The cornerback position is one that is never undervalued and always wrongly estimated. The way we as fans evaluate the cornerback position is simply wrong. Interceptions and passes defended don’t prove who can cover a receiver well. Those stats only give credit to the flashy and athletic guys. Advanced statistics and film are the only ways to accurately evaluate a cornerback at the NFL level.
One statistic that I will use a lot in this article is yards per snap in coverage and it’s measured by taking a player’s yards allowed and dividing it by their total snaps in coverage. You won’t find that stat on any football analysis website because I calculated it myself. It gives context to the number of yards a corner allows in a quantifying, and therefore comparable, way. Obviously, there is a lot more that goes into the process, but that statistic has proven to be very reliable. So, let’s make some fan bases mad and see who did, and didn’t make the cut.
10. Charvarius Ward, Kansas City Chiefs
Who? Char-what? Yes, a cornerback who most people probably haven’t heard of is unequivocally a top-10 corner after his breakout sophomore season. Ward had All-Pro-level advanced statistics last season but has garnered little to no attention from the public. Let’s change that. Ward had the second-best completion percentage against and the best among corners who started all 16 games at 47.2%; he also had a top-10 passer rating at 65.2. On a per-target basis, Ward was nothing short of brilliant and his total production was of the same quality. Among corners, Ward played the most snaps in coverage by over 100. He played 808 snaps while the next highest corner played only 700.
So, not only was Ward on the field for almost every single defensive snap, but he only let up 629 yards on those plays. That means that Ward only let up 0.78 yards per snap in coverage. For context, Ward’s yards per snap in coverage, completion percentage, and passer rating from last season are all better than those of Marshon Lattimore, Darius Slay, Jaire Alexander, Marcus Peters, and Jalen Ramsey. So, if you’re wondering why some of those guys aren’t on this list and Ward is, there is your answer. The only reason he isn’t higher is that he has only had one good season whereas some of these guys are bona fide studs. Nevertheless, Ward is going to be a superstar and he’s about to put the league on notice.
9. Marcus Peters, Baltimore Ravens
Marcus Peters has jumped around quite a bit in his young career, but I think he has finally found a home in Baltimore. Peters talks a lot of trash, but he can definitely hold his own out there and back it up. Peters’ 55.6% completion percentage and 71.4 passer rating are both respectable figures for a top-10 player, especially when his mid-season trade is taken into account. Peters had to learn a whole new playbook and create chemistry with 10 strangers halfway through the year and still managed to put up legitimate CB1 numbers. In fact, Peters improved a ton from last season. His 0.93 yards per snap in coverage was a great deal better than his 2018 figure and is very good for a player who has a tendency to get burned deep.
Although I hate qualifying a player’s worth based on interceptions (INTs) and passes defended (PD), they are an important stat for Peters because they highlight his best feature as a defender: his play-making ability. Peters’ 5 INTs and 14 PD ranked fourth and thirteenth respectively among corners. Peters is one of the most athletic corners in the game, he has invaluable physical gifts, and he’s finally starting to put it all together. He is just getting started in the league and Baltimore is the perfect place for him to grow and develop a more technically sound skill set.
8. Steven Nelson, Pittsburgh Steelers
Steven Nelson broke out in a huge way last season. The Steelers really figured out how to bring out the best in their corners because they revitalized the careers of both Steven Nelson and Joe Haden. The Steelers gave a 26-year-old Nelson their number 2 corner spot after a decent few seasons in Kansas City. In his first season in Pittsburgh, Nelson had a top-10 completion percentage (50.0%) and passer rating (65.8) and he also only let up 0.84 yards per snap in coverage. While that isn’t quite as good as Ward’s, it’s still better than every player I compared him to (Lattimore, Slay, etc.).
One thing that dropped Nelson slightly is his CB2 position on the Steelers. It’s difficult to weed out which second option corners are actually good and which ones just face easier wideouts. After watching film on the Steelers and Nelson, it’s obvious that their scheme does not have the number one corner follow a single receiver. Nelson played on the right and Haden played on the left and they both had their fair share of WR1 matchups last season. The same goes for Marcus Peters and Charvarius Ward (the Chiefs had Breeland and Ward play all over the place). After all his lock-down coverage stats, his 9.0% missed tackle rate was just icing on the YAC and run support cake. Nelson has finally started to realize his potential with the Steelers and his play will only go up from here.
