In today's pass-first NFL, clubs wisely place a premium on defenders who are highly effective in coverage. There is perhaps no greater value to a defense than a player who can effectively shut down an opposing pass catcher, or a significant section of the field.
While we don't quite have an island named after any of these defenders, the players listed below excelled at denying the opposition through the air in 2020.
Now, some important notes about the parameters for this exercise: We set a minimum of 300 coverage snaps and 40 targets to achieve legitimate volume among qualifiers. Players also had to finish with a catch rate allowed that was below expectation, a negative targeted expected points added (a metric used to quantify how much an individual player impacted an opponents' scoring potential), a tight window percentage of at least 20 percent (15 percent for linebackers -- more on that later) -- and a maximum passer rating allowed of 80. These requirements pared down the candidates to only those with the most well-rounded production.
Using a combination of those metrics -- along with target rate, average separation and ballhawk rate as supplementary metrics (but most importantly, targeted EPA) -- we dove into the Next Gen Stats to identify the players who were the best in coverage in 2020.
Passer rating allowed: 76.5
Catch rate allowed below expectation: -5.8%
Tight window pct: 24.3%
Target rate: 16.9%
Average separation: 2.2 yards
Targeted expected points added: -9.3
Even in his 11th NFL season, Haden still proved to be an effective cover man. He allowed just 2.2 yards of separation per target in 2020, the fifth-lowest average in the NFL (minimum 50 targets), and the best mark he's posted in the category during the Next Gen Stats era (since 2016). The Steelers corner compiled a completion percentage allowed below expectation for the fourth straight season and is one of just four players to do so while seeing a minimum of 50 targets in each season during that span. While his numbers aren't quite as astronomical as others on this list, Haden proved with his play and production that he's still a strong performer at the position.
Passer rating allowed: 65.5
Catch rate allowed below expectation: -6.2%
Tight window pct: 25.4%
Target rate: 16.4%
Average separation: 2.4 yards
Targeted expected points added: -13.7
Fuller's enjoyed a significant turnaround in his return to Washington last season, going from allowing a +14.6 percent catch rate over expectation with the Chiefs in 2019 to a catch rate below expectation of -6.2 percent in 2020 with the Football Team. Instead of occupying the slot a majority of the time, Washington entrusted Fuller with perimeter coverage in 2020. He shifted from a slot alignment rate of 58 percent from 2016-2019 to just 5.4 percent in 2020, instead spending 85.4 percent of his snaps at right corner. That meant Fuller had to run with receivers downfield, but he allowed only one reception on eight deep targets in 2020 after allowing a reception rate of 50 percent on 18 deep targets from 2018 to 2019. With all of this information in mind, it's not a surprise his numbers improved dramatically, especially his passer rating allowed and catch rate allowed. Now it's just about continuing this positive momentum into 2021.
Passer rating allowed: 73.1
Catch rate allowed below expectation: -8.1%
Tight window pct: 21.4%
Target rate: 20.2%
Average separation: 2.9 yards
Targeted expected points added: -15.9
Gardner-Johnson is listed as a safety, but he spent the vast majority of 2020 as a slot defender, lining up in that location for 542 snaps and just 21 as a deep safety. It seems the Saints have recognized that's where he is at his best, as the alignment disparity was even greater than it was in the previous season. They also realized he's best when using his physicality to his advantage, playing off coverage on just 28 percent of snaps after breaking 60 percent the season prior. His average pre-snap cushion dropped from 6.6 yards to 4.7, a product of playing in the slot more often. He allowed just seven receptions for 68 yards while recording an interception and four other passes defensed on 14 targets in press coverage in 2020. It seems Gardner-Johnson found his fit in Year Two and is poised for even more in 2021.
Passer rating allowed: 64.4
Catch rate allowed below expectation: -12.6%
Tight window pct: 27.8%
Target rate: 15.2%
Average separation: 2.2 yards
Targeted expected points added: -17.8
Rhodes had one of the most remarkable year-to-year turnarounds in recent memory for a veteran corner, making the move from Minnesota to Indianapolis and taking advantage of a change in scheme in 2020 to post a highly productive season. After pressing receivers for most of his career, Rhodes rarely did so in Indianapolis, instead playing off the ball and pressing receivers on just 7.1 percent of coverage snaps (as opposed to a 31.3 percent press rate in his final season with the Vikings, a campaign in which he allowed a passer rating of 128.5). Rhodes' improvement was swift and drastic, jumping from a +18.4 percent catch rate allowed over expectation in 2019 (worst in the NFL) to a catch rate allowed below expectation of -12.6 percent in 2020 (third-best among qualifiers for this list). He also pivoted from a targeted EPA of +39.1 (fifth-worst in the NFL) to -17.8 in 2020 (eighth-best). Rhodes made a home on the right side in Indianapolis, spending over 87 percent of his coverage snaps on that portion of the field, and it paid off immensely for him in 2020.
