If the quarterback position is the most important position in football -- and no reasonable expert would argue against that point -- then anyone who can consistently stop a quarterback would be a worthy asset in today's NFL.
In 2016, the New England Patriots won a Super Bowl with a secondary that featured Malcolm Butler, Devin McCourty, Logan Ryan, Eric Rowe, Patrick Chung, and Duron Harmon. Their incredible Super Bowl comeback required shutting down league MVP Matt Ryan for the final quarter of the game, while Tom Brady took apart a defense late that was without their best corner, Desmond Trufant.
In 2015, the Denver Broncos won the Super Bowl with the NFL's best secondary. The Seattle Seahawks defeated the Broncos in the Super Bowl two seasons earlier thanks to their legendary trio in the secondary, and then returned to the big game the next season only to lose on, of all things, an interception. Josh Norman, Darrelle Revis, and Ed Reed also have recent Super Bowl appearances, the Green Bay Packers won the title in 2010 behind another great season from Charles Woodson, and the New Orleans Saints were champions in 2009 thanks in large part Pro Bowl safeties Roman Harper and Darren Sharper.
An elite quarterback is great. But in some case, an elite secondary may be equally as great. Here is a ranking of the secondaries for each NFL team in 2017, with the key players listed for each franchise.
1. Broncos: Chris Harris, Aqib Talib, TJ Ward, Darian Stewart, Bradley Roby, Brendan Langley, Justin Simmons
The best secondary of the last two seasons, the Broncos ranked first against the pass last season by yards, touchdowns, net yards per attempt, and DVOA. Harris ranked third on NFL.com season-ending rankings of cornerbacks, while Talib came in ninth and Roby just missed the top 10. Stewart made his first Pro Bowl in 2016 after recording three interceptions, while Ward is no slouch at strong safety. John Elway isn't resting on his laurels either, having drafted Simmons in the third round in 2016 and Langley in the third this year.
2. Seahawks: Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Bradley McDougald, Jeremy Lane, Shaquill Griffin, Neiko Thorpe, DeShawn Shead, Tedric Thompson, Delano Hill
The Legion of Boom isn't going away softly just yet, though their vulnerabilities were exposed with the injury to Thomas last season. Seattle's pass defense was below average to bad after Thomas broke his leg, but he's determined to return and regain that dominance in 2017. The Seahawks reacted by signing McDougald -- a player they believe was undervalued and will be used heavily -- and drafting Griffin, Hill, and Thompson in rounds three and four. On Sherman, NFL.com Ike Taylor had this to say as he ranked him as the top corner in the league: "He remains the best at press coverage and disrupting timing between the quarterback and receiver."
3. Patriots: Malcolm Butler, Stephon Gilmore, Eric Rowe, Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon, Justin Coleman, Nate Ebner, Cyrus Jones
New England wasn't phenomenal against the pass last year, ranking 23rd in DVOA, but the best is yet to come. Butler was named as a first-team All-Pro in ProFootballFocus's 2016 list, and still remains under contract despite trade speculation. That didn't stop them from bringing in Gilmore, who ranked fifth in coverage snaps per target. And then Rowe was second in completion percentage allowed against. I still haven't even gotten to McCourty, Chung, and Harmon, a top-tier safety trio. The Pats lost a pretty good corner in Logan Ryan and still managed to get better in the secondary.
4. Giants: Landon Collins, Janoris Jenkins, Eli Apple, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Darian Thompson, Nat Berhe, Antwon Blake
The Giants' attempt to buy a defense last year actually worked. New York ranked fourth in pass defense DVOA and Jenkins ranked as the sixth-best corner in the league by NFL.com. Collins was a legit Defensive Player of the Year candidate and Apple seems to have a very bright future.
5. Vikings: Xavier Rhodes, Terence Newman, Harrison Smith, Andrew Sendejo, Mackensie Alexander, Trae Waynes, Jayron Kearse
Rhodes, Smith, Newman was about as good of a secondary trio as any last season. There may be valid concerns about Newman's age (39 in September) and the fact that Rhodes only has one dominant season so far, but the Vikings have solid talent up top and interesting depth behind them.
