Who's No. 1? Top DBs Talk About the Future of the Position, Post-Darrelle Revis

Tyler Dunne @TyDunne NFL Features WriterJuly 18, 2017

AP Images

The throne is vacated.

You can hear it, see it, sense it across the country. 

At a LongHorn Steakhouse in Buford, Georgia, the quiet yet steely Desmond Trufant pauses for five seconds when asked if he's the best cornerback in football, finally speaking up when his girlfriend aggressively nods "yes."

"I know I'm in that elite category," the Falcons vet says. "Rate it how you want to rate it. I just know on Sundays, I'm going to be a problem."

When Xavier Rhodes supplies his own top five, he comes in at No. 1.

"Of course," the Vikings corner says. "The goal is to be the best."

Moments after seeing his peers voted him the league's 64th-best player, the Chargers' Casey Hayward took to Twitter to vent, writing, "I was the best corner in the League last year. #1 ints, #6 in PBU, #3 in passes def, #3 in QBR and matched #1 wr most of the year #NoDebate," with a perfectly executed googly-eye emoji.

His Twitter mentions, predictably, detonated. He refuses to back down, though.

"When you put my numbers up against other people's numbers," Hayward says, "it's crazy that people aren't saying my name."

Lounged on a couch, there's Josh Norman thinking bigger than a ranking, a contract. Part gladiator, part assassin, part 1970s Raiders, his No. 1 concern is keeping his endangered species alive.

"I think I'll go down as one of the best who stayed true to the game, to those bad boys of the old," Norman says. "I brought that within the game, to where someone after me—or someone who's in the game young—can still mimic the game that I play with. Because when you look at it, which cornerback do you see playing the game that way?"

You tell us, Josh.

"Exactly. I can't tell you."

It's no secret why all cornerbacks are feeling more empowered. The undisputed king has been officially usurped. Darrelle Revis, a creaky 32 years old, remains unemployed. Revis Island? Looted, flooded, forgotten.

Jan 1, 2017; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; New York Jets corner back Darrelle Revis (24) hands his gloves to a fan as he runs off the field after a game against the Buffalo Bills at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The rest of Westeros has changed, too. The Richard Sherman of 2017—ornery, aging, floated on the trading block— is not the Richard Sherman of 2013. Patrick Peterson slipped from spectacular to solid last season. Aqib Talib is 31 years old.

Above all, winter is coming. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is waging the greater war rule by rule, flag by flag, TV contract by TV contract, neutering defenses. Who knows what football even resembles 10 to 15 years from now?

For now, the cornerbacks fight on. They take pride in the most primitive, pure form of mano-a-mano competition in all of sports.

They see that empty throne.

Bleacher Report chatted at length with four who can stake realistic claims as the rightful king. Norman will bully and bludgeon. Hayward, the former point guard and quarterback, wins with his mind. Trufant's DNA gives him an edge. Rhodes? He's the survivor.

After reeling off his top five, Rhodes interrupted himself. He cannot disrespect the crown, cannot omit Revis. This is the legend he emulated forever. Coaches at Florida State used to yell at him, but he didn't care—Rhodes mimicked Revis because he knew Revis was the gold standard. Everything else was secondary. So he gushes about the time Revis miraculously picked off Tony Romo on a back-shoulder throw to Dez Bryant. The time he locked down Randy Moss. The ridiculous patience that forces receivers to tip their hand.

"Everybody's going to label 'Prime' one of the best," Rhodes said, referencing Deion Sanders. "There's other great corners out there, but I'm talking my time, my era. It's definitely Darrelle Revis."

Not anymore, Xavier.

A new era has dawned. 


"26"

Forget the adults in Mom's basement tweeting "LMFAOOOOOOO" and "pull your head out of your ass" after his tweet. What stung Casey Hayward more than anything was when the team that drafted him—the one that saw him daily and that he envisioned a future withnever offered him a contract in free agency.

A year ago, the Packers just let Hayward walk.

