NFL

The NFL’s up-and-coming cornerbacks of 2019

We’ve identified seven top up-and-coming cornerbacks to mark as ascending stars as we await the 2019 season.

Life is hard for an NFL cornerback. One false step or misread and it’s a highlight play for a wide receiver. While passing offenses continue to become more efficient and depth charts are stacked with quality playmakers at the receiver position, the top of the totem pole at cornerback has changed in recent years.

Age strikes quickly at the position, as even a 10 percent loss in quickness or speed can mean the end of prominence. Even the best tacticians are holding on for dear life in this offense-friendly era, unless they have top-tier traits and instincts.

We’ve identified seven up-and-coming cornerbacks as we await the 2019 opening kickoff. We’re not going to include first-round picks in this list, nor any player elected to a Pro Bowl or All-Pro team. Stars like Xavien Howard, Denzel Ward, Jaire Alexander, Tre White and Marlon Humphrey all have terrific resumes and will continue blooming, but they’ve already arrived even if everyone at the water cooler doesn’t know it.

And while it can be argued Gareon Conley and Adoree’ Jackson are primed to be stars, we’re going deeper than some of the obvious names with big pedigrees. It’s more fun to identify the mid-rounders, undrafted talent and late-bloomers, because it takes more work to recognize their quality play and project performance.

James Bradberry, Carolina Panthers

Expectations for Carolina Panthers cornerback James Bradberry were sky-high this time last year despite posting mediocre man-coverage production. His raw numbers dropped slightly, killing the buzz around his future. Digging into his film showed a more consistent technician and less-panicked playmaker with the ball in the air.

With Bradberry’s process improved, it’s safe to bet on his production to take a step forward eventually. Though he’s not a ball hawk and any spike in interceptions is more likely an unsustainable fluke, Bradberry’s a legitimate cover option in man and zone. Though a very good fit in Carolina, he could shine even more if the unit asked him to play pure man more often than their reliable Cover 2 base employs.

Many of his raw coverage numbers, provided by Player Profiler, are hurt by his targets while in zone assignments. The 26-year-old has a brutal schedule lined up in 2019, including a deep NFC South and West slate. He’ll cash-in with a huge contract if the hype catches up to his 2018 play, and repeats his performance from last season.

Taron Johnson, Buffalo Bills

One of the most impressive aspects of the Buffalo Bills revamp under general manager Brandon Beane is the overhaul in the defensive backfield. 2017 first-round pick Tre White is a sure-star capable of playing in man and zone, and he’s identified value at the second cornerback by bringing back E.J. Gaines and unearthing undrafted free agent Levi Wallace. But the unheralded member of the NFL’s No. 2 pass defense in DVOA is Taron Johnson.

Generally slot corners in zone-heavy schemes aren’t impactful or their importance is overstated. Their roles can be similar to a quasi-safety in the sense they’re a role player like a block-eating defensive lineman. Even in an injury-shortened rookie season Johnson showed enough in 11 games to say he can be the next Mike Hilton or Kareem Jackson.

His physicality stood out immediately as a downfield finisher despite suffering a shoulder injury in Week 1. The 23-year-old shouldn’t have to kick outside as much this year since the Bills have so much more depth on the outside than last year, which can allow him to master the spacing between the linebackers and boundary corner. His comfort defending quick breaks and reacting at the top of routes should only improve in 2019.

Sidney Jones, Philadelphia Eagles

The Philadelphia Eagles showed nearly-incredible, almost insane patience with their young cornerback group over the last two seasons. Despite issues with blown coverages and personnel limitations, even in a Super Bowl run, the Eagles front office made modest investments into the positional group and put faith into their staff that the development and scheme would get the most out of the talent. Their trust paid off at an unlikely time in 2018 after injuries forced young players into huge roles.

One of those injuries was Sidney Jones, who has only played in 10 games over two seasons thus far. If we’re just going off 2018, it’s fair to say that second-year corner Avonte Maddox may be the one to watch in this unit, but both are notable talents capable of jumping. The difference in this nod is due to Jones’ peaks, even in 10 games, are that of an elite NFL corner because of his athletic traits.

The 23-year-old could be part of a group that has three cheap but high-yield playmakers since Rasul Douglas will be starting on the outside. There’ll be fierce competition once Ronald Darby and Cre’Von LeBlanc return from injury, and there could be more if the staff opts to keep Jalen Mills at corner. Jones’ quick-twitch lower body and knack for playing the ball bodes well for him to establish himself as long as he’s healthy.

