Well, this was not easy.
Deciding who is currently the NFL's best cornerback is tough, for a number of reasons. First of all, there are cornerbacks who play well in multiple schemes -- anything from press man coverage to 10 yards off the line. Second, there are those cornerbacks who follow the opposition's No. 1 receiver to either side of the field, making their matchups much harder on a snap-to-snap basis. Third, traditional stats are anywhere from difficult to impossible when it comes to defining the performances of cornerbacks at the NFL level. What coverage is he playing? Who's around him? Who's his receiver? Is he playing the slot, or outside?
There's no doubt that this is a renaissance era for the cornerback position. With the NFL turning into more and more of a passing league with every year, the best cornerbacks are worth more than ever -- no matter where on the field they play. Our six top players at the position all play outside for the most part, but the addition of two slot defenders jives with a predominant NFL trend. These days, most teams travel with three starting cornerbacks. Here, without further ado, are the 10 players we feel play the position at the highest possible level.
(Note: Unless otherwise indicated, all cornerback stats come courtesy of Pro Football Focus.)
10. Brent Grimes, Miami Dolphins
Grimes was always an underrated player through his years with the Falcons, and he received a four-year, $32 million extension from the Dolphins after a first season in Miami that was consistently high-quality. On 98 targets in 2013, Grimes picked off four passes and didn't allow a single touchdown, limiting opposing quarterbacks to a 66.3 rating. With former bookend Nolan Carroll off to the Eagles, Grimes will be playing opposite Cortland Finnegan in 2014 ... which means that his coverage acumen will be more important than ever.
9. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, New York Giants
DRC wasn't the most talked about defensive back on the Broncos roster last year -- that award probably went to Champ Bailey as many wondered if the future Hall of Famer was out of gas. One thing's for sure -- Rodgers-Cromartie was Denver's best outside cornerback, allowing just 30 catches on 68 targets. Now, he'll be a major part of Big Blue's secondary reconstruction, working opposite Prince Amukamara.
8. Chris Harris, Denver Broncos
When Harris went down with a torn ACL in mid-January, it really affected the Broncos' pass defense. The injury happened in the divisional round against the Chargers, and after Harris left the field, San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers threw two late touchdown passes and almost knocked the eventual AFC champs out before their march to the Super Bowl began. Harris can play outside when asked, but he's at his best in the slot, where he can use his short-area speed and estimable hip turn to clamp onto slot receivers and tight ends. His return to form is a major component of Denver's proposed defensive turnaround.
7. Brandon Boykin, Philadelphia Eagles
Boykin was the best slot cornerback in the NFL last year, and a breath of fresh air on an Eagles defense that was too often betwixt and between in Billy Davis' new schemes. Boykin picked off six passes last season, and all of them came in the slot, where he was targeted 75 times and gave up 44 receptions for 562 yards. That percentage is impressive because slot cornerbacks are asked to cover slants and other simple routes that are generally easy completions. Add in that Boykin allowed just two touchdowns all season, and that's one more than he scored -- he took a pick 54 yards to the house against the Bears in Week 16.
6. Joe Haden, Cleveland Browns
When the Browns gave Haden a five-year, $68 million extension in May, Haden took that opportunity to say that he's "going to keep grinding like I'm No. 1." Haden has said that he puts himself at or near the top of the league at his position, which is nice and entirely appropriate (hey -- it's important to have confidence at a position where you can get burned at any time), but the tape doesn't quite match up. When he's playing in zone and can use technique and timing to stay with top receivers, he is among the best. But Haden lacks the top-end field speed to go from 0 to 60, so to speak, that the truly elite cornerbacks have. Haden is probably worth the money he got, but we can't quite put him in that highest tier.
5. Alterraun Verner, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Ah, the game of cornerback musical chairs in the offseason. When the Bucs dropped Darrelle Revis, that allowed them to go after Verner, who put up a pretty amazing season in 2013 after three previous years of relative anonymity. Verner allowed just two touchdowns last season and picked off five passes, allowing an opponent passer rating of 55.8, third-best in the league. In Lovie Smith's version of the Tampa defense, Verner will be able to do what he does well -- alternate between man and zone concepts, with a physical attitude against the run. He's got a short history of true excellence, but Verner's in the right spot for his skillset, and things could be trending up very soon.
