NFL1000: Ranking the Best Shutdown Cornerbacks
More is expected and demanded of the modern NFL cornerback than at any time in history. It's why the position is more important, and more difficult to play, than ever. There are still those cornerbacks who hang out on the edge most of the time, trailing an opponent's top receiver wherever he goes, making every passing down its own high-level drama.
But most are more likely to find success doing a host of different things at a high level. On one drive, you might see a cornerback play outside, in the slot, at or near the line in a blitz or fake blitz formation and hang back as a hybrid safety. As teams go more and more to nickel as a base defense—from 43.4 percent in 2008 to 63.4 percent in 2015, per Pro Football Focus (via The MMQB)—slot cornerbacks have become starters, replacing the third linebacker. This is a necessity, as offenses have gone to three-receiver sets as a default.
So, guys who can move from the slot to outside and back again are highly valued. It's harder than you may think, because the slot demands different skills. You're not trailing one receiver and reacting to one route; you could be choosing between two slot receivers and the option routes they run in short areas. You're more worried about "two-way goes" than you ever thought you'd be, and if you're a taller defender who has had trouble changing directions, you're not going to like your slot experience at all, because now here comes a shifty, short receiver who understands option routes (which break depending on a defender's actions) a lot better than you do.
So, it's a complicated position (or series of positions) these days. Which means that if you're a shutdown corner at any of those positions, you're a premium athlete with amazing mental processing skills, ungodly recovery speed and a Zen-like combination of aggressiveness and restraint. In the modern pass-defined NFL, you are also one of the faces of your defense.
The 10 cornerbacks profiled here have different skill sets and ideal positions. None of them are perfect—the definition of the position makes perfection beyond impossible—but these are the players who do the best work when asked to shut down the receivers they face and affect opposing offenses most often.
All advanced cornerback statistics courtesy of NFL.com's NextGen tracking unless otherwise indicated.
In any list, there are those who just missed the cut. Here are four cornerbacks with shutdown skills and why they're not in the top 10.
Jimmy Smith, Baltimore Ravens
When healthy, Smith is one of the best cornerbacks in the league, as his 68.5 opponents' passer rating in 2016 attests. He did, however, struggle to stay healthy, playing just 11 games, and while that's not his fault, availability is a skill you need in a shutdown corner.
Josh Norman, Washington Redskins
Norman played well for the most part after signing a megadeal with the Redskins last offseason, but he was too vulnerable to high-end receivers in 2016—Odell Beckham Jr. made life particularly difficult for him. As a result, I'm less inclined to call Norman a play-to-play shutdown guy. If I'm doing this list again in 2018, I won't be at all surprised if he's on it.
Brent Grimes, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Grimes allowed a 62.6 opponents' passer rating in 2016, which is certainly impressive. He picked off at least four passes for the fourth straight year and allowed a catch rate of just 47.9 percent. He allowed four touchdowns, however, and that's outside the shutdown corner parameters.
James Bradberry, Carolina Panthers
If you're not a Panthers fan, you may be asking, "Who?" But if Bradberry plays in 2017 the way he did in his rookie season in 2016, you'll probably hear about it. The second-round pick out of Samford did a nice job replacing Norman, allowing a 69.9 opponents' passer rating and looking strong at all levels of coverage. You want to see more than one season to crown a player a shutdown cornerback, but Bradberry impressed in his transition from small-school football to the complexities of the NFL.
10. Jalen Ramsey, Jacksonville Jaguars
When I ranked the top 50 prospects in the 2016 NFL draft for Sports Illustrated, Ramsey was my No. 1 player, and it wasn't close. I was impressed by his ability to play three different positions—outside cornerback, safety and slot cornerback—at a high level, and I hypothesized that when he got more experienced at outside cornerback (a position he didn't play full time until 2015), he'd be even better.
The tape and the numbers bore that out in Ramsey's rookie season.
There were rough spots, as there are for just about every first-year NFL cornerback getting used to more physical, practiced receivers and route concepts that are in another universe. Ramsey gave up 703 yards and 14.6 yards per reception, but he was often at his best against the best receivers he faced: one catch for four yards against Oakland's Amari Cooper; five catches for 46 yards against Houston's DeAndre Hopkins. And in December, Ramsey was quite possibly the best shutdown guy in the game, allowing 12 receptions for 145 yards and no touchdowns with two interceptions, eight passes defended and a 24.1 opponents' quarterback rating, per Pro Football Focus.
At 6'2" and 208 pounds, Ramsey has the size you want in a modern cornerback, and he plays taller than that because of his ability to jump for balls and lean into targets. He's developed outstanding recovery speed, and he can jump routes. As his game progresses, you'll probably see him playing in off-coverage more and more to bait quarterbacks into thinking they have a chance against him.
