NFL defenses will ask very different things of their cornerbacks, depending on the scheme they run. Some cornerbacks are tasked with shutting down their side of the field in zone, while other top cornerbacks are given the unenviable job of following the opposing team’s No. 1 wide receiver in man coverage. It’s part of what makes identifying the league’s best at the position so challenging.
Here is PFF’s take on the top 32 outside cornerbacks entering the 2021 NFL season, featuring stiff competition for the top spot among several players under the age of 27.
It hasn’t taken Alexander very long to establish himself as one of the league’s best coverage cornerbacks. We started to see signs of the Louisville product's playmaking ability in 2019, as his 16 forced incompletions ranked second at the position. However, he was overly aggressive at times and susceptible to giving up the big play. A Week 5 matchup with Amari Cooper and Dallas put that on display.
Alexander was still the same playmaker in 2020, but he was much more stingy in coverage, allowing just 353 receiving yards all season — including Green Bay’s two postseason games — despite logging nearly 600 coverage snaps. The result was a season where Alexander was worth 1.4 wins above a replacement-level player, almost a full half-win more than any other cornerback.
Ramsey has been one of the best cornerbacks in the league since Jacksonville drafted him fifth overall in the 2016 NFL Draft. He’s never recorded a PFF grade lower than 70.0 — impressive consistency for a cornerback often tasked with tough assignments — and is coming off the best PFF grade since his second year in the league. Opposing offenses simply weren’t able to attack him in coverage.
After being charged with eight receptions allowed in Week 1 against the Dallas Cowboys, Ramsey proceeded to allow just 24 receptions over the remainder of the regular season, giving up fewer than 25 receiving yards in 11 games. The ability to limit production like Ramsey did against top-flight talent is invaluable for the Los Angeles Rams defense.
We considered putting Humphrey atop the list of the best slot cornerbacks in the NFL, given that he has spent the majority of his snaps lined up in the slot over the past two seasons filling the void left by an injured Tavon Young. Humphrey’s seamless inside-outside versatility is a big reason why he ranks so highly here.
The fifth-year cornerback out of Alabama has recorded at least 800 coverage snaps in the slot and out wide throughout his NFL career. He also ranks in at least the 87th percentile in coverage grades at both alignments. The most impressive part is that it all comes in a man-heavy Baltimore defense — few cornerbacks in the league possess that kind of ability.
Howard is one of the best playmaking cornerbacks that the NFL has to offer. Since entering the league in 2016, 18.7% of his targets in coverage have resulted in a pass breakup or interception, leading all cornerbacks who have been targeted at least 150 times over those five years. Howard’s 2020 performance put that playmaking ability on full display, with double-digit pass breakups and interceptions to go along with an 89.6 coverage grade.
Bradberry put up solid performances against a difficult slate of NFC South cornerbacks across the first four seasons of his career with the Carolina Panthers, but he took a clear step forward in his first year with the Giants last season. Bradberry was the fourth-most valuable cornerback in the league in 2020 per PFF WAR, with career-best coverage numbers across the board.
The former Samford Bulldog put up one of the better performances of any cornerback in the league against Allen Robinson II, allowing just one reception on six targets with three pass breakups and an interception in that Week 2 matchup.
Gilmore was comfortably the No. 1 cornerback in the league heading into the 2020 season, fresh off a Defensive Player of the Year award in 2019. The outlook isn’t nearly as rosy heading into 2021 after a noticeable decline in play last season.
After recording three straight coverage grades of at least 85.0 in New England’s defense, Gilmore put up just a 58.5 coverage grade in 2020. He recorded just one interception and two pass breakups on 42 targets, allowing a career-high 96.7 passer rating into his coverage. Whether it was injuries or age starting to show in one of the man-heaviest defenses in the NFL, he was not the same player in 2020.
It’s too early to say Gilmore can’t get back to that level, though. The Patriots will look for that bounce-back season in 2021.
