Ranking NFL's Top 10 Nickel Cornerbacks
NFL schemes continue to evolve as spread offenses become more popular at the collegiate level. There are many elements of smash mouth football in use, but the majority of production from offenses is coming from the passing game. All but two offenses favored passing the ball more than running it, and the formations used are forcing defenses to become more versatile.
In the just the last few seasons, the idea of a “base defense” has changed considerably. No longer is a “4-3” or “3-4” the most important distinction for a defense, rather how are schemes adjusting to three wide receiver sets.
According to Pro Football Focus’ game-tracking data, of the 34,661 total snaps during the 2013 season, 57 percent of snaps (19,731) saw the defense utilize at least five defensive backs. The extra defensive back is very often a nickel, or slot, cornerback.
The role of a nickel cornerback is vast, as they not only have to cover, but also take the place of the outside linebacker they’ve replaced. Nickel corners must be willing run defenders, but have to overcome mismatches against slot receivers as well.
Whether facing smaller, shifty slot receivers like Wes Welker or T.Y. Hilton or big slot receivers like Marques Colston or Larry Fitzgerald, nickel cornerbacks have a difficult job. They don’t have the sideline to use to their advantage like outside cornerbacks.
The skill set for a nickelback unique as well. They must be more agile than fast, possessing quick foot speed and quick-twitch reflexes. Height is an overrated asset, but length is not. And of course, closing speed and ball awareness are two of the most important traits.
The combination of those skills isn’t easy to find, and now nickelbacks are in demand more than ever.
Thus, we will look at the top-10 nickel cornerbacks in the NFL right now. To qualify for this list, the player must have played at least 50 percent of their total snaps as a nickelback in the past two seasons. For players who have played only one season, they are eligible if the majority of snaps were as a nickelback in their rookie season. Statistics are a considerable measure but so is how well the player uses his natural talent.
1. Leon Hall (Cincinnati Bengals)
Leon Hall has proven he’s an amazing athlete on the field, but off it he is as well. According to Coley Harvey of ESPN.com, Hall has been cleared to fully participate in the Bengals’ training camp. His second Achilles tear (this time on the right side) could prove to hamper his effectiveness, but he overcame the same questions in 2012 and returned to elite status.
Hall possesses tremendous quickness and agility, which allows him to mirror receivers and smother them as their routes develop. Even better, Hall is incredibly intelligent and efficient at reading routes. There are even instances that he beats his assignment to peak of their route.
Quite simply, Hall is one of the best overall cornerbacks in the league, slot distinction or not.
In 2012, Hall allowed just 19 receptions and 186 yards as a slot cornerback, which landed him as PFF’s top slot corner. He was targeted just one time every 15 snaps, which is the best rate in the NFL since Charles Woodson’s 2009 performance.
Hall began 2013 at a similarly productive rate, forcing quarterbacks to earn a measly 43.8 rating when targeting him. Injuries forced him to miss 11 games, but he was impressive once again until he suffered his season-ending injury.
If Hall returns to his form in full, there’s little doubt that he is the premier slot cornerback in the NFL.
2. Chris Harris Jr. (Denver Broncos)
Since being drafted in 2011, Chris Harris Jr. has shown impressive consistency and is one of the elite nickel cornerbacks. His contributions to the Broncos’ defense achieved the fourth-best scoring defense in the NFL in 2012.
According to Jeff Legwold of ESPN.com, Harris has been taken off the physically unable to perform list, and is ready to get back to playing at a high level.
That’s great news for the reigning AFC champions, as Harris is an ace slot cornerback. Predominantly playing in man coverage, Harris relies on his fluid hips and quick feet to turn and run with great efficiency. He lives on the hip pocket of wide receivers and stays physical until the pass arrives.
All cornerbacks will allow completions at some point, but Harris excels at limiting yards after catch. Of the 434 yards allowed on 36 receptions, only 138 came after the catch. We must also consider that the Broncos’ offense forces opponents to throw the ball often, so Harris is exposed to more opportunities to get beaten in coverage. Despite that, Harris allowed zero touchdowns in 2013 as a nickelback, and limited quarterbacks to a QB rating of 65.6.
Against the run, Harris sometimes struggles to overcome blocks, but as a tackler, he’s incredibly efficient. He is very physical and active, showing toughness against much bigger ball-carriers.
