Patrick Peterson has been able to sustain his status as one of the league's top cornerbacks
The secondary may be considered the "last" line of defense, but that shouldn't minimize the important role defensive backs serve in the NFL. This is especially the case with teams continuing to make throwing the football the focal point of their offensive game plans. Last season, one team (Seattle) had more rushing attempts compared to pass attempts in the regular season.
Consider the case of the reigning Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. While Tom Brady, Julian Edelman, the now-retired Rob Gronkowski and even guys like Sony Michel and James White probably get more of the credit, don't forget the job the defense did on limiting the Los Angeles Rams to just three points in Super Bowl LIII. One of the reasons for that? The Patriots boast the No. 1 cornerback (Stephon Gilmore) and No. 4 safety (Devin McCourty) entering the 2019 season, and the other starters also rank among the top 20 at their respective position. Then again, given Bill Belichick's pedigree, this shouldn't come as a surprise.
So which teams are in good shape in their secondary and which have some holes that fans should be concerned about? Here is Athlon Sports' ranking of the best cornerbacks and safeties.
Athlon's player rankings are just one of the features that appear in the 2019 NFL Preview magazine.
2019 NFL Cornerback Rankings
1. Stephon Gilmore, New England
It took a year, but a rare big-money foray into free agency by the Patriots paid huge dividends in 2018. Forced the NFL’s second-highest total of pass break-ups (20) while allowing opposing QBs to complete just 42 percent of their attempts with a 56.3 passer rating.
2. Kyle Fuller, Chicago
Chicago’s decision to match Green Bay’s four-year, $56 million offer sheet during the 2018 offseason was wise. Fuller tied for the league lead in interceptions and is now tied for the most passes defensed (43) in the league over the past two seasons.
3. Patrick Peterson, Arizona
Peterson’s 2018 season was considered a down year, but that was primarily the result of his being miscast in a zone scheme. Expect a rebound with the Cardinals shifting back to press coverage under new defensive coordinator Vance Joseph.
4. Jalen Ramsey, Jacksonville
In terms of forcing turnovers, Ramsey failed to back up the trash talk he spewed toward opposing quarterbacks when coming off a breakthrough 2017 campaign. Even so, he was the only Jaguars player elected to the original 2018 Pro Bowl team.
5. Denzel Ward, Cleveland
The first cornerback taken in the top four picks of the NFL Draft since 1998 started off his career by immediately making a Charles Woodson-type impact when he intercepted two passes in the Week 1 opener. Needs to improve his tackling form to avoid the scary neck and concussion injuries that sent him to the sidelines as a rookie.
6. Chris Harris Jr., Denver
Harris is a brilliant all-around cornerback who will be playing outside in 2019 with the Broncos having signed slot ace Bryce Callahan from Chicago in free agency. Harris is the NFL’s only player with multiple interceptions in every season since 2012.
7. Marshon Lattimore, New Orleans
A tour-de-force performance in the Saints’ playoff win over Philadelphia exemplified the kind of presence that Lattimore became in only his second NFL season. He notched two INTs, one to trigger a New Orleans comeback and the other late in the fourth quarter to seal the 20–14 victory over the defending champs.
8. Darius Slay, Detroit
"Big Play" Slay is putting up impressive numbers for a franchise that has sent five DBs to the Hall of Fame — Jack Christiansen, Dick LeBeau, Dick “Night Train” Lane, Lem Barney and Yale Lary. Slay’s 43 pass break-ups over the past two seasons are tied for the most in the NFL.
9. Xavien Howard, Miami
Howard tied for the league lead in interceptions (seven) despite missing the final four games of the season with a knee injury. He has snared 11 interceptions in his past 17 starts, putting him in great position for a monster contract with his rookie deal set to expire after the 2019 season.
10. Desmond King, Los Angeles Chargers
Fantastic at limiting yards-after-catch while smothering wide receivers in the slot. Plus, he’s one of the NFL’s top returners.
