NFL News & Analysis

2023 NFL secondary rankings: New York Jets, Miami Dolphins take top spots

2K70TTW Green Bay, Wisconsin, USA. 16th Oct, 2022. New York Jets cornerback Sauce Gardner (1) celebrates once the game is in hand during the NFL football game between the New York Jets and the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin. Darren Lee/CSM/Alamy Live News

• Jets on the rise: The Jets secondary returns four starters from a season ago and is led by 2022 Defensive Rookie of the Year Sauce Gardner, who is PFF's top-ranked cornerback for 2023.

• Ramsey gives the Dolphins a boost: The addition of Jalen Ramsey has significantly improved this unit's outlook. The eight-year pro has had some high-profile losses over the past two seasons, but what isn’t highlighted is his down-to-down dominance and consistency.

• A long season for the Rams: When a team sells out to win the Super Bowl like the Rams did, roster overhaul will inevitably happen. And that is what we’re seeing in this secondary right now.

Estimated reading time: 13 minutes

PFF has clarified its position on the coverage versus pass rush debate for team-building purposes. Nothing on the defensive side of the football translates better to points allowed than a secondary's performance in coverage.

That means if a team expects to field a top-three ovdefense in the NFL, it better end up as a top-ranked unit on this list when we revisit after the season.

1. New York Jets

Projected starters: CB Sauce Gardner, CB D.J. Reed, CB Michael Carter II, S Jordan Whitehead, S Chuck Clark

The Jets secondary returns four starters from a season ago and is led by 2022 Defensive Rookie of the Year Sauce Gardner, who is PFF's top-ranked cornerback for 2023.

This group was the glue that held the Jets defense together amid quarterbacking turmoil. If Gardner can repeat his rookie success, this secondary will have almost no weak holes, as D.J. Reed and Michael Carter II also thrived a season ago, earning 70.0-plus coverage grades over the year.

2. Miami Dolphins

Projected starters: CB Xavien Howard, CB Jalen Ramsey, CB Kader Kohou, S Jevon Holland, S DeShon Elliott

The addition of Jalen Ramsey has significantly improved this unit's outlook. The eight-year pro has had some high-profile losses over the past two seasons, but what isn’t highlighted is his down-to-down dominance and consistency — over the last three seasons, Ramsey ranks second among 57 qualifying cornerbacks in PFF coverage grade (90.4), and he has allowed less than a yard per coverage snap over that span.

Add that to an already talented group coached by Vic Fangio — one of the best defensive coordinators in the NFL — and we have the makings of something special.

3. Philadelphia Eagles

Projected starters: CB Darius Slay, CB James Bradberry, CB Avonte Maddox, S Reed Blankenship, S Terrell Edmunds

The Eagles lost two safeties in the playmaking C.J. Gardner-Johnson and the reliable Marcus Epps but reloaded in the draft and free agency. Slay was dominant at times this past season and ultimately earned the seventh 70.0-plus coverage grade of his career. The rest of the unit played consistently excellent football for most of the year, leading the Eagles to the Super Bowl.

If one of the rookies steps up in 2023, the unit will be a force once again.

4. Denver Broncos

Projected starters: CB Patrick Surtain II, CB Damarri Mathis, CB K’Waun Williams, S Justin Simmons, S Kareem Jackson

Surtain was the second-highest-graded cornerback in football last year and looks primed to contend for the top spot in 2023. Simmons hasn’t graded below 73.0 in coverage in four straight seasons, and the Denver secondary as a whole ranked second league-wide in coverage grade (89.9) in 2022.

5. Baltimore Ravens

Projected starters: CB Marlon Humphrey, CB Brandon Stephens, CB Rock Ya-Sin, S Marcus Williams, S Kyle Hamilton

The Ravens secondary struggled for parts of the early season but ended the campaign as the NFL's 10th-highest-graded unit. That slow start was to be expected, given the new pieces and new defensive coordinator, but Humphrey and company will be tough to pass on this year now that they've had a full year to play together.

Hamilton earned the highest grade of any safety in the NFL in 2022, while Humphrey was reliable as ever. This could end up being the best unit in the league by the end of the year.

6. Dallas Cowboys

Projected starters: CB Trevon Diggs, CB Stephon Gilmore, CB DaRon Bland/Jayron Kearse, S Malik Hooker, S Donovan Wilson

An underrated unit adds one of the best corners from 2022 in Stephon Gilmore, who earned an 81.1 coverage grade. Diggs is the epitome of “boom or bust,” but his playmaking ability fits well with a unit that plays well together.

Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn has evolved his scheme from a basic Cover 3 to a disguised and varied look that confuses quarterbacks.

7. Kansas City Chiefs

Projected starters: CB L’Jarius Sneed, CB Jaylen Watson, CB Trent McDuffie, S Justin Reid, S Bryan Cook

The defending Super Bowl champs have an underrated and overlooked secondary due to the attention Patrick Mahomes and company get, but this is a sound unit that is coordinated very well by Steve Spagnuolo.

Trent McDuffie came on strong in the second half of his rookie season, earning a 75.1 coverage grade, and he gave a boost to a group that was already playing well together.

8. Cleveland Browns

Projected starters: CB Denzel Ward, CB Martin Emerson, CB Greg Newsome II, S Juan Thornhill, S Grant Delpit

Many expected the Browns to field one of the league's best secondaries in 2022, but the group disappointed, with Ward struggling to get going after injuring his foot in the summer. Offseason signing Juan Thornhill earned a 75.2 coverage grade last season and should be a substantial upgrade to the safety room. The switch to Jim Schwartz as defensive coordinator should also produce a better-coached group.

9. San Francisco 49ers

Projected starters: CB Charvarius Ward, CB Deommodore Lenoir, S/CB Myles Hartsfield, S Tashaun Gipson Sr., S Talanoa Hufanga

The Niners secondary combined to earn an 84.6 coverage grade last season, the fourth-best mark in the league. However, safety Jimmie Ward departed in free agency, and former defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans left for the top job in Houston.

The nickel corner/third safety role is up for grabs, but this is still a strong unit that was tough to pass on in 2022 and should be solid in 2023.

10. Buffalo Bills

Projected starters: CB Tre’Davious White, CB Kaiir Elam, CB Taron Johnson, S Micah Hyde, S Jordan Poyer

White has struggled with injuries the past two seasons, and the Bills' secondary as a whole was banged up a season ago. If this unit can put together a healthy season in 2023, expect a return to the top-tier form that saw this group put up a 90.6 coverage grade in 2021 and an 88.9 coverage grade in 2019.

11. Washington Commanders

Projected starters: CB Kendall Fuller, CB Emmanuel Forbes, CB Benjamin St-Juste, S Darrick Forrest, S Kamren Curl

This group ranked fifth among teams in coverage grade last season at 82.5. Curl finished second among his peers in overall grade last season, while Fuller ranked top-20 in coverage once again. Washington also targeted the secondary with its first two picks in the 2023 NFL Draft, so expect improved play from an already sound group.

12. New England Patriots

Projected starters: CB Christian Gonzalez, CB Jonathan Jones, CB Myles Bryant, S Adrian Phillips, S Kyle Dugger

A season ago, the Patriots' secondary wasn’t quite as strong as we had become accustomed to seeing from a Bill Belichick-coached unit. With the addition of first-round pick Gonzalez, expect the pieces to fall into place in 2023, as Phillips is an underrated safety and Dugger is rounding out as one of the better versatile safeties in the NFL.

13. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Projected starters: CB Jamel Dean, CB Carlton Davis III, CB Zyon McCollum, S Antoine Winfield Jr., S Ryan Neal

Things didn’t go as expected for the Buccaneers in 2022, but the secondary still turned in the ninth-highest grade in the league. They lose Sean Murphy-Bunting but retain four starters from a year ago in Dean, Winfield and Neal, who each graded top-10 at their respective positions.

14. Los Angeles Chargers

Projected starters: CB Asante Samuel Jr., CB Michael Davis, CB J.C. Jackson, S Alohi Gilman, S Derwin James Jr.

A unit we expected big things from in 2022 disappointed a bit with the injury to Jackson, yet they still turned in a respectable 74.6 overall grade.

Jackson is unlikely to return in time to start the campaign but should get back on the field sometime during the season and provide a boost. Samuel and Davis were excellent in place of Jackson, and Derwin James is one of the best safeties in the NFL.

