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B/R's NFL 20 for '20: Projecting Top Defensive Backs in 2020

Matt MillerNFL Draft Lead WriterJanuary 13, 2017

B/R's NFL 20 for '20: Projecting Top Defensive Backs in 2020

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    We don't like to think about what the NFL will look like without defensive backs like Darrelle Revis or Charles Woodson—or even underrated studs like Terence Newman—but it will happen. And it'll happen soon. 

    My generation didn't want to think about a NFL without Deion Sanders or Ronnie Lott, but along came the next wave of talent in the form of Champ Bailey, Woodson, LeRoy Butler and more. We didn't want the game without Darrell Green or Rod Woodson, but along came Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman. No more Deion? Here's Desmond Trufant. The game moves on, and legends walk away. Looking ahead to the next generation, who will be the best defensive backs in the year 2020?

    That's what this signature series aims to answer. Our "20 for '20" covers who the top 20 defensive backs will be five seasons from now. And if you're looking for guys like Revis or Kam Chancellor—who will be well over 30 years old in 2020—we have to project a few retirements and a few slowdowns.

20. Kenny Vaccaro (29 Years Old)

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    Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    2020 Age: 29

    A true strong safety, Kenny Vaccaro is at his best taking on tight ends at the line of scrimmage, but he also has very good range in the deep parts of the secondary. He can run with tight ends, wide receivers or backs and does a great job attacking the seam. Vaccaro is also young enough to see continued improvement here leading to 2020.


    A big hitter with impressive power at the point of attack, Vaccaro will lay the wood on the ball. That can lead to him bouncing off some hits and leaving tackles on the field, but all in all, we're talking about a very good tackler.


    With excellent speed, range and instincts as well as the power to knock ball-carriers down at will, Vaccaro has big upside as a safety. We're also betting on an improvement with better coaching over the next five years.


    Vaccaro has had an up-and-down NFL career to date, but he has all the tools to be a stud at strong safety with new defensive coordinator Dennis Allen running the show in New Orleans.

19. Will Hill (30 Years Old)

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    Matt Hazlett/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 30

    Baltimore safety Will Hill makes a big-time impact in the run game and when asked to lock up a tight end at the line of scrimmage. Looking ahead to 2020, Hill could be a premier strong safety given his range and instincts as well as the fact he's athletic enough to create turnovers and punish the offense as a hitter. He's not Earl Thomas in coverage, but for a hitter, he is impressive in passing situations.


    Hill is one of the best open-field tacklers in the NFL today. He's powerful, physical, aggressive and doesn't let go once he makes contact.


    The key for Hill is staying on the field. He's had off-field issues dating back to the University of Florida, so that's a legitimate concern. If he's on the field and in Baltimore's scheme, Hill has a chance to be a Pro Bowl talent very soon.


    Hill has the talent to become one of the best safeties in the NFL over the next five seasons, but he has to stay on the field and has to clean up aggressive mistakes that plague his film.

18. Jayron Kearse (26 Years Old)

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    Tyler Smith/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 26

    A 6'5", 220-pound free safety, Jayron Kearse has speed and range over the top, but he’s also physical enough to lock up tight ends at the line. Kearse, a junior at Clemson, has the tools to develop into a mismatch safety with big-play ability by the year 2020.


    With size, aggression and very good angles to the ball, Kearse has the goods to become a top-tier tackler. He may not become Kam Chancellor, but something close to that wouldn't be a surprise.


    Kearse has tremendous upside given his size and speed. A look at his college tape also shows he can be a playmaker against both the run and the pass. With NFL coaching, he has the traits to take off.


    Kearse is the lone first-round safety currently ranked for the 2016 NFL draft, and it's that potential and production that place him in the top 20 defensive backs list for 2020.

17. Kevin Johnson (28 Years Old)

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 28

    Fast-forwarding to 2020, Kevin Johnson has the skill set to become a high-level cornerback. With the length, speed and timing to both jump routes and lock up receivers in-phase, Johnson will have the look of a Pro Bowl cornerback when we move ahead five years.