3. Brandon Boykin (Philadelphia Eagles)
Nickelback extraordinaire Brandon Boykin impressed as a rookie in 2012 for the Philadelphia Eagles, but he became one of the elite at the position in just his second season.
As a rookie, Boykin allowed a completion on just 55 percent of targets, but he did allow three touchdowns. One offseason led to considerable technique improvement and this combined with short-area explosiveness defined a player who must be accounted for on every snap.
Although he allowed two touchdowns in 2013, Boykin became a playmaker over the slot, notching a league-leading six interceptions at the position. He allowed only 58.6 percent of targeted passes to be completed, and the second-best quarterback rating of 57.8.
Boykin’s biggest issue is that he isn’t very effective as a run defender. His 5’9”, 182-pound frame creates a major mismatch against blocking receivers.
He learned from his rookie mistakes and should only continue to improve as he enters his third season.
4. William Gay (Pittsburgh Steelers)
Sometimes to be a successful NFL player, timing and situation is as important as the talent, and William Gay is proof of that.
When Gay first left the Pittsburgh Steelers to sign with the Arizona Cardinals, he was miscast as the Cardinals’ No. 2 cornerback. The results for Gay, as an outside cornerback, were disastrous, leading to the team releasing veteran just one season into a three-year contract.
But when he played slot for the Cardinals, Gay continued to show his talent as a nickelback. In coverage, Gay produced two interceptions and allowed only 56.3 percent of targets to be completed.
The Steelers wisely re-signed Gay last offseason and cemented his position as a nickelback, and he was the most well-rounded slot defender in the NFL. He allowed a reception only once per 11.6 snaps and was rarely targeted, only once per 7.4 snaps. Gay’s lack of elite quickness makes him struggle at limiting yards after catch, but he does a good job covering until the catch is made. Of the 194 yards allowed in 2013, 105 came after the catch.
Gay is the best run defending slot cornerback in the league, as he posted the second-best run stop percentage in 2013. That means that of the 322 run plays that Gay was on the field for, he registered a tackle or stop on 3.7 percent of the time, just .2 percentage points behind Tracy Porter for the leagues’ best mark.
5. Tyrann Mathieu (Arizona Cardinals)
The former LSU Tiger had a remarkable rookie season for the Arizona Cardinals, tallying 71 total tackles and two interceptions as a free safety and nickelback. Unfortunately he tore his ACL in Week 14 of 2013 and is only about 70 percent healed right now, according to Darren Urban of azcardinals.com.
Assuming he returns full strength, Mathieu is one of the very best nickelbacks in the league. He isn’t the fastest player or physically intimidating, but he has great quickness and fluidity. His movement in space is terrific to watch, as he doesn’t waste steps when it comes to contesting passes. His instincts are truly elite, and will age quite well for the second-year dynamo.
In coverage, Mathieu allowed a quarterback rating of just 62.0 and only 296 yards on 29 receptions. His lack of size and strength make matchups difficult at times, but his versatility allows the Cardinals to use him effectively.
As a run defender, Mathieu’s toughness is always on display. He finished as the third-best run defending cornerback in the league, stopping eight running plays.
Expect Mathieu to continue thriving once his ACL tear is fully healed, either this season or next.
6. Nickell Robey (Buffalo Bills)
After going undrafted in the 2013 NFL draft, Nickell Robey showed the league he shouldn’t have been punished for his lack of height. Despite being 5’8”, 165 pounds, Robey allowed just a 54.9 completion percentage as a rookie, establishing himself as one of the best nickelbacks in the league.
Robey doesn’t have the deep speed or arm length that outside corners need. But he does possess excellent timing when jumping patterns, and he recognizes routes very well. His read-and-react ability limited receivers to just 104 yards after catch, third best in the league.
Robey struggled in 2013 to contribute as a run defender due to his size, even in the slot. That being said, he is tough and works hard to fill the running lane, which helps his teammates make tackles.
7. Jimmy Wilson (Miami Dolphins)
Quietly, Jimmy Wilson has been one of the better sub-package players in the NFL for the last two seasons. The hybrid safety and nickelback isn’t the best athlete, but he plays efficiently and with a high football IQ. And he pursuit angles are almost always the best possible route to limit yards after the catch.
