What does it mean to be the NFL's best CB?
It's a complicated question. On the one hand, defenders that rack up turnovers and regularly make plays on the ball should be rewarded for doing so. On the other hand, we shouldn't downgrade corners that are so good that QBs barely thrown their way.
We're going to break this down using three different criteria groups in order to be as fair as possible: Individual success, team success, and responsibility rating.
The first group of rankings that will help shape these evaluations is each corner's individual performance. We'll take the average of each player's rank in the following five metrics (PFF):
- Receptions allowed per coverage snap: Ultimately the goal of playing CB is to not allow your opponent to catch the football.
- Yards allowed per coverage snap: Not all receptions are created equal.
- QB Rating allowed in coverage: Allows us to get a solid big-picture idea of how successful QBs were when targeting specific corners.
- Penalties: Corners that are able to avoid getting called for pass interference or holding deserve credit.
- Combined pass deflections, interceptions and forced fumbles: Turnovers are one of the most-crucial aspects of any football game.
Next we'll assign each player a team grade utilizing Football Outsiders' DVOA metrics. DVOA ratings, "represent value from the point of view of the defense, not fantasy football players, and include items that have no impact on fantasy football (such as how many interceptions are caught on passes intended to certain receivers)."
We'll give each corner an average rank from the following team-wide statistics to help reward those that were key cogs in some of the league's best pass defenses:
- Defensive pass DVOA
- DVOA vs. No. 1 WRs
- DVOA vs. No. 2 WRs
- DVOA vs. Other WRs
Finally, I want to attempt to assign a "Responsibility Rating" to every CB. Certain corners are regularly asked to carry out tougher assignments and thus have more responsibility on a per-play basis. For example, Stephon Gilmore and Darius Slay deserve more credit than most for not only shadowing opposing No. 1 WRs, but also for making a habit of chasing them into the slot. Additionally, slot corners deserve a slight bump, as they have to do their job without the benefit of a sideline and are (usually) more involved in every-down action.
I created the following 1-8 scale for each player's "Responsibility Rating":
- Shadow CB that moves into slot
- Shadow CB that stays on outside
- CB that moves everywhere with a lot of slot
- CB that moves everywhere but less slot
- CB that plays a lot of slot
- CB that frequently moves sideline to sideline
- CB that spends 80%-89% snaps in one spot
- CB that spends 90%-100% snaps in one spot
The sample consists of 120 CBs that played 300-plus snaps in 2019. I ranked every CB in the league in these three categories, took each player's average ranking across the board, and came up with the following list. Naturally, the individual ranks are weighted the most since those rankings go from 1-120, while the team (1-32) and responsibility (1-8) ranks are a bit less important.
Without further ado: the top-10 CBs of the 2019 season in no particular order.
Patriots CBs Stephon Gilmore, Jason McCourty and J.C. Jackson
It's hard to overstate just how good this pass defense was last season:
- No. 1 in DVOA vs. No. 1 WRs
- No. 1 in DVOA vs. No. 2 WRs
- No. 1 in DVOA vs. Other WRs
- No. 1 in DVOA vs. pass and overall
The Patriots allowed 13 passing touchdowns while intercepting 25 passes. No other defense in the league had more interceptions than passing scores allowed. All three of their top corners were regularly asked to travel with individual WRs all across the field, with Gilmore and Jackson usually taking the opposition's top-two options. Jonathan Jones also deserves plenty of credit for helping round out the league's clear-cut No. 1 CB room.
Of course, Gilmore is the star of the show here. And for good reason: the man shut down pretty much everyone that he was asked to shadow in 2019 (PFF):
- JuJu Smith-Schuster: 6 receptions-78 yards-0 TD (8 targets)
- Preston Williams: 4-63-0 (6)
- Robby Anderson (x2): 3-11-0 (5), 1-10-0 (8)
- John Brown (x2): 5-69-0 (11), 1-53-1 (4)
- Terry McLaurin: 3-51-0 (7)
- Odell Beckham: 5-52-0 (7)
- Marquise Brown: 3-48-0 (4)
- Jordan Matthews: 1-6-0 (6)
- Amari Cooper: 0-0-0 (2)
- DeAndre Hopkins: 5-64-0 (8)
- Sammy Watkins: 4-50-0 (8)
- Tyler Boyd: 3-26-0 (7)
- DeVante Parker: 8-137-0 (11)
- A.J. Brown: 1-4-0 (1)
The league's best secondary is again in great shape entering the 2020 season, particularly after re-signing stud FS Devin McCourty.