White is right there with Howard as one of the best playmaking cornerbacks in the league. In all, 17.1% of the targets into his coverage have resulted in either a pass breakup or interception over his career, a top-five mark among qualifiers at the position. He also stands out as one of the better zone-coverage cornerbacks in the NFL, ranking in the 94th percentile of all cornerbacks on such plays during the 2020 season.
Despite being drafted in the top five back in 2018 and playing on a team generating plenty of buzz heading into the 2021 season, Ward is often overlooked as one of the NFL’s top cornerbacks. He recorded coverage grades of at least 72.0 in each of his first three seasons in the league and has allowed just 51.4% of the passes thrown into his coverage to be completed. Ward’s dominance in single coverage (96th percentile grade since 2018) has been particularly noteworthy.
Washington possessed one of the better defenses in the NFL in 2020; Jackson’s addition should only improve it, giving them a No. 1 cornerback who will allow them to play more man coverage if they desire. Jackson burst onto the scene with a 90.4 coverage grade in his first season of action back in 2017. He allowed just 30 receiving yards on 359 coverage snaps across his final 11 games that season.
Jackson hasn’t quite reached those lofty heights in the three years since, but he is coming off his best statistical season since 2017, with just 52% of the passes into his coverage being completed in 2020.
Peters and Humphrey are the only top-10 duo on this list and a big reason why Baltimore’s secondary has had the success that it has over the past two seasons. It’s impossible to discuss what Peters brings to the table and not start with his knack for getting his hands on the football, as his 31 interceptions since entering the league in 2015 are nine more than any other cornerback. And Peters ranks tied for fifth at the position in pass breakups (52) over that same time frame.
His aggression will burn him on occasion, but you can’t say that Peters doesn’t make up for it with the positives he brings to the table.
11. Richard Sherman, Free agent
There is a perception that Sherman’s better days are behind him, but entering his age-33 season, there is still plenty of room for Sherman to take a step back and still be one of the better cornerbacks in the NFL. He and Darrelle Revis are the only two cornerbacks with at least 250 targets since 2010 who have allowed fewer than 50% of those passes to be completed.
Injuries held him to just over 300 snaps for San Francisco last season, but Sherman was the highest-graded cornerback in the league (90.3 overall) back in 2019. He’s one of the more impactful free agents still on the market.
Tennessee’s loss has turned into the Giants’ gain. Jackson missed the majority of the 2020 season with a lingering knee injury, but he profiled as one of the most promising young cornerbacks in the league before last year, fresh off a career-high 82.5 coverage grade in 2019.
Jackson has been one of the stingiest cornerbacks in the league on deep targets since entering the league. Since 2017, he has forced more incompletions on passes 20-plus yards downfield (18) than he has receptions allowed (14).
13. Steven Nelson, Free agent
Nelson was another surprise release by a team strapped for salary cap space. His addition, along with the signing of Joe Haden, helped stabilize a turbulent cornerback position in Pittsburgh over these last two seasons. Nelson ranks among the top 10 cornerbacks in the league in both completion rate allowed (53.9%) and passer rating allowed (75.1) among 68 players at the position to see at least 100 targets since 2019. There’s a reason he has received plenty of interest since his release.
Jones matched his interception total across the first five seasons of his career last year with Miami, but it was his worst season from a production allowed standpoint since making the switch to cornerback in 2018. Jones allowed 1.4 yards per coverage snap with Miami in 2020 — double his 0.7 yards per coverage snap average across the 2018 and 2019 seasons in Dallas. He battled injuries early in the season, which didn’t help in the adjustment to a man-heavy coverage scheme under Brian Flores.
The hope for Miami will be that he gets back toward the player who earned a five-year, $82.5 million contract last offseason.
We often bring up the difficult coverage assignments that No. 1 cornerbacks in the NFC South are tasked with. Davis has put up a solid grading profile and coverage stats across the past two seasons in Tampa Bay despite that tough slate of opposing wide receivers.
