Do ‘shutdown cornerbacks’ still exist in the NFL?

Richard Sherman

Richard Sherman

The first time I remember hearing the term “shutdown cornerback,” it was used to describe none other than Deion Sanders.

And it wasn’t just about Deion shutting down Jerry Rice or Tim Brown or any of the NFL’s other top receivers of the 1990s. It was about Deion shutting down entire halves of the football field. About Deion shutting down a team’s entire passing attack. About Deion shutting down anything in his line of sight.

And since then — while I’ve heard the term “shutdown cornerback” used to describe dozens of other star cornerbacks in the NFL, college and high school — no corner has been as good at shutting things down as Deion Sanders.

It’s like if the first time you heard the term “power hitter,” it was used to describe Barry Bonds. Any power hitters who come after that just aren’t going to live up to the moniker quite like the first one.

But at least in baseball, there will always be power hitters. (Even if they’re not as good as Bonds.) In the NFL, there is a question on the table of whether there is even such a thing anymore as a shutdown cornerback.

USA TODAY Sports writer Lorenzo Reyes explored the topic in an article published August 20.

In it, he asked three men who are widely considered the three best cornerbacks in the NFL how they would define a shutdown corner.

Patrick Peterson of the Arizona Cardinals said, “If you’re going to have that label, you should at least show that it’s you and that particular receiver with no help. At all. Going with a guy when he’s in slot. Going with a guy when he’s on the right side. Taking that No. 1 receiver out of the game. Let’s slug it out.”

Richard Sherman of the Seattle Seahawks said, “A guy who makes enough plays. A guy who gives his team a chance to win. A guy who needs to be game-planned for. A guy who is on the scouting report. That’s a shutdown corner.”

Washington’s Josh Norman, who was ranked No. 11 on this year’s NFL Network Top 100 Players list and tops among defensive backs, said, “Best on best. If that receiver comes in averaging 100 yards and however many touchdowns, he better not get 100 yards. He better not get a touchdown.”

And even Deion Sanders himself weighed in.

“We’ve got to figure out what the term really means,” Sanders said. “It should be a guy that nullifies the big plays of an opposing receiver. He shuts that down. You might as well go somewhere else. But isn’t that what all corners should do?”

Also from Reyes’ article:

Based on several conversations with former and current players, coaches, and analysts, the traditional definition of a shutdown corner was a player who operated in a man-to-man scheme — with little or no help — and was assigned the opposing team’s top receiver from whistle to whistle.

But zone coverages have become much more popular in recent years. In 2016, 14 teams are planning to operate out of a base defense primarily employing man-to-man coverage, 11 will use zone-based schemes, and seven will run hybrid concepts that mix in man and zone.

Based on the traditional definition of a shutdown corner, that means that more than half of the league’s teams wouldn’t be eligible.

But should a player be penalized due to the scheme he plays in? This brings up one of the most interesting questions that arose during the interview process, and it is the one argument that would alter the way we talk about cornerback play in the NFL: Was there ever a shutdown corner?

Despite the high standards I had set for me by Sanders, I am perhaps too liberal with the term “shutdown cornerback.”

If I can stick a cornerback on the other team’s best receiver for either the majority of the game, or at least in some of the game’s biggest moments, and feel confident that he can either take that receiver out of the game or neutralize him like Norman described, that’s a shutdown corner in my book.

Some of the corners who fit that description in today’s NFL are Peterson, Sherman, Norman, Joe Haden of the Cleveland Browns, Vontae Davis of the Indianapolis Colts, Delvin Breaux of the New Orleans Saints, Darrelle Revis of the New York Jets and Jason Verrett of the San Diego Chargers.

Rookie cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey of the Jacksonville Jaguars (the No. 5 overall pick in the draft) and Vernon Hargreaves of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (No. 11) have shutdown potential.

The Denver Broncos have two shutdown corners in Aqib Talib and Chris Harris Jr., which is a big part of why they’re the reigning Super Bowl champions.

So if you ask me, the shutdown cornerback is not dead in the NFL. As the league’s passing games become more and more sophisticated and potent, it may be tougher to shut down receivers, but there are still some players up for the job.

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