The right to be crowned the NFL's best cornerback is seemingly a popular discussion-point every offseason. It also seems to be a moving target, as a new up-and-comer seems to assert his claim to the throne each season.
With the dust of 2016 settled, it is once again clear that the title of "NFL's best cornerback" is up for grabs. The Next Gen Stats cornerback coverage statistics suggest there are many new names to consider in the mix. Certainly, there are several familiar faces who have long since established their quality of play who showed out this year, but it was those we had yet to see play at the level they did in 2016 who provide the most fascinating story. Here we will dig into the Next Gen Stats data from every team's No. 1 cornerbacks to find out who the 10 best cover corners were this season.
*Notes: The Top-10 was determined by passer rating allowed in coverage. You can argue there are other ways to evaluate cornerback play, and you may be right, but this is one of the few objective tools we can gather from the tracking data right now. Only teams' top cornerbacks were considered on the list in order to keep the playing field seemingly level. *
1) Xavier Rhodes, Minnesota Vikings (39.2 passer rating allowed)
At around the mid-season mark, the Vikings defense was widely regarded as the best unit in the NFL. Minnesota fell off its early-season pace, but still finished third in yards allowed and sixth in scoring defense. One player who never lost momentum was fourth-year cornerback Xavier Rhodes. 2016 saw the Vikings' top corner, always a solid player, join the elite group of NFL cornerbacks. Opposing quarterbacks targeted Rhodes 79 times in 14 games. It proved to be a fruitless endeavor, as Rhodes gave up an NFL-low 41.8 percent catch rate. In addition to not allowing plays to the opposition, he made plenty for the Vikings, as well. Rhodes picked off five passes this year, after registering just two in his first three seasons. One of his interceptions came against Carson Palmer and the Cardinals in Week 11. Rhodes ran the pick back for a touchdown and covered 121.03 yards of distance and clocked in at 22.4 miles per hour on the runback.
Rhodes showed both a blend of stingy coverage and play-making prowess that goes into making the best corners in the game. We certainly saw a new star emerge in the Vikings' defensive backfield this season.
2) Aqib Talib, Denver Broncos (46.7 passer rating allowed)
Denver's defense is littered with high-end talent, and its cornerback trio is unmatched by any other unit in the league. However, Aqib Talib was without question the best of the bunch this season while holding down the left corner position. The Broncos star was the only No. 1 cornerback to not allow a touchdown all season. The Broncos' ability to leave Talib on an island in man coverage is a pillar of how they game plan on defense. After a rocky start to his NFL career with the Buccaneers, Talib has evolved into one of the best cornerbacks in the league with the Broncos.
3) Casey Hayward, San Diego Chargers (49.0 passer rating allowed)
Opposing quarterbacks targeted Casey Hayward 100 times in coverage this season, the most of any No. 1 cornerback on this list. They quickly found out this was a bad plan of action, as Hayward would go on to lead the NFL with seven interceptions. While being a playmaker certainly drew attention, what was most impressive about Hayward's season was how he grew into a shutdown corner that tracked top receivers in the second half. When he went toe-to-toe with Mike Evans in Week 13, Hayward held the All-Pro wideout to just two catches for 16 yards while shadowing him on 69 percent of Evans' pass plays. In Week 15, Hayward shadowed Amari Cooper on 84 percent of his pass plays and allowed just one catch for 28 yards on three targets. Overall, the fifth-year cornerback allowed a mere 51 percent of the targets against him to be completed.
Hayward's emergence this season must certainly overjoy his current team while keeping his former squad up at night. The Chargers will hopefully welcome fellow star corner Jason Verrett back from a torn ACL in 2017. Pairing him with Hayward will give Los Angeles' newest team one of the best corner duos in the game. At the same time, the Packers must be sick that they allowed Hayward out of their building, given that he signed a mere $15-million, three-year deal with the Chargers. Packers 2015 first-round draft pick Damarious Randall had a poor second season, giving up a 107.9 passer rating. Randall was targeted 82 times in 10 games and let up 17.1 yards per reception.
4) Janoris Jenkins, New York Giants (54.8 passer rating allowed)
Another free agent defector, Janoris Jenkins took his game to another level this season after signing with the New York Giants. Long viewed as a gambling freelancer, Jenkins became a shutdown corner in his first season in New York. Back in 2015 with the Rams, he gave up an 80.1 passer rating in coverage, but improved to allow just 54.8 this year. Jenkins gave up the third-lowest completion percentage (45.7) among all No. 1 cornerbacks this season. Another evolution that Jenkins underwent was his transformation into a traveling defender. Rarely used in shadow coverage back in St. Louis, Jenkins became that player for the Giants. In Week 14 he covered Dez Bryant on 25-of-37 pass plays, limiting the Cowboys All-Pro receiver to just one reception for 10 yards. Jenkins also stepped up in another prime-time game to limit big-play maven A.J. Green to 9.7 yards per reception. Green averaged just 2.5 yards of separation a target when covered by Jenkins.
