Raiders or Broncos now own best secondary in AFC West?

Did the Raiders improve its secondary enough to overtake the Broncos for the division's best unit? Matt Claassen investigates.

| 5 months ago
(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Raiders or Broncos now own best secondary in AFC West?

Earlier this week, we ranked the cornerback groups for all 32 NFL teams, with the defending champion Denver Broncos coming out on top. But taking a closer look at the entire secondary, does Denver retain the No. 1 rank in the AFC West, or do the Raiders’ offseason moves vault them to the top spot in the division?

Broncos’ projected nickel package:

  • LCB: Aqib Talib (79.8 overall grade in 2015)
  • RCB: Bradley Roby (81.2)
  • SCB: Chris Harris Jr. (84.6)
  • SS: T.J. Ward (83.9)
  • FS: Darian Stewart (81.8)

The Broncos lost safety David Bruton, who typically played in their dime package, in free agency, but otherwise the top five defensive backs all return from a year ago. Chris Harris Jr. continues to be one of the best cornerbacks in the league, and allowed less than one receiving yard per snap in coverage for the fourth consecutive year. Aqib Talib has graded positively in each of his eight years in the league, and he’s coming off his highest-graded season in coverage of the past four years. After a decent rookie year in 2014, former first-round pick Bradley Roby took a big step forward last season to finish as our 23rd-ranked cornerback. Last year, all three cornerbacks ranked in the top 30 CBs in overall player grade and in yards per cover snap allowed, the only team to feature three.

At safety, Denver features a pair of top-20 players. Strong safety T.J. Ward missed a couple games last season, but otherwise had a solid year. He remains one of the better run-defending safeties and was one of three at the position to earn above-average grades in run defense, coverage, and pass-rushing. Darian Stewart picked up where he left off from his final season in Baltimore, earning the 16th-best overall rating last season. His missed-tackle frequency is still less than ideal, but he managed positive grades in both run defense and coverage.

Raiders’ projected nickel package:

  • LCB: David Amerson (83.4 overall grade in 2015
  • RCB: Sean Smith (83.8)
  • SCB: T.J. Carrie (46.3)
  • FS: Reggie Nelson (84.2)
  • SS: Karl Joseph (rookie)

With Charles Woodson finally retiring, the Raiders lost last year’s top-graded coverage safety across the league. They were able to replace Woodson by bringing in veteran Reggie Nelson, who, while not quite as good in coverage as Woodson last year, still graded among the best coverage safeties and is a much better run defender than Woodson had been of late.

Oakland addressed their other safety spot by selecting Karl Joseph with their first-round draft pick. Joseph played in just four games for West Virginia in 2015, but his overall grade still would have ranked among the top 20 safeties in the draft class on a fraction of the snaps. It remains to be seen how he recovers from the ACL injury, but if healthy, he has shown a lot of potential.

Cornerback David Amerson’s performance in his first year with Oakland was one of the biggest surprises of the year. Amerson struggled with Washington in 2014, finishing the season 108th in overall cornerback rankings, the lowest-graded cornerback in the league. He played just eight snaps over the first two weeks before being cut following Week 2. The Raiders scooped him up and, after a poor performance in his first game, he completely turned his play around. Over the final 14 weeks of the season, Amerson did not grade below-average in coverage in a single game, and had the ninth-best coverage grade among corners during that span. He still needs to prove he can sustain that level of play going forward, but it was a remarkable turnaround that has things looking up for the secondary.

The Raiders also spent a good amount of money to bring in former Chiefs CB Sean Smith off the free agent market, who we had ranked as the top available cornerback in free agency prior to Josh Norman’s late and unexpected availability. Smith hasn’t received much national recognition, but he’s been a solid cover corner who ranked 12th in overall grade in 2015 and second in coverage grading in 2014.

Oakland could have a very good secondary in base defense, but in sub-packages, there is a bit more uncertainty. T.J. Carrie will likely be the defense’s nickel and slot cornerback, and he was a below-average player last season. He had just two above-average games, compared to six below-average games and ranked 87th out of 111 qualifying cornerbacks in overall grade. D.J. Hayden may also see some playing time again, but between injuries and subpar play when on the field, it is difficult to envision him having much of a positive impact next season.

The verdict

Oakland secondary has improved over the past couple seasons, even with former first-round pick Hayden not panning out thus far, and their new additions should only strengthen the unit. However, all of the Broncos top defensive backs have proven themselves over multiple seasons, and have the continuity of playing together already. Despite the upgrades for the Raiders, Denver still easily owns the top secondary in the AFC West for now, and is one of the best groups in the league.

| Analyst

Matt has been an analyst for PFF since 2013. He is also a contributor to 120 Sports and a former NCAA Division-III football player.

  • crosseyedlemon

    There was no chance this article was going to contradict the article providing the team secondary rankings so why not find something else to write about. It almost looks like Matt’s true objective here was to taunt Raider fans.

  • James Schroeder

    Yeah this is kind of a pointless article. This is definitely something that should of came out after the 2016 season. Everybody on the secondary list with the exception of David Amerson and TJ Carrie is new to the secondary. With the addition Sean Smith, Reggie Nelson, and the new hard-hitting stud Karl Joseph you should have waited till after the season to talk about who’s better. The raiders are going to punch the donkeys in the mouth twice this season, and that’s all that will matter.

