Given that the gold standard for cover corners played for the 49ers in one Deion Sanders, his early predecessor, Jimmy Johnson, the hardest hitting CB around in Ronnie Lott, and one of the best pure cover guys in Eric Wright, the question today is, are there any real shutdown cornerbacks left in the NFL? Jimmy Johnson was one of the first corners considered a shutdown corner, as he was studiously avoided by just about every head coach in the game back then. Of course, ‘back then’ meant jamming WRs at the line, hand-checking down the field, and grappling with the WR until the ball was in the air.
The culmination of the ‘anything goes’ era of defensive backfield prowess came in the form of Mel Blount. At 6’3, 205 lb, and 4.5 speed he had the power and quickness to take on anyone and everyone the NFL had to offer in the way of WRs. And he won most of the battles. In a 14 year career, he amassed 57 picks and left countless broken WRs in his wake. This led of course to the Mel Blount rule change of not being able to bump or impede the WR after the WR gets 5 yards off the line.
This led to smaller and quicker CBs like Champ Bailey, Darrell Green, Eric Wright, and yes, Neon Deion. Guys who could read and react quickly to WRs adjusting routes, and close fast once the ball was in the air. These guys were not necessarily known as tacklers (Deion? Please! He avoided contact like the plague), but made their bones covering the #1 WR on a given team and taking away half the field available to the opposing QB. Sure there have been outliers, Mike Haynes, Lester Hayes, big guys that got it done, but the trend was these guys to be strictly coverage, and let the safeties clean up the runs. Especially with the even newer rules around covering WRs. The line of engagement is now ONE yard as opposed to 5, so the onus is even higher to cover WRs without incurring a penalty.
Now? Well, Richard Sherman is now the standard to what the prototypical CB should be. Big, strong, and fast. Sherman is (well, was) excellent in run defense, zone coverage, and press coverage. The whole package. Thing is, he and his Seattle compatriots seemed to get away with grabbing, roughing up, and impeding WRs. Why they got away with this is a different matter, but their success as a whole, and Sharman’s in particular certainly has changed how GMs and scouts look at corners in college. They want rangy, fast, and tough CBs.
It remains to see if we got the real deal here, but Sherman is better than what we had. He may not be a true cover corner, but he’s as close as we can get.