NFL’s most targeted CBs by situation: Eli Apple, Carlton Davis III and more

2RW9EWD New England Patriots wide receiver DeVante Parker (1) carries the ball against Miami Dolphins cornerback Eli Apple (33) during an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 17, 2023, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Targeted over 20% of the time: Five qualifying cornerbacks were targeted on more than 20% of their coverage snaps. Among them, just Alontae Taylor and Tyrique Stevenson did so while seeing more than 100 coverage targets.

Eli Apple finished 2023 as the NFL's most targeted cornerback: The former Dolphin was targeted 70 times over his 10 games this past season, the only cornerback to reach that mark on fewer than 350 coverage snaps.

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Estimated Reading Time: 10 minutes

Coverage play at cornerback is largely dictated by two things: how good an opposing offense thinks a cornerback is, and how good they actually are.

Snap shares and coverage schemes can be influencing factors in the counting stats, but with a meaningful sample size, a high target rate can be an indication of a weak link in the secondary. After all, if an opposing offense senses a mismatch or decides a particular corner needs to be tested, they will go after him relentlessly until they’re convinced that’s not a productive use of the offense's time.

These are the NFL’s most targeted cornerbacks from the 2023 season in each major coverage facet.

Note: Minimum of 25% of coverage snaps required per each category

All Routes: Eli Apple, Miami Dolphins

Name Coverage Snaps Coverage Targets Coverage Target Rate Receptions Allowed Completion %
Eli Apple 325 70 21.54% 47 67.14%
Tre Avery 197 42 21.32% 32 76.19%
Alontae Taylor 531 113 21.28% 75 66.37%
Tyrique Stevenson 530 110 20.75% 72 65.45%
J.C. Jackson 310 63 20.32% 35 55.56%
Emmanuel Forbes 302 60 19.87% 39 65.00%
Starling Thomas V 236 46 19.49% 37 80.43%
Cor'Dale Flott 321 62 19.31% 40 64.52%
Dee Alford 316 61 19.30% 43 70.49%
Deonte Banks 477 92 19.29% 53 57.61%

(min. 171 coverage snaps)

Eli Apple Struggled in Year 8

The 2023 campaign was a difficult one, to say the least, for Apple, having posted the lowest coverage grade of his career (43.4) in his lone season in Miami. As of this writing, the eight-year veteran remains unsigned for 2024 and beyond.

Apple was targeted at the highest rate among qualifying cornerbacks last season, as opposing offenses took advantage of Jalen Ramsey‘s and Xavien Howard’s absences from the secondary. Over his 10 games this season, Apple was targeted 70 times, the only cornerback to reach that mark on fewer than 350 coverage snaps. Offenses clearly felt they had frequent matchup advantages against Apple, which gave way to efficient production, as he surrendered the third-most yards per coverage snap (1.96) among qualifying cornerbacks in the NFL last season.

Extensive Volume Sample Sizes

Five qualifying cornerbacks were targeted on more than 20% of their coverage snaps. Among them, just Alontae Taylor and Tyrique Stevenson did so while seeing more than 100 coverage targets.

Tyrique Stevenson’s Volatility

Playing across from an elite cornerback talent presents unique challenges, understandably leaving a crosshair on the opposite cornerback — the very situation Tyrique Stevenson found himself in as the counterpart to PFF’s top-rated cornerback, Jaylon Johnson.

The first-year player displayed highly volatile coverage play in 2023, at times flashing sticky press coverage and solid route recognition, amassing 16 forced incompletions and four interceptions. On the other hand, Stevenson also stumbled over his inexperience, having tied for the most touchdowns surrendered (nine) and the third-most passing yards allowed (836) at the position.

Alontae Taylor had a target on his back in the slot

Taylor is on this list a few times after a tumultuous 2023 campaign in the slot for the Saints. Covering the slot is already a difficult task, but it can be made even more arduous if offenses deem you as the weak link, which was clearly the case for Taylor playing next to Pro Bowl cornerback Marshon Lattimore and resurgent cornerbacks Paulson Adebo and Isaac Yiadom.

The Saints’ second-year defender was peppered with targets from the slot, leading the NFL with a 22%-plus target rate. Taylor was targeted in coverage 113 times this past season, resulting in 75 receptions — both of which ranked as the most by any cornerback in the NFL.

