We’ve finally reached the secondary with our top ten lists; today, we’ll be looking at the top ten cornerbacks in the NFL. Though this position clearly lacks the top-end talent that positions like interior defensive line and linebacker have, the depth at this position is incredible. Players such as Darius Slay, William Jackson, Denzel Ward, Byron Jones, Tre’Davious White, and the highest-paid corner in the NFL, Xavien Howard, all failed to make this list. Therefore, each player on this list is a true #1 cornerback, and is worth being paid at the top of the cornerback market. Who are these prestigious players? Let’s take a closer look.
*All Stats and Grades Via Pro Football Focus
#10: Marlon Humphrey, Baltimore Ravens
Quietly, the Ravens have one of the best secondaries in the NFL. The team brought in safety Earl Thomas III in free agency to pair with Tony Jefferson in the back-end of the defense, and they also have one of the top emerging cornerbacks in football. Coming out of the University of Alabama, Marlon Humphrey wasn’t a can’t-miss prospect, but he definitely was a polished product. Ever since Baltimore made him the 16th overall selection in the 2017 draft, they’ve been rewarded immediately. Humphrey may have not had the rookie season that some rookie corners had in 2017, but he was still productive with a 73.9 overall grade and a 75.3 coverage grade from Pro Football Focus. Then, in his sophomore season, he took the next step towards becoming a true shutdown corner. He did miss two games last season with a thigh injury, but he still managed to put up an 83.4 coverage grade, which was actually in the top-five amongst outside corners on this list. Clearly, his stock is rising in a hurry, and there’s a great chance that he outplays his ranking. Consider this spot a placeholder for the 23-year-old, who could rise in the top-five on this list as soon as next year.
#9: Patrick Peterson, Arizona Cardinals
What? Patrick Peterson is only the NINTH best corner? Yes, Peterson has a reputation as one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL. After all, he had an 83.7 coverage grade last season, is able to cover receivers in man-to-man coverage or zone coverage, and is as talented as it gets. Yet, Peterson’s peak never matched the hype he received during his best season. After all, the 82.5 defense-grade he had last season was actually his career-high, and in past seasons, he’s actually been rather inconsistent. Plus, this could be a rough season for Peterson. The 29-year-old is suspended for the first six games of 2019 for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drugs policy, and is also in his third defensive scheme in three seasons. That’s a lot of red flags for a corner that has had two below 70-grade seasons in the past five seasons; although Peterson is extremely talented and was excellent last season, I have some doubts over if that will continue, and as a result, he ranks #9 on this list, which is much lower than his usual consensus ranking.
#8: Kyle Fuller, Chicago Bears
Last season, the Bears had undoubtedly the best defense in the NFL. Their elite front seven will get a lot of credit for that, as will the safety duo of Eddie Jackson and the recently departed Adrian Amos. However, cornerback Kyle Fuller may be the X-Factor of this defense, and in the first year of a $56 million extension, he delivered in a big way for them. The 27-year-old set career highs in practically every category in the regular season, including his coverage grade (84.1), overall grade (83), and for whatever it’s worth, his tackling grade (74). He may be only 5’11” and 190 pounds, but he’s a true outside corner capable of competing with #1 receivers. Considering he’s improved in each season and is only entering his fifth NFL season, it’s safe to say Chicago lucked out by matching the rival Packers’ offer for the former first-round pick; he’s another player who could reach the top tier of corners next season.
#7: AJ Bouye, Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jaguars may not have a very strong roster, but there’s no doubting the elite talent they have at cornerback. We’ll get to their #1 corner later in this list, but no other team has the luxury of having an elite player as their #2 outside corner. AJ Bouye was signed to a hefty five-year, $67.5 million contract in 2017, and although Jacksonville has very little cap room, they’re certainly not regretting the investment they made in him. Despite dealing with a calf injury last season, the 28-year-old still had a 79.3 coverage grade last season, which is extremely impressive considering his overall numbers were hampered by a poor stretch while he seemingly was trying to play through the injury. Additionally, in the season before, Bouye was excellent with an 84.7 coverage grade. After a rough start to his career, Bouye has been one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL, in terms of coverage and overall production. He definitely goes under the radar as a result of the immense amount of well-known talent on Jacksonville’s defense, but he could definitely be the top player on a winning defense; he deserves more recognition than he’s receiving.
#6: Marshon Lattimore, New Orleans Saints
Few cornerbacks in NFL history had the type of debut season that Marshon Lattimore had in New Orleans in 2017. The Ohio State product didn’t allow a single touchdown all season long, had an elite 87.7 grade in coverage, and also thrived as a tackler (84.7). It looked like the 23-year-old was on his way to stardom, but he did hit a bump in the road last season; his coverage grade dropped to 72.6 and his overall grade also regressed to 74.1. Still, Lattimore is easily one of the most talented corners in the NFL. He was very boom-or-bust last season regarding his weekly numbers, but when he was right, he produced like a top three corner. In Week 11, for example, he thrived with a 90.6 coverage grade, while he also was great in Week 2 with an 82.8 coverage grade. Although every player has a few excellent games, Lattimore was excellent in the middle of the season, and outside of the first game of the season, didn’t have any putrid games. Obviously, being a serviceable cornerback is not acceptable for the sixth-ranked corner in the NFL; I am betting on him returning to his 2017 form. It’s definitely a risk to expect that, but he was so dominant in that season, that it would be foolish not to take that risk. He’ll be a key for the Saints this season, and is a player that could either be top-three in next year’s list, or completely on it; projecting his production next season is very tough.
