As someone who focuses his work on the quarterback position, I have long argued that playing QB is one of the toughest jobs in all of sports. After all, you are trying to make reads and decisions in the blink of an eye while large people are trying to put you in the hospital.
Not for the faint of heart.
But if there is an equally tough position on the defensive side of the football, it is cornerback. After all, not only do you have to battle with some of the sport’s best athletes, you are doing so with one arm figuratively tied behind your back. With how the modern rules tilt the playing field in favor of the passing game, cornerbacks are facing a tougher and tougher challenge each week.
Which makes what these 11 athletes — and really all of the cornerbacks in the game today — do on a weekly basis that more impressive.
Here are the NFL’s top 11 outside cornerbacks.
Marcus Peters, Baltimore Ravens
(Mitchell Layton-USA TODAY Sports)
We kick things off with one of two cornerback duos that will appear on this list. Marcus Peters is one of the NFL’s best playmakers at the CB spot, and as Pro Football Focus noted he has been dominant at the catch point since entering the league in 2015. During that time he has 31 interceptions — most out of any CB — and 52 pass breakups. Last season was another solid year from Peters, as he tallied five more interceptions along with another five passes broken up. He can be aggressive at times, as he was on this long touchdown pass from Patrick Mahomes: https://twitter.com/CJScoobs/status/1311134214629126150 But with his production numbers, the Baltimore Ravens will live with his penchant for being aggressive.
Darious Williams, Los Angeles Rams
(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)
We turn now to the start of our second tandem of cornerbacks, with Darious Williams of the Los Angeles Rams. In his third season in the league Williams took a huge step forward in 2020, playing over 900 snaps and locking down one of the cornerback spots for Brandon Staley’s defense. He was impressive in coverage, allowing a completion of just 48.7% when targeted, and an opposing passer rating of a mere 55.4 when quarterbacks threw in his direction. His 11 pass breakups were a career-high mark. Williams also turned in one of the bigger plays of the post-season with this Pick-Six of Russell Wilson: https://twitter.com/ClutchPointsApp/status/1348039502611107843?s=20 Everything about this play is perfect, from the recognition to the burst downhill to beat the football to the spot, as well as the play strength to work through the block and step in front of the receiver.
William Jackson III, Washington Football Team
Perhaps it is a function of playing for the Cincinnati Bengals the past few seasons, but William Jackson III might be the best cornerback that remains under-the-radar in today’s game. With his move to the Washington Football Team, that might change this season. Jackson had another great year last season for the Bengals, allowing a completion percentage of just 52.5% when opposing quarterbacks targeted him in the passing game. Jackson also intercepted a pass and had five pass breakups to add to his resume. An area of his game that continues to improve is his tackling. Last season Jackson notched a career-high 43 tackles, and missed on just four attempts. This stat, and video, illustrates what Jackson brings to the nation’s capital: https://twitter.com/JHawkChalk_/status/1374751119767900165 With impressive ball skills and great feel for the position, Jackson is among the game’s best at the position.
Denzel Ward, Cleveland Browns
(Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports)
One has to love what the Cleveland Browns are putting together, even if you are not a fan of the team. After making a run to the AFC Divisional Round a year ago, Cleveland has continued to assemble an impressive defense. They added Greg Newsome II in the draft along with linebacker/slot defender Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, and the free agency additions of John Johnson III and Troy Hill make this an imposing secondary on paper. But Denzel Ward might be the biggest piece of that unit. Since entering the league in 2018 Ward has been a standout coverage corner, and last season was another impressive year. While he did allow six touchdowns when targeted, Ward also notched a pair of interceptions, ten pass breakups and one of the better tackles you’ll see a CB make: https://twitter.com/AnthonyRMPerry/status/1321248810593480705 Given their moves this off-season, Cleveland must believe the way to the AFC Championship game starts with stopping Patrick Mahomes. If they accomplish that goal, Ward will be a huge part of the effort.
James Bradberry, New York Giants
The acquisition of James Bradberry by the New York Giants was one of the quieter moves last off-season, but it paid off in a big way for Joe Judge and Dave Gettleman. Bradberry had his best season as a professional, setting career marks with interceptions (three, tying his previous-high set in 2019) and passes defended (14). He also allowed just 44 receptions and a completion percentage of just 56.4%, also career-best numbers. What stands out watching him is his patience and technique. You saw this early, in a Week 1 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers: https://twitter.com/thecheckdown/status/1305672126611861504 Many cornerbacks panic in this situation and attack early, leading to a pass interference penalty. Bradberry is patient and plays “up through the pocket,” punching the football out and breaking up a potential big play. The Giants are quietly assembling a stout roster — although their success or failure hinges on quarterback Daniel Jones — and Bradberry is a huge part of what they have built on the defensive side of the football.
