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NFL Analysis: Legion of Boom best DB group

By By The Sports Xchange
Published On: Jul 03 2014 11:56:03 AM CDT
Updated On: Jul 03 2014 11:56:03 AM CDT

When it comes to determining the best defensive secondary in the NFL, there is little reason for discussion. The title belongs to the Seattle Seahawks' Legion of Boom.

Still, Legion leader Richard Sherman will be happy to discuss the issue -- or any issue -- including why he should be considered the best cornerback in the league, which he may well be, although Arizona's Patrick Peterson begs to differ and New England's vagabond Darrelle Revis insists he still has game.

The Seahawks' rough, ready and rowdy group features two first team All-Pros in Sherman as the monstrous mugger (listed at 6-foot-3, 195 pounds but admits to being well over 200) at left corner and Earl Thomas as the free safety who hoards more real estate than Donald Trump. Add hard hitting strong safety Kam Chancellor and right corner Byron Maxwell and you have the key to a defense that led the league in scoring defense and gave up only 203.1 yards passing per game.

Maxwell, the newcomer on the Legion, which adopted that name in 2012, played so well last season that the Seahawks were comfortable enough to let former starter Brandon Browner and nickel back Walter Thurmond go in the offseason. Jeremy Lane is expected to fill the nickel back position.

Those who somehow didn't know about Sherman before last year's NFC Championship Game, certainly remember he was the guy involved in breaking up the San Francisco 49ers' last-chance pass to Michael Crabtree and then ranted about the play on national television.

But as much as he talks -- which is considerable -- Sherman backs it up with his play on the field.

At some point during all the raving about Sherman in the offseason, Peterson, the multi-talented cornerback at Arizona, claimed that he is better because he covers the best opposing receiver regardless of where that receiver lines up, whereas Sherman stays on the defensive left side. Revis, of Revis Island fame, says ditto.

After being considered the best corner in the game before blowing out his knee with the New York Jets in 2012, Revis played close to his best last year at Tampa Bay before jumping to the Patriots this year, where he will team with one of the league's top safeties, Devin McCourty.

Here is a closer look and analysis of every defensive secondary unit by Sports Xchange reporters who cover each team:


--DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Richard Sherman, RCB Byron Maxwell, FS Earl Thomas, SS Kam Chancellor. Backups -- CB Jeremy Lane, CB/S Deshawn Shead, CB Tharold Simon, CB Phillip Adams, CB A.J. Jefferson, CB Akeem Auguste, CB Chandler Fenner, SS Jeron Johnson, SS Dion Bailey, FS Terrance Parks, FS Eric Pinkins.

One of the Seahawks' major offseason objectives was to extend Sherman and Thomas. Mission accomplished, and Seattle now has the bulk of the Legion of Boom -- Sherman, Thomas and Chancellor -- under contract through 2017. Those three also rank as among the best at their positions in the NFL and the strength of the Seattle defense. Thomas has rare speed and awareness to play deeper than many safeties, and makes it hard for offenses to get big plays on the Seahawks. Sherman has shown he can back up all his talk. Chancellor doesn't talk much, but speaks loudly on the field, as Denver's Demaryius Thomas found out when he was laid out early by a Chancellor hit that set the tone for the Super Bowl. Seattle let Walter Thurmond and Brandon Browner go in the offseason but wasn't worried due to the late-season emergence of Maxwell, whose 6-foot-1, 207-pound size fits the Seattle big-corner prototype. Lane projects as the starting nickel to replace Thurmond, who signed with the Giants. Lane played extensively down the stretch, quelling any fears about his readiness to step into a major role this season. Simon, a fifth-round pick in 2013 who sat out last year due to injuries, was one of the offseason stars and could become the backup outside corner. The team is also high on Jefferson, who spent the last four years with the Vikings and could also help in the return game. Shead is valued for his versatility, which could earn him a roster spot as a backup at just about every spot. Johnson projects as the backup to Chancellor, but needs to stay healthy. Parks was a revelation during the offseason and could also become a backup safety. Pinkins, the team's sixth-round pick in 2014, was drafted as a corner but is playing now at safety.



--DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - CB Patrick Peterson, CB Antonio Cromartie, FS Tyrann Mathieu, SS Deone Bucannon. Backups -- S Rashad Johnson, S Curtis Taylor, S Tony Jefferson, CB Jerraud Powers, CB Justin Bethel, CB Bryan McCann.

Peterson covered the best receiver every week. He's an elite player but he can improve. Signing Cromartie gives coordinator Bowles the option of keeping each of his corners on one side of the field. Powers is smart and physical and will be the nickel corner until Mathieu returns from a knee injury. Johnson lost his job to Mathieu midway through the season. Mathieu is instinctive and makes a lot of plays. Johnson is smart and does a nice job of getting teammates lined up correctly. There won't be much of a drop-off is he is the starter while Mathieu is out. Bucannon, the first-round pick, has a reputation as a big hitter. Coverage is his biggest question.


--DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - RCB Desmond Trufant, FS Dwight Lowery, SS William Moore, LCB Robert Alford. Backups - CB Josh Wilson, CB Javier Arenas, CB Robert McClain, CB Ricardo Allen, CB Devonta Glover-Wright, CB Jordan Mabin, S Dezmen Southward, Sean Baker, Kimario McFadden, Kemal Ishmael, Zeke Motta.

Trufant and Alford were the bright spots of last season as rookies. They should benefit from the addition of a seasoned veteran in Wilson, who was signed in free agency. McClain struggled at the nickel-back spot after having a solid campaign in 2012. He'll have to beat out Wilson and Arenas to retain his roster spot. Southward is slated for free safety, but played some in the slot and outside at Wisconsin. He could be matched up on some of the bigger receivers in the division. Until Southward is ready, the Falcons will likely lean on Lowery, while Moore stays at strong safety.


--DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- CB Lardarius Webb, CB Jimmy Smith, FS Darian Stewart, SS Matt Elam. Backups -- CB Aaron Ross, CB Dominique Franks, CB Chykie Brown, CB Asa Jackson, CB Deji Olatoye, CB Sammy Seamster, CB Tramain Jacobs, FS Terrence Brooks, FS Omar Brown, SS Anthony Levine, SS Brynden Trawick.

The Ravens exercised a fifth-year option for 2011 first-round pick Smith, who has emerged as one of the better young cornerbacks in the game. Webb was starting to get back his quickness and trust his surgically-repaired knee by the end of last season and should be back to full strength this year. Safety is an area of concern where the Ravens are hoping to move Elam back to his natural strong safety position to capitalize on his aggressiveness. To be able to make this move, either Brooks or Stewart needs to prove they can be counted on at free safety. Stewart is atop the depth chart for now. Nickel back is being contested between Brown, Jackson, Ross and Franks after Corey Graham signed with the Buffalo Bills.


--DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Stephon Gilmore, RCB Leodis McKelvin, FS Aaron Williams, SS Da'Norris Searcy. Backups -- CB Ron Brooks, CB Nickell Robey, CB Deon Broomfield, CB Mario Butler, CB Michael Carter, CB Ross Cockrell, CB-FS Corey Graham, CB Darius Robinson, CB Brandon Smith, FS Duke Williams, SS Jonathan Meeks, S Derek Brim, S Kenny Ladler, S Jajuan Harley.

Gilmore was hampered by injuries in 2013 and the 2012 first-round pick is looking to bounce back and play the way the Bills know he can play. He can certainly be the lockdown cornerback on this team. McKelvin enjoyed a fine 2013 season after re-signing as a free agent to stay here, and has solidified his position as a starter. Graham was acquired in free agency, and he can play nickel corner or safety, while Robey was the breakthrough player last year as the nickel corner because he was so adept at being around the ball. Brooks has hung on in Buffalo for a couple years, but he might need a strong camp to survive, now that the Bills drafted Cockrell. Free agent Jairus Byrd will be missed at free safety, but Aaron Williams will slide into his spot, and after a nice first year playing safety, he has to continue to ascend because the Bills really need him to be the leader back there. Searcy will get the first chance to win the strong safety job as he played in all 16 games last year with seven starts. Graham could compete at either spot, but he's seen more as a sub-package player covering the slot, while Meeks, Ladler and Duke Williams figure to battle for one, maybe two, backup safety spots, depending on the roster numbers elsewhere.


--DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - LCB Antoine Cason, RCB Melvin White, FS Thomas DeCoud, SS Roman Harper. Backups - CB Bene Benwikere, CB Carrington Byndom, CB James Dockery, CB Charles Godfrey, CB De'Quan Menzie, CB Josh Norman, S Tre Boston, S Colin Jones, S Robert Lester, S Anderson Russell.

General manager Dave Gettleman is hoping Band-Aids will hold his secondary together again. Free-agent pickups Cason, DeCoud and Harper all look like starters, but they all had career-worst years in 2013. White, Norman and Thomas will battle for a corner spot, but none are super special. Benwikere and Godfrey will have an intriguing battle in camp for the No. 1 nickel role. Fourth-round pick Boston missed offseason practices after hernia surgery. Jones and Lester provide decent depth at safety.


--DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - CB Charles Tillman, CB Tim Jennings, S Ryan Mundy, S Chris Conte. Backups - S Craig Steltz, S M.D. Jennings, S Brock Vereen, S Adrian Wilson, CB Kelvin Hayden, CB Kyle Fuller, CB Isaiah Frey, CB Demontre Hurst, CB Al Louis-Jean, CB Sherrick McManis, CB Derricus Purdy, CB C.J. Wilson.

Although getting up in age, the cornerback group is among the team's strengths. Bringing in Fuller in the first round, with Hayden still on the roster behind Tillman and Jennings makes corner easily the deepest position on defense and will make the outsides tough to reach for passers and receivers. They can go three deep with starters at nickel, with Frey also possessing a year experience at this spot, where it appears Jennings will play. The middle should be far more open for opposing offenses with Conte no sure thing to be a starter following shoulder surgery. He may not even be ready by training camp. Mundy was not regarded a high-quality starter when the Bears signed him and Jennings wasn't wanted in Green Bay. Vereen's speed and athletic ability make it possible he'll win a starting spot despite his lack of experience. The pass rush better be effective because covering the deep middle of the field could be a problem.


--DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- CB Leon Hall, CB Terence Newman, SS Reggie Nelson, FS George Iloka. Backups -- CB Adam Jones, CB Darqueze Dennard, CB Dre Kirkpatrick, CB Chris Lewis-Harris, CB Vic Hampton, CB Lavelle Westbrooks, CB Onterrio McCalebb, CB R.J. Stanford, SS Danieal Manning, S Taylor Mays, S Shawn Williams, S Isaiah Lewis.

Few teams boast the depth of the Bengals corners, particularly with the latest amazing recovery from an Achilles injury by Hall. He'll be full-go the day camp opens and settle into the top cornerback role. The addition of Dennard behind constants Newman and Jones will be a luxury, as the first-round pick performed well during the offseason program. He'll give 2012 first-round pick Dre Kirkpatrick all that he can handle to maintain the No. 4 spot. At safety, Iloka comes off a strong first year as a starter and will form a talented duo with the underrated Nelson. The addition of Manning and possible second-year bump for Williams could place pressure on Mays, who found a niche last year in the hybrid linebacker/safety role vacated when Lamur was hurt.


--DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Joe Haden, RCB Justin Gilbert, FS Tashaun Gipson, SS Donte Whitner. Backups -- CB Buster Skrine, S Johnson Bademosi, CB Royce Adams, S Josh Aubrey, CB Aaron Berry, S Darwin Cook, CB Pierre Desir, DB T.J. Heath, CB Leon McFadden, CB Robert Nelson, S Jordan Poyer, CB Isaiah Trufant.

