The greatest NFL cornerbacks of all time

An NFL cornerback is truly out on an island. Outlaw cornerbacks live life on the edge—where one mistake can result in a perfectly executed deep bomb and six points for the opposition. After giving up the big play, a tough corner suffers from amnesia because he must erase the latest setback from memory and stay aggressive. Any cornerback who shows fear and cowers behind the protection of a soft zone will get torched repeatedly in pass coverage. A corner, however, can even up the score with a well-timed interception and touchdown run-back of his very own.

In run support, a cornerback is often the last line of defense on the outside. When locking up against the toss sweep, a defensive back can either rise the occasion and make a form tackle at the line of scrimmage, or get mauled by a big back who proceeds to turn the corner and rumble for 50 yards into daylight.

Because of the high-risk and high-reward nature of this position, a good cornerback is similar to a riverboat gambler who knows how to take calculated risks. The greatest NFL cornerbacks of all time each held their own at the point of attack, never got beat deep, and were rarely even challenged. For opposing quarterbacks, betting the house against these shut-down corner was always a losing wager.

#10 Greatest NFL Cornerback of All Time: Dick LeBeau

Fittingly, Dick LeBeau was one of the all-time great ballhawks, before he was to settle into his role of a mad man defensive coordinator. As a coordinator, LeBeau has gleefully dialed up the 3-4 zone blitz throughout his career to pressure opposing quarterbacks, wreak havoc, and force turnovers while he called the shots in both Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. As a player, Dick LeBeau teamed up to form one of the greatest secondaries of all time in Detroit—with fellow Hall of Famers Night Train Lane, Yale Lary, and Lem Barney manning the unit.

LeBeau, a one-time cut off the Cleveland Browns, was to intercept 62 passes for 762 yards and 3 touchdowns over his 14-year career. As of 2010, LeBeau's 62 interceptions are good for eighth of all time. An Iron Man, LeBeau appeared in 171 consecutive games between 1959 and 1971.

#9 Greatest NFL Cornerback of All Time: Lester Hayes

Lester Hayes is historically underrated, as he still remains shut out of the Hall of Fame. To many, Hayes is written off as a Bad Boy Raiders cheater —who would cover himself in a sloppy mess of stickum from head to toe on game day. With stickum, Hayes was better able to make plays on the football and snag interceptions in coverage. Throughout his playing days, Hayes also suffered from a stuttering condition, which effectively masked his all-around intelligence to reporters and fans, alike.

Beneath the hate for the Oakland Raiders shield, all real football scholars must admit that Lester Hayes was one of the greatest shut down corners of all time. In man-to-man coverage, Hayes was a master of the bump and run, where he would hand fight with a receiver at the line of scrimmage before blanketing him throughout the field. In a Super Bowl XVIII victory over the Washington Redskins, Hayes held Art Monk to only one catch and completely lorded over the left side of the playing field in a textbook demonstration of technique.

With 13 interceptions, Lester Hayes took home the 1980 AP Defensive Player of the Year Award. In 1981, the NFL installed the Lester Hayes rule, which banned stickum from the game. Despite the rule change, Hayes still added four consecutive Pro Bowl appearances to his resume between 1981 and 1984.

#8 Greatest NFL Cornerback of All Time: Mike Haynes

Mike Haynes and Lester Hayes are a package deal at conrnerback. Haynes and Hayes joined forces after a 1983 settlement awarded Mike Haynes to the Los Angeles Raiders from the New England Patriots. For many, the Mike Haynes acquisition proved to be the missing link between the the Raiders and another Victory Parade following Super Bowl XVIII. As a Raider, Haynes earned a trip to the Pro Bowl each year from 1984 to 1986.

Prior to his move to Los Angeles, Mike Haynes was even more dynamic as a Patriot. Haynes set the stage for his Hall of Fame career—when he was named as the 1976 Defensive Rookie of the Year. In 1976, Haynes picked off 8 passes to go alongside his 608 total yards and 2 touchdowns in the punt return game. By his 1989, Mike Haynes had put in 14 years of service and made 9 appearances in the Pro Bowl.