Stephon Gilmore, New England Patriots
(AP Photo/Reed Hoffmann)
Last year might have been a down year for both the New England Patriots defense on the whole and cornerback Stephon Gilmore, but there is no denying that Gilmore is one of the top CBs in the game. Just a year removed from winning Defensive Player of the Year honors, Gilmore gives head coach Bill Belichick the ability to play matchups on the defensive side of the football. You might see him covering a receiver like Tyreek Hill or Deebo Samuel on first down, and then matched up with a tight end like Travis Kelce or George Kittle later in the drive. Belichick trusts Gilmore implicitly, and that frees up the Patriots to play with a numbers advantage in the rest of the secondary. Gilmore dealt with some injuries last season, and is now a holdout from mandatory mini-camp over the status of his contract, but a fully-healthy Gilmore is still one of the league’s best.
Tre’Davious White, Buffalo Bills
The AFC East is slowly entering a cornerback arm’s race, and that leads us to our next member of the division to place on this list. Tre’Davious White has quickly become one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks thanks to a combination of veteran savvy and athleticism. He has the movement skills to stick on receivers running any route, but what stands out to me is his awareness in zone coverage situations. Take this interception of Justin Herbert: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UbMeLPHIjZM This is a veteran play from White, who reads the mind of Herbert and steps in front of the throw, making a pivotal interception in a big spot for the Buffalo Bills. This ability in zone coverage was noted by Pro Football Focus, who found that “…[White] stands out as one of the better zone-coverage cornerbacks in the NFL, ranking in the 94th percentile of all cornerbacks on such plays during the 2020 season.”
Xavien Howard, Miami Dolphins
(ALLEN EYESTONE/The Palm Beach Post)
We round out our tour of the AFC East’s cornerbacks with a stop in South Beach. Brian Flores is putting together an impressive secondary of his own, and cornerback Xavien Howard is a critical component of that unit. Last season Howard was targeted a career-high 90 times — due in part to the presence of Byron Jones on the other side of the field, another tremendous cornerback — and Howard responded with a career year. The cornerback set a career-high mark of ten interceptions, and also broke up ten passes, another career-best number. Howard allowed an NFL passer rating of just 53.0 when targeted, again a personal best. This play against Justin Herbert (the second time the young QB has been featured in this list) dives into both Howard’s technique, and what Flores has designed on the defensive side of the football: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D87m0ZuUCWo Given his success last season, one cannot help but wonder if it is Jones who faces the lion’s share of targets next year, and responds with a huge season of his own.
Marlon Humphrey, Baltimore Ravens
(Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports)
Marlon Humphrey spends the majority of his time in the slot for the Baltimore Ravens. Last season, for example, he saw 554 snaps inside and 420 on the outside. But his ability to play in both alignments — and at such a high level — makes him a necessary inclusion on this list. Humphrey is a pass-defending machine, who has notched double-digit pass breakups in each of the last three seasons. He has great feel for the position, knowing when to drive on routes or to peel off defenders to help elsewhere in the secondary. When evaluating him one must also remember that the Ravens play a ton of man coverage, so his versatility in the inside and on the outside in such a scheme makes what he does so much more impressive.
Jaire Alexander, Green Bay Packers
(Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
When you think about cornerbacks that had career-best years in 2020, the list begins with Jaire Alexander of the Green Bay Packers. After allowing NFL passer ratings of 94.0 in 2018 and 92.0 in 2019, Alexander allowed a career-best NFL passer rating of just 54.3 last season. He was targeted 76 times, allowing just 37 receptions for 353 yards and a mere 9.5 yards per reception all career bests. Alexander also notched three interceptions, another personal best, and broke up another 14 passes, tying his mark set back in 2019. He also notched a pair of interceptions against Tom Brady in the NFC Championship game, and his sticky coverage on Mike Evans led to a third: https://twitter.com/bhjournalist/status/1353467065521332225 For many, Alexander’s 2020 campaign makes him the top CB in the league. Given what he shows on film, that is a very defensible position.
Jalen Ramsey, Los Angeles Rams
(Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)
But for my money, the versatility and skill-set of Jalen Ramsey puts him atop the list. A season ago Brandon Staley’s defense, relying on a number of two-high safety looks pre-snap, was the talk of the NFL world. It led to great pieces like this from Seth Galina, this from Steven Ruiz, and it helped form the foundation from this piece of my own. But what really helped that defense was the player Staley was able to align in the “Star” role. Ramsey. Ramsey’s varied skill-set allowed Staley to play him on the inside, or on the outside, and/or against any kind of receiving threat. You might see him matched against tight ends, big-bodied wide receivers, or even shifty slot receivers. With his movement skills and technique, Ramsey can cover them all. I tried to illustrate that in this piece looking at him and incoming rookie Jaycee Horn, but this clip is a great example: If I were building a modern NFL secondary, Ramsey would be my first choice at cornerback. That makes him the best in the game in my book.