    Johnson is a long, lean cornerback, but he's not afraid to mix it up and lay the wood as a tackler. He uses his speed and agility to make plays in pursuit and can set the edge as a boundary defender.


    With excellent length, patience and instincts, Johnson has everything scouts look for in a cornerback. That's what made him a first-round-pick in 2015, and it's what will make him a top-20 defensive back in 2020.


    Johnson had a rocky rookie season, but he showed the skills to become a top cornerback by 2020.

16. Jaquiski Tartt (28 Years Old)

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    Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 28

    Turn on the San Francisco 49ers' game film and look at No. 29; he'll be the one making plays all over the field. Tartt lines up at safety, nickel cornerback and nickel linebacker. He's a three-tool defender, showing the ability to stop the run, rush the passer and play in pass coverage. Tartt has to clean up his angles and instincts, but he has the size and speed to become a top-tier coverage strong safety.


    Tartt isn't just a big hitter; he's a solid open-field tackler with the angles and speed to attack the ball inside or outside of the tackle box. Tartt's ability to play linebacker or safety highlights this skill set.


    Tartt was a favorite of mine in the 2015 draft process, and that shows up here. He has an ideal skill set for today's NFL and has the tools to make an impact on three downs. 


    Placing Tartt so high on this list requires some faith, but he's shown in his early career an ability to impact the game as a nickel linebacker or strong safety. Given his experience at Samford, don't rule out a move to free safety, either.

15. Harrison Smith (31 Years Old)

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    Tom Dahlin/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 31

    A rangy, versatile cover man in the Minnesota Vikings secondary, Harrison Smith can play like a free or strong safety in Mike Zimmer's scheme. He's big yet fast, and he uses that mixed skill set well enough to take on athletic tight ends or slot receivers.


    If you wanted to make a list of the best tacklers in the NFL, Smith would either be at the top or very close to it. He's a hard hitter but also a smart technician. Smith doesn't miss tackles, and he's excellent at hogtying ball-carriers in space.


    Smith is already 26 years old as of this writing, which limits his upside. It's also a concern he's missed time with injuries in two of his four seasons.


    Smith is the perfect safety for the Vikings scheme and was a legitimate top-three safety in 2015. Give him five more years to develop, and he could well exceed these rankings. 

14. Mackensie Alexander (26 Years Old)

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    Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

    2020 Age: 26

    Projecting a 22-year-old to be a top-20 defensive back is tough, but Clemson's Mackensie Alexander looks and plays the part. He's fast, instinctive and has experience taking away the best receivers in the ACC. Given his tools, his upside and his youth, Alexander will be a hot name both in the NFL draft and in the NFL.


    You will get some missed tackles when you watch Alexander on film—and that will be cleaned up with NFL coaching and experience—but you also get some bone-jarring hits and collisions when he attacks the ball in space.


    Alexander has all the tools scouts look for in a top-tier cover man. He's long, fast, can play physical at the line of scrimmage and has the swagger to believe the ball belongs to him. Put it all together, and you have the makings of a player who in 2020 will be starting his climb to the top.


    A redshirt sophomore at Clemson, Alexander has all the tools to be a star in the NFL. The 2020 season may be too early in his career to see that greatness realized, but he'll be on his way to the top 10 by then. 

13. Chris Harris Jr. (31 Years Old)

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 31

    Give him any type of receiver lined up anywhere on the field, and Chris Harris Jr. can take him out of the game. He's quick enough to play snaps in the slot and take away speedy, smaller receivers but also has the technique and timing to play bigger receivers up on the line and down the field. Harris is a master at limiting targets and taking away his man from the game plan.


    As someone who often lines up in the slot, Harris must be able to tackle in space, and he does very well here. He's not the biggest corner, but his tenacity and eye for the ball are strong.


    Turning 27 years old in 2016 limits the projection for Harris moving forward, but with a great pass rush in front of him and excellent skills and tools to cover in the slot or outside, he's going to be in the running for a top-five-cornerback distinction every year.


