In this series we’ll rank the positional groups for each of the thirteen teams on the Patriots’ 2017 regular season schedule. We’ll start at the core of the defensive front seven and work outward throughout the defense. Then we’ll do the same for the offense, ultimately finishing at the quarterback position.
With the addition of Brandin Cooks to the Patriots’ Super Bowl-winning cast of offensive weapons, opposing corners will certainly have their hands full in 2017.
There are thirteen cornerback groups tasked with stopping New England’s relentless passing attack this season. Here’s where each of those opponents ranks.
1. Denver Broncos
Denver’s dynamic duo of Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr. predictably propels this unit to the top of this ranking. As has been the case for the past few seasons, this is the best cornerback group that Tom Brady and the Patriots will face in 2017. A return of fourth-year corner Bradley Roby to the form he showed in 2014 or 2015 would create an even larger gap between this Broncos group and the second place unit on this list.
2. Los Angeles Chargers
The Chargers’ penultimate ranking is contingent upon the return of Jason Verrett to the starting lineup by the start of the regular season. The 2015 Pro Bowler has yet to be cleared for team drills. After spending four seasons in Green Bay, Casey Hayward signed a three-year deal and immediately produced a Pro Bowl season in 2016. The arrival of new Defensive Coordinator Gus Bradley’s zone-heavy scheme should be a perfect fit for the Bolts’ veteran ball-hawker.
3. Atlanta Falcons
The recent recipient of a massive new contract extension, 2015 Pro Bowler Desmond Trufant will again join forces with Robert Alford, Jalen Collins, and Brian Poole to form one of the NFC’s deepest cornerback groups.
4. Pittsburgh Steelers
It may shock some football fans around New England to know that the Pittsburgh Steelers secondary is not constructed entirely out of cardboard cutouts in the shape of Mel Blount, Carnell Lake, and Troy Polamalu. They are real, actual NFL players — ones who simply have no answer for Tom Brady and the Patriots’ offense on an annual basis. In fact, veteran William Gay and fourth-year player Ross Cockrell have stabilized a once erratic cornerback unit. A big step forward this season from 2016 first-round pick Artie Burns would certainly go a long way in ensuring another deep playoff run for the Steelers.
5. Kansas City Chiefs
Since being drafted eighteenth overall in 2015, two-time Pro Bowler and 2016 first-team All-Pro Marcus Peters has already notched fourteen interceptions. Despite Kansas City’s inability to find a second suitable starting outside corner, this unit’s ranking is carried by Peters’ talent alone. Phillip Gaines, who failed to secure the job in 2016, and former practice squad member Terrance Mitchell are the likely contenders for the available starting gig. Serviceable slot corner Steven Nelson should resume his role on the interior in 2017.
6. Miami Dolphins
Number one corner Byron Maxwell, an easy mark for criticism in years past, is coming off of a strong year in 2016. Xavien Howard, a second-round selection out of Baylor last season, saw his rookie season marred by a nagging knee injury. However, many around the Dolphins feel his upside in through the roof.
7. New Orleans Saints
The pairing of talented rookie Marshon Lattimore with a healthy Delvin Breaux, who missed most of 2016 with a season-ending shoulder injury, has the potential to be a dynamic, top-five corner tandem.
8. Oakland Raiders
Oakland opted for Ohio State’s Gareon Conley in the first round of the draft on the heels of pedestrian seasons from Sean Smith and David Amerson, a duo that carries an $18 million combined cap commitment in 2017. Raiders fans will point to Smith’s solid PFF grade as a sign that the Conley selection was more luxury than necessity. Whether you believe in the quality of the Raiders’ cornerback personnel or not, there is no hiding the fact that Oakland's overall pass defense finished the 2016 season ranked 25th in DVOA.
9. Carolina Panthers
There had to have been quite the surge in Google user engagement in the greater Charlotte,NC area after the Panthers selected little-known James Bradberry from Samford University with the sixty-second overall pick in last year’s draft. Bradberry’s rookie campaign turned out to be one of the best in the draft class. Fellow 2016 rookie Daryl Worley, taken in the third round out of West Virginia, contributed admirably alongside Bradberry and feisty veteran Captain Munnerlyn, who entes his ninth year in the league. Despite solid production from this underrated group in 2016, the loss of elite corner Josh Norman was still reflected in their drop from second to eleventh in DVOA year-over-year.
10. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The resurgence of Brent Grimes was a major boost for this unit last season. However, offenses simply looked elsewhere in the Buccaneers’ secondary knowing there were consistent mismatches to found. Too often those offenses honed in on rookie Vernon Hargreaves III. He’ll look to rebound from a less-than-stellar rookie season.
11. Houston Texans
Former first-round pick Kevin Johnson looks to make a healthy return this season. He joins veteran Johnathon Joseph on the outside with Kareem Jackson’s potential move to safety. The only factor softening the blow of A.J. Bouye’s departure to Jacksonville is the return of J.J. Watt to the league’s best front-seven.
12. Buffalo Bills
Ronald Darby’s sophomore season decline leaves room for improvement for this unit, as does the selection of first-rounder Tre’Davious White out of LSU. However, the unit is extremely thin as players like Shareece Wright, Kevon Seymour, and former Patriot Leonard Johnson all vie for roles in 2017.
13. New York Jets
The addition of Morris Claiborne does nothing to keep this unit from the basement of this list. It’s going to be another long season for Jets fans.
How would you rank these units?