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Where does Jalen Ramsey rank among NFL cornerbacks headed into 2020?

By most measures, Ramsey is elite — but what’s the proper measuring stick?

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NFL: AUG 29 Rams Scrimmage Photo by Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

One of the issues that I think ProFootballFocus runs into is that they want to have their grades and eat them too. In the earlier days of the website, they’d stick to their guns on some of their more controversial grades (off the top of my head I can recall a blocking tight end who was their highest-graded overall tight end in the league, and a night in which Aaron Rodgers had five touchdowns with no picks and he was one of their worst graded passers of the week) but when trying to establish a brand, does this harm credibility?

I think the result (other than them since removing access to grade breakdowns like what Will Brinson posted above) may potentially be that PFF’s grades and their rankings no longer seem to line up and without always getting a good explanation as to why.

This is not commentary on PFF’s cornerback rankings and I don’t think that anyone should waste their time arguing for or against how a player or team “should be 2-3 spots higher” or “4-5 spots lower” because after all, these lists only exist for debate. Rankings and lists carry no meaning outside of the debate. If that is how you choose to spend your present, that’s perfectly acceptable.

Even as I go through the list of PFF’s top-ranked cornerbacks headed into the season, I know that I’m only doing so for debate. There is no right answer. But if I were to also create grades for those players, I might wonder why the number on the list and the number on the report card aren’t always aligned.

Here are PFF’s top 25 corners headed into 2020, with their 2019 PFF grade and three-year average. None of this is behind a paywall, it just takes a little bit of time to calculate:

1. Stephon Gilmore, 82.8 (83.9)

2. Richard Sherman, 88.9 (78.3)

3. Casey Hayward, 83 (84.2)

4. Jalen Ramsey, 71.5 (78.3)

5. Marshon Lattimore, 68.1 (75.8)

6. Chris Harris, 69.9 (78.1)

7. Byron Jones, 76.1 (74.8)

8. Marlon Humphrey, 70.5 (74.3)

9. Marcus Peters, 83.2 (74.6)

10. Tre’Davious White, 76.4 (75.3)

11. Darius Slay, 56.4 (70.6)

12. Adoree’ Jackson, 76.2 (74.7)

13. Patrick Peterson, 68.6 (73.4)

14. Desmond King, 70.9 (82.3)

15. Steven Nelson, 80.5 (73.2)

16. Denzel Ward, 69.9 (74.4 over two years)

17. Jaire Alexander, 72.3 (72.3 over two years)

18. Nickell Robey-Coleman, 74.5 (79.2)

19. Joe Haden, 70.3 (69)

20. Jason McCourty, 74.4 (76.6)

21. K’Waun Williams, 77.2 (73)

22. Quinton Dunbar, 87.6 (76.2)

23. Kyle Fuller, 62.5 (74.1)

24. William Jackson, 53.6 (72.4)

25. Mike Hilton, 67.1 (73.4)

Here are some notes from PFF’s article that attempt to explain why the grades may not match the ranking:

  • “The roles, assignments and schemes that each cornerback plays within are all very different, so we can’t rely purely on PFF grade* to rank these players.”
  • Ramsey: “Ramsey draws some of the toughest coverage assignments in the league and has done so in multiple stops now between Jacksonville and Los Angeles. It leads to his overall PFF grade not always matching the elite potential he has**. Over the last three seasons, however, his grade is an elite 91.0, and he is right up there with the best in the game while making life easier for other members of the Rams’ secondary.” (I don’t know what Sam Monson means by “91” because over the last three seasons, his grade is an average of 78.3, unless he only means coverage grade.)
  • White: “Last year would have you believe that PFF hates Tre’Davious White, but between his position as the 12th-best player in the 2017 draft, and his coverage grade above 90.0 as a rookie, there is plenty of evidence that our grading credits him where due***.
  • Peterson: “Peterson has been all over the map in terms of PFF grades but has always been some variety of good...he is only a year removed from a PFF coverage grade of 83.7”
  • Ward: “Denzel Ward’s NFL career is still a work in progress, but he is already on the brink of being one of the very top corners in the game****.”
  • Robey-Coleman: “Nickell Robey-Coleman has been one of the best slot corners in the league***** since he arrived in the NFL, and that has never been more valuable. Only Desmond King has a higher PFF grade than him over the past three seasons”
  • McCourty: “It’s difficult to separate Jason McCourty’s play from the boost he receives playing in New England”
  • Dunbar: “He ended up with the second-best overall PFF grade (87.6) in the regular season”

*One must wonder then, what can we rely on a PFF grade for exactly? If not judging how good of a season or career a player has had, then what? If PFF isn’t accounting for playing nickel or outside, if they can’t account for strength or schedule or opponent, if there are outside equations needed to be made before weighing the quality of a grade itself, then why have the grade?

Furthermore, if strength of opponent matters, I’m surprised that a cornerback who plays in the AFC East against Josh Allen, Sam Darnold, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Josh Rosen, with his 2019 interceptions coming off of Andy Dalton (twice), Darnold, Daniel Jones, Fitzpatrick and Dak Prescott wasn’t dinged for that. Or that it wasn’t mentioned.

**What is PFF’s calculation for “elite potential”? How many points should we add for Ramsey’s potential? What is at PFF’s disposal to measure his potential versus the potential of someone else, say, Troy Hill as a close example? Or Jeff Okudah?

***Notice the caution applied to these rankings?

****Ward’s grade dropped from 78.9 as a rookie to 69.9 last season; it would be interesting to know both why that was and if his ranking here is mainly because of his 2018 draft status. The same goes for how long William Jackson stays in the top-25 based on his rookie season in 2016.

*****How does PFF weigh the value of a slot vs the value of an outside corner and then decide where to place them on the list based on that weight?

In any case, Ramsey’s three-year grade average since 2017 would still rank tied as the third-best in the league with Sherman, who is simply coming off of a better season. That doesn’t make it any less odd that Sherman ranks second in the entire NFL at age 32 but Jason McCourty, with the sixth-best three-year average based on their own grades, is ranked 20th because “At 33, McCourty is past his prime...”

Of course, how would it look if PFF ranked a zero-time Pro Bowl cornerback in the same echelon as a future Hall of Famer? Well, you tell me, how does it look? Because that’s what their grades say.

Whether they want to repeat them or not.