Some terms get thrown around so flippantly in the media these days. Whether it be the “elite quarterback” or the “shutdown corner”, far too many analysts hand these labels out to the completely undeserving simply because they’re trying to emphasize how good of a player the guy being discussed really is. For someone to be truly elite, they have to be rare. In a class by themselves. Truly the best of the best. How can you throw ten or fifteen guys together and label them all elite? All players are not equal just because they are the best available at their respective position. There has to be a hierarchy of some sort, right? I believe so, and I’d expect most of you would agree with me.
Let’s dive into the “shutdown corner” discussion a little deeper here. What constitutes a shutdown corner? What qualifications must they have? Well let’s look at the standard by which all corners will forever be measured, the one and only Deion “Primetime” Sanders. The term shutdown corner was not all that common before Sanders. Nobody had ever seen a guy take away one receiver the way he did. Not only did he man up and shadow each teams top receiving threat every week, he almost always completely shut him down. On top of not allowing completions to his man, as if that wasn’t enough, Sanders put the fear of God into every quarterback he faced with his ability to get the ball back for his own team. It was a high risk proposition to even consider throwing his direction. Through natural born rare talent and hours of film study on opposing receivers to learn their tendencies, Sanders became the greatest shutdown corner to ever play the game. He was one in a million. Elite in every sense of the word.
Who in the NFL today exhibits those same characteristics? Sure their are some very, very talented corners in the league today. Joe Haden, Patrick Peterson, Richard Sherman, Darrelle Revis, Aqib Talib and Champ Bailey all come to mind and are generally at the top of the “shutdown” discussion. But are any of those guys near the level set by their predecessor? Do they do the same things Sanders did? Now I will be the first to admit it’s a lot harder to be a cornerback in today’s NFL then it was 20 years ago when Deion played. Contact restrictions and overall offense favoring rules have put a different spin on how the position is played. Still, the concepts of what makes you shutdown corner remains the same. Can you line up and shadow an opposing team’s number one wideout with absolutely no help from a safety? Can you strike fear into the hearts of opposing quarterbacks with your ability to produce interceptions? Do opposing offenses have to consider not targeting the man you are guarding? All of these things are what a shutdown corner is all about.
With all due respect to Richard Sherman, the popular pick for the top corner in the league, he only exhibits one of these three qualities. Sherman’s ridiculous interception total (20) over the last 3 years is impressive, no doubt. The problem I have with him being labeled as a shutdown guy is schematic. The Seahawks basically play two coverages. Cover 3 zone, and cover 1 man. In cover 3, Sherman is guarding his 1/3 of the field. He’s essentially covering space. In their cover 1 package, it’s worth noting that they happen to have the best free safety in the game playing that single high zone. Now, half the battle of playing corner is recognizing the route that’s being run on you. When you play man to man with no safety help, the route possibilities are endless. When other coverages are played, depending on the alignments of the safeties, route possibilities can be whittled down to a particular set. Of course the guy who only has to play a handful of routes is going to play faster and with more confidence. He has no fear of getting beat certain ways because of the help he’s receiving. It gives him a big edge knowing which routes are possible and which are not, thus giving him a jump on the ball. Opponents obviously don’t ignore his side of the field, otherwise his insane interception total wouldn’t be possible. They respect him, but they don’t fear him.
It’s not his fault that Seattle doesn’t ask him to shadow receivers, and frankly the one time he did against Anquan Boldin, he shut him down. I just don’t think he’s asked to take on as big of a responsibility as guys who consistently shadow like Peterson, Haden, Revis and to an extent Talib.
Peterson is the prototype of the bunch. At 6’1 215 with legit 4.3 speed, there aren’t many receivers who can out-athlete him on the outside. He has two of the three qualifications. He shadows, and opponents do worry about what he can do with an interception. Unfortunately that doesn’t lead to them shying away from him, and he allowed a quarterback rating in the high 90′s on passes thrown his direction.
Haden shadows the opponents number one target every week, and has since he arrived in Cleveland. He’s extremely quick, fast, and plays with ultimate technique. While he certainly is in the top 5 cornerback conversation, he doesn’t necessarily inspire the offense to consistently go another direction.
Revis of years past is the closest thing to a shutdown corner this generation has seen. He constantly shadowed opposing number one receivers, made opponents look the other way on a regular basis, and picked off his fair share of passes when teams did test him. There wasn’t a corner in the league that could match him when it came to lining up on an island with no help, and succeeding a majority of the time. Obviously his knee injury provided a slight bump in the road, and he didn’t look like a phenom last year. But he was still pretty damn good, and I expect him to round back into form with New England in 2014.
The simple point I’m making here is that over the last 15-20 years, since Deion was in his prime, there has been only one guy even remotely deserving of the term shutdown corner. It’s a term that gets thrown around a lot. It’s even mentioned in some draft scouting reports such as, “has the ability to become a shutdown corner”.
In reality guys who can man up and legitimately shut down a receiver and make an offense not even look his direction for fear of what could happen if they venture into his territory, are rare. They come around about once every 20 years or so, and Revis is our generation’s version. Enjoy it. Bask in his greatness every chance you get. Because while you might hear about a lot of “shutdown corners” every Sunday on TV, the reality is far more complicated then that. And they don’t come around very often.
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