Shutdown cornerback Stephon Gilmore took home NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors last season
The secondary may be considered the "last" line of defense, but that shouldn't minimize the important role defensive backs serve in the NFL. Look no further than New England cornerback Stephon Gilmore, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Gilmore is obviously the No. 1 guy at his position entering the 2020 season, but he also ranks high when it comes to slot defenders.
Slot defenders are becoming more and more important in the league as offensive coordinators have gotten more creative when it comes to getting their wide receivers the ball in space. As you will see from the list below (after cornerback and safety rankings), a team's best defensive back is often employed as the slot defender as they have the skill set best suited for the job.
Here are Athlon Sports' best cornerbacks, safeties and slot defenders for the upcoming season.
Athlon's player rankings are just one of the features that appear in the 2020 Pro Football magazine.
2020 NFL Cornerback Rankings
1. Stephon Gilmore, New England Patriots
Not satisfied with becoming the best man coverage cornerback in the NFL in 2019, Gilmore was also one of the best slot defenders, and just as adept when the Patriots switched to zone schemes. Quarterbacks targeted him 97 times last season, and he gave up just 48 catches for one touchdown and six interceptions. Allowing a catch rate under 50 percent as a primary island cornerback in man coverage is not something you see more than a few times in a decade.
2. Richard Sherman, San Francisco 49ers
Sherman had been affected by injuries late in his time with the Seahawks, and the thought was that he might be done. His 2019 season put any of those fears to rest. Including the postseason, Sherman allowed a paltry 45.3 opponent passer rating, picked off five passes to just one touchdown allowed and gave up just 123 yards after the catch on 34 allowed receptions.
3. Tre'Davious White, Buffalo Bills
The Bills took White with the 27th overall pick in the 2017 draft and have watched him become perhaps the best zone cornerback in the NFL — an ideal fit for a defense that ran zone coverage on 57 percent of its snaps last season. An incredibly patient defender for such a young player, White didn’t allow a touchdown all season on 88 targets, but he did pick off six passes.
4. J.C. Jackson, New England Patriots
Jackson had a lot of help around him in the NFL’s best secondary last season, but his numbers — and great tape — transcend his surroundings to a degree. Last season, no cornerback with at least 50 percent of his team’s defensive snaps allowed a lower opponent passer rating than Jackson’s 35.9, and he allowed just 31 catches on 65 targets for 328 yards, one touchdown, and five interceptions.
5. Denzel Ward, Cleveland Browns
Cleveland’s pass defense was decidedly average in 2019, and the Browns also played more zone coverage than cornerbacks Ward and Greedy Williams were attuned to. Ward still allowed just 31 catches on 69 targets for 426 yards, one TD and two interceptions last season, and he could be even more effective in a more aggressive scheme designed by new defensive coordinator Joe Woods.
6. Casey Hayward Jr., Los Angeles Chargers
While he’s not quite the same cornerback as he was in 2015 and 2016 when it was just about impossible to complete passes against him in a consistent fashion, he allowed just 26 catches on 47 targets last season for 329 yards. He’ll allow the occasional big play, but overall, he’s still one of the best technicians in the league, ideal for a zone-heavy defense as the Chargers prefer.
7. Darius Slay, Philadelphia Eagles
One of the best press cornerbacks in the NFL, Slay seemed to be a perfect fit for Matt Patricia’s man-heavy coverage concepts. But this offseason, he became one more name the Lions shipped out, landing with the Eagles in a trade for a third- and fifth-round pick. Slay gives the Eagles the lockdown corner they were lacking in 2019.
8. Marcus Peters, Baltimore Ravens
Peters can be a boom-or-bust cornerback, which is one reason he’s gone from the Chiefs to the Rams to the Ravens in his five-year career. No other defender has more interceptions than Peters’ 27 since his rookie year of 2015; Stephon Gilmore ranks second with 17. Both with the Rams and the Ravens last season, Peters continued that pace, allowing five TDs to his five interceptions. He showed more discipline and consistency with Baltimore the longer he was in that defense, though.
9. Jason McCourty, New England Patriots
No surprise to see three Patriots in the best cornerbacks list after the Pats put up a historically great secondary. McCourty alternated between outside cornerback and the slot in 2019, allowing 28 catches on 49 targets for just 260 yards, no TDs, one interception and an opponent passer rating of 63.3 — the lowest of his career.
10. Byron Jones, Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins signed Jones to a five-year, $82.5 million contract this offseason, and you may wonder why a guy with two picks over five seasons with the Cowboys would get that kind of money. In truth, Jones’ coverage abilities bypass simple interception totals. Last season, he allowed just 30 catches on 53 targets for 331 yards and 106 yards after the catch. Jones should help turn Miami’s formerly moribund secondary into a relative strength.
