Hold onto your horses, because there's a shakeup in the 2020 NFL defensive back rankings. Attempting to narrow the list of both cornerbacks and, separately, safeties is a daunting undertaking -- considering the number of nuances that exist from player to player and team to team. For example, when you think of the top cornerbacks in the league, surely names like Marshon Lattimore and Stephon Gilmore come to mind, along with a list of others, but then comes the factoring in of scheme, resumé, athletic ability, age and potential; making for a much more muddied puddle.
The same applies to the safety position, because of course there are obvious names like Jamal Adams and Earl Thomas, but who's rapidly climbing the ranks alongside the former? And what other elder statesmen, like Thomas, are fighting tooth-and-nail to hold them off to remain in the top-10 going forward? By the way, and I'm sure this is a news flash, but there are two different safety positions -- so apples-to-apples comparisons are often (although not completely) not possible.
In the end, there can only be 10 names sitting atop the mountain at both positions, and even those who just missed the cut had a solid chance of making it. That's how narrow the margin of error was in compiling the following two lists, but it was also fun to consider the curveballs that found their way into certain unexpected spots.
What do I mean by curveballs? Well, take a look and see for yourself.
[Ranking Toolbox: Accolades/Resumé, Value to respective team, Potential, Durability, Athletic Ability]
First ones out: Casey Hayward, Marlon Humphrey
Honorable mention: Kevin King, Janoris Jenkins, Desmond Trufant
King has finally found his groove for the Green Bay Packers, and shows great promise for the future, but hasn't quite done enough to crack the top 10. Both Jenkins and Trufant have accolades, unlike King at the moment, and credit must be given to the former for landing five interceptions in 2019 despite having to do so for two different teams -- one of which having been the abysmal New York Giants. Still, while mention is warranted and while both are key pieces for their respective teams going forward, you'd be hard-pressed to name them over anyone who did make the final cut.
As for Hayward and Humphrey, as so well-deserving as they both are, it's a list of 10 -- not 11 or 12.
10. Marshon Lattimore, Saints
You'd like to see more interceptions from Lattimore, yes, but film will quickly tell you why.
After bursting out of the gate with five interceptions as a rookie, word quickly got around that the former 11th-overall pick was not the guy to target. He landed a Pro Bowl nod in his first year along with NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, and having only one interception in 2019 didn't stop him from garnering a second Pro Bowl honor. That's because he allowed only a 50 percent completion rate last season on 88 targets -- serving notice that as the Saints resident shutdown corner, he's as dangerous as he's ever been, INTs or not.
9. Chris Harris, Jr., Chargers
New uniform, yes, but you can bet it's the same Harris coming at you in 2020.
The long-time Broncos terror climbed his way out of the ranks of the undrafted in 2011 to become a four-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro corner in Denver, helping lift the club to a Super Bowl victory in the process. As he readies to suit up at SoFi Stadium, he does so with a seriously large chip on his shoulder, looking to prove wrong those who think he's somehow taken a step back entering his 10th season. With the assistance of Hayward -- who could've easily swapped places with him on this list -- the Chargers are set up to enjoy the best version of Harris. Will he end up being top dog in Los Angeles over Hayward? Well, let's find out in 2020.
8. Xavien Howard, Dolphins
Howard is key to what Brian Flores is building in Miami.
The 26-year-old and former second-round pick is one of the best in the league at what he does, and it's not up for debate. Howard is only a season removed from having seven (!!) interceptions, which followed up a previously career-best four in 2017, and quarterbacks only completed 52.4 percent of their passes in 2018 when they targeted him. Howard saw his INT tally dwindle to only one in 2019, yes, but that was due to a knee injury that landed him on injured reserve and not because he's a flash in the pan. He's a cornerstone player any team would be lucky to have, but one the Dolphins plan on keeping for a long time.
7. Tre'Davious White, Bills
This is only a curveball to those who haven't watched White play.
The former LSU star is living up to his status as a former first-round pick for Buffalo, being named to the PFWA All-Rookie Team in his first year. He'd turn in four interceptions that season, but that's not the only way he takes the ball away. White has been known to force fumbles and also get after the quarterback as an assist in blitz situations, adding to the prowess that saw him awarded both a Pro Bowl and First-Team All-Pro honor in 2019 -- as the NFL interceptions co-leader and one who's consistently been a lighthouse for the Bills defense.
Not many can lay claim to having 12 INTs in their first three years and an average allowed completion percentage of only 52.4 percent over the last two, and White is seemingly just getting started.
6. Byron Jones, Dolphins
Jones is the highest-paid defensive back in NFL history, but some can't figure out why that is.