Tre Flowers, Seattle Seahawks

It’s understandable why Pro Football Focus ranked the Seattle Seahawks’ secondary as the 31st unit entering 2019. Shaquill Griffin, though his man coverage numbers are promising in terms of regression, admitted he was overweight and his mind wasn’t focused on the right things (H/T to Todd Vandenberg of 12th Man Rising). His progression, the presence of second-year corner Tre Flowers and a coaching staff that routinely elevates their defensive talent should give pundits more confidence in this group.

Flowers ended the season as the team’s best outside cornerback, which could’ve been an effect of a bad Seahawks defense had their season gone awry after a slow start. Instead, Flowers and the young unit rallied to boost the team into a playoff run and that distinction was earned through quality play. The 6-foot-3 corner epitomizes a Seahawks corner with his length and physicality like his predecessors Brandon Browner and Byron Maxwell, but there’s more juice in his lateral cuts than either had.

Flowers’ second-half of 2018 highlighted an almost-linear line of improvement. The former safety still has moments of clunky footwork and hesitation at the top of routes, some of which is a byproduct of his frame, but most of his losses can be attributed to typical struggles of a young corner. His fit into this unit, even if they continue to play more two-high looks without Earl Thomas, can boost his profile into an undisputed No. 2 corner on an effective defense.

J.C. Jackson, New England Patriots

Few other teams can turn a 5-foot-10, 201-pound undrafted cornerback with average explosion metrics into a stud starter, but of course Bill Belichick is the one to hit on J.C. Jackson. The former Maryland Terrapin took former first-rounder Eric Rowe’s perch as Stephon Gilmore’s partner on the outside when Rowe’s play stifled due to injury, and established himself as a solid No. 2 for the Patriots. His profile will only rise as his snap share increases from the 45 percent he earned last year.

Jackson’s a bulldog in coverage despite being undersized for the position. He’s prone to penalties at this early juncture, tallying eight coverage calls last year for a total of 74 yards. But the advanced production allowed breakdown is as encouraging as any second-year corner.

He allowed the NFL’s best passer rating when targeted of 42, and respectable yards per reception average of 11.6, while not giving up a touchdown on the season. His situation certainly should boost his developmental curve as well. The Patriots still boast a terrific surrounding cast loaded with veterans, and their schedule in 2019 is light on elite receivers compared to others thanks to the AFC and NFC East lacking top-tier starpower on most teams.

Quinton Dunbar, Washington Redskins

The lone player on this list already with an extension in-hand is Quinton Dunbar of the Washington Redskins. The Redskins opted to promote Dunbar instead of re-signing Bashaud Breeland in 2018, a move that worked out as Dunbar’s performance took what seemed like an unlikely jump. Set to make $4.5 million this season, he’s one of the best values in the league at the position.

The 6-foot-2 former undrafted free agent has become much better at staying in phase until a receiver breaks his route, allowing him to stay on top of his assignment and challenge at the catch point with his length. He had just two coverage penalties, neither of which came after Week 5. His trajectory is pointed upwards as he’s already shown to be quick at adjusting his approach.

Most impressive are the productivity rankings. He was top-10 among outside corners with only 33 receptions allowed for 380 yards, and remained respectable with an 11.5-yard average. His next milestone will be reducing the four touchdowns he allowed in 2018, but some of that is also tied to the amount of zone the Redskins still use. Dunbar is the best corner on this roster, and 2019 will clearly prove that.

Charvarius Ward, Kansas City Chiefs

Sometimes opportunity is the difference between a player breaking out or simply falling to the side. Luckily for Charvarius Ward and the Kansas City Chiefs, the secondary struggled so much with the aging Orlando Scandrick and undisciplined Steven Nelson that the coaching staff decided to give the undrafted free agent playing time before the season ended. Ward was impressive enough for the team to let both veterans walk in free agency and avoid spending significant assets into the position.

The sample size is small as Ward played just 17 percent of the team’s defensive snaps last year, but his film is littered with encouraging flashes. He moves well for a bigger-bodied player, and the Chiefs’ man-heavy scheme was ideal for him. Ward’s eyes and feet complement each other well in man assignments better than zone, and his length is a major factor as he establishes contact early to disrupt receivers.

The 23-year-old now plays in an impressive secondary with Bashaud Breeland, Kendall Fuller and Tyrann Mathieu. Like Breeland, he’s an above-average presence on vertical routes, but will lose occasionally on speed concepts that take advantage of their mediocre agility. Nevertheless, Ward’s already shown a baseline talent and skill set that can elevate this unit to a Super Bowl-worthy level in 2019.

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