With just a little over three weeks until the start of the NFL regular season, I have three groups of positions left to rank: cornerbacks, safeties, and punters/kickers. This week, I will be covering the CBs.
Cornerbacks are tough to rank because their stats can be misleading. For example, if a corner records a lot of tackles, that’s not necessarily a good thing. That could mean that his coverage is soft and quarterbacks throw his way often. So I look more for stats such as interceptions, passes defended, targets/receptions/touchdowns allowed, completion percentage allowed, passer rating when targeted, etc.
Once you narrow it down to the top 10, the list becomes almost interchangeable. For instance, I saw lists where Jaire Alexander was the second-best corner in the NFL and another list where he didn’t even crack the top 10. (I think that was mainly due to his injury, but still.)
So with that, here are my top 10 cornerbacks heading into the 2022 season.
Honorable Mention: Kenny Moore II (IND)
Although I am mainly ranking outside cornerbacks, I had to at least mention Kenny Moore, who is arguably the best slot corner in the game. Since coming into the league as an undrafted free agent in 2017, Moore has been a vital part of the Colts defense. He’s played more slot coverage snaps than any other player since 2018, and faced the most targets of any defender last season (125). Although he saw a ton of action, he made the most of it, recording 102 tackles, 13 passes defended, and four INTs en route to his first Pro Bowl. Moore can cover a large array of wide receivers, he can defend the run, and he can blitz from the slot. Since 2018, he has 13 INTs when lined up in the slot. No other CB has more than seven.
10. Darius Slay (PHI)
Darius Slay put together one of his best seasons last year, his second with the Eagles. The 31-year old recorded an 81.3 PFF grade in 2021, the highest in his career. According to PFF, “his 86.2 coverage grade as an outside cornerback led the NFL, and he ranked 11th in both yards allowed per outside-coverage snap (0.79) and percentage of outside targets to result in a first down or touchdown (29.4%).” Slay made his fourth Pro Bowl in his nine-year career after finishing with 52 tackles, three INTs, two fumble recoveries, and a 58.8 completion percentage allowed.
The Eagles signed former Giants CB James Bradberry this offseason, so Slay should get some help on the back end of the defense. You could look at that and say, if Bradberry locks up his assignments, quarterbacks may look to throw at Slay more, potentially leading to a decline in production if he’s not up for the challenge. But in general, having two solid corners makes the defense better as a whole, including CB1s like Slay.
9. Marlon Humphrey (BAL)
Marlon Humphrey was the second cornerback taken in the 2017 Draft (16th overall). Humphrey had 58 tackles and 13 passes defended last year before tearing his pectoral muscle in Week 13. It was a very peculiar year for the Ravens with all of their injuries, Humphrey included. On one hand, Humphrey had a 47.8 completion percentage allowed on the outside last year (second-best in the league). On the other hand, he had his worst season from a PFF standpoint (65.7) and was part of a Baltimore defense that allowed the most passing yards in the NFL. We should get a better look at Humphrey and the Ravens this season as they have a revamped defense with many key pieces coming back from injury.
8. Marshon Lattimore (NO)
Another product of the 2017 NFL Draft, Marshon Lattimore was the first cornerback taken that year (11th overall). Lattimore has great athletic traits that allow him to play stingy man defense. Since 2017, he leads the league with 74 pass breakups, including 19 last season. He has made the Pro Bowl four out of his five years in the NFL and was named Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2017.
Lattimore can be inconsistent, however. He recorded a 68.1 PFF grade in 2019 and a 54.1 in 2020 before bouncing back last year with a 77.3. In addition, he has given up 14 TDs over the last two years (seven each season). But let’s not forget the WRs in his division: Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Calvin Ridley, D.J. Moore, and Julio Jones (again). Oh and of course, he faced this guy last year…
7. Denzel Ward (CLE)
Denzel Ward has lived up to expectations thus far after the Browns drafted him fourth overall in 2018. Since he’s been in the league, “Ward ranks second among cornerbacks in single coverage grade, first in catch rate allowed (36.0%) and second in yards per target (5.37),” according to PFF. He’s only 5’11”, 190 pounds, but he plays physical and has great speed, allowing him to cover any WR on the opposing sideline. He made his second Pro Bowl last season before the Browns made him the then-highest paid cornerback in NFL history. Ward signed a five-year, $100.5 million contract extension ($20.1M average annual value) with the Browns on April 18.
6. A.J. Terrell (ATL)
A.J. Terrell took a huge step forward from his first to second year as he is suddenly one of the best cornerbacks in the game. The former 2020 first-round pick earned an 85.6 coverage grade last season, the second-highest grade among 133 CBs with at least 150 snaps. According to Pro Football Network, “Terrell ranked first among NFL cornerbacks in yards per coverage snap, yards per reception, and completion rate.” (His 0.37 yards per coverage snap was only one-hundredth of a yard off from the PFF single-season record.)
