Analysis

Ten defensive backs worth pursuing via free agency/2021 NFL Draft/trade

In this series, NFL.com analysts look at the best players available via free agency, the NFL draft or trade at the following positions: quarterback, running back, wide receiver and defensive back. Today, DeAngelo Hall looks at the top 10 defensive backs worth pursuing.

Rank
1
Stephon Gilmore
Stephon Gilmore
New England Patriots · CB | Trade

With the emergence of J.C. Jackson, there's a chance the Patriots could deal the 2019 Defensive Player of the Year to help fill other voids on the roster. Bill Belichick has been known to trade away big names before they reach free agency, and with Gilmore slated to count $16.2 million against the cap in the final year of his current deal, now would be the time to ship him elsewhere and clear $7.3 million in cap space. Gilmore is one of the few elite cornerbacks in the league right now and would be worth trading for if a team is one or two players away from being a contender. 

Rank
2
Justin Simmons
Justin Simmons
FS | Free agent

Fresh off his first Pro Bowl nod, Simmons is a franchise tag candidate for the second straight year. He's thrived in Broncos head coach Vic Fangio's defense as a do-it-all safety with excellent cover skills and tackling ability. The sixth-year pro would be a welcome addition to any team in need of a leader and great player on the back end of the defense.

Rank
3
Patrick Peterson
Patrick Peterson
CB | Free agent

Peterson isn't the shutdown cornerback he was in his prime. His play dropped off in 2020, as he allowed 50 receptions on 75 targets in coverage and registered his lowest Pro Football Focus grade (55.2) since his rookie season. That said, I do think Peterson still boasts the ability to cover No. 1 receivers on most downs. The three-time first-team All-Pro steps up in pressure situations and is still the best cornerback due to reach the market this offseason. Entering his age-31 season, Peterson possesses the skills and knowledge to play man coverage (though not on every down) but I think he'd be well-suited to play in a zone defense, where he could use his instincts to create turnovers.

Rank
4
John Johnson
John Johnson
FS | Free agent

We talked a lot about Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey when it came to the Los Angeles Rams' top-ranked defense in 2020. Johnson also deserves a lot of credit as the unit's leading tackler (105). He's a physical presence who is quick to the ball. He consistently disrupts the timing between the QB and his receiver. The 25-year-old is a very cerebral safety who can do a little bit of everything from dropping in coverage to stepping up in the box to blitzing the passer. The fact that Johnson was named a captain while playing on his rookie deal speaks volumes to the type of leadership he provides. I hold him in such high regard because Johnson leaves it all out on the field and takes advantage of his opportunities.

Rank
5
Anthony Harris
Anthony Harris
FS | Free agent

Harris, who played under the franchise tag last season, was asked to do a lot as one of the few stalwarts in Mike Zimmer's injury-plagued defense. And while the ball-hawking safety didn't have a single interception after leading the league with six picks in 2019, he (along with fellow veteran Harrison Smith) covered up a lot of the unit's shortcomings and amassed a career-high 104 tackles. Harris has elite ability and the goods to play in any scheme.

Rank
6
Troy Hill
Troy Hill
CB | Free agent

Hill has emerged as one of the NFL's premier nickel cornerbacks. When aligned in the slot last season, Hill gave up 55 catches and one touchdown on 83 targets but had three picks and 10 passes defensed, allowing a 74.9 passer rating when targeted, according to Next Gen Stats. With offensive coordinators finding ways to create mismatches by putting No. 1 receivers in the slot, Hill could be a highly sought-after player in free agency given his ability to match up inside.

Rank
7
Jason Verrett
Jason Verrett
CB | Free agent

One of the league's most naturally talented cornerbacks since he entered the NFL in 2014, Verrett was finally able to play the bulk of the season in 2020 after battling injuries for most of his career. Replacing an injured Richard Sherman for the 49ers, Verrett proved to be a key player for Robert Saleh's unit by excelling in coverage and logging 60 tackles (including 50 solo) and two picks in 13 games. The 29-year-old has earned another opportunity to be a starter after proving he can go head-to-head with guys like DeAndre Hopkins and DK Metcalf, but his injury history could deter some from signing him.

Rank
8
Caleb Farley
Virginia Tech · CB | Prospect

Farley, who opted out of the 2020 season, is my top-rated cornerback in this year's draft class and it's not just because he's a fellow Hokie (though it certainly doesn't hurt). He has great size (6-foot-2, 207 pounds), good awareness, instincts and the potential to grow into a No. 1 cornerback at the next level, despite being fairly raw having played just two years at the cornerback position. He boasts many standout traits, but Farley's top-end speed is what will draw teams his way. There aren't many defenders who can stay with the Tyreek Hills of the league, but Farley looks to be one of the few who could challenge the Cheetah. There's a lot of potential here.

Rank
9
Patrick Surtain II
Alabama · CB | Prospect

Surtain is a long, rangy, ball-hawking corner whose play is reminiscent of his father's, who made three Pro Bowls during his 11-year career as a cornerback with the Miami Dolphins and Kansas City Chiefs. The Alabama product is a polished, consistent cornerback and he's not scared of the moment -- a trait most of Nick Saban's players boast. My one concern is Surtain's speed, which could be an issue at the next level. I wouldn't be shocked to see him move to safety sooner rather than later because of his limitations in that area. However, I do think he has the physicality and knowledge to play the safety position like All-Pro Minkah Fitzpatrick, if a team decides to move him. One thing's certain: All eyes will be on Surtain's 40-yard-dash time at Alabama's pro day.

Rank
10
Richard Sherman
Richard Sherman
CB | Free agent

Sherman, who turns 33 at the end of this month, offers a team a leader in the locker room and a solid cornerback in the right scheme. If the five-time Pro Bowler plays in a Cover 3 defense -- which is what he thrived in during his Hall of Fame-caliber heyday in Seattle -- he can absolutely still be an asset at this stage of his career. As a coach on the field, Sherman would be a perfect fit in Robert Saleh's defense in New York or Dan Quinn's unit in Dallas.

Follow DeAngelo Hall on Twitter.

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