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Cowboys' secondary is second to none
By Tag Ribary
Three of the biggest offseason moves bolstered three already-talented secondaries in the NFL and helped shape these rankings. The additions of Adam Jones by Dallas, DeAngelo Hall by Oakland and Asante Samuel by Philadelphia put their teams into the elite category. Here's how the top 10 overall groups rank:
1. Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys have an outstanding group of athletes in their secondary with Terence Newman, Anthony Henry, Roy Williams and Ken Hamlin returning from last year. When you combine that group with the recent additions of Jones and rookie first-round draft pick Mike Jenkins, the Cowboys now have the type of depth that few other teams can match. They will have a tremendous amount of flexibility within their personnel packages to take advantage of each player's strengths while also being able to disguise coverages. Opposing quarterbacks will have to be smart and accurate to have success against this group. The talents of the secondary combined with the effective pass rush of the front seven will force opposing quarterbacks to make some quick decisions.
2. Oakland Raiders
The Raiders have the best duo of starting cornerbacks in the league with Nnamdi Asomugha and Hall. Both are shutdown cornerbacks who can sustain tight coverage all day, and each has the size, speed and athletic ability to match up with the best receivers in the game. The Raiders also added instinctive FS Gibril Wilson from the Giants to start opposite former first-round draft pick Michael Huff on the back end. This combination of athletic, experienced defensive backs will provide defensive coordinator Rob Ryan a lot of flexibility. He now can be as aggressive as he wants up front knowing that the players he has on the back end are experienced and can create turnovers. If this unit stays healthy, it should get better with time. The players' average age is 25.
3. Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles added Samuel to an already-talented group that includes safeties Brian Dawkins and Quintin Mikell along with cornerbacks Sheldon Brown and Lito Sheppard. The Eagles have a solid group of playmakers who should thrive under the aggressive schemes of defensive coordinator Jim Johnson. Though Dawkins is aging, he still puts fear into opposing teams' quarterbacks with his instincts and aggressiveness. They will remain aggressive up front with their pressure designs, which will provide the defensive backs plenty of opportunities to get their hands on the ball and create turnovers. Samuel brings his ball skills and championship experience to an Eagles defense that now has the flexibility to disguise coverages and create confusion for opposing offenses.
4. Indianapolis Colts
Though this group may not have the big-name recognition of some of the other top secondaries in the league, it plays very well as a unit. SS Bob Sanders is the most dangerous player of this group and obviously is a difference-maker. His instincts and toughness are contagious, and he provides a lot of versatility with his playmaking ability in the box as well as in coverage. Joining him is Antoine Bethea at the free safety position. He brings very good speed to the table. The Colts' cornerbacks consist of Kelvin Hayden and Marlin Jackson, who are good players for this scheme with their ability to recognize routes, maintain leverage on receivers and get into position to make plays on the ball. The Colts also have good depth with Tim Jennings and Dante Hughes. All of these players are tough and play with speed.
5. San Diego Chargers
This group could develop into one of the best in the coming years. Two-year CB Antonio Cromartie already is one of the premier cover men in the NFL, and he joins established veteran Quentin Jammer. This tandem gives the Chargers two of the better outside cover men. With first-round draft pick Antoine Cason figuring into the mix, the Chargers have three good cornerbacks who should match up well when they are facing multiple-receiver sets. Clinton Hart and Eric Weddle will provide a combination of youth and experience at the safety positions. Weddle is a good, young athlete who has range but lacks experience as a starter, while Hart provides experience and toughness.
6. Seattle Seahawks
Seattle made changes in its secondary last year to stabilize the free and strong safety positions. Bringing in experienced starters Deon Grant and Brian Russell through free agency gave the team the needed confidence on the back end to be much more aggressive up front. Both players have good instincts and are smart. Though Grant brings athletic ability and range, Russell is a sound overall player who is disciplined with his angles and assignments. On the outside, Marcus Trufant is a shut-down corner who went to the Pro Bowl last year. He can take away an opposing team's best receiver and hold coverage downfield. But the team isn't certain about its other side. Kelly Jennings is a former first-round draft pick who competes hard and has very good speed. But he will be pushed by backups Jordan Babineaux, Josh Wilson and Kevin Hobbs. Either way, the Seahawks have good depth, and the competition will only elevate the defense.
7. Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens have excellent talent in their secondary, but injuries last season raise some questions for the coming year. There is little doubt that Ed Reed and Chris McAlister are two of the better players at their positions. Because of the aggressiveness of this scheme, these players can challenge routes knowing that the front pressure will force the ball out of the quarterback's hands quickly. SS Dawan Landry has been a very productive complement to Reed in his first two years. Though Reed has outstanding range, instincts and ball skills, Landry has good size, toughness and tackling ability. A big question mark will be the RCB position, because Samari Rolle had some medical issues last year and the Ravens were forced to rely on some inexperienced backups. They added depth, experience and competition in the offseason with the addition of Frank Walker and Fabian Washington. Corey Ivy is also a good, experienced backup who is effective covering the slot.
8. Carolina Panthers
The Panthers have three returning starters in the secondary with LCB Chris Gamble, RCB Ken Lucas and SS Chris Harris. They also have quality depth with Richard Marshall as the No. 3 cornerback. Though Marshall easily could start for other teams, he is the nickel for now. There is some uncertainty as to who will be the starting free safety, but the competition will be good. Veteran Terrence Holt will compete with rookie third-round draft pick Charles Godfrey and second-year player Quinton Teal. Holt has the experience. Godfrey is known for his speed and tackling and can play cornerback. But Teal could make the decision tough before all is said and done. Either way, the Panthers have a good group of defensive backs who are versatile and well coached.
9. Denver Broncos
The Broncos' secondary features two outstanding corners in Champ Bailey and Dre Bly. Everyone knows Bailey has elite cover skills and playmaking ability. He can match up with any receiver in the league, and his side of the field is usually a dangerous area to attack. With Bly on the other side, quarterbacks need to make smart, accurate throws if they are to have success throwing to the outside. Veteran SS John Lynch is smart and tough. He can make adjustments quickly and is a very physical player. His range is descending, but his instincts allow him to be in good position. The Broncos have Hamza Abdullah at the free safety position and have added Marlon McCree for competition and depth. Overall, this is a solid group that should make more plays on the ball, especially if the pass rush is improved from last year.
10. Green Bay Packers
The Packers have two big, athletic corners who can play aggressive man coverage on the outside with Al Harris and Charles Woodson. Joining them on the back end are young emerging starters FS Nick Collins and SS Atari Bigby. This group proved last year it has the speed and athletic ability to match up well in coverage and still remain productive versus the run. Though an argument could be made for age becoming an issue on the outside, don't expect to see a quick drop-off from Harris and Woodson yet. The team also added youth and depth to the cornerback position with the addition of second-round draft pick Patrick Lee. Expect the Packers' secondary to build on the confidence it gained from last year's success.
12. Washington Redskins
The Redskins have a good blend of youth and experience. Starting LCB Shawn Springs is the veteran of the group and still functions well for his age, but is starting to lose some speed and mirror skills. On the opposite side Carlos Rogers is coming off a torn ACL/MCL, and while he has very good quickness and athletic ability when healthy, it remains to be seen how quickly he will regain the burst and closing skills he showed last season. If Rogers is not ready to go, experienced backup in Fred Smoot will be ready. LaRon Landry is one of the better young safeties in the league and is complemented nicely by Reed Doughty, who showed signs of being a solid starter last season after the loss of Sean Taylor. This is a good group when healthy, but there are some question marks due to age and injury.
16. New York Giants
The defending Super Bowl champs lost starting FS Gibril Wilson to free agency, but should be excited about the addition of rookie Kenny Phillips, who has a lot of upside thanks to his size, instincts and athletic ability. The Giants also added veteran SS Sammy Knight and his blend of toughness, leadership and experience. Knight should work well with James Butler until Phillips is ready to take over. The battle for the starting CB spots will be competitive with returning starters Aaron Ross and Corey Webster, veterans Sam Madison and R.W. McQuarters, the speedy Kevin Dockery and second-round pick Terrell Thomas giving the Giants a nice blend of youth and experience.