Dan Pompei's Read Option: Who's Really the Best Cornerback in the NFL?

Dan PompeiNFL ColumnistJune 5, 2014

Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Arizona's Patrick Peterson and Seattle's Richard Sherman have been nearly as entertaining to listen to as they are to watch. They have gone back and forth and round and round about who the best cornerback in football is, and each has made valid points. 

Ultimately, though, this is a debate that can only be settled on a football field.

Peterson, the fifth pick of the 2011 draft, has the best combination of size, speed and skill. That alone does not make him the best, though.

"Patrick is the more athletic corner by far," Bears receiver Brandon Marshall said. "But a lot of times, when guys have that much ability, they take more risks. You don't have to work as hard in the classroom because your ability always puts you in position, or even on the field at times because guys aren't as naturally gifted as you. He is a very focused and sharp guy, though."

A personnel director said he would take Peterson ahead of any cornerback because of his athleticism.

GLENDALE, AZ - DECEMBER 29:  Patrick Peterson #21 of the Arizona Cardinals runs with the ball against the San Francisco 49ers at University of Phoenix Stadium on December 29, 2013 in Glendale, Arizona.  (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
Norm Hall/Getty Images

"He is a twitchier guy than Sherman," he said. "He can cover, play zone, can play man, can return punts. Impact player. Peterson can press and play off."

More is asked of Peterson than Sherman. Another high-ranking front-office man said the Cardinals often have him on an island or covering one side of the field, and he also matches up more with the opponent's best receiver.

Peterson's versatility—both on defense and on other areas of the team—sets him apart. He has played some wide receiver, and as a punt returner he is elite. In his rookie season, he tied an NFL record with four punt return touchdowns.

"He can put a game on ice," the personnel director said. "In a big game, you put him back there and he can cause issues."

This year, the plan is for Peterson to focus on defense. Given Peterson's athletic package and youth (he is just 23 years old), he has the potential to become a considerably better cornerback than he has been.

But as Sherman aptly wrote on Twitter:

Sherman is all production. His 47.3 passer rating against was best in the NFL last year, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Peterson's was 91.3. Sherman also had three more passes defensed than Peterson and five more interceptions despite being thrown at 28 fewer times, according to STATS Inc.

The argument against Sherman is that he is protected by a Seahawks defensive system that does not require him to do things he is ill-suited to do. It is possible that if Sherman were asked to play like Peterson, he might not be in this conversation. But all he can be judged on is what he is asked to do.

"Sherman probably is the best corner in football," the high-ranking front-office man said. "But he is played to his strengths. The scheme helps him. They play a lot of Cover 3. It's hard to throw over him. They use bail technique. He won't be a typical man-to-man shutdown guy. But he's big and physical and has ball skills. He is a master at how they play him."

Peterson has said Sherman is not a shutdown corner. And there may be some truth in this tweet Peterson directed at Sherman:

But Sherman finds ways to compensate for whatever Peterson has that he does not. He is more physical and a better player in run support. He disrupts routes better than anyone. The high-ranking front-office man said Sherman plays smarter than Peterson and is more difficult to fool.

"Sherman and I are a little similar in our approach to football," Marshall said. "He's not the fastest or the most athletic cornerback. But he's very smart. He's very smart, very savvy. He's always in position. Other guys may be at an eight or 10 in ability. His ability may be at a seven. But how smart he is puts him at a 10 and puts him in a pack with the great ones. Then he's surrounded by great defensive players, great coaches and a great scheme. It's the perfect storm for him to crush it. So I give Patrick a big edge in athletic ability. But I give Sherman a big edge with his mental approach."

The only other player in the best cornerback discussion is Darrelle Revis. He did not play to the level of Peterson and Sherman last year, but he was coming off an ACL tear. It's very possible that this year Revis will reclaim the best cornerback crown, especially now that he can benefit from Bill Belichick's game-planning in New England.

"When he was healthy, no one was at his level," the high-ranking front-office man said.

Marshall said the only cornerback he has played against who is slightly better than Revis was Champ Bailey in his prime. When Marshall and Revis battled in the AFC East as members of the Dolphins and Jets, Marshall studied Revis throughout the offseason and season. He kept a notebook on him that he updated every week during the season.

"He is strong," Marshall said. "He's technically sound. He's super duper smart. His technique, there is no wasted movement. ... I don't feel that same way with any other corner. Not Joe Haden. Not Patrick Peterson. Not Richard Sherman."

Based on 2013, Sherman has earned the right to be called football's best cornerback. But if Revis can get back to where he was, or if Peterson can find a way to get more out of his ability, that can change quickly.

This, you see, will be an ongoing argument, with much more entertainment to come.

NFL Confidential

• Even though the Rams signed free-agent guard Davin Joseph, the plan still is for first-round pick Greg Robinson to begin his career at left guard. There are a number of reasons Robinson is expected to be playing guard instead of tackle this season. The Rams want to get their best five on the field, and in order to do that they need to play Jake Long at left tackle and Joe Barksdale at right tackle. Robinson actually might be more valuable at guard than tackle, because the Rams believe that in the physical NFC West, they need a powerful guard who can win the line of scrimmage and pull to get to the second level. The Rams also think it might be easier for Robinson to make the transition to a pro-style offense at guard than it would be at tackle. The team's front office has noted that Hall of Famer Jonathan Ogden began his career at guard before becoming a left tackle. Robinson played left tackle at Auburn. Since left tackle is expected to be Robinson's eventual position with the Rams, offensive line coach Paul Boudreau wanted to keep Robinson on the left side at guard, rather than change his footwork and hand placement twice.

