Who Was Best NFL Cornerback of 2000s?

All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis retired last week. Revis is a likely Hall of Famer despite his short career, and his 2009 season is in the discussion for the greatest ever by a cornerback. Revis, a rookie in 2007, was the best CB of his generation. But who was the greatest corner of the previous generation? Ty Law is already a two-time Finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and Champ Bailey, Ronde Barber, and Charles Woodson all have HOF-caliber résumés.

Law played from 1995-2009, mostly for the New England Patriots. Barber played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 1997-2012. Woodson played for the Raiders and Packers from 1998-2015. Bailey played for Washington and Denver from 1999-2013. They're contemporaries who all had long careers: 203 games for Law, 215 for Bailey, 241 for Barber, and 254 for Woodson.

Statistics

I always like to begin a project like this with statistics, even though there's a lot that doesn't show up in the stats — especially on defense, and in particular at cornerback, where greatness is sometimes reflected by a lack of stats, indicating that opponents won't even throw in your direction. Revis, an undisputed shutdown corner, was first-team All-Pro in a season he had no interceptions, simply because so many great receivers found themselves stranded on Revis Island. With that disclaimer, here are basic stats for Bailey, Barber, Law, and Woodson. Tackle data is from Pro Football Reference and limited to solo tackles, for reasons I explained in depth a few months ago. "Ret Yd" indicates combined return yardage on interceptions and fumble recoveries. Likewise, "Ret TD" indicates touchdowns scored on interceptions and fumble recoveries.

Chart

There are two tiers here. Bailey and Law had many fewer tackles, sacks, return yards, and TDs than Barber and Woodson, and they had fewer total takeaways. We could interpret that positively — they was so good there were no plays to be made on that side of the field — or negatively: their accomplishments pale in comparison to those of Barber and Woodson.

Without drawing an immediate conclusion, I would suggest skepticism of the first (positive) idea. Bailey and Law were regarded as great ballhawks more than as shutdown CBs. Neither was the guy who closed down his side of the field, he was the one who baited you into throwing there and then picked off the pass. Even Bailey's biggest fans acknowledge that he was a gambler. Sure, he got burned sometimes, but he also made a lot of plays. Law was similar: a play-maker more than a play-stopper. Perhaps counter-intuitively, Law had more big plays than Bailey, including about 400 return yards and 3 TDs.

The statistical gap between Barber and Woodson is smaller, but it clearly favors Woodson. I think their stats largely reflect conventional wisdom: Barber was a better tackler, but Woodson was a more dynamic pass defender and he made more big plays.

On a single-season basis, all four have similar bragging rights. Bailey led the league in INTs, INT yards, and INT TDs once each. Barber led in INTs, INT TDs, and safeties once each, and in fumble return TDs twice. Law led in INTs twice, and led in INT TDs once. Woodson led the NFL in INTs twice, in INT TDs and fumble return TDs once each.

The Approximate Value stat at PFR offers only a very rough estimate of performance, but it rates Woodson (155), Bailey (150), and Barber (150) essentially even, with Law (111) far behind.

Honors

All four players were very highly regarded. No other CB of this generation was as celebrated. I used Pro Bowl selections and Associated Press All-Pro teams to determine the scores below. A first-team All-Pro selection earned 2 points, with a second-team selection worth 1 point.

Chart

This is where Bailey really shines. He was selected to 12 Pro Bowls in his career, the most ever for a cornerback, with three first-team All-Pro selections and four second-team selections. Woodson had similar All-Pro honors, with 9 Pro Bowls, plus he was named Defensive Rookie of the Year (1998) and Defensive Player of the Year (2009). Barber made only five Pro Bowls, but he was All-Pro five times, as well. Law made five Pro Bowls, too, but with only two All-Pro selections.

These honors are particularly important at positions — like cornerback — where stats provide such an incomplete picture of a player's impact. At the same time, they're often criticized — Pro Bowls in particular — as a popularity contest and a flawed portrait of greatness. The fewer reliable stats a position generates, the more its most prestigious honors are subject to factors like name recognition and reputation. Bailey in particular got a lot of mileage out of those factors.

I remember a game from the 2010 season, a 35-14 loss in which Philip Rivers threw four TD passes. On ESPN afterwards, Stuart Scott declared, "Champ Bailey's just redunkulous. Matt, how does the future Hall of Famer get his 48th career pick?" Matt Millen answered, "He gets it because the ball hangs in the air. It's not some — he was beat. A better throw on that one would've been a big play." Because of Bailey's reputation, his lucky play not only made the highlights, it was "redunkulous." That was one of Bailey's two interceptions in 2010. He made the Pro Bowl that season, and the next two. With all due respect to a player who had a genuinely excellent career, those were absurd selections that shouldn't carry any weight in our evaluation of Bailey's greatness. Champ Bailey was a very good player from 1999-2006, even a great player. But at the end of his career, his Hall of Fame reputation wildly exceeded his performance. He gave up too many plays, he didn't make enough positive ones, and his play didn't match up to his reputation.

