The top-10 cornerback groups in the NFL

I’m not a fan of rankings. Fans, other media types and even players get upset by a list that is subjective and arbitrary. But here we are, in the heart of the NFL’s dead period. So, let’s do a list!

Building a great cornerback unit in this pass-happy era requires a bunch of things: A premier corner who you’re comfortable leaving 1-on-1 with the league’s best receivers; the intelligence to operate a pattern-match system — a series of hybrid man/zone plays — that now fill up the majority of every defensive playbook; and a quality slot corner.

Slot corner may be the most difficult position on the field sans quarterback. The volume of decisions, variation of route combinations and the speed at which everything needs to processed is on a another level. Navigating the increase in man-beater concepts like pick plays and pre-snap movement have added more emphasis to the position.

Have a great slot corner, and you’re on your way to building one of the league’s best units. Those outside guys better be pretty good, too.

Onto the rankings.

1. Denver Broncos

Key cornerbacks: Aqib Talib, Bradley Roby, Chris Harris Jr.

Denver’s unit remains the league’s gold standard. The “no fly zone” may sound like a corny nickname, but its reality.

Chris Harris Jr. is the best slot corner in the league. It’s a huge advantage. He’s a cheat code that allows Denver to body up and play press coverage. That fits Talib and Roby perfectly. They each compete their respective tails off, battling receivers all over the field. They’re not afraid to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage even without safety help.

Over the years, the trio has morphed to continue to terrorize opposing offenses, like a virus without a cure. The ability to line up anywhere — inside or outside — minimizes the impact of offensive pre-snap movement.

Opposing offenses had targeted the group by using a series of man-beater concepts: motioning or shifting, pick plays, stacked formations and on and on. New England exposed flaws in the constant barrage of press coverage, sending a pair of inside receivers over the middle of the field, forcing the cornerbacks in coverage to run across one another’s face. They would either run smack into a pick like Sideshow Bob stepping on rakes, or at least have to decelerate and gift space for receivers to gallop into.

Denver adapted. They began playing more hole coverages, in which corners “pass off” receivers that crisscross the field. And they did the same against bunched formations — using various banjo coverages that morph on the fly and attack route paths rather than specific receivers.

Talib remains as good as ever; full of ferocity and bite and play making and football intellect. Roby’s game has developed more from the neck up. But it’s Harris who’s the star of the show. It’s rare to find his understanding of route combinations, instincts, ball skills, competitiveness and athleticism in one nifty package. It’s even rarer to see that guy play equally good in the slot as he does outside.

New head coach Vance Joseph inherits a special unit (that front is pretty good, too).

The former Dolphins defensive coordinator likes to use more of the league’s en-vogue cover-3 match looks. But he’ll likely keep everything rolling the same as in 2016 as long as Talib and Harris continue to play at the highest level.

2. Atlanta Falcons

Key cornerbacks: Desmond Trufant, Robert Alford, Brian Poole, Jalen Collins

This is what future cornerback rooms will look like: A bunch of pterodactyls, who play in a press-and-trail system, and can slide to multiple spots when required.

The Falcons are already there. Speed, physicality, length, versatility and intellect, they have it.

Desmond Trufant may be the best cornerback in the league. Ask him to play any technique and he has it down. Want him to man-up and shuffle receivers to certain spots to help within a coverage principle? That’s easy. What about sitting in off-coverage, reading the game, flipping his hips and breaking on the ball? No problem. And how about asking him to read route combinations and vacillate between man or zone converge? Pfft, please.

Trufant’s athletic gifts allow him to make plays on the ball once he arrives, his intellect gets him there early. His eight week stretch to open 2016 — prior to an injury — was as good as any in the league.

It’s not only Trufant, though. The group was electric without their best player. Dan Quinn’s cover-3 match system helps. It puts an emphasis on jamming receivers at the line of scrimmage, then dropping to read the quarterback. Length and speed are crucial. Atlanta has it in droves.

The team has also put an emphasis on simplicity. It has allowed them to incorporate the likes of Brian Poole — an undrafted rookie in 2016 — and Jalen Collins. They will carry out simplistic assignments inside without having to worry about safety rotations or the matchup stuff Trufant and Alford have to concern themselves with (Collins rotates between multiple spots).

They should be gunning for the Broncos’ top spot in 2017.

