Top-10 Cornerback Tandems in NFL History

Legendary pairs
ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 1: Cornerbacks Mike Haynes #22 and Lester Hayes #37 of the Los Angeles Raiders go over strategy in the locker room before a game against the Atlanta Falcons at the Fulton-County Stadium on December 1, 1985 in Atlanta, Georgia. The Raiders defeated the Falcons 34-24. (Photo by Miguel Elliot/Getty Images)

10) Albert Lewis-Kevin Ross

Teaming with Hall of Famer Derrick Thomas was the dynamic duo of Albert Lewis and Kevin Ross, helping make the Chiefs winners in the 1990s.

Albert Lewis was a 3rd round draft pick (61st overall) by the Chiefs in the 1983 NFL Draft. He enjoyed a stellar career that spanned 16 seasons in which he recorded 42 interceptions, 12.5 sacks, 13 forced fumbles, 13 fumbles recoveries, and 2 touchdowns. In addition to his standout play on defense, Lewis blocked a stunning 11 kicks in 11 seasons with the Chiefs.

Kevin Ross was the Chiefs’ seventh pick in the 1984 NFL Draft; he became a starter his rookie season and perfected a classic bump-and-run coverage that made him hard to beat in the secondary. For his career in Kansas City, he picked off 30 passes and scored 5 touchdowns. Ross played in a total of 156 games for the Chiefs. He went to Atlanta as a free agent before the 1994 season and later returned to play in five games in 1997.

9) Lemar Parrish-Ken Riley

This pair gets on the list for ranking highly in consistently good, long careers, Parrish was the better of the two, and Riley got a lot of interceptions (65 career, 5th most all-time). They helped a young Bengals franchise become a perennial playoff contender in the mid-’70s.

Parrish was selected to 8 pro bowls and finished his career with 47 interceptions. He was also one of the greatest special teams players in NFL history.

Riley established himself as one of the top defensive backs in Pro Football, recording 3 or more interceptions in all but 3 of his 15 seasons. His best season was in 1976, when he recorded 9 interceptions, 141 return yards, 1 touchdown, and 2 fumble recoveries. He finished his career with 65 interceptions.

8) Mike Haynes-Raymond Clayborn

This grouping would be higher, but Clayborn hadn’t peaked yet when Haynes left town. Mike Haynes made four pro bowls over this span, while Clayborn would be selected 3 times after Haynes left.

Haynes was selected in the first round in the 1976 NFL Draft by the New England Patriots. He enjoyed a sensational rookie year with the Patriots with eight interceptions and an AFC-leading 608 yards on 45 punt returns. He earned a Pro Bowl invitation as a rookie, the first of nine Pro Bowl bids. He also won NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. The 1976 Patriots had an 11-3 record and clinched a playoff berth for the first time in 13 years. In 1978 Haynes had 6 interceptions and returned one of them for a touchdown against the Baltimore Colts. The Patriots won their division but lost to the Houston Oilers in the playoffs. Haynes played 4 more seasons with New England with 9 picks and a single touchdown in 1980.

Clayborn had a superb career with the Patriots, making the Pro Bowl three times. He returned 28 kickoffs for 869 yards and a league-leading 3 touchdowns as a rookie, giving him an NFL-best 31 yards per return average. His best season was in 1985 when he recorded six interceptions.

7) Mel Blount-J.T. Thomas

I’m sure everybody knows who Mel Blount is? However, people forget that J.T. Thomas was an excellent DB for the Steelers. In 1974 and 1975, the Steelers won back-to-back Super Bowls. In 1974, Thomas picked up a career-best five interceptions, and he scored a touchdown on a fumble recovery. Thomas was named to the Pro Bowl after a 1976 season in which he collected two interceptions and a fumble recovery. In 1978, he sat out the season due to sickness.

Mel Blount was the prototype cornerback of his era and a significant reason why the Pittsburgh Steelers were the dominant team of the National Football League in the 1970s. A third-round draft choice of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1970, he had the size, speed, and quickness for the position, plus the toughness and mental ability to adjust his coverage tactics and excel despite rule changes that favored receivers. He intercepted 57 passes during his career.

6) Hanford Dixon-Frank Minnifield

These two had a shorter peak than many other cornerbacks on the list, but for a three-year stretch, were the best in the game. Dixon was an all-pro in 1986-87, and Minnifield in 1988, as the Browns reached consecutive AFC Championship games. As I mentioned before, the lifespan of their careers was relatively short, but the quality of their play speaks volumes in just a few short years.

