The Top 10: Cornerbacks

NFL Network’s top 100 list has now been running for a few years, and it consistently draws grumbles around the country from more knowledgeable fans. While the rankings are voted by the players, the process of gathering the votes seems mediocre at best; each player is asked to list their top 15 players in the league. There is no weighing of votes by position, as each player’s vote seems to carry equal value. (For example, it would make more sense if the ranking of receivers was weighted more heavily by the cornerbacks who cover them.) Defensive linemen and offensive linemen would likely have the best idea of who the toughest players were at their opposing positions. And the coaches, who may have the most important opinions of all, are not involved at all!

Originally I was going to create an overall top-100 list, but as I thought about it more, I felt that such a list would be too inaccurate and create controversy. How do you weigh the value of each player? Quarterbacks are the most valuable players, so should the top 100 contain half the quarterbacks in the league? That doesn’t seem right, since we should be talking about the best performances by all players. However, the value of a player as an asset should come into play, as a guy who has shown a ton of promise at a young age is quite a bit more valuable than a declining veteran who might be slightly better overall right now. As a result, I have instead decided to start a series where I go over my top 10 players at each of the major positions.

The contributing factors will include trending performance, scheme fit, age, and projected future value. Since we have very little information on rookies, they will not be included. I don’t think simple one-through-ten lists do the players enough justice, since many guys are closer together than others, so they will be separated into tiers in addition to the overall ranking. I’ll start with cornerbacks.

Tier 1: Darrelle Revis, Patrick Peterson

1. Revis: A lot of people think this guy has fallen off since his days with the Jets. Those opinions the equivalent of horse manure. There are multiple things to account for in his “mediocre” 2013 season: A poor scheme, easing back into play from injury, and adjustment to a new team. Greg Schiano was brilliant when it came to defending the run, as the Bucs consistently stifled opposing running backs last year. However when it came to pass defense, his zone coverages had more holes than swiss cheese. In addition to a poor scheme, there were blown coverages all over the field, often leading to defenders looking worse than their actual talent level. Despite this, Revis was still targeted just 63 times last year, 2nd fewest in the league by any corner that logged at least 750 snaps (he had 972). He allowed just 34 catches, showing that even in a poor scheme and fit, he is still very adept in zone coverage. By the end of the year, film showed that he was as close to 100% as you could expect, and with a healthy offseason, I have no doubts that the rust will be completely shaken off for 2014. At 29 years old, I have no problem saying that he is still the best all around cornerback in football, and is primed for an incredible season this year under Bill Belichick.

2. Peterson: It’s tough to compare players to Revis, but Patrick Peterson is the only corner in the league who has a legitimate shot to overtake him for #1 in the league. His physical talent is off the charts, as he boasts the same physical strength as Revis with more speed and a slight height advantage as well. While Peterson needs to study up to match Revis’ knowledge of receiver routes and offensive schemes, he is one of the few corners in the league who has been given as many opportunities as Revis to stand alone on an island against opposing receivers. He did get burnt for seven touchdowns last year, but his allowed catch rate was just as good as Revis’ (54.4%) and he has significantly better ball skills. At just 24 years old, with the consistent improvement he has displayed, it’s safe to say that Peterson should be an all time great cornerback, and I would not be surprised to see him leapfrog Revis’ performance in the next few years. He has the potential to be outstanding in every characteristic of the game, and I expect him to realize most, if not all of that potential.

Tier 2: Richard Sherman, Alterraun Verner, Joe Haden

3. Sherman: I’m actually very tempted to put Sherman lower than this, as I think his value on any other team would be quite diminished. However his stats the last two seasons are undeniably impressive; 16 interceptions, an allowed catch rate under 50%, and just 10 missed tackles. While he does play with the best safety tandem in the league, that’s not really the main factor that should lead to a downgrade in his value. On other teams that play more man coverage it would be the main factor, but the Seahawks play exclusively a Cover 3 defense on almost every play. This means that Sherman is responsible for about a third of the field every game, and he plays a role similar to the one that Asante Samuel used to play under Belichick in New England. Sherman is far better than Samuel ever was, matching his interception abilities while giving up virtually no big plays, and providing far better run support. While it seems like I am glowing about Sherman, and I am, I only have him at #3 because I believe he would be completely lost in any other scheme. This gif highlights all of my concerns, in one of the very rare plays where he is featured in man coverage; he fails to get a jam on Stevie Johnson (granted, Johnson might be the best in the league at avoiding jams) and completely loses him on a very simple pattern, resulting in an easy touchdown. Sherman’s size and lack of fluidity makes man coverage a daunting challenge for him, and I am quite skeptical that he will ever be able to be a positive in such a scheme. However, as it stands, he is undoubtedly the best Cover 3 corner in the league, and is in the best situation he could possibly be in. As long as he remains in this scheme, offenses would be wise to avoid him.

