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Pre-season ranks of every secondary in the NFL using individual passer rating allowed

PFF ranked the Broncos 4th in their preseason secondary rankings. How do they rank if you use individual passer rating allowed for all five starters?

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NFL: Denver Broncos Training Camp Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

One of the coaches that was retained by Sean Payton for the 2023 season relative to 2022 was defensive back coach, Christian Parker. Parker will lead what PFF has ranked as the 4th best starting secondary in the league in their preseason rankings. With K’Waun Williams (32), Justin Simmons (30) and Kareem Jackson (35), it will also be one of the oldest starting secondary's in the league.

By starting secondary I am using the top three CBs and top safeties using that PFF lists. Note that some teams have slotted rookies into their starting secondary's for 2023. This study uses three CBs since most teams’ nickel CB plays “starter” levels of snaps in the modern NFL. This was not the case 25 years ago.

PFF did their ranking by looking at their overall grades, but those are as transparent as mud. I wanted to use a number that is fully understandable and for which the data can be shown. So I chose to use pass rating allowed. PFR lists the passer rating allowed for every defender in the league in their advanced stats. You can use this to see how many times the man that a defender was covering was targeted, along with how many catches, yards and TDs that defender allowed. Also how many interceptions the defender got. All the things that you need to calculate passer rating, except in this case it is not for a passer but for a defender.

Now one problem with this approach is that it fails to look at how frequently a DB was “thrown at” last season. Some of the putative starters for 2023 had very few coverage targets last season. This approach also does not take into account how the group of five DBs will play together. As we know all too well, a group of elite DBs who don’t communicate well or know their responsibilities can be much less than the sum of their individual parts.

So I grabbed the passer rating for all 160 putative starting DBs (32 x 5) for 2023. The seven rookies were just ignored since there is no way to know what they are going to be able to do in 2023 (many of the seven were first and second round picks). You can see the sorted table below with color coating. Some highly drafted DBs are immediately elite, like Sauce Gardner, while others take time to reach that level if they ever do.

The good teams seem to all be relatively close with very little separating the top two thirds of the league. See the table with the average for the secondary below.

Passer Rating-Base Rank Team AVERAGE for Secondary
1 DET 67.2
2 PIT 70.6
3 SEA 73.7
4 DAL 78.8
5 PHI 79.2
6 NYJ 79.9
7 BUF 82.7
8 CAR 83.3
9 BAL 84.0
10 HOU 84.1
11 NO 84.8
12 CLE 84.9
13 DEN 85.3
14 TEN 85.5
15 SF 89.9
16 CHI 90.4
17 WAS 91.6
18 TAM 91.7
19 JAX 92.0
20 NYG 93.6
21 NE 94.6
22 AZ 94.9
23 ATL 95.8
24 LAR 96.1
25 LAC 97.0
26 CIN 97.8
27 GB 99.3
28 MIA 101.3
29 MIN 103.6
30 LV 103.7
31 KC 103.9
32 IND 114.9

The Lions, Steelers and Seahawks from this analysis appear to have the three best secondary's in the league, but this highlights some of the failings of this method relative to PFFs opaque method. PFF ranks the Lions’ secondary as one of the worst in the league. Part of this is because of the inexperience of their S2 - Tracy Walker.

