NFL Nostalgia: Ranking the Best Shutdown Cornerbacks in History

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    Champ Bailey

    Champ BaileyKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    You are about to meet a group of defensive backs who could do many things well: tackle, blitz, crunch running backs on the perimeter, return kicks and punts, sit in underneath zones and bait quarterbacks into making mistakes that turn into pick-sixes. 

    But the title of this countdown is “Best Shutdown Cornerbacks in History,” and these defenders will be held to the letter of that law. They will be ranked on their ability to turn and run in man coverage, not on their all-around gifts. That means some “complete” defenders may rank below quick-footed, swivel-hipped coverage specialists, and some Hall of Famers may take a back seat to lesser-known players with a knack for blanketing receivers.

    Think of it this way: It’s 3rd-and-15 in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl. You need someone to cover Antonio Brown one-on-one. Great run support will get you nowhere. Which cornerback from history do you select?

    One other rule before we begin: Success during the Super Bowl era was a requirement for inclusion. With all respect to Jack Butler, Dick “Night Train” Lane and others, cornerback was a very different position before the modern era.

    Let’s get out on the island, play a little bump ‘n’ run and watch the cornerback spot evolve from just another defender on the edge of the formation into one of the most important, glamorous and lucrative positions on the field.

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    The 2017 NFL would absolutely love Lester Hayes. He had so much to offer the modern football landscape:

  • The Stance. Haynes crouched lower than any cornerback before or since at the line of scrimmage, eager to deliver his jarring trademark bump. The crouch would make the ultimate GIF, video game cover or Fathead.
  • The Stammer. Hayes had a speech impediment that he slowly overcame over the course of his career. When the words came forth, they arrived in a barrage of one-line zingers, philosophical musings and Star Wars references. Today, he would be a cross between Martellus Bennett, Richard Sherman and Marshawn Lynch, especially on Instagram, where no one can hear you fumble for the words.
  • The Stickum. It was legal when Hayes led the Raiders to a Super Bowl title with 13 interceptions in 1980. Hayes wore it like body spray. It helped him slurp up interceptions and entangle receivers at the line. Hayes wouldn’t be able to use it now. Or would he? Talk shows would lap up the sticky controversy after every one-handed interception.

Stickum probably kept Hayes out of the Hall of Fame. As soon as the NFL banned it, Hayes’ interception totals plummeted. Of course, thumb injuries contributed to the dip (“I could not catch a cold in Antarctica,” Hayes once joked). And with the arrival of Mike Haynes in 1983, Hayes helped the Raiders to a second Super Bowl victory, forming one of history’s most famous cornerback tandems. But the Hall of Fame waiting list is always long, so maybe the guy who slathered himself in goo to have his best year belongs near the back of the line.

Hayes got the job done in coverage, though, even without the sticky stuff. He was truly one of a kind. If he played today, we wouldn’t be able to get enough of him.

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Our image of the great cornerback is always evolving. Even among recent greats, we find Darrelle Revis with his frictionless backpedal and deep-coverage ballet moves; Richard Sherman crunching, clutching and scowling at any receiver on his side of the field; Ronde Barber lurking in the flats and reading the quarterback’s eyes; and Champ Bailey gliding into position as if he were the intended receiver.

    Then there’s Patrick Peterson, who does a little of everything. Peterson can be as physical as Sherman, smooth as Revis, technical as Bailey or opportunistic as Barber. In the complex Cardinals defense, Peterson sometimes does all of those things on the same drive.

    Peterson routinely shadows top receivers like Julio Jones all over the formation, including the slot. He’s as effective in man coverage as when dropping into a deep zone. Opponents try to avoid him, but they cannot be certain where he will be or what his true assignment is at the snap.

    Peterson has been elected to six Pro Bowls and three All-Pro teams in six seasons. He would rank higher, but longevity means a lot on a countdown like this one.

    Still, Peterson cracked an all-time list at age 27. That’s pretty darned impressive. Chances are, he’ll rank a lot higher in a few years.

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    Mark Duper and Mark Clayton, the two most dangerous receivers in the most dangerous offense of the mid-1980s, combined for one 15-yard reception from Dan Marino in a playoff game against the 8-8 Browns.

    It was the coming-out party for “Big Dawg” Hanford Dixon and “Mighty Minnie” Frank Minnifield, perhaps the greatest cornerback tandem in NFL history. Dixon and Minnifield, unfortunately, played for the Browns, so they lost that playoff game: Marino picked away with underneath passes to running back Tony Nathan, sparking a second-half comeback that foreshadowed what was to come.

    Dixon coined the phrase “Dawg Pound,” which soon became synonymous with both the Browns defense and their howling, barking fanbase. Dixon and Minnifield were the starting cornerbacks for the AFC Pro Bowl team for three straight years. In 1988, the Browns allowed just 13 passing touchdowns while recording 20 interceptions despite facing quarterbacks like Marino, John Elway, Warren Moon (twice) and Boomer Esiason (twice) in the regular season.

    But something always went wrong. Elway led The Drive against the Browns defense, and there was little the cornerback tandem could do as Elway threw screens and seamers to running back Steve Sewell and scrambled away from danger. (Minnifield and Dixon each allowed one reception on The Drive; nickel defender Mark Harper allowed the fateful Mark Jackson touchdown.) Earnest Byner’s fumble spoiled a Browns comeback bid in 1987. Quarterback Bernie Kosar was injured in 1988, so the Browns limped into the playoffs with Don Strock and Mike Pagel at quarterback. Moon threw three interceptions into the Browns secondary, but the Oilers still prevailed.