    You won't find a bigger Harris fan, but looking at him over the next five years, it's fair to expect some young guns to come around and push him down slightly on this list. But I also wouldn't count out this former undrafted free agent-turned-superstar.

12. Josh Norman (32 Years Old)

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    Grant Halverson/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 32

    Heading into the 2015 season, I nominated Josh Norman as a potential breakout defender. He surpassed even those expectations with a season no one in Carolina will soon forget. Playing in a zone scheme that capitalizes on his instincts and quickness, Norman has impacted the game with turnovers, defensed passes and by eliminating targets against receivers both big and small, fast and powerful.


    Playing so often in zone coverage means you have to come up and attack the ball, and Norman does that very well. He's big enough to play with the physicality needed to impact the run game and to make tackles in space against receivers and tight ends.


    Is the 2015 season the best possible year for Norman? Maybe, but he's enjoyed a breakout campaign after making a change in his play midway through the 2014 season. It's too early to say this is the best for him. We could be seeing the beginning of an amazing career.


    Norman was one of the NFL's best cornerbacks in 2015, but he's also one of the older guys on this list. Heading into 2020, when he'll be 32, we can expect a bit of a slowdown.

11. Damarious Randall (28 Years Old)

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 28

    Before the 2015 NFL draft, I scouted Damarious Randall and thought he would be an excellent free safety and part-time nickel cornerback in the NFL, kind of like Tyrann Mathieu. The Green Bay Packers had a different idea—they made him an outside cornerback, and he's excelled there. What Randall lacks in size, he makes up for in quickness, instincts, toughness and leaping ability. And in 2020, he'll have packaged all those traits together with experience to be a top-tier cover corner.


    The time spent at safety was good for Randall, who knows how to run alleys and make tackles in space. The biggest area holding him back is a smaller stature that allows him to get run out of plays.


    Few cornerbacks in the NFL have the upside Randall brings to the table. With his excellent coverage skills, athletic tools and relative youth at the position, it's fair to expect continued growth over the next few seasons.


    Randall has made the move from safety to cornerback look easy in Green Bay, and with a Pro Bowl resume in his first season, he's a lock to remain on the top defensive backs list through 2020.

10. Patrick Peterson (30 Years Old)

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    Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

    2020 Age: 30

    Patrick Peterson has often been praised for his ability to cover the offense's No. 1 weapon and shut that player down. His man coverage skills are fantastic, and he has rare size and speed that allow him to match up with any type of receiver. The biggest improvement for Peterson came in his discipline to not jump as many routes and gamble on big plays. If he keeps that up, big things are on the horizon.


    Peterson is built like a small linebacker, and he hits like one, too. As is the case with the entire Arizona secondary, this former LSU Tiger attacks the ball and can be counted on to make jarring hits.


    A lighter and healthier Peterson was among the NFL's best cornerbacks in 2015. If he can keep his diabetes in check and maintain his excellent conditioning, his upside score would be higher. As it stands now, at 25 years old, he's hitting his peak.


    Peterson has been amazing at times in his young career, and if he keeps up the pace he's showing in 2015, he'll be ranked much higher in 2020.

9. Richard Sherman (32 Years Old)

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    Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 32

    The knock on Richard Sherman was always that he couldn't hold up in man coverage against true No. 1 receivers. But in 2015, the Seahawks started asking him to travel and cover the offense's top receiver on every play. The results? He dominated. Sherman's length, instincts and technique make him a force to be reckoned with now and will keep him in the top tier of cornerbacks even into 2020.


    Sherman's pass coverage skills have always made him a star, but his ability to take on the ball and impact the game as a tackler is far underrated. That skill won't be diminishing before 2020.


    Turning 28 years old in 2016, Sherman is approaching an age where most cornerbacks lose a step. That shouldn't affect his style of play greatly, but it does limit his upside.


    A likely Hall of Famer with perennial All-Pro talent, Sherman won't see a big change in skills when we revisit this in 2020.