3. New York Giants

Key cornerbacks: Janoris Jenkins, Dominique Rogers-Cromartie, Eli Apple

The Giants invested heavily in their cornerback room for 2016. And it paid off.

Janoris Jenkins’ development was huge. Before he arrived in New York on a big-money deal, he was a much better zone corner than he was in man coverage. He gambled a lot, made a ton of plays and gifted his fair share of yardage by peeking into the backfield and getting burned.

Then, out of nowhere, he transitioned into one of the NFL’s premier 1-on-1 corners. There was little to no guessing. Just lining up and destroying whichever fool dared line up across from him.

The shift was a game-changer. Jenkins was able to follow opposing №1 receivers all over the field. He held them in check (including one of the best performance of the year against Dez Bryant — he even followed Dez into the slot), allowing the team to double-up the second receiver or send more exotic blitz packages.

It’s Rodgers-Cromartie who makes the thing tick, though. At least he did in 2016, who knows if he (or Jenkins) can maintain their elite-level performance into next year and beyond.

Rodgers-Cromartie’s conversion into the slot was one of the most under-discussed storylines of the 2016 season. Playing on the boundary is tough, but there’s a limited number of routes, space and concepts for receivers to work with. Playing inside is another world. Double everything. And half the cornerback’s reaction time.

DRC was as good as any slot corner in the league last year. He conceded 3.5 yards per pass attempt in 2016, that was good for ninth in the league among cornerbacks.

Replicating their performance in 2017 is going to be tough. Rodgers-Cromartie is another year older, and Jenkins has never put in an All-Pro caliber year like he did in 2016. Regardless, they deserve the third spot on the list.

4. Minnesota Vikings

Key cornerbacks: Xavier Rhodes, Terrance Newman, Trae Waynes, Mackensie Alexander

Talking of under-discussed storylines, this Vikings unit features two:

A) Terrance Newman is good at the age of 38.

B) Xavier Rhodes has developed into an upper echelon boundary corner.

Rhodes deserves to be mentioned alongside the game’s elite: Richard Sherman, Patrick Peterson and Desmond Trufant. In fact, Rhodes gifted 6.9 yards per pass attempt last season, a better figure than Sherman, Peterson, Trufant, Marcus Peters, Josh Norman and Darius Slay.

In terms of talent, the Vikings have as much as anyone. But they also have questions to answer: Newman has to age at some point (right?). Can they replace Captain Munnerlyn? And will former top picks Trae Waynes and Mackensie Alexander develop?

Answering those questions will decide whether they occupy the top spot this time next year, or plummet out of the top 10 all together.

Waynes showed encouraging signs on his way to playing 56 percent of the team’s snaps last year. Alexander played only 6 percent of the snaps during his rookie year.

Newman is the key, though. If he maintains his level for another year, the Vikings will have uncommon depth and versatility.

5. Arizona Cardinals

Key cornerbacks: Patrick Peterson, Justin Bethel, Tyvon Branch, Tyrann Mathieu

Arizona’s defense was shredded early last season, in large part because of the disaster standing at its second cornerback spot. Rookie Brandon Williams was torched, then benched. The defense immediately got better.

The Cardinals should be in the top 5 of the list every year that Patrick Peterson remains a member of their franchise. He’s the best man-to-man corner walking the earth.

Peterson shadows and blankets opposing №1 receivers like no one else in the league. Mike Renner of ProFootballFocus detailed how Peterson tracks №1’s in this excellent piece.

He’s playing at a peak Darrelle Revis level, with a dash of Odell Beckham Jr. thrown in for good effect.

Cornerbacks shouldn’t be able to do this:

Your two options to attack Peterson? One, shift his man into the slot and attack him with in-out/out-in double-moves:

Or, ideally, have an all-everything freak like Julio Jones. And even then, it might not work.

Peterson’s matchup with Jones in Week 11 of last season was one of the single most joyous viewing experiences for football snobs. One of the best players at separating from press coverage, against one of the best jamming corners on earth. It was a clash of titans.

Peterson followed Jones all over the field, stone walling the receiver in ways you never see.

I included Tyrann Mathieu on this list. That tips the Cardinals into the top 5. In reality, Mathieu is a position-less player who doesn’t conform to our silly footballing constructs. He played more middle of the field safety in 2016 than in previous years. He will likely align as a freewheeling defensive chess piece next season, seeing a fair few reps in the slot.