    Minnifield and Dixon are linked forever, both to each other and those star-crossed Browns teams of the Dawg Pound era. A break here and there would have led them to the Super Bowl, which may have led one or both of them to the Hall of Fame. Instead, they became foils for Elway, Marino and Moon. Those mid-1980s Browns were always just good enough to get beat in the playoffs. But without two of the best cornerbacks of the era, they would never have reached those historic playoff games in the first place.

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    A great cornerback often excels for two or three years before he achieves recognition. It takes time for analysts and fans to notice that no one is throwing to his side of the field and then a little longer for teammates and opponents to verify that he’s no fluke. By the time the All-Pro nods come, a cornerback has usually been playing well for quite a while.

    Charles Tillman did not reach the Pro Bowl until his ninth season. Peanut intercepted five passes for a Bears team that reached the Super Bowl with almost no offense in 2006. He was a turnover factory for one of the top defenses in the league for many years. Yet it took five interception return touchdowns in two years in 2011 and 2012 for him to finally get some all-star appreciation.

    Tillman was a victim of perceptions. Lovie Smith’s mid-2000s Bears were a base Tampa 2 team. As anyone who glosses over NFL strategy articles without really understanding them knows, Tampa 2 teams run nothing but Tampa 2 coverage 100 percent of the time, so cornerbacks like Peanut just linger in the flats and yell to their safeties for help whenever wide receivers breeze past them.

    Um…no. Tillman received lots of safety support in Lovie’s scheme, but Mel Blount and Emmitt Thomas got help from their safeties too. The Bears played all kinds of coverage with Peanut on the field, including plenty of man-to-man. Tillman could jam and redirect receivers with his eyes on the quarterback with the best of the “Tampa 2” cornerbacks. But he was also excellent at turning and mirroring his receivers. And few cornerbacks in history were as effective at prying the ball loose: Peanut forced 44 career fumbles, including 10 in his All-Pro 2012 season.

    Tillman is now a rising star in the television analyst field. Thanks to the increased exposure and a late-career Super Bowl run with the Panthers, his reputation as a shutdown corner is better now than it was in his best seasons. Tillman may find his way into the Hall of Fame despite the scant Pro Bowl recognition he received. It’s a roundabout way to get there, but as we will soon see, many cornerbacks on this countdown took a similar path.

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    Charles Knoblock/Associated Press

    Louis Wright earned a spot on the NFL Nostalgia countdown of pro football history’s most underrated players. To summarize: He was a perennial Pro Bowler in the late 1970s and 1980s, starred for the famed Orange Crush defense in the late 1970s and was still starting for John Elway’s 1986 AFC championship team. Wright was named to the All-Decade Team of the 1970s and was considered every bit the peer of Mel Blount and Mike Haynes.

    But he did the two worst possible things a defender who hopes to make the Hall of Fame could do: fail to win a Super Bowl and play for the Broncos.

    A lot of NFL Nostalgia energy has been expended trying to get modern fans to remember and appreciate the great Louis Wright. So why not rank him higher?

    Wright was one of the best run-defending corners of his era. Quotes about Wright usually focus on his ability to make tackles and force cutbacks on sweeps. Wright is also always singled out for his intangibles. The 1970s Orange Crush was full of guys almost as talented and a little more crazy than the Raiders of that era; Wright was a stabilizing team leader who helped prevent open rebellion.

    Run support at cornerback mattered much more in the mid-1970s than it does now, and leadership always counts. But this is a list of “shutdown cornerbacks.” Wright could cover, and his low interception total (26, including just seven in his peak from 1977 through 1979) is evidence that no quarterback was eager to challenge him. Wright deserves a spot on the all-time list, but the guys above him are more traditional cover corners.

    Maybe that’s just nitpicking, and we’re just underrating and overlooking Wright again, even as we try to praise him. At least we remembered to include him.

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    Chris O’Meara/Associated Press

    When Ronde Barber took over a game, there was nothing you could do about it.

    Ask Eagles fans. Barber slammed the door shut on the Eagles’ Super Bowl hopes in the 2002 NFC Championship Game, returning a fourth-quarter Donovan McNabb pass 92 yards for a game-clinching touchdown. In 2006, Barber swiped two pick-sixes from McNabb in a Buccaneers win that hastened McNabb’s tortuous fall from grace in Philly.

    Ask Saints fans about Barber’s three-interception game in 2001. Or the other three-interception game in 2005. Barber treated Aaron Brooks like his personal ATM machine.

    Barber played in the modern Tampa 2 system. He probably played the most underneath zone coverage of any defender on this list. Few could read the route combination in front of him, decide where the ball was going before even the quarterback made up his mind, and catch an interception at full stride like Barber. Barber was also the prototype of the modern pint-sized run-stuffer at cornerback, the guy who sliced past blockers and chopped larger running backs down at the ankles.

    Of course, neither zone lurking nor tackling counts as “shutdown cornerbacking” in the literal sense. But Barber made quarterbacks wary of throwing to his part of the field. Maybe that receiver was wide open in the flat. But maybe he was just Barber bait. McNabb, Brooks and others learned the hard way about nibbling.

    Barber should earn Hall of Fame enshrinement, but a candidate backlog (including fellow Bucs defensive back John Lynch), misconceptions about the scheme he played in and other factors will complicate his candidacy. Based on pure impact, he did everything all the other great cornerbacks on this list did, just in a slightly different way.

