Playing cornerback is the most challenging position to play in the NFL. And often times, in a pass-heavy league, a defense lives and dies by its players on the island.
Most teams have one tough corner -- with great athletic ability and good instincts -- who faces top receivers each week, but there are a select few teams with two or three corners who are better than average.
So what makes a good CB tandem?
As a cornerback for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 2003 to 2014, I learned there is one key component that separates the good CB duos from the great ones: chemistry. My teammates (CBs like Deshea Townsend, Bryant McFadden and William Gay) and I played at our best when we trusted one another. Sometimes we didn't even have to talk on the field; we just looked at one another and we were on the same page. We didn't necessarily have the most athletic players in our secondary, but we thoroughly studied our opponents, we understood and executed our roles.
Because our group was able to play well together, longtime Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau had that same trust in us. I can recall him testing us, saying stuff like, "You guys make my job easy because I put you in bad situations and you make me look good." What are those "bad situations" a coach can put his CBs in? All-out blitzes where there is rarely help down the field, aggressive gambles that can make the defense vulnerable to a big play -- that is, if the corners can't hold up their end of the bargain. So, yes, the best CB tandems not only possess rare athleticism, but also great chemistry.
Here are my top five CB duos heading into the 2016 campaign:
1) Aqib Talib (or Bradley Roby) and Chris Harris Jr., Denver Broncos
The Denver Broncos have the best cornerbacks in the league. Period. We saw Talib and Harris take over in the secondary and help the Broncos become the top defense in the league, dethroning the Seahawks. Combined, the pair allowed just five passing touchdowns during the regular season. Like I touched on above, this type of sticky coverage allows Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips to incorporate aggressive (and risky) play calls, because he knows his corners will execute downfield.
Even if Talib's offseason shooting incident lands him on the sidelines, Roby is more than capable of filling in. He was the unsung hero of the "No Fly Zone" last season. Honestly, Roby might just be the best all-around corner on this team. Last season, Roby allowed two passing touchdowns when targeted; quarterbacks had an average passer rating of 69.7 when throwing his way.
The only thing that might hinder the Broncos if Talib is out? They'd miss the 30-year-old's leadership on the field. He has set the tempo for the defense for two seasons and is the heart and soul of this group.
2) Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu, Arizona Cardinals
I might be bending the rules with this pick, but it is my list. Although officially labeled a safety for the Cardinals, Honey Badger frequently assumes the role of nickel/slot corner, lining up inside or outside, depending on how Arizona sets up matchups in man or zone coverage. According to Pro Football Focus, Mathieu played 68 percent of his snaps in 2015 as a slot corner, 24 percent at strong safety and eight percent at free safety. Mathieu might not have top speed, but his coverage and anticipation skills allow him to make big plays. He was dynamic as ever last season, recording five INTs and 17 passes defensed.
I've already said that Peterson is the most valued defensive back in the league, but here are some more numbers to support my argument. Peterson ranked first among all qualified NFL cornerbacks in passer rating allowed (45.6) in 2015. He covered top receivers each week and only gave up two touchdowns all season.
3) Dre Kirkpatrick and Adam Jones, Cincinnati Bengals
These two quietly have contributed greatly to the Bengals' defensive success, with each improving over the last four seasons. Kirkpatrick has the size (6-foot-2, 190 pounds) and athletic ability to cover anybody, even short speedsters like Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown. Against Kirkpatrick in three games last year, including the Steelers' 18-16 playoff victory, Brown averaged 84 yards per game -- well below his average of 114.6 in 2015. Jones -- who is comparable to Mathieu, as they are both small in stature but big in passion -- had a career year last season with 12 passes defensed, three INTs and just two touchdowns allowed. In addition, Jones ranked sixth in passer rating against (54.5) last year.
4) Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Janoris Jenkins, New York Giants
The bright spot in the Giants' defense last season was Rodgers-Cromartie. He is good in man coverage and is one of the fastest defensive backs in the NFL. Although he has a lanky 6-2 frame, his superb back-pedaling skills, along with his play-making ability, make him just as good as any corner in the league. This is supported by the fact that he allowed quarterbacks to register a 53.1 passer rating against him in 2015, fifth in the league among corners.
Both of these cornerbacks can line up on either side, and that's a defensive coordinator's dream. The Giants' defense is headed in the right direction behind these two players.
5) Kyle Fuller and Tracy Porter, Chicago Bears
In 2015, this pair led a Bears defense that ranked fourth in the league in passing yards allowed. In Fuller's first two NFL seasons, I've seen that he possesses all of the intangibles to be a great corner -- height (5-11), speed, coverage skills and anticipation. When Fuller was targeted last year, his opponents caught less than 50 percent of their passes. Porter, who played a valuable role in the Saints' run to Super Bowl XLIV, came on strong late last season after missing the first two games. This year, I expect Fuller and Porter to lead an improved Bears' defense -- with offseason additions Danny Trevathan and first-round draft pick Leonard Floyd.