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Top 10 NFL ballhawks in 2021: Kevin Byard, Trevon Diggs among those making plays

In the pass-happy NFL, it's important to make sure at least one defender can be counted on to shut down the receiving end of air attacks. And one component of providing strong pass coverage is the ability to make a play on the pass when it arrives.

That's precisely what we're focusing on this week: The NFL's top ballhawks.

Next Gen Stats provides a metric to measure this: ballhawk rate. The statistic reflects the percentage of times a defender makes a play on the ball (via pass defensed) when they are the nearest defender targeted. Blanket coverage is great, after all, but it doesn't matter if a defender can't interrupt a ball's journey to a receiver's hands.

Using both the eye test and the relevant coverage stats (completion rate allowed over expectation, opposing passer rating allowed, targeted expected points added and, of course, ballhawk rate), I built a list of the league's top ballhawks. I've set a minimum of 25 targets to filter down to the defensive backs seeing enough of a volume of targets to produce meaningful statistics. Remember, we're not quite discussing coverage proficiency, but a player's ability to make a play when it matters most: when the ball arrives.

Here are my top 10 ballhawks through nine weeks.

Rank
1
Kevin Byard
Tennessee Titans · S · Year 6

Byard's play has had a lot to do with the defensive leap that Tennessee has made over the past month or so. He's recorded four of his five interceptions in the last five games, and he's posted the second-highest ballhawk rate in the entire league in the last four weeks (minimum 10 targets in that span of time), per Next Gen Stats. No one has done more to improve their team's chances, based on the fact that Byard owns the best targeted-expected-points-added figure in the NFL since Week 9 (-22.1) -- Byard is also tied with Trevon Diggs for the best mark in that department for the season (-29.1). As the last line of defense, safeties tend to be the nearest defender on scoring plays and often get dinged for touchdowns allowed, which explains Byard's three touchdowns allowed. But the quality of the overall body of work is undeniable, and Byard's ballhawk rate of 39.3 percent (including 38.9 percent as the nearest defender in off coverage) is the best in the league by a significant margin. He's stepping up when it counts, and the Titans have benefitted tremendously.

Rank
2
Trevon Diggs
Dallas Cowboys · CB · Year 2

Diggs sprinted to the forefront of the nation's football consciousness this season with his plays on the ball, so it's no surprise to see him here. Diggs remains the league leader in interceptions with seven, which he recorded in his first six games, and he's used his greatest strength -- his innate ability to attack the ball -- to become a key defender for the Cowboys. Since we're discussing precisely those who are the best at playing the pass when it arrives in their vicinity, Diggs' placement on this list is a no-brainer. He ranks fourth in ballhawk rate (minimum 25 targets) at 26.1 percent and has allowed a completion percentage over expected of -12.5 percent, as well as an opposing passer rating of 55.3. His 12 passes defensed are tied for the most in the league, and with 46 targets as the nearest defender, Diggs is getting his fair share of attention. He's risen to the challenge in only his second NFL season.

Rank
3
J.C. Jackson
New England Patriots · CB · Year 4

Jackson's been a standout in the last couple of seasons, but the same question always lingered: Is his success just a byproduct of being able to play opposite Stephon Gilmore? Well, New England moved Jackson to the front of the register line this season -- and so far, he's checked out. Gilmore missed the Patriots' first seven games and was eventually traded to Carolina, and in the meantime, Jackson elevated himself to bona fide No. 1 corner status, intercepting five passes (tied for second most in the NFL, with Byard) while also posting a top-nine ballhawk rate (20%), thanks to his 12 passes defensed (tied with Diggs for most in the league). Jackson's Next Gen Stats resume passes every test: He's allowed a completion percentage over expected of -6.5 and an opposing passer rating of 50.3 when targeted as the nearest defender. The Patriots are playing quality football on defense, and Jackson has been leading the way.

Rank
4
Justin Simmons
Denver Broncos · S · Year 6

Safeties typically aren't targeted enough to meet the minimums I set to filter through these players, but Simmons has gotten enough attention from opposing offenses to be the second safety to make the cut -- and he's certainly done enough otherwise to deserve it. He's proving his recent contract extension worth its weight in dollars, recording the fifth-highest ballhawk rate in the entire league at 24.1 percent (with 29 targets as the nearest defender). Teams attempting to find weaknesses in the seams are running into frequent resistance from Simmons, who owns a 20 percent balhawk rate as the nearest defender in coverage when targeting receivers aligned in the slot. That's the best mark in the league by more than 2 percentage points (minimum of 15 targets). Overall, Simmons is denying expected completions at a rate of 6 percent, and he's reduced opponents' scoring opportunities by 5.1 points. All of this from a safety playing on a defense that has weathered multiple injuries (and the departure of its best pass-rusher, Von Miller, via trade). That's worthy of recognition.

Rank
5
Jamel Dean
Tampa Bay Buccaneers · CB · Year 3


Tampa Bay has dealt with a handful of injuries in its secondary, including to Dean, but that has not kept the corner from playing effectively in 2021. Dean has consistently denied opposing offenses expected completions, recording a completion percentage allowed over expectation of -13.7 percent on 36 targets. He's snagged two interceptions and has seven total passes defensed, which gives him a ballhawk rate near 20 percent (19.4). Dean has created his own no-fly zone downfield this season, logging the sixth-best ballhawk rate as the nearest defender in coverage on downfield targets (38.5%). He's also among the league's top defensive backs when it comes to eliminating opposing scoring opportunities on a per-play basis, posting a targeted EPA of -14.2 on the year. That's Super Bowl-caliber cornerback play.

