NFL Analysis


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Ranking the Top 10 Cornerbacks In NFL History

Sep 11, 1997; Irving, TX, USA; FILE PHOTO: Dallas Cowboys defensive back Deion Sanders (21) celebrating as he scores a touchdown on an interception against the Chicago Bears at Texas Stadium. Mandatory Credit: James D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Ranking the top 10 cornerbacks in NFL history is incredibly difficult for a variety of reasons. But that’s what we will do today. We are looking at all of the top cornerbacks to play the game, including the players all the way back to the 1950s. It’s a comprehensive list of the top shutdown defenders in league history.

For this article, we are looking at players and their careers while only playing cornerback. Someone like Ronnie Lott, who started his career at cornerback before making the switch to safety, will be judged only on his cornerback numbers. It's the same for Rod Woodson, Charles Woodson, etc.

So without further ado, here are the top-10 cornerbacks in NFL history.

Top Cornerbacks in NFL History

10. Richard Sherman

Richard Sherman doesn’t have the longevity of some of the other cornerbacks on this list, as he retired after 11 seasons. He really only played nine full seasons, playing just five games in the last two years of his career (2020-2021). However, Sherman has to be included in this list because of how dominant his peak was with the Seattle Seahawks.

From 2011 (rookie season) to 2016, Sherman was the NFL’s best cornerback. In those six seasons, Sherman recorded 30 interceptions and 92 pass deflections. During that stretch, the Seahawks allowed just 16.8 points per game and finished as the No. 1 scoring defense in four straight seasons.

Sherman was the best player on the league’s best defense and helped lead them to two Super Bowl appearances. He was named to the NFL’s All-Decade Team for the 2010s and helped create one of the league’s best secondaries ever: The Legion of Boom.

9. Willie Brown

Most of the cornerbacks on this list played in the 1990s or later, but one name that needs to be mentioned from previous eras is Willie Brown of the Broncos and the Raiders. Brown went undrafted in the AFL but eventually signed with the Broncos in 1963. He started 45 games for the Broncos and made two Pro Bowls before signing with the Raiders.

His career took off in Oakland as he made the Pro Bowl in seven consecutive seasons. His best season came in 1973 when he was named to his fifth All-Pro team. He recorded three interceptions and helped the Raiders reach the AFC Conference Championship Game again.

Brown was elected to the Pro Bowl Hall of Fame in 1984 and finished his career with 54 interceptions and nine Pro Bowl selections. Not too bad for an undrafted free agent from Grambling State.

8. Aeneas Williams

Aeneas Williams is one of several great cornerbacks who made the move to safety later in his career to help prolong his career. Williams spent his first 12 years at cornerback before switching to safety. He was as consistent and as durable as they come, never missing a game in the first 11 years of his career.

Williams was a franchise-altering player for the Cardinals, leading them to their first playoff win (1998) since 1947. In the Wild Card Round against the Cowboys, Williams intercepted Troy Aikman twice, helping Arizona hold Dallas to just seven points. The Cardinals would lose the following week, but he recorded another interception against the Vikings.

Aikman has mentioned multiple times during broadcasts that Williams was the toughest cornerback he ever faced (not Deion Sanders). It's not hard to see why, as Williams intercepted Aikman eight times during his career. Williams had the size and strength to bully receivers and the ball skills to make inaccurate quarterbacks pay. 

Denver Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey (24) warms up before the game against the Houston Texans. Thomas Campbell-USA TODAY Sports.

7. Champ Bailey

In the post-Deion Sanders era, there were several players who were in contention for the league's top cornerback. However, none of them were of Champ Bailey's caliber.

Despite being traded in the prime of his career for a running back (that still seems crazy to type), Bailey was the league's best cornerback during the 2000s by a good margin. He was a 12-time Pro Bowl selection during his 15-year career and had nine seasons with at least three interceptions.

The totality of Bailey’s career is as good as it gets. But his 2006 season puts him in the conversation for the best cornerback in NFL history. In 2006, he recorded 10 interceptions, which isn’t even the most impressive stat from him that season. According to ESPN, Bailey allowed just four catches in man coverage during the 2006 season. Four!

Bailey was a shut-down cornerback for most of his career and managed to create takeaways at a high clip. I would not argue with anyone who wants to put Bailey higher on this list. He was that good and that dominant.