6. Cardinals: Patrick Peterson, Tyrann Mathieu, Antoine Bethea, Brandon Williams, Budda Baker, Justin Bethel, Tyvon Branch, Johnathan Ford
Peterson and Mathieu are stars, though replacing safety Tony Jefferson may be easier said than done. Baker appears to be a solid get in round two.
7. Chiefs: Eric Berry, Marcus Peters, Ron Parker, Phillip Gaines, DJ White, Daniel Sorensen, Eric Murray, Steven Nelson, Kenneth Acker
Another secondary with two legitimate superstars and then some questionable starters and backups. Parker is better than most know and led the K.C. secondary in snaps played in 2016.
8. Ravens: Eric Weddle, Brandon Carr, Marlon Humphrey, Tony Jefferson, Jimmy Smith, Lardarius Webb, Tavon Young, Chuck Clark, Otha Foster, Kyle Arrington
The additions of Carr and Jefferson in free agency, plus Humphrey in the first round of the draft, could push Baltimore's pass defense from being on the fringe of the top 10 to joining the argument for best in the NFL.
9. Falcons: Desmond Trufant, Keanu Neal, Robert Alford, Ricardo Allen, Brian Poole, Damontae Kazee, Kemal Ishmael, Jalen Collins
This is potentially the fastest-rising defense in the NFL, which is a scary prospect given how historically-good the offense was last season. Trufant is one of the top corners in the league, and Neal is on the precipice of being one of its top safeties. Collins, Alford, Poole, and Ishmael aren't bad either.
10. Jaguars: Jalen Ramsey, AJ Bouye, Barry Church, Tashaun Gipson, Josh Johnson, Peyton Thompson, Jalen Myrick, James Sample
Normally with the Jaguars I would say this ranking is premature, but they were already ranked 16th in pass defense DVOA last season. Then they added Bouye, free agency's top cornerback, and the very underrated Church at safety, and suddenly Jacksonville's defense looks like it has the potential to be mildly dominant in the AFC South.
11. Bucs: Vernon Hargreaves, Brent Grimes, JJ Wilcox, Justin Evans, Ryan Smith, Josh Robinson, Chris Conte, Keith Tandy
Grimes is a very good cornerback and Hargreaves had an exceptional season for a rookie. At the safety positions, Wilcox seems like a solid pickup in free agency and Evans a good value at pick No. 50. Overall, with the help that they'll receive up front with Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David, the Bucs should continue their ascent up the secondary rankings.
12. Raiders: Karl Joseph, Sean Smith, Gareon Conley, Reggie Nelson, Obi Melifonwu, David Amerson, Shalom Luani, Travis Carrie, Keith McGill
This is a bit of a risky ranking for Oakland, a team that was dead last in net yards per pass attempt allowed in 2016. But Smith, Nelson, and Amerson have worthwhile veteran experience, Joseph is a fast-riser up the boards for safeties, and Conley and Melifonwu were selected considerably later in the draft than most expected. The Raiders could have themselves a top-10 defense to pair with their top-10 offense.
13. Chargers: Casey Hayward, Jason Verrett, Jahleel Addae, Dwight Lowery, Rayshawn Jenkins, Desmond King, Tre Boston, Craig Mager, Trevor Williams
Most would probably be surprised to find out that the Chargers led the NFL in interceptions last season (18). The larger part of the team's problem was the fact that Philip Rivers threw 21 interceptions. Verrett, a 2015 Pro Bowler, is looking to return from a torn ACL and his progress could be the key to their secondary. There are still some questions at the safety position, however.
14. Bengals: Adam Jones, Dre Kirkpatrick, George Iloka, Shawn Williams, Darqueze Dennard, Derron Smith, Josh Shaw, William Jackson III, Bene Benwikere
Jones could be facing a 2-4 game suspension, but Cincinnati has depth at corner with two former first round picks in Dennard and Jackson. Iloka and Williams are underrated safeties still in their mid-20s.
