The Top 10 Cornerback Units in the AFC, Part I

August 12, 2009

In baseball, there's the old adage that "great pitching beats great hitting." Similarly, in the National Football League, an elite-level cover corner can negate even the most dangerous of receivers.

So, with another NFL season about to kickoff, our Scouting Division has decided to rank the top cornerback units in the NFL. We will begin by looking at the AFC first.

It is important to keep in mind, however, that football is the ultimate team game, where one player's failure to carry out his responsibility on a particular play can impact his teammates at other positions. And it is no different with the NFL's cornerbacks, as a sub-par pass rush from the front seven will cause the best defensive backs to get shredded by any QB worth his salt.

Therefore, these rankings will incorporate a "degree of difficulty" factor into each assessment, since a corner's performance often depends on the talent that surrounds him.

For each player's evaluations, coverage skills were given top priority, followed by the ability to stay with one's man, the ability to fluidly change direction, ball skills in the air, run support, tackling ability, and overall playmaking ability.

The grades were weighted with an emphasis on the collective talents of the two probable starters, rather than just focusing on the top cover guy. Also considered in the analysis was the nickelback or third corner.

10. (TIE) New England Patriots

Patriots: Leigh Bodden, Darius Butler, Shawn Springs (nickel)
Overall Grade: C-

To improve a unit that was spotty at times in coverage last year, the Patriots went out and picked up two solid veteran corners in Leigh Bodden and Shawn Springs. Those signings, coupled with the addition of draft pick Darius Butler out of Connecticut, gives the Pats a fairly decent "Top 3" group of corners.

Although at one time Springs was considered an elite-level corner early in his career with Seattle, his best days are now behind him. Most likely, his biggest impact will come from mentoring the young Butler on the practice field and in the film room.

Butler certainly has the speed and athleticism necessary to compete at this position, but is still very raw and unrefined in his coverage skills. Moreover, he is slightly undersized at 5'9" and 180 pounds.

On the other side, Bodden has good size at 6'1" and 195 pounds. Although he does not possess blinding speed, he has shown that he can at least make plays when presented with the opportunity. Bodden had 10 takeaways in the past two years with the Browns and Lions, including 6 picks in '07.

Despite what is sure to be a monstrous year for Tom Brady and the offense, the Pats ultimately will need solid play from their revamped corners if they are to return to Super Bowl glory.

10. (TIE) Miami Dolphins

Dolphins: Vontae Davis, Will Allen, Sean Smith (nickel)
Overall Grade: C-

The Dolphins also realized the importance of having at least one top-flight cover corner on their roster, as they spent their first round pick on cornerback Vontae Davis of Illinois.

The younger brother of San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis, Vontae ought to contribute as a starter right away. The younger Davis is a superb athlete with incredible speed, athleticism, and explosive jumping ability. At just a hair under 6 feet and 205 pounds, he also has good size for the position. Davis was known for his physical play while starring for the Illini, and he will need to maintain that aggressive nature playing in the Dolphins scheme.

The one concern with Davis however, is that he is at times over-aggressive. As a result, he can get fooled and turned around by double-moves and even play-action fakes in the backfield, an absolute sin for any cornerback.

Although he will be the swiftest corner on the 'Fins roster, look for him to start the season as the starting boundary corner on the shortside of the field.

Either Will Allen or the newly-acquired Eric Green will start opposite Davis, as both are veterans with good size and decent instincts. The versatile Allen will probably be the odds-on favorite to earn the other starting spot, as he started all 16 games for the Dolphins last year. He also has been a starter at safety.

The one wild card for Miami will be the development of rookie second round pick Sean Smith. Because the Dolphins D must deal with the likes of Randy Moss and Terrell Owens for two Sundays each, Smith's optimal size (6'3" and 215) and speed (4.4 seconds in the 40), might necessitate his insertion into the lineup to match up against such elite wideouts.

The real question for Smith will be how soon can he pick up the nuances of playing cornerback in the NFL, as he has not shown the graceful fluidity in his hips necessary for changing direction with receivers, nor the instincts and awareness to effectively "man his zone" in zone schemes. These two qualities are prerequisites to playing corner in the NFL, and he will need to show marked improvement if he expects to see the field.

