The Art of The Cornerback: The Hardest Physical Position in the NFL

The cornerback is a position that has seen many changes throughout the years. Mel Blount and Ty Law were some of the most influential players in this position, literally having rules named after them to give the corner a fighting chance in the league. However, the changing trend of the pass-oriented league is making the job of the cornerback harder than it’s ever been. Especially with the physical aspects needed to play corner in the NFL, I’m making the argument that the cornerback is the hardest physical position to play in the game and the league.

NFL Transition

The journey of your average NFL player starts from high school to D1 to the NFL. For the corner position, the transitions between each of these ranks are some of the hardest to do next to the quarterback. Through the different rulings and trends set by referees, each level will suffer more or less from different holding calls and different PI calls as well. To simplify it, the playstyle of your average high school cornerback might not work well for certain college systems. The same could be said from college to the NFL as well.

Not to sound like a conspiracy nut here, but the NFL is slowly transitioning (or even already transitioned) to a more pass-friendly league. You could argue that teams realize that passing is just more efficient than a “run-first offense, ” but there are reasons league-side that push teams to pass more as well. The high-flying pass-offense and great receivers bring in viewers, and rules are being built around players to support this. Roughing the passer, holding, and pass interference calls highly vary and can make the life of a cornerback difficult. The mechanics of a corner involve doing everything a receiver does, but backward. A wide receiver knows exactly what to run and just does so, but a cornerback doesn’t know anything. Based on film study, they have to read formations, audibles, and O-line setups to decide what to do. They have to be able to cover a slant, fade, post, go routes, and a multitude of other things. On top of all of this, they have to do this for the whole game.

A great cornerback needs to be prepared for anything to happen off the line of scrimmage and has to have all the physical tools to do so. An argument could be made for the mental aspect of a quarterback being tougher than a cornerback, but a potential system could be built around a quarterback or even a “game manager” you might say. A cornerback cannot be caught off guard once in the game because any decent NFL-starter QB will take advantage of that and press on that wound the entire game.

Even outside the game, the tendency of the cornerback position through each level of football is not sustainable. While some may assume that a great player for any position can repeat it the next season or next game, it’s not the same for a cornerback. A star high school cornerback cannot be guaranteed a starting spot in a D-1 system. A star D-1 cornerback cannot be guaranteed an NFL career that lasts more than 3-4 years. For any other position, consistency is easier to replicate because of the nature of the position. A cornerback has to keep up in top physical shape, film review every system they play against, and demonstrate a high-level understanding of both offensive and defensive systems. Matter of fact, cornerbacks are as reliant on their defensive schemes as any other position. They could look like a “bust” on one team, but be a great contribution to their next team.

While they may not be as underrated as other positions, the cornerback still somewhat remains as one of those positions that “look simple.” Only some of the top players are noticed each season in the NFL, and the casual fans have a large gap between being an “elite corner” versus a “no-name.” The keys to determining a great cornerback are still a mystery even to this day. You can’t calculate a corner’s worth from their interceptions, pass breakups, or even tackles, it’s purely up to scouts that are able to determine the next great cornerback from what they see on film.