• The Packers could have chosen a number of receivers with the 53rd overall pick. Among the receivers they bypassed were Cody Latimer, Allen Robinson and Jarvis Landry. One of the reasons they were drawn to Davante Adams is that he is a similar player to James Jones, who left the team in free agency for the Raiders. Like Jones, Adams is a one-speed receiver with good hands and decent size who competes for the ball well. The Packers have different-flavor receivers in Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and Jarrett Boykin, and having Adams replace Jones should enable them to continue to attack defenses with distinctly diverse skill sets.

• The proposal to increase practice squad size to 10 players from eight remains very much on the table, and one front-office executive says it still could happen for the 2014 season. It appears there is hardly any resistance to the expansion of the practice squad, and if it doesn't happen this year it is likely to happen next year. The NFL competition committee has signed off on it, and now the proposal is in the hands of the Management Council executive committee, which is chaired by Giants owner John Mara.

• Some NFL higher-ups were surprised to hear that Browns owner Jimmy Haslam was speaking at the NFL Career Development Symposium last weekend on the "Expectations of Ownership" panel, in part because Haslam has kept such a low profile on league matters. In fact, one executive said he had not heard Haslam speak at a league meeting since he was approved as an owner nearly two years ago.

Scout Talk

Everyone is familiar with the big names from the draft, but there will be lesser names who also make an impact. Three NFL scouts shared their thoughts on who some of those under-the-radar players might be:

DaQuan Jones, DL, Titans (fourth round): One scout said he thought Jones had the talent to be picked as high as the second round. Another said Jones probably won't be a flashy player who makes a lot of big plays, but his versatility should play well in the Titans' new defensive front. He also said Jones can upgrade their run defense.

Nevin Lawson, CB, Lions (fourth round): He is a smart, athletic cover man who could have been a second-round pick if not for some off-the-field issues, according to one scout. The Lions need a cornerback like him, so it would not be surprising to see him on the field and making plays this season.

Lache Seastrunk, RB, Redskins (sixth round): If Seastrunk were rated strictly by his running skills, there is no way he would have dropped below the fourth round, in the estimation of multiple scouts. "It wouldn't surprise me to see him with 800 yards as a rookie," one scout said. "You can see the burst." The problem? NFL teams think Seastrunk has terrible hands, in part because he was not counted on in the passing game at Baylor. If Seastrunk, at 5'9", 201 pounds, can't play on passing downs, his value will be limited in the NFL.

Yawin Smallwood, LB, Falcons (seventh round): He wasn't chosen until the fourth-to-last pick in the draft because he ran a 5.01 40-yard dash at the combine. But there was a reason for the 40 time—Smallwood pulled his hamstring on the broad jump just before his 40. "He shouldn't have run," one scout said. "If he runs in the 4.7's, he's a fourth-round pick. He's a physical thumper with traits to be an NFL starter."

Jordan Tripp, OLB, Dolphins (fifth round): Tripp has the athleticism and intangibles to have been taken considerably higher. "When we saw him on the board so late we wanted to take him, but he went ahead of us," said one scout. The knocks on Tripp are he needs to develop strength and he didn't play against top competition at Montana.

Brock Vereen, S, Bears (fourth round): Some teams considered him a "jack of all trades, master of none." Others saw value in Vereen's versatility. He can play some safety, some corner and some nickel. And he's the type of player who can figure it out. "He's smart and he has the will to make himself successful," one scout said.

Avery Williamson, OLB, Titans (fifth round): According to one scout, the Kentucky product's draft stock may have been adversely affected by comparisons to former Kentucky linebackers Wesley Woodyard and Danny Trevathan. Scouts thought Williamson was not as agile as Woodyard and Trevathan. But that doesn't mean Williamson can't succeed in the NFL. "He is a physical, instinctive player," the scout said.

David Yankey, G, Vikings (fifth round): With his size, toughness and intelligence, Yankey was seen as a potential NFL starter and third- or fourth-round pick, according to one scout. He dropped a bit because he is not the most athletic blocker. "He fits the profile of a starting NFL guard," the scout said. "I was surprised he was there for them."

Hot Reads

• If quarterbacks are judged by wins, no one can say Colin Kaepernick is overpaid.

• The Cowboys believe using ballet bars will aid their quest for a Lombardi Trophy. If Tony Romo shows up wearing a tutu, they will have taken this too far.

• Yes it's hot in Arizona, but that isn't the only reason steam has been coming off the forehead of Cardinals general manager Steve Keim.

• The Browns can only hope Ben Tate puts as much effort into protecting Johnny Manziel on the field as he is into protecting him off the field.

• Former Bear, Cowboy and Bengal Tank Johnson told Fusion up to 80 percent of NFL players smoke weed. The reporter apparently did not follow up the statement by asking Johnson if he was smoking weed prior to the interview. 

• If the Chiefs don't win it all, blame it on the cheeseburgers.

Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.


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