15. Cincinnati Bengals

Projected starters: CB Chidobe Awuzie, CB Cam Taylor-Britt, CB Mike Hilton, S Nick Scott, S Daxton Hill

This was a top-10 group last season, but it just lost both safeties and will now rely on some new faces to keep up the standard of the past few years. Awuzie and Taylor-Britt made a number of big plays, especially down the stretch, forcing a combined 15 incompletions over the year. The team also drafted cornerback DJ Turner in the second round and safety Jordan Battle in the third round to provide depth and competition heading into the new season.

16. Green Bay Packers

Projected starters: CB Jaire Alexander, CB Rasul Douglas, CB Eric Stokes, S Rudy Ford, S Darnell Savage

Alexander is the highest-graded cornerback in the NFL over the last three seasons, and Douglas has graded above 70.0 in each of the past two years playing opposite him. However, this group has question marks for 2023, especially at the safety position. Savage is a former first-round pick, but he hasn’t played up to that status, as his 47.5 grade was one of the worst at the position in 2022.

17. Seattle Seahawks

Projected starters: CB Tariq Woolen, CB Devon Witherspoon, CB Coby Bryant, S Quandre Diggs, S Jamal Adams

Woolen has some “boom or bust” to his game, as he intercepted six passes but allowed five touchdowns a season ago. Still, he graded well, with his 74.2 coverage grade putting him among the league's top 30 corners. Diggs is a solid safety who earned a 75.0 coverage grade in 2022, and if Adams can return from injury in peak form, this will be a dangerous unit.

18. Pittsburgh Steelers

Projected starters: CB Patrick Peterson, CB Joey Porter Jr., CB Levi Wallace, S Minkah Fitzpatrick, S Damontae Kazee

It may be a shock to see this unit so low, but the Steelers' secondary hasn't graded in the top half of the league since 2020.

Peterson had a huge bounce-back season in 2022 for the Vikings, finishing with a 77.8 overall grade and five interceptions, the most he has recorded in a single season since 2012. Incoming rookie Joey Porter Jr. also had a career year this past fall, allowing only 143 yards in 10 games.

This unit will need to gel quickly if they are to rise up these rankings during the season.

19. New Orleans Saints

Projected starters: CB Marshon Lattimore, CB Paulson Adebo, CB Bradley Roby, S Marcus Maye, S Tyrann Mathieu

The Saints' secondary had an interesting year, finishing the 2022 regular season with the eighth-worst team coverage grade in the league, but only the Jets gave up fewer 15-plus yard passing plays.

There are talented players in this secondary: Mathieu’s 87.9 coverage grade led all safeties last season, and he gave up only one reception of 20-plus yards. If Lattimore can play at his 2021 level, this group can surge up the rankings as the year progresses.

20. Chicago Bears

Projected starters: CB Jaylon Johnson, CB Tyrique Stevenson, CB Kyler Gordon, S Eddie Jackson, S Jaquan Brisker

This secondary finished the 2022 season with the fourth-worst PFF grade in the league, but the talent is there for them to take a step forward in 2023. Jackson’s 74.3 coverage grade was 13th at the position last year, and we’ve seen high-level play from Johnson. Expect much better play from this unit in 2023.

21. Carolina Panthers

Projected starters: CB Jaycee Horn, CB CJ Henderson, S/CB Jeremy Chinn, S Xavier Woods, S Vonn Bell

The Panthers' secondary has the pieces, with two first-round picks and three second-round picks, but they’ve not yet put it together in the NFL. Horn came on strong in his second season and allowed just a 52.6 passer rating on throws into his coverage over the year. The free-agency signing of Bell will help, but the biggest change this team made was to bring in new head coach Frank Reich and his new staff.

22. Detroit Lions

Projected starters: CB Emmanuel Moseley, CB Cameron Sutton, S C.J. Gardner-Johnson, S Kerby Joseph, S Tracy Walker III

The Lions' secondary is hard to get a read on, as it has undergone quite the overhaul over the past year.

The team drafted versatile slot corner Brian Branch in the second round of the 2023 NFL Draft, and he’ll likely see significant playing time. The Alabama product missed only four tackles on 174 career attempts in college and is the kind of player whose presence makes everyone else’s job easier.

Only Joseph and Walker return as projected Week 1 starters, so this group will likely have some early-season growing pains.

23. Atlanta Falcons

Projected starters: CB A.J. Terrell, CB Jeff Okudah, CB Mike Hughes, S Jessie Bates III, S Richie Grant

Terrell was one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL in 2021, but his 61.8 coverage grade in 2022 didn’t hold up to that standard. The Falcons signed Bates in free agency to provide a stabilizing piece at the safety position, but Okudah and Hughes have disappointed so far in the NFL and remain question marks for the team.

