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Which secondary reigns supreme in NFL?

JACKSONVILLE, FL - DECEMBER 04:Jacksonville Jaguars Cornerback Jalen Ramsey (20) and Jacksonville Jaguars Cornerback Aaron Colvin (22) celebrate a play during the NFL game between the Denver Broncos and the Jacksonville Jaguars on December 4, 2016, at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fl. (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire)
David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire

Jacksonville’s lockdown pass defense possesses everything you could want… except a catchy nickname. Seattle has Legion of Boom. Denver has the No Fly Zone.

The Jaguars, with the No. 1 passing defense by DVOA along with the No. 2 adjusted sack rate, have only a generation of ineptitude and general lack of the “cool” factor that is generally required for these types of discussions.

But make no mistake, they absolutely belong in the discussion of best secondaries in football. I made the case this week the Jags had the best passing defense in the NFL.

How do they stack up with the “name” passing defenses, the ones with t-shirts and Twitter accounts? How does LOB compare to NFZ?

Here’s how we decided to break it down.

Best player 

Seattle Seahawks — Earl Thomas FS

No non-QB is more integral to the success of an entire side of the ball more than Thomas. His speed, instincts, and reliable tackling form the basis for the Seattle scheme. If they didn’t have Thomas, they couldn’t have Sherman who, despite his incredible talents, does have some limitations as a corner because of his speed and change-of-direction skills.

Until we see signs of serious decline, he’s the best defensive back in football. Frankly the only guys with an argument will probably occupy the rest of this list (along with apologies to Patrick Peterson).

Denver Broncos — Chris Harris CB  

The best corner in football, full stop. He plays in the slot, outside, everywhere Denver needs him. Not only does he have elite ball skills and playmaking instincts, he tackles in the run game and will fight off blocks to hold his run fits.

He’s the only player in football who could challenge Thomas for the top DB in the league considering how critical cornerback play is in the modern NFL, but Thomas represents the only exception to this rule because he can affect the game from sideline to sideline, whereas Harris generally only affects his area on the field, albeit better than anyone in football.

Jacksonville Jaguars — Jalen Ramsey CB  

The 12s will clamor for Sherman here, but I’m ready to go with Ramsey. He leads the league in rating when targeted. In 31 tries, quarterbacks have completed just 12 passes for 142 yards and no touchdowns, plus the second-year star out of Florida State has a pair of interceptions.

He’s physical, smart, an explosive athlete, and an imposing presence who won’t back down from any challenge.

The scariest part is he doesn’t even turn 23 for another two weeks.

Advantage: Seahawks.

Biggest Flaw

Seattle Seahawks — Depth

The combination of Sherman, Thomas, and Kam Chancellor may have no modern equal. Two sure-fire Hall of Fame players and a borderline third.

Unfortunately for the Seahawks, Jeremy Lane and Shaq Griffin are decidedly not HOFers. Griffin could develop into a solid player down the line, but as a rookie, he’s just not ready yet and Lane has struggled with injuries. Even when healthy, he’s hardly been special. Seattle is top-heavy in the secondary, though still very good.

Denver Broncos — Impact talent 

The Broncos’ defense is No. 2 in the league covering opposing No. 1 receivers, but 20th against No. 2s and 30th against all “other” receivers.

Oddly, Denver might have the best depth of talent at corner with Harris, Aqib Talib, and Bradley Roby, but Roby hasn’t continued to grow as much as his talent suggests. Though Darien Stewart is a good player, he’s not on the level of Thomas or Chancellor. Harris is truly the only field-tilter on this defense as Talib ages out of dominance — though he’s been very good this season.

Denver Broncos' cornerback Bradley Roby (29) before a preseason NFL football game against the San Francisco 49ers Saturday, Aug. 19, 2017, in Santa Clara, Calif. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

(AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

This could also be why the Broncos’ passing defense sits 13th in DVOA this season.

Jacksonville Jaguars — The safeties 

Before Jaguar fans get mad (They have those, right?), this is relative. Tashaun Gipson and Barry Church are solid players, but each was deemed expendable by teams — as recently as this past offseason in the case of the Cowboys and Church, and for Gipson the year before.

Both have elevated their play this season, with each sitting in the top 12 in yards per cover snap for safeties this season, but part of that has been the excellent pass rush the Jaguars get. It’s considerably easier to not be exposed as a safety when the corners lock down opposing receivers. When you don’t have to erase any mistakes, it’s a lot easier not to make any of your own, which could be why the Jags’ safeties look a lot better than they did on inferior teams prior to coming to Jacksonville.

Advantage: Jaguars

X-Factor

Seattle Seahawks — Scheme

Single-high safety in Cover 3 or man. Sherman has one side of the field, Earl Thomas can shade to the other to give help. K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner cover like corners — I’ll never forget watching Wright run step for step with prime Jordy Nelson in Seattle.

In some ways, it’s unfair to talk about a passing defense in Seattle only through the lens of the secondary, because the linebackers play such an enormous role.

Jon Schneider magnificently crafted this team to fit the scheme. That’s not a knock on them or a backhanded compliment like a system quarterback. The Seahawks execute their scheme as well as any team in football; a big reason why is the unique, superlative talents they have at free safety, strong safety, and corner.

Denver Broncos — Chris Harris in the slot 

This is Denver’s ace in the hole. Not only do the Broncos have the best corner in football, they have the best slot corner in football. Richard Sherman rarely covers in the slot. Patrick Peterson does, but Josh Norman doesn’t. Most of the league’s top boundary corners lose some of their advantage if they move inside.

Opposing offensive coordinators, being paid to know things like “Sherman doesn’t travel with No. 1s,” will do things like put Julio Jones in the slot where he has a two-way go and becomes nearly impossible to defend… unless you have Chris Harris.

But the only team which has Chris Harris is Denver.

Jacksonville Jaguars — Bouye-Ramsey combo

If they keep this up, the Jaguars’ corner combo could have an all-time great season. With Ramsey leading the league in rating when targeted, new Jag A.J. Bouye sits third. Each is allowing a rating before 32 (!) at this point — that’s having faced DeAndre Hopkins and Antonio Brown already.

This is a truly special combination. Aaron Colvin is a top-10 slot corner by rating as well. He was outstanding against the Steelers on Sunday and their cavalcade of receiver talent.

Most teams hope to hit on one free agent in a league where big-money signings almost never work. With Bouye and Calais Campbell, the Jaguars may have hit on two.

Advantage: Jaguars

I’m not ready to say Jacksonville has the best secondary in football, though the Jags did win this little exercise two out of three. They’re still a young, ultra-talented team and can get even better. Likewise, Ramsey could hit a sophomore slump or an injury could expose a relative lack of depth.

That said, I’m ready to put the Jaguars’ passing defense in “Nickname” territory. I’m taking suggestions.

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