15. Texans: Johnathan Joseph, Kareem Jackson, Kevin Johnson, KJ Dillon, Andre Hal, Eddie Pleasant, Denzel Rice, Treston Decoud, Corey Moore
The loss of Bouye was pretty huge, but Johnson looked pretty good prior to breaking his foot after only six games. The Texans had a top-five pass defense last season and now hope to add back J.J. Watt and Johnson, but Bouye's impact can't be understated. Houston certainly could improve, but there are question marks.
16. Steelers: William Gay, Artie Burns, Ross Cockrell, Mike MItchell, Sean Davis, Cam Sutton, Senquez Golson, Brian Allen, Coty Sensabaugh
I do not get terribly excited about this group on paper, but they produced quite well in 2016 (fifth in touchdown passes allowed) and Sutton was a nice pick in the third round.
17. Redskins: Josh Norman, Bashaud Breeland, Su'a Cravens, DJ Swearinger, Fabian Moreau, Montae Nicholson, DeAngelo Hall, Kendall Fuller
Washington's secondary is worth keeping an eye on. Norman will be in his second season in the system, Swearinger was a low-key good free agent pickup from Arizona, and Moreau and Nicholson offer some fresh blood through the draft. Cravens is another player to watch as well.
18. Dolphins: Byron Maxwell, Xavien Howard, Reshad Jones, Nate Allen, Bobby McCain, Cordrea Tankersley, Walt Aikens, Tony Lippett, TJ McDonald (suspended eight games)
They were 13th in net yards/attempt allowed and 14th in pass defense DVOA. Jones is a great safety, and Maxwell is officially back to being underrated again. There may be some liabilities in Miami's secondary, but Tankersley, Howard and McCain represent a hopeful future at those positions.
19. Panthers: Kurt Coleman, Captain Munnerlyn, James Bradberry, Daryl Worley, Mike Adams, Colin Jones, Corn Elder, LJ McCray, Travell Dixon
Coleman followed up his breakout season with another strong showing and Bradberry and Worley were quite impressive as rookies tasked with major assignments last year. Overall it seems like Carolina's secondary has a high ceiling and a low floor.
20. Cowboys: Byron Jones, Orlando Scandrick, Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, Anthony Brown, Xavier Woods, Marquez White, Jeff Heath, Nolan Carroll
I have to give Dallas some bonus points attempting to shore up their secondary in the draft -- they took Awuzie in the second round, Lewis in the third and White and Woods in the sixth -- but Church, Carr, Claiborne, and Wilcox were significant losses. Any ranking inside the top 20 for this pass defense would be a win for the Cowboys.
21. Eagles: Malcolm Jenkins, Patrick Robinson, Jalen Mills, Rodney McLeod, Chris Maragos, Jaylen Watkins, Sidney Jones, Rasul Douglas, Dwayne Gratz, Ron Brooks, Nate Gerry
Philadelphia managed to finish second in pass defense DVOA, but 32nd in PFF's secondary rankings from January. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle -- I just have a hard time imagining much success from Robinson and Mills if they are the starting corners. I also wouldn't hold out hope for rookies Douglas and Jones this year.
22. Packers: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Morgan Burnett, Damarious Randall, Davon House, Kevin King, Josh Jones, Quinten Rollins, Ladarius Gunter
Clinton-Dix and Burnett are a nice pair at safety but these cornerbacks are either very rough or very raw. King and Jones probably aren't helping much in the secondary this season. All in all, Green Bay will have to defend the pass a lot and that could be their downfall again in January.
23. Colts: Vontae Davis, Malik Hooker, Clayton Geathers, Quincy Wilson, TJ Green, Rashaan Melvin, Nate Hairston
Davis can be one of the league's best corners at times and Hooker seems like a potential steal after falling to the Colts at pick No. 15 this year, but it's a bit early to get overly excited about a consistently bad defense.
