Football is designed to avoid one-on-one matchups. The 22 players (on the diagram, at least) move in concert based on where the flow of play dictates, with each position carrying nearly equal influence in the outcome of the play.

But as the game spreads out and players get farther from the ball, the greater the frequency and importance of individual matchups. For all of today’s schematic ingenuity, the most sustainable method of generating explosive offense is to have an unguardable force in your skill position group. Forcing a defense to divert resources to stop one guy and attacking one-on-one matchups when they’re available are the hallmarks of the best kind of offense.

Defensively, that leaves one position with disproportionate responsibility in limiting big gains: cornerback. At the top of the 2022 NFL Draft, there are two players who have jostled for CB1 status since 2020, Derek Stingley Jr. and Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner. As far as narrative and production are concerned, Gardner is ahead. He played his best football in 2021, which coincided with a historic stretch of football for the University of Cincinnati. Stingley, who missed played in just three games in 2021 because of injury, is now two years removed from his collegiate peak and LSU’s perfect 2019.

Just as interceptions and passes breakups are flawed as reference points in ranking defensive backs, no singular metric would make for a definitive tiebreaker between Gardner and Stingley. Both players meet the athletic criteria necessary to handle every kind of receiver, with Gardner (6-2 3/4) standing as the taller prospect and boasting a five-inch advantage in wingspan. Judging each corner’s level of competition, Stingley saw more future NFL talent on a weekly basis in the SEC, but Gardner’s consistency never wavered against Notre Dame or Alabama in 2021.

The best way to try to separate the two is by studying the film. Let’s break down the differences in the two corners’ styles of play before identifying best fits for both and picking who deserves to be at the top of the position group.

 

Release point (Press technique)

A proper press has relatively little to do with a corner’s upper body strength. Eye discipline, footwork and hip mobility are the foundational elements of consistent success at the line of scrimmage. The actual “punch” from a defensive back — much like an offensive tackle in pass protection — is the final piece of the puzzle, used to keep cushion and leverage on inside and outside releases. Time equals yards when you’re out on the proverbial island. Much like guarding a ball handler in basketball, impeding pathways is more important than asserting physical dominance. The longer a defensive back can stay in the press/release phase, the less likely his receiver will be targeted.

Gardner and Stingley have different approaches to their execution at the line of scrimmage, which influences the ways they cover routes down the field (we’ll get to that later). There are different names and terminology for everything in football, but we’ll use “mirror” and “kick slide” as our nomenclature.

The mirror technique is Stingley’s flavor of press. As a player without top-tier length (30 5/8-inch arms, 6-foot-2 wingspan), it behooves Stingley to operate this way, allowing his fluidity to do the work his arms can’t. When mirroring a release, the corner will inch away from the line of scrimmage, trying to maintain his one-yard cushion as the receiver works his release. This allows the defender to get a clear look at the intentions and tempo of the route he’s defending. Weight distribution through the core is key: lean too far forward or backward and risk tipping off the routes you’re most concerned about the receiver running, opening the door to be set-up or shoved off balance.

Stingley’s mirror technique is the best tool in his belt. His acumen in coverage flashes as he inches away, running through a rapid process of elimination based on what the receiver is giving him. That technique fit the system he performed best in through his college career: a press quarters system built to flood the seams and alleys with run support players and coverage defenders. With no safety in the middle of the field or rolling over the top, Stingley’s press execution stalls the timing on one-on-one throws and forces a higher trajectory on deep throws, buying him time to play the ball in the air.

However, in short-area situations (low red zone, goal line, third and short), the mirror release can leave corners vulnerable. Because offenses are expecting man coverage and not looking to take vertical shots, receivers can set up longer releases by selling an inside/outside move and breaking hard in the opposite direction, change speeds and force the defender to play flat-footed, or box out the cornerback and physically deny him from making a play on the football. Stingley has a great deal of confidence and patience, so he’s rarely turned around or left behind in coverage, but he can fall into some inconsistency when defending in-breaking routes like slants that require him to match the physicality of the receiver he’s guarding. To avoid losing those reps, he’ll need to utilize his hands more often when his matchup tests his physicality.