That happens to all great players to an extent, but it was particularly amplified for Bailey, and to a lesser extent for Woodson, who won DPOY over Revis in 2009. Bailey and Woodson were top-10 draft picks with a ton of hype from the outset of their pro careers. Bailey has a cool, memorable name, he was a celebrated two-way player at Georgia, and he was involved in the Ricky Williams trade. Woodson was the first defensive player to win a Heisman Trophy, beating out Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf. Law and Barber were a little less fortunate, but hardly deprived of positive publicity. Law was also a first-round draft pick, and while Barber was a third-rounder and didn't play until his second season, he had a twin brother who played for the Giants.

The point is, Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors are important in our analysis of these players, but they are data points in a larger discussion, not the end of that discussion. Furthermore, they often depend as much on popularity as performance. I will hope that, since you're reading my column, you may be interested in my own Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections, formally recorded and published dating back to 2002. That omits important seasons for all of these players, so prior to 2001, I substituted the official record rather than trying to rely on memory. The Pro Bowl totals are lower because I don't name injury replacements, and the All-Pro totals are lower because I don't name a second team. I still used two points for first-team All-Pro selections, to stay consistent, and I honored second-team selections prior to the '02 season.

Chart

Barber and Woodson did about as well with me as with everyone else, while Bailey and Law did not, though I named Bailey as Defensive Player of the Year in 2006. It's worth mentioning that AP has only named one CB as DPOY in the last 24 seasons: Charles Woodson in 2009. Going back to '02, I've named three: Bailey in '06, Revis in '09, and Richard Sherman in 2013.

Paul Zimmerman, Sports Illustrated's Dr. Z, selected All-Pro teams through the 2007 season. He chose Law twice, with Bailey, Barber, and Woodson once each. I imagine Woodson would have gotten a second nod in 2009, but beyond that I doubt the totals would have changed.

What's the takeaway from all this? Bailey and Woodson were the most celebrated corners of their generation, followed by Barber, then Ty Law. How meaningful that was is largely in the eye of the beholder.

Postseason

Ty Law intercepted six passes in the playoffs, including three in the 2003 AFC Championship Game and an INT TD in Super Bowl XXXVI. He was a very good player in the regular season — one of only 39 with 50 or more interceptions — but Asante Samuel, who is unlikely to draw any Hall of Fame support, had almost the same résumé: 51 interceptions, 4 Pro Bowls, first-team All-Pro ... Law is a two-time HOF Finalist because he intercepted Peyton Manning five times in the playoffs.

Perhaps no cornerback in history is more notorious for his postseason heroics than Law, but Ronde Barber's interception in the 2002-03 NFC Championship Game is as famous as any individual play of Law's. With 3:27 left and the Eagles in position for a critical touchdown, Barber picked off Donovan McNabb and ran 92 yards for a touchdown, clinching a Super Bowl berth for the Bucs.

Bailey's most memorable playoff moment was dogging an interception return and getting run down by Patriots tight end Ben Watson. Woodson, although he had an interception in Super Bowl XXXVII and played well in Super Bowl XLV before leaving with an injury, has a pretty bare playoff résumé for someone with 17 postseason games played.

If you believe postseason performance should be a definitive factor in our evaluation of cornerbacks, this category flips the previous ones upside down, with Law and Barber at the top rather than Bailey and Woodson. Law played in three Super Bowls (two wins), Barber in one (win), Woodson in two (one win), and Bailey in one, the final game of his career, the Broncos' 43-8 loss in Super Bowl XLVIII.

Player Evaluation

Cornerbacks are hard to judge without dedicated film study, and I haven't done a thorough study of these players. However, I did watch them throughout their careers. That can be misleading at this position, because a lot of the best plays, shutting down a receiver so the ball goes to the other side of the field don't make it onto camera. But with that disclaimer, I think these are fair impressions of each player.

Coming out of Georgia, Champ Bailey was a physical marvel, a track star with 4.3 speed, but also unusual height and strength. He was an impact player immediately, a 16-game starter across from Darrell Green. Around the mid-2000s, though, Bailey got somewhat exposed as vulnerable to go routes. He continued to make a lot of positive plays, but I would also guess that in the late '00s, no player in the league got burned deep more times than Bailey. Cornerbacks can be very effective with aggressive, high-risk, high-reward styles, and Bailey was effective, but his lapses in coverage were seldom acknowledged.

