But since Sanders' initial departure from the league in 2000, the phrase has been loosely applied to any elite cornerback with the cover skills to provide game-changing plays. Those plays range from interceptions to pass breakups, and the results cause quarterbacks to pause before attempting passes in a savvy cover man's direction.
While few of today's cornerbacks truly can be considered "shutdown corners", several players possess some of the skills that made Sanders such a standout. From a gambler's mentality to Velcro-like hands, these ball hawks specialize in taking away the ball. Although they might not be able to lock down an entire side of the field, as Sanders did, their superior cover skills allow them to single-handedly alter passing games.
1. Nnamdi Asomugha, Raiders
The six-year pro has blossomed into a top cornerback after starting his NFL career as a safety. A long, rangy athlete with exceptional instincts and awareness, Asomugha suffocates elite receivers with his superior cover skills. Whereas most top corners play in a zone-based scheme, Asomugha is one of the few capable of shining in a bump-and-run defense that rarely provides safety help over the top. Although the one-time Pro Bowler has just two interceptions in the past two seasons after recording eight picks in 2006, Asomugha has yielded few pass completions on his side, which makes him worthy of being recognized as the quintessential shutdown corner in the league today.
2. Champ Bailey, Broncos
The eight-time Pro Bowler has been one of the league's top playmaking cornerbacks throughout his 10-year career. Though he suffered through a subpar, injury-plagued season in 2008 (one interception in nine games), Bailey remains an aggressive ball hawk who specializes in jumping routes from off coverage. Because of Bailey's 43 career interceptions -- four returned for touchdowns -- it's hard to dispel the notion that he's still one of the best corners in the NFL.
3. Asante Samuel, Eagles
The big-play specialist has ascended to the top of the cornerback charts because of his outstanding ball skills and awareness. The two-time Pro Bowler has an uncanny ability to read routes, and his exceptional instincts have netted him 20 interceptions over the past three seasons. Playing in an aggressive zone-blitz scheme that ideally suits his game, Samuel is poised to continue his bandit-like ways and remain worthy of consideration as one of the league's best cover men.
4. Darrelle Revis, Jets
After just two years in the NFL, Revis has quickly developed into one of the league's top cover men with his aggressive approach. The 2008 Pro Bowler possesses a diverse skill set that allows him to excel in press or off coverage, and his ball skills are extraordinary for a young player. With Revis' best football still ahead of him, he might occupy a spot on this list for years to come.
5. Cortland Finnegan, Titans
The gritty three-year veteran has been an outstanding cover man in Tennessee since stepping into the starting lineup in 2007. The 2008 Pro Bowler makes life difficult on opposing receivers with a tough, hard-nosed style that seemingly smothers even the game's best. With superb ball skills to complement his aggressive approach, Finnegan has the all-around game that warrants his inclusion on this list.