"I'm like 'Wow. They really think I'm a s--tty player,'" Hayward says. "They didn't offer me at all. I felt like I was the best player at the position when I was there. It kind of was like, 'Dang.' I'm glad now I'm a L.A. Charger. I got to show my true talents. Got to travel with No. 1s and show people what I can do. I'm glad I'm not there with those guys. I'm glad I'm here.

"I'm going to come out here each year and try to prove those guys wrong, again, that they should've signed me."

Because here's what happened after Ted Thompson woke up from his annual free-agency nap. Hayward's seven interceptions led the NFL. His opposing passer rating of 53.4 ranked third. He was burnt for only one touchdown—and this wasn't anything new. Since 2011, Hayward's 59.1 opposing passer rating is second-best, per the NFL, right between Sherman and Revis.

And his 16:6 interceptions to touchdowns ratio? "Bananas," he says, "compared to anybody else's."

Meanwhile, the Packers secondary needed a parental advisory warning throughout the 2016 postseason. Dez Bryant and Julio Jones shredded Green Bay for 312 yards on 18 receptions with four touchdowns.

Hayward's case is simple: He's the best playmaker. This sixth sense is a lifetime in the making.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 25: Casey Hayward #26 of the San Diego Chargers runs with the ball after intercepting a pass from Andrew Luck #12 of the Indianapolis Colts during the game against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 25, 2
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

From age 11 to his senior year of high school, he only played quarterback. No cornerback, no defense. At Perry (Georgia) High, Hayward was the triggerman in a spread offense operating exclusively from the shotgun. He loved the control and had full autonomy to audible to screens and slants and flip run plays from one side to the other. He wasn't a run-first quarterback, either—he dissected coverages.

Whether it's 22 players on a field or 10 players on a court, he's been processing the big picture forever.

Since Mom drove him 90 miles to Columbus every weekend for AAU tournaments, handing him $100 for food, he's been a point guard. A maestro. A "Celtics Rondo" type who'd draw interest from small colleges including Mercer.

"I controlled the team," he says. "I still can hoop. People don't want to see me on the court now."

Five scant games at cornerback his senior year punched Hayward's ticket to Vanderbilt, where he then blended all of this with intricate film prep. He realized if a receiver like Georgia's A.J. Green lined up at a specific split, a specific depth, he only ran two routes. Watching students get kicked out of Vandy "every other day" for bad grades further pushed his study habits into high gear. In Green Bay, the trade secrets mastered by Charles Woodson passed on to Tramon Williams were now relayed to him.

He treasured their words. Baiting quarterbacks, he learned, is an art.

First, it's often impossible to tell if Hayward is in man or zone. "You never know what you're going to get," he says. Then, he sees routes unravel in real time, darting his eyes from a receiver to the quarterback to the receiver mid-play. He thinks of the position as a complex game of "tic-tac-toe" or "Connect Four." When one area of the field is blanketed, another opens up. And facing two savants, two maniacal competitors in Aaron Rodgers and Philip Rivers daily forced him to think two, three moves ahead until, eventually, he jumped routes with confidence. "Cockiness," even.

"It's cat and mouse," he says. "Sometimes you guess right, and I try to guess right as much as I can."

Taking risks most corners only dream of, Hayward is the closest thing the NFL has to Woodson. He only sees a handful of corners taking such gambles. Talib, Sherman and Marcus Peters come to mind.

Then again, Peters has also been burnt for 11 touchdowns in two years.

Officials will keep littering the field with flags, and receivers will keep mutating into Julio-sized challenges. So this is how Hayward maintains control—he wins the mental game.

"Some games, you're just going to be outmatched," Hayward says. "Sometimes, that player across from you is just better than you. And that's OK. It's going to be like that. But is he mentally better than you? That's when you can catch up in the game."

"You take those chances and you live with those chances."

There's no special meaning behind No. 26. Hayward didn't feel like paying up for No. 29, for one, but he mostly aims to build his own legacy. No past No. 26s stand out to him. So one day, future corners will choose No. 26. They'll see Hayward knife underneath a tight end, take a pick for the house and remember the name.