Lined Up In The Slot: Alontae Taylor, New Orleans Saints

Name Coverage Snaps Coverage Targets Coverage Target Rate Receptions Allowed Completion %
Alontae Taylor 435 96 22.07% 65 67.71%
Dee Alford 263 55 20.91% 39 70.91%
Troy Hill 238 48 20.17% 33 68.75%
Cor'Dale Flott 279 56 20.07% 36 64.29%
Tavierre Thomas 185 36 19.46% 29 80.56%
Nate Hobbs 337 62 18.40% 49 79.03%
Quentin Lake 245 44 17.96% 30 68.18%
Bradley Roby 198 34 17.17% 20 58.82%
Ja'Quan McMillian 385 65 16.88% 40 61.54%
Arthur Maulet 249 42 16.87% 26 61.90%

(min. 118 coverage snaps)

Dee Alford rose to the occasion

Young cornerbacks are frequently staring down the barrel of offensive aggression, but it doesn’t always equate to production, as was the case when quarterbacks thought they could pick on Alford in his sophomore season.

Just four qualifying slot cornerbacks were targeted on more than 20% of their snaps, with Alford coming in just below the aforementioned Alontae Taylor. But, unlike the other three, the Falcons’ young cornerback rose to the occasion, generating a 72.2 coverage grade, the highest among the group. Alford showcased sound eyes in coverage, which limited open looks for opposing offenses. He allowed an open look on just 49.1% of his targets, the fourth-lowest rate among qualifying slot cornerbacks, ranking among the likes of Chiefs All-Pro Trent McDuffie.

Tavierre Thomas’ completion rate

Despite dealing with an ailing hamstring for most of the season, Thomas held his own in the slot, closing quickly to limit gains and voids in the secondary.

On the surface, an 80%-plus completion rate in coverage is alarmingly high, but Thomas played at a higher level than that may indicate. On just 185 coverage snaps from the slot, he allowed 29 receptions. Of those catches, the Texans cornerback notched 15 coverage stops, tied for the sixth most among qualifiers at the position.

Lined Up Outside: Tre Avery, Tennessee Titans

Name Coverage Snaps Coverage Targets Coverage Target Rate Receptions Allowed Completion %
Tre Avery 186 41 22.04% 31 75.61%
Tyrique Stevenson 473 104 21.99% 66 63.46%
Starling Thomas V 215 46 21.40% 37 80.43%
J.C. Jackson 262 55 20.99% 31 56.36%
Eli Apple 315 66 20.95% 44 66.67%
Emmanuel Forbes 282 56 19.86% 36 64.29%
Benjamin St-Juste 330 65 19.70% 43 66.15%
Adoree' Jackson 345 67 19.42% 40 59.70%
Deonte Banks 409 78 19.07% 43 55.13%
Marco Wilson 345 65 18.84% 50 76.92%

(min. 162 coverage snaps)

J.C. Jackson’s struggles followed him back to New England

When Jackson left the Patriots after the 2021 season, he was never able to recapture the standard of coverage he had established in the four years prior. After numerous issues between Jackson and the Chargers, Los Angeles dealt the sixth-year cornerback back to New England. Many anticipated the reunion to be a positive one for all parties involved. That didn’t pan out.

Jackson played just 46 coverage snaps for Los Angeles in 2023, where he was targeted more than 28% of the time. Yet, his transition back to New England wasn't much better. Overall, he finished with the second-worst coverage grade (39.0) on the outside, as opposing offenses targeted him downfield, seeing a 15.2-yard average target depth.

Marco Wilson was lost in translation

Before being cut by the Cardinals in December, Marco Wilson had struggled mightily on the outside, failing to provide any consistency or to match breaks.

The former Cardinals cornerback couldn't find his footing in Jonathan Gannon’s scheme, resulting in the third-worst coverage grade (39.2) among outside cornerbacks. He was attacked relentlessly, surrendering massive yardage. Wilson allowed 2.07 yards per coverage snap, the most by any outside cornerback, in addition to giving up a hearty 11 yards per coverage target, a bottom-three figure at the position.

Late Down: Eli Apple, Miami Dolphins

Name Coverage Snaps Coverage Targets Coverage Target Rate Receptions Allowed Completion %
Eli Apple 100 25 25.00% 13 52.00%
Tre Avery 58 13 22.41% 10 76.92%
Artie Burns 60 13 21.67% 10 76.92%
Greg Newsome II 153 32 20.92% 24 75.00%
Shaquill Griffin 87 18 20.69% 12 66.67%
Pat Surtain II 191 39 20.42% 22 56.41%
Tre Herndon 152 31 20.39% 24 77.42%
Tavierre Thomas 74 15 20.27% 14 93.33%
Terell Smith 74 15 20.27% 6 40.00%
Carlton Davis III 124 25 20.16% 12 48.00%

(min. 55 coverage snaps)

Offenses kept trying Charvarius Ward

Although he’s listed just outside the top 10 of this list, Ward put forth consistently high-level coverage play in 2023. Offenses would have been better served attacking the opposite side of the field with the drive on the line.

