NFC West: Crowning the top secondary and defense in the division

After weeks of pushing off in favor of other position groups, it is time to look at the secondaries the NFC West has to offer.

With the preseason winding down and 2019 NFL season in clear sight, it’s time to crown the top defense in the NFC West heading into the regular season.

In the previous installment aiming to crown the top offense in the NFC West, the Los Angeles Rams were predicatively named the class of the conference. Will the Los Angeles Rams be able to also stake claim to the top spot of these preseason rankings?

Let’s revisit where we sit after Week 2 of this three week series. 

Score After Week Two

  1. San Francisco 49ers (3)
  2. Seattle Seahawks (4)
  3. Los Angeles Rams (5)
  4. Arizona Cardinals (8)

How appropriate that the defensive secondary is our decider for a ranking that sits currently in this modern passing league. Rewind a year ago, there was some huge optimism for the secondaries in the NFC West.

Players like Patrick Peterson, Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters have long ruled the discussion in regard to the elite defenders on the back end across the NFL landscape. 2018 did not quite live up to those expectations.

Injuries happened (Peters, Talib, Thomas, Sherman) combined with some uneven play when healthy. As we move into 2019, there is again an increased level of optimism as players get back to full health, combined with the additions of some intriguing free agents like Eric Weddle and D.J. Swearinger, and regarded rookie performers such as Taylor Rapp and Marquise Blair. There sure is no shortage of talent.

The task is to make sense of it all. What defense rules the NFC West? Let’s get down to the nitty gritty. 

1. Los Angeles Rams

Aqib Talib, Marcus Peters, John Johnson III, Eric Weddle, Taylor Rapp, Nickell Robey-Coleman, Troy Hill, David Long Jr., Marqui Christian

The acquisitions of cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters were highly anticipated additions that didn’t quite live up to the immense talent expectations, mostly due to injury.

In fact there play was so unsteady that second-year pro John Johnson III asserted himself as the premier playmaker on the backend. Johnson had a fantastic sophomore season that saw him record 119 tackles and 4 interceptions. He flashed playmaking potential on various levels of the defense, solidifying himself as a potential franchise building block moving forward.

With the return of Talib and Peters for another season together, expectations should again be relatively high for these caliber of playmakers.

Fast forward an off season, the Rams made another splash addition with former pro bowl free safety Eric Weddle. Weddle has created a ton of splash plays during his career with the San Diego Chargers and Baltimore Ravens. He should provide solid play at the free safety spot that was a big weakness in 2018 with the underwhelming play of now Oakland Raiders safety Lamarcus Joyner.

The Rams first selection in the 2019 NFL Draft also went towards solidifying the backend, where they selected University of Washington strong safety Taylor Rapp. Rapp is a secure open field tackler with a good head on his shoulders. He should allow the Rams to be very multiple on the back end, potentially provided them with some reps as a dime linebacker on obvious passing downs.

If healthy, the Rams should challenge as one of the stronger secondary groups in the NFL… which will be needed due to the uncertainty of the linebackers on the second level. 

2. Arizona Cardinals

Patrick Peterson, Robert Alford, D.J. Swearinger Sr., Budda Baker, Byron Murphy, Tramaine Brock Sr., Deionte Thompson, Jalen Thompson, Josh Shaw

Through the down slide following some promising years for the Arizona Cardinals franchise, cornerback Patrick Peterson has remained a steady element of a once proud defense. Peterson has already cemented his name amongst the all time great Cardinal defenders.

He has a legitimate argument to be enshrined in Canton one day, and he has still maintained his high level of play even through roster turnaround.

The Cardinals did a nice job finally finding a nice Robin to their Batman, signing former Atlanta Falcons cornerback Robert Alford this off season. Alford presents a nice upgrade at a position that has long been inconsistent opposite Peterson.

The Cardinals also added rookie cornerback Byron Murphy in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft which should add an interesting addition to the nickel position early on.

Adding potentially to that nickel position is starting Safety Budda Baker. Baker is a player with coverage versatility that allows for a variety of different defensive alignments.

D.J. Swearinger will occupy the other safety spot. Swearinger is an excellent player who has been a very consistent player on the field throughout his career.

Adding to that safety depth is rookies Deionte and Jalen Thompson (no relation). Both rookies are interesting players who could potentially add some playmaking ability early in their careers.

