If all you’re working with is a TV, a late-night recap show and some basic stats, you may encounter the same methodical flaws in grading a football team’s defensive backfield as you would in grading a baseball team’s outfield.
For the most part, we notice DBs and outfielders when they make a really good play (an interception, a diving catch, a TD-saving tackle, a rocket-like throw) and when they make a really bad play (getting burned for a TD, making an error, committing pass interference, misplaying a ball in the field). Without looking at all the angles and some more advanced stats, it’s easy to lose appreciation for the underrated yet crucial act of being in the right place at the right time. When done right, it makes an effective defense look kind of boring. Which makes a defensive coordinator sleep well at night.
So it’s good to know that when NFL.com’s Gregg Rosenthal put together his ranking of the league’s top five secondaries, he’s going off more than highlights and box scores. As he writes, he has “crunched the numbers” and “watched the tape” to come up with this list:
1. Arizona Cardinals: Patrick Peterson has long been the leader of this group. His path to NFL stardom featured an All-Pro season worthy of Defensive Player of the Year consideration. Tyrann Mathieu is now the best player in his secondary.
Arizona’s depth puts them over the top. They play dime coverage more than any other team, essentially counting on their secondary to carry their defense. The Cardinals boast the top-ranked pass defense by Pro Football Focus despite not having an incredible pass rush. Rashad Johnson, Tony Jefferson, and Justin Bethel quietly play big roles for the team. Even former safety Deone Bucannon has evolved into an incredible run stopper at linebacker.
2. Denver Broncos: Chris Harris and Aqib Talib have evolved into the best cornerback duo in the league and Denver’s safety group has greatly improved. It helps that the front seven forces the ball out of opposing quarterbacks’ hands quickly, but there’s no doubt that Harris and Talib are incredible cover cornerbacks. David Bruton has made big plays for the team all year. Second-year pro Bradley Roby has greatly improved this season. Darian Stewart and T.J. Ward are both tough players that prevent big plays on the back end.
3. Seattle Seahawks: They have the pedigree. Richard Sherman is playing as well as ever, but Earl Thomas hasn’t been quite as dominant as previous years. Kam Chancellor has been very good since returning from his holdout, but also not as much of a difference maker in recent years. The depth is also not the same since Byron Maxwell left; Cary Williams has been targeted often by opponents.
4. Carolina Panthers: Josh Norman would be my second pick for Defensive Player of the Year thus far behind J.J. Watt. He’s the latest relative unknown in the Carolina secondary that has exceeded expectations. The total is always greater than the sum of the parts in Carolina because Ron Rivera knows how to coach up cornerbacks and safeties. Safety Kurt Coleman, cornerback Tre Boston and cornerback Charles Tillman are all providing quality snaps.
5. St. Louis Rams: No one talks about the Rams secondary because of their great defensive line, but they are the quiet key to this defense. Perhaps no other group flies to the football and tackles better than this collection of physical cornerbacks. While they can give up the occasional big play, Janoris Jenkins, Lamarcus Joyner, Rodney McLeod, T.J. McDonald and Trumaine Johnson are insistently aggressive.
Three NFC West teams in the top five seems unbalanced, but it’s not inaccurate. And while Seattle’s “Legion of Boom” has the reputation and the jewelry, Arizona deserves the No. 1 spot on the list. Peterson doesn’t make as many highlight reels since he’s such a good cover corner, but Mathieu, Johnson and Jefferson regularly pop up as statistical standouts when I’m putting together the weekly “Pick Six” players of the week for this site.
As good as Norman has been in this breakout season, he hasn’t single-handedly lifted Carolina’s secondary to being one of the league’s elite; veterans Tillman and Roman Harper have played key roles. But how long will they be around for the Panthers to continue fielding a top secondary?
The Jets have the talent to be on this list — they probably would have been in the preseason — but Darrelle Revis and company have been inconsistent. The same can be said for the Browns.
Two defensive backfields on the rise that could make this list by this time next year are the Bills and Chiefs.