I think we can all accept the fact that the NFL is a passing league. In the Super Bowl last year there were 84 pass attempts for 621 yards and just 37 rushing plays for 150 yards. Despite all of those passing attempts, the game featured only one sack. The smart teams are building up their secondary even when they already have a solid unit. The Jets had a top-flight secondary last year, and still traded for Antonio Cromartie and drafted Kyle Wilson in the first round.
Defensive backs are tricky to evaluate. There are only four on the field during the early downs in the base defense, but the defense can shift to the nickel, featuring five defensive backs, at any time. In fact, the nickel back is a primary starter more than you would think in the modern game. When an offense goes to four wide receivers or employs its hurry-up offense, the secondary can even go to six players on the field.
Given the importance of the defensive backfield, I thought I would try to rank the top five secondaries for 2010 based on the following criteria:
1. Prerformance in 2009. This was based on how opposing passers performed against them in terms of yards per pass attempt, completion percentage, passes attempted, number of 20-plus yard pass plays, 40-plus yard pass plays, sacks and passer rating.
2. Additions and subtractions in the offseason.
3. Production of the starting cornerbacks.
4. Are the safeties interchangeable?
5. The quality of the nickel back.
6. The depth to build a dime defense.
7. The presence of a lockdown corner.
8. The presence of an elite safety.
As for additions and subtractions, the Jets brought in Cromartie and Wilson at cornerback, but lost safety Kerry Rhodes. The Bills have maintained the same personnel as last year. The Bengals added cornerback Brandon Ghee in the draft. Green Bay added depth with safety Morgan Burnett in the draft, and veteran corner Al Harris is expected to return. New Orleans drafted CB Patrick Robinson and may have the most secondary depth in the league. The Eagles drafted safety Nate Allen, and he's already penciled in to start because of an injury to Marlon Jackson. They also traded starting corner Sheldon Brown. The Panthers traded away safety Chris Harris and really didn't help themselves in the draft until the late rounds. The Broncos didn't add anyone to the mix until the fifth round, so they are essentially going with what they had in 2009.
Taking a look at the starting tandem of cornerbacks, three teams jumped out right away. The Eagles got 14 interceptions, 33 passes defended and two forced fumbles from the tandem of Asante Samuel and Sheldon Brown (now in Cleveland). The Packers got 14 interceptions, 33 passes defended and four forced fumbles between Charles Woodson, Al Harris and Tramon Williams. Harris started the first 10 games opposite Woodson, before getting hurt and Williams taking over. Green Bay also started three corners at times. The Bengals got 12 interceptions, 44 passes defended and three forced fumbles from starters Jonathan Joseph and Leon Hall.
The best safeties in the league are Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed, but they both play for teams with questions at corner. The Colts get Bob Sanders back and have two quality starters in Antoine Bethea and Melvin Bullitt. The Packers got 10 interceptions from their starting safeties last year. The Bills discovered rookie Jairus Byrd and his nine interceptions. Darren Sharper may be long in the tooth, but his nine interceptions and three touchdowns put him in an elite group.
When it comes to that all important third corner, Drayton Florence of the Bills, Dwight Lowery of the Jets, the Packers' Williams, Orlando Scandrick of the Cowboys, Aaron Ross of the Giants, Brent Grimes of the Falcons, and Malcolm Jenkins (who might move to safety) of the Saints are a cut above the rest.
From all of the above factors, I have compiled a list of the top five secondaries entering next season:
1. Packers -- They have three excellent corners in Woodson, Williams and Harris. They had outstanding production from their safeties last year and added one in the draft. They got 24 interceptions from their starters last year, despite ranking only 11th in sacks.
2. Jets -- They might have been No. 1 if they had kept Rhodes. They are great at corner with Revis and Cromartie, and in the nickel with Lowery or rookie Wilson. They will be a top dime defense. They had the fewest sacks of the five teams that made this list with 31, but they were tops in completion percentage defense and yards per pass attempt allowed.
3. Saints -- Depth makes their secondary very attractive. They score fast on offense and most teams are playing catch-up against them, so nickel and dime defenses are critical. Tracey Porter, Jabari Greer, rookie Patrick Robinson, and Jenkins make their corner depth excellent. Sharper is joined by Roman Harper and Usama Young at safety. The Saints saw 73 more passes than the Jets did in 2009 and 34 more than the Packers, which affected the stats.
4. Bengals -- A terrific pair of starting corners (Hall and Joseph), a solid corner pickup in the draft (Ghee), and underrated safeties Chris Crocker and Chinedum Ndukwe make up a solid secondary. Roy Williams has a place in the secondary, but they may be better off without him. The Bengals generated only 34 sacks last year and that number should improve this season, thus helping the secondary.
5. Bills -- I can't believe they let defensive coordinator Perry Fewell go this offseason. They had the second-ranked pass defense, nabbed 28 interceptions, which was second to Green Bay's 30, and only allowed 14 touchdown passes.
I'm sure some other team will make its way into the top five by season's end, and here is my honorable mention list of teams I expect have a chance: Carolina, Dallas, Denver, Indianapolis, Minnesota and Philadelphia. It's tough to make the Super Bowl without an elite secondary, so these teams should have a leg up.