4. Verner: As a relative unknown, Verner burst onto the scene early in 2013 with some exceptional man coverage statistics. Through week 6, he had allowed just 11 of 32 pass attempts to be completed in his direction, with no touchdowns allowed, 4 interceptions, and 8 pass deflections. Yes those numbers are correct, meaning that in those 6 games he managed to get his hands on the ball more often than his opposing receivers! These weren’t exactly bottom feeders either, as he faced some good QB’s in those weeks: Ben Roethlisberger, Phillip Rivers, Russell Wilson, and Alex Smith. Of course such an incredible stat line is somewhat unsustainable, but Verner still finished the year allowing fewer than 50% of passes completed against him, with just 2 touchdowns allowed to 5 interceptions and 14 passes defended. The one knock on him is that he only plays one side of the field (not as uncommon as you may think). While 2013 represented a massive improvement over his 2012 season, his ability on the field made this performance seem like anything but a fluke. As I mentioned in my NFC South Offseason article, I was quite shocked that he was only able to swing a 4 year 27M$ deal from the Bucs. While I’m slightly skeptical about him in Lovie Smith’s Cover 2 defense, it is quite possible that Smith will adjust his defense to Verner’s skill set. If this is the case, you can expect Verner to put up another great season on a defense more talented than the one he just left in Tennessee.

5. Haden: As a top 10 pick in 2011, Haden has been a full time starter since day 1 and has not disappointed. Just three years into the league his allowed catch rate is a very impressive 54.3%, already on par with the top corners on this list. What has jumped out most to me has been his consistency; most young corners struggle in their adjustment to the superior route running of NFL receivers relative to the college game, but Haden has shown off a very solid all around game every year. With defensive guru Mike Pettine taking over the gig in Cleveland, don’t be surprised when Haden has an All-Pro performance in 2014. Pettine completely transformed the 2013 Bills defense from a bottom 5 unit to top 5, while making Leodis Mckelvin look like a serviceable number one corner after everyone (including myself) had previously labeled him as a bust. At just 25 years old, the future is very bright for Joe Haden.

Tier 3: Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Aqib Talib, Brent Grimes

6. DRC

7. Talib

8. Grimes

Here is where the value of certain players becomes very hard to separate. Rodgers-Cro! has always had incredible physical talent but hadn’t really lived up to the hype, till this season when he played very well for the Broncos, even improving his previously poor tackling. Talib is also very physically talented, but has head case concerns. Grimes is a smaller corner, but has incredible athleticism for his size, as he showed off last year with a very nice bounce back after missing 2013 with an injury. All three of these players are capable of shutting down most #1 receivers in the league, but can occasionally be beat, and are not likely to improve any further at this point in their careers. DRC and Talib are 28 years old, and Grimes turns 31 this year. That said, they all have multiple good years left, and will make their respective teams feel confident that they are set at #1 corner on the depth chart. Since Grimes is the oldest and has the most injury concerns, he is ranked the lowest of the three.

Tier 4: Keenan Lewis, Jonathan Joseph

9. Lewis

10. Joseph

The difference between tier 3 and 4 is pretty marginal, and of these two guys it’s quite possible that Lewis deserves a bump up into tier 3. Both are very serviceable #1 corners, but are tough to grade as they have seen their performances on talented defenses. Lewis was targeted 112 times in 2013 with the Steelers, surrendering an impressive 52.7% catch rate, but intercepting 0 passes. In 2014 under defensive guru Rob Ryan, his targets fell to 68 but he snagged 4 interceptions. Joseph has definitely performed well during his time in Houston, but it cannot be understated how much easier his job is made thanks to phenom JJ Watt. His targeting numbers look very good in a vacuum, but when I watch him on film, I find all the other corners on this list to be more impressive. I’m not trying to take anything away from Joseph, I’d be happy to have him on my defense, but I’d be happier to have any of the players above.

Honorable mentions:

On the rise – Desmond Trufant, Sam Shields, Xavier Rhodes

Regressing or missing time, but could bounce back – Leon Hall, Brandon Browner, Charles Tillman

Greatest name – EJ Biggers 🙂

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