Ranking the NFL's Best Shutdown CornerbacksJune 27, 2018
Ranking the NFL's Best Shutdown Cornerbacks
For the most part, the lifespan of a true shutdown cornerback in the NFL is unmercifully short.
Had this article been written three years ago, we'd likely be discussing the upcoming 2016 performances of Richard Sherman, Patrick Peterson, Josh Norman and Darrelle Revis. Now, none of those players are near the top of the list.
The position is difficult to attain because of the traits of a shutdown corner, and that's why even the best in the business struggle to maintain their status. A shutdown corner has to erase his opponent's best receiver on a week-to-week basis, which requires him to adjust his game to that player.
One week, he may be facing a 6'5", 240-pound behemoth who wants to jar his helmet from his head on every down. The next, he could be covering a 5'10" track star who could tie him knots with perfectly run routes.
Not only does he have to understand and execute coverage in zone, man and hybrid concepts, but he must also take advantage of specific techniques that allow him to turn receptions into disasters for the opposing quarterback.
He must play the boundary all the way down the field to take away the vertical routes. He must do the same when his receiver is headed up the seam as quickly as possible. He may need to slide into the slot if that's where his receiver goes, and then he's covering his man without the sideline as a helper. He must play trail, bail and press coverage at a high level, and he must do it over and over, more than 1,000 times per season.
It's no mystery why shutdown cornerbacks are so valuable in today's game. Here are the 10 best heading into the 2018 NFL season.
10. Kendall Fuller, Kansas City Chiefs
The reason Kendall Fuller isn't higher on this list is because he does most of his work from the slot. While that limits his utility to a degree, what he does with the position made him NFL1000's top-ranked slot cornerback in 2017.
In just his second season, Fuller allowed an opponent passer rating of 56.7, according to Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus, and he averaged fewer than 10 yards per reception, including yards after the catch. That's hard to do when you're dealing with slot receivers who are practiced at running two-way routes and other option concepts designed to work against cornerback movement.
Slot corners also have to cover outside receivers when they move inside, which is a different physical challenge. Imagine going from Doug Baldwin to Jimmy Graham in coverage from one play to the next, and you'll have an idea of what that looks like.
Fuller is able to succeed because he's well-versed in the fundamentals.
He understands how to use his hands to landmark receivers and keep them from speeding away. He keeps his eyes on the center of the man he's covering, making fakes harder for receivers to pull off. And he's quick enough to catch up to a receiver who has gotten away from him as well as to jump the route for a deflection or an interception. He had 10 passes defensed and four picks in 2017 after having just two pass breakups and no picks in his rookie campaign.
Traded to the Chiefs in January (deal official in March) as part of the swap that sent quarterback Alex Smith to Washington, Fuller should continue to be one of the best interior pass defenders in the league, and he does have the attributes to eventually move outside if the Chiefs choose to go that way.
9. Marcus Peters, Los Angeles Rams
You may wonder why 2015 first-round pick Marcus Peters isn't higher here. After all, no player has more interceptions (19) through the last three seasons. The man in second place, Oakland safety Reggie Nelson, has just 14.
And among cornerbacks with 1,500 coverage snaps or more since his rookie season, Peters has the lowest opponent passer rating allowed at 65.2, per Monson. He's a splash play waiting to happen.
Were that the sum of Peters' story, you could argue he wasn't just the best cornerback in the NFL through his three-year career but also the top defensive player overall. And those statistics point to his potential as a shutdown defender.
The problem is he seems to have just as many mental lapses leading to touchdowns and penalties as he does great plays. It's the two-sided nature of his game—while Peters will stray outside of the designated coverage to get to balls most cornerbacks can't, he'll also abandon his spots at times and leave receivers open. That's one reason he's allowed 15 touchdowns in his career, per Monson.
And though his recovery speed is exceptional (like all his athletic traits), it's not always enough to make up for moments in which he seems to forget himself. The boom-and-bust nature runs contrary to what is required of a cornerback, where it's more important to be in range to stop a play every down than it is to show up on highlight reels.
The Chiefs agreed to send Peters to the Los Angeles Rams in February, and Peters is now in an ideal situation under defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. The Chiefs play a lot of zone under Bob Sutton, while Phillips prefers his cornerbacks to press up on receivers and trail them through the routes.
With a more singular focus, perhaps Peters can take his stellar physical traits and match them to a discipline that could make him the league's best at what he does.
8. Tre'Davious White, Buffalo Bills
Tre'Davious White was the fifth cornerback selected in the 2017 draft, after Ohio State's Marshon Lattimore, Alabama's Marlon Humphrey, USC's Adoree' Jackson and Ohio State's Gareon Conley. Outside of Lattimore, it's impossible to argue that any rookie corner was more consistently effective than White in 2017.
