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Top 10 Secondaries in NFL History

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Denver Broncos

Denver Broncos

Best Secondaries in NFL

They're the last line of defense and have the ability to cancel out a team's top receiver. Today, I'm ranking the greatest secondaries in NFL history.

Everyone says that quarterback is the hardest position to play in football, but I have to disagree. To play defensive back, a person has to have a short memory, speed, toughness, and smarts. It's the one position where if you get beat, everyone sees it. It takes a skillful player to make an impact in the secondary, let alone do it well enough to have a long career.

To qualify for this list, a team must have more than one impact player at the cornerback or safety position. I also take into account individual talent, how they played as a unit, defensive rankings, and championships won.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

10. The Buccaneers of the 2000s

With guys like Dwight Smith, Ronde Barber, Dexter Jackson, and John Lynch in the secondary, the Tampa defense was a force in the new millennium. The group was key in the team's Super Bowl XXXVII victory over Oakland, accounting for four of the team's five interceptions in the game.

Player Highlights

Dwight Smith played mostly at nickel corner in Tampa and became the first player in league history to return two interceptions for touchdowns in the Super Bowl. Dexter Jackson was named Super Bowl MVP after recording two interceptions in the game.

Ronde Barber is a true ageless wonder for playing 16 seasons as the Buccaneers' all-time leading interceptor and establishing himself as the best run-stopping cornerback of the past decade. John Lynch is regarded as one of the most fierce tackling safeties ever to play the game.

Hall of Famers

Both Lynch and Barber will end up in Canton in the near future.

Dallas Cowboys

Dallas Cowboys

9. The Cowboys of the '90s

Comprised of Larry Brown, Kevin Smith, Deion Sanders, Bill Bates, Kenny Gant, Darren Woodson, and James Washington, the secondary of the Cowboys had a big impact on the defense. The secondary helped the team win three Super Bowls and intercepted seven passes in those games.

Player Highlights

Playing opposite great talent, Larry Brown was able to make big plays for the team and was named the MVP in Super Bowl XXX, intercepting two passes in the game. Kevin Smith was a Pro Bowl talent before injuring his knee in 1995. Deion "Primetime" Sanders is considered the greatest shutdown cornerback in NFL history and made an impact on both defense and the return game.

Bill Bates was a force on special teams and also made plays in the secondary. Known as "The Shark," Kenny Gant was a playmaking tackler on special teams and in dime packages. Darren Woodson was a force at safety and would retire as the Cowboys' all-time leading tackler.

Hall of Famers

Sanders is in the Hall of Fame, and time will tell if Woodson will join him.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Pittsburgh Steelers

8. The Steelers of the 1970s

With J.T. Thomas, Donnie Shell, Mike Wagner, and Mel Blount, the Steelers' secondary was the perfect complement to the Steel Curtain defensive line and linebackers. The unit helped Pittsburgh win four Super Bowls in six years.

Player Highlights

Mel Blount was a force as a corner, being both physical and able to intercept passes. J.T. Thomas was a good complement to Blount and made a couple of Pro Bowls during his time in Pittsburgh. Donnie Shell and Mike Wagner were both physical safeties who were key in the team's physical defense.

Hall of Famers

Mel Blount is in the Hall of Fame.

Dallas Cowboys

Dallas Cowboys

7. The Cowboys of the 1970s

Having guys like Cornell Green, Dennis Thurman, Mel Renfro, Cliff Harris, and Charlie Waters in the secondary, Dallas' Doomsday Defense had a good back end to complement the defensive line and linebacker corps. The team was key in helping the team to five Super Bowl appearances during the '70s, with two wins.

Player Highlights

A basketball player in college, Cornell Green was a five-time Pro Bowler at cornerback and safety. Mel Renfro remains the team's all-time leader in interceptions and also was a force as a punt returner. Cliff Harris and Charlie Waters were both versatile safeties, and Waters at one point held the NFL record for most career post-season interceptions. Dennis Thurman was the last of the cornerbacks to retire and led the secondary going into the '80s, helping to mold Cowboys legend Everson Walls.

Hall of Famers

Renfro is the only member of the group to make Canton.

Green Bay Packers

Green Bay Packers

6. The Packers of the 1960s

Having Bob Jeter, Willie Wood, and Herb Adderley on the team, Lombardi's defense had physical defensive backs that were also capable of covering receivers. The group helped the team win five NFL Championships and the first two Super Bowls.

