Slot cornerback might be the most undervalued position in football when considering average contract value compared to the impact the position has on the game.
The Jacksonville Jaguars led the NFL in percentage of snaps with base defensive personnel on the field in 2020 at just 39.9%. That means every team in the league had at least five defensive backs on the field for 60-plus percent of their defensive snaps last season. Slot defenders aren’t just specialists — they’re defensive starters.
It can be tricky to define which players qualify for this list with versatile defensive backs such as Tyrann Mathieu and Marlon Humphrey spending significant time inside. I opted to look past that archetype of players — those guys will appear on the safety and outside cornerback rankings — and focus on cornerbacks whose primary role will be locking down the slot next season.
These are PFF’s top 10 players who fit that mold heading into the 2021 campaign.
You’ll notice that many of the top slot cornerbacks in the NFL were passed over in the draft before going on to have success. Moore is one such player. He was picked up as an undrafted free agent by the New England Patriots in 2017, only to be cut before making the final roster. Moore landed with the Colts off waivers and has since carved out a valuable role for himself on Indianapolis’ defense.
Since moving to a primary slot role in 2018, Moore has earned a 90.0 run-defense grade and 86.3 coverage grade when lined up inside. He brings both the physicality and knack for making plays necessary to excel in the slot. That has allowed Moore to be one of the 15 most valuable cornerbacks in the entire league over the last three years, according to PFF’s Wins Above Replacement metric.
Callahan actually played over twice as many snaps outside as he did in the slot in 2020, but that was more out of necessity for a corner-needy Denver defense than anything else. He had played fewer than 300 total defensive snaps at outside cornerback in his first five seasons in the NFL prior to last year. The addition of three starting-caliber outside cornerbacks this offseason should move Callahan back to his more natural slot position in 2021.
It’s difficult to make the argument that any slot cornerback has been better in coverage than Callahan since 2017. Over this four-year span, Callahan has earned a 90.0 coverage grade with a passer rating of just 64.7 into his coverage when lined up inside (best in NFL among qualifiers). Health will be the biggest concern heading into 2021 with Callahan missing the entire 2019 season and part of last year due to injury.
The outside cornerback duo of Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson draws more headlines in New England, but Jones has developed into one of the more impressive slot cornerbacks in the NFL over the past two seasons. Jones’ grading profile makes a case for him as the most well-rounded slot cornerback in the NFL since 2019. He’s the only player at the position with a top-10 run-defense and coverage grade over that two-year stretch.
Hilton has been the most disruptive slot blitzer in the league over the last four seasons. His 41 pressures since 2017 are 13 more than any other cornerback in the NFL, showcasing a great feel for timing on the blitz. But that’s not all he’s good for. Hilton ranks in the 93rd percentile in slot coverage grade over that same time frame. He should give Cincinnati’s defense a boost in a secondary that has been completely rebuilt in free agency over the last two offseasons.
Hill is a newcomer to the slot cornerback ranks in 2020 after spending the vast majority of his time as an outside cornerback over the first five years of his career. That move came with plenty of success for both Hill and the Rams defense last season.
Hill was the highest-graded slot cornerback in the NFL (87.8) in his 620 snaps inside. The split between his grade when lined up in the slot compared to out wide was glaring. Hill earned just a 43.9 overall grade at wide cornerback in 350 snaps. He should begin next season as the starting nickel for Cleveland, with Denzel Ward, Greedy Williams and Greg Newsome II on the outside on an improved Cleveland defense.
King’s career has trended in the wrong direction since making a splash with PFF grades north of 85.0 in his first two NFL seasons with the Los Angeles Chargers. He followed up that hot start with solid, yet unspectacular, grades of 70.9 and 67.0 in the last two years.
King has been a reliable run defender and tackler throughout his first four seasons. Coverage has been the area where his play has started to decline. However, King still ranks in the 69th percentile of all slot defenders in coverage grade since 2019. He’ll look for a fresh start on a Houston defense in need of playmakers next season.
7. Brian Poole, Free Agent
Poole profiles as one of the more impactful free agents still available following the two best seasons of his career with the New York Jets in 2019 and 2020. He has been the 13th-most valuable cornerback in the NFL over the past two seasons (per PFF WAR) despite missing half of the 2020 season due to injury. Poole has been particularly stingy in coverage over that time frame, allowing just 472 yards in over 600 slot coverage snaps.
Williams fell victim to the injury onslaught in San Francisco last season, managing just under 300 total defensive snaps on the year due to multiple lower-body injuries. His return in 2021 after signing a new contract with the team is one of several “additions” that should give the 49ers defense a boost.
Williams has been one of the more reliable slot cornerbacks in the NFL over the course of his seven-year career. He has never graded below 66.0 overall in a season, and his last full year in 2019 was arguably the best of his career (80.3 overall grade on over 700 snaps). He turned things up a notch in the postseason, allowing just 66 receiving yards into his coverage across three playoff contests.
Harris was the gold standard for the slot cornerback position for much of the past decade. His 94.8 PFF grade from 2011 to 2018 was higher than any other cornerback in the league, regardless of alignment. But his play began to trail off over the past two years. The 2019 and 2020 seasons were the first time in Harris’ career that he earned overall grades lower than 70.0 and allowed a passer rating of at least 100.0 into his coverage.
It’s worth noting that neither of those seasons were “typical” for Harris. He played almost exclusively at outside cornerback in 2019 with Denver and appeared in just nine games last year due to a foot injury in his first season with the Chargers. The 2021 season provides an opportunity under first-year head coach Brandon Staley to get back to the high-level play we’ve grown accustomed to seeing from Harris.
10. Nickell Robey-Coleman, Free Agent
Robey-Coleman earned his spot on this list with his stretch of play from 2016 to 2019. Across those four seasons, Robey-Coleman recorded a coverage grade of at least 74.0 each year and ranked in the 86th percentile among all slot defenders in coverage grade overall. He made plenty of positive contributions to the Rams defense in the three seasons he was there, even if his most memorable play is the missed pass interference call in the 2018 NFC Championship game against the New Orleans Saints.
I mention these positives because there weren’t many positive takeaways from his 2020 season with the Philadelphia Eagles. Robey-Coleman earned just a 51.1 overall grade in 2020 with a missed tackle rate over 20%. There is still reason to believe he can make a positive impact in the right scheme given what he has shown at previous stops.