With so many talented quarterbacks and wide receivers in the NFL, secondary play is essential to defensive success. These rankings factor in teams’ talent at cornerback and safety judged by last season’s metrics and projections for future upside. I also factored in the coaching staff in place for each team. Let’s get to work.
#1: New Orleans Saints
Starters: CB Marshon Lattimore, CB Paulson Adebo, NB Bradley Roby, FS Marcus Maye, SS Tyrann Mathieu
Ranking Before 2023 Season: #11
The Saints ranked sixth in pass defense DVOA last year despite ranking dead last in pass rush win rate as this secondary made up for those pressure shortcomings. Marshon Lattimore is playing at an All Pro level to start this season while Tyrann Mathieu and Marcus Maye represent one of the best safety duos in the NFL.
#2: San Francisco 49ers
Starters: CB Charvarius Ward, CB Deommodore Lenoir, NB Isaiah Oliver, FS Tashaun Gipson Sr., SS Talanoa Hufanga
Ranking Before 2023 Season: #8
The 49ers led the NFL in PFF coverage grades last season, and they’re right back on track with an elite level of play despite the loss of defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans. Safety Talanoa Hufanga is ascending into a star while Charvarius Ward is one of the most physically imposing cornerbacks in the league.
#3: New York Jets
Starters: CB Sauce Gardner, CB D.J. Reed, NB Michael Carter II, FS Tony Adams, SS Jordan Whitehead
Ranking Before 2023 Season: #4
Sauce Gardner hit the ground running as a First Team All Pro corner in his rookie season, and he’s continued to play at an elite level this year. Jordan Whitehead has elevated his play to start the year, as well, which was punctuated by his three interceptions of Josh Allen on Monday Night Football in Week 1. This secondary is part of an elite defense trying to help the Jets stay afloat without Aaron Rodgers.
#4: Philadelphia Eagles
Starters: CB Darius Slay, CB James Bradberry, NB Mario Goodrich, FS Reed Blankenship, SS Justin Evans
Ranking Before 2023 Season: #2
It’s too early to panic, but this Eagles secondary has some issues. Injuries haven’t helped matters, but the early season results have been eyebrow raising. Darius Slay and James Bradberry remain an elite cornerback duo, but the safety play hasn’t quite been up to par, and the injury to slot corner Avonte Maddox changes the complexity of the defense overall.
#5: New England Patriots
Starters: CB Christian Gonzalez, CB Jonathan Jones, NB Myles Bryant, FS Jabrill Peppers, SS Kyle Dugger
Ranking Before 2023 Season: #20
The Patriots had to be ecstatic when Christian Gonzalez fell to them at the #17 pick, and he’s already off to an excellent start to his rookie season. Jabrill Peppers has been a highly productive addition in a stellar safety tandem with Kyle Dugger. Bill Belichick has an awesome group here to spearhead his elite defense.
#6: Kansas City Chiefs
Starters: CB L’Jarius Sneed, CB Joshua Williams, NB Trent McDuffie, FS Bryan Cook, SS Justin Reid
Ranking Before 2023 Season: #5
The Chiefs’ defense has quickly evolved into an elite unit, and this secondary is full of young players that fit defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s scheme. McDuffie, Williams, and Cook are all second-year players ascending into high-level starters, while L’Jarius Sneed and Justin Reid provide a veteran presence for an excellent group overall.
#7: Cleveland Browns
Starters: CB Denzel Ward, CB Martin Emerson, NB Greg Newsome II, FS Juan Thornhill, SS Grant Delpit
Ranking Before 2023 Season: #22
Cleveland brought a ton of youth and continuity in the secondary into this season, and it’s turning into production under new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. Grant Delpit is thriving in his new role in the defense while Greg Newsome II and Martin Emerson Jr. are ascending into highly productive starters along with Denzel Ward, one of the best in the league at his position.
#8: Buffalo Bills
Starters: CB Tre’Davious White, CB Christian Benford, NB Taron Johnson, FS Micah Hyde, SS Jordan Poyer
Ranking Before 2023 Season: #10
The Bills don’t seem to have quite the same teeth in the secondary as they have in recent years, but it’s been great to have the trio of Tre’Davious White, Micah Hyde, and Jordan Poyer back on the field together after they were all injured last year. The depth here is strong, as well, after several young players got extended run due to injuries last season.
#7: Dallas Cowboys
Starters: CB Stephon Gilmore, CB Noah Igbinoghene, NB DaRon Bland, FS Malik Hooker, SS Donovan Wilson
Ranking Before 2023 Season: #7
The Cowboys got devastating news this week when they learned Trevon Diggs tore his ACL in practice, and he’ll miss the rest of the season. While that’s a loss that’s difficult to overcome, Stephon Gilmore has been reliable for Dallas this season and it helps that this secondary is playing behind one of the most dominant pass rushes in the NFL.
#10: Baltimore Ravens
Starters: CB Marlon Humphrey, CB Ronald Darby, NB Arthur Maulet, FS Marcus Williams, SS Kyle Hamilton
Ranking Before 2023 Season: #6
The Ravens take a dive in my rankings for now with Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Williams out, but I believe this is one of the best secondaries in the NFL when fully healthy. Kyle Hamilton’s superb rookie season has continued this year while Geno Stone has played excellent football in relief of Williams. The depth at the cornerback position will be tested throughout the year, but getting Humphrey healthy will be huge.
#11: Atlanta Falcons
Starters: CB A.J. Terrell, CB Tre Flowers, NB Dee Alford, FS Jessie Bates III, SS Richie Grant
Ranking Before 2022 Season: #14
The Falcons seem to have fixed what has for years been a highly problematic secondary. Jessie Bates III is a transformational talent who is on his way to an All Pro nomination. A.J. Terrell is in the midst of a bounceback campaign, as well. This unit is much better than it was last season, and Atlanta’s defense is no longer a glaring weakness.
#12: Washington Commanders
Starters: CB Kendall Fuller, CB Emmanuel Forbes, NB Benjamin St-Juste, FS Darrick Forrest, SS Kamren Curl
Ranking Before 2023 Season: #12
The Commanders have an excellent group here, especially with the addition of rookie first round corner Emmanuel Forbes. Kamren Curl and Darrick Forest are a very impressive safety duo while Benjamin St-Juste has done enough to hold off rookie Jartavius Martin in the slot, for now. This is a very underrated secondary.
#13: Miami Dolphins
Starters: CB Xavien Howard, CB Eli Apple, NB Kader Kohou, FS Jevon Holland, SS Brandon Jones
Ranking Before 2023 Season: #1
The major injury to Jalen Ramsey is limiting the upside for this group, but the Dolphins still have some top talents, including rising star safety Jevon Holland. As the season goes on, new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio should help this turn into one of the better pass defenses in the NFL. That will only be further improved when Ramsey returns.
#14: Denver Broncos
Starters: CB Patrick Surtain II, CB Damarri Mathis, NB Essang Bassey, FS Justin Simmons, SS Kareem Jackson
Ranking Before 2023 Season: #3
The Broncos’ secondary isn’t what it was last year. Injuries to nickel corner K’Waun Williams and safety Caden Sterns tested this defensive backfield’s depth before the season even began, and now Justin Simmons is hurt, as well. Patrick Surtain II might be the best corner in the NFL, but the rest of this unit is struggling to keep up.
#15: Carolina Panthers
Starters: CB Donte Jackson, CB C.J. Henderson, NB Jeremy Chinn, FS Xavier Woods, SS Vonn Bell
Ranking Before 2023 Season: #16
Jaycee Horn has struggled to stay healthy, and a hamstring injury put him on IR already this season. Still, Ejiro Evero is one of the best defensive coordinators in the NFL, and he’ll coach up this unit. Xavier Woods is off to an excellent start this season as one of the highest-graded safeties in the NFL per PFF.
#16: Green Bay Packers
Starters: CB Jaire Alexander, CB Rasul Douglas, NB Keisean Nixon, FS Rudy Ford, SS Darnell Savage
Ranking Before 2023 Season: #21
The Packers’ defense had issues in 2022, but that was through no fault of the secondary as it was mostly a weak run defense that did them in. Jaire Alexander and Rasul Douglas are one of the best corner tandems in the league, but the safeties and nickel back Keisean Nixon have struggled to start this season.
#17: Cincinnati Bengals
Starters: CB Chidobe Awuzie, CB Cam Taylor-Britt, NB Mike Hilton, FS Daxton Hill, SS Nick Scott
Ranking Before 2023 Season: #9
The Bengals are missing safety Jessie Bates. Nick Scott hasn’t been a productive replacement for the excellent center fielder, and it’s impacted Lou Anarumo’s scheme. Chidobe Awuzie is still working his way back from his ACL injury and Dax Hill is ascending into a star, but this secondary needs to improve after a rough start.
#18: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Starters: CB Jamel Dean, CB Carlton Davis III, NB Christian Izien, FS Antoine Winfield Jr., SS Ryan Neal
Ranking Before 2023 Season: #18
The Buccaneers will always have a solid defense under Todd Bowles, but this secondary is going through some growing pains. Antoine Winfield Jr. is an elite Swiss army knife in this defense, but rookie UDFA Christian Izien has struggled to replace Sean Murphy-Bunting, who left in free agency.
#19: Houston Texans
Starters: CB Derek Stingley Jr., CB Steven Nelson, NB Tavierre Thomas, FS Jalen Pitre, SS Jimmie Ward
Ranking Before 2023 Season: #24
The Texans are improving in the secondary under new defensive-minded head coach DeMeco Ryans. It’s not shocking after his success in San Francisco. Injuries to Derek Stingley Jr., Tavierre Thomas, and Jalen Pitre hamper this team’s short-term viability, but this secondary has tons of upside as the season progresses.
#20: Tennessee Titans
Starters: CB Kristian Fulton, CB Sean Murphy-Bunting, NB Roger McCreary, FS Kevin Byard, SS Amani Hooker
Ranking Before 2023 Season: #26
The Titans may have a pass funnel defense, but they’ve been funneling those passes into a secondary that’s exceeding preseason expectations. Roger McCreary is finding his groove in the slot while Kevin Byard remains one of the most consistent safeties in the NFL. Tennessee’s defense is much healthier now, which helps boost their bottom line.
#21: Jacksonville Jaguars
Starters: CB Tyson Campbell, CB Darious Williams, NB Tre Herndon, FS Andre Cisco, SS Rayshawn Jenkins
Ranking Before 2023 Season: #29
The Jaguars’ secondary seems much improved this season. Tyson Campbell has evolved into one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL while third-year safety Andre Cisco is breaking out as a top talent. Darious Williams has also performed well in his second year with the team. Jacksonville’s pass defense improving could turn this team into a real contender.
#22: Minnesota Vikings
Starters: CB Byron Murphy Jr., CB Akayleb Evans, NB Josh Metellus, FS Camryn Bynum, SS Harrison Smith
Ranking Before 2023 Season: #28
The Vikings’ defense looks better this season under new defensive coordinator Brian Flores, and the secondary is progressing well after a terrible 2022 season. Josh Metellus has spent some time in the slot this year where he’s done well, while the addition of Byron Murphy Jr. has helped. Camryn Bynum is breaking out in his third season.
#23: Detroit Lions
Starters: CB Jerry Jacobs, CB Cameron Sutton, NB Brian Branch, FS Tracy Walker III, SS Kerby Joseph
Ranking Before 2023 Season: #19
The Lions’ secondary hasn’t improved the way its fans had hoped, but injuries haven’t helped. Chauncey Gardner-Johnson hit the IR with a pectoral injury while cornerback Emmanuel Moseley has yet to debut this season. Brian Branch looks the part as a coveted second-round pick, but this secondary isn’t yet good enough to compete with the top quarterbacks in the NFL.
#25: Los Angeles Rams
Starters: CB Akhello Witherspoon, CB Derion Kendrick, NB Cobie Durant, FS Russ Yeast, SS Jordan Fuller
Ranking Before 2023 Season: #30
The Rams’ defense has been a lot better than I expected. Akhello Witherspoon has provided a boost with his veteran presence while second-year defensive backs Derion Kendrick, Cobie Durant, and Russ Yeast are exceeding expectations. There will be some inconsistencies with such a young group, but I’ve been impressed.
