Elite Cornerbacks 101
You’re all into Fantasy Football, right? You know when one of your wide receivers lays an egg or doesn’t blow up like you thought he would? You needed a couple more points, but he just couldn’t come through?
Don’t blame him. Blame us. Blame the guy on the other side of the ball locking him down.
I’ve been around long enough to know good cornerback play when I see it. I get to see it every week in the New York Jets defensive film room when they put me and Darrelle Revis up on the big screen. Every week, I get a front-row seat to Revis Island, the best true No. 1 corner in the game.
But we’ll get more into Revis later. For starters, here are the guys not named Revis who the best wide receivers in the game spend the extra time in the film room and weight room preparing for, because when they see these guys on the schedule — just like when you see the matchup when you’re setting your fantasy rosters — they know it’s gonna be a tough game.
Honorable Mention: Chris Harris, Denver Broncos
Man, I really like Chris Harris, but because I just haven’t really watched him that much like I have these other guys, I can’t put him on this list just yet. But I’ve seen a couple of highlights, and the thing I love about Chris is his tenacity.
I talked to him a lot at the Pro Bowl in Arizona last year. He was an undrafted guy, so his whole approach is how he doesn’t want to take anything for granted. He has this spirit about him that he’s just going out there every single day like it’s his first time stepping on the field. He plays with that kind of excitement and energy.
Like I said, I haven’t watched him much, so I can’t really break him down, but after getting to know him a little bit and seeing some highlights, he’s definitely a guy I’m looking forward to watching a lot more.
Aqib Talib, Denver Broncos
I like Aqib Talib a lot. He’s a guy who can shut down half of the field in man-to-man coverage, and you can line him up anywhere on the field. He has the speed to keep up with the fastest receivers in the game, but you can also put him inside and line him up against the tight end because he has the size and the physicality to match up.
I remember when he was in New England back in 2013 and they played the Saints. Jimmy Graham was hot that season — he was leading the league in receiving through the first five weeks and was coming off four straight 100-plus yard games — and Talib shut him down.
Look at that stat line … it’s like Jimmy Graham didn’t even play.
That’s how bad Talib locked him down.
The biggest reasons tight ends like Jimmy Graham and Rob Gronkowski are so tough to lock down is because they’re too big and physical for most corners to cover and too fast and athletic for linebackers, which makes Talib the perfect guy to have in your system if you’re matching up man-to-man. He can do it all. He also understands what offenses are trying to do, and you can see he reads the play very well and has great instincts, so he gets a great jump on the ball to come in and break up passes and get picks. He is a guy who can make the big play at any point in time.
Steve Smith Sr. is a pretty physical receiver for a smaller guy, and check out the bottom of the screen here and look how Talib jams him at the line of scrimmage, jumps the route and takes it to the house.
He’s a guy whose name you’ve heard a lot more in the last few years than you did when he first came into the league because when he was down in Tampa, they played a lot of zone coverage — that Tampa Two. But coming out of Kansas, he was known for playing man-to-man. Everyone expected him to be a shutdown corner in the NFL, and since he went to New England and now in Denver, where they’ve used him in man-to-man, that’s just what he’s been.
A shutdown corner.
Joe Haden, Cleveland Browns
I know he hasn’t played much this year because he’s been hurt, but I gotta put Joe Haden in the mix. He’s another guy who can play true man-to-man. He can follow receivers around and stick with them, but he’s not afraid to stick his nose in in the run game, either.
I think Joe has really turned on the D in the past two or three years, especially now that he’s got Coach Mike Pettine in Cleveland, who likes to play a lot of man-to-man. The AFC North has been a tough division to be a No. 1 corner in over the last few years. You got Torry Smith twice every year the last few seasons. You still get Antonio Brown twice. You get A.J. Green twice. You don’t get a day off in that division.
Something Joe does really well is change up his game from playing physical to playing a little off-man coverage, and he plays mind games with receivers to the point where they don’t understand what kind of coverage he is going to be in by just watching his body language. He’s really deceptive, and just like the receiver never knows what to expect, he never gives the QB anything to look at to make a key on, either.
If you’re A.J. Green, and Joe is being physical the entire game, and then all of a sudden he’s playing off-man and he gives you all this space, it throws you off your game a little bit, like it does here.
Because Joe is giving him so much space after usually being physical and in his face, A.J. is paying more attention to holding Joe off than coming back to the ball to make the catch.
That’s when you know you’re in a guy’s head. When he’s more worried about you than going up and getting the ball.
Joe is unpredictable enough to throw a guy off without even touching him. He’s so physical so often that you have to prepare for contact on every play. Then, when he switches things up and plays off a little, you’re bracing for contact and it doesn’t come, and that split second of hesitation can be enough to disrupt the timing of your route. So whether you get hit or not — or whether you think you’re gonna get hit or not — Joe is in control.
He just always keeps guys guessing.
Richard Sherman, Seattle Seahawks
You can’t have a list of the top cornerbacks in the NFL without Richard Sherman. A lot of people know him for what he says off the field, but he backs it up. He’s really excelling in that system in Seattle.
He’s a corner who makes a play on the ball every chance he gets. When you think about throwing to his side — which a lot of teams don’t — he’s always in position to pick it off, and he has a chance to take it back to the house, too.
One thing that sets Sherman apart from most corners is the he’s not just playing the receiver. He’s also playing the QB. He’s reading the receiver all the way through to the QB and seeing the ball at the same time. That’s how he gets such a good jump on the ball. You might see him get beat every now and then, but it’s not because he’s outmatched or gets beaten by the receiver. It’s because he’s watching the ball all the way through the play, and when it comes, he’s going up to get it. He’s going for the pick. He has great safety help in that defense, so he can take a few more chances on jumping routes than some other corners, and he takes advantage of it.
