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Top 10 cornerback duos entering 2021 NFL season

NFL Network's "Top 100 Players of 2021" premieres Sunday, Aug. 15 and will air over three consecutive weekends. Players ranked 100-41 will be revealed Sunday over the course of six hours -- each one-hour episode unveiling a new set of 10 honorees -- beginning at 4 p.m. ET. Two cornerbacks from the same team make an appearance on the list, which is voted on by the players themselves, between Nos. 50 and 41. With that in mind, NFL Network analytics expert Cynthia Frelund provides her own ranking of the league's top 10 CB duos heading into the 2021 regular season.

Rank
10
New York Giants
New York Giants
James Bradberry and Adoree' Jackson

Since 2018, James Bradberry has forced a whopping 42 incompletions -- the top figure in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus. Last season, he earned an overall PFF grade of 79.8, which tied for seventh among corners with Jalen Ramsey. Computer vision shows that on snaps where the front was unable to generate pressure, Bradberry still allowed just a 59.6 percent completion percentage, the second-lowest mark amongst corners in 2020. Overall passing data logically shows that an increase in pressure correlates with a decrease in completion percentage, but it also shows that effective coverage from defensive backs ahead of the pass can correlate with increased pressure. Bradberry's production, combined with the addition of Adoree' Jackson, should help the Giants more effectively blanket pass catchers before the snap. Between that and the additions made up front, New York should increase its pressure rate in 2021, which will in turn drive even more efficiency from the corners. 

Rank
9
Green Bay Packers
Green Bay Packers
Jaire Alexander and Kevin King

No corner has a higher forecasted win share in 2021 than Jaire Alexander (1.11 wins). Last season, Alexander earned PFF's highest defensive grade among corners (90.5), in part due to the fact he allowed just 50 percent of targets thrown his way to be completed (this tied him with Ramsey for the second-lowest mark). Computer vision shows that Alexander's average pursuit speed (speed defending targets between 3 yards and 8 yards from him), average fatigue (the speed difference between the first quarter and the fourth quarter) and average change of direction (speed when the player's hips rotate at least 90 degrees during the defense of a pass) all ranked in the top three last season. On this list cornerback tandems, the Packers are the least balanced. Kevin King forecasts to increase his impact in 2021, as the addition of first-round pick Eric Stokes (and increased health overall in the secondary) could provide relief in the form of rotations that specifically select for the situations where King can be set up for success.

Rank
8
Indianapolis Colts
Indianapolis Colts
Kenny Moore II and Xavier Rhodes

Defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus creates extremely effective schemes and did an excellent job of putting Xavier Rhodes in position to get back on track in 2020. PFF gave him a 46.4 grade in 2019, counting him as allowing an 84.3 completion percentage and 127.8 passer rating allowed. He also had zero interceptions that season, his last with the Vikings. As a Colt in 2020, he improved his output to a 76.3 grade, only allowing a 50.7 completion percentage, 79.2 passer rating allowed with two INTs. Rounding out this duo is Kenny Moore II. His work in the slot and against the run drove his win share on plays between the numbers to the second-best figure among corners last season. 

Rank
7
Cleveland Browns
Cleveland Browns
Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams

The Browns allowed just a 57.1 completion percentage to receivers aligned out wide last season, the fourth-lowest rate in the NFL, per Next Gen Stats. The way I make this list -- well, except for the Broncos; more on them in a bit -- is by taking the two highest win-share corners on each team. On this roster, that currently means Denzel Ward and Greedy Williams (who is returning from injury). However, the Browns added Troy Hill in free agency and drafted Greg Newsome II in Round 1. Both Hill and Newsome, who is coming off a campaign at Northwestern in which he allowed just 12 catches on 34 targets (PFF), could easily hit the starting lineup before the season gets underway. This should be really encouraging for Browns fans. Depth at the position (and secondary overall) is something the coaching staff and front office addressed extremely well this offseason.