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    At 6’2″, Albert Lewis was the tallest cornerback of the 1980s, an era of Smurfs and sprinters at wide receiver. With 4.38 speed in the 40-yard dash, he was among the fastest. With a remarkable 11 blocked punts to go with 12.5 sacks and 42 interceptions, he was one of the most versatile and dangerous cornerbacks of the late 1980s and early 1990s. He played for 16 years and earned All-Pro status twice—and unless you are a Chiefs fan over 40 or an NFL historian, you probably don’t remember him at all.

    Lewis possessed outstanding recovery speed, great turn-and-run agility and a 38-inch vertical leap. He innovated the “catch” technique of jamming receivers off the line, waiting for them to make their first move before delivering a jolt up near the top of the shoulder pads. The catch technique made it harder for receivers to run quick slants on defenders, making it an ideal counterattack against the West Coast offense. Lewis and Kevin Ross became one of the best cornerback tandems of their era, with safety Deron Cherry over the top to form one of the best secondaries of any era.

    Still not ringing a bell?

    Lewis played for terrible Chiefs teams coached by John Mackovic and Frank Gansz early in his career. (Though one of Mackovic’s teams did stumble into the playoffs, thanks mostly to 31 interceptions by Lewis and company.) Then Marty Schottenheimer arrived and the Chiefs became a Marty Schottenheimer team: great pass defense (thanks in large part to Lewis), outstanding special teams (thanks again to Lewis) and all the offensive firepower that a quarterback like Steve DeBerg could provide. When Joe Montana finally arrived to get the Chiefs past the first round of the playoffs, Lewis was 33 years old. He still provided six interceptions and then two sacks in a playoff win over the Oilers.

    Lewis spent the last five seasons of his long career with the Raiders during one of their long stretches in the football wilderness. By the time Jon Gruden made the team relevant again, Lewis was a 38-year-old free safety.

    Lewis bobs onto Hall of Fame semifinalist lists now and then, but he played for some of the least glamorous teams of his era. In his prime, he was every bit the defender Richard Sherman is now. Lewis was a shutdown cornerback, playmaker and master technician whose on-field accomplishments deserve to be better remembered than they are.

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    Unless this is the very first football content you have encountered in the last five years, you are no doubt aware that Richard Sherman is not just a person but a trend. Every college cornerback who stands a hair over 6’1″ and has any ruggedness in his soul is now marketed as a “Richard Sherman type”: the ultimate king-sized, hard-hitting neutralizer for the modern superhero-shaped wide receiver.

    There were big cornerbacks long before Sherman came along. Heck, most of the 1970s guys on this countdown were bigger than Sherman, and heaven knows they were more physical in that Anything Goes era. But cornerbacks downsized over the decades until a few years ago, when size began to look like a near liability against shifty-speedy wide receivers.

    Sherman’s performance from 2012 through last season swung the pendulum back. Like an old-school ’70s cornerback, he can deliver a thud at the line, readjust quickly to turn and run in coverage and…yeah, maybe conceal some Mel Blount business well past the five-yard contact limit. Sherman, like the shutdown corners of the 1970s, is also a tremendous all-around athlete and student of the game. The temperament also comes with the territory; Sherman isn’t the first great cornerback to sometimes be too passionate and competitive for his own good.

    It turns out—surprise, surprise—that it takes more than height to be a “Richard Sherman type.” It takes all the attributes that have marked the best cornerbacks for decades. Sherman just happens to be a throwback, and he is still writing the story about how a converted wide receiver with a chip on his shoulder who didn’t quite fit the mold managed to introduce physical pass coverage to a new generation.

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    Leapin’ Lemar Parrish stood just 5’11” and weighed only 185 pounds, making him a tiny defender for the rough-and-tumble 1970s. He teamed up with Ken Riley and safety Tommy Casanova for the Bengals in the middle of the decade to form one of the greatest secondaries of the era. Casanova was the roving ball hawk who could take any interception to the house. Riley was the technician who could take any interception to the house.

    Parrish was the gambler of the group. With 13 career touchdowns on various kinds of returns, he could also take any kick, punt or errant throw in his general direction to the house.

    Parrish was the fastest defender in the Bengals secondary, so he often drew coverage against Paul Warfield, Lynn Swann, Cliff Branch and other speedsters of the era. He was renowned for his deep man coverage ability and his toughness when taking on bigger receivers or playing run support, not to mention his ball-hawk capabilities. Parrish made the Pro Bowl six times for the Bengals, but when he became embroiled in a salary dispute, general manager Paul Brown shipped him and defensive end Coy Bacon (another defensive star seeking more cash) to Washington in exchange for a first-round pick.

    Parrish had two more Pro Bowl seasons in Washington, intercepting 16 passes in 1979 and 1980. Unfortunately, Parrish was just a bit player by the time the Redskins became a Super Bowl powerhouse. Parrish has the perfect resume for a Hall of Fame snub: His career is spread across two teams, he just missed the Golden Age for one of those teams and he played for a team other than the Steelers in the 1970s.

    Paul Brown’s 1970s Bengals were full of ahead-of-their-time players like Ken Anderson (the first successful West Coast offense quarterback) and Isaac Curtis and Charlie Joiner (1980s-style possession receivers stuck in a bump-‘n’-mug era). Parrish would have been Darrell Green or Deion Sanders if his career started later. In the 1970s, neither he nor the Bengals were Steel Curtainish enough for big-time recognition. But when it came to pure coverage, Parrish was every bit as good as the best in the NFL.

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    Lott was one of the greatest all-around defenders in the history of the NFL. As a shutdown cornerback, however, he belongs here, further down on our countdown than you might expect.

    Lott was the hardest hitting cornerback of the 16-game era. He excelled in run defense and had a nose for the football. But in pure man-to-man coverage, he may not have been the best cornerback on the early 1980s 49ers.

