Top 10 NFL Cornerback Duos Slated for 2014

Alessandro Miglio@@AlexMiglioFeatured ColumnistMay 28, 2014

Top 10 NFL Cornerback Duos Slated for 2014

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    The great cornerback debate rages on. Which one is the best?

    Is it Richard Sherman and his backed-up swagger? Or is it Darrelle Revis and his quiet dominance? What about Patrick Peterson, shadowing the best receivers in the NFL?

    Those guys might be the best in the league, but what about their running mates?

    In particular, which cornerback tandems are the best in the league? These guys make a great pair for their teams, whether it's because they complement each other or one of the aforementioned giants of the position does much of the heavy lifting.

10. Keenan Lewis and Champ Bailey, New Orleans Saints

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    The New Orleans Saints haven't exactly been known for their pass defense in recent years. But if you look a little closer, the top two cornerbacks in the Big Easy make a pretty good pair.

    Keenan Lewis signed on last year, coming over from the Pittsburgh Steelers. He had a fine inaugural season for the Saints, coming in 16th in Matt Miller's NFL 1000 cornerback rankings and 26th over at Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

    As Miller put it, Lewis was given a chance to shine as a No. 1 cornerback, and he delivered.

    Meanwhile, Champ Bailey might be in the twilight of his career, but perhaps a change of scenery and getting healthy—he missed most of last season with a foot injury—will get him back to form. After all, he will be buoyed by a fantastic safety tandem in Jairus Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro.

    Should Bailey falter with age or injury, Corey White will step in and fill in admirably, as he did last season.

9. Joe Haden and Justin Gilbert, Cleveland Browns

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    It is arrogant and presumptuous to stick a rookie on this list. But if anyone can step right in and be part of one of the top cornerback duos in the NFL, it's Justin Gilbert.

    The former Oklahoma State cornerback will have a tall task, but there is a reason why the Browns moved up a spot to grab him at No. 8 in the draft. Gilbert is an incredibly athletic cornerback with nice size to boot, a good complement to Joe Haden.

    Speaking of Haden, the man with the richest contract in NFL history at his position is one of the best in the business at what he does. He ranked 10th at his position in Miller's NFL 1000 this year, though he has steadily fallen off a bit since 2012, when he ranked third.

    Hopefully, that's just a blip—Haden was still a top-10 guy, according to Miller, after all.

    Of course, we are putting the cart before the horse; Gilbert has to earn that starting gig, first-round status or not. It seems like a likely outcome with potentially huge results for the Browns, however.

8. Captain Munnerlyn and Xavier Rhodes, Minnesota Vikings

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    A year ago, who would have thought Captain Munnerlyn would be among the best cornerbacks in the league? 

    Munnerlyn went from special teams ace to No. 1 cornerback in a hurry for the Carolina Panthers, and he delivered with a fantastic 2013 season. His raw numbers might not show it—he only had two interceptions and 12 passes defensed last season—but the advanced statistics and eyes have it.

    The 25-year-old was the 11th-best cornerback in the league, according to Pro Football Focus, allowing just one touchdown and 8.9 snaps between receptions last season. Miller ranked him 18th at cornerback in this year's NFL 1000—a huge jump from 70th a year ago—comparing him to Antoine Winfield for the Vikings in the process.

    As rookie cornerbacks go, Xavier Rhodes was pretty good in 2013. It's tough to step in and start at the position right away, and Rhodes kept his head above water—more than can be said about most of his peers.

    Rhodes may not have had an interception as a rookie, but he only allowed just one touchdown in coverage, despite being targeted 76 times. His second season should see improvement, and adding Munnerlyn makes this a nice pair in purple in Minnesota.

7. Jason McCourty and Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Tennessee Titans

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    It's too bad Alterraun Verner went where the grass was greener, otherwise he might have made up one-half of the second- or third-best tandem in the league.

    Even so, the Titans have the making of an elite duo, thanks to perpetually strong play by Jason McCourty and up-and-coming cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson.

    The latter's presence on the roster was good enough to keep the Tennessee Titans from making a big move to replace Verner, either in free agency or the draft. Wreh-Wilson only played 93 snaps as a rookie last season, but he graded out positively over at Pro Football Focus and showed enough promise to be handed the keys to Verner's starting gig, at least for now.

    Back to McCourty, though, the top guy in that Titans secondary. He isn't quite on the elite level, but he has been consistently great. He has ranked in the top 10 over at PFF for three years running.

6. Leodis McKelvin and Stephon Gilmore, Buffalo Bills

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    Be honest, did you expect the Buffalo Bills to make any sort of list for best defensive anything?

    In truth, the Bills have quietly formed a formidable defensive unit. It begins up front, where Mario Williams leads a ferocious pass rush that helps the secondary do its thing.

    But the secondary is good in its own right, even if stud safety Jairus Byrd flew the coop. 

    After a disappointing start to their careers, Leodis McKelvin and Stephon Gilmore have hit their strides at cornerback.

    McKelvin may have seen 102 targets last season—eighth in the league—but he allowed just 46.1 percent of them to be completed, good for second in the league at cornerback. He also owned a 66.3 passer rating on passes thrown his direction.

    Gilmore, meanwhile, wasn't far behind at 53.9 percent target completion and a 72.1 passer rating, a nice improvement over his rookie year.

    It will be interesting to see how the rest of the crew fares without Byrd patrolling center field, but McKelvin and Gilmore seem up to the task if last year was any indication.

