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NFC North Roster Comparison: Cornerbacks

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Last year, the Bears had a trio of cornerbacks who helped them lead the league in passer rating allowed. How do things stack up heading into 2019?

NFL Pro Bowl Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

This is the conclusion of the look at the players on the defensive side of the ball. For those interested, here are the other evaluations in the series: edge rushers, interior defensive line, linebackers, and safeties.

Modern NFL teams need three corners (which just seems strange...like some kind swashbuckler hat), and the idea that teams can do without a slot corner is just wrong. In fact, a “complete” defense needs to be ready with four corners. The first three need to be able to play in the nickel alignments that teams use about 70-75% of the time. The final needs to be there because one of the other three corners is going to get injured during the season.

It is also fair to point out that really good corners frequently do not accumulate stats, because what they actually do is force the ball other places. At their best, for example, Reavis and Sherman led the league in “not worth its,” and fans who wonder about some of Tillman’s softer numbers at points of his career would do well to ask yourself if you were a quarterback in most years, would you risk putting the ball anywhere near Peanut?

With those disclaimers out of the way, it’s clear that there are really good cornerbacks in the division. Xavier Rhodes and Darius Slay are both two-time Pro Bowlers and former 1st-Team All Pros. Kyle Fuller led the league in interceptions last year and became a 1st-Team All Pro as well (making his own first Pro Bowl along the way). Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson were two of the most promising cornerback prospects coming out in 2018, and corners usually blossom after they have a year or two under their belts (so, possibly, now).

This is an interesting list, and a lot of the final rankings have to do with which corners are no longer in the division.

1) Minnesota

Xavier Rhodes, Trae Waynes, and Mackenzie Alexander all played at least half of the available defensive snaps. That is an impressive trio, combining for 25 defended passes in 2018, and presuming the trade rumors about Waynes remain nothing more than chatter to fill the offseason, it’s hard to place another group ahead of them.

They are backed up by Mike Hughes, who was also showing some promise (though, to be honest, I was not as high on him as some others were) and Holton Hill. Hill was suspended under the NFL’s PED policy, so he’ll miss four games. Hill allowed only a 67 passer rating in 2018, but he was a little sporadic when he saw the field. Still, he can be sporadic, because he is depth for this unit. Football Outsiders’ defeats stat means something different for corners than for other players, but Alexander was still tied for the lead among all corners with 21. That’s not sporadic, that’s dominant.

The completeness of this group, matched with the still-excellent duo of Rhodes and Waynes, plus the emerging Alexander are enough to earn the Vikings first place.

2) Chicago

Had the Bears managed to keep Bryce Callahan, they would easily be in the #1 position. It’s still close. Kyle Fuller allowed a 66.6 passer rating in 2018, 5th-best in the league and best in the division. He was the NFL interception leader and he defended an absurd 21 passes. His 18 defeats were good for 6th in the league. He was, in short, spectacular.

He is backed by Prince Amukamara, who finally showed that he could do more than just smother a player. He finally converted opportunity into action, and so he managed 13 defeats, 3 interceptions, and a pair of forced fumbles. He allowed a passer rating of 82.9, which was actually better than the net passer rating allowed by the Vikings in 2018--and they were the fourth-best in the NFL as a team.

Why do I have the Bears in second place then? Because modern NFL defenses need three corners, and the slot corner position is vital. Who is that for the Bears? It won’t be special teams ace Sherrick McManis, who by all accounts is transitioning to safety. Instead, it’s probably supposed to be Buster Skrine. Whereas Callahan allowed an 80 passer rating and recorded 15 defeats in 2018, Skrine allowed a passer rating of 113.3. Each of the last two seasons, Callahan had a pair of interceptions. The last time Skrine had at least two interceptions was 2014, back when Aaron Kromer was the offensive coordinator for the Bears and when Kyle Fuller was a rookie.

Who is behind these three? Kevin Toliver looked adequate as a backup in his 135 snaps. Stephen Denmark’s NFL.com profile has the following to say about him: “Denmark is nowhere near ready and will need to be re-built from the ground up.” Uh, great.

In short, the Bears probably had the best cornerback trio in football in 2018, but in losing their nickel, they lost some of that dominance . It happens to successful teams, but in this case they are going to have to hope that Skrine benefits greatly from the players around him or that one of the less-experienced corners makes a huge leap forward.

3) Detroit

It’s almost inconceivable to me that I can place a cornerback group with Darius Slay this low. However, Detroit allowed a 102.7 passer rating in 2018, and the Lions once again do not have very much to put with Slay. Nevin Lawson was in his fifth season in the NFL, and in 54 starts he had exactly 0 interceptions. Letting him move on to Oakland is addition by subtraction, and “replacing” him with Justin Coleman makes that addition by addition, as well. Still, Coleman is somewhere between the ninth and fifteenth-best corner in the division, and he’s more or less locked into a starting spot.

Who else do the Lions have? Mike Ford played almost a third of the defensive snaps the Lions had in 2018, and he defended exactly one pass. The next time Teez Tabor touches a ball in a regular season game might be the first (he has no recorded stats against the passing game), and he has allowed a 134.5 passer rating according to Player Profiler, and that’s the most generous number I can find for him. Rookie Amami Oruwariye might develop into something, but that’s assuming that he plays better than his third-round projection, instead of living down to his fifth-round draft position.

Honestly, what the Lions management has done to strand Slay for most of his career is borderline ridiculous, but as a Bears fan it makes me smile just a little bit.

4) Green Bay

The 2018 Packers used a lot of cornerbacks. Tramon Williams functionally played every snap, Jaire Alexander played over 70% of snaps, Josh Jackson was close to that many, and both Bashaud Beeland and Kevin King say action around 30% of the time. In fact, Green Bay was in Dime or Dime+ alignment more than 40% of the time in 2018 (second-most in the NFL), and the 81% of the time they had at least five defensive backs on the field should have discouraged the passing attack at least a little, right?

Not so much. TeamRankings.com tells us that the Packers allowed a passer rating north of 100 last season (28th in the NFL). The problem with the Packers’ defensive arrangement is that quantity is not quality. The 35-year-old Williams is a long time removed from his sole Pro Bowl season (2010), and his best ability last season was simple availability. I liked Josh Jackson a lot coming out, but I was worried about his speed. As it turns out, his rookie campaign made analysts wonder if he has the speed to really be an impact corner in the NFL. The best “standout” talent in this cornerback group is actually Alexander, but he only defended 11 passes in 2018 (tied for 31st in the league) and he had a single interception.

To review--the Packers have a promising cornerback who has yet to arrive, an aging cornerback who is removed from his best days, and players who could develop or emerge if a number of things go right for them. My bet is that if Alexander can avoid injury, he will give Green Bay one good if not great corner. However, that’s the best that can be said about any of the players in this unit. They could all turn it around, but that’s a lot of projection and hope.

Overall, then, the Bears and the Vikings are likely to have the two strongest defensive rosters in the division, tied with an average position of 1.6. There is a big gap between my evaluation of them and the Lions (average position 3.2) and Packers (average position 3.6). Note, however, than not all position groups have the same value, and that not all of these rankings are is clean-cut as they might seem on a spreadsheet.

Next up is special teams.