"I'm trying to make this 26 with the L.A. Chargers," he says, "as legendary as possible."

CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 24:  Casey Hayward #26 of the San Diego Chargers warming up before a game against the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium on December 24, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  The Browns defeated the Chargers 20-17.  (Photo by Wesley Hitt
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Hayward isn't irritated when his name is overlooked. Rather, he warns anyone doing the overlooking to "have your true facts." Because with Jason Verrett on the other side of the field, he warns, "it'll be scary for people" this season. Maybe even as scary as the whupping Jones put on the Packers in the NFC Championship Game. Hayward knows he would've made a difference that day. He held Julio scoreless earlier in the season.

Oh well. The Packers didn't want him.

Now, the rest of the NFL is on notice.

"I want to be the best corner in 2017," he says. "That's what I strive to be. I thought I was the best corner in 2016. Let's see who'll be the best corner in 2017.

"When I do it again, people will say, 'Oh, he did it again.' And I'll get my true due."


The Heartbeat

If Casey Hayward felt snubbed, Josh Norman felt betrayed. When Panthers management told him he wasn't worth as much as he thought, the cornerback was crushed.

"Very like, 'How could you?' in a way," Norman says. "It was like a stab in the back."

Once that proverbial stab healed, Norman wasn't surprised to see a 15-1 team go 6-10.

"I didn't have to say anything," he says. "They were thinking it was all D-line. No, it's not. Who's going to stop Julio? Who's going to stop Mike Evans? Who's going to stop Brandin Cooks?

"The heartbeat of that just went pshhhh. Who brought that whole thing together?"

That's what separates this cornerback: He's the heartbeat of your team. The energy that pumps through your locker room. It's contagious. Everyone around Norman adopts his attitude.

In a wide-ranging Q&A with B/R Mag, Norman insisted he's fighting for the soul of the game—"No pussyfooting around. No inching off. None of that softness"—and it's not bluster with him. Not talk. No corner gets into the face of his opposition like Norman. He couldn't care less that he's the richest cornerback ever. A contract number, he repeats, does not define him. His style does.

So he'll play "hands on...hands on" all game. Go ahead and call holding every play.

"Because I guarantee you what, you're going to beat this motherf--ker down before you do. You take a 5-yard penalty. Cool. You give them 1st-and-5. ... This guy's going to get it in his head, 'I think I may want to get around my route and do something different!'"

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - SEPTEMBER 25:  Josh Norman #24 of the Washington Redskins pleads his case with the referee as  Odell Beckham #13 of the New York Giants is on the ground in the first quarter at MetLife Stadium on September 25, 2016 in East Rutherford
Elsa/Getty Images

Flag him for his signature bow-and-arrow celebration. Before the NFL lightened up on celebrations, Norman promised to bust it out again.

"Absolutely I am. I'll do something to where it doesn't affect us in a situation, to where we're up for 40, 20, I'm going to hit it."

And expect an all-out brawl when a new collective bargaining agreement must be reached.

"I hope I'm in the center of that sucker, too."

He sees the commissioner messing with a game "that doesn't need to be messed with," and he vows to fight on. Why? It's an emotional game, and that emotion needs to burst out of him. Last season, that meant an NFL-high 16 penalties, yet it also meant an NFL-high 14 passes defensed. It meant a training camp fight with his own quarterback, but it also meant that quarterback then winning MVP and his galvanized defense taking names and kicking ass all year.

That emotional absence was painfully obvious when Carolina's R-rated defense softened into something between Bubble Guppies and Sesame Street.

If the Redskins have any problem with such raw emotion—like Norman's promise to let "all hell break loose" in the NFC East—shame on them. That's always fueled his game, and you want a Lannister on your side. He's asked questions and answers them honestly. There's no cornerback like him. Trying to think of one, he mentions Richard Sherman but says he "isn't going to be in-your-face physical," pointing to Seattle's scheme.

"It's covered up," Norman says. "Why do you think he won't ever leave Seattle?"

