The secondary may be considered the "last" line of defense, but that shouldn't minimize the important role defensive backs serve in the NFL. Versatility also is becoming a key asset with the emergence of slot defenders.
Offensive coordinators have gotten more creative when it comes to getting their wide receivers the ball in space. So it's becoming more common for a team to employ its best defensive back as a slot defender, as they have the skill set best suited for the job.
To that end, an argument can be made that Tyrann Mathieu is the most valuable defensive back in the NFL. Not only is Mathieu Athlon Sports' top safety entering the 2021 season, the three-time, first-team All-Pro also is the No. 1 slot defender.
Below are the complete rankings of cornerbacks, safeties and slot defenders for the upcoming season.
Athlon's player rankings are just one of the features that appear in the 2021 Pro Football magazine.
2021 NFL Cornerback Rankings
1. Xavien Howard, Miami Dolphins
Howard led the NFL with 10 interceptions in 2020, becoming the first player with double-digit picks since 2007. But it wasn’t just the thefts that made Howard’s season special — he also allowed just 47 receptions on 90 targets for 695 yards, 294 yards after the catch, four touchdowns and a 53.0 opponent passer rating.
2. Jaire Alexander, Green Bay Packers
If you were to poll NFL cornerbacks about their favorite at the position, Alexander might top the list. A technician who managed to transcend some “interesting” coverage concepts in 2020, Alexander allowed just two TDs from the start of the season through the NFC Championship Game — and one came in the first game of the season.
3. J.C. Jackson, New England Patriots
Jackson has been one of the game’s more underrated cornerbacks in a star-studded Patriots defensive backfield, and 2020 was the season in which he covered more No. 1 receivers due to Stephon Gilmore’s injuries. He gave up just 41 catches on 75 targets for 584 yards, 253 yards after the catch, five touchdowns, nine interceptions and a 62.7 opponent passer rating.
4. Darious Williams, Los Angeles Rams
The addition of Brandon Staley to run the Rams’ defense in 2020 unlocked Williams’ potential, and he took off as few other cornerbacks did last season. Few expected Williams to become the Rams’ most valuable cornerback in 2020, with 38 receptions allowed on 78 targets for 578 yards (including playoffs), 174 yards after the catch, two touchdowns and five interceptions.
5. William Jackson III, Washington Football Team
Under the radar in a generally bad Cincinnati defense, Jackson became one of the best man coverage cornerbacks in the NFL, which made it quite surprising that the Bengals let him go. Washington jumped on the chance to add him to its secondary with a three-year, $40.5 million contract. As a press cornerback who follows receivers through their routes from the first step, he has few peers.
6. Stephon Gilmore. New England Patriots
Gilmore was most likely the NFL’s best cornerback in 2019. New England’s defense wasn’t quite as on point in 2020 for multiple reasons, and Gilmore missed multiple games with injuries. Was this a one-year blip, or the beginning of the end?
7. Tre’Davious White, Buffalo Bills
Like Gilmore, White had a relatively down 2020 season after a spectacular 2019. Injuries also played a role. When healthy, White was still a lockdown corner, and Buffalo’s defense was much better when he was at his best. But White allowed four TD passes last season after giving up none the year before.
8. Jalen Ramsey, Los Angeles Rams
In 2020, Ramsey thrived in the “Star” role he frequently played at Florida State, where he would bounce into the slot and cover receivers in different ways. While Ramsey can experience coverage lapses when he’s playing receivers straight up off the line of scrimmage, he has the acumen to shut receivers down when he sees them from different angles.
9. L’Jarius Sneed, Kansas City Chiefs
Sneed picked off passes in his first two NFL games, didn’t allow a TD until the Chiefs faced the Saints in Week 15 and finished with a 66.6 opponent passer rating, by far the best of any rookie cornerback in 2020.
10. Marcus Peters, Baltimore Ravens
As usual, Peters was the NFL’s most prominent feast-or-famine cornerback in 2020 — but the feasts were pretty tasty. Since his rookie year of 2015, Peters has an NFL-best 31 interceptions, with Miami’s Xavien Howard ranking second with 22.