11. Marlon Humphrey, Baltimore Ravens
12. Patrick Peterson, Arizona Cardinals
13. Marshon Lattimore, New Orleans Saints
14. Jalen Ramsey, Los Angeles Rams
15. Xavien Howard, Miami Dolphins
16. James Bradberry, New York Giants
17. Steven Nelson, Pittsburgh Steelers
18. Bashaud Breeland, Kansas City Chiefs
19. Chris Harris Jr., Los Angeles Chargers
20. Shaquill Griffin, Seattle Seahawks
21. Ross Cockrell, Free Agent
22. Brian Poole, New York Jets
23. Adoree' Jackson, Tennessee Titans
24. Janoris Jenkins, New Orleans Saints
25. Joe Haden, Pittsburgh Steelers
26. Emmanuel Moseley, San Francisco 49ers
27. Charvarius Ward, Kansas City Chiefs
28. Greedy Williams, Cleveland Browns
29. Kevin King, Green Bay Packers
30. Kyle Fuller, Chicago Bears
2020 NFL Safety Rankings
1. Anthony Harris, Minnesota Vikings
Last season, there was one defensive player who came away with seven interceptions while allowing no touchdowns. It was Harris, perhaps the most underrated defensive back in the NFL. Opposing quarterbacks could manage just a 55.0 passer rating when throwing to his area. Harris has the intelligence and recovery speed to ensure that 2019 was no fluke.
2. Justin Simmons, Denver Broncos
After a 2018 season in which he allowed a 78.7 percent catch rate, Simmons put his best NFL season together in 2019, allowing 53.2 percent of his targets to be caught, with no touchdowns and four interceptions. He’s one of the more impressively versatile safeties in the league, showing up everywhere from the box to the slot to the deep third.
3. Devin McCourty, New England Patriots
Most great defenses need a great deep safety, and that was McCourty for the historically solid Patriots defense in 2019. McCourty had an interception in each of his first four games last season, and he wasn’t targeted four times until Week 5. That tells you a lot about his range in the deep third of the defense.
4. Earl Thomas III, Baltimore Ravens
Thomas wore a different uniform for the first time in his NFL career in 2019, but the former Seahawk looked just as solid with the Ravens as he had in his pre-injury Legion of Boom days. He allowed just six catches on 14 targets all season and forced teams away from post routes and other concepts to the middle of the field.
5. Minkah Fitzpatrick, Pittsburgh Steelers
The Dolphins picked Fitzpatrick in the first round of the 2018 draft because of his versatility — he played six different positions for the Alabama defense. But when the Steelers got hold of him in a trade two weeks into the 2019 season, they turned him into a deep safety almost exclusively, and it worked like a charm. Fitzpatrick allowed just eight catches on 16 targets for 89 yards for Pittsburgh, allowing no touchdowns while coming away with five interceptions.
6. Harrison Smith, Minnesota Vikings
Minnesota’s cornerback situation was a disaster in 2019, so it helped that in Smith and Anthony Harris, Minnesota had perhaps the league’s best safety duo. Smith has always been one of the smarter and tougher safeties in the league, and last season, neither he nor Harris allowed a TD to their areas.
7. Kevin Byard, Tennessee Titans
No defensive player has more interceptions over the last three NFL seasons than Byard’s 17, and it isn’t particularly close — Ravens cornerback Marcus Peters and Eagles cornerback Darius Slay are tied for second at 13. Byard can get beaten at times by speed receivers, but his knack for the turnover comes from impressive field diagnostics and route understanding.
8. Eddie Jackson, Chicago Bears
Interceptions don’t tell the entire story with any defensive back, though Jackson wasn’t talked about as much when he managed just two picks in 2019 as opposed to his six takeaways in 2018. But Jackson allowed virtually the same catch rate (54.8 percent in 2019; 54.5 percent in 2018), the same number of receiving yards (256) and one fewer touchdown (from three to two). The opportunities weren’t as present, but Jackson’s talent was.
9. Marcus Williams, New Orleans Saints
Williams is best known for whiffing coverage on the Vikings’ miracle touchdown pass from Kirk Cousins to Stefon Diggs that ended the Saints’ 2017 season, which is unfortunate. This past season was Williams’ best to date, as the Utah alum allowed just 11 catches on 21 targets for a measly 139 yards and four interceptions to just one touchdown. Whether in the deep third or in the box, Williams has become a do-it-all shutdown coverage player.
10. Xavier Woods, Dallas Cowboys
There are few better recent NFL bargains than Woods, whom the Cowboys stole in the sixth round of the 2017 draft out of Louisiana Tech. Woods has increased his interception totals in each of his professional seasons and has become an outstanding deep safety overall. Woods has allowed just two touchdowns in his entire NFL career, and there was a three-game stretch from Weeks 11-13 when he wasn’t targeted once on 110 total coverage snaps. Quarterbacks know whom to avoid.
