Who's the best cornerback in the ACC?
No question vexed our ESPN ACC reporters more as we whittled down our 2017 All-ACC team. There were so many good options, and the stats often made a case for more than one player.
Did we value Tarvarus McFadden's FBS-best eight interceptions for Florida State?
Did we focus on Des Lawrence going the entire year without allowing a TD at North Carolina?
Did we prioritize Cordrea Tankersley leading a Clemson secondary that led the ACC in yards/attempt and INTs?
Or would we reward Miami's Corn Elder for his consistency, allowing opponents just 4.6 yards per target?
Where should Virginia Tech's Greg Stroman fit in? He was hurt down the stretch, but his numbers when healthy were off the charts?
The list could've gone on and on.
Eventually we settled on Tankersley and McFadden as our first-teamers, but it was hardly unanimous. So with that in mind, we figured it was worth digging a bit deeper into the numbers. (All stats courtesy of STATS, LLC.)
If we go strictly by interceptions -- the metric most often cited for DBs -- McFadden (8) and Alexander (5) would get the nods. And as our colleague Jared Shanker noted, McFadden's picks also came at critical times, including three inside the red zone, tops in the country.
Of course, more goes into it than INTs. McFadden and Alexander were playmakers -- but they also gave up some big plays because of their aggressive style, too. Each allowed six touchdowns on the season -- tied for second most in the ACC. Lawrence, however, was on the opposite end of the spectrum. He didn't allow a TD all year, but he also didn't have an interception. Clemson's Ryan Carter, Duke's Bryon Fields and Miami's Sheldrick Redwine also kept opponents out of the end zone all season.
Touchdowns aren't the only mark of a big play, however. How about the guys who did the best job of limiting yardage and catches?
Fewest yards/target (min 30 targets):
Fewest yards/completion (min 30 targets):
Mike Stevens, 11.22
Marquez White, 11.61
Lowest completion percentage (min 30 targets):
Again, hardly a consensus, though Stroman, Lawrence, Elder and Alexander all shine.
It's also hard to look at cornerback play in a vacuum. A great pass rush certainly helps the cause of the guys at the back end, and Clemson, Louisville and Florida State knew how to get after a QB. North Carolina and Georgia Tech, on the other hand, were worst in the league at getting pressure. Should that be a point in the columns for Austin and Lawrence?
And when it comes to racking up big numbers, it helps to be challenged by some QBs along the way, while some of the most feared corners in the country rarely are targeted. So do we hold it against Austin that he saw 85 targets or reward White for seeing just 44?
Or how about the level of competition played? Austin had to go head to head with Deshaun Watson, Brad Kaaya, Mitch Trubisky, Jerod Evans and Nate Peterman this year. That's no easy task. Alexander, on the other hand, faced just one of the top seven ACC teams in passer rating.
So let's get down to brass tacks ... who's been the best?
Inevitably this will end up an "eye of the beholder" argument, and certainly there's a scouting element to this that the stats simply can't capture. But based on all the information at hand, we'd probably go with Elder and Tankersley as our top two, with Lawrence and Stroman up next and McFadden and Alexander on our third team.
Your take may differ. We get it. This one isn't easy, but it certainly shows that the ACC was loaded at cornerback this year, an impressive feat given that four ACC corners were selected in the first three rounds of last year's NFL draft. What makes that even more impressive is that the league was also loaded at QB. That's a rare combo.
So perhaps more than anything, we should just appreciate the brilliant play and not worry about parsing the numbers and narrowing the list down to a top two because a group like this probably won't come around again soon.