6. Los Angeles Chargers

Key cornerbacks: Jason Verrett, Casey Heyward, Travon Reed, Craig Mager

The Chargers’ defensive front seems to claim the team’s defensive accolades, but they’re really good on the back end, too.

Jason Verrett is one of the best in the business when healthy, but started just four games in 2016. He lacks the physical tools of the likes of Patrick Peterson and Xavier Rhodes, but his coverage skills match anyone’s.

Casey Heyward is a nice foil opposite him. Like Verrett, he isn’t physically imposing. But he makes up for it with his knack for being in the right place at the right time, and doing so with a relentlessness usually reserved for those who are trying to make the team.

If L.A. is able to keep both on the field, they’ll have one of the most effective cornerback tandems in the league.

7. New England Patriots

Key cornerbacks: Malcolm Butler, Stephon Gilmore, Eric Rowe, Cyrus Jones, Justin Coleman

There’s change in New England. Logan Ryan is out, Stephon Gilmore is in and Malcom Butler remains (for now).

The Pats’ group has size, length and physicality.

Their top guys compete. Butler built his reputation on understanding the nuances of the position and fighting like crazy. Eric Rowe’s rise was different. The Eagles were happy to trade him at the start of last season. Then he got with Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia and (like always) everything changed. The light bulb went on and he began to match his extraordinary frame with patience and toughness.

Gilmore is the most intriguing piece. On the surface, he fits everything the Patriots are looking for: experience in press coverage; the understanding of pattern-match coverages; experience playing on an island; and solid run defense.

His best fit is in a press-heavy system. His length allows him to sink his hands into a receiver’s chest while maintaining positions. And it gives him an out even when his technique suffers. Gilmore breaks up passes for fun.

The value of Gilmore’s run defense has been much discussed. He’s not a difference-maker, but he’s above league-average for his position. Yes, there are shots of him pulling out of plays. Those are the ones folks always point to. Obviously, that’s not ideal. But they’re infrequent.

Being a good run defender isn’t about physicality (though it helps). It resides in the absence of mistakes: executing your assignment within the defensive construct.

There are many more plays of Gilmore doing just that: Setting a hard edge, holding the outside shoulder, stacking a blocker, shedding, finding the ball and making a tackle in space.

That’s what Belichick is looking for. Guys who conform to the defensive construct — not undercutting blocks in a bid to make highlight reel plays — and ones who can make 1-on-1 tackles in space.

Run defense is a bonus, coverage skills are why the Patriots doled out a big-money free agent deal to the former Bill.

Gilmore excels in press. But he’s also shown he can be effective in off coverage. I’m not sure why, but the Bills used Gilmore a ton in off coverage in 2016 (perhaps that’s why they have a new staff for 2017). His instincts are excellent. He arrives in the right places at the right times.

Adding Gilmore was not your run-of-the-mill free agent signing. It was a swing for the fences. He was a streaky player in Buffalo. Belichick hopes to craft him into one of the pillars of a league-leading defense.

The question for Belichick and company remains: Who plays inside?

Logan Ryan took his talents to Nashville in free agency. And while Patrick Chung saw plenty of time in the slot in 2016, he’s at his best when they’re able to move him to a number of different spots.

The Patriots will be hoping for a leap from 2016 second-round pick Cyrus Jones.

Jones’ first year with the Pats wasn’t pretty. Justin Coleman and Jonathan Jones jumped ahead of the former Alabama four-down star in the defensive back pecking order. Jones wound up playing 14 percent of the team’s defensive snaps. And he was featured on 11 percent of special teams plays, a big part of his pre-draft value.

With Butler sticking around for at least another year, and Rowe receiving a full offseason of development with the team, the group has a chance to be special.

8. Kansas City Chiefs

Key cornerbacks: Marcus Peters, Steven Nelson, Terrance Mitchell, Phillip Gaines

How do you go about describing Marcus Peters? He’s the leader of the Chiefs’ wolf pack and sets the tone for everyone else. Well, he and Eric Berry, but we’re leaving safeties out of this conversation.

Watching Peters gives you a visceral reaction that’s tough to put into words. He’s like a playground bully who steals quarterbacks’ lunch money and then taunts them with it.

