Enter this scenario: You are an NFL cornerback. Your team is leading by four points with three minutes left in the game. You line head up, eight yards across from one of, if not the fastest player on the field. The called defensive play requires you to cover man-to-man, mono e mono, with minimal help from any teammates.
Before the snap, the receiver knows exactly where he is going, and how he is going to maneuver around you to get there. You, on the other hand, do not know and have to rely on your instinctive skills, intuition, and film study. Many scenarios run through your head. Will he plant and cut inside? Will he bolt straight down the field? Will he try to block and seal you to the outside as the running back scampers by? You try to read and decipher any body language that may indicate what his first move will be.
The ball is snapped.
You jam him for the allotted initial five yards in order to impede his route. The wide receiver overcomes your jam. He bolts down the field. You turn your hips and run within arms distance of him, matching him step for step, all the while mindful that he could suddenly cut or change direction, and if he does, you must react accordingly. He doesn’t, and continues running straight down the field. It has been four seconds since the ball was snapped. As you are trying to sustain a close distance, you turn your head to look for the ball. You see the glistening sun, but in front of the radiant ball is an oval shaped ball in the sky, descending from its apex. The wide receiver that you are trailing sees the ball as well and shifts in an extra gear, which you find hard to match. You can feel the home crowd’s collective sense of unease, as they are terrified of potential go-ahead score. The ball hovers right above your outstretched arm; it’s path through the air comes to an end as it is trapped in between the chest and hands of the receiver. Touchdown.
You have nothing to hide behind or teammates to share the blame with. You simply got beat, and everybody in the stadium knows it.
The message is clear: playing cornerback, especially in 2011, isn’t easy. Wide receivers are as big, fast, and strong as they ever have been. Worst of all, before the ball is snapped, they know exactly where they are going while you do not. It is like a NBA player having to guard Lebron James or Derrick Rose one-on-one. Except when he inevitably gets blown by, there are players behind him who can bail him out. A cornerback often does not have help, and, even if he does, it may be from a safety who may not have misread the play. It is just him and the man across from him.
Take all of that, and then pile on the fact the NFL is slowly, but surely, transforming into a flag football league with an abundance of rules limiting cornerbacks and what they are able to do in terms of jamming and making contact with the receiver. It has gotten so bad that dreadful passing teams have installed the “Lets just throw to a receiver down field and have him sell defensive pass interference” play, and use it often in pressure situations. Too many times, the referee calls a ticky-tacky play as pass interference, and the offense gets a 30+ yard gift.
Add all this up, and this is why we have very few, if any, true “shutdown” cornerbacks in the NFL.
For the list, it has to be taken into consideration that because of their team’s schemes and personnel, some of these players have different jobs and roles. I tried to evaluate these cornerbacks on how well they defended receivers and prevented catches, their ball skills, and their open field tackling (underrated skill in today’s NFL).
Here is the list:
10. Brent Grimes Who? That’s right, Brent Grimes. Despite being thrown at more than any other defensive back in the league last season (119 times, 7.4 times per game), Grimes only allowed receivers to catch 60 passes, and only gave up 4 touchdowns. He has an elite athleticism, and, although not a big guy, he is a superb open field tackler.
9. Brandon Flowers Despite being on the small side (5’9 186 lb.), Flowers is one of the most effective cornerbacks in the league, having only allowed 52 catches and one touchdown out of 102 passes thrown at him. He has as quick feet and flexible hips as any cornerback in the league and excellent ball skills. He will be a part of a very talented and promising Kansas City defense that includes Eric Berry, Tamba Hali, Glenn Dorsey, and Tyson Jackson for years to come
8. Antoine Winfield At 34, Winfield is no longer at his athletic peak. However, he is awesome in the Vikings’ Cover-2 scheme, which he predominantly requires him to cover shorter routes and help in run support. He is one of the best tackling defensive backs in the league, and is a bell cow on theVikings defense.
7. Devin McCourty As I mentioned with Jerod Mayo, anytime Bill Belichick drafts a defensive player in the top 10, you can bank on him being a ball player. McCourty quickly picked up and excelled in the Patriots’ zone scheme as a rookie last season. He swiped seven interceptions and consequentially made the Pro Bowl as a rookie, joining Ndamukong Suh as the only rookies to do so.
6. Tramon Williams Just another young, extremely promising Packer. He was overshadowed last season by teammates like Charles Woodson and Clay Mathews, but Williams’ play down stretch was an integral part to their elite defense and championship season. Even though he is often left on an island opposite of Charles Woodson, Williams only allowed catches on 46% of the passes thrown his way.
