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There are countless things to do in sports that are difficult.
Hitting a baseball is certainly one of them, as I have been reminding my players all summer long.
Another? Playing cornerback in the NFL. You have some of the world’s best athletes sprinting towards you, trying to juke you out of your cleats. And you are expected to match them stride-for-stride? Sure. And heaven forbid you many any sort of contact with them, otherwise you’ll see more yellow than Heinz Field during a Pittsburgh Steelers game.
Despite the odds, there are some incredible cornerbacks in the game today. Here is a look at the best outside cornerbacks in the NFL today, and our other position lists to date.
12. Trevon Diggs, Dallas Cowboys
(Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports)
Thanks to 45 years on this rock we call Earth, and time spent as a lawyer, a coach, a husband and a father, I’ve found that it’s often best to have the difficult conversations up front.
So we begin with Trevon Diggs.
There will be some who wonder why Diggs is not higher on this list, and those individuals will point to his league-leading 11 interceptions last season, as well as the 11 “forced incompletions” charted by Pro Football Focus, which placed him 11th in the league among cornerbacks. The 11 interceptions Diggs snared in 2021 were the most by an NFL cornerback since another Dallas defender, Everson Walls back in 1981.
(If 11 is your favorite number than today is your lucky day…)
However, others will point to the 1,068 receiving yards he surrendered last season, which was the most by any cornerback in the NFL, and Diggs was the only CB to give up over 1,000 receiving yards a year ago. In addition, Diggs was flagged 11 times — there’s that number again — which also led cornerbacks a season ago.
When he was not grabbing interceptions, he was getting beaten in coverage.
There is a huge “risk versus reward” discussion to be had with Diggs, which is something to look for at a later date. His inclusion here is done with an eye towards the future. While one might expect those interception numbers to dip, given the fluky nature of turnovers, there is also the promise that Diggs takes a step forward, and cuts down on the mistakes in the year ahead. With that promise, he slides onto this list.
Because while there are examples of him making impressive plays in coverage, such as this interception against the Washington Commanders where he matches Terry McLaurin stride-for-stride:
If Diggs looks more like the defender in the first clip next season, and not the second, then you can expect to see him rise on this list next summer.
11. Patrick Surtain II, Denver Broncos
(Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
It might seem almost a bit presumptuous to place Patrick Surtain II into a list like this after just one NFL season, but his play during his rookie campaign is worthy of a selection. Surtain started 15 of his 16 games for the Denver Broncos last season, notching four interceptions, including a Pick-Six of his own.
Surtain also held opposing passers to an NFL passer rating of just 69.7 when targeting, ranking him ninth in the NFL among qualified cornerbacks.
Surtain’s awareness in coverage and ability to get to the catch point stands out among the many traits that made him a first-round selection. Take first this play against the Washington Commanders, where playing from an off-zone alignment he drives to the catch point and breaks up a throw on an out route:
After just one season, Surtain has placed himself among the upper-tier on NFL cornerbacks. Just how far he rises remains to be seen.
10. Marlon Humphrey, Baltimore Ravens
(Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports)
Baltimore Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey is another member of this list who can point to his versatility as a reason for his inclusion. Humphrey stands out both on the boundary, as well as for the work that he does in the slot.
Humphrey’s physical style of play, as well as his recovery skills, make him a solid option for the Ravens along the boundary. On this play against Mike Williams of the Los Angeles Chargers, Humphrey begins in press alignment, and fights his way back to the football on this hitch route, preventing the completion:
Humphrey might also be suited for inclusion on the slot defenders list, but given that he has spent more time on the outside recently, he pops up here for the work he has done along the outside.
9. Denzel Ward, Cleveland Browns
(Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports)
Denzel Ward has been a steady performer in the NFL since being drafted fourth overall by the Cleveland Browns in the 2018 NFL draft. As a rookie back in 2018, he started 12 of the 13 games he played in for the Browns, notching three interceptions and earning a Pro Bowl selection. That steady level of play has continued through each of his four years in the league.
Last year Ward earned another Pro Bowl selection, as he snared another three interceptions, returning one for a 99-yard touchdown.
Similar to other standout cornerbacks, Ward is another versatile NFL coverage corner. While he predominately plays on the outside for Cleveland — 745 of his 904 snaps came on the outside for the Browns — Ward has also seen time in the slot, in the box and even up front for the Cleveland defense.
