By Steve Silverman
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A top-level cover corner has always been worth his weight in gold in the NFL, and that’s never going to change.
Game-changing receivers who can string big plays together can ruin any game plan, but developing a cornerback who can stop or slow him down by himself can change the outcome of any game.
There have been some championship teams that have gotten away without top-level cornerback play, but they are few and far between. The famed 1985 Chicago Bears were rather ordinary in their coverage with Leslie Frazier and Mike Richardson. Frazier was fairly competent, but Richardson was below average.
The Bears were able to get away with ordinary cornerback play because their pass rush was so devastating. But unless a team can bring the heat like Richard Dent, Otis Wilson, Dan Hampton and Steve McMichael did on an every-down basis, poor coverage will kill them.
Here’s look at our top 10 cornerbacks going into the 2016 season.
1. Patrick Peterson, Arizona Cardinals
After a fairly ordinary season in 2014, Peterson bounced back well last year, and he was consistent in his ability to cover top wideouts and stop big plays. He was hugely important to the Cardinals because they lost Tyrann Mathieu to injury and they desperately needed Peterson to step up. He was quite ready for the challenge, and the only mistakes he made came when he was too aggressive in coverage.
2. Richard Sherman, Seattle Seahawks
His combination of size, strength technique and athletic ability makes Sherman one of the most valuable cover men in the NFL. He usually will take the No. 2 receiver and shut him down in one-on-one coverage. While he doesn’t often cover teams’ No. 1 wideout, the fact that he can stop the No. 2 guy by himself is a huge bonus. He is exceptional against the run and loves to hit.
3. Josh Norman, Washington Redskins
This will be a vital year for Norman, as he moves from the NFC champion Panthers to the Redskins. Norman was surrounded by a slew of great defensive teammates in Carolina, but that is not the case in Washington. He is very aggressive, and he can make mistakes that sometimes result in a few big plays against him. However, he is also capable of demoralizing the best talent in the game.
4. Chris Harris Jr., Denver Broncos
He was one of the more unsung heroes on Denver’s spectacular defense last year. At 5-foot-10, 190 pounds, he’s not huge, but he is a surprisingly adept tackler when he has to break down much bigger receivers or running backs. However, his great strength is running with speedy wideouts and providing air-tight coverage. Quick, fluid and fast, Harris seems to rise to the challenge no matter whom he is asked to cover.
5. Darelle Revis, New York Jets
He is no longer the best cornerback in the game, but he is still excellent and can handle No. 1 receivers for long stretches. As Revis has gotten older, he is more susceptible to nagging injuries that can keep him off the field. Revis had five interceptions last year, and he seems to toy with the best receivers and negate their ability to make big plays.
6. Aqib Talib, Denver Broncos
Talib is the perfect complementary cornerback because he is a very nasty tackler who has the ability to deliver some lights-out hits that have an impact on opposing players throughout the game. While the best receivers can give him problems, Talib is a smart player who studies tendencies and generally knows what the opponent is going to try. This often puts him in a position to make a big play. Talib has had seven interceptions for the Broncos in the last two seasons — four of them have been returned for touchdowns.
7. Malcolm Butler, New England Patriots
He has done nothing but get better since the early stages of the 2014 season, and when he made the game-winning interception in Super Bowl XLIX against the Seahawks, it gave him the confidence to step into the starting lineup. Butler is an excellent cover man who has the strength to redirect receivers, and he also has the speed to run with the most talented pass catchers in the league.
8. Vontae Davis, Indianapolis Colts
While he struggled at the position when he was with the Dolphins, Davis has turned into one of the most dependable cornerbacks in the league. He has shown tremendous improvement and his confidence is at an all-time high. Chuck Pagano knows that Davis is going to do whatever it takes to shut down opposing receivers and that he is one of the most effective players in the league. Davis, however, is expected to miss at least the first month of the season with an ankle injury.
9. Jason Verrett, San Diego Chargers
This is likely going to be a difficult season for the Chargers, but Verrett has turned himself into one of the best cover men in the league. While he is fairly undersized, he plays the physical game well and nothing turns him on like the challenge of facing the league’s best receivers. He held Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown to three catches in a man-on-man matchup last year.
10. Darius Slay, Detroit Lions
One of the most overlooked players in the league, Slay has the talent to go to multiple Pro Bowls. The Lions did not have a lot going for them last season, but Slay was a revelation because he plays with excellent technique, and he is also quite physical. He has the tools and intelligence to play either zone or man coverage, and he is a nasty hitter.
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