Ravens CB Marcus Peters
Peters has always been a bit of a boom-or-bust corner throughout his career. Nobody has more interceptions (27) or pick-sixes (6) than Peters since he entered the league in 2015, but we've also seen him allow more than a few touchdowns in 2015 (8), 2016 (3), 2017 (4), 2018 (6) and 2019 (5) alike.
The Ravens were a very solid secondary in 2019 that bordered on elite. The league's most blitz-heavy defense also consistently left their (talented) corners on islands in an effort to force opposing QBs to get rid of the ball quickly.
This scheme turned out to be a perfect fit for Peters, who found himself ranked favorably in a number of key individual categories last season:
- Combined forced fumbles, interceptions and pass breakups: No. 11
- QB Rating allowed: No. 17
- Penalties against: No. 19
- Coverage snaps per reception: No. 25
- Yards allowed per coverage snap: No. 19
- Overall combined individual rank: No. 2
Baltimore has a plethora of solid CBs on their roster, but Peters stood out as a key playmaker that was way more boom than bust in 2019. Look for this secondary to again be a force to be reckoned with in 2020.
Rams CBs Troy Hill and Nickell Robey-Coleman
Jalen Ramsey tied with Byron Jones as this study's No. 33 overall CB from 2019. He received a more favorable Responsibility Rating than both Hill and Robey-Coleman due to his shadow-heavy role that included following opposing No. 1 WRs into the slot.
Still, both Hill and Robey-Coleman were nothing short of fantastic last season. They finished as the No. 3 and No. 9 CBs, respectively, in our combined individual rankings. Hill was the league's No. 5 overall CB in lowest QB Rating allowed on targets into his coverage, while Robey-Coleman allowed the eighth-fewest yards per coverage snap despite having to deal with shifty slot WRs every week.
It remains to be seen what life will look like in Los Angeles next season with DC Wade Phillips no longer running the show. Still, Ramsey and Hill give the Rams as good of a one-two punch at outside CB that any team could hope for. Meanwhile, the Eagles also have quite the duo at CB between Robey-Coleman and Darius Slay.
Fantasy managers should think twice before assuming any WR is in a good spot against the Rams or Eagles in 2020.
Seahawks CB Shaquill Griffin
It's hard to understate just how freaky the Seahawks' No. 1 CB is as an athlete (via PlayerProfiler):
- 6-foot-0 and 194-pounds
- 32.4 inch arms (82nd percentile among CBs)
- 4.38-second 40-yard dash (94th)
- 106.9 Speed Score (91st)
- 131.5 Burst Score (87th)
- 11.01 Agility Score (75th)
- 10.26 Catch Radius (90th)
Griffin has just three interceptions in 45 games since 2017. Still, the stud CB ranked among the league's top-10 corners in both pass breakups (tied for No. 2) and fewest penalties against (tied for No. 7) in 2019, regularly erasing pretty much anyone that was brave enough to line up across from him.
The Seahawks have never made a habit of asking their corners to travel with opposing No. 1 WRs. Still, Griffin deserves plenty of credit for consistently shutting down the right side of the field. Seattle was a top-12 defense in DVOA against No. 1 WRs (No. 12), passes to the right side of the field (No. 12) and deep passes to the right side of the field (No. 5) last season, mostly thanks to Griffin.
Don't expect much of a drop off in 2020 after the Seahawks managed to add talented CB Quinton Dunbar to the equation.
Bills CB Tre'Davious White
The Bills have a special CB on their hands. Any list of the league's top-five corners that doesn't include White is wrong.
Overall, White ranked sixth in combined pass deflections, forced fumbles and interceptions last season. He was second in QB Rating allowed on passes into his coverage. Only the Patriots were a better defense in DVOA against No. 1 WRs than the Bills.
White didn't make a habit of chasing opposing No. 1 WRs into the slot, but he still had plenty of success in his plethora of high-profile shadow matchups:
- Terry McLaurin: 4 receptions-39 yards-0 TD (6 targets)
- Odell Beckham: 5-57-0 (12)
- DeVante Parker: 7-135-0 (10)
- Courtland Sutton: 1-27-0 (8)
- Amari Cooper: 8-85-0 (11)
- Marquise Brown: 3-(-)2-0 (3)
- DeAndre Hopkins: 6-90-0 (8)
The best is likely yet to come for the stud 25-year-old CB. Expect the Bills to again rank among the league's best pass defenses in 2020 and beyond as long as White continues to look a lot like one of the best players at his position.
Steelers CB Joe Haden
Haden graded out as the No. 1 CB of 2019 if we focus solely on combined individual ranks:
- Combined forced fumbles, interceptions and pass breakups: No. 4
- QB Rating allowed: No. 12
- Penalties against: No. 38
- Coverage snaps per reception: No. 20
- Yards allowed per coverage snap: No. 12
- Overall combined individual rank: No. 1
The only "negative" was the fact that Haden exclusively stuck to the right side of the field and didn't shadow opposing No. 1 WRs. There simply wasn't much of a need to do so; only the 49ers allowed fewer yards per play than the Steelers in 2019.
