It isn’t hard to name the best players in the NFL at most positions.
No one is going to argue with Drew Brees or Tom Brady at quarterback. Alvin Kamara and Todd Gurley are safe names when you're discussing running backs.
Now try to name the best cornerbacks in the league. Most of the ones that first come to mind probably aren’t among the league’s top performers.
That’s because the best players at the position change annually. A handful of players are living off their reputations, but chances are they probably haven’t maintained their peak performance. That sort of thing doesn’t happen for most players. The ones who do it become legends.
“One year they’re here and outstanding, and the next year they’ve matched — you don’t find too many guys like that,” Saints defensive backs coach Aaron Glenn said. “The special ones are in that category.”
There aren’t many “special ones” in the NFL right now. Using Pro Football Focus’ grading system as the baseline, the scouting service has only kept one player in its top 10 — the Chargers’ Desmond King — at cornerback from last year. The rest of the list is entirely new.
Increasing the sample size does produce more hits. By taking it out to four years, Denver’s Chris Harris Jr., Jacksonville’s A.J. Bouye, Arizona’s Patrick Peterson and the Chargers’ Casey Hayward show up on multiple lists. But this only further proves that the best cornerbacks in the NFL typically change from year to year.
There are a handful of reasons for the extreme variances, but they all lead back to the same place: Playing cornerback is hard.
“Of course it’s the hardest position to stay good at,” Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore said. “You’re going backward. You have to be an athlete; you have to go fast; you’re going against players with 4.34 speed going ahead, but you’re backward — so you've got to transition well and do little certain things.”
The Saints are as good a case study on how quickly things can change at this position. It looked like the group was on the verge of emerging as one of the best secondaries in the NFL behind the strong play of cornerbacks Ken Crawley and Lattimore.
Crawley never really got it going this season. After allowing a 76.74 passer rating in 2017, that number jumped to 152.1 this year, according to Sports Info Solutions. He was eventually benched and replaced after the Saints traded for Eli Apple, who is still working his way into form.
Lattimore has shown his shutdown abilities this year. He performed well against Atlanta’s Julio Jones and New York’s Odell Beckham. He only gave up one catch against Washington and held his own against Minnesota’s pass attack, surrendering just 52 yards that game.
But Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans caught four passes for 115 yards on Lattimore during the Bucs' 48-10 win in Week 1, and Lattimore was responsible for some yards against the Los Angeles Rams during a game in which the Saints played a lot of zone defense.
Added together, after allowing a passer rating against of 54.48 last season, Lattimore sits at 108.84.
That seems like a significant variance, and it is, but the gap is mostly because Lattimore hasn’t intercepted a pass yet.
Lattimore was in position to pick off three passes this season, and if you were to give him those three — including one that was knocked away during a collision with his own safety — Lattimore's quarterback rating when targeted by opposing quarterbacks would drop to 75.1.
That's a lot of if, then scenarios, but those ifs and maybes are why cornerbacks have so many ups and downs in the NFL. One year a football lands on someone's backside for you to pick up an interception. The next year a teammate is knocking you off of one.
“It’s the league,” Lattimore said. “You don’t know what the receiver is doing. You watch film, but they don’t have to do what you see on film. You’re at a disadvantage the whole time at corner, at DB, not knowing what the receiver is doing. You just have to play through it.”
P.J. Williams has been an example of these big variances on a week-to-week basis, if not within the same game. The Saints cornerback was beaten repeatedly in his first game as a starter this season against the Atlanta Falcons, and then fought his way back to a solid performance the next week against the Giants.
He again was beaten throughout the first half of a 30-20 win against the Vikings, only to bounce back and make a game-changing interception in the second half and earn NFC defensive player of the week honors.
“That’s the life of being a defensive back,” said Glenn, himself an NFL cornerback from 1994-2008. “I wish every game was going to be all roses, but it’s not.
“There are going to be some games when the feeling's just not there. Every time you think they’re going to make a right cut, they make a left cut. I think every defensive back has had those games. I just think (Atlanta) was one of those games where things didn’t happen right for (Williams). He just came back the next week and performed, and you’ve seen the weeks after that he’s performed well. There isn’t anything different.”
It's just the league.
Follow Nick Underhill on Twitter, @nick_underhill.
This article originally ran on theadvocate.com.