Top 10 CBs Going Into the 2022 NFL Season

If wide receivers are suddenly super valuable, then the guys who cover them (AKA cornerbacks) must also be really important right? In that case, let’s look at the top 10 CBs for 2022. All of these players are outside corners because they’re typically more coveted than slot corners (though a couple of these guys can play in the slot). Unlike slot CBs, outside corners require elite speed to run with fast WRs, and they must also go against teams’ #1 wideouts if they shadow certain players; at worst, they face off against the #2 receiver. Interceptions, touchdown denial, pass break-ups, coverage skills, and even tackling ability combine to form a shutdown corner, so don’t be surprised if a one-trick pony doesn’t rank as highly as you might expect. Let’s get to it!

1. Jalen Ramsey, Rams
We begin with the very definition of a shutdown cornerback. Ramsey allowed only 3 TDs in coverage all season long, despite often covering his opponents’ top targets. The few times he was targeted, he made teams pay, picking off 4 passes and deflecting 16 more. Ramsey also does a great job of keeping plays in front of him when running backs get to the secondary or receivers catch the ball quickly, as shown by his 77 tackles in 2021 (9 for loss). If you target Ramsey, you probably won’t be moving the chains very much (assuming you keep the ball at all), and he has easily proven why the Rams traded two first-round picks to acquire him from the Jaguars.

2. Xavien Howard, Dolphins
One of the premier ball-hawking CBs in the NFL, Howard had a “down year” in terms of interceptions with 5; he had 10 the previous year, but one of his 2021 INTs was a pick six. He’s also broken up a whopping 36 passes over the past two seasons. Howard rarely gives up a big play because he takes a lot of chances with regard to jumping routes and reading QBs’ eyes, but his instincts are usually spot on, so the damage is extremely limited. Most of the time, the Dolphins reap the rewards (often with another offensive possession). He’s no slouch in the tackling department either, with 51 and 50 tackles in 2020 and 2021, respectively. Howard even recovered 2 fumbles and notched a sack, showing that he’s a really complete DB.

3. Marshon Lattimore, Saints

The best of the recent OSU draft picks at CB, Lattimore is very sticky in coverage, allowing only 1.5 yards of separation on average last year. He picked off 3 passes and broke up 19 throws, and he has contributed 50 or more tackles in each of his pro seasons. With his length and speed, he can cover a variety of receivers, including big-bodied targets who like to win with separation and smaller speedsters who try to blow by the defense. Perhaps most importantly, he gives Mike Evans and the Buccaneers FITS every time the two teams play, and he seems to own Tom Brady, as weird as that is to say. That fact alone earns him a spot in the top 3, even if 2021 was a slight down year by his lofty standards.

4. Denzel Ward, Browns

Lattimore wasn’t the best Ohio State CB by very much, as Ward ranks right behind him. Ward might actually be a bit stickier than Lattimore (1.1 yards of separation, #1 among all players), but his counting stats are lower for a very good reason: teams wisely refrain from throwing at him. He only allowed 39 receptions and 4 TDs in 2021 while picking off 4 passes (taking one 99 yards for a TD) and deflecting 10 more. Ward tends to prefer man coverage over zone, so he doesn’t make as many tackles as some of his peers (43 last year), but he more than makes up for that by being a player opposing QBs want to avoid at all cost, thereby often eliminating a side of the field.

5. AJ Terrell, Falcons

Quietly, Terrell blossomed into a stud cornerback in his second year, but this was overshadowed by the Falcons’ defensive ineptitude at most other spots (Grady Jarrett is also exempt from this criticism). He was actually ranked first among all corners in 3 notable categories: yards per target allowed (4.4), catch rate allowed (42.9%), and passer rating allowed (66.1). Terrell also only allowed 2 TDs while picking off 3 passes, batting 16 passes, forcing a fumble, and making 81 tackles. So why isn’t he higher on the list? Two reasons: 1. this was a monster productivity jump, and we have to see if he maintains it; 2. as brilliant as he was in zone coverage, he struggled some in man-to-man. If he puts up another season as good as his last, he’ll challenge for #1 in 2023.

6. Trevon Diggs, Cowboys

Our king of INTs for 2021 finds himself slotted sixth on this list. Despite racking up 11(!) picks, tied for the single-season high over the past 40 years, and defending 21 more passes (2nd-most in the league), I have 5 other CBs ranked above him. Why? Because he’s actually a pretty feast-or-famine player. Unlike Xavien Howard, whose risk-taking tactics don’t typically come at the cost of allowing big plays, Diggs often gets burned in coverage, particularly when biting on double moves. He allowed a 107.9 passer rating in coverage, and he gave up 19 yards per reception. He’s a very talented corner whose instincts will likely to improve, which is why he ranks at all, but his key will be to become more consistent, as the interception numbers are likely to regress in 2022.

7. Marlon Humphrey, Ravens

Humphrey is the most effective slot player on this list, which also makes him the most versatile. His numbers were down a bit in 2021, but that’s mostly because he missed 5 games with injuries (who in the Ravens’ secondary didn’t?). Combining the last two seasons’ worth of stats lets us view his real value: he picked off 1 pass each year but forced a ridiculous 9 fumbles, adding 2.5 sacks and a safety. With a bit better health, I expect his numbers to rebound; Humphrey is extremely instinctive in coverage, and his new DC, Mike Macdonald, was his position coach as a rookie, so we know he can excel in that system, especially with Marcus Peters back to take pressure off him.

8. Tre’Davious White, Bills

My last three players are all projections. They each had their 2021 campaigns ruined by injury, but if they return to their pre-injury forms, they will all be ranked higher in the 2023 list. White tore his ACL at the very end of the 2020 campaign, so even though he started 11 games in 2021, he clearly wasn’t all the way back yet. Though he did record an INT, a forced fumble, 6 passes defended and 41 tackles, he wasn’t quite his normal shutdown self. Another year removed from his injury, he can certainly return to form at age 27. He already ranked 3rd in opponent passer rating (67.7), and that should only improve as he gains more confidence in his knee. Sorry Patrick Mahomes: the Bills’ pass defense isn’t going to be a sieve this year.

9. Jaire Alexander, Packers

Some may argue that Alexander should be in the top 3. In 2020, he was well on his way to being one of the best CBs in the entire league. However, he suffered an AC joint sprain in week 4 of 2021 and didn’t play again that season. Green Bay, knowing his trajectory as well as anyone, still signed him to a 4-year extension. That should tell you a lot in terms of what’s expected of him for years to come. Back in 2020, Alexander allowed only 5.4 yards per target and 10 yards per catch, demonstrating sticky coverage. He added 13 passes defended, a sack, and 51 tackles, proving his versatility. Prior to his injury, his coverage grades increased each season since his rookie year, so I feel comfortable ranking him in my top 10 despite his lost 2021 season.

10. Stephon Gilmore, Colts

Gilmore played sparingly in 2021 due to a torn quad suffered during Week 15 of the 2020 season, but as the first CB to win Defensive Player of the Year (2019) since Charles Woodson in 2009, he deserves the benefit of the doubt in terms of whether he’ll bounce back next season. I doubt he’ll have as legendary a year as he did in 2019 (let’s face it: most won’t ever), but he quietly did pretty well with Carolina after he was traded and returned from his injury; in 8 games but only 3 starts, he recorded 2 INTs, 2 passes defended, and 16 tackles. With another offseason to recover, I don’t see why he can’t rediscover his prior level of play alongside Xavier Rhodes in Indianapolis. In fact, I’m fairly confident he will.

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