Riddled with questions marks and lack of talent throughout the Cardinals roster, the secondary represents the highest upside of any position group. The Arizona Cardinals have a lot to be excited about on the backend. 

3. San Francisco 49ers

Richard Sherman, Ahkello Witherspoon, Jaquiski Tartt, Adrian Colbert, K’Waun Williams, Jason Verrett, Dontae Johnson, Marcell Harris, Tarvarius Moore

After a season that saw the entire defense for the San Francisco 49ers record just two interceptions as a whole, the attention will he pegged squarely on this revamped defenses ability to take the football away.

The elder statesmen and most proven quantity of the secondary as a whole, Richard Sherman, he will again be counted on for his solid leadership and playmaking ability for a secondary starving for just that.

Outside of Sherman, there are a ton of question marks.

Ahkello Witherspoon was a high upside prospect coming out of the University of Colorado. After some solid splash plays as a rookie, Witherspoon was unable to build on any of his momentum. Instead he is a huge question mark for a secondary that can’t afford many more.

The 49ers did pick up former Los Angeles Chargers cornerback Jason Verrett this off season. Verrett has been a tremendous player on the field when healthy. Unfortunately Verrett has missed a total of 55 football games during his career so far. Trying to count of Verrett is an uneasy proposition that should be taken with a grain of salt.

The safety position isn’t much better, if at all. Strong safety Jaquiski Tart is another player who has missed some time during his career due to injury. When on the field, Tart has been a solid contributor who has some coverage versatility.

Adrian Colbert is slated to start at the other safety position. Colbert is an intriguing athlete but he has yet to record an interception during his career so far. Behind Tart and Colbert, the cupboard is bare.

While there is plenty to get excited about with the 49ers secondary, the secondary is not one of them. 

4. Seattle Seahawks

Shaquill Griffin, Tre Flowers, Bradley McDougald, Tedric Thompson, Akeem King, Delano Hill, Marquise Blair, Shalom Luani

The Legion of Boom is long in the rear view mirror. With pro bowl safety Earl Thomas leaving the Seahawks this off season for the Baltimore Ravens, there is no secondary members remaining from that vaunted defensive unit.

Instead Pete Carroll has opted to take a chance on a youth movement to lead the new wave into the future.

Shaquill Griffin is back for his third year as a starting cornerback for the Seahawks. A lot was expected of him after a very solid rookie year. Year two did not provide much reason for optimism. He had a hard time locating the football, becoming victim constantly to back shoulder fades and vertical concept routes. The team is hoping for a big jump for Griffin has he reclaims some of his confidence in year three.

Playing the cornerback opposite Griffin appears to be second year pro Tre Flowers. Flowers, originally an undrafted free agent safety out of Oklahoma State, flashed some ability as a press man corner during his first season. The hope is that he, like Griffin, takes the next step in development into 2019.

Settling in behind Griffin and Flowers, there is a whole lot of question marks.

Luckily there is a little more to get excited about with their potential safety group. Bradley McDougald is an unheralded piece who quietly has done an excellent job for the Seahawks over the last two seasons. He should be counted on to provide consistent play moving forward.

Tedric Thompson seems to be the logical fit at the other safety position. It will be interesting to see just how rookie second rounder Marquise Blair fits into the equation.

Blair has shown a ton of promise in the preseason, possessing the physical style that is currently sorely missing on the backend.

Could this Seahawks secondary group be successful? Surely it’s possible but it currently sits as a very underwhelming group. These aren’t the Seahawks of old we’re dealing with here. 

Final Rankings

  1. San Francisco 49ers (6)
  2. Los Angeles Rams (6)
  3. Seattle Seahawks (8)
  4. Arizona Cardinals (10)

For the first time, a final ranking has ended with a tie.

I’m deciding to give the nod to the San Francisco 49ers due to the quality of their front seven. Despite the evolution of this modern passing league, football games are still decided at the line of scrimmage.

The Los Angeles Rams also won the title of top offense in the NFC West, so they can afford to take a close second in this debate.

So without further ado, here’s a nod to the San Francisco 49ers, the top defense in the NFC West. With the talent they already possess on the other side of the ball, the 49ers could be in for a very entertaining year.