The amount of top-level play from NFL cornerbacks is astonishing. It’s challenging to rank these guys with the multitude of schematic differences and responsibilities. Obviously, this is a subjective endeavor, and we could argue for days about the names that are too high or too low. However, I prefer to look at this exercise as a nod of respect toward the top cornerbacks in the NFL for the 2021 season.
Top 32 cornerbacks in the NFL for the 2021 season | 1-10
In a pass-heavy league, the cornerback position has grown into one of the most important positions on the football field. Who looks to be a top-10 cornerback in the NFL right now? There is a massive amount of talent currently at the position.
1. Jalen Ramsey, Los Angeles Rams
I simply won’t acknowledge any Jalen Ramsey disrespect in this dojo. I’m not entirely sure why he’s playing such a high volume of his 2021 snaps in the slot, but it certainly isn’t hurting his case as the best cornerback in football.
The dude still smacks like a truck as a tackler and despite allowing over 60% completions, he’s only allowing 5.5 yards per target and under 10 yards per catch.
If you built a cornerback in a lab, they would look like Ramsey. He’s 6’1″, 210 pounds, and his spider chart might as well have been colored in by a nine-year-old. Ramsey is a freak, and on top of it all, he’s so good against the run that his late-career safety transition will probably end in an All-Pro berth or two.
He’s a unicorn playing cornerback in a world of 5’11”, 190-pound movers, and we don’t acknowledge that enough.
2. Jaire Alexander, Green Bay Packers
Jaire Alexander is responsible for my favorite troll of all time on a football field. After a broken-up pass against Wake Forest in 2016, he pranced behind the unsuspecting receiver in a manner I’ve never witnessed.
Alexander has those piercing eyes that make him and Randall Cobb look related, and I can’t imagine having to line up against him with those things staring a hole through the crown of my nose.
If Ramsey is the freak, Alexander is the new mold. He’s slimmer, and with that lack of cumbersome muscle, he’s more efficiently able to transition and stick.
3. Tre’Davious White, Buffalo Bills
Tre’Davious White has been one of the top cornerbacks in the league since the minute he stepped on an NFL field. His on-field and sideline hijinx make it look like he legitimately loves every second of playing football. White does a fantastic job of toeing the line between aggressive and reckless. He gets his hands on passes left and right without getting himself so out of position that he’s unable to recover.
I wouldn’t have any issue calling White the best cornerback in football if Ramsey and Alexander didn’t exist. They’re simply on a tier of their own for the time being. However, if White can keep up his torrent pace in 2021, he could easily elevate into the same conversation for CB1.
4. Trevon Diggs, Dallas Cowboys
I’ve already written my story on Trevon Diggs. He’s a wide receiver baiting quarterbacks into throwing passes that he can jump. His goal is not to make it so a quarterback doesn’t want to throw the ball his way. He plays so he is targeted, which leads to his interceptions. He gets to passes that most receivers cannot get to, making his multiple near-INTs in 2021 as impressive as his 7 actual interceptions.
The yards on Diggs’ ledger are largely hollow. His value is easy to see. His -37.2 EPA when targeted is twice as productive as any other defender in the league. To further my point, Matthew Stafford’s EPA is 39, and he’s an MVP candidate at quarterback. What Diggs is doing through six games is absurd.
When Diggs is targeted, the opponents’ quarterback rating is 45. He isn’t at the top of the CB rankings yet simply because this is all so new. He’s going up against each team’s best receiver, shadowing them around the field. If he can do this for 17 games, even if the interceptions evade him, it’ll be tough to argue there’s a better cornerback in the league.
5. Marlon Humphrey, Baltimore Ravens
What do you want out of your elite cornerback? Personally, I want a guy who travels up and down the field on an assignment basis against the opposing team’s best receivers. Since 2019, Marlon Humphrey’s done exactly that in Wink Martindale’s aggressive man-to-man scheme. In 2019 and 2020, for instance, he played more in the slot than out wide.
It’s unfortunate he’s not more widely regarded as a ballhawk, but many can’t look past the paltry INT numbers to his league-high 8 forced fumbles in 2020. Humphrey impacts the games in all the ways you want him to. He’s one of the few that’ll travel anywhere on the defense to cover an offense’s best weapon. Heck, he played more snaps in the slot in 2020 than he did on the outside!