Perhaps the best example of his coverage skills is indeed that 99-yard Pick-Six against the Cincinnati Bengals, where he is matched up against Ja’Marr Chase in the low red zone:
Chase slow plays a pivot route here, breaking inside before finally releasing to the flat. Ward does not take the bait, and beats the rookie to the catch point and steps in front of him for the interception, before taking it the other direction for six.
8. Tre'Davious White, Buffalo Bills
One of the many reasons that analysts are high on the Buffalo Bills for the 2022 season is their secondary, and the return of talented cornerback Tre’Davious White after a knee injury ended his 2021 campaign early.
When healthy, White is one of the stickier man-coverage cornerbacks in the entire league. According to Pro Football Reference charting data, he was targeted 58 times in coverage last season, allowing just 31 receptions for 305 yards and not a single touchdown. White also allowed 9.8 yards per reception, and a scant NFL passer rating of 61.4 when targeted.
White’s ability to flip his hips and eliminate separate is a reason why he is so adept at man coverage. This play against Jaylen Waddle is a prime example as he closes down on the out route and does not give this pass a chance to be completed:
With a healthy White back in the fold for 2022, the Bills’ secondary might be one of the more imposing units in all of football.
7. Marshon Lattimore, New Orleans Saints
By some metrics, the 2021 season was a bit of a step back for New Orleans Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore. The CB gave up 16 yards per reception, the highest mark of his five-year NFL career. He also gave up 862 yards on the season, against the biggest number since entering the league.
But his ability at the catch point — marked by the 18 pass breakups he posted a year ago, also a career-high number — sees him slide onto this list. His closing speed and reaction time sets him apart in the league, and showed up throughout the season. Whether it was this breakup of a pass intended for the recently-paid Terry McLaurin on a vertical route:
Or this very physical interception of Tom Brady from late in the season:
Lattimore’s physical play-style and ability to drive to the football make him a dangerous cornerback to target in the passing game. Yes, there is some “boom or bust” nature to his play, but his willingness to attack the football makes him one of the top cornerbacks in the league from where I sit.
6. Darius Slay, Philadelphia Eagles
(Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports)
Finding the right scheme fit for a player is a critical component to roster construction. While that tends to be a huge point of discussion when it comes to the quarterback position, it is less often a topic on the defensive side of the football.
That does not mean it is any less important.
Darius Slay is a prime example of this when it comes to the cornerback position. Moving to Philadelphia and Jonathan Gannon’s defense, Slay found himself playing more off-zone coverage than he had in years past, an alignment that catered to his ability to read and react.
The result? One of the best seasons of his career. Slay was targeted 72 times last season, allowing 44 receptions for 459 yards. He also notched four pass breakups, and three interceptions, and an NFL passer rating of just 76.1 when targeted.
This Pick-Six against New Orleans is a prime example of Slay’s ability to play in off coverage and break on the football:
The cornerback reads this perfectly, and breaks to the catch point once he sees the receiver throttle down and start to work back towards the sideline. Slay steps in front of the throw, and takes it the distance for an Eagles touchdown.
5. Xavien Howard, Miami Dolphins
(Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports)
For the past few seasons, Xavien Howard has been among the top man-coverage cornerbacks in the entire NFL. His 2020 campaign put him in contention for Defensive Player of the Year honors, as he finished third behind Aaron Donald and T.J. Watt. The reason? Howard posted a league-leading ten interceptions.
While he did not produce at the same level a season ago, Howard remained a lockdown option in man coverage for the Miami Dolphins. He posted five interceptions a year ago, along with 16 passes defended.
When you think of man coverage skills, one of the phrases that comes to mind is a cornerback’s “ability to run the route for the receiver.” If you want to see a prime example of that trait, watch this interception from last season against the Carolina Panthers:
This Pick-Six starts before the snap. Howard shows Jones zone leverage before the play, with his hips opened to the middle of the field and his eyes on the QB. But right at the snap Howard snaps towards the receiver to get a jam on him, before sinking with the vertical route.
Or so Jones believes.
Howard peels off the vertical and traps the out route from the slot receiver, stepping in front of Jakobi Meyers and generating the turnover. A perfect play, and a touchdown for the defense.
