Over the spring/summer, the SIS R&D staff is convening on the Off the Charts Podcast to talk about their top ten players at a position. To do this, we pit two methodologies against each other: 

  • The “Scouts,” which comes down to the film-based opinions of Matt Manocherian and Bryce Rossler, each of whom has a lot of experience breaking down film and scouting players (Matt having done it for NFL teams).
  • The “Stats,” which involves James Weaver and Alex Vigderman devising a ranking based on a suite of metrics, and having that ranking speak for itself.

Officially, Sports Info Solutions does not condone the dichotomy between scouting and statistical analysis. Each of them provides data in their own way and should inform our evaluation of a player. 

When we originally produced the Football Rookie Handbook before transitioning that content to our NFL Draft site, we put the scouting reports and stats side-by-side with the idea that the reader would bounce back and forth between them and leverage both to come to a conclusion about a prospect.

So, without further ado, let’s get to these ‘Best Cornerbacks in the NFL’ lists and then do a deep dive on why each group ranked as it did.

Scouts’ Opinion Statistical Analysis
1. Pat Surtain II 1. Sauce Gardner
2. Jalen Ramsey 2. Tyson Campbell
3. Jaire Alexander 3. Jalen Ramsey
4. Sauce Gardner 4. Pat Surtain II
5. Darius Slay 5. Tariq Woolen
6. Tre’Davious White 6. Jaire Alexander
7. Marshon Lattimore 7. J.C. Jackson
8. Xavien Howard 8. Michael Jackson Sr.
9. Denzel Ward 9. L’Jarius Sneed
10. A.J. Terrell 10. Michael Davis

The Stats List Methodology

The stats-based ranking includes a three-year recency-weighted average of a player’s results across several different metrics, with the following weights applied to each:

  • 30% Pass Coverage Total Points
  • 5% Pass Rush Total Points
  • 10% Run Defense Total Points
  • 10% Positive % Allowed vs. Man Coverage
  • 10% Hand-On-Ball %
  • 10% Deserved Catch Allowed %
  • 5% Press Coverage %
  • 5% Slot Corner %
  • 5% Broken+Missed Tackle Allowed %
  • 5% Penalties
  • 5% YAC Per Completion Allowed

Once again, the stats team leans heavily into Total Points. This catch-all metric incorporates many of the elements that we would care about when evaluating a player’s performance. In this case, Pass Coverage Total Points takes the higher weight due to the nature of what cornerbacks are asked to do.

Run defense and pass rush are also included in order to favor those with specific skill sets that add to a team’s value. Obviously these two are not the usual attributes first thought of when evaluating cornerback play, but a sneaky corner blitzer like L’Jarius Sneed or an ultra-aggressive run defender in Jalen Ramsey add value to a team with these skills.

The stats team also wanted to give credit to corners who line up in press coverage more often as well as those who line up on the outside rather than in the slot (a smaller slot corner % value). A player who lines up in press usually has the skill and trust from the coaching staff to go 1-on-1 with their counterpart on the offensive side of the ball with minimal help. With the better receivers usually lining up on the outside, we credited those corners who line up on the outside more often than in the slot.

The other 10% weights—positive % allowed vs. man coverage, hand on-ball %, and deserved catch %—all break down an individual player’s performance when the spotlight is on them. Positive % vs. man is the percentage of positive plays (EPA > 0) a corner allows when they are in man coverage. Hand on-ball % is the percentage of time a player has an interception, a pass deflected, a pass tipped, a forced fumble, or a fumble recovery. Deserved catch % is the percentage of time a corner allows a catch or a drop on a catchable throw, so a lower number is better here.

The rest of the weights include broken and missed tackles allowed, yards after catch per completion allowed, and penalties. Gauging whether or not a player is disciplined and a sure tackler are standard staples on defense.

What the Stats Showed

4 out of the top 5 players on the stats list came in the Top 5 in Pass Coverage Total Points. Tariq Woolen was the only one who didn’t, but he was the best in the Top 10 in press coverage % and was 1st among all corners in deserved catch %. Both he and Sauce Gardner benefit from having massive rookie seasons, as they have less baggage clinging to them in what they have allowed.

Tyson Campbell ranked No.2 on the stats list while he didn’t make the Scouts Top 10 list. His stats across the board ranked highly among Top 10 players such as 4th overall in Pass Coverage Total Points and 7th overall in Run Defense Total Points. He also ranked the best among Top 10 players in slot corner %, meaning his production came on the outside.

J.C. Jackson was No. 7 on the stats list solely because of his 2020 and 2021 seasons with the Patriots. He has the same rank in Pass Coverage Total Points, has the 2nd-best press coverage rank among those in the Top 10, and is 3rd overall in hand-on-ball %. However, allowing 16 yards per target in 2022 is less than ideal. He will have to get back to his previous standards this year after being benched and suffering an injury last season.

What the Scouts Thought

Pat Surtain II was their best corner in the league. Surtain’s NFL pedigree came from his father, Pat Surtain Sr., and the younger Surtain has surpassed his father by being more physical and having the ability to punish a receiver throughout the game. Those coupled with his size, strength, and speed make him No. 1 on their list.

A big difference between the stats and scouts list was the ranking of Darius Slay. The scouts had him No. 5, but the stats list had him No. 63! “When he is on, he is dangerous,” Matt said of Slay. Matt adds, “I think he earns every bit of the money he earns in Philadelphia.” The stats had him a lot lower, as he ranked 73rd in Pass Coverage Total Points. 

Further along, Bryce discussed why Tre’Davious White ranked No. 6: “Maybe feisty is the word, but he is definitely one of the more physical guys even with his size.” 

Matt also liked the play of Xavien Howard as the 8th best cornerback on the scouts list. He still believes that he is a top corner despite fighting through an injury.

“This is somebody who, going into last year, would have been at the very top of this list for me,” Matt said. “I think that he is an interesting case study for the volatility of corners,”

Want to hear more discussion and debate? Check out this episode of the podcast: