As a new feature in the 2021 Sharp Football Preview Book, the Sharp Football Analysis team ranked positional units across the league for the 2021 season. The ranking guidelines were up to the specific voter with the only requirement that the focus is on the upcoming season only, not the future outlook.
With a combination of numbers, film, and projections, the rankings were averaged for quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers/tight ends, defensive front seven, defensive secondary, and head coach.
We’ll be running each position separately. For the defensive secondary the entire units were considered with weight given to the starters.
2021 NFL Defensive Secondary Rankings, by Unit
32. Las Vegas Raiders
Over the last three drafts, the Raiders have spent four first or second-round picks on the secondary and have nothing to show for it. Perhaps rookie safety Trevon Moehrig will buck the trend, but so far Mike Mayock and Jon Gruden are churning out busts. To have our 32nd-ranked secondary with that much draft capital invested in the unit is beyond inexcusable.
31. New York Jets
The 31st-ranked secondary is likely to struggle again, as there were no significant offseason additions. Brian Poole (not re-signed) was the only cornerback to hold opponents to negative EPA per target in 2020.
30. Houston Texans
When the quarterback was not pressured, Houston allowed 8.5 yards per attempt last season (ranked 29th). This 30th-ranked secondary unit does not appear capable of improving, despite adding corners Terrance Mitchell and Desmond King.
29. Atlanta Falcons
Among 82 players with at least 300 coverage snaps at cornerback, A.J. Terrell, Isaiah Oliver, and Kendall Sheffield ranked 69th, 72nd, and 81st, respectively, in yards allowed per coverage snap. Three rookies join the secondary but, barring some shocking production from the youngsters, this will again be one of the league’s worst units.
28. Detroit Lions
For the secondary to outplay our expectations, 2020 first-rounder Jeff Okudah needs to take a big step forward. Okudah allowed the offense to gain +1.0 EPA on 43.2 percent of his targets in coverage, the worst rate in the league
27. Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles tried to improve the secondary last offseason by betting on Darius Slay bouncing back after a change of scenery, but it backfired. Slay allowed 9.6 yards per target and looks washed up. Unfortunately, minimal changes were made and they’ll still be relying on Slay.
26. Jacksonville Jaguars
The 26th ranked secondary may struggle this year, but at least there’s youth to develop. 2020 first-round pick C.J. Henderson allowed 8.6 yards per target in coverage and has been a topic of trade talk during camp, but perhaps the new staff can get him on track. Rookies Tyson Campbell and Andre Cisco could also compete for playing time.
25, Dallas Cowboys
Rookie Kelvin Joseph might help a struggling secondary, but the unit will remain in the bottom tier as long as Trevon Diggs is a liability. Diggs allowed 1.6 yards per coverage snap, ranked 80th out of 82 qualified cornerbacks.
24. Carolina Panthers
On targets 15+ yards downfield, the Panthers’ secondary allowed a disturbing 51.9% completion rate. Perhaps the addition of Horn helps, but this unit is still a weak link in the otherwise improving defense.
23. Tennesee Titans
With Adoree’ Jackson, Malcolm Butler, and Desmond King gone, Tennessee is breaking in a brand new secondary. Ranking this unit was difficult because so much relies on rookie Caleb Farley, who is coming off back surgery after opting out in 2020. If he can immediately produce, perhaps we’ve dramatically undervalued this group.
22. Chicago Bears
The secondary was dealt a significant blow by the loss of Kyle Fuller, and Desmond Trufant is not an adequate replacement. Trufant has been torched in consecutive seasons, allowing 10.3 yards per target in 2019 and 8.4 in 2020. This unit is trending in the wrong direction fast.
21. Arizona Cardinals
The departed Patrick Peterson and Dre Kirkpatrick accounted for 82% of the team’s snaps at outside cornerback last season. So this new-look secondary will need to gel fast in a division stacked with talent at receiver. The unit ranks in the bottom half of the league on every ballot.
20. Seattle Seahawks
If not for Jamal Adams, the secondary rankings would likely fall significantly further. Teams were (correctly) unafraid to throw downfield against Seattle in 2020, averaging a league-high 13.3 attempts at 10+ yards downfield per game, at a completion rate of 54.7%.
19. Los Angeles Chargers
The secondary ranks in the bottom half of the league, but a healthy Derwin James could easily push them up the board this year. With just five games played in two years, however, it was difficult to rank them higher based solely on an assumption of good health.
18. Cincinnati Bengals
Jessie Bates has emerged as one of the top safeties in the game, leading a solid secondary. Replacing William Jackson, however, will be a challenge.