2012 allowed Wilson to grow tremendously. He allowed quarterback rating of 97.3, which is league average, but his performances throughout the season improved as he gained experience.
His 2013 season produced the third-lowest quarterback rating allowed (61.8) of all nickelbacks in the NFL. Wilson was targeted 56 times but allowed a completion on only 57 percent of those passes. Of the 362 yards he allowed, only 164 came after the catch, which accounts for among the best ratios of all qualifying players.
As the Dolphins’ defense looks to improve upon their turnover ratio, expect Wilson to see the field often in 2014. His two interceptions from the slot were tied for third in the league.
8. Brandon Flowers (San Diego Chargers)
Between multiple injuries in 2013 and having to play out of position due to the Kansas City Chiefs’ secondary issues, Brandon Flowers seemed to see his reputation amongst Chiefs fans greatly reduced.
But as Kyle Posey of SB Nation found in his film study of Flowers, outside of one poor game against Broncos’ wide receiver Wes Welker, Flowers is still a solid slot cornerback. His combination of hand usage and elite short-area quickness can be devastating to timing routes.
When he’s healthy, he tricks quarterbacks to throw the ball, and then he explodes on the ball to force incompletions as the ball arrives. His 2012 season was dominant because he routinely showed this ability.
At 5’9”, 180 pounds, Flowers lacks the size to compete downfield with bigger receivers. He also isn’t very fast. But on short-to-intermediate routes, Flowers is still one of the top nickel cornerbacks in the NFL.
9. Kyle Wilson (NY Jets)
The former first-round pick from Boise State was well on his way to being considered a surefire bust until the New York Jets moved him from outside to nickelback in late 2012. The results were limited, but productive. Since 2012, Wilson has allowed a passer rating of just 72.15, which was good enough for eight in the NFL over that time span.
Wilson was tied for first amongst all slot cornerbacks in snaps per reception, finishing with 11.6. The 71 yards after catch allowed was the best in league by 32 yards. He isn’t the most effective cornerback at deterring targets because he’s not a technically refined player, but he is effective at limiting big plays.
Wilson has room to improve his instincts and ability to force turnovers and likely will need to if he is going to move up this list. He’s a good athlete who might have found his role in the league now, and he has to take advantage of that opportunity.
10. Darius Butler (Indianapolis Colts)
Despite having little surrounding talent around him on the Indianapolis Colts defense, Darius Butler was one of the best slot cornerbacks in the league. That’s pretty impressive, given that 2013 was the second season in which he played extensively at the position.
Butler finished 2013 with an above average quarterback rating allowed of 79, mostly due to the high number of targets he faced. Of the 69 times he was targeted, only 43 passes were completed. He allowed just one touchdown despite being targeted once every 5.3 snaps.
As a pure coverage nickelback, Butler isn’t great yet, but he’s shown significant progress so far, and his instincts should continue to improve now that his role is more defined.
Butler allowed 533 yards off receptions, but a modest 220 yards after the catch. He needs to improve his technique and become more efficient in attacking the spot where the ball is initially caught.
Carlos Rogers (Oakland Raiders)
Carlos Rogers had two solid seasons as a nickelback for the San Francisco 49ers before signing with the Oakland Raiders this offseason. His performance in 2013 has earned him a place on this list. He was slightly above average in coverage but needs to prove he wasn’t just a product of the talented 49ers defense.
Buster Skrine (Cleveland Browns)
The former fifth-round pick finished 2013 tied for sixth in the league with 18 passes defensed, which indicates significant growth from his disastrous rookie season. His confidence is at an all-time high. To take the next step, Skrine must be more consistent on a play-to-play basis and allow fewer than the four touchdowns he was responsible for in 2013.
Walter Thurmond (NY Giants)
Walter Thurmond was a standout performer for the Seattle Seahawks, but now must prove he has the talent to thrive outside of the Seahawks’ cornerback-friendly defense. His quarterback rating allowed against was an impressive 69.5, though he played just 229 snaps. The Giants signed a potential stud in Thurmond, who will be only 27 years old by opening kickoff.
All stats used are from Pro Football Focus' Premium Stats (subscription required).
Ian Wharton is a NFL featured columnist for Bleacher Report, contributor for Optimum Scouting, and analyst for FinDepth. You can follow and interact with Ian Wharton on Twitter @NFLFilmStudy.