NFL News & Analysis

Highest-graded cornerbacks from the 2023 NFL season: Bears' Jaylon Johnson puts together career year

• Jaylon Johnson set himself up well in a contract year: After never earning a PFF grade higher than 64.1 in a season, Johnson was the lone NFL cornerback to top 90.0 in 2023.

• Sauce Gardner continues an elite start to his career: The second-year Jets cornerback finished the season with his second straight 85.0-plus PFF grade.

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Before we go full steam ahead into free agency and the 2024 NFL Draft, we’re taking one last look at the top players in the NFL at each position.

Here were the top 20 cornerbacks in the NFL by overall PFF grade in 2023. Subscribe to PFF+ to dig into the numbers for yourself!

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1. Jaylon Johnson, Chicago Bears: 90.8

Johnson put together his best season yet in a contract year, setting himself up for a lucrative second contract. The highest-graded overall cornerback in 2023, Johnson had never graded better than 64.1 in his previous three seasons. He allowed a minuscule 195 yards, a 31.0 passer rating when targeted and a ridiculous 0.37 yards per cover snap.

Johnson has always been a talented cornerback, so his 2023 campaign shouldn’t be seen as an outlier, but rather a leap into the top echelon of shutdown cornerbacks.

2. DaRon Bland, Dallas Cowboys: 89.5

The second-year Fresno State product took down a long-standing NFL record, returning five interceptions for touchdowns in 2023. He hauled in nine interceptions in total to lead the league — and to boost his PFF grade. The question for Bland is his down-to-down consistency, as he allowed 766 yards when targeted.

3. Sauce Gardner, New York Jets: 88.6

Gardner was immediately one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL en route to a 90.0 coverage grade in 2022. He improved upon that in 2023, at 90.8, as he allowed just 0.44 yards per cover snap. Gardner has transformed a solid Jets secondary into the league’s best and has allowed just two touchdown passes in his career.

4. Trent McDuffie, Kansas City Chiefs: 84.8

Arguably the most valuable player on the Chiefs' defense, McDuffie can shadow inside at the slot and out wide against opposing offenses' best weapons. He pairs that with an incredible ability as a blitzer, where he graded out to 91.2 after recording three sacks, eight hits and 18 total pressures, good for a 25.7% pressure rate.

McDuffie's batted pass in the Super Bowl was arguably the game's biggest play, helping the Chiefs hoist the Lombardi Trophy for a second straight year.

5. Charvarius Ward, San Francisco 49ers: 84.7

The 49ers could rely on Ward in coverage in 2023. Forcing 21 incompletions and hauling in five interceptions, he also was one of the best tacklers in coverage, with 20 pass stops. Ward set a career low in passer rating allowed (59.2), as opposing quarterbacks were better off looking elsewhere when attacking the 49ers' secondary.

T-6. Jaycee Horn, Carolina Panthers: 84.1

Horn was injured for much of the season and barely qualified for the snap threshold here. Still, the third-year South Carolina product was excellent when healthy, forcing an incompletion on nearly 18% of his targets and allowing just two explosive passes (15-plus yards).

T-6. Devon Witherspoon, Seattle Seahawks: 84.1

The top rookie cornerback of 2023, Witherspoon engineered a three-game stretch at the beginning of the season that put the league on notice, during which he tallied two interceptions, three pass breakups and a 90.0 coverage grade while allowing just 33 yards into his coverage.

The 2023 fifth overall pick finished the season battling injuries, but the Seahawks hit on yet another high-caliber cornerback.

8. Kendall Fuller, Washington Commanders: 83.1

Not much went right for Washington defensively, but Fuller was a bright spot. While he did let up six touchdown passes, those were the rare negative plays on Fuller’s grade sheet in 2023. He allowed just 13 first downs while recording 21 pass stops and missing only two tackles in coverage on the year.