The Rams elected to place the franchise tag on cornerback Trumaine Johnson last offseason over Jenkins. Johnson is a solid player in his own right, but he gave up a passer rating of 89.7 this season, ranking 26th out of the 32 No. 1 corners. At least one year in, it's fair to wonder if the Rams made the right call.
5) Brent Grimes, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (62.6 passer rating allowed)
Calling Brent Grimes' placement this high on the list anything less than a complete shock would be disingenuous. Once a tremendous story as an undrafted free agent and NFL Europe prospect who quietly grew to become one of the better corners in the game with the Atlanta Falcons, Grimes later found success in Miami after signing with the Dolphins in free agency. Yet, the 2015 season saw the then-32-year-old corner take a noticeable step back. It was fair to wonder if the 5-foot-10, 185-pound defensive back was on the back-nine of his career after the Dolphins cut him in March.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, with Grimes' former Falcons head coach Mike Smith installed as defensive coordinator, signed the veteran corner to a two-year deal with just $7 million in guarantees during the free agency period. It turned out to be one of the best bargains of the offseason. Opposing quarterbacks targeted Grimes 73 times in coverage, but he allowed just 47.9 percent of those to be completed, fifth-lowest among No. 1 corners. Grimes allowed four touchdowns but also registered four interceptions, including one pick-six. A revival year by Grimes was a welcome sign for the Bucs, as their first-round pick Vernon Hargreaves struggled on the other side. Another strong season by the veteran corner would be crucial for a defense that finished the 2016 season on a high note.
6) Marcus Peters, Kansas City Chiefs (63.5 passer rating allowed)
Perhaps the best ball-hawk at the corner position today, Marcus Peters checked in with six interceptions this season after leading the NFL with eight as a rookie in 2015. The takeaways certainly remained, but Peters deserves credit for taking another step in his development. Last year Peters gave up plays while making plenty for his team. The 2016 season saw Peters grow into a defender who took away half of the field, as he lined up almost exclusively at left cornerback.
On the year, Peters allowed just 57.3 percent of the targets against him to be completed, and limited big plays with just 12.8 yards per reception against him. The issue that Kansas City faced was that for most of the season opposing teams just relentlessly picked on the right corner spot. It was most notable during the Chiefs win over the Denver Broncos on Sunday Night Football in Week 12:
Emmanuel Sanders was just one receiver, along with Michael Thomas, Antonio Brown, Amari Cooper, Allen Robinson and more to take advantage of that weak spot. Now, the Chiefs did get an unlikely upgrade when Phillip Gaines, who allowed a whopping 209 yards and two touchdowns on just six catches in 34 coverage snaps against the Broncos, was replaced due to injury by Terrance Mitchell. Having a competent right corner helps them slide starter Steven Nelson into the slot in their nickel package, which most teams play in for the majority of their snaps.
Can the Chiefs go into the season counting on Mitchell to replicate the fine play he showed down the stretch of the season? It's a bit of a leap of faith considering he is journeyman and former practice squad member. However, what the Chiefs certainly can take to the bank is that they have one of the best young cornerbacks in the game to hold down their defense for the next several years.
7) Richard Sherman, Seattle Seahawks (64.0 passer rating allowed)
It may not have been the banner year of Richard Sherman's career, but he was still one of the best corners in the game this year. Sherman's 64.0 passer rating allowed was the seventh-best among No. 1 corners and he allowed just two touchdowns all season. However, Sherman did give up his fair share of big plays this season, allowing 14.6 yards per reception. On film, he looked a step less explosive than in previous seasons. Perhaps we received something of an explanation from Pete Carroll after the Seahawks were eliminated from the playoffs, as he revealed Richard Sherman played with an MCL injury for much of the year. You could see some of the difference in Sherman's game in that very playoff loss to the Falcons. While Sherman lined up over Jones on 21 of 28 of the receiver's pass plays, he only truly covered him on 16 of them, allowing three catches for 32 yards on five targets. The team was aligning Sherman as a shadow corner, but they weren't assigning him to cover as such. A healthy Richard Sherman in 2017 will make a huge difference for a Seahawks team that crumbled in their deep pass defense after Earl Thomas went down with a season-ending injury.
