The position fans have the hardest time comparing players to each other and ranking them accordingly is cornerback. When people reach outside linebacker nominees in the Pro Bowl voting they look who has the most sacks and with defensive backs the number of interceptions is often the deciding factor. It’s just not that easy. To grade cornerbacks you have to watch the tape and understand their responsibility in the respective schemes. On film you can see if their coverage was that good the opposing quarterback didn’t want to throw their way, what position they were in prior to the pass, how they competed when the ball was in the air and which plays they were responsible for giving up. After watching multiple games of the best corners in the league, I decided to rank the top ten at the position up to this point of the season. This is an evaluation over a span of ten weeks, not who I think are the best in general. So some guys who have proven over time they are worthy of a spot didn’t make the cut, because they haven’t played at the level they are capable of. Here’s my list:
1. Patrick Peterson
What’s the biggest sign of a shutdown-corner? When you don’t hear or see his name throughout games. Opposing teams have been picking on the guy lined up across from Peterson ever since the Cardinals drafted him in 2011. P2 has just 12 solo tackles and four pass-deflections. Quarterbacks just don’t look his way and therefore he won’t show up in the box-score. Peterson held some of the top receivers in check once again this season. Dez Bryant had just two catches for 12 yards (and a TD) against him, Mike Evans one catch for 17 yards (before going off on Peterson’s replacement towards the end of the game) and despite being blown out 34-7 by the Eagles, Alshon Jeffery could only muster up three receptions for 31 yards against him. While he shadows the opponents’ number No. 1s every week, he doesn’t solely play man-coverage. The Cardinals play quite a bit of cover-three as well and Peterson simply hasn’t been beat deep in forever. According to Pro Football Focus and my film work this year the six-time Pro Bowler hasn’t allowed a receiver to surpass 73 yards over the last two-and-a-half seasons. There’s some young bucks coming for PP, but at this point he is still the gold-standard at the position.
2. Jimmy Smith
At the mid-season mark Smith led all defensive players with a league-low 24.5 QB rating allowed and I didn’t see a completion in the Tennessee game he was responsible for. He stays home on the right side of the field and takes the man lined up across from him out of the game. The Ravens CB uses a powerful stab to take away the acceleration his opponent is trying to gain and then stays on him throughout the play. He had a snap versus Cincinnati week one where he was one-on-one with Brandon LaFell. As the receiver motioned across the formation and caught a quick throw into the flats, Jimmy stayed step for step with it and held an absolute man-killer to a gain of four yards. Smith has already returned both an interception and a fumble for a touchdown. Together with another INT, he has recorded more yardage on returns this season (105) than he has allowed in coverage from the cornerback spot (100 on 12 catches). What makes this feat even more remarkable is the fact Smith has been dealing with an achilles injury ever since the Ravens’ week four matchup against their rival Steelers, which has forced him to miss half the practice time since then. The seventh-year man out of Colorado has been dealing with injuries throughout his career and once again has to do so this year, but he has been every bit of a lockdown corner so far.
3. Jalen Ramsey
This dude plays with an unbelievably cocky attitude and gets into the heads of the receivers. We all saw the mild-mannered A.J. Green wrestling and punching Ramsey to the ground week nine, because he poked the bear all day long. He even said himself that he told the star-wideout after every play how soft he was and that it was easy, while giving that extra push after the play routinely. I’m not on the side of either one of them, I just see the results (one catch for six yards) and that it’s even more frustrating for receivers going up against him while the actual play is running. The sophomore star is extremely physical off the ball and throughout routes, a trait he was forced to improve on heavily during last year’s battles against the Texans’ DeAndre Hopkins. Coming into the 2016 NFL Draft I had Ramsey as my second-highest prospect on the big board and the best DB prospect in years. His skill-set is just phenomenal. He’s fast, he’s long and he’s versatile. Even though he is a bump-and-run corner through and through in Sacksonville’s defense, he could fit pretty much any scheme and multiple positions. Ramsey has two picks, 13 pass-deflections and only one total penalty for unnecessary rougness called against him on the year. His fierce competitiveness and swagger are why I believe he will be one of the elite players at the position for the next decade.
4. Xavier Rhodes
Fans want to see cornerbacks record multiple interceptions and run them back to the house, but when you want to know how good Rhodes has really been, just look at the numbers some of the premiere receivers in the league have been held to by him. Michael Thomas – 45 yards, Marvin Jones – 42 yards, Mike Evans – 67 yards and Jordy Nelson – 60 yards. The Vikings plays some zone-coverage, but mainly they leave their corners on islands and Rhodes has been following the top receivers week after week. Mike Zimmers’ defense puts a lot of pressure on the pass protection of the opposing team by showing double A-gap blitz looks and either bringing both guys, just one of them or dropping completely out of it. In comnbination with the pass-rushers they have up front, that’s deadly. That’s also the reason Rhodes is confident enough to play his man so aggressively. He trusts his buddies and punishes receivers off the line of scrimmage. Last year’s Pro Bowler has yet to give up a touchdown on the year, while having recorded an INT himself. He probably won’t pick off five passes like he did last season, but I think he’s playing even better this year.
5. A.J. Bouye
The premiere free-agent signee at the cornerback position in the offseason had a bit of trouble early on, drawing three flags for pass-interference in week one, but he’s only been penalized once since then and been an absolute stud. Together with his running-mate Jalen Ramsey, the Jaguars have the clear-cut best cornerback-duo in the league right now. They complement each other very well, since Ramsey is so tall and physical to take away the big wideouts, while Bouye is quicker and can stay with smaller guys. Jacksonville figured that out in week six versus the Steelers. Antonio Brown had a monster game due to a combination of Ramsey being lined up against him, who’s just too long to change directions with the electric receiver, and the defense playing some soft zone with a big lead late. When Bouye manned up against the All-Pro receiver, I thought he did an outstanding job. He basically allowed two completions of about 20 yards and saw some quick screens thrown his way, where he had to fight through a blocker. That was it. At this point, number 21 has certainly made more big plays himself than he has allowed. He has already recorded three interceptions, including the game-winner in overtime versus the Chargers on Sunday.
