicago’s pass defense (non-Robert Quinn division) fell off in 2021. Pro Bowler Eddie Jackson’s rating as the closest defender in coverage ranked last in the NFL, while opponents regularly preyed on cornerback Kindle Vildor. Jackson should not be given up on, and the Bears do have two second-round corners in Jaylon Johnson and rookie Kyler Gordon. Slot add Tavon Young could help, but the ex-Raven has missed two full seasons and 14 games in 2020. With a pass rush that might not include Quinn, Chicago’s coverage might be a tough watch in 2022.
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In 2020, the Lions made Jeff Okudah the highest-drafted corner in 23 years (Shawn Springs). The Ohio State product has not come close to living up to that billing. Okudah is now coming back from an Achilles rupture. Detroit will likely pair ex-Baltimore safety DeShon Elliott with the re-signed Tracy Walker on its back line. Ex-Vikings first-rounder Mike Hughes fared well as a Chiefs contributor, but health and performance issues are the reason he only received $1 million guaranteed to sign. As is the case at most positions — save for running back and their oddly ready-now O-line — the Lions are building.
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While the Jaguars devoted significant resources to addressing their off-ball linebacker spot, ex-Jalen Ramsey sidekick Darious Williams represents their only major secondary addition. But Williams and 2021 signing Shaq Griffin are tied to eight-figure-per-year money. Griffin, Williams, and 2021 second-rounder Tyson Campbell are a nice start here, though this looks like a set of auxiliary corners without an ace stopper. More uncertainty exists at safety, which went unaddressed this offseason. The Jags need 2021 third-rounder Andre Cisco to be a surefire starter.
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After GM Nick Caserio went through a second free agency period adding mid-tier veteran filler, Derek Stingley became this Texans regime’s first major investment. The No. 3 overall pick is in Houston after Lovie Smith indicated corners were a must-have this offseason and will be thrown into the fire. The Texans, mostly in secret, actually received some nice play from slot corner Tavierre Thomas, PFF’s No. 9 overall corner in 2021. Houston swapped out Justin Reid for second-rounder Jalen Pitre. The Texans will not contend in 2022, but Stingley and Pitre will be worth monitoring during Spero Dedes- and Andrew Catalon-centered broadcasts.
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The Cardinals are cutting it close at cornerback. Beyond versatile CB1 Byron Murphy, gaping holes appear. Tragically, ex-Minnesota first-rounder Jeff Gladney died in a May car accident. The Cards have surprisingly not made a notable addition since. Starter Marco Wilson struggled last season, allowing six TDs and rating as a bottom-10 PFF corner. Murphy and safety Budda Baker buoy this crew to a degree, but Vance Joseph’s unit could use more supporting-cast aid.
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Quarterbacks frequently failed testing A.J. Terrell, who broke through in his sophomore NFL season. Terrell will need to stay on that level — one that produced PFF’s best non-Jalen Ramsey cornerback grade — this year. Although UFA add Casey Hayward is coming off a nice Raiders season, the soon-to-be 33-year-old is the league’s oldest active cornerback. The Falcons also do not have any questions answered at safety, with placeholders in front of recent second- and fourth-round picks Richie Grant and Jaylinn Hawkins.
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In the years following their Trumaine Johnson misstep, the Jets laid low at cornerback. After ranking last across the board defensively in 2021, the team finally decided it was time to make an effort to staff its corner jobs. Sauce Gardner and ex-Robert Saleh charge D.J. Reed should be a big upgrade on what the Jets had, and ex-Bucs safety Jordan Whitehead will inject a veteran presence after the post-Jamal Adams team lost Marcus Maye for most of last season. With Carl Lawson and Jermaine Johnson rushing QBs this year, Gang Green’s secondary will also be better positioned.
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Jack Del Rio’s defense allowed a league-high 34 touchdown passes last season. No major reinforcements are coming. Washington has well-paid No. 1 corner William Jackson and has transitioned Kendall Fuller from the slot to the outside. The team has moved on from exorbitantly compensated box player Landon Collins, spotlighting solid find Kamren Curl at safety. With Bobby McCain also in the mix, Washington has a number of veterans who should be at their peaks. But this unit’s play did not reflect it last year.