Passer rating allowed: 65.6
Catch rate allowed below expectation: -9.8%
Tight window pct: 29.5%
Target rate: 8.6%
Average separation: 2.6 yards
Targeted expected points added: -17.4
Bates is the highest-rated safety on this list, and the stat that jumps out from his line is ballhawk rate, which measures the percentage of targets where the nearest defender made a play on the football (pass defensed or interception). His league-best ballhawk rate of 34.1 percent was 9.7 percentage points higher than the next-closest defender in the category, which was enough to bump Bates up one position on this list. He took away any deep shot thrown in his direction in 2020, recording an interception and three other passes defensed on four deep targets. He also was highly effective against the run, finishing as the only safety in the NFL with an 80 or better run defense grade and 90 or better coverage grade from Pro Football Focus (not surprisingly, he received the highest overall PFF grade among safeties at 90.1). It's easy to see: Bates was elite in 2020.
Passer rating allowed: 62.7
Catch rate allowed below expectation: -7.1%
Tight window pct: 23.6%
Target rate: 15.7%
Average separation: 2.6 yards
Targeted expected points added: -20.8
Williams' rise was a pleasant surprise for the Rams and helped Los Angeles blossom into the NFL's top defense in 2020, so why not dive into how he did it? For one, throwing deep in the direction of Williams was a bad call by quarterbacks. He posted a targeted EPA of -17.3 on deep targets, the second-best mark in the NFL. Williams was indeed a weighted blanket on pass catchers downfield, allowing a passer rating of 13.5 on deep targets, the second-lowest in the league (minimum of nine deep targets). Two of Williams' four interceptions came on deep passes, as well. This is only the beginning for the fourth-year veteran.
Passer rating allowed: 64.1
Catch rate allowed below expectation: -16.5%
Tight window pct: 16%
Target rate: 12.7%
Average separation: 3.7 yards
Targeted expected points added: -21.8
Ladies and gentlemen, we've arrived at the one and only linebacker in the top 10. Warner's numbers were freakishly good for a linebacker, a position that typically requires a read step to detect whether the play is a run or a pass before a player can then act on the play (giving pass catchers an advantage at the start), yet he still forced tight windows at a 16 percent rate, clearing the minimum requirement we set for linebackers in this exercise. His catch rate allowed below expectation of -16.5 percent is the best mark in that category for any qualifying player since 2017. Let's also consider he allowed a completion rate of just 54 percent, the lowest by any linebacker in the Next Gen Stats era (dating back to 2016, with a minimum of 50 targets). Three linebackers have posted a completion rate allowed below 55 percent since 2016, and one of them -- Mark Barron -- is a converted safety. Now, for the cherry on top: Warner rushed the passer 93 times in 2020 and recorded 13 pressures, both the highest totals of his career. Warner has proven he deserves to be mentioned among the league's best.
Passer rating allowed: 46.9
Catch rate allowed below expectation: -5.2%
Tight window pct: 31.5%
Target rate: 17.5%
Average separation: 2.1 yards
Targeted expected points added: -26.7
Callahan showed his versatility in 2020, becoming one of just three defenders in the NFL to align for 15 or more snaps at right corner, left corner and slot corner. However, Callahan shined brightest in the slot, where he allowed a catch rate below expectation of -19.5 percent, the fourth-lowest rate in the NFL (minimum 15 slot targets in coverage), while his catch rate over expectation went in the opposite direction (+5.3 percent) when aligned out wide. Callahan is also a premier defender when it comes to closing on receivers who have caught the ball, finishing as the only corner to allow fewer than 2 yards after the catch per reception in 2020 (1.8 YAC per reception allowed). His outstanding performance in the slot lifted him into the upper echelon of cover corners in 2020.
