By Steve Silverman
» More Columns
When it comes to overall athleticism, few positions require that characteristic more than cornerback.
The best corners in the game are remarkable athletes who can stay with opposing receivers because of their running and jumping skills, along with their ball skills.
Those talents are requirements to play the position, but they are not enough to develop competency. Great corners need near-perfect technique and must study film to understand the tendencies of their opponents.
Safeties don’t require as much athletic ability, but speed, strength and leaping ability are certainly valuable talents for the position. However, the most important thing for a safety is an intangible known as football instincts.
The best safeties in the game recognize down, distance and opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. They put those traits together in order to diagnose a play and destroy it.
Hall of Famers Ronnie Lott and Kenny Easley are the best to play the position, and today’s players would be wise to study their approach.
In this piece, I rank the top 10 defensive backs, including five cornerbacks and five safeties.
1. Marcus Peters, CB, Kansas City
Peters is not the fastest corner in the league, but he has quickly become the best because of his remarkable coverage skills that have allowed him to stay with the most talented receivers and shut them down. He has 46 passes defensed in the past two years as well as 14 interceptions. After winning the Defensive Rookie of the Year award in 2015, he was a first-team All-Pro selection last year. At 6 feet, 198 pounds, he has the size to stick his nose in and make the hit.
2. Landon Collins, SS, New York Giants
It doesn’t take a football expert to recognize how good Collins was last season. Just take a look at his massive numbers that included 125 tackles, 13 passes defensed, five interceptions and four sacks, and it’s clear that he deserves to be mentioned with the best at his position. Collins has ideal size for the position at 6-0 and 225 pounds, and he is a brutal hitter who can cause opponents to have second thoughts when they are running with the ball in his area. Heading into his third season, Collins has a chance to become a perennial All-Pro. If there is any nonsense in the Giants locker room with Brandon Marshall, Collins has the leadership skills to put a stop to it.
3. Patrick Peterson, CB, Arizona
The Cardinals had plenty of injury issues in their secondary last year, but Peterson remained healthy and played sensational football. Opponents attacked his side of the field with far less frequency as the season progressed because they knew it was fruitless to challenge him. He had six passes defensed, three interceptions and 50 tackles, and he has learned that maximum aggressiveness is not always the way to approach his job. He knows how to lay back and then attack at the last possible instant.
4. Eric Berry, SS, Kansas City
Berry is one of the most inspirational players in the game after his comeback from cancer. Few expected his return to be so successful, as he had 77 tackles, nine passes defensed and four interceptions – two of which were returned for touchdowns. His value off the field and in the locker room may be even more valuable than what he does on the field. He is beloved by his teammates and admired by his opponents.
5. Earl Thomas, FS, Seattle
Thomas has played nearly at the same level as Easley did when he was with the Seahawks from 1981 through 1987. There have been few safeties who have ever been able to hit as hard as Thomas, and he can make the top pros in the business completely fearful when they run in his area. However, he is not just a hitter; he also has been one of the best cover men at his position. In addition to knowing what he has to do on every play, he knows exactly what his teammates must do, and he will direct them when needed.
6. Aqib Talib, CB, Denver
Talib has great physical skills, and in addition to his speed and anticipatory reactions, he has the kind of size (6-2, 202 pounds) and length that all teams want at the position. Talib had 12 passes defensed, three interceptions and 43 tackles a year ago. His primary weakness is an occasional lapse in concentration that can be costly.
7. Richard Sherman, CB, Seattle
The difference between Sherman and Darrelle Revis when he was at the peak of his ability is the assignment each was given. Revis was always assigned his opponent’s best receiver and covered him one-on-one, while Sherman is usually assigned his opponent’s No. 2 or 3 receiver and asked to stop him wherever he goes. Sherman normally handles that assignment quite well, but he slipped a bit in 2016, and that’s why he’s no longer at the top of this list. Temper and emotional outbursts can get the best of him.
8. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, FS, Green Bay
One of Clinton-Dix’s greatest assets when he was drafted out of Alabama in 2014 was his outstanding instincts, and they have been finely honed since then. The Packers have not been able to put consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks since he joined the team, yet he has done an outstanding job of staying with receivers and is an excellent tackler.
9. Janoris Jenkins, CB, New York Giants
The Giants made a huge investment in Jenkins prior to the 2016 season, and that investment was made largely of desperation because the team had performed so poorly on defense the year before. However, Jenkins was clearly worth it because he had been an outstanding player for the Rams in his previous two seasons. He was even better with the Giants in 2016, as he had 49 tackles, an eye-opening 18 passes defensed and three interceptions. He is an established star at this point in his career.
10. Harrison Smith, FS, Minnesota Vikings
As long as Smith is healthy, the Vikings can be assured of playing solid defense. When they make a big play, it seems almost certain that Smith is in the middle of it. He had 91 tackles last year, and he is a surgical hitter who can put his helmet on the ball and force receivers and running backs to take extra security measures to keep from fumbling. Injuries have impacted him in three of his five years, but he is a game-changer when healthy.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @Profootballboy