Cornerbacks are growing in importance each season in the NFL, and the 2022 draft featured four first-round players at that position along with eight selected in the Top 50.
Which rookie cornerbacks will be the most productive in Year 1? Read below to find out.
5. Trent McDuffie, Chiefs
The Chiefs were 23rd in Football Outsiders pass defense DVOA in 2021 and lost Tyrann Mathieu and underrated outside corner Charvarius Ward in free agency. They know the secondary needed vast renovations and spent five picked on defensive backs in April.
McDuffie was the first, and he was selected after Kansas City traded up in Round 1 to get him. The Chiefs defensive backfield reconstruction revolves around McDuffie playing a versatile, inside-out role in Steve Spagnuolo's defense. He can be penciled in as the full-time nickel corner because of his size and feather-light feet, but the former Washington star primarily played on the perimeter in college.
Mostly deployed in zone, McDuffie will have more man duties in Kansas City. Regardless of the type of coverage, McDuffie will be relied upon to be a major contributor in Year 1, and because of assignment-sound play, high-caliber athleticism, and extensive experience in college, he'll immediately be a core defender on the Chiefs.
4. Marcus Jones, Patriots
Jones' feet are as fast as Eddie Munson shredding on his guitar in the most metal concert ever in The Upside Down. Outstanding feet are seminal to a cornerback's success -- just ask receivers who faced Jones during his illustrious career at Troy and Houston. Across four seasons, Jones tallied nine interceptions and 31 pass breakups.
Outstanding feet are also seminal to being a tremendous returner, and Jones led college football in punt-return yardage in 2020 and had three punt-return touchdowns and six -- yes, six -- kick-return scores. He excels in space, a phrase typically reserved for slot receivers that's, of course, useful for slot defenders.
His small stature actually helps him stay with crafty, ultra-quick receivers and he closes on the football in a flash. In New England, Bill Belichick will utilize Jones to maximize his strengths in coverage and in the return game.
3. Kaiir Elam, Bills
Buffalo's defense has been in the top 10 in interceptions in the first five years of the Sean McDermott era, and it added Von Miller to give the pass rush a jolt it needed, which always has a ripple effect on how opportunistic back seven players can be.
As the No. 2 cornerback with the Bills, former undrafted free agent Levi Wallace gave the team amazing return on investment with 30 pass breakups and six interceptions across four regular seasons. Now Elam steps into that luxurious role opposite Tre'Davious White, who is returning from a torn ACL.
Strictly based on pure athleticism, Elam is the most impressive specimen McDermott's had to mold in his scheme. On a Buffalo team that should hold plenty of leads, Elam is in line for a glorious transition from the SEC to the AFC East.
2. Sauce Gardner, Jets
Uniquely shaped at nearly 6-3 and 190 pounds with chiseled beams for arms, Gardner was born to play press man in the NFL. Gardner also has outstanding ball skills and awareness -- no touchdowns allowed paired with nine interceptions and 16 pass breakups in three seasons.
Gardner had one of the cleanest college careers we've seen at the cornerback position in a long while. While more of a zone master than Gardner, remember, Richard Sherman at age 31 was a second-team All Pro under Robert Saleh's tutelage in San Francisco. Jets fans can rest easy knowing their head coach will have a keen awareness of how to best utilize a lanky blanket on the perimeter during his rookie campaign.
1. Derek Stingley, Texans
Stingley was my No. 1 cornerback in the 2022 class. I just couldn't get that 2019 season as an 18-year-old in the SEC out of my head. Too dominant. While not as long as expected, at 6-0 and 190 pounds, Stingley has perfect size to match the vast majority of the elite receivers in the NFL today.
His genetics blessed him with Tesla-like acceleration out his breaks, rabbit-esque change-of-direction ability, and an on-field vertical like he's playing on a trampoline.
In Houston, Stingley will immediately assume No. 1 cornerback duties, and he's a rare cat in that he's prepared to handle those responsibilities out of the gate.