24. Rams: Trumaine Johnson, Nickell Robey-Coleman, Lamarcus Joyner, Kayvon Webster, Mo Alexander, John Johnson, EJ Gaines
Johnson getting the franchise tag for two years in a row is really more mind-boggling than the media seems to acknowledge. He is a serviceable starting cornerback but Les Snead seems unwilling to admit his mistake of choosing Johnson over Janoris Jenkins in 2016. The Rams' best pass defender is Aaron Donald, not a secondary player.
25. Titans: Logan Ryan, Adoree' Jackson, Da'Norris Searcy, Jonathan Cyprien, Brice McCain, Brynden Trawick, Kevin Byard
Jason McCourty was released after eight solid seasons, but a refresh was necessary in Tennessee. Ryan is a great pickup and Jackson can become a great slot cornerback, but the safety position may still have a long ways to go.
26. Jets: Morris Claiborne, Calvin Pryor, Jamal Adams, Buster Skrine, Marcus Maye, Rontez Miles, Marcus Williams
Adams is the big get for the Jets this year, but Claiborne was really starting to live up to some of his potential last year with the Cowboys prior to an injury. New York doubled-down on safety with Maye in the second and though they were awful against QBs last season (30 TDs, eight interceptions), the future and the present look much brighter.
27. Saints: Marshon Lattimore, Kenny Vaccaro, Vonn Bell, PJ Williams, Delvin Breaux, Marcus Williams, Sterling Moore, Rafael Bush
At the second half of last season, the Saints looked like they were finally getting better on defense. They then added the draft's top cornerback in Lattimore, and a safety in Round 2 with Williams. New Orleans may actually avoid finishing dead last in passing yards allowed next season.
28. Browns: Joe Haden, Jabrill Peppers, Jason McCourty, Ed Reynolds, Jamar Taylor, Ibraheim Campbell, Tyvis Powell, Howard Wilson, Marcus Burley, Trey Caldwell
They have a pretty solid 1-2-3 with Haden, Peppers, and McCourty. Everything after that, though, is a little iffy and it's hard to give them too much credit yet because they're the Browns. Cleveland gave up an NFL-worst 36 touchdown passes last season.
29. Bills: Tre'Davious White, Ronald Darby, Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer, Leonard Johnson, Shamiel Gary, Colt Anderson, Kevon Seymour, Shareece Wright, Charles James
No defense saw fewer passes against them last season than Buffalo's, but with a bunch of new faces in the secondary, they might be tested a lot more in 2017. Gone are Gilmore, Corey Graham, and Robey-Coleman, replaced by some guys who have struggled in previous stops. White has a tall order if he's expected to be the leader of this secondary in year one.
30. 49ers: Eric Reid, Jimmie Ward, Jaquiski Tartt, Ahkello Witherspoon, Rashard Robinson, Keith Reaser, Dontae Johnson, Adrian Colbert
The best player here, by far, is Reid and he has not lived up to the hype he created with a fantastic rookie season back in 2013. Last season, he tore his biceps and missed six games. Robinson could be a breakout player here, but overall, San Francisco looks like they could be headed towards another 2-14 campaign.
31. Bears: Kyle Fuller, Prince Amukamara, Eddie Jackson, Adrian Amos, Quintin Demps, Bryce Callahan, Johnthan Banks, Marcus Cooper
It should be shocking that Chicago was only average-to-below-average in pass defense last season. I don't think that trend can continue. Chicago declined Fuller's fifth-year option, and signed former bust Amukamara and continuous letdown Marcus Cooper. I don't see how John Fox can keep his job through 2018 with such little talent there.
32. Lions: Darius Slay, Tavon Wilson, Quin Glover, DJ Hayden, Teez Tabor, Miles Killebrew, Don Carey
Can it really be this bad if Detroit made the playoffs last season? I say that it can. Despite a 9-7 record, the Lions featured one of the worst pass defenses in the NFL (32nd in DVOA), and their biggest offseason move to improve the secondary was selecting rookie Teez Tabor, one of the slowest corners in the draft. Signing Hayden shouldn't give fans any comfort either. This was a horrible secondary in 2016 and Detroit decided the best course of action would be to keep it exactly the same.