The NFL’s best slot defenders
If you still doubt the value of a good slot cornerback, consider that last season, NFL defenses were in nickel or dime subpackages on 65% of their plays. The subpackage is the new base defense, and the slot corner is the NFL’s new defensive starter, as roles have reversed in the last half-decade. Now, teams are more inclined to use their third linebackers as situational players, taking their third cornerbacks or third safeties off the field on obvious running situations, as opposed to in the past, when you'd use your slot defender only when opposing offenses threw as many receivers on the field as possible.
With power comes responsibility, though. Today’s slot defender has to do a little bit of everything: chase tight ends up the seam, match dance steps with small, quick inside receivers, and face up against the run. It's a daunting task worthy of recognition, which brings us to this list.
Just missed the cut
Bobby McCain, Dolphins: McCain didn’t play a lot in the slot last season, but he allowed just two catches on eight targets on 117 slot snaps, and he'll get more reps in 2016. He’s an ascending player to watch.
The next big thing
Jeremy Lane, Seahawks: You can talk all you want about the worst play call in NFL history, but the Seahawks may have still won Super Bowl XLIX had Lane not been injured in the first quarter of that game after intercepting a Tom Brady pass intended for Julian Edelman. That injury upset the balance of the Legion of Boom, and Brady picked it apart in the second half. Lane didn’t see the field again until Week 11 of the 2015 season, but he fit right back in and played at a very high level. If the Seahawks maintain enough depth to keep him in the slot instead of outside (where he can also play quite adeptly), he'll most likely be in the top 10 next year.
The NFL's best slot cornerbacks, No. 10: Captain Munnerlyn
Munnerlyn is perhaps best-known for the pass over the middle he allowed to Doug Baldwin in the wild-card round last season, but it wasn't his fault that Baldwin practically jumped his own height and one-handed the catch. For the most part, Munnerlyn was a very reliable slot defender last season, giving up three touchdowns and 49 catches, but doing so as the league's most-used inside cornerback in 2015 with 444 snaps and 74 targets inside. Munnerlyn has a tendency to give up too much leverage at the top of crossing routes, and he can get a little grabby as a result, but he's developed into an above-average man for the position.
The NFL's best slot cornerbacks, No. 9: Malcolm Jenkins
Jenkins has played both cornerback and safety in his NFL career, but the 2015 Eagles wanted him to do even more to replace Brandon Boykin. As such, Jenkins displayed a special ability to tangle with receiver in the slot and came up winning more often than not. It's very tough for opposing receivers to fake Jenkins off his spot because he's so aware, and he's particularly good at reading the two-way goes all slot receivers must be able to handle. Jenkins doesn't have the raw speed he once did (at least, it didn't show up on tape in ‘15), but he's savvy enough to make up for that everywhere from deep safety to the slot.
The NFL's best slot cornerbacks, No. 8: T.J. Carrie
A seventh-round pick out of Ohio in 2014, Carrie is yet another example of how good Oakland general manager Reggie McKenzie is at this whole draft thing. Allowing just 23 catches on 40 targets and 250 slot snaps in ‘15, he also flexed out to safety at times, which has some wondering if he'll replace the now-retired Charles Woodson at that position. Whatever the Raiders do with him, they shouldn't deny his potential as an inside corner, especially since they have things sorted out on the outside with Sean Smith and David Amerson. Carrie is a big guy (6 '0", 206) with 4.4 speed who uses angles and aggressiveness to get things done.
The NFL's best slot cornerbacks, No. 7: Bryce Callahan
Bryce Callahan, Bears. At 5' 9" and 183 pounds, Callahan was undrafted in 2015, and had to ride the Bears' practice squad before he finally got a shot. When he did, he proved to be an integral part of Vic Fangio's defense with 18 receptions allowed on 31 slot targets. Had he played the entire season as opposed to making the field in fits and starts, there's no telling what he might have done. Callahan showed last year that is a very patient player who lets the plays come to him (which is unusual for a rookie). His lateral agility in short areas allows him to break off coverage and help when the play goes away from him. This is a player whose best is ahead of him.