6. Marshon Lattimore, New Orleans Saints
Marshon Lattimore struggled a bit relative to expectations in 2020, but he’s back with a vengeance in 2021. A few coverage lapses have led to big plays this year, but that happens in a scheme that relies on communication both pre- and post-snap. When he’s been asked to man up against some of the best receivers in the NFL, he’s delivered.
Lattimore possesses everything you could want in a cornerback. He’s intelligent and has ideal size and athleticism. It just wasn’t all there for him in 2020. Still, the Saints’ defense was great last season and has continued to be so in 2021. Even with the big plays allowed early in the season, quarterbacks have just a 68.1 rating when targeting Lattimore this season.
7. Xavien Howard, Miami Dolphins
Xavien Howard has always been an outstanding blend of consistency and aggression. However, Miami’s cornerback really blossomed in 2020, intercepting a league-high 10 passes. He’ll still give up a big play here and there (as his yards per reception allowed shows), but that’s the nature of being an aggressive cornerback.
Howard has struggled so far in 2021, but the same can be said for the entire Dolphins defense. The Buccaneers game in Week 5 was the culmination of bad luck early in the season, and it resulted in Howard allowing a season-high 89 yards in coverage. Still, he’s a gifted tactician at the position and will get back on his feet this season.
8. Stephon Gilmore, Carolina Panthers
The Patriots did what the Patriots always do — they traded (or cut) a player that’s still near the top of his game, but is beginning to walk down the hill.
The Panthers get a physical and sticky man coverage cornerback who will be an interesting fit on an incredibly young defense. Even if the young Jaycee Horn hadn’t gone down to injury, this would have been an outstanding move for the Panthers.
I still expect a lot from Stephon Gilmore, and with those expectations will come quick criticism if he doesn’t perform to his standards. At his advancing age, two underwhelming seasons in a row would be a strong signal to sell him in these cornerback rankings moving forward.
9. Denzel Ward, Cleveland Browns
Denzel Ward, in my opinion, is another year away from being a potential top-five cornerback in the NFL. In truth, he could be there already. That is how much top-end cornerback play there is in the NFL.
Ward was one of the first to fit the new modern mold of NFL cornerback. Receivers started getting smaller and more shifty. It was only natural that the prototype for cornerback shifted as well. With modern NFL rules, it’s a disadvantage not to have the type of foot speed Ward possesses.
With the defense surrounding the young CB, he could easily be higher on the list heading into next season. There is no shortage of defensive weapons on Cleveland’s roster.
10) J.C. Jackson, New England Patriots
J.C. Jackson isn’t the most consistent cornerback in the world, but he’s not necessarily the gambler that Howard and Marcus Peters tend to be. No, he was targeted often because of who was on the opposite side, and his ball skills shined in the process, recording 10 INTs in 2020.
He remains among the league leaders in targets, and with that comes the yards. Jackson is fluid and explosive with great natural feet to play a sticky brand of man coverage. His technical inconsistencies are the only thing keeping him from being among that next tier up.
Top 32 cornerbacks in the NFL for the 2021 season | 11-32
11. Byron Murphy, Arizona Cardinals
12. Kenny Moore II, Indianapolis Colts
13. Marcus Peters, Baltimore Ravens
14. Jaylon Johnson, Chicago Bears
15. Carlton Davis, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
16. Casey Hayward, Las Vegas Raiders
17. William Jackson III, Washington Football Team
18. Darius Slay, Philadelphia Eagles
19. Bryce Callahan, Denver Broncos
20. James Bradberry, New York Giants
21. Kendall Fuller, Washington Football Team
22. Taron Johnson, Buffalo Bills
23. Darious Williams, Los Angeles Rams
24. Donte Jackson, Carolina Panthers
25. Greg Newsome, Cleveland Browns
26. Chidobe Awuzie, Cincinnati Bengals
27. Steven Nelson, Philadelphia Eagles
28. Adoree’ Jackson, New York Giants
29. Greedy Williams, Cleveland Browns
30. Jamel Dean, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
31. Shaquill Griffin, Jacksonville Jaguars
32. Bryce Hall, New York Jets