Yet even Norman knows a balance is needed. He holds out his hands for display—both are scarred, one is still swollen. After playing "all-out f--king physical" in 2016, punching at the ball as much as possible, Norman vows to play with more finesse in 2017. On his couch, he bobs his head back and forth, staring straight ahead.

CHICAGO, IL - DECEMBER 24: Josh Norman #24 of the Washington Redskins looks on during the game against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field on December 24, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. Washington defeated Chicago 41-21. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

"There will be a lot of skill traits," Norman says. "I'm going to use them all in an assassin-type of way. Like a mysterious in-by-day-and-out-by-night sort of thing."

Off the field, he's calm. On it, he's ruthless.

It's a switch he cannot control.

"I swear it's two different people," he says. "Night and day. In that switch, in that mode, I am at my best. You're going to know that. And if you're going to judge me by how I carry myself between those white lines—and think that's me 24/7/365—that's not the case. ... How can I change my perception on you if you never saw me outside of that? If you never saw anything I have going outside of that? You wouldn't."

The perception that he's some maniac does bother him to an extent. Off the field, he's not at all.

On it, he's dangerous as ever.

He's not worried about other receivers, other corners.

"I'm in my own mind," Norman says. "You can't sit up here and tell me that guy is better than me."

If he takes the throne in the process, so be it.


"Rhodes Closed"

Life on the island is different for Xavier Rhodes. He's intimidating, like Norman. Physical, like Norman. Sent Odell Beckham Jr. into a temper tantrum, like Norman. But unlike his spirit animal, Rhodes is not disgusted with a league going soft.

Rather, he describes his profession as "serenity."

Mainly because he knows what life was like without football.

It's growing up in his three-bedroom Carol City, Florida, home with 13 people. Cousins, aunts, uncles all stuffed underneath the same roof, forcing Rhodes to sleep on the floor many nights. Everyone always ate pork and beans, fried bologna sandwiches and hot dogs in a monotonous rotation.

It's running around the streets of Miami without a father. Rhodes didn't even meet his dad until he was 19. With Mom working at a car wash and his grandma working a nursing job, Rhodes was forced to become a man far too soon.

It's bruising and bloodying himself as a third-grader against eighth-graders in all sports.

And, of course, it's violence. So much violence. At one high school party, one of Rhodes' good friends, "Big Sam," told him one minute that if he needs anything to just let him know. The next minute, Big Sam was shot and killed. Intruders showed up and "started shooting up the party," Rhodes says.

Big Sam died. Rhodes ran.

"Once you hear the gunshots," Rhodes says, "you just run and pray to God you don't get shot.

"That was the norm."

Now, Rhodes views himself as the best corner in football because he's a survivor. He's built for this. He figured out life, alone, so he can handle the Julios and Odells and Jordys and Antonio Browns alone.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - JANUARY 1: Trae Waynes #26 of the Minnesota Vikings celebrates after intercepting the ball in the third quarter of the game against the Chicago Bears on January 1, 2017 at US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Hannah Fosli
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

"I could go and let all my steam, my stress, my anger—whatever was going on in my life at that point," Rhodes says. "Football was that place for me to let it all out. I've always had issues in my life. But whether it was in-house or out [of the] house, football was my getaway."

Not initially. Even though Rhodes grew up a few blocks from the Dolphins' stadium, he was a WWE fan. Not the NFL. Stone Cold and The Rock were his favorite wrestlers, and he can still picture the Undertaker throwing Mankind from a 16-foot cage down into a Spanish announcers table as announcer Jim Ross shouted, "Good God almighty! That killed him! ... He is broken in half!" Rhodes thought all the blood, the gore, the theatrics were 100 percent real then, too.

The more violence, the better. He couldn't get enough.

He'd even try out moves on Mom, once trapping her in a DDT reverse headlock. Mom squirmed free and he, uh, accidentally clotheslined her.

At 11 years old, his first tackle as a football player was a Goldberg-esque headfirst spear. His second tackle was a full suplex—he lifted a ball-carrier by his head and slammed him to the ground. Right then, coaches nicknamed Rhodes "Wild Man."

Of course he'd play cornerback.

