In preparation for NFL training camps kicking off, we at Full Press Coverage will preview 10 of the most notable players at each position around the league. In these groupings, we will examine the three best (The Now), four who are ready for the next step (The Next) and three who have to show some sign of life in 2019 (The Needy). Next up, the cornerbacks.
1. Stephon Gilmore, Patriots
Gilmore has been a pretty good corner for awhile now, going back to his Buffalo days. But in 2018, he established himself as the preeminent cover guy in the NFL. Look no further than his dominant performance in the Super Bowl where he played the largest role in booting the tires of the Rams’ offense. To put some numbers to it, Gilmore allowed a completion percentage of only 44 percent while recording 20 passes defended in 2018. It has taken a little bit of time for Gilmore to reach the elite of the elite, but he appears to not only be entering his prime, he is now defining excellence in pass coverage.
2. Jalen Ramsey, Jaguars
Jacksonville’s serious backslide and the sudden silencing of Ramsey’s trash talk made 2018 seem a worse performance than it actually was. His allowed completion percentage was still below 55 percent and his allowed passer rating under 74. In other words, Ramsey remained an island unto himself, capable of shutting down some of the top receivers in the game. The major difference from 2018 was the slightly more modest deflection numbers. From a one-on-one coverage standpoint, the last three years prove that Ramsey is on a trajectory to be one of the most feared cover corners in the game for a long time.
3. Casey Hayward, Chargers
There may not be a less talked-about superstar in the NFL than Hayward. Maybe it is the fact that he thrives as an off-man ball-hawking corner, or maybe it is simply the nature of playing for the Chargers. But for three years now, Hayward has been arguably the most reliable cover in the game. After posting 11 inteceptions and 42 deflections in 2016-17, opposing quarterbacks got the message on Hayward and stopped throwing the ball his direction nearly as often (just eight total in 2018). He pounces on every throw (56 forced incompletions the last three years, per PFF) and always stays in the back of quarterbacks’ minds whenever they play Los Angeles. He is as quietly lethal a cover corner as there is in the game.
Honorable Mentions: Patrick Peterson, Kyle Fuller, Richard Sherman, Darius Slay
1. Denzel Ward, Browns
One could argue Ward, along with fellow rookie first-rounder Jaire Alexander, took the step to superstardom in year one. Yet there is still room for Ward to bump his play up that much higher and truly reach the upper echelon. He allowed a rating of just 70.7 when targeted last year, and that was while working through injuries. With a full season of health and a full season of (theoretically) harmonious coaching staff, Ward could be knocking on The Now’s door before long.
2. Shaquill Griffin, Seahawks
Griffin’s physical gifts have flashed so often that the one has to think he has an elite career in front of him. However, consistency has been an issue over his first two NFL seasons. Seattle picked the UCF product to be a major building block as they look to recreate their elite secondary of yesteryear, but Griffin’s come-and-go play has made that slow progress. His elite athletic traits are so apparent that his coverage lapses become all the more frustrating. The signs are there in pieces, and the Seahawks need Griffin to assemble the puzzle before long. Otherwise, they are going to have to rethink their rebuilding plan.
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3. Chidobe Awuzie, Cowboys
Like Griffin, Awuzie’s expanded role meant more inconsistency. For around half the season, Awuzie looked like he was taking an immediate leap into the upper echelon of cover corners. But as he saw more passes over the course of the season, his coverage became much more hit-or-miss. There is reason to believe he can ascend further, and Dallas will continue to rely on him. Inconsistency, however, is the most frustrating trait of young corners. Awuzie is as capable as anyone of locking down his man. The problem is that the big plays popped up far too often last year. Cutting those down will be the tall task for him as he looks to secure himself as an NFL starter.
4. Adoree Jackson, Titans
Jackson is the overlooked guy from the 2017 cornerback class as Marshon Lattimore and Tre’Davious White are widely recognized as stars. But Jackson has been a solid cover himself over the last two seasons. Few have seen more passes thrown his direction (105 in 2018), but he has kept completion percentage and passer rating fairly low when targeted. His performance last year was especially important early in the season as Malcolm Butler’s performance imploded. Jackson’s consistency is encouraging for his future, as is his durability. The big thing for him as he looks to jump up a level is increasing his play-making (just 12 pass defenses in 2018, 17 in 2017). That could very well be why Jackson is never discussed among the premier young corners in the NFL.
Honorable Mentions: Jaire Alexander, Minkah Fitzpatrick
1. Malcolm Butler, Titans
Butler’s 2018 season was so bizarre in its duality. For half the season, he was one of the most unreliable covers and worst contracts in the league. Three times in the first nine weeks of the season he allowed over 100 yards with 2.31 yards per coverage snap, per Pro Football Focus. But something clicked at the midway point and Butler turned into a top-flight corner again. His second half was far more reminiscent of his run in New England where he became one of the best corners in the game out of nowhere.
The thing is Tennessee has invested a lot in Butler. Their defensive talent is substantial, and they were one game from the postseason in 2018. Had Butler played up to snuff in the first half, the Titans may have usurped the Colts for the final Wild Card spot. Butler showing life this year is not so much proving he can play. We saw it for eight games last year. Rather, it is avoiding stretches so excruciatingly awful that it negates whatever good play he provides at other times.
2. Vernon Hargreaves III, Buccaneers
Tampa Bay’s secondary has been the biggest reason for their defensive deficiencies, despite a promising front seven. Hargreaves has certainly been a part of those deficiencies. Since going 11th overall in 2016, he ranks among the worst for outside covers in yards and completions allowed, and then compounded the question marks by missing most of 2018 with a shoulder injury. Todd Bowles is a bit of a secondary whisperer, so if there is an avenue for Hargreaves’ career to ascend, Bowles may be able to find it. But Hargreaves has a long way to go to make his high draft position seem worthwhile.
3. Teez Tabor, Lions
Second-round corners are expected to play big minutes at some point. Ideally, teams can find starters at the position on day two. That was the plan with Tabor coming out of Florida in 2017, but he has failed to live up to whatever expectations he had. Tabor only started four games last year, and was a complete liability in coverage when he did see the field. According to PFF, he allowed a perfect rating when targeted. While it has only been two seasons, Tabor has to show that he deserves any playing time at all if he wants a second contract.
–Sam Smith is the Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage Vikings and Deputy Editor for Full Press NFL. Like and Follow @samc_smith.
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