It's hard to separate an honest accounting of Bailey's career from the obvious truth that he was widely overrated and he made a handful of Pro Bowls he probably didn't deserve. Paul Zimmerman sarcastically explained in 2007: "If you watch TV with the sound turned on, you will realize that Bailey is not only the greatest cornerback in the game but the greatest defensive player, and not only the greatest defensive player but the greatest player on any side of the ball, including punting and kicking, and not only the greatest player, but the greatest human being, possibly who ever lived." In actively resisting the absurd hype, we can turn a blind eye to the things Bailey did well.

Former Broncos defensive coordinator Larry Coyer said of Bailey, "He plays to intercept the ball. He does not play the man." Bailey, who played wide receiver as well as defensive back at Georgia, played defense a lot like a wide receiver. He approached the position a little differently than everyone else, and at the top of his game he was really fun to watch. Bailey had good hands, a great sense for the ball and for his positioning. He intercepted a lot of passes. But he wasn't perfect, and I wish announcers had been a little more honest and a little less bubbly when calling his games.

It's actually kind of tough to evaluate Ronde Barber. He was a versatile defensive player: a lockdown corner, good with the ball in his hands, an effective blitzer, and probably the best tackling cornerback of his era. He wasn't big, but he played big. On the other hand, in Monte Kiffin's Tampa 2 system, his responsibilities were more clearly defined and in some ways more limited than many of his peers. He was an engineer, not an artist.

Within the Tampa scheme, Barber was the ideal CB. He was disciplined, and he was a good tackler, both of which are critical in that system. He was smart, which is helpful in any system. He freelanced less — a lot less — than Bailey and Woodson, and he was less inspiring to watch as a result. He took fewer chances, often opting to make the sure tackle rather than gamble for the interception.

At the same time, Barber did things no one else has done in that scheme. Since 1982, when sacks became an official statistic, only six players have 25 sacks and 25 interceptions: Barber (47 INT, 28 sack), Brian Dawkins (37 INT, 26 sack), Rodney Harrison (34 INT, 30.5 sack), Ray Lewis (31 INT, 41.5 sack), William Thomas (27 INT, 37 sack), and Adrian Wilson (27 INT, 25.5 sack). Barber has more INTs than any other player with 25+ sacks, by double-digits. His combined total (75) is the highest in the group, even higher than Lewis. Woodson is the only other CB in the last 40 years who comes close to that combination of big plays in the offensive and defensive backfields.

Comparing Barber to Bailey ... including fumbles, Barber had more takeaways, twice as many return yards, and three times as many touchdowns. He was a better tackler and he gave up fewer deep plays. Stats can be misleading at this position, but if you made me pick between Ronde and Champ, I'd choose Barber in a heartbeat.

Ty Law was a hell of a cornerback. He covered the opponent's best receiver, but he was also a big-play guy, and some of his best performances came on the biggest stages of his career. Law attended the same high school as Revis and the same college as Woodson. He was strong for his size, with good ball instincts and good hands.

What distinguishes Law from Bailey, Barber, and Woodson is how short-term you like your peak performance. It's tough comparing anyone to three of the best CBs in history, but Law had the shortest career and the fewest good seasons. He was regarded as a good player, but the others were regularly regarded as being among the very best defensive backs in football. What positively distinguishes Law is his postseason record. Which do you value more: Super Bowl XXXVI, the 2003 AFC Championship Game, and a divisional playoff his team lost — three games — or an additional 3-5 years among the best CBs in the league? For me, it's the latter. Law was a great player, but in this elite group, he's the least impressive.

The best of the group, I believe, was Charles Woodson. In a sense, he combined the best qualities of Bailey and Barber. He was dynamic like Bailey, a great ballhawk who made big plays and was fun to watch. Like Barber, he was a good tackler who finished his career at safety, an effective blitzer, and a productive returner after the pick. As an aside, Bailey's lack of production with the ball in his hands is startling and difficult to explain. There are 84 players in NFL history with at least 40 interceptions. Among those 84, Bailey ranks 79th in INT return average (8.9 yds/INT). That's as opposed to Woodson (14.9), Law (15.6), and Barber (19.6). Bailey was fast, he was aggressive, he even had a background on offense. Anyway, Woodson was a very productive returner, tied for second all-time in INT return TDs (11).

