Most outside observers thought the Steelers would address the cornerback position with a high draft pick, but they did not select one until the fifth round. While analysts placed a lot of blame on the secondary for the defense's decline last season, the Steelers had a higher opinion of some of their younger players. They also know a stronger pass rush will make the secondary look better. Taylor took a $4.25 million dollar pay cut to remain with the team after a subpar 2013 season. They are looking to get one more quality season out of him.
Allen was benched for a time last season, but he regained his starting job and played better at the end of the season. Gay had perhaps his best season of his seven-year professional career and will see plenty of time covering slot receivers in sub-packages. If any of those three are injured, the Steelers could have some depth issues. McCain, a free-agent signing, was released by the Texans after a subpar season; Blake has little experience; and Richardson was a fifth-round choice. At safety, Mitchell was brought in to solidify a back end that gave up an uncharacteristic number of big plays last season. He replaces Ryan Clark, who had begun to show his age. Polamalu was healthy and played well for most of last season even though he was a de facto inside linebacker in sub-packages due to injuries.
Thomas was injured in the middle of his rookie season and lost his job in sub-packages to the veteran Allen, who was re-signed after the season. Thomas has the versatility to play safety and slot corner, but he has been slow to progress. Golden is an excellent special teams player who figures to make the roster again for that reason.
ST. LOUIS RAMS
--DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - CB Janoris Jenkins, CB Trumaine Johnson, SS T.J. McDonald, FS Rodney McLeod. Backups - CB Brandon McGee, CB Lamarcus Joyner, CB E.J. Gaines, CB Darren Woodard, CB Greg Reid, CB Jarrid Bryant, CB Marcus Roberson, S Cody Davis, S Matt Daniels, S Maurice Alexander, S Christian Bryant, S Avery Cunningham.
How young is this entire group? Add them all up, and there is only a combined 11 years of experience in the NFL. No one has played more than two seasons. Jenkins didn't have as many big plays in 2013 as he did during his rookie season, but he was asked to do more. Johnson has played well at times and competes, so he should also improve. The battle for the first nickel-back spot should be furious between McGee, Joyner and perhaps Gaines. McGee struggled in the one game he had significant playing time last season, but coaches like his upside. Joyner, the team's second-round pick, is a versatile player that is expected to contribute in a variety of ways as either a cornerback or safety. It will be tough to keep him off the field. Gaines was a big-time producer at Missouri, and will be in the hunt as a sixth-round pick. Roberson is out to prove it was a mistake that no one drafted him, while Reid hasn't played since 2011 at Florida State. McDonald played just 10 games as a rookie because of injury, but is expected to make big strides this season. McLeod is the wild card. An undrafted free agent in 2012, he is somewhat undersized (5-foot-10, 195), but he had 87 tackles and the team didn't pursue a veteran to replace him. Both McDonald and McLeod have to make more big plays: They combined for three interceptions, 11 passes defensed and one forced fumble last season. Daniels has talent, but has been star-crossed since making the roster as an undrafted free agent in 2012. Injured reserve is where he ended both seasons, and he has played a total of just six games in two years. Davis was promoted from the practice squad last year. Two rookies, Alexander (fourth round) and Bryant (seventh), might be compromised by injuries. Bryant is still recovering from a foot injury that ended his 2013 season at Ohio State after five games, while Alexander underwent arthroscopic knee surgery after suffering an injury in OTAs.
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS
--DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Brandon Flowers, RCB Shareece Wright, SS Marcus Gilchrist, FS Eric Weddle. Backups -- S Jahleel Addae, CB Richard Marshall, CB Jason Verrett, CB Steve Williams, CB Crezdon Butler, S Darrell Stuckey, CB Marcus Cromartie, S Alden Darby, CB Chris Davis, CB Greg Ducre, CB Brandon Ghee, S Adrian Phillips.
The Chargers expect the most improvement here on defense, as they signed Flowers and spent their No. 1 pick on Verrett. Flowers will bring experience and skill to a cornerback group that got picked on last year. Verrett has to get healthy to prove he can be in the mix. Weddle remains a ball-hawk and one of the most active safeties in the league. Addae could challenge Gilchrist for a spot and keep an eye on the second-year pro Williams after his rookie season was a wash because of an injury. Stuckey will earn his keep on special teams; Ghee will likely make the team for depth.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
--DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - FS Eric Reid, SS Antoine Bethea, CB Tramaine Brock, CB Chris Culliver. Backups - S Jimmie Ward, CB Chris Cook, CB Dontae Johnson, CB Perrish Cox, CB Darryl Morris, CB Keith Reaser, CB Kenneth Acker, S Craig Dahl, S D.J. Campbell, S James McCray, S C.J. Spillman, S Bubba Ventrone.
The 49ers are likely to start the year with three different starters from a season ago. For the first time, Brock and Culliver are the projected starters joining newcomer Bethea, who signed to replace Donte Whitner. The only returning starter is second-year player Reid, who made the Pro Bowl after being taken in the first round out of LSU last year. For the second year in a row, San Francisco used a first-round pick on a strong safety when they took Ward - who they will start off as a nickel back while being groomed to play behind Bethea, who turns 30 in July. The team lost starting CBs Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers to the Oakland Raiders, making cornerback one of the more intriguing positions to watch during training camp. Cook, another free agent, has the size and speed the team likes but will have to improve drastically from his poor four seasons in Minnesota after being an early second-round pick in 2010.
--DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Richard Sherman, RCB Byron Maxwell, FS Earl Thomas, SS Kam Chancellor. Backups -- CB Jeremy Lane, CB/S Deshawn Shead, CB Tharold Simon, CB Phillip Adams, CB A.J. Jefferson, CB Akeem Auguste, CB Chandler Fenner, SS Jeron Johnson, SS Dion Bailey, FS Terrance Parks, FS Eric Pinkins.
One of the Seahawks' major offseason objectives was to extend Sherman and Thomas. Mission accomplished, and Seattle now has the bulk of the Legion of Boom -- Sherman, Thomas and Chancellor -- under contract through 2017. Those three also rank as among the best at their positions in the NFL and the strength of the Seattle defense. Thomas has rare speed and awareness to play deeper than many safeties, and makes it hard for offenses to get big plays on the Seahawks. Sherman has shown he can back up all his talk. Chancellor doesn't talk much, but speaks loudly on the field, as Denver's Demaryius Thomas found out when he was laid out early by a Chancellor hit that set the tone for the Super Bowl. Seattle let Walter Thurmond and Brandon Browner go in the offseason but wasn't worried due to the late-season emergence of Maxwell, whose 6-foot-1, 207-pound size fits the Seattle big-corner prototype. Lane projects as the starting nickel to replace Thurmond, who signed with the Giants. Lane played extensively down the stretch, quelling any fears about his readiness to step into a major role this season. Simon, a fifth-round pick in 2013 who sat out last year due to injuries, was one of the offseason stars and could become the backup outside corner. The team is also high on Jefferson, who spent the last four years with the Vikings and could also help in the return game. Shead is valued for his versatility, which could earn him a roster spot as a backup at just about every spot. Johnson projects as the backup to Chancellor, but needs to stay healthy. Parks was a revelation during the offseason and could also become a backup safety. Pinkins, the team's sixth-round pick in 2014, was drafted as a corner but is playing now at safety.
TAMPA BAY BUCANNEERS
--DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - LCB Alterraun Verner, RCB Johnthan Banks, SS Dashon Goldson, FS Mark Barron. Backups -- S Keith Tandy, CB Leonard Johnson, CB Mike Jenkins, CB D.J. Moore, CB Danny Gorrer.
The Bucs bid farewell to Darrelle Revis after one season, despite having nursed him from a torn ACL and giving him a chance to make the Pro Bowl, to say nothing of the $16 million salary. By cutting ties with Revis, it enabled the Bucs defensive backs to grow into new roles. Verner is a ball-hawking corner who is actually younger than Banks. The Bucs are counting on Barron and Goldson to set the tone for the defense in the secondary.
--DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Jason McCourty, FS Michael Griffin, SS Bernard Pollard, RCB Coty Sensabaugh. Backups -- CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson, S George Wilson, CB Tommie Campbell, S Damion Stafford, S/CB Marqueston Huff, S/CB Micah Pellerin, CB/S Khalid Wooten.
The interesting storyline here will be the battle for Alterraun Verner's old spot at cornerback between Sensabaugh and Wreh-Wilson. Sensabaugh was the Titans nickel back a year ago and played pretty well, while Wreh-Wilson also turned the coaches' heads in offseason work. Elsewhere, starters return as McCourty has been solid, Pollard brought needed attitude and Griffin seems rejuvenated after Pollard's arrival.
Wilson provides good depth at safety, while Stafford has done well on special teams and has shown a nose for the ball. The previous regime gave Campbell multiple chances because of his size and speed, but it never translated, while rookie Huff could be a player to watch, both as safety depth and a possible nickel candidate against the Sensabaugh/Wreh-Wilson cornerback battle loser.
--DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB DeAngelo Hall, RCB David Amerson, SS Ryan Clark, FS Brandon Meriweather. Backups - CB E.J. Biggers, CB Tracy Porter, FS Bacarri Rambo, SS Phillip Thomas, CB Richard Crawford, FS Tanard Jackson, S Trenton Robinson, CB Bashaud Breeland, CB Chase Minnifield, CB Peyton Thompson, S Akeem Davis, CB Bryan Shepherd, S Ross Madison, CB Courtney Bridget.
The Redskins allowed 60 touchdown passes the past two seasons and were getting burned for big play after big play. And yet, defensive coordinator Jim Haslett and defensive backs coach Raheem Morris were retained by new coach Jay Gruden, who had worked with each man elsewhere. Amid the wreckage that was Washington's 2013 secondary, Hall -- who had been cut for salary-cap reasons before being re-signed shortly thereafter -- had a strong season, earning a new contract. With long-time safety Reed Doughty not having been re-signed, Hall is also the unquestioned leader on the back end. The question is when Hall, who's just 30 despite having played 10 NFL seasons, begins to wear down as Fletcher did in 2013. Amerson, the nation's interceptions leader in 2011 who was Washington's second-rounder in 2013, had a respectable debut season as the third corner and now succeeds Josh Wilson, who wasn't re-signed, as the starter opposite Hall. The savvy Clark, whose departure for Pittsburgh after 2005 helped turn a playoff team into one of the NFL's worst defenses in 2006, returns to Washington after an eight-year absence. It remains to be seen how much he has left as he turns 35 in October. Meriweather, suspended twice for being a human missile, settled down during the second half of last year but hasn't been close to the playmaker the Redskins hoped when they signed him before the 2012 season. Rambo surprisingly opened his rookie year of 2013 as a starter but spent most of the season in former head coach Mike Shanahan's doghouse. Thomas, who led the nation in interceptions in 2012, missed his rookie year of 2013 with a foot injury suffered in the preseason opener. The Redskins hope that he and Rambo will supplant Clark and Meriweather as the safety tandem sooner rather than later. The fast Biggers will try to hold off former New Orleans and Oakland starter Porter, who missed offseason drills while recovering from shoulder surgery, to be the third corner. Crawford, the third corner for part of his rookie year of 2012, missed last year with a torn ACL and was held out of spring workouts, too, but is in the mix as is aggressive fourth-rounder Breeland. Jackson, a starter in 56 games for Tampa Bay from 2007-11, was suspended the past two years for substance abuse violations and is trying to shake off the rust. Robinson played in 11 games last year, mostly on special teams. Minnifield and Thompson only have practice-squad experience. Davis didn't make Seattle's roster as an undrafted rookie in 2013. Shepherd, Madison and Bridget are all rookie free agents.