Ramsey is a bit too aggressive at times, and he's prone to scrapping on the field. The Jaguars will have to manage that part of his on-field personality, but they also have to understand that his fearlessness is an asset—and something that will be even more prominent as he ascends over the next few seasons.
9. Patrick Peterson, Arizona Cardinals
Peterson is one of the toughest evaluations at any position. There are times when I watch him lock down the best receivers in the league and wonder if he should be No. 1 on any list. And there are other times when I see him lose traction on deep routes or bite on backfield action and wonder if he should be on this list at all.
It's not that Peterson had a bad season in 2016: He allowed 43 catches on 74 targets for 539 yards and two touchdowns with three interceptions and a 72.9 opponents' passer rating despite multiple injuries, and he still travels to follow the opponent's top receiver as much as any cornerback in the league.
When he's playing at his best, Peterson is an athletic and technical marvel. He has the short-area quickness and body control to stick with the fastest and shiftiest receivers in the league play after play, and he's great at timing his leaps. Peterson subscribes to the theory that any football traveling in the air is as much his as it is the receiver's, and there are times when he brings that to life throughout an entire game.
Peterson, however, also inexplicably gets beat on straight vertical routes and can be a bit slow to his turn to cover deep when he's watching the action behind the line. Perhaps it's a function of his ultra-competitive temperament; perhaps it's wear and tear from dealing with the best receivers play after play after play.
So, that's not to say Peterson is anything less than a great player; it's just that there were too many moments when he didn't shut receivers down to put him any higher on this list.
8. Richard Sherman, Seattle Seahawks
Sherman's legacy has always been complicated. He's one of the smartest players I've ever talked to regardless of position, and when you get him talking about his own tape, he's completely honest. But there are times when he gets in his own way—beefing with opponents, going after assistant coaches—and that's why the Seahawks investigated the possibility of a trade despite Sherman's consistent excellence on the field. The trade wasn't made, and Sherman later acknowledged he went too far with his sideline blowups. So, for now, Sherman and the Seahawks are still together.
That's a good thing for both parties in the near term. Seattle doesn't have another cornerback with anything near Sherman's ability to trail receivers on boundary routes—he's still the best in the business when defending boundary go routes and fades—and the Seahawks provide the perfect schematic constraint for Sherman's skills.
Aggressive to a fault at the line of scrimmage, Sherman has a great knack for redirecting receivers where he wants them to go, and only the league's most physical wideouts can match his aggression. He wasn't quite as quick on deep routes last season, which may have been due to an MCL injury, but he was still a formidable force, allowing 44 catches on 85 targets for 624 yards and two touchdowns with four interceptions and a 64.0 opponents' passer rating.
Sherman's game has changed a bit in the last couple of years. He follows No. 1 receivers more than he used to, and he'll occasionally move over the slot. His issues in coverage have always been there, though he's improved on what was his primary bugaboo: receivers who moved away from him in coverage with quick, angular routes. That used to be an unsolvable problem. Sometimes, it still is.
Sherman turned 29 in March, so he's probably got a couple of years left in which he can play at a dominant level, though we may never see the type of play from him that we did in 2013 and 2014. Sherman's continued excellence will depend to a great extent on how he's able to transition his game from boundary speed to covering quick interior routes. It's a big step, but don't bet against him—wherever he may call home.
7. A.J. Bouye, Jacksonville Jaguars
Bouye might have been the biggest surprise of the 2016 season. He had started just eight games in his previous three seasons, though he had picked off three passes in 2014 and two more in 2015, mostly as a reserve defender. He picked off just one pass in his breakout campaign, but that's the only way he "regressed." The undrafted UCF product had quite the contract year, leading to a five-year, $67.5 million deal with the Jaguars in March. In his final year with the Texans, Bouye looked every bit a franchise cornerback.
Pushed into an alpha role only after injuries to the team's three starting cornerbacks—Johnathan Joseph, Kareem Jackson and 2015 first-round pick Kevin Johnson—Bouye allowed just a 47.9 percent completion rate on balls thrown at him, the fifth-best mark among No. 1 cornerbacks. Go back to his film from previous seasons, and it's clear he's no one-year wonder. Cornerbacks don't just show up this good and then fade away—as long as he's put in a schematic position to succeed, he will.
When pressed into service, Bouye proved he had learned many of the subtleties of cornerback play. He's as adept at pressing a receiver at the line as he is dropping back in zone coverage, but he's really good at understanding zone coverage concepts and how to work with other defenders—handing off to safeties, passing receivers through the zone and jumping routes. The Texans had one of the best defenses in the game (fifth in the NFL against the pass, per Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics), and Bouye, playing right cornerback for the most part, was a huge piece of that equation.
