The NFL’s Top 10 Cornerbacks | The MMQB NFL Podcast
On the Monday Morning NFL Podcast, Andy Benoit and Gary Gramling discuss cornerbacks across the NFL, the year-to-year volatility for individual corners, the coverage vs. pass rush debate, and rank the top 10 CBs in the NFL heading into the 2019 season. Plus, an insightful interview with Jaguars star A.J. Bouye. Listen and subscribe to The MMQB Monday Morning NFL Podcast here.
The following transcript of Andy and Gary’s interview with A.J. Bouye has been edited and condensed for clarity.
ANDY: You guys do so much of that Seahawks-style Cover-3. Do you view yourself more as a zone corner or man corner within the context of your Cover-3?
A.J. BOUYE: I believe it’s more of a man-corner system, because once I draw him I ride him. That's the terminology that we use. We're always aligned in press, outside release, inside release, past a certain yardage they’re basically our man no matter where they go, until they cross certain hashes. So sometimes it’s difficult in that scheme, you have to have the corners for it, but we have the corners for it. And when you mix it up it's usually hard to know when you're in man because sometimes people think Cover-3 has droppers but then you bring your rushers.
GARY: “When we draw ‘em we ride ‘em.” I like that tagline.
A.J. BOUYE: That’s what our old DB coach said, and it’s kind of true.
GARY: Correct me if I'm wrong: You used to play inside, in the slot, a little bit in Houston, right?
A.J. BOUYE: My last year in Houston, we had drafted Kevin Johnson in the first round I think the year before. We had too many DBs. I was told they just wanted to find a way to get me out on the field, so I started playing linebacker, safety …
ANDY: You were all over that year.
A.J. BOUYE: It was very fun. But now I'm an outside corner. I think it was much easier on the inside, to me anyways. And I love the challenge that I have right now.
GARY: Wait, so you thought it was easier on the inside?
A.J. BOUYE: Yeah, definitely. It’s easier to study route formations, you can get in the run, you know where you help is—you have more space to cover but you also have more help. That's how I would always look at it.
A.J. BOUYE: And when I started playing Dime, I was matching up against certain slot receivers and then I was matching up against tight ends like Kelce and Delanie Walker. So going against DeAndre Hopkins every day, a physical receiver, I got used to it.
GARY: That's really interesting. I would have thought outside was easier because, well, one, you’re really good at it, but also you have the sideline.
A.J. BOUYE: But usually when you’re playing outside you have to go against much taller receivers too. And in this league now, they’re also faster and you have more space to cover, and the only thing that we have to rely on is the sideline. But the quarterbacks are so good, and rules are so strict, you have to be just perfectly flawless. Usually, when I watch tape, if you’re on the inside you can get away with a little bit of holding and stuff like that.
ANDY: Let's say it's a spread empty formation and you guys are in like a man lurk coverage, so the lurker is gonna be helping on the other side. So you're in iso-man, inside, in the slot. Is that still easier to play inside versus outside?
A.J. BOUYE: I remember sometimes, it happened a little bit last year. We started following receivers and they were pushing coverage away from me, and sometimes my guy would line up in the slot. It was like, for example, Robby Anderson or Travis Benjamin, and I'm following on basically a zero coverage all game, and that's when I realize how tough it was. But I study a lot of film. One of the nickels that I like to really study, who’s good at that playing by himself too, is Chris Harris. He's very quick, but he knows where his help is. Even if he doesn’t, he always makes a play.
GARY: All right, as soon as we booked you, I had one question I had to ask you. I'm sorry you bring up bad memories, and I'll try not to get emotional about this, but AFC title game against the Patriots. You had a pass inference call against you, you were going against Brandin Cooks, and it was—it was unfathomable. And sometimes you can say, Well, you got a little bit handsy, he got beat a little bit. sometimes you say like yo well we got a little in handy you know he got beat a little bit. But this was a 100-percent win for you, and then all of the sudden the flag comes out. It's a 34-yard penalty. How do you recover from that? Because I’m still upset about that, and this is now much later in time.
A.J. BOUYE: Any corner in the NFL will tell you what type of league it is, and, you know, it’s tricks of the trade. I went back and watched that film with some older people who played in the league, just to study myself, and they didn't know what they could tell me. Even receivers—well, they might not tell you—but it's a trick that they use sometimes: Usually third-and-long and a quarterback chucks it up, they do a good job of pulling the defender into them instead of the ball. Sometimes they don't even plan on going for the ball, and 90 percent of the time they’re going to get the call.
ANDY: Who’s the best at that?
A.J. BOUYE: The only time it happened to me it was Brandin Cooks, but one player who’s good at using his hands also is DeAndre Hopkins. But he knows how to go for the ball. It's different when you're not going for the ball, and sometimes it's blatant but they still throw the flag.
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ANDY: So I watched every one of your guys’ snaps on film this year, and I would say in a majority of games I couldn't track the pattern of who Jalen Ramsey was matching and who you were matching, and when you were doing it, and how, and sometimes you’d play sides or boundary or whatever. And I asked coaches around the league who played against you guys, Did you ever figure out how they're using the corners? Why couldn't anyone figure out exactly how you and Ramsey would be used each week?
