Cornerbacks: The Pack Chasing Revis

| June 24, 2012

Darrelle Revis is football’s best cornerback. He is bringing the term ‘shutdown corner’ back from the brink of extinction and playing at a level nobody else has matched for quite some time.

His ability to play all across the formation and take away an opponent’s top receiver allows the Jets freedom to roll things to other receivers and gives them a luxury no other team really has.

He has mastered the ability to be physical with receivers, keeping it just short of the point that he gets called for it, and that in and of itself is an art form. He is in a class by himself, but are there players in the NFL that have a shot to join him on that level? We take a look.

 

 

 

The Veterans

There are a few players who have been around the league for a while, but have really upped their game in recent seasons and are only a small leap in play from joining Revis.

Johnathan Joseph was a major part in the resurgence of the Houston defense last season and his ability to track receivers was a big boon to their coverage. Of course while Joseph allowed 57.9% of all targets to be complete for a QB rating of 71.3, Revis allowed only 41.2% complete and a rating of only 45.6, so Joseph still has a way to go to catch him. What we did see from the Texan, though, was a rare ability to cover a top receiver across the field, as opposed to the corners who stay on one side only.

Brent Grimes was exceptional for the Falcons when he played, limiting receivers to catching just 44.6% of balls thrown into his coverage, and though he only intercepted one pass, he broke up another dozen. Grimes had an excellent season, but he doesn’t track receivers the way Revis or Joseph does, making his job that bit easier. Though he played the run well, he did miss time injured, something neither Revis nor Joseph did.

Nnamdi Asomugha is a player that I’m mentioning more to head off the barrage of abuse I will receive if I don’t, rather than because I actually think he has a shot to reach Revis level. Asomugha was exposed last season in Philadelphia for the things he was never asked to do as a Raider. He was an excellent player for Oakland playing on the backside in off-man coverage where he rarely saw the football. When he was asked to move around for the Eagles, cover the slot and play in zone coverage, he struggled far more. He is built like an elite specimen at the position, and he did improve markedly down the stretch, but he misses too many tackles in the run game and looked some way shy of that elite shutdown guy for me to buy his prospects of joining Revis at the very top. He would need a massive leap forward in production.

 

The Young Contenders

There are three players–all 26 or younger–who I think have demonstrated that they have Revis-type skills, and need another step forward to join that conversation.

Joe Haden is the youngest of the three and led the NFL last season in passes defensed with 17. He didn’t manage to intercept a pass, so there were corners with more total pass-breakups, but even so he held receivers under 50% completion percentage and played the run very well. Haden didn’t track receivers in the same way Revis does, but he has played both left and right corner as well as the slot, and has spent the majority of his time at left corner–the tougher position because most quarterbacks are right handed and thus favor that side. Haden has an elite break on the ball and can read a receiver’s body very well, anticipating throws and getting into position to defend them quickly, a skill he shares with Revis. The leap from Haden’s rookie year to his second was significant, and a leap of similar size would see him vault right into Revis air.

Brandon Flowers is one of the league’s most underrated players, and has been since before he was drafted. While most of the draft world was going nuts over Leodis McKelvin or Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, NFL Network’s Mike Mayock was telling people that Brandon Flowers was the best corner in that draft class. A few years later he looks to be right. Flowers started out shaky in Kansas City, but improved each year until a rocky start to his 2011 season that saw him cough up five touchdowns in the first two games (more than twice as many as he allowed in the entirety of 2010). He righted the ship and still finished the year as our fifth-graded cornerback, allowing only 53.5% of targets to be caught. Like Haden, Flowers has played almost all his time at left corner, as Brandon Carr manned the other side for the Chiefs, but he has the ability to move around, and did so in college as the boundary corner for the Virginia Tech Hokies. Until last season he had taken a noticeable step forward every season in the league. If he can start 2012 with an improvement rather than a slip backwards, then he can get himself into the picture.