Should Smith falter or suffer any injury, look for Jason Allen and Nathan Jones to both be in the mix for playing time in Miami's nickel and dime packages. Youngster Joey Thomas could also see some time, but most likely on special teams. Overall, this unit is too unproven to receive any grade higher than a C-.

9. (Tie) Baltimore Ravens

Ravens: Fabian Washington, Dominique Foxworth, Samari Rolle (currently on Physically Unable to Perform List), Frank Walker (nickel)
Overall Grade: C

The Ravens have the benefit of having a veteran group of corners, the value of which can never be understated in the NFL. However, they will undoubtedly miss the departed Chris McAllister.

C-Mac was that rare corner who could physically intimidate the receivers he lined up against with his physical play and swashbuckling style. In addition to the absence of McAllister's skills, it is the loss of that confident swagger which could most affect the Ravens cornerback unit.

Baltimore's top remaining cover guy will likely be Fabian Washington, who is both speedy and smooth in his changes of direction, but tends to gamble a bit too much and become lackadaisical in his technique. Washington does possess good hands, and is dangerous as a return man once he gets his hands on the ball.

Opposite Washington, the Ravens are hoping to start another veteran, most likely Dominique Foxworth. Although a return of a 100% healthy Samari Rolle would certainly bolster the lineup, the Ravens aren't counting on it. Both veteran performers are solid and rangy cover guys that won't provide much in the way of run support, but will make plays on balls in the air if given the opportunity.

Another veteran, Frank Walker, will likely man the nickelback spot. Always a headstrong player, Walker consistently seems to find his way on to NFL rosters as a contributor in nickel and dime packages. With his constant running commentary, Walker can be counted on to play with a chip on his shoulder - something that should continue to endear him to his mates on the Ravens D.

9. (Tie) Cincinnati Bengals

Bengals: Leon Hall, Jonathan Joseph, David Jones (nickel)
Overall Grade: C

In Hall and Joseph, the Bengals have two of the bigger, stronger starting corners in the NFL. Leon Hall was expected to have an immediate impact as the team's first round draft pick out of the University of Michigan in 2007, and while he did tie the club record with a total of 5 interceptions as a rookie, he still left much to be desired in terms of his awareness and instincts, as he looked absolutely lost at times.

However, Hall remains a willing participant in run defense, and is very physical at the point of attack. Hall has amassed decent totals of 8 interceptions and 32 passes defensed in 26 games over his two-year pro career, and could be due for a breakout season, provided the rest of the Bengals deficiencies on defense are improved.

Like Hall, Jonathan Joseph is in the 6-foot, 200-pound range. Unfortunately, he has not proven to be as durable as his counterpart, starting in 30 games in his 3 seasons with the Bengals.

Joseph has shown an affinity for mixing it up and sticking his nose in the scrum, as he has amassed over 160 tackles in three NFL campaigns, to go along with his five picks. He possesses good technique and a nice feel for when to turn and run with his man, however the coaching staff's main concern with Joseph has been his ability to stay healthy. Should Joseph overcome these durability issues and stay on the field, the Bengals could have themselves a nice young pair of starting corners just entering into their respective primes.

Continuing with that theme, the Bengals will look to another third-year player with good size and aggressiveness to step up and produce. David Jones will likely enter his third pro season as the starting nickelback, and he has the size, speed, and technique to negate the opposition's slot receivers.

Overall, this unit might still be a bit too green and inexperienced to grade out any higher.

8. (Tie) Oakland Raiders

Raiders: Nnamdi Asomugha, Chris Johnson, Stanford Routt, Justin Miller (nickel)
Overall Grade: C+

In Nnamdi Asomugha, the Raiders have the best cornerback in the game today.

Asomugha has recently surpassed Champ Bailey as the the consensus #1 cover corner in the National Football League, and has been one of few bright spots for Al Davis' Raiduhs. His new contract makes him one of the 3 highest paid players in the game today, and tops at his position. That pay raise is well-deserved because quite simply, Asomugha does everything a cornerback should do, and he does it exceptionally well.

A tall and rangy 6'2," 210, Asomugha has extraordinarily long limbs, which allow him to use exceptional leverage when playing against many of the taller receivers that are now the norm in the NFL.