4. Aqib Talib, Denver Broncos
“It’s a pleasure to introduce our next acquisition from the New England Patriots. We know how much we hated playing against him, so we are thrilled he’s come to the Denver Broncos. He’s a tremendous player -- tough, great cover guy that’s going to really add to our secondary and add toughness to our secondary."
That's how Broncos Executive VP of Football Operations John Elway welcomed Talib to the fold, having just signed the former Buccaneers and Patriots cornerback to a six-year, $57 million deal with $26 million guaranteed. With Rodgers-Cromartie off to the Big Apple and Bailey off to the Big Easy, the Broncos needed what they obviously didn't have in 2013 -- a big, aggressive rangy pass defender who could match up with No. 1 receivers and shut them down. Talib has occasional mental and mechanical lapses on the field -- he gave up three touchdowns to his four interceptions -- but he'll add a lot to a Denver defense that clearly needed a bit more smashmouth.
3. Darrelle Revis, New England Patriots
Let's not forget the guy who got the current wave of great cornerbacks rolling. Revis was as dominant as any cornerback has been in his prime, and just because he had an off-year in Tampa in 2013, we shouldn't assume that he's done. Revis was inexplicably asked to play off-coverage instead of the press and trail concepts where he excels, and this was, as much as anything, an indicator that Greg Schiano was in over his head. One wonders how Revis would fare in Lovie Smith's defense (our guess: pretty darn good), but now, Revis will be doing his thing under the auspices of Bill Belichick. And there are few coaches who better understand how to play up the attributes of his players. Expect Revis to play the way he plays best, and a revival season to be the result.
2. Patrick Peterson, Arizona Cardinals
There's been a bit of an offseason battle going on between the NFL's two best cornerbacks, and it really got going when Peterson responded to a Richard Sherman tweet about how often he's targeted.
"I don't want to get into that debate as far as the stats that he has and things he has," Peterson told a Phoenix radio station in May. "Obviously, his job is definitely much easier than mine. If you look at their scheme and look at our scheme, he's a Cover 3 corner. Period. ... He's only covering space. He's not really covering a guy. At the end of the day, he has great stats and he has great playmaking ability, not taking that away from him because he is a good corner.
"But as far as being a shutdown corner, man-to-man guy, in my eyes, I don't believe he's that."
Where Peterson went from there, and what bumps his own candidacy for the top spot, was the fact that in 2013, he moved from one side of the field to the other far more often than Sherman did, often to stay glued to the other team's best receiver. According to FO's charting metrics, the Cardinals swapped their cornerbacks 45 percent of the time (only three teams did so more often), while the Seahawks kept their outside defenders on one side of the field 99 percent of the time.
So, why is Peterson second in our list? First of all, Sherman's metrics are far better than Peterson's, and he covered enough top receivers to make that legitimate. In 2013, Peterson was targeted 90 times on 690 passing snaps, giving up 49 receptions for 688 yards, seven touchdowns and three interceptions. He allowed a 91.3 opponent quarterback rating, and while it could be argued that having Jerraud Powers on the other side was a hindrance for Peterson, Arizona also had Tyrann Mathieu as a satellite pass defender most of the year. And Sherman's bookends last year included the pretty-much-done version of Brandon Browner, and backups Walter Thurmond and Byron Maxwell.
So, when you get to Sherman's stats, the difference is actually quite stunning.
1. Richard Sherman, Seattle Seahawks
Yes, Sherman is a product of his defensive system more than Peterson is, but in 2013, we saw him adjust and adapt in ways he hadn't done before. When the Colts burned him in off-coverage in a Week 5 loss, Sherman was tested more often by different formations, and by the time the Super Bowl rolled around, he was better able to play zone and bail concepts.
But it's as a press and trail cornerback that Sherman has no equal in the league. And teams threw at him at their peril last season. He gave up 29 receptions on 59 targets for 348 yards, one touchdown and a league-leading eight interceptions. His opponent passer rating allowed was an absurd 36.2.
In the postseason, Sherman was even more impressive, and this was really the tiebreaker. It's unfortunate that Peterson's Cardinals didn't get to see what they could do in the playoffs with their 10-6 record, but Sherman was absolutely ridiculous in the Seahawks' final romp to the Super Bowl -- he was targeted just seven times on 117 passing snaps, allowing just two receptions for 10 yards. And when Peyton Manning, of all people, started overthrowing deep passes to avoid Sherman late in the Super Bowl as the Broncos fell further and further behind, that said all that needed to be said. Richard Sherman is just as good as he says he is.