The game of football has changed from throwing the ball only on third and long, to aerial attacks that spread the ball around the field even on first and second down. It is now a passing league, and that makes the demands of playing defensive back (corner or safety) in the NFL that much greater. The great ones have always been able to set the edge on the outside, cover the opponent’s best receiver or tackle the running back who bounces outside or goes in between the numbers. The job might have changed throughout the years, but one thing has not changed too much. Some of the NFL’s best players and best athletes have played the cornerback position.
Champ Bailey was one such tremendous athlete, but he still couldn’t stick to receivers quite like Deion Sanders. Patrick Peterson happens to be a physical freak with his muscular body and tremendous athleticism, needs to improve in order to hit like Mel Blount or Dick Lane. Even Richard Sherman is a tremendous talent, but has a long way to go in order to ever attain what Rod Woodson was able to accomplish. These are all great cornerbacks, as well as some of the best football players to play in the NFL. Thanks to the exploits of these great players who never demanded much help, the position continues to attract some of the best talent and athletic marvels year after year.
The players here all share some similar traits. Speed is usually a must, but a fiesty disposition, cockiness and attitude to match seem to all be traits that the great ones share. They are left on the edge to stare at the opponent’s best athlete and wonder if it will be a run or a pass deep down the field. These following 20 players were good at guessing and had all the physical tools to play one of the NFL’s hardest positions. Receivers are scared of them for getting hit and quarterbacks are scared to throw the ball in their direction for fear of being picked off.
20. Rodney Harrison – San Diego Chargers/ New England Patriots
While Tom Brady has built himself quite a legacy with four Super Bowl titles, New England’s first three championships were built on the foundation of their shutdown, hard hitting defense.
Rodney Harrison was an anchor on the back end, striking fear in opponents. You would never guess it with how friendly he seems on TV now as an analyst, but Harrison was one mean player.
19. Lester Hayes, CB – Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders
Lester Hayes might be more well known for his use of stickum that caused the NFL to outlaw the use of the substance in 1981, but he was also a solid man to man defender and one of the great shutdown corners of his time. Hayes was selected to five Pro Bowls and was also on two Oakland/Los Angeles Raider Super Bowl champion teams. Hayes not only used stickum, but was also great at getting his hands on receivers as well as his hands on the ball or their jerseys if they happened to pass by him.
Hayes was so good at covering receivers that he came within one interception of tying the NFL record of 14 interceptions, held by Dick Lane. That season, he was able to contribute 273 return yards and a score with his 13 picks.
18. Albert Lewis – Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders
Albert Lewis managed to have a 16 year NFL career that was full of many lofty accomplishments. Lewis earned four trips to the Pro Bowl and ended his career with some pretty impressive stats. He finished with 42 interceptions, 12.5 quarterback sacks and 797 tackles throughout a career that included a stint with the Raiders after spending his first 11 seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs. Lewis also ended up forcing 13 fumbles, had a fumble recovery and return for a touchdown in addition to a touchdown on an interception return as well. He was was more of a grinder than a spectacular athlete.
Lewis played in an era where there were always other cornerbacks who managed to steal the spotlight and grab all the attention. He didn’t light up the scoreboard with great returns, but simply played the position well.
17. Ed Reed – Baltimore Ravens, New York Jets, Houston Texans
Instructions for many quarterbacks must have been: “whatever you do, don’t throw it near no.20.”
Few defensive players were more exciting to watch or harder to play against than Ed Reed. He had perhaps the best ball hawking skills of any safety to play the game and could lay a licking on receivers. He totaled 1,590 interception return yardage on 64 INTs. Reed could also hit like a truck, although that part of his game faded as injuries and age mounted. Still, Reed was just as instrumental as Ray Lewis in forming one of the most intimidating defenses in NFL history.
16. Darrell Green – Washington Redskins
It is hard to say what is more remarkable, Darrell Green’s production, or the fact that it spanned 20 seasons. Green was one of the best athletes to ever play the position. Recognized for being the NFL’s fastest man throughout his career, Green helped change the way the cornerback position was being perceived. He helped pave the way for Deion Sanders, Champ Bailey, Darelle Revis and other great athletes to follow and choose to play on the defensive side of the ball. Green was able to play aggressively in the short passing game thanks to his speed that allowed him to make up ground if he ever got beat off the line.
Green finished with 54 career interceptions, returning them for 621 yards and 6 scores. He also recovered 10 fumbles and returned two of them for scores. He was gutty enough to finish with 1,163 tackles and good enough to earn 7 trips to the Pro Bowl. He enjoyed a long, productive career and was instrumental in proving to future generations that a cornerback could be the fastest man on the field.
15. Charles Woodson – Oakland Raiders, Green Bay Packers
Charles Woodson came into the NFL with the credentials of winning the Heisman Trophy award as well as earning a handful of other collegiate accolades that same year (1997). He was a special athlete who finished his collegiate career with 18 interceptions and 30 deflected passes. Woodson has been just as special in the NFL with a career that has spanned 17 years and counting. During this time, Woodson has earned 8 Pro Bowl selections while making 928 tackles, intercepting 60 passes, forcing 27 fumbles and registering 20 quarterback sacks.