7. Joe Haden
The number one corner on the top-5 Steelers defense last season was 30-year-old Joe Haden, and he played all-around great football last season. In 612 snaps, Haden only let up 487 yards, which is 0.80 yards per snap in coverage. His 53.7% completion percentage and 66.5 passer rating against ranked 22nd and 11th respectively among corners last season. Haden’s total production and per-target statistics were both top-notch because Haden still has plenty left in the tank. Like Peters, Haden excels because he is an athletic playmaker, and the Steelers were able to bring that back out in him last season.
Haden’s 5 INTs and 17 PDs both ranked fourth in the league as Haden clawed and swatted his way back to the top of the cornerback hierarchy. He is extremely physical for his size at 5’11” 195 lbs and you can see the ferocity in his eyes through the television and the helmet visor. That’s just the kind of player Joe Haden is. It doesn’t matter where the ball is or how perfectly it’s thrown, Haden is going to make a play on it. He made his first Pro Bowl since 2014 last season and I expect him to patrol that Steelers secondary at an elite level next season while continuing to help develop his young, superstar counterpart, Steven Nelson.
6. Casey Hayward
Opposing offenses do not like to throw the ball near Casey Hayward. In fact, I think teams just scheme around him because he’s basically just a human clamp. Hayward played 544 snaps in coverage last season and was only targeted 48 times. That means Hayward was only targeted on 8.8% of his snaps. That’s only 3 targets a game. I mean, he probably gets bored out there after a while. As you can imagine, that means his yards per snap in coverage was absolutely stellar at 0.72 yards. The Chargers have themself a true glue stick in Casey Hayward.
Where Hayward struggles slightly is in his per-target efficiency. Hayward’s 62.5% completion percentage and 98.7 passer rating against both rank dead last on this list and are both considered actively bad. Although that seems really inefficient, it just proves my theory that Hayward isn’t targeted unless his man is wide open. Another positive to Hayward’s game is tackling as he only missed 8.6% of his tackles last season which, for a corner, is extremely low. Quarterbacks fear Hayward for his ability to lock up the number one receivers both before and after the catch. The dude let up less than two receptions a game last season; it doesn’t get much better than that.
5. Byron Jones, Miami Dolphins
Anyone who thinks Byron Jones had an off-year last season is sorely mistaken. You don’t casually toss a player $57 million guaranteed without proof that they deserve it. Similar to Hayward, opposing offenses don’t like to throw the ball at Byron Jones. He was only targeted on 11.1% of his snaps last season and let up a shockingly low 0.68 yards per snap in coverage. That’s the second-best figure on this list behind only Richard Sherman, and Jones played in a really poor Dallas Cowboys secondary, so it’s not like he was getting a whole lot of help from his teammates.
The reason Jones is higher than Hayward is that they were approached similarly by their opponents, but Jones just slightly outplayed Hayward in almost every aspect. His 53.1% completion percentage was top-20 and his 87.7 passer rating against was… not. But, when you consider how little he was targeted, it just reinforces the idea that Jones is such a hindrance to opposing number one wideouts that his target share is limited from the get-go. Also, if you thought Hayward’s missed tackle percentage was good, then Jones’ 1 missed tackle and 2.1% rate are both out of this world. If Casey Hayward is a glue stick, then Byron Jones is that bottled Elmer’s glue: both do the same job, but one is just a little bit better and more expensive.
4. Marlon Humphrey, Baltimore Ravens
Marlon Humphrey secured his first All-Pro selection last season after an amazing breakout performance. When you grab three interceptions and return two of them for touchdowns, it’s safe to say you’ll gather some interest, but the hype around Humphrey is much more than just fan hysteria. Among corners that played in more than 11 games, Humphrey had the lowest yards per target with 5.0 and the lowest yards per reception at 8.6. Teams refuse to test the speedy 6-footer deep, but even though teams almost exclusively throw the ball short against Humphrey, his per-target stats are still elite. His 58.0% completion percentage and 68.4 passer rating against are both unthinkable considering the average depth of his targets. His target depth is similar to that of a linebacker, but his completion percentage and passer rating would rank second and fourth respectively among linebackers.