Rhodes never dealt drugs, but he could've veered down that path without football.

"You're 10 years old but you felt 25 or 20 because you have to go out there and do things on your own," Rhodes said. "Especially in the hood. You really had to grow up on your own and do things you have to do for your fam, because some of the times your parents aren't even there and it's pretty hard. It's a tough life.

"You had to live in the streets or you had to choose football. I chose football."

That decision was made in ninth grade.

A coach asked Rhodes and his best friend to try out for the JV team. Rhodes did. His friend skipped school. He isn't sure what that friend is doing today.

"It can go one way or another," Rhodes says, "based on the decisions you make."

Still, the sight of teammates hanging out with their dads after games agitated Rhodes. He's forever grateful to his mom for serving both the disciplinary and sentimental parenting roles, but she was also working nonstop to put food on the table. He wouldn't change a thing. It all equipped him for his profession, for the throne. His 47.0 opposing passer rating in 2016 ranked No. 1 in the NFL. His opposing completion percentage of 48.0 ranked No. 1 for corners with at least 300 snaps.

There's still an echo of Stone Cold in his game—hence the 11 penalties—but Rhodes also had five interceptions.

"That's always been my mentality," Rhodes says, "to survive and do what I need to do to succeed. Football is a place where I can calm down and relax and just play."

So he texts Miami-area pals Antonio Brown and Kayvon Webster regularly. Whenever one rips him for lounging on the couch—That's that first round right there. You're not trying to work—Rhodes heads outside to rip through cone drills. He keeps his son in mind. Rhodes aims to be the father he never had. He's even reconciling with the dad who ignored him for years.

And on the field, he gets under receivers' skin.

Ask Odell.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - OCTOBER 03: An official separates Odell Beckham Jr. #13 of the New York Giants and Xavier Rhodes #29 of the Minnesota Vikings during the game at U.S. Bank Stadium on October 3, 2016 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Vikings defeated the Gia
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

"They don't want to get touched. They don't want to get hit," Rhodes says. "Throughout my whole career, I've seen that effect. But that's never been my game plan. That's never been my intent to just be physical—that's just my style of play. I'm just a physical person at all times. Everything is intense with me.

"Everything I put my mind to, everything I do is with passion."

Which is why he slots himself No. 1, Peterson No. 2, Sherman No. 3 and Talib No. 4. He says No. 5 is a coin toss. While Rhodes doesn't have his own "island," he has been given one nickname that's gaining steam.

"People started using this 'Rhodes Closed' thing," he says. "That's what it is now. I love it."

Whether "Rhodes Closed" is hashtagged the rest of his career, he inks a megadeal and becomes a legend in his own right is up to him. 


"Tru"

There are some things nearly $69 million cannot buy—like people calling you by your own damn name.

Such is the plight of Desmond Trufant.

Soon after signing the third-richest deal at his position, Trufant watched a video online in which the broadcaster called him "Marcus." That of course is his older brother, who played in the league from 2003-12. It happens all the time. He's never Desmond. He's Marcus.

"I don't know how many times I've been called Marcus," Trufant says. "I don't take offense to it, but it's just funny that I'm at this point of my career…"

He laughs.

"…and people still call me that."

Marcus was good, not great, with the Seahawks. Older brother Isaiah bounced around the NFL and UFL, too. Desmond? Quarterbacks avoid him like the plague. Across 975 snaps in 2015, Trufant was targeted only 56 times. In 2016, he suffered a torn pectoral and missed the Falcons' Super Bowl run. No doubt they could've used him. Tom Brady would've only had half a field at his disposal.

ATLANTA, GA - OCTOBER 30:  Aaron Rodgers #12 of the Green Bay Packers hugs Desmond Trufant #21 of the Atlanta Falcons after their 33-32 loss at Georgia Dome on October 30, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

No, he's never offended when folks call him "Marcus" because he knows the bloodlines make him special. Ten years younger than Marcus, eight years younger than Isaiah, Desmond never watched Nickelodeon. He was the ball boy on the Tacoma (Washington) Wilson team that went to states, and then stayed glued to his brothers' high school, college and pro tape in rewind, play, rewind repetition.

