NFL defenses are increasingly reliant on elite-caliber defensive backs to prowl the deep parts of the field and match up with the most athletic playmakers the league has to offer. In professional football’s new, pass-happy reality, cornerbacks who can shut down an opponent’s star weapons are worth their weight in gold.
With this importance in mind, Andy Benoit ranks his top nine NFL cornerbacks ahead of the 2023 NFL season — from ballhawks who specialize in forcing turnovers to shutdown defenders who close off half the football field.
NFL’s Best Cornerbacks
9. Stephon Gilmore, Dallas Cowboys
This is not a lifetime achievement award for Stephon Gilmore.
The soon-to-be 33-year-old, who is on his fifth team in seven years, has been used as a de facto No. 1 corner every step of the way. He has consistently performed to the max within the context of his team’s scheme. He did it with the quarters-heavy coverage Buffalo Bills, pure man concepts with the New England Patriots, variegated zones with the Carolina Panthers or single-high-centric responsibilities last year with the Indianapolis Colts, where Gilmore continued to show an excellent sense for route concepts in off-coverage.
As a member of the Dallas Cowboys, Gilmore will play a lot of man-to-man and (often disguised) Cover-2, which is perfect for his physical, long-armed mechanics.
8. Trevon Diggs, Dallas Cowboys
One of the best philosophical discussions I had with coaches around the league following the 2021 season was this: Which corner would you rather have? A steady ball-stopper who generates few turnovers but also surrenders few big catches like underrated longtime Pittsburgh Steelers great Ike Taylor?
Or would you rather have a star who shows up on both sides of the highlight reel, generating dynamic turnovers but getting burned every other week, like Trevon Diggs?
I was surprised how many defensive coaches said they’d want Diggs. But after 2022, that decision became easier, mainly because Diggs diminished the debate’s premise. Yes, his interceptions dropped from 11 (11!) in 2021 back down to three in 2022, but his yards passing allowed in single-high coverages also dropped from 814 (814!) to 567. His five catches of 20+ yards allowed in single-high were 10 fewer than in 2022.
Diggs is every bit the playmaker he was in 2021 (and 32 starting quarterbacks treat him that way), but he might no longer be seen as a liability.
7. Marlon Humphrey, Baltimore Ravens
Perhaps the NFL’s most purely physical all-around corner, Marlon Humphrey played to the boundary side for much of last season as the Baltimore Ravens expanded and diversified their coverages under new defensive coordinator Mike MacDonald. There were also cases where Humphrey aligned in the slot. Though he was not the best pre-snap disguiser, he thrived as a blitzer, which is required for that position in MacDonald’s highly creative pressure packages.
As his 12 interceptions in six years suggest, Humphrey is more of a “stopper” than a playmaker. That is perfectly fine in a Ravens defense that has largely been predicated on designer pressure, which usually demands tight 1-on-1 coverage outside.
6. Marshon Lattimore, New Orleans Saints
A prototype — it’s as simple as that.
Marshon Lattimore has an ideal blend of size, strength, speed and agility. His technique is sharp in both press and off-coverage. He understands the trees (routes) and forest (overall offensive design). From afar, he seems to embrace the inherent ups and downs that come from traveling — including into the slot in man coverage — with opposing No. 1 receivers snap after snap.
5. L’Jarius Sneed, Kansas City Chiefs
Few units are as underappreciated as the Kansas City Chiefs cornerbacks, and L’Jarius Sneed is the group’s key player. Sneed can travel anywhere, playing man and zone outside (like every corner) and inside (like almost no other corners). He is a physical run defender and blitzer, leading all NFL cornerbacks with 103 tackles and 18 pressures in 2022.
Sneed is in a contract year, and the Chiefs have an outstanding trio of second-year corners in Trent McDuffie (first-round pick), Joshua Williams (fourth-round pick) and Jaylen Watson (seventh-round pick). After this season, it will be interesting to see what happens with the 26-year-old veteran.
