NFL News & Analysis

The NFL's Best Cornerbacks in Press Coverage: Xavien Howard, Jamel Dean and more

Miami Gardens, Florida, USA; Miami Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard (25) celebrates in the end zone with his teammates after intercepting the football against the Atlanta Falcons during the fourth quarter at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

Press coverage is one of the biggest differences between the professional game in the NFL and the college football landscape these days.

Elite receiver prospects may rarely, if ever, face press coverage in college, and projecting how they will fare against it at the next level can be a big separator in their draft rankings.

Last week, we took a dive into the PFF database to understand who the best receivers in the league are at defeating press coverage, and this week we will look at it from the defensive side of the ball. 

Examining the past two seasons combined, who are the best cornerbacks in the game when using press coverage?

PFF Coverage Grade
PLAYER COVERAGE GRADE COMP% FORCED INC% PASSER RTG YDS/COV SNAP
Xavien Howard 87.3 39.3% 16.7% 42.2 1.07
Bradley Roby 83.0 57.7% 23.1% 78.8 0.82
Marcus Peters 82.4 40.7% 18.5% 56.9 0.46
Ross Cockrell 79.4 61.3% 16.1% 74.4 0.77
Cameron Dantzler 78.8 32.4% 10.8% 43.2 0.83
Xavier Rhodes 75.9 44.6% 12.3% 55.3 0.98
Darius Phillips 74.6 48.0% 28.0% 117.2 1.28
Eric Stokes 73.7 24.1% 17.2% 43.0 0.60
Shaquill Griffin 72.5 60.0% 2.9% 87.9 0.95
Jason Verrett 71.9 55.6% 25.9% 61.0 0.59
Ronald Darby 71.6 26.5% 20.6% 41.2 0.51

Xavien Howard has been the best cornerback in the NFL over the past two seasons when lined up in press coverage, judging by PFF coverage grade. Those grades are a play-by-play recording of every snap in coverage before they are translated to a 0-100 scale. Howard has given up some yardage into his coverage on those plays, but he has also more than made up for that. Passes targeting him when he has been in press coverage over the past two seasons have generated a lowly 42.2 passer rating, less than half the average of all passes leaguewide.

Green Bay Packers rookie Eric Stokes shows up very high in this list, improving as the season went on. With Jaire Alexander just outside of the top 10, the Packers could have one of the most formidable duos in the league when playing aggressive press-man coverage on the outside.

The other takeaway from this first table is how low the numbers are in terms of grades. Only three of the top 10 players carry a PFF coverage grade above 80.0, with Howard the only player even in the vicinity of threatening 90.0. Press-man coverage is difficult and risky to play from the defensive point of view, and with modern passing rules in play, it’s very difficult to consistently execute well and not be taken advantage of.

Yards Per Coverage Snap
PLAYER COVERAGE GRADE COMP% FORCED INC% PASSER RTG YDS/COV SNAP
Jamel Dean 69.2 36.4% 13.6% 75.2 0.34
Ronald Darby 71.6 23.3% 20.0% 39.6 0.39
Marcus Peters 82.4 45.8% 20.8% 61.6 0.48
Eric Stokes 73.7 25.9% 18.5% 44.2 0.62
Jason Verrett 71.9 55.6% 25.9% 61.0 0.63
Patrick Surtain II 68.3 45.8% 12.5% 39.8 0.63
Nevin Lawson 63.5 62.2% 4.4% 103.7 0.69
Eli Apple 71.3 50.0% 14.3% 45.8 0.74
Cameron Sutton 64.5 63.6% 4.6% 95.6 0.75
Tavierre Thomas 62.4 55.0% 10.0% 112.5 0.78

No NFL cornerback has allowed fewer yards per coverage snap in press coverage since 2020 than Tampa Bay’s Jamel Dean, often the forgotten man in a unit also containing Carlton Davis and Sean Murphy-Bunting. Dean has allowed just over one-third of targets into his coverage to be caught for only 0.34 yards per press coverage snap across that span.

