The Primacy of the Secondary
The Arizona Cardinals' Patrick Peterson is one of the league's elite cornerbacks.
Credit: Photograph by Ian Allen

Patrick Peterson swims with bull sharks, aquatic monsters that eat mailboxes for lunch off Bora Bora. He jumps out of Cessnas and yearns to take up drifting, because where's the fun in tuning hotfoot Chevelles if you can't slide through a corner doing 90? He even likes training in burnt-sole heat, running ladders in 120-degree Tempe after the rest of his team has hightailed it inside, gasping for air and electrolytes.

There's something screwy about a guy who mocks death for pleasure, but you can't be quite right and do what Peterson does 16 weekends a year: go head-up all day against the biggest, baddest receivers around ­ – Calvin Johnson, Dez Bryant, A.J. Green, Julio Jones. Wherever they go, it's his job to follow, sprinting stride for stride along the hash marks with the ball in flight and the game clock burning. One mistake, one, and there goes his Sunday – or his season, since he plays in the NFC West, where his Arizona Cardinals will dogfight all year with the Super Bowl–champion Seattle Seahawks and the team they edged to get there, the San Francisco 49ers. "The night before a game, Coach comes to me and says, 'Just take that guy away tomorrow; we win if he doesn't get his numbers,' " says Peterson.

Right, Coach.

Peterson, 24, is one of the rarest of birds: a premium lockdown cornerback in the NFL. In a sport that's become a rolling-thunder air war of five-receiver sets and bunch formations, three assets are prized above all others: the franchise passer who can make every throw; the stellar defensive end who wreaks havoc in the pocket despite facing two blockers on every pass-rush; and the cornerback who takes your top wideout away and forces you to go to Plan B. That last job demands such a strange mix of gifts – foot speed and hand strength, yogic balance and flexibility, and a code breaker's eye for spatial cues – that only a few come along every decade. Those who do earn $16 million a season, or nearly double what they made five years ago, and are treated like royalty by grateful teammates. "The league's about putting on high-scoring games and does everything it can to boost up offense," says Brandon Flowers, the Pro Bowl corner who signed with San Diego this summer. "That's why we get such respect from the guys whenever we walk in the building – it's basically us versus the quarterbacks now."

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By broad consensus – though in no fixed order – there are four men today who fit the bill: Darrelle Revis, the New England Patriots' off-season steal who, at 29, has firmly entrenched himself as the best cover corner since Deion Sanders; Richard Sherman, the fire-spitting Seahawk who led the league in pickoffs and post-game shit-talk; Joe Haden, the whippet-fast Cleveland Browns ace, whom no one's really thrown at in three years; and Peterson, the youngest of the bunch and, by any objective measure, the most gifted. At 6-foot-1 and 219 pounds, he's built like a mastiff, but runs a 4.3 40, jumps 38 inches, and is quick enough to play press coverage all day, knowing he can lose his man off the line and still close any gap that opens. He's also the only one of the Big Four corners who plays straight-up man-to-man all over the field; the others either stick to the left or the right side and/or have a deep safety to back them up. This makes him the face of a defensive evolution: the bigger, faster ball hawk on whom the game rides.

(Cornerback Richard Sherman during 2014 NFC Championship against the San Francisco 49ers on January 19, 2014. Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images) 

Peterson and his ilk are a Darwinian retort to what's happened across the line of scrimmage, where suddenly every other team starts a 6-foot-5 small forward at receiver. "I'm like, What's going on with the gene pool lately? They're sending T. rex out for us to cover," says Flowers. "Six years ago, when I came in the league, the big guys were stiff and slow. Now, they all got hips like snakes and run a 4.4 40." These sleek hulks dominate above the field, winning battles for jump-ball passes that medium-size corners can't compete for, and box out in the end zone, using their reach advantage to come down with alley-oops for scores.

They've also gotten a boost from the league, which has rewritten a slew of rules to rein in physical play by corners. "The refs look at us as bad guys, but receivers do it, too – push off on comeback throws, lower their helmet [when being tackled]," says Peterson. "It's blatant, but it never gets called."

That said, if he's going to win the battles at the line, the new-breed corner needs to be a beast himself. Peterson recalls a game in his second season, when he singled up across from Brandon Marshall: "Six-five, 250, and first play from scrimmage, bam! He knocks me on my butt." Peterson, a Pro-Bowler each of his three seasons, knew that his balls, not his ball skills, were being tested. "Very next play, I took him to the ground; from that point on, we just played football." Marshall won the day – six catches, including a touchdown – but Peterson doesn't raise that fact. It's not that he's being coy; he simply doesn't remember. Because that's the other gift of the lockdown corner: on-the-job amnesia. Pressed about game-breaking beats that haunt him, Peterson knits his brow and gives a blank stare, like a senior who's wandered off from the nursing unit. "I'm trying to think," he says, racking his head before hitting on a game from last season. "Oh, yeah: Calvin Johnson caught a slant on us and took it 72 yards to the paint."

"What happened, were you out of position?" I ask, trying to get a rise from him.

"Nope, perfect position, I was right there."

"So, did he outrun you?"

Peterson, rightly proud of his world-class speed, gives a tight smile across the table. "I thought my linebacker had picked it off and went to block for him. That's the only way Calvin runs by me."

If you want to provoke Peterson, one of the few star corners who doesn't roll out of bed posting rants to his Instagram feed, you'll have to come stronger than that. Receivers have tried to dog him, yipping after a catch, but that all bounces off his unbejeweled ear as sound and fury signifying nothing. Only one man has managed to crack the code, buzzed his way into Peterson's brain and set up shop there. "That other guy," he says, too polite to say his name, "though my name is always in his mouth." As comes through, loud and clear, in conversations with both men, Patrick Peterson and Richard Sherman do not like each other. It is bigger and more intimate than divisional rivalry, and surmounts the tall shadow of money and fame, though the fact that Sherman just got paid (a four-year extension worth $57 million) ramps up the pressure on Peterson and the Cards to negotiate a deal that does him justice. No, this is deeper than that: It's a cornerback thing. We civilians can only try to understand.