11. James Bradberry, New York Giants
12. Denzel Ward, Cleveland Browns
13. Kyle Fuller, Denver Broncos
14. Michael Davis, Los Angeles Chargers
15. Kendall Fuller, Washington Football Team
16. Richard Sherman, free agent
17. Malcolm Butler, Arizona Cardinals
18. Joe Haden, Pittsburgh Steelers
19. Levi Wallace, Buffalo Bills
20. Shaquill Griffin, Jacksonville Jaguars
21. Trevon Diggs, Dallas Cowboys
22. Jason Verrett, San Francisco 49ers
23. Donte Jackson, Carolina Panthers
24. D.J. Reed, Seattle Seahawks
25. T.J. Carrie, Indianapolis Colts
26. Carlton Davis, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
27. Jaycee Horn, Carolina Panthers
28. Pat Surtain II, Denver Broncos
29. Xavier Rhodes, Indianapolis Colts
30. Dre Kirkpatrick, Arizona Cardinals
2021 NFL Safety Rankings
1. Tyrann Mathieu, Kansas City Chiefs
Last season, Mathieu had 287 snaps at free safety and 399 as a box player or strong safety. And on those 686 snaps, Mathieu allowed 36 catches on 54 targets for 520 yards, 222 yards after the catch, six interceptions and a 70.5 opponent passer rating. Mathieu has the rare athletic talent to break up short and intermediate passes in the box and deal with deep-third coverage just as seamlessly. He is the most imposing do-it-all defensive back in the NFL today.
2. Justin Simmons, Denver Broncos
The Broncos prevented Simmons’ impending status as the best defensive free agent in the 2021 class by re-signing him to a four-year, $61 million contract with $35 million guaranteed that made him the NFL’s highest-paid safety on a per-year basis. It’s well deserved, as Simmons has become one of the most versatile and effective safeties in the NFL.
3. Darnell Savage, Green Bay Packers
The first-round pick out of Maryland in 2019 improved his coverage skills exponentially in 2020. Savage is more of a true free safety and slot defender than an alpha tackler in the box, but when you allow just 35 catches in 60 targets over two seasons (and 18 catches on 33 targets in 2020), that’s just fine. Savage excelled in Mike Pettine’s dime-heavy defenses, so it will be interesting to see how he’s deployed under new defensive coordinator Joe Barry
4. Minkah Fitzpatrick, Pittsburgh Steelers
When the Steelers got Fitzpatrick in a trade early in the 2019 season from the Dolphins, they converted him to more of a traditional free safety role and watched as he became a lockdown defender there. Fitzpatrick had even more snaps at free safety in the 2020 season, allowing nine catches on 20 targets for 130 yards and an opponent passer rating of 60.4.
5. Jessie Bates III, Cincinnati Bengals
Especially as a deep-third defender in two-high safety looks, Bates has the range, quickness and on-field smarts to deal with any receiver. Last season, he gave up 19 catches on 35 targets for 178 yards, 72 yards after the catch, one touchdown, three interceptions and a 42.3 opponent passer rating.
6. Micah Hyde, Buffalo Bills
Hyde is the primary free safety in what may be the NFL’s best safety duo along with teammate Jordan Poyer. Hyde plays everywhere from the box to the slot to deep, but he’s most effective when trailing receivers up the field. Last season, on 710 coverage snaps, Hyde allowed 15 catches on 27 targets for 143 yards, 46 yards after the catch, one TD, one interception and a 67.4 opponent passer rating.
7. John Johnson III, Cleveland Browns
Johnson, a free-agent signee from the Rams, not only adds an excellent free safety to Joe Woods’ defense, but there’s also his efficiency in the slot and his ability to get everyone lined up correctly. Johnson gave up a handful of TDs early in 2020, but overall, he was great in any type of coverage.
8. Julian Blackmon, Indianapolis Colts
In his rookie season, with 869 snaps at free safety, Blackmon allowed just nine catches on 17 targets for 137 yards, 45 yards after the catch, no touchdowns, two interceptions and a 40.2 opponent passer rating. Blackmon was able to do something rare — pull into a true free safety role as a rookie.
9. Harrison Smith, Minnesota Vikings
Smith, one of the most consistent players of his era, did what he always does — provide outstanding coverage in the box and the deep third. While everything was falling apart around him, Smith allowed 17 catches on 26 targets for 276 yards, 80 yards after the catch, one touchdown, five INTs and a 74.0 opponent passer rating.
10. Anthony Harris, Philadelphia Eagles
Were you to look at the stats only, you’d assume that Harris’ 2020 Vikings season was a disappointment. But the tape shows he was often left in the lurch as a deep safety with no pass rush and very little coverage help. Hopefully, he’ll have a better chance to shine with the Eagles.