Player Highlights

Willie Wood was an eight-time Pro Bowler and intercepted the first pass in Super Bowl history. Bob Jeter and Herb Adderley both switched from running back to cornerback when they entered the league. In Super Bowl II, Herb Adderley had the first interception returned for a touchdown in Super Bowl history.

Hall of Famers

Both Wood and Adderley are in the Hall of Fame, and Jeter's physical style should warrant him being mentioned as a senior candidate.

San Francisco 49ers

San Francisco 49ers

5. The 49ers of the 1980s

With guys like Eric Wright, Dwight Hicks, Ronnie Lott, Tim McKyer, and Don Griffin in the secondary, the 49ers defense went from being the laughingstock of the league, to one of the best defenses in football. The defense helped the 49ers become the team of the '80s, winning four Super Bowls.

Player Highlights

Eric Wright and Ronnie Lott were both drafted in 1981 and the defense instantly improved. The team won the Super Bowl in that same season. Dwight Hicks was a four-time Pro Bowler and was a key contributor in the team's first two Super Bowl victories. Wright and Lott switched to safety midway through the decade, and Tim McKyer and Don Griffin were drafted in 1986 to start. They helped the team win two more championships before the end of the decade.

Hall of Famers

Ronnie Lott was both a physical and playmaking defensive back and was a first ballot Hall of Famer upon his retirement.

Baltimore Ravens

Baltimore Ravens

4. The Ravens of the 2000s

With two generations of players, including Dwayne Starks, Chris McAllister, Rod Woodson, Ed Reed, Samari Rolle, Corey Ivy, and Dawan Landry, the Baltimore Ravens' secondary continued to be a great secondary throughout the decade. They helped the team win Super Bowl XXXV during the 2000 season and continued to rank towards the top in pass defense rankings.

Player Highlights

Dwayne Starks made a name for himself intercepting Kerry Collins in the Super Bowl and returning it for a touchdown. Chris McAllister was a three-time Pro Bowler and was the team's number one corner for years. Rod Woodson was the leader to the younger guys and was able to add to his interception yards and touchdowns while in Baltimore. Ed Reed quickly established himself as one of the best playmaking safeties in the league. Samari Rolle and Corey Ivy were good complements in nickel and dime packages.

Hall of Famers

Woodson is in Canton, and it is only a matter of time before Ed Reed joins him.

Detroit Lions

Detroit Lions

3. The Lions of the '60s

With Dick Lebeau, Dick Lane, and Lem Barney in the secondary, the Lions consistently had one of the best defenses in the decade. The three of them still rank in the top 15 in league history for career interceptions. Detroit's lack of offense is the only reason the team never won a championship.

Player Highlights

Dick "Night Train" Lane was a physical specimen at the time who played with both toughness and finesse. Lane still holds the NFL record for most interceptions in a season with 14 in a 12-game season. Barney was a versatile athlete, being a factor on all sides of the ball, and is famous for intercepting Bart Starr on his first NFL play and returning for a touchdown. Dick Lebeau played across both Lane and Barney, and his smarts allowed him to be rarely caught out of position.

Hall of Famers

All three corners have been inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Seattle Seahawks

Seattle Seahawks

2. The Seahawks of the 2010s

Known as the "Legion of Boom," the secondary of Byron Maxwell, Brandon Browner, Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas, and Richard Sherman established themselves as a physical secondary in a growing passing league. With three of its members above 6'3", the secondary is able to stack up against top-rate receivers. They helped the team become the number one defense in 2013 and shut down the highest ranking offense in history to a victory in Super Bowl XLVIII.

Player Highlights

Byron Maxwell played well in the Super Bowl, forcing a fumble in the game. Before his suspension, Brandon Browner was a force whose size and speed combination intimidated receivers.

Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor are both physical and playmaking safeties as proven by their performances against big-name talent. Richard Sherman has quickly established himself as the league's best shutdown cornerback, and his play can truly back up his mouth. Thomas, Chancellor, and Sherman were all named All-Pro in 2013.

Oakland Raiders

Oakland Raiders

1. The Raiders of the 1970s

Nicknamed the "Soul Patrol," Skip Thomas, George Atkinson, Jack Tatum, and Willie Brown quickly established themselves as one of the best secondaries of all time. Each member of the secondary possessed toughness and the ability to pick off passes. The secondary was the driving force in the defense's domination over Minnesota in Super Bowl XI.