Like the Ravens, Pittsburgh made a habit of sending extra blitzers in an attempt to force opposing QBs to get rid of the ball quickly. Haden's play-making mentality remains a great fit in this scheme.
Don't expect this defense to take a step back in 2020.
49ers CB Richard Sherman
Sammy Watkins and Davante Adams managed to get the best of Sherman during the playoffs, but PFF's No. 1 overall CB from the 2019 regular season was largely dominant the rest of the way. Overall, he ranked among the league's top-three corners in QB Rating allowed (No. 3), coverage snaps per reception (No. 2) and yards allowed per coverage snap (No. 1).
Sherman has never consistently shadowed opposing No. 1 WRs throughout his career. Hence his on-again/off-again Twitter feud with Darrelle Revis. Still, the 49ers were a top-12 defense in DVOA on regular (No. 5), deep (No. 12) and short (No. 2) passes to the right side of the field. Personally, I do side with Revis' belief that it's a taller task to consistently travel with the opposition's No. 1 WR, but consistently shutting down one third of the field is hardly a skill that should be looked down upon.
The days of Sherman battling for the league lead in interceptions and pass deflections are likely over. Playing behind the 49ers' beastly pass rush is certainly ideal. Still, the nine-year veteran should still be on anyone's short list of the game's most-impactful corners after his return to form in 2019. The 49ers defense is once again expected to cause plenty of problems for passing games around the league in 2020.
These corners narrowly missed out on the top-10:
- Steelers CB Steven Nelson: Nelson ranked fifth in coverage snaps per reception and formed one of the league's top-CB duos with Haden in 2019. The 27-year-old CB is signed with Pittsburgh through 2021.
- Chargers CB Casey Hayward: The long-time stud No. 1 CB hasn't shadowed as frequently in recent seasons, but QBs are still better off looking elsewhere. Hayward was a top-six CB in both coverage snaps per reception (No. 1) and yards allowed per coverage snap (No. 6) last season.
- Buccaneers CB Jamel Dean: Both Dean and teammate Carlton Davis were two of 16 corners to rack up double-digit pass deflections in 2019. The main difference was Dean did a better job limiting penalties and ultimately allowed the 15th-lowest QB Rating in the league.
- Jaguars CB D.J. Hayden: Hayden finished last season as a top-10 CB in both coverage snaps per reception (No. 10) and yards allowed per coverage snap (No. 3). We'll see what happens in a full season without Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye, but at a minimum Hayden deserves credit for his performance during not-great circumstances in 2019.
- Redskins CB Quinton Dunbar: The recently-traded CB was at-times dominant in 2019, ultimately finishing as PFF's No. 2 overall corner. While Dunbar hasn't shadowed opposing No. 1 WRs throughout his career, the fit in Seattle couldn't be more perfect across from Griffin.
Other Notable Corners
Each of Jaire Alexander, Adoree' Jackson, James Bradberry and Janoris Jenkins finished among the study's top-25 CBs, as each posted solid individual ranks and received boosts for their respective usage as shadow corners ... It'd make sense if talented CB Denzel Ward (No. 28) experiences a bounce-back performance in 2020 with improved health ... stud CBs Jimmy Smith, Marshon Lattimore, Byron Jones, Jalen Ramsey and Marlon Humphrey finished among the study's top-35 corners ... Chris Harris (No. 56) didn't grade out all that well individually, but should be just fine with the Chargers thanks to their secondary's abundance of talent ... Chidobe Awuzie (No. 62) will need to improve greatly in 2020 for the Cowboys to keep the ship from sinking without Jones ... Patrick Peterson (No. 69) struggled in shadow matchups against Michael Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, but did appear to improve during the second half of the season ... Eli Apple (No. 73) hasn't shown the ability to be a true No. 1 CB throughout his career, although that appears to be his role with the Raiders ... Darius Slay (No. 81) should be more than fine in Philly; last season he was in an absolutely brutal situation thanks to his weekly difficult shadow assignments and lack of pass rush ... both A.J. Bouye (No. 90) and Logan Ryan (No. 99) have had better years ... #washed is appropriate for Josh Norman (No. 110) and Xavier Rhodes (No. 111) ... hopefully the presence of Jones and an improved pass rush helps lead to easier assignments and better performance for Xavien Howard (No. 114) ... Lamarcus Joyner (No. 120) finished as the study's single-worst CB from 2019.