    “Eric’s been in my shadow the last couple of years, but he and I know he’s the best corner on our team,” Lott said of teammate Eric Wright after Super Bowl XIX. Lott and Wright covered Mark Duper and Mark Clayton in that game as defensive coordinator George Seifert devised an all-new scheme to stop Dan Marino: a full-time 4-1-6 formation. Wright intercepted Marino once and excelled in man coverage. Lott used craft to compensate for quickness.

    “I knew Clayton was faster than me,” Lott said after the game. “I knew Duper was faster than me. I just tried to line up differently to make ’em think. You don’t have to be the best cornerback in the world.”

    Wright went on to an All-Pro season in 1985 before injuries swallowed his career. Lott moved over to free safety, where his toughness and instincts were more useful and his relative lack of pure speed would not be a liability against the Marks Brothers, the Posse or any of the other turbocharged receivers of the mid-to-late 1980s.

    Lott led the NFL in interceptions twice as a safety, but this is not a countdown of great safeties. Lott was a great cornerback for about four-and-a-half seasons. It may be a nitpick to rank him this low based purely on “shutdown corner” bona fides. Lott had his own way of shutting down receivers, one which was going out of style by the time he entered the NFL. However you slice it, the cornerbacks ahead of Lott on this list were better than he was at turning and running downfield in man-to-man coverage against go-to wide receivers. But let the record show that Lott was better than nearly all of them at just about every other facet of defensive play.

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    “The term ‘Shutdown Corner’ originated with Roger Wehrli. There wasn’t a better cornerback I played against. He was a great, great defensive back. You had to be aware of him all the time.” — Roger Staubach

    There must be room on any countdown of shutdown cornerbacks for the first defender to earn the label. Wehrli, a high school track star turned Mizzou defensive back and return man, started his career as the St. Louis Cardinals’ first-round pick after he ran a 4.5 forty for scouts.

    A 4.5 forty may not sound that impressive. But it was 1968. And Wehrli ran it on grass. In full pads. After playing in the Hula Bowl.

    “He had God-given ability,” Mizzou and Cardinals teammate Johnny Roland once said. “He was such a natural. It seemed like he ran so effortlessly, but he was a good, hard worker.”

    Wehrli’s Cardinals became a playoff team under Don Coryell in the mid-1970s. Coryell was an offensive genius, of course, but Wehrli and the secondary clamped down on opponents that tried to play catch-up. The Cardinals allowed just 40 passing touchdowns against 57 interceptions from 1974 through 1976. Tellingly, fellow cornerback Norm Thompson usually led the Cardinals in interceptions, not Wehrli. As Staubach suggests, opponents avoided Wehrli, though he still managed to intercept five career passes against the Cowboys.

    A recurring theme in this countdown is that great cornerbacks who committed the crime of not playing for the Steelers, Raiders or Packers and intercepting a pass in the Super Bowl seen a million times on NFL Films programs were banished to the slow-freight line by the Hall of Fame selection committee. Wehrli retired in 1982 and reached the Hall of Fame in 2007. By the time of his enshrinement, “shutdown cornerback” was an overused term applied to every Pro Bowl alternate who had a few good games. In Wehrli’s day, it was a radical new concept, one he helped to popularize.

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    Emmitt Thomas was the starting quarterback for tiny Bishop College in Texas when his coaches approached him before a game against Prairie View A&M. Pro scouts would be at the game, checking out A&M receiver Otis Taylor. Thomas was asked to switch to defense and cover Taylor. Thomas agreed, did a pretty good job and the rest was pro football history.

    Thomas went undrafted in 1966, but those pro scouts remembered him. Thomas became Taylor’s teammate for the Chiefs, one of the few teams that seriously scouted small, historically black programs in those days. The raw rookie impressed Hank Stram enough to earn a reserve role during the team’s march toward an AFL championship and the first Super Bowl. Then starting cornerback Fred Williamson retired to pursue an acting career, and Thomas became one of the best players for one of history’s best defenses.

    Thomas had one of the greatest defensive playoff performances ever in 1969. He intercepted Joe Namath to help seal a 13-6 win over the Jets and then intercepted Daryle Lamonica twice—returning the second pick 62 yards to set up a fourth-quarter field goal—to lead the Chiefs to a 17-7 win over the Raiders in the final AFL Championship Game. Finally, Thomas provided one of three Chiefs interceptions in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl IV, helping the Chiefs beat the Vikings 23-7.

    “He was a great athlete with tremendous speed and height,” Chiefs quarterback Len Dawson said of Thomas. “He could stay with a guy. You could put him on the other team’s top receiver, and he could do one heck of a job.”

    Thomas was also a student of the game. The Chiefs ran an early version of the Cover 2 in Thomas’ heyday, but he wasn’t sitting in underneath zone coverage. It was a complex, multifaceted scheme for its era, and Thomas transitioned smoothly from the high-flying antics of the AFL to the more sophisticated (and rugged) post-merger NFL, even as the rest of the Chiefs organization faded from relevance.

    Thomas went on to coach for decades. Many successful cornerbacks learned their craft from Thomas, as the quarterback who took up cornerback at a moment’s notice went on to become one of the position’s greatest teachers.

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    Many of the best cornerbacks in history started their careers at other positions. Richard Sherman, of course, was a college receiver. Jimmy Johnson started his career as a halfback/flanker. Emmitt Thomas played quarterback until his tiny college needed someone to cover Otis Taylor. Deion Sanders was always a cornerback, but also a receiver, outfielder, you name it.