Asomugha is also an amazingly fluid athlete with good hips and feet that allow him to stop on a dime coming out of his backpedal and transition into his breaks. Asomugha not only can change direction with the shifty receivers, but also can use his long strides and excellent top-end speed to stick with the league's swiftest wideouts.

Asomugha has started 51 games since 2005, and has 184 tackles and 10 picks in that time. His relatively low interception total is a testament to his excellence, as teams rarely choose to throw his way. Asomugha also possesses sound mechanics in tackling ballcarriers and provides a good pop at the point of attack.

He also has shown himself to be of very high moral character, and in many ways the classy and dignified manner in which he carries himself is in direct opposition to the "outlaw" image that has typified the Raiders organization for so long.

Despite having the best cornerback in the league, the Raiders still have several question marks at the position. First, there is the issue of who will start opposite Asomugha.

The Raiders will have an open competition for the other starting spot between veterans Chris Johnson and Stanford Routt. Both possess good size (6'1" and 195-200 lbs.) and decent playmaking abilities. Johnson started seven games at the shortside corner position last year, and was able to snag 3 picks during that time.

Meanwhile, Routt is a player in the Raiders tradition, with a track background and blazing speed. He could be especially valuable in the return game.

Both of these vets could be pushed for playing time by Justin Miller. A veteran of five NFL seasons, Miller also has phenomenal speed, but has made his name primarily as a kick returner. Miller has returned a kick for a touchdown in 3 of his 5 seasons, was named to the Pro Bowl as a returner following the 2006 season. He has a career average of nearly 27 yards per return.

Reportedly, Miller has drastically improved his technique playing the cornerback position, and has looked impressive during mini-camps. If so, his attention to detail, big-play ability, and renewed commitment, could help the Raiders improve on last year's win total.

The fact that this unit grades out at a C+, is more of a testament to how good Asomugha is, than to the overall quality of the unit.

8. (Tie) Kansas City Chiefs

Chiefs: Brandon Flowers, Brandon Carr, Ricardo Colclough, Jackie Bates (nickel)
Overall Grade: C+

In Brandon Flowers and Brandon Carr, the Chiefs may have perhaps the best young up-and-coming pair of starting corners in the League.

Flowers was KC's second round selection, and he immediately flashed a knack for making big plays, accounting for no less than five takeaways, while starting 13 games as a rookie. Included in those takeaways was an interception off of New York Jets quarterback Brett Favre that Flowers took back 91 yards for a score.

Although some would consider Flowers slightly undersized at 5'9" and 188 pounds, he has shown uncanny instincts, aggressive ball skills, and optimal fluidity in transitioning out of his backpedal.

Although Flowers had a fine rookie year, Carr's first season might have been better. A fifth-round draft pick out of Grand Valley State, Carr also showed a knack for making plays, as he totaled four takeaways, while starting all 16 games in the '08 season. Slightly bigger than Flowers at 6'1" and 210 pounds, Carr also showed he was more than willing to contribute in run support, as he recorded 73 tackles (including 70 solo).

As with most NFL training camps, there will be an open competition for the nickel corner spot. Most likely, the Chiefs' coaching staff will end up choosing between veteran NFL journeyman Ricardo Colclough and youngster Jackie Bates.

7. Jacksonville Jaguars

Jaguars: Rashean Mathis, Derek Cox, Brian Witherspoon, Scott Starks, Ty Brackenridge
Overall Grade: B-

The Jaguars have one of the more unsettled situations in their secondary heading into training camp. Although they can boast of having one of the premiere corners in the game in Rashean Mathis, he is coming off of his first-ever stint on IR after injuring his knee and missing the last four games of 2008.

Mathis possesses good size (6'1" and 195 pounds), superior ball skills, instincts, and will break on the ball with an unparelleled burst. He also has shown himself to be equally adept playing in zone or man schemes.

Mathis racked up four interceptions in the 12 games prior to being injured last year, and returned two of those picks for touchdowns. Needless to say, he was widely considered to be an elite-level corner when healthy. The only remaining question is whether Mathis will be able to come back confident and comfortable following his first-ever serious knee injury.

The jury is still out on the rest of the Jaguars' corners, as each potential starter has his own individual shortcomings. Two such candidates vying for the starting spot opposite Mathis are Derek Cox and Brian Witherspoon.

