We say it all the time here at PFF — the passing game is what matters in today’s NFL. Cornerbacks have one of the largest impacts on that element of the game, and these 25 players have been the cream of the crop at the position through five weeks of NFL action.
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As a team, the Patriots have allowed a passer rating of 42.0 when opposing teams target the slot this season, the lowest mark in the NFL by nearly 25 points, and Jones is a big reason why. His 129 coverage snaps in the slot lead all Patriots defenders, and he is allowing under five yards per target when lined up inside. Early results indicate that Jones, whose role has increased in each of his first three seasons, is on his way to a career season in Year 4.
The fact that two Patriots comprise the top two players on this list should tell you all that you need to know about how dominant their defense has been to open the season. McCourty began the year playing primarily at wide cornerback, but he has played the majority of his snaps in the slot over the last two weeks. His coverage grades are nearly identical in the two alignments (83.3 in the slot vs. 83.2 wide), providing a versatile piece for a deep and talented Patriots secondary.
The NFL’s highest-graded coverage cornerback when lined up in the slot is none other than Brian Poole, who appears to be taking well to the change of scenery in New York. Poole has allowed just nine receptions for 56 yards on passes into his coverage this season, and he’s flashed the ability to break on passes to force incompletions. That was best highlighted in his Week 2 performance against the Browns, where Poole allowed two completions on seven targets for 11 yards with two pass breakups.
As with all the players here, Dunbar is dealing with a limited sample through the first five weeks of the season, but that is especially true for the fifth-year cornerback who missed two weeks with a knee injury. Dunbar’s grade is being carried by the performance in his Week 4 return against the Giants, specifically by two impressive interceptions in the game. That being said, he is easily on pace for the most impactful season of his career, having never played more than 400 defensive snaps in any of his first four seasons.
Slot cornerbacks matter, people. Coleman is proving that he is worth all of that four-year, 36-million dollar contract that he signed this offseason with the Lions. His best game of the season came prior to the bye against the Chiefs, breaking up multiple passes in the endzone and forcing a fumble with a well-placed punch on a ball secured by Sammy Watkins. His five pass breakups on the season are tied for the second-most in the NFL.
Since 2017, there have been 77 cornerbacks with 100 or more targets into their coverage. Hayward ranks second in completion percentage allowed (49.7%) and first in forced incompletion rate (27.5%). It’s safe to say that he’s in the conversation for the best cornerback in the NFL, and he’s proving it again in 2019. His ball skills were on full display when he came down with a circus interception downfield against Kenny Golladay while being interfered with.
Peters has always been a gambler, but over his first three seasons, the good plays made up for the occasions in which he would get beat. That wasn’t the case last season. Peters got burnt deep on several occasions and was one of three cornerbacks to allow over 20 yards per target on passes 20 or more yards downfield on 10-plus deep targets. His performance this year has been more reminiscent of his time in Kansas City, highlighted by undercutting a Winston pass and taking it to the house in Week 4.
A sprained foot has sidelined Witherspoon since Week 3, which is a shame because he was putting together an impressive start to his 2019 campaign prior to the injury. Witherspoon had allowed just six of the 18 passes into his coverage to be completed. That is the best rate of any cornerback this season that has seen 15 or more targets. Any time you are seeing completion rates that low against a player, there is going to be a certain level of luck involved, but Witherspoon has played his part as well with several nice pass breakups.
Griffin’s worst game of the season came against the Rams last week, allowing four receptions for 82 yards on passes into his coverage. Prior to that, he had allowed just 52 receiving yards across his first four games. Griffin doesn’t have any interceptions to his name yet this year, but he has been active around the ball with four pass breakups. The continued presence around the ball like that will result in an interception sooner rather than later.
PFF Analyst Sam Monson wrote a piece several weeks ago claiming that Alexander just may be the next great shutdown cornerback in the NFL. Whether or not that is true, it’s pretty apparent that he is a playmaker in the secondary. His 11 forced incompletions are the most in the NFL by three this season. He’s still learning when and where to pick his spots to be aggressive, but the Packers have to be ecstatic that he is already one of the more impactful cornerbacks in the league in just his second season.
After playing a heavy dose of free safety at the tail end of last season, Williams has switched back over to cornerback in 2019, specifically slot cornerback. The position change appears to be suiting Williams and the Packers defense well in the early going. Last season, they allowed 111 receptions to slot receivers over the course of the year (t-14th most in the NFL). So far in 2019, that figure is at just 25 through five weeks (fourth-best in the NFL).
The Steelers were in need of an outside cornerback opposite Joe Haden last season, cycling through an uninspiring combination of Artie Burns and Coty Sensabaugh at the position in 2018. Nelson was the solution this offseason, and the early returns have been all that the Steelers could have asked for. He has limited anything downfield through the first five games, allowing just five receptions on ten targets ten or more yards downfield for 86 yards.
Speaking of cornerbacks limiting deep success, Sherman has yet to allow a pass into his coverage on passes 20 or more yards downfield. On those four targets in that range, opposing quarterbacks have combined to go 0-for-4 with one interception. He’s improved across the board on a 2018 season in which he allowed a passer rating of 100.5 on throws into his coverage. His 2019 figure of 50.6 is much more in line with his career passer rating allowed of 54.5.