Taken 27th overall out of LSU, White stepped right into the Buffalo Bills' starting cornerback role and showed impressive technique, aggressiveness and resilience. The turning point might have come in a win over the Denver Broncos in Week 3, when quarterback Trevor Siemian targeted White unmercifully with Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders as his targets.
White was bedeviled by route combinations and deep passes through the game, but he ended his day decisively by crossing in front of receiver Bennie Fowler for a fourth-quarter interception.
As the season went on, White tallied three more picks, and he finished with 18 passes defensed, allowing just 50.6 of the passes in his coverage area to be completed, per Monson. His rookie season was all the more impressive given that he was replacing veteran Ronald Darby, whom Buffalo traded before the start of the campaign. White had to hit the ground running with offensive concepts he'd never seen before.
He should be one of the best young cornerbacks in the game through the 2018 season and beyond.
7. Jalen Ramsey, Jacksonville Jaguars
If there's a young player ready to inherit the title of the next Richard Sherman, it's Jalen Ramsey.
He has the size, athleticism, mentality and physicality to have a similar career arc to the former "Legion of Boom" pointman.
Ramsey plays bigger than his 6'1", 208-pound frame because he seeks to establish physical dominance on every play. He doesn't just want to cover receivers—he wants to eliminate them by any means necessary. Occasionally, he goes over the line and racks up penalties. But it mostly means that if you repeatedly throw the ball in Ramsey's area, your receivers are going to feel it the next morning.
Ramsey isn't just a mugger on the field—he's also a technician at outside cornerback, which is impressive for a two-year NFL veteran who played more safety and hybrid cornerback than boundary defender at Florida State. The Jags saw Ramsey as their ideal physical outside cornerback, and for the most part, he's lived up to that. He allowed no more than 25 receiving yards in eight games last season, per Monson.
Once Ramsey corrals the occasional rogue elements of his physical style, he'll be a lockdown guy every week, and the toughest matchup for any receiver in the league.
6. Aqib Talib, Los Angeles Rams
While most shutdown cornerbacks have a short shelf life due to the demands of the position, there are exceptions to every rule.
Aqib Talib, who's coming into his 11th NFL season, can still bring it against receivers who were in grade school when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers took him in the first round of the 2008 draft.
It took a while for Talib to match his discipline and football acumen to his athleticism, but once he did, he became nearly impossible for any receiver to beat on a regular basis. Though he was tasked to play off the ball more last season—which goes against his physical, press-coverage style—he still allowed only 250 receiving yards, per Monson. He also hasn't allowed a catch longer than 32 yards over the last two seasons, according to Monson.
Talib is as aggressive as they come at the cornerback position, but he's learned to offset the potential dangers that come with that aggression. He's become a technician who can mirror receivers and jump routes with precision.
After the Broncos traded him to the Rams in March, Talib now once again has a defensive coordinator in Wade Phillips who will deploy him in ways that best suit his talents. Phillips wants his cornerbacks challenging receivers physically all the way through the route, and no one in the league does that better than Talib.
5. Darius Slay, Detroit Lions
Of everyone featured here, Darius Slay is likely talked about the least.
He tied with Titans safety Kevin Byard for the league lead in interceptions last season (eight), but there doesn't seem to be much talk about his rightful status among the NFL's best cornerbacks. He also had an incredible 26 passes defensed in 2017.
A second-round pick out of Mississippi State in 2013, Slay amassed two picks per season every year from 2014 through 2016, but that doesn't mean he's only coming around now. Slay was just as good in 2016 in coverage, but he didn't have the same number of interception opportunities.
When you watch Slay's tape—especially if you watch a reel of his interceptions—you'll see a player with an uncanny knack for when a quarterback doesn't have the velocity to make the throw he's attempting, or when a receiver is about to make a turn for a catch in his route. He's especially good at playing bail coverage, which allows him to keep his eye on the quarterback as he's trailing a receiver down the boundary.
It's hard to play off the ball as much as Slay does and still be a shutdown cornerback—by definition, off-the-ball defenders are going to give up easy catches underneath. But when it counts, Slay has the timing, quickness and physicality to erase big plays on a consistent basis.
4. William Jackson III, Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals spent a first-round pick on William Jackson III in 2016, but a torn pectoral muscle sidelined him before his rookie season began.
Once he got on the field in 2017, Jackson wasted no time in validating Cincinnati's pick from a year before.
