Football players are naturally confident—you don’t reach the NFL without being fearless and working tirelessly to be the best. While all players have confidence, cornerbacks seem to have the most swagger. From heated jabs on social media to monumental plays on the field, every CB strives to be elite.
Let’s take a look at the 10 best cornerbacks in the NFL today.
10. Leodis McKelvin, Buffalo Bills
Everyone loves a player who can contribute in multiple ways—McKelvin has always been a tremendous punt returner, taking full advantage of his speed. It wasn’t until this past season he took that athleticism and used it effectively to become a top-10 cornerback.
Of course McKelvin’s speed helps him track receivers going deep or closing on the ball. But what he doesn’t get enough credit for is his ability to engage his hands with his opponent and control them at the line. Once he limits their initial burst off the line, he slows them down and buys the Bills’ pass rush more time to hit the quarterback. Even if the quarterback has time to throw, McKelvin is going to be right there to knock the ball out.
Even with the loss of Jairus Byrd, McKelvin will excel without him. While he doesn’t create a lot of turnovers, McKelvin will blanket receivers and flourish once again this year.
9. Leon Hall, Cincinnati Bengals
On a defense filled with talent across the board, Hall doesn’t get enough credit for dominating as the Bengals’ slot cornerback. While countless fans like to focus on corners who play the outside, the slot cornerback’s value is growing increasingly important in the NFL.
Hall is a superb athlete—a needed trait when you have to face players like Randall Cobb, Percy Harvin and T.Y. Hilton. Because he is always going up against quicker players who run more precise routes than on the outside, Hall has to be at the top of his game physically and mentally. His ability to diagnose the route and be a step ahead of the designed play is a major reason for his success.
If not for a torn Achilles last season, Hall once again would have been on his way to a dominant season. We should see him return to form. Once that happens, the Bengals defense will become a top-five unit overall, even with former DC Mike Zimmer’s departure.
8. Chris Harris Jr., Denver Broncos
As the NFL becomes more of a passing league, offensive formations are always changing. Teams used to run two-back sets with a running back and fullback, but have shifted to using one running back and three wide receivers on the field. The third receiver often lines up in the slot, creating a need for exemplary cornerbacks who can play in the slot.
Harris is one of the best at shadowing slot wide receivers—he wins with lightning-quick feet and athleticism, using these skills to follow a wide receiver’s every movement and stay right on his heels throughout the route. When a quarterback is daring enough to challenge Harris, it will wind up an incompletion most of the time.
He is returning from a torn ACL—which could limit his athleticism and agility to kick off the season. When he is healthy, Harris is an elite slot corner and doesn’t get enough credit for the job he does.
7. Brandon Boykin, Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles’ defense was dreadful last season—ranked 32nd in the NFL against the pass, it’s hard to believe Philadelphia had a top-10 cornerback. But Boykin showed last season that he is a skillful player, someone who can dominant defending the inside.
While there was brief discussion about moving Boykin outside, he is money in the slot. Every week you saw his aggressiveness and athleticism—attacking the receiver and plucking that football right out of their hands. His six interceptions last season were the second most in the NFL, just two behind Richard Sherman. While Boykin is excellent in coverage, he takes it a step further by being a sound tackler. On the rare occasion Boykin gives up a reception, he promptly attacks the wide receiver and brings him down immediately. The Eagles didn’t make any substantial additions to their secondary in the offseason, but their front-seven is an impressive group. Fletcher Cox is emerging as a dominant 3-4 defensive end, while Bennie creates needed interior pressure. Boykin is only going to improve as he enters his third season, giving him a real opportunity to emerge as a top-five cornerback at the end of the season.
6. Joe Haden, Cleveland Browns
Haden cashed in this offseason with a five-year extension worth $68 million, an overpay given how much some of his peers are making.
The 25-year-old has always flashed the ability to be a shutdown corner, but you see a different player each week. Look back to head-to-head match ups against A.J. Green last season—Haden limited Green to just nine receptions for 58 yards in two meetings. You see a premium cornerback, someone who can follow the opponent’s top receiver and shut them down for the entire game. This is the type of cornerback who is worth a hefty extension, but we see a different player the following week. Suddenly, everything you loved about Haden the previous week is gone.
He can be a great cover corner at times by utilizing his athleticism and football IQ to blanket receivers. But his technique is sloppy and he becomes overaggressive at times, losing a step on the WR shuffling his feet then bursting a different direction. Once that happens, Haden is behind the play and the quarterback hits his wide receiver for significant yards.
Haden just isn’t the same player week to week—he alternates between All-Pro talent and rookie on a weekly basis. He’s is still young and the Browns made improvements to assist him on defense, he just needs to put it all together on a consistent basis. Haden is a top three cornerback when he’s at his best. But other times he looks like a run-of-the-mill CB.
5. Patrick Peterson, Arizona Cardinals
The league’s highest-paid cornerback comes in as the fifth best corner in football. While Peterson certainly has the potential to be a top-three cornerback, he still has plenty of room for growth
Peterson is the best advocate I’ve come across in support of the importance of footwork, technique > athleticism. — Cian Fahey (@Cianaf) April 2, 2014
If you built a prototypical cornerback, Peterson is the dream model. Impressive size at 6’1″, track-like speed and the athletic ability of a hare. This allows him to line up against nimble wide receivers like Antonio Brown or burly receivers like Brandon Marshall. His speed also enables him to catch up when a receiver slips by, making up ground and making the play. Peterson also follows the best wide receiver all over the field, which is a credit to his ability to always compete against the best.