5. Chris Harris Jr. and Aqib Talib, Denver Broncos

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    The Denver Broncos had a good thing going with Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie at cornerback last season. When he balked at their initial contract offer, they decided to go in a different direction and woo Aqib Talib away from the conference-rival New England Patriots.

    Talib carries some hype with him wherever he goes, though he has been a bit of a disappointment for varying reasons. He had off-field issues in Tampa Bay, and injuries may have contributed to some disappointing play for the Patriots over the past couple of seasons.

    When he is healthy, though, Talib is a quality press cornerback. He may not be the most consistent guy in coverage, but he is capable of shutting down a team's No. 1 receiver.

    Playing opposite him in that secondary is perhaps the most underrated cornerback in the league, Chris Harris Jr.

    Harris has ranked in the top 10 among cornerbacks over at PFF for the past two seasons, allowing just three touchdowns in those two seasons while intercepting six passes. Harris can play inside and out, making him a versatile running mate for Talib.

    Together, Harris and Talib will make a quality cornerback combo in Denver.

4. Prince Amukamara and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, New York Giants

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    When cornerback Prince Amukamara isn't busy crashing bar mitzvahs, he is getting business done on the gridiron.

    Despite how well he played last season, Amukamara still thinks he hasn't done enough in New York, according to Connor Orr of The Star-Ledger.

    "I don't think I really gave them a return on their investment yet. And with that being said, I plan on this year being a huge year for me. I'm just focused on playing ball," he told Orr.

    Amukamara did well enough to rank 12th on Matt Miller's NFL 1000 list at cornerback this year, and the arrow is pointing up for the star cornerback.

    Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, meanwhile, made his way over from Denver after the Broncos all but showed him the door in signing Talib to a massive contract. All DRC did last season was rank third in cover snaps per reception, behind Sherman and Revis.

    It has been a remarkable turnaround for Rodgers-Cromartie, who was rated the worst cornerback in the league just a few years ago. It will be interesting to see if he can continue the positive momentum with the New York Giants. 

    If he does, the Giants have themselves a nice tandem at cornerback.

3. Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, New England Patriots

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    Darrelle Revis is used to carrying his teammates. He is carrying his running mate here.

    The talented cornerback re-established himself as arguably the best cornerback in the league last season, less than a year after tearing his ACL in New York. The Buccaneers rewarded him with a pink slip for financial reasons, though, and the New England Patriots pounced.

    The Patriots are getting a guy who managed to rank as the top cornerback in the league as far as PFF grades go, and Miller had him second to Sherman at cornerback in the NFL 1000. That was despite that knee injury and playing in a zone pass defense ill-suited for his particular set of skills for much of the year.

    Revis is paired with Brandon Browner, though they will not get to be on the field together for the first four games of the season, thanks to Browner's suspension. Browner is a big, rangy cornerback who makes a great complement to a stud cornerback, as he has proven with Sherman in Seattle.

    Even without Browner, Revis comprises one-half of a great duo, no matter where he goes. It just so happens that Logan Ryan was a quality rookie last season who could be just as good as Browner.

2. Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu, Arizona Cardinals

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    The Cardinals have the makings of a fantastic secondary out in Arizona.

    It's too bad Tyrann Mathieu suffered a nasty knee injury toward the end of the 2013 season, otherwise this pair might have made it all the way up to No. 1. 

    Neither Peterson nor Mathieu can match Richard Sherman's elite play in Seattle, but when put together, this combo is undeniably fantastic.

    How often do rookies come in and play as well as Mathieu did last season?

    Beleaguered out of LSU, Mathieu bucked his critics like an angry bull in 2013. He wasn't just considered the top rookie in the league by a wide margin, he quickly became one of the best cornerbacks in the league.

    Mathieu was the third-best cornerback, according to Miller and Pro Football Focus, which is no small feat for a rookie at a position in which it is particularly difficult to succeed early. He buttered his bread as a slot cornerback, making this a bit of an unconventional tandem, but why split hairs?

    Peterson wasn't far behind last season, ranked among the best cornerbacks in the league by many measures, despite being tasked with shadowing the top receiver on opposing offenses. That puts the seven touchdowns he allowed into perspective.

1. Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell, Seattle Seahawks

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    Did you think this would be anybody else?

    Peterson and Mathieu gave these two a good run from Arizona, but Seattle's Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell are undeniably the best cornerback tandem in the league right now.

    How much appreciation the rest of that elite defense deserves for their success is a good question, but there is no doubting Sherman and Maxwell are excellent players in their own right.

    Sherman in particular has established himself as arguably the top cornerback in the league. He landed at the top of the cornerback list in Miller's NFL 1000 series this year, and PFF had him rated sixth-best in the league last season.

    There is a reason Sherman led the league with 9.5 snaps per cover target—that is to say, he was targeted at the lowest rate in the league when he was in coverage—and was generally targeted the fewest times per snap played last season.

    Maxwell, meanwhile, is no slouch himself. 

    The third-year cornerback intercepted four passes in just five starts last season after taking over for suspended Brandon Browner. He managed to rank 13th over at PFF, despite getting far fewer snaps with which to garner a positive score.

    He was so good that Miller ranked him eighth at cornerback in the NFL 1000.

    Yes, the Seahawks feature a fantastic front seven and arguably the best safety tandem in Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, but that shouldn't take away from this fantastic pair at cornerback.

    It's no wonder the Seahawks are absurdly good on defense.


    All advanced statistics courtesy of Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Matt Miller's NFL 1000 ranks the top 1,000 players in the NFL.