Ranking the Top 5 Cornerback Tandems Heading into the 2021 NFL Season
NFL teams without a consistent pass rush must rely on back-end defenders to maintain tight coverage for extended periods. That's not ideal, though some cornerbacks can handle the added responsibility.
The best cornerbacks in today's game can shut down one side of the field, limit star receivers in one-on-one situations and force turnovers.
Some of the top cover men will rack up interceptions, but don't get caught on that statistic. Pay attention to pass breakups, allowed completion percentages, allowed passer ratings and yards surrendered per reception for a complete assessment.
Using the statistical criteria above, we'll rank the top five cornerback tandems, focusing on players who line up mostly on the boundary since the nickelback has a different role. Pro Bowl and All-Pro seasons will also impact the selection order.
5. Xavien Howard and Byron Jones, Miami Dolphins
Xavien Howard picked an opportune time to hold out for a new contract.
In 2020, Howard led the league in interceptions (10) and pass breakups (20) for his first All-Pro nod. According to Pro Football Focus, he's recorded the most interceptions (18) since 2018.
Howard's ability to force turnovers at a high rate makes him an invaluable asset to the Miami Dolphins defense. He'll likely reset the cornerback market on a new deal.
Compared to recent years, Byron Jones had more lapses in his coverage last season. Quarterbacks recorded a 108.0 passer rating when they targeted him. Jones also gave up 17.6 yards per reception, significantly more than he did in 2018 (14.0) and 2019 (11.6).
Despite Jones' struggles, he picked off multiple passes in a season for the first time in his career. The 28-year-old has room to grow in that area and showed positive signs.
Because of Howard's production and Jones' 2018 Pro Bowl season, the Dolphins' duo made the cut over William Jackson III and Kendall Fuller, a promising tandem in the Washington Football Team's secondary.
Washington's lead cornerbacks have yet to make a Pro Bowl or an All-Pro roster. Jackson has only three interceptions in four seasons. When you combine the resumes of both tandems, Howard and Jones have the edge in accolades and takeaways.
4. Kyle Fuller and Ronald Darby, Denver Broncos
The Denver Broncos stacked the cornerback group this offseason, signing Kyle Fuller and Ronald Darby. They also selected Pat Surtain II with the ninth overall pick in the draft. Bryce Callahan is a solid holdover who's worked with head coach Vic Fangio for six seasons.
Fuller and Darby stand out as the top pair among the group.
Throughout his career, Fuller has served as a lead cornerback, and that won't change in Denver under Fangio, who served as his defensive coordinator for four years with the Chicago Bears.
In Fuller's last season under Fangio, he put together an All-Pro season, leading the league in interceptions (seven) and pass breakups (21) for the 2018 term. The 29-year-old could return to elite form because of his familiarity with the Broncos' scheme.
Fuller goes into the 2021 campaign a bit underrated after logging one interception and five pass breakups in 2020, but he posted better numbers in two areas compared to the 2018 and 2019 seasons: allowed completion rate (55.4) and yards allowed per reception (11.5).
With the Buffalo Bills and Philadelphia Eagles, Ronald Darby showed the potential to become a top cornerback, but he missed 23 contests in his first five seasons.
Last year in Washington, Darby didn't miss a game and broke up 16 passes, which ranked fifth leaguewide. He finished the 2020 term without an interception but allowed just one touchdown and a 54.1 percent completion rate.
If Darby can stay healthy, the Broncos have a top tandem with him and Fuller on the boundary. This pair ranks ahead of the Dolphins' duo because of Byron Jones' inconsistencies last season.
3. Jalen Ramsey and Darious Williams, Los Angeles Rams
Jalen Ramsey has performed at a high level for some time. He's a four-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro.
Ramsey's interception numbers (11) may not jump off the screen, but according to Pro Football Focus, he's allowed fewer than 30 yards in coverage in half of his starts, which illustrates the star cornerback's ability to shut down half the field.
At cornerback, the Rams have star quality in Ramsey and a budding talent paired with him on the boundary.