Woodson was flashy. He made big plays, which is why he got the DPOY nod over Revis in 2009, and he gave up some plays, too. But he was solid, with fewer coverage breakdowns than Bailey. It's not revolutionary to declare Charles Woodson the greatest cornerback of his generation. I realize I'm not going out on a limb. But this is one case where conventional wisdom gets it right. Woodson was a terrific player for a long time. He and Bailey will likely be first-ballot Hall of Famers. I'd guess that Law and Barber will get in, as well, in that order, but they'll have to wait. Bailey becomes eligible for Canton next year, and I'd be surprised if any other CBs do well in the voting until after his induction.

All four players profiled here were great, and all merit Hall of Fame consideration. But based on my analysis, I have Woodson and Barber as clear Hall of Famers, with Bailey in as well and Law on the borderline. I'd probably leave him out, but he certainly wouldn't be a disgrace to the Hall of Fame. He did a lot in the regular season, and he's one of the most accomplished defensive players in postseason history.

Comments and Conversation

July 25, 2018

J:

This is a horrible article. Next time you write an article about cornerbacks you should look into what schemes they played in and how they were used. Charles Woodson for example was put in Nickle a lot while Al Harris covered the number one WR in GB for a couple seasons. Ronde played in a zone defense. Etc…. You say Bailey fell off after 2006 and that is laughable. You try to support that claim by pointing out a low number of interceptions and talking about poorly thrown passes. Champs career ended due to that foot injury and his initial unwillingness to move to safety….unfortunalty one of his worst career games came in the play offs of his age 34 season….the same season where he was second team all pro before that Ravens game he only gave up one TD all season to AJ Green…. in 2011 he only was beat for 2 TDs. One by Calvin Johnson on a free play and one by Percy Harvin on a motion play while play was picked by his own LB. There is a lot more to judging a corner than just looking at INTs, Tackles, FFs etc

Funny how you say Bailey fell off after 2006 yet PFF ranks him 4th in coverage and 4th against the run among all CBs from 2008-2012. Which they have stats to back up not random opinions on breakdowns in coverage Where is Ronde on this list?!

https://www.profootballfocus.com/news/five-years-of-pff-grades-top-10-cornerbacks


Also did you factor in the defensive talent around Bailey compared to the rest? Or coaching/scheme changes? Lol

Barber never switched teams and switched coordinators 4 times in a 16 yr career

Woodson switched teams 3 times and switched coordinators 7 times in a 18 yr career

Law switched teams 5 times and switched coordinators 8 times in a 15 yr career

Bailey switched teams 2 times and switched coordinators 11 times in a 15 yr career

Champ was consistent in any scheme even with no pass rush imagine if he played in a Tampa 2 w/ Derrick brooks john lynch warren sap Simeon rice in their prime…you’d drool over his “numbers”

July 25, 2018

J:

“Cornerbacks are hard to judge without dedicated film study, and I haven’t done a thorough study of these players. However, I did watch them throughout their careers. That can be misleading at this position, because a lot of the best plays, shutting down a receiver so the ball goes to the other side of the field don’t make it onto camera. But with that disclaimer, I think these are fair impressions of each player.”


You obviously haven’t done thorough film study or have a grasp on how much easier it is to make plays when you’re surrounded by top tier defenders playing in a zone defense lol

Example: obviously a CB if going to have more sacks when his D.C. allows his CB to blitz frequently and move around like Woodson/Barber

“Comparing Barber to Bailey … including fumbles, Barber had more takeaways, twice as many return yards, and three times as many touchdowns. He was a better tackler and he gave up fewer deep plays. “

This is another example of why this is a terrible article. You said yourself that you haven’t studied film and there is a random stat that you throw out there that Barber gave up fewer deep plays. You didn’t provide proof and even if it was an accurate statement you didn’t explain how Ronde is usually not covering the deep 1/3, which also applies to why he has more return yardage and TDs…Ronde was a smart player and was lucky to have a role in his Tampa 2 defense where he could sit down in his zone and have the freedom to use the sideline to jump routes.

July 25, 2018

J:

You say Bailey fell off after 2006 and that is laughable. You try to support that claim by pointing out a low number of interceptions and talking about poorly thrown passes. Champs career ended due to that foot injury and his initial unwillingness to move to safety….unfortunalty one of his worst career games came in the play offs of his age 34 season….the same season where he was second team all pro before that Ravens game he only gave up one TD all season to AJ Green…. in 2011 he only was beat for 2 TDs. One by Calvin Johnson on a free play and one by Percy Harvin on a motion play while play was picked by his own LB. There is a lot more to judging a corner than just looking at INTs, Tackles, FFs etc

PFF ranks Champ 4th in coverage and 4th against the run among all CBs from 2008-2012. Which they have stats to back up not random opinions on breakdowns in coverage Where is Ronde on this list?!

