Defensive backs recently became some of the most important players on the defensive side of the ball. As offenses shifted to high flying pass attacks, the defensive focus shifted to stopping quarterbacks and, more importantly for this look at the league, clamping down on wide receivers.
For the second edition of NFL’s Best, we’re again combining two incredibly important position groups: cornerbacks and safeties. Like I said in the first article in this series, there are no more honorable mentions. The league is chock full of great players, but we’re only here for the cream of the crop.
Top 10 Defensive Backs
5 | Darious Williams | Los Angeles Rams
Playing across the field from a star player (or a few in that stacked Rams defense) can make your play look a lot better than it really is. That isn’t the case with Darious Williams, one of the younger defensive backs on this list.
Williams did more than hold his own within the Rams’ star-studded group of defenders. The third-year corner made an impact as a second corner to Jalen Ramsey. While he wasn’t much of an impact in the pass rush, Williams was exceptional in coverage, picking off four passes and only allowing 34 receptions.
4 | James Bradberry | New York Giants
Bradberry was by far the top defensive back on the Giants’ roster. The speedy cover corner was routinely given the most difficult assignment and consistently performed well. In 2020, Bradberry set his career-high with 14 total pass breakups for the upstart Giants’ defense.
3 | Xavien Howard | Miami Dolphins
These top three defensive backs are incredibly close. Each of them is well-rounded and has a history of success at the highest level. The only real way to order them was honestly a toss-up. Xavien Howard had an impressive 2020 that was headlined by one major statistic.
Howard led the entire NFL in interceptions in 2020. While interceptions don’t necessarily equate to strong defensive play, Howard backed his numbers up. He led a very strong Miami Dolphins‘ secondary as the team got within one game of a wild card spot.
2 | Jaire Alexander | Green Bay Packers
Alexander, a first-round draft choice in 2018, had his best season to date. According to Pro Football Focus, he was the highest-rated corner in the NFL, both overall and in pass coverage. Even though Alexander was incredible last season, one player beat him to the number one spot.
1 | Jalen Ramsey | Los Angeles Rams
Choosing between Howard, Alexander, and Jalen Ramsey was incredibly difficult. Each is incredible defensive backs in his own right, but Ramsey has been arguably the best man coverage corner since entering the league in 2015.
In a down year by his standards, Ramsey was still one of the most dominant corners in the game. He dictated how opposing offenses played, forcing the ball away from his side of the field. Ramsey was successful, game in and game out, in neutralizing opponents’ top receivers and that makes him the league’s best.
| Safeties |
5 | Justin Simmons | Denver Broncos
This young man just got the BAG from the Denver Broncos and for good reason. Justin Simmons has established himself as one of the most well-rounded safeties in the NFL by using his athleticism both at the line of scrimmage and in coverage.
Simmons had a monster contract year in 2020. He routinely played in both coverage and run defensive sets, grading highly in both. Most impressively, Simmons snagged five interceptions over the year.
4 | Marcus Maye | New York Jets
One of the few glimmering spots for the New York Jets last season was the play from defensive back Marcus Maye. In his first year without Jamal Adams by his side, Maye was fantastic. He created a handful of turnovers while maintaining his strong coverage.
Maye, primarily a coverage safety, played his fair share of snaps in run defense. He was a ball hawk in both facets of the game, snaring two interceptions and forcing a pair of fumbles. Meanwhile, he also had the fourth-highest coverage grade among safeties.
3 | John Johnson III | Cleveland Browns
The Los Angeles Rams are likely going to regret letting John Johnson walk in free agency after his 2020 season. The relatively unknown defensive back rose to stardom in Brandon Staley’s defense, as he became one of the better coverage safeties in the league.
Normally, I wouldn’t chalk up a player’s performance solely based on the team around them, but Johnson’s run defense was likely bolstered by the defensive line in front of him. However, his play in coverage is all his own. He broke up nine passes and racked up 79 tackles on the season.
2 | Adrian Amos | Green Bay Packers
Along with Jaire Alexander, Adrian Amos was a stud for the Green Bay Packers this past season. He may not be the most well-rounded defensive back, but Amos is a star in pass coverage.
Amos was graded the best cover safety in the NFL last season, and his play warranted such a grade. He consistently shut down the middle of the field, breaking up seven passes, picking off three, and only allowing a reception on 62% of targets.
1 | Jessie Bates III | Cincinnati Bengals
Another entry from a surprise team in the Cincinnati Bengals, Jessie Bates was one of the most well-rounded defensive backs in the NFL last season. He was great at the line of scrimmage, exceptional in coverage, and quick to get to the quarterback.
Bates forced four turnovers, three picks, and a forced fumble, and created chaos in the backfield, but he was most impactful in coverage. He had 12 total pass breakups and allowed reception on less than 60% of targets. Dominant.