8. Desmond Trufant (30 Years Old)

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    Grant Halverson/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 30

    Desmond Trufant has proved himself to be a versatile cover man in Atlanta. He's crafty enough to hold up in man coverage, quick enough to run with speed receivers and physical enough to make an impact at the line of scrimmage. And with his quick instincts and ability to break on the ball, Trufant shows up as an impact player in zone coverage. The lone knock on him is he doesn't produce a ton of interceptions, but he's often near the top of the league in passes defensed.


    When asked to take on the ball, Trufant isn't shy, but he's not in the top tier of tacklers at the cornerback position, either. He'll put a shoulder on the ball and can hold the edge, but he'll miss attempts and get blocked out of the play, too.


    With three years of experience in the NFL, Trufant is starting to come into his own as a cover man, but he still has room to improve as he reaches his prime.


    Moving ahead five years, Trufant has all the tools to stay in the top five as a cornerback and in the top 10 as a defensive back overall.

7. Jabrill Peppers (24 Years Old)

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    Leon Halip/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 24

    A ball hawk. That's the best way to describe Michigan safety Jabrill Peppers. He hits like a linebacker, runs like a cornerback and has the vision of a center fielder playing free safety. The Michigan defense likes to move him around to find matchups, and Peppers has shown he can shut down Big Ten wide receivers and tight ends. Projecting ahead five seasons, those same tools look to make him an impact player and game-changer at safety in the NFL.


    Peppers flies to the ball and doesn't miss tackles when he gets there. As a single-high safety, you don't have to worry about him as the last line of defense if a running back breaks free. Peppers can track the ball and close on it in a hurry.


    As the youngest players on this list, Peppers has unique upside in that he's still learning the position and growing into his frame. If he can live up to the hype that's followed him from high school to Michigan, he could be the game's best safety in 2020.


    Peppers has at least another year of college before he's draft-eligible, but the early look on his film is amazing, and he has big upside as a rangy free safety. 

6. Jalen Ramsey (25 Years Old)

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    Michael Chang/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 25

    Jalen Ramsey was undoubtedly one of the best players in college football in 2015. He's aggressive in coverage and has the range to attack the defense from a safety look or from a zone cornerback spot. He's also long enough, fast enough and has a killer vertical jump to take away receivers in man coverage. It's most likely he'll play safety in the pros, but no matter the position, Ramsey has high NFL talent.


    Thanks to his experience at the "Star" position, Ramsey has proved himself to be a hitter during the past three seasons at Florida State. He's not afraid to come down into the box and make plays, and he'll put the wood on receivers or tight ends crossing his space.


    Every time Ramsey is on the field, he's one of the best players out there. That will translate to the pros. Ramsey, who has played safety and cornerback, has the size, speed and instincts to be a day-one starter with big upside.


    There is already debate about whether Ramsey will play cornerback or free safety in the NFL, but no matter where he lines up, he has the goods to be a top-10 defensive back in five seasons.

5. Earl Thomas (31 Years Old)

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    2020 Age: 31

    You have to love watching Earl Thomas play in coverage. He's instinctive, fast and has unmatched range in the NFL. Thomas has made the single-high safety look sexy, and with his ability to close on the ball from center field, he's able to do things most defenders aren't in terms of alignment and positioning. Take all the football IQ, closing speed, anticipation and instincts, and put them into a safety; that'll give you Thomas.


    Thomas is a fierce hitter no matter if he's taking on a tight end, a running back or a wide receiver streaking over the middle. Sometimes, he'll bounce off a target, but those instances are rare.


    It's easy to think we've seen the best from Thomas. He's been an All-Pro and won a Super Bowl. At 26 years old already, Thomas' upside is on the decline.


    Judging today, Thomas might be the best defensive back in the NFL. He may, in fact, be the best defender outside of J.J. Watt. In 2020, he'll be well on his way to a gold jacket and still wrecking offenses.