PFF Pre Rank 2023 starting secondaries CB1 CB2 CB3 S1 S2
1 NYJ Sauce Gardner DJ Reed Michael Carter Jordan Whitehead Chuck Clark
2 MIA Xavien Howard Jalen Ramsey Kader Kohou Jevon Holland DeShon Elliott
3 PHI Darius Slay James Bradberry Avonte Maddox Reed Blankenship Terrell Edmunds
4 DEN Patrick Surtain II Damarri Mathis K’Waun Williams Justin Simmons Kareem Jackson
5 BAL Marlon Humphrey Brandon Stephens Rock Ya-Sin Marcus Williams Kyle Hamilton
6 DAL Trevon Diggs Stephon Gilmore DaRon Bland Malik Hooker Donovan Wilson
7 KC LJarius Sneed Jaylen Watson Trent McDuffie Justin Reid Bryan Cook
8 CLE Denzel Ward Martin Emerson Greg Newsome II Juan Thornhill Grant Delpit
9 SF Charvarius Ward Deommodore Lenoir Myles Hartsfield Tashaun Gipson Talanoa Hufanga
10 BUF TreDavious White Kaiir Elam Taron Johnson Micah Hyde Jordan Poyer
11 WAS Kendall Fuller Emmanuel Forbes Benjamin St-Juste Darrick Forrest Kamren Curl
12 NE Christian Gonzalez Jonathan Jones Myles Bryant Adrian Phillips Kyle Dugger
13 TAM Jamel Dean Carlton Davis Zyon McCollum Antoine Winfield Ryan Neal
14 LAC Asante Samuel Jr. Michael Davis J.C. Jackson Alohi Gilman Derwin James
15 CIN Chidobe Awuzie Cam Taylor-Britt Mike Hilton Nick Scott Daxton Hill
16 GB Jaire Alexander Rasul Douglas Eric Stokes Rudy Ford Darnell Savage
17 SEA Tariq Woolen Devon Witherspoon Coby Bryant Quandre Diggs Jamal Adams
18 PIT Patrick Peterson Joey Porter Levi Wallace Minkah Fitzpatrick Damontae Kazee
19 NO Marshon Lattimore Paulson Adebo Bradley Roby Marcus Maye Tyrann Mathieu
20 CHI Jaylon Johnson Tyrique Stevenson Kyler Gordon Eddie Jackson Jaquan Brisker
21 CAR Jaycee Horn CJ Henderson Jeremy Chinn Xavier Wood Vonn Bell
22 DET Emmanuel Moseley Cameron Sutton C.J. Gardner-Johnon Kerby Joseph Tracy Walker
23 ATL AJ Terrell Jeff Okudah Mike Hughes Jessie Bates III Richie Grant
24 NYG Adoree' Jackson Deonte Banks Darnay Holmes Xavier McKinney Bobby McCain
25 MIN Andrew Booth Akayleb Evans Byron Murphy Camryn Bynum Harrison Smith
26 TEN Kristian Fulton Sean Murphy-Bunting Roger McCreary Kevin Byard Amani Hooker
27 JAX Tyson Campbell Darious Williams Tre Herndon Andre Cisco Rayshawn Jenkins
28 HOU Derek Stingley Steven Nelson Desmond King Jalen Pitre Jimmie Ward
29 AZ Antonio Hamilton Marco Wilson Isaiah Simmons Jalen Thompson Budda Baker
30 LV Duke Shelley David Long Nate Hobbs Tre'von Moehrig Marcus Epps
31 IND Isaiah Rodgers Julius Brents Kenny Moore Rodney Thomas Julian Blackmon
32 LAR Derion Kendrick Robert Rochell Cobie Durant Russ Yeast Jordan Fuller

By passer rating and on paper the Denver Broncos appear to have a much better secondary than the rest of the AFC West. This mostly jives with PFF but PFF really likes the Chiefs 2023 secondary ranking them 7th in their preseason rankings. Using average PR allowed in 2022 they rank 31st. This is what PFF has to say about the KC secondary for 2023

The defending Super Bowl champs have an underrated and overlooked secondary due to the attention Patrick Mahomes and company get, but this is a sound unit that is coordinated very well by Steve Spagnuolo.

Trent McDuffie came on strong in the second half of his rookie season, earning a 75.1 coverage grade, and he gave a boost to a group that was already playing well together.

One of the reasons why passer rating allowed makes the KC secondary look so bad as that one of the starting safeties, Bryan Cook, allowed a passer rating of 138.7 last year. Yet somehow this only dropped him to a grade of 64.2 as his overall grade at PFF. Admittedly, Cook was a rookie last season and played like it as times in coverage. His man was targeted 20 times and he allowed 14 catches for 186 yards and 3 TDs. This was in 342 defensive snaps last season. Cook had two pass breakups and zero interceptions. According to SIS he was on the field for 261 passing plays.

For comparison, the other expected starting safety for KC, Justin Reid, had 642 pass play snaps last season. He has six pass breakups and also had zero INTs. Reid’s man was targeted 58 times with 37 catches for 388 yards and 4 TDs. It would appear that Steve Spagnuolo did a good job of protecting the rookie so that he didn’t get “picked on” during the 261 passing plays he played in 2022. Thirteen snaps per target is a decent ratio. Particularly when you compare it to fellow 2022 rookie, Damarri Mathis, whose guy was targeted 88 times in 454 passing play snaps - or one target for every five passing plays.


Where would you rank the Broncos expected 2023 starting secondary?

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  • 43%
    top 4
    (131 votes)
  • 43%
    top 8
    (130 votes)
  • 9%
    (29 votes)
  • 1%
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  • 1%
    bottom quartile
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