Humphrey has more than enough speed, height, and technical skill to defend the deep ball and it’s clear that he has been efficient as a short defender. So, naturally, he doesn’t give up very many yards. In Humphrey’s 611 snaps, he gave up only 440 yards. That’s 0.72 yards per snap in coverage, which is tied for the third-best figure on this list with Casey Wayward. Humphrey has always been more than just a pure athlete; he is a technically sound defender with great awareness and an elite capacity to use his physical gifts to his advantage. Humphrey will definitely be an All-Pro-level talent as he enters his age-24 season.
3. Richard Sherman, San Francisco 49ers
Richard Sherman is still putting up some of the best numbers of his career at age 31. Sherman was only targeted on 10.1% of his 681 snaps last season because he is clearly still a shut-down corner. Similar to Humphrey, Sherman’s yards per completion was well under 10 and his yards per attempt didn’t even surpass 6. So, Sherman’s completion percentage of 62.3% isn’t bad at all and his passer rating of 64.1 is really something special. Sherman is approached as a crossbreed of Byron Jones and Marlon Humphrey: Offenses target him as little as possible and they don’t test him deep a lot. Teams work really hard not to give Sherman a chance to take over a game and for good reason.
In terms of total production, Sherman is by far the most effective player in the league. Sherman let up a truly unbelievable 0.57 yards per snap in coverage last season. That’s the best on this list by a sizable margin and probably the best in the league among qualified players if I had to make an educated guess. Sherman also managed to get 3 INTs and 11 PD last season despite having lost a ton of explosiveness with his age. Sherman’s intelligence, ability to read an offense and technical coverage skills make him one of the most revered corners in the league today. Honestly, he could be ranked higher but isn’t because he has a limited role in that 49ers defense and he’s surrounded by the best defense in the league.
2. Tre’Davious White, Buffalo Bills
Tre’Davious White and Stephon Gilmore are just in their own league. Most of the scenarios and statistics that apply to one probably also hold true for the other. In my opinion, they are the closest players we have to true Darrelle Revis-level lockdown corners in today’s game. To start off, let’s just look at White’s per-target stats. He had a top-10 completion percentage at 50.0% and his passer rating was a mere 45.0, ranking second in the league. The passer rating of an incompletion is 39.6. So, quarterbacks were only slightly better off throwing the ball at White rather than just spiking the ball into the ground. White allowed 0.98 yards per snap in coverage, which isn’t even close to the top of this list, but his ability to shut down receivers on a per-play basis is so elite that this hit in his total production is not terribly pertinent.
In addition to his ability to lock up number one receivers, White is also a fantastic playmaker. White’s 6 INTs and 17 PD ranked first and fourth in the league respectively and on top of that, he didn’t allow a single touchdown last season. White’s standard and advanced stats are both elite because White is basically human adhesive in coverage and he reads the quarterback better than almost anyone. White has some of the best eyes, reads, and closing speed in the league and those aspects of his game are reflected in his impressive advanced statistics.
1. Stephon Gilmore, New England Patriots
The reigning Defensive Player of the Year takes the number one spot on this list. This should come as a surprise to nobody. Gilmore’s 50.5% completion percentage ranks near the top of the league and is impressive enough on its own, but his 44.1 passer rating is really just disgusting in the best way possible. Again, as a quarterback, it might just be better if you chuck the ball out of bounds because Gilmore is just a game-changing play waiting to happen. His league-leading 6 INTs, 20 PD, and 0 TDs allowed provide substance for his incredible play-making ability. Of the 50 incompletions that were thrown his way, Gilmore got his hands on 20 of them. If that doesn’t scare you as a quarterback or a coach, I don’t know what will.
One thing about Gilmore that’s really interesting is that he gets targeted a lot. Why? Because he follows the best receiver around all game. Gilmore, and White for that matter, face the best their opponent has to offer every game, and they still perform at an elite level. Gilmore just narrowly edges out White because his stats are slightly better in almost every area. Gilmore’s 0.92 yards per snap in coverage is better than White’s 0.98, Gilmore has a slightly better passer rating, and he’s a better tackler. Anyone who thinks there is a better corner than Stephon Gilmore in the National Football League is simply wrong.
Honorable Mentions (why they didn’t make the list):
- Marshon Lattimore (lets up too many yards)
- Patrick Peterson (huge off-year after turning 29)
- Jalen Ramsey (he really just isn’t as good as people think he is)
- Xavien Howard (didn’t play last year because of injury and 2018 wasn’t good enough to supplement)
- Denzel Ward (lets up a ton of yards and can’t tackle)