Passer rating allowed: 60.9
Catch rate allowed below expectation: -7%
Tight window pct: 42.3%
Target rate: 15.9%
Average separation: 2 yards
Targeted expected points added: -25.7
Alexander continues to trend upward in his still-young career. He was excellent in off coverage (five-plus yards of cushion at the snap) in 2020, finishing with a league-best targeted expected points added of -25.1 on such targets (remember, the lower the better for targeted EPA for defenders). What made Alexander effective was his ability to close on pass catchers and stay in their pocket throughout the route, allowing a league-low 1.8 yards of separation per target in off coverage. As you might expect, Green Bay was very confident in lining up Alexander off the line of scrimmage, averaging 7.5 yards of pre-snap cushion per coverage snap in 2020 (the fourth most in the NFL, minimum 300 coverage snaps), yet he closed so effectively, he posted the highest tight window rate in the NFL at 42.3 percent. His catch rate allowed over expectation has gone from +7.2 percent in 2018 to -2.2 percent in 2019 and -7 percent in 2020. Alexander just keeps getting better, and he's already among the league's best.
Passer rating allowed: 46.5
Catch rate allowed below expectation: -6.8%
Tight window pct: 21.6%
Target rate: 18.2%
Average separation: 2.8 yards
Targeted expected points added: -34.5 (best in NFL)
It should come as no surprise that the league leader in interceptions (10) landed atop this list. Howard was effective in all areas and might have received a boost from Miami's decision to move him off the line of scrimmage last season. After spending nearly 70 percent of his coverage snaps in press coverage in 2019, Howard pressed opposing receivers just 32.2 percent of the time in 2020, and it produced excellent results. Only Marcus Peters was more effective in press coverage last season, with Howard finishing second to the Ravens CB (-20.6) in targeted EPA on such throws at -16. Some teams opted to challenge Howard deep and learned that was also a bad decision. He recorded four interceptions on deep targets, the most in the NFL in 2020, and finished with a targeted EPA of -17.4 on such targets, the lowest rate in the league. These numbers fall in line with a demonstrated history of success downfield, too. Howard hasn't allowed a deep passing touchdown as the nearest defender since 2017, intercepting seven passes on deep targets and allowing a grand total of just four receptions for 186 yards on 35 deep targets since the start of the 2018 season. Howard Island might not be a thing yet, but the information above suggests he was worthy of the nickname in 2020.
Ward was elite when it came to blanketing pass catchers, posting a tight window rate of 40.5 percent, the second-highest mark among corners behind only Jaire Alexander. His ballhawk rate was the highest among all qualifying corners at 24.3 percent. However, thanks in part to Cleveland's banged-up and underperforming secondary, Ward didn't quite stack up when it came to targeted EPA (-4.0), dropping him below other more qualified candidates.
When we dug into these numbers, we realized the 20 percent minimum for tight windows wasn't really fair to linebackers, who have more immediate run responsibilities and more lateral ground to cover than a defensive back out wide. We set a 15 percent tight-window minimum for linebackers to account for this, and Smith just barely missed the mark at 14.9 percent. The rest of his numbers were very solid, including his -7.4 percent catch rate allowed below expectation, 59.9 passer rating allowed and a targeted expected points added of -27.6 (!). But rules are rules.
Phillips would have made our top 10 had he played the additional 10 coverage snaps he needed to qualify. Missing four games hurt Phillips here, but he was a very solid cover corner when available.
Baker was excellent in almost every category, posting a catch rate allowed below expectation of -11.1 percent and a targeted EPA of -19.3. One requirement eliminated him, though: tight window percentage. Baker missed the minimum by 2.5 percentage points with a 12.5 percent rate.
Morrow's tale is similar to that of Baker. He posted an excellent catch rate allowed below expectation at -17.7 percent, but he was eliminated by the tight window requirement (missed it by 2.5 percentage points, just like Baker). It's really tough to make this list as a linebacker.
Bradberry's numbers were strong across the board (including a passer rating allowed of 67.7 and a ballhawk rate of 21.8 percent), but his targeted EPA (-8.6) kept him out of the top 10.
Ramsey was directly beneath Bradberry in these rankings, posting a better catch rate allowed below expectation (-9.4% to -5.1%) but a lower ballhawk rate (13.2 percent to 21.8 percent) and targeted EPA (-7.8 to -8.6).
Dean just barely made it within the qualifications, posting a passer rating allowed of 79.1. His numbers, while impressive, weren't quite as stellar as those of the other leading candidates.
Johnson failed to qualify because of his tight-window rate (16.4 percent; minimum requirement was 20 percent for defensive backs. He still put together a solid season that earned him a three-year, $33.75 million contract from the Browns in March.