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Darius Slay should be entering the back nine of his career, at 31, but he remains one of the game’s best. His three-TD season aided an Eagles defense that QBs enjoyed great success against, accuracy-wise, early in the year. James Bradberry should have gas left in the tank, though his 2020 Giants slate was better than his 2021. The Eagles brought in Jaquiski Tartt to pair with Anthony Harris, bringing more age to an already-old secondary. Injuries may be an issue for this group, which could have four players at 29 or older seeing full-time duty.
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Josh McDaniels’ Patriots West faction shook up the Raiders’ cornerback setup by letting Casey Hayward walk in free agency and trading for ex-Colts second-rounder Rock Ya-Sin. The latter has improved ahead of his contract year, though he should not be confused with a No. 1. That said, Patrick Graham coaxed a Pro Bowl season from James Bradberry in his first year as Giants DC. The Raiders also saw rookie slot Nate Hobbs become a quick study. They have yet to see first-rounder Johnathan Abram show much in coverage, however, limiting this quintet in what will be a rather notable division for aerial gains.
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Harrison Smith has more left than Patrick Peterson, but both 30-somethings figure to play big roles for the Vikings’ first post-Mike Zimmer defense. The team did address some issues this offseason by drafting Georgia safety Lewis Cine in Round 1 and swapping out slot Mackensie Alexander (PFF’s lowest-graded corner) with ex-Packers inside man Chandon Sullivan. Minnesota’s corner situation, with Peterson well past his prime at 32, could limit this group. But Cine getting up to speed early would give the Vikes one of the league’s best safety tandems.
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Following the Seahawks’ lead, the 49ers do not draft corners highly. But they have deviated from Seattle’s path by paying for them occasionally. Years after its Richard Sherman accord, the John Lynch-Kyle Shanahan regime gave Charvarius Ward a $14 million-per-year deal. Ward adds a nice piece to a corner arsenal that got by OK without much talent until the Cooper Kupp-Odell Beckham Jr. NFC title game montage. Jimmie Ward is now in his age-31 season, and the team will give Jaquiski Tartt’s old gig to a former backup to be determined. An unsettled slot spot also invites questions for an otherwise ready-to-roll defense.
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Jamal Adams is a good football player; he just is not worth what the Seahawks are paying him. Teams caught onto his blitzes last season, a zero-sack slate, neutralizing the value of a player whose coverage skills do not align with his contract. Adams-Quandre Diggs remains a top-shelf safety tandem, propping up a defense that keeps producing capable but unspectacular corners post-Richard Sherman. Seattle has let Shaq Griffin and D.J. Reed walk in the past two years, and reinforcements have been scarce. They are relying on a pair of fourth-round picks and hometown talent Sidney Jones. How much longer can this formula work?
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The last time the Chiefs did not have Tyrann Mathieu, QBs regularly torched their secondary. That kept Patrick Mahomes’ historic breakout from ending in a Super Bowl. The team did not make an offer to Mathieu this year and will go with the younger and more expensive Justin Reid. The Chiefs also let top outside corner Charvarius Ward walk, which will send first-rounder Trent McDuffie — Kansas City’s top corner add since it took Marcus Peters out of Washington in 2015 — into the fray early. Rashad Fenton is a nice slot option, and the Chiefs generally coax decent CB play. But Mathieu no longer being there to clean up messes is concerning.
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Building on Chris Harris’ 2010s crusade, Kenny Moore should be close to making a case the slot cornerback position is undervalued. The now-underpaid Colts Pro Bowler has a clear case to hold the slot title belt, and if Stephon Gilmore has another quality year left at 32, this should be an improved corps. Indy may need ex-Philly linchpin Rodney McLeod to deliver a throwback season, at 32, alongside post-Achilles-rehab Julian Blackmon but it gave up notable draft real estate to acquire Nick Cross in Round 3. Cross should have a say in how Indy’s DBs fare, but the team also has a major question mark opposite Gilmore.
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Pittsburgh’s secondary payroll intrigues, with mid- or low-level payments doled out at corner and a record-setting contract at safety. Minkah Fitzpatrick has more than justified the Steelers’ 2019 trade, giving the team its first post-Troy Polamalu back-line impact player. A host of middling corners flank Fitzpatrick, however. A pair of $4M-per-year players — Levi Wallace and Ahkello Witherspoon — will be counted on, and Cam Sutton profiles as one of the lower-level CB1s. The team was running out of time with Joe Haden anyway, but Pittsburgh’s post-Haden cornerback crop will need to prove itself.