Allow me to help by pointing out, as stated previously in this list, while interceptions are celebrated -- for good reason -- when an elite corner lacks them, it's time to do some digging to find out why. The Dolphins know the reason, and that's why they had no problem giving him a historic contract, and the Dallas Cowboys know why as well -- although their purse strings were too tight to put them in his free agency conversation after having spent a first-round pick on him five seasons ago. The bottom line is Jones was coached to cover and not take away the ball, but his time at UConn proved he can do both.
He routinely shuts down half of the field and is rarely thrown at, as evidenced by permitting just 6.2 yards (!!) per target in 2019, making the tandem of Jones and Howard a lethal one in Miami.
5. Patrick Peterson, Cardinals
Until further notice, Peterson is a top-5 cornerback in the NFL.
Sure, he's no spring chicken like some others on this list -- set to turn 30 before the 2020 season gets underway -- but if you're looking for someone who cares more about age than production and value, you've come to the wrong place. Peterson is an eight-time Pro Bowler and three-time First-Team All-Pro who's also listed to the NFL 2010s All-Decade Team, still racking up numbers ahead of his 10th season and still very much the No. 1 cornerback in Arizona. He might not boast the INT tally of some others, but he has only one season wherein he's reeled in fewer than two, and he remains a PBU machine.
If you have a top-10 list of corners in the NFL and Peterson isn't in the top half of it, take it out back and kill it with fire.
4. Jalen Ramsey, Rams
Ramsey is supposed to be higher on this list, and probably will be again in 2021.
The problem for Ramsey obviously has nothing to do with talent, but rather a stumble in 2019 thanks to his public and tumultuous divorce with the Jacksonville Jaguars that led to missed games (was he truly injured?) and overall an unsettled season as he tried to quickly acclimate to what Sean McVay and the Rams needed him to immediately be. His lone interception was a career-worst -- as was his tally of 50 combined tackles and 66.2 completion percentage allowed -- but with a full training camp to come (assuming it does arrive, because COVID-19), it stands to reason the All-Pro and three-time Pro Bowl corner will be much more comfy in his new digs this season, which should set him up to bounce back.
To land at No. 4 on this list though, despite the earthquake beneath his feet in 2019, is a hint at how much of a game-changer he has been in his career and can/will be again in the future.
3. Joe Haden, Steelers
You didn't expect to see Haden ranked this high, but he is, nonetheless.
Haden regained prime form in 2019, and landed his third Pro Bowl nod in the process. Once seen as the beacon of the Cleveland Browns defense -- which carried that much more weight before they added the ton of pass rush talent -- it didn't take long for him to hit the ground running with the Steelers back in 2017. He's now grabbed seven interceptions in the last two seasons, five of which came in 2019 in a career-best campaign, along with 65 combined tackles and 17 pass break ups. If you're a QB targeting Haden, you're asking for trouble. He routinely locks down the opposing team's best wide receiver, and having Minkah Fitzpatrick patrolling behind him truly freed him up to do the damage he's now doing in Pittsburgh.
Haden allowed on 5.9 yards per target in 2019 and averages lower than a 52 percent completion rate when testes -- insane numbers that nudged him past Ramsey on this list.
2. Marcus Peters, Ravens
All Peters does is great things.
The Rams would've theoretically loved to pair him with Ramsey for the long-term, but their cap situation simply wouldn't allow it, considering they gave up two first-rounders and a fourth-rounder for the right to sign him to what will eventually be a deal that surpasses Byron Jones as the highest-paid corner in NFL history. Still, Peters was productive in his final stint with the Rams and didn't miss a beat after being traded to the Ravens in 2019. All he did was deliver three interceptions, 10 pass breaks ups and two defensive touchdowns in only nine starts, going on to land a three-year, $42 million extension from Baltimore in the process. At his peak, for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2015, Peters had eight interceptions, two touchdowns and 26 (!!) pass break ups as a rookie (pause for absorption).
With the upgrades made to the Baltimore defense in 2020 and a full offseason to learn the Ravens' system, Peters has a clear path to challenging Humphrey as the No. 1 corner in Baltimore, which is a great "problem" for Harbaugh to have.
1. Stephon Gilmore, Patriots
There can only be one king, and Gilmore is it going into 2020.