11. Jamal Adams, Seattle Seahawks
12. Adrian Amos, Green Bay Packers
13. Quandre Diggs, Seattle Seahawks
14. Amani Hooker, Tennessee Titans
15. Marcus Maye, New York Jets
16. Kamren Curl, Washington Football Team
17. Antoine Winfield Jr., Tampa Bay Buccaneers
18. Rodney McLeod, Philadelphia Eagles
19. Jordan Poyer, Buffalo Bills
20. Terrell Edmunds, Pittsburgh Steelers
2021 NFL Slot Defender Rankings
1. Tyrann Mathieu, Kansas City Chiefs
Mathieu is the only player on this year’s list to be deemed the best player at two different positions — slot defender and safety — which speaks voluminously to his overall value. As a pure slot defender in 2020, he allowed 22 catches on 33 targets for 295 yards, 127 yards after the catch, one touchdown, three interceptions and a 67.1 opponent passer rating.
2. Bryce Callahan, Denver Broncos
No slot defender allowed a lower opponent passer rating in 2020 than Callahan’s 10.7, which is what happens when you give up just six catches on 14 targets for 41 yards, 12 yards after the catch, no touchdowns and two interceptions. When he’s been on the field for Chicago and Denver throughout his NFL career, he’s always had the aggressiveness, movement skills and intelligence to be one of the game’s best slot erasers.
3. Kenny Moore II, Indianapolis Colts
The Colts signed Moore off the street and watched him become one of the NFL’s most underrated cornerbacks — especially in the slot. Moore can also succeed outside, but with his quickness and change-of-direction abilities, he’s a natural inside. In 2020, he allowed 48 slot receptions on 64 targets for 241 yards, one touchdown, three interceptions and a 79.1 opponent passer rating.
4. Mike Hilton, Cincinnati Bengals
Hilton has 1,866 snaps in the slot as opposed to 63 snaps at outside cornerback since the Steelers made the former Jaguars and Patriots undrafted cornerback part of their organization in 2017, and it’s expected that the Bengals, who signed Hilton to a four-year, $24 million contract in the offseason, will keep him right there. Last season, Hilton gave up just 23 slot catches on 35 targets.
5. Jalen Ramsey, Los Angeles Rams
Ramsey lined up in the slot on 176 of his 1,088 snaps last season, allowing six receptions on 12 targets for 40 yards, 42 yards after the catch, no touchdowns, no interceptions and a 57.6 opponent passer rating. Ramsey frequently aligned in the “Star” position, covering slot receivers and tight ends from different parts of the field in addition to his more common outside CB duties.
6. Troy Hill, Cleveland Browns
The Browns did not have great slot defenders in 2020, which is one reason they signed Hill, the former Rams defender, to a two-year, $9 million deal with $4.5 million guaranteed. In 2020, Hill allowed 41 slot receptions on 55 targets for 373 yards, one TD, three interceptions and a 75.8 opponent passer rating.
7. Taron Johnson, Buffalo Bills
The Bills’ fourth-round pick out of Weber State in 2018, Johnson had just two interceptions in 2020, but they both mattered a lot. The first was against Ben Roethlisberger in Week 14, and Johnson returned that pick 51 yards for a touchdown. Then, in the divisional round against the Ravens, Johnson intercepted a Lamar Jackson pass in the end zone and returned that one 101 yards for a game-defining pick-6. Buffalo’s primary slot defender is great at hiding his intentions and jumping routes at the last second.
8. Xavien Howard, Miami Dolphins
It’s not at all easy to be both a great outside cornerback and a great slot cornerback because the skill sets required are so different, but Howard, the top outside cornerback on this year’s list, also excelled in the slot, where he used his short-area quickness and change-of-direction skills to allow eight catches on 16 targets for 83 yards, 60 yards after the catch, one touchdown, three interceptions and a 46.6 opponent passer rating.
9. Darnell Savage, Green Bay Packers
When you play dime defense on 50 percent of your snaps as the Packers did in 2020, your safeties are going to see a lot of time in the slot as well. Savage allowed seven catches on 14 targets in the slot for 126 yards, 42 yards after the catch, one touchdown, two interceptions and a 65.5 opponent passer rating.
10. Sean Murphy-Bunting, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Once the postseason got underway, Murphy-Bunting became the lockdown slot defender the Bucs had hoped he would be. From the wild card round through Super Bowl LV, he allowed just 13 catches on 22 targets for 157 yards, 73 yards after the catch, one touchdown, three interceptions and a 56.6 opponent passer rating.
11. Jordan Whitehead, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
12. Marlon Humphrey, Baltimore Ravens
13. K’Waun Williams San Francisco 49ers
14. Jalen Mills, New England Patriots
15. Juston Burris Carolina Panthers
16. Juan Thornhill, Kansas City Chiefs
17. Jonathan Jones, New England Patriots
18. Brian Poole, free agent
19. Nik Needham, Miami Dolphins
20. Lavonte David, Tampa Bay Buccaneers