Ranking NFL’s top 10 cornerbacks of 2023: There’s a new No. 1 as Jets’ Sauce Gardner takes top spot

The NFL is and will likely for the foreseeable future be a passing league. Because it is, cornerbacks have arguably never been more important. They have the primary coverage assignment on the league’s top pass-catchers, and thus have arguably the most responsibility for disrupting an opponent’s passing game. 

The secondary tends to be a weak-link system where the whole can either be better or worse than the sum of its parts, but having a top-flight player at the position tends to make things easier for everyone else on the field. In the space below, we’re going to walk through the top 10 players at this important spot for the 2023 season.

Just missed (alphabetical order): A.J. Terrell, Falcons; Carlton Davis, Buccaneers; Charvarius Ward, 49ers; Denzel Ward, Browns; Jamel Dean, Buccaneers; James Bradberry, Eagles; Marshon Lattimore, Saints; Tariq Woolen, Seahawks; Tre’Davious White, Bills; Xavien Howard, Dolphins

Gilmore might be headed into his age-33 season and he is obviously no longer at his Defensive Player of the Year peak. But over the past two seasons he has recaptured something close to top form, and is one of just four players league-wide to rank inside the top 15 in Pro Football Focus’ coverage grades in both 2021 and 2022. (The other three are also on this list.) Heading to Dallas to play for Dan Quinn and across from Trevon Diggs (more on him in a minute), Gilmore should be able to shine even as he approaches his mid-30s. 

Horn has been a bit overshadowed by another star corner selected one pick after him in the 2021 NFL Draft, but he put together a terrific sophomore campaign and should only get better. Last season he allowed just 28 completions and 310 yards in coverage, with zero touchdowns against three interceptions and three pass-breakups, according to PFF. His ability to move into the slot and line up in the box make him more versatile than your typical perimeter corner, as well. 

8. Trevon Diggs, Cowboys

Diggs made the All-Pro First Team in 2021 when he led the league with 11 interceptions… but he was a better player in 2022 despite the turnover figure dropping to a mere three. He has the best ball skills of any cornerback in the league, and when you’re able to create big plays the way he does, you can excuse getting beat on a double-move every now and again. With Gilmore playing across from him, DaRon Bland in the slot and a trio of safeties moving all over the field, Diggs is once again set up for success heading into 2023.

The league’s premier slot man when he gets an opportunity to play inside, Humphrey went back to playing mostly on the perimeter in 2022 but nevertheless had his best coverage season in a few years, allowing only a 74.5 passer rating with zero touchdowns and three picks. He can do pretty much anything in Mike McDonald’s defense, and the Ravens will surely ask him to do just that.

Yes, really. Reed is another one of the aforementioned four players to rank in the top 15 in PFF’s coverage grades in each of the past two seasons, checking in ninth and 11th, respectively. He plays across from Sauce Gardner (you’ll see him later) in New York but after allowing passer ratings of 76.2, 66.0, and 75.7 on throws in his direction over the past three seasons and allowing just 9.9 yards per reception a year ago, Reed has proven a few times over that his lack of size (he’s 5-foot-9) does not hinder him all that much in coverage. In Robert Saleh’s defense, the Jets have a lockdown corner to work each side of the field. 

Alexander picked off five passes and got his hands on eight more last season, and he nearly matched his elite performance from 2020 by yielding a passer rating of only 66.2 on throws in his direction. (It was 54.3 a few years ago.) He proved that he’s healthy again after missing a bunch of time due to injury in 2021, and with his combination of size, speed, and physicality there are few players in the league who have his coverage versatility on the outside.

Slay has returned to outright superstardom over the past two years, bouncing back after a poor debut season in Philadelphia. You can easily make the argument that he belonged on the All-Pro team last year, given how consistently excellent he was — especially over the second half of the year. After allowing 85 yards in coverage against Washington in Week 10, Slay did not allow more than 48 yards in any game of the rest of the way and allowed a total of just 55 on Philadelphia’s three playoff contests. He’ll be 32 years old next season, but has shown no signs of slowing down.

Ramsey got beat for a career-high seven touchdowns last year as the Rams‘ defense collapsed around him, but he was still outrageously good in coverage for most of the year. His ability to play in the slot or the box and make plays near the line of scrimmage is unrivaled among cornerbacks, and playing for Vic Fangio — the originator of the scheme that has taken his game to another level since he made the move to L.A. — should only help him achieve new heights as he hits the latter portion of his prime.

Surtain is basically the prototype of what you want a corner to look like these days. He ranks in the 95th percentile or higher in height, weight, wingspan, arm length, and hand size, and it shows when he’s on the field. He doesn’t have elite short-area speed but he makes up for it with outstanding agility, leaping ability, and timing on his breaks. He is able to blanket even the best No. 1 receivers on a weekly basis, and he’s only going to get better as he physically matures and learns more about the game.  

1. Sauce Gardner, Jets

Gardner was probably the single-best cornerback in the league as a rookie. He allowed only 45.9% of the passes thrown his way to be completed, for a 53.9 rating. He led the league in forced incompletion rate and pass breakups, and only allowed a reception once every 18 coverage snaps — the best mark in the NFL. At 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, he is built to handle any matchup at any time, and he is playing in a system that allows him to take advantage of his outrageous physical gifts.

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