Ranking the best cornerback duos heading into the 2021 NFL season

If we harken back to the list of the top 25 cornerbacks in the National Football League, it’s easy to make the argument the game is chock full with individual cornerback talent. However, things become more difficult once we look at who the top cornerback duos in the NFL are heading into 2021. And, unfortunately, for those fans of the top tandem on the list, things may become painful.

The game changes at a rapid pace at this particular position in the NFL. It seems that individual play year to year is as hit or miss as hoping to hit black multiple times in a row on the roulette wheel. Make sure you get your practice in because the draft is in Las Vegas next year! That variance makes finding a tandem of high-performing cornerbacks even more difficult.

Top cornerback duos heading into 2021 | 2-5

These five CB tandems consistently make life difficult for opposing passing attacks. Naturally, all of the best individual talents reside on the tandems list. Every cornerback here was part of the list of the top 25 NFL CBs for 2021. It makes you feel for the NFL teams that don’t have any cornerback talent in the top 25.

Interestingly enough, the top five rankings below were made by a group of PFN staffers and not just myself. The rankings just so happen to follow the average of the individual rankings of the duos.

5) Denver Broncos: Kyle Fuller & Bryce Callahan

When it comes to talent, there’s no team in the NFL that boasts a CB1-CB4 group like the Broncos. The foursome of Kyle Fuller, Bryce Callahan, Patrick Surtain, and Ronald Darby is POTENT. 

However, we’re not talking about the whole squad. This is about the top cornerback duos heading into 2021. For this exercise, those two would be Kyle Fuller and Bryce Callahan. I imagine Callahan will move back to the slot following the addition of Surtain in the NFL Draft, but that doesn’t make him any less of a player.

Fuller had his best seasons as a pro under the defensive guidance of Broncos head coach Vic Fangio. He’s an absolute menace when he can play off coverage and use his eyes and instincts to trigger downhill. Fuller is an aggressive cornerback who plays his best when receivers attempt to run intermediate east/west routes on the outside.

I’m still not quite sure how Callahan works, but he does. The 5-foot-9 cornerback performed incredibly well on the outside in 2020. In 2018, with Fangio in Chicago, Callahan played in the slot. He signed with the Broncos in 2019, but his season never got started. During camp, a screw in his surgically repaired foot bent, which eventually led to the end of his season.

That sounds horrific.

In 2020, Callahan played a majority of his snaps on the outside, and he played it magnificently. He’s an assignment-sound cornerback who has disciplined eyes and better ball skills than he should with his lack of length.

Average individual ranking: 17.5 

4) New England Patriots: Stephon Gilmore & J.C. Jackson

The Patriots boast what could very well be the best of the top cornerback duos in 2021 if Stephon Gilmore has a bounce-back season. If that happens and J.C. Jackson progresses, they could solidify themselves with a gold medal there.

Gilmore was the definition of lockdown in 2019 and earned Defensive Player of the Year that season. He led the league in passes defensed (20) and tied for first in interceptions (6). However, we should know by now that simply counting some stats is not a good barometer of play.

In 2019, offenses inexplicably targeted Gilmore 101 times, completing only 51 of those attempts. Somehow, when quarterbacks targeted Gilly, their passer rating was a pathetic 44.1. Hopefully, a fully healthy Gilmore has another one or two elite seasons of play in him.

Speaking of pathetic quarterback ratings, quarterbacks had a 34.1 passer rating in 2019 when targeting Jackson. His numbers didn’t decline too far in 2020, either. Despite allowing 5 touchdowns on the season, he was 16th of all defenders in passer rating against (66.5).

With a defense not filled to the brim with opt-outs in 2021, Jackson could have another season as he did in 2019, but with the ridiculous ball production of 2020. There are still spurts of panic off the line with Jackson that cause some easy releases and a ton of recovery in press, but he’s becoming more technically refined as his reps increase.

Average individual ranking: 9.5

3) Baltimore Ravens: Marlon Humphrey & Marcus Peters

The rankings for second and third best of the top cornerback duos heading into 2021 were the most difficult of the bunch. The Ravens duo might be the more solid between them and the next tandem. However, the next team locks down a complete side of the field.

Humphrey has been one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL since the day he stepped foot on a professional field. Amazingly, he doesn’t get talked about as one of the true ball hawks in the league.

Sure, bring up the fact that he only had 1 interception in 2020. He also led the league with 8 forced fumbles. That number ties him for the seventh-best season total of forced fumbles all time! The next closest player in 2020 was Haason Reddick with 6 forced fumbles. Humphrey also has double-digit passes defensed in all four seasons. The best thing about him is that he travels with matchups, making his responsibilities more than most in the league. In fact, he actually played more snaps in the slot in 2020 than on the outside.

As for Peters, what an incredible ride he can be on the back end. There might not be a single more aggressive defensive back in the NFL. I’m almost positive Peters isn’t afraid of a single human being. He’s even confronted fans before for talking mess. Most important, he’s one of the premier ball hawks in the league — his 31 interceptions since 2015 dwarf anybody else in the league since that time.

It’s easy to see why this is one of the top cornerback duos heading into the 2021 season.

Average individual ranking: 8.5

2) Los Angeles Rams: Jalen Ramsey & Darious Williams

The Rams duo is such an interesting juxtaposition. Jalen Ramsey was the No. 5 pick in the 2016 NFL Draft out of Florida State and a five-star recruit in high school. Meanwhile, Darious Williams was an undrafted free agent who played a season of D-III football before walking on to the UAB football team in 2014.

Ramsey is the best cornerback in the NFL. If this list were based purely on the 2020 season, this top cornerback duo would be the best heading into 2021. His ability to affect the game in so many ways is why some teams viewed him as a safety coming out of FSU. He possesses outstanding size, comes downhill and hits like a safety, and he deletes an entire side of the field in coverage.

Williams had what was arguably a top-five season at the position in 2020. A team rarely places a first-round tender on someone, but Williams earned that tender. Like Callahan, the small-school product isn’t the biggest or fastest cornerback in the league. He’s not the most physical either, but he plays with outstanding instincts and a great understanding of what’s in front of him.

Average individual ranking: 8.5

Top cornerback duos heading into 2021 | No. 1

With two top-10 cornerbacks on their roster, the Miami Dolphins have the No. 1 cornerback duo heading into 2021.

1) Miami Dolphins: Byron Jones & Xavien Howard

The Dolphins were an easy pick for the top cornerback duo heading into the 2021 season. Xavien Howard probably should have been the Defensive Player of the Year in 2020. Byron Jones had a down year in his first season in Brian Flores’ defense, but he was about as lockdown as they come during his time in Dallas.

Furthermore, Jones’ length and explosiveness allow him to be one of the best press cornerbacks in the league. He’s never been the most physical DB, but his fluidity and speed allow him to stay in the hip pocket of wide receivers downfield. If he becomes more comfortable in the Miami defense, they will remain the top duo of cornerbacks in the league.

Not so fast, though.

Apparently, Howard is not happy with his current contract. If things dissolve further between the two parties, this tandem might be no more. But in 2020, Howard was the most productive cornerback in football. He remains a bit of a boom-or-bust player, but his ball production makes up for the few deep plays he allows.

His yard per target and yards per completion numbers remain higher than other top cornerbacks, and in 2020, he allowed catches on just 51.5% of targets. His quarterback rating when targeted was 48.3 despite being tacked with 4 touchdowns against. Hopefully, things remain cordial enough to see a whole season of him and Jones in 2021.

Average individual ranking: 6.5

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