If it wasn’t already obvious, what happened during the NFL Draft surely strengthened the theory. The NFL is a high-octane passing league. That means, along with left tackles and defensive ends, the cornerback position is as valuable as ever. In the seven rounds of the 2014 NFL Draft, 36 Cornerbacks were selected, making it the most-sought position.
Teams are using more nickel and dime packages and shying away from their base 3-4 or 4-3 defence. In turn, more draft picks are spent on corners that specialize in the slot, and designated pass rushers that can harass quarterbacks in certain situations.
If you still aren’t convinced, look at the lack of running backs selected early in the draft as further evidence. The 2013 Draft marked the first time a running back was not selected in the first round. The Bengals ended the drought by taking Giovanni Bernard with the fifth pick in the second round. This year, running backs were forced to wait even longer before hearing their names. University of Washington running back Bishop Sankey had to wait until pick 22 of the second round before the Titans made him Chris Johnson’s successor in Tennessee.
The NFL is a passing league, and if teams are going to have success, they better find some talented corners. Here is a look at the ten best tandems in the NFL.
10: Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie & Prince Amukamara – New York Giants
Rodgers-Cromartie corrected the technical inconsistencies in his game, and put together a strong 2013 campaign in Denver after a disappointing stint in Philadelphia. In the off-season, DRC signed a blockbuster free-agent deal with the New York Giants. He joins his ex-Cardinals teammate Antrel Rolle, who has already publicly challenged him to elevate his game even further and join the league’s elite this season. A mentor like Rolle could be just what he needs to take that next step.
Across from Rodgers-Cromartie, Amukamara feels as though he is on the cusp of greatness. The Giants picked up his fifth-year option, but Amukamara knows he needs to do more on the field if he wants a long-term deal. He was covering the opposing team’s top receiver for the majority of last season, and did it religiously down the stretch. Having DRC handle those duties and Prince step back and cover number two receivers should create matchup problems for receivers across the board.
The G-Men also added former Seahawks nickel specialist Walter Thurmond to the mix via free agency. While this list will focus on outside corners, Thurmond could factor into a role other than his natural nickel spot if either of the two suffer and injury.
With an emphasis on replenishing the back-end in free agency, the Giants’ secondary is suddenly deep. The duo of Rodgers-Cromartie and Amukamara should be a reliable one in 2014.
9: Ladarius Webb & Jimmy Smith – Baltimore Ravens
Webb was scratching the surface of greatness in 2011 and the Ravens rewarded him with a six-year contract extension worth $50 million. Just six games into his new deal, Webb tore his ACL and was sidelined for the rest of the Ravens Super-Bowl winning season. As we’ll see with Revis later on in the list, the second year after ACL surgery is when athletes, and specifically corners and running backs begin to regain their form.
In his first year back in 2013, Webb struggled. The emergence of 6’2 Jimmy Smith meant teams were more eager to target the shorter Webb. Against the NFC North’s best receivers in AJ Green and Josh Gordon, Smith gave up zero catches while covering them. Gordon even said Smith was the best corner not named Joe Haden in the league, and was surprised Smith didn’t receiver more credit from peers. His large frame, and improved technique helped him hold “Megatron,” in check last year, denying him the century mark of receiving yards.
Webb had reached prominence among corners prior to his devastating knee injury. If he can relive that success and do so with a running mate across from him this time around, this young duo will be a lethal one for opposing receivers.
8: Brandon Flowers & Sean Smith – Kansas City Chiefs
Amid Draft Weekend trade rumours, Flowers is still a Chief, and his partnership with Sean Smith is still one of the better ones in the NFL.
Flowers is a competitor with good coverage skills. Andy Reid moved the 5’9 corner to the nickel at times last year to take advantage of those skills, and to avoid match-ups with bigger receivers. Size isn’t an issue with the 6’3 corner opposite him, former Miami Dolphin Sean Smith. He loves to press cover, and he’s good at it. When it comes to new-age NFL corners, Smith presents the ideal frame, he can’t always make up for his lack of foot speed.
Flowers and Smith are as physically gifted as they come, but they have yet to reach their ceiling. Consistency is the key, and if they can achieve that, the sky is the limit for this tandem.
7: Charles Tillman & Tim Jennings – Chicago Bears
Tillman has been one of the most influential corners in the league throughout his career. A perennial playmaker, Tillman has forced 42 fumbles in his career, the most ever among defensive backs. To compare, he is just seven shy of sack-specialist John Abraham who has mastered the strip-sack. Jennings’ career sky-rocketed once he signed with the Bears in 2010. The playmaking ability of Tillman must have rubbed off. Jennings has picked off 16 passes in his four years with the Bears, compared to only four in his first four years in the league with the Colts.
A few years ago, this tandem was the best in the league. The fact that they’ve both entered into the dreaded post-30 NFL life, coupled with the dominance of the new kids on the block in Sherman and Peterson, has caused them to plummet. However, they still possess top-ten quality as a tandem, and with the signings of pass rushers Jared Allen and Lamarr Houston, Tillman and Jennings may be able slow down father time.
The Bears selected Virginia Tech cornerback Kyle Fuller with its first pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. The scenario is a perfect one for the rookie as he gets the opportunity to learn under two of the best before eventually stepping in as their corner of the future.
