Cornerbacks have one of the toughest jobs in football. Usually playing in a reactionary posture, they have to rely on technique and savvy to keep some of the most athletic people in the world from catching the ball. They have to do this on every play of every game. Okay, not every play. On running plays, they have to first respect the pass and then react to much larger men coming their way to clear a path for the runner. When they do their job to perfection, few people notice. If they screw up just once, it could result in a long touchdown reception. No other position requires near perfection on every play to avoid disaster. Because of this, cornerbacks must be not only incredibly athletic, but also astoundingly mentally resilient. This often results in careers marked by hills and valleys, with inconsistent play from year to year. That makes the dominance of these men all the more impressive. Among all positions, cornerbacks seemed to generate the most agreement among voters. Of the 16 players receiving votes, 15 made it into the GridFe Hall of Fame.1 Thirteen of those players were unanimous picks, and even the odd man out received three out of six possible up votes.
Hall of Fame Cornerbacks
Night Train Lane (1952-1965)
Chicago Cardinals, Detroit Lions, Los Angeles Rams
6 First Team All Pros; 4 Second Team All Pros; 7 Pro Bowls; 2 GridFe Godzilla Awards; 4 GridFe Prime Time Awards
An unheralded player out of high school, Dick “Night Train” Lane played for Western Nebraska Community College for one season before enlisting in the military. After four years in the Army, Lane walked on to the Los Angeles Rams as an undrafted free agent. He made an immediate impression, producing perhaps the greatest-ever rookie season of any NFL player. That year, Night Train hauled in a still-standing record 14 interceptions and made his name as a feared tackler. Infamous for bringing down opponents by the facemask or by pummeling ball carriers with clothesline tackles, he inspired rule changes to remove the activities from the game.
Jimmy Johnson (1961-1976)
San Francisco 49ers
4 First Team All Pros; 4 Second Team All Pros; 5 Pro Bowls; 1 GridFe World Award; 3 GridFe Prime Time Awards
While Night Train was the original superstar cornerback, it was San Francisco’s Jimmy Johnson who was the first true shutdown corner, as we think of one today. Rather than beat receivers into submission, Johnson used his incredible speed and length, in concert with refined technique and field vision, to erase opposing receivers. All but the most brazen quarterbacks avoided his side of the field entirely. Perhaps most notable about Johnson is that he spent considerable time studying tape of opponents to understand their strengths, weaknesses, and tendencies. This studious approach to the game was rare for the cornerback position during his time in the league.
Herb Adderley (1961-1972)
Green Bay Packers, Dallas Cowboys
5 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 5 Pro Bowls; 6 Title Wins; 1 Title Loss; 3 GridFe Prime Time Awards
Adderley was a vital piece in the 1960s Packers defense that suffocated opposing passing attacks and led the way for the team to enjoy five title wins. He excelled primarily in man coverage and was especially effective at creating big plays off of turnovers. Playing behind a star-studded front seven and in front of safety net Willie Wood, Adderley was able to take chances, and he flipped heads more often than not. In his first eleven seasons, he recorded 48 interceptions, which he returned for an incredible 1046 yards and 7 touchdowns. He also returned five picks for 97 yards and a score in 15 playoff games.
Willie Brown (1963-1978)
Oakland Raiders, Denver Broncos
7 First Team All Pros (3 AFL/4 NFL); 3 Second Team All Pros (AFL); 9 Pro Bowls (5 AFL/4 NFL); 1 Title Win; 1 Title Loss; 2 GridFe Prime Time Awards (1 AFL/1 NFL)
Whether he was playing on the downtrodden Denver Broncos or the powerhouse Oakland Raiders, Willie Brown displayed the ability to overpower wide receivers and create turnovers if anyone was foolish enough to test him. He was ahead of his time as a bump and run coverage defender, using his physicality to redirect routes and trusting in his speed to recover in the rare even he was beaten off the line. Despite scaring passers away, Brown finished his career with 54 interceptions in the regular season and seven more in the playoffs.2 He returned those picks for five touchdowns, most notably to put the nail in the coffin in Oakland’s blowout victory over the Vikings in Super Bowl XI.