6. Charles Woodson

Charles Woodson had a long career at cornerback before making the switch to safety. Before those final four seasons, Woodson was one of the league's top cornerbacks for well over a decade. He made the Pro Bowl in each of his first four seasons and was named the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year after recording five interceptions in 1998.

Woodson’s best season came in 2009, his third season with the Packers. He led the league in interceptions (9), defensive touchdowns (3), and recorded four forced fumbles. He was the most complete defensive back in the league, and even at the age of 33, he was completely dominant.

Woodson played until age 39, starting all 16 games for the Raiders in 2015. Even in that season, he recorded five interceptions and nine pass deflections.

Woodson's durability and consistent play-making are why he is so high on this list. He finished his career with 251 starts, 65 interceptions, 33 forced fumbles, and 20 sacks. He is the only defensive back in league history with 55+ interceptions and 20+ sacks. Woodson was a rare player in every sense of the word.

5. Dick “Night Train” Lane

Setting an NFL record as a rookie isn’t unheard of. But setting a record in 1952 and not having it broken yet is wild. Night Train Lane recorded 14 interceptions in 12 games for the Los Angeles Rams and led the league in return yards with 298. But Lane wasn’t a one-year wonder.

He had six other seasons with at least five interceptions, including a 10-interception season in 1954. Lane is widely considered one of the best cornerbacks of all time, finishing his career with 68 interceptions.

New York Jets CB Darrell Revis celebrates an interception. USA Today Sports.

4. Darrelle Revis

There might not be a better man-to-man cornerback in NFL history. If you wanted a defensive back that could wipe away an opposing team’s No. 1 receiver, Darrelle Revis would be your top pick. Revis didn’t have a super long career, starting "only" 142 games. Still, he was as good as it gets during his prime.

Revis was an All-Pro selection four times, including three straight nominations from 2009 to 2011. His best season came in 2009 when he recorded six interceptions and a league-high 31 pass deflections.

During that season, he faced Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Andre Johnson, Steve Smith, Reggie Wayne, etc. He never allowed more than 49 yards to any of them and gave up only two touchdowns despite the Jets never giving him any safety help.

The Jets were dominant on defense during those prime Revis years because he could take out a team’s top receiver without any help. That allowed the Jets to play their safeties closer to the line of scrimmage, leaving Revis alone on an island.

It’s also worth mentioning that Revis won a Super Bowl in 2014 with the Patriots, which helped etch his name in NFL history.

>> READ: Revis' Case For The GOAT Cornerback

3. Mike Haynes

Several NFL historians believe Mike Haynes is the best cornerback in NFL history, and it’s not hard to see why. When he retired after the 1989 season, that was the universal thought for most football fans at the time.

Haynes was an incredibly unique cornerback during the ‘70s and ‘80s, as he stood at 6’2, 192 pounds. There weren’t many cornerbacks with his size and ball skills. In his rookie season, Haynes recorded eight interceptions in 14 games, winning the Defensive Rookie of the Year in a landslide. He made the Pro Bowl in his first five seasons with the Patriots and made nine total Pro Bowls.

Haynes was named the No. 49 player of all time by the NFL when it compiled its list of the top 100 players in league history. His length, physicality, ball skills, and big-game production are why he is so high on this list.

2. Rod Woodson

Rod Woodson played 12 years at cornerback (1987-1998) before switching to safety. He played five years as a free safety, making four Pro Bowls and leading the league in interceptions twice. However, we are only judging his cornerback play for this list. And yet, he comes in at No. 2.

Woodson made five All-Pro teams at cornerback and was one of the most complete defensive backs in NFL history. He created takeaways, shut down top receivers, and made plays in the run game. Woodson did not have a weakness, and that’s why you can make a strong case he is the best defensive back in NFL history.

1. Deion Sanders

The No. 1 cornerback on this list is none other than Prime Time. Deion Sanders was the definition of a shutdown cornerback. He would guard the opposing team’s No. 1 receiver and completely take them out of the game. Plus, he was a playmaker who was incredibly dangerous post-INT.

Sanders finished his career with nine pick-sixes, but by the middle of the 1990s, teams didn’t even bother throwing his way. He finished his career with six first-team All-Pro selections and was named to the Hall of Fame’s All-Decade Team for the 1990s.

There will never be another Deion Sanders, making him an easy choice for the No. 1 spot.