He has been tested more than any other cornerback in the league since 2019, with a league-high 197 targets, but Davis has come out on top on a lot of those plays. His 17.3% forced incompletion rate ranks second among cornerbacks who have seen at least 100 targets over those two years.
Jackson’s grading profile has been consistent across his first three seasons in the NFL after joining New England as an undrafted free agent in 2018. He has picked up coverage grades between 70.4 and 72.4 every season, gradually increasing his playing time each year.
No cornerback in the league has been more productive on passes 20 or more yards downfield over that span. Jackson has allowed just five of 48 targets at that depth to be completed, tallying 11 interceptions in the process.
Haden may be on the downward slope of his career, but he has provided Pittsburgh with steady play at cornerback since joining the team in 2018 and should continue to do so in 2021. He’s picked off nine passes over the past three seasons, and that total should be even higher, as Haden’s nine dropped interceptions since 2018 are tied for the most at the position. Those missed opportunities only make the 77.5 passer rating allowed over that span (13th in the NFL) more impressive.
If Lattimore’s career was flipped in reverse order, there’s a reasonable chance that he would be inside the top five on this list. Instead, he’s heading in the wrong direction.
Lattimore’s PFF grade has fallen from 86.1 as a rookie to 77.5 (2018), 65.6 (2019) and 59.1 (2020) in the three years since 2017. The seven touchdowns allowed into his coverage this past season were tied for second-most of any cornerback in the league. He still showcases lockdown man-coverage ability at times, but it has been less consistent of late.
Dean expanded his role in the Buccaneers defense from fewer than 400 snaps in 2019 to 935 defensive snaps this past season. That larger role didn’t lead to less impressive coverage numbers. The only outside cornerbacks to allow fewer yards per coverage snap than Dean (0.8) on at least 600 coverage snaps since the start of the 2019 season are Richard Sherman (0.4) and Jalen Ramsey (0.8).
Carlton Davis may draw the more demanding assignments, but Dean has been just about as good as Tampa Bay could have hoped for in his role over the past two seasons.
Williams’ career trajectory is very similar to Dean's in that he graded exceptionally well in a limited role in 2019 and didn’t take any sort of step back in a full-time starting job this past season. Williams earned coverage grades above 81.0 in each of the last two years and made some remarkable plays on the ball in coverage in Brandon Staley’s defense in 2020. His 19.1% forced incompletion rate was a top-five mark at the cornerback position last year, tied with Jaire Alexander.
Fuller is set to be reunited with Vic Fangio in Denver. The three highest PFF grades of Fuller's career came with Fangio as the defensive coordinator in Chicago from 2015 to 2018. According to PFF WAR, the veteran corner was the sixth-most valuable cornerback in the league over the 2015, 2017 and 2018 seasons.
His numbers have taken a slight hit in the two years since, but Fuller is coming off a solid 70.2 coverage grade in 2020. He should once again be put in a position to succeed under Fangio next season.
Verrett exceeded all expectations in his return from a string of injuries last season for San Francisco. The 2014 first-round pick looked like an ascending star with a 90.9 coverage grade in his second year in the NFL, but he managed to take the field for just over 300 total snaps the following four seasons combined.
Verrett fought back to earn a starting job with the 49ers in 2020 and put up a top-20 PFF grade among qualifying cornerbacks on a career-high 803 defensive snaps. Health remains the biggest concern for Verrett heading into next season.
After profiling as one of the top cornerbacks in the league from 2014 to 2018, Slay has taken a noticeable step back the past two seasons. His PFF grade dropped from 90.0 from 2014 to 2018 in Detroit to just 59.5 across the last two years.
It’s worth pointing out that Slay frequently draws the opposing team’s top receiving option in single coverage, and his 97 single coverage targets over the past two seasons is a top-five mark at the position. Slay will look to rebound under a new coaching staff and get back to making plays on the ball after ranking second in the league in forced incompletions (75) across his seven years in Detroit.