Jackson showed off his speed in the 40 Yards of Gold competition this offseason in which he finished runner up to Marquise Goodwin, and now he’s showing off what he can do on the field as one of the 15 highest-graded cornerbacks in the NFL. He’s missed the past several weeks with a groin injury, but prior to that, he picked off two Kyler Murray passes in a Week 3 victory over the Cardinals. His likely return in Week 6 should bolster a Carolina secondary that is starting to hit its stride.
From a pure stat-line perspective, Amukamara’s 2019 record in coverage doesn’t look very impressive: 12/18, 157 yards allowed along with a touchdown. He has been solid in coverage, though, with his coverage grade coming in at 73.6. Amukamara has been opportunistic as well, notching a forced fumble on a well-timed swipe at the ball and a fumble recovery on the goal line against the Raiders in a separate play.
The Ravens’ Week 5 divisional game against the Steelers was huge, with a loss potentially being the difference between ending the Week at third in the AFC North compared to first. When the moment was biggest, Humphrey didn’t let the Ravens lose, punching the ball out of JuJu Smith-Schuster’s arms to set up the game-winning field goal in overtime. That play wasn’t a one-time aberration. Humphrey is turning into one of the best young cornerbacks in the league. Dating back to 2017, his 67.3 passer rating allowed ranks third among cornerbacks with 100 or more targets.
Over his first two seasons, Jackson had been one of the more heavily targeted cornerbacks in the NFL. His 214 targets across the 2017 and 2018 regular seasons ranked second in the league behind only Kyle Fuller. This year he has seen just 16 targets and allowed 11 receptions across five games, largely making the opposing receiver a non-factor. Jackson hasn’t allowed over 30 yards receiving in a game since Week 1 when he allowed 45 yards on four catches.
Hayden has revived his career in Jacksonville after maxing out at a 60.0 coverage grade across his first five seasons between Oakland and Detroit. Last year, he recorded a coverage grade of 73.7, and he has followed that up with another successful start at a 72.4 grade in coverage this year. In all, Hayden has allowed just eight receptions into his coverage for 73 yards while breaking up two passes.
Joining his teammate Donte Jackson on the list, Bradberry has allowed very little production to opposing wideouts in 2019. He has allowed just 12 receptions on 25 targets for 186 yards, adding an interception to the line for good measure. The interception was a beauty too. Bradberry broke underneath a Robert Woods route for the diving pick. He’s an important part of a Panthers coverage unit that ranks fifth in the league in EPA per pass play allowed.
Douglas is among the group of four cornerbacks to record five or more pass breakups through the first five weeks of the NFL season, and that playmaking ability has earned him a spot on this list. His forced incompletion rate of 29.6 percent is the highest in the league among all players with 25 or more targets in their coverage. He has made a few blunders, namely letting Terry McLaurin run free for a big touchdown in Week 1, but his play as a whole has been big for an oft-maligned Eagles secondary.
As an undrafted free agent out of Alabama, Wallace didn’t play a single defensive snap until Week 10 of 2018, but he certainly made his impact known once he hit the field. His 85.3 coverage grade ranked third-best among not just rookie cornerbacks but all cornerbacks with 200 or more coverage snaps. Wallace has followed that up with a solid 2019 campaign in which he’s been tested often – his 39 targets are second-most in the NFL — but has held up well. Wallace has allowed just 207 receiving yards on those 39 targets.
Carr’s best play of the season – an interception on an undercut route down the sideline against Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs – didn’t end up counting thanks to a penalty on one of his fellow teammates, but it goes in his PFF grade all the same. On the whole, Carr has allowed quarterbacks to go 17-for-28 for 159 yards and a touchdown when targeting him. The big takeaway there is that Carr hasn’t gotten beaten on the big plays. His 9.4 yards per reception allowed would be the best mark of his career.
Apple is an interesting case when it comes to what he’s allowed in coverage this season because, on the one hand, he is allowing nearly 20 yards per reception, getting beat deep when he does get beat. On the other hand, that 20 yards allowed per reception is coming on just eight receptions in five games. Apple has done an excellent job this year of limiting completions into his coverage altogether, which has landed him a spot on this list.
Jones made the jump from safety to cornerback in 2018 and came away with the highest overall grade of his career. Jones was one of just five cornerbacks to see 50 or more targets and come away with a forced incompletion rate of 20 percent or higher. He’s following that up with another solid campaign for the Cowboys defense, allowing fewer than 55 percent of the passes against him to be completed.
Byron Murphy was the number one cornerback on the PFF big board heading into this year’s draft, so it’s hard not to view the Cardinals picking him up in the second round as a steal. He’s taken some lumps, as you would expect a rookie would, but Murphy has also flashed the ability to force incompletions that had him so highly rated in our eyes coming out of Washington. In the Seahawks game alone, Murphy had air-tight coverage to force incompletions on three plays in the end zone.