4. Jalen Ramsey, Miami Dolphins
Jalen Ramsey is coming off a somewhat down year with the Los Angeles Rams. Because of an early training camp knee injury, he might not play until December. But he’s still in his 20s (turns 29 on Oct. 24), and having such a strong body of work, we’ll give the three-time All-Pro the benefit of the doubt.
Ramsey was a supreme man coverage corner with the Jacksonville Jaguars, using his combination of size and athleticism to shadow No. 1 receivers and make plays on the ball, which is difficult in man coverage.
In Los Angeles, he proved he was an even better football player than corner, transitioning to more slot snaps (especially in the team’s beloved 5-1 nickel – a.k.a. “penny” – package) in a predominant zone scheme. At times, he even played linebacker in dime, with excellent results.
3. Jaire Alexander, Green Bay Packers
Jaire Alexander is a great player and – deservedly – the game’s highest-paid corner (for now). What follows here is by no means a criticism or slight. Rather, it’s an opportunity for perspective on one of the NFL’s most challenging positions:
Much was made about Alexander traveling with Justin Jefferson in Week 17 last year after the 2018 first-round corner had spent most of the season on the right side of the field. Jefferson was held to one catch for 15 yards in that contest, and Alexander was hailed a hero. But it wasn’t a true 1-on-1 matchup.
Jefferson aligned in the slot 12 times that day, and Alexander usually stayed outside, especially in zone coverages. When Jefferson aligned outside against zone, the Green Bay Packers — at times — played a cloud (i.e., Cover-2) to that side, allowing Alexander to sell out on jamming the stud receiver (side note: The three teams that held Jefferson to three or fewer catches last season were the Detroit Lions, the Cowboys and the Packers. All three were incredibly physical with him).
When it was man coverage, the Packers usually gave Alexander some form of help.
The point? True shutdown corners are exceedingly rare. You could argue the game has only seen two in the last 30 years: Deion Sanders and Darrelle Revis. Almost no corner can travel with No. 1 receivers and play on an island all game.
2. Sauce Gardner, New York Jets
Just about every advanced metric in 2022 said Sauce Gardner was impermeable. My personal favorite: he allowed just 0.66 yards per coverage snap out of Cover-1 and Cover-3, which, for a perimeter corner, often plays out like iso-man coverage.
Gardner was a physical press corner at the University of Cincinnati. With the New York Jets, he immediately expanded his game to include elite mirror-match techniques from off-coverage. People will talk about Gardner matching up to certain wide receivers this year — I can’t wait to watch Sauce vs. Stefon Diggs on MNF in Week 1 — but that’s not how the Jets use their second-year star.
Like Robert Saleh did with Richard Sherman in San Francisco, Gardner usually aligns at the left corner spot. So offenses will choose which receiver Gardner guards. This defensive approach is all part of a formula built around letting guys play their fastest. The Jets can afford to adhere to it because they also have an excellent right corner in D.J. Reed.
1. Patrick Surtain II, Denver Broncos
Patrick Surtain II possesses the league’s best combination of technique and physical talent. He can match up against all receiver body types, whether in press or off-coverage. Last year, under rising star defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero, Surtain often aligned to the boundary.
This is common for elite corners in the Fangio-style scheme that Evero ran. That scheme calls for the weakside safety to hunt up crossing routes coming from the strong side, leaving that boundary corner in true 1-on-1 coverage. So you want your best over there.
But against certain elite receivers (DK Metcalf, Davante Adams, Garrett Wilson etc.), Surtain traveled. We’ll likely see him do that more under new Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, who took that approach the last time he had a true No. 1 corner (Arizona’s Patrick Peterson in 2019-2020).
Andy Benoit worked for Sean McVay and the Los Angeles Rams coaching staff from 2020 through 2022. Before that, he was a football analyst, writer and content producer for Peter King’s MMQB at Sports Illustrated, CBS Sports and The New York Times. You can follow him on Twitter @Andy_Benoit.