Lem Barney (1967-1977)
2 First Team All Pros; 3 Second Team All Pros; 7 Pro Bowls; 2 GridFe Prime Time Awards
Barney was a relatively obscure second round pick out of Jackson State, but he made his presence in the NFL known quickly: in his first game, facing legendary quarterback Bart Starr, the rookie intercepted the very first pass that came his way and returned it for a touchdown. That was just the beginning of his defensive rookie of the year campaign, as he finished the season with 10 interceptions, which he returned for 232 yards and three touchdowns. Barney possessed great ball skills and was a fierce fighter for the ball once it was in the air. He used those skills to pick off 56 passes, and he used his talents as a return man to take those interceptions back for a total of 1077 yards and seven touchdowns.3
Roger Wehrli (1969-1982)
St. Louis Cardinals
5 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 7 Pro Bowls
Wehrli never intercepted more than six passes in a single season, and his 40 career interceptions are lower than one might expect from a legendary cornerback from the dead ball era. However, a cursory glance at his box score stats don’t tell the whole story. While earlier cornerbacks intimidated passers and scared them away, it was Wehrli who was the first to receive the moniker of “shutdown corner.” He didn’t haul in gaudy interception totals because quarterbacks smartly avoided him and, instead, challenged his teammate Norm Thompson. Speed was Wehrli’s hallmark, but he wasn’t a pure finesse defender. He had strong hands, excelled with aggressive play at the line of scrimmage, and possessed a terrific instinct for where the ball was going on a play.4
Mel Blount (1970-1983)
4 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 5 Pro Bowls; 4 Title Wins; 1 GridFe World Award; 1 GridFe Godzilla Award; 1 GridFe Prime Time Award
Most players don’t have significant rules named after them. Mel Blount isn’t most players. With a huge frame, blazing speed, and street fighting mentality, Blount mauled receivers all throughout their routes. His ability to eliminate top receiving threats was a vital part of the Steel Curtain dynasty. The violent manner in which he did it inspired the Mel Blount Rule, which significantly limited the amount of contact defenders could have with receivers on passing plays. A lesser player may have become ineffective after the passing of a rule to mitigate the effect of his style of play. Rather than become ineffective, Blount responded with three more Pro Bowls and all pro selections.
Mike Haynes (1976-1989)
Los Angeles Raiders, New England Patriots
5 First Team All Pros; 3 Second Team All Pros; 9 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Win; 2 GridFe Prime Time Award
Haynes was a standout punt returner and respected cover man in New England for the first seven years of his career, but it wasn’t until he went to a Raiders team that allowed him to flourish by playing his own way that he really cemented his legacy as one of the greats. Fast, graceful, and technically proficient, he was built to succeed in the post-Mel Blount Rule NFL against receivers who had more freedom than ever. In Los Angeles, Haynes was able to completely obscure receivers and force passer to test Lester Hayes, the playmaking ballhawk on the other side of the field. Their complementary strengths formed arguably the greatest cornerback tandem the league has ever seen.
