Bucky's Best  

 

Bucky's Best: Joe Haden, Aqib Talib among top cover corners

There's nothing that makes me cringe more than hearing any cornerback with a little skill touted as a "shutdown corner." While I certainly appreciate observers recognizing the benefits of having a guy who can shut down an entire side of the field, the reality is, few cornerbacks in today's game are capable of locking down receivers without assistance from linebackers (underneath) or safeties (over the top).

Bucky's Best



In this series, Bucky Brooks identifies the NFL's top players within eight unique, skill-based categories.

» Hands and ball skills
» Cover corners
» Blind-side protectors
» Complete running backs
» Clutch quarterbacks
» Hybrid tight ends
» Dynamic safeties
» All-around inside linebackers

I know, of course, that I probably sound like a bit of a hater making a blanket statement about some of the most talented athletes in the league, but my opinion is shaped by my experiences playing alongside some of the most gifted cover men in recent memory. Watching Charles Woodson, Dale Carter and James Hasty ply their trade on a daily basis, I gained a true appreciation of what it takes to succeed on the island when asked to play one-on-one against elite receivers. Each of those aforementioned guys could lock down receivers using a variety of techniques, while also possessing the versatility to play on the outside or in the slot, based on matchups.

Additionally, those guys showed me that true shutdown corners simply refuse to concede completions, challenging every catch with maximum effort in games and practice. In fact, I repeatedly heard Carter and Hasty place friendly wagers on whether a receiver would catch a ball on their respective sides throughout the day. The competitive mindset that they displayed led me to look for "alpha dogs" at the position when evaluating cornerbacks during my time as a scout with the Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers.

As part of my ongoing "Bucky's Best" series, I've been tasked with identifying the best pure cover corners in the NFL today. You know, the guys who boast the athleticism, technical skills, football IQ and competitive spirit to lock down receivers without assistance. With that as the criteria, here are my top dogs:

10) Vontae Davis, Indianapolis Colts: Considered a bit of an underachiever for much of his pro career, the former first-round pick stepped it up in 2013 to give the Colts a legitimate No. 1 corner on the perimeter. Davis was terrific in the team's aggressive scheme, exhibiting solid skills in bump-and-run coverage. Although the sixth-year pro still falls asleep at the wheel on occasion, his physical style wears down opponents over the course of a game. If he becomes more consistent and continues to perform against elite opponents in 2014, Davis could rise up the charts when observers take a long, hard look at what he can do.

9) Johnathan Joseph, Houston Texans: The Texans' top corner struggled with a nagging toe injury in 2013, but he remains one of the best cover men in the league. He blankets receivers on the perimeter using a variety of techniques (press, bail or off), making him an easy fit in any scheme. With coordinator Romeo Crennel coming on board to revamp Houston's defense, the NFL world should gain a greater appreciation for Joseph's underrated game as he takes on more responsibility as the "travel" corner in the new scheme.

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8) Antonio Cromartie, Arizona Cardinals: Cromartie created a bit of a stir when he claimed to clock a 4.3-second 40-yard dash at a recent workout, but few evaluators have ever questioned the 30-year-old's freakish athletic traits. Checking in at 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds with long arms, Cromartie mauls receivers at the line with strong jams in press coverage. Although his lack of discipline (with respect to footwork and fundamentals) allows inferior receivers to occasionally make plays, Cromartie is capable of locking down the top receivers in the league. If Cromartie decides to bring his "A" game to Arizona, the Cardinals could have the top cornerback tandem in the NFL. (More on the other guy in the desert in a bit ...)

7) Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, New York Giants: Say what you will about Rodgers-Cromartie's enigmatic game, but there is no doubt he possesses the physical tools to be the top cover corner around. He is an athletic ballhawk capable of squatting on routes to produce critical turnovers, yet is also skilled enough to blanket receivers in tight man-to-man. When DRC is locked in and focused on playing at a high level, he enters the discussion as a potential top-five corner.

6) Brent Grimes, Miami Dolphins: It's hard for some scouts to embrace a diminutive corner (5-10 or shorter) on the perimeter, but it's impossible to ignore Grimes' production in 2013. In his seventh pro season, Grimes finished with four picks and 17 pass breakups, displaying tremendous athleticism and skill as a cover corner. He excels at winning 50-50 balls down field, with his superb leaping skills allowing him to compete against big-bodied pass catchers. There's a lot to like about what Grimes brings to the table as a No. 1 corner, including 16 interceptions in his past 61 games.

5) Aqib Talib, Denver Broncos: After allowing a host of off-field issues to overshadow his game early in his career, Talib has emerged as a standout player at the position. The veteran thrived as a No. 1 CB in New England's complex scheme, showcasing his athleticism, versatility and ball skills on the perimeter. Additionally, Talib displayed the grit and toughness to challenge receivers and tight ends in the slot with his aggressive tactics. Signed to a monster contract this offseason to play a similar role in Denver, Talib will have plenty of opportunities to show the football world he deserves consideration as the game's premier cover corner.

4) Joe Haden, Cleveland Browns: Haden has toiled in relative obscurity in Cleveland over the past few seasons, but executives around the league will quickly cite the fifth-year pro as one of the top cover men in football. He is a versatile defender capable of utilizing any technique in any scheme, which makes him a unique find at the position. Most importantly, Haden is an ultra-competitive defender with a non-stop motor -- a guy who challenges receivers at every turn. With few pass catchers capable of enduring Haden's constant harassment all over the field, opponents routinely are forced to depend on secondary playmakers to move the ball successfully against the Browns.

3) Darrelle Revis, New England Patriots: When observers create a mythical island in a defender's honor, it says a lot about his ability to leave top receivers stranded from their respective offenses. Despite dealing with a significant injury and a poor scheme fit over the past two years, Revis still deserves the utmost respect as one of the elite CBs in the league. When healthy and allowed to snuff out receivers in man coverage, he remains a highly difficult defender to shake -- which is why he could re-emerge as the No. 1 guy on this list after arriving in New England. Bill Belichick will use Revis in a Ty Law-like role in the Patriots' revamped defensive scheme, allowing the five-time Pro Bowler to mug receivers with aggressive man tactics at the line of scrimmage. Opponents should be wary of venturing onto Revis Island this fall.

2) Patrick Peterson, Arizona Cardinals: Regarded as one of the most explosive athletes in the NFL, Peterson has quickly developed into a premier player at his position. He exhibits the kind of athleticism, savvy and ball skills that defensive coordinators dream of, while also possessing the football IQ and awareness to play all over the field. Thrust into a scheme that asks him to handle a lot of responsibility as the designated defensive eraser, Peterson has not only thrived, but he is redefining the position with his unbelievable combination of physical and mental gifts.

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1) Richard Sherman, Seattle Seahawks: Critics can take shots at Sherman's role in a simplistic scheme or point out that he is surrounded by a wealth of talent in the "Legion of Boom," but there is no disputing his production as the Seahawks' No. 1 corner. He has snagged 20 interceptions in just three NFL seasons, locking up extensively in some form of man coverage. And Sherman's peers don't overlook his impact, having voted him No. 7 overall in NFL Network's "Top 100 Players of 2014" -- the highest ranking of any defender. While other corners are asked to "travel" (follow the opponent's No. 1 wideout all over the field), Sherman strictly plays left cornerback for his squad; but he plays it so well that few quarterbacks succeed when taking shots in his direction. Sherman's mere presence eliminates one half of the field for the offense. Sounds like a shutdown corner to me.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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