9. Christian Benford, Buffalo Bills: 83.0

Benford was quietly one of the best defenders for the AFC East champions. He allowed two touchdown passes in coverage, hauled in two interceptions, forced 11 incompletions and missed just two tackles in 2023.

10. Derek Stingley Jr., Houston Texans: 82.1

Rumors of Stingley’s demise were greatly exaggerated, as the 2022 No. 3 overall pick was phenomenal when healthy and returned to action in Week 10. While the season ended in a dud versus the Ravens in the divisional round, Stingley hauled in five interceptions and forced an incompletion on 20.4% of his targets.

11. Isaac Yiadom, New Orleans Saints: 81.1

The Saints' defense was quietly home to one of the best pass defenses in the NFL, one that allowed the fifth-lowest success rate (42.9%) to opposing offenses. Yiadom was a big reason for that, posting a 30.4% forced incompletion rate and surrendering just 289 yards in coverage.

12. Rasul Douglas, Buffalo Bills: 81.0

The Bills' midseason trade for Douglas helped take the team's pass defense from 23rd in success rate allowed beforehand to eighth after the deal. He hauled in four interceptions and forced five incompletions while with Buffalo after just one interception and six forced incompletions while with the Packers.

13. Michael Carter II, New York Jets: 80.4

Carter started the season slowly, but after the Jets' bye in Week 7, he was arguably the best cornerback in the NFL. From then on, he earned a 90.9 grade while allowing three first downs on 232 coverage snaps, forcing six incompletions and surrendering just 142 yards into his coverage.

14. Darious Williams, Jacksonville Jaguars: 79.5

Williams’ run-defense grade drags him down this list, but he was phenomenal in coverage all season (85.3). He allowed just two touchdown passes, forced 16 incompletions and logged 14 pass stops while preventing separation at an elite level in 2023.

15. Brian Branch, Detroit Lions: 78.9

Branch kicked off his NFL career with a bang, returning an interception off Kadarius Toney‘s hands for a touchdown. It took him until Week 13 to bring in another interception, and while he battled some injuries in the middle of the season, he caught fire to finish the season with an 83.7 coverage grade from Week 15 through the postseason.

16. Paulson Adebo, New Orleans Saints: 78.7

Adebo owned one of the best stretches of play from a cornerback in 2023. From Weeks 7 to 10, he recorded a 94.3 coverage grade after forcing seven incompletions, making seven pass stops and bringing in four interceptions with three straight games of a 91.7 grade or better. Replicating that level of play for an entire season is nearly impossible, but he was able to keep receivers out of the endzone for all but one pass into his coverage in 2023.

17. D.J. Reed, New York Jets: 77.9

Reed, the third New York Jet in the top 20, continued his incredible level of play for a fifth straight season, grading above 72.5. He has forced 11 incompletions in three straight seasons, has allowed 11 or more pass stops in four straight seasons and has let up two or fewer touchdowns in every season of his career. It took until Week 15 for Reed to allow a touchdown in 2023.

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18. Taron Johnson, Buffalo Bills: 77.5

Johnson has been one of the best slot cornerbacks in the NFL for several years now, and he led the NFL in 2023 in pass stops at the position for the second straight season (23 in 2023, 24 in 2022).

T-19. Mike Hilton, Cincinnati Bengals: 77.4

The first five weeks of the season proved challenging for Hilton, but he caught fire on his way to a 90.3 grade from Week 6 to the end of the year. It was the best grade in the NFL among cornerbacks during that stretch. His 90.1 run-defense grade over that span topped the position, while his 89.1 coverage grade ranked third. Hilton didn’t allow a touchdown pass and recorded 20 pass stops in 2023.

T-19. Kenny Moore II, Indianapolis Colts: 77.4

Highlighted by his two interceptions returned for scores against the Panthers in Week 9, Moore had a career year. He set a career high in pass stops (20) and a career low in yards allowed per cover snap. A strong run defender for the Colts, he logged 14 run stops, including four for a loss or no gain.


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