Though he put up some staggering numbers, it’s too small of a sample size for me to put him any higher. If Terrell can repeat his 2021 success this season, then he can definitely crack the top five. Having veteran CB Casey Heyward as his running mate should help.
5. J.C. Jackson (LAC)
I really struggled with trying to figure out where to put J.C. Jackson. An undrafted free agent in 2018, Jackson quickly asserted himself as one of the league’s premier cornerbacks. Over the last three seasons, he has 22 INTs. His 17 picks over the last two years rank first among all defenders, and his 23 pass breakups in 2021 also ranked first. Jackson was named Second Team All-Pro and a Pro Bowler last season, the first time in his career for each. The former Maryland Terrapin has given up eight TDs over the last two seasons, but his passer rating allowed when targeted was just 46.8 in 2021.
The reason why I had such a hard time ranking him is because, for as good as he is, Jackson has also been beat by some of the best wide receivers… Just ask Stefon Diggs. In five games against Jackson and the Patriots as a Bill (including the playoffs), Diggs has 29 receptions for 433 yards (14.9 avg.) and four TDs.
Jackson signed a huge five-year, $82.5 million deal with the Chargers this offseason, getting as far away from Diggs as possible. Though some wide receivers, like Diggs, may have his number, Jackson is still talented enough to be a top five cornerback.
4. Tre’Davious White (BUF)
Someone who never seems to get burned in coverage is Tre White. White was the fifth CB taken in the 2017 Draft, behind Lattimore, Humphrey, Adoree Jackson and Gareon Conley, but I think he’s now the best out of that class. White always seems to be able to travel with any wide receiver, no matter his size, staying glued to him throughout the entire route. He is the definition of a shutdown corner.
Prior to tearing his ACL last Thanksgiving, White had not allowed a touchdown all season. It was the second such time in his career, as he also did so in 2019. Through 11 games last year, White allowed just a 51.2% completion percentage, as well as a 59.9 passer rating. Since 2017, Tre ranks third among qualifying corners in yards per coverage snap allowed (0.87). It should be interesting to see how White looks whenever he returns from his injury, especially now that he’ll have arguably the best CB2 he’s ever played with in Kaiir Elam.
As more cornerbacks sign contracts, Tre’s deal keeps looking like a bargain. He is now the seventh-highest paid CB, making $17.25 million per season.
3. Xavien Howard (MIA)
One of the best man coverage cornerbacks, Xavien Howard comes in at number three. Howard put up some insane numbers in 2020, intercepting 10 passes and defending 20 more to give him a 51.5 completion percentage allowed and a 48.3 passer rating allowed. Since 2020, the 29-year old leads the league in press-man coverage grade. He’s given up only 17 first downs and TDs in man coverage over that span. The former second-round pick out of Baylor has made three Pro Bowls (2018, 2020, 2021), one First Team All-Pro (2020), and one Second Team All-Pro (2018). He is the sixth-highest paid corner in the league, making $18 million per season.
2. Jaire Alexander (GB)
Jaire Alexander, currently the league’s highest paid cornerback at $21 million per year, is my second-best cornerback. The former 2018 first-round pick only played in four games last year before suffering a season-ending AC joint injury in his right shoulder. But when he is healthy, he is a top-tier corner. In 2020, Alexander was arguably the best CB in the league. He only allowed 41 receptions, 375 yards, and two TDs on 80 targets, giving him a league-leading 90.5 PFF grade. Since coming into the NFL in 2018, Alexander leads the league in single-coverage grade. He has great speed, instincts, and awareness for Green Bay’s defense, which should have a really solid year in 2022.
1. Jalen Ramsey (LAR)
And the number one cornerback heading into the 2022 season is Jalen Ramsey. The former first-round pick had 77 tackles, 16 pass breakups, four INTs, and an 84.5 PFF grade last season. He was a key part of the Rams’ Super Bowl title. Ramsey was a First Team All-Pro and a Pro Bowler last season, giving him five straight Pro Bowls and three First Team All-Pro nominations in his six years. According to PFF, “Ramsey generated 1.37 PFF Wins Above Replacement (PFF WAR) in his two full seasons with the Rams, making him the NFL’s most valuable cornerback over that span. No other cornerback even crossed the 1.0 WAR mark.”
Jalen Ramsey vs. Stefon Diggs (and Josh Allen, who Ramsey called trash during Allen’s rookie season) should be a fun opening night matchup. Get the popcorn ready.
Next week, I will round out the defensive rankings with the safeties.
Feature Image: Brett Carlsen/Getty Images