24. New York Giants

Projected starters: CB Adoree’ Jackson, CB Deonte Banks, CB Darnay Holmes, S Xavier McKinney, S Bobby McCain

Jackson earned a respectable 71.0 coverage grade in 2022 and is the group's headliner. However, the rest of the unit has struggled for the most part in the NFL. McCain adds a veteran presence but is coming off a 61.4 PFF grade. First-round pick Deonte Banks could turn this group around, as we’ve seen what elite corners can do for a secondary.

25. Minnesota Vikings

Projected starters: CB Andrew Booth Jr., CB Akayleb Evans, CB Byron Murphy Jr., S Camryn Bynum, S Harrison Smith

A season ago, the Vikings' secondary earned a 77.6 coverage grade as a group, seventh among the NFL's 32 units. However, they also ranked 29th in completion percentage allowed (70.1%), 30th in passing yards allowed (3,223) and 31st in explosive receptions allowed (78).

They’ve made some changes to the unit for 2023 and hope to return safety Lewis Cine at some point in the year.

26. Tennessee Titans

Projected starters: CB Kristian Fulton, CB Sean Murphy-Bunting, CB Roger McCreary, S Kevin Byard, S Amani Hooker

Byard has been one of the best safeties in the NFL since he entered the league in 2016, and Murphy-Bunting comes from Tampa Bay, where he just earned a career-high 74.5 coverage grade. This unit has all the potential to climb these ranks as the season goes on.

27. Jacksonville Jaguars

Projected starters: CB Tyson Campbell, CB Darious Williams, CB Tre Herndon, S Andre Cisco, S Rayshawn Jenkins

Campbell had a huge second season, earning an 80.7 PFF coverage grade and allowing just 9.7 yards per reception into his coverage, but the rest of the group left much to be desired.

Without adding any significant pieces to the unit this offseason, the Jaguars will hope to see improvements from the rest of the group to contend in 2023.

28. Houston Texans

Projected starters: CB Derek Stingley Jr., CB Steven Nelson, CB Desmond King II, S Jalen Pitre, S Jimmie Ward

The Texans' unit graded in the top half of the league last season and has added one of the better safeties in the NFL in Ward. Expect Stingley to be used more appropriately after he earned just a 49.1 PFF grade across 599 snaps as a rookie.

29. Arizona Cardinals

Projected starters: CB Antonio Hamilton Sr., CB Marco Wilson, CB Isaiah Simmons, S Jalen Thompson, S Budda Baker

The Cardinals' redeeming qualities can be found at safety, as Baker is coming off a 73.7 grade in 2022 and Isaiah Simmons has some strong points to his game.

Still, this unit allowed the highest success rate in 2022.

30. Las Vegas Raiders

Projected starters: CB Duke Shelley, CB David Long Jr., CB Nate Hobbs, S Trevon Moehrig, S Marcus Epps

Shelley was a much-needed addition to the unit, as no other returning player earned a grade above 61.3 in coverage last year. The Raiders drafted cornerback Jakorian Bennett and safety Christopher Smith on Day 3 of the draft, but the team will need some much better play from the individual pieces if they want to improve upon their 31st-place finish in expected points added (EPA) allowed per play last season.

31. Indianapolis Colts

Projected starters: CB Isaiah Rodgers Sr., CB Julius Brents, CB Kenny Moore II, S Rodney Thomas II, S Julian Blackmon

The Colts lost Stephon Gilmore and Duke Shelley and return three players who played more than 700 snaps yet earned coverage grades under 57.4. With a new coaching staff and a rookie slotted to start the season, the Colts will struggle to defend the pass in 2023.

32. Los Angeles Rams

Projected starters: CB Derion Kendrick, CB Robert Rochell, CB Cobie Durant, S Russ Yeast, S Jordan Fuller

When a team sells out to win the Super Bowl like the Rams did, roster overhaul will inevitably happen. And that is what we’re seeing in this secondary right now.

Kendrick graded as the second-worst cornerback in the league last year at 43.7 and returns to the Rams as their most experienced starter, as he played 483 snaps in 2022. L.A. spent two Day 3 picks on the secondary this year, but 2023 will be tough to watch from a once formidable unit.

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