In today’s NFL, defending the pass is now a matchup game between three-wide receivers sets and a trio of cornerbacks. So, it should come as no surprise that last season, the average team lined up with three cornerbacks on the field on more than half of their total defensive plays.
In this article, I will identify the league’s best cornerback trios entering the 2020 season and take an in-depth look at what makes them effective in the critically important areas of pass coverage.
The New England Patriots may play in a highly volatile man-coverage scheme, but that hasn't stopped this talented cornerback trio from taking the top spot on this list. A season ago, this group combined to allow -0.299 expected points added (EPA) per play, almost a third of an expected point above the league average for cornerbacks.
Stephon Gilmore: Coverage stats and rank among cornerbacks with at least 50 targets (regular season only, 2018-19)
|PFF coverage grade||91.7||1/138|
|Coverage grade on plays without defensive pressure||91.2||1/115|
|Coverage grade in single coverage||91.3||1/84|
|Coverage grade on passes thrown in less than 3 seconds||92.2||1/117|
|Forced incompletion percentage||21.5%||1/135|
While Gilmore is a proven talent who erases the opponent’s best receiver while isolated in man coverage, Jason McCourty finished the 2019 season with a 79.6 coverage grade that ranked ninth among 117 qualifying players at his position. Rounding out the trio, Jones earned an 81.1 coverage grade in the slot that ranked third among the 47 players who played 150 or more slot coverage snaps throughout the regular season.
The burden of performing in what is primarily a man-coverage scheme has placed a premium on sound technique, which has allowed all three defenders to perform individually with no help in coverage. Last season, all three players earned a man-coverage grade that ranked in the top 25 among players at the position.
The 49ers’ threesome of Sherman, Williams and Moseley finished last season with a combined PFF coverage grade of 89.2, making them the second-best cornerback trio of the 2019 NFL season.
Sherman earned the highest individual coverage grade (90.1) among cornerbacks in the regular season and led the way while allowing only one touchdown reception on 549 coverage snaps. Backing him up, slot cornerback K’Waun Williams earned an impressive 76.5 coverage grade as an inside defender, the seventh-best grade among the NFL's 47 qualifying slot defenders.
Fellow corner Emmanuel Moseley earned a 68.0 PFF coverage grade on the year — a top-50 grade among corners — and he even posted a 20th-ranked coverage grade (74.8) on passes thrown in three seconds or less, which is one of the more stable metrics that we can use to assess cornerback play.
Together, this group contributed to a 49ers secondary that allowed the lowest yards per reception average (9.7) during the 2019 regular season.
Two-thirds of the Packers’ cornerback trio is well known throughout the league, but second-year corner Chandon Sullivan, who logged 242 coverage snaps and earned a 21st–ranked 75.0 coverage grade last season, is not.
Both Williams (82.2, 6th) and Alexander (76.7, 11th) made an appearance on PFF’s list of the top 25 cornerbacks of the 2019 regular season, and the cornerback trio as a whole combined for a coverage grade of 90.4 on passes thrown in three seconds or less, the league’s best mark.
Williams is a versatile, 13-year veteran who continues to perform above expectation as the Packers’ primary slot cornerback. He logged 374 slot snaps in 2019, the seventh-most in the NFL, and he earned a 71.8 slot coverage grade that ranked 14th among 47 qualifying slot cornerbacks.
Alexander, meanwhile, is only 23 years old, but each week he accepts the difficult assignment of covering the opponent’s No. 1 receiver. Despite this, he still ended the season with a 20.4% forced incompletion rate that ranked fifth among corners who played at least 200 coverage snaps, while his 82.2 coverage grade while in outside coverage ranked eighth among his peers.
The Baltimore Ravens went next level in 2019, and their cornerback trio combined for the NFL’s best grade (82.7) while in single-man coverage. Marcus Peters led the way as he transformed his game by posting top-five grades in the most stable coverage metrics.
Marlon Humphrey: Coverage stats and rank among cornerbacks with at least 25 targets (regular season only, 2019)
|PFF coverage grade||85.5||4/133|
|Coverage grade on plays without defensive pressure||83.7||4/115|
|Coverage grade in single-man coverage||83.1||2/95|
|Coverage grade on passes thrown in less than 3 seconds||86.7||3/115|
|Coverage grade when lined up at outside cornerback||82.7||5/91|
Marlon Humphrey’s 15th-ranked 76.3 coverage grade helped him secure a spot alongside Peters on PFF’s list of the top 25 cornerbacks of the 2019 regular season. And after posting a top-20 forced incompletion rate (16.8%, 17th) last season, Humphrey has developed a level on confidence that could make him one of the league’s elite corners in 2020.
5. Joe Haden, Steven Nelson and Mike Hilton — Pittsburgh Steelers
The Pittsburgh Steelers earned the NFL’s fifth-best team coverage grade (90.0) a season ago. And Steven Nelson (80.3, 7th), Mike Hilton (74.2, 18th) and Joe Haden (71.3, 25th) all finished on PFF’s list of the top 25 cornerbacks of the 2019 regular season.
Nelson remains the Steelers’ highest-graded corner in single-man coverage (73.4, 9th), where his patience at the line of scrimmage prevented wide receivers from gaining a free release when looking to gain easy access downfield. Out of 115 qualifiers, Nelson ranked 24th among cornerbacks with a 15.4% forced incompletion rate, and Haden finished 26th among that same group with a rate of 15.2%. Haden also posted a top-20 coverage grade (75.8, 19th) on plays that saw him line up on the outside.
On the inside, Mike Hilton has settled in as the Steelers’ top slot defender, and he allowed only 19 first-down receptions on 314 slot coverage snaps last season. He has an excellent feel for the position where he matches up perfectly to intermediate combination routes, and that’s a big reason why he ended the regular season with a 73.5 slot coverage grade, 12th among 47 qualifying players at the position.
Chris Harris Jr. will team up with Casey Hayward Jr. and Desmond King II to create an all-star cornerback trio for the Los Angeles Chargers.
Hayward remains a model of consistency after finishing the 2019 season with a fifth-ranked coverage grade of 82.2 while allowing the fifth-fewest receptions (27) among cornerbacks who saw at least 40 targets on the year. Over the last two seasons, Hayward generated the third-highest forced incompletion rate (20.2%) among the 117 qualifiers with 400 or more coverage snaps over that period.
During that same time, Harris posted the fourth-best coverage grade (86.7) as a slot defender with the Denver Broncos, but he will now play the outside corner position opposite Hayward while King serves as the Chargers’ primary slot cornerback.
Desmond King II: Slot coverage stats and rank among cornerbacks with at least 50 targets (regular season only, 2018-19)
|PFF slot coverage grade||89.9||1/39|
|Slot coverage grade on plays without defensive pressure||86.7||1/23|
|Slot coverage grade in zone coverage||90.8||1/16|
|Coverage grade on passes thrown in less than 3 seconds||86.4||1/27|
Because the Chargers align primarily in a Cover 3 zone scheme, King must rely on his quickness and recognition of route combinations to produce big plays as a pass defender in the slot.
While the group has yet to play together in a game, Hayward, Harris and King remain one of the most promising cornerback trios in the league.