Witherspoon has contributed in the past on special teams as a return man, but Cox has impressed already during mini-camps and OTA's with his knack for making big plays. Both possess the prerequisite speed, if not the size and tackling ability to start at corner.

Should either of the two youngsters falter, look for journeyman special teams and situational players Scott Starks or Ty Brackenridge to vie for time in nickel and dime packages on obvious passing downs.

This unit's grade is bolstered by the overall quality of their defense (specifically the front seven), as well as by the schemes utilized by Jack Del Rio and his staff.

6. (Tie) Denver Broncos

Broncos: Champ Bailey, Alphonso Smith, Toney Carter (nickel)
Overall Grade: B-

Although Champ Bailey was not honored with a Pro Bowl selection for the first time since his 1999 rookie year, his Hall of Fame credentials already have been solidified. One of the best to ever man the position, Bailey has probably lost a step or two, and at 31, could be a year or two away from a Rod Woodson-like move to safety, where his instincts, superb ball skills, and return ability could prove quite advantageous.

Bailey missed the last seven games of the 2008 season after suffering a groin injury against the Patriots, and it will be interesting to see if his lateral movement in and out of his breaks suffers as a result of any lingering effects from the injury.

Bailey's true value to the team could come in his role as mentor to the pair of young, talented rookie corners on the Broncos roster.

Rookie Alphonso Smith has shown a knack for making big plays, as he totaled 21 interceptions at Wake Forest, including 15 in his last two seasons. Although less than the ideal size at 5'9" and 185 pounds, Smith is an exceptional athlete with amazing leaping ability and explosiveness. That athleticism helped him block 5 kicks in college.

Former Florida State Seminole Tony Carter will likely see time in obvious passing situations, and could also prove to be an impact player. Carter virtually defined the term "opportunistic player" in college, as he scored in five different ways while at Florida State. At just 5'8" and 175 pounds however, it remains to be seen whether Carter's slight frame will be able to effectively match up with NFL wideouts.

Still, any team that can boast the great Champ Bailey as one of their starters deserves at least a B- rating on general principles alone.

6. (Tie) Tennessee Titans

Titans: Cortland Finnegan, Nick Harper/ DeMarcus Faggins, Cary Williams
Overall Grade: B-

Cortland Finnegan has used the past two years as his own personal coming-out party, showing once again that the old adage "it ain't the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog," rings true in the NFL.

Generously listed as 5'10" and 190 pounds, Finnegan put up totals of 70 tackles, 18 passes defensed, and 5 interceptions, with one of those picks being a 99-yard touchdown return. As such, he was the team's unquestioned #1 shutdown corner.

Since earning a starting nod in the 2007 season, Finnegan has shown that he belongs in the conversation of elite-level corners, as he combines excellent cover skills and technique, with great speed and unmatched toughness. In fact, Finnegan is best described as the "Hines Ward" of corners, since he never backs down, and often will "outphysical" his opponents.

The Titans will have an open competition through training camp to see who will start opposite Finnegan, with veteran Nick Harper likely having the inside track. Harper is a veteran of the Tony Dungy-inspired "Tampa 2" Cover 2 zone scheme, and thus, he possesses good zone awareness and instincts.

However, at age 34, Harper is lacking some straight-line speed, and can be beat deep occasionally. Nevertheless, his solid veteran presence and sure tackling should be an asset in the Titans backfield.

DeMarcus Faggins could also be in contention for a starting role. A veteran of 7 seasons with the Houston Texans, Faggins has appeared in 82 games with 36 career starts. He accounted for 11 takeaways during his seven seasons with the Texans, and could provide depth at the position for Tennessee.

Youngster Cary Williams is expected by most in the Titans organization to eventually emerge as the starter opposite Finnegan, but for now he is quite raw.

At just under 6'2" and 195 pounds, Williams has good size and athletic ability. However, his technique is still unrefined, and he at times looks completely lost in pass coverage. Once he begins to settle down and gets more comfortable playing at the pro level, look for Williams to perform to his full capabilities.

As mentioned earlier, the presence of one top corner alone does not a great unit make. Hence, the B- grade.

By Kweku Turkson
Staff Reporter for

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