"The only cornerback who doesn't get beat is the guy on the bench."
One of my former coaches once told me that, and I truly believe it. It's unrealistic to think a cornerback is never going to get beat, especially in today's NFL, when offenses are passing the ball at an all-time high rate. Before I get into my list of the top cornerbacks right now, it's important to understand that in order to be considered a top CB, the player must consistently affect plays and create turnovers. And like I mentioned in the offseason, there's nothing better than a corner who is physical and brings the trash-talking element to the game.
Two players that you won't see on my list are Jacksonville's Jalen Ramsey and Arizona's Patrick Peterson, but they deserve mentioning. Ramsey has been one of the best cornerbacks since his rookie season due to his elite ball skills and ability to not only talk the talk, but walk the walk. But the All-Pro cornerback, who requested a trade earlier this season, is dealing with a back injury and hasn't seen the field since Week 3. Peterson, an eight-time Pro Bowler, is currently serving a six-game suspension and is scheduled to return in two weeks, when the Cardinals hit the road to face the Giants. These two would absolutely top my list based on their histories and current abilities, but I can't reward guys who aren't on the field.
A versatile player in the league's top defense, Gilmore has the intangibles to do whatever Bill Belichick's defense demands. Whether he follows the opponent's No. 1 receiver or sits in the flats playing Cover 2, Gilmore executes every assignment to the best of his ability. His 6-foot-1, 200-pound frame allows him to battle with strong, physical receivers, and his quickness in and out of breaks allows him to hang with small, fast wideouts. Gilmore understands route concepts and anticipates the route based on the receiver's movements so well that he routinely eliminates space. Gilmore's technique makes him a problem, as he has yet to give up a touchdown in coverage through five games, and opposing quarterbacks have a 63.2 passer rating when targeting Gilmore in coverage this season, according to Pro Football Focus. In today's NFL, where aging cornerbacks seem to slow down, the 29-year-old Patriot is getting better and better. Gilmore is a complete corner, but to be clear, he wouldn't be able to produce at a high level without the other guys in the secondary -- Jason and Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung. These three players certainly deserve praise for what they've accomplished so far.
Humphrey is a young cornerback who's proving he loves to compete against the league's top receivers. It's not all that surprising, considering he played for Nick Saban at Alabama and has raised his level of play in each of his three NFL seasons to the standard the Baltimore Ravens demand on defense. It often takes entire defenses to shut down top receivers, but Humphrey embraces the challenge and wants to be the player to lock his opponent up, play after play. In Week 4, he frustrated Odell Beckham Jr. the entire game (even after the whistle) and held him without a catch through three quarters. Then in Week 5, he showed up in a big spot against JuJu Smith-Schuster in overtime after getting beat by the Steelers WR1 earlier in the game for a touchdown. During that game-altering overtime play, Humphrey punched the ball out and recovered it, which ultimately led to Justin Tucker's game-winning field goal. His short memory, instincts and willingness to gamble in a crucial moment make him a guy any defensive coordinator would want.
There has been a youth movement at the cornerback position, and White has been at the center of it since coming into the league in 2017. He is thriving under Sean McDermott in Buffalo as a more athletic version of Josh Norman, who had his best seasons with McDermott in Carolina. The Bills don't play a ton of man-to-man; rather, the defense works collectively to succeed in zone coverages. A form of zone McDermott uses is quarters/palms, which is a form of trap coverage. In simple terms, the cornerback reads the route of WR2 while keeping WR1 in his vision. If WR2 breaks out, the cornerback defends him and the safety takes WR1. Defenders must have a high football IQ to succeed in this defense, and White has all the necessary tools and then some, having forced three turnovers so far this season, including a game-sealing interception in Week 3.
When Alexander came out for the draft, my former coach at Virginia Tech, Lorenzo Ward, who also coached Alexander at Louisville, told me Alexander's mindset was very similar to mine. He had what I call athletic arrogance. You know what I mean. That never-back-down-from-anybody mentality. Or the "I'm taking this personally and I'm not going to lose" approach. Or a guy who talks trash to you no matter what. We in the football world call this "a dog." It's a big part of what it takes to be a lockdown cornerback in this league. Alexander is probably the least disciplined player in this group, but because of his "dog mentality" and competitiveness, he often has the edge over his opponents. It's not just his attitude that I like, though. Mike Pettine's scheme, coupled with a nasty pass rush, allows Alexander to gamble and make plays. He has quickly developed into an elite playmaker under Pettine and has the ability and mindset to match up against any player in the league. His league-high 11 forced incompletions (among defenders with at least 25 targets in coverage) highlights his ability to stay with and disrupt plays against even the top wideouts.
Fuller is coming off his best season in 2018 and wasted no time adding to his career INT total with two within the first three weeks this season. Although he -- and the rest of the Bears' defense, for that matter -- struggled across the pond, Fuller is undoubtedly one of the elite cornerbacks because of his versatility. He's a monster in coverage who can match receivers step for step when going in and out of their breaks, and he always seems to find the ball, whether in man or zone coverage, with seven passes defensed this season. Another thing that separates Fuller is his ability to be a physical corner. He's a sure tackler who plays a key role on one of the league's most tenacious defenses.