Ranking Top 7 Cornerback Duos Heading into 2020 Season
We often view the NFL as a passing league. Defensive coordinators have to find a way to counter fast-paced offenses, three-wide receiver sets and tight ends who can line up on the outside.
While some teams load up on pass-rushers, other clubs bolster the secondary, adding talented cornerbacks to limit the pass-catchers on the perimeter.
This offseason, two teams made major investments at cornerback. The Philadelphia Eagles acquired Darius Slay from the Detroit Lions and signed him to a three-year, $50 million extension. The Miami Dolphins inked Byron Jones to a five-year, $82.5 million contract—the highest salary at the position.
Wide receivers generate a ton of highlights, but don't overlook the guys who cover them. We'll list and rank the top seven cornerback duos in the league with an emphasis on production, resume and projection.
The selections don't include slot cornerbacks because the role requires a slightly different skill set, though we've included players who play inside and outside.
7. Jaire Alexander and Kevin King, Green Bay Packers
Only one team on this list has both cornerbacks on their rookie deals. That team is the Green Bay Packers.
Right out of college, Jaire Alexander showed great promise. In his first year, he logged a team-leading 11 pass breakups, lining up inside and outside. The Louisville product followed up with a solid sophomore campaign, allowing a 53.6 percent completion rate.
Because of injuries early in his career, Kevin King needed some time to blossom into a solid cover defender. He missed 17 games between the 2017 and 2018 terms but suited up for 15 outings in 2019, logging five interceptions and 15 pass breakups. The 6'3", 200-pound cornerback gave up 864 receiving yards, but quarterbacks recorded a pedestrian 84.6 passer rating when targeting him.
Green Bay selected King in the second round of the 2017 draft, so the front office will have a crucial decision on whether to retain him next offseason. If the Washington product continues to make strides, the Packers' starting cornerbacks could move up the ranks. For now, they're a solid pair with upside.
Alexander and King barely made the list over the Buffalo Bills' starting cornerback duo because the latter has some uncertainty as to who lines up opposite of Tre'Davious White. Buffalo's options are Josh Norman, who's allowed 15 touchdowns since 2018, and Levi Wallace, a third-year cover man coming off offseason shoulder surgery.
6. Xavien Howard and Byron Jones, Miami Dolphins
In 2019, the Miami Dolphins pass defense ranked 26th and gave up the most touchdowns—that should change with a healthy Xavien Howard and Byron Jones' arrival.
Before Howard went down with a knee injury last season, he struggled, giving up three touchdowns in five outings. Even though prosecutors dropped the charges against him in a domestic violence case, per TMZ Sports, the 26-year-old may serve a suspension after a league investigation.
Between 2017 and 2018, Howard made a case as the top cornerback in the league, logging 11 interceptions and 25 pass breakups.
Howard's ability to force takeaways complements Byron Jones, who's snagged just two interceptions. The former Dallas Cowboy primarily lined up at safety for his first three seasons and then transitioned to cornerback. Since 2018, he's allowed completions rates below 54 percent, which makes up for his lack of forced turnovers.
Jones and Howard have multiple years of solid performance. They each have a Pro Bowl campaign, which allows them to jump Jaire Alexander and Kevin King for the No. 6 slot.
5. Joe Haden and Steven Nelson, Pittsburgh Steelers
The Pittsburgh Steelers didn't draft their perimeter cornerbacks, but general manager Kevin Colbert deserves credit for his free-agent investments at the position.
Joe Haden has a decade of experience with tremendous consistency. Since 2010, he's broken up the most passes (127) and ranks second in interceptions (27). In 2019, the well-established cover man made his third Pro Bowl as a key component of the Steelers' third-ranked pass defense.
After a breakout 2018 term with the Kansas City Chiefs, Steven Nelson signed with the Steelers. He didn't match the four interceptions and 15 pass breakups from his best campaign, but the sixth-year veteran blanketed receivers, allowing a 50 percent completion rate and zero touchdowns through 15 outings.
Nelson doesn't have Pro Bowl or All-Pro accolades, but he could bring some more buzz to his name with another stingy year in coverage.
Haden's resume outweighs the feats of both Miami Dolphins cornerbacks, which propels the Steelers into the No. 5 spot.