The Texans don’t have many players on their roster who they can rely on for steady play, but Roby is one of the few, assuming he doesn’t receive another six-game suspension in 2021. He ranks in the 80th percentile of qualifying cornerbacks in forced incompletion rate and the 70th percentile in coverage grade while in single coverage since entering the league in 2014. His 71.5 overall grade in 2020 was his highest single-season mark since back in 2017 with the Broncos.
Cornerback was a clear need for the Jaguars entering this offseason. As the team’s big free-agent acquisition at the position, Griffin does bring plenty of experience for a younger player. His 3,546 regular-season defensive snaps over the past four seasons are a top-10 mark at the position. But his play has been up and down over that four-year stretch. Griffin has earned overall grades of 50.7, 78.0 and 64.6 in the past three seasons.
He has graded considerably better in zone coverage than man coverage throughout his career, which could lead to an interesting fit if first-year defensive coordinator Joe Cullen brings over the man-heavy system that Baltimore employed.
Fuller was back in Washington for the 2020 season following a two-year stint in Kansas City. He had spent the vast majority of his time in the slot across the first four years of his NFL career, even dabbling at safety with the Chiefs in 2019. However, his return came at outside cornerback for the Football Team in 2020, where he put up impressive coverage numbers at his new position. Fuller allowed just 53% of the passes into his coverage to be completed with four interceptions and nine pass breakups.
It doesn’t hurt that Washington can feel comfortable playing him at multiple positions in their secondary, either.
Jenkins has been about as consistent as they come over his nine-year career. He has earned overall grades between 64.7 and 72.9 in every season since 2012, barring a career-high 82.5 grade in his first year with the Giants in 2016. The steady veteran presence that he should bring will be important for a secondary that will likely start two cornerbacks under the age of 24 alongside him.
Butler had arguably his best season in coverage since his New England days last year with Tennessee. His 75.8 coverage grade in 2020 ranked 15th among all qualifying cornerbacks across the league, and he was called for just two penalties all year.
If you take away a disastrous 2019 season with the Philadelphia Eagles in which he earned just a 44.8 overall grade, Darby has graded above 68.0 overall since being drafted in 2015. He had one of the highest forced incompletion rates in the league this past year with Washington — one of several contributing factors to the multi-year deal that Denver offered him. Another of those factors was health, as Darby played over 600 defensive snaps in 2020 for the first time in four seasons. He should give the Broncos some playmaking ability at cornerback if he can stay healthy.
The perception of Rhodes is much different this offseason than it was at this time a year ago following a bounceback season for the Colts in 2020. Rhodes went from allowing a league-high 84.3% of the passes into his coverage to be completed in 2019 to just 50.7% in 2020 with Indianapolis. His six penalties this past season were fewer than any year since his rookie season in 2013. Rhodes will look to continue to build on that success on another one-year deal with the team in 2021.
The Bengals handed out two big contracts on the defensive side of the ball last offseason. One was to Waynes, and the other was to interior defensive lineman D.J. Reader, yet neither made an impact last season due to injury. Waynes’ three-year, $42 million contract was likely an overpay, but he does profile as a quality starting option. He has been one of the best run defenders (88.5 run-defense grade in five seasons with the Vikings) at the position since entering the league in 2015.
Hayward has been one of the highest-graded cornerbacks in the league for much of his career, spanning across time spent with both the Packers and the Los Angeles Chargers. He graded at 75.0 or higher in every season that he saw more than 100 snaps from 2012 through 2019, and he did it all while posting the highest forced incompletion rate in the NFL.
That all came to a halt with the Chargers in 2020, as Hayward earned a PFF grade of just 59.5 while allowing nearly 17 yards per reception into his coverage. He is expected to compete with 2020 first-round pick Damon Arnette for one of the starting jobs in Las Vegas, reuniting with defensive coordinator Gus Bradley. It shouldn’t come as a shock if he wins that starting job and rebounds from a down 2020 season.