on the nfl mark craig

So which position is the hardest to play in the NFL?

“Quarterback,” Sam Bradford, the quarterback, said with a smile. “For sure.”

Most people agree. Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy isn’t most people.

“I think cornerback definitely is the most difficult place to play because of the rules,” Dungy said. “No. 1, you’re getting tremendously talented receivers. Everybody wants to throw the ball. And every rule [the NFL puts] in makes it harder on the defense.”

Ronde Barber, who was one of the best corners ever for 16 years, agreed with his old Bucs coach.

“Not only is it the hardest position,” he said, “but it’s also the hardest position to find.”

Barber also says it’s virtually impossible for teams to hide a weakness at corner well enough to finish the Road to Minneapolis with a berth in Super Bowl LII at U.S. Bank Stadium on Feb. 4.

“I suppose if you’re like Atlanta last year and you’re scoring just a ton of points, you can get away with some slack in the secondary,” he said. “But I don’t see a lot of those teams. If you’re in the AFC, for example, and you play New England, you have to be able to play man-to-man because Tom Brady will absolutely carve you up if you just sit in zone.”

Former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison points to his old boss, Bill Belichick, anteing up for Buffalo’s Stephon Gilmore with a franchise-record contract for a defender.

“That shows you all you need to know,” Harrison said. “[Patriots defensive coordinator] Matt Patricia told me they play 70 percent of their snaps in the nickel. They have [Malcolm] Butler, but you need more corners.”

That 70 percent mark for nickel packages is becoming more common. The Giants, for example, use Janoris Jenkins, Eli Apple and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie together that often. And they went from 30th in points allowed (27.6) in 2015 to second in 2016 (17.8) after making moves that included signing Jenkins and drafting Apple 10th overall.

“I like how aggressive the Giants are, and you can’t do that if you don’t have the corners,” Harrison said. “I like the fact they like to blitz safeties, corners, nickel backs, linebackers. You can never line up against that defense and be comfortable.”

In Minnesota, the Vikings also ponied up this offseason when they gave Xavier Rhodes the richest contract ever for a Vikings defender. He likely will shadow Steelers receiver Antonio Brown in Pittsburgh on Sunday, but the Vikings also will need their other corners — Trae Waynes, Terence Newman, Mackensie Alexander and possibly Tramaine Brock — if they are to contain the best receiver in the league the past four years.

Barber will call the game as a Fox analyst. He said he considers Rhodes to be one of “about 10” guys who could lay claim to being the best corner in the league. He also mentioned Arizona’s Patrick Peterson, Kansas City’s Marcus Peters, Seattle’s Richard Sherman and Denver’s Aqib Talib and Chris Harris.

“Xavier has come a long way, but I think Antonio is a tough matchup for anybody just because of the complete understanding he has with Ben Roethlisberger,” Barber said. “Antonio also is a hard cover because when they feel like he’s going to get singled up, they’ll just change the formation and put him in stacks and not allow you to get your hands on him. And when he gets open space, he’s very difficult to deal with.”

Par for the course, says Newman, the 39-year-old veteran who said cornerback always has been the toughest position.

“What you’re asked to do is unnatural,” Newman said. “You’re running backwards, trying to mimic every cut a guy makes who’s running forward. And you don’t see many offensive pass interference penalties on receivers who push off on about every single play. We do the same thing they do, and we get called for it. It’s a disadvantage, but that’s just how it is at corner.”


Mark Craig is an NFL and Vikings Insider. Twitter: @markcraigNFL

E-mail: mcraig@startribune.com