Last season, Jacksonville cornerback A.J. Bouye was the only player to allow a lower passer rating on throws into his coverage area than Jackson's 36.1, per Monson. More impressively, in two contests against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Jackson didn't allow Antonio Brown to make a single catch on seven targets.
From the snap, Jackson could play aggressive coverage on Brown because he's so adept at flipping his hips quickly and getting set to run on vertical speed routes. When he closes on receivers, Jackson has both the timing to avoid a penalty and the aggressiveness to negate any catch attempts. And because he has faith in his footwork, Jackson isn't often fooled by opposing receivers who try to fake him out with counter moves—one of Brown's specialties.
Though Jackson missed his first NFL season, he should be on anyone's list when it comes to the league's best young defenders. He has every attribute required to be a shutdown cornerback, and he already is one.
3. Marshon Lattimore, New Orleans Saints
It's unusual for one player to turn around a defense overnight, and even more so for a rookie to do it. But Marshon Lattimore defined what defensive coordinator Dennis Allen wanted to see in coverage, and the Saints started to have the look of a playoff defense after early disasters in their first two games.
If not for a miraculous heave from Case Keenum to Stefon Diggs at the end of New Orleans' divisional-round matchup with the Minnesota Vikings, Lattimore and the Saints could have played in the NFC Championship Game. That would have seemed absurd back in Week 1, when those same Vikings were carving up Allen's defense with Sam Bradford under center.
Selected 11th overall out of Ohio State, Lattimore didn't allow a single touchdown all season—including in the playoffs, per Monson—and he allowed a passer rating of just 45.3 when targeted. He had five interceptions and 18 passes defensed in his rookie season, which led to a well-deserved AP Defensive Rookie of the Year award.
Though he struggled a bit in two games against Julio Jones and the Falcons, Lattimore gave as good as he got, and the fact that his coaches wanted him up against a player of Jones' caliber tells you all you need to know about his potential. Few cornerbacks are better at mirroring a receiver through his route, which became of paramount importance as Allen focused more on pattern-matching through the season.
2. Casey Hayward, Los Angeles Chargers
When the Green Bay Packers let Casey Hayward test the free-agent market before the 2016 season, they did not know what they were letting go.
It's fair to say that no other team knew what Green Bay was letting go, either.
Hayward signed a three-year, $15.3 million deal with the Chargers in 2016, which is chump change for an elite boundary cornerback. But after three years in Green Bay as a hybrid defensive back with some injury issues, elite is exactly what Hayward has become.
He led the NFL with seven interceptions in 2016, and he played at an even higher level in 2017 despite finishing with only four picks.
At 5'11" and 192 pounds, Hayward shouldn't be able to deal with bigger receivers as well as he does. But he's adept at timing his jumps to create contested catch situations against taller opponents, and his understanding of route concepts allows him to run routes with the guys he's covering just as well as they do, if not better.
Moreover, Hayward has developed the quickness and trail speed in short areas required to jump a route and take away a potential completion. He also knows exactly when to get physically aggressive at the top of the route—a must for today's pattern-matching cornerbacks, who must switch from zone to man coverage in certain defenses at the drop of a hat.
Signed to a three-year, $33-plus million contract extension with $20 million guaranteed in March, Hayward is finally getting paid like a big-time cornerback should. Few at his position have been more deserving.
1. A.J. Bouye, Jacksonville Jaguars
When the Jaguars signed A.J. Bouye to a five-year, $67.5 million contract with $26 million guaranteed before the 2017 season, they were taking a calculated risk.
Bouye had been a decent cornerback through his first three years with the Houston Texans, but it wasn't until injuries forced him into a full-time starting role before the 2016 campaign that he showed the ability to lock down opposing receivers both outside and in the slot, and in both zone and man coverages.
Bouye had become an impeccable technician, and once he got his opportunity, he made the most of it.
Once he hit Jacksonville and became a big part of perhaps the NFL's most talented defense, Bouye put his mastery of the position on full display. Last season, he led the NFL among all cornerbacks with a paltry 31.6 passer rating when targeted, per Monson. For context, a player who attempts one pass and fails to complete it would have an NFL passer rating of 39.58. So, throwing in Bouye's area throughout the regular season was worse than throwing the ball away.
Bouye did allow two touchdowns in the playoffs to Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Antonio Brown, but based on my tape study, one came on an uncalled push-off, and the other was the result of Brown—perhaps the best receiver in the NFL—putting on a route-running clinic. Bouye didn't allow a touchdown in the regular season, and he was so steadily magnificent that he still deserves the title of the NFL's top shutdown cornerback despite his postseason lapse.