6: Darrelle Revis & Brandon Browner – New England Patriots
The Bucs paid $16 million and a number one draft choice to watch Revis reintegrate into NFL life after suffering a horrific ACL injury in 2012. The ACL plays a vital role in athletes’ ability to jump, cut, twist and change directions quickly – all crucial traits a dominant corner must possess. The second year after surgery is when athletes are known to have fully regained their form. Jamaal Charles exploded last year with 19 total touchdowns and nearly 2,000 yards from scrimmage in his second year after ACL surgery and the Patriots hope Revis can enjoy similar success in 2014.
The Patriots lost Talib to conference rival Peyton Manning but made a major splash by snagging their former division rival Revis. Browner leaves Sherman in Seattle for Revis in New England. Not such a bad trade-off. He had a phenomenal career in Seattle covering number two receivers, and he’ll figure into the same role across from the former Jet and Buc.
This pair will have to be patient. Browner will be sidelined for the first four games of the season for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. It won’t hit the field as a duo until week five, but when it does, watch out. This tandem may find its way atop this list by the end of next season.
5: Sam Shields & Tramon Williams – Green Bay Packers
Green Bay made re-signing Sam Shields its top priority heading into the off-season. Luckily for the Packers, they were able to quickly to strike a new $39 million deal with their top corner before the start of free agency. His traits are ideal for the slot, but he has found a permanent home playing on the outside. Shields thrives in man coverage, and like his partner Williams, he always seems to make key plays on the ball.
Williams was pivotal in Green Bay’s Super Bowl run in 2010, making countless game-changing plays. The athletic corner is a perfect fit in Dom Capers’ defence. He’s a freakish athlete and he demonstrated his play-making ability in Green Bay’s crucial comeback win against the Cowboys last season with his spectacular game-sealing takeaway.
When it comes to getting the ball back in your quarterbacks hands, few tandems are as successful as Shields and Williams.
4: Aqib Talib & Chris Harris Jr. – Denver Broncos
Talib was one of the most dominant corners in the league last year, and made an early case for defensive player of the year prior to biting the injury bug. He was the only guy that was able to slow down Jimmy Graham during his early season reign of terror on defensive backs (six touchdowns and four 100 yard games in first five games of 2013).Talib’s rare size and physicality made him a nightmare matchup for Graham, and he was able to hold him to no catches.
The Broncos inked him to a lucrative free agent deal worth $57 M over six years. Joining Talib will be Chris Harris, who should be ready for opening day after also dealing with injury troubles in 2013. He was one of the unsung heroes of the Broncos’ terrific regular season, and he was sorely missed in the Super Bowl against Seattle.
Talib and Harris crack the list at number four, but there’s no reason why they can’t keep climbing in 2014.
3: Joe Haden & Justin Gilbert – Cleveland Browns
New Browns Head Coach Mike Pettine’s defensive system requires two lock-down corners. With Haden already established as one of the top corners in the game, the prospect of bringing in Gilbert was an enticing one. The Browns managed to trade down and grab their tall corner, stockpile a first-round pick in next year’s draft and also add their quarterback of the future in Johnny Manziel. Gilbert’s combination of size at 6’0, speed at 4.37 in the 40, and ability to stick his foot in the dirt and change directions quickly, makes him a prized possession in this new NFL. And he now belongs to Cleveland. Had they bypassed Gilbert, the less sexy tandem of Haden and Buster Skrine would have likely missed the cut.
The Browns rewarded Haden with a new $68 million ($45 million guaranteed) deal that will keep him in Cleveland until 2019. Expect this tandem to work in unison for years, and don’t be surprised if they reach the top spot on this list sooner rather than later.
2: Richard Sherman & Byron Maxwell – Seattle Seahawks
The suspension of Richard Sherman’s partner in defensive crime, and fellow “Legion of Boom” member Brandon Browner last year, was devastating for a Seahawks team that had its eyes on the Super Bowl prize. Head Coach Pete Carroll called on third year, former 6th round pick Byron Maxwell to step in and the ‘Hawks didn’t miss a beat, eventually capturing their Lombardi Trophy.
Sherman is the best corner in football and he showed why last year. When teams refused to target his side of the field last season, Sherman still managed to make his presence felt. He was stout in his run support, and on the rare occasion he was thrown to in a game he made a game-changing play. Of course, the most memorable one was his tip to Malcolm Smith in the NFC Championship game, a play that will be etched in Seahawks history.
If Maxwell can maintain his 2013 end-of-season form, this tandem will have no issues jumping to number one.
1: Antonio Cromartie & Patrick Peterson – Arizona Cardinals
The newly formed duo edges Sherman and Maxwell for top spot in the NFC West, and top spot in the entire league. The Cardinals defense was a formidable one before the acquisition of Cromartie. With the former Jet on board, they managed to fill their only glaring team need, a corner opposite Peterson to alleviate the pressure. Cromartie dealt with a hip injury last season and his play dipped. The previous season, he was one of the top corners in the league while replacing the injured Darrelle Revis. Arizona seems like the perfect spot for Cromartie to get back on track.
Peterson shadows the opposing team’s top receiver all over the field, and like some of the other members of the 2011 draft class, he has quickly blossomed into a franchise cornerstone. This week, Peterson expressed his belief that he is superior to Sherman and is hoping the league, and his team recognizes it when he signs his second pro contract. The numbers should be similar to those of Joe Haden’s freshly penned contract. Peterson tweeted “45!!!!!” when he became aware of the details of the Browns cornerback’s new contract, which includes $45 million guaranteed.
Peterson’s payday is on the horizon. The finest tandem in the league is destined for big things in 2014, and so is the entire Cardinals team.
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