Last season, Darious Williams made the leap from a backup to a full-time starter. He recorded four interceptions and 14 pass breakups in a breakout campaign.
The Rams lost defensive coordinator Brandon Staley, who accepted the Los Angeles Chargers' head coaching job, but his departure shouldn't hinder Williams' development. In 2019, he flashed his ball-tracking skills with two interceptions and four pass breakups in a reserve role under Wade Phillips.
At 5'9", 187 pounds, Williams doesn't have the prototypical size of an outside cornerback, though we cannot overlook his production opposite Ramsey, who may not see many targets because of his stellar coverage.
Despite Williams' small sample size in a starting role, his standout 2020 campaign and Ramsey's resume push this duo above Kyle Fuller and Ronald Darby for the No. 3 spot.
2. Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson, New England Patriots
Stephon Gilmore played through an injury-riddled 2020 campaign that ended with him on injured reserve because of a partially torn quad. Yet he earned his third consecutive Pro Bowl nod, allowing a 57.1 percent completion rate and one touchdown through 11 outings.
Gilmore didn't show up at the New England Patriots' mandatory minicamp, so he's officially a holdout. The team is faced with a tough decision because the four-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro will enter his age-31 campaign coming off a significant injury that required surgery. Yet he's still a top-tier defender when healthy.
J.C. Jackson doesn't have any Pro Bowl and All-Pro nods on his resume, but his coverage numbers suggest he's a rising star at the cornerback position.
Per Pro Football Focus, Jackson has recorded 14 interceptions and allowed a 46.8 passer rating since 2019. Both marks rank first leaguewide in that span. In his three seasons, he's yet to play at least 85 percent of the defensive snaps. The 25-year-old started 11 of 16 games in 2020.
Because of Jason McCourty's departure to the Dolphins, Jackson may finally earn much-deserved recognition while on the field for more than 90 percent of the defensive snaps as a starter in every contest.
Gilmore and Jalen Ramsey have similar resumes, but the former has the 2019 Defensive Player of the Year award. Jackson, though underrated, had better coverage numbers than Darious Williams in 2020.
Unless the Patriots trade Gilmore, this tandem tops Ramsey and Williams for the No. 2 spot.
1. Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters, Baltimore Ravens
Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters complement each other well. According to Pro Football Focus, they rank first and second, respectively, in forced incompletions while playing man coverage since 2019.
Humphrey doesn't jump a lot of routes for interceptions, but he can handle lead wide receivers on an island and gets his hands on the ball. The 24-year-old allowed three touchdowns and a passer rating below 85 for each of the last two seasons. In his All-Pro 2019 term, Humphrey allowed 8.6 yards per catch.
The Baltimore Ravens can also rely on Humphrey to make tackles in the open field and force turnovers upon contact. In 2020, he led the league in forced fumbles (eight), an impressive feat for a cornerback. Humphrey also recorded a team-leading 70 solo tackles with four for loss and 2.5 sacks.
Peters isn't a reliable tackler in open space, but he's arguably the top ball hawk in the NFL. The two-time All-Pro has the most interceptions (31) since 2015. In 2019 and 2020, he allowed a passer rating below 79.
Humphrey fills in the physical gaps where Peters isn't at his best, but they're both top-tier cornerbacks who can impact the game with takeaways via forced fumbles and interceptions.
The Patriots' tandem and the Ravens' duo are separated by a thin margin, but the latter pair has no concerns about a potential drop-off in production with the accolades to take the top spot.
With Humphrey and Peters healthy in the prime of their careers, we don't have to worry about whether either cornerback will trend downhill because of age or condition. That isn't clear for soon-to-be 31-year-old Stephon Gilmore coming off a quad injury.
Both Ravens cornerbacks have strong resumes with multiple Pro Bowl nods and at least one All-Pro season. J.C. Jackson hasn't earned that level of recognition.
Because of those factors, Baltimore's tandem holds the No. 1 spot.