The veteran is already seeing comparisons between him and Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders, and it stands to logic he'll continue to dominate going forward. Gilmore was already elite heading into 2019, having been a two-time Pro Bowler and First-Team All-Pro before going on an absolute tear last season en route to another Pro Bowl and First-Team All-Pro nod. Tying for most interceptions in the league (6) with Tre'Davious White (hey, there's that name again) and Minnesota Vikings safety Anthony Harris, Gilmore also had two defensive touchdowns and 20 pass deflections -- on a Patriots team whose offense looked like a shell of its former self, forcing Gilmore to fuel wins on a weekly basis. Even more impressive is it was his second consecutive season of 20 PBUs, revealing just how everywhere on the field he truly is. An allowed completion percentage of 48.4 and 50.5 in the last two seasons, respectively, is yet another reason opposing QBs loathe him so.
Yet, they keep targeting him -- a total of 196 times in his last 32 regular season games -- essentially daring him to stop them. And, time and again, he does just that, right before he adjusts his crown on his way to the Gatorade.
First ones out: Eddie Jackson, Xavier Woods, Tre Boston
Honorable mention: Buddha Baker, Jonathan Abram
10. Earl Thomas, Ravens
Father Time is knocking.
Let's be clear in explaining how Thomas remains one of the best at the position, though his armor was dented heavily as the 2019 season rolled along. That said, I'd be remiss to not include him in the top-10 in 2020, even if it's a placeholder to see if he can regain his form this coming season. Given his resume, he's earned that much, having battled back from two broken legs to remain one of the best safeties in the sport. Slotting Thomas here did cost Jackson a slot, which was far from an easy decision, but the future Hall of Famer is still performing at a high level overall, and he's added QB pressure to his arsenal -- having delivered a career-first two sacks for the Ravens last season. It'll be interesting to see if he takes a step back soon but, for now, he's still Earl Thomas.
9. Kevin Byard, Titans
There are still some who have no idea who Byard is, and that's a shame.
Sure, there are more popular names in bigger markets that overshadow his brand, but what he does on the field speaks for itself on any given week. Byard is a First-Team All-Pro relegated to being dominant in a mostly overlooked Nashville market, but dominant he most certainly is. The 26-year-old hawks balls like he was born with feathers, having not gone without grabbing an interception since his rookie season in 2016. His last three years in the league have seen him reel in eight, four and five INTs, respectively, along with having 37 pass break ups for his career. Also used in blitz packages from time to time, Byard is only a season removed from having two sacks and five hits on the quarterback, which proves he can basically do it all.
8. Derwin James, Chargers
Speaking of someone who can do it all -- hello Derwin.
If you're wondering why James is in the bottom half of this list, it's because of one thing and one thing only. A stress fracture in his right foot derailed his second season in the NFL, landing him on injured reserve. If not for that setback, James moves up on the list fairly easily, when considering what he does for the Chargers. The former 17th-overall pick didn't waste any time living up to his draft status, starting in all 16 games and pulling down three interceptions while adding 13 pass break ups, 3.5 sacks and 105 combined tackles to a rookie season that saw him land an appearance in the Pro Bowl and a nod as First-Team All-Pro. A healthy James will again change games in 2020, and likely see his name ranked much higher come 2021.
7. Devin McCourty, Patriots
Gilmore wasn't the only one carrying the defense in New England.
McCourty was right there aiding him, by way of protecting his backside against deep threats from speedy wideouts and/or tight ends who might've gotten free. While not as youthful as others on this list, the 32-year-old has been an impact player for a long time and has three Super Bowl rings to show for it, having never played for anyone but the Patriots since they drafted him with the 27th-overall pick in 2010. Like Byard, although McCourty didn't land another Pro Bowl or All-Pro honor for his work done in 2019, he was very much in the conversation with five interceptions -- a mark not easily achieved by a safety. So as the new guard like James begin staking their claim at the position, McCourty is showing the old guard isn't exactly giving in to Father Time.
6. Justin Simmons, Broncos
Denver waved goodbye to Chris Harris, but Simmons is still very much on the job.
The challenge for Simmons on this list wasn't lacking in any category, but more so being a victim of the dynamic duo in Minnesota, which I'll discuss in a moment. If not for the Vikings defensive backfield, Simmons is in the top five with a bullet, and for a laundry list of good reasons. The 26-year-old is a former third-round pick that has played far above his pay grade since entering the league in 2016, which is why the Broncos franchise tagged him for 2020 as they attempt to hash out terms on a long-term deal. He's not missed a game since 2017 and delivered 11 interceptions in his career, and his 17 pass break ups in 2019 is inhuman for a guy who sees more than his fair share of snaps as a box safety. Cap this all off with an allowed completion rate of only 52.8 percent in 2019 -- a vast improvement over the 71.1 percent from a year prior -- and it's not hard to see where Simmons' career is headed.