Now, he's playing opposite Ramsey in Jacksonville, which gives defensive coordinator Todd Wash quite the duo. Wash and the Jaguars can play Ramsey's physical aggression against Bouye's understanding of angles and routes. Jacksonville paid a lot for Bouye's services, but to have a set of starting cornerbacks this good is a huge advantage in the modern game.
6. Casey Hayward, Los Angeles Chargers
The Packers don't make a ton of personnel mistakes, but letting Hayward get away in free agency after the 2015 season has to be classified as a blunder. Primarily a slot cornerback in Green Bay, Hayward signed a three-year, $15.3 million deal with the Chargers, with just $6.8 million guaranteed. That was going to be a bargain no matter where Hayward played, but it was the extent to which he excelled outside for San Diego that made it perhaps the best deal in the NFL last year.
When Jason Verrett went down for the season with a partially torn ACL in early October, the Hayward signing became even more important. Verrett is one of the league's best outside cornerbacks when he's healthy, and under other circumstances, his loss would have been an enormous hit to the Chargers defense.
But Hayward filled in at as high a level as anyone would have a right to expect, limiting Tampa Bay's Mike Evans to two catches and Oakland's Cooper to one. On the season, he allowed just 51 percent of his targets for catches, which was especially impressive since he was tasked to follow No. 1 receivers more and more as the season went on. And among No. 1 cornerbacks, only Xavier Rhodes and Aqib Talib allowed a lower opponents' passer rating than Hayward's 49.0.
What makes Hayward's game so special is a rare combination of vision and recovery speed—he can get to balls that a lot of cornerbacks can't, and he's one of the better defenders in the league when it comes to deceiving the quarterback into believing he's got an open receiver. Spoiler: If Hayward is around your receiver, he's not really open.
Now, with Verrett healthy and ready for action, the Chargers look to have one of the NFL's better cornerback duos. And they got half of that duo for a screaming bargain.
5. Aqib Talib, Denver Broncos
Talib missed three games with a lower back injury last season and had to deal with the aftereffects of accidentally shooting himself in the leg last June, but when he was healthy, he was the same cornerback he's been throughout his time in Denver. Talib was the only No. 1 cornerback not to allow a touchdown last season, and only Minnesota's Rhodes allowed a lower opponents' passer rating than Talib's 46.7. He surrendered just 36 catches on 73 targets for 372 yards and made three picks.
More than most cornerbacks on this list, Talib doesn't need safety help—he's savvy and athletic enough to follow the league's most talented receivers around the field no matter what routes they're running. He's aggressive, but he's developed a discipline that allows him to use that to his advantage. He's best in man coverage, where he can deploy his 6'1", 205-pound frame to track routes and gum up receivers at the line of scrimmage, but he's experienced enough to implement zone concepts as well.
Talib has always been a gambler in coverage—he has so much faith in his ability, and he seems to enjoy baiting quarterbacks into making throws they think are to open receivers, but then Talib will swoop in for a deflection or interception. Talib wasn't always disciplined on or off the field early in his career in Tampa Bay, but like a lot of players, he underwent a transformation with the Patriots, for whom he played in 2012 and 2013, and he's carried that to Denver, where he was a linchpin in Wade Phillips' defenses.
Now that Phillips has moved on to the Rams, the Broncos defense may not have the same effect, but Talib's talents seem to transcend scheme.
4. Janoris Jenkins, New York Giants
Jenkins was the centerpiece of the Giants' spending spree on defensive free agents before the 2016 season, and all three of the big names—nose tackle Damon "Snacks" Harrison, pass-rusher Olivier Vernon and Jenkins—had major effects on the Big Blue defense. Jenkins might have been the most impressive, though. Through his four seasons with the Rams, he displayed a sometimes amazing and sometimes infuriating combination of boom or bust coverage. He was just as likely to make an amazing play as he was capable of getting completely lost in coverage and allowing a huge catch.
Something about the move to New York upped Jenkins' discipline, though, because after signing a five-year, $62.5 million contract last March, he seemed intent on earning that entire deal in the first year. He combined with Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to form one of the more imposing cornerback duos in the league, and Jenkins was the star, shutting down Dez Bryant and A.J. Green when asked to shadow those great receivers in coverage and allowing a 45.7 percent completion rate on the season. He also allowed a 54.8 opponents' quarterback rating in 2016, which was way down from the 80.1 rating he allowed with the Rams in 2015.
The disciplined version of Jenkins is a cornerback who can do just about anything—follow receivers all over the field, track quick-breaking routes and defend the run. But he's at his best when he's jamming receivers at the line and imposing his will in man or press-zone coverage.
Jenkins always had the raw talent to be a top-level shutdown cornerback. Last year, the light went on, and his field sense caught up to his athletic potential.