11. Byron Jones, Dallas
12. Aqib Talib, Los Angeles Rams
13. Jason McCourty, New England
14. A.J. Bouye, Jacksonville
15. Casey Hayward Jr., Los Angeles Chargers
16. Bryce Callahan, Denver
17. Tre’Davious White, Buffalo
18. Desmond Trufant, Atlanta
19. Marcus Peters, Los Angeles Rams
20. Donte Jackson, Carolina
21. Richard Sherman, San Francisco
22. Pierre Desir, Indianapolis
23. Trumaine Johnson, New York Jets
24. James Bradberry, Carolina
25. Janoris Jenkins, New York Giants
26. Josh Norman, Washington
27. Ronald Darby, Philadelphia
28. Johnathan Joseph, Houston
29. Justin Coleman, Detroit
30. Marlon Humphrey, Baltimore
2019 NFL Safety Rankings
1. Eddie Jackson, Chicago
Copious video study that included regular nighttime film sessions at team headquarters heavily contributed to his elite-level play in 2018. That included six INTs, three turnovers returned for touchdowns, 15 pass break-ups and 51 tackles in 14 games.
2. Jamal Adams, New York Jets
One of the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal Jets season. Versatility showcased by Pro Football Focus factoid pointing out he led all NFL safeties in total defensive stops (44) and quarterback pressures (22).
3. Derwin James, Los Angeles Chargers
Took the NFL by storm en route to becoming the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year runner-up. He’s the first rookie in franchise history to record 100-plus tackles while also logging 3.5 sacks and three interceptions.
4. Devin McCourty, New England
The secondary injuries that led to McCourty being shifted from cornerback to safety in 2012 couldn’t have proven more fortuitous considering how he has excelled at the position. He’s now tied, along with fellow Pats safety Patrick Chung and four others, for most all-time Super Bowl starts (five) behind Tom Brady (nine).
5. Earl Thomas, Baltimore
Despite missing 19 games the past three seasons, the Ravens believe the 30-year-old Thomas can regain the form that had him on a Hall of Fame track. At the cost of $32 million guaranteed as part of a four-year, $55 million contract, Baltimore needs a Legion of Boom-caliber showing to avoid being remembered for a free agent bust of a signing.
6. Harrison Smith, Minnesota
Didn’t make as many splash plays last season as in 2017 with decreases in interceptions (from five to three) and pass break-ups (12 to six). He was still voted All-Pro for a second straight season as a roaming safety equally adept in tackling and coverage.
7. Landon Collins, Washington
As evidenced by a record-setting six-year, $84 million contract, the Redskins didn’t have the same trepidation about signing Collins to a monster deal as did the Giants (his former team). The expectation is that Greg Manusky’s defensive scheme can get Collins back to his playmaking ways of 2016 and '17.
8. Tyrann Mathieu, Kansas City
The Chiefs tendered a three-year, $42 million pact that gives Kansas City the multidimensional safety needed to fill the void created by Eric Berry’s unavailability the past two seasons.
9. Kevin Byard, Tennessee
Deion Sanders knows his name now after another quality season. He has more interceptions (12) than any other NFL player since the start of the 2017 season.
10. Malcolm Jenkins, Philadelphia
The NFL’s snap leader among safeties in 2018 (1,174) had another strong season despite the injuries that struck the Eagles’ secondary. He recorded 97 tackles in 2018, the second-highest total of his 10-year career.
11. Keanu Neal, Atlanta
12. Jordan Poyer, Buffalo
13. John Johnson, Los Angeles Rams
14. Eric Weddle, Los Angeles Rams
15. Damarious Randall, Cleveland
16. Lamarcus Joyner, Oakland
17. Jabrill Peppers, New York Giants
18. Adrian Amos, Green Bay
19. Patrick Chung, New England
20. Eric Reid, Carolina
21. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Chicago
22. Kareem Jackson, Denver
23. Micah Hyde, Buffalo
24. Reshad Jones, Miami
25. Shawn Williams, Cincinnati
26. Jessie Bates, Cincinnati
27. Sean Davis, Pittsburgh
28. Justin Simmons, Denver
29. Antoine Bethea, New York Giants
30. Quandre Diggs, Detroit