Five best cornerbacks in NFL history
By Eric Williams
I will readily admit that compiling this list of the five best cornerbacks in NFL history has been a lot tougher than I originally thought it would be. Picking out the best NFL players of all-time at some positions isn’t so hard. I mean, hey everyone knows that the three best NFL quarterbacks of all-time are, in no particular order, Dan Marino, John Elway and Joe Montana.
But what about the cornerbacks? Those lonely souls who can either be the game-deciding hero or goat on a weekly basis. Who is the best cornerback of all-time? Is there even a clear-cut number one? Who would be second best on the list? And, how about third?
Well, those are some of the questions I will answer in this column. So sit back, relax and enjoy this feature on the best NFL cornerbacks of all-time.
If there has ever been a cornerback better than Mel Blount, I haven’t seen him. Blount was decades ahead of the game and has been the prototype NFL cornerback ever since he stepped on the field as a wide-eyed rookie in 1970.
As a third round draft selection, Blount is also one of the greatest NFL draft selections in history and a player who may have been as instrumental as anyone in the success of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ dynasty of the 1970s.
Blount became a starter in 1972 and, incredibly, didn’t allow a touchdown that entire season – a feat that is nearly impossible to accomplish. An imposing physical specimen, not only could Blount run with smaller speedier receivers, but could outmuscle – and intimidate – nearly any receiver he crossed paths with throughout his career.
The great cornerback also intercepted at least one pass in each of his 14 NFL seasons and led the league with 11 in 1975. He was named the NFL’s most valuable defensive player in 1975 by the Associated Press and earned all-pro honors in 1975, 1976, 1977 and 1981 and was also a four-time All-AFC selection and played in five Pro Bowls.
To me, Blount had the perfect combination of size, speed and physicality to make him the best cornerback in NFL history.
Haynes is the only other NFL cornerback I considered putting in the top spot besides Blount. In reality, the first-round draft pick of the New England Patriots in the 1976 draft was probably just as good as Blount – only, he got the job done differently than Blount, who many times, just overpowered weaker wide receivers into submitting to his will whereas Haynes was the epitome of grace under fire. His gazelle-like speed and ability to cover a vast amount of area in a short period made Haynes an immediate star.
He enjoyed a sensational rookie year with the New England, picking off eight passes and gave the Patriots their first-ever touchdowns on punt returns of 89 and 62-yards. Haynes also earned a Pro Bowl invitation as a rookie, the first of nine Pro Bowl bids.
Haynes, who also spent seven seasons with the Oakland Raiders, compiled a career total of 46 interceptions, including a Raider team-record 97-yard return against Miami in 1984. Haynes was an All-Pro choice in 1977, 1978, 1982, 1984 and 1985 and an All-AFC pick eight times. If that doesn’t say enough about Haynes’ ability, then I don’t know what would. Haynes is unequivocally one of the best cornerbacks in NFL history.
Okay, I can’t tell a lie. I also considered Brown for the top spot before backing off and ranking him as the third greatest NFL cornerback of all-time. From 1963 through 1978, Brown shut down nearly every wide receiver he covered in a stellar career that eventually landed him in the Hall of Fame.
After Brown was traded to the Raiders in 1967, the Raiders went on to play in three AFL and six AFC championship games, as well as Super Bowls II and XI. Brown was more similar to Blount than Mike Haynes. Like Blount, Brown wasn’t scared to use his physicality to intimidate opponents before, during or after any game.
Brown was named to an all-league team seven years, three seasons as All-AFL and four more as All-NFL. He was also named All-AFC four times and played in five AFL All-Star games. Brown intercepted 54 passes in his career and had one of his biggest picks came in Super Bowl XI, when he returned an interception 75 yards for a clinching score. For nearly two decades, Brown was one of the best cornerbacks to ever play in the NFL.
Dick “Night Train” Lane
Even the aforementioned three cornerbacks pay homage to Dick “Night Train” Lane as being one of the original pioneers of the cornerback position. Lane was an Army veteran “looking for a good job” when he stopped in the NFL office of the Los Angeles Rams in 1952 and asked for a tryout and the defending-champion Rams’ head coach Joe Stydahar offered Lane a trial.
At first Dick was tried at end but with future Hall of Famers Tom Fears and Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch set as starters, his chances didn’t look good. Once Stydahar moved Lane to defense, history was unknowingly in the making. Blessed with outstanding speed and exceptional agility, “Night Train” set the NFL on fire as a rookie. He intercepted a record 14 passes in the 12-game season and became known as one of the most devastating tacklers in the game. Lane was named first- or second-team All-NFL every year from 1954 through 1963 and was named to seven Pro Bowls. Lane intercepted 68 passes for 1,207 yards and five touchdowns during a Hall of Fame career that made him one of the best cornerbacks in NFL history.
Adderley was originally drafted as a running back but ended up with the unenviable task of competing against future NFL Hall of Fame running backs Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung for a starter’s spot. Midway through his first season, Green Bay Packers head coach Vince Lombardi decided to try the former Michigan State star on defense as an emergency replacement for an injured starting cornerback.
Adderley quickly demonstrated that he had what it took to be an NFL cornerback. The Philadelphia native took immediate command in the Packers’ defensive backfield and, within two years, had won All-NFL honors. An honor he would earn four more times in 1963, 1965, 1966 and 1969.
Adderley amassed 48 interceptions in his career, returning them for 1,046 yards and a 21.8-yard average, with seven touchdowns during his 12-year career with the Packers (1961-69) and Dallas Cowboys (1970-72). Adderley also doubled as a kickoff return specialist during most of his Green Bay career and wound up with a 25.7-yard average on 120 returns, including a 103-yard return in 1962 and a 98-yarder in ’63.
Adderley played in five Pro Bowls during the ’60s and was a fixture in postseason. Incredibly, Adderley played in four of the first six Super Bowl games, winning championship rings in three of them. He also played in seven NFL championship games in an 11-year span from 1961 through 1971. His teams – the Packers five times and the Cowboys twice – won every one. Herb’s 60-yard interception return for a clinching touchdown for the Packers in Super Bowl II was the only interception return for a touchdown in the first 10 Super Bowls. Not only was Adderlet one of professional football’s greatest winners, but one of the best cornerbacks in NFL history.