Woodson has been one of the NFL’s most productive cornerbacks of all-time and has plenty of statistics to back up any claim.
14. Steve Atwater – Denver Broncos
Again a case where looks could be deceiving, the “Smiling Assassin” Steve Atwater punished opposing players. He recorded 129 tackles in his rookie season, quickly setting the tone as an anchor of the Broncos defense. While Elway was leading the offense to glory, Atwater’s defense kept the Broncos in games for Elway to work his late magic.
Just look up Steve Atwater hits and you’ll begin trembling too.
13. Roger Wehrli – St. Louis Cardinals
Roger Wehrli was one of the orignal “shutdown” corners who was used primarily to take the opposing team’s star receiver out of the game. He had a 14-year NFL career in which he was selected to the Pro Bowl seven times. Wehrli used his above average speed to close on receivers and knock balls away. He finished his career with 40 interceptions and 309 yards on returns, which resulted in 2 scores.
Wehrli was a scrappy corner who played a lot bigger than his 190 pound size. He could get physical with receivers and still have enough speed to catch up when he made a mistake at the line of scrimmage. He was a complete football player with all the tools needed to be a great cornerback.
12. Willie Brown – Oakland Raiders
Willie Brown was more than just a good cornerback. He was a physical presence who liked to intimidate receivers and quarterbacks who dared to throw his way. Brown was good enough in his career, to earn 4 trips to the Pro Bowl and 5 trips to the AFL All-Star game. He was a tenacious tackler who was good enough at covering receivers to record 54 career interceptions as well. Despite his ball hawking, it was his ability to hold the line on the outside like a linebacker and break up passes with vicious hits that gave him more acclaim.
Brown was listed at just under 200 pounds, but delivered hits that felt more like being hit by a 225 pound player. Brown was a complete corner with great toughness and athleticism that enabled him to be a dominant corner.
11. Troy Polamalu – Pittsburgh Steelers
Whether you’re a receiver anticipating a big hit, a quarterback throwing in his direction, heck even when you’re simply lining up, Polamalu can jump the snap and hit you. Troy Polamalu’s career may very well end soon, but he’s easily been one of the best players of this generation. He has a high football IQ, can make big plays, and he knows how to hit. You won’t be intimidated by his soft-spoken voice, but his locks swimming out of his helmet while coming after you will certainly make you jump
10. Brian Dawkins – Philadelphia Eagles/Denver Broncos
The NFC East was able to sleep a little better once Brian Dawkins moved on to Denver. Receivers had to be wary of him and Dawkins’s fiery nature kept his own teammates on their toes. The late great coordinator Jim Johnson’s defense was built on intimidating blitzes. The six-time All Pro was an intimidating presence from the moment he stepped onto the field and his 891 career tackles took their toll on many offenses. It’s easy to see why the city of Philadelphia loved him so much.
9. Jack Tatum – Oakland Raiders/Houston Oilers
Jack Tatum’s name perfectly described his style on the field. He was known simply as “The Assassin”, still considered the hardest hitter football’s ever seen. In his first NFL game, Tatum knocked out Colts tight ends John Mackey and Tom Mitchell. Unfortunately there is a dark side to Tatum’s style, as he paralyzed Patriots receiver Darryl Stingley in a 1978 preseason game. Tackles like those were eventually removed from the game. Tatum is arguably the hardest hitter in NFL history and certainly belongs on this list too.
8. Mel Blount – Pittsburgh Steelers
Mel Blount was one of the major components of the great Pittsburgh Steeler defenses of the 1970s. He was the intimidating presence on the outside who alternated between blowing up pitches or sweeps and making it harder for receivers to get the ball thrown their way. He intercepted 57 passes throughout his career and added a fair amount of tackles and batted balls as well. Blount was good enough to be voted to 5 Pro Bowls and was instrumental in the four Steelers Super Bowl wins. His physical play was what separated him from many of the conrerbacks of his day.
Blount was downright intimidating with his shaved head and angry looks that told receivers that they were in for a long day. He was nasty and took advantage of all the league’s rules that allowed cornerbacks of his era to be more physical with receivers, while still having enough speed to keep up with receivers downfield. Blount was big for his era, carrying 205 pounds, and knew how to use every pound when he needed to make a big hit. He was one of the great hitters of the 1970s who really transformed the game of football by adding the impact of big hits that led to dropped balls.
7. Darrelle Revis – New York Jets, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, New England Patriots
We now get to intimidation coming down to getting in your opposition’s head. Revis makes it on this list due to quarterbacks simply refusing to throw the ball his way, due to their respect for Revis’s coverage.
Darrelle Revis is still seldom tested and continues to make plays and be a big factor in games. His coverage skills have earned him the catchy nickname, “Revis Island”, as he became known for taking opposing receivers out of play or leaving them stranded on “Revis Island”. He is still a terrific cornerback with great instincts, speed and body control that allows him to extend and bat away balls.