Rank
6
Jalen Ramsey
Los Angeles Rams · CB · Year 6

I initially had Ramsey ninth on this list due to a relatively low ballhawk rate (15.7 percent, 10th of the players here), but this is likely related to volume (Ramsey's been targeted 51 times, second among the players here). Plus, the value of a play on the ball should be considered. Of Ramsey's eight recorded plays on the ball, three have produced interceptions. As a result, Ramsey owns a targeted EPA of -6.4, a 57.8 opposing passer rating allowed and a completion percentage allowed over expectation of -4.2. All three of his interceptions have come on downfield targets, meaning he's robbing opponents of their dreams of big-play touchdowns. Ramsey is one of the best corners in the league, and this ranking shouldn't be taken as an overall judgment of where he stands among defensive backs. It's simply a reflection of the type of defender he's been in 2021 when it comes to making plays on the ball -- and sixth is still pretty damn good.

Rank
7
A.J. Terrell
Atlanta Falcons · CB · Year 2

Terrell is another player who has come on strong as of late, recording four passes defensed in the last month for the third best ballhawk rate in the league in that span. He rose to the occasion in Atlanta's upset win over New Orleans, recording a handful of passes defensed at a rate frequent enough to elicit praise from the game's broadcast team. The performance stood as an example of a young corner's development, and that growth, combined with his production over the season -- 59.5 passer rating allowed, 23.1 percent ballhawk rate and an eye-popping -21.4 completion percentage over expected allowed -- was enough to elevate him into my top 10 ballhawks. It's only the beginning for Terrell.

Rank
8
Kristian Fulton
Tennessee Titans · CB · Year 2

Fulton isn't seeing quite the same volume of targets as some of the other defenders on this list, but he's consistently preventing passes thrown in his direction from being completed. Fulton has allowed a completion percentage over expected of -9.6 percent and an opposing passer rating of just 61.7, and he owns a ballhawk rate of 20 percent (the same as J.C. Jackson). Add in an interception, and you have a young corner consistently affecting the ability of opposing offenses to complete passes in his direction, taking away scoring opportunities at a rate similar to that of Jalen Ramsey's -6.4 (-4.5 total EPA for Fulton). 

Rank
9
Levi Wallace
Buffalo Bills · CB · Year 4

Wallace has seen a healthy amount of targets (44), and he has largely responded, posting a ballhawk rate of 15.9 percent while also allowing an opposing passer rating of 78.3. Wallace's effective play has become a common theme in Bills games this season, as he's part of a secondary that includes three corners excelling (Tre'Davious White and Taron Johnson being the other two). His Next Gen numbers are comparable to those of Dean -- and he's posting them while occupying the unenviable role of playing corner opposite a legitimate star in White, meaning he's most likely to be targeted by teams looking to throw away from White. Their target totals are nearly even (46 for White), and Wallace has been more active in making plays on the ball (White's ballhawk rate is 8.7 percent). The Bills' secondary is certainly more than just one standout defensive back.

Rank
10
Xavien Howard
Miami Dolphins · CB · Year 6

This one was truly a toss-up between Howard and Bills slot corner Taron Johnson, but I chose Howard because of his sheer production when it comes to making plays on the ball. Howard has seen 50 targets as the nearest defender this season, and he's made a play on the ball on 20 percent of them, recording 10 passes defensed -- among the best in the league -- and two interceptions. He'd land higher on this list if it wasn't for his five touchdowns allowed as the nearest defender. While that isn't quite a definitive indicator of responsibility (since it relies on tracking data that can't take into account coverage responsibilities), it also doesn't look great on a stat line. Howard led the league in interceptions last season, so his performance when it comes to playing passes in his direction is no surprise. He's succeeding in a similar, physical style, posting the league's best ballhawk rate in press coverage (44.4%). It just might raise some eyebrows in Miami that he's not higher than 10. Bring me your incensed mentions.

HEATING UP

Here are some players who, though they haven't put up the season-long numbers to merit inclusion in the top 10, have been gaining real ball-hawking steam over the past month:

Xavier McKinney, S, New York Giants: McKinney has been on fire lately, recording four interceptions in the last four weeks and producing the league's top ballhawk rate between Week 6 and Week 9. His two interceptions singlehandedly flipped New York's Week 9 win over Las Vegas in favor of the Giants. The young safety is starting to put things together in the coverage department and is only scratching the surface in Year 2.

Greg Newsome, CB, Cleveland Browns: The rookie fought through injury earlier in the season, but he was at full strength in Week 9, shutting down Ja'Marr Chase in Cleveland's win over Cincinnati. Newsome blanketed and harassed Chase for much of the afternoon, making his greatest play by trailing Chase across the deep middle of the field before closing the gap and deflecting a pass from the hands of the exciting rookie pass-catcher. Now that he's healthy, Newsome is starting to get his feet under him, and Cleveland is reaping the rewards from spending a first-round pick on the Northwestern product.

Stephon Gilmore, CB, Carolina Panthers: Two games, two picks. After missing the first quarter of the season and getting traded to Carolina, Gilmore has produced immediately for the Panthers, with those picks giving him a ballhawk rate of 40 percent on his five targets as the nearest defender. The 10th-year pro's interception of Mac Jones in Week 9 was an exquisite example of Gilmore's experience and athletic excellence in action.

Taron Johnson, CB, Buffalo Bills: Johnson's ascension began in the Divisional Round of the playoffs last season, when he intercepted Lamar Jackson deep in the red zone and returned the pick for a touchdown. He's continued rising into 2021, excelling in the slot this season. Johnson is tied for the most passes defensed (four) as the nearest defender in coverage when the targeted receiver aligns in the slot, and he owns the best completion rate allowed over expected in the slot in the entire NFL. The fourth-year pro's arrow is pointing upward, and it keeps on moving in that direction as the season progresses.

Follow Nick Shook on Twitter.

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