Oooh! It seems LaDainian Tomlinson struck a nerve with some cornerbacks a few days ago when he suggested that there wasn't a single "shutdown" corner in the NFL today.
But you know what? He's right.
There isn't a cornerback in the game who occupies the role that was created by my NFL Network colleague Deion Sanders. The Pro Football Hall of Famer collected eight Pro Bowl berths, six first-team All-Pros and 53 career interceptions as the premier cover corner of his era. While most observers remember the flamboyant game and unrelenting swagger, the astute evaluators witnessed an instinctive defender with an extraordinary skill set, blanketing WR1s without assistance from a safety over the top or a linebacker buzzing to the curl or flat area. In addition, he was one of the first corners to "travel" from side to side -- and into the slot -- to match up with the opponent's top target.
From a schematic standpoint, Sanders changed the game when the Falcons, 49ers and Cowboys locked him up in man coverage on one side of the field and played zone coverage with the rest of the secondary. With Sanders essentially shutting down one half of the field, the "shutdown corner" moniker was born -- and placed on any elite corner with exceptional cover skills and ballhawking ability. But, as is often the case, the catchy expression quickly got tossed around far too liberally.
Surveying the recent NFL landscape for cover corners worthy of carrying the "shutdown" label, I believe Darrelle Revis is the only player who has been worthy of carrying the banner, based on his play during the 2009 and '10 seasons. Revis not only shadowed the opponent's top target in those years, but he employed a variety of techniques to neutralize pass catchers. From bump-and-run to bail to off technique, Revis cleverly mixed up his tactics on the perimeter to keep receivers guessing prior to the snap. The New York Jets enhanced his skills by deploying him in different ways, while using man and zone concepts to keep opponents from attacking their CB1 with picks and rub plays from stacked or bunch alignments.
Look, I understand the ultra-competitive nature of the position, having played with some of the best cover corners in recent history (Charles Woodson, Eric Allen, James Hasty, Dale Carter, Mark McMillian, Albert Lewis and Kevin Ross), and I know that every defensive back who steps inside the white lines believes he is the best defender on the planet. But the game has changed so much over the past decade that it is nearly impossible for a defender to consistently erase the opponent's WR1 without assistance from a safety or underneath defender.
The league rules limiting contact with receivers down the field have made it tough to disrupt the timing of routes without drawing a flag. With modern receivers stepping onto the field looking like NBA small forwards, the inability to knock pass catchers around has put defenders at a serious disadvantage on the perimeter. Not to mention, the superb ball placement, accuracy and timing from today's quarterbacks make it even tougher for defensive backs to get their hands on the ball without committing a violation.
Thus, the general definition of "shutdown corner" has loosened in recent years, according to NFL coaches I spoke with over the past few days. To me, a premier cover corner carrying the "shutdown" tag must be able to eliminate half of the field. He must take on the challenge of shadowing the opponent's WR1 all over the field. Speaking to an AFC defensive coordinator, he told me that a shutdown corner should be able to win utilizing press, bail and "off" tactics because it allows the defensive play caller to mix in man and zone concepts to keep quarterbacks from coming to the line and sniffing out coverage based on the alignment of the CB1. Thus, footwork, fundamentals and football IQ must be considered when determining whether a cover corner is worthy of "shutdown" status.
Finally, a shutdown corner must have exceptional production on his résumé. I understand that interceptions aren't necessarily an accurate reflection of cover skills, but a true shutdown guy needs to be able to deliver some game-changing takeaways when challenged by the opposition. To be fair, bump-and-run corners are more likely to produce breakups than interceptions, due to their eyes being locked onto the receiver instead of the quarterback -- but he has to get his hands on the ball consistently to discourage quarterbacks from challenging him when he is shadowing the opponent's WR1.
If a premier corner possesses all of those traits and is willing to take on the arduous task of acting as a shutdown defender in his scheme, it still requires a tremendous amount of work from the coaching staff and the player -- and the long-term effect could be detrimental.
