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How common is it for rookie NFL cornerbacks to play well?

Unfortunately it’s more the exception than the norm

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New York Giants Offseason Workout
Deonte Banks
Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Aside from the buzz about Darren Waller and now Jalin Hyatt in training camp, there is probably no topic of greater interest among New York Giants fans than the team’s two cornerback draftees, Deonte Banks and Tre Hawkins III. That Banks would draw attention is no surprise, being a first-round pick. Hawkins on the other hand was an afterthought, a sixth-round pick many of us had to look up when his name was announced but who has surprised with excellent play thus far.

The development of Banks and Hawkins matters a lot for the Giants’ playoff hopes in 2023. At the moment the Giants have exactly one cornerback who is not a question mark - Adoree’ Jackson. Aaron Robinson should have established himself by now, but he has been injured for much of his Giants’ career. Cor’Dale Flott and Rodarius Williams made some nice plays as rookies but did not play enough to know what their ceilings are. After three seasons, Darnay Holmes is not the answer.

That’s a problem for the Giants’ 2023 ambitions. Here are the Pro Football Focus team pass rush vs. pass coverage grades for the 2022 season:

Data from Pro Football Focus

I’ve identified the 2022 season playoff teams. There is a weak positive correlation between pass rush and pass coverage proficiency. This is not surprising because good coverage allows the pass rush to get home more often and a good pass rush forces the quarterback to throw before his receivers get open.

The clearer message from the figure, though, is that if you want to be in the playoffs, it behooves you to be good at both. Twelve of the 14 playoff teams were at least average (PFF grade of 60) in both pass rush and coverage, and half of them were above average (70 or higher) in both. Only two teams managed to make the playoffs despite subpar pass coverage - the Miami Dolphins and the Giants, who had the next-to-worst overall pass coverage in the NFL.

Considering that the Giants’ offense was not exactly unstoppable in 2022, it’s amazing that the Giants made the playoffs with poor pass coverage and only an average pass rush. PFF grades only evaluate individual player performance, though, so the fact that the Giants managed to be 17th in the NFL in points allowed is a testament to how the Wink Martindale defense confuses opponents and keeps them out of the end zone more often than the talent would dictate.

Of course Jackson missed half the season after Brian Daboll’s worst decision as head coach, and Robinson missed almost the entire season after two separate injuries. Maybe if they’d played a full season the Giants’ coverage grades would have been better. It would be nice, though, if Banks and Hawkins earned serious playing time in 2023.

What can the Giants really expect from the two rookies this season, though? Fans expect first round picks to excel, despite the fact that historically only about half of all first rounders become great players. Furthermore the hit/miss ratio has decreased in recent years once you get down to the lower part of the first round, as evidenced by the number of fifth year options that teams picked up. Sixth-round picks are always considered long shots to succeed, which is true of players at any position drafted that late.

Add to that the fact that cornerback is one of the most difficult positions to play in today’s NFL, with rule changes over the past several decades that increasingly favor receivers and quarterbacks. The rules that cornerbacks face in the NFL are more draconian than those they experienced in college, where they made the plays that got them drafted:

  • Contact with receivers in college is allowed anywhere as long as the pass has not yet been thrown. In the NFL, contact is restricted to within five yards of the line of scrimmage.
  • Defensive interference in the NFL results in an automatic first down at the spot of the foul. In college, that is only true if the foul is within 15 yards of the line of scrimmage. A foul beyond that distance results in a 15-yard penalty and automatic first down.

So cornerbacks enter the NFL having to adjust to a game that is tilted more against them. It’s reasonable to expect an adjustment period.

How many elite cornerbacks are there in the NFL?

In 2022, 210 cornerbacks played at least 10 snaps in coverage, and 67 played 50% or more of a typical team’s coverage snaps. A grand total of seven of them scored 80 or higher in coverage, PFF’s threshold for elite play. Another 10 had a very good coverage score (75-80):

Courtesy of Pro Football Focus

PFF scores are subjective, but there aren’t many names I’d quibble with on this list. You can look at some of the hard numbers to convince yourselves that the PFF grading is not far off. Most of the players on this list allowed receptions at a rate below or close to 60%, limited yards after catch to about 200 or less, and were in or close to double digits in forced incompletions (pass breakups, QB throwaways, etc.). All of them had an NFL passer rating against below 100.

The 2022 season was not an anomaly, either. In 2021 there were also seven elite cornerbacks, and in 2020 only five. In 2021 there were 12 more in the “very good” category, and in 2020 there were 10 more. In other words, the NFL has only a handful of truly elite cornerbacks in any given year, and roughly half the teams in the league are fortunate enough to have even one cornerback who is at least very good.

Adoree’ Jackson doesn’t get all that much love from Giants fans, probably because he rarely intercepts passes, but he’s a pretty good cornerback. Here are his six NFL seasons:

Courtesy of Pro Football Focus

Throw out 2020, when he was injured and only got 131 coverage snaps. In his other five seasons he’s been elite twice (including his first season as a Giant) and very good one other time. As a Giant he’s had a sub-60% completion rate against, pretty low YAC, only two TDs in each season, and a sub-90 NFL passer rating against.

Jackson’s first season in Wink Martindale’s defense wasn’t as good as his season under Patrick Graham, but that may be the product of switching from mostly zone to mostly man coverage. Arjun Menon and Judah Fortgang did a study for PFF last year on the rates of “successful” coverage (snaps with zero or positive PFF grade). Here is the distribution of success rate for man (red) and zone (cyan) coverage league-wide:

Courtesy of Pro Football Focus

At its best man coverage gives the higher success rate, but on average it succeeds less often than zone and has a broader distribution of outcomes. This is why the Giants need to (a) find one if not two cornerbacks who are comfortable in man to accompany Jackson, and (b) extend Jackson’s contract (not a popular opinion, but there, I said it).

