Having an elite cornerback to counteract a team's stud quarterback can make a huge difference in this league -- particularly when that team has a go-to receiver like Julio Jones, Antonio Brown or Odell Beckham Jr. They're just not easy to find. Acquiring a top-level cornerback typically comes by way of an early draft pick and consistent development year after year.
Sometimes a player isn't highly touted out of college (Richard Sherman, Malcolm Butler), and other times, they're top-10 picks (Patrick Peterson, Stephon Gilmore). That's what makes the position so difficult to gauge, but also makes finding a shutdown-type cornerback immeasurably rewarding.
Separating the best of the best is sometimes like splitting hairs, especially at the top, but there's no doubting who the top cornerbacks are. Here are the top 10 in the league going into the 2016 season.
The definition of a "shutdown cornerback" often varies. Some see it as a player who can take away a team's No. 1 receiver, be it in man coverage or zone. Others view top cornerbacks as the ones who can take away half of the field in zone coverage. Regardless of the definition, Patrick Peterson is as close to being a shutdown corner as they come. He's a multidimensional, ultra-athletic defender who thrives playing man-to-man but can also drop back and keep the play in front of him in zone. Peterson was one of the highest-regarded cornerbacks of the last decade when he came out of LSU in 2011, and was well deserving of the fifth overall pick.
Peterson isn't just a cover guy, either. He has the hands to pull down interceptions and the speed and vision to bring picks back for touchdowns. That has also been shown in his ability to return punts, which he did 32 times in 2015. In addition to being quick, Peterson has the strength to press receivers at the line. He's also not afraid to bring down ballcarriers, showing his willingness to tackle when called upon. Peterson isn't a perfect cornerback, but he's as good as they get. It's no surprise he has 17 career interceptions and is consistently shadowing opposing teams' top receivers.
Prior to 2015, many would have said Richard Sherman was the top cornerback in the league, and he still makes a strong case as such. However, Peterson was just too good last season to deny him the top spot, particularly after struggling in 2014. Sherman is more of a zone corner who thrives in Seattle's Cover 3 scheme. He was criticized a bit for staying on one side of the field rather than following the No. 1 receiver, but the Seahawks experimented with that a bit in recent years, making him even more valuable in the secondary. It doesn't have to be said, but Sherman was equally great in shadowing top targets.
Based on numbers alone, which is a poor way to judge cornerbacks, Sherman appeared to have a down year. He only had two interceptions and 50 tackles in 16 games, but he was rarely targeted on defense. That's because the receiver he was covering hardly ever broke free for his quarterback. Sherman was the same lockdown corner he's been throughout his career despite the low turnover totals. And like Peterson, Sherman is a willing tackler in the secondary, never shying away from contact with receivers or running backs coming downhill. He's a virtual lock to be a Pro Bowler and All-Pro once again in 2016.
A few years ago, the term "shutdown cornerback" was synonymous with Darrelle Revis' name. That may not be the case anymore given the slight decline he's experienced recently, but he's still among the best defensive backs in football. He was a turnover machine last season, picking off five passes and recovering four fumbles in 14 games. Like the other top cornerbacks, Revis wasn't often targeted each week, though he did have his fair share of struggles against DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins. Having Antonio Cromartie opposite him didn't help, given his horrendous season, and that led teams to attack him rather than Revis.
Last season certainly wasn't Revis' best as he showed his age a bit being unable to cover quicker and more explosive receivers. That's to be expected from a 30-year-old cornerback who's tasked with covering the likes of Watkins, Hopkins and Amari Cooper. Still, Revis more than held his own, just not to the level that he once did when he was in his early- to mid-20s. He wasn't a first-team All-Pro selection, but he did make his seventh Pro Bowl.
The bigger, more outspoken Aqib Talib gets a lot of the attention in Denver's secondary, but it's Chris Harris Jr. who's actually the better cornerback. He started all 16 games last season, intercepting two passes, one of which he brought back for a score, and forcing two fumbles. What he lacks in size he more than makes up for in toughness and technique. Harris has some of the quickest, smoothest feet in the game and despite being 5-foot-10, he uses his hands extremely well to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage be it on the outside or in the slot. When playing nickel, Harris has the speed and quickness to match up with quicker receivers, though Antonio Brown was a handful for him last season -- but to be fair, few if any corners can lock him down for 60 minutes. If he continues to improve as a boundary cornerback and keeps creating turnovers, Harris will solidify his place among the best defensive backs in the league. And at the age of 27, he still has prime years ahead of him.