Patrick Surtain II marks the second rookie to show well in these tables, joining Eric Stokes, who we mentioned in the previous table. Both Surtain and Stokes allowed elite yards per coverage snap figures when in press coverage, and each played it enough to qualify for the threshold in just one season. 

Jason Verrett shows here one of the reasons the 49ers keep rolling the dice on a player who seems perennially cursed by injury. If you ever do get a healthy season out of Verrett, there’s a chance it’s a very impactful one for the defense he’s on.

NFL Passer Rating When Targeted
PLAYER COVERAGE GRADE COMP% FORCED INC% YDS/COV SNAP PASSER RTG
Ronald Darby 71.6 23.3% 20% 0.39 39.6
Patrick Surtain II 68.3 45.8% 12.5% 0.63 39.8
Cameron Dantzler 78.8 30.6% 11.1% 0.88 42.0
Xavien Howard 87.3 40.7% 17.3% 1.14 43.6
Eric Stokes 73.7 25.9% 18.5% 0.62 44.2
Eli Apple 71.3 50% 14.3% 0.74 45.8
Stephon Gilmore 66.9 50% 8.3% 1.08 54.9
Dane Jackson 61.4 50% 22.7% 1.00 56.4
Xavier Rhodes 75.9 47.5% 13.1% 1.03 58.8
J.C. Jackson 65.3 49.5% 12.1% 1.75 58.9

Last year’s rookies again show well, with Eric Stokes and Patrick Surtain II each allowing a passer rating lower than 45.0 when targeted in press-man coverage. New Chargers cornerback J.C. Jackson always appears in any analysis looking at lowest passer rating allowed, and the same is true here, but his 67.4 PFF coverage grade on such plays suggests he has benefited from a little good fortune. At the very least, he has relied on supreme ball skills to make the most of chances that come his way at an unusually high rate. 

Minnesota’s Cameron Dantzler kept finding himself in Mike Zimmer’s doghouse last season. He has a lot of very good coverage numbers in his short NFL career, though, and shows well in several areas when playing press coverage.

No player has surrendered a lower passer rating than Ronald Darby, however.

Snaps Playing Press
PLAYER COVERAGE GRADE PRESS SNAPS COMP% FORCED INC% PASSER RTG
Charvarius Ward 68.0 582 50.0% 14.9% 76.5
Marshon Lattimore 62.8 578 51.1% 26.1% 109.6
Marlon Humphrey 61.1 490 51.2% 14.0% 97.4
Xavien Howard 87.3 463 40.7% 17.3% 43.6
Byron Jones 53.1 447 60.9% 9.4% 107.2
J.C. Jackson 65.3 439 49.5% 12.1% 58.9
Amani Oruwariye 44.1 422 60.9% 13.0% 108.6
Jaylon Johnson 56.4 417 54.3% 17.1% 101.5
Kenny Moore II 58.7 416 63.6% 8.0% 85.7
Bashaud Breeland 69.4 407 55.1% 13.0% 84.2

Charvarius Ward leads the NFL in press coverage snaps over the past two years — although Marshon Lattimore is a close second — and he now slots into the San Francisco 49ers' defense after spending the past four seasons in Kansas City. Ward and Lattimore are the only cornerbacks with more than 500 snaps of press coverage in the two-year span, and both players are closer to 600 snaps than 500. The Saints have clearly relied on Lattimore’s ability to play one-on-one coverage for years and are happy to lean into that strategy, often singling him up and letting him get aggressive at the line. Ward has also done it a lot but now moves to a defense that employs a lot more off coverage, which will be an interesting thing to monitor. 

Miami’s Xavien Howard and Byron Jones have been employed this way a lot, but they also may be expecting a significant change given the Dolphins' coaching switches.

Marlon Humphrey playing that much press coverage given how often he aligns in the slot is a remarkable combination. It speaks to how hard his role is within Baltimore’s defense, as he often sees his coverage numbers, and perhaps his regard among fans, slip a little because of what he is asked to do.

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