The start of his career has been excellent. He’s one of the best pure press corners in the league. He doesn’t re-route receivers like Richard Sherman or Patrick Peterson, but he’s equally as effective. He sits on their hip, biding his time, then out leaps or bullies them out of the way for the ball. His instincts for locating and tracking the ball over his shoulder are mesmerizing.

There is boom-or-bust to his game, though. He attacks the ball on every play. That has led to 14 interceptions through his first 31 games, but it’s also why he conceded a costly 8.5 yards per pass attempt in 2016.

His pattern reading when up in press is astonishing. When he is asked to sit off, however, he can be prone to biting on pump fakes, head fakes, and play fakes. His instincts to make a game-changing play can overrule simple coverage principles and his own better judgement, like that early-round MLB draft prospect who begins to see his first Major League caliber curveball — he knows he shouldn’t swing at it, but he just can’t help himself.

There was a mild improvement in his second year. It’s partly why his interception total was down. But it added more overall value to the Chiefs defense.

Steven Nelson has also provided a surprising amount of early production. He assumed a full-time job in 2016, lining up predominantly in the slot. But he’s capable of shifting to wherever the defense needs him. Nelson’s blurry short area speed makes him a natural to play inside. He has the makings of a top tier slot defender.

9. Jacksonville Jaguars

Key cornerbacks: Jalen Ramsey, AJ Bouye, Aaron Colvin

The football hipster in me wanted to put the Jaguars in the top 5. The potential is there. But I just couldn’t bring myself to do it without seeing them play a snap together.

They have a chance to be outrageously good.

Jalen Ramsey is already on his way to joining the league’s top group. Ramsey, like most rookie corners, struggled early in the season. He was beaten up in press coverage and appeared a beat off when making decisions.

With that said, his last five games showed why he was a top-5 pick in last year’s draft. Simply put: He was stunning. He was left to do what he does best: go make plays. There was less thinking, an uptick in man coverage and a number of ridiculous plays.

There were plays like this:

And this:

Ramsey closed the season conceding only 6.5 yards per pass attempt.

How A.J. Bouye slots in across from Ramsey on the opposite boundary will be interesting. He joined this offseason on a big free-agent deal after a breakout year in Houston.

Bouye is a former undrafted free agent who wins with physicality, grit and guile, not with overwhelming athleticism. While Ramsey will be responsible for the spectacular moments, Bouye will be there consistently. Both get the job done.

Jacksonville will be able to simplify things. They will plant Bouye and Ramsey on opposite islands and let them go to work against whoever is across from them, rather than having to track and move with whichever receiver they’re earmarked to cover that week. It’s a luxury that will (say it with me) help defend against the volume of pre-snap movement opposing offenses will throw at them.

Aaron Colvin is the wild card here. He has a lanky frame, with arms so long he can tie his shoelaces standing up. They’re unnatural proportions for a slot cornerback. But if Colvin harnesses his ability — he was excellent in spurts last year — he has a chance to be special.

With his frame, Colvin provides the Jags with one of the most versatile groups in the NFL. Their top-three guys never need to move. Motion a big-bodied receiver into the slot? fine. Colvin can take them. There’s no need for Jacksonville’s corners to move. That helps simplify their assignments and helps to conceal coverages.

10. Seattle Seahawks

Key cornerbacks: Richard Sherman, DeShawn Shead, Jeremy Lane, Neiko Thorpe, Shaquill Griffin

It feels weird not having the Seahawks higher on the list, particularly with Richard Sherman in the midst of his Hall of Fame prime. I guess they’ll have to be content with having a top-3 position group at every other spot on their defense.

DeShawn Shead’s injury is the issue. Who knows when he will return from his injury and what he’ll look like when he does come back. The Seahawks are targeting the early part of the season, but starting on the PUP list seems like the likely outcome, per Pro Football Talk.

Shead is a fine player. He isn’t a star, but he’s the glue guy you need to turn a good defense into a great one. He works his tail off. Sometimes that leads to mental lapses and penalties, but it encompasses the Seahawks’ defensive profile.

If not Shead, Seattle is going to need its youngsters, Neiko Thorpe and Shaq Griffin, to step up.

Originally published at www.all22.com on June 23, 2017.

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Senior Football Analyst at Cox Media’s sports vertical’s: All-22 (NFL) and SEC Country.

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Oliver Connolly

Oliver Connolly

Senior Football Analyst at Cox Media’s sports vertical’s: All-22 (NFL) and SEC Country.

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