Player Highlights

Known as "Doctor Death," Skip Thomas was a physical corner for his small size and intercepted 17 passes in 6 seasons. Atkinson was a physical safety making a name for himself by knocking out Lynn Swan on several occasions. Jack Tatum was nicknamed "The Assassin" for his physical tackling and knocking out receivers and tight ends. Willie Brown was one of the first true shutdown corners and had one of the most famous interceptions in Super Bowl history.

Hall of Famers

Brown is the only member of the group to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, but Tatum is more than deserving of Canton.

People's Poll

Questions & Answers

Question: So if 46% of people think it’s the Seahawks, then why is it the raiders?

Answer: That’s the people’s poll. I believe the 70s Raiders are the best secondary ever.

© 2014 Troy Taylor


Troy Taylor (author) from Anywhere on July 18, 2020:

Ryan those Lions teams are unfortunately seen as a foot note in league history. Lary is the only one to win championships.

Ryan on July 17, 2020:

I'm confused...

1964 Lions

Dick "night train" Lane HOF

Dick LeBeau HOF

Lem Barney HOF

And Yale Larry HOF

Four Hall of famers in one secondary.

I get that the lions aren't a popular team, but let's not be ridiculous. The fan vote for them was only 2%, which shows that nobody votes with logic and only for their favorite teams. Four of the greatest defensive backs and NFL history all on one team at one time. Well, it's the Detroit Lions so there's no way they could have been good right? Everybody should be ashamed of themselves here.

Troy Taylor (author) from Anywhere on July 01, 2020:

The 80s Raiders secondary wasn’t as well rounded as the 70s version. Mike Haynes and Lester Hayes are the best corner duo in history, but the lack of notoriety from the safety spot is what keeps them from being a top 10 secondary.

r8er4life on July 01, 2020:

Just curious... how close were the ‘80’s Raiders “No Passing Zone” secondary, to cracking ur top 10

, thanks

Paul on July 22, 2019:


Troy Taylor (author) from Anywhere on November 16, 2018:

Carlton Williamson was a benefactor because of Lott, Wright, and Hicks.

free on November 16, 2018:

the 80's 49ers, how do you not mention Carlton Williamson also a former probowl safety who was also in that 81 draft with Ronnie Lott and Eric Wright. and this secondary did what no other secondary in NFL history accomplished before or since...sending all 4 starters to the Pro Bowl (Hicks, Williamson, Wright & Lott).

Williamson - 3 Super Bowls 2 Pro Bowls

Hicks - 2 Super Bowls , 4 Pro Bowls 2 All Pro's

Wright - 4 Super Bowls 2 Pro Bowls 2 All Pro's

Lott - 4 Super bowls, 10 Pro Bowls 8 First teams All Pro's, NFL all Decade team for the 80's & the 90's

2 time league leader in interceptions , Hall of famer

...and if you want to throw in the nickname of Hicks & the Hotlicks

..sounds like the number1 secondary of all time


Troy Taylor (author) from Anywhere on July 03, 2018:

They don’t learn from history

spit firehouse on July 03, 2018:

looks like millenials are doing the voting

overlord5 on March 24, 2018:

80s 49ers secondary; how does Carlton Williamson not merit a mention?

Troy Taylor (author) from Anywhere on March 09, 2018:

The No Fly zone lasted all of four years in Denver and that was with changing pieces. Legion of Boom lasted eight seasons and the others were around for a decade or more. The orange crush defense was about the linebackers in the 70's and got ripped to pieces in the 80's Super Bowls.

Seth on March 09, 2018:

Where is "The No-Fly Zone"?! And where is the "Orange Crush" secondary? To not have EITHER of them included is crazy to me. #BadList

Rich Sweetz on December 09, 2016:

The no name dolphins gave up 5 TD passes all season 1973 - Dick Anderson, Jake Scott, Tim Foley, Curtis Johnson

Troy Taylor (author) from Anywhere on November 19, 2016:

Maybe in the next 10

chilly on November 18, 2016:

what about Sam Madison, Patrick Surtain and Brian Walker?

Kevin W from Texas on August 12, 2014:

This is a great list of secondary's Ty Tayzlor. I can't argue with any of the selections. My Bears have never really had a great secondary, although the 85' Monsters of the Midway in my opinion was the best over defense unit in history. Jack Tatum and Night Train were a couple of my favorite players. I would give an honorable mention to the Orange Crush secondary with Louis Wright, Steve Foley, Billy Thompson & Bernard Jackson, Steve Atwater came a few years later. Thumbs up on your hub.