Elite and Underrated: Seven NFL Secondary Players That Don’t Get Their Due

July 27, 2015 Updated: July 27, 2015

In the sport of football, if you aren’t a quarterback, wide receiver, or running back, you are susceptible to being very underrated, even if you’re among the best players at your position. Here are seven such secondary players.

CB, Chris Harris Jr, Denver Broncos

Pro Football Focus created quite a stir earlier this year when their #1 ranked cornerback was not Richard Sherman, Darrelle Revis, or even someone like Joe Haden, but Chris Harris Jr. In fact, Chris Harris Jr. was PPF’s 4th highest ranked player overall—right behind big names like J.J. Watt, Aaron Rodgers, and Justin Houston.

The first wave of critique states that Harris isn’t even the #1 cornerback on his team, a title that supposedly belongs to Aqib Talib. Secondly, he does not have the pedigree of a shutdown corner; in other words, he is not a guy a player that shadows the opponent’s best receiver and takes them out of the game.

Well, you can say that Harris is not a prototypical ‘shutdown corner’. But if you say that Harris does not affect pass completion, the stats say otherwise. In 2014, Harris allowed a passer rating into his coverage of just 47.8. He was also beaten for just 7.7 yards per reception (best mark in NFL) and allowed 0 touchdowns all year.

The other issue is that football is largely based on matchups—its not that the #1 cornerback is always on the #1 receiver and the #2 cornerback on the #2 receiver. In fact, versatility is considered a huge strength of Harris’ in that he is able to play on both sides of the field, in the slot, and in both man and zone coverage.

What role Harris plays in any given game depends on the matchup, so he hardly plays the #2 corner “role”. PFF argues that the bottom line is this: though Harris may not have had the toughest assignments, he covered who was in front of him better than anyone else.

In any case, though you may not agree that Harris is the league’s best cornerback, he is an elite corner that is sorely under-appreciated.

CB, Sean Smith, Kansas City Chiefs

Smith was a pretty good corner in Miami from 2009-2012, though it is noted by Dolphins fans that he was somewhat prone to getting burned. It is also said by some that he wasn’t used to his strengths in Miami.

That may be due to the fact that Smith and Kansas city are an absolute match made in heaven. Smith’s strengths at cornerback are his strength and size, as well as his football intelligence; standing at 6’3 218 pounds, Smith is considered gigantic for an NFL cornerback.

So when the big, physical Smith meets Chiefs Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton’s scheme that is over 80% press-man, the results are bound to be good. Sutton’s scheme requires big, strong corners that can jam receivers off the line and disrupt the quarterback’s timing—this is ideally done without safety help. Needless to say, Smith has flourished in this role in his two years with the Chiefs. Flying under the radar, Smith was a top 5 cornerback last season according to Pro Football Focus. 

CB, Darius Slay, Detroit Lions

With Suh leaving in free agency, the Lions will be looking for other players on defense to step up, and Slay could be one of the players heavily depended on to make that leap.

Entering his third year, Slay struggled to acclimate to the NFL during his rookie season, but made vast improvements in his 2nd year. Notable points in the 2014 season were when Aaron Rodgers had a 56.3 passer rating targeting Slay in Week 3, and Slay allowing no catches to Dez Bryant while covering him for most of the game during during the Lions-Cowboys wild card bout.

CB, Xavier Rhodes, Minnesota Vikings

Like Slay, Rhodes is entering his 3rd season, being a first round pick by the Vikings in 2013. Rhodes was considered by many Vikings faithful as the best player on the team in 2014, where he really started emerging as a shutdown corner. Though his play was particularly stellar in the second half of the season, Rhodes played great coverage and allowed just 1 touchdown all year despite playing in a division that includes guys like Calvin Johnson, Jordy Nelson, and Brandon Marshall.

SS, Reshad Jones, Miami Dolphins

Jones is arguably among the top 5 safeties in the league. Jones plays in the mold of a linebacker/safety hybrid, meaning that he plays best when he’s allowed to roam the field. So though a decent cover safety, he specializes in run defense. Jones was Pro Football Focus’s 3rd ranked safety last year, ahead of guys like Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor.

CB, Desmond Trufant, Atlanta Falcons

Another young cornerback, Desmond Trufant was arguably a top 10 cornerback in both of his first two NFL seasons. Despite so, Trufant is still susceptible to being underrated because

1. He plays for the Falcons, who you don’t normally associate with standout defensive players.

2. Atlanta has an atrocious pass rush, meaning Trufant has to cover longer than most corners, rendering his feats at his position even more impressive.

CB, Jimmy Smith, Baltimore Ravens

Due to both ineffective play and injuries, Smith had a disappointing first two seasons after being drafted by the Ravens in the first round of the 2011 NFL draft.

Smith finally turned things around in his 2013 season, where he was given a #35 ranking by PFF—not elite, but respectable.

Smith then made another upgrade in 2014, where he flashed truly elite play in not allowing a single touchdown and having the seventh-best passer rating against in the NFL. Unfortunately, this was only for the first seven games of the season, as he was out the rest of the year due to a foot injury.

Ironically, Smith may be underrated precisely because of his injury, as it keeps people from knowing about him. One Bleacher Report writer even called Smith the NFL’s best kept secret at cornerback. Its definitely worth pondering if had Smith played the full 16, whether we’d be hearing his name right alongside the likes of Sherman, Revis, and Harris. At the very least, the Ravens are happy with their young cornerback—Smith was signed to a 4-year $48 million dollar extension in April.