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Despite letting Stephon Gilmore defect to the Colts, the Panthers have a well-stocked corner stable. Of course, it all depends on Jaycee Horn finishing up his recovery from a broken foot. The 2021 top-10 pick will join 2020 top-10 pick C.J. Henderson — discarded early by the Jaguars amid the Urban Meyer madness — and the re-signed Donte Jackson. Ascending safety Jeremy Chinn has a capable back-line partner in Xavier Woods. Injuries happen, and volatility exists here. But Carolina boasts an intriguing top five.
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PFF rated Kevin Byard as the NFL’s best safety last season and slotted Amani Hooker third. The Titans, with Hooker growing into a potential priority player for a team that already has several well-paid defenders and Jeffery Simmons on track to join them, need this elite safety partnership in 2022. Their corner cadre lacks the elevated floor its safeties bring. But investments are here, with a first-rounder (Caleb Farley), two seconds (Kristian Fulton, Roger McCreary) and a third (nickel Elijah Molden). Farley and Fulton’s trouble restricts the appeal, but if the young duo can shake the health concerns, this is a promising bunch.
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Delivering a feast-or-famine season so impressive Marcus Peters surely watched in admiration, Trevon Diggs paired 11 INTs (the NFL’s most in 41 years) with 496 air yards yielded (seventh-worst among corners). But Dallas has put some pieces together post-Byron Jones, rostering veterans Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis alongside its breakout cover man. Malik Hooker and Jayron Kearse also form a steadier safety pair than the team is accustomed to deploying. Seeing how Diggs follows up his 2021 ascension will be key for Dallas, and it will obviously dictate this secondary’s ceiling.
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This is more of a Belichick faith placement, even though the last Patriots coverage effort resulted in a historically efficient Bills bombardment. The Pats also let J.C. Jackson follow the likes of Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, and Darrelle Revis out the door in free agency. Devin McCourty (35 in August) also resides as the league’s oldest safety. Butler is the latest ex-Pats defender to come back at a reduced rate, with Jalen Mills and journeyman Terrance Mitchell flanking him. The presences of Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger at safety prop up this group, as does Belichick’s history cranking out top-10 defenses regardless of personnel. This will be one of his tougher projects.
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The Rams’ ability to turn Day 2 and Day 3 picks into quality starters will again be tested this year. In addition to the team’s iffy post-Von Miller OLB outlook, Darious Williams’ exit leaves another potential void. The Rams do well to fill these and have the best corner in the game to offset concerns elsewhere. They also traded for slot man Troy Hill, leaving mid-rounders David Long and Robert Rochell positioned as the next in line opposite Jalen Ramsey. Or is another splashy corner move coming? Cap constraints rarely deter this franchise. L.A. having safeties Taylor Rapp and Jordan Fuller back after their playoff injuries helps, too.
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Given the money Jessie Bates would stand to lose by holding out in the season, it would surprise if the former second-rounder was not back by Week 1. Bates may be gone in 2023, but he factors into one of this year’s deeper secondaries. The Bengals are running it back, plus two, having brought in first-round safety Daxton Hill and second-round corner Cam Taylor-Britt. The AFC champions go three-deep at safety and four-deep at corner — Eli Apple‘s season-ending drive aside. Chidobe Awuzie and Mike Hilton, like Trey Hendrickson, were solid signings for a team that wisely decided to begin making outside hires.
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The Dolphins are paying top dollar to ensure they have a dependable corner pairing. Byron Jones has not lived up to his end of the bargain, but Xavien Howard has. The physical ballhawk (27 INTs since 2017) thrived before and during Brian Flores’ regime and is still in his 20s (29). Jones is a fine, albeit overpaid, CB2. What could drive this group toward the top five: the emergence of 2021 second-round pick Jevon Holland. While his blitzes bedeviled Lamar Jackson, Holland rated as PFF’s No. 4 safety as a rookie.