After quarterback, coach Mike Pettine considers cornerback the most important position on a football team. To that end, the Browns took Gilbert with their first draft pick. Gilbert enters training camp backing up Skrine but is expected to win the starting job. Whitner along with Dansby was a big score in free agency. Changing half the starting secondary is a reflection of the coaching change. Depth in the secondary is a strength. Aubrey and Bademosi can sub for Whitner and Gipson. Berry is trying to restart his stalled career. Desir will battle for playing time as a dime back.

Haden is happy with a five-year contract extension and Gipson led the Browns with five interceptions in 2013. An improved pass rush working with an improved secondary should make defense a strength.


--DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - CB Brandon Carr, CB Orlando Scandrick, S Barry Church, S J.J. Wilcox. Backups - CB Morris Claiborne, CB Terrance Mitchell, CB Sterling Moore, CB Tyler Patmon, CB Dashaun Phillips, S Matt Johnson, S Jeff Heath, S Jakar Hamilton, S Ahmad Dixon, CB Ryan Smith.

The Cowboys went into the offseason with one of the worst safety situations in the league. Yet they did nothing to improve the position. They are banking on Wilcox getting better in his second year and Johnson finally getting on the field after missing the past two seasons with injuries. And if neither of those two hit, they are hoping that Hamilton, who started at Georgia as a freshman before getting kicked off the team and transferring to tiny South Carolina State, can hit like the lottery. That is on the line for the Cowboys in training camp as they search for a suitable counterpart to strong safety Church. At cornerback, the Cowboys are hoping former 2012 first-round pick Claiborne is ready to take his starting job back from Scandrick. That may be wishful thinking as Scandrick was the team's best cornerback a year ago and seems motivated to make a Pro-Bowl bid in 2014. Still, this is a big camp and a big season for Claiborne as the Cowboys must decide whether to pick up the fifth-year option on his rookie deal after the season, worth around $10 million. He has yet to prove worthy of that deal. The Cowboys may also have a decision to make after the season on Carr, who was given a five-year, $50.1 million deal in 2012. He allowed 966 yards receiving all by himself. Carr comes into the season with the team's highest salary-cap number as they didn't want to restructure his deal and move money in future years in case they had to move on from Carr sooner rather than later. He needs a good camp and a good season too.


--DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Aqib Talib, RCB Chris Harris Jr., SS T.J. Ward, FS Rahim Moore. Backups -- CB Bradley Roby, CB Kayvon Webster, S Quinton Carter, S Duke Ihenacho, S David Bruton, CB Tony Carter, DB Omar Bolden, S John Boyett, CB Louis Young, CB Eric Hagg, S Charles Mitchell, CB Jerome Murphy, CB Jordan Sullen.

Talib and Roby were added to bring a dose of nastiness and aggression to the cornerback corps, which was overhauled after the release of Champ Bailey and the free-agent departure of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Harris is recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament. When he returns later this summer, he will be an every-down cornerback who moves inside to play on the slot receiver in the nickel package. Roby's role will be determined by whether he can beat out Webster, who was the Broncos' No. 3 cornerback for much of last season. Webster worked ahead of Roby during OTAs.

Ward was the Broncos' first big splash of free agency this year. His aggression and tendency to creep into the box offers a perfect complement to the rangy Moore, who returns after missing the last two months of the 2013 season because of compartment syndrome, which nearly led to amputation. Quinton Carter could challenge Moore for a starting spot if his knee holds up. He has not played since September 2012. He underwent microfracture surgery, and recovered enough to work extensively during OTAs.

Carter beat out Moore for a starting position as a rookie in 2011. If he returns to form, he could allow the Broncos to tinker with using Ward as a linebacker in the nickel package, an idea that general manager John Elway floated in March.


--DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Darius Slay, RCB Rashean Mathis, FS Glover Quin, SS James Ihedigbo. Backups -- CB Bill Bentley, S/CB Don Carey, CB Cassius Vaughn, S DeJon Gomes, S Isa Abdul-Quddus, CB Nevin Lawson, CB Jonte Green, CB Chris Greenwood, S Jerome Couplin, S Gabe Lynn, CB Aaron Hester, S Mohammed Seisay.

By far the team's weakest unit, the secondary will lean heavily on Slay, who looked great in the offseason program. He's the only cornerback on the team capable of being a shutdown guy, so this unit will be exposed against the NFC North receiving corps. Quin is a heady player, but Ihedigbo lacks the upside to make the safety tandem a fearful group. Carey, Gomes and Abdul-Quddus have starting experience if there's an injury at safety, but the cornerback group is paper thin.


--DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - LCB Tramon Williams, RCB Sam Shields, FS Morgan Burnett, SS Micah Hyde. Backups - S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, CB Casey Hayward, CB Davon House, CB Jarrett Bush, S Sean Richardson, S Chris Banjo, CB Demetri Goodson, CB Jumal Rolle, CB Ryan White, CB Antonio Dennard, S Charles Clay, S Tanner Miller.

Williams has been a mainstay in Green Bay's starting lineup since 2009. Yet, one of its eldest players, at age 31, will have to watch his back going into his eighth season. A loaded group includes no fewer than five starting candidates at cornerback. The lock is Shields, the emerging fifth-year player who landed a lucrative four-year, $39 million deal in early March to stay with the team before he would have hit the open market as a free agent. The healthy return of Hayward in the spring after he missed all but three games last season because of a hamstring injury gives the Packers at the very least a shutdown nickel corner who had six interceptions as a rookie in 2012. And, House, who has shown flashes of being a playmaker the last two seasons, figures to challenge Williams on the outside. Goodson, a converted basketball point guard taken in the sixth round of the draft out of Baylor, will need some development at cornerback. With Green Bay welcoming back Hayward, the coaches devoted the spring to taking a long look at Hyde, who manned the slot as a rookie last season, as a safety with the No. 1 unit. Hyde worked ahead of Clinton-Dix, the college standout from Alabama who isn't guaranteed a starting job from the outset despite being the team's first-round pick (No. 21 overall) this year. The camp battle between Clinton-Dix and Hyde could get interesting. If they both perform well, Burnett better be on his toes to secure his starting job after being a big reason why Green Bay's safeties didn't have one turnover-producing play last season. The depth at the position includes returnees Richardson, who made a nice comeback the second half of last season from a neck injury, and Banjo.


--DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Kareem Jackson, RCB Johnathan Joseph, SS D.J. Swearinger, FS Kendrick Lewis. Backups -- LCB A.J. Bouye, LCB Josh Victorian, LCB Andre Hal, RCB Brandon Harris, RCB Elbert Mack, RCB Marcus Williams, SS Chris Clemons, SS Eddie Pleasant, FS Shiloh Keo, FS Jawanza Starling, FS Lonnie Ballentine.

If the front seven doesn't pressure the quarterback, the secondary will be exposed. Joseph is the best cover corner, but he didn't play consistently well because he was hurt most of the season. He's got to be healthy enough to cover the opponent's best receiver. Jackson covered well, but had too many dumb penalties. He's in a contract year, so expect this to be his best season. Swearinger is a hard hitter with a great work ethic going into his second season. The coaches love his swagger. Lewis came from Kansas City, where he started 15 games last season. He played his best for the Chiefs when Romeo Crennel was his head coach. The Texans need his range and experience.

Clemons started for Miami and Keo for the Texans last season. Pleasant is a hard hitter who excels on special teams, so they have depth at safety. Cornerback is a different story. It's time for Harris to play like a former second-round pick. The coaches raved about Mack in the offseason program. Bouye impressed as an undrafted rookie last season, but spent the season on injured reserve. He impressed again in this offseason program. Hal and Ballentine will have to excel on special teams to make the roster and avoid the practice squad.


--DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Greg Toler, S Delano Howell, S LaRon Landry, RCB Vontae Davis. Backups - CB Johnny Adams, S Mike Adams, S Colt Anderson, S Sergio Brown, CB Marcus Burley, CB Brandon Burton, CB Darius Butler, CB Qua Cox, CB Josh Gordy, CB Kameron Jackson, S Dewey McDonald, CB Sheldon Price, CB Louchiez Purifoy, S David Sims.

Toler is back from an ankle injury that cost him valuable playing time last season. Davis also returns after having an up-and-down 2013 campaign. Consistency remains an issue for the talented cornerback. Landry missed OTAs and did not participate in mini-camp due to a "soft-tissue" injury. He also had an inconsistent 2013 season. With Antoine Bethea now in San Francisco, Howell will get the first chance to take over as a starter. Mike Adams, Brown and McDonald are also candidates to replace Bethea. The Colts added some interesting young prospects at cornerback in the offseason, including Cox, Burley and Purifoy.


--DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - RCB Alan Ball, LCB Dwayne Gratz, FS Winston Guy, SS Johnathan Cyprien. Backups -- CB Will Blackmon, CB Demetrius McCray, CB Jeremy Harris, CB Mike Harris, CB Jamell Fleming, CB Rashaad Reynolds, S Chris Prosinski, S Josh Evans, S Sherrod Martin, S Joe Young, S Craig Loston, S Jerome Junior.

It might be the most competitive group of players for any one unit. Guy is the only new member of the secondary. He was in 14 games a year ago with two starts and took advantage of an injury to Evans during the offseason to take away the starting job. Evans could win it back in training camp, but the staff likes Guy and the experience he brings to help an otherwise relatively young secondary. Gratz and Cyprien were rookie starters a year ago and gained invaluable experience. Cyprien has the moxie to become a young team leader on the defensive side with his skills and leadership.

McCray made as much of a move as anyone and could become the nickel back. Blackmon and both Harris' will also see plenty of action, especially on special teams. Veteran Prosinski will need to shine during training camp or he could become a camp casualty. Evans will also need to show he's fully healthy and have a solid showing in training camp in effort to regain his starting job.


--DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Marcus Cooper, RCB Sean Smith, FS Husain Abdullah, SS Eric Berry. Backups -- CB Ron Parker, CB Chris Owens, S Sanders Commings, S Malcolm Bronson, CB Phillip Gaines, CB DeMarcus Van Dyke, S Jerron McMillan, CB Vernon Kearney, CB Justin Rogers, CB Kevin Rutland, CB David Van Dyke, CB Brandon Jones, S Daniel Sorensen.

There are a lot of question marks in the secondary that will need to be answered in training camp and the preseason. Cooper and Abdullah join the starting lineup, replacing departed cornerback Brandon Flowers and free safety Kendrick Lewis.

Claimed on waivers from San Francisco at the start of the 2013 regular season, Cooper had a great start, but he had trouble in the second half of the season with six games against Peyton Manning, Phillip Rivers and Andrew Luck.

Gaines and Commings could both see snaps in the sub-defensive packages, along with Parker and Bronson.


--DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- RCB Brent Grimes, LCB Cortland Finnegan, SS Reshad Jones, FS Louis Delmas. Backups -- RCB Will Davis, LCB Jamar Taylor, LCB Walt Aikens, RCB Jalil Brown, LCB Steven Clarke, SS Jimmy Wilson, FS Michael Thomas, SS Don Jones, SS Jordan Kovacs, RCB Demetrious Wright, LCB Kevin Fogg.

Grimes is money. Jones is OK. Delmas and Finnegan are almost reclamation projects, so that's where the questions begin. As for depth, Miami has good special teams players among Wilson, Thomas, Taylor, Davis, Kovacs and Brown. But they still have to prove they can play from scrimmage. Wilson, the nickel back, could be ready to make a move. He was solid last season and seems to have improved during the offseason. If Miami can find a playmaker in addition to Grimes, this unit could be strong. If not, they'll be so-so, and this defense needs more than so-so.


--DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - LCB Captain Munnerlyn, RCB Xavier Rhodes, FS Harrison Smith, SS Jamarca Sanford. Backups - S Brandon Bishop, S Robert Blanton, SS Kurt Coleman, CB Derek Cox, CB Kip Edwards, S Antone Exum, CB Kendall James, CB Shaun Prater, CB Jabari Price, FS Mistral Raymond, CB Josh Robinson, SS Andrew Sendejo, CB Marcus Sherels, CB Robert Steeples.

Munnerlyn was a vital free-agent pickup. It allowed the Vikings to draft a linebacker (Barr) rather than be forced to take a corner (Justin Gilbert) they didn't think was worthy of the top 10. Munnerlyn also gives the Vikings a 26 year old who is a tremendous upgrade over Chris Cook in terms of talent, instincts and reliability. And, finally, Munnerlyn also fills the huge void created when Antoine Winfield was released for salary-cap purposes in the spring of 2013. Like Winfield, Munnerlyn is able to slide into the slot in nickel coverages. Robinson tried to do that last season and failed miserably in his first attempt at playing the slot. Although Munnerlyn upgrades the secondary, the Vikings still need a third corner to step forward. Rhodes is a star-in-the-making if he can stay healthy. But the No. 3 corner position is up for grabs among veterans who have struggled recently (Robinson and Cox in San Diego) or rookies who were Day 3 draft selections (Price and James). At safety, Smith also is a future star if he can stay healthy. A broken foot cost him most of last season and played a huge role in the team's defensive collapse. At strong safety, the Vikings want an upgrade but might have to settle for Sanford, a career overachiever with a knack for beating out players with better pedigree. Coleman and Sendejo will push Sanford the hardest. Coleman was a quiet free-agent pickup from Philadelphia. Sendejo, mainly a special teams player, turned a lot of heads as a big hitter when Smith went down last season.


--DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Darrelle Revis, FS Devin McCourty, SS Duron Harmon, RCB Brandon Browner. Backups -- CB Kyle Arrington, CB Alfonzo Dennard, CB Logan Ryan, SS Patrick Chung, DB Jemea Thomas, SS Nate Ebner, S Tavon Wilson, CB Justin Green, S Kanorris Davis, CB Daxton Swanson, S Shamiel Gary, DB Travis Hawkins, CB Malcolm Butler.

New England's secondary has obviously been the talk of the offseason, with the Patriots swapping out Aqib Talib for Revis. That's obviously an upgrade and with Revis a year removed from a torn ACL, he's expecting more out of himself than he put forth in 16 games played last fall in Tampa Bay. Revis will take over the man-coverage, matchup role that Talib found success in when healthy.

Browner, who will serve a four-game suspension to open the year, will also add to New England's preferred man-coverage packages. The big corner didn't do much moving around in Seattle, so that will be a concern, but he offers size that head coach Bill Belichick hasn't had in the past. McCourty is a Pro-Bowl caliber free safety and leader in the back end who should be opened up to more playmaking options with Revis upgrading the coverage on the outside.

Harmon is penciled in as the starter at the other safety spot, but is by no means a sure thing. The second-year former third-round pick was a backup to Steve Gregory a year ago and drew praise from the coaches for his communication skills. He's talked about improving his man coverage this summer, but still doesn't fill the role of a true, tone-setting strong safety.

While Browner is the presumed starter opposite Revis when he's eligible to play, returning starter Dennard and budding second-year player Ryan might have something to say about that. Dennard has been serviceable as a No. 2 corner in each of his first two seasons, but coming off shoulder surgery hasn't practiced yet this spring. Arrington is a well-paid slot corner that the coaching staff trusts even if he's prone to a few ugly coverage hiccups over the course of the season. The veteran is certainly better on the inside than when forced outside, but still isn't without his warts.

Chung returns to the team that drafted him after a couple years in Philadelphia, but now is considered more of a special teamer and backup than the starter he was as a second-round pick in his first tour with the team. Ebner is technically another backup safety, but the former Ohio State rugby player is really just a core special teamer, a role in which he had 11 special teams tackles last fall. Wilson is a third-year second-round pick who has never been able to crack a role on defense and could be on borrowed roster time despite decent special teams contributions. Thomas was brought in as a versatile sixth-round pick who did just about everything in the secondary during his time at Georgia Tech. That versatility will certainly endear him to Belichick and the coaching staff.


--DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Keenan Lewis, FS Jairus Byrd, SS Kenny Vaccaro, RCB Champ Bailey. Backups -- FS Rafael Bush, CB Patrick Robinson, CB Corey White, CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste, FS Vinnie Sunseri, SS Marcus Ball, CB Rod Sweeting, CB Trevin Wade, CB Terrence Frederick, CB Derrius Brooks, SS Ty Zimmerman, FS Pierre Warren, CB Brian Dixon.

Lewis led an injury-decimated secondary with four interceptions and Vaccaro was an impact player from the first day of training camp until he fractured his ankle in the second-to-last regular-season game. They will again be a big part of what defensive coordinator Rob Ryan does although they will have more help in Byrd and Bailey, two ball-hawks who should help create many more takeaways after the Saints had just 19 a year ago. Bush has had a couple of nice seasons as a backup and will play a lot in the three-safety lineups Ryan utilizes. Robinson, a former first-round draft pick, appears more comfortable in the nickel. White struggled at times last season when forced into the lineup because of injuries, but could be ready to turn the corner. At 6-foot-3, Jean-Baptiste will get a chance to join the new breed of big cornerbacks after being chosen in the second round of the draft, while Sunseri, a fifth-round draft pick, will get a shot to play in certain roles and on special teams.


--DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - LCB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, SS Antrel Rolle, FS Stevie Brown, RCB Prince Amukamara. Backups - CB Walter Thurmond, CB Trumaine McBride, CB Jayron Hosley, CB Charles James, CB Zack Bowman, CB Bennett Jackson, CB Ross Weaver, S Quintin Demps, S Cooper Taylor, S Nat Berhe, S Thomas Gordon, S CJ Barnett.

The Giants significantly upgraded their defensive secondary with the addition of Rodgers-Cromartie, whom head coach Tom Coughlin has already declared will draw the opponent's top receiver every week. Thurmond, who comes over from the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks, will take over in the slot. Last year, Thurmond allowed zero touchdowns as the slot receiver and came up with one interception in that role according to Pro Football Focus. Hosley, a third-round draft pick in 2012, has likely played himself off the team, as two injury-filled years plus a looming four-game suspension for violating the league's policy on substance abuse haven't endeared him to the organization. Bowman has flown under the radar, but his special teams prowess as a gunner along with his solid showing as a cornerback could be more than enough to get him a roster spot. Jackson, a sixth-round draft pick from this year, will probably end up on the practice squad due to the numbers. Brown will be looking to recapture his form from 2012, when he led the Giants with eight interceptions and the league with 307 interception yards. So far so good for Brown, who missed last season after suffering a torn ACL. Taylor, a second-year player and Berhe, a rookie draft pick, will likely battle for the final spot at safety if the Giants keep four on the roster. Taylor could have the advantage as the Giants could potentially be hoping to sneak Berhe onto the practice squad.


--DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- CB Dee Milliner, CB Dimitri Patterson, SS Calvin Pryor, FS Antonio Allen. Backups - CB Kyle Wilson, CB Ellis Lankster, CB Darrin Walls, CB Johnny Patrick, CB Dexter McDougle, CB Brandon Dixon, CB Ras-I Dowling, Jeremy Reeves, CB Lowell Rose, S Dawan Landry, S Jaiquawn Jarrett, S Josh Bush, S Brandon Hardin, S Rontez Miles.

Two years ago, the Jets had the best cornerback pair in football. Now, with Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie gone, the Jets are left to hope they can get through this season with the inconsistent yet promising Milliner and the injury-prone, unproven Patterson before Milliner and/or rookies McDougle and Dixon, whom the Jets took in the third and sixth rounds, respectively, emerge as legitimate starters. The Jets need Milliner, in particular, to build on an impressive final month as a rookie because the veteran backups are fringe role players at best.

Amazingly, the Jets are in better shape at safety, a position that coach Rex Ryan has largely ignored for most of his tenure. The hard-hitting Pryor has already begun establishing himself as a team leader and should provide the Jets an immediate physical and vocal presence at the back of the secondary. Allen worked with the starters during minicamp, an acknowledgement by Ryan that he possesses the upside and big-play capability that Landry lacks. Landry will still be a valuable mentor and sounding board as well as a key backup in a unit that otherwise lacks experience.


--DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- RCB Tarell Brown, LCB Carlos Rogers, SS Tyvon Branch, FS Charles Woodson. Backups -- CB DJ Hayden, CB Chimdi Chekwa, CB Keith McGill, CB TJ Carrie, CB Taiwan Jones, CB Chance Casey, CB Neiko Thorpe, CB Jansen Watson, S Jonathan Dowling, S Brandian Ross, S Shelton Johnson.

The Raiders brought in Brown and Rogers from the 49ers, the third time in three years they've brought in potential veteran starters in free agency. Both are highly intelligent and came off productive seasons, more so than last year's starters Tracy Porter and Mike Jenkins. Strong safety Tyvon Branch was lost in the second game because of a broken leg, which robbed him of the opportunity to play with Woodson, but also left Woodson to play as single deep safety because the team didn't trust Ross, who struggled as a starter. Hayden is in a "prove it" phase because injuries have robbed him of time to develop after being the No. 12 overall pick in the 2013 draft.

Chekwa has improved steadily, but rookie draft picks McGill and Carrie will be given every opportunity to surpass him on the depth chart and possibly play a role in some packages. Dowling opened some eyes in the team's mandatory minicamp as a seventh-round draft pick who has good ball skills as a deep safety.


--DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - LCB Bradley Fletcher, RCB Cary Williams, FS Malcolm Jenkins, SS Nate Allen. Backups - Earl Wolff, Nolan Carroll, Brandon Boykin, Jaylen Watkins, Chris Maragos, Keelan Johnson, Davon Morgan, Roc Carmichael, Curtis Marsh, Daytawion Lowe.

Fletcher and Williams, who were signed as free agents before the 2013 season, were solid performers last year. They are long and physical and adept at press coverage, which is the key to Bill Davis' defense. Boykin has quickly developed into one of the league's better nickel corners. He was second in the league in interceptions last season. But for his small stature - he's 5-foot-9 - he'd probably be starting on the outside. Ex-Dolphin Carroll was brought in to push Fletcher and Williams. At best, he wrestles a starting job from one of them. At worst, he will provide corner depth the Eagles didn't have last year and strengthen their special teams. Jenkins was the team's key offseason defensive acquisition. He's a former corner with excellent coverage skills that can cover tight ends and slot receivers. Wolff started six games as a rookie last season before hurting his knee. He will push Allen for the other starting safety job. Watkins is a versatile rookie who played both corner and safety at Florida.


--DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Ike Taylor, RCB Cortez Allen, FS Mike Mitchell, SS Troy Polamalu. Backups -- CB William Gay, CB Brice McCain, CB Antwon Blake, CB Shaquille Richardson, SS Will Allen, SS Shamarko Thomas, FS Robert Golden.

