Ranking The AFC West Secondaries: How Do The Chargers Stack Up?
My colleague Chase and I will be ranking each position group in the AFC West over the next few weeks as a fun but hopefully insightful offseason exercise now that each roster is essentially complete. He ranked wide receivers earlier in the week, and today I’ll be examining where each secondary stands within the division. This will include each team’s top four cornerbacks and three safeties. I felt that including both position groups was a better way to get a true comparison, especially since so many teams are shifting more towards positionless players in the defensive backfields. (* denotes a new addition outside of the draft, (R) denotes a relevant draft pick.)
Las Vegas Raiders: Rock Ya-Sin*, Nate Hobbs, Trayvon Mullen, Anthony Averett*, Johnathan Abram, Trevon Moehrig, Duron Harmon*
The Raiders were heavily linked to just about every notable free agent cornerback and struck out every time. Casey Hayward experienced a resurgence in Las Vegas last season and was by far their best cornerback on the roster. Still, they let him walk for pennies on the dollar opting to put their eggs in that free agent basket. Trading for Ya-Sin is a decent backup plan but their cornerback room leaves much to be desired. The top four isn’t filled with terrible players by any means but it’s very difficult to get away with solid at best cornerbacks in today’s NFL, especially in a scheme that will ask them be left in isolation much more than any of them are used to – except Averett who was always on an island in Baltimore’s hyper-aggressive scheme.
Moehrig was one of my favorite safeties in his draft class and I think he could be in for a breakout season, but he’s really the only defensive back that has high upside in this group. Abram has proven to be one of the worst coverage safeties in the league at this point in his career, and is probably on his last leg on the Raiders since they didn’t pick up his fifth year-option. Harmon just had the best season of his career at age 30 while playing on an awful Falcons team. Former Charger Roderic Teamer is still there and could challenge Harmon for snaps but that’s about it. This group isn’t awful, but there’s nothing special here either.
Kansas City Chiefs: Trent McDuffie (R), L’Jarius Sneed, Rashad Fenton, Deandre Baker, Justin Reid*, Juan Thornhill, Bryan Cook (R)
I think you could certainly make an argument that the Chiefs secondary belongs lower on this list than the Raiders’ group, especially after losing Tyrann Mathieu and Charvarius Ward to free agency. However, I think you could also argue that the Chiefs did enough of a soft reset to actually improve the group if the new guys are performing at their best.
The comparison for me ultimately comes down to ceiling vs floor. As you might recall, I advocated for the Chargers to sign Ward and I think he has another gear to get to as a cornerback in a similar way that Michael Davis did/does if you think about the way we were all talking about him after the 2020 season. That being said, I think McDuffie has the ceiling to be a low-end number one corner in this league, which is a higher gear than Ward can get to in my opinion. I don’t think McDuffie will ever be a top tier cornerback due to his physical limitations but if he hits the ground running than I think he could be an immediate upgrade over Ward’s 2021 play. I like the mid-round, long term addition of Joshua Williams as well.
The Chiefs will miss the leadership of the Honey Badger, and Daniel Sorensen to a (significantly) lesser extent but I can’t fault them for wanting to get younger, cheaper and more athletic in their safety room with the additions of Reid and Cook. I really like the balance of that room with Reid’s ability to be a physical in the box presence, Thornhill as a center fielder (and with another year of recovery under his belt), and Cook as a potential slot cover player who can also do some of their in the box stuff as well.
Denver Broncos: Patrick Surtain II, Ronald Darby, K’Waun Williams*, Michael Ojemudia, Justin Simmons, Kareem Jackson, Caden Sterns
The Broncos are in a similar range as the Chargers with two starts at each of these position groups. And if you were taking this from a team building or value perspective, I could certainly understand placing the Broncos group in first place. Potentially getting elite play from any player that is on a rookie contract still, such as Surtain in this case, is tremendously valuable to an NFL franchise. The Chargers are benefitting a lot from that with Justin Herbert and Rashawn Slater. Surtain was drafted for his potential to be a true shutdown corner and I think he lived up to the billing right away. If it weren’t for some truly historic pass rush numbers from Micah Parsons, Surtain likely would have won Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2021.
Many people around the league have argued that Simmons is the best safety in the sport, and I certainly think he belongs in the conversation. He has been one of the most consistent turnover producers in the league at the position over the last three years and has 21 total for his career since entering the league in 2016.
Outside of Surtain and Simmons, the Broncos have two really good veteran corners in Darby and Williams, a quality veteran safety in Jackson. And then a few young players like Sterns, and 2021 draft pick Damarri Mathis who I liked quite a bit that they are hoping will be contributors this year. I think there is a significant gap between the Broncos and the two teams mentioned above in this regard.
Los Angeles Chargers: J.C. Jackson*, Asante Samuel Jr., Bryce Callahan*, Michael Davis, Derwin James, Nasir Adderley, J.T. Woods (R)
When you type out all the names, it really is crazy to see how far the Chargers secondary has come. Last year, you’d probably list Chris Harris Jr. second and Tevaughn Campbell fourth. You’d also list Alohi Gilman as the third safety. Harris was a good veteran signing in theory but obviously didn’t pan out the way anyone would have hoped, and he is still a free agent. Campbell will likely make the roster still in my opinion but he’s behind Callahan in the pecking order. Gilman will be in a battle to make the roster along with Mark Webb for the fourth safety spot, and I would bet on Webb winning that battle.
If I had done this list last year, I probably would have had the Chargers at second behind the Broncos. Maybe even third behind the Chiefs with Mathieu. (The Raiders would have stayed n last place.) Them being first this year is about two things: 1) the comparisons between Simmons and Surtain vs Jackson and James and 2) the depth behind each respective team’s stars.
Of course, it could be a little unfair to compare Jackson in his fourth season to Surtain in his first, but that’s the name of the game. Jackson was targeted 18 more times than Surtain last year and allowed a reception on just 52% of the time, compared to 57% for Surtain. Both players allowed three touchdowns when targeted, but Jackson had a significant edge in ball production. Last year he came down with eight interceptions and broke up 12 more passes on top of that. Surtain had four interceptions and broke up eight other passes. Due to that production, Jackson’s passer rating when targeted was a mere 52.4 on the season – 13 percentage points higher than that of Surtain. Again, Surtain’s numbers are insane for a rookie corner but Jackson predictably edges him out in every major category.
Judging safety play has always been so much more subjective than cornerback due to the in the box and outside of the box nature of the position group. Whether you’re talking about Ed Reed vs Troy Polamalu or Simmons vs James, it largely depends on what kind of style you prefer. I’m going to argue for James because I believe he simply gives you more areas of production. He can play the run in the box, rush the passer, cover tight ends or even your team’s best wide receiver like he did against the likes of Darren Waller or CeeDee Lamb, and also play as a center field in the deep parts of the field – and do it all at an elite level.
After their two stars, the Chargers have as much depth in the secondary as they’ve ever had. Samuel struggled with the two concussions, but he was flashing some high level cornerback ability before those popped up. If he can stay healthy, he should take a big leap forward in year two. He’ll also have Callahan, another high quality depth piece, to lean on as a potential prototype for his long term future as an inside/outside hybrid player. Then of course you have Davis who has shown in the past that he could be at least a mid-level second cornerback on the team. That’s easily a top five or six group of four cornerbacks in the league, in my opinion. Add in the potential of Woods and Webb to backup James and Adderley, and that equals the best secondary in the AFC West. (I would peg the Baltimore Ravens as the best secondary in the league, for what it’s worth.)