    Herb Adderley was a star halfback at Michigan State. Vince Lombardi drafted him to play offense, but there weren’t many touches to go around with Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung in the backfield, and the Packers had injuries on defense. Adderley recorded seven interceptions for the 1962 NFL champions, returning a pick and a kick for touchdowns, and a Hall of Fame career at cornerback began.

    Adderley was a ball hawk. The Packers played man coverage almost exclusively—Lombardi was not a big believer in zones—and he had fellow Hall of Famers both rushing the quarterback in front of him and playing safety behind him. Adderley returned seven interceptions for touchdowns during regular seasons and an eighth in Super Bowl II, mixing in the occasional special teams touchdown or blocked field goal.

    Adderley capped his career by intercepting six passes for the 1971 Cowboys, helping the team to a victory in Super Bowl VI. But Adderley became as outspoken as any modern cornerback and has never been shy about criticizing the Cowboys. He played for six championship teams, but he cherishes his five Packers rings.

    In a way, Adderley was a throwback to the days when the modern football positions were still being defined, when athletic college running backs and quarterbacks were being converted to meet the needs of “pro-style” offenses at flanker and cornerback. Then again, players like Sherman still switch sides to become superstars, just as Adderley did. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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    There was a Rod Woodson versus Deion Sanders debate throughout most of their careers, which overlapped neatly in the 1990s and early 2000s. The debate boiled down to whether Woodson, the complete hitter-blitzer-roving defender, was better than Prime Time, the purest of the pure cover corners.

    There will never be a right answer to that debate. It always came down to who you rooted for, who had a better year, whether you liked your defenders Prime Time flashy or Woodson quiet, and whether you valued absolutely eliminating the opponent’s top receiver from the game plan with Sanders or accomplishing a bunch of different things with Woodson.

    The debate also resulted in straw-man caricatures, as debates like these often do. (Emmitt Smith the beneficiary of a great system versus Barry Sanders, who gained 20 yards on first down but lost 10 on second; Peyton Manning the Choke Artist versus Tom Brady the Cheater.) Sanders, so the debate goes, made a “business decision” every time a running back approached and waited for someone else to make the tackle. Woodson, meanwhile, was some gambling cherry-picker whose mistakes were concealed by the blitz-happy Steelers scheme.

    Well, Woodson wasn’t quite an island cornerback on Sanders’ level. But he slid into the slot and moved all over the formation, presaging the era of Honey Badger-like all-purpose defensive backs. Before moving to safety in 1998, he was a five-time All-Pro at cornerback. Yes, he was recognized for his all-purpose play more than his one-on-one coverage. He got burned on gambles now and then. But Woodson had to be doing something right.

    The old Woodson-Sanders debate is not relevant for this countdown of shutdown cornerbacks. Prime Time wins. But Woodson had a lot of ways to shut opponents down, some traditional, some well ahead of their time.

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    Aeneas Williams was such an outstanding defender that we noticed him even though he played for the Cardinals.

    The Cardinals were lost in the desert in Williams’ era. They went through four coaches, changed their name from “Phoenix” to “Arizona” and enjoyed just one winning season, a 9-7 radar blip under Vince Tobin. To stand out for the Cardinals, you really had to stand out.

    Williams stood out right away: The unheralded third-round pick from Southern University intercepted six passes as a rookie. Williams then set about getting better in all facets of his game. As detailed in a 2014 profile from ESPN.com’s Josh Weinfuss, Williams sought the advice of every great defensive back he could find, from Ken Houston to Ronnie Lott. He copied Deion Sanders’ staggered stance at the line of scrimmage and became a master technician of hand placement, hip sink and all the tiny details of coverage.

    When Buddy Ryan became the Cardinals head coach, he isolated Williams all over the field against the likes of Jerry Rice and Michael Irvin. Williams intercepted nine passes for Ryan’s Cardinals in 1994 and returned two for touchdowns in 1995. Tobin and Dave McGinnis replaced Ryan and gave Williams a little more safety support, as well as a better team. Williams intercepted three passes in the 1998 playoffs, picking off Troy Aikman twice in a victory over the Cowboys.

    Williams left the desert and joined the Greatest Show on Turf in 2001. Transported to one of the NFL’s best teams, he intercepted four passes during the regular season and three more in the playoffs, including two for touchdowns in a divisional-round rout of the Packers.

    Great cornerbacks for lousy teams faced a customary 10- to 40-year wait for Hall of Fame enshrinement in the past. But Williams was waved through after just a few years as a finalist. A selection committee that had gotten over its fascination with NFL Films documentaries had a lot to do with that (as did his Rams tenure), but Williams helped his case by being universally respected, playing his best football in the biggest games and making himself impossible to overlook. Even when he played for the Cardinals.

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    Associated Press

    Before Willie Brown, cornerbacks bumped and cornerbacks ran, but cornerbacks didn’t really bump ‘n’ run.

    Passing games were primitive before 1960, as were pass defenses. Then the AFL arrived, and pioneers like Sid Gillman and his disciples (including Al Davis) developed carefully timed, layered passing schemes. Davis wasn’t going to help invent an attack without helping to invent a counterattack, so he codified the bump ‘n’ run, which threw off opposing receivers’ timing and knocked them out of position without leaving the defender flat-footed.

    Davis’ Raiders acquired long, lean Broncos cornerback Brown in 1967, and the results were instantaneous. Brown (who once intercepted four passes in one game for the lowly Broncos) intercepted seven passes that year. The Raiders went 13-1 and won the AFL. Brown became a perennial All-Pro selection, before and after the merger. Variations on the bump ‘n’ run spread across pro football.

