NFL Nostalgia: Ranking the Best Shutdown Cornerbacks in History
By Mike Tanier, Bleacher Report
You are about to meet a group of defensive backs who could do many things well: tackle, blitz, crunch running backs on the perimeter, return kicks and punts, sit in underneath zones and bait quarterbacks into making mistakes that turn into pick-sixes.
But the title of this countdown is "Best Shutdown Cornerbacks in History," and these defenders will be held to the letter of that law. They will be ranked on their ability to turn and run in man coverage, not on their all-around gifts. That means some "complete" defenders may rank below quick-footed, swivel-hipped coverage specialists, and some Hall of Famers may take a back seat to lesser-known players with a knack for blanketing receivers.
Think of it this way: It's 3rd-and-15 in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl. You need someone to cover Antonio Brown one-on-one. Great run support will get you nowhere. Which cornerback from history do you select? One other rule before we begin: Success during the Super Bowl era was a requirement for inclusion. With all respect to Jack Butler, Dick "Night Train" Lane and others, cornerback was a very different position before the modern era.
Let's get out on the island, play a little bump 'n' run and watch the cornerback spot evolve from just another defender on the edge of the formation into one of the most important, glamorous and lucrative positions on the field.
12. Rod Woodson
There was a Rod Woodson versus Deion Sanders debate throughout most of their careers, which overlapped neatly in the 1990s and early 2000s. The debate boiled down to whether Woodson, the complete hitter-blitzer-roving defender, was better than Prime Time, the purest of the pure cover corners.
There will never be a right answer to that debate. It always came down to who you rooted for, who had a better year, whether you liked your defenders Prime Time flashy or Woodson quiet, and whether you valued absolutely eliminating the opponent's top receiver from the game plan with Sanders or accomplishing a bunch of different things with Woodson.
The debate also resulted in straw-man caricatures, as debates like these often do. (Emmitt Smith the beneficiary of a great system versus Barry Sanders, who gained 20 yards on first down but lost 10 on second; Peyton Manning the Choke Artist versus Tom Brady the Cheater.) Sanders, so the debate goes, made a "business decision" every time a running back approached and waited for someone else to make the tackle. Woodson, meanwhile, was some gambling cherry-picker whose mistakes were concealed by the blitz-happy Steelers scheme.
Well, Woodson wasn't quite an island cornerback on Sanders' level. But he slid into the slot and moved all over the formation, presaging the era of Honey Badger-like all-purpose defensive backs. Before moving to safety in 1998, he was a five-time All-Pro at cornerback. Yes, he was recognized for his all-purpose play more than his one-on-one coverage. He got burned on gambles now and then. But Woodson had to be doing something right. The old Woodson-Sanders debate is not relevant for this countdown of shutdown cornerbacks. Prime Time wins. But Woodson had a lot of ways to shut opponents down, some traditional, some well ahead of their time.
3. Mel Blount
Mel Blount defined and popularized the 1970s style of cornerback play:
The so-called Mel Blount Rule eliminated contact with receivers five yards past the line of scrimmage in 1978. It changed the game like no other rule change since free substitution in the 1940s. But it did not stop Blount, who adjusted to the more finesse-oriented style of play, earned three more Pro Bowl selections and helped the Steelers to two more Super Bowl victories.
Blount is the only shutdown cornerback on this list who almost shut down the entire NFL. Cornerbacks can no longer pummel receivers nonstop for 60 minutes. The game is better when life is a little harder for pass defenders. But even a radical rule change couldn't make it safe to throw to Blount's side of the field.