Darrell Green (1983-2002)
4 First Team All Pros; 7 Pro Bowls; 2 Title Wins; 1 Title Loss
Green’s career stands out as odd because, despite being an all-time great coverage specialist, he is better-known for being the NFL’s fastest man and playing for a long time than for his ability to play cornerback. It is true that Green was in a league of his own when it came to running in pads, and it is also true that he had remarkable staying power; his 20 seasons and 298 games are easily the most of anyone ever to play the position. But focusing solely on those points does his career a disservice. Green was phenomenal in man coverage and was ahead of his time with his use of athleticism and technique rather than brute force intimidation. He was a contemporary of several high-peek peers who often overshadowed his quiet brilliance, but his ability to maintain that brilliance for at least fifteen of his years in the league is a testament to his talent.5
Rod Woodson (1987-2003)
Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, Oakland Raiders, San Francisco 49ers
6 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 11 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Win; 2 Title Losses; 1 GridFe World Award; 1 GridFe Godzilla Award; 4 GridFe Prime Time Awards
Rod Woodson is among the most versatile cornerbacks in NFL history. He was solid in both man and zone coverage, and he could play outside or in the slot. Woodson was an excellent tackler and adept blitzer, finishing his career with over 1000 tackles and 13.5 sacks. After a legendary run at cornerback, he spent the last five years of his career at safety, where he earned four Pro Bowl selections and twice led the league in interceptions. He sometimes gambled in hopes of forcing a turnover, which allowed a few more completions than one may expect from an esteemed cornerback. However, his 71 career interceptions indicate that he guessed correctly far more often than not. And once he had the ball in his hands, he was dangerous. He used the same skills that earned him two kickoff and punt return touchdowns apiece to score an NFL record 13 defensive touchdowns.
Deion Sanders (1989-2002)
Atlanta Falcons, Dallas Cowboys, Baltimore Ravens, San Francisco 49ers, Washington
9 First Team All Pros; 8 Pro Bowls; 2 Title Wins; 1 GridFe World Award; 1 GridFe Godzilla Award; 3 GridFe Prime Time Awards
Prime Time may be the best pure cover corner in history. He had a reputation for refusing to make tackles, but that knock on his career is largely overblown. Besides, teams didn’t pay him outrageous sums of money to tackle running backs on sweeps; the paid him to remove the other team’s best receiver from the face of the earth. Sanders did that better than any other man ever to play. While critics often bemoaned his concurrent career in professional baseball, it speaks volumes of Neon’s ability that he was able to devote the time and energy it takes to be a successful MLB player and still maintain his place as the premier cover corner in the NFL. His speed was the thing that always jumped off the screen. He used it to bait quarterbacks into making bad choices and to return ball without being touched by potential tacklers.6 Sanders’s braggadocio was arguably as important as his legendary pace. Not only did he get into the heads of opponents, but he also drew attention to a position he redefined and made it attractive for generations of young athletes.
Aeneas Williams (1991-2004)
Phoenix/Arizona Cardinals, St. Louis Rams
4 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 8 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Loss; 1 GridFe Prime Time Award
Aeneas Williams spent the first decade of his career playing for a talent-starved Cardinals franchise.7 Despite toiling in a desert wasteland, Williams managed to make six Pro Bowls and four all pro teams from 1991-2000.8 He was an excellent force defender, adept at shedding blocks and stopping rushers for minimal gains. While some elite cover men were prime targets for rushing attacks, Williams wasn’t a guy you’d attack on a sweep. He tracked number one receivers and held his own, even without a strong pass rush. Perhaps the brightest feather in his cap is his postseason play. Williams didn’t make the playoffs often, but when he did he was among the best postseason performers in history. He hauled in three interceptions in two separate playoff runs, returning two for touchdowns.9
Charles Woodson (1998-2015)
Oakland Raiders, Green Bay Packers
4 First Team All Pros; 4 Second Team All Pros; 9 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Win; 1 Title Loss; 1 GridFe Prime Time Award
As a fourth-overall draft choice and the only primarily defensive player ever to win the Heisman Trophy, Woodson had sky-high expectations entering the league. He more than lived up to the challenge over an 18-year, 271 game career that saw him intercept 66 passes and recover 34 fumbles.10 Woodson was a gifted athlete, but he honed his technique to such perfection that he was able to excel in a variety of roles well after he’d lost a step physically. He was rarely beaten in man coverage, and he was equally adept as a zone defender. His ability to cover both outside and in the slot is well-known. As a tackler, he was so effective that he was able to, in effect, serve as a de facto outside linebacker.11 Woodson had the range and instincts to play safety as well, which he did with aplomb during the latter part of his career. He was the consummate playmaker12 and may be the most well-rounded of all cornerbacks ever to grace the field.
