Ranking top 10 cornerbacks in NFL for 2021: Jalen Ramsey leads pack that includes talented newcomers

Table of Contents First Out (11-20 unranked): 5. Stephon Gilmore, Patriots As minicamps around the NFL

As minicamps around the NFL wrap up and players head into their summer break ahead of training camp, teams are desperately hoping they’ve made the right decisions for their roster in their attempt to dethrone the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. A key way to do that will be to make sure the pass rush and secondary are elite, and the latter will involve coming equipped with at least one dominant cornerback to help the cause. Unfortunately, not every team can boast such a thing, while others might have more than one elite CB to throw at not only Brady, but any quarterback/receiver combo that comes their way.

With that, it’s time to take a look at listing the best cornerbacks in the league — players who are the gold standard at their position and who routinely impact the outcome of games. Everyone can’t make a top 10 list, and that’s the point, but you can believe some of these races came down to a photo finish. So take a look at the CBS Sports cornerback rankings for 2021, because from incumbents to newcomers, it’s a spicy meatball. 

So be sure you grab some water first.

First Out (11-20 unranked): 

  • James Bradberry, Giants
  • Byron Jones, Dolphins
  • Desmond Trufant, Bears
  • Chris Harris Jr., Chargers
  • William Jackson III, Washington
  • Kyle Fuller, Broncos 
  • Darious Williams, Rams
  • Mike Hilton, Bengals
  • Kenny Moore, Colts
  • Patrick Peterson, Vikings

You can call him J.C., or “Mr. Jackson”, if you’re nasty. 

He’s definitely been the latter for the Patriots recently, including nine INTs in 2020, good for second-best in the league. That nearly doubled his previous breakout season (2019) when he grabbed five, making for 14 INTs and 24 combined pass breakups in the last two seasons alone. You’re going to hear about how a couple of those in the honorable-mention list deserved the nod above Jackson, and while that point could be reasonably argued, did you miss the part where I said he grabbed nine interceptions? OK, let me add in how he recovered three fumbles and did this all with only 11 starts in 2020, and how his five INTs in 2019 were in only six starts. If the Patriots do move on from Stephon Gilmore, there can be no doubt who’ll immediately put on the crown in their secondary. The only reason he’s bringing up the back end of this top 10 list is because the 25-year-old still needs to polish his cover skills, but he’s got plenty of time and talent to do it.

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It’s time to mention Ward in the same breath as the best.

When discussing those in the new guard at cornerback who’ve established themselves as part of the “we got next” crew, Ward fits the bill like the mouth on a duck. The former No. 4 overall pick (2018) burst out of the gate as a rookie, grabbing three interceptions, forcing a fumble and recovering two en route to Pro Bowl and PFWA All-Rookie Team honors — instantly becoming a tog dawg in the Browns secondary. While he didn’t garner any awards in Year 2, he didn’t take a step back in his overall production, and that consistency was again on display in Year 3. Ward enters his fourth year with seven career INTs and 40 pass deflections and is seemingly everywhere the ball wants to be, often disrupting either the receiver’s route and/or the pass attempt itself. He’s quick, aggressive and plays violent at the point of attack. They don’t call him “The Warden” for nothing. In other words, receivers are usually locked up until he releases them.

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Peters is a mixed bag of “eek” and “wow”, with enough of the latter to make this list.

He’s a gifted risk-taker whose physical traits often delete some of his mistakes, as in he’ll give up the big play a time or two but he’ll probably also intercept the ball twice in that very game. The Rams would’ve theoretically loved to pair him with Ramsey for the long-term, but their cap situation simply wouldn’t allow it going into 2020, considering they gave up two first-rounders and a fourth-rounder for the right to sign Ramsey to a deal that made him the highest-paid corner in the history of the league. Still, Peters was productive in his final stint with the Rams before joining the Ravens, and while some view Marlon Humphrey as the best CB on the Baltimore roster — all Peters did was lead the team with four INTs in 2020. That wasn’t a fluke either, seeing as he delivered three interceptions, 10 pass breakups and two defensive touchdowns in only nine starts for the Ravens in a split 2019 season, going on to land a three-year, $42 million extension in the process. 

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You’d like to see more interceptions from Lattimore, yes, but film will quickly tell you why. 

After bursting out of the gate with five interceptions as a rookie, word quickly got around that the former 11th overall pick was not the guy to target. He landed a Pro Bowl nod in his first year along with NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, and having only one interception in 2019 didn’t stop him from garnering a second Pro Bowl honor. That’s because he allowed only a 50% completion rate last season on 88 targets — serving notice that as the Saints’ resident shutdown corner, he’s as dangerous as he’s ever been on the football field, INTs or not. The Saints hope things work out with his run in with the law in March, so that he can remain on the field to help lead a defense that might have to carry the load in 2021, in what is also his all-important contract year.

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Some teams can’t locate one dominant corner, and Baltimore has two.