4. A.J. Terrell, Atlanta Falcons
(Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports)
It was not the best of seasons for the Atlanta Falcons, who limped to a 7-10 record under first-year head coach Arthur Smith. But one of the few bright spots was the emergence of A.J. Terrell as a top-flight option on the outside. More than a few heads turned when the Falcons selected Terrell in the first round of the 2020 NFL draft, but that might have had more to do with recency bias than anything else.
Terrell’s struggles against LSU in the National Championship Game overshadowed what was a solid career in the Clemson secondary. After notching a single interception as a rookie, Terrell posted three interceptions along with 16 passes defended last season, earning himself a Second-Team All-Pro selection.
His ability at the catch point shined last season, and were evident on plays like this one against Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers:
It may have been a surprise that Terrell came off the board when he did, but after last season, any doubts should be put to rest.
3. J.C. Jackson, Los Angeles Chargers
(David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports)
Over the past two seasons, J.C. Jackson has been one of the more productive cornerbacks in the NFL, notching nine interceptions during the 2020 campaign and another eight a year ago. His 23 passes defended last season led the entire league as well.
During his time with the New England Patriots, Jackson showed the ability to handle both man coverage and zone coverage responsibilities at a very high level. His performance last season offers examples from both realms. On this interception of Joe Flacco, you can see his man coverage skills as he mirrors the route and beats the receiver to the football:
Thankfully for Herbert, the young quarterback will only have to worry about Jackson during training camp, as the cornerback is on his way to the loaded AFC West. His presence in the secondary, along with some of the other additions the Chargers made this off-season, have many excited about what could be in store for the Chargers in the year ahead.
2. Jaire Alexander, Green Bay Packers
(Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Just as Jalen Ramsey topped this list for the second year in a row, he also edges out Jaire Alexander in the second-straight season.
Injuries limited Alexander to just 231 snaps last season, as the Green Bay Packers cornerback suffered a right shoulder injury early in the season that saw him land on Injured Reserve after Week 4. He was able to return for Green Bay’s playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers, but saw only eight snaps in the Divisional Round loss.
Still, before his injury fans were able to see what Alexander brings to the field, which is a combination of man coverage skills, closing speed and awareness that make him one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL. That was on full display in Green Bay’s Week 3 win over the San Francisco 49ers. On this play, Alexander clicks and drives on the route, preventing a completion to Deebo Samuel on the curl route:
With a fully-healthy season in 2022, Packers fans can expect Alexander to be high on this list next summer as well.
1. Jalen Ramsey, Los Angeles Rams
(Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)
For the second season in a row, Los Angeles Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey tops Touchdown Wire’s list of the top outside cornerbacks in the NFL. As with last season, Ramsey’s versatility and skill-set are a huge reason why he tops the list.
Last season, Ramsey again played all over the field for the Rams as they earned the franchise’s second Lombardi Trophy. According to charting data from Pro Football Focus, Ramsey saw 544 snaps as an outside cornerback, 325 snaps in the slot, another 131 snaps in the box and even 30 snaps along the defensive front.
Then there is his versatility in the kinds of players he can cover. You might see him covering Deebo Samuel on one week, T.J. Hockenson a second week and Danny Amendola a third. In a matchup-based league, a defender who can be responsible for such different receiving threats is a huge asset for a defense.
Regardless of where he aligned, or who he covered, he exceled. Take this interception against the Detroit Lions, where he aligns in off-coverage over a bunch formation and breaks underneath Hockenson for the interception:
With his versatility and skill-set, Ramsey is a massive weapon on the defensive side of the ball for the Rams. And for the second year in a row, that propels him to the top of our list.
(AP Photo/Jason Behnken)
As with any list such as this one, talented players are left off. We can start with the tandem in Tampa Bay, as both Carlton Davis and Jamel Dean of the Buccaneers are players to watch over the next season to see if they can crack this list next summer. Veterans such as Marcus Peters and Stephon Gilmore have put together some impressive seasons, and provided they can stay healthy, both the Ravens and the Indianapolis Colts can count on them to be key performers in their secondaries.
Another player who just missed out? Chidobe Awuzie of the Cincinnati Bengals. After struggling in Dallas, Awuzie joined the Bengals and put together the best season of his career, allowing an NFL passer rating of 74.8 when targeted.