Most outside observers thought the Steelers would address the cornerback position with a high draft pick, but they did not select one until the fifth round. While analysts placed a lot of blame on the secondary for the defense's decline last season, the Steelers had a higher opinion of some of their younger players. They also know a stronger pass rush will make the secondary look better. Taylor took a $4.25 million dollar pay cut to remain with the team after a subpar 2013 season. They are looking to get one more quality season out of him.

Allen was benched for a time last season, but he regained his starting job and played better at the end of the season. Gay had perhaps his best season of his seven-year professional career and will see plenty of time covering slot receivers in sub-packages. If any of those three are injured, the Steelers could have some depth issues. McCain, a free-agent signing, was released by the Texans after a subpar season; Blake has little experience; and Richardson was a fifth-round choice. At safety, Mitchell was brought in to solidify a back end that gave up an uncharacteristic number of big plays last season. He replaces Ryan Clark, who had begun to show his age. Polamalu was healthy and played well for most of last season even though he was a de facto inside linebacker in sub-packages due to injuries.

Thomas was injured in the middle of his rookie season and lost his job in sub-packages to the veteran Allen, who was re-signed after the season. Thomas has the versatility to play safety and slot corner, but he has been slow to progress. Golden is an excellent special teams player who figures to make the roster again for that reason.


--DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - CB Janoris Jenkins, CB Trumaine Johnson, SS T.J. McDonald, FS Rodney McLeod. Backups - CB Brandon McGee, CB Lamarcus Joyner, CB E.J. Gaines, CB Darren Woodard, CB Greg Reid, CB Jarrid Bryant, CB Marcus Roberson, S Cody Davis, S Matt Daniels, S Maurice Alexander, S Christian Bryant, S Avery Cunningham.

How young is this entire group? Add them all up, and there is only a combined 11 years of experience in the NFL. No one has played more than two seasons. Jenkins didn't have as many big plays in 2013 as he did during his rookie season, but he was asked to do more. Johnson has played well at times and competes, so he should also improve. The battle for the first nickel-back spot should be furious between McGee, Joyner and perhaps Gaines. McGee struggled in the one game he had significant playing time last season, but coaches like his upside. Joyner, the team's second-round pick, is a versatile player that is expected to contribute in a variety of ways as either a cornerback or safety. It will be tough to keep him off the field. Gaines was a big-time producer at Missouri, and will be in the hunt as a sixth-round pick. Roberson is out to prove it was a mistake that no one drafted him, while Reid hasn't played since 2011 at Florida State. McDonald played just 10 games as a rookie because of injury, but is expected to make big strides this season. McLeod is the wild card. An undrafted free agent in 2012, he is somewhat undersized (5-foot-10, 195), but he had 87 tackles and the team didn't pursue a veteran to replace him. Both McDonald and McLeod have to make more big plays: They combined for three interceptions, 11 passes defensed and one forced fumble last season. Daniels has talent, but has been star-crossed since making the roster as an undrafted free agent in 2012. Injured reserve is where he ended both seasons, and he has played a total of just six games in two years. Davis was promoted from the practice squad last year. Two rookies, Alexander (fourth round) and Bryant (seventh), might be compromised by injuries. Bryant is still recovering from a foot injury that ended his 2013 season at Ohio State after five games, while Alexander underwent arthroscopic knee surgery after suffering an injury in OTAs.


--DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Brandon Flowers, RCB Shareece Wright, SS Marcus Gilchrist, FS Eric Weddle. Backups -- S Jahleel Addae, CB Richard Marshall, CB Jason Verrett, CB Steve Williams, CB Crezdon Butler, S Darrell Stuckey, CB Marcus Cromartie, S Alden Darby, CB Chris Davis, CB Greg Ducre, CB Brandon Ghee, S Adrian Phillips.

The Chargers expect the most improvement here on defense, as they signed Flowers and spent their No. 1 pick on Verrett. Flowers will bring experience and skill to a cornerback group that got picked on last year. Verrett has to get healthy to prove he can be in the mix. Weddle remains a ball-hawk and one of the most active safeties in the league. Addae could challenge Gilchrist for a spot and keep an eye on the second-year pro Williams after his rookie season was a wash because of an injury. Stuckey will earn his keep on special teams; Ghee will likely make the team for depth.


--DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - FS Eric Reid, SS Antoine Bethea, CB Tramaine Brock, CB Chris Culliver. Backups - S Jimmie Ward, CB Chris Cook, CB Dontae Johnson, CB Perrish Cox, CB Darryl Morris, CB Keith Reaser, CB Kenneth Acker, S Craig Dahl, S D.J. Campbell, S James McCray, S C.J. Spillman, S Bubba Ventrone.

The 49ers are likely to start the year with three different starters from a season ago. For the first time, Brock and Culliver are the projected starters joining newcomer Bethea, who signed to replace Donte Whitner. The only returning starter is second-year player Reid, who made the Pro Bowl after being taken in the first round out of LSU last year. For the second year in a row, San Francisco used a first-round pick on a strong safety when they took Ward - who they will start off as a nickel back while being groomed to play behind Bethea, who turns 30 in July. The team lost starting CBs Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers to the Oakland Raiders, making cornerback one of the more intriguing positions to watch during training camp. Cook, another free agent, has the size and speed the team likes but will have to improve drastically from his poor four seasons in Minnesota after being an early second-round pick in 2010.


--DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Richard Sherman, RCB Byron Maxwell, FS Earl Thomas, SS Kam Chancellor. Backups -- CB Jeremy Lane, CB/S Deshawn Shead, CB Tharold Simon, CB Phillip Adams, CB A.J. Jefferson, CB Akeem Auguste, CB Chandler Fenner, SS Jeron Johnson, SS Dion Bailey, FS Terrance Parks, FS Eric Pinkins.

