Slot corner is the most undervalued position in the NFL.
Over the last decade, NFL teams have shifted away from base defense into nickel. This transition, along with the surplus of slot-friendly skill sets, has meant that the slot cornerback position has become an afterthought. But that shouldn't be the case, and several notable cornerbacks — including NFL Hall of Famer Deion Sanders — will say the same thing.
Here are the NFL's best slot cornerbacks heading into the 2022 NFL season.
Note: This list only includes players who play mostly in the slot. It doesn't consider outside corners who are moving to the slot in 2022 and vice versa. It also discounts hybrid players who will move between the two spots in any given game — Jalen Ramsey and Marlon Humphrey, for example.
No one has played more slot coverage snaps since 2018 than former UDFA Kenny Moore. In that span, he’s been the biggest playmaker at the position: His 12 interceptions from the slot are three more than any other player over the last four seasons, and his 1.33 Wins Above Replacement (PFF WAR) is well above any other predominant slot corner over that stretch. There’s no denying his ability to see the game at a high level — his instincts and processing are vital traits for a slot corner, and he checks the box with flying colors.
Hilton's 84.4 slot coverage grade is fifth in the league since 2017. The veteran finished second among slot cornerbacks — and 13th among all cornerbacks — in WAR last season despite being tasked with much more man coverage in his first year with the Bengals.
Mike Hilton has ended up as one of the best free agent signings from last offseason.
Signed a 4 yr/$24m deal and is a top 5 graded slot corner and one of the 25 most valuable defenders in the league this year. One of several key moves by Cincinnati to get to this point. pic.twitter.com/Bclg6glOVA
— Anthony Treash (@PFF_Anthony) January 23, 2022
Jones is eyeing a bounce-back season after injuring his shoulder early in 2021. Before missing most of last season, the seven-year pro was on a two-year run of stout slot coverage play, as his 84.4 coverage grade ranked top-five at the position from 2019 to 2020.
Jones did a great deal of that work in single coverage and didn’t falter. In those two years combined, his slot coverage grade in one-on-one situations ranked second-best in the league.
slot coverage grades from 2019 to 2020 (Min. 400 snaps)
|2||Kenny Moore II||87.2|
Johnson has shown immense growth these last couple of years. Since 2020, he owns a top-10 slot coverage grade and ranks third with 25 passing stops. The 5-foot-11, 192-pound corner is a smooth operator in zone coverage, playing with good balance and sure-fire tackling. He also owns the third-lowest missed tackle rate in zone from the slot over the last two seasons — just five misses on 76 attempts.
His play led to a much-deserved contract extension at the beginning of the 2021 season, giving Buffalo one of the top slot corners for the next few years.
Known as one of the best trash-talkers in the game, Garner-Johnson is also one of the league's best slot corners. Along with his ability to get in his opponent's head, the Saints corner has sharp read-react ability and man coverage skills. He's made more plays on the ball in the slot than anyone else since entering the league in 2018 (24).
The 6-foot, 208-pound Florida product has the chance to challenge for the top spot on this list in the coming seasons if his tackling can continue to improve and cut down on his penalties.
Saints' rookie Chauncey Gardner-Johnson reads Matt Ryan's eyes and peels off his man to snag the INT.
this is gorgeous pic.twitter.com/DQqqNKeNWl
— Austin Gayle (@PFF_AustinGayle) November 29, 2019
The last year was a nightmare for Hill. His five-year stint with the Rams (2016-2020) was capped by a breakout campaign in which he earned an 89.2 slot coverage grade — first among slot corners with 150 or more coverage snaps — on a career-high 620 slot snaps.
But in 2021 free agency, he signed with the Cleveland Browns, where his slot coverage grade then tanked nearly 40 grading points year-over-year to 50.2.
Troy Hill: Slot coverage snaps and grades since 2015
He endured these struggles while watching his former team embark on a Super Bowl run. However, he was traded back to L.A. during the 2022 NFL Draft and will hope to be a key piece in the franchise's title defense. While Hill’s versatility is important to the Rams, he should be playing most of his snaps on the inside and has the chance to get back to his previous elite standard in this system.
Callahan was in the conversation for the best slot corner in the NFL a handful of years ago. From 2017 through 2018 with the Chicago Bears, he allowed the fewest yards per slot coverage snap in the NFL en route to a top-five coverage grade at the position.
But the injuries started to mount. He missed all of 2019 and was limited to 1,159 snaps from 2020 through 2021 with the Denver Broncos, though he still earned a top-five coverage grade over that span. There’s some major durability concern for Callahan as he enters his early 30s, but the good news is that he’s in a system that fits his skill set.
The Los Angeles Chargers took a good swing this offseason by bringing him on for a one-year deal worth just over $1 million. He’ll now reunite with Brandon Staley, who was a defensive assistant coach for the Bears when Callahan broke out.
The former fifth-round pick came from Illinois, where he played over 2,100 snaps on the outside compared to just 155 in the slot. But after impressing in the slot during camp, he was given the starting job and went on to lead the NFL in coverage grade for the 2021 season.
The Raider brings explosiveness and aggressive play to the field and has been productive as a blitzer — he produced nine pressures on 20 rushes last year.
Maddox has played just about everywhere in the secondary in his four-year Eagles career. He went from free safety and outside corner in 2018 to the slot in 2019, then back to the outside for 2020. He didn't enjoy much success, as he earned single-season PFF grades below 60.0 each year.
In 2021, as Maddox moved back to the nickel spot full-time, things were different, as his 76.1 coverage grade was top-five at the position. The Pitt product is an effective tackler who consistently breaks downhill and snuffs out plays underneath — his 17 passing stops in the slot tied for the most in the NFL last season.
Thomas quietly had a breakout campaign in 2021 with Houston after three lackluster years in Cleveland. Playing for the Browns, the former Ferris State UDFA logged just 237 snaps.
Thomas then signed with Houston and thrived as the starter. He finished with a top-three slot coverage grade and allowed the fewest yards per coverage snap (0.50). Obviously, there is caution with expecting Thomas to replicate this play in 2022 and beyond, given it’s a one-year sample, but he showed the ability to do so.