The NFL’s best outside cornerbacks
It takes a lot more than a peek at the NFL’s interceptions leaderboard to determine the league’s best outside cornerbacks—just check out last season’s unlikely top three of Marcus Peters, Trumaine Johnson and Marcus Williams. Year after year, we see top corners drop off of that leaderboard entirely because offenses are learning to stay away from their side of the field at all costs—it’s become a badge of respect. Shutdown capability may not be the most TV-friendly skill—try as networks might to spice up highlight packages of a star wideout reduced to a series of futile jogs up the sidelines as the play heads in the opposite direction—but the best cornerbacks tend to do enough pre- and postgame talking to keep themselves in the headlines. This ethos lies at the heart of our ranking of the best outside cornerbacks in football ahead of the 2016 season.
The nature of the “island” that every elite corner is said to patrol is changing fast, but for now, much of the drama within the game’s central one-on-one battle still lies out near the boundaries. If the linchpin of your team’s pass defense is missing from this list, there’s a good chance he shows up in our ranking of the league’s best slot corners. Otherwise, take it as another opportunity to catch quarterbacks napping early in the ‘16 season.
Just missed the cut:
Darius Slay, Lions: Slay catches a bad break because the position is so deep at the top and because it’s a convenient narrative device to give him somewhere to go this fall as he plays for a new contract.
The next big thing:
Jason Verrett, Chargers: Yes, teams are still looking for giants to put on the perimeter, but Verrett is a budding star with average size, electric speed and a nose for the big play. He just needs to turn around his injury luck to make a big leap up this list.
The NFL's best outside cornerbacks, No. 10: Marcus Peters, Chiefs
Peters’s early-season humbling might have been the best thing for his Defensive Rookie of the Year campaign. Emboldened by the big plays he yielded in the opening weeks, quarterbacks kept throwing his way even after he settled in to the speed of the NFL. By the end of the year he had a league-high eight interceptions and 26 passes defended to show for his efforts. Peters has the swagger to keep up with those numbers, and he showed flashes of being able to hold down Kansas City’s toughest defensive assignments during the three-game suspension served by Sean Smith, who is now in Oakland.
The NFL's best outside cornerbacks, No. 9: Desmond Trufant, Falcons
It’s easy to watch Trufant work and see the next cornerback in line to become very famous—and very rich—as a result of Dan Quinn’s influence, who saw immediate results on defense in his first year as the Falcons’ head coach. Like Quinn’s former secondary pupils in Seattle, Trufant is handsy and relentless on his marks, with the timing that separates steady playmakers from flag magnets. He has started every game since the Falcons made him the No. 22 pick in the 2013 draft and has held his opponents’ completion percentage below 60% in each season. The Falcons picked up his option for 2016, giving him one more year to make a statement before his earnings start more closely matching his play.
The NFL's best outside cornerbacks, No. 8: Sean Smith, Raiders
If they want to, the Raiders could send a pair of 6’ 3” giants out to the boundaries in Week 1 between successful reclamation project David Amerson and Smith, the crazy-long free agency acquisition who will be expected to set the tone in a new-look Oakland secondary. The Chiefs’ stout front seven helped raise Smith’s profile, and the Raiders’ other off-season moves put them in position to replicate that sort of pressure and allow Smith to leave QBs even tighter windows.
The NFL's best outside cornerbacks, No. 7: Vontae Davis, Colts
The Colts have made it easy for offenses to avoid Davis for stretches in recent years, but he is a ruthless, physical playmaker when tested. His touchdown-free 2014 was a well-deserved pelt for the mantle, even if he came back to Earth last year, and the addition of Patrick Robinson, who is coming off a strong season in San Diego, should provide some support as Davis continues to take on the top assignments.
The NFL's best outside cornerbacks, No 6: Josh Norman, Redskins
Norman’s stock skyrocketed in the first month of the 2015 season thanks to four interceptions and two pick-sixes, and I’ll go to battle for his game-clinching pick against the Saints in Week 3 as the best individual play of the year. That start was enough to scare offenses away from trying him often the rest of the way. Receivers will continue to test his physicality, but in Washington he should have another stout defensive front to pressure quarterbacks into the rushed decisions he reads and reacts to so smoothly.
The NFL's best outside cornerbacks, No. 5: Chris Harris, Broncos
We gave Harris the ink he deserves last week when he landed atop our 2016 slot cornerback rankings. He has proven just as lethal near the boundaries and will move higher up this list as he logs more time there.
The NFL's best outside cornerbacks, No. 4: Darrelle Revis, Jets
Injury and age questions will hang over every season from here on out for Revis, who will be 31 when training camps open, but there’s a chance those doubts may work in his favor. His five interceptions in 2015 were the most he’s hauled in since 2009, and even if they wanted to, teams couldn’t just write off his side of the field as they once did, since there are so few weak links on the Jets’ defense. Players who think the game as well as Revis does are always good bets to age well.
The NFL's best outside cornerbacks, No. 3: Stephon Gilmore, Bills
I’m probably higher on Gilmore than most, but the pressure Rex Ryan’s defense puts on the Bills’ corners has me grading his path to stardom on a curve, and when healthy, he’s worth the hype. Gilmore (18) and rookie Ronald Darby (21) both finished in the top 10 in passes defended last season, with Gilmore often staring down each opponent’s top target and saddling Darby with extra work on the other side of the field. If he enters Week 1 with this summer’s expected holdout and last winter’s shoulder surgery both behind him, he should be in for a special season.
The NFL's best outside cornerbacks, No. 2: Patrick Peterson, Cardinals
Peterson walked into the NFL in 2011 as one of the best athletes in the game at any position, which set an impossibly high bar for acceptable performance that he has somehow met in making three All-Pro teams in his first five seasons. When he gets beat, he gets beat for splashy plays and long touchdowns, but those are infrequent side effects of his eye for the big play, and his lockdown capabilities make opportunities for his marks to solve him a rarity.
The NFL’s best outside cornerbacks, No. 1: Richard Sherman, Seahawks
Writing Sherman’s name in Sharpie at No. 1 on lists like this has fallen out of fashion solely out of boredom, but the specialized nature of our rankings leaves him all alone on a familiar island. Nobody makes top receivers disappear like Sherman does with his long arms and complete fearlessness at the line of scrimmage, setting him up to put the receiver in tighter quarters before the snap than almost anyone else. QBs have shied away from Sherman for several years, but when the ball comes his way, his hands don’t show any signs of rust.