The All-Pro cornerback was incredible on late downs, capturing a league-best coverage grade (90.0) on third and fourth downs, nearly six points higher on the grading scale than the next-best player. Ward showcased his physicality to limit opportunities, amounting to a top-10 completion rate (40.6%) and open target percentage (18.8%) allowed among cornerbacks on late downs.

Two sides of the spectrum

If Ward is the example of making the most of the situation, Tre Avery is the opposite. The undrafted Avery took a sizable step back in Year 2, which was especially troubling for the Titans’ defense on late downs.

While Avery just barely qualified for this list, his inclusion is warranted. His 34.1 coverage grade on late downs ranked 128th out of 131 qualifying cornerbacks, a grade attributed to his allowing of 2.64 yards per coverage snap, the second-highest mark at the position. That metric stems from his inability to limit chunk yardage, as he allowed a reception of 15 or more yards on 8.6% of his coverage snaps on third and fourth downs, the worst rate at the position.

Quarterback Under Pressure: Carlton Davis III, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Name Coverage Snaps Coverage Targets Coverage Target Rate Receptions Allowed Completion %
Carlton Davis III 142 26 18.31% 15 57.69%
Troy Hill 99 18 18.18% 9 50.00%
Damarri Mathis 72 13 18.06% 9 69.23%
Eli Apple 129 23 17.83% 12 52.17%
Deonte Banks 157 28 17.83% 12 42.86%
Stephon Gilmore 242 42 17.36% 22 52.38%
Darrell Baker Jr. 100 16 16.00% 8 50.00%
Alontae Taylor 171 27 15.79% 13 48.15%
DaRon Bland 239 37 15.48% 17 45.95%
Ja'Sir Taylor 113 17 15.04% 8 47.06%

(min. 68 coverage snaps)

Cowboys tandem: Stephon Gilmore & DaRon Bland

Scheme, understandably, plays a part in target rate, displayed by the inclusion of a pair of productive Cowboys cornerbacks on this list in Stephon Gilmore and DaRon Bland, both of whom have reputations that precede them.

Dallas clocked the fourth-most plays of running closed coverages, a scheme that puts pressure on cornerbacks to stand up with receivers isolated on the outside. It was a role that both Gilmore and Bland excelled at, with the former tying for the third-most pass breakups with pressure present (six) and the latter allowing a 48.7 passer rating when targeted.

While they played well enough, it could have been substantially worse, as the pair combined for the most open targets from a cornerback tandem (39) in pressure situations.

Carlton Davis III’s size is a double-edged sword

While size at cornerback can be an asset, it also comes with drawbacks that defenses have to live with. Davis’ build puts him into this category, as he uses his length (92nd-percentile arm length) and physicality to overpower receivers in route but struggles to match routes, at times.

The Bucs incorporate a high blitz rate (49.4%) into their coverage scheme, which puts more pressure on the secondary, particularly when they’re asked to match scramble adjustments. Davis struggled with that, surrendering the most yards per coverage snap (2.06) and a conversion on more than 80% of receptions into his coverage.

Red Zone: Josh Jobe, Philadelphia Eagles

Name Coverage Snaps Coverage Targets Coverage Target Rate Receptions Allowed Completion %
Josh Jobe 27 8 29.63% 5 62.50%
Tyrique Stevenson 68 20 29.41% 13 65.00%
Xavien Howard 52 15 28.85% 8 53.33%
Montaric Brown 35 10 28.57% 4 40.00%
Ambry Thomas 53 15 28.30% 9 60.00%
Tre Avery 39 11 28.21% 9 81.82%
Isaac Yiadom 37 10 27.03% 6 60.00%
Troy Hill 28 7 25.00% 4 57.14%
Dee Alford 38 9 23.68% 6 66.67%
Deonte Banks 70 16 22.86% 11 68.75%

(min. 24 coverage snaps)

Another 49er bucks the trend

Along with his teammate, the aforementioned Charvarius Ward, Ambry Thomas makes this list for positive reasons, putting the Niners' vaunted secondary this past season into perspective.

While Thomas did struggle at times this past season, he was at home in the red zone, where he secured the third-highest coverage grade (89.9) at the position. It was also highest grade of any cornerback targeted more than 20% of the time. When his team is backed up, Thomas locks in, showing physicality and reaction speed to close on underneath routes with sure tackling, amassing the most forced incompletions (five) and coverage stops (five) at the position.

Tackling is also a factor

While Deonte Banks, the 25th pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, showed flashes of his potential, his rookie campaign highlighted his difficulty transitioning to the pro game.

Inconsistency as a tackler has marred Banks' early career progression, which is all the more amplified when the field gets condensed in the red zone. Of his 11 receptions allowed in the red zone last season, eight went for a first down or a touchdown — a troubling trend when you factor in that he allowed a pair of scores off missed tackles.


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