#5: Desmond King, Los Angeles Chargers
Is there any player that has constantly been overlooked more than Desmond King? The 24-year-old was seen as a refined player coming out of Iowa, but due to his smaller frame (5’10”), he slipped to the fifth round of the 2017 draft. Yet, in his first two seasons in the NFL, he’s been the best defensive back in that draft class. He was amazing in his rookie season with an 85.7 overall grade and an 86.6 coverage grade, and somehow, that was only the beginning for him. King’s overall defense grade (90.4) and coverage grade (91.1) were both elite, while his abilities as a pass rusher (78.3) add another dimension in Los Angeles’ defense. The one drawback with King, is due to his height, he’s limited to the slot; he only played 25 snaps as an outside corner. Still, an argument can be made that defending the slot, where receivers such as Michael Thomas, Antonio Brown, and TY Hilton sometimes line up, is almost as difficult as playing outside corner. Therefore, rather than continuing to disregard him in favor of flashy corners such as Peterson, we should recognize him for what he is: a top-five cornerback who is extremely versatile.
#4: Casey Hayward Jr, Los Angeles Chargers
Desmond King isn’t the only underrated cornerback that the Chargers have; Casey Hayward Jr. has also been neglected throughout his career. The 29-year-old was an elite player with the Packers, posting two 90-grade seasons in four years with them, but since they thought he was only useful in the nickel, they let him walk in free agency. Even worse, he only was able to receive a three-year, $15.3 million contract from the Chargers in free agency. With them, he was able to shift to the outside, and now, that’s where he dominates (925 snaps last season). Hayward Jr. was great in his first season with them, but it was his second season with the team that put the Vanderbilt product on NFL fans’ radars. In that season, he had a 92.1 coverage grade, which is simply incredible. Yes, he regressed to a 77.7 coverage grade last season, but with three 90-grade seasons in his seven-year career, and no season lower than a 71.6 overall grade, he certainly has the resume to back up this ranking, The Chargers should be one of the best teams in the NFL this season, and their elite duo of King and Hayward Jr. is a huge reason why. Either way, Hayward Jr. is an elite corner, and even though he fails to receive proper validation from fans, he does have a case for being the #1 corner in the league.
#3: Chris Harris Jr., Denver Broncos
Speaking of underrated players who either currently, or used to play, in the nickel, Chris Harris Jr. is the model of an elite corner capable of playing on the inside or outside. The 30-year-old was the best player on an elite secondary when the Broncos won the Superbowl in 2016, and if there’s one word to describe him, it’s consistent. In his eight-year career, he’s had three 90-grade seasons, two 80-grade seasons, and has never had a grade worse than the 76.7 grade he received in his rookie season. Last season was more of the same for him, as though he missed the final four games of the seasons, he had an excellent 85.5 overall grade and an 84.4 coverage grade. Meanwhile, his versatility- he played 440 snaps inside and 264 snaps outside- gives the Broncos extra flexibility within their defense, and allows him to shadow top receivers that move inside. After Denver signed two nickel defenders in Bryce Callahan and Kareem Jackson this offseason, it’s likely we’ll see more of Harris on the outside this season, which will allow him to prove himself to be a top-three corner in all of football. He may already be 30-years-old, but in a way, it feels as though Harris is just getting started.
#2: Jalen Ramsey, Jacksonville Jaguars
On the other end of the spectrum from King, Hayward Jr., and Harris Jr. is Jalen Ramsey. The 24-year-old is very outspoken, and based on his personality, draws comparisons to Richard Sherman and Deion Sanders. Still, Ramsey has a long ways to go before his performances match those two. In his rookie season and last season, he had identical 72.8 overall grades, which are solid, but not quite #1 corner worthy. However, the allure of Ramsey is what he did in 2017, his sophomore season. In that season, he was absolutely elite with a 90.6 overall grade and a 91.2 coverage grade, putting together one of the best seasons for a corner I’ve ever seen. Though he struggled this season, there were times, like Lattimore, where we were reminded of his talent. In Week 11 against the Steelers, for example, he had a 91.1 coverage grade, while overall, his 54.6% completion rate allowed was still more than satisfactory. Honestly, for whatever reason, every Jaguars defender took a step back last season; culture can be partially blamed for Ramsey’s regression. Heading into a huge year for a player who wants to earn a massive payday, it’s time for us to see more boom from the boom-or-bust cornerback, and I’m definitely not going to bet against that. After all, it’s hard to forget he’s only 24-years-old and is a former top-five pick; he’s as talented as it gets.
#1: Stephon Gilmore, New England Patriots
When the Patriots signed Stephon Gillmore to a five-year, $65 million contract, it stunned the football world. After all, they don’t tend to active in free agency at all, and that seemed like a lot of money for a corner coming off of a 63.1-grade season. Yet, as per usual, Bill Belichick worked his magic once again. Gilmore was solid in his first season with the team, posting an 81.5 coverage grade and notably improving down the stretch. That momentum carried into last season, where Gilmore was close to a shutdown corner as we’ll get in today’s NFL. His 90.9 coverage grade was amazing, and for the most part, he was rather consistent on a week-to-week basis. It also doesn’t hurt that he also was fantastic in the postseason, allowed just a 46.7% completion percentage, and is the best man-coverage cornerback in the NFL. What else is there to say about Gilmore? He always had potential after being selected 10th overall by the Bills in 2012, but he simply needed to be in the right situation to maximize on that potential. There’s no reason to expect anything less than elite production from Gilmore in 2019, as he’s been the best corner in football for a year and a half. All of a sudden, that contract looks like an absolute bargain for the brilliant Patriots.