The NFL's best slot cornerbacks, No. 6: Tyrann Mathieu
Mathieu can play cover safety as well as anyone in the league, and can even move to outside corner in a pinch, but it's his slot play as much as anything that makes him special. Mathieu is an aggressive gambler who baits receivers into believing they have a chance at the ball, only to close in at the last millisecond with his freakish athleticism and ever-improving game intelligence. He'll whiff once in a while, but Arizona's coaching staff encourages him to let it all hang out, and when he's healthy, the Cardinals reap the benefits. There isn’t a receiver in the NFL he can't keep up with on a step-for-step basis.
The NFL’s best slot cornerbacks, No. 5: Patrick Chung
Chung can start in the slot and move up into press coverage adeptly, but he is also responsible for playing a lot of snaps at linebacker depth, especially when the Patriots go to their dime packages. He wouldn’t be doing that for Bill Belichick if he didn’t know how to read the field, and he certainly does, especially when he’s crashing down on screens and shorter crossing routes. He can follow a tight end up the seam or into curl/flat responsibilities, and he is also tasked with taking on blockers on run plays and bubble screens. Chung gave up 18 receptions and allowed just 74 yards after the catch, which aligns with what you see on game day: He’s a missile when he’s bearing down on a ballcarrier.
The NFL’s best slot cornerbacks, No. 4: Brandon Boykin
This is a weird case. Boykin was traded by the Eagles to the Steelers last August for a low-round pick despite the fact that he was clearly the team’s best cornerback the year before. It initially looked like yet another example of Chip Kelly misreading which players work best for him, but then it also took the Steelers a long time to find a place for him in their defense. Still, Boykin played predictably well in the slot when asked, which came as no surprise seeing as that’s his specialty. The Steelers decided not to re-sign him this off-season, and the Panthers let him go soon after giving him a contract in March. He’s tried out for a couple of teams since, and there are rumors of a potential career-ending hip condition, though Boykin denies this. When he’s on the field, he’s still got it, so we'll have to wait and see where—or if—he lands as training camp grows closer.
The NFL’s best slot cornerbacks, No. 3: Kareem Jackson, Texans
Jackson’s primary attribute as a slot man is his ability to read and adjust to route concepts. No matter what kind of combinations opposing receivers throw at him, Jackson always seems to be in the right place at the right time. He can cover straight up in man or aggressive zone coverage against everyone from shifty slot receivers to mammoth tight ends, but his real value inside is on display when he’s asked to diagnose on the fly. He missed four games with an ankle injury in 2015 but was still tested 43 times as a slot corner, allowing no touchdowns, picking off two passes and allowing an opponent QB rating of 68.4.
The NFL’s best slot cornerbacks, No. 2: Patrick Robinson, Colts
Robinson is the most underrated slot defender in the league right now, and he was especially good in his one-year stint with the Chargers in 2015 after five seasons with the Saints. Robinson allowed 20 catches for just 159 yards and no touchdowns, producing an interception and a 67.7 opponent quarterback rating from the slot in ’15. He’s also a credible outside guy, but when he kicks to the slot, he uses his body control and recovery speed to expertly navigate all kinds of route concepts over the middle. Put on the tape, and you’ll be impressed at how easily Robinson pattern-matches and follows his assignments through the route, and how seamlessly he peels off one receiver to cover another through the catch.
The NFL’s best slot cornerbacks, No. 1: Chris Harris, Broncos
No cornerback in the NFL gives his team as much functional versatility as Harris, who’s actually been among the best slot corners in the NFL for the last few seasons. In 2013, he allowed a 65.6 passer rating on 393 slot snaps and didn’t give up a single touchdown while registering three interceptions. In 2014, he gave up 20 receptions on 32 targets for 143 yards, no touchdowns, one interception and a 59.8 opposing quarterback rating. Those numbers put him near the top of the slot list, but his performance in ’15—a season in which the Broncos won the Super Bowl on the back of their defense—saw him on another level. Harris allowed 20 catches on 35 targets on 335 slot snaps, with no touchdowns, two interceptions and an opposing QB rating of 43.4. So, over the last three seasons, quarterbacks throwing to Harris in the slot have no touchdowns and six picks. Harris signed a five-year, $42.5 million contract extension last December. That is outside corner money, and while Harris plays outside very well, he's truly special in Denver’s sub-package defense, where he can use his aggression, spatial awareness, and route anticipation skills to shut down everyone he faces. Harris has become one of the most important defensive players in the league, regardless of position.