Have we ever seen a rookie position group play this well, this early in the NFL?

A rather large collection of first-year cornerbacks have provided their respective teams positive play in the first month and a half of the 2022 season, with play ranging from good to spectacular. And for this group to be doing it now, is bananas, given how many amazing receivers there are roaming in the NFL and how difficult today's rules make it on the corner position. 

Let's give these youngsters the credit they deserve as we near the midpoint of the season. 

Derek Stingley Jr., Texans

Draft status: Round 1, No. 3 overall
Standout stats: Five pass breakups, one interception, no touchdowns allowed on 211 coverage snaps, one missed tackle on 358 total snaps.

Stingley has played like 2019 LSU Stingley, which is precisely what the Texans hoped and believed they were getting when they made him the No. 3 overall pick in April. He's incredibly smooth changing directions and closes on the football in lightning-quick fashion. 

What I love about Stingley too -- he's not strictly a zone or man specialist. He has such a tremendous, natural feel for where the ball is likely to be headed when he's in zone, then can flip the switch and lock in for a challenging press-man assignment. Check the water-like fluidity he demonstrated on this end-zone pass breakup against fellow rookie Alec Pierce -- who just so happens to be a big, athletic freak: 

Stingley has been a rock as a tackler, too, which is certainly secondary to coverage ability at his position in today's NFL yet not a completely unimportant attribute at corner. His 24 tackles are third on the team entering Week 7, and to only have one missed tackle in your first month in the NFL is almost unheard of. Now, he hasn't faced a murderer's row of No. 1 receivers, yet the early returns on the former LSU stud have been fantastic for Lovie Smith's defense.

Stingley is a 21-year-old defensive star in the making in Houston. 

Sauce Gardner, Jets 

Draft status: Round 1, No. 4 overall
Standout stats: A rookie-class low 43.3% completion percentage allowed on passes in his coverage area on 228 coverage snaps, eight pass breakups to date.

What Stingley built in hype off his 18-year-old true freshman season of 2019, Sauce Gardner recreated with his entire Cincinnati career -- a tenure famous for one in which the long, lanky cornerback did not allow a touchdown. 

While he played lesser competition than most corner prospects who land in the top 10 of the draft, Gardner hardly looked overwhelmed in the Bearcats contest against Alabama, his final game in college. Teams started to stay away from Gardner as his career progressed, yet he had three interceptions in all three of his seasons at Cincinnati and totaled 16 pass breakups. 

And he's played precisely how he did in college in his first month and a half of the season in the NFL, budding with confidence in man coverage, thanks to innate ball skills and the twitch to stay with intricate routes down the field, like he did here on a breakup on a throw to fellow rookie Romeo Doubs of the Packers

Gardner can look a little awkward changing directions because he's so tall, yet he does so in a hurry, and play with the ferocious demeanor typically found in lockdown cornerbacks. And he just turned 22 in August. To date, Gardner has done a fine job against Amari Cooper, Ja'Marr Chase, Diontae Johnson, Tyreek Hill -- despite one weak pass interference call -- and the Packers receiving contingent. 

Kaiir Elam, Bills

Draft status: Round 1, No. 23 overall
Standout stats: In Week 5 and Week 6 combined, he had two interceptions and two pass breakups on 99 coverage snaps.

It wasn't that Elam played disappointingly in the preseason, it was the productivity of two former late Day 3 selections at corner in Buffalo that had many believing the first-round selection wouldn't start on opening day. While he didn't start the season with the Bills first-team defense, Elam's been a steady force in Buffalo's secondary the first month and a half of the season. 

For Elam, predominantly an in-your-face, press-man corner at Florida, it took time to acclimate to Buffalo's zone-heavy scheme, yet he's gotten comfortable of late. Just check the awareness he showcased on this huge interception of Patrick Mahomes on Kansas City's first drive of the game in Week 6: 

Elam's other interception thus far came on a zone drop against the Steelers in Week 5. There've been flashes of the sticky man coverage we saw at Florida throughout his illustrious career with the Gators, which has provided the Bills coverage versatility even with Tre'Davious White still rehabbing the torn ACL he suffered on Thanksgiving last year. Another youngster, Elam only turned 21 in May. Goodness. 

