The Top 10 Cornerback Units in the AFC, Part II

August 13, 2009

We continue with Part II of's AFC cornerback rankings.

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.

5. Houston Texans

Texans: Dunta Robinson, Fred Bennett, Jacques Reeves, Deltha O'Neal
Overall Grade: B-

At 5'10" and 185 pounds, Dunta Robinson plays much bigger than his size. The former South Carolina Gamecock was on the verge of breaking into the upper echelon of NFL cover corners for the past few years, but suffered a setback when he sustained a serious knee injury.

Now unhappy with being "franchised" by the Texans, Robinson will be holding out until his contract gets completed. Once he does return in a Texans' uniform, Robinson will be looking to return to his pre-injury form that saw him start in 57 straight games from 2004-2007, and record 11 interceptions.

Robinson has always been known for his exceptionally quick feet in and out of his backpedal, and for his break on the ball. Robinson also has good hands.

However, what many do not know is that despite his relatively unimposing stature, Robinson's unwavering self-confidence and fearlessness allow him to level players much bigger than himself. In fact, Robinson will often take on running backs and tight ends head-on in the open field. That "never back down" attitude also provides Robinson with the self-assuredness to challenge any receiver in coverage, regardless of his past success against that player.

Although Robinson came back in week 7 last year, he didn't seem to be 100%, and might have lacked confidence in his knee. However, once his contract dispute is resolved, look for the former South Carolina Gamecock to resume his spot as the unquestioned number one cornerback on Houston's roster.

Robinson will likely start alongside another former University of South Carolina alum in Fred Bennett. Bennett is a corner with good size (6'1" and 205 pounds), and decent speed. If Robinson can return to his pre-injury form, Bennett will provide a solid complement with his equally physical and aggressive play.

The Texans also brought in the ultimate wild card to camp by signing former two-time Pro Bowl performer Deltha O'Neal.

O'Neal is a veteran of nine NFL seasons, and has amassed 34 career interceptions over that time, including 3 as a member of the New England Patriots last season. He will likely be counted on to cover the opposition's slot receiver on passing downs.

Should Robinson's holdout linger, then O'Neal will be counted on for much more. However, at age 32, it remains to be seen whether his best days are behind him.

Although there are a number of uncertainties with this unit, the sheer level of talent and experience amongst their top 3 corners is enough to earn the Texans' cover men a solid B- grade.

4. (Tie) Pittsburgh Steelers

Steelers: Ike Taylor, Keiwan Ratliff, Deshea Townsend, William Gay (nickel)
Overall Grade: B

The defending Super Bowl champs are in fairly good shape in the defensive backfield, as they were able to bring back their top corner in Ike Taylor. Taylor is in many ways the prototypical corner for the Steelers aggressive hybrid zone-man scheme. Long and lean at 6'2" and 195 pounds, the veteran of six NFL seasons led the team last year with 3 picks and 18 passes defensed.

In addition to his good size, speed, body control, impeccable timing, and positioning between man and ball, Taylor is also an aggressive player and a sound open field tackler. As such, he is cherished by Steelers' defensive guru Dick LeBeau.

With Taylor primed to once again man the defense's left, or wide side of the field, look for the starting job on the opposite side to be won by either veteran Steeler Deshea Townsend or newcomer Keiwan Ratliff.

Although the younger Ratliff would seem to have the inside track due to his superior speed, athleticism and return skills, Townsend can't be counted out. The fact that Townsend has spent his entire pro career in Pittsburgh, indicates that he knows the nuances of the Steelers intricate zone blitzing scheme better than nearly anyone save for LeBeau himself. Thus, Townsend can still be a valuable contributor on defense.

Should either of these two men falter or become injured, William Gay, Anthony Madison, and youngster Keenen Lewis will have to step in and fill the void.

Overall, this should continue to be a solid unit in 2009, and one that is well deserving of its B grade.

4. (Tie) Indianapolis Colts

Colts: Kelvin Hayden, Marlin Jackson and Tim Jennings, Dante Hughes (nickel back)
Overall Grade: B

Jim Caldwell's Colts could make a deep run into the playoffs, and possibly even reach the Super Bowl, so long as the rest of his ballclub can equal the stellar play of the team's cornerbacks.

Led by Kelvin Hayden and Marlin Jackson, the Colts boast a stable of quality corners with good technique and solid ball skills. Both Hayden and Jackson are over six feet tall and weigh in at just under 200 pounds - slightly above the NFL average for the position. They also possess above average speed, and an excellent understanding of how to effectively jam and re-route receivers at the line of scrimmage. Hayden spent most of last season as the starter on the wide side of the field, while Jackson typically lined up on the right or short side.

However, one area of concern is Jackson's health, as he missed the last half of the season due to a knee injury.

Should his health become an issue, then look for Tim Jennings to take his place. Although undersized at just 5'8", Jennings appeared in all 16 games in '08, starting in 12 of them. Youngster Dante Hughes could also see action as a nickelback in passing situations. Indeed, this unit deserves to be considered among the cream of the AFC cornerbacks crop.

3. New York Jets

Jets: Darelle Revis, Lito Sheppard, Dwight Lowery
Overall Grade: B+

First-year Head Coach Rex Ryan has already ruffled a few feathers among the media with some of his loquaciousness, but when one takes a look at the loads of talent he has in his secondary, one can see why Rex has to be confident heading into '09.

Starting with third-year corner Darelle Revis, Ryan has to be pleased with the man who will be entrusted with the task of disrupting the likes of Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Terrell Owens, Lee Evans, and Roscoe Parish.

