With the 2023/24 NFL season rapidly approaching, we’ve broken down the top five players at arguably the most physically difficult position - defensive back.
As much as Miami Dolphins fans would love to see Jalen Ramsey top this list, the fact remains that training camp was not kind to the All-Pro, and he’s now sidelined until December. Instead, we’re getting started with a vital part of the runners up of Super Bowl 57, Darius Slay.
For as much attention as QB Jalen Hurts got for the Philadelphia Eagles last season, the Birds defense was just as elite.
Led by Slay, the Eagles allowed just 3,548 passing yards last season, which was the fifth-fewest in the NFL.
Keep in mind that was while they were blowing most teams out and forcing them to throw quite often.
Slay also has that clutch gene in him, as he allowed fewer than 25 yards in Philly’s three postseason games last year.
The Eagles are the second-betting favorites at +800 to go one better and win the Super Bowl this season.
If fans were forced to choose one team that has gotten the most hype and attention this offseason, it’s the New York Jets.
Between trading for future Hall-of-Fame QB Aaron Rodgers and being featured on HBO’s Hard Knocks, there has been no shortage of storylines.
The Jets also have both the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year and Defensive Rookie of the Year.
The latter is Gardner, who wasted no time in solidifying himself as a shutdown corner and potentially the next Darrelle Revis. Gardner wasn’t just an elite rookie; he was the best in terms of passes caught when he was in coverage (45.9%) and passer rating allowed (53.9).
Like Slay, he was the primary factor in the Jets lockdown passing defense. They allowed just 3,526 passing yards in 2022/23, the second-fewest in the NFL.
The Jets are fourth in the betting to win the AFC at +800 odds.
Ok, we couldn’t completely leave Ramsey off this list.
What sets the veteran apart is the fact that he’s been elite no matter where’s been. Whether it was early in his career with the Jacksonville Jaguars or winning a Super Bowl with the Los Angeles Rams, he’s proven that he can excel even in varying defenses.
So, while he may be in a new city this year, we can be confident that it shouldn’t decrease his performance. If anything, the track record of Vic Fangio should only help him excel.
The injury is certainly a bummer for Miami fans, but their offense is dynamic enough to hold them over until Ramsey returns.
In a competitive AFC East, the Dolphins are +300 to win the division.
While corners are generally the first thought when breaking down elite defensive backs, it’s time to transition to the safety position.
These guys require more of a presence in the running game, and that’s exactly what James brings.
Chargers head coach Brandon Staley is known for not putting a focus on defense - especially the run - so the fact that James still grades so well is even more impressive.
On top of all that, his blitzing ability is top tier, to make him a three-tool safety. Even when his raw numbers aren’t there, his presence is certainly felt.
Regardless, James tallied 115 tackles, four sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles last season.
The Chargers have to deal with the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC West, so they are +300 to win the division.
This final spot was a toss-up between Fitzpatrick and cornerback Jaire Alexander of the Green Bay Packers, but with the defense not quite living up to the hype last year, we’re sticking with the former.
While they may not be the Steel Curtain defense of old, it’s still ingrained in Pittsburgh’s DNA.
The days of Troy Polamalu are over, but top-tier safety play is still very evident. Like James, Fitzpatrick is great in his pass rushing ability, which also translates into him being a great open-field tackler when defending the run.
That’s not to say his passing defense is to be overlooked - Fitzpatrick recorded six interceptions in 2022/23.
In a division with Cincinnati Bengals QB Joe Burrow, that is always a huge boost for the Steelers.
While Pittsburgh is +475 to win the AFC North, fans can at least take comfort in the fact that the back end of their defense is strong.