It's been said for eons that hitting a baseball is the hardest thing to do in sports — after all, in what other profession could you fail 7 times out of 10 and still be considered great at what you do? While I have no qualms with that statement (living in Seattle as I do, I have no earthly idea how anyone hits what Felix Hernandez throws on a good night), I would like to humbly submit that from a success/failure ratio perspective, and based on what can happen when you fail, the job of NFL pass defender may be even more taxing from a mental and physical perspective. Think about it: You're a young, talented cornerback on a team that relies on you to be its No. 1 cornerback, which means that you're going up against the best the NFL has to offer, week after week. One misstep on a 9-route, and that receiver you're covering is gone for a touchdown, and the fans in your town are talking about what their team could get if they traded you — even if you made the Pro Bowl last year [and actually deserved to].
Those failures happen to every pass defender, but none are more on the hook than cornerbacks. Safeties are expected to tackle as well; linebackers aren't thought of as primary aerial defenders. But as the NFL becomes more and more a passing league, it's never been more important to have consistent pass coverage all along the back seven.
Thanks to our friends at STATS, Inc., we have the "Burn Rate" for each NFL pass defender in 2010 — the percentage of targets for every defender that resulted in catches. These numbers do bring out many of the best and worst players and the film generally agrees, but it's also important to understand a few caveats. First, as in the cases of Brandon Carr and Stanford Routt, heavily-targeted cornerbacks are often covering No. 2 receivers or helping out in the slot in certain nickel packages; of course, that's mitigated by the sheer number of targets. And while there's no doubt that Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie were effective last season, it's also true that because the Jets' front seven is so good, those guys don't have to worry as much about mopping up as they would in other defenses. Safety help is also a factor, as is general scheme — the Houston Texans had some of the worst secondary numbers we've seen in recent years (dead last in Football Outsiders' efficiency metrics), but their vanilla coverage concepts didn't help.
So, here are the five best and worst cornerbacks of 2010, based on burn rate (minimum 50 targets, which took Nnamdi Asomugha and his 39.4 percent burn rate on 33 targets out of the picture), with a bit of perspective on each. We'll have the numbers on the best and worst safeties and linebackers up in short order.
Darrelle Revis, New York Jets: 33.9%, 19 burns on 56 targets, 340 yards, 4 TD, 10 passes defensed
No real surprise there, right? What's interesting to watch is that as Revis establishes himself as the no-doubt best cornerback in the game, his targets finally dropped — from 108 to 56 in a one-season span, per STATS, Inc. That's what made his 2009 even more unreal; to put up a 37% burn rate on that many targets is truly out of the stratosphere.
Stanford Routt, Oakland Raiders: 39.4%, 39 burns on 99 targets, 635 yards, 5 TD, 13 passes defensed
A lot of people thought the Raiders were nuts for giving Routt a first- and third-round tender and then signing him to a large contract extension, but the numbers and the game tape will tell you that Routt lived up to that validation after a difficult start to his career. Of course, the question is whether he will be able to take over that Oakland secondary with Asomugha almost certainly out the door. Early indications are positive.
Brandon Carr, Kansas City Chiefs: 39.8%, 43 burns on 108 targets, 758 yards, 6 TD, 25 passes defensed
Carr is the forgotten man of the Chiefs' impressive young secondary; most people focus on Brandon Flowers and safety Eric Berry, and justifiably so. But Carr isn't just assembling stats against pikers while Flowers (who ranked 11th among cornerbacks with a 49.5% burn rate) takes all the tough duty. He's been just as important, especially in diagnosing and covering cluster formations on the other side of the one-on-one battles Flowers frequently has.
Tramon Williams, Green Bay Packers: 43.5%, 40 burns on 92 targets, 533 yards, 3 TD, 20 passes defensed
If there's one guy looking to challenge Revis right now, Williams may be it. Take out his atypically weak performance against Mario Manningham when the Packers faced the Giants late in the regular season, and he might be at or near the top in a few of these numbers.
Antonio Cromartie, New York Jets: 43.9%, 47 burns on 107 targets, 700 yards, 7 TD, 17 passes defensed
Cromartie is the least consistent corner on the top list. He's always been a boom-and-bust guy capable of great coverage and exasperating mistakes. The touchdown total points to that, but he had a great season as Revis' bookend and he should be a coveted free agent under the new CBA.
Richard Marshall, Carolina Panthers: 71.3%, 72 burns on 101 targets, 765 yards, 5 TD, 7 passes defensed
Marshall's been doing the contract dance with the Panthers for a few years now, but his numbers just don't justify the inflated opinion. Carolina was horrid last year, but its front seven was surprisingly good, leaving most of the blame for these stats on the man himself.
DeAngelo Hall, Washington Redskins: 70.7% 70 burns on 99 targets, 1,055 yards, 9 TD, 16 passes defensed
Hall is the Forrest Gump of cornerbacks — he'll have multi-pick games based on a mystical "right-place/right-time" ability, but he'll also run around in circles and get torched by scrubs. Washington seems the perfect spot for this talented but wildly inconsistent player.
Nate Jones, Denver Broncos: 68%, 34 burns on 50 targets, 370 yards, 1 TD, 3 passes defensed
The Broncos signed Jones to a four-year deal before the 2010 season, and he struggled in a Denver secondary that had virtually no support from its front seven. Hopefully, the new 4-3 defense and coverage concepts installed by John Fox will help; Jones is better than this.
Bryant McFadden, Pittsburgh Steelers: 66.4%, 77 burns on 116 targets, 870 yards, 5 TD, 10 passes defensed
McFadden didn't do much to upgrade a secondary that remains surprisingly susceptible to big plays despite the presence of Troy Polamalu, the mentorship of Dick LeBeau ,and a hellishly good pass rush. Bookend Ike Taylor was far better, allowing 54 percent of passes thrown to be completed, and just one touchdown.
Orlando Scandrick, Dallas Cowboys: 65.3%, 47 burns on 72 targets, 488 yards, 6 TD, 8 passes defensed
The Dallas secondary was an enormous disappointment in 2010; Scandrick was simply the worst statistical example, though he did make some key short stops as a nickel corner. That's another secondary with no excuses when you consider how many quarterback disruptions are caused by the Dallas front seven.