    “Old Man Willie” was 36 years old when he recorded the signature moment of his career: a 75-yard interception return touchdown against the Vikings in Super Bowl XI. By then, the bump ‘n’ run system he helped pioneer threatened to smother offense across the NFL.

    The bump ‘n’ run survived the 1978 rule changes designed to weaken its effectiveness and is still in use today. That’s because there was so much more to the tactic than walloping receivers into submission. Brown succeeded because of speed, agility, instincts and work habits, as well as toughness and raw aggression. Those are the attributes of a true shutdown cornerback, no matter what era he plays in.

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    Bart Starr challenged rookie cornerback Lem Barney on the second play of his first game. Starr fired a short pass to Boyd Dowler. Barney made a diving interception, rolled to his feet and ran 24 yards for a touchdown.

    Opposing quarterbacks should have gotten the message right then and there, but they were still challenging him through the end of his rookie season. Barney picked off Vikings quarterback Joe Kapp three times in the second quarter of the 1967 regular-season finale, returning one pass 71 yards for a touchdown. He led the NFL with 10 interceptions that year and then picked off 22 more passes over the next three years.

    “I liked to think of myself as a defensive weapon turned offensive weapon,” Barney once said. “The keys were, and are, knowledge of your opponents and the guts to say that once the ball is in the air, it’s as much mine as his.” Quarterbacks and offensive coordinators weren’t as savvy about avoiding a great cornerback’s side of the field back then, allowing Barney to remain a weapon for many years, both as a defender and as a kick and punt returner (as well as a punter for a few years).

    Barney was a Pro Bowl regular from 1967 through the mid-1970s. After the merger in 1970, however, opponents finally began shying away from him, and the Lions entered a funk that would last for decades. Barney was the only real star on mid-’70s teams quarterbacked by Greg Landry and Bill Munson that lingered around .500 and have been completely forgotten by NFL history.

    Barney reached the Hall of Fame in 1992 after the customary long wait forced upon defensive superstars who got stuck on mediocre teams. He never quite replicated the heroics of his rookie season, but that’s because the Lions never became challengers to the Packers or Vikings, and because even 1970s quarterbacks knew it was a good idea to avoid a team’s only true offensive and defensive weapon.

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    Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

    Jimmy Johnson intercepted just 47 passes in 15 seasons as a defensive back for the 49ers.

    Modern fans look at his low interception totals and think, “Well, duh, opposing quarterbacks weren’t throwing to his side of the field.” But Johnson played in the 1960s and early 1970s, when interceptions were common and Pro Bowl cornerbacks could record six to 10 interceptions per year for multiple years. Johnson, in fact, may have been the first cornerback that opposing quarterbacks studiously avoided.

    The 49ers drafted Johnson, a two-way star at UCLA, as a halfback/flanker. But Johnson broke his hand in a college all-star game, so the 49ers moved him to safety as a rookie. Johnson moved back to “halfback” in his second season, catching 34 passes for 627 yards, and then went back to safety in 1963 before finally taking over at left cornerback.

    Passing attacks were still rather primitive in the mid-1960s. Cornerbacks typically jammed the daylights out of receivers on the line and then turned and ran like hell if their opponents got past them. (It was a playground-like predecessor of bump ‘n’ run, which was just being perfected in the AFL.) Johnson was fast enough to run with any receiver, but he was also a tactician who perfected his backpedal and learned to read routes instead of thumping his receiver and crossing his fingers. Johnson anticipated routes and kept plays in front of him, two things that made quarterbacks like Bart Starr and Johnny Unitas wary about firing passes in Johnson’s direction.

    Johnson was a respected, soft-spoken player on a perennial also-ran. Factor in the low interception totals and his precision-over-power technique, and Johnson played five outstanding seasons at cornerback before he reached his first Pro Bowl. (Pro Bowl berths before the AFL-NFL merger were easier to come by, making his annual omission from the roster all the more shocking.) Johnson finally became a perennial All-Pro when the 49ers started reaching the playoffs. He reached the Hall of Fame 18 years after his playing career ended, but at least the voters finally got around to selecting him.

    Johnson was a prototype of the modern shutdown cornerback. The NFL didn’t quite know what do with him in the 1960s, just as the 49ers weren’t sure where to put him at the start of his career. Opposing quarterbacks knew the score, though. Future pure coverage cornerbacks, from Mike Haynes to Deion Sanders to Darrelle Revis, can trace the roots of their craft back to Johnson.

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    Al Pereira/Getty Images

    Darrelle Revis was the last great shutdown corner in pro football history before social media came along and ruined everything for everybody.

    In olden times, it was generally assumed that even the greatest All-Pro cornerbacks sometimes gave up a catch or two. Jerry Rice beat Deion Sanders now and then, Paul Warfield bested Herb Adderley and Mel Blount on occasion, and so on. Evaluations were based on a cornerback’s body of work, and reputations grew slowly across multiple seasons. Sometimes too slowly, as all-time greats often had to wait three or four seasons before reaching their first Pro Bowls.

    Revis became a superstar in 2008-09, just as football conversations migrated to Twitter and thousands of contrarians could cry “HE’S OVERRATED” to the world after every 15-yard catch in the first quarter. Life just isn’t the same for today’s cornerbacks: Every mistake becomes a GIF and a talking point.

    With his “Revis Island” reputation and hefty contract expectations, Revis was both a cause and victim of unrealistic smartphone-era over-scrutiny. The Jets soured on him during one of their front office upheavals and traded him to the Buccaneers, who hailed him as a savior, plunked him in a system that didn’t suit him and grew disenchanted when their defense didn’t immediately turn around. The Patriots knew a one-year mercenary acquisition when they saw one, got an All-Pro Super Bowl season from Revis and then let him return to the Jets, who couldn’t resist a chance to overpay for a past mistake.

