As it is the offseason, Trevor Sikkema and I are going through some offseason content on our podcast, Locked On NFL Draft, airing Monday-Friday on all major podcast apps. The past couple of weeks, we’ve been composing the best teams of 22 players from each division for our NFL Antarctica Invitational. We still have a couple of divisions left, so you should listen in. It’s a lot of fun.
One thing has become pretty evident across the first six divisions, however. It’s easy to get three good wide receivers on the team—sometimes it’s actually hard because there are so many good options. Interior offensive line, interior defensive line, and EDGE all usually end up really strong, and, save for the AFC East, getting one stud running back is fully achievable.
Cornerbacks are really rough.
There are some great divisions. The aforementioned AFC East offers choices of Xavien Howard, Byron Jones, Stephon Gilmore, and Tre’Davious White—even if you’re bringing three corners, that’s a mighty tough decision to make. But in general, most divisions are lacking for clear elite cornerback play. In the NFC East, we debated over William Jackson III, a solid starter on the right side of 30, and Darius Slay, a once-elite cover man on the wrong side of 30. In the AFC South, all 5-foot-9 of Kenny Moore got one of our starting outside jobs opposite Shaquill Griffin.
Why are there fewer elite corners in the league than there are elite wideouts or EDGEs?
The nature of the cornerback position is what makes pinning down the elite players so much more difficult. They’re still there, but elite receivers sees targets funneled their way and can offer efficient production on a high volume; or can offer an elite, game-breaking trait (think of DK Metcalf’s downfield ability). Elite EDGEs can only be removed from the game by offensive game-planning to a certain extent. Even if teams chip them, slide the line their way, and move the quarterback’s set point, they still know where the ball is going to be. It’s going to the quarterback, and they can work to get there.
Elite corners are entirely avoidable. There’s an inescapable catch-22 to cornerback play: The better one is at covering, the less they are targeted. It lessens their impact. Interceptions, in that they are turnovers, are some of the most important plays in football; pass breakups are forced incompletions, which usually put the opposing offense behind the sticks. By discouraging targets with tight coverage and regular ball production, top corners don’t see volume and accordingly don’t accumulate counting stats.
But this isn’t always true. Elite corners are able to play man coverage at a high level and combat top receivers but are also asked to play zone coverage. Zone coverage doesn’t discourage targets so much as it discourages deep targets, in that zone corners play top down in their prescribed areas and allow shallow targets by rallying quickly to the ball and making tackles. Elite zone corners, like Jaire Alexander—unquestionably one of the top corners in the league—are able to use zone drops, spacing, and route recognition to bait throws and produce on the ball. Are such corners like Alexander any less elite because of what their defense asks them to do? Or, in that Alexander is a better zone than man player—and he’s still really good in man coverage—should he be knocked from the upmost echelon of cornerback rankings?
There has been plenty of public analytic work done on the value and stability of cornerback play that contributes to this conversation. Pro Football Focus has written both on the volatility of year/year coverage grades and on the value of coverage increasing quarterbacks’ time to throw, creating more sack opportunities. This is critical stuff; just because a top corner isn’t producing on the ball because of how well he discourages targets, doesn’t mean he isn’t creating impact plays, as his dominant coverage early in the down creates more opportunities for pressures, sacks, and turnovers later in the down. It’s just very, very difficult to find that one corner who produces as such year after year.
Take the self-same AFC East that boasts of such an elite tier of cornerbacks. Gilmore was the Defensive Player of the Year in 2019, with an outstanding 6 interceptions and 20 total passes defended. This year, he had one interception and 3 passes defended in five fewer games. Gilmore was still playing great ball in 2020, but his targets/game dropped from 6.06 in 2019 to 3.8 in 2020, per PFF. That caps his ability to affect the game.
Meanwhile, Howard, longtime interception and pass breakup maven, played next to the best corner of his young career in Jones and immediately churned out a season similar to Gilmore’s DPOY run: a whopping 10 interceptions with 20 total passes defended. He also saw more targets per game in 2020 than he ever had since his rookie season, which created the opportunity for ball production. The safety-to-corner convert in Jones has always been a press Cover 3 corner who uses his athleticism to smother routes from the jump, and there has never been a great player with the ball in the air in Dallas or Miami. But his value is linked to Howard; the presence of the other maximizes the value of the first. And then there’s White, who is so absurdly talented but left without a functional CB2 for most of his Buffalo career. White was asked to play substantially more zone defense than Gilmore or either of the Dolphins’ corners. White’s film looked a little worse this season, but he remains as versatile as any cover defender in the league, and the perennially staunch Buffalo defense is buoyed by his ability to match up top players and deliver sound tackling and quick reactions in zone coverage.
Riddling out the elite tier of cornerbacks is hard. Ranking them within that tier and understanding their impact is even harder. But there’s not a lack of cornerback talent in the league, as I see it. They just have some of the toughest, most varied, and most nebulous roles on the football field, and we’re still figuring out both as analysts—film, data, or otherwise—just how to capture what these players bring.
So, go get an elite corner. They definitely help. We just don’t know how much, who they are, how rare they are, and for how long they’ll be one.