"I've literally been watching pro football, in a very detailed way, since I was in seventh grade," Trufant says. "I'm watching and learning just by watching [Marcus] do what he's doing. Even in high school, I was watching his high school highlight tape. I had the…the VC…what is it?"

The VCR.

Now, the iPad might as well be attached to his palms.

"I really like to break my opponent down," Trufant says. "How they stand, how they release, how they run, how they break down, how they catch, their attitude, their demeanor, anything I can find to get an edge. I look at myself a lot, too. I'm looking at what I did right, what I did wrong. How did I get beat here? Why did I get that pick? Why didn't I get that pick? I'm breaking myself down, too, because I know somebody else is doing it."

His game became a mixtape of everything—he presses, he plays off, he plays man, zone, slot, he'll blitz. And before last season, Trufant had only missed one game his high school, collegiate and NFL career. For a player who admits he hates losing more than he enjoys winning, the 28-3 meltdown was torture. Trufant felt helpless that night, shouting "Next play! Next play!" until there were no next plays left.

Says Trufant, "But it happened for a reason and made me stronger, made me hungrier. It's fueling me to get back out there to get to that same position."

Because while a chess background laid the foundation for Le'Veon Bell's greatness, Trufant knows he had his brothers.

Even after inking his five-year, $68.75 million deal, Trufant still thinks like the runt of the litter getting kicked off the basketball court. Like Rhodes and Norman both, he was always battling teens twice his size.

"I'm trying to get on there with all these high schoolers," he says. "That, my whole life, put something in me, like I have to prove myself in everything I do. I have this chip on my shoulder like, 'Bro, you don't want me on the court? I'll show you what I can do. I'm better than you!' That is really in my game. I'm hungry. I feel underrated. I feel underestimated."

Trufant has no problem with louder cornerbacks gaining notoriety, because he knows the truth. It's no surprise that Trufant—who goes by "Tru"— prefers "real" rappers with "real" lyrics like Jay Z over posers rhyming about experiences they've never had. Rather than rank corners and point to numbers and plead his case, Trufant tells everyone to do what he always did.

Turn on the film.

"There's no audio. There's no nothing. You just have to watch it, and you're either doing your thing or you're not.

"Do your research when you want to talk about rating guys."

At LongHorn, one fan asks Trufant for a photo, and his girlfriend whispers that this happens all the time. He's clearly respected in Atlanta. The Falcons clearly respect Tru's game with their whopping investment. And by ignoring him, quarterbacks respect Tru as well. If Atlanta gets back to the Super Bowl? He'll be known nationally.

Getting back to that game as a participant is what drives him.

Dreads spilling from his Tacoma Rainiers hat, Trufant's words slow to a crawl and he allows himself to daydream.

"I'm excited to do what I do," he says. "Do me. Just dominate every matchup I get." 


The verdict

So who's No. 1? Is there a No. 1?

What defines No. 1?

For so long, there was no debate.

Back when Revis was at the peak of his powers, Talib and Ronde Barber were in the Buccaneers film room trying to figure out what made him special. Barber was polishing off a masterpiece of a 16-year career that'll likely send him to Canton, while Talib's career was just taking flight. One play made their jaws drop.

A receiver accelerated into his route, and when Revis stuck his right hand into his chest—whap!—that receiver stopped dead in his tracks.

"We were like 'How the f--k did he just do that?'" says Barber, who finished his career with 47 interceptions, 139 passes defensed and eight touchdowns. "He was unique. He was elite. People put that 'elite' word on some people. He was elite. An elite athlete, an elite corner, an elite technician."

Julio Cortez/Associated Press

The bar is set high. Deion Sanders and Revis were "once in 20 years" cornerbacks to Barber, and he doesn't know whether anyone is ready to supplant him as king. To him, Talib is the best, but this exercise is a crapshoot. One by one, Barber dissects cornerbacks' games. One by one, he sees traits he loves and others he hates.