5. Champ Bailey For the majority of the past decade, Bailey reined as the best cornerback in the league, and has a record 10 Pro Bowl appearances to show for it. Since then, Bailey has lost a step but still possesses great instinct and has learned the importance of open field tackling. He has held receivers to an astounding an average of 2 yards after the catch.
4. Asante Samuel He is not a big physical type of guy, but having compiled 36 interceptions in the past five seasons, Samuel is a game-changer. As a Steelers fan forced to watch Ike Taylor drop about eight picks per game, I can appreciate not only Samuels’ excellent ball skills, but great hands.
[Quick tangent about Samuels: I know I just raved about his excellent hands, but has there ever been a more forgotten and/or forgiven blunder in a big game than Samuels dropped interception in the 4th quarter of Super Bowl 42. If Tom Brady made a mistake of equal magnitude in that game, it would have been talked about ad nauseum and been a major blemish on his historical resume.
I know that interception wasn’t the easiest pass to reel in, but he is one of the best ball hawking cornerbacks in the league. If he held on to that pass, then the 2007 Patriots are the greatest team ever, the 2000s Patriots become a full fledged dynasty, and Tom Brady is the best quarterback ever. Patriot haters will declare that it was “karma,” for the Spygate scandal and Bill Belichick being, well, Bill Belichick. Call it karma, call it whatever you want; Samuel effectively dropped the ball AND the Lombardi Trophy on that play.]
3. Charles Woodson Has had one of the most interesting football careers of any player that I’ll rank. He won the Heisman trophy as a defensive player (the only one in history to do so); was drafted 4th overall by the Raiders; and, won the Defensive ROY in his first season. Then, after a period of the Raiders being competitive and him being elite, his production started to drop and he became a borderline malcontent as the Raiders were going 4-12 every year. Then he got a new start when he joined Green Bay in 2006,\ and three years later at the age of 33, had the best year of his career and won Defensive Player of the Year.
Fast-forward to 2011 and he has added a Super Bowl to his resume and remains one of the best at his position. He is not only effective at shutting down receivers in pass coverage, but is a complete defensive player who is able to blitz the quarterback and tackle in the open field as well as most linebackers. His leadership, guidance, and team-first attitude greatly benefit and serve as a model to many of his younger teammates.
2. Nnamdi Asomugha
1. Darrelle Revis
Nnamdi or Revis? Revis or Nnamdi? They are both elite shutdown cornerbacks who will take away your best receiver and essentially cut the quarterback’s throwing area in half. It is difficult to separate the two because you can not use any statistics because neither player gets enough passes thrown to them, meaning that they do not have much of a chance to accumulate interceptions and defended passes. It is also difficult because they have two different skill sets and are elite for different reasons.
What distinguishes Nnamdi is his freakishly long wing span for a man at his height. His long reach allows him to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage quicker, and, like a shot blocker in basketball, he is able to reach high into the air to defended passes before they land into receivers hands.
Revis conversely does not have as long a reach but possesses unique strength for a smaller player and uses it to jam and redirect players at the line of scrimmage. He has the strength to handle bigger receivers, but the speed to handle burners. You also have to recognize his understanding of angles and exceptional ball skills.
In the end, Revis gets the nod is because even though Nnamdi has been elite for a longer period, Revis’ 2009 season was the best of any cornerback since Deion Sanders.
Even though Revis, for his standards, was very average last season (mostly due to a long holdout and the resulting hamstring injury), there is no reason that he cannot return to his 2009 form next season.
The other reason Revis edges out Nnamdi is that Nnamdi, for most of his career, has only lined up on the right side of the field. This means that all that the opposing offense has to do is line their best reciver on the opposite side of the field to avoid matching him up with Nnamdi. Revis, on the other hand, will line up anywhere on the field, and loves the challenge of covering and shutting down the other team’s best weapon. It’s a minor blemish, but given how close these two are, it makes a difference.
Revis wins this round, but I would not be surprised to see Nnamdi top this list next year.
Biggest Snub: Cortland Finnegan It is a shame that his dirty play and incidents like the brawl with Andre Johnson (don’t know which was replayed more on ESPN — that fight or the Buster Posey injury) overshadow his talent and production. Given that he is 5’10 and 188 lb, I get that Finnegan has to compensate for his lean stature with a certain feistiness and physicality, and by getting under big players’, like Andre Johnson, skin. However, there is a line between gamesmanship and idiocy, which was clearly crossed with the brawl and the WWE-style exit that followed. When he is not being a moron, Finnegan displays great ball skills and is good in run support.
Stay tuned for my NFL free agency review following it’s culmination.