There’s an age-old debate in the NFL that questions which position group helps the other more: the pass rush or the secondary. Does a great secondary make a decent pass rush elite? Or does an elite pass rush turn a formidable defensive backfield into a turnover machine? We may never come to a definitive answer, but one thing remains clear: having a top flight secondary can transform a defense. Game-changing safeties and shutdown corners are hard to come by and don’t often hit the open market, which is why they’re paid heavily. These teams have the best secondaries in the NFL.
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The Vikings have spent three first-round picks on defensive backs in the past five years as they’ve made a concerted effort to revamp the secondary. It’s worked for the most part, with Harrison Smith and Xavier Rhodes having a great deal of success, but Trae Waynes needs to improve. He has all of the physical traits a team looks for in a cornerback but has yet to put it all together. If he can in 2016, the Vikings will have an elite defensive backfield with Terence Newman and Andrew Sendejo, as well. Minnesota had only 13 interceptions and allowed a 64 percent completion rate in 2015 but gave up only 24 touchdowns through the air.
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Oakland’s secondary hinges on offseason acquisitions. The team added safety Karl Joseph in the first round, as well as Sean Smith and Reggie Nelson in free agency. They join returning starter David Amerson, who has seen his career rejuvenated in Oakland. If all goes to plan, the Raiders will have a top 10 defense. Joseph and Nelson are a versatile duo at safety, with both having the ability to play the free and strong spots. D.J. Hayden, a former first-round pick, is fighting for a roster spot, but if he can remain healthy and get back to his old ways, he can elevate the secondary further.
New York Jets
The Jets revamped their secondary last offseason, adding Darrelle Revis, Marcus Gilchrist, Buster Skrine and Antonio Cromartie. Cromartie is no longer with the team, but the first three are and thrived in 2015. They’re starters at three of the four secondary spots with Calvin Pryor being the fourth. If the Jets can get any production out of Dee Milliner and Marcus Williams, they’ll have a deep group in the secondary. They allowed the lowest completion percentage in the NFL last season and had 18 interceptions.
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Kansas City Chiefs
Marcus Peters, the reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year, is now the team’s top corner after the Chiefs lost Sean Smith in free agency. Peters is deserving of the role despite being a corner who takes a lot of chances to make plays. Along with Peters, the Chiefs have Steven Nelson and Phillip Gaines at corner with Eric Berry (assuming he signs his franchise tag deal) and Ron Parker at safety. Kansas City allowed the league's second lowest completion rate (57.5 percent) last season and picked off an NFL-high 22 passes. This group isn’t one to sleep on, but the loss of Smith hurts.
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New England Patriots
The Patriots lost Brandon Browner and Darrelle Revis prior to last season, but they turned out to be just fine thanks to Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler. Now entering his second season as a starter, he’s much more than just a hero – he’s a top 15 cornerback. The Patriots did a great job last season putting him on opposing No. 2 receivers with Logan Ryan covering top targets. The Patriots also have Justin Coleman in the slot, as well as rookie Cyrus Jones. At safety, Devin McCourty is a flexible asset while Patrick Chung had a Pro Bowl-caliber season. Quarterbacks completed only 60.6 percent of their passes against New England last season – 10th in the NFL.
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Based solely on starting cornerbacks, the Bills might very well be No. 1. Ronald Darby was a legitimate Rookie of the Year candidate with 21 passes defensed and two interceptions next to Stephon Gilmore, who had 18 and three of his own, respectively. Nickell Robey is a serviceable slot corner, but the Bills could still improve in that area. When healthy, Buffalo’s safeties are solid. The only problem is that Aaron Williams is coming off of a serious neck injury and Corey Graham is 31. Graham was outstanding in his switch to safety last season, though, recording 127 tackles and two interceptions. Williams is the wild card here as he’s desperately needed at strong safety.
Green Bay Packers
The Packers quietly allowed the sixth-fewest passing yards last season, giving up just over 227 per game. They also forced a whole bunch of turnovers, picking off 16 passes. The secondary has gotten much younger in recent years thanks to the additions of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins. All three will be starters in the nickel, giving the Packers an exceptional amount of speed and talent on the back end. Green Bay’s secondary is only going to improve over last season as these budding stars develop further, which is frightening. Sam Shields is also one of the league's better cover corners.
The Legion of Boom is still a top position group, but it has regressed a bit in recent years. Brandon Browner, though he’s back in Seattle after two years away, isn’t the same player he once was. Still, the trio of Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor remains in tact and still highly effective. Thomas is arguably the most important player on the defense and probably doesn’t get as much credit as he should. Jeremy Lane likely will man the slot, with Tharold Simon playing in nickel and dime packages, too. Pete Carroll’s plan for Browner remains to be seen, but he should be able to maximize his ability better than any other coach.
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The Broncos aren’t far behind the Cardinals, and some would argue that their secondary is superior, but having two of the best DBs in the league puts Arizona ahead by a smidge. Chris Harris Jr. is vastly underrated, and Aqib Talib is a solid corner in his own right. T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart make up a safety duo that can both hit and succeed in pass coverage. The Broncos’ secondary just doesn’t pick off passes the way the Cardinals' does – with only 14 in 2015. Denver did, however, allow the fewest passing yards per game last season (199.6), which is certainly saying something. Bradley Roby is also developing as a nice player.
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The Cardinals’ secondary is headlined by two of the best defensive backs in the NFL: Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu. Peterson is as close to a shutdown corner as there is in the game today, while Mathieu is a versatile weapon who can play safety, slot corner and even linebacker. They’re joined by Tony Jefferson, D.J. Swearinger and Tyvon Branch in the secondary, as well as Justin Bethel and rookie Brandon Williams, who’s currently penciled in as a starter. The Cardinals picked off 19 passes (fourth in the NFL) last season and allowed a passer rating of just 80.9 (eighth). An improved pass rush will only help the defensive backfield, too.