#7 Greatest NFL Cornerback of All Time: Ronnie Lott

Ronnie Lott, of course, is best recognized for his toughness and bone jarring hits from the safety position. In San Francisco, Lott actually lined up at left cornerback during his first five NFL seasons before moving over to safety. As a safety, Lott was the sadistic enforcer who took pleasure in de-cleating wide receivers and would have his own pinky cut off to just to stay in the game. At corner, Lott was still a standout performer who was selected to four consecutive Pro Bowls between 1981 and 1984.

Ronnie Lott was the complete football player. Because of #42, the 49'ers could prove out on the field that they were more than a finesse unit. From the cornerback position, Lott would lock up in man-to-man coverage, intercept the football, make tackles at the line of scrimmage, and tee off against quarterbacks in blitz packages. In 1983, Ronnie Lott made 108 tackles, caught four interceptions, and recorded one sack—as a cornerback.

Ronnie Lott was built to wreak complete havoc.

#6 Greatest NFL Cornerback of All Time: Willie Brown

Willie Brown is hailed as the father of bump and run coverage. In bump and run, Brown would get physical to jam a receiver at the line of scrimmage and disrupt the timing of a pass pattern. From there Willie Brown would swivel his hips and stay in the receiver's back pocket across the field. As a master of the technique, Will Brown picked off 54 passes for two touchdowns during his 16-year career with the AFL-NFL Denver Broncos and Oakland Raiders. With the exception of 1966, Willie Brown made his league's Pro Bowl team every year between 1964 and 1973.

Willie Brown signature moment arrived during Super Bowl XI. In Pasadena, Willie Brown intercepted a Fran Tarkenton pass and raced 75 yards into the end zone for a score. Willie Brown's interception helped seal the 32-14 Super Bowl win for his Oakland Raiders.

#5 Greatest NFL Cornerback of All Time: Darrell Green

Darrell Green is about speed and longevity. As a rookie, Darrell Green made a name for himself when he chased down Tony Dorsett from behind to make a tackle. Over time, the legend of Darrell Green grew even stronger throughout the course of his 20-year career. Despite his small 5'9 stature, Darrell Green's body of work is the stuff of tall tales.

At 50, the ageless wonder is still being clocked at 4.5 / 40 speed. During his prime, Darrell Green starred as the undisputed League's Fastest Man —with four annual titles in the competition. In 1987, Darrell Green broke his ribs on a punt return, but still outran the Chicago Bears for six in the NFC Divisional playoff at Soldier Field.

Darrell Green just wanted it more.

#4 Greatest NFL Cornerback of All Time: Deion Sanders

Deion Sanders is one of the all-time great athletes in sports history. As a a school boy legend, Deion performed at an all-state level in football, baseball, basketball, and track and field. At Florida State, Sanders shattered records in baseball, football, and track, before going pro with the Atlanta Falcons and Braves. In all walks of life, Deion Sanders was pure Prime Time entertainment.

In Atlanta, Deion turned the sporting world on its head—with his Neon Deon persona, doo rag, high-stepping, and pitter-patter end zone dance. The Atlanta Falcons were transformed from a running joke into a Too Legit Too Quit event—with Deion Sanders headlining his own personal rap video at cornerback, kick returner, and wide receiver.

After owning Atlanta, the Prime Time sweepstakes transformed into a full fledged bidding war. In 1994, Sanders signed with the San Francisco 49'ers, and snatched up six interceptions, one Defensive Player of the Year award, and one blowout Super Bowl win against the San Diego Chargers. That next season, Deion was off to Big D, where he helped the Cowboys lay claim to another Lombardi Trophy as a hired gun to shut down former teammate Jerry Rice.