Champ Bailey (1999-2013)
Denver Broncos, Washington
6 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 12 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Loss; 1 GridFe Godzilla Award; 4 GridFe Prime Time Awards
Bailey was a strong man-to-man coverage cornerback in Washington, but also a bit of a gambler who could be beat. A move to Denver saw him start lining him up off the receiver so he could not only cover his man but also help if the play went elsewhere. He thrived in the new scheme, leading to his remarkable 2006 season where he was targeted just 65 times on the team that saw the 5th-most pass attempts.13 Bailey was also phenomenal in run support and tape of his play was popular for teaching fundamental form tackling.14 He played forever at a position that is known for high peaks and short primes,15 and he achieved near universal respect from opponents.1617
Darrelle Revis (2007-present)
New York Jets, New England Patriots, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Kansas City Chiefs
5 First Team All Pros; 7 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Win; 1 GridFe World Award; 1 GridFe Godzilla Award; 2 GridFe Prime Time Awards
Perhaps the most glowing review one can give of Darrelle Revis is that he managed to become a shutdown cornerback during the post-2004 era passing explosion. With the current rules in place to enhance player safety (and stifle defenses), a shutdown coverage defender shouldn’t even be a possibility. Yet Revis exists. Revis Island was an unpopular destination for number one receivers, and it allowed his coaches the freedom to install defensive schemes that other teams couldn’t possibly run, with the knowledge that offenses were effectively playing 10-on-10 rather than 11-on-11. His 2009 campaign is, perhaps, the greatest performance from a cornerback in recent history.18
- Others receiving votes: Mel Renfro* ↩
- Including an NFL single-game record four interceptions against the Jets in 1964. ↩
- He also returned two punts and one kickoff for touchdowns, and he even spent time as Detroit’s punter in the 1967 and 1969 seasons. ↩
- This made him an asset in run support and helped him recover 22 fumbles in his career. ↩
- In the early 1980s, he competed for acclaim with guys like Louis Wright and Everson Walls. By the late 80s, it was Frank Minnifield, Hanford Dixon, and Albert Lewis. By the 1990s, Deion Sanders, Rod Woodson, and Aeneas Williams had taken over. ↩
- To this day, he ranks second all time in non-offensive touchdowns with 19. Only Devin Hester has more. ↩
- The team averaged 5.6 wins per season, never winning more than 9 in a given year. That year, they suffered a blowout loss in the divisional round. ↩
- He finished his career with the Rams and earned a few more postseason honors, but his ability to earn accolades at his position while playing for a moribund franchise is rare and incredible. ↩
- Williams holds the record for combined regular season and postseason defensive touchdowns, with 14. ↩
- Playoffs and regular season combined. ↩
- He surpassed 50 tackles in 13 different seasons. ↩
- He is tied for the most regular season defensive touchdowns in history, with 13. ↩
- Bailey allowed 28 successful plays, deflected 11 passes, and intercepted 10 more (several of those coming on plays where he wasn’t the cornerback in coverage). ↩
- Since play-by-play became standardized in 1994, Bailey joins Ronde Barber, Charles Tillman, and Antoine Winfield as the only cornerbacks to top 60 tackles in eight different seasons. (Bailey had 73 in his phenomenal 2006 campaign, which ranked 5th behind Barber, Winfield, Antrel Rolle, and the late Darrent Williams, who was the player teams threw at when they were avoiding Champ Bailey.) ↩
- His 15 seasons at cornerback are second all-time only to Darrell Green’s 20. His 12 pro bowls at the position are three more than anyone else in history. No one accumulated more career AV at the cornerback position. ↩
- Drew Brees called Bailey’s area of the field a “no-throw zone”. Steve Smith praised his versatility, saying “If I lined up as a running back, he lined up as a linebacker. If I parked my car in the parking lot, he was the parking attendant. Champ Bailey lined up everywhere.” ↩
- Additional note: thanks to Adam Harstad for his rich blurb on Bailey. ↩
- Off the strength of his coverage, the Jets fielded the top defense in the league without a strong pass rush or particularly deep talent in the secondary. ↩