6. Marshon Lattimore
This rookie is already one of the best cornerbacks in the business. On 23 targets this season he has allowed just ten catches for 107 yards and no touchdowns, while recording two interceptions himself, returning one of them for a score and the second one sealing their win over Chicago. These are historic numbers – not just for rookies. It’s not like opposing QBs don’t look his way either. When I put on the tape, they looked over to his side quite a bit, but they quickly took their eyes off that matchup when they see the coverage. Lattimore is the complete package. He can play press and stay glued to his man, he can play off-man and read the hips of his receiver, play underneath-coverage or sink deep. What makes him so special is the fact he is trusts his technique and doesn’t overcommit, while being the athlete to make up for being a step behind the target or flicking his hips 180 degrees in a heartbeat to react to breaks. For whoever thinks he isn’t physical enough, watch him basically pancake the Buccaneers’ Adam Humphries in week nine. You could honestly make a case for the rook being in the race for Defensive Player of the Year. He’s that special.
7. Josh Norman
If I was asked to point out the biggest trash-talker among this cornerback group, I would give it to Norman. His rise as a player began in 2015 with the Carolina Panthers, when he put up four INTs and two touchdowns as an early candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, but after the Panthers’ Super Bowl run, the front office surprisingly decided to rescind his franchise tag to put him on the open market. The Redskins quickly signed him to a multi-year contract and he has been a difference-maker for them ever since. Last year, the feisty corner finished among the top five in pass deflections, but somehow didn’t get recognized for it, as he dropped in the freefall to numbers 59 overall on the player’s Top 100 list. Norman doesn’t always travel with the opposing team’s number one receiver and tries to shut him down, but that’s just not his job description. Washington’s coaching staff leaves him on the left side for the most part and they play a ton of zone coverage – tampa-2, cover three, quarters. This allows number 24 to aggressively go after routes when he sees the receiver make a break. For as long as he is, Norman has excellent change-of-direction skills and routinely manages to squeeze a hand between the receiver and the ball. He gets burnt at times with double-moves and struggles to stay with receivers crossing the entire field when he is put in man-coverage, but he’s extremely smart, competitive when the ball is in the air and won’t back down from anybody.
8. Desmond Trufant
The Falcons had kind of been in a freefall since their 3-0 start, losing four of their last five games before dominating the Cowboys 27-7 last Sunday. That’s when I was reminded how good their number one corner truly is. He undercut his man routinely and if Dak Prescott wasn’t that cautious with the ball, trying to squeeze in some throws, Trufant could have easily had a couple of picks. Dan Quinn’s defense plays a lot of cover-three and man. Number 21 is a highly important piece to that, because he is so fluid, takes away the vertical game towards his side and doesn’t shy away from coming up and tackling. He truly is the Richard Sherman his head-coach envisioned him to become in their scheme, when he took over the job. The biggest difference between those two is the fact Sherm is a former receiver with excellent ball-skills and that’s why Trufant doesn’t put up any crazy interception numbers. I saw him get burnt once by the Jets’ Robby Anderson for a 24-yard TD, but outside of that he has played a phenomenal season after missing the second half of the 2016 regular season and the Falcons’ Super Bowl run.
9. Darius Slay
This guy probably is the most underrated player at the cornerback position today. Slay covers multiple receivers throughout games and has to deal with different body-types as the lone man on the single-receiver side for the majority of their snaps. He lines up in off-coverage a lot and reads what happens in front of him or a couple of steps away from the receiver to allow a release to either side and decide if he uses stack- or trail-technique. When opposing offenses try to take advantage of him giving some cushion on quick hitches and stuff like that, he limits them to minimum gain due to his excellent solo-tackling skills. Those come in handy as well when the Lions switch it up a little from the base cover-one and robber schemes to cover-three. When I watched Slay’s tape against Carolina week five, I thought he played a really good game, but he was beat twice by the size of Kelvin Benjamin, once on a touchdown on a fade route over the head of Slay and on the Panthers’ final drive on a critical third and nine, where the 6’5’’ receiver pushed off a little on a slant route, to put the game on ice. Other than that, Carolina’s big wideouts struggled to find any separation and that’s been the case for most receivers facing the Lions’ number one corner. With four interceptions and 13 pass deflections already, Slay is on pace for his best season yet as a pro.
10. Trumaine Johnson
A couple of years ago I thought the Rams had one of the most promising young cornerback-duos, but then they let Janoris Jenkins walk in free-agency. At that point I wasn’t really sure if that was the right move since the Jackrabbit was clearly the better player, but since then Trumaine Johnson has really come into his own. The Rams’ number one corner plays a ton of off-man coverage, where he keeps his eyes on the hips of his receiver and shows quick reflexes to react to breaks. He also likes to get up in press and control his man from the snap. In zone he trusts his eyes and doesn’t hesitate to jump routes. Johnson follows the opponent’s number one receiver for the most part, but is also used as a matchup-piece against tight-ends that are lined up wide due to his size and length. Those attributes bode well for him when going after the ball and sticking a hand in-between the palms of the receiver, as well as redirecting pass-catchers. on Sunday when he was lined up against the Texans’ DeAndre Hopkins he allowed just four catches for 68 yards, despite the receiver being targeted several times throughout the day.
Just outside: Chris Harris, Marcus Peters, Aquib Talib, Casey Hayward, Tre’Davious White, Patrick Robinson