How do rookie cornerbacks perform in the NFL?

Last season 43 rookies played at least ten coverage snaps at cornerback in the NFL. Only 10 of them played even half of a typical team’s coverage snaps:

Courtesy of Pro Football Focus

There was one elite rookie cornerback in the NFL last season, Sauce Gardner. Out of 43 who took the field for even 10 snaps, never mind the others who took less than that or didn’t see the field at all. And Sauce wasn’t even the first cornerback taken. That would be Derek Stingley, who played fewer than half of the snaps (309) and had a 49.9 PFF grade. Things get only a little better if we include those with very good coverage grades: Tariq Woolen, Trent McDuffie, and Martin Emerson Jr.

And that’s the problem. In the euphoria of summer, Giants fans look at Deonte Banks and Tre Hawkins III and want to imagine them being this year’s Sauce and Tariq. The odds of that happening are extremely small. How small? Look at the 2021 rookie class:

Courtesy of Pro Football Focus

Not a single elite player there, and only one very good cornerback among 12 that got regular coverage snaps. Not convinced yet? Let’s go back one more year to the 2020 rookie class:

Courtesy of Pro Football Focus

Not only no elite rookie play. No very good rookie play either. In fact, not even a single one with an above-average (70 or higher) coverage grade.

Giants fans, I’m sorry that the Jets took Sauce Gardner before the Giants could grab him (if indeed they would have). Unfortunately, Sauce is a bit of a unicorn. You have to go back to 2018 to find another elite rookie cornerback (Denzel Ward). The odds are very slim. On the other hand, you do get the occasional year like 2017, when three draftees scored above 80: Tre’Davious White, Marshon Lattimore, and Desmond King II.

Desmond King II? He graded 86.6 as a rookie, then 91.1 as a sophomore. Since then, his coverage grades have been 69.6, 60.9, 47.7, and 71.8. That’s the other thing about cornerback - it’s less predictable from year to year than many other positions.

The same is true for Denzel Ward. After a terrific rookie season in which he graded 83.6, he has fallen back to just good, very good, or average in subsequent seasons (72.7, 74.6, 75.9, 60.4), although that last grade was probably affected by time he missed with a concussion.

Tre’Davious White? His 89.8 coverage grade as rookie has been followed by seasons of 62.5, 76.0, 77.9, 69.0, and 61.3. And Marshon Lattimore: 89.8 as a rookie, followed by 71.7, 68.7, 53.7, 76.4, 70.1.

Cornerback is just a difficult position to play well in the NFL on a consistent basis. That can be a good thing, though, because the trend can go the other way. Some cornerbacks are bad or mediocre when they enter the league and improve. Consider the second-ranked cornerback of 2022, Pat Surtain II. Surtain was welcomed to the NFL in his first game by a Sterling Shepard TD. He had a mediocre rookie season. Then the light came on in year two:

Courtesy of Pro Football Focus

Maybe it was the switch from Vic Fangio to Ejiro Evero as defensive coordinator in year two. Maybe, though, it takes some players a year to adjust to the NFL.

On the other hand, maybe it means nothing. Take the strange career of Patrick Peterson. He had an awful 47.5 rookie coverage grade, then went on to years with 77.8 and 80.0, establishing him as one of the best corners in the game. Since then he has had other elite years (80.9, 80.1, 83.7) but also mediocre to poor years (62.4, 68.4, 64.3, 51.0). His NFL passer rating against has been as low as 61.8 and as high as 104.6. He left for Minnesota after 10 seasons and put up a 61.0 grade in 2021. It seemed like he was done as an elite corner. Then in 2022 he rebounded to 82.5.

What does it mean for Banks and Hawkins?

Recent history says that the hit rate for cornerbacks drafted on Day 1 or Day 2 is much lower than we’d imagine. That said, most cornerbacks who do make it in the NFL were drafted on Day 1 or Day 2. Of the 17 cornerbacks whose coverage grade was 75 or higher in 2022, the only ones who were drafted later than Day 2 are Woolen (Round 5), D.J. Reed (Round 5), and Charvarius Ward (an undrafted free agent).

Thus, Tre Hawkins is highly unlikely to become the next Woolen. If what he has shown in practices thus far translates to games and he can become even a solid NFL cornerback, that in itself will be a major draft victory for general manager Joe Schoen.

More is expected of Banks, of course. Expecting him to become a star, especially as a rookie, though, is unrealistic. Fans can hope for that, but the odds are scary. Of the four cornerbacks drafted in Round 1 in 2022, Gardner was off the charts and Trent McDuffie played well after missing the first part of the season. Derek Stingley had a subpar rookie year, however, as did Kaiir Elam, chosen at No. 23. Going back to 2020 (no cornerbacks were drafted in the first round in 2021), A.J. Terrell didn’t excel until his second season (and regressed in his third); Jeff Okudah, the No. 3 pick, has never worked out; nor have the No. 9 pick, C.J. Henderson, the No. 19 pick, Damon Arnette, the No. 30 pick, Noah Igbinoghene, or the now-deceased No. 31 pick, Jeff Gladney.

Cornerback is one of the toughest positions to play in the NFL, and the results are less repeatable from year to year than they are for most other positions. Schoen did the right thing by drafting two of them this year. He should probably continue to draft at least one every year. It will be great if Deonte Banks earns a starting role this season, even if he has growing pains. It will be amazing if Tre Hawkins does, too. If neither one does, though, it won’t be that much of a surprise and it won’t necessarily be indicative of the future.