https://www.profootballfocus.com/news/five-years-of-pff-grades-top-10-cornerbacks

July 25, 2018

J:

Also did you factor in the defensive talent around Bailey compared to the rest? Or coaching/scheme changes? Lol

Barber never switched teams and switched coordinators 4 times in a 16 yr career

Woodson switched teams 3 times and switched coordinators 7 times in a 18 yr career

Law switched teams 5 times and switched coordinators 8 times in a 15 yr career

Bailey switched teams 2 times and switched coordinators 11 times in a 15 yr career

Champ was consistent in any scheme even with no pass rush imagine if he played in a Tampa 2 w/ Derrick brooks john lynch warren sap Simeon rice in their prime…you’d drool over his “numbers

July 25, 2018

J:

Funny how you say Bailey fell off after 2006 yet PFF ranks him 4th in coverage and 4th against the run among all CBs from 2008-2012. Which they have stats to back up not random opinions on breakdowns in coverage and quotes from matt millen.

July 26, 2018

J:

” has a pretty bare playoff résumé for someone with 17 postseason games played.”

Bailey only played in 11 post season games.

“Around the mid-2000s, though, Bailey got somewhat exposed as vulnerable to go routes. He continued to make a lot of positive plays, but I would also guess that in the late ’00s, no player in the league got burned deep more times than Bailey. Cornerbacks can be very effective with aggressive, high-risk, high-reward styles, and Bailey was effective, but his lapses in coverage were seldom acknowledged.”

Bailey had a rough 2004 season when he got beat by Chad and Porter on national TV, he followed the rough season with lockdown coverage,18 picks and 3TDs the next 2 years combined and he was top 4 in the NFL in the late 2000s in terms of coverage and run stopping according to PFF. Every corner gets beat and the only CB you’ve talked about getting beat out of the 5 mentioned is Bailey lol are you raider fan?

“No player got burned deep more times than Bailey”

Where did you find that stat? Lol

“I remember a game from the 2010 season, a 35-14 loss in which Philip Rivers threw four TD passes. On ESPN afterwards, Stuart Scott declared, “Champ Bailey’s just redunkulous. Matt, how does the future Hall of Famer get his 48th career pick?” Matt Millen answered, “He gets it because the ball hangs in the air. It’s not some — he was beat. A better throw on that one would’ve been a big play.” Because of Bailey’s reputation, his lucky play not only made the highlights, it was “redunkulous.”

You left out it was a jump ball situation, the WR Floyd was 6’5 and Bailey was 6’0. That is why they called the play “redunkulous” go watch on YouTube Bailey was not burned on the play at all.

This one is good too

“As an aside, Bailey’s lack of production with the ball in his hands is startling and difficult to explain. There are 84 players in NFL history with at least 40 interceptions. Among those 84, Bailey ranks 79th in INT return average (8.9 yds/INT). That’s as opposed to Woodson (14.9), Law (15.6), and Barber (19.6). Bailey was fast, he was aggressive, he even had a background on offense. Anyway, Woodson was a very productive returner, tied for second all-time in INT return TDs (11).”

You don’t mention where on the field the interceptions occurred, if they were jump balls, sideline catches, etc you are solely looking at numbers. How many of his 52 regular season interceptions did he have a chance to return?!

Examples:
2004-
jump ball pick week 1 KC no chance to return
crazy Interception on sideline in the end zone @ NO no chance to return
2006-
Jumpball outleaping 6’6 WR vs Bal on MNF in endzone no chance to return
Sideline interception covering Moss no chance to return
Interception in end zone against SEA SNF no chance to return
2007-
interception on sideline against OAK no chance at a return
Interception on sideline vs KC no chance to return


We can keep going if you want lol

Also fun fact that you can research (you should actually research before you put out trash articles like this)
26 of Champ Bailey’s 54ints including playoffs came inside the red zone preventing points for the opposing team.


July 28, 2018

Brad Oremland:

:) I’m always pleased to receive objective feedback from unbiased readers.

July 29, 2018

J:

Thanks! I had to provide that link from PFF so you know my response was unbiased and full of facts with numbers to back it up….unlike this article.

Next time you should actually watch film on these players, realize what role the CB plays in their defense , fact check, actually take into account coverage statistics when looking at CBs not interception return yards :)

“I would also guess that in the late ’00s, no player in the league got burned deep more times than Bailey. “

Champ Bailey—-4th ranked corner in COVERAGE from 2008-2012

Where was Ronde? I didn’t see him…. even in tackling ratings Bailey was 4th….where was Ronde?

Leave a Comment

Featured Site