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This could be one of the best turnarounds in pass defense history. Marcus Peters missed all of last season, and Marlon Humphrey was not there by the time the wheels fell off in Cincinnati. Both stand to be healthy, with the league’s most interesting safety arrangement behind them. Baltimore’s Kyle Hamilton-Marcus Williams-Chuck Clark array may not last, with Clark a trade candidate. But after the Ravens’ 32nd-place pass defense ranking, keeping all hands on deck would be wise. This franchise has lived near the top of the defensive rankings this century. Last year’s meltdown notwithstanding, the pieces are here to restore that status.
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Occurring frequently in CBS or FOX’s lower-tier afternoon windows, Justin Simmons‘ sublime coverage chops should be on fuller display now that Russell Wilson is bringing primetime windows back to Denver. The Broncos have a top-five safety and a cornerback (Pat Surtain II) who may have a best-in-the-game ceiling. Denver’s auxiliary coverage assortment features three vets — Kareem Jackson, Ronald Darby, and slot K’Waun Williams. While Vic Fangio’s exit should probably be viewed as detrimental to this defense’s capabilities, new DC Ejiro Evero has elite cornerstones and some experienced stopgaps joining them.
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GM Jason Licht’s turnaround did not only stem from Tom Brady’s arrival. The once-embattled front office boss’ recent roster rebuild has produced a host of young secondary chips. Carlton Davis now has his big check and is back to front a DB corps housing two others — Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting — gunning for theirs. Licht and Co. did well to assemble this trio, and 2020 safety draftee Antoine Winfield Jr. might be this secondary’s best player already. With Logan Ryan replacing Jordan Whitehead, the keep-winning-now
stack those void years, baby Bucs are good to go as they try for one more run with Brady.
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Realizing the urgency Justin Herbert’s rookie contract creates, the Chargers flooded their defense with resources. They added one of the game’s best ballhawks, J.C. Jackson, to head up a corner room previously lacking a No. 1-caliber stopper. It will be interesting to see how Jackson looks outside of New England, but the Chargers’ top secondary piece, Derwin James, has proven he fits in multiple defensive systems. James returning from injury last year alters this position group’s arc. The Bolts can stick Asante Samuel Jr. in the slot, but lottery ticket Bryce Callahan could change the young defender’s role if he can finally stay healthy.
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Credit to the Saints for committing to compete, despite a shaky quarterback situation. Their secondary features numerous veterans, with hometown safety Tyrann Mathieu (now 30) providing a flashy replacement for Malcolm Jenkins. Marcus Maye will need to stay healthy, with little behind him and Mathieu. A top-10 corner, Marshon Lattimore is squarely in his prime. Bradley Roby and second-rounders Paulson Adebo and Alontae Taylor provide considerable depth outside, with unrivaled instigator C.J. Gardner-Johnson back in the slot. This unit will help the Jameis Winston-led team stay in the NFC race.
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At some point soon, Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde will get old. But both 2017 free agency gems — now 31 and 32, respectively — could have at least one more year in their primes. With Tre’Davious White potentially bound for the reserve/PUP list, mandating a four-game absence, Buffalo will need its safety dominance to keep shining through. When healthy, White is one of the NFL’s best. The Bills, devoid of many needs, finally devoted a major resource to addressing their CB2 spot. Kaiir Elam will be needed on Day 1. But White is this secondary’s missing piece. His playoff absence may well have cost the Bills a championship.
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Featuring additions from both the John Dorsey and Andrew Berry regimes, the Browns boast a true CB1 (Denzel Ward) and depth around him. Cleveland has first-round corner Greg Newsome capable of playing outside and in the slot and ex-second-rounder Greedy Williams in the mix as well. The team can also throw a premier three-safety look that features John Johnson, Grant Delpit, and Ronnie Harrison. Delpit should have another level to reach after he missed his 2020 rookie year, and Johnson has shown more than what he put on tape last year. If only this team rostered a quarterback not ticketed for a multi-month suspension.
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If the Packers could have just deployed their 2022 cornerback trio last season — when Davante Adams was still a Wisconsin resident — rings could have been in store. Because Green Bay’s Jaire Alexander-Eric Stokes-Rasul Douglas troika will be a troublesome assignment for opposing QBs this year. Alexander’s shoulder injury restricted the Packers, whose first-stringers still went 14-2. His return could finally vault this loaded defense into a true top-tier group. Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage at safety round out the NFL’s top quintet. Depth is an issue here, but it is for most teams. Though, there is a significant drop-off at all five positions here.