Revis has started all 32 games in his NFL career, and has amassed an impressive 8 picks and 31 passes defensed in that time. Revis (5'11", 198 pounds) has good size, strength, speed, ball skills, instincts, and awareness, and all one has to do is watch him play once to see why he is probably best described as "Ty Law 2.0". Last year Revis earned his first invitation to the Pro Bowl, and nobody would be surprised if he made it an annual occurrence.

Across from Revis, former Eagle Lito Sheppard will probably become the other starter. Sheppard was once considered among the league's elite cover corners from 2004-06, but is coming off two down years in which he was said to be hampered by a lingering MCL injury that might not have been properly treated initially.

Nevertheless, if he can return to the form that saw him become only the second player in history to return two interceptions for 100 yards or more, than needless to say, Jets fans will be quite pleased. Spurred on by the presence of such a precocious and phenomenal talent as Revis on the opposite side, the smart money is on Mr. Sheppard to recapture his past Pro Bowl form.

Should Sheppard falter, second-year man Dwight Lowery would seem to have the inside track on securing his starting job. At the very least, Lowery will play as the nickelback on passing downs, as he already has 10 starts under his belt from his rookie season. Finally, veteran performer Donald Strickland rounds out this unit, with his playing time consisting of situational duty.

All things considered, Revis, Sheppard, and Lowery, combined with Ryan's aggressive, blitz-heavy D, and the presence of all-world safety Kerry Rhodes, certainly makes this unit deserving of its B+ grade as one of the best groups in the Conference.

2. San Diego Chargers

Chargers: Antonio Cromartie, Quentin Jammer, Antoine Cason
Overall Grade: B+

Bolts fans could be sitting pretty in the San Diego sun if this unit plays up to its potential.

In Antonio Cromartie, the Chargers have one of the most gifted athletes this side of Devin Hester. Although Cromartie was considered by most to have had a "down year" in '08 after his phenomenal 2007 rookie year in which he amassed 18 PD's and 10 picks, some minds might have changed once it was later revealed that he had played most of the season with a partially fractured hip.

Despite that under-publicized ailment, Cromartie still managed 64 tackles, nine passes defensed, and 2 interceptions, one of which he took back 52 yards for a score. However, now that Cromartie has shown a bit of vulnerablity, look for teams to get brave and begin testing him more, and if so, then once again look for his interception numbers to skyrocket.

Barring injury, Quentin Jammer will once again be the starting right corner. An eight-year veteran, Jammer is probably the strongest starting cornerback in the NFL, and he uses his strength well in jamming (no pun intended) opposing receivers at the line of scrimmage.

Although his mediocre ball skills will cause him to drop picks and his overly aggressive play sometimes results in him getting fooled by double moves, Jammer more than makes up for it with his physicality and sound open-field tackling. It is exactly because of these specific deficiencies in Jammer's technique that some astute observers have wondered why the Chargers don't make the logical move and slide Jammer back to safety.

The obvious answer to that question is that the Chargers simply haven't had the personnel necessary to facilitate such a move, as Jammer has remained one of their top two corners. However, now with the recent emergence of young Antoine Cason, such a move might not be too far in the future.

In his rookie year Cason managed to amass 74 tackles, 9 pass break ups, and 2 interceptions, one of which he brought back 59 yards for a score against the Bucs. Throughout his 2008 rookie campaign, Cason displayed good instincts, solid man cover technique, zone awareness, and good body positioning when making plays on the ball.

Cromartie, Jammer, and Cason, combined with second-year man Simeon Castille and veteran special teamer Cletis "Flash" Gordon, gives the Bolts a solid nucleus at corner. Overall, this unit should prove in '09 that it more than deserves its B+ grade.

1. Buffalo Bills

Bills: Terrence McGee, Leodis McKelvin, Drayton Florence
Overall Grade: A

In Terrence McGee and Leodis McKelvin, the Bills have two of the most dynamic playmaking cover corners in the NFL today.

Blessed with blinding speed, and phenomenal footwork, McGee has amassed impressive totals of 144 tackles, 7 interceptions, and 40 pass breakups in the last two seasons. Since 2004, McGee also has scored a total of seven touchdowns via a variety of kickoff returns, interception returns, and fumble returns. He is only one of 10 players in history with 3 kickoff return TDs in the same season.

McGee is also a surprisingly strong player for a man of his relatively diminutive (5'9", 189 pounds) stature, and he plays with good body positioning and solid leverage in man coverage.

Meanwhile, his counterpart McKelvin also has impressed with his knack for making big plays at opportune times. McKelvin (5'10", 185 pounds) was the first corner drafted in 2008, and he justified his first round selection by starting six games in his rookie campaign and notching 32 tackles, 15 passes defensed, and 3 INT's. One of those picks he returned 64 yards for a TD.

Much like McGee, the smallish McKelvin initially appears to be an easy target for most quarterbacks, but he plays larger than his measurables would seem to indicate. As such, perhaps the only way he can be beaten deep is via trick plays, double moves, or the popular "back shoulder stop route" that is so en vogue among NFL offenses currently.

With his world-class speed McKelvin is also a very dangerous weapon as a return man, as he amassed nearly 1,500 yards last season and averaged nearly 28 yards per kick return. One of those returns included a 98-yard touchdown.

With McGee and McKelvin giving the Bills the league's fastest starting cornerback duo, veteran Drayton Florence provides the perfect complement. Slightly bigger than the two speedsters at 6'0" and 198 pounds, Florence has respectable totals of 30 passes broken up and five picks over the last 3 seasons. He should definitely bolster the team's nickel and dime packages.

All told, deep balls should be very difficult to complete against the Bills, as their corners grade out the highest among all units in the AFC with a top "A" rating.

By Kweku Turkson
Staff Reporter for

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