Super Bowl champs boast NFL’s top CB tandem

Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr.

Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr.

Apparently the offseason is ranking season in the NFL.

With free agency and the draft in the rearview mirror, and training camps still a few weeks away, it seems every football media outlet is coming out with a variety of rankings and lists to pass the downtime.

NFL.com recently gave retired cornerback Ike Taylor, a 12-year vet who won two Super Bowls with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the task of putting together a list of the league’s top five cornerback tandems.

Even a casual football fan would not be surprised to find the Denver Broncos on top of Taylor’s list.

And that’s not because Denver corners Aqib Talib (who ranked 34th on the NFL Network’s list of the league’s top 100 players) and Chris Harris Jr. (52nd) are marquee names or big-time celebrities. It’s because anyone who watched Super Bowl 50 saw Talib and Harris and the rest of the Broncos’ defense shut down league MVP Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers’ offense. And anyone who watched the highly-anticipated AFC title game between the Broncos and New England Patriots saw Talib and Harris and the Denver D make quarterback Tom Brady‘s life miserable as well.

Corners around the league like Richard Sherman and Darrelle Revis are more recognizable and popular, but it doesn’t take an extensive amount of football knowledge to know that Denver’s defensive backfield is doing something right.

Taylor also included Bradley Roby when talking about the Broncos’ corners. Listed as a free safety on NFL.com, Roby also serves as a nickel/slot cornerback who has a knack for making big plays. Roby had 10 pass breakups, one interception, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery last season. The fumble recovery he turned into a game-winning touchdown in Week 2 against the Kansas City Chiefs, and in the AFC title game Roby intercepted a Brady pass on a two-point conversion attempt in the fourth quarter.

If Talib cannot recover in time from being shot in the leg during the offseason, Roby could find himself starting in his place.

Here is Taylor’s ranking of cornerback tandems along with the write-ups from his article:

***** *****

1. Aqib Talib (or Bradley Roby) and Chris Harris Jr., Denver Broncos

The Denver Broncos have the best cornerbacks in the league. Period. We saw Talib and Harris take over in the secondary and help the Broncos become the top defense in the league, dethroning the Seahawks. Combined, the pair allowed just five passing touchdowns during the regular season. Like I touched on above, this type of sticky coverage allows Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips to incorporate aggressive (and risky) play calls, because he knows his corners will execute downfield.

Even if Talib’s offseason shooting incident lands him on the sidelines, Roby is more than capable of filling in. He was the unsung hero of the “No Fly Zone” last season. Honestly, Roby might just be the best all-around corner on this team. Last season, Roby allowed two passing touchdowns when targeted; quarterbacks had an average passer rating of 69.7 when throwing his way.

The only thing that might hinder the Broncos if Talib is out? They’d miss the 30-year-old’s leadership on the field. He has set the tempo for the defense for two seasons and is the heart and soul of this group.

2. Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu, Arizona Cardinals

I might be bending the rules with this pick, but it is my list. Although officially labeled a safety for the Cardinals, Honey Badger frequently assumes the role of nickel/slot corner, lining up inside or outside, depending on how Arizona sets up matchups in man or zone coverage. According to Pro Football Focus, Mathieu played 68 percent of his snaps in 2015 as a slot corner, 24 percent at strong safety and eight percent at free safety. Mathieu might not have top speed, but his coverage and anticipation skills allow him to make big plays. He was dynamic as ever last season, recording five INTs and 17 passes defensed.

I’ve already said that Peterson is the most valued defensive back in the league, but here are some more numbers to support my argument. Peterson ranked first among all qualified NFL cornerbacks in passer rating allowed (45.6) in 2015. He covered top receivers each week and only gave up two touchdowns all season.

3. Dre Kirkpatrick and Adam Jones, Cincinnati Bengals

These two quietly have contributed greatly to the Bengals’ defensive success, with each improving over the last four seasons. Kirkpatrick has the size (6-foot-2, 190 pounds) and athletic ability to cover anybody, even short speedsters like Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown. Against Kirkpatrick in three games last year, including the Steelers’ 18-16 playoff victory, Brown averaged 84 yards per game — well below his average of 114.6 in 2015. Jones — who is comparable to Mathieu, as they are both small in stature but big in passion — had a career year last season with 12 passes defensed, three INTs and just two touchdowns allowed. In addition, Jones ranked sixth in passer rating against (54.5) last year.

4. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Janoris Jenkins, New York Giants

The bright spot in the Giants’ defense last season was Rodgers-Cromartie. He is good in man coverage and is one of the fastest defensive backs in the NFL. Although he has a lanky 6-2 frame, his superb back-pedaling skills, along with his play-making ability, make him just as good as any corner in the league. This is supported by the fact that he allowed quarterbacks to register a 53.1 passer rating against him in 2015, fifth in the league among corners.

There is a reason that Jenkins got PAID this offseason. He was a cornerstone for the Rams’ defense in his four seasons with the team. He is underrated as a man-to-man corner. Last season, Jenkins had a career-high 16 passes defensed and three INTs.

Both of these cornerbacks can line up on either side, and that’s a defensive coordinator’s dream. The Giants’ defense is headed in the right direction behind these two players.

5. Kyle Fuller and Tracy Porter, Chicago Bears

In 2015, this pair led a Bears defense that ranked fourth in the league in passing yards allowed. In Fuller’s first two NFL seasons, I’ve seen that he possesses all of the intangibles to be a great corner — height (5-11), speed, coverage skills and anticipation. When Fuller was targeted last year, his opponents caught less than 50 percent of their passes. Porter, who played a valuable role in the Saints’ run to Super Bowl XLIV, came on strong late last season after missing the first two games. This year, I expect Fuller and Porter to lead an improved Bears’ defense — with offseason additions Danny Trevathan and first-round draft pick Leonard Floyd.

Cornerback tandems that just missed the cut: Stephon Gilmore and Ronald Darby, Buffalo Bills; Jason Verrett and Brandon Flowers, San Diego Chargers.

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