4. Marcus Peters (27 Years Old)

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    Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

    2020 Age: 27

    Marcus Peters ranks as one of the most confident cornerbacks I've scouted in college football. That belief in his skills followed him to the NFL, and early on, he's showing all the traits to project as a great cover man by 2020. Peters is long but quick. He's aggressive and smart. He has the hands to catch the ball and the attitude to attack the pass like it's intended for him. He can be a bit too aggressive at times, and that's something to watch moving forward, but it would be a shock if he's not in the top cornerback conversation in 2020.


    A physical cornerback with good size, Peters is a strong tackler in the open field and when the ball is in front of him. He has to improve his angles to be a better tackler in pursuit, but by 2020, that shouldn't be an issue.


    Peters has all the skills—height, length, speed, toughness, vision—to be an elite NFL cornerback in 2020. He has to limit some of the big plays he surrendered as a rookie, but that will come with reps and time. 


    Peters' abilities were well-known at Washington, but off-field issues led to him slipping in the draft. If his first season is any indication of his long-term success, a lot of teams will regret that move.

3. Vernon Hargreaves (25 Years Old)

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    Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

    2020 Age: 25

    Vernon Hargreaves doesn't meet the current NFL trend of cornerbacks over 6 feet tall, but any evaluator who focuses in on that will miss his instincts, his amazing short-area quickness and agility, and the fact he's an amazing leaper—all traits that let him more than make up for being 5'11" in a tall man's world. Hargreaves is versatile in coverage, showing the quickness to play inside and the toughness to jam receivers on the edge, and has the skills to run in-phase with the best receivers college football had to offer.


    As will be the case for most cornerbacks, Hargreaves isn't a great tackler, but he's a very good tackler. If we're talking about his tackling in 2020, Hargreaves should be a Darrelle Revis-like player when bringing down the ball-carrier.


    Sometimes, scouting is overdone. Oftentimes, it's as easy as turning on the game and watching for the best football player on the field. Hargreaves is, most often, the best player on the field. With instincts, leaping ability, hands and a dogged coverage style, he has the tools to be great in the NFL.


    Hargreaves has yet to play a down in the NFL, but his combination of traits and upside shown at Florida look to put him at a very high level as soon as he does reach the pros.

2. Ronald Darby (26 Years Old)

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    Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

    2020 Age: 26

    To be great in man coverage, you need the speed to run in the hip pocket of a wide receiver and the agility to run through breaking routes. Former Florida State cornerback Ronald Darby has both at high levels. He's explosive in space and shows the instincts and eyes to jump routes and find the ball. And in his rookie season, he showed the hands to flip the field and generate turnovers as a cover man. Darby doesn't shy away from a big matchup and has been a lockdown cornerback since entering the lineup for the Bills.


    Making the move from FSU to the NFL has seemed easy for Darby, but one area where he can get better moving forward is in run support and as an open-field tackler. The aggressiveness is there now; he just has to improve his aiming point.


    Darby has all the tools to be great in this league. He's fast, confident, agile, long and fearless when the ball is in the air. If he can continue to improve his timing and anticipation, he could be the NFL's best cornerback by 2020.


    Darby hit the ground running in his first NFL season, and with his size, speed and confidence, it's easy to place him as one of the league's best when we move forward to 2020.

1. Tyrann Mathieu (28 Years Old)

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    2020 Age: 28

    Tyrann Mathieu has rare cover skills, and he's the most versatile player on this list in that regard. Mathieu can cover in the slot and on the edge. He can play free safety, nickel cornerback or outside cornerback. He's dominant in man coverage against receivers and tight ends. There's not much the Honey Badger can't do in coverage.


    He's only 5'9" and listed at 186 pounds, but Mathieu is a bullet when taking on ball-carriers. He's feisty, aggressive and has amazing closing speed to attack and secure the ball. And maybe most importantly, Mathieu doesn't miss many tackles.


    A healthy Mathieu was one of the NFL's best defenders during the 2015 season. Projecting ahead to 2020, when Mathieu is just 28 years old, it's easy to see him maintaining his status as the game's best defensive back.


    He may not have the size of Richard Sherman or the consistency of an Earl Thomas, but that's right now. In 2020, Mathieu will have the tools and production to be recognized as the best.

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