Playing in Buffalo where the Bills' defense was mostly terrible in 2015, Stephon Gilmore doesn't get much attention. Perhaps it's due to the underwhelming cast around him, or maybe it's the fact that he's missed 11 games in the last three seasons. Regardless, Gilmore deserves to be considered one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL. He has great size for the position and the speed (4.40 40-yard dash) to keep up with faster receivers, making him a tough matchup for opposing players. Gilmore's length also help him get his hands on passes even when caught out of position, which is why he ranked in the top 10 in passes defensed. The Bills would like to see his interception totals go up a big (just three in 2015), but they'll certainly take him being a guy who can lock down an opponent's go-to receiver. Gilmore isn't a defender receivers look forward to lining up against. The only thing standing in his way from an All-Pro season is a looming holdout, which he's been clear about this offseason.
Some would argue that Josh Norman was the best cornerback last season. His numbers match that narrative, but he just doesn't possess the ability to shadow top receivers everywhere on the field the way those above him can. Norman mainly played zone in Carolina's Cover 2 and Cover 4 looks where he took away underneath plays, which also forces him to come up and hit ballcarriers frequently. Norman never shied away from contact in those cases -- just look at his physical matchup with Odell Beckham Jr. -- which is one of his best assets, though he doesn't show the best tackling technique. Now with the Redskins, Norman will have to adjust, but only slightly. The Redskins still play a lot of zone coverage, it's just a Cover 3 scheme unlike Carolina's, which features ample help over the top. He will still thrive in this zone-heavy scheme, but he'll have a lot of eyes on him as they wonder if he was merely a one-year wonder. Norman will have to prove he's capable of playing man coverage across from the best of the best to vault into the top-three conversation.
Prior to last season, Desmond Trufant was a solid NFL cornerback. He was an up-and-coming player poised to make his first Pro Bowl sooner or later, and that came to fruition in 2015. Despite only having one interception and 11 passes defensed, Trufant earned his first career Pro Bowl bid, and it was well deserved. Under former Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, Trufant thrived as a zone cornerback on the left side of the defense. He locked down his half of the field with a great deal of success, often forcing quarterbacks to throw away from him. He isn't a ballhawk by any means (six career interceptions), but not all cornerbacks are. That's the one aspect of his game holding him back, and if he can improve, he'll be paid a hefty amount following this season. The Falcons would be foolish to let him go, not that they'll do so. Like Sherman and Norman, Trufant would benefit greatly by following opposing receivers across the field rather than staying on one side. That allows teams to avoid him, which hurts the Falcons.
There were questions about Marcus Peters' maturity and willingness to be coached coming out of the University of Washington last year. He was arguably the best cornerback in the draft, but being dismissed from the Huskies didn't help his draft stock. The Chiefs took a chance on him and it paid off hugely. Peters, the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year, had a stellar season. He led the NFL with eight interceptions and 34 passes defensed, returning two picks for touchdowns. Peters is the epitome of a big-play cornerback in the fact that either he's going to make a big play, or the receiver he's covering is. He had his ups and downs throughout the season, which are to be expected for a rookie corner. But more often than not, he made plays on the ball and had a big impact on the defense. His technique is rare for a player of his young age and his ball skills are undeniable, which gives him the potential to be a Patrick Peterson-like player. Peters just needs to limit gaffes in coverage and continue to keep his head right. Maturity is key for his development.
One year after making one of the greatest plays in Super Bowl history, Malcolm Butler proved he's not just a one-play wonder. He's a solid cornerback. Taking over the spot that was left by Darrelle Revis, Butler stepped up and performed admirably, playing with swagger and confidence that a No. 1 cornerback has to possess. Butler was named to his first Pro Bowl after a great season in which he picked off two passes and racked up 67 tackles. The one knock on Butler at this point is that he didn't always cover the opposing team's top receiver. That job was often left to Logan Ryan, while Butler covered the team's second option. It worked out great for the Patriots, but it didn't completely prove that Butler can handle the duty as a shutdown corner. That's not to say he can't; he just needs to prove it in 2016 -- and he will. Butler is going to be around for a long, long time in this league and the Patriots will need to pay him accordingly sooner rather than later.
Since taking over one of the starting spots at cornerback in 2014, Slay has developed quickly after being somewhat raw out of Mississippi State. He's a long, rangy cornerback with elite measurables, though bulking up a bit wouldn't hurt. His combination of size and speed (4.36 40-yard dash) make him a rare talent at cornerback, one with sky-high potential. Last season, Slay wasn't always matched up with a team's top receiver, but that's mainly due to the Lions' scheme. They often run Cover 2 zone with safeties over the top, somewhat like the Panthers did with Josh Norman. Slay has decent ball skills, but they're nothing to laud (four career interceptions). He's still very young, however, and has developed each year. He'll continue to do so as he cements his place in the top 10 among cornerbacks.
Just missed: Vontae Davis, Jason Verrett, Ronald Darby, Trumaine Johnson, Aqib Talib, Sean Smith, Joe Haden