17. Minnesota Vikings
The secondary underwent an offseason makeover, leading to votes ranging from 11th to 25th. Those who are optimistic believe cornerback Patrick Peterson and safety Xavier Woods will provide the necessary upgrades. Opponents threw 10+ yards downfield 11.9 times per game versus Minnesota (seventh-most) and completed 56 % of those throws (fifth highest), so clearly there’s work to be done.
16. Indianapolis Colts
The Colts’ secondary landed in the middle of the pack, but it’s anchored by one of the best in Xavier Rhodes. In 2020, Rhodes led the league in Next Gen Stats’ Catch Rate Over Expected metric.
15. Kansas City Chiefs
The secondary allowed 6.3 yards per coverage snap in 2020, placing 11th overall. However, the loss of Bashaud Breeland possibly lowered our confidence in the unit. Breeland ranked 14th (out of 94) cornerbacks allowing 0.7 yards per coverage snap when lined up on the outside.
14. New Orleans Saints
The Saints played the highest rate of man coverage last year, but they lack a lockdown corner. Marshon Lattimore allowed an EPA of +1.0 or higher on 39.5% of his targets in man, ranked 39th out of 46 qualified corners. He needs to return to the form he showed early in his career for the unit to elevate its production.
13. San Francisco 49ers
Among the 49ers’ primary cornerbacks in 2020, only Ahkello Witherspoon (now in Seattle) held opponents to a negative EPA per target. Jimmie Ward remains a steady influence at safety, but the corners need to elevate their production in a division loaded with talent at wide receiver.
12. Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh lacks a lock-down stud in the secondary, but the unit has been strong. In 2020, the Steelers allowed 4.0 yards per coverage snap when the front seven failed to get pressure on the quarterback, tied with the Rams for the league’s top mark.
11. New York Giants
The secondary got a nice boost this offseason with the additions of free agent Adoree’ Jackson and rookie Aaron Robinson to go along with last year’s additions of James Bradberry and Logan Ryan. Isaac Yiadom was the weak link last year (7.9 yards per target) but should see a significantly reduced role.
10. New England Patriots
The secondary lands in the top 10, but that’s subject to change based on Stephon Gilmore’s status一he’s reportedly been on the trade block all offseason. Otherwise, the entire secondary returns.
9. Washington Football Team
The loss of Ronald Darby hurts the secondary, but William Jackson looks like a quality replacement. Darby allowed 0.02 EPA per target in 2020, while Jackson actually outpaced him at -0.16. Jimmy Moreland’s emergence as a quality slot corner (4.6 yards per target allowed) also played a significant role in this unit solidifying itself among the best in the league in 2020.
8. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Though the front seven’s dominance certainly helps the pass defense, Tampa’s secondary is dominant in its own right. When opposing quarterbacks were not under pressure, Tampa allowed just 7.1 yards per attempt, the third-lowest rate in the league.
7. Green Bay Packers
The secondary was easily Green Bay’s best unit on defense in 2020, but cornerback Kevin King was often a weak link一as evidenced by his playoff performance versus Tampa Bay. Perhaps first-round pick Eric Stokes will be the upgrade the unit needs to elevate to a truly elite level.
6. Cleveland Browns
The Browns’ secondary was a mess in 2020, but injuries to Grant Delpit and Greedy Williams played a role in the issues. In addition to getting them back healthy, slot cornerback Troy Hill, safety John Johnson, and rookie Greg Newsome join the crew. This should be one of the most improved units across the league.
5. Los Angeles Rams
Among outside cornerbacks, Jalen Ramsey and Darious Williams ranked fifth and sixth, respectively, in yards per coverage snap. So while Los Angeles needs to replace safety John Johnson and slot corner Troy Hill, this should remain an elite unit.
4. Miami Dolphins
The top unit on this roster is the secondary, which ranked in the top six on every ballot. Xavien Howard has emerged as one of the best in the league, forcing opponents into -1.0 EPA or worse on 30% of his targets in coverage, the third-best rate in the league.
3. Denver Broncos
We’re extremely optimistic about Denver’s rebuilt secondary, which added Ronald Darby, Kyle Fuller, and rookie Patrick Surtain. With Bryce Callahan deserving of a role as well, this looks like the deepest cornerback depth chart in the league.
2. Buffalo Bills
Tre’Davious White, who allowed -0.16 EPA per target in 2020, anchors our second-ranked secondary, which returns every starter including one of the league’s best safety duos in Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer.
1. Baltimore Ravens
Our top-ranked secondary split the first-place votes with Denver, and finished no worse than third on any ballot. Not only is the unit anchored by high-end production from Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters, but the depth is as strong as any in the league.
Ranking each NFL Unit for 2021:
For all of the team-by-team unit rankings and full team chapters, including a dozen more visuals & info-graphics, defensive breakdown, and detailed Fantasy football implication — plus the other 31 team chapters — pick up a copy of Warren Sharp’s new ‘2021 Football Preview’ book