PFF released their rankings of the top-32 outside cornerbacks headed into the 2021 season and while Jalen Ramsey coming in at second should be a ‘good thing,’ it comes with the question of “Who could be ahead of him?”
Well, that would be a player who faced — and helped beat — the Rams in the playoffs: Jaire Alexander of the Green Bay Packers. Is Alexander really the top cornerback in the NFL now? Here’s what PFF had to say about Ramsey at number two:
Ramsey has been one of the best cornerbacks in the league since Jacksonville drafted him fifth overall in the 2016 NFL Draft. He’s never recorded a PFF grade lower than 70.0 — impressive consistency for a cornerback often tasked with tough assignments — and is coming off the best PFF grade since his second year in the league. Opposing offenses simply weren’t able to attack him in coverage.
After being charged with eight receptions allowed in Week 1 against the Dallas Cowboys, Ramsey proceeded to allow just 24 receptions over the remainder of the regular season, giving up fewer than 25 receiving yards in 11 games. The ability to limit production like Ramsey did against top-flight talent is invaluable for the Los Angeles Rams defense.
Of course, ‘grading’ cornerbacks based on yardage allowed, is itself as rudimentary as grading quarterbacks based on passing yards had. Ramsey, as all cornerbacks do, impacts games in ways that go well beyond just who he is covering on a given play. Having a cornerback like Ramsey means that your entire defense — and the way that opposing offenses treat and game plan against said defense — is transformed in such a way that you couldn’t just quantify it on how good a QB’s passing rating is when throwing in his direction.
Similar to how Aaron Donald improves the numbers of players around him on the defensive line, so too does Darious Williams (and previously Troy Hill) benefit from having Ramsey covering half of the field. I’m not saying Jaire Alexander isn’t on that level — or that he isn’t the best cornerback in the NFL, because that could definitely be true — but I just wanted to point out that when ranking cornerbacks, how many catches you allow isn’t the only way to do it.
Run defense is another aspect of the assignment that rarely gets mentioned and never gets quantified. Not even by the “advanced stats”.
Here was the argument for Alexander at number one:
It hasn’t taken Alexander very long to establish himself as one of the league’s best coverage cornerbacks. We started to see signs of the Louisville product’s playmaking ability in 2019, as his 16 forced incompletions ranked second at the position. However, he was overly aggressive at times and susceptible to giving up the big play. A Week 5 matchup with Amari Cooper and Dallas put that on display.
Alexander was still the same playmaker in 2020, but he was much more stingy in coverage, allowing just 353 receiving yards all season — including Green Bay’s two postseason games — despite logging nearly 600 coverage snaps. The result was a season where Alexander was worth 1.4 wins above a replacement-level player, almost a full half-win more than any other cornerback.
Marlon Humphrey came in at number three. Darious Williams made it in at 20.
Williams’ career trajectory is very similar to Dean’s in that he graded exceptionally well in a limited role in 2019 and didn’t take any sort of step back in a full-time starting job this past season. Williams earned coverage grades above 81.0 in each of the last two years and made some remarkable plays on the ball in coverage in Brandon Staley’s defense in 2020. His 19.1% forced incompletion rate was a top-five mark at the cornerback position last year, tied with Jaire Alexander.