If Peterson was more a technician, Barber says, "There's nobody even close to him." The concentration lapses drive him nuts.

"I'm like 'What is he looking at?' as the ball goes over his head," Barber says. "That should never happen to him. Ever, ever, ever, ever."

Rhodes looks like a "new-age wide receiver" at a ripped 6'1" and 218 pounds. After only two picks in his first three seasons, his five in 2016 suggest to Barber he can vie for the top spot. However, Barber also worries Rhodes is at a "this-is-as-good-as-he's-going-to-get stage" at that size.

Barber likes Norman's attitude, but he believes his overaggressiveness prevents him from being No. 1.

"He gives up plays. He gives up stupid penalties," Barber says. "He's not 100 percent reliable. Josh is quick-trigger. That aggressive nature comes back to kill him sometimes."

Like, say, 16 penalties.

"That's crazy. That's too many. A lot of guys just don't give a s--t. They don't care."

He still needs to see more of Hayward.

"Are you hot or is it your game?" Barber says. "Before I say he's 'that guy,' I need to see it be his game."

Trufant is "fast as s--t," armed with Revis-like technique and "can cover anybody."

One problem.

"I've seen that guy play volleyball with the frickin' football," Barber says. "He does not intercept the football. To me, to be a great corner in this league—to be considered great—you have to take the ball away. That's what the game is about. Nnamdi Asomugha was a great cover corner. He never turned the ball over.

"How do you fix not having great hands? It's hard."

Indeed, this throne remains up for grabs. Barber brings up an army of other potential suitors, too.

Jason Verrett: "Frickin' special, man. Watching him play, it's like 'Holy s--t, this dude's for real. Jason will hit you, man. He plays bigger. He plays like he's 210. S--t like that flashes for me."

Chris Harris Jr.: "If I were cloning me, it'd be Chris Harris with some extra s--t put in there. He's a top-10 corner in the league."

Lamarcus Joyner: "He might be my favorite player in football. That dude, he doesn't look the part, and he's basically a starting 'Sam' linebacker."

Janoris Jenkins: "Every game I've seen, he's scoring touchdowns. But is he a complete guy, or is he just a guy who makes plays?"

Joe Haden: "How much has he declined the last two years? He's a different guy."

Richard Sherman: "He started to travel with guys here the last couple years, but technically he doesn't do the things that Aqib does. Richard's on the way down."

Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

Marcus Peters: "Great ball skills. He can run. He plays with the right attitude. But he's just not there yet. I think he might be a guy down the road where people say he's the best in the league."

The one with the best chance, long term, could be Jalen Ramsey. Barber was in awe last year during the Jaguars-Buccaneers joint practices, saying Ramsey "looks like a f--king elite athlete. ... He might be the one that sets the new standard." But for now, he'll stick with Talib because he checks every box: he's technical, makes plays (33 interceptions, nine touchdowns), can play on or off receivers and, above all, he's a "different cat." That's a necessity. In Barber's prime, Randy Moss and Terrell Owens were the only physical freaks. Now, corners face 6'3", 230-pound, Adonis-cut wideouts each week.

Combine that with the rule changes, and you better play pissed-off on Sundays.

"It's me against the world," Barber says. "You're Tupac out there. That's it. If you don't have that mentality, you won't make it."

The beauty of Norman calling out Beckham and Bryant is he'll get both twice apiece in 2017. Nobody can hide. The beauty of Hayward labeling himself No. 1 is he'll jump routes and either guess right or wrong.

Rhodes will bring his passion. Trufant will bring his X's-and-O's intellect.

Then, it hits Barber. There is no king right now. When there's a victor, it'll be obvious to everyone, like Deion in the '90s or Revis in the 2010s. The victor will have the nickname, the numbers and the reputation that has peers in the film room saying, "How did he do that?"

"Which one of these guys is going to say, 'It's my throne?'" Barber wonders. "Darrelle Revis has clearly stepped off the throne.

"Who's going to take it?"

In two months, the war begins.

Statistics in this story are from Pro Football Focus unless otherwise noted.

Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.

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