5) Herb Adderley-Bob Jeter

Jeter is the least known of these two; Jeter was a huge part of the Packer teams that won an unprecedented three consecutive NFL championship games and the first two Super Bowls. During this time, Packers defense led the league in the fewest points allowed in 1965 and 1966, the fewest total yards allowed in 1964 and 1967, and the fewest passing yards allowed from 1964 to 1968.

Adderley recorded 39 interceptions in his nine seasons with the Packers. He holds the Green Bay records for interceptions returned for touchdowns in a career (seven, record tied with Darren Sharper), and interceptions returned for touchdowns in one season (three, in 1965).

4) Ronnie Lott-Eric Wright

With back-to-back picks in the 1981 draft, the 49ers added Ronnie Lott and Eric Wright. What followed was the 49ers’ first championship season. People forget before he became one of the greatest safeties in NFL history; Lott was a great cornerback.

Considered one of the best cover cornerbacks of his day, Wright played in ten NFL seasons, from 1981–1990, all for the 49ers, including starting on four Super Bowl-winning teams. Wright made the key defensive play in the NFC Championship game on January 10, 1982, against the Dallas Cowboys. On the Cowboys’ last possession in the final minute, after Dwight Clark had made The Catch, Wright made a touchdown-saving tackle on Cowboy wide receiver Drew Pearson in the open field to preserve the 49er win and propel them into their first Super Bowl.

The level of skill demonstrated by the 6-foot, 203-pound Ronnie Lott was instantly recognized, and from the beginning of training camp, he had the job as the 49ers’ starting left cornerback. In his first season, he recorded seven interceptions, helped the 49ers win Super Bowl XVI, and became only the second rookie in NFL history to return three interceptions for touchdowns.

3) Lem Barney-Dick Lebeau

LeBeau also played with Night Train Lane at the end of his career, when LeBeau was early in his, but I’m putting this group on because they were both more in their primes when Barney hit the league by storm in 1967 with 10 interceptions and three returns for a score.

As a rookie in 1967, Lem Barney appeared in all 12 games as a starting cornerback and led the NFL with 10 interceptions, 232 interceptions return yards, and three interceptions returned for touchdowns. For his career, he was a 7-time all-pro and intercepted 56 passes.

LeBeau is widely considered to be one of the greatest defensive backs in Lions history. He recorded 62 interceptions for 762 yards and three touchdowns. His 62 interceptions are still a Lions franchise record, and he is tied for seventh all-time in NFL history. In addition, his 762 interception return yards rank third all-time in team history.

2) Herb Adderley-Mel Renfro

This was at the end of Adderley’s career and early in Renfro’s, but when you have two of probably the top 10 cornerbacks on the field simultaneously, it is hard to ignore.

We talked about Adderley earlier on the list, so let’s talk about Renfro. In his 14 seasons, Renfro intercepted 52 passes, returning them for 626 yards and three touchdowns. In the 1970 NFC Championship Game, Renfro had a key interception that led to the Cowboys’ game-winning touchdown over the San Francisco 49ers that helped them get to Super Bowl V, where they lost to the Baltimore Colts, 16–13. Dallas returned in Super Bowls VI, where they dominated the Dolphins 24-3. He remains the Cowboys all-time leader in interceptions with 52 (In 1969, he led the NFL in interceptions with 10) and in career kickoff-return average (26.4 yards). His 14 seasons with the team tie him for second place in franchise history. Renfro was selected to 10 pro bowls during his career.

Even though Adderley and Renfro only played three years together, they belong here. To have two of the top 10  corners of all time simultaneously, how can you ignore them?

1) Mike Haynes-Lester Hayes

Lester Hayes and Mike Haynes dominated for the Raiders in four seasons, from 1983 to 1986. On his own, each player excelled. Hayes intercepted 18 passes, including 5 in the postseason, during the Raiders’ 1980 championship season, when he was selected as the league’s defensive player of the year. Across the country in New England, Haynes made the Pro Bowl in six of his first seven seasons, starring as a cornerback and a punt returner.

In their era, teams started playing more zone coverage to offset the evolving passing game. Haynes and Hayes, though, remained stubborn, adhering to a man-to-man approach that stood out, especially in Super Bowl XVIII, when they held Washington’s big-play threats, Charlie Brown and Art Monk, to four total catch in a 38-9 victory.

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