Daily Focus: Does a shutdown corner exist in today’s NFL?

Senior Analyst Sam Monson searches for a shutdown corner in the game today, examines Andrew Luck's worth, and more.

| 12 months ago
(Chris Keane/AP Images for Panini)

(Chris Keane/AP Images for Panini)

Daily Focus: Does a shutdown corner exist in today’s NFL?

Editor’s note: Every day in “Daily Focus,” PFF analysts take the latest NFL news and translate what it really means for each team involved.

Are there any shutdown CBs in the NFL currently? Former Chargers and Jets running back LaDainian Tomlinson says there are no shutdown corners in today’s NFL. Is he right? Obviously, that depends on your definition of shutdown. The best season we have seen from a corner since PFF has been grading (beginning in 2007) was Darrelle Revis in 2009.

In that season, Revis allowed just 36.9 percent of passes thrown his way to be caught. He was targeted 111 times and surrendered only 41 receptions, either picking off or breaking up 29 of the incompletions. He allowed a passer rating of just 32.3 when thrown at, or four points better than if the QB had just thrown the ball into the turf every play.

Even that season, though, Revis allowed two touchdowns, gave up 425 yards—145 of which came after the catch—and was beaten for a 53-yard reception. That’s as shutdown as cornerback play gets in today’s NFL (especially when you consider that he was tracking receivers that season), and he still didn’t exactly shut down receivers entirely.

In 2015, there was no 2009-Revis from anybody, but Josh Norman probably came the closest, and he took issue with Tomlinson’s assertion on NFL Network. Norman allowed 51.0 percent of passes thrown his way to be caught, also allowed two touchdowns, and surrendered a passer rating of 54.0 when targeted.

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But for a really rough game against Odell Beckham Jr. that descended into a farcical brawl, Norman would have earned the best coverage grade from any corner in the league last year, and did if you include the postseason, where he bounced back to his best, and yet you could easily argue that Norman didn’t truly shut down the passing game when targeted.

The flipside of that, though, is looking at some of the receivers that Norman faced and how little production they had. DeAndre Hopkins caught only two passes for 24 yards on seven targets against the former Panther when they met. Dez Bryant caught only one pass for 6 yards on five targets. In the Super Bowl, Demaryius Thomas was held without a catch all game when Norman was covering him, so in a very real sense Norman was able to shut down some of the game’s best—if not completely, then far more than they are when they faced any other top corner.

Because of the nature of the position, if you’re looking for perfection, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment when it comes to coverage. You aren’t going to find anybody that can keep a clean sheet every game of the season. Corners are going to give up some catches, and many of them are almost by design, to limit the damage on the play and give the offense the short completion, knowing you can make the stop after the catch. Giving up touchdowns is one measure of corner play, but even the best guys in the games will get beaten for scores on occasion. Norman was last year, Sherman has in the past, Revis did in 2009, and even Deion Sanders—the gold standard people hold up for shutdown coverage—gave up scores.

No cornerback is perfect, so if that’s your benchmark for “shutdown,” then Tomlinson is right, they don’t exist—but probably never did. If your definition, on the other hand, is consistently holding good receivers to their worst performance of the season, then there are a couple of cornerbacks that can lay claim to that title, none more so than Josh Norman in 2015.

Does Andrew Luck’s play thus far justify his new extension? Andrew Luck just got handed the richest contract in NFL history. You can read Senior Analyst Mike Renner’s reaction to the deal here, but I wanted to look for a moment at why Luck has never graded among the very best QBs at PFF.

His ceiling is as high as anybody’s, and he can make big plays that few, if any, QBs in the league can make. His issue is the mistakes. Luck still makes the kind of bonehead plays that rookies make, despite being well into his career, and he doesn’t really show any sign of eliminating those from his game—kind of in the way Brett Favre was always a “What?!” play waiting to happen. Obviously Favre proves that you can not only succeed, but also make the Hall of Fame and win Super Bowls playing like that, but the former Packer was always an enigma, an exception to the rule rather than something to try and emulate. It would be a bit like teaching any would-be-golfer that their swing doesn’t really matter because Jim Furyk can strike the ball well despite mechanics that look made up on the spot.

My issue with Luck is less about the catastrophic mistakes; they’re bad, and in an era trending more towards taking care of the football, they may be a bigger problem than they ever were for Favre. However, I think the bigger problem is his tendency to miss on routine throws.

If we’re going to accept that big mistakes are an inherent part of Luck’s makeup, he needs to make the big-time plays at the other end (and I think he does), but he also needs to be extremely accurate on the routine stuff—and he isn’t. Last season, his adjusted completion percentage (adjusted for drops, etc.) was 65.0 percent, dead last in the NFL. He has never ranked higher than 20th in this regard for any single season.

These “nothing incompletions” can have very real consequences, and at the moment, keep him away from ranking among the best passers in the game, because he simply misses too many of them.

Cory Redding heads into retirement: Long-time lineman Cory Redding announced his retirement, and though we don’t have data for every year of his NFL career, we have nine years of grading that show him to be a consistently-effective pass-rusher across multiple schemes and positions. Redding has been a solid addition to most teams he has played for (Lions, Seahawks, Ravens, Colts, and Cardinals) and leaves the game after an excellent career.

| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN and NBCSports.

  • JudoPrince

    Who is Jim Furyk?

  • Dave

    Agree that there are no current “shutdown” corners. I think the Q. today is, who are the best “tie-up” corners?

    E.g., full disclosure, I’m a Pats fan & though I certainly wouldn’t suggest Malcolm Butler is the best in the game, I believe he’s an upper-tier, “tie-up” corner, in that you can count on him to at least trouble the other team’s #1 WR for an entire game. That #1 WR will get catches & even scores, but he’ll earn every single one of ’em & likely be in for a long day regardless when facing Butler.

    Every team can really use a “tie-up” corner, however not every team has one. Re: PFF’s CB rankings, I wonder if the data supports my “tie-up” corner theory &, if so, where’s the dividing line—who’s the last ranked CB who can be considered part of the “tie-up” tier?—that shows how many NFL teams have one of these guys.

    • Zach

      Not every team has a true #1 corner in the sense that they have a guy shadow the other team’s #1 receiver the entire game. For example Richard Sherman is given one side of the field to shut down and the Seahawks will flood their coverage to the other side, which means theoretically a team could put their #1 guy on the other side of the field the entire game. I know before last year Patrick Peterson was a good example of a guy who would follow the #1 receiver all game, and because of this and his return ability he was viewed as an elite corner even though his PFF grades were pretty bad. Last year that changed, probably in part due to Tyrann Mathieu’s emergence, but before that he would be the best example of what you’re talking about.

      • Dave

        Yes, in fact, if memory serves, Butler was used in both of the ways you describe last season, depending on game plan; some games Butler was used to shadow the other team’s #1 WR (e.g., vs. PIT & A. Brown) & other games he was used to cover the other team’s #2 1-on-1 while the Pats flooded their coverage towards (sigh) Logan Ryan & the other side.

      • Darnell

        PP had been following, and was getting toasted.

        Sherm followed a couple times last season – Dez (2 rec, 12 yards) and Antonio Brown (6 -51).

  • HTTRer

    You didn’t answer the question.

  • crosseyedlemon

    Can someone explain why Tomlinson (career receiving avg 7.6) is regarded as the authority on shutdown corners?

    • Mike Weisel

      Just because he was RB, doesnt mean he doesnt understand other positions and the ability to compare one player to the next. It would be the same for a lineman, if they are smart enough and know enough I bet they can evaluate talented players and stats and tape. Also LT was a great pass catching RB.

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