A.J. BOUYE: Oh, I wish I had some pull like some other players. Some players could go to the coach and tell them who they want to follow when and whenever. But we, as DBs, had to adjust to that. And me and Jalen had good communication, where it was like, O.K., I understand this is what you want, the coaches let you have it. I don't really care, I'm just trying to win. I'm trying to make plays.. When you have a corner that good they're going to still try you. My first year here, I remember sometimes I would get upset in games because I never got any targets because I didn't follow the guy who was getting the targets. But I mean, that's the game, and when you're winning it's all good, but when you're not it kind of sucks because you feel you could do more.
ANDY: Does Ramsey do some of that on a whim? Like, I got him this snap. How systematized is he on who he decides he's going to follow?
A.J. BOUYE: Sometimes, I don't know if it's maybe a name or something like that, but with me and him it’s usually good communication. For example, in one game they wanted him to follow a receiver, and he was just like, Why would I follow him, he can’t mess with us. That's always his mindset, every week. And sometimes he would do it because that's Jalen, he likes a challenge. But sometimes in a game it will be like, Man, I already know what you’re going to say, let’s just go left and right. We'll start laughing on the field, and then we just get ready to go.
ANDY: What's the most difficult Cover-3 beater design for you to defend?
A.J. BOUYE: I would say the Buffalo game. You know we're taught to drop everything at the hash, and—
ANDY: When you say “drop everything at the hash,” take me through the mechanics just so our listeners know what you're saying.
A.J. BOUYE: So you’ll see—Miami kind of does the same thing—the receiver runs an Over route, and sometimes you pass him off to the safety, and sometimes it works and sometimes is doesn’t. But receivers have gotten so good at hiding their stems or hiding their routes that they know how to beat the scheme. And coaches are teaching them to run it like this. One thing with our defense, during the first year we were seeing a lot of stuff on film and then we would see it again. This year, we really got game-planned to where things were were practicing against and seeing on film we wouldn't see in the game at all. The only team we would actually see something from film was Tennessee, and maybe New England, I think the first game, because they always stay true to what they do.
ANDY: So when you pass off to the safety then you just go back into centerfield?
A.J. BOUYE: We just look for work. It depends on what their personnel is, who are their weapons. Like, if your best player is a running back you might have to stay back even further for the screen. It's always game plan, that's one thing that I love about Coach [Todd] Wash, he’s always game-planning the offense. And unfortunately, like I said, offenses really were game-planning us, and we’d adjust but sometimes it was just too late.
GARY: Time for lightning round, “best of.” Best contested catch guy.
ANDY: Excluding DeAndre Hopkins.
A.J. BOUYE: I'll go with Antonio Brown. I didn't learn until I played him in the playoffs. I didn't know how good he was with holding off a player and still being able to catch it. The first time he scored on me, he was able to hold me off with his right hand and push off and still get two feet in at the corner of the end zone and catch it with one hand. And then the second time he scored I was in his face, he pulled me through and he showed his hands late and caught it right near his shins. Usually it's hard for receivers to show their hands late, especially while contested. And then you see him, this past year, he did it all the time.
ANDY: I love the late hands. That's what Randy Moss used to do. Everyone thinks Randy Moss is this sprinter, leaper. He would just keep his hands down by his pockets, basically, and wait for the ball and no one ever knew to look for the ball.
GARY: Kareem Jackson gave us the same answer, by the way, Antonio Brown. And I always wonder, you know, he’s a smaller guy. So what he does looks so subtle. I know we're watching from a high camera angle, we’re not down on the field, but it doesn’t look like he did anything but then you see on the replay and you say, Oh, all right, that’s how that happened.
A.J. BOUYE: I like to study a lot of players past and present, and one guy he reminds me of is Jerry Rice. Not just the work ethic, but Jerry Rice wasn't the fastest, the most explosive, but when he gets on that field he’s the best player out there. And that's the same thing with Antonio Brown.
ANDY: You could probably answer Brown on this one again, so I'm going to reshape the question: Best route runner, but let's say most nuanced, underappreciated route runner.
A.J. BOUYE: I’ll have to go with either Odell Beckham or Keenan Allen. Odell, I heard he used to play soccer, and you can see it with his feet. He's so quick coming out of his routes and he knows how to switch up his stems. But he has so much freedom in his routes that he can still come out right on time. And Keenan Allen is just so crafty off the line. Guarding him the first year was pretty tough. We came out with the win but I have respect for him as a receiver, and you know Philip Rivers.
THE MMQB PODCAST TOP 10 CORNERBACKS FOR 2019
“Others receiving votes” is included if you listen to the show, along with more discussions on cornerbacks including why there’s so much year-to-year volatility for many CBs, the coverage vs. pass rush debate, a conversation with A.J. Bouye, and much more. Position ranking voting is AP Poll-style among three panelists, with Andy’s votes counting double:
1. Stephon Gilmore, New England, 100 points (4 first-place votes)
2. Jalen Ramsey, Jacksonville, 94
3. Patrick Peterson, Arizona, 86
4. Marshon Lattimore, New Orleans, 77
5. Xavier Rhodes, Minnesota, 72
6. Marlon Humphrey, Baltimore, 70
7. Chris Harris, Denver, 68
8. Byron Jones, Dallas, 65
9. Tre’Davious White, Buffalo, 56
10. A.J. Bouye, Jacksonville, 53
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