Rank
6
Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh Steelers
Joe Haden and Cameron Sutton

Next Gen Stats show that Pittsburgh allowed just a 54.6 completion percentage to receivers aligned wide last season, the lowest catch rate in the league, and only a 53.3 completion percentage on passes outside the numbers, the second-lowest rate. That said, this ranking has the most volatility in the top 10 because the projection of Joe Haden and Cameron Sutton's use reflects that Sutton's previous success came when he was playing in the slot, as opposed to a smaller sample size of information on the outside, where he forecasts be used this season. PFF ranks Sutton in the 94th percentile in coverage grade on a per-snap basis over the past two seasons. Computer vision shows his change-of-direction speed (when his hips rotate more than 90 degrees while running) was the fifth-fastest over that span. This helps predict effective use this season, especially when you consider how the team deploys and relies on safety Minkah Fitzpatrick on deep passes. 

Rank
5
Los Angeles Rams
Los Angeles Rams
Jalen Ramsey and Darious Williams

PFF shows that Jalen Ramsey tied for the second-lowest completion percentage allowed at 50 percent last season. Computer vision shows that Ramsey's average pursuit speed when a pass was thrown to an open target between 3 and 8 yards from him was both the fastest (a measure of reaction efficiency) and eroded the second-least from the first quarter to the fourth (a measure of fatigue). This drives Ramsey's rating as my third-ranked CB overall for the season in terms of win share. On the other side, Darious Williams recorded PFF's ninth-highest CB coverage grade last season (79.6) while also earning a top-10 speed-erosion rating last season. This season, the Rams' corners will likely be tested more than in 2020. That's because L.A. has a higher team offensive win share potential, with more passing efficiency on offense driving more projected defensive snaps faced, as well as more likely passing downs faced. This means those fatigue metrics will be especially useful for the Rams in 2021.

Rank
4
Denver Broncos
Denver Broncos
Bryce Callahan, Ronald Darby, Kyler Fuller and Patrick Surtain II

Am I cheating here by listing four cornerbacks? Yeah, I suppose. But there's just such a glut of CB talent at Vic Fangio's disposal, I'm not entirely sure how to sort it out. Adding Kyle Fuller and Ronald Darby in free agency and Patrick Surtain II in the draft allows the Broncos flexibility to move Bryce Callahan inside. Running this model for win share with any combination of Callahan, Darby, Fuller and Surtain creates the fourth-highest projection for 2021. Last season, Callahan had the third-best PFF grade among NFL corners (84.1), while Surtain had the best coverage grade among all Power Five conference corners since 2018 (92.9). So yeah, when it comes to the Broncos ... Pick your duo!

Rank
3
Miami Dolphins
Miami Dolphins
Xavien Howard and Byron Jones

Last season, the Dolphins only allowed 53 percent of passes outside the numbers to be completed, per Next Gen Stats, the lowest rate in the NFL. Xavien Howard, last year's interception leader with 10, earned PFF's second-highest CB grade (87.3). When Howard was within 3 feet of his pass catcher, according to computer vision, he got his body in the path of the throw at the highest rate among corners. Byron Jones' two interceptions in 2020 doubled his career total. His effectiveness in man coverage increased as the 2020 season progressed; computer vision shows his yards allowed decreased later in the year (when taken in context of his injuries).

Rank
2
Baltimore Ravens
Baltimore Ravens
Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters

Marlon Humphrey has just one fewer forced incompletion than Stephon Gilmore since 2018 with 36 (fourth-most among CBs, per PFF). Humphrey's ability to turn his hips toward the ball while it's in the air and gain speed after the arc of the pass (a computer-vision proxy for ball tracking) ranks best among corners over the past two seasons, narrowly edging out Jaire Alexander, who is my highest-ranking singular corner overall. Humphrey comes in as my No. 2 in terms of win share ahead of the 2021 season. Marcus Peters has 31 career interceptions, which is the most among NFL corners since he was drafted in 2015. The next-closest is nine fewer (22 for Xavien Howard). Peters' risk-reward style of play and Humphrey's ball-tracking excellence complement each other while also driving returns greater than the sum of the parts.

Rank
1
New England Patriots
New England Patriots
Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson

The Pats have three corners who rank in my top 30 based on forecasted win share for 2021, with Stephon Gilmore leading the way at No. 5. The 2019 Defensive Player of the Year has 37 forced incompletions since 2018, tied for the second-most in the NFL at the position (PFF). J.C. Jackson ranks 17th in projected win share, and PFF shows that he allowed a 62.7 passer rating last season, the fifth-best mark among corners. And I know this isn't a trio article, but it's also pretty remarkable that New England's third-best corner ranks 30th in my projections. Jonathan Jones earned PFF's fourth-highest grade at the CB position last season. 

Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter.

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