5. Anthony Harris, Vikings
Now, for the dynamic duo I referenced a moment ago.
It's an embarrassment of riches defensively in Minnesota, who won't feel any portion of a hangover after giving cornerback Xavier Rhodes his walking papers in 2020. Why? Because Harris is one-half of a safety combo that downright dares opposing QBs to throw the ball down the field. For as impressive as it is to see a safety grab five interceptions, Harris raised the stakes by hauling in six, making him co-interceptions leader in 2019 with two of the top-10 cornerbacks in the NFL. It was double the production in the category from an impactful 2018, and he added 14 more tackles to his bottom line in the process. Throwing the ball anywhere in Harris' vicinity is utter madness, because he flies all over the field and has the play recognition to beat receivers to the spot, making him exceedingly difficult to fool on a regular basis.
The fact he didn't land a Pro Bowl nod in 2019 is, at minimum, borderline criminal.
4. Harrison Smith, Vikings
And now, for the other half of the equation in Minny.
Smith, a five-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro, is only two seasons removed from having been ranked as the third-best player in the entire NFL by PFF, and has since been named to the PFF 2010s All-Decade Team for his continued dominance since landing with the Vikings in 2012 as their 29th-overall pick. It's no small wonder Harris is blasting off beside him, considering what's being learned and absorbed from Smith. In eight NFL seasons, Smith has only gone one with less than two interceptions (2016), and he followed that up with 11 INTs and 29 pass break ups over the last three campaigns. He's also not afraid to get his hands dirty, punishing targets as needed as one of the more prolific tacklers on the Vikings roster -- often ranking second in the category while leading in others.
Though he's now on the other side of 30, there's a ton of fuel left in this rocket.
3. Jamal Adams, Jets
Adams wants to be the highest-paid safety in NFL history, and he deserves it.
Those who label Adams simply a box safety are either not paying attention or watching Jets games with their back turned to the television, because he's so much more than his positional label. Adams covers with the best of them, and actually better than most of the best of them. Yes, because he's mostly tasked with operating in the box, you won't see gawdy INT numbers; but that's not the whole story of Adams as he tries desperately to lead a mostly unsuccessful and constantly changing Jets team. The former sixth-overall pick (2017) has already earned two Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors in only three seasons of service, earned by racking up 25 pass deflections and 273 (!!) combined tackles since entering the league, both contrasting tidbits displaying an equal ability to both cover and deliver play-ending hits -- the latter being as roaming defensive back or one who assists in run support.
Adams is arguably the best safety in the league and tops many lists, but two players edge him out here, albeit barely.
2. Minkah Fitzpatrick, Steelers
It takes a lot to best Adams on this list, but Fitzpatrick is up to the task.
Transplanting from one team to another in the middle of the season usually carries its own set of hiccups, and no one would've blamed Fitzpatrick if he suffered a few, only he did just the opposite. After being traded from the Dolphins to the Steelers, the former 11th-overall pick slingshotted himself into the conversation for best safety in the league. He didn't miss a beat after an impressive two-interception, 80-tackle rookie season in 2018. More accurately stated, he unleashed a Super Saiyan-esque level that saw him more than double his INT tally -- including a 96-yard defensive touchdown -- and punched free two fumbles while recovering another three, with one FR turning into a second defensive TD on his way to First-Team All-Pro honors and a Pro Bowl appearance. Fitzpatrick has a rare athletic ability that allows him to play both safety and corner, depending upon the call from the sideline, and he excels in either/both capacities.
For my money, there's only one safety in the entire league who can best Fitzpatrick at all he does.
1. Tyrann Mathieu, Chiefs
There's no honey in this badger, folks.
Winning his first-ever Super Bowl in 2019 was the culmination of a career's worth of stellar work, even though it also involved teams recently making the ill-advised decision to let him walk. All Mathieu does is change games and, like Fitzpatrick, he does it in a variety of ways. What sets Mathieu apart, however, is just how long he's been stellar at his craft -- since entering the NFL as a member of the Arizona Cardinals in 2013. And for all he excels at, what's often lost is that he's a former third-round pick, and not someone who was selected with a premium pick and expected to take over the league. And yet, here we are seven years later, with Mathieu being a key reason the Chiefs ended a half-century long championship drought, his four interceptions, 75 combined tackles and 12 pass break ups in the regular season helping them to secure home field advantage.
Those numbers were good enough to see him awarded another First-Team All-Pro honor to go along with his shiny new ring, and he earned both as much as he earned the right to top this list. For whether you need a free safety, strong safety or nickel corner -- this former Tiger is ... well ... great.
Word to Tony and his Frosted Flakes.