News & Analysis

2020 breakout candidates: It's time for the 2017 CB class to step into the spotlight

Of the five cornerbacks taken in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft, four have already found success at the professional level. Over their first three NFL seasons, Marshon Lattimore, Marlon Humphrey, Adoree’ Jackson and Tre’Davious White have all become contributing starters on playoff teams, and they all have even brighter prospects as they enter the 2020 NFL season.

White has already signed a four-year, $69 million deal that makes him the second-highest-paid cornerback in the NFL, but the others enter the year still on their rookie deals, looking to push the $20 million per year mark that was set by Jalen Ramsey and the contract extension he signed this past week.

So, as their youth gives way to experience, expect these players to raise the stakes in 2020 and finally garner the recognition they deserve.

Marshon Lattimore, New Orleans Saints

Pick No. 11 of the 2017 NFL Draft

Because Lattimore was the first cornerback selected in the 2017 draft, expectations were high for the Ohio State product ahead of his rookie season. Lattimore answered the call immediately by winning the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year Award and earning a man-coverage grade of 87.2 in 2017, fourth among all qualifying players at his position.

Lattimore excelled immediately with an aggressive form of man coverage that revealed a level of confidence that is seldom seen in a first-year cornerback.

He has helped turn the Saints secondary into one of the best coverage units in the NFL and has earned PFF overall grades of 86.1, 73.3 and 68.1 since entering the league. He's allowed 128 catches from 222 targets for 1,856 yards, five touchdowns and eight interceptions, allowing a 77.5 passer rating on throws into his primary coverage that ranks 12th among the 68 cornerbacks who have seen at least 150 targets since 2017.

Lattimore finished the 2019 season with a 15.6% forced incompletion rate, tying with Stephon Gilmore for 16th among 94 qualifying cornerbacks. However, he has still seen his overall coverage grades decline precipitously each season during his career, mostly due to inconsistency from game to game. In fact, he only allowed 587 yards into his coverage last season, but 294 of those yards came in just two games — Week 2 against the Los Angeles Rams and Week 3 against the Seattle Seahawks.

Marshon Lattimore: Coverage stats since 2017 (regular season only)
Season PFF coverage grade Rank
2017 87.7 8th of 97
2018 71.7 29th of 87
2019 68.7 32nd of 97

Despite Lattimore’s struggles, he has still maintained the second-best man-coverage grade (84.0) among all cornerbacks with a minimum of 450 man-coverage snaps over the last three seasons. He has yet to achieve shutdown-corner status, but he has the potential to have a very successful 2020 season if he can iron out the down games — one that could tip the scale in his favor when it comes to earning a massive contract and becoming a household name league-wide.

 Marlon Humphrey, Baltimore Ravens

Pick No. 16 of the 2017 NFL Draft

Humphrey has earned a coverage grade of 87.0 since 2017, which is not only the highest career grade of all five cornerbacks taken in the first round of the 2017 draft but also the eighth-best mark among the 82 qualifying players at his position over that span.

The Baltimore cornerback earned a PFF coverage grade of 76.2 last year, 15th among qualifying corners, and he secured a spot on PFF’s list of the top 25 cornerbacks of the 2019 regular season. The Alabama product also produced a top-20 forced incompletion rate (16.8%, 17th) in 2019 and has developed a level of confidence that could make him one of the league’s elite corners in 2020.

Marlon Humphrey: Three-year coverage stats and rank among cornerbacks (2017 to 2019, regular season only)
Stat Rank
PFF coverage grade 87.0 8th of 82
Coverage grade vs. clean-pocket pass attempts 82.6 10th of 39
Single-man coverage grade 73.4 5th of 44
Coverage grade vs. quick passes 91.0 3rd of 47
Coverage grade aligned at outside CB 85.0 8th of 81

Humphrey has graded in the top 10 of the most critical metrics of pass coverage during his three year NFL career.

His sticky coverage is born from an aggressive but disciplined technique that has allowed him to attain a career forced incompletion rate of 19.9%, third among the 76 qualifying corners over the last three seasons. He is also no sucker for the double-move, as he also finished with the 10th-best man-coverage grade (73.0) in the NFL last season.

As a former track star, Humphrey has the speed to eliminate the deep passing game and the quickness to break on short-to-intermediate routes. He is quickly becoming a household name, and the contract that comes with that is sure to follow.

 Adoree’ Jackson, Tennessee Titans

Pick No. 18 of the 2017 NFL Draft

Jackson entered the NFL with great expectations after winning the Jim Thorpe Award in 2016, the award given to the top defensive back in college football.

He plays bigger than his 185-pound frame might suggest, and his toughness is a testament to his competitive performance. Jackson has earned PFF’s eighth-best grade in outside coverage (85.0) during his three-year career, all while recording 29 total pass breakups, tied for the fifth-most among all cornerbacks since 2017.

Jackson plays with both confidence and swagger, but he has yet to achieve elite status as a shutdown corner. However, his tenacity did help him earn a 12th-ranked forced incompletion rate of 17.4% in 2019, and he allowed only one touchdown pass on 390 coverage snaps.

Jackson may fall short of becoming a household name in the NFL, but he is, at the very least, a well-above-average coverage defender in a pass-happy league.

Tre’Davious White, Buffalo Bills

Pick No. 27 of the 2017 NFL Draft

White was the fifth and final cornerback taken in the first round of the 2017 draft, but none of the others are even close to becoming the household name that is Tre White.

White earned All-Pro honors in 2019 after becoming one of the best cover corners in the NFL, and the Buffalo Bills recently made him the highest-paid player at his position by awarding him with a four-year contract extension worth $69 million.

White was head coach Sean McDermott’s first draft pick three years ago when he began building one of the league’s top secondaries. During his three NFL seasons, White has earned PFF’s 10th-best coverage grade (85.7), while his 12 interceptions are tied for the fourth-most since entering the league.

In 2019, he was the only cornerback who played 500-plus coverage snaps and did not allow a touchdown pass, while his 46.3 passer rating allowed ranked second-best league-wide.

Tre’Davious White: Three-year coverage stats and rank among cornerbacks (2017 to 2019, regular season only)
Stat Rank
PFF coverage grade 85.7 10th of 82
Coverage grade vs. clean-pocket pass attempts 90 3rd of 39
Man-coverage grade 78.9 3rd of 44
Outside coverage grade 85.4 6th of 81
Coverage grade on passes thrown in under 3 secs 82.7 13th of 47

White gets most of his work done within the first 5 yards, where he uses his full license to disrupt the release and timing of the opposing receiver’s pass routes. Look for White to quickly ascend to become a household name as the Bills capture more of the national spotlight this upcoming season.

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