From an organizational perspective, the presence and utilization of a shutdown corner is a philosophical decision that is made during the offseason, and the principles must be a part of the team's base game plan. Using a defender as a "traveler" forces the rest of the secondary and linebackers to potentially switch their roles on each play, which requires a lot of additional study time and exceptional football aptitude. In addition, the defensive coordinator needs to implement the plan during OTAs (organized team activities) and minicamps to help everyone become comfortable with their multi-faceted roles, especially if the team wants to use more than man coverage with a shutdown corner in the marquee role.
For the player, the long-term effects of playing as a shutdown corner could lead to a shorter career due to the extra mileage logged by the designated defender. Moving from side to side requires an additional 20 yards of pre-snap running on each down, which adds a significant amount of wear and tear on the legs over the course of the season. And considering shutdown defenders must flip from side to side during practice three or four times a week, the additional mileage is substantial by season's end.
In addition to the wear and tear, premier corners considering a move into a shutdown role must be able to work on footwork from each side of the field. (Left cornerbacks align with their left foot forward and execute breaks from different angles; right cornerbacks obviously line up the opposite way, thus necessitating different movements on turns and transitions; slot corners must be able to handle two-way releases from press or off coverage.) They also must be able to view the game from each side of the field and execute "key the three-step" maneuvers with the appropriate footwork from the right and left sides.
That's why it is so difficult to affix the tag on any of the top cover corners in the NFL today despite their exceptional talents. The scheme variances between each of the top cover corners make the comparison an "apples to oranges" discussion with evaluators. Teams deploy their CB1s in different ways, requiring different techniques to get the job done in different primary coverages. For instance, Richard Sherman plays in a Cover 3 system that places the onus on the corner to play the deep third of the field. The Seahawks will send a safety or linebacker to the bottom of the numbers to defend the curl/flat area, which allows Sherman to concentrate on taking away the deep ball.
In Arizona, the Cardinals lock Patrick Peterson in some form of man coverage on the vast majority of their defensive snaps. But he occasionally will get help from a deep-middle safety or underneath cutter to assist him on in-breaking routes. That is not a knock on Peterson's skills -- it's the nature of playing in a scheme that employs some switch or "lurk" tactics on the second level.
The same can be said of Denver's Aqib Talib and Chris Harris, based on their play in Wade Phillips' man-centric scheme. The Broncos use a mix of Cover 1-Free (man coverage with a deep safety in the middle) and 2-Man (two-deep, man under) coverage on most downs, which allows the corners to funnel pass catchers to their designated helpers. This grants Talib and Harris opportunities to aggressively undercut routes on some downs (2-Man) or play heavy outside on plays where they are guaranteed help from an interior defender (Cover 1). Thus, they are able to shine in man coverage because they clearly understand where they could receive help from a second-level defender.
Considering Josh Norman's success in the Carolina Panthers' zone-based scheme that allows defenders to play with eyes on the quarterback and execute "2-to-1" reads (corner reads the release of the slot receiver to determine whether to cover the outside receiver or trap the slot receiver on out routes), it is hard to distinguish which corners are truly serving as shutdown guys.
Given the challenges that each defender faces within their respective schemes, I thought I would rank the five best corners in the NFL today -- and designate which young corners have the opportunity to eventually grow into a "shutdown corner" role ...
NFL's top five cornerbacks in 2016
1) Richard Sherman, Seattle Seahawks: Say what you want about Sherman thriving in the Seahawks' Cover 3 scheme, but there isn't a cover corner playing at a more consistent level than the three-time first-team All-Pro. As a long, rangy defender with exceptional patience and awareness, Sherman rarely misses jams at the line and his accurate hand placement prevents receivers from running straight lines down the field. He complements his physicality with outstanding instincts, anticipation and awareness, which allows him to make breakups and interceptions on vertical routes and back-shoulder fades along the boundary. After being chastised for years for only playing on the left side of the field, Sherman silenced his critics when he "traveled" in 2015 to match up with WR1s in key showdowns. Considering his consistency, playmaking and production, Sherman remains the gold standard at the position.