Revis still has the skills to hold receivers at bay and has already batted away 124 passes, intercepted 23 and returned them for 367 yards and 3 touchdowns. In eight seasons of play, Revis has been selected to 7 Pro Bowls and was voted the AFC’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2009. Given all the rule changes that make it so much harder for modern cornerbacks and the success that Revis has already had, he is a lock for holding a high place on this list.
6. Patrick Peterson – Arizona Cardinals
Patrick Peterson is a poster child for what many GMs are looking for in today’s cornerback. At 6-foot-1, 219 pounds, Peterson is quite an imposing figure for any receiver to have to get past or block. He has played a big role in the resurgence of the Arizona Cardinals defense since he has come on board. Peterson has already intercepted 15 passes, deflected 49, and logged 211 tackles in four seasons of play. He has been selected to the Pro Bowl in each season he has played.
Peterson is the future at the cornerback position, with his unique blend of size, strength, quickness and speed. He is already in the conversation, but he has potential that still has to be met and more production to follow, padding his position on this esteemed list.
5. Richard Sherman – Seattle Seahawks
Richard Sherman is still young and has time to improve his overall game, but there is no denying his talent and ability to play corner. Sherman is one of the best cover cornerbacks in the league today with the attitude and grit to also do more than just hold his own on any outside running plays. In four seasons of play, Sherman already has 70 pass deflections, 24 interceptions, 190 tackles and 5 forced fumbles. Sherman is not the fastest or the most physical cornerback, but knows how to make plays and shut receivers down.
Sherman has a knack of jumping routes, reading what a quarterback wants to do and being able to force receivers to alter course. His football intelligence is off the charts and his ability to read movements and the eyes of the quarterback is uncanny.
4. Dick Lane – Los Angeles Rams, Chicago Cardinals, Detroit Lions
Dick “Night Train” Lane was easily one of the best cornerbacks of all time and some of the skills he brought to the game were revolutionary, to say the least. He was one of the first cornerbacks to be downright intimidating, with his high hits and clothesline tackles that would almost decapitate ball carriers or receivers who dared to cross his path. Lane was a special player who established himself early in his career by setting the NFL record for interceptions in a season with 14 in his rookie year.
Lane set the bar for many physical cornerbacks to follow in the 1970s and 1980s, as the passing game started to dominate the game. Lane invented the high hit, was a master at baiting quarterbacks into poor throws and played the position with a chip on his shoulder that seems to have been passed down to this generation. Lane was the “island”, defined the word “swag” and played with a great intensity that made him one of the best.
3. Champ Bailey – Washington Redskins, Denver Broncos
Champ Bailey was a tremendous athlete who was a lot like a hybrid between Rod Woodson and Deion Sanders. In 2005 and 2006, Bailey was nothing short of spectacular. During this two year period, he intercepted 18 passes with 301 return yards and 3 touchdowns and was voted the AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Bailey was selected to the Pro Bowl 12 times in his 15 year career and never stopped being dangerous and productive.
His 12 trips to the Pro Bowl set an NFL record for cornerbacks, while his list of other NFL and collegiate honors is quite impressive as well. He was a dynamic cornerback with freakish athleticism, and his ability to make sure tackles in the open field and match up against the opponent’s best receiver, made him one of the league’s best of all-time.
2. Deion Sanders – Atlanta Falcons, San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins, Baltimore Ravens
This is intimidation through talent alone. You didn’t want to throw at him or kick to him, because he’d burn you.
Deion Sanders might have had a career where he was more like a hired gun, but that certainly didn’t detract from the way he could play the cornerback position. Sanders was agile, fast and quick, while having enough football smarts to always seem to know where a receiver or quarterback wanted to go. He was the best cover cornerback to ever play the game and was so good that he was often left to cover just about the entire side of a field. Sanders was selected to 8 Pro Bowls and was a 2-time Super Bowl Champion and NFC Defensive Player of the Year as well.
He was spectacular with the ball in his hands, amassing over 5,700 kick return yards throughout his career with 9 more touchdowns as well. Sanders had 0nly one shortcoming as a cornerback and that was his relative disdain for having to collide with ball carriers with a head of steam. Despite this glitch, the demand for his services was always high and no receivers in the league could ever get the best of him during his time.
1. Rod Woodson – Pittsburgh Steelers, San Francisco 49ers, Baltimore Ravens, Oakland Raiders
While Deion Sanders always seemed to grab all the headlines, Rod Woodson was always busy carving out his niche as the best cornerback ever. His statistics make a compelling argument, as Woodson leads this pack with 71 career interceptions for 1,483 return yards and 12 touchdowns, 20 forced fumbles, 32 fumble recoveries, 13.5 quarterback sacks and a whopping 1,163 total tackles. Woodson was voted onto 11 Pro Bowl teams and was the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 1993. He was a highly decorated corner, but his old-school mentality is what made him the best.
Woodson played with a reckless abandon that enabled him to play bigger than his size to bring much bigger players down. His ability to tackle and sacrifice his body to make big hits was what made him one of a kind. Nobody played with as much heart and with the talent to match.
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