8) A.J. Bouye, Houston Texans (67.0 passer rating allowed)
There was perhaps no bigger surprise this season than A.J. Bouye's emergence into one of the NFL's better cornerbacks. Bouye signed with the Texans as an undrafted free agent in 2013 and started just eight games between 2014 and 2015. Houston required Bouye to start 11 games this season after 2015 first rounder Kevin Johnson went down with an injury. Taking over the right corner position opposite veteran Jonathan Joseph, Bouye thrived. On the season he allowed just 47.9 percent of the targets against him to be completed at just 10.8 yards per reception, fifth-lowest among No. 1 corners. His season-long coverage stats, outside of two touchdowns allowed, look quite similar to those posted by Aqib Talib.
Bouye's emergence was a truly pleasant surprise for the Texans this season, but they'll have to pay for them if they want them again in 2017. The young corner is set to hit the unrestricted free agent market in March, and will no doubt have plenty of suitors. Bill O'Brien expressed a desire to keep Bouye, but it remains to be seen if Houston can do so.
9) Jalen Ramsey, Jacksonville Jaguars (68.0 passer rating allowed)
It was a lost and depressing season for the once-promising Jaguars. However, one of the brightest spots on the team ended up being the stellar play they got out of their rookie cornerback, Jalen Ramsey. Taken fifth overall in the 2016 NFL Draft, Ramsey quickly established himself as one of the best young defenders in football. A 16-game starter, it's not hard to make the argument that Ramsey was the best defensive player in Jacksonville this year. Naturally, there were some rocky moments in the corner's first season, as he allowed 703 yards and 14.6 yards per reception in coverage on the season, the most of any corner in the Top-10. Nevertheless, he grew into a player that quarterbacks paid for picking on. Ramsey was targeted 90 times on the year, trailing only Casey Hayward on this list, but only gave up a 53.3 completion percentage.
What was most impressive about Ramsey's rookie season was that he was deployed as a shadow corner against several top receivers. He passed those tests with flying colors. In Week 7, Ramsey covered Amari Cooper on 26 pass plays and allowed just one catch for four yards. Later in the season when the Texans faced them in Week 15, Ramsey covered DeAndre Hopkins on 26 pass plays and allowed just five catches for 46 yards, despite being targeted 11 times. It was quite the standout season for a player who needed to reiterate to many that he would indeed play cornerback in the NFL. He's already right there by this metric, but it won't be long until the football world at large recognizes Jalen Ramsey as one of the NFL's best corners.
10) Jimmy Smith, Baltimore Ravens (68.5 passer rating allowed)
It was an injury-riddled season for the Ravens top corner Jimmy Smith, as he played in just 11 games overall. It goes under the radar because he's not as well-known as other top cornerbacks, but Smith is one of the biggest difference makers in the defensive backfield. Smith typically lines up at right cornerback and locks that side of the field down, but the Ravens had some trouble filling the left corner spot. Week 1 starter Shareece Wright allowed five touchdowns and a 116.7 passer rating in the first four weeks alone. Eventually, fourth-round rookie Tavon Young took that position over and proved to be an upgrade, but there was still a noticeable difference in what quarterbacks did when throwing to the right side of the field versus the left:
Opposing quarterbacks knew that testing Smith was not the wisest course of action, only targeting him 5.5 times per game. Players in his coverage managed a mere 45 percent catch rate, the second-lowest allowed among all No. 1 corners this season. Smith was a master at eliminating big plays, as his 9.48 yards per catch allowed was the lowest among No. 1 corners. Hopefully, we will see a full season out of Smith next year, especially with the Ravens defense back to the height of its powers. He should push for an All-Pro season, if that does come to pass.
Four bonus notes:
Patrick Peterson (73.0 passer rating) and Josh Norman (72.6 passer rating) just missed the list ranked 13th and 14th. So, there's no need to freak out that they did not make the Top-10, even if both were far superior All-Pro-level players in 2015. Norman struggled a bit with high-end receivers this year, giving up six catches for 107 yards to Odell Beckham in their first meeting and five catches for 76 yards to A.J. Green, and was easy for the opposing team to avoid. Peterson didn't have his best season, but also played through a painful knee injury. It's also important to know that Peterson has perhaps the toughest task of any corner, as no player travels as much as he does:
The Panthers James Bradberry (69.9 passer rating) might well be the next under-the-radar star corner. The player Carolina tapped as the best bet to replace Josh Norman, Bradberry has an excellent rookie year. He allowed just 10.7 yards per catch to the players in his coverage, fourth-lowest among No. 1 corners.
Darrelle Revis allowed the highest completion rate (64.6 percent) among all teams' No. 1 corners. It is a storyline that was beaten to death as soon as the season kicked off, but it is still wild how far the best corner of this era fell off this season. Revis allowed a 102.5 passer rating on the year.