Before the start of this season, I had created a statistical formula that contextualized the strengths and weaknesses of each NFL team. After analyzing how my rankings faired over the course of the season, I’d say that the majority of them were spot-on. Not that my head needs to be any bigger than it already is, but another aspect of the game that I pride myself on is identifying trends that change how football is played. Last year, offenses that ran heavy outside zone and play-action schemes were the latest wave, as McVay, Shanahan, Lafluer, and Zac Taylor lead teams that seemed to instantly boost their offense's ability to score points and created QB-friendly systems that lead to two Super Bowl appearances between the group. As a host of the RPO Podcast on Burbs Radio, I always stress the importance of how a good scheme can make a good quarterback look great and hide the flaws that every QB has. This year, my biggest takeaways from the season so far have to do with talent—not what goes on behind the scenes. And I’m absolutely positive that if you’re an avid football fan like I am, you’ve noticed this, too.
It comes as no surprise that young receivers have absolutely taken the league by storm this season. In only their second season playing professional football, DK Metcalf, AJ Brown, Terry McLaurin, and Deebo Samuel have turned into undeniable stars. DK and AJ are absolute freaks of nature that put every corner at a physical disadvantage. Scary Terry solidified himself as a top route runner in the league, and Deebo Samuel makes a huge impact every time he steps on the field. Now, keeping these players in mind, not one analyst from any major sports platform regarded that receiving class as "special." The class quietly became one of the best classes in recent memory.
Fast forward to this draft, and you can see how talented this superclass of WR’s is. Justin Jefferson, CeeDee Lamb, Tee Higgins, Chase Claypool, and Jerry Jeudy look more confident and comfortable than any rookie receivers I've seen in the last five years. The adjustment from college to the pros has seemed easier and easier for these receivers to make, and this incoming class is just as loaded as the last. This surplus of star receivers is changing the entire landscape of the league drastically. So, the question then becomes, "Who will make that second-year jump similar to DK and Terry?" Will the league be riddled with star receivers on every team? Is it enough to just have one or two stars, or does every pass-catcher need to be great? And if so, can you wholeheartedly trust your corners to guard them?
After this season's Seattle-Philadelphia game where DK Metcalf absolutely torched one of the league's best shutdown corners in Darius Slay, I started to think to myself, "Are some of these receivers unguardable? Do you need a top five corner to even slow them down?" So, I decided to conduct a study to see how many corners I would be confident putting across the line of scrimmage from the DK Metcalfs of the league. I decided to do this by grouping the top receivers as "unguardable," as well as corners that have the physical makeup to keep up with them.
On the outside looking in:
Corners that could keep up with the league's best receivers:
Casey Hayward Jr.
Who COULD make a leap into the conversation in the coming years:
After making and analyzing this list, I’m still not totally sold on each cornerback in the top tier. After the top four, I think each corner has flaws that would be exposed guarding a Tyreek Hill, Keenan Allen, or Davante Adams. So to me, there’s only four guys that could potentially take out a top tier receiver for 60 minutes of play. My takeaway from this is that there’s a HUGE gap between the talent level of receivers and corners—a trend that will only grow with the amount of receiver talent entering the league. If this trend is to continue and corners are harder to come by (and vice versa with receivers), the importance of having one of these top four corners becomes more and more important every season.
After saying this, I want to shout out the franchises that saw this trend before I did and made the right moves to stay ahead. Last year, the Rams traded a huge amount of capital to acquire Jalen Ramsey—a move that I initially thought was too large of a trade; a move that restricted their construction of the rest of their team due to the cap hit of having two of the best defensive players on one roster. Despite that, they have one of the best defenses in the league from drafting young safety's to play on rookie contracts three years in a row—hitting on each one. John Johnson, Taylor Rapp, Jordan Fuller, and Terell Burgess have all made a huge impact for the Rams, saving them from the high risk of the Ramsey trade. The Rams have reloaded their entire secondary, and it's paying huge dividends for their team.
The point of this article is to highlight the benefit that having a Jalen Ramsey gives your team. I’ve always been a defensive-minded analyst—interested in adapting to the best offensive innovators in the league, appreciating great defensive schemes and the minds that approach defense in a chess manner rather than checkers. Setting up pieces to attack, defend, and surprise, rather than leaving your players to make every play. And NOTHING helps a defense more than a shutdown corner. Corners have never been given the credit they’ve deserved; it’s arguably the hardest position to play (outside of QB). And the harder they are to come by, the more value they possess. So, if you think your team's a couple of pieces away from competing with the best, advocate for a corner in the draft or free agency—or else the DK Metcalfs of the league will take over and make you pay.