    Revis was one of the best players in the NFL and one of the best pure coverage cornerbacks in history from 2008 through 2014. Yet his legacy is more complicated than any other player on this list. That’s not on Revis. That’s on us, our absurd expectations and our infatuation with instantaneous reactions over carefully considered evaluations.

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    Champ Bailey

    Champ BaileyAssociated Press

    Champ Bailey was a four-time Pro Bowler when Washington traded him and a second-round pick to the Broncos for Pro Bowl running back Clinton Portis.

    It was one of the biggest player-for-player trades in NFL history. It is often politely considered a draw or a slight win for the Broncos. It was, in fact, one of the greatest fleecings in history.

    Portis remained an excellent all-purpose back in Washington for many years. But running backs are not nearly as hard to find as shutdown cornerbacks. Bailey embarked on three straight All-Pro seasons, intercepted 18 passes in one two-year span, started eight playoff games for the Broncos, returned a Tom Brady interception 100 yards to help the Broncos beat the Patriots in the playoffs and made the All-Decade team for the 2000s.

    (Also, the Broncos used the extra pick to draft running back Tatum Bell, who had a couple of very productive seasons.)

    Charting stats started to become available late in Bailey’s career. In 2009, Bailey did not allow a touchdown pass in 80 targets. In 2010, he was credited with holding Larry Fitzgerald to three catches for 19 yards in a December rout of the Cardinals (Fitzgerald caught six passes for 72 yards that day but was stymied by Bailey). Bailey was still playing at a Pro Bowl level in 2012 at age 34. Portis was a fading memory for Washington by then.

    Why was an obviously valuable player like Bailey available in the first place? Well, the Washington front office didn’t think it could offer him a market-value contract, so it decided to apply the franchise tag. Fearing a holdout, and possibly not fully comprehending the value differences between cornerbacks and running backs, it handed Bailey and a side of fries to the Broncos on a silver platter.

    Any similarities between past and present Washington Redskins contract stupidity are purely intentional.

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    TIM ROBERTS/Getty Images

    Darrell Green was only named first-team All-Pro once in his 20-year career.

    How on earth does something like that happen?

    Green was a contemporary of many of the great cornerbacks on this countdown: Ronnie Lott, Mel Blount and Mike Haynes early in his career, Deion Sanders and Ty Law late, lots of others in the middle. So there were only so many All-Pro slots to go around.

    Green also frequently got stuck behind non-great cornerbacks having career years. Teammate Barry Wilburn earned All-Pro recognition for his nine-interception season in 1987 and then faded from the league. Green picked off just three passes in that strike-shortened year. You can probably guess which cornerback opposing quarterbacks thought was better.

    Green never intercepted more than five passes in a season. Most shutdown corners when he entered the NFL in 1983 were thumpers like Blount. All-Pro cornerbacks were supposed to punish ball-carriers on sweeps and generate tons of interceptions. Green, 5’9″ with legendary speed, was a new breed of defender for a new era that All-Pro voters of the 1980s were slow to come to grips with.

    Then Green became the grand old man of cornerbacks. In the mid-to-late 1990s, he was taken for granted, making a few Pro Bowls but always playing second fiddle, not just to Prime Time but to younger hotshots with higher interception totals.

    Maybe Green was never the best all-around cornerback in the NFL. But he was among the best for nearly two decades. When the world started to figure out what the modern shutdown cornerback looked like, it was Green they saw, running stride for stride with the fastest men in the game and dissuading quarterbacks from daring to challenge him.

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    DAVE MARTIN/Associated Press

    The 2001 and 2003 Super Bowl Patriots were Ty Law’s team, not Tom Brady’s team.

    Brady was an unknown young backup managing games in 2001. Law was a former All-Pro with Super Bowl experience who returned two interceptions for touchdowns during the season and a third to give the Patriots an early lead in Super Bowl XXXVI.

    In 2003, the Patriots ranked 12th in the NFL in points scored but first in points allowed. Brady was still a ball distributor for a conservative offense. Law was the All-Pro leader of a defense that recorded 29 interceptions, six by Law.

    Bill Belichick‘s scheme in that era was built around Law’s ability to lock down his side of the field. Free safeties (Tebucky Jones and then Eugene Wilson) could then support the other cornerbacks (Otis Smith and then Tyrone Poole) while everyone else roamed, lurked and disguised coverages and blitzes. All opposing quarterbacks could be certain of was that throwing Law’s way was a terrible idea, but many were still snookered into trying.

    Law was hurt in 2004 and left in 2005. The Patriots became Brady’s team, and they still are. Law intercepted 10 passes for the Jets in 2005, but the Jets mismanaged their salary cap so badly that they couldn’t keep him. (So little changes in a decade.) Law played out his late career as a cornerback for hire.

    Law is now on the Hall of Fame finalist treadmill. He is ridiculously overqualified for enshrinement, meaning he will probably squeak in sometime in the next decade. Many of his signature seasons came in the late 1990s for the Bill Parcells Patriots, and his 2001-03 heroics have been retconned into the Brady narrative, so voters may be a little cloudy about how significant Law’s contributions were to the rise of one of the greatest dynasties in professional sports history. Maybe this countdown will jog their memories a bit. Law is one of the greatest of the great, and both his quarterback and coach might not have made it to Mount Rushmore without him.

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    Associated Press

    Mel Blount defined and popularized the 1970s style of cornerback play:

  • Bump the receiver at the line.
  • Bump him again off the line.
  • Thump him when he tries to make his cut.
  • Whomp him whenever you are not bumping or thumping him.
  • Bludgeon him the moment the ball arrives.