That’s why guys don’t want to throw his way. He’s always making a play on the ball.
Look how he keeps his eyes on the QB with the receiver in his line of sight and watches the ball all the way, then jumps the route for the pick and takes it to the house:
He has the receiver, the quarterback and, most importantly, the ball, all in his line of sight. That allows him to get such a great jump.
He also uses the sideline as a 12th defender really well.
The play everybody remembers is the Michael Crabtree play on at the end of the NFC Championship game in 2013. He was running with Michael Crabtree to the corner of the end zone, and when the ball came, he batted it away before it got to Crabtree, and Malcolm Smith swooped in and got the pick.
That play took a lot of athleticism, but more than anything, it was all about anticipation and vision. That just comes from studying film and natural ability. He understands the game and understands what teams want to do. He tries to know the team’s game plan and take away the things they do best, and he has the intangibles to execute when the ball is in the air.
You can’t teach that.
Patrick Peterson, Arizona Cardinals
Next, I’ll put up Patrick Peterson. I got a chance to play with him in Arizona last year, and watching him up close, you can see he’s a guy who has all the tools. He has the speed, the athleticism, he can be physical — he has everything.
He’s also very smart. He studies hard in the film room and he understands the guys he’s covering. He understands offenses and what they are trying to do. When you understand the offensive philosophy of the team you’re playing and you know how the receiver is going to try to attack you, you can anticipate and play with your instincts, so you don’t get caught guessing. That all starts in the film room, and Pat is a beast in the film room.
I remember the game against the Cowboys last year when I was still with the Cardinals, and he basically took Dez Bryant out of the game. Dez only caught two balls for 15 yards, and even though one was for a touchdown, they were both in the last two minutes of the game when we had a three-score lead, so it was basically garbage time.
Coach Arians said Pat “erased” him.
Pat engaged Dez at the line, but still stayed patient enough to keep Dez in front of him and disrupt his route and timing. That’s how you have to play Dez because he’s got the speed to stretch the field on you if you let him off the line, but he also runs great routes and isn’t afraid to go over the middle, so you have to be physical at the point of attack and patient enough to not bite on a head fake or other move.
It’s not easy to keep that perfect balance of being physical but patient, because they’re basically opposite concepts — one is being aggressive and attacking and the other is sitting back and letting the game come to you. But if you know what the receiver and the offense are trying to do and how they’re going to go about it, you can amp up the physicality just enough without disrupting the rest of your game. It’s easy to get carried away against a physical receiver — that’s what they want — but Pat never gets caught up in that because he knows the guys he’s covering so well.
It comes from the film room.
And finally … Darrelle Revis, New York Jets
To me, to be a true No. 1 corner is to be like Darrelle Revis — a guy who can shut guys down every single game, no matter who it is. I consider him to be the best of our generation.
Here’s all you need to know about Darrelle Revis: He’s a film junkie. He wants to understand everything. He’s a guy who’s been playing at a high level for nine years now, but he’s always willing to learn new concepts and techniques and apply them to his game. He approaches the game every week like a rookie — like a sponge looking to soak up all the information he can. He’s the best in the game, and he’s always looking to get better.
That’s how you stay the best in the game.
Darrelle is a guy who understands the body language of the receiver as well as what he’s trying to do. And because he understands them so well, he’s able to get his hands on receivers and manipulate them by throwing off the timing of their route or just staying on their hip throughout the route, because he knows what’s coming.
His patience is also one of his most valuable tools. That’s where the understanding of body language comes in, too. He never bites on the first move, or the second move. Darrelle knows each receiver so well that while the receiver is doing all that dancing and head-faking, he’s just sitting back and waiting. The only move he jumps on is the final move, which is why it’s so hard to separate from him, and that always puts him in the right spot at the right time.
Watch as he mirrors A.J. Green’s every move on the stutter-and-go.
A.J. is one of the best receivers in the game, and Revis just stays on his hip all the way through. In the same game, A.J. ran that same route and Revis stayed with him and made the interception.
That second one was called back because of a penalty somewhere else on the defense, but it’s still an example of how Revis just knows what the receiver is going to do, and he’s always in position to make a play if the ball does come.
Nobody controls the game from the corner position like Darrelle Revis.
I think the closest thing to Darrelle we have in the league right now is Patrick Peterson. The biggest difference is that Darrelle is in his ninth season and Pat is in his fifth, and when you’re talking about two guys where everything starts with understanding the game and understanding wide receivers, those four years just make Darrelle so much more advanced. There’s no substitute for reps and experience, and Darrelle has the four-year edge in that department. Maybe Pat will be Revis 2.0, but at the end of the day, there’s no corner out there quite like Darrelle Revis.
Playing opposite Darrelle Revis and Patrick Peterson, you get a lot of balls thrown your way because opposing QBs are tying to avoid those guys at all costs, and it’s made me step my game up. They set the bar so high by shutting down their side of the field on every play that you want to make sure you’re holding down your end of the field, too. You know you’re going to get the ball, so you have to be ready.
I’ve always been told, “Never be surprised when the ball is thrown your way. Be surprised when it’s not thrown your way.” That’s the mentality that I take into every game, because when you’ve got the greatest corner of our generation on the other side of the field, you’re going to get your looks. You’ve just got to be ready to take advantage.