Starter(s): It's only taken a couple of years for the secondary to emerge into an elite unit. Two of the four starters, Reed and McAlister, are Pro Bowl players, while Gary Baxter may earn a trip to Honolulu in due time.
Reed is the center fielder of this group: He has virtually no flaws in his game. Reed is a ball hawk that uses great coordination, footwork and fluidity to break on the ball in coverage situations. Through intense study of film, Reed has further enhanced his anticipation and understanding of tendencies, formations and patterns that the offense will show in a given game. As a blitzer, the former Miami Hurricanes standout uses keenness and speed to blow a play up behind the line of scrimmage.
Playing alongside of Reed should be third-year player Will Demps. Demps lacks ideal size and speed, but he has a knack for making big plays and is a willing tackler. For Demps to develop into a better player, he will need to do a better job of sticking with his assignments in the passing game.
In front of Reed and Demps is one of the better cornerback tandems in the NFL. McAlister has always been on the periphery of greatness, but was never able to break through until a year ago. The four-year starter cemented his status as one of the two or three top corners in the game by shutting down nearly every top wideout he faced a year ago. The list includes players like Torry Holt, Terrell Owens, Chad Johnson, Rod Smith and Derrick Mason.
McAlister is at his best in man-to-man coverage situations. He has the strength to stalemate receivers at the line of scrimmage, and the speed to run with them down the field. McAlister also possesses good technique as a tackler, and he's willing to take on anyone inside of the box.
Like McAlister, Baxter is an impressive bump-and-run cover corner. He's a strong, physical player that has the long wingspan, straight-line speed and leaping ability to fragment pass plays down the field. Where Baxter struggles is in zone coverage situations. He lacks the hip movement and flexibility to take on quicker wideouts that run disciplined patterns.
Backups: Although Demps should ultimately hold on to his starting job; Corey Fuller and Chad Williams will challenge him. Fuller will have to be more versatile this season, as the coaches will switch him back and forth between safety and cornerback. While Fuller has clearly lost a step, he is still a key asset to the team because he is smart, steady and technically sound.
Williams is an interesting prospect at strong safety because has the speed, hands, compact build and toughness to play the position.
Dale Carter is expected to take over for Fuller as the nickelback. It's hard to gauge how valuable Carter will be in that role. Certainly, he's has the experience and tools to be an effective man-to-man cover corner, and he is a physical presence, but he is also penalty and injury prone.
The rest of the backups are talented, yet inexperienced. Sapp has the physical tools to succeed, but he needs to iron out his mechanics, and prove that he has the instincts needed to be a solid safety. Raymond Walls and Lance Frazier, the backup cornerbacks to Carter, lack ideal size but possess great speed and quickness.