Lardarius Webb may have the best chance of anybody to enter the conversation. Unlike the other two, Webb has played all over the Ravens’ defense, including the slot, though usually not tracking receivers. Last season (if you include the playoffs) his +19.0 coverage grade actually topped that of Revis, albeit with more games in the postseason that Revis didn’t get a chance at, and he made 20 total pass breakups (interceptions and passes defensed). Including the playoffs, teams had a QB rating of 42.0 when throwing at Webb, bettering the mark of Revis–the only player to do so with significant playing time. Webb has been coming back after blowing his knee out late in 2009. Last season was the first we really got to see what he could bring, and he brought some elite play. It would not take much improvement at all for him to enter Revis territory, and in fact, simply maintaining and repeating 2011’s play may well justify that kind of talk. Webb looks like the complete cornerback, and 2012 could well be his year.

 

The Youngsters

In addition to those players, the league has seen some exciting prospects come into the game in recent years, but (with one exception) none has yet to show at the NFL level that they can replicate that kind of play. That exception is Seattle’s Richard Sherman, who didn’t start until Week 8 last season, but from that point on compiled a coverage grade of +10.8, which would tie Joseph for the fourth-best mark in the NFL. Sherman showed some elite play in limited game time, and though he was heavily penalized (with nine total flags), he showed the best play of the youngster group.

Patrick Peterson might be the most gifted athlete of any of the young players and the Cardinals did use him to track receivers last season, but other than a couple of games, we didn’t really see the indication that he was able for it, and he was beaten far more than he shut opponents down. Peterson ended the season having given up 869 yards and allowing almost 60% of targets to be complete, but he did have games where he looked legit. The Cardinals put him on Dez Bryant for most of the Dallas game and he limited Bryant to seven catches for 76 yards and a touchdown, which doesn’t sound like a great day, but he also broke up three more passes intended for Bryant and made some impressive plays. The following week he shut down Michael Crabtree before holding A.J. Green without a reception (in his coverage) two weeks after that. Peterson has elite athleticism and did show ability at the tail end of the season, but he has a long way to go to be mentioned alongside Revis.

Baltimore’s Jimmy Smith is another player with elite athleticism, but his career is a sum total of 337 snaps old, though that does feature two games in which he played extremely well … albeit both against inept quarterbacks (Indianapolis and Cleveland). Smith has all the physical tools to get the job done, but we’ll wait and see how he gets on after a complete season of play.

The last name I want to mention is a rookie, which is usually a no-no for Pro Football Focus, Morris Claiborne. Obviously we have yet to grade a snap of his–we are, after all, Pro Football Focus–but in watching some of his LSU tape he plays the ball in the air better than any corner of recent memory. He showed an incredible ability to lock down a receiver in man coverage and then become the receiver when the ball was in the air. Who knows if he will translate to the NFL, or if he will become another in a long line of draft busts, but he is a player to keep an eye on if nothing else.

 

After all of this, one thing seems abundantly clear: it is not easy to get to the level Revis has reached. He is clearly the league’s best corner right now, and may be one of the best of all time when everything is said and done. The players we have looked are all shooting for his crown, but there might not be a single one of them able to make it there alongside the New York Jet–that’s how rare the air is on Revis Island.

 

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  • Jiz

    A healthy Tramon Williams cold be considered for the 2nd tier?

    • Sam Monson

      In coverage terms alone he’d be in the conversation, but he’s less of a complete player than some of the others, far less likely to play the run well and enforce himself in that way. I’d also like to see him do it for another season before I give him too much credit. In 12 months time in a similar article he could be in the Brent Grimes kind of area.

  • daviddemont

    What about Chris Gamble? He played lights friggin out last season! Hell, the only WR to really catch on him (that I remember) was Calvin Johnson, and most all of that was simply because the Panthers were in a ton of zone and Calvin would catch it right after Gamble passed him on to the safeties, haha.