AFC East’s quarterbacks aren't necessarily the most fearsome foursome in the league. Jarrett Stidham, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen and Tua Tagovailoa might be good someday, but they certainly aren't yet.
Their path to success isn't an easy one. They go up against perhaps the toughest division of cover defenders in the league.
To rank AFC East’s secondaries, I looked at two starting outside corners, the primary slot corner and the starting box and free safeties for each team. I added the FLEX position to simply give me a sixth player, acknowledge high rookie draft picks, versatile nickel or dime defenders who don't start or anyone else who I felt needed to be factored into the conversation.
1) New England Patriots
- CB1: Stephon Gilmore
- CB2: Jason McCourty
- NCB: Jon Jones
- SS: Patrick Chung
- FS: Devin McCourty
- FLEX: Kyle Dugger
The Patriots’ secondary is arguably the strongest positional group in the NFL; it's that talented across the board. The star talent is evident. Stephon Gilmore indisputably had the best season of any outside cornerback last year while Jonathan Jones arguable had the best season of any slot corner. Jason McCourty performing at a consistent, quality level at CB2 is a luxury and, when he went down last season with a groin injury, J.C. Jackson was right there to cover for him. Jackson didn't make this list and he might end up the starter over McCourty by year's end.
New England plays a lot of man coverage and has at least four players who can do it at a starter's level — that’s not including any projected development from 2019 second-round selection Joejuan Williams. The depth and talent at the Patriots’ corner position is outstanding. The safety position isn't necessarily as elite, but they still have a deep safety with corner ball skills and recognition ability in the Devin McCourty and an extremely versatile box safety in Patrick Chung, who is experiencing a career renaissance under coach Bill Belichick once again.
After losing Duron Harmon via a trade with the Lions, adding depth to the safety room was important, which is exactly what the Patriots did with their first pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. Lenoir-Rhyne’s Kyle Dugger is a box player with elite athleticism who will likely play on special teams in Year 1 but has a great developmental profile for Belichick to experiment with.
2) Buffalo Bills
- CB1: Tre'Davious White
- CB2: Josh Norman/Levi Wallace
- NCB: Taron Johnson
- SS: Micah Hyde
- FS: Jordan Poyer
- FLEX: Levi Wallace/E.J. Gaines
It was tough to call it between Buffalo and Miami; both have talented secondaries but can't class with New England. I landed on Buffalo because the difference between its safeties and Miami’s is larger than that of Miami's corners with Buffalo's, even with the enhanced value of quality man cover corners.
I rank Tre'Davious White over Byron Jones; if White hit the open market this year with Jones, I think he would have demanded a bigger contract. He is fresh of an All-Pro season where he saw largely the same coverage success but critically added a league-leading six interceptions, which matched the total of his first two seasons combined. That ball production was the big difference between him and Jones last year. White is also a true corner, not a convert to the position, and has accordingly been producing at a higher level for longer.
CB2 is a glaring area of weakness right now for the Bills, who added Josh Norman with the hope he could reclaim some of his old success when he played under coach Sean McDermott in Carolina. Norman will battle with Levi Wallace, a former undrafted free agent who is a big winner among the coaching staff but didn't match his 2018 peaks during his 2019 play. The same can be said of Taron Johnson, who shined as a rookie over the slot but was more average last season.
I really am enamored by the Bills' safety room. Jordan Poyer has blossomed from a modest contract add into a high-impact free safety with ball production and unbelievable run support ability. He was rightfully extended this year, which secures his future with Micah Hyde, one of the league’s better coverage box safeties with quality versatility and special-teams acumen. They are as versatile and trustworthy in coverage as the Patriots' duo.
3) Miami Dolphins
- CB1: Byron Jones
- CB2: Xavien Howard
- NCB: Nik Needham/Noah Igbinoghene
- FS: Bobby McCain
- SS: Eric Rowe
- FLEX: Noah Igbinoghene/Nik Needham
The Dolphins' secondary is a tale of two positions. Their corner group was already unbelievably strong after they grabbed Byron Jones in free agency, which was a surprising and aggressive push, and then added a first-round selection in Noah Igbinoghene, despite the strength. Miami is clearly learning into the idea that man cover defenders are the highest-value players a team can add to its defense and are not being shy about it. That's impressive to see.
I feel compelled to give a quick word to Byron Jones, who I criticized in my lauding of White. He isn't perfect, but his film across a couple of seasons at corner with Kris Richard as his coordinator was truly delightful. Byron Jones is as well suited to play press and eliminate deep routes from WR1s as any defensive back and was played appropriately. He and Howard both play up, into the line of scrimmage and can wipe away opponents on their best days.
Igbinoghene’s selection, again a surprise, seems to make the wide receiver convert destined for the nickel. It remains to be seen if he'll beat out Nik Needham early in the season, especially if he doesn't have a training camp period to acclimate himself to slot play. Needham played better than a lot of people realized last year, as did Eric Rowe, the Dolphins' box cover player who converted from outside corner to a more versatile role as a safety. Rowe has basically taken the opposite career path as Byron Jones and to his own success.
McCain isn't an attractive option as a starting free safety, and the Dolphins are thin at safety even beyond their below-average starters. They've always been a team that needed multiple years of work, however, and after moving on from Reshad Jones and Minkah Fitzpatrick, it's not surprising that position still needs some work.
4) New York Jets
- CB1: Pierre Desir
- CB2: Blessuan Austin/Bryce Hall/Arthur Maulet
- NCB: Brian Poole
- FS: Marcus Maye
- SS: Jamal Adams
- FLEX: Ashtyn Davis
The Jets' secondary is bad and deserves to be the last team on this list. The fact they were not able to come out of the draft with a better corner selection other than a fifth-round flier in Bryce Hall is disappointing until you remember they had so many other needs that they were going to neglect something.
I like Pierre Desir as a player, but I don't want him regularly matching WR1s in man coverage. Desir is better in zone coverage that lets him play with his eyes into the backfield and jump routes; zone coverage may be the immediate future for New York’s secondary, as its CB2 is currently a wide-open conversation between several unattractive options. Only Brian Poole, the Jets’ nickel, is currently trustworthy in head-up situations.
The Jets certainly have a strong safety room captained by Jamal Adams and buttressed by Ashtyn Davis, who they have seemingly tagged to replace Marcus Maye at free safety when he walks in free agency next year.