2) Patrick Peterson, Arizona Cardinals: Credit Peterson for bouncing back from a subpar 2014 to reclaim his status as one of the top cover corners in the NFL. The ultra-athletic corner not only played with better intensity and focus this past season, but he appeared to clean up some of the technical flaws that led to his inconsistent performance in '14. As the designated "eraser" in the Cardinals' secondary, Peterson registered eight passes defensed and a pair of interceptions. Most importantly, though, he challenged WR1s and forced them to earn their receptions against contested coverage. Although he still needs to refine his footwork at the line, the perennial Pro Bowler is back to playing at a high level on the island.
3) Aqib Talib, Denver Broncos: It's a shame Talib's bush-league antics occasionally detract attention away from his spectacular game, but savvy observers appreciate his toughness, versatility and instincts as a CB1. The ninth-year pro is a rare cover corner capable of blanketing WR1s utilizing press technique or clueing the quarterback (keying on the three-step drop) from an off alignment. In the Broncos' scheme, Talib's diverse skills and polished footwork allow him to mix up his game to take advantage of an inferior pass catcher or quarterback. Thus, he is able to play cat-and-mouse games with the opponent to bait quarterbacks into misreads or errant throws that lead to interceptions. Playing behind a ferocious pass rush that forces quarterbacks to make quick decisions under duress, Talib's aggressive cover skills generate turnovers in bunches.
4) Josh Norman, Carolina Panthers: The bodacious cover corner became a household name after notching four interceptions and 19 passes defensed in 2015. Norman is an exceptional ballhawk with outstanding instincts. He aggressively jumps routes and throws in his area, exhibiting superb route recognition and diagnostic skills while executing his unorthodox shuffle-slide technique. Although Norman's gambling style is a bit of a high-wire act based on his willingness to allow receivers to slip past him on vertical routes, he possesses the length and recovery quickness to bat away passes at the last minute when beaten. In the Panthers' zone-based scheme that's predicated on four-, five- and six-man pressures, Norman's risky style often leads to game-changing plays on the perimeter.
5) Marcus Peters, Kansas City Chiefs: The 2015 Defensive Rookie of the Year is already earning rave reviews inside league circles for his competitiveness, savvy and versatility as a CB1. The No. 18 overall pick from last April possesses a rare combination of size, agility and stop-start quickness that allows him to suffocate opponents utilizing bump-and-run, bail or off technique. In addition, Peters displays the instincts and football IQ to quickly diagnose route combinations and anticipate throws in his area. Consequently, the ultra-confident playmaker is able to squat on routes or clue the quarterback from depth. As a result, he tied for the NFL lead with eight interceptions and registered 26 passes defensed as a Year 1 starter. Those numbers represent remarkable production for a young player still learning the nuances of the CB1 role on a playoff team. Although I could be jumping the gun in anointing Peters as the NFL's next great corner, I had an AFC defensive coordinator tell me that the Pro Bowler is the only young defender in the game with the potential to eventually carry the "shutdown corner" moniker, based on his talent and versatility.
Two cornerbacks on the rise
Jason Verrett, San Diego Chargers: After missing most of his rookie season with an injury, Verrett quickly established himself as one of the NFL's top corners in Year 2. The scrappy cover corner is an instinctive defender with an exceptional feel for reading routes and anticipating throws in his area. Verrett's a savvy corner adept at playing bump-and-run or off on the outside. With the 5-foot-10, 188-pounder gaining confidence with each rep, the Chargers' budding star is on the verge of earning admission into the exclusive club just above.
Malcolm Butler, New England Patriots: The "Junkyard Dog" of the Patriots' defense has emerged as one of the top cover corners in the NFL through two seasons. Butler is an ultra-competitive defender with the grit and toughness to battle elite receivers on the perimeter. He fights from snap to whistle and consistently finds a way to jump into the receiver's hip pocket down the field. Although his game is far from textbook and lacks polish, the former undrafted free-agent signee's determination and competitive spirit allow him to slow down some of the NFL's best receivers.