Before the arrival of Peters in 2020, it was Humphrey’s show at cornerback. And although Peters has only gotten better since landing in Maryland, from a takeaway standpoint, Humphrey continues to be one of the most dominant cover corners in the league — pushing Peters at every turn. He didn’t stun the football world with interceptions last season, grabbing less than two in a season for the first time in his career, but he was still very much a takeaway machine, evidenced in the fact he forced a team-high eight fumbles while adding 2.5 sacks to his bottom line along with a career-high 82 combined tackles. Tasked with taking on a more expansive role that included blitz packages, Humphrey didn’t bat an eye. His 2020 season wasn’t as flashy as the year prior from an interception and touchdown perspective, but the two-time Pro Bowler and 2019 All-Pro was a supernova in other categories that matter equally as much.

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5. Stephon Gilmore, Patriots

While injury brought him down from the top spot he owned a year ago, it didn’t delete him altogether. 

Ahead of the 2020 season, Gilmore was already seeing comparisons between himself and Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders, and it stands to logic he’ll continue to dominate going forward — once healthy and in a contractual situation he’s pleased with. He was elite heading into 2019, having been a two-time Pro Bowler and All-Pro before going on an absolute tear en route to another Pro Bowl and All-Pro nod. Tying for most interceptions in the league (6) with Tre’Davious White (hey, there’s that name again) and Minnesota Vikings safety Anthony Harris, Gilmore also had two defensive touchdowns and 20 pass deflections on a Patriots team whose offense looked like a shell of its former self, forcing Gilmore to fuel wins on a weekly basis. Even more impressive is it was his second consecutive season of 20 PBUs, revealing just how everywhere on the field he truly is. An allowed completion percentage of 48.4 and 50.5 in 2018 and 2019, respectively, and whomever he plays for this coming season will be instantly upgraded. 

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Howard is key to what Brian Flores is building in Miami, and he believes he should be paid more because of it.

The 26-year-old and former second-round pick is one of the best in the league at what he does, and that’s not up for debate. Howard is only a season removed from having seven interceptions, which followed up a previously career-best four in 2017, and quarterbacks only completed 52.4 percent of their passes in 2018 when they targeted him. Howard saw his INT tally dwindle to only one in 2019, yes, but that was due to a knee injury that landed him on injured reserve and not because he’s a flash in the pan. To say he bounced back in 2020 is a gross understatement, having set a new career high with a league-leading 10 interceptions last season, something he can also thank Byron Jones for — a shutdown corner who just barely missed the top 10. Howard is a cornerstone player any team would be lucky to have, and especially the Dolphins, who have quite a bit to figure out now regarding his fairly new contract extension. 

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He’s not playing in the glitziest of markets, but he is certainly one of the glitziest cornerbacks around.

The former LSU star is living up to his status as a former first-round pick for Buffalo, being named to the PFWA All-Rookie Team. He’d snatch four interceptions that season, but that’s not the only way he takes the ball away. White has been known to force fumbles and also get after the quarterback as an assist in blitz situations, adding to the prowess that saw him awarded a Pro Bowl and All-Pro honor in 2019 — as the NFL interceptions co-leader and one who’s consistently been a lighthouse for the Bills defense. Not many can lay claim to having 12 INTs in their first three years and an average allowed completion percentage of only 52.4 percent over the previous two, and White is seemingly just getting started, with a four-year, $70 million contract (with $55 million guaranteed) in hand. Add another three INTs, 11 pass deflections and 57 combined tackles to his resume from 2020 and, well, you get the point. 

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Alexander is another example of a player who doesn’t have gaudy INT numbers but who belongs on this list.

The 24-year-old is essentially just beginning his NFL career after being given the nod as the 18th overall pick by the Packers in 2018, and all he’s done thus far is prove he’s an elite cover corner. Similar to Byron Jones, Alexander can delete half of a football field by himself, although his lack of INTs often make those with a casual eye readily overlook him. To my point, Alexander allowed only 353 receiving yards in 2020, and that includes in the playoffs, while playing 600 coverage snaps — per PFF. But wait, there’s more, because his 9.1 yards allowed per completion and 4.7 yards per target with only two allowed touchdowns in 2020 were elite enough to land him his first All-Pro and Pro Bowl nod (and light years better than many on this list), and were career lows in all three categories (by a mile). The occasional hiccup aside (hi, Amari Cooper), it stands to reason Alexander is just getting started, and will be one of the best for a while to come.

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Ramsey is perennial problem for wide receivers and quarterbacks, and will be again in 2021.

The hiccup for Ramsey obviously has nothing to do with talent, but rather a stumble in 2019 thanks to his public and tumultuous divorce with the Jacksonville Jaguars that led to missed games (was he truly injured?) and an overall unsettled season as he tried to quickly acclimate to what Sean McVay and the Rams needed him to immediately be. His lone interception was a career-worst — as was his tally of 50 combined tackles and 66.2 completion percentage allowed — but with a full training camp to come (after having been absent a traditional one in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic), it stands to reason he’ll regain true form this coming season, after already bouncing back to another All-Pro nod and fourth Pro Bowl honor last year. Ramsey is a game-changer of the highest order, as evidenced by his mammoth contract in Los Angeles and the film to back it up.

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