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Best NFL cornerbacks in man and zone coverages

PFF recently took a look at how the best receivers in the league fared against man and zone coverage, and to no one's surprise, the best receivers win at all levels of the field and against all coverages, which is why they’re the top guys in the first place. Some receivers specialize in certain aspects of the game, which can have knock-on effects on the type of defense they are effective against.

This time around, we are going to flip things and look at it from a defensive standpoint. Are the best corners good at all types of coverage, and which players specialize in one type or the other?

Once again, all of the data is available in PFF Premium Stats to “Elite subscribers.

Man Coverage

When we think about the best NFL cornerbacks over the years, we think about them excelling in man-to-man coverage. Highlights of Darrelle Revis locking down the game’s best receivers in tight man coverage is what most picture when thinking about cornerback play. It’s still an important aspect of the game, but the league has changed over the years and moved away from defensive schemes that employ man coverage all of the time.

In 2021, no NFL team employed some variant of man coverage on more than 46% of their defensive snaps. Only two teams cleared 40%, and five teams finished at 20% or lower. Man-to-man coverage might be the apex of one-on-one matchup play in coverage, but modern defenses employ far less of it than in the past.

That team-level distribution is a similar story on the player level — even though there are ways to mix coverages so that individual defensive backs are isolated in man coverage in an otherwise zone shell. It’s also possible that certain cornerbacks are typically on the field for a specific type of coverage, though teams are typically reluctant to tip their hand that much pre-snap. Two cornerbacks played man coverage more than 50% of the time in 2021, but the rest of the league plays more zone than man.

Note: Sometimes PFF grade will be very different from completion rate or passer rating due to things such as penalties, missed tackles, etc.

Top Cornerbacks in Man Coverage
Player PFF Coverage Grade Comp % Passer Rating Allowed
J.C. Jackson 89.0 48.40% 44
Tavierre Thomas 84.4 45.50% 52.5
Rock Ya-Sin 79.4 26.70% 61.8
Greg Newsome II 75.9 50.00% 103
A.J. Terrell 73.0 44.10% 73.7
Ross Cockrell 71.0 60.00% 117.5
Xavien Howard 70.7 45.10% 74.6
Chidobe Awuzie 70.4 46.90% 75.3
Marshon Lattimore 69.3 53.80% 122.6
Denzel Ward 69.2 62.50% 97.4

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