Martin Emerson, Browns

Draft status: Round 3, No. 68 overall 
Standout stats: Three pass breakups with no touchdowns allowed in his last two games on 59 coverage snaps.

Emerson looked a lot like many former Mississippi State cornerbacks on film: feisty, ultra-physical, never backing down from a man-coverage challenge. That style coupled with polished skills got him drafted in Round 3, and on what's been a porous Browns defense entering Week 7, he's been one of the lone bright spots. 

This pass breakup against Mike Williams of the Chargers, one of the more physically imposing wideouts in football, exemplified what Emerson brings to Cleveland's secondary: 

Now, there have been some coverage hiccups from Emerson, which is expected. Yet the last two weeks, the lights have really come on for the former SEC standout in Cleveland.

Jack Jones, Patriots

Draft status: Round 4, No. 121 overall
Standout stats: Three pass breakups and two interceptions in the last three games on 101 coverage snaps. 

Jones was a blast on film. He's a former five-star recruit who bounced from USC to Arizona State then enjoyed a sparkling career with the Sun Devils before entering the league. The lone concern about him -- his age. He turns 25 in December. Yet, his age hasn't limited the rookie from making a litany of big plays early in his Patriots career. 

This interception and house call of an Aaron Rodgers pass a few weeks ago was teaching tape and demonstrated just how sudden Jones is: 

Like in college, Jones has mostly aligned on the perimeter, but he's more than capable of sinking inside to man nickel cornerback duties. There've been some missed tackles on film. Those don't bug me too much, especially for a smaller rookie defensive back. It's the splash plays that really move the needle, and Jones has been a magnet to the football over the past month. 

Tariq Woolen, Seahawks

Draft status: Round 5, No. 153 overall
Standout stats: Four interceptions and no touchdowns allowed on 217 coverage snaps, one missed tackle on 403 total snaps.

Woolen is currently tied for the league lead with four interceptions, and it's like the Seahawks' opponents to date didn't scout him or completely forgot the scouting report on the UTSA star. Dude is 6-foot-4 with 4.26 -- yes, 4.26 speed -- and nearly 34-inch arms. Don't test him down the field. Your receiver isn't outrunning him deep. Just ask Marquise Brown and the Cardinals, who fell victim to Woolen's otherworldly explosiveness and size on a pick in Week 6. 

But as for the change-of-direction skill from Woolen, I wasn't expecting it to be this good, this early in his career. To throttle down and explode in another direction at that height and over 200 pounds, isn't easy. Yet, as the rookie showcased here, he can do it: 

Woolen was supposed to be a long-term project, more of an impeccably gifted athlete than a cornerback to be taken seriously as a full-time contributor in Year 1. But the Seahawks have thrown him out there, and he's continued to produce, in man, in zone and even underneath against quick wideouts. 

Derion Kendrick, Rams

Draft status: Round 6, No. 212 overall
Standout stats: Three pass breakups and one touchdown allowed on 124 coverage snaps, one missed tackle on 220 total snaps.

Kendrick was a fixture in the first round of the way-too-early mock drafts from May and June and even into his lone season at Georgia after a productive career at Clemson. Strangely, though, after a four-interception, three-pass breakup campaign for the Bulldogs in 2021, the buzz for Kendrick was almost nonexistent. After a 4.79 time in the 40 at his pro-day workout, there was prevailing thought Kendrick may not even be drafted. 

The Rams snagged him in Round 6, and thus far, he's proving that he indeed was worthy of getting drafted. He's been the full-time starter on the perimeter and played more like the early-round pick many believed he could be at the start of 2021, with ferocious breaks on the football and sound technique, like on this pass breakup on an in-breaking route to D.J. Moore in Week 6: 

He hasn't been a downright stud to start his NFL career. The Rams have to be happy though with the early return-on-investment for the former Day 3 pick entering Week 7.