The secondary is one of the most important positional units in the NFL today, and some would say that it is the second or third most important behind the quarterback and, possibly, the offensive line. It’s interesting to note that the teams regarded as the top five in the league (the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers, Denver Broncos, New England Patriots, and New Orleans Saints…in no particular order) all have top-notch secondaries, but even they have a pressing question heading into the 2014 season. These questions aren’t necessarily “weaknesses” (I’m not talking about “question marks”), because they can be about a rookie’s ability to make an impact or a player’s ability to break out.
Can Duron Harmon be an adequate starter for the New England Patriots?
There’s no doubt that the Patriots have an elite secondary, and they are right there with the Seahawks for the best defensive backfield in the league. Second-year pro Duron Harmon was a surprise pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, but he looked solid last season in limited snaps as a rookie. He won’t be limited any longer after Steve Gregory‘s release, as the Patriots opted against drafting a safety. They did reunite with Patrick Chung, but he’s a “Plan B” veteran after his disastrous 2013 season with the Philadelphia Eagles. Even if he ends up starting at some point, his injury history tells us that it’s only a matter of time before Harmon is back in there. The Rutgers product looks like a solid all-around player, and his job will be to make plays in the running game while providing solid coverage at the same time. He doesn’t have to be great with great players around him, so all the Patriots are asking is for him to be at least average. I think he can manage that, and he should be a safer player than Gregory (less missed tackles, blown coverages).
Will Calvin Pryor make a big impact as a rookie?
You could ask any number of questions about the New York Jets secondary (Dimitri Patterson and Dee Milliner come to mind as interesting talking points), but my focus is on Louisville Cardinals product Calvin Pryor. I did an in-depth film breakdown on him before the draft, and he strikes me as someone who is very much a boom-or-bust rookie. The team’s first-round pick, Pryor can play as either a free or strong safety, but he’ll be the Jets starting strong safety next year. He should be an upgrade over Dawan Landry in coverage due to his ball skills, but he looks better in zone than in man and covers like an FS. That said, he is a hulking presence akin to LaRon Landry in run defense, as he blows up plays like a linebacker. He needs to cut down on his missed tackles, because his aggressive style of play can turn into recklessness, as he tends to walk a fine line. Pryor is one of those guys who could make a huge splash as a rookie, but he could just as easily do more harm than good as a rookie while he develops in this league.
Could the Buffalo Bills have one of the league’s best cornerback duos?
Stephon Gilmore was a revelation as a first-round rookie, but his 2013 season wasn’t anything to write home about, as he had to recover from a major injury. Meanwhile, Leodis McKelvin continued his progress from 2012 to turn in an exceptional 2013 season under defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. I feel like McKelvin shed the “bust” label the previous season as a result of some quality coverage on top of his special teams ability, but the former first-round pick looks like a true late-bloomer after last season’s success. Jairus Byrd is gone, but the Bills should still have a good secondary next season. I don’t want to throw around the adjective “great” too quickly, but a healthy Gilmore and continued strong play from the underrated McKelvin would give the Bills a very fearsome tandem in 2014.
Is Jamar Taylor the answer for the Miami Dolphins?
Reshad Jones and Cortland Finnegan probably have the most questions to answer in the Dolphins secondary, but this is the one that intrigues me the most. Second-year cornerback Jamar Taylor received plenty of hype before the 2013 draft, but he wasn’t able to get any meaningful playing time in 2013 as a result of a nagging injury. He also struggled in training camp, getting burned more than he needed to. Taylor grew frustrated and nearly contemplated retirement at one point, but he heads into 2014 as the team’s projected starter across from Brent Grimes with Finnegan manning the slot. There’s no doubt that Taylor has the talent to be a good corner in this league, and we’ll see if he can establish himself as a solid starter. If he can, then the ‘Fins will have a strong duo with Grimes locked in as a top ten player at the position.