3. Xavier Rhodes, Minnesota Vikings
When Mike Zimmer became Vikings head coach in 2014, the defensive mastermind already had one of the most important pieces in his defense. The team picked Rhodes in the first round out of Florida State the year before, and though his development took time, Zimmer saw potential right away.
A six-game starter in 2013, Rhodes has been a mainstay in Zimmer's defense all along—the only two starts he's missed since 2014 came last season, when he had a knee injury at the beginning of the year. After that, though, Rhodes played as well as any cornerback in the league. He had run hot and cold in his previous seasons as he learned to manage quicker receivers and their fast, angular routes, but those issues don't seem to leave him out of place anymore.
At 6'1" and 218 pounds with long arms, Rhodes establishes a physical presence from the snap. He often plays right up on his receiver pre-snap, and he's an expert at getting his hands on his opponent to redirect the receiver where he wants him to go. He can run with just about anyone on deeper routes, and he's become quite the ball hawk, with a career-high five interceptions in 2016, including a 100-yard return for a touchdown against the Cardinals in Week 11.
Picking up on a miscommunication between quarterback Carson Palmer and receiver John Brown, Rhodes put himself in the right place at the right time, snagging the ball and scoring.
But the main reason he's so high on this list is that in 2016, Rhodes allowed an absolutely silly 39.2 opponents' passer rating and a league-best 41.8 percent catch rate. This despite the fact that more and more, Rhodes was trusted to go up against the best receiver on the other team. He also uses his physicality to be a dominant run defender—something that isn't always said of even the best cornerbacks.
Zimmer has built and schemed one of the best defenses in the league over the last three years, and he couldn't ask for a better young cornerback to anchor that unit than the one he's got.
2. Marcus Peters, Kansas City Chiefs
Peters entered the NFL as the Chiefs' first-round pick in 2015, and over the last two seasons, no player in the league has more interceptions than his 14. The Washington product also picked off 11 passes in three collegiate seasons and might have been a top-10 pick were it not for the fact that he was dismissed from the team by head coach Chris Petersen during his junior season after repeatedly clashing with the staff.
So, Peters had two obstacles to clear when he got into the NFL. He had to allay character concerns, and he had to deal with the league's advanced receivers and routes; those factors force most great college corners onto a different development track for a year or two. It's not often you see a cornerback, especially one frequently tasked with covering No. 1 receivers, get the NFL right away.
Peters hasn't had a problem with that. He led the league with 280 interception return yards and tied for the lead with eight interceptions and two touchdowns in his rookie year, and only the Chargers' Hayward had more than his six picks in 2016. Moreover, Peters isn't just an interception machine—he uses his speed and incredible body control to make plays most NFL cornerbacks aren't capable of making. At 6'0" and 197 pounds, he has the physicality of a bigger defender and the agility of a slot receiver. It's a tough package to deal with.
That's one reason he allowed a 63.5 opponents' passer rating last season, and a completion rate of 57.3. Another reason is that, as the season progressed, teams stopped throwing to Peters' side and started picking on the right side of the Kansas City defense. That's something the Chiefs need to sort out over time, but in Peters, they have the best of both worlds. He's a flashy, highlight reel-ready ball hawk who has also learned how to shut receivers down play after play.
1. Chris Harris Jr., Denver Broncos
In today's NFL, there's no cornerback more important—and rarer—than one who can shut down opposing receivers from anywhere on the field—whether outside or in the slot. And over the last five years, Harris has been the only cornerback to do it at a Pro Bowl level in both spots. That's why he's No. 1 on this list—wherever you put him on the field, he's going to make life miserable for whoever he's covering.
Undrafted out of Kansas in 2011, Harris worked his way up the depth chart in his early years, becoming the best slot cornerback in the business by 2013. That was the start of a three-year span in which opposing quarterbacks who targeted Harris in the slot came away with no touchdowns and six interceptions.
When the Broncos gave Harris a five-year, $42.5 million contract extension in December 2014, it was thought he'd move outside more often, which he has. Now, he's paired with Talib, and he and Talib are the most stingy and formidable cornerback duo in the league. At the end of last season, Harris and Talib combined had allowed just 681 yards and two touchdowns on 141 targets, per Pro Football Focus. That would be an amazing season for one cornerback, let alone two.
What makes Harris so effectively versatile? First, start with his mental game. He can read quarterbacks as he's trailing receivers, and he has an innate sense of what's about to happen. When you watch Harris on tape, it seems he's always in the right place.
His short-area route awareness—so crucial to playing the slot at a high level—is perhaps unparalleled. He has the requisite skills for the outside corner position as well—size (5'10", 199 lbs), downfield speed and the body control to jump routes and deflect passes—which adds to his peerless versatility.
Inside or outside, Harris is the best cornerback in the league, and he has been as long as he's been given the chance.