Note: Thursday and Friday, Scouts Inc.’s Matt Williamson is reviewing key aspects of AFC East teams. Below, he reviews and ranks the division’s secondaries from best to worst.
1. New York Jets
A lot has been written about Darrelle Revis. Like many, I put him at the top of the cornerback list. He would have been my NFL Defensive Player of the Year for 2009. But he can cover only one receiver at a time.
I contend that New York’s biggest offseason need is a starting cornerback opposite Revis. Donald Strickland, Lito Sheppard and Dwight Lowery are all best suited for third cornerback duties. Lowery is my favorite of these three, but he has physical limitations.
Jets head coach Rex Ryan obviously expects a lot out of this position and an upgrade could make an excellent defense even better. Strong safety Jim Leonhard is a personal favorite of mine. The guy has some limitations of course, but he just makes plays -- especially as a coverage player. Free safety Kerry Rhodes took some criticism during the 2009 season, but I contend that he is a well above average all-around safety. Year 2 in this defense could really yield dividends for Rhodes. Backup free safety Eric Smith could leave via free agency, but he was a liability for most of the season.
Overall, the Jets get the edge as the best secondary in the division weighted heavily on what Revis brings to the table.
2. New England Patriots
While I give the Buffalo Bills’ set of safeties the nod as the division’s best pair, I’m high on the Patriots’ Brandon Meriweather. He’s the best safety overall in the AFC East. As good as he is at strong safety, Meriweather and the Patriots would benefit from an upgrade at free safety. Brandon McGowan is a force against the run, but is too often exposed in coverage. Fellow free safety James Sanders is too ordinary in both facets.
At cornerback, veterans Leigh Bodden and Shawn Springs caught way too much heat for New England’s pass defense issues. Remember, this is a defense that lacks much of a pass rush. These two are still starting caliber, particularly Bodden (an unrestricted free agent).
The younger guys are the problem. Surely they will improve, but Darius Butler, Terrence Wheatley and Jonathan Wilhite collectively did little to get excited about in 2009. If Bodden is retained, the Pats squeak ahead of the Bills as the second-best secondary in the division. Without Bodden, Buffalo has a distinct advantage.
3. Buffalo Bills
When evaluating the safeties in this division, I think you have to give that position to the Bills. In 2009, safety Jairus Byrd obviously made a ton of impact plays as a rookie and was an extremely pleasant surprise. His ability to play the ball and his coverage abilities overall are very strong, but when it comes to playing the run, let’s just say that isn’t his specialty. I am a big fan of safety Donte Whitner, too. Last season wasn’t his best campaign, but he is very talented and versatile. Fellow safeties George Wilson and Bryan Scott are not household names, but both are very solid players who deserve playing time, though Scott might leave via free agency. I still have hope for Leodis McKelvin to develop into an upper-tier cornerback. Overall, the threesome of McKelvin, Drayton Florence and Terrence McGee was underwhelming in 2009.
4. Miami Dolphins
Vontae Davis and Sean Smith get a lot of ink as the Dolphins’ starting rookie cornerbacks. Smith began the season strong, but his unusual body type and struggles flipping his hips always might hold him back. To me, he finished the season as a somewhat overrated player.
But Davis could be on the verge of stardom. Like Smith, he made some rookie mistakes, but this kid has it all physically. He will be a true No. 1 cover man -- maybe as soon as next season. Third cornerback Will Allen is serviceable, but not dynamic.
Gibril Wilson and Yeremiah Bell are both average starting caliber strong safeties. But the problem in Miami is that neither has the skill set for deep patrol. The lack of a true free safety-type hurt this pass defense and is a clear offseason need.