Defensive backs are of such high value in the NFL -- now more than ever. In the past three seasons, we've seen secondaries help lead their respective teams to Super Bowl championships. Seattle's "Legion of Boom" put on a dominating performance against Denver in Super Bowl XLVIII; New England cornerback Malcolm Butler made the game-winning interception to clinch Super Bowl XLIX; and Denver's "No Fly Zone" helped shut down Carolina's SuperCam in Super Bowl 50.
The value of defensive backs has been influenced by the NFL becoming a true "quarterback league" in recent years. It's a different ballgame from the one I saw when I entered the league as a cornerback for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2003. Look at the difference in QB production over the last dozen seasons: two quarterbacks threw for more than 4,000 yards in 2003, while 12 hit the mark in the 2015 regular season. There are more opportunities for big offensive plays; however, the secondary has just as many chances to create turnovers. In the next few years, teams are going to bring in more DBs who can snatch INTs and tackle -- the kind of players who made up Denver's dominant defense in 2015.
Of course, one of the biggest reasons for this aerial evolution is the rule changes in the passing game. In 2003, corners and safeties could put their hands all over opposing receivers when defending passes. Now, it's more of a "basketball on grass" game on the perimeter, because there can't be any contact.
Deion "Prime Time" Sanders changed the game for how DBs were viewed in the league, making coaches realize every team needs at least one good corner to present matchup problems. During his time in the league, he was the most valued defensive back in football. When I was with the Steelers, it was Troy Polamalu, for several reasons. Troy had instincts that you can't teach, and he routinely provided the kind of performance that solidified him as one of the very best safeties in the game. Troy just plain gave opponents hell -- not only in regular-season (and divisional) games, but in the postseason, as well. He did everything: made plays people thought he couldn't make, caught INTs during crucial moments and closed out games. He was the ninth-inning closer, which is why he'll be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
There are many DBs in the league today who provide Troy's same spark to their respective teams. The most prized players aren't necessarily the best by statistical measurements, but the ones who bring the most value to their respective secondaries. With that in mind, here are my top five most valuable defensive backs in the league today:
1) Patrick Peterson, cornerback, Arizona Cardinals
In his five-year career, Peterson's been an All-Pro as a corner and kick returner. He's a premier returner and has the potential to become a true shutdown corner. After getting his health in check, Peterson was a great asset for the Arizona secondary and one of its leaders. His versatility and ability to play multiple positions will always make him valued.
2) Tyrann Mathieu, free safety, Arizona Cardinals
He's another versatile DB, and there's a reason he has the nickname "Honey Badger": He's a nightmare for opposing offenses as a true playmaker and ballhawk, with five picks and 17 passes defensed in 14 games last season. The 5-foot-9, 186-pound safety plays with passion and a fierce edge. When Mathieu went down with a torn ACL at the end of the 2015 regular season, the Cardinals' defense lost its attitude. Defense is all about attitude, and if he would've played in the playoffs, it would've been a different story for Arizona. If Mathieu can get healthy and stay healthy going forward, he's going to have a Troy Polamalu-caliber career, with what he can do and the passion he plays with.
3) Bradley Roby, nickel cornerback, Denver Broncos
Some might question this choice, but there is rationale to my decision. With the spotlight on Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr., who led the Broncos' secondary vocally and statistically, Roby was, without a doubt, the unsung hero of the "No Fly Zone." The 23-year-old corner is the most versatile of the three, covering anyone from the opponent's No. 1 receiver to the best slot receiver. He played a key role in Denver's road to winning Super Bowl 50, and he's only going to become more valuable to this team in his third NFL season.
4) Richard Sherman, cornerback, Seattle Seahawks
Sherman has proven himself since the day he stepped into this league as a fifth-round pick in 2011. He's very intelligent and his play reflects it. Some people questioned why he only played one side over his first four seasons, why he didn't travel to cover his opponent's top receiver. Well, he covered No. 1 receivers all over the place last season and did a helluva job in the process. On top of that, he's improved his tackling and is a huge member of the Legion of Boom. He's in his prime and isn't satisfied, and I have to respect that.
5) Darrelle Revis, cornerback, New York Jets
A few years ago, Revis was it. Quarterbacks wouldn't even think about throwing the ball his way, and with good reason. Revis changed the game and opposing defenses avoided him -- as they still do when they can. He's been at the top of league at his position for years, and he continues to be a force to be reckoned with, even entering his 10th NFL season. Injuries have hindered his play some, which is why he's at No. 5 on this list, but he was still tied for sixth in INTs (five) last season.
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