With 4.1 - 40 speed, Deion Sanders could simply toss the textbook on form tackling and pass coverage technique into the garbage. On the edge, Deion Sanders was a reluctant tackler who would often feign an attempt at a stop, before diving out of bounds. In team meetings, Prime Time was above the intricacies of defensive formations and audibles. In response to a Jimmy Johnson overhead projector tongue lashing, Deion Sanders proposed his own simple strategy:

"I got that guy."

#3 Greatest NFL Cornerback of All Time: Mel Blount

Mel Blount is largely responsible for today's five-wide sets and video game-like numbers in the passing game. The Mel Blount rule prohibits defensive backs from making contact and harassing a wide receiver who has moved five yards beyond the line of scrimmage on his release. Prior to the 1978 rule changes, Mel Blount had made a career out of mauling receivers out of their breaks and physically imposing his will in pass coverage for the Steel Curtain.

At a wiry 6'3 and 205 pounds, Blount loved to get physical, mix things up in the secondary, and stick his nose into the action to make tackles. According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Blount never gave up a touchdown as a rookie. After his stellar rookie campaign, Blunt took home 1975 NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors—with eleven interceptions in fourteen games. Mel Blount is a four-time Super Bowl champion, as a member of the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers' Dynasty.

#2 Greatest NFL Cornerback of All Time: Dick "Night Train" Lane

Dick "Night Train" Lane represents the classing Horatio Alger bootstrap story. Dick Lane was raised by Ella Lane—who found him abandoned as an infant. As a young adult, Lane was to drop out of junior college, before serving his four years in the United States Army. Upon return to civilian life, Dick Lane took up employment as a factory worker in Los Angeles. Dissatisfied with his job, Lane wandered into Los Angeles Rams training camp for a tryout at end, or wide receiver. By the start of the season, Lane switched over to cornerback and was installed into the starting lineup.

Before his retirement, Night Train Lane was to emerge as one of the greatest defenders of all-time, whose celebrity status was further solidified through marriage to Dinah Washington. Over the span of 14 years in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Detroit, Lane snagged 68 interceptions for 1,207 return yards. Lane's interception and return yard totals are are still good for fourth and sixth of all time, respectively.

As a 1952 rookie, Night Train snagged 14 interceptions—in a twelve game season. In 2010, Lane's single-season interception record still stands as an untouchable mark. Beyond the interceptions, Night Train Lane was aptly named for his head hunting, which was legal at the time. As a tackler, Lane's trademark move was to grab an opponent by the neck and violently slam his head into the ground.

Dick Lane's stunned opponents were apt to lay lifeless on the field of play, as if they just got hit by a speeding train.

#1 Greatest NFL Cornerback of All Time: Rod Woodson

Rod Woodson was everywhere.

In the passing game, Rod Woodson could shut down a top receiver in man-to-man coverage, lurk within the soft zone to break up passes, and molly-wop backs that released into the flat. In the running game, Woodson loved to get physical and execute textbook form tackles out on the edge. With Dick LeBeau dialing up the blitz in Pittsburgh, #26 was called out often to harrass the quarterback in passing situations. Immediately after forcing yet another three and out, Woodson would then report for special teams duty as a punt returner.

After a typical day at the office, Woodson would have led his team in tackles, forced two fumbles, sacked the quarterback, snapped off one interception, and taken a punt back to the house. A true stat sheet stuffer, Rod Woodson retired with 71 picks, 1,483 interception return yards, 32 fumble recoveries, 1050 tackles, and 17 total touchdowns. Over his 17-year career with the Steelers, 49'ers, Ravens, and Raiders, Woodson claimed the 1993 NFL Defensive Player of the Year award, eleven trips to the Pro Bowl, and one Super Bowl ring.

Rod Woodson got it done.

The Greatest NFL Cornerbacks of All Time - Top 10 List, Sources:

NFL: The Top 100 - NFL's Greatest Players Pro Football Statistics and History

Pro Football Hall of Fame: Hall of Famers by Position

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Updated Tuesday, Jan 4, 2011