When it comes to the endeavor of ranking NFL cornerbacks, there are a lot of different issues to consider. Is the player in a man-to-man scheme, or is he predominantly in a cover-two zone scheme? Does his defense utilize matchups or do they play exclusively right and left side? Does the player move over the slot in three wide receiver sets or does he play exclusively outside? How good is the pass rush he plays behind? How often is he targeted by offenses?
Some of the league's top cornerbacks were thrown at less than 50 times last season, while others had more than 100 passes come their way. I found myself rearranging this list constantly while sorting through all of these factors.
Kirwan's QB rankings
Most teams now play in nickel defenses more frequently than their base defense, meaning many third cornerbacks are actually starters. That leaves 96 starting cornerbacks to consider in a top-20 list. It's actually easier to formulate a list of the top 10 cornerbacks, because as soon as the list was expanded to 20 some very good players who deserved consideration were left out. For that reason, I created six groups of five players each for a total of 30.
Consider the fact that quality cornerbacks like Dayton Florence, Cedric Griffin, Terrence McGee, Nate Clements, Rashean Mathis and Terrence Newman didn't make the top 30. That's when you realize this is a very difficult position to debate when all the factors are considered. DeAngelo Hall might have made the Pro Bowl in 2010, but he also gave up nine touchdowns in the 100 passes thrown at him, off-setting his six interceptions and 16 passes defended.
As I have done with the other position rankings this spring, the players are listed in groups of five and in alphabetical order within each group. Each of the 25 cornerbacks listed either has an (^) for players on the rise, (>) for players maintaining their status or (v) for those on the decline.
- Nnamdi Asomugha, Raiders (>): As a Pro Bowl free agent, Asomugha stands to earn even more after being the highest-paid cornerback last season. Opposing teams threw at him less than three times per game last season. He is a lock-down corner who may never have big numbers, with only three interceptions in the last four seasons.
Asomugha or Revis?
- Darrelle Revis, Jets (^): Revis lines up in man-to-man coverage and the Jets blitz often, daring teams to throw his way. He is usually targeted 3-4 times per game, and consistently shuts down the best receivers in the NFL. He didn't have an interception in 2010 after having 11 during the previous two seasons, but was named All-Pro for the second straight season.
- Asante Samuel, Eagles (>): Samuel is an excellent zone corner who baits quarterbacks into throwing his way and makes them pay. His seven interceptions at 10.0 yards per return tell the story, even though he saw less than 40 passes come his way all season. It's difficult to deny his 36 interceptions over the last five seasons.
- Charles Woodson, Packers (v): Woodson is a Hall of Fame cornerback who took his game to another level playing in Dom Capers' zone-blitz defense. Woodson moves inside over the slot receiver against three-receiver packages and is an absolute terror as a blitzer. He had five forced fumbles last season, tied for the most among corners.
- Dunta Robinson, Falcons (>): The Texans should have never let Robinson go considering they face Peyton Manning twice each season, and their loss was the Falcons' gain. Teams threw at Robinson more than 90 times and he only surrendered three touchdowns. He only had one interception in 2010 and has missed 13 games during the last four years, so holding down a top spot will be tough in 2011.
- Tramon Williams, Packers (^): Williams played well enough for the Packers to say goodbye to Al Harris and give him an extension. Williams is targeted often while playing on an island opposite Woodson. But he allowed just three touchdowns while being targeted 90 times, and had six interceptions and 14.5 yards per return as well as 20 passes defended.
- Antoine Winfield, Vikings (v): Winfield is the best open-field tackler in the game was named to his third straight Pro Bowl in 2010. Even though he isn't big, he is a tremendous cover-two corner and gave up one touchdown in close to 70 passes thrown his way. Age will soon be a factor, but in 2010 Winfield fought father time and won.
- Brent Grimes, Falcons (>): Grimes is the "other" corner opposite Robinson and played with a bull's eye on his chest all season as no other cornerback was targeted more often. But he responded, giving up just three touchdowns in close to 125 passes thrown his way. Grimes was second in the NFL in passes defended with 23 and he had five interceptions.
- Joe Hayden, Browns (^): Hayden finished his rookie season with six interceptions, 18 passes defended and two touchdowns allowed after being the targeted more than 70 times.
- Aquib Talib, Bucs (>): Talib's off-the-field issues could eventually put him out of the league, and if he weren't such a good player he might be gone already. He had six interceptions in 2010 and now has 15 picks and 35 passes defended during his first three seasons.
- Ike Taylor, Steelers (>): Taylor is looking for a big pay day as a free agent. He's a good fit in the Steelers' scheme, but might not be as effective in other defenses and will be 32 next season. He might be better off sticking with Dick LeBeau in Pittsburgh. He's good for about two interceptions and 14 passes defended over the last five seasons playing in a defense that tries to prevent the big play.
- Ronde Barber, Bucs (v): Say what you want about the old man, but he can still play. Barber is the ideal cover-two corner and is so effective in the scheme that he only gave up two touchdowns in the 70 passes thrown his way last season. His three interceptions, 13 passes defended and leadership skills keep him among the top 30 at the position.
- Jonathan Joseph, Bengals (>): Joseph could become be a free agent and would be very much sought after as a player with both man and zone skills. He allowed three touchdowns in about 70 targets last season and is a solid tackler after the catch.
- DeAngelo Hall, Redskins (>): I like teammate Carlos Rogers more at times, but Hall is always looking for the big play and lives in a world of feast or famine. He's the only corner to give up more than 1,000 yards receiving and nine touchdowns, but also had six interceptions and was voted to the Pro Bowl.
- Charles Tillman, Bears (v): "Peanut" is a solid cornerback who would play at a higher level with another solid corner on the opposite side. Tillman had five interceptions in 2010. He is around the ball a lot with 17 forced fumbles during the last four seasons while averaging close to 70 tackles during over the same span.
- Stanford Routt, Raiders (>): Routt will be taking over as the top corner in Oakland when Asomugha leaves in free agency. As he told me last week, "If there are 60 plays in a game, we're in man-to-man 57 times." Routt had two picks and 13 passes defended last season.