11). Kansas City Chiefs
Projected starters: CB Marcus Peters, CB KeiVarae Russell, SCB Phillip Gaines, S Eric Berry, S Ron Parker
Peters was somewhat a boom-or-bust player for the Chiefs as a rookie. While he led the league with eight interceptions and 17 passes defended during the regular season, he also led the league in targets (137), tied for second in touchdowns allowed (eight), and was third in yards allowed (939). He has proven to be terrific playing the ball in man-coverage, but needs to shore up his overall consistency. Berry played true to his elite form to grade as a top-five safety last season. The Chiefs secondary has to be more consistent and depth could be a problem.
10). Philadelphia Eagles
Projected starters: CB Nolan Carroll, CB Leodis McKelvin, SCB Ron Brooks, S Malcolm Jenkins, S Rodney McLeod
The Eagles signed Malcolm Jenkins, who was one of the top safeties in the league last year, to an extension this offseason, but a couple other personnel changes means we will likely see a few new faces on the field. Free-agent addition McLeod played well for the Rams the last few seasons, and should prevent the Eagles from missing Walter Thurmond too much following his retirement. McKelvin (Bills) hasn’t been quite the same player the last two seasons as he had been pre-injury. Now seemingly fully healthy and presented with a fresh start in Philadelphia, 2016 will present a good opportunity for a bounce-back season. Rowe may get a shot at playing time, but will need to improve following his underwhelming rookie year. The Eagles secondary could move up quickly or drop out of this list quickly, this could be a boom or bust season, the talent is their can they live up to their talent?
9). Oakland Raiders
Projected starters: CB Sean Smith, CB David Amerson, SCB Travis Carrie, S Reggie Nelson, S Karl Joseph
Amerson’s turnaround after getting to Oakland was one of the biggest surprises of the NFL season. He will need to prove going forward that he can continue his level of performance that made him a top 20 corner in the league last year. The addition of Smith (Chiefs) should solidify the outside positions, leaving the slot as the one possible weakness on the back end. Nelson (Bengals) may be turning 33 later this year, but he’s coming off one of his best coverage seasons and should mitigate Charles Woodson’s retirement short-term. Nelson is a huge upgrade for the Raiders defense and will provide veteran leadership.
8). Minnesota Vikings
Projected starters: CB Xavier Rhodes, CB Terence Newman, SCB Captain Munnerlyn, S Harrison Smith, S Andrew Sendejo
After yet another outstanding season, Smith has earned the right to be called the best overall safety in the league. Rhodes really struggled early on last season, but was one of the best NFL corners after Week 10 last year. Terence Newman has done well enough defying Father Time thus far, and the Vikings are already prepared with first-round picks from the last two years in Waynes and Alexander (Clemson) waiting in the wings. With as much stock as Minnesota has invested in the secondary, the group may be even better than eight overall in 2016 if their young players pan out. This team is deep at the secondary position.
7). Green Bay Packers
Projected starters: CB Sam Shields, CB Damarious Randall, SCB Quinten Rollins, S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S Morgan Burnett
Ever since losing Nick Collins to a career-ending injury in 2011, the Packers have gone through numerous players searching for his replacement. Clinton-Dix made huge strides in run defense in his second year as a pro. He still has a room for improvement in coverage, but clearly looks to be a player on the rise. Burnett had the best season of his career last season, despite missing several early games. At corner, the Packers lost Casey Hayward (Chargers) in free agency, but Quinten Rollins was impressive in limited playing time as a rookie and may very well step in without the secondary missing a beat.
6). Houston Texans
Projected starters: CB Johnathan Joseph, CB Kevin Johnson, SCB Kareem Jackson, S Andre Hal, S Quintin Demps
Jonathan Joseph is arguably coming off his best season as a pro in terms of coverage. Joseph is one of the most underrated cornerbacks in the NFL. Kevin Johnson had his ups and downs a rookie as most rookies do, but showed that he’s a capable cornerback. Kareem Jackson was an average player last year, and is a season removed from a pretty good 2014 showing, while the pair of Houston safeties both graded above-average in coverage in 2015. And let’s face it with the defensive front the Texans have, it just makes the defensive backs that much better.
5). Buffalo Bills
Projected starters: CB Ronald Darby, CB Stephon Gilmore, SCB Nickell Robey, S Corey Graham, S Aaron Williams
Darby had a stellar rookie season, maybe the best season of any rookie defensive back in the NFL. On the opposite side of the field, Gilmore has put together back-to-back solid seasons in coverage in two different defensive schemes. The biggest question for the group at this point is what to expect from Robey going forward, or if Sterling Moore can beat him out for the No. 3 spot on the depth chart. Robey had an impressive rookie season a couple years ago, but his performance has since dipped, Aaron Williams should also be a welcomed return if he doesn’t have any adverse effects from his neck injury.
4). New England Patriots
Projected starters: CB Malcolm Butler, CB Logan Ryan, SCB Justin Coleman, S Devin McCourty, S Patrick Chung
After the Patriots moved on from Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, Butler and Ryan stepped up as full-time starters last season. The duo combined for six interceptions and 27 passes defensed, they were one of the best corner tandems in the league. McCourty and Chung have blossomed into one of the best safety pairings in the league, while Harmon has excelled in his sub-package role. The secondary’s biggest weakness is their third cornerback, but they hoped to have improved at the position with the selection of Cyrus Jones (Alabama) in the second round of the draft. If Jones comes along quickly they could move up even higher.
3). Seattle Seahawks
Projected starters: CB Richard Sherman, CB Jeremy Lane, SCB DeShawn Shead, S Earl Thomas, S Kam Chancellor
The “Legion of Boom” isn’t quite what it was a couple of years ago, but that’s due solely to not having the caliber of No. 2 and No. 3 cornerbacks that they used to own. Sherman is still one of the few truly elite NFL corners, while the Thomas-Chancellor pairing at safety remains one of the league’s best duos. Chancellor had one really poor game in coverage versus Cincinnati, but otherwise fills the strong-safety role better than most. Beyond that trio, Jeremy Lane has shown glimpses of good play, but due to either injury or being a role player, has not seen more than 356 defensive snaps in a single season in four years. There is also the question of who will be the No. 3 corner between Shead, who struggled last year, and Simon, who struggled in the 2014 playoffs before missing last season due to injury. They aren’t what they were, but they are still very good.
2). Arizona Cardinals
Projected starters: CB Patrick Peterson, CB Justin Bethel, SCB Tyrann Mathieu, S Tony Jefferson, S Tyvon Branch
Peterson is possibly the best cover corner in the NFL, Mathieu is maybe the best safety in the league. Mathieu is one of the most versatile defensive backs in the NFL and is probably a top 5 corner and safety. Bethel and Jefferson did produce their highest-graded seasons in coverage of their respective careers last year. The difference between being number 2 and 1 for the Cardinals is the issue of depth.
1). Denver Broncos
Projected starters: CB Aqib Talib, CB Bradley Roby, SCB Chris Harris Jr., S T.J. Ward, S Darian Stewart
Denver’s top three cornerbacks are the best trio of corners in the league, Harris continues to be one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks, and excels in the slot. With Ward and Stewart at the safety positions, it’s tough for quarterbacks to find a weakness anywhere in the Broncos’ secondary.