4. Casey Hayward and Chris Harris Jr., Los Angeles Chargers
Chris Harris Jr. has lined up for a significant number of snaps on the inside and outside. According to ESPN's Lindsey Thiry, he'll continue to play in both positions.
In 2019, Harris' coverage slipped a bit. He surrendered a 67.1 percent completion rate and four touchdowns—not bad, but the former Denver Bronco has had much better years.
Harris expects to play at a higher level as he reunites with defensive backs coach Ron Milus, per NBC San Diego's Fernando Ramirez.
"Being comfortable with a coach that coached me for my first three years in the league," Harris said. "I had great success with him. I still use a lot of his tools to this day. Being able to join back with him and the rest of the impact players on the defense I thought would be a great fit for me."
Casey Hayward has been solid in some seasons and exceptional in others, registering at least four interceptions and 20 pass breakups during the 2012, 2016 and 2017 terms.
Since 2018, Hayward has recorded 16 pass breakups and two interceptions, which isn't spectacular, but based on his track record, he's capable of more Pro Bowl-caliber campaigns.
Overall, the Chargers have a more established duo than the Pittsburgh Steelers. Although Joe Haden has the Pro Bowl accolades, Steven Nelson doesn't quite measure up to Harris or Hayward yet.
3. Marshon Lattimore and Janoris Jenkins, New Orleans Saints
The New Orleans Saints claimed Janoris Jenkins off waivers in December. He suited up for only three games (including one playoff outing) with the club, so we didn't get the full dose of this duo.
Marshon Lattimore allowed a 50 percent completion rate while quarterbacks recorded a 79.4 passer rating when they targeted him. With that impressive showing in a division with wideouts Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, the Ohio State product deserves a ton of praise for his 2019 performance.
Jenkins will gamble on plays and time his breaks on contested targets, but that's what makes him an impact playmaker. Since 2012, he ranks tied for fourth in interceptions (23) and second in pass breakups (106).
Jenkins' veteran experience should allow him to jell in New Orleans. He's shown consistency throughout his career, registering at least two interceptions in seven out of eight seasons. The Pro Bowl cornerback picked off a career-high five passes last year.
Both Lattimore and Jenkins had better 2019 performances than Los Angeles Chargers cornerbacks Casey Hayward and Chris Harris Jr., pushing the Saints into the No. 3 slot.
2. Stephon Gilmore and Jason McCourty, New England Patriots
Through eight seasons between the Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots, Stephon Gilmore has applied airtight coverage to receivers. Since his 2012 rookie campaign, he's broken up the most passes (111) and ranks third in interceptions (24).
Over the last two terms, Gilmore has played at an All-Pro level, suiting up for every game. He earned the 2019 Defensive Player of the Year honor and led the league in interceptions (six).
Jason McCourty hasn't garnered as much recognition as Gilmore. Yet he's a solid complement who's recorded 16 pass breakups and two interceptions over the last two campaigns.
In 2019, McCourty allowed a 48.2 percent completion rate. Turning 33 in August, he's slightly passed his prime but still effective.
Gilmore's resume carries this pair to the No. 2 spot. Right now, he's arguably the best cornerback in the game.
1. Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters, Baltimore Ravens
Unlike any cornerback duo listed, the Baltimore Ravens have two All-Pros in their primes—both ball hawks and younger than 28 years old.
Midway through the 2019 campaign, Marcus Peters flamed out with the Los Angeles Rams, struggling in coverage. The Baltimore Ravens rolled the dice on his talent and acquired him via trade. In Week 7, he made his debut with the team.
Before Peters' arrival, the Ravens pass defense ranked 29th in yards (1,858) and sixth in allowed passer rating (83.0). From Week 7 through the end of the term, Baltimore listed second (1,698) and first (71.8) in those respective categories.
Peters regained his swagger with the Ravens and earned All-Pro recognition, logging 10 pass breakups and three interceptions after the trade.
On the opposite side, Marlon Humphrey developed into an All-Pro in his first year as a full-time starter on the perimeter. He surrendered just 8.6 yards per reception, broke up 14 passes and picked off three. He also returned two fumbles for touchdowns.
With Peters and Humphrey on the outside, few quarterbacks will have success targeting their starting wide receivers. Baltimore has a pair of cornerbacks at the top of their games, and the younger of the two is a budding star going into his age-24 term.