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2024 NFL Draft: 7 Best Zone Coverage CBs

Quinyon Mitchell

Sure, man-to-man shutdown corners are flashy, but you have to be effective in zone coverage to make it in the modern NFL. After all, most teams play zone more than half the time. The best zone corners pair athleticism with great processing, monitoring the quarterback and reading receivers’ every move.

We’ll use our evaluations and metrics to rank the top seven zone cornerbacks in the 2024 NFL Draft Class.

Ranking 2024 NFL Draft's 7 Best Zone CBs

Rutgers Scarlet Knights defensive back Max Melton (16) intercepts a pass against the Iowa Hawkeyes during the second quarter at Kinnick Stadium on Nov. 11, 2023. (Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports)

7. Max Melton, Rutgers

While his man coverage ability is just sufficient, Max Melton’s football intelligence and awareness make him a strong zone defender. As Evan Sharkey wrote in his scouting report, “He has solid eye discipline and is able to read and react to the quarterback while being mindful of the action around him.”

Melton did a great job clamping down in zone in 2023, averaging the third-best yards per zone coverage snap among this year’s prospects. He wasn’t quite so elite if the focus was just on his targets, but if you don’t get targeted you can’t get beat.

>>READ: Ranking the Top 15 Cornerbacks in 2024 NFL Draft

Michigan Wolverines defensive back Mike Sainristil (0) tackles Washington Huskies wide receiver Jalen McMillan (11) during the fourth quarter in the 2024 College Football Playoff national championship game at NRG Stadium on Jan. 8, 2024. (Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports)

6. Mike Sainristil, Michigan

Mike Sainristil is just 5-foot-9 and doesn’t have the physicality to play up on the line, but he had solid jump numbers at the NFL Combine and brings “great movement skills, twitch, and hip fluidity,” per Jeremy Percy’s scouting report.

To that point, we graded him as a “7” (very good) in reactive athleticism and transition ability.

He split time at receiver while at Michigan, so while his size and experience limitations bring down his overall stock. He makes up for that with ball skills and an awareness of what the receiver wants to do. 

Florida State Seminoles wide receiver Keon Coleman (4) is tackled by Wake Forest Demon Deacons defensive back Caelen Carson (1) during an ACC game on Oct. 28, 2023. (Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports)

5. Caelen Carson, Wake Forest

Scout John Lininger described Caelen Carson as “one of the better athletes on the field no matter the opponent” while at Wake Forest, but his technique suggests a lack of trust in that athleticism.

Per Lininger’s scouting report, “Carson moves very well and has solid hip fluidity, and when he plays proper positioning and trusts himself, good things happen.”

In one of the position’s odder career trajectories, Carson had his best years earlier in his career. He started with a Pass Coverage Total Points Rating of 99 (best possible) in his first year, and that declined each year to 85 this past season. The same could be said of his performance when targeted in zone coverage, where he lagged in 2023 but would have been among the best at the position with his 2020 stats.

Georgia Bulldogs defensive back Kamari Lassiter (3) tackles Ball State Cardinals running back Marquez Cooper (15) during a game at Sanford Stadium on Sept. 9, 2023. (Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports)

4. Kamari Lassiter, Georgia

In a shocking turn of events, a Georgia defender is on the list.

In 2023, Kamari Lassiter allowed the fewest yards per coverage snap of anyone in the class and ranked merely third in zone. 

SIS’s No. 7 cornerback overall, Lassiter showed good transition ability, “[doing] a good job of getting depth in his drops and keeping everything in front.”

In his scouting report, Max Nuscher compliments Lassiter’s ability to read route concepts but acknowledges he can lose his assignment if receivers get behind him.

3. Nate Wiggins, Clemson

Nate Wiggins is SIS’s No. 2 cornerback, with the same grade as Alabama’s Kool-Aid McKinstry. He actually grades out better in man coverage than in zone, but that’s why he’s ranked better overall than he is on this list.

In his scouting report, Nathan Cooper points out the value of Wiggins’ ability to process what’s in front of him: “In zone coverage, he has the awareness to see what’s going on around him and the football intelligence to read and recognize route combinations to jump routes.”

It’s hard to argue with his production in zone in his final season at Clemson: second in yards allowed per zone coverage snap and third in the percentage of zone targets with a positive EPA allowed.

2. Cooper DeJean, Iowa

Up to this point, everyone on this list has been graded with a “6” (good) in zone coverage.

Cooper DeJean is our first “7,” with the same grade for his football intelligence. He improved quite a bit in his final season at Iowa, spending more time on the outside and being given more press responsibilities.

From Nathan Cooper’s scouting report: “DeJean is at his best in zone coverage. He uses a zone turn to the field to see everything that’s going on. He’s incredibly cerebral, reading the quarterback’s eyes and route concepts and falling off routes to jump others with an uncanny ability.”

1. Quinyon Mitchell, Toledo

Our No. 3 overall cornerback takes top billing on this list, in part because his biggest hangup as a prospect is his ability to support the run. Quinyon Mitchell also grades as a “7” in zone with good closing speed and a cerebral approach to the position, per Jeremy Percy’s scouting report.

While he wasn’t a true shutdown corner at Toledo, Mitchell clamped down when the ball came his way and improved dramatically in this respect during his career. In terms of Positive Play Percentage allowed in zone coverage, he went from 41 percent in 2021 to 34 percent in 2022 and 24 percent in 2023.

All stats and ranks are as of 4/16/24.

This article was written by Alex Vigderman