Blount, 6’3″ but with 4.5 speed and surprising recovery quickness when receivers escaped his clutches, was so effective and so widely imitated that he caused an offensive Ice Age. He was the Defensive Player of the Year in 1975 after intercepting 11 passes for the Steel Curtain Steelers. By 1977, NFL passing offense was nearly pummeled into extinction.

The so-called Mel Blount Rule eliminated contact with receivers five yards past the line of scrimmage in 1978. It changed the game like no other rule change since free substitution in the 1940s. But it did not stop Blount, who adjusted to the more finesse-oriented style of play, earned three more Pro Bowl selections and helped the Steelers to two more Super Bowl victories.

Blount is the only shutdown cornerback on this list who almost shut down the entire NFL. Cornerbacks can no longer pummel receivers nonstop for 60 minutes. The game is better when life is a little harder for pass defenders. But even a radical rule change couldn’t make it safe to throw to Blount’s side of the field.

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    Focus On Sport/Getty Images

    In the 1970s, defensive backs were supposed to be hard-hitting monsters, Oakland Raiders were supposed to be hard-hitting monsters and the New England Patriots were a mismanaged mess of a franchise that was rarely both willing and able to pay its best players.

    So the 1980s could not have come at a better time for Mike Haynes. The five-yard chuck rule instituted in 1978 favored technically precise speedsters at cornerback over hockey goons. The Raiders changed their image from outlaw bikers to smooth Los Angeles operators. And the Patriots decided to let Haynes go to the Raiders in exchange for a pair of high draft picks.

    Haynes was already a Pro Bowl cornerback and return man in New England. But in Los Angeles, he teamed with Lester Hayes as one of the league’s best cornerback tandems and became a superstar.

    Haynes arrived late in the 1983 season, just in time to intercept a pass in the Super Bowl and help the Raiders overcome the Redskins. Two All-Pro seasons followed. Hayes was the gambler of the pair, always looking for the big play. Haynes combined speed, size, fluidity, technique and reliability to become the perfect cornerback to combat ’80s offenses. Opponents avoided his side of the field and took their chances with Hayes or over the middle, not because Haynes mauled his receiver, but because he blanketed him.

    “He can catch up so fast and jump so high,” Raiders safety Vann McElroy told Sports Illustrated of Haynes in 1984, “that if he’s within four yards of a receiver, he’s basically covered.”

    Haynes’ holdout to escape New England and contribution to the Raiders’ Super Bowl were as important to the evolution of the modern cornerback position as were his interceptions and Pro Bowl berths. Pass coverage became far more complicated and important in the 1980s, meaning cornerbacks like Haynes deserved more attention and money than their 1970s predecessors. Haynes proved that a shutdown cornerback can push a great team over the top in a pass-happy league—and proved his services were worth a premium pay scale.

    When real free agency arrived a decade later, cornerbacks would cash in, and teams would pay happily for defenders who could shut down the opponent’s best receivers the way Haynes once did.

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    DAVE MARTIN/Associated Press

    To understand Deion Sanders, you need to know about Neil O’Donnell, Larry Brown, Super Bowl XXX and the early days of free agency.

    O’Donnell was the Steelers quarterback in the mid-1990s. His only qualification as a championship-caliber signal-caller was that he avoided turnovers. O’Donnell threw just seven interceptions (a very low figure for the era) during the 1995 season to get the Steelers to the Super Bowl.

    Brown was a good cornerback, not a great one. He started for Cowboys Super Bowl teams in 1992 and 1993, but if anyone listed the important players from those teams, Brown would rank about 20th.

    Free agency was still new, novel and a little controversial in 1995. Prime Time’s signing with the Cowboys felt like crossing the Rubicon. This wasn’t Reggie White revitalizing the Packers. This was a flashy attention hound (that’s how Sanders was perceived by many at the time) bouncing from Atlanta to San Francisco to Dallas in search of championships, glory and the biggest possible paycheck. Sanders’ joining the Cowboys was sure to destroy the concept of loyalty, imbalance the entire NFL, upset the Cowboys’ precious team chemistry or anger the football gods in some other way.

    Well, Prime Time added more Wow to the Wowboys without disturbing the cosmic balance. In Super Bowl XXX, he forced O’Donnell and the Steelers to reconfigure their entire game plan. O’Donnell did complete a few teeny-tiny slants in front of Sanders, but when the Steelers wanted to throw downfield, they targeted Brown. In fact, they telegraphed their passes to Brown, who earned Super Bowl MVP honors with a pair of interceptions in a game that stayed close until late in the fourth quarter.

    The Steelers started over at quarterback, letting O’Donnell leave for the Jets. The Raiders, in the midst of one of their self-parody phases, signed Brown to a lucrative free-agent contract and got nothing in return.

    As for that mercenary Sanders, he stuck around for five seasons during the long, slow decline of the 1990s Cowboys, earning All-Pro nods at cornerback, playing a little wide receiver and punishing the rare quarterback who dared to challenge him.

    Many of the cornerbacks on this list redefined the role and expectations of the cornerback position for their era. Sanders redefined the role and expectations of the free agent and the NFL superstar as well. Prime Time put himself both on an island and in the spotlight. He unapologetically self-promoted. Sanders won championships, got paid and earned endorsements for not appearing on the highlight reel in most games. He made his teammates better and opposing quarterbacks worse, and he made sure we all knew it. He’s the best there ever was at what he did, and teams have spent two decades searching in vain for a player like him.

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