Outside cornerbacks have quickly become some of the most important NFL players on any defense. Recently, the passing game has become the focal point of offensive production as many NFL teams have shifted to high-flying offensive schemes.
More passing plays being called and more wide receivers running routes require defenses to load up on cornerbacks to slow down opposing offenses. Outside cornerbacks are arguably the most important players in the coverage scheme because they often cover the best wide receivers on the opposing team.
Let's look at the top ten cornerbacks who primarily play outside their defense. Rankings are based on recent performances over the last few years, including the 2022 NFL season.
#1 - Jalen Ramsey, Los Angeles Rams
Since entering the league, Jalen Ramsey has been one of the best cornerbacks in the entire NFL. He has always been a lockdown defender starting with the Jacksonville Jaguars before being traded to the Los Angeles Rams. He excels in man coverage, especially in press coverage.
Ramsey played almost exclusively on the outside with the Jaguars but has taken on additional responsibilities with the Rams, including blitzing and slot coverage. Since joining the Rams, he has earned a 1.37 PFF WAR, an all-inclusive statistic. It is the highest mark among all cornerbacks, with every other cornerback scoring under 1.0.
#2 - Marshon Lattimore, New Orleans Saints
Marshon Lattimore has been one of the most reliable man-coverage cornerbacks since entering the NFL in 2017. According to PFF, he has forced 38 total incompletions during his career entering the 2022 NFL season. This is more than any other player in the league during that time frame.
Lattimore is one of the main reasons the New Orleans Saints have been one of the top five overall defenses over the last five combined seasons. He regularly matches up one-on-one with the opposing team's best wide receiver. This allows the rest of the defense more flexibility to be creative in their schemes.
#3 - Tre'Davious White, Buffalo Bills
The Buffalo Bills have arguably been the best overall defense in recent years. They have ranked in the top three in three of the last four completed seasons in total yards allowed. They are on pace to do so again during the 2022 NFL season.
One of the main reasons the Bills defense has been so consistent is their elite defensive secondary. They have the best duo of safeties in the NFL: Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde. They also feature Tre'Davious White, one of the most consistent lockdown cornerbacks in the NFL. He ranks in the top three among all players in individual yards allowed since entering the league in 2017.
#4 - JC Jackson, Los Angeles Chargers
JC Jackson has statistically been the best ball hawk in the NFL over the last five years. He has recorded 19 interceptions since 2018, five or more interceptions than any other player. He has also recorded the most passes defended during that time.
Jackson played his entire career with the New England Patriots before the 2022 NFL season. He signed a massive contract with the Los Angeles Chargers to take over as their top cornerback, making him one of the highest-paid defensive backs in the NFL.
#5 - Jaire Alexander, Green Bay Packers
Jaire Alexander was probably the best overall cornerback during the 2020 NFL season. He led the entire NFL that season in PFF grade, yards allowed per target, and individual pass breakups, among other things. He did it all while playing almost exclusively in single coverage against the opponent's best wide receiver.
Alexander would likely be even higher in these rankings if it weren't for his recent injury. He missed almost the entire 2021 NFL season for the Green Bay Packers. If he gets back on track, he will be at least one of the top three cornerbacks.
#6 - Trevon Diggs, Dallas Cowboys
Trevon Diggs qualifies as a feast or famine type cornerback for the Dallas Cowboys. He is one of the most aggressive coverage defenders in the NFL, as he is always looking for an interception. He is often successful but also prone to giving up big plays when his risks don't pay off.
The 2021 NFL season is a perfect example of Diggs' style of playing cornerback. He led the entire NFL with an impressive 11 interceptions while leading all defensive backs in total yards allowed in coverage.
#7 - AJ Terrell, Atlanta Falcons
AJ Terrell put together one of the most dominant seasons by any cornerback in NFL history in 2021, according to PFF's yards per coverage snap allowed. While Asante Samuel and Nnamdi Asomugha currently share a single-season record of 0.36, Terrell is just behind with a 0.37 during the 2021 NFL season.
Terrell possesses the ceiling to be much higher in the rankings, but he has regressed a bit during the 2022 NFL season. This could be the product of a rebuilding Atlanta Falcons team with no real defensive support for Terrell in other positions.
#8 - Denzel Ward, Cleveland Browns
Denzel Ward is another of the best cornerbacks in the NFL in single-man coverage. His consistently elite performances in this area are why the Cleveland Browns rewarded him with a massive contract extension during the 2022 NFL offseason.
Since entering the league in 2018, Ward ranks in the top three among all players in PFF's single coverage grade, catch rate allowed, and yards per target. If he can improve his ball skills, he will climb higher in the rankings.
#9 - Darius Slay, Philadelphia Eagles
The Philadelphia Eagles reportedly tweaked Darius Slay's playing style during the 2021 NFL season. While he was with the Detroit Lions, he played almost exclusively man coverage and also pressed at the line scrimmage as much as any other player at the position. The Eagles changed that in 2021, which seems to have paid off significantly.
Slay changed his approach to less press coverage, giving himself more room to make plays on the ball rather than following the wide receiver he was covering. The change resulted in the highest PFF coverage grade of his entire career.
#10 - Xavien Howard, Miami Dolphins
The Miami Dolphins' aggression is the signature of their defensive scheme. They often send heavy blitzes at opposing quarterbacks while leaving their defensive backs in single-man press coverage. This puts a ton of pressure on quarterbacks to make quick decisions.
This specific style has played right into Xavien Howard's strengths. He has recorded seven interceptions in press coverage over the last two combined seasons, leading all NFL players. He and Byron Jones make up one of the best cornerback tandems in the NFL.