Peterson still has room to improve—his technique still needs a lot of work, especially his footwork. When he can get his hands firmly on a wide receiver at the line and establish position, things usually end well for him. But when he gets beat off the line, his footwork gets sloppy and he has no chance against accomplished wide receivers. Peterson might be the richest cornerback, but he certainly isn’t the best at this point.
4. Alterraun Verner, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
While plenty of players cashed in during free agency, the Buccaneers found a bargain when they signed Verner. The former Tennessee Titans cornerback agreed to a deal with Tampa that saved them money and was a better schematic fit for Lovie Smith’s Cover 2 defense.
Verner had a breakout season last year—shutting down the opposition and being an active defender. He finished the season with five interceptions and 22 pass deflections. Numerous cornerbacks are assisted by an excellent pass rush or safety play, he didn’t receive significant help in Tennessee.
He is the ultimate fit for the Buccaneers’ defense. Verner’s aggressiveness and football I.Q. help him read and react quickly to the quarterback, initiate contract and break up the pass. In Tampa Bay, Verner won’t have the added pressure of being the focal point of the defense. He can focus on shutting down his side of the field, while DT Gerald McCoy collapses the pocket and OLB Lavonte David creates havoc.
3. Brent Grimes, Miami Dolphins
When people think of elite cornerbacks a few names come up—Sherman, Darrelle Revis, Haden and Peterson. But in reality, Grimes was one of the three best cornerbacks last season. A year after tearing his Achilles, Grimes returned in a big way for the Miami Dolphins last season.
The Dolphins took a chance on Grimes last offseason—Miami signed him to a one-year “prove it” contract and it paid off for both sides. The Dolphins found a premier cornerback who could shutdown the opposing team’s wide receiver, while Grimes proved he was healthy and an elite cornerback once again.
Grimes doesn’t have great size at 5’10”, but he makes up for it with outstanding technique and athleticism. His ability to move backpedal quickly and stay with the wide receiver is among the best in the league, while also helping give him that burst to knock the ball out of the wide receiver’s hands. As a result of his bounce back season, Grimes was rewarded with a four-year contract worth $32 million and he is worth every penny.
2. Darrelle Revis, New England Patriots
While various analysts and fans alike may think otherwise, the fact is Revis’ skill set has not declined since 2012. Even as he gets ready for a new season with his third team, the 29-year-old cornerback is still locking down receivers as a prototypical shutdown CB and is making it virtually impossible for QBs to throw on his half of the field.
The truth is, Revis’ one-year tenure with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was bound to fail. Recovering from a torn ACL takes time and it’s possible Revis pushed himself too quickly. Fans saw the miraculous eight-month recovery by Adrian Peterson and assumed all players will recover that quickly. But each body heals differently and while Revis returned for the season opener, he may not have been at 100 percent.
The ultimate hindrance for Revis last season was former Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano. Revis excels in man-to-man coverage, but played increasingly more zone-coverage in Tampa Bay. There would often be a deep safety helping on his side, while Revis would be asked to cover a much smaller area. When he was healthy in New York, Revis followed a wide receiver everywhere all over the field by shadowing them.
Now Revis is almost two years removed from the torn ACL and should be 100 percent this season. His decision to sign with the New England Patriots was smart—Revis will go back to playing more man-coverage, lining up against the best wide receiver and shutting them down. He will feel more comfortable in this role, the Patriots’ defense will be more versatile and Revis will return to peak form in 2014.
1. Richard Sherman, Seattle Seahawks
While he might be notorious for his interview after the NFC Championship Game, Sherman is simply a phenomenal player. It goes beyond shutting down Michael Crabtree, he has proven himself to be the best over the past two seasons.
The heaviest criticism against him is he doesn’t move around the field—fans and even other players have criticized him for this. But he is simply doing what the coaching staff asks of him in the team’s scheme. He locks down the left side of the field—this allows free safety Earl Thomas to roam and make more plays. Teams can try and move their No. 1 wide receiver away from Sherman, but that will just put him against Byron Maxwell and Earl Thomas. The Seahawks run a great system and utilize their players perfectly, this shouldn’t be a knock on Sherman.
Many cornerbacks have great speed—it helps them recover quickly when a wide receiver slips by them or just have the break on the ball and make a play. Sherman doesn’t have track-like speed, instead he excels because of his outstanding size and instincts. He’s a Stanford graduate and spends more time in the film room than some quarterbacks. He uses his size to be physical in coverage and push his opponent to the limits. When a quarterback is daring enough to test Sherman, that’s when you see the instincts kick in as proven by his eight interceptions and 16 deflections last season.
The real debate for cornerback is between Sherman and Revis. Nobody else comes close to these two every Sunday. But in the end, Sherman gets the slight edge as the best cornerback in the league right now.
Honorable mentions that barely missed the cut: Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Aqib Talib and Jason McCourty