One of the Seahawks' major offseason objectives was to extend Sherman and Thomas. Mission accomplished, and Seattle now has the bulk of the Legion of Boom -- Sherman, Thomas and Chancellor -- under contract through 2017. Those three also rank as among the best at their positions in the NFL and the strength of the Seattle defense. Thomas has rare speed and awareness to play deeper than many safeties, and makes it hard for offenses to get big plays on the Seahawks. Sherman has shown he can back up all his talk. Chancellor doesn't talk much, but speaks loudly on the field, as Denver's Demaryius Thomas found out when he was laid out early by a Chancellor hit that set the tone for the Super Bowl. Seattle let Walter Thurmond and Brandon Browner go in the offseason but wasn't worried due to the late-season emergence of Maxwell, whose 6-foot-1, 207-pound size fits the Seattle big-corner prototype. Lane projects as the starting nickel to replace Thurmond, who signed with the Giants. Lane played extensively down the stretch, quelling any fears about his readiness to step into a major role this season. Simon, a fifth-round pick in 2013 who sat out last year due to injuries, was one of the offseason stars and could become the backup outside corner. The team is also high on Jefferson, who spent the last four years with the Vikings and could also help in the return game. Shead is valued for his versatility, which could earn him a roster spot as a backup at just about every spot. Johnson projects as the backup to Chancellor, but needs to stay healthy. Parks was a revelation during the offseason and could also become a backup safety. Pinkins, the team's sixth-round pick in 2014, was drafted as a corner but is playing now at safety.


--DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - LCB Alterraun Verner, RCB Johnthan Banks, SS Dashon Goldson, FS Mark Barron. Backups -- S Keith Tandy, CB Leonard Johnson, CB Mike Jenkins, CB D.J. Moore, CB Danny Gorrer.

The Bucs bid farewell to Darrelle Revis after one season, despite having nursed him from a torn ACL and giving him a chance to make the Pro Bowl, to say nothing of the $16 million salary. By cutting ties with Revis, it enabled the Bucs defensive backs to grow into new roles. Verner is a ball-hawking corner who is actually younger than Banks. The Bucs are counting on Barron and Goldson to set the tone for the defense in the secondary.


--DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Jason McCourty, FS Michael Griffin, SS Bernard Pollard, RCB Coty Sensabaugh. Backups -- CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson, S George Wilson, CB Tommie Campbell, S Damion Stafford, S/CB Marqueston Huff, S/CB Micah Pellerin, CB/S Khalid Wooten.

The interesting storyline here will be the battle for Alterraun Verner's old spot at cornerback between Sensabaugh and Wreh-Wilson. Sensabaugh was the Titans nickel back a year ago and played pretty well, while Wreh-Wilson also turned the coaches' heads in offseason work. Elsewhere, starters return as McCourty has been solid, Pollard brought needed attitude and Griffin seems rejuvenated after Pollard's arrival.

Wilson provides good depth at safety, while Stafford has done well on special teams and has shown a nose for the ball. The previous regime gave Campbell multiple chances because of his size and speed, but it never translated, while rookie Huff could be a player to watch, both as safety depth and a possible nickel candidate against the Sensabaugh/Wreh-Wilson cornerback battle loser.


--DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB DeAngelo Hall, RCB David Amerson, SS Ryan Clark, FS Brandon Meriweather. Backups - CB E.J. Biggers, CB Tracy Porter, FS Bacarri Rambo, SS Phillip Thomas, CB Richard Crawford, FS Tanard Jackson, S Trenton Robinson, CB Bashaud Breeland, CB Chase Minnifield, CB Peyton Thompson, S Akeem Davis, CB Bryan Shepherd, S Ross Madison, CB Courtney Bridget.

The Redskins allowed 60 touchdown passes the past two seasons and were getting burned for big play after big play. And yet, defensive coordinator Jim Haslett and defensive backs coach Raheem Morris were retained by new coach Jay Gruden, who had worked with each man elsewhere. Amid the wreckage that was Washington's 2013 secondary, Hall -- who had been cut for salary-cap reasons before being re-signed shortly thereafter -- had a strong season, earning a new contract. With long-time safety Reed Doughty not having been re-signed, Hall is also the unquestioned leader on the back end. The question is when Hall, who's just 30 despite having played 10 NFL seasons, begins to wear down as Fletcher did in 2013. Amerson, the nation's interceptions leader in 2011 who was Washington's second-rounder in 2013, had a respectable debut season as the third corner and now succeeds Josh Wilson, who wasn't re-signed, as the starter opposite Hall. The savvy Clark, whose departure for Pittsburgh after 2005 helped turn a playoff team into one of the NFL's worst defenses in 2006, returns to Washington after an eight-year absence. It remains to be seen how much he has left as he turns 35 in October. Meriweather, suspended twice for being a human missile, settled down during the second half of last year but hasn't been close to the playmaker the Redskins hoped when they signed him before the 2012 season. Rambo surprisingly opened his rookie year of 2013 as a starter but spent most of the season in former head coach Mike Shanahan's doghouse. Thomas, who led the nation in interceptions in 2012, missed his rookie year of 2013 with a foot injury suffered in the preseason opener. The Redskins hope that he and Rambo will supplant Clark and Meriweather as the safety tandem sooner rather than later. The fast Biggers will try to hold off former New Orleans and Oakland starter Porter, who missed offseason drills while recovering from shoulder surgery, to be the third corner. Crawford, the third corner for part of his rookie year of 2012, missed last year with a torn ACL and was held out of spring workouts, too, but is in the mix as is aggressive fourth-rounder Breeland. Jackson, a starter in 56 games for Tampa Bay from 2007-11, was suspended the past two years for substance abuse violations and is trying to shake off the rust. Robinson played in 11 games last year, mostly on special teams. Minnifield and Thompson only have practice-squad experience. Davis didn't make Seattle's roster as an undrafted rookie in 2013. Shepherd, Madison and Bridget are all rookie free agents.

--Frank Cooney, founder and publisher of The Sports Xchange and, covered the NFL and the draft since the 1960s and is a selector for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.