#25: Seattle Seahawks
Starters: CB Tariq Woolen, CB Devon Witherspoon, NB Coby Bryant, FS Quandre Diggs, SS Jamal Adams
Ranking Before 2023 Season: #13
The Seahawks’ secondary had high hopes for this season, but the early results have been deeply concerning. Injuries to Tariq Woolen, Coby Bryant, and Jamal Adams certainly aren’t helping, and Devon Witherspoon is still getting his feet wet in the NFL. This unit should improve as the season goes along, but it’s been a rocky start.
#26: Los Angeles Chargers
Starters: CB J.C. Jackson, CB Michael Davis, NB Asante Samuel Jr., FS Alohi Gilman, SS Derwin James Jr.
Ranking Before 2023 Season: #15
The individual talents in this secondary are much better than this ranking would suggest, but they aren’t playing like it. J.C. Jackson hasn’t been close to the player he was in New England since he arrived in LA and Michael Davis has declined this season. Some of this comes down to coaching, and Brandon Staley’s seat continues to heat up.
#27: Pittsburgh Steelers
Starters: CB Patrick Peterson, CB Levi Wallace, NB Chandon Sullivan, FS Damontae Kazee, SS Minkah Fitzpatrick
Ranking Before 2023 Season: #17
Former All Pro safety Minkah Fitzpatrick remains one of the best players at his position, but he can’t do it alone. The rest of this secondary has a lot of issues. Patrick Peterson and Chandon Sullivan have struggled in coverage, and fans will be calling for rookie Joey Porter Jr. to become a starter sooner than later.
#28: Indianapolis Colts
Starters: CB Darrell Baker Jr., CB Dallis Flowers, NB Kenny Moore II, FS Rodney Thomas II, SS Julian Blackmon
Ranking Before 2023 Season: #25
The Colts don’t have any blue-chip talents in their secondary, and it will certainly be an area this team needs to address in the near future. Former 2022 UDFAs Dallis Flowers and Darrell Baker Jr. are starting on the boundaries, and neither one has been especially effective. The Colts will surrender some big passing performances throughout the season.
#29: New York Giants
Starters: CB Deonte Banks, CB Tre Hawkins III, NB Adoree’ Jackson, FS Xavier McKinney, SS Jason Pinnock
Ranking Before 2023 Season: #23
The Giants are starting two rookies at their cornerback spots, and the early results have been very concerning. Adoree’ Jackson kicked inside to the slot, and he’s struggled to adapt. Xavier McKinney is a reliable safety, but the rest of this group hasn’t lived up to what defensive coordinator Wink Martindale needs from them.
#30: Arizona Cardinals
Starters: CB Kei’Trel Clark, CB Marco Wilson, NB Jalen Thompson, FS Andre Chachere, SS K’Von Wallace
Ranking Before 2023 Season: #32
The Cardinals were likely better across the board than anyone gave them credit for, and that extends to their secondary. Rookie Kei’Trel Clark was one of my favorite prospects in this year’s class, and he’s off to a strong start. The individual talents in this group aren’t elite, but Jonathan Gannon is coaching them up to exceed expectations.
#31: Las Vegas Raiders
Starters: CB Marcus Peters, CB Jakorian Bennett, NB Nate Hobbs, FS Trevon Moehrig, SS Marcus Epps
Ranking Before 2023 Season: #31
The Raiders didn’t address the cornerback position in the draft until the fourth round which I found surprising. Rookie Jakorian Bennett is starting at one corner spot across from Marcus Peters, who isn’t the player he once was. The secondary in Las Vegas has been a clear problem spot to start the season.
#32: Chicago Bears
Starters: CB Jaylon Johnson, CB Tyrique Stevenson, NB Josh Blackwell, FS Eddie Jackson, SS Jaquan Brisker
Ranking Before 2022 Season: #30
Nothing is going right for Chicago to start the season, and it doesn’t help that their secondary can’t stop a nosebleed. Projected starting nickel back Kyler Gordon is on IR, but it goes beyond his absence. The coaching is largely to blame, and it doesn’t help that this defense doesn’t have a pass rush, but it’s hard to justify having this secondary much higher.