11. Derwin James, Los Angeles Chargers
12. Quandre Diggs, Seattle Seahawks
13. Jamal Adams, Seattle Seahawks
14. Montae Nicholson, Washington
15. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Dallas Cowboys
16. Rodney McLeod, Philadelphia Eagles
17. Duron Harmon, Detroit Lions
18. Landon Collins, Washington
19. Tre Boston, Carolina Panthers
20. Adrian Amos, Green Bay Packers
2020 NFL Slot Defender Rankings
1. Tyrann Mathieu, Kansas City Chiefs
Calling Mathieu just a slot defender is like calling Jimi Hendrix just a guitar player — in truth, Mathieu excels everywhere from outside cornerback to the slot to free safety. But in 2019, Mathieu allowed just 297 yards on 41 catches, with a league-best 69.1 opponent passer rating allowed. As with every other aspect of his game, Mathieu turned things up a notch as the Chiefs went on their Super Bowl run.
2. K'Waun Williams, San Francisco 49ers
Richard Sherman was of course the 49ers’ primary cornerback last season, but it’s fair to say that Williams was the team’s second-most important cornerback. In 414 slot snaps (including the postseason), he allowed no touchdowns, picked off two passes and proved a perfect part of Robert Saleh’s coverage concepts.
3. D.J. Hayden, Jacksonville Jaguars
Hayden worked between outside cornerback, some snaps in the box and a ton in the slot last season, and he was a bright spot in a Jaguars defense that mostly continued its decline over the last couple seasons. The former first-round pick of the Raiders has overcome injury issues to become a valuable and versatile defender.
4. Brian Poole, New York Jets
The Jets’ pass defense wasn’t exactly brilliant in 2019, lagging far behind its run defense. But Poole, who became a good slot defender with the Falcons before the Jets signed him to a one-year, $3 million contract in 2019, did his best to solidify a secondary that played nickel on 77 percent of its snaps. He allowed just 32 catches on 51 slot targets for 237 yards, one touchdown, and an interception.
5. Nickell Robey-Coleman, Philadelphia Eagles
Best known for a certain uncalled pass interference in the 2018 NFC Championship Game against the Saints, Robey-Coleman has actually been a prototype slot defender since his days with the Bills and through his last three seasons with the Rams. He allowed just 32 catches on 53 targets in the slot last season, and he’ll be asked to replace Malcolm Jenkins as a do-it-all guy in Philadelphia’s defense.
6. Mackensie Alexander, Cincinnati Bengals
With Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes allowing a total of 10 touchdowns and just one interception (from Waynes) last season, Alexander presented the only relative stability in Minnesota’s cornerback group. Now, he’ll join Waynes on a Bengals unit in need of better coverage. It’s unclear what Waynes brings to that particular equation, but Alexander, who played inside at a very solid level all season, should present an upgrade.
7. Tramon Williams, Free Agent
There aren’t a lot of successful 36-year-old defensive backs, but Williams proved to be the exception in 2019. Playing everywhere from outside cornerback to free safety to 546 opportunities in the slot, Williams used his understanding of route concepts and quarterback tendencies to limit opposing inside receivers to 30 catches on 48 targets for just 198 yards, and one touchdown to one interception. He’ll be an intriguing late-offseason pickup for some team, as his two-year deal with the Packers has expired.
8. C.J. Gardner-Johnson, New Orleans Saints
Despite great tape and obvious versatility at Florida, Gardner-Johnson lasted until the 105th overall pick in the fourth round of the 2019 draft. The Saints managed to steal him there, and Gardner-Johnson became an immediate asset in Dennis Allen’s defense, in which there were at least five defensive backs on 84 percent of the team’s snaps. Working against a level of receiver and route groups he’d never seen before, the rookie gave up just 17 catches on 29 targets for 169 yards.
9. Malcolm Jenkins, New Orleans Saints
The Saints selected Jenkins in the first round of the 2009 draft, and when the New Orleans welcomed Jenkins back home in the 2020 free agency period after six years with the Eagles, head coach Sean Payton said that letting Jenkins get away was one of the biggest mistakes he’d made. Jenkins is still a great slot defender, though he also plays a lot of box linebacker and free safety, and it will be very interesting to see how defensive coordinator Dennis Allen fits Jenkins and 2019 rookie slot star Chauncey Gardner-Johnson on the field at the same time. It’s a nice problem to have.
10. Chris Harris Jr., Los Angeles Chargers
The Broncos took a chance on Harris as an undrafted free agent in 2011, never expecting that as the slot defender became a more important position overall, Harris would become the prototype for the position with his field intelligence, aggressiveness and change-of-direction skills. Denver moved him outside at times, especially after he signed a five-year, $42.5 million contract extension in 2014, but when he’s in the slot, Harris still has a lot left to offer. The Chargers, with whom Harris signed a two-year, $20 million contract, plan to put him there most of the time.
11. Logan Ryan, Free Agent
12. Stephon Gilmore, New England Patriots
13. Marlon Humphrey, Baltimore Ravens
14. Jourdan Lewis, Dallas Cowboys
15. Sean Murphy-Bunting, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
16. Kenny Moore II, Indianapolis Colts
17. Bradley Roby, Houston Texans
18. Rashad Fenton, Kansas City Chiefs
19. Byron Murphy, Arizona Cardinals
20. Javien Elliott, Carolina Panthers
(Top photo by Eric J. Adler, courtesy of patriots.com)