  • Daniel Nottingham

    They are building up for quite a rivalry in the West. Im surprised KC didn’t make this conversation. The AFC is looking to be pretty competitive this season. The AFC South should be very interesting as it appears wide open. AFC North is always interesting with Cinn and Pitt.

  • zinn21 zinn21

    The Raiders beat Denver at Denver late in the season with Playoff consequences on the line for both teams and an inferior team. The Raiders will drill Denver this year..

  • Jesse Gardner

    If the author is willing to reach into past seasons for other players, he should have been willing to do the same for Carrie, who played much better in ’14. ’15 saw him switch back and forth between safety and corner, never getting into a rhythm in either spot since he’d only be there a game or two. IDT Amerson’s season was an anomly, he just wasn’t in the right system in Washington. So the only real wildcard in our secondary is Joseph, and if he can turn out to be even a decent safety, we should boast one of the leagues top secondaries, especially with how good the pass rush is going to be. The Raiders will have a top 10 defense and offense this year, book it.

  • Philip Applegate

    The only reason I read this article is because the caption was so absurd that I had to see if he could make any argument for the Raiders to hold any flame to the WORLD CHAMPIONS. “Who’s the best secondary in the AFC west?” Please! Denver has the best secondary in the NFL! That’s like comparing the Panthers to the Bucs WTF…

    • Anthony

      In terms of secondary the Panthers now have a bottom 5 secondary dude. The Bucs should be far better in that regard.

  • Ron

    Stupid,wait until the season plays out..Moron

  • DJ

    this is a ridiculous article. The raiders have the worst secondary in the AFC west.

    • Thekid916

      Ur out your mind, maybe they did in 2015 but that was because the only above par db’s they had were Woodson and suprisingly amerson wich like article said had 9th best overall cover grade 2015 plus they only had one person that could rush passer in khalil mack which means db’s had to cover longer which benifits recievers and passing game.. 2016 will be totaly different.. Only valuable player lost was woodson and altough woodson is irreplacable we replaced him with best available player reggie nelson. He was voted 67 or 68 on nfl top 100 and lead leage in interceptions 2015 plus sean smith and the article dont even give justice to how good karl joseph is.. ( watch his college highlights) on top of raiders will have top 5 d lines in the leage and once aldon smith suspention is over in my opinion will have the best pass rushing duo in league or should i say trio with irving which will give db’s help by forcing ball outta qbs hand quicker.. Ive seen alot of rankings and most have raiders jumping into top ten.. I would put money on it they end season with top 7 defense


      Its to early to rank the raiders or kc because there secondary’s are different this year and weve yet to see them play a full season together. On paper id give denver the edge at being best db’s in div because weve seen what they can do and are consistent at doing it but i believe most there success is a result of what there front 7 do. There not ahead by much at all and wouldnt be suprised if by end of season Raiders have the better secondary.. Raiders definetly have 2end best secondary in afc west on paper according to the stats the db’s we have this year had in 2015, plus like denvers d line the raiders line (which is also ranked top five on most anylists power rankings for d lines for 2016 season) will help secondary as much as new players weve aquired. in my opinion when aldon smith gets back on feild will also surpass denvers d line as best in nfl.. kc would rank 3rd and there not that far behind either. Denver might fall to 3rd best in div.. chargers are definetly last though. Raiders have 3 dbs ranked 12th or better out of all db’s in nfl in coverage with reggie nelson who lead league in interceptions with average db’s at nickel. Karl joseph is only player with question mark by his name a but was highest ranked saftey on most anylist draft boards.. His Highlights in college were sick.. He can line up in box, blitz, is a ball hawk like earl thomas and can hit like ronnie lot.. Still all this is speculation untill season is played.. RAIDER NATION

  • RaidersRback!!!!!!

    I agree with most of the other comments!!! Its to early to rank who’ got better secondary, d-line, or better d in general.. We can make a close evaluation of denvers d but thats only team in the west that we have ability to do so kuzz they have same db’z theve had for past few years and can go back and watch film on them playing together.. Cant do that with the raiders or kc because of all the changes made especially the raiders.. As far as chargers go they definetly take the forth spot.. It would have been better to discuss the raiders and kc’s secondary’s and which one people think will be better this year.. On paper raiders have 2nd best secondary in div but thats just based off The db’s we have this years personal stats from last year. Once you add in the fact we have khalil mack which had more sacks (15) twice as many tackles then von miller plus when aldon smith gets back on field which is younger then ware has had a 20 sack season if i remember right and was top 4 or 5 in sacks consistently the years before his off feild issiues and bruce irving. Point is i think raiders will have better passrush by end of this season. Thats denvers best attribute to there secondary’s success and raiders might be better at it if not damn near equal this year plus our offense is better and will compliment the d by staying on the field and scoring while d gets off the field and gets the O on the